Monday, December 28, 2015

The Summer Book by Tove Jannson

Usually when a writer passes away, their reputation fades, but occasionally the opposite happens. It seems the more that we all find out about Tove Jannson, previously mainly known in the UK for The Moomins, the more that we want to know. I had been meaning to read "The Summer Book", the most revered of her 14 books for adults, after seeing an exhibition of her work and life in Helsinki last summer, (blogged about here) and finally have gotten around to. Re-published recently by A Sort of Books, its had several reprints since, unusually for a work of translated fiction. Written in the early 1970s after the death of her mother, its a somewhat unclassifiable work. Though ostensibly a novel, the short anecdotal chapters have the character of short stories, and the subject matter is fused with memoir and memory. Seen as a classic in Scandinavia it certainly deserves a much wider readership.

Sophia is a young girl being looked after her grandmother, whilst her father works, on a tiny island in the Gulf of Finland. The novel is in the third person but takes us into the perspective of both Sophia and her Grandmother, the one at the start of her conscious life, and having lost a mother, the other at the end of theirs. This unusual pairing, with the father always off the page, creates an idyll in the "summer" they spend on the island. In Sophia's world the island is vast, but in reality it has room for just one dwelling - theirs - and is isolated from even their neighbours, with weekly trips to the nearest proper island taking around two hours each way in a boat. On the island there are enough differences in the landscape to enable all sorts of adventures - so that even a six year old is safe left alone. This otherworldliness, like a personal Narnia - or more accurately the isolated landscape of the Moomin family - is as much a character in the novel as the two protagonists. Grandmother has forgotten what it was like to be young and Sophia helps her remember, but at the same time she is in loco parentis for the young girl and has to slip out of their fantasy world every now and then to provide the necessary life lesson.  The chapters are mostly short - some tiny - and cover everything from small discoveries in the natural landscape, to the games that the child and grandmother play, to those vivid periods when the idyll is interrupted: a friend who comes to stay and breaks up the perfect harmony between the two of them; the adoption of a feral cat; the visitors who their father goes off drinking with on their boat causing them resentment at not being invited to the party for being "too young and too old". There's also a climax of sorts with the great storm that could have drowned them all, had their father not managed to get them to safety in an attic room on higher ground.

Yet its not just a "what we did on our summer holidays" - but a story with a philosophy at the heart of it. The grandmother is old and fading but wants to continue as long as she can to pass on wisdom and guidance to her granddaughter. Her own memories are like from another life - yet she was responsible for allowing equal treatment for girls in the boy scout movement, enabling women to be allowed to go camping. At one point its said that she was born in the 19th century, and though history doesn't intrude, not in this isolated place away from the Finnish mainland, there's a sense here of how long lives are both part of the history that takes place around them, but also separate, on their own track. In this way, though there are some mentions of God (the Grandmother is too old to believe in the devil and in a rare rebuke of her granddaughter asks that she lets her have her conviction that there is a God, but no devil, for she needs the promise of a good hereafter) it feels more naturalistic and than that, with nature, and our response to nature being at the heart of this simple telling of a summer.

Seeing Jannson's work in Helsinki last year, her art seemed to find its necessary narrative in the strangeness of her imagined Moomins, a popular mythologising of the Finland she grew up in. Reading Esther Freud's introduction to this edition (I'd suggest you read it like I did at the end), we find that this novel was written partly about her own mother and her niece (also Sophia) and it reads like a memoir in large part. I'm reminded of Natalia Ginzburg's "The Things We Used to Say", another novel that defies classification but weaves its spell through small anecdotes, and remembered moments. Yet such a litany would not work on its own, it is the quiet authority of the author, who through grandmother and grandchild, finds a way to connect to universal truths.

A short poignant book, it felt the sort of quiet, steady novel I needed to read this Christmas, out of season perhaps, but at a time of year when family and stillness are on all our minds. Like her art, her life (recently the subject of an autobiography) and the Moomins, Tove Jansson's adult fiction is a great rediscovery from this much loved author. There's a photograph at the beginning of this edition with a little blonde Sophia, and the much older "grandmother" - Jansson's own parent - and the book brings to life the relationship in that small static image.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Write About Now

In my writing group everyone has a self-defined role. I'm the one who points out the anachronisms. I do it in contemporary fiction as well. What is truth anyway? Dave Haslam wrote a book about the 70s called "Not ABBA", so annoyed was he at the constant reduction of the seventies to a band that were, yes, very popular, but probably weren't played out that much at discos at the time - not when you had northern soul, disco, funk, power pop, glam etc. Picking up an old tape of singles I'd recorded in 1989, its noticeable that the Stone Roses appear stuck in between 80s remnants such as the Wonderstuff, and that the "baggy" records that are ubiquitous at retro discos are much outnumbered by obscure house and new jack swing tracks that we actually listened to at time. In Booker winning "The Line of Beauty" Alan Hollinghurst's "eighties" is a much praised confection, but how real is it really? The gay man dancing with Mrs. Thatcher, its centrepiece of historical rewriting, is actually not that surprising - she had a penchant for the gallant and flamboyant after all - less convincing is the absence of Hi-NRG music from the sountrack. Film versions of the eighties pull out the cliches, and modern actors and actresses often get their "eighties gear" from central casting as accurate as when the Two Ronnies dressed up as characters in the Regency court.

It is my conviction that fiction's veracity is perhaps one of its highest callings. I have read about the 1832 reform act in my history classes, but I visualise it through the lens of "Middlemarch" - even though that too was a historical novel at the time. It is why historians like looking through contemporary documents. But contemporary documents only tell a partial story - they can't tell you what its like to live through a time - what it feels like to be, say, 18 at Woodstock or at the Sex Pistols, or an 80s rave.

I've always written fiction in the moment. It's part of what I do. Its not a lazy option, as I find having a time and a place fixed can be endlessly helpful in making the story and characters - the made up bit - work for me. But nothing quite ages like the contemporary. At what point did we go from it being ostentatious to give a character a mobile phone, to being silly not to? Reading through old stories for a pamphlet I'm preparing, I found characters sitting at "the end of the non-smoking section" of the bar. I'd forgotten that before the indoor smoking ban, bars that had more than one space, frequently had a smoking and non-smoking section. Maybe such pedantic detail sounds awkward in a story, and a good editor would get rid of such hostages to fortune - but maybe not - maybe the period detail is the important thing.

So I'm being sparing with my editor's pen when going through these stories. I'd forgotten, as well, that the Arndale bus station wasn't a victim of the 1996 IRA bomb, but of the regeneration afterwards which shut off Cannon Street. I regret I wasn't taking photos of the world around me in the nineties, but at least I was writing about the world I lived in. There is a visuality in verbal pictures. I've been struck this year, more than any other, how distant my remembered Manchester is from the one that now exists - the plethora of bars and restaurants - the sense that we don't go out in hope that something will turn up, but use our smart phones as instant gratification machines. Also, I was younger then, I am older now. I am surprised at reading about a life that didn't care too much about when the last bus or train was, but instead went searching for another bar, another band, another something.

Write about now, and you will have something that is more than the story, more than a diary entry - but a version of yourself that you have long forgotten ever existed, and that's whether you're a protagonist in your own life story a la Caulfield or Copperfield, or whether you're the guiding hand. As I look around and find our newly gentrified world less interesting in some ways, I also realise that the stories are still there. I'm glad I've got this snapshot of Manchester, a city I've lived in longer than anywhere else, and which I used to regularly write about. I'll hopefully have a little selection of these old stories ready by the New Year. I hope that they are more than  just nostalgia, as once they were contemporary.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Year in Song - Best Records of 2015

Each year there seems to be more "end of year" best of charts than the last. "Album of the year" has gone to Sufjan Stevens, Kendrick Lamar, Julia Holter, Grimes, Tame Impala and Bjork on this side of the Atlantic. Holter managing to top the usually esoteric Piccadilly Records poll as well as the Uncut best of. High places for New Order, Jamie XX, Father John Misty and Courtney Barnett. Close observers will notice how few of these artists are British, which may be why the obscure Benjamin Clementine topped the Mercury Prize. Also, a quick check across the pond and the top 4 on Pitchfork are all on the list of albums above, with Tame Impala number one. We can honestly say that the Pitchfork-isation of British music is now complete. I suspect this is the inheritance of a generation who voted for "Automatic for the People" and "OK Computer" as the best albums of all time.

How tasteful they all are! I've yet to hear the Bjork album, but wonder if it can ever be as good as "Post" or "Homogenic", respectively her angriest and best records, whilst I picked up Holter based on these recommendations and its not really forced its way on to my record player as much as a true classic surely would. This is also the year I didn't get the Fall album when it was released. "Sub Lingual Tablet" having some great tracks but also some throwaways.

Although I've probably spent more time listening to catalogue music than ever before there's been a clutch of new albums that I've liked for various reasons.

Great name, great band. I'm frankly amazed this album wasn't in everyone's top ten. It's lively, loud, fun and in its own way, pop. Short stabs of guitar led energy, with enough sonic difference to make this much more than just another indie album. I saw them live in a tiny venue at the ever reliable Sounds from the Other City and they were a highlight of the day.

My friend Julie Campbell's second album "Hinterland" was a revelation - literally so, as she'd kept these songs from us until they started filtering out last Christmas. The album is a near perfect selection, with the "singles" "Bunkerpop" and "Groove it Out", complemented by the immense title track - but not a single filler to be found. She's been able to tour the album to ever bigger crowds during the year  and the songs just keep sounding better. It made a fair showing in a number of best of the year lists, and got great reviews, but the fact that it didn't get the ubiquity of Jamie XX and others, probably indicates how little attached to any prevalent zeitgeist it is - sounding perilously modern and quirkily retro.

I saw these ex-Egyptian Hip-hoppers last year at SFTOC but the album slipped out to indifference earlier this year. No idea why, as it seems to fuse that Cocteau Twins/shoegaze classic sound to an inventive electronica far better than most. Maybe the album's a little lightweight in parts, but I keep coming back to it, and its best songs are superb.

Whilst their debut album "Girls Like Us" had a killer title track and managed to translate their just formed live energy into a frenetic suite of pop-punk, "Wild Nights" is a more considered and accomplished affair - but whereas girl bands in the past have sometimes brushed up, added a musical lipgloss and lost some of their brio as they hit the charts, the route Manchester's PINS have taken was a different one. Garage band turned surf-pop, whilst the fun and exuberance remains. In a more sensible world "Wild Nights" would have soundtracked the summer (it soundtracked mine) but of course our summer was one of those touch-and-go ones where you were lucky to manage more than one al fresco drink before the rain came down. Another SFTOC alumni (a pattern emerging here) they are still playing a wide mix of venues, and were a great support for Wire earlier in the year. Still emerging, but still fantastic.

Their 3rd "proper" album, I saw them live in the autumn playing to much larger crowds and teetering on the edge of possible parody as the students and beer boys swelled the audience - yet they were still pretty mesmerising, and the reason is that the songs on this album were as good as the ones we know and love. The tumult of lyrics matches Mark E. Smith at his finest, whilst the taut beats, just a backing tape on stage, fizz out of the speakers in the living room. Despite the contemporary nature of their lyrics in Cameron's Britain, its the oddball tracks like "Tarantula Deadly Cargo" which set them apart. John Lennon once said he wanted his albums to be like newspapers, before coming up with his weakest album, "Some Time in New York City" - Sleaford Mods are like newspapers, but as likely to be the sports pages or the Fortean Times as a Daily Mirror op ed.

John Grant's "Queen of Denmark" became an unexpected pleasure and the songs were strong enough to dominate his excellent live album with the  BBC Phil last year. Second solo album "Pale Green Ghosts" ditched the alt country stylings of Midlake for some more electronica, and was enjoyable, well regarded, but didn't grab me as much. His third album is the most out of kilter record from a semi-major artist all year. No surprise, really, as he's moved to Iceland, announced to the world that he's HIV positive, and is the wonderful sound of a great artist doing whatever he wants. It's strange, unsettling, beautiful, and sonically the year's most fascinating record.

This album came out with every cover a "unique" one. Marketing gimmicks sometimes indicate something to hide, and perhaps this didn't quite have the success of their previous records, but I loved it. Probably my favourite electronic-inclined album of the year with just a great feel all the way through, and full of good songs.

At over 70  minutes its too long, but Janet Jackson's return is also a return to form, working with Jam and Lewis again, it sounds as immaculate as you'd expect - her voice is fantastic and seems such a different instrument than so many of the soul divas we hear nowadays. My favourite Jackson track was always the pillow whispering of "Let's Wait Awhile" and there's still a sense that she understands the dynamics (and the dynamics of the love song) better than most. If it tails off towards the end, there's enough to like in the first three quarters of the album to make it a genuine contender. With her brother gone, and neither Madonna or Prince at their best on recent albums, its good to see one eighties superstar still making a great record.

I don't remember Sleater Kinney being such a darling of mainstream critics when they were around first time, being definitely a cult band even when their mesmerising final album "The Woods" came out. This return perhaps lacked the strangeness of that album but brought the energy of their earlier work to the fore, in a powerful blast of playful, energetic noise. They even got a place on Jools Holland, the UK's own music heritage programme, but like Sleaford Mods, sounded too good for that haven of the middlebrow. Its a great rock record, which in 2015, where such beasts were rare, was reason enough for it to be lauded. 

"Uptown Funk" dominated the year (alongside Taylor Swift - both came out last year however), so perhaps the album was never going to be quite as big a success. Any doubts that Ronson is a magpie rather than originator probably went out the window with "Uptown Funk" itself, but the album is a veritable jukebox. Its also a great fun party record, with that track still likely to be on rotate as long as their are cocktail bars and hen parties. I like the album alot - in a year that mainstream pop became ever more in the model of Max Martin etc. and where a certain timorously thin pop-soul a la Ed Sheeran/Justin Beiber dominated the charts - it was a record that even old duffers like me could get behind.

So that's 10 for now - with some time over Xmas I'm sure I'll maybe add a couple of others I haven't yet got round to listening to or remember one I bought but had forgotten.


Saturday, December 12, 2015

Have an Indie Christmas

I missed last week's "Independent's day" shopping, but there's still time to get some interesting Xmas presents. Yes, you can get that John Lewis coffee maker, that Surface Pro, that True Detective boxset, that hardback cookbook, but lets be honest, they'll all be half price from 26th December and all your friends will also have them. So here are a few "indie" solutions that can make any stocking bulge happily....

Confingo Magazine is now 4 issues into its life, and has a mix of photography, stories and poetry, as well as an artist/author interview, in a lovely perfect bound A5 format. Available from HOME and Magma in Manchester and online, a 2 issue subscription is now only £9.  Order issue 4 before Christmas and it will be specially wrapped.

Anyone who saw Lonelady on tour earlier this year might have remembered Julie Campbell's fetching "BEAT" t-shirt which she wore at a number of gigs, including the Manchester one. Now you can own your own, in various sizes for just £20. There are also some limited edition posters available. A great present for someone as you've surely already got the album (out on Warp) which has featured in most of the year-end "best of" charts.

I attended the last of the year's Other Room events on Wednesday and picked up the very hefty "Out of Everywhere 2" - an anthology of innovative poetry by women which is surely one of the year's most important releases. A follow up to a previous anthology, this one, edited by Emily Critchley features a large number of British innovative women poets, puncturing a scene that has sometimes been too hermetic for its own good. Reality Street have done us great a service with this one.

And a great bookend to this would be "Boooook" a biography of legendary concrete poet Bob Cobbing which came out earlier this year from Occasional Papers.  

Short story collections are great gifts to give as they can be dipped into whereas a novel can be more "Marmite" - two recent ones by Manchester writers are highly recommended. Elizabeth Baines' second collection from Salt, "Used to Be" and H.P. Tinker's "The Girl Who Ate New York" will both be popular gifts (if you can bear to part with them).  Some great anthologies and other books are available from Manchester's Comma Press as well in their Xmas Sale.  As for stocking fillers, Nicholas Royle's Nightjar Press has had a resurgence this year, and loose change will get you single stories in a handy format to keep you out of harm's way whilst the Queen's Speech is on.

Music fans who still have access to a cassette machine could do worse than investigate Sacred Tapes - which releases a fascinating number of "noise" and related releases, again for little more than the price of a latte.

I didn't have too much published myself this year but was pleased to see my poem "In Search of Dubnium" in the lovely "My Dear Watson: the very elements in poetry" which remarkably sees poets tackling science, with one poem for each element in the Periodic Table. Available online from Beautiful Dragons. 
And finally a limited edition that is perfect for those cold spooky nights in. Curious Tales are a collective of writers who like doing something different at this time of year and their latest book (limited edition, natch, once it's gone, it's gone!) is called "Congregaton of Innocents" and channels Shirley Jackson. 

Hopefully that will keep you - and Santa - busy until the New Year. 

Sunday, December 06, 2015

The First Bad Man by Miranda July

Miranda July has written award winning short fiction, and is an actor, performer, director, artist and "The First Bad Man" is her debut novel. In this strange fable, our narrator is Cheryl Glickman, a 43 year old woman who has worked for years at "Open Palm" a not-for-profit that develops self-defence courses for women. She appears to be that member of staff who has been there forever, who appears to run the place, but has been overlooked for management or other senior roles - yet nobody can imagine the place without her. Yet at 43, she lives alone in a spartan apartment where she cuts down on washing up by only ever having one cup, one plate.

When Clee, the difficult teenage daughter of the owners of "Open Palm", the vile Carl and Suzanne, comes to stay with Cheryl it creates a rupture in the ordered, insular, self-obsessed life she has created for herself. Cheryl's narration is highly unreliable, and we never quite get under her skin. She has a fantasy about the ageing lothario on the company board, Phillip, and wherever she goes she is looking for phantom children, who she names as Kubelko Bondy. Even through her own narration she comes across as lonely, caring, vindictive, and envious of the world - someone who has let life pass her by without knowing quite how or why. Clee original stays with another staff member but then moves in with Cheryl. She accepts it, as she accepts everything that her bosses put her way, but she also resents this imposition on her life, in her one bedroom apartment.

Clee is as archetypal a teenager as Zappa's "Valley Girl" and has a shadowy life she keeps from Cheryl. At some point their non-verbal communication ends up with them playing out the scenarios from old VHS tapes created by the women's self defence programme that is "Open Palm's" main "product." These scenes of unexpected violence are described in detail but without much commentary. This odd, abnormal world is always played deadpan. "The First Bad Man" of the title is one of these scenarios. I'm not sure it works as the novel's title, too loaded, perhaps.

At some point we find that Clee is pregnant and the novel steps up a gear, with the difficult pregnancy, birth and aftermath, with a poorly baby, bringing Cheryl and Clee closer together and briefly in love with each other. As she says later in the book, she moves from guardian figure, to mother figure, to lover. Yet never are they genuinely friends - rather these are two lost women who are brought together by that most unexpected thing, a baby that one of them was going to give up for adoption. This sense of loneliness, followed by hope, followed by the conflicting thoughts of what a baby means - how the "mother" is the person who looks after him day in, day out, whatever the absurdity of the family situation. Cheryl is open to love - with Clee, with the ageing Phillip, with baby Jack - but holds it back, is uncertain when it arrives, thinks it is about to be withdrawn. In many ways her character doesn't change - even though she's only 43, she seems much older, stuck in a tiny tableau within the big city.

The novel starts with her going to see a psychiatrist, and these scenes turn out to be pivotal to the little bit of plot there is. The strange psychiatrist's waiting room, where the receptionist - for 3 days a year - is the psychiatrist the rest of the time is an absurdity, I'm reminded of the quack doctor in "30 Rock" for instance. Yet in this waiting room of the trusted psychiatrist the various trysts in the novel are played out, like a contemporary village square.

There are some profound moments in "The First Bad Man", and the book is more absurd than laugh out loud funny, yet I struggled with it. It did feel overlong for the source material, a series of episodes to keep the momentum going, with the insularity of this small group of absurdist characters more like the screenplay for an indie movie than anything else. It certainly feels very zeitgeist-y, and there's even a quote from Lena Dunham on the cover, but whereas it might seem to be in the same territory as A.M. Homes' "This Book Can Save Your Life" it's canvas is more miniaturist, to that book's weaving of an equally small cast into a much larger scenario. Part of the problem for me was that despite being pretty grounded in its world, everything is done ironically. This doesn't feel like a real company, or a real flat, or even a real psychiatrist, and its not just Cheryl's filtered vision. The book was highly recommended to me, and I can see that its strangeness and absurdist vision could be compelling, but I got bored a little too often, found the writing elegant but flat, and the humour was of a very droll kind. Having not read her short stories I can't compare, but it did feel that the material was stretched out, that this kind of world works better in shorter form. Its far from being a bad book, and the central conceit - that love can be unexpected and appear anywhere - is neither sentimentalised or laughed away. A short epilogue - a mistake I think - leaves you with the knowledge that things turn out okay, but it reminded me of a lesser Coen Brothers movie, absurd for absurd's sake, nothing much existing beyond the screen (or in this case the page.) As someone who enjoys surface, (and enjoyed the equally self-contained "Leaving the Atocha Station" for instance), it surprised me how much effort this book took me to read - I think something about the prose style just made me weary. Maybe just one of those "not for me" books.

Friday, December 04, 2015

Today's British Novel is Not Remarkable or Interesting

I had a bit of a find the other day in Oxfam - a whole shelf of old Grantas, including some very early numbers, including the very first issue (albeit a reprint) from 1979.

"It is increasingly a discomforting commonplace that today's British novel is neither remarkable nor remarkably interesting..." begins a strident editorial by Bill Buford (I assume), to introduce an issue entitled "New American Writing." Granta is still with us though Buford has long ago stopped being its editor. An American in England (isn't that always the case?) his energy could be seen to coincide with the energising of the English - British - world novel in English over the next few years. 1979 wasn't perhaps seen at the time as a golden year for fiction. The obscure Odysseus Elytis won the Nobel; Penelope Fitzgerald won the Booker with "Offshore". In retrospect there were some important books published: Calvino's "If on a winter's night a traveller", Angela Carter's "The Bloody Chamber" and Douglas Adams' "Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy" and Norman Mailer's "The Executioner's Song" amongst them. It was also the year of Jeffrey Archer's "Kane and Abel" and Barbara Taylor Bradford's "A Woman of Substance", mega-bestsellers which would perhaps herald the book trade of the next decade as much as "Star Wars" from 1977 had altered the film business.

That first line is written in a kind of literary English that was not uncommon in the books of the time, but feels old fashioned now, too clever by half. The rest of the article shies away from the controversial opening, to become more of an academic essay on the reluctance of British (English) fiction to take on board experimental or international influences.

Granta gives us Joyce Carol Oates, William Gass and Donald Barthelme amongst others in that first issue. The third issue of the magazine is provocatively titled "The End of the English Novel" but then does something quite impressive: it extracts from "Midnight's Children" and "Riddley Walker" and also features Christine Brooke-Rose and Angela Carter. By 1983 and issue 8, "Dirty Realism", we have what might be Granta's finest hour: "Richard Ford, Jayne Anne Phillips, Raymond Carver, Elizabeth Tallent, Tobias Wolff, Bobbie Ann Mason, Frederic Barthelme, Carolyn Forché and others."

I used to pick up, and occasionally buy Granta, but over the year's it seemed to lose some if not all interest in fiction - often having themed issues which non-fiction or reportage or memoir. Looking at the steadily growing strip of Granta's on my shelf, I see its width has increased as the years went on. There have been other signature issues - particularly its Best British Novelists selections every ten years, which have slowly seemed last canon-forming as time has gone on; and a willingness to use that "brand" to showcase Best American or Best Brazilian novelists as well. 

Fiction of course, is ever in crisis, as magazines like N+1 and the White Review have talked about more recently.  In an ever more fragile media age, we've become less adept at tracking those writers that matter, and, indeed, there seem some "big books" that have proven near impossible for their authors to write beyond (e.g. Yann Martel or Arundhati Roy, to name two Booker winners.) Every year another crop of debutantes, and yet it seems some of those themes of that first editorial - that the British novel can be parochial and uninteresting; that we lack an interest in novels from other cultures, or writers who are more experimental; or that we show little appetite for the more inventive American fictions, continues. A literary magazine can only be a snapshot of course, and Granta also became an imprint. The "Best novelists" issues suffer from being extracts, however apt the choices, and there's always been something very partial about Granta's approach to literature (no poetry for instance, little interest in drama), whilst at the same time, its aesthetic and familiarity makes me joyful every time I pick up a second hand issue that I've not already got. I have to say most of the 2ndhand copies seem relatively unread - but that's the fate of the successful literary magazine - as soon as its got a subscriber base, it becomes less able to take risks, and less of an impulse purchase (and at its current bookshelf prize - almost that of a hardback of a trade paperback, it probably never will be.)

However, we're not so keen on literary magazines in the UK as elsewhere in the world, and Granta's longevity and international standing have to be applauded. The row of books isn't quite a history of contemporary literature, but its a useful version of it. Its also a magazine that rarely looks back - so the late nineties, for instance, that rich period that in a few years gave us "American Pastoral", "Fugitive Pieces", "Underworld", "The Poisonwood Bible", "Enduring Love" "Disgrace", "Independence Day", "The God of Small Things," "Girlfriend in a Coma", "Atomised",, "Infinite Jest" and "The Rings of Saturn" amongst others, saw Granta publishing very few of these authors,  and seeming happy with familiar names, and the kind of "serious" subjects that made it less of a fiction magazine, and more of a current affairs one. 

The fatter Granta of the 21st century seemed far more open to new writers, and fiction in general, though as the grand old dame of magazines by this stage, McSweeney's would seem sexier, and other newcomers, most recently The White Review, seem more immediate.  

For the casual punter its always quite hard to get a sensible take on the current state of the letters - looking back at that late 90s list now, I probably didn't realise what a golden age it was at the time - though because I had taken two years off to do a creative writing degree I at least had the time to read these great books as they came out. I wrote an essay for PROP magazine at the tail end of the century which was entitled "As if Ulysses had never been written" and predicted that the big books of the next few years wouldn't be experimental novels, but baggy, societal tales, like Dickens, and with Zadie Smith, Jonathan Franzen and others I was proven pretty prescient.

The 21st century has seen a lot of interesting writers who maybe haven't necessarily wrote their defining book yet - Nicola Barker, David Mitchell, David Peace, A.L. Kennedy etc. - and indeed, it is one of those midlist writers who perhaps defines the age more than any, with "Wolf Hall" and "Bring up the Bodies" Hilary Mantel made historical fiction the most vital writing of the day.  Going back to that Granta debut editorial the focus on "New American Writing" is as a contrast to the unremarkable British variety, yet it has to be said that the more esoteric strand - Barthelme, Pynchon, Gaddis, Barth, Coover - would be a false one, withering on the vine, at least until Foster Wallace took it some place else; whilst the "making" of Granta's reputation - Rushdie in London, "Dirty Realism" stateside,don't yet get a mention.

If you see a pile of old Grantas gathering dust in the spare bedroom or your local charity shop, do let me know, the more I get, the more interesting the story becomes.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Literature Matters

It may seem that literature matters aren't that important when reading and seeing what happened in Paris on Friday night with so many innocent people murdered and injured; we take pause, we grieve, we remember, we are in shock. Shakespeare & Co., the famous bookshop offered shelter for people on Friday I was reading. We are reminded that the only aberration here is not the Eagles of Death Metal band, the restuarants and bars, the books we read - the cartoons that satirise - but the Kalashnikovs, the suicide belts, and the fanaticism that allows them.

Take pause....and then.... its been a creative week, literature matters, so does art. "Can art change the world?" a debate I attended on Thursday night asked, and stuck to the easy bit, the nice bit - yes it can change an individual's world. What about changing the world for the worse? Art as propaganda? Or where art is deemed inappropriate (the censorship that sees art as having transgressive power?) There's probably a mini-essay to be written on the subject. Not a lot we could cover in an hour and a half at Manchester Art Gallery. New art shows popping up all over this week as well, at Castlefield Gallery, at Home, and elsewhere in the city.

I attended the Northern Lights writers conference yesterday, but will probably save that for a separate blogpost, a good mix of speakers and writers, for its 3rd year at the Waterside in Sale. This coming few weeks there's still plenty of literature happening....

....a few highlights....

Given that I first heard Grevel Lindop and Peter Sansom in the nineties, I guess they could be called "venerable" poets - but they're both reading at a free event at Anthony Burgess foundation on Wednesday 18th.

The last Verbose before Christmas, with writers from the Manchester "spec fic" (speculative fiction) group as headliners is a week on Monday at Fallow Cafe.

Its a busy week that one - Bare Fiction comes to Manchester - the excellent magazine of fiction poetry and plays is launching its new edition here on the following Thursday - its at Apotheca bar in the NQ on the 26th.

The winners of the Manchester poetry and fiction prize will be announced at a Gala at 70 Oxford Road (C*r*e*h*u*e in old money, they're apparently not allowed to use the name) on Friday 27th.I'm pleased to see that Lindsey Holland, who started NW Poets, is deservedly on the poetry shortlist.

Sunday, November 08, 2015

"The Only Preoccupation"

On Friday, I took some time out to get an injection of literary life at the first National Creative Writing Graduate Fair (#NCWGradFair) , organised by Comma Press at MMU. A day dedicated to thinking about both practice and the business of writing, it was a sell out, though interestingly I only recognised three or four people from the local literary scene, maybe because of a sense that the day was concentrating on the novel - though short stories, poetry and non-fiction were all well represented in the workshops and the pitches.

For the day was split into two halves - a keynote speech from Adam Foulds, Booker shortlisted writer for "The Quickening Maze", followed by parallel panel sessions on  a range of subjects; and then in the afternoon, the foyer of the Geoffrey Manton building was given over to a "speed dating" session with agents and publishers, with around twenty literary professionals available to give a couple of 15 minute one-to-ones with the assembled writers.

I enjoyed the day thoroughly, and with such a complex series of sessions in the afternoon, was impressed that it ran to time and that everyone got to see a couple of literary professionals relevant to the interests they had signed up with. Yet I realised that I was still printing off my literary CV and novel synopsis at eleven o'clock the night before, as I was still a bit in recovery from being away the week before, and hadn't been feeling 100%.

I've heard Foulds read before, but he was particularly excellent giving a lecture and answering questions for an hour about the literary life. Like myself he'd studied on an M.A. in the late 90s, getting into UEA to write poetry, but drawn to prose during the course of his masters. He was already someone with a poetry track record of sorts - and I was reminded of when I went for the UEA interview and found that two of the people being interviewed had already had novels published, one of whom I bought from the University bookshop after the interview! The big expansion in creative writing courses was just around the corner. He talked about how it worked well to have access to two very different poetry tutors (Andrew Motion and Denise Riley) but at the same time finding a peer group of fiction writers.

If Foulds had seemed one of those writers who "had it easy" - with that early career Booker shortlisting - the real story is more complex. Although he found an agent, and wrote a novel, neither of those worked out. He kept going through making the work "the only preoccupation," a quote I tweeted as it seemed such an important point, whilst doing low paid factory or similar jobs - anything which wouldn't take up the mental and emotional energy needed to make a book as good as it can be. Foulds was incredibly generous in his honesty about his own background and working methods - he doesn't show his work to anyone, for instance, writes longhand, a few hundred words a day is a good day - and also gave us a bit of a helicopter view of what "literary success" means. The star of his year was a novelist who published one short book, and has now moved to Australia and is a teacher - whilst other writers varied greatly in both the speed of their "success" and the continuation of it. There is no "career" in being a writer, just the work of the current book, and if - when - that is published, then what comes next off the back of it is totally unpredictable.

The panel sessions I attended - "working with agents" and "hear from the editors" were equally interesting. The local writer Sarah Jasmon mentioned how the serendipity of meeting her agent and publisher only worked because her book was ready, whilst hearing from Richard T. Kelly who publishes "creative non fiction", it was good to understand a little more about the industry's trends and how writers, agents and publishers come together when they chime.  

As ever when I meet publishers or agents I realise that although that relationship isn't the be-all and end-all its quite important in negotiating your way to a certain level. Someone once said to me once said that what my writing needed was not an "agent" or other advocate, but a "friend", and I guess that's part of it. Certainly having other writers I can show work to is important, but clearly, in a highly competitive market (there were perhaps a hundred people at the event), the need to have someone on your side is important. The creative writing M.A. or PhD - though there are so many nowadays - remains one way to improve your chances, and Foulds' view that it gave him time to write (as well as some literary peers) strikes me as very similar to my own experience. Where I went wrong I think was once the novel I'd written had not found a home, not knowing what to do next - and the job I got was full time and what with other life issues, I never completed the actual "next book" (though I would write other things that were very different).

Its been a while since I've been able to make the writing "the only preoccupation", but I don't disagree with it - its just when, how, for how long.... a good day, and more questions than answers at the end of it.

Saturday, October 31, 2015


Its Halloween, and I'm up early as my time clock is a bit out after a busy few days with work in Rome. I don't really "do" Halloween, guess a legacy of not being around kids much, and never having much of a penchant for dressing up. A bit surprising really as I was a horror nut as a kid. I had a great little book called The Beaver Book of Horror (still got it somewhere) which was like a compendium of vampires, werewolves, ghosts and the like. I see online that it came out in 1977 so I'd have been about ten years old or slightly older. I probably got it from W.H. Smiths rather than the school book club. It wasn't long after that I read "Dracula" for the first time. I guess horror was part of the everyday culture through cartoons mostly. Remember we had Scooby Doo, which still trades in it, but there were also some great little children's TV shows like "Rentaghost" and quite a few Disney cartoons had horror motifs. Then of course there was "Carry On Screaming", one of the high spots of the series, re-runs of "The Addams Family" and the Haunted House at Blackpool Pleasure Beach and other places.

But if we didn't do much Halloween it was probably because Bonfire Night was the great autumn occasion. My grandad's farm had a spare field which was underutilised in the autumn after the hay had been mown. From then onwards, a big pile of wood and other junk would slowly be put together for a big bonfire night special, usually as a fundraiser for the local historical society. This was probably earlier - I can't quite remember when the last one was, but as a small boy I was often cold, tired, and somewhat non-plussed by all the noise and fire. I think I used to prefer the before and after - going around the following day and seeing the smoldering embers, the burnt out rockets and catherine wheels. I certainly don't remember Halloween been celebrated at school in anyway, but our comp had a downer on anything that was remotely creative - and I guess there was always something a little "other" about Halloween.

Its surprising perhaps how mainstream its all become. I guess its the dressing up - an early form of cosplay - and trick or treat seems a bit of an odd thing nowadays on streets where we are all strangers, and a knock on the door by a teenager could be misinterpreted by a terrified pensioner. But we do like a bit of horror in the autumn months. The clocks have changed giving us long dark nights in return for slightly lighter mornings. The leaves are on the ground, all crispy russet-reds, before rain turns them to mulch. There will be the haze of fireworks in the air for the next ten days or so I guess, a slight peppery smell in the air, and next weekend in particular every cat and dog scurrying fearfully under a cupboard at every large bang.

I've noticed a bit of a resurgence in horror literature - particularly "spooky tales" - and an appreciation for the ghost story. The schlock horror of my teenage viewing - the so-called video nasty - was always as kitsch as it was scary, and Troma films like Toxic Avenger and Class of Nuke 'Em High can be picked up on DVD. I wonder how today's teens, sophisticated consumers of SFX will find them?

When people talk to me about "young adult" or YA literature I always think its some unfortunate follow on from the Harry Potter phenomenon, a kind of lifelong infantilisation of our cultural matter.  YA is aimed at "up to 25" by which time I'd bought and sold a house, lived in four cities, held down two full time jobs and had a pension... I felt old at 25! What I was reading when I was a young adult - i.e. 14, 15 - was horror. I tried James Herbert's "Rats" which went round the school like a plague of them, but it was too domestic in its setting, too pointlessly gratuitous - I could tell that you were ripping through the workmanlike prose to get to the shocking bits, and it wasn't worth the effort. Stephen King was different. I probably had seen "Carrie" or the TV version of "Salem's Lot" before I read the books, most of which I picked up second hand. The first "new" one I bought, and one of his masterpieces, was 1983's "Pet Sematary" but I'd pretty much read all the horror ones before then. I didn't actually much like his non-horror work, the Bachman books and the shorts, at the time. I liked the full on stuff. I also read "The Exorcist" around this time, staying up late to finish it one night and being unable to sleep, truly one of the few books to have genuinely terrified me. "The Exorcist," and particularly "The Omen" were a better class of horror movie than those I picked up at the video shop. The historical background and religious underpinning made them both highly fascinating. Yet the best of the lot, was a book which has only recently been reissued (by Valancourt books), Michael McDowell's "The Elementals". This was the best horror novel I'd ever read, a book about an unseen assailant that inhabited the very fabric of the environment, the sands around an old house absorbing it and conquering it. A classic piece of southern gothic, I must have read it half a dozen times. His other books - the serial novel "Blackwater" and "The Amulet" were good, but this was the masterpiece.

At some point, I stopped reading much horror. My love of the gothic went into the dark music of Bauhaus, Sisters of Mercy and others; and I'd become less susceptible to the strange twist in more contemporary horror films. But its Halloween, so maybe time to indulge, at least for one day....

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Style and the Short Story

I've not been quite sure how to approach this subject - I wanted to talk a bit about the short story in general, partly because of the oft-touted statement that the short is having a bit of a renaissance. I'll touch on that. The point of this blog was always to have some first drafts of my thoughts and ideas, and so bear with me a little, if this wasn't a bit more freeform than usual - I probably need to jot down these thoughts for something longer at a later point.

As a reader, as a writer, the short story has always been important to me. I don't think I know many writers who it isn't. After all, the long haul of the novel is so daunting that a short can seem so much more manageable. I can't really look for the links at present, but you know that there's been a lot of talk about the story's renaissance, though sales remain low. What has happened, I think, as well as seeing an opportunity in these times of short attention spans to hollow out a little space for a short story, is that the rather than apologise for writing and publishing these things, there's been cause to celebrate them a bit. The BBC and Sunday Times short story competitions, the Manchester Fiction Prize, new magazines like the White Review and the Stinging Fly, older magazines with a new lease of life like Granta and Ambit, more grass roots initiatives such as Confingo, Black & Blue, Prole and Bare Fiction, the annual Salt Book of Short Stories, the Frank O'Connor prize, publishers like Comma Press, the Edge Hill prize, Submittable online platform... finally there's a bit of an infrastructure around the story. I applaud it. There was a gap, I think, broadly the mid-90s to early 2000s, when some older regional arts board funded mags had closed, and before cheap and easy DTP made it easier to set up a magazine, when the short story had all but disappeared from public view. Before then, lest we forget, the short story was sent out in a typescript with an SAE.

Yet for all this talk of the renaissance, I'm not so sure so much conversation has gone into discussing the merits of the thing itself. I've been struck, as well, how some of the more lauded collections of recent years have, on reading them, seemed somewhat old fashioned or linguistically disappointing. Every age is both a golden age and a fallow period, depending on your reflection - yet there is something particularly problematic about the British short story that still nags me despite the above infrastructure being slowly put into place. Elsewhere on social media, I keep reading, as well, that the short story is "the hardest form". Well, it's not, not really. What it is, is a genre that is much harder to be original in - and that's partly because so many of the tropes of the form are so well known, and the masters of the form agreed upon. Are you school of Chekhov or Mansfield or Lawrence or Hemingway? Are you heir to Carver or Borges or Ballard or Updike? Are you a fellow traveller to George Saunders, A.M. Homes, Toby Litt or Helen Simpson? The BBC short story prize thinks it knows what short stories are - they're usually written by novelists, are preferably long enough to fill a 20 minute gap on radio, are often first person monologues, and are certainly not experiments with the form on the page, or, God forbid, full of ripe language. Yet all of these tropes are their's not the writers - different prizes will have different scopes. I'm struck that outside of the really big prizes the list of names on many a shortlist is remarkably unknown to me, particularly compared with comparable poetry lists. Reading winning stories, they tend to the narrative, occasionally favouring a more quirky form (e.g. a letter), but generally are stories with a twist, whether its a narrative one or an emotional one.

What I don't see is a lot of innovation, or a general sense of taking the British story to too many unfamiliar places. Yes, they can be set anywhere, but just as British poetry can sometimes seem to be wedded to the anecdotal and personal, the British story seems to prefer a certain distancing - either remote in time or community, either that or the story is young, witty and solipsistic. Its why a story like Hilary Mantel's excellent "The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher" felt so refreshing. Ostensibly a straightforward tale, this plays with our expectations, uses our knowledge of the subject to elevate the story.

Whereas fifteen years or so ago I could be impressed in different ways by debut collections from Toby Litt, Will Self or Helen Simpson, I don't think - with the exception of David Rose's late arriving "Posthumous Stories" - that I've picked up a collection over the last few years that has both compelled me with the quality of the stories and seemed to take forward the form and language, at least not on this side of the Atlantic. I sometimes think, reading recent prize winners, that sometimes our winning stories are far from being anything new, influences of Carver and Munro and the "New Yorker" story looming large. I wonder if we've even caught up with the playful energy and deep emotional resonance of the America of Salinger, let alone writers of the depth and range of Delmore Schwartz, John Cheever, Thom Jones, Lorrie Moore, Harlan Ellison, Andre Dubus or A.M. Homes. Basically, I still prefer to read American (and other) writers than our own - with some honourable exceptions.

That's not to say that there is nothing good out there, far from it. Novelists' Sarah Hall and Jon McGregor have recently joined A.L. Kennedy and Nicola Barker at proving good at differing lengths, Zadie Smith's "Embassy of Cambodia" may well be the best thing she has ever written. I could wish that McEwan and Self hadn't quite mastered the novel so well, given their past track record in the shorter genre.

A 2-volume collection is out soon from Penguin, edited by Philip Hensher, celebrating "the best" British shorts. They will surely be good books, but with the 768 pages of the first volume taking up only up to the Edwardians, and a 2nd volume, therefore scanning a century of writing, I suspect when we see the final listings, that in Britain as ever, we are overburdened by our past, uncertain about our future and negligent if not apologetic about our present. And the "why?" of this, of course, is that its not enough just to write a good story, or be a decent writer in other genres; the short story is and has to be a platform for change, for experimentation and for different voices - mostly it has to have something to do with style.

And here's where I realise the subject might well be too big for one blog post. Seeing two English language short story writers with international backgrounds last week, May-lan Tan, (Hong Kong via London),  and Mai Al-Nakib, (Kuwait), I was struck, in terms of their work, but also in the conversation afterwards, by how important style as well as subject was to their work. Tan had written two novels before finding the voice that appears in the first story in her collection, - whilst the connected stories in Al-Nakib's book were again deliberate, once she had found the voice and subject. Both were very different writers, but I was struck that both seemed to have a verve, and ambition - in subject matter, but also in their approach to style, that is far from much British writing. Internationalism, which can sometimes be a problem in the novel, seems merely to offer more options and opportunities in the story. The best writing, of any age, of any nationality, will tend to reach for those.  

The plethora of magazines and prizes we have now, and the opportunities being provided by these are important, yet if we are merely revisiting old tropes, like a literary heritage tour, then our best work will fail. In the short story, more than any other literary genre, we surely have the space to take more risks: with form, with language, with subject.... and with style. 

Like I started with, a big subject, and I don't want to knock all the great initiatives to bring up the British short, but at the same time, I'd like to see some sense of critical distance - I do wonder, if a bit like the "workshop poem", the short story (many drafts, tightly controlled) becomes less, rather than more as it gets "professionalised" to fit a particular box/length. I know as well their are acclaimed writers out there I've yet to get round to - and, over hundred stories into my own writing life, how strange they can be, how untapped the potential, how often they fall short of the intention.


More information about the Philip Hensher books - this blog has the introduction from the collection, which should pique your interest. 

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Autumn Journal

After a patchy summer, autumn has held off its its "mists and mellow fruitfullness" at least in part, and its been warm and mostly dry - so  much so that it came as a surprise to come home the other night to feel the crinkle of leaves underfoot.

So many competing things, of course. Manchester's Albert Square is constantly being colonised then abandoned by scaffolding, viewing platforms, pop up bars and the like - as the jazz festival makes way for the food and drink festival makes way for the Rugby world cup weekend... can't be much else now before the Christmas markets take us up to the festive season. The literature festival starts tomorrow and its a bit of a belter this year - or at least you'd be hard pressed not to find something to go to. I'm hoping to get to Zachary Leader talking about his new biography of Saul Bellow, CB Editions short story writer May-lan Tan, the Psychogeographical Precarious Passages and maybe a couple of other things if I get the chance. I'm going to miss tomorrow's Kevin Barry and Jon McAuliffe reading as I'm busy, but its a good way to start proceedings. Outside of the festival, but coinciding with it, one of my favourite writers, Magnus Mills, will be in Manchester.

I'm in a writing group that has helped immeasurably as I started on writing a novel again - and two of my fellow writers have excellent projects out shortly. David Gaffney is collaborating with a comic book artist and a musician (Dan Berry and Sara Lowes) for "The Three Rooms in Valerie's Head" at the Kendal comic book festival next Saturday, and Elizabeth Baines has her second book of short stories out from Salt, "Used to Be." The launch is at Waterstones on 29th October.

I went to see another launch on Friday- that of "Dead Ink" - a Manchester based press looking at subscription funded new fiction - like "Unbounders" but with new writers rather than celebrity authors (no disrespect to Unbounders there, its been a great success, but I'm yet to be enticed by any of their books). So good luck to them. Buy one book or three, pay upfront and have some nice book-sized parcels winging to your door.

I got back yesterday to find the latest Nightjars from Nicholas Royle's imprint. Short stories published separately in pamphlets, these are highly collectible, and lovely artefacts in their own right. After a bit of a break he published two earlier in the year, and the latest two are by Leonne Ross and John D. Rutter.

Out shortly, and you're recommended to order, is the latest from the Curious Tales writing collective -this time a book of stories inspired by Shirley Jackson. More details are here.

The BBC short story prize was won by Jonathan Buckley for "Briar Road". I'm yet to read or hear this years list - available in a nice book from our local Comma press - but always worth a listen.

Finally, Comma are running, with the MMU, a Creative Writing professional development day which I'm going to, at the start of November. Should be useful.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Digital Technology, the Outtake and Process

It could be argued that the 3 albums that Bob Dylan released between 1965-6 - "Bringing it all back home", "Highway 61 Revisited" and the double "Blonde on Blonde" - is the high water mark of popular music. One track at least, "Like a Rolling Stone", has been named the best song of all time on at least one occasion. When Walter Benjamin wrote his essay "Art in the age of  mechanical reproduction" he foresaw a time when the uniqueness of a live performance would be replaced by a unit of the factory age, the same image or recording repeated ad infinitum. That "capturing" of a moment changes how we view it. Their is a historifying ever-present in the current work. Yet, we have always tried to capture the artistic creation, whether through aristocrats commissioning frescos, hand-painted Wedgewood, or the printing press, the lithograph....

Digital reproduction makes replication ever easier of course, which brings us to the copyright laws which artists rely on, but which are increasingly battlegrounds around "value." This very week the news that a judge in the US has declared the "copyright" invalid in the ancient "Happy Birthday to Me", has potentially got rid of millions of revenue for its "owner". (They rarely went after kids parties, but would frequently charge for its use in films.) The recently enacted "Cliff Richard law" - which extended "mechanical copyright" (the recording, rather than the writing of the song) had some interesting side effects - the main one being a "use it or lose it" clause. For copyright on unpublished works can essentially be lost. Why would this matter? Except it does - because for every recording of that unique experience, there are others which didn't make the cut. Even in 1965, there were times when producers would splice tape together or otherwise change the origin of the original. The vaults of major record companies are surely like "banks" holding unknown treasures in climate controlled environs, as ferrous tape slowly but surely degrades, fifty, sixty, seventy years after it was stored there.... use it, or genuinely lose it.

For the record collector, the music fan, it is not enough that Dylan recorded the equivalent of 4 albums of sublime quality in a couple of years, for whatever "magic" was in the air then has long dissipated, only occasionally resurfacing with Dylan himself, or with rock and roll in general. The vinyl LP was joined by the CD and then the download as we choose more convenient ways of listening. The end result of this is that Dylan's celebrated (and inaccurately named, given its legal status!) "Bootleg Series" reaches volume 12, with what can only be described as the motherlode. For these 3 LPs will be celebrated with a double CD of outtakes (fair enough), a 6 CD comprehensive round up (it surely deserves such treatment) and,  almost unbelievable, an 18 CD box set costing several hundred dollars in a worldwide limited edition of 5000 copies. Creating an enviable collectible at the same time as protecting the copyright of every scrap from these recordings seems the aim. Though expensive, the 6 CD version seems the most interesting. For one disc is given over to "Like a Rolling Stone" - 20 run throughs - most of them recorded after the take that eventually got used. Here we see a masterpiece being made. The story of it is quite legendary anyway. Mike Bloomfield a guitarist of rare talent coming in after Dylan decided to move on from his usual backing band, the Band, and Al Kooper a session musician who accidentally played the iconic organ piece on the recording. For lovers of music this CD alone will be a fascinating window into creative process. For although its true that we are in the age of replication, there was a time, say, 1965, when what is being captured on tape is as near to the "moment" as if we'd had a tape on Beethoven or Wagner's works being given a first performance. For the studio as a machine in its own right is yet to be completed - perhaps a couple of years later that will change - but for now, the band set up and play, and we'll get to hear the song as it changes.

Its not the first or only time that a record has received such comprehensive treatment. There was a "Pet Sounds" anthology years ago - the Velvet Underground's four seminal albums have now been issued over 25 or so CDs with live tracks and other recordings. The idea of the "outtake" as being a valid work in its own right is inevitable in an age of reissues, of wanting, not to hear the iconic "original" but the "original original" - the demo, or the run through or the early version with the different lyrics. What do we learn from this? Literature - or at least is modernist brand - has being doing this for a few years - with facsimile copies of "The Wasteland" and others. For scholars, but also for interested others, it seems necessary somehow to look into process, to somehow understand the alchemy that creates a great work. I personally feel there is a difference between music and writing in this sense. It seems that "versioning" is almost always valid in music, that bands play their songs and sometimes move them on from the recorded version or are sometimes stuck with them; that the song that was "released" is freighted with other meanings (commercial potential, length for radio or album etc. etc.) or that once the multitrack had arrived on the scene, it becomes necessary to have different versions within the same version (think of those classic album series with the faders turned down, or reissues of "Let it Be - naked") rather than different takes of the same song. With music I can imagine (and have) gone back to an earlier version of a song I've written and been fascinated by the genesis of it - though more often than not, there's a single recording, with other bits overdubbed, and anything that didn't work has long been erased. With poems and stories I am generally aiming for the end version and the decisions I make along the way are, though not irreversible, sometimes appear to be. The reason is that the end version transforms any previous versions. Its probably true of music as well, but for some reason we can cope with different versions of the same song, whereas the same poem or same story needs inevitably to lead to its finished and final version. They are, I'm sure, exceptions, but its early, and I can't think of them.

In our interest in the genesis of great music we are betraying our interest in it as not merely consumers, though the imperative to release these impressive expensive boxsets is an expensive and commercial one. For we want, more than anything to be there in the studio where Al Kooper sits behind the organ, or at the concert in Manchester where Dylan is called "Judas" and responds with a blistering performance. The convenience and quality of the definitive version gives us so much, but it doesn't allow us to be there - it doesn't see us as a witness to magic. Even in my own music, going back through thirty years of outtakes can take me back to the room where it was recorded, to the person I once was, in the way that looking at old typescripts doesn't. Indeed, the thing we repeat is the anecdote when the magic happened, memories strained across time. Within the confines of a studio that has seen a previous thousand sessions and will host a thousand more, what is the alchemy of process that creates the greatest song of all time? We want to go back there - and touch, taste, feel it.

I suspect this is also time to update Benjamin, for we are now making Art in the Age of Digital Reproduction, and the moment when a group of people get together in an expensive studio and the engineer diligently marks the takes is long gone. Each performance now will more than likely be one instrument on its own, which will be "printed" in the digital audio workstation, Cubase, or Protools or Ableton. The vocal lines will be "comped" - edited - from one part of the song to another as if they are a sample themselves - and everything from the moment it enters the chain or recording from the air, will be converted to zeroes and ones enabling each aspect of the voice or instrument to be changed. What the future box set will give us will be a series of mixdowns, hardly distinguishable from each other. And if the "mastertapes" are available in fifty years time, they will be digital files that will somehow have to be reconstructed with some software emulation. Dylan's "The Cutting Edge" may well be the high water mark of our fascination with the magic.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Six of the Best

I was thinking I'm overdue a blog post and then had forgotten that today was the announcement of the Booker Prize shortlist. As I mused over the longlist, its followed the pattern, to the letter, of a third British and Irish, a third American, a third Commonwealth - which I suspect will become the default over the next few years. This can enhance the prize, even if it doesn't do much for British letters. I think the presence of Marilynne Robinson and Anne Tyler on the longlist gives the prize gravitas, even as we have to admit that the world of literature has changed - and the days of "big name" or even "midlist" writers may be over. Only Tom McCarthy - with his fourth novel - is a previous shortlisted writer, and he is very much a millennial writer - yet he's my own generation, so in his mid forties, whose "Remainder" only got published in 2005, and then by a tiny art press. We're perhaps in the age of one off books rather than of emblematic writers - perhaps thats a good thing - like in music, we are in an age of plenty, yet without any obvious giants. Maybe, thats always been the way, and perhaps the Booker is more about "The Life of Pi" and "The God of All Small Things" than it is about Julian Barnes or Ian McEwan.

Anyway, it looks a strong list... though I'm aware I've only read one of last years, so I'm in no hurry to plough through this year's.

Locally there's plenty of literature coming up - with Manchester Literature Festival just round the corner, (it starts on 12th October, and more on that nearer the time) but there other events taking place here, there and everywhere. A rare treat at Verbose in Fallowfield in a fortnight - when the tutors from the Manchester School of New Writing get a chance to put their best foot forward.
This Saturday I hope I can convince a few folks along to Manchester's newest lit scene hangout Chapter 1 Books for reading by my friend and fellow Salt Modern Voice, J.T. Welsch alongside Australian poet Michael Farrell.

Next week there are 2 great events at Anthony Burgess foundation - firstly a reissue of Burgess's Shakespeare book is celebrated next Thursday, then on 25th, two more writer friends, both alumni of University of Manchester (before it was the School of New Writing), Emma Jane Unsworth and Lee Rourke, talking about their different takes on writing about Manchester. I'm away for this unfortunately, but you don't have to be!

All good - and maybe it will help me get my literature hat back on. I've felt a little (a lot?) unliterary the last two or three weeks - hardly writing or reading a work. These creative troughs are part of the game I guess, but it seems ages since I wrote anything (though I finished three stories at the end of August!)

Though its a bit (a lot?) of a lottery, still time to save up your pennies, and get your entries into the Manchester Writing Competition - closing date for both fiction and poetry is a week on Friday. Now where's that idea I had....

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Still Playing Solitaire for Money

Facebook has informed me that its five years since my Salt Modern Voices chapbook "Playing Solitaire for Money" came out. Wow, where did the time go? And what happened next?

A bit of background. Despite having always written poetry, having co-edited a successful poetry/fiction magazine Lamport Court, and having poems in a number of reasonably illustrious places (The Rialto, the Reactions 3 anthology), I wasn't in any way part of the poetry scene, except locally. I would enter competitions, send off manuscripts, but not get that much interest, though a book of 4 long experimental poems, "Extracts from Levona" came out a few months before the Salt collection. Although Salt was renowned for supporting new poetry, the overheads - for both poet and publisher - of the slim volume were making it more and more difficult for early career poets to get beyond the magazines. I'd entered their annual prize, but didn't get anywhere, when, out of the blue, Chris Hamilton Emery contacted me with their new idea - a series of uniform chapbooks called Salt Modern Voices, which he'd like me to be part of.

Over the next few months a number of these came out - and I think in total Salt must have published nearly 20 of them. Some were for specific projects that might suit the format, a couple were prose, but most were like mine - poets who were doing something interesting, had some kind of profile, but hadn't got a book out. Of the poems in "PSFM" with a couple of exceptions I'd stand by it. If I'd had more room I'd have probably put a few more experimental, less lyrical verses in, but as a chapbook I'm still proud of it.

Because there were a number of poets in the series the idea of readings quickly emerged. Turned out there was an American poet in Manchester. J.T. Welsch who was also in the series, and me and him met and had a joint launch, and would become friends. A number of others in that first batch, Clare Trévien, Emily Hasler, Angela Topping, Shaun Belcher included went on a little "tour" with 3 or 4 poets from the series reading in Manchester, London, Nottingham, Oxford and at Warwick University - and I read at a couple of these.

The series continued for a while - including interesting one off projects as well as mini-collections by emerging poets - and the books were longer, and looked better than the Faber new poets series that came out around the same time. What was nice, as well, was though there were some younger poets involved, older writers such as myself were included.

Since then, outside of anthologies, Salt has stopped its poetry list, so as far as I know none of the SMV poets made it to a full length collection with them - though a number of the poets have had successful books published elsewhere by other presses, including Nine Arches Press, who have just launched a similar but different scheme called Primers, which is essentially 3 pamphlets in one book.

I don't think anyone made any money on Salt Modern Voices, but it was a valuable opportunity for me, but also having picked up alot of the others in the series, I found the format and the size perfect in many ways - a good introduction to a poet, or a self-contained project, without some of the longeurs you occasionally find in a full length collection. The pamphlet, like the anthology or magazine poem, provides a useful forum for poets - and indeed some pamphlets are virtually as long as the classic "slim volume" which these days tend to be not so slim at all. For a poet like  myself who writes in different styles and for different purposes over time, I think it acted as a good forum - and I certainly got to do a lot more readings through having a book to promote.

So, five years on, thanks to Salt and to Chris, and I hope if you come across one of these little gems online or secondhand you investigate

Monday, August 17, 2015

Manchester Post Modernism

In the Victoria and Albert museum's Postmodernism exhibition in 2011 there were traces of Manchester; Peter Saville's album cover for "Power, Corruption and Lies", New Order's "True Faith" video. Where you stand on po-mo depends on from where you start from. In one sense postmodernism is exactly what the name implies, an architectural movement that reacts against modernism, hence the demolition of the modernist Pruitt-Igoe housing project in St. Louis in the early seventies was seen as clearing the way for postmodernism.

Yet if po-mo is an architectural style its filtered through the policies and trends that lead to its implementation. For postmodern architecture can be seen as, on the one hand, monied grand gesture, and on the other, architectural inventiveness, revelling in the possibilities of new materials and designs; we are postmodernists because we can be.

In the other arts the postmodern is not so directly oppositional. Literary postmodernism seems to me to have two epochs, two approaches: the absurdist 60s/70s works of Pynchon, Gaddis and Barth on the one hand, and then again the more ironic work that followed in the 80s/90s - of which Mark Leyner's "My Cousin, the Gastroenterologist" (1990) is a high point. Ironic style is key to much of this later postmodernism, and the journalism of the Modern Review or, later, the writers gathered around McSweeney's are evidence enough of its mainstreaming.

I like to think of the postmodern as being two things: in some ways an inversion or conversion of the conventional - Oldenburg's giant pop art sculptures of penknives or Jeff Koons' "Puppy" made of flowers, or Craig Raine's "A Martian Sends a Postcard Home" - but also/equally a certain brashness that prefers the signifier to what is signified, the facade of the thing becoming more "real" than the thing itself. In this sense the remix, particularly cut ups or repurposings like Shut Up and Dance's "Raving, I'm Raving" or the 12" Gotham City Mix of the Communards "Don't Leave Me This Way" are only possible in a world where the postmodern is celebrated, not just accepted. But grand gestures are also there in Fiona Banner's appropriative work like "The Hunt for Red October" which takes the whole of a schlocky action movie and - from memory writes it on a gallery wall. Our current age of meta- is po-mo with a beard and a fixee - but then again, "the hipster" is a creation of postmodernism, we just never expected him to become taken seriously. (On screen, Nathan Barley, like Max Headroom and TV party before it are Postmodern; in a way that the revamp of Battlestar Galactica or Downton Abbey or Breaking Bad aren't.)

And po-mo has its fair share of bad art, bad TV, even good art masquerading as bad art. Despite or because of our grey skies, po-mo has a long Manchester history, and it seems that more recently, shows in our public galleries, appropriating The Smiths, Marx or other iconic bits of Manchester history are po-mo through and through. The Cornerhouse/Home programme over the last year or so, has all been about a po-mo appropriation; though there's a point it seems to me, where one of the obvious traits of the postmodern (its size, its garishness) is being itself subverted in a kind of po-mo minimalism, if that's even possible, which might be missing the point: or simply, in an age where we are all looking at tiny screens all the time, an inevitable miniaturising of (even) public experience.

I do think that po-mo, if it really is more about the signifier than the signified should be a grand gesture - otherwise we're merely talking about influence, not subversion. Manchester, though not as obviously in thrall to po-mo as London, LA, Tokyo or Vegas has (or has had) its signature moments. At a point in the remaking of the city centre where it seems every non-memorably sixties/seventies building is being pulled down to be replaced with an (equally non-memorable) allegedly more functional replacement, po-mo, which never quite put down roots, needs recognsiing.

That we have some po-mo architecture at all seems to be a mix of civic laissez faire, a latent situationism, and early-career statementism by developers and architects. Most, if not all of the city's po-mo architecture and interiors are pre-2008.

Best/worst of all is on the city's peripherary: the neoclassical megalithic shopping centre that is the Trafford Centre is a perfectly over-the-top example of what happenns when bad taste, too much money, and the dullest of concepts (an out of town shopping centre) combine. Faced with a large box surrounded by a car park, the Trafford Centre has been given a ridiculous external grandeur that is almost Vegas-like. Here, po-mo has a genuine architectural/civic purpose, to disguise the fact that this is a massive indoor shopping centre surrounded by acres of car parks, by making its facade appear to be like some kind of Disney castle. In a thousand years, archeologists may have no clearer idea of what this was for, than we have about the pyramids.

Such brash functionality (and think of the alternative: Arndale style brutalism), is rare in the city's po-mo. With the glorious Imperial War Museum North, the building is a materialised shell, echoing the dark nature of its content - a carapace that echoes the ominous Futurism of the tanks and weaponry inside. Its like the world's most sympathetically clothed bunker, or a building that apes the statementism of Epstein's "Rock Drill." The other jewel in our po-mo crown is surely Ian Simpson's glorious glass wedge, URBIS, now home to the National Football Museum. Built at a bit of a civic statement after the city centre's redesign following the 1996 bomb, it feels like a two-finger up to that domestic terrorism: rather than build new buildings that can be as solid against a blast as the venerable Corn Exchange which it faces, we'll build something that's ALL glass. Simpson's Manchester has never been quite so post-modern again, with bigger projects being more functional, paid for by investment money, which doesn't really give much time to adding to costs through adding a postmodern facade on, say, an office block. Of recent builds, only the Tracey Island style terraces of the new Co-op building, Noma, have any po-mo credentials. Elsewhere in the city, there's Urban Splash's absurdist Chips building, which now looks like a pre-crash last hurrah.

We can have regrets of course - that the "Berlin Wall" in Piccadilly Gardens somehow grew a po-mo skins over its minimal concrete blankness - or that Thomas Hetherington's stunning "B of the Bang" hadn't been built in the wrong place, with the wrong materials, necessitating it coming down. The strangely anomalous sign on the "Light" building in the Northern Quarter, or - just possibly - the big sign that lets you know you are at the not-in-the-least-bit postmodern "Home" feel like postmodern subtitles imposed on the city's generally pragmatic architectural mix. Interiors may be a better option - hardy perennial cult bar FAB cafe, the nicely flamboyant interior of Mr. Cooper's House, the restaurant in the Midland hotel, and of course, forgotten memories of the Hacienda that keep popping up every time there's some re-remembering of that increasingly mythical place.

I suspect the crash and subsequent austerity quelled desire for postmodernism in British architecture - and we'll probably only see its echoes and ghostly reminders in short term pop ups and digital projections. Yet for a style that began, there or thereabouts, forty years or more ago, its proved surprisingly resilient, I guess, the nature of po-mo's pick and mix theoretical underpinning meaning that its always there if you want it to be. Manchester has flirted with it, as it has with other styles, but I suspect the new aesthetic won't have much time for such ironical questioning. 

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Cold Light by Jenn Ashworth

One of the consequences of knowing quite a number of writers is that it adds to the pile of "must read" books, and sometimes a novel slips through the gaps. "Cold Light", Ashworth's second novel came out in 2012, so this is tardiest of reviews (a 3rd "The Friday Gospels" remains on the "to be read" pile.) Like her debut "A Kind of Intimacy", she's set the book in and around Preston, that forgotten Lancashire town ("city" now as the novel reminds us), north of Manchester. "Cold Light" focusses on the death ten years before of two young lovers Chloe and Carl, who drowned on Valentine's Day, apparently in a lover's pact. Ten years on a memorial is being built to remember them, but the day of civic pride digs up more than the memories of the past, when a body is inadvertently disturbed. Lola (Laura), who was Chloe's best friend, watches with fascination as the charismatic local TV presenter, a brilliantly described nonentity in a pink shirt, Terry, gets to revisit the biggest event to hit Preston since the last Preston Guild (the big festival that Preston perversely celebrates only every 20 years), a series of sexual abductions of young girls that led into the few months before Chloe died.

Set in the nearly-pre-internet world of the mid-nineties, the narrator is Lola, the unloved best friend, who - like Annie in "A Kind of Intimacy" has a certain dogged certainty about her, without that character's macabre element. For Lola, and Chloe's other friend Emma both have memories and secrets that the last ten years they've hid away from even themselves. Emma has never moved on from the memories of the sex attacker, whilst Lola at 14 found herself stumbling into terrible misunderstandings of what actually went on, particularly when, Wilson, a "mong" that Carl chased into the wood, goes missing and gets blamed for the sex attacks.

Lola is in her own way as fascinating as Annie, for she struggles with the unhappiest of home lives. Her mother Barbara is at the end of her tether, an older mother who is also a carer for Donald, who appears to have serious delusions, a kind, but bewildered man who is "a bit soft". The majority of the novel is shown in flashback. The modern world that Lola inhabits is a drab one, she's a cleaner in a shopping centre, time having stopped with Chloe. Yet those flashbacks are themselves fragmentary, as Ashworth withholds the details of a relatively small plot, and instead concentrates on the psychological interiors of her main characters. In describing the terrors of girlhood friendship, she gives the most vivid school scenes since David Mitchell's "Black Swan Green", whilst the scenes with Donald at home are poignant and painful at the same time. Lola is unable to escape school in her home life, and unable to escape home life at school. Her friendship with the popular but wild Chloe has given her rationale for being, yet even before Carl comes on the scene (and Emma, whose role in the girl's threesome is, to Lola, purely as disrupter of her friendship with Chloe), the intensity of their friendship is both believable and worrying. For Chloe likes being looked at, likes being the centre of attention. She is the import from another school and rather than hang out with the popular girls, picks up Lola as a devoted number two. When Chloe shoplifts, it is Lola who gets caught. Yet if Chloe has insouciance her more middle class parents cannot connect with her at all. They are unaware that Chloe is seeing Carl; Chloe using Lola's devotion as a cover. For a while you feel that Carl is just that older boy with a car that is the usual rite of passage, but bit by bit he becomes darker, more controlling. The adult Lola would surely be able to pick up on the threads of the story, but she's still infantilised by what has happened, so we get the younger Lola's perspective - caught up between the impossible loyalties of teenager years.

Whereas "A Kind of Intimacy" had a sometimes underdeveloped supporting cast, the other characters here are all well drawn, from Terry, the local celebrity, to the dreadful Carl, to the various parents. There's a genuine deftness about the way the three girls interact, each of them bringing to the equation their own weaknesses and strengths. Whilst Lola gets to go out as chaperone to Chloe and Carl, and has been given an old mobile by the latter, she has no real understanding of the psychodrama that is going on. The one weak point, I think, is the way that Wilson is introduced. He is conveniently chatty when Lola is told to leave Chloe and Carl in the car and "keep watch", but this initial conversation quickly escalates, as we later find out, into something tragic. As the local weirdo, he's a bit too convenient a fall guy, yet how else would the 14-year old Lola have come across him?

The novel's intensity increases as we come to its final quarter, as the past becomes real again - the whole scene of Chloe's memorial acts as some kind of "trigger warning" for Chloe - but as the various lies and betrayals that led to tragedy come clearer, the humour that's there in much of the fumbling teenage scenes disappears, as the story becomes much, much darker. Despite its domestic settings, it edges towards some intense gothic horror, as we see through Chloe's eyes what really happened. The "missing girl" seems a too common trope of early 20th century fiction but here its grounded in a mundane reality which perversely gives it much of its gothic power.