Saturday, 31 December 2011

For Emma From 27 years ago

I know straightaway it's her. She looks a little tired, a little distracted but so does everyone. It's the afternoon December 23 after all. the last proper shopping day before Christmas and we're feeling the tremours that herald the coming of the retail earthquake that is man-dash. Those hours when 99.7% of all the world's perfumes are sold to drunk men suddenly gripped by fear at the thought of their significant others waking to Not Enough from Santa come The Day. It's also when all the Kate Bush albums get bought. And this year it was the period when four million copies of Caitlin Moran's How To Be a Woman were shifted. (These are facts btw. Authenticated numbers.)

But I'm not writing about the panicky shopping habits of men. I'm writing about the fact that in Leeds last week I walked past Emma Dawson - the girl who broke my heart in the summer of 1984. And then kept breaking my heart for most of 1985. Though that's wrong isn't it? When hearts get broken the fault generally lies with the owners. They are often responsible for having recklessly put those fragile hearts in places where they were bound to get smashed. Or they were criminally negligent in giving them to people who didn't realise what they were - and who would have have refused them if they had known: 'It's your heart you say? Take it back. why the fuck would I want that?'

Anyway, the point is I met Emma in Colchester in the Autumn of 1983, gave her my heart in 1984 and by that summer it was pretty much busted and now - 27 and a half years later - I was in Leeds with my smallest boy - the young Judomaster - getting ready to buy Kate Bush albums, Caitlin Moran books and scent for my wife of twelve years. There she was - tired, distracted but emphatically herself - walking towards me  looking pretty much exactly the same as she did back then. She was a good-looking young woman and now she was a good-looking older woman. She'd added a bit of tired gravitas to her white rose teenage looks

So what happened next?

Nothing happened next. We didn't even speak. We passed within three feet of each other. If I was a betting man (and I am actually) I'd give good odds that she saw me and, like me, considered the stop and chat and decided against it. It was raining. We were in a time pressured situation vis-a-vis the buying of Bush/Moran/Scent...

What was great for me was to feel Nothing Much. certainly no pain. Though there was a sudden flush of embarrassment. Embarrasment's ok - we can all live with that. Just as well isn't it?  It felt pretty good to feel Nothing Much good enough that after she'd passed I nearly turned around to catch up with her just so I could feel Nothing Much all over again. But that would have been weird.

Because there was a period when I couldn't think of her without filling up (yes I know it's pathetic. But I was a twenty year old Smiths fan. The Go Betweens Spring Hill fair was my favourite album of that year. I was sensitive. I read poetry.)

The thing about Emma Dawson was that she was always out of my league. Palely beautiful with dark hair and an easy laugh... It was enough, more than enough. those are dangerous weapons in the wrong hands.

 Thrown together at Essex University (her: Art History of course. Me: English and European Literature also of course) we hung out more or less constantly from Freshers Week. We were mates and I never expected anything else. And actually I had a bit of a crush on Camilla Beswick who played for my five-a-side team the Bash Street Kids (we were the only team in the league to have a girl playing for us so we were sort of always moral victors even when we lost. Which was most of the time. It wasn't Camilla's fault btw - she was pretty good. A regular Gregory's Girl.)

Anyway Emma kept coming round to my room in BR3 - one of the giant towerblocks at Essex. The ones that were meant to be a modernist architectural representation of the hills around Sienna but were more like the outskirts of Stalinist-era Murmansk.

She would stay for hours. She would listen to me go on about - well everything. Music. Books. Politics. Cooking. I hope I didn't give her little lectures on Art History but I wouldn't put it past me. she would listen to my records. She would laugh with me and at me and expertly make the thinnest of  rollies. She used the word rebarbative in conversation which would normally be enough to get me hooked but I still didn't consider her as a potential girlfriend. We were mates. Mates.

Then one night she came round and made it very very plain that she had no intention of leaving at all. I say she made it very plain but it took till about four in the morning before I started to get the message. In fact it took until her tongue was in my mouth and one hand on the crotch of my skinny black jeans while the other crept underneath my baggy paisley shirt before I really got the gist. I could be a bit dim in those days. An aute awareness of body language not really being my thing.

And what I wonder did Emma see in me? I looked like an exotic wading bird back then. A kind of anxious scruffy crane or something. So skinny (I was nine stone) I was all shin and knees and pointy hips, pointy elbows and long pointy beak. And lets not forget the pointy  hair that was both black and Krazy kolor blonde - the kind of two tone look that would later become surprisingly popular with Northern milfs running amok on hen nights. Quite possibly it was my apparent indifference to her looks.

Anyway by the end of that night we were lovers which meant, of course, that we were no longer mates. This took a few weeks to become really obvious but I went from being an opinionated motormouth, happy to go his own way do his own thing - to only wanting to be where Emma was.And to do whatever it was that she was doing. I agreed with her enthusiastically all the time. About everything - even when she was patently talking bollocks.  I worried if she wasn't around. More than that - I was bewitched by fear. Where was she? what was she doing? who was she doing it with? Even if she was in a Art History seminar then I might fret about who she was sitting with about shared jokes with her tutor. I know what those pre-Raphaelites were like. Sex mad the lot of them. And the academics who studied them were even worse...

In short in a matter of days I had become one of the less likeable Nick Hornby characters.

As I say this transformation took a while to manifest itself. I think I probably had the good sense to keep it well hid for a  few weeks. And we did have a good time. We played a lot of pool badly. We had a lot of adventurous sex (I was 20 - it was ALL adventurous to me then). We saw some bands. I remember her watch - an 18th birthday present - came off in the mosh-pit at a Sisters of Mercy gig. She was crying and so I plunged amid all the shiny shiny boots of leather to try and find it. A few members of the sisterhood wondered - naturally enough - what the fuck I thought I was doing? Word spread until, in an act of large-scale generosity as surprising as it was gallant, the whole mosh pit was on its knees looking for Emma Dawson's bloody watch. This must have looked very weird from the stage and I've often wondered what Andrew Eldritch, the main Sister, made of it. The watch got found btw and as soon as it was restored to its owner the moshing began again with redoubled fervour as if to make up for the minutes lost to random kindness.

She met my parents. And then the first year was over and she went back North to Tadcaster (she was the first Northern person I'd ever known) and I went to my mum's new flat in Enfield and got a holiday job in the gun factory. (luxury mews apartments now of course - because that's what we do these days. Put shoddy houses where once we used to make things)

It was an interesting place but a boring job and I spent most of day dreaming up witty erudite but mostly very, very long letters. at least one a day, often two, occasionally three. There might have been one day when I sent a letter on the way to work, another at the afternoon break (written at lunch) and another on the way home (written on the bus). I'm guessing I was pretty unhappy. I knew no one in Enfield, the job was hard but badly paid, everyone seemed to know more than I did about everything (even though I was the only one with certificates). They even beat me at frigging scrabble.

I think I might have put her off a bit. What would you think if you got three or four letters a day from someone? thank Christ we didn't have mobile phones then. I'm sure the guy who sends four long love letters a day in 1984 is the same kind of sinister sap who sends half hourly texts these days.

Anyway she invited me up to Tadcaster for A Big Family Party this was a celebration of her sister's 21st, her mum's 50th and her parents 25th wedding anniversary. A bit of a do in other words.

And it was pretty obvious Em had cooled. I was left at home 'making a mix tape' for the party while she went off to York shopping. I was left to play Subbuteo with her 13 year old brother and, at the party itself  had to have a million conversations with tweedy Aunts about my incongruous parrots hair (by now I had added royal blue to make a vivid tricolour of my own head. Black, yellow, blue.) Emma was pretty much nowhere to be seen. She - perhaps sensibly -got wasted and had to be put to bed by her mum before nine.

And then finally the next morning I was put out of my misery, given my P45 in a short conversation by a hungover but not in the least tearful Emma -  and that should have been that. Unfortunately my pride and my dignity had gone missing along with my heart and I spent the next year trying to get her back. This involved a certain amount of begging and pleading, some crying, quite a bit of following her around - all the time maintaining the desperate fiction that we were still mates. We even made out. A snog and a fumble around christmas that ended with Emma saying 'I bet you thought you were in there...' before calling a cab.

Trying to win Emma back did also somehow seem to involve getting off with her friends. The logic of this escapes me - but the logic of more or less everything I did back then escapes me. The past isn't just a foreign country sometimes it seems like an entire alien planetary system.

And then one day I woke up cured. More or less just like that. One day I was a snivelling wreck who - had it not been for advanced cowardice and a fear of needles - would have had Emma Forever tattooed in Sanskirt across his back. And the next I wasn't really bothered about her. Weird, huh? Or just being twenty? And a year later I was a dad - but that's a whole other story...

Emma did however have another big humiliation to inflict. Or, rather, I had had one more big humiliation to inflict on myself courtesy of her presence.

In 1992 I had just split up with my daughter's mum and was living - still in Colchester - in a terrace with a remarkably tolerant old schoolfriend. And I got a letter inviting me to Emma's wedding in York. She was getting married to a guy who'd been in the year below of us at uni. And I decided to go. And I decided to take my friend Rachel. Now Rachel was vivacious, striking. The kind of dirty blonde that regularly got blokes following her home. I suppose I fancied her a bit but hanging out with Rachel could be tiring what with all the shoals of sharp-faced men swirling around showing their nasty little teeth. And she preferred criminals anyway. We were emphatically platonic and - at the time - proper pals. Chums (later we shared a house and within a couple of weeks weren't speaking but that was all in the future).

R drove me North and the wedding was a lavish affair. I was, oddly, the only one of E's friends from Uni to make it up there and they missed a treat I have to say. Mr Dawson had done his daughter proud. York Moot Hall with a free bar. No - really, really free. You could (and I proved this by empirical research) go up to the bar and ask for a dozen King Edward cigars and get them. You could ask for ludicrous combinations of drinks and get them. 'Sextuple tequila with vintage malt chaser, Sir? - Certainly coming right up?' Anyway everyone got thoroughly horribly trashed - it would have been very rude not to.

Everyone was very complimentary about my foxy girlfriend Rachel and I didn't bother going through the whole 'she's actually not my girlfriend she's just a mate' routine. Too complicated and I was enjoying being a E's wedding with the best looking girl in the room. I was enjoying it right up until the moment Rachel got off with Pete, E's little brother - no longer 13 but 21and by now interested in things other than Subbuteo. No longer all that little either. As far as the party was concerned I was being publically cuckolded by my current girlfriend at my former girlfriend's wedding. Plus I'd already told E - in fun. In FUN Christ can't you guys take a joke - that it 'should have been me. It should have been us getting married.' She nearly pissed herself. Practically choked on her rum and wkd or whatever...

I'd also had a brief conversation in the bogs with her dad where he had had laughed about how fucking ridiculous I'd looked the weekend of the party where Emma had dumped me. How horrified they'd all been when I turned up. He assured me it hadn't just been my hair... which made me feel great as you might imagine.

That was 1992. And it wasn't actually the last time I'd run into her. That had been in 2004 when I'd gone out for dinner in a country gastro pub out in the wilds of west yorks. It was my wife's birthday and we were out wih my in-laws and as we arrived E was in there - yes, getting wasted actually - with some friends. We spoke briefly. She was divorced, two kids 8 and 6, working in business - a finance director for some big company actually (when I knew her she was not only doing Art History - and doing it half-heartedly - but she could barely count her change and managed her finances pretty recklessly as I remember: spending quite a bit on shoes, pale make-up and fancy eyeliner. Sisters of Mercy fan remember...) and she was living in this village all of a mile from my new home. At the urging of one of her friends we swapped mobile numbers.

Later, at the urging of my mother-in-law- I ripped her number up.

And now seven and a bit years on from that last awkward encounter - she was walking towards me in Leeds City Centre at Christmas a time when we reflect on the past and all that it means.

Should we have stopped. Caught up and what has happened since? Laughed together at how that idiot boy in the skinny black jeans and cockatoo hair became the balding gentleman she was now talking to. Talked about the vandalism of time, swapped affectionate stories of our children. Maybe I could have casually mentioned my published novels, my plays, my time working on a Top Television Soap Opera (disastrous but she wouldn't have to know that). Maybe I could have invited her to the launch of my next book (only three months away now - I mention this just in passing you understand...) And she could have told me about... oh whatever is going on in the world of finance directoring...

Perhaps we should have but later  the young Judomaster would be bound to ask 'who was that lady Daddy?' and what would I say?


Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Save The High Street - Get The Hippies In

I think my friend Ian Marchant (polymath and wit and read 'Parallel Lines' and 'The Longest Crawl' for the evidence) said it first and said it best, but I'm saying it again because it bears repeating over and over - if you want to save the High Street you don't need Mary Portas - you need hippies.

Those towns that have been saved from a depressing sameness often follow a recognisable arc that starts with industrial or economic decline which means cheap houses. The hippies buy the houses, do them up using salvaged materials because hippies are often educated and practical.

The, having first saved the houses, they take on the High Street, breathing a wholemeal life into it by setting up wholefood cafes, delis, bakeries, acupuncturists. Reviving trade in the pubs, demanding real beer, decent grub, live music. Bookshops. Setting up touring theatre companies. And I'm not being cynical or facetious. It's these things that do actually save a town. They're not knitting yoghurt those bearded types with the nuclear power no thanks stickers (in welsh) in the windows of their camper vans - they're knitting your depressed small town a safety net.

And then they have kids. And the hippies - being bolshy as well as educated - are on now on the PTA raising cash and Taking An Interest. (often much to the discomfort of the school authorities).Raising standards. And now they're also agitating for better kids services, better libraries, arts events.

And once the schools start improving, well now things become safe for the professionals. Here come the  teachers, the local authority middle managers, the doctors. This next wave usually comes from the public sector (the sector the Tories boss class hate with a rage that's all the more inexplicable given that they rarely use public services if they can avoid it. From public transport to public hospitals they insulate themselves from the people they rule wherever possible). So now you'll find more cafes, more nice shops. Clothes even! Shoes! Comedy clubs! (and probably wife-swapping parties too - though it's hard to find people to talk about that in the playground)

And so now it's finally the kind of place here down-sizing London lawyers, commuting bankers and people with regular columns in the sunday papers might want to move to to. The town is officially saved. Unique, different, desirable. And it's at that moment of course that the hippies - or their children - have to move on. It's got too pricey and, probably, too claustrophobic for them. They're off mate. Off to have a go at rescuing save Rochdale or Crewe or Bedford or A Scruffy Town Near You - if people will let them.

Of course there's only a certain number of hippies. Never enough to go round. Certainly not with the levels of blight that are being visited on us at the moment. And you're probably in a hurry  in which case the only answer is to lobby the government to give councils back the power to set rents for businesses in a bespoke way.

And good luck with that. People power doesn't seem to be quite the force here that it is in other places.

They used to do this though. A blindingly simple way to keep the individual character of communities. A council was free to charge Marks and Spencers one rate per square foot, and the Yorkshire Home-made Eco-Cake Croc and Bike Emporium another. Big business - your Nexts, your Wilkinsons, your Boots and - especially - your Tescos and your Sainsburys, they didn't like this. It meant they were kept out of some nice towns. So their loyal servants in the Thatcher government scrapped this discretion and their almost as loyal servants in the New Labour party never restored it.

So until the time comes when this power is given back to the voters you'll have to rely on Mary Portas. Or wait for your houses to be worth buttons so that the hippies can come and save you.

Monday, 5 December 2011

Vanessa Gebbie on rejection, selection and the unbounded joy of not being an axolotl

In 2007 the writer Vanessa Gebbie won first prize in the Daily Telegraph Write A Novel In A Year competition for her novel in progress.. Now in late 2011 that book is no longer a work in progress. The Coward's Tale (Bloomsbury) has just been published and has already won praise from, well, everywhere. AN Wilson has - just today - named it his novel of the year in the Financial Times.

Vanessa is the daughter of a student nurse and a travelling salesman and was given up for adoption at birth. She spent much of her childhood in Wales and can still sing hymns and swear in Welsh. Her short fiction has won many awards including Fish and Bridport prizes and has been published in the UK, USA, New Zealand, Canada and India, translated into Vietnamese and Italian and broadcast by the BBC. Her teaching and facilitating has led to the publishing of anthologies of work by both the homeless and refugees in her home city of Brighton and Hove, Sussex, UK.

And last week I (almost literally) bumped into her in Bedford Square - very close to where the pre-Raphaelite brotherhood began, where the first anasthestic was given and next door to where the first university level college for women started. And - a day or so later - asked her my usual questions to which she responded with the wit, thoughtfulness and narrative brio that characterises her fiction. The Coward's Tale is subtle, many layered and gripping piece of story-telling...

Give me your autobiography in exactly 50 words (not 49, not 51...)

Welsh. Conceived on a dirty weekend in Swansea. Born. Given away. Happy child, wouldn’t go out to play much, stayed in own head. (More interesting people in there...). Grew. Educated, kind of. Married, had kids, worked. Happy adult. Became writer. Still dislike going out – imagining is much more fun.

What are you doing right now?

Munching my way through a bowl of Rude Health granola with hundreds of blueberries.

And later?

Signing some of my books for Christmas presents over coffee with a friend. Lunch with another friend (I have some! I have some!)... then polishing a story for Radio 3’s The Verb this afternoon.

The Coward's Tale has just come out. How do you feel about the book now it's in the shops? What are your hopes for it?

I feel it is my pension. Therefore you must buy it, and tell all your friends about it. Otherwise I will starve and never write the sequel. Or the prequel. And people may be a bit sad. I would hate to leave sadness as my legacy. So you know what to do.

I have high hopes, today (Monday) because yesterday, in the Financial Times, the rather wonderful and perspicacious A N Wilson, writer and critic, chose The Coward’s Tale as his novel of the year.  I am therefore planning what to wear at the ceremony when I am awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Tomorrow, I will be more realistic, and just go about in my sandwich board, exhorting people to storm the bookshops, ransack the booksellers while the beautiful hardback remains on the shelves. It will become a collectors’ item, honest. (Well, people will collect anything, won’t they?!) 

Where did the story come from?

My head.  I said it was interesting in there... It grew over c. 6 years, changed, morphed, was never planned to be anything in particular. The story found itself. I ‘made up’ a small community, using memories of my grandmother’s town – peopled it with an ever-expanding number of characters, until I couldn’t hold them all in the front of my head at the same time, and had to trust that the ones I wasn’t looking at were OK. I was surprised and delighted, or saddened beyond belief with what they got up to when I wasn’t looking. The stories they told.  I just galloped behind with a keyboard.

 How important to you is Wales and being Welsh? 

Well, very. Love the place. The pretty bits slightly less than the not-pretty, but you know - handsome is, as handsome does, as my grandmother used to say.  The most deeply interesting people are not those who have it easy, are they?
I was brought up by a Welsh couple who had to leave Wales during the Depression, to find good jobs. Wherever we were, it was a bit of Wales. Like an embassy. Went to a Welsh boarding school at the foot of Cader Idris – nearly got thrown out at 14, for an early attempt at playwriting/acting/directing...but instead, my Confirmation was delayed as I ‘had the Devil working alongside me...’ Where else but Wales...?!

But seriously – as an adopted adult – having been rejected/selected years back, I feel able to select and reject for myself now.  So. Bring on the Celts. I am Welsh, set a lot of my work there, do 90% of my writing in Ireland, and holiday happily on the very edge of Cornwall  or in Scotland– just got a Hawthornden Fellowship which gives me a whole month to write in a beautiful Scottish castle, too. Oh, and I live in a rather lovely corner of England.  

Where do you see yourself in five years time? ten?

No idea. I am a traveller who has walked uphill for a long time, finally reaching a hut on the top of the mountain. It is draughty here. There is a spring for water, and a supply of animal skins for the wooden planks that serve as a bed. It’s a bit like Scott’s Antarctic hut – there are tins of food, and dried things to chew. But they are all brown, so whether they are meat, fish or fruit is unknowable.
I opened the shutters this morning after I’d rested for a while – and there, looming over us, there is another mountain, the sides even steeper, snow and ice at the top. There is a telescope on the bed – I peered through it – and there, at the top of that mountain, half-covered with snow, is another hut.
Who - in life or writing - do you most admire?

I used to work with people trying hard to kick long-term addiction to drugs and/or alcohol. Believe me – anyone who fights and wins over addiction is amazing. Hats off.

 Recommend something.

Rude Health Granola!

 Tell me something I don't know.

If you are feeling sad, make your mouth smile. Now make your eyes join in – you know – those muscles round your eyes that crinkle up when you laugh.  Hold it. You now will feel less sad.


Another thing to do if you are feeling sad is to consider the axolotl.  This will bring you joy unbounded, because you are not one. (photo needed...

The Cowards Tale is published by Bloomsbury

Sunday, 27 November 2011

We're in this together

'We're in this together.' It's what I said to my bank manager, Dave.

'Dave,' I said - I knew that was his name because he had it on a name tag on his jumper. 'Dave,' I said. 'I won't lie. This is going to hurt. But it would be irresponsible to do nothing. Difficult decisions have to be taken. We have to be grown up. We have to tackle things head on. Grasp the nettle. All that.'

He looked confused. I could tell I was going to have to spell things out. Literally.

'C.U.T.S.' I said. 'Cuts, Dave, cuts.' He was still looking blank. I tried not to sigh. Tried not to roll my eyes. I fear I might have failed. Anyway I struggled on. 'We have to bring expenditure down. We can't go living beyond our means. We've had the good times and now we have to pay for it.' And then I explained as carefully and as slowly as I could what the current economic situation meant for us both. Me as a customer of the bank and him as its employee.

 I told him that while yes, I had, technically, entered into an agreement saying that I would repay my mortgage over twenty years at £700 per month, the scale of the economic catastrophe facing us all meant that this was now unaffordable. It was unfortunate but now I would only be able to repay £500 a month for the next ten years. It was tough, but there it was. He looked incredulous at first. Then shocked. I couldn't believe he hadn't seen it coming to be honest. I began to lose a bit of patience. I might have become a bit snippy as I went on to explain that there were, of course, no guarantees that I wouldn't find this new agreement unaffordable too in the future. What with the current calamitous goings on with regard of the Eurozone sovereign debt problem, the parlous state of the national finances thanks to the last government, not to mention the way the public continued to vote irrationally on both X factor and Strictly - it was more than possible that what I might realistically be able to pay back ended up being nearer to £300 a month over five years. Really - with the way the world was going - he was lucky to be getting anything.

He was very quiet for a while. And then he started getting proper cross. Shouting, screaming, threatening to call the cops. It all got most unseemly. I couldn't believe his attitude. surely, he could see that an austerity package was not only desirable but a necessity now?

This conversation didn't happen. It's fiction. But you knew that. After all who actually gets to meet their bank manager in person nowadays. Now, you chat on the phone with a friendly guy from Mumbai or Wicklow or somewhere when you go to get your request for an overdraft turned down.

But nevertheless a similar conversation is taking place. The government - having signed up to pension agreements for millions of workers-  has decided to rip those agreements up because it's decided it can't pay them. To which we should all say tough.

Many public sector workers could have had higher paid jobs elsewhere but chose working for the state because of a desire to do some good and, yes, because of the increased security and better pension provision. If they sacrificed the chance to own a BMW 5-series in order in exchange for being able to turn the heating on in winter when they hit 65, then it seems fair to expect a government to honour its promises to them however hard that seems right now.

And actually it makes economic sense to keep pension agreements. It is, after all, only pensioners that are buying anything these days. From electric guitars to Harley-Davidsons to long haul holidays, it's only the OAPS that are spending. Any fiscal stimulus in the economy at the minute comes from the grey pound. (or from rich Greeks fleeing to London to avoid the psychic blow of having to pay tax) But like most of the Coalition decisions it's not about economic good sense. It's about undermining the public sector.

There's a lot of crap talked about how middle class we all are nowadays just because we all like wine and we all like hummus. The truth is that in all the things that count we're getting increasingly like the working class. And not even like the unionised and muscled working class of the 1950s but rather the insecure working class of the 20s and 30s. This government (and the last to be fair) are busy making casual labourers of us all. Freelancers of us all. A world where teachers, social workers, librarians, the people who process your council tax or run your sports centre - all as insecure in their employment as a 19th century docker regardless of what agreements governments signed up to.

If I had really had had a conversation with the mythical Dave the bank manager in any way like the one I describe, then obviously he would have had me arrested or sectioned. And then he would have taken my house off me.

The strikes on Wednesday are not about protecting cushy payments for state employees, they are about making sure governments honour their promises. Making sure they can't tear up treaties when it suits them without the consent of the people on whose behalf they made them.

And actually one set of public sector employees do get massively generous final salary pensions which aren't being threatened by austerity measures. MPs are alright Jack aren't they?  

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Beat Poets - doesn't mean beat poets

From the New York Times - An astonishing witness statement from US poet Robert Hass

And a genius idea at the end...

Poet-Bashing Police - From the New York Times


Berkeley, Calif.

LIFE, I found myself thinking as a line of Alameda County deputy sheriffs in Darth Vader riot gear formed a cordon in front of me on a recent night on the campus of the University of California, Berkeley, is full of strange contingencies. The deputy sheriffs, all white men, except for one young woman, perhaps Filipino, who was trying to look severe but looked terrified, had black truncheons in their gloved hands that reporters later called batons and that were known, in the movies of my childhood, as billy clubs.

The first contingency that came to mind was the quick spread of the Occupy movement. The idea of occupying public space was so appealing that people in almost every large city in the country had begun to stake them out, including students at Berkeley, who, on that November night, occupied the public space in front of Sproul Hall, a gray granite Beaux-Arts edifice that houses the registrar’s offices and, in the basement, the campus police department.

It is also the place where students almost 50 years ago touched off the Free Speech Movement, which transformed the life of American universities by guaranteeing students freedom of speech and self-governance. The steps are named for Mario Savio, the eloquent graduate student who was the symbolic face of the movement. There is even a Free Speech Movement Cafe on campus where some of Mr. Savio’s words are prominently displayed: “There is a time ... when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part. You can’t even passively take part.”

Earlier that day a colleague had written to say that the campus police had moved in to take down the Occupy tents and that students had been “beaten viciously.” I didn’t believe it. In broad daylight? And without provocation? So when we heard that the police had returned, my wife, Brenda Hillman, and I hurried to the campus. I wanted to see what was going to happen and how the police behaved, and how the students behaved. If there was trouble, we wanted to be there to do what we could to protect the students.

Once the cordon formed, the deputy sheriffs pointed their truncheons toward the crowd. It looked like the oldest of military maneuvers, a phalanx out of the Trojan War, but with billy clubs instead of spears. The students were wearing scarves for the first time that year, their cheeks rosy with the first bite of real cold after the long Californian Indian summer. The billy clubs were about the size of a boy’s Little League baseball bat. My wife was speaking to the young deputies about the importance of nonviolence and explaining why they should be at home reading to their children, when one of the deputies reached out, shoved my wife in the chest and knocked her down.

Another of the contingencies that came to my mind was a moment 30 years ago when Ronald Reagan’s administration made it a priority to see to it that people like themselves, the talented, hardworking people who ran the country, got to keep the money they earned. Roosevelt’s New Deal had to be undealt once and for all. A few years earlier, California voters had passed an amendment freezing the property taxes that finance public education and installing a rule that required a two-thirds majority in both houses of the Legislature to raise tax revenues. My father-in-law said to me at the time, “It’s going to take them 50 years to really see the damage they’ve done.” But it took far fewer than 50 years.

My wife bounced nimbly to her feet. I tripped and almost fell over her trying to help her up, and at that moment the deputies in the cordon surged forward and, using their clubs as battering rams, began to hammer at the bodies of the line of students. It was stunning to see. They swung hard into their chests and bellies. Particularly shocking to me — it must be a generational reaction — was that they assaulted both the young men and the young women with the same indiscriminate force. If the students turned away, they pounded their ribs. If they turned further away to escape, they hit them on their spines.

NONE of the police officers invited us to disperse or gave any warning. We couldn’t have dispersed if we’d wanted to because the crowd behind us was pushing forward to see what was going on. The descriptor for what I tried to do is “remonstrate.” I screamed at the deputy who had knocked down my wife, “You just knocked down my wife, for Christ’s sake!” A couple of students had pushed forward in the excitement and the deputies grabbed them, pulled them to the ground and cudgeled them, raising the clubs above their heads and swinging. The line surged. I got whacked hard in the ribs twice and once across the forearm. Some of the deputies used their truncheons as bars and seemed to be trying to use minimum force to get people to move. And then, suddenly, they stopped, on some signal, and reformed their line. Apparently a group of deputies had beaten their way to the Occupy tents and taken them down. They stood, again immobile, clubs held across their chests, eyes carefully meeting no one’s eyes, faces impassive. I imagined that their adrenaline was surging as much as mine.

My ribs didn’t hurt very badly until the next day and then it hurt to laugh, so I skipped the gym for a couple of mornings, and I was a little disappointed that the bruises weren’t slightly more dramatic. It argued either for a kind of restraint or a kind of low cunning in the training of the police. They had hit me hard enough so that I was sore for days, but not hard enough to leave much of a mark. I wasn’t so badly off. One of my colleagues, also a poet, Geoffrey O’Brien, had a broken rib. Another colleague, Celeste Langan, a Wordsworth scholar, got dragged across the grass by her hair when she presented herself for arrest.

I won’t recite the statistics, but the entire university system in California is under great stress and the State Legislature is paralyzed by a minority of legislators whose only idea is that they don’t want to pay one more cent in taxes. Meanwhile, students at Berkeley are graduating with an average indebtedness of something like $16,000. It is no wonder that the real estate industry started inventing loans for people who couldn’t pay them back.

“Whose university?” the students had chanted. Well, it is theirs, and it ought to be everyone else’s in California. It also belongs to the future, and to the dead who paid taxes to build one of the greatest systems of public education in the world.

The next night the students put the tents back up. Students filled the plaza again with a festive atmosphere. And lots of signs. (The one from the English Department contingent read “Beat Poets, not beat poets.”) A week later, at 3:30 a.m., the police officers returned in force, a hundred of them, and told the campers to leave or they would be arrested. All but two moved. The two who stayed were arrested, and the tents were removed. On Thursday afternoon when I returned toward sundown to the steps to see how the students had responded, the air was full of balloons, helium balloons to which tents had been attached, and attached to the tents was kite string. And they hovered over the plaza, large and awkward, almost lyrical, occupying the air.

Robert Hass is a professor of poetry and poetics at the University of California, Berkeley, and former poet laureate of the United States.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Rachel Connor on pair-bonding antelopes, Muggletonians, the genius of Julie Delpy and moving meditation.

It takes ten years. Jill Dawson said that and I believe her. She said that from the moment you decide to write fiction seriously to the moment when you've got something on the shelves that you can be really proud of is usually a full decade. And by that reckoning then Yorkshire based writer Rachel Connor is at least a couple of years ahead of the game.

I met Rachel when she came to the Arvon Foundation at Lumb Bank on one of the first courses we were running. That was a starting to write course back in 2003. Since then she's completed an MA in writing at Manchester University and works for the Arvon Foundation herself. And now there's Sisterwives a complex, compassionate, subtle, and seductive story about love and what it means to be human. And so, as is my wont, I asked her some questions and she gave me thoughtful and thought-provoking replies. And here they are:

Can you give me your autobiography in exactly 50 words (not 49, not 51...)?

Raised in Teeside, craved the city; studied hard, played harder. Embarked on world tour: Australia, Africa, Europe. Laughed, loved, adventured. In one year gained a PhD, two lecturing jobs and a baby. Wrote lots of academic stuff. Migrated to the hills, married, started writing fiction. Wrote a novel. Then another.

Why should I read Sisterwives?

I'd like to think it has all the elements of a good story  secrets, conflict, characters who undergo journeys, learn and change. But it also asks questions about what it is to be human and to live together: what is fidelity? Is it possible to be faithful to just one person? and other more ponderous things like the place of faith and spirituality in our lives; the challenges and benefits of living in a community and how we pull of individuality and desire.

What are your personal feelings about polyamorous relationships?

If you're asking if it's for me, then no! I see that for some people there might be benefits, but I couldn't cope with the sharing. I'd be constantly comparing myself to the other wives. I'm fascinated by it, though, for all that. desire and intimacy can't always be placed into neat boxes in the way that traditional western marriage (or cohabitation) requires us to do. Monogamy might be tough, but it tests us. Those vows, rules, boundaries    whatever  are socially constructed. But the commitment (whether public or private) forces us to hold in check our impulses, egos, our individual desires and to consider someone else's needs as much as our own. For that reason I think fidelity is as much a spiritual issue as it is a social one.

Any reaction from within the Mormon community?

I've had a few excited messages on Twitter from people who've stumbled across a mention of the book. So we'll see. It's a big debate in the States - there's a campaign to legalise polygamy - but it's only fundamentalist Mormons who actually practise plural marriage. I can see that the book could be open to criticisms of glamourising polygamy and obscuring how women can be oppressed by it. But I also want to show how those power dynamics can be subverted. The other thing to say is that although I draw on Mormonism, I weave in other faith systems too, borrowing bits from Quakerism for example, and the history of seventeenth century English dissenters. The Muggletonians are my favourites.

What are your hopes for this book?

That someone buys the film rights for vast sums of money. No, in all seriousness: mostly I'd like the book to make people think, to ask themselves questions about human relationships and love and desire. And acknowledge that these things are more complex than our socially engineered structures allow them to be.

Are you working on another book?

Yes - in between working for the Arvon Foundation, and family life, and the multifarious tasks involved in launching a first novel with a small press. It's still early days, so I'm tentative. The new novel takes its inspiration from real people and places, so in that sense it's very different to Sisterwives. it's set in Glasgow in the early 20th century, so involves some research as well. My biggest decision so far is around viewpoints: whose is the story?

I  know you also write radio plays, what excites you about that form?

I love that compressed form in which to tell a story - so different from the expansive nature of a novel. I love the open possibilities that radio offers, the ability to travel anywhere in time and space. When I'm writing radio, it feels much more like play, somehow, than the novels I write. I give myself permission to unleash the child in me - I'd love to inject more of that into my fiction. But mostly I like the intimacy that radio can engender with the listener. I think it suits my writing style.

Who - in life or in writing - do you admire and why?

Julie Delpy. She's got it all: she's a hugely talented singer-songwriter, actor and director. I first saw her in Before Sunrise years and years ago. I love that film and its sequel Before Sunset and discovered that Delpy and Ethan Hawke both collaborated on the script. Nothing much happens - in both films, like in a classic modernist novel, they wander around European cities, talking - so the dialogue is everything. Genius.

What do you think about the Man Booker prize? Does it even matter?

I zoned out of this year's readability versus quality debate. I just couldn't engage with it. I certainly don't feel the Man Booker is a guarantee of quality, though what's worrying is that there are swathes of readers who faithfully work their way through the shortlist, thinking it's a benchmark for the best writing out there. But the very concept of literary prizes is bizarre when you think about it. On the basis of decisions taken by a chosen few, a small number of novels get a huge sales boost and literary careers are cemented. that said, if I won the Orange Prize, I wouldn't be complaining.

Where do you see yourself in five years? Ten?

Honestly? Doing the same thing. Still writing, and balancing that with something out there in the world - whatever that is - teaching, working with people in some way. I'd like to have another novel (or two?) in print. I'd like to have a few radio plays broadcast. There's very little I'd want to change. Apart from maybe allowing myself more time off...

Recommend something...

Five Rhythms movement. It's a form of free dance in which there are no set steps but you follow the music though a 'wave' flowing into 'chaos' and eventually into stillness. It can be done by anyone, no matter what their age or physical ability. I've found it to be an amazing experience.. Sometimes it's just a brilliant workout - like being at a nightclub with none of the drawbacks like being hit on or drinking too much. Other times (at the risk of sounding like an old hippy.), it can be like a form of moving meditation and unlock stuff you didn't know was there. I've had some of my best insights while dancing. The first time I did it I was on a huge high. Then I went home and cried hysterically.

I'm not really selling it am I?

No, not really... finally, tell me something I don't know.

Kirk's dik dik antelopes - native to eastern and southwestern Africa - are the smallest breed of antelopes on the planet (they grow to a maximum of 70cm). I once fell out of a tree while observing them in Kenya. And here's the thing: they find one mate and pairbond for life. None of your polyamory for them...

Sisterwives is published by Crocus Books...

Thursday, 27 October 2011

Bring back Conscription (not really)

She's right. Of course she is. In her last column in The Guardian's G2 section Deborah Orr writes about the scandal that is the general level of literacy in the UK. She's right too about the half-hearted or plain wrong-headed attempts to drive up standards in schools. What she doesn't do is offer any solutions.

This government (and the last one too) HAVE got some solutions. They're just mindless ones. They generally consist of thumping the party conference table and promising to sack the shit teachers, close the shit schools and let businesses set up shiny new ones (like businesses have such a great track record in running anything. Including businesses.)

And it doesn't work. It won't work. Can't work. The truth is there aren't that many genuinely crap teachers. But there are a lot of miserable ones.

I was a teacher for ten years all told. At different times I taught English, Drama, Media Studies... I taught in tough estate schools, Catholic schools, rural schools - always in secondary schools, always in comprehensives. And what did I see over that ten years? Over that time standards of classroom behaviour definitely declined. All teachers will tell you there is more low level disruption now. More answering back, more chatting, less focused work, shorter concentration spans. But what really brought me down was the casual rudeness of kids towards other kids. I don't mean sustained, systematic bullying but a offhand reflexive dismissive attitude towards each other. Routine dissing became increasingly the norm. This was especially true if anyone showed an exceptional desire to learn.

And where does it come from this desire to poke and prod and needle each other?

It's not there in the early years. If you see any reception class anywhere in the country no matter how deprived,  you'll see whole classes eager to find out how everything works and eager to play. More than eager desperate to be friends with everyone, desperate to know everything about everything. By the time they hit secondary school much of this energy and drive has been lost. By the end of year nine, nearly all of it has gone.

A lot of this must be down to the curriculum which is increasingly skewed towards the perceived needs of the employers. Most owners of big and medium sized businesses, the suits who governments listen to,don't actually want creative, free-thinking employees who are likely to wonder about the point of what they're doing? They want drones who will work producing more shit so they can buy more shit without being troubled by philosophy or morality or spirituality or dreams of a better world than this one. This means a lot of subjects that should be the most joyous - literature, music, art, drama - are side-lined, and the 'core' skills English, Science, Maths, IT reduced to their most functional and boring components, because of course all those subjects could be joyous too. Even sport is tied into a health agenda now. Keep fit - save the NHS money. Even that most basic of human arts - cooking - is reduced to designing ready-meals and thinking about how to market them (I'm not making this up for polemical purposes by the way, that's actually want you do in Food Tech GCSE. In primary school you might make a pineapple upside down cake, once you've moved up to primary school you draw a pizza and work out which parts of the demographic it might appeal to using pie charts and surveymonkey.)

But it's not just the curriculum. It's the teachers. It is.

I taught for ten years and made a lot of good friends in teaching. It would be fair to say that I'm the envy of most of them because I managed to get out.

I was a good teacher, I think. My results were good and an even better index is that quite a lot of the students I taught became teachers in their turn. Most of those students turned sir and miss are in their mid to late twenties now and they seem to be still enjoying it, still buzzing and creative. Exhausted but feeling that their life has purpose and meaning. That they're doing a good thing against huge odds, prepared to kick against all the pricks. That it is still worth doing all the paperwork, still worth putting up with gratuitious insults from government, to put up with a league table obsessed senior management team, to put up with the indiscipline not just from students but from parents who have been increasingly encouraged to see themselves as customers.

My older ex-colleagues meanwhile are just exhausted. The talk is of escape committees, of going under the wire or over the wall. The staff room of the last shool I taught in was like Hitler's bunker - but with none of the joie de vivre that might imply. At least Hitler's henchmen knew it was likely to end pretty soon for better or worse. In the staff room at Chantry high School, Ipswich there wasn't the option of a cyanide pill or a merciful bullet to the back of the head. There was just the prospect of more of the same for day after day, term after term, year after year.

When I 'retired' from teaching (at the age of 39 - I got in late, as well as getting out early) there was a chap leaving on the same day who had done 44 years in the same school. He'd taught at Chantry longer than I'd been alive. He was well loved and had done everything from deputy head downwards.  He'd also run soccer teams, drama clubs, organised residential trips and all that. He had taught grandparents of some of his current pupils. He was, rightly, a legend. He was also pretty much the last of his kind.

Teaching should be a marathon, but it's run like a sprint. You wouldn't expect a distance runner to sprint like Usain Bolt from the off and keep that up for 26 odd miles. Of course you wouldn't. But govts do expect teachers to do that. And you can't. You just can't. No one can.

So teachers burn out. And they're not paid as badly as they once were - not if they've been doing it a few years and so they're trapped. Not in a gilded cage exactly, but a semi-detached cage with nice curtains and cushion covers, one that has three bedrooms and a patch of garden and a garage. Teachers wages seem nicely calibrated these days to be just too much to give up easily.

And what else could they do anyway? What does a burned out teacher do? Just as a cynic is a heartbroken idealist, so an inadequate teacher is often a formerly outstanding one brought low by the erosion of their confidence by the sense of being on a treadmill. By tiredness. Those of us who are parents know the toll days and weeks of sleeplessness can take on your patience, your ability to plan, the amount of work you can get through - and being a teacher can get to be like having a baby that never grows up, that never learns to sleep through the night. You're simply never allowed to be 'off' to have a bad term, or a series of dodgy lessons.

And even if your lessons are amazing all the time you still get ground down.When I did my PGCE my lecturer once said (possibly quoting someone else) that in teaching the 'ball-and-chain of your personality rolls across the classroom floor in front of the kids.' In other words, there's no hiding place in teaching. Every week your very human frailties are on public display to an audience with forensic inclinations. In an average week the average secondary teacher might teach 300 different students. That's a lot of very harsh judges. It makes all the X factor bollocks look like nothin (which it is of course). In ten years I taught several thousand students, all of whom will be able to tell an unflattering story about me, or mimic my voice, my gestures, mock my mannerisms and my beliefs.

That's bloody tiring. The thought of it now makes me tired even now.

And yet all those mid-career teachers, the ones plotting escapes in a school near you right now, they can't just leave. They have mortgages, children at Uni, petrol to buy. Even those threadbare jackets and comedy ties cost you know. So what do we do? These unhappy teacher have experience, wisdom and insight that we shouldn't lose - but equally we shouldn't put them or kids through the torture of forcing them into the classroom day after day until their retirement. And retirement itself is five years further off for most teachers than it was. Like having five years suddenly added to your sentence when you've committed no new crime. that's got to be against some UN Human Rights convention somewhere.

Maybe we should bring back conscription.

Not for 18 year olds, but for people with degrees. Maybe it could be a condition of getting a student loan. Perhaps it would become a rite of passage, a badge of honour, something people boasted about. The compulsory time at the chalkface would be celebrated with plays (Mr Chips With Everything maybe), sit-coms and a whole new Carry On film. If everyone had to teach it would be more respected and MPS (and parents) might be less inclined to pontificate. And if they did pontificate, then there's more of a chance that they'd have at least the vaguest idea of what they were pontificating about.

It's a facetious idea, of course it is. But the long-term unhappiness of teachers is a problem for everyone who has children. The lack of routes out of classroom that make good use of the skills that have been hard won there is a waste for the whole population. What is the sense of having some of the best minds of our generation planning ever more desperate ways out. Maybe, in a more enlightened future, teaching will be something that you do while your health, vigour and sense of humour is intact and then - like footballers when they hit 35 - it is expected that you'll move on.

People point to the holidays, but the holidays are just part of the trap. You know that feeling you get on a Sunday. The Antique Roadshow Blues, when what is left of your weekend is ruined by the knowledge that the working week will soon be upon you? Well teachers get that big-time in the middle of August. that sense that panicky sense that you have to do something WORTHWHILE and IMPORTANT right NOW or the term will be on you and the waters of target-setting, report writing, marking and powerpoint prep will close over your head. One benefit I hadn't expected when I left teaching was the feeling of release from the burden of holidays...

So this has been a long blog post (thanks for staying with me) and it doesn't offer much more in the way of solutions to the fact that our schools are fucked than Deborah Orr's piece did. But I guess you could boil it down to most of our teachers are good, but they're desperate and we've got to find strategies that ease them out into creative paths without condemning them to the bear-baiting style cruelty of endless terms in the classroom. Or, alternatively, we make life easier for the classroom teacher.

Oh, and we've got to convince students that there's nothing weird, random or (their word) gay about Peace, Love and Understanding. That would be a start.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Not The Booker winner Michael Stewart on staring into the abyss and on that other prize...

This is a picture of the excellent Yorkshire writer Michael Stewart. A handsome man but very stern isn't it? Aggressive. Not the sort of man whose pint you'd want to spill at 11pm in a dive on the rough side of town. Looks like the leader of the Inter-City Firm or some other notorious football hooligan crew. Looks like a man who would shiv you as soon as look at you.

It is, fortunately, a completely misleading photo. In person Michael is gregarious, thoughtful, entertaining company. It's not in his character, or in his looks that any darkness resides - but it is there in his imagination.

Michael's debut novel King Crow has just won the prestigious 2011 Not The Booker Prize run every year by The Guardian newspaper (some would argue that it is more prestigious than the Booker itself). And it's a fair bet that he was looking much more smiley and upbeat then.

King Crow is the story of a quiet lad from Salford who likes to spend his time in his own world where he draws the birds he sees around him. Despite himself however he is drawn into a murkier world, one populated  by drug-dealers with all their menace and violence. This is a poetic book. Poetic in its descriptions of birds and nature. And bleakly, blackly poetic in its depictions of mental squalor and casual violence too.

Mainly, however, it's a good read. Gripping and thought-provoking - which is certainly not something you can say about every winner of that Man Booker thing everyone keeps banging on about.

Hello Michael - can you give me your autobiography in exactly 50 words?

Michael Stewart is a... 50 words you say? Why 50 words? Seems an arbitary figure but I'll have a go. Right. Michael Stewart is a... It's definitely 50 words? Not 49? Not 51? It has to be exactly 50 words right? Ok, here goes then, Michael Stewart is a...

Why should I read King Crow?

You shouldn't... but you will.

Where did the story come from?

I read an article in a magazine about circling ravens in Scotland leading a farmer to a dead body. I thought, what a great way into a story. (how wrong I was)

How did you feel on hearing you'd won Not The Booker?

I thought I've not won the Booker - I've won Not The Booker. (Those italics are important.)

What next? Are you working on another book?

I'm working on another novel called Cafe Assassin. It's about a man who comes out of 22 years of incarceration to get revenge on the man who put him in there. It's a sort of modern take on Wuthering Heights - only not as good.

You also write radio plays and for theatre...

I love the immediacy of drama. And it is relatively quick. I don't know how some novelists go straight from one book to another (I know lots do). I need a break, a different pace of working. When I finished King Crow, I couldn't hink about writing another novel. All I wanted to do was write scripts and short fiction. Which I did. But once I got that out of my system I was ready for another marathon.

Who, in life or writing, do you admire and why?

I have a picture of Samuel Beckett above my desk. He is staring into the abyss. That's a writer.

What do you think about Julian Barnes winning the Booker? Do prizes matter?

I'm happy for Julian Barnes and I'm looking forward to reading his book, but I thought the fracas about the non-inclusion of Alan Hollinghurst was hilarious. There's a tremendous sense of entitlementin mainstream literature.. Just because you have won the Booker in the past, it doesn't mean you have a right to be on the list in perpetuity. The Booker is really about the six main publishers. It costs them a lot of money to enter their authors. Is the public aware of how this excludes indies? Do prizes matter? If you win a prize it's an important prize and validates your genius, if someone else wins it's corrupt and elitest and not worth the paper the cheque is written on. We are all in the business of selling books. Anything that helps achieve that is a good thing. But on a personal level, triumph and disaster are both imposters.

Where do you see yourself in in five years time? Ten?

I've just won the Man Booker for the fourth time. Aim high - why not?

Recommend something...

Hunger by Knut Hamson. It's where the modern novel starts.

And, finally, tell me something I don't know...

Taushiro, a language of native Peru, is spoken in the region of the Tigre River, Aucayacu River, which is a tributary of the Ahuaruna River. It is known as a language isolate, which means it has no demonstrable relationship with any other language. In 2008, a study conducted on the Taushiro language concluded that only one person speaks the language fluently.

And so the interview ends - and Taushiro there's a foreign rights deal that it's not really worth getting....
  The award-winning King Crow is published by Bluemoose. You know what to do.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

An idea for Dragon's Den? Better than that surely...

This is a quick post about an idea I had yesterday. WH Smith are launching an e-reader to compete with Kindle, the Ipad, whatever the Waterstones reader is called... and if Smiths are lumbering into the market place why not indie bookshops?

A recent pull-out guide in A Top National Newspaper listed 300 great indie bookshops. 300 shops. That's more than Waterstones, more than WH Smiths. All of whom are disenfranchised when it comes to e-book sales. You see where I'm going? why not an IndieReader? A smart executive grey, slim smart machine that would mean that a reader could download books from the independent bookseller of their choice. Publishers would produce an IndieReader edition. the technology is almost certainly there all that's needed is the will and cooperation between shops...

Perhaps the government - were it actually serious about competition - could finance the R and D costs behind such a thing?   Failing that, maybe the IPG, the shops themselves or a friendly Russian billionaire would get behind it. Either way, if we get a wriggle on we could have our own (much smarter, much slicker, much cooler) device into shops before next Christmas. Maybe before next summer.

There might be a reason why it wouldn't work, but I can't see it. Readers like independent bookshops, but they also like to be able to take a selection of books on a mini-break without going over their hand-luggage only weight limit. Why should Amazon get all of that market? Amazon has no goodwill attached to its brand. It only has utility.

Almost certainly someone else had this idea before me and came up against insurmountable obstacles. If so I hope someone tells me. I'd hate to see indie booksellers disappear from our high street killed off by a cheap gizmo. Fight gizmos with gizmos I say. Fight them with better gizmos.

Sunday, 9 October 2011

Peter Salmon on Haile Selassie and lost art of girting..

The second in my series of interviews with contemporary artists who I also happen to know and happen to like. Another writer this time. (I mostly know writers). Peter Salmon is an Australian polymath, brain the size of a planet (and not a small one). A former bookseller, and the curator of The Hurst, a residential writing centre in Shropshire. The former home of the playwright John Osborne.

Pete's first novel is The Coffee Story (Sceptre), a story about, er, coffee. But also much else. Linguistically and stylistically inventive at every turn it's bonkers. But in a (very) good way. It's been compared (favourably) with Philip Roth's Everyman.

He is, as this interview reveals, a man who looks at the world (and not just tomatoes and coffee) from unusual and unsettling angles.I ask him more or less the same questions I asked Mark Illis, but I get back very different answers.

Hello. Can you give me your autobiography in exactly 50 words? (Not 49. Not 51)

Where to start? Does one's autobiography begin at the moment of conception, or do we need to go back further, back to say, the 1536 Pilgrimage of Grace, where a band of plucky dissenters marched under the banner of the Five Wounds of Christ? Perhaps not, perhaps not. So.

Why should I read The Coffee Story?

Because it's great. Really great. I mean, some of it's not that great - the middle bit for instance - the middle bit is admittedly pretty dodgy. Still, it's better than the start, which is simply no good! And then the ending - terrible. Complete bloody nonsense. Which book again?

What made you want to write it?

All my life I have been driven by an overwhelming and barely controllable desire to write a book that combines the Coronation of Haile Selassie; the decline of communism in the late 20th century; and some pretty decent knob jokes. So here it is.

This is your first novel... working on a second?

It's based around the fact that wherever I go to promote my book - publisher parties, festival events, book clubs, bookshops and readings - I am always given lots of strong coffee in celebration of my book. My next book is called The Cocaine and Lots of Sex Story.

Any ambitions to write in other forms? Film? TV? Theatre? Television? Poetry?

There once was a writer called Peter
who diversified into theatre,
Telly and poems,
Said Watson to Holmes
'He's as multifarious as Bhagavad Gita!'

Another young writer, also Peter
Stuck to novels, thinking it neater
Cos this scriptwork was crap
And on top of that
His poetry tended to have some serious problems regarding metre.

You're Australian... Anything you particularly miss about Australia? Anything that has surprised you about living in England?

A fact few non-Australian people know is that - according to the national anthem - it is a a land 'girt by sea'. I miss this girting, and I'm surprised by the lack of it over here. Scotland and Wales are the problem I guess. They prevent England being girt.

What do you do when you're not writing?

Well, Steve, I guess like all writers I am always writing to some extent. When the non-writer is doing the dishes or gazing into space it is like a cow looking over a fence. But the writer! The writer is a chronicler of the universe! I also collect hardcore pornography.

Who - in life or writing - do you admire and why?

I think Jesus was pretty good. I mean, say you were out walking the dog, and the shop you were going in didn't have somewhere to tie it up, then you'd be in pretty safe hands if Jesus was walking past and offered to look after it. Really safe.

Where do you see yourself in five years time? Ten?

In five years I see myself sat beside a sparkling blue pool in LA somewhere, surrounded by handsome men and beautiful women, with great shoals of seafood piled high on plates, me taking lots of drugs and making love night after night to strobe light. Ten years - caught and jailed.

Tell me something I don't know...

All of the answers to the questions in this interview are exactly fifty words long, except one, the answer in limerick, which actually acts as a sort of accidental meta-joke, as it's caused by the last line of my poem being metrically inconsistent. One for poetry fans!

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Mark Illis on Angela Carter, Zombies, and the importance of beating your daughter at Boggle (and much else)

This is an experiment. I'm starting a series of interviews with artists of various kinds who I know and like and have interesting things to say. I'm calling them Tell Me Something I Don't Know and I'm beginning with a writer I know well, and like a lot.

Mark Illis is a good friend, and a great writer. Four novels, a short story collection (which I think is really a novel as well- but ssh, whisper it. He might hear you). Numerous radio plays, countless episodes of a Major Continuing Drama (that's the soap opera Emmerdale to you and me), a forthcoming film and some stage plays too. We've also collaborated now and again too.

Mark is also a natural at this interviewing game. Thoughtful, witty and provocative by turns. And honest too. The perfect interviewee... See what you think.

Hello. Give us your autobiography in exactly 50 words. Not 49. Not 51...

Hello Steve, you're very assertive, aren't you? All right then -

Born in London, got cancer, lost a leg, had three novels published before I was thirty. Three! Had sort of hanging-out-with-writers type jobs. Moved to Yorkshire. Got married. Started writing for TV. Had two kids. Two books out recently: TENDER (linked short stories) and the new novel THE LAST WORD.

Why should I read The Last Word?

It's about two spiky, prickly, damaged misfits, forced to live together for a week and see how they get on with each other. It's a mystery story in which a dead character (in a non-zombie sort of way) is as important as the two living ones. A spider plays a crucial role. The ending may surprise you. It's a serious novel and,I hope, a moving one. For more information look on

How does this book fit with your others?

It's the fifth one. Comes after the fourth. Also, TENDER was concerned with family, how those relationships form us and enable us and sometimes hold us back, whereas THE LAST WORD is more about looking outward, in that short or long space between leaving the family you were born in and finding the family you create, when you can feel quite alone in the world. Also, TENDER and THE LAST WORD were written a long time after the first three novels, after I'd been writing TV for a decade. Are you going to ask about that?

You work as a writer on Emmerdale - what are the links, if any, between your prose fiction and your television writing?

Emmerdale is a story machine. It's hungry for story, six episodes a week of it, 52 weeks a year. So when you work on it for a while, you get quite interested in how story works, how it builds and develops, goes through quiet periods, reaches crisis points. I like story. I also love good dialogue and strong characters and Emmerdale has those too, but you can make too much of this. I loved story, dialogue and character before I wrote for TV, and I love language, I love splashing around in the strangeness of it, making it do things it's not used to, and TV isn't famous for its love of language.

And is it true you've written a zombie film?

Are you going to ask everyone this question? I hope so. Yes, it's true. I've written a zombie film. Or I wrote the script, based closely on a story that Dominic Brunt and Jo Mitchell came up with. BEFORE DAWN. It was a micro-budget thing, but it'll be showing in zombie festivals next year, may have some sort of tiny release in cinemas, will be available on DVD. The first half of the film is basically a relationship movie, in which a couple go away to a remote cottage, in a last gasp effort to repair their relationship. And then things go horribly wrong. My daughter gets eaten in it.

What do you do when you're not writing?

When I'm in my office, if I'm not writing I'm probably playing online scrabble or sleeping. I have a very nice red sofa, very comfortable. I get to the cinema when I can, but these days it's mainly kids' films. Luckily there's some fairly decent ones around. I loved Super 8. I like the theatre but I get to that even less. Saw a couple of great things at the Edinburgh Festival though. And TV. I liked The Killing and The Hour and I loved Game of Thrones. And of course a big shout out to Emmerdale. And then there's reading, obviously. Lots of reading. And family. Should I have mentioned them first? Going out with my wife, a meal somewhere, a friend's house. Dr Who with the kids. Table Tennis and Boggle with my daughter, (both of which, I'd like to make clear, I still win.)

Who - in writing or in life - do you admire and why?

How about Angela Carter? She was a generous tutor, a close reader, a frank critic, as well as, obviously, an inspiring writer. How great is it in the last line of your novel, to have someone looking at someone else with 'wild surmise'? She died much too young. When I first met her there was a storm crashing above us. Suddenly a streak of lightning crackled through the sky. 'Sorry,' said Angela. She asked me which writers I admired. I told her I was a bit torn between Salinger and Dickens. She winced. 'Make it Dickens,' she said.

What do you think about the Man Booker shortlist and does it matter?

I have to be honest and say I haven't read any of them. Not one. But I do like the fact that smaller publishers and less well-known names got a mention, and yes of course it matters. It raises the profile of writers and writing so that must be a good thing, even if it is just posh bingo as, I think, Julian Barnes said. I have read David Mitchell's novel, The 1000 Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, if that's any good to you? I love David Mitchell, think Cloud Atlas was a masterpiece, but this one's disappointing.

What are you working on now?

A novel, set mid 19th century. It's my first ever piece of historical fiction, inspired I think by the fact that I love Dickens, and by the fact that if you want to write about inequality, intriguing characters, gender roles and pointless wars, tthen there's no need to feel confined to the 21st century. Also, I'm quite lazy, but rearch is made a great deal easier by the internet. I've loved writing it, it's raced along with a real sense of momentum, so I hope it'll be quite a staggering success.

Recommend something (it doesn't have to be a book)

I recommend you go to Hebble Hole in the first half of August to pick winberries. Go fairly early so no one else is around. It'll probably be raining, but if you're lucky the sun will be dappling through the leaves, the river chuckling away. We go there, and my wife will later make a goergeous winberry pie. (I'm not actually recommending that you ask her to make you one.)

Where do you see yourself in ten years time?

Oh God, I don't know. Alive would be good, that's always my starting point. And healthy, and reasonably happy, but a faint air of melancholy is acceptable. And going on holidays that don't necessarily involve the children. And still writing fiction and TV with some success in both. That would be lovely, thanks very much.

Tell me something I don't know...

THE LAST WORD's dedicated to my brother (who probably won't care unless it's freakishly successful.)

Sunday, 10 July 2011

Talking with Peter Hook

The important thing about Joy Division and New Order is that they weren't really Manchester bands. They were Macclesfield bands. Young blokes with a fury to escape the suffocating embrace of small town life. To get out from under the monochrome drizzle of declining market towns. Towns that that were becoming increasingly uniform as they began to wither and die

And I think it is this that was the essence of their appeal for us growing up in Bedford. If you were white and growing up in the ugly new housing estates that had doubled the size of this nondescript town in the 1970s, then you were living in a particularly arid cultural desert. (I say white because the many other cultural groups in Bedford prob did have more going on. But the honest truth is we didn't really mix.)

For us, nothing ever happened. Bands didn't play. There wasn't a real football team, there wasn't a theatre and the only youth club in Brickhill - the estate I lived on - was in the local baptist church.

We had the TV and we had music. Only my dad heavily censored television (no american shows, no violence, no ITV). And I didn't really get the music people around me seemed to like. Most people I knew liked heavy metal (another small town phenomenon. An attempt to create an artificial grandeur where none could ever exist) but it wasn't for me. It seemed nonsensical. pantomimic with its embarrassing lyrics and faerie worldes, and it also seemed intimidatingly musicianly. All those guitar pyrotechnics seemed as distant from me as the classical concertos Mr Stanley played us in our primary school music lessons.

I liked sixties pop. The Beatles, The Stones, The Kinks, The Who, The Small Faces, The Monkees (I was lucky in that I had a discerning cousin to turn me on to this stuff). I liked the satin and tat of Bolan and Bowie. And I liked Abba (I always liked a tune basically, though you had to be secretive about a love of ABBA then. Not like now, everyone from Morrissey to Eminem claims to like Abba these days.)

If you've been watching the re-runs of the 1976 TOTP episodes you'll know how badly the nation needed punk. But it took a little while to get a hold in Bedford, and, when it did, it didn't last long. There was a small group in my school for whom punk changed everything. It gave us an attitude, a side to be on. and the music was - let's not forget this - compelling too. As urgent and as basic as early rock and roll. But our two big favourites in Bedford - as in ten thousand other middling towns - were The Clash and The Jam. They had a richer musical palette than their contemporaries, without actually seeming anything like musos. And they were articulate. Strummer and Weller were the only poets and journalists I needed. Most of what I feel about politics comes from Clash and Jam records (single records too. Bought for 79p from Woolies. I didn't really have the attention span for albums. Still don't. You can imagine how I suffered during the age of the 75minute CD album). My political sense certainly didn't emerge from the sterile university debates I had later with members of SWSS. And everything I know about philosophy comes from the NME, from Paul Morley and Ian Penman.

And suddenly there were bands like Joy Division (and then New Order), Comsat Angels, Echo and the Bunnymen, The Teardrop Explodes and it felt here was a movement that made perfect sense of all the things that had been going on in my imagination up to then. These were bands who could marry the pop sensibility of the sixties with lyrical images that strove for a realisation of the darker places in the psyche. And I was 15 by then and in the special kind of mess that 15 year olds are often in.

And these bands also suddenly began to play Bedford. Necessarily in strange venues.

New Order played one of their first British gigs under that name in the Bradgate Boys Club (a boxing club), Teardrop Explodes played Kempston Rovers football club, The Comsat Angels played the Corn Exchange. And there was a place to go. Every other Monday we could go to the Essential Dance Music night at Winkles Club in Lurke Street and hear this new music. Music that had the iconoclastic energy of punk, but with an experimental imagination and a desire to articulate inner turmoil in the same the way that Weller and Strummer could articulate class alienation.

We also got a free burger at midnight. Something to do with the license. If you wanted to listen to Bauhaus or the Cocteau Twins after midnight in Bedford then you were compelled to eat irradiated frozen burgers.

And the fact that Bedford had this space where we could gather and argue and pontificate was down to Dec Hickey. And it was Dec who put the bands on too. An evangelist for Joy Division from the earliest days Dec was a prophet for new music in our drab town (a drab town that I love fiercely by the way. England is its smallish towns far more than it is its cities. the essence of England is not found in London, Birmingham, Manchester or Leeds. Neither is it found in cricket games on village greens in Hampshire. The real England is in Peterborough, Northampton, Milton Keynes, Luton, Stevenage. Towns like that. Bedford IS a drab town, but it is MY drab town and always will be.)

Seen from this distance 30 years on, a lot of this music seems melodramatic, absurdly grandiose, or just pointlessly abstract. Or - still the big crime for me - tune-free. But a lot stands up. And of all the post-punk bands the most important for us were New Order. They were the band Dec was closest too, the were the band that first bothered to come and play for us and they had this terrible grief to carry around with them and to exorcise on stage. And the music was great. they always seemed to challenge themselves. And us. A capacity to change and to surprise while retaining that special thread with their own past, their own mythology.

We saw them all over the place crammed into unreliable cars listening to bootlegs of previous gigs all the way there - and a new bootleg of the gig we'd just seen on the way back.

All of which is a too lengthy attempt to put into context the special nervousness I felt last night when I found myself interviewing Peter Hook live on stage in front of 200 odd people at Hebden Picturehouse. I had high ambitions for this event. Firstly - and most importantly - I wanted Hooky not too think I was a tosser, but I also wanted to find out nerdy, geeky things about how songs were written and recorded.

And I wanted to find out emotional things about how you feel when your friend, colleague, singer, almost-brother kills himself the very night you'd given him a lift home. I wanted to know about the other kind of pain involved in the long drifting apart from the friend you'd had since you were 11. And I wanted him to have the space to tell some funny stories. I wanted a complex kind of entertainment I guess. Part confession/part stand-up/part lecture.

And we got all that. Mostly. I think.

Peter Hook is a warm man. Lively, engaging, easy to talk to. Very open. The first surprise for me was that he remembered the Bedford Boys Club gig. Remembered it well. He also spoke warmly of Dec Hickey, a man he's still in contact with and has collaborated with on a coffee table book about the many New Order gigs the 'Bedford Crew' went to.

On stage we covered things more or less chronologically and my role as a (frankly amateur, and full of cold) interviewer was just to press the buttons to move things forward because Peter could quite clearly have spent entertaining hours on each part of the band's story. We heard about the impact the Sex Pistols gig at Manchester Free Trade hall had. That Peter Hook hadn't thought of joining a band until that point. How he bought a crappy bass speaker off his old art teacher, Mr Hubbard, and that he began to play the bass high up the neck as the only way to be heard over the racket Barney made on his slightly more expensive amp. (Incidentally, Barney was referred to as 'twatface' throughout the evening. somehow I don't think that the New Order reunion is happening any time soon. Mr Hubbard meanwhile is a member of the band the Salford Jets).

We heard about how a Joy Division song would come together. Ian always had tons of words and the band would jam until something emerged. How the band were writing songs so fast they could barely keep up with themselves. How the first time they played Transmission live was the moment everyone knew that the alchemy of the group was taking them somewhere special.

We learned that Martin Hannett fought with Barney and Hooky who wanted Unknown Pleasures to sound like never mind the bollocks and were initially gutted about the production of it, But they're very glad now that it's an argument that they lost. (and so are we all surely)

We learned how Ian Curtis was always irrepressibly positive. How he would always say things were fine, when they manifestly weren't. How they went to his funeral on the Thursday and were rehearsing as New Order on the Friday. Only actually, they were rehearsing but not as New Order - they spent a few weeks as the Witch-doctors of Zimbabwe.

What else? We learned that Gillian Gilbert's prime qualification for invitation into the group was that she couldn't play and would do what she was told. That Barney quickly tired of playing live and so Peter's relationship with him was undermined by years of forcing him to do what he didn't want to do. That Barney sees the best version of a song as the one that is recorded and Peter sees songs as being most alive while they're being played. It's a fundamental philosophical difference and, in the end, an impossible circle to square.

We learned that Peter was 'devastated' when Barney formed Electronic. That during New Order's last gig Peter Hook wrote The End on his bass cabs but Barney was still surprised that the group was over (this last gig was in front of 135,000 people in Buenos Aires).

The evening all went past in a bit of a blur (my amateurishness as a host was underlined by the fact that I didn't wear a watch during the gig and so had to try and time things with furtive looks at Peter's. Not ideal). I've done these things quite a lot, but generally at sedate literary events attend by 30 or so nice women. This was a whole different thing. But I wasn't heckled and the questions from the audience were respectful, funny and to the point.

It was an audience question that elicited the response that 24 hour party people is 'Carry On up the factory.' Pretty fictional - though not as fictional as Tony Wilson's autobiography - but that Control is spookily close to the truth of how things were.

And at the end of things we sold dozens of copies Peter's book How Not To Run Club (far more books than we normally sell at a literary event), he signed them and then I walked him round to the Trades Club where he was doing a DJ set.

They say you shouldn't meet your heroes. But then again, sometimes, just some times, you should. We had a nice time and I learned a lot. This doesn't mean I think his idea of touring and playing - and singing lead vocals on - Joy Division albums with his new band The Light (which includes his son) is a good idea. It clearly isn't (but his legacy to trash if he wants) nor do I have any opinions on who is to blame the well documented fall out with his old schoolfriend and bandmate Barney. From the outside, it just seems like a shame. Bands break about though. If they are any good at all, it's what happens.