Sunday, November 25, 2007

41 Years of Hurt

The jokes came quickly: What's the difference between Lewis Hamilton and England? Lewis Hamilton's got a place in Switzerland next summer. After the reprieve of Israel beating Russia, an expectant (too expectant?) nation watched England squander our get out of jail card. I watched the beanpole Crouch knock the ball down to his non-existent partner about half a dozen times in the first of half, proof, if proof be needed, that England can only play 4-4-2. And the next day, with a manager shuffled out of the door (and like other disastrous failures such as Adam Applegarth at Northern Rock, pocketing a wodge as he does so), the scribes are worried about what it will do for the economy next summer? Our team of glorious Autobiographers (AKA the Golden Generation) may have to move on to the genre of misery memoirs, though its notable how perky Steven Gerrard's performance was yesterday for Liverpool, in comparison with midweek for England. I had that sinking in the stomach that reminded me what it was like to grow up in the seventies (and briefly, around 1978, become a Scottish fan!) - ah, another generation gets used to not getting what they want. With Alastair Darling/Gordon Brown's current Winter of Disc-content, you get the feeling that what we need now is a good dose of Thatcherism. (AKA 13 years of bloody great hurt.) I found it a lonely place to be, caring about the English results, when I was meeting a lot of people from the arts, at an event we held in Birmingham. We talked about what a cultural Olympiad might look like in 2012? (Cheap, I think, given the way the funding has been squirrelled away for sport.) Its strange how few of our writers ever write about sport. You've got Amis's Keith Talent, I guess, if darts count, and in the Information, everything seems to revolve around some racket sport (tennis? squash?) in a way that has scared the middle classes every since Harold Pinter's "Betrayal." There's hope of course; David Peace's monumental rewriting of the Cloughie myth in "The Damned United" is a reminder that the two most-hoped for next-England-manager-candidates are both echoes of ol' big head: Martin O'Neill, as someone who learnt his trade under him, and Jose Mourinho, as the contemporary manager who most embodies Clough's strange mix of charm, success and frailty. Come to think of it, if Peace ever gets to write about our contemporary world, then Spartak Chelsea might be a worthy subject. I've tried to bury myself in the Guardian's quixotic task of listing "1000 albums you should hear before you die" which has been instructive on two levels. (1) there is more good music out there than I'll ever get to listen to (2) having listened to a few of my A's this week, I can categorically state that "Knife" by Aztec Camera, "How to be a Zillionaire" by ABC, Marc Almond's "Mother Fist" and the Jam/Lewis produced Herb Alpert album "Keep Your Eyes on Me" aren't a patch on Aswad's "Live & Direct", and "Show Your Hand" by Average White Band. The latter were a Scottish funk band, just to prove that anything - even jokes about English, rather than Scottish, goalkeepers - is possible. I'll get back to you when I've reached the B's. I could be some time.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Manchester in London

I was in London for a meeting on Friday, and decided to pop over to the reopened Royal Festival Hall in the afternoon. Popping into the poetry library it was interesting to see that their current writer in residence is Lemn Sissay - and even more intriguing was that the previous weekend there'd been a posse (is that the right collective noun?) of Mancunian writers down there, no doubt having it large, with Dave Haslam on the decks. There was a nice little display of Mancunian magazines from PNR to Ugly Tree as well. Now, I guess its no surprise that a Lemn curated night would be a speakeasy/Green room type event and I'm sure everyone had a whale of a time - but it does make me wonder if Manchester is still only seen, in terms of literature, as being a bit edgy, a place of outsiders, rough around the edges. There's a truth in that, of course, since I'm still hard pressed to think of a contemporary Manchester-based novelist who sits at the heart of the culture - despite the 15 years of creative writing courses, and a wide range of books with some connection to the city. Maybe novelists aren't ever that associated with place; or perhaps, with our Steve Coogans, Tony Wilsons, Carol Ann Duffy's and the like, we've a fair enough smattering as it is. I still think there's room for a big, vital novel about - rather than just set in - the city, and I'm just surprised it's still not arrived.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

A Different Engine

This blog was started to be a bit of an opportunity to discuss the creative process - and occasionally even veers in that direction. Yet, its far easier in many ways to be a pseudo-critic talking about, say, Doris Lessing, or Norman Mailer, than it is to get back to the basics of my creative process, my creativity. It seems a little ridiculous that anyone would be particularly interested in what I have to say about Mailer or Lessing - I'm no expert on either - in fact, there are few writers I'm an expert on. Fitzgerald and Chatwin maybe, but even there I could do with a bit of re-reading, and as for poetry, my expertise is limited, spread thin, a little Ashbery here, a little Donne there, enough to be conversational, not enough to be academic. The only writer I know inside out is me, myself and I, and I'd even have to add a caveat or two there - so little have I written over the last two or three years. Only a year ago I wrote a little novella, which I'm painfully aware I've not done anything about really, aware that its length; its completeness, probably don't help it in any way. So, how ridiculous that I'm now contemplating not only a novel, but a big novel, bigger, longer, larger than any I've attempted before - with a bizarre schematic that includes all human life. Such an impossible task. Yet, I'm kind of liberated by the thought. This is no easy lay. This is love or nothing. Something to get my teeth into and not worry too much about whether its publishable, libellous, believable or even writable. Step at a time. So by thinking bigger I can create something more achievable - isn't that weird? Yet I'm wondering if that's not what I need. And in some ways the models are there - even now, just writing a few tentative lines, plotting a few subplots, I'm galvanised by thoughts of "Daniel Deronda" and "Bonfire of the Vanities." The vehicles are there before me, I just need to insert a different engine.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

The Late Norman Mailer

Norman Mailer is dead, age 84, an old man's death rather than anything more in keeping with his fiction. Hard to imagine the world of American letters without him, and his prose style, which was as suited to journalistic as novelistic aims, will ensure he is remembered - even if he missed out on the Nobel in the end. A few years ago, he was over here for the London Literature festival, and a friend of mine, the writer Mark Powell, was on a panel with Mailer - and, along with the BBC producer, the agents, and the other writer went back to his hotel. The BBC producer has bought him a present of a bottle of bourbon, and he generously opened it to share with the others in the room. The other writers had better things to do than have a drink with Norman Mailer, but my friend stayed the afternoon, draining half the bottle with him. In other words, despite popular success, Mailer was also a writer's writer, or, in a world where even writers need role models, the kind of writer that young men in particular would want to become. Oh, and the Fall named one of their greatest songs, Deer Park, after his novel of the same name. American literature is a little less interesting with his passing. (And for a far more authoritative view of Mailer's actual career and legacythan mine, read the Sharp Side.)

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Morning Stories

I've got a dozen stories in various stages of completion (or incompletion, really), and its not something that I'm particularly proud of. Trying to settle down to write something, anything - I've a bigger project bubbling, but the problem is that it's only bubbling - I went back to one of them this morning, and, importantly, got to the end. You can write a story at one sitting, but I'm generally a two sitting person - since the 2nd half is perhaps the more important, after the scene setting has been done, you need to come to a conclusion. The story I was working on this morning is a particular example because its quite technical in a number of ways. For a start its in the 2nd person, secondly its got to intertwining strands/characters that only come together at the end, and thirdly its based upon an "imagined" history - a "What if?" scenario if you like and so has its fair share of (recent) historical detail. Because it is an imagined story - it couldn't have happened like this - and it involves real (famous) people it brings up a lot of questions. I was on jury service for the last two weeks, and it got me thinking a lot about truth, and about "stories" - or how we make narratives of events that happened, and what we keep in and leave out. In this story, for instance, which is set in 1983 and is partly set during the recording of an episode of "Top of the Pops" there are probably a dozen "source texts" I could have read to find out more details to make the story truer - yet because the actual meeting in the story didn't happen, probably couldn't have happened, such veracity seems ridiculous. The truth in the story is true only to itself. A.S. Byatt in the Guardian yesterday(it doesn't appear to be online yet) talks about her access to their Digital Archive, and her character's seeing details of Edward VIII's abdication on newspaper bills - which, given the less prurient reporting of the time, is unlikely. Yet, my story has a humbler relationship with the truth, its fed through my memories of the early 80s and "Top of the Pops" and doesn't really require the insider insight - so much as my own imagining of it. How arrogant of me! But, I guess I don't see it like this, I once wrote a story about Martin Amis living upstairs from the narrator - which he patently never did either. Perhaps I prefer this kind of pseudo history, Moorcock's used it a lot I know - and it seems particularly right for popular culture where much is invented anyway, and the myth is far more interesting regardless.

The story will still need some work of course, but getting to the end was pleasing. And I might try and attempt to finish a few others in the pile.

Friday, November 02, 2007

The Season is (Almost) Over *

The literary season is over for another year. The prizes have been doled out, the festivals sold out. Writers, weary, sated, fed (oh, how fed) can return back to their garretts (or 4-bedroom houses with a view overlooking the Severn) and wonder at the exhaustion, the elation of it all. Some, no doubt, will be fingering through the manuscripts of the day job, as creative writing lecturers or writers in resident, and some, no doubt, will be picking up their quills/Mont Blancs/Olivettis/Dells & Apples to start anew. By all accounts, Cheltenham et al were tremendous successes this year, queues round the block, tickets sold out, multiple conflicting events fit into a couple of weeks. Then there are the "newsworthy" joints, the Booker, the Frankfurt Book Fair, where the industry gets in gear and celebrates or speculates, accordingly. I think we have to accept that the literary season is as embedded in certain calendars as the "Season" or the Football season for other demographics, and let's be honest about it, the literary season is the end result of the middle class colonising of literature. Yes, its no longer a bohemian pursuit, or a tawdry one, or a worthy one, but a very middle class one - yes, we're all middle class now, of course, but its Oxford and Cambridge who still dominate, and its a very middle class sensibility that reduces literature to a glas of wine, a reading, and a meal afterwards in the nearest Gastropub. Its not a complaint - I'm as prone as those as the next man (and, if proof be needed, you can see me at Elizabeth Baines' eminently enjoyable launch on Monday) - but when an event becomes just one of many at a festival, and a festival becomes one of many festivals, and those festivals become a season, Hay in the Spring, Cheltenham in the Autumn (and nothing in the summer because the audience are away in Tuscany, naturally), you realise its become as redundant as a signpost for the language, the spirit of the age, or the creative zeitgeist as the party conference season is for debate and the issues of the day. I looked in vain, even in Manchester's little version, for anything edgy, and realise that this isn't the point. The "product" now, is similar to what you get on hand at the Royal Exchange Theatre or the Bridgewater Hall, a pre-defined repetoire, (Attwood to Zadie perhaps), augmented only by celebrity pseudo-literature (memoirs of actors et al), with an audience shipped in regularly from Wilmslow who know what they like, and like what they know - the word "literature" in the festival names is there only as a cipher, to keep out the young, the neophyte, the boheme, the poor, the working class, the crusty, the down-to-earth. Literature in this context is a cultural package holiday for the middle classes - and why not? They're the ones buying the books (and the wine, and the meals), happily paying literature's bills (those pesky writers) in return for what is little more than a cultural spa weekend. I have heard people arranging to meet "old friends" there every year, probably booking their favourite restaurant in Ludlow as we speak. In any other context we'd happily ignore it for what it is, "marketing", our modern age's only truly defining creed. Just let's not pretend it's anything else. For those of a messier bent, post-season, you might come along to the 2nd Matchbox event at the Thirsty Scholar on 14th November, here in Manchester, with Matt Welton, Tom Jenks and Scott Thurston.

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