Monday, October 30, 2006

Listening In

Being at home all day, and reading/writing/administering I've had the stereo on full blast all day. (Do people even call it the stereo these days? I've been playing both CDs and records - so its either that or Hi Fi.) The day began quite raucous, and stayed that way. I was clearly for blowing out the cobwebs; Neil Young "Sleeps with Angels", Ian Hunter's eponymous debut, "Don't Believe the Truth" by Oasis, "Rocks" by Aerosmith and "Use Your Illusion I" by Guns N Roses. The last obviously cured me since I mellowed a bit in the afternoon: "Madman Across the Water" by Elton John, "From a Basement to a Hill" by Elliot Smith, "Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain" by Pavement (so good I played it twice), and now, winding down with "The Drop" by Brian Eno. I'm obviously going through more of a "classic rock" than "indie" or "soul" phase at the moment. I've wanted everything to be solid, and uncomplicated. "The Drop", a recent find, the soundtrack to a film about Derek Jarman's garden, is the first bit of uncertainty I've let into the day - I think because I had "things to do" I needed a good robust soundtrack. Other days, I like edginess, or soul, or funk. I've not really thought about the "whys and wherefores" just know that I sometimes put something on and think, "nah, not in the mood."

Last Hand Books

I rarely post up photos on this site, lack of "material" and I'm a bit luddite when it comes to photography (though hoping to change that shortly.) Anyway, this was taken when I went to Hay-on-Wye when I went in August, the outdoor bookshelves by the castle, not so much secondhand as last-hand books.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

The Long Haul

There's a certificate on the wall of my old bedroom at my parents which says "Lineage - a novel by Adrian Slatcher, shortlisted for 1995 Lichfield Prize." I missed the ceremony because I was in America though I came down to a small promotional film for it - which I don't think I've ever seen. This was my autobiographical novel, albeit mixed in with a made-up plot. I guess it was the first time anyone who didn't know me had read my work and liked it. I always think I was a bit of a late starter - only going to college to study creative writing when I was 30, but "Lineage" was my second novel, and I wrote it when I was 28. I guess it surprises me that it never lead to anything - it was deliberately a provincial book and the couple of agents I sent it to were clearly of that opinion as well. I was, as well, constraining my style - which could be a little too American - and just "writing properly" - I've always retained a tension here. At the debate a couple of weeks ago, there was a lot of comments about writers being internationalised, and writing mid-Atlantic. Although I like "The Life of Pi", I think its a good example. A Canadian writer, published in Scotland, set in India, and in a style that is the current American vogue - sentences honed, perfectly workable, perfectly understandable, but somehow lacking local colour. How could they after all? Its an international book. Jane Smiley's probably the best example of this kind of writing, her books are all utterly different subjects, genres, but her language is this honed non-style. I'm not saying its always wrong - its just that you have to wonder what's being lost when those individual differences go. I'm just reading Bret Easton Ellis's "Lunar Park" its first chapter an "autobiography" about Bret himself. Its literature eating itself, but as always with him, utterly fascinating. Its got a looseness about the writing which seems very "now" as well - this is raw, unedited stuff (yet, edited), reminds me of "The Crack Up" or "Seymour: an Introduction" or John Cheever. He talks about his first lines - how they've changed over time, from one-liners to convoluted and how the new book is about going back to that simplicity. When I've time I might go back over my own "first lines" see where they're at! I spoke with a friend the other week who I'd not seen for a long time, she's just finishing a scriptwriting course, fitting it in between work, family, life etc. and we kind of compared case notes from the trenches - and I realised, yeah, you go down this route and you're in for the long haul, success or no success.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Cornish Pasties

I've just made my first ever cornish pasties. Things to do before you are 40 or what? A colleague - ex-Cornwall - gave me the belt and braces version - and I think next time I'll add a little bit more spiciness, but otherwise, they taste good. How do people make pastry though? The whole house is in a total fog like a Fields of the Nephilim gig! Do you need cold hands for pastry? Yes, I think so - it sticks to me like a glove, however much flour I use - but then, come to the "rolling" and I'm brilliant - big palms you see - who needs a rolling pin? a palm sized ball is just perfect for a single pasty. Of course, I've now got 5 cornish pasties. That would keep a village going for a week!

In praise of Low Brow

I've always liked pop - low brow as well as high brow - much preferring Madonna to Coldplay, for instance - but then again, I've never really seen the distinction. The pop I like is intelligent, feisty, meaningful, fun. So is the high brow stuff. So I was pleased to see that Sophie Coppolla's "Marie Antoinette" film is frothy enough to have "I want candy" and "Aphrodisiac" by Bow Wow Wow on its soundtrack. Bow Wow Wow are probably one of the ultimately great low brow bands - they were cynically manufactured by Malcolm Maclaren from the detritus of Adam and the Ants v.1.0 with the addition (after rejecting Boy George), 15 year old singer Annabella Lwin; were always too clever a concept to be as big as other "pop" bands of the time, but got big in America as one-hit wonders with "I want candy" and had enough about them to make their fans (I count myself one) cherish them even a quarter of a century later. What I don't like is earnest stuff - whether in literature or music or art. I'm not sure I'll ever get round to W.G. Sebald, too stern seeming, and I've a particular dislike for those furrowed brow poets who don't ever seem to be having fun (usually, they're academics.) I've far more time for a T.S. Eliot - old sourpuss being light enough to give his book of practical cats (never mind some of the music hall scenes in the Wasteland and elsewhere). But just as there's room for fun, and frivolity in even the most austere of lives, there's room for seriousness in the most frivolous - so though I don't expect Sophie Hannah or Wendy Cope to start doing blank verse a la Geoffrey Hill, its always nice when people surprise you. I once put together a cassette (it was a long time ago!) of "Cheesy Hits" on the assumption that even the most serious bands in the world had their cheesy moments (for instance, Velvet Underground's "I'm Sticking with you" or the Cure's "Caterpillar"). The only bands - even then who didn't have a comic side were Joy Division and U2. Probably the same, with Joy Division, you can probably let them off, but I'm not sure U2 ever had a cheesy moment - and they'd probably be better for it - you never know, Sophie Coppolla might use them in her next film. So far more exciting than compilations by Oasis, U2 and George Michael this Xmas, is the news that Girls Aloud have a best of coming out. But I suppose television is the best place to find the truly great low-brow in that in some eyes, its all low brow. And it can go very low. But I loved the first 2 episodes of Torchwood, the Dr. Who spin off (and how thick was I? I didn't even realise it was an anagram until someone told me), and not just cos I've always had a bit of a thing for Welsh girls. The second episode was, I thought, a little reminiscent of Harlan Ellison's classic sci-fi story, "How's the Night Life on Cissalda?", my favourite short story of the seventies. In Torchwood, an alien being is in gas form and inhabits a Welsh girl who works for a fertility clinic - it lives off orgasmic energy, the only catch being that whoever shags her, turns to a pile of dust on orgasm - Cardiff's make population was looking a bit thin on the ground at the end. In Ellison's story, a man returns to earth being made constant love to by an alien creature with many penises and vaginas. The alien telepaths to its fellows "we've got a live one here" and soon everyone on planet Earth is being shagged to death by aliens - except the original guy - who having been pulled off the alien, is the only being ever to reject the advances of the Cissaldan! What with Torchwood and Spooks, I've decided I definitely want to be a spy when I grow up. Definitely.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Heroine Addiction

Howard Jacobsen, writing in yesterday's Independent, talks about his "heroine addiction" - particular in relation to Jane Eyre's recent television adaption. I only caught the last two episodes, wrongly believing this would be BBC costume drama by numbers. I don't know the actress Ruth Wilson, who played Jane, but she was perfectly cast. Jacobsen talks about the importance of punctuation in Jane Eyre: that Bronte uses semicolons and colons to bring us closer to Jane, creating that closeness of empathy that grips most readers of the novel, and that we should revel in the novel's language, not wonder at its strangeness. "There was a time, you see, when a writer's being educated was not considered an imposition on the reader, or a hindrance to enjoyment," he comments. Indeed. He also says that the he remains "in thrall to the literary imagination of this country, which is in all essentials, female." I've not heard it put quite like that before - but its worth pointing out that the writers' education here, was homemade, auto-didactic, wide-ranging, not curriculum bound - the female daughter of a country parson's education.

Saturday, October 21, 2006


The week before last I was fractious, pissed off, in a foul mood, this last week I've been positive, confident, optimistic. Yet its also been a bit of a rollercoaster, too much on, not enough time to think, and zooming from one thing to the other without a thought. One of the writers at Decapolis yesterday made the various obvious point that writers need silence, stillness, but then again, having moved from Athens to Berlin, she'd moved from one frantic place to another - silence, stillness were possibly another "ideal" that in reality we never get. F. Scott Fitzgerald could never write when he was drinking, yet could he live when he wasn't? There's two sides to Fitzgerald's drinking, early on he was poor drinker, a fall down after two glasses drinker. He couldn't hold his beer. Later, he died of his alcoholism. I guess he must have been a heavy drinker then, able to drink past the pain. So this week's been convivial, yet I've also had the daylight to return to, so I've stopped at a point. And I'd be happy to have a time off from it. Something is heightened - that optimism perhaps. I realise that I've not been talking about what I've been writing. Not that I've been writing that much, but some poems. Untitled ones. Full of Dickinsonian dashes. Some phrases I like, "the terrifying forefront of life", "I am the slave of twenty tribes," - and a metaphysical side to them. They're creating a language of emotion from the detritus of life. Do I mention "persons unknown" because I was listening to Crass last week? No matter. Language is not negotiable. Yet, something else David Constantine said yesterday, was that in translation you realise that every word counts, since it can only mean what it says. Yet, my poetry is both tentative and speculative. I'd like to think Dickinson was both those things - I can't quite put my hand on my copy of Harold Bloom's "The Western Canon" but that inveterate overcompensator seemed a little absurd in his gushing essay on Dickinson, something about her having the finest intellect of any American poet, when - to me at least - it is to the emotion that Dickinson appeals, most of all. And thats what I mean by tentative and speculative - that she was tentative because her subjects, God, life, death, love, are too large to be certain about, and speculative because in trying to make sense - or even engage with them - that's what she was doing. In a sense, I'm in disagreement with Constantine, for though I believe every word counts, it is not that every word is perfect, in the perfect order, rather that our tentative-speculative writing creates a case that that is the case. In other words, the act of creation is what creates the perfection. An early Keats poem that remains a favourite, "On first looking into Chapman's Homer", is very far from perfect, yet it is Keats putting down this homage, and making that tentative-speculative stab, that gives it quality.

MUCH have I travell'd in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told 5
That deep-brow'd Homer ruled as his demesne:
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken; 10
Or like stout Cortez, when with eagle eyes
He stared at the Pacific—and all his men
Look'd at each other with a wild surmise—
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

Friday, October 20, 2006

So much information

Its always the paradox of any sort of diary that the more you have going on in your life the less time there is for reflection. Shall we say its been a busy week, and a busier day. The Manchester Literature Festival made its way to my place of work today, with the Decapolis writers, an architect and an artist discussing interpretations of the city. It was fascinating, and everything that the "original modern" discussion with Peter Saville on Tuesday wasn't. I think I'm in love with Berlin's Larissa Boehning, but everyone was fascinating - and the only down side was that you had to remember the last time you'd been to "reading" rather than a "debate" that was this interesting. I think all of us think that fiction is more important than all the other stuff, yet here we never really talked about writing, and certainly never heard any of the fiction. David Constantine made the point that some writers (I'm assuming he's meaning Kazuo Ishiguro who has said this) are writing for an international audience nowadays, and as translator he finds this lessening of "difference" a worry. We're getting Starbucks writers, I guess. Yet there's no sign on the behalf of publishers that they're encouraging anything other. So "language" is a negotiable I think. And it shouldn't be. Later...rather than go to the Burgess project thing at the Whitworth, which I'm sure was fine and dandy, I went elsewhere and got into a conversation with a group of pissed air traffic controllers in Bar Centro. If anyone's flying tomorrow, they're on earlies.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006


Other people will be far better than me at attending the lit fest. I went to the Manchester Blog Awards/Verberate on Monday, which was mostly very enjoyable - as always I'm left a little cold by the Speakeasy types who did the second set. I felt the blog readings were an enjoyable take on this whole thing. Blogs aren't books, and neither is necessarily good read live, but both the Airport Diaries and 43 bus readings were done well. Its coincided with a busy week at work, a conference on Monday, then a workshop on Tuesday, both involving Peter Saville, once Factory Records cover designer, now Manchester's "brand" manager. I get the feeling the city council wanted a logo, and what they got instead was a dialogue. They may not realise it, but the city has got the better out of that deal. Dialogue being hard. I felt quite inspired - but also a little cynical - in that working for that same council you get to see how far the rhetoric is removed from the reality; its a totally hierarchical organisation, that can at times seem opaque in the extreme in how it decides things. Factory records, as he reminded us, happened without the great and the good even realising it was around; and I'm not convinced that anything has changed - at times the city seems determined to develop the world's biggest bar crawl, and sod anything that gets in its way. But at other times - with the Manchester Food and drink festival, the literature festival etc. - one is more optimistic. I still know I'm far more likely to find the future in the Northern quarter or in an independent dive venue like the Britons Protection, Big Hands or the Star and Garter than anything badged with the words "Manchester International Festival", and that is a gap that needs to be bridged. As my homework from the Peter Saville event I'm meant to send a "viral" email out to three or four key people about the city's dreadful "official" websites. Not entirely sure how I phrase that one. But then again, you have to commend those who have raised expectations in this way; and only hope that they are capable of meeting them. As Saville said, a brand is about values, not a logo, and if you don't live up to the values you espouse then all the money in the world won't make a difference. I've not had a chance to "listen again" to Radio 4's "original modern" stories yet, but that's the other thing about festivals - half the year you are sat in wondering what to do, the other half you're frantically trying to catch half of the interesting things going on.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

One Day in history

If you only write one "blog entry" this year than today's the day - a record of "one day in history."

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Good Poem

I enjoyed "I'm in Love with a German Film Star" by Todd Swift in the latest Jacket online magazine, (its the 3rd poem down) particularly the line "I’m filled with an unbearable urge to be 32 always and to marry a chick named Miss Miss. " It reminds me of Ashbery in its pop-love of American culture, particularly the movies. It's got a couple of levels of the nostalgic in it, the reference to the Passions song of the title, which means something to people around 40, (and in itself was a nostalgic paeon), but also in the language, despite the reference to Bush and Cheney, in the poem, it harks back to more innocent times. Nostalgia's not always bad, you see, its just recognising it's there.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Swimming or Drowning

I've been a bit out of sorts this week, slow fuse, little things making me annoyed, and I seem to be making all the wrong kind of choices - mad ideas, that seem just plain stupid the next day. I guess you make poor judgements when you're feeling tense, or stressed, or simply frustrated, and its a combination of all three really. The warm glow of my 3 weeks off is in the distant past, and I think I need a few short weeks before Christmas. Maybe I just need to get away - I've only had a couple of short breaks in the last couple of years. But you also make poor decisions when you don't understand how the world works: and I think that's part of it - I'm a bit isolated creatively, this blog aside, and I guess every creative person sometimes thinks "why am I doing this?" I think I began an odyssey when I started my creative writing course in 1997, but its one that's left me no nearer land than before, and, I don't think I've learnt that much from the journey either. Ho hum. Perhaps I'm destined to remain in this state of flux, maybe its my natural state? Whatever...but making the correct decisions artistically, as well as commercially, is kind of critical. Any project's going to take time, effort, energy. My latest on the bus wheeze was to write an autobiographical novel/memoir, "Comprehensive", about my last year at a school that didn't really have much idea what to do with someone bright and creative. I could name the chapters after the timetable "General Studies" "Home Economics" "English Literature" rather than go through things chronologically. Then, I thought, lets call it "Incomprehensible" - which my last year at school pretty much was - but that would kind of ruin the earlier conceit. Perhaps I should get lofty - and ironic - and call it "A Comprehensive Education" - and then what does this say politically? I do agree with comprehensive schools, just not the crap, dumbed down, well meaning but useless one I went to. And would it have to be a memoir? I don't really like them. I'd prefer to write it as a novel. You can play around with things a bit more - but there wouldn't be much point in me making things up. And then again, I hate nostalgia, I see how bad it is. I don't think Manchester's had a successful breakout band since it was codified on screen in "24 Hour Party People" - falling foul of Liverpool's disease isn't really what the "original modern" city should be all about, is it? I'm only mentioning this, because I'm going to a couple of events next week where Peter Saville will be talking about his vision for the city. I get the feeling he wants them to look deeper, whereas they probably just wanted a "logo." Yet, the first thing to be badged "original modern" at the literature festival, stories written in and around odd locations, for broadcast on Radio 4, seems, on the surface, an entirely nostalgic idea, with some rather predictable choices of writer. But catch them on Radio 4 next week, or "listen again" here for 7 days after.I'll be interested to see whether Saville's "original modern" idea will survive the work that attaches to it. I have my own idea, but in a week of poor judgements its probably not a good idea to run with it, which is to commission a range of local bands to produce a piece of "experimental" music for an Original Modern Music CD. What I mean by "experimental" I'd leave up to them. It could be an interesting concept. Or it might just be another bad idea. I wasn't asked to contribute to The Burgess Project, but anyway, I'd already written my piece, a few years ago, a poem for a projected series of poems about "heroes" (I think I got as far as Anthony Burgess and Yoko Ono before abandoning it...) In the spirit of not knowing a good idea from a bad one here it is...

Anthony Burgess

The novelist is Mancunian
And he spits out the words
Takes tea with Lew Grade
And agrees to "do" Jesus.
He'd get a kick from the sanskrit
And papyrus, this linguologist,
Gasping for a beer on the road into Burma.
We look on at our life, make do with the naming -
But not the great writer,
Has still to wrestle posterity down
Finger reputation before the last breath.
I would burn all the books, burn them -
Let him stay on in memory
Kicking and screaming his way from the music
Ornating his pages with Joycean flourish
Out with his droogs drinking moloko
And never in need of rhyme for orange.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

How I Write

Films show how writers write in a formulaic way - witness "Sylvia" with draft after draft of poems thrown over the poor girl's head, most missing the waste paper bucket. I kind of think a writers' writing methods are a little like a confessional, between him/her and their maker. Yet if God had not wanted writers to talk about their methods, he wouldn't have invented literary festivals. The Cheltenham Festival is celebrated in todays Times, with the secrets of the writing room. What a wonderfully weird bunch they are! Mainly, I confess, because they use pens, in Helen Simpson's case, an £8 a bottle-of-ink, Mont Blanc, THAT explains why she's never written a novel, too darn expensive. There are quite a few long suffering spouses (and, one presumes, employees) hidden a little off stage, from Marina Lewycka's "lovely husband" bringing porridge, to "that wonderful woman" who types up John Mortimer's incomprehensible scrawl. And they use a strange array of paper as well. Say what you want about Microsoft Word, but its a great democratiser. At least William Boyd is honest enough to say he's too old a dog to be taught new (word processing) tricks, though I'm pretty sure that before I wrote direct to screen, I'd sometimes write direct to typewriter. Simon Armitage is only a little bit older than me, so I was a bit surprised that he's "awestruck" by his computer, and has real problems when it doesn't. But then, even I write (most of) my poetry on paper. You kind of still need to see the crossings out, I think that's what it is.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Football Crazy

I like the Guardian's ball-by-ball commentary of sport; and this is a gem, referring to tonight's performance against Croatia as a "team of plucky but technically inept autobiography-writers." How right he is. All this extraneous activity, of course, isn't supposed to affect their "main thing", yet even someone so at ease with the media as Beckham, didn't see the footballing heights in the end. So, what can you say about Wayne "Five Book" Rooney? Has his stumbling form coincided with the book deal? Yes, its true, you can say its got nothing to do with it; but its like when a club, company or council are in strife, its the small things that make a difference to "morale" and "application." However, I may break the habit of a lifetime and buy a sporting biography, that of Paul McGrath; not only was he the most consistently good play ever to wear an Aston Villa shirt, but he was the tormented soul's tormented soul. Of course, McGrath, who has had more in his life to write about than most, waited until after he retired before he hired his ghost writer. I think what tonight's game highlighted was an old footballing truth, that decline can be disguised, but never ignored. I think England have probably been in decline since Beckham moved to Real Madrid and Paul Scholes retired, yet with the emergence of Wayne Rooney we had the perfect teenage diversion. Wiser commentators at the time said that Sven was a little brave putting all his faith in a teenager, but wiser than we knew, perhaps Sven realised that was all we really had - that and the discarded Beckham. England, for some reason have never taken European Championship qualifying all that seriously - after all, how valuable can a tournament be that we've never won? Tonight's result was part of a pattern that began a long while ago, but was cemented with that defeat by Northern Ireland, and confirmed by the performances in the World Cup. The Chelseafication of the team probably hasn't helped either - since this club of millionaire heroes has created its own new elite system, without, perhaps, the much undervalued austerity methods of Alex Ferguson. England, 4th in the world in Fifa's ridiculously inept rankings, is a team in decline. Publishers take note.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Wanna watch the Booker? Think again.

Its always been a rare guilty pleasure for me, watching the Booker Prize, the one unadulterated bit of TV-lit all year, you sit down with a glass of red, throwing olives and pringles at the tv screen. With multichannel TV, the old "rush" to meet the TV deadline shouldn't be a problem for the BBC, just bung it on BBC4. So what's going on tonight?

"The announcement of the winner of the 2006 Man Booker Prize for Fiction will air on the BBC 10 O'Clock News. This will be followed by coverage on BBC 2 Newsnight, BBC News 24 and BBC Radio 4 as well as interviews that will air around the world. BBC Radio 4's Today Programme has been airing pieces on the shortlisted authors throughout this week."

What went wrong? What happened to the live show? And god forbid there's some real news tonight. The TV ceremony WAS the Booker in my mind. Otherwise what's the point of the rest of the country getting all worked up? As it stands its just a black tie do for the publishing industry. I seem to remember that everything from the Orange to the Turner gets a tv showing these days, leaning on the Booker example. So, I don't know who decided to pull it - but it's a shame. Remember, BBC, you're still angling for an increase on your licence fee...

But if I was a betting man, I'd not have a bet on the Booker this year, the best book will win, I guess, but whether it grabs the attention of the public is another matter. And that's got to be bad news for the retailers. Tower Records, a "long tail" retailer of American legend, is no more, and if it's gone, with its knowledgeable staff and wide-ranging back catalogue, what hope for HMV etc? The Oasis greatest hits apart, there's not many "big" records due this Christmas, and back catalogue exploitation has probably now reached its ultimate: a 2CD "Deluxe Edition" of Abba's "Arrival" album. The bottom of this barrel looks thoroughly scraped. Reading Simon Reynolds enthusiastic history of post-punk, Rip it Up and Start Again, he makes the point that in the late 70s, early 80s, albums were deleted so quickly by the majors, that you always had to look forward. Indie singles could sell 20-30000 copies, creating a genuine alternative to the mainstream. The massive availability of music via the internet doesn't really mean that much - nobody's pushing the envelope anymore, or if they are, its only their acolytes who are buying. And where music has gone, you'd be a fool, or a shareholder in HMV, not to think that books and DVDs will follow. Is YouTube, bought today by Google, the MTV? Or could it morph into a paid-content Chain-with-no-name? It's certainly an alternative distribution medium, as is print-on-demand for small presses. Just as the record industry of the late 70s required massive budgets, advances and sales to make money, the current film and publishing industries are wedded to the same. If this Tower is Babel, then can you hear the lapping of the waters all around?

CODA: Kiran Desai is the winner.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

The best novel of the last 25 years is...

The Observer has asked 150 writers for their best novel in English (excluding Americans, how very Booker!) since 1980. "Disgrace" by Coetzee is a good winner, (though his early "Life and Times of Michael K is surely the more adventurous book) and with Amis's "Money" second, and Burgess's "Earthly Powers" third, I can't really complain about the list. Fascinating that Ishiguro's least loved novel, "The Unconsoled" makes the list, and a sense of recentness might explain why McEwan's greatest achievement is seen as "Atonement," the most likeable of his novels, but not his best. Alan Warner's "Morvern Callar" and "On the Black Hill" by Bruce Chatwin seem conspicuously absent from the longer list. I'm interested in what the top ten says about what makes a "lasting novel"? History... in the case of McEwan, "Remains of the Day" and Penelope Fitzgerald, big sweep books in Burgess and Rushdie, and, in different ways, the writing in the John McGahern and Martin Amis; and perhaps, a little more nostalgia than is good for us overall.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Connecting Things

I bumped into Andrew Biswell in the Cornerhouse last night, his very readable biography of Anthony Burgess is just out in paperback he tells me. He had a story in the latest Lamport Court, which I enjoyed, though its probably fair to say its straining to be part of a longer piece. Typically, another alumni of Lamport Court, Max Dunbar was also there. Its not that Manchester's such a small town, just that the Oxford Road provides a perfect cultural strip from the town hall and library at one end, down to the university's and the Whitworth at the other. Either that or I go out for a drink too much. I'd just been reading what Martin Amis had to say about Burgess in his essay collection "The War Against Cliche"; I think Amis, probably uniquely amongst that generation of writers, saw Burgess as some kind of kindred spirit. Burgess was never that clubable a writer; perhaps being published later in life, he had grown out of a peer generation. Its somewhat odd coming up against Martin Amis as literary critic rather than literary titan, though the first at Oxford and the job as literary critic on the Spectator were obviously as important in his literary development as the real and adopted fathers of Kingsley and Bellow. Last week's Observer had an interview with him, and it was good that these days they occasionally send a woman to interview him, rather than the young turk male wannabes. Rachel Cooke teases out a few of his contradictions. "Mine aren't the sort of books that produce a consensus. It's why I don't win prizes", he says, which is one way of deflating the annual debate of the eighties and early nineties about whether Martin would be on the Booker list. (It happens with Scorsese and the Oscars even now.) I like the ending of the piece, where Martin has difficulty opening a screen door and his wife does it with practiced ease; if only because in comparing his books and his fathers, Martin always said that he felt his fathers books had too many people opening doors and his father thought his books had too few. Now we know why - don't write what you're not very good at! My copy of "The War Against Cliche" is a handsome American hardback - an increasing option when the quality of paper and binding in UK paperbacks is so abysmal. Last week was a very quiet National Poetry Day, as if the original idea has run out of steam. Can we put it to death, please? I was wondering if Andrew Motion had still some life in his laureateship, (it was for ten years if I remember correctly), but it goes on till 2009. More interestingly, I guess, the first Manchester Literature festival rolls in to town next week. Next Saturday's pairing of Nicholas Blincoe and Palestinian writer, Sahar Khalifeh, sounds interesting, and the Manchester Blog Awards with Verberate on 16th at Urbis should be as well. Highlight of this week was a musical one, Public Enemy at the opening night of the Warehouse Project. Though it wasn't probably like seeing them back in the day, for at least two thirds of the gig they were a still awesome sonic assault, playing classics such as "Fight the Power" "Don't Believe the Hype" and "Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos." The gig was a little late for a school night, the place only letting people in from about 10.30 and Public Enemy coming on well after midnight. Its a superb venue, though, even if the sound was a bit muddy - with two rooms and a genuine chill out area (its called outside!) It was a mixed crowd, thirtysomethings, serious clubbers, and scallies. Let's say I imagine Collyhurst was a little empty on Thursday night. It had the genuine feel of somewhere edgy, and one can only imagine the vibe when they've 2000 clubbers getting down to some serious drum 'n' bass. I'd forgot how many great songs Public Enemy have got, just look at last year's Greatest Hits. Mine's mostly on vinyl, naturally. Manchester's always been a hip hop town, and the audience seemed pretty knowledgeable whatever their age.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

The Metaphysicals

I just come across a rewriting of Andy Warhol's phrase, for the new "social software" world. Here, everybody will be famous for 15 people. I've not been able to trace who said it first, so sorry about that. I'm actually writing a story about this subject as well! (I'm writing a story about most things, at one time or another, it seems, but that's mainly because I start more than I finish, like a particularly badly prepared marathon runner.) I'm indebted to Baroque in Hackney, for pointing our A.S. Byatt's referencing John Donne, if only because for the last few months I've been ruminating on an essay called "Towards a new metaphysical poetry." Ms. Baroque makes the telling remark that "So much current, anecdotally-based poetry just seems tame and pale to me." Which sums up my own view, though because so much contemporary poetry is anecdotally-based, it sometimes seems that even this mild criticism is an attempt to stab the sickly beast to death, best to see if it fades away of its own illness. But what is "metaphysical poetry"? I remember my O Level English teacher struggling with any definition that made sense, particularly since the metaphysicals themselves, Donne, Herbert, Vaughn, Marvell etc. were all so very different. T.S. Eliot's words seems as valid as ever, that

“…thought to Donne was an experience; it modified his sensibility.”

But what would a new metaphysical poetry look like? We've not the religious backbone that underscored these writers (and those who have that backbone seem incapable of realising how it should be flexible, not rigid). Yet, prior to the romantic finding God in nature, the metaphysicals were finding nature (or life) in a "living" God. But are our writers looking for the metaphysical? I think they are. Compare these lines from Simon Armitage's first book "Zoom!"

“Heard the one about the guy from Heaton Mersey?

Wife at home, lover in Hyde, mistress

in Newton-le-Willows and two pretty girls

in the top grade at Werneth prep.”

With the last poem in his "Selected Poems" -:

“I looked for an end, for some dimension

to hold hard and resist. But I still exist.”

Anecdote replaced by the unfamiliar? I think so. And the metaphysical narrative that he applied recently to the the anniversary of the World Trade Centre attack, shows he's still looking in that direction. I'm not for a minute pretending this is Armitage's primary aim, he might well be horrified to be so analysed. I only use him as a familiar example: but I think it shows that whatever the merits of an anecdotal poetry are, they have limits - and it's not the romantic imagination that can be relied on to expand that range, but a metaphysical view of the world. Yet, we are either pragmatists (we work, we buy, we play, we consume), or fundamentalists (green, Christian, nationalistic) in our every day life. The metaphysical imagination seems to require a fundamental layering of our physical needs under our mental and psychological needs, so that we cannot address the one without the other. A new Ikea is hardly what we need.

So why did I begin with that quote about "famous for 15 people?" Perhaps because the internet is moving painfully, awkwardly, and not-all-that successfully, towards this "layering." It's no more than a pragmatic solution on the one hand - and has its own fundamentalists on the other. But given a "need", can it provide a "solution?" Though Donne was famous in his life, as Dean of St. Pauls, and particularly for his later religious poetry, the poems that now make his name along with those of Marvell and Herbert, to name just two, had the smallest of circulations whilst alive. "Famous for 15 people" indeed. And it makes me ask, that in the gap between the pragmatist and the fundamentalist, how wide can our circle of understanding be? Millions can enjoy "Crazy" by Gnarls Barkley, untold millions can be born into a religion that affects every aspect of their life; more copies of the Ikea catalogue can be distributed by the Bible, but both will sit on the shelves of their respective pragmatist and fundamentalist audience, flicked through, at a surface level. A metaphysical sensibility has its own limits; perhaps a micro-audience of 15 people. Don't turn that dial.