MK Literature Festival: The carnival is over

On the evening on Tuesday 26 September, I staggered through the revolving doors of the Holiday Inn, Central Milton Keynes, singing an old Seekers’ song under my breath as I met the night air:

Now the harbour light is calling 
This will be our last goodbye
Though the carnival is over
I will love you till I die…

Milton Keynes Literature Festival was over, and it had been a great success. Ticket sales about 40% higher than our target, and audience evaluations that showed that only 0.3% of those who came found their chosen event less than ‘Good’.

Our Writing Wall for visitors’ comments gave us all a warm glow too –

It takes vision to write on a blank slate but you pulled it off in style! First of many lit fests to, I hope.

What a fantastic first ever MK Lit Fest! The talks and readings have been fantastic and it’s amazing to have such a cultural tour-de-force in my home town!

There are a thousand lessons to learn from the experience (although a friends’ quip that one should ‘Never work with children, animals or community arts groups’ was a little harsh), not just in terms of writing and reading (sessions by Katie Ward, Tracy Buchanan, Joanna Walsh and Galley Beggar’s Sam Jordison, AFE Smith and several others all gave insights into how to write as well as what has already been written) but in understanding the book industry and running festivals. We kept costs tghtly under control to keep ticket prices down, but even shoestrings don’t come cheap nowadays – without a massive injection of voluntary labour, this would never have happened.

But they’re mostly happy lessons – a town derided as a cultural desert can construct a pop-up oasis, and the people will gather round the watering hole to drink. You can turn an unlikely venue – a conference suite in a Holiday Inn (whose generosity and wonderful staff support deserve huge praise) – into a space filled with visual delights and details (and huge thanks to the team who did so). A programme that – by practicalities and accident as much as design – freely mixed genres and audiences during the course of both Saturday and Sunday drew favourable comments about eclecticism and diversity: curation by serendipity.

Not that there wasn’t enjoyment too: being reunited with the ever-dapper Linton Kwesi Johnson, last heard by me back in the early 80s at rather more politically-focused events; the wonderful poetry of Siobhan Campbell; Michael Rosen enlightening us all about Zola’s time in England, including at a hotel where I had a bar job many decades later (the place hadn’t improved, by the sound of things); Clare Mulley’s fascinating exploration of two very different women aviators during The Third Reich (and an unexpected anecdote about Mussolini’s penis)… only as the Festival unfolded did the wealth of riches that we had accumulated really become apparent.

On a personal note, I was also honoured – if not a little nervous – to participate as a performer too, as part of a panel of local writers discussing their craft, their process and their individual genres. The comment photographed to the left definitely made my evening, especially after speaking for the best part of two and half hours. Su R, whoever you may be, thank you.

Several weeks of manic work organising all that has had one downside: no writing achieved, although the backlog of scribbled notes to self and ideas will be interesting to decipher and explore. In the meantime, two more stories have made their way out into the world: Vapour appeared in an anthology, Voices from the Grid, produced as part of the 50th Birthday Celebrations for Milton Keynes, and Bro (previously published by Chelsea Station) has been published in Best Gay Stories 2017 from Lethe Press – my copy arrived this morning, and I still wrapping my head around being in the same book as people whose work I’ve read and admired. And a thank you to the wonderful Polari Literary Salon, not just for – quite rightly – awarding their First Book Prize to Saleem Haddad for Guapa – but for introducing me to The Pansy Project. Stunning animation, and guerrilla gardening with a sense of purpose.

Recent Reading

Tin Man – Sarah Winman

A friend’s recommendation, and it was a few pages before I was sure. Winman’s style is rather plain, although undemonstratively compassionate, but the storytelling is more than eloquent enough to overcome any misgivings. An exploration of loss, intimate friendships that have crossed boundaries, unexpected understanding, it’s a tale of heartbreak – and the noun should be plural – that I found entirely captivating. In many ways the same story – although we are in 80s Britain rather than the Netherlands – as Eric Bock Rubin’s The School of Velocity, this is an infinitely better book, not least as both young men are given their own voice and the female third party is rendered sympathetically too. The characters here feel truly like people rather than cunningly constructed devices: the author is telling their story rather than using them to tell hers.

This Census-Taker – China Mieville

A Novella Book Club choice, and we seem to continue to be unsuccessful with many of our selections. This seemed to aim for a speculative fiction version of Kafka but produce only a half-baked Tim Burton script instead. Long – very long – on atmosphere, it also comes with some very convoluted sentences that don’t fit easily in the narrative voice of a strangely ageless child, and an almost determined resistance to give the reader anything much to hang onto – either in meaning or in plot. There felt to be a brief moment of clarity about 60 pages in, although this revealed a book that was attempting to dress a fairly standard ‘distrust of The Other’ scenario in a lot of bat-catching and magic realist voodoo. And then it lapsed and anything concrete feel away once more. He has many fans, who presumably will love this, but I found it irritatingly protracted even at this length.

The Mountain – Paul Yoon

An American short story writer, whose second collection arrives festooned with praise from worthy sources. As its (beautiful) cover didn’t give off any scent of rat, I plunged in and found myself immersed in some very skilled prose writing that spans vast tracts of geographical and chronological time. Still A Fire, which introduces us to a WWII survivor and the morphine-addicted Belgian nurse who cares for him, resonates with an extra dimension from its setting in squatted settlements on the outskirts of Calais, giving the story an undercurrent of timelessness despite its very defined setting. And Vladivostock Station captures in a rekindled friendship the bleakness of live in remote towns around which time has built bypasses. Evocative, powerful and immersive writing.

Recent Listening

Tigre – Banda Magda

If Magda Giannikou’s multi-headed, multicultural outfit has hitherto been mostly a joyous romp through the musics of some of the world’s sunnier countries, than the groove is not abandoned here but it has slipped into something more sophisticated for its latest dance. There are still rhythms here a plenty – and percussionists to power them – but there are also opulent string arrangements that dress the songs for the salon as well as the dancefloor. Music to drink cocktails too. And more than one of them.

Amplitude – Danças Ocultas com a Orquestra Filarmonia das Beiras

Still on my eternal sonic Lusophone kick, more Portuguese artistry to explore. 4 concertina players, a fado singer, a composer best known from Madredeus and the Dead Combo (sort of Lisboan punk-fado, sort of), and an orchestra. It’s eclectic, it’s slightly mad in places and its virtuosity is undoubted, if rarely at the expense of the music. Possibly an acquired taste, but many fine things are.


Festival Time!

I remember editing a colleague’s blog post about the issue of women in leadership, which made the point that stereotypes are useful in as much as they provide a shorthand that saves us a little of the thinking that life is so keen to demand.

It came to mind recently, watching Richard Macer’s BBC Documentary, Milton Keynes and Me. Apart from the concrete cows and the roundabouts, one of the widespread tropes about the town is that is a cultural desert. I’m not about to wade into that one, except to point that September 22-26 will see the first ever Milton Keynes Lit Fest. Five days of readings, panel discussions, interactive sessions across genres, forms and audience age groups, with highlights including Linton Kwesi Johnson, Michael Rosen – and a day of local writing. (I’ll be taking part in a panel Q&A session for those keen to advance their own writing.) Tickets go on sale Tuesday 22 August – click the link above or the logo to visit the website, view the programme and make your booking.

In the meantime, working with the Steering Group isn’t doing wonders for fictional productivity, but a story – Cloud 371b – that takes an unusual slant on the aftermath of WWII has been published by Fictive Dream, along with a photo taken in the gardens of The Bishop’s Palace Gardens, Wells. The photo was taken on my 56th birthday, as part of the tradition of going somewhere else to celebrate. This year, the choice was Stockholm (where most of the images in this post were taken): a beautiful city that I will remember for its egalitarian and friendly welcome, its stunning green spaces and its horrifying food and drink prices. New cities tend to inspire stories, so I have to mark Stockholm down as a fail: it simply made me want to emigrate and follow the example of the man to the left – reading a book in the peaceful surroundings of Djurgarden.

Summer Reading Continue reading

A lovely pre-birthday surprise from Holdfast magazine

Just when I was about to have the usual pre-holiday pleasures (mowing the lawn, checking those trousers still fit before you wash them, queuing up in Boots for insect repellent…), a lovely surprise arrived through the letterbox: the Holdfast Anthology #2, in which I am delighted to have a short story – Mr Gibson Checks In. (The story is exclusive to the anthology, having been selected from submissions for this ‘print only’ opportunity.)

Doubly delighted that the book is so beautifully designed and produced, and an especial thank you to Nelly Sanchez for illustrating it with an image that is pretty much exactly how I’d imagined Chevette would look.

(And a further thank you to Richard Hamblyn – not just an excellent teacher, but the inadvertent inspiration for the earlier, shorter version of this story. Speculative fiction is a whole new ball game for me, but one I can see myself exploring again. Demanding, challenging – and huge fun: a nice cocktail!)

And so back to the ironing pile, and then on to Sweden to be a year older. And arriving with an extra smile in my pocket thanks to this morning’s post.

Spring can really hang you up…

The transition from Spring to Summer feels like a ‘win some, lose some’ scenario some years. As the flowers fall off the wisteria – the portico over the patio has looked amazing, but then came the breezes and a lilac blizzard of falling flowers – so the roses come into bloom. There’s goodness if you wait for it, and stop focusing on the bad.

And life – in its literary moments – has been kind. There has been the usual torrent of ‘we’re sorry but this wasn’t quite what we were looking for’ emails in the inbox (as well as a couple of gratefully received ‘we really liked this, and you very nearly made the cut – please send us more work’ messages that read like they weren’t boilerplates), but I’m also hugely encouraged to have had stories appear in Issue 22 of Prole magazine, and in the very first issue of the – beautifully designed and produced – Token magazine (links on the right of the Home page, or on the Bibliography page if you’re minded to support the small presses and literary magazines that help to keep the art form alive). And one of my previously published stories will also be appearing in an US-published anthology later this year.

Elsewhere, I may be learning a valuable lesson in knowing your characters by an unexpected route: lyric writing. Writing lyrics to sing yourself is a matter of skill, but you are likely to already know your emotions, passions and concerns. Writing lyrics to be sung by someone of a different age, gender, sexual orientation and cultural background is a real challenge – especially when they are someone you don’t know that well. Whether this ongoing challenge will result in better stories remains to be seen, but hopefully a few people in Buckinghamshire will be judging the songs in performance over the summer.

Recent Reading

Harry Parker – Anatomy of a Soldier

A war story, set both in Afghanistan and in the UK as a soldier recovers from traumatic injury, may seem like an unlikely choice: it was read on recommendation, not for its content but its approach. I was experimenting with writing a story narrated by a musical instrument as it ‘observed’ its player, and asked friends for suggestions of books that used object narrators. This was among them, and I’m hugely glad that it was. The narrators – all 45 of them – are inanimate objects that range from grain spores and surgeon’s saws to handbags and artificial limbs, but the tale they collectively tell is – despite the distancing effect one might assume – hugely moving. Described, the book sounds like a very clever idea: read, it feels like a masterful balance of restraint and emotion – the cleverness of the approach doesn’t intrude at all.

Saleem Haddad – Guapa

And finally Amazon’s ‘You’d like this’ metric pays dividends. I’d actually been put off by the blurbs (gay man in Arab Spring setting, identity politics), which sounded warning sirens about checklists and an author dutifully ticking them off. These are concerns that Haddad has risen above skilfully here: a rich and complex book where the people read like complicated, imperfect and contradictory human beings and the everyday collides with the universal, the topical and the political. The tragic and the heartbreaking mixes seamlessly with the mundane and – mercifully – the comic in a book that reminded me in many ways of Christos Tsiolkas’ Loaded: there aren’t happy resolutions here, because life doesn’t work like that – and life is portrayed convincingly enough that the arc of the story feels lived rather than designed.

Eley Williams – Attrib. and other stories

If Guapa is rich in detail and content, the stories in Attrib are rich in a very different way. These stories are not ‘drunk on prose’: they have swallowed a whole shelf of dictionaries and are now working their way from optic to optic, necking books of proverbs, puns and rhetorical devices with gay abandon. It’s like reading a Dundee cake while drinking a pint of port, and the linguistic fireworks are hard not to enjoy.

But… once the cleverness sinks in, I wasn’t convinced by the residue in rather too many cases. The Alphabet and Bs both pack an emotional punch beneath their showy witticisms, but I’m not sure the same can be said for the other stories here: I’m left with huge admiration, but the actual stories don’t linger. I will read them again, to check what I have missed under the surface dazzle (it took me several stories, after all, to notice the almost entire absence of gender specifics about the characters in these stories).

Spring Soundtrack

Khalil Chahine – Noun: music by a Franco-Egyptian guitarist who has worked heavily in film music, this is richly ornate music that wears its orchestrations with dignity. Much more mature than his earlier work, this feels like a musician coming to fruition. Paris meets the Middle East, and accordions play alongside kotos.

Antoine Boyer and Samuelito – Coincidence: two young Turks of gypsy jazz and flamenco let rip on their guitars, with monstrous firepower but a matching musical sophistication that is startling given their youth. Yes, they play a Django song (Nuages), but they radically rework it – as they do Paco do Lucia’s Zyrab and – less expectedly – David Bowie’s Life on Mars. And they compose as well as they play. A startling record in more ways than one.

Renaud Garcia-Fons – La Vie Devant Soi: Garcia-Fons is a personal favourite, mining the same broad Euro-Arabic seam as Chahine in many of his outings although this album has a more French emphasis – his double bass virtuosity joins an accordionist and a tuned percussionist in music of surprising delicacy and wit. A lighter confection that much of his catalogue, but rich in charm.


The (T)ides of March, or the march of tides…

This is just a blog, not an awards ceremony or a reality show, so I’ll resist the temptation to say I feel blessed to have had another story published, although it’s definitely a honour and a pleasure.  (I’ve also just read Colum McCann’s advice to writers at Lithub and ‘Don’t be a dick’ is always a good maxim.) So, thank you to the editors of MIROnline for publishing Unstuck (click to read online), and especially to Sally Larsen for her eagle-eyed copyediting input: I still manage not to stumble through life telling people “I’m an author” – surely a phrase to be delivered in one’s best Leonard Nimoy? – but I feel slightly more like one today. (Thank you too to There Goes The Neighbourhood and ArtsGateway MK for recent opportunities to read my work publically

But it is a strange feeling to read yourself in published form, and this particular story retriggered a recent recurring thought: how rapidly seismic events seem to happening in the world and how unpredictable life feels recently. Most of the stories I write have quite long gestation periods, and cycles of revision – probably not an unusual situation, but one that can catch you on the hop when you re-read a work in progress several months down the line.

Stories may be one form of record of time passing (even if their plots are non-linear, the idea of ‘story’ certain implies a degree of Before and After), but I’m often conscious of the issue of contemporary references in fiction: stories not clearly set in the past where no-one uses a mobile or never checks their email feel as if these aspects are conscious omissions given their ubiquity. As Kevin Pickard wrote at electricliterature,how specifically you use cultural references can effect how specifically you place a story in a time period: everything has to happen at some actual time. But a story that is very knowingly set in 2017 but that doesn’t hint that time passes and things change may feel equally awkward – especially in 2019. While I’m not vain enough to think that I’m developing a timeless canon of investigations of human nature, a degree of timelessness – the way we think of decades having a particular character, perhaps, unless I want to make a specific time/event-related point – strikes me as a good thing, or something not be ashamed of attempting. It’s not that I don’t think a very precisely time-stamped kind of writing doesn’t have a place, it’s more that I think its place is probably somewhere closer to journalism or criticism.

But when social themes, culture and division seem to loom large, an observation or a story detail can feel unexpectedly dated or obsolete. The first draft of Unstuck, whose narrator is a young Slovak woman living in an English new town, was written in the autumn of 2015. Free movement of people was a reality that had yet to be seriously called in question, and an assumption: in a way, the story is partly built on it. Dorota’s reference to customers in her call centre voicing their wish that she might ‘go home soon’ was, then at least, a reflection of the background noise of racism and xenophobia that has always hummed in corners of English life. In the spring of 2017, with the rights of EU citizens to remain in the UK currently unsecured, that background note sounds louder – the words haven’t changed, but the reading of them probably has. If mobiles and email are things you need a reason not to mention, are Brexit, Trump, populism and the national mood joining them on the list of things a ‘contemporary’ story needs to reflect – or find plausible ways to omit?

March Reading

Edouard Louis – The End of Eddy
A book about growing up poor and gay in a passed over, post-industrial village in Northern France, this has caused quite a stir in its homeland. Knowingly unflinching, it covers a lot of very contemporary themes, not least the culture and politics of the white working class and the difficulty of social mobility (not least as it is frowned upon as a further abandonment). As a depiction of growing up gay in an environment where coming out will lead to shame, public humiliation or physical abuse (all of which he endures anyway), this is powerful and insightful writing, although the book blurbs slightly oversell the originality of these insights. (The book may lack the saccharine coating of Billy Elliott, but it’s not so far removed from it.) It is also a strong read in its descriptions of the circumstances that make populist political movements appealing to ‘the left behind’ – an acknowledged intention of the author. If there is blame here, it is directed to the circumstances that create the behaviours and attitudes the young protagonist must endure from those around him and from which  he escapes not just geographically but by reinventing himself (hence the title and the author’s dropping of his birth name).

What good the bookmay do them is more difficult to discern: they seem unlikely to read this unless, given this is billed as autobiography as much as fiction, they are the authors’ family or former neighbours: French press coverage suggests some have not taken kindly to their depiction, or dispute aspects of it. (As a reader, even a gay one from a working class background, there were moments were the ethics of writing about the living worried me a little). A book that raises a host of questions and has sparked debate across the Channel. As a book with more than a whiff of social purpose that its author maintains was expected to sell poorly, “Why write this?” is just one of them. A book I’ll call important more than great, but good certainly

Sjon – Moonstone (The Boy Who Never Was) Continue reading

Making it a year of culture/February reading

geronimoIs it too early to declare the year a mixed bag? If this was a plane journey, I think someone would be apologising for turbulence and advising us to keep our seat belts fastened. Certainly dancing in the aisles might lead to sanctioning. Or possibly sectioning…

My response so far has been to go full speed ahead on being cultural. (I live in Milton Keynes: think of this as a boats against the tide thing.) City Lit Talks Back was a great evening, where I was very honoured to read for the launch of Issue #5 of Shooter – and very pleased to do so for a large and very attentive audience. And there’s been other culture too – an evening of world-class guitar playing from Derek Gripper and Paulo Angeli that combined the gentle rhythms and melodies of the Cape with a level of mechanical and musical adventure that is almost beyond description. (Try a video!)

pygmy_editedMore recently, The Incite Project’s exhibition of photography from the conflicts of the last few decades was desperately moving: it’s on until May at the Victoria Art Gallery in Bath, and highly recommended.  We also ventured into the Hauser and Wirth Gallery in Bruton, and were delighted and powerfully struck respectively by the work of Djordje Ozbolt (left) and Elizabeth Frink.

And perhaps a little resilience is paying off too. A short story about the death of the gay village will appear in Issue 22 of Prole, while another piece inspired by the thought that life as an angel might not live up to the brochures will be published later this year by Fictive Dream. (I’ll be reading part of the latter at the wonderful There Goes The Neighbourhood on 14 March – details here, and an excellent event if you had a Tuesday night free.) Thank you to both of them for having faith in my work, and helping me to have a little too. Onward and – maybe, eventually – upward, even if that handcart to hell seems intent on gathering speed in a different direction.

Recent reading

frinkTim Murphy – Christodora  Continue reading

End of year report…

pre-raphaeliteSo long then, 2016. In the end, there were no teary farewells. Just a sigh of relief, like the moment a ghastly uncle finally decides he should start heading home now and you try not to rush to get his coat for him. It ended, as years so often do, with red wine, fireworks and Jools Holland. The latter threw in my favourite moment – a pleasant surprise that shook me out of the expected for a few moments. Imelda May – a truly wonderful singer, but hitherto the queen of contemporary rockabilly – sang a sultry blues in a long black dress, her 50s quiff consigned to the past. She stepped from pose to composure, and stole the show.

Maybe 2017 could be a year of re-invention and renewal after all. (And of buying more CDs, inevitably. Plus ça change and all that.) Eyes right, lad, and get marching…

For me, it’s starting with a flurry of promising things. A new jazz band is emerging, and made its debut a few days ago. Following a Polish heavy metal band, knowing your set is full of Brazilian saudades and jazzy sophistication, is an interesting experience, and thank you to the audience for carrying us through. The second anthology Holdfast magazine will arrive from the printers early in February, and in the meantime I’m delighted that In The Gut – which I think may be my best story (which is both horribly immodest, and a little like answering ‘which is your favourite child?’ – will appear in the next issue of Shooter, published next Friday. So now to rehearse, as I’ll be reading an extract at Waterstones, Tottenham Court Road, on 27 January (more details here).

Recent reading

Alexander Weinstein – Children of the New World

Continue reading