Thursday, December 29, 2011

10 Day Creative Bootcamp

I'm off work following Christmas for a week and a half and though I've lots of mundane things to do, my mine reason is to put some serious time and effort into my creative work. How to do that? Concentrate on one particular project? Well, that would be fine, but I'm not sure I've got one at the moment. Instead, I'm treating it as a 10 day creative "bootcamp" - to get my creative work into some kind of shape. Whether I'm doing new or old work, music or writing, I've set myself a few ground rules that take into account that I've still got to eat, drink, live, socialise etc. etc. whilst making some serious inroads into a range of creative projects.

Not too many rules as that would be counter-productive but here's what I've come up with....

1. Do something creative every day (music or writing - either is fine, but it should be related directly to my creative work, not this blog for instance!)
2. Finish the thing I am working on before starting something new (though this could be a phase e.g. finishing a first draft of a story, rather than the whole project)
3. I can do other things, like reading, housework, shopping, Facebook as long as it doesn't replace the creative stuff - and I need to mix things up a bit anyway, don't I?
4. New stuff is good, but getting old or half-finished stuff into shape is also good - and may well be the driver for the first few days.

I'll let you know how I get on.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

The modern novel is obsessed with secrets withheld. In an age when everything is potentially known, from the private messages left on a celebrity's hacked phone to the open threads and conversations on Facebook, it's as if the old novelistic trick of pulling a rabbit from a hat has to find new ways of cloaking its secrets. The first person narrator and their inevitably selective memory and retelling offers the novelist the equivalent of a personal twitter feed, with others' own conversations crowded out by the protagonist's self regard.

Accept the magic trick and the novel can win prizes, amaze the readership - but will you want to go back to it, once you know the revelation? In "The Gathering" Anne Enright's narrator keeps the key fact from us, though she could have told us on day one - and in Julian Barnes' "The Sense of an Ending" the narrator, Tony, gives us a partial account of a university love affair - only to find out the truth of his actions forty years later.

In a horse race, gamblers bet not just on the horse or jockey on the going, the course and the distance. Barnes' book is slightly more than a sprint, but less than a chase, with the winning post visible even from the start. It makes the first part of the race untidy, as his characters jostle for position. A novel needs to have veracity and in the first half of the book, Barnes struggles to achieve it. Beginning at a boys school in London, three friends add the new boy, Adrian Finn, to their number. In the first few pages you'd be forgiven for thinking this was a draft for a sixties episode of "The Inbetweeners" with less sex-talk and more philosophy. They split, as friends do, to go to university, where, almost absently, our narrator tells of his own first relationship, with a girl called Veronica, who, despite it being the sixties is reluctant to "put out." Both precise in its time (the late 60s) and sloppy in its detail, you feel that Barnes, or more truthfully his unreliable narrator, is just in a hurry to get round the bend. Is there such a difference between studying at Bristol as Tony does and Cambridge as Adrian does? Are the class differences between him and Veronica's family really as marked as he makes out? This is hardly Alan Sillitoe territory. Tony listens to Tchaikovsky and Dvorak whilst his girlfriend has more sophisticated (but unremarked tastes), and, oh, he's got "the Beatles, the Stones...etc." a generic list of 60s music if ever there was one. Though I can well believe that priggish middle class boys would have a bit of classical alongside their pop music, the details of this life are slapdash, reading like a first draft that should be fixed later.

For later is when the novel delves into the psychological ripples of events - and harsh words said and written - nearly half a century before. We meet the retired Tony, post-divorce, his marriage and daughter written off in a couple of paragraphs, as his past comes back to him via a letter from a solicitor regarding the estate of his ex-girlfriend's mother, a woman he only ever met the one weekend. On these thin pivots, Barnes weaves a meticulous plot of secrets withheld, misunderstood - and lives twisted out of what they might have been. Without the "sense of an ending" that this letter and the subsequent events provide, it would be hard to single out these lives as different than any others. Again, as so often in the work of Barnes and his contemporaries (Amis and Kureishi in particular), male friendship and the betrayals that can come from pursuit of the same woman are central to this short, poignant work. If Tony isn't particularly telling us the "whole truth" the holding back of information which is the thing that allows these novels to work comes here from Veronica who in a single email could have made the second half of the novel redundant. Without her voice we are left with Tony's gradual realisation - as he comes to the final furlong - of what the sequence of events both on and off stage, actually was.

It's impossible to say any more without "spoilers". However, despite its many structural and psychological qualities, it is not without major flaws. In "On Chesil Beach" Ian McEwan writes about a more innocent time - pre-sixties - as if to remind us that it once existed and here, writing about a similar middle class cohort, Barnes gives us the line that for many people the sixties only actually came about in the seventies. Very true for working class people in the Midlands and the North - but for the southern middle classes heading to university in the late 60s? Perhaps...but one wonders. The cultural references all seem wrong somehow - and its like Barnes doesn't really care. His narrator is prone to saying he lacks interest in things - whether music, football or cars - then will digress enough to list long-forgotten British sports car marques. Our own memories might be flawed, but we expect more from a narrator. It hardly seems enough to say "I'm not sure" or to dismiss memories as unimportant, when in the next breath he's reciting conversations verbatim.

There's something else though - Barnes is usually complimented on his elegant prose, but elegant or not, much of the first half of this book seems barely competent, stock scenes that are meant to take the place of more considered character building. In his rush to get to the denouement, with his carefully assembled architectural structure, I found myself despairing at the inauthenticity of much of the novel, the arbitrary nature of much of the writing, as if he was more interested in the scaffolding than the building. Whereas Stephen King's "11.22.63" which I read the previous week takes infinite care over the minutiae of his fictional late 50s, here we have a casualness that seems all too common in even our better writers. Detail, whether its pop cultural references or socioeconomic truth is somehow seen as unecessary. The psychological truth of the book is all that matters. Read Coetzee's "Summertime" and you'll find a preciseness to both the language and the subject matter that is lacking here. Adrian Finn is given to us in second-hand, through broad brush strokes of verbatim sparring with his schoolmasters, yet this all seems to be telling rather than showing. Veronica and her family are all described so disparagingly that the idea that she was ever any more to Tony than a casual university relationship would seem absurd. As always in these novels of male friendship, the crucial friendship is the other one - between Tony and Adrian - yet in reality it hardly exists - and when they are separated by a circumstance, you feel it is with mutually beneficial.

Barnes has always been at his best in the immediacy of the moment - whether its the satirical thrill of the ark in "A History of the World" or the psychological menage of "Talking it Over." And he's back there again, excelling at a small psychodrama that wants us to examine life, regret, memory and love. Yet it seems to me that however effectively he does this, the tools he uses elsewhere in the book are becoming blunt - the novel relies too much on our good grace. Contemporary British writers have a tendency to extol masters like James, Proust and Flaubert, yet seem to offer a mere echo of them, and think that is enough. The lives we are reading about in "The Sense of an Ending" seem inauthentic, the story schematic, and the detail uneven and prosaic even as, with his usual masterly application of narrative structure and psychological motive, he drags us breathlessly to the finishing line. It's an effective conjuring trick, but feels somehow old hat - a trick that the experienced reader has seen once too often.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Snowdrops by A.D. Miller

"Snowdrops" is a first novel that was surprisingly shortlisted for this year's Booker. The "surprise" was because it is essentially a thriller, and they don't usually get mentioned in such circles.

Set in early 21st century Moscow, its a short, succinct novel about contemporary Russia, its contradictions, chaos and corruption. A "snowdrop" we are told from the off, is a body that is only found after the thaw when the snow recedes. Yet if this implies a post-Glasnost KGB tale - which I was perhaps expecting - its far from it. Like Joseph O'Neill's "Netherland" its a tale told after the fact by a youngish male narrator who has somewhat absently ended up in a particular place and time. The narrator is in his mid-thirties, and is writing down the story of what happened to him in Russia so that his wife-to-be (who we never encounter) can know about this particular episode in his life.

In tight, short chapters Miller sketches out a Moscow that we probably imagined, but hadn't seen, of corrupt officials, manipulative oligarchs, cheap prostitutes and naive foreigners, stranded there, not on some Soviet-era diplomat mission but as emissaries of the new money pouring into Russia. Miller gives us two stories of corruption - the one, an oil deal that is taking up Nick Platt's day job, and a love story when he meets Masha on the train. Told in retrospect, we know from the off that the story is not of true love running smoothe and the device provides both an intimacy to the novel but also its weakness. When Ford Madox Ford or Graham Greene "looked back" it was a framing device which then left us with the story, told as it unfolded, but here our narrator frequently interjects as he knows the ending and offers his regret even before the deeds he is ashamed of take place. Nick is a "reliable" narrator, but it is Masha, the Russian lover he takes, who is "unreliable" though we never hear from her except through him. There are plenty of clues about her suspect nature - from her travelling everywhere with her "sister" Katya, to her introducing Nick to her "aunt" and getting him to help with the paperwork around a property deal. The plot is more like an episode of "Hustle" than a Le Carre, with Nick our unwitting mark. But you can see what Miller is trying to do. The back cover references both Greene and Robert Harris. He takes from the latter the near-screenplay slickness of storytelling, and from the former a classic foreigner abroad scenario. Yet a corporate lawyer seems curiously without jeopardy, even if he's as distanced from his home town (Luton of all places) as any number of Greene heroes.

In many ways, the novel seems a device to look around the new Russia with the eye of someone who is both an insider (he has been there 4 years, and speaks passable Russian) and a visitor. The small cast of characters that Nick interacts with, may appear to be stereotypes (and that he meets the same policeman twice or bumps into Katya accidentally in a bar seems to imply Moscow is little more than a village), but they are drawn with care, and you want to be there be his side as he begins to fall into the trap that is clearly being laid for him.

I enjoyed the book, its a decent first novel, clearly structured despite its single sitting length. Nick is a distant character in many ways, but never really comes to life. His mother visits and she makes the comment that Masha is "too cold" for him - yet he seems a curious innocent abroad - having fled to Russia in his mid-thirties when the work opportunity arose, but without much of a life behind. Indeed, had Greene wrote this, you'd feel there would be a love affair behind him, not in front. It has a certain "mock noir" feel to it that you find in quite a few contemporary novels - where the experience seems second hand, somehow. It's that lack of jeopardy again; with the experience in Moscow both a life-changing one but also unimportant. He will return to the life he always expected to have - with Moscow an interlude that could have either made or break him but in the end does neither.

"Snowdrops" is well worth a read, and the sense of Moscow at a time of momentous, constant change is well-drawn, yet I can't help thinking that compared to, say, Ian Rankin's Edinburgh, the description of the city seems partial. Even the love affair at the novel's heart doesn't seem to come alive. Compare to the dark forces that Ian McEwan writes about in his 50s cold war thriller "The Innocent" for instance. Perhaps its not its genre attributes that got it to the Booker shortlist, but more its desire to read something from the story - yet Nick is hardly a compelling character. With the other characters - including Steve, his drunken, priapic journalist friend - drawn straight from central casting, the relationship with Masha has too much work to do; but it feels as distant to the reader, as it does to the narrator telling it retrospectively. I think there's probably a desire, via the scenes with the "aunt", Tatiana Vladimirovna, to contrast the old and new Russia, but again Nick is too distant a figure, too much of an onlooker. As the plots around him unfold you find he's not even the key actor in his own story, merely an attendant figure. Like a "mark" in one of "Hustle's" long cons, he could be anyone - though that, perhaps, is the point. Even this "new" Russia is seen as a passing phase - a moment in time before some of the darker practices become frowned upon, the gold rush over. In this world love, property, even life, are seen as transitional - and Nick, looking back, misses feeling that alive.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

National Short Story Day

Today is National Short Story Day - as its the shortest day.

Stories and information here

And I've put one of my stories "My Life According to the Albums of David Bowie 1968-1983" on my author website.

11.22.63 by Stephen King

"The past is obdurate" says Jake Epping (aka George Amberson) repeatedly in Stephen King's 750 page time travel novel. Its a phrase that could apply to writers, when faced with "watershed" moments in history, such as the JFK assassination. The big subject requires the big book, as Elroy's "American Tabloid", Mailer's "Oswald's Tale" and now this make clear. King takes a literal approach to this literary time travel, and Epping, following the prompts of a dying man who has been doing this for years as it is, pops down the "rabbit hole" into a particular space and time in the past. This simple device gives a structure to the otherwise torturous business that writers have when negotiating time travel. King, though always aware of the paradoxes about time travel, doesn't want to write a SF novel as such. He's also not that interested in highlighting those differences between then and now, though highlight them he does. For though Epping has stepped back before he was born, the smalltown America of 1950s America (1958 in fact) has always been a touchstone for King. You could argue that most of his early novels were sat in a pretty unchanging version of this landscape. There's not a single McDonalds or other chain restaurant, the cars are like those lined up like the Boston Aquarium in Robert Lowell's "For the Union Dead" and people habitually leave their back doors open or trust a written reference from an unknown college. But there's also segregated toilets, and even the smalltown people of Jodie, near Dallas, where Epping makes his home, think a woman's place in the home even when she's being beaten up by her husband. There's almost as much violence against women in the novel as in a James Elroy, but in Epping/Amberson King has a defending angel who has come back to stop it happening. He has also come to stop that other wifebeater Lee Harvey Oswald from killing JFK, but that's another story.

Though we begin in the present, and there's an obligatory 9/11 reference or two, King's world is not the one we currently inhabit. The distance from here to the 1970s when he first was published is a longer one than between then and 1958 after all, albeit with the sixties revolution in the middle. Going back in the past Epping becomes Amberson, a name taken from a gravestone, and - importantly - given that he is going back to finish another mans task (the dying Al), he has his own quest, to right the wrong that happened to one of his students. The sense of dread, that he so often turned into a physical supernatural horror in his earlier novels, is here from the start, but the horror is a human one - albeit, because it is a past event that the narrator already knows about, one that can be changed. But what is the consequence?

Structurally the novel is superb, with the chance to repeat the past like a video game offering a second chance if things go wrong. You can stop, pause, start again. The paradox is that you are getting older. Also, as George Amberson begins to live a life in the past, he begins to see that it is not immune to his presence. How do you write about such a vast subject as the Kennedy assassination? King is not a political writer, and the journey to Dallas is a long one, punctuated by more typical King fare. Jake Epping was a good schoolteacher and George Amberson becomes one. That he can also face the dark challenge of murdering another man, even to save lives, is a sign of his own moral complexity. Even though he knows the big things that are going to happen, he doesn't know the things that will take place in his own new life, and he creates one with the lovely Sadie. As Amberson is our narrator we're able to take on board his uncertainties as he weighs up his own happiness against the reason he is there, to "stop Oswald." But before he does so he has to be sure the conspiracy theorists were wrong, and that Oswald was a lone shooter.

There are contrivances here, but in many ways, the book's strength is its willingness to address them. All King's storytelling skills are here, and the long preambles in earlier books before the horror shows itself, are reflected here. For the horror is here a very human one. That if we know what is going to happen then our attempts to change it will bring consequences. In this alternative past that Amberson is creating, things keep repeating or stopping his progress, as if it is a dream he is living through. King, the arch chronicler of smalltown dread, manages to turn the whole of 50s America into a series of smalltowns. He reimagines Oswald's tale as primarily a family saga. The political conspiracy you get in Elroy is hardly hinted at. In all of America Amberson can't use his foreknowledge to put a bet on without coming into contact with the same Mafia-connected group of bookmakers. But isn't this always the way? Even as we change our lives - our location - our name - we then recreate what we have before. Sometimes better, sometimes worse.

The weakest part of the book is when Amberson begins to reconaissance Oswald. After all he is not an all-seeing-narrator and he has with him only those tools that you can buy from an electronics shop in 1958. Though one applauds King's ingenuity, Oswald and his family seen from afar seem almost invisible, and, of course, there is no motive. But again, these scenes are to set-the-scene, rather than anything deeper. Amberson's motive for getting rid of Oswald is as much about him being a wifebeater as him killing the President.

As you'd expect from King, there is plenty of action, but the length of the novel provides many other pleasures. King's 1958 is meticulous, and his narrator is a winning, if sometimes emotionally distant, guide through those years. There is more than getting up close to history in the book, rather, King has used the device to talk to us about the fundamentals in our life - the chance moment that means you get caught by a stray bullet, or meet the woman you love. The novel could be called "chance and consequence" for the latter is never far away - every action, after all,creating another reaction.

Though there's nothing in the novel strikingly original - the time travel motif is well worn; the Kennedy assination more so - King has crafted a remarkably compelling novel about the 20th century, which as we begin to see the chance and consequence of the 21st, gives us pause for thought - as well as a superb read.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Books of the Year

I find it hard to have a books of the year, given that I don't always get time to read that much. However, one or two gems have come across my path and it might be a late present prompt for somebody.

All Roads Lead to France by Matthew Hollis

Hollis's biography of Edward Thomas is justly acclaimed. Beautifully written and paced, despite one knowing the inevitable sadness of the ending; though for a poet, death is not the end, and being forgotten is perhaps the ultimate tragedy - yet Hollis brings us a sense of Thomas the man, an exhaustive and exhausted literary critic, who, at a relative late stage, finds his poetic voice fully formed. As "romantic" of the myth of the poet dying is, we get a feeling that this tragedy is a shared one: his friends (including Robert Frost) and family; for English letters. An exemplary work, and excellent read.

Salt Modern Voices Pamphlet series

I was published in this series myself late last year, but there's been a flurry of others since. It would be unfair, having read with some of the poets to single any one out in particular, and I'm not entirely sure which were this year and last. Thanks to Angela Topping, JT Welsch, Clare Trevien, Lee Smith, Emily Hasler and Shaun Belcher for reading with me this year, and I'm only sorry I haven't yet managed it with Robert Graham, Mark Burnhope and the new writers in the series. As they say on the BBC, "other pamphlet series are available," but this one has plenty to show for it.

Best British Short Stories 2011 ed. by Nicholas Royle

The first in a series, it attempts to bring together the best short stories from the last 12 months. Like all anthologies it has its ups and downs - but there's something to please everyone. Particularly liked stories by David Rose and Leone Ross. I'm still dipping into it so not read them all, and if some are decidedly pedestrian, most zip along with the brio you hope to find from the form. Felt the bigger names or staider magazines were the least interesting in many ways. It will be interesting next year to see if Royle's choice for the Manchester Fiction Prize make the cut when there's another editor - as he didn't find prize stories to particularly appeal this one.

11.22.63. by Stephen King

I'm half way through and thoroughly gripped - the first King novel I've read for about 20 years. He takes on the biggest story here - JFK's assassination and his contemporary hero goes "down the rabbit hole" to 1958 to prepare to change history. King's great skills, in talking about smalltown America, the country's mythos, and a sense of impending dread are all here in plentiful supply. Not finished it yet, but think it will be one of the books of the year, regardless.

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

Having not read much fiction recently, this prizewinning novel impressed me with its brilliance. In amongst all the spats about this years Booker, it seems to get forgotten how the best American novels seem light years ahead of most things the commonwealth is producing. Egan's is a contemporary masterpiece that even tries McSweeney's style trickery (a Powerpoint presentation in one chapter) and pulls it off admirably.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

My Artistic Year

Where did these 12 months go? After last year's interregnum - when I was out of action for several weeks after an operation - I spent much of the year catching up on the projects I was working on. My Salt pamphlet "Playing Solitaire for Money" came out in late 2010, and so I was spent some time working on the website for that launch, and have added content to that during the year.

I had the launch of the pamphlet as a joint reading with JT Welsch in January at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation in Manchester, and we'd read together several more times during the year. Although I was determined to take opportunities for reading and promoting the book, it sometimes takes time to develop this side of things. Thanks to the Salt Modern Voices tour, and the hard work of the other writers on it, I've read in different places to different audiences. Probably over 300 people have seen me read since I first read from the pamphlet in late 2010 at Didsbury Arts Festival, taking in the University of Manchester, St. Ann's Square and the Whitworth Gallery in Manchester, Northwich, Market Drayton, London, Nottingham and the University of Warwick. Although I've been steadily writing new poems, these haven't really found their way out into the world as yet. I've also been writing various fiction pieces, but intermittently, as time allows, though I can't not mention, "The New Club" which appeared in the Quickies anthology of "very short adult fiction" premiered at an uproarious Didsbury Arts Festival event. Over Christmas I'll try and finish some of these pieces off.

My music was also in consolidation mode - as most of my 3rd album since 2007, "In Times of Troubled Lives" was recorded last year, but I finished the work and got it duplicated in the spring, followed by a side-project EP under the name "Monochrome Industrial Dystopia" in the summer.

A busy year work wise, with the threat of redundancy hanging over me for the first half of the year, and alot of travel around my job seeing me have ten trips abroad during the year, including first visits to Germany and Finland.

This blog has taken a bit of a backseat, and as the conversation moves to Twitter and Facebook, I have a sense that it may soon have run its course, but we shall see - there's occasionally things I want to say about literature and art, and this is a convenient place to say them.

So overall, its been a year when my thoughts have turned from the "making" of work to the performing and promoting of that work. It's been nice to be offered opportunities to read in different places and contexts - culminating in last night's appearance for the Whitworth Gallery "Dark Matters" exhibition and a large piece in the Manchester Evening News about the performance.

Too early for New Years Resolutions of course, and its strange to be in a position when I've been concentrating on work from the recent past, rather than the work I'm doing at the time. One thing about reading a lot is that you also listen a lot, such as the other Salt Modern Voices, and I've tried to get to see interesting writers when they've come to town, or regular nights such as The Other Room, which remain inspiring. Literature, like music and art, remains an inspiration to me, as well as something I continue to practice myself. In some ways 2011 was a year when I more fully integrated these interests, and began to exploit them a bit more. I hope 2012 offers further opportunities.

Shadows in the Snow Mirror

Reading at the Whitworth Gallery last night as part of their "After Hours" event. I am reading in front of Daniel Rozin's "Snow Mirror" and my audience have materialised in the mirror beside me. I'm having to use my mobile phone flashlight to illuminate my poetry book.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Albums of the Year 2011

I can't pretend its been a year when I've gone out of my way to listen to new music, and with a few exceptions, that which I have heard hasn't been that exceptional. There seems to be a lot of competent music in whichever genre you like, whether Americana, indie, electronica etc. but few records that crossover to a wider audience. Meanwhile, the biggest selling albums of the year hardly get a mention in the critics' polls. The days of a "Lexicon of Love" or a "Welcome to the Pleasuredome" or a "Different Class" gaining both sales and kudos seem a thing of the past. The music press divides between a love of UK indie bands such as the Horrors, Wild Beasts and Metronomy, on the one hand, and more Jools Holland type music on the other. As ever, I won't have heard all the good stuff's that out there, but listening to a few of the favourites in the various polls released to date, I'm not expecting to find a Caribou or a Warpaint; though I've finally got round to ordering Kurt Vile and White Hills sound interesting. So this is a very partial selection of albums that I've enjoyed, whatever their provenance. And with the year's best moments being singles like "Video Games" by Lana Del Rey, Drake and Rihanna's "Take Care" or even multi-million seller Adele's instant classic "Rolling in the Deep", I'm sure my year's best of would probably contain as many singles as album tracks.

James Blake - James Blake

Probably my favourite record of the year, a dubstep artist that has retained credibility whilst gaining critical acclaim. His debut album showcases strong songwriting and singing (on Feist's "Limit to Your Love") as well as a spirally, ghostly production that owed as much to old 4AD records as the late night dubstep of Burial. I was reminded of the late Arthur Russell's beguiling sub-disco productions as well. A short, beautifully sequenced and inventive album, it made the top 10, but was always going to be too beguiling to truly crossover - though it soundtracked more than a few hip wine bars.

Welcome Reality - Nero

A UK number one, packed with hit singles, and apparently not particularly favoured by critics or dubstep afficiandos alike. I really don't care; I picked it up on a whim, and I've been listening to it with great pleasure ever since. A great anthemic pop dance album, that reminds me of the debut by Utah Saints as much as more hip properties. I first heard Nero with the BBC Philharmonic recording a "Dubstep Symphony", and their signature anthemic breaks, which wouldn't be out of place in a Prodigy show, were in full effect. The number one "Promises" is a great place of retro pop-soul, but the album is full of such highlights, confirming my suspicion that rather than being a recognisable sound in its own right, dubstep is a smorgasbord of dance styles from house, to hip hop, to jungle to old skool funk. As a connoisseur of pre-house electronic dance music, Nero's nods in that direction are particular welcome, reminding me of forgotten classics such as Haywoode's "Roses" (and even covering two, with the Jets' "Crush on You" and a remake of Carmen's "Time to Move.")

Build a Rocket, Boys - Elbow

I was perhaps a rare dissenter in finding Elbow's last prize winning album, "The Seldom Seen Kid", a little on the dull side, albeit well written and recorded. It was more one paced than this band usually are, particularly given their tendency across the 3 previous records for sonic invention - the reissue of debut "Asleep at the Back" reminding me of how they could be thrilling as well as anthemic. I shouldn't have worried, for "Build a Rocket, Boys" was perhaps their most complete album since their debut - including another handful of Elbow classics for their ever growing live audiences, especially the title-quoting "Lippy Kids." Guy Garvey's singing, always emotional, is given an even cleaner canvas this time round, and there's echoes of John Cale at his most emotional. Single "Neat Little Rows" Sounded like a Simple Minds outtake from their Arista period, whilst "Jesus is a Rochdale Girl" continued Garvey's knack of adding a gritty edge to what might otherwise be sentimental material.

Let England Shake - PJ Harvey

Almost universally acclaimed as album of the year, Harvey's latest took a while to grow on me, and still I'm not as convinced as the critics that it stands out from her always fascinating discography. For me, its an album with a number of incredible tracks (most notably the stunning "All and Everyone") around which the other songs act as a welcome setting. The "concept" element of the album reminds me of artists like Robert Wyatt or Fairport Convention, and its very English sense of place and time - picking apart a century of conflict, is obviously ambitious. To me, a good, rather than great record, but with Harvey's own songwriting and singing at a high level of excellence. If I'm at all underwhelmed its probably because it lacks the harder edge of works like "To Bring Me Your Love."

Helplessness Blues - Fleet Foxes

Without the shock of the new that characterised their debut, this second outing could have been a disappointment - but its almost as beautiful, and certainly has a wider musical palate. There's echoes of Brian Wilson at his best to match the pastel shades of the Laurel Canyon sounds of their debut. If anything its an even prettier album, and though the harmonies are still in force, it seems a less lyrical album in some ways; experience replacing innocence. That said, its a genre that they've made their own, and when the template was such a beguiling one, a second imprint from it was a welcome one.

I'm With You - Red Hot Chilli Peppers

I'll always like the Chilli Peppers but albums such as the bloated "Stadium Arcadium" make our relationship a little trying. Now without Frusciante, the new album is as chock full of the kind of nagging pop-rock melodies as they've always excelled at - but with a slight return to the more sinewy funk of pre-Californication days. At the end of the day, its a well crafted album with more than its fair share of memorable tunes, with Anthony Keidis and Flea working together as ever to make a kind of always-adolescent punk-pop-metal-hip-hop that done by anyone else would soon pall. In their hands however, nonsense like "The Adventures of Rain Dance Maggie" and Manics-style "Monarchy of Roses", still sound playful and refreshing. Not to everyone's taste of course, but in a year where big rock albums seemed perilously thin on the ground, "I'm With You", with its typically too-late-to-the-party Damian Hirst cover, was a welcome return.

Mofo - Liam Finn

I saw Liam Finn (son of Crowded House's Neil) a couple of years ago in the acoustic tent at a festival and loved his songwriting and his stage presence. This, his second album, expands on the more homespun charm of his debut, and should have got much more attention than it did. Like his father, he can write a good song, and sing it well. There's elements of Elliot Smith or even Bon Iver in his make up, but he's probably even more contrary than either of those and the instrumentation - less sparce than on his debut - is varied and inventive.

Passive Me, Aggressive You - The Naked and the Famous

This New Zealand band's debut is in some ways an old fashioned pop-rock album, aimed squarely at the mainstream (and a young audience) but with enough familiar tropes to ensnare older listeners such as myself. Its curiously avant garde in part - with the atmospherics of the XX or even later Cocteau Twins - though glorious single "Young Blood" could be Katy Perry riffing on MGMT's "Time to Pretend." Its basically an adolescent pop rush of an album, but feels homespun rather than created in the A&R laboratory of a major label.

David Comes to Life - Fucked Up

Here primarily as a soundtrack to my gig of the year, Fucked Up at Islington Mill at the FutureEverything festival, with the whole venue turned into a mosh pit, and one of the most incredible examples of audience/band bonding I've ever seen. This double concept album owes as much musically as American icons like Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen as it does to the hardcore scene - perhaps a welcome reminder of that great fusion that took place in the early 80s with Bob Mould's Husker Du. In a year where guitar bands hardly set the world alight (though I've high hopes for rated albums by White Denim and Iceage)it was a reminder what the format could do.

Psychic Life - Jah Wobble & Julie Campbell

Though I've been a friend of Julie (aka LoneLady) for years, she kept this project under wraps until it was almost finished. Sneaking out at the end of the year, this unexpected collaboration got a bit of press for reuniting PiL alumni Wobble and Keith Levene. The unexpectedness continues into the music, where each track is very different - and though there are some influences, in a year where most music could be easily categorised, it does feel something of a one-off. Lead single "Tightrope" is as sinewy as the title implies, "Feel" would be as big as "Rolling in the Deep" in any sane world (and reminds me, distantly, of much loved 80s popsters the Motels), whilst "Slavetown pt.1" is an unexpected jazz/soul track. Her vocals throughout are superb, and Wobble (and Levene) provide an inventive and crafted backing. Running in at under 40 minutes and beautifully packaged nothing feels left to chance; a late year gem.

So, ten albums that I've listened to a lot, regardless of their credentials. I've managed to make more gigs this year than for quite a while, though mostly older bands. Electralane's reformation led to a stunning gig at the Academy 3, whilst Todd Rundgren's "greatest hits" set was also phenomenal at the Manchester Ritz. I was surprised and touched by Paul Heaton's MIF show - a musical tableau that turned into a "round the campfire" jam, made even more poignant by the stage collapsing before the show! And as stated above, Fucked Up's Islington Mill show was a phenomenon. John Foxx and the Maths at the University was also a surprising highlight.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

In Praise of Lists

Its a list time of year: lists for Santa, lists of Christmas cards, lists of provisions required for the Christmas dinner, best of year CD and film lists. I was asked to do a reading and a workshop in Market Drayton library this week, and since there were going to be both poets and fiction writers present I wanted an exercise or two that could be appropriate for both.

The night before I remembered Jennifer Egan's short story "To Do" which was in one of the Guardian's short story supplements. "Written in 20 minutes" according to the Guardian's preamble, it reads like an intensely potted version of "Mrs. Dalloway."

I've long been a fan of "list" stories - having written stories that are a series of answer phone messages and made entirely out of classified adverts. The list is what we put together when we're planning something, yet in many ways it can be the essence of the thing itself. Its probably even more prevalent in poetry, famously, in this poem by Sylvia Plath. When do we make lists? When we're planning something, or need to catalogue things, or put in some sort of order. There are all kinds of lists, of course, from inventories and catalogues, "to do" lists and "instructions", electronic programme guides, and, at the front of any book of poetry or short stories, a table of contents.

The attendees at the workshop came up with quite a few nice little approaches - one played with the word itself, and wrote a piece called "The Listing Ship", whilst others told of a life through a house clearance or a little boys' Christmas list. The McSweeney's school of writers likes lists - in their endless footnotes, or epistolary pieces like David Eggars' "Letters from Steven, a Dog, to Captains of Industry." In the recent Guardian collection of stories, Helen Simpson takes an existing list - Tube stations leading to "Cockfosters" - to concoct a story of loss, friendship and memory.

And it wouldn't be good to leave creative lists alone, without mentioning list songs - which from REM's brilliant "Its the end of the world and we know it" to Billy Joel's portentous "We Didn't Start a Fire", to the Nails' self explanatory "88 Lines about 44 Women" to my own "Ammunition is a State of Mind" are a staple of the songwriters'toolkit.

Friday, November 18, 2011

We're all Postmodern These Days

They always have good subtitles at the V&A, and "Postmodernism" is subtitled "Style and Subersion 1970-1990". In a series of rooms, it doesn't give us a historical perspective as much as a thematic one. In this sense, it follows on from its last end of century show, "The Cult of Beauty". In "Postmodernism" we have spaces devoted to buildings (including the ones that weren't built); to artefacts; to music; to fashion. There's no real contextualising, except through the artefacts, which, given the subject is probably for the best. How do you come up with something as amorphous as "postmodernism" and then nail it by definition? Yet, we all know (or refer knowingly) to things being "postmodern." Like its close cousin, irony, we don't always get it right.

This video - not in the exhibition - would seem to me a gleeful example of the postmodern. Here are the Beatles, judging (and defacing) artistic representations of themselves, and giving the prize to the winner Jeremy Ratter, who chose albums by Shostakovich and Mingus us as his prize. Ratter would later find fame as the driving force behind anarchist punk band CRASS. But what of it is postmodern? The mix of fan with the worshipped? The Beatles judging a prize and the winner choosing a music that (at the the time, not later) they would have been seen as a pole apart from? Or the historical juxtaposition - that in a historical quirk, the founder of one of least populist bands ever should be thrown together, before that time, with the most popular? It would have been nice to have seen something of this kind of absurdity alongside the more formal works. But this was the early 60s, and our story starts later.

At the start of the V&A's exhibition they talk very clearly about Postmodernism in terms of its reaction to modernist design specifically in architecture. Here there's an orthodoxy that is dying through its increased irrelevance, and postmodernism was a reaction against it. The subtitle of "style and subversion" is important though. Postmodern design could be brash, modernistic, retro, but was always magpie-like in its appropriation. Similarly, the willingness to coopt both ideas and physical pieces from the past to incorporate in the new, was, I think, about looking the world the way it was and could be, rather, as in modernism at its most utilitarian, what we should plan it to be.

Yet, style and subversion are in many ways contrasts. Just as the aestheticism of the arts and craft movement and the Pre-Raphaelites led to decadence, kitsch, and a mass produced decorativeness; the intellectual idea of postmodernism as subversive comment on the past would soon be picked off, as its most commercial exploitations emphasised the style. The contradiction of Malcolm Maclaren's partner, Vivienne Westwood; punk designer to leading British designer; is there throughout the exhibition. Whatever was once radical, would soon become the mainstream. The music room is a delight, showing the best of NYC performance art - Klaus Nomi, Grace Jones, Laurie Anderson, Talking Heads - as the brash quirkiness became mainstream. Yet, turn a corner and you have a 3D hologram of Boy George, the boy who perhaps wanted success (and everything else) just that bit too much. Look away from it, and nothing appears to be there, stand straight in front and the hologram comes to life, an eerie ghosting across the years.

And if music was one way in which the postmodern could go mainstream, design culture was another. British magazines like ID and the Face were aimed at the mainstream. Their "stars", were like Warhols' "superstars", famous in their context - yet some actually became stars - like Robert Elms or Steve Strange or Marilyn. A series of Peter Saville designs for Joy Division and New Order look less like the startling classics I used to consider them, and more a trick repeated time and again, in the hope that no-one notices. Saville's wholesale theft of imagery is postmodern to the core (as in a Koons "sculpture") but in the glare of the gallery, there's a whiff of cynicism about it - of an art school kid passing off found images as their own aesthetic. In Saville, as in Neville Brody's Face covers, there's no longer a sense of "bricolage" or "collage", more a sense of pure appropriation. It is the constant question with "sampling" culture - is something original created from the vulture picking? That the appropriation sometimes works so well that it supercedes the original, well that's postmodern as well.

By 1990 surely it was all over anyway? The digital age had begun (first CDs, then the internet), and the naive early digital artworks, with their limited memory leading to the blocky representation of type, seem innocently new. Technology made it possible for everyone to be postmodern - whether its a photoshop mashup, or Richard X remixing Gary Numan and the Sugababes. The point now would be that you wouldn't notice the subversion, and that the style itself had become ubiquitous.

As ever with the V&A one is impressed by the cavernous depths of their collections. The "postmodern" never really stood much chance in British homes and cities that were still wary of the "modern" - and, as when you stand on the strip in Las Vegas, the vision of modernity we now say, is so breathlessly large, and unsubtle, that its no longer even ironic. That's why you could only describe Lady Gaga as "postmodern" to water down the original movement. There are delights aplenty in the exhibition, from failed prototypes of consumer goods, to clothes and objects you'd not be surprised to see in either junk shop or museum.

Literature is the one art that's mostly missing, (a quote from Amis's "Money" rather than his very postmodern "London Fields"),perhaps unsurprisingly, but given a movement that can sometimes seem more an intellectual conceit than anything more real, then something - whether Ashbery, or Wolfe or Barthes or Foster Wallace - would have seemed a more appropriate contextualisation than the 80s New Romantic soundtrack that is released to coincide with the exhibition. Two key movies from the early 80s play overhead - "Blade Runner" and "Koyaanisquaatsi." What's great about both is that they are fully formed - they are the achieved vision of their visionary directors, rather than tentative stabs at the future. After both movies, the future city was a fixed idea, rather than the malleable one that might have appeared earlier. The shock of seeing the fast collages of "Koyaanisquaatsi" and hearing Philip Glass's music focused on depicting these visuals was highly radical at the time - but has been so endlessly repeated ever since that we can almost forget the radical questions it once asked. And that, probably is where postmodernism becomes a victim of its own ubiquity. The style is wonderfully apparent throughout this diverse exhibition, but the subversive gets lesser and lesser as time goes on.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Live in London - Monday 14th November

I'm reading poetry at the Compass in Islington, London on Monday night with other Salt Modern Voices, Lee Smith, Clare Trevien and JT Welsch. Its free and all are welcome, hope to see some London friends there. We'll start from around 7.30pm and I'm in the first half.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Now All Roads Lead to France - the last years of Edward Thomas by Matthew Hollis

Poets, I'm beginning to think, are the best biographers of other poets. There's Andrew Motion's Larkin and Keats; there's Ian Hamilton's Lowell; and now there's Matthew Hollis's Edward Thomas. What do we know of Edward Thomas? His poem "Adlestrop" is one of those rare moments of magic that seems embedded in the language; as one of that group of poets who fought, wrote about, and in Thomas's case, died during the Great War, his work has a wider currency than that of many other poets. Yet, beyond that I knew very little. English Literature has its highways and it byways; its main streets and country lanes; and in many ways the byways and country lanes are the more prosperous routes. Thomas is that strange beast, a minor poet in the good sense, in that his work is not extensive (less than 200 hundred poems), yet important to both readers and other poets. Hollis, is a book that is as subtle as its fascinating subject, is making a similar minor-key statement as Thomas did in his poetry: if there is propaganda here it is for a certain type of writing.

I'd often seen the febrile poetry scene of London before the war as the beginning of a battle for poetry's soul - the imagists to the left, the Georgians to the right. You could say, the future, versus the past. Yet poets tend to defy categorisation, however much they might congregate at the time. Thomas's closest poetic friends were Walter de la Mare and Robert Frost. If Thomas was breaking with the strictures of Victorian writing, its worth considering that he himself was a later Victorian, and that his poetry was written later in his too short life. As a biography Hollis grasps that mettle in the subtitle - the "last years" of Edward Thomas, for its the poetry, rather than the years as a jobbing hack, literary journalist and critic, that Thomas is read and remembered for. Critic turned poet; like poacher turned gamekeeper - or is the other way round?

In many ways Hollis gives us the "making of Edward Thomas". The facts of his death are stark; like all Great War stories the single death stalks the life, as an ending we cannot avoid or escape. But the "making" is more complex than that. Thomas was an honest - a too honest - critic, but as he wasn't writing poetry himself, the honesty was accepted, encouraged. His judgements, in Hollis's telling, seem pretty robust. Most critic-poets will develop an aesthetic that is shared between their critical and their artistic work - and Thomas is no exception. In meeting Robert Frost he finds a kindred spirit, who, similar to Thomas, was yet to find his place in history - who, like Eliot and Pound, had come to England to be published there, in order that he might then become published in America. Frost would win the Pulitzer, read at a President's inauguration and sell over a million books in his lifetime. That is all some way off. He has a family in tow, no real contacts in Britain, and has only just begun writing the poems that would make his reputation. The Gloucestershire poets that they are briefly part of, is a group of the great, the good and the mediocre - but aren't all groups the same? For all that Pound's "imagistes" were fascinating, the poetry, outside of Pound himself, and perhaps some of H.D., seems minor.

Hollis tells Thomas's story with great care, and no little style. His own prose is sharp, warm, and considerate, and the biography, though deeply researched from a vast array of original sources, almost reads like a novel - it last just over 300 pages, and I read it over a weekend. The "poems" are the key source, of course, and Hollis is meticulous in digging out their origins, in both events and - so often in Thomas - in previous prose accounts. At the background to all of this is a restless soul unhappy, but not quite regretting, in marriage, and fatherhood, in his hackery. Thomas's parents are distant figures - his father hated; and in turn, he finds himself unable to engage with his son. Torn between the countryside - the England that is his muse - and London, where literary life keeps drawing him in; there's something of the Leonard Bast about Thomas; caught in a young marriage that is a tie and a bind, even though (unlike Bast), it is solace. Neither rich, nor poor, a poor "middle class" worker, if you like, Thomas's plight seems emblematic of the times. Had he outlived the war, what would have become of him? He had hoped to join Frost in America; his wife would outlive him by half a century, but would they have lasted?

Thomas, a piscean, doesn't seem a tortured soul so much as a conflicted one. Frost's famous "The Road Not Taken", a poem that it is too easy to take too seriously (and a close reading highlights its playfulness) was taken too seriously by its subject, given to be Thomas. There is something fatalistic about his volunteering to become a soldier in his late 30s, something fatalistic in his marriage and the significant (but apparently not quite adulterous) relationships he would have with other women; perhaps something fatalistic in his poetry - that appears fully formed, a lifetime of reading the poets of his time, creating a clarity to his own writing. Such clarity, we feel is hard-won.

Reading this wonderful book as a general reader one is impressed by Hollis's portrayal of the pre-war world - whether its Harold Munro's poetry bookshop or the rural isolation of Gloucestershire. In both cases, Hollis's picture is a highly nuanced one, and the world of these educated men of letters is seen with more clarity than romance would usually allow.

But reading the book as a poet, one is struck forcefully by its timeliness. The poetry world of a century ago is not so dissimilar to that we live in today. It has its focal point(s), its anthologies, its plethora of publishers, its old guard and young Turks, its rivalries and competing schools, its literary funds, its critics and its gatekeepers. The most popular poets of the day have not necessarily lasted, whilst reputations, such as that of Thomas, are yet to be made. There is, then as now, a small public beyond the poets themselves. If Hollis has an agenda to make (and if so its on a very measured scale), it is that the poetry is what lasts. He makes the case for Thomas, (one echoed by Leavis, Larkin and others) that is fine as far as it goes - he's a major poet, albeit in a minor key. His aesthetic though, perhaps, that's more questionable. The short lyric poems, about England, about nature, war and, occasionally, love, are limited. T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound and H.D. were about to do more promising things. "The road not travelled" in English poetry is a wide one; and Edward Thomas, for all his essential qualities, appears to be the familiar route, that poets such as Larkin and Carol Ann Duffy (who graces the back cover) are keen to endorse. If we take anything from Frost's poem and his relationship with Thomas, it should be that such narrow routes are hard won, and, as importantly, aren't the only ones we should take.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Downton Poetry

Tonight's the last episode of series 2 of "Downton Abbey" - though thankfully its going to be back for a third series. Yes, its become a bit of a guilty pleasure, though whether its for its sumptuous set dressing, its overwrought melodrama, or just because I'm in love with Lady Mary (see above), I couldn't say. Though its as historically accurate as, say, "Anonymous", it does at least try. We've had the Titanic; we've had the Great War; and tonight it looks like we're going to get Spanish Flu (a very useful cast winnowing device!) But I think they've missed a trick. I'm pretty obsessed with the literature of a century ago, and the years immediately before and after the first world war see a highly fertile literary and artistic scene - with London, and later Paris, at the heart. Reading biographies of this period is a bit like a costume drama, as characters have a walk on part in each other's story. Poets, in particular, drawn to London, sought out W.B. Yeats' regular weekly meetings at the Cheshire Cheese.

I've just started reading Matthew Hollis's beautifully written biography of Edward Thomas, and the main characters of Thomas and Robert Frost have already been joined by Yeats, Pound and Rupert Brooke. "The War Poets" are familiar to every school child, and its often too easy to separate them out from the literary culture they came from (as they died young, and as a writer like Wilfred Owen was unknown before the war) yet there was a literary culture that young men (in particular) aspired to be part of. Publishers then, as now, treated poetry as a bit of a side project, often the poets subsidising the books' production; and literary reputation was jealously guarded, and new poets usually depended on an older writer's reputational patronage to "get on".

Thomas is at this point in the narrative a literary hack, and yet to write a line of poetry - but he's just met Robert Frost so I've high hopes for him, and I'm sure I'll give the Hollis book a proper review later, though so far, its a lovely work (like Andrew Motion and Ian Hamilton, Hollis is proving that poets make excellent biographers of other poets). But, back to Downton Abbey, surely Mary - a romantic soul, but with both a wild temperament and an inner hardness to her, would be married off by now if only Matthew had written poetry? Then again, maybe her impressionable sister, Sybil, is the one - and the Irish chauffeur Branson will turn out to be a poet as much as a revolutionary. For though most poets these days would not get anywhere near the great and good, in those pre X-Factor days, even such philistines as the Queen Mother would find themselves in the company of poets such as T.S. Eliot ("Such a gloomy man, looked as though he worked in a bank.") Poetry fans look forward to Series 3 of Downton with expectation....

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Campus Poetry

My first of 3 "gigs" on the Salt Modern Voices tour took place on Thursday night at the University of Warwick, with Clare Trevien and Emily Hasler. Claire and Emily are alumni of Warwick and were invited back by David Morley and George Ttoouli to give a workshop, and a reading, which is when I joined them. Warwick has a dedicated "writer's room" which gives a space for tutorials, readings, whatever - although the somewhat insular nature of universities means that it was a bit of a bugger to find for someone who'd not been there before! I'd made my way to Warwick from my parents in Staffordshire, taking two trains and a bus; and it all went smoothly until I found myself on the rainy campus searching for the building where the reading was taking place. Not finding an open entrance I saw some other people trying to get in, and asked them if they knew where the writer's room was... "You're Adrian..." said Emily, so I finally met my fellow SMV'ers.

We were joined in a reading by a current student, Ian Chung, which was a nice touch. Both Emily and Claire read "Leamington Spa" poems from their books - and it felt like I'd been invited into someone's home, rather than just a reading. I read a few poems from "Playing Solitaire for Money" and a couple of new ones. There were about a dozen of us, and I enjoyed meeting the students, as well as the other poets in the room. The Salt Modern Voices isn't necessarily a "school" or a "movement", just a series of books by promising poets who are quite varied in styles and influences, and it was good to add the two women's books to the selection I've already got.

The next reading I'm doing will be on 14th November at the Compass Pub, in Islington, 7 for 7.30pm.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Sent to Coventry and Other Tall Tales

Just a quick roundup -:

This Thursday I'm reading with Robert Graham, Emily Hasler and Clare Trevien, all published in the Salt Modern Voices series as part of our mini-tour. The venue will be a new one to me; the Writers' Room at the University of Warwick. Home of the Warwick Review amongst other things, I'm looking forward to a change of scene.

I was away for much of Manchester Literature Festival but caught 3 things at the weekend. "The Mind Has Fuses" an intrigueing evening dedicated to B.S. Johnson (blogged about here), and Zhu Wen and his translator Julia Lovell in conversation with Ra Page (which I blog about for the festival here.) The 3rd event was a nice end of weekend literary quiz, where, despite leading at half way the team I was on got beaten to a pulp (fiction) by the juggernaut that was the librarians!

At the Zhu Wen event there was a Comma Press bookstall and I was pleased to pick up the long-awaited debut collection, "The War Tour" by Zoe Lambert, only sorry that I hadn't been to see her read from it. Luckily, I then bumped into her on the way to the quiz in the Cornerhouse so got it signed. The city's literary serendipity acting wonderfully!

Because I'm poetry-reading in the Midlands, I'm going to miss (again) tomorrow night's Bad Language, but for anyone not literatured-out its sure to be a good night, with a reading by Emma Jane Unsworth - from, she assured me, her next novel rather than current one.

Friday, October 21, 2011

The Readable Barnes

I was away for this year's Booker and just managed to find BBC newsnight on the Tuesday night whilst in Eindhoven to hear that Julian Barnes, the thoroughbred in this year's race had won the prize. I've yet to read the short "Sense of an Ending" but intend to do so; and its definitely an overdue honour. Barnes is the most enigmatic of that generation of writers in some ways. Whereas Amis we know everything about, the arch-satirist, the political enfant terrible; and McEwan has built a solid and ever-expanding ouvre of middlebrow psychodramas; I'm not even sure most readers of my age and younger would even think of Barnes as a novelist these days. He's a man of letters; hardly ever out of the Guardian review, an obvious intellectual aesthete of the type we rarely get in Britain.

He was always preferred (or liked equally) in France to Britain, which is easy to forget now he's top of the literary tree - and, worth pointing out that his books have frequently been more experimental and playful than is usual amongst British novelists. I'd assumed he'd been writing ignored novels between his Booker shortlistings, but looking at his bibliography, we've barely had 2 novels a decade since his heyday of the 80s. From "Metroland" in 1980 to "Talking it Over" in 1991, he was one of our pre-eminent novelists. His range has always been impressive, no one book is much like another (except in the pairing of "Talking it Over" and its sequel "Love etc.") and I was introduced to his brilliant "A History of the World in 10 and a half chapters", one of the only books by his generation that seemed aware of the post-war European novel and its tricks and delights, by a very non-literary friend. For thoroughbred or not, Barnes has always been the most readable of literary novelists. His novels have always (in Chris Mullin's unfortunate phrase) "ripped along." For me "Talking it Over" is, along with "A History..." his best, a cleverly told relationship novel.

So, for all the discussions about readability and dumbing down that has accompanied this year's prize, its probably only right that the winner is a writer who is never high brow or low brow, an aesthete, a postmodern writer, who remains always a joy to read; and has criticised the Booker himself in the past for being "posh bingo."

Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Literati

It's that time of year when the press is full of literary intrigue and controversy, when writers are tense, and when too much wine is drunk as the world finds out who has won...this year's Manchester blog awards.(*) Sadly work commitments mean that I will be in Eindhoven rather than the Deaf Institute on the night, but I'm sure it will be a good evening for all who attend.

(*) yes, yes its also the Booker on Tuesday night, but that's boring. My money (having only read one of the shortlist) is on Carol Birch.

In other news I wasn't able to attend the Manchester Fiction Prize, but with the shortlist good enough to furnish both a winner and a runner-up I imagine there was much carousing amongst the "literati" on Friday night. (Though, in my experience half of the Manchester "literati", whoever that might be, don't drink, which has always been a bit of a disappointment!) You can find out about the winners and read the shortlisted entries from here. In a highly international shortlist (4 out of the 8 were American/Canadian)Krishan Coupland from Southamption won ahead of Preston's Richard Hirst.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Festival Time!

The Manchester Literature Festival begins today, with latest news via the blog or their Twitter. Its a packed programme, so go to either of those places for recommendations and reminders. Its all very respectable the first few days with establishment figures Colm Toibin, Alan Hollinghurst, Andrew Motion and Micheal Frayn, but lets its hair down a bit from next weekend. This handy one page Calendar is probably the best way to plan your campaign.

Saturday, October 08, 2011

The waves come in, the waves go out

Literature sometimes feels like a tide. At one moment its lapping around your feet, another moment you're stuck in a thin sand, the water miles away. The waves come in, the waves come out. Literary reputation has something of that as well, and there's plenty of lapping at the shore at this time of year. This year's Booker is announced on the 18th October, so expect plenty of pieces in the papers trying to drum up interest in an other wise uninteresting year.

The Swedish Academy has given literary trainspotters another tick in the box, with the esteemed Swedish poet(the first for 40 years, so leave that controversy to rest), Tomas Tranströmer a respectfully applauded winner. Born in 1931, and still writing, despite being paralysed by a stroke, its not a name I'm familiar with. The poems sound interesting, if not what I usually read; Bloodaxe in the UK are the independent press that energetically publishes his work.

And Neil Astley from Bloodaxe gave an illuminating Q&A online at the Guardian for National Poetry Day (what do you mean, you missed it?). His answers are towards the end of the comments.

Its 20 years of the Forward Prize and there's a well-curated summary of that prize in the Guardian. It's consistent, at least, though reading the poems, and the commentaries one wouldn't think of British poetry as the broadest of churches. The natural world, the elegy, history...these are the pillars of contemporary British poetry (or at least its Forward winners.) Its a poetry of solidity, at its most solid in its immutable borderlands, Scotland, Wales and Ireland, to such an extent that you wonder what an English poet, without Celtic forbears or leanings, would actually sound like?

My own tide has been out for several weeks. Not written - or thought - a creative thing, and that makes me sad. But its a tide, remember, rather than a constant river. I perhaps need to remember what the sandbanks look like now and then.

Saturday, October 01, 2011

The Book Barge in Manchester

The Book Barge is in Manchester for a few days near the end of its summer tour, before returning to Staffordshire. It is what it says on the tin, a bookshop on a barge, and utterly lovely in every way. I went there after work with JT Welsch (he took the photos) and we bumped into Kate Feld there. Manchester's literary village at its very best! (Its moored until Tuesday over the bridge from what used to be Bar Ca in Castlefield, Paul Magrs is reading there on Sunday at 4pm.)

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

This contains a few plot spoilers, as its a book that you can only talk about that way, but I've tried not to give too much of the detail away, so be warned.

In his highly acclaimed 2010 novel "Freedom", Jonathan Franzen gives us the Berglunds, a middle class American family whose life is tracked over a thirty year period. There are no subplots that don't involve the family, no major characters that aren't somehow in their working or emotional orbit. Despite its 600 pages, there's a tight claustrophobia to this small cast; an intimacy, rather than a vastness to the novel's ambitions. Yet, the novel is ambitious. Why else should we spend so long with Patty and Walter Berglund, unless they are emblematic of their age or so fascinating a pair of creations that we can only revel in their lives?

Rarely, I think, has America seemed such a different country than Britain. For the world that the Berglund's inhabit through their rise, their fall, (their rise again?), is only echoed here in the same way that the foreclosures of subprime mortgage market were. For this is the American middle class, where Walter Berglund can give up his corporate job with 3M and still earn $170,000 a year with a thinktank/charity; where his 21 year old son, useless, hardly educated, but cockier than his father ever was, can be pursuing arms deals worth $700,000 in South America. From this side of the ocean American life seems stranger, further away than ever before.

Franzen begins with censure. Despite much talk of him rescuing the realist novel, here he is the most manipulative of omniscient narrators. "There had always been something not quite right about the Berglunds" he says, on behalf of their St. Paul neighbours on page one. And we're off. With an obvious tell, rather than a show. What does he mean? Over the next 600 pages we kind of find out, but kind of don't. The Berglunds are as typical a family as you might imagine. Patty, a stay-at-home mother, being a lead gentrifier of their city suburb; Walter, a good family man and corporate drone; their regulation 2 kids, a boy, a girl, as invisible as such kids ever are, at least till the boy moves in with his childhood sweetheart and her down-at-heel mother. In the breakneck 30 pages at the start of the novel we're given a whizz through what the neighbourhood, acting as Franzen's Greek chorus, think of the Berglund's and its ripe with neighbourly sarcasm. We don't realise it here, but we are halfway through the story, a very odd place to start.

The second section takes us back; via the narration of a memoir that Patty has written for therapy (we never quite find out why or when she has therapy, but then again, she has reason enough). Patty was a star athlete, going to a specialist athletics college, partly to get away from her arty, Democratic secular Jewish family. Partly, it seems, in one of Franzen's frequent manipulations, to meet Walter, essentially the good son of a rich, but ragged family. In the late 70s, early 80s (Franzen is rarely specific about the cultural times, though he's very specific about the politics and economics of each era), he's given us not an everywoman, but a somewhat unique one. She's taller than her classmates, until she goes to Basketball college, where she's amongst other giants, but one of the few non-lesbians in her team. If team sports is one of the American obsessions, it clearly doesn't run as far as the women's teams. It seems Patty has developed her own outsider status - but also found her own crowd. An early rape by a typical jock, puts her off men, and throws her into a dysfunctional friendship relationship with the gothic, depressive, pathological rich girl, Eliza. It is through Eliza she meets Walter and his musican room mate Richard Katz.

It is the relationship between Walter, Richard and Patty which is the heart, the strength and the centre of the novel. Walter and Richard could not be less alike, yet, like often happens, the randomness of their room sharing creates a lifelong bond, and a lifelong resentment. Both love and need the other for what the other isn't. Walter always feels second best to Richard, whose easy way with life and women he admires and resents in equal parts. Richard goes back to Walter time and again, for a stability and an intellectual consistency that his own life lacks. In "Freedom", it is their love, their rivalry, their hate, which is Franzen's strongest suit. Like Amis's "The Information," Barnes' "Talking it Over" or Pinter's "Betrayal", male friendship-rivalry is explored across the decades; and as ever, there's a woman at the centre. Patty is sexually attracted to Richard, but is pursued (and likes being pursued) by Walter. His diffidence constantly opens up the chance that she might choose Richard, but in the end, Richard's own waywardness drives the sensible Patty into his arms. This unscratched itch comes back to them later in lives, when an unhappy Patty, and a down-on-his-luck Richard become lovers at long last, at the "Nameless Lake" that becomes the title of his breakthrough album. We go back and forth through time; Richard Katz an occasional rather than constant presence in their lives - perhaps more important to Walter than Patty at the end of the day. Yet marriages are mysterious things, and Walter and Patty's remains so. Its as if, over 600 pages and 30 years, Franzen hopes we will have enough evidence to understand them, and understand why they love each other.

But things aren't quite that straightforward. We have to take Walter and Patty as read. For Franzen is nothing if not the omniscient narrator, and he has his favourites. Rather than being, as I initially thought, a modern everywoman, or exemplar (her basketball playing an equivalent to Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom's football proficiency), Patty - who can gain the attention of two such different men - is prodded and poked by Franzen's narration throughout. The most interesting creations in the novel are the women; Patty; Eliza; her son's girlfriend Connie; yet Franzen or his narrator hates them all. Patty is raped, and her father doesn't quite say its her fault, but he comes close. She falls for Walter not as an athlete, but after she breaks her leg, and he dotes on her. As a wife and mother we see not the good years, but see her being despised almost as a stay-at-home mother and homemaker. She dotes on her son Joey and he runs away from the claustrophobia of her love; whilst her daughter is the one uninteresting woman in the tableau, a walk on role, who Franzen assigns particular tasks to, but remains uninterested in throughout. We've been told so often about Patty's failings that when Richard - to all intents and purposes a bona fide rock star - becomes her lover, its almost hard to know why. For their is no awakening of character, she is portrayed always as a victim. A fascinating character, but Franzen's patent dislike of her verges on the misogynistic.

As the novel bobs and weaves through the years, we are given potted histories of other family members - an attempt at the Victorian tableau novel - which seem a little distracting (particularly when he throws in details of Patty's family during the last hundred or so pages of the book), but also, and this seems to be Franzen's key, a long plot jump into the year 2004, post 9/11, and into the heart of the madness that was Bush and Cheney's NeoCon America. To all intents and purposes Franzen's characters are mostly Clinton (Bartlett!) era liberals; and here they are in 2004, having discussions about the terrorist threat, and making money out of arm's deals. In a plot swerve that lack's credibility, Joey, the Berglund's 21 year old son moves to New York and becomes a go-fer for an arms subcontractor; whilst Walter joins a not-for-profit that is saving hectares of land from development in return for mining contracts (whilst inevitably falling for his beautiful Asian assistant.) We are given pages and pages of exposition; characters talking with environmental pamphlets as scripts, as these parallel escapades, though occasionally funny and grotesque, grind us through the early years of the 21st century. Joey, like Walter, remains an uninspiring character. Whilst the women in the novel have a certain zest, however much they are despised, the men seem really in need of our dislike, both for how they treat their women, and their opinions and career choices.

Don't get me wrong, "Freedom" is a vastly enjoyable read. Its an intellectual's page turner, a worthy beach book, and kept me running back to its many pleasures whilst on two weeks away round Europe, but it seems to be striving to be more than that - a "state of the nation" novel. There's a glowing review from Philip Hensher on my copy, and I can understand why, as his "The Northern Clemency" is the closest British equivalent of recent years. That book similarly tried to give us a vast political story through a single family, and, like "Freedom", gives us an enjoyable overview of that family, without really articulating the sweep of the age. I felt that Hensher's love of Proust meant that he over-emphasised every detail in the hope that something Proustian would result; and with Franzen, whether its Updike or Bellow or even Roth who he wants to emulate in their vast sweeps over the age, the novel comes across more like a less wacky version of John Irving's "Hotel New Hampshire." Despite the long gestation since "The Corrections", some of the novel seems to have been written in an over-fast flurry, to capture the zeitgeist of the day, yet this is hardly Franzen's strength. Walter's obsession with "over population" is quirky to the point of stupidity, (its not primarily a comic novel, and yet this is surely a comic conceit?), and the unexpected sudden death at a key point late in the novel is cynical writing of the worst type, killing of a character at an appropriate point in the soap opera.

And perhaps, at the end of the day, that is the point. This is a soap opera. Its claustrophic cast give us much pleasure along the way, and there's enough variety of style, tone and location to keep us going. Any outrage with Jennifer Egan's "A Visit from the Goon Squad" beating it to the Pulitzer should be tempered by the knowledge that in every way Egan's novel - which in many ways treads the same ground, the same class of people, the same timescales, even dips into the music industry - is the superior one. Perhaps these two books offer a genuine example of Zadie Smith's surmises about the contemporary novel (where she suggested that Tom McCarthy's "Remainder" and Joseph O'Neill's "Netherland" were opposite in approaches.) Like every other American novel of the last few years, set near or by New York, the twin towers is given ample leg room, yet despite its contemporary concerns Franzen seems remarkably old fashioned in many ways. Like Micheal Chabon's "The Wonder Boys" he touches on the lost Jewishness of his characters, but more as another "set piece" among many, and he has none of that writers' deliciously comic touch.

In "Freedom" I got the sense that whatever his original plan was, it somehow got diluted or altered, by the trajectories of both his writing, and the times. The worst pages by far are the expositional ones, about multinational corporations, environmental policies and land-grabbing. In trying to expose the cynical manipulations of Bush-era capitalism he is neither comic nor serious enough to really add something new; whilst the Berglunds, though endless intrigueing, are neither typical or atypical. The omniscient narrator is often censorious, yet the characters themselves are inconsistent. In such a long narrative arc, it should be possible to perceive change, but it tends to happen with a jolt. Richard Katz is a non-drinking rocker (straight edge? no, of course not, or at least Franzen never tells us that), then he drinks. Joey Berglund eschews masturbation, then turns into one of the Inbetweeners in the frequency with which he pops one out. There's plenty of sex, or at least sexual imagery, in the novel, yet in showing us two generations of teenage life (Patty and Walter in the early 80s, Joey in the mid 2000s), we just see an opportunity for different jokes to play out. Joey, more conservative than both his parents (but like them, marrying young, and to a childhood sweetheart - Connie, who is in calm devotion to Joey, everything his manic mother's love wasn't) is described in detail when he has phone sex with Connie. Holden Caulfield this is not.

And I could go on. Richard Katz's arrival in any scene livens things up a bit, if only because of the unresolved tensions with Walter and Patty. He goes from unpopular punk rocker to cult singer (yet makes a living putting up wooden decks for middle class New Yorkers.) If you are interested, you'll get family trees of both Patty and Walter's families. There's even a nice little sidetrack with Joey to South America where he finds out he really loves his wife whilst trying to get off with his best friend's beautiful sister.

If you've a book group, and a spare month (it is long), give it a read - you'll enjoy. But long and hard as I looked, there was little here that comes close to the "Great American novel."

Dirty in Didsbury

Athletes are not adverse to a bit of rumpy-pumpy if the condom consumption of the Olympics is anything to go by. However, it was writers who brought the tone down at the Northern Tennis Club in West Didsbury last night at the launch of the #flashtag Quickies anthology, subtitled "short stories for adults." The flashtag writers formed their tag team last year and as well as crashing other readings and hosting popup literary salons they have organised a couple of their own events.

So, for Didsbury Arts Festival, they, along with both the invited and the submitted writers, decided to put together an event and an anthology with a theme, basically, ahem, talking dirty in 400 words. The rest of this review will no doubt plunge into double entendre, as I, along with a dozen or so others rose to the challenge.

With tables laid out cabaret style, a glitzy backdrop, the promise of impermanent tattoos with the word "Smut", and compere Fat Roland, holding the said anthology in a pair of oilily applied marigolds, I doubt West Didsbury has seen such a debauched evening since the last Lacrosse club social. Ranging from the funny to the elegant, the sexy to the stalker, the stories delved deep in the darkest sexual fantasy recesses of the south Manchester (and further afield) literary communities. Doyen of the short-short, David Gaffney, also in the anthology, regaled us with a couple of star-turn sweary shorts, and in a well-oiled programme that would put even the best arranged swingers club to shame, we came on in groups, and explored our own little fantasies. The only orgy though, was of words.

Buy the Anthology (in the flesh, or virtual, depending on your prediliction)... details are here.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Talking Dirty

In what is probably a first for Didsbury tomorrow night sees the launch of "Quickies", an anthology of adult shorts, ranging from the naughty to the funny, the erotic to the perverted; all, as Kenny Everett would have said, in the best possible taste. I'm pleased to be amongst writers such as Chris Killen, Emma Jane Unsworth, David Gaffney and Clare Massey, as well as the Flashtag organisers who've done all the hard work and put together both this anthology and the evening. Copies can be purchased on the night.

I'll be demurely reading my piece, alongside a host of others - so come along to the Northern Tennis Club in Didsbury from 8 o'clock.