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

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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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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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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