Sunday, September 28, 2014

Why I Record Music

My parents tried to harness my musical ability. On my dad's side of the family there had always been a bit of amateur piano playing, and they always sung along. We had a wheezy little electronic organ; then an acoustic guitar I had problems getting my fingers (or my brain) round; then my sister took up the mantle (a double bass) and was the family's serious musician for a number of years.

Yet I'd always sung along, even when my voice was breaking (sorry, mum), and though painfully shy at anything musical in public, I always liked music, and would spend some of my spare time making up imaginary bands, albums and songs. In truth, I was doing this before I developed my own taste in music. As a thirteen year old it doesn't make a lot of sense why every song's about love, when you're still at least partly interested in dinosaurs, science fiction and football.

When I was 15, I formed a band of sorts with my mates, and we used to make an unholy racket in the living room, commandeering the family organ, and along the way some biscuit tins and a typewriter (it made some nice bell noises.) When I was nearly seventeen I got a proper synthesizer, not unreasonably thinking that if I couldn't read music, I could at least make some interesting noises.

I've been recording music ever since. Because I'm a writer people often assume that I write some lyrics and then try and fit a tune to them, and though this occasionally happens, its mostly the other way round - I record a backing track and try and develop a song over the top of it.

There are probably less people who've heard my music than have read my writing which takes some doing but I give it my all, even if I know that I'm neither a particularly competent singer or musician. What I am good at, I think, is finding new sounds, and turning them into new songs. The act of creation is what it's always been about for me. And whereas you write a story and probably don't ever want to re-read it again for another ten years, when I records some songs, I've a ready made CD to listen to.

So I've been spending this weekend on what by one count (mine) is my 32nd full length album, going back as far as 1984. (There are plenty more than that - if you include side projects and the like - but I've a "canon" and I intend to stick to it.) I hadn't recorded much this year, but in a week's holiday in the summer hooked up my new (but old sounding) Korg Monotribe - a drum machine/sequencer/analogue synth in a box without a keyboard - with my ancient (but timeless sounding) Roland Juno 6 - so that the former could power the arpeggiator on the latter. This was pretty much how I made music and wrote songs for years, a drum beat and a sequence giving you the rudiments of a song without much difficulty. When my drum machine broke a few years ago I found different ways of doing things, but the Juno occasionally got sidelined as a result.

Rather than just record a song or two I found myself recording best part of a new album - which this weekend I've completed, through a few tweaks, and a couple of new songs to replace a couple of earlier tracks that didn't make so much sense now that the album had a shape.

As ever, I'll probably be the main listener - particularly when one track is a 15 minute instrumental electronic jam - (my "band" names is Bonbon Experiment after all) but I can't say anything other than its been an absolute joy to put together. So recording music gives me pleasure in a way that poetry or fiction often doesn't. I think its because its just about the only time I ever "make" something. I was crap at all those handy things you did at school in woodwork, metalwork and home economics, and have never been much good at painting, D.I.Y. or even computer hardware. But what I can do - is take a few slithers of sound and make something lasting from them.

Because I do like to sing as well, and because I can write lyrics, (though its often the hardest part), I guess I have to do something about that side of things as well. I still like coming up with titles - though the best on the new release - "The Marsupial Consumes its Own Weight in Feathers" is, you'll be pleased to know, an instrumental, whilst the title track of "Meet the Relatives" has spawned a cover concept that has seen me hunting charity shops for odd looking "band members." The other songs tend to be about all sorts of stuff of course. There's a bit of nostalgia on this release, and in some ways, my lyrics are also in some kind of "persona" as in the political pop of "Helicopters" which mostly exists so I could use the line "she looked like she’d stepped from a Murakami" (I then had to write a whole song around it so it made some kind of sense.)

I've still not graduated to the guitar (though I did buy one a few years ago in the forlorn hope that I'd have got over my caggy-handedness), but do refresh my set up with a new instrument or effects unit every now and then. The other thing people expect when I say I record electronic music, is that they think I use a computer to do it - here's my own Ludditism, apart from an odd tweak in Audacity, I'm still doing everything offline, pressing "record" and "stop" on a physical recorder (even though its now digital rather than analogue.)  My 8-track can only hold 99 tracks, so I had to run on the "tape" (not that it is tape) to record the last couple of tracks as I'd filled it for the second time since 2007. The job of downloading the master files can wait for another day.

In the mean time - "Meet the Relatives" (BDM 132), by some reckoning my 32nd album, is available to stream and download here.   Now, back to that novel....

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Circle by David Eggers

"The Circle" in David Eggers novel of the same name is an unhealthy amalgam of Facebook, Google and Apple with a smidgin of Amazon. It has grown to obliterate previous social media and search rivals, and the genuis triumvirate that run are respectively a Howard Hughes-ish inventor/recluse, a money making business man, and a public facing show man. The employees of the Circle live on a campus (very Google) in San Francisco, and it is the one company that every aspiring graduate wants to work for.

Mae is one such graduate, and in her early twenties she movies from working for the moribund utility company in her hometown (which is near, but not quite Fresno), and follows in the footsteps of Annie, who was her room mate at college and has apparently pulled some strings to get her a job at The Circle, first of all in Customer Experience, a glorified call centre, where the ever optimistic Circlers "zing" or otherwise connect with customers around the world, and ask for instant feedback on how they've done. So now, so SEO, though in these first chapters, as Eggers takes us around Mae's first few weeks in the Circle, there's something a little strained about the world he describes. Unlike Douglas Coupland's "Microserfs" and "JPod" Eggers doesn't seem to have a particularly deep take on this kind of world - and the campus he describes is a strange mix between a 1990s call centre and a Xanadu like fantasy. This not-quite-in-the-future world sees Mae as a willing dupe, a country girl at heart, who bit by bit gets pulled into the all encompassing Circle lifestyle, where not only your work life but your weekends and evenings should ideally be spent with your workmates. She makes several missteps, but is so keen on being a good Circler, and with Annie as her mentor, she apologises each time she fails to give all of herself to the corporate love-in.

Mae's a bit of a blank slate on which Eggers can draw his story. She has a traditional family back at home, but her dad is suffering from M.S., and her one boyfriend from back then, Mercer, has put on weight, makes chandeliers from discarded antlers, and is increasingly an embarassing reminder of her non tech past. That said each visit back home shows us Mae as being a little more than a customer service girl. She goes kayaking on a deserted lake, and sips tea with the old couple who live a life of isolation out on the lake. In a prose more vivid than he uses for the flat modernity of the Circle, Eggers describes a raw world of natural beauty.

Neither does Mae neglect her emotional needs - quickly falling into a dismal sexual pairing with another Circler, who promptly videos her giving him a hand job, and posts it online, oblivious to her complaints, saying that nobody other than him will ever see it amongst all the other videos. Then she meets the mysterious Kaplan and has sex with him in a toilet cubicle. For a while she gets drawn towards this mysterious stranger who neither her nor Annie can find details of within the Circle's comprehensive database.

Bit by bit Mae is given more responsibilities, becoming ever more dependent on the Circle as it rolls out new products and services - such as miniature cameras that can capture everything in perfect detail, or a new chip that can be embedded into children to stop them from being abducted. The benign aims of the Circle see it going wider and wider into an all-seeing-I and the aim of the Circle becomes clear, it must be made complete.

Yet though this is a very believable dystopia, Eggers is much too friendly a writer to over play the dark side. Mae is a willing dupe, a useful fool, and we go along with her as she one by one alienates those from her past, as well as her scepticism about the Circle. Her desire to make up for past lapses see her volunteering to become "transparent", where almost everything in her life is on camera. She quickly becomes a walking Big Brother contestant, everything she sees being seen by her millions of followers. At the same time her parents and Mercer become increasingly exasperated at her for not being "present" as they talk to her, whilst she "zings" her million followers.

In Mae, Eggers has created a very believable carrier for this satire - and the book really comes into its own once Mae, rather than joining some resistance led by Kaplan as the reader initially expects, becomes more and more important to the inner circle. Yet at the same time as Eggers is deft at explaining her dependency on the new media, he occasionally has a deaf ear. When the real world occasionally intrudes - such as a mention of Edward Snowden - it feels forced; and in a few scenes where he tries to create a broad comedy through a long list of Mae's new routine, checking this and that social media, he simply lacks the satirical edge that you'd find in Brett Easton Ellis or David Foster Wallace.

In many ways, the book is much more of a pageturner. Reading his debut memoir "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius" I remember how despite the pyrotechnics, "Here's a picture of a stapler...." etc., there seemed to be a more traditional novelist underneath - adept at the mechanics of family, and prone to a not untypical sentimentality. So there's nothing particularly dark here. The sex tape doesn't rear its head again; the old couple on the river are not returned to. When one of the leaders of the Circle brings back three exotic creatures from an underwater trench, Mae is there to film their feeding, and you feel tension for a moment as it looks like the shark will take off the feeders hand, but no, things move on. At first I thought this unwillingness to take such narrative chances was a real weakness in the novel, but as you come into the final third, you realise it is the immersion of Mae in the Circle that is Eggers' intent. The darkness is in how close to our own reality this.

In Huxley's "Brave New World" you could easily read the world of ready sex and soma as being some kind of utopia, bread and circuses to subdue the masses - until he brings it into perspective by the interruption of the outsider; again, a similar technique is there in the subduing of Alex in "A Clockwork Orange." Yet our outsiders here are only seen through Mae's prism as she becomes ever closer to closing the Circle. You stay with her, and rather than shock, feel a certain acceptance at how easily we could fall into totalitarianism.

It's somewhat overlong, as many contemporary future fictions seem to be, and lacks a cutting edge, falling a little between two stools - a day-after-tomorrow extrapolation of where we are now vs. an SF reimagining. Compared with the strangeness of Ben Marcus's "The Flame Alphabet" it feels like a kid's comic strip, yet Eggers' is at his best when detailing the human, and the changes Mae goes through, from a sceptic to the most vociferous exponent of the Circle are deftly handled. As it ends, you feel you've been told a cautionary fable, rather than experienced a nightmare. As I finished the book, I was sat on a Virgin train, and going to the toilet, a disembodied voice follows you in there, and tells you what not to dispose of down the toilet; when I mentioned this on Twitter, one of Virgin's social media team replied to me. We are already some way down the rabbit hole.

Monday, September 22, 2014

On England

I stayed up far too late on Thursday, fascinated by the raw politics of it all. More was to come when I woke the next morning. First, David Cameron's breakfast speech which wiped out all attempts at "No" campaign solidarity and tried to trap Ed Milliband in a bear trap. Cameron, the P.R. guy, is at his best and worst when making snap decisions. The rest of the time he couldn't run a bath, which gives us the messes they have left behind in government, but he's a smart man of the moment. Relieved no doubt as not being the PM who broke up the Union, he promises a federal Britain, and an answer to the West Lothian question, whilst, as ever, not having any answers.

For federalism in Britain is fraught with difficulties given not only out decades of centralisation, but the nature of some of the questions.

Briefly, how could a federal Britain contemplate a European exit? If a referendum takes us out, then regions that voted emphatically to stay in, would be less empowered than now. How does the devolution of powers (and taxing powers) to regions such as Greater Manchester square with more cuts coming down the road, as soon as next March? A Conservative party that abolished Regional Development Agencies (replacing them with many more Employer led Local Economic Partnerships, with supposedly more power, but much less resource) is surely incapable of a regional policy? Yet its attempts at gerrymandering things so that is has more of a say in the North have failed dismally. Our Police Commissioners were elected with tiny turnouts; the system for elected mayors, which gave us a contest in Salford, but not for Greater Manchester, was equally flawed. Never mind their opposition (along with the Labour party) to a cocked up AV campaign.

The only constitutional change we have really seen since 2010 is the fixed term parliament - and it is this on which Cameron has his eye. Railroad Labour into some kind of consensus on a yet to be defined English federalism as a result of the promises made by all three leaders in Scotland only last week, and the distinctions between the parties at the next election might be even more difficult to discern. Certainly the West Lothian question - how can Scottish MPs vote on English matters? - casts a long shadow, though if we had a genuine divvying up of powers, then surely these devolved questions wouldn't come before parliament at all. And since no Tory will ever mention it, I don't see how an unelected second revising chamber, packed with placemen, hereditary Lords and a smattering of Bishops, can be immune from any constitutional upheaval.

Yet if we are to have some federal system, the left (and the left in the North) are yet to come up with a convincing solution. For every call for more decisions to be made in the North, one wonders where the people's voice is in this? It seems inconceivable that the Tories would recreate the metropolitan authorities - in which case have we got a version of what we have now. Can a federal Manchester really have legitimacy without some kind of proportional representation? And where would be the boundaries of this new Mayoral kingdom? Does Wigan, for instance, see itself continuing as one amongst ten?

The much maligned European Union takes money from member states such as the UK (including Scotland) then redistributes it. My salary has been pretty much paid for most of the last fifteen years by aspects of this redistribution. Those Tories and UKIPpers opposed to the EU always talk about the money we spend, not the money we receive back. This redistribution, essentially an attempt to bring the poorer parts of Europe (including in the UK) up to the levels of the average, is surely the only mechanism that could work in the UK - yet again, the "neighbour renewal" monies that Labour redistributed in this way, were cancelled with a penstroke in 2010, whilst specific funding around transport, housing, green energy and growth are subject to competitions between cities and regions. Our X-Factor economy may be good Saturday night viewing, but doesn't do much for Britain in the long run. When London politicians can prioritise new vanity schools in areas without need, ahead of providing places for all, we know we are in the politics of the madhouse.In other words the logic of Union is not "he who pays the piper calls the tune" but a desire to move to a more equal country - where the "shared" services such as defence and foreign policy and EU membership are counterbalanced by a redistribution from the richer areas (and from the richer sections of society) in order to improve on the things that bind us together. Scotland has more land mass and colder winters than the rest of the UK, it should be for the body collective to pay for those conditions as it should be for a rich London to invest in the regeneration of northern cities. (And if thats not the case: then surely the time comes when a "land tax" or something similar extracts value from our rentier culture?)

It is the Labour Party Conference this week, and rather than the Cricket captain's advantage of batting first it feels like going into the crease before the other team has turned up. What Labour need to do is not dance to a Tory agenda, though the monotrack of the media makes this difficult. The logic behind the "Yes" campaign after all, was a dialogue that was ignored by an uninterested London-centric media. I head down to London today for a conference, where I'll be talking about international cooperation between cities, its not a conversation that I want to be sent to the margins.

Coincidentally I just picked up Alasdair Gray's 2000 anthologgy "Book of Prefaces". In his own preface he writes "as a Scottish socialist who thinks home rule a necessary step toward making a humane democracy..." before quoting approvingly Shelley's statement from 1820: "If England were divided into 40 republics, each equal in population and extent to Athens...under insititutions not more perfect than those of Athens, each would produce philosophers and poets equal to those (if we except Shakespeare) have never been surpassed." The logic of the Union in 2014 has changed, it can no longer be an extension of a settlement set out by William the Conqueror and his sons, even if so much of the apparatus of land ownership and top-down political control would be recognisable to an 11th century Lord.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Autumn Calling

We've had a bit of an Indian summer this last week or so, though having been in Amsterdam and Milan in the last twenty days my sense of things is a little confused. Amsterdam was great as ever, and as our conference was a little out of the centre, I spent most of my time in different parts of the city than I usually see, at least until the Thursday night when I finally made it to Paradiso, the city's legendary night club and venue. Milan was much more of a flying visit, and our meetings were out on a business park thirty minutes from the centre. I got to walk down the main shopping street on the way to dinner one evening however, and it was thronged with the young and beautiful and fashionable as it was Vogue fashion night. (This is becoming a habit, I was in Lisbon when it was as well.)

I might write about the Scottish referendum later. I stayed up until the first results gave the sense that it was going to be a "No" vote - which for all the promises, is the most anti-climatic of things. All those arguments about who funds the BBC, or where RBS will relocate to, or whether Scotland would be allowed into the EU were suddenly unecessary. Other arguments will follow. The biggest shock, of course, was Alex Salmond's resignation. Knowing when to go; that's not something you often get from London politicians.

One of the most interesting bands of the last couple have years have been the scuzzy punk rap duo Sleaford Mods. Since the last band to come from Nottingham were probably Paper Lace, they're something of a revelation - and a word of mouth success. In the current music environment there's no mainstream/alternative dichotomy, in that everything's kind of mainstream - what there are rivulets of independence fed by Bandcamp sites, and word of mouth touring. Like Fat White Family, Sleaford Mods feel utterly unquantifiable, though John Cooper Clarke, the Streets and the Fall have all been mentioned. Which goes nowhere near describing a song like "Donkey" (See above). The band are in their forties, and so was part of their audience, we recognising kindred spirits, but there were quite a lot of younger folks in Club Academy for a tight rollicking 50 minutes last night.

This weekend Rogue Studios is open to the public and if I can I will get along tomorrow - some of the city's best artists are based there. More earnestly, the Labour party conference rocks up in Manchester this weekend - and, post-referendum, so will the media. Expect a few fireworks. I managed to somehow find time to go along to a book launch at the Central Library. Writer Phil Griffin and photographer Jan Chlebik have created a wonderful artefact together bringing together words and pictures from several decades of a changing Manchester.

If any Labour delegates stay around after the conference they'll have plenty of art to see as the Buy Art Fair, Manchester Contemporary and Asian Triennial are all arriving with a kind of coordinated art dance - with previews throughout the city on Thursday and Friday. The following week ANDFestival's "Watch the Skies" weekend takes place at Jodrell Bank.

The week after will see the start of the Manchester Literature Festival which runs throughout October.  With more events than ever this year, its probably a good idea to do some preplanning about which to go to. I'm away for the start of the festival and not sure if I'll get back for the launch of my friend David Gaffney's collaboration with artist Alison Erika Forde "Men Who Like Women Who Smell of Their Jobs."  Its a good month for titles in Manchester as the Castlefield Gallery exhibition, "A Joyous Thing with Maggots at the Centre", offers a first solo show by Hardeep Phardal.

I'm also looking forward to two of my favourite contemporary poets, JontyTiplady and Richard Barrett, who will be performing at Peter Barlow's Cigarette in Manchester a fortnight from now. 

So see you around, I guess. 

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks

"Consider Phlebas" was Iain Banks' first published SF novel, and the first to feature "the culture", a pan-Galactic civilisation, descended from humanoids, but which has evolved machine intelligence to such a point that the machines have become their "God." Its pure space opera, in that an incomprehensible galactic war is going on between the Culture and the Idirans, and a "changer", (a race of human who can take on the characteristics of others), Bora Horza Gobuchul is fighting on behalf of the Idirans. A classic mercenary he has chosen the Idiran side because they at least are organic creatures, whilst the Culture have evolved so that their society is controlled by machines.

SF is at its best when it can assimilate a wide rang of ideas, and the ideas in "Consider Phlebas" are about what makes a perfect society. Yet the book itself is an adventure story. At a time when his non SF books "The Wasp Factory", "The Bridge" and "Walking on Glass" brim with fantastic imaginings, and believable characters, "Consider Phlebas" feels like a very early work, good fun to write, and even to read, but which gets caught up in its own invented mythologies. The story itself finds Horza on the point of death, before escaping. A series of unusual events see a "Mind" - the Culture's controlling machine intelligences - escape an attack and end on a planet of the dead, where Horza once lived and worked with other Changers, including his lover. These semi-religious planets are almost shrines to a previous culture, indifferent to the great space war happening around them. But before Horza can get there he ends up with another bunch of mercenaries on the nicely named Clear Air Turbulence, a bandit ship led by Kraiklyn, a battle hardened captain, who has little sentiment for the various waifs and strays who crew the ship. After a disastrous raid on what should have been an easy target, the reduced band falls under Horza, who has changed again, to look like Kraiklyn.
Kraiklyn is heading to a game of Damage, a high stakes game of chance taking place in a doomed outer space cluster which is soon to be destroyed by the Culture. Before he gets there Horza finds himself nearly a victim of a group of crazed cannibals. 

At its best there's something Swiftian about these episodes, though Horza is a strange Gulliver. He acts as a bit of a mouthpiece for the book's philosophy, but the book rarely stops for long enough, as Banks goes into describing another strange world or scenario. I liked the Damage game section best of all - though its echoes of Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker novels, and "The Restaurant at the end of the Universe" are an obvious one.

The quest to find the "Mind" seems a somewhat pyrhic one - yet Horza has personal reasons to go there as his old girlfriend is still there. Yet at the same time he has gone to bed with Yalson on the ship. In the meantime a Culture agent, who had been trying to kill Horza at the novel's start gets herself captured by him at the Damage game, and becomes a prisoner, as the crew head down to the planet of the dead.

This final section of the book took me a while to finish. The ancient planet has already been visited by some Idiran's and Horza's allegiances are now no longer so certain. For his old lover is dead, along with the other Changers. The search for the "Mind" feels a little like a shaggy dog story - and in these pages we've got a complex chase through the workings of the old planet, where ancient trains are awakened as Horza still goes looking for the mind, whilst also chasing the remainder of the Idiran soldiers.

There's much of interest in this first SF novel, and the Culture would be the main setting for the majority of his SF novels over the next thirty years, yet I found it a bit of a challenging read. The characters are, like so often is the case in hard SF, hard to visualise or love. The motley crew never comes alive, and you get the feeling they are like the characters in a disaster movie, ready to be picked off one by one. Horza himself is more of a cipher, whose role in the story is rarely heroic. The divide between "man" and "machine" is touched on throughout - a drone who gets annoyed that he is treated as a machine, the warrior Idirans who only really care about death or glory, the impossible intelligence of the Mind, the respect between Horza and the Culture agent - yet the novel is primarily an action novel, and yet the detailed action scenes lack pace. I'm sure I'll come back and read another Culture novel at some point, but after a run of books which I couldn't put down, this older novel was a bit of a disappointment. I got to the end, just as Horza does, but it was a close call.

Bone Clocks, Next Gen Poets and MacGuffins

I've not had time to read or write since coming back from Amsterdam last Friday but been busy one way or another and keeping a north eye on what's going on.

The Booker Prize shortlist was announced and David Mitchell fell off again, with The Bone Clocks. Seems Amazon had expected it to be on there as the price of the hardback had fallen to £8 from £20 which will be cheaper than the paperback when it comes out. I try and buy hardbacks of new fiction if I can, so that was good. I look forward to reading it when I get the chance. The shortlist looks interesting, and it has to be a good thing that that usual Booker staple, the historical novel, is for once absent. Its not that historical novels are intrinsically bad - but its got to be good that there's a contemporary list for once.

It was also the Mercury Prize announcement and amongst the other obscure bands was Kate Tempest, the performance poet. Quite a week for her, as she was also mentioned amongst the Poetry Book Society's 20 Next Generation Poets. There's a nice website you can read them and hear them reading, which is good. There are 2 Salt Poets on the list, including Luke Kennard, (he surely had to be there), and one can only think there would have been a few more had they not stopped publishing single poetry collections recently. Its quite an international list - Mark Waldron, Jane Yeh, Emma Jones, Kei Miller - which indicates that the British poetry scene remains amenable to incomers. There are obvious names missing, and some names here I don't really know, but with Melissa Lee Houghton, Emily Berry, Luke Kennard, Heather Phillipson and others there are plenty I like and read. It seems a wider breadth than the list from ten years ago, reflecting that increased plurality in British poetry. The somewhat odd rules for inclusion mean that some poets have been published too late or too early, others haven't made it past pamphlets yet, and its a "generation" in name only, as the age range crosses five decades.

Yesterday I went to a design workshop for a new digital app being developed by Manchester's ever inventive short story publisher Comma Press. Building on their existing expertise in the area, they've got funding to create a new self publishing platform called the MacGuffin and it will be interesting to see how it develops. Writers, literary professionals and digital types did an intensive morning, before retiring to the pub. Good to meet some new people, and like a new magazine or a new night, the MacGuffin might in itself inspire some particular submissions.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Not a Poet at Present

When I applied to go on the creative writing M.A. at UEA I was interviewed by Andrew Motion. I was applying to write long fiction, but I mentioned that I'd recently had a few poems published, and how much I'd enjoyed Les Murray's Subhuman Redneck Blues. "Yes," he agreed, "but you're being considered here for the fiction course." I agreed. "I'm not sure what I want to write, but I think its long form fiction."

Perhaps this was why I didn't get on the course. Who knows? I was interviewed by the novelist Richard Francis having read a short story of mine, and was on the Manchester M.A. in novel writing instead. One of the draws of the course was that the other tutor was poet-critic-editor Michael Schmidt. "I enjoyed the Sophie Hannah book you just published,"I told Michael, "I bought a copy for a friend." I'm not sure we talked about poetry anymore than that. I was there to write a novel after all. (Both Schmidt and Motion have of course written fiction - the rules are different once you're already published it seems.)

In the early 2000s i co-founded a poetry magazine "Lamport Court" - to which my own contributions (chosen by my co-editors) were a story and a long stream of consciousness extract from a "poem" that would eventually appear in my "poetry" book "Extracts from Levona." (I had to explain - and still have to explain that "Levona" wasn't a girls name, but in fact "a novel" backwards.)

When my collection "Playing Solitaire for Money" was published by Salt in 2010, I decided, reluctantly perhaps, that I should concentrate on poetry, after all, I'd had hardly any fiction published for years. It was important than some poems in that book were recent ones - as otherwise what sort of poet was I? One that didn't write poetry!

A few years ago Parameter magazine - a poetry magazine I'd long admired - published something of mine - but it wasn't a poem or a story, instead a cartoon strip called "Treeville" which was partially (but not entirely) about poets, but contained no poetry. 

Last year I wrote a poem about a washed up writer who could no longer write, but sat at the bar and was always referred to as a poet. The poem didn't quite work and a few months later I realised why - that it was really a short story, which I duly wrote.

Earlier this year I decided to put together the best of the poems I'd written since the Salt book, even though I knew Salt was no longer publishing single poem collections. The group of poets I'd met over the last few years were always putting together interesting projects as well which I'd sometimes contribute to. One of which, "Verse Kraken" the online magazine of hybrid art, I quickly submitted a piece to - it got accepted and only then did I realise, as it consisted of two pictures, with two soundfiles, that it was not even slightly a poem.

So now I've been trying to write some more fiction, having had stories accepted for two or three places recently, and yet I still write the odd poem. There are a dozen or so out there at the moment looking for homes in magazines. Whereas even last year I did quite a few readings, I've only done one  recently, at the St. Ann's book fair. When I read earlier in the year at Paradox I chose to read - at the last minute - a short story, not a poem (even though that's how I was announced!

Well, I've always written poetry, but I'm not a poet at present, though I even managed to write one last week in Amsterdam (and not a word of fiction.) Without a book out, or any readings due, what else can I say? But then again, (see above), I never have been, have I?

Sunday, September 07, 2014

Scottish Independence and Culture

With today's headlines seeing the "Yes" campaign ahead in the polls for Scottish independence for the first time, I wanted to think about what  a "yes" vote might do for culture. Apart from a few threats about how an independent Scotland would "lose" the BBC, I've not seen much on the subject - though I'm sure some have been considering it.

For it strikes me more and more that "culture" is sometimes what defines our togetherness, as well as our separation. The Scottish Commonwealth Games ceremony had more in common with the closing ceremony of the London Olympics than with Danny Boyle's mostly successful re-imagining of the opening ceremony: and music lovers must have been squirming in their seats at Susan Boyle, Rod Stewart and the Proclaimers, all, I hasten to add, artist's with a time and a place in the national (Scottish/UK) conversation, but hardly symbols of an independent future.

This year's Booker prize's belated opening up to Americans means that it is now open to all English language novels, so even if an independent Scotland wasn't in the Commonwealth there would still be eligibility.  Ali Smith is on this year's longlist (shortlist released on Tuesday) and must have a good chance of winning it, if this not year, at some point. Our preeminent novelist has a Scottish name -  Ian McEwan - yet his Englishness is without doubt. Meanwhile, John Burnside, another Scot, won this year's Edge Hill prize for short story collections. British poetry has for some time had an emphasis from the Celtic fringes, with our poet laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, and the poetry editors at Cape and Picador, Robin Robertson and Don Paterson, also being Scottish. Our most successful novelist J.K. Rowling chooses to live in Edinburgh, the first city to become a UNESCO City of Literature. You could argue that an independent Scotland might have to create some kind of cultural shift, with rather than the best  or most ambitious of their writers heading down on the East Coast Mainline to a London publishing industry which has a strong Scottish flavour, that a new Scotland would see its literary heritage as an increasingly important competitive advantage, as exportable as whiskey.

English literature has more than its fair share of Scots (and Irish, and Welsh) writers under its banner - only susceptible to a murmuring of discontent when the language of those outer provinces strays too close to its roots (London moaned about the dialect heavy James Kelman winning the Booker, but not the more accessible Roddy Doyle.) If Hollywood Scottishness has provided a name for a certain kind of breastbeating patriotism through Mel Gibson's entertaining, if historically dubious, "Braveheart", I suspect that most people in their forties - have a more nuanced idea of Scotland based upon a different set of cultural references, with Clare Grogan, pin up girl of Altered Images and "Gregory's Girl" our favoured Scottish archetype.

It seems to me that Scottish culture flourished remarkably during the mad and bad Thatcher years. The list of Scottish post-punk and new wave bands is not only impressive but would coincide in many places with a list of my favourite bands from anywhere. Altered Images, Primal Scream, Aztec Camera, Orange Juice, Mogwai, Cocteau Twins, Simple Minds, Belle and Sebastian and Jesus and Mary Chain take up a disproportionate part of my record collection. None of which, it has to be said, sound remotely bagpipe-Scottish - which always makes me wonder about the distinction between a culturally backward looking mainstream and a forward thinking youth. Which one will an independent Scotland fall for?

Elvis Presley made his only stop in the UK in Scotland, on a flight back from Germany. Yet rock and roll embedded it quite strongly in the Scottish psyche, as did punk and house music during later periods. I suspect distance from London enables the building of new scenes which may have more time to embed than in other cities. Though the music, television and film businesses, if they have a British presence will still tend to be in the South East, Scotland's publishing houses remain; and its Edinburgh festival and fringe are in combination the only time that the luvvies decamp from the South Bank. Our comic heritage - Beano and Dandy - come from little Dundee, and that history has surely bleached into the number of graphic novel writers and games designers and developers who have come from Scotland.

In these many ways we see that Scotland is culturally both independent and interdependent with London in particular.

In a dependent nation or region whatever attempts there are to create a national cultural conversation - through a "national" theatre or "publishing programme" fall a little flat because of the contradictions of history. That most Welsh of poets, Dylan Thomas, sounds so English in his voice that a contemporary listener can almost feel cheated.

I suspect in a globalised world, Scottish culture may well have started to suffer in the same way as its football; starved of investment, isolated, and possibly seeing the best of its talent leave, but also begin to lose an independent identity. We are a generation or two moved on; where it is the TV talent show the X Factor which soundtracks family Saturday nights. Deep-rooted traditions in church and union club are echoes from older generations.

Yesterday I found myself at the Manchester Spanish festival in Albert Square, following a week in Amsterdam. It helped me stave off the moment of being immersed in being English or British again. Language is part of this of course, but so it cultural context. The Spanish singer's words might have been new to me, but at least one of his tune's was "Loch Lomond" which is about as traditionally Scottish as you can get. I'm not sure where the Scottishness is in "Never Understand" or "I Travel" or "Pearly Dewdrops' Drops" or "Stars of track and field" but I'm sure their uniqueness comes from being in a culture that is looking forward not backwards.

The reality of small countries is that they can thrive - and will thrive - as long as they are not broken on the back of a threatening neighbour (Russia in Ukraine), or in thrall to a stateless global capitalism (Iceland, Ireland) - but that their very smallness means that have to reach out in many ways much more than they did as a region of a bigger country. In other words I can imagine an independent Scotland to become a cultural powerhouse in some ways, attracting artists, writers and musicians from elsewhere in the world, as much by its English language, its hospitable cities and countryside, and its relative proximities and distances - far enough and near enough to  London, but also linked through history and family and culture to the worldwide diaspora of Scots.

On a recent trip to Finland, I attended an exhibition of their most famous export, Tove Janssen, creator of the Moomins; there was both the international familiarity of her creations, but also their somewhat uniquely Finnish strangeness. And she was a Swedish speaker. Culture, in other words, is multi-layered, and our religious, work and community backgrounds inform it as much as our education, tastes and media. The Celtic revival in Ireland was a precursor to Irish independence. I'm not sure I've seen such a similarly unique Scottishness now, yet I think in many ways this is because Scottish culture is such an integral part of British culture, that unpicking where Arthur Conan Doyle's Scottishness ends and Sherlock Holmes' Englishness begins is an impossible task.

A close "No" vote will almost certainly have ramifications, even if not as cataclysmic as a "Yes" vote - yet I think culture may well be more interesting if the latter takes place. London may have time for Edinburgh in ways that it rarely has for Birmingham or Newcastle or Manchester, but if its in a different country, I think the rump of the UK will begin to feel the loss quite quickly. Culture, after all, can be the bit of a country that stays through generations of political impotence; so given political potency via an independent Scotland I imagine a revived cultural confidence.

Britain will be the loser of course, culturally as well as in other ways, yet you have to wonder how we got in this mess? Cameron, Brown and Blair, our last three Prime Ministers, are all Scots by origin or birth, after all. Did their dual identities mean they were oblivious to what was happening - or was their subservience to a hated economic Thatcherism so great as to deafen out other voices? Scotland isn't without its own incompetences of course: Edinburgh that city of architects and engineers had the massive cost overruns of their parliament, the delayed and devalued implementation of their tram system, and of course, the disaster - far from traditional prudence - of Royal Bank of Scotland and Bank of Scotland's financial overreach. Yet I can't help thinking, just as Europe feels a richer tapestry for the interwoven histories and futures of its languages and peoples which are steadfastly strong - whatever UKIP says - in a Eurozone of free movement of people and a usually shared currency, that our own "union" of states, English, Welsh, Irish and Scottish has - though not without difficulties - allowed for an enrichment. Whatever the results in a fortnight - our joint futures are enhanced by our differences, not as in some parts of the world, reduced by them. Culture - that so often misused word - is undoubtedly at the heart of whatever answer we need to start composing.