Saturday, April 15, 2017

Less...

Bank Holidays - the Easter one in particular - should be a time for reflection. The endless UK winter suddenly seems to have given way to nights that stretch past eight o'clock, and with the usual "delays for rain", even some sunny days.

I finished work a day and a half early - time owed from end of March - though fitting holiday time in at the moment has been a challenge. Twas ever thus.

On Wednesday I'd planned to go to see some countryside - perhaps heading to Todmorden or Hebden Bridge but it was the kind of endless rain thats fine weather only for the ducks. Instead I headed down to Macclesfield, which, despite passing through on hundreds of occasions, I'd never been to. I didn't get to do any sort of Ian Curtis pilgrimage (that rain again), but had a wander round the small market town, and found an excellent second hand record shop, as well as the usual charity shop trawl which came up with at least one gem. a UK first edition Tom Wolfe. I was a big fan of "The New Journalism" back in the day, finding the hyperbolic prose and the counter-culture subject matter equally enthralling.

Coming back into Manchester there was a launch for the new edition of  "The Modernist" magazine - this time to coincide with the exhibition at Manchester Central Library of GALT TOYS.   I'm not sure I ever had any Galt toys, though there was a vague familiarity about the designs. Maybe I was just a little too young, or more likely, Galt toys were a bit outside of our price bracket.

On Thursday I had agreed to help out the Manchester music archive with some testing of a redesign of their website which will be launched in June alongside their next real world exhibition. I've been involved with the archive since it began and it remains - like the Modernist Society - one of those Manchester-evolved gems that has come from genuine need and genuine passion.

The city's buildings-led arts regeneration would be just a series of empty boxes without these voluntary led initiatives. Rushing straight from that HOME, the point was brought home, in that they're increasingly putting on side-events and providing local showcases, alongside the main theatre, art and cinema offering. A large marquee outside has been programming bands, musicians and DJs, to coincide - however tangentionally - with the Viva! Spanish film festival and the new art show, La Movida. On all weekend if you're looking for something to do. I didn't get much of a chance to look in detail at the show - the usual preview curse - but pleased to see there's a new commissioned film about Savoy Books by my friend Clara, as well as appropriate archive work from Derek Jarman and Linder amongst others. There's a lovely irony that the Lord Mayor of Manchester was there at the opening of a show which is merciless in its criticism of "God's Cop", James Anderton. It struck me that the "culture wars" of the seventies and eighties have been replaced with something different - about money, austerity, globalisation - and the sexual politics inherent in a show like this (echoing the Spanish post-Franco "La Movida" movement) might appear to be a mere historical moment - (and then you read about concentration camps for gay people in Chechen, Russia's assault on minorities, the repression of much of the Islamic world of LGBTQ, religious and female freedoms...and think, maybe not.).Outside of HOME, the marquee provided a warm place on a cold evening, and was thrilled to see a full set by the wonderful Ill, who have turned into a powerhouse since I last caught them a few years back at a poetry event. Brilliant stuff.

Running from one thing to another...not having any food...half-arrangements with friends, and then bumping into other friends...trying to catch sight of everything...I got home drunk and exhausted. I realised as I woke up on Good Friday that I needed "less" not "more". The tendency to try and fit everything in to a few days off (I've a week's leave now) means that I'm currently having a period of over-stimulation, where I don't get a chance to process half of the things I've done. There are good reasons for this...the house I was buying before Christmas fell through and I've not had the energies to repeat the process yet; work has been a bit relentless, and understaffed; I've had a number of creative projects on hold or which I'm only slowly getting through; I turned fifty; I was ill in early March, and didn't give myself time to recover....

So I'm guessing I need less... less stress obviously, but less stimulation, less consumption, less trying to fit everything in. I've often wondered how some writers I know manage to go to endless spoken word nights, for instance - there's one in Manchester most nights of the week - then there's theatre, art, music, dance, sport, restaurants etc. etc. Rarely have I needed a week's break so much. But with so much to do in that week - I perhaps need to just let it go a little. A friend said only do what is "useful or beautiful" which I think is a good mantra, but as the above list shows, doesn't narrow it down too much! Tonight there's an electronic music open mic at Fuel in Withington, which could well be both. There's a reading from their new show-accompanying book at HOME, which might also tick both boxes. And we're just entering "peak period" for activity...with Record Store Day, Sounds from the Other City and Manchester International Festival on the horizon.

And of course, my version of "less", might be still "more" - as yesterday I finally watched the brilliant Coppola movie "The Conversation" (how did I ever miss this?) featuring a superb Gene Hackman performance; and wrote a 1500 word essay for a new website that should go live soon. Less....is always relative. But I think its more about curating ones time so that there's not just time to experience, but time to reflect, and time, on a Bank Holiday weekend, to do nothing...or at least an approximation of nothing.

Sunday, April 09, 2017

Curating is Critical

As literature takes up less of the critical airspace, I wonder if the apparatus around it - the universities, the archives, the literary critics and textual editors - will disappear, or simply continue on a merry-go-round of "classic literature", an official narrative that is as much about heritage (which attempts to fix the past), as culture (which attempts to define the present.) I sometimes think I should start buying up rare books, Modern First Editions, but suspect that the audience for it - I'm already 50 - is dying out, even as the "classics" grow in value and stature. Now that the 20th century (or at least that bit of it that finished before the war) is in the box labelled "history, do not mess around with", I do wonder about the appetite for the writers of the sixties, seventies and eighties. This, after all, was a period of mass publication, of writers becoming rich off the their work, of them having a place at the cultural (and often the political) top table. Yet if you want to find a good quality early edition Mailer, or Vidal or Updike or Roth or Bellow or Lowell or Rich, chances are you'll be in luck. Yes there are modern rarities, and they'll become more sought after I guess - as the better Beatles and Stones editions become more sought after - but probably for a rarified few names.

Writers have to take their own curation seriously it seems. If you look at the investment in the more recently deceased, its often been led by the writers' own estates, or their close friends and family. Heaney now has a centre in Ireland, and Anthony Burgess has one in Manchester. This pro-active posthumous career building is as good a way as any of keeping a writer in the public eye. Burgess, I suspect, is a fascinating enough life that it could have an after-life even without "A Clockwork Orange" and its cultural significance. The afterlife is usually more to be found in a bookshop, however, than a building. There is no Kingsley Amis centre as far as I'm aware - perhaps his son will have thoughts on a family affair? - but there are the letters, the biography, his son's memoir. Larkin, after a choppy period (all that juvenilia unearthed by his biographers), is safely esconced in Westminster Abbey, which is as close to a physical representation of the canon as you could imagine. (Yet, if you go round Manchester Town Hall and its environs and look at the grandest statues, they are almost always in stark contrast to how well we remember them now - hence, the city commissioning a long overdue Emily Pankhurst statue.)

Outside of just a few names, I wonder how many writers will receive anything more than the most cursory of literary curation? The death of Emma Tennant last year, made me realise she was a name I'd often seen, but not got round to reading. Nobody, apart from me it seems, is buying up her paperbacks.

Imagine then not just for the living writer: but the struggling writer, or the hidden writer? Curation is not likely to be something that you can hand over to an institution - though there are probably still a few American universities betting on the writers' "futures market" acquiring archives of the Will Selfs of the world or whoever. Whereas even the most obscure of musical names will probably have some kind of fan base - or an archive industry looking to resurrect interest at a certain time - writers pretty much have to go it alone.

I'm a natural curator of my work. It partly came about through frequently moving house when I was younger; partly through the need to store and keep ones work in some sort of order across half a dozen PCs across 20 plus years. I've a folder on this computer called "Archives" which sounds more organised than it is - in it are subtitled folders like "Gateway computer 2002" or "2010 archive" or "Disk 1-12".

I picked up the David Foster Wallace "Reader" last week. There's nothing much new in it - an early story, plus some teaching notes to give some context - alongside the best of his essays and stories and substantial extracts from his three novels. As a writer who died too young, there's an additional sense in this collection - though perhaps there's something of giving the estate something to do. Like a musical box set allows reappraisal so does a collection of a writers work. I've always been a great fan of things called "The Essential..." or "The Portable..." or "...Reader". For a writer whose work is strewn all over the place (e.g. Burroughs) it offers a handy volume that gives a taster beyond the core texts; for a writer who is renowned for their short stories (e.g. Hemingway) it offers a good way to sample the best of these, whilst pulling out novel extracts that are equally quotable; and for the giant whose work is dominated by one book (e.g. Joyce with "Ulysses") a collection allows an insight into the wider range of their work. Whether anyone reads them cover to cover is another matter - but I wish there were more of them. My shelf of Bruce Chatwin books would benefit from an accompanying "best of", I think; whilst surely someone like Doris Lessing or Angela Carter could be usefully so extracted?

But the lure of these collections is obviously a retrospective one: a summing up somehow, and concentrating on published work, with an emphasis on the best, not the worst. If you were a modestly successful painter turning fifty, a retrospective show wouldn't be such a bad idea; to show your progress and your changing styles over the years. I kind of think writers don't curate enough - or at least publicly. And its not about audience or to feed their publisher so much as to provide a little bit of self-reflection. "What kind of writer am I?" might have been the question I asked myself in my late twenties as I decided I wanted to concentrate on this art form. Partly its because I've written poetry, novels, short fiction, plus other stuff. But partly as well because I don't think I've ever settled to one style or subject. I once thought if I had success in something particular: say humorous stories, or experimental poetry, or noir novels, then I'd be happy concentrating on that genre, and the rest of my work would be squeezed out; but none of these have really taken hold and I have to come to the conclusion that I'm the kind of writer that does like trying different things, on a project by project basis. Spending some time looking back and seeing what I actually wrote, rather than what I've chosen to remember, or which publishers have chosen to publish, is more than just an exercise - its something of a revelation.

"The Portable Adrian Slatcher" which I've been putting together this week is as much as art project or a piece of literary therapy as a task about writing, but its been interesting as well. For the start I realised I wanted to foreground my unpublished novels: which by virtue of being unpublished have the dubious distinction of having taken up the most of my creative time, but being the most invisible work I've done. Between 1991 and 2002 I wrote seven novels of various lengths and styles and then pretty much stopped - so that the current novel I'm working on is by far the longest work since then. For a decade then, I was emotionally, if not actually, a novelist - but coming from a standing start, those "books" are a mix of autobiography and observation. What I hadn't realised until this week is what a manichean view of the world they share: in almost all of these longer works I've pitched an ordinary person against someone who is evil, rich, manipulative or all three. Yet these stories are set very much in a contemporary world. This, I see, was my view of Thatcher/Major's Britain. Even though the best of the books foregrounds the Labour victory of 1997, I can see that my writing project was intrinsically linked to the times I was living in.

So this piece of curation has been interesting to begin to self-assess or reflect on my writing. It has always surprised me that with the plethora of creative writing courses around the country that few, if any, have really focused on the sort of praxis that is common to postgraduate art courses, though I guess the creative writing PhD is beginning to fill that gap albeit in a "by research" rather than taught way. In an art course, the work comes at the end, and may be the reaction to a dozen false starts. In writing we don't seem to have that luxury. A novel is such a big thing, for instance; there's a strange desire to get poets to "find their style" or concentrate on a particular topic or theme; short stories are not meant to be one-offs, but part of longer sequences, or attached to each other through some commonality. Writing, for me, is praxis, you learn by doing, you unlearn by doing. and the process is as important as the end result, at least in terms of your creative development.

Going through twenty or so years of work, you choose the best stuff, the most successful stuff, but also the stuff that is the most interesting, that offers the most possibilites. You always begin to see how themes emerge and repeat in your work, a certain patterning of your obsessions. It's clear, quite early on in my short story telling, that I am looking for some way of writing contemporary stories set in the real world, with something more imaginative or magical, whilst remaining believable. I've rarely dabbled in fantasy fiction for instance, yet even my most grounded stories often have something that is elusive and not quite real. I'd have found it hard to articulate this twenty years ago, knowing it only when I saw it in the finished work, but looking back over the work, its clearly a repeating motif. Similarly in my poetry, the anecdotal poem, which I'd learnt at the feet of Simon Armitage and others, was something I admired, copied, but eventually abandoned - for something else; more metaphysical or more abstract.

Immersed in twenty years of writing, I'm surprised that I never attempted to complete a thriller or a science fiction novel or a fantasy - but of course I did begin these things, just never got very far. I'm also surprised how my longer work, until the latest one at least, is so grounded in a reality of place (The Midlands/London/Manchester) when in my stories or poetry I'm much more likely to be "stateless."

The other thing I found looking through all this writing, was that it was important that I didn't unpick the good work I'd already done. Rather than go through reams of poems, I realised I'd an unpublished "selected" from 2008, which had already curated 12 years of work, and stood up to the task. With a few exceptions that's included in its entirety. Even with having up to 740 pages to play with (the limit for a paperback on Lulu.com) I had to make choices. There's no room for a whole novel for instance, though a novella appears in full. I've also avoided early, apprentice work, non-fiction, these blog posts, reviews and literary criticism, poetry sequences, lyrics, and dramatic works (except for my one play, which echoes the themes of my novels). As I was putting it together - thinking this would be a collection of all of the work I'd like to "preserve" up until my 50th this year, I realise I had to make the cut-off point much earlier. The poems I've written since 2010 are still doing the rounds, still looking to be published as a stand alone collection; and to extend the timescale much beyond 2011 for my short fiction would have brought in another dozen stories I'd have had to include.

I'm aware of what a quixotic task this all is, but as someone who periodically, and naturally orders my work, it seems something that I wish more writers would do. For me it brings together different forms - poems, short and long fiction, drama - that often have the same aims. Also, one of the things I realised late last year as I put together some of my more recent stories, is how often I "apologise" for my creative work. An explanation is, I guess, something of an apologia in itself. However, whereas when a work is written, and sent out, you can happily defer to a publisher or magazine the right to publish it, over a longer time period, a longer career, the rights return to the author. In the absence of anyone else to curate my writing, I retain the right to do so. What I do with it then - a limited edition, a reading, an e-book, or nothing - is of less important than the critical act of curating itself; which provides the kind of reflection that writers need to have now and then, regardless of their level of success or otherwise.

Friday, March 31, 2017

The Jesus and Mary Chain's Futurist Classicism

Seeing the Jesus and Mary Chain for the first time last Saturday as they tour to promote their first album in many years, "Damage and Joy", felt both nostalgic and reaffirming; for the Mary Chain were a band that probably shouldn't have ever happened, certainly not when they did.

Jim and William Reid were the age to have been inspired by punk. But stuck out in the Glasgow suburb of East Kilbride, in dead end jobs, away from many likeminded souls, it was 1984 before they would release their first single. The post-punk promise was beginning to die out by 1984. Thatcher's England was the inspiration for a new monied music business, as new wave, new romanticism, electronic music and other forms were commercialised and mainstreamed. Alternative bands had failed to make the major commercial breakthrough that they had promised, and the scene would be set for 1985's reaffirmation of the old guard with Live Aid. As a sixth former at the time the music that was most exciting me was industrial and experimental music like Head of David, Test Department and Psychic TV; or the avant pop of the Cocteau Twins. The Smiths, and in America, R.E.M. had heralded a new willingness to look back to sixties harmonies and seventies aesthetics, but great as both of those bands were, the guitar bands who followed in their wake seemed mere nostalgics.

Into this landscape, came a 7" single on boutique label Creation, drenched with feedback, full of unexpected pop smarts, and backed with a Syd Barrett cover, "Upside Down" by the Jesus and Mary Chain was revelatory. It sounded like nothing else in 1984, and in reality, sounds like nothing else since. Only their follow up single "Never Understand" would repeat the drenched with feedback trick, but by that time they were the most notorious band in Britain. Moving from the indie ghetto into a new fake indie Blanco y Negro, and causing headlines for catastrophic/euphoric gigs which were sometimes just a ten or twenty minute blast of feedback drenched noise.

The taciturn Reid brothers weren't much ones for pronouncements - and I don't remember any great manifestos...just that glorious run of records that came out on the back of "Upside Down." Is there a better run of singles in British pop music history than from "Upside Down" to "April Skies"? I'm not sure there is - and though there might one or two less perfect sides in the years to come, their quality control on their singles would continue through half a dozen variable albums.

The Mary Chain were more overtly interested in an overlooked past than any band that had come along since punk's year zero, but as in thrall to the Shangri-las, Lee Hazelwood and other pop thrills as heavier cult acts like Iggy Pop. Like the Dream Syndicate in the U.S. they owed allegiance to the Velvet Underground - whose records were still difficult to find in the Britain of the early 1980s. (Ironically, the CD would help bring back catalogue bands like that into the public eye again - also helped by the brilliant outtakes album "V.U." which coincidentally or not, would come out just a few months after "Upside Down."

In my world, the Mary Chain were superstars, but I never got to see them for a variety of reasons. The expectations for debut album "Psychocandy" were massive and it didn't disappoint. Still their high water mark, and the best album of 1985, it carefully placed the iconic singles "Never Understand", "You Trip Me Up" and "Just Like Honey" throughout a brilliantly varied set. It still sounds exciting today - and I think there's still the same sense of wonder that it existed at all, particularly in the year of "Live Aid" and "Brothers in Arms." In many ways, the Mary Chain were closer to American bands like Husker Du, Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr. than their British equivalent - a powerhouse guitar act, with great tunes, and a classically cool attitude. That their drummer, Bobby Gillespie, ended up fronting the even more classicist Primal Scream, highlights the Mary Chain's role as a pure catalyst - something they would also serve to do when on their "Lollapazoola" mirroring "Rollercoaster" tour they invited along My Bloody Valentine, Dinosaur Jr, and - a surprise at the time - young pop band Blur.

By the time of their second album, the subdued "Darklands", there was a sense of exploring a band exploring a deliberately narrow template, something they would do more or less throughout their career. Thankfully their were no hip hop collaborations, house remixes or celebrity collaborations for the Mary Chain. Each album became reliable alt-rock barometer, until, with "Munki", a good record that nobody heard or bought, they fell apart. Along the way tracks like "Blues from a Gun", "Reverence" and "Sidewalking" are classics in their own right. Reforming for some gigs in 2007 the closest there was to a new Mary Chain album was when they helped with Sister Vanilla, a band fronted by their younger sister. And now in "Damage and Joy" a new Mary Chain record to continue - timelessly - where they stopped.

Seeing them live, the new and old songs pulled together well. William Reid played guitar in the shadows, whilst Jim was in fine voice throughout, looking like the at-ease older statesman of rock he now is. Yet the chemistry inherent in their songs is still there. A fan's set - containing some of the hits but also key album tracks - the timelessness of the Mary Chain sound seems as relevant as ever in these days of nostalgia, when vinyl copies of "Velvet Underground and Nico" probably sell more than at any other time. It would be easy in some ways to dismiss them as a highly oiled rock and roll jukebox, their own versions on the canon sitting comfortably alongside it, but not having particularly added anything. That is until you hear the five or so tracks they perform from "Psychocandy." In that album - which they toured recently - we hear a band grabbing at the future whilst embracing the past. If their later songs, like those of Oasis, seem to add little to rock's lexicon rather than a few nice tunes, there is a curious synthesis on "Psychocandy", where that unique blend of noise and melody is performed with so little cynicism that it genuinely affects me now as it did at the time, as something wondrous and new.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

George Saunders at Waterstones

I think I first came across George Saunders, the American short story writer, in the late 1990s. Whenever I'd be reading an anthology of American fiction, or a special fiction edition of the New Yorker or whatever, it would be his story that would stand out. He was quite an obscure name at the time, though would become less so in the UK, via a column he wrote for the Guardian in the 2000s. I call him a short story writer, but some of them are pretty long, and some are "novellas", and now, in his late fifties (somehow I never really thought about whether he was older or younger than me), his first novel, a book in 166 voices "Lincoln in the Bardo."

He came to Waterstones in Manchester last night and there must have been close to 120 people in the audience - an impressive number for an hitherto obscure writer. His books before the new one were hard to find, but when his last collection "Tenth of December" won the Folio prize, he obviously became better known. Like a band that's been going for years, he's picked up fans along the way, and I guess the numbers shouldn't have been a surprise. (The equally brilliant Ben Marcus had around a quarter of this crowd a couple of years back - American fiction doesn't always travel.).

It's fair to say he's having a moment. He read from the new book, or rather, a group of readers from Waterstones and the Centre for New Writing at the University of Manchester, read from the new book. Because its a book in many voices - the ghosts in the mausoleum where Abraham Lincoln's young son lay dead, whilst the American civil war raged on around him - this, which he's repeated in every city of his book tour, was a powerful and inclusive way of introducing the novel. Saunders is a well regarded creative writing tutor at his alma mater, Syracuse, where he studied under Tobias Wolff in the mid-1980s. A brilliant essay in the Guardian recently unpicked his approach to writing - don't lose the magic; try and turn the dial to make the work better, not worse; most of all, empathy - and he revisited a couple of these points in the Q&A with the university's Dr. Kaye Mitchell.

He's a very open and funny speaker, and like alot of American writers, appeared relaxed and colloquial. I hadn't realised he'd come from a blue collar background or that his first degree had been a science degree or that he'd had a fallow period following his MFA whilst he tried to be a Carver-esque dirty realist, and as he says, "lost the magic." Talking about the new novel's long gestation and experimental style he felt that the latter was dictated by the subject - something I've always thought necessary. The crowd, with an above average number of beards and Americans, (there's an essay to be written on readers coming to look like the writers they like!) asked some illuminating questions as well including one about Audiobooks (surely a sign of the times?). The audiobook of "Lincoln in the Bardo" seems a thing of wonder - 166 different voices including a number of famous names, like Ben Stiller, and Jeff Tweedy from Wilco -  The sense of this being a visit from American literary royalty briefly surfaced at this point - though his disarming manner, and the charm with which he invited co-readers along to share the spotlight, was distinctly humble.

I need to go back to his short stories - and find time to devour the new novel. After a tiring week, and having missed another of my favourite writers, Gwendoline Riley, the night before, because I was at the Whitworth for an art opening, I'm glad I made the effort, bumping into a number of Manchester writers and literary types along the way as we scurried through the rain (sorry, George, we had to live up to the cliche) to find a bar away from the St. Patrick's day crowd. 

Saturday, March 11, 2017

10:04 by Ben Lerner

In B.S Johnson's "Albert Angelo" there's a point where the writer stops the narrative and says that it's all a lie. This "fourth wall" breaking is not entirely uncommon in fiction, but it's usually done with irony rather than sincerity. The Johnson intervention was probably more shocking for coming in the middle of a clearly autobiographical fragment.

Ben Lerner's second novel "10:04" plays the same trick but gradually, as if he's been teasing us all along. You should see this in the context of the times: whether its that post-David Foster Wallace/David Eggars search for sincerity in an ironiced culture; David Shield's critique of fiction in "Reality Hunger"; or the selfie culture of the millenials. Lerner, a Generation Y writer, has already mined the over-medicated, self-aware present in "Leaving the Atocha Station." That kept the tropes of fiction. It was an imagined protagonist, an imagined story, and the unlikeable narrator was perhaps not one that any writer would like to too closely identify with as purely autobiographical. "Ben" in this second novel has removed the conceit of character. Two thirds through, he gives up any sense of doubt we might have by talking about this being a book written on the very edge of fact and fiction. We will come back to that.

Here, a writer who has just had a story published in the New Yorker (included here - and the weakest section of the model - make of that what you will, make of the relevance of the New Yorker what you will) has been contracted for a second novel to expand that story. At some point we are told that is both that novel, and isn't that novel. It's the novel contracted for. But he decided to write this one instead. Like David Rose's "Vault" - which helpfully calls itself an anti-novel - this sees us given both the "real" version and the fictional version. Given that we have the former first, the New Yorker story seems contrived, made-up, lesser. Yet, of course, this is also a fiction, part of a larger work. But our Generation Y novelist has the same problems as the character in the story. He is sleeping with an artist who doesn't particularly like him (or he doesn't particularly like - it's far too casual to tell) whilst at the same time being asked to be the father (via other means than copulation) of a child for his oldest, closest friend. In the background, New York, where they are living is in trauma mode. It is hurricane season and these storms are landing. This disaster trope is a commonplace in post-eighties American fiction, ever since DeLillo's "White Noise" it seems. Yet whereas McInerney's "The Good Life" wonders what his archetypal New Yorkers will do after 9/11, or A.M. Homes sees the forewarned catastrophe of an earthquaked L.A. as an inevitable possiblity, Lerner's storms are like the dread in peak-period Martin Amis, likely events, without much consequence. The consequence is more about the narrator's health. He has been found to have a hereditary disease - and is undergoing tests. The medicalisation - this and the fertility treatment (his sperm turns out to be abnormal, still usable, but requiring work), create his interior tension.

All of this, you'll notice, has the makings of a plot - as does the New Yorker story which mines some aspects of it. And so there's a little bit of cake and eat it about this anti-novel. As a poet - for which Lerner was first celberated - the idea of the "confessional" rather than the imaginative is part of the job description. Yet in a novel, a knowing narrator might be able to forestall readers' criticism of the knowingness, but cannot entirely derail it: after all this is a conventional novel in many ways. The storms, the illnesses, the uncertain friendship/love affairs, even the interluded sequences with dying parents or mentors, memories of past follies (he remembers meeting and falling in love with a girl at a party who may or may not have existed, and certainly wasn't the daughter of the party's elder literary hosts), the community work he undertakes in the local organic co-operative or teaching a young Hispanic boy in his spare time; these are conventional tropes. At the end - in the acknowledgements - we find that the writer has said that the Hispanic boy is made up. What to make of this then? Elsewhere, the friend-lover extracts a promise that he will never under any circumstances or disguise re-tell a story she tells him about her mother. (Yet we have been told this.)

Yet if this sounds like some kind of newspaper columnist, mining its own life, it doesn't really do justice to the Lerner we met and admired in "Leaving the Atocha Station." For like "The Rings of Saturn" by W.G. Sebald we get photographs, digressions, other stories. This is the novelist as chef letting us look at how he cooks the meal, but we are not necessarily any the wiser how he does it. He holds back - mostly - from the kind of interruptions or digressions you'll find in the experimental novel from "Tristam Shandy" onwards. There are, to be fair, bits of this novel, that could be in an essay or a poem (the poem he writers whilst on a writers' residency is included.) This multifariousness of consciousness is a strength rather than a weakness. For Lerner the slightly neurotic millenial self-obsessive is less interesting than Lerner the inquisitive renaissance man. Like David Eggars' "A Heartbreaking work..." we are asked to believe in the irony as a way of deflecting from the sincerity. Let's be honest, this too is a novel of nostalgia. He talks about childhood obsessions: the over-emphasised film "Back to the Future" which seems to have become some kind of ur-movie for people of a certain age (rather than a nostalgic piece of fun); the mis-labelling of the Brontosaurus and a childhood obsession with dinosaurs. These obsessions are both specific and generic. The worrying thing might be the over-emphasis that Lerner puts on them: searching it seems for a Rosebud moment. He does the same trick with literary precursors, Whitman and Creeley, and yet part of this is a private mythos. The "writers residency" is told half as a diary entry of some kind of collapse and half as war story, as he goes to a proto-typical literary party whilst in Texas, where an intern takes to much Ketamine.

So much of this could be self-indulgent, and a couple of parts -the writing of the poetry, the story within a story - seem weak by comparison to the sheer brio of the rest of it. The title comes from "Back to the Future" but he can't let a single reference point alone, and links it to "The Clock" - a 24 hour movie in "real time" by Christian Marclay, which takes real time scenes from a myriad of movies and edits them together.  The specificity of the reference, like Nicola Barker's "Clear" (David Blaine's transparent box in London) seems anachronistic already, yet also makes some kind of sense. Oddly enough the British cover sees "10:04" as a "24" style digital clock against a stark black background, whilst the American cover, referred toexplicitly in the narrative, is a photograph during the second storm, of downtown New York, and the Goldman Sachs building. In this sense: a cover photo self-referenced in the narrative is abandoned by some weird stupidity of its British publisher as not mattering. It matters. It matters, because we are being asked to take this novel as being a kind of truth, and this makes one part a lie.

Like "Leaving the Atocha Station" there is an immense pleasure in reading Lerner - his willingness to stretch our view of what the novel can be. Like David Mitchell or Junot Diaz or Jennifer Egan, there seems an ability to include anything and make it work. Such brio is always fantastic to read. Yet, the overall "thing" the novel is about (apart from the many other things it's about) does seem to be a familiar trope: of how to make sense of your life in a world full of change and chaos. Yet the chaos is a manufactured one to some extent. That neurotic realism we see in so much contemporary writing lacks a sense of real jeopardy. The young man in "Leaving the Atocha Station" imagined and pretended his mother was dead. In this novel, the writer of that "fiction" recalls the real life event which might have caused him to think of it - or to invent that - a story that his father had told him. This playiing with fiction - or what is real and what is fiction - seems quite a collosal achievement, and yet in many ways Lerner achieves it through echoes of much more conventional narratives: the plot giving some kind of sense to the chaos of life. Unusually for a poet-novelist, Lerner seems particularly adept at exploiting the possibilites of fiction and at times you feel - like with Sebald - that this is some kind of new form; yet ironically its the reassuring bits (that troubling mediocre "New Yorker" story) that let him down. It's a dense, satisfying, incredibly entertaining (and funny) read, and I suspect we'll see other books echoing it (poorly) in the years to come. It's a wonderfully expansive read, that despite its occasionally flaws, seems miles ahead of what we so often see in contemporary Anglo-American writing.

Thursday, March 02, 2017

Here Lies Contemporary Poetry


Perhaps in the 1980s or 1990s there was a sense that contemporary poetry was made by a few hands, who were the annointed ones, shuffled into publication by Faber or Carcanet or newcomer Bloodaxe, or perhaps one of the small lists of the majors. You had to be an initiate to know what else was going on - the small press magazines, the pamphlets and chapbooks.

Anyway, the majority - if not all - of the books above are from the 21st century, from a range of presses - though with quite a number from Knives, Forks and Spoons, whose photo frame covers are pretty distinctive in the above picture. I've been deliberately selective, so left out - mostly - the major poetry presses, though there's a Jack Underwood pamphlet from Faber to the bottom right, and Heather Phillipson's debut collection from Bloodaxe up top left, and Christian Bok's bestselling "Eunoia" in red near the top. Notably this shied away from the usual Bloodaxe cover style, appropriately enough for a poet-artist. Other presses of note include Penned in the Margins and Salt, the latter no longer publishing poetry, and here represented by one or two of their "Salt Modern Voices" series, which I was also published in.

I was just rearranging a few tottering shelves and before they all came crashing down, decided to lay out some of these and take a photograph. It's an impressive haul, around 60 books and pamphlets in total, probably less than half of the ones I've snaffled away from readings and mail order over the last ten years. There's a few interesting ones here. In the middle, between Leanne Bridgewater and Chris McCabe, with the patterned cover, is one of the "Stop Sharpening Your Knives" anthologies - #3 from 2009 - which brought a spotlight on a number of (mostly it seems) London based poets including Emily Berry (now editor of Poetry Review), Heather Phillipson, Jack Underwood, Joe Dunthorne, and Sam Riviere. McCabe's debut - from Salt - had a number of poems that we published in "Lamport Court" - and his other book here - the "book  in a box" "Shad Thames, Broken Wharf", in brown to the right, an uncategorisable "play in voices", shows again how contemporary poets and presses have been inventive with their design.

There are other books I'd forgotten: a pamphlet from Amy de'Ath, on the right with the green stag's head on its cover; Matt Welton's pamphlet for eggbox publishing,  and "Waffles", in light blue to the middle left. A survey of contemporary poetry would have to take a lot into account I think - not just the "award winning" books that dominate the prizes. Note there are no Capes, no Picadors here that I can see; those lists, having only limited interest to me. Poetry requires reading rather than synopsis.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Writing and Memory

A few years ago I began writing a story about a person who could remember everything - every face, every incident. What would that be like, I wondered? To have this constant "chatter" of the past in your head, so that walking through a crowded station you would recall every instant that you'd seen each of those people, what you knew about them, what you'd overheard them say.

I was therefore fascinated to read this article in the Guardian about a rare condition where people can remember everything about their own lives. In these cases, there is usually something going on, an obsessive compulsive disorder; some trigger or trauma; and often a way of remembering that is in itself systematic - such as keeping  a daily diary.

Rembering is what writers do, of course. They observe, they jot down, they remember. The scene that appears many years later, is plucked from a memory, maybe even a mislaid or forgotten one. The written version becomes the definitive one, and in stories its how we tell our memories. In legal disputes it is in "what you remember" that is often being asked of the defendant. The "I couldn't remember" response of powerful people to events that they were present at is no guarantee that they don't. Not remembering is almost as useful an alibi as not knowing - "plausible deniability". When there is a crime - a murder, a hit and run - the police ask for witnesses at the scene to remember what they can "however trivial." Our memories aren't the imprint of facts, but the interpretation. The policeman who draws a gun, remembers the moment that he thought he saw the other person reach for one; the person caught up in a fight tries to recall the moment he could have stepped back and avoided being hit. These things happen in an instant.

Yet writers' memory is more than that. I don't think I know any writers who have that "total recall" of these rare cases in the Guardian article, but I know from my own remembering how much is stored up there. How a single trigger - a smell, a name, a photograph - could perhaps bring back a whole connected set of memories. When writing a novel years ago, I wrote about my nanna's house, and distinctly remembered the green meat safe in the larder. I had not given that house, that room, that detail a moments thought in perhaps twenty years, but one memory led to another, and evoked a picture, in some detail. Yet there are other times when we can't remember. Did we vote Green or Labour in that by-election in the end? Did we go out on that birthday or to that band? Who was there with us? We can't remember. Occasionally a photograph will turn up and will mess up our memory. The three of us who used to hang out together, yet in that photo its a different three, the memory is intact, but the memory isn't shared.

In analysing the patients with perfect recall, of course the only things that the doctors could be sure of were the verifiable details. "On this day....this happened." And yet even that's a strange one. I remember my parents coming into my bedroom one morning before school to tell me John Lennon had died. So that - with the time difference - must have been the day after it had happened, not on the day itself. Lovers make a note of anniversaries...of when they first met, or when they first got together. Yet it is the date or the moment? As a writer I find myself drawn to facts, but confused by them, needing them verified. Wikipedia gives us no excuse not to; but also, in itself needs to be verified. I used to be able to mark the years, the months by what I was doing - by my job, or where I was living, or if none of those, by the new music I was buying. But grow older and the apparatus drifts away. Was it that year or the other one? Working for the same employer and living in the same flat for a decade, where are the fault lines. I make a note on when I wrote this or that poem - but not everything is accurate - and by the time the poem appears, the source is forgotten, we shape our memory patterns.

The novel I'm working on is all about memory - memory is in the title but also in its DNA - and it looks at paralelling private and public memory. How the powers that be have their own reasons to deny memory - to deny truth - to rewrite the past. Even in a city like Manchester, there's been a narrative for twenty years now that "regeneration" came on the back of the I.R.A. bomb, ignoring that had their not been a bomb there was already regeneration - that things would have still happened, just differently. (There was no bomb in Liverpool or Leeds or Newcastle or Birmingham in that period yet their centres have also been remodelled.) As a creative writing graduate of University of Manchester, I'm sure they might welcome any success I eventually have, but though a graduate of the University, I'm not a graduate of their School for New Writing - which followed on from my time. I'd be an awkward success, I imagine, with my tutors long since gone to Bath and Glasgow.

Yet I think in an era of the digital where everything is available - we also see how invisible things can become. The terrabytes of data created everyday are lost or hidden. It is Facebook who decides to push old memories, some welcome, some less so, on our timeline, not ourselves. Surely future literary biographies if such a form still exists will have to rely on digital sources rather than letters. They will exist somewhere surely, but just as surely, they may also be gone, not just lost but invisibly so. The discovery of old Bob Marley "tapes" in a damp basement at least highlights something might be on them - our redundant memory sticks and landfill hard drives don't provide that truth. I suspect the cost of "retrieval" of the past - our current near present - will be hardly worth the effort. The valiant efforts of special collections in libraries and archives still exists as a testament to our belief in preservation, but as we see institutions turned over, and municipal galleries closed or sold off to developers, the sense of where our archived memory might exist is also a problematic one.

As a contemporary writer that's one of the reasons to write about contemporary things. I recently put a few Manchester stories together in a booklet because I realised that they related to a lost version of the city. Mentions of the bomb, the Arndale bus station, the J.W. Lees pub in the Arndale centre, demolished bars in Hulme, as well as the people, events, times and customs (smoking in pubs!) seems long ago now, that there is a definite break with the past with now. Yet our contemporary story - if not published  -becomes a history tale soon enough. Sometimes we need the perspective that allows us to sift different aspects of the past. Our longer lives, our multiple generations (There was recently a family in the news who had six generations alive at one time) shifts our sense of time moving on. My strong memories of my grandparents link me inexorably to the start of the 20th century - through them - and through knowing them, I can imagine a world pre-the First World War even. Hard to believe! Yet at the same time as we have these longstanding memories - and a media age in which we can see the past, I think we risk becoming inured to protecting it. The cataclysms of Brexit and Trump seem on the one hand to be the last hurrahs of the Baby Boomer generation, reaching for the fear button in their dotage, but at the same time part of the irony of both Brexit and Trump's nostalgia for an older simpler world is that they want to dismantle our fragile modernity. Like Wall Street Amish unaware of the future, their view is anti-memory. It relies on us forgetting, on a deliberate, protracted forgetting. Don't ask where Gatsby got his fortune... don't wonder about Bulstrode's past. Writers know this instinctively.

We write to remember, we have to write so as not to forget.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Teenage Dreams are Hard to Beat

Despite having being writing and recording songs since 1982, and having had a synthesizer (Roland Juno 6) since the start of 1984, it was in September 1985, recently back from a post-A-Level holiday in Australia, and just before I started at University, that my music found its place. The reason: a 4-track recorder, originally borrowed from a friend. For a "one man band" who didn't play very well, and wanted to sing as well, the 4-track was a revelation. Simple to use, and cheap to operate (it used standard Chrome C90 cassettes) I quickly recorded two full cassettes of new music, a C90 offering 45 minutes of recording, taking up both sides of the tape (enabling - as I'd soon find out - the opportunity to play music backwards!) These first recordings were a mix of multi-layered instrumentals, which in retrospect owe something to Phaedra-era Tangerine Dream, and tentative pop songs. I had no drum machine, so the rhythm electronic music that I liked from people like Cabaret Voltaire would have to wait a bit. My lyrics had mostly been written during that summer vacation - but other influences found their way into the titles of the songs: "Kiama" was a town in New South Wales, whilst "The Wasp Factory" was the book I'd bought at the airport on my flight over to Brisbane, and seemed appropriate to the "buzzing" sound on that instrumental. (At the time I had no idea it would become a classic.)

The best tracks from these two hastily assembled cassettes would make up my first "proper" album "Mortal Mime". A 2nd release "17 Schemes (of dare & folly)" with its 23 minute long opening track "Complexities (Pt.1-6)" would follow later.


Subsequently armed with a drum machine, and borrowing a more preset based synthesizer - the Sequential Circuits Max - I recorded more songs, and, alongside the ambient instrumentals and tentative pop songs, began recording some beat-based music. 3 "singles", "Alternative Product", "Tamarine" and "The Sorrow and Other Short Stories" were recorded in quick succession, including versions of some of my early pre-4 track songs, as well as at my most accomplished track to date "We R All Essentially Gods." 



By summer 1986 I was working on a 3rd album "Entering the Adult Frame" - still mostly longer songs, but more ambitious ones - as "The Adult Frame" with its lyrics about growing old and missed opportunities indicates. At the time I was 19 years old, my first year at university had been great, but had fled by. Instead of finding "like minds" for a band, I'd made good friends who were more interested to listening to music than playing it. Lancaster at the time was not a particularly cutting edge town. The band for freshers week were The Sweet, and the biggest crowd I saw during that first year, was for ancient folk legends Fairport Convention at the Town Hall. In the wider world: the analogue electronic music that had come out a few years earlier had been taken up by the corporates and highly produced versions - Tears for Fears, Madonna - had taken it far away from its punk/new wave roots. Recording on hissy 4-track cassettes (though it was good enough for Bruce Springsteen's "earthy" "Nebraska" album) was against the tide in more ways than one. The Smiths and R.E.M., with not a synthesizer in sight, were the big bands on campus. Yet I persisted as a "bedroom musician" and my "folly" (literally: as my new artist name was The Folly, perhaps taking after the famous folly in Lancaster), came up with a 3rd full length cassette. Amongst its seven tracks is a long beat-driven instrumental called "King & Kingdom Come." It sounds like a proto-house record, but was recorded some six months before I'd heard "Jack Your Body."
I've been going back through these old recordings - long since digitised - and now have put together a 2 CD compilation of 1985-6 4-track recordings. The tracks are long (over long in places) but inventive. The vocal tracks are perhaps the weaker pieces, as I was only just beginning to learn how to write songs (do you ever learn?) and my passive Lawrence-from-Felt voice is often deep in the mix. By the end of 1986 I was moving on - including another long electronic track "Work Addiction" which in its original recording (included here) ran to 16 minutes.

The best of this period are probably the ambient instrumental pieces - and a compilation cassette I put together the following year grouped them all together on a C90.

Yet what's interesting, looking back, is that I was still a teenager when recording all of these - albeit one who had left home, and was studying a degree. Later volumes will see my music become more song orientated, more sophisticated, but I'm glad I've still got these recordings - and that over thirty years later I can re-present them.

If you could go back and give advice to your younger self - what would you say? That it will be all right? Perhaps. Maybe I didn't need the advice - for I kept recording - and still keep recording - despite a lack of support, and even outright hostility at times. These are the recordings of a private obsession - though I'd play them to you if I asked - and so seem to exist in a place of their own. It's impossible to think back to being a teenager, to recreate that younger self, particularly when so little of it seems worth that much. Yet, I'm so glad I was obsessively creative during those years. The poems I wrote (such as the lyrics for the song "Tamarine") are adolescent, and any stories I wrote feel wooden or derivative, but the three or four hours of music I made, has its own integrity to it.

The 2 volumes of the 4 Track Years Vol.1 can be downloaded or streamed here PART ONE and here PART TWO.

Further volumes covering 1987-8 and 1989-90 will follow. 



Saturday, January 21, 2017

In Praise of Weird Records

The new uncut magazine has a list of 101 Weird Records. It includes a few of the normal suspects - "The Philosophy of the World" by the Shaggs for instance, but at #1 is an album that is so familiar to me, and such a beautiful listening experience, that it seems no more of a weird record than "Sgt. Pepper" or "The Who Sell Out", namely "A Wizard, a True Star" by Todd Rundgren. I've been listening to the CD its coupled with in a recent reissue, "Todd", and that's a weird record....as is "A capella" where Todd just uses his own voice for all the instruments. Their list surprisingly includes no Robert Wyatt, and seems uncertain about whether to include oddities such as Metallica/Lou Reed's "Lulu" which are only odd in the idea, and not really in the listening.

Anyway, I've been a connoisseur of odd records all my life - this list - not in any order other than first come first served - sees oddness in different ways; the nearly unlistenable; the strange concept; even just odd pairings.

1. Leichenschrei - SPK. An industrial album that I bought in the early eighties, its still unlike anything I've ever heard. I think I hated it for ages, and then briefly it became a compelling favourite. A sonic collage - what is going on here? Voices come through the mist. "He tried to give me syphillis by wiping his cock on my sandwich," indeed.

2. The Point - Harry Nilsson. This is such a celebrated oddity that its very strange that it never makes the Uncut mix. At the height of his fame, wilful genius Nilsson came up with "The Point", a primetime American children's TV cartoon.

3. The F*** C*** Treat Us Like P*** - Flux of Pink Indians. Amongst all the CRASS-affiliated anarcho punks, Flux were amongst the most experimental. This is a near unlistenable collage piece - highly charged and political, from the title onwards. Facinating stuff.

4. End of an Ear - Robert Wyatt. There's a term "Wyatting" for putting something unlistenable on a pub jukebox. Unfair of course, for Wyatt is one of our national treasures, but he's an acquired taste - and his first solo album was an uncompromising free jazz melange - half spoken vocals, odd time signatures, you name it. Other Wyatt - from his Matching Mole albums, to "Dondestan" and "Old Rottenhat", are odd listens, but this one remains enigmatically difficult.

5. A Capella - Todd Rundgren. Giles Smith, in Lost in Music, says there's nothing so risky when going into a record shop as asking for the new Todd Rundgren album. In the 1970s and 1980s his wilfulness was legendary. A Capella takes some topping however - every sound made by Todd's voice and fed through an early sampler.

6. The Moon and the Melodies - Harold Budd/Cocteau Twins. Being a big Cocteau Twins fan in the early eighties I loved everything they did. Bit of a surprise when they did this album with ambient pianist Harold Budd.

7. Over the Rainbow - Virgin Prunes. Everything the Virgin Prunes did is odd, including their masterpiece "If I die, I die" - but this compilation of odds and sods is peculiarly so. I only have a copy because a friend bought it and hated it so much she gave it to me. The odd bits of an odd band.

8. NY Scum Haters - Psychic TV. Before they released a cavalcade of live albums came this one. Just after their wonderful "Dreams Less Sweet" - this was the unvarnished Psychic TV. PTV/Throbbing Gristle could probably fill a whole weird records list.

9. Thank You - Duran Duran. Covers albums can be things of wonder or disasters. Few manage to do both so often as this one from Duran Duran. Amongst the expected somewhat pedestrian retools of glam icons, they give us their take on Public Enemy's "911 is a joke" and Grandmaster Flash "White Lines." Wonderful/ludicrous in equal measures.

10. Peter and the Wolf - David Bowie. Forget The Laughing Gnome, Tin Machine or that godawful cover of God Only Knows, this is David Bowie's oddest release - a narration of the story of Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf. Of course it is.

11. Ear Candy - Helen Reddy. Actually not as odd as it should be - and a pretty decent album of late seventies soulful power pop. The oddity is that this is produced by Kim Fowley. Yes, Runaways svengali Fowley. With Helen Reddy.


12. Earth - Neil Young. Neil Young makes the Uncut list with "Trans" - odd only in that he uses vocoder - on what is one of his stronger eighties albums. "Greendale" is an odd concept album for instance, and what about "Arc" the feedback drenched companion to live album "Weld"? But I think his last live album "Earth" deserves inclusion. Pulling together songs from across his career with a "green" perspective he decides - oddly, perversely, in a way that sometimes works and sometimes is hilarious to add in sound effects to the live album e.g. crickets chirping.

13. Sympathy for the Devil - Laibach. There's a small number of albums that consist of only one song in multiple versions. This Laibach album covering the Rolling Stones album is one such. Brilliant but quixotic.

14. Beach Boys Love You - Beach Boys. There are other Beach Boys oddities - "Party" for instance with its party sound effects, or their transcendental M.I.U. Album, but Beach Boys Love You saw Brian Wilson return to the fold, virtually a solo album, and as a "where Brian's mind was at" as odd as it comes. Brilliant but if you wanted to know what he'd been up to - it had been watching Johnny Carson.


15. Johnny Yes/No Soundtrack - Cabaret Voltaire. When I was a big Cabs fan in the early eighties I did my best to buy all their new stuff - that included this mesmeric, monotonous soundtrack album.  

16. Tricks of the Shade - The Goats. A concept album about how America was going to pot and becoming a theme park for authoritarian Uncle Sam. Madcap and malevolent. 

17. Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants - Stevie Wonder. At his seventies height he recorded this mostly instrumental album. What was going on? Who knows? A near career threatening double album.

18. Gling Glo - Bjork. Before KUKL, before the Sugarcubes, before "Debut", there was "Gling Glo" - an Icelandic language jazz album sung by the young Bjork. A curiosity.

19. He's the DJ, I'm the Rapper - DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince. Their second album was a rap first - a double album. Given how thin most rap albums were at the time this was an impressive achievement - but filled out with scratch tracks and other less than essential pieces and never reissued in full on CD. 

20. Pander! Panda! Panzer! - Mark E. Smith. The Fall are of course highly quixotic and with the one constant of Mark E. Smith - surely a solo album should have been great? Except this and its predecessor were both "spoken word" albums, made up of text, cut ups etc. Strange even by Fall standards. 

21. A Trip to Marineville - Swell Maps. In the 80s Swell Maps, one of the more arty punk bands, had disappeared from sight, so it was years before I heard them - but what a greatly inventive band, never more so than on their debut, an avant garde post-punk mix thats well worth seeking out.

22.Préliminaires - Iggy Pop. There are many oddities in Iggy Pop's back catalogue but this album of French chanteuse songs inspired by Michel Houllebecq, is particularly odd.








Sunday, January 15, 2017

Young Hearts Crying by Richard Yates

In Richard Yates' penultimate novel "Young Hearts Crying" (1984) he revisits the fifties setting of his debut "Revolutionary Road" - the novel that brought him back into attention, and to print a few years ago, and was subsequently made into a film. In "Young Hearts Crying" Michael Davenport is an attractive, intelligent Harvard graduate, who has previously made his grade as an Airforce gunner in the tail end of the war. Davenport had a good war, and in a sense this backstory is given only as a rite of passage, but surely informs his psychology . He wants to be a published poet, but perhaps more importantly, wants girls. This is a pre-sexual revolution 1950s, and though the trappings of genteel moral codes are being stripped away, he is no Burroughsian transgressor, and falls for the first beautiful girl he finds, Lucy, a blank slate on which he can impress his longings. In turn, she is an heiress - though she hides this from Michael - who is wanting to escape from the stultifying conformities that her class and riches could bring her.

This is the America of opportunity after all - Madmen territory - but where some of the certainties that informed the Jazz age writers have disappeared. In some ways, Michael and Lucy, are less Gatsby and Carraway, and more this decades' "careless people". Art, and culture becomes the route into some kind of self-awareness, or escape. Yet, with so little jeopary in their life, this becomes - like in "Revolutionary Road" - a route only into the kind of bourgeois life they've both, in their different ways, been trying to escape. Between Fitzgerald and Franzen, their chronicler is Yates. Davenport is a complex character. Bundled into a marriage he didn't expect, his ambition outweights his talent. The short plays that were lauded at Harvard impress on him that he'll become a writer, but he supplements this, in lieu of using Lucy's money, with a copywriter job for a trade magazine. Here, in New York, him and Lucy are at the beginning of their lives - but whereas in, say, Jay McInerney, there would be the sense of an upward trajectory, Yates is the chronicler of a certain nuanced disappointment - a jaded American dream that being for "everyone", can never deliver on its promises beyond the mundane.

The Davenports have a child and move from their small flat to a pleasant suburb and Michael catches the train in every day where he meets the amiable Irish painter, Tom Nelson, whose popular canvasses are far away from the becoming fashionable "abstract expressionists." Yates is briliant at sidestepping the cliches and expectations of a novel of artists, by concentrating on these figures that will be marginalised by history one way or another. Tom has been born poor and so is exaltant in the money his popular work gives him, whilst Michael is the epitome of the minor poet, a forgotten name published by a small press rather than a public poet like Robert Lowell or a beatnik such as Ginsberg. That's not to say that Yates ignores the bohemian scene - for his other friend is an abstract expressionist painter, whose sister is a lifelong unconsummated desire for the frivolous Michael.

Around a series of carefully constructed scenes, we rediscover various characters - and introduce new ones - through a thirty year period. Still ignoring Lucy's inheritance, the Davenports move to a tiny house in the countryside near the Nelsons. Here - on an estate which is run by a group of old style theatrical types - Michael's ambition and self-loathing become more apparent as they contribute to his failing marriage. He is vicious about the gay characters hiding out here (one actor is a famous character actor who is blacklisted by McCarthy) calling the place a "fruit farm." His lack of sympathy is in itself what gives us sympathy for him as such a flawed character. His own plays get unperformed, and his poetry becomes safe and mediocre, each book receiving less attention for the first - where the long poem that concludes the book slowly becomes an American classic, and one he can never quite repeat. When the end comes for him and Lucy its no surprise, but its victim is less Lucy and their child, than Michael himself. This man-child, who is proud of his brief boxing near success in the air force, constantly wants to prove he is the better man. He is that overbearing alpha of American literature, yet whereas in Mailer or Heller, the man would become a successful bully, Yates is brilliant at creating characters who are far from predictable, whose flaws and strengths are balanced in them. Back in New York, away from his wife, he finally has a breakdown and ends up incarcerated, the heavy drinking causing him to have a number of psychotic episodes. These - almost always off stage in the novel - see him become drunk, and obnoxious and having to prove he is the best man in the room. His lack of social empathy turns out to be his great character flaw, his self-love and self-loathing combining to create a somewhat tragic character.

Yet the book is much more than that. Structurally, its surprising and elegant. The first "book" sees Michael and Lucy's life; the second follows hers after the split; and the third follows his. Lucy - freed from Michael still doesn't have an interest in the destiny of her class, money, marriage, kids, and instead she throws herself into different artistic pursuits - trying her hand as an actress, a short story writer, and eventually, an amatuer painter. We see now that her need for Michael was based upon this. Both of them seek out creative and artistic life like moths to a flame, but raw ambition on his part, and naked desire on hers, they never quite achieve what they are looking for. She finds solace in therapy, him in drink. At the same time, its now the sixties and both embark on endless affairs. For Lucy they are always sexual - her money enabling her to just throw herself in with some man and not be afraid of leaving. For Michael, he needs to be looked after, to have an adoring sexual partner. As their daughter grows up she becomes more withdrawn, and joins the hippies in California to her mother's chagrin. 

As Michael makes it into his fifties, now a lecturer at a small rural college, married to a much younger careers counsellor, he should be contented but is further away than ever. He frets over unfulfilled sexual relationships, and over the flawed male friendships he's had over the years. He finds a job back where he grew up, near Boston, and is suddenly overwhelmed when his new boss - much younger than himself - highly praises his signature poem. Meanwhile Lucy has given up her fortune and by the 1970s has thrown herself into good works for Amnesty International, probably the sort of work that a rich, educated woman of her class would have always done, had she not chased the chimera of artistic happiness.

Like all great novels - and I believe it is a great novel - its much harder to "review" than those that are more flawed, for it it the meticulousness, as well as the quality of the writing, which makes it such a compelling read. How much of the novel is autobiographical? Probably quite a lot - as Davenport is Yates's age - but he's created characters who are dialled down, rather than dialled up (Yates was briefly a speechwriter for Robert Kennedy), far from the bright lights of fame and the compelling history of mid-late 20th century American history. Like "Stoner" or the short stories of Andre Dubus, this more prosaic world is in itself compelling; for when he pulls back the curtain, Yates looks in and beyond suburban America and its inhabitants and teases out the secrets that they keep even from themselves. It's a wonderful novel.

Monday, January 09, 2017

The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes

Julian Barnes has always written well about music and in his first novel since the Booker winning "The Sense of an Ending" he gives a narration of the life of Shostakovich. Made up of short, emblematic paragraphs, the novel is like a diary, so though we were in Shostakovich's head and sensibility at all times, its written from the third person. This gives the novel both an intimacy and a distance. The intimacy works because this is an artist in extremis, under Stalin's Russia, whilst the distance sometimes means that Barnes overwrites or over explains what is happening. I guess there's a difficulty with an obvious historical fiction where we are trying to be in the protagonists head - yet that wasn't a problem in "Wolf Hall" or even "The Damned United" - so I think that uneasiness between the two modes is partly because Barnes' Shostakovich is both knowable and unknowable.

The novel starts with an anecdote. Two men on a train during the war. The train stops unexpectedly. The two men get off and share a vodka with an amputed beggar on the station. The scene is strange, gnomic. It doesn't pretend to know who the other man is, or the beggar, or even where they stopped. This allusiveness has a purpose. We are drawn into the head of Shostakovich, a man who is so enveloped in his music, that he doesn't have the mental space to consider what is happening around him. Or rather, the thing happening around him, the purges, the show trials, the displays of power, has so little to do with music - and yet he finds, under Stalin there is nothing more untrue. The music has everything to do with this. A review in a newspaper of his Shakespearean opera calls his music a "muddle" - its not even a review, but an editorial. Shostakovich, Russia's premier composer, is suddenly a persona non grata. In his flat he waits each night on the stairway with his suitcase packed, so that when they take him away they won't disturb his wife and child.

Barnes' novel is brilliant at setting out this claustrophobia, this fear, this sense of uncertainty. The culture of Stalin's Russia is one that makes nobody safe, not for long. Worse than being denounced almost, is being favoured, for being favoured is no guarantee. Whereas after the Russian revolution art and music flourished for a while, by the 1930s there is a new sense - where all art has to be for the benefit of the revolution, and for the common man. Like Mao's Cultural Revolution later in the century, or the killing fields of Cambodia, the 20th century communist ideal found no room for art that it considered bourgeois. Ordinary Russians would whistle his "Song of the Counterplan", a piece of film music that accompanied a Soviet-realist art but by the time of his 5th composers were also on the frontline of Stalin's all encompassing power. :Lesser composers disappeared, greater ones fled the country to America. Yet Shostakovich stayed. He wrote the "patriotic" "Leningrad" - his 7th symphony - and his stock rose. The book flits back and forth in time. The first part - where he is suddenly at risk, his music denounced, is powerful, the more so for their being little back story or context. This is a Kafkaesque tale of a man suddenly at the whim of "power". (Barnes talks about Shostakovich's 3 conversations with - capitalised - Power.)

It feels a very current novel. Wasn't Pussy Riot's incarceration a canary in the coalmine of Putin's Russia's new religious-backed authoritarianism. There are echoes throughout history of strong men cracking down on not just political dissent but perceived artistic dissent. In this hall of mirrors Wagner is disallowed until the Hitler-Stalin pact and then he is played, before being disallowed again. On a trip to America, Shostakovich is given a script in which he denounces - amongst others - Stravinsky, his musical idol. The Russian system is so debased that the only people who can buy musical manuscript are those approved by an officially sanctioned composers' union. How to explain this control to a west where - after the war - certain on the left will forgive Stalin anything, because he is not a fascist?

The short book gives a real good sense of the paranoia of the age; our Shostakovich tells something of his own history - his own loves and life are sketched out. It feels a not entirely successful telling however, - that distance that comes in, where Barnes interjects and lets us know some of the backdrop. An always consummate novelist, latterly - in this, and in "The Sense of an Ending" - he sometimes proscribes too much, and sometimes, for effect, holds things back. A more knowing Shostakovich might have been a more useful narrator. The real thing - the creation of the music is offstage - yet there are hints at his genius; that opening anecdote is returned to. "The noise of time" is referred to portentously on occasion.

You almost need to read the book with a biography of the composer next to you, and the "Leningrad" on repeat. It's a fine, tantalising novel, well written, engaging, but which perhaps doesn't quite succeed in its ambitious retelling of this tale. There is much atmosphere, and the sense of foreboding of Stalin and then Krushchev's Russia is compelling, but I'm not sure its much more than a very elegant exercise at the end of the day. Yet that's probably fine as well, as the prose does offer a little bit of music of its own. The short block paragraphs are like a musical score, and our Shostakovich can hear the music in his head, and in turn, we can hear his voice in ours.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

 Tried to keep spoilers to a minimum - but some aspects from the start of the novel and some of the broader scenes and themes are discussed. 

"Station Eleven" may be the least dystopian dystopian novel you'll ever read. Switching between the collapse - caused by the "Georgia flu" which quickly and without ceremony wipes out 99% of the population in 24 hours - and twenty years afterwards, when a sort of new normality has evolved, the novel owes more to contemporary fantasias such as A.M. Homes' "This Book Can Save Your Life" or Douglas Coupland's "Girlfriend in a Coma" than "The Road" for instance.

The book begins in the place of connection - with a performance of King Lear taking place in Toronto, with the lead actor, a fading Hollywood star revisiting the boards in his favourite city. This will be Arthur Leander's last performance. He will literally die on stage, despite the best efforts of a paparazzi turned medic in the front row. It turns out Leander's will be the last natural death before the tsunami of the Georgia flu envelopes the city. Like all "collapse" novels, there's a certain fun to be had in the slow, then fast breakdown of the normal norms. From a panicked phone call from an emergency ward to all phones being dead takes a matter of days. The medic, Jeevan, holes up with his disabled brother and enough tinned food and water to survive the first few weeks of the catastrophe. The catastrophe itself is never explained (another common trope) though the sense of it being a "visitation" is taken up by at least one of the characters, a shadowy Preacher, whose "cult" threatens what stability has been built up in the desolate future.

The future has hope of different sorts. The devastated North American population has decamped into small settlements away from the rotting cities, and returned to a settlers life, of hunting and farming, small groups of people able to fend for themselves. The sense that there was much darkness and terror - the on the road fear that permeates every page of  "The Road"  - is there, but it is underplayed. St. John Mandel has a different schematic in mind. There is the Travelling Symphony, a ragbag of Shakespearean players and musicians which moves from settlement to settlement like the circus of times past. It provides a home and a cover for its participants, one of whom, Kirstin, was a little girl in that King Lear performance twenty years earlier.

More similar to Hollywood disaster movies than other catastrophe fiction, Station Eleven revolves around a small group of characters who are wittingly or unwittingly connected to Leander: a comic book "Station Eleven" written by his ex-wife Miranda; his best and oldest friend Clark; the little girl; his second wife Elizabeth and her traumatised son Tyler....

The novelist slips in and out of the pre-collapse era and the "present" of the novel with abandon. In many ways the Travelling Symphony allows her to play with a picaresque approach - no surprise, that Patrick deWitt, of "The Sisters Brothers" eulogises about it on the cover - but at the same time the scenes which are the most vivid are the ones about Leander and his life before the collapse. Coming from a small island off the Canadian coast, struggling in the big city of Toronto before becoming an international, worldwide star, he's an unlikely hero - and indeed he's dead before the future has even began. The reason it reminds me of the A.M. Homes novels is this sense of tenuous connection - of a group of people whose lives are suddenly affected by an experience.

In many ways its a chaotic novel that shouldn't really work: the strands pulling it together, the oddly elusive Station Eleven comic (whose author we hardly get to know or understand), the idea of the Travelling Symphony, the sinister cult, the settlement of people at the abandoned airport, that performance of "King Lear", all of these elements are thrown into a mix, like a particularly unappetising stew, but somehow St. John Mandel manages to pull them all together. There's a sheer likeability about the prose - like fellow Canadian Coupland - but also a sense that she's not taking any of this too seriously, but merely wanting to take us on a ride. In some ways its a bit of a hall of mirrors. The airport destination is only mysterious when we don't know about it - when we are told the backstory it becomes a benign haven; whilst the cult seem to be there to provide a little bit of tension, an antidote to the hopefulness of the Travelling Symphony. Like David Mitchell in "Cloud Atlas" she is wanting to give us a sense of hope and connectivity - of a world that might have lapsed to a pre-modern state - but also gives us hope. "Station Eleven" is a bit of a conundrum: its the novel's title and a piece of ephemera that somehow connects the individual characters - yet it doesn't have quite the overarching power of Will Self's "Book of Dave" in the novel of the same name. Described in some detail, its a graphic novel about a society that has escaped from the earth on "Station Eleven" - a metaphor for the oncoming collapse, perhaps, but never really explored as more than that. In the end I had to conclude it was just the author having a little bit of fun - if you're not a graphic novelist, why not write one in the context of your fiction?

There is little here about "how" people survive - little of the jeopardy of those early days and years - and also an unwillingness to really think through that only after twenty years are we beginning to see the possibility of electricity being restored again. It is the author's fourth novel, and the dystopian trope proves a useful one for her inventiveness. It's highly readable, a great word of mouth success, and with a lightness of touch that makes me want to read more of her; if it lacks a greater profundity, then perhaps that's more our expectations with any novel that is post-catastrophe, rather than any great failing of it in and of itself.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Mild December

Its been an unusually mild December, so no festive frost, not even the usual seasonal sludge and rain. Perhaps that's why I feel particularly unfestive. I finished work yesterday, realising I needed at least a day or two before catching up with family, and I feel like I'm in some sort of fog. I think that's the 2016 blues for you. Although its personally been an okay year, that's through hard work,  gut determination and throwing off those ever-present shackles of self-doubt; approaching fifty, I guess one doubles ones efforts. But with the rest of the world reeling from celebrity artistic deaths like Bowie and Prince, followed by the dismal step backward of Brexit, and then the cataclysm of Trump as American President at the same time as the Cold War starts heating up again, and Aleppo becomes a tragedy of our times, its hard to uncouple one's own slings and arrows from the general malaise.

I marvel at how many people I know have managed to move on in their lives and their art, either through change of job, place, career or relationship - sometimes all four - whilst my life seems wilfully static, coming into a fifteenth year at the same employer, around a decade in my rental... creatively it's been hard to fit things in - I've written, more music than prose, more short pieces that long, but its been a year of failure in the wider sense - of pieces failing to find a home etc. My reluctance to spend more time on my writing comes from the difficulty of getting anywhere with it. Funnily enough, I've been more stoic than ever about my position as a "writer" and despite what Morrissey once said, I like it when my friends become successful.

This week I've heard of an old school colleague who passed away - the best sportsman in the school, as well - and of friends coming to terms with medical problems. Lucky then to have the first world problems, of too busy a life, of wondering what to do next... and yet, I do think there's something in the zeitgeist that creates an morphic resonance at times, so that we act as if under a dark cloud. Most of my life has been under Tory governments, and the ultimate puzzle for me has been the lack of optimism they engender. They never build anything, make anything, create anything or inspire anything, and yet the British like them in their times of grumbling.

Not an end of the year piece - that will come - more a taking stock as I settle down for the Christmas festivities. Out with a friend last night, we talked about Christmas traditions, and how all families have their own, and the sticking to them is what counts, even as they change subtley over the years. Our Christmas gets stretched out these days, with my sister usually visiting the family on Boxing day, so leaving me and my parents for a quiet Christmas together. Maybe I should go back to those old traditions, when I used to scour the Radio Times for what films would be on, and diligently watch the Marx Brothers or Woody Allen seasons on BBC2 or Channel 4. I've seen just about everyone in Manchester this last couple of weeks; and managed to make it down to London to catch friends there as well, so in some ways, I'm now ready for a bit of quiet time - and family time.

It's still mild, so I hardly need the heating on, but will enjoy a quiet night in this evening, hunting presents that I bought a couple of months ago and hid somewhere in the flat. My out-of-office is on at work, and I'll not be checking it till the New Year; I'm tempted to close down my Facebook and switch off my mobile as well. Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas, every one.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Last Non-festive Post of 2016

As it's December tomorrow even the reluctant Christmassers like myself will probably have to succumb to gluwein, advent calendars, Best of the Year lists etc.

But ITS NOT DECEMBER YET.

Which means there's been plenty else going on, with no baubles attached. Manchester has two fascinating large art shows, (and one fascinating small one) at the moment. The small one, Miniature World at Castlefield Gallery looks at the idea of the scientific amateur, running from Lubetkin's London Zoo penguin pool, to the recreation of a black hole, to recreated battles using models from Games Workshop, its playful, subversive and a full gallery group show to return to. Artist's Rooms - Andy Warhol at the Whitworth and a curated photography show, Strange and Familiar - Britain through the eyes of international photographers, at Manchester Art Gallery, bring two things - Warhol and photography - that are relatively scarcely seen in Manchester's main galleries.

I'm pleased that after my "fallow year" where I've not managed to get much published at all, I'm in a new anthology, "Not a Drop", which contains poems in tribute to the world's seas. Its not yet available to buy, but hopefully will be on the Beautiful Dragons website soon. The recent launch at the Portico was well attended and excellent.

I've recently been part of a collaborative process of "spontaneous writing", l'Harmonie Process, curated by Zoe at Confingo Magazine, the first anonymised parts of this work are now up online. The latest issue contains a new story by the excellent David Rose, whose "Posthumous Stories" was a highlight a few years ago, and is, I think, his first new story since that collection. I read a draft of the story and I'll be pleased to see it in print. Issue 6 is now available to purchase online (a bargain £5) or in selected stockists. Serious writers and readers should take note.

Beyond such things, there's been a usual mix of literary nights, tonight is Bad Language for those in town (its my week off, so staying local), and next Wednesday is the Other Room - both at the Castle.

Non-fiction for once, but my friend Nigel Barlow has been working on a book about Manchester's history for the last few years, "Around Manchester" and I saw a copy this week. It's an  impressive size book, beautifully produced, and from the bits I read of it, a compelling read - it takes the various areas of Manchester and walks (literally) through their hidden histories. Psychogeography is perhaps part of it, but I think Nigel's take on the city is less over-philosophical, and more in a tradition of social and cultural observation - think Henry James' "English Hours", or even Sebald's "The Rings of Saturn." Its peppered with contemporary photographs of a Manchester that is changing at speed. And since it is nearly December, it would make a perfect Christmas present!

I think I forgot to mention it on this blog - but last week I released, under my Bonbon Experiment alias, the 2nd of my "Test Pressing" E.Ps - five Post-Trump minimalistic electronic songs to download or stream.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Punk's Not Dead...it Just Smells Funny

The news that Joe Corré , the son of Malcolm Maclaren and Vivienne Westwood has "celebrated" 40 years since the release of "Anarchy in the UK" by burning his inherited punk memorabilia, as a protest against punk becoming celebrated by the establishment, is a reminder, if we needed one that Malcolm Maclaren was always more a Situationist than a punk. He got lucky with the Sex Pistols, having previously managed a later incarnation of the New York Dolls, in that his manufactured band turned out to be the real thing in more ways than one. After Johnny Rotten left the band, Maclaren kept it on the road as a music hall act, with travesties like the "Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle" and "Sid Sings", before moving onto the next big thing. It's fascinating that he abandoned the genuine pop star that was Adam Ant to create his own one in Annabella Lwin of Bow Wow Wow, to much less success; then onto a number of trend-hopping albums, catching the tail of early hip hop with "Buffalo Girls", but then failing to do much with micro-trends on his subsequent albums.

Corré is of course at liberty to burn whatever he wants of his own, but it seems a particularly soulless gesture. Punk was never about artefacts of course, and yet at the same time, it so was. By the late 1970s the London punk was as ubiquitous an image of the city as the Beefeater or the red bus. Real punk music and attitude decamped from Maclaren's King's Road fashion emporium, from the moment "Anarchy in the UK" had made it - on its 3rd attempt - onto vinyl. Corré is, like his mother, in the fashion industry, and though fashion has always been quick to exploit high street trends, Maclaren was at least savvy enough to know that it was music that led fashion not the other way round. It does seem strange than a man whose career has been in fashion, could suddenly get so angry about punk being commodified. His old man was the first to do that, and quickly showed very little interest in the music side of it. Johnny Rotten, of course, became John Lydon, and transformed rock music for a second time with PiL, whose post-punk excursions sound stranger and more relevant the further away we get from the source.

It seems that indeed, those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it, and nostalgic or not, the museum-ifying of punk rock seems a better way for someone to find out about the movement than through listening to latter day "punks" like Green Day, or through wearing hip retro clothing. See any photographs or videos of punks in the provinces from the late 1970s onwards, and you see this was not outsider chic, it was just outsiders. There was, I'm sure, a fashion element to it, and the art sensibility of managers like Maclaren and Anthony H. Wilson certainly helped clothe angry working class music in a suitably alluring mythology, in a way that the American punk wave - from Ramones, to Talking Heads, to Patti Smith - understood implicitly from the start.

This week, the eighties styled pop dilletantes, the 1975 had the NME album of the year, with a sound that is about as far away from punk attitude as you can imagine.  Perhaps a few young, budding pop stars might be just a little inspired by the actual footage and iconography of a punk rock aesthetic that was never intended to last. As I said, Maclaren and Westwood's son can do what he wants, but burning punk memorabilia in a set piece on the Thames, is Situationist, it's a media stunt, it's many things, but it's not in the least bit punk.