‘City of Words’, I titled a recent article about Nottingham for The Author, but I’ve since discovered that, when it comes to UNESCO City of Literature status, Dublin coined this phrase some years ago! We’ve just been to the first conference for the Cities of Literature network, with seventeen of the twenty cities represented. This couldn’t have come at a better time for Nottingham, as we find our feet as a City of Literature and prepare to hire our first director (applications are open until June 13th). I’ll be reporting back to the board on a load of strategic areas and future possibilities when we meet this Thursday, but here are a few observations.
For a start, there are signs or window stickers that use Dublin’s UNESCO logo in every appropriate venue, reminding residents and announcing to visitors that they are in a Creative Literary city. It’s not expensive and we ought to do the same soon. Secondly, it was great to be in a big room (in the Pearse St library where the Dublin City of Literature offices are) with such a group of dedicated, creative, interesting people – mostly directors or employees of cities of lit, with one councillor (from the smallest city of lit, Óbidos) and two other chairs – Margaret from Dublin and Abigail who, like me, was covering for an unavailable director (congratulations to Edinburgh’s Ali Bowden, who has just had a baby daughter). I learnt a lot from them. That’s Celeste and Julita from Óbidos standing as JJ from Krakow, who coordinates the network, gives Dublin’s Jane Alger a thank-you present in the photo below.
And I’d like to add my thanks to Jane and her team here, too. Irish hospitality is, of course, legion and we were looked after magnificently, put up in a great hotel opposite Trinity College, taken to a reception at the Mayor’s mansion (see photo above) and a meal afterwards, given a private tour of the Book of Kells and Trinity’s library, given a bus tour of Dublin’s literary sites, including the James Joyce Museum and tower and the huge house where Samuel Beckett grew up, which was a stark contrast to the modest terrace that Seamus Heaney bought when he got a job as a Head of English and stayed in for the rest of his life. We also passed rather bigger piles belonging to Enya, Bono and Van Morrison. This is the door that Joyce climbed a ladder to get to when he went to stay with Oliver St John Gogarty in an episode that formed the first chapter of Ulysses (follow the link for a drawing of the top of the tower, where we went next, and took numerous photos, one of which is now my profile pic on facebook (this links to a photo album if you’re on there) and Twitter. That photo and the one below by Sue.
On the last night we forsook the literary pub crawl for a visit to the packed Trinity theatre for the first appearance in Western Europe of Nobel Laureate, Svetlana Alexievich,
which was fascinating, then found our way to Keogh’s pub, where there was a traditional music session in an upstairs room and the Guinness was top notch. Thanks again to Jane and everybody in Dublin for hosting this very useful conference, that is bound to lead to new collaborations and which I hope will become an annual event, one that we can host one day. Two final points. Several people expressed concern about the state of UK libraries, which used to be seen as a beacon but are becoming regarded as a disaster zone (I repeatedly explained how Nottingham has protected ours, as befits our new status). And, finally, it wasn’t discussed formally, but in a group of talented people, primarily from Western Europe, all committed to creating international cooperation, there was general disbelief and much trepidation about the possibility that the UK might leave the EC and what the consequences might be for each individual’s own country. Just saying.
In June 2016, Shoestring Press publish ‘Provenance’, my new & collected short stories. There are eighteen, ranging from my first published piece, ‘Witchcraft’ (which appeared in Ambit in 1989) through to four previously unpublished stories (of which one – ‘The Way It Works’ – is a substantial, five-part story), written last year. The pieces cover the full range of my work, with subjects from music to middle-age and friendship to art fraud. I’m very proud of this work and I’d be delighted if you wanted to pre-order it a discount. (£10 post-free, as compared to £12.99). Furthermore, if you order by May 9th, you will have your name listed as a subscriber in the back of the book.
The subscription idea, which helps decide the print run and guarantee sales, is something Shoestring has occasionally done before. This time, I’ve persuaded publisher John Lucas (a man who refuses to use email!) to accept electronic payment, by using this PayPal link (put your name as you’d like it to appear in the book by clicking the plus sign on the ‘special instructions to seller’ link that appears after you sign in). Or you can send a cheque to the address on the attached flyer, which tells you more about the book. If you prefer to pay by post or would like to see the subscription flyer for the collection, you can download a flyer by clicking here.
Before you ask me about the cover, it’s explained by the title story, ‘Provenance’, and if you want to know more than that, you’ll have to buy the book. There will be an eBook at some point, but Shoestring don’t do them, and persuading John to take electronic payments is enough of a revolution for one year. Until then, I’d much rather you bought the print book and support one of our best small presses. I’m thrilled to be published by Shoestring, which doesn’t do a lot of prose (when we were doing the UNESCO City of Literature bid, we worked out that it’s the UK’s third biggest poetry publisher) but the prose it does do is brilliant – like Derek Buttress’s fiction and Philip Callow’s superb memoir, Passage From Home. I’m proud to be in such company. It’s important to support small presses and the work they do. I’d like to thank Shoestring and the editors of every small magazine and anthology that has published my work since the very beginning of my writing career, now in its 27th year. These days, when big publishers tend to concentrate on potential best-sellers, we need them more than ever.
Funny old week, including a 37 hour journey with a thirteen hour time difference, several hours in A & E (the two may be related: got great care from a junior doctor on the eve of the strike, but not one bed was available) and a visit from China by my old friend Martin Stannard, a poet and critic of some renown, but far less renown than he deserves. He’s one of the most original, interesting, influential and entertaining poets the UK has produced in the last thirty odd years. I’ve been reading his stuff since 1988 and got to know him not long afterwards, due to his connection with John Harvey‘s Slow Dancer press. John brought him here to read and I got him to come and work with my A level students. He moved near Nottingham in ’92 and was a Royal Literary Fund Fellow at NTU, where I teach part-time, in 2007, before moving, permanently, to China, where he teaches English culture and literature in a university. But we’ve stayed in close touch. On Twitter, you’ll often find me plugging his daily notations: One Million Elephants Couldn’t Begin To Understand.
Some poems in Martin’s new Leafe collection, his first for several years, Poems for the Young at Heart started life on that blog. It’s a terrific, wide-ranging collection that showcases Martin’s versatility, wit, ambition and contrariness. Plus old fashioned things like wisdom, compassion and philosophical musings. We were discussing the word contrarian when he came to stay with us this week. I was saying how it suited the Nottingham character, but also the Stannard style (albeit he’s from Reading, via East Anglia). For instance, the new collection starts with a bunch of his Pandora poems, Martin told me, precisely because he knew that these were the ones that many people (including me) would like least. Once, when I gave him a reference for a job, stressing how great he was with students, the employer rang me up to check that Martin wasn’t as cruel as some took him to be, because they had only read his criticism (he got the job). His reviews are rigorous, personal and idiosyncratic. They can be merciless. Exactly the kind of criticism we need, I would argue, in an era where the same poets get endlessly brown-nosed to poetry’s (and their) detriment.
It’s uncomfortable stuff, sometimes, but surely criticism ought to be uncomfortable? On Tuesday night, before I fell sick, I took Martin to see a great Rough Trade instore by Field Music, and he loathed them, for reasons that he set out in great detail. We agreed to disagree. The first time I met him, he was doing a joint reading with Simon Armitage, pre-Zoom, and I said something to him about his poem The Flat Of The Land, which I’d looked at with A level students. Martin told me I’d completely misunderstood him. Simon, a diplomat, broke the immediate tension: ‘nothing like getting it wrong’, he said. I’m not sure how he’d feel about this recent take-down of his selected poems, which Martin reviewed for Stride, where you can read a lot of his criticism. But, hey, he’s probably our next poet laureate, he can take it.
Talking of taking it, Martin’s influenced a lot of writers, though his style is so individual that it’s impossible to copy. He has a lot in common with the second generation of New York poets like Paul Violi and Charles North or, most recently, Mark Halliday, with whom he has collaborated. I kept him in touch with some of our recent plagiarism debates (no names here, for the whole thing has become very tedious, with trolls and witch hunters expounding pomposities re supposed ‘crimes’ that would have seen Bob Dylan and William Shakespeare hung, drawn and quartered multiple times during their careers). Martin pointed out to me that he’d noticed how one of the accused had ripped him off and, rather than make a big public fuss, he’d written a poem about it, which he’d published on Stride and which also appears in the new collection. It’s a great poem and an ideal, witty response. So, just before we set out to Wednesday’s Jazz and Poetry, I asked him if he’d read it. Martin being Martin, he said no. And Martin being Martin, he later changed his mind. Here it is.
Thanks to Stannard fan Alan Baker for publishing the excellent new collection and introducing Martin on Wednesday night when I was indisposed. It was a terrific reading. I gather the lunchtime NTU one he gave was also terrific. Doubtless the one he did in Brighton last night was, too. For those who missed the three readings ie most people, I’ve posted all the videos from the Guitar Bar to my YouTube channel and some will be on the Jazz and Poetry Facebook. But check out the video above for one of his best poems and do buy the new book, which I read slowly, carefully and with great pleasure over my recent break in the Antipodes. It’s ‘a major book by a major British poet’ as Ian McMillan says on the back cover and it says a lot about the insular, backslapping British poetry scene that such an accessible, enjoyable and original poet isn’t better known.
He knew, of course, throughout the writing and recording of this album, that it would be his last. So many songs about death, the afterlife, such generosity of spirit. I haven’t fallen for a Bowie album as heavily since Scary Monsters, 35 years ago. He made a handful of good albums after that, Outside and Heathen probably the best of them, but none as brave or consistent as this. I’m glad I had time to come to love Blackstar before it became so inexorably associated with his death. Bowie made his death a work of art, as his producer Tony Visconti pointed out earlier today, but none of us spotted it. Even the (now unbearably poignant) video for Lazarus was taken as related to the New York play it was supposedly written for, rather than a macabre farewell. There was just one repeated line that threw me when I was listening again and again to Dollar Days, the lovely penultimate track: If I never see the English evergreens I’m running to, it’s nothing to me, it’s nothing to see. An odd farewell to England, I thought. Turns out it was his farewell to life. Resigned, wise, lovely. Hope he wasn’t too far gone to hear the fantastic notices that Blackstar received when it was released on Friday, his 69th birthday, and found out that it went straight to number one. Because, while he nearly always stayed true to his artistic integrity, our David did like to have a hit.
I’m going on local TV later to talk about what Bowie meant to me, and thinking about that now. First heard him in early ’71: Holy Holy on Radio Luxembourg. Loved him since 1972 and Ziggy Stardust, when everyone my age (14) discovered him. The song that absolutely captivated me was Five Years. Bought all the records, and the bootlegs. Was on holiday for his famous Rock City visit in 1997, but saw him play a fantastic set three years later, at Glastonbury (it appears in my novel Festival too), then went, with Sue and both Mikes to see his final tour, at the NEC, where we had seats right at the front, and where he was terrific. Over the last few weeks, my reading at the end of most evenings, after I’ve finished the latest chapter of the book I’m reading, has been an entry or two from Chris O’Leary’s terrific Rebel Rebel, the first volume of a superb series of analyses of every song that Bowie recorded. It began life on this fine blog, where, today, Chris has made a space for people to pay their tributes. This is mine. I rarely write about the deaths of people I didn’t know, but Bowie was a huge part of my life and the lives of many people close to me. I started the morning comforting my partner, then talking it over with a poet friend in China, a few years older than me, who is equally devastated. Then I went to a meeting with a city councillor who had clearly been wiping away the tears. It’s not what Bowie meant to me I need to talk about, it’s what he meant to all of us. How great art brings us together, reinforcing our humanity, inspiring us to be better. The video below is of the magical first moments I saw him, when he arrived early on stage that night in 2000, playing to the biggest Glastonbury crowd ever – over 200,000 people – the first of several numbers from what – if push came to shove – is probably my favourite Bowie album, Station To Station. We were still trying to find a good place to stand as he came on, and at first, his hair was so long, I thought the screens were showing a video from the first time he played Glastonbury, in 1971. But it wasn’t. It was Bowie, live. And he was brilliant.
I don’t have books of the year, as I don’t read books by year. I read a handful of new books, especially poetry, as soon as they come out but, mostly, they pile up. I buy hardbacks that I know I’ll want to hold onto (eg the new Frantzen and Elvis Costello’s autobiography), but their high price doesn’t include the biggest expense involved in a thorough read: my time. As often I’ll wait for the paperback to come out or buy it on Kindle when I see a good deal. I don’t like reading to feel like a duty (except when it is a duty because I’m marking it or reading for other professional reasons). And I like to be partially guided by serendipity. For instance, I was sorting out a huge pile of books in the front room the other day and came upon Tolkien’s Gown by Rick Gekoski, which I’d started, then let get buried, which has now become my bedtime read.
An exception to the above is comics (and, to continue the City of Literature theme, I see comics and song lyrics as being just as much part of our literature as plays and poems). There are writer/artists whose every work I read as soon as it comes out eg Adrian Tomine, Seth, Alan Moore, the Hernandez Brothers and, lately, Ed Brubaker. I came across Brubaker when he took over from Bendis on his excellent Daredevil run (Daredevil is the only new superhero comic I ever read, unless you count Alias, also by Bendis, currently on Netflix as the engaging Jessica Jones). I spotted it in Nottingham’s Page 45 store and was intrigued by its ’40s film noir style and setting. I devoured the comics as they came out, then realised it was in three four-part arcs (the first two now in book form), and decided to save the last arc until it was complete. I survived the wait by reading all five volumes of its predecessor, Fatale, which I liked a lot but isn’t quite as fully achieved as The Fade-Out.
Issue 12 came out this week and, yesterday, I reread issue 8 then had a slow read of the final four. It’s a satisfying, superbly structured, well-rounded story, with outstanding artwork by Sean Philips. Somebody’s bound to make a movie of it but there’s too much to fit in. The Boardwalk Empire team could do it justice in a mini-series. It’s a completely grown-up comic, set in the aftermath of the horrors of the Second World War. It’s shot through with cynicism yet full of tender spots, with good insights into relationships and a firm sense of Hollywood history (there are some good short prose pieces about this at the back of every issue, too).
The Fade-Out is the best new comic I’ve read in ages and fully justified repeated visits to the store to see if the new issue’s out yet. I could have saved half my money and had one complete, satisfying binge had I waited for the inevitable fat paperback of the whole thing. But it’s more than habit that draws me to the serialised story. I love the shared experience, watching a series develop, reading the writer’s comments on the letters page (you never get those in the collections) as it evolves. Feeling part of it, rather than a passive consumer. The buggers do take up a lot of space though. Before I go to this book launch (for a refugee charity anthology that contains only my second poem of the century, if there are any Belbin collectors out there), I need to create some shelf space to put them in…