Saturday, December 31, 2005

Soundtrack to 2005

I don't just sit here writing or reading. There's usually something playing in the background, and, if its more likely to be an old than a new record these days, it doesn't preclude me still liking the odd hit record. I have to say that I've hardly heard any of NME's singles of the year, this time round, though their favourite, The Futureheads' cover of Kate Bush's "Hounds of Love" never appealed; but then again, its about a decade since I got my kicks mainly from indie rock. It's a close run thing but LCD Soundsystem's "Daft Punk is Playing at My House" just edged out Amerie's "1 Thing" in my affections, with honourable mentions for Go! Team's "Bottle Rocket" and Gwen Stefani's "Hollaback Girl." The Go! Team album was my favourite new record of the year, just because it sounded so fresh compared with everything else. I know that liking indie music is supposed to go hand-in-hand with liking alt.lit these days, but I feel I've done my time. Besides, as far back as 1987, my favourite record of the year was Art of Noise sampling, mellow hip hop classic "Hey Love" by King Sun D. Moet. Its hard to believe that "sampling" is around 20 years old. Writers seem very conservative when it comes to their choice of music; if you always know that even young footballers get their kicks from Celine Dion and Bryan Adams, its either the Clash, Springsteen and maybe, at a push, Massive Attack for the wordsmiths. Poets of course only go for Dylan and Jackson Browne and I guess the older generation are all classical and jazz in the hope of that call from "Desert Island Discs," and young American writers just like quirky college rock like Modest Mouse and They Might Be Giants. Is it relevant? Well, it can be. Without going into a scientific survey, I'm reminded that Larkin's love of jazz only went so far, and that he had no interest in the revolutions of Miles Davis and John Coltrane. Paul Muldoon wrote a series of poems about his favourite albums - hostages to fortune, and making him seem like a much older man than his poetry might, "Parallel Lines" by Blondie was the only one I liked, if I remember correctly - and Nick Hornby's book about his favourite songs was a maddening mix of the obscure and the cerebral. I've just read Alan Hollinghurst's "the Line of Beauty" and the protaganist, Nick Guest, despite being a gay men in his early 20s during the early 80s is as classicist in his taste for music as he is in his taste in furniture and literature. There's one mention of him going to Heaven, the iconoclastic 80s gay club, but nothing of the music. Perhaps it doesn't matter, but it was a welcome relief when in Iain Banks "Complicity" the music on the stereo is the Pixies. I'd be unlikely to ever write a character who was a Mahler obsessive - not because I'd find it too hard to research, I'd perhaps appreciate the challenge - but that I'd find it impossible to imagine a contemporary character under 40 for whom this was a believable character trait. Not being a gay man taking drugs at Heaven in 1986 I'm not entirely sure what the playlist would be, but I guess it might include Sylvester's "You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)", Princess's "Say I'm Your Number One", Dead or Alive's "You Spin Me Round (Like A Record)" and Farley "Jackmaster" Funk's "Love Can't Around."

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Cold Turkey

I wonder whether we are wedded to the Christmas ceremony more as sign of futility than anything else. I love how codified it becomes, even though those codes change. The Queen's Speech, turkey dinner, Boxing Day football, the overladen tree. In my case, and indeed in the case of many of my late 30s friends, the template remains unchanged; and the family Christmas endures even if the family doesn't. Today it snowed, briefly, as if spirit willing, but body weak. After five days of email and internet purdah you'd expect to find a full inbox, but everyone's similarly full of turkey; and in the internet wastelands of family homes, I guess. I still get presents, though has made that a more painless transaction for us all. A couple of years ago I wrote a "Christmas Day" poem, and I like it more with the passing of time. I once wrote a little article wondering why Britain produced Larkins, and America produced Lowells. I think there's a little of both influences here, however distant.


The weather was unusually mild this year.
Mid-afternoon we strode amongst swans and coots
And Canadian geese on the grass shore of the reservoir.
In the distance our house is a dot, unique detail of a still life.
We paint only with our feet, scribing our names in dust,
Then scrubbing over them, unaccountably embarassed.
The roof of the conservation centre is moss covered,
And the lead swan, beak like a drill, badmouths at me -
I turn around - even in the natural light
Grey spots mist my eyes over, turning my head.
The unasked-for walk had somehow punctured
What usually happens - we'd sit here
Rolled-up in the floral chairs, watching the Queen's speech,
Making points off each other, having had our fill.
Each year, the same cards draped over the mantle,
From a man my dad knew in the army and the wife he'd never met
Or that old couple who were neighbours of the uncle in
I stayed out of it; leaving my best words for those I truly might love -
Tentative girls who've texted at
midnight "Hppy Xms xxx."
I know what comes next from other years,
Boiling in too close proximity, we steam over
Spilling our worst over the hob, emptying another glass.
So how come we're sat here still liking each other?
Not looking either forward or back,
Even grateful for the familiar shows, and the Christmas tape
My dad always plays. My sister, fully expectant
With their first grandchild; her husband watching the football,
And me, unused to behaving with such forbearance.
The weather was unusually mild this year.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Annual Report Rhubarb Rhubarb Rhubarb

With Christmas nearly upon us, and the valiant British shopper returning in droves to buy Daleks, iPod Nanos and XBOXs, as well as near-record mortgage lending - pity the poor Unwins workers thrown on the pre-Xmas dole - its time to reflect on the year that was. Over Xmas period I may not be able to logon for other family members checking their emails on what may possibly be the last dial-up in Christendom by then. It's been a strangely frantic year, without signifying that much. If 2004's disasters were self-inflicted ones; 2005 the world seems a harsher place; not just the death of an old friend; or the London terror; or the horrors felt in Indonesia and Pakistan; but in the pure frenetic pace of it all. I sometimes feel the whole world is becoming a gigantic pyramid scheme, where there soon won't be anywhere to go. Wherefore art in all of this? I don't think the 21st century has yet shown its head or its hand; but I do feel there are twinklings. Surely there's a stepchange in the internet's power to influence and gain readers? The vibrancy of the Britblogs in particular, has made old media increasingly redundant. I don't think the Guardian has yet come up with an exciting new rash of writers to match its new funky size; and its also the year when listening to Radio 6 or podcasts or watching BBC3 or 4 has become the real deal, not just something at the margins. Traditional media is not sure how to respond, and so I've hardly bought a new CD or book all year - secondhand is the real treasure trove. Of the "old school" writers, "Saturday" by McEwan was neither as good or as bad as reviewers said; and "Yellow Dog" which I got round to reading was as fun a read as Richard and Judy choice "Shadow of the Wind" but probably not as well written. David Mitchell is now our best writer, it seems, fulfilling his potential with "Cloud Atlas." Outside of the "hits" I've found it harder and harder to find hidden gems. I enjoyed Tim Kendall's first poetry collection from Carcanet, "Strange Land", particularly his poetry scene epic "Ship of Fools", but found myself tired or unimpressed by the offline magazines. Did I see a good film? Or buy a great album? Its the year life took over in some ways; and as a consumer I only pecked at the service of what's out there. Even my best art experience of the year, the Summer of Love exhibition at Liverpool Tate, was retro, second-hand if you like. For my own creativity, its not been so bad; art simmers slowly, it seems, yet there's a meal at the end of it. I boiled down my poetry into a smart little set of 24 pieces; one-pagers all; sombre in tone. I also have written the best part of "novella" - which is already the longest thing I've written for 4 years. In the midst of flat moves; working hard; being a best man; the loss of a friend; and a noticeably higher cost of living; I've come out of it remarkably sane; with some writing I'm proud of and a sense that if I can can still get goosebumps at a song as daft as "My Humps" by Black Eyed Peas, then I must be doing something right.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Art of the essay and other news

There is a new book of essays by David Foster Wallace, entitled "Consider the Lobster" - which if its a patch on his previous book of essays, A Supposedly Fun Thing..., will be essential. In other news, a graduate of the MA in novel writing at University of Manchester, Jonathan Trigell, has just won the John Llewellyn Rhys prize for his debut novel "Boy A." I picked this up remaindered in the Soho bookshop about a year ago, so it was kind of strange to read that it had got selected. To my shame, I've not yet read it, but will do. The story of a Bulger-like killer let back into society, the Boy A of the title, is one of those conceits that needs to be well-written to work. I met Trigell when one of my alumni, Mark Powell, came to speak to that year's M.A. and he talked about the book-in-progress then. That must have been...2000? It was the same night that I heard that another Manchester-taught novelist, Gwendoline Riley, had got her agent. It seems a long time ago. Back to my earlier comment about sports writing, another friend has recently turned semi-pro Cagefighter, and won his first bout on Sunday night. It surely deserves at least a story.... And its good to see Scarecrow magazine back after a little absence, no doubt digesting the new Houellebecq, though I will probably lose what remaining counterculture credentials I have by questioning the validity of "Stewart Home's" writing. For those who don't know Stewart Home is an "art project" - or then again, may not be. I recall reviewing "Suspect Device" for PROP magazine several years ago, and coming to the conclusion that it didn't really matter one way or another. I am intriqued by the project; but find the writing....well, not interesting enough. I'm reminded of how the anarchist band Crass, worried at the phallocentricity of their work to date, came up with the female-sung "Penis Envy" album; and produced a "lovely" single which was given away free with "Loving" magazine. That, is true subversion. I can heartily recommend "Love Songs", a book of Crass lyrics and history. A very un-Christmassy Christmas present last year. People who bought the new Stewart Home book "Tainted Love" also bought Nick Laird's "To a Fault", Iain Sinclair's "Edge of the Orison", Simon Reynolds' "Rip it Up and Start Again" and best-of-all room-sized Italian cookbook classic "The Silver Spoon," according to Amazon. The bookshelves of Hoxton will be groaning.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Auditory Experiences

There is now a website where you can listen to an archive of contemporary poetry, its only unfortunate that its chosen the proprietary RealAudio solution; and I'm indebted to Ready, Steady Book for its pointing me in the direction of UbuWeb, a treasure trove of the avant garde, including, I'm amazed to hear, various recordings of Gertrude Stein amongst others. I'm becoming hopeful that what the internet has done, has provided access to some of the less accessible writers and writings of the last century. I mean "accessible" in the sense of being able to even read them; not whether or not their art is accessible (that should be self-evident, I would think). Just reading a little about William Burroughs, from the Word Virus anthology, and its clear that this concept of an "international avant garde" was a very real one. In literary terms, I guess I see it, not as "postmodern" (whatever that is?) but as a second wave of modernism. They're nearly all dead, now, of course, but everywhere you look in late 20th century culture you find Burroughs, Ginsberg, Kerouac, Bowles, Nin, Miller etc. There was Ginsberg on the Dylan documentary; talking about how he was in a room with Dylan and the Beatles, and how unprepared they seemed to be "spokesmen of a generation." It was 25 years ago this week that John Lennon was shot. I remember being woken by my parents to be told the devastating news. (At 13 I was a massive Beatles fan.) I went to school and nobody else - not the teachers or students - had the slightest interest. I've decided I should update my Beatles collection by getting a couple of the albums, rather than relying on a hotch-potch of cassettes and compilations; but listened to "Abbey Road" and faced with the double whammy of "Octopus's Garden" and (probably the worst song they ever recorded) "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" I might just stick to "Revolver."

Monday, December 05, 2005

Influencing the Mainstream

I have just read, and thoroughly enjoyed, a "Richard and Judy Book Club" choice, Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. A book about books; and that's what attracted it to me. It was a pleasure to read it; wild and exotic cast of characters; a "story within a story" structure; an evocation of its setting, Barcelona; and a taut plot - albeit of the shaggy dog variety. There are "reading notes" at the back of my copy (!) but it doesn't mention as further reading the book it owes most to, Italo Calvino's If On a Winter's Night a Traveller; and before that - Borges - and it struck me that its the 2nd mainstream bestseller I've read this year which has Calvino and Borges as models, the other being David Mitchell's excellent "Cloud Atlas." You read a book like the Calvino and immediately wonder why so many other novels offer so little; have so little ambition - and I'd like to think that both Mitchell and Ruiz Zafon feel the same way, and have written exciting, entertaining novels with that firmly in mind. That both books are "bestsellers" and have attracted a mainstream audience (and have pleased such a hard-to-please reader as myself) seems to imply a growing up of audiences; the reading public isn't always in their early 20s; and well written novels, with a mix of the traditional (story - characters - plot!) and the inventive, are actually what we all want. If you've read writers like Calvino and Borges then these novels don't seem to be pale copies; but grateful homages - not the works of masters, but works of those who appreciate what the masters can bring. The Shadow of the Wind is translated into English by Lucia Graves, daughter of the poet Robert Graves; and I was pleased to see, as I left it at the side of my bed last night that it sat cheek and jowl with "The White Goddess" - somewhat appropriate for a novel so in love with books.

Thursday, December 01, 2005


The book trade loves "memorabilia" - books about books and writers that are there as mere mementoes. Weirdly, though I hate these kind of books when they're touted as Xmas presents, (Little Books of Calms, Schott's and Shite's Miscelannies, Daisy Goodwin's poetry collections et al) I'm remarkably fond when they're the ephemera around my own literary interests. I've picture books of Fitzgerald, a "Kafka's Prague" bought in that city and now, Bruce Chatwin's Photographs and Notebooks. I don't know how this one ever passed me by? Its a real coffee table job; and whether the photos are good, bad or indifferent, somehow, since so much of his writing was around travel, it adds rather than subtracts. Hardly a bargain, at a tenner, but that's about the cheapest you'd find it on the net, and this was Oxfam Didsbury, where, clearly all my Christmasses are coming at once, I picked up Anthony Burgess's "A Shorter Finnegans Wake." If there was ever a book I didn't need, then its this one, but its a lovely sixties Faber paperback, and I'm ridiculously pleased at the find. I've bought half a dozen books this week, and all second-hand. I'm not sure I'll ever buy a new book again; so uninteresting are the high street selections; whereas go into any secondhand bookshop and you find these random gems.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

A Waste of Shame

I finally caught William Boyd's tele-play for the BBC Shakespeare season, A Waste of Shame, dramatising what may have been behind the sonnets. I caught it at 3rd time of asking, BBC4 being kind enough to repeat its gems, but if you haven't seen it, try to, since it was, given the limitations of the budget, and the "educational" purpose of the piece (its a joint Open University production) a revelation. My own shame: I hadn't a copy of the sonnets. Realised long ago that those "complete works of Shakespeare" are unreadable, no more than furniture, and so pick up various volumes as and when required. Luckily my local 2nd hand bookshop provided a good quality Arden edition of the Sonnets, and reading the introduction I can see that Boyd's setting of the scene owes a lot to recent scholarship: the Earl of Pembroke as favoured recipient; the importance of the historical context (death of Elizabeth, the plague year closing the theatres etc.) And, whatever the reason behind its writing, its a phenomenally sustained piece of work. With Shakespeare as a poet in drama's clothing, its easy to think of the Sonnets as a postscript. If the introduction to my Arden edition sees them slow to catch on, I'd probably agree, but wonder whether Donne's lyric poems would have been possible without such an outrageous precursor? Yes, there's perhaps no direct lifts in Donne, but the "permission" that Shakespeare gives seems obviously related. If the renowned Bard could express desire, then surely anyone could? In some ways the homoerotic nature of many of the sonnets seems both important, and irrelevant. We know the Jacobite court was not the most macho of places; the theatre of the day had all the female roles played by men or young boys; marriage and heterosexual sex led to childbirth - or syphilis. It seems that young beauty is what is being celebrated - youth and sexual attraction being clear er, bedfellows, in an age where life expectancy was short, the plague was a constant threat, and medicine was rudimentary. There's a great scene in the drama where Shakespeare takes "the mercury cure"for his syphilis. Although speculation on Shakespeare's life is pretty futile, it seems that Boyd's reading has a ring of truth about it, for which he should be applauded.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Football and literature

I have been interested in the extent of remembrance for George Best. George was 59, his peak was when he was 20-22, and he "retired" initially aged 26. Nobody under 45 should by rights be able to remember his playing, yet a bit like seeing the Sex Pistols or the Velvet Underground, everyone seems to have a memory. It's also strange, because in the sixties at least, its hard to imagine the usual middle-class commentators now writing for the newspapers, being regulars on the terraces. My own George Best memories are fleeting, and simply involve being in the same pubs as him on occasion, here in Manchester. I've a vague recollection that he'd be at various gig venues - places like the Roadhouse, Dry Bar and Night and Day - since, in the late 80s, early 90s they were about the only places that you could get a late drink. Sad as it is, and I'm aware that his funeral in Northern Ireland will be more like a state funeral than anything smaller, it seems that key to this remembrance is the insistence from the baby boomers that their memories are our memories; and that their heroes are inevitably our heroes. You see it in the preposterous UK Music Hall of Fame; the endless lists that place the mediocre "Sgt. Pepper" as the greatest album ever; and, perhaps in the continued primacy of a generation of (mostly male) writers now in their fifties. Ironically, George Best's long endgame - one that will probably see him buried with hardly a penny to his name - is perhaps the more genuine; his undoubted skills and charisma being rekindled in the memory as his last few "soap opera" years have unfolded. Neither George Best the man, or George Best the footballer was long enough on this world. Elsewhere we wallow in nostalgia. There aren't new literary or musical heroes that are allowed the same primacy in our culture. Yet, unlike the Americans, who rail against the dying light, and come up with, say, "American Pastoral", "Underworld", or "Time Out of Mind", using the experience of the life and the century, we have the Eurythmics Greatest Hits or Harold Pinter's poetry. Whereas Americans use sport in their literature, we seem reticent to do so. George Best's death has reminded us, that football is not just about the sport itself, but about the myriad lives it affects along the way - and that it's also about memory, Best coming to the club that was resurrecting itself from the Munich air-crash, that took the lives of so many of the Manchester United tea, as if fate had decreed some little recompense for that terrible loss. If I'm not mistaken, its a story entirely absent from the literature of our great baby boomer writers.

Saturday, November 19, 2005


Having just read and thoroughly enjoyed Andrew Biswell's "the Real Life of Anthony Burgess" I hesitate to make any kind of review - since in some ways, unlike with a work of fiction, it would just be filching from the book itself. It's enough to say that in this compact book, Biswell's created a comprehensive introduction to both the man and his work for new and existing readers. Though Burgess is no longer with us, many of the people he knew and worked with still are, so sensibly, I think, Biswell concentrates on the early life, and the prolific novel writing of the early sixties. Yet, he also provides a real service in annotating where the life and work intertwine, through his comprehensive knowledge of the work, both published and unpublished. I'd not thought of Burgess as a particularly autobiographical writer - there was always something too ambitious about his style and themes - yet he clearly was; and in a way that, though commonplace now, was probably unnerving in the more censorious climate of the time. He appears to be at some distance from a literary establishment; but having read Martin Amis's "Experience" about his father; and Andrew Motion's biography of Larkin, the post-war years weren't a great time to be a British writer. It's one weakness, I think, whether deliberate, or simply because it's not there, is that there's very little on his relationship with editors, agents, commissioners; which might give a different insight in the sometimes insane breadth of his work. Only in the discussions on "A Clockwork Orange" did Burgess appear to seek and find editorial collaboration. I'm reminded in some ways of Bellow, as detailed in James Atlas's biography. The Chicago man was another writer who started publishing relatively late, relied heavily on the various support that he got from marriage, and wrote almost quixotically, and not too financially successfully, until a big, unexpected hit. Biswell's biography sends one back, time and again, to the books, surprisingly few of which are still in print. It also, I think, has something to add to the the "art" of literary biography. It's not a day-by-day account, giving equal value to everything in Burgess's life, but instead, concentrates on what the author considers vital, both in terms of life events and books. In a world where most writers of non-fiction prefer to give their version of the truth, is scrupulous, not just in sources but in the various "truths" that are on both the public and private record about Burgess's life. In it's evocation of that unlucky generation, born in the first world war, and sent to fight in the second world war it is also a powerful portrait of a world that is not quite history.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Cultural Issues (a round up)

To The Tubes at Manchester University on Saturday night. These American theatrical art-punk-rockers were a friend's choice; but it was worth seeing, for their warmth to the audience, the professional verve of much of their Rundgren-ish pop; and the semi-naked backing singer. This was a little disconcerting, actually. Every second song seemed to require a different fantasy-figure to appear on stage, whether nurse, dominatrix or pole dancer. It seemed a little, shall we say, "seventies"? One song required the lead singer to dress as one of Kubrik's droogs, though what connection there was with A Clockwork Orange was hard to see. But in the way of things, the previous day saw Andrew Biswell read from his Burgess biography at Manchester city library. I look forward to reading it, but it has to be worth buying just for the account of Burgess's typical writers day, from kicking the dog, (he had a dog!) to smoking 80 cigarettes, to drinking enough alcohol to kill a lesser man. I have a sneaking suspicion the contemporary writer generally has to decline another pint, since he's got some interview on "Front Row" he's got to stay sober for. A shame. The death of John Fowles has seen the Guardian publish some of his journals for the first time. Despite printing several pages of the actual diaries, it seems a shame that it then has to sensationalise, out of context, in its news pages. Robert McCrum, as always, makes a better last word of it, teasing out the key quality of Fowles' work in making the experimental accessible. In a world of apparently schizophrenic cultures (in this week's Guardian we have praise for Mark Haddon's poetry cheek-and-jowl with a damning for Auden and Pound, for instance, make of that what you will), it is this which marks out Fowles' work as unusual. He wasn't a high-brow playing only to the gallery, or a low-brow playing to the groundlings. He pitched his performance straight at the whole theatre, take it for what it is. In this, at least, he reminds me of Burgess, both seeing value (and not just fiscal, though that was part of it), in working with Hollywood - its worth bringing Pinter into this triumvirate, since it was his adaption of "French Lieutenant's Woman" which is the one undoubtedly successful Hollywood adaption of Fowles. Good writers, and true ones, retain their value.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005


I've started writing poems longhand again. It's not that I ever gave up as such - poems can catch you unawares, and whatever piece of paper is to hand will do (I read today that Lennon's "Imagine" lyrics were on the back of an envelope; a much maligned medium!) but had begun writing them direct to screen, wondering if the properties of the computer word processor would have its effect on the work (the screen being landscape, not portrait for instance.) This tattered thing to the left is where I'm writing them now - unlined pages, which I think helps, and big enough pages to give me room to "spread out". Whenever I've bought a "special" book to write poems in it never works; but here they're stacking up, faster than I can type them up. I don't think I "do" tidy, not creatively at least. This seems about right.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Death of the Magus

It has just been announced that the writer John Fowles died on Saturday. He had been ill for some time. He seemed to me to be unique amongst British writers - neither part of a conformist mainstream, or of an avant garde. His books were amongst the most inventive of the 2nd half of the twentieth century. "The Collector" is a masterpiece of unsettling viewpoints, and unreliable narration - a precursor to Brett Easton Ellis and Michel Houllebecq in its fascination with a psychopath. "The French Lieutenant's Woman" is not only his most famous book, but perhaps his most influential - it prefigured the current vogue for historical fiction, but its essentially a modern novel, self aware, and cloaking its historical melodrama with metafictional devices. Even those books that were problematic, (and none of his novels is what you could call straightforward), were worth reading. If "the Magus" seems a little too much of a hippy puzzle, and "Daniel Martin" suffers from a bitter misogyny, it is more because of the difficult subjects that were set. The sense that he was a writer of a previous generation comes from the slight output of his later years; but I've always had a massive admiration for both the conviction and the quality of his work, and with the sense that he wasn't handed his success on a plate, but carved it, painful paragraph by paragraph. He will be deeply missed. (A post script, the BBC, not exactly renowned for either (a) being quick off the mark or (b) the least bit interested in any writers has been at annoyed at bloggers' lack of marking Fowles' passing. So, now I know, nobody does read this stuff I write! For more obituaries go here, and for sound of underfinanced, and overworked cultura l commentators exploding with justified anger at the establishment, go here.) . PPS Everyone's now happy, as far as I can gather - and I've discovered a few shrewd commentators into the bargain here 'n' also here) I've also got Anthony Burgess's 99 Novels somewhere around here, but like Jenny Davidson I can't find it. Andrew Biswell is reading from his new biography of Burgess tomorrow in Manchester coincidentally, so maybe I'll find it by then. I have a horrible feeling its co-habiting with Fowles' "Wormholes" which has also gone AWOL. Oh, for alphabetised shelves.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Definition of a decade

Has anyone seen the noughties yet? I only ask. Apparently the Social Issues Research Centre has discovered its the least er...cultural decade on record, with no defining music or fashion. I'm not really surprised - agreeing with Caitlin Moran that some things take time; and that its only when nineties man throws away his Blur and Oasis records will there really be any kind of paradigm shift. I also think the millennium had something to do with it. If decades take a while to kick start, then surely with centuries its even the more so. I think the 18th was still going strong in 1805 at the battle of Trafalgar; and probably only came into its own with the Peterloo Riots (stirring stuff); whilst the 20th century was sluggish in the extreme, requiring a great war to be got out of the way before Modernism and Communism could make their joint calls on the century. So we've got some way to go. And probably a good job since "noughties" isn't really a name I can conjure much with. I do think Caitlin has something here about the old generation throwing things out. Not just that a Booker Prize longlist that included not only Banville, but McEwan, Rushdie, Coetzee, Barnes et al; but a culture where those late sixties barnstormers will not let go. I'm not talking about Blair here - but despite being a not-exactly-young 38 myself, I'm getting tired of all these old farts holding centre stage in the culture, whether its the endless Beatles/Dylan retrospectives; the weekly Julian Barnes pieces in the Guardian; or the Star Wars-Narnia-Lord of the Rings obsession that still grips our cinema. Let go, won't you? But no, what happens now is that a few Young Turks get brought into the tent at the bequest of their elders. So there's no kicking over the statues; no telling the old folks that they just aint cool anymore.

Sunday, October 30, 2005


An interesting article by Helen Rumbelow in yesterday's Times which mischievously asks the question of whether David Cameron has overcome the barrier of being "upper class" in order to get to be a potential Tory leader. For her James Bond is the last bona fide literary character who is unashamedly posh. Our heroes, according to this reading, can be many things, but not posh. There's an element of truth in all of this, and its a great little article, with her concentration on the thriller market being somewhat appropriate - since thrillers and detective stories develop in line with the times. Cath Staincliffe's single mum detective Sal Kilkenny is the more likely current model. The gentleman detective, the retired admiral turned sleuth, these are of a different time. Bond was apparently too posh for Clive Owen to play; and maybe the signing of Daniel Craig to the role is a sense of toning this down (perhaps they should have gone all the way and got David Thewliss in?). Class of course gets hazy when in a newspaper op-ed. I'm reminded of the sketch with John Cleese and Ronnie Corbett in - "I'm upper class and I look down on him because he's middle class" etc. The aristocracy are so few (have always been so few), that our fascination is as with a rare beast. I don't recall Bond's origins - was he really so upper class? Of course, the English institutions of the upper classes, Eton, Oxbridge et al, if not quite open to all, are quite amenable to arrivistes these days. There's always a Wickham around to fool a few people into thinking him a Darcy. In many ways, the upper middle classes are what we have got for a realistic aristocracy these days - they've the money for the start, and the cronyist culture of modern boardroom and political life kind of helps. It seems that David Cameron has had an easy life of it; being a "communications executive" or whatever it was he was before being an MP, sounds like the kind of nice sinecure secured for younger sons of Baronets. In literature these changes are still there. Ian McEwan, for instance, is increasingly only happy around posh characters; in his recent novels, there's the professional classes - surgeons, politicians, successful writers and film producers perhaps - at the top of the heap; then a rag taggle of the middle class (who he seems to despise in the way that Forster despised Leonard Bast in Howard's End) - you know, senior lecturers at minor universities, that type; and then the underclass (mentally ill; thugs and thieves.) Whole areas of British contemporary life are absent. An intriguing programme about Dennis Wheatley on BBC4 last night, showed him as both arriviste and snob. I watched a little of "The Devil Rides Out" afterwardsl; and its a world of opulent houses, Barons and Duchesses - a little bit Henry James, a little bit Alasteir Crowley. Class remains such a defining thing in British society, and such a signifier in its arts and literature (and don't even get me on the subject of "opportunity") that every article that states it no longer matters, only shows how much it still does. That it changes with time; that it has no fixed coordinates is as its always been - just look at how many of our Royal "traditions" are either made up to suit the circumstance, or recent inventions. It remains - I'm afraid - the English writers' subject.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Cover Star #1

(Signet Classics Edition, 1964, secondhand £1.00)

Currently I'm reading "Bleak House" by Charles Dickens and aiming to keep ahead of the BBC series. This lovely edition is in great condition apart from a little yellowing of the spine, it looks unread, with good quality paper, and this lovely line drawing on the cover is surely better than the bland Penguin Classics?

Friday, October 21, 2005

The Range of My Reading

David Lodge famously invented a party game in "Small World" where professors of literature admitted to the books they hadn't read. Its a parlous game really. Failure to read "Hamlet" was the crime too far there. Recent posts here and elsewhere about post-war British fiction remind me of how Gertrude Stein had worried that she was reading so fast through the books she came across that she would eventually run out. It explains the length of "Making of Americans" anyway! More importantly, I guess, is that tomorrow is always more overrun with books than yesterday. One's range of reading, moreover, increases. There was clearly a border to my reading when I was eleven, and if Enid Blyton was inside it, then Jules Verne and Agatha Christie may have been just over it. No matter, you get to 16 or so, and you can dispense with borders entirely. Yet the range of one's reading is never so great as then - with so much unread, that you have to devour. There's still the unread of course, I'm shamefully only just getting round to "Bleak House" (the BBC are serialising it next week and damned if I'm going to get hooked on the TV adaption), and wonder if the Divine Comedy or Faust will ever be opened. As a writer, range is important for a number of reasons. You'll learn more about suspense from Stephen King, or pacing from John Grisham than any Don DeLillo or Virginia Woolf, and more about other things (naturally) from those two. If scientists still believe in God because as they find out more about the universe they discover the range of their ignorance, then a reader-writer gets to a point, I think, of no return. I've read "Hard Times" thank you, so "Bleak House" will hold few surprises; I've read "Birthday Letters" so who needs the collective Hughes? Sometimes it seems that I've created my own "fast forward" button for fiction and poetry, reading about it, or skimming anthologies of it. The devil as always is in the detail; however much I know from the outside about a book or a poem, it is the wonder of both, that they are not really paraphrasable. And that lack, thankfully, still can give pleasure. If I sometimes lack patience with the book I'm reading, its because I am reminded of all the ones I'm not. There's plenty to read, to watch, to listen to. I've been edging towards buying some Elliot Smith for a while, and picked up 3 of his albums recently, all excellent and all very different. I was listening to one just and thought I'd see what other albums he'd got, and it turns out today was the anniversary of his death. Having been to a friend's funeral last Monday, there's added poignancy I guess.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Art is David Cameron

At a friend's earlier, discussing the below post on "innovation", I tried to articulate some of the issues I'd brought to bear, and realised she was very sceptical. "Art is basically conservative," she said. I'd not really thought of this; and probably had a degree of disagreement with it. But I knew what she was saying. In literature, it is not revolutionary, but reactionary - comfortable rather than chaotic; always after the fact of scientific or social upheaval, not a precursor to it; and recycling a literate past - therefore "looking back", nostalgic, conservative in that sense. "What a good artist can do," she added, "is extend the form."

Monday, October 17, 2005


A fascinating feature in the Sunday Times by Bryan Appleyard, asking whether we're on the brink of a new dark age, and suggesting that the pace of innovation has slowed - so that after 2 centuries of progress, we shouldn't now take this for granted. In some ways, this seems absurd - haven't we seen such an astonishing revolution in computing over the last 2 decades for instance? What about innovations in treatment for cancer, HIV etc? But we're also in a world that seems not to have changed that much - except by degree. To take a simple, perhaps banal example, the Video recorder certainly "changed lives" - or at least leisure time - by allowing to timeshift recordings, watch films more than once. Yet DVDs and hard disk recorders are merely improving what we have already got. The innovation - storable moving images - is distant. In some cases, you could argue that digitisation is not even an improvement - e.g. compare teletext with digital interactive text, the older technology is faster, with a bigger page size. We are, I guess, used to exagerrating the importance of the presence in many ways, or failing to see it in historical context, and our westernised conception of things probably doesn't help. I think its an interesting debate, though "inventions" seem only part of it; what about innovation in the arts and ideas? With historical hindsight we can see that Darwin, Freud and Marx were the forerunners of certain ways of thinking that clearly were different than what had gone before. Look at the "range" of disciplines that now abound compared even with a dozen years ago. Art - literature in particular - seems best able to articulate the scope of human innovation. The romantic consciousness, seeing fit subjects not in God but in God's creations, whether the Lake District or a nightingale, was one such innovation; modernism was another. It's fair to say, as well, that certain arts, are technologically driven. Machine musics like house music and hip hop would have been unthinkable without synthesizers and other purely electronic instruments, just the same way that rock and roll could only happen once Les Paul had amplified the guitar. Innovation, for me, is where there clearly was nothing the same before. It would be difficult to find a house record prior to 1986, or a hip hop record before 1979 - yet prototypes existed for both (the O'Jays "I Love Music", Kraftwerk's "Trance Europe Express" the Last Poets, War). Similarly where are the first person novels that explore consciousness prior to the 20th century? It is there in Knut Hamsun's "Hunger" from the late 19th, but rarely elsewhere. Certain events or discoveries change things. But whether printing press, or electricity is more important for the "form" of the art as opposed to the "idea" is a debate in itself. Does the "photograph" have more of a claim to "realism" than Turner's paintings of the elements or Stubbs' horses? And if we are in a dark age, or approaching one (and we're likely to be well into it before we know it), then it is the arts that will be the best barometer; and here it doesn't look that good. Has poetry revitalised itself since modernism? Has the novel? Where is the innovation that we once - if not took for granted, at least saw as a way to distinguish the generations. Language certainly re-invents its components, and there are grammars and vocabularies nowadays that would have been somewhat inconceivable in the poetry of a hundred years ago. (Linton Kwesi Johnson's Inglan is a bitch for instance.) Most modernist poetry, even when it sought solace in the past, has a form and feel and voice to it that could only have come out of the electric age. But what of now? Saturated by art, its all availabe to everyone, its possible to wonder, yes, where are the greats, where are the innovations? There's clearly something in the "post-modern", and in the type of post-ironic fictions of Eggars, Foster Wallace and Moody, (in the age of television, nothing is real, everything is fractured through its simulacrum, irony therefore is everywhere, and no longer possible), but it might be the last days of Rome - an Augustan parody; a mock heroic of the dying Western literate classes. Yet, just as you go further down that road...away from the centre, something new, unusual might appear at the edge of vision. A review in the Guardian sparked my attention. 437 pages of doggedly cut-up text turned into a novel with a thousand fonts or more. This is potentially a 3D literature for the future - not merely an academic parlour game, or an experiment in the labs of the OuLiPo -- the name was familiar of course from those "lost consonants" Graham Rawle's been peppering the paper with for years. But a novel? I await its arrival with bated breath.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

The Reading List

According to Ellis Sharp the post-war fiction reading list at a UK university is very unadventurous. I studied at Lancaster (1985-8) and our list was equally poor - I'd been reading Burroughs and Acker in my spare time and was given David Lodge ("How far can we go?"), Iris Murdoch ("Under the net"), William Golding ("The Inheritors") and JG Ballard ("Empire of the sun", of all the strange choices!) to go on. I wasn't impressed, with only Doris Lessing's "Memoirs of a Survivor" and Fowles' "French Lieutenants' Woman" (also on Bookworld's list) passing muster. What golden age there was for English literature was clearly not the fifties, sixties and seventies. Several of my choices novels were written since my university days. I'd half agree with Ellis about "Morvern Callar", though I feel it might be too much of a time and a place, or (though its probably too recent) Magnus Mills' "Three to See the King" - but I'll stick with 10, and throw a couple of more commercial wild cards in the pack.

Money. Martin Amis
The Quantity Theory of Insanity. Will Self
The Bloody Chamber. Angela Carter
Earthly Powers. Anthony Burgess
On the Black Hill. Bruce Chatwin
The Jerry Cornelius Trilogy. Michael Moorcock
The Collector. John Fowles
Continent. Jim Crace
Diamonds are Forever. Ian Fleming
Memoirs of a Survivor. Doris Lessing.

I realise there are 3 books of short stories on there. Not on purpose, I just think that Self, Carter and Crace's best books are probably the one's listed. The Fleming might not be the best one - but it's either this or "Dr. No" if my memory serves me well. I even got a house point for reviewing it when I was at school. (Sad, but true.) These official "reading lists" seem to tread an uneasy line between books that have been big contemporary hits, and ones that are long-in-the-canon The former you'd have expected an English literature student to have at least seen (or seen the TV version - Smith and Coe for instance), the latter seem to be hanging around beyond their historical sell-by date. (I like Drabble, Sillitoe, Kingsley Amis for instance but think there's a limit to what you can learn from them.) I agree with Ellis, that such a list should be to provoke, and encourage - about both the possibilities of fiction (most of the above list) and the grace of the language. We seem to be strong in writers, rather than books - so none of the above are isolated novels; but high spots of reasonably distinguished careers.

A Minutes Silence

Harold Pinter, the English dramatist, has won the Nobel Prize for Literature. A surprise, in many ways, it really shouldn't be. He's just celebrated his 75th, and it generally seen as a lifetime achievement award. Also, the Academy still holds playwrights in high regard, Pinter has been a poltically inclined, if not political writer, and the last English winner was William Golding (I don't think you can really count V.S. Naipaul as the Guardian does), in the mists of time. Also, I'm personally very pleased, since his writing has always been an influence - not always to the good - certainly his dialogue and his view of how dialogue should be written is a very powerful one. Pinteresque dialogue seems more real to me than many of the more vernacular types of dialogue in literary novels. My novel "High Wire" tried to use Pinter as my dialogue model, (by trying to make dialogue un-novelistic, i.e. more like Pinter, I was trying to create something more natural, but because it read different than much novelistic dialogue some readers thought it unrealistic!) I saw "Dumb Waiter" at Edinburgh last year, think "Betrayal" is one of the best structured and most original plays of my lifetime, and despite certain misgivings at the inherent nihilism of "The Birthday Party" cannot deny its spooky power. He no longer writes plays, but unaccountably poor poetry, but its for his plays that this honour is given, and is justified. It has been said before (Alan Bennett, I believe) that a suitable tribute to Pinter would be a two minute silence - in honour of the "pauses" in his writing - but I think even Pinter deserves a little cheer today.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Taking the Literary Temperature (An Occasional Series)

Position on bestsellers list for "The Sea" by John Banville - 3.
Males in suits reading the latest Harry Potter book seen on the bus - 1.
Number of books bought by me secondhand at the weekend - 3.
Length in lines of my most recent poem - 21.
Free DVDs with the "quality" papers on Saturday - 2.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Long Service Awards

It could be the worst decision in its history, or, an obvious acknowledgement of genius. I am talking of John Banville winning the mercury, sorry, the Booker with his 14th novel "The Sea." terrible title, its half of Iris Murdoch for chrissakes, and you have to say, that long into the career, is this the one that matters - the one that I should read? - the best novel of 2005? It was a decent list so it must be damn good. If not, its the biggest fuck-up in their history. I will (try and) read it; albeit sounds fucking boring. I may be wrong. If they have sold us a pup then the Booker is dead. If they've pulled out a good one from a good year, then... who knows?

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Sense and Sensibility

It is - or has been - national poetry week. I'm not sure whether it coincided with national breast cancer awareness week, or whatever next week is (Booker week? see below), but if the aim of such weeks is to raise awareness where there isn't much, or to celebrate what deserves celebration, I fear that this year, more than ever it may have failed. There was something about a "poem for space won by Adrian Mitchell, the last Manchester Poetry Festival which circumstance stopped me from attending; and the annual award of the Forward Prizes for best collection, first collection and poem. Most interesting perhaps - and the reason I'm commenting was a very measured article by John Mullan in the Guardian on "what are poets writing about?" It does a good job, I think, of explaining to poetry readers and non-readers alike what the current subject matter, or sense and sensibility of English poetry might be (for this he seems to mean written in English by the British and Irish - not Americans or elsewhere). There was the usual rapid response unit angry at his "shallowness", (his article was thoughtful and educative), his "dissing" of Alice Oswald and Carole Ann Duffy (he was respectful and positive about the qualities and popularity of both) and his failure to find anything experiential in the poetry of J.H. Prynne. Mullan's damned either way; but his point was that most of the poets on the shortlists are writing about nature, or the commonplace, sometimes with humour, sometimes not. often formally or in a way that is mostly accessible. The "having something to write about" seems to have left English poetry, unless you were Irish living through the troubles, or - like Forward winner Harsent - have recently translated someone who was living in a war zone. It seems to me that having a subject, or a sense of what you want to write, whether in prose or poetry, is a prerequisite for good work, except in the most extreme of circumstances, but also, that our so-called comfortable lives aren't necessarily that. This poet for instance lives easily without God, (something Eliot couldn't do), but he lives uneasily with that absence, with the "reality" of others' Gods (Bush, Blair, Bin Laden, Saddam), and that's one subject amongst many. I don't think the times make the poet anymore than the poet makes the times.

Saturday, October 08, 2005


Monday is the Booker. There was a BBC4 documentary going through the 6 on the shortlist. It does seem both a strong and a safe list this year. Probably any of the books would be a worthy winner. The subject of Sebastian Barry's "A Long, Long Way" (to the source of the title) - Irish soldiers fighting for a united Britain in the Great War, just before Irish independence, seems a clever one. Though whether I'll read it is another matter. His style sounded a little over-poetic for my tastes, and having read "Birdsong" and "Atonement" in the last few years I'm getting a little case of Trench foot myself. There seems ample reason for choosing such a historical subject. Ishiguro's book, in comparison, is a science fiction dystopia, about clones that have been born and raised for their organs. Coming so close on David Mitchell's tackling of a similar subject in the standout section of "Cloud Atlas" I wonder how it will fair. Interesting that science fiction can still have an allure for so-called literary writers, though maybe its something in the air at UEA, since McEwan trod futuristic ground in his somewhat unsatisfying "Child in Time" (name a novel after a dodgy seventies prog-rock track and you're asking for trouble!). At least the future contrasts nicely with the generally historical tone of the list. I think its unlikely that either of the female Smiths (no, not a new girl group, but Zadie and Ali) will win, (though its 5 years since the MAN prize was won by a woman) and I guess my money would be on Julian Barnes. But, I've not read any of them yet, and in general, the best book does win. A look back at previous shortlists doesn't seem to have got it too wrong. A strong year such as 2001 probably chose the wrong big name, (Carey seems in decline to me), whereas a poor shortlist explains McEwan's winner with the below standard "Amsterdam". Maybe its the passing of time, but I had to go back to 1986 to find a travesty ("Old Devils" ahead of the "Handmaid's Tale"), and there are books on each of those early eighties lists which you could argue were an improvement on the winner. Obviously good books haven't made the lists as well, but the Booker does what it tries to do, reasonably well. Its a barometer of the literary times, but may well be placed in the wrong part of the literary house, to be an accurate portrayal of the weather. And a "Booker" book though it undoubtedly exists, changes over the years - more recently its been light populist, with a tinge of pseudo-Americanism to it, but this years list seems to have eschewed that - its comfortable history, all our yesterdays. Like the Tory party is still has a vague idea of what its for, but can't always work out what that means! Salman Rushdie = Margaret Thatcher? Reinventing the institution. I'll leave the analogy there.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Submission Anxiety

Although I was going to avoid writing about the business of writing, this article on the slush pile by Susan Hill got me thinking. Her request for aspirant novelists got close on 4000 applications. I'm still juggling with that figure! When I was shortlisted for the Lichfield Prize, a prize worth £5000 and publication, I was one of less than a hundred entrants. There was a quite rigid entry criteria (the novel had to be located in Lichfield), but still... I wondered where Susan had advertised her "request" since she didn't receive many from literary agents or creative writing courses. Presumably those 4000 came from somewhere else - maybe in these "New Writer" magazines, or via mailing lists. Clearly, though she found a winning novel in the end, she also had to wade through more than her fair share of "slush". I used to suffer from submission anxiety - after sending something off, and waiting, and waiting. Becoming an editor of sorts gives you a chance to see it from the other side of the fence. One thing that surprised me is how much of a kitchen industry non-commercial fiction and poetry is in this country. Nobody - outside of London at least - seems to be paid anything to work in literature, and this, one of the country's greatest exports. My editorial time - like those I unjustly criticised for their tardiness - is short and occasional; lead times for magazines are 3-6 months at best. Submission anxiety was all about wanting to know when to "chase", what to "ask". Best thing to do with a returned envelope was send it or something else out again - get it out there. There were always stories or poems doing the rounds, and I would say that I'd recommend that to a writer even now. But I'm done with it. I guess like a lot of things, there's only so much you can take - but I think its more than that. Any "submission anxiety" I have now is of another type entirely. I don't know where I'd send anything. I've somehow burnt too many bridges. But I'm happier about it in some ways. I know too much about the disappointments, and how little it all matters, in the scheme of thing. The best I can do now is keep half-an-ear on opportunities that might leap out at me. I hope Susan Hill's chosen novel turns out to be a big success, the writer a real writer. One day soon I hope to have completed something else, something small perhaps, that I'm particularly proud of. I'll leave the submission anxiety until then.

Friday, September 30, 2005


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

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Pile 'em high...

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

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

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

Pride and Prejudice

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

Sunday, September 18, 2005

A digression around edges

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

Thursday, September 15, 2005

The Crap Bits

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

Monday, September 12, 2005


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

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Great Wyrley

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

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Cult Writing

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

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Product Placement

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

Thursday, September 01, 2005


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

Monday, August 29, 2005


I am generally not a "morning person", yet I can write in the mornings. I can also do some of those more mundane tasks that if you leave till later in the day when you're more alert, will simply seem a drag. This morning, as well as beginning this blog, which despite being simple to do, still requires an element of organisation; I've stapled together around 30 copies of the new issue of the magazine I co-edit, which is certainly a mundane task, but one that needs doing. Yet, at other times, I've found it easy to write at this time. One's heart is quieter, for want of a better phrase, and that helps. Although the heart certainly has its place in writing, it's necessarily not the most quiescent of organs. If you can write in the mornings then it has its advantages, though I feel there's some privilege to it. I've read about these bestselling novelists who get up at 5.00 to do an hours scribbling before going to their job in the City or as a Lawyer, and its admirable but somewhat exhausting. My old creative writing tutor, Richard Francis, told me that he wrote every day, and that was the best for way him. I can understand it, and have friends who also seem to do that. There's something forbidding about a novel, its length, the time it takes, the complex patterns you need to keep in your head/get down on paper, and like any complex task, a dilettante-ish approach (i.e. mine!) can be disastrous. But then again, I'm never that sure if I'm actually writing a novel! Even when I was, I certainly wasn't writing the novel every day, in fact, I kept writing short stories, in particular, as an alternative to the longer work. In a recent issue of Transmission Magazine, a Manchester fiction magazine that has come out of the same Creative Writing programme as I came from, editor Dan McTiernan quotes from Julia Cameron's "The Artists Way." "Every morning get up and write 3 pages of longhand, stream-of-consciousness not re-read them...never skimp or skip on Morning Pages." Though anything that works for one person, I wouldn't dismiss, this does seem ridiculous, even as a loosening up exercise. For a start, 3 pages of stream-of-consciousness writing does, in itself, take energies, and if the writer is any good in the first place, then there's likely to be something good in there regardless. Secondly, as I've said earlier in the post, the mornings can be a good place to start the real writing. Perhaps a more fundamental difficulty here, is the source of the advice. Cameron's most well known book is this one, not some creative work. I prefer to quote Kingsley Amis quoting Philip Larkin "You know how when you start in the morning it's like getting blood out of a stone to begin with, with lots of time spent just staring at the blank paper...and then you gradually speed up so that after an hour or more the stuff's coming quite easily." Amis makes the point that this slow, but necessary starting, can have its artistic benefits - that these early words, might make it all the way to the final version; whereas later, when we're giddy with our facility, we let go even the sloppiest mistakes.

The Art of Fiction

It's a wet bank holiday, and therefore not so strange to be sat at the computer starting a weblog called "The Art of Fiction." The title is taken from an essay by Henry James, which has always seemed as good a starting point as any to a discussion on the creative process. It's perhaps also reassuring that almost as long as writers have been creating fiction, they've complained about things going to the dogs. In the past I've used a weblog for a number of reasons, but this time out, I'm setting myself a few small rules.

1. I will concentrate on the creative process
2. I will ignore, as much as is possible, the "business" of fiction
3. Where I refer to other writers or writing, I will do it by example

In the last 18 months "weblogs" have become commonplace, and although still in the format of a diary, it is not the diarist, as much as the newspaper columnist who comes to mind when reading the best of them.

For some time I've been struggling with the "purpose" of creativity and of striving to write good work, when one is doing so outside of the prevailing culture. In short, with little access to or affinity with mainstream publishing, what is the underlying point, value and aim of such endeavour? Am I still a writer and, if so, what sort of writer am I trying to be? These are general questions without an answer at the moment; but I have always felt strongly that all art requires a robust critical culture, otherwise it leaves all value judgements to that of either the market, or a small number of "guardians" of the that culture - and, that from reading the lives and letters of many of the writers I admire, that almost all of them benefited from a certain exegesis of their work.