Tuesday, January 31, 2006

The horror! The horror!

To the Library Theatre tonight to see the ever-reliable Lip Service's new show "Horror for Wimps." This was a spoof on horror movies rather than their usual literary fair, and rather than the songs that have peppered previous shows, it was an impressive use of specially recorded video clips that impressed. It was incredibly enjoyable to see technology used in this way; with the slippage between the two "worlds" of the present day, and fifties horror film, almost like David Cronenberg's Existenz in its slickness; albeit sillier. (Or not quite as silly, depending on your view of Cronenberg.) It was fun, as well, to see how our new super-size TVs "dominate a room" just like the old fifties ones did - this time, its the picture and surroundsound rather than the casing - but it was a timely reminder of how things come around. Of course, one of last years big films was "King Kong."

Friday, January 27, 2006

Secret Agents

Talking with a friend about spies. More particularly, she was reading Graham Greene's "Our Man in Havana" and we were musing on the English spy novel. Came to the conclusion that in the modern sense it probably began with Conrad's "The Secret Agent", but came of its own more during the 20th century. I mentioned the Dreyfus letter as a good real-life example of a "spy" like story - but thinking back they've been around for as long as their was literature. Dante, Shakespeare, Marlowe, Chaucer, all might have had "spy" on their c.v. Conrad aside, it took a while for the spy novel to have any sort of literary status - more the Dennis Wheatley's of the world than more erudite writers. It's a boys own literature of course, and Greene must have had something to do with it getting its literary chops. Film, of course, as well. The "Cold War" was spying's golden age of course, and from Fleming to Le Carre, spy novels have often been made into spy films.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Into the Valleys

I was interested to read in the Guardian about the establishment of the Library of Wales, an initiative to bring back into print Welsh "classics." The first, Ron Berry's "So Long Hector Bebb" sounds worth a read, a boxer from south Wales making his comeback. It makes me wonder whether we have a fiction of "place" anymore, and what it's validity might be. These, after all, are Welsh writers writing in English. But if there is such a thing as an Australian fiction or Canadian fiction I'm well able to believe there might be a Welsh one. With a not over-ambitious, but not insubstantial aim to bring 10 books a year back into print over 5 years, its a rare undertaking of blinding common sense. Secondhand books websites and secondhand bookshops have furnished most of my purchases over the last few years; so books not being "in print" is not always a problem - and I can only assume that the Library of Wales, like other small publishers, will have a long-term view of its own backlist, otherwise, in 10 years time these editions will be the one's lost and forgotten. There's recently been more talk of "electronic paper" making the eBook a real possibility at last. I guess, for non-fiction, its possible, but for narrative fiction? I'd be surprised to see something in my lifetime. I'm like those few people holding on to their black and white television sets, not intending giving up on books yet. In Stephen Poliakoff's recent BBC play "Friends and Crocodiles", every time some new dot-com startup mentions electronic books, the main character goes back to the old sorts, and, in a moment of absurdist humour recommends that the venture capitalists invest their money in bookshops, because there aren't enough of them.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Little Gidding

Tomorrow will see the announcement of this years T.S. Eliot prize, essentially poetry's Booker. In a very well-reasoned piece in the Observer, ex-Poetry Review editor Robert Potts rues a missed opportunity. Through quotation, as well as comment, he deconstructs the contemporary poetry trope of choice: "An emotional event is described through a particular object, anecdote or memory, which supplies some metaphorical glitter," even the well-reviewed Carol Ann Duffy collection - a likely winner (and she did!) - is pulled apart on this. I don't think I can better that as a condemnation of the sterility of much contemporary poetry. You may think that's fine, but repeated time and again, across a range of otherwise different poets, the effect palls quickly. But he also neatly puts in the "cronyism" of the tiny poetry scene as being in itself problematic. The books can't stand on their own; not where the judges are friends - lovers even - of the writers etc. etc. Twas ever thus, I guess, and its only a shame that Potts doesn't come up with any names, apart from Geoffrey Hill, who could replace the current lists. Even sterile poetry probably deserves its award ceremony - everything gets an award ceremony these days! - its only a shame that one bearing the illustrious Eliot's name, and generously funded by his widow, isn't itself more illustrious. In yesterday's Guardian the ever-wonderful Kurt Vonnegut provides some useful graphs of the plots of various novels. His Kafka alone is priceless.

Saturday, January 14, 2006


Perhaps new years resolutions aren't meant to come at the start of the year, but gradually, as the year dawns - or perhaps these are more like new years revelations. Possibly a quiet start to the year has cleared my head a little, but I keep getting minor flashes of clarity, seeing things as they are - as I walk down the street, or as someone says something to me - and I think, yes, I should write this down. Yes, I should write this down. This has to be one of the drivers, hasn't it? Something to say! At last! (And the opposite of that "having an opinion" that everyone seems to have at the moment on such peripheral topics as George Galloway on Big Brother, or Ruth Kelly and the sex offenders register.) But I'm not sure how to say the things. You know how it is - you suddenly notice an absolute truth. Say, that people not only aren't having children any more, but they're studiously ignoring biological clocks, and just accepting that's how its going to be. Or: that the streets do seem a little safer than they used to; that crime and civil disobedience, though stil there, aren't quite as prevalent as they once were. Or: that our cities are becoming just a little bit more European, but only a little. Or more minor things than that - there's more blonde haired girls in Manchester than London, for instance. Or that literally EVERYONE has an iPod nowadays. If I had a newspaper column (or a blog?) then I could just bang them out. But I want to take these ingredients and put them into a fictional/poetic mix. I want to write something that could only be written at this point in time - a time both more comfortable than I can remember, and yet more fearful. I can't quite put my finger on what it is I'm trying to say, but feel that if I could write it down in fiction then I'd be able to say, yes, that was it. What's stopping me? Well, technique, I guess. All the models that I think of using - thriller, short story, essay, reportage - seem unfit to the task. I need, somehow to find a better writing frame on which to stretch these ideas. I need the places and characters which will inhabit the story. I need the appropriate technique for dealing for this material and making it make sense. What I notice, as well, is that the only models for this that I'm finding are not written ones, but filmic or musical. That's where the lessons need to be learnt from. Let us begin.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Sales Pitch

This is nothing to do with literature, I'm afraid. But was fascinated (sad!) to read the sales figures for the top 200 albums of the year. Frighteningly, 2.4 million copies of the James Blunt album were sold in the UK in 2005. Imagine that, 2.4 million people going in and asking for/handing over James Blunt. I didn't know there were that many "Smug marrieds" in the country (and what of those who'd already bought the single?) How many households are there? Around 25 million? That's 1 in 10! Its not about literature, I know but I've made the point several times that good writing needs to understand the zeitgeist. Clearly, a book set in 2005 could well be soundtracked by "Your Beautiful" however ghastly it might be. (Richard Curtis can write that one!) More intriguing is that the best reviewed Rolling Stones album for 20 years has only sold 109, 000 copies. That's how many completist fans they've got left - at most - probably a fraction of those who will see them live this year... and as for hype, don't believe it. Inverse proportion of tabloid inches to record sales must go to Pete Doherty whose Babyshambles debut album managed just 91,000 sales - less than his previous album with the Libertines still ratcheted up in '05. It just goes to show that you have to be consistent to your brand - the tabloid readers of the Pete 'n' Kate show were never going to be sticking "Down in Albion" in behind "Back to Bedlam"; and those who bought Kaiser Chiefs, Hard Fi and Franz Ferdinand in droves clearly aren't influenced by the papers. The industry - same as the publishing industry - is all about sating current appetites, so compilations aside, the only "old" albums to make it into the top 200 were by classics by Oasis, Pink Floyd and Nirvana. We may, it seems finally be over the sixties...

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Detox Literature

I'm wondering if January detox should be extended to literature. A few years ago when the New Puritans anthology came out, it seemed that this was more starvation diet than detox, most of the NPs were not getting rid of any excess (it would have required a different set of writers to take the pledge) but simply writing impoverished fiction. Since then, books have both extended and contracted (the increasingly large, gaudy books-about-nothing that have dominated this Christmas) whereas fiction, British fiction, has not done much other than it has always done. I kind of think the pumped up supersize American diet has suddenly lost its allure. If a few years ago it seemed impossible to imagine a British "Infinite Jest", it now seems impossible to imagine anyone wanting one particularly; and a review of the new Rick Moody in today's Observer reminded me that I'd never actually managed to read him. This year will see Douglas Coupland revisiting Microserfs in jPod, and I'm reminded again that "work" is one of the many subjects (alongside sport, money, sex, fame, success, the present, politics) that are mostly absent from British novels. If we clone US TV shows, swapping Donald Trump for Alan Sugar, and (in this years Celebrity Big Brother), try to mix a non-celebrity alongside the other barely-celebrity contestants, our fiction mostly remains parochial, comfort food. In some ways, we're cutting our cloth accordingly; its a big world, but our own part in it is small. Yet, I was talking to a friend at the weekend who reminisced about the history of his Italian family here in Manchester. We have these stories, but we keep them to ourselves or share amongst friends. Or else, in the rarified worlds of McEwan or Hollinghurst, create a protective shell that's only as real as the Sunday Times rich list. I'm struggling to get into Ali Smith's "The Accidental", 12-year-old narrators seem pure creative writing course - there's a terrible paragraph in the first chapter where she struggles to describe the video for A-Ha's "Take on Me" as if seen anew, through a contemporary 12-year old's eyes - its horribly laboured, and clearly will only make any sort of sense to people of a particular age - I'm sure there will be far more to the novel, and I'll stick with it, but 12-year-olds have clearly gone down the educational ladder a bit since Huck Finn. The Observer is also serialising a new Ronan Bennett novel, which he's writing as it appears - a contemporary serialisation. I'm looking forward to starting reading it, but its a shame it begins set in 1914 - how much more interesting if it was in the contemporary day? (PS it was a good start, actually and felt contemporary even if its clearly not!)

Thursday, January 05, 2006

The Booker Prize Experiment #1

Courtesy of the The Book People I got 2005's Booker Prize list in Hardback for Christmas. Yeah, I know we should kind of hate these mass-market sellers, but I'm not exactly sure where my sympathies are with these days - certainly not with the publishers. At least with hardbacks (6 for £30 since you ask!) they've got nice paper and decent binding. My recently read paperback of "The Line of Beauty" will do well to last the year. For the first time ever then, I'm going to try and read the Booker shortlist in full. It will no doubt come in useful if I ever get asked to be a judge! First off the block was Sebastian Barry's "A Long, Long Way" about an Irish soldier in the Great War. As the most easily "disappointed" of readers, its sometimes possible to think I've lost the joy of reading - but a book like this, a small masterpiece in many ways, reminds me that its only the books that are at fault, not me as reader. It easily sounded the most interesting of the shortlist, and despite my aversion to overly poetic prose, I picked it up, and haven't put it down since. Although in the 3rd person - which allows an overarching sense of perspective, critical in a book on such a subject - the voice is overwhelming throughout. Barry writes like a dream, but moreso, with a joy for the sound of his prose. There's hardly a pretension in the whole novel, yet its as lyrical as a ballad, and as earthy as a dive bar. Any book about the war is a hard one to swallow. This puts the awful "Birdsong" into the shade; and adds the humanity that was missing from "Atonement". Willie Dunne is a masterful creation; a lucky Irish runt, who joins the army because his 5'6" stature isn't enough to follow his da into the police. He's the most innocent of men abroad; yet we follow him gladly into battle. It's sometimes been said that a war sorts out the mettle of men - and lucky or not, its Dunne's humanity that shines through. Against this, the ever-complex psychopolitics of Ireland is subtle in its weave. A couple of years ago I read two novels (Magnus Mills' "Three to see the king" and Nicola Barker's "Five Miles from Outer Hope") which were, to my mind, gems that will last a generation, yet hardly troubled the selectors; and this is of the same quiet quality. Its Booker shortlisting is the least it deserved, and I'd undoubtedly not have read it without that imprimature, and if any others on the list are anywhere near as good, then it will have been a vintage year indeed. There's an admiring quote from Coetzee on the cover, and since his "Disgrace" was the last great Booker novel, it seems only appropriate. Recommended unreservedly.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Mitchell and Butler's Indian Pale Ale Awards Announced

This year's M&B Indian Pale Ale awards (or something like that) have been announced with Ali Smith the novel choice and Christopher Logue the poetry one, for his latest Homer. I'd say place yer money on Logue this year, no doubt about it. Oh, and I did I mention they're looking for a sponsor? (Postscript: the always accurate Metro paper seemed to think she was a novice writer plucked out of obscurity to beat the Salman's of the world with her first novel. First novel? Obviously not the same Ali Smith who was shortlisted for the Booker and the Orange for her previous novel, Hotel World.)

Sunday, January 01, 2006

The Continued Unsurprising Incompetence of Saskia and Tabitha in the Ongoing Attempt to Recognise a Good Writer When They See One

The Sunday Times, clearly anticipating a slow news year, has splashed on its front page that having sent two prize-winning novels, anonymously, to various publishers and agents, that nobody was interested. It's a good game of course, since the Saskias and Tabithas peppering the lower shelves of the British publishing industry aren't exactly the monoliths of aesthetic credibility that our literature needs or deserves, however, despite the near certainty that publishing these days is only interested in "near certainties" (Katie Price aka Jordan has a book deal, for instance), I do have some sympathy in this case. Whether anyone at all still reads Stanley Middleton is a moot point, and whether anyone under 50 actually reads V.S. Naipaul out of choice, is another one. Every second-hand bookshop is rammed with writers we just don't read any more - like Isabel Colegate and Richard Condon, and you can pick up any Margaret Drabble or Iris Murdoch you care to mention for a quid. Naipaul still gives good copy of course, and as a Nobel laureate, and a politically prickly creature his readership is likely to survive a while yet; but I have to say Middleton was a name from that distant past - yes, the Booker before it was televised. I'm pleased to say at 86 his one comment on this "people don’t seem to know what a good novel is nowadays" made me warm to him; and next time I'm in the second-hand shop I may pick up "Holiday" and give it a go. After all, unlike the other 50 manuscripts a day that the agents are complaining about, (and a good deal of the books that make it to the shelves for that matter), this one at least once had a readership.