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.