Saturday, September 30, 2006


Went to see the Onions and the Amelies at the Late Room last night. Good songs all round. Which meant I missed the Libertine Magazine launch. For no apparent reason, I've just started writing a comic strip. Don't worry, I've not suddenly decided I'm a great artist, its amazing what you can do with Paint Shop Pro and Microsoft Publisher. I might think about putting them online at some point, but like a lot of my projects, I'm not sure yet whether its just me being deliberately random in what I do, or something that will evolve. It made a nice change. Less words you see, less words.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Not Feeling Very Anything

I'm not feeling very anything at the moment. I feel I have some emotion blockage thats probably like an antibody, stopping me feel too strongly about anything - and it's probably because there's a real frustration about lots of different things. Lots of things are annoying me of course, but I've obviously got a failsafe mechanism at the moment that is refusing to get more than mildly annoyed by them at all. This morning I got off the bus at the university and walked past fifty gridlocked buses (at least) - taking over an hour to get to work in total - all because of the Labour Party Conference. The City Council's been congratulating itself on getting the big event into town, yet God knows how many thousands of people were late into work today; whilst the government is "going green" with the fashion. Nobody ever seems to go green by staying at home these days, it all involves a conference, preferably somewhere distant. But I'm hardly worked up about these contradictions. I didn't even get worked up about the posters for the Stop the War Coalition. Amongst the things that people were marching against were: that we shouldn't go to war on Iran, and that we should abandon Trident. Since the only realistic reason we would go to war on Iran is because they were developing nuclear weapons there's an absurd collation of ideas that means that those marching (or at least those writing the posters) are in favour of an independent nuclear deterrent for Iran, and against an independent nuclear detterent for the UK. I know it's supposed to be the sign of a first class mind to hold too contradictory ideas simultaneously, but let this be the exception that proves the rule. And I'm still not that bothered. I'm not even sure I can work out whether I prefer Blair, Brown or Cameron or some yet to be genetically engineered hybrid of the three (let's call such a beast Milliband). As one's work becomes increasingly Kafkaesque (will the project be extended before it's ended - which sounds like a Lenny Kravitz song) I'm not sure which conclusion I want here either. In the week that anti-ageist legislation is coming into focus, reading about the young Nick Laird and others being shortlisted for the "under 30" Dylan Thomas award should make me feel old, but doesn't. Everyone of my age seems to write nostalgically about the seventies/eighties - Badly Drawn Boy's new song, David Mitchell's latest novel, for instance. Puzzled at my own lack of nostalgia, I found this from a song I recorded, oh, God, it must have been 1994, called "J. Swift Remembers."

J. Swift Remembers playing drainies
Watney’s Party Six, out of reach at parties
Should have been asleep
Drainpipe jeans, hair cropped to the skin
Ra-ra skirted ingénues, bubble perms begins - there I've done that. No need to write a novel about it now.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Summer Endings

Yesterday's Cohesion Live festival in Platt Fields was a qualified success. The weather was glorious and Platt Fields is always a great location. However, there were the longest beer queues I've seen for a number of years, and you have to wonder how we still can't get these simple things right? Musical highlight were an awesomely full-powered Elbow, getting better with every year, almost unbelievably. The rest of the main stage line-up was less stellar, pleasant rather than worth the admission fee, though each artist, from Graham Coxon to I Am Kloot, had its own following. I'd never seen Badly Brawn Boy, who drew things to a close, and he did all the things that had put me off seeing him before. His band were like a second-rate pick-up band who'd only been phoned-in the songs the day before, and he spent most of the stop-start set berating them. His streeturchin curmudgeonliness was as charmless as Robbie Williams at his arrogant best, and you got the feeling people would say, "oh, but that's Damon". His voice, never the finest of instruments was okay, but always vulnerable. I guess most disappointing were the new songs, all mid-paced, like something from a late-seventies Wings album. The best tunes of the night were those that weren't even his - Sister Sledge, Madonna and Taja Sevelle - and you realised that unlike those other riff-thieves, Oasis and White Stripes, who steal and then make it their own, Badly Drawn Boy draws attention to his postmodern stealings, and leaves you...well, with not a lot really. With a good band, inventive production and better songs, his first 3 albums were all excellent, but since he's neither Elton John or the Scissor Sisters live, a little more grace would be nice. The audience seemed to like it though by this stage it was mostly born again Christian music students with their soporific boyfriends, swaying to the slow bits. Put me down as ex-fan, I'm afraid. It was hard to get away from the main stage (and the beer queue) so I missed the Longcut, but earlier caught the KBC who were very good in a Franz Ferdinand/Kasabian/something of their own sort of way, and Stubbsy aka Stubbs the Band who had the best voice of the day, outside of Guy Garvey. The Cohesion event goes to creating a Manchester Peace Park in Kosovo, a reminder, in the week of the Labour Party Conference, that military intervention can be justified, and that the effects of war - civil or otherwise - don't go away when the journalists move on.

Monday, September 18, 2006

End of Days

There was a fascinating, and frankly bizarre programme fronted by Tony Robinson a few days ago about "Endtimers" those (mostly) Americans who believe we are in the "end of days" and actually want to make catastrophe a self-fulfilling prophecy. I did get the feeling that the appropriate response was to just laugh at these idiots, rather than stoke them up into a 2 hour documentary; but apparently they have some clout in the White House - which is increasingly appearing as prone to madness as the early days of Apple records. You have to be fascinated though - "Revelations" has always seemed one of the more exciting parts of the Bible, and the fact that it's still part of that scripture does make you take the whole thing a little less seriously - though of course Noah and Job show that the Bible's no stranger to catastrophe. The positing of the toothless United Nations as "the Great Satan" always seems a bit weird, a bit too Omen II - surely the White House itself would be a better candidate, or the House of Saud? The worry, of course, is that these extreme views can become terribly destructive in the wrong hands - a church in Uganda that had its own apocalypse was just the most horrific example. But the "end of days" is a fascinating subject for a writer. There seems to be a return to an interest in apocalyptic visions - in David Mitchell and Michael Cunningham recently for instance - that have perhaps been green-lighted by 9/11 and the Iraq war: and language is becoming one of the battlegrounds, as the Pope's travails this week have shown. As Katy Evans-Bush's recent blog entry makes clear nuance is being lost even as we try and explain and understand these events.

Sunday, September 17, 2006


With the Labour Party Conference coming to Manchester shortly I think even a literary blog can turn a little political. Harriet Harman was interviewed on Andrew Marr's BBC show this morning, and she talked about how foreign policy was more important now to the public after having previously seen as the preserve of (I paraphrase) Queens, ambassadors and foreign secretaries. Andrew Marr, as crap as ever, failed to take her up on this. As anyone with any knowledge of anything but the most recent political history would know, the majority of crises in British government - Suez, the Falklands, Westland, the Irish Question, India - have been foreign, and Iraq is just the latest of these. Her naive popular-culture view on things, that if something's not happened in the last 6 months it doesn't count, deserved a little more robust questioning from Marr, don't you think? Needless to say, those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

Johnny B. Bad

I've been listening to Chuck Berry (he's 80 on October 18th, no great age really, he's our world) and as always when you listen to him, it kind of puts everything else into perspective. Without Chuck what would there be? No Beatles, no Stones, no Beach Boys. He's the Shakespeare of Rock and Roll - and knew it ("Roll Over Beethoven" anyone?). "Albums" were a world away, it was all about moments, and he had plenty of them. A musician friend said he was a crap guitarist, which just goes to show how overrated that talent is. He wasn't that great a singer either. You can easily prefer the cover versions. But was there ever a better writer of the American dream, the American road? Forget Kerouac, forget Ginsberg. Chuck's your man.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

A Few Things

The Booker list hasn't generated much excitement that I've seen, Scott Pack's likes Sarah Waters (so, it is just me!), whilst Ready Steady Book can't work up much interest at all, but has noticed there are two "Mother's Milk" books out this year - who'd have thought a Red Hot Chilli Peppers album would be so influential? I'm always interested in titles, and lets be honest, all of this year's list are unimaginative cliches. I was far more excited by Parameter Magazine's Poetry Soccer Six Official Sticker album, which dropped through the door the other day, with such gems as "the midfield duo of Charles Baudelaire and Stephane Mallarme is high on flair but short on grit", and "T.S. Eliot can seem ponderous in defence." The literature/football crossover is a rare one, and should be encouraged. Having to sort out emergency accomodation at a local cattery for a friend's cat this morning, I was tickled to find that cat's have their owners' surnames for the purpose of vaccinations and boarding. After the third phone call asking, not for my name, but the cats, I felt like her blooming P.A. I just watched the film "Far From Heaven" which was on last week; it was a little too pleased with itself, but was sumptuous to look at, and extremely well written. Interesting that fellow Manchester blogger, Elizabeth Baines inadvertently "outed" herself as writer of "The Tart of Fiction", because of changes to Blogger. It brings up a few questions about both your veracity and your objectiveness, whether you go anonymous or not, but as she says, it's got a long history. There's also something to be said for whatever your "public name" is, becomes your real name in many ways. I've actually just written a story about this subject, funnily enough, and my older story "Martin Amis Lives Upstairs" is a treatment of a similar theme - with more than a nod to Amis's own excelent "Career Move." Just wanted to mention that new literary magazine "Libertine" is launched at Central Library on Friday 29th September. I've been doing some more print-on-demand experiments with Lulu - a turn around time of 10 days from uploading a manuscript to receiving the printed copies from Spain was pretty good. At the moment I'm just using the service for "proofs" and its pretty cost effective to do so, around £5.00 inc. postage for a 100 page black and white manuscript. I just found out that you can get the complete New Yorker on DVD, how tempting is that? I wonder if my local library runs to it? This month's Verberate has an "all woman cast," and Verberate organiser Zoe Lambert deserves supporting as one of three writers showcased by Comma Press, in their next short story anthology, early in October in Manchester and Sheffield. She's also got a story in the current Lamport Court, available from the Cornerhouse in Manchester.

Book Off

I was intrigued to read about "Book-off" coming to London - apparently the Japanese have taken to this chain of secondhand book superstores - where all the books are pre-"cleaned" to appeal to the hygiene-conscious Japanese. I'm a secondhand book addict, and yet it was only about 1997 that I started collecting - before then, perhaps because I had a good salary, and a legacy of a home life that said "new" was best, I hardly ever bought second-hand. It's hard to know whether its a good thing or not buying secondhand books, since obviously the author gets nothing for your troubles - but I'd argue, somewhat persuasively, that the majority of secondhand books I buy just aren't available elsewhere. Every town has a Waterstones, and you'd be hardpressed to find any surprises on their shelves - yet every secondhand bookshop, or charity shop can furnish unexpected gems. There's a couple of favourites here in south Manchester, but I can't resist hunting out secondhand shops wherever I am in the country; and though I'm pretty demanding about the condition, I might miss a bit of mustiness.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

The Lowest Key Booker ever?

Hot(ish) off the press...

Desai, Kiran
The Inheritance of Loss - Hamish Hamilton
Grenville, Kate The Secret River - Canongate
Hyland, M.J. Carry Me Down - Canongate
Matar, Hisham In the Country of Men - Viking
St Aubyn, Edward Mother’s Milk - Picador
Waters, Sarah The Night Watch - Virago

Is Canongate the new literary tiger? Scotland's finest - having given us "Life of Pi" - has two on the list. M.J. Hyland, I wasn't aware of at all, and yet she lives in Manchester apparently - though this might be a mistake in the press release, elsewhere she's said to live in Rome - she's Australian anyway, or Irish, amazing how everyone claims you as their own when you become successful - obviously the Lennox Lewis of literature. Kiran Desai is "Martin" to her mother Anita's "Kingsley," though possibly doesn't now need to continue on her creative writing course! and one is immediately worried when you realise 3 of the writers are younger than me. Ah, but what about the books? They sound, hmmm, unengaging - 2 historical novels, and 3 set outside of the UK, which is very Booker. I read a little of "The Night Watch" when it was in the Granta young novelist edition and didn't like it very much, but I couldn't get a handle on "Fingersmith" either - I think Waters is just not to my taste. Maybe its the relative youth of the list, but the overwhelming subject seems to be (unhappy) families. A quiet Booker then? Possibly no bad thing - this pantomime every year gets a little disproportionate (though I'm rather fond of that same pantomime). And if it looks a little more Orange than Booker, then perhaps having 4 out of 6 female writers might be the reason. Us poor men, perhaps we need our own prize... someone tell Carling Black Label.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Appropriate Response

I thought Simon Armitage's visual poem for Five was a superbly appropriate response to the horror of 9/11 on its 5th anniversary. You can read it here. Read from "And here is a rock from Brighton beach" on page 16 to the end, even if you don't read the whole thing, but the whole thing has a beautiful humanity to it.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Sunday Service

The Sunday Times has gone up to £2, but you got a Jimi Hendrix CD with it; yesterday and today's Telegraph's gave you CDs of the Royal Philharmonic; the Independent is papering my wall with lovely RSPB bird charts (today: wetland birds); and the quirky French animation Belleville Rendezvous was free in the Times yesterday. I passed on the Daily Mail's "Life on Earth". Newspapers are clearly an effective distribution medium; but it's getting ridiculous! I've got about 30 unwatched 3 DVDs and its an increasingly highbrow collection. The Guardian sticks to what it knows best; additional supplements and serialisations. I quite like the Observer's weekly magazines, when its Food, Sport and Music, but give the Womens magazine a miss, and look what the other papers have to offer; and the daily Guardian comes up with more posters (mushrooms anyone?) and little guides, like Best Walks, and the new Premiership season. With so much choice, an offer that doesn't appeal is as likely to make me not read the paper. I was utterly put off reading the Guardian because of it's big Bill Bryson feature, maybe I'm just not interested in a childhood in Des Moines; and if I was I could wait for the book, or even watch tonight's South Bank Show. The Booker Prize shortlist will be announced on Thursday 14th September, but before then it's wall-to-wall 9/11 retrospectives, and the troubling figure, from the Independent, that it's best estimate of deaths caused by the response to 9/11 is 62, 006. And on Wednesday Manchester United play Celtic in the first group match of the Champions League. Incredibly its their first ever competitive game. Literature gets a rare football connection with David Peace's new novel, The Damned United, which dramatises Brian Clough's 44 day reign at Leeds United. It's likely that my next project will be a novel about football - though that's merely the context to bring the characters together - so, I'm interested in seeing an actual football novel; there's not been that many. Andrew Motion's memoir gets a pasting in whichever of the many papers I've discarded this weekend that reviewed it, it seems he's tried to write a "Cider With Rosie." His poetry's always been nostalgic, and I wonder what's served by a fictional version? I read biographies of writers - including the one's Motion has written - and skip the childhood crap to get to when they started writing, so not sure what's served by these kind of things. But there's a market, even if it's not me. Craig Raine's daughter is the latest "chip off the old block" to have a literary life, having a play she's written reviewed in another of them, so you end up with this bizarre world where the offspring of writers are desperate to follow in their parents' literary footsteps, and the writers themselves are desperate to write about their non-literary upbringings. Sunday service, of course, everything will return to normal tomorrow.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Old, new stories

I've added a couple more old stories to my download page. Martin Amis Lives Upstairs is a story about literary paranoia, which was published in Main Street Journal; What's Happened to Larry? asks how long would it take for someone to notice you were missing, and was my first published story, in PROP magazine; whilst Bat-She-Bop is a young woman coming to terms with her sexuality, and was one of my earliest stories.

Pulp Barton

Last night, unexpectedly ended up at "Mary Barton" at the Royal Exchange. I have to say I've never read Mrs. Gaskell, apart from her life of Charlotte Bronte, and this was her first novel. Of course, part of the joy of this particular literary adaption was that the novel is squarely set in Manchester. The performance was fine, though it's almost impossible to judge these literary adaptions which strip a novel of its nuance, to find the plot, and sails close to melodrama as a result - though perhaps we should just admit it, we like seeing melodrama, and the classier the better. Got back to find "Pulp Fiction" on one of the cable channels. Here's a piece of writing where every line is a gem. It was good when it came out, but it's aged well. Will we look back on the Tarantino of "Reservoir Dogs", "Pulp Fiction", "Jackie Brown" and the 2 "Kill Bills" and realise he was one of the best? I think so - he realises, as David Foster Wallace has written in regard to television - that our writers and film makers are influenced, not by the real world, or even classical art, but by the ephemeral: the Brady bunch rather than the Odyssey; Hong Kong Phooey rather than Leonardo Da Vinci. Yet, having said that, I wonder what the next generation will feel is worthy of homage? It sometimes seems that culture is eating itself, niches within niche. Real life, like the Victorian novelists realised, remains a rich seam - and writers perhaps need to lift their heads a little more from their playstations, DVDs and yes, webpages. Whilst I'm here, I'd like to point you in the direction of This Space's musings on "The Despair of Popular Authors" (surely a Divine Comedy song in waiting?) part one and part two. Where Stephen Mitchelmore really hits on the head, is that writers like Robert Harris are always vague about who it is they're moaning about. Perhaps there's always a chance they'll be sharing a literary festival with Ali Smith or Salman Rushdie or John Banville, or whoever these "shadowy" literary writers are, taking up all those precious review space. Alternatively, what we have here is the oldest trick in the book. Robert Harris has been everywhere this week with his novel about ancient Rome; clearly not even the most fawning of interviewers actually wants to talk about his "new Labour in togas" (duh) novel - so he gives them a bit of spin.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

The Unlistenables

I'm a bit of a connoiseur of "difficult" music. We had a record player in the sixth form common room, and whoever bought records in, got to play them on it. There was a challenge to play something so annoying that everyone would leave. Most of the sixth form were incredibly dull and would occasionally treat us to a Phil Collins or Meat Loaf album, which was reason enough, I think to impose on them something a little more out there. Psychic TV's "The Full Pack" - ten minutes of wolves howling was my masterpiece - though I think the most unlistenable thing we ever heard there was the first Alien Sex Fiend album; approach with care. Reading in this month's Mojo about "An Electric Storm" by White Noise from 1969, I had to get it, particularly with the BBC Radiophonic Workshop's Delia Derbyshire involved. I must admit I was half expecting some unlistenable hippy shit, but it's actually great - first track sounds like Stereolab! So, not that unlistenable after all.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Great Poets

The Mercury prize has surprised by not being quixotic and giving the prize to the Arctic Monkeys, which is fine, but a little pointless. I'm listening to one of the great poets, Joni Mitchell, whose 1998 album "Tame the Tiger" has just popped through the door - it seems to take its bearings from the wonderful "In France they kiss on main street" from "Hissing of Summer Lawns" in 1975, which is just fine by me. I totally missed this album when it came out, but along with its superb predecessor "Turbulent Indigo" it shows that her 1990s were remarkably good.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Five Years On

I am pleased that it's Simon Armitage that has written a poem about the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001. He's unlikely to be portentious, or puffing his own agenda. I saw part of one of the many documentaries on the anniversary last night, and it still has the power to inflict troubling dreams on one. I felt at the time, as did one person on that footage, that this was the start of "a war", that anything could now happen. That "anything" has happened, I guess, but though there has been a range of terrorist attacks since, most notably in London, it has been anything but "orchestrated" - which was what was most chilling about 9/11. Being in shock at the first plane, and then seeing the second... this was clearly not random chance. Where I was working at the time, the initial response of a couple of my colleagues was "serves them right, American had it coming to them," singularly lacking compassion, because of their own anti-Americanism. I was reminded of this last night, watching the television - that nobody had that coming to them, and who, after all, was the "them?" The courage of the New York firefighters on that day, as well, seems of an entirely different order than the "courage" of a suicide bomber. As a writer, 9/11 and the events surrounding it, aren't my subject, and as we see the "anything" turning into the polarising wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, I'm becoming more reticent about having an opinion on any of this. There's no simple opinion. I can make a judgement - say, that the Israeli bombing of Lebanon was wrong - but that's all it is. I'm still, vaguely, troublingly, more on the side of the American and British governments, than I am on the side of Muhammad Atta and others. I'm not sure I'm yet ready to have Martin Amis get into a terrorist's head. His recent work would imply he was the last person I'd want to be taking on that job; yet, the key to Amis's best subject was always a very personalised view of wider catastrophe. I've felt that since the passing of the Cold War, and particularly of an underlying worry about Nuclear catastrophe, (he seemed to need this "cloud" above his characters' perfect heads, to enable his satire to work), he's been fumbling for a subject strong enough for his talents. The war on terror, I guess, could well be it. He joins quite a crew -: Jonathan Safran Foer, Ian McEwan, Helen Fielding, Michael Cunningham, Iain Banks, John Updike, Jay McInerney and Monica Ali, have all written books touched, if only mildly, by this "new world." There will no doubt be a Terror Lit. 101 on American Literature courses in the near future. This week there will be no escaping the memories of 9/11, and remembrance seems the appropriate response. The geopolitics can wait for another time.

Friday, September 01, 2006

O! Walt...Michael's here

I thought Michael Cunningham's "The Hours" was one of the better novels of recent years. I read it after seeing the film, actually, and enjoyed both. The book was far more explicit in the comparison's between the stories, than the film. His new book "Specimen Days" takes two of the methods he uses in "The Hours," - the portmanteau novel, and a literary precursor, here it's Walt Whitman - to write a very different book. Like David Mitchell's "Cloud Atlas" this is a series of (long) short stories loosely connected. Here, the connections are in two ways - 3 characters, a boy, a young man, a young woman - reappear in 3 different New Yorks, the 19th century, the present, and somewhere in the future; and in each story, Walt Whitman's poetry plays an important part. It's a complex novel, and the edition I've got, has an interview with Cunningham, which helps explain what many may see as a quite a "rash" experiment. I'd agree with that - this is a novelist overreaching; and I guess a readers' view of the whole novel will depend a little on whether you agree with the underlying thesis. However, the three stories in themselves have much to recommend them, particularly the 19th century opener, "In the Machine," which is a sustained, "historical" story of some power. The "detective" novella that follows, and the "science fiction" of the last part are perhaps less successful, mainly I think, because of having to carry the weight of expectation of this being a novel. Whereas "Cloud Atlas" was as flippant as Douglas Adams in its "connections", this is a little on the portentous side. However, it's fascinating seeing New York across 3 centuries, and, like in "The Hours", Cunningham writes brilliantly about women. Even the female alien of the final story is a wonderful character study. Saying any more would take away from some of the novel's inventiveness, and I'd recommend the book - albeit cautiously. It's interesting that a number of literary writers are flirting with science fiction at the moment, however, with both Cunningham and Kazuo Ishiguro's "Never Let Me Go" they're almost treating science fiction as a "costume drama" - so that even though they're set in the future, they're actually using the conventions of classic sci-fi; for Ishiguro's John Wyndham-isms, Cunningham seems to have read Heinlein.