Wednesday, December 31, 2008

My Year

And following on from the posts below about my favourite books and records of 2008 - what about my year? It's gone quickly, that's for sure, and I'm sure I've fitted a lot in.

According to my horoscope, Saturn in opposition since 2003 "has made any successes hard won" and 2008 "has doubtless been no joyride," both of which I can nod along with. But, let's be honest, hard won, is still a victory, and I've never been of the joyriding persuasion anyway.

Creatively, I think I've spent my time equally between music, writing, and digital stuff, with sometimes the three coming together. My first full length album in years, "Vertical Integration" was completed in the spring, and I'm still really pleased with it. Inevitably, after that, I didn't quite record so intensively for a while, but have found time to write/record songs every now and then (including this week). Having ummed and aahed about making music for a number of years, let's just say its a very positive hobby to have, in that I enjoy both the process and the result.

Its not that writing took a backseat, because of the music, but that I've been so busy at work etc. that I've not had the extended time that's really necessary to write long fiction. I've been writing a few stories, now and then, and I'm pleased with them. Interesting that my stories are increasingly that - narrative led - though the only story I had published this year (in Parameter Magazine) was anything but. I've been trying to write some science fiction as well, which has been fun.

I am working on a longer thing, but I do find it difficult to just pick up and drop - and I think I'm going to need to have an extended time at it next year if its going to be finished, we'll have to see.

The one thing that has fallen off a little, is my poetry writing. Perhaps songwriting has taken its place - I'm not sure. I'll always write poetry, but not all the time.

More recently I've been thinking about all this "social media"/web 2.0/blogging stuff that I do. It falls in a bit of a middle ground between work and play, I guess.

I've got a few projects that I'm looking to move on with/finish over the next few weeks - one musical one, a couple of written ones - a year end is a "taking stock", rather than a "finishing off"; last year I recorded a song on New Years Day.

The number of blog posts I've made this year, year on year, is down on the last couple of years, but its still over a couple a week, so I guess it remains a viable forum. We'll have to see.

2009 then... what might you have in store for me?

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Books of the Year

Its always difficult to sum up a year's literature, after all, much of what one reads will have been first published last year, or years before, particularly if its a new writer that one comes across.

If one book bestrode the year it has to be Cormac MacCarthy's 2006 novel "The Road". It got mentioned by Martin Amis in his debate on literature and religion in Manchester, and before then, by C.K. Williams at the New Writing Worlds symposia in Norwich. That debate, a 3rd panel discussion, which I had the pleasure to blog away at, looked at how writers were responding to nature, and, in particular the threat of global warming. "The Road", a writers' response to after-the-catastrophe is so clearcut in its disaster, so biblical in both its language and its themes, that it seems the clear book du jour. If the apocalyptic has been there in recent semi sci-fi novels from Michael Cunningham, David Mitchell and Kazuo Ishiguro, its also there in the mutually excellent "This Book can Save Your Life" by A.M. Homes and "The Book of Dave" by Will Self. A further hangover from the previous year, and the most enjoyable book I read all year, was David Peace's "The Damned United", without a doubt the best football novel ever - and, next year, hopefully the best football film ever as well.
I read last years prizewinner "What Was Lost" by Catherine O'Flynn, and enjoyed it immensely - more than Anne Enright's intrigueingly complex "The Gathering." Those books by new authors that do get published - a little like first albums these days - are highly competent works, well structured, well written, but not necessarily that exciting. Its a long time since we saw the shock of the new. This year's Booker list looked very readable, without being particularly exciting. I'm a fifth through Philip Hensher's "The Northern Clemency" - an immense state-of-the-nation novel, and so far its excellent. One novel I failed to finish this year, and had bought after glowing pre-release reviews, was Hanif Kureishi's latest, "Something to Tell You". With quite a number of good books to read, I can't quite see me finding the time to go back to a novel I was finding to be poorly written, linguistically baggy and emotionally overblown. In this Christmas period I am back to reading, and a real find has to be Roberto Bolano's "The Savage Detectives" which I'm enjoying immensely. Many people's book of the year, "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao" by Junot Diaz, was one of the year's most readable, seeing the horror of the Dominican Republic's history during the Trujillo dictatorship through the most unlikely of filters, that of a transplanted Dominican sci-fi geek. If it had a fault, it was that these contemporary characters felt two-dimensional compared with the richness of the rest of the novel.

Bolano I discovered through his poetry, and the late poets' recently translated collected "The Romantic Dogs" is a pleasure throughout. Its been an interesting year for poetry in the sense that the mainstream has lost any interest to me. I think the rise in small presses such as Eggbox and ifpthenq, let alone the juggernaut that is Salt, means that good looking, readily accessible books are being made available outside of the majors - often concentrating on their existing list of poets. Seren, of all the small presses, has had major showings in the prizes, but there's a feeling that the prizes/majors have quite a bit of a symbiotic relationship if only because there's a need for the "big names" to continue getting a mention. What seems to be the case is that the vibrancy previously seen only in the "performance poetry" scene is spilling over into more interesting and experimental poetic arenas. With no major retrospectives/anthologies since the millennium, it will be interested to see what the scope of Roddy Lumsden's forthcoming anthology encompasses. My best poetry of the year has been particular poems, either in collections or in magazines, and I'll see if I get a chance to look at these in the new year.

I've read very little non-fiction - 'cept on blogs and in papers - but Alex Ross's "The Rest is Noise" I discovered about halfway through its year or success - and it remains a wonder, even if, after about 3 months of devouring 20th century classical music I reverted to type (e.g. hip hop, electronica and indie.) I also read Walter Benjamin's "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" so there we have it - the most relevant critical essay of the year, and it was written in 1936! On the back of a remarkable essay in "Poetry" I bought Adam Kirsch's collection of essays on contemporary poetry, "The Modern Element" which I fully expect to be one of the best reads of 2009.

Monday, December 29, 2008

First, music of the year....

...I will get on to books of the year in a day or two, I hope, but music's a little easier. I've listened to so much this year, and I do feel its been a bit of a good one, with a wide range of new talent, mostly American, coming into the open. My singles/tracks of the year are mirrored in my favourite albums, but would probably finish off as 1. Time to Pretend - MGMT 2. Love Lockdown - Kanye West and 3. Paper Planes - M.I.A. 4. Ready for the Floor - Hot Chip 5. Piece of Me - Britney Spears

Albums of the year then... (to be rearranged no doubt!)
1. Fleet Foxes - Fleet Foxes; like Midlake a couple of years ago, it almost defines what Americana is, an instant classic, based on the past, but also very now. Beautiful songs, beautifully sung and arranged. For me, its the combination of the album and their "Sun Giant" EP rather than the album on its own, as I downloaded both from Emusic to make a debut album +.
2. Third - Portishead; reviews and the album passed me by, but a couple of recommendations from friends made me pick it up. I was never a big fan, too ubiquitous, too sedate; but this new album reinvents their sound marvellously, taking in all sorts of new-retro devices yet remaining their mystique and magic.
3. What Does it all mean? - Steinski; a long overdue compilation of the original mashup expert - utterly wonderful, and remarkably contemporary.
4. Stay Positive - the Hold Steady; remarkably their 3rd great album in a row, and with songs as good as on their previous two, but with a fuller, more rock sound. In a year when landfill indie and tired old metallers were the best that rock music could give us, the Hold Steady went from being the best band that should have been around in 1978 to the best rock band of the day.
5. Supreme Balloon - Matmos; synthy Californian experimentalists surpassed themselves on this album, all recorded on golden age synths, the elongated title track in particular is a masterpiece
6. Seventh Tree - Goldfrapp; a real grower, and yet again Goldfrapp seemed to understand the zeitgeist better than anyone; perhaps all the songs weren't as good as on previous outings, but the overall feel, subdued and pastoral was a wonderufl listen and singles "A&E" and "Happiness" were standouts.
7. Oracular Spectacular - MGMT; best single of the year in the ubiquitous "Time to Pretend" but the album almost lived up to it. Like much of the best music from Bowie to Prince it thrived in its inauthenticity - you felt that they were having fun, but there's none of the cynicism of the Killers.
8. Beat Box - Glass Candy; best of a new wave of electronic acts - a short poppy album full of unexpected gems including a great version of Kraftwerk's "Computer Love"
9. Feed the Animals - Girltalk; not an awful lot different or better than their earlier "Night Ripper" but the year's ultimate party album. A stars on 45 for the iPod generation and probably the last word in sampling.
10. For Emma, Forever Ago - Bon Iver; more Americana, and a universally acclaimed record; but it deserves it; a thing of unexpected beauty and poignancy
11. Arena - Todd Rundgren; a surprising mix of all that's good about Rundgren - great guitars, wonderful tunes, and fascinating arrangements. Live, the subtlety was lost a little, but otherwise, a real surprise in a year when the big names and old favourites weren't that much around.
12. Crystal Castles - Crystal Castles; an exciting adventurous all-over-the-place debut that didn't always reach the heights of their astonishing singles and live performances but was always interesting.
13. In Ghost Colours - Cut Copy; more electronica, but this time with an unmistakable pop edge to it - a bright shiny, pop album that just nicks a place ahead of Ladyhawke and Nick Cave as antipodean album of the year.
14. Dig Lazarus Dig - Nick Cave; not a bad track on it, not a bad album - yet so familiar are we with Nick that if it doesn't reach the heights of say, Abattoir Blues/Lyre of Orpheus it almost seems like an also ran of an album.
15. Pacific Ocean Blue - Dennis Wilson; reissue of the year and a top 20 hit as a result; a wonderful late seventies piece of Beach Boys magic
16. Made in the Dark - Hot Chip; more electronic-pop, but with lead track "Ready for the floor" one of the year's finest, and surely showing them to be fans of OMD, the album, a mixed bag, remains highly listenable.
17. Imperial Wax Solvent - the Fall; not their best even after a recent run of form, but with enough high points to remain highly relevant.
18. Fourth - Verve; surprisingly excellent return album that ditches the more introspective moments from their past and goes straight for the jugular with powerful guitar
19. One of the Boys - Kate Perry; unashamed pop record guilty pleasure of the year was her "I kissed a girl" but the anthem heavy album has its gems as well.
20= Jukebox - Cat Power; not as great a record as "The Greatest" but her total reworking of diverse songs such as "New York, New York", let alone her self-written Dylan tribute make this a good, if not stunning album.
20= We Started Nothing - The Ting Tings; (I knew I'd forget one...)... pop as anything but it should have been infuriating, and was actually great fun for longer than it should have been. I hear "Great DJ" is on the soundtrack of the new Danny Boyle as well...

Sunday, December 28, 2008

In Praise of Pauses

Christmas often gives us time to pause, so its sadly fitting that Harold Pinter, the laureate of the pause, died over the season. There are, of course, many, many obituaries of the man, and reminisces of him, and reminders of his work. The ever estimable Arts and Letters Daily collects them in one place. His Nobel speech was reprinted in part in the Independent and summed up that key contradiction: between a literary life that was deliberate in not nailing things down, and a political life that insisted it was necessary. We can leave the nailing to others, particularly at this time of year, but its the work of course, rather than the political views or the contradictions, that will last. In the land of Shakespeare its perhaps not that surprising that our latest Nobel laureate should be a playwright, yet its instructive to think how much his work hangs over our time - in perhaps a way that no playwright ever will again. I saw a fringe production of the "The Dumb Waiter" a few years ago at Edinburgh, and it was in every way brilliant; it also felt endlessly relevant - and, contradictorily, of its time. There's something about the setting of those early plays that only just remains in England, the echo of the fifties austerity, the provincial towns, the grimey bedsits and b&bs. Whereas post-war America (say, like you'd see in Miller's "All My Sons") has material wealth, in which it sets a sometime spiritual poverty, Britain even up to the seventies and eighties remains drab. Pinter, in his willingness to shine a light on that drabness, will always seem of his time, even if his themes, and his writing transcends it. An early play like "The Dumb Waiter" is set in a single room, always recognisable, I guess, in any age, but its prop - the dumb waiter of the title is something that had gone into memory thirty years ago. I came to Pinter more through those two fascinating works: his screenplay of "the French Lieutenant's Woman" and, particularly, "Betrayal", an adult drama in every way. I'm not a particularly regular theatre goer, and there are only a few writers for theatre whose words seem particularly vital, but Pinter was one of those. The pauses of legend, are, I think, the spaces that he left where we could hear the words echo. To understand, to reflect.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Poetry Prizes

My uncharacteristic silence the last week or two has its usual reasons...alcohol and Christmas. After managing around half a dozen parties since my last post, its amazing I've still got any of the braincells required for writing this occasional blog. Poetry prizes come in all shapes and sizes and I'm generally no fan of them, after all its hardly a competitive sport is it?

Yet I have to say I can only applaud the innovation of the online poetry slam that Poetry Republic have set up in support of the Mines Advisory Group charity. Judging is by the entrants - and the winner will be announced as part of the "not part of" Manchester International Festival fringe next summer.

And although, as an unsuccessful entrant, I should be a little down today after not making the shortlist for Salt Publishing's inaugural Crashaw Prize, I'm far more intrigued by the six shortlisted writers, who'll have their books published internationally, and knowing Salt, very handsomely, in the next few months. A quick Google search shows that these are all poets with a little bit of a track record; a sign perhaps that the "slush pile" is not made up the mad and hopeless, but the hardworking, the worthy, the progressive, the comming. From my own perspective, even the discipline to enter the competition - i.e. putting together a 70 page collection - was a valuable one.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Staying In v. Going Out

The pre-xmas events season kicks in big time this week. Everything from regular nights, to one offs, from Xmas parties to informal catch ups with friends. The 2nd Social Media Cafe in Manchester is this evening at the Northern, with Heather Corcoran, curator of FACT in Liverpool as the speaker. I'm hoping to be there, let's see how the day goes!

Frustratingly I'll miss Nicholas Royle reading very locally at Didsbury Library on Wednesday, from 7.00, as I'm in London, and pondering whether I'll have time to get along to Openned reading at the Foundry, Old Street - Openned are good friends with Manchester's The Other Room, so it would be good to take advantage of being there at that time. Then back to Manchester for a choice of two Christmas parties!

Friday, December 05, 2008

The Spirit of the Age

With 2009 just around the corner it seems about the right time to think about this decade, and see if any themes have emerged in literature, or elsewhere, to define the spirit of the age. Post 9/11, and a week after Mumbai, you can say that "terror" could be seen as that spirit, but as no doubt someone else has said, terror is the spirit of all our ages, not just this one. If there is one literary work that seems to be evoked more often than any other at the moment its Cormac McCarthy's "The Road", which must say something about our view of the times - the last time post-apocalyptic nightmares took hold of our imagination were in the decade after the 2nd world war, as the threat of the cold war began to grip where the terror of Nazi Germany was only just subsiding ("Lord of the Flies" - 1954, "1984" - 1949).

Yet, I think its some other works of that late 40s/early 50s period we need to look to. "Waiting for Godot" (1953) has been revived a couple of times lately, and there's something about its ennui, its resignation, its passivity that seems particularly key to the current world. Look around the world, and what you see, whether thuggery, barbarism, militarism or imperialism, is at a state or semi-official level. We live in repressive times, where the sheer force of the state, or the immense reach of globalisation seems to quell anything other than feelings of resignation. This is no 1968, with a youth rebellion reeling round the world with contempt at their elders, nor 77, with punk rock, working class rebellion and race riots beginning to form a heady brew of discontent. This is the age when a shop assistant gets killed on the first day of the Walmart Sale, as the angry consumers trample over him; or when the decision on whether a cricket tour should continue in India is more about what's in the contract, than what is morally right or sensible.

Art reflects, doesn't lead - and yet I don't think the spirit of the age is an angry one, or even a collective one. Even in parts of the world where there is much more reason for rebellion and protest than in the west, the differential between the might of the state and the organising power of the people is too great; collectively there is ennui, resignation, even acceptance. (The destruction of value that the banks have given us over the last year or more, and the willingness of the population to almost reward the architects of this failure.) Much is talked about the internet and "social media" but a Facebook group seems a poor replacement for a union meeting. That other book of the age, A.M. Homes' "This Book Can Save Your Life" seems every bit as appropriate as "The Road"; they both deal in dread, but whereas the dread in "The Road" is very real, in the Homes book its almost existential.

I've been reading a few poems recently that seem to have something of this quality as well - a quietitude, a non-expectation of solving things. So back to Beckett, "I can't go on, I'll go on."

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Elizabeth Gaskell news...

Following on from the news that Gaskell's house in Plymouth Grove is going to be renovated, this story on the BBC's website piqued my attention...

Apparently Mrs. Gaskell is "is best known for Cranford", well, only since the BBC's version of it is she. More quality reporting from our national broadcaster.

Lessons in Poetry

Its worth watching this week's Culture Show, on iPlayer or the net to see the piece on Mick Imlah who's 2nd collection, "The Lost Leader" won the Forward Prize and is being gerrymandered into winning the T.S. Eliot. Observers of poetry prizes know that with the odd exception of a "Birthday Letters", there's hardly any consensus between the awards, so it was interesting to see a full piece on one of the contenders, with reading from figures as estimable as Andrew Motion and James Fenton reading Imlah's poems. I was alerted to an article by a bookseller friend who said he'd been inundated with requests for the book after the piece went out. I've nothing for or against Imlah's poetry; I've not read them; and there's obviously a human interest story there - in that he was recently diagnosed with Motor Neurone disease - but I'm interested that a prize where the judging is led by Motion (a Faber author) has two Faber authors (Motion and Fenton) on the Culture Show giving such a powerful plug for another Faber author (Imlah) for that same major prize. Because, however worthy a winner the book is, this is, of course, how its done in poetry. I wonder if the other contender publishers on the list have been badgering the BBC for airtime? Perhaps anything that draws a new name into the public sphere is a good thing, though with the major poetry houses having so little to do with any newer, more vibrant poets out there (as the success of Salt, Seren and others has testified over the last couple of years), the poetry establishment remains as rigid in its ways as ever.

I guess, I'm interested in this, more - in a media studies sense - of how work gets out there, than any other way. It may well be that the other Eliot judges, Lavinia Greenlaw and Tobias Hill amongst them, have other things to say about the winning collection; it may well be that The Lost Leader is a very good book.

Poets, in particular, seem to relish scarcity, so a quick search of the web shows that Imlah is himself a bit of a "lost leader", his 2nd book rumoured but never delivered till now. I loved this page from the LRB, where it announces that "Mick Imlah's The Lost Leader will be published in 2002." Thinking of him not as a poet cum literary editor with friends in high places, and more as the Axl Rose of the Scottish literary scene, appeals to me. And it goes without saying, one wishes him well fighting his disease.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Freelance Writers, a Moment....

Whether its a Moleskine in the Cornerhouse, a laptop in Cafe Nero, or an exercise pad in Central Library, the freelance writer isn't always stuck at home in their garrett. In fact, the writer is as likely to be a nomad as any other freelancer; have battery power (and wifi) will travel. There's a move in the city towards providing cheap, available appropriate spaces for freelancers across the creative industries - and though the focus has been on digital and new media types to date - its clear that artists, writers, freelance journalists, bloggers, film makers and musicians are all part of that community. So if you think you fit into any of those, would like a bit more elbow room than Starbucks gives you, or find the lure of the Krombacher a big disincentive to setting up base in a bar, please have a look at this article and fill in the accompanying survey.

Credit Crunch Christmas

I can mention the C-word nows its December. May need to pick up an advent calendar this afternoon. I'm going to try and avoid going to town this week, it was so manic on Saturday, so local shops for local people, and - perhaps more importantly t'internet. I'm not usually one to "plug" books, but I'm pleased that small publishers and magazines are trying to entice you all to buy some unusual xmas presents. Short fiction magazine Transmission has a competition and a Christmas bundle, perfect for the short story writer amongst your relations; Salt publishing has both a poetry and short story book club and Facebook members of its group can get a third off all Salt books, which should be enough to give your postman a hernia. Interesting post from Chris Hamilton-Emery at his Facebook page last week, giving a great overview of the perils and pleasures of running a small press - and also indicating that Salt's going to move to London shortly. I saw Nathan Hamilton from Norwich based Eggbox last week, and this small press's books are lovely hardbacks - whilst if I do manage to force myself out of the house, there will no doubt be tables laden with goodies at this week's The Other Room, in Manchester and at the launch of the latest Comma title on Friday in Liverpool. I'm also thinking Tim Wright's "Oldton" "pack of cards" is too beautiful an artefact not to buy after meeting him and seeing it last week.