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 

A book that arrived following Gay’s The Word’s online recommendations, and landed with a hefty thump on the doormat. The novel takes its name from a building in New York’s East Village, which acts as the epicentre for its exploration of a number of lives over several decades as the AIDS crisis and its aftermath play out in the city.

This is a novel for the lover of the epic sweep: though the main cast of characters is small, the scope of the writer’s ambition is large – and this is not a short read. It is also surely powerfully informed by the author’s background in AIDS journalism: much here – at least in terms of the novel’s background – is factual, or drawn from real events. The author’s reading from it at a recent Polari Salon brought the pages to life vividly, although it would be unfair to say that the pages lack vitality or energy.

I can’t put my hand on my heart and call it flawless, however: the non-linear chronology takes quite a chunk of the book’s 400+ pages to really pay dividends, serving more to confound than illuminate in earlier chapters, and there are moments where the need for exposition gives it a very clunky feel (some of these pages read rather more like journalism than fiction). Nor does it quite live up to the publisher’s pull quote on the front cover – “The Bonfire of the Vanities for the age of AIDS”: this is, in truth, more the saga of a group of New Yorkers, of whom several of the central characters are white, heterosexual or both, and HIV negative. But it is a compassionate book with believable and compelling characters, that honours those who did not survive those years and found ways of doing the right thing no matter their other failings. Recommended, but you might want a literary side order (Derek Jarman’s diaries, perhaps?).

Sarah Day – Mussolini’s Island

img_0591Judging by one online interview, Sarah Day spotted the same item on the BBC website a few years ago that I did – the internment of a group of gay men from Sicily on San Domino island by the Mussolini regime that was hardly compassionate but inadvertently created a gay community that lived without denial. The basis for a story if ever I met one (and congratulations to Sarah for turning it into a novel – I got as far as an as yet unpublished short story!) Given the limited documentation of these events – like concentration camp survivors, the men affected returned to lives that returned them to clandestine secrecy – the underlying facts are grounded in truth, but the remainder here is fiction. And compelling fiction it is too.

While one motivation of the characters’ actions is probably obvious from that synopsis, like Christodora this is novel that deploys a non-chronological timeframe and does so to incrementally explore the more complex interplay of the personal, the sexual and the political by feeding in a back-story that slowly reveals closely-guarded secrets. Though there are times where this approach to continuing intrigue threatens to try the reader’s patience, it is ultimately successful – the pay-offs here are largely tragic, but they are certainly delivered, and the reasons for the characters’ reticence increasingly believable as each nugget is revealed. It’s tempting to lapse into liberal cliche and describe this as a novel that ‘tells an untold story’ – and this is a little documented moment of 20th century history – but it’s better than that: it’s a compelling exploration of behaviour in extremis, and what people will do to and for each other in desperate situations. Highly recommended (and like Christodora, also beautifully read at Polari by its author).

February Soundtrack

Derek Gripper – Blomdoorns: composed and performed on a custom made eight-string guitar, this is relatively early entry in Gripper’s catalogue, but a beautiful one. Tranquil but not supine, this has a gentle strength in a masterly performance of music that may not necessary be complex but is rich and rewarding nonetheless.

Daniel Herskedal – Slow Eastbound Train: an album by a Norwegian tuba and bass trumpet player is the kind of description that probably sounds alarms, but this is stately, absorbing music where the richer lower register tonality of the brass instruments is thoughtfully deployed. Virtuosity applied with a careful brush rather than a palette knife, and all the better for it.
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