Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Narrative Theories

It was a bank holiday yesterday, and suffering a little from a late rainy night in Stockport (it's glamorous I know), watching Puressence, I ended up watching 3 films. All of them in very different ways were masterclasses in narrative. First up, on Five, was The Spirit of St. Louis, Billy Wilder's James Stewart helmed biopic of Charles Lingbergh. Told using a variety of flashback devices (Citizen Kane's influence perhaps?) the main part of the movie was the flight itself - one man in a tiny plane for 33 hours. It's a tribute to Wilder and Stewart that they made this so gripping. It could easily be recreated as a one man show at next year's Edinburgh. There's the real drama, even knowing he makes it, of how he can stay awake, keep the plane in the air, and then there's Stewart's voiceover, reliving his flying career, and for part of the journey, talking to a fly. A consummate piece of popular film making; that's almost existential in its methods. The New York-Paris trip was one of exploration and endurance. Film is often good at the first, less so at the second. The recent Touching the Void seemed a remarkable example of the latter, but I was impressed to see a much earlier film doing it so well. Having been drawn to Lindbergh after reading about his fictional version in Roth's Plot Against America, these real life stories deserve a telling as good as this one. Later, I watched Ridley Scott's Alien. I've recently got the boxed set and want to watch them all. In this first film - the Director's Cut - I'd forgotten much of the detail. I think its a near perfect piece of storytelling; so much that is important is hidden only to be revealed later - the role of Ash, the company's plant on the ship in particular. The details - calling the ship Nostromo, the ship's cat Jones - are signifiers of many a sea-faring journey. Obviously there's not the same suspense of seeing it for the first time, but instead I got a chance to marvel at the pacing, tension and story development. Only a couple of things seemed wrong - the first time the Alien appears on the ship it's already grown to full size - and I can't understand why Ripley tries to forestall the ship's destruction when she's actually seen the alien. There's none of the bond between Ripley and the alien that is so fascinating in the later films, but in a sense that doesn't matter, all of the possibilities are there - Ripley immediately understanding that this is something so bad that it has to be destroyed. The evening's 3rd film was Spike Lee's 25th Hour, a more recent movie, with Ed Norton as a busted drug dealer with a day of freedom before a 7 year sentence starts. There's a share of flashbacks, but intriguely its a day where nothing actually happens - in that Norton's character is resigned to his fate, and unable to do a thing about it. He distrusts his girlfriend, protects his father, and fights with his friends. As always with Lee, whose films are almost always better their profile would imply, there's an ensemble cast, talking to each other, and it's in this dialogue that most of the character building takes place. Three films then, very different, and all, I think, great narratives, even from the slimmest of controlled premises. Actually that's the one thing they've got in common, all are in "real time" (hence the flashbacks in two of them), and are in situations to have to be resolved by the end of the film. If you want to write a story that would make good cinema then this is one way of doing it, but more than that, most of us do get our narratives from film as well as books. I know quite a few writers who like the movies, but primarily as entertainment - I've always seen them as a good place to pick up tips on writing stories.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Betjeman's Centenary

It is unusual for the BBC to notice poetry, never mind make a big event out of it; but I guess Betjeman was one of their own. I just saw Laurence Llewellyn Bowen described as a "Betjeman enthusiast", which probably says more than anything I could. It would be churlish to say much about a poet whose appeal has always baffled me, and at least, with his long broadcasting career, its not just "talking heads" but Betjeman himself who gets to speak, which is as it should be. And, to be fair, Betjeman seems to be the patron poet of Englishness, so that had he not existed we'd have had to make him up. I can't remember if I mentioned before that I'd stopped editing Lamport Court New Writing, leaving it in the capable hands of Neil Campbell. I'm pleased to announce that issue 7 is out this week, and will be on sale at the Cornerhouse and the independent book market in St. Anne's square next Saturday.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

All in a Day's Work

Having failed dismally to write anything of my novella yesterday, I was surprised that, sitting down to it this morning, I was able to complete the first draft. I did that most pleasing of things, "got to the end." The story is told. The plot and character decisions are all made. What remains is the rewriting, improving the grammar, getting rid of inconsistencies, explaining what needs explaining, and removing that which is over explanatory. I've written enough to know that this piece doesn't need any kind of major surgery. All the plot decisions, I'm happy with - in any novel there's endless other turnings you can take, and yet when the idea is fundamentally sound, then it becomes clear where the internal logic takes you. I'm not sure why I'm sharing all this! This blog was originally meant to be about "the creative process" but became, inevitably, more about the literary "world", in one way or another. Yet, a blog's a diary, a writers' diary, and it's these "first drafts of (personal) history" that are worth capturing. So, I've spent 4 days writing the "difficult" 3rd section of the novella; which is around 10,000 words, so though quantity isn't the point, it's a pleasing return on my time spent - a quarter of them were written, apparently with ease, this morning. It was Cyril Connolly who said that writers drink because they have to have something to do in the afternoons. I've written at all times of the day; but getting something done before noon is particularly pleasing. I have to find something to do in the afternoon that's all! I guess when I start a "piece" I'm unusual in that I don't have a plot to work from or synopsis; what I have is an "essence", an idea of what I'm trying to get across. Over time, that can change, and I guess, this novella which began as a man facing a midlife crisis, and it being about his inability to change his life, became change through the destructive; though he's the last person to realise that's what he's doing. It's both a common theme (surely he's Hamlet?) and an unusual one for me; much of my fiction is circular, it is about the consequence of actions, and is often redemptive - this piece, though not all depressing, is anything but redemptive. It's the stranger walking off into the distance having survived whatever disaster's happened. One inspiration for it was Peckinpah's "Straw Dogs" - too much criticism of the movie is concentrated on the rape scene - what interests me about the film, is the unusual way with narrative - it is Dustin Hoffman's character who is, in many ways, defending a dead end, not for any principle, but just because that's what a man has to do. You want him to walk away from his pyrrhic stand - it's King Harold at Stamford Bridge, not realising the real battle is a few hundred miles south, at Hastings, it's Othello killing Desdemona only to satisfy a dignity that has lost all meaning.In a small way, that's what I'm trying to replicate in this novella; how a contemporary man with everything apparently perfect in life, has to make his own pyrrhic stand. I chose a "barbecue" as his breaking point, partly because of the cliche of men fighting to master a barbecue, but also because it seemed the only thing "real" for a life dominated by a bureaucratic/electronic world.

Salty Hill

A glowing review of Tobias Hill's new collection in the Guardian yesterday, his first for a number of years, and interestingly, though he is published by Faber for his fiction, his poetry, once with the defunct OUP, is now published by Salt, possibly yet more proof of that press's increased standing and profile. I met him some years ago, at a fiction reading in Manchester, and even then he was saying how he'd like to return to poetry at some point - his fiction career was just taking off - and he gave the example of Margaret Atwood, whose success in novels, he reckoned, had been a loss to Canada's poetry scene.

Friday, August 25, 2006


Fans of Gwendoline Riley can see a write-up of her next novel, Joshua Spassky, which sounds like a Wim Wenders movie in the making, due next May. Not for the first time, one gasps at the lead time for novels these days. It's not the writing or the printing, its the marketing schedule that dominates, so you can get a ghostwritten Frank Lampard biography weeks after the World Cup, with a last chapter hastily added, but a new novel, by a promising young author? They only ever release them in the spring. There's still time to apply for the New Writing Partnership's writing bursary. I was interested to see the 9 shortlisted writers for its mentoring scheme, at least partly because, rarely, it gives you a chance to read their work. I liked Linda Black's prose poem "My mother is trapped in a jar of ginger." I came across a good list of poetry magazines at the Scottish Poetry Library, whilst looking out the address of the Shop, for a friend who lives in Ireland, where its based, as is impressively comprehensive "blog"/lit zine Dogmatika. Still waiting for Manchester Literature festival's website to go live, but see there's a blog for one small strand of it The Burgess Project. Burgess never wrote that much about Manchester in his fiction, so much of it that was international, but his autobiography is a virtual A-Z of the pre-war city. I'm umming and ahhing about whether I can send anything to Succour magazine for its next issue, temptingly "The Obscene". Not for the first time, a theme has given me a writer's block. Unfortunately like too many magazines, its word limit - 2500 words - is too low for the best of my work. Good to read one of Togara Muzanenhemo's poems, at Todd Swift's blog, from his new Carcanet collection. We published Togara's poems in Lamport Court, and a long poetic story appeared in the last issue. Meant to mention a couple of things: Manchester independent book market on 1st September, and the polka-dot attired new anthology of women's writing from Crocus called "Bitch Lit." I finished reading my second long-ish novel in a week (after "Brick Lane") with Sara Paretsky's "Guardian Angel", she's the one crime writer I really like. As she's gone on, you get more of V.I. Warshawski's life - and this is her strength. When people question why "genre" novels don't get more literary kudos, I guess, even with a writer this good, it's because they are formulaic. Warshawski - a female Chicago Private Investigator - starts investigating a couple of minor issues for friends or neighbours, in this case an old lady going into hospital, and a friend of a neighbour disappearing, and from this stumbles on something that comes close to getting her killed - leading, inevitably, to a web of corruption that goes to the very top of Chicago's white collar establishment. It's great stuff, but it is formulaic - and though I think this was one of the best in terms of the writing, and the "human" stuff, the plot was a little slapdash. I guess making white collar crime (Enron etc) interesting is probably the toughest job for a contemporary crime writer.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

End Game

I'm coming to the end of the novella I began writing a year or more ago. I think I've one last section to write, before I go onto the rewrites. Not that rewriting should take that much, since I've been doing that as I've gone along. For once I had a story with quite a rigid structure and therefore the main issues I had were about tone and voice. There were also a couple of issues I had to decide which relate, I guess, to reader's expectations. I've often written in the "localised third person" almost following the main character round like an invisible camera crew. It can work well, but it can also restrict, if you're not careful. The most famous example is probably "Crime and Punishment." The problem I face is that even though it's 3rd person, the concentration on one character's perspective and thoughts mean that it can become quite insular - and you'd have to be a far better writer than I am, to make a pure train of thoughts interesting. I write to tell a story, as much as any higher aims, and making sure that story has enough concrete detail, and that the cast of characters is controlled, has been the difficult thing in writing this novella. Sensibly, I think, I've brought back some of those characters introduced earlier in the story, to play a pivotal part in the final scene. It's a contrivance in some ways - but necessary. In something of this length - I figure it will end up as around 25,000 words - there's little room for anything other than brief character sketches except for the main character, and his (offstage) wife. She's even more difficult, in some ways, because it's her absence during the week that the story takes place, which creates the story, and I've thought long and hard whether she should remain an offstage presence. But this is fiction, not drama (although I've imagined it in my head as a 3-act piece), and so I think she has to appear. She's already there - in voice on the telephone, and so is an existing character in the novel, albeit disembodied; she's not then a Godot, or an offstage comic sitcom spouse. The novella is funny in parts, but it also has a fair share of action. This morning, I found myself writing what I hope is a realistic fight scene, with 2 male duos up against each other. It struck me, writing this scene, how it's not just about the main character's actions, but that the whole story is about masculinity; and, more than that, how men define themselves in terms of their self worth. At various stages in the story, the main character is defined by his workplace, by his possessions, by his "perfect" marriage, by his attractiveness to other women, by him being able to take his drink, by him having a one-night stand, by him being in control of situations, and finally, I guess, by him being able to use his fists. None of these, in the end, will be enough, and it's almost like in the week when his wife's away, the character goes through a series of "tests" to see what kind of man he really is. The ending, which I've yet to write, will hopefully answer that. Given this, it will be interesting to see, when it's complete, what both male and female readers think of it. I don't think of myself as a particular macho writer, yet I choose these subjects.

Born Yesterday

I enjoyed reading Helen Rumbelow's piece in the Times quoting from Larkin's "Born Yesterday," a poem written for the birth of Kingsley Amis's daughter Sally. Is it harder for girls to be anything other than "ordinary"? I'm sitting here listening to Joni Mitchell's wonderful live album "Miles of Aisles" and Mitchell is one - along with Patti Smith - who convinces in the idea of female genius; and genius in a very particular way: that of the genius individual, whose single-minded view of the world is what stands out, time and time again. Larkin wishes that Sally "may be ordinary; have, like other women an average of talents...in fact, may you be dull." (it's in "The Less Deceived"). As always with Larkin, I think you have to be careful not to take him entirely at face value. I think, rather than being a slight on women, this is Larkin envying, not the fact of being "ordinary", but that it is (or was) allowable. He spent much of his life being asked to provide more than he felt he could ever provide, and probably loved the thought of low expectation. But as Rumbelow says, he wouldn't have wrote that poem about Kingsley's son Martin, no way. Of course, as every year's exam results prove, expectations keep getting higher. It would be facile to wonder why the early 70s might give us Patti Smith, Joni Mitchell, Anne Waldman, Adrienne Rich and Margaret Atwood, and wonder where their equivalent's might be today. Facile, because you may as well ask where's the new David Bowie? (instead, we get Russell Brand and Pete Doherty).

Monday, August 21, 2006

Class Reaction

Writer Elizabeth Baines, in her response to my "Brick Lane" review below, wonders about my reference to Zadie Smith's "middle class conventions." It's long been my contention that class remains at the heart of British fiction, is responsible for most of its failings and some of its successes; and that writers simply cannot ignore it, or by their choices of settings and characters are reinforcing it. This is not just as simplistic as a London-based media writing of and for itself; you see it in unapologetically working class prose from David Peace or Irvine Welsh. What I'm still waiting for, and if anyone can supply a name I'd be surprised, but will investigate, is a British writer who can observe and comment on class in this country in a dispassionate way. You get a societal novel like Alan Hollinghurst's "The Line of Beauty" and its fascination is almost entirely with the rich. An arriviste outsider might be the commentator on their lives, but he is also participant, and, in Hollinghurst at least, intoxicated by that life. In Ian McEwan's "Enduring Love" the terrifying balloon accident at its start brings together people from different walks of life, yet McEwan can't these days handle characters unless they are Cabinet Ministers (at the top, in "Amsterdam") or criminals (his last 3 contemporary novels.) This is a rarified cast. Zadie Smith was praised, rightly, for "White Teeth", but, wrongly in my opinion, for it being primarily about London's melting pot; the awfully middle class white family, though butt of many of her jokes, were also the place that you felt she was writing from. As I've written about "On Beauty," she has little interest in the working class street poet, and for more in the internal politics of a patrician university. Whereas Fitzgerald wrote that the "rich are different", Hemingway's riposte, "yes, they've got more money" is perhaps the approach I'd like from a British writer. And, of course, the middle England, of car boot sales, and package holidays, and working in middle management - a world I think William Hague was far more emblematic of than Blair, Cameron or Brown - is unwritten. American writers as varied as Bellow, Updike, Wolfe and Roth have managed to write about the real country that they see before them - the British - mostly the English - still hanker for Iris Murdoch's country house intrigue; or a Sunday supplement lifestyle. I think we have to give up on the A-List writers like Smith and McEwan being able to write with any kind of classlessness these days; anymore than Oasis were able to write songs about aspiration once they'd made the jetset. The downside of all this for the reader is that whilst I might go to McEwan for an accurate portrayal of a top surgeon's life and practice (as in "Saturday"), I won't go there for any real insight into life in this country here and now. Yesterday, I went to Hay-on-Wye for the first time. I can't find the link, but I think it was George Saunders who did an irreverent diary for the Guardian recently about his recent visit there. During the festival at least, a particular London-based literati class visits en masse, which he amusingly detailed; but it was more a mixed bag on Sunday; walkers there for the afternoon, foreign tourists, even book loving fathers with their literate daughters ("Would you like it, dear?" he said, picking up a boxset of Tennyson for £100, "Not really, I only like one poem", she replied). I'll go again, though not particularly for the books. Betwixt and between the vast warehouses of overstocks, and old novels; and the antiquarian specialists; I found a few gems, but not the book nirvana I'd hoped for. It's a little like Charing Cross Road, for that; I'll find more of my kind of books elsewhere, and at keener prices. Though looking through so many books, one does occasionally wonder "Why?" The Poetry Bookshop was worth many hours, (and probably many more pounds) of my money, though they didn't have the two books I was looking for. I saw books I'd never seen before which is part of the pleasure. I came back laden with Cummings, Pirandello, Aylett, Creeley, Marvell and Ashbery; a good midfield in anyone's book.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Not Pete Doherty

Since the first libertine was not, as younger viewers might think, Pete Doherty, I think we can welcome a new magazine devoted to liberating language - and, it's probably long overdue a magazine that was not afraid to mix songwriting with poetry. Anyway, The Libertine will be with us shortly. and with a Myspace showing of 906 friends already, its good to see that small presses are finding Myspace as much fun as bands. Issue 1's submission date is gone, and although first issue contents "Carol Ann Duffy waxes lyrical...Talking Lennon/McCartney, Mozart and Morrisey!" seems a little mainstream for my tastes, I look forward to reading it. I've a book here, (honestly, I didn't have to dig very far!) called "Sweet Nothings" - "an anthology of rock and roll in American poetry" and though part of me thinks this is a BAD THING, I also quite like bad things. For instance, its clear that any representative anthology of Manchester poetry should include Mark E. Smith, John Cooper Clarke and Morrissey; and if it widened to the North West then I'm sure you should also include Paul Simon's wistful "Homeward Bound" written at Widnes Station. Yet, its not always a good idea to mix poetry and music. Poets seem to age prematurely even when they're not actually that ancient. On the one hand you get a young-ish Paul Muldoon waxing lyrical about a number of his favourite albums (all, if I remember correctly, safe middle-of-the-road seventies rock and, er... "Parallel Lines") that will probably kill any mystique he ever had; on the other hand you get Clark Coolidge writing a little pamphlet called Neil Young. I guess I'd be surprised if any poet under 50 - say, Simon Armitage for instance - was as oblivious of pop music as a previous generation; yet just as it seems very few poets have much interest in novels, (except their own), they rarely have much interest in "pop music" either. Possibly a good thing, since an interest in Massive Attack or Prodigy would date your poem as much as a bubble perm or bell bottoms, but a shame as well, since "popular song" has found its way into poets as diverse as Eliot and Ashbery. Mention the ubiquitous Beatles or Dylan and you're probably okay, just a little dull.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Brick Lane

I've finally got round to reading "Brick Lane" by Monica Ali. I think it was the woman who picks Richard and Judy's book club saying it was her one "mistake" (mainly, I think because Ali wasn't particularly starry-eyed at such an accolade), that finally made me get round to it. I'd read the chapter in Granta's young novelists round up, and been impressed by Ali's surety of touch - no naive debutant here, but a fully formed writer - and having written about the recent upset concerning the book, and particular Germaine Greer's comments, I've at last found the time. I think it's a remarkably sustained work, a very well-written debut novel, which sets itself a formidable task - to write about a hidden part of society, but do it through humanely believable characters. Such a task, of course, was what the great Victorian novels excelled in. The Bangladeshi community of 21st Century Tower Hamlets is peeled open, like Eliot peeled open radical Jewish London in "Daniel Deronda". There are none of the middle class conventions that jump out from even a writer like Zadie Smith. The characters in "Brick Lane", from seamstress to doctor, are unable, unwilling, or unlikely to be able to step into the world around them. Brick Lane, just a step away from London's financial heartbeat, may as well be as isolated as the Brazilian slums of "City of God." What Ali does well, and I'd hope she continues to do, is to build detail-on-detail, quietly, unflashily, to build up a portrait that goes beyond what might initially appear stereotypes. In the arranged marriage of Nazneen and Chanu she takes a stock situation and adds to it, little by little until it's a feast of subtle characterisation. Chanu is a brilliant creation - a thwarted intellectual, a useless, but kind husband and father - whilst Nazneen - born in Bangladesh in 1967, married off at 16, is a child slowly having to become a woman. The isolation of this community is hardly believable, but women kept behind closed doors, and not being allowed or encouraged to work or speak, it becomes believable. Nazneen's growing confidence is incredibly slow coming - and if there's a major fault with the books, its in foregrounding so much post-1998, when clearly the brutal realities of the Thatcher years could so easily have destroyed such fragile characters. Ali reminds me a little of Doris Lessing, in having both a real concern for the minutiae of everyday (often female) life, and an intellectual's raised eyebrow at the wider picture. I can't think of many contemporary writers who would have the ability and confidence to mix the two, yet such a "societal" novel should be central to our fiction. She should be applauded in that sense, for not grounding the novel in the past, or - despite its lingering essense - in the foreign exoticism of the subcontinent. In "The Good Terrorist" Lessing piles up the details of a radical commune, and the inherent contradictions in such politics, and Ali, with a sharp eye for the satirical, without ever becoming the Kumars, likewise wheedles these out. The abysmal Mrs. Iqbal, a rapacious moneylender, could come out of a Dickens slum - and its a reminder of what the poor have to do to "get by." It's a long book, and although the forward tension is handled expertly, it sometimes fails to give justice to the major actions within the characters lives. If the domestic is in close focus, the bigger tragedies seem to lack emotional resonance, Nazneen's "trusting to fate" a little too easy an excuse. Even the awakening that occurs when the young radical Karim enters her life, is handled in soft focus. I had horrors of it turning into a Mills and Boon at this stage, but Ali never forgets where her characters are - what their limitations are. It's perhaps no coincidence that its female writers - like Lessing, like Eliot - and even E. Annie Proulx in "The Shipping News" - who come to mind when it comes to this portrayal of lives that are not easily turned around.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

A Degree of Self Awareness

I was just returning from town, and couldn't help but notice the conversation behind me. A student was talking about his courses. "I'm doing Orton, Beckett and Pinter this year." His companion said something, that I didn't hear. Then: "Last year, I did the Victorian novel, but it really messed up all my grades. I got to the exam and just couldn't answer anything. I'd not read any of the books. I'd seen the film, or read a little bit - I tried, but I just couldn't read them. But it meant I failed that unit and it brought all my grades down. But this will be all right, because they're plays, and short." His tone of voice throughout was great, as if it was the fault of the Victorian literature course that he'd failed - that somehow he should have been able to pass it without actually reading the books. I was weirdly pleased. After all, you clearly still have to read the books to succeed at an English Literature degree. I doubt he'll find the playwrights any easier, even if he gets to the end. I'm not going to tut-tut his stupidity as a sign of this generation, since I remember a similar thing when I was studying for my English degree in 1988. I came out of an exam - usually something like American literature or Women Writers - and students were complaining how hard it was. "You see, I hadn't read any of the books," they said. I missed my share of lectures and seminars without any discernibly negative effect on my degree, but that's probably because I did read the books.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Booker Long List

Hot off the press, this year's Booker Longlist...

Carey, Peter Theft: A Love Story (Faber & Faber)
Desai, Kiran The Inheritance of Loss (Hamish Hamilton)
Edric, Robert Gathering the Water (Doubleday)
Gordimer, Nadine Get a Life (Bloomsbury)
Grenville, Kate The Secret River (Canongate)
Hyland, M.J. Carry Me Down (Canongate)
Jacobson, Howard Kalooki Nights (Jonathan Cape)
Lasdun, James Seven Lies (Jonathan Cape)
Lawson, Mary The Other Side of the Bridge (Chatto & Windus)
McGregor, Jon So Many Ways to Begin (Bloomsbury)
Matar, Hisham In the Country of Men (Viking)
Messud, Claire The Emperor’s Children (Picador)
Mitchell, David Black Swan Green (Sceptre)
Murr, Naeem The Perfect Man (William Heineman)
O’Hagan, Andrew Be Near Me (Faber & Faber)
Robertson, James The Testament of Gideon Mack (Hamish Hamilton)
St Aubyn, Edward Mother’s Milk (Picador)
Unsworth, Barry The Ruby in her Navel (Hamish Hamilton)
Waters, Sarah The Night Watch (Virago)

Not a year for "big hitters" then - Unsworth, Carey and the oft-overlooked Jacobson apart, not forgetting Nadine Gordimer, join winner 32 years ago, in 1974, something of a record? More recent listees include O'Hagan, Waters and Mitchell - as well as the well reviewed Jon McGregor - and following on from his recent short story prize, James Lasdun gets a look in. Another 2 nominations for Scotland's dynamic Canongate, as well, who won with "Life of Pi". No Tom McCarthy, or Irvine Welsh, so perhaps not the place to come for revolution. Not sure how many of the books are actually in the shops yet - the majority I'd guess. Most interesting inclusion is probably Robert Edric for "Gathering the Water", who'd have thought it? DJ Taylor for one, "Booker judges take note", he ended his recent review.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Li'l Things

The Booker Prize longlist is announced tomorrow, with a month till the shortlist. The longlist, I think, is really a sop to all those big hitters who need to get mentioned in despatches for their latest novel, but probably don't need to win/be shortlisted. A literary titan who doesn't make the longlist might as well pack their bags and go home, I suppose. I've read 3 of last years shortlist, 3 to go - so it's going to be a push to do it before this year's shortlist. I was in Waterstones yesterday and almost got tempted by their 3 for 2 offer, mainly because I wanted to get Michael Cunningham's Specimen Days but it's discounted on Amazon anyhow, and finding the other 2 was going to be problematic. Also, returning tomorrow, an anti-Booker list, if you like, is the next edition of Scarecrow. Tom McCarthy's "Remainder" was finally reviewed in the Guardian yesterday, as was, long overdue, Chris McCabe's debut poetry collection, "The Hutton Report." Will our children remember what the Hutton report was? It's already receding in memory, like the Dreyfuss Affair, or Westland. Yet, elsewhere in that edition, Ruth Padel is another poet talking amongst themselves. Apparently a heckler in the house at the Ledbury Poetry Festival thinks all poetry should rhyme. There was a protest, apparently, from some traditionalists. Since, as she points out, this is an argument that goes back to Wordsworth, and beyond, you'd think the arguers would be treated like flat-earthers. I rhyme occasionally, usually in my lighter verse, it has to be said, and occasionally - as do many others - midline. It's a sad, inevitable fact, that almost without exception, a contemporary poet rhyming will either sound too lighthearted, or simply archaic. This bridge has too long had a river under it.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Start of...something

I'm off work for 3 weeks. People keep saying "where you going?" and I say "Didsbury." Hey, it's nice, I live here, it's got trees. And given that I couldn't even take my glaucoma medication on the plane with me it's probably a good job I didn't book a flight somewhere. So, although I will be going a few exciting places (Edinburgh festival maybe, York races, Stranger Son of W.B. at the Attic) I'm really "buying" creative time. The two things, I definitely want to do are finish my novella (last act's been waiting a while) and put together a self published collection of my short stories. I may keep you informed of progress! I've a new obsession though, and its classic house music - I've started putting together CDs of my house music vinyl from 86-94 and it's just ace. I've loads of this stuff - scarily loads! - at this moment listening to the sublime "Talking with Myself" Electribe 101 by making me ask the question: Why wasn't Billie Ray Martin the biggest star ever?

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Helluva Band

God must be putting together a helluva band at the moment. This time a psychedelic one - so, following on from the sad death's of Syd Barrett and Arthur Lee, I read that Tony Ogden, ex-singer with Mancunian legends World of Twist has died aged 44. Definitely from the Syd Barrett school of one-shot genius, World of Twist's 3 classic singles, "The Storm/She's a Rainbow", "Sons of the Stage" and "Sweets" were as good as anything else that came out of Madchester - and if debut album "Quality Street" underperformed (it came out a little too late, if I remember rightly), it's still one I listen to with fondness. Then...nothing. I put together a compilation of Madchester music a couple of years ago, and it was the one-shots like Paris Angels and World of Twist which really stood out. I think the 12" single was the natural format for those bands - either that or the live concert - and having never seen them live, I'd love to hear a World of Twist live recording some time.

Sunday, August 06, 2006


I managed a couple of hours of DPercussion, Pipettes and Young Knives, before sloping off to less crowded places. A couple of hours later found myself in the Star and Garter (it was a friend's birthday) and in a nice touch the DJ played "Live and Let Live" and "Alone Again Or". Yesterday morning, I began writing a story, as promised called, "I Forget What 8 is For." I've done this before - take a line from a song and use it as a jumping off point for a story. At one point I was going to "do" a whole album, the Cure's "Pornography" with a story inspired by each of the eight songs. I got as far as the first track, choosing the line "In a High Building there is so much to do" which virtually wrote itself into a story! I've found the Violent Femmes line evocative, and vague enough for me to change the story as I go along. It's not "about" anything or anyone as yet, just a certain mood that I want to convey. It's like the things that happen in a story aren't actually that important, more that they're the outward show of what's going on in the character's lives. I felt that the more so, yesterday, being surrounded, sometimes overwhelmingly so, by so many people. The "going out" bit is the simple bit, the "whys" and "wherefores" are more complex. What I did notice, was that writing early yesterday morning, was cleansing in many ways. I felt light-headed, happy, afterwards. A reminder to write more often, not less.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Alone Again Or

Arthur Lee, singer and leader of Love has died aged 61, after a fight against Leukemia. When I was 15, I had a glossy Encyclopedia of rock, which was full of alluring images of album covers, with band names as mysterious as Captain Beefheart, or as simple as Love. The more I read about their classic "Forever Changes" the more I wanted to hear it. Song titles like "Andmoreagain" and "Alone Again Or" piqued my adolescent interest. When I heard that my current favourites, Aztec Camera sounded like them, that was it. I think I finally got it from the then wonderful Virgin on Bull Street in Birmingham. I liked it from the moment I put the needle to the record, though was perhaps surprised how light sounding it was. For "Forever Changes" despite a couple of rock-out guitar solos is an acoustic record. I still listen to it, that same much played copy from 1982, but also the remastered reissue. Arthur Lee's Love were more than one record to me, though. I love the simple beat-pop of their eponymous debut, and the tight psychedelic classics that form side 1 of "Da Capo" - even side 2's rambling blues "Revelations" - and both "Four Sail" and "Out Here" have some good songs on. But its "Forever Changes" that dominates. Sad, as Syd Barrett's recent death was, eulogies about his genius seem slightly overblown, but I've no doubt in declaring Lee a genius - only the Velvet Underground's debut matches "Forever Changes" as a consummate piece of art from that period. Bryan Maclean, his partner in the band, died a few years ago, but with Lee's passing, it does feel that the sixties is even further away. Of course he toured with a recreated Love over the last few years, even triumphantly replaying "Forever Changes" in its entirety, and, one hopes, received some of the acclaim the band always deserved. Poetry magazines these days can almost seem like obituary columns, and as that sixties generation moves on for one last trip, the music papers are beginning to have a similar feel. As always, though, there is the music.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Cyber Farmers Boys

No doubt when Chris Gribble left Manchester's literary scene for Norwich, as head of the New Writing Partnership, he thought it would be all combine harvesters and hayricks after cybercity Manchester, but no more, Norwich is now England's premier cybercity with wifi whenever you shit, shag and shave - as it turns on ('scuse the pun) the country's biggest wifi network. And it just cost over a mill, which might sound a lot, but given the amount of money the NWDA has spent on broadband projects over the last few years, its a bargain, and also takes a bit of the steam out of Manchester's Digital Challenge, which has free wifi for all as its opening gambit. 2nd only to Norwich hasn't got a good ring to it, really. As I mentioned last post,with Manchester's rarely free wifi, the Cornerhouse could be very full, very soon. If you want to bankrupt Rupert Murdoch this weekend, then take your chance, he's giving away the Godard Rolling Stones movie "Sympathy for the Devil" in the Sunday Times, which is £15.99 at the moment on Amazon. Buy as many copies as you can stand! Okay, his ABC figures will improve, but each copy sold costs him money. Luckily Tony Blair will be back in the country to pick up his copy, after his speaking at Murdoch's annual bash, and meeting Arnold Schwarzenegger. Anyone who thought this was Blair's holiday, interrupted by that unfortunate kerfuffle in the Lebanon, think again, he's only now going on holiday for three weeks. That's right we were PAYING him to meet Schwarzenegger and schmooze with the Digger.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006


Free Wi-Fi access comes to Manchester, or at least, in the cafe at the Cornerhouse. Might be one for a future Manchester blog-meet. The news that Time Out might be coming to Manchester is both welcome and a bit "so what?" Welcome, because City Life is missed, a bit "so what?" because I've always found Time Out's cultural coverage middle-brow in the extreme. If you want to find a five star review of a Sarah Waters novel or a Zero 7 album here's the place. I'm pleased that its Dpercussion in Castlefield this Saturday - though it usually seems to rain! - and having missed the wondrous Pipettes when the played Life Cafe recently I'm looking forward to that most of all. I've been reading very little, and so been a bit slack on noticing good things even when they're under my nose. So, only just read this great little piece on Scarecrow, "Watching Him Fuck Her" by Janice Erlbaum. The voice just launches off the page from the first line, like a contemporary female Selby Jr.; she blogs as well. Everything I usually hate about writing of course, extreme lifestyle as extreme fiction, but in her case, well, she can actually write, and write funny. Not exactly sure where life ends, art begins, but "whatever." I seem a bit out of sorts today actually, keep coming back to things, head all over the place. Wednesday's are not my good days. First night in for ages just listening to music, which is good in itself. Current favourite listening pleasures are (1) Funhouse - the Stooges (2) Odyssey - Fischerspooner (3) a CD-R of late 80's house music tracks and mixes (inc. Bomb the Bass, One Dove, Future Sound of London, Kym Mazelle et al (4) The Trials of Occupanther - Midlake (5) Violent Femmes - Violent Femmes. (Message to self: need to write a story entitled "I Forgot What 8 is For.")