Saturday, June 30, 2012

Binge Poetry

Poets are notoriously a hard up bunch, and money for poetry is always in short supply; yet every now and then poetry gets a bit of a windfall, and rather than save it for a rainy day, like a dock worker picking up his paycheck on a Friday, poetry tends to go and spend it on a big party. Chances are the next day there will be plenty of regret, an empty wallet and a thick head, but at least it was a good do. The biggest party of the lot is the Olympics - the most expensive binge the country has ever had - but as part of the cultural Olympiad poetry has decided not just to have a big party but to invite all its friends. So the Poetry Parnassus sees a poet from every competing nation descend on the UK, though mostly on London, for a few days of "stuff." I say "stuff" because to be honest I'm not quite sure what is going on. As usual, poetry's big events seem to happen at a considerable distance from its everyday - both geographically (its always London) and organisationally. Though there are some readings of Carcanet poets in Manchester and Arc poets in Hebden this seems a party to which hasn't made much effort to involve the rest of poetry, (with the caveat that most London poetry organisations seem to have something going on during the week), which is a shame, as British poetry frequently needs reminding that their artform is an international one, and there are some admirable initiatives around poets who don't have the freedom that we have (he says, carefully.) As I say, its a bit of a binge, and if you're around to enjoy it, then please do - lets hope there are some new connections made between nations and poets. I think it starts today but the South Bank website is confusing as hell, so I'd suggest you just head over there and look for the couplets.

Want to read some of the poems then explore the Guardian's interactive map here.
Or buy the Bloodaxe anthology of the event here.
Lousy one-pager on the London 2012 website here  
And equally hard-to-find page on South Bank Centre's website here.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Hungry, the Stars and Everything by Emma Jane Unsworth

Having known Emma Jane Unsworth for a few years, and having seen her read from her debut novel "Hungry, the Stars and Everything," first release from new Manchester press, Hidden Gem, it shouldn't have took me so long to getting round to reading it. The novel has just won a Betty Trask Prize. However, I was glad I waited, as its a novel to be devoured at one go; appropriately so, since part of its structure is to start most chapters with a course from the "taster" menu from new restaurant Bethel.

Food and novels have a long history - think Proust, Joyce and Waugh, to name but three whose most famous lines centre around food - yet given the contemporary obsession with celebrity chefs and Michelin stars, its not that often that a novel wallows in the culinary. Unsworth's heroine is Helen Burns, an accidental food reviewer for the local Manchester paper. Known for her somewhat scathing reviews (with at least one death threat received), its an ideal job for someone, who, on the first page, tells us that from an early age she wanted "more." For contemporary dining isn't about satisfaction or need, rather its as much a status symbol as an expensive handbag or a luxury car. Synonymous with the city-living of affluent twentysomethings, its also an international business. Manchester, infamously, hasn't got a single Michelin starred restaurant, and therefore being a food critic in the city is an experience that rarely rises about the bearable.

Told in the first person, Helen is a classic unreliable narrator, approaching her 29th birthday, in a steady but dull relationship with a chef who gives her pleasant comfort food, without ever really enriching the senses. If its a novel about finding "the one", Unsworth goes about it in a topsy turvey way - for Helen found hers at an early age; cloven hoofed, and coming if you call; the devil makes an early appearance in the book whenever she is trying to decide on a bit of devilment herself. As the meal at the new highly anticipated restaurant Bethel begins, with Helen dining alone to savour the evening, she finds the courses almost perfect chosen to remind her of things from her past. She's described as being like a "Russian doll" and the novel is structured similarly, with several layers to peel off before we get to the nub of the story - the "love of her life" which turned out into such a disaster. She's never mentioned this previous relationship to the man she shares a house with and who has just asked her to marry him. We are taken back, through a myriad of increasingly pretentious courses of the meal, to when she met Luke, an accident that seemed to be romantically fatal to her. Luke's not the usual bad boy, (she lists those: boys in bands, French exchange students etc. as mostly forgotten experiments) as he's studying for a PhD in cosmology. For the dreamy Helen, the stars are real but abstract, and Luke explains what they really are - the science, in some ways, even more astonishing than the poetry.

Over the next few chapters we edge back and forth between the present, the past, and with a new course delivered to her table at just the right time. For her and Luke was a classic relationship of dependency - moving in at the first chance and living a life of high emotion and constant drunkenness. Helen, it appears, is the sort of woman who has to throw her all into a man, whether its the love of her life, or the steady soul who replaces him - and in doing so, she's found it hard to even identify who she is or what she really wants.

It's a short book, that packs quite a lot in, yet at heart its a story that's purely about the romantic ideal. There's a drifting at the heart of these early 21st century relationships, that echoes those in Unsworth's Manchester contemporary Gwendoline Riley; yet Unsworth is more King Street to Riley's Northern Quarter. Set primarily in Manchester and Liverpool, its a metropolitan novel outside of the bigger metropolis. Here, the glamour is strictly seen through rain-splattered glass, and in remembering her true love, its a squalid bedsit and dirty hotel rooms that chequer the memories.

Like a lot of first novels, it can sometimes seem a bit uneven in its tone - the scaffolding of the meal providing a little too rigid for her needs, and at the beginning and end its abandoned. I'm not so sure the devil needs to be quite so physical a presence as he is in the early pages - if anything its the "idea" of the devil - "the devil in me" if you like that she's hunting down. Yet Helen is at heart a good girl, and its looking back on her younger self where you see how she's repeatedly damaged herself through relationships that haven't been good to her. Like a Rachael Cusk heroine she seems unable to have any perspective on her own life, and runs away from those - her mother and grandmother - who most want to help her. I felt that we could have had more of the life of the food critic, but the structure of the book, round this one stupendous meal, precludes this to some extent. I wonder if the slightly unclassifiable nature of what is essentially a love story, but with a twist at its heart, is what led it to being picked up by a small press rather than a major? But like Catherine O'Flynn's "What was lost"  it seems to be a much needed antidote to London-centred stories. Northern grit is never a bad addition to a story. Overall, it was a fulfilling read, that like all the best meals left me wanting just a little bit more. There's even a parrot called Adrian; of which, least said the better.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Longest day...but shortest night

"International" short story day, is on the longest day (or shortest night) of the year, in the UK, but elsewhere of course, its the other way round. Any excuse, you might say, but given the unseasonal (seasonal?) weather of late, snuggling down with a good story is as much a thing for the long summer evenings as the short winter ones.

There's a whole range of activities going on  - possibly at a location near you - on Wednesday night for International Short Story Day, and the website has its fair share of resources if you're not sure where to start.

I'm actually in Belfast with work, so I'll miss the Manchester offering, but don't let that stop you going to see England v. Germany (or a variation thereof) at Blackwells, with Clare Massey and Anneliese Mackintosh

For my part, I'll probably take the new Salt Book of Best British Short Stories  along on my travels, or possibly "Last Night" by James Salter

Which reminds me, that following on from last week's independent book market, you can now download (for a short time for Free) an anthology of short fiction and poetry from readers at that event, including my good self. Its called The Hat You Wear and is available for Kindle. Don't worry if you've not got a Kindle, you can still download the Kindle app for iPhone, iPad or Android from your various market places.

Thursday, June 07, 2012

Mr. Heinlein was Already Upset about the Communists

I have been reading the New Yorker SF fiction edition this week. Some intriguing stories, but also some one page reminisces from William Gibson, Ray Bradbury (who sadly died yesterday), and Ursula Le Guin among others.

The latter tells of how SF in the 60s was quite a small, and mostly male club. "There were the expectably enormous male egos and also some fiercely conservative opinions, which I hadn't expected among people who were supposed to be looking forward, not back" she said on joing the Science Fiction Writers of America meeting. Having spilt a drink on Mrs. Heinlein's dress she doesn't identify herself as "Mr. Heinlein was already extremely upset about the Communists at the University."

And this is interesting of course, because from this distance it seems that SF is as likely to be a conservative medium as a liberal one. Didn't Iain M. Banks invent his "culture" books because he was fed up of all future societies being right wing and totalitarian? Certainly, Heinlein is not the only one, but probably the worst, when it comes to seeing the future in right wing terms. I still have difficulty agreeing with the view that Starship Troopers (the film) is a satire; Verhoeven has too big a budget and the satire is played too straight for that. But how amazing that a nearly forgotten novel could get "green lit" in Hollywood at all?

Writers who are too politically aligned are often harder to read. I baulked at Heinlein's world in "Stranger in a Strange Land" - there's an uneasy mix of sex and censoriousness - and that was without knowing his politics. Yet "1984" doesn't become a problem when you're aware of Orwell's politics, perhaps because they were themselves not aligned to "party lines." There are plenty of writers who are politically liberally, socially left wing, and yet linguistically conservative (think Carol Ann Duffy or Alan Hollinghurst), though I doubt if there are that many contemporary experimentalists who are "right wing". (But in Britain we've rarely had an intellectual, as opposed to a populist extreme; except, briefly, on the Marxist left - readers of BNP literature or the Daily Worker will not find that much to tax their intellectual capacities.) One of our leading contemporary SF writers, China Mieville, is a political radical, but in Britain there seems quite a disconnect these days between activist and activist thinker. Although perhaps I'm being optimistic; the social democratic middle is the ideal which thinkers are shrinking away from given the disappointments of Tony Blair and Nick Clegg.

Of course, politics is not straightforwardly left-right; I personally find this coalition pretty right wing, yet in some aspects more socially liberal in its first couple of years, than Gordon Brown's Labour party (though that "liberalism" is a veneer that's quickly wearing thin.) If what we again practiced in Libya was a last attempt at "liberal intervention" then it was done with the rhetoric of the right - in British foreign relations there is apparently no other language.

And language is important: as well as ideas. SF at its best is as good as any other literature, but outside of a few outliers isn't necessarily linguistically that inventive. Political ly engaged writers, like the poet Sean Bonney, Tony Harrison going back a bit, or punk provocateur Stewart Home, can also be linguistically interesting. I'm not sure if it is possible to write a politically charged work in a conventional language. If there's outrage in Lanchester's "Capital" it is couched in the language of a Guardian op-ed.

And though all writing is political in some sense, it doesn't necessarily have to be about issues. I'd say Hilary Mantel's "Wolf Hall" is a highly political novel, yet its historical setting makes it difficult to "read" anything into it. Her fascination is not, I feel, with the politics of the time she's writing about, as much as the politics of change. (She's previously written about the French revolution.) Easier to do, of course, looking at the past, rather than the present. As last summer's riots proved, there is both an underbelly of resentment in our society, and an establishment quite as willing as any in the 50s or 60s to throw the book at it. There were quite a few butterflies crushed on wheels in the aftermath; (as well as bad lads given their comeuppance.)

From a perspective of several hundred miles - I sit, nearer to Moscow than Manchester, in Helsinki, writing this - and reading the papers about the Eurozone's crisis, the UK seems both more likely to kick out against injustice, and less able to. History tells us that revolution (or even evolution) requires not just a citizen's will, but an intellectual or middle class. The Iraq war, a conflict that affected us personally hardly at all, a long way, away, has been the only issue in the last dozen years, that has exercised the latter in any number. It is (perhaps thankfully) impossible in the UK to imagine a fringe party gathering enough votes to affect the balance of power.

For a writer then - perhaps its enough to just document or, better still, imagine. That's what SF does after all. For Le Guin and Atwood, SF could make up for some of the compensations of the world they were living in. At the end of Le Guin's piece she tells of writing a story for Playboy, which she had to publish under her initials as the "readers" of that magazine would be frightened by a female byline. It was political enough that she was published there; and even, that Playboy published fiction at all. All kinds of deceptions were being practiced there of course - but it was the sixties, after all.

But a final word from those SF reminisces from Ray Bradbury; writing not long before his death yesterday he reminisces about his grandfather who died when he was five. In his story "The Fire Balloons" "one of the priests was like my grandpa whom I put on Mars to see the lovely balloons again, but this time they Martians, all fired and bright, adrift above a dead sea." The writer who made us remember the importance of books in "Fahrenheit 451" won't be writing any more sadly. RIP, our Martian chronicler.

Sunday, June 03, 2012

Arty Stuff

It's been an arty week.

Castlefield Gallery fundraising auction on Wednesday night was fabulous night, and well over £30,000 was raised, thanks to the generosity of all the artists donating work. I came home (not yet, got to pick it up!) with a lovely Jim Medway painting.


Last night at the Contact Theatre the whole building was taken over by artists, for a "24 Arty People" - a 24 hour spontaneous artistic collaboration, where 24 artists met from 10pm the previous evening and developed new works together around the theme of "sleep" and "sleeplessness" - appropriately. The audience were ushered around the building from performance to performance and it had some of the fractured dreaminess of a sleepless night about it. From short immersive theatre pieces to more cerebral performances, it was a fascinating evening where you had to let yourself into the dreamlike spirit of things. Videos of the various perfomers from earlier can be found here.


I missed the launch of the major new exhibition of West African Art, We Face Forward, but already hearing great things about it - so will try and get to see it shortly - it takes place throughout the city.


I've a busy few weeks, but finding some creative time at next weekend's Manchester book market, where I'll be reading on the Saturday afternoon after 3pm.

But if you're in Manchester Friday or Saturday then pop into St. Ann's Square for some book browsing and some readings.

Saturday, June 02, 2012

Punk's Not Dead

There's a nice irony, that amid the wall-to-wall bunting which serves as BBC news at the moment, as it celebrates first the Jubillee, then the Olympics, that stirred in the mix, to add a bit of spice, is punk rock. Its not a particularly important anniversary - 35 years since 1977, Punk's year zero - but so wrapped up was the original spirit with that Jubilee - from Derek Jarman's film of the same name, to "God Save the Queen", that we've got a campaign to get "God Save the Queen" (Pistols version) to number one, and the "Punk Britannia" series on BBC 4.

I mischievously tweeted that "punk was crap" on Twitter last night; but I didn't really mean it. I was ten at the time, and had more pressing interests ("Star Wars" had just been released after all!) and I was aware of punk well before I'd ever heard it (the Daily Express, our house newspaper was particularly interested in the scene, oddly enough). It was probably a few years before I saw my first punks - after all they didn't make it to the rocky Midlands overnight - and it was three or four years later that friends at school were "punks" by which time the leather jackets had GBH, Anti-Nowhere League, Discharge and Exploited on the backs.

I've picked up punk albums over the years, without them ever being amongst my favourite, but one's still shocked a little by the viscerality of the Sex Pistols astonishing first four singles, or "The Clash" or "The Ramones." Music that raw, still sounds good all these years later. I remember hearing an early Boomtown Rats' track - "She's So Modern" perhaps - and disliking its "shouting" - though perhaps even at 11 or 12 I was discerning between the good and the mediocre!

It's funny watching old footage, and then seeing Top of the Pops, and realising, Sex Pistols aside, what a moveable feast punk was - Stiff Little Fingers' "Inflammable Material" didn't hit the racks till 1979 for instance. But punk - the sound - was very different I think than punk - the attitude. And pretty much every piece of music I got into after 1982 was coloured by punk. Bands such as the Cure, Joy Division, Simple Minds, Human League or the Fall were already veterans by then and this colourful but dark new wave was what I grew up loving. The reductionist sound of those 2nd wave punk bands was fun, I guess, but limited.

Years later, punk's in my record collection, albeit more on the cerebral art school rather than the glue-sniffing side of the tracks; and one kind of regrets that I was not around for such a seismic shift in music. The minor revolutions I saw - the Smiths, Goth, house music - don't really compare. Only Hip Hop has had such a broad cultural impact as punk did. Tony Wilson's oft quoted view of 13 year shifts - 1963, 1976, 1989 - appeared to fall apart in 2002, unless you broaden the defnitiion and not the that the iPod appeared at the tale end of 2001 - a different kind of musical revolution that one, but important nonetheless. If something's coming in 2015 its surely going to be partly fuelled by the ongoing fiscal disasters around us; as well as a bored unemployed youth - a bit like punk maybe.

The punks were generally quite young - as the Punk Britannia first episode points out, the pub rockers who came before them were a little bit old (a point that's made clear in the Ian Dury biopic, Sex, Drugs & Rock and Roll) - so its sad to think we've already lost Strummer, McLaren, Vicious and lesser lights like Epic Soundtracks and Nikki Sudden of Swell Maps.

It's hard to imagine the schizophrenia of Britain in 1977 - punk happening on the same streets as disco went mainstream with Saturday Night Fever.Though it was a schizophrenia that continued throughout much of the 80s, with a split between the "mainstream" and the "alternative" which became codified in the "indie" scene. Most of the punks were signed to the same record labels as their prog and glam predecessors.

Punk's not dead, to rephrase what Zappa said about jazz, it just smells funny..   

Ten great punk tracks.

1. Holidays in the Sun - Sex Pistols
2. Ambition - Vic Godard and the Subway Sect
3. California Uber Alles - Dead Kennedys
4. Armagideon Times - the Clash
5. Babylon's Burning - the Ruts
6. Jigsaw Feeling - Siouxsie and the Banshees
7. Suspect Device - Stiff Little Fingers.
8. Teenage Lobotomy - the Ramones
9. I am the Fly - Wire
10. Typical Girls - the Slits