Thursday, October 04, 2018

A Cultural Catastrophe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Saturday, September 29, 2018

Slade House by David Mitchell

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

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

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

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

Thursday, September 06, 2018

Lit in September.

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

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

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

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

Saturday, August 25, 2018

The Viaduct by David Wheldon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Saturday, August 18, 2018

Farewell, my Lovely by Raymond Chandler

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

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

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

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

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

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

Madonna at 60

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, July 28, 2018

10 Good Things

In the quest for recognition as a writer it can sometimes seem that life is full of disappointment and rejection. (Don't worry, life IS full of disappointment of rejection...just not all the time!) So  I was thinking of some of the tangibly good things that have happened to me as a writer. Here are a few from over the years.

1. First Publication

I didn't really know how to get into magazines in the mid-1990s. So when I had a poem published in the delightfully named little magazine "The Affectionate Punch", in - I think - 1996, I was dead pleased. "Curly Wurly" the poem that was published there was aimed at being a publishable one - a nostalgic childhood poem, that I'm still proud of.

2. Being Shortlisted for the Lichfield Prize (Twice!)

Novelists have it hard - in that its all or nothing. So I'm still not a published novelist, but early on in my writing career I came close (twice) with shortlistings for the Lichfield Prize, a prize for "unpublished novels".  In 1995 "Lineage" made the shortlist, but I wasn't able to attend the ceremony as I was in America (typical of my life - the first holiday in years and it clashed!) but I had another shortlisting in 1999 with "In Search of Sally Johnson" and thoroughly enjoyed the prize ceremony in a marquee outside of Lichfield cathedral. I remember thinking: this might be the only time I'm ever up for one of these, so enjoy it. To date, it is, and I did.

3. Selection for the M.A. in Novel Writing at University of Manchester

Back in 1996 when I applied there were less than half a dozen creative writing courses in the country. I'd applied the year before to UEA and got told to try again in 1996 which I did and got an interview, but not the place. A few weeks later I had an interview with Richard Francis at Manchester. I'd already handed my notice in at work even though I hadn't a definite place. I must have looked worried at some point, because he said, "don't worry, you're on the course." Thank you Richard.

4. "The Four Hills of Manchester"

City Life magazine - through literary editor Ra Page - was looking to produce some pamphlets of stories by Manchester writers inserted into the magazine and had agreed to have a call out for new, unknown writers. I had this idea in my head for a slightly surreal story about Manchester, set around the bookshops on Shude Hill. I was on my M.A. at the time, and intensely prolific. I wrote "The Four Hills of Manchester" in a couple of days, and to my surprise it got chosen and shortlisted.

6. Blogging at "Worlds"

For three years I was invited by Chris Gribble, director of Writers' Centre Norwich, to be blogger-in-residence during the "Worlds" festival - a symposia and literary festival taking place at UEA and Norwich every year. I met a great range of writers there - including big names such as J.M. Coetzee - but it was particularly meeting writers on the rise, such as Jen Ashworth, Jon McGregor, John McAuliffe and the Australian novelist Chloe Hooper that made it a real pleasure.

7. "Playing Solitaire for Money"

I had entered Salt Publishing's poetry prize a couple of times but not got anywhere. No surprise, these things are very competitive. I'd made some comment about giving up on poetry which prompted their editor Chris Hamilton-Emery to contact me. He was starting a new pamphlet series to try and capture writers who weren't quite ready for a full collection or were developing side projects. He asked me to be part of the series and "Playing Solitaire for Money" duly appeared in 2010 - a small, but nicely formed collection of which I'm still very proud. So, thanks Chris. (And thanks also Alec, who published 4 of my long experimental poems with his Knives, Forks and Spoons press the same year.)

8. Reading at Whitworth Art Gallery

I'm still not sure how this one happened. But I was approached to read some poetry at Whitworth Art Gallery during their show "Dark Matters" - which aligned with my subject matter of the digital and the spectral. I even managed to get a nice piece in the Manchester Evening News about it. I learnt that if you're going to read in a dark space its best to have a light with you.

9. Unthology 4

My story "The Cat" was one I had high hopes for - and it got picked up pretty quickly for "Unthology 4". I include it here as I realise it was the first time one of my stories had been featured in a book.

10. Best British Stories 2018

Back to Salt again, and I got an email from short story editor and fellow Didsbury resident Nicholas Royle last year that he'd like to include my story "Life Grabs" which had just appeared online, in the next edition of the annual Best British Stories anthology.

So ten highlights over a period of 23 years, and all things that make this weird "job" of writing imaginatively worthwhile. And thankfully, they weren't the only ten, just an important selection.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Art in July

July used to be the month that the art world went into slumber - or at least on its holidays. I've not been over to the Liverpool Biennial which opened a week ago, but I have been catching a bit of art, both local and otherwise.

At Castlefield Gallery, the current show is a selection of recent graduates from the MMU School of Art. Recent graduates are always at an interesting cusp: out of the need to create art that will also get them their degree, they also may find themselves removed from some of the opportunities that being part of an art school provides. This latest show, (on until 12th August) gives an early career opportunity to showcase work. The three chosen artists are all female, and all mainland Europeans, a coincidence around the selection, but which gave an added coherence to their work when put together. Given the opportunity not just to show pre-existing work, but develop concepts and ideas, the three artists share concerns around the personal, the political and the sense of longing for home - whether in the remembered smells of a relative's kitchen, the resonance of found objects repurposed, or a previously forgotten bit of history in Maite Pinto's discovery of the story of children evacuated from Spain to the UK during the Spanish Civil War. The Basque artist's work resonated particularly with me, as I'm currently writing about how we remember things, and the Franco regime's rewriting of history, to find no place for those on the war's losing side, was part of my own research. Well worth a visit.

It's too late now for the Sonia Boyce retrospective at Manchester Art Gallery - I've visited twice, once on the opening and last week, but the show closed today. Although a "retrospective" the show felt anything but historical, partly, I think, because Boyce is a curatorial artist - curating a room full of black female cultural items over a period of years - or setting up juxtapositions in some of the other works. That she had previously photographed Mancunians at the old Cornerhouse in the late 1990s wearing an afro wig was a nice piece to revisit, as faces, familiar and unfamiliar, were in the pictures two decades on. The best piece but also the most problematic was 2015's Exquisite Cacophony, a closely observed film of a live performance between two very different artists.  It's an exciting, exhilarating piece but the art seemed very much in the two performers - what role had the artist here other than as documentarian? As a collaborative work I liked it alot, marred only by the staging in the art gallery, where the sound from the the various film pieces made it difficult at times to concentrate on the one piece. The new work - a series of interventions in the gallery followed this theme of setting up confrontations and worked very well, as a series of short films created a split screen montage that was funny, chaotic, and intrigueing, and put into context the contentious removal of "Hylas and the Nymphs", a controversy that erupted earlier in the year as part of the creation of the new piece.  So, a good, brave show that possibly deserved a more sympathetic install.

For artists working in their studios, the role of studio as gallery is always an interesting one. With Rogue Studios closing and being replaced by a new site in Gorton, and a takeover of a building in Salford - Paradise Works, the latter at least has been developed with an eye on how to present as well as to make work. Richard Shields was commissioned to be an artist in residence at the Curfew tower, in Cushendall in Northern Ireland. His current show brings this work back to his studio space. Featuring artefacts and a mural, as well as a documentary film, it - like Boyce - shows art as process, as well as end result - and that's increasingly fascinating as artists explore both their identity in culture and in their work. "The Future is Bright the Past is Colourful"  plays with the idea of a "colour" being appropriated for political reasons. Shields has created a character that is made of various archetypes which both satirises and recognises the symbolism inherent in cultural identity. The show will be open next weekend or by appointment till early August.

Meanwhile, I found myself in Nottingham during changeover of their current exhibitions at the Nottingham Contemporary and so went along to the launch. I was very impressed by Mexican artist Pia Camil, whose solo show, is incredibly playful, but also uniquely her own. In "Split Screen" - covering two of the gallery spaces, you go behind the curtain and find yourself in a surreal world of the artist's imagination, where material is repurposed extravagantly, and, like with Richard Shields, a series of characters are presented - a bit like following Alice into Wonderland.  A fine retrospective of Swiss design and architectural practice Trix and Robert Haussmann runs alongside the Camil exhibition and again blurs the boundaries between art and design.

Earlier in the month, and last, but definitely not least, I went to the ever wonderful Bury Art Gallery for a new show, "Shonky: the Aesthetics of Awkwardness", a touring show from the Hayward, which is a cornucopia of the delightful, the bizarre, and the downright hilarious. Like a cabinet of curiosities played out across two galleries, it is an assault on the senses, as well as a beautifully chaotic mish-mash of old and new artists working with some kind of kitsch aesthetic. On until mid-September, it is highly recommended.

Finally, this weekend to come sees one of our more design-led publishers, experimental press Dostoyevsky Wannabe, stage an independent book market at PLANT, near Shude Hill in town. Come along on Saturday afternoon for launch of new books on Manchester and by Richard Barrett and Steve Hanson amongst other small interesting publishers.


Monday, July 16, 2018

A Horse Walks into a Bar by David Grossman

In David Grossman's award winning (it won the International Booker for novels in translation) novel "A Horse Walks into a Bar", a 57-year old comedian comes on stage at a supper club in the Israeli town of Netanya. In the audience is a man who he has invited, to bear witness, a retired judge, who the comedian, Dovaleh G, was at school with. This was the area where he grew up and there is another person who remembers him, a tiny woman, whom he was once kind to. Yet this is not a triumphant homecoming gig, but a matter of catharses. Over an hour and a half, or longer as the reader rather than an audience member, this one man show starts funny, but turns scabrous, sad, searing, until there are only a handful left in the audience to witness his pain. The novel is not quite a single monologue. The judge is our narrator and interjects as the going gets tough (and the going does get tough) and gives us something of a back story. For Dovaleh's own back story is one told sparingly, furstratingly through many discursions.

The audience are there for jokes and there are jokes here - old jokes, good ones, but in the old style. The man who offers a ticket to the game to a stranger. "Can't your wife go?" says the stranger, "no, she's dead." "What about her friends?" he asks, "They'd all rather be at her funeral." Humour is such a strange beast that its risky to erect a novel on top of a bed of such jokes. But they provide light relief. There's some mileage in the fictional comedian. "The Entertainer", "The King of Comedy" come to mind - though its older archetypes that Dovaleh reminds us off: his tale, a shaggy dog story of sorts, but one that is avoiding, circling round the thing he wants to tell - the terrible thing that was done to him nearly half a century before which led to him becoming a comedian, led to his broken marriages and distant relationships with his own children. That circling away from the tale is there in some of Shakespeare's more contemplative heroes, but finds its comedic home in that early English novel by Sterne, "Tristram Shandy". 

The retired judge didn't recognise Dovaleh when he first called and asked him to come. He didn't remember the incidents that Dovaleh prompted him to remember. But his own wife has died, and he has his own loneliness to feel regret so he turns up - but early in the performance he doesn't understand why he is there, why he has any responsibility to this man. He almost leaves, but of course, he stays to the end, as we do, as readers.

For Dovaleh is not a nice man, he is misanthropic certainly, possibly misogynistic as well. He is a clown but he has a dark side. At the same time his craft is such that he can pull the audience back from the brink. He talks directly to them in a way that probably makes other members of the audience not want to be picked on. Its an older crowd, and this is an old kind of humour. Its the endurance act of certain music hall comedians, surviving on a high wire act of their own making. As the night goes on the jokes drop away and he begins to tell his story - of when he was away at an army training camp for kids, and whilst away one of his parents died, and he has to go back to them - but in the all chaos - he is never told - or never listens - to hear which one has died. During the long journey, with a driver who is himself an amateur comedian, whiling away the ride whilst telling jokes, he has his own judgement of Solomon to make: which of his parents does he want to be alive, and which to find in the coffin.

In some ways the nature of this horror is spun out - there is no plot as such - but its using this cathartic night to look back on the worst moment in a person's life and from it try and construct what went wrong and how. Dovaleh the child was happy but somewhat insane - he walked on his hands, which stopped him being bullied (how could you a hit a kid walking on his hands?) until his dad found him doing it and banned him from it. His mother was a Holocaust survivor, his father loved her but loved work even more, and saw the two entwined - so making a business from nothing and work took the place of loving his son. We know some of this because the narrator tells us. A shy, lonely boy, he finds that talking to Dovaleh on their walks back from some tutoring classes, gave him his first friend, and also took him away from the rules and regulations of his home life and adult world. The world intrudes of course. How can it not in Israel throughout the seventies, eighties and nineties? But the darker jokes, about the Holocaust, about the Palestinians, bring out only sharp laughs from the audience who are naturally enough wanting a good time.

The novel has been highly acclaimed, and its no doubt that the original and the excellent translation are both a tour de force, but its also a difficult novel, hard to like, that asks a lot of its readers, just as Dovaleh asks alot of his audience. Firstly, we know early on that this is what we are going to get, and Dovaleh is not a pleasant man. He has a hectoring style, its full of hate, but also self-hate. He's a 57 year old man, but doesn't feel like someone who could have come of age during the disco and punk era, but an older archetype, like the miserable protagonist of Heller's "Good as Gold." We hear nothing about his wives and children, collateral damage it seems. And we are with him for the duration. The narrator can hardly bear it, and we wonder if we can as well. There's a point when those in the audience no longer want the jokes, they want to hear his story, however terrible it might be - I guess the reader settles in for the same thing. Yet, it seems a little alien to me - I can't place Dovaleh, I can't make sense of his upbringing, his world. There is no description, other than of the comedy club, so it feels an arid world that he describes, and its as if he and us are surrounded by ghosts. Most of the reviews I've read of the novel since finishing it reference a tragedy in Grossman's own life, as well as the troubles of the Israeli state - but without this biographical background (of the writer, not the character) - we only have what is here to go on, and though one eventually feels some sympathy for Dovaleh, it falls far short of empathy. We can see the man he has become - an ill man - prematurely aged - but also a successful one, making a career from his humour and his foibles. The payback to the reader - or at least this reader - didn't really come - in that I still felt unknowing about why we were here, with this character. It feels an old fashioned novel in some ways, despite the brave structure, and though one can appreciate its seriousness, I'm not sure I ever bought into its artfulness. Dovaleh seems to belong to a different time, a different world. Somehow, his story didn't resonate, and the somewhat pained execution, though masterfully done, meant this short book felt much longe than it was.

Saturday, July 07, 2018

What a Time to be Alive

Being a writer of contemporary fiction I always try and keep a keen eye on the zeitgeist. As you get older its interesting that ones concerns change a little: I'm not so much perplexed by the success of say, Drake, the Greatest Showman, and Love Island, as disinterested. Had I kids then I guess I'd be sharing their enthusiasms, as it is I realise that my own interests and fascinations aren't necessarily stuck in amber, but are perhaps a different pace, a different timbre.

Where that leaves one as a writer is another question. I'm just reading David Grossman's "A Horse Walks into a Bar" and finding it a little dated in its protagonist, and its concerns, and its way of telling them - yet I suspect my own approach is also not as contemporary as my material. The appreciation of fine wines as one gets older is also accompanied by an appreciation that too much of a good thing can kill you, or at least give you health problems.

Ah well, we are what we consume: and so I'm glad to be missing Love Island at least. I've been busy, and I've been too busy - the latter meaning I've not really much to say about literary matters. Yet I'm also acutely aware that the usual "end of year" sense of the British summer, is heightened this year by two things: by the unexpected and uninterrupted hot spell (the longest winter is just a distant memory now), and by the England football team overperforming in the World Cup. Its now an all European competition after Belgium lived up to their potential and beat Brazil last night. England have Sweden this afternoon before a potential semi-final against either Croatia or Russia. All three sides are eminently beatable, or, lets not forget we are England, eminently able to beat us. Despite Pickford's penalty shootout success, we've not yet to have a clean sheet at this World Cup - lucky that most of the goals against us have been late ones that have meant less.

The summer is already one that is burning into memory like that of 1976, with the accompanying moor fires of Saddleworth leavening an acrid burning smell over Manchester city centre for over a week, it feels like a moment when you could set a story, live a life. It's also interesting that the hot weather and the football make one put other things on hold a little - its better to stare at the unexpected moment: this is the new plan, whatever your previous ones were.

But I have stepped out to a couple of things. I enjoyed the launch of the Banned Books exhibition at the Anthony Burgess foundation last week. Worth a look. Pleased to see I'd got a few of the pulpier ones - Dennis Wheatley, Lesley Phillips.  Burgess had moved to Malta with his second wife Liana, in the late sixties avoiding high tax rates amongst other things. Malta was (and is) a censorious place - and his books were impounded and burned. They've recreated the collection as much as they can (some titles are ambiguous). He was in Malta for a few years, and only left after getting into more trouble politically, and having his house briefly impounded by the authorities. Malta is the model for the start of "Earthly Powers" which he began writing there.

You can do a nice little tour round that part of town at present - as a new show opened last night at HOME, a mix of retrospective and new work from Phil Collins, and 3 MFA graduates from Manchester School of Art are included in a group show at Castlefield Gallery, minimalist work mixing the personal and political.

A couple of fascinating literary events are coming up: a talk about his book on depitctions of terrorism in 1970s novels from Joe Darlington particularly interests me this Thursday - whilst the following week, Carcanet have a summer party, taking place in Castlefield Gallery.

Finally, I'm very pleased to say that I've a story in Best British Stories 2018 from Salt, alongside the usual fascinating mix of writers - out next week.


Saturday, June 23, 2018

Why You Might Not See Me At So Many Readings

Being a writer - or at least, defining yourself as a writer - requires a few things: being published is nice; having other writer friends is helpful; not having another identity (another job) would be amazing; having people ask you what you are writing or talking about your writing is stupendous. But, in truth none of these things are really necessary. You can be a writer with pen and paper, with laptop and Word document. It is the smallest footprint of any art, the least need for equiprment or specialist training - but I do think being a writer requires one thing: it requires that you at least write.

I have always written prolifically, but there are times when I feel like I hardly write at all. I make music as well so sometimes that takes over; sometimes life takes over; sometimes work takes over. Yet the other thing that can take over are the non-writerly things that come with being part of a broad writerly community. In Manchester you could probably go to an open mic or spoken word night five times a week. In the last few weeks I've missed, Bad Language, Beatification, Verbose, the Other Room, Peter Barlow's Cigarette, Speakeasy, First Draft, Murmur, and Flim Nite, just to name the ones I know the names of. There are nights here there and everywhere. and I can't go to them all. I'm increasingly going to none of them. The nights that I have made it out to have been because friends have launched novels or because its an author I like a lot. In the mean time the missed evenings grows into an ever bigger list.

And that means I miss seeing the other writers who I know. I miss hearing their new work. But mostly I miss having the conversations about what I am working on and what I am reading and have to tell them gently that I am not working on anything and I am not reading anything as the only time I have put aside for that sort of thing at the moment is the time when I could otherwise be going to literary nights. So something has to give, I'm afraid. The other week I did mean to go out to see Verbose in Fallowfield - it has just won best spoken word night at the Saboteur Awards - but I was putting together a little pamphlet of my stories and poems for my visiting cousin and uncle, who were over from Australia.

So I'm not feeling regret that I haven't been to this night or that night. I feel regret if I've not written a thing, or if the poem stays in my notebook, or the typed up final drafts stay in my computer rather than get sent off to a magazine.

I am writer, But currently I'm not much of one. If you don't see me out, there might be a reason for it, I might actually be writing.

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.