Monday, December 30, 2013

Come on, Next Year

Where did 2013 go?

I've hardly had the energy to round things up. I was out of action for three months in the summer following a detached retina, briefly seeing my future as a blind man in a house full of books.

I had poems published in Best of Manchester Poets and Sculpted: Poetry of the NW and a story in Unthology 4; as magazines and small presses moved into books from pamphlets and magazines, often of as high (or higher) quality that mainstream imprints. I read a few times throughout the year, for which I'm always grateful of the opportunity, though primarily locally - Manchester, Didsbury even.

Anyway I've been working on a poetry collection, though before I try and get a publisher, I'm probably going to see about getting a few poems in magazines - though its such a crap shoot these days. As for fiction I've a great story that been bubbling away for months, and still needs a last rewrite, and a couple of other's in less finished states. I've been looking at writing long fiction again, though with a full time job and reduced energy levels I'm sure that's always going to be difficult to achieve. I will continue in that general direction, however.

I've continued to enjoy making music, and my 5th album since starting music again in 2007, "Kleptomania" is now available to download, as accomplished as anything I've done.

In truth, its been something of a mixed year; I sometimes feel that I'm just treading water creatively, yet paradoxically, the quality of the work continues to get better, I think, or at least get's different, as I change not so much my approach but my aim. In that sense, Manchester is a great place to remain, as there's something literary on, if not quite every night, certainly every week.

So 2014 is likely to see some upheavals - life wise it feels time for a change, of flat perhaps, and given the continued cutbacks to public service in this country, the likelihood of the job coming under threat again seems quite high. I'll be 47 in March, so need to prioritise life things again.

Looking forward to more engagement with art (in particular), poetry and music during 2014, and with a world cup in Brazil in the summer that should be fun (or stressful!)

My travels eased off a little in 2013, but I still went away eight times, visiting Lisbon, Barcelona, Dublin and Vilnius for the first time, all cities I'd happily return to. With  Madrid and Rome in February, I'm looking forward to being one of the few remaining pro-Europeans in England!

I've another week off before going back to the office, so time for a few bits of creativity - even if the main thing will probably be the "fun" of poetry admin (stuffing poems in envelopes to magazines!)

Happy New Year for tomorrow night.

Friday, December 27, 2013

The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin

I'll be honest, I wouldn't have picked up this short book by Colm Toibin had it not made the Booker shortlist. The thought of Toibin tackling Mary, mother of Jesus, didn't exactly fill me with expectation. Praised for the minutiae, thoughtfulness and clear style of novels like "The Blackwater Lightship", his Henry James novel "The Master" and "Brooklyn" he has frequently focused on one or more strongly imagined female characters. Yet, Toibin's females have always seemed to me, despite his impressive probing of their inner lives, as ciphers in some ways, too easily fitting into Madonna/whore stereotypes. We get to know what they are thinking, but we don't believe these are women who could actually exist  - or not as Toibin shows them.

Mary, mother of Jesus, is therefore the ultimate woman who couldn't actually exist. The miracle of the Virgin birth; the obscurity of her position; and the scant information in the gospels - this provides a challenge for any imaginings of her. In "The Testament of Mary" Toibin has written this as a sort of prison memoir; Mary, visited by two unnamed visitors who are wanting her testimony so that the gospels can be written, is a dying woman, remembering the cataclysms that affected her life - not just the death of her eldest son, but of her husband Joseph. In this short book, little more than a gospel itself, she reminisces as a necessary "putting down" of the truth. In this Toibin makes some oddly reverential choices. Jesus is inviolable. He is the gospel version, without annotation or embellishment. I think Toibin is doing what Stoppard did with Rosencrantz and Gilderstern, (and other novelists have done with other characters), in telling a familiar story through an unfamiliar character. He seems torn between showing Mary as the icon of catholic imagination, and as a poor Jewish woman of her time.

She tells us she is illiterate, yet the voice Toibin gives her is in a high register, poetic in parts, vague in others. That other novel about an old woman remembering - "The Oldest Conferedate Widow Tells All" - gave us a woman of many parts, whilst Toibin's Mary, in such a short few pages remains both enigmatic, and to some extent frustrating. She both knows too much and not enough. Unaware of her son's progress - apparently without her other sons (where are they?) and with Joseph dead (when? how?) - she becomes an unwanted spectator at the wedding in Cana, or in the crowd calling for Barrabas to be freed. Yet at the same time, she seems to know the intricacies of the conspiracy about her son. The one time we see them together - at that wedding - Jesus is imperious, dressed as a king, not as the poor carpenter's son of Nazareth, and ignores his mother's presence. What is this Jesus then? Who is this Mary?

It is not without its pleasures, but they are minor ones. Mary is occasionally obstreporous, angry - and this Mary seems a little more vivid. But one can't help but think that Toibin gets less close than Monty Python when they said "He's not the messiah, he's a very naughty boy." Mary here is the mother of the child who went away to the big city and it killed him. Her anger is palpable, understandable - and, as the short book ends with her being whisked away from the scene of his death - the scribes taking down her story rewrite it (as Toibin has) and whatever role her son has in the future, "it wasn't worth it."

What to make of this confection? It probably doesn't deserve the freight that comes with it being published as a "novel" - and particularly its Booker shortlisting. Toibin has desires on his reader, as he always has; nudging us along to see Jesus's death as not just a tragedy for humankind but for Mary - yet the Mary story is more complex than this parable. He never really reimagines her as a woman of her time; and the brief few lines about the Roman occupation seem to lack veracity. Its frustrating that the men who visit her are not named, or that even her son and has husband are so reverentially referenced. This Mary hardly feels real except in her grief and anger. And maybe that's enough. The women in "The Blackwater Lightship" are angry and unable to articulate their dysfunctional relationships; in "Brooklyn" we are given a naive woman who never quite transcends that naivety. Men are the cause of these women's pain and restrictions, and he revisits this here. At the same time, his accumulation of detail, of minor notes to explore major themes, remains here, albeit sparingly. Toibin fans might well find this compelling. Looking from a far, here we see a novelist who has found a subject that almost perfectly fits in with his limitations; and in doing so fails to transcend them. A minor book, but given its critical acclaim, a major, if not unexpected disappointment.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Starts of Novels

Between 1995 and 2002 I completed seven novels. Along the way, I've started quite a few more: and more recently, around 2008, I finished an 8th, though at under 30,000 words I guess that's a novella.

I just discovered the manuscript of my first one - written when  I was 23-24. I didn't know how to write a novel (who does?) but I'd got an idea, and reckoned that if I wrote 12 chapters, 5000 words each I'd be close to finishing one. It ended up around 75,000 words, pretty much the longest thing I've ever written.

There's was a prologue that I added later - and I hate prologues - but it began simply, with an old man, Joshua Cathar (I've always been one for names that are a bit "leading") walking out one morning from his home (which we soon find out is a caravan.) At the same time, a younger man is opening up the newsagents, taking in the papers and organising the paper boys. It was all written in a slightly convoluted third person.

My second novel had a slightly different structure. A man wakes up, and misses something. His old dog, who usually sleeps beside him, has sloped off. It turns out not to be a good sign. Its again early morning, and he drives down to where he grew up. The novel then alternates between past and present - third person past, first person present. This book was shortlisted for the Lichfield Prize in 1995 and made me think I should take this writing seriously.

However, the next book took on board the "readers report" from the 1995 prize which criticised, I think, the dual narrative as being unecessary. I tried to write something very straight. Its an awful book, little shy of 50,000 words, but with nothing to recommend it other than some competent writing. It begins in as nondescript a way as possible in the office of a Midlands' engineering firm.

I knew I wanted to write something longer, more serious, wider ranging - and had applied to do an M.A. The novel I wrote on that course starts in a particular time and place - on Hungerford Bridge across the Thames on the afternoon of the election in 1997. The novel ebbs and flows like the river, and ends on the riverbank six months later. (Structure's always been important to me.) Another leading name -: the lead character, Adam Challis, and though its 3rd person its a localised one, as we rarely stray from his point of vision.

Whilst I waited for that to get published or rejected (the latter), I entered - and was shortlisted for - the Lichfield Prize again. This time with a sort of comedy. This, my fifth novel, had a first person female narrator, but actually had several different sections that were in different styles and tenses.

Around the same time - but I think afterwards - I wrote what was probably my first non-realistic novel, again a short one - and this was done in best part of three months - and all takes place on a single day (as my debut had.) In this case, a man arrives in a particular environment and his arrival upsets the balance, leading to a day of escalating chaos.

Number 7, and the last one for a few years, was an experimental montage - 250 individually titled sections, almost like a non-fiction miscellany - and not obviously connected to each other. Was it even a novel? Perhaps, perhaps not....  I'd reached the end of something I think.

The eighth novel - a novella, like my second, began, as you are never supposed to, with a man waking up. This time the missing body in his room isn't his beloved dog, but his wife who has gone to American for a conference. In the week that follows his life unravels. A dark comedy, I guess, and again 3rd person.

So I'm not sure what any of this proves - other than that I go back to my old tropes (maybe if any had been published I'd have tried harder to differentiate.). I think, though you can start a novel with a good line, (my 6h begins: "There were two deaths on Badger Farm that Tuesday, not including the dog"), I've seen beginnings as just that, a chance to set out time and place, and character. Though my stories have sometimes been elliptical my longer works rarely have. Thinking about them I can't help but notice that I do like structure. Two take place in a single day; one over a specific week. All are in the present, (or the present at the time of writing), though several have flashbacks of sorts.  

I'm trying to write something new; after a few false starts. I'm not sure the beginning matters that much, though its what sticks with you. It helps if the writing is good of course; and maybe the first chapter rather than the first line is what matters. And as I've been singularly unsuccessful in publishing any of them, perhaps I'm just getting it all hopelessly wrong anyway. 

Albums of the Year 2013

It feels like its been a bit of a better year for music. There's lots of interesting stuff coming out from various sub genres, yet with enough crossover to make them hits. There's lots of records I've not yet got round to or only just heard (Chvrches, Kanye, Parquet Courts etc.) so I'm sure that this list would change with time. However for now....

1. Wakin' on a Pretty Day - Kurt Vile
I loved Vile's previous album, so rushed out to get the new one. Whilst "Smoke Rings for My Halo" might have been a little shambolic in parts, "Wakin' on a Pretty Day" feels like this cult artist's coming of age - his "Soft Bulletin". At times he channels both American and UK80s  indie (there are songs that remind me of beautiful underachievers Felt) and I guess there's a shared "slacker" vibe about both sides. Its a very summery album as a result and the title track in particular is a languid masterpiece.

2. The Flower Lane - Ducktails
Also recording as Best Coast, this is another of those indie artists who decided to up their game during the year. "The Flower Lane" is so eighties it could be seen with a mullet watching "The Breakfast Club" at a drive in; but in the pick 'n' mix of contemporary music there are worse place to go looking for inspiration. In parts, its just lovely, pristine songwriting, augmented with a bright pop production - the kind of "pop" that never made the charts of course.

3. Tomorrow's Harvest - Boards of Canada
I've only recently discovered the joys of this Scottish electronic band. The world was waiting for their new album and such things have a habit of disappointing. How come I keep playing it then? An instrumental record that keeps withholding its secrets only to spill them out slowly through repeat plays; its a beautiful suite of warm analogue electronica. That it sounds like the music I was trying to write in the late 80s/early 90s doesn't really harm its charm either.

4. Random Access Memories - Daft Punk
Another old band returning on form - first with the awesome Chic-assisted single "Get Lucky" but the whole album is a different matter... a homage of sorts to the seventies - its properly conceived as a double album, and its not just disco that is remembered, but AOR like the Carpenters. A strange hybrid in some ways, of an anonymous dance duo and a range of more upfront collaborators, its been a massive record, and deservedly so. Play it start to finish like you used to.

5. Silence Yourself - Savages
Certain records - Savages, Daft Punk - seem to have been listed in most end of year round ups. Its hard to realise that Savages' debut only came out in 2013. Its a classy but dense remaking of early 80s angst but with a very contemporary sheen. If it occasionally recalls Siouxsie of "The Scream" and "Join Hands" that's no bad thing. A proper teenage debut album to love and cherish with not a note out of place. Seeing them live later in the year, the theatrical sense they bring to their dramatic songs was undiminished live, but I wonder where they will go from here: as the pop element to some of their melodies is here nicely meshed with the intense post-punk guitar barrage. Flung into being festival favourites, lets only hope they can continue to mine these dark strains.

6. Push the Sky Away - Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
Cave's 21st century has been remarkable - yet was Grinderman the equivalent of the 50 year old taking a younger girlfriend and buying a Porsche? The current Mrs. Cave is on the cover of this lovely record, dancing nakedly, abstractedly. Cave seems to have negotiated through the troubles of a late career artist - with a suite of songs that seem abstractedly connected. He still takes on characters, but is also happy to laugh a little at himself, writing about his new home town Brighton, as valid a subject as his gothic midwest. With some of his best recent songs, and a band that are more a setting for his muse (with multi-instrumentalist Warren Ellis to the fore) it may not be his most varied album, but its one of his most playable ones.

7. Girls Like Us - PINS
Manchester's youngest and most exciting band have forged an nteresting route to their debut through self released cassettes, well distributed videos, and showcase gigs. Signed to Bella Union, they are darker, more raucous, and less formed in some ways than most of that label's roster. Their debut album captures, just about, their live energy. A proper album to cherish, its both immediate and reluctant to give up its secrets - very much a debut, but in a year when other debuts (e.g. the Palma Violets) didn't manage to quite pull off the energy of their singles, PINS felt like a band captured to vinyl just in time.

8. Re-Mit - The Fall

The Fall's annual missive is probably their strongest since the double header of The Real New Fall LP/Fall Heads Roll. This line up have been around for a while now, but on their 2nd Cherry Red record, they offer a rumbling art-rock canvas that's less about individual songs, and more about the sound - a strangely modern amalgam that is occasionally as stunning as anything that will come from much-acclaimed Pitchfork bands.

9. The Next Day - David Bowie

His first album for years, and his best since "Outside" (though some said "Scary Monsters"), its beautifully song and - by Visconti - beautifully produced. I'm not sure it has the unity of his best albums as the songs seem to come from different parts of his career, but his songwriting is as strong as its been for years, and notwithstanding that the recently reclusive Bowie had reappeared, it appears a late career highlight that came out of his own artistry rather than requiring the reimagining by outside hands that so often accompanies these reboots.

10. Fascination - Gramme
I saw these at Sounds from the Other City. A Prince-inspired blend of electronics, funk and soul they have a liveliness that is anything but nostalgic and their debut album, though not perfect, offers a pretty seamless 40 minutes of contemporary soul that has much more than so many recent autotuned R&B acts. If R&B felt like it had lost its mojo in 2013, as every boy band or reality TV star stole its production ideas, the idea of pulling back a bit and remembering what makes a good dance act in the first case seems only appropriate.

Special mentions

Blurred Lines (single) - Robin Thicke; since vilified for Thicke being, well, a bit thick, when it comes to justifying his sexually risque lyrics and video, I'm still mesmerised by this Marvin Gaye inspired pop classic.  In a run during the spring we saw this, Daft Punk, Icona Pop and John Newman top the UK charts - showing that pop music can sometimes still find enough new moves to inspire. At the other end of the sales spectrum Manchester friend's Stranger Son and Suzuki Method both came out with exciting E.P.s/mini albums towards the latter part of the year.

Great year for reissues: I'm still unpacking the goodness of the Jesus and Mary Chain vinyl boxset; wonderful stuff and enjoying reissues like Four Tet's "Rounds" which I missed first time round. Not forgetting the 6-CD boxset of Waterboys "Fisherman's Blues" a rare opportunity to look at the genesis of a classic album.

A few albums just miss my top 10, My Bloody Valentine, Queens of the Stone Age, Young Knives and These New Puritans in particular.

Sunday, December 15, 2013



I daren't look back at my plans a year ago. The year began with fretting over whether to put in for redundancy (I didn't in the end), plans to go to Australia and start househunting (both of which were scuppered by an emergency eye op in June) - and a sense that something had to change in 2013. Well, nothing much did. Same job, same flat etc. etc.

Creatively its also been a difficult year - I've not been particularly outgoing regarding my poetry this year, reading in Manchester when asked, but not a lot of it. I've been putting together a collection of sorts, and over Christmas that's something I hope to concentrate on. Where it will end up who knows? My previous publisher Salt, gave up on single poet collections this year for a start. I had things published in two lovely small press publications. Two poems in "Sculpted: Poetry of the NW", and a story in "Unthology 4". I'd probably not expected to do too much music after last year's abundance, but I finished my 5th album since 2007 in the summer, "Kleptomania", which is available to download now.

I'll do a proper "albums" of the year over the holiday period - I'm not sure I've read enough new stuff to do a "books" of the year; the best poetry I found in magazines, pamphlets and at live events - thinking of Sarah Crewe's "Flick Invicta", the "Dear World" anthology, visual poetry sites M58 and Verse Kraken, ZimZalla's "Alternative Anniversaries" by Leanne Bridgewater; and more conventionally published books such as Melissa Lee Houghton ("Beautiful Girls"), Instant-flex 718 by Heather Phillipson, Chloe Hooper's "The Engagement", and Olivia Laing's literary biography "The Trip to Echo Spring." 

And couldn't resist sharing this link. Its 100 years ago today that Ezra Pound contacted James Joyce and kickstarted literary modernism. Thanks for Ted Gioia for this piece in the Daily Beast. 


Thinking about 2014 I think we can look forward (!) to plenty of World War I anniversaries - as well as the ongoing list of modernism anniversaries.

A friend has started a new magazine for fiction and poetry, here in Manchester, and is not only looking for submissions, but will be paying successful ones. Confingo Magazine will come out in the Spring - and he'd be happy to get some more submissions over the Christmas period.

Other friends have curated the first ever exhibition of William Burroughs photography which should be a January highlight at the Photographer's Gallery. 

The current exhibition at Castlefield Gallery looks at Radical Conservatism, in its many possible forms - and if you don't get over immediately, then make sure you attend the final weekend symposium at the start of February.

Right, with that, I'd better get writing my Xmas cards. 

Saturday, December 14, 2013

If This is Home by Stuart Evers

Tried to avoid overt spoilers, though some of the key plot is given away on the cover of the hardback anyway, but its impossible to review without giving some of it away. 

His first novel, "If this is home", follows Stuart Evers well received short story collection "Ten Stories About Smoking". Beginning in an enigmatic, intrigueing Las Vegas where "Josef Novak", is helping his friend O'Neill close a property deal, the shimmering unreality of "Valhalla" - the complex they are trying to sell units in to rich businessmen - is a facade which begins to unravel as Joe's past begins to intrude back into his life. For the last ten years or more he has lived in New York, his identity a fake one, O'Neill the friend he made shortly after arriving for got drunk with him and helped him out with his new life. There's a book in his possession where every aspect of Joe's life is mapped out; a fiction - a necessary one because Joe Novak has been successfully forgetting his past.

In Vegas, as he gets more and more distant from the job he has to do - and more appalled by the behaviour of the men who they are trying to please in this glorified Time Share scheme - the past begins to intrude. For Joe came to New York from England, specifically Wilmslow in the North West, as a teenager running away from a tragedy that took place in 1990, involving his girlfriend Bethany - that year's carnival queen. As the present breaks apart and he is reminded of the violence that led him to leave the UK, he turns up again in the North West, booking in at a provincial pub-hotel and begins to slowly track his way back through half memories of a life that he had deliberately hid away for over a decade. Flitting between memories of that year, with Bethany getting ready to be a reluctant carnival queen (she prefers to wear a Big Black t-shirt and Dr. Marten boots, but agrees for her father's sake), and memories of his arrival in New York, he sits in his hotel halfway between his new identity and his old one - Mark Wilkinson.

Evers is an engaging writer, from the baroquely fantastic Vegas chimera, to the more down-to-earth recolllections of a dreary but nonetheless searching teenage life in a provincial English town, he deftly moves between worlds. There's a slightly fantastical nature, even to his more mundane recollections, as Bethany's memory is a  palpable one to Mark, edging him ever closer to unravel the memories of what happened that terrible day. In some ways, Evers successfully joins two common tropes of contemporary British fiction: the lost anti-hero, a post-adolescent who is unable to actively change the world as it happens to him - caught in his own neuroses; and on the other hand the novel of secrets withheld - like "The Gathering" or "Atonement", held back from the reader through the author's sleight of hand. In some ways the novel is the inevitable debut - returning to adolescence through the fog of memory; but unable to process it. For Wilkinson, like the hero of the New York set Netherland, is adrift, awaiting for something to be resolved but not quite knowing what it might be.

Its interesting how conventional the novel is in some ways. The language is one of filtered-memory, the Paul Morley style Sunday supplement reminisce of dank Northern towns at one remove; the bad pub food; the low expectations of working class youth. Mark was a dreamer because he had to be: both him and Bethany had broken homes; but the women it was who were missing, not the men; and this pain of divorce and separation - of adolescence in a not-so-distant world, recalls David Mitchell's Black Swan Green for instance. In some ways the Vegas chapter at the start feels like a tacked on short story - it has a different timbre to the rest of the novel; and the move from NYC to Vegas creates a complexity of location which feels a little contrived. New York is the place where you go for your dreams - as Bethany and Mark had planned - but when those dreams couldn't come true, what then? Maybe the fake facades of Vegas. In many ways, much of this is a device. It covers similar ground to Gwendoline Riley's recent "Opposed Positions" but has a more mechanistic approach to its material; here its a life remembered rather than a life lived. I felt there wasn't enough made of the genuniely interesting decision to give a character two lives - seen through Mark/Joe's own perspective we never get the sense that either is particularly real. The denouement when it comes is less about surprising us but lining up the past again so it makes sense. We are all touched by our inactions as well as our actions.

Its an enjoyable read, carefully structured, and with some of the pace of a psychological thriller like Tana French or Kate Atkinson; yet its also a much more homely book: something of the suburban provincial life (Evers is from Macclesfield) that many non-urban British writers share. In this, the prose doesn't really find a way out from the cliches - it almost denies the documentary impulse that would bring this particular past more to life. For Wilkinson had no love for his hometown - and in returning the only conclusion is a very contemporary one: that dreams are just that, dreams. "If this is home" is an appropriate title - for Wilkinson is himself a chimera abroad, but in Wilmslow, he's a missing man. Set, deliberately, I think, just before the internet it relies on that pre-internet world where its easy to disappear. Its not in any way a comforting book, but he deals with his dark material with a lightness of touch that is similar to, say Steven Hall.

For a novel that has different places and different identities it settles for far too much of its length into the most comfortable of both: the provincial past, and one wonders about the deux ex machina that got us here? Was it really necessary? At the end, even though there's a potential love interest in the enigmatic Ferne (all the female characters are somewhat enigmatic), there's a sense of containment that would seem to make more sense in a short story, but perhaps lacks the necessary bravery one wants from a novel.  I doubt most contemporary readers will be disappointed, yet like Zadie Smith's "The Autograph Man", the emotionally-limited male lacks possibilities, whether in an exotic or mundane location. In her essay comparing "Remainder" and "Neverwhere" as two sides for the contemporary novelist, I'd say that Evers book fits bang in the middle, showing how awkward that dichotomy is to sustain.

There's an interesting piece on his blog on the role of music in writing his work - with a soundtrack to the novel itself.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Writing's Nationality

A few years ago, if asked, I'd have said, that to all intents and purposes I was an American writer, albeit with an English accent. The writers I read were American, my influences were American, and in many ways my style was far more American than it was English. Is this about being derivative or absorbtion of influence? I'm not sure. But as no one has ever said, blood is thicker than ink; and the blood will out eventually.

Yet these days I am an English writer, most definitely, with traces of an American accent - is there a flip point?My "American" voice was derived from Burroughs, Mailer, McInerney, Acker, Easton Ellis, Roth, Fitzgerald, Faulkner...and in poetry, Williams, Eliot, Pound, Plath, Ashbery - not from any real-world America. (Though my one visit to America in 1995 let loose a torrent of American-located stories.) DeLillo, that most American of writers was a bit of a tipping point as well - I saw that "White Noise" was the kind of book I wanted to write, but having found that, I shied away from imitative style: on the one hand taking something from DeLillo, as I do from all my favourite writers, on the other, noticing the alienness of some of his earlier novels; there's a fast-speaking schtick that I could revel in, but also, fail utterly to ever raid for my own usage. Similar with Roth, as tempting as those long sentence structures in "American Pastoral" were, they sounded limp and in authentic set in Manchester or London. The kind of prose I liked wasn't necessarily the kind of prose I now wanted to write. At some point I "lost" the American accent of some of my fiction -  or maybe found that it no longer served my purpose.

Other tipping points were European and South American writers; in the late 90s I read Borges, Saramago, Houllebecq, Chamoiseau for the first time; here was a different sensibility - more philosophical, and it appealed to the kind of subject matter  I was now writing. Then again, with the internet you begin to hear a kind of globalised English prose, the first person present tense of the blogger or the Facebook commentator, and its hard to extract your brain from those rhythms, particularly when you're being - as maybe I was - a cod American writer.

So at some point my writing changed in timbre, and its maybe shed affectation, or perhaps American influence, which was so important to me during my 20s and 30s, slips away in the new world. More recently - though I still read American novels, I've seen a falling off in what I'd have once called "American style" - I find acclaimed novelists like Frantzen less brazen, more atuned to a global speech bubble; a CNN kind of world-lit lite; that crosses borders. Its rare now to have to adjust your filter to a particular American accent in prose, just as its rare to have to adjust filter to regional variations on these islands. And maybe America has changed culturally. Roth and Bellow, like Scorsese or Coppola were artists in a newish land, 2nd or 3rd generation immigrants, but seeing America through their neighbourhood, their community, their city. The "new" in American letters which was a constant excitement during the 20th century, is perhaps not so obvious now - or diluted somewhat.

Perhaps it was always going to be this way; that I wrote in a kind of American-noir style because I was looking for my own style, or rather because I hadn't yet discovered the mechanics of what I was doing, though I could see the look I was trying to achieve. Poetry may be partly to blame, since, apart from brief flirtations with Ashbery, its harder, much harder, to put on a different voice in that medium: everything - voice, language, tone, style - fights against it. Yet I've also found it harder these last few years to write a longer prose, so wondering if the free style of American language was easier for me to work with than our sometimes stilted and class bound British prose? You see how difficult it is to conjure up a British avant garde, or an English vernacular that doesn't sound parochial. Thin prose is often the result of those who are attempting to avoid the cliches. Our English novelists aren't much help. Barnes and McEwan can't exactly become stylistic influences, whilst the Amisian strand, which - I guess - I was following with my Americanisms, works best for a certain heightened comedy.  My own fascination with the clear, lyrical prose of, say, Bruce Chatwin, is a difficult place to go without his gifts, but is not to be dismissed. The strange circuitry of writers like Mieville, Peace, Barker and Mantel highlights that there are other ways - however hard fought - to make your way through the wilderness. That said, I miss my old American self, fake as it was; yet hope that like a British band apeing the blues, something unique might come from the transformation.

Saturday, December 07, 2013

Poems and Buildings

A couple of weeks ago I moved back into the refurbished Town Hall Extension in Manchester. The inside offices are as you would expect, open plan, modern, with meeting room "pods" and glass fronted meeting rooms; but the building itself has been kept in its 1930s glory, a mixture of the functional and the grand as befits the age. Clanking up the stone steps, or admiring the municipal fittings, I couldn't help but think that its not unlike a lot of poetry of the thirties: serious, austere, certainly grand, but not particularly ostentatious. Its a building that wears its craftsmanship lightly, but is proud of itself, very like the poetry of Auden, Isherwood and Spender. It is serious in intent - this is clearly a civic building - and though there is room for ornament there is no room for frippery.

It got me thinking how alike the poetry and buildings of an era might be. I can't quite think of an architect-poet, though we might co-opt William Morris to our argument in some sense: but it does seem that they often parallel each other. Post-1918 buildings and poems both seem to be breaking free from their early 20th century moorings; ambitious, modern, sometimes baroque, and often over-reaching, the poetry is as spacious as a 1920s house. For the Chrysler building is as monumental as "The Wasteland". The fifties see a poetry of the confessional that finds its echoes, at least in part, in the American kitchen, the American diner. A public-homeliness that strips away the stoic blandishments of the immediate post-war years, and revels in new forms of intimacy. The sixties is both gaudy and relaxed; whilst by the seventies we're seeing post-modern buildings alongside L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets, equally brazen in their facade, but perhaps rotten at the core in some way as they struggle with the social divisions of that age. Bty the 1980s poetry is as mixed use as the modern mall; as quick and easy to understand as a McDonalds. Get to this century and we're no longer building anything iconic - everything is an accumulation of styles and purpose, a bit eco here, a bit Scandinavian here, a bit workspace over there: and maybe our poetry is equally pick and mix, but cramped by too little attention, like a new estate, going out to poetry readings as there's not room at home to cook more than a take away....

Sunday, December 01, 2013

Finding Voice in a Cacophony

"Its important to find your voice" - "one day you will find your voice" - "when you find your voice you will stick to it" - I'm wondering about "voice" in poetry; for, at the latest count, there were 6,532,391 poets currently writing. Amidst this cacophony how can you find "a voice"? Do the voices merge? I wonder how many distinctive poetry voices there are: and given how difficult distinctiveness is, how many manage to stick to their voice once they've found it? Les Murray is unmistakeable, of course, but maybe his booming "voice" has deafened us to all the other Australians? Ashbery is unmistakeable, but has he spread himself over a whole block of Ashbery-like ironic voices so that no others can be heard?

Whenever you have a collection or a collective "generation" it seems that the distinctions between poets are removed; and instead we have a commonality. In such a way, an orthodoxy develops, so that other voices don't fit in easily, a bit like trying to hear a Sebadoh record in between the other songs on mainstream radio. Imagine, if you can, how it must be to be a Northern Irish experimentalist? Can they even exist when Irish poetry has so much about voice? And as we see more and more citizens of the world - hyphenate poets, born one place, developed another, educated another, residenced another, you wonder about how that translates or transfers. Occasionally I'll read a British poet in "Poetry" and wonder whether their more quotidian style is nothing of the sort; just my familiarity with it. That said, would an Americanised English poet get very far - like an English rock and roll band trying to break America and never managing to even get their records all released there.

And what if part of why you write is not to find your voice, but to "do the police in different voices", as Eliot's first title for the Wasteland would have it. Are we less authentic as a result? And are we then trapped in persona as much as a long-forgotten Browning poem or one of Pound's Personae? Yet voice is, I think, wrapped up in language, particularly in poetry. In prose, I think that there are different lexicons that you can call on - depending on what you are trying to say - but in poetry we are already struggling with two voices, the one we hear ourselves (our inward voice, if you like) and the one that we are listening to (the outward voice, perhaps.) Depending on voice gives us challenges that our poetic resources only partly address.Have we even a shared language these days? And when we are caught between the competing cadences of the modern media hubbub and our own (ageing) inner monologue, do we get caught as much as earlier poets have got caught between "high" and "low" speech.

Hearing or reading a melliflous Heaney you struggle to imagine him talking about much of our technocratic presence; but then again, do we expect our poets to avoid subjects that are not easily accented? Safer, I think, to choose a middle-voice, some mid-Atlantic equivalence, that can relish both the lyricism and the stentorianism of contemporary English; allow for quiet passages and loud choruses perhaps. And unless you're Geoffrey Hill, avoid the higher registers of the King James Version. In a post-pulpit age, English becomes several languages, of an internationalised version that is easiest to the ear in an American accent; but which will avoid anything too flowery (or too Latin.)

No wonder experimental poets are drawn to sound works - vocalisations offering more scope to escape, not the inherent meaning of our native tongue, but its dead on the page nature. Our poetic voice is a way of avoiding as well as escaping history; but we find our voice sometimes at a peril to our facility with the language; are we drawing the outlines more boldly as we can't risk the colouring in blurring the lines?

And if your poem stands out amongst all the others, will it get pulled from the playlist? Better if when you're reading a few pages of a magazine and you come across your own words and hardly recognise them - or rather, have an echo of who that person was/is - without being entirely convinced that it is/was you at all.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Years aren't Novels but December's feel like last chapters

It's December on Sunday, and busy as I will be then with hauling out the advent calendar, I thought I'd write a pre-emptive blog post. I didn't think I'd blogged much this year, but a quick glance at the side bar sees that I've blogged slightly more than last year, and pretty consistently over the last couple of years - once a week, and then a few.The last three years I've travelled a lot with work - thirty three trips by my rough calculation - which might have something to do with the numbers coming down from when I blogged every few days. Though I sometimes wonder, when looking at Facebook debates, what role the blog has nowadays. I find I like having a bit more of a considered approach to a subject than in a FB status - ironic, really, as Blogs started as a way to be quicker and less formal than the essay. The other thing is that FB is "public" but only to your network whilst Blogger lasts out there in the real world.

The poetry community seems to prefer FB than blogs to comment -and I've sometimes wondered why. Hermetic sealing? A tendency for brevity? (Though you should see the length of the posts.) Ironically, I don't actually see a massive amount of UK poetry blogs out there. I suppose that though anyone can have a blog, by keeping one going you do pretend to some sort of "authority", though from my own Point of View, I don't think I've ever set myself up to comment on each and every literary issue out there. George Szirtes, Katy Evans-Bush and Todd Swift, practising poets all, are the longrunning blogs I still go to for any sort of poetry summing up. Occasional blogger only, but always thought provoking, is Steven Waling, who, like me uses it as a bit of an extension of his FB musing; whilst Michelle McGrane's "Peony Moon" does the very simple thing of publishing contemporary poets on a regular basis.

Plenty more places to go for the poets, poetry and poetry magazines themselves (see some in the sidebar) though I think we slip into our busy little communities and stay there a little bit. Though I'd probably suggest a novelist might be best avoiding social media, for the time it eats up, for poets its perhaps a little different - an online version of the letters pages of the little magazines. What we lose in a written correspondance we gain in a dialogue. The edifices of poetry's castle remain pretty unaware of all the activity outside the walls of course. I've read some good stuff this year, but in pamphlets, magazines and online rather than in monolithic books from major publishers. The rash of recent anthologies (concentrating on the young mainly) hasn't really done a lot to define where we are with poetry one hundred years after the Imagist anthology, but the public image of poetry only really has room for a few, not the many. There's a slow, steady accretion I think from being in "Grandchildren of Albion" to co-curating a bash for the Queen at Buckingham Palace (Carol Ann Duffy.)

I'm not retiring from the poetry fray as such, more rounding up my depleted resources, and gathering them together for a full assault in the new year. (Ok, I'm at the state of preparing a collection. No publisher as yet, so get in touch if you are interested!)

2013 has been a difficult year. It began with an offer of redundancy, and it ends with us moving offices back into the Town Hall. I've worked for the council for over ten years, but its been far removed from being a council job. We'll have to see how that pans out. In the midst, I had an emergency eye operation which scuppered a few plans; made me reappraise a few things; and then, as ever, go back to the helter skelter of my normality. It feels that 2013 is a novel that is not coming to an end, so much as had a missing middle section (two months of impaired sight does that to you).

Yet in the midst of this I have written some of my finest poems (though yet to see the light of day, so that may be to be decided), recorded a new album (again, still not made public, as there are some final production tweaks required, but something of which I am inordinately proud), and may even have started a new novel (though that also got halted.) I had a story published in a book for the first time, "The Cat" in "Unthology 4".

Writers need reflective time - and I've had very little of that lately. A longer break over Christmas, and a shorter one this weekend, will hopefully move things along a little.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Sunday Roundup

Well, the poets went to the Palace, (as I mentioned beforehand). I'm not sure if anyone's done a good write up of it, but apparently a nice evening was had by most. Some rather nasty Facebook spats have taken place since the event, which have been as bewildering as any family arguments always are. For writers who know they are best with a few words, they do like spreading them around a bit sometimes. I did enjoy Adam Horowitz's take on things however. Though, like me, he wasn't on the list, so was not coming in. A bit like the Hacienda c. 1991. Plus ca  change. (There's a clip of the event here.)

I've been busy not writing anything or rather trying to write at least something during the inevitable busy period that I have every autumn. Got back yesterday from a hectic few days in Barcelona; however, struck by the thought of how much more I might accomplish just by living somewhere that's warm all the time. One's optimism is refreshed. A good place for poets, I think, perhaps less so for prose writers who probably need the long winters, and no distractions of late night cocktail bars.

It meant that sadly I was unable to join quite a lot of Manchester's art community decamping to Scarborough for Bob and Roberta Smith's Art Party conference. That this idea - a political rally cum performance event cum festival - has grabbed artists' imagination, must be because there are so few opportunities when artists - quiet and solitary by nature, like poets - have an opportunity to get together and let there hair down. I wish I could have been there. Are artists more radical than poets these days? It might well be so. (It was only Rembrandt's hanging in the Royal palace apparently, not republicans.)

The first of the end of year lists are out. From Piccadilly Records and Rough Trade shops. There's less of a consensus around records of the year these days (see that RT's number one is only #22 in the PR list for instance) but good lists if you're looking to find something new. I've already good albums by Kurt Vile, Savages and Ducktails on these lists, but look forward to exploring some more.

In books - the first "books of the year" in yesterday's Guardian seems a little dull - especially if you're looking for new fiction or poetry, chockful with biographies (mainly of Penelope Fitzgerald) and other non fiction books. Better off looking at the small publishers who do release books for Christmas, and occasionally put them on sale. I've just received "Posthumous Stories" by David Rose from Salt, and looking forward to "Beautiful Girls" by Melissa Lee Houghton from Penned in the Margins when she reads in Manchester on 5th December. There's also "Unthology 4" with my story "The Cat" if you're looking for a nice compilation. A review of it here.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Erase and Rewind

Reading that the Conservative Party has not only removed past speeches from their website but apparently done everything it can to wipe past traces of them from other accessible internet sites (and in the week that the Internet archive suffered a major fire that though not threatening its existence reminds us that these things are never as permanent as we hope), brings up quite a lot of interesting questions.

Having once worked in data processing I know that data is evidence; yet at the same time its "virtual" nature means that it can somehow stop - to all intents and purposes - existing. Those researching their family tree are so dependent on those "permanent" archives such as censuses, church records, army records etc. yet nothing is ever truly permanent. (Shelley fans may recall "Ozymandias" for instance.) It is why Nicholson Baker (and others) were so up in arms about the deletion of the physical archive. Paper not only gives us the context, but can't be so easily destroyed. Its a stock feature of detective stories and thrillers where a piece of information goes missing (even in SF like "Minority Report") and has been deliberately removed. Its absence is what makes it significant.

Yet if we destroy whole archives - or make them impossible to find - then what next? The assault on the pubic sector that David Cameron (surely not by coincidence) has repeated this week is about a "smaller state". Far better for those who want to control us to control the information flow, the information archive as well? The irony of this - in a year when whistleblower Edward Snowden highlighted how much they are eavesdropping on us all - is hard to ignore. For data is information, information is power - and deletion of the truth and its context are the best ways to avoid the consequence of those actions. It may seem that in a digital world it is harder than ever to destroy information - yet taking data out of consequence can we really be sure that the raw data is understandable?

Why buy books in an age of Wikipedia and Kindle? So much is context - but so much is also conservation - what if we can no longer rely on the public bodies to conserve. Are we like those Dr. Who fans still mistily remembering the single showing of a sixties show that was erased by a BBC that (then as now) placed the news archive above the cultural one. Luckily we have the BBC recordings of the Beatles (out this week) to swell the coffers - as ever these collections don't come from one pristine source but from wherever possible. A record label that went bust like Factory has its master tapes dispersed, often lost. Our personal archives become original sources - more so than ever in the digital age. And here we come back to that erasing of the past - it happens anyhow by things becoming neglected. Archives occasionally discover manuscripts of some importance (amongst the many of no importance.)

Our encouragement to the virtual, cloud etc. means that we are somehow expecting the curation to be done for us  that there will always be a copy available. Yet caught up in extended copyright laws (this month, if I'm not mistaken, copyright on recordings extends from 50 years to 70 years, ensuring the Beatles stay protected another 20 years) things can and do disappear. Archive labels like Trunk Records and Finders Keepers scour junkshops and old archives for the oldest tracks - I know lots of people who were in bands in their twenties or teens and haven't a single copy of their music online or offline. Think of your first digital photographs - do they still exist in any format? Or have you a gap between ditching the Kodak and opening your Flickr account? And what when things close down? Old blogs, old projects.

There is often a commercial desire to erase the past - an artist like Prince stopping his music from being shared online for instance. Yet at the the other end of the spectrum all those Pearl Jam and Fugazi shows available to download. Is this an overcuration?

In "Poetry" magazine last year, they talked about going through the archive and seeing amongst the gems that are now classics, a mass of poetry that isn't, that didn't last. Historically interesting to see which poems were read at the same time as William Carlos Williams or whoever. Look at old punk footage and see the audience - mostly with long hair - as their gigs took place at student unions where the last bands had been prog rockers. I hate recreations of the 80s on television - the pretty young actors have a Now Thats What I Call the 80s view of the decade, the hair and clothes are all wrong, but often, so is the soundtrack.

We can't recreate the past - it is gone - but our archiving of it; our self archiving if you like might be the only thing that separates our own version of that past from the official version which - as the world gets catalogued online by one or two massive corporations or controlled by governments - makes it ever more important that we keep some physical copy even if a CD-R of bits and bytes. The irony about the digital is that it doesn't really exist unless it is copied, but once it is copied once it can exist apparently infinitely. Yet, our reliance on the primary copy (Conservative Party website for their speeches for instance) means that our own version becomes increasingly important. I'm clearing out my desk today; old leaflets for old projects appear and go straight to the bin; I'm assuming everything will be available on the server - yet at some point it will be lost - hidden away, not so much in an unmarked grave, but on an unmarked archive tape or disc. It exists but it is no more.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Writing Ourselves Out of the Narrative

At a time when writers seem to be ever more writing from and about the self; and a first person solipsism dominates new fiction and confessional poetry alike, why is it that I'm craving a writing that is not the death of the author so  much as their erasure? I want a name on the spine, and to know no more. I have no hunger for reality. I want the writer - and that includes myself, this writer - to be as absent as possible from it all. That the work can exist alone. Is this Barthes' Death of the Author and grown up older and wiser? Or rather am I seeing that the integrity of writing in our contemporary 24/7 culture can only really exist if it renounces ego; if it rejects the systemic autobiographical; if it erases all trace of background?

I think in our 21st century post-religious age we have identified and exagerrated the self to such an extent that our desire to understand "ourselves" is becoming a problem. We've never been so aware of the word "self" yet are we self-aware? The few survivors of the Second World War are a generation that when questioned on television are hesitant about the demands of the medium; they want no medals, no memorialising, even, to some extent to have no memory. Are we post-Freudian? Crime is going down all over the Western world, either as a result of our comfort, or the result of our carefulness - and yet the crimes that shock us are those of the person, the individual paedophile, the man who murders his family then himself. We are appalled by these solipsisms; yet we drag ourselves out and into the open with "selfies" - photographs on our mobile phones taken at arms length; or through our Facebook profile.

Writers we are expected to talk like this on our blogs - and yet it is writing that has the smallest of audiences that doesn't sell a book. A poet like Ken Goldsmith can say we don't need to write original work anymore, yet he has to be an original creation, got up as a literary oddity on a TV show, unmistakeably the writer, this writer, even if the words are not his words.

In this world I want to disappear. Mention to someone something from your life, from your past, and they say "you should write about that." But what do I know? Am I to write about what I can hardly believe in? A happened past reconstructed via fake memory and adjectival truth? I don't think so. I want a writing where I am absent. That I am not me. That I am not there. That the "I" is other. That you, reader, will not guess its me, or see its me, or need to know its me. Later, we can marvel at Kafka's diaries or Ballard's biography, or Carver's interviews but do we need to know the life? Do we need to go down that wormhole? At what point does it tire us - make us inevitably disappointing to the one audience we really crave (our "self"). Can we truly surprise ourselves any more when we are there, there, there, all the time?

I want to be invisible in the work - and I don't want you to look for me. Can you make that distinction?

Friday, November 08, 2013

By Royal Request

The ever febrile world of poetry, or at least that which camps on Facebook, has been all agog this week, as invites have landed on desks for an event next week entitled "A Celebration of Contemporary British Poetry." Nothing new or unusual in that you might think, except the inviters are Her Majesty the Queen and Prince Phillip, and the venue is Buckingham Palace.

It's one of the ever-ironies about the arts in this country that although there is a constant debate about funding the arts, "the establishment" has, now and then, a keen interest in art forms that are otherwise seen as under threat, or at least, that area of the arts which has its imprimature. There is after all a Royal Society of Literature; a Queen's Gold Medal Poetry; the Poet Laureateship. Always struck me as a little odd, as the Windsors have never been notorious bookworms. Maybe its a hangover from their German origins - or some strange formulation that means for every fifty horse races the Queen goes to she agrees to a literary event. Who knows who decides these things? Neither the Royal Family or the Government are particularly enthusiastic about literature despite this being the land of "Shakespeare and Dickens."

More curious still, is that word "Contemporary", presumably not just inserted so the Duke of Edinburgh can't bemoan the lack of some Kipling (or is Phil the Greek a Seferis fan? We should be told!) This means that it will be live poets in Buck house, hosted by the poetry world's usual host of choice, the eminently comforting (if not yet eminent - maybe that will come) Ian McMillan. The guest list is going to be a scream, of course.

My favourite story about the royals and poetry is the one about the Queen Mother, when subjected to an evening of T.S. Eliot reading, bemoaning a dreadful man reading some dreary poem called "The Desert." Apocryphal or not, I think its suitably accurate representation of the Royals' relationship to the most important poem of the 20th century.

Dressed up to the nines (or at least in the "lounge suits" of the invite) the poets will probably no more dysfunctional a bunch than any of the other groups who attend Buck house. What's surprised me a little is, that though generally left leaning, the poets seem a little desirous of this formality. Lets be honest, I wouldn't say no, myself (just to see what the loos are like - would we be able to ask which one John Lennon smoked a joint in?) but has made me wonder where's the Republican strand in this land of Keats, Shelley and Wordsworth - sadly lacking it seems.  The $64,000 question of course is whether or not Pam Ayres is invited. I really do hope so.

Sunday, November 03, 2013

Knowing What I Now Know

How do I write? How do you write?
How do we write?

Been thinking a lot about this recently.

Sometimes I think creativity happens in a crevasse between large rocks, and only when you climb out of it do you realise where the sky is, what the landscape is. In the crevasse what you do makes sense, but its limited by its environment. 

And then again, I see creativity gambolling across the sky - not so much as free as a bird, but as a tree squirrel spiralling from branch to branch, ungainly perhaps, but confident enough in the trapeze act for when he lands.

But then I see it in another way, the fire ants, bit by bit joining together to create something that is beyond their individual capabilities, so each sentence alone would sink, but together, if you get the bouyancy right then you can create enough surface tension, not just to float, but to navigate across the water.

Knowing what I now know, I know how to do certain things: but I'm not sure I need to do them. As in life, you might say, so in art.

The two things: what you need to do to make the piece of writing work beyond yourself (to hone it, in other ways) and the other thing - the rough drafting of raw ideas...

The latter seems more important to me as an artist than the former. Yet it is the former that I now know, a little, how to do. Making the cobwebs hold the weight. That's where the two things join together. But am I spider or am I fly?

My Favourite Albums of the 00s

I was tempted to bring this right up to date - but good records need a few years to settle down in the memory. The 21st century started pretty poor in many ways - and technology has been the main story. That said there's a diversity of music out there unparalleled; if you like something then you'll find it, whatever the subgenre. Keeping up when you're in your 30s or 40s is a pointless exercise though I can't help but think that Simon Reynolds' view that we're in an age of "retromania" is the correct one - with the whole history of rock at our fingertips (you can buy the complete albums of Bob Dylan this Christmas for about £3 each - convenient I guess, but hardly the somewhat random way we experience music.) That said, there's been some good records; I just think the idea that there are major artists anymore - except maybe in the R&B and hip hop worlds - is somewhat ridiculous. My favourite artists of the decade are probably decent American rock bands like Mars Volta and Hold Steady. British music seems to have been in perpetual slump - though I'm thinking I must have missed someone or something, I kind of think that many of the bands I've gone to see have been from previous decades - and the replacement bands have tended to have one or two hit albums then disappeared or become irrelevant. Who knows? Probably too soon to tell. So a lesser list for the 00s, sixty records (or CDs or downloads) - I'm sure I've missed some along the way, but its what I've listened to, rather than what I've been told I should listen to.

1 Lyre of Orpheus/Abattoir Blues Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
2 Separation Sunday The Hold Steady
3 Sounds of Silver LCD Soundsystem
4 Deloused in the Comatorium Mars Volta
5 The Greatest Cat Power
6 Relationship of Command At the Drive In
7 Fleet Foxes Fleet Foxes
8 Time The Revelator Gillian Welch
9 The Trials of Van Occupanther Midlake
10 Kid A Radiohead
11 Kala M.I.A.
12 Turn on the Bright Lights Interpol
13 The Marshall Mathers Eminem
14 Stories from the City, Tales from the Sea PJ Harvey
15 Hour of the Bewilderbeast Badly Drawn Boy
16 Speakerboxx/The Love Below Outkast
17 Boys and Girls in America The Hold Steady
18 In Rainbows Radiohead
19 White Blood Cells White Stripes
20 For Emma, forever ago Bon Iver
21 Elephant White Stripes
22 Rated R Queens of the Stone Age
23 American Recordings IV Johnny Cash
24 Whatever you say I am, I'm not Arctic Monkeys
25 Greendale Neil Young
26 Since I left you Avalanches
27 Blackout Britney Spears
28 You are the quarry Morrissey
29 No More Shall We Part Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
30 Decline of British Sea Power British Sea Power
31 The Strokes The Strokes
32 45:33 LCD Soundsystem
33 Figure 8 Elliot Smith
34 Oracular Spectacular MGMT
35 Lift your skinny fists to heaven like antenna Godspeed Your Black Emperor
36 XTRMNTR Primal Scream
37 In Ghost Colours Cut Copy
38 Late Registration Kanye West
39 Stripped Christina Aguilera
40 Stankonia Outkast
41 Tasty Kelis
42 Love. Angel. Music. Baby. Gwen Stefani
43 The Woods Sleater-Kinney
44 Funeral Arcade Fire
45 Dangerously in Love Beyonce
46 The Power Out Electralane
47 Echoes The Rapture
48 Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots Flaming Lips
49 Crystal Castles Crystal Castles
50 Cuckooland Robert Wyatt
51 Asleep in the Back Elbow
52 Ladyhawke Ladyhawke
53 The Real New Fall LP The Fall
54 The Last Broadcast Doves
55 Back to Black Amy Winehouse
56 Thunder Lightning Strike Go Team
57 Kaleidoscope Kelis
58 Graduation Kanye West
59 Supernature Goldfrapp
60 Silent Alarm Bloc Party

My Favourite Albums of the 1990s

The 1990s gave me more money to spend - but less time (as I was working) to listen. Besides, the music that was peaking was usually more accomodated on a 12" dance record or multiple mix CD single than on an album - some dance, hip hop and house haven't lasted, but others have. Then there was the remnants of baggy ("Pills, Thrills and bellyaches" and "Screamadelica" were slow to emerge), which led into Britpop at the same time that grunge was happening. In retrospect the 90s seems, as one commentator noted, "seven years of plenty", with our pick 'n' mix approach to music showcased by the way that festivals began to have dance acts and rock acts on the same stage (and sometimes on the same song.) Its interesting how bands become attached to decades - rock and roll gives longer careers these days - so two, three or more years between Radiohead albums for instance isn't a surprise. The internet wasn't yet transforming how we listened to music (though Napster came out late in the decade, the iPod was a few years off), yet we knew it would. Out of nowhere an "indie" band became the biggest in the world - Oasis, or was that Nirvana? The split between mainstream and alternative seemed ridiculous when worldwide the biggest selling albums were by the Beastie Boys or Pearl Jam. All good stuff of course, and like the previous two decades, ample albums for a top 100. Surprised how few artists lasted from the 70s or 80s into this decade - its more since the millennium that the heritage artist (Johnny Cash, Leonard Cohen) has come into their own, though there was always Neil Young, dreadful for much of the 80s, but retooled and touring with Sonic Youth in the 1990s. In retrospect, its a diverse decade, where unlikely records - Belle and Sebastian, Jeff Buckley - could gain near universal acceptance. (And I know that its a bit amazing that I've room for Lisa Lisa or Birdland rather than "Ok Computer" or "Different Class" but those are albums I never really listened to much, though I appreciate their importance!)

1 Loveless My Bloody Valentine
2 Definitely Maybe Oasis
3 Doggystyle Snoop Doggy Dogg
4 Fear of a Black Planet Public Enemy
5 Entroducing DJ Shadow
6 To Bring Me Your Love PJ Harvey
7 Exile in Guyville Liz Phair
8 If you're feeling sinister Belle and Sebastian
9 Maxinquaye Tricky
10 Rage Against the Machine Rage Against the Machine
11 Slanted and enchanted Pavement
12 In Utero Nirvana
13 Midnight Marauders A Tribe Called Quest
14 The Soft Bulletin Flaming Lips
15 In the airplane over the sea Neutral Milk Hotel
16 Sound Verite The Make Up
17 Ladies and Gentlemen we are floating in space Spiritualized
18 Crazy Sexy Cool TLC
19 My Life Mary J. Blige
20 Dubnobasswithmyheadman Underworld
21 Heaven or Las Vegas Cocteau Twins
22 Grace Jeff Buckley
23 Generation Terrorists Manic Street Preachers
24 So Tonight that I might see Mazzy Starr
25 Elastica Elastica
26 Black Sunday Cypress Hill
27 Whats the Story Morning Glory? Oasis
28 Suede Suede
29 Extricate The Fall
30 Transmissions from the Satellite Heart Flaming Lips
31 Nevermind Nirvana
32 The Holy Bible Manic Street Preachers
33 Dust Screaming Trees
34 Cats and Dogs Royal Trux
35 Transmissions from the Satellite Heart Flaming Lips
36 Screamadelica Primal Scream
37 The Infotainment Scan The Fall
38 Quality Street World of Twist
39 Ill Communication Beastie Boys
40 Pills, thrills and bellyaches Happy Mondays
41 Homogenic Bjork
42 Tindersticks Tindersticks
43 Mezzanine Massive Attack
44 Efil4Zaggin NWA
45 Achtung baby U2
46 Ritual de la Habitual Jane's Addiction
47 Goo Sonic Youth
48 Time Out of Mind Bob Dylan
49 Timeless Goldie
50 Ray of Light Madonna
51 Puressence Puresessence
52 Liquid Swords Genius/GZA
53 Siamese Dream Smashing Pumpkins
54 Music for the Jilted Generation Prodigy
55 Play more music Consolidated
56 Snivilisation Orbital
57 Homework Daft Punk
58 Let No Live Here Rent Free In Your Head Nicolette
59 The Predator Ice Cube
60 Death Is not the end Shut up and Dance
61 Urban Hymns Verve
62 XO Elliot Smith
63 I can hear the heart beating as one Yo La Tengo
64 Vs Pearl Jam
65 Californication Red Hot Chilli Peppers
66 Park Life Blur
67 Music has the right to children Boards of Canada
68 Accelerator Royal Trux
69 Dummy Portishead
70 Bubble and Scrape Sebadoh
71 I Wish My Brother George was here Del Tha Funkee Homosapien
72 Maya Banco de Gaia
73 Life with Brian Flowered Up
74 Sketches for my Sweetheart the Drunk Tim Buckley
75 Blood Sex Sugar Magic Red Hot Chilli Peppers
76 Sleeps with Angels Neil Young
77 Giant Steps Boo Radleys
78 Crooked Rain Crooked Rain Pavement
79 1. Outside David Bowie
80 Debut Bjork
81 The Bends Radiohead
82 Enter the Wu Tang Wu Tang Clan
83 When I was born for the 7th time Cornershop
84 United Kingdoms Ultramarine
85 Emperor Tomato Ketchup Stereolab
86 The Miseducation of Lauren Hill Lauren Hill
87 Done by the forces of nature Jungle Brothers
88 Copper Blue Sugar
89 Your Arsenal Morrissey
90 Tricks of the shade Goats
91 Back in  Denim Denim
92 Red Medicine Fugazi
93 The Slim Shady Eminem
94 Happiness The Beloved
95 The Writings on the Wall Destinys Child
96 Adventures beyond the Ultraverse The Orb
97 New World Order Curtis Mayfield
98 Deadline for my Memories Billy Ray Martin
99 LL77 Lisa Lisa
100 Birdland Birdland

My Favourite Albums of the 1980s

I bought "Still" by Joy Division in 1981 and it changed my life.  I'd heard a whole side played on Peel - one of the live sides - and didn't know a thing about this band but was intrigued. The album, in its stark industrial packaging gave no clues. I had to wait for friends to tell me that they were the same band as New Order when that band released its debut shortly afterwards, or that the lead singer had killed himself. Seems odd now, with all the biopics etc. but there was no "heritage music" industry at that point so all you had was the record racks and the occasional rock A-Z, most of which had only just been updated to include punk and new wave. The previous record I'd bought was novelty Beatles medley "Stars on 45", so it was quite a change. I soon got given my dad's old music centre as it was either that or they'd have to listen to this new unpalatable music downstairs. That's why "Still" is so high in this list though its not really a "proper" album. Better than the first 2 LPs I bought with my own money, B.A.Robertson and Boomtown Rats, neither of which have stood the test of time. Whereas my fave records of the 60s and 70s owe a lot to "best of" lists this was the first time I was making my own decisions - which is why Marc and the Mambas, Virgin Prunes, "Autoamerican" by Blondie and "Pornography" by the Cure are so prominent. I was so engaged with music during this period (at least until I started work in 1989) that its rare for me to find something from the 80s that I didn't know about - there's a few of course, and some bands that I overlooked then, I can see how good their records were. Later, but not too much later - maybe 1984 or 1985 I started listening to hip hop, dance, soul, funk - and though black music rarely makes "best of" album charts, I found plenty of stunning albums along the way. Again, I've had to be quite cruel to my favourite artists - time was when this would have consisted of Cocteau Twins, Cure, New Order, the Fall and not a lot else.

1 Psychocandy Jesus and Mary Chain
2 Treasure Cocteau Twins
3 Pornography The Cure
4 Parade Prince and the Revolution
5 3ft High and Rising De La Soul
6 Surfer Rosa Pixies
7 Songs about Fucking Big Black
8 Still Joy Division
9 The Smiths The Smiths
10 Youth of America Wipers
11 Sign o the Times Prince and the Revolution
12 Torment and Toreros Marc and the Mambas
13 Perverted by Language The Fall
14 Pirates Rickie Lee Jones
15 Daydream Nation Sonic Youth
16 Medicine Show Dream Syndicate
17 Low Life New Order
18 Paul's Boutique Beastie Boys
19 Violent Femmes Violent Femmes
20 Control Janet Jackson
21 Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables Dead Kennedys
22 Swordfishtrombones Tom Waits
23 Sulk Associates
24 New Gold Dream Simple Minds
25 Autoamerican Blondie
26 See Jungle! See Jungle! Bow Wow Wow
27 Appetite for Destruction Guns n' Roses
28 Ocean Rain Echo and the Bunnyman
29 High Priority Cherelle
30 Sextet A Certain Ratio
31 The Queen is Dead The Smiths
32 Foundation Steppers New Age Steppers
33 Power Ice T
34 Scary Monsters David Bowie
35 It will take a nation of millions Public Enemy
36 The Stone Roses The Stone Roses
37 Famous Blue Raincoat Jennifer Warnes
38 If I Die, I Die Virgin Prunes
39 Red Mecca Cabaret Voltaire
40 High Land Hard Rain Aztec Camera
41 Doolittle Big Black
42 Fishermans Blues  Waterboys
43 Blood and Chocolate Elvis Costello
44 Music for a New Society John Cale
45 Travelogue Human League
46 Suicide Suicide
47 Songs to Remember Scritti Politti
48 Closer Joy Division
49 Music Madness Mantronix
50 Hot Cool and Vicious Salt n Pepa
51 Diana Diana Ross
52 Computer Games George Clinton
53 My Life in the Bush of Ghosts Eno and Byrne
54 Penthouse and Pavement Heaven 17
55 Spring Hill Fair Go Betweens
56 Heaven or Las Vegas Cocteau Twins
57 Radio  LL Cool J
58 Tom Tom Club Tom Tom Club
59 Bizarro Wedding Present
60 Paid in Full Eric B and Rakim
61 First and Last and Always Sisters of Mercy
62 Micro Phonies Cabaret Voltaire
63 New York Lou Reed
64 Big Science Laurie Anderson
65 Playing with a different sex Au Pairs
66 Dare Human League
67 This Nations Saving Grace The Fall
68 Nebraska Bruce Springsteen
69 Hallowed Ground Violent Femmes
70 Soul Mining The The
71 Days of  Wine and Roses Dream Syndicate
72 Warehouse Song and Stories Husker Du
73 Whos gonna save the world Cindy Lee Berryhill
74 Just The Way You Like It SOS Band
75 Le Mystere De Voix Bulgares Various
76 Clan of Xymox Clan of Xymox
77 The Sky's Gone Out Bauhaus
78 The Scream Siouxsie and the Banshees
79 Junkyard Birthday Party
80 The Jaws of Life Hunters and Collectors
81 Straight out the Jungle Jungle Brothers
82 Like a Prayer Madonna
83 Hole Scraping Foetus off the Wheel
84 Plastic Surgery Disasters Dead Kennedys
85 Disintegration The Cure
86 Kilimanjaro Teardrop Explodes
87 Itll end in tears This Mortal Coil
88 The Art of falling apart Soft Cell
89 All over the place Bangles
90 The Hurting Tears for Fears
91 Club Classics vol 1 Soul II Soul
92 Nightclubbing Grace Jones
93 New York Lou Reed
94 Smell of Female Cramps
95 IV Zapp
96 The Clock Comes Down the Stairs Microdisney
97 Tin Drum Japan
98 Children of God Swans
99 Sister Sonic Youth
100 This is the Sea Waterbooys