Friday, December 29, 2017

A Working Class Writer is Something to Be

In the twenty or so years that I’ve been trying seriously to get published I’ve seen schemes for writers aimed at a range of different constituencies: women, BAME, LGBT, Scottish, Irish, Welsh, Northern, under-40s, over-40s… yet the reality of British fiction has always been how class-obsessed it is. If American society’s fault line is race, in Britain – and particularly now in post-Brexit Britain – its class. The achilles heel of British writing, fiction and poetry, has always been class; both in the subjects and characters that are written about and the industry itself – it’s publishers, agents and writers.

Somewhere I’ve a rejection letter or a reader’s note, from when I sent off my novel “Lineage” – which was shortlisted for the Lichfield Prize in 1995, a prize for unpublished fiction – to a London based agency. It basically says, “why should be interested in these characters?” My novel was set in the Midlands where I grew up, in the same working-cum-lower-middle-class milieu that I had grown up in. This was not the working class of Lowry’s smoke-belching factories or of Lawrence’s mining communities (the mine had been closed twenty years before I was born) or the inner city street novelist, but bland, suburban England, run down towns, where the only jobs after 1979 would be in retail and logistics, and where everyone’s dad that I knew worked in a small factory or warehouse, and everyone’s mum worked in the NHS or as a school cleaner or dinner lady. Normal, every day England, comprehensive schools, and indoor markets; WMCs and caravan holidays. Of the 120 kids on my year less than 20 went onto 6th form, and only a handful (including myself) went directly to University. 

There’s nothing to glory in this life – it’s recognisable to many of my friends, and only the location will be different. I find myself envious of those who lived nearer to towns (Birmingham was a good twenty miles away), or had a university nearby, or who had the option of a Grammar or other “special” school rather than the bog standard comp, or who lived in a seaside resort, or in the real countryside. Yet in many ways, “smalltown England”, to refer to the New Model Army song, was where I grew up, and where the locus of my writing comes from – however many years of urban and urbane life I’ve had since. What is worse now than then, in these places, is not so much the poverty of everyday life – more the poverty of ambition. It manifested itself in Brexit - and where I grew up is the heartland of Brexit England. A visit to the wonderful New Art Gallery in Walsall a few months ago reminded me of the limits of cultural regeneration - inside a thriving community glad for the opportunity - but outside, nothing had changed, if anything had gotten worse as recession and austerity had hit the town hard. 

English fiction rarely writes about such places – or rather rarely publishes them. LGBT writers like Alan Hollinghurst or Sara Walters set their novels in the upper classes or in a colourful urban past; BAME writers like Salman Rushdie are able to give us a global canvas; the traditionally middle class male writer gives us characters who are Professors or Lawyers or Colonels or Fashion Designers or Composers, not toolmakers, or factory workers, or clerks.

But of course, the idea that one should just write “what we know” when “what we know” is of so little interest to the London-based publishing trade is also an affront. The provincial writer – or at least this one – is fascinated by power structures, by the rich and successful, and by the hustle of the city. Yet even in my London-based novel “High Wire”, which I completed nearly twenty years ago, the urbane metropolitan scene of art openings, dot com companies, political crookedness, and the like, is interrupted at some point as my protagonist returns to the Midlands to see his dying grandfather in his nursing home. Moving forward to the present, and the last few stories I’ve had published have been about characters far removed from myself – yet, I feel there’s always a groundedness to what I want to write, not too far from the surface.

It’s great to hear that there's a new crowd-sourced initiative has been started by Kit de Waal, a book of new writing that looks to find new voices from working class communities – and will pair newer writers with writers who have come from those backgrounds. You can fund it here - though whether this is the right model for this sort of anthology we'll find out I guess  - surely it would have been good for one of those class-bound London publishing houses to commission such an initiative? Perhaps this became the only route. There are writers I know, such as Paul McVeigh and Lisa Blower, involved with it, and it will surely help shift the dial a little. 

Anyway, its got some way to go until it gets funding - but lets hope it has a galvanising effect on an industry that has been for far too long ambivalent about how many people in this country live. 

Let's also hope - since being "working class" isn't a static state, that it doesn't just become a platform for gritty urban voices, but can also reflect the sort of ordinary background that I came from (the 1930s semi I grew up in is on the left hand side of picture at the start of this article) and that those new voices don't have to just write autobiography - the BBC and the Northern writing agency seem particularly prone to want "northern" writers to write about "northern" subjects - but can write experimental fiction, genre fiction, literary fiction whatever they like. 

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

1974 by David Peace

Reading David Peace's debut novel "1974" in 2017 - after "The Damned United" book and film, after the "Red Riding Quartet" that this was the first part of was completed and filmed, after "GB1984", his novel about the Miner's strike - is interesting, because you think on the one hand that you know what to expect - Yorkshire noir, clipped verb-less sentences reminiscent of James Ellroy - but on the other hand, the novel has to be considered on its own merits.

Our narrator, Edward Dunford, is a crime reporter on the Yorkshire Post, recently returned to his hometown after a spell in London. Such airs and graces as the capital have given him are hard to shake off amongst the hard drinking journalists and policemen who are now his regular companions. Yet, he is in a hurry to get somewhere. His first front page byline has come too late - his father has just passed away - and besides the Post's main crime correspondent always seems to be given the bigger stories. Yet, there's a big story that has just landed, the only problem is he's only just coming to terms with his father's death. The abduction of a young girl brings a big story his way. At first there's the usual pleas from parents, but the cynical hacks and coppers think - know - she must be dead. When she is found, the brutality of the killing shocks them all. Some of this makes the front pages - but so much is kept away - held back and shared amongst the professionals. A good relationship between the local paper and the local cop shop is critical to both professions yet the Yorkshire police are a law unto themselves in 1974.  Like so many city forces in the early seventies getting a confession, by whatever means, and by whomsoever, is their main stock in trade. This is the Christmas of the IRA's Harrods bombing. The police hate the Irish, they hate the gypsies who are camped on the edge of Leeds and in a surreal piece of horror early in the novel Dunford is invited along to see the clearance of the camp - gypsies being beaten up, tents and caravans set alight. None of this makes the newspapers.

Trying to get his head in front of the existing Post crime correspondent, Dunford does background checks - links back the murder to other child abductions - goes to see those parents, to get some background. When the body is found, and a local simpleton confesses to the murder, the big story has gone - or so it seems. This is all in the week's leading up to Christmas, and the dark, cold weather is a strong feature of the novel. Peace shows early on how he can create an atmosphere that is more than just dropping period song titles. The choppy Ellroy-esque prose is perfect for this. After all, Ellroy's L.A. Noir books set in the febrile Hollywood fifties, do exactly the same thing. By transposing it to a gritty, grimy Yorkshire Peace shows a keen eye for a period of history that - in 1999 - was just receding into myth.

The plot itself is complex and frenetic, with a massive cast of characters - with everything being connected in a labrynthine way - so that local politicians and property developers will do anything to get approval for property deals - not caring who stands in their way - and in this moral cesspool, their own predilictions - child pornography, rent boys, violence - become as connected as everything else. Everyone has a secret. For Dunford, the chase of the story soon becomes personal - but the frenetic pace makes you wonder how exactly? He ends up fighting his own newspaper editors who only want so much scandal - not so much that it will break the bonds they have with the local cops and poltiicians.

Dunford is no angel - even as he keeps getting warned off and beaten up - he's quite happy to use the dubious methods of his profession to get access to witnesses, to get an angle. When he gets sexually involved with the mother of one of the missing children, its like he crosses a line - even though hes been, up to that point, seeing a girl on the paper. Untethered since his father's death he quickly loses sense of perspective as things spiral out of control. Its a breathless novel - and one horror and atrocity is soon replaced with another - as the moral turpitude seems to seep into everything.

The historical back story is given some space - reflecting on a real child murderer - the Cannock Chase murderer  - from a few years before, and hinting at the political machinations of this year with its two general elections and its strikes. But Peace is not fully committed to that just yet - in this book it's a larger than life, if somewhat generic crime story that is being spun out. In some ways this would have been a familiar book landing in 1999 - there had been Jake Arnott's "The Long Firm" series for a start, and British crime writing had recently got more brutal and grisly, having to compete with their American counterparts. Yet I also think the sheer nastiness of the book would have seemed less shocking then. The scene where Dunford has violent sex with his girlfriend seems over the top and visceral even as it contains some of the novel's most lurid writing. Peace doesn't skimp on describing the violence but he's also observant and sometimes lyrical

With its breakneck speed, period setting, and mix of the real with the fictional,"1974" seems an important debut. I know from the TV series that the Yorkshire Ripper becomes a subject of later volumes in the quartet. Perhaps the only telling omission, is that in this violent paedophiliac ring that he describes, it is politicians, policemen and property developers who are keeping the secrets - not the larger-than-life TV personalities of Operation Yewtree, which would soon become real-world news following the death of Saville. 

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Cat Person and Reality Fiction

I finally got around to reading "Cat Person" ,  the Kristen Roupenian story thats gone viral after appearing in the "New Yorker".  It's a good story. Suggest you read it first, before reading this.

Ok, where were we. The protagonist of the story is a student, 20 years old (this is an important plot point), who works at a concession stand at a cinema. A guy comes in - in his thirties - but we only get that later - and buys some liquorice.  She makes a witty comment. The story is self-aware. "Flirting with her customers was a habit she'd picked up back when she worked as a barista, and it helped with tips. She didn't earn tips at the movie theatre, but the job was boring otherwise, and she think that Robert was cute."  It's not first person, but it may as well be. The reader is told she is flirting though - the line wasnt that funny so it needed telling - and importantly "Robert was cute." This is almost old fashioned - pre-Tinder dating if you like. It's also contentious - of course the pretty young girl makes nice with the customers - but isn't it the older man's arrogance and entitlement that expects a nice remark to move on to something else? Robert makes the next move and gets her number - but the relationship is then a text one. (I get the feeling its an old story - or maybe the social media interactions of today wouldn't be so easy to create a tension about.) One thing leads to another, but of course the story has a twist or two - he's a bad kisser; and not put off by that; she finds out he's bad in bed as well - at the time they're having sex and she really doesn't want to do this anymore. He, on the other hand is not quite the slightly awkward older man (in his thirties, so not that old) he starts out as, but keeps going on about her breasts. Its part funny, part cringeworthy, but it reads like a missive from the dating frontline.

This, I think, is why its been so popular (Roupenian has now just inked a massive deal - good luck on her, its a rare talent to communicate to a mass audience via a short story.) Yet its also a very New Yorker story. It's not hard to think of Margot as being one of Lorrie Moore's small town heroine's from the eighties, lonely in a strange town. The relationship story is a commonplace - but ever more so with more celebrity writers. The breezy style is part Helen Fielding, part Candace Bushell. I've read similar in Molly Ringwald's collection, or with a weirder slant in May-Lan Tan's "Things to Make or Break." Those stories though, felt more fictional than this one. In some way's this story is being read as if it is non-fiction. This is perhaps David Shields' view in "Reality Hunger" - that fiction has had its day - breaking through.

Like I said, I liked the story. I'm impressed it got picked out for the New Yorker, though its not exactly an outlier for them, and presume that the writer had already some track record, or backing. It almost reads like its precision-tuned for the age, but like I said its kind of old fashioned as well. To British ears, Margot's naivety is what comes to mind. She doesn't seem to have friends - at least not whilst she's dating Robert - later, her friends steer her away from him, when he appears in the student bar. She imagines telling a future boyfriend about this "urgh" experience. Robert has two cats - but we don't see them on the one time she visits his place. That sexual experience comes out of them being turned away from a bar because she hasn't got an ID on her. One forgets the American weirdness around alcohol. (Don't think anyone at my university would have had sex,if there was no alcohol before 21.)

I've always felt the best stories have the ring of truth but may not be true. I'm sure this is more than just a diary item memorialised, but there is an bit of prurience about the story's popularity. It's been used as if - in the days of Harvey Weinstein et al - this, which is after all a story about consensual, but unsatisfactory sex, which the girl then chooses to use as an end to their relationship. I was reminded of a couple of stories I wrote a few years ago which were similar missives from the dating frontline. Maybe I should send them off again....

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Literary decline

Its rare for Arts Council announcements to get everyone in a lather, but last week's report that they fewer writers have enough to live on, and that the decline in sales of literary fiction is to blame, seems to have caused a bit of a fuss. "Literary fiction in crisis as sales drop dramatically" is reported in the Guardian.  ACE's literature director is Sarah Crown, ex-of the Guardian, and so it seems like there's been a bit of a step change in the way that ACE looks at literature. It's always been the Cinderella of funded arts, as their was an understanding that the "market" looked after itself and that funded intervention went for poetry, or fiction in translation.

With over 1000 comments and 5000 shares, the article has clearly struck a chord - but I'm guessing, like when someone comments about faults in a story, its easy to see what's wrong, more difficult to see what needs fixing.

I've always found it annoying that here, in "the land of Dickens and Shakespeare", our arts funding goes so proportionately to other art forms that we act as mere receiving houses for. I've nothing against opera or the classical repertoire or dance, and recognise the high costs of staging such things; but amongst the small pot of money that subsidises the arts literature has always got crumbs off the table. In twenty years of trying seriously to be a writer, my public subsidy is probably in the hundreds of pounds, and then more accidental then anything.

But I'm not really that bothered about public subsidy for literature per se - for that needs to come out of some kind of coherent approach. Its forgotten now, but when Tony Blair established Nesta, as the National Endowment for Science Technology and the Arts it gave a yearly stipend to "fellows" - I think it was £25,000 a year for three years. It was a great ideal but of course those who received it, in the arts at least, were consummate insiders, primarily.

Poetry, always a marginal commodity, has thrived over the last few years as a kind of participatory art - fuelled by individual passions, small presses (some with subsidy), live readings, and a generational shift that has opened up the artform considerably. It ranges from the performance poets like George the Poet and Kate Tempest, to the mainstream literary festival favourites like Carol Ann Duffy and Simon Armitage, to a more interesting experimental side - now coming to the fore with editor-poets like Emily Berry. Something has gone right here - and oddly enough, I don't think its the "dumbed down" idea of themed poetry days, or Instagram poetry; but a slow inexorable building of a networked culture of individuals putting on their nights and running their own magazines. Even if the BBC and the main newspapers are still reluctant to feature anything that's not published by Cape or Picador, poetry seems in reasonably good health. (The sales of individual poetry volumes might be another issue entirely.)

What is "literary fiction?" I guess it has become a "genre" in its own right - but really it should just be referred to as "fiction". For as soon as you tie it down - individual novels, rather than series, (well what about the Melrose novels?); non-genre (well what about Hilary Mantel's historical fiction) the definition fails.  Yet, I actually guess we know what we mean - literature that might last, that has some kind of serious intent, and is not purely market driven.

When I started writing I'd have probably said the writers I most wanted to emulate were writers who were not really classed as either literary or not - but were certainly popular, and, importantly, good. Stephen King, Iain Banks, Douglas Adams. As I got a bit older I began to appreciate prose style as a prerequisite so Martin Amis, Angela Carter, Ian McEwan, Brett Easton Ellis, Jay McInerney, Douglas Copland and others became favourites. It's odd that some - all? - of these wouldn't necessarily have been classed as "literary fiction" in the past - they were all tyros of one form or another. Yet by the late 1990s, unashamedly commercial writers like Alex Garland, Nick Hornby and Helen Fielding, as well as children's writers like J.K.Rowling and Philip Pulman were repeatedly being referred to as "literary". That stretching of definition means that quite mainstream bestsellers are routinely touted as literary fiction.

The reality is that we are talking about two different things here. There's a desire for "literary fiction" to hold its own in the market place, but by including bestselling authors in the list, is it the equivalent of including Rupi Kaur, Pam Ayres and Spike Milligan in the poetry figures?

I'm thinking there are three sides to this - readership; publishing; and critical culture.

I have no doubt that appetite for literary fiction has gone down. But it's not so simple to say why that is. I suspect that the percentage of people buying books is not that different, but that the numbers of books we have time to read is coming down. I'm astonished by the diversity of things I find in my local charity shops - often unread. People are buying, but not reading. Over time, that "unnecessary" or additional purchase probably gets replaced. Books take space (despite the Kindles etc.) and the prime new audiences - college educated graduates, cultural engaged non-graduates - are, I suspect, space as well as time short. Looking for houses last year, hardly any new places looked as if "books furnish a room". The "habit" of book buying, reading, and keeping is one that can be hit at both ends - the recession no doubt reduced disposable incomes, and new audiences are increasingly not finding the habit. Our utilitarian schools and university system might be partly to blame. I work with a large number of bright, intelligent, articulate people in their twenties, thirties and forties, but their cultural consumption is largely blockbuster films and Netflix. A book becomes well known when it becomes a film - yet even though those book-to-film adaptions seem to get faster, I rarely hear a cultural conversation about it (whereas there would be for "Black Mirror" or "The Wire.")  Yet, it seems to me that in the UK we have a growing population. My generation are more literary than my parents thats for sure if only because more of us stayed on at school, or through the cultural exchanges between literature and pop music of the sixties, seventies and eighties. Are there books out there for us? You'd be hard pressed to find books aimed at male fifty somethings outside of non-fiction and old favourites, for instance. With a population of closing in on seventy million, there should be an ample appetite for good books - but here, the issue that Kit de Waal has recently raised about diverse voices comes into play - who are the poets and storytellers chronicling Brexit Britain?

But its a strange market that complains because people are no longer buying its product without looking closely at itself. One of the phenomenon of the last few years is that the publishers with money have given up on long term development, relying on an ever growing number of "indies" to take on the A&R role. The music industry should offer a cautionary tale here. In the early 90s the success of bands like the Smiths and New Order had made record labels more open to new talent. They started up "fake indie" labels (publishing is doing the same: Fiona Mozley's Booker shortlisted novel was a JM Original, part of the multinational Hachette group) like Blanco y Negro. Yet so many "indie" bands were signed and then given big budgets, or different producers, and few of them made back their investment, as the "product" had been changed to such an extent that its original audience drifted away, and the new "pop" audiences weren't convinced.  In publishing, there was a bit of a new writer goldrush in the nineties, where it seemed books were as likely to be launched in night clubs as in bookshops and I think one shop even had a shelf of titles endorsed by Irvine Welsh or Nick Hornby. The "chemical generation" writers mostly disappeared as quick as they appeared - either because they weren't very good, or were moonlighting from journalism or film or TV. Any survey of 21st century British fiction would need at least a chapter on the phenomenon that is Hilary Mantel's "Wolf Hall" and "Bring up the Bodies" - yet the former was 10 novels into a career that had begun a quarter century before. The "midlist" from which such writers could hope to appear sometimes seems to have disappeared. My own surprise at the publishing industry is that you're really only as good as your current thing, and that often might not fit the zeitgeist. That lack of career development is even more damaging in literature than it is in music. Drop Blur after their difficult second album and you don't get "Park  Life", drop that awkward short story writer George Saunders and you lose the rights to "Lincoln in the Bardo."

Of course the latter example shows that talent is often supported. I'm sure that writers like Gwendoline Riley, Jon McGregor, Sarah Hall and A.L. Kennedy aren't big sellers, or best sellers, but I suspect any list would want writers of that calibre on them. Yet, its a hard call. If Riley's latest hadn't made prize shortlists, or McGregor's debut hadn't been so successful...would they have had the opportunity? It's a myth that writers will write regardless - my own example is a good one, imperfect as it is - I wrote half a dozen novels between 1995 and 2002, and then none - the difficulty of fitting such a large complex piece of work into a working life was too self evident. The novel I'm finishing at the moment was started in 2015 I think; I've a decade of lost novels (not lost writing: there are stories, poems etc.).  Eimear McBride whose indie-published debut "A Girl is a Half Formed Thing" was such a phenomenal book, had put it in a drawer for a decade whilst she did other stuff.
So, writing is a long game, and the publishing industry used to recognise this. But of course, without an audience, even a low-advance book is a risk. With agents and editors changing jobs, imprints being bought out, its a bit like the Premiership - the "soul" of a club can easily be lost, with only the long suffering fans still caring; publishers are only as good as their list but would anyone outside the industry have any idea who a Random House author might be? Conglomerates have no institutional memory.  I guess its only fair to say that there are still plenty of good books published, but there are also far too many which are merely competent writers, doing something that fits in with the market as it is now. I don't pretend to be definitive on this - but I think you can tell from reading someone's work whether they have talent that needs nurturing, or are simply journeymen. Too many of the "talent spotters" in publishing rely on a very limited set of assumptions - about what a writer is, what a writer looks like, and worse still what a writer should write. The recession has no doubt not helped, and every publisher has writers they would like more people to read but simply haven't connected.

I guess this brings us to the third thing - the critical culture. Though I think Arts Council could and should do more about the first two above - there are many things that can be done to support and develop writers, and individual grants are no doubt one part of that; there are many good publishers out there who deserve some help in marketing and enabling them to develop a "critical mass"; the collapse in local government funding and subsequent loss of library sales is a national crime that the last administration wilfully perpetuated. But beyond that I can't help thinking that what we lack so much in the UK is a genuine critical culture. For if its no longer the "big boys" who are publishing literary work or getting it to the market place, then their privilege in terms of access to media, is one that seems increasingly worrying. We've all heard stories of how our major arts prizes are skewed in favour of large companies, through the "risk" involved in being shortlisted, or winning, sometimes beyond the resources of a small company; but there's also a horrifying conformity around our literary culture. The above article was in the Guardian, yet as the bastion of liberal media, it seems to have spent the last ten years or more ignoring the very indie scene that is now the main thing keeping literature alive. The BBC is even worse - with an absolute contempt for literature that you wouldn't find for any of the other art forms - everything populised, dumbed down, and without a whiff of innovation - and this an institution that relies on writing for so much of its successes over the years. Our universities are also to blame - the amount of creative writing graduates and postgraduates is a good thing in my mind - but how come this isn't also a keen audience for new literary work? Most university towns you'll struggle to find a single literary magazine on display near the campus and I doubt they are in the libraries either. In America, there still seems to be enough of an infrastructure - of critical magazines like Bookforum and N+1, short story magazines - from the New Yorker down to regional and college publication - to enable quality to rise. I'm sure they have their own problems. In Ireland, where literature is seen as a national treasure there remains a surprisingly strong pipeline of good - and often experimental - writers - who are somehow able to get published and sustain writing careers. I'm sure money is always an object - and as someone who has always worked, I'm not against writers having a day job.

Plenty that could be done: and I hope what is done is done with some imagination, rather than with just consultation, or a desire to "dumb things down". The dumbing, we have seen, rarely works.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

The Neglectful Poet

I am a neglectful poet. At the end of a busy week, after a busy month, I've collapsed this weekend, and staying in. I'm missing a poetry reading at the Whitworth this afternoon, and I realise I need to find some time to write up my own poetry. I've not stopped writing - far from it - snatched poems have been all the creativity I've managed in the last few weeks of travelling around the UK and Europe, but they're scribbled in my notebook - or in a few occasions direct to the computer. I'm not the sort of poet who write sequences so every poem is its own world, every blank page could turn into any kind of poem. Its only when I put them together, start looking at a number, that I maybe have an idea where I'm up to as a poet, what my concerns are, or how my style is developing. Every now and then over the last month or so Facebook has popped up to remind me of a few lines of poetry I wrote a few years ago, in most cases I don't remember the poem. It must be there on a computer file somewhere, I guess. A little poetry admin is required. Partly its because despite still going to a number of readings I don't think I've read poetry live this year - or wait, I read a single poem at a friends event impromptu - but certainly not a full set or group of poems. Neither have I been sending much off or having much published, so its easier to forget I'm sometimes a poet than not. Most poets I know have their neglectful periods, times when they stop writing or life gts in the way. I'm luckier than most in that I usually write poetry in an ad hoc way, and its rare that sees a full break. But I am a neglectful poet, and need to stop being, else the year will just fade out.

Monday, November 06, 2017

The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick

Over the years, "The Man in the High Castle" has gone from being an obscure novel, to the book that people mention when discussing Dick's greatness. More recently, it has been the inspiration for an Amazon TV series of the same name - now on its third series.

Clearly, one small book needs to be changed a little to become a repeating series - but TV and film adaptions of Dick have long been known to dip into his ideas and his invented worlds and transpose their own casts and characters.

Written in 1962, barely a generation after the end of the second world war, and noticeably, at the time of the cold war's highest tensions, "The Man in the High Castle" reimagines a world where the Axis powers won the war - and as a result, Germany rules the world, but Japan is now in control of the Western United States even as the Reich has spread to New York and the Eastern seaboard. We learn that the terrible price that the Jews had to pay, continued, but spread further as the Germans exterminated most of Africa. At the same time, the old joke (probably a new joke in 1962), that the Americans won the space race because "our German scientists were better than their German scientists" is inverted in that the Nazis are colonising Mars, and that rocket propulsion allows privileged Germans to cross the Atlantic in less than an hour. These fantastical trappings are talked about matter-of-factedly, as Americans have gotten used to this new world. In California, where most of the novel takes place, the Japanese are reasonably benevolent conquerors, bringing with them a decorum and a sense of proper behaviour that even the brash Americans are beginning to take on board. The gradations of "favour" that an inscrutable Japanese businessman is aware of would take a lifetime for an American to learn, so of course, some follow the Japanese and become regular users of the i-Ching as a way of organising their life - the gnomic utterances of the oracle providing the wisdom of history rather than the rashness of individual decision.

Against this backdrop a more mundane tale is taking place. Bob Childan makes a living selling Americana to rich Japanese who are fascinated by the Old West. Frank Frink is a Jew who fled the East coast Reich and now works in a factory where they partially make fake Colt 45s made to look like genuine antiques. His ex-wife Juliana has disappeared into the unconquerable middle America which acts as a buffer zone between Japanese and German conquests, and he regrets losing her. In the Japanese areas there is a surprising new bestseller, an alternate history where the Germans lost the war.  The author of "The Grasshopper Lies Heavy", Hawthorne Abendsen lives in Wyoming in "the high castle" protected from potential marauders by its isolation. Amongst the Japanese, Tagomi is a high ranking trade official waiting for a visit from a "Swede" Baynes who is due in from Europe to talk business.

These somewhat unpromising plot points provide the "action" whilst a wider tableau takes place off screen. Hitler is alive, syphilitic and mad, with various factions of the Nazi high command still jostling for position - and part of that factionalism is at the heart of the story - with a plan being considered to wipe the Japanese off the planet, as also non-Aryans. When Juliana meets Joe, a truck driver, he suggest an adventure - to meet Abendsen. Nothing is quite as it seems. Joe is not the Italian he purports to be, but a German spy, and Baynes is also a German, passing on information about the planned destruction of Japan by certain Nazi factions. The antiquity market is a slightly strained metaphor for what is happening in America - for the "real" America that we know hasn't happened: the post-war boom, the American dream, are stunted, never happened. There's some similarities with Ayn Rand's "Atlas Shrugged", with Abendsen the equivalent of the mysterious John Gaunt, and the concentration on the American production line - Frink is manufacturing jewellery, but the Japanese suggest it could be better being mass-produced as trinkets for the poor.

In some ways its a clunky novel. The characters never seem much more than ciphers, and though there is some description of this alternate world, Dick doesn't go into many details - he talks briefly about the world as it now is, but this is no great feat of imagining a particular world; rather, both this world and the world depicted in "The Grasshopper...." are both fictions. The i-Ching is used throughout the book as being a guiding force - but for what? For chance and misfortune seem to be the actors in this new world. The characters own lives seem "small beer", hardly worthy of our attention. Yet the reason the book has endured, and won an award in 1963, are because, as ever with Dick, it is the potency as well as the elasticity of his ideas that inspires. On one level this could be seen as a pulp fiction, about the good and the bad, with the world situation as backdrop, but there's something much stranger - like in Ballard, for instance - in the way he sees the world - with the i-Ching as a central character. Abendsen is not the "man in the high castle" after all, but has moved to a suburban house with his wife; whilst we are left in all sorts of doubts as to which version of Nazism will triumph. In many ways the book has a circularity to it - so by the end we could just as easily believe this is the fake world, and that the world shown in Abendsen's book - a resurgence Britain, a new empire, is the real. And both have aspects of our own. What if all of them are true?

Wednesday, November 01, 2017

City of Literature, Get in!

Yesterday, during UNESCO's annual conference, Manchester was named as an UNESCO City of Literature. Get in! The hard work for this started best part of a year ago as far as I remember, with Manchester Literature Festival, University of Manchester, ManMet (aka MMU), and the city council agreeing a bid. Lots of legwork from Kate Feld, who went to pretty much every live literature night in Manchester (rather her, than me!) as well as speaking to writers, publishers and others with an interest in Manchester as a literary scene. Jewels in our crown are old buildings - namely our four great libraries, Chethams, John Rylands, Portico and Central (our local libraries, like Didsbury, are gems as well) - and places for dead writers, namely the very undead Anthony Burgess Foundation, and the lovingly restored Elizabeth Gaskell house; as well as publishers such as Carcanet and Comma press.

It's an honour rather than a pot of money, but its great that this not only sees our two universities working together (a shame we still can't mention the S-word to make it 3!) but puts literature at the heart of the Mancunian regeneration story, when its often been well behind sport, music, architecture and the like. Anyway, not any more. The considerable assets of the city are of course its writers, who are many and plentiful. Last night I was at The Other Room, where James Davies and Scott Thurston, made rare appearances at their own night. Other Manc-based writers of note in the room included Neil Campbell, John G. Hall, Tom Jenks, Matt Dalby, Amy McCauley, and my good self; not a bad subset for a cold Tuesday night competing with Man Utd v Benfica, Jeanette Winterson and Rebecca Solnit elsewhere in the city, and of course Halloween.

Manchester's writing scene has been very grass roots and thrived outside of much civic interest or involvement - that will hopefully now follow. We are definitely needing some kind of writers' development programme, as well as more opportunities for writers to work, perform and publish in the city. All of which myself and others fed into the submission to the City of Literature application.

The official press release is here and my previous thoughts on Manchester as a writing city are here.

As a civic bauble its a nice one to have, and I've long been an advocate of us joining the UNESCO creative cities network, as I'd seen what a brilliant thing City of Literature had been for Norwich, and also how music cities like Ghent and Bologna have benefited, but of course, the hard work starts here: taking Manchester's many literary assets and promoting them as something other than history, but as a key part of our radical, working class, multicultural, intellectually stimulating past, present and future.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

A Noble Prize for Ish

The Nobel Prize for literature is always a surprise. Though people still get surprised by it, wondering why, for instance, a slight, but popular novelist like Murakami hasn't won it. I don't know why Murakami keeps coming up, perhaps as a Japanese novelist with a worldwide audience, but if there's a British equivalent (there isn't really), then its certainly not Kazuo Ishiguro, who shares heritage and a Japanese name but little else.

Ishiguro is the first British recipient since the British-Zimbabwean-Iranian Doris Lessing. Unlike Lessing, Ish grew up in the UK, as well as coming of age in the early eighties and quickly becoming part of its literary establishment, albeit off in a side room somewhere, rather than front of house. A graduate of UEA, he was always mentioned as a second to McEwan as an outcrop of it's famous creative writing course; and a Nobel prize of course puts that to bed - and gives the UK's first city of literature its own Nobel laureate.

I recall reading "A Pale View of Hills", his debut, in the mid-eighties and enjoying it alot, though it did feel a somewhat slight, thin book, and I need to re-read it. "Remains of the Day", his third novel, didn't sound at all like my sort of thing - that default position of the English novel - a nostalgia for a country house past. I probably saw the film at the time but only read the book years later. Of course its much more than that. Ishiguro had found a perfect subject to match his interest in the unsaid, the understated, the dignity and otherwise of repressed feelings, yet one that was not set in Japan, but in England, albeit a version that was already much gone in the early eighties. It was of course a brilliant move, as it's a book that is both about the English establishment, and critical of it, and it is also a sad, human love story. Its fascinating that this would be the book that he would write. I've always wondered if McEwan, who actually comes from a very stratified British background, looked at the success of "Remains of the Day" (and later "Birdsong") and led to his own exploration of the upper class reticence that we find in "Atonement."

"The Unconsoled" - again a book I read along time ago - was my favourite of his at the time. It was another about turn. A sign that this novelist was wilful in his choice, not just of subjects, but of styles. Here we have the opposite of his Booker winner, instead of specific place and character, we have an unknown country, an unnamed protagonist. Ishiguro has never been a prolific novelist - the books seem to all come out as surprises, presumably after working on them for a few years. Perhaps this explains their diversity of theme and style. They have been popular around the world. I remember one interview where Ishiguro mentioned that he would make his language simpler, aware of the role of the translator; so he's not a writer unaware of his standing, but I was disappointed to hear this from a writer. In some ways this indicates his strengths and weaknesses. There are few writers able to build up such an accumulated atmosphere, from small moments, yet it isn't the prose that does the work so much as the accumulation. I always thought his next great success, the dystopian novel about children harvested for their genes, "Never Let Me Go", was a novella or a long story extended to novel length unecessarily. For me, the decision to set it in a fictional time place - a world that is deliberately anachronistic - was its real weakness; a sign of a novelist unable to quite deal with the contradictions of his ideas. The private school the characters are at is as if from the 1950s, and the echo of fifties Wyndham and other dystopian writers, is there, yet it is set in a notional seventies and eighties. Technology has gone on a different track, an alternate past, rather than alternate future. It makes for an odd read. Yet the humanism of the novel comes through in the end and what turns it into a great book; though I found so much of the set up unconvincing. With novels that also dabble in detective noir and fantasy history he's an impossible writer to characterise, certainly braver in his choices than McEwan or Amis for instance. Like Julian Barnes every book is different, and his lack of or avoidance of a signature style has made him convincing across the genres, whilst at the same time his books do share something - and I think this rather than prose style is what the Academy has praised - a certain atmosphere, a quietitude. His characters are almost always unknowing of their situation, accepting of their lot, until it is almost too late. It seems, in this instance, to be an update of more wilful writers like Beckett and Kafka; but there is no nihilism in Ishiguro, there is love,  and hope, and that humanism.

The Nobel, of all prizes is no judge of literary excellence, but it is it's own strange reading list; international in scope, adverse for whatever reason to the greats of American literature, and prone to like hyphenate writers - whether that is in their nationality, like with Ishiguro or Lessing, or in art form. His books, never frequent, have slipped to five year intervals, with the story collection "Nocturnes" splitting the decade between "Never Let Me Go" and the poorly received "The Buried Giant." At sixty-two this is hopefully no end of career prize though one wonders how this often garlanded, but similarly reticent writer, might be changed a little by the global status the Nobel gives him. An interesting, and worthwhile rather than worthy choice.

Saturday, October 07, 2017

The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles

Perhaps it was the idea of the film that had put me off reading this novel previously. In the 1980s there seemed to be a whole range of slick adaptions of 20th century literary classics – mostly from Merchant-Ivory though “The Sheltering Sky” was Bertolucci – and Bowles’ debut novel probably got tainted by it; though I’m pretty sure I’ve not seen the film either.

Port Moresby is with his wife Kit on an escape from a devastated post-war Europe. His father has died leaving him the money to do as he pleases – anything other than work – and he insists that he is a traveller rather than a tourist, though he always carries too much luggage, speaks only European languages, and insists on staying in the best hotel wherever he is. They are joined on this trip by the younger Tunner, an amiable adventurer who has fallen in love with Kit, but truthfully, is in love with them both in some way.

The style of the book shifts in terms of sympathies – written often as not in a localised internalised third person, only zooming out every now and then, a technique that creates the quiet claustrophobia that sets in from the very first page.

They are in Northern Algeria, but Port is unhappy there. His relationship with Kit is now sexless and they have adjoining rooms. He wants, more than anything it seems, to be away from everything, to be alone, but he can’t quite manage that true adventurer’s calling, and has dragged her and her luggage – and at the last minute, his friend Tunner – along for the ride. Port hates the world he has come from, hates Europe, America, and civilisation, but he also dislikes the colonial French, and more than that he loathes the Arabs and other indigenous populations, whilst being drawn into the potential excitement of an unmediated world. Kit, on the other hand, is there because she is scared of losing him – though in many ways he is already lost – and because her fear requires her to have someone to hang on to. Tunner’s puppy love asphyxiates her and she just wants time spent with Port, but when they are together they argue, or worse, fail to communicate. His very seriousness – his existential consideration of where he – they – are going is in itself something that Kit finds hard to take seriously; it as if the very emptiness of his life, and of his dreams, is now so obvious that she can only be drawn along with it. Her vibrancy is an affront in some ways to Port; who does as much as he can to hurt her, and in doing so, to double up on the hurt he feels himself.

He might be devastated to know she has been unfaithful to him, but before this happens, he thinks nothing of going off into the town and finding a young woman prostitute, who then steals his wallet. He is an American out of sorts in a world that is still in bits, and yet he is enough of an American to resent the theft, to want to use his money as more than currency – hating the haggling of the Arabs he meets, but at the same time wanting to always buy more than just a good or a service with his money. He at one point sees a blind woman dancing in a bordello, and is desperate to have her, but she is gone before he can make it happen. He is certain he has lost the chance of love.

The book is nevertheless one of stories told. The famous story of three girls who go to have tea in the Sahara, and are found with only sand in their cups. The great desert is always on the corner of the tale, until, as they head further south into it, it also becomes the tale, and in the third part of the book, becomes Kit’s very existence.

Along the way they keep bumping into an English con man and his mother/wife, who they try and avoid, except when it is expedient to take a lift with them. By separating himself from Kit and Tunner as he goes south with them – leaving them to take the train – Port seems to be willing the action to happen; yet he doesn’t find out about the betrayal (his betrayals of Kit are the greater.) There’s a compelling existentialism to all of this. The man who has no longer got a belief in anything, and the woman for whom there is still hope – but where the hope resides in her husband. Throughout, the prose is remarkable. The interior knowledge we have of each of the characters only makes more complex their motivations, rather than allowing us to understand them. The usual motivations – money, lust – are replaced by different ones; of living a meaningful life. A dark reading of the novel could see it as being a book about the devastation we all must feel, when we realise life is not leading to something, as much as away from something. Port’s illness manifests itself as he takes them further and further away from civilisation; where only Kit can see him suffer. In this she finds her own motivations to live – but then – unable to escape and lost in a desert where she could just as easily perish, she becomes herself another victim of circumstance; perhaps achieving the negation of personality that Port was looking for. 

Sunday, September 17, 2017

20 Years Ago

This weekend sees the students returning to Manchester and local kids giving up their summer jobs to head to other cities. It suddenly struck me that twenty years ago I was also starting at University of Manchester, for my M.A. in novel writing.

In truth, I'd been prompted to memory by the documentaries about Princess Diana's death. I'd left my job in Croydon the previous week, with a short break before starting at University. My dad had taken almost all my stuff back up, leaving me with just a suitcase for my final week in London in a now spartan bedsit. I'd woke up on the Sunday morning to be told that Princess Diana had died in a car crash in Paris. "Oh, really?" I probably said, and rolled over and back to sleep. Diana was only a vague presence to me in 1997 - she'd left royal life, and all the soap opera that came with her marriage breakdown. I'd never had much time for her, but had a vague respect that she'd done some good work recently around land mines and AIDS; but tabloid Diana, with the tacky boyfriends and paparazzi followers was something that had passed me by. I'd been living in London for a year, and I'm pretty sure she'd not been a presence in the city during that time - the dog days of John Major's failed minority government and the triumphalism of Tony Blair's electoral landslide. At the same time I was listening to an eclectic mix of music - the Britpop overflow of rubbish like Stereophonics etc. that came along in the wake of Oasis's regal success and overbloated third album "Be Here Now" only just giving way to the more cerebral pleasures of Belle and Sebastian, Spiritualized, the Verve and Radiohead. I'd write about a lot of this - music, politics, art - in the novel I was beginning to think about.

I went back to London for a week, and the indifference to Diana was hard to hold, given the hysteria that took hold of the country during that week. Alone in my bedsit I found myself drawn to the rolling coverage and even to some extent drawn in. On the morning of the funeral I meant to get up early and join the throngs on the Mall, but then I must have stayed up late, overslept, and watched it on television - or more likely saying my goodbyes to the city that had been my home for just less than a year, glad to be returning to Manchester.

Before I decided to go back to college I'd been seriously writing for several years. The old "bottom drawer" novel had been followed by one that I'd written in Manchester in 1994-5 in between the day job, called "Lineage" which got shortlisted for the Lichfield prize, the first time anyone outside of friends and family had given me any approval. Until then, I didn't know if what I was doing was "real" writing, or, like my music, I was just an enthusiastic amateur. Going down to London I'd at least met a few writers and other creatives. There were a group of poets who used to meet up in a pub in Brixton, scabbing drinks, and not, as far I could see, writing all that much. There was the odd journalist or novelist I'd meet at a party, either rich, drunk, debauched or more often than not a combination of the three. In London I'd tried to begin a literary life: I'd had a few things published, a few poems in little magazines, whose titles I noted down when I visited the poetry library. Who knew that Smiths Knoll, the Frogmore Papers, the Rialto, Other Poetry, Iota, Fire et al, were where the action was happening? At the same time I was visiting art fairs at Exmouth Market, foolishly failing to buy Tracey Emin postcards as the YBA ship began to sail. I attended a poetry group once or twice at the local library but the room - or the poets, it was hard to tell - smelt of wee, and I didn't go back.  I also started a quirky magazine called "Bananas from the Windward Islands". Quirky because I didn't put the poet's names on the pages of the poems, as I wanted them to speak for themselves. I got it photocopied at a local print shop. Somehow I also got involved in a letter exchange with a woman who asked for contributions which she'd then photocopy and then send round to the others in the exchange.

None of this was particularly satisfying, and I wrote another novel, and started a further one, in the long evenings, after a boring day at a hated job. At some point I applied to the UEA and had an interview where Andrew Motion, his painkillers wearing off after a long day interviewing me, didn't exactly show much interest in my prose (which I was there for) or my poetry (which I wasn't.) The other writers being interviewed that day were literally the first novelists I'd ever met - but several had already had their books published so I was "competing" if that's the right word, with a disadvantage. No matter, when I applied for the M.A. at Manchester with a short story, I was informed before I left "don't worry, you're on the course" - which was a good job since I'd already handed my notice in.

So twenty years ago I'd downsized to a student house - with three other post-grads, on the edge of the notorious Nell Lane estate in Chorlton - and was about to change my life. Whether it stayed changed is another matter, twenty years on, still working the 9-to-5 in a more interesting but none arty job; with a chequered history of publications and readings behind me; but with a good proportion of my friends now being creatives of one sort or another.

Though I was twenty thousand words into a noirish futurama called "Sleeping Next to God", I was advised to start something new. I thought I'd begun the novel which would become "High Wire" on the computer but a few years ago found a first few pages in a neat longhand. That novel was set in London - beginning on election night 1997, and ended several months later with the Thames Festival where the tightrope walkers Didier Paquette and Jade Kindar Martin crossed over the Thames in mid air. I'm guessing had it been published than any sequel could well have started with Princess Diana's death and funeral. That tightrope walk would at least give me novel its title.

Around this time I caught a taxi in for my first day at college, as I wasn't sure which buses went and I was running late. I queued up and met one or two of my future friends and fellow students. I must have met the tutors Michael Schmidt and Richard Francis (the latter having interviewed me) shortly afterwards. So everything had changed, and maybe if my life since then my life has bounced back into a more familiar shape; the life of letters never really presenting itself; then so be it; I'm still writing.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Day of the Locust by Nathanael West

"Day of the Locust" is a novel that I've always been meaning to read, and despite its short length never quite got around to. A novel about Hollywood, by one of American fiction's sharpest literary observers, it didn't disappoint, though it wasn't the novel I'd been expecting.

For in "Day of the Locust" published in 1939, this is not the Hollywood of the winners, but of the losers, the no hopers. The "hero" of the piece is Tod Hackett, a young artist who has been brought out to Hollywood to design scenes for the movies. He's by nature then an observer, rather than a major participant. In his own time he is painting a large nightmarish tableau of Los Angeles in flames. Set during the great depression, Hollywood is both a promised land and a chimera. It is the escapism for the masses, but also, for those who flock there, like a gold rush - full of promise, but with few benefiting by hitting a seam. Into this millieu Tod falls for the beautiful but talentless actress Faye, and through his pursuit of her, comes into contact with other characters - a cowboy extra, Earle, a dwarf, Abe, and Homer Simpson (!) a lonely man who has moved to Hollywood for his health and becomes embroiled with Faye's circle.

It is a dark, noirish book, that reminds one of Jim Thompson or other noir writers as much as Fitzgerald for instance. The difference with Fitzgerald is a telling one - for in his unfinished "The Last Tycoon" Fitzgerald, as always, is fascinated by power - the powers that make Hollywood happen; whilst West finds himself looking at the ordinary people, the joes with the unmet dreams. For this is a novel about Hollywood's dualism - the characters are all there because of the "Hollywood dream" but are clearly living it as nightmare. For the beautiful Faye, she is treading the boards on the way to some low level prostitution, sleeping with clients to pay off the costs of her father's funeral. Her father is an ex-clown who now sells polish door-to-door. Homer Simpson is living off - and lets Faye live off - his earnings from a scrupulous life as an accountant; he is incapable of becoming anything other than Faye's victim, the more he takes care of her, the more she despises him. She refuses to sleep with Tod because he is neither handsome or rich, so he tries to take revenge through fantasising about raping her. Everyone in West's Hollywood is dirtied and tainted by the town.

There's a brilliant scene where a wild party kicks off at where Faye is staying at Homer's. Earle and his Mexican friend are breeding fighting cocks, and Abe, the dwarf, and Tod's scriptwriter friend Claude want to see a cock fight. The cock fight is vividly portrayed, violent and bloody, and the blood lust that leads to the cock fight seems to feed into the atmosphere of this pivotal evening - where Simpson will see Faye's lies for what they are, and she will leave him - her future unknown, but predictably grim.

Unlike Faulkner and Fitzgerald who went to Hollywood as famous writers, West was an unknown, and his Hollywood career was hardly anymore illustrious - yet out of it came this great novel. It's style is a mix of the real and the impressionistic and it is the latter that makes the novel flow so effectively. The Hollywood of the dream and the nightmare come together at the end where there is a film premiere taking place, and crowds of people turn into a virtual riot in which the novel's characters get caught up in. The title - "Day of the Locust" - echoes the Biblical plagues, and it is this frantic final scene where it appears that Hollywood falls in on itself.

A fascinating and original novel that I'm glad I've finally got around to reading.

7 Towns in 7 Days

There's an oft used cliche about southerners never venturing north of Watford, but there is, of course, the corollary to that, the northerners who've never ventured much further south than Euston. Take a look at the map of England and there are whole chunks at the edges, we're a geographically bulbous nation, and each of those bulges is a potentially unvisited land.

So it was, that I went to Kent for the first time last Friday. The initial impetus had come from my writer friend, Adrian Cross, who, alongside Richard Skinner, who runs Faber Academy, had been involved with the wonderfully named "Margate Bookie" - a literary festival taking place each August in the seaside town. He'd told me some time ago that they were hosting a Vanguard reading there, and I should come down. 

With this "hook" I decided to extend a weekend into a week and visit Kent - or at least as much of it as I could manage in the time, and via public transport. Growing up, our next door neighbour was from Kent, so it was a county which I had a vague idea about, if nothing more. Mike had a "posh" accent (though it might just have been southern) and God knows how he ever ended up in the rump end of Staffordshire. I'd read Canterbury Tales, and more recently Graham Swift's "Last Orders", and new Tracey Emin had grown up in Margate, but that was pretty much my mental mapping of the "garden of England." 

Independent travel is supposed to be easier these days, with the internet, but I struggled to find a room in Margate for this August weekend. Eventually a phone call to the Tourist Information got me a place, a rather delapitated but grand old hotel in the Cliftonville area of Margate, where for years London boroughs have been sending their asylum seekers. Margate is a town on the up, or trying to be, but it still has a nice mix of the seediness which Emin so graphically depicted, its historical role as a favoured seaside destination, and a newly arrived "hipster" class, opening art galleries and coffee shops. Yet, Swift's use of it in "Last Orders" still seems appropriate; it not quite East End on sea, mine was one of the few more northern accents, just as my trip to mid-Wales last years saw me surrounded by holidaying Midlanders. 

The weather was a little temperamental over the weekend, with the sun coming in and out as the clouds hovered in and out of the sea. The Turner Contemporary, the city's flagship arts venue, a beautifully realised building, so named because Turner was a frequent visitor and painter of the town (as was Paul Nash), looks out on the bay, and this weekend was a heavily used venue with a bookshop for the festival as well as hosting various events.  The gentrification of the place is a little overplayed - on the Friday night we stopped off in two small pizzerias only to find that both were fully booked, and ended up in an adequate but traditional curry house. A wonderfully named Wetherspoon's (The Mechanical Elephant) and two Costa coffees are the chains along the seafront. 

On the Saturday I caught the circular bus that runs between Margate, Ramsgate and Broadstairs, and got off in Ramsgate. This is more harbour than seaside resort, though there's a small beach. It did the job however, as I managed to get a pot of seafood for £3.50, whilst watching the world go by. I also found, two stops off the bus, Michael's Books, a great little warren brilliantly priced, which was worth the delay in getting back to Margate. In the evening, in the Sands hotel, Vanguard readings saw six novelists present from their very different books, before a small literary quiz led by David Quantick, the music journalist, who now lives in Hastings, down the coast. Several of the writers were based in and around Margate, as it becomes, thanks to better train links easier to get to from London.

Finally going round the Turner Contemporary, the main gallery space is taken over by a Phylida Barlow exhibition. Barlow - who is representing England at the Venice Biennalle this year - is a sculptural artist of intense materiality. Her vast pieces made up of the found and reconstituted, often industrial materials, but there surrealism has an abstraction to it that seems particularly appropriate to our contemporary over-saturated world. I liked the work alot. 

In the afternoon I caught the train to Canterbury where I based myself for the next three days. The town was apparently badly bombed during the war, and there's a sense that the centre - all shopping centres and walkways, surrounded by a ringroad - could be anywhere in England. Whereas in York or Chester the Cathedral towers over the city, visible from everywhere, here the Cathedral is not immediately visible above the modern buildings, but go down an alleyway and into the winding streets around it, and there you are, able to enter one of the country's great religious buildings, and still home to the Archbishop of Canterbury. The cathedral is a marvel - both in terms of size, and its accumulated histories.  There are plenty of mentions of the murder in the cathedral, of Thomas a Beckett, by supporters of Henry II, and you can buy the Richard Burton film from the cathedral shop. So much history as well... its easy to see the brutality of Henry VIII towards the church as a one way street, but throughout Europe, non-Catholics were persecuted and sought refuge elsewhere. One group of French protestants ended up in Canterbury, and they still worship in the cathedral to this day. Yet, though this a working cathedral, at the centre of the life of the community and town, the marginaisation of the Church of England in our contemporary life, seems to find an echo in this immense monument - its daily cost ("we receive no government funding"), the ignored instruction in the Crypt, to "keep quiet", the £12.50 entrance charge - this is a draw for tourists, a must-visit building, yet as distant from our lives as Norman castle. Yet, there was a table set out where you could write a prayer that would be set on the altar during the following morning's prayer, and I wrote one down. It can't harm... after all, it is the superstition of churches that I like. My love for the metaphysicals is based upon them writing at a time when God and the devil felt like living presences, rather than abstracts - and that belief in actual ghosts it what I find compelling.

Canterbury has a range of other historic sites and a river running through it, but its an inland town, and I was craving the sea again, so the next day, with the Monday's overcast clouds shaken off, I headed to Herne Bay and Whitstable. Herne Bay is like a Victorian seaside resort from central casting, with a restored bandstand, and pier jutting out into the bay, with kids' crabbing, a Punch & Judy show, rides and stalls. Then on to the port of Whitstable. This was very different. The beaches were smaller, and the real business of the town is fishing - with restaurants next to the companies packing and selling the oysters. ,In the town itself, two streets wind round in a leisurely fashion, and are full of restaurants, coffee shops, gift shops and the like. Not far from the University of Kent, the town feels richer and more affluent (not just the £28 seafood platters!) than the other

On my last night in Kent I moved further along the coast to Folkestone, and met up with a friend who is from the area, in neighbouring Hythe. Hythe is another small port town. It was at the frontline during the Napoleonic wars, and a Military canal snakes elegantly through the town. It faces another threat now, from developers and gentrification as the traditional fisherman's beach is being targetted by developers wanting to build expensive beach side apartments. A light railway goes through the town, heading down the coast, and though it's a small town it has a distinctive feel to it. Folkestone is more spread out, and juts out from the cliffs that overlook France across the water. Just along from Dover, these cliffs are also white chalk. Grand buildings along the seafront speak of better days, and my friend showed me round the permanent artworks from various previous Triennials, Folkestone's signature art event which is taking place again in a couple of weeks. New artworks from Bob and Roberta Smith are appearing already, alongside past ones from luminaries such as Yoko Ono, Tracey Emin, Cornelia Parker and Mark Wallinger. 

The fast train to London takes less than an hour from Folkestone now, on the HS1 line. It's an interesting comparison with the under investment in the north. The distance is about the same as from Liverpool to Leeds, yet this part of the countryside, though no doubt needing more work and investment, has a much smaller population - what gentrification is taking place you can tell is an overspill of London's monied world. Yet its instructive as well - this part of the world - where I could previously have only mapped out "here be dragons" now feels real to me - I managed 7 towns, six along the coast and the county town of Canterbury, over a very busy week, and yet leaving Folkestone station at midday I was back at my flat in Didsbury by four o'clock. I hope it won't be my last visit. 

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Saturday, August 05, 2017

Filling the Creative Space

As is my wont, I have been sidetracked from one of the many projects  I should have been finishing, into a new little project that reached up and grabbed me last weekend. I started recording a long instrumental using just my Roland Juno 6 Synthesizer, and it ended up as a 25-minute piece reminiscent of the multiparted Tangerine Dream influenced electronica I recorded (with pretty much the same setup, give or take an effects processor or two) in the mid-80s. (e.g. here and here).  This has now morphed into a new quickly recorded album which I'm expecting to finish just over a week after starting.

As ever with a new project its not as simple as just the music or the writing - there is the whole stuff around it. What is it called? What is it about? (Given that the instrumental has no words...this is important). How do I present it? (On its own? As part of an album of contemporaneous stuff?) And each of these decisions creates more decisions. I've long wanted to call an album "the Return of the Juno 6" as both a factual description of my much beloved synthesizer (though its never entirely gone away), and as a bit of a spoof western title. Who are or were the Juno 6? I guess like Magnificent 7 or Hateful 8 it depends on who you're talking to and at what time. I like the idea of the "Juno 6" being like Neil Young's Crazy Horse, coming together when the need arises then going their separate ways. Yet there's just me here - so the "six" is that imaginary band that I've never quite got together - and probably as much about different versions of myself as anything else - or maybe its my influences.

So with the music almost completed, a title and a cover concept in the works, I find that the graphic art on the cover lacks something. It needs some kind of image for the centre piece - but what is it? Stringing together pictures of influences was my first idea.
Here we have Vaughan Williams, John Denver, Robert Southey, Delia Derbyshire, Pierre Henry and a teenage version of myself, all with some oblique influence on the words and music within. (And it is oblique: there's a John Denver sample on a track I don't think I'm going to use or finish, whilst Robert Southey told the first story of "Goldilocks" which relates to a single line of a particular song.) But that doesn't feel right either. 

I'm going to go for something more abstract - some collage. I've always loved Frank O'Hara's poem "Why I am not a painter". where the poet visits his friend, the painter Mike Goldberg. Its as good a description of the creative process as you'll find. "It's got sardines in it", says Frank, "yes, it needed something there," tMike replies. He visits again. The sardines have gone. "It was too much," says Mike. When the painting is exhibited its called Sardines. Of course, they are no longer there, but they were there, during the process. It is enough. But its as much that first thing: what was there during the process - that need for something there.

I think any artist will recognise it. You've wrote a piece, or painted something or made a collage, or a piece of music, but its just not yet itself. Whereas Michelangelo could see the finished piece in a piece of marble, the blank page is multifarious, it could become anything. Why and how it becomes this rather than that is what is part of the process. So my cover for "Return of the Juno 6", even though its unimportant, needs something in it, and its not a collage of famous influences. It wouldn't surprise me if it takes me longer to get this sorted than the writing and recording of the album itself, yet in some ways its the same process. The beauty of writing instrumental rather than lyric music is that the something you need has to come from the music, whereas its always possible to scat sing your way over the top of an otherwise uninspiring bassline or chord sequence. Sometimes its the non-tangible, the metadata that that my song "John the Replicant" only made sense right at the end when I appended that title to it; (it also was the last track recorded for the "Traipses" album which waited about a year for it to come along.)

The more we find out about famous albums we realise how non-sequential they are: that songs are sometimes hangovers from years before; and I guess as writers and painters we are jealous with our creativity, we hoard our good ideas; like a decent farmer, in times of abundance we store them away - and don't tell our neighbours - bringing them out only at another time, when there's a creative space to fill and we need something to fill it.

Friday, July 28, 2017

The Big Names Booker

This year's Booker prize longlist will no doubt please the booksellers. No small publishers (just big indies, Faber, Bloomsbury, Canongate; majors and imprints) - lets hope this is just an anomaly, not a trend - and most of the "big" names who released books that qualify, find themselves on the list - mammoth books by Paul Auster, and past-winner Arundhati Roy, alongside Zadie and Ali Smith, and acclaimed story writer George Saunders for his first novel, and probably favourite, Irish historical novelist Sebastian Barry. More interestingly perhaps, Jon McGregor makes an appearance with his new novel, "Reservoir 13" - his first for seven years - and Irish writer Mike McCormack's prize winning "Solar Bones" arrives a year late, after finding a British, as well as Irish publisher.

First thoughts on the Booker since it let in the Americans has been that they do a bit of cheese slicing, a third British, a third Commonwealth, and a third U.S.  It does seem increasingly an arbitrary list. In the past the Booker was notorious for longlisting books still in manuscript, so the general reader couldn't get to read them - this year both the Saunders, McCormack and Colson Whitehead's acclaimed "The Underground Railroad" feel like they've arrived here last on a very long tour. I guess we're all  a little fluid on when books are published these days. Naomi Alderman's "The Power" which won the Bailey's Prize is nowhere to be seen, surprisingly. As ever, the longlist is a little bit of a distraction - often it seems a little bit of a sop to newer writers, giving them a bit of time in the sun, this time its the bigger writers who may not make the cut.

There will be a couple of months for the longlist to get attention before the shortlist is announced. There's certainly enough interesting books on this year's list to make it potentially a break with the past but as Booker shortlisting is mostly about horse trading between several judges I wonder how that will manifest itself.

Our three big arts prizes - the Booker, the Turner, and the Mercuty, also released this week with a mix of Radio 1 pleasers (Alt-J, Ed Sheeran, Blossoms), and grime (Stormzy, J Hus) - seem to be struggling for relevance in an age where on the one hand the "game" is very much controlled by a non-pluralistic media, and on the other hand, where the best work is happening far away from the mainstream with little interest in being co-opted into "safe" spaces.

Monday, July 10, 2017

A Creative Mini-break

As a friend said, Manchester International Festival offers a "holiday in your own city" and to my shame the last couple of times I've hardly taken advantage of it: two years ago, I was busy with work and away for half of it and two years before I was recuperating from an eye operation and not feeling like excitement of any kind.

This year I took some time off, checked the schedule and decided that this middle weekend would be the perfect time for a creative mini-break. Life intervened as it always does, and a friend's 50th in London took me away for 24-hours. But, still, I feel like I've experienced a bit of MIF this year, and with a week of it still to go, it aint over yet.

A week before I'd gone to see New Order and attended the public event "What is the city but it's people?" a wonderfully life affirming piece of public art/theatre. Then this Wednesday it was the Manifest fringe arts festival launch - where the city's small galleries, pop up spaces, studios and project spaces come together for a city wide art tour. I saw a mesmerising performance from Ruby Tingle in Chethams on Wednesday before an impromptu MIF "gig" - minimalist composer William Basinski - at Festival Square. All of this and more I talk about in my new forum for everything arty and contemporary - my new Interesting Drug podcast which I hope to publish every three or four weeks for your listening pleasure. Its on Mixcloud so I can include music in the podcast - and its about 15 minutes of chat for 45 minutes of talking.

On Thursday night it was "Available Light" at the Palace Theatre, and tonight I'm going to "Returning to Reims" at HOME. During Friday I took advantage of the Manifest programme and visited a range of galleries and project spaces. Manifest is over for now, but some of the shows that are featured in it go on for a few days and weeks yet so check them out if you have the chance.
The swift trip to London was meant to include some more art but it was such a lovely day I just mooched around Russell Square, and dropped £50 on magazines and books at the LRB bookshop. London does sometimes seem to be a different city culturally as well as in every other way - there's simply not a bookshop in Manchester that matches LRB, Foyles, Tate Modern or a number of others unfortunately.

So last day of my cultural mini-break and its now raining - ah, Manchester, so much to sodding answer for indeed - so I'm going to write up a few poems, send a few off, and head into town later before the play at HOME. Next weekend as MIF comes to an end I'm seeing Lets Eat Grandma on Sunday afternoon before heading to Ceremony the final event near HOME/Bridgewater Hall.

Saturday, July 01, 2017

My Life With New Order

It may seem ridiculous now, but at the time - 1982, 1983 - I had only the vaguest sense of the connection between Joy Division and New Order. I came to the former via the posthumous outtakes album "Still" - a life changing moment - but in those days the only way you found out about music was the weekly music papers, and they were not prone to nostalgia. That Ian Curtis had died, I must have known, but I don't think - coming to Joy Division after his death - that I knew what he looked like. Today, a large picture of him smoking a cigarette is the centrepiece of a new exhibition at "True Faith" the Manchester International Festival exhibition featuring work inspired by Joy Division and New Order at Manchester Art Gallery.

In the mean time, my friend Dave said that New Order were the new band that had formed after Joy Division. Their first single, "Ceremony", did sound like the same band, though the vocal was tentative and back in the mix. In the mean time, the album, "Movement", looked unobtrusive with its blue abstract cover, and the music inside sounded equally tentative. The song I most liked, an outlier (as Peter Hook shares the vocal), was "Doubts Even Here."

Yet over the next couple of years New Order became far more than the band that had come out of the tragedy of Joy Division. "Everything's Gone Green" with its obtuse title and slight dance feel, was good, "Procession" - its B-side - was as majestic as its title, but it was "Temptation" that glorious northern attempt at new wave soul, "oh you've got green eyes, oh you've got blue eyes....", that was the record I adored. It was - I think - the first single I bought with my own money. Going into the record shop....wait....going into John Menzies, the newsagents in Walsall, I asked behind the counter, I think, for the 12" but they only had the 7" in stock so I got that version and took it home and played it to death.

Oddly enough New Order weren't the band who I loved most over the next few years. I tended to tape their records off Dave, who would religiously pick up each new single as it came out. He'd got a job at 16 after his YTS ended, so had more disposable income than me, staying on at sixth form, and then going to university. Yet along with the 3rd member of our group (and we were briefly a group - Damn the Visual - as well as a group of friends), Dan, we went over to Birmingham Powerhouse to see them. This must have been about 1984. By this time they'd released the seminal 12" "Blue Monday" as well as its follow up (which briefly I preferred) the out and out disco record "Confusion." "Blue Monday" was seminal to me in a number of ways. At a 5th year disco the girls danced, the boys didn't. No hardship, to a soundtrack of Wham! and Culture Club. Then on came "Blue Monday." "Come on guys," I said. "Let's dance." I danced. How I danced. If hearing "Still" had been the thing that freed up my ears, then that first dance to "Blue Monday" freed up my body. I danced. I danced to the beat. To the rhythm. People stopped what they were doing and watched. Over the next week I walked the corridors of the school to sounds of ridicule, and occasionally praise. I dared to break some kind of code that I didn't even understand. But I did understand the music. "Blue Monday" was modern music. In January 1984 I would take ownership of my beloved Roland Juno 6 synthesizer, a relationship that continues to this day, though without a drum machine or proper recording equipment the pristine modernism of "Blue Monday" was never achieveable.

I seem to remember "Power, Corruption and Lies" being a bit of a disappointment - especially in relation to "Confusion" and "Blue Monday." The only pure electronic track - "586" - was sort of an early version of "Blue Monday" - the rest of the songs were more solid, but weren't the expected futurism. Yet, there was also "Your Silent Face", a song so gobsmackingly gorgeous, that even its lyrical crapness, "so why don't you piss off?" seems an acceptable piece of balloon puncturing. Its hard to explain to people how fast things moved back then musically. I was listening to SPK, Einsturzende Neubauten, Test Department on the one hand, Tracy Thorn and Aztec Camera and the Go Betweens on the other. My favourite band were the Cocteau Twins, and New Order - and the Cure - sat either side of me - as bands I loved, but didn't quite feel an ownership towards; perhaps aware by then of that back story. But also - their rare interviews were inconclusive, they seemed unwilling and unable to articulate their music; their Factory record sleeves gave no games away. Who'd have thought that there would be all these books, biographies, autobiographies, films, documentaries, exhibitions all these years on?

The first album of New Order's that was truly mine was "Low Life" which I bought on the day of release to get me through my A levels. I played it non-stop for a month then probably not again for five years. But I love that album, every note of it. I saw them on tour again at this time, at the Tower Ballrooms, Edgbaston, a strange venue on the edge of a reservoir away from the centre of Birmingham. My memory is of a chaotic start - of technology breaking down; possibly even a broken bass string. I don't think the album was out yet so all the songs were new and strange - they began, according to with "Sunrise" and would encore with "Confusion".  Actually, that reminds me. At that earlier gig at Birmingham Powerhouse they'd left the stage and yet the stage lights had stayed on and the crowd stayed calling out for more even though we knew that New Order didn't do encores. I looked around for Dave and Dan but couldn't find them so assumed they'd stay. I waited maybe twenty minutes or more and then they came back on and gave a blistering version of (I think) "Confusion." It turned out they'd gone to the car thinking it was over, where we were being picked up. They were just about to leave - stranding me in Birmingham - when I eventually turned up, full of excitement at the unexpected encore.

By the time I was at University New Order's perceived futurism was now a given. A run of amazing singles, rarely off the albums, or when they were, in very different versions, were the soundtrack to many a university club night. When the CD player became the latest new thing, pretty much the first album I bought on the format was "Brotherhood", a strangely dense and unflinching album, and there wouldn't be another studio album for three years, when a retooled, loved-up band would translate their role as dance pioneers into the rhythms du jour of 1980s acid house via the "Technique" album. In the mean time though there was perhaps their finest hour, the double CD compilation "Substance" which brought together those expensive 12" singles and their b-sides, often dub or reworked versions. I think I asked on an earlier post if there was ever a better run of singles than those early Jesus and Mary Chain singles, but perhaps New Order is the answer. From "Ceremony" to "Touched by the Hand of God" there is a virtual soundtracking to the decade. Only "Blue Monday" and the beautiful "True Faith" were big hits - and it was a constant frustration how Radio 1 and the BBC were so reluctant to play or show this wonderful band - like ignoring the Beatles in the sixties. New Order didn't do themselves any favours. Still staying in Manchester - a city I first visited in late 1985, before later making it my home - the Factory aesthetic, a situationist play, that had more to do with art that commerce, saw them "invest" in Dry Bar and the Hacienda, not realising that all the money they were making was being immediately blown by Tony Wilson's schemes. This is a well worn story - but the Hacienda had a role in their music of course. For New Order, were veterans by now, but as bit by the dance bug as a younger generation. After all "Blue Monday" was almost a proto house record, or  a proto hip hop record - take your choice - they influenced both genres.

But "Technique" and their only number one, the unexpected football anthem, "World in Motion", was also kind of an ending. At their commercial peak they had one more album in them, the untypical "Republic", with its plethora of remixers and versions. And a band who had previously not released singles from albums, released four from this one. But there was a reason....Factory records, which had been riding high with both New Order and Happy Mondays, had overstretched at just the wrong time - another recession, remember Norman Lamont's "green shoots of recovery?" - and, as documented in the film "24 Hour Party People" the excess was catching up. By the time "Republic" came out it was on London records. Peter Saville still designed the cover - an advertising pastiche this time - and the record was a massive hit, but with the death of Joy Division producer Martin Hannett, and the ending of their label, as well as the ongoing problems of the Hacienda, it was hardly a surprise that the band stopped.

As the eighties became the nineties New Order, never the most reliable of live bands, had nonetheless become a massive festival draw, not just in the UK but around the world. But putting the band on a hiatus after "Republic" they all started working on other projects none of which had the impact of New Order. (Though Sumner's Electronic came closest.)

Absence makes the heart grow fonder - and relocated to Manchester for a second time after a brief spell in London - I heard that they were forming and playing a gig at the Apollo. I managed to get tickets - this is 1998 - and got to see a band who I thought I would never see again. Not only was it a triumphant return, but for the first time, they made peace with their past and included Joy Division songs in their set. I had always seen the bands as two separate entities, but post-Factory, this unity would become more and more important, despite the ongoing issues in the band itself. In some ways, this restart was also an ending - I remember seeing most of the Manchester "faces" at that gig, people you'd seen off an on at other concerts. When in 1998 there was the handover of the Commonwealth Games to Manchester for 2002, I was amazed to hear that one of my favourite bands was playing the handover ceremony in Albert Square. There felt a massive vindication that this wayward, independent band, whose classic "Temptation" the BBC amongst others had hardly played, as being too obscure, were now the standard bearers for this civic occasion.

It could have been left like that of course. But New Order were never destined to be a heritage act. Their alchemy has always manifested itself in the songwriting. Both "Get Ready" and the later "Waiting for the Sirens Call" albums had brilliant lead singles, even if the more rocky album tracks were less effective. Few bands that long into career would still be in contention even. The once inscrutable New Order became, at some point over the last decade or more one of the most documented bands in pop culture. Several movies feature Joy Division, New Order and Factory records as their theme; everyone associated with them has written their story, at least once; and that civic acceptance has continued to this day - with a generation of Manchester politicians and civic leaders having grown up with the band. There's also sadness. The untreated wound of Ian Curtis's early death is a central theme to some of this memorialising. Curtis and Joy Division are now canonical. But the other deaths - Hannett, Rob Gretton and especially Tony Wilson, seem to have robbed the city of its officer class. Manchester, never knowingly a sentimental city, can get a bit teary-eyed about Wilson, and by association Joy Division/New Order.

The band, remarkably, carried on after a final split with Peter Hook, bringing back Gillian, who had left to look after family a decade before. A new album repositioned the synthesizers and the dance sensibility centre stage. They tour incessantly, whilst Hook's band "The Light" do the same, at smaller venues, providing fan friendly renditions of back catalouge albums.

Amazingly, in its ten year history, New Order have been a notable absence from the Manchester International Festival's line up - despite music being such an important strand. So this week, i went to the first night of their residency at MIF, at Granada Studios, where Joy Division's first TV performance, on "So it goes...." (also the subtitle of this collaboration with Liam Gillick) took place. Not knowing what to expect - a gig? an art piece? We were told there would be a Synthesizer orchestra. I imagined a retooled New Order, ditching the guitars, but thankfully it wasn't this. They know what they do well. Spread across the stage as they normally would be, and behind them, hidden away in 12 identical boxes, were 12 keyboard players from the RNCM, who were being conducted from the stage. The setlist was one that not even the most attentive fan could have guessed at, with old songs, obscurer songs, deep catalogue cuts from across their career, and only two or three of their most popular hits -  no "Blue Monday", and no "True Faith." It felt like that promise of futurism that was there from nearly the start, was still very much a driving force. A few years back I saw Peter Saville's cover for "Power, Corruption, and Lies" - a typical appropriation - at the V&A in their post-modernism exhibition. New Order, very much a northern working class band, somehow have always stretched way beyond those imaginary limitations. They are accidental post-modernists, perhaps their own Year Zero moment, with the death of Curtis, meaning they had to forget, then remember again the past. Alongside this series of concerts, a new show opened at Manchester Art Gallery last night, introduced by Sir Richard Leese, the leader of the council. He made the point that in naming an exhibition after a thirty year old song - "True Faith" - we are seeing how pop music, once ephemeral, can become our new "classical" canon. Of course, New Order were never quite pop music - but they were pop music nonetheless - and its fascinating to think how a song or a piece of art can last longer, and resonate further, than a city's regeneration, than a political epoch.

Not for the first time, I think this might be a suitable ending for my story with New Order, but its already had so many different phases, I wouldn't bet on it. For now, if you've got a ticket to one of their shows, you're in for a treat, and for the rest of us, the show - art inspired by Joy Division and New Order - is on now at the Manchester Art Gallery.