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.