Sunday, June 18, 2017

Manchester: City of Literature

On Thursday I attended the official launch for the bid for Manchester to become a UNESCO City of Literature, part of its creative cities network - an excellent initiative that sees cities worldwide networking and creating partnerships and exchanges through their mutual love of different art forms. I was at the launch a few years ago in Norwich when they announced their bid - and let's hope we're successful, and also, that it kickstarts a more wider understanding of Manchester's role as a literary as well as a sporting and music city. The full press release can be read here. 

It seems only appropriate, since its something I don't think I've blogged about directly before, to consider my own take on Manchester's literary history. On a personal level, if its true that I first came here for the music, I actually came back for the literature, specifically to study on an M.A. under Micheal Schmidt (who was there on Thursday) and Richard Francis at the University of Manchester.
But outside of the personal, I think Manchester's literary history is undoubtedly tied up tightly with its political and economic history. Though the city goes ways back - to Roman times - the modern city is Victorian, though, arguably, we can see that over the last twenty years, its moving to a post-industrial architecture that sits along the Victorian, and it is the late twentieth century - of a declining urban centre - which is being erased. But one of the great things about books, of course, is that they can last much longer than the edifices that possibly inspired them. In a cosmic game of paper > scissors > stone paper outlasts stone more often than not; though Manchester's history has it both ways - a first folio of Shakespeare sitting in the gothic splendour of the John Ryland's library - one of the 4 libraries, alongside Chethams, Portico and Central - which sits at the heart of the Manchester bid.

English literature casts long shadows, and its sometimes hard for newer trends to overthrow them. Its fulcrum remains London, of course, with its many publishing houses, and its multitude of writers. As the centre of political power it was always the centre of cultural power as well. Our poetry - rarely urban - nonetheless is centred on the capital, our most lauded writers, Shakespeare and Dickens are both umbilically linked to there. Yet, our literature when its mapped out - there are plenty of literary geography's of Britain - tends to be elsewhere: in the shire counties, in the market towns, particular of the English Midlands and later, at the political fringes, in Scotland, Wales or Ireland. In this context Manchester might seem a literary backwater: yet by the 18th century, with the industrial revolution in full swing, the burgeoning middle classes - made wealthy through this new industry - were creating the cultural institutions in the city that stand to this day: from the Lit & Phil, to the libraries, to the University. Yet, its not wrong to say that Manchester's literature was intrinsically linked to the age of enlightenment: where political tracts from Chartists to Marxists to Left book Club members sat alongside scientific literature, economics, and moral works from non-conformists preaching to the working classes.

In such an age, imaginative literature sometimes seems an indulgence, and if there's a core failing in the city's literary figures, it might be this: that we are too drawn to realism. Yet that too has its advantages. Our earliest figurehead, Thomas de Quincey, is most famous for his "Confessions of an English Opium Eater", and the most interesting works about Manchester in the 1990s were Jeff Noon's "Vurt" and "Pollen", psychotropic cyberpunk fantasias set in a recognisable Manchester. Cities are magnets for writers - so that any literature of the city tends to be catholic in its appreciation. We count as our own those born here such as de Quincey, who despite a very Mancunian waywardness left and held right-wing political views, those who have studied here, and Anthony Burgess, who rarely returned to the city but was prone to such statements as the "the novelist is Mancunian"; those who have taught here - such as W.G. Sebald, Michael Schmidt, Carol Ann Duffy; and those who have visited here - there's a blue plaque for Charlotte Bronte on the side of the Salutation pub.

In this reading of the city - you'd have thought Manchester, with a newly educated middle class, the John Owens University, and a heady mix of methodism and later Marxism, alongside an incoming population of Irish labourers, would have immediately created its own literature, like other urban centres in the USA for instance. Whereas the 18th century novel had grown out of that grubby trade, journalism, by the mid-19th century, there was an audience for magazine writers, and from the serial, would come the hardcover three volume novel. Elizabeth Gaskell moved to Manchester after marrying a Unitarian Minister. His chapel was on Cross Street - where de Quincey was born, and where today Carcanet Press has an office - and she would eventually move to the suburbs, and a house on Plymouth Grove which has been recently restored. In novels such as "Mary Barton", "Cranford" and "North and South", as well as her "Life of Charlotte Bronte", she became a major writer of the period, and is both revived (in film and theatre) and read today. Dickens - who would write about Preston in "Hard Times" - was a friend. "Mary Barton" is set in Manchester, and seeing a dramatisation at the Royal Exchange a few years ago, adjacent to where it was set, highlighted the importance of literature in documenting realistically a fast-changing world.

Realism was and remains the Manchester literary idiom. It's there in the 1876 novel "The Manchester Man" by Isabella Banks, in Walter Greenwood's  1950s "Love on the Dole", through to Tony Warren's concept for a northern drama, "Coronation Street" , and later still Andrea Ashworth's domestic violence memoir "Once in a House on Fire." Amongst other novelists we find the forgotten Manchester Grammar School boy Gilbert Cannan, who Henry James referenced in his essay on promising novelists, and the very much remembered University of Manchester graduate Anthony Burgess. I've not yet managed to read any of Cannan's work, but Burgess is now celebrated in the city in a way that was hardly imaginable twenty years ago. An emigre writer, and initially a composer rather than a writer, his most famous books are international in focus, are linguistic fantasias in style; yet he would write about Manchester in one or two novels, such as "The Piano Players" and in particular the first volume of his autobiography.

Later on, novelists like Booker winner Howard Jacobsen, whose "The Mighty Waltzer" reminisced about his North Manchester Jewish youth, and my old tutor, Richard Francis, whose comic novel "Taking apart the Poco Poco" takes place in Stockport, have used the city as a backdrop as well as having lived here. Its strange how little the city has featured in fiction; perhaps its frequent setting for TV dramas - "Cold Feet", "Cracker" and "Queer as Folk" as well as "Coronation Street" - and films - Manchester noir, "Hell is a City", "The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue", "Control" and "24 Hour Party People", and "28 days Later", Manchester almost always depicted as a gritty northern city where anything can happen, has made it more difficult for its writers to ground something in this place. There are exceptions of course and younger novelists like Emma Jane Unsworth, Joe Stretch and Chris Killen have used the city as a backdrop to 20-something lives, none more successfully than Gwendoline Riley's first two books, "Cold Water" and "Sick Notes." Then again there is Shelagh Delaney's remarkable debut play "A Taste of Honey" and its equally excellent movie.

If the city has not yet spewed up its version of Chicago's Saul Bellow, or a "great city novel" to rival those American urban writers, perhaps this is as much to do with the British literary scene - both concentrated on London and likely to dismiss anything outside of M25 as parochial (whilst Zadie Smith's "NW", set in a single postcode, would never receive that epithet!)

Twenty years ago Penguin, in conjunction with City Life magazine and editor Ra Page, came up with a collection of Manchester stories, realising, correctly, a groundswell of writers based in and writing about the city. Inevitably, in a music obsessed city, it also included contributions from Shaun Ryder, Mark E. Smith, Dave Haslam and Tony Wilson. The only surprise was that Alex Ferguson wasn't included. Yet amongst that predictable positioning, the range of writers was impressive, and if there was a second volume today, it would no doubt be more so. Like Iowa, famous for its Writing Workshop, or UEA, for the UK's first creative writing M.A., with wide ranging writing schools at MMU, Manchester and Salford Universities (and outlying Bolton), its tempting to see Manchester now as a finishing school for writers - cosmopolitan enough to be a good alternative to London, cheap enough to make it attractive to talent on a low income, and with enough of a literary scene - particularly live literature, to help nascent talent develop. Last years Booker longlist had two Manchester connections, ex-student Wyl Menmuir and tutor Ian McGuire, whilst Carol Ann Duffy, as professor of poetry at Manchester Met has continued the city's thriving poetry reputation.

Ah, yes, poetry - again, I've struggled to know what to say about Manchester and its poetry. There are probably more poets in the city than ever before, and certainly than other cities. Our most famous names are transplants such as Jackie Kay and Carol Ann Duffy, or ones who have left like Sophie Hannah and Lemn Sissay; there are many poems about Manchester - as a number of anthologies ("Best of Manchester Poets", "Sculpted: Poetry of the North West") have indicated. There's an experimental poetry scene to rival any in the country, and performance poetry, at least that of a certain variety, feels like it began here, and still thrives in a range of nights, and through initiatives such as Contact Theatre's "Young Identity" group. After the terrible events at the Arena a few weeks ago, it was a poet, Tony Walsh, who found the words for the city's grief. Yet again, though there are many poems set in the city, or about the city, I'm not sure there are many that are emblematic. Just as film sometimes seems to be the city's driver of narrative, so music can sometimes seem to be the driver of it's poetry; "The North will rise again," "Manchester, so much to answer for."  "To the centre of the city where all roads meet, waiting for you." "When the rain falls hard on the humdrum town." "Please don't put your life in the hands of a rock and roll band." "You're like Manchester, you've got strange ways." "Spend a year in a couple of hours on the edge of Beasley Street."

The next few months and years will hopefully see more focus on bringing together this scattered history - a tableau of influence and connection that is as random as any city but together pulls into some kind of word tapestry. Manchester, city of literature, it has a ring to it.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Cop Hater by Ed McBain

I don't read that much detective fiction but when I do I've always liked the hard-boiled or the noirish. Oddly I've never picked up an Ed McBain before, despite being a big fan of one of the writer's other pseudonym's Evan Hunter, whose 50s jazz noir "Second Ending" is even more a favourite than "Blackboard Jungle" (the template for the notorious "Rock Around the Clock" film.) I picked up "Cop Hater" as its the first of his 87th Precinct novels. In an introduction to this reissue he talks about how he had the idea to write a series of books about a group of cops rather than a single cop or detective - and how any "murder" story tended to be a bit fake when the protagonist was anyone other than a cop - e.g. a private detective.

"Cop Hater" has the same clipped style I remember from the Hunter novels, but though a genre book, its not all about the action. Starting with the murder of a plain clothes policeman, this novel puts the precinct at the centre of the action - as the various cops we are introduced to are all potentially lined up as the next to be killed by the "cop hater." Yet McBain moves out of the precinct and into the homes of the men who have to keep the city safe. They are all individuals with their own personalities and home lives. Steve Carella and Hank Bush are the duty detectives who go out to find out why the first cop was murdered in cold blood. They find the smallest of clues: half of a footprint. First of all they think the answer must be in the files - particularly when the partner of the first cop is also killed. Yet they can't find any examples of motive.

The city - a city like New York in its size and ethnic mix, with a river running through it - is as much a character as any of the cops. Its the summer of a heatwave, and the heat makes everything seem hard work. The city newspaper, a scandal rag, is desperate for an angle, and wonders if its teenage gangs who have killed the cops. One journalist, Savage, starts taking things into his own hands, acting as an agent provocateur, leading to another cop being injured with a zip gun from one of the teenagers.

Carella is in love and his girlfriend, Teddy, is a deaf mute. He has promised to marry her, but like all cops' wives and girlfriends she fears for him not coming home. Meanwhile Carella can't get out of his head images of his partner Bush's descriptions of his florid wife, Alice, who always wears black lingerie. This is a book that is determined to be a raw and edgy read, and that kind of edge is what makes the book still highly readable so many years on. The 87th Precinct stories would continue throughout McBain's long career, all set in the same district of this imagined city.

It's been a really refreshing read - McBain's approach influencing later police dramas like "Hill Street Blues" whilst at the same time taking inspiration from "Dragnet" but taking things in his own gritty direction. I'm sure I'll look to reading some more after finally getting round to this "debut" episode.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

EEK! by EEK! - new electronic music

EEK! by EEK! is a new project of electronic instrumental music. 8 tracks of jittery electronica taking in old school techno, acid and trance, and mixing with contemporary dubstep, glitch, its ideal for Sunday morning listening or Saturday night jigging around.

My first release for six months - this is a 30 minute side project that harnesses the digital sounds of the Korg Volca FM with the analogue Korg Monotribe, ably assisted by my venerable old Roland Juno 6.

Just over 30 minutes - across 8 instrumental tracks that are free to stream or downloadable for 25p each or £2 for the album. ENJOY THE EEK! 

Sunday, May 28, 2017

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

In this Pulitzer Prize winning debut novel Viet Thanh Nguyen tells the story of what happened after the Vietnamese war to the diaspora of his people, through the effective telling of its narrator, a Captain in the South Vietnamese army. From the start we know that the Captain is telling the story as a confession to the Commissar, and that he is was a spy on behalf of the Viet Cong. It is this retrospective telling, and the Captain's dual role, as being an intimate of the American-supported forces in Saigon, as well as an undercover agent, only known as such by his childhood friend Man, his "handler", that gives the tale its power. For here we have a classic unreliable, but compelling narrator, in the vogue of Tristram Shandy or Huckleberry Finn, a witness to events, but also, because of his "mole" status, a morally compromised one.

Nguyen has said in an article that the novel was a long time coming and one can imagine why. The Vietnamese writer was born in 1970 and so is not the generation of the older captain, but finding a way of telling this story, one that has been so co-opted by the America that he went to and grew up in, cannot have been easy. The Vietnam war is perfect for there to be a "double agent" or a "mole". The Americans were always uncertain which Vietnamese could be VC. The Captain is also another kind of "double" for he is an outsider amongst his own society because of his parentage. The "bastard" son of a catholic priest and his much loved Vietnamese mother, he had grown up as someone unaccepted - until he discovers two close friends, Man and Bon, who become his blood brothers.

The first scenes of the novel are both comic and filled with tension as we are in the last days of Saigon, and as the "fixer" to the General, our narrator is sorting out  a plane out of Saigon, arranged by the Americans, knowing that if they are left behind they will surely be massacred as Saigon gets sacked by the VC. Here is the conundrum of the spy. He is at the heart of the operation doing things to defeat an "enemy" who he actually supports. His job is to report back, it is his "handler" who has to decide what to do with the information. Suitable bribes are paid but its still a chaos at the airport as they escape and amongst those who don't make it are Bon's wife and child who are cruelly shot as they run for the replacement plane. Amongst the three friends, Man is the communist, Bon is on the side of the Americans and the Captain is in between, his other loyalty to their friendship.

He gets out and to America and the General, his supporters, and their families are now in California, taking jobs in restaurants or as menial workers after once being part of the ruling class in their home country. The Captain seems happiest here. His ability with the language landing him work, and he even finds a lover through his job, an older woman at the university. It is a transactional relationship, which suits the spy. In America though, the General begins to develop the counter-revolution, wanting to build a force to send back to Vietnam, and begins soliciting support and money from American politicians. Through this an opportunity comes for the Captain to go to the Phillipines as an adviser to an auteur who is making a film about the Vietnam war. The novel begins feeling very much like a picaresque at this point, as these scenes of the post-Vietnam life are held together by the Captain's presence there. He is supposed to be there to make a more sympathetic portrayal of the Vietnamese - but this film is a fictionalised version of "Apocalypse Now", and the Vietnamese - extras pulled from the refugee camps - are there purely for a dubious authenticity. Here, the spy narrative seems to slacked a little - after all what role is he over there for? As supportive of his own side of the General's?

For the war is over, but in the aftermath, the repressions of the VC regime are what keeps an opposition going in absentia. "Nothing is more important than freedom", runs the line which has kept the Captain believing  - yet the novel skilfully tracks what that means. For the peasant supporting the VC, it is taking back a country that has been run by foreign powers for so long, and giving that power to the people - yet by the mid-1970s the template for communist revolutionary states was no longer about Marx but about its Totalitarian nationalist leaders. Dissent was not allowed, and by the time - at the end of the novel - that the Captain returns to Saigon - he finds that American music is banned as "yellow" rather than "red" (aka. "communist") music. Yet in America freedom is one that sees the American's invading another country in the guise of protecting freedoms. The Cold War, it is commented, was actually very hot.

"The Sympathizer" is a long book but its pleasures are many. The Captain is allowed to give voice to poetic digressions at times, where the complexities of the world he finds himself in are delineated. The plot sees him as very much a follower - first of the communists, and then of this bosses, whose orders, which include to kill, he has to follow to protect his cover. The first of these murders is morally ambiguous perhaps, even though it is a "trumped up" charge that sees an allleged "mole" in the camp killed, so protecting himself. The second is harsher, and we see how morally compromised he has become.

Joining the counter-revolutionary advance group - a futile suicide mission - he is captured and finally comes to face to face with his handler, and throughout with his past. The things we haven't been told, are the things he has kept from himself. At times this part of the novel gets a little caught up in its ambiguities and the author's desire to retain his narrator's sunny disposition. He just about pulls it off, I think, in what is essentially a comic book about the most serious of times. In this at least, you can see that it takes on that masterpiece of contradictory wartime madness that is "Catch 22", and if it owes something to that book's clever irreverancy, particularly in the role of the Captain, who is essentially a figure on the peripherary of the action, it does so in a way that works. For if there is a moral conversation that the book tries to have - it is to highlight the absurdity and contradictions in war. With its main character being half-white, half-Vietnamese, we are given both sides of the argument, so to speak.

For what do we know of Vietnam other than through the prism of our memories? The Vietnam war was opposed in the west mainly because of the western lives it would take, and - belatedly by realisation of the horrors imposed to try and "win" it - rather than what is best for the Vietnamese people. For the tragedy of these wars of deliverance is that the new regime, a pariah state in many ways, kept together through a political absolutism, and fearful of its own dismantlement, becomes every bit as repressive to its people as the one that came before - or the one that might have replaced it had it lost. This book is highly sensitive to these challenges but withouthhaving any trite answers the author perhaps overplays the contradictions.

As a debut novel it has some debut novel faults; it does seem to have gestated over a long period and its length seems more about being a comprehensive statement rather than for any necesssary unity. The scenes for the auteur's film are the weakest in the book, as if they came in from another earlier attempt at the novel.  Towards the end, as we understand why this is a confession, and why it is being written, the Captain becomes the victim, being tortured by his own side for his own contradictory nature. There seems an attempt to over-justify what has just happened: the secrets that he has kept from himself show he is as tainted by war as anyone, that "judgement" in war is based as much on who you did it to, as what you did. The reader comes away a little more numb, a little more appalled, yet I'm not sure anymore enlightened, other than to realise that this is not quite the comic novel is sets itself up as, but something more. By the end the Captain has become of what the west calls the "boat people".  Because of the years of tragedy since that time I'd almost forgotten about this period. With Vietnam liberalising over the years, and never becoming the atrocity that was Cambodia under Pol Pot, its easy to forget where we were in the nineteen seventies. This novel does a powerful job of helping us remember, but its also a joy to read, full of delights, and having found the perfect funnel - the "mole" - through which to tell the complex story, a worthy prize winner, without ever being merely worthy.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

A Sadder Manchester

I woke up in the early hours of Tuesday morning, and got up to get a glass of water. Checking my phone I saw that some people had declared themselves safe in Manchester - the Facebook application it uses during terror attacks. It couldn't be, could it?

Of course, we now know that a murderer walked into the entrance of the Manchester Arena (still known as "Nynex" or "the M.E.N" depending on your age) and blew himself up in the most crowded area - as parents waited for their children to come out of the Ariane Grande concert, or were leaving quickly themselves. There are 22 dead, including the murderer, and a large number seriously injured. The home made bomb made to inflict the most damage. The youngest dead is an 8-year old girl.

On the Monday morning I had been at a session with the leader of the council and the new chief executive, where the discussion had all been about planning for the future, and - despite all the cuts the public sector has faced since 2010 - a sense of hope and optimism. 24-hours later their agendas will have been upended, as the worst terrorist attack since 7/7 bombing in London, and the worst loss of life in Manchester since the second world war had taken place.

A pop concert is the "softest" of targets of course, but along with football matches and shopping centres, its long been realised that this is the nightmare that we hoped would never happen. Its impossible to find the right words of course. On Tuesday the office was preternaturally quiet, as the need to get on with the mundane daily work was a relief from thinking too much about what had happened. By the evening their had been the announcement of a vigil outside the Town Hall. It was short, inclusive, poignant, with an absolutely on-point poem by my friend Tony Walsh aka Longfella Poet.

There was hardly a space outside the Town Hall on the most gloriously sunny night of the year so far. The crowd though was a young one. The young of Manchester drawn from their daily business - work, school, college - knowing that there's nothing unusual about the rite of passage of a concert at the Arena, that it could have been any one of them there - not just the unlucky few amongst the 21,000 crowd. Afterwards I went for a beer with my friend, and then walking back an hour or so later, the square was still busy, as if people needed somewhere to be. The city hadn't shut down, the people hadn't cowed with fear, rather they had come to show they cared, they had a need to be part of something collective. I suspect part of the youth of the crowd was because older people - those with families - would have wanted to rush back to be with their own, to hug them tighter than before, to be with the ones they loved.

I had tickets to see White Hills, a U.S. psych band, who were playing to less than a hundred people in the Soup Kitchen. A world away from the Arena, but connected as well - and they recognised how important it was that we'd still come out. Not an act of bravery, I think, more an act of confirmation - to our lives, to art. On the tram home there were Simple Minds fans from a gig at the Bridgewater Hall, whilst the Arena had cancelled, inevitably, that night's Take That concert.

Manchester has been here before of course: though in the all the reminiscing about the 1996 I.R.A. bomb it suddenly dawns on us how lucky we were that it was a bomb aiming to destroy property, not to kill people, remarkable that nobody died (though a previous I.R.A. bomb had killed.) Time will tell how different this feels. It does seem a different world, but despite the pessimistic views of the right wing press and politicians in particular, that difference is a world that begins, I think, to look like a new century, not the old. None of us can be unaware of the major human disasters in the civil wars of the Middle East, but it doesn't feel like a clash of civilisations that is taking place here; our Manchester feels - and felt yesterday - like a place of strength and optimism, however depraved certain events such as Monday can appear to be.

Undoubtedly over the next hours and days, the media scrum will give us as many dangerous angles on what has happened, as insight. Whilst the officials look at the risk of further atrocities, we'll all be overwhelmed by the individual tragedies that have happened. The unnecessary election taking place on 8th June seems even less relevant (yet is probably more so) though one hopes that politicians on all sides will be able to resist making political capital. Soldiers on the streets - as we've seen in Paris and Brussels - is not  a sign of confidence, but of fear; let's hope it is only a short term change.

I wanted to write something about this - because its happened here, in the city I've lived in for over 20 years, but  I find myself unable to move beyond the pure facts; my own numbness - today I saw some flowers - and a teddy bear - being moved to St. Ann's Square from Albert Square - and I almost broke up; is an irrelevance compared with that of those who knew the dead and injured.  There is a flower shrine now in St. Anne's Square, and there will be a national minutes silence tomorrow. I'm sure other tributes, as well as collections for the families, will follow. I am grateful at how many people have been in touch from around the world: Manchester is truly loved by those who have visited it, or know people here, and that love seems to be echoed by the love people have for their own city. I've lived here long enough to have some reservations about the "special" nature of the city and its people - in many ways, its friendliness is not universal, like all cities, it can be a lonely, dangerous, even alienating place, particularly with its culture of alcohol, football, and some of the violence that sometimes accompanies it; the new city is as shiny as the beautiful yellow trams, yet the grime under the fingertips of the city has always been as appealing as its bright lights. For a couple of days at least our eyes have had no time for the rough sleepers, and spice addicts, as their difficulties seem a distraction.

For the murderer was also Mancunian borne and bred, even if that hideous ideology of the suicide bomber, comes from conflicts half way across the world, the city will come together and has come together - but just as during the riots a few years ago, the idea that "this" can't happen here of all places, is clearly a chimera. There will no doubt be time for more reflection, more analysis.

Now, it is necessary to remember. To feel sorrow. To feel proud. As the world's media camp on our doorstep, to speak truth to them - that we don't feel hate for the killer and his ideology, but puzzlement, acknowledging it as a warped view of our city's reality that has no truth to it.  I'm going away overnight on Friday, and I'm glad I'd got that booked. Next week is Whitsun week - many of the people who died, were injured, or knew people who were, would have been looking forward to a long weekend, or a week off school or work; just as those attending the concert would have been looking forward to a night watching their favourite singer. Our dreams, our hopes - particularly for the young - seem particularly strong this week; but it is also right that we feel sadness, and yes, anger, that for some those hopes have been taken away.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

In Favour of Artistic Failure

 Rovio published 51 games before it came up with "Angry Birds," Pulp had been going for a dozen years, releasing a stream of singles and albums, before "Common People" was a hit. In the "start up" and entrepreneurship field, the phrase "fail faster" is used to encourage a culture of constant reinvention, and in literature, of course, there is Beckett's ever useful line: "Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better." 

Yet when I think about artistic failure I don't think these really cut the mustard. Those games, those albums, are the finished article. They are perceived failures, but they were created with the idea of becoming a success. This year we've heard about the Swedish "Museum of Failure" with a corporate mis-steps such as Colgate Lasagne. We can learn more from failure, says its founder.

Ah, this is getting closer. The thing about artistic failure is that it is more noble than success. The success is always, paradoxically, a failure in some way - for it is at a point of completion that is good enough to succeed, it is all it will ever be; whilst the artistic failure is still possible...the unwritten or unfinished possible. So we are intrigued by the film that was never completed, the song that has never seen the light of day, the work curtailed by death. "The Pale King" may never be as successful as "Infinite Jest" but it has one advantage over the earlier novel, because Foster Wallace died before it was completed it joins that list of might have beens. We can see the flaws in even a masterpiece like "The Great Gatsby" but in "The Last Tycoon" - unfinished at Fitzgerald's death, and with the completed parts as good as anything he'd written, we have the tantalising hope of what might have come. It's why "Sgt. Pepper" or "Pet Sounds" may never quite satisfy us as much as the unfinished - and belatedly completed "Smile". What might have been? 

In music we are seeing a sense of "completeness" - where we now have access to ALL of the recordings of "Like a Rolling Stone." We know that one we know so well is the work of genius, but seeing the versions that fell short, or may have gone in a slightly different direction is a fascinating stretch of history. Because however "perfect" the final rendition, these are still the works of man. A "live" creation on a particular day, or over a particular week or month, where a myriad choices lead to the finished work. What seems obvious now - when you listen to the mastertapes, was a result of chance, of serendipity - of Al Kooper happening to be in the studio and playing the organ that way... 

If the contemporary boxset reissue fascinates its less about this "versioning" I think - and more about the tantalising sketches that could have become something else. On The Police's last but one album they had a number one hit with "Every Little Thing She Does is Magic" a song that had lain unfinished from early in their career. This is not uncommon. We are finding out that Prince's back catalogue was a composite - similar to Neil Young, or even David Bowie at times - finding songs from earlier periods that "fit" and then completing them. Of less interest are the demos without the band of Robert Smith, or Fleetwood Mac. Those versions feel like templates of the more famous versions. 

I've been playing and compiling some old and new music of late, and in both cases, as I try and work out what is "the best" - or what tracks should make it onto my new album, I'm also drawn to the ones that didn't work out. I've got a natural sympathy for the runt of the litter, the song I never quite got right, or the poem that didn't really find its way. I'm fascinated, I think, by the mechanics of that failure: is it because I couldn't qutie get the lyric right or the drum beat or the recording - there's something wrong with it which means the piece got abandoned. I've long ago realised that I should try and get as close to a finished work as possible, and yet sometimes the abandoned piece is far off, but still has a certain magic - a feel to it that might not be replicated in the more stately performances, or the more honed pieces. With about fourteen songs recorded for a new album - and with ten "chosen" - I find myself drawn as much to the songs I'm about to leave off: in their failure, and they are failures, something not quite adding up, there is the germ of something else - of some future success that is less easily recognisable. 

It sometimes seems that some poets in particular only manage "gems" as if they only have to unsheath their metaphorical quill to write with authority and genius. It won't surprise you that I'm usually less interested: it seems the abandoned fragments, or the things that stretch away from the usual style, are the more interesting somehow. Perhaps there's something of Picasso's "to finish (a painting) means to be through with it, to kill it, to rid it of its soul" in this. The finished work, is it ever finished, or abandoned, let go? Or simply let into the world in its best bib and tucker with a dollar in its pocket and a hope that it will somehow survive?

We see in literature in particular how what once was strange and difficult becomes easier through repetition or replication. So "The Shadow of the Wind" is an enjoyable pastiche of Borges, without the depth; or a consummate writer like David Mitchell, in his apparent ability to do anything, may well be disguising the impossibility at the heart of his endeavour - "Black Swan Green" a scarcely concealed bilgdungsroman that pretends to be a novel but is sort of a collection of stories, and the Russian dolls of "Cloud Atlas" giving us a dazzling display that disguises the fragmentation therein.

I sit there wondering about all of this and thinking that because the next thing you write is - like all the last things you wrote - an attempt to banish the white severity of the paper, it also is the most exciting, for it has not yet failed, and better still, it has not yet succeeded. It's the artistic failure, not the success, that keeps one going - and those "runts" remain as fascinating for their knobbly uncertainty as the things that worked, the alignment of the stars that somehow makes a work "succeed."

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Literary Friends

I'm pleased to say that two of my literary friends, both of whom I'll be performing new stories alongside at Didsbury Arts Festival on 1st July (book tickets here - more info later), have - coincidentally - book launches next week.

I say coincidentally, since whilst David Gaffney's novel "All the Places I've Ever Lived" has been out a few weeks, Nicholas Royle's collection of short stories, "Ornithology", is not officially out till June.

Nonetheless, if you're in Manchester this week, you'll have a chance to hear both authors read, and, yes, to buy copies of their lovely new books.

Nicholas Royle is reading with the other Nicholas Royle (he has a thing about Doppelgangers) at Anthony Burgess Foundation on Tuesday 16th May - free, but book your place here.

David Gaffney is reading at The Wonder Inn, on Shude Hill, on Thursday 18th May - with support from poet Tom Jenks, and the sprightly (and literary-inclined) guitary-pop band Hot Shorts.

 Circle those dates in your diary RIGHT NOW.

Archiving My Music

As some readers will remember, I also write and record music, mostly electronic, usually, though not always, vocal. I began recording in 1982 when I was 15 and just had two tape recorders, one to play in the background whilst the microphone on the other picked this up as backing and I would play and or sing over the top. I recorded pretty much constantly until the late 1990s, first on 4 track cassette and then belatedly to digital - though never directly to the computer - though from 1998-2007 it became very much an occasional hobby. On getting a new 8-track in 2007 I decided to take it seriously again, and have over the last 10 years recorded 8 albums and a wide range of E.P.s and singles mostly available online under the name Bonbon Experiment. My website contains these in order pretty much from "Vertical Integration" through to last year's 3 "Test Pressing"

More recently I've been archiving the period 1985-90, a prolific period, between the age 18 and 23, when I recorded 14 cassette albums and many more side projects under a range of different names. Its a massive amount of material. This was the period when I first got a 4-track cassette recorder, until I started using a reverb unit in 1991 which changed my sound quite considerably. I've managed to squeeze this period into 7 "CDs" which alongside the 2-CD nineties compilation "Nineties Sell Thru" and "Digital-Analogue" which mops up the period up to "Vertical Integration" in 2007, creates a 10-CD archive collection of sorts.

LINKS are as follows -:
The 4-Track Years Vol.1. 1985-6 Part 1
The 4-Track Years Vol.1. 1985-6 Part 2
The 4-Track Years Vol.2. 1987-8 Part 1
The 4-Track Years Vol.2. 1987-8 Part 2
The 4-Track Years Vol.2. 1987-8 Part 3
The 4-Track Years Vol.3. 1989-90 Part 1
The 4-Track Years Vol.3. 1989-90 Part 2
Nineties Sell Thru (1990-8) Vol. 1
Nineties Sell Thru (1990-8) Vol. 2
Digital-Analogue (1998-2007).

Compiling the past is an endless job of course - but hopefully this means that the majority of the music that I'm happy to keep is now online - though of course the original albums all have their own "charm" - for anyone who has at least a passing interest in what I've been doing over the years, or is interested to see my progression - or lack of - as I work within a pretty familiar sonic palate, of synth, drum machine and vocals. The task of "compiling" is never over of course, and I'm sure I'll do a compilation of the last ten years at some point, but its usually good to do it at a "pause" and this year alone I'm expecting to be releasing two new albums in the forthcoming months, so probably now's not a good time.

As someone who continues to make music into his fifties, I can't help but notice that the 4-track years in particular are very much a "young man's music" - there's a yearning, for life, for love, for music itself. My "talent" if I have one in this area is not that of a musician or a singer (though I'm impressed by what I've done with my limited voice over the years) but an interest and an ability to create sounds, and songs from a recording set up that's not that pretty much remained a "bare minimum". There are songs here I wish I'd taken more time over, sloppy lyrics, glitches in recording and performance, but its "outsider" music in some sense. It's also a bit of a time capsule - listening to the 4-track albums in particular I've been taken back to exact time, place and circumstance, not always that happily, and these songs act as some kind of audio diary. That said, the autobiographical can be overdone - sometimes you just get a catchy phrase - "a million days", "swimming for air", "missed by inches" - and somehow make a song from it. Some of these tracks are "personas" as well - versions of myself, making music alone, but kind of imagining it exists in some way in the real world - which of course, as this website proves, it does; but in another way, as so few people ever heard it, was just a simulacrum.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Classical Music Today

Ex-ACE head Alan Davey is now at the steer for Radio 3, the BBC's classical music station. He writes an interesting piece in the Guardian that posits classical music's future as being about having a "counter cultural place in society." There's much to agree with in the article - but I'll comeback to that slightly startling statement later.

Growing up, classical music hardly impinged on my life at all. My dad had the usual Mantovani and other Readers Digest boxsets, but whereas I explored his Beatles albums, I don't think these ever came out of the box. Music in school was staid and horrible; focused on teenage string players, and a mix of light classical and show tunes. When I did start obsessing about music, the idea that pop and rock were anything "worthy" was never ever considered. My sister, a diligent musician, ended up playing in the Staffordshire Youth Orchestra, and the establishment nature of that world - concerts in cathedrals, formal dress, a repetoire of pre-20th century composers - was something that I was aware of, but wilfully ignored.Where "classical music" came into my life it was in some of the more dramatic pieces used in films - particularly Carl Orff's atypical piece that was used in "The Omen."

By the time I was at University, I had an understanding that there was another classical music - the experimental and 20th century repetoire - and Philip Glass soon became a favourite via the film "Koyanisquatsi" and his album "Glass Works". But the big pop cultural hit of the early 80s was the risible "Amadeus" movie, which took Mozart's life and rewrote it at baroque soap opera. When I got a CD player, cheap CDs from Naxos, tempted me to build a small classical collection - "Night on Bare Mountain", "Symphony Fantastique", "The Four Seasons" - but little more.

Aged 50, I'd almost rather go to a classical concert than a rock gig these days. But this hasn't been that traditional mellowing of taste - rather a sense that the "complexity" that Davey talks about is exactly what I'm looking for in the modern classical tradition. Alex Ross's superb "The Rest is Noise" gave me an "in" to 20th century repetoire that I read alongside listening to the downloads of the tracks he talked about. More recently I've been picking up classical vinyl, figuring (correctly), that these old records will have been either well looked after or hardly played at all.

Yet my classical interests are primarily 20th century - and even into a liking for the living composer. I'm very excited to be finally seeing a John Adams piece in Manchester as part of this year's Manchester International Festival  (what took you so long MIF?); had a great night at the Red Room Sessions in Salford a month or so ago, tempted by the BBC Phil performing of Darius Milhaud, and on Saturday I go to Liverpool for a unique performance of Pierre Henry's Liverpool Mass, in the Roman Catholic Cathedral, for which it was written fifty years ago.

Younger classical musicians know that repetoire is critical - and that expanding the repetoire beyond the "crowd pleasers" of Mozart, Beethoven and Bach is important for both their own art, and the artform. Yes, as Davey says, there is classical music in pubs and bars - and there is certainly a thriving experimental music scene whcih is likely to be "classical" in inclination as to incorporate jazz, folk and rock noises. Yet I'm not sure to what extent Radio 3 reflects that in its regular programming. Riskier that Classic FM it maybe, but it does seem that to call classical music "counter cultural" is a bit of a stretch, given how it is the establishment programme - from Edinburgh festival, to Last Night of the Proms, to much of Radio 3's output - that defines much the place of classical music in the UK today. Yet there is change. The interface with visual arts has been highly productive, as has collaborations with pop and rock musicians. It turned out that the "gateway" drug for me getting into classical music was very much on the more experimental end of things, rather than "Hooked on Classics" (or to bring that up to date) "Hacienda Classics." Indeed the trope of the orchestra playing pop (and house tunes) seemed almost hackneyed before it began.

But one has to say that seeing that there does seem to be an audience for Stockhausen and Reich and the like, and modern composer's like the inventive Max Richter (whose 24-hour "Sleep" was a Radio 3 triumph), that would have been surprising a few years ago. I saw a classical recorder ensemble at Bramhall Hall one Sunday last summer performing from one of Cornelius Cardew's visual scores; have heard a pianist perform John Cage's early piano works alongside the Mozart that influenced him; and via the experimental and avant garde scene, find a shared loci that runs from Kurt Schwitters to Bob Cobbing to Stockhausen.

It seems that Davey and others are beginning to realise that the future of classical music is less about the broader audiences that flock to orchestral versions of Elvis, and far more about populating that sector of the Venn diagram where classical meets electronica meets avant garde rock meets free jazz. Interestingly, it is in the live space, rather than the recorded space, where this work really seems to engage, with the late 20th century avant garde composers being hard to find on record or CD.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

The Fast Year

I had ten days off at Easter/ Time enough to catch up with a few things, but I didn't even get round to reading a book. The last two novels I've started haven't really grabbed me - both contemporary novels they seem sluggish and unengaging. I'll plough on, but wonder if its these particular books - minor works by writers I've previously enjoyed - or something in my patience these days. Maybe I only have time for good books, brilliant books, original books.... but how to find them?

It does seem like the year is moving at apace. Somehow we're back in election cycle again. Maybe this is the new barometer of economic activity? Have more frequent elections with all the costs, all the nonsense, and then see what happens? Anyway more on that another time perhaps.

There have been a lot of cultural things going on. I'll mention a few in case you've missed them, or simply to say thanks.

Mystery Tubes - not an event, but an initiative from Islington Mill as part of its innovative fundraising methods to match fund the public money to restore and expand provision at this amazing building. For £25, a tube with original art contained within from a range of contemporary artists who've contributed to help fundraising for this unique venue. There's a Heath-Robinson style vending machine in Fred Aldous art shop in the Northern Quarter.

Making Space by Sarah Tierney - though its hard to believe its so long ago, I first met Sarah Tierney as she studied on the same creative writing course as me but a year or two after. She's always worked as a journalist and had a few things published over the years, but "Making Space" is her debut novel - and was launched at Waterstones last week. An unorthodox love story that covers mental health, urban living, Whalley Range, growing up in your twenties and hoarding - I'm looking forward to it, although a friend read a bit about the "hoarding" and said "is this you?"

All the Places I've Ever Lived by David Gaffney - plenty of anticipation for David Gaffney's 2nd novel, and maybe his sixth or seventh book - a novel set in West Cumbria, that not so much mixes genres as leaps over genre-distinctions without a second thought, I read and enjoyed parts of this as it was being written - and you can hear it in and around Manchester in the forthcoming weeks with a launch event at the Wonder Inn on Shude Hill on Thursday 18th May with support from rock 'n' roll-literary types Hot Shorts and poet, man-about-town Tom Jenks.

All The Sins - this is an online magazine going from strength to strength and I'm pleased to have two poems "Artist Pop" and "Joni" in its latest edition.

Saturday, April 15, 2017


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, April 09, 2017

Curating is Critical

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, March 31, 2017

The Jesus and Mary Chain's Futurist Classicism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, March 18, 2017

George Saunders at Waterstones

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, March 11, 2017

10:04 by Ben Lerner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, March 02, 2017

Here Lies Contemporary Poetry

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

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

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

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

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Writing and Memory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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