Thursday, April 30, 2009

Whatever Happened to the Northern Intellectual?

A fascinating kickstart to a new round of debate, by Charles Leadbetter: an essay entitled "The Art of With", which allows paragraph by paragraph comments. It's a kickstart because it will be followed by a one-day seminar and other activity at Manchester's Cornerhouse. The nature of the essay and its structure makes it wrong to try and paraphrase it, though it's relatively accessible and easy to paraphrase. (I would argue that in art, if not in criticism, our ability to paraphrase the art rather than read/watch/engage is one of the key fallouts of "accessible art" - its the art that you can't paraphrase, John Ashbery say, or Gillian Wearing, that most interests me).

But, though I'd ask you to read the original, I'll summarise a few thoughts here. The "art of with" begins with the idea that the avant garde (in itself not defined in the article: and I've a little interest in that definition) has traditionally been "separate" - rejecting the consumerism of the 20th century, but being part of arts institutions that are themselves based upon the consumerist model. Is the web, with its ethos of "shared" and "collaborative" experience a different model? Perhaps. Yet, I've asked the question before whether Fordism is alive and well in the Googleopolis - as Google's "business model" is not mine as an artist. (There's a particular thing here of course: Google wants to give away YOUR art for free, and collect the payment not for you, but by using you.) Yet there's definitely something about the modern communication infrastructure that the internet is part of which offers the artist - and the avant gardist - a chance to "up" - whether that's upskill, or upload. I'm less convinced that the "mix culture" that Leadbetter talks about - and which has been bandied around for a while as a new way of creation - is either new or edifying. I've blogged before that writers in particular (but I would say visual artists and others as well) risk becoming middlemen in the cultural value chain, rather than originators in their own right. This is not just about "influence" but about value-added. Hip hop as the original share-culture of populist art remains a vital touchstone, because it created something defiantly and definitely new, from what was already there (and unused) - often the instrumental breaks on the b-sides of old James Brown records. The cut and paste fun of say, Girltalk, is more stars-on-45 for pseuds, because the end result is not something NEW, like "Paid in Full" or "Paul's Boutique", but something reversioned. A reversioning is not a problem - but it seems somehow lesser.

But without going much further at this point into Leadbetter's article - it does raise a couple of key questions about the "creative classes". Our institutions (and their gatekeepers) remain too powerful in this sense. The real lesson of "open source communities" is that they are outsider communities, one way or another. It's almost an impossible paradox talking about the UGC communities coming out of mass-market products like Flickr and Youtube, at the same time as discussing the open source software community, for the former is only concerned with content and will use whatever tool is appropriate; the latter wants to define and design the tools. In some ways, open source development mirrors its own enemy - for where else do you find a puritanism about "design" and "function" other than in the exclusiveness of the Eames chair or the Apple Mac?

Yet it is the open source community model which makes most sense for art, and for the avant garde artist. I would strongly disagree with the idea that the avant garde was ever non-collaborative (often entirely the opposite), but it does seem that we need to be aware of where great art comes from, and though it can be very much helped by institutions, it cannot be determined by them. (The art school gave us the Beatles, Bowie, Roxy Music and the Sex Pistols, for instance - not what they were developed for, but not a bad unexpected consequence, nonetheless). And, around this, and this is why "The art of with" debate is timely, there needs, to be frank there to be an intellectual and critical discussion. I wonder whatever happened to the Northern Intellectual? Our city and regional leaders wouldn't fit that description - and nor, come to think of it, would many of our other high profile figures. When its debating time in Manchester we roll out the interesting, the practical, and the well-known, whether its Guy Garvey, Ian Simpson, Wayne Hemingway or Dave Haslam. Nothing wrong with any of them of course; but there's a sense of either the streetfighter tamed, or the Grammar school boy acting down for the masses. It's why Tony Wilson had the streets of Manchester to himself, where 2nd-hand situationism, and a day job at Granada could make for an intellectual high water mark. On the day that MMU/Chorlton-based Carole Ann Duffy most likely gets the Laureate, our professor of contemporary poetry is praised for her humour, accessibility and popularity, not for her intellect. Main rival, Simon Armitage, is always careful to hide his intellect under a laddish cover of northern dry wit.

Yet, elsewhere in the city, the very strengths that Richard Florida noted in Manchester in his essay on the creative classes, all those years ago, are strong and well. So, there's a challenge for "the art of with" and the Cornerhouse, and that's about Manchester itself. Charles Leadbetter is fine and dandy, but its when the city doesn't have to import its intellectual discussion, but leads on it, that the city's undoubted knowledge economy will come into its own.

Monday, April 27, 2009

April is the Coolest Month

The year slips into it's 2nd third with too much speed...winter becomes spring. Now is the time to get things done, and yet, waking, blinking from the cold snap, its hard sometimes to remember how short the window is. I've a few things on the horizon, gigs mainly, thought-fests like New Writing Worlds and Futuresonic, as well.

But in the here and now, before May draws us in... a few things. I'm looking forward to the 2nd Bury Text Festival. It starts this week, and I'm hoping to get along next Saturday. Well worth the tram ride to Bury - the art gallery there is a gem, and the exhibition last time was superb, with, importantly, a wide range of festival events. This time, its more about the events, as far as I can see, than exhibitions, much of it at the Bury Met - and I have to say, the website is a little confusing, but perhaps that's half the fun - exploring.

They've not announced any tags (or other electronic medium) so unless anyone tells me otherwise I'll be twittering #textfestival and suggest others do likewise!

Other things: I've added the song "Autumn 1914", inspired by this photograph, to Myspace. Other recent music by me can be heard here.

Worth reading the Kazuo Ishiguro interview in today's Guardian. I wasn't as impressed by his last novel "Never Let Me Go" as some others, I felt it was a short story/novella extended beyond its length, and its setting - in a parallel contemporary world that seemed to be 1959 was an unfathomable decision - but those faults will probably mean it will make a good film. Interesting that his new book is a book of short stories (though how short - given that there are only 5?) that has been written and conceived as one work. I think it will be an interesting departure.

The interview, as ever with Ishiguro, is a fascinating mix of candour and calculation. It's what makes his writing so interesting - there always seems a tug between his desire to control, and his desire to let go.

My friends at Lancaster's Litfest have their only little document store of downloads on Scribd; I'd highly recommend you download and read them all.

And finally, though I doubt I'll make it along - much as I'd like to - Salford University Creative writing students are reading on Thursday lunch time at Central Library with Czech poet Bob Hysek.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Language Matters

Over the last few days - though it might be weeks or months - I've begun to feel a certain disillusion with language itself. A kind of language anxiety if you like, since it reminds me of the same kind of ennui I've sometimes felt about work, relationships, life itself; yet this time its none of those things (though I'll probably come back to qualify that assumption), rather its "language" itself.

A few points:

I'm constantly reading but its low-intensity; at least intellectually. Blogs and Twitter streams aren't constructed arguments, such as written simulacrum's of conversation's in a crowded room. If you ever close your eyes at a party, you hear more, and understand less. There are fragments of conversations all around you, but without the context - the body language, if you like, without the sense of spatial movement - although you catch more of these conversations it becomes more difficult to zone in and out. That said; most of the intellectually satisfying written work I read these days is on the web, not in the newspapers. (I throw the Guardian magazine in the bin most Saturday's having only skimmed it.)

There's a whole different world of reading I do - in work - which is around bids, contracts, workplans, specifications. I've often felt its the "white collar" workers angst at his industrial/manufacturing colleagues. The need to "make" something that can be pointed at, and, if, god forbid, you have to, read. Much of this, is, of course, rubbish. Much of the language is, equally of course, funny-peculiar in its own way. It doesn't lend to poetry. (Though I've tried.)

Other media assaults our consciousness and yet we still to a large extent "read" it - in much the same way that I used to read out the signs that I passed when a child in the backseat of a car with my mum and dad. Examples? The tickertape of the rolling news; the smallprint on financial adverts; the comments below a video on Youtube.

Books are all around me and yet I can't get past the first page of too many of them. I need the linear route in - but at the same time I get bored by the language therein. A little unsober on a bus home a few weeks ago I sat there reading extracts from my Kathy Acker anthology, and could concentrate on the fragmentary prose in a way that seemed inspiring. I pick up a poetry book and can't concentrate on the particular verse because my eyes are always picking up the peripheral poem on the next page. (Note to poetry editors: give every poem its own page.)

I was in Poland this week and the language was utterly unfamiliar. Logging on to the hotel internet my Google pages assumed I was Polish. There's so many new words - internet is internetowÄ… for instance - that the language is understandable. Everyone involved with the project (Swedes, Greeks, English, Polish, Spanish) spoke English, understood English. A few dense Powerpoint slides in Polish as we listened to the simultaneous translation (very impressive) were the only reminder of the difficulties of communicating. There's a bricks and mortar like quality to the conversations we were having. The "bidspeak" words mentioned above make little more sense in English, but, being without poetry, existing in a world without metaphor, their unsense can be translated well enough.

All of these things make me wonder whether I've lost my language. Or at least mislaid it. This sort of writing, thought straight to page, I can still do, but its little more than a slightly elevated pub conversation. Not much metaphor here either.

Its clear that language reacts to its environment. It is in the SF unreality of Trujillo's Dominican Republic that Junot Diaz's language takes off; in college America it becomes as flat as its environment. Cormac McCarthy's language can seem perfectly at home in the medievalised future of "The Road", and David Mitchell is far more inventive when writing about the past or the future than about the eighties. Before I was a "proper" writer (you know, before I'd shown it to anyone) I was developing my own linguistic tics for describing the flatland of my life in England then (and now). I knew so little about the world that I had to imagine it all, and language was part of the imagining. Only when trying to write a scene that had to be real, and which I was unfamiliar with (e.g. a visit to a lawyers office) did my novelistic style become flat. Writing about kinky sex or marriage or old age or being shot at or fame or, in fact, anything that had to be at least partially imagined, I was inventive; writing about what I knew I had to be either funny or camouflaging. Now, I feel that my problem is not the subject(s), but the language. And I have to solve the latter before I can get to address the former.

It's not that English prose writers don't talk about language (or think about language) they'd just rather not. It's somehow unseemly. Readers never get asked - and, I suppose, you see them reading Dan Brown or Jeffrey Archer or J.K. Rowling and its clear language isn't a priority. I'm not wanting books full of Molly Bloom-like solilloquying, but something that takes our literature from the prosaic; keeps it apart from the bureaucrat speak, the blogs, the media intrusions... helps it stand out when you hear it spoken whilst your eyes are closed at a party and you have no idea of the context of the speakers.

Britain's Got (Writing) Talent

I saw Britain's Got Talent tonight, for, I think, the first time. It's not being snobby. I catch as much pop culture as anyone with a TV and spare time is likely to. In many ways its better to watch at least a bit of this, as its the show itself which is the entertainment - rather than the detritus that comes after: the cover versions, the albums, the ironic commentaries. At least the show itself is exemplary. Even the professionals on the show; Ant and Dec, Piers and Amanda, Simon Cowell; are as one with the contestants. They are amateurs in their own way. Ant & Dec clearly remember their own successful, but illusory pop career, Amanda Holden has dim recollection of once being an actor, Piers an editor.

What was interesting, of course, was how, despite the show's manipulations (like all reality shows), the real genius is in the unexpected. 10-year old girl? Fine. Troupe of 20 or so street dancers. Go for it. 62 year old with a death wish. If you must. Lithe girl in a big wheel. Yep. Such democratisation is brilliant. Think if this was a writing contest: "entrants need to be over 16 (no 10-year old), under 50 (no 62-year old), a maximum of 5 collaborators (no dance troupe), and must write a story in 1500 words or less, double spaced (probably no big wheel then.)" Yes, literature's not a variety performance... but thinking again, maybe it should be. A literary Britain's got talent would compare comic books with screenplays with poetry with prose with the unfathomable. It wouldn't make good tele, and the 2-minute gong might not work either ("Well, its 1000 pages long and called Making of the Americans...shall I start at the beginning? "). But it would probably make for more interesting reading.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Death of Culture in the Europe of the Bureaucrat

European travel with a crumbled paperback in the back pocket, swapped or left en route as too much to carry. Though that cliche probably still rings true, my recent European trips have been short, businesslike trips for a particular purpose: a friend's marriage in Rotterdam; a meeting; a conference. I'm sat in a hotel room in Katowice halfway through the two day itinerary, and in that surreal place that exists when you've had much travel, followed by intense activity. It seems like I left England a month ago, now I'm in a surreal bubble. Perhaps, when I pack everything away in an hour, to check out the hotel, before today's conference, I'll feel that the trip back has begun.

I bought a paper on the way out, and carried two novels with me, but I've not read a word. Even the Twitter stream for the arts event I'd left prematurely in Liverpool, remains too much concentration - or rather, belonging to a different world and place. Like a wedding, these European trips as part of multiple partnership projects are coordinated to the degree that you have only this: a thirty minute window before going down to breakfast - as time to do any reflection/preparation or mental cleansing. It is the Europe of the bureaucrat of course; a couple of days shaking hands with mayors and city officials. In Manchester of course, I'd be lucky to get a nod in a corridor, but today and yesterday I represent the city, and am happy to do so. At one point in the conference meal I mentioned my MA in novel writing, and it brought up an interest from the Greeks I was sat next to. In the surreal world of European bureacracy, a little bit of culture never goes amiss - yet its rare that any programme will go beyond the strictly utilitarian. We expect the trips to the industrial works, just as, in coming to Manchester, they would expect to see our converted mills, yet I felt the snatched hour in a hidden bar, with an iPod for a jukebox playing country and western, Carole King and "All Tomorrows Parties", through the novel, but unwelcome fog of indoor smoke, was a welcome reminder or our differences, and similarities. A few hours before we'd been to visit a business park, which had transformed an industrial wasteland. I wondered how many business parks had been built over the last 10 years through European funding. It must be in the hundreds, if not the thousands. Like the stadia of an Olympiad, built more in hope than for specific purpose.

As we wonder where the "money" will come from for the next ten years, these large empty business complexes seem part and parcel with the age. The bureaucrat, home grown or European, can understand how the reclamation of some industrial land, the building of roads and tram stations, and the buildings themselves - easy erections in a frigid landscape - makes an obvious economic sense. But there's very little moral or spiritual sense. There are few poets of car parks; few bards of new buildings. Every pound (or Euro) spent on culture, it seems to me, pays for itself times over. Yet, when, on coming to Manchester, did anyone put a novel or a poem or even a CD of the Halle in the delegate pack?

I like Poland, and want to come back; our city hosts in Katowice have been exemplary in our hospitality; but in our spiritually bereft age, there's a need for culture on even these unexpected stages. I've seen the short film about the urban reclamation, or the eco-friendly water company; now I want to know how Polish artists and writers have been documenting the change of the last decade. Late tonight, on a bus back from the airport, exhausted, I wonder if some picture will come to mind, that turns into a poem or leaves some legacy behind of the short trip. I imagine it will be so. And as important a memento as anything I could pick up at the airport.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Pornography for the Mind

The death of J.G. Ballard, writer of autofetish erotica in "Crash", combined with a bit of a Twitter conversation about "The Story of O" makes me nostalgic for a certain type of literary pornography. I've not read, and have little intention of reading, recent "hot" novels like "Wetlands" and "Girl with a one track mind", though perhaps I should get over my prudishness, and indulge. The Story of O won a major French literary prize and remains, despite its somewhat relentlessness, a classic of its genre. Looking it up on Wikipedia it was only published in English in 1965, and I can't remember when I first heard about it, but it surely had a bit of a literary cachet, both with its regal red cover, its mysterious provenance, and its literary style. Clearly, as a teenage boy, it had certain appeals beyond the aesthetic, but even then, it was female friends who were more likely to be reading something salacious (the notorious "Lace" for instance) than male friends (who didn't read, or at least not books with words.) Looking back, my "erotic bookshelf" if I had one, was always a bit on the thin side, and a little androgynous as well. William Burroughs, Kathy Acker, "The Ages of Lulu", "The Story of O", it never went much further than that. Even "Lady Chatterley" stayed unread till much later; (though I did get around to "Oranges are the Only Fruit"). Henry Miller and Anais Nin remain mostly unread (though I do love "Spy in the House of Love"), and in terms of erotic potency its a scene in Updike's "Rabbit Redux" that stands out. There's clearly a market for salacious novels, even today, but are they all taken from blogs? My creative writing tutor memorably approved the "failed sex" scene in my M.A. novel. "All made up," I probably, implausibly murmured - and there's the rub. Writing about sex in books is always problematic. It's probably why women have often been better at it - Winterson, Reage, Acker for instance - in that there's a superior pornography of the mind that still benefits from the imaginative written word. I guess, with the abundance of er... riches available via the internet, the literary erotic novel, smuggled into the bookstores under its Olympia books cover, and with a veneer of literary respectability, has perhaps had its day. I would imagine that alot of writers have an unfinished piece of erotica hidden away in a bottom drawer some place. "The bad sex award" has probably done its bit to stop dull writers spicing up otherwise mundane novels with a bit of literary rumpy pumpy; the true erotic literary classic, like its subject matter, requires some staying power.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Polish Sojourn

Work takes me to Poland this week. It's a whistlestop tour, including, as of East European cliche, a visit to both a sewage works and a brewery. I hope to have an opportunity to go back, but even on this short visit I've a desire to read something Polish to whet the appetite. I have Carl Tighe's "Burning Worm", of course, a Manchester writers droll satire on being a supply teacher in Poland during the Thatcher years. I met the Polish poet Adam Zagajewski, when I was in Norwich last summer, but hadn't got round to picking up one of his books. Going abroad, you always think of getting a book or two whilst you're there, but of course the majority of translations will be by British or American presses (I did buy my book of Icelandic poetry in Reyjkavik, but felt a little cheated that it had been shipped over from the U.S!) If anyone has any suggestions, then please pass them on to me.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Inspirations Again

I'm not much into nostalgia, nor do I tend to fetishise particular images or artefacts, but this photograph, of my great grandparents, sitting, and their eight grandchildren, with my grandfather on the left hand side, has been obsessing me since I saw it last week. We reckon it has to be Autumn 1914, given that the baby of the family, Great Uncle Bert, was born in the May, and there's still leaves on the trees. On the eve of the Great War of course. As farmers (and for the two older boys, fireman and railwayman) they were in protected professions, and none of the family went to war - though I guess the war came to them, as did the second world war.

It's often been written that the Great War changed everything, but its fascinating to see this picture before the change. You'd probably date it fifty years earlier from the dress, I'm no expert. I think of 1914 as part of my modern era - after all, modernism was in full flow. Yet this is a rural community, in the industrial Midlands. Little Wyrley is a hamlet; there's a great house and a series of smallholdings, and cottages. Great Wyrley - a mile or so away - was written about in Julian Barnes' novel "Arthur & George". My grandfather was a tenant farmer, his own father had been a farm labourer. It's less than 100 years old, and everyone in the picture is now, of course, dead. Like all big families there were a fair share of fallings out. I don't remember more than a couple of my grandfather's brothers and sisters, and those, inevitably, the youngest.

I'm not a historical writer, but my own life begins here to all intents and purposes. Its as far back as we can go that also remains in the memory of those who I grew up with. I don't think I could do justice to their story - and it might be quite a mundane one - like the twins in Bruce Chatwin's "On the Black Hill" (a novel I immediately felt kinship to because of the similar setting, albeit the other side of Birmingham) nobody went that far: that would be left to the next generation. I'm not a historical writer, but I do have a sense of history, and belonging. It's more likely that this photo - as artefact if you like - becomes a good way of telling a more imagined history; I've written a song inspired by the photograph, and it might be a song cycle, mixing family myth and reality, like Natalie Ginsburg's "Things we used to say", is the only way to approach such things.


Perhaps related, or not, to the above, is this article I've just come across on Arts and Letters Daily, about Jill Price, the woman who remembers everything. Even from the start of the story I was a little sceptical, as remembering particular dates of things, requires, I guess, a mental map of what those dates were in the first place. Jill has, it seems, an OCD of memory, where her constant going over things in her own life means that she can't forget. Its an idea I had for a story once - how overwhelming could that be, if you remembered everything? I thought then how debilitating it would be. With only reading this piece I can't quite tell what depth of memory she has - because that's the more interesting thing. Not remembering every instance of something, like some human timeclock, checking in every day, but remembering the depth of an experience - first kiss, first day at school, a summer evening... Writers need that kind of memory, I guess, its accuracy in its essence not in the verbatim.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Paper - the great distribution tool

Read a fascinating short article in the first issue of UK Wired about "the papernet". Aaron Straup Cope's idea is to use paper as a customisable output medium (which of course, with the personal printer it already is). The concept as I understand it is to take the printers of today, even our print-on-demand technologies, and remove ourselves from the tyranny of the mass-produced edition. Perhaps with the right combination of software, networks and hardware, we could return to the days of the engravers and book producers of the middle ages; each copy "handmade", but not in its format, but in its content. Think of the XML/CSS distinction between content and appearance and apply that to the book. This is what already happens - you deliver your copy in some form to a publisher/printer - and it becomes typeset and formatted into a book. Turn that round... and every copy of a book from Lulu or other print on demand firms could be the latest bespoke edition (which is why its popular with producers of computer software manuals), rather than an identical copy. Take that further though, and put a filter on before you create your PDF to upload - let the user choose what to include in their particular edition... - or better still install a network printer in a gallery or a bookshop and use a software interface to provide however many pages of bespoke information. There's some really funky little photo printers and similar available nowadays, as well as more pro- machines, and what we need is a simply formatting software, to enable us to make books from our RSS feeds, or PDFs from our Facebook pages. Then, better still, the fabled monkeys with typewriters, replaced with a series of artists with laptops, formatting pages that come together in a book of ever changing complexity or randomness. The collaborative webpage redone as a paper-based wiki.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Surveillance & Identity

So, I've got nothing to write about. I've got bloggers block. There's only one thing to do. Sit down and here and write something and press publish and, yes, be damned. I should have something to write about - its been a heady week or two - but of course, you can't always process the life that's happening to you as it happens.

I was at Manchester's Social Media Cafe on Tuesday and tried to fit three evenings of networking into one. There was an interesting discussion on personal identity, and surveillance, and I realised that every story in the news at the moment is about this very issue. We that are rightly concerned with the government's insistence on identity cards and every other kind of monitoring of us, can only be amused how, at this particular juncture it is the fragmented, distributed nature of this "monitoring and surveillance" which is most effective - and, that's being used against the state. Surely the G20 footage, with its criminal investigation into the death of a newspaper seller shortly after being hit by the police; and Jacqui Smith and other MPs reluctance to have the details made public of how public money has been spent; and then the photograph of the secret documents held in full view by Bob Quick has been spent are the same story - where the state actually wants to "deny" the use of this information, but can't quite manage it. Only the courts - in the case of the injunction on the Guardian revealing Barclays use of tax havens - seems able to stop some of this "user generated content" - and only because it was a national newspaper, not the "crowd" who had released the information. I feel we're probably at an interesting juncture where its years away from a national identity card, yet everything about everyone is being made available - whether its your Facebook profile or the ubiquitous video phones and location-based devices we carry with us everywhere. I'm not sure how that genie gets in the bottle - yet I'm pretty sure the powers that be are looking at ways of doing it. (Just read on the difficulty of photographing in public spaces these day.

It seems that every missing child will have some footage available on CCTV, a vast difference from when it was a grainy yearbook photo that was all we had. An interesting space, as I've said. We often talk about being in a "big brother" age, after Orwell, but I'm not sure that's the case, after all, it's happened so fast, that the control of this information is currently, at least, both with us, and with the corporations that provide the service. I can imagine in a state of emergency, Google and the like being turned into quasi-agencies of the state,(in the way that previously a TV company or newspaper might have been), but its not going to be easy. More like is Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, where little by little we give up our privacy and our rights to how we use our own "personal identity" in return for the things it gives us, this digital soma we've become addicted to. Those of us from "the old world" can probably keep a sense of what this should be - but I'm wondering if in the near future, as the control systems become more sophisticated and pervasive, and the legal and governance frameworks tighten up even more, whether this will always be the case.

Addendum: Appropriately, Marina Hyde in today's Guardian makes a similar point about "our" surveillance of the Police - she makes the point how difficult it is to film the police, since this is in itself seen as potentially a crime (I say potentially, as I'm not sure if its been tested in court, or if its genuinely illegal?)even when they are in a public place.

Monday, April 06, 2009

When I was a child... I read books

There was a recent report that children in many homes simply never see books, or reading of books, and so have no models to aspire to. It calls for new tactics and techniques to get children reading in families where books are seen as for "losers." (Can't find the link, sorry.)

Wondering if that is something so new? I grew up in a house where books were the statutory ones :- Readers' Digest condensed books; DIY and Haynes Manuals (hi, dad!); a few paperbacks (strictly for holidays); and the odd children's classic (King Solomon's Mines or Heidi) which had travelled down the family line.

I was a slow reader to start with, but caught up with my mum's endless patience, and of course, once you see those words on the page as not threats of incomprehensibility but keys into magical kingdoms, well...there was little stopping me. Every holiday my pocket money was spent on novelisations, ("Dr. Who" etc.), every trip to a big city saw me dragging the family round Midlands Educational (there were no Waterstones in those days.) Before that, of course, there was the library. So when tonight I was just thinking, I'd love to start reading a book, but one that wouldn't hurt either my eyes or my brain, the book that jumped in front of me was a memory from those days.

"Ninety-nine dragons" by Barbara Sleigh sees a young boy try and get to sleep by counting dragons instead of sheep, but the dragons then come alive in the dream, across the eiderdown fields of his half-sleep. I must have borrowed it on rotation from the library. It had pictures, I remember, but it was the story I think that captured me. When I googled it just, that half-memory of dragons also made me think of "counting sheep" - and it was the combination that brought up the book. There's not a picture of it by the looks of it, and I might have to have a nostalgic purchase from Abebooks to bring it back to life (a little like the book itself). I'm absolutely certain that's the book.

...and it's so me, isn't it. I can just imagine my dad asking me to get to sleep by counting sheep, and me saying "no, daddy, I'm going to count dragons." "Dragons?" he'd say. "Sheep are boring!" I'd say, and begin "one dragon, two dragon..."

Saturday, April 04, 2009

The Manchester Novel

Given that there are so many writers in Manchester, I'm surprised how few novels seem to come out of the city. Unlike other metropolises (metropoli?) there's a sense that Manchester isn't quite big enough. The city seems to be zoned whenever its used in TV series, Didsbury for Cold Feet, Hulme for Life on Mars (and gloriously, Chorlton for the "swingers" party). Yet step into the city, step around, and more than anywhere I know, different lives are cheek and jowl. Only need to catch the 85 or 86 to Chorlton, a bus to Levenshulme, or even go down Wilmslow Road, and get a sense of a city of jostling communities, mostly rubbing up kindly against each other. Yet, Withington, where I first came when I moved to Manchester, is increasingly down-at-heel, a clump of drug addicts in the doorway of what (ironically) used to be "Pleasure", and the suburbs' great buildings either shut down (the White Lion) or pulled down (Cine City.)

The gleaming city centre is alive with a different vibe - media types and young professionals during the week; minibuses of out of towners at the weekend; university students during term time; suburban sophisticates down King Street or Selfridges or at the Hilton; football fans pouring through on match days; everyone from hen parties to drag queens on Canal Street; musical subcultures in dive bars, any day of the week. I'm not sure if this ever gets captured for people outside of the city.

I've often toyed with writing a Manchester novel, and found myself foundering on the ambition needed. My stories weave in and out of the city's night life in particular. The legendary rain and the long winters seem to have curtailed any other sense of the city - it's not a city where communities live, they circle the centre at a suspicious distance. There's nothing of the American city.

I need to think again of connecting all of this up - music was the link I once used, and would probably go back to again; or the regeneration itself - I stop, I start. The city sits grand and foreboding, resisting my best efforts.

Friday, April 03, 2009

Is Twitter the death of Email?

I am worried. For the last fifteen years the literate classes have swapped billet douxes via email. This quick - but intimate - communication method has been central to most writers' practice. Yet, over the last week, the last month even I have found my personal inbox empty. Those carefully crafted, and so individuallly personalised emails that I used to crave and love have disappeared, apparently overnight.

I used to so look forward to that long, rambling, non-spellchecked piece of a writers' heart, and yet now, I wonder if I will ever hear it's beat again. It is Twitter that is to blame with its Puritan 140 characters, and its annoyingly utilitarian interface.

We need to act now, or else email, that wonderfully florid and unmediated platform is no longer relevant - it has, in a nutshell, disappeared for good.