Sunday, January 31, 2010

Two Different Takes on the 60s/70s

Whether its the coincidence of the publishing schedule, or what happens when enfant terribles hit their sixties, there are two alternate takes on the late 60s/early 70s in today's Observer. Patti Smith's new book, "Just Kids," is a prose memoir of her time with Robert Mapplethorpe on her arrival in New York in the late 60s. If the extract from the Observer is anything to go by, it will be a must read. Almost uniquely literate amongst rock musicians - after all, she began as a poet, and in many ways created her own hybrid - it's perhaps no surprise to be riveted by the story. Smith was extremely lucky in her muses, with Mapplethorpe, Fred "Sonic" Smith, Tom Verlaine and others she connected with some of the great spirits of the seventies; it nurtured her art, but she also nurtured theirs; but as any cursory reading of her biography knows, meeting Mapplethorpe on coming to New York, was crucial. I've always felt his photography and her music are two different stems from a similar bud - grown from that fervent artistic hotbed of lower East-side New York in the late sixties and early seventies, watered at the Chelsea Hotel, St. Marks' Poetry Project and Max's Kansas City amongst other places.

Though we have no extract, Martin Amis's new novel "The Pregnant Widow" also looks at that "golden generation", but from the other side of the Atlantic. In a positive review in the Observer, Tim Allen makes the point that by returning to his own autobiography, the post-Oxford demi-monde of early 70s artistic London, Amis's supreme comic voice has perhaps found a way to thrive now he's also in his sixties. I'm looking forward to it, though perhaps not as much as the Patti Smith memoir.

Friday, January 29, 2010


I got a twitter from Sarah Crown today, literary editor at the Guardian, that she'd received copies of the new editions of Salinger's work, with new covers approved by him. He died on Wednesday aged 91, and though I'm sure his legacy was on his mind at some point during his last days, it seems inconceivable that a writer who had refused any kind of "new" version of his books during the last 40 years, suddenly showed a keen interest in cover design.

(NB. It seems like the new covers were already in the works, and you can see them here.)

Most writers have anonymity in life, and only in death find fame. The irony about Salinger's self-imposed exile is that when he was alive he managed to keep out of the public eye, but in death he is "public property." Up to a point, of course. Copyright law should keep him safe until 2080, so if anything does come out in the next few years, its his heirs' decision, I guess. Literary estates tend to jealously protect their writers' reputation.

Salinger wrote one novel, the massive selling "catcher in the rye", but his literary legacy is as equally served by the short stories he wrote about the Glass faimily. That novel was written in the voice of its protagonist Holden Caulfield and influenced many generations of teenagers. (And only one psychotic, Mark Chapman, to kill.) The stories...their fragmented half-history, say something similar, but also something else.

Its hard to conceive that such a slim selection followed by those years of utter silence, could be a literary legacy. But the proof is in the books. The work stands up, regardless.

So, J. D. Salinger, you left us finally. I'm sad to see you go. Rest in peace, for I doubt you'll retain your silence in this world.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

A Sad Day for Bananafish

death robbed him of his anonymity

in that

he did the opposite of what most of us find

that life is loud

and after that is silence

but in silence

he found perfection

I think the silence spoke louder

against an age he foresaw

did not particularly like

did not see why he should be part of

the barrier all writers build


their written and real selves


read Hapworth 16, 1924

and tell me any difference, there is none,

walls collapsed


and in death do not expect revelations

respect the beauty of his choices

he remains one of the remarkable ones

though his skin was thin, his talent was strong

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Whose Literature is it anyway?

I imagine them sat in a room. It's probably a scene from a Carol Churchill play, a banquet perhaps, with dinner guests who could not possibly meet and talk at the same time. There's a few youngsters there. A Samuel Beckett, a James Joyce perhaps, firebrands. There's a bearded Lawrence, a chicken leg in his hand like a wand or a weapon. Fitzgerald, I like to think, is by the drinks cabinet. If Zelda is with him then they're deep in conversation, but chances are, if there are ladies present, Hemingway has already taken them into the hallway for a particularly intimate conversation. Proust, of course, has cried off, illness. Pound has gathered some poets around him, with only Eliot really involved in the group discussion, whilst Yeats might have joined Fitzgerald for a dram, and Lorca's probably checking what Hemingway's up to - it will be more fun out there. If Pirandello is conducting a drama out on the lawn, its probably to an audience of painters and musician. They are, of course, at Diaghilev's house and Eric Satie is playing the piano throughout. Lurking by the coalshed, an old man looks on, Knut Hamsun wishing that he'd had such a crowd to hang with in his day. Late in the evening they'll play literary games, perhaps that one "books you haven't read, but should have." But nobody's ashamed not to have read the classical greats; after all they are all keen on finding different models. Even Gertrude Stein, arriving late, bringing her austere presence to the party, who has read just about everything, is uninterested in what the past holds. She writes in her diary at the end of the evening something (I paraphrase) along the lines of "literature is ours, now." 

As cinderella amongst the funded arts, (lack of expensive buildings you see!), it is important that the Arts Council and other funders continue to include literature as a priority, but I'm not so sure about a consultation on a strategy for literature.  It's pretty clear that those writers and others mentioned in the above paragraphs had a strategy for literature; it didn't, I'm pretty sure, involved Galsworthy or "childrens literature" or literature-in-performance or diverse communities, or reading-in-schools or anything similar was part of the remit. I guess the Arts for social change is too embedded in our policy to change now; and I'm certainly not advocating a wholesale destruction of the few schemes that do exist for encouraging readers and enabling writers. Yet, literature itself cannot just be seen as the promotion of anything-in-a-book. A reminder that literature remains a potential powder-keg, rather than a warm comfortable bath, comes out of Martin Amis's latest rip, of J.M. Coetzee "having no talent". Here is one of very best writers talking about another of our very best, and saying "I read one and I thought, he's got no talent. But the denial of the pleasure principle has got a lot of followers." It's like when Proust and Joyce met at a party wearily agreed that they both knew who the other was, but that they'd not read the other. I'm kind of pleased that Amis hasn't read Coetzee - I don't think he'd learn anything useful from him; the other way round? Who knows...but it's timely reminder of the lie that literature is all one happy family. You can like a person's writing, but hate the person; and there's been many writers I've liked personally, whilst not being overwhelmed by the writing. Thankfully there are writers where you like both. If there is going to be a consultation on literature it should burn up all the well-meaning preconceptions that are listed in the consultation document and come back to the work.

Monday, January 25, 2010

New Music

Occasional readers should know that I also make music. My new album "You want to know something?" is now available online to download or listen to. The first 5 tracks are vocal, the last 6 are instrumental, and it goes under my alias of Bonbon Experiment. Whether or not you listen to my music I'd appreciate it if you at least have a look at the website, as Bandcamp seem to provide a far better alternative to Myspace and similar sites.

Sunday, January 17, 2010


Going back through old blog posts I wrote one in 2006 that asked when I'd lost interest in Brian Eno. I take it all back of course, perhaps because he's not been quite so ubiquitous of late, or because the current state of music seems quite flat, and Eno makes things a little more interesting. Still, I didn't rush to read Paul Morley's piece in today's Observer, until someone else mentioned it on Twitter. Maybe I'm tired of Paul Morley! (Actually I've always been tired of Paul Morley.) There's an Eno night on BBC4 next Friday as well, which has to be must-view. Then again, the Eno that I got a little fed up with hearing about was the one that Morley describes in his introduction, "an intellectually mobile loner, scene-setter, systems lover, obstinate rebel, techno-prophet, sensual philosopher, courteous progressive, close listener, gentle heretic, sound planner, adviser explorer, pedant and slick conceptual salesman."

The Eno I have always loved is the Eno who makes music, whatever the context and collaboration. Having taken more than a passing interest in late 20th century classical music over the last year or two, Eno has been there beside me as a way of connecting my interest between pop and other musical forms. In the Observer interview he's interesting as ever, but mostly because he's answering the questions that I'm interested in - talking about music and aesthetics - rather than the latest project du jour. He didn't like Zappa's music, but was glad Zappa had made it, otherwise he might have gone down that route. He makes the point that classical composers such as Steve Reich would record their work very badly, as they were interested in process not result; and, have learnt nothing or shown no interest in anything that the history of late 20th century pop music could teach them. (Reich, "supporting" Kraftwerk last year, admitted they were a band he'd never listened to.) He talks about a band he'd heard recently who were out of tune on a professional record (wish he'd name names!) and sees it as an overdue response to ProTools style perfection. He talks about how because synthesizers are so quickly replaced, updated, there's less of the player becoming an expert at a particular instrument - less of that bond between player and instrument. (An interesting one for me, sat with my 26 year old Roland Juno Six behind me!) He talks about ABBA, gospel choirs, and working with U2 and Coldplay. Always fascinating. The interview ends with the thought that "the record age was just a blip", like whale blubber to generate power before gas game along.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Manchester Rain and TV Dinners.

The Manchester rain is back, and everything looks a little greyer after our Narnia-impressions of the last few weeks. It's been back to normal this week, but seems everyone's a little slow into gear because of the weather. There seems a lot to be done; and quickly, and I wonder if that's because in an election year there's a massive uncertainty about the near and far futures. Long term projects like the BBC's move to Salford, trundle on with a glacial speed, and there does seem a lot of "business as usual" about at the moment. I'm puzzled by the TV schedules - this week, we've two returning dramas, "Survivors" and "Being Human." British TV has always been a bit kinder about commissioning than the bloodbath that is American TV. The first of these shows was pilloried; and just about hung on (it finished its first run only halfway through a story, so would have been cruel on viewers to pull it, if nothing else), the latter was an unexpected slow-burn success; and didn't really expect a second series, so rounded was the first. Belatedly, it seems, producers and writers are learning from the American box sets; even if on a reduced scale.  At the other end of the scale, the turning of a period drama like "Cranford" into something of a continuing soap opera by finding other storylines than in the original adaption, seems a bit of a first for the BBC. Yet, for all the talk of the state-of-the-art facilities at New Media City, it's not the big commissioning departments that are moving initially to the north; it's sport, childrens and digital. One can only assume that the beeb and other producers will increasingly look to make dramatic programmes here as well, as time goes on.The massive investment required to have a 20-episodes a year show for five or more years, that you find with "24", "Lost" et al, is, one thinks, closer to how the old BBC and Granada used to work, with such a rich vein of talent, working on show after show.

Watching "Being Human" and "Survivors" last night, back to back, the first episodes had much in common; there was a little bit of continuation from last time to remind us where we were up to; a single story to keep the casual viewers happy (in "Survivors" a hospital collapses, requiring a search and rescue that felt particularly unsettling in the week of the Haiti earthquake); but most of all some "rebooting of the franchise" via new characters and storylines. In both cases, by episode two you hope the dramas have settled down; there was a little too much pointing at themselves for attention. The Christmas Dr. Who episodes had the same sense of writerly panic, trying to fit everything in to a particular sized dramatic box. (And surely the extra-long final Dr. Who episode was an indulgence only given because it saw Russell T. Davies's final show as well as Tennants.) It's pleasing to see some of the lessons being learnt from HBO and others, yet the bigger picture is that we don't have so clearly a defined "season" as the Americans. It's the same in fiction publishing, and the music industry; there is a timetable, but it seems dictated by the vagaries of awards ceremonies and publishing schedules, rather than something that can be looked forward to by viewers. In the 2nd snowy week of the new year, a rich TV schedule that included a range of new dramas, and a major movie ("Slumdog Millionaire", which slipped out incomprehensibly on a mid-week night), I'm sure we were all glad of some new TV to watch; but I've so vague a grasp on the tv schedules nowadays that I'm not even sure which day these shows premiere on and which days are repeats. If reality TV has shown us anything positive it is that a regular "narrative" arc, with a clear finishing line, and a sense of "event" about it, makes a lot of sense - yet in drama and comedy there's a sense of utter incoherence, at least to my mind, which culminated with the absurdity of a "Gavin and Stacey" christmas day show not being a one-off special but last-but-one in a series, set on a summer beach!


A few little things to add. Enjoyed the first book for our SF book club, Joe Haldeman's "The Forever War" - will blog about it after the book club meeting. Was somewhat perplexed and confused by the much-lauded Haneke movie "Hidden." I'm all for ambiguity, but I just didn't get this one.  I was pleased to hear that Lemn Sissay was honoured in the new year honours; writers don't get too many honours, northern writers less so; and though I'm sure it was a difficult decision about whether to accept or not, its recognition for his work and his integrity over the years. There doesn't seem much on in artistic or literary Manchester in January which seems a shame, though its 5 years of Poets and Players being celebrated at the Whitworth next Saturday.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Manchester's SF Book Group

I've not been a member of a book group since Waterstones did one on foreign literature about a decade ago, so was keen to be involved when I heard that Madlab (Manchester's Digital Laboratory) was thinking of starting one. A Science Fiction book club as well. My love for SF was primarily a teenage thing, yet over the last couple of years a strange thing's happened, I've been reading SF again, whether classics that I'd never got round to like Asimov, re-reading John Wyndham's dystopias or getting excited by new writers, okay, one new writer, China Mieville. I've also started writing SF again, as it somehow allows you to say what you want about the current world in a better, metaphorical way.

Anyway, last night we met in the Northern Quarter for a "scoping meeting." Manchester Libraries are going to be helping out as well, though we all agreed to try and nominate books that are readily available - and with Amazon and the Book Depository you can get most things online in a couple of days and at a reasonable price. Clare Conlon sums up the meeting (not bad since she wasn't there!) here, but I thought I'd reiterate the first 4 books we chose - a nice diverse mix, only one of which, Neuromancer, I've read, and that was years ago.

February - The Forever War by Joe Haldeman
March - The Drowned World by J. G. Ballard
April - Neuromancer by William Gibson
May - The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin

We had a good general discussion about what we'd like to read - and there was a mix of people there, from hardcore SF nuts, to people who just wanted to have something new to read. Its meant to be informal - so all are welcome to read the books, come along - and I guess we'll probably have an evolving group of people over the course of the year. None of these initial books are too long so hopefully it will be easy enough to read them, but I'm sure we'll tackle something massive at some point (such as Mieville or Neil Stephenson), in which case we might alternate it with a short story or two. It was with this in mind that I recommended a "course text book" in Penguin's "A Science Fiction Omnibus" - it includes a lot of the writers we discussed, and we'll probably recommend a story or two from this to complement the monthly novels. 

We're hoping, at least to start with, that each book has an advocate, but beyond that the discussions each month will be quite informal and wide-ranging. I can imagine as the year goes on that we might look at linking it in with the Literature Festival, FutureEverything and other events - and in the post-pub bit of the discussion a couple of people mentioned books that have been made into films; so that might be another angle.

A Google group for the book club has been set up here. 

The Happiest Day of the Year

This year, more than ever, people seemed to be glad of a new start. Whether it was the financial hardships of the last year, the long slog of Christmas, the exceptionally poor weather, or something else, the "seasonal depression" that kicks in at this time of year seemed particularly pronounced. People returned to work and school yesterday with a mix of relief and resignation.

Then, last night, the snow came back down, and everyone in the North - and probably other parts of the country - woke up to a blanket of snow; knowing full well the council's would by now be running out of grit, and that the general daily slog that is the commute into work in this country, was going to be worse than ever. I was off this week already, and would probably have made it in if I'd been working, but according to Twitter pretty much everyone outside the M60 gave up after trying to get past their gate, down their hill, or catch their connection.

Then something happened. Who amongst us can forget those seventies childhood days when school was cancelled and we had an unexpected day off - and if it was the snow that had caused it like today then not only a day off but the whole world turned into a playground. And, for once, childcare's not an issue, as mum and dad can't get into work either. The council's asked everyone not to travel unless it's "essential" and for who amongst us is work really essential? Especially one day back in, knowing that all the meetings you might be planning for later would also be cancelled as the whole country judders to a halt.

Instead, I popped out to Didsbury, and kids were out on their sledges, adults were wrapped up warm. After a couple of weeks when the pedestrian has taken second place to the car, today it was the car and bus that was noticeably absent, and walking in the deep powdery snow that fell last night, the only thing to do was to walk to the local shops, say hello to the neighbours and take photographs of the seasonal beauty. Parsonage Gardens in Didsbury looks like a film set for Narnia, with the ice queen centre stage. Forced to stay at home, and advised not to get in their cars, the world suddenly seemed a happier, more joyous place. Certainly, some people were working, and working hard. A Barbakan bakery van from Chorlton was driving slowly down Wilmslow Road so that the poor people of Didsbury wouldn't starve for lack of specialist Polish bread; by lunch time even the buses were beginning to return to the slush-heavy roads.

Let's be honest, though there have surely been some hardships; the odd pub running out of its specialist ale, a guacamole shortage around Chorlton Green, a delay in Avatar 3D becoming the biggest grossing film ever; for most of us, today must surely be the happiest day of the year.

Friday, January 01, 2010

Oblique Strategies for Writing

The Christmas sales had a number of books half price. I passed on Nick Cave, "The Original of Laura" and Barbara Kingsolver, and picked up Cory Doctorow's "Makers" and John Carey's biography of William Golding instead. The latter's quite a chatty affair, a bit too much, I looked in vain to find out when Golding was born - it was easier to find out from Wikipedia! Note for any biographers reading this: your books are at least one part reference guide, yet few tend to have a chronology these days. I skipped to the chapter entitle "Unpublished Writer", as Golding is famously one of those writers who could so easily have fallen through the net. But it only took one man at Faber, Charles Monteith, to see the potential of "Lord of the Flies" (it wasn't called that in manuscript) to make all the difference. It's striking really, that the two collosuses of British post-war fiction, who came head-to-head in the 1980 Booker, Burgess and Golding, only published their first novel relatively late in life. I've only skimmed a couple of chapters so far, but looking forward to reading the whole book, and, to go back to a couple of the Golding novels I've picked up over the years. He's a little out of fashion, Flies aside, perhaps something to do with the bleak worldview or the enclosed communities he so often writes about; yet surely these are the same qualities we see and like in Cormac McCarthy? (Back to writers' birthdays, having never seen a picture of him, I was astonished to find out that McCarthy was born in 1933 - just 22 years after Golding, for that matter.) 

I've a wall-full of literary biographies, yet I'm not one to ever confuse the writing with the life, I just realise they are so interlinked. I'm perhaps more interested in the writing life, than the life written about. Carey unearths the novels before "Lord of the Flies", a reminder that you don't get into your forties as a writer without a hefty back catalogue. "The Inheritors" and "Pincher Martin" follow in quick succession, the busy schoolmaster, family man and sailor somehow managing to dash off three masterpieces in as many years.

It's a somewhat oblique strategy (to misuse Eno's term) for my own writing, to read biographies of writers I'm not particularly influenced by, but its good to remember the differences between the actual writing, and the literary life that may come with it. For a couple of years now I've been without any to have conversations about writing with, and biographies, letters and the like provide a useful "conversation with the dead" - though necessarily one-way. (This blog is a little too one-way as well, but is another strategy of sorts.)

So, over Christmas I'm writing again, something with a bit more scope than the short pieces I've written the last year or two. The wealth of Manchester-based material I've accumulated over the year might finally see the light of day, though I'm approaching it, as I approached the city, as a newcomer - the novel starting outside of Manchester as I did, but through its music, its buzz, it drawing me in. A New Year's resolution of sorts then; to write my Manchester novel at last.