Sunday, August 21, 2016

The Shooting Party by Isabel Colegate

 Includes some spoilers. 

I saw the 1985 film "The Shooting Party" with James Mason as Sir Randolph Nettleby and a whole host of other distinguished actors many years ago and it stayed with me. Only later did I realise it was from Isabel Colegate's 1981 novel. Colegate is one of those post-war novelists who rarely get a mention nowadays, but on the evidence of "The Shooting Party" she has an elegance to her writing that should never go out of fashion.

Taking place on the eve of war, a shooting party is taking place at Nettleby's country seat. His wife was a confidante, possibly even lover, of the late King Edward VII, and with his death the "Edwardian age" - that brief sojourn between the start of the new century and the Great War, is already passing into history. The book touches on both the political situation and social changes, yet it is at a distance, for the way of life embedded in this Oxfordshire great house focuses on a surface decorum. The invites to this shooting party no longer include the King, but there are various nobles of the era. The book deftly moves between its large cast of characters both upstairs and downstairs, as a comedy of actual manners is played out exquisitely. It's hard to imagine that Julian Fellows didn't closely study it in his scripts for Downton Abbey, yet there's something somehow generic about this much written about era. Neither a contemporary reading like Waugh or a post-modern take, there's a subtlety at play in this book which is both forensic in its detail of country life, and at the same time a knowing elegy for a time that is no more.

In the film, if I remember correctly, the tragedy that takes place towards the end of the book, when one of the country men gets accidentally killed by the brash noble who has committed to this being a sporting contest rather than a gentlemanly one, is then overshadowed by the phone call that indicates the death of the Archduke Ferdinand. Yet in the book this is only told allegorically - but from the very first line: "It caused a mild scadal at the time, but in most people's memories it was quite outshone byy what succeeded it." In other words, the reader has the overhang of history to see that there are clear parallels between the mindless slaughter of pheasants at the shoot, and the callous disregard for human life that is to come.

What makes the book - and film - such a joy is that by concentrating on a single weekend in the country Colegate succeeds in bringing a light on so many aspects of that dying Edwardian society. The rural peasants are poorer than before because of changes in the economy, yet they trust more to the benign dictatorship of the country lord than the workings of (Liberal) politicians in London. A curious radical, Cornelius Cardew (not the avant garde composer!) has attempted to stop the slaughter in his attempt to promote vegetarianism and land rights for the poor. He gets more time from the bored Lord than from the suspicious peasantry in the local inn. Meanwhile the women and children of the family, and the wives of the shooters are a backdrop chorus, bored of the shooting, and indulging in various fancies and affairs. In a world where marriage is of convenience, and to hold together landed dynasties, affairs are not just tolerated but encouraged. One of the Nettleby grandchildren is an artistic child called Osbert who has a tame duck who he is worried will go out when they are ready for the carnage of the duck shoot - the traditionally vicious end to the day's shooting. At the same time - and it is a small duck - we get a wide portrait of the rural community that exists to serve the Nettlebys, from the unfortunate Tom, a dirt poor poacher, to the gamekeeper and his bright son who is wanting an educated future, but cannot bring himself to leave his father's care.

The two central plot lines centre around one of the younger shooters though. Lionel Stephens, who is training to be a lawyer, proves himself to be as good or better shot than Lord Gilbert Hartlip, widely thought of as one of the best shots in England. This unspoken sport between them ramps up as the shooting party goes out for a second day. Stephens has a nonchalance about him which is shaken on the day by his love for Lady Olivia, the married wife of another of the day's shooters. 

This is an exquisite novel of Edwardian country life that doesn't spare the grime and ugliness, whilst at the same time giving us a vivid portrait of the game sports which are so important. The subjects under the surface - the Irish question, David Lloyd George, the rural economy, and the thought of a war with Europe - are there, but also absent. Nettleby alone sees this world that he knows so well disappearing, but by temperament and upbringing he doesn't know what to say. We know that the war that will follow will devastate the ranks of the aristocracy and the middle classes as it will the working class. The last few pages of the book take us forward through those histories - it feels an unecessary coda perhaps, but also gives us a sense that these are not fictional lives but are stand-ins for some very real ones. A short novel, its a genuine pleasure that stands up better than many more regarded works of the era. 

Monday, August 15, 2016

What are your poems about?

Nature, love,'s perhaps no surprise that poets come back to these fundamentals so often.  You have to write about something don't you? In a recent interview for online magazine Prac Crit, Matthew Welton says "One poet I met said when he was writing his second book that ‘the trouble is that now I have to find fifty other things I need to say’ and I thought ‘well, I don’t have anything to say’." When Welton first appeared in print in the late 90s in Faber's "First Pressings" and Carcanet's "New Poetries" he seemed very out of sync with the contemporary idiom of British poetry, which had by that stage taken literalism as far as it could go. The "poetry of things" - as in this poem is an anecdote about something, or, if a metaphor was a literal metaphor - so Duffy's onion, or Armitage's tyre were equally explainable, paraphrasable, seemed to have created a false accessibility, in that the best poems are often allusive, yet meaningful.

At 14, studying the metaphysicals, I think I was suspicious already about the idea that "this poem means this" - I rebelled a little against literalism. It wasn't the metaphysicals I disliked, but this reducing of them to something they (in particular) were not. Later, I realised that metaphysicality, that most of elusive of poetic movements, was something plainly and patently missing from much contemporary poetry. In contrast, in a blind reading in an exam I remember being given (I found out later) Matthew Arnold's troublingly beautiful "Dover Beach." Here metaphor hides meaning, or rather there were layers to unfold, with no certainty of what was beneath. No wonder McEwan uses the poem in "Saturday" as the captured family try and puzzle and disentangle from their tormentor.

Contemporary British poetry has had some shift away from literalism, a surprising jump if you look at the generation beforehand, yet in doing so, the question that Welton articulates - "you have to write about something" - has been answered in a certain negative; that there is more to the poem (like a painting, like a piece of music) than in the literal or the purely figurative. Yet at the same time there has been a tendency for the more successful books of recent years - think "Dart", "Her Birth", "Night", "Look! We have coming to Dover", "Rain", "The World's Wife", "Stag's Leap" "Drysalter" - to be most distinctly about something; the sequence as book in particular offering that certainty, that literalism that we seem to need, even if the poems themselves provide some more devious pleasures;  as before, death, love, nature.

The truth I suspect is that we need both these things. An allusive and elusive poet such as Luke Kennard has often provided much pleasure, some understanding - pop cultural references next to the higher brow - whilst at the same time rarely giving us a poem that is simply paraphraseably "about something." I can't find the quote, but Ashbery long ago said something along the lines, that he didn't want his poems to be closed, but to offer an openness that perhaps didn't represent the reality of a specific thing or image, but instead reflected the reality of how we perceive  the thing or image (fragmented, juxtaposed with this other thing etc. ) A poem, once read is not unlocked, but can be returned to. Yet in Kennard's new book "Cain" despite much cleverness (and it is clever, and a joy to read), there is a subject of sorts. This, like the list above is actually sold as being about something. That the poems are also about other things - not just divorce, estrangement, breakdown - is not so much their byproduct but their point. Similarly, Andrew McMillan's "Physical", with its frankness about gay love/gay life is patently about something.  Within that particular house of course are many different rooms.

I remember reading many years ago a biography of Adam Ant (don't judge me), where Goddard/Ant admits that what he did take from McLaren who managed him briefly then stole his band, that all his good ideas needed to be not in the slogans of his art work but in his songs. From this, came "antmusic for sex people" - so McLaren unplugged this jukebox and did us all a favour. Its a reminder that sometimes we need to make sure our thoughts are on the page, especially if they have a good line with them, if they have a good joke attached to them, if they can last beyond the poem and the page. If I have a difficulty with the literal in poetry its that it doesn't often repay the attention given it, by forsaking something - maybe language, maybe something more visceral. If I have a tendency in my own work to get buried by an aesthetic its worth remembering that we all like to hum a good tune now and then, that it doesn't necessarily have to be the chorus. I suspect when Welton, for example highlights an unwillingness to have poems that are "about" something, its because its a dislike of reductionism: I don't want the poem to be just about this one thing. Elsewhere in the same interview he's asked about his references to coffee (e.g. in the title of his second collection) and he says, yes, he drinks coffee, he likes coffee. This is the detritus of our life pulled into the patterning that any poem ends up being. Perhaps a poem about coffee would never really be about coffee. Just as in the iconic Frank O'Hara poem "Why I am not a Painter" his painter friend has a painting which has something that looks like "sardines" in it because "it needed something there" - which he then removes because "it was too much", yet the painting ends up being called "Sardines". In Armitage's "The Tyre" or Duffy's onion poem "Valentine", the main image is there, it is immutable in the picture. The metaphor an accessible one. I think this is partly why poets love things such as the Shipping Forecast, because the naming therein has a beauty that has both explicit meaning, and acts as a rigid metaphor. It's much harder in some ways to take out the "sardine" and yet still hint at its essence - yet surely we want to do this, unless we are wilfully obscure?

A poem doesn't have to be about anything, but because it's a poem, it now is about something - if only itself. The literal path is as frustrating as the one that's off-road. I'm actually impressed when poets manage a sequence about those weary subjects - love, death, nature - as I feel I don't have an honest lexicon to deal with them - my love, my experience of death, my urban landscape are not accessible via poetic cliche, or direct metaphor - the real things are too strong or (worse) too prosaic. Yet if I talk about something else - lets call it the ineffable - then how to write that down. When I read "Dover Beach" blind, I seem to recall that I went over the top in my description of what the poem was about - as about unfulfilled sexual desire. It became about my response to the poem, as much about the poem itself. So that when I ask a fellow poet what they write about, or someone asks what my poems are about, I should hesitate about the answer: they are about something, even when they aren't.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

The Definitive Version

A few years ago I wrote an unpublished story about a man who goes around murmuring all the time - and people start following him because they think his outpourings are mystical truths. Inevitably one man thinks he can make money out of this, takes the preacher in, and writes down everything he says hoping to get "the definitive version" which can then become the centrepiece of an organised religion.

I think our desire to have the finished or "definitive version" of art comes from the codification of scriptures - even though in the New Testament we still manage four different versions of the story of Christ. We know that the codified Bible was a political statement, with many books that were circulating disappearing - gnostic gospels and the like - as the official church tightened its grip. The reformation in Europe insisted on letting people have access to "the word of God" in their own tongue loosening the power of the interlocutor, the priest - yet not until Vatican II in the sixties were Catholic ceremonies in anything other than Latin. What is the definite version anyway? Particularly if it can be translated....from English in that beautiful piece of literature the King James Version.

I was reminded of my ruminations on this having read this week of the academic who has published a paper on finding that the American and British versions of "Cloud Atlas" by David Mitchell are very different. Apparently British and American copy editors frequently change things for their local audience in new novels (I suspect its more of a one way street - we seem quite accepting of American usages and spelling in the UK) and this practice led to Mitchell correcting two different versions of his own novel. As one lay unedited he made changes to the other and the various additions and deletions weren't lined up. Reasurringly he says: "It’s a lot of faff – you have to keep track of your changes and send them along to whichever side is currently behind." The author, in other words isn't really minded that there are two versions out there, subtley but noticeably different.

Of course, Professors have more time on their hands, and their is a whole industry of literary textual work. A writer like Joyce keeps academics busy for decades on textual variants. The view of course is that there IS a definitive version; that the writer meant there to be a "perfect" version, when in reality the exigencies of publishing (never mind other issues in the days before Word Processing) mean that texts are never finished, they are always abandoned (Paul Valery?) to their fate one way or another.

I guess as writers we like the idea of perfection, though rarely attaining it, yet I guess we are still aware of the importance not just of words, but of exact words. One of my earliest published stories had the ending changed by the editor when it was published, and I changed it back as soon as I got a chance. Yet I'd have no problem going to that or many other stories now and fixing a few grammatical flaws. The writer I am now, is not the writer I was then. In poetry words are important, but a corollary of the poet who insists on 20 or 30 versions of a certain poem, surely is that they only reached their "definitive version" through iteration and versioning. Sometimes something must be lost as well as gained in such writing. I suspect that this "sweating the small stuff" is a sign of writerly uncertainty rather than confidence - all of us have taken the comma out, put the comma back in.

"Versions of some of these stories/chapters have appeared previously....." is a common formulation. I think it was Jonathan Franzen who bemoaned internet culture and the idea of a fluid rather than fixed text, saying something about nobody wanting a different version of Gatsby for instance. Yet Fitzgerald's other masterpiece,Tender is the Night, was widely published in a different order (chronological) than the version that we have nowadays. A friend who has a regular book club says that on a few occasions people have turned up with old editions of books which are different versions. I've an abridged by the author Somerset Maughan somewhere, I've also (all published in Penguin), "Lady Chatterley's Lover" and precursor texts. Translation also matters - and some notoriously poor translations of classics mean that its not always possible to be reading the same book that your lecturer read twenty years before.

As a writer, as a lover of versioning in music, I quite like this lack of a definitive version. Walter Benjamin wrote in "the age of mechanical reproduction" about the effect of this might have on us as consumers or music. The piano piece is not different in every parlour, but is defined by the recorded version. Benjamin would raise an eyebrow at contemporary practice I think: classical music from the 20th century does venerate the composer-conductor version sometimes, or composer-performer version, yet we have no way of hearing Mozart himself for instance. The fetish of "original instruments" is a fetish, but I can understand it - yet if someone covers a Beatles song, they won't be setting up their studio with the limitations of a four-track recorder will they? The record industry has recently plundered its vaults for versions of classic songs - the height of which must be the whole CD that a recent Dylan archival trawl dedicated to "Like a Rolling Stone." Here we keep coming back to the definitive version, but have the various stages before and after it that didn't quite work as well. In films we have the Directors Cut, or in some cases, like the Star Wars movies later reversionings which means the original cut as seen in a cinema in 1977 is no longer widely available.

Modern novels sometimes proceed to print without an editor, or with only cursory editing, and I sometimes think that close textual analysis is a sciencifying of the arts that adds little, whilst appreciating the literary archiving that goes to the trouble to find undiscovered works or paragraphs. The internet, with the its ability to shift text on an instant, so that the wikipedia entry is never definitive but always in flux, creates the ultimate versioning jukebox - yet at the same time we crave the sense that we are not being cheated. The new Harry Potter text may not be what you hear in the theatre since it will have been tweaked during performance. A second edition will ensure the coffers keep flowing. Without the first folio we'd likely not have half of Shakespeare, but certain plays, like "Hamlet" are very different in this version.

I guess this only really matters where different versions compete for space. I've noticed a tendency with cheap compilations of late to insert a few later recordings without really telling you. It becomes possible to see how the definitive version can fall away. On the other hand, a novel like Junot Diaz's debut appeared in a very different format in a magazine some years before it was completed. This ur-text is not the novel "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao" but it is a version of it. I read a great SF novel called "Monument" and was pleased a few years later to find the novella version that had originally appeared in a magazine.

For a mostly unpublished writer the sense of what is definitive is very malleable - I try and get to final versions with my work - but of course they can always change if publication is an option. I've cut stories to reach a certain word length, and I'm never quite sure if the longer version is the one that I should preserve or not  (did the cuts matter? or were those words just colour?) It was quite pleasing to read Mitchell's response to the Professor - he didn't think his book would be being read or studied ten years on - he realises it means there are two versions out there in the world, but in the context of "Cloud Atlas" a novel which is consumed with the concept of ideas being passed through time and space, it seems only appropriate.

Monday, August 08, 2016

Meme and Mythos

Yesterday, popping into the artist-curated show at Whitworth Art Gallery, Elizabeth Price Curates, I quickly slipped below the slightly obvious themes - Sleeping, Working, Mourning, Dancing - and spent my time with some of the original works. Unlike so many shows like this, there were few works that I was previously that aware of, always a joy, but what was particularly interesting was seeing three pieces; a short film extract from Charles Laughton's mesmeric "The Night of the Hunter" in "Sleeping", and a sculpture of Eleanor of Aquitaine, wife of Henry II, in Mourning; and in Dancing, some photographic stills of Throbbing Gristle/COUM Transmissions' Cosey Fanni Tutti. I don't know much about Elizabeth Price's work, but I do know her work - an ex-member of C86 band Talulah Gosh - and a near contemporary (she was born the year before me.)

Only a couple of weeks ago I'd revisited "The Night of the Hunter" for a "cover star" (Robert Mitchum) for my new E.P. "Test Pressing #1" whilst I recently read a series of poems about that other "She Wolf" of English history, the Empress Matilda; and with Hull as city of culture next year I've been reading up on and talking about Throbbing Gristle/COUM Transmissions and in particular their notorious ICA show "Prostitution." There was something pleasing but also a little unsettling at coming across a few of my personal reference points in such close proximity in this exhibition. None of these are the most obvious of touchstones - so finding out that Price is a near contemporary gives a bit more rationale to what otherwise might be a sense of coincidence.

In our current age of quickly spread "memes", its a reminder that we should be less concerned with these shared ideas, than with the hotch potch of ideas, influences and references that come together in our own personal mythos. The (younger) poet Luke Kennard has surprisingly resurrected the Biblical Cain in his latest book, the useful example of Cain - forced to wander the world - as a personal guide/avatar. Biblical precursors remain potent - though it was the unlucky dead brother "Abel" I referenced in my 2008 song "The Undefined."

I find there are certain historical and literary precursors I do come back to in my songs, poetry and music - less memes than a personal mythos; and seeing some of that mythos collected together by Price was actually a reassurance that the things that matter to me aren't necessarily just affectations but are important parts of the weave of my cultural life. Not to make too much of it of course, but I think its important that as a writer that we are more attuned to the mythos than the meme - the latter can come of course - but in reality its as interesting for us to explore our own obsessions as our own life. Sometimes that comes out explicitly in our art, other times its much more at a tangent.

Out in the mainstream of course, we see the bookshops selling out of a Harry Potter playscript, and not to denigrate popular art, but I've never been that comfortable with the shared love of the ubiquitous. Its 50 years since the Beatles "Revolver" and remarkable as that record is, I would probably choose "The Who Sell Out", "Da Capo", "Daydream" or "Aftermath" from 1966 - they are not necessarily better records, but they haven't quite the ubiquity of the Beatles. The plethora of characters in Beatles songs, like Harry Potter, seem to be closed archetypes rather than open ones. Even Father Mackenzie or Eleanor Rigby (a nod to her of Aquitaine!) seem like finished works that close off further investigation. Not so with Bryan Maclean's "Orange Skies" or even "Nowhere Man" from the previous year's "Rubber Soul."

I think what I find interesting about popular art at its best is where it feels open to interpretation and re-interpretation. With Harry Potter like Dr. Who or Star Wars there seems to be the canonical; that no amount of fan fiction can move us away from. A character like Count Dracula on the other hand enables endless interpretation.

More recently you find that there is so much writing that acts a little bit as a reinterpretation rather than an original. Think of all those books that plunder Henry James or Jane Austen  or Joseph Conrad. Our own mythos enables us, I think, to begin to imagine something newly formed, that doesn't owe its existence to an obvious predecessor. 

Monday, July 25, 2016


"Holiday" as Madonna sung, or perhaps more appropriately as Stanley Middleton named his 1974 Booker winner. "School's out," was Alice Cooper's version. Whatever....last week a sudden rise in the temperature seemed to send everyone a little doo-lally as people at work tried to finish things off before their early summer break. I was heading home for my dad's 80th, and the supermarkets and roads were busy with the franticness of the British in their holiday rituals. The sun continued through the weekend which meant I got a bit of sunburn taking my sister's dog for a walk and playing tennis on the lawn with my nephew.

I reminisced to a colleague about when Manchester stopped dead in the summer - not a thing to do or see. Not anymore. This week alone there is the Science festival and the Jazz festival. I caught an opening at HOME on Friday, possibly the strongest work since it opened, with a group of Brazilian artists on show. No wonder its good, consisting of five winners of Brazil's main contemporary art prize. Go see, and I'll go back as the preponderance of video work means I've still some to see.

Then to the wonderful Portico Library where a series of performances, linked to Confingo magazine took place. Le Surrealisme, c'est moi, was curated by Zoe Maclean (apologies for missing accents etc.) and came out of a series of serendipitous collaborations which she has been putting together. I was particularly taken by the dramatic song cycle from MOTHER, but it was all good to be honest. Quite a surreal week, actually, as The Other Room on Wednesday - moved just this once to the Wonder Inn - boasted some excellent and varied performers. My second time there in a fortnight as I'd gone along for the surprising and varied "Dada 100" celebration a couple of weeks before. It seems that Dada - birthed in Switzerland in 1916 as an absurdist response to dangerous times, seems very apt in our current post-Brexit psychodramas - though in the UK of course, the "dada" influence seems to be found more in the comedy of Spike Milligan's Q series and Monty Python's Flying Circus than in high(er) art.  All good fun.

I mention Booker above, as this year's Booker longlist will be released on Wednesday. Where has that year gone? (And I do need to finish "A Brief History of seven killings"!" Remember last year was the first under the new regime of all English language writings. Not that many big names with books out this time - though Annie Proulx has been mentioned for her latest mammoth book, whilst Julian Barnes who won with his last, somewhat manipulative novel "The Sense of an Ending" has a smaller work out. There's also a new Eimear McBride due, which will presumably be eligible.  Watch this space!

I will more than likely be at Waterstone's on Deansgate where Jen Ashworth's 4th novel "Fell" is being showcased. From what I've heard, the Lancashire gothic that pervades her previous novels is made more explicit in this new story set around the north of Morecambe Bay. Then on Thursday its another "launch pad" show at Castlefield Gallery featuring Amelia Crouch.

Elsewhere, in TV land, I enjoyed the first episode of Conrad's "The Secret Agent" with its late Victorian freakshow aesthetic, and need to catch up with last night's - so shhh! Meanwhile the new Granta has two writers like and admire, Gwendoline Riley with an extract from her forthcoming fifth novel, which reads as intimate and intricate as ever, and Melissa Lee-Houghton with a long poem - which I suspect may be the longest Granta has ever published. Her new collection is out from Penned in the Margins later this year.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

The Book of Daniel by E.L Doctorow

The culpability of the state in a person's life is often the subject of writers from authoritarian regimes.  What happens when a democratic state goes after its own citizens - even to the point of executing them? How do we react? How are the survivors affected?

In the post-war carving up of Europe, lines were drawn between the victors, with Germany cut in two, a Soviet side, that became East Germany and a French-British-American side. The axis of power that had shifted with the dropping of the nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki heralded the new age, of nuclear threat and opposing super powers. As Europe was divided, the ideologically divide that had placed Communism in direct opposition to Fascism - a left and a right - was mirrored in some ways in the post-war settlements. In Britain a socialist government, creating not the revolutionary state of the far left, but a social settlement, a welfare state; in America, the victors of the war in a political sense, seeing the allied Russia becoming a real and ideological enemy, with McCarthyism requiring a rationale.

In E.L. Doctorow's 1970 novel, "The Book of Daniel", he takes a historical (though recent) case and creates a fictionalisation. The execution of the Rosenbergs by the U.S. state for passing nuclear secrets to Russia was the high point (low point) of America's paranoia about the far left. Mentioned at the start of Plath's "The Bell Jar" this 1953 state double-execution left a long shadow, especially as later testimony would indicate Ethel's innocence of the charges against her.  Little more than a generation after it had taken place, America was in the latest of its proxy wars with Communism, via Vietnam. America's young were now longer deferential to a state apparatus that could send them to die for a meaningless war in a far off land.

Doctorow takes considerable risks on every page. Paul and Rochelle Isaacson are close corollaries to the Rosenbergs, and parts of the actual case (and execution) are repeated. But this is a fiction despite its closeness in memory. Instead of two sons they have a son and a daughter, and it is through the son's eyes, in a near present of 1967, that we hear the story. Doctorow shifts frequently between timeframes and perspectives. Daniel's narrative slips from first to third person mid-paragraph. He is recently married - unsuitably - and has a small child. He is a doctoral researcher. His younger sister - we discover - has gone off the rails and has been taken into a facility for the mentally ill. His surrogate parents are a middle class couple whom he cannot quite resent, but cannot love unfailingly. He is trying to make sense of his life, and the legacy he has been left. He talks at one point of how he will always be made politically impotent because of who he is - he cannot join the draft, they will reject him at some point, he cannot be a rebel, the parental stain as "traitors" would taint any course he associates with. His young wife has been learning to be a hippy, but her attraction to him is sexual. She is available, willing, malleable. His darkness comes out in his sexual relations with her, or in the speed at which he drives his car. It is not just that the execution of his parents took away childhood but its also took away any agency over his future. His younger sister, less caught up in the memories of the past, but in some ways more affected by them, becomes radicalised, wants their trust fund (money provided to give a future to these two innocents) to become a fighting fund in her parents' name.

It is not just the fictionalising of such a notable case that makes this novel risky, but the way that Doctorow shuffles his material. He throws in historical insights, commentary and facts that echo the then-current "new journalism", but he is at his best when he shifts between Daniel's confusion of memories, shuffling the present with the vague recollections of his family. His father was a barely competent radio repair man. They lived in a cramped house in a poor neighbourhood. Only the black janitor that lived in their basement seemed poorer than them. Yet they weren't quite like other Jewish families in the neighbourhood - for Paul and Rochelle were ideologues who had found a meaning and an everyday pattern through their communism. They went on marches, and they had a range of ideological friends including the older, lecherous dentist who would give them lifts, but crucially, would also be the "friend" who would finger them to the authorities. Daniel tries to recall if his parents were guilty, and he can find little there in memory - just a confusion of memories and images that lead, it seems, to his father, a man too ideologically naive for his own good, to becoming the necessary patsy for a government that almost needed a traitor in their midst. A visit to a performance by Paul Robeson indicates the febrile politics of this pre-civil rights time, and when their bus is halted on its return, it is Paul, the ideologically driven one, who puts his head above the parapet - a gesture that as well as the immediate injuries may well have led to their ultimate fate.

But of course, a child can only see our understand so much - and when their parents are incarcerated, they are first taken to an unwelcoming aunt and then to a state run children's home, where they are separated by their sex, a separation that is probably as traumatic as being taken from their parents.

It's one of those books where a re-telling of plot hardly covers the book's qualities. For the impressionistic approach Doctorow takes to the material creates a freedom in his prose that takes it above and beyond the actual case of the Rosenbergs. Set in his own contemporary world, with Vietnam as the new backdrop, you get the sense that the Rosenbergs/Isaaccsons were canaries in the coalmine - a world of paranoia of which they were young, naive victims, would not be sustainable in a democracy going forward as a younger less deferential generation, of which their son and daughter become emblems, fights back against the injustices of their state.

The prose is a delight, and reads like it could have been written yesterday. In his short story "A writer in the family" from the early 1980s, Doctorow gives us a retrospective and somewhat traditional story of a Jewish boy outgrowing the restrictions of his family; here the canvas is much larger yet it is the intimacies, and the concentration on the present-day Daniel which gives such resonance to the historical canvas.

In an America of today, where Communism has been replaced by Radical Islam as the threat, and where Chelsea Manning has been treated with the same contempt as the Rosenbergs were in 1953, the book retains a contemporary resonance beyond it subject matter. It's something of a masterpiece.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

To Live in (Un)interesting Times

I wrote a blog post last week which tried to articulate a positive vision for Europe - it had seemed to me that on both side of the debate that were different flavours of Euroscepticism. At the end of the day, when both Cameron and Corbyn spoke about Europe it wasn't with a verve or a vision, but as the least worst option. Perhaps this was a necessary corollary to their personal narratives to make Britain great again, or perhaps this was where they were - 75% in, 25% out as Corbyn unhelpfully said. With friends like that, the Remain campaign hardly needed enemies. Though Cameron - through his resignation speech - had finally grown to the point where he realised how wrong the Brexit argument was and how little he could do to be the leader of that negotiation, before that point his dislike for Europe - his impatience with Europe - had been all too clear. I said before the last election that I wish Ed Milliband had come out 18 months in advance as an advocate for no-referendum, as a pro-Europe Labour party, alongside an anti-austerity agenda. Together those things may not have changed the narrative in 2015, but they would have possibly changed the narrative now. It's clear now, the day after the results came in with a 52% vote for Brexit, how entrenched support for giving Europe (and elites) a bloody nose was. With only around 70% of voters voting Lab/Con at the last general election we perhaps knew that there were a substantial block who were no longer tribal voters - did we know that they would coalesce around this issue?

In truth a plebiscite is a more direct democracy than our compromised one - Yes/No, In/Out. The 4% gap between the 2 sides is sizeable, but not so entrenched that it couldn't have been the other way round. Something over a million more votes is substantial however. We are large country. That 72% of the electorate came out to vote is a sign of engagement, whatever happened to that missing 28%. Cameron asked the country to answer a question he wasn't certain what the answer would be. Funnily enough, his reforms, which even the government's own leaflet didn't feel worth mentioning in any great detail, seem more substantial now than they did back then - now they are in the shredder of failed promises. A Britain opting out of ever-closer union? An acceptance of Europe being a multiple currency block? A linkage between in work payments and contributions? These seem the sensible compromises of a working Europe, not of a broken one. Europe - if it has some sense - would look at the best of these and see which of its other members would like the smorgasbord on offer.

Europe's lack of sense is what will be put to the test in the coming months. They are right to say negotiation should begin immediately. Truth is, it can, but the 2-year clock might not start ticking at once. The 27 remainers - meeting (illegally?) without Britain in the room - should offer us an extension at once - as long as Article 50 is invoked at once. The negotiating team shouldn't be dependent on the leadership - both Labour and the Tories have casually replaced leaders mid-term and government has gone on as usual. Remember the Belgians were without a government for months - this is only about one person. Between now and October Cameron should sit with Europe and get the best terms of reference that he can - about scope and timetable, rather than content. The added irony of course, is that with a Talleyrand, negotiations tend to make you lose out. Our best negotiators will inevitably be pro-Europeans. Nick Clegg, where are you now?

That's the formal aspects of this. When countries split - Yugoslavia, USSR, Czechoslavakia - we somehow manage this - so surely the splitting of a voluntary union should be less problematic?

As ever its the geopolitics of this which is more fascinating. Devastated as I was by the result - having lived so much of my life under terrible Tory governments, its not the first political disappointment of my life, I doubt it will be the last - though if handled badly it could be the most damaging. I had worked as a poll clerk for 15 hours on Thursday so went to bed with optimism - there was a high turnout, lots of young people - but that's because Manchester is a young, vibrant European city - and along with Trafford and Stockport voted to remain. The other 7 boroughs all voted out.

So there will be consequence in the North as well as elsewhere. Wherefore the "Northern Powerhouse" - Osbourne's invention - when our Chancellor is unlikely to be there come October? Devolution is already on its legislative track - but was predicated - I'm sure - at least partly on the continuing investment in the NW of European funds. Starved of that, (after 2020 certainly, but possibly earlier) how will the city mayors assert themselves? The Labour contest for Manchester mayoral candidate will now happen invisibly as the Tories elect a new Prime Minister; meanwhile the 7/10 boroughs voting for "exit" means that feasibly a pro-Brexit politician - Tory or independent - could possibly make the running in an area thought to be a Labour stronghold. Scary thoughts.
Also, maybe the NW has taken Europe a little for granted - surely the logic of Devolution means that even if there is national indifference to the continent Manchester may choose to have a stronger relationship, even outside of the EU, with its continental partners? This too will take political will as well as innovation. The city owns the airport - and our connectivity - easier to get to Dublin or Amsterdam than London - is something that is key to our economic prospects. The risks of separating the north into its component parts - big cities such as Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds - and ignoring the rest is now also laid bare. Blackpool was the highest "out" vote in Lancashire. I've said for a long time we need to be enabling our region to work together - rather than letting our coastal towns fall into rack and ruin. Europe, for all its faults, recognised the risks of winners and losers - its why you can go into the most unexpected places in the continent and finding gleaming new airports, roads and business centres. The logic of neo-liberal economics would have these places empty and lifeless - but the population's there become left behind, and as we've seen, disenfranchised. Our British failure is concentration on London at the expense of everywhere else - something that Boris as PM will hardly improve upon.

Cameron going was inevitable - the P.R. man, adept at tactics, bad at strategy, with a weakness on detail and a willingness to wing it - and if all political lives end in failure his is hardly a tragic one, as it was so self-inflicted. Osbourne - helped along by his fear budget - will no doubt go with him. They would not be mourned if it wasn't for the likely replacements, proven incompetents like Gove or Boris. That said, its a long time since the favourite won a Tory leadership election. Like Cameron, an outside bet could appear to stabilise the ship.

What will come next will inevitably be a general election - leadership without legitimacy scuppered Gordon Brown, and always hampered John Major despite his resounding victory. But when? I think the country is tired of political flummery - Scotland has had 4 major votes in 18 months. We want to live in uninteresting times in the UK. I suspect a new leader will want to complete the negotiation and then go to the polls - so my money would be on 2018?

Europe won't be happy - but at 17% of their economy and with a 10% of their budget lopped off with us leaving - I suspect they will not be as vindicative as might currently appear to be the case. After all the UK has always been an awkward partner - though the counterbalance has been generally liked across the bloc of nations. I suspect that this will mean "ever closer union" for Eurozone countries - leaving Denmark and Sweden more vulnerable, and possibly hastening Poland joining the Eurozone. Its hard to see that a multiple currency Europe is anywhere near as viable now with the pound existing outside of it.

For Brexiters the reality might sink in: there's no silver bullet to immigration or the economy. It will take a better politician than Johnson or Gove or IDS to make the case for a new Britain outside of Europe. A new Labour politician could well emerge - untouched by the past - and work with this dogs dinner.

In the mean time, life goes on. There appears to be no street parties on the streets of Walsall and Swindon, and it seems that those with nothing invested in Europe felt no loss in saying goodbye to it. 48% - 16 million people disagreed. Had it been a "remain" I had fears of right wing militias forming and civic unrest. For the "remain" party its not about blaming anyone (though Cameron deserves blame - he's no longer there to be blamed), but about making an ever more vital case for how we can be inclusive Europeans whilst outside of the conveniences of the worlds biggest trading block. Amazon, Uber and the like have no difficulty operating in Europe for instance. My biggest worry is less about how we untangle with a Europe which is still a Channel Tunnel or a one hour flight away, than what dreadful deals we put in place afterwards. Our zero hours contracts, low income and corporation taxes, and sweetheart deals with financial institutions aren't what we need to rebuild the social contract from Sunderland to Swindon.

We live in interesting times....

Sunday, June 19, 2016

The Field of the Cloth of Gold by Magnus Mills

Eight novels in, the work of Magnus Mills can be divided broadly into two camps: those novels set in a recognisable contemporary world, where his male protagonists are involved in some kind of mundane (and often pointless) labour, and those which are in some kind of fantasy world. In some ways "The Field of the Cloth of Gold" brings together both of these.

Our nameless narrator begins with the incident when he is called over to the camp at the southern end of the field because they have made an abundance of milk pudding. He is the only one of the individuals who are dotted around the rest of the field who goes along. It gives him an insight into the newcomers. He then takes us back to his own arrival in the field. He was, it seems, the second to arrive, but the first has set himself up in isolation in the far north. Also, there is evidence - on the imprint in the grass - that someone has been there before, probably Thomas, a mysterious man with flowing robes who comes and goes with an imperious air. The field itself is just up from a river and this is the tributary that brings visitors from the north and the south. Isabella, the one woman who arrives in the field, had expected it already to be teeming with people, rather than the few isolated tents that she finds. These initial settlers are all loners in their own way. Each has their own tent, and its not entirely clear how people live - there are scant supplies mentioned - milk pudding, home made biscuits - but this is a typical Millsian trait, to exclude certain things that a more realist novel would deem necessary.

The "invasion" of the south of the field by a group organised on more militaristic lines causes suspicion - though there is some sense of them putting out feelers to the earlier settlers, though its only the narrator who accepts. When they decide to build a rampart between them and the rest of the field, suspicions seem confirmed, but our narrator takes them at their word - that it is for drainage to stop the southern part of the field drowning when the rains come down - and enthusiastically volunteers himself as master of works (in echo of the labour-focus of books like "The Restraint of Beasts") to get the work done. Though a fable, the book has its fair share of digressions. Newcomers come and go as if each chapter finds Mills trying to come up with another layer of absurdity. What is going on here? Are they waiting for something? The field is clearly a desirable place, particularly in summer, but that initial "invasion" complete with a copper bath which they want Isabella to bathe in (she prefers going naked in the river), comes to an end and overnight they disappear. The copper bath gets dragged to the far end of the field by an offshoot of that group who don't return, and it becomes something of a religious artefact to them.

The next invasion is more organised and both Thomas and Isabella return in an ornate tent as "king and queen". Slowly we begin to see Mills' motivation. He's building up - from the barest of parts - a new civilisation here on this lush field. Like his masterpiece "Three to See the King" the pioneers become part of a much wider population, and in his obscure way, Mills gives us the building blocks of a new city, like a literary SIMCity. Besides the rampart, and now the king and queen, a raving preacher comes and warns them of disaster. So is religion introduced to the field, - though the worshippers of the copper bath are oblivious, their own sect keeping themselves to themselves - at least until the very end, when this nascent society looks for a scapegoat for all that is going wrong with the weather and the field. In comic strokes Mills slowly builds up a society so that it becomes as polluted and riven as our own; and our narrator is both an innocent onlooker and an unwitting participant - only realising what his interventions have led to when it is too late.

It's not his best book, in that it seems almost wilfully obscure in parts, and not all of the incidents work effectively, but that's probably not a big deal, as they give pleasure as you're reading it, and as they build up on each other, we find that even insignificant events have impact further down the line. It seems in some ways a quiet rumination on power, on religion, even on creation myths. For is the field not so different than the Rome of Romulus and Remus? Is the preacher who arrives not an Abraham or a John the Baptist - even a Jesus figure? - and is the coming of structure and society not reminiscent of New York or other American cities as they become honeypots for a shifting population? There's an Englishness about it - both from its title (an actual historical artefact) - to this sense of a bewildered population being constantly invaded by alien races who may be benign, but may just as well be terrifying. As ever in Mills, you can read these into the story, or treat him as an English Flann O'Brien, gifted at telling a tale, and with an unceasing knack for uncovering absurdity in even the least promising of scenarios.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

There can be no poetry after Brexit

I am English, Midlands-born; to paraphrase Bellow. This is my land, and I find deep and unexpected connections in an ancient, mythical Mercia. I'm a poet of place, not distance, yet that tranquil English soil, sooted with the industrial revolution, which forged me, is a mythic one. I've spent more of my life now in the North, and more of it in urban cities than the suburban frontier spaces of the green belt from which I came. It seems that distance is always mythic, as is place. Yet England's soil, and England's green is something that I have a deep affection for - I have no known Celtic forbears (though my red hair, pale skin, blue eyes just indicates I've not been able to go back far enough.) I speak one language, have lived in one land.

And yet, my imaginative landscape is one that soars beyond the present. It is Jude the Obscure, looking down on the city below and imagining a better life for himself. It is the twin brothers in "On the Black Hill" imagining what it would be like to fly over the lands which they know so intimately. It is Dick Diver training in Switzerland, and being seduced by the glamour of first Nicole, then the starlet Rosemary Hoyt; it is the fake dreaming of Italiophile Ladislaw in "Middlemarch". For literature is boundaryless, boundary-free and it is the imagination that propels it so that even a parochially grounded world can become the whole world. You don't need a globalised literature - with characters flying indiscriminately between Lahore and London and L.A. - to see the beautiful horizon in the best writing.

It is not therefore that literature cannot exist in a post-Brexit England, its just that we have a literary firmament that doesn't require any lower ambitions than it has already. The stultifying class system remains at the backbone of too much English fiction; our manicured lawns and country houses at the heart of our romanticised nature poetry. I think Europe was an ideal for me even before I had been on the continent  - its there in the electronic-tinged music of "New Gold Dream" and "Heroes." If America gives us the vista of the road movie, and the deep rootsiness of "The Night they drove Old Dixie Down" and "After the Goldrush", Europe is at once an ancien regime, and a reflecting kaliedoscope of possible futures; modernism, to America's post-modernism.

After next Thursday, if the pin on the powder keg has been pulled and a majority of voters have exploded the grenade of splendid isolation all over ourselves, it is not so much that the reality of our Europe goes away - it is still there - but the possibility of what we in England, in Britain can be to drag ourselves from a sense of fifties puritan and 19th century nationalism that will become the dominant foreground.

There can be no poetry after Brexit, for the possibilities that exist in the best of ourselves will be gone - and faced with a drawbridge pulled up - and the mental closing of doors. We will be only good enough then for an antediluvian culture of diminished nostalgia.... our literary imagination will be like the lights going out all over the town.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula Le Guin

I seem to be catching up on a few of those writers I've inadvertently not got round to reading. Latest is Ursula Le Guin. Not her classic "Left Hand of Darkness" of the Earthsea books, but her 1971 novel "The Lathe of Heaven."

George Orr is in a bad way having taken too many drugs to stop him from dreaming. He has to be referred to a psychiatrist to wean him off his addiction. The world he lives in - an overpopulated American western seaboard, a Portland, Oregon where it always rains as climate change and man-made pollution have led to the desert inland also being repopluated - is a chaotic, controlled one, where food is rationed to keep up with the over population and drugs are used to subdue them, but are equally rationed.

He has a good reason for not wanting to dream - for the dream's that he has come true, more than that, they change the past to enable this rewriting of history. He can't control this, and so has been taking a cocktail of drugs to knock him out but suppress his dreams.

The psychiatrist he is referred to has a special interest in dreams. William Haber has been developed a machine that through hypnosis can speed up, control and record the dream state. He begins to put Orr into a trance and asks him to dream of  "a horse." The picture on his wall, on waking, becomes the horse of the dream and its as if the previous mountain picture has never been there. Yet such innocent changes don't last for long. These controlling dreams grow in dimension. The past changes and because the road to the present has so many variables those also change.

It's a fascinating re-take on the idea of time being changeable. For in Le Guin's book, there is no time travel, just a rewriting of alternate histories. The psychoactive drugs of the sixties feed into a lot of the SF of the period, writers like Blish, Harrison and Le Guin. Haber appears not to realise what has happened, yet Orr is not so sure, and begins to suspect he is being manipulated. The doctor gets more successful, the dream worlds that Orr creates becoming the new reality. Despite this, certain things stay the same: the world is always at war; the president remains the same.

For his part Haber is wanting to improve things - what harm can it do if it rains a little less for instance? When Orr approaches a lawyer because of his concern, she agrees to come and "observe" the next hypnosis session ostensibly to check out the legality of Haber's experimental Augmentor machine. Haber is vague on what he asks Orr to make happen - Orr has been agitated at the overpopulation of the world - and in the next dream the world changes cataclysmically, a giant plague wiping out 4/5ths of the planet. For though his dreams can be directed they cannot be controlled. In this new underpopulated world everyone has enough food, larger flats, is healthy - but they also have memories of the plague that has wiped out so many. Yet the war goes on. Haber asks Orr to create peace amongst men - and it happens but in the dream the corollary that allows this is an alien invasion which sees the moon taken over by Orr's imagined aliens and cause mankind to join together to fight the new enemy. Heather Lelache, the mixed race lawyer who has been helping Orr is intrigued by him - and when she realises he has disappeared she travels off to the remote shack where she suspects he is hiding. Whilst there the connection between them grows but she also agrees to hypnotise him to change Haber into someone who helps Orr. She also foolishly asks that he gets the aliens off the moon - and off they come, to invade earth.

The upping of the ante- throughout the novel is its real strength, even though we never once have a reason for why Orr has this particular power. But in Haber's exploiting of it, we are taken from one precipice to another. With the alternate realities beginning to contradict each other, the novel becomes more fractured in its final third as Haber tries to take over Orr's power so he can now dream the dream's himself. Yet this causes a chaos that sees the world in total crisis. There is no going back, but bits of the old world can be returned to - and besides the world as it was originally meant to be was going to end in atomic collapse at some point.

It's a tour de force in many ways, a long story that just about keeps its internal logic working throughout. The title comes from a misquote from Confucious and the book is highly philosophical in how it uses this dreaming of alternative futures to suggest the moral quandary inherent in trying to make the world a better place. I'm minded of a few conferences I've been to recently where a certain social determinist mindset is in place as new technology and big data are seen as being cure-alls, with only positive consequences. I think some of the alternate futures in Stephen King's recent JFK novel follow something of the same internal logic of Le Guin in the Lathe of Heaven - or the problem of unintended consequence.

Part of its skill I think it that there's just enough confident technical detail to believe in this channelling of the dream state - and so the ramping up of the consequences, when they come, are built on a solid foundation. The aliens in particular are a fascinating touch, because they can only be from Orr's imagination, so that their uncertain communication comes from him only having half imagined them  - they exist, if at all, partly in dreams. Apparently there have been a couple of ill-advised film adaptions of the novel - its hard to see how they could work - as the dream states and the alternate realities are so much of the imagination. An excellent novel and great introduction to her work.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Fireweed Magazine

Fireweed Magazine was published in Lancaster in the mid-1970s, with the subtitle of "working class and socialist arts" and edited by David Craig and Nigel Gray. Craig, presumably being the same Craig who is now Emeritus Professor of Creative Writing at Lancaster University and ran the solitary creative writing unit when I studied there in 1985. I was fascinated to pick up issue 3 of the magazine - Autumn 1975 - from Oxfam recently.

A kind librarian at Lancaster University tells me that the complete run of 12 issues is in the library at the Universities of Manchester and Leeds, and if I ever get the opportunity, I'll have to go and seek it out. I'm happy enough with issue 3 however, as it seems a microcosm of a literary world that doesn't really exist in the same way any more. One of the abiding memories of Jeremy Corbyn's first few days at Labour leader was that when presenting about culture he dutifully said all the right things, but you had the sense that here was a man who had spent most of his life preferring political meetings over cultural events. Culture, for a certain part of the left, is seen as somehow elitist. I was at an anarchist book fair last year just after I'd had a story in Black and Blue's "Revolution" issue and I was struck how the busy room had no room for culture. Even ten years ago I think there'd have been poetry and music at such an event.

Longer ago than that, as Fireweed indicates, there was something that could be called "working class and socialist arts" - moreover, it wasn't parochial but international in scope. In this issue alone there are photographs and poems from George Hallett and James Matthews focusing on the black South African townships; there are poems from the City Lights published poet Diane Di Prima. Previous and future issues mention Brecht, Neruda and Vonnegut. The biographies at the back include some gems: "Archie Hill is a blackcountryman", "Nigel ex-manual worker", "Frances McNeil is an ex-Ruskin student". Its a far cry from contemporary biographies of "studied creative writing at....".

Even at this distance there are some names that haven't faded into obscurity. Edward Bond has a short story here. He is best known as a playwright. Leon Rosselson was a singer-songwriter, well known on the folk scene. Best of all is the mix of words and images. Smokestack photographs to accompany the two Rosselson songs (with music as well as lyrics provided), collages by Alan Heaps to accompany  Nigel Gray's fairy story, and of course the striking photographs of the South African townships. The young naked boy on the cover seems incongruous, an apparently rural image of poverty when Hallett's other photographs are all urban.

Some things don't change of course - there are few women in these pages - and interestingly an internet search discovers another "Fireweed" magazine - a feminist Canadian magazine from the 1980s. Coming from a period a long time before the internet this is a forgotten magazine - it was a new title to me - but a fascinating one. I'd love to know a bit more.

The magazine received funding from Arts Council of Great Britain and North West Arts - at the time two different organisations (wonder whether we'll have this again with devolution?) -  and an advert at the back launches a new scheme specifically for writers and publishers (again, something that hasn't been done for a long time!)

The content is a varied mix that lives up to its subtitle. Surprisingly, perhaps, its all creative work with only a few adverts at the back referencing cultural studies and the like.

And of course though we don't call things "working class and socialist arts" anymore the spirit can live on. A new Manchester magazine called Beatification, edited by John G. Hall, Neil Campbell and Steven Waling is looking for subscribers/running a crowdfunding campaign. 

Saturday, May 07, 2016

The Loneliness of the Long Form Fiction Writer

I always wanted to be a novelist. It remains, to me, the supreme art. "Novel" as in unusual, however far from that ideal so many generic books have become. "You can lose yourself in a novel" the cliche goes and it's true: though what does that really mean? Are we lost in the labyrinth? Rather, the phrase means, lost to the novel, in the same way that you can be lost to a piece of music, or to a lover - you are no longer yourself, the novel has changed you.

In reality, of course, this muse, this unknowable paper-being is a tease to us because it can't be paraphrased. You have to read the damn thing, all those pages. "Infinite Jest" or "Ulysses" are swamps in which you can get stuck, genuinely stuck, without a compass, having to read on to see a parting in the trees and a glimpse of a star which can guide you out of the word thicket. Even a short novel, a "Gatsby", a "Breakfast at Tiffany" needs this engagement, and being short, you might just be tempted to start again, knowing the end, in order to concentrate on the words and how they make you feel.

Yet how do you write one of these things if that's what you aspire to? So many words. I can pretty much say that my whole writing life has been a bit of a quest to find out what kind of writer I am. A long time ago now, starting an M.A. in novel writing, I had my doubts, but I also felt that it was long form fiction that was where I wanted to be. It's now a dozen years or more since I finished a novel, but I'll come back to that later; whereas you can be a poet based on a smattering of poetry each year, can you be a novelist when you haven't written a novel? A few "Best British novelists" - Helen Simpson for instance - haven't yet published a novel for instance; yet the term "prose writer" or "short story writer" sounds an awkward one. If I respond to the name "poet" its because its easier, yet its no more accurate than "novelist" even though I've not had a novel published.

For novels are places where even the writer of them can get lost. Sometimes abandoning the book that you started with such hope. It's a marathon not a sprint (hence this blog title, cribbed from Alan Sillitoe's long story...novella....novel). I look back with amusement on my novel writing plans - there were so many ideas, some didn't get much further than a title and a paragraph. There was "The Westerlys" which began, "like their name they blew in from the coast, and during their short time in our community they changed it." I still want to read that "novel" that never progressed beyond a first paragraph. Then there was "Sleeping Next to God", a turn of the millennium noir about a man who had desperate dreams that meant that whoever he slept with ended up dead. I finished the first part, but it got derailed about 1997, and the millennium has come and gone. Back around the time I did my M.A. it was which of these novels I would continue, which I would write. The one I eventually wrote, a contemporary story set in London beginning on the night that Tony Blair was elected Prime Minister, took its setting from my previous year when I'd briefly lived in the capital. It talked about YBAs (before they were famous) and dot com companies (that were yet to form.) The writer of contemporary fiction comes with a sell-by date.

The novel is a lot of words, and it takes a lot of time. I benefitted from having a peer group and I'm benefiting now from being part of a small writing group, three of the five of us having already published novels. So its less lonely than it was, yet as the "work in progress" grew from a long story to a novella, to a full length novel with a title, a structure, a format, I realise that the peer group is there for some kind of validation, for the novel progresses in fits and starts. Whereas one friend will reorder her work several times from the version we've seen, I know my structure once it's in place will stay as it is, but the bits that need colouring in - or pulling out - are complicated and intricate. There's some strange magic takes place where the various pieces fall together, and not being one to do more than  a rudimentary timeline or plot summary I realise that what I'm now struggling with is not the mechanical aspects of the novel, but the visionary ones.

One of those other novels I wrote, over a dozen years ago, took place in a single day, and I wanted it to have some of the mysterious nature of Saramago's "Blindness" or Ishiguro's "The Unconsoled", yet I realised as I wrote the more action-based finale that I'd somehow lost this to the prosaic nature of plot and denouement. I could unpick story, but I realised I couldn't unpick the language and tone of the novel. That one was written quickly - in 3 months - but this one I'm working on now is 2+ years and counting. I can see the end, but I haven't yet written the end and though I know the scenes I've been struggling to fit them together like I've sentences without conjunctions. Really, I know that I've been slowing down as I try and recall the essence of this book, its particular flavour, and that's something - like a complex soup or curry - where though you can follow the recipe, and use your experience, you can only really taste in the making of it.

So I think that's what is so ineffable about writing a novel, or the kind of novel I'm now trying to write. I'd love to say I'll just write the story, but stories can be inert if they don't have some animating fire underneath them all. I need my automatons to have the simulation of life, even if like the replicants in "Blade Runner" they have a cut off point, a manufactured end date. How to describe the unknown to someone? A singer can demo a song and work with the band and producer to bring it alive, yet even if I had an agent or publisher I think their role would be merely technical. The strangeness of the novel - the thing I'm trying to do with it - is as hard to articulate as speaking about a particular artistic effect. Magnus Mills tells of how he'd not got the ending for "The Restraint of Beasts" and then it came to him all at once. There's alchemy in novel writing - in a way that I'm not so sure is quite there in short story writing, where the craft aspect is about honing something small which can be visioned, which can be encapsulated.

And this book, which I began because I wanted to write a longer work, and one that I felt I could get to the end of, and which - at the time - I thought was fluid enough to enable it to keep my interest; grew about 15,000 words in into something else, and I knew it was a novel. In some ways its not the "story I absolutely have to tell" but I do think its the book I have to write. I'm not in it, for a start, no "I am" narrator, and none of the characters who resembles me beyond the basics of gender and age. So I'm getting to know these characters even at the same time as I'm bringing them to life. I'd forgotten what a fascinating process that could be. In a story the characters seem fully formed somehow, because they only exist within that story's smaller temporal space, but in the novel, I need to know more... I need to project back on their lives, and root them in back story.

More than that if there is magic in the novel - in this novel - it is a magic that dare not speak its name. I've always been a writer willing to explain what I'm doing, but perhaps the years of writing poetry and shorter fiction has made me more reluctant to look into the eye of the storm. I think the book works - or has to work - on its own terms, and here I'm returning to the forgotten selfishness that you need as a writer, that desire to please not a crowd, not even yourself, but the monster you are bringing forth from the clay. No wonder "Frankenstein" is such an archetype for writers, given its mysterious bringing to life, for that's what we always do whether its Huckleberry Finn, Harry Potter, or Dickie Greenleaf.

I'm writing this when I should be going back to the novel - I can hear it's breath, I can see it's form, but still it is not quite alive, it still needs the unplugging from its life support to be able to live by itself that only comes when I type the words "THE END".

Saturday, April 30, 2016

The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene

When I was studying English in the 1980s, Graham Greene, still alive at that time, was - I think - unfashionable. His books of the 1960s included "entertainments" like "Travels with my aunt" and "Our Man in Havana", whilst his more recent novels, thrillers such as "The Human Factor" were still successful, but perhaps not seen as that relevant. Born in 1905, his golden run probably went from "Brighton Rock" in 1938 to "The Quiet American" in 1955.

Its taken me a while to get to Greene as a result, though I read both "The End of the Affair" and his autobiography "A Sort of Life" a few years ago with great pleasure. "The Power and the Glory" was published in 1940 and is, according to John Updike in the introduction of the edition I have, his masterpiece.

Visiting Mexico in the 1930s to document religious persecution - the Catholic church had been effectively outlawed since the 1917 constitution, and under President Calles, the persecution had lead to a civil war - Greene found the material for "The Power and the Glory." The unnamed "whisky priest" has been hiding from the authorities for a number of years, but the net is closing in on him. He still practices his ministry in secret when he can. The poor rural population in the territories where he practiced, protect him as far as they can, the mystique of the Priest continuing after the churches have been abandoned. The two priests who we meet in the novel have taken different paths. Padre Jose has given up his ministry and married, is therefore allowed to live. The whisky priest, a dissolute, who loves brandy, and has a child following a short sexual relationship with a peasant woman, should have done the same, but however bad a priest he is, he cannot give up the only thing that gives his life meaning. We meet him at the beginning of the novel as an English-speaking dentist bumps into him. The priest has decided to take leave on a ship, but there are still a few hours till it goes. He comes back to the dentist, who is visited by a boy who wants some help for his mother. The priest, though he knows he won't be able to do anything much, is drawn to help her. He misses the boat, and so evades being captured again.

Moving from town to town, being able to survive through hiding in barns or other places, he is heading to the border with dreams of turning up in a town where religion can still be practiced. There has been a clampdown from the police authorities, and capturing the whisky priest becomes a political imperative. Any village where he has been sheltered will have a man from the village imprisoned and killed. Yet the authorities don't know what he looks like, so they are relying on informers. At the same time a man who is a bank robber and fugitive is also on the run. The two men's lives will finally become intertwined, but the fear of an armed robber creates a sense of paranoia.

We follow the whisky priest as he slips from place to place - never quite sure who to trust. The priest turns up in the barn of a plantation owner, in the village where his daughter was born, and even the town where the authorities are looking for, being stopped and jailed for being drunk, without them knowing who he is. As his options get less and less, the book sees him ruminate on his faith, his dissolution and the meaning of God in the world. Priests are partly detested for the opulent life they used to lead, charging for mass and baptisms, as the only interlocutors of the Bible for the poor and illiterate. Yet we are not overwhelmed by the politics of the matter, rather we are on a journey with this most unpromising of figures, as he gets close to safety (but not redemption) and capture (and still no redemption, as despite being allowed to do so, Padre Jose refuses to take his confession.) If I'm reminded of another novel its Cormac McCarthy's "The Road" another book which sees the morality of a single (good) man in desolate times, and tests it and tests it again. The same earthy religiosity - a primal thing - that we find in "The Road" has its corollary over half a century before in Greene's "The Power and the Glory." It seems that left to write a story that is so adrift from normal society, Greene's wonderful prose comes into his own. The world is a desperate one (this was published in 1940) and like that contemporary William Golding, we wonder whether redemption is actually something that we actually want - or whether that is what we most fear.

A rumination on good and evil, but also on the choices that we make, that even a bad man, a flawed man might make, this is phenomenal story of religious doubt that gives us such a powerful central character, that we are not meant to like or relate to, but in doing so provides us with some kind of questionable template for life. There is no redemption, for man is corrupt - even the love of his daughter is a corruption; and the services that he provides for the peasantry are cynical transactions - they want to "pay" for them else they won't value them, but they still beat him down on price. There is no love for the church or the priest or the desolate country they are living in, but there is a fear for the alternative - the idea of heaven and hell, of redemption and confession is harder to shake off than the paraphernalia of the church.

Like Updike, I think the book's a masterpiece. 

Where Angels Fear to Tread by E.M. Forster

It's always instructive reading an early work by one of the great writers. To what extent are the themes and skills of the later work already present in the debut? Is there a moment when the writer moves from the conventions of the day (which may have helped the path to publication) and does something different? In the case of E.M. Forster its a particular interesting question. Undoubtedly one of the best and most loved British novelists of the 20th Century, his three key books, "A Room with a View", "Passage to India" and "Howard's End" are masterpieces, whilst the posthumously published "Maurice" was one of the earliest written "gay" novels. His story "The Machine Stops" is much anthologised and only this month inspired a new concept album by veteran space rockers Hawkwind.

"Where Angels Fear to Tread" was his debut novel, published in 1905. Initially submitted for magazine publication it was instead published as a book. It's a short novel, but fits quite a lot into its small frame. The structure of the book seems designed for serial publication with three "acts" that see the story and characters develop. Set in Italy and England it is a book of contrasting cultures. When the widowed Lilia Herriton visits Italy with her friend Miss (Caroline) Abbott she ends up marrying the feckless son of a village dentist, Gino. What had seemed like a self-improvement trip for the widow and (apparent) spinster, ends up becoming a nightmare for the family of the widow's husband, who send her brother-in-law Philip to Italy to stop the match going ahead. Philip is ostensibly the main character of the novel, but he's a passive figure, a dreamer rather than a do-er. It is he, after all, who recommended they visit Monteriano. On arriving in the Italy he loves and romanticises he's now faced with the reality of the place that goes beyond his trusty Baedeker and his knowledge of the language and music. Confronting both Lilia and Gino he finds that it is too late and that they are already married.

The novel's second act sees the mistake of Lilia's union, for in Italy women are not expected to walk about on their own, and being unable to translate the rigid class mores of English society to the more fluid Italy, she becomes increasingly isolated in their unsuitable house. When she becomes pregnant with his child, the tragedy continues, for she doesn't survive the birth. The boy becomes a matter of material interest to the Herritons, and Philip is once again despatched, this time to bring back the baby. He has been preceded by Miss Abbott, who is drawn inexplicably back to Italy, and his prim sister Harriet has also gone back to Monteriano. This time he has a "blank cheque" to get Gino to release the child.

The novel is one of contrasting cultures. A stifled middle class England where appearance is everything, and a poor, chaotic Italy that hums with life. This is the "Grand Tour" translated into something more vivid - when people's emotions become involved. Philip is like that other cold fish, Henry James' Strether in "The Ambassadors", despatched to a different culture to "do what is right" but slowly beginning to question what that might be. As he arrives in Monteriano, rather than immediately confront Gino, he goes to the local Opera house. Here in the book's most vivid scene, the poor but vibrant performance becomes a grand exemplar of Italian life at its most vibrant. Here is the Italy he had romanticised. In the aftermath he goes drinking with Gino and his friends and proclaims a good fellow and friend. We find out the next day, as Miss Abbott goes against Philip's plans and visits Gino, that he loves his son though hardly knowing how to look after him - and this has led Gino to get engaged to another woman to be a replacement mother. Both Miss Abbott and Philip are drawn to Italy, initally repelled by the emotions it stirs in their placid sensibilities. Finding Miss Abbott praying in a Catholic church he begins to fall in love with her, but despite a couple of moments of connection and near intimacy, he can't overcome his years of conditioning.

The novel has a tragic end - but the tragedy is multiple. As Harriet steals the child, Philip having failed (he articulates his dilemma as to be giving the child a better life but with people who don't love the child, or leaving to an awful life with a father who loves him, and he can't make that choice), tragedy piles on tragedy. An accident sees the child thrown from their carriage. Returning to tell Gino, the Italian lashes out and attacks Philip, a sign of passion that the latter finds himself responding to, too late. He realises he has made the wrong decisions all along - he has awakened in himself a passion for Miss Abbott, which can't be articulated once she lets him know that Gino has been her object of desire all along. The inhibited Harriet, having been uncharmed by Italy, goes mad and the whole sorry crew return to a lifetime of being unfulfilled back home in England.

In his most famous line, Forster talked about if we could "only connect the prose and the passion", and five years before he wrote the exemplary "Howard's End", here he is touching on the same subject. As in his later books, his lead characters are passive, decorous who become animated or changed by the circumstance that comes their way, whether the Italy, India, politics or music. Yet these themes, in this debut, are hinted at in a plot that is pure melodrama. The novel feels stilted at the start, a drawing room story, with little sense of the modern about it. His writing only occasionally rises above the demands of the story - though when it does its a blinding light - and the novel's mix of tragedy with comedy is an uneasy one. Perhaps its greatest problem, is that though it has a perfect structure in terms of telling the story, Philip's arc is such a curious one. Perhaps his initial readers would have been all too at home with the monied man of little ambition, with the importance of "appearances" above all else, but to a modern reader, the drawing of the curtains over this late Victorian melodrama seem a little stilted. Like Edith Wharton's "The House of Mirth", published the same year, its a book that meddles with themes that would be fully worked out later on (in "Howard's End" and "A Room with a View" for him, in "Age of Innocence" for her) in books that would go far beyond the genre conventions of the day.

The edition I read has an introduction which says the book is the essayist's favourite of Forster's which seems to be protesting a little too much for its merits. Yet there is much pleasure to be had in reading this young man's novel. Forster has talked about its genesis. He went on a similar trip with his mother that turned out to be inconvenient, uncomfortable and beastly, yet something of Italy's "passion" managed to survive even the discomforts of the journey. He overheard a story of an English woman marrying an Italian man and it piqued his interest. His Italy is a second hand one, and he wondered about it's veracity, and if Gino and his housekeeper and friends seems grotesques in some ways, the genius of Forster's imagination makes even the scenes that he had to imagine come to life.
"Fool's rush in where angel's fear to tread" - like "Only Connect" its good to remember the rest of the phrase - and it seems an appropriate if overly literary title for this debut.

Saturday, April 09, 2016

The Long Game

Amongst the various topics I've strayed onto on this blog, I'm not sure I've ever written about football. But I can't not do at the moment. My team, Aston Villa, are about to be relegated from the Premier League, after a catastrophic season, where they have won only 3 of 33 league games all season; are 9 points adrift; and have just lost their 8th game in a row. Football is all about winning and losing, and the football league is a brilliant invention that still perplexes Americans, for instance, who don't quite get that there should be no divine right to be a member of the elite. Of course, few sports are like football, with its "pyramid" of teams, and long institutional history.

Villa are part of that long institutional history, one of the 12 teams in that first ever football league, when there was just a single division. As teams formed around the country - extending the sport's popularity from the north and the Midlands - so did the league expand, eventually to four divisions featuring 92 teams. Nowhere else in football has that pyramid been so effective. Wigan Athletic and Wimbledon, both top flight teams at some point, both came from the non-league; though its interesting that since there has been automatic promotion and relegation from the league to the non-league (surely a contradictory term?) no team has quite risen through the pyramid. But it may one day happen.

That first league was won by the invincible Preston North End, who retained it the year after, and never again. Villa were one of the big teams in the 19th century and early 20th century, though faded somewhat after the thirties. The first ever league goal was scored by a Villa player, one Gershom Cox, unfortunately it was an own goal....

So, in Kipling's words, triumph and disaster are never that far apart when you follow a football club. I was frankly surprised when I realised that Villa's last relegation was as long ago as the eighties. Surely for such a big club, with a venerable history, next season will see us bounce straight back? Not so quick. The Premier League has been dominated by four clubs, Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City,  the latter two funded by billionaires - they wouldn't have been listed in any "big six" back in the mid-nineties even, despite their own long histories. This season, either Leicester (who have never won the league) or Tottenham Hotspur (who last won it in 1961), are going to break that hegemony, joining Blackburn Rovers as the only other Premier League winner. Blackburn, like Leeds, Derby, Nottingham Forest and now Villa, are a league winner who have left the top flight with no immediate sense they will return.

When I was born Villa were a club in the doldrums. They were briefly in the third division. In those days, it seems there was rarely big money changing things, rather, clubs were reliant on a clutch of players, either locally born and bred, or brought together through good management and coaching. Once at a club, players often stayed there. Before television money transformed the landscape, where you were in the league structure hardly mattered - the fans would come anyway - a cup run would allow you to dream, and occasionally your club would fall or rise. So when I was seven and started supporting Villa, we were the Midlands underdogs, in the old second division, and the year I started following Villa was the year we got promoted. WBA, Wolves, even Coventry and Birmingham were more popular clubs amongst my peer group. (Our nearest team, Walsall, was the kind of well run, but small town team that has always existed in the shadow of bigger clubs.).

The late seventies were great - we won the league cup, then, remarkably, the league, and even more remarkably the European Cup. Ron Saunders was our genius manager, and nobody really knew or cared about who ran or owned the club. That 1981 Villa team was very like the Leicester team of this season. Unfancied, with a core group of players who played every game, and had the season of their life. That year, it was Bobby Robson's Ipswich who were heralded as the new heroes, and the two unfancied teams jostled it out at the top, in a rare off-season for Liverpool. Villa spluttered over the finishing line, whereas Leicester, remarkably, seem to be keeping ahead of Spurs.

But at the bottom of the league, who cares about championships, except to remember we once had one - in my living memory. We had a couple of good seasons in the 90s, but things had fallen off by the time Doug Ellis sold the club to the American Randy Lerner. Luckily he'd also appointed Martin O'Neill as manager, who had to put together an entire team from scratch and we just missed out on Champions League football three seasons in a row. Since then there's been something rotten in the state of Villa. A succession of badly chosen and inept managers; transfer fees from players sold being wasted; good players (such as Marc Albrighton - now with Leicester) seen as surpluse to requirements; and a quality of football that can only be seen as abysmal. Even as late as last season we had an F.A. Cup final, albeit one where we were exposed by an imperious Arsenal, but the previous game, in a semi against Liverpool, we were as good as we've been in years. There's a whole team of Villa alumni playing for other top clubs - Barry, Milner, Cahill, Crouch, Albrighton, Benteke, Delph, Young - and its been a shame that in the modern game we've not been able to keep our best players.

This season, if this had been a boxing match, Villa would have been put out of our misery months ago, but we still have to limp through 38 games. I've never been a regular at the ground, having lived away so long, so can only feel sorry for those fans who go every week. Unlike other clubs Villa tend to stay loyal to the managers, and players, partly because of how low our expectations are - but partly I think, because of  a respect for the history of the institution. However badly we've been treated by poor ownership, useless management, and underwhelming players, it is that long history that matters.
Next season, in a lower league, and with a clean out of senior management already having taken place, a new Villa could rise... our history demands it, but, of course, we have been here before. Few of us think we'll just bounce back into the top flight - but hoping that we're not going to be forever isolated, like Forest and Leeds, from our golden years.

Sunday, April 03, 2016

A Modern City

I was in Eindhoven for the third time this week. Last time there was a palpable excitement, bunting on the streets, as PSV Eindhoven were about due to win the Dutch league for the first time in years. The "P" in PSV is for Philips. This is a town that exists because of its mercantile-industrial past. When Philips rocked up there, it was a tiny place, but grew as the Dutch company became one of the world's leaders for electronics. All those companies and industries that dominate are impermanent, developed through innovation, technology and consumer need. I took the photo of the coffee shop above because it has the old Philips "badge" no longer on an industrial building, but as an adornment to a cafe.

For Eindhoven is still a prosperous town, but the manufacturing takes place elsewhere, as it does for most electronics companies, and Philips makes its money from R&D and its vast patent store. Its much less of a consumer brand nowadays, though I'm still using a Philips CD player I bought years ago. Like Nokia in Finland, a big company in a small country can sometimes seem to be over-important; and as their business changes the jobs change as well - so ex-Philips employees create start-ups, work for innovation companies, deliver services.

Our UK industrial heritage sometimes seems to have gone straight from raw materials - like coal and steel - to services, without the intermediate "making" of things. A late friend worked for the steel industry in the eighties and nineties until he was laid off. As an ex-steel worker the dole left him to his own devices; there was a view these were low skilled jobs that couldn't be replicated. But as China opened up its economy in the early 2000s, demand for steel rose and he went back to work in his old job. Of course, China was already involved in over production, but its only now the fallout of that is coming back to haunt the over-leveraged British steel industry. Its absurd in a world where we are worried about climate change, economic growth and resource security that we haven't got any sort of industrial policy - but that's Tory governments' laissez-faire attitude for you. If there wasn't the backdrop of the European referendum (more later), we might have some common sense on this matter, but for now, don't expect any.

I was over in  Eindhoven for a brief break, to see friends, to go to a conference - all good. But after also being to Nottingham and London (twice) in the last two weeks, I'm glad of a weekend back in Manchester - and geting back into some creative projects.

Somehow during this period, I managed to complete a new album under my Bonbon Experiment name. You can download or stream the 9 track "Vulcanicity!" here for free. In my previous post about songwriting, the song I mentioned in the introduction ended up different than I expected, as "Threshold Horizon." Like I said there, most of the tracks came music first - though I had the titles "Canal Pusher" (a Manc urban myth that was too good a title to waste), "The Girl with the Caramel Eyes" and "Standing Water", just not much else. It's been invigorating to make some music again - especially recording a whole album in about six weeks. I've always been better at doing things faster.

 Intrigued to see that rapper, poet, performer, playwright Kate Tempest is now a novelist. The review in the Observer indicates that she's gone back to the story that forms her debut CD, so maybe the desire to "colour in" the outline of a story that means a lot to you is a strong one. Its not that unusual to revisit the same or similar material in different format of course, and that means both "brand" and subject will no doubt appeal to her existing audience. Poets writing novels don't always make the crossover, so it will be interesting to see how this most popular of performers has done.

Being away means I've missed quite a few things going on. There's always lots of literary activity in Manchester of course, but also elsewhere. My friend Melissa Lee-Houghton has an essay in the new Poetry Wales, an issue focused on "desire", which I'm looking forward to. We went to see Katherine Angel read at Castlefield Gallery last year, and it got us talking about the subject, and wondering about how writers approach it. 

Both of us will be reading at "Reading the Other" a new collaborative event where writers read each other's work. It will be at Sand Bar, on Grosvenor Street on Saturday 16th April. Will update with the details when I have them.