Friday, June 20, 2008

Laughing Len Live 

Leonard Cohen Live from Macleans Magazine on Vimeo.

I blame Mel Gibson for the loss of my phone. I was due in Southport yesterday lunchtime, for , a conference on censorship that is ending as I type. It was a big day, as I was seeing Leonard Cohen in the evening, and I woke up early. Failing to go back to sleep, I thought 'sod it, I'll get to Southport early and see Mel Gibson' (no, not that Mel Gibson, I mean the UK academic who specialises in graphic novels). So I got on the Manchester train, and kept shifting my stuff on and off a seat so that people could sit down. I wasn't paying too much attention because I was trying and failing to grab a bit more sleep. It was only when I got to Southport and went to text the organiser that I was there early that I realised my phone had gone. It had slipped out of its custom pocket at the front of my jacket which, in my tired state, I'd forgotten to button.

To add insult to injury, when I got to the conference, Mel Gibson had cancelled. But it was a good do. I met academics and librarians from all over the English speaking world and had a chat with US YA novelist Barry Lyga. Then I did my bit for an extra 15 minutes because lunch had been moved forward. I started by talking about Leonard Cohen, and how I'd been shocked when he changed the word 'anal' to 'casual' on a live BBC performance sixteen years ago. I thought the BBC must have told him to, but then a friend told me that he'd done the same thing in concert, so maybe he'd censored himself, thinking that the words (first line, second verse of 'The Future') could be construed as anti-gay. In my opinion, the new wording compounded that misreading and, moreover, didn't scan. Then I went on to discuss self censorship and the age-ranging stuff I talk about in the post below, before giving an account of attempts that have been made to censor my novels. There were lots of questions and it was an enjoyable talk to do.

In Manchester, I had a plate of great gnocci at Carluccio's, a stone's throw from the Opera House. Our seats, while in the the gallery, were much better than I expected: neat the front, not too high and pretty close to the stage. It's an intimate venue and has the best acoustics of any I've been to (only Birmingham Symphony Hall comes close). Leonard took the stage at 7.30 prompt. I'd avoided reviews but my expectations weren't high. His last album and scattered appearances suggested that he didn't have much voice left. How wrong this turned out to be. He must have had some training because, at 74, he sounded terrific, singing with a slightly different register to when I heard him in the seventies - a bit gruffer, sure - yet more powerful, more committed.

The songs were mostly from his later albums, which suited me fine, not having seen them done live, with a few early classics, like a superlative 'Sisters Of Mercy', thrown in. 'The Future' came second, and he'd changed the words again. Now the line is 'give me crack and careless sex', which not only scans but also more clearly articulates what I take to be the original line's intention. Seeing him from above emphasised his stagecraft, the masterful use of the Fedora hat for expression and the theatricality of the feline, devilish pose he takes in some of the songs. The musicians and arrangements were as good as any Cohen show I've seen or heard. The whole show lasted three hours, with only a fifteen minute break. The audience was more concentrated and more rapturous than at any other gig I've been to. Astounding.

The last train back to Nottingham went three minutes before the show ended, so I've come home by a circuitous route. After the show I went with friends to the Derbyshire village of Parwich (which some readers may know from my novel, Denial) where we stayed up until two talking about what we'd just seen, the consummate performance, the self deprecating style, the passion he put into the show's highlight, where he reclaimed 'Hallelujah' from all the cover versions. Most of all, we talked about the humour which has always been the defining aspect of Cohen shows, both in the banter and the songs - particularly, last night, in numbers like 'Tower of Song' and 'I Tried To Leave You'. Which is why I call him 'laughing Len'. Thanks to 'Oscar Wilde' for the photo from the Toronto show. The Macleans interview is worth watching, and the full, fascinating transcript is here.

It's been a stressful few days since my last post, for reasons too tedious to go into, so a slow journey home suited me fine, allowing me to unwind. The only bus from Parwich went at 8.30 in the morning and the bus from Ashbourne to Derby is only every four hours, so it took a little planning. I got a lift to Ashbourne where I caught a bus at two, then a slow wind through the countryside in time to catch a train to Nottingham. I walked through the city centre, stopping in at Selectadisc and Page 45, where I picked up the latest 'Young Liars' and the final issue of 'Local' before hopping on one of the Routemaster buses that have recently appeared (literally hopped on, I mounted the running board while it was stopped in traffic, to the amusement of various passengers) that brought me back to Sherwood.

And, while I was sad to miss Mel, I won't be missing my phone for long. After three phone calls this morning, I tracked it down at a left luggage office in Liverpool, and it should be posted back to me on Monday. So here I am, relaxed and ready for the weekend, so relaxed that I've only just got round to checking what happened in the football last night. Scolari seems to have discovered the curse of Chelsea. Next legend? Lou Reed giving the penultimate performance of his masterpiece Berlin, this coming Thursday. I'm looking forward to it immensely, but there's no way it can top last night.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Why age banding sucks and T-Bone tells it like it isn't 

I'm one of the signatories to an online petition against age banding books for young readers that reads as follows:

We are writers, illustrators, librarians, teachers, publishers and booksellers. Some of us have a measure of control over what appears on the covers of their books; others have less.
But we are all agreed that the proposal to put an age-guidance figure on books for children is ill-conceived, damaging to the interests of young readers, and highly unlikely, despite the claims made by those publishers promoting the scheme, to make the slightest difference to sales.
We take this step to disavow publicly any connection with such age-guidance figures, and to state our passionately-held conviction that everything about a book should seek to welcome readers in and not keep them out.
Here are some of our reasons:

Each child is unique, and so is each book. Accurate judgments about age suitability are impossible, and approximate ones are worse than useless.

Children easily feel stigmatized, and many will put aside books they might love because of the fear of being called babyish. Other children will feel dismayed that books of their ‘correct’ age-group are too challenging, and will be put off reading even more firmly than before.

Age-banding seeks to help adults choose books for children, and we're all in favour of that; but it does so by giving them the wrong information. It’s also likely to encourage over-prescriptive or anxious adults to limit a child's reading in ways that are unnecessary and even damaging.

Everything about a book is already rich with clues about the sort of reader it hopes to find – jacket design, typography, cover copy, prose style, illustrations. These are genuine connections with potential readers, because they appeal to individual preference. An age-guidance figure is a false one, because it implies that all children of that age are the same.
Children are now taught to look closely at book covers for all the information they convey. The hope that they will not notice the age-guidance figure, or think it unimportant, is unfounded.

Writers take great care not to limit their readership unnecessarily. To tell a story as well and inclusively as possible, and then find someone at the door turning readers away, is contrary to everything we value about books, and reading, and literature itself.

You can add your name to the petition and see the full list of signatories here.

As regular readers will know, another thing that exercises me is our increasing reliance on over compressed, low bit-rate digital music, an argument now taken up by the great producer T-Bone Burnett. T-Bone says "It's stepped down from tape to digital to compressed digital, so people are now listening to a Xerox of a Polaroid of a photograph of a painting." If you'd like to hear the full interview, it's available here as a low bit-rate stream. Oh well.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

A month of clashes 

Been too busy to post much lately and today I have a houseful of guests, but they're all at the cricket, getting wet, so here I am. What's new? I love the cover of this week's new New Yorker, which just popped through my door, by my favourite comic book writer, Adrian Tomine (the illustration of it to your right is from his myspace , check it out).

This is a month of clashes. Not that I'm complaining. Better to have two great things to do and have to choose between them than spend every evening watching teams you don't care about on Euro 2008. Last night's was the worst. My MA students were launching their fine anthology, Leap 08 at 7, and I'd agreed to introduce it. Then an invitation arrived to a gala dinner at the council house to celebrate Alan Sillitoe's being made a freeman of the City of Nottingham: the great, the good and half of Nottingham's writers would be there for a big beanfeast with speeches by Alan and John Harvey.

Then, next Thursday, I'm going to the 10th anniversary party of Barrington Stoke, but Fleet Foxes are playing the Social, a tiny venue in Nottingham. It promises to be special. And it'll be ending just as my train gets in from London.

Two Thursdays after that is even more annoying. I'd been looking forward to introducing and interviewing legendary producer Joe Boyd at the Lowdham Book Festival. But Joe had to change dates, and the new one clashes with the night when I have front row seats to see Lou Reed give the penultimate live performance of Berlin, which is my favourite of his albums. So it has to be Lou, sorry Joe. I will however be introducing the fine novelist and biographer DJ Taylor on the Wednesday night, when he'll be talking about the regional novel.

A theme that brings me back to Alan Sillitoe. I went to the council house for the pre-dinner drinks last night and had a brief word with Alan before heading over to the student launch, two minutes up the road at Waterstones. I have to say that this was my sixth one of these and by far the best, with a full house, a palpable buzz, great wine and canapes, and short, pithy readings by half a dozen of the students in the anthology, Leap 08, which also includes prose by David Almond, Graham Joyce and yours truly, poems by Martin Stannard, Mahendra Solanki and John Lucas plus scripts from Michael Eaton and Georgina Lock, nearly all of whom were there last night. A great party. If you'd like to buy a copy of the anthology, for £5 post-free, email me at the address linked to your right.

When Waterstones threw us out at nine, I returned to the Council House in time for coffee, wine and conversation (I also managed to eat two desserts, which kind of made up for missing dinner, though my head's a little thick this morning), catching up with the usual suspects and some people I hadn't seen for years, like former council leader Betty Higgins. Result. Two great evenings in one.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Courtesy of Scott Pack 

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?