Saturday, September 29, 2007

The IT Crowd's Over

I quite enjoyed the 2nd series of the IT Crowd but it was the most uneven comedy I think I've seen since the first season of "The Young Ones". Set in the systems department in the basement of a large company, the first series was full of knowing jokes about nerds, the tension being caused by them having a female (and non IT literate) boss. Why the 2nd series was better because the dynamic between the 3 came centre stage - Jen was, in her own way, nerdy, and yet trying to be sophisticated. The first episode when shes goes on a date, that turns into a works outing, to a musical called "Gay - the gay musical", was genius, as was the Dinner Party episode - but the rest of the series, moored to the office, was far less convincing. All sitcoms have their ups and downs, but rarely have I seen a show that was so variable in both its tone and quality - yet, it only ran for 6 episodes. Last night's final episode was the worst of the series, a real disappointment, but its obvious why, Jen and the nerds were in different parts of the building for most of the episode, and the comic tension was totally dissipated.

Thursday, September 27, 2007


On the side of a bus in Manchester yesterday was a big advertisement for the film "Run, Fatboy, Run." And on the back another advertisement for "Wayne Rooney - the Story so far", which I felt was a bit unfair on the Man Utd player. Such juxtapositions can be an advertisers' nightmare, and the web makes it worse, as those advertisers who used Facebook found themselves advertising on a BNP page. So much for affinity marketing - after all fascists need moble phones as well. You can read the Guardian's book pages and get opposing views in different articles - say, if there was an avant garde poet cheek and jowl with the new Carole Ann Duffy, you might find both reviewers would talk about them in glowing terms (different reviewers, more than likely). When this happens is an editor being merely mischievous or is it healthy? I'd say the latter, of course, though I bumped into a poet who attended the Amis/Banville/Self "debate" on Monday, who felt that they were all singing a little from the same hymn sheet, and a contrarian voice (or perhaps someone younger - or without a penis) might have made a it more of a debate. I wasn't there of course, so there might be other interpretations. The literature festival, coming up, and you look a little in vain for contrarians, and yet, in a small way this must be a victory for the sense of literature as community and for the programming of what is a relatively small lit fest on only its 2nd year. Yet I crave a bit of juxtaposition - David Peace on the Booker list, or M.I.A. vs Amy Winehouse in a tag wrestling match perhaps. One of my reasons for a continued obsession with Fitzgerald/Hemingway's friendship/falling out, is because, though supportive, both American writers, and clearly forging a new fiction together, they are so different - if there wasn't the friendship it would be hard to put the books side by side. Even when your comparing the French literary community of "Tender is the Night" and "A Moveable Feast" your coming up against contradictions, in style, in attitude and finally in personality. If "The Old man and the sea" and "The Last Tycoon" had both been their first rather than last books would we have ever even put them on the same page? And what I'm getting to here of course, is the work itself, that though we perhaps crave coherence and stability in our lives and friendships, in love and art it can be opposites attracting, and the juxtaposition is what we want. How else can you explain our new way of listening to music - random play on an iPod - so you can have Carl Cean's disco anthem "I was Born this way" (I'm happy/I'm carefree/I'm gay) next to some cock rock from AC/DC. What I want, I think, is safe old literature to begin embracing juxtaposition, taking a John Ashbery poem like "How much longer must I inhabit the divine sepulchre" with its endless juxtapositions, and saying, "yes, this is the model, this is literature."

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Amis in St.Anns

I'd kind of forgotten that its a "new era" at my alma mater, University of Manchester, where a newly minted (and suddenly taken serious Creative Writing school has been established.) Martin Amis begins to earn his crust in a debate (sold out, and I'm busy anyhow) with Will Self and John Banville at St. Ann's church this evening. As an alumni of the old creative writing course, wonder if we're being written out of history, Stalinist style? Perhaps not, the events are on their website if you can find them, and I can get ready for Christmas with a further dose of Amis, this time on "Literature and Terrorism", perhaps proving that my idea for a "9/11 101" course wasn't too far fetched. It will be interesting to see what he covers. I'm always a little dubious of thematic books/courses/lectures etc. since inevitably you go hunting around for works that fit the theme, rather than necessarily what's good, what's bad. Of course, you often get a better sense of how writers are wrestling with issues from bad books as good books. Back to tonights event I'd have loved to hear what they've got to say, "literature in the 21st century", being the theme. In about 1998 I wrote an essay about the fiction writer in the 21st century, calling for more stories, more engagement with the times, more proper books, big and small, rather than the fag ends of postmodernism and the like. I suggested as well, that the era demanded the earnest Edwardians, rather than the shock of the new that would come with the modernists. In retrospect I was complaining about a literature that doesn't engage, that avoids the issues of the day, and which hides behind new orthodoxies of "literary fiction." The prediction pretty much came true, of course, from "The Life of Pi" to "White Teeth", from Michael Faber to Sarah Waters, from "The Corrections" to "Atonement", "proper novels" have been in vogue. Even David Mitchell's valid success is based upon a love of the story, a lack of obfuscation. It will be interesting to see what Amis - with a decade out of the fictional world before his more recent "Yellow Dog" and "House of Meetings" - Self, masterly in "The Book of Dave", but with a few years when his drug habits were more important than his literary habits, and Banville, belatedly given an award for "The Sea", and in many ways, the kind of post-Joyce novelist I felt whose time had gone, will think about the 21st century novelist. All of them, of course, are 20th century novelists. Will they be predicting the future? Tearing up their own books in despair at the Young Turks? Or upping the drawbridge against anything that doesn't conform to their own ideal. I hope that someone who goes feels able to post on their own blog, or in reply here.

Friday, September 21, 2007

700 Penguins and no cold feet

I was in Waterstones today and saw a book that was a real pleasure. 700 Penguins does what is says on the tin, and takes the covers of 700 Penguin books and compiles them in a single book. I'm not alone in finding Penguins iconic, but what's great is the range and the quality of the work. You begin looking at your Penguins again! I flicked through and found a few iconic ones I loved, but, though coffee-table art books are well down my list, I'm sure I'm going to invest in this one.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

On Tour

I feel like I've been on tour the last week: London, Luton, Cannock, Cambridge, Bury, finishing off in Wythenshawe tomorrow. Work mostly, but you end up with a bit of a screwed up sense of perspective and place. A mix of meetings and presentations, so the only time I've spent at home seems to have been over an ironing board. I've not listened to any music, read anything more exciting than a newspaper, and I need a break from it. That's why I've got a little culture lined up, going to the Lowry to see a theatre piece "Floating", and have finally arranged to go and see "Atonement." Was almost put off by the half price copies of the novel, with its pretty-film-people cover, that was the most prominent thing on offer at all those railway stations I'd passed through. Obviously the week's most exciting news was that Roman Abramovich had bought Northern Rock - or have I got that wrong? Oh, that was it, Portugeuse police have made Jose Mourinho an Aguido. Something like that. "Aguidos" will make a great title for a song, of course, "We are suspects/but there's no crime".

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Forty-Seven Years in the Universalist Ministry and other rare books

Fascinating to read the list of "most sought after" rare books from - truly bizarre, some of them!

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Booker & Mercury

Yeah, I know it sounds like a team of fictional detectives, dour serious Jim Booker and flighty, intuitive Liz Mercury, but given that the shortlist of one and the winner of the other were both announced this week, I thought I might try and put a bit of perspective on things. I used to devour news about the Booker - and the BBC used to show the ceremony every year, possibly the only time it ever gave ANY time over to books. Was it last year or the year before it gave up on the show - and just shoved it into Newsnight or something? I actually complained to them and got back one of their "we know better than you" responses. I pointed out they could put it on BBC4 if they cared that little about it. Fact is, the Booker show was a really nice format - small extracts of the novels, a panel discussion, a chat to the Bookies, and then to the ceremony itself, all over in half an hour. Since "Life of Pi" won it in 2002 there seems to have been a little uncertainty about what it's about now. That book, DBC Pierre and a few others on the shortlist, were clearly enjoyable one-offs, rather than debut novels by potentially great writers. The last couple of years - with Banville and Hollinghurst - a new seriousness has returned, and seems as misjudged as those "one offs". I guess the comments about "On Chesil Beach" reflect this. McEwan may well be our most consistent novelist, but that every work should be automatically a Booker nominee seems to miss the point somewhat. I'm pleased that Nicola Barker is on the shortlist, I've not read "Darkmans" yet, but think her previous short novel "Five Miles from Outer Hope" is an unacknowledged little masterpiece (and quite a bit longer than "On Chesil Beach" for that matter). The longlist was quite historical and there are times when you think the Booker is becoming our "best history novel" prize. Part of the question over McEwan is whether his best books are past, present and future. My favourite novel of his is "The Innocent", a cold war thriller, closely followed by the contemporary "Enduring Love". The most disappointing I've read was Booker winner "Amsterdam" and his sci-fi novel "Child in Time." I think "Atonement" is a great popular work, but is a bit of a shaggy dog story at heart and "Saturday" is an interesting but minor work. I'd be surprised if any of this year's list is as good as David Peace's "The Damned United" or Will Self's "Book of Dave" or Magnus Mill's "Three to See the King", which are among the best eligible novels I've read in the last few years. In other words, where I once found a good number of writers and novels from the Booker list, I think its an uncomfortably mix these days between agreable lit-lite ("Life of Pi", "Fingersmith") and something worthy, but somewhat old-fashioned, ("The Line of Beauty", "Never Let Me go"). Old fashioned is perhaps not something the Mercury can be accused of - Klaxons winning over more traditional bands. Though, much as I like their album - its full of hits, very of its moment - it reminds me of bands like Lo Fidelity All Stars, Carter USM, even Mansun, rather than being quite as futuristic as the band claim. But then when I've been listening to "Kala" the new album by M.I.A., as well as the shortlisted "Maths & English" by Dizzee Rascal (inevitably, far better than his debut, which won), pretty much everything else sounds old fashioned. I'm presuming "Kaya" will be eligible for next year's prize, which, in any sane world it will win.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

The Beach Boys and Science Fiction

I'm belatedly (say, the last 5 years) a massive Beach Boys fan. I'd had "Pet Sounds" for years and loved it, though perhaps not as "the best album ever" that it sometimes gets called. My pastoral days - of Cherry Red records and the Cocteau Twins - are long gone, and "Pet Sounds" sometimes fits a bit too neatly into that. Yet over the last few years I've been picking up Beach Boys CDs, which have all been exemplarily reissued (good liner notes, remastered, 2 short albums on 1 CD), and enjoyed them all. I'm as likely to like the pre-Pet Sounds songs of "All Summer Long" as the swish early 70s soft rock you find on "Holland" - and it hardly matters whether Brian Wilson was present or not (heresy, perhaps, but its true, here was a band that his spirit was always there, even when his presence wasn't). There's always been a darker side to these exemplaries of a sun-bleached California, as with their covering of a Charles Manson song (he'd struck up a friendship with Dennis Wilson), or the post-Smile breakdown of Brian. I'm fascinated to find out (thanks Wikipedia!) that there's a novel about "lost masterpieces" that centres on the unfinished "Smile", Lewis Shiner's Glimpses. I'll have to get hold of a copy. The slim rock n roll/sci-fi crossover genre expands - there's "Disaster Area", the made-up band in Douglas Adam's "Hitchhikers..." series, Paul Kantner/Jefferson Starship's Heinlein-influenced, "Blows Against the Empire" album, the Moorcock-Hawkwind thing (never quite got this, I'm afraid), Bowie's "Diamong Dogs", and possibly that's all. I'm sure there are plenty of sci-fi novels that include rock and roll stars (time travel helps, of course) but I've not really come across any.