Monday, May 29, 2006


A story comes from different places at the same time. It seems it also requires space and time. It is my 4th day off work, being a long weekend, and only this morning have I managed to both shut out the clutter in my head and the clutter in my life (this weekend: the faultering computer) to tentatively write a few words. I began a story a couple of weeks ago called, initially at least, "The Invitee." Its a story that relates well to the Robert McCrum article I mentioned below, since its essentially about modern celebrity, identity, and literary insecurity. I've often thought one of the main themes of my fiction is "doubt" and this story, as it painfully works itself alive, is full of different levels of "doubt." Yet I realise, now that I'm writing it, and trying to fix its coordinates in my head (I rarely write a synopsis), that I'm pulling on longheld ideas for a longer piece, perhaps around the same subject. Maybe this is the first tentative stab at an idea that I've been brewing for a decade at least? Yet I've got to keep things in perspective. Its a 3,000 word story tops, with a clear arc to it, but one that requires careful handling. I'm writing a story about absences - the absence of a guest at dinner; the absence of success in the case of one character; and finally the absence of integrity. I have to get through this one: and soon - my own absence is increasingly the "art" itself rather than (like this post) the talking about it. I've read a little as well, but my concentration is poor at best. I'm trying to finish the "least completed" of my recent stories: and once I've done that maybe I'll find a key to unlock the nearly there ones. More than anything, I think I need a concentration of time writing fiction - even if not a "long piece", perhaps several short ones, locking together at some point.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

McCrums of Comfort

I've read it twice now and I'm still not entirely sure what Robert McCrum is getting at in today's Observer.The Tart of Fiction found it a bit more comprehensible - basically that if it aint hyped you don't get attention. "Once, British novelists were under-paid and overworked. Now, with glittering prizes, huge advances, endless festivals and immediate celebrity, they've never had it so good," reads the headline. Which may be true, but for how many? And can we name names? I think there's a truth here that its not healthy for our writers, like our musicians, to be commercially "fully formed." To give a few examples, certainly Zadie Smith's 2nd novel was an awkward mix of the nice, lively American writing she was now reading, and "White Teeth's" sitcom sketches; which probably neither pleased herself or her audience - yet marketable commodity or not, I think she's shown in "On Beauty" that she's no more or less than a good, contemporary middle class establishment writer, with all that that implies, both good and bad. Perhaps the big advance culture for some other writers is damaging; but for whom exactly? I think anyone who read Richard Mason's "The Drowning People", a much-hyped big advance novel of a few years ago, would think good luck to him, and more fool the publisher and agent who hyped him as the best Oxford writer since Amis or some such thing. Clearly there's always an interest in first novel's, but its surely rare that they are a writer's best. In his trashing of the hype around Gautam Malkani's "Londonstani", McCrum is surely being part of the same "machine" that creates all this hyperbole in the first place, saying that "everything about its short life has been a disaster." Well, if you can call a big advance; blanket reviews; and 165 on a disaster. If the book's any good, I'm sure it will survive it; and if not, well, he's hopefully been told to invest the money wisely. It's a while since the Guardian put a batch of "first novelists" on its cover, and I'd be interested to know if it gave as much - or any publicity to their follow ups? There's probably some truth in the idea that the "celebrity" culture for writers isn't particularly good for them, but the non-celebrity culture of most of the writers I know, isn't particularly good for them either. Better to be tempted at Hay, then temping for Hays. The problem comes - I think - when being a "celebrity writer" makes everyone consider them a good writer. Tony Parsons could never do a book reading again and it wouldn't help him write a good novel - whilst it might do a few literary types good to get out of the house more. I'm wondering what McCrum, usually quite perceptive on the industry, is wanting. I think he senses that the internet may yet have its day. Yet, he's not, as far as I know, signed up any literary bloggers as Observer reviewers. There are several points I think I've teased out of this article: that celebrity is becoming an end in itself for writers; that we're in dire need of a critical culture that can push and shape the contemporary novel; and that though the Booker sometimes gets it right, its part of a prize culture, that may cause some brilliant blooms, but which sucks the earth dry below it. I'd quibble with his view that books are "better printed, better designed and and better marketed" than ever before - the modern English paperback is mostly a shockingly throwaway item (with the pound doing so well against the dollar, splash out on the US edition, you'll rarely be disappointed), with only rarely (Julian Barnes' last novel for instance), a sense of elegance to the design. I think, possibly, he's just not found any decent books recently - no surprise with the culture he's describing - perhaps the Observer could lead the way, hunting down those small presses, and yes, those blogs, that are not purely - if at all - about money and marketing.

Friday, May 26, 2006


I am still enjoying "the Line of Beauty", more so than the book in fact, since I think Andrew Davies has reduced it to its elements, identifying it as upper-class lit Mills & Boon at heart. The characters are still all surface, like in the book, and its clear that despite its length, there wasn't actually that much to go on in terms of the characters. The "class" issue is a funny one in "the Line of Beauty" - since there's always someone richer, someone more powerful, with the appearance of "the Lady" (Thatcher) as the ultimate status symbol. Ironically, this seems the one real insight of the novel, that Thatcher, to these people, was something "special", just as she was something demonic to so many others. Not just another politician. David Cameron having to ask Rebekah Wade to get him a ticket to the Beckham's party shows where celebrity has shifted, of course. I'm still having anachronistic qualms about the music (see below, and Rose Darling here) though I can perhaps excuse the use of Frankie Goes to Hollywood's "The Power of Love" as an anthem for a generation dying of AIDS, since that was what it would become. I have gay friends who simply cannot hear the song, because of the number of funerals it reminds them of. As for the sex scenes in "The Line of Beauty", I notice that the lead character always gives, shall we say, never receives. Perhaps there's a last taboo in here? The utter lack of pumping house music (it's up to 1986 for chrissakes!) has sent me to my record collection, and I spent a pleasant evening digging out obscure house and dance tracks from that golden era. Amazing how quickly everyone, from Paul Weller, to the Pet Shop Boys ended up recording house tracks. There was a fine documentary on C4 about the Pet Shop Boys. A nice comment that they recycled about themselves - that their music was "depth through surface" - seemed worth repeating. I remember when they first made the charts, they weren't particularly seen as a "gay" act, and Tennant in particular very much didn't want to be viewed through the prism of gay experience. If anything they were most popular with teenage girls. I only really liked them when they did become a full-on electronic dance act, around "Introspection", but the claim of some of the vox pops that they songwriters as good as Lennon/McCartney seems a little off. Their best tracks are almost always interpretations: Go West (which didn't get a mention - though I always thought it wonderful that having avoided cliche for so long, they had the sense of humour to cover the Village People's hedonistic anthem), Always on My Mind, It's All Right, and Where the Streets Have No Name. I must admit that their later stuff has somewhat passed me by - and picking up 1999's "Night Life" for a few quid yesterday, I can see why, musically it had become very dated. It would have been nice if the documentary could have found a wider variety of celebrity fans than it did. As I remember it, Pet Shop Boys were very popular with girls. "The Smiths you can dance to" was always my favourite description of them (though of course: you could dance to the Smiths, just not in a white t-shirt at Heaven, on a load of poppers!) As if on cue, the BBC is asking for short plays about meeting your favourite rock star. David Bowie has already done the best of these in the "Jazzin' for Blue Jean" video, but I'll see if can think of anything else. I kind of think there's good nostalgia and bad nostalgia. Bad nostalgia is the increasing fetishisation of Joy Division/New Order/Factory Records/Peter Saville etc. aiming to do to Manchester what the Beatles Museum did for Liverpool (kill aspiration stone dead). whilst good nostalgia is me digging out these old house records, and wondering: wow, where did all this great music come from? "The Line of Beauty", though fun, is very much on the bad side - heritage Britain - the Pet Shop Boys documentary was somewhere in the middle (good when they were on the screen, bad when they weren't.)

Monday, May 22, 2006

Rock 'n' Roll Novels

No-one has yet wrote the great rock and roll novel, says Sean O'Hagan in this week's Observer Music Monthly. I don't think one can argue with that; but it does make me wonder how rarely authors admit to the existence of rock and roll. I've commented before that the musical soundtrack to Hollinghurst's "The Line of Beauty" seems phoned in by researchers rather than written from memory, which has allowed the TV guys to soundtrack it how it wants - I heard the Passions' "In Love with a German Film Star" anachronistically in the opening scenes, from 1983. If writers can't be bothered to get the soundtrack write, I'm not sure we should trust them on all the other ersatz detail; after all, a song can evoke an era. I look forward to reading David Mitchell's new novel, despite Lee Rourke's misgivings, at least to see whether 1983, a year written strongly in my memory, (favourite single: Trees and Flowers by Strawberry Switchblade, favourite album: Torment and Toreros by Marc and the Mambas) comes alive. Radiohead's "Ok Computer" was a dark, dismal presence in my MA novel "High Wire" (I never liked that album, and yet it dominated 1997, in cruel opposition to the euphoria of New Labour, and almost foretelling Princess Diana's death). For what it's worth, there's been a few decent rock and roll novels that O'Hagan doesn't mention. "Espedair Street" by Iain Banks and "Namedropper" by Emma Forrest come to mind. I'm glad he mentions Tony Parsons' "Platinum Logic" a rewriting of the Phil Spector story, that has mysteriously disappeared from his CV. Also, the best music novel I've ever read is the jazz and heroin drama of Evan Hunter's "Second Ending" (he also wrote "Blackboard Jungle" which became the film "Rock Around the Clock.") After returning to Manchester in 1997, I decided to set my follow up to "High Wire" here, and whereas that had centred around the night that Tony Blair got elected, "All This Scenery"(do you like the Joy Division-ish title?) was entirely set on the night that a feted Manchester band gets back together for a one-off gig, only the off-stage presence of their dead drummer (hey, its fiction remember?), overshadowing the triumphant evening. I never quite finished it - the first, completed half, drawing more than lukewarm responses from agents - mostly: its hard to get publishers interested in novels about music. The novel, of course, was about so much more. But maybe that's why there haven't been many published; and why writers prefer to use rock music as scene dressing or for their titles ("Girlfriend in a Coma"); or why it is more likely to work the other way round: Paul Kantner/Jefferson Starship's Heinlein apeing "Blows Against the Empire" (a remarkable piece of space age scifi folk), being given a sci-fi writing award. If I get a bit worked up about the music/lit crossover its probably after having such a dismal experience as last night's Top of the Pops. I rarely catch this; but the shower of 3rd rate no-hope major label shysters was unstoppable: Orson, the Feeling, the Beautiful South ( rains in Manchester apparently), a Gnarls Barkley album track about a monster (yes, "Crazy" is great, but that's not a carte blanche for crap), the very Ordinary Boys, and possibly indescribably worst of all, the Breaks Co-op. I don't think 30 minutes of music has ever made me feel so despairing - and I've got records by SPK, Scott Walker, the Cure and Swans in my collection.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Sunday Things

James Lasdun won the national short story prize. He's a good short story writer and poet, although frightfully patrician at times. You can usually pick up his collection The Silver Age, reasonably cheaply, and I'd recommend it, though as you can see, it came out in 1985, so although an undervalued writer in many ways, he's no new kid on the block(he's undervalued on the web as well, a mere stub at Wikipedia, and his publisher only barely acknowledges his existence, but I found a very good recent interview from Identity Theory) But these things take time; and I was reminded of that last night, at a very successful Verberate as part of the Chorlton Arts Festival. In a room overlooking the quiet of a bowling green it was quite easy to close your eyes in quiet comtemplation, only to be drawn back to the room by the sparkiness of the performers. I enjoyed the whole night; and the catholic nature of the event - fiction, poetry and music - is part of its appeal to me. Yet, this event, like so many others in Manchester is in some way an offshoot of the city's creative writing courses - mainly the MMU one now - in that without a publishing industry as such, there are a large number of writers studying and writing in the city at any one time, and an event like this sees graduate students from the last ten years of courses, some tutoring, some writing plays and poetry, a few published, a few self-publishing. It made me wonder whether, though its valuable to go on one of these courses, universities - particularly in the UK - might be the very worst places to let literature flourish. It seems that the things university's could provide: a magazine and events culture (similar to American universities, and in the UK, UEA), are almost absent. I would guess that the creative writing courses are net contributors to the university's finances rather than taking from it - and that whatever money they do spend is probably on high profile names as a "draw". At least the MMU backs up its collection of quality poets, Carole Ann Duffy, Simon Armitage and Jeffery Wainwright, with having a poetry MA, but too often you've got poets taking courses in fiction - when its the rare example - James Lasdun for instance, of Jackie Kay - who makes both work. And, inevitably, people need to make a living. Outside of arts council largesse, or university tenure, I guess we can move quicker, more imaginatively; but until we provide a real alternative - as I think Verberate and some of the magazines are beginning to do - the universities will be the main place where literary culture in this country flourishes; probably, I fear, to its detriment.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

We have Personal Document Facility

I was in Brussels with work for 3 days, this work, an international network of thingummy bobs. The EU has international networks of everything, it appears, and sometimes 2. I looked in vain for second-hand bookshops, but did find a really good secondhand/bootleg record shop but he was closing and so I couldn't spend the next couple of hours rooting out that Plastic Bertrand bootleg I'd always been looking for. Hence, my blog-lightness of the last week. I did take last Friday off and spent much of the weekend in sorting out my PDF for's print on demand facility. Basically I ended up using their own conversion routine; which was simpler, but meant I had to make changes so that it utilised their standard fonts rather than my favoured choice. I guess if I had a proper (e.g. paid for) PDF creator it could save PDFs in different formats, but unless I've missed something, mine converts everything into A4 as a default. Similarly, the cover requires PDF's of certain sizes and resolutions for both the back and front, and I struggled a little with this; but because I was going for a simple approach, I did final achieve lift off, and the proof copy should be winging its way to me as I speak. Tonight is Verberate in Chorlton, which will make a nice change of venue. The million and one things I want and need to do this weekend are already fading into the distance, so I'm hopefully going to go easy on the alcohol, so that I wake up bright and early tomorrow morning and actually do some of them.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

The Informationists

I came across Richard Price and the Informationists only last year when his first book length collection Lucky Day came out from Carcanet. I was intrigued, not least because I'd not heard of them before! Yet, I liked the way that Scottish poets from Edwin Morgan to Don Paterson seemed more tuned in to the possibilities of the avant garde than their English and Irish contemporaries. In short, Scottish poetry seems not unafraid to have fun - with language and subject. Keen to find out more I came across talk of the informationist anthology, Contraflow on the Superhighway, a great and evocative title, which was even for sale on Amazon. I sent off for it on 1st January and waited, and waited. Remarkably, having given up all hope, it arrived today. I'd upload the cover image but Blogger's saying "no" at the mo. Its a lovely book of its type, full of manifesto and quirkiness. Price is about my age; and the concern of the informationists, seems similar to the American prose writers around McSweeneys, to take the detritus of this information age and make something of it; the tools, they see, are all around us; in the redudant day-glo language of late capitalism. My own occasional experiments with this kind of writing seem a little less alone today.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Unquiet Desperation

"The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation" is the quote from Thoreau which gives its name to a new Sheffield based magazine (contact editor at - a mere 8 pages to start with it shows that the DIY ethic can still produce something pleasing. I contribute a short story "The Tenth Planet" to the first issue, which kind of fits the tone, and there are poems by half a dozen others. As always with such ventures, I wish it well.

The new poetry

I'm in Brussels next week, so will miss Michael Schmidt, my old tutor, and James Davies, one of our favourite local poets, reading at the Tai Chi Village Hall in Didsbury. The poets and players nights there include musicians as well as poets, and the mix works well, although the evenings are a little surreal, since the village hall is a "no shoes" venue, and the refreshments are green tea and biscuits rather than cigarettes and alcohol. Its no reflection on the poets that your usually gagging for an alcoholic drink at the end of the evening. In fact, the suburbs are where its at, with the Chorlton Arts Festival beginning next week as well. There's a poetry competition attached to it, and I might have a go, though my only previous Chorlton poem was called "Get Out of Chorlton!" I know Michael Schmidt from my MA, back in 1997-9, and obviously we've bumped into each other now and then since then. I met with one of my other coursemates on Tuesday, for the first time in an age, and as always, I was impressed that he is still writing, quite methodically, a book a year, despite, like myself being no nearer to finding a publisher. I've decided to try and become my own publisher, through the online print-on-demand facility It looks straightforward, and so I'm just going to jump in and have a go. First things first: what would be my first book? I've decided to package the 3 poetry pamphlets I issued during 2004-5 (2 of them are available to download) as a single book. Of the various page formats they offer, I quite like the idea of the 7" by 7" square, I think it will make for distinctive books. In an attempt to pull the village where I grew up back from the clutches of the BNP (see post below), I'm going to call this venture "norton canes editions." If anyone reading this blog has experience of I'd be grateful for any tips - otherwise I'll let you know my progress on this blog.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Reading Poetry

I was pleased to pick up Allen Ginsberg reading "Howl and other poems", on CD. It reminded me that we should cherish these recordings more than we do. I'm wondering if there's an anthology of live recordings from the St. Marks poetry project? Google, of course, can furnish some of the answers; the online poetry archive some of the others; but this is one place where I feel the internet's difficulties in dealing with copyright material (both the recording and the writing) expose its limitations. Its not that there's particular monetary "value" in these recordings - they will never be bestsellers - but cultural value, yes indeed. And whilst the original master tapes are probably climate controlled and worth a fortune, its the wider dissemination we need. There's only 3 Ginsberg poems currently on the poetry archive, and its choice of Real Player is annoying, since it requires an intrusive download - why wasn't a choice of players considered? Also a quick scan sees the absence of such as Eliot, Plath and Lowell amongst others. It's early days I guess, and copyright is always problematic - but listening to poetry - whether in a classroom, on the radio or a podcast seems as good a way as any as educating and enlightening. Each poet links to an expensive CD which can only ever have a very limited audience. It would be great if some of the contemporary poets herein had looked to creative commons licences and the like. I prefer the internet archive - a lecture by Anne Waldman for instance; or Ubuweb; I'm sure this all has some commercial value but I guess its limited, even a Plath reading. And of course you can buy CDs, ever more cheaply, which makes all the arguments against putting this stuff on the web in as accessible way as possible, deeply flawed. Writers are often interviewed, but wonder how many of the festival readings this year will be recorded for posterity? The BBC is wrestling with all this on a global scale; but it would be good to see more poetry made available - it can surely be free at point of use and maybe the arts council or the BBC pays the poets? Luckily you can catch the Verberate readings on the web and CD, and Comma are archiving many of their readings. Then there's Route with their book/CD projects, and the inimitable AK Press. You can get the book of Gynomite: Fearless Feminist Porn poetry from them; but I managed to pick up the CD, which doesn't seem to be available anywhere, when I was in Los Angeles 10 years ago, a prized possession.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Where I come from

I left the Staffordshire village where I was brought up in 1985, and though my family and a couple of friends still live there, apart from a few months after university, I've never been back for more than a visit. I was there this weekend. Norton Canes is old enough to be in the Domesday book, it has an ancient heart, and grew first as a pit village in the early 20th century, and then, more recently, as a dormitory town, for Cannock, Walsall and Birmingham. The first act of the Blair government in 1997 was to give the go-ahead to the Birmingham Northern Relief Road, Britain's first and so-far "only" toll road. It was this decision - not because it was the right thing, but because it would have cost more to get out of the contracts, apparently - that led me to leave the Labour party; I sign, I see now, of things to come, decisions being made for fiscal decisions or to not upset vested interests, rather than because they were the right ones. I wrote a poem about it called, appropriately, "The end of the road". The jury is still out on what effect having a motorway cleaved through a part of the country with some of the worst bronchial conditions in England, but for the village, it meant that for the first time in my lifetime it had some real investment - roads, signage etc. The village looks better than it ever has; caught now in a triangle with the old Watling Street, Norton Pool, and Cannock Chase, its reached a pitch of development. I read once that it was the largest village in England - not picturesque, with hardly a pub or a cash machine or shops or cafes - its a place where people live, and some work, and commute - every drive has two or three cars in it. Kids I was at school with still live there, married others from the village, bought houses down the street from their parents. It is a down-to-earth place, but its also stifling. It is mostly white, reasonably well-off, and, Last Thursday, 550 of those villagers voted for the British National Party, which, despite coming 3rd, received a shocking 30% of the vote. It is where I come from, but has never been where I belong. I'm shocked, but perhaps worse than that, I'm not surprised.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

My other blog's a Porsche

I've decided to set up a second blog for "downloads" of my writing, so the 2 poetry pamphlets "2004" and "The Question" can now be found here. I'll add a few older stories in time. A poem I wrote a year or so ago, called "1970" is in the latest edition of Scarecrow. I was going to write a poem about every year in the seventies, but for some reason forgot about that particular project as soon as I'd started it, so just the one poem. My computer sounds like its swallowed a goose, so I fear impending hard drive failure. Something's not right, anyway. It may well be possessed, since I've just tried to get to the Guardian website and it says "bad gateway." Yet I'm still able to listen to the live broadcast of Hoodlum Tribe, which I've caught the last 20 minutes or so of. It was a relief to go to the theatre last night, to see Terence Rattigan's "Separate Tables" at the Royal Exchange. It was well-performed and worked well in the space; but I have to say it's a play that doesn't really deserve a revival; the second half lacking the emotional bit of the first half, so much so, that it could almost have been two plays. Written in 1956 its a world away from the gathering storm of the Angry Young Men; and you can see why (a) they were needed and (b) why this kind of politely veiled emotion lost its pre-eminence. It's nearly 30 years since the Sex Pistols created the Manchester music scene through their gig at the Lesser Free Trade Hall, and I wonder if that paradigm shift is being somehow repeated by the MySpace phenomenon. The MySpace "chums" network is the equivalent of those late seventies musicians' collective spaces. And with Reason, broadband and Cubase its possible never even to need to meet. To keep up with the kids, I set up my own Myspace the other day. I've already got a Romanian goth who has signed up. Now, I'm scared.