Nottingham’s free monthly listings and culture magazine, Leftlion, has been unfailingly supportive of the city’s UNESCO City of Literature bid, and this month’s issue carries a long interview with me about the bid. If you live in Nottingham, you can pick up a copy all over the place, from my local greengrocer, Thompsons, through to Broadway, Five Leaves Bookshop and Rough Trade. But if you’re not, and want to read it online, click here. Oh, and, the online version has an extra question, towards the end, where I talk about the next Bone and Cane novel, due this autumn. More on that anon.
A week tonight, I’m off to see Elvis Costello for the umpteenth time over the last 35 years. Solo, for, I think, the third time. Here’s a recent appearance he made on David Letterman’s farewell series of shows, performing a medley of his own ‘Everyday I Write the Book’ and Nick Lowe’s ‘When I Write the Book.’ Wonder if we can get him to endorse the bid?
Last night I went to see Amir Amirani’s feature length documentary, ‘We Are Many’, which centres on 2003’s world-wide demonstrations against the imminent invasion of Iraq, which is officially released today. I had three reasons for going. I met Amir many years ago and his older brother Taghi (also a renowned documentary director) is an old friend. I was unable to go on the massive march, because my mother had died suddenly just three days before. My youngest brother, Richard, went on the family’s behalf and I remember my dad talking about ‘warmongers’ at Mum’s funeral, which took place the day before the invasion.
Thirdly, I’m about to start writing the next novel in my Bone and Cane sequence, which will be about the parliament during which the invasion took place (this will be the 4th in the sequence: news on the third soon). ‘We Are Many’ is a remarkable achievement, a labour of love that took its director many years to make. It’s a very ambitious, entirely absorbing hundred minute movie that starts with 9/11, focuses on the massive demonstrations (so many of them), then goes into the aftermath and consequences of the demonstrations and the illegal, immoral invasion of Iraq, going on to its effects on the Arab spring and the vote not to send troops to Syria. Amir, clearly a sensitive, endearing interviewer, gets revealing comments from Conan Powell’s right hand man to Tony Benn, for whom this film also forms a fitting epitaph. Good to see lots of comments from one of our best political writers, John le Carré, along with many others including Mark Rylance, Damon Albarn and David Blunkett, the only cabinet minister MP who agreed to appear.
It’s a serious movie, but there are plenty of laughs. For some reason, it was showing in a well attended Cineworld, rather than our local Arts cinema, Broadway, and something happened that I’d never seen there before. There was not one, but two spontaneous rounds of applause during the film (and two at the end, as well). The first came for Robin Cook’s resignation speech in the house, a very moving scene. The second… well, I won’t spoil it for you, but it involved Donald Rumsfeld.
‘We Are Many’ is a terrific movie with important lessons for everyone. A colleague who teaches International Relations at NTU told me during the long wait afterwards (Cineworld forgot to show the discussion stream until my partner went and reminded them!) that he plans to use it with his students as soon as it’s available. Even the Daily Bloody Mail loves it. Yet it doesn’t doesn’t currently have national distribution. Last night’s Curzon screening streamed to seventy cinemas was a one-off. So ask your local cinema to show it, ask the BBC when they plan to buy and show the film, spread the word and, if you get the chance, don’t miss it. Congratulations to Amir and everyone involved in its making.
War – Young Fathers, who play the Rescue Rooms next Tuesday.
Dawn of the Unread is an interactive graphic novel aimed at celebrating Nottingham’s literary heritage and encouraging literacy in the city’s schools. There have been thirteen issues so far, each eight pages long, featuring such diverse authors as Alan Sillitoe, Mary Howitt and DH Lawrence, along with even more diverse writers, from Michael Eaton to Nicola Monagahan and Alison Moore to Al Needham. Artists have included Brick, who I’ve often collaborated with and the brilliant Eddie (‘From Hell’) Campbell.
The fourteenth comes out this weekend. It’s online now, with a couple of embeds still to be added. I wrote it, and Ella Joyce, daughter of author Graham Joyce – who was going to write one of the stories before his untimely death – has illustrated it. Brilliantly. Regular readers won’t be surprised to find that I’ve written about Stanley Middleton, the Booker Prize winning author who was also a neighbour and close friend. But I shied away from this at first, thinking I’d said enough about him already. I wanted to write about some of the more obscure writers who’ve passed through or lived in Nottingham, like Philip Callow, who Stanley introduced me to, or Dorothy Whipple, or even Cecil Roberts.
Who? Roberts has a room named after him at the city library, but to find out more, you’ll have to read my story, which turned out to be mainly about Stanley, but also about the fleeting nature of literary reputations and how Nottingham’s authors support each other. A fitting theme, given that I’m chairing the city’s bid to become a UNESCO city of literature (my speech launching the bid is one of the embeds).
Oh yes, the embeds. At first, reading the earlier stories, I didn’t notice the little buttons with stars in the middle, but each links to an essay or feature, written at all sorts of levels. Shelves has more than most: a terrific one by my old friend John Lucas (we became friends while editing Stanley Middleton at 80, seventeen years ago) about six of Stanley’s novels that were recently reissued. There’s a lovely piece by Ella’s mum, Sue Joyce, all about Graham. There’s a brief guide to Bromley House library (which features in the story) by Elaine Aldred. And there are a few bits by me: one about the Booker, another about Stanley’s art, a memoir about our friendship and a discussion of the bookshelves that appear at the end of the story. I’ve also done an interview about the comic for the Dawn of the Unread blog, here.
I’m very proud to be part of Dawn of the Unread, which is edited by James Walker and put together online by Paul Fillingham. It was James’ excellent idea to put Ella and I together. There’s a video interview with her at the end of the piece, filmed by NTU students, in which you’ll learn that she’s only 18 and about to study Fine Art at Ruskin College, Oxford. I know her dad would have been very proud of both this and her work on Shelves.
Stanley wasn’t averse to comics himself. He was a modest man, but I hope he would have been chuffed by Shelves. There is one bit of artistic license in the cover image, by the way: he always paid someone else to do his typing. He never learnt to drive either. Read Shelves here.
Time for my annual reading blog. Spent most of the last week above the clouds, at the edge of the El Teide national park in Tenerife. The photo above was taken just below the space observatory there, near the volcano that is the highest point in Spain. The clouds are so close that sometimes it feels like you can walk out onto them (see first photo). But when you find yourself driving through then, they become dull, wet mist. We didn’t take any CDs for our hire car, or I would have been playing my Calexico collection to death: felt like we were driving through a Western movie. I associate Tenerife with overbuilt resorts, and on our drive back to the airport we passed some horrendous looking ones, but the middle of the island is great for walking and exploring (the photo on the right was taken on a long walk one golden evening, hence the shadow).
Did plenty of reading, too, beginning with a proof copy of Babbicam by Rod Madocks, which is published on May 21st. It’s an ambitious, absorbing novel about the life of John ‘Babbicombe’ Lee, the man they couldn’t hang, despite being found guilty of a double murder that he may not have committed (readers of my generation may recall that Fairport Convention made a concept album about him). The century old aspects are interwoven with a modern day story about an American poet who finds wire recordings from Lee’s last days in which he gradually reveals what really happened. The Lee sections are more interesting than the modern sections and the two could have been integrated better (the book trails off towards the end) but it’s a fascinating story, a remarkable reconstruction of a legend with some top notch writing.
The finishing touches are being put to my Dawn of the Unread story about Stanley Middleton and I’ll have more to say about this tomorrow. I took with me a 1968 Stanley novel, the only one of the six recent Windmill reissues that I hadn’t already read, The Golden Evening. 60’s Middleton’s are very hard to find, and ridiculously expensive, so this is the most essential of the six in one sense. In another sense, it’s the weakest, with a very slight plot (PhD student’s mother is dying, meanwhile his fourteen year old sister is being seduced by a 19 year old undergraduate and he, a virgin, is about to marry a divorcee three years his senior). Nevertheless, it’s an absorbing novel that has stayed with me, particularly for its detailed passages about sex, which Stanley never flinched from, and which are pretty frank for their time (1968, although the world they describe is closer to 1958 – Stanley was never bothered about making his novels feel contemporary, and they become steadily more dated as he gets older). The way he deals with his hero’s sexual awkwardness reminded me of Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach, only more convincingly done.
Initially, Jonathan Coe’s Expo 58 suffered in comparison with the Middleton novel – the world it depicts is so obviously a made up version of one that Middleton knew well. Jokes about bad food and smoking to help your health. But once Coe gets to Brussels and the EXPO it becomes a lot of fun. If the plot machinery grinds rather loudly in places, who cares? A good holiday read.
My best holiday read, and one that I finished on the walk with the long shadow photo, was Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage, a book about trying to write a book about DH Lawrence. I first tried to read this twelve years ago, just before Dyer came to talk to the MA I teach on. I didn’t know his work, and found the book hugely frustrating (as it’s meant to be, if you’re reading it to find out about DHL, rather than Dyer, though he has good things to say about Lawrence, too). It was frustrating in a different way to hear Dyer speak, as his life mirrored mine very closely, and I declined Graham Joyce’s invitation to join them for a drink because I didn’t like the idea of one of those ‘me too’ conversations. But I’ve since become a big fan, and this is probably his best book, a very funny memoir. My only complaint is I bought it on Kindle and it ends at 85%. There I was, thinking I had forty minutes’ reading left, when all I had were 5% of notes and 10% of preview for ‘Another Day At Sea’.
Saved the crime reading for the end. We had a long wait at the airport, where I began Carlo Lucarelli’s The Damned Season, which I’d picked up in a hotel in Majorca last year – free! – but didn’t read, as it turned out to be the middle novel of a trilogy. However, I like Lucarelli a lot (Almost Blue is great), so I bought book one, Carte Blanche, a couple of weeks ago, and it was very good: short, tight and engrossing. TDS is nearly as good, if a little more predictable. It ends on a cliffhanger. So what do I find when I try to order the final book, Via Delle Oche? Only that it’s out of print and second hand prices start at just under forty quid. Not one Notts library has a copy. Curses.
The De Luca series is set in the confusion of Italy at the end of the Second World War. Each is very short, so I had time on the flight to read the latest Donna Leon mystery, By Its Cover, set in present day Venice, Leon publishes one a year, which is the commercial thing to do, so that fans like my partner will know there’ll be a new one waiting for their next holiday. I haven’t read one for a few years, but this was about theft from libraries, a good subject and as well written as all her novels. The plot is a little slight but it’s economically done. I finished it just after the plane touched down.
And that, apart from vast swathes of New Yorker articles, was that. Unless you count one I haven’t finished yet. I’d heard good buzz about a new book from one of my favourite crime writers, Lawrence Block, Tcool, but when I looked it up online, there were no results. Then, when I finished the Dyer, I saw that the next book on my Kindle was Larry’s collected writings about crime, The Crime of our Lives, the acronym for which is – you guessed it… So I devoured pieces over the next two days, including a gap between crime novels on the way home. Block writes so well that even the stuff that has clearly been produced quickly and casually slips down easily, but there were a couple of things I was surprised he’d included (that Ed Gorman intro, please, no…) and quite a lot of repetition. I was sent this book for free (as I was the Madocks, for which I supplied a cover quote) and worried that I wouldn’t be able to recommend it wholeheartedly, except to completists. Then I got to the heart of the book, the long Mystery Scene magazine reminiscences of Evan Hunter, aka Ed McBain (whose 87th Precinct series was one of my biggest influences as a beginning crime writer) and Larry’s time working for a literary agent. Both are full of terrific tales, ones that don’t flinch from the more salacious side of both men’s lives: in particular, Hunter’s sex addiction, which is strongly suggested by some of the novels (and which, I should add, seems to have ended with his marriage to his third wife, Dina – the pair were like loved-up teenagers on the one evening I spent with them). There’s probably plenty more good stuff in the 45% of the book I’m saving for later, but – take my word – the book is worth whatever price the publisher asks for these two long sections alone.
I’m off to do some bargaining on eBay for a tatty copy of Via Delle Oche, but I’ll be back tomorrow with more about Shelves.
My colleague, the talented fantasy novelist, Graham Joyce, died last year, and I helped clear his office (which we shared with Georgina Lock) a few weeks ago. There’s an event celebrating his life and work this Saturday, at 11am, as part of the States of Independence independent publishers festival in Leicester, which is always an interesting day. Graham was a true independent: free thinking, irascible on occasion, inspiring and, most of all, an original. I was, for a few years – technically – his line manager on the MA in Creative Writing that I used to run and still teach on. Graham preferred the word ‘boss’ and, boy, did he hate all bosses. We had our differences, but they had long dissolved into mutual warmth and respect by the end of his life. Our colleague and friend, Professor John Goodridge, has mounted a small exhibition celebrating Graham’s life and work at Nottingham Trent University, and I photographed it yesterday. The exhibition’s in our busiest lecture hall, John Clare 6, and aimed primarily at our undergraduates, so not easily accessible to the public. However, if you’d like to read a pdf of the text that accompanies the exhibition, you can download it by clicking on the link below