Monday, August 25, 2008

Time Capsules

I was quite taken by Brian Appleyard's feature on "time capsules" in the Sunday Times. Commenting on Warhol's habit of creating various time capsules to tell the truth of his life - many of which remain unopened - he asks quite a few luminaries what they'd save for the future. An interesting side-point he takes from James Lovelock, that we should be creating a "bible" for our times, also made me think. I'm not sure that " a year of Radio 4" buried on a memory-stick would be quite the thing the future wants or needs. It struck me that one of the problems about what is deemed to survive is the famous, the already mediated. There's been a few fascinating programmes recently around old colour films and photographs and what's perhaps most interesting is that in the days before mass media, there was less of a consensus about what should be filmed or recorded.

My own time capsule would be - as I think all should be - a bit of a personal thing. I'd probably include some of my writings - some of my stories set in contemporary Manchester perhaps, or "High Wire", the novel that I wrote starting with election night 1997. Although fictional - I was trying to write the truth as I remembered it, not something re-discovered through research or artefacts. It's what spoils books like David Mitchell's "Black Swan Green" for me; too many cultural signifiers. I reckon our own cultural signifiers are personal, perverse, non-universal. I'd probably include a CD of my favourite songs of say, last year, which already seems out of date, but the future probably needs to hear "With Every Heartbeat" by Robyn next to something by Thurston Moore. One of the NOW series would only tell a quarter of a story. I'd also include half a dozen literary magazines of the last few years that I've read or had something to do with - and more importantly, kept around. Again, I'd probably include some of my own poems rather than someone else's - they have a particular truth about them, that I find hard to uncover in much contemporary poetry. I don't think I'd include this blog - or any other for that matter - though perhaps this is the ephemera that one should be looking to preserve. Perhaps a few YouTube videos. I'd also find room for the Aldi brochure or an Argos catalogue. Surely more historical truth in there than in any official statistics or the like? Brian Appleyard includes series 4 of "The Wire" and the iPhone. I guess if the box was big enough you might put this Dell computer in it - I think the future will probably think we all sat there with our laptops and our tiny devices, it might come as a surprise to see the hulking beasts that still dominate the home and the office. As for "The Wire," love it as I do, I don't think its anyone in this country's job to try and "get" America. I'd probably choose a DVD of something relatively unloved; BBC3's "Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps" perhaps, alongside probably the best satire of the last few years, the first Christopher Ecclestone-led series of "Dr. Who." As for novels of the last few years, I'd probably pick Will Self's "The Book of Dave" if only because it has a buried time capsule at its own centre - and, something by Magnus Mills, probably "All Quiet on the Orient Express."

Now all I need is a tin box....

Sunday, August 17, 2008

World enough and time...

Its been interesting to see how many fellow literary bloggers have normal summer holidays, as if its a given. Perhaps its when you've a family, or work in education. I've a fortnight off, soon, but its a moveable feast in terms of what I'll be doing. Of course, chances are, I'll spend at least half of it doing my real "work", writing, reading etc. - and, I have to say, the easiest place to do that is here, at home. Particularly given that I'm going to be buzzing off quite a lot from mid-September in my day job. I marvel at the piles of books that people take away with them, but guess, I've my perfect library here. Last weekend - was it so long ago? - I read 2 novels. Unheard of. They were short which helped. But that means I should easily get myself going with a few others that are waiting me. Yet, in Liverpool on Thursday, on the way to see the Klimt exhibition, I picked up "Terrorist" by John Updike and "Then we came to the end" by Joshua Ferris, as well as "The Black Swan", by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, all remaindered hardbacks for £2.99 each. The Updike I want to read as part of my ongoing (and somewhat pyrhhic) attempt to read all the 9/11 fictions that have come out; the Ferris was a recommendation, whilst "Black Swan" theory - i.e. using evidence of what has happened in the past is a flawed way of predicting the future, since just one "black swan" can blow away the idea that all swans are white - fits in with a few ideas I've had/got myself. Add to those a belated purchase of Gwendoline Riley's 3rd novel, "Joshua Spassky", and the must-read but haven't books by Catherine O'Flynn, Junot Diaz, Anne Enright and Ian McEwan (yep, still haven't gone "On Chesil Beach"), never mind a number of poetry books, and I might as well give up now. I would almost pray for rain, except that yesterday's heavy skies gave me the foggiest of heads. And of course, you only have to step off the steps of your treadmill for a minute, and you've all these other ideas swimming around - I felt that there wasn't enough context in the Klimt exhibition, and I want to know more about the history, about Vienna at the end of the 19th century, about the Viennese "Secession". (Surely, there's some connection with Richard Strauss's "Salome" in there?) I re-watched the lovely movie "Ghost World" last night, and wikipediaing both the film and the comic book, realise I want to know what the original comic was like, and that reminds me of all the other comics I've either got and haven't read, or haven't got, but feel I ought to - given its such a productive strand of the modern literary/artistic firmament. And then there's "Hellboy" on Five tonight, which if I'm going to ever watch the sequel, I need to get my head around... We live in rich times, no doubt about it, with all of artistic, literary, and musical history lying around just waiting to be picked up and run with. And I've not even mentioned the Olympics or the new football season...

Sunday, August 10, 2008

An Author's Entitlement

I'm not sure whether to laugh, cry, or just despair at the news that the chick lit author Jenny Colgan, was advised to change the title of her new novel, from the rather excellent "Cinderella of the Old Kent Road", to the rather terrible, "Diamond's are a girls best friend," partly because it won't play well in Australia (clearly their Monopoly is full of Wagga Waggas and Ayre's Rocks) and partly because Tesco preferred it. Yes, Tesco! We all know that authors get very little say in their covers, their marketing campaigns etc, but you kind of think you can get a say in your title. Poor Toby Litt, up to "I" in his alphabetical titles, imagine, if the supermarket gets iffy about his "J" or "K"? Authors - being - like - the people who write the words would, you think be able to claim an entitlement to er...titling those works. Mind you, Fitzgerald's titles for "The Great Gatsby" included "Trimalchio at West Egg" which sounds more like an album track by the Hold Steady than one of the classics of American literature. I'm a great fan of titles, whether writing a song, a story, a poem or a novel, and can't imagine giving them up to a 3rd party, though I've changed a number of story titles where the original gave too much away. Put that down to laziness. When you nail a title, I sometimes think you nail the piece, or at least tie it a little less precariously to the earth. Anyway, I reckon Shane Macgowan could write a great song called "Cinderella of the Old Kent Road," - Jenny should give him a call.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Why the Gulag Speaks to Us

Ashamed to say I'd never read Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who died this week. So, with a free morning, I realised I'd a copy of his short novel "A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich". I'm a great fan of shorter novels - it's a format that seems perfect to certain subjects. Everything in the novel was familiar, I guess, though whether its a case that all prison camps are to some extent the same, or because over the years I've imbibed enough Russian history to recognise what the novel, when it was first published, exposed to the world for the first time. You wonder whether a Guantanamo Bay novel would have a similar effect today - particularly, as the Olympics starts in Beijing, with George Bush, talking about the right to speak freely. Ivan Denisovich is an everyman, and the detailing of his day, with only the briefest of passages about his past life, is a highly effective vehicle to talk about a regime - about our humanity. I recently read Cormac McCarthy's The Road, and it is the survival of humanity amidst simply staying alive, which connects the two books. Denisovich, at least in this translation, is a particular type of European literary figure - recognisable from Hamsun's "Hunger" to the workers in Magnus Mills' "The Restraint of Beasts." Even in the straits of his condition there is some dignity in labour - yet at the same time, the worker has to deal with the Kafkaesque absurdities of their bosses. Apparently, it was the dignity of Denisovich's labour that convinced Krushchev of the novel's worth. It seems strange in the modern world, in our advanced, and recently deracinated version of capitalism, how "work" remains such a problematic subject for a novel. I'm not so sure about the dignity of labour; for Solzhenitsyn, I think, in this short novel, its more a case of where work is all there is to keep mind, body and soul together, then it becomes a metaphor for life itself. Denisovich ponders how he, who once provided for his whole family, can now hardly provide for himself. Every step he takes in the novel exposes another absurdity, another compromise.

Publish and Be Damned

In these days of "Twitter", its not particularly a surprise to be eavesdropping on the minutiae of a life, but Chris Hamilton-Emery's recent blogs about the multitude of tasks in "a day in the life" at Salt Publishing, have been particularly fascinating. So much for the myth that men can't multitask (perhaps poets can? publishers certainly must?). And - on previous blogs - he reminds me that publishing is also a seasonal business, with so much relying on the next few months. A credit crunch Christmas, with a winter of heavy heating bills aheads, won't do much good for most of us. Yet, sitting at home with a good book perhaps is what's needed. And I'm reminded that Salt's books are good and I've not bought one for a while. Is this guilt marketing? I'm not sure - but like that little record shop you used to visit before bypassing it for Amazon, or the butcher's you'd queue at before driving to Tescos - its probably a case of use 'em or lose 'em. I remember Michael Schmidt at Carcanet saying that if everyone who sent him poems also bought one of their books they'd never have a problem. I've been doing some work with the arts recently, and orchestras, theatres, cinemas etc. have the same problem. At certain points in your life you might be a loyal, regular theatre/concert/cinema-goer, then ask yourself. When did you last go? There's 2 films on at the Cornerhouse next week I want to see, "Man on Wire" and the Brazilian "Empire State". Blink and I'll miss them. When you think of the cost of the Olympics, not just this one, but the next one in London, you have to also think... support your local sheriff! Or...Salt Needs You! Particularly in the summer.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Summer Is

I'm not entirely sure why it is that everything goes so quiet in August, not just the students, but other people as well. Surely as many people are returning to Manchester, and/or visiting? The bars seem busy at least. I hesitate to invite people to the Old Abbey Inn on Wednesday for the next - the third - night of The Other Room, since the previous two have seen the bar nicely filled. However, it is summer, and we can always spill out onto the street between poets.


The Forward Prizes for Poetry shortlists have also been announced. Forward's website seems to still think its 2006, so they don't get a link, we just have to rely on the Guardian's word for all of this!

...and the Booker longlist slipped out without me noticing, on Thursday. A baker's dozen, yet again featuring a few of the unflashy mid-list authors that have dominated the last few years, and, of course, the return of Rushdie, and, in "Child 44", what is surely that least Booker of genres, a thriller.