Sunday, April 20, 2008

Thanks to Forkspit 

for the link to this video that she posted a couple of weeks ago, but I've only just caught (the blog's updated even less frequently than the one you're reading). This ought to be shown before every movie at my local Cineworld. That said, it must be an old video, as it doesn't mention the special circle of hell reserved for people who send or receive text messages during movies, as if to say 'I can't be bothered to follow this, so I'm going to distract you, too'. Oh and do read Forkspit, soon, I believe, to be a book. But be warned, as with the video, explicit content yada yada yada

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Rereading Brian Moore 

For thirty years, my favourite novelist has been the Irish writer, Brian Moore, who died in 1999. I love the way he never wrote the same kind of novel twice, his brilliance with writing female characters, his mastery of suspense and, most of all, his unshowy yet graceful, clean, tight prose style, which I would encourage any aspiring writer to learn from, as I did.

Authors tend to drop into popular and critical decline in the years after their death, so I've been interested to see what happened to his reputation this century. Recently, a blog dedicated to discussing his novels appeared (they're currently up to the out of print 'Emperor of Ice Cream', his most autobiographical novel) and another book blog, Asylum, has been discussing 'Fergus', which I've always considered his weakest novel.

As I mention in the post below, I collect signed first editions, but perhaps I should clarify that these are generally bought new, and signed by the author for me. I don't go into collecting first editions generally (and signatures can easily more than double the cost) as it's too costly a hobby and I don't have the room to store them properly. Why does anyone buy first editions? I hear you ask. There's nothing quite like reading a book in the way it was first presented to the public. The experience of rereading Bellow's best, 'Augie March' in a coverless first that I picked up cheap in the States was far superior to another go at the Penguin I first read or, I suspect, the more sumptuous Everyman reprint. It's psychological, sure, but it's also about the space around the words, and the type face, and the quality of the paper. Even the smell... Don't get me started on why downloads will never replace paper books.

The exception, the author whose first editions I have collected over the years, is Moore. Of course, I bought more than half of them as they came out. I have a signed, limited edition of 'Lies of Silence' by Moore which I look forward to rereading - it's probably the best of his later literary thrillers - which cost me thirty quid or so on eBay. His earlier ones have never been cheap, but, apart from his first ('Judith Hearne') have never been ridiculously expensive, either. The first five are hard to come by, but I think I paid less than a tenner for a first of 'Fergus'. (There's a bibliography here if you're interested in the order they came in). I buy first editions to read, so I thought it was time to test my reaction against John Self's, and I promised John I'd tell him what conclusion I came to. I finished the novel in bed last night. It's funny how memory plays tricks on people. That's partly what 'Fergus' is about. 'Fergus' is a novel that presents a Hollywood scriptwriter (his situation based very firmly on Moore's then life - he wrote a script for Hitchcock, though it wasn't a very good one) who spends a day being interrupted by ghosts from his past. Only they're not ghosts, exactly.

When I last read this novel, I was 22 (my undergraduate dissertation was on Moore's fiction, so I read all of the novels and stories at least twice) and I remember being frustrated by this novel's slight story. Maybe now that I'm older than the protagonist, I'll relate to his situation better? No. The plot interest was even slighter and the hallucinations no more involving that the first two times around. Yet the writing is great and the novel's position in Moore's canon is pivotal. He's working his way out of his childhood Catholicism and through a period of preoccupation with Wallace Stevens that begins with 'Emperor of Ice Cream' (titled after the Stevens poem, which includes the line 'let be be the finale of seem') and continues until his most whimsical, most Stevensish novel, 'The Great Victorian Collection'. The other strand of his work at the time begins with the book before 'Fergus', 'I Am Mary Dunne'. Mary's memory obsession is similar but has far more purpose. This novel is a close precursor of his masterpiece, 'The Doctors Wife'. Before that, though, there was a sidetrack into the non-fiction novel, 'The Revolution Script' and the short, precise novel where he came to grips with faith and how art, for the artist, is often a replacement for religion, 'Catholics'.

Sorry, that last bit was rather dense if you're not a Moore enthusiast. What I'd forgotten about the end of 'Fergus', which follows a kind of dream logic, is the author's guilt over having forgotten so many people from his earlier life. Can I relate to that now I'm older? Only to an extent. I often remember people who I've only met briefly. The other day in the greengrocers, I saw a young woman who I'm certain I taught twenty years ago, and it bugged me that I couldn't precisely remember her surname. I often wonder what became of childhood friends - but how many of them have I forgotten? Dunno. So, yes, I do relate to the novel's memory theme, though I don't think it's done too well. The other thing that occurred to me as I reached the end is that I'd half inched part of the effect of the novel's finale for my most Moore-like novel, Love Lessons, a dream trial scene that I dropped when I rewrote it from an adult novel into a Young Adult novel. Seems I'm so big a fan that even his clunkers influenced me...

I wouldn't recommend that you start reading Moore with 'Fergus'. The later 'Cold Heaven' deals with similarly metaphysical areas in a more interesting, gripping way. But do read him, whichever novel you come across first. I just pulled out a pale carbon copy of my 1980 dissertation and I note that the chapter on 'Fergus' and 'Great Victorian Collection' is titled after another Stevens poem, 'Notes Towards A Supreme Fiction', one of my favourites. 'A rehash of themes dealt with more subtly in earlier books' I write. Aren't we harsh when we're young? Which is not to say that we aren't right.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Third Time Lucky 

I saw Leonard Cohen twice in the 70's, once on my own in Liverpool and four years later with my then girlfriend in Birmingham. Both times, hearing about the tour, I posted off a cheque after the tickets went on sale. A few days later, great stalls tickets arrived. That was how it worked last century. Unless an act was absolutely huge, like Led Zeppelin, you could always get tickets. The only time I missed out was when i sent off for a Joni Mitchell ticket at a theatre in London, for a gig that was, anyway, subsequently cancelled. Never did see Joni. I'm going to see Melanie for the first time, next month. She was huge in the 70's, probably bigger than Leonard Cohen in the first half, but I rang up the Leicester Y theatre (capacity, 250) a few days after tickets went on sale and got a pair in the middle of the third row. There are still plenty left.

Melanie's star might have fallen but Leonard's stature has soared into legend. Before I get to the ticket saga, another story. After the first time I saw Cohen, in '75, I tried to get his autograph after the show. Leonard was already on the tour bus, waving to us as he left. A guy I met at the stage door said to me 'you know that bit in the show, before 'Bird on a Wire', where he said about how he could see the Liver Birds from his hotel window, and they're chained down? Well, there's only one hotel near there. Do you wanna...? So this guy and I ran down to the Liver building, and a hotel whose name I never knew, and walked into the lobby. As we looked around, Leonard got out of the lift, accompanied by his manager and band. He greeted us graciously and signed both my programme and autograph book. 'What should I put?' he asked, and the other guy suggested that line from 'Famous Blue Raincoat', sincerely, L. Cohen so that's what he wrote. He even made a little conversation before his manager guided him away to eat. We shook hands goodbye. I hurried to get my train and Leonard's manager, thinking I was following them, asked me not to. I explained where I was going and fell back a little, ending up alongside one of the backing singers, who I had a long conversation with. That was Jennifer Warnes, who later had a number one with Joe Cocker and recorded a fine album of Leonard's songs.

I've still got that autograph somewhere. It's the last one in the book (I've not grown out of autograph collecting, only now I go for signed first editions). Last summer, I took a look at his home on Hydra, but I never expected to see him play again, especially since his most recent album and the tribute film about him seemed to indicate that he didn't have much voice left. But circumstances conspired to make him tour again, at 73 (see below and do watch the video). A friend said he'd get the tickets but called me half an hour after they'd gone on sale to say he'd given up. Only three of the four nights in a theatre were on sale and the website kept crashing. At one point, he'd had gallery seats (the worst ones) then the site crashed. I tried and failed, then logged on to eBay where the seats were already going for in excess of £200 (I don't buy from touts, on principle, never have, but I was curious).

There was one more chance to get tickets. All of the seats for the Thursday show were being sold through an offer in today's Guardian newspaper. So, at a minute before they went on sale, I rang the number and logged onto the website. My journalist friend Mike (who hates Cohen) kindly went on the website at the same time, precisely as tickets went on sale. And this is what happened. The phone number was 'temporarily unavailable' but the website worked without crashing. After filling in a couple of codes and waiting about a minute, I was offered three tickets in row D of the gallery (ie the worst area, although the tickets were still at the top price). Mike, at the same time, was offered three in row J of the same area, which, since we didn't need them, he let go. There's already a pair of better seats on eBay. I expect the seller bought the extras to sell on and effectively make his own tickets free. Loads of people do it, but I say, if so, shame on him (the comments box is open if he wants to respond).

In a way, it's good that live music is at such a premium that you have to be on the ball and still enter a lottery if you want to see your favourite acts. Maybe it's a partial consequence of the way that anyone with a little technological know-how can get all of their recorded music for free these days. People want and expect to pay. And the irony is that Leonard probably won't be all that good. But he's welcome to my £75 plus booking fee. And according to the Leonard Cohen forum, all seats were gone by 10.02AM, so we did well to get some. I'll be watching L.Cohen from on high, hoping that he's laughing all the way to the bank, and lives a long time to enjoy the proceeds.

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