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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A maddening lack of madeleines – The Proust Questionnaire

One of those weeks, and the mood is half fin de siècle and half
fin de l’après-midi. The double-bass of Michel Benita rumbles from the speakers, audible more through my feet than my ears over the pink noise of the tumble dryer. The Proust Questionnaire could probably be put to better use in drawing character maps for fiction, but the moment is more a case – and I cringe at joining the mountain of Bowie tributes, much as I admired the man’s work – of “Where Are We Now?”.

As with any profiling device, the answers here – certainly the ones in italic – would probably be different tomorrow. And then again on Thursday. And something entirely contradictory in February. So be it. For January 30th 2026, this is the lie of the land.

Your favourite virtue Justice. As an interim answer, while we’re waiting, patience
Your favourite qualities in a man Thoughtfulness
Your favourite qualities in a woman Ditto
What you appreciate the most in your friends Their continued existence and presence
Your main fault Laziness
Your favourite occupation Wandering
Your idea of happiness A hammock for two with a beautiful view
Your idea of misery Repetition. Especially a second time. Da Capo al Fine is dispiriting enough in a piece of music; in a life, it’s plain depressing.
If not yourself, who would you be? Without any particular hero, a difficult question to answer – surely the response should be aspirational? Jimmy Carter? Bowie?
Where would you like to live? South Island, NZ; Pisa; Lisbon. Places large enough to provide culture and anonymity but small enough to offer community.
Your favourite flower Night-scented stocks
Your favourite prose authors William Golding, J Robert Lennon, Graham Swift
Your favourite poets Thom Gunn, WS Graham, Auden
Your favourite heroes in fiction Christie Malry
Your favourite heroines in fiction Lady Macbeth, Renée Michel
Your favourite painters Mark Wright
Your favourite composers Gustavo Santaolalla, Custodio Castelo
Your heroes in real life My father, for his grace and absence of narcissism
Your favourite heroines in real life My maternal grandmother, for her determination
What characters in history do you most dislike Friedrich Hayek
Your heroines in World history Rosa Parks
What I hate the most Broccoli and banjos.
World history characters I hate the most Mostly the obvious candidates
The military event I admire the most Christmas Day Football Match, if I’m forced to answer
The reform I admire the most Universal suffrage, or any move towards equality
The natural talent I’d like to be gifted with Piano playing, singing
How I wish to die Painlessly, surrounded by my loved one
What is your present state of mind As jaded as one might anticipate at this age
For what fault have you most toleration? Anxiety
Your favorite motto Live and let live

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

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