Saturday, February 27, 2010

A Writer's Condition

I'll always think of glaucoma as a writer's condition. James Joyce was famously a sufferer, as his eyesight deteriorated whilst he frantically wrote to the end of Finnegan's wake. I've often wondered if this last novel was almost an artistic statement of his condition in some way. Glaucoma is a deteriorating condition, so your field of vision reduces, and the treatment's even now, are about stopping that deterioration rather than reversing it. Once it's gone, it's gone. And it's not an exagerration to say that a writer's eyes are more than the window on his or her soul, but the enablers of the whole exercise. Other people just use them to see, a writer uses them to process, to sift, to transform what we see into words. I was diagnosed with glaucoma about five or six years ago, and I know at least two other writers who have it. Perhaps its those years of reading, or close work against a piece of paper or a screen. Or perhaps its just because it can seem more debilitatiing to a writer, because of what we do - what we need to do. After five years of drops, I went in for an operation on Thursday, a "trabeculectomy." Having never had any sort of surgery in the past this was a new experience. The operation seemed to go well, though as it was under a general anaesthetic I have to take the doctors' words for it. I've now more drugs to take for the next week or so than Shaun Ryder on a weekend in Ibiza, and having a quiet time, before going back in to have the eye checked in a week. There's no pain, but there is irritation, and rather than spending my 43rd birthday in a bar somewhere with a glass or two of Pinot Grigio next Thursday, a quiet night in with my medications is in order.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Manchester Old and New

This is the last week of URBIS, before it closes for a considerable period for refurbishment and transformation into the National Football Museum. I managed to drop by for an hour or so yesterday to catch their valedictory exhibition "URBIS has left the building." It's not really an exhibition, actually, more of a post-script to the speed at which these changes have happened - with two other shows, the excellent Homegrown hip hop exhibition, and nostalgic Ghosts of Winter Hill continuing on the other two floors. After this week, that's it though - Cathedral Gardens will be handed back over to the Moshers. I've already written on this blog about URBIS's closing and why it's a shoddy decision; but going back again for the last time (I'll unfortunately miss their closing party); was a reminder of it's successes, and, yes, its failings. This final exhibition doesn't celebrate the whole of URBIS's life, but the last few years when it has reimagined itself in terms of pop culture. There were some absolutely highlights; for me the graffitti art show Ill Communication; Homegrown itself; the Hacienda exhibition and Videogame Nation. I was less convinced by the visiting shows of Chinese and New York artists; these were a million miles away from being contemporary Armoury Shows transforming what the city's artists think about art. Manchester, though it has plenty of good artists, and plenty of good shows, remains, at least in my view, incoherent in its approach to modern art.

I also remembered that there was a time when URBIS wasn't a place when I would naturally visit. That it was TOO corporate, TOO architectural, TOO sterile, TOO consumerist. It has done a lot over the last few years to include the city's artists and artistic communities, as well as the wider public. I'm wondering if they'd embraced these communities when they'd opened how different things might have turned out? Despite its proximity to the creative hotbed of the Northern Quarter it may as well have been in a different city. All of that changed, slowly, over the years, and one thing that hasn't been mentioned - as far as I can remember - in all the change-of-use furore is what happens to the "Best of Manchester" awards, which seemed to becoming a highly valued prize within the city? It would be a real shame if it disappeared with the rest of the building.

I was in town because I was visiting a little bit of Manchester's future - albeit tinged with a knowingness about the past - at the Manchester Modernist Society, a newish art collective space on Salford's Chapel Street. It's seven years since I worked down there at the University, and the glacial pace of regeneration means that it's hardly changed a jot - though a massive gentrification plan is in the offing. It's a perfect place, then, for the Manchester Modernist Society to set up shop - with a passion for the urban environment that seems almost diametrically opposed to the idea that we should build a white elephant first, then decide what it should be. I was there for the launch of LoneLady's debut album Nerve Up, which, recorded in a deserted Ancoats factory, manages to sound stunningly contemporary, whilst echoing with the ghosts of the city's musical and non-musical past. Videos of Suicide, the Buzzcocks and Joy Division flickered on the walls as we talked and drank.

I've been writing about Manchester, or rather, I'm approaching writing about Manchester in the same way as I approached the city; from afar, edging nearer. Manchester's portrayals, whether Cold Feet or Shameless, Queer as Folk or Cracker, rarely seem to take in the whole city. There seems something skewed about these cliches of portrayal. Walking through the city - the two cities, since we were in Salford - we talked about the Manchester music legends, the true stories that will probably never escape from the myths, and how the self-myths of artists remain as true as any (auto)biographical account. URBIS will not disappear from the landscape, its sleek lines dominating a certain part of the city's real estate, but it may as well be an office block or more apartments in terms of the city's cultural life, which continues, as ever, as the night falls, as the drink flows, as the music throbs.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Write Club

There's much useful advice and entertaining reading in the Guardian's Review section today with its "ten rules for writing fiction." I wonder if they'd be a different ten for poetry? Not everyone says, "read", but enough do. There's quite a few that made me smile - particularly Margaret Attwood suggesting you take pencils on a plane - and take two so that if one breaks you'll still be able to use the other as you're not allowed to carry a pencil sharpener or knife these days. Geoff Dyer can, of course, recommend that you never worry about the commercial possibilities of a project, but then he's already got the "American publisher" to sell it for him. Anne Enright reckons, probably correctly, that "the first 12 years are the worse." Quite a few have got a bit of a downer on the internet. The horror of Zadie Smith's suggestion - to have a computer not connected to the internet! I think my brain is now hard-wired to have an internet connection nearby when I'm writing  - as straightforward as having a glass of wine too hand (also frowned upon by one or two.) Interesting that Jonathan Franzen feels that copious research is devalued when everyone has access to information via the internet. He must have a better, more comprehensive internet than mine, I think, though perhaps, in an information rich world, there's a sense that the imaginative and fantastical is what fiction can uniquely bring to the table. I'd never heard of Dorothea Brande's "Becoming a Writer" recommended as the only how to guide you need by Hilary Mantel; perhaps its been embargoed by all these University creative writing departments as a literary equivalent of the infinite lightbulb that would put them out of business for under a tenner? All good fun, and worth ending with Sarah Waters point: "Talent trumps all. If you're a ­really great writer, none of these rules need apply." Absolutely. The rest of us need at least a few rules. As the man said, the first rule of Write Club is you do not write about Write Club...

Friday, February 19, 2010

The Forever War by Joe Haldeman

Pace Groucho Marx, I never thought I'd join a book club that would have me as a member. Yet when the good people of the newly established community hack space, MADLAB, suggested an SF book club, I was straight there. I've gone back to reading SF over the last few years, and whether its literary authors take on the future (such as "The Road" or "The Book of Dave") or the best of the new speculative fiction writers (China Mieville) its clear that now's a good time to be interested in SF. In the cold of early January I joined a dozen or so others to map out the first reading list - and, a month later - nearly double that number had arrived to discuss the first choice, Joe Haldeman's "The Forever War." 

An acknowledged SF classic from 1974,  it was an inspired first choice. Firstly, it's a book I'd not been aware of, so it was good to read something new, and secondly as avowedly a book of big themes it was a great one to start a discussion amongst a group of strangers. Our advocate for the book, Tom, let the group do the talking, priming us with a few key questions about what we thought about the book. The novel tells the story of an elite soldier, William Mandella, who is amongst the first soldiers to fight an alien race, of which very little is known. As humanity goes into far space to battle with this unknown enemy, the parallels with Earthly battles, particularly the Vietnam war, which Haldeman had fought in, and which was so contemporary when the book came out, are clear. An SF book that is as much military adventure as space opera, Mandella is seen through his training (very reminiscent of the scenes at the start of Starship Troopers, or even Full Metal Jacket), before going into space and having the first encounters with an alien they know nothing about. What makes the novel so compelling is that each time he returns to earth - or earth's colonies - he is just a few months or years older, but the human race has changed irrevocably. The people he once knew as a youngster have grown old and died when he first returns, and each further visit, sees the whole society has changed. Earth in his absence has become a war economy.

There was a lot of discussion about those initial training scenes - some people felt that they were a little slow and hard to get through, and its certainly true that the pace of the book speeds up as you get further through it. As you can see from the book covers above, people had different versions of the book, and had first encountered at different times. It was really interesting to hear Dave's experience of going back to a book he'd first read in the early seventies after it had first come out. On the one hand there's a certain dated-ness to the novel, but on the other hand it's themes had stood up well. Dave made the key point that the technology in the book is "pre-digital" - so that there's much visioning of future technology as being physical and mechanical.  For Mandella the soldier, the discomforts of space are very clear, but the imagined future almost has a "steam punk" element to it, with large hulking battle suits. Even medical technology is seen viscerally, as about replacing limbs in a very physical way. It will be fascinating when we look at William Gibson's "Neuromancer" to compare with the book that really imagined a "digital" rather than "mechanical" future.

Amongst a large group there were a number of differing viewpoints, of course, but most people enjoyed the choice - and found the character of Mandella compelling. There was probably less consensus on the earth scenes, though Haldeman's imagination and consistency here was praised. Away in space for so long, Mandella's accumulated wealth makes him rich when returning to earth of it's satellites. Yet the world he has returned to is so changed that he almost can't wait to return to action. Promoted through the ranks as he survives each trip, he is uncomfortable with his new rank, and there's a generation gap between him and the younger soldiers. Our group had some reservations about Haldeman's sexual politics - the soldiers are forced to sleep with a different woman every night during the first scenes - yet later in the book, heterosexuality has become an incomprehensible perversion. To me it did seem to fit a little with the concerns of the time in which it was written. Oddly, as someone pointed out, it hardly mentions race - except to note that over time humankind has become a generic pan-asian type - yet concentrates on sexuality. The love story that comes into play as the book progresses was also praised. Though I felt the other characters were a little thinly drawn, it certainly adds a human element to the tale.

It was a wide ranging meeting - and it was good to hear a range of views, from SF obsessives to SF newbies. In a convivial atmosphere, a pile of Pizzas arrived to form a natural break in the discussion, and inevitably a group of us ended across the road at Common. The next book is J.G. Ballard's "The Drowned World" but we're also asked to read Clifford Simak's short story "Skirmish" from our "course anthology", the Penguin SF Omnibus. 

We now have a hashtag (#mcrsf) and the Google group that has been set up to discuss the progress of the club has a few further suggestions beyond the first 4 book choices that we decided in January, and all are welcome to join in, contribute, and come along to the next one on 16th March. (Photo courtesy of Madlab.)


P.S. Just remembered a couple of other things... apparently the book is going to be made into a 3D film by Ridley Scott (cue much dissing of Avatar, particularly by the poor guy who's a projectionist at the IMAX and had seen it a zillion times!) - and Manchester Libraries has ordered copies of the next 3 books that will be able to be borrowed from the Madlab itself.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Literary Communications

Is the literary blogosphere getting a little tired? Quite a few new years resolutions from bloggers were to blog less; and perhaps as we embrace a world of short messaging, twitters & buzzes, the considered tradition of the blog will disappear from the virtual news-stands. Though there are valiant efforts out there to highlight new blogs, particularly, the Manchester Blog Awards and Kate Feld's accompanying Mancuinan blogroll; bloggers come and go. The more literary ones seem to sail high for a little while then give up, or go on to writing their novel/Guardian column, or just find life getting in the way. How long, after all, should a blog last for? The Americans as ever, do things differently...and some American blogs are now undoubtedly online magazines with large audiences, numerous contributors, perhaps even with staff and an income. The British bloggers, bless us, still have a bit of the back shed feel about them (about us!) - and long may that continue; though as Wordpress and other platforms offer increased sophistication for free (though its never really free is it? the time it takes...) even that may become increasingly rare.

Yet the literary blog - that esteemed organ, around a decade into its life - always had a number of reasons for being. As a platform for a writer's work; as a connection with readers (blog readers or book readers) providing access between writer and reader; as a review service, when so many newspapers had stopped reviewing; and as a voice for the marginalised, the niche... all of those still exist of course, but I'm wondering whether, like the small magazine which was their offline model, the literary blog is getting a bit weary? There's a number of writers who have since left the space, either because of life getting in the way, out of pique, or simply because of the time it takes; and though the estimable Brit Lit blogs still has a wide range of contributors - I realise there seems to be less comment than there used to be on literary matters, at least on this side of the Atlantic. Reading a few blog posts, and following a few links today, I became aware of a number of things - the new issue of the Manchester review for instance, featuring an extra of Martin Amis's new novel and Tindal Street Press's 10th anniversary collection, Roads Ahead that came out last year. Despite following lots of literary types on twitter (that's assuming literary types do twitter, it's certainly limited!), and going back to old favourites now and then, I realise that for all the activity that's undoubtedly out there on literary blogs, in the UK at least, it's not so easy to find out exactly what's going on - whether we're talking literary prizes, competitions, readings or just new books. Writers, who were amongst the most enthusiastic takers to the web in the early days are still there, but whereas the blog and online magazine used to complement the offline publishing world - I get the feeling that they're both sinking a little together. Pity the poor literary editor who now has to find time for his or her website as well as the printed magazine; or the small publisher who has to add online-marketing to the not inconsiderable other tasks to hand.

I'd probably hoped, in my own case, that this blog would have changed over the years, maybe into something more than just a blog, more of a literary website - but without the time to dedicate to such delusions, it's no surprise I've kept it simple. Additional congratulations then to those like 3AM Magazine who've stuck the distance. With the next threat to the literary status quo being seen with the new generation of e-book readers like the iPad, I get the sense that literary types on the web, may need to develop what they're doing or else get lost amongst the next generation of applications and services.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Creation / Birth

Go round a friend with young children and chances are their walls are strewn with paintings and drawings and poems done by their offspring. It's the very act of creation - the fact that there's a little bit of their young personality in these expressions - that makes them worthwhile.

As an artist, whether you paint, write, make music, whatever, the joy of creation is both in its process - compelling as that often is - and it's birth. Before I started writing this poem/recording this song it did not exist...and now it does. The other stuff, the post-creation side of things is less important; and its not to deny the value in honing a piece of work, making it better, improving its sound, its shape... but importantly, keeping its essence. Was talking with a friend earlier, as her debut album comes out in a couple of weeks. I've known Julie for years, as an artist, musician and poet - we collaborated on Lamport Court amongst other things - and I remember hearing some of these songs emerge bit by bit at gigs, or on self-financed releases. Now Lonelady is in the NME those creative births can grow wings.

Yet, the real joy of an artist goes back to that creation. There's something so powerful about creating something new - something primal as well; from a muddy clay, come forth. In some ways it's justification enough. I realised as I listened to "You Want to Know Something?" that I'd not recorded any music for about six months. Sitting down on Monday evening I could hardly be bothered with the effort to plug everything in, dust off the keys etc. yet at some point I just did it, and a new song came into existence that otherwise wouldn't be there. It hardly matters, in a creative sense, whether a song or poem is good or bad, for me, I think the key thing is that it has come from nothing into something. That's not to say its artistic worth is irrelevant - much the opposite: there are too many books and records and TV shows and movies where you feel that there's no originality in the thing before you. For an artist, there's always a real question of self-documentation. We are fascinated by whether Salinger wrote after his disappearance, because we want to discover another masterpiece, or because we want to understand the earlier writing better; yet for Salinger, perhaps the creation - if he did any - is what matters.

I've never gone back to my writing, my recordings, and said "I wish I'd done less." Yes, there's a time when I wish I'd been more concentrated on a particular piece, but even when I'm coming up with rough sketches I've always had a sense of completing a piece, even if not always finishing it. There's a tantalisation about the unfinished work, but only where we value the artists' finished pieces. There's another side to this of course. We don't want to let our history be dictated by different timetables than the creative one. For me, I've regretted - sometimes with amazement - that on going down a particular path I didn't go further in that direction. Those decisions are what tantalises me. Yet I remain convinced that in a world where most things - from software applications to TED talks - are valued according to their "impact", that art speaks firstly to itself, and firstly to the artist; that it satisfies a desire to fill a space that had the artistic process (the writing, the painting, the recording) not taken place, would have remained empty.

I'm not sure how clear all that is. But going back to the original point, that the reason for creativity is to give birth to something, to just do it, I'm not asking for a "naive art" so much as a mature one, that has an artistic rather than a purely commercial motive. The two can coincide of course; but there has to be, for me, a value in the very action of doing this thing, this creative thing, again, again, again. 

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

R&B Divas

There's not much literature about rock 'n' roll, or rather not much good literature about rock music. There's even less about rap, soul etc. though there's plenty of fictionalised stories (Dreamgirls.) Been thinking that if I was to write a music story for the contemporary age it would have to be about the R&B divas. There seem an endless number of them, and for a long time, some of the best music came from them. Yet, something's happened to our divas. They seem to have lost a bit of their self-confidence. A brief history of the R&B diva should probably begin with Janet Jackson and "Control." The title said it all; after 2 manufactured records, Janet stepped out from the family shadow, hired (rather than was hired by) top notch producers Jam & Lewis, and came up with an album that was as brim full of attitude as it was of tunes. Over the next few years Jackson's self-aware confidence gave us further mega albums such as "Rhythm Nation 1814" and "Janet". As "new jack swing" "r&b" and "urban" became THE key musical styles of the 90s, the female soul singer changed from being a big voice on whom a producer could hang their style, to being the key part of the whole enterprise. Think of Mary J. Blige's genre defining "What's the 411?" or Missy Elliot's "Miss E  - So Addictive." Sure there was a formula; a big voice, a backstory that included some personal tragedy, a brilliant production team (or teams); but whether solo act or girl group (TLC, Destiny's Child), much of the best music of the 90s and early 21st century was female fronted r&b. Yet listening to Beyonce's last album "I am...Sasha Fierce" or Alicia Key's new album, there seems to have been a change. These are no longer Kelis or TLC style pieces of affirmative action against a mans, mans world, but album length love breakdowns. The contemporary diva is strong, but in a different way. She's not gone out and started again; she's overcoming her depression. I think Keys' "Empire State of Mind Pt.2" is a brilliant piece of music, but coming at the end of an album of big, mid-paced soulsearching soul its got me craving for "Caught out there" "No Scrubs" or "What Have You Done For Me Lately?" It is the Pink's, the Kate Perry's, the Nelly Furtado's who are having all the fun, with their rock stylings loosened with a bit of r&b slinkiness, whilst our R&B divas seem to be caught in a (highly commercial) trap: between the reality TV big ballads on the one hand and the antediluvian "hos and bitches" stance of contemporary hip hop on the other. Missy Elliot, Kelis, Lisa "Left-Eye" Lopez and Mary J. Blige may have gone for the occasional collaboration, and worked with top producers, but you always felt they had the upperhand. Obligatory Jay-Z or Kanye collaborations aren't the issue; more that in the past it would have been the diva who was the main draw, and the rapper was having to work hard to keep up. Maybe it was the mega-success of Christina Aguilera's "Stripped" album and its ultimate self-love/self-hate ballad "Beautiful", or maybe it's just the contemporary world. But I for one am wanting my divas to be less "I can feel your halo", and more "I hate you so much right now."

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Event Literature

A new novel as an "event"? It seems rare. Yet, you get the sense that this is where the "celebrity" of Martin Amis comes into it's own. "The Pregnant Widow", his 11th novel (the count seems to exclude the novella "Night Train"), is being hailed as a return to form. I've my copy already, and though I'm not sure I'll devour it immediately, the first 50 pages or so have been a joy to read. It's like when Lou Reed recorded "New York", it's like "thank God, at last he's recorded a Lou Reed album again". At last Martin Amis has written a Martin Amis novel again. He'll be reading from it as his latest public lecture at the University on Monday, though I'm not sure whether I'll make it down. Amis has always made the case for comedy, for satire - and it's Amis the satirist I think we might find has made a welcome return in this book, Amis the entertainer. More on this when I've the actual book.

I enjoyed Wednesday's The Other Room and picked up ZimZalla's "object 2" - a 3 writer collection, one of whom, Holly Pester was one of the readers on Wednesday. Diminutive, young, southern-accented, she gave a compelling performance of work that it was then a surprise to find could also exist on the page. Much avant garde works is concerned with the disconnections and disfunctions of communication, and Pester's approach is to deconstruct a topic into words and syllables and sounds and then perform the work, with these deconstructions as a powerfully shocking rhythm or subtext. So in a piece that is apocalyptic in tone, she takes on the bangs and hisses of a shortwave radio after the catastrophe, and in a piece about an eye test she turns the optician's chart into the verbal throb of the poem. Excellent stuff. Steven Waling and Rob Holloway performed either side of Holly, with very different styles, Waling's work becoming increasingly observational and anecdotal, whilst retaining a roaming sensibility, whilst Holloway's is very much that particularly avant orthodoxy of accumulation - words, images - with little being conceded to the overtly personal. On another cold snowy Manchester night, we stayed put until last orders, but my eyes were going as I slumped down on the bus.

Monday, February 01, 2010

This diverse city life

The new year has turned hectic, perhaps the lost week because of snow has compacted everyone's activity. Anyway, tonight I'm at Social Media Cafe Manchester, debating the yet-to-be-released iPad amongst other things. All last weeks hype about the device is settling down into a period that seems more sceptical than expectant, as, perhaps unusually for Apple, the penny drops that the market for this device might not be the Apple-obsessives but their mums and dads. With the exception of the iPod, Apple's always missed the mass market by a long way. One of the key reasons for buying the iPad remains the least sexy, to be the best eReader on the market. Bigger and better than the Kindle and Sony eReader, and not as niche as either of them, it could get a decent market share just from that market alone. (At least in the UK, where the Kindle was notoriously slow to appear.) The devil, as always with Apple, is in the detail. The web's full of stories of e-book pricing, with publishers falling over themselves to say that the physical cost of a book is actually hardly anything, hence no price differential with the e-book version. Really? Then maybe an enterprising publisher should bundle the 2 together then. Pay an extra 1p and get the physical version as well. Anything that increases the e-book market has to be good thing, I think, as without a viable market the chances for innovative electronic books being developed will be somewhat small.

Small publishing is alive and well of course, (or as well and alive as it ever is), and this week's The Other Room at the Old Abbey Inn on Wednesday promises to be a treat. I'm on a panel at the other end of town the week beforehand, so I'm hoping that finishes in time for me to make it.

I've a piece published in Arts Professional magazine this week, for any arts professionals reading this who subscribe to it. Its a piece co-authored with Hannah Rudman about the ethnographic evaluation that we undertook on the AmbITion project I managed last year for the arts council.

Just a reminder that the music I've recently put online is available to listen to or to download for free. Both my recent LP "You Want to Know Something?" and previous E.P. "Popular Songs" are now available on the site, and I'll add some other older music over the coming weeks.

One other thing before the new Martin Amis book comes out and dominates all rational thought for the rest of the month: a fascinating article on American literary magazines I found via Arts and Letters Daily. 

I've always felt that our lack of literary magazine culture to match America has been a disadvantage, but it seems that this particular American jewel is disappearing under a mixture of university cutbacks, mediocre magazines, and the retirement of editors - never mind the continuing perplexity of a culture of "creative writers" who don't, apparently, read themselves. Though the literary magazine is problematic even here in the UK. I like the idea of the magazine more than the magazines themselves. They tend to too narrow a definition (whether defined by editor or readers tastes I'm not sure), or drift too far from the literary (reportage, memoir et al.) Few concern themselves with both poetry and fiction, for like the farmers and the cowmen in Oklahoma, the novelists and the poets can't be friends. Newer, younger magazines haven't quite shed their desire to be edgy (where edgy seems to mean stories derived from a pantheon that runs all the way from Bukowski to Irvine Welsh), whilst odder ones are so often tastefully unread. So I like literary magazines, but can't seem to find one that I particularly like at the moment. My general rule would be that the smaller and more scruffily produced they are, the better they might turn out to be. There's something about the neater magazine that seems to mitigate against the messiness of the best literature. Just a thought.