Thursday, March 30, 2006

Experimental Fictions

To the Library theatre earlier to day for the launch of Parenthesis, Comma Press's new anthology of short fiction, this time, aiming to be more experimental - at least in the approach to the short story. I kind of agree with that distinction; that overtly experimental writing can be self indulgence if it doesn't advance the story. In that sense, experiment is about form, style, language, but not any one of them alone. David Eggars' did a great short story about a dog writing letters to CEO's of major corporations: experimental yes, until you turn it round and remember that the epistolary novel was amongst the very first! I've decided to start posting occasional fiction of my own on this website - not new stuff, but work that maybe illustrates the main narrative. "You, the Writer" can be found in the downloads at the side of the page. Apart from being written in the second person, is it experimental? I think so, in its approach to the subject, in that it is entirely self-referential. I won't say any more than that. I look forward to reading Parenthesis; Ra Page's editorial includes graphs!

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Curatorially Yours

I've not managed to be particularly creative on my week off, as yet. Perhaps its no surprise, after all it takes a while to shake off the day job, then a while longer to do the things you'd put off until you'd got a few days off, and then still longer as you "get your house in order." In my case, this seems to be an endless, enjoyable, but inherently pointless, curatorial role. I've written so much, and - going back a few years - recorded so much music that I spend a sizeable amount of time being my own librarian. With my music, a decade ago, I systematically put all my recordings on DAT so I'd got a decent digital copy - in doing so I scoured cupboards for old tapes, and ended up with over 25 hours of stuff. Inevitably, over the last 2 or 3 years, and somewhat less systematically, I've been putting it on CD, and some of it on the internet. Its one of those tasks - like digitising old photographs, or turning your cine films into video (or video into DVDs) - that has to be done at some point, but there's no particular rush. Of course, nobody else will ever do it for me (or for that matter, could.) It seems as if I've spent more time archiving the damn stuff than writing and recording it. But, as stories of old Beatles photos found in lofts prove (or this week, Marlon Brando's screen test for Rebel Without a Cause), you can never be too systematic. Not that my musical experiments have much intrinsic worth - they have a lot of personal value of course, and that's enough - had I turned into Jeff Buckley or Kurt Cobain, then they'd be in an expensive boxset in HMV of course, but I didn't so they haven't (and I lived to tell the tale - I wrote a song about Kurt, and a poem about Jeff - and his dad - so they're not just random names pulled out of the hat.) But I was at my parents at the weekend and my dad was (a) putting photographs from the christening on to the computer, mere hours after taking them and (b) rooting around in a box of old photos from the attic from the '50s. You see where I'm coming from? Unless someone prints off those christening photos, and stores them somewhere - say, in a suitcase, in an attic - then how long before they're lost and forgotten? A year? 5 years? Wherever I go, I guess I can put my old CDs, handmade magazines, and manuscripts in a box somewhere, and it will last - potentially forever - whilst these data disks, these hard disks... I'm not so sure. So curatorial me, will not only be backing up "My Documents" this week, but buying a few lever arch files and the like, and printing off that short little poem about Tim and Jeff Buckley. If I can only find where on my hard disk I've put it.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Not so swell

Nikki Sudden, legendary singer with Swell Maps died after a show in New York on Sunday. The short-lived Swell Maps - his brother Epic Soundtracks died a few years ago - remain an almost undiscovered by-way of late 70s music - neither punk, nor art rock but some amalgam of the two. Go buy the records. Last night's Verberate was a resounding success, ably managed by Zoe, and a mixture of the entertaining, the funny and the poignant, though inevitably more of the latter, since it included several remarkably confident readers speaking in their second language. The first Verberate live CD, produced with help from Citizen 32, is playing as I type, and it's good idea, that I hope they get a chance to repeat. Escaping the rain - it is Manchester, after all - the night went on; the 24 hour city only available in town as Fallowfield seemed closed or costly. It means I'm hardly capable of doing any of the things I was planning to do today, or even remembering what they are! I feel dumb, dull tasks are the order of the day - lying on the couch, looking out the window, watching the birds skating on the thermals.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Divine Inspiration

I tend to go to church for births, deaths and marriages. This weekend was a Christening, and I've done the lot now: Anglican, Catholic, Methodist, and now high-church Anglican. As you'd expect the devil makes more of an appearance the closer you get to Rome. The church was impressive, and the service had a gravitas which seemed incongruous with the (mainly non-religious) church goers. We began with "All Creatures Great and Small", which remains a lovely hymn, reminiscent of childhood, and it was good to hear it, and sing it again. The other hymns were more obscure, and without a choir, we murmured our way into silence. It made me think that churches aren't about religion but about the "absence of religion" - that's what they're railing against. You have to understand something of the fall, the expulsion from Eden, and the significance of the cross - and see how that had such a resonance for so many years, as humankind struggled with the impossible contradiction of consciousness in a world they didn't understand. Religion in that sense becomes a necessary comfort, and more than that, a promise that this world - our lives - can be understood and have meaning. Most people in that church yesterday would only have small tragedies in their lives - no less vital for that - loved ones dying in their fifties and sixties, jobs lost, marriages broken up, perhaps worse - and they'd come to religion at those points perhaps. But the rest of life? The unbroken mini-struggles of our day-to-day living? I got the feeling that this religion couldn't do much for that; that it's absence would not be as sorely felt as, say, an absence of work, or television or shopping centres. I'm not being banal here, but seeing things as they are. Renounce the devil? Easy for us all to do - our "sins" minimal in the scheme of things. Everyone there probably wants a slightly easier life; but other than that, we've reached a point where "absence of religion" is no longer a problem for most of us. And when we don't miss it...then what is it's value? In contrast, tonight, Verberate are staging a night of refugee poetry, partly as a benefit for a woman who could be deported. The devil may well be a recurring theme in the stories we hear. Religion, I fear, is poorly equipped to deal with him.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Texas Chainsaw Mascara

Though I was on t'other side of the world at the time, have to give a big congrats, to Lone Lady, who did what must be only one of her first dozen gigs solo in Austin, Texas as part of the SXSW festival. None so brave and all that. Just remembered that Janis Joplin came from Texas, so it's got soul in them there waters.

Which Leaves

A friend points out the F.A.Q. on the Comma Press website, including "what kind of stories Comma are NOT looking for." I usually hate prescriptiveness ("write to a theme", "we don't want genre") but this is David Eggars-ish in its comprehensive listiness (is that a word?) -: I get the feeling that once they got started they really went for it. I love the last one " If you’re a female writer: writing about ‘going mad 4 a bit and having lots of dangerous sex with unwholesome types’." You can see them going through the pile. "Oh God, another mad woman having dangerous sex with unwholesome types." Wonderful. I might put it in a spreadsheet and analyse every story I write against it. In fact any story ever. It's so much better than that dumb New Puritan "don't do" list of a few years ago. My own "don't do" list was previously "don't use the word Fuck on the first page, cos every novel that does that is rubbish" and (Kingsley Amis gave me this one, albeit through the pages of "The Kings English") "don't start adjacent paragraphs with the same word unless you meant to." And that was about it. But now I've really got something to work on. Watch this space!

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Keats and Yeats by his side

Interesting piece in the current Mojo magazine; an interview with Morrissey around his new album "Ringleader of the Tormentors." A photo of him next to Keats' grave, and a side panel comparing his lyrics with poets that have influenced him - Auden, Betjeman, Stevie Smith, Eliot and Larkin. Slightly trite idea, really, (and no Plath? Surely "I know it's Over", or Yeats, "English Blood, Irish Heart"?) I always wonder whether our more literary musicians are that way inclined at all. This, like other interviews has gone on at length about Morrissey being gender specific in a love song for the first time - in a track called "Dear God, Please Help Me." It's alway seemed a little reductionist to me, this. After all, their first single couple "the sun shines out of your behind," with "oh, you, handsome devil," yet his fanatical followers were almost football-crowdishly heterosexual; like Bowie before him, the Smiths were a music for anyone who felt like an outsider, for whatever reason. Perhaps we've lost something of that ambiguity these days.

Friday, March 17, 2006

How he wrote Elastic Man

Forget Wayne Rooney's 5 book deal, if you want to really know the biography deal that matters, then surely its the Fall's Mark E. Smith's inking with Penguin for "Two Year Gap." Previous Smith writing has been gnomic in the extreme, (see the back of many of the albums, or the City Life Book of Manchester Stories), but then again, Dylan progressed from "Tarantula" to "Chronicles", and, luckily perhaps, Smith has a co-editor for this look back. Clearly aimed at the Peel biography market though it may be, the prospect of a full from-the-horses-mouth history must have most Fall fans in a tizzy of excitement already. I'm looking forward to it, and only hope it doesn't reduce the mystique. I remember trying to interview Smith once when he came to Lancaster University in 1985, but he refused all entreaties, and left that particular job to Brix and Craig Scanlon. Great gig, though.

Monday, March 13, 2006

The Booker Prize Experiment #2

I've finally read a second off last year's Booker list, Zadie Smith's "On Beauty." I had tried Ali Smith's "The Accidental" but it was annoying me too much, and I'll have to come back to it. Firstly, I both like Zadie Smith's writing - having read all 3 of her novels - and think, in some ways, I might be the reader that she aims for, in that like "White Teeth" in particular, the mix of high and low culture "stuff" that fills the novel, clearly needs a reader who will warm to both rap music and classical. Some of her observational writing and her descriptions are perceptive, laugh-out-loud revealing, and constantly engaging. She's clever without being too clever; yet the real advances in technique that came through in the first half of "The Autograph Man" are smoothed out in "On Beauty." Ostensibly a rewrite of Forster's "Howard's End." That novel's overused epigram "only connect" should always be read in the context of the words that follow, "only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, " and this, as much as a reworking of plot, is Smith's aim in this modernisation. The novel is about two families, the Belseys and the Kipps, the patriarch's of both - a white liberal and a black conservative, Howard and Monty - in intellectual war over a detail in Rembrandt, but a detail that is symptomatic of a wider blurring of liberal and conservative values. In a comic sense, this is where Smith excels, she can readily poke fun at doctrines of all kinds, whilst retaining a certain love for the seriousness that attends it. A novelist can have their cake and eat it; in the Belsey's 3 children is a priggish, uncreative sophomore student, Zora, an off-stage romantic Christian, Jerome, and a middle-class street-kid hip hop idealist, Levi. They are all types, but also more than their cliches - Levi in particular a joy of middle-class teenage rebellion, with a streetwise patois, accurately and affectionately portrayed, who becomes obsessed with supporting the workers rights of the underpaid (and unseen) Haittian workers in the small college town, Wellington, where he lives. Howard is white, a son of a Cricklewood butcher, who left his country, class and race, marrying the black American woman Kiki, and becoming a respected, feared, albeit limited, college professor. Kiki is heart of the novel - a larger than life (in every way) woman - who becomes fed up of always having to be so "strong" as, perhaps inevitably, her husband tumbles into an uncomfortable mid-life crisis - mostly of his own making. Playing off against these are the Kipps family, Wilcoxes to Schlegels in the "Howard's End" parallel. The novel begins with an email exchange and ends with a Powerpoint presentation, a tinkering modernisation, rather than any real revelation, since these are easy concessions to modernity. The 2 or 3 modern updatings of "Howard's End" are quite witty, but its more of a ruse on which to hang a more general mixed-up family rivalry/study of social mores than something that sustains the novel. In fact, the "Howard's End" parallels become annoyances, particularly, with the introduction of the black "street poet" Carl, as the novel's Leonard Bast. For Carl is key to the novel in many senses, yet is underdeveloped. His own past - from which he is trying to escape by going to any "free" concerts going (Mozart in the park) - is hardly written, and he seems to return each time as a plot device, rather than a character. He turns up at the party he's been invited to at the Belsey's only to be turned away, but this - potentially a key scene - is forgotten about, shrugged off; his appearance at the "Bus Stop" reciting Performance Poetry, gets him into the University's poetry class, but his poetry is soon forgotten, when he can be more usefully utilised as a Hip Hop Archivist in the University's Black Studies department. Most shamefully, he disappears when the plot demands it - but, without going into details - entirely without the sense of consequence that Forster brings to "Howard's End." Having previously said you don't find bars in Zadie Smith novels, I guess the "Bus Stop" comes close, albeit one frequented by "tourists" from the "bohemian" poetry class at the university, that serves Moroccan food and where you have to smoke outside. But the emotional and geographical centre of the novel is far from there, far from the "street". Essentially "On Beauty" is another of that strange breed, the campus novel. I've taken 2 university degrees, and worked in 2 universities, but the world of "On Beauty" is unknown to me. It's the university of privilege, isolation and tradition. The "office politics" of the Dons, the cloistered self-regard of the university town, the rampant ambition of the focussed students - these are what the novel is most concerned about. Here lies a problem, since for satire to work, you have to, surely, be railing against what it is you are satirising, yet this is a paeon to the self-absorbtion of these people and places. Smith likes her characters, is too humane to their human foibles, sees them as self-obsessed whilst valuing that self-obsession, as being an important part of a civilised culture. There's nothing wrong with this, but it makes the novel - like much of her debut - more bourgeois than iconoclastic, and there's a sense that nothing bad can really happen to these privileged people. If there's more of the contemporary than you'll find in McEwan or Holllinghurst, there's the same love of big houses, and intellectual discourse. There's nothing, in the end, to match the savage sense of consequence that you get in Coetzee for instance, for in "On Beauty" there is always a chance to learn from your mistakes and learn from your experience. It's perhaps unfair to criticize Smith for being the novelist that she isn't, but it's a shame that someone so constantly inventive and entertaining in the detail, seems to choose the novel of manners as her preferred structure. I thought "White Teeth" was far more middle-class than multicultural, and "On Beauty", part campus novel, part a comedy of rivalry, confirms both her talents and her limitations. Worth reading, if you like this sort of thing, I guess.

Sunday, March 12, 2006


London is still there, yes, I know it won't be a surprise to everyone, but its nearly a year since I last went, so it's reassuring at least. And despite it being so far south its also in England, so it's cold. Yet I felt the first bits of tree pollen hayfever today, and here in Manchester, its gone again, so perhaps there's a difference. It was a friend's 40th in a really nice pub just the back of the Royal Festival Hall, and because its England the pub hadn't got a late licence so we decamped to the Old Vic bar, where, star spotters, American actor, the very-tall Matthew Modine, was. You don't get Hollywood actors in bars in Manchester, despite our many other advantages. I also went to the world's best secondhand bookshop and got a few gems (aint gonna tell you where it is, I want to keep it full of gems!). But the party was good anyhow, and saw old friends and acquaintances, including Wendy Jones - she had a poem in my first poetry magazine, 1997's one-issue "Bananas from the Windward Islands" - who had helped Grayson Perry write "Portrait of the artist as young girl".

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Sad Tale from a Scottish Sitting Room

I only just found out that Ivor Cutler passed away last Friday. I first heard Cutler on the John Peel show, where his short poems/skits were always worth a listen. I think he did more sessions for Peel than anyone else. Its fascinating how such an idiosyncratic writer and performer could have such a long lasting appeal - who else could have been a regular on the Home Service in the 50s, appeared in "Magical Mystery Tour", recited on my all time favourite album (Robert Wyatt's Rock Bottom)sign to Creation records and be an unlikely inspiration for fellow Scots Franz Ferdinand? Born in 1923, the richness of his artistic life, and the continued connection he made with new generations of fans, was inspirational.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Missed Points

What could have been an interesting article on whether blogs and blogging are of real value by Trevor Butterworth in the FT, is ruined by its length. But one interesting quote from someone with Choire Sicha an editor at the New York Observer...

“The word blogosphere has no meaning,” he said from across a folding table vast enough to support the battle of Waterloo in miniature (the apartment owes much to eBay, the Ikea of bohemia). “There is no sphere; these people aren’t connected; they don’t have anything to do with each other.” The democratic promise of blogs, he explained, has just produced more fragmentation and segregation at a time when seeing the totality of things - the purview of old media - is arguably much more important.

As readers of this or other literary blogs must know, almost everything in that paragraph is wrong. Q.E.D. we must be doing something right, even if its only becoming, like Ready Steady Book's Mark Thwaite, the 51st most influential person in publishing.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Against Paraphrase

A few things recently have made me consider what I'm trying to do with fiction and poetry, in the bigger sense. It's difficult these days to have any "stylistic" aims, since there's clearly a preference by publishers, editors etc. for narrative and clarity, and a distrust of the oblique. This, I probably agree with, in general, but I think what we are seeing over a period of time is a creative body of work that can easily be paraphrased. Whether that's in the 2-liner of a Hollywood pitch, or a Guardian condensed read. All writers should be against such easy-paraphrase, since over time, it means there's no real need to read the book. Some of this is inevitably marketing hype, or the short attention span of both booksellers, and, presumably, bookshop browsers. Yet, increasingly I feel I've read books, when I've not turned a page of them, and when I do read them, I find that they're actually a disappointing fulfilment of the marketing promise. A poet like John Ashbery is the ultimate when it comes to avoiding paraphrase; you cannot paraphrase a stanza, never mind a poem or a collection or a career. This is not about difficulty - I think its more about the writer having a slightly higher aim (an additional aim if you prefer) than just telling the story, or - in a poem - exploring an emotional state. A dozen pages into Zadie Smith's "On Beauty" I know I'm in a clever contemporary version of "Howard's End" as the reviews informed me. I'm looking forward to being surprised, and sure I will be since she's a wilful writer, but you can perhaps understand the tiredness in discovering only expected pleasures. When someone says "What's it about?" then the answer should be, "I can't really tell you, you've just got to read it." Again, individual pieces can be very straightforward, but where they fit in a wider work, or in a career, that is what interests me. In music, albums as diverse as "Trout Mask Replica", "Tusk" and "Cats and Dogs" (Royal Trux) repay relistening because however many times you listen you never quite get to the end; it's why I like intelligently compiled boxsets - they turn away from the hit song into some uncharted territory. Sometimes there can be narrative in this - I think of how the Pollock exhibition in London several years ago contextualised the major splatter paintings by showing the arc of the development, creating a narrative where perhaps there previously wasn't one. Art and music are already difficult to paraphrase, of course, whereas literature, which explains itself in the same/similar language that is used in its creation, runs the risk of becoming explicable to the point where it loses its most valuable sense.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

The Cost of Money

I looked in vain on Normblog for some comment on Jowellgate, so I'll fill the gap.

This from Tessa Jowell's statement:

"I first became aware in August 2004 that my husband had received in September 2000 a sum of money which he thought he had reasonable grounds to believe was a gift."

A gift? She's talking about £350,000 here. It's the "reasonable grounds" that I like.

But then again, it depends whether you think it was a large sum or not, and perhaps, for someone as astute in business as the Culture Secretary's husband, its not a lot of money at all. It's obviously incredibly irresponsible of me to juxtapose the Culture Secretary's personal financial affairs with the dealings of part of her remit, the Arts Council, but I'm reminded that the Peterloo Poets, loses its regularly funded organisation status come the end of March. It received £55,000 in 2005-6. I doubt that anyone ever referred to that money as a gift.