Thursday, 30 September 2010


At some point I'll do a proper 'what actually happens in a fiction workshop' post, but basically it went well. I went in with a short story, and came out with a shorter one and a list of ways to hack it up and reassemble it more pleasingly. It's a bit like stealing bodies to build a monster - some bits are going to get chucked into the gut bucket, and other parts will need to be expanded or refined to make sure you end up with something you can be proud of, rather than something that will go on a rampage and have to be dumped somewhere in the arctic*.

People were kind. This is good. I thank them for helpful comments and sparing of my self-respect. I think my monster is now looking reasonably attractive. It might not be a thing of holiness, but it shouldn't scare the villagers.

Also, here is another strange thing that my cameraphone spotted, this time in the library. It hasn't come out beautifully, despite my edgy Photoshop skills, but yes, that is a drinks machine. No, there doesn't seem to be an exception for bottled water.

Sunday, 26 September 2010

In the beginning were some words.

I’m being workshopped tomorrow. Right now I’m heartily regretting sticking my hand up when they asked for volunteers for the first week. Actually, that’s only half-true – I’m also massively excited about having all my wonky little words torn to bits by MJ Hyland and my fellow scribbly postgrad types (who, on first meetings, give the impression of being a first-rate bunch).

Also, I wanted to put this up:

This door is outside my flat in halls. I’m not sure how long I’ll be able to resist opening it. I’ll be sorely disappointed if whatever’s behind it doesn’t have claws and/or teeth.

Friday, 24 September 2010

Howard Jacobson at the Guardian Book Club

As part of the Manchester creative writing MA, we’re occasionally posted off en masse to literary events, which are a little bit like gigs held by  really awkward people who can’t afford backing bands. The first, happily falling on the first day, was Howard Jacobson talking about Kalooki Nights as part of the Guardian Book Club.

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Howard Jacobson: The Mighty Walzer

Probably my last review for a while - I had this stashed away and thought I might as well post it since I have something on seeing Jacobson at the Guardian book club to put up later.


This is a comedy, in the sense that sometimes it makes you laugh. If you want to get all genre-theory about it, though, there’s nothing comic here at all. This is a melancholy maturation tale, a gentle, sad trip through the narrator’s adolescence and where it took him. This is humour as humanity, as a defence against the dark.

Sunday, 19 September 2010

Why Asda is The Pilgrim's Progress for the 21st century

It rained today. I was not entirely surprised.

My life is now folded into a long, narrow room in a long, narrow building*. As far as I know, Manchester is not a long, narrow city, but if it were that could have been a very satisfying opening sentence. Not for the first time today, I curse geography.

I have been walking the city, you see. Not exactly flaneuring - just bemused, usually futile, attempts to find obvious places. I have now established where I should go to pick up my shiny new student card (cue 'do you do a student discount?' in every possible place I can spend money). It's right next to where I live. I discovered this after pottering about the city for most of an hour looking for it. There is probably a moral in this story. If you know what it is, please tell me. 

More usefully, I have found The Asda at the End of the World. It is the size of the Vatican, and just as inaccessible. Sadly, that appears to be where the similarities end, although I can't imagine Calvinists are huge fans of Asda, either.

There is a reason for the religious comparisons, by the way: John Bunyan. Using the giant hyper mega Asda is like setting out on a great and perilous journey in pursuit of a noble goal. It begins with the maze of windy estate streets, continues through the near-certain death of the million-lane motorway intersection and ends after the welcome-to-Communist-Russia queue. And if, like poor old Ignorant, you reach the gates of the Heavenly City (here represented by slightly cheaper food purchases) without your roll (wallet, this being secular capitalism), all your efforts will be for naught, and you'll be cast out to the car park of great woe. If they'd had car parks in those days, I bet there'd have been one in Pilgrim's Progress somewhere. 

Basically, I'm not going back there on a Sunday afternoon. I now intend to do all my shopping at obscure nameless hours of night and morn. I might try to train myself into some kind of somnambulant lucid-dream based automatic shopping system. 

Things happen tomorrow. This is exciting. 

* I live on the twelfth floor. By the end of this year, I'm either going to be a Commonwealth-standard stair-runner (does this sport exist? If not, why not? It could be a gritty, urban version of fell-running) or someone far more patient with lifts. 

Monday, 13 September 2010

I'll be gone before the summer turns to rain. Sort of.

You know what? I’m no longer a Londoner. No longer must I trek to work past cheeky street urchins, charming cockneys, screeching teenagers, drug runners, prophets of doom, doe-eyed starlets, braying Sloanes, baffled tourists, drunks of every stripe, malignant lawyers, and the Queen. Or any of the other things years of reading have led me to believe fill this city.

Not because Manchester won’t have any of these things, you understand (except the Queen, presumably): it’s just that I won’t be trekking to work any more. It is time, for a short and thrilling year, to invert my proportions of leisure and survival: now I’ll publish in the dark, nameless hours, and spend most of the day writing and writing and writing.

Now is the time for the expensive replacing all the duff things I’ve bashed holes in and not bothered replacing over the past four years: keyboard, trainers, socks, bedside lamp, alarm clock, soul. I have assembled this list as a result of Saturday afternoon, when I wrapped my troubles in dreams and my books in cardboard boxes, preparing for my deLondonification. Now, lurking in Bath for a week with my parents before hitting the motorways and heading north, I have assessed my possessions and have determined that my life, according to the tenets of advanced consumer capitalism, consists of:
  • Books: many. And much as I like small presses, why must their paperbacks be a different height to the rest?
  • Socks: simultaneously too many and not enough.
  • Things that need ironing: apparently infinite.
  • Cuboid objects: the box I am proud of.
  • Non-cuboid objects: the box I despise. Does this make me alarmingly OCD?
  • Cuddly toy, x2. The womble might have to retire to the attic, now I'll be half a country away from an SW postcode.
  • Stationery: couldn’t possibly say where all this came from. And no, I wouldn’t believe those rumours about me and the stationery cupboard on my last day at work. People say all sorts.
  • Equipment for sports I don’t play any more. My equivalent of ‘dancing shoes, never worn’.

My brain’s bouncing all over the place like a puppy on a coffee drip. Next stop, Manchester. Actually, no: next stop, buying lots of cutlery. Last stop, Manchester. No, that sounds too final. Oh, sod it, you know what I mean. I'll have to stop using third-hand train metaphors, now that I'm going to a city without an underground. 

Sunday, 12 September 2010

GK Chesterton: Napoleon of Notting Hill

Oh Gilbert, Gilbert. Whatever are we to do with you?

GK Chesterton gets a lot of stick for being an arch-conservative, stolid and old-fashioned, supporting outdated morals, values, prose and beliefs at a time when modernism was shocking and delighting the literary world. In a way, this is justified. In the same way that, say, Gerard Manley Hopkins was a modernist who happens to have been born a Victorian, Chesterton sometimes seems like a Victorian displaced by about thirty years.

However, despite occasional moments of forehead-slapping sexism and pomposity, he has managed to grab much of what was great about being a decent fellow of the old school. He stands up for what is basically good, while writing with wit, imagination and charm. After a hundred years of watching political and religious extremes causing immense suffering, Chesterton should be respected for being persistently and reasonably moderate.

Monday, 6 September 2010

The new lit three: joining the dots

The past bits of this series have looked at various small projects that have hinted at the directions that literature could go in, using either new methods of delivery or collaboration. The next question is what will happen when people start throwing cash at these changes, trying to combine them into grand projects that present new forms of storytelling. And wouldn’t you know it, people are already trying it.

Here I’m concentrating on two projects and comparing their approaches. One is the centralised, corporate advertising exercise, The Conspiracy for Good, and the other is the slightly mysterious historical fiction conglomerate, The Mongoliad. These are of course very different, but they both involve using social media and the internet to draw an audience into a large-scale work of fiction.

Thursday, 2 September 2010

Cory Doctorow: Makers

Yeah, yeah, money’s broken, everyone’s poor and depressed, no one knows when it’s going to get better, and if I see one more weather metaphor for the economy I’m going to slap someone with a thesaurus. There is a recession. It’s getting old.

That’s why it’s interesting to start thinking about what happens next, to read a few wild theories about new shapes that wealth might take, about what money will be doing once this century pulls itself together. Cory Doctorow’s Makers begins with the tale of New Work, a New Deal-style economic transformation that sees America embracing a high-tech craft culture, giving garage-savants, hobby inventors and techy artists access to the mass infrastructure and abundance of waste material left behind, unused, in the wreckage of advanced consumer capitalism.

At the heart of this rejuvenation are Perry Gibbons and Lester Banks, buddies who like nothing better than mucking around in an abandoned shopping centre, building crazy gadgets and toys to sell on the internet. When they’re picked up by Landon Kettlewell, a business investor with deep pockets and a madcap plan, the journalist Suzanne Church attaches herself to the team and soon finds herself the semi-official chronicler of New Work.