Monday, February 27, 2006

Our Friends in the North

I came, I saw, I was nervous. Tonight's Verberate was again successful, despite the weather. I was perhaps not that sensible in my choice of poems (my first was about the London bombings) coming straight after a song about an Orangutan and a prose piece about whether poodles shit is white, but hey, anything can be reduced to its elements, and that's unfair to both those pieces (though there was a bit of an Ape theme to the night, odd that) - overall it was a good evening, and just standing up there in front of a crowd for the first time in a while is refreshing. I once started a reading by punching my hand in the air and shouting "Hello Birmingham" in imitation of rock stars everywhere, which puzzled the hell out of people. Lesson 1: don't confuse the audience. I've only twice been to a reading in London, yet on both occasions they couldn't wait to get the poets/writers off stage so they could listen to bangin' techno or whatever it was they were into back-in-the-day. So a wet Monday night in Withington, forty or fifty appreciative people in a bar. Hello Birmingham!

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Live on Stage

Tomorrow night is Verberate 7 at Trof in Fallowfield, Manchester. I'm a post-flyer addition to the bill, but its the sort of night where there's something for everyone anyhow. I'm going to be reading poetry, most of which will come from my latest pamphlet "The Question" , or its predecessor "2004". (Both are available as .pdfs to download.)

Friday, February 24, 2006

A Change is Gonna Come

A day off after a long, difficult week and my mood has swung every which way. The gap between my creative ambitions and my life-ambitions is as wide as ever, and possibly irreconciliable. Its my 39th birthday in 8 days and I guess that's probably affecting my mood as well. About 10 years ago I started cut and pasting my stories into a photocopied magazine that I then would give to a few friends to get feedback. The first story I wrote for this, "The Ghosts of Coos Bay", based on an American trip of the previous summer was definitely a step-change in the quality of my writing. As I put together issue 28 (!!!) of this occasional magazine, I realise that to all intents and purposes I've stayed in the same place since then - despite leaving Manchester for London, then giving up one job/career to do a creative writing degree, then changing career, public sector rather than private, I'm still this mixed bag of creative ambitions and projects, and unresolved life-ambitions, and there's always a tug between them. Life is in the living I guess, and that's what I try and do, but its a bundle of uncertainties still. The most recent story I wrote was as influenced by my current life, as the Ghosts of Coos Bay was by that trip abroad - yet the earlier story is a work of pure imagination, using only the place of memory (a Godforsaken logging town in Northern California), whilst the latest seems lazily self-involved. A day off, particularly one accompanied by a rare self-hating hangover, at least gives me time to make a few decisions. I'm far too quiescent, usually, and every now and then my anger at the injustices of the world froth over; but I'm a literary man not a firebrand. I wish I could be a politicised person like Normblog , he's almost quicker to comment than the Guardian - today its Ken Livingston's suspension, and what I realise is that although I'm interested in systems, I've no clear idea how the mechanisms of the modern world really work - where the real power lies. Belatedly I come to Roy Hattersley's piece on Andrew Motion, "how awful it must be to wake up in the morning and remember that you are the poet laureate" he writes. I'm not sure whether Motion's talents are genuinely "boundless", but he's certainly a good biographer, and more recently I guess, a successful "operator", using the Laureateship to prise open those bureaucratic doors that would otherwise remain shut. It's hard to know what he thinks about anything these days, as although he will pronounce to order for the papers, its almost always the expected line. I'm trying to remember when the Laureateship is over? I think this time it was time-limited, nobody would want that life sentence. He interviewed me for a place on the UEA course back in 1997. He was the first real-live writer I'd ever met, but by the end of a long day, the medication he was taking for a back injury was beginning to wear off, the interview was short and unsuccessful. I remember that one of the other candidates that day, a woman called Frances Liardet, was already a published writer, and I picked up her debut novel a rather good coming-of-age thriller "The Game" from the campus bookshop. So, not quite ten years ago, but whatever she got out of the course, it appears not to be a second novel. She was very kind and pleasant on the day, and it was the "literary atmosphere" rather than anything else that made me apply for the novel writing course at Manchester, a road that lead me here.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Ah, Poetry

A friend was here this weekend and since it was the first time he'd seen the flat he commented on my "poetry bookcase." I really have one. It's full as well, so newcomers have to relegate existing books to a backroom box. Its aesthetically pleasing, and, occasionally useful. So maybe I was thinking about poetry again. Or maybe its because I've not written any for a few weeks; or maybe because I missed Geoffrey Hill at the MMU on Thursday, arriving too late, after "something came up" at work, and meeting a few people afterwards for a drink. I was reminded of the monthly Verberate night at Trof in Fallowfield, and so on a whim I got in touch, and so I'm on the bill next week. Its a mixture of performance poetry, more considered stuff and fiction. Which sums me up! You don't get a big spot, but it usually gets a good, large and varied audience. From here I came across Steven Waling's blog, and surprised I've not come across it before. I once did a "gig" with Steven Waling at the Cornerhouse, me, him and Carol Batton, possibly a never-to-be repeated line up, and you see him around quite a lot, once in Sainsbury's in Fallowfield, where, had I been a bit quicker I'd have mentioned Ginsberg's poem about Whitman in the Supermarket. He'd have liked that. Now, of course, I've got to put together my setlist. And only a week to fret about it. A week!

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Films & Reviews

I've not had much time recently to study whether a film is worth seeing or not, just get a sense of the "babble" in the air that it's good. So, went to "Good Night, and Good Luck" last night. Beautifully cinematographed (is that a word?) in monochrome, all those swathes of real black backgrounds on the large screen, with the wrinkled face of "Ed Morrow" emitting immense credibility. George Clooney's new movie is about a particular element from the McCarthy witchhunts where CBS and their news presenters finally stood up against McCarthy-ism's own unAmerican activities (accusation without trial or evidence for instance.) Beautifully filmed and edited, well-acted, I think the Sunday Times review got it right when it calls it "the best looking lecture you'll ever attend." I was glad I saw the film, but its no masterpiece, certainly not a worthy award winner (except for cinematographer.) The intensity was palpable, but in itself that wasn't enough. As a story about one man's fight against injustice it hardly registered. I wanted to see a documentary on the subject, as a companion piece, so narrow-focussed was the piece. One character asks "what if we're backing the wrong side?" and that was the one point where light intruded. Clearly, Clooney sees this as an appropriate moment to challenge the political elite, but he does it as an insider story, with the media (and Hollywood) seen as the white knights. It doesn't detract from what was a powerful hour and a half, but like that other recently well-reviewed film, Broken Flowers, it lacked depth. I realise, despite good dialogue, that it was painfully underwritten - ALL black and white - a director's film, with a limited source material, and - probably - a need to have known more about the subject before the film. A good small movie, visually exemplary, but short on the very articulacy that we're currently lacking.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Bar Fiction

Is there a new type of fiction being written these days? Or a new generation that's about to pop its head over the parapet? It sometimes seems so - though you wouldn't know it from the lists of the major publishers. Where's the contemporary experience? The last Booker shortlist was heavy on historical; packed with literary pastiche. Highly acclaimed and high selling writers like Sarah Waters seem to have it all ways; yet in Morrissey's immortal words, it says nowt about my life. I guess you get the high water mark of one sort of highly conservative writing in Ian McEwan's "Saturday", a novel set in the present day (and a very particular present day), but almost by mere accident. It's a fine drawing room novel. Yet, having rarely been in a drawing room, I'm not convinced its got any relevance to me either. I wouldn't say there's a generation as such - I'm close to 40, and I'm talking about writers as well who are closer to 20; but it does strikes me that the fallout of the Thatcher years is beginning to have its artistic fallout as well. If its people around my age and a little who were politicised by music (or got into music by the politics), then perhaps as the children being born then start, in certain circumstances with a different set of priorities. I guess there's two parallel generations now anyway, those who are born to be consumers, (mobile phone, iPod, gap year, Chantelle, Chelsea), and those who are already seeing themselves locked out (second-hand vinyl, Arctic Monkeys, Oxfam, FC United) - and its not a class thing; you can be in either lot whether you've been to a finishing school or just finished at a sink school. It's more a tribal attitude. If you want to do anything (say, bring up non-obese kids, recycle bottles and paper, eat knobbly carrots, see a local band, write a poem) that has no monetary value then you're in one tribe; if the cost not the value is what you value then you're in the other. Its perhaps that which makes one uneasy at tonight's vote banning smoking in public places - its an assault not just on bad health (and bad manners) which I applaud but on a life less governed. That it comes a day after the same government has ok-d I.d. cards despite not winning any of the arguments, seems only right. I guess any of these things can be picked and mixed on one side or the other. For me its those who think for themselves and those who don't. What has this to do with fiction? Well, everything, of course. I guess if we're not writing Sarah Waters' historical romps, or Zadie Smith pastiches, then we're writing something else. There's been various "names" for scenes over the years that have been both derogatory and explanatory of any kind of fiction that has a local or domestic focus; kitchen sink dramas; aga sagas. I guess what I'm seeing is a kind of "bar fiction" that's set in a bar - not a pub, not a wine bar - for its crucial scenes, since none of the characters own their own homes, or are part of inclusive professions. Bars are an English thing, kind of modelled on some historical antecedents, in Paris, New York, wherever a few writers and creatives gathered; but grown out of the English pub. I used to wonder why I wrote so many scenes set in bars and whether it was a lack of imagination, but then I realised that the bar is the common land of the contemporary city. In bars you drink, you sit, you read the paper, or write in your Moleskine; you might eat there or listen to music, but these are minor affectations. Unlike the "Disco Biscuits" club fiction, bars are where you talk, and listen. They're called things like "The Bar" (Chorlton-cum-Hardy); or Cord Bar or Bar Centro(the Northern Quarter, Manchester); they're not just a Manchester thing, but Manchester does them pretty well - I looked in vain for one in Newcastle at the weekend - and its the pivot for a particular kind of bar fiction. Gwendoline Riley's two novels "Cold Water" and "Sick Notes" hardly leave the place; Lee Rourke virtually lives in one; I pivot in and out; Max Dunbar - a writer we recently published in Lamport Court - stumbles in and out of them. But these might be the last days; the bars might already be over - the smoke (and smokers) gone, and something of their controlled anarchy. You won't find a bar in a novel by Ian McEwan, Sarah Waters or Zadie Smith. It's a small point, but a telling one.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Literature and Bands

I'm going to get a copy of the Sexus single "The Official End of it All" (ZTT records), courtesy of eBay, the band that Manchester-based writer Paul Southern was once in. Its a strange business the crossover between fiction and music. A recent Michael Moorcock interview reminded me of his time with the acquired taste that is Hawkwind; there's Nick Cave's And the Ass Saw the Angel, and Dylan's Tarantula, part of which made it into the Penguin Book of the Beats. Don Paterson's a musician as well as poet, and Rick Moody plays in a band. An ex-Belle and Sebastian member Stuart David wrote an acclaimed novel "Nalder Said" ; and then there's Sleeper's Louise Wener. Not as uncommon as one thinks, in other words. Writers have guested on records - e.g. William Burroughs - but tend to stick to it being a hobby like Moody; Moorcock's example a rare one of synergy, though Hawkwind may be one of the few bands that history will find impossible to rehabilitate. I guess the occasional article about the "poetry" or "narrative" of a singer/songwriter hides the fact that the more likely connection is none at all. Oasis's Noel Gallagher recently bragged about never having read a book; which says a lot for the Manchester education service - both good and bad - unkind non-fans might say, you can tell from his lyrics. Yet, the far more cerebral Thom Yorke writes indescribably bad lyrics.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Primary, Secondary, Tertiary

What sort of creative are you? Are you a "primary" - writing new work. Or a "secondary" perhaps a biographer or a journalist or something similar? Or "tertiary" working in the creative industries but a bureaucrat, an arts administrator or similar. I only ask. I'm a "primary", by the way, but this blog shows I'm also a "secondary", but I've never even quite managed to get a job as a "tertiary" - bookseller, administrator or the like - not in the arts at least. A recent job interview was pretty much a "tertiary" one, and I blew it. I was totally nervous, babbling about everything rather than answering the questions. Post-mortem; I was trying to fit my "primary" and "secondary" persona into a job that I could have done very well at if I'd just stuck to the "tertiary." The problem is: weirdly enough, you only seem to get a shot at these "secondary" and "tertiary" jobs if you ARE a successful "primary." Poets as professors; novelists as reviewers. Conversely, you ony seem to get a shot at the "primary" if you're already in the "secondary" or "tertiary" - journalists with book deals, agents turned authors. Doing a non-arts related "tertiary" job and combining this with my "primary" work seems to somehow suit my temperament; but it doesn't always make it easy to move between the two. And I'm probably making a moutain out of this particular molehill, of course. Because maybe its not the primary-secondary-tertiary split that is important but the professional/amatuer. I don't make money from any of my creative activities, so therefore I'm an amatuer. And maybe I'm happiest being that way. I wouldn't be the first.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006


Since I mentioned the Danish cartoons of Mohammed, events have moved on a lot and I've thought long and hard whether I should add to the mountains of commentary. A friend once said I was a "rebel without a cause", but being civilised, educated, thoughtful and literary, I'd amend that to say I'm "without a cause", but have hardly rebelled. However a conformist without a cause (to conform to) is just as damaging in the long-run. If I have a cause, then "freedom of speech", is one. If I have an enemy, then "institutionalised religion" is it. Yet, being anti-religious in a country where that is perfectly all right, perhaps even encouraged, it makes me wonder whether I should concentrate what "fire" I have on something that has such an unimportant role in my life. May as well be anti-Speedway or anti-Morris-Dancing; my opinions on both are pretty much irrelevant. Yet being pro-free speech its the one thing that does get me riled. Though, even here, in the free-space of the internet, having been anonymously vilified a couple of times, I'm aware that with freedom comes responsibility. In the original pieces on the Danish cartoons (They are on the internet if you've not yet seen them, will take you there if you want to see them) nothing was said of their context - that they were published because of this very debate about "depicting" Mohammed. As someone from a Christian background I was a bit "deaf" to the particular offence of depiction. As Christianity iconises Christ (albeit usually a very white, non-Jewish looking Christ), I'd forgotten that Islam prevents this depiction of the prophet. You have to wonder if a 7th century Saatchi and Saatchi had come up with this peculiarity of the brand - "hey, Mohammed, keep your mystery, it's all you've got" - "but what about Jesus, he's everywhere...", "you're a me-too brand, Mohammed, you have to differentiate, Avis to Hertz, Pepsi to Coke..." Now, here's the problem, I'm not sure, if that conversation is in itself offensive to Muslims, if so, I apologise, but wonder how else I'm supposed to talk openly - and humorously - about this topic. Bill Hicks used to do a great skit on Jesus's 2nd coming, only to find everyone wearing jewellery showing him nailed to the cross. Now Allah is God, Mohammed is his prophet, therefore there's a massive difference with Christianity where Jesus is both prophet and deity. (The Catholic Church's veneration of Mary is more appropriate a distinction between the two religions, and perhaps an inevitable contradiction of a son of God born of woman.) But what I am sure of now, after the outrages of the last week, that it is the depiction of Mohammed that has so outraged Muslims, since this is forbidden by the religion. It's bad taste of the worst kind I guess. (I'm not sure whether you could show Allah instead or just read his name on a fish?) The Guardian has been all mealy-mouthed about free speech for the last couple of weeks, and generally dismayed at the cartoons, but has since decided that civil unrest is slightly worse in the scheme of things. (Ah, to see a liberal confused... a wonderful sight). I guess what I'm saying is that I think it is imperative that non-religious people and communities can comment and comment fiercely on the dogmatic beliefs, customs and views of organised religion; not forgetting, as someone who believes "all men and women are equal" there is not a religion in the world that doesn't find some excuse for oppressing women whicheve way it can get away with (another debate, but a very valid one - like when Tony Blair went to the Pope's funeral, you could only wonder whether he'd go to the funeral of anyone other Homophobe?) but that one should respect things that are gratuitously offensive to people who follow that faith. I've got the impression from the last week or so that Muslims are okay with satire, criticism, but not - and I don't think they should be - with this gratuitous disrespect. That kind of summarises my own permission. Yet there's something weird here. The very "world" nature of Islam seems to see a brotherhood amongst peoples that is in itself disturbing. A British Muslim aligning themselves in sympathy with the religious government of Iran for instance is deeply disturbing; just as a British working man in the thirties aligning himself with Hitler would have been. It is not "Islamophobia" which seems on the increase around the world but anti-semitism. I was stood outside of Marks and Spencers in Manchester a year or so ago and I asked why people were protesting against M&S. "Because they're Zionists", was the reply that the middle-aged white man gave me, "its well known." M&S is a PLC which means it predominantly owned by pension funds; you and me in other words. It would be entirely possible for a rich Muslim company to buy M&S if it so wanted, I guess. I wondered why M&S was being protested against as opposed to Debenhams or Sainsburys, and the only conclusion I could come to was that it was a company with a well-known Jewish history. This seemed perilously close to anti-semitism, rather than just being pro-Palestine. I mention this with some concern and some loathing, since - though these are things I have no right to have a real opinion on - the demonisation of the Jews was one of the key elements of Fascism, and it should be possible for us to now live in a world where it is possible to criticise America without being pro-Zionist, and it is possible to criticise the regimes of the Middle East, without being anti-Islam. It is with some misgiving that I hear that the abhorrent, opinionated, insane Abu Hamza has been jailed for seven years from today. This is astonishing to me: that in a country that believes in free speech anyone, however abhorrent their views (and it is for his views that he has been charged and jailed), could be imprisoned. (But on second thoughts, I'm not really that concerned that such a nasty piece of work is finally getting his comeuppance. Maybe I should be, but perhaps he created a climate of fear and loathing, and that's enough.) Unwrap all of this and I'm not sure there's a present here any more, just a series of wrappers, each smaller, more crumpled and more dispiriting than before. (But read this for a more erudite discussion of the issues.) An interesting article in yesterday's Times on a Manchester-based writer, Paul Southern who lives in Longsight as an "alien", unable to be seen with his Muslim girlfriend because of the approbation from her friends and family. I've not heard of Southern before, nor the almost-made-it band Sexus he was once in, yet the article seems to imply he's got no choice about where he finds himself, whilst being aware of the absurdity of it. The photograph that accompanies the piece sees him stood on the curry mile, rather than in the depths of Longsight, probably the most cosmopolitan road in Manchester.

He sits in the French House every Sunday so that we don't have to

Lee Rourke's Scarecrow was one of the reason's I restarted my blog-life, and the story he's just posted up there is the best thing I've yet read by him. Being Lee Rourke is Boring could appear in a British McSweeney's if such a thing existed, although maybe Scarecrow is that thing. This observational piece about Soho's French House is timed like the best of jokes, and that's what makes it so much more than just observation. Lee goes to the French House every Sunday so that we don't have to, distilling the rather tranquil boredom of the alcoholic's choice of boozer into an exquisite little story. The latest Scarecrow missive adds H.P. Tinker to the list of alumni and its quickly becoming one of the web's finest fiction showcases. Recommended. But, hey, Lee, mate, you need some more bookshelves...

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Political Writer

Because I write fiction, drama, poetry, non-fiction and music - its perhaps hard to see that my essential themes are entirely consistent. Whether I choose a particular style, or form, or subject, I would say there's always a deep seriousness to my intent if nothing else. Articulating this to a literary friend, I realised I kept coming back to the fact that I am a political writer; highly aware of the contemporary world, and how any art needs to at least acknowledge it, even if its not the explicit subject. The irony, of course, is that without being traditionally published, one's political voice is pretty muted. I was watching newsnight last night, following the government's defeat on its Religious Hatred bill amendments. Perhaps this is too technical an issue for it to have any "legs" as a news story, but already its buried away from the newspaper front pages. Today the paper's were full of the 100th British soldier to die in Iraq, and the nightly news even managed to unearth a photograph of Tony Blair's meeting with Corporal Gordon Pritchard on December 22nd in Basra. It has been a frantic political month, with an apparently radicalised government acting - depending on your views - either like a first-term government should, with radical change; or with the desperation of the late Major years (nothing to match the privatisation of the Railways yet, but we've still identity cards to come.) A political writer, I guess, might be expected to be outspoken about "issues", like Pinter, or Rowan Atkinson's criticism of the religious hatred bill. On a day that this has been going on, a Danish cartoon has outraged Muslims for depicting Mohammad, yet a fish in Rossendale is being praised for having Allah's name on it in Arabic. As a commentator you can comment on this, have an opinion on this, or a stance on this. As a political writer...? I would want to connect the Allah fish with the Danish cartoon with the Geopolitics of contemporary Iraq, with George Galloway on Big Brother, and with the launch of a the most powerful British warship today on the Clyde. But I would also want to do something else; perhaps find an allegory that could make sense of this, or an everyday experience that might be affected by this. I am a political writer, yes, but read my work, not my opinions, to understand what that might mean.