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Judging the Contents by the Cover

10 Dec

Don’t judge a book by its cover, so we’re told. But how often have you been attracted to a book or an album, purely on the basis of its cover? Did you buy it without having read or listened to any of it? And did you come to regret it? There was a time, of course, when you couldn’t hear an album before buying it. You couldn’t read a tenth of a book before making up your mind about it. It’s not even twenty years ago, but it seems unimaginable now.  The internet has so utterly transformed our experience of the world.

Man strides through his high-tech world but he remains at heart a primitive creature. Although I don’t share the conservative implications of evolutionary psychology, I do believe it offers a powerful explanation of the way that we behave. The human psyche developed over hundreds of thousands of years and snap decisions played an important part in this. Survival depended upon them in less ‘civilised’ times (the term is used advisedly here, in the light of the last two thousand years of human history). Many of our modes of thinking and acting were evolved for the Savannah and not the city. Is that member of another human group hostile or friendly? Will he fly or fight? You have two seconds to read his face. Does that silhouette belong to a cave bear? There are five seconds in which to retreat to safety behind the fire. These days, the big predators are either extinct or safely behind bars in zoos, relegated to our subconscious. Only the microscopic ones inside our bodies still provide a threat. Those and ourselves, of course, with our dangerous machines and materials, our conflicts and violent crime… In these man-made contexts – crossing the road, deciding whether or not to walk down an unlit alleyway at night, entering a shattered building in a war zone – snap judgements remain essential.

A column of cotton-wool clouds

A column of cotton-wool clouds

It’s surprising how often snap judgements still prove useful in a variety of other contexts. As mentioned, I’ve found this to be the case with two important things in my life, music and reading. Sometimes, the cover of an album or novel just looks right. When I lived in Lincoln, there was a chain record store called MVC (it’s long gone now, I suspect). Among the racks of CDs, I saw the cover of the splendidly named Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot by Sparklehorse. A ridiculous clown mask was hanging against a blue sky filled with cotton-wool clouds. It fascinated me. And then there were the titles – Ballad of a Cold Lost Marble, Most Beautiful Widow in Town, Sad & Beautiful World… I made a snap judgement. And when I bought it, the music turned out to be a revelation. It remains one of my favourite albums. I can’t even begin to describe its beauty – Mark Linkous’ fragile voice croaking out those surreal lyrics, the understated instrumentation, the underlying, aching sadness of it all (MVC also had a copy of Work Lovelife Miscellaneous by David Devant & His Spirit Wife, the name and cover of which similarly intrigued me – it turned out to be entertaining but nowhere near as good). The same was true for the unnerving cityscape on the cover of Metropole by Ferenc Karinthy. I’ve referred before to this Hungarian novel from the 1970s. For some reason, someone had left the book out on top of the others on a shelf in the fiction section at Waterstone’s (don’t even get me started on synchronicity…). Again, I made a snap judgement. Metropole, it transpires, is an enigmatic and compelling read and happens to contain one of my favourite scenes from any book.

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The cover of Karnithy’s Metropole looks something like this… but in which city are these buildings?

I can think of numerous other examples. We enter someone’s living space for the first time. We scan their bookshelves for a few moments and we make a judgement. Or I walk into W.H. Smith and look at the covers of the books there and they tell me instantly that I don’t want to read them. It’s like love at first sight. Do you believe in that? I’ve experienced it several times, though I wouldn’t necessarily recommend its outcomes. Many of the people that I’ve become good friends with over the years appealed to me straight away, upon first encounter. As soon as I walked into my house to view it, I knew that I wanted to live there. By chance, a search result brought you to this blog post and you made a snap judgement to click on it. The three of you still reading at this point can nod sagely…

These judgements can mislead us too, of course. We can completely misread another person through initial impressions, for good or bad. Impulsive decisions can backfire (how well I know this). And anyone with an ounce of intelligence knows that judgements made on the basis of ethnicity, disability and so on are deplorable. Should we not judge a book by its cover, then? The problem is that it’s hard not to. How do we override several hundred millennia of human experience? And all too often, these judgements turn out to be the right ones.

All text and images © PSR 2015

Godspeed You, Sufjan Stevens

30 Mar

On occasion, this blog concerns itself with music rather than writing. And today is such a day. March 30th is a special day – well, for me it is, at any rate.

Music plays a big part in my life. Most music doesn’t interest me. From time to time, though, something catches my attention and I’m hooked. As with literature, I like music that’s a little different, that pushes frontiers. Two such artists are the American singer-songwriter, Sufjan Stevens and the Canadian post-rock band, Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Years pass without a release from either of them and then today, there are new albums out by both. Stevens plays around with time signatures and whispers over acoustic instruments in an angelic croon. He announced that he was working on the ‘Fifty States Project’, writing an album about each of the states of the USA. Only Michigan and Illinois ever appeared. No matter – they’re both brilliant. By contrast, GYBE are loud and dark, their compositions relying on repetition and the development of motifs. Their work is purely instrumental. The music tells the story. On their last release was a track called ‘Mladic’, twenty minutes of raging noise that transport the listener across two decades to the nightmare in the Balkans.

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Jolly cloudscapes floating across the listener’s mind…

I’m on holiday from work, which means that I’ll be able to walk into town and buy both albums. How exciting is that? And it’s very nearly writing den time too…

Strange Events at the Bookshop…

26 Mar

The last two times that I’ve been into my local book store, the shelves have assailed my eyes with unsettling apparitions.

The first strange phenomenon was a notebook. As with many writers, notebooks are of great importance to me and I’m never found without one. There’s been a vogue recently for notebooks dressed up to look like vintage paperbacks. My children bought me one packaged within the original Penguin Books cover to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, in which I planned out most of my current work-in-progress. And now here was another one in its orange Penguin cover. Nothing so strange about that. Except that it was from a novel by Rex Warner. Rex Warner? I’ve mentioned before that Warner is one of my favourite writers. Most people that I meet have never heard of him let alone read any of his books. It’s their loss. But then that’s the random nature of what’s be found in print and what isn’t… The Aerodrome is his best known novel. But this notebook utilised the cover from The Professor. In the quarter of a century or so since I first read it, I haven’t met anyone else who’s done so. I’m willing to bet that I was the only person in the bookshop – perhaps even the whole town – who’d read it. Before the Internet ruined things by making it too easy, I used to enjoy collecting Warner’s books, all of which barring The Aerodrome were out of print. Covers from my collection were even borrowed by Book Collector magazine for use in an article about him. And yet there it was on the bookshop shelf. How odd.

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The original 1940s cover of the Penguin version, as seen on the notebook

The second strange phenomenon that I encountered was in the non-fiction section. Prominently displayed was a biography of one of my favourite musicians. I already own a biography of him so I looked to see who had written this new one. And it was my erstwhile bosom buddy. We used to share a publisher. Our bands used to support each other. We even had a joint musical project for a few years. While I’ve ploughed my furrow toward obscurity and relative poverty, he has become relatively wealthy and well known. I don’t resent him his success – he’s worked hard for it. These days, though, we’re estranged. He took exception over the break-up of my first long-term relationship and never really forgave me. I love the guy but there are only so many times that you can be rebuffed. Seeing his book there felt odd. I find myself wondering what I shall discover in that book store, the next time that I visit…

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A later, 1980s reprint from Lawrence and Wishart

It so happens that I’m planning a third strange bookshop phenomenon of my own but it’ll have to remain strictly under wraps for the time being… All will be revealed in time.

All text © PSR 2014, images photographed by me and © the publishers

Opening the Jamboree Bag

26 Feb

Those familiar with this blog will know that I’m not terribly keen on self-promotion, but I hope that I shall be forgiven on this occasion. In the summer, I put together a sampler of my writing in a range of forms across the better part of thirty years. For reasons outlined below, I chose to call it Jamboree Bag. The idea was to provide something that publishers or agents could look at – ha ha – and anyone else who might be interested, to demonstrate the range of my writing.

I’ve finally decided to let it loose on an unsuspecting and almost certainly uninterested world. Perhaps it was reading The Salmon of Doubt, a compendium of posthumously published pieces by Douglas Adams (RIP, big man) that prompted me to do so. After all, you’re a long time dead, as they say. It’s available now on Lulu – just follow the link. My facility with e-books is almost nil, so for the moment it’s only available in paperback format. You get 147 pages featuring excerpts from the novels and novellas that I’ve written to date, a couple of short stories, extracts from my two works-in-progress, memoir and journalism, all for an entrance fee of just a fiver. There are 24 pieces in all. It’s illustrated with photos and with the occasional drawing too. To quote my writing friends, “each of these pieces is a clean, tight example of excellent writing” (Lauren Sapala), “every piece was beautifully written, interesting and engaging” (Mari Biella). And they couldn’t possibly be biased, could they?

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Anyway, here’s what I have to say about it in the introduction.

A long time ago in England, there existed something called a Jamboree Bag. Cheap to buy, it contained a variety of sweets and toys all wrapped up in a package featuring jokes and puzzles.

I’ve been writing forever. You could probably still buy a Jamboree Bag when I made up my first story. Friends at Sixth Form will remember my first efforts, absurdist plays that never got beyond act one, scene three.  Then there were the lyrics that I wrote for bands in which I played, always the wordiest of songs.  In my late teens, I made my first unsuccessful forays into novel writing, gloomy and self-pitying attempts that invariably faltered after a single chapter. After completing and then discarding three novels in the 1990s, I’d written my obligatory half million words of rubbish.  I was ready to start writing for real. 

I’ve worked as a freelance music journalist and in 2009, Helter Skelter published Music in Dreamland, my biography of the leftfield musician, Bill Nelson.  I’m a writer in mid-career.  It just so happens that my fiction has yet to be published. Over the years, I’ve amassed something of a backlog.  There are my two novellas, The Great English Novel (2002) and Norwegian Rock (2006), my war novel, “Mayflies” (2012) and a clutch of short stories written over the past decade.  At present, I’m working on two further novels. 

All in all, then, it seems like a good time for a retrospective.  And so here’s a jamboree bag, crammed full with writing from across the years in a range of forms – extracts from novels and novellas, short stories, biography, memoir, music journalism, blog posts, song lyrics, even poems…  

All text and images © PSR 2014

Revenge in Literature and Life

9 Feb

Revenge is a dish best served cold. Or so the old Italian proverb has it. If John Webster is to be believed, it’s a subject about which the Italians know a thing or two (‘John Webster was one of the best there was/He was the author of two major tragedies’ – answers on a virtual postcard if you recognise the quotation). In his beautiful and brutal revenge tragedy, The Duchess of Malfi, Webster explored the outer reaches of the phenomenon.

I was thinking about revenge as a result of a recent encounter. Looking through the entertainment listings, I saw that the music critic from the local paper in the town in which I grew up was playing with his band in a pub in the town where I live now. I recalled that he had a blues-style band back then and given his unusual surname, I was pretty sure it would be him. This critic was never particularly complimentary about my band’s recordings or performances (probably with reason, I can see now). So I couldn’t resist dropping by to take a look. I found the band members sitting on a couch before the performance. I asked them where the singer was. They told me that he was ill and that they’d be performing without him. We got talking. I mentioned that he used to be the music critic on the local paper. ‘Ah,’ one of them asked, ‘have you come to have words with him about a bad review?’ I replied that I had and to tell him that I’d be catching up with him. I was joking, of course, but there’s definitely a short story to be written in there…

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Revenge serves no purpose

The passage of time actually reveals the pointlessness of revenge. It’s very closely allied to hatred. I’ve tasted that dish occasionally in my life. It’s acrid. Its effects slowly poison the system. Ismail Kadare wrote powerfully about the corrosive effects of revenge in Broken April, his tale of blood feuds in Albania. Kadare’s masterpiece investigates its self-perpetuating nature where it occurs among families. And as we’ve seen between ethnic groups in Rwanda and Bosnia, hatred and revenge need no one to serve them up. They feed upon themselves. Not for nothing was Salvador Dali’s greatest painting of the 1930s – an allegorical representation of the Spanish Civil War – given the title Autumnal Cannibalism, itself a play on the term ‘autocannibalism’.

Revenge has a strong attraction for the writer, generally between the pages rather than beyond them. My friend, Mari Biella has just published her excellent story collection, Loving Imogen and I don’t think it’s any kind of plot spoiler to mention that revenge plays its part in the main story. Mari will be appearing soon on this blog to discuss her collection. It’ll be interesting to hear her take on the issue. In The Book that Jack Wrote by another writer friend, J Huw Evans, a particularly grisly revenge plays its part in the novel’s denouement.  And I explored its role in the carpet bombing of the German cities in my yet to be published war novel – there’s even a chapter called Revenge Against Fatherland.

Revenge is, it seems to me, a dish best prepared in imagination but never actually cooked up or served. In fiction, it provides a great plot driver and sets up narrative tension. In the real world, no good ever comes of it. I’ve contemplated it from time to time. It’s tied up with regret, the desire to change the past. Backward-looking and self-defeating, it’s the most negative of motivations. We inhabit the present and that’s the only place where change can be effective.

All text and images © PSR 2014

Summer’s Almost Gone…

3 Sep

‘Summer’s Almost Gone’ is a song by the hugely influential, 1960s American rock band, The Doors.  It’s taken from their third album, Waiting for the Sun. The song captures perfectly that melancholic sense of golden days coming to an end that one experiences when the harvest has been gathered in and the sun is hanging lower in the sky. That’s the feeling I have right now.

Writing didn’t really happen for me this summer. I began with great intentions. I was going to revise my war novel in the light of readers’ comments. I’ve only managed a few minor revisions. I was going to break the back of my current work-in-progress. I wrote just a few thousand words more. Such is life. And now it’s back to work and the nights are drawing in. Up until Christmas, I’ve lost the day off a week that has yielded my most productive writing. I’m not now expecting to make much progress with the WIP until the New Year.

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A wintry view lies beyond my East Anglian writing desk…

Through the Writing pages of this blog, I’ve attempted to give the interested reader a flavour of my writing. I mentioned, a couple of posts ago, that I was thinking about putting out a sampler of my work to date, to be called Jamboree Bag. This would provide the reader with the opportunity to explore in greater depth my writing over the last two decades. I’m intending to include a couple of complete short stories, extracts from novels and novellas, some non-fiction pieces and a few old poems and lyrics. The plan is to make the sampler available both as an e-book and as a cheaply-priced paperback. It was the one project upon which I did make progress this summer. I’ve completed a mock-up of the book and shortly, I shall be asking fellow writers – some of whom are readers of this blog – for their views on which extracts I should include and for tips about placement, ISBNs and other publishing issues.

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Summer’s almost gone…

One type of writing that I’m planning to include in my sampler is music journalism. On a few occasions, I had the privilege of writing the lead feature for Record Collector magazine (before the editor and deputy editor, both of whom liked my writing, left the magazine). I particularly enjoyed putting together a feature on The Doors. Their first two albums were marvels of invention and creativity. I noted that the first was ‘a stunning début, arguably one that will never be bettered’ and that the second had been ‘groaning under the weight of expectation’ but was ‘miraculously good under the circumstances’. By their third album, The Doors had begun running out of steam. Here’s what I had to say about ‘Summer’s Almost Gone’:

Krieger’s mournful, lilting guitar, Morrison’s simple, nostalgic lyric – this ballad approaches perfection. Like Keats before him in ‘Ode To Autumn’, you get the impression of a young man in thrall to his own mortality. This is everything that Terry Jack’s ‘Seasons In The Sun’ tried to be but wasn’t, straddling the thin line between sensitivity and sentimentality, between elegy and schmaltz. Though [it’s] wonderfully poignant, it’s merely the final remnant from that great store of songs they’d written before signing to Elektra.

As a writer, you can relate to this. It’s the fear that you’ve used up your stock of good ideas, that your best writing is behind you, that summer’s almost gone…

So as not to end in a minor key, here’s a further extract from that article.

The Beneficiaries of the Morrison Estate

Jim Morrison was the original rock-god, though he would prove sadly mortal. His image was cleverly concocted out of a series of iconic objects and actions. Here we look at how the Morrison legacy has been distributed.

The leather trousers

Shared throughout the ‘80s by Julian Cope (Monday to Thursday) and Michael Hutchence (Friday to Sunday).

The wavy mane

Another ‘80s time-share, this time between Mike Scott and Michael Hutchence (again).

The outsized ego

A gift to all rock stars everywhere.

The drink and drug habit

Ditto.

The bad poetry

The Morrison Prize is open to Sixth Form boys across the USA and UK.

The exhibitionist tendencies

Last seen in the possession of a man in a shabby raincoat on Clapham Common.

The obsession with all things Native American

This has changed hands several times. Originally left to Redbone, it was borrowed by Adam Ant for a few weeks in 1980, before being misplaced by Ian Astbury somewhere in Bradford in the late ‘80s.

The full beard

Demis Roussos.

The designer stubble

George Michael. Or was it the exhibitionist tendencies?

 All text and images © PSR 2013

except extracts from The Doors: an Open and Shut Case? © Record Collector 2002

Passing Time and The Glass Bead Game

18 May

Unlike my friend Simon who’s read the entire canon, Steppenwolf is the only work of Hermann Hesse’s that I’ve finished reading. It was for his novel, The Glass Bead Game that he won the Nobel Prize in Literature (an award of which I shall be a future recipient – well, according to my Twitter profile, at any rate). I started reading that book a long time ago. I got as far as page 110. Since games are featured in both of my current projects (see my recently posted game-related extract), I thought I might give it another look. I can’t now recall why I stopped reading it but I remember the precise moment that I did so. I was sitting on a picnic bench outside the Berney Arms, a pub in the middle of the Halvergate Marshes in Norfolk, which can only be reached by a long march on foot, by boat or via a railway halt at which trains stop a couple of times a day. Just like me, protagonist, Joseph Knecht was pursuing his studies and by page 110, had reached the same age that I was back then. I’ve just passed that point again. And in so doing I realised that I’d put that book down half a lifetime ago. It had been sitting unread on the shelf with its place marker while all of that time elapsed, as people and events have come and gone. I found the thought a little disconcerting. (Around the same time, I threw Titus Groan, the first book in Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy on the rubbish tip, but that’s another story entirely…)

The game of the novel’s title has developed into a purely intellectual pursuit, of which Joseph Knecht is master. Players make connections between disparate intellectual and artistic disciplines. This got me thinking. Perhaps such a game might be played, starting with Joseph Knecht and linking him to three other fictional intellectuals, the inclusion of whom the players would have to justify. It would be called ‘Knecht Four’. I’ll get my coat… The novel actually appears to be a discussion of the validity of dedicating oneself to the life of the mind rather than partaking of the ‘real’ world. It’s a dilemma that you’ll recognise if you spend much time writing, as you look up from your desk and realise that yet another year has passed you by…

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Time has elapsed, people and events have come and gone…

‘The Rainbow’ was the opening track on Talk Talk’s sublime album, Spirit of Eden. And it happened to come out when I was reading The Glass Bead Game, the first time around. On first listening to it, I and the other members of The Jellymen were stunned. We loved that band. But this was like nothing else we’d ever heard. And then there were the lyrics. “Oh, yeah, the world’s turned upside down,” they ran, “Jimmy Finn is old. Well, how can that be fair at all?” Or so I thought. They were among the most profound words that I’d ever heard about the human condition, and all the more remarkable for being located within a rock song. As a young man, I projected myself forward to that moment. It’s the instant of recognition as you pick up the book again and register the decades that have passed since you last did so and that in the intervening years your youth has been stolen from you. In reality, the words ran, ‘Jimmy Finn is out’, which almost certainly has different connotations. Such are life’s disappointments… Incidentally, Talk Talk’s main songwriter, Mark Hollis wrote a beautiful song called ‘Such a Shame’, inspired by another book about a game, The Dice Man. Luke Rhinehart’s book has a fascinating central concept but is disturbingly amoral and rather shockingly written. I finished that book, nonetheless. Time will tell whether I shall finish Hermann Hesse’s, at the second attempt.

From time to time, we receive these rather terrifying reminders of the brevity of human existence. They should spur us on to get done those things that we wish to achieve, to participate in both the real and intellectual spheres, to live life to the full. It’s back to WIP No. 1, then, currently on page 151…

All text and image © PSR 2013