Saturday, January 30, 2016

Wet January

Of all the months to stop drinking, January must be the most stupid. After all, what else are you going to be doing? It rains every day, you're back at work, you've not seen half of your friends since that drunken Xmas do in mid December, and to top it all the cultural options are severely limited. Yes, by the third week, there's suddenly a surfeit of Oscar nominated films, but it can sometimes seem that we're expected to be accidental Puritans in January.

For my part I had a cold first week back at work, so I'd have missed anything going on if anything had been going on. By week 2 I was craving cultural experience. My friend Gareth Smith had a free show at the Whitworth Art Gallery with "The Winter Fly", a charming 30 minute animation with live score for piano and cello. It's also on in Liverpool next week and this Saturday in his home town of Hull. Suitable for all the family! I love things like this which are so unexpected - and it was great to see it in the Whitworth in front of an audience of close to 200.

Sunday before last was Delia Derbyshire Day, a quirky celebration of the late electronic music pioneer. Though her connection to Manchester isn't an obvious one, we now host her archive, and moreover, I think the city had adopted her as a kind of kindred spirit. Whereas most celebrated musicians are often blessed with an official history, Delia is intrigueing because of how mysterious both her life and work were. A BBC employee for many years, her most famous work was the arrangement of Ron Grainger's "Doctor Who" theme, her contribution to this iconic piece incalculable. As part of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop she was a rare female pioneer in electronic music. Because her career after that - and until her death - was so apparently insubstantial, Delia is fascinating for both her own work, and the "what might have been." This year's Delia Derbyshire Day saw a sold out programme at Home, with two films for which she'd created the soundtrack, and then two artistic commissions that used her work - as a female electronic avant garde pioneer - as their starting point. In addition, a live "pop up" performance in the foyer of Home saw Janet Wolstenholme perform an eclectic soundtrack of improvisational sounds inspired by Delia.

The big draw of this year's day were the two films that included Delia's music. "One of these days" a Dutch film from 1973 sees the camera following a beautiful artist through her day, responding to the world around her, with Delia's music composed alongside the film maker's vision. Its a powerful piece of verite, half drama, half faction, and fascinating to see the Amsterdam and Rotterdam of the early seventies so vividly. It was great that the director, Madelon Hooykaas, was able to come along. The second film is more of interest for its historical anomaly - Delia's piano music accompanying a 1980 film "Two Houses", a time when it had been thought she was no longer creative. The film itself - arts council funded - is a curio, a slow rumination on regeneration, through two different stories of houses being renovated. The film uses still photography and voiceovers to tell its story. Perhaps we've seen too many house makeover shows now, but despite its careful aesthetic it seems mainly of historic interest.The other side of Delia day - alongside her own work - is commissioning artists who can take inspiration from it, and this can be about the music, or about her technique and persona. MMU's Mary Stark meticulously edited film collage played to a soundtrack of Delia's sounds, and in its frenetic editing reflected Derbyshire's own process. Though finished just days before, it echoed an aesthetic that seemed of that late sixties period of experimentation - reminding me a little of a short film from fellow School of Art alumni, John Latham, that was revived a few months ago at the Holden Gallery. An opposite approach was taken with the 2nd commission, by the Architects of Rosslyn who performed a live soundtrack to a series of short films by the excellent Di Mainstone. These films, short intense performance pieces, beautifully executed were accompanied by a mix of musical instruments - acoustic and electronic.

Manchester is quickly becoming the capital of the semi-improvised performance, I think, with a fluidity between musical collaborators that encourages the unexpected. At Poets and Players at the Whitworth, three poets, Zaffar Kunial, Maurice Riordan and Caitriona O’Reilly were joined by Kirsty McGee and Chris Davies. A quickly assembled tribute to Bowie by the musicians was a lovely version of Lou Reed's "Satellite of Love", whilst McGee, whose music has been featured in a movie by Danny Boyle, also gave us her party piece of "Somewhere over the Rainbow" on a Jew's harp.
This was one of four literary events I managed in January - Melissa Lee Houghton at Manky Poets in Chorlton, Verbose last Monday in Fallowfield featuring tutors from the short story course at Edge Hill, and last night Leanne Bridgewater reading her new collection - a long fragmented piece called "Confessions of a Cyclist" - alongside James Byrne at Storm & Golden Sky in Liverpool..

I somehow also managed a couple of proper gigs - my first visit to Hebden Bridge Trades Club to see Lonelady supported by ex-Pipette, Welsh language electronicist Gwenno, both were excellent. Hebden has on the one hand made remarkable progress since the floods at Christmas, on the other, you realise that though the TV cameras have moved away, the devastation was massive, and sandbags, closed shops and cafes, and piles of discarded possessions indicate some of the awfulness people have been through. Finally, in this month of clearly not staying in much, I caught on Thursday, Martha Wainwright and Lucy Wainwright-Roche in a wonderfully intimate performance at Ruby Lounge. With a family dynasty that includes Loudon, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, Rufus, and Suzy and Terri Roche, they played songs from their recent album written by most of them, with a great self-deprecating conversation with the audience in between tracks. A truly treasurable concert.

I'm probably a little too blogged-out to write up whats coming up in February, other than this week the art season kicks off again including the 30th anniversary of Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art on Thursday, and the latest show at HOME on Friday by experimental film makers AL and AL.  

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Concrete Island by J.G. Ballard

You think you know what to expect with Ballard, but that doesn't stop each book providing its own surprises. "Concrete Island" is one of the lesser known books from his imperial period of the early seventies, coming between "Crash" and "High Rise", his dystopias for the car and tower block. In some ways "Concrete Island" is implicitly at the junction between these two books. A reckless driver finds himself crashing off the motorway and his car coming to a stop on the "concrete island" at the centre of the motorway system. Whereas "Crash" is a novel about speed and obsession, "Concrete Island" is as hermetic as the sealed island that Robert Maitland finds himself on. He was on his way back home to his wife after a week with his lover, and caught between the two women in his double life, neither will miss him immediately - assuming he is with the other. In the boot of his car is a dinner suit and six bottles of wine, and a toolkit. This castaway is singularly unsuited to the unexpected situation he finds himself in. He tries to walk up the embankment and finds himself unable to wave down the fast passing cars, and any attempt to cross the road at the end of a blind tunnel would almost certainly see him knocked down. Yet to make the absurdity of his situation more believable, Ballard has him injure his leg making every tiny task more difficult. He is a vain man, unhappy in his life, privileged but soulless, and more than anything, without the necessary mental tools to plan his escape from this situation. The book, though dark, is something of a comic turn, for his attempts at escape are risible. His writing gets washed off the wall, his attempt to cross the road sees his leg seriously damaged. He can see the London skyline and his other life, and at one point even thinks he sees his wife rushing past in her car, oblivious to the secret of his disappearance.

Maitland is a hopeless Robinson Crusoe, the book's obvious literary ancestor, and like Crusoe he finds a Friday at some point - or rather there are two others who inhabit the island. A young woman, Jane,  comes here in between prostituting herself, scuttling on and off the island through a service tunnel, buying wine and cigarettes with her money; and a large, mentally-retarded man, Proctor is also on the island, living off the scraps from an illegal tip. This world is a deliberate grotesquerie, and on encountering his fellow islanders, Maitland plays them against each other. He ends up sleeping with the woman, and treating the man as his slave, riding on his back around the island. The story sees Maitland becoming more and more dependent on the island, and the idea of returning back to his previous life becoming unbearable to him. We begin to realise that he could have always escaped but has chosen not to, the island offering him the isolation and escape from his real-life problems that he was unconsciously searching for when his car went off the motorway.

So the book is a small, perfectly formed allegory - Ballard adept as ever in taking the logic of his illogical situation as far as it will go. The external world is deliberately excluded - everything takes place in this one small isolated place, like in a Beckett play. Indeed there is something stage-y about the story, and echoes of "The Tempest" as well as "Robinson Crusoe" come to mind. Whereas earlier Ballard's can sometimes seem confused in part, by this stage in his writing, everything is carefully planted, the prose deadpan and descriptive. Maitland, Jane and Proctor are perhaps the book weak point, as the three characters seem paper-thin, and almost from a seventies sitcom. Maitland is the typical Ballard "hero", a man of a certain age and class, whilst the other characters are respectively a stereotype and a grotesque. Yet it is never the characters in Ballard that matter, more how they interact with the vividly imagined environment. Here, the thin premise is spun out expertly across the short chapters, and bit by bit we realise that Maitland has found his home here on the island.

It may not be his standout novel, the premise little more than an extended short story, but its hermetic nature is its strength, and you finish reading it, as always with Ballard, having your own perspective on the world subtley changed - becoming part of his concrete environment. 

Saturday, January 16, 2016

This Saddest of Weeks

This saddest of weeks got sadder with the news of the untimely death of the American poet C.D. Wright. She's not a household name (which poets are?) but it has been clear for some time that I'm not alone in appreciating her work. I first came across her in Poetry magazine, and for one of the few times when reading that magazine, the work leaped out of the page and made me want to read her books. There was an anthology available on import (since reissued by Bloodaxe in the UK) which I bought. The poems I'd read were by no means representative, but I wasn't disappointed, far from it - the reason being that she was one of the most diverse of American poets, moving from beautiful lyrics, to prose poetry to experimental sequences - yet none of these detours detract from her ability to communicate fully to the reader. The book she collaborated on "One Big Self", a book of poems and portraits about prisoners in the U.S., is as good an example as any; absolutely unique but open and communicative.

I never got to hear her read - she came to the UK last year, but only appeared at events down south. Despite the North's large number of poets, events, festivals and publishers, we let ourselves down by failing to attract the best of American and other writers. Her death was apparently sudden and unexpected, and I know very little about her as a person, yet I love her poetry without reservation. Contemporary American poetry can sometimes seem hard to unravel; there are so many poets, producing so much work; but I don't think things change that much - you just need to find one voice that you connect with and that's enough. I know little about American local differences (she is always referred to as an Arkansas poet, a southern poet), but that goes to show how our uniqueness is what can make our work travel globally, rather than our homegeneity. There are some good (though never typical, she was never typical) examples of her work on the Poetry Foundation website, but I often come back to the lovely "Lake Echo, Dear." Asked to read at Stirred, the Manchester women's poetry night, they ask all readers to read a poem by a female poet that you love. I read this one.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Blackstar RIP

I switched on the TV this morning half way through a tribute to David Bowie whose death was announced overnight. I had spent much of the weekend listening to "Blackstar", his stunning new album. Every Bowie album before this one had Bowie's face on the cover, in a myriad of different versions of this "chameleon" artist, but this one has only a black star. This turns out not to be an artistic sleight of hand, but a deliberate ending. What does "Blackstar" refer to? critics had asked, wondering if it was Isis or something else sinister in the world - now we know, I think, that black star is death, his death, his cancer.

When he retired abruptly from performance a dozen years ago it was never really stated what the problem was - but after a return to large arena gigs to accompany the "Heathen" and "Reality" albums, it seemed like it must be serious. When "Where are they now?", the nostalgic single, and its accompanying album "The Next Day" dropped it was a return to form, a brilliant piece of marketing, and a relief that Bowie was still there, still making important music. In some ways, the news that "Blackstar" was coming out was less climactic - as we'd already had the avant-jazz track "Sue" and its b-side "Tis Pity She's a Whore", as his career retrospective "Nothing ever changes", apppeared last year. The new album is a beautiful piece of work - seven long tracks - musically inventive, with Tony Visconti proving once again at what a genius producer he can be, when adorning rock and roll artists with strings, brass and other instruments. Bowie's voice is fragile but strong. Three days after its release its almost unbearably poignant to listen to this valedictory statement - every song speaks of what we now know but which, enigmatic to the last he kept from us. Here, the performer of "My Death" and "Rock and Roll Suicide" has gone further into that unknown future than ever before - one can only marvel at the strength for this not old man to commit to tape these songs of finality. How can someone curate their own death? Well Bowie has managed it, with a dignity and a credibility that has always been his touchstone.

There will be another chance to annotate his career - this being his 25th album there is plenty to talk about. But for now I can only talk about the personal. This death feels too young, too soon. That Bowie as a personae should have been given a longer life. The documentary from the mid-seventies when the Thin White Duke is pale as death, a living embodiment of the alien he played in the Man Who Fell to Earth, sees an artist at the top of his game, but at some kind of bottom in his life. Yet a decade later he was a crowd pleaser, a pop start again, playing to arena size crowds whilst getting some acclaim for a variety of dramatic roles - from Elephant Man on broadway, to Baal on TV, to the 2nd world war drama Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence. In reality Bowie the chameleon, the shape-changer, is overplayed. The two roles he will be most remembered for dramatically are the alien in The Man Who Fell to Earth and the goblin king in Labryinth, both fantasies which chimed with Bowie's own other worldy personality. For despite or because of all the costume changes, Bowie's "bowieness" always shone through. It had to in some ways. He'd spent the late sixties chasing down possibilities in various mod ensembles, not sure whether he was a cabaret act or a rock and roller. By the early 70s, attached to Hull's renamed Spiders from Mars, he had become the biggest star on the planet. Where Ziggy began and Bowie ended is hard to say.... the reinventions afterwards were almost always musical ones, whatever the appearance said.

I first heard "Space Oddity" when it was a belated number one in the mid seventies, but it was probably "Ashes to Ashes" which first won me over - this retread of Major Tom's life was also an iconic video latching onto the nascent new romantic movement. I had the "Very Best of Bowie", an exemplary K-Tel compilation which was an easy primer for new fans to get into this established artist. In a sense, Bowie as an icon was over at the point I discovered him, but here's the vital thing - for people of my generation, he became "ours" as much as the glam rockers ten years older than us. It was a confusing time - "Let's Dance" became his bestselling record, and the tours that followed were massive extravaganzas, but the Bowie albums I was playing time and again were his seventies classics, cheap on Nice Price editions, "Low", "Hunky Dory," "Ziggy Stardust" and "Diamond Dogs." The first time I heard the track "Ziggy Stardust" was actually Bauhaus's immaculate cover version, yet Bowie was already everywhere in my life by 1980-1. My friends didn't listen to old stuff, and here's the strange thing, though the whole world is mourning him today, I struggle to think of any friend who was a Bowie fan, at least not like I was a Bowie fan - liking the seventies stuff, but also buying "Tin Machine" on the day of release. It's easy to make a case for Bowie in the eighties and nineties as being another lost megastar - yet really there's only two albums, "Tonight" and "Never Let Me Down", both dreadfully produced and with too many cover versions that let him down. Around the same time one off film and TV songs like "Catpeople", "Absolute Beginners", "Underground", and "This is Not America" were far better than his concurrent album releases.

I finally got to see him live in the late 90s, when "Outside" had been followed by a new tour where he retooled old songs with his new band, and had toured the US with Nine Inch Nails and others. At the Nynex arena as it was called then, I had a close up view of my hero at last through a stunning set of old and new. It hardly matters that his post Scary Monsters work would always be in the shadow of what had come before - you can make a good case for nineties songs such as "Thursday's Child" and "The Heart's Filthy Lesson", as well as early 2000's album "Heathen" - the reality is that by this time the many ages of Bowie were unforgettable, so that playing "Hunky Dory" or "Station to Station" nearly thirty years after they were produced didn't seem silly - his music, out of time, has always sounded contemporary. You could argue that the records that might have dated a bit - "Aladdin Sane" or "Let's Dance" or "Black Tie, White Noise" were too close to the sounds of the day, whilst things like "Diamond Dogs" sit outside of time and fashion.

I've listened to these albums and more - swapping my favourites as the years go by - picking up golden era reissues such as live album "Santa Monica '72" or "Bowie at the Beeb" with more glee than "Earthling" or "...Hours." Since his golden era you can probably say Bowie's albums function in pairs - "Tonight" & "Never Let Me Down", "Tin  Machine I & II", "Outside" and "Hours", "Heathen" and "Reality".... and finally "The Next Day" and "Blackstar." For the casual listener their have been various greatest hits, singles collections etc. as well as reissues, boxsets etc. All the usual paraphernalia of vintage rock artists.

Yet now we see Bowie's career as a whole it seems more stunning than ever - a remarkable creative life lived and performed across six decades. Like many artists of his generation there's much more to him than the perceived popular image. If the Beatles had their love of Monty Python, one of Bowie's last TV appearances was on Ricky Gervais's "Extras", playing himself; he might have loved William Burroughs' novels but he also loved Viz comic. Oddly enough the most surprising persona was Bowie as family man, married to model Imam, with a young daugher - along with his son, the film director Duncan Jones - these are the ones who will be truly feeling the loss today and in the months ahead. His late 90s album "...Hours" is musically conventional but a song like "Thursday's Child" is amongst his most melodic and personal. The Bowie lyrics are generally enigmatic - the "space" theme continuing through much of his career. Yet even when he embraces alienation - on "Station to Station" or "Low" - its far from being a desperate state. There's always something too obviously knowing about Bowie's musical intelligence - the music as persona. It's what makes stage-y songs like "Five Years" brim with emotion or why a concept album like "Diamond Dogs" is not ridiculous in its dystopian trope. The songs tell their own story - or if they only tell half a story, then so what? He could be as simple and straightforward as "Fashion" or as oblique as "Breaking Glass."

For me, Bowie has always been there, and offered a way to live - a way to think. That it was never dogmatic (in the way that maybe Springsteen or U2 is), is half the joy of being a fan. Lots of people on the internet have been saying Bowie made it "ok" to be "other" - yet I'm not sure I agree with this entirely. The seventies Bowie, with his androgyny and his shocking identity changes is a different beast than the one I grew up with - urbane rather than mysterious. I've never seen people dressed like Bowie - he was too unique. I guess what I'm saying is that the hall of mirrors of Bowie's career enables us all to find a suitable place in relation to him.

So, today, tomorrow, the next year, he is gone and we have the music and all the other stuff to take an interest in. It seems hardly believable that this greatest of all British artists is no longer with us. I'm still processing the sadness, but also the personal investment I've made in "loving the alien" that is David Bowie since  was 12 or 13 years old. It may well be the best investment I ever made.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

My Life as a Fake by Peter Carey

Australia is a vast country, with a relatively short written history, and Peter Carey, as its most successful novelist has chronicled considerable parts of it. It's perhaps not surprising that he'd come along eventually to the Ern Malley incident. A country with a certain cultural cringe, because of its colonial roots, its geographical location and the down-to-earth nature of its population, it was ripe for the hoax perpetuated in 1944, whereby a "fake" poet Ern Malley was created, and his work sent to the Modernist journal "Angry Penguins", which, having thought it had found a hitherto unknown modernist genius, published them - only for the subterfuge to be revealed shortly afterwards. In the conservative Australia of the forties, these poems were then prosecuted for obscenity.

Carey uses the bare bones of this story - the fake poet, the publication and exposé, and the obscenity prosecution - to craft a shaggy dog story whereby his version of Malley, Bob McCorkle, appears at the trial of the editor, David Weiss, as if magicked from thin air. Yet, such impossibilities aren't handed to us straight but through a series of filters. A young lesbian editor goes to Kuala Lumpur on a whim, accompanying the famous, but mediocre poet John Slater. Sarah Wode-Douglass is our narrator, and she is looking back on this impulsive visit that changed her life. From a high caste British literary family, she is resentful of Slater as being the man she holds responsible for her mother's suicide, one of many misunderstandings throughout this baroquely layered novel. Arriving in Malaysia, she finds herself intrigued on encountering an ill-dressed white man, Christopher Chubb, in a bicicle shop. In many ways, the novel is primarily Chubb's story, for he was the one who conjured McCorkle into existence and wrote the initial poems.

It was odd starting reading this after Ian McEwan's "Sweet Tooth" a couple of weeks ago, as certain echoes of that book's literary milieu were to be found early in the novel. Yet despite the hoax having taken place thirty years prior to the action (the telling of it is two decades further on), it is not Australia where the majority of the story is set but Malaysia. A diligent editor, Sarah, is shown a slither of writing by Chubb, that she immediately recognises as the masterpiece that editors are endlessly searching for. Though he makes too little of it, Carey is very good on identifying that desire of editors to somehow discover a genius from the wrong side of the tracks, outside of literary scenes and fashion - the one great poem that makes the years of publishing average, competent work all worth while.

Yet we take an age to get to Chubb's story - for Chubb's story it is. He holds back from Sarah, and Slater keeps telling her to have nothing to do with him. (The truth is, if the slippery Slater had been communicative with his travelling partner from the start, there wouldn't be much novel left.) So the story is one of those where an unreliable narrator (Chubb) weaves a story that could be truth, could be lies, but does so in such a convoluted way that the reader, rather than be charmed by his circumlocutions gets frustrated. There's always been more 18th century than modernism in Carey's work, and this has something of the Tristram Shandy about it. Yet it seems somewhat pointless, for whereas Sterne was taking pleasure in the withholding - avoiding telling the story - Carey, through Chubb, is determined to get the story out, albeit at length, and somewhat tediously. At some point in the novel, the reader realises we are stuck with Chubb's unreliable retellings - rather than the story itself - and it becomes quite a chore to read.

Carey has always been a great one for grotesques (the Dickensian side of his work, evidenced particularly in "Jack Maggs"), but we have Chubb and McCorkle to deal with here. They are, we are partly to believe, the same person - after all Chubb wrote McCorkle into existence, but as if bored by this possiblity, McCorkle gets to take on more and more a life of his own - and in Chubb's telling, takes over his life, including stealing his daughter, whose presence in Kuala Lumpur explains his still being there. This magic realism probably requires the more mystical eastern setting, but in some ways the two elements of the book - that very Australian story of Ern Malley on the one hand, and the mysterious Malaysian story on the other - gel very badly. It feels like a mis-selling of the book, for though he uses the Ern Malley affair in detail (including the Malley poems and associated real life examples), that seems just a hook on which to write a story of eastern intrigue. Even if we accept that Chubb and McCorkle are probably different - the latter a phantasm created out of thin air - the story he tells, a certain picaresque "down and out in Kuala Lumpur" feels rich in colour but poor in substance. Even as Chubb regales his story, he includes other people's stories, little anecdotes about Malaysia's chequered history; mostly gristly in nature. The conceit joining the Malley story with the Malay one being that there is a book of poetry that McCorkle wrote here which is a masterpiece, and encompasses the whole history and geography of the country. What editor can resist? Of course, Sarah gets pulled along; but this reader at least had long ago lost patience.

Part of the novel's problem is this layering of stories - long, and long winded, they don't have the necessary energy and brio, let alone necessary veracity, to pull the reader along; moreover this foregrounding of a retold past doesn't work well as each time we are brought back to the present - like realising in "Wuthering Heights" that we are actually back in the parlour listening to Nelly Dean - it feels livelier than the story being told. Carey doesn't help us out much either - no speech marks or other delineating punctuation to remind you which "I" is speaking, and yet its all a bit with one breathless voice. The women in the novel are, without exception, treated awfully - from poor Sarah strung along by Slater's indifference, to the women keeping alive McCorkle's legacy without knowing exactly what it is. The story, it seems, is about these dreadfully self important poets and their egos and insecurities and unwillingness to let go.

You're never exactly bored reading Carey, of course, there's a breathlessness to his prose, and like that other writer who set books in Malaysia, Anthony Burgess he revels, a little too much I think, in exotic places and the language to describe it. But if its not exactly boring, it is frequently dull, a worse crime perhaps - and the reader is sometimes no different than poor Sarah sat in the over-hot hotel desperately hoping these old men will get to the point and tell her what she needs to know.

It's a minor work, perhaps, from a major writer, who I've frequently enjoyed, but not one of his best, by a long way.

Tuesday, January 05, 2016

In 2016

I'm not a great one for New Year's Resolutions, as I guess the things that I wanted to do, I will try and get on with anyway, however long they take - yet I have to think of 2016 as a bit of a new start as, along with rather too many other people I know, 2015 seemed a bit of a slog. Having lived through a Tory government for the much of my early and adult life, I'd hoped I wouldn't have to go through it again but here we are....and just as Thatcher and Major never did a single thing to help my life, I'm not expecting much more from the P.R. man that is David Cameron.

Anyway, politics aside, there's always football to look forward to...unfortunately the last time my team Aston Villa were this bad, Margaret Thatcher was in power. Perhaps I will have to look elsewhere for solace.

This blog is about creative things, and for all 2015's faults, I was pleased to attend so many artistic, cultural and literary events locally. I'm not sure if anything stood out particularly, but having two-three things to go to each week has been a great way to keep chipper when other things haven't been going so great. I didn't read or watch anything like as many things as I'd have liked and in 2016, if I'm anything I should probably try and be a bit more discerning.

There's always a strange dichotomy in a creative person's life between the outward manifestation of your work and what is actually going on. After a flurry of stories and poems published early in the year I seemed not to get much work out there after the spring. Yet, this hides away the actual creative work I did during the year. I've been working on a novel for two years, and though finding time for it intermittently - and it being some way off being complete - 2015 was the year it got itself a title, a shape and some bulk. From being a piece of writing to a novel-in-progress. After two years of writing inevitably I'd like to get it finished as soon as possible, but these things do take time.

The idea of the time that things take was most obvious in a story I wrote over the summer from an idea I'd been toying with for something like eight years! I'd even started it a couple of times but found it hard to get into the story until this summer when I approached it from a different angle. In fact, most of the writing I did this year came at things from a different angle, and was the better for it. I think I'd lost a bit of faith in the "writing" of stories, becoming more enamoured of the technical exercise - but this was the year I started to loosen up a bit. I think having concentrated on poetry the last few years, the different approaches to each work mean there are different muscles need oiling. I know a lot of poets do move on to write short fiction or flash fiction (and vice versa) but I find creative prose and creative poetry different beasts in many ways.

As for poetry I'd almost say I'd not written much, and my notebooks - full to brimming the last few years - seemed much emptier than usual, at least until the last month or so when I wrote a long sequence which I hope to get published some time in 2016.

I've not released any new music during 2015 - despite completing the best part of an album by the spring - and a priority will be to finish that album, albeit a year late.

So in 2016 I hope to see the impact of this "quiet year" somehow, perhaps a few of these things will find a home, also, I hope that this new focus on prose will continue to develop as its definitely a muscle that needs to be used, whereas poetry is always there in the background if I need it. The world around us is not going to get any easier - with the refugee crisis continuing, as well as the rhetoric (and reality) of austerity. The irony of being on the left is that you see the Tory party as never building anything, never creating anything; destroying rather than empowering - yet one can't rejoice in their destruction being what will ultimately lead to a different government, as the damage done is alway so great. The latest example will be the EU referendum. I cannot seriously believe that "Brexit" will happen despite a hostile press and right wing politicians crying out for it. The British are notoriously cautious when it comes to constitutional change; but also the absurdity of this offshore island deliberately isolating itself from the continent across the way will surely become more apparent. As a Europhile I feel I know and understand its faults, but can't see how an unprecedented exit from Europe can in any way help me or the country - for once I think the interests of both are aligned on staying in. The best we can hope for of course is that this unecessary distraction will split the Tory party, without destroying the country in the process.

It is against this hostile backdrop that creativity, music, art, literature becomes more important than ever - and it does seem that our insatiable need to be entertained has moved beyond hackneyed soap operas and reality TV shows. If the American "boxset" has been the art form of the 21st century its helped the BBC and European broadcasters begin to up their game. If only cinema would get over its comic book fetish and do the same. I do worry a little for fiction, as ever; I don't think the "resurgence" in short fiction indicates any kind of golden age - if anything there seems less tolerance for experiment and innovation, and too much concentration on a certain kind of craft. All art needs a bit of an edge, after all. The "world" fiction we have now seems to sometimes be a dilution - everyone writing in English, becoming a kind of Globish. I'd much prefer the idiosyncracies of Bellow's Chicago for instance. Small presses and the like are the "go to" places for translated fiction as well as poetry, short stories and new writing to an extent that seems more valid than ever.

What I think we do see sometimes is that the simple expediency of the mega-product (whether J.K. Rowling's world, "Game of Thrones" or "The Force Awakens") means that there becomes a thirst - small at first, but likely to grow - for backstreet vendors with grubbier tablecloths and less predictable menus. From out of this, as ever, is where inevitably something new will come which will be big enough to challenge the mainstream. (Remember George Lucas began with cult movie THX 1138!) At the moment there seems to have been a little bit of a severing between the main street and the back streets, like the latter is no more than a shanty town, and gentrification shunts the latter out in art as it does in urban locations; I feel this can't last. A lot of this will come down to the audience - and surely a young, multi-cultural audience will eventually tire of the mainstream's clear lines.

So in 2016 I will do more of the same, but with an eye above the waterline, looking to surface. I know from my friends and acquaintances in the arts, music and literature scenes in Manchester, that I'm not swimming alone, but part of a diverse, abundant shoal. Let us swim upstream together.

Friday, January 01, 2016

Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan

"Sweet Tooth", Ian McEwan's 2012 novel offers quite a few of this writer's familiar signature marks - its suitably tricksy, and revisits the not unfamiliar territory of the British secret service. It's also his most entertaining novel since "Atonement", with which it shares a female narrator who is conversant in secrets. McEwan has always written intriguing female characters, but by giving us Serena Frome's narrative in the first person, we are drawn deep into her story from the off - even though, in another familiar move, she is telling the story retrospectively from the vantage point of several decades since the story took place.

Frome, daughter of a bishop, (again, McEwan's characters are frequently this distinguished) has gone through an ill-advised mathematics degree at Cambridge(she'd have been better studying literature, but read novels in her spare time), to landing a job at MI5 following an affair with an academic Tony Canning, who still has connections with the service. When he leaves her suddenly, she is left embittered, but has been successful in her application. The MI5 she joins in the early seventies still sees women as part of the typing pool (though a thinly disguised Stella Rimington makes a cameo appearance, indicating how things are changing). The service is still obsessed with cold war machinations even as the new threat of the Provisional IRA changes the rules of the game around them. McEwan deals deftly with the geopolitical world of London in the early seventies, but the book is not really about this. For Frome has been asked to be part of a cultural sting, where MI5 will finance a young writer as a way of countering Soviet propaganda, in an operation called "Sweet Tooth". The young writer, Tom Haley is struggling at one of the new universities, with a few well received short stories in small magazines, but he is finding it difficult to write a longer work.

Haley, of course, is a surrogate for McEwan himself, and the novel is brilliantly evocative of the early seventies in London, with walk on parts for Ian Hamilton and Martin Amis, as well as regular sections discussing literary themes of the day. (On meeting Tom Maschler, the publisher, Haley praises "Portnoy's Complaint" though not having read it.) After the first section of the novel, a rich autobiography of Frome, as she moves from Cambridge to Whitehall, the "sting" where she approaches Haley kicks off the main plot, with the beautiful Frome falling for Haley - having first read and admired his fiction. In a typically metafictional way, we get paraphrases of some of Haley's stories, dark, unsettling fictions not so unlike McEwan's own. The joy in this is that we're not expected to take any of this too seriously - it may well be the most entertaining novel he's written, particularly if you are willing to wallow in the indulgence of his literary references. There's a lot of similarities to Muriel Spark's equally tricksy "Loitering with Intent" - another novel not afraid to play around with the memories of an earlier literary millieu to comic effect.

Serena and Tom's love affair is in itself a cloak and dagger affair, revelling in that sense of half truths and secrets that are both the writer and the spy's trade - towards the unexpected reveal at the novel's finale, we'll find how closely the two mirror each other - though it mostly involves prolonged time in bed, following from visits to nice restaurants in London and Brighton as Tom spends the stipend he has received as a beneficiary of "Sweet Tooth." He finally starts work on a novella, a bleak dystopian drama, Beckettian in its worldview, which appals both Serena and her handlers, but nonetheless wins the "Jane Austen Prize". Such tissues of lies have to unravel, especially in a McEwan novel, and he's at his ingenious best as he sets up his unlikely scenario only to then bring it crashing down. If there's a fault, its in the sense that for once there's very little at stake, other than a broken heart or two or a compromised literary career. The spies are seen as playing parlous games - serious, yes, but hardly relevant to the world that's going on around them. At the three day week breaks and Harold Wilson replaces Ted Heath again, the backdrop doesn't become anymore important. Serena prefers romances, whilst Haley likes the metafictional, and it could be said, as characters in their own novel, that McEwan gives them both what they want. Tricksy, as I said, but elegantly done.

I found "Saturday" and "On Chesil Beach" unsatisfying works in many ways, the first because of its ludicrous premise, the second because of the coldness of its central story, so this is the first book of his since "Atonement" that I've really enjoyed. Its as light a work as "Amsterdam" and as playful as his mock cold war thriller "The Innocent" but in telling his version of the early 1970s from this distance its a welcoming and entertaining novel. Serena makes a good unreliable narrator, her unsuitability for her job in MI5 providing much of the comedy, even as she exposes the horrible sense of entitlement of the sad men who are promoted over her. She goes to see pub rock bands with her working class colleague, and is disapproving of her more hippy-ish sister. There's plenty of nice little jokes mocking the pretensions of the time - and in Haley's stories, McEwan gets a chance to revisit some of his own dark little tales, with some relish it must be said. What plot there is gets neatly wrapped up, and there's more than a few Macguffin's along the way, In the end, its perhaps an indulgent little novel, but one in which McEwan gets away with writing about writing and recalling his own early career from the early seventies, which makes it something of a joy to read.