Friday, September 30, 2005


In Bob Dylan week, I've been thinking a lot about influence. Coming to folk music, rather than being immersed in it since birth, Dylan looked for and picked out his influences - from rock, to pop, to Appalachian folksongs, to showtunes to an acetate of Robert Johnson's King of the Delta Blues. From these he took what he wanted or could use and discarded the rest. This magpie eye is what created Dylan the songwriter, and it goes to show that raw talent on its own, can, be massively enhanced by an intelligent mind. It might not work for a symphony composer, but for a pop writer...he took structure from here, subject from there... I think its important to see that influence, in this way, is both a personal thing, and a tool in itself. What am I trying to do? you ask. How might I do it? What can I use?

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Pile 'em high...

I couldn't resist joining in this parlour game, (also here and here) - how many books by or about an author have you got? My own (partial list with reasons) includes -:

Anthony Burgess - 26 (he was prolific, I picked them up cheap, I once thought of doing a PhD on him, he's in Manchester where I live, I've only read a handful of them... but one of these days.)
F. Scott Fitzgerald - 16 (inc. 2 versions of the letters, 3 versions of Gatsby, one that is all Zelda, one that is Zelda and him, a couple of biographies, his 2nd wife's memoir...okay, okay, I'm a fan!)
Mary McCarthy - 14 (ditto Burgess apart from the PhD and Manchester bits, but she is good... and gets me out of the "no women on the list" problem others have had...)
John Ashbery - 12 (though "the mooring of starting out" is 5 books in one so I should get bonus points)
D.H. Lawrence - 11 (inc. a biog, selected letters etc.)
Bruce Chatwin - 10 (inc. 2 biographies and all that he ever published!)
William Burroughs - 10 (inc. a book of interviews, a biography, 2 career-spanning anthologies.)
George Eliot - 9 (inc. 2 biographies and 2 versions of Silas Marner for some reason)
Martin Amis - 9 (kind of given up buying them all, but will fill in the gaps if I see them cheap-ish, and half a dozen by Kingsley probably tips the "family" balance!)
Michael Moorcock - 8 (although they are mostly different versions/variations on his Jerry Cornelius collection which I've been trying to pick up, and its a complex bibliography!)
Philip Roth - 8 (though Zuckerman bound is 3 books in 1)

I'd guess that Andre Dubus, Don DeLillo and perhaps even David Foster Wallace might one day make the list, but I'm in no hurry, my collection being generally wider than it is deep. I think its useful though - one's reading isn't accumulated instantly, but over time, some enthusiasms seem naive now, other's have grown greater as time goes on, others are yet to flourish. I would like, when all's said and done to be able to map these co-ordinates of my tastes, interests, and obsessions, and see that yes, my own artistic sensibility was created there, somehow.

Pride and Prejudice

"Pride and Prejudice" was sold out last night, so I can't comment on the film. It's more than 20 years since I read the book, and I was trying to remember when I last read it. So familiar has the story become, through adaptions such as the BBC's, as well as "loose" adaptions like "Bridget Jones Diary" and "Bride and Prejudice." Even when I was at school studying it, it was dismissed by many in the class as a girls book, which always seemed particularly unfair for this most charged of domestic dramas. Perhaps the meaning was that the character you can identify with has to be Elizabeth Bennett. It's why the book has lasted, this modern sensibility, concentrating on this headstrong character. Darcy is a head we never get in to, so I guess for a male reading the book, its not about using Darcy as a role model, but wondering where on earth we might meet a woman like Lizzie Bennett? Perhaps I've spent the last 20 years or so doing just that! "The Great Gatsby" (today is Fitzgerald's birthday) was on television last night, the lush but static Robert Redford/Mia Farrow version. Daisy Buchanan didn't come across as so mentally disturbed in the book, though Tom is a 100% bastard in both. I mention this, because, despite everything, once Darcy has come to his senses (and moreover turns to be saint rather than sinner in the case of Wickham), Lizzie has the not indistinct advantage of moving into the biggest house in Derbyshire. Perhaps twas ever thus. "A single man in possession of a good fortune..." turns into Darcy. This is the stuff of fairytale of course, and its probably where one's only criticism of Austen can come in; that the rarified world she's writing of is just that. Here poverty is relative, and measurable, and impenetrable. Marriage is the only social mobility (though debt probably comes a possible second.) In retrospect the Bennett's have been living a long-term gamble on (a) having a son, and (b) getting good husbands for the girls. Gatsby is also about new and old money, and it's sway. Carraway is a "lowly" bond trader (ironic given the excessive wealth of that profession these last 20 years!) whilst Gatsby's money, though never clearcut, is potentially anything - given the fallout of the post-war years. It is the old money of Tom and Daisy that is finally the impenetrable place - it can do any damn thing it wants - and it is also the trap, and the moral. So Gatsby is a more attainable role model than Darcy, since its not about inheritance, but charisma. He doesn't - and can't - get, and keep the girl. Fitzgerald never wrote the coda to this great tragedy, that there are in fact, "second acts", to American lives, his own, with Sheila Ferguson, a different happiness (and different tragedy) than with Zelda. Had Gatsby lived, one hopes, he'd have downsized his dreams, and grown into a different sort of happiness - an attainable one. I love both of these books, but whilst the Austen has been "borrowed" innumerable times, Gatsby remains somewhat aloof to adaption. Can any woman truly find Tom Buchanan attractive? Beyond his money and connections? The role of reading groups, of discussions about books, of it being a mainly female phenomenon, has its effect, I guess. We're still waiting for the male writers who can address this market - though I've head good things spoken of Andrew Miller's "Oxygen" for instance, I've yet ro read it. Ian McEwan recently gave away a load of new editions of classics that he'd been given and almost without exception it was women who accepted, once they'd found one they'd not yet read!, and its an interesting conclusion, "when women stop reading, the novel will be dead." It's one of those "when's" that might never happen of course - but they probably said that of getting married, and having children, and just look at the demographics!

Sunday, September 18, 2005

A digression around edges

I have failed dismally to do any "primary" work this weekend, so this is a digression really. I picked up Eno's A Year with Swollen Appendices andone of the appendices is on Edge Culture. In this context his digression is not so much about the edge, but about the "line" that art/cultural historians draw. Its possibly going back to the canonical - in literature, Dante, Milton, Shakespeare etc. - and saying that this is how one makes sense of it all, and that this is the dominant cultural strand, and closeness to this strand is what is important in terms of greatness, influence etc. Eno makes the point that the centre - the line, if you like - has adapted through broadening - i.e. bringing a Duke Ellington or whoever into the canon, a kind of "yes, but the canon can also include...". I suppose in a political sense its the way that the mainstream (in the UK at least) adapts to external pressures by bringing them into the camp. Influence, once external, becomes internal, or central. Eno's point is that during the 2nd half of the century the high art consensus pretty much collapsed even though the critics and guardians of that art make a pretence of its continued importance/existence. I guess that's really about saying, what can be placed up there next to the high points of western culture? Do the Beatles fit? Does Miles Davis? We're still wedded to this idea in the same way we're wedded to the idea of the capital/the centre/the institution. There are lots of vested interests. The edge city thesis, is that the interesting stuff is happening on the edges of our metropoli, linked communities at the edge (in this case a geographical one), and this is how we now live our lives. Without reading Garreau its hard to know the exact thesis, but I guess its about the car, our orbital roads, our out-of-town malls - our linking together of once separate settlements that probably took succour from the centre, but now can thrive with each other. South Manchester is such a "strip" I guess. But for culture - I guess Eno's point is that we have to embrace a diversity that doesn't quite fit into any "great man" view of history. Its self-serving in some way, since its doubtful whether a single one of Eno's own tunes or ideas (ambient music perhaps?), will last beyond his involvement with them - I'm a great fan, both of his music and his innovation, but the edge here is perhaps self-selecting. Working with Bowie, Talking Heads, James and U2 - it doesn't, in retrospect, look like someone working with the edge (apart from literally in the case of U2!) but of bringing his awareness of the edge to the mainstream. These are not criticisms - those are some of the most intelligent, articulate artists of the last twenty years - but in music, at least, where all diversity - however deviant - is welcomed, pop music's polyglot polyphony has made any "high art" "low art" debates a little relevant. It seems at any point in history there may be one, two or more genuinely unique talents; most of the time however there is a scene, a wave, a common creed. It's not overstating it to say that it's hard to think of an Anglo-American poet of real stature since the fifties - and that's something about this singular vision matched with a method of executing it, that perhaps is what's most lasting from a Kafka, a Shakespeare, even a Plath. Because it is how work influences a culture that eventually sees its currency lasting, it has to be - or become part of that culture at some point. I've been listening to David Bowie. It seems that his sixties recordings were pale versions of the contemporary zeitgeist, a mod/hippy amalgam. Its only with 1970's "The Man Who Sold the World" that he hit on a darker, more compelling subject. This Neichzean philosophy is commidified, sloganised, popified (McLaren would try the same thing with situationism not long after), for a wider audience. By the time of homage album "HunkyDory", its Bowie as avant garde teacher - Andy Warhol, Velvet Underground, William Burroughs - he's letting his audience in on his recent reading/listening. There's easy access via the bookshops and the internet to any subculture you want now, and I think probably this is where the "line" has now blurred. I've mused for a while: have we "one culture"? Is my reference relevant to anyone else? Yes, and no, and don't get too bothered about it, would seem the answers. I read Iain Banks' "Complicity" with glee when his character was listening to the Pixies (you can't imagine Julian Barnes' or Ian McEwan's characters knowing who they were), but that was then - the Pixies have reformed, are on a reunion tour, anyone, in fact, can now see or buy them. Nick Hornby's frequent music pronouncements are personal, ultimately un-inspiring, canonical only to himself, but that's fine, it's local colour, that's all. I have a great deal of admiration for Alison Lapper, but uts from me seeing a TV documentary of her, not coming across her own work, or even standing in Trafalgar Square and coming across Mark Quinn's sculpture of her, by accident. I know all about it already. Its formally part of our culture - but without any effort on mine, or many other's part. We're even told that yes, she's a real life Venus de Milo, that if the latter can be beautiful then so can she. I've no problems with any of that, but it doesn't leave much for me to do, other than say, "yes, okay, what's the next story?" (As I said, a digression, sorry.)

Thursday, September 15, 2005

The Crap Bits

I admire writers who can stick to one piece of work at a time. Why can't I? I think it's because I've not yet worked a way of writing (or not writing) "the crap bits." The crap bits of a novel are the ones that you have to write to get from A to B. You either just write them, and hope that they don't bore the reader to read as much as they bored you to write, or simply skip them and hope nobody notices. At my least linear, the latter kind of works well, but it only hides another truth, that I still go through the pain of not writing the crap bits, even if there's just a blank slate. Some books, of course, are full of the crap bits, as if the writer revels in those mundane bits that other writers wisely skip over. I'm probably not alone in creating hostages to fortune. Put your character in a coma or a hospital or a prison cell and you've suddenly got loads of crap bits to deal with before you can have fun again. Some writers no doubt come back and write the crap bits afterwards. I've heard Brett Easton Ellis say that he added the murders last to "American Psycho" and ditto Magnus Mills the deahts in "The Restraint of Beasts." Its kind of disappointing this -unless they were merely savouring the good bits to the end, like eating all your greens and leaving the steak till last. The thing I'm currently writing, I've just got over the crap bits, through gritted teeth and impenetrable prose. Pen is poised to have a rollicking time with the 2 German truck drivers I was about to send out on the road with their perilous cargo, but before I get to that, I wonder whether maybe I should go back to the previous thing I'd abandoned, I'm obviously getting better at the crap bits. Now if I can only get to the good part...

Monday, September 12, 2005


I was at a poetry reading tonight (Verberate) and it struck me that the reason there is such a performance poetry scene in Manchester must be something to do with accent. "Poetic voice" comes from your real voice - at least partly. How do you "think" or "dream" in rhythms? It has to be how you hear - the accent of your thoughts in other words. The Irish/Mancunian accent seems to work well in this context. Heavily weighted word endings great a rhythm that is strident without being polemical, truthful without being dogmatic. R.P. it is not. The previous generations of "Northern poets" had their granite voices smoothed to pebbles by Grammars and crammers, Oxford and Cambridge. I've a reading of Dylan Thomas which has him copying Richard Burton's reading of Dylan Thomas. If the accent in your head is the anvil on which your poetic voice is forged then it's hard to see how you can get away from it. Though, oddly enough, fiction writers do it all the time. Having just read "Cloud Atlas" by David Mitchell, its fascinating how he makes short work of those things other writers sometimes make a meal of. Whether its a facsimile of speech/style or the real thing, he gives all his characters their head. He's not giving us a history lesson here, but the characters swim in their own times. I remember an (American) actress - Gwyneth Paltrow perhaps? - dismissing her "skill" with an English accent as nothing. "We're actors, this is what we do." And its surely not asking too much for writers to be able to approximate voice. For what it's worth, the heavily accented written prose doesn't work for me - phonetic spellings, archaic words, and verbatim speech are essentially tools for a writer that in the wrong hands are useless, but when used sparingly can be very effective. From "A Clockwork Orange" to "Trainspotting" its hardly necessary to understand the slang, far more important to inhabit a novelistically realistic voice. Accent - in this case, second hand, rather than the authorial one of most poems - is only one aspect of a character's voice. Are they young or old? Rich or poor? Bright or stupid? The task is to inhabit the character's voice so that we know what kind of person it is, not whether they come from Todmorden or Hebden Bridge.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Great Wyrley

It's pleasing to see Julian Barnes' "Arthur and George" shortlisted for the Booker Prize. I've not yet read it, but the reviews alerted me to the fact that it's partially set in Great Wyrley. For those who don't know (i.e. anybody who was not born and bred in the Black Country) Great Wyrley is a small village in between Cannock, Wolverhampton and Walsall. People from Great Wyrley still have an accent that is noticeably different than even those 3 great metropoli. It's kind of more sing-song than the usual nasal Black Country, a higher pitch. It's fascinating to think of Julian Barnes going there to "research" the novel, though I don't know that there would be much there left to research. One of my earliest memories is going on the egg round with my dad round Great Wyrley and thereabouts. My grandparents were farmers, but if you wondering what was so great about Wyrley, it possibly makes more sense if I tell you that they lived all their life in Little Wyrley. I could, of course, go on about this all night. It sometimes seems that novels are set in places very distinct from where I come from, so it was with a real frisson that I read about "Arthur and George." It's apparently about a notorious event - but one I'd never heard of, so it just goes to show.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Cult Writing

I've always liked cult writing, cult music, cult films, but wonder if we've somehow done with all that and need to find a new word. Antony and the Johnsons winning the Mercury prize is a case in point. Its impossible to find this stuff out for yourself nowadays, its in your face as soon as its made. Hard to know whether I'd like it or not, he sounded like the sublime Liz Fraser singing "Song to the siren" but I'm not sure I can deal with that just at the moment. Poignancy has it's limits. I discovered another nominee, the Go Team, by chance, and kind of think they're the real recommendation. The cult is well and truly dead, J.K. Rowling is probably responsible for the "cult" of Harry Potter, and Nick Hornby is a "cult" writer. We need a new word, and if we new writers can't find one, then who can? I suggest every time you see the word "cult" substitute the word "good" and see if it fits. "Good" could well be the new cult. It will certainly be much rarer.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Product Placement

In Ian McEwan's Booker longlisted "Saturday" this very contemporary novel is tentative, but telling in the cultural details it includes. It's safe enough on the recent history - the known, and non-dateable events leading up to the war in Iraq - and, since although this is the story of a certainly rarified family (a neurosurgeon, a newspaper lawyer, a 7000 sq. ft. house in Fitzrovia) they also have 2 teenage or just older, children, there's the need for a certain verisimilitude. Thus, there's a pierced midriff, a single reference to "a rapper on MTV", and to transferring music to a computer. Amidst the Tate Moderns, the "Not in Our Name", and the detailed locale; and an unstinting detail about the medical procedures of a contemporary neurosurgeon, McEwan stays well, and sensibly clear of what he doesn't know so much about. The son is a blues musician, a cleverly anachronistic way of not requiring local knowledge, the blues having stopped its development somewhere around '56. (Though I'd have liked to think even a contemporary blues musician would be listening to the White Stripes and particularly the Black Keys...) The daughter, a poet, and one, again incongruously, influenced by Larkin and Henry James! In Martin Amis's last novel, "Yellow Dog", the earlier inventiveness of his satirical style is mixed, somewhat uneasily with "real products." A sarcy-reference to fashion labels like "FCUK and TUNC" would be a poor joke bottom of the bill of the "Frog and Bucket" and whilst in the distant past he'd invented the wonderfully colourful beer, "Peculiar Brew", later Amis can't quite decide what to invent and what to put in verbatim. So they drink Stella, but also a series of shots named from his imagination. There's a messiness here, that, can be fun, and when he gets it right its still invigorating, but which diverts the reader somewhat. In a fiction, particular, you want to believe in the whole world however bizarre it might be, and these mis-treads unsettle the conviction. Re-reading Tom Wolfe's introduction to the New Journalism, and the piece from Hunter S. Thompson, on "Hell's Angels", I'm reminded that this search for truthful detail, in both fiction and non-fiction is ongoing. In the latter, a reference to the wrong band or brand will stand out like a sore thumb; in the former, a slightly mistaken cultural reference can date badly. Yet American fiction has long been unafraid of product placement - a consumerist culture perhaps hardly needing to invent the everyday detail of packaging. For me, one of the pleasures of writing contemporary fiction is getting the "real" right. There's a great quote in Jay McInerney's "Model Behaviour" where he deadpans that a character's father has "all the classics, Grisham and Clancy" (I think I've missed one, but the book's not quite to hand). It tells a lot both about character, and about the cultural gaps between father and son. But just as this accuracy is appealing, I also like being able to make things up. It seems a matter of "weight" - how important is the detail? An imagined detail has to carry something in it's name - and I guess, I've always preferred to invent pub, shop and street names, than use the real ones, even if they're clearly based on a rael place. Yet, cultural details can be stamped so strongly, that there's a case for using the real thing. I've not yet wrote a post iPod story, but I guess they'll come - and I kind of think the ubiquity of that brand means I'll play around with it, and create my own model. Bands, and authors are harder to fake. Part of sensing the character is to sense their book and record collection; yet even the most obvious contemporary choices can read anachronistically shortly afterwards. Simply to stick with the classics or the non-temporal. Any book can cope with the weight of a couple dancing to a Marvin Gaye song, for instance, whether set in 1985 or 2005, but the "Crazy Frog" will doom it to the moment. In some ways, for an English novel, the avoidance strategies of "Saturday" are a superb example, sticking to chronological and geographical fact, but avoid any cultural pitfalls. It probably goes without saying, that though it avoids the messiness of "Yellow Dog", the novel lacks a little colour and bark in comparison. It will be interesting to read a younger writer, say Zadie Smith's next novel, and see what strategies she uses for describing this teemingly busy contemporary world.

Thursday, September 01, 2005


Influence is a strange one, and one I will come back to, no doubt. It is, I think, about moorings, and personal ones at that. The writer is an individualist, and his writing is individualistic, therefore so are those moorings. Yet, there are also commonplaces. Few successful (and I mean here, good, as opposed to just popular) writers are entirely out of their time: a Kafka or an Emily Dickinson may be unnoticed by their time, but their work remains of it, even if it came to prominence later. The close similarities of Johnson's "Rasselas" and Voltaire's "Candide" are not so surprising, given the intellectual tenor of the times, they are both responses to the same stimuli. There's a nature vs. nurture argument here. It seems that all the texts that I studied for "O" and "A" level - i.e. between the ages of 13-18 are personal totems still; Donne and Herbert, Wuthering Heights, Waiting for Godot, the Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Othello. Yet they are not the main ones. Perhaps I was lucky: there all romantic writings, even, if somewhat 2nd-hand, the Beckett. Yet my nature was always towards the literary, rather than, say, the scientific or the practical. What fascinates me is those non-taught influences. In Liverpool today for The Summer of Love exhibition, I came across quite a few other totems. How was it that I unearthed for myself the Velvet Underground, Robert Wyatt (here in Soft Machine) and Janis Joplin? In the early '80s, the sixties were both too near and too far to have much currency; yet I got hooked on Velvet Underground almost before hearing them, certainly on seeing the "banana" cover of their debut. That, over 20 years on, I'm in a room listening to "Venus in Furs" and "European Son" surrounded by screens on 4 sides of visuals (that I'd never seen before), in a respectable art gallery... at what point did my counter-cultural references become that mainstream? At what point, did I embrace these then-unfashionable influences as my own? Of 120 people in my school year, I can pretty much guarantee I'm the only one to have ever listened to the Velvet Underground - then or now; yet, this is music that was being written and recorded at the time I was born - so on the one hand, it makes perfect sense, this was my astrological legacy, and on the other, how absurd!, since none of my contemporaries would have got it. (Though clearly, 1 in 120 people liking the Velvet Underground may be a little high, and if I'd widened the net a little, or, like later in life, narrowed it to only fit through a certain kind of person, I'd have surely found others.) But whatever the ramifications - this exhibition ticked off so many of my influence-points, that there's clearly something going on. Yet the wider cultural patterns of that period in history, haven't really engaged me in the same way. There were several times in the exhibition when the thought "bloody hippies" was my only rational response. Somehow, without nature or nurture having much say in the process, I was kind of right about all this stuff back then. The Robert Wyatt influence is even more obtuse. I had never even heard the man's name, until I happened on his single "Grass" on singles of the week, and several weeks - or months - later bought the album on which it could be found. What was it that I immediately recognised in this one very non-typical song of his? Who knows? Other than a kind of kinship. What is clear is that these "influences" were for something of the essence of the artist - not because of what I'd read in the papers, or because they were contemporary favourites - the opposite in many ways. It's hazy, but I feel that I came to William Burroughs through music such as Soft Machine (they took their name from his novel), and the Velvets ("Lonesome Cowboy Bill") rather than the other way round. How many years before I realised that the enigmatic "From European Son to Delmore Schwarz" was referring to a writer? Lately, uncertain of step, its reassuring to know how sure-footed I was in these early decisions. Taste both widens and flattens as one gets older. I should trust the bumpier road, it's a clearer route.