Archive for the ‘General’ Category

Holiday Reading

Monday, May 28th, 2018

A week’s break on a Greek island (escaping a kitchen refit) followed by a bank holiday weekend has meant that I could catch up on my reading, albeit with a stringent weight limit. And, unlike many of these blogs, where I read books I’ve saved up, most of the reading I did on Skiathos was guided by serendipity.

One of my Children’s Literature student lent me The Hate You Give, which recently shared the Children’s Book Award at the Nibbies with The Lost Words. This longish YA novel, inspired by Black Lives Matter (& Tupac’s THUGLIFE tattoo) has won numerous other awards. I was a hundred pages in and polished off the rest of it on the flight and the following morning by the pool. This is proper YA fiction: by which I mean it’s narrated by a sixteen year old, a black girl at a mainly white private school. She has a white boyfriend who she’s sleeping with but little is made of this. The story (slight spoiler) concerns what happens when her childhood friend Raoul is shot dead by a white police officer. The dialogue is authentic and the structure solid. Now and then, the morality issues around racism and gun crime are a little too on the nose, the narrator rather too articulate and mature to be entirely convincing, but that’s a perennial YA problem and barely a criticism: it’s a great read and a deserving winner. Thanks for the loan, Liv.

I had a couple of non-fiction books I planned to take, but then my order of A Hero for High Times: A Younger Reader’s Guide to the Beats, Hippies, Freaks, Punks, Ravers, New-Age Travellers and Dog-on-a-Rope Brew Crew Crusties of the British Isles, 1956–1994 came in at the library. It’s a vast tome, and in demand, so I only have three weeks to read it. Not finished yet, and there are parts I’ll skip (a lot of the background Ian Marchant gives for younger readers is, uh, over-familiar), but it was ideal for reading by the pool. I shall also be using it to escape from the kitchen fitters who currently occupy my house. Today’s their one day off, which is why I have the leisure to write this. Basically, it’s a history of the counter culture, based around interviews with a Zelig-like hippy who – in interviews sometimes conducted under a narcotic haze – claims to have been everywhere, met everyone and been the first person to… who cares if he gilds the lily from time to time (but, oh, come on, Saddam Hussein, really?). I can think of loads of people who will love it.

Talking of novels based on real lives, I’m not sure why I let Julian Barnes’ The Noise of Time pass me by, but there it was in the hotel’s left behind books library. It’s a fictional life of Shostakovich, in beach friendly short sections, primarily concerned with how the composer managed a career under Lenin, Stalin and Khruschchev. As such, it follows on nicely from The Death of Stalin a graphic novel I read recently (the mostly faithful film is very good too). Barnes does this kind of thing very well. It’s a fast, economical read, and possibly his best since Flaubert’s Parrot, which in some ways it resembles. He’s at his best as a short story writer and those skills are in display here.

Sue passed on Owen Sheers I Saw a Man (lousy title, would have been better as The Man on The Stair, a title I nearly used for a book called Dead Guilty, which, like, the Sheers’ title, was inspired by William Hughes Mearns’ poem, Antigonish). This was a decent, well written read, a kind of airport thriller about grief, but I found it rather over-constructed and often less than plausible. It was rather over-shadowed by the next novel I read, which was also the most recent, Alison Moore’s Missing (bought from Five Leaves Bookshop when I went in to congratulate them on their Nibbie win for best Indy bookshop). One of her best, I think, it’s also about absences. Moore uses a naïve, allusive style that lets in life’s contradictions and uses telling, convincing details that bring her story to life. Her people feel real and are weird in convincing ways. This book moved me, and stayed with me.

My surprise read of the holiday was another piece of serendipity, one of a bunch of spare copies that Sandeep, director of our UNESCO City of Literature, offered round at our board meeting the day before I left. The publisher had sent it to us because we’d been trying to get the author for our Storysmash event. I’d never heard of Nick Harkaway, although he’s published four novels, and it turns out that he’s the son of a writer I love, but makes no play of this, so I won’t go into that further. I was tempted by Tigerman because of the Graham Greene comparison on the cover (I’ve read all of Greene and reread most of them, too). The situation is Greeneish: minor official left to represent British interests on a poisoned island off Africa that the Brits have officially left and which is now dominated by lawless cartels. The story gets wilder and more satirical than Greene in most modes, making it nearer Our Man in Havana than The Heart of the Matter  or The Comedians. And it’s also about a man who wants to be a father. A literary thriller, full of sharp writing, satisfying twists and with a strong ending. I’ll be seeking out more Harkaway and so, maybe, should you.

Finally, a nod to John Harvey, whose Body and Soul I planned to take before deciding a 15KG baggage limit didn’t allow hardbacks. He’s said that Body and Soul will be his last novel, not least because he is being treated for prostate cancer. John is doing the March for Men next month to raise money for research into this disease and you can sponsor him here. Instead of his new novel, I took a tiny, second-hand paperback of one he recently recommended by a great noir writer that he introduced me to back in the early 80’s, Ross Macdonald. It’s called The Way Some People Die, which tells you a bit about John’s sense of humour and a lot about his excellent taste. Macdonald is Chandleresque, less showy but just as well written, with convoluted plots that wind up making more sense than Chandler’s. And there’s more of them. I’m halfway through and already have another waiting for me at the library. All the best to John, whose eightieth birthday we look forward to celebrating in December.

2Pac – Bury Me A G

 

The Wirral Line: 1973

Thursday, April 19th, 2018

I wrote the following for my MA students’ annual anthology, ‘Bystanders’, last year, inspired by its title, but got the ending wrong. I only remembered what I’d forgotten to include, which told me how it needed to end, the one time I read out the piece, at the anthology launch. Good example of why I always tell students the best way to work out what’s wrong with a piece is to read it aloud.

THE WIRRAL LINE: 1973

Aged fifteen, I spend a lot of my Saturdays in Liverpool, mostly in record shops. Usually Probe, on Clarence Street. I sometimes stop by the store that used to be Brian Epstein’s NEMS, on Great Charlotte Street. Often Hairy Records on Bold Street. Always Virgin Records, also on Bold Street: a big, friendly space that smells of joss sticks and has bean bags for customers spread across the floor.

This Saturday I’m wearing a new, blue denim bomber jacket with a patch my mum has sewn onto the left arm. Have a nice day! it reads, accompanied by an image of a cannabis leaf. I know what kind of leaf it was. Don’t think Mum does.

I’m heading home with a white Virgin plastic bag under my arm. The bag has a black and white drawing depicting a pair of conjoined naked girls, each with Pre-Raphaelite hair. The record in the bag is Rockin’ The Filmore by Humble Pie, a double album for the price of a single. ‘I Don’t Need No Doctor’ takes up a whole side. The two LPs turn out not to be such a bargain, as there are only two tracks I like a lot, and one of those is a Stones cover. Before the year’s out, I’ll swap it for something better. For a while, though, I’ll be able to convince myself that it’s great.

Leaving Lime Street, the train is busy. I’m going to the end of the line, West Kirby, which is on the tip of the Wirral Peninsula, just below Liverpool. A half hour journey. Most passengers get out at Birkenhead North. That’s where the youths get on. A year or two older than me. One wears braces. All three have drainpipe jeans and metal-capped boots. I’m wearing 28-inch flares, also known as loon pants. My fair hair is not quite shoulder length, but it’s the longest I’m able to get away with at Grammar School, where I’m sometimes referred to as Hippy Dave.

The seats around me have emptied. The three skinheads take them: one next to me, the others opposite. If I’d been thinking quickly, I would have moved. I once saw a bunch of skins give a kicking to a lad I knew on our way to board the Mersey ferry.  I know they’re dangerous to be around. Yet I think of trains as safe places. The worst thing that ever happened to me on one was when I lost a new glove.

The skins talk to each other for a minute then take the piss out of my bag. They aren’t interested in the contents, only the design. In 1973, Virgin isn’t yet a name brand. The shops are few and far between, while the record label only launched last year. Does the bag mean I’m a virgin, the skins want to know.

I ignore them. At fifteen, I’m a wimpy, bespectacled teenager, tall but slight, with a chronic daydreaming habit. I’m used to being bullied by my peers. I’ve learnt to deal with the situation by using wit or running away. Neither is an option here.

One youth is the ringleader. He does most of the talking, showing off to his pals. Forty-odd years later, he’s the only one I remember. I can’t help but picture him as a leaner version of Tim Roth in Alan Clarke’s Made In Britain, though that was on TV a few years later. He’s nasty, yes, but not without a sense of humour.

Have I ever been to Leasowe Dock, Tim Roth asks. I know nothing about Leasowe, except that it’s one of the stops on the Wirral line. Presumably it’s a coastal town. Like West Kirby, then, but nearer Birkenhead, so probably more industrial. Have I ever been to Leasowe Dock, he repeats. I shake my head. Tim Roth gets out a big metal comb and starts to wave it near my face. I flinch, then lean back, try to avoid being cut. His mates start to kick me with their metal-tipped boots.

Tim Roth doesn’t join in the kicking. He asks me about my patch. Did I  sew it on myself? He begins to unpick the stitching with the sharp teeth of his comb. The train stops and starts. The kicking becomes more urgent. The skins raise the volume of their taunts. All three join in. Why don’t we show you Leasowe Dock? Want to take a walk with us down Leasowe Dock? I know better than to reply. The youths’ laughter fills the carriage. Later, I will find that my face is wet.

The Have A Nice Day patch is only a thread or two from coming off when the train stops again. Suddenly, the youths get up. They run out, still laughing. I look outside. This station is Leasowe. They were only traveling two stops.

That night, I’m babysitting for friends of my parents when the doorbell rings. After seeing the state of me, my dad called the Transport Police. Three hours later, they turned up at our house and were directed here, one street away. A pair of thirty-something guys in plain clothes tell me there are no docks at Leasowe. When I’ve failed to give them anything that might identify my attackers, they ask if there were other passengers in the carriage. I tell them that there were. Five or six, at least.

I recall the passengers’ faces. After the skins had gone, each of them avoided looking at me. People much like my parents. One or two probably had kids my age. I don’t blame them for not intervening. The boys were scary. Possibly they thought that I was somehow to blame and deserved what was happening to me. Part of me thought so. Only as an adult does it occur to me that one of them could easily have got off, called a guard. Or, at least, comforted me when the boys had gone.

The police aren’t surprised when I tell them what didn’t happen. Their job has taught them all about collective cowardice. Only one thing arouses their curiosity.

‘Are you sure they said Leasowe docks?’ they ask.

‘Definitely. They kept offering to take me to Leasowe docks.’

‘But there are no docks at Leasowe.’

 

Nicholas Hytner’s Julius Caesar at The Bridge

Tuesday, March 6th, 2018

I have a confession to make. Even though, after Hamlet, it’s probably my favourite Shakespeare play, I’d never seen Julius Caesar on the stage before last weekend. I studied it for A level. Large parts of it have stuck with me, not least because A levels coincided with my political awakening (I briefly joined the Young Liberals, who, in my neck of the woods, were a small cabal of anarchists. I also got involved in the referendum to join the EU). So why did I miss it? Well, I went to a working class comprehensive that never organised theatre trips (though we did have one daytrip to London, where I bought my first Nick Drake LP, and they put on a Gilbert and Sullivan every year). But that’s little excuse. My partner’s seen it five times, the same number of times I’ve seen Hamlet. I suppose it’s because it hasn’t been done in Nottingham in the forty years I’ve lived here and I’ve never seen a production that I fancied enough to travel. Until now.

The available seats at the matinee of Nick Hytners first production at the flashy new Bridge Theatre (by London Bridge) were in the £95 range, more than I’ve ever paid for theatre tickets (I’ve only exceeded it twice for gig tickets). Otherwise I might not have considered the promenade tickets. Then I saw that they were only £25 each and realised that the play had been cut for two hours and played without an interval, so you’d only be standing for the length of an average gig. I later discovered that a few of my other theatre-addict friends had made the same calculation. Wisely.

The play’s staged in the round with plenty of room to walk around. We got there twenty minutes early, as requested, and, as we wandered in and got out bearings, a band began to play punky anthems to warm up the mob. I stood back a bit, having been warned that there could be a fair bit of pushing and shoving from stage hands clearing the way for actors. This turned out to be nonsense. The only time I got jostled was a couple of minutes later, when someone pushed past me to get to the stage. I looked to see who it was and it was some bloke in a tracksuit top that read Mark Antony on the back. A moment later, David Morrissey jumped on stage and joined in with the band, establishing himself as a rabble rouser. After he left, the play proper began.

I don’t intend to write a review full of production spoilers (here‘s The Stage’s round-up of reviews, with links to the full versions), rather to interest you in going to see the play, the most visceral, exciting production I’ve seen in 50 years of Shakespeares (since a Primary School friend took me to see Macbeth in Birkenhead for his birthday treat and I learned you weren’t allowed to eat boiled sweets with crinkly wrappers in proper theatres – it was a long while before I went again). From the arrival of David Calder, in red baseball cap, to the explosive battle scenes in the final act, the play was gripping and utterly contemporary. The outstanding Calder didn’t portray Caesar as Trump (As a recent New York production mistakenly did – Caesar is far too intelligent to be Trump) but a charismatic demagogue. While Brutus’s naive, idealistic, intellectual approach to politics has elements of Corbyn, this isn’t stuff you think about while you’re watching him make the fatal mistake of not having Mark Antony killed alongside Caesar. In the weekend of the Italian elections, it’s a play that speaks to every country’s politics yet remains utterly of itself. The gender neutral casting – with Michelle Fairley a taut Cassius and Adjoa Andoh a striking Casca – works fine.

If you can, up close is the way to see it. You have to move out about a bit because the set erupts at different points in front of you and you may need to change positions to see the actors (better than being in a seat, where you don’t have the option), but so what? At one point, I leant against the stage only for Ben Whishaw to sit on the sofa two feet from me. He delivered a monologue so powerfully that I was barely conscious that most of the theatre could see my every reaction. Then I had to step back quickly. He’d moved a guitar to let a co-conspirator join him on the sofa and was putting it down where my hands were resting. Later, David Morrissey came over with a cheeky grin, pushing me and others aside to make way for his army to come through, then gestured us forward to him as he mounted his final attack on Brutus’s forces. The war scenes, less than vital on the page, here worked brilliantly. Two hours shot by.

There’s a National Theatre cinecast of the production later this month (not, sadly, on the Ides of March, but a week later, on the 22nd) which is decidely worth going to if you can’t get to London before April 15th. There are 250 promenade tickets for every performance. After hearing us talking about it, my nephew and his girlfriend (who’ve never seen any Shakespeare on stage) decided to go, and we discovered that if you’re under 26 you can join The Bridge for free and promenade for a mere £15 each. Tickets still available. Friends, students, countrymen, go!

Serendipitous Reading

Saturday, December 30th, 2017

Serendipity is, I think, one of the keys to a happy reading life. If you only read in a strict order: books by friends, books that you feel you have* to read, books by authors you always read**, there’s no room for happy accidents, or borrowed books that someone shoves in your hand, or, indeed, rereading.

We had a long trip planned, with multiple flights and train journeys. With that in mind, I had both Tim Shipman’s big Brexit Book*, Country Overboard (or whatever it’s called – too depressing, anyway) and Paul Auster’s** off-puttingly long and trite-sounding 4-3-2-1 on Kindle. Neither got started. On the other hand, the day before we left for Japan, I found two disposable looking third hand books in the charity bin at Wilko. Each looked ideal for reading on the plane and leaving behind. Both were by authors I used to enjoy but haven’t read in well over a decade: Reginald Hill and Ross Macdonald.

Hill’s An April Shroud is an early, and rather silly Dalziel and Pascoe novel, with a slow start that builds into an intricately plotted panto type plot: ideal for plane then hotel reading as I slowly shook off jetlag in Higashi-Hiroshima (home of the world’s best sake, and the university that, so kindly, invited us to work for a week). Before the jetlag set in I also read George Saunders’ Booker winning Lincoln in the Bardo* over two sittings. I’ve read a lot of Saunders, with occasional enjoyment, some admiration but no great love or desire to emulate his bloodlessly show-offy work. I felt the same about this undoubtedly clever story. I’m interested in ghosts. I’d been invited to Hiroshima to talk about my ghost stories, so the genre was on my mind. I don’t think Saunders added a great deal to it. It was occasionally moving, but, overall, the set up felt more Hellazapoppin in the Bardo than MR James. That this OK story won the Booker prize while Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad* didn’t make the shortlist tells you a lot about English literary culture, which admires cleverness more than storytelling. And while we were away the Arts Council announced that sales of literary fiction are in crisis.

We’d taken The Underground Railroad because we both wanted to read it, and weren’t disappointed. Gripping, sharply written, occasionally confusing (we couldn’t entirely agree on whether he tried to cram in too much, nor whether some timelines were deliberately confusing or cleverly patterned). I knew nothing about the underground railroad until a visit to Boston early this century, but this books tells you a great deal about its place in the history of slavery. Occasionally it’s fantastical, at other times gruelling, but the novel’s never boring, and we become deeply engaged with the characters. Superbly structured, it’s mythic, in an uplifting way that – as Saunders proves – is very hard to achieve. Anyway, I don’t want to use Whitehead’s novel (it won the Pulitzer Prize, the one that William Gass said ‘takes dead aim at mediocrity and never misses’) to berate the Booker winner, which I did like, more to draw the novel to your attention, as it’s a cracking, important read.

As was my other Wilco find, Ross Macdonald’s terribly titled The Instant Enemy. I read a load of Macdonald – Chandler’s most direct successor – thirty-odd years ago when John Harvey introduced me to him. Fantastic hard boiled style and intricate plots, often rooted in family secrets, that wind up making much more sense that Chandler’s. That said, I can only have read half the Lew Archer novels, recently collected by the Library of America, and I need to rectify that. This one, from 1968, is notable for its (convincing) use of the then new psychedelic drug, LSD. If you can find a copy, read it.

My other plane read was meant to be the most recent Sue Grafton, but – my Kindle having died, I’ve adopted Sue’s,which she doesn’t use – I happened upon a novel that she’d read a year or two ago, William Boyd’s Sweet Caress, the fictional autobiography of a female photographer who happens to have been around at some of the most interesting points of recent history eg The Vietnam War. It’s not one of the most serious of Boyd’s novels. In some ways it reminded me of J David Simon’s fine 2017 jeu d’esprit A Woman of Integrity** (which I wrote about here). You can tell that the author had fun writing it. Perfect plane read, taking up the first six hours of a nine and a half hour flight from Tokyo to Helsinki.

Last night, I learned that Sue Grafton has died of cancer, aged 77. I didn’t know her, only saw her speak once, alongside John Harvey, who lent me A for Alibi in the mid-80s (John introduced me to a lot of crime writers). I’ve worked my way through the whole alphabet with her. A fine crime writer who never allowed TV or movies to sully the reader’s impression of her convincing, early feminist, intelligent, always entertaining private eye, Kinsey Millhone. Deservedly one of the first winners of the Ross Macdonald literary award, for stories set in California. Her fictional Santa Teresa isn’t a million miles from Macdonald’s fictionalised version of Santa Barbara. I’ll be saving the new Y is for Yesterday to savour at a later date, for her final book, always intended to be called Z is for Zero will now never be written, except in her readers’ heads. RIP.

I got a nice pile of books, pictured above, for Christmas, and these will doubtless form some of my reading for the next few months. Though, let’s be honest, Sue just made me move an eighteen inch pile that included several of last Christmas’s books up to my office. The book I’m about to finish is one that James from across the road lent me on our return from Japan: Jiro Taniguchi’s classic graphic novel A Distant Neighbourhood (pictured above, with Geoff Nicholson, Budd Shulberg et al – the really big book is Chris Ware’s Monograph). Pretty sure I’ve read it before, last century, but it stands up brilliantly and means more when you’ve just traveled extensively in Japan (after working in Hiroshima, we also visited Kobe, Kyoto, Kanazawa and the less alliterative Narita, observing vast amounts of the country from Shinkansen bullet trains). A 48 year old man suddenly find himself back in his fourteen-year-old self, just before his father disappeared. It’s a gripping, beautifully illustrated tale about coming to terms with memories and, fittingly, I can’t remember how it ends. But I’m about to go downstairs and find out.

All the very best for the new year to each of you readers.

Exploring Nottinghamshire Writers

Friday, December 8th, 2017

 

Hearty congratulations to Rowena Edlin-White, whose five years working on this splendid anthology (originally intended to come out before our UNESCO bid went in) was time well spent. Over 200 writers are discussed in this book, from David Herbert Lawrence to David Lawrence Belbin (no relation), with the living writers doing their own entry (some from beyond the grave, like Derrick Buttress, who sadly died this year). It’s a bargain, at £12.99 (or £25 for the signed, limited edition hardback pictured) and also includes several essays, on comics, the Forest Folk, Dickens in Nottingham (by Derrick) and Graham Greene in Nottingham (one of mine). I wish I had time to say more, and maybe I will, once I’ve read it all. Meantime, read this on our City of Lit site. So far, I’ve only got through the living writers, all but one of whom I know, to some extent. It’s also a delight that Sue and I are one of two living literary couples in the book, the others being our friends Stephen Lowe and Tanya Myers. I was in Five Leaves Bookshop (the publishers) yesterday, and Ross told me that they plan to publish an online appendix to include the writers who have emerged (and continue to emerge) since the book’s contents were finalised. I hope to see Mansfield playwrights James Graham and Beth Steel, both of whom have great work (I know, I’ve already seen both plays) in Nottingham next year, amongst many others, like Mukaro Makubika, whose Fagon award winning Shebeen opens next year, Anyway, that’s my book recommendation for Christmas this year. Music recommendations above.