Sunday, September 25, 2016

Writers & Politics

All writers are political, I think, but I've never thought - until recently - that's its helpful or necessary for writers to be party political. Despite the literary world still being skewed somewhat in favour of wealth and privilege, the nature of the lottery of writing is that writers aren't all that often from the ruling classes, though they frequently have been to the best schools and universities. In my own time, the "right wing" writer has been an, at times, mythical beast. Margaret Thatcher famously chose thriller writer Frederick Forsyth as her favourite; the choice of Ted Hughes ahead of Philip Larkin for poet laureate was a rare time when the leading contenders were - at least notionally - to the right of the political spectrum.  In the 1930s, writers did join the British Communist Party, for reasons of conscience, of solidarity with what was happening in Spain and Germany, and sometimes out of ignorance; but as often as not they would leave the party because of the unfulfillable expectations. Whereas a writer like Orwell could not in good conscience give a free pass to a left that was as murderous as the right, his publisher Victor Gollancz fell out with him over the same dilemma (he had no dilemma, as a publisher - perhaps like right wing media moguls today - he didn't want to risk muddying the waters of his own project.) The Norwegian Knut Hamsun was admired by the Nazis; writers - often Jewish - were one of the main groups cracked down on by Hollywood as a result of appearing before McCarthy and the UnAmerican Activities committee; Ayn Rand and and L. Ron Hubbard turned their ideological works into actual ideologies. On other side of the coin, politicians have frequently written novels, very successfully in the case of Jeffrey Archer and Chris Mullin's "A very British Coup". The magazine Encounter was funded by the CIA as part of cold war propaganda - a story satirised in Ian McEwan's "Sweet Tooth."

McEwan, in an interview reflecting on the Iraq war discussed with his wife that he'd use his influence with Tony Blair - who he knew a little - to contact him somehow and get him to stop the war. Looking back, he marvelled at his hubris. Where writers get involved in politics its often in the local or domestic sphere, and more as a high profile supporter - e.g. J.K. Rowling's support for various causes and political parties - than any direct involvement. I've always wondered about whether its a good thing for a writer to be a member of a political party - for however "liberal" the rules, the reality is that the "narrative" of a political party, wherever on the spectrum is not one that can be interpreted by one individual. Certainly there was a groundswell of support for Tony Blair when he came to power, and in a different time, there seems plenty of writers who are full square behind his ideological opposite Jeremy Corbyn.

I was briefly a paid up member of the Labour party - though I thought of myself more as a supporter - a fellow traveller if you like - than an active member. I'd have been horrified - this was the nineties - if my writing, which has always been broadly on the left, had been picked up as not following a party line. It's perhaps instructive that I left the party around the same time that I was writing a broadly political novel. Having worked in reasonably close proximity to politicians and political ideas for a number of years, I'm more convinced than ever that the probing and ambiguity of good writing, is incompatible with the "single party line" of political activism. This brings us to the current state of the Labour party, the cult of Corbyn, and the irrefutable fact that he's been re-elected yesterday by the membership.

On my Facebook feed there seems a general support for Corbyn from the writers I follow, but in many ways this seems a support for the politics - anti-austerity, anti-war - that are so associated with the brand. My initial reluctance to support the man in 2015 was always his foreign policy stance - particular his anti-Americanism, his past willingness to share platforms with a number of despicable regimes, and his past record in not just opposing bad wars such as Iraq, but any military action such as the intervention in Kosovo. But I'm a writer not an elected politician - appalled as I am by war, I see the geopolitics of the world as a fascinating - perhaps the most fascinating - of subjects. Writers have written about wars in their lifetime, wars they have experienced, wars from history....and imagined wars such as in Evelyn Waugh's satirical "Scoop." It does not make us supporters of them. Even in the genteel drawing rooms of a Jane Austen novel, the barrack room, and the army are a presence. As writers we draw the world as it is, as we see it, as much as how we might want to see it.

In the U.S. Donald Trump is looking ominously electable, and there would, I imagine, be few writers of fiction or poetry who would endorse him. In Philip Roth's "The Plot Against America" he imagines a 1930s where the near fascist aviation hero Charles Lindbergh would have been swept to power providing a right wing government in America as Hitler pillaged Europe. Alternate histories such as "The Man in the High Castle" or "SSGB" are part of the writer's armoury. In the century-sweeping "Life after Life", the justification for the time travelling narrative is partly to answer that most famous "what if...." "what if you could go back in time and murder Hitler."

I've been surprised, fascinated and appalled a little, by the nature of the cult of Corbyn. For me, the mass resignation of Labour MPs, was a direct result of an unexpected trauma - the Brexit result - which saw the Labour party - whose MPs and supporters had predominantly supported the "remain" camp despite that aligning them with Cameron and Osbourne - and partly occasioned by the incompetent and hamfisted approach that Corbyn and his top team had adopted in their reluctant "remain" campaign. It may well have been a coordinated coop, but if so, its "war planning" - that Corbyn would step down if unable to form a full opposition bench - showed a lack of understanding of the man, and to be fair, of his mandate. Even Thatcher went when faced with the mutinous amongst her peers.

Yet in the torturous weeks since Brexit happened, the Tories have defenestrated not only their leader, but apparently the majority of their 2015 manifesto, avoided a bloodletting election by letting Theresa May step nimbly over the political corpses of her rivals, and given us a new, unelected government powering ahead on a mandate that - to leave Europe - which they still haven't managed to define. As a writer I sit there and wonder about the Labour party in opposition. I don't want to be a party activist - but I do want a Labour party to do their job. The difference between me and a Corbyn fan seems to be that they would view the resigning MPs (elected by the public) as not doing his job, whilst I would see Corbyn and his team, whose first year in shadow opposition has been autocratic, vague, uninspiring and more than that, administratively incompetent, as not doing theirs.

So where do we go with writers and the political scene? The left leaning writer has a more conducive political canvas than ever - yet whereas poetry and fiction can often be highly political and politicised, the best work is that which is ambiguous, or which plots the times, or which doesn't just see one side of the argument. Thinking of "GBH" or "Our Friends in the North" those two blistering political pieces - the first reflecting on the chaos of Liverpool under the stand-off between council and government; the second a complex telling of the hollow lies behind so much of the sixties and seventies' political landscape. Both of these, as examples, are aware of the contradictions and messiness of politics, which is best reflected by an art that is equally complex. The simple solutions of writing that toes just a simple political line is surely more propaganda than anything else; yet I wonder if the writer who finds themselves cheerleading too hard, not just for the left vs. right, but for the peculiarly strange accidental leader that is Jeremy Corbyn, risks missing an ability to reflect any kind of truth. Writers have a tendency - in Tony Wilson's words - to print the myth, and we can surely expect a few novels in the next few years that play out the recent political failures of Cameron et al.

I often think I can predict to some degree the "what next" direction of our political or social landscape - a useful forethinking for a writer - but at present, we have two parallel things which seem almost impossible to predict: hard vs soft Brexit for the government and the Tory party; and the popularity amongst activists for Corbyn's non-pragmatic populism, vs. the needs of a centre-left coalition in order to unseat a right wing and ideological government. Though I would never criticise anyone, writer or non writer, for whatever activism they want to follow, I think this might be a time, when I comment less, observe more, and see which way the plot might possibly develop.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

The Beatles and I

When people ask me whether I like the Beatles, I've always said that I grew up with them, so like other memories from childhood they are a welcome memory, even if you eventually grew out of them in adulthood. Of course, you never can quite grow out of the Beatles, at least partly because of the nostalgic music industry putting out new "versions". So after the "Love" album, "Let it Be Naked", the comprehensive remasters, the mono vinyl box, the American albums, "Magical Mystery Tour" deluxe edition.... we now have a new documentary, Ron Howard's awkwardly titled "Eight Days A Week, The Beatles, The Touring Years".

I'm just about the last generation to be contemporaneous with the Beatles, so my pram would no doubt have rocked to the latter day Beatles tunes. I imagine my parents were too busy with their demanding first born to notice "Sgt. Pepper" coming out that summer. Later, when my dad got his first music centre it coincided with the "red" and "blue" albums, and I must have been eight or nine when I used to borrow these and play them in my bedroom on my mum's old record player. Precociously, "A Day in the Life" was my favourite song -  it was only later that I read the various books about the Beatles and got to fill in what is a now familiar story. The other thing I remember is one Christmas where all the Beatles films were shown: so we got "A Hard Day's Night", "Help!", "The Beatles at Shea Stadium", "Yellow Submarine", "Magical Mystery Tour" and "Let it Be", a celluloid alternate history of the band.

On  Thursday, when the new Beatles film premiered, the marketeers cleverly had live streams from the red carpet (actually blue carpet for some reason) event in Leicester Square, where after Edith Bowman and John Bishop interviewed various celebrities and connections. A surprise appearance from Yoko Ono, who we saw embrace with Olivia Harrison, was a prelude for the main course, as Ringo and Paul arrived, looking as boyish and svelte as ever, given their advancing years. It's a reminder that The Beatles is a tightly controlled commercial affair these days  - the days of exploitation by record companies long gone, as the remaining Beatles and the estates of John and George, ensuring that the product is looked after.

The film itself wasn't exactly a revelation in that so many stories of the Beatles are well known, and that footage of Beatlemania, first in the UK and then worldwide, was always the end of their first act - following that tutelage in Hamburg and Liverpool. Stories unveiled in the film, in particular their refusal to play to segregated audiences in "Jacksonville", have been heavily flagged. Yet sat in a full cinema in HOME in Manchester with an audience that went from people in their twenties to their seventies, the sense of participating in something was a very strong one. The film itself rushes by in a beautifully edited homage to the band, that still manages to convey something of the times in which they lived - but this is not a social documentary, or rather the social documentary element is to show the Beatles as they were, as this unheard of phenomenon for which there was no precedent.

From their first headline gigs at places like Manchester ABC (beautifully restored footage), through to their arrival in the U.S. with "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" already number one in the charts, to the later tours where the audiences just kept growing, but the atmosphere was already darkening even before the "Beatles are bigger than Jesus" headlines that - in a sixties version of a Twitter storm - led to burning of Beatles records in the south, this travelogue manages to show how on the one hand  they were just a rock and roll band, but also something else.

I was struck that we are lucky to have the Beatles - that America in particular was lucky to have the Beatles. This Beatlemania, with the screaming girls, the newly liberated teenager suddenly given a voice, could have happened to anyone - but it happened for a tight knit group of four friends from Liverpool, who were polite, charming and funny in press conferences, who went along with the juggernaut that they were part of through the urbane calm of Brian Epstein's management and George Martin's steady production hand. What would happen next: this generation becoming the hippies, the peaceniks, the Vietnam and civil rights protestors was already beginning when the Beatles landed at Idlewild. The signs protesting their haircuts were a first shot in a culture war, that wasn't even acknowledged. I got the sense that "old America" - the tin pan alley world, was more than happy to make money out of the Beatles, believing that they were a product that could be endlessly marketed to this newly wealthy teenage market, and did think there'd be another one along in the minute. What happened in effect was the Beatles provided a turbo charging of history - whereas there was only one Elvis, able to be mainstreamed through Hollywood B movies - there were four Beatles, and they were the eye of this storm - ably supported by a loyal group of friends/employees from their Liverpool days.

The story comes to the end with the chaos of their 1966 tours. The new songs on the reflective "Rubber Soul" are unplayable live, particularly in these studios, where there music is piped through inadequate P.A. systems and it resembles more a giant P.A. than a concert. For a band who by this stage had played over eight hundred times, this led to them using muscle memory to get by. The performances from 1964 and 1965 are incendiary compared with their last ones. Finishing off at the vast Candlestick Park we see the anonymous white van in which they are bundled back to safety - and its easy to believe in the back, as recounted in the film, George saying he wasn't going to do this anymore.

Along the way we see some great footage - a brilliantly raw "I saw her standing there" for instance - plus some "talking heads" who, for once are used appropriately - Sigourney Weaver and Whoopi Goldberg with personal testimonies of going to see them live - and a commentary from the four Beatles, new interviews with Ringo and Paul alongside judicious archive quotes from John and George. The story ends with the coda of the Beatles on the Apple building during "Let it Be." There hair is now regulation hippy. that late sixties Laurel Canyon look and sound as Lennon, vocals on point as ever, sings "Don't Let Me Down," whilst a tiny Yoko Ono is seen in the corner of the shot.
This is not the story of the Beatles, but it is one story of the Beatles, and the flowering of their artistic muse in the studio, let loose by being one of the first bands to give up touring is another story. Yet the Beatles phenomenon required their presence.

In the audience a couple behind me couldn't resist singing along, but not to "Can't Buy Me Love" or "I Feel Fine" but to naff album tracks "Act Naturally" and "Baby's in Black." Had the Beatles just carried on as that kind of countryfied covers band they'd have no doubt made their money, but it was the songwriting unleashed with "Love Me Do", "Please Please Me" and "From Me to You" which made the difference. Hearing them leap straight into "Help!" or "A Hard Day's Night" still gives a jolt - one that even the later material from Pepper onwards never quite achieves in the same way. Their guitar sound is a lovely amalgam of Buddy Holly and Chuck Berry, their vocals owing as much to the Everly Brothers as Elvis. What alchemy made these four people come together (!) in this way at this time? More than the Kinks, the Stones, the Who, the Beach Boys etc. their components seem uniquely complementary to be much more than just a band - but what they would become.

After the credits rolled, newly restored footage of the Shea stadium gig, where they couldn't quite believe the size of the crowd, as they played for a mere thirty minutes. Already they were over. By 1970 they had split, leaving behind an unprecedented back catalogue. None of their solo careers ever came close to what they had been. Lennon's murder destroying any hopes of the band getting back together again. I was 13 by then, a Beatles obsessive at that age though I'd not get any of the actual albums until a few years later when CDs arrived;  Beatles albums being ruinously expensive compared to mid price releases by Bowie or Joni Mitchell. The Beatles Live at the Hollywood Bowl album has been remastered and reissued as a tie-in with the film. Unlike the Stones or Dylan whose long live career is as important as their recordings, the Beatles remain tied to those pristine studio recordings, yet this film reminds us that their initial success came out of four musicians standing up and entertaining their audience. From small clubs, to British theatres, to American arenas to the football stadiums, and then astonishingly to nothing.

Old enough to be have born whilst the Beatles were still operating, but too young to remember, their live career is an enclosed one, witnessed by more people than any gigs previously, but still a relatively small audience - the mix of cover songs and originals from those first five albums is only half of their story - and this film, though it offers up few surprises, brings back to life what it might have been like: there would be greater live bands, but there wouldn't be a greater phenomenon.

Monday, September 05, 2016

The Limits of Talent

Going through some old books I came across "Take 20" the UEA anthology from 1998 edited by Andrew Motion. I applied for the UEA creative writing course initial in 1996 and was told, I think, it was too late, but maybe I should try the following year. I did and got an interview. The course leader at that time was Andrew Motion, soon to be Poet Laureate. I was going there to study fiction, so although he has written novels and biographies as well as poetry, he was an odd choice to be leading the country's most famous writing school.

I leafed through the book and what struck me was firstly, how many obscure names were listed - perhaps in any student anthology that is going to be the case, and also, amongst these a few that stood out as having become famous. When I went for my interview I was the only male amongst a group of female candidates, and whilst we waited to be called I was surprised to find that my own credentials ("shortlisted for the Lichfield Prize.... a few poems and stories in magazines") were pretty poor compared with two of the women, who'd published novels already. The first of these was a genre novelist wanting to study the course to move into literary fiction, the second was a woman called Frances Liardet whose debut novel I bought after the interview from the bookshop on the UEA campus. Liardet - whose debut "The Game" - I thoroughly enjoyed, obviously got on the course, whereas I didn't (Motion had a bad back at the time and was taking strong painkillers, and by the time he saw me, the must have worn off and he was in some discomfort, and I gave a pretty poor interview to a somewhat preoccupied interviewer). Yet the piece of fiction from Liardet here in "Take 20" is the last I heard of her fiction. The second novel "Salt Life" mentioned here, never appeared as far as I can tell, though an Arabic speaker, she also did some translation.

That was 1997 - this came out the following year - and the following names are familiar to me, Trezza Azzopardi, whose debut novel "The Hiding Place" was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2000 (I've not read it, so I wonder if it's "Bar the Rest" the novel extracted from here?), the poets Sarah Corbett and Owen Sheers, and Ashley Stokes who published me years later in "Unthology 4" from his Unthank Books press.

The biographies at the back of the volume are the usual mix of prizes won, works in progress and books about to be coming out - UEA having an enviable success rate. As this was a period before social media, in the early days of the World Wide Web, its perhaps not surprising to read that some writers had fallen by the wayside. Saddest of all, Stephen Foster, a Faber published author, and partner to Azzopardi, drowned in 2011 after being let down by mental health services. 

There are a number of poets in the book alongside Corbett and Sheers and I re-reading them, I was impressed by the work of Stockport-born Joyce Lambert and American Shawn Walker, but I've struggled to find a reference to them on the internet - I wondered what happened to them?

Being UEA its an international anthology. I could have been part of this cohort, if only my interview had gone better. Instead I went to the University of Manchester, a course solely focused at the time on novel writing. We had our own tragedy there at the time, one of my fellow students, taking her own life. The last time I saw her, oddly enough, was on National Poetry Day, when Andrew Motion amongst others was up at Waterstones to read from a new anthology. I got a nod of recognition from him, which was nice. Of my own cohort, several have published novels, most successfully Lee Rourke, but it's taken a bit longer I think.

The people who study on creative writing courses have talent - they are not coming out of nowhere. God only knows how many writers the country can "support" in some way - back then there were less than half a dozen courses in the UK, and Manchester was probably second or third behind UEA in reputation. Now there are hundreds of courses - B.A.s, M.A.s, PhDs in creative writing. I suggested that we could have an anthology in our year at Manchester (I'd seen previous years from UEA) but it was tactfully suggested to me that not everyone on the course was up to scratch. There were only ten or eleven of us so I guess it might have stood out - besides, our job that year was to finish a novel not to get involved in side projects. Cheap publishing and the sense that it behoves students well to prepare something for publication mean that alot of courses now issue anthologies - including my alma mater who launch their latest this Thursday at Anthony Burgess Foundation.

As I struggle still with my own writing, I wonder on the limits of talent - for to get as far as a creative writing course is to get "so far." Literary lives are by their nature more likely to be obscure than famous. A good pub quiz question might be to "name Booker Prize winners" and see how many people would get. Our famous writers aren't always the ones who have written our most famous books. Back then, of course, I suspect nobody on my course (or the one at UEA) took any notice of a first children's novel by someone called J.K. Rowling that came out at that time. I think talent gets you so far - it gets you noticed, maybe - but then again, there are many, many competent writers out there whose "talent" I guess is of a journeyman nature. On the one hand it is what you do with it that matters, on the other hand where it takes you. I'd recommend Liardet's "The Game" for instance, its an excellent coming of age novel, that stayed with me a long time after I read it. On my own course, the first person to be signed to a deal was an exciting writer called Mark Powell who managed two books, "Snap" and "Box", before life got in the way.

In the Premiership each club has an academy churning out exciting young players, but rarely do a crop all flourish at once, or to the same level. The first teams of Manchester United, Manchester City, Arsenal and Chelsea rarely feature more than one or two "home grown" talents. To stand out you have to really stand out - not just be good, but lucky; not just lucky, but hard working; not just hard working but able to do a particular role. Writing is less obviously meritocratic than football - there are still plenty of books published by celebrities for instance. I guess most course tutors will quickly latch on to a writer with "potential" but I suspect that's all it is; though there is something to it - I don't think there will be many suprises about who makes it, maybe more about who doesn't.

And "making it" is a weird term in the context of literature. Being published? Being read? Winning prizes? Yet this is a stupidly niche industry even today. Twenty years seems long for an apprenticeship but as we live longer, as we do our creative work alongside other work, it shouldn't seem that surprising if occasionally it takes that long to get "success" - yet it can work the other way as well. Motion's crop of 1997 would probably not have been particular enhanced by him including me as part of it; whether my own career would have had more of a chance with the contacts and reputation of UEA, who knows? It could easily have gone either way.




Monday, August 29, 2016

The Pyramid by William Golding

William Golding's 6th novel "The Pyramid" (1967) was his most autobiographical. In its three delineated sections the narrator Oliver retells stories from a childhood in a sleepy middle-class English village between the wars, though the date isn't obvious at first, particularly in the first story, and only becomes clearer throughout the novel. Though the stories are distinct, it does function as a novel, for this is the village seen through the prism of the life of one who is due to leave it.  The first story is the most clearly a Bildungsroman, as Oliver, at home at his parents preparing to go up to Oxford, struggles with an unrequited (even unannounced) love for the distant Imogen, already engaged to an older man, and is distracted by the earthier charms of the sexually alluring Evie Babbacombe. In the stratified society of the (aptly named) Stilbourne, both are impossibilities for Oliver. His family, with his father a pharmacist, are a solid middleclass, who strive to be acceptable in the company of the richer members of the village society; whilst Evie, her father the Town Crier, is an impossibility.

The action begins when Evie, who until that moment he has hardly noticed, calls on Oliver to help her out. She has been driven in a stolen car by his more worldly neighbour Robert, and the car has been driven into a ditch - apparently as they let the brake go whilst in the middle of a sexual tryst. The naive Oliver agrees to help and becomes embroiled in the complexities of Evie's life. For she works for the doctor as a receptionist, and in this role he sees her often. Yet Evie, a young girl - just fifteen -  blossoming into womanhood and becoming irresistible to the gaze of various men in the village, is not quite as she appears to Oliver's cloistered view. He can't see past the surface, and having seen that she may be "loose", he becomes obsessed with finding out - and in an uncomfortable scene rapes or sexually assaults her. The novel is all told from Oliver's point of view, and is a sometimes confusing story, as the various strata within the village are hard to contemplate from this distance. "The Pyramid" of the title is - according to a gloss I read online - the class system, but despite young Oliver trying to have a life within the all-seeing village, at the same time as pleasing his class-conscious and puritanical parents, and to arrange his own future as a chemist at Oxford (though part of him wants to follow musical leanings), these nuances seem overwrought in a novel that is written not in the 1920s where it is set, but nearly half a century later. The style is in parts that of a book of that earlier era, and one can't help but think of the cartoon village life of the Professor Branestawm books, or Miss Marple's English villages, where every character is a "somebody" - a doctor, a newspaper editor, a lord mayor or whatever. Yet this sepia tinted writing is not afraid to write about sex in a way that would have been contemporary, yet, because it's Oliver's sensibility, is still frustrating in its reticence.

The first story is the longest and only at the end do we uncover the truth of Evie's story, that it is Oliver who has been the perpetrator here, taking her virginity, but also ruining her reputation in telling tales about her. The young girl has been trying to keep safe in a world where men have become predatory, and had perhaps hoped for good Oliver to help her, but he ends up being responsible for her having to leave the village. The unreliable narrator returns a couple of years later to be co-opted into the village's opera society - an irregular performance that causes much acrimony in the village. Here its less musical or acting talent that enables the cast to assemble, rather their respective social status. A flamboyant, probably gay director has come down to help direct the musical, and Oliver is co-opted in for both his musical ability and to play a couple of walk on roles. This second story is played as farce, and yet with its am-dram theatricality is the least appealing of the stories. It seems corny and cliched, bearing in mind this is writing after Coward, after Orton. The farce is as much off stage as on. The now married Imogen is the lead by virtue of her social position, though we hardly heard of her after the first mention in the first story, and turns out to be unable to sing - a result that has turned the director to drink.

The third story redeems the novel in some ways, though its also perhaps the darkest. Returning to village in 1960 Oliver visits Henry the garage owner who now has a number of enterprises in the village, and finds out that "Bounce" his old violin and piano teacher has passed away. Bounce was mentioned in passing in that earlier story, but here we get the story told from the beginning, from when he first went for lessons aged about ten. The real story is that Bounce, a rich spinster, had the first car in the village, supplied by Henry who had insinuated him into her life, taking advantage of her attraction to him, to give himself a lift up. He brings with him a wife and kids who end up living at Bounce's house, her desire to be near Henry making her a bit of a dupe. Yet for all that, Henry always helps her, out of guilt, perhaps, or out of some filial love. This intrigueing relationship is again seen through our unreliable narrator's eyes, even worse, as a gossipy ten year old, he diligently feeds back inside information to his curtain-tugging mother. Bounce gets old, gets mad, and gets sent away. Her story is a tragedy, and in many ways the book is less about Oliver than about these small tragedies of lives lived within the exigencies of their place and time. Within Stilbourne every nuance is soon made public, and the stifling nature of "society" in a close community is clear, yet the outside world - to which Oliver and Evie both disappear into - and from which the opera director and Henry emerge from - is invisible.

I'd been meaning to read a lesser Golding for a while, but this proved to be a disappointment. Given that he's one of our few Nobel writers, I can think of few novels from that period - it was written in 1967 - that feel so tortuous to read. It's a very dated work even for that time. It inhabits the same world as novels by  Kingsley Amis or Iris Murdoch or Margaret Drabble, but becauses its set in the 1920s it has a horribly quaint feel to it. The middle section is almost unreadable, a dated farce; whilst the opening section appalls more than a little as you realise that our narrator is the perpetrator in his lustful pursuit of misunderstood Evie. The final section, with its particular tragedy, is by some distance the best part, but even here, there's a sense of a private conversation ongoing. Clearly the work was an important one for Golding to get out of his system, but half a century on, it feels not so much a minor work by a great novelist, but a novel that makes one question whether beyond the originality of "Lord of the Flies" and "The Inheritors" he deserves to be remembered at all, and I wonder if he's one of those novelists that outside of that still popular debut, anyone still reads him? 

Friday, August 26, 2016

Return to Mid-Wales

I spent most of my family holidays in Wales. We went from caravans in Borth to a chalet at the "Happy Valley" park just outside of Tywyn, and later a holiday home further north in Llandudno. Yet despite - or because - of this I don't think I've been back to the Welsh coast since I left home at 18. So this week I decided to make amends and catch the train to Aberystwyth and stay there for a few days as a base. Not driving, I was reliant on trains and had discovered the "Explore Wales Pass" which gives you "four days in eight" of travel for £69, starting as far east as Crewe.








Aberystwyth is a university town, and the beach is purely utilitarian, a small pebbly space. Yet its a lovely small town, which seems somewhat uncorrupted by the times, despite the inevitable (and welcome) 24-hour Spar and Cafe Nero amongst the local shops. There's plenty to do there, from a vertical cliff railway, to the nicely landscaped castle remains looking out onto the bay, to the imposing National Library of Wales which I got to just before closing time on a grey Monday. Here there was a fine exhibition by Aled Rhys Jones in response to the poetry of David Jones' "In Parenthesis" his modernist classic account of the battle of Mametz where 4,000 Welsh infantry died in the Great War.

An early start on Tuesday took me along the River Dyfi towards Tywyn, the seaside town we'd spent so many years at. My plan, on a lovely day, was to catch the Tallylyn Railway up to Dolgoch falls. The light railway I'd not been on for best part of 40 years, but as the oldest volunteer maintained one in Britain its been taking passengers up the valley towards Snowdonia since the 1860s. Amusingly for me, the air was full of Brummy and Black Country accents, a reminder that this part of Wales has a longstanding affinity with the part of the country I'm from. Speaking to my mum afterwards she mentioned several friends who had caravans or cottages on this coast line. Tywyn was always the sleepiest of towns and we'd usually go down the coast to Aberdyfi for the beach, or given our propensity for holidaying in the wettest weak of the year, we'd find a castle or a market town to drive to.

Aberystwyth was a good place to stay, but not as convenient for the west coast train line which runs on a single track for long stretches, and where there are no local trains just the nearly two-hourly trains from Birmingham and Shrewsbury which split into two at Machynlleth before going on to Aberystwyth or Pwllheli. I stopped off at Machynlleth, by friend Amy having tipped me off as it being a good town for a books. Sure enough I picked up a couple whilst waiting to change trains.

On Wednesday I decided to go as far up the coast as I could find time for - and stopped off first in Barmouth and then at Harlech Castle. Arriving at Barmouth around ten, the beach was still uncolonised, a glorious expanse of sand that takes ten minutes from prom to sea. Passing the fun fair and the donkey rides you come round the corner to a secluded harbour, where kids are crabbing, small boats are available for hire, and the distinct smell of seafood emanates from the cafes and restaurants. The old town is lovely, a couple of snaking roads, where old churches and chapels have been turned into antiques shops, and little cafes have set up every few yards.

Harlech, half an hour further north, see the train passing past numerous little "settlements" where a clump of holiday homes or static caravans are next to their own private stub of beach. By Harlech, you've come in land a little, as the rock escarpment on which it is based, has been colonised as the sea has pushed back a little. The castle itself is of course a wonder. It took just six years to build, in the 13th century, at an astronomic cost, and has survived numerous sieges in the centuries since. It struck me that a castle is the medieval equivalent of a nuclear deterrent, it has very little military use, but is a sign of geopolitical power. For a castle's strength - as a secure place overlooking the land it controls - is also its weakness - for when a castle's rulers have had to retreat to their battlements surely the fight is as good as lost? At various times the castle has passed between hands, from Norman-English to Welsh custodians. Now, of course, it has world heritage status, and a lovely visitor's centre. The walk up from the station was a steep one. At the top of the building, much to my surprise, I heard my name spoken, and there were two friends from Manchester with their family, as equally surprised to find me there. Of all the castles, in all the world, we had to walk into this one....

With the weather turning on Thursday I decided to come back to Manchester, had I been off for a fortnight I think I might have stayed a couple of days longer, but I'm planning to go back to this part of the world more regularly from now on. Weirdly enough, some of the things that I've loved about European travel, heritage and the sea, are so easily found on the Welsh coast, but also something else; in a world that feels overpopulated at times, the sense of the crowds thinning out, and a calmer, less frenetic way of life is palpable. Seeing this coast by train was a first, as well, and was as much a part of the fun as the destinations.

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, death...it'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 Greek....to Latin....to 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

"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.