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.



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