Dawn of the Unread: Shelves

April 11th, 2015

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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.

Holiday Reading: Madocks, Middleton, Coe, Lucarelli, Leon & Block

April 10th, 2015

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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.

Graham Joyce 1954-2014

March 11th, 2015

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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

Graham Joyce Exhibition.

Rumer, Nottingham Albert Hall, February 28th, 2015.

March 1st, 2015

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I don’t put all of my Nottingham Post reviews on here and, when I do, I generally don’t extend them much, but I was only given 300 words for Rumer last night, and felt like writing a bit more today, so here it is.

Rumer has by far the best ballad voice in modern pop, a worthy successor to Dusty Springfield and Karen Carpenter. I’ve seen her four times, the first a casino showcase the week her debut album came out. The second, headlining Nottingham’s Royal Concert Hall, maybe a little before she was ready to, and, lastly, it was a pleasure to see her reformed band Stereo Venus open for St Etienne at Sheffield’s Leadmill in 2012. A lot’s changed since Rumer played the RCH in 2011. She’s found a new partner (see photo), released that rare thing, a terrific covers album, Boys Don’t Cry and, recently, Into Colour, her second album of original songs.

‘Happiness writes white’, Philip Larkin wrote. Some found the new album less impressive than her melancholy debut, the voice as perfect as ever but the songs less memorable. All I can say it that, tonight, new numbers like Dangerous, Reach Out and , particularly, Sam, more than hold their own at the centre of the set, alongside early hit, Aretha.

Last time, with one album out, half the set consisted of covers that Rumer didn’t end up recording: Carole King’s Being At War With Each Other, Elton John’s Rocket Man, Gil Scott Heron’s Lady Day and John Coltrane, Laura Nyro’s American Dove, Joni’s Free Man In Paris and Stephen Bishop’s Little Italy. Only the relatively obscure Travelin’ Boy ended up on Boys Don’t Cry. This time, she’s much more confident and relaxed. Covers, however, are thin on the ground, despite Boys Don’t Cry and a 2nd compilation (of B sides and rarities) on sale tonight. Pity, as she’s a fantastic interpreter, with a voice ideally suited to Bacharach/David and Jimmy Webb, whose P.F. Sloan is a highlight. I’d have liked to hear more songs from Boys Don’t Cry, particularly Welcome Back, Flyin’ Shoes and Home Thoughts From Abroad.

Tonight’s terrific band are led by arranger and fiancé Rob Shirakbari on guitar and piano. A backing singer has flu, but guitarist Darren Hodson steps in, more than competently duetting on Hall and Oates’ I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do), which she peformed on Live From Daryl’s House but couldn’t get permission to include on her tour only rarities comp. The musically complex Pizza and Pinball describes her boyfriend’s youth. Then we’re into Seasons of the Soul, with Saving Grace, Blackbird and, for the first encore, Thankful, just her and Rob’s piano. Exquisite.

I say ‘encore’ but they stay on stage, having nowhere to escape to. It’s an odd venue, the Albert Hall, with decent acoustics but nobody monitoring the crowd, so that an idiot on the raised section stage right with a bright camera light is allowed to distract the audience and singer for long periods. Rumer is very chatty, at times almost ingratiating. You don’t ask Nottingham people whether they love living in Nottingham – public demonstrations of love aren’t in the city’s character. So, in reply, she gets call outs from people who’ve travelled distances to see her: ‘Liverpool!’ North Allerton!’ At another point she tries to have a conversation with a guy two thirds of the way back, who has to repeat his mildly embarrassing comment four times before she can make out what he’s saying. But, hey, with a voice that perfect and a band that good, she can get away with most anything.

Many of the crowd don’t recognise the upbeat final number, Todd Rundgren’s classic, Love is the Answer, another great song she hasn’t recorded, but it has Mike and I punching the air: fantastic song. 84 minutes and it’s over. Rumer has to walk the full length of the side of the packed hall, sliding past patrons to get out. Sadly, quite a lot of people leave before the band finish playing. Maybe they’re rushing to the signing table. The three of us wander over for a chat with Rob Shirakbari as he’s packing up. He’s pleased that  Mike and I recognised and loved Love Is The Answer (bit of an odd final choice, as most of the crowd had no idea what it was, but she clearly wanted to go out on something upbeat) and points out that Rumer now has more than enough songs to play a similar length set of completely different numbers the following night. But there’s no next night, as this was the last date on a tour that’s found her singing better than ever. She’s also established a devoted following which, one suspects, will stick with her.

Wouldn’t it be great if Rumer were guest singer when Burt Bacharach visits Nottingham in July? Not impossible. The guest’s not been announced yet and, before joining Rumer, her fiancé was Burt’s musical director.

Rumer – Some Lovers

Here’s a bonus stream of Rumer singing another Bacharach song from the same EP, the one she named the dog in the picture above after:

 

Gruff Rhys – American Interior, Rescue Rooms 16.2.15

February 17th, 2015

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A slightly extended version of my Nottingham Post review.

In the 18th century, a Welshman called John Evans crossed the ocean to America. He was searching for the mythical tribe of Prince Madoc, Welshmen who mated with native Americans and were the USA’s first European settlers. Two and a bit centuries on, his distant relative, lead singer of popular Welsh band The Super Furry Animals, has written a concept album about him. It’s also an app, and a movie, and a very enjoyable book. All of them are called American Interior.

Gruff, in fur trapper’s hat, takes to the stage at five to eight to introduce a quirky ten minute film that gives the background. Then Gruff and his four piece band begin, bringing with them a large felt puppet of, yes, John Evans, wearing a pirate’s hat. Gruff took this figure round the US with him. The story is in the well-researched book, shortlisted for the Guardian first book award, which, unlike tonight’s show, is also a travelogue.

What follows is part gig, part powerpoint lecture. And it works superbly. Rhys is a hesitant raconteur, with a dry, laconic wit (eg Evans’ family move to a hovel so poor it only has dial-up internet). He has a story full of twists, tall tales and escapades that takes us from London to New Orleans. All interspersed with ravishing pop songs like the title track and Hotel Shampoo’s ‘Shark Ridden Waters’ that recall the Beach Boys and the psychedelic Beatles of ‘Strawberry Fields Forver’. No spoilers, but it doesn’t end well.

After 90 minutes, Rhys finishes the tale. More silliness, as signs tell us when to applaud, and how hard. ‘Now we’re ready to start the gig’. We think he’s joking. But, no, he plays ‘100 Unread Messages’, which sums up the whole journey, then encores right up to the curfew, ending with ‘Sensations In The Dark’ and a lovely ‘Year of the Dog’. Terrific.

 

 

 

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Rumer, Nottingham Albert Hall, February 28th, 2015.
I don't put all of my Nottingham Post reviews on here and, when I do, I generally don't extend them much, but I was only given 300 words for Rumer last nigh...

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