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.

 

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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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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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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January’s reading pile…

Snow ChairMy thanks to the television schedulers of Britain for allowing me a December and January almost entirely free of distractions from the joys of a good book. Now if we could only do something about the weather…

Elvis Costello – Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink
Costello’s autobiography reveals almost more about the man than about the musician or the songwriter, but if you want to explore the hinterlands of such a rich song catalogue, this is an exhaustive tour guide. It could do with a little pruning, tbh, but it’s a fascinating insight into him, his view of the world – and especially his view of himself (to paraphrase one of his songs, I hope he’s happy now). His father’s impact is particularly telling, and the sections towards the end about his decline are very moving.

Patrick Gale – A Place Called Winter
A mixed bag for me. Gale writes beautifully and smoothly, and his protoganist had me hooked from early on with its explorations of life as gay man in the Victorian era – and a shy, modest man at that. I thought that reading an imagined life of a real relative would bother me ethically – putting thoughts and actions in a dead man’s head, and so on – but I was able to mostly let that go. Some of the scenarios – and especially the therapeutic community scenes – seemed like a fictional leap too far for me, however, and the long descriptive passages of subsistence farming in the wilds of Canada became a little too Dickensian (‘yes, I have the picture, now point the lens at something else…’). Ultimately, this is a kind of gay version of Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams, and it suffers in the comparison (Johnson says more in a third of the page count, and manages more nuance too.)

Bernard Cooper – Truth Serum
Another memoir – not usually my cuppa, but Cooper is such a good writer I overlooked that 🙂 (His Guess Again story collection remains a personal favourite.) Truth Serum takes the form of a series of linked autobiographical essays, the one about sighs is one of the most beautiful things I’ve read in years. Here’s a snippet:

“Before I learned that Venetian prisoners were led across it to their execution, I imagined that the Bridge of Sighs was a feat of invisible engineering, a structure vaulting above the earth, the girders and trusses, the stay ropes and cables, the counterweights and safety rails connecting one human breath to the next.”

Neil Bartlett – The Disappearance Boy
Every one of his novels seems very different to me, which makes each new one pot luck as a reader. The (terrific) beginning to this one is a red herring, although it reminded me of Golding’s Darkness Visible (a good thing). A thriller set in the world of cabaret and variety, it’s a deft period piece with a winning anti-hero. Slightly too much of the mechanics of magic acts sometimes, although they are far from irrelevant, and the arch narrative voice is delicious but might drive some people bananas. If you like your glamour faded, caught painting nail varnish over the ladder in its tights, this one’s for you. And it would make a cracking TV drama serial. Continue reading

September reading

The last few weeks have been light on the #amwriting side of life, but I have been displacing nicely with a fair amount of #amreadinginstead. More #amwriting to follow, and in the meantime a selection from the pile on the bedroom floor as follows…

Christos Tsiolkas – Merciless Gods

A short-story collection from a writer I’d label as ‘one of my favourite authors’ were I much given to sticking labels on things. As ever with Tsialkos, there is hard-hitting writing about sexuality, class, religion, race privilege and more – all the tropes from the novels are present and correct. As much a fan of the Tsialkos of Loaded as of Barracuda (for a critical theorist’s comments on the trajectory, read an article at the Sydney Review of Books, but be prepared for phrases like “progressive vision of a multicultural Australia is almost impossible to distinguish from an aspirational, bourgeois habitus that, in the greater scheme of Tsiolkas’s work, is clearly regressive” – which are hard to imagine many of Tsiolkas’ characters reading without resorting, to quote the article’s title, to ‘Frequent, Coarse Language’), my favourite pieces here are refinements rather than reiterations of his themes. “The Disco at the End of Communism” uses the eyes of a socially conservative narrator to view the social milieu of his recently deceased bohemian brother and weave an ambiguous picture of respect and revulsion, while the mother’s striving for posthumous understanding in ‘Porn 1’ reminded me of Bernard Cooper’s wonderfully moving “Graphology”. This is also very masculine writing – which certainly shouldn’t be taken to imply that its characters have a penchant for aftershave or cuff-links. ‘Raw’ is the word, and in several of its meanings. Like The Independent’s reviewer, I’m left pondering whether Tsiolkas’s ability to shock with the sheer power of his writing doesn’t sometimes sell his abilities short: the best moments here are not necessary the most shocking, but the most subtle.

Denis Johnson – Jesus’ Son

Like Tsialkos, an author whose short stories I’ve come too from a novella (in this case, the magnificent Train Dreams). The potentially thorny issue of fictionalised autobiography probably lies just below the surface with both books, although the barbs are from different parts of the human armoury – homosexuality for Tsiolkas, a past of drug and alcohol addiction for Johnson. He writes beautifully, poetically even – Johnson was first published, like a writer whose abilities with prose his work reminds me of, Michael Ondaatje, as a poet – although my lingering feeling on reading these stories was discomfort not at the subject matter (we are firmly in the worlds of addiction and losers, and the accompanying grimness and grime here) so much as at the tacit expectation that the reader will find them inherently fascinating. There’s a voyeuristic undertone to reading these tales, as well as an occasional nagging sensation that these are themes whose appeal to an almost adolescent nihilism are dependent on the sheer quality of the writing to lift them above a slew of less capable efforts in the same milieu. (Lost young men with their hands in the medicine jar may seem at shallow first glance like a rarity and a taboo, but I’m not sure you they’re exactly under-represented in contemporary literature. I realise Jesus’ Sun dates back to 1992, but even so…)

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Birkbeck Poets 7: Sometimes, what a Sunday evening needs…

… is the humanity, warmth and wisdom of a pub full of poets. With my ‘member of the audience’ hat on (although ‘the MC in the hat’ was absent-mindedly hatless on this occasion), last Sunday was a day when I most definitely did.

So this post is a thank you to all the poets who not only read such excellent and diverse work, ranging from the laugh out loud – whether at the joy of life or its absurdity – to the profound, but who also helped to create such an inclusive and welcoming atmosphere for readers and listeners alike. For once, I can type ‘thank you for sharing’ without a note of sarcasm.

Our apologies to those whose image we didn’t manage to capture (not least to Lesley Sharpe, who not only took these photos but organised the event with her customary aplomb), but the photos below are at least a partial memento of a fine evening.

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