Thursday, 28 October 2010

The Horned Man by James Lasdun

James Lasdun was an accomplished poet and short story writer prior to publication of his first novel The Horned Man. Like the author, the protagonist, Lawrence Miller, is an Englishman in New York, an academic tenured in a stereotypically liberal university Humanities department, becoming hopelessly mired in identity politics and the absurd tyranny of political correctness.

From an early reference to the condition of ‘parapraxis’ the narrative runs a similar course to the movie Shutter Island where at some point one must decide on the reliability of a persuasive narrator. It’s an uncomfortable journey rendered occasionally brilliantly in claustrophobic and at times poetic prose. There are some exquisite observations. Interacting with the student body our narrator is subject to ‘the obscure sense of disgrace that comes with age.’ As the last drinker in a closing bar he notes that ‘the upturned chairs were approaching like a herd of inquisitive cattle.’

New York is a malevolent, almost Dante-esque backdrop to the novel, all empty train carriages, deserted scrubland en route to identikit suburban streets, an as-yet un-gentrified Lower East Side where it’s perennially night time. The plot is more or less that of a thriller, the narrator gradually being framed for a serious crime by an unseen yet ever-present nemesis. The narrative dances around the conventions of this type of novel until you realise an entirely different story is unfurling. Things descend convincingly into a frayed Kafkaesque reality as it transpires it may not be freedom Miller is at risk of losing, but his identity and ultimately his grip on sanity. As befits an educated mind, the landscape of this madness is wonderfully literate and allusive, there is something poignant about the faithfulness of the narrator as he blithely chronicles his own degeneration. It’s almost worth going there with him.

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

The Can(n)on's Opening Roar

A joint venture between Creative Tourists’ ‘Manchester Weekender’ and Dave Haslam’s successful ‘Close Up’ venture (previous guests include Mark E. Smith and Kevin Rowlands, future guests include Terry Hall and John Bramwell), it was a massive coup to have Jonathan Franzen appear at the Whitworth Gallery. America’s great literary hope actually made his appearance slap bang in the middle of the great Freedom pulping and the bizarre Situationist spectacle theft the following day. He could not have been hotter literary property as he took the stage and wrestled with a makeshift suggestion-box-cum-lectern. Inside sources hinted that the author’s enthusiasm for promotional duties had been seriously dented by the recall of his long-awaited novel, but he persevered, it was with good humour he took the stage to read to us from Freedom.

The writing is characteristically evocative and wry, always hinting at a vast dramatis personae of the usefully maladjusted that might well incorporate the whole of America. I always think of it as a Hollinghurstian talent, the knack of reproducing odd arrangements of conversational inflection and idiosyncratic syntax that really mark one individual from another, but in all probability Franzen does it best, and I’m still only a third of the way through The Corrections.

He discusses the possibility of his place, according to Time magazine, amongst the pantheon of ‘Great American Novelists’. It seems inevitable The Corrections will one day be a canonical American text, and maybe Freedom too. He is humble but palpably confident about the quality of his work, famously confident enough to deplore the quality of writing elsewhere (see ‘Perchance to Dream’). When he talks he has a lovely habit of taking great long pauses before he answers a question. When Dave opens the floor to a series of pleasingly intelligent questions, Franzen says, ‘Now I know why I remember Manchester. You ask such good questions here.’

He responds to a question from Dave about the need to cultivate a public persona in order to publicise his writing with this: ‘Occasionally one gets irritable and even snaps a little bit and you can feel it going straight to a blog’. Don’t worry Jonathan, I like you. In fact I was so enamoured with him, I went straight home and wrote. Check out the interview transcript at Dave Haslam’s site here.

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Egypt, Liverpool

Antony and Cleopatra at the Liverpool Playhouse is my Hamlet experience inverted. I’ve never read or seen the play, but I’ve seen every episode of Sex And The City a thousand times so there are expectations aplenty for Kim Cattrall’s Cleo. She’s wonderful. So is Jeffery Kissoon as Antony and, my favourite, Ian Hogg as Enobarbus. It’s played how I imagine Victorian Shakespeare was played, histrionic, full of exclamation marks, straight to the audience, with arms! Kim, in her toned-down Theda Bara-esque get-up, channels Joan Crawford a little. She brings out any and all possible comedy, she endearingly wears glasses for signing the official documents, she is sulky and petulant, then regal, kind to her women, then controlling, not afraid to pull rank as the situation dictates. I guess it’s all there in the lines but she’s a powerhouse, with a British accent to boot. When Antony dies she pulls her handmaids to her saying, ‘My noble girls! Ah, women, women, look, Our lamp is spent, it’s out!’ And it really is her play, Cleopatra is on stage a long time after Antony dies, and it’s the humiliation of Egypt under Rome that prompts her suicide as much as her despair at losing him. It’s no hissy-fit suicide like in Romeo and Juliet, part of the charm of the play is that it’s about mature love. When Cleo looks back with some bemusement on her ‘salad days’ you can feel the experience behind her, and Antony too. Oh but Enorbarbus! He is so ashamed at betraying Antony he literally lies down in a ditch to die, saying:

Then he sinks down into the stage and disappears.
An interesting thing this production does is to have Octavius Caesar’s sister, Octavia, played by a man. Not unusual for Shakespeare in one sense, but there are three real women playing too. My theory is this. The Egyptian court is peopled with women and feminised eunuchs, the Roman court is entirely masculine, they are always in uniform, it is the great unsullied patriarchy. Aside from Antony, who is spoken of as being feminised by his association with Egypt, it is Octavia who bridges these two worlds, albeit briefly, and in that context her transgendered status seems less gimmicky. The actor played it beautifully, understated and demure, the initial titters soon fell away. The best unintentional laugh is still funny though, even on the page. Antony falls dramatically onto his sword to take his life, then after a moment’s silence, lifts up his head and says ‘How! Not dead?’ The audience roared. Oops.

Monday, 25 October 2010

Denmark, Sheffield

The novel I’m working on (11,600 words and counting), the one I will submit as my final piece of coursework at the end of my Creative Writing MA, is about Shakespeare. Well, it’s about ‘Shakespeare’ actually, the idea, rather than the man, and about the difference between the two. So I’m seeing and reading as much of the Bard as I can. John Simm acted in The Lakes, Dr Who and Life On Mars. I’ve never seen those programmes but I liked his discrete role as Bernard Sumner in 24 Hour Party People. Aside from that I’m able to appreciate his role as Hamlet at Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre with few preconceptions. He’s good. It takes him a little while to warm up, and lying sulkily on the ground while the grown-ups are talking cannot be done lightly post-David Tennant’s Hamlet. But he’s good. His strengths are actually the ensemble scenes over the ‘woe is me’ soliloquies, and there’s always too much pressure put on those pieces anyway. After all, this play is twice the length of Macbeth and, despite how it might sometimes seem, Hamlet isn’t talking all the time. It has one of the best Shakespearean women’s roles in Gertrude (and one of the most overrated in Ophelia) and some tremendous speeches you might have forgotten about. This is part of the ‘my thoughts be bloody’ speech when Hamlet is on his way to the ship with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, about to be sent to England, or so they think:

What is a man,

If his chief good and market of his time
Be but to sleep and feed? A beast, no more.
Sure, he that made us with such large discourse,
Looking before and after, gave us not
That capability and godlike reason
To fust in us unus’d. Now, whether it be
Bestial oblivion, or some craven scruple
Of thinking too precisely on the event,
A thought which, quarter'd, hath but one part wisdom
And ever three parts coward - I do not know
Why yet I live to say 'This thing's to do;'
Sith I have cause and will and strength and means
To do't. Examples gross as earth exhort me:
Witness this army of such mass and charge
Led by a delicate and tender prince,
Whose spirit with divine ambition puff'd
Makes mouths at the invisible event,
Exposing what is mortal and unsure
To all that fortune, death and danger dare,
Even for an egg-shell. Rightly to be great
Is not to stir without great argument,
But greatly to find quarrel in a straw
When honour's at the stake.

My Hamlet yardstick is still Michael Maloney in Yukio Ninagawa’s production at The Lowry, all Samurai overtones and sinister uplighting and Maloney’s sad eyes making a little boy of him when you least expected it. By the time ‘good night sweet prince’ hit I was a mess. Wonderful stuff. In February it’s the turn of Rory Kinnear to bring the Dane to The Lowry. I can’t wait.

Sunday, 24 October 2010

The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins

There’s a tendency in polite society to be so respectful of a person’s religion that it begins to border on the type of indulgent sympathy one might give to the mad. ‘I don’t have religion myself, but I do think a person’s faith ought to be beyond reproach …’ What this actually does is stifle debate about how much a person’s faith ought to have to do with the rest of us at all; and why shouldn’t the individual be able to answer for the institution? These are ‘organised’ religions after all. When people discover that I’m vegetarian they don’t hesitate to ask why, often aggressively ridiculing my viewpoint. I seldom bring it up unless asked, for that reason, but it’s a fair point to debate (though they could be nicer, and I know I’m right). Where religious choice is concerned, people tread much more carefully, as if religion were comparable to race or sexual identity. It isn’t. It’s comparable to vegetarianism, to politics. It constitutes, or should, an informed and conscious choice by a mature, thinking person. A person’s politics can be tested daily, with no afterlife promised for the durability of such beliefs. That sounds much more like genuine faith to me.

If you’ve ever (guiltily) thought any or all of these things you’d do well to read Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion. Contrary to what you may have heard, this isn’t a book designed to promote hate, though for atheists subject to religious indoctrination you might find hate exists anyway. It rather serves as an overdue rallying cry, dispelling the notion that atheism constitutes a lack of viewpoint, but actually is itself a considered opinion on the provenance of life, the universe and everything. In a world where religious influence in public, political and family life demonstrably damages individuals and communities there’s no bigotry in bringing such powers to task (and make no mistake that religion is powerful, and not an institution cowering beneath the unforgiving glare of SCIENCE). Dawkins has passionately argued that we have a right to intervene, protect communities and keep religion in all its forms out of our lives if we choose. This really is a book about liberation. Oh, and if you think you can bow out of the debate by pleading agnosticism, forget it. There is a particular place in dialectical hell just for you …

Saturday, 23 October 2010

Disco Bingo Pogo Radio

I can’t really remember what order any of the following happens, but at some point we make a fleeting visit to DISCO BABYLON, aka Pumping Iron at Common. This night needs a dancefloor, the music is amazing. Got a venue? Enquire within! Then it’s Off The Hook 3, the best of the Hooks to date where I play the ‘gig’ of my ‘career’. Ha. No seriously, I’m dead pleased with myself, I am now resident DJ along with Mr Anthony Crank, the crowd are amazing and totally up for it. Here’s some of what got played. At some point I play a special birthday mini-set for Polly Esther’s birthday spesh at Trash-O-Rama too, who are squatting like lovable new wave rugrats in the basement of the monthly Bollox at Legends. Performance! Punk! Pissy lager! Party people! At some point I take a serious hangover to Mother’s Ruin Bingo Night at the Green Room, hosted by Timberlina and Mrs Barbara Nice. Complete laugh. I win TWICE (multi-pack of Cadburys fudge, pair of stencilled knickers in a jar). The night finishes, as so many do these days, at The Eagle, where myself and my friends behave deplorably. I mean, they ought to take the vote away from us, and if I’d stuck to my original intention to keep this blog anonymous, I could tell all. As it is, you’ll have to wait for court transcripts.


I attend the Rambert Dance Company’s 'Awakenings' at The Lowry, my first contemporary dance experience, and it’s fantastic. I take part in a writing workshop about it where I write a very short story on the spot which I’m quite pleased with. A couple waiting for a train become dancers on a stage, the train tracks become the orchestra pit, the rumble of the oncoming train is the orchestra tuning up. I The wonderful Dave Haslam takes me to see The Vaselines who are terrific, part humble indie, part stand-up comedy routine. New album Sex With An X is a gem, ‘I Hate The 80s’ is riding high on my songs of the year. We go backstage and talk about Butthole Surfers. Eugene gives me a beer. I am quietly starstruck. My parents have been married for twenty-five years! Silver Wedding Anniversary! We have a party which is great fun. I appear on the radio for the first time, doing a queer arts rundown on Crank’s Gaydio show. Amazing month. Stay tuned for more ...

The Vaselines @ Deaf Institute

Friday, 22 October 2010

Duly London

My first Gay Pride in years, so naturally I completely overdo it and surface after three days with bleeding gums, cold sores, no voice, a huge dent in the coffers and an advanced awareness of myself as a member of a globally oppressed minority. Not. The only sensible way to recover is to go to London, which I duly do. There are several things in the world which make me absolutely have to smoke cigarettes; these include Camden Town, my friend Katie, cider and hot sunshine. Because I hate myself but I really want to quit smoking I choose a combination of all four to go cold turkey under. It works, I’ve been squeaky clean since September the 1st. Feels good. And guess what? Tea actually tastes of something! In Camden we attend the launch of Everything Everything’s brilliant LP Man Alive which consists of a fantastic set at The Barfly followed by the boys DJing a load of filthy hip-hop 'n' r‘n’b which I duly nick half of for my next stint at Off The Hook. The next day is more Gay Pride, this time in Hackney, but a proper community affair, diverse beautiful queers marching in sunshine through their own streets, and me with them, as opposed to forlornly watching a Barclays Bank float in the rain from my window which is what I did in Manchester. Later I almost lose my new Fall vest in Vogue Fabrics. This part of the weekend is also the culmination of what I suppose is an internet romance. It involves eating hummus in a flat overlooking Hoxton Station, amazing tattoos, poetry, loads of brilliant music (but especially '100,000 Fireflies'), long lie-ins ... I guess if I cared about such things I’m sure I would say it was pretty special, or something.

Anyway, Kalimera Gleeko …

Hackney Pride

Thursday, 21 October 2010

New Sensational Daily Micro Blog Diet!

After last September, as I often do when that most challenging of months hits like a sack of wet leaves, I wondered aloud, ‘September’s here again, and what have you done about it…?’ Well this time, actually Marilyn French, I have done something. I’m four weeks into the Masters in Creative Writing at Manchester Metropolitan University. And about time too. This semester consists of reading a breadth of contemporary novels, one a week, to inspire, cultivate and otherwise ass-kick us into our own fictional endeavours. And it’s working. This in part explains why my blogging has been sluggish of late, as if you care, but my life has suddenly accelerated somewhat. Coupled with the tyranny of my ridiculous, ever-growing ‘To do’ list (currently three sides of A4), a workload that is out of control and a shedload of DJing, which I am loving more and more, it’s fair to say my blog has taken a back seat. But no more! As of now my intention is to do a daily microblog of around this length, an exposé, diary and digest of what’s going on culturally, emotionally, fiscally, romantically, internally, externally and otherwise with Manchester and myself. For a while there it looked like this dreadful city had beaten me again, but he’s totally my boyfriend again now. Swoon

Trapeze artist, Flesh @ Paradise Factory, 29.8.10

Saturday, 2 October 2010

In The City 2010

Can you believe it's that time again? Fresher's Week, In The City, Literature Fest, Zombie Pride, Christmas!? Who knows where the time goes? says Sandy Denny. I concur.

Anyway, one thing at a time ... This year's In The City as usual takes over every square foot of Mancunian performance space to showcase the most exciting new musicians for the edification of journos, musos, PR monkeys and punters alike.

This year's line up is mighty impressive. We are unreasonably flushed in particular about the following ...

Wednesday 13th ...

Chiddy Bang @ The Roadhouse, I played 'Opposite Of Adults' at Off The Hook last month, went down a treat

D/R/U/G/S @ Ruby Lounge, amazing electronica

Sophie's Pigeons and Young British Artists @ The Castle, saw YBA support Asobi Seksu, interesting stuff but I hear they've upped their game ...

Thursday 14th ...

Pulled Apart By Horses @ Night and Day, WARNING: HEAVY SHIT

Sky Larkin @ Ruby Lounge, do not miss, DO NOT MISS, y'hear?

D/R/U/G/S @ Band On The Wall, second chance to see, yes they're that good

Brown Brogues @ The Castle, unapologetic, touching lo-fi indie of the kind you thought they might not make any more but they do so there

Sky Larkin

Friday 15th ...

D/R/U/G/S @ The Soup Kitchen, okay stop now ...

Devlin @ Night & Day, taking on The Streets at his own game

Clock Opera @ The Roadhouse, this band have knocked out two of my favourite ever rmxs (Everything Everything's 'MY KZ UR BF' and Marina's 'I Am Not A Robot', and they played a beautiful support slot for EE's Barfly album launch gig, they are really special

Dutch Uncles @ Ruby Lounge

Clock Opera