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States of Independence

March 27, 2014 Leave a comment

This is a kind of a late review because the States of Independence event was a couple of weeks ago, on 15th March. It’s a free annual one-day book festival in Leicester that I went to for the first couple of years it ran, then missed it for a couple of years, and got back to it again this year.

First impressions: lots of stalls, and there are clearly still plenty of people out there wanting to be independent publishers. Some are producing full-sized paperback books, some are selling short collections of flash fiction and poems in a pamphlet-type format. But there are a lot of them.

Many are the same ones I remember from 3-4 years ago, though some have started to find different niches to fill. For example one  is now busy doing political nonfiction, looking at the background to recent scandals and documenting the extent to which the police and other security services have been involved in dubious practices. None of that’s particularly ‘news’ – a great deal of it has been admitted to and debated in parliament in the last year or two, and some of it has emerged in a ‘look, I told you so’ way when Cabinet papers were published in January having reached the end of their 30-year period of being kept secret (and essentially proved that the government of 1984 was in the business of provoking a miners’ strike in order to break the trades union movement, of which more below).

But there are plenty of other niches to fill and ‘tribes’ to satisfy. I’m really not sure how a market research company would classify all of them, but you could have a go at ’20-something students into horror fiction’, ‘people interested in poetry by local poets’, or ‘people from immigrant or minority communities who want to read stories based on their own cultural history, in English’.

I went to three seminars.

The first was on the 1984 miners’ strike, seen from 30 years on. This was interesting for a range of reasons. The wounds created at that time have still not healed, and because the police were in the front line in breaking the strike it’s pretty clear that there’s still a bitter aftertaste and a complete lack of trust in the police in many areas. There’s also a sense of outrage that some of the senior figures in the union ‘sold out’ and were, by their own later admission, giving information to the police Special Branch and MI5. Which also, incidentally, suggests that the remit of those agencies had a lot of grey areas that were rapidly redefined as areas where they should be quite active. That opens up a whole can of worms about the idea of the ‘police state’ and the way we should approach security issues in a democracy, but that’ll all have to wait for another blog. I will say, though, that I was active in police research in the 1980s and I can remember many very senior police officers in 1984-5 were extremely unhappy about the way they felt policing was being politicised. And what happened around that time, now we have some of the government papers published, does tend to reinforce the notion that if you’re feeling paranoid it’s because they’re coming to get you.

The pity of it all was that the basic problem the government faced was this: why have a coal industry in the UK if globalisation meant we could import coal more cheaply from China? How could coal produced at relatively high cost in the UK be run as a profitable industry? The government response was pretty brutal – close down the mines (and the hidden agenda was there too; smash the unions because they stand in the way of ‘progress’). And the union response was old-school and straight out of the 1800s. No one involved in any of this seemed to be prepared to talk sensibly about the wider context and find more constructive solutions.

The second seminar was about Indian writing today being published in English. From this I got some insights into the regionalism of Indian writers, since many are published in languages other than Hindi or Urdu; and the continuing influence of the caste system, with people often reading about the culture of their own caste. This segued for me into a bunch of issues about what the caste system really is and does, but if you need a quick rundown of this one starting point is Wikipedia. Plus it’s a little alarming (given how poorly my own horror collection sells) to hear about a country where an author is considered a failure if they haven’t sold at least 100,000 copies of their latest novel…

The third one I went to was about digital literature. I walked in late, at the point the speaker was (I think) quoting someone else. I caught the end of their sentence: ‘…if it doesn’t use random numbers it’s not literature’. That said, it was thought-provoking on areas such as ‘what counts as avant-garde?’, ‘to what extent can code be read as literature?’ and ‘are there parallels between the market for computer games and the market for fiction?’.

I won’t go into details. But if digital fiction or e-fiction interest you, a useful place to start is probably this collection at eliterature.org.

Overall, I had a good time. Once of the independent publishers is about to open its own bookshop (and also sells coffee); the masked booksellers were there and I bought stuff from them. The only thing that struck me as odd was that I didn’t see any of the people who are normally active on the local literary scene. Doesn’t mean there weren’t there, and while I went to three seminars there were another 20-odd running. Never mind, no doubt I’ll catch up with them another time.

Writing on Walls again

May 10, 2013 Leave a comment

horror cover 3Relaunched. New cover art. Updated link to the video of the first story. Lower price (99 cents or 77 pence, I believe, but don’t hold me to it – the UK price will fluctuate with exchange rates). Now you can ignore it all over again. Or maybe just for the first time?

Eight short tales of horror and dark fantasy based on the understanding that one characteristic of being human is the ability to use one’s imagination, that imagination constructs reality, and that we construct our own worst fears and horrors.

It’s on Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk. And if you want to view the video, which is an abridged version of the first story, shot in an amazingly low-tech way using the embers of a fire and an oil lamp for lighting, I just uploaded it to Vimeo.

A taster? This is from a bit you won’t see on the ‘Look Inside’ function, the story MacGuffin. And yes, the narrator is the MacGuffin of the story. I take it you know the meaning of the term – Hitchcock popularised it in film to refer to a ‘plot device in the form of some goal, desired object, or other motivator that the protagonist (and sometimes the antagonist) is willing to do and sacrifice almost anything to pursue, protect or control, often with little or no narrative explanation as to why it is considered so important. The specific nature of a MacGuffin is typically unimportant to the overall plot. The most common type of MacGuffin is an object, place or person’ (I’m quoting this from Wikipedia).

The story opens this way:

It’s more difficult than you’d think to dig up a buried box in the woods at night. I have explicit instructions, a spade and a torch. But I have company; there are more people out here at two in the morning than there are in the town centre. Couples use a small clearing for alfresco exchanges of DNA. Illegal immigrants are camped a hundred metres away. Some kind of deal is going down near to where I left my car.

Thank fuck I’d done a recon when it was still light. Go to this point on the path, head for that forked tree, see that rock outcrop, dig one metre directly in front of the fault line on the rock. It’s probably an SSSI, digging prohibited on account of rare species. I’m in favour of environmental protection but right now there’s something more important at stake.

Clearing away leaf litter makes a hell of a noise, but no one seems to care. I shield my flashlight, and find a slightly sunken square of earth. At some point in the past it has been dug and loosely refilled.

Do I know for sure there’s a box under here? I swear at Giles for his cloak-and-dagger temperament, his love of practical jokes. I could get to the end of this and find some whimsical object with a sarcastic note.

I know you have severe reservations about my work. Perhaps you think I’ve had a breakdown and went insane. Perhaps you’ll find the world has had a breakdown and gone insane. It doesn’t matter. I’m just relying on you to have the same sense of honour you had when we were postgrads. You said on a particularly drunken evening that whatever our differences, I could always count on you as a friend.

You’re reading this because something has happened to me. My fail-safe was that this email would be sent automatically in such circumstances. I hope can still depend on your drunken promise, because the fact that you’re reading this means there is an important task I need you to undertake on my behalf.

You must recover some information and evidence, and make it public in a way that will attract the attention of the public – not the authorities, who will no doubt label me a deluded fool and deny everything, but capable, right-thinking people who are able to determine their own best interests and act on them.

The email was dated a year ago but arrived last week. Outlook has a function to delay sending selected messages, and my guess was that Giles just kept putting the date back until, one day, something had happened to stop him doing it. The countdown clicked to zero, the message was sent. With instructions: this path, that tree, this rock, one metre in front of, about half a metre down. There was more: reference to a housing estate he was ‘investigating’. The roads show on Google Maps but there are no street views. I’m guessing it’s a scummy little place, low priority on every local authority agenda.

I curse Giles for a drama queen, an overweight and pouty prima donna of melodrama. Had he come out here at this time of night to bury the thing? It would have appealed to his twisted sensibilities. But he was never one for physical effort, which makes the fact of his actually digging a hole – if it was him that dug it – significant.

Thank you for reading this. To ensure it remains secret, now please set fire to the device you have been reading it on…

Art and tyranny?

August 17, 2012 Leave a comment

Are tyrants good for art? It’s an interesting if counter-intuitive question and one that’s recently been discussed on the BBC.

The essential argument is that culture – art and literature and music, for example – thrive in conditions where there is social conflict, though also require some level of freedom for artists. In the past that’s come about because authoritarian regimes haven’t necessarily tried that hard to control art, and when they did, the fact that art or books or music were labelled ‘subversive’ in itself created an underground demand for them.

It’s a complicated argument because the extent and type of control wielded by tyrants doesn’t just come from punitive measures. They often control resources that make them major patrons of at least some arts, with the ability to direct the works they commission. And it’s further shaded by distinctions between regimes that are merely authoritarian, those that are totalitarian, and those where some of the impetus for control comes from neoliberal politics and commercial interests.

So there’s a lot to take into account in trying to make any general arguments, including the treatment of deliberately provocative and protest-based art (yes, I’m thinking about Pussy Riot here). I guess the main point is that a lot of interesting and worthwhile cultural products are subversive in some way, and gain their significance because of the friction they create.

Vikings and sagas – an appreciation

May 10, 2011 2 comments

Just caught the BBC programme The Viking Sagas, which is now available on the BBC iPlayer, and will be there until 17 May.

Some of the stuff I knew, actually, but a lot I didn’t despite having read different sagas at various times. I knew for example that many of them relate the stories of actual people and real historical events. But I didn’t know that many of the places mentioned are still identifiable, so a farmer can easily point to a bend in a fjord and say ‘Oh yes, Gudrun’s house was just there – 1000 years ago. And the valley where her husband killed his brother is a short walk away and the dip in the ridge that he hid in while waiting to ambush his brother is still there.’

I also found the attitude to language inspirational. There are obvious close links between language and magic, because saying words can put chains of events into effect and change the way we define and even perceive things. And this comes out in the sagas. Plus, when you hear extracts, as offered in this programme, the rhythm and rhyme and power of the sagas becomes far more evident than it is if you’re simply reading them in translation.

I also didn’t know, and find it amazing, that about 10% of the Icelandic adult population are published authors, the highest figure anywhere in the world.

On a side note – there was an event outside my house yesterday that might yet turn into a saga. Two guys having an argument, and when I heard the shouting and began to pay attention, the words I heard one say to the other were ‘And you shouldn’t ever forget that when we were inside [i.e. prison], you were my bitch!’ The power of words, eh? Don’t be surprised to see me use that line sometime in a story… I might add that thankfully this kind of thing is not common where I live…

States of Independence

March 19, 2011 1 comment

Went to States of Independence today. This was an event with independent small presses, workshops, readings and the like. I wasn’t involved in any of the readings but thought I’d scope it out. There were three sessions I wanted to go to but as usual (for me anyway) they were all running at the same time. Oh well… I have the programme, I have the links to the other things I wanted to investigate and I can follow them up later.

I went to the Shortfuse readings, which this time were short stories and flash fiction (and a haiku) by people who’ve been in a recent creative writing workshop series. They were all good. I personally liked some more than others (unsurprising) but the surprising thing to me was that the pieces dealing with topics like old age and housework were the most interesting. Huh? Quality of writing or because I feel I’m getting old? Both, maybe.

Went round the fairly extensive display of stalls. Only bought one book – well, I have about a yard of books at home waiting to be read. The one that caught my attention and where I bought a history of the Vikings was run by the Masked Booksellers. They’re charmingly eccentric but with a serious point at the same time.

The Masked Booksellers perpetuate the work of Josiah Saithwaite, a small-time Manchester businessman of the late 1800s, also a non-conformist preacher and socialist who believed that everyone was entitled to education as a right. Among other activities he sold second-hand books cheaply to the working classes, on the basis that books were a means of self-improvement. His strategy was that “Working people need to take pride in the purchase of their personal libraries by their own efforts” while the profits from sales went to charitable causes.

The masks came about because Saithwaite’s belief was that doing good should not be a matter of personal aggrandisement, and hence should be done anonymously. Apparently – and I didn’t know this until today – there are still groups of Masked Booksellers up and down the country, and indeed in several other countries as well. The money they made at States of Independence was going to a charity dealing with the needs of refugees. So given my own principles how could I not buy something from them?

Good day all round, except I managed to miss someone I was going to meet there because I didn’t check my email first and figure out where I was supposed to meet them. But I did meet one of the Speculators there. I should go more often to the meetings, but they run at the same time as other stuff I’m involved in so I rarely get the chance. Looks like my relationship with the group will continue to be largely by email rather than in person. Such is life.

The birth of the British novel

February 8, 2011 4 comments

Just thought I’d do a quick post to recommend something that was on TV last night – Birth of the British Novel, a discussion of some of the earliest novels from the 1700s, when some genres and indeed the idea of the novel itself came to be established. It looks at Daniel Defoe, Jonathan Swift, Henry Fielding, Laurence Sterne, Fanny Burney and William Godwin – also at Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto and the birth of Gothic fiction, and Samuel Richardson, author of Pamela and Clarissa – two epistolatory novels that took up an inordinate amount of time in my early studies of the sociology of literature and that I frankly never warmed to, though many years on I can appreciate their importance even though I still find them ridiculously annoying to read.

Key point (taken from the programme blurb): ‘the novel was more than mere entertainment, it was also a subversive hand grenade that would change British society for the better.’ It may be difficult to think of Pamela and Clarissa as ‘subversive hand grenades’ but even they articulated an awareness of the place of women in what was then a highly patriarchal society, and perhaps suggested to their mainly female readers views and values other than those Richardson himself might have wanted to propose.

Even if you have a reasonable knowledge of the history of English literature you may find something in this programme you didn’t previously know, or see a connection you hadn’t previously made. I did.

Fronted by Henry Hitchings, author of The Secret Life of Words: How English Became English (2008) and the just-published The Language Wars: A History of Proper English. It’s entertaining to see a programme about novels done by someone who looks like an ex-boxer, as though the analysis of the history of English involves pugilism. And maybe it does…

If you’ve missed it, it’s on the BBC iPlayer until next Monday. And it even comes with a warning: ‘Contains Adult Themes’. If you can’t get the iPlayer, I guess it’s possible that  in time that it might turn up on the BBC’s Youtube channel.

Shortfuse last night (and a rant)

May 19, 2010 Leave a comment

We got there late, unfortunately, but it turned out to be something of a miracle we got there at all.

Intriguing collection of stuff – a range of semi-autobiography, well-crafted tales and wonderfully evocative language. Also, unusually, some live music from The Orange and then from the First Monday Ukulele Club, which was as unlikely as it sounds – a stage filled with people playing rock’n’roll on ukeleles… a sight to behold and extraordinary (in a good way) to hear.

Shortfuse is next on 18 June, I believe (their website should soon have updated information – shortfusefiction.com). The theme for that night will be ‘taboo’. Then it’ll be taking a long break for the summer, so it’ll be a case of ‘get there or miss out for the next 4 months or so’.

Discussions afterwards were interesting and left me musing on how hard it is to organise any kind of arts event – and how much harder it’s likely to become in future in the current financial climate. So this is the ‘rant’ part of this post.

I don’t just mean things like literary readings, but art exhibitions, dance performance, theatre… we’re already at a stage where a huge amount of cultural activity is done for free, or for pennies, because the people who do it have some longer-range vision or dedication and are essentially prepared to put time and effort into making it happen.

This is so even in ‘popular’ culture – I’ve been to places like goth/industrial music events where the DJs organise the event, put in huge amounts of time flyering and advertising on social websites, etc., all for a split of the door takings after they’ve paid venue costs. They do it because they’re dedicated, which they have to be to put in the number of hours it takes in background work to make something happen and walk away at the end with less money than it will cost to get a taxi home.

And that’s just for an event with DJs. If you have a PA system, props, admin costs, or any of the myriad of other things it takes to get some kind of performance together, anything that might be called ‘alternative arts’ is going to struggle. Sure, it always has. Think for example of the number of artists whose paintings now sell for small fortunes, but who never saw a penny from their work in their own lifetimes (and whose work wasn’t even thought to have artistic merit in their own lifetimes!). And there are plenty of writers with experiences on similar lines…

But it does leave me wondering if there’s any financial model (other than working off arts grants) that would help keep ‘marginal’ events alive, because so much of what they do can’t be valued economically. I’m just thinking here of the many painters, dancers, actors, and writers whose work starts off in the margins of culture and develops there until the mainstream is ready for it…

Well, ok economists will usually say everything has an economic value; what I’m arguing here is that the value of fringe cultural events doesn’t lie in the present but the future, and usually exceeds the extent to which it can be monetised in the present. Does that make sense?

If anyone wants to start a debate or discussion about this, I’m up for it.

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