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.


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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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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The Joy of Reading (Out Loud)

MK GalleryWhatever I may or may not have said about the difference between performing music and performing literature, I think I have stumbled across a similarity. With music, there is always a feeling of apprehension when you perform a piece publicly for the first time, and one that goes beyond ‘oh Christ, am I going to remember all the chord changes and the song structure’. Especially when something is a little unexpected from your main repertoire, there is a rather more fraught personal doubt: “how are they going to respond to this?”

Most of my fiction is fairly serious in tone. There are jokes – because there are jokes in life,: they’re part of what gets us through our darker moments, after all. A laugh can’t literally light a candle, but it can make the darkness feel a little warmer for a moment. So I got on my feet to read at Milton Keynes Gallery’s Spoken Word Open Mic night last night feeling more apprehensive than usual. The story was inspired by witnessing another gay couple have what can only be described as a ‘domestic’ about the responsibilities of childcare, and I realised that – sometimes at least – the age old dynamics of ‘but doing the kitchen is your job’ can sneak up on even those you’d expect to be the most eager to avoid them. As the moment was also witnessed by a young child, who later that evening asked me why my partner and I don’t have children, I wondered if there was a way of taking what is traditionally a children’s story format and using that to address a rather adult theme. (“Here’s your answer, although you may not fully understand it yet…”)

A Day Out is still a work in progress: my starting point in stylistic terms – the familiar Janet and John stories – turns out to be very challenging to write. The language has to be kept very simple, and quickly becomes repetitive: you have to respect the format while perverting it. Seemingly innocent questions can carry a substantial weight of irony, but applying it is like verbal jenga – you’re perpetually worried that the structure will collapse. And the audience has to do quite a lot of the work too: you have to let them in on the underlying joke early on so they can grasp what you’re trying to do.

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Sayonara 2015

Another year gone, already? A year ago, I wrote:

“At the broad, general level, one of those ‘thank the deity of your choice that that’s over and done with’ years. All the horrors present and correct […] and another low mark for effort for humanity. Plus ça change, eh?”

and I could pretty much leave this post there were I feeling utterly despondent. Yet, although my dreams of reviving the insults ‘cockwomble’ or ‘git’came to nowt, I still have a dwindling supply of hope…

Personally, I leave the year with four more published short stories to my name and having had more opportunities to read both prose and poetry to live audiences: as last year, far more than I hoped for. After the beginner’s luck of 2014 (66% of stories sent into the world accepted and published), 2016 will be – and I say this as a promise to myself – the year of not being disheartened that the percentage rate is heading closer to the level of a typical British saver’s ROI. And the year of making a PhD application.

So… gong time. Most of the following things improved the year from time to time, unless the category headings suggest otherwise, and I’m grateful to those that brought them into being –  Continue reading