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.

The Beginning of the End by Ian Parkinson

Some spoilers in this one, as its necessary to give a bit of the plot in order to write about it. 

In Ian Parkinson's debut novel, "The Beginning of the End", a Belgian man, Raymond, slowly falls apart. "Like every thirty-something, I gradually gave up, so slowly that I didn't really notice an incremental abandoning of my former beliefs and ambitions." He has worked at Siemens for fifteen years, lives in a nondescript flat, and has little romantic past to speak of. We meet him at "the beginning of the end" of the title - at the start of the crises in his life. There's not a particular trigger for his falling apart, and as he is our narrator, it takes a while to realise that is what is happening.

Finding himself the owner of a dog, after the previous owner, a gay neighbour, had killed himself. He had left the dog with Raymond and we see that Raymond has only the most passive sort of agency. Unable to function in the real world, he goes online, frequenting sex sites. He gives up his job, and flies to Thailand where he meets and marries Joy, a porn actress - or thats what she becomes on returning to Belgian with him. At this point his father dies, and he finds he has inherited a beach side property which in a few years time will be washed away by erosion. The book is punctuated by abrupt deaths, and in Raymond's telling, they have no more impact on him than his marriage, or other friendships. As he goes to live on the beach, occasionally looking through the boxes of his father's possessions but finding nothing, or rather - only clues that he doesn't then follow - Joy stays behind in his flat and becomes a well known porn star. Their relationship is only delineated by sex, which seems to be the one thing that will get him out of his torpor, but also provides him with; little pleasure. In one scene, Raymond and Joy visit another couple. "It was an enjoyable evening: Jan was a nice guy, friendly and relaxed; and Diana obviously loved sucking cock." In one of several deadpan graphic scenes in the novel Parkinson writes a graphic, soulless porn, that seems both to be in Raymond's voice but also to be an attempt to imbue these scenes with the same matter-of-fact ennui as the rest of the book.

For this 2015 novel is a clear descendant of Camus's "The Outsider" or, more recently, Houllebecq's first three or four novels. Yet if in Camus the shock was the insensibility, here we are in a more solipsistic age - there is little agency for Raymond. The occasional brief encounters with other people he shrugs off, as uninteresting - is this his own superiority or a falling into the depressive nihilism of his own personality? Only thoughts of sex - visiting massage parlours, anonymous chat rooms online - pul him from his inertia, and that seems just another form of nullity. He has given up in so many ways, yet with little of his previous life to go on, he seems a cipher to us. In some ways he sits clearly in a line of novels which attempt to illuminate our contemporary neuroses, in a world where everything is available, but where nothing matters. Yet its motives seem a little more  surface than novels such as McCarthy's "Remainder" or Rourke's "The Canal", with depressed inert loners as their central character.

Parkinson's style is literary but minimalist. Our narrator is very particular about his use of language, and there's clarity about everything he says, whether describing the disgusting conditions in the beach house, or sex with Joy, or a lonely trip to the supermarket. Its a sort of anti-style that I probably first encountered in Sylvia Smith's "Misadventures" in the mid-90s, or later in Magnus Mills or Dan Rhodes. Parkinson's book is more crafted than all of them, I think, yet it also hangs on the surface, deliberately refusing to dig deeper, and in its unwillingness to do so, sometimes seems to be  an exercise in nihilism. This wouldn't be a problem in itself, yet there's a lingering sense that its not quite the sum of its intrigueing parts. It's quite easy to see where the novel comes from in a literary sense - and its modern day concerns, loneliness, prostitution, the internet, pornography, are handled well - yet a little like Keith Ridgway's acclaimed "Hawthorn & Child" I found myself wanting something that was a little less arbitrary. I have a sense that the real battle in contemporary fiction is not between the factual and fantastical but between that which feels true, and that which is a second hand fiction. Though at times the novel caught hold of me, and I could appreciate its stylistic nudges, I felt that there was too much that was arbitrary, that seemed an unwillingness to commit to a story or a character. As a short story or a novella, I think I might have been convinced, but over the whole book, I lost interest, the flatness of the characters not giving creating a strain on credibility and our engagement.

As a debut novel it has a quiet power, but is better in its more intrigueing first half. In the beach house he begins to fall apart, yet rather than a Ballardian natural erosion, the first person narration makes it hard to empathise. I realised, writing this review, I was trying to find deeper meaning or themes which just aren't really justified by the text. We are left with just Raymond's breakdown.  Faced with a character who has given up almost on the first page, two hundred pages later we have only more of the same, a collapse that seems inevitable. As we seem to go full circle, and Raymond gets taken away to live alone in a flat, similar to where he began, the beach house becomes his necessary centre, the place he was looking for - to be alone, to end things, to connect with his unknowable dead father.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Nobody is Waiting for Your Masterpiece

One of the things about growing older, creatively, is that things go at different speeds. Just as a teenager's summer is apparently endless, in your late forties, it is hardly the longest day, before you're catapulting into making calendar arrangements for September. Creativity is different: a poem can be written in an hour, a story in a day, a novel in six months, a song in a couple of hours. Yet, these are as false timescales as how you think time passes whilst waiting for the results of a job interview, or being in the queue at the dentist. In reality, time passes, and how you delineate that time depends on your disposition.

As a systems kind of person I've also liked to see some structure, even to my famously unstructured creative life. Lots of writers are, I suspect, amalgams of chaos and calm; for it takes both to have the emotional whirlwind of a creative idea, and then somehow capture it on paper. That's why so many writers have rituals: favourite rooms and desks; particular notepads, pens or pencils; books lined up or ordered according to colour, size, publisher or the surname of the writer. This pretence at order is a good way to step away from the chaos.

At some point, dear writer, and I swear this will be true, you will settle down to the idea that what you are writing may not just be good... but could be a masterpiece. Another part of you will consider that this is the work that will be your masterpiece - the culmination of what's come before, or the moment your style and substance click in in such a way that they can't fail - that all you have to do is write it. Sometimes you'll start writing in a different way than before; and yes, that heady thrill, is merely a recognition of the novelty of your new work, not anything to do with its intrinsic quality.

But its important that you write something good: of course it is. That's why all those self-help books, "morning pages" and "7 basic plots" are so comforting - and usually written by people who have never written a masterpiece in their life. I like getting my literary advice from the giants. Sometimes they've been so kind as to leave behind a vapour trail of their genius - letters from Kafka, Fitzgerald or Plath - but sometimes we just have to dig deep in the undergrowth of their work. Shakespeare or Proust or Joyce or Cervantes provide ample ammunition in their work. Yet its not just monkeys with typewriters who can't write like Shakespeare. Hell, we can't even write like Agatha Christie or Ian Fleming (though our writers have tried.)

When I first started getting published, the confidence that I had in the work was matched by a sudden realisation that someone else liked my writing. Yet a few poems and short stories here and there, though getting admirable glances from this editor or that, never really turned into anything more. I had people who might be interested in what I wrote next, but because I write such different things, I've always been dreadful at following up such early promise. I realised a long time ago, that however good my work-in-progress might be, there was nobody out there waiting for my masterpiece. And that's still, sadly the case.... the work-in-progress could be the thing everything else has been leading to, but after twenty (or is it thirty years?) I may as well be starting from scratch, no expectations. Rejections come in many forms as well, and in some ways the "never send me anything again" from an agent who'd previously expressed an interest, though rude, was at least unequivocal on where he stood; whilst thankfully I've never had "I like your story, are you writing a novel?" which derails so many promising writers. In some ways the least helpful have been the kindest, "you can really write, but its not for us." For how many of us can "really write?" But take backhanded compliments where you find them, sprinkle with a bit of self belief and carry on....

There's a bit in Jonathan Coe's excellent biography of B.S. Johnson where he steps back and imagines a particular day in Johnson's writing life. "That was a good day," he says, or something similar. Forget about rejection, forget about Johnson's suicide, forget about anything else other than the mundane task of putting words on paper in a pleasing order. Johnson had self belief aplenty (until he didn't) and you could argue that if he didn't produce a "masterpiece" it was this self belief that was at fault - his quirky surety meant that he gave us those strange books of his rather than the imagined book we'd have liked him to have written. This is not uncommon of course, and in all fields of endeavour. I remember a review of "Sign of the Times" by Prince which tore it apart for its first CD being just half-baked demos (but what demos....the best sketches for a new music since "Revolver".) If "Sign of the Times" isn't a masterpiece then what is? We were, of course, waiting for Prince's masterpiece, or rather, like a rarified few artists, his NEXT masterpiece. (It was probably his last.) Even - especially? - our most successful writers and artists disappoint. The "second album syndrome" of "The Autograph Man" probably means we no longer expect Zadie Smith to give us her masterpiece. Like a few other recent writers, a debut novel is as close as we'll get, probably.

There are a few times - a few people - where expectations have been higher. Bruce Chatwin was a successful journalist, and successful personality, moreover, yet his much trumpeted book on "nomads" never materialised. Nicholas Shakespeare, on completing his biography, said it was an unpublishable mess. When you read "In Patagonia" or (his masterpiece?) "The Songlines" there are phrases that come dripping with life, that appear in a slightly different format, in his "letters" (more usually "postcards"). Yet in general, nobody is waiting for your masterpiece. Keats struggled to write the long poem that would surely make his name (it was short poems that did so after his death), Kafka struggled to get anything much published, and even instructed his executor to burn his unpublished works. Morrissey was a "face" around Manchester who it was recommended should go away and write his novel, rather than wait around on the off chance that Johnny Marr might pop around with his guitar. Yet much as I admired the early pages of his "Autobiography", it was more for the light they shone on his real masterpieces, "The Smiths" and "The Queen is Dead."

The alchemy that comes behind successful art means that its hidden, like the Great Oz behind the facade. Beautiful actors or powerful singers might get second or third chances based on their looks or their voice, but writers...poets.... perhaps their intelligence, perhaps their friendship circles, mean that there's faith in them close to home. A book can be accepted and take a year or eighteen months to make the shelves, never mind to be read and acclaimed. Here's the rub, that the masterpiece - whether "Catcher in the Rye" or "1984" or whatever, is being written when there is little or no expectation of one. Yes, Joyce was self-consciously writing a "masterpiece" from the day that the first chapter of "Ulysses" got published; but then again, he was no doubt also doing so with "Finnegan's Wake", and who, other than scholars, reads that now?

So here's the thing: the most exciting part of being a writer is when you not only write, but feel that you get it right. Sometimes you might be delusional, but, the one thing I can say that experience brings, is that you know when you've got a live one - same when you're writing/recording a song. The job then it to get it as good as it can be, and not skyhigh this one over the net, missing an open goal. Because nobody is waiting for your masterpiece, there's something else to bear in mind, when you write it (and you will, you will....) imagine what a surprise it will be. Of course, like "A Girl is a Half Formed Thing", the gap between action and acclaim might be the best part of the decade. But hopefully, McBride did what most of us do in between writing our good, bad and ugly words, she lived, she wrote, she got on with things.

Sunday, August 02, 2015

Of Booker and Bloomsbury....

My week has been anything but literary, as I was away with work in a sweltering Rome - a place where you feel its almost criminal not to be thinking about art, poetry and philosophy.

So I missed the Booker longlist announcement. The main thing this year, year 2 of it allowing American novels, is that its bounced back a little to the old Booker of the empire - so its USA 5 Britain and Ireland 4, Rest of the World 4; a bit like the Ryder Cup in golf in other words. So vast are the amount of American novels each year, I'd be surprised if we saw any less. What this says for British literary culture - just three novels, by O'Hagan, McCarthy and Sunjeev Sahota - I hardly know: not a single novel by a British female writer worthy of a longlist mention this year? Such is the nature of expanding the field. I can't say it sounds a vintage list, but the Booker hasn't been particular sure of its course for a good few years now - with a seemingly random book choice, being narrowed down somewhat arbitrarily, and one book being picked as first among equals without there being much rhyme or reason to it (such is the nature of book prizes.) Nationality aside, there seems to be quite a few "issues" based books on the list, with a usual Booker propensity for a historical novel or two. Unusually, (but pleasingly), the majority of the list have already been published. Let battle commence.

I suspect a hundred years ago, that "The Rainbow","Of Human Bondage," "The Voyage Out", "The 39 Steps" and "The Good Soldier" might not have been the judge's shortlist, though they are the books that have lasted. The BBC has been a bit sluggish about reflecting a hundred years of modernism, so I was excited to hear that last week they were premiering a new series "Life in Squares" about the Bloomsbury Set. Yet whether I was a bit tired last night as I watched on catch up, or whether the bewilderingly large cast (and the notoriously complicated relationships) of this "set" made it hard to engage with, I found it a bit disappointing. Do we even "do" the Bloomsbury set anymore? English modernism is an interesting subject, mostly for what it was not, rather than what it was - and though it was painting that brought Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant and the older Roger Fry together, it was only in literature - and the novel, not poetry - where English writers really embraced modernism. Elsewhere its Americans (Epstein, Pound, Eliot) or the Irish (Joyce, Beckett) where greatness lay.

But of course, we still talk about Bloomsbury for at least one reason, and that is Virginia Woolf, the unexpected breakout star of that shiny group of individuals. Unexpected because it is the Cambridge-educated gay men - Strachey, Grant, Maynard Keynes - who were the key players at the time, though the Stephen sisters - Vanessa and Virginia - are the fulcrum of the group. There was a TV dramatisation of the Pre-Raphaelites a couple of years ago that was colourful and fun, called "Desperate Romantics", I enjoyed it thoroughly despite (or because of) it playing fast and loose with history. I'm not sure what we did to deserve the full BBC costume drama approach to "Life in Squares" but it seems dark and drab, and could have done with a less serious, less respectful approach. I'd have liked to have seen it done like a series of "Skins" with maybe a story per episode - and a bit of on-screen intervention, like "Maynard, Economist" or "Vanessa, painter" - or even a bit of an idea about when exactly it was set.

I'll go back to it - as I've gone back to a Woolf biography - for though the main fascination with Bloomsbury has always been partly because of their upper class bohemianism, its "Mrs. Dalloway" and "To the Lighthouse" that explain why we are still interested.