Saturday, June 28, 2008

Blogs and Biogs

The Guardian used to do a bit of a Saturday round-up of the blogs, but perhaps because it's got such a well-used blog itself now, or simply realised the absurdity of taking the online offline, its given up the habit. It's a bit of a relief, really. This blog, amongst others, used to occasionally get a quote, and I wasn't then sure whether I should mention it in this blog, before realising that if you were reading this blog you'd probably already read what had been extracted in the Guardian. Such circularity! There is some point to this point, of course - in that the print/online relationship goes two ways. There's been a move over the last few years to put "online" (or at least on DVD) magazines from the archive. so that, for instance, the hard-to-find final Salinger Glass family story, Hapworth 16, 1924 is now easily retrievable, the complete "New Yorker" having been available as a boxed set for a few years now. I guess that's the idea behind the Google (and others) digitisation projects, though I'm not sure that scanning books en masse is as important a job as preserving printed materials. Moreover, who - and to what extent - is preserving the cyberspace only words that fill the blogs? The letters of Julian Mclaren-Ross has just come out for instance, a virtually forgotten writer who died in 1965, and is more famous for his lifestyle than his works, it seems almost ridiculous that 43 years after he died, that a well-edited selection of his letters should be given so much floorspace in our literary pages; yet that's the point. As DJ Taylor points out in his Guardian review, "even half a century ago the life of the rackety freelance, a feature of English literature since the days of Johnson, was growing steadily less tenable. Here in the age of Richard & Judy and the Waterstone's three-for-two, it is virtually extinct." The rackety freelance now will, I'm sure have a blog, and instead of begging letters to editors, will have a brisk, businesslike email conversation with commissioners, as well as whatever day job is necessary, still trying to carve out enough time to write "the novel". It's not that this stuff isn't being stored away, but that it could, indeed, take 43 years to identify what blogs are worthwhile. In a world where every new graduate - and every job - seems to be something to do with "marketing", it takes quite a lot of conviction to do something as economically useless as write a poem, a song or a story. Yet, it is these things, not the conferences, seminars, think-pieces, or reality TV shows, which have the only continuing value. Think of all the footage of old European Championships and Wimbledons, its always the shots, the games, not the comment, that gets repeated. Kathryn Hughes writes quite a considered, but somewhat redundant piece on "what happened to the golden age of biography?" Or rather she doesn't. The "crisis" is only really in the headlines, the piece itself is far more even-handed, bemoaning only the lack of time (and resource) that is being given to biographers these days to research their subjects. I think- at least in terms of literary biography - there is something else. Not just that everyone of stature has been done, as she says, but that our long-lived writers these days seem to fade away, not forgottten, not yet discovered. And, more than likely, with their literary archives bequeathed to one or other university. What will the blog generation have to bequeath, I wonder? A USB stick?

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

David Bowie in the Mail on Sunday....

...there's definitely something wrong there. Yes, this coming Sunday you can get a free David Bowie CD, his own selection of favourite tracks, rarities etc. I know, its the Mail on Sunday. Prince was one thing, but David Bowie? The Thin White Duke? Aladdin Sane? Ziggy Stardust?...and middle England's weekly bible of misery-porn? But that's the world today, you see. No certainty anymore. There's probably some demographic I'm missing here - perhaps its the "Lets Dance"/Serious Moonlight era Bowie fans - as for me, well, its good to read what the enemy think now and then. Still, I'm shaking my head with some kind of disbelief. Whatever next? Slipknot in Hello Magazine? My Bloody Valentine in Vanity Fair? Fuck Buttons in FHM?

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Talking, more talking

Something about this time of year sees every activity under the sun taking place at the same time. I've another window open, with the Tony Wilson Experience going on live at Urbis, and the composer Steve Martland and poet Simon Armitage speaking, twenty hours into a twenty four hour period. Armitage has just written a book about his interest in music, "Gig." He's recently formed a band, and kind of sees his poetry life as a replacement for him not-being-in-a-band. As he says, his reputation nowadays depends on the poetry, so it creates a pressure that's perhaps not there when he's doing music - that's just fun. Last night, Paul Morley and Irvine Welsh talked about how the "middleman" and the "media" are being so damaging these days - as a stop on talent, and that other models; print-on-demand, ebooks etc. will work around the edge of the mainstream.

It's interesting, all this talk... I've spent the last week in a different talking environment at New Writing Worlds in Norwich ; and how different it was. The Tony Wilson Experience came about as a way of "passing on" from old talent to new talent; and though I've been enjoying the talks, despite the low-band video streaming, it has been a bit one-to-many. Manchester's a highly creative city, in terms of the amount of people making good quality material, but it still seems to lack something in terms of the opportunities. In terms of the arts, its only really music - whether classical or contemporary - where there seems real opportunities. Manchester's publishing scene, for instance, is tiny and subsidised; and the university creative writing courses have been as likely to import the talent as use what's already around. Later today, hurricanes willing, the Poets & Players garden party creates another city subset: readings from Carole Ann Duffy and Matthew Welton amongst others.

Armitage, now, is talking about how writers need to have passion - and also need to read, as well as to write. It's the simple advice that's the best. When I first read Armitage, it gave me a reason to start reading poetry again, after university had turned me off poetry. I'm still wrestling with some of these conflicts.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Latest posts from New Writing Worlds

Busy blogging at New Writing Worlds. Catch my posts here....

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Nature and Nation

My new post on today's literary salon at New Writing Worlds is here.

Monday, June 16, 2008

New Writing Worlds 2008

Tuesday night at New Writing worlds, readings and a debate... details here.


I'm in Norwich, looking at out on a flat, tree-lined landscape. The train journey down was pleasant, uneventful. I wasn't the beneficiary of Whitsun weddings or similar phenomena to write about; though every town I passed through did seem to have a cathedral high on the brow; but the medieval cathedrals were built fortified and high for many reasons, not least protection and security. All around and in between these towns you get to see things not dissimilarly to how they'd have been forty, fifty years ago. Farming in this country was industrialising a long time ago, and though the polytunnels and rural structures of Thanet Earth are a more recent thing; I guess the difference now, compared with around World War Two, would be how few people now "work the land." During the war my grandparents had an army of their own; land girls (and boys). The other sign of the times, I guess, would be the redbrick sprawl as you come into Margaret Thatcher's Grantham, and then, next to the station, a massive supermarket. In Norwich itself, coming from the station, the traffic was busy as it is everywhere these days, and on reaching the university, I found myself queueing in the rain behind a conference party of Spanish students. It gave me a chance to find the campus Waterstones. With such a range of readings over the next few days, I'm sure I'll be back there as purchaser. Tonight sees readings from Mimi Khalvati and Adam Thorpe, with a debate "Future Imperfect?" later on, which I hope will be a bit of a scene-setter for the next few days. Everything, as New Order once had it, has gone green these days - the next thing is to tease out the contradictions, and work out that means. I could, have course, have flown to Norwich; my pleasant and relaxing train journey was an appropriate start.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Version Control

"Version control" is a term from software development; but it's not something new to writers. And like software, writing has it's development and production phases; yet, just as a "software release" isn't necessarily the final say, neither is publication. In the past, it was the technical and human limitations of turning a handwritten script into a fair copy or typescript and then again, into the moveable type of a book. I'm always quite surprised when I read of writers - even younger writers who still write initially by hand, or even continue with a heavy manual typewriter long after they've fallen out of favour elsewhere. But if the technique's not broke then don't look to fixing it. It was still a surprise to read in the Sunday Times that Nietzsche used a typewriter. So says Andrew Sullivan pace Nicholas Carr in the Atlantic. I've long argued that the tools of your trade can effect the work - whether its Hemingway's heavy-duty Remington or Kerouac's continuous scroll. When I write poetry the page length can be a determinant (which is why when writing longhand I tend to steal the blank white space of copier paper), as can whether I write it direct to the PC (landscape) rather than in a notebook (portrait.) As Sullivan points out, Google, for all it's advantages, can give us "pond skater minds." Yet, it's not just that. Finding yourself without the internet nowadays, seems to make using a PC almost impossible - yet for years we used the computer as little more than a glorified typewriter anyhow. Tomorrow, on a long train journey, I'll have a choice: laptop whilst the batteries last or longhand. I think I might get a few thousand uninterrupted words on the former if I'm lucky, since without the distractions of my Google and Facebook and whatever else, there'll be nothing else to concentrate on. Yet, going back to my initial point: about "version control" - in a connected world, the distinction between "on" and "off" line is becoming less certain; and in the same way, the internet gives us (mostly) the latest version. A future literary sleuth may well find themselves going over the log files of a writer's wiki, to see what he or she changed, and when. I think its different for poetry, where a number of different versions of a poem can probably co-exist quite easily - the poem you read at the reading; the manuscript version; the one in the little magazine; the first collection; the selected etc etc - and I'm often surprised when I see a poet reading armed with nothing more than the published book. It seems a little disappointing in some ways, yet one assumes a well-edited collection will be the definitive version; but disappointing in a way that a gig that sounds like the album is disappointing, no surprises. I prefer the Roger McGoughs and Les Murrays of the world skipping through the career, picking plums, and armed with some recent manuscript poems. Fiction though, it's usually error or commerce that creates the different versions, at least these days. Whenever you read a work in progress in Granta, I doubt it changes much before the final version - and this, again, disappoints me a little. I think that "publishing" something gives you a sense of closure on the piece - perhaps "sets it" for you, even if you'd perhaps have gone back and changed it later. It's perhaps indicative of my preference for flux, that my favourite novel, "Tender is the Night" by Fitzgerald exists in two very distinct versions. The original - and restored version - begins with the moment when Dick Diver begins his fall, whilst the revised version (that was the popularly known one for so long) is chronological. It's clear to me that the chronological one isn't the right one - but picking up, at last, a copy of this secondhand earlier today, I'm looking forward to reading the wrong version at some point.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Next stop Norwich

After a very hectic few months, weeks, days, I'm able to relax a little, and looking forward to visiting Norwich next week for New Writing Worlds, part conference, part literary salon, part festival, with this year's theme of "Human:Nature". I've only once been to Norwich; in 1997 I had an interview with Andrew Motion for the UEA MA. It seems a long time ago. The previous year, having been shortlisted for the Lichfield Prize for my novel "Lineage", I'd decided to apply for this prestigious course. I sent off a short story I'd written set the previous summer in Northern California, where I'd been on holiday, and got a slightly gnomic response, about the course being busy, and I should try next year. Next year I did, and presumably they still had my story on file, since I wasn't asked to send anything else. I went along for the interview and sat there with 5 other hopefuls. Hard as it is to believe, I'd never actually met any writers until that day, and here were lots of them. One of the candidates, Francis Liardet, I even bought her novel from the UEA campus bookshop after the interview, a little puzzled, I admit, why a published novelist would be wanting to go on a creative writing course. "The Game", her novel, was excellent, but I don't think she's ever published a follow-up, though she got on the course, and was featured in the next year's UEA anthology. I didn't get on that year's MA, but it convinced me that this was what I wanted to do, and I applied and got accepted for the Manchester one. A friend had recently moved to Norwich, and I think I was more interested in catching up with Ruth, than I was in the interview. So it will be interesting to spend a few days there, in a half-remembered city.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Something about Manchester

I'd had one of those worst of days, and you almost regret that you've tickets for a gig that night; but I can't remember the last time I bought a ticket without thought - as in, I've got to see this singer. The singer of course being Chan Marshall (aka Cat Power) the Atlanta, Georgia singer that earlier that day I'd vaguely described to colleagues as Marianne Faithfull meets Amy Winehouse; but actually, she's more Patti Smith meets Otis Redding - confirmed by a sublime cover of a sublime Try a Little Tenderness late in the gig - but more than that, and the reason I'd bought the ticket so far in advance, is because she's Cat Power. Shame on Manchester that the concert wasn't sold out (unlike, say, the Editors or such like), but the Academy is a bit of an unforgiving venue when it's full, and although I've seen some of my favourite gigs there its the first time I've ever seen the Academy aspire to intimacy. The first few songs were disappointing; there wasn't a thing that caught fire. I was wondering why I was there? Surely there was more emotion in my day than in these limp things? Yet, hold on there, she has to release a bit from her crack band, and when, a few songs in, she sings the self-written "Song for Bobby" (Dylan) off the recent "Jukebox" covers album the gig leaps into the stratosphere and never comes down. This famously fragile perfomer is enjoying herself, jigging on stage, and as the gig progresses you get the feeling - as so often happens - that because Manchester so loves its fragile singers, so loves it music, those singers and musicians start loving it back. By the end of the concert, she's still on stage, on her own, after nearly two hours, throwing a bouquet of flowers into the audience. It's a gesture from an indie-music past, but in indie-Manchester is entirely appropriate. As I say, the Academy doesn't usually run to intimacy; tonight it did. I'm sure in the context of her latest tour it was nothing special, but its the first concert I've been to for ages that has legitimate company in my list of the all the time greats.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Music is worthless

The first album I bought with my own money cost £3.99. I can't remember what the first single cost, but it was certainly more than a pound. That was in 1981-2 when music was anything but worthless, and you had to make some decisions about where you spent your money. The first CD -was "Brotherhood" by New Order and it cost me £11.99, in later 1986. So, excuse me, if I'm a little heady with excitement when I get the chance to buy "Los Angeles" by X for a fiver, or "Disintgration" by the Cure for three quid - and baulk at paying £7.99 or more for the Ting Tings album. And I feel quite sad about it all, really, that you don't have to worry too much about the cost anymore - after all, you can probably download it for free - and I think that maybe my giving my music away for free is the better way after all, cos after tax and the record shop costs, how does any of this make sense? Somehow I think we've got something terribly wrong, but I'm not sure what exactly, or...what I could have done about it. I buy my £3 CDs and wait for the end of the w0rld, that's all.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

A week out

A busy week...was in Liverpool on Monday and went to see the comedian Jason Cook, whose show "My confessions" was perhaps a Geordie "My Name is Earl". Funny, painful, honest, and in the end comedy with a bit of soul. Highly recommended. Then Tuesday Redeye, Manchester's photography network had two very different photographic takes on Northern Ireland, Jill Jennings' photo essay on the dismantled Maze/Long Kesh explored its uniquely troublesome history through the random remains that were there on her restricted visits, prisoners' graffiti, handwritten notes etc. whilst C.J. Clarke's black and white pictures of the increasingly out-of-time loyalist community is an ongoing ethnographic portrait of a community almost as strange as an undiscovered Brazilian tribe. Then, at the 2nd night of the Other Room, on Wednesday for 3 poetry readings. the highlight for me being Alex Middleton's translations and reading of Danish poet Inger Christiensen.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Finding Your Aesthetic Centre

There's been quite a bit of debate about creative writing courses, after Kureishi's remark that they are "like mental hospitals." I can't entirely disagree (our course had its own tragic death a few weeks in to it, and another student who suffered from panic attacks), but more interesting was his comment that he gives everyone 71%. It feels about right. I can't remember now whether I was just below that or just above... that ballpark. More interesting is why do people go on creative writing courses? I think, simply, the time it gives you to write your novel, has to be invaluable - it certainly helps the prevaricators by giving them a target, and for those of us who were going to write a novel anyway, it allows us to have another answer when people ask "what do you do?" I recall at one of my interviews saying: "I want to find out what kind of writer I am." Oh, the naivety of the thirty year old! It came to mind this week, when someone suggested I should concentrate a bit more on one thing or another. Spreading myself thin. Yet, I'm not sure I am in that I've had quite a lot of consistency over the years - my aesthetic centre, if you like, has broadened, but hasn't changed that much. I was re-reading Motion's biography of Larkin - suitably entitled "A Writer's Life" - and its fascinating to read of Larkin at Oxford, so unimpressed by the Anglo-Saxons and others that he's supposed to read as part of his English course, even noting in the margins of the library copy of Spenser that it's the most boring poem in the language. Larkin, never a good example in some ways, knew what he liked - even as his influences changed from Yeats to Auden, and then went elsewhere - and also what he didn't like. If it came a bit too much of a fixed idea for him, then at least he backed up those limitations with the quality of his work. (Lowell loved his work, for instance, but it was hardly reciprocated, how could it have been, knowing what we know of Larkin's "centre"?) - and railing against a set orthodoxy, can be a powerful way of defining your own art. Whether its music, art, fiction or poetry, I've not changed massively in what I consider important - both in others, and in my own intentions. If I have a dilettante streak, its because I know how difficult it is to actually create an art that fulfils all of one's aesthetic desires. My creative course reconnected me with my aesthetic centre in a way that I hadn't really expected. Ten years on, the importance of having that centre, however wayward it might seem at times, remains critical, I think.