Sunday, December 30, 2012

Last Post (of the year)

It's been a bit of a year for me; hardly had time to catch my breath. I realised this, having been at home for a few days. I've been working so hard on new projects at work, that have also took me away a lot. I'm grateful for the opportunity to have gone to (deep breath), Bologna, Warsaw, Krakow, Istanbul, Helsinki, Amsterdam, Belfast, Berlin, Brussels, and Ghent this year; but its taken up a lot of time and its only taking stock at Christmas that I realise how much. I've hardly seen any films, or gone to any bands, or even read that many books, never mind any bigger things, like buy a house.

Creatively its been okay, though. The opportunities to read my poetry haven't been quite so many - and I can't believe its a year since we finished the Salt Modern Voices tour - but there have been a few, and I've also got involved in quite a few mixed media type events which have been interesting. I like performing, but perhaps more when its part of the art, rather than to promote the art (e.g. a book.) That said, I didn't have much published during the year, just a couple of poems, in the excellent Pussy Riot anthology, Catechism, and in the latest issue of the Rialto (wth a mention on the cover, no less!) of my poem "Beauty."

Not that I've been idle. I've probably written more poems this year, and more that I'm pleased with, than for a decade. Part of this I think is having spent time as part of the NW Poets group, organised by Lindsey Holland. Pleasingly, the group's first anthology will be due in 2013, with a couple more poems from myself included.

I've also been very busy musically, as I mentioned in a previous post, with a series of 12 cassette singles - some 47 tracks - being "released" online during the year, making it my most prolific year musically since 1989. The best tracks from this series will be compiled on an album early in the new year, but can all be downloaded or listened to anyway at my online music site.

My own art is not to be seen in isolation of course, as I've always felt that I belong to a cultural millieu, to which I react, and with which I occasionally engage. From going to see gigs such as Dexy's Midnight Runners, Grimes and Laetitia Sadler; to attending festivals like FutureEverything, Flatpack Festival and Abandon Normal Devices, there's something quite porous between my own artistic practice, and the cultural life here in Manchester in particular.

The Pussy Riot book was published using print-on-demand and available as an e-book and this year was the year when such things came of age. I wonder a little about the publishing industry, whether its now relying too much on small presses, start up ventures, and self-publishing to act as an A&R, or worse still, whether it only takes notice of such ventures when the books make a splash in the traditional places (e.g. a Booker listing.) Poetry in particular seems to have endless vibrant tributaries, yet the main rivers are slow-moving and slow to absorb what's happening elsewhere. Maybe its a bit much to expect literature to have its punk rock/YBA moment so late in the day, but it seems that it might happen some time - maybe 2013?

So, on 30th December, no new years resolutions just yet, particularly as the fundamental things for next year are so fragile. Like everyone else where I work, I've been offered voluntary redundancy, which speaks clearly of the problems everyone in the public sector is facing - even if my projects are funded for another year or so - one wonders what comes next? There's certainly no reassuring noises coming from Central Government. I've now been in Manchester for longer than I lived in Staffordshire, which is some milestone of sorts- given I lived there from the day I was born until I left for university - and if its imprinted on my life, it doesn't feel that permanent. I've begun to write about it, in a series of poems that I'm currently putting together - and that's one resolution for 2013 - to get those, at least, published in some form or other (get in touch if you're a publisher who might be interested in seeing them!)

Art and culture have always been political statements to my mind, and this will get more so, even if the most political poems and stories often aren't the most explicit ones. Yet, as Pussy Riot showed, a cultural act can quickly become a political and then a human act. The 21st century is only just beginning to show its characteristics, and just as Modernism only really came through in the 2nd decade of last century, I think the ramifications of our information society are yet to find themselves clearly articulated in the art and literature of the day. Again, 2013, may well surprise us.

Friday, December 28, 2012


I read an article on the Beatles one time, I think it was Greil Marcus, but may be wrong, where the writer made the case that the Beatles were actually their own antecedents: that the band playing in Hamburg in the late 50s, writing their own songs as callow teenagers, long before they'd met Brian Epstein, were actually peers of the early rock and rollers. He's a little right and a little wrong, I think. There's a fast transmission mechanism in music; and if you're around at the right time with the right influences - say, rockabilly quiff in 1957, a stash of LSD in 1967 or a battered guitar and an attitude in 1977 - then there's not a long distance from seeing the Pistols, say, and becoming the Pistols.

I first wrote/recorded a song in 1982, when I was 15, though I'd probably had tunes in my head and lyrics in my school book for years before. The music I liked - electronic music such as Kraftwerk, OMD, Soft Cell and Human League - was way beyond my suburban imagination, I don't think anyone in my class realised that some of these bands had been plugging away for years. But more important than the influences was the availability of cheap equipment. From the Casio VL-Tone which appeared on Top of the Pops (Trio's "Da Da Da") almost as soon as it appeared in the Kays Catalogue; to proper fully featured synthesizers. But I wasn't the only entranced by both the sounds and the possibilities of the cheap synth. It appears that in bedroom's the country long, people were swapping guitar aspiration for synth love and then with a quick press of the record button and a smidgin of imagination creating their own electronica.

Fast forward 30 years and the internet makes eveything available. So I was both surprised and not when a guy called Simon Holland approached me with the idea of an internet album consisting of electronica from that era. I contributed a track called "Exit to Maya" from 1987 to what has now evolved into a beautifully presented compilation called "Bedroom Cassette Masters." 

In the excellent download insert, he talks about what Simon Reynolds - in his book "Retromania" - has referred to as "hauntology" - a music that has a ghostly imprint of the music from the past. So though some of the tracks on BCM are originals uploaded from compact cassettes, others have the sound of that era. Listen and download, its a lovely selection.

Thinking of my own music and how it fits in, I'm not sure I've ever been as close to the zeitgeist as I am now - which is kind of weird given that I've been recording music for around 30 years. To celebrate this "milestone" during 2012, I set myself a task to record a monthly cassette single - and with December coming to a close I'm just finishing off the 12th in the set, featuring the Christmas song "Christmas in Siberia"

2012's cassette singles from Jan-Nov. December coming soon.

.Its been a fascinating project recording over 40 tracks in a year; taking inspiration from stuff I've done before or hearing sounds around me that I've tried to emulate. All of this would be recognisable to my 15 year old self, I think, perhaps inevitable when I'm using a very similar instrument set up as all those years ago. Yet listening to my favourite albums of 2012 - I hear a familiar electronic palate in Grimes or Chromatics - and wonder where those thirty years have gone. In the New Year I'll be "releasing" an album featuring the "best" tracks from the cassette singles series.

One thought is that I might look at some more collaborative stuff in 2013 - as I very much enjoyed a few "live" events during 2012 where my poetry and music lives began to merge a little. There's some interest in Manchester for a joint electronic "jam" session - putting together an album in a day. We'll see what happens. If interested leave a comment or email me at adrian dot slatcher at gmail dot com.

Friday, December 21, 2012

A Hard Year

It's felt like a hard year. It has gone fast, but there's been little time for reflection. The culture of anxiety that is a distinct policy objective each time the Conservative party gets into power, has gone into overdrive. They want us all to be afraid that we might lose our jobs; they want our institutions to be both valued for cutting staff to create "efficiencies", and to be as equally anxious. Rarely, and certainly more than most other places in Europe, has power been so centralised. We see it time and again. The decision to spend precious police resources on the storm-in-a-Tory-teacup "plebgate", against the lack of prosecutions for the illegal fraud that the banks perpetuated on the Libor rate; the de-coupling of the welfare benefit system from any reality so that those with disabilities aren't judged on their real condition but on an arbitrary system that would be more at home in a Polish ghetto; and most of all in the corporate coup that has taken over not just much of Britain, but much of Europe, with EU territories such as "Luxembourg" or "Jersey" creating tax holes that can help corporates escape billions in tax, and fiascos such as the rail franchising system and the continuing disaster of PFI, where the systems have been designed as if to maximise the vulnerability of the public sector in order for the fake mantra of free trade (fake because these companies hate fair competition) to be the only thing we hear.

In a year of Olympic triumph it might seem that the crass dismantling of our better natures, begun by Thatcher, and continued by Cameron and Clegg, hasn't yet happened. Yet all the Olympics told us was that a publicly funded stable system that rewarded real excellence (regardless of class) and was fully resourced could be a triumph. For after all, lets not beat ourselves up, Britain has often excelled, despite, rather than because of its leaders and its institutions. But cracks are already showing. There seems a quiescence among the struggling young. The DIY art culture of the 70s has come back a little, helped by all these empty bars and shops which can no longer guarantee a puprose, yet University numbers are down, the effect of that debt culture is yet to be seen; I'm seeing arts and literature and music at a grass roots level, shrivelling up after the initial enthusiasm fails, with a time-rich but cash-poor artistic audience looking at the artificially high rents and house prices, and the low salaries offered in 2012 Northern Britain, and wondering where they go with this? There needs to be a massive redistribution, as Heseltine suggested, from central government to the regions, and then there has to be redistribution from our failing institutions to the grass roots. Yet I'm not seeing any political discussion about these things. The need for economic growth - with its false leveraging of debts above investment as "investment grade" financial instruments - comes at a price. The flow of people and goods is now destroying whatever bit of localism that had managed to gain ground.

Art and culture are as worldwide a market as precious metals or scarce foods, yet we were once - and still are - rich in them. Yet you wouldn't think so, listening to our politicians, who explain everything but understand nothing. The lie that Labour caused our debts through overspending is exposed by the coalition's own "blaming" of the lack of growth on crises in Europe and elsewhere; yet world growth has been growing again.

And, if the Olympics distracted us, and we could be accused of navel-gazing on our own first world problems - most of our own making - I don't think any of us with any compassion went through the year entirely comfortably about what was happening in the wider world. The ongoing murder of civilians in Syria, the escalation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the late year massacre in gun-crazed America, the repression of free speech on the internet, including here and in the US, but also the remarkable women of Pussy Riot. This world remains adept at flinging more problems on top of those it already has, apparently intractably. And yet amidst all the swivel-eyed loathing, the somewhat battered President Obama made it to a second term, which like with Tony Blair's time in power, is the period when difference can really be made (and lets hope he doesn't embark on any disatrous wars); the Olympics showed that whether competitor, volunteer or audience, the British always know how to throw a party (unlike most politicians; they may have "Ok-d" it but the booing of George Osborne must have been one of the highlights of the year); and elsewhere millions of us continue to the best in a difficult situation. Unlikely as it is that we'll overthrow the rentier class any time soon, but Leveson and Uncut and public debate (though rarely, this year, the diminished BBC), at least have the power to embarass them occasionally.

Not yet over, but I've finished work for the year, and intend to have a couple of weeks of reflection myself.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Prose Style

There was a time when I cared about prose style; more than that, I cared about it more than anything else in literature. I've been thinking about this lately; as I wonder about starting writing some fiction again; and what book to read next. Like I used to care about music being "the best", its not that I don't anymore, rather than it seems further away from ever. You watch X-Factor and there are some talented people on there - albeit mostly in the big set pieces accompanying the contestants - or see a live band; or - like tonight watch Masterchef, and there's so much to admire about the striving to be better. Yet, there's something else I think, which is kind of missing at the moment - not that it is missing, necessarily - but its missing from my life. The "caring" for exceptional writing; at what point did I give up looking? At what point did I stop trying to emulate it?

For there's something brave about the best writing - it's not just words on page, not even just sense and story, but something more than that; words carved from the granite; and I guess the further we are from having read anything that reaches those heights, the more important and vital it actually seems - yet its not that we just want writers like (as an example) DeLillo or Roth at their best - but want that talent to be turned on the times in which we live; that in fact to write a relevant prose for our times is actually to write a brilliant prose for our times; that it's not enough to think we live in degraded times, or to emulate the best writing of the past; we need a writing that does a job today. I'm thinking its not that the prose itself is impossible; but that sometimes it seems that it is the trying that is impossible. The over praising of somewhat style-less books, or writers who are clearly extremely talented but writing as if the last twenty, fifty or hundred years hasn't happened. Not sure where I'm going with this other than a sense of thinking: yes, it's still worth fighting for, looking for; and that the other things that writing can do - telling a story, making us laugh, whatever... - are valuable but its the other that matters. In the dullness of the everyday, in the bright shining light of other artforms - whether HBO drama, or some internet pyrotechnics - words on page can still be the most remarkable of currencies. We have devalued the coinage if we forget this.

Monday, December 10, 2012

The Other Room

Even though the Other Room frequently features three performers from the more experimental end of the poetry spectrum, its rare that you can find more than cursory connections between them. On the surface, Alec Newman, Nat Raha and Seekers of Lice (actually a solo artist, called, I think, Anne), hadn't much in common either but coincidentally all read sequences, and had some element of the improvisational in work that was otherwise very structured.

Alec is the publishing phenomenon that is Knives, Forks and Spoons press, but as host Tom Jenks reminded us he first "met Alec as a poet." Our first sequence of the evening was a sombre one; as Alec, pulling random prose sections from a brown envelope read testimony from the Lodz ghetto. It was a surprisingly effective mechanism. The horror of the ghettos, and the move from containment to expulsion and extermination of the Jews, is our very own descent into Hell. By telling the story at random - interspersing the speech of the ghetto "elder" Rumkowski with that of the survivors - our "descent" is fractured, and somehow the horror of even the smallest decisions is amplified. These found texts have their own poetry of course; their own monotony - (the banality of horror?) - but Newman's approach, which didn't interpolate meaning in any way other than his matter-of-fact delivery, stopped this short of the language feeling appropriated. In the end, we are listening to the horror, and reflecting on it.

Nat Raha read several pieces, both before and after a break, the majority of which was newer work. There is a fractured lexicon to Nat's work which occasionally (live, rather than on the page), strays into confusion, but more often seems jagged with meaning. What that meaning is is less certain - this is a provisional art in some ways; provisional on our engagement with it, and free somewhat of context, whereas Newman's work felt more tentative, its meaning certain, but its execution asking us questions. In certain pieces, the density of language, its slightly academic complexity creates a veneer that is occasionally impenetrable, but mostly something comes through, whether its queer theory; contemporary political anger (in a strong poem castigating the coalition, dedicated to Sean Bonney), or language itself (in an anti-sonnet sequence that will be published in 2013.) The best performance piece had Nat and a friend reading a simultaneous poem, where there voices, even more matter-of-fact than Alec, combined effectively, reminiscent of the vocal collage of the Velvet Underground's "The Murder Mystery"; not surprisingly these pieces had been written for a tribute to Sonic Youth, and the final poem used their lyricals to early classic "Youth Against Fascism."

When a performer is billed as "seekers of lice" one didn't quite know what to expect. But Seekers of Lice, a tall, quietly spoken woman, was more art than performance, though the quietly effective nature of her performance had its own power over the room. Reading short prose aphorisms from a stack of cards that she let fall beside her, the same random element that we'd found with Alec came into play. The writing was occasionally funny, sometimes personal and anecdotal, occasionally simple but decorative. This felt like a distant sister of Stein's "Tender Buttons." When artists engage with words, there's sometimes an over-simplicity that makes you wonder about their choice of medium, but Seekers of Lice read her somewhat oblique strategies in a way that made you want to seek them out on the page. The second piece, was a new sequence where she was accompanied by a slideshow of equally oblique images, some photographs being close-up shots of banal objectives; others being slightly mis-shot street scenes that were almost animated for three or four slides of the view from a slightly different angle; others being blank sheets of colour. The piece ended with a rich red, a calming end to a piece that was both calming and unsettling, her quiet words again offering something off a fractured narrative, and like Greenaway's not entirely dissimilar "Drowning by Numbers", having a sequence to it. Perhaps the most tentative of the works this evening, it was also my favourite.

Sunday, December 02, 2012

Albums of the Year 2012

Albums of the year lists come earlier every year it seems, and chances are I've not yet heard 2012's best records (I only discovered Nicholas Jaar's wonderful album after those lists came out last year) Anyway, here's a partial attempt at listing records that have made an impression on me.

Born to Die - Lana Del Rey 

There are 3 versions of the album now, mine's the original tight selection. Our thoughts that Lana was some kind of cult artist readymade for David Lynch film didn't quite lend to the reality - which is this is the best Madonna-like pop album for years, as aspirational and sparkly as "Like a Virgin", and as polished as "Ray of Light." So Lana Del Rey has morphed into a real pop star rather than a cult artist's approximation of one. If nothing's quite as poised as "Video Games" and "Blue Jeans" the tracks we knew her for, teen anthems "This is what makes us girls" and "National Anthem" are not far behind, but are pure pop confectionary.

Visions - Grimes

I was played the single "Oblivion" and its minimalistic catchiness seeped into my brain - so that I picked up the CD and went to see her. Mushroomed in popularity, you felt that she should be playing somewhere smaller and more intimate than the Ritz, and the stage show hadn't quite grown with her increased success - that said, the intricacies of the album sounded even better live. Are these cult songs that are inadvertently poppy or pop songs that are cleverly draped in experimentation? A little of both, I think. Grimes has stumbled on something genuinely new and original- retro electronica and echoes of 80s new wave fused into something new. Its an album that you keep wanting to play all the way through, but individual songs all have their own character.

Tonight I'm Gonna Soar - Dexys

I was never a massive Dexys fan - but I took a punt on this returning album and was glad I did - a brilliant suite of understated mature love songs, with a tasteful soul backing - its a heartfelt mini opera, that has Kevin Rowland's sometimes thin voice carefully massaged by the classical country-soul band interpreting the songs. Again, the songs came alive when played live, as a "suite" of songs - half stage show, half musical - but the dynamic range is there on the record as well.

The Allah Las - The Allah Las 

A late addition to my list - the Allah Las are like the perfect 1965 bar band that never really existed - surf guitar, mod licks, beat band rhythms - its unashamedly retro, as if waiting for a Tarantino film to be featured in - but somehow such pop classicism seems perfectly times for late 2012. Anyone who liked the early stomp of the Small Faces, the Action, the Rolling Stones of "Aftermath" and pre-Pepper Beatles, will find room for this lovely debut in their collection.

Until the Quiet Comes - Flying Lotus

How could Flying Lotus follow the immense originality of "Cosmogramma"? If that was a hip hop record in only the vaguest sense, oweing as much to sampledelic pioneers like DJ Shadow and the Avalanches, his new album is a quiet, more evenly stated thing - and none the worse for it. Its as much a jazz record as anything else - but again genre is defied - this is the jazz of late Miles Davis, 1980s Herbie Hancock and Spearhead but with a remarkable amount of sonic invention throughout. Again, an album for playing all the way through, its charms take a listen or two, but its worth taking the time.

Banga - Patti Smith 

Her first album of original material since 2004's excellent "Trampin'" its a perfectly honed record that plays to all Smith's strengths: there's poetry, quietude, yearning, loss, and beauty. The CD was beautifully presented in a "book" edition, but the contents is what's important - and its a really consistent record that can stand up with any of her latterday work, and even echoes some of her unimpeachable seventies material.

The Cherry Thing - Neneh Cherry and the Thing

Neneh Cherry always seemed a bit of an accidental pop star, after all her father was Don Cherry, and she was part of the avant jazz post punk madness that was Rip, Rig and Panic. This album came out of the blue - mostly covers, with the European jazz band The Thing, it reinterprets the Stooges "Dirt" and most remarkably Suicide's "Dream Baby Dream" but never seems a gimmick - rather you feel that this is the music Cherry's meant to be singing.

Sun - Cat Power

Its been an incredibly female-friendly year, and I almost missed that there was a new Cat Power album out - and then when I got it, didn't play it for a while. Perhaps I wondered whether she could live up to "The Greatest". Its a very different record. She's ditched the Nashville country-soul licks, for a more varied instrumentation, that returns a little to her indie roots, but as ever with Cat Power its the expressiveness of her voice and the quality of her songs  - whether her own, as on here, or her interpretations - that really matters, and its a consummate collection. Like the Grimes album this is a record that is a "singer songwriter" album only in name; it finds new ways of constructing songs that seems to have inhaled the example of some of the more left-field acts out there.She even has Iggy joining her on the epic Heroes-echoing "Nothin But Time."

Ill Manors - Plan B 

When the video and single "Ill Manors" came out earlier in the year it felt like a direct response to the 2011 riots and was hailed as a "Ghost Town" for the era. Ben Drew, aka Plan B, is a very modern star though, and almost at that stage where critical acclaim or not hardly matters. He appears on adverts, sings and raps, has appeared in his first self-directed film to which this is a kind of soundtrack, he even gets the grizzled legend that is John Cooper Clarke to guest with him...  and he has hit records. "Ill Manors" the song is probably the heaviest record to make the top 5 all year, and its sonic template is repeated throughout the album, a modern industrial rap record, both a world away from his soulful breakthrough on "The Defamation of Strickland Banks" and entirely at one with it.

But it would be wrong to sum up 2012 based just on artist albums as two other things during the year were worthy of mention. Isle of Wonders, the Danny Boyle/Underworld soundtrack to the Olympic opening ceremony was stunning, and the double CD acts as a welcome reminder of that expressive event. Arctic Monkeys, Mike Oldfield and Vangelis's Chariots of Fire make the oddest claim to "Britishness" but two phenomenal Underworld tracks, the 17 minutes "And I will kiss" and the beautiful "Caliban's Dream" mean its a necessary addition to any collection. Secondly, contemporary R&B remained the soundtrack to the year - even if its now near impossible to separate the well-tooled pop, rock and R&B tracks, often constructed by the same producers or the same songwriters. Oft-derided Coldplay deserve serious kudos for being the one rock band that still goes head-to-head with the pop acts in the chart, and the discordant, no-chorus wonder of their Rihanna collaboration "Princess of China" was one of the year's oddest hits. As for R&B/pop music, the best tracks were unstoppable. Alex Clare's "Too Close" has the heaviest electronic chorus since "Firestarter", Azealia Banks' "212" raises expectations for this new artist, and Rudimental's "Feel the Love" and Rihanna's "Where have you been?" are wonders of the modern studio. More left field was Zebra Katz's minimalist psychothriller "Imma Read".

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Now's the Season to be Poetic.

The Christmas markets may be open and the John Lewis adverts on rotation, but there's also quite a lot of poetry things going on in the NW at the moment. Earlier in the week, I was pleased I was able to make the 2nd Manchester Poets for Pussy Riot event organised by Richard Barrett. Richard had been instrumental in getting so many NW poets to contribute to the excellent English PEN anthology Poets for Pussy Riot which is available as an eBook and print on demand. My poem "Her Jazz for Pussy Riot" made the explicit link with 90s Riot Grrrl, and Richard had read it out on my behalf last time.

This time around a dozen poets - mostly from the NW - gave a reading at Thomas's Restaurant in the Northern Quarter. Its a really great room at the top of the restaurant, where you're away from bar noise or some of the other problems you sometimes get in venues. I arrived just as Richard was making his introduction, fashionably late, but with the excuse that I'd been up since 4 that morning, having flown back from Krakow. I think my critical faculties on the event are a bit dulled as a result, but I have to say, I thoroughly enjoyed the evening. Most of the poets had some kind of take on the subject matter - which, now that two of the Pussy Riot girls have been sent to prison in Siberia, is not just about that, but the wider repression of ideas and thoughts in Russia that it represents. In a room where everyone was in sympathy, there wasn't much need for polemic, and so the poetry took centre stage. The evening was topped and tailed by "cover versions" - Richard Barrett reading an excellent long poem by Ariana Reine's Mercury, and Steven Waling finishing with Tim Atkin's translation of Tsvtayeava's 'I Love The Rich.'

In between there was sweetness, light, polemic and poetry - reflecting the new diversity of Manchester's poetry scene, there were memorised performances - an excellent selection from StephPike - alongside the avant garde - a soundtracked eulogy to a dead animal rights activist by Leanne Bridgewater, and a "found" and profound filleting of a day's newspapers by Gareth Twose - and the ever entertaining John Calvert accompanied himself with both Korg Monotron and guitar. I read mostly new poems, as well as "Her Jazz for Pussy Riot" from Catechism: Poems for Pussy Riot anthology.

Recordings of Leanne Bridgewater, Susan Birch, Steph Pike, John Calvert, Judy Kendal, Gareth Twose, Anna Percy, Steve Waling, Ursula Hurley, Richard Barrett and myself are here

Coming up: I'm reading at Sand Bar at Stirred Poetry, thanks to Anna Percy, on Monday 3rd December.

Gathering Moss

Its hard to recall how unfashionable the Rolling Stones were in the early 80s. Whereas the Beatles were neatly packaged in nostalgia; long ago broken up - and, with Lennon's death - never to reform; the Stones were still there, chugging away, with bad hair, bad denim, and worst of all, bad songs. The first Stones album I remember coming out was, in fact, a bit of a return to form - "Start Me Up" was the lead single from "Tattoo You" in 1981, and I liked it, as I did "Undercover (of the night)" a couple of years later. But recall hearing some of the former album played on Radio 1, and its lyrical S&M and tired riffs sounded dated. My dad had the "Rolled Gold" compilation and I used to play that now and then, though mainly those glorious sixties hits like "Satisfaction", "Get Off of My Cloud" and (mostly) "Paint it Black."

The first Stones albums I bought was a cassette double pack of "Aftermath" and "Beggars Banquet" from a Woolworths in Australia in 1985. I liked them both, but the tight mod pop-rock of "Aftermath" was my favourite then, and remains so now. I guess the only sense of the Stones being "cool" came with seeing Jagger in "Performance" - a revelation in every way.

So, I was always interested, but their back catalogue was in a bit of a state - all those ABKCO albums released in the seventies; and the tendency of radio to only ever play the sixties hits. I'd pick up Stones songs in the oddest places: Dream Syndicate's live cover of "Under Assistant West Coast Promo Man"; the Sisters of Mercy doing "Gimme Shelter"; hearing the lovely "Angie" on the radio one afternoon. I don't even think their albums tended to make the "best albums of all time" lists of the time. (I've checked - the "best 100 albums" of all time from NME writers in 1985 only had room for "Exile on Main Street" - preferring albums by Lloyd Cole and the Commotions, Jimmy Cliff and the Buzzcocks to "Let it Bleed" or "Beggars Banquet.")  Not everyone was listening to the critics of course, and Primal Scream were one band whose love of the Stones combined with their own classic coolness.

Here we are then, in 2012 and the Stones are 50 years old. That their relevance was over thirty years ago doesn't really matter, as they had a good couple of decades. Never having broken up, despite losing the odd member - tragically in Brian Jones case, they are part of the triumvirate with Dylan and the Beatles that still towers above our memory of the sixties. Whilst the Beatles were writing for everyone, and Dylan was the ultimate ideas magpie, the Stones made a very little go a long way. They never strayed that far from the idea of the group composition - the band as an integral part of any song that Jagger/Richards wrote. Keyboards and piano were only included on their records as another blues instrument; and if in the seventies they dabbled in funk and disco (quite well) and reggae (less so), then it seemed a natural progression for an R&B band. I've still never got on with the bluesy earthiness of "Exile" - but their soulful psychedelia always had a little of the devil in it, explicitly so on "Sympathy" and hardly needed the bandwagon chasing of their psychedelic album (though it includes another song that I heard first elsewhere - "She's a Rainbow" which was covered by Manchester's World of Twist). My own Stones pantheon would run from 1964-1981 at a stretch. That they managed to take the simple blues template and - without ever going too far from it - extracting so much else, that seemed entirely relevant to the times they were living through, remains a wonder.

A personal Stones Top 10

1. Sympathy for the Devil
2. Paint it Black
3. Play with Fire
4. Salt of the Earth
5. What to Do
6. Gimme Shelter
7. You Can't Always Get What You Want
8. Miss You
9. Angie
10. Wild Horses

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Most Modern

In 1999 I wrote a slightly tongue-in-cheek article called "As if Ulysses had never been written". It was primarily about fiction, but asked the question of what legacy modernist fiction had had on the contemporary literary landscape. I (correctly) predicted that me might see, at the time of the millennium, big, baggy, linear novels though owed very little to Joyce, Woolf, Stein et al. I probably wouldn't have asked the same question of poetry, partly because I felt somewhat unqualified to do so, but also because surely the answer was evident: modernism was a foreign plant that had never quite flowered in our tough soil. The existence of "The Movement", our veneration of Larkin, the popularity of Heaney and Hughes, were all evidence enough that the modernist project had stalled on these shores.

That British poetry still fears modernism seems a silliness, but I think it's still there. In his otherwise excellent biography of Edward Thomas, Matthew Hollis (just appointed as Faber poetry editor), ends the book by bigging up the Thomas strand of English poetry. Our poet laureate is quoted on the cover; and the Wikipedia entry for Thomas mentions Ted Hughes' quote that Thomas was "the father of us all." British poetry had its post-modern tribes, but they were thin on the ground (or at least, have been squeezed out of the narrative) compared to their American cousins. Our confessionals, our beats, are either minor figures or tend to be assimilated into a mainstream narrative.

I'll come back to this. In the way that one's reading tends to beget one's reading; I was fascinated by an exemplary article in this month's Poetry by Clive James. He is talking about "memorable lines" and how whereas some poems may cluster them together in a series of unforgettable "hits", other poems may have interminable gaps between the lines that have somehow survived. He speaks of Heaney's luck to be bought up in a landscape that almost guaranteed a musicality to his poetry. My thoughts on that of course, are, perhaps at the heart of my discomfort with the romantic/natural world tendencies of so much British poetry: for surely if we're not "lucky" enough to be born with the beautiful acoustics of a church at hand, then we have to find music elsewhere? It is notable that many of the great American poets of the 20th century haven't necessarily eulogised that country's monumental landscape but something else entirely. We need, I think, to follow on from Ginsberg, and find Whitman in the supermarket.

But this essay played into a conversation I'd been having the night before at the launch of Lindsey Holland's debut collection "Particle Soup." We've had conversations before about where particular poets and poems "fit" - and it seems that there are quite a few writers I know who are not comfortable or particularly interested in the old arguments between the "mainstream" and "avant garde." It's possible after all to like Simon Armitage and Geraldine Monk; and also, I suspect, to question some of the differences and distinctions between different "schools." It can work the other way of course; I'm not particularly interested in Prynne or Heaney. Thinking aloud, as you do after a poetry reading, when you're sat in the pub, I mused on how useful or not these distinctions are to our own practice. I've often been surprised, in conversations with contemporaries, how much of their influence - if that's the word - comes from their peers. Perhaps coming as a bit of an outsider to poetry has its advantages: I puzzle a little at "generations". There are plenty of poems and poets coming to my attention apparently fully-formed; less, I think, in the fifteen or so years I've been taking an interest, where I've seen an obvious development. Part of this is about the proliferation; partly about the very idea of "schools." But also, there is something of influence. I'll be honest, there's been very little I can take as a poet from, say, Armitage. I know I can't do what he does with anything like his skill or effectiveness. Yet, at the same time, his method doesn't actually have a lot of use for the kind of poetry I want to write. Discovering both Les Murray and John Ashbery in the late 90s, I didn't consider them to be opposite ends of anything; but both have been helpful models.

And that's what this comes down to, I think. We all have books that meant something to us; and as time flattens things out, rather than fixing the narrative ("Modernism began in 1912 and ended...blah blah blah") I feel that, in art at least, though its probably equally as true of history, we have to look again at the story, and revisit with our contemporary eyes and ears. Though you might not find much that bears similar characteristics to Eliot or Pound in the 19th century's Empire poets; there are echoes of intent going back further - Eliot saw this in the metaphysicals; Pound in Chinese poetry amongst other forms. James in his article makes the salient point (one that I'd made the night before, actually) that Tennyson was exempted from the general early 20th-century disdain from the late Victorians. And rightly so. His words sing, they have "hits", they do not go "clunk." Of course, fascinating ourselves behind modernism we begin to notice other difficulties. Outside of Eliot and Pound, there is no shortage of "clunking". H.D. and Richard Adlington have their moments; Joyce hardly qualifies as a full-time poet - though he was certainly a modernist - and by the time we get to Auden, we have a voice that is doggedly non-modernist, though is perhaps inconceivable without the example of modernism. Larkin, like Tennyson, survives all movements and "Movements" because he was so good. Thom Gunn always seems an exception to any box you put him into, and though I'm not much of a Hughesian, his influence is large - and, vitally, different.

Which takes us back to the poems - the lines that matter - and whether you'll find these as easily in Bunting or Olson or Prynne as in Billy Collins or Andrew Motion or William Letford. (If there is one fault in the James essay is that he rarely strays into the contemporary minefield: the past is easier to negotiate in this way, but it would be good to know what his thoughts were on, say Sam Riviere's "81 Austerities". The most modern he gets is with his description of Martian poetry as "all climax, no build up" - which seems brilliantly apt, and possibly explains why the first time you read martianism, it's wonderful, but by the time of "History: a Home Movie" there's little left to be excited about.) So how do we negotiate the modernism argument? I guess by sidestepping it. In Holland's poetry, for instance, we rarely linger on a particular image for that long, this is neither imagism or still life, but more a roving camera, "movementism" rather than "The Movement" if you like, and its a quality (it is a quality) that I find in quite a lot of contemporary writing. We live, after all, in an age of alacrity - but whereas the Futurists needed to exalt the fast and modern - our age; a virtual one; has its Larkinesque moments: the English countryside passing by his eyes as he travels south one Whitsun for instance. This is no longer technology as the motor of our times, but us, being to some extent cog-parts of that technology. How we fuse that with our humanity is perhaps a quintessentially poetic questions? Do poets wear glasses, I often wonder? And if they do, why don't the write about them more - the answer is that a poet always has a short- or long-sightedness to deal with however much they profess to 20/20 vision.

So, I look at where we might find that "movementism" in the past, and its there before the age of mechanical reproduction; I guess we can find it in "The Seafarer" or in the narrator-narratee structure of "The Canterbury Tales"; but we also see it, mostly, I think, in those pre-modernist modernists. I'm thinking of Hardy and Hopkins in particular. Their poems are rarely still lives. The ever enervating "The Darkling Thrush" sees the self-conscious (modernist?) narrator move from darkest depression to elation; this could be the romantic euphoria of Wordsworth of course, turning a corner and being hit in the face by the wonders of nature; but in Hardy the narrator hasn't moved, other than through the course of his day (and the course of his moods.) Like reluctant Larkin travelling on a bank holiday, the fin de siecle Hardy is feeling the pains of the age; yet can still be lifted. The still life is never less useful a model, I think - and here we have the beginnings of a sensibility that survives modernism, but certainly pre-dates it - an ability to view the world from different angles. Less the painter fixed on his muse, and more the child on the beach, prefiguring the Instamatic or the digital camera, and taking the kind of shakey camera shots that tell us something about how our minds work. Neither us or the landscape is unchanging. We can re-frame the shot to avoid the pylons if we want, but importantly they are still there. This is the lesson, I think, that contemporaries have extracted from Modernism, but actually, have found it was already there in the proto-modernists such as Hardy and Hopkins and is there again, in the post-war poets. In this viewpoint, modernism becomes a useful touchstone, a project, a movement; post-modernism, a sidetrack, and those post-modern confessionals, beats or New Yorkers, who its easier to put in a vast, slightly awkward box, called the "avant garde", are now clearly in sight again, as part of an ongoing narrative that exists without need for labels.

And going back to Clive James one last time, one wonders if the "line", the "hit", the memorable is what matters for more than the utilitarian view of Heaney and Hughes' "Rattle Bag" to memorise poems by half. As James says, half joking, when someones starts on reciting Milton or whoever, there's rarely any one of us there with the text to check they've got it right. There is, I think, a difference between acting and reading, after all. If there's anything to be said about this somewhat egalitarian view, its that it seems inevitably echoed in recent anthologies of younger poets - where its not clear where their influences come (other from their peer group or the wider world), but they certainly don't seem to have bounced directly down from those just a few years older. There is, after all, no contemporary Auden or Eliot to bounce all questions off. That would require a series of "hits" of Beatles proportions.

Monday, November 05, 2012

Clarity and Complexity

There seems to me to be a bit of a false dichotomy between "difficult" and "accessible" writing, whether in poetry or prose. Perhaps its the same in other art forms. Certainly if you're watching the X-Factor you'll only see a transparent, linear art - for with the odd exception, these are interpretations which - in the "saving" song, for instance - tend to want lyrics that reflect the situation. Yet even the most apparently simple of pop songs can be obscure, with no real lack of meaning or understanding. If the "love song" is the main theme of pop music, then love is a perfect medium for both the clear and the complex - for as a concept it is simple, understandable; yet our endless artistic (and personal) ruminations on it tell of its infinite variety, and its complexity. So though you can sing "I love you" in a pop song, you can also sing "you're my wonderwall" or "left the cake out in the rain" and the obscure has meaning. Of course, the tune is often a clue. (And it can work the other way - Springsteen's Born in the USA may be a cynical anti-war song, but its punch-the-air chorus belies that - so no wonder it has often been co-opted by the right.)

One of the reasons, I think, that Carol Ann Duffy is so well read is because she doesn't just do simple, it just appears simple. A poem comparing love to an onion is simple in terms of its image, and could appear (and probably does, in its many workshop imitations) banal, but actually such simplicity is hard to come by. Similarly with Simon Armitage, his poetry manages to sneak the metaphysical into even the most anecdotal of situations. Yet there's that false dichotomy we see where Geoffrey Hill is referred to as "difficult" and Duffy as "accessible." Taking those broad brush themes such as love and death and you can make them either. Hill's poetry at its best doesn't seem particularly difficult to understand the heft of it; but you may struggle with the references. I guess the question I always ask is if a poem (and a poet) is being true to itself. I'd feel uncomfortable researching something just for a poem; yet that's different, I think, than writing about something one is already interested in. It's why "The Wasteland" remains so much of a touchstone - you can read it either way, and perhaps the scholarly approach to the poem might cast less light than the emotional one.

But poetry always has a little bit of a veil over it. Fiction shouldn't be hard, should it? Again, I'm not sure what we are talking about here. Henry James can be hard, because he spends so long getting to the nub of what he is saying, yet he can also write one of the best ghost stories in the language in "The Turn of the Screw." Language, it seems, can get in the way of understanding, and perhaps in James there are times when it does; in Conrad or say, Saramago its the density of the writing that creates any difficulty, yet "Heart of Darkness" or "Blindness" have an ability to express quite simple truths with a depth that resonates along time after reading.

I don't think I've ever had an ideal reader - though I probably write for people my own age, my own generation, and perhaps, with my own cultural reference points. I remember reading that Ishiguro things about what he writes in English now, knowing it will be translated. This seems a strange kind of compromise; but at the same time, if its not clear in your own language then what are you trying to do? I've read a lot of unpublished work over the years and I'd say that the one thing that sometimes lets new writers down is not their obfuscation, but that it sometimes appears that they don't know what is happening in their book. The uncertainty is there. I'm never quite sure I agree with the idea that its up to the reader to "interpret" - the death of the author seems to forget that the author is also a reader (an interpreter) of his or her own work - and though I don't think its the only interpretation, the intent is important. Anyone who has written with any kind of serious intent will know too well how often we fail to achieve what we set out to do. Language, and its complexities, seems to offer the best way out of this bind - that, rather than complexity. Books that I enjoyed, but felt suffered a little from the author's lack of intent, are often ones which seem to get the psychology all wrong. We can, I think, believe anything if the author makes us believe it. I often use the example of "The Godfather" movie, where Micheal Corleone moves from someone who is determined not to be part of the family business, to being a cold-blooded killer who is even more ruthless than his father. This shouldn't work, but the motivation is so well done (and the part so well played), that the change is inevitable.

With the unpublished writer having few readers other than friends and family, you tend to jump on particular comments - either as a sense you've got things right, or an acknowledgement you've got things wrong. A novella I wrote was read separately by a couple who came up with quite different views on the core relationship in the story. I felt that I must have done something right here; for the story was open to an interpretation - these imaginary characters have motives that I have given them, but which are only transmittable to the reader via my prose and their actions.

I don't think of myself as a particularly "clever" person in that I don't know science or languages or mathematics or music and I wonder what sort of writer I might be if I did? However, as an imaginative writer, you can pretty much imagine anything. The essay by James from which this blog takes its name, makes that very same point - that a writer doesn't need to have been a soldier to write about a barracks; but may well have been near a barracks at some point. (In "The End of the Affair" Graham Greene muses that she'd have probably had to have slept with a soldier at least.) So for me to write something complex is for me to know something complex to at least the extent that I can make it believable. What I can't legislate for is my readers being less erudite or more erudite than I am. Chances are I might know more about pop music and computers, but chances are also high that they'll probably know much more than me about nearly everything else.

But a writer tends to be a knowledge sharer in many ways - in which an academic, for instance, may not be. I've found out something good, or interesting, and I'll make a story from it and share that with the world. You should find something new from a novel I think, if only because of the work that has gone into it. "Wolf Hall" and "Bring out the Bodies" aren't a replacement for a history of the Tudors, but you don't need to know that history to enjoy the books - and oddly enough, how ever many histories you've read or seen, it can often be the fictional representation that sticks the facts more in your head than even the best scholarship. But this risks writing as being merely utilitarian. I was at a debate in Norwich a few years ago where a number of writers gave fascinating talks about advances in neuroscience. Here was the classic case; none of us were scientists, specialists in the room; some had spoken with specialists and got an insight that they were able to share; yet at the end of the day, it struck me that we were being a little too much in awe of the experts. Where, I wondered, was our experience in this matter? For if neuroscience is about what it's like to be human, then surely that is what good novelists and poets (and readers of good novels and poems) are experts in?

With the exception, I think, of children's books, which are clearly written, even at their best, with a compromise or two in language and form based upon the perceived audience, there is no monopoly on complexity, or indeed on clarity. A badly written book can be unecessarily complex, whilst a well written one by a good writer may sometimes be bland or banal. 

Because I've no "ideal reader" if I do think about readers its probably those friends I grew up with, or have made in later life. I want, I guess, people I know and like to enjoy or at least understand my writing. If I write something obscure then there must be a reason for it; there must be some clarity; but if I write something very plain, the same transaction is required - why am I doing it? And am I doing it right?

Over the last few years its been my poetry that has been read the most, and its been interesting that it seems to have gone down better with non-poets, and possibly non-poetry readers, than with poets. I guess that I'm writing a recognisable world, at least - for its often contemporary of theme and language. Yet, paradoxically, the poems that seem to resonate best are those where the meaning is not linear, where I'd have some difficulty in paraphrasing what I'm saying. I like to think that that's the moment where I've successfully managed to integrate clarity and complexity in such a way that one looks like the other, and its impossible to untangle either.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Performing Differently

I've never been that regular a performer of my own work, though I guess I've been reading off and on irregularly for about 15 years. When I had my Salt book out I did a flurry of "gigs" reading from that - but over the last year, I realise that pretty much all of my "performances" have been either collaborative and/or involved new work.

About a year ago I was asked to perform at Whitworth Gallery's "late night" - when I read some of my more technologically focused poems and one written for one of the art works showing in the "Dark Matters" exhibition. Performing in semi-darkness I could hardly see my audience - they could see me - and themselves reflected in the "snow mirror."

Then in the Spring I was part of an ensemble piece at the Custard Factory in Birmingham, where a dozen or so performers did a small segment of "Citizen Kane" - reinterpreting the whole movie during a fascinating and spontaneous hour and a half live performance.

A brief interlude of normality - my performing for the 2nd year in a row - at the Manchester independent book market in St. Anne's Square, and then onto the Flashtag collective's "WORD>PLAY" evening for Didsbury Arts Festival where I performed a soundtracked story where I'd written both words and music.

Then to last night, where I was so pleased to be one of the poets invited by Scott Thurston to read a "letter" from Bob Cobbing's 60s sound poetry piece "ABC in Sound" - where different word patterns for each letter created a wonderfully varied and somewhat mesmerising piece. With the minimalist "N" to go on, I extemporised a little, which seemed to go down well - probably a good thing, given that I was following on from established sound poet, Holly Pester. (The video is below, I'm about 19 minutes in!)

Bob Cobbing's ABC in sound - an Other Room ensemble performance from The Other Room on Vimeo.

So there you go, as much performance art as performance, I've thoroughly enjoyed these slightly unusual little projects - and in particular have enjoyed working with other people or working to a brief that is open to interpretation.

Its interesting - but you wouldn't know from the newspapers or cultural commentators - the wealth of interesting, improvisational work that is currently going on. All of these were really well attended, albeit in small venues; many of them had a multimedia component or at least were captured on film for later showing on the web. As an audience member I've been to quite a few other improvisational events - with musicians, sound artists, writers and artists - and they've almost all been far more interesting and inspiring than some of the more "traditional" audience-performer stand offs that we are used to; whether its Mark Leckey's live mixing at Manchester Art Gallery; the Janet Cardiff audio sculpture at the Sage or the improvisional music collaboration between New York and Manchester at Contact Theatre.

I think if the "real time web" has been transformative in how we consume the virtual world recently, this kind of "real time poetry" or "real time art" is successfully fusing the fun and edginess of a live performance with the thoughtfulness and depth of artistic creation.

May it continue.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

NW by Zadie Smith

 There are a couple of spoilers in this review.

In her debut novel, "White Teeth", Zadie Smith showed herself to be a writer both of talent and bravery. This was a vibrant debut that seemed unafraid - especially impressive in one so young - to be a big, baggy novel of the city. She was immediately applauded by a generation of writers much older than her, as "the real thing." Her second book "The Autograph Man" showed that she had more interest in the work coming across the Atlantic, gathered around David Eggars and McSweeney's magazine, than in Amis and Barnes. Along with Nick Hornby she was adopted as a kind of British wing of this vibrant new literary school. "The Autograph Man" disappointed, though it started well enough, and it seemed that she was torn a little between the novel that she wanted to write and that which was expected of her. The broad middle class comedy of her debut was reduced a little to sitcom-like skits by the end of this sophomore work. In retrospect, the subject-matter, a nerdish autograph hunter, simply wasn't strong enough to hold a novel. "On Beauty" found her on sounder ground, but in its plot steals from "Howard's End" and its American campus setting it seemed a well-written but complacent affair; despite the praise it got.

"NW" is her first novel for seven years, an astonishing gap really, and its a curious return, that does, to some extent fuse some of the disparate aspects of her talent, whilst at the same time, seeming tentative - almost like a restart for her career. Like "White Teeth" it is a London novel, and like Amis or Barnes she seems happier in its enclaves, for its the one part of the country where race, ambition and money are as interchangeable in a character's lives as they were in Dickens time. Taking as its subject a group of young people who grew up on a poor, but not unfriendly estate, "the Caldwell", the character's seem to be making up for the lack of jeopardy that seemed a failing in the middle class lives in "On Beauty", by being never that far from personal and societal precipices. This is not John Lanchester's snapshot of a street in "Capital" but a portrait of social (im)mobility over an awkward twenty years - the decades either side of the millennium. Smith is mostly deft at the cultural signifiers, whether its drugs, items in the news, or pop culture. There's never been any doubt about the authenticity of her writing - and her observational skills in "NW" are more honed than in anything she's written since her debut. At the heart are two school friends, Leah and Keisha (later changing her name to Natalie), who remain friends even after their lives change in different ways. These two girls -women - are the aspirant middle class. White Leah is unhappy with her own lower middle-class background, and is drawn to both the rough boys at school, and has "a phase" as a lesbian with the girls she meets clubbing and socialising. Keisha is from a West Indian church family, and is always set aside from almost everyone, finding solace in a similarly church-y boyfriend, with whom she goes away to the same University with. Keisha is driven - and will eventually become that rarity, a black female barrister - whilst Leah's drive is almost all in the negative. The story pulls us back and forth through their lives - and the lives of others; Nathan, a beautiful boy at school who once his football career ends, ends up on the wrong side of the tracks, and Felix, who in his thirties is starting a new life, having got out and away from the troubles that once defned in him.

We make our own choices, it seems, but those choices are already taking us back full circle. Natalie can never quite stop being "Keisha" and doesn't want to in some ways - being drawn back to the Caldwell when the difficulties of living a life she doesn't ever quite feel belongs to here starts to become a problem - whilst Leah, though on the surface successful, and having married a good man, for lust, is never quite sure that the life that she should be hoping for - house, kids, job - is actually what she wants. And these are the two who through hard work and their own personalities and friendships have made their own choices. Keisha's sister Cheryl gets pregnant young, and never leaves the Caldwell. Like in all families, Natalie can never quite drag herself away from her roots - she is always Keisha to her sister and mother.

Smith is excellent on family and relationship dynamics, and the book is at its best, when the subtle tones of our family and friend relationships are being contrasted. Yet it is also a tricky novel, experimental in the way her previous books have only occasionally hinted at. The perspective changes, as does the time line, but so does the style. The incident that starts the novel - where Leah gets scammed by a local addict - is both tiny, but emblematic. For in London you are only ever that far from the street - from homelessness, helplessness, and the inner city crime that is every night on the news. Her husband, Michel, is French African and expects her to want to children; she doesn't. But we leave Leah's story to find ourselves with Felix - here's a story within a story - the section entitled (lower case) "guest".Whilst the Leah section seems too thin, in Felix's section she is writing with an eye for realism, with little trickiness. If Forster is the model for "On Beauty" it is Woolf who haunts "NW". If Leah makes quite a reasonable "Mrs. Dalloway", Felix takes the same technique - a journey through a person's day - an ordinary day, one that shouldn't really be memorable, but becomes so tragically as it progresses. We learn about Felix's life through the minutiae of his day. He is doing "this" and "that", he's a bit of a chancer, but no longer the stereotype - his life is back on track - he's even getting rid of the negative things from his past; his disastrous mother, his imprisoned brother, and the strangely disfunctional relationship he had with a fellow addict in Soho. Felix is coming clean. This section, almost a long short story has a powerful climax that has already been telegraphed in the previous section - showing how lives intertwine - and it may well be the best thing Smith has ever written. The complex structure of the book is the complexity of the fragmented city. It's not unlike Ridgeway's recent "Hawthorn and Child" in this, but without that novel's deliberate randomness. Here there's a prescription about what is shown, what is told.

Leaving Felix, we  now follow Keisha through her rise from quiet school student, to university, to Barrister - along the way, shedding not just her name and the religious boyfriend from home, but much more. She falls in love with a rich, confident but somewhat insouciant city trader, Frank; like Leah, going far outside of her own background, yet never geographically straying far from it.

This is not a long book, yet it attempts to tell full stories of the lives intertwined. The "mini chapters" that tell Keisha and Leah's friendship is a reasonably effective deconstruction, yet at some point the sections get longer, and Smith is telling a linear story, at some length. It feels a contrivance that has outlived its usefulness. For like that advert where a couple meet, marry, have children, divorce in just a few minutes, we whizz through a life that we've already encountered but in a parallel deconstruction. Keisha/Natalie, like Leah before her remains a little unknowable. If this is the story of their disappointment, the mistakes they make, then it seems a little forced - as if the action is accelerated. There's talk of "living a dream" and in terms of their material lives they surely are - yet its hard to see what it is that is actually wrong in their lives; not even sure if they've actually met the wrong men. Thinking of similar couples I know of, its their joint-purpose that sticks out, and here Frank and Michel are offstage, confused at why their wives aren't happy. The external trauma that Leah faces, is a small, but significant one, but it hardly feels life-changing; here the middle-class "dread" - of being confronted with someone in your life that you're trying to avoid seems hardly the thing to bring on a breakdown; and likewise, with Natalie we see so many changes, from religious swot, to hardworking legal poster girl, to devoted mother and wife, to a woman who begins to search the internet for sex with strangers - here the fragmentary telling means that we're not so much shocked as unbelieving. There's something odd about all this as well: for these are the "This Life" generation - socially mobile, marrying for love and for sex, rich or at least not poor, in London, the city where everything is available, and yet they seem broken by it all. Writers like Margaret Drabble in "The Millstone" or Doris Lessing in "The Golden Notebook" told of woman's lives that were constrained by their circumstance, and what they had to do to break out (or to breakdown), but Leah and Natalie seem odd victims.

As the novel goes beyond its central scenes - the catastrophic event that effects all the characters in some way, but where Felix is the victim - the fragments don't add up so much as reduce. We are back on the Caldwell. There has been an incident. Nathan, the boy everyone loved, is now a homeless crack addict, Natalie/Keisha has come here to find what? An answer? An escape?  For though these lives are well-defined and their stories are somewhat compelling, there doesn't, in the end, seem quite enough to hold up the complex structure, and the long individual sections. In many ways, the problem is that which we saw in "The Autograph Man", that Smith's scene-setting is relatively small scale, even though her storytelling is large and vivid. There are few things more damning in English fiction than the phrase "provincial novel", but I'm thinking that if this wasn't set in London then that's what it would be referred to. Yet a non-London provincial novel would not be so obsessive about its postcode (from the title, to many, many references throughout), to its street names and districts. Like "Capital" this is a novel about the capital that stays very much within some narrow bounds - its much better than Lanchester's book, in that her real strength, in describing family and relationships is at the fore throughout. As a debut novel this would seem a powerful piece; as a fourth book it is not without its many pleasures - particularly in Felix's story - but it also feels like that the literary trickery, though often impressive, is more to cover up the novel's essentially slight concerns. Far more true to the contemporary experience than her previous satires, one is never bored by Smith's tightly controlled cast and locale, but one is never entirely convinced either. There are the makings of a very good novel here, but it does fall a little short, as the potential vast chaos of the city is reduced to small things: secrets shared, crimes observed, and friendships - always fragile - surviving, but at a cost.

Read an alternative review of "NW" from Valerie O'Riordan on the Bookmuunch website. 

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

In "Wolf Hall" Hilary Mantel did two remarkable things. She gave a voice to Thomas Cromwell, one of the more shadowy figures in British history, and in doing so she opened up the smells and sounds of Tudor England in a way that was astonishing. That book,.seeing Cromwell's rise at the court of Henry VIII, first through his intrigueing for Cardinal Wolsey, and then for the King himself had a particular design on us, I felt. The Tudors are a fascination that have always puzzled me, but Mantel showed us not so much the intrigues that led to the ditching of Henry's first wife as he fell in love with Anne Boleyn but the reasons behind it. For without an heir the newly peaceful England would be back at war - and as a distant outpost of Rome, its people would remain trapped in an age of fear and suspicion, unable to read the word of God in their own tongue. "Wolf Hall" showed the birth of protestant England, and it was this aspect - with Boleyn, Cromwell and others able to read the Tyndale Bible in private whilst their countrymen faced death for the same "crime" - that gave it so much of its fascination.

"Bring up the Bodies" continues the story. Boleyn is now Queen, her family are esconced at court, and Cromwell is now, amongst other titles, "Master Secretary" to Henry Tudor, middle aged and wealthy. The odd tense construction that she developed in "Wolf Hall" for Cromwell, is less obtrusive here, or perhaps more fluent. In that sense it is probably an easier read. The odd "said he, Thomas Cromwell" usage is for emphasis here, and only occasionally is the reader confused as to whom is being referred. Cromwell in middle age is denied the interior life that his younger self had - or at least it is more restricted; the bare facts of biography deny it somewhat. For Cromwell is now an arch-fixer, not just for himself, but for his circle, and inevitably for Henry. There's at least one misplaced "I" that I remember, wondering to what extent Booker winners ever get a proper editing, but otherwise the book is if anything more readable than its page-turning predecessor.

And in places it is brilliant. Beginning at "Wolf Hall" out hunting with the King, Cromwell notes his Lord has shown an interest in the plain, virgin Jane Seymour, and so it begins. With a son and heir, but with his own wife and daughters dead from plague (in the arresting opening scene, Cromwell has named his falcons after them), Cromwell doesn't mourn so much as put his experience and regret to the King's purpose. But he always has a soft spot for women; and tempers Anne's dislike of Katherine of Aragon's daughter Mary, or coaching the elusive Seymour. We are now at the heart of court; yet oddly, this second book seems less knowledgeable in many ways. The entourage of both King and Queen reminds one of The Sopranos, where individuals jostle for preferment, and never quite know if they are to be a "made" man or a dead man. Cromwell is a string-puller at the heart of this intrigue. He is no longer a confidante of Anne - for he is a confidante of the King - and whereas previously he owed allegiance to the Cardinal, here he uses cardinals, ambassadors, and Earls of the realm as mere pawns on his board. There is plenty here to arrest the attention; and occasional reminisces into the endless variety of Thomas's imagined past. Yet, this is less a book about Cromwell than it is about Henry.

For the Henry we think about from history is not the young fearless man, but the one of the six wives, the giant fellow who sits overseeing both court and country. We see a drunk Henry falling asleep after the hunt, and the Lords almost daring each other which will be the one to wake their king. We see him in love again, but this time with the demure Seymour rather than the alluring Boleyn. We see him at the heart of decision-making that are hard to fathom but which could pitch England back into favour with Rome, as the latter finds itself at war with France. Cromwell entertains the ambassadors; he arranges new sinecures for troublesome Lords; he gossips with the ladies-in-waiting around the Queen; he worries about his son's debut in the Lists (the jousting tournament that the King still performs in); he speaks little of the project that was Protestant England, except to somehow give a prayer in their own tongue to the troublesome Welsh; and he is the kings man in the Commons, wanting laws that will aid the people of England (a common man to the last, is Cromwell) and money taken from the coffers of the monasteries.

Yet this second outing seems both more familiar and less purposeful. It takes place in a tighter timescale, and has really one main story line. For Boleyn having provided Henry with only a female heir (baby Elizabeth) he now wants another woman, but having no heir, wants a Queen not a concubine. It is Cromwell's job to enable this. This then is a drama less about the country, and more about the intrigue at court. What the king wants of course, the king will have. This has become a given after the break with Rome; yet this is still a religious monarch and a religious country. An heir from another needs to be a legitimate one (for the king has one male Bastard already). The downfall of Boleyn and her inner circle is inevitable, we know that, and Mantel is superb in showing the way the drama may have unfolded - even though the history is a mystery. We are no longer in the superstitious England of the first book, but in an era where Tudor England will begin to assert its power and supremacy. This is the "great man" view of history - where we rarely stray beyond the courtly circle, and its rich families jostling for power and influence. To what extent you like playing Kings and Queens will determine how you rate this novel. What might be fascinating on a BBC costume drama seems melodramatic at times on the page. For Mantel is being truth to whats known, whilst constructing a fiction. Oddly, its the conspiracy-theories of James Ellroy that the book reminds me in places; as the style is as breathless in its way as his Kennedy conspiracy thriller "American Tabloid." But it also reminds me of a lesser book, one that also got carried away with the detail of its historical subject, and tackled voices from the past: John Fowles late, and disappointing "A Maggot." At times, Mantel all but abandons description as she shares in-depth conversations like characters in a soap opera; and the drive to some sort of conclusion is all that matters. Like a storyliner for an American mini-series she has to tie up all the loose ends that Cromwell has set hanging. For this is Cromwell as master-fixer. The end to his story will come in a third book, and he is already suspecting that his own end may be no less bloody than that of the Queen he helped place on the throne.

"Bring up the Bodies" is a brilliant read; a worthy sequel to "Wolf Hall" and in parts surpasses it in its style and readability. Yet it seems to me to not add too much to that book. It is tighter and more concentrated, but here the subject is more Henry Tudor, and less Thomas Cromwell. In biographies it is always the story of how they get to where they are that fascinates, not what they did when they got there - for the latter is already a public story - and I think that, if anything, is why the book seemed less remarkable than its predecessor. The story is less international in scope as well, for whereas the fate of England (both then and in the future) seemed to hang on the break from Rome; we are now cloistered in the politics of a Ceasar (or a Corleone.) The Lords and Ladies of Henry's court are frankly not that interesting. Like a Russian novel, they have several names, yet Mantel rarely gives them anything more than soap opera characterisation. This one is weak; this one vain etc. There is no great villain in the novel - yet surely they should be? Anne Boleyn is not fit for the role, for her "villainy" is to have given Henry no heir and for him to have tired of her.

The novel has remarkably given Mantel her second Booker prize. Without having read the others on the shortlist (and longlist for that matter), its hard to say whether its worthy. There are sequels that do something different and better than their predecessors - think "Rabbit Redux" or "The Western Lands" - but I'm not sure that one does. Its the classic "middle" part of a trilogy. "The Empire Strikes Back" may be the tighter film, but its not as loved as "Star Wars", and there's something similar about "Bring up the Bodies." Despite its name, its far less violent than its predecessor. The ransacking of the monasteries mostly takes place off-stage. Instead it topples into melodrama at times; for the courtly intrigue, and the gossip about Boleyn's alleged infidelities are the stuff of soap opera. Perhaps Mantel had no choice, given the facts of the time - but though it is a remarkably readable book, and the voice is, if anything, even more convincing than in "Wolf Hall", it doesn't add to that novel's achievements, and may, in some way, detract from them - for here we are back in the Tudor England that never really appealed; of great men and women, in great halls, eating great feasts. The historical novel, which you felt Mantel was giving an overdue reboot in "Wolf Hall", is not that easily removed from its default setting. Anybody who enjoyed "Wolf Hall" must read this sequel, I devoured on a plane to Istanbul, landing in the heart of one of the world's most ancient cities, with the intrigue of the 16th century spinning around my head, but its Booker elevation seems a conservative choice.

My review of Wolf Hall is here. 

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Long Fiction in the 21st Century

On Tuesday the 13th Booker prize of the 21st century will be awarded. It could make history, with Hilary Mantel becoming the first British author to win it twice, and, moreover, with a sequel to her previous winner. Though books from trilogies have won in the past (Pat Barker, William Golding) two from the same series have never won. There are a number of new names on the list, including Alison Moore's "The Lighthouse", from my own small publisher Salt. It may well be that Moore, or another newish writer will prove to be more than famous for just one book (though the Booker has done that as well in the past: think DBC Pierre or Yann Martel).

If the Booker felt like a defining prize during much of the eighties and early nineties, I don't think it has been so central to the literary discussion since. A competition where essentially the rules change every year - because each set of judges is so different - is not a place to go for a defnining narrative. Like the Turner Prize or Mercury Prize it's position in the ecosystem of its artform has periods when it appears to so get it right, and others when it appears to so get it wrong. Two distinctly twentieth century novelists, Julian Barnes and Howard Jacobsen won the prize the last two years, with novels that are far below their best; whilst Mantel joined Anne Enright and John Banville in the list of respectable mid-listers who were elevated a little by their win. Elsewhere, books by Adiga and Desai, seem one offs that have less cultural import than the Martel and Pierre.

In other words, forgetting about the Booker for a minute - where are the culturally important fiction writers of the last 15 years or so? (Century boundaries not being very helpful.) David Peace, David Mitchell, Magnus Mills, A.L. Kennedy, Nicola Barker, Will Self, Sarah Hall, Ali Smith, Toby Litt, Gwendoline Riley and China Mieville would be a good starting eleven, yet they've notched up not a single Booker win, despite (at a quick count) 8 shortlistings between them. If we're talking books, "The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet", "Three to see the king", "Five Miles from Outer Hope", "Day", "Wide Open", "The City and the City", "The Damned United",  "Cold Water", "The Carhullan Army" and "The Book of Dave" are important novels that any survey of the last decade or so would have to take into account and yet didn't make the shortlist.

Five of that first eleven did make the last Granta list of "Best Young British Novelists" in 2003 - but these decade long surveys are prone with difficulties - after all, Moore will be ineligible for the next list, despite "The Lighthouse" being a debut novel - and, should Will Self win with his first shortlisting "Umbrella", it will be a belated vindication (not that the writer of "The Book of Dave" and "The Quantity Theory of Insanity" needs any vindication) for his 1993 listing.

So, Tuesday's announcement will be interesting - the longlist (if not the shortlist) for this year's prize was certainly a more adventurous one - and good books such as Anne Enright's "The Gathering" or Arundhati Roy's "The God of Small Things" have won the prize without necessarily being representative of the fiction of the age. The books of course aren't changed by the winning of a prize, they would have been there to read regardless; but obviously the winning writers future (and if its a small press, possibly their publishers' future) will inevitably be changed by the success. Let the anticipation commence....

Monday, October 08, 2012

Casaubon in the age of Facebook

Culture has always been commodified. The Elizabethan theatre would expect an instant turnaround from its playwrights. A "hit" might run for longer, a "miss" would require a new play to be rushed onto the stage. There was probably a good market in fresco paintings in Renaissance Florence as well. Our current equivalent; a decade or so after the "cultural industries" became commodified - that post-Bilbao rush to urban cultural flag-planting - there are a number of questions relating to our new austeritied times. On the one hand there are probably more artists, poets and musicians than any time in history. On the other; where are the culturally significant? Are we stuck with "names" living off reputations forged ten or twenty years ago  - or in a world where curators can make a name from themselves by magpie-like, picking up the "hot" names just before they sizzle in the mainstream sun, is there some kind of arms-race amongst the big galleries; the big prizes?

Our audiences as well - are they "finite" or ever changing? Life is not so consistent as in previous generations. Watching a Simon and Garfunkel concert from the late 1960s we see not hippy flower children, but the well-to-do baby-boomers, post-marriage and possibly pre-children, respectable couples that are fated to the conventional marriages that Dustin Hoffman was ready for before he met "Mrs. Robinson". At a gallery launch in Manchester, you don't just see the same faces; but the same type of faces - a new year's crop of students, post-students, etc etc.

I marvel, even in the age of austerity, at how late Capitalism's exagerrated Ponzi scheme has somehow spilled over into culture. All this activity going into an album or a film that is forgotten after a weekend; a constant sense of activity to keep the paying (or non-paying) customer busy. How to keep up? How to even keep up in a smallish city like Manchester when this week alone there were two major exhibition launches? The First Cut at Manchester Art Gallery on Thursday (all I can say is GO!) and David Shrigley at the Cornerhouse on Friday.  The paper works in The First Cut belie this frantic activity - who knew there were s many artists doing frankly astonishing things with paper? Origami this isn't. Impossible to write a review based on an opening - but the sense of wow was there from the start, and the range and complexity of the work on display (from massive installations to tiny sculptures) made me wonder: who knew there was a whole world of paper-artists doing there own little thing? Perhaps that is what modern curation amounts to - a bringing together; not of a scene, but of like-minded artists. I've not been to the Shrigley yet, but here's an artist who is better known outside of Fine Art, perhaps like Grayson Perry, crossing that line. I imagine this will be incredibly popular; familiarity with an artist's name encouraging engagement. Though I doubt we'd see a Jack Vettriano show at the Cornerhouse; interesting how art is categorised. I was at the Buy Art Fair and the Manchester Contemporary the week before, and the former, with its commercial galleries, seemed not just stale, but little more than decoration - whilst the latter, representing a range of galleries where more cutting edge art is being exhibited - seemed not just collectable, but accessible. I'm wondering if we're seeing something of what happens a decade on from the "creation of a taste" that Tate Modern and the YBAs heralded. I headed to Damian Hirst's Artist's Room (a travelling portfolio, placing contemporary artists in provincial galleries) at the New Art Gallery in Walsall. It was great to see "Away from the Flock" again, like bumping into an old friend, and his work - anatomical, mortality-obsessed, always somewhat sculptural in its form - fitted surprisingly well with the Epstein's of the Garman-Ryan collection. Genuine dialogue between the two artists.

The artists gathered in the First Cut aren't made for a one-night wonder; there's too much technique, too much intricacy in the use of their material. Yet, we move on. I was interested to see that the Frieze fair now has a pre-2000 tent (and accompanying magazine.) On occasional trips to London or elsewhere I tend to visit historical shows. My interest in contemporary art is strong, but its contextualised for me, by a trip to the V&A or wherever. This is me catching up on the art history I never got at school or afterwards. But history also reveals. My poetry has rarely felt much affinity with whichever contemporary books are du jour at any one point. This week you could have drowned in poetry; it was national poetry day (this year's nonsensical theme: Stars), the Forward Prizes went to Denise Riley, Jorie Graham and Sam Riviere. The shortlist for the Manchester Poetry Prize was published. If you'd thought from the Riviere listing that there was some poetic break with the past - that a poetry that referenced the present, that appeared on a blog - could not only be published by venerable Faber; you'll look in vain for contemporary references in the Manchester shortlist, even as you admire the poems.  (Full disclosure: I entered this one, with poems that talked about the coalition government and Mars' Curiousity Rover.)

Micheal Chabon, last night being intereviewed as part of the Manchester Literature Festival, was philosophical about the failure of the John Carter film that he was part of. All that work (all that money) and the film arrived stillborn at the Box Office. This week we heard that career/studio wrecking "Heaven's Gate" was being reissued.

Pop into HMV and they're clearing out last Christmas's box sets so that £200 would buy you the complete Sopranos, West Wing, The Wire and "24", which would be an undergraduate module in 21st century TV drama all by itself. The reason these programmes are so long is the market: no longer a self-contained narrative, but something that has to reinvent and spiral out based on it being a hit in this most competitive of markets.

You see, there are two things at play here. The speed of transmission, or even of consumption of late Capitalism, when it's applied to art; and then the much, much slower transmission of influence, of hard craft, of individual vision, of articulating a personal space in a world that is shouting loudly about what sells and how. What should be a moderator between the two - critical culture - seems swamped by the hype of the market; or at least by the competing voices that require to be heard. Even in the blog space one tends to keep quiet about the crap that's out there, as there's only so much time that you'd rather concentrate on the good stuff. Since the millennium I get a sense that contemporary art hasn't been as effective as in the brash decade before; whilst at the same time appearing to be more successful.Are younger artists creating their own underground space (say, in zines, like Laura Oldfield Ford, or in quirky books like Shrigley?) but with the suss of the Hirst generation's marketing gene? I get a sense that poetry has been healthier this last few years from not being so dependent on Faber-favour, and would only wonder whether Riviere's "81 Austerities" should be interrogated in a wider context - whether the poets he shared Stop/Sharpening/Your/Knives with, or others. The HBO/TV boxset has given grand guignol drama on a scale that those of us brought up on the 50 minute standalone story can hardly believe has happened - and made most contemporary film appear childish (or at least, for a younger popcorn gorging audience than the serious work on our screens.)

An artist can only do so much - a life's work can be a series of moments - a great song may come in a minute. Needing an extra track to complete "Revolver" Lennon came up with "She Said, She Said" which kind of invented power pop. "The Wasteland" or "The Cantos" took large chunks of their author's lives. In Middlemarch we are made to laugh at Casaubon, the old academic, unable to publish, as he works on the impossible task that is the "Key to all mythologies" - but Dorothea marries him because she perceives in him a seriousness of purpose that isn't actually there (no more than it is in the dashing Ladislaw.) There are plenty of Casaubon-like tasks littered through 20th century art - whether it's "Finnegan's Wake" or the late novels of too many "great" writers. Yet we need a bit of that seriousness (even if we're drawing cartoons - will there be a better object this year than the new Chris Ware for instance?) As audience-critic-blogger we can just consume if we want - concentrate on the next thing, next show, next song, next poem, next book - and hardly have time to assimilate the last. Caught between the impossible task of a Casaubon, we relentlessly check the goldfish memory of our Facebook status. Somewhere in between these two extremes is where the worthwhile happens.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Poems for Pussy Riot

The imprisonment of the 3 women who sung a protest song as part of the Pussy Riot arts/music collective in Russia has galvanised opinion world wide. I'm so pleased that the poetry community has been part of this, and a herculean effort over the last few weeks has seen 110 poets submit new work in support of Pussy Riot. Ranging from Booker-listed Ali Smith, to myself, via a wide range of young, old, male, female, mainstream, experimental poems its looking like a great book in itself. The book is called CATECHISM: Poems for Pussy Riot.

Supported and supporting English PEN, with its long history of supporting incarcerated and otherwise censored writers, this is not just a worthy campaign, but an active component of the struggle against state and religious censorship and the crackdown of artistic freedom. This is not just about Russia, or Putin, or the women in Pussy Riot, but a reminder that the powers-that-be are always to happy to hide behind legal frameworks, state apparatus and the religious sensitivities when it comes to cracking down on voices they don't like to be heard. (Remember, that Tony Blair's Labour government attempted to make religious satire a criminal offence.)

There will be a protest event in London tomorrow with some of the poets reading, and this will coincide with the release of the e-book, proceeds from which will go to the defence fund of the imprisoned Pussy Riot members. Its also, from the poems that I've seen posted already on the PEN website, a brilliant collection of some of the most interesting poets around.

Its worth remembering that the real women in this case are being separated from their friends and families for what are essentially political reasons, and that even if their case is no longer the first item on the news, that their situation is something that no artist here or abroad should ever face. 

You will be able to download and donate from midnight tonight at this web page on a name your price basis. Whatever you give will be welcome and the book itself will, I'm sure be worth your contribution on its own.You can read a number of the poems if you follow the links on this page.

Many thanks to Sophie Mayer, Sarah Crewe, Amy Key, Mark Burnhope and the other poets and translators who have made this happen.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Jumping Genres

Much fun was had on Thursday night at the Didsbury Arts Festival where the #flashtag collective put on a night of words and music called WORDPLAY, which I was asked to perform at.  My piece was a ten minute "audio comic" basically a noirish story with a soundtrack. I hope it went down well. An extract of my reading "Nerdtown" can be heard here. The night was all about jumping genres. The #flashtag writers basically came together from a love of flash fiction and performing - and the live literature scene is beginning to transform fiction in the same way as performance poetry gave a boot up the backside to poetry.

Second up, was Tom Mason with a soundtracked story that had the scariest image of the evening - a bus load of musicians transformed into the grinning members of Jools Holland's big band, all turned into clones of the boogie-woogie piano man. It was a model that continued through Fat Roland's piece - where the narrator is being haunted by a spectral dead Whitney Houston, the dark rumbling soundtrack morphing into Whitney singing "I will always love you".

Completing the first half of the show was  "Tether" by (murmur) featuring David Hartley with an ambitious music concept piece about Russian cosmonauts going into space via a giant umbilical cord "tethered" to the earth. Over a changing soundtrack of drum and bass stylings Hartley told the story of these first cosmonauts. What was this? Musical piece? Story? Hard to tell, but they had created a whole concept with images, video and CD to accompany the music. After a break, where we refreshed glasses, and videos of Alabaster de Plume were shown, Les Malheureux commenced the second half. A duo of Sarah Clare Conlon and David Gaffney, deadpan short stories are intoned by Clare over Gaffney's cabaret keyboard stylings as a powerpoint goes on in the background. Clare reads from a smart phone, as did Tom, and its fascinating to see how easy to use technology is helping writers be more ambitious in their presentations.

Whilst the final act set up, Benjamin Judge read from his brilliant little booklet "50 Stories about Sting."  The final act was the most ambitious of the evening as the collective had paired local art rock band Monkeys in Love with the fiction writer Valerie O'Riordan. Taking her cue from their song titles we had a series of parallel plays - story, then song - with the first piece being a collaboration where the Monkeys accompanied her; and there was even some effective use of the first overhead projector I've seen in about 20 years, to add some visuals to the story. The final song, Owl with Hands, explained Laura's "owl" costume. I think.

So that was it: a unique jumping of genres that actually made perfect sense when you were there. Loved being part of it; and glad that I was prompted to do the most ambitious of my ideas. Lots of writers I know have an interest in music, and I think all of us will be interested in continuing such juxtapositions in the future.