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

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No birds, no trees, no peace for the wicked…

img_0550_editedAh, November. Or is it ‘Argh, November’? The jury is still out, I suspect, waiting with baited breath until after the US election results – when as usual, I will spend a night cowering in front of a TV t find out what I could have just as easily learned by going to bed and listening to the morning news bulletin. Ah, but it’s the narrative, the tension…

While I wait (or maybe that should be we wait – you now, me and those pesky inner voice), good things arrive, like London buses, in a sudden huddle. The award-winning folk behind Holdfast magazine secured their crowdfunding, and Anthology #2 is now at the printers. I might not have been prophetic enough enough to see it coming, but I will very shortly be a published writer of sci-fi. (Or perhaps of a story in the clothes of the genre that’s really about future-scepticism and eternalities? Buy a copy and decide.)

tgtnnov2016Another story, Bro, has just appeared at the US site, Chelsea Station Magazine (and a dark little adventure it is too – even the dog has a bad morning), and I’ll be reading an extract from it tonight in Hackey at the excellent There Goes The Neighbourhood literary salon. And a third is currently shortlisted for a competition and the wait – another wait! – is on for the results.

Elsewhere in this fractured gig-economy life, I’ve delivered a lecture to University students on the role of copy-readers in helping writers produce their strongest possible fiction, and a new jazz band is in the offing. The idea struck a chord. G13m9/6, if I’m not much mistaken.

Recent reading

Adam Haslett – You Are Not A Stranger Here and Imagine Me Gone

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The hardest part of writing

theditAt first, I thought the answer was obvious. The editing, the revising, the scrutinising, reviewing and reconsidering – well, easiest isn’t the right word, but they’re probably my most liked. Twenty-plus of editing just about any kind of text almost certainly helps. Reading the story aloud helps too: if the sentence feels clumsy to say, or there’s that one word you always thought probably wasn’t quite right? It wasn’t. Do something about it.

Editing needs a certain mindset though. Don’t do it for reassurance, or tell yourself you’re ‘good at this’. You’re editing it because it needs work, so get on with it. Leave it alone for a long time if you can: wait till forgotten how the story goes. As far as you can, imagine it’s the work of someone you want to help but making the story clearer, the characters better drawn. A certain aggressiveness – an attitude to the text that says ‘no, this won’t do’ – helps. But editing has a joyous side too: the satisfaction of leaving something better than you found it. Continue reading

Summer reading pile, Holdfast #2, and potential excitement

euroejectorsAlthough the summer often felt like inspiration had flown, like some inverse migration ritual, retrospect shows it in a different light. Amidst the remorseless flow of atrocities and the shock of Brexit, I managed to get a year older without shedding a tear. Amid the hills of Frome, I may even had shed a pound or two. Albeit, mostly to market stallholders

maninhat And then the same again at WOMAD, drifting happily from one musical discovery to another (while still slightly shamefully, given the comfortable whiteness of the audience – any more middle-class self-righteousness and one could have been at a Corbyn rally, dahling…)

There were one or two other pleasant surprises along the way. Although a lot of my writing explores the relationship between past and present (and individuals’ relationships with both), I haven’t often though of this as translating into the labels ‘sci fi’ or ‘speculative fiction’. A love of the works of William Gibson, however, may force me into a rethink.

P1030675_editedA piece written as both homage to and pastiche, inspired as much as his non-fiction collection as his novels, has been selected for inclusion in the second printed Holdfast anthology. Fingers crossed that they collect another British Fantasy Society award for this, and I’m hugely flattered to be included. If you’d like to chip into their Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign, the link is here.

Another story, Epilogues, has also been longlisted for the Sunderland Short Story Award in association with Waterstones, to my delight and surprise. Inspired by listening to care home workers and to the things they usually don’t say, it’s a tribute to listening and observing as a way of guiding your own focus – and an exploration of the impact of stereotypes on men and women when it comes to emotional self-management. But enough about me…

Selected Summer Reading

Matthew Griffin – Hide

P1030627_editedIf a story about two gay men in their eighties living in isolation, one of whom is declining into dementia, sounds off-putting… think twice. I won’t deny that this is a grim read in places (and one section that follows from one character’s profession as a taxidermist is particularly harrowing), but it is also a stunningly beautifully written account of how love can endure in the most remarkable circumstances. And of the price it can extract along the way: things are only truly grim if there was already an underlying care. If recent generations have ‘reclaimed queerness’, Frank and Wendell’s reaction to a late 1940s world that would reject their love is very different: they embrace the outcast isolation that the world wishes upon them, choosing it over separation and losing each other.

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April’s reading pile…

The last two months have felt like hibernation, although a flick through the calendar reminds me that I’ve been to Oxford Literary Festival (where the preview of Jonathan Meades’ next TV programme was a witty and typical insightful take of Mussolini’s fascism), cheered my brother-in-law on through the London Marathon, stood in Pisa and Florence in the rain and still enjoyed it, read more stories at MK Gallery’s excellent Open Mic Night, and discovered that I will have a short story published in a sci-fi anthology. In my case, a sci-fi pastiche, which is perhaps why I didn’t see this strange turn of events coming. And in the meantime, I’ve been reading too…

David Szalay – All That Man Is

teddybear_editedPitched as a novel, this is in truth either a composite novel or a short story sequence, depending on which you prefer: given the lack of character continuity, my preference is the latter. I was attracted to the underlying notion of showing ‘man’ through his ages although, as I read on, my quibbles began to multiply.  Not only are these different men at different ages, in locations across contemporary Europe, but their pan-European selection appears to choose to neglect cultural difference (of the men particularly, but the settings to a lesser degree) to underline a presumed point of shared psychological existence. The book also, I suspect, suffered from being read in parallel with watching Grayson Perry’s All Man TV series, which similarly explored masculinity and emotional reticence, and how even the toughest nuts may have emotional wisdom that appearance belies.

Whereas Perry found emotional intelligence in unexpected places and left the viewer with a form of optimism for at least one human gender, Szalay’s world reads more like an ironic celebration of the male loser. Maybe redemption isn’t his thing, but there is more sad-eyed masturbation in dingy bathrooms here than you can shake a… I also couldn’t help but notice that it never really occurs as ‘self-pleasuring’, something that these men seem incapable of conceiving, even metaphorically. (These men are also all straight: unexpectedly, this was a book that made me gladder to be gay than Gregory Wood’s Homintern – an encyclopaedic account of the social history of gay men (and lesbians) in the arts in the 19th and 20th centuries.)

In individual stories, the emotional greyness and the general atmosphere of ‘meh’ might work better: that sense of ‘meh’ also accumulates with the word count, however, and if ‘everything is meh’ is the final authorial meta-point than a more arresting style might perhaps have helped. While there were glimmers of optimism in the backpackers of his first story, the sense in reading on is not so much of big dreams that eternally shrink or retreat, but of eternal greed – for sex or money – that is rarely fulfilled. These are universal themes, of course, but mining them demands more freshness than I felt was delivered. Some of the author’s targets – it feels like an apt word – also had an air of fish-and-barrel about them too: randy estate agents, failing oligarchs and amoral doorstepping journalists seemed a little too clearly drawn from the stock character library. And in adding to the general atmosphere of downbeat hopeless, making one character wear black nylon underpants felt like over-doing it. Does anyone wear those in 2016, even a (not that) poor Hungarian immigrant?

The poor sap in question was, however, the one story that really moved me. Balasz, the Hungarian hooker’s minder with the presumably sweaty testicles, bore real feelings for Emma that came through all the more poignantly for both their genuine nature and his – and the reader’s  – awareness of their obvious futility, undermined by his lack of status and his surfeit of shyness – and knowledge of a love in vain.  If there is a real difficulty for the reader in this book – beyond the humdrum lives, and a line a prose whose sometime flatness amplifies the mundane more than illustrating it – it is the difficulty of empathy. More than just literally, most of these men really are wankers.

Fred Uhlman – Reunion

frotilleries_editedMuch younger men: boys, in fact. Teenagers in 1930s Germany, lightly drawn in a novella whose near weightlessness is negated by a hefty velvet punch. If a story that marries an awkward teenage friendship and the rise of Nazism sounds like one story will swamp the other, then it’s a mark of Ulhman’s skill that it doesn’t: indeed, the difficulty of Hans’ friendship with Konradin is initially born both of the former’s shyness and the social gulf between his Jewish family and the latter’s aristocratic stock.

Published when Ulhman was 70, his ability to capture the gauche awkwardness of teenage emotions and relationships is startling. It’s delicate too: thought it’s tempting to add a homoerotic gloss that the book at best only very lightly implies, this is essentially a story about friendship, its potential intensity and its ability to occur in unlikely or unpromising combinations of people. (Indeed, to read more into it than is there misses the point – this is story about what can happen to innocence and good intentions.)

The political backdrop is only lightly sketched, making its main entrance when we realize that Konradin’s reluctance to acknowledge their friendship to his family is born not of shame but of a desire to protect Hans from his anti-Semitic parents. Eventually separated, as much by Hans’ parents decision to send him to America as Hitler comes to power as by any action of the boys themselves, at the very end of the novella we witness discovering what was to become of his friend. The final sentence is breathtaking.

Mothering Sunday – Graham Swift

maples_edited, I’m a Swift fanboy. England and Other Stories was terrific, and I’m an admirer of most of his novels too. This – another novella – is, as other reviewers have commented, almost a case of ‘how Downton Abbey might have turned out if someone rather better had written it’.

Mostly (but, somewhat sneakily, not entirely) taking place on a single day, Swift shows us 1924 as both simultaneously the past and somewhere strangely similar: yes, Dolores, housemaids in 1924 did know what a semen stain looked like. And a cock, for that matter. First hand, as it were. They said ‘cock’, too – or at least when they were out of uniform. If the affair between maid and scion of neighbouring big house seems far-fetched, I suspect it’s the shock of realising that its appears genuine, despite his waiting fiancée. And in Jane, the maid, we have a terrific narrator: sharp-witted, inquisitive and keenly observing. In a clever inversion of a traditional sense of fortune, she gets her unspoiled – or so it seems – morning with her lover because she is an orphan: it is Mothering Sunday, and all the other staff have a day’s leave, fulfilling family duties. She’s aware of the tide of history too: the big houses are homes to families whose status is in decline, and many of whose sons were killed in the preceding war: they are, quite literally, dying out. Her orphanhood, by contrast, is almost an opportunity, a platform from which she can turn herself in whoever she wishes to be.

When – no spoilers – tragedy strikes, it is the start of Jane’s real self-discovery, a turning point. As the novella unfolds, we see how her fascination with narrative and with what can or should be withheld evolves, and the novella gains a meta-narrative touch that – for once – almost entirely absolves the ‘novels about writers talking about writing’ nightmare (a personal hate that had me wincing here, but Swift just about pulls it off).

Like Reunion – although much tricksier in its approach – this is a slim text that packs more punch than expected. I’m going to call this ‘lovely’, but I wouldn’t want to imply that it’s pretty or nice: it’s much better than that.

April soundtrack

Lisboa String Trio: Materia – a recent discovery, the line up (portuguese guitar, classical guitar and double bass) and location would suggest instrumental fado, possibly with a classical/chamber twist. The reality – as the sleeve notes rather over-poetically explain – is contemporary jazz that weaves distinctively Portuguese flavours through its textures. Beautiful, fresh music (and, disappointingly, more compelling than their second CD, fine listening that this is).

Ricardo Rocha: Voluptuaria – more Portuguese guitar (it must be the excitement of knowing mine will soon by back from the repairers), although we are definitely much more in the fado realm here. But this is the Coimra rather than the Lisbon school: solo guitar, clattery and spiky in places, and very much building on the traditions of Carlos Paredes and Pedro Caldeira Cabral, both of whom Rocha covers amongst a set of mostly original compositions. Virtuous playing, but this will be challenging if you are expected soft melodies and aching female vocals.

February’s reading pile…

Andre Aciman – Call By Your Name
italyHaving worked in web development for some years (and having thankfully now escaped), I’ve always been suspicious of algorithm-generated recommendations: just because me and X both enjoyed a particular book or film doesn’t mean I share their taste. Amazon have, however, been recommending vehemently that I read this for quite some time, and its user reviews made a second-hand copy feel worth a punt.

For me, it was a very ‘February’ book, despite its sunny Mediterranean setting: it all went on longer than you’d anticipated, and that feeling of optimism got harder to maintain. There’s some very pretty and elegant prose here, and the pre(co)cious narrator was initially a refreshingly different voice. The ‘will they/won’t they’ tension on which the novel rests was acutely drawn. As pages turned, however, that prose became increasingly cloying and the appeal of that narrator to his handsome prey/hunter – or to this reader – became harder to fathom. I began to care rather less whether they ‘did’ or not. To misquote Rocky Horror, all that quivering with antici… pation just got tiring. (The final chapter is very good, but the waiting went on far too long. I had already concluded that it was not Oliver that Elio really needed to get over, but himself.)

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