A Tram Called Alan

November 7th, 2014

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Yesterday we launched Nottingham’s attempt to become accredited as a Unesco City of Literature. I chair the board of the company set up to do this, which is a great honour, and a pretty daunting job. It was an even bigger honour to be asked to speak at the launch of Nottingham’s newest tram, named after the great Alan Sillitoe. Many of the guests at the launch were able to attend the naming ceremony at the Forest tram stop, chosen for the spot’s significance in Alan’s work. When we were done, we took the tram into the market square for the launch event at the Council House. 5.30 was too early for some, but there will be video of the whole event on the Nottingham City of Literature website. Sue took some photos, above. And here’s the speech I gave, after a fine introduction by the Sheriff, Councillor Jackie Morris and a lovely speech by Cllr Dave Trimble.

We’ve chosen to name the tram in this spot because here is almost exactly the site of a long, pivotal sequence in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning – the film and the book. In both, there’s a great Goose Fair scene set on the Ghost Train. It should be pointed out that, while Alan wrote the screenplay, he simplified events for it. In the film, Arthur Seaton is only seeing one married woman, and gets beaten up for his trouble. In the novel, it’s a pair of sisters, Winnie and Brenda, who he’s carrying on with. Both their husbands are right here, at Goose Fair, when they spot Arthur with the pair of them, one on each arm. He’s pursued but narrowly gets away – for a while.

I bought my copy of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning at a second hand emporium on the boulevard down there, thirty odd years ago, after finishing at the University of Nottingham. It was set in the Radford streets I’d come to live in, still very recognizable in the early 80’s. A lot of them, but by no means all, long gone now. In my first job, at a Nottingham school, I used to teach Alan’s short stories to fifteen year olds. Tough kids, quite often, who weren’t that keen on reading, so I’d read The Ragman’s Daughter out loud to them. It’s a long story, takes at least 50 minutes to read aloud, but they were always engrossed by it, by the power of Alan’s words, his storytelling skills and his brilliant depiction of the city we all knew so well. I’m sure loads of other teachers were doing the same thing, and not just in Nottingham, because we had a special schools edition of Alan’s early stories.

These days, I teach at Nottingham Trent, our other great university. The final lecture for all of our first year English literature and creative writing students is one I give on Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. At the end of it, I ask them to do some writing about Nottingham and the Market Square, where we’ll soon be heading on the tram. Then they go off to a seminar where they investigate the artistry, intelligence and complexity that went into Alan’s portrayal of Arthur Seaton and his world. Those students come away knowing that they’re living in a real city of literature, one that Alan Sillitoe will always be an integral part of. And, from tomorrow, the can travel to their lectures on a tram bearing his name.

Over the years, I was lucky enough to spend some time with Alan. He was always keen to support Nottingham writers, both me and my students (here I adlibbed a mention of Nicola Monaghan, who was standing nearby and whose The Killing Jar Alan was keen on). One of the first things he said to me was ‘this city will take care of you’, and he was right. This city does take care of its writers. It honours them, as we are honouring Alan today, and it supports them, in all sorts of ways. Many of us want to give something back, and that’s why we’re here this evening. To celebrate Alan and to celebrate Nottingham. We know that we’re a truly international city of literature and we’re going to prove that in our bid to become a Unesco Creative City of Culture.

It’s a great honour to stand here with Alan’s family. His wife, the great poet Ruth Fainlight, will be unveiling the name plate in a few moments, but first I’d like to introduce Alan’s son, David Sillitoe. David, so glad you could make it.


David then made a great, short speech before handing over to Ruth for the unveiling. I hope it’ll be online soon.

The Specials & Sleaford Mods: Rock City debut 31/10/14

November 2nd, 2014



Last week, The Pop Group, this week, The Specials. Sleaford Mods might be the hottest band in Britain (too cool to even enter the Mercury Music Prize), but it doesn’t stop them playing support to their heroes.

This is their first time on the main stage at Rock City and they fit. Jason Williamson’s, nonchalant ‘up yours’ attitude is a direct descendent of Terry Hall’s sour persona. Andrew Fearn’s bearded, beatific presence lightens the mood. The Specials’ Too Much, Too Young could be a template for the Mods’ aggressive descriptions of modern life’s scummier side. Jason’s intense performance in which, for once, he actually introduces the songs, wins over the early crowd with numbers liked Tied Up In Nottz, Tiswas (as played on 6Music at breakfast) and closer The Wage Don’t Fit.

Two and a bit years ago, the emerging Mods supported another great post-punk band, Scritti Politti, at the Rescue Rooms. In January, they headline there. On this evidence, they could soon headline Rock City, too.

Tonight is the second night of The Specials’ tour and their Rock City debut. Is it really six years since they announced their reunion? Joyous delirium greeted their 2009 reunion show in Sheffield. They played the main stage at Glastonbury two months later. Since then, Nottingham has had an arena show and Neville Staple has left due to ill health. That aside, this line-up has been together longer than the original band’s four year run. No new album has appeared. Hardly surprising, since songwriter Jerry Dammers wanted nothing to do with the reunion. Sometimes, tonight, Terry Hall looks like he wishes he wasn’t here either.

It has to be said that the first half of this show is a little off. Tunes like Double Barrel and the Clash’s Janey Jones get us in the mood, but dubby opener Ghost Town (too early!) never takes off, its ‘people getting angry’ lost in mike problems. After Friday Night and Saturday Morning, Hall lets rip at someone in the crowd because, it seems, he hates halloween. Pearl’s Cafe, with its ‘all a load of bollocks’ refrain, seems to sum up the mood. (It later transpires that there were, indeed, sound problems, as explained in Horace Panter’s facebook blog, which is also interesting on what it’s like to play Rock City.)

Rat Race begins and quickly goes wrong. Funnily enough, when the song restarts, the night turns into a great Specials gig (‘I think we got away with it’, Horace wrote). Terry leaves the stage for Lynval Golding to give us Why? When Hall returns, he makes a crack about Halloween Club before Nite Klub. At one point, as he turns his back on us, I even spot a smile on his face.

Dawning of a New Era, Do The Dog, Monkey Man, Concrete Jungle, they’re all there. Gangsters is the show’s highlight and Too Much Too Young the classic closer. Guns of Navarone leads into Enjoy Yourself for the encore. Terry makes a crack about the 10pm curfew, tell us what’s on the telly, then finishes the 90 minute set with the inevitable You’re Wondering Now (‘what to do now you know it’s the end’). By the end, it was a bit special.


The Specials return for a second Rock City show (without Sleaford Mods this time) later this month, but it’s long since sold out.

The Pop Group, Nottingham Bodega Social 21/10/14

October 25th, 2014


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A slightly extended version of my review from the Nottingham Post, with a snippet of Martyn Boston’s photo.

When The Pop Group split up 33 years ago, they had unfinished business. The band were at the avant-garde end of post-punk, performing a chunky, visceral sound which displays elements of free jazz. In 2014, they’ve said in interviews, their articulate howl of protest is needed more than ever. Tonight’s gig is in association with Campaign Against Arms Trade.

It’s a brave band that follows Sleaford Mods, the UK’s coolest band, who are as intense and entertaining as ever. They do an eight song, ‘best of’ set including TISWAS, Tied Up In Nottz and, of course, Jolly Fucker.

The Pop Group’s Nottingham debut brings out an impressive array of well dressed men of a certain age (45-60) who make up for lack of hair with expensive spectacles (yes, I’m one of them). The five piece are greeted as returning heroes by a crowd that includes several who have travelled from their home town, Bristol, for this short tour’s second night.

The set is based around recent rarities set ‘Cabinet of Curiosities’ and the recently remastered ‘We Are Time’, whose opening three numbers begins the show. The original four members are joined by a younger, unintroduced rhythm guitarist. The sound is full and fresh. Mark Stewart cuts a genial figure on stage, not much given to introductions. Once he gets going, however, he becomes a man possessed. There are hints of Arthur (Fire) Brown’s satanic demeanour, especially when he screams, as he frequently does. There’s also a disgust in these songs that complements the Mods, but it’s laced with a celebration of old school, anarchistic values. This band sound like they’re casting out demons.

‘Western values mean nothing to me,’ Mark sings in She Is Beyond Good and Evil, whose angular funk takes things to another level. A mesmeric hour concludes in a flash, with We Are Time. The encore, inevitably, is their keynote classic, We Are All Prostitutes (as referenced in one of my Nottingham-set short stories, Paying For It, by the way). Immense.

Holiday Reading

September 10th, 2014



As ever at this time of year, a bit of a reading blog. Quiz for you: look at the pile above and guess which one I didn’t finish and which one I dumped in Croatia, or, to be more precise, left in the small select library in our apartment on the island of Hvar. I left the first book I read, a chunky ex-library copy of Sue Grafton’s last but one novel, at our hotel in Split (fantastic city, visit highly recommended). Having enjoyed its predecessor so much, earlier this year, I was really looking forward to this one so – you guessed it – I was a bit disappointed. It was up to her usual standard and thoroughly readable, but not as intricately plotted or interesting as U is for Undertow. W is just out. You’d think it would be called W is for Wanted, wouldn’t you. But it isn’t. Think I’ll hold off on that one for a while.

The novel I was most looking forward to, The Land Agent, is the final novel in J. David Simon’s Glasgow To Galilee series, and did not disappoint. The cover compares Simon to Sebastian Faulks, but he’s much better than that. Think Bernard Malamud meets Hilary Mantel. You can read these novels in any order, though it might be an idea to read the wonderful The Liberation of Celia Kahn before this one if you’re going to. Otherwise, you may find Celia’s letters the one weak spot of the novel. Not that it matters much. This is succinct, thoroughly absorbing, satisfying storytelling, which casts a far stronger light on the origins of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than the much acclaimed TV series  The Honourable Woman, which was enjoyable tosh. A timely, terrific novel by a writer at the very top of his game. It’s published next month, and if it isn’t shortlisted for next year’s Booker Prize then it will be a gross injustice.

Next was David Almond’s The Tightrope Walkers, a somewhat autobiographical novel that fits into the new adult category (i.e. it follows the narrator from childhood to twenty or so) but has been published as an adult paperback original, and this may prevent it from reaching some readers, which would be a shame. It’s full of powerful, bold, at times almost overwhelming writing. This coming of age novel that features many themes that readers will recognise from David’s YA work, like Clay and the recent The True Tale of the Monster Billy Dean. Terrific stuff. David has a new YA novel, A Song For Ella Grey out next month, this time with Hachette, who I’m pleased to see are publishing it in hardback first.

Nicholson Baker’s Travelling Sprinkler, which I read on my Kindle, was a disappointing follow up to The Anthologist. Less stuff about poetry in this one, more about writing songs (seriously, 55 year old guy tries writing a few songs – who cares?). The narrator is pretty much like the guy who appears in Baker’s essays, and those early sort-of novels. It was sort of OK. The other book I read electronically was Michael Faber’s Under The Skin. I thought it was a short novel but it turned out to be full length (eBooks can confuse you that way) and not to have very much to do with the film of the same name, apart from the main premise. Plus – put it this way – the central character could not have been more miscast than by using Scarlet Johanssen. This is a chilling read that just about sustains itself, with a feel closer to allegory than sci-fi. By half way through, you might want to think about becoming a vegetarian. 7/10

The book I left behind was a prize winning biography of Patrick Leigh Fermor, which left me cold. Fermor was obviously a charmer to know and there’s a breathless boy’s own adventure quality to his life, but I quit after 40 pages, a quick skip further forward convincing me that matters wouldn’t improve. Perhaps one of the apartment’s future guests will appreciate it.

The book I didn’t read was Loren D. Estleman’s Little Black Dress, even though it’s handily pocket sized, so will doubtless accompany me on another holiday. My last couple of days were occupied by Roth’s I Married A Communist, the only major novel by one of my favourite writers that I hadn’t read. At least, hadn’t read most of. The New Yorker, as it is prone to do, published a lengthy extract just before the novel came out 18 years ago and I read it as a complete short story. I wasn’t too impressed, then, and needed to forget it, so didn’t get the novel, even though it’s narrated by Nathan Zuckerman and comes between two of Roth’s best novels, American Pastoral and The Human Stain. Recently, though, a couple of people have recommended it to me and I figured the whole novel had to be worth a try. Plus by now I’d forgotten nearly everything about it.

There’s some terrific writing in the novel, and I don’t regret reading it, but most of the story is told at third hand and, structurally, it’s a bit of a mess. The novel deals with an important period in the USA’s social history, the McCarthy era, and holds lots of interest. However, a writer less brilliant than Roth might have been told to go back and do another draft. There’s a particularly annoying revelation towards the end. The central character, Ira, never really comes to life. It’s as though Roth knows he’s unconvincing and tells his story at a distance so that we don’t notice. But we do.

And that, apart from a  bunch of short stories, and several lovely issues of the New Yorker, is that. I got back on Sunday. Yesterday, I’d planned to ring my colleague Graham Joyce to discuss the Fiction class I’d just agreed to take over from him until he was able to recover from a recent operation. I also wanted to congratulate him on his brilliant Radio Four programme Talking About Cancer, which discussed the language people use around cancer. In it, he explains why the disease should never be described as a battle or a struggle (it’s still available as a podcast here). I’d rung him just after it was on, but he’d just gone into hospital for a serious operation. Graham had been diagnosed with lymphoma 18 months ago but been able to return to teaching briefly this summer and was optimistic about a new treatment he could begin, just as soon as he got his white blood cell count up. But before I could call, I saw – on Twitter, news always breaks on Twitter these days – that he had died. Yesterday afternoon. It’s very hard to take in. He was such an irrepressible presence, even while facing death. Just read his final blog posts. Or his beautiful, mesmerising recent novel, The Silent Land, which is also about death. As Stephen King wrote yesterday: ‘he was a truly great writer. Too soon. Far too soon.’

The university asked me to write something about him for press enquiries. Here it is:

Graham taught at NTU for 18 years. He was a much loved, inspirational teacher, several of whose students went on to publish novels. NTU staff and students felt lucky to work with such a world-class, original writer. While with us, in addition to his many fantasy writing awards, Graham gained a PhD by publication and was appointed a Reader in Creative Writing. He loved his university teaching, even returning to give his fortnightly class to the Fiction group on the Creative Writing MA during a brief period of remission this last summer term. Social network sites have been flooded with messages from former students saying what a great deal they learned from him and how much they were inspired by him. We will not see his like again.

My condolences to his wife, Sue, and their two children, for this terrible loss.

Green Man 2014

August 19th, 2014


The line-up convinced me. My younger siblings have been going to Green Man for years, not doing Glastonbury since I last went, in 2009 (full diary here), but I’d never investigated going. Then I saw that the two current bands I most want to see were playing (War On Drugs and their former member, Kurt Vile), not to mention Bill Callahan, Beirut and Sharon Von Etten, none of whom I’ve managed to see, and Mercury Rev, who I haven’t seen for years. I was in. Now I’m back and I can see why, if the above is your kind of music, you’d never bother with Glasto again either.

Shirley Collins with Pete Paphides

For a start, it’s smaller and nearer, set in the one of the most beautiful parts of Wales. We booked late, so got the further out car park and had a long walk to the campsite. But then it was only six minutes walk to the main stage, and you could get anywhere on the festival site in five to ten minutes. I spent a surprising amount of time chilling out in the book tent, Talking Shop, which ran brilliantly, if rather late, meaning that I missed some acts I wanted to see (Michael Chapman, Neko Case, William Tyler) but did see a fascinating interview with long missing folk giant Shirley Collins (above), most of a very good pop quiz (kudos to Pete Paphides for both), a shortened Bob Stanley, the more than interesting Green of Scritti Politti and the frankly, irritating Viv Albertine of The Slits. Oh and Gruff Rhys of Super Furry Animals, but he started so haltingly that I soon nodded off and only woke for the last few minutes.

The Babbling Tongues and Walled Garden area, with several bookshops (one had a full row of RS Thomas first editions!) and many of the best places to eat, was excellent (the loos were very good, too, regularly cleaned with plenty of paper and liquid soap, surprisingly unsmelly). The Goan Fish Curry and The Pembrokeshire Beach Food Company’s splendid crab wraps are particularly worthy of your custom. Even the welsh bacon (with, if you can risk the yolk, a fried egg) breakfast baps were of particularly high quality.

The first music I watched was Jonathan Wilson, whose last two albums I’ve enjoyed in a retro way. The sound was great and his songs sound splendid but nearly every one involves a steal from something closely related to Crosby, Nash, Stills and Young, so it was more like listening to a top drawer covers band. Sun Kil Moon didn’t do it for me, so I went to eat, then caught some of Toy (OK) in the crowded Far Out tent, and nearly all of Polica, who were good (think 80’s Natalie Merchant 10,000 Maniacs vocals on top of a more electronic, beatier Goldfrapp).

I saw Daughter soundcheck on the Mountain Stage at eleven in the morning, and was impressed enough to return in the evening, when they were good and went down very well. But Beirut were the surprise for me. I enjoy their albums, but live they were a perfect festival band: joyous, varied, with a full rich sound involving fantastic brass, Zach Condon a charismatic presence. Great way to end the evening.


Before the book stuff on Saturday I ran into friend Jon whd got a ticket at the last minute and, impressively, cycled from Abergavenny railway station, so caught up with him then watched the first half of Angel Olson together before he moved to the front. She was pretty good (my brother and sister said she got steadily better and was their favourite act of the day) but I left to watch Scritti Politti’s Green in the Talking Shop. He turned out to be on half an hour late so I could have seen the whole of Angel. Oh well. Green had lots of interesting stuff to say about the music business. The first act I saw all of was Sharon Von Etten (above), whose last two albums I like and who was enjoyable if not thoroughly absorbing until she finished with the glorious ‘Every Time The Sun Comes Up’ from the new album. Fran, Rich and the young girls then went off to see Jeffrey Lewis and the Jrams in the Walled Garden, which they raved about, while I made my way to the front for The War On Drugs.

Here’s the thing I particularly loved about this festival. First, it was entirely possible to get to the front, especially if you got there a little early (twenty minutes in my case, of watching the band soundcheck). Plus, when you were there, there was considerably more room than further back in the middle. Not only that, but the atmosphere was fantastic. WOD began with ‘Under The Pressure’, the best song on their new album and followed it with ‘Baby Rockets’, the catchiest song on their previous one. It was ecstatic, arms in the air, throw yourself around stuff. I suspected that WOD were the best rock band in the world at the moment. Now I’m sure they are. Talking to strangers (20’s t0 50’s) between numbers, we were all saying the same thing: ‘I thought they’d be great, but I didn’t know they’d be this great’. Adam Granduciel is a warm, modest and hugely likeable frontman, too. ‘Lost In The Dream’ (MP3 below if you want to soundtrack your reading) was epic. Guitar rock can still be fantastic. This was my best hour of the festival. It was probably my best hour of the year.

I’ve seen Mercury Rev several times, including the original Deserters Songs tour, and am a little ambivalent about shows where bands play their whole, historic album, but they were great. The songs all hold up fine and, after the main set, Jonathan made a cool speech about what kind of festival this was and why it was so important to bands like his, then talked briefly about depression being in the news and played a Sparklehorse song before finishing with a song each from their other two classic albums, concluding with the unfollowable epic ‘The Dark Is Rising’, which would have sent me back to the tent happy, but there was still time to catch twenty minutes of Slint, so I did. They were good.


My brother Rich and I went to see Joanna Gruesome on Sunday afternoon, but they’d cancelled due to illness, so we went to the front to see Anna Calvi (you can tell how close we were from the photo above), who I’ve seen twice before, once in Nottingham’s tiny Bodega Social, once in the Arctic Monkey’s Sheffield tent. She’s come on enormously as a performer and was thoroughly enjoyable. An hour later, I got to see Bill Callahan from the same spot, alongside my friends Rory and Libby, who are huge fans. ‘This has all the makings of a classic set’, he said, a cool dude in a sharp suit who never goes near the front of the stage and whose recent music is equally laid back, which hardly lends itself to the live experience. He was good, but not, it has to be said, great. Maybe I wasn’t in quite the right mood to be mesmerised. The closing ‘Drover’ was the highlight.

I’ve played The First Aid Kit album a bit and found it pretty but bland. Young Swedish sisters who play refined country pop, they were the perfect band for Sunday early evening. The young girls with us liked them and so did everyone else. We were at the back where we had lots of space, but it never got chatty. Nice cover of ‘America’. One for all the family.

The other band who I most wanted to see this weekend were Kurt Vile and the Violators. Another guitar band, a bit less mainstream than WOD, with great guitar and a bit more of a Jesus and Mary Chain meets Dinosaur Junior thing going on. Up front in the Far Out stage, they did not disappoint. Kurt yelps gutturally between songs, throwing in a surprising number of sweet acoustic songs. An absorbing, at times electrifying set and the perfect way to close the festival. Afterwards, we all met up and went to watch the Green Man (photo at top) set alight and a firework display.


In the morning,  I took the above photo as a memento after buying milk and hired a trolley to make our return to the car easier. It took an hour to get out of the field we were parked in (but that was four hours less than Glasto 2000 (diary link), the one where I researched Festivalaccompanied, incidentally, by three of the ten people with me this time). We were directed out a different, slightly longer way, which took us through a ravishingly beautiful section of the Brecon Beacons. Result. Thanks to Fran for driving and hello again to everyone I saw there. We’ll be back.

The War On Drugs – Lost In the Dream

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Green Man 2014
The line-up convinced me. My younger siblings have been going to Green Man for years, not doing Glastonbury since I last went, in 2009 (full diary here), bu...

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