music

Writing on Air Festival 2019

The beauty of radio in the internet age is the listen-again function, which means that when a local station’s annual celebration of writing blossoms into a four-day extravaganza featuring hosts of established and emerging, amateur and professional writers from across the region, you don’t have to try and take it all in at once.

Last month was my fourth year of being part of the Writing on Air festival from East Leeds FM (Chapel FM as it’s sometimes known, it being based in a converted chapel complete with organ and stained glass) and it continues to be a pleasure. Because it’s a community arts venue there’s some great encouragement for young writers in the area, and I particularly enjoyed Scattering Sounds, which collected some writing from the Associate Writers group. Throughout the festival there were interviews, discussions, readings; poetry, prose, drama; the topical, the evergreen; gravity and humour.

You can see some of the bustle of the festival (including Keely and Karen rehearsing) via the Chapel’s photo collection on Instagram, and all the programmes from this year’s festival are available to listen to online on the ELFM player (last year’s festival is still available too, and many of the participants appear regularly on ELFM throughout the year).

This year I featured in The Food of Love with Rosalind Fairclough and Emily Devane, where Emily and I read three of our stories each, Roz read three of her poems, and throughout it all we had marvellous, specially-arranged accompaniment on cello (Keely Hodgson) and violin (Karen Vaughan). You can listen to us, or you can even watch the video we didn’t realise was being recorded (don’t worry, you don’t need a Facebook account to access it).

(And for those few who still haven’t heard the radio drama Roz and I wrote for last year’s festival, here’s a direct link to listen to it now).

The Food of Love

You’ll be eager to know how the Ilkley Literature Festival Fringe event went, no doubt, if you read last week’s post about the preparations. It was every bit as wonderful as I’d dared to hope, and then some.

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OneMonkey took loads of photos of us

The sun was warm, the breeze not too strong (though we did have a moment of concern with the pages of music at one point – mostly the clothes pegs and bulldog clips did their job). Past and present members of Ilkley Writers turned up to support us, and a couple of Wharfedale Poets for good measure. Add in the various other friends and family, festival-goers and passers-by and we had an impressively large audience – I did a rough headcount at some point and got to 60, the steward thinks there were 70 (plus 4 dogs) – sitting on benches, standing on the grass and generally having a pleasant Saturday lunchtime.

For those interested in glimpses behind the scenes, here’s a photo of a couple of pages of my script (it happens to be the end of the pop song tribute, Variations on the theme of young love):

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Stage directions are hand-written so I don’t accidentally read them out, and there’s a list of the pieces that come after that and before my next one.

Everyone seemed to enjoy it, several came up afterwards to tell us so. I was still excited hours later, but that might partly be relief that it didn’t rain, nothing blew away, and the audience could hear us OK. Emily and I spent the rest of the day with tunes from each other’s pieces stuck in our heads, and I’ve inspired Keely to dig out some cassettes from her youth. If you’ve been round here a while you’ll know how much music means to me (hence, I suppose, this entire event) so I’m feeling pretty pleased with myself.

The general cry was ‘When can we do it again?’ so plans are already afoot. If any of them involve a recording I’ll point you at it, but in the meantime I’ll leave you with another picture of us and you can either remember what a lovely time we all had, or imagine what it was like to be there.

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Roz York, Emily Devane, and JY Saville in her trusty old biker jacket (Black Sabbath hoodie hidden by music stand)

Musically accompanied at the fringe

Remember that homage to the 3-minute pop song I told you I was writing, back in July? Well, that and the other pieces by me, Emily Devane and Rosalind York are all ready for our event at the Ilkley Literature Festival fringe this Saturday lunchtime, The Food of Love. Did you spot the mention of live music? That’s the ultra-exciting bit, which meant we went to a rehearsal this week at Karen the violinist’s house, and were blown away by musical interpretation.

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Thanks to Karen’s husband for this photo of Emily, Roz and I hard at work (aka drinking tea, playing with the dog, and listening to the musicians)

When I floated the idea of this event (based on a throwaway remark from Emily, months before the fringe application deadline) I had no idea what kind of musical accompaniment we’d have, but between us we knew a few people who might agree to collaborate so we sent the application in and decided to worry about detail if we got selected.

When we heard we’d been given a slot in the programme, Roz suggested asking Keely Hodgson if she and her cello would like to be involved. We all know her from her Purple Room showcase of local musicians and writers (in fact we all read there in June) and I like the sound of a cello, though I still had no idea what form the musical end would take. Keely invited her violinist friend Karen Vaughan into the mix and I had even less clue what the final performance would sound like.

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Karen and Keely genuinely hard at work (thanks again to Karen’s husband for the photo)

We sent Keely our stories and poems, shuffled into some sort of order, and left her to mull it over and discuss it with Karen. What with holidays, work and other commitments we didn’t manage to get together until ten days before the performance! I was nervous as well as excited when I entered the room but as they played the first few bars for Roz to recite her first poem over, I knew this was going to be fantastic.

Keely has chosen just the right music for each piece, and arranged it for herself and Karen so that it works brilliantly. We spent several hours drinking Karen’s tea, reading and re-reading our pieces aloud, while the two musicians experimented with cutting, repeating, playing in different styles. They now have cues written on their scores, like ‘repeat until Poland’, and of course being a writer I made a note of fabulous questions like: Is Carol waking up in a sweat before or after I come in?

I wrote about the benefits of writing with a partner when Roz and I wrote a radio script together, back in March, and I can highly recommend collaborating with musicians as well. Seeing how someone else interprets your work, and hearing it acquire an extra dimension with a punctuating score is magical. If any of you are within striking distance of Ilkley at 1pm on the 29th of September, come along and share the magic at the bandstand on The Grove. It’s free, open air (fingers crossed for a dry day) and unticketed.

 

Short piece at Visual Verse

I’ve got a story called Air of Belonging at Visual Verse in response to this month’s prompt, you can read it here. It’s less than 500 words long, perfect for a tea break. Because September’s guest editor is Carmen Marcus (I recently reviewed her novel How Saints Die) and because I’ve been banging on about class again anyway, my sci-fi story is kind of informed by the row about working class access to the arts. While still being very much related to the prompt image, which is a woman in ballgown and breathing apparatus, playing a harp. Intrigued? Read everyone else’s response to it as well, as usual it’s sent all the contributing writers off in different directions, which is pretty impressive for such specificity.

A preemptive playlist

Thus far, I’ve got about an hour and a half of the playlist I’m putting together for my fortieth birthday party. So what? Well, I’m not forty for another eighteen months, and I have no plans for a party when I get there.

Thus began the piece I sent to DNA magazine last year for their first issue (it was longlisted, then pipped by another playlist piece, unfortunately). We’re in the 3-month period in question, so I thought I’d share it here. Now read on…

I’ve never been one for parties, even as a student. I went to two eighteenth birthday parties thrown by friends of a friend, and then nothing. No-one in my circle had parties for their twenty-first or thirtieth birthdays, the few who’ve already hit forty haven’t thrown a party for that either. There were no engagement parties, nobody’s hit any milestone wedding anniversaries yet, and the single divorce was not the cause for celebration they’re made out to be in films. We don’t do Christmas or New Year parties, or any-excuse-for-a-barbecue parties in the summer. We did throw a house-warming party once, for two guests, and all four of us spent most of the evening chatting in the kitchen.

Next year in the space of three months my other half will turn forty, we’ll have been together twenty years, and then I’ll turn forty. Surely if ever there was a prompt to have a party, those three months would be it. Plenty to celebrate, lots to look back on, a broad timeframe with which to work. I realised that a couple of years ago, hence I started putting the playlist together. I knew that if I was going to throw only one party in my adult life I had to get the music right and ensure the optimum level of dancing. The only problem is the guests.

I have a crossover of musical taste with some but not all of my friends and close family. About half of them would hate at least half the music. In a way that doesn’t matter because the only potential guests keen on dancing are my parents and their hips will no longer allow it. Which highlights another party problem: is it safe to mix friends and family? My eldest sister didn’t exactly ban family from her fortieth, she just strongly discouraged us. It makes sense, few of us show the same version of ourselves to everyone, and there are anecdotes you probably don’t want your friends recounting in front of your mum. So, friends only?

Even if I figured that one out I’d still have a venue to find. Our flat will hold half a dozen guests comfortably, assuming no-one wants to dance. Then there’s food, drink, timing. The one simple, controllable thing is the playlist. I’ve got another eighteen months to fine-tune it so it’s perfect for the only party I’ll throw in my adult life. Then next year, sometime during those three key months, my other half and I can dance to it alone in our flat.

Words Best Sung by Lee Stuart Evans

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Love, Trains and Rhythm & Blues the cover promises, and if like me that’s enough to hook you, you’ll love this novel. Set in the vicinity of Nottingham (except a few bits set in Skegness and London) in 1963-5 it captures an England on the cusp of change: the sixties are about to swing, skirts are getting shorter, and the trains are going diesel. And the teenaged Alastair Braymoor has just landed his dream job working on the local steam engines.

Like a modern offering from the Angry Young Men, Words Best Sung sits nicely alongside (and gives the occasional nod to) Billy Liar, A Kind of Loving and the like, though perhaps with a lighter overall tone. There’s excitement and romance, there are mods and rockers, friendships and copious amounts of beer. There’s also a good deal of fumbling and farting, but this is mainly a book about teenage boys so it’s only fair. In between silly voices and dangerous driving there are life lessons to be learnt, like the different ways you can love a girl and how reality doesn’t always live up to the dream. It’s got some great lines and I liked Alastair and his friends so I was rooting for them along the way.

My dad’s a steam train enthusiast and a fan of British R&B (being approximately the same vintage as Alastair), and I’ve absorbed a milder form of both those passions, so I happened to appreciate the musical references and the odd train detail but I don’t think it would ruin the experience if you didn’t (a bit like me enjoying This Sporting Life while knowing little and caring less about rugby). I normally have low tolerance for spelt-out accents (largely because of who they’re spelt for) but maybe Nottinghamshire and West Yorkshire are similar enough in their key sounds for me to read it all as expected, because I got used to it pretty quickly.

Lee Stuart Evans has long been a writer for well-known TV and radio comedy programmes but Words Best Sung is his first novel. I first heard about it from his article on No Writer Left Behind, which is worth a read in itself and also shows exactly where this novel sprang from. If ever there was a time to read a novel about good music and youthful foolishness, it’s this unusually hot, lazy summer – do yourself a favour and buy it.

Sick of football? Let me read you some stories

So stunned was I by the England-Panama game that I failed to blog yesterday, but during (at least the second half of) England’s next match I’ll be in the local pub reading stories. Ilkley Writers are interspersing their stories and poems with a couple of 20-30 minute sets from singer-songwriter Lisa Marie Glover. Tickets are only a fiver and you’ll be supporting local creative types.PurpleRoomFlyer

Of course, given that most of you reading this won’t be in the vicinity of Ilkley on Thursday evening (or maybe you were, but you’re not reading this till next week and you’re cursing your poor timing), it seems only fair to remind you that you can listen to me reading a few of my stories (and an essay) here, and there’s a whole radio drama to go at, over at East Leeds FM. And if you’re still looking for distractions from the football, I can recommend a good book.

Writer as performer

The last week or so it’s all been about performance. On May 17th I read some stories at the All Ears Listening Club in Ilkley, alongside Andrea Hardaker and David Hesmondhalgh. At first it seemed quite daunting – a couple of rooms of music enthusiasts had gathered for their regular fix and we were not there to give them those kind of sounds. The music was loud and the conversations were louder. I fell silent as I felt every word I tried to bellow scorching my throat, and I had a sudden fear of standing up to read later and simply croaking. Then eventually the three of us were introduced and it was absolute hear-a-pin-drop quiet, so fast that I was looking for the mute button someone in charge had clearly pressed. All eyes (and ears) on us, and no-one knowing quite what to expect. I read four pieces with some kind of musical connection (you can listen to Summer of ’96 here, you might already have read it at the Fiction Pool. You can read The Lesson at Ellipsis Zine, too) and they seemed to go down well. We’re already talking about reading together again somewhere, maybe with musical accompaniment.

Last weekend Alice Courvoisier and I sat down to plan the order of the York Festival of Ideas event we’re doing with Alice’s friend Carolyn in a couple of weeks. I guess it’s largely the history and philosophy of science (mainly physics, because that’s what we collectively know the most about). It’s on June 14th and tickets are free.

As if that wasn’t enough, Ilkley Writers (or some of us anyway: Jane Cameron, Emily Devane, Andrea Hardaker, David Knight-Croft, Patrick McGuckin, Rosalind York and me) are reading at the Purple Room event at the Wheatley Arms in Ben Rhydding on June 28th 8-10pm (tickets £5 on the door). We’ve been paired with Lisa Marie Glover and there should be four sets (two music, two spoken word) over the course of the evening. Just as long as I don’t lose my voice over the next month…

Writers’ imposter syndrome

I’m no longer a new writer, I think I mostly come under the ’emerging’ heading. I’ve had a fair few successes, I’m doing ok. I’ve even taken over running the local writing group. Yet I still sometimes end up at writers’ gatherings feeling thick, left out, and like I shouldn’t really be there.

Some of this comes from not knowing the jargon. Surrounded by people with a BA in Eng Lit, or an MA in Creative Writing, they say things like ‘of course that’s a metaphor for…’ and my mind swings back to the pre-GCSE English class where we learnt that a simile is where you’re saying it’s similar to and metaphors are the other one. By which time I’ve missed the rest of the sentence anyway. Or they use some terminology I’m completely unfamiliar with, and since everyone else is nodding and looking serious, I don’t like to interrupt matters by asking what the blazes they’re on about. For the most part, I don’t need to know the technical terms – there are lots of bits of grammar I don’t know the rules for, let alone the names, but years of reading other people’s books, and absorbing the rhythm and typical ways of phrasing things means I can use them in context.

Sometimes they’ve seen themes in my work that aren’t there. I get suggestions to mine this a bit more, or go further with my exploration of that. It was just a story about a teapot, I want to say. I am not as deep and multi-layered as you think I am. The teapot is not symbolic, it’s certainly not a metaphor for whatever it is you just said that I missed while I was remembering what metaphor means, and I don’t want her to shatter it at the end. It’s a teapot, it’s for making tea in. She’d only have to sweep it up afterwards.

At any given gathering of writers, I can guarantee that someone will mention a book and at least one other person will have read it. Occasionally I’ll have heard of (but not read) it, often I haven’t even heard of the author and I marvel at this literary synchronicity that means that out of all the millions of books available in English, these two people in the same room have read the same one in the last few weeks. Then I wonder how I come across – do they all think I don’t read? I mention Ben Aaronovitch or Reginald Hill and they look blank. Terry Pratchett at least is a recognisable name even if they know nothing about his books. I give up, stay quiet, consider only going to genre-based gatherings.

On Kit de Waal’s Radio 4 programme about working class writers last year, someone said working class stories are rock n roll to the literary novel’s classical music. I don’t think it’s purely class-based snobbery though, it’s genre as well (look at the lack of genre novels winning mainstream prizes). Most of the fiction I read is SF, crime or a mixture of the two. I read recently that a writer needs to keep up with the literary world. Listen to Front Row, the advice went. Read the books pages. Now The Guardian has good SF reviews, I often add things to my To Read list from there, but whenever I’ve inadvertently caught bits of Front Row (Radio 4 arts review programme) it’s always struck me as people being pretentious about books I don’t want to read, and events in London. The musical analogy caught up with me though and I had a (minor) revelation.

I like listening to music and I know a fair bit about it. The stuff I like, that is. Get me on glam metal, NWOBHM, certain strands of British indie, and I can bore for Britain. However, I neither know nor care what’s on Radio 3 or Radio 1, who’s on the proms this year or who’s just won a Brit award. Why should I, when the radio station I’m most likely to listen to is La Grosse Radio Metal? If I want to listen to old music it’ll be Benny Goodman not Beethoven. I don’t recognise anything I hear emanating from the flat of my opera-singer neighbour, but I can guarantee he doesn’t recognise my Bon Jovi tapes either. It doesn’t mean I’m less intelligent than an opera buff, just that we have different tastes.

Note that different doesn’t mean one is better than the other. Nobody has any business saying that someone ‘should’ have read any book outside their favoured genre, and I need to remember that just because everyone else around the table has read Muriel Spark or Ian Rankin there’s no need for me to do so. I’m not going to tell people who don’t like SF that they should read Tad Williams, just like I’m not going to tell people who like hip hop that they should listen to Black Sabbath. That doesn’t stop me from wearing my Sabbath hoodie, and while I’m not about to buy a Tad Williams T-shirt I may bolster myself at writer’s gatherings by cultivating the secure separateness of the metaller in a crowd of Radio 1 listeners.

Lavender Ink, my first radio drama

Script of Lavender Ink by JY Saville and Rosalind Fairclough

We did it! Rosalind Fairclough (who you may know as poet Rosalind York) and I read our way through half an hour of the drama we’d written, live on the radio, and lived to tell the tale. We were fortunate to have technical assistance from Chapel FM‘s Elliot who was thrilled with our comprehensive cue sheet, and in return did a sterling job of dropping in sound effects and music. You can listen to Lavender Ink here, but you might want to read a bit more about it, first.

Having started out saying we were writing a Victorian melodrama, we ended up with an early 1960s drama with events during the second world war referred back to. Previously when Roz and I did reading and discussion programmes with Andrea Hardaker for Writing on Air, we were encouraged to include music to break up the programme, so I always had a musical element in mind. Once I thought about the practical side of two people in a small studio reading for half an hour, I knew we needed to give ourselves the odd rest when the microphones were off. It was most welcome, on the day.

The two eras of the play lent themselves to two different musical styles and we each picked three tracks we thought were appropriate. My character Pat, a less than enthusiastic bride on her wedding day c.1961, I imagined as having a portable record player and liking rock & roll. Roz’s character Marjorie, the bride’s mother, had been dancing during the war to vibrant (and quite rude) songs popular in the late thirties. She chose Bo Carter, Lil Johnson and Bessie Smith.

I initially wanted to stick to English rock & roll, Billy Fury for preference, though I was briefly worried that Pat might be an Adam Faith fan. My dad (a teenager himself in the early sixties) suggested Marty Wilde, so the intro is Billy Fury (Gonna Type a Letter) and the first interlude Marty Wilde (Bad Boy). When Roz and I spent five hours in the pub rewriting the script, the music they were playing was about the right era for Pat, and Shakin All Over by Johnny Kidd and the Pirates stuck in my head for the rest of the evening, to the extent that I decided it had to be one of the tracks in the play despite not being English. It became Pat’s ‘one more song’ before she puts the dress on.

We set the play in the West Riding of Yorkshire, though we never explicitly say where (nearby places are mentioned). That means Pat was written for, and read in, more or less my natural voice, though I tried not to sound too deep for a girl in her late teens.

If you’re a fan of late fifties/early sixties kitchen sink drama then Lavender Ink might be right up your street. If you like my Little Book of Northern Women, you’ll love it. If you want to hear me (39 and gruff) attempt to portray an innocent teenage bride, what are you waiting for? Sister Number One (notoriously hard to impress) has pronounced it ‘very good’.

Lavender Ink by Jacqueline Saville and Rosalind Fairclough – you heard us here first.

Inspired by Eric Clapton: a new story at The RS500

If you’ve been around here a while you’ll have spotted that music is pretty important to me (yes, glam metal counts as music) and you may remember me getting excited about running across a project called The RS500, where each week they’re posting two pieces of fiction or non-fiction in response to Rolling Stone magazine’s top 500 albums. Today my own contribution is up, a short story inspired by John Mayall’s Blues Breakers album with Eric Clapton, which you can read by following this link. But not before you finish reading this post, obviously.

John Mayall's Blues Breakers album with Eric Clapton

My dad’s actual 51-year-old copy of the LP

It’s quite a melancholy story which, as the editor said, kind of fits with the tone of the record so that’s ok. I listened to the album on repeat on Spotify while I was writing it, mainly because the LP was miles away in my dad’s record stash (and I wouldn’t dare touch it – look at how pristine it is! Zoom in and you can see one small crease). The aim was to infuse the story with some of the feeling of the album but I did keep getting lost in the music and downing tools for a while. I thought back to my early encounters with this LP as a child in the eighties, and then thought about the context of my dad buying the album twenty years previously (1966, though apparently he saw them perform in ’67 or ’68, which I guess was post-Clapton). If you want to look back on the era of peace and love with a sort of melancholy nostalgia, I can think of no better vantage point than the Thatcher years, and slap bang in the middle of the Falklands war seemed particularly suitable. Hence the story is set in 1982 (not explicitly stated but Falklands and Fun Boy Three references are there for the sharp-eyed).

I confess I did steal the non-anecdote (and family legend) of seeing Eric Clapton in a bar from my dad (“And?” “And he was probably buying a drink”). However, regulars here will also know that he did read to me a lot so there’s not much crossover with the main character. I should also thank him for taking a photo of the record sleeve and emailing it to me as though that was a perfectly normal thing for me to request.

So, now you know the background, and I bet you’re dying to read the only story you’ll encounter this week (probably) with the word ‘antimacassar’ in it, so for ease of clicking, here’s the link again. Enjoy.

Greetings from Batley Park W.Y.

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Borrowed from my brother, naturally

I’m reading my first rock autobiography of the year and I start wishing I could write fiction as raw and truthful and powerful as a Bruce Springsteen song, that would last as long in the head and the heart, and I stick one of Big Brother’s cast-off tapes in the cassette player in the kitchen and Thunder Road kicks in and my heart soars and I’m twelve again and buying a second-hand Born To Run LP to play on Sister Number One’s hand-me-down record player, and I’m nineteen and clinging to Born in the USA when my peers are telling me it’s not cool, and I’m thirty-five and BB’s handing over the Springsteen tapes he’s replaced on CD and I’m rediscovering that feeling of gritty bluesy rock n roll, and I want to phone BB and tell him how glad I am that he let me rifle through his record collection, and how much joy and catharsis all that music has brought me over the years, a liferaft and a battle cry and a manifesto. But I can’t, because I’m British and reserved, and what is more I’m a gruff northerner. Nevertheless… Nevertheless.

Week 16: Comedy Gold

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Thanks to a refresher from re-reading the BBC Academy radio comedy pages (though not from reading the pictured pamphlet, which I only remembered as I came to write this post) I’ve written two sketches for Newsjack this weekend that not only made me laugh, but made OneMonkey laugh too. I have yet to hear whether they made the producers of Newsjack laugh, but one can only hope.

I can now reveal that the northern-themed writing I alluded to before Christmas is a guest post in the Literature and Place slot at Laurie Garrison’s Women Writers School, and you should have less than two weeks to wait till you can read it. In the meantime if you’re of a sci-fi bent you could read a new review I’ve written for The Bookbag, for an Alastair Reynolds novella, Slow Bullets.

Before I race off to write one-liners in time for tomorrow morning’s Newsjack deadline, have I mentioned the rather wonderful RS500 yet? They’re working through Rolling Stone magazine’s top 500 album list, inviting an essay or a piece of fiction related to each one, and so far they’re at 252 so almost halfway but I only heard about them recently. While I may dislike many of the albums on the list, and bemoan the exclusion of some of my favourites, I applaud the harnessing of musical passion to a writing project like this, and I encourage any and all of you with a love of music to read, absorb, and contribute.

Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan

I kept picking up this novel in charity shops, my eye caught by the font on the spine every time (very suggestive of the 1920s, to me), reading the back and thinking Maybe. Then I stopped seeing it and after a while I spotted it again and immediately bought it in case I missed my chance. I’m so glad I did.

There was this jazz band in Berlin between the wars, mixed white, black, Jewish, German, American but what was important was the music. They loved to play music together. They gelled. Hiero Falk their young trumpet-player went missing in Paris in 1940, but not before they’d recorded enough to allow them a small following in years to come. Fifty-two years later Hiero’s two American band-mates have been invited to a Berlin jazz festival, the first time they’ve returned to the city. It brings a lot of memories and secrets bubbling to the surface and tests their seventy-year friendship to the limit.

I normally avoid second world war books. When I was little the black and white films on TV in an afternoon were heroic war adventures (when they weren’t either Cliff Richard or an Ealing comedy), and I had my fill of Biggles, The Silver Sword and The Machine Gunners, and repeated talk of Hitler in school history lessons, so by the time I started reading grown-up books at age 11 or 12, I made a conscious decision not to go there. Much as I love Evelyn Waugh, I have never read the Sword of Honour trilogy. The fact that this novel had its roots in pre-war Berlin and occupied Paris was the main reason for my hesitation in buying it in the first place. Though the narrative moves back and forth a little between 1992 and the late 30s/1940, it is predominantly a novel set in wartime and the build-up to war, but it’s the music that is the focus.

I’m not particularly knowledgeable about jazz though I recognised a few real names Edugyan introduced to the mix. However, I do understand the importance of music, I could relate to the drive, the brotherhood of true fans, the way they clung to it through everything that was happening, and the euphoria when the band was playing at its best. All that is conjured brilliantly, as is the nervy claustrophobia as the tension mounts. I found I was just as tense (if not more so) about whether they would get to cut the disc with the Big Name as about the imminent invasion of France. That is testament, I think, to the way this novel is about a few vivid characters rather than a time, a place or a movement.

All in all a powerful novel that leaves you thinking for a while afterwards, mainly about facing up to the past, and living with consequences. It did take me a few pages to get into the rhythm of the first-person narrative (one of the black American jazz musicians, using slang and with a tendency to say ‘a orange’ rather than ‘an orange’, for instance) but once I had, it seemed perfectly natural and easy to read. Definitely one for the music fans, genre not important – if you can take or leave the radio yourself I suspect you’ll struggle to understand some of the motives in the book.

Creative payment: the digital tip jar

How many times have you contributed to an author, artist or musician’s coffers when you’ve had the (legitimate) alternative of downloading for free? I’m guilty of neglecting the digital tip jar myself, I’ll download a book (usually a pdf) because it’s free (might as well) but I’ll wait and see if it was any good before I part with any money (after all, anyone can supply any quality of writing for free as a pdf). A couple of years later I haven’t got round to reading it, or if I have I can’t remember where it came from so whether or not I rated it, the author hasn’t got anything from me. It would take a more dedicated person than me to go back and pay in a separate transaction from downloading the book (album, etc) anyway. Given all this, I can hardly complain at the lack of funds flowing through my own tip jar (the biscuit and biro fund, accessible where you can download my novel, my SF collection or The Little Book of Northern Women).

For a while, a few years ago, both Wasted Years and The Little Book of Northern Women were for sale on Amazon, and people took a chance and paid real money for them (thank you, if you were one of those adventurous souls). I took them off Amazon because I’m not comfortable with their dominance and, longterm user of open source software that I am (and having now read PostCapitalism by Paul Mason I appreciate that I’m apparently prefiguring the transition to a post-capitalist society) it made more sense somehow to make them freely available under a Creative Commons licence and ask people to chip in if they’d enjoyed it, then do the same for everything else I wanted to get out there. Think of it a little like crowdfunding: everyone who contributes only pays a small amount they’ll hardly notice, but it adds up across all the contributors so that the author, musicians or whoever (in this case me, and OneMonkey who does most of the proofreading, formatting etc and designed the cover for Cracks in the Foundations) gets a reasonable amount of money. The trouble is, as mentioned earlier, not that many people do it (even me).

I completely get that if you only have a small amount of money to spend on books I can’t compete with the new Stephen King or JK Rowling, just like some local band with their first album out can’t compete with Iron Maiden. I also understand that even with good intentions (like me) people don’t go back to donate once they’ve read the book or listened to the album. And I’d rather know loads of people were reading my stuff (and, I hope, enjoying it) than put off the potential readers that can’t afford to take a chance. But digital tip jars don’t seem to be the answer. Given that all writers, artists and musicians need to eat even if they’re not household names, does anyone know how we make this kind of deal work?

Morrissey’s infamous novel List of the Lost

I wavered for a while but in the end I couldn’t resist List of the Lost, Morrissey’s 2015 novel, particularly after enjoying his autobiography so much. I’d heard a lot about it but not what it was about, everyone had been so busy writing about the author and his style, and there was no synopsis on the paperback cover. For the first 42 of its 118 pages (that being where I gave up on it) List of the Lost is ostensibly about four young men in a relay team in 1975, in America. What it might really be about is a love of words, a hymn to lost youth, a regret for inexpert fumblings both in the arena of lust (physical) and love (mental).

It’s not so much a novel as one long (no chapters), melancholy (naturally) Morrissey song, supply your own music. There are flashes of lyrical brilliance, there’s some good imagery but as a piece of prose it’s overblown and hard to read, you end up breathless. It kind of wants to be a poem, and it spreads its poetic wordage like weeds across the pages, becoming uncontrolled and a touch repetitive. The dialogue is far from realistic but I didn’t get the impression that it was meant to be.

I have a feeling that if it was written by some lauded writer it would be nodded sagely over and dissected by undergraduates, whereas from Morrissey (a mere pop singer) it’s dismissed (and I veer towards the latter as the correct response in both cases). Either way I couldn’t finish it, but that’s at least as much to do with my complete lack of interest in narcissistic young American athletes as the way it’s written.

Approach with caution (borrow it from your local library, as I did, rather than buying a copy) but it may hold interest both for the Morrissey fans and the melancholy poets.

Morrissey and Hynde: rock lives revealed

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Having not read a rock biography for years, so far this year I’ve read two: Chrissie Hynde’s Reckless and Morrissey’s Autobiography. I’ve admired Chrissie Hynde for many years and she was influencing my style by my late teens, whereas it took years for Morrissey to grow on me, and apart from an attempt to emulate his quiff at one point, I’m not sure he’s been a direct influence on me. It was interesting to pick up Reckless in the week that David Bowie died and find he’s one of the first people mentioned, and also interesting to note the crossover of adulation for Bowie and the New York Dolls (neither of whom I’ve ever been particularly enthused by) in both books. Hynde and Morrissey also make cameo appearances in each other’s memoirs. However, they’re really quite different affairs despite the pair of them being famous vegetarians whose bands began in the same country within a couple of years of each other.

Reckless is more what you’d expect from a rock biography. Drugs, squalid London squats, trouble with drummers, more drugs (I was actually shocked at the amount and variety, I guess she never struck me as the type). It’s written in a straightforward style that reflects how Chrissie Hynde’s frank persona comes across. We get lots of detail (sometimes maybe a bit more than we’d like) about the wild adventurous life she had even before she was in The Pretenders. She seems to be one of those people who’s on the fringes of history, her friend’s boyfriend was one of the four students shot at the Kent State University anti-war demo in 1970 (which Chrissie Hynde was also at, being a student there at the time), she seemed to meet quite a few big name rockers in Cleveland as a teenager, and she was in a band with 3 members of The Damned just before they left her to become The Damned (I’m not saying these are all comparable events, just trying to highlight the variety). You get a good flavour of the sixties and seventies alternative scene through the pages of Reckless.

Morrissey, on the other hand, though he definitely has trouble with drummers, doesn’t fit any of the other cliches. I picture him in hotel rooms bemoaning the substandard tea and paltry pair of shrink-wrapped custard creams. Not a rock star in the wild sense, and yet when you think about the headlines (tabloid as well as music press), the recognition, the adulation, the size of venues he’s played, it’s clear that he really is in every other sense.

At one point one of his neighbours (and, apparently, friends) was Alan Bennett, and once I’d read that I keep reading the odd line (e.g. no chance of a Rich Tea biscuit so don’t bother asking, when he visits Julie Burchill) in an Alan Bennett voice. I’m left with an urge to write a play in which Alan Bennett and Morrissey sit at a kitchen table with a pot of tea for an hour, playing the characters we think they are in real life.

Meanwhile, the shy, gawky boy is suddenly greying and avuncular and doesn’t know how that happened, and looking back on his life he catalogues the friends and relatives who died too young, from the uncle not much older than the teenage Morrissey to Kirsty MacColl twenty-five years later, and beyond. It is essentially a sad book full of loneliness, but laced with dry wit and flashes of the lyricism he’s always been admired for (by those who admire him). I can’t help but contrast Chrissie Hynde’s middle class upbringing and wasted stint at university with Morrissey’s Manchester-Irish family in and out of each other’s terraced houses, his depressing secondary modern and his stint on the dole. I know which one comes out of these memoirs seeming the more articulate and intelligent.

My dad, despite being the reason I got into both The Pretenders and The Smiths (we didn’t have many cassettes in the car during the 80s and I eventually grew to love most of them. Just not Roxy Music) groaned when I said I was reading Morrissey’s book. “But,” I said, “if you like Morrissey’s lyrics (which most Smiths/Morrissey fans do), and you have a sort of indulgent affection for him and the clangers he seems to drop in interviews (which again, I would say most Smiths/Morrissey fans do) I don’t see how you could help but love it. Unless it’s just that I’m still a pretentious fifteen-year-old at heart.” “Mmm,” said my dad. And really, there’s no answer to that.

Stuart Maconie The People’s Songs

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After we’d been to see Stuart Maconie at the Ilkley Literature Festival last month, OneMonkey bought me The People’s Songs, which wasn’t the book he’d been talking about but was nevertheless appealing to the bit of me that is forever fifteen and immersed in the Guinness book indie and new wave. Not only is this a lovely piece of music nerdery it’s a social history of Britain since the second world war. In other words right up my street.

Each chapter is named after a popular song. Not necessarily a number one and certainly not all cool (Y Viva Espana anyone?), I hadn’t even heard of all of them. However, the idea was that they were representative of something crucial about modern Britain, from immigration to trade unions, youth subcultures to Mrs Thatcher.

Running chronologically from the 40s to 2012 the songs were by no means evenly spread, with at least two from 1984 for instance and only 50 chapters. Within each chapter though the narrative jumps around to whichever years are appropriate. Some chapters are strongly based on the titular song, others use it simply as a jumping off point.

If you like Stuart Maconie’s style on the radio you’ll enjoy the witty, verbose prose full of interesting but not necessarily relevant asides. I bored OneMonkey to tears with my ‘did you know..?’ after every couple of pages, and I listened to more Smiths songs the last couple of weeks than I have in ages. I even went to spotify and tried some Ewan Macoll which I’m sure Big Brother will be pleased about.

The importance of being musical

I had such plans for this weekend – a bit of writing, a bit of editing, a couple of book reviews. What with Spotify and the BBC 6Music festival highlights online, however, all that got shelved and I’ve been indulging in music. I air-guitared to some instrumental rock ‘n’ roll, fired myself up with gritty early Kinks, bounced around to Maximo Park, and did a whole exercise session to Adam and the Ants. Marvellous, but not helpful on the writing front.

I’ve mentioned before how I struggle to write to music these days, and how I wish that wasn’t so. I’m often drawn to fiction that has a strong connection to music, like John Harvey’s detective Resnick and his jazz, or Kate Atkinson’s blunt Jackson Brodie with his surprising penchant for female singer-songwriters. It’s an added dimension and a way into a mood. Perhaps part of my problem is my eclectic taste, I skip around from Slayer to Joy Division to Half Man Half Biscuit, and if I was writing at the same time it would infect the words, resulting in a complete dog’s breakfast of a story. What I need is to plan a playlist to match what I’m working on at the moment. If anyone has suggestions for songs suitable for editing sci-fi noir, let me know…

Love what you write

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Yet again I’ve missed a week, my flimsy excuse this time being I was busy writing a valentine themed story for this month’s writing group meeting. Young love, music and misjudgement – their eyes met over a New Order cassette and life was never the same. Whether the story will ever see the light of day I don’t know but it was fun to write. Seasonal greetings to all of you who owe your biggest love stories to music in some way.