Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Class of '97

It was about this time a decade ago that I had an interview for the MA in creative writing at UEA. It was an interesting thing. I'd applied the previous year but, obviously too late, got a gnomic response which said, but "try again next year". I didn't even have to send something new in. Anyway I went for the interview - the first time, though it seems hard to believe in retrospect, that I'd ever even met some other writers - and Andrew Motion, who was interviewing gave us all an overview of the course. I was the only male among the 5 being interviewed, and at the time Motion was on heavy painkillers for a back problem, which meant by the time I went in, last, they were clearly wearing off. We had a nice chat for 20 minutes, mostly about poetry, (I'd applied to do fiction!) and that was it. I didn't get on. Not that I was too surprised, since 2 of the other 4 being interviewed were already published novelists (both did get on!) and the others were a nice elderly woman who'd been published by the London Magazine, and one of those "Isn't my lecturer?" wonderful English 1st students from Oxford. Anyway, it did make me think - yeah, I'd like to do this, really. I went to the campus bookshop after the interview and picked up "The Game" by Frances Liardet (she was one of the 2 published novelists being interviewed!) an impressive debut novel that she appears never to have followed up. A few weeks later I was interviewed at Manchester, by a relaxed and convivial Richard Francis (where we mostly talked about fiction!) who said, at the end, "don't worry, you're on the course." I've never regretted that choice. What was a shame was that by the Christmas, Michael Schmidt had virtually pulled out of the course for much of the 2nd semester, and, by the time my novel was ready to be submitted, Richard had also left. It was marked by one of their successor's Suzannah Dunn, a nice woman I met a couple of times, but whom I never had a single conversation with about my actual novel. Richard, at Bath Spa, and Michael at MMU, went on to departments that took it all far more seriously than Manchester. The week that I moved between London and Manchester was the week Princess Diana died, so I had a weird few days in a half empty flat watching endless cavalcades of people on a pilgrimage to Hyde Park to put down flowers. I was reminded by this by the success of "The Queen." Its worth remembering that the death of Diana, and the Queen's original perceived indifference to it, almost looked like bringing the monarchy down at the time! Diana's brother's speech at her funeral became a set text in English classes in schools - and "Candle in the Wind" rewritten by Elton John became the bestselling single of all time. My own novel, that I wrote on the MA, began on election night 1997, but ended the weekend before her death. My Class of '97 I still feel very fondly about. It was a very civilised group - none of the factions that other years have seen develop, from what I hear. Mark Powell got a 2 book deal with Victor Gollancz a few months after completing his course, and had 2 good London-based thrillers, "Snap" and "Box", which got a bit lost in publishing politics (in quick succession he lost his imprint and his editor.) He now lives in the US. Heather Beck, already an academic, quickly went with Michael to the creative writing course at the MMU, where she finally published her course novel "Home is Where" with Comma Press. Always a fastidious writer, she doesn't appear to have followed it up. Lee Rourke, resurfaced a few years later in Brighton and London, with his Scarecrow web-zine, and now, a decade on, a forthcoming book, "Everyday." Others from the course: Stephanie and Greg have continued their previous work, teaching English and photography respectively, though Greg has continued writing, and had a successful exhibition collaborating with the photographer Dinu Li a few years ago; Seb emigrated to Australia; Samantha is back working in radio for Radio Shropshire; and Alan is now a journalist back home in Northern Ireland. I've not really heard anything from Lisa, Sarah and Doug for years; and Peter, a German writer, who left the course half way through, though I'd heard had gone back to Germany. As for me, I'm sat here, writing a blog, about the Class of '97, ten years on, still creative, but in another career cul-de-sac, not that dissimilar than the one I found myself in a decade ago, wondering...what next?

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

The Deerhunter

I had to share the lovely news that David Cameron, Tory leader, often seen as being in favour of all things green, and frequently worrying about the guns in our inner cities, likes nothing more than shooting deer, and is a good shot, often going to his wife's stepfather, Viscount Astor's country estate to do it. Whereas his youthful pot smoking can be put down to the quality of an Eton education, and is at least open to most people who've got a dodgy scally mate, I don't remember ever getting a chance to go shooting deer myself. I think we can easily get too het up about the bloodsports issue, compared with factory farming etc. etc. but there seems something so deliciously "of type" for such a high caste Tory, about David's newly unearthed hobby. And I know for a fact that there's more than a little crossover between the eco-greens and vegetarianism, which might put Cameron permanently off the plate as a voting option, however many wind turbines he installs. Surprisingly, or not, given the bad news values of our press, its not been particularly big news. Now, if only someone can get a picture of him with his first kill!

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Some stuff

Tom at Parameter Magazine kindly pointed out that I'd finally made the blogs-about-books column in Saturday's Guardian. So you can read my blog to be pointed to an online article which is an extract from my blog. Isn't that clever? I'd not got the Guardian having been tempted by the free hardback of "A Clockwork Orange" in the Independent. For the next 24 weeks you can get a hardback "banned book" for £3.50, and with a list including quite a few I've not got - and quite a few where my wellworn paperback is looking decidedly shabby - if I can work out how the offer actually works, I may build up a little collection this way. The mysterious minds of marketing departments. And here's another one. Apparently, the first "benefit" I'm going to get of NTL becoming Virgin Media, is that Sky One is likely to be pulled from air this week. What has flabbergasted me is that that they're moaning that Sky was charging too much and so its all Sky's fault. I don't care. All I know is that a package that I've been paying for, with certain channels included, Sky One and Sky News for instance, is suddenly going to not include them. How NTL/Virgin pays for them is their own problem. So, tonight's "24" could be my last! Where will I get my torture-fix from now? Well, it is work tomorrow. Since I'm probably going to be too busy to blog over the next week or so, its worth me mentioning a reading organised by Matchbox magazine at the Thirsty Scholar in Manchester on March 21st, with Allan Fisher and Scott Thurston. So a little while away, but worth putting in your diary.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Critical Cultures

Perhaps inevitably the Guardian, having absently referred to Martin Amis as possibly our greatest living writer, decided a more scientific approach was needed. Yep, they asked the audience! Or rather anyone they could get on phone/email the day before the article, with the winners being Pinter, Stoppard, Lessing and Naipaul. Its always a spurious pastime this one, like looking for the world's oldest person, as soon as they find one, they die. Lets hope those 4 have a little more life left in them. We might be best just sticking with the nobel winning Pinter, currently being revived for his little masterpiece "Dumb Waiter" (a version of which I saw at the Edinburgh festival 2 years ago and loved). With 123 comments on their blog and counting, I'm hardly wanting to add to the spurious conversation. What interested me more was the somewhat degraded critical culture we have nowadays. I guess when questions such as this got asked in the past, there was a sense that (a) literature mattered, (b) that its finest practitioners were something more than "mere" writers and (c) the whole culture benefitted from acknowledging these collosi. For a start...writer of what? The "accident" of our greatest writer, Shakespeare being a playwright, has perhaps given playwrighting a little more kudos than it deserves. I can read Pinter's plays, and one or two others, but Stoppard, despite being such a verbaliser certainly needs the active stage. In fact, seeing "Rosencrantz and Gildenstern are Dead" last week, I was struck by, despite it being an assured performance, what a period piece it risked becoming, and mostly it was the reverance for every one of Stoppard's weaker pieces of wordplay. He was a young writer, when he wrote it, and I felt he was ill-served by the too faithful version. Yet, if a playwright isn't known by his words, then how important a writer is he? And if a playwright, why not a screenwriter? I don't think an American audience would be claiming great literariness for Tarantino, or even Robert Townes, yet the film or the the TV play seems more vital to our culture than the theatre. That leaves just poetry and fiction; the first having so little cultural power in the UK, whilst the latter being so market-driven, that its hard to make a case for most practitioners of either. (And I'd say there are very few who write both poetry and prose to a consistently high level.) And then what is "English" in this context? The Irish writer? The commonwealth writer? The stateless writer? Again, its the Booker definitition of anyone but the Americans but also including those domiciled here. Born or living in Britain (make that London) and they're a British writer it seems. Which, given our love of Conrad, Eliot, Pound and James, never mind sundry Irishmen, seems only fair. But then we have the arguments that make those of us who occasionally still care about English literature scream; namely, the votes for writers who are children's writers (Rowling and Pullman), or commercial writers (bloody John Le Carre again), or this year's thing (Zadie, David Mitchell, Sarah Waters.) Any argument that can include all these different criteria clearly needs a good look at the question. Probably Alvarez, that unfashionable type of writer - a good critic - puts it best, "greatness has to do with range - and character....There has to be some kind of moral force in great writing...and an inward quality that shows in the rhythm of the prose." By this description (as good as one that we'll find), the thriller writers, the children's writers, the young writers, and the like wouldn't even enter the argument. Alvarez wouldn't apply the word "great" to any British living writer. It's hard to disagree.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

The Return of Khan Singh Kumar

A few years ago there was a little controversy in the Rialto about a poem that had, if I remember correctly, appeared elsewhere, and a worry that the poet who'd written it wasn't real but a pseudonym. Khan Singh Kumar, a plausible enough name to us deaf English ears, but unpick it, and see what you've got is a common muslim, sikh and hindu name in one person. Daljit Nagra has been picking at our preconceptions for a while yet, and I was a little suspicious of the blanket positive reviews of his debut Faber collection "Look we have coming to Dover!" until I read the poem "Booking Khan Singh Kumar" and remembered that Rialto controversy. Nagra is acutely aware of the advantages and disadvantages of being a "punjabi" poet, even if his parents came to England in the 1950s, (about the same time my parents were meeting up in Walsall). Through hook and crook, he's negotiated the myriad requirements of an "ethnic poet", by being ethnic when he wants to be, and not when he doesn't. KSK it appears, was a bit of a performance poet, and makes occasional appearances in this collection. But Daljit can "do" punjab, like I can do Brummy, as a bit of a turn. It would be better if the collection was called "Contradiction, and?" rather than the faux Lawrence immigrant misphrasing of "Look we have coming to Dover!" Faber knows what its doing, of course, yet its a fascinating thing that several decades after "A House for Mr. Biswas", a non-white indian-origin poet has to fall back into idiom to get noticed. That he revels in these contradictions is a somewhat remarkable triumph, and though I'm sure Matthew Hollis at Faber is revelling in the good reviews and the "new voice", they're still pushing Daljit's ethnicity as something new, rather than - what they should be doing - is noting his sense of humour and his self-awareness. I'm as sucker as the next man for a new voice, and you can't argue with a poem called "Kabba Questions the Ontology of Representation, the catch 22 for "black" writers", with its disdain for "the HBC" of "'eaney, blake and clarke". Yet its the richness of experience elsewhere, and the self-awareness that makes this a joyful collection, not the political labels. I happen to think the award winning title poem is a bit of a misfire, full of the worst kind of assimilated English poetry, and the patois of the opener"Darling & Me" is disjointed, albeit entertaining; yet elsewhere its a refreshing collection. New voice? Yes, I think so, but not necessarily because his parents were born in India.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Martin Amis Lives Upstairs (or at least in the humanities building)

It's fascinating to hear that Martin Amis is to be the new Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Manchester. The new university has stated its ambitions, and this must be a sign that it means them, though one wonders how this one came to pass - coinciding as it does with his return from Uruguay - did Amis's agent tout him around or did the University wine and dine him? I suspect a bit of both. But what's more intrigueing is what is he actually going to be "professor of." I studied on the MA in creative writing there in 1997-1999, which was then four or five years into its life, created by Michael Schmidt and Richard Francis, and so unloved by the university that it wasn't even in the English department (which seemed to be mostly made up of Anglo-Saxon experts) but in American Studies. Richard left for Bath Spa, and Michael moved to MMU, taking not only himself, but quite a lot of kudos with him. Although for a couple of years after I finished I would meet fellow alumni of the University course, since 2001 or so, the only people I've met on the Manchester literary scene have come from the Writing School at MMU. The University's course had, as far as I knew, withered a little on the vine. Yet, Amis's arrival will surely require more than just a continuation of what's already gone on. I would imagine a flood of applicants - particularly from overseas. For too long English writers have been sniffy about these saw of roles, whilst universities, often happy to employ a certain kind of academic timeserver, have been sniffy about writers as somehow not "proper" intellectuals. No more, it seems. Rather than a berth for a hard-up poet, we've now got the most legendary of English writers. I hope the university gives him the support he needs (not least in fielding the much greater application postbag you might expect.) Checking on their site, they do at least have a poetry strand as well, which will be interesting. Amis, despite his father being a poet as well as a novelist, never having shown much interest here. I've his essay collection here, "The War Against Cliche", and there's Milton and Donne (that first at Oxford, remember?) but not much recent. I hope he finds time for the poets as well as the novelists; and of the novelists, avoids like a plague, those - like myself, I have to admit - who were so enraptured by his style c. "Money." It makes a lot of sense in many ways, him taking on such a role, and in Manchester as well. There's no Ladbroke Grove here; but he might wander down Stockport Road and check out the melting pot of Levenshulme. But more than that - Amis has always been serious about what he does - so like him, or loathe him, (I remain firmly in the former camp), he is a voice to be reckoned with; authoritative even when he is wrong. It's interesting that in the Guardian feature he talks about having become more right wing in being away; and finding fault with the increasing anti-Israeli, anti-American bias he finds in the UK. He's right about that - much of it's hysterical - but he might find himself a target, being here. After all, the Mancunian left is very pro-Palestine, and sees any opposition to America or Israel as an unfortunate byproduct of that belief, rather than as something to be worried about unduly. I imagine a few robust chats with Terry Eagleton in the corridors of power; though as always these professorships don't guarantee attendance. Manchester is no Ivy League campus; I doubt we'll find him in Kro2 or the Sand Bar, like his equivalents at MMU. I'm particularly intrigued - as well as jealous that he's come here so long after my own masters - because he's been more than just an indirect influence on my writing. One of my few published stories (in Main Street Journal) was a tale of literary paranoia called "Martin Amis Lives Upstairs." What was - then - a fiction, could a decade on, be something of a truth.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Waiting for Stoppard

I'm going to see Rosencrantz and Gildenstern are Dead at the Library Theatre tomorrow. Looking forward to it - I studied the play for A level over 20 years ago, but have only ever seen it live once, so it will be interesting to see how much of it I remember. An overdue bit of culture, I think, having spent more time standing up in front of an audience lately, than being in an audience. I'm having very vivid dreams at the moment, and got lots of half-formed poems and songs bouncing around my head like they've o.d'd on caffeine. "Loosely" the collection I was going to put together as a pamphlet around Christmas, already seems to be unrepresentative of what I'm currently writing, so I've put it on hold for now. I'm reading a very long novel at the moment, and at the current rate - about 10 pages a day - it will be Christmas before I'm done.

Saturday, February 10, 2007


I've been "upgraded" which seems slightly sinister, but really means that I can just use some of the new Blogger features, whether I want to or not. That's the thing with technology, it will never just leave you alone... There's a new edition online of the excellent Barcelona Review, and it even includes a Quiz about music and literature, which makes me think I should maybe do my own quiz one of these days on the blog. It all seemed a little heavy metal for me - surely its not just bad music that's got literary pretensions? I'm getting a bit of connectivity fatigue, I think. My website hasn't been updated for ages, nor my Myspace, and this blog seems far more reactive of late than it was ever intended to be; just "I read this in the Guardian" type stuff, which wasn't the intention at all. I've not found time to complete a couple of print things I was working on, and I think given this, I'll probably need to do a bit of streamlining shortly, else I'm never going to get anything done. I've been writing/recording a few new songs, mainly getting to grips with a new piece of recording equipment, so that's a project with a long gestation period as well. I realise I've not sent much of anything off to much of anywhere recently, nor - to be fair - read many of the new magazines that have come out recently. But then I do have quite a busy day job, so its probably not surprising. This week I worked 3 evenings, giving a couple of presentations about "what makes a good (and bad) website", and that means its been a weekend of just catching up on things - though taking Friday off - I did manage to move a few things along. I've a story that might fit into Transmission magazine's "survival" theme, though it seems its another magazine where my stories don't quite fit, in general. It's like this piece on "the offbeat generation" - it should be my natural home, but I don't think it will be, anymore than in the People's Friend. Times like this of course that you start thinking about starting a magazine, but I've been there, done that. All musings, really, nothing concrete.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Reformation Post TLC - the Fall Return

I've been listening to new music this week. The new Bloc Party album "A Weekend in the City" is very different than its debut, its full of epic choruses and shimmering musicianship, rather than the edginess of old. In about 1984-5, alot of the post-punk bands, on their 3rd or 4th album, developing a new level of sophistication, went down this route. It reminds me a little of latterday Chameleons, or those Liverpool bands like the Pale Fountains and the Icicle Works. Rousing choruses, like the last Doves album, but a little samey in that epic grandeur. It always has the possibility of falling into Meat Loaf/Queen territory, which probably won't harm its sales any, but the lack of edginess is a bit disappointing to me, since Bloc Party were the edgiest of that group of new bands that came out about 2 or 3 years ago - and once you lose your edges, as the stone once said, you can't get them back. The Klaxons album is more fun, already a virtual Greatest Hits, and kind-of nostalgic of those bands like Carter USM, Beloved etc. who did similar pop-dance albums back in the day. New rave, same as the old rave. It's took 3 listens to begin to appreciate the new Fall album, Reformation Post TLC. I think the opening 3 tracks are probably as good an album opening as the Fall have ever done. The sound is bass heavy, uber-metal, kind of like Black Sabbath's "War Pigs" stripped of the bombast. Not for the first time, I wonder, how on earth did anyone ever think the Fall were/are a "punk" band? There are several Fall sounds of course, not just the bass-heavy driving art rock of the title track. Merle Haggard's "White Line Fever" is a nice addition to Mark E. Smith's country rock e.p. for instance. "My Door is Never" (open), is a great piece of bile, whilst "Coach and Horses" is as wistful as "Bill is Dead." Who knows what to make of Eleni's sung "The Wright Stuff", we're not in the land of "O Brother" here. The album could have ended on "Scenario" and you'd have a great tight Fall album reminiscent of "This Nation's Saving Grace", but of course that doesn't happen. The electronic mish-mashes that have accompanied the band intermittently over the years surface towards the end of the disc. The epic repetition of "Systematic Abuse" recalls nothing other than "Repetition" itself from their debut album, "Live at the Witch Trials". I've always felt Smith hates the compact disc, and its like the music towards the latter part of Reformation Post TLC is trying to escape from the limitations, fighting digitally with the medium that carries it.Or maybe that's just me. The new band are good musicians, but not great, and the production is a little deadened throughout. I found both "The Real New Fall LP" and "Fall Heads Roll" excellent song collections, whose best tracks would pepper any future Fall compilation, but I didn't listen to them all that much. It will take me more than 3 listens to appreciate the new album, and having only heard a couple of the songs live, and without the familiarity of Fall sessions, outtakes, singles etc, the new Fall album may well be their freshest in a decade.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

The Weak End

Ah, it's after 9.00 in the evening on a Sunday. Where did the weekend go? And moreover why aren't I watching "24"? I can't cope to be honest - not on a Sunday, when I've got to get read for work, and busy, busy week, giving presentations and other stuff. Jack Bauer will have to wait until I can cope with this fictional terror (as opposed to the others sorts - Bird Flu! Iraq's Civil War!). And I'm in the middle of a few things as well. Its took all weekend to get to a position where I'm ready to have a weekend, to be honest. Managed to write a little poem yesterday, but "little" is the word. I've been reading a bit as well, but not so far into a book that its likely I'll finish it, but we'll see. I'll mention it when I get a bit further. I'm playing catch up with all the music I've got downloaded etc. and rather than download any more its got me going back to my records, and - in between times - digitising them. I've been listening to some classic Prince, which is bloody great. Do people talk about Prince or listen to him anymore? I'm not sure. I guess the sound of the records is a bit eighties - all that synthetic drums, and high pitched squeaky keyboards, but no more than people still rip off. All of his arguing with the record companies etc. means that he's never been reissued/repackaged except in Greatest Hits form. There must be a 20CD boxset in there somewhere! Perhaps I'll wait. I've been trying to write something vaguely meaningful - or do something vaguely meaningful - about Manchester's getting the "super casino" licence. This article from Victoria Coren in the Observer is good at unpicking the arguments, and adds that "the super-casino will regenerate Manchester like the Luftwaffe regenerated Coventry." It's W.H. Auden's 100th anniversary, and the papers have got quite a few retrospectives, which like all such things, takes you back to the poems. Steven Waling wrote recently that he didn't like Auden, and I think part of the problem is that Auden suffers from having a digestible "selected", the existing ones are too partial or two worthy. Are you listening Faber? (Probably not.)

Saturday, February 03, 2007

No time to blog

I've had no time to blog, though not for the creative reasons of Fiction Bitch more just because I've had a full on week at work. Last weekend's London trip was supposed to bookended by a couple of duvet days, but I was just too busy. Faced with a packed schedule one relaxes alcoholically I'm afraid, so things have also been a bit hazy, and I've had the strangest dreams. The night before last I passed John Ashbery on the stairs as I went to attend a university seminar in what looked like a greenhouse or roof garden. It was definitely him! How strange... though perhaps the arrival of one of my missing Ashbery's - "Chinese Whispers" - was the cause. When I was in London, my friend Adrian Cross told me he was reading on Resonance FM, London's art radio station. He was on Wendy Jones' monday afternoon show, "interesting conversations" though I don't think its archived. The Marvin Suicide show is a bit of a find, since it trawls the web for interesting free music so that you don't have to! Somehow this led me to Escape Pod, a sci-fi podcast site, and - and this is a real recommendation - Radio Radio, the online archive of an art project that was in Manchester a few years back. I just now need to find the time to listen to the whole of Victor Mount's wondrous "Disco of the Spoken Word" - an extract of which was on the CD.