a kind of intimacy (or how jenn ashworth tried to make me late for work. twice.)

On Tuesday, I went over to the Deaf Institute for March’s No Point reading night, which was also the launch for Jenn Ashworth’s novel, A Kind of Intimacy. I was flagging slightly after a long and weary day, and had to go home to my bed before the end, but I did get to hear Jenn’s excellent reading, and even more importantly, to buy a copy of the book which Jenn signed with her special fountain pen in her special rose-scented book-signing ink.

I started reading A Kind of Intimacy on the bus home, and continued reading it on Wednesday morning when I woke up. An hour later, I realised it was half past eight, I was still in bed, and I was now in serious danger of being very late to work. I went to the theatre on Wednesday (Macbeth at The Royal Exchange, well worth going to see if you get the chance) but when I got home, I found myself reading again. And Thursday morning was pretty much an exact repeat of Wednesday, except this time I did manage to avoid the temptation to read in bed, but ended up picking up the book half way through putting my make-up on, and thus was late leaving the house for the second day in a row - also with slightly weird mascara.

Now, I’ll admit I am very easily distracted when it comes to books - but even for me, that's impressive stuff. The thing is that A Kind of Intimacy is just very, very difficult to put down. Stevie Davies, writing in today’s Guardian, describes it as “compulsively readable” and I would certainly concur with that.

A Kind of Intimacy is the story of overweight Annie - lonely but determinedly optimistic - who moves to a new home, seeking to leave her troubled past behind her and build a new life for herself. In an attempt to ingratiate herself with the local community, she arms herself with a selection of hilariously-titled self-help manuals and romance novels borrowed from the local library in order to gain new social "skills" that she diligently misapplies to every social situation she finds herself in - from a truly horrific house warming party to cringe-inducing dinners with the neighbours. At first it’s difficult not to feel pity for Annie's clumsy and ill-fated attempts to build relationships with those around her, but increasingly it becomes clear that in gaining our sympathy, Annie has been duping us just as adeptly as she dupes and deludes herself. Far from the wholesome, decorous image she seeks to project, she reveals herself to be scheming, malicious and disturbed: instead of befriending her neighbours she spies on them, works up a series of imagined grudges and then enacts a series of bizarre and increasingly grisly acts of revenge.

As events unfold, it soon becomes clear that Annie is an out and out monster with gruesome secrets to hide; yet she remains far from a cartoon stereotype. Her chatty, mundane, cliche-ridden narrative voice is weirdly compelling: every now and then, you almost can't help sniggering along with one of her malicious observations, thinking that perhaps yes, next-door neighbour Lucy really is a little bit smug and annoying. Of course, as Annie's behaviour spirals out of control, she becomes far from sympathetic, but she is a tragic as well as a monstrous and grotesque figure, both in her fantasy of achieving "a certain kind of intimacy" with kindly neighbour Neil, and through the history which is gradually revealed to us - a murky past characterised by violence, secrets, self-delusions and bizarrely comic sexual mishaps, from which ultimately, she cannot escape.

As the narrative moves resolutely towards its gruesome climax, the comedy becomes blacker, yet somehow Ashworth’s writing always feels surprisingly light and sprightly. Jenny Diski has described the book as “an intense and intriguing novel that never quite lets the reader get comfortable” and on the whole I’d agree with that, but what really strikes me is the bouncy good humour of this book. With its hints to violence, sexual abuse and infanticide, the novel could risk being just too dark and too disturbed, but in fact, reading it is an enormously enjoyable experience - both in its outrageous comedy moments, and as a result of the very evident pleasure that Ashworth takes in unravelling her monstrous creation in all her surreal glory before our eyes.

Altogether, A Kind of Intimacy is a beguiling debut, skilfully mixing up the recognisably ordinary, mundane aspects of suburban life with the dark, abnormal and downright bizarre. What is more, unlike so many first novelists, Ashworth manages to avoid pretension, self-conscious literary language or purple prose: I love her carefully-poised descriptions and observations. Max Dunbar provides a perfect summing up of the novel, describing it as “tightly plotted, exquisitely paced, every word on trial for its life... a story of provincial unhappiness, bad company in small rooms, the awful consequences of not being loved.”

I can’t wait to read whatever Jenn has got up her sleeve next. Only this time, I think I’d really better save reading it for the weekend.

(Just in case you're interested, in spite of Jenn's best efforts, by some minor miracle, I wasn't actually late to work on either Wednesday or Thursday, but managed to squeak in the door with about a minute to spare. A point to ponder: perhaps the Magic Bus truly does have magical powers after all?)

a visit from fiona robyn

Throughout March, writer Fiona Robyn has been travelling from blog to blog to celebrate the publication of her first novel, The Letters, in her very own blog tour.

The Letters
is the story of Violet Ackerman, who has "drifted through a career, four children and a divorce without ever knowing who she is or what she wants. After moving to the coast, she starts receiving a series of mysterious letters sent from a mother and baby home in 1959, written by a pregnant twenty-year-old Elizabeth to her best friend. Who is sending Violet these letters, and why?"

It also features a cat called Blue, an unexpected twist in the tale, and (according to Aliya at Veggie Box at least) an impressive number of references to vegetables. What's more it has already won praise from everyone from Scott Pack at Me and My Big Mouth who described it as 'an accomplished and promising début novel' to Vulpes Libres who admired Fiona's 'wonderfully descriptive writing' to Caroline Smailes who described how she 'devoured [The Letters] within a couple of days'.

Fiona has already visited 16 other blogs as part of the tour (you can read the full list here, including where she is going next). As it's now Day 22 I reckon she's probably getting a little weary, so I suggested she put her feet up and then asked her a few questions:

Firstly... it's Day 22 of your blog tour, and you've already visited 16 other blogs. Are you getting at all tired of answering questions about yourself and The Letters yet?

You'd think I would be, but nobody is asking the same questions! It's really interesting how different people have approached the book in different ways, and are interested in different things...

Do you have a favourite question you've been asked on the tour so far?

'Tell us what you grow in your veggie patch' by Aliya at the Veggie Box and Lane asked me lots of good questions about cats. Caroline also asked me some good questions, one involving Mr. Men. You can see that I like to take things very seriously.....

You've already been asked a lot of questions about The Letters: the idea for the novel, the characters, and how it came to be written. To make a change I thought I'd ask you a few questions about the three blogs you write as well as your novels: a small stone; a handful of stones and your personal blog, planting words. How do your blogs fit in as part of your overall writing practice?

I try not to let them interfere with my novel-writing - if I'm writing, then I'll always do that before I do anything else (including checking Facebook). a small stone usually only takes a few minutes a day, and a handful of stones maybe takes half an hour a couple of times a week. I only write Planting Words when I feel the urge, and again this can take a few minutes or up to half an hour. I do sometimes wonder if three is a bit excessive, but it's been ok so far!

What first got you started writing blogs?

I started writing a blog called Creating Living when I was working as a coach, as a way of promoting my services. It was a little bit like Planting Words, and resulted in my book A Year of Questions: How to slow down and fall in love with life. a small stone came next.

What gave you the idea for your blog project a small stone?

The phrase literally arose in my mind one day when I was driving back from the sea. I was thinking about starting another blog for my poetry at the time, but I didn't even know what it meant, and it felt a bit boring as a blog title. It was persistant, and then I happened upon the idea of picking a small stone up and carrying it home from a long walk - something little that you could save from every day.

Which other blogs do you read regularly?

I've always been a big fan of whisky river and have recently found lassie and timmy, both of which have a strong zen flavour. Sarah is always finding good stuff.

I recently wrote a post about how much writers enjoy the actual process of writing, which provoked a bit of discussion. Is the process of writing itself something you find pleasurable?

I find parts of it pleasurable - and parts of it horrid. It's hard to sit down and get started, especially with first drafts. I'm sometimes struck by terrible doubts. But I love reading back a sentence and thinking 'ah, that's a good sentence', or finding something new out about my character. Intensely satisfying. Really, nobody is holding a gun to my head - I'm a writer because it's supremely important to me - and things that are important aren't necessarily fun all the time.

What inspires you? Where do you go to find inspiration when you need it?

Being outside in my garden is good for me - whatever the weather - but I do prefer sunshine! I've been lucky enough to wait for inspiration to find me so far, rather than going out and looking.

Tell us a little bit about what you've got coming up next...

The Blue Handbag is out in paperback in August, and then Thaw in February next year, both with Snowbooks. I'm currently working on a novel about a young boy that goes to stay with his aunt in Amsterdam - I'm off for a research trip this summer. What a life, eh?

And finally (just because I had to ask) do you own any red shoes?

I'm afraid I'm not much of a shoe person - black trainers is pretty much it... I do think they look nice on other people though - I'm sure yours are lovely!

Perhaps you're just more of a handbag person, since your next book is called The Blue Handbag? Anyway, thanks very much, Fiona (for visiting and for complimenting me on my shoes!) and enjoy the rest of the tour!

stepping outside the comfort zone

The last three posts make up the beginning of a piece of writing I've been toying with for quite a long time. It's actually the start of a novel I wrote about four or five years ago. Every now and again, I get the whole thing out again, have a look and wonder whether I ought to have a go at rewriting it, or whether I should simply shelve it and move on to something new. I'm still not sure about that, but I thought it would be good to post it here in the interests of take a step outside the comfort zone.

In the past, I know I've been fairly useless at getting outside my comfort zone - in terms of writing, at least. I'm much more inclined to settle down in it, put my feet up, maybe make a nice cup of tea. I'm not very good at putting my work "out there": in spite of good intentions I've even chickened out about posting any fiction here up until now. Maybe it's partly because I've never studied creative writing, or even attended a class, so I haven't entirely got my head around the idea of standing up and acknowledging ownership of my work. Maybe it's also because I've spent so long studying literature which can be a bit of a dangerous thing to do if you want to write yourself.

I'm sure I'm not the only one who feels like this a lot of the time: even the best of us get The Fear when it comes to putting our work out there in the world. Evidently even Derrida suffered from anxieties about his writing: "moments of fear" when he came over all neurotic in the middle of the night and was tempted to burn all his papers.

Having said that though, I do think it's important to get used to the idea of leaving the comfort zone. Writing this blog has been a good step in the right direction: it's helped me to get back into the habit of writing regularly, but more importantly, to get used to sharing what I write with others and to cope with the scary stuff (see here and here). It's also taught me that not everything I write has to be carefully worked out and immaculately put together. In fact, I've found that sometimes the best things come out of just having a go and not worrying too much. It also makes it a lot more fun, which has to be the point in the end really, doesn't it?

Anyway posting this has been a good start. Now I just have to keep going and get used to the idea of stepping outside my comfort zone. Or as Derrida himself puts it, I just need to "do what must be done."

(The excellent picture above is by Keri Smith from her blog wish jar)

This Might Be Something, Part 3

There is a certain taste to it, a weight. It has its own roundness, depth and texture. There is the sweet-sharp tang of a raspberry. The lightness of a balloon drifting across a cloudless sky. A cool blue note, like a love-song played at twilight. A sleekness, a flicker, a whisper, and it’s gone.

Memories move and shift like waves on the shore. I dabble my toes and the story flutters, showing me glimpses, moments, then evading me again. There are no cold hard facts after all, but only speculation. Nancy again: “Stop. That’s not how it happened. I didn’t say that. Why do you always have to do this? You’re just making stuff up.”

And it’s true: there is so much I have forgotten, and so much more that might never have happened at all. I was always making up stories, telling and retelling things that had happened, to make them more interesting, to make them mine. “You tell lies,” this girl said to me once, at school. But Alix just looked at her with her cat-green eyes and said coolly “You have no imagination.”

Of course, I didn’t know then about the pitfalls. Deception taking shape on the tip of my tongue, its rich snake coils. Now, they tell me it is best after all to stick to what’s real. The only problem is I can’t seem to separate what was from what might have been anymore.

What’s real is now. Myself here. High summer again and the streets are hot and dry, a desert seemingly without end. The blankness of time to be filled with nothing but the sounds in the distance: a siren, a thumping bassline. This small room, these paper walls, this house. Looking out of my window. There could be anything out there. There could be something.

Something. A story perhaps? Out there are our stories, haunting the empty streets like ghosts. On days like these I feel restless, buoyant, as if I could just take off and fly into a story. I could tap the heels of my old red sandals together, one-two-three, and I would lift up from my window on invisible wings. I’d fly beyond the city limits, back over the fields and the woods, and touch down by the house on the hill, back in another story. There’s no place like home. Back again, through the gate, down the path, into the garden. Stop. Play. Play it again. Down the rabbit hole, into the eternity of a moment that has long since passed me by.

This Might Be Something, Part 2

Of course, it’s the house I think of now more than almost anything else. I imagine it as it was back in the days when we first knew it. I build it up again, brick by brick. My dark chateau, my sleeping beauty castle, half-suffocated by weeds and fingers of ivy. The long lawns tangled, and the garden heavy with dying flowers and overripe fruit rotting in the grass.

Inside the dusty windows, there could be music playing: scratchy old jazz records, a tinkling piano melody. The secret sound of footsteps, one-two-three, of a heavy satin skirt dragged across the bare floorboards. There is the smell of cigarette smoke, a fur stole tossed over a chair, and there are suitcases waiting in the hallway. They are labelled with the names of exotic destinations: Constantinople, Zanzibar, Timbuktu. It is as if a party has just ended, with empty glasses and full ashtrays and a sudden loneliness, a sharp edge of regret.

The house must have been there forever. It was ageless: it could never have been built from ordinary brick and plaster. It was not a house at all but something else altogether: the ruins of a medieval castle, the site of sacred standing stones. It was a dream-place: it had sprung fully-formed on the hillside, complete with its marble bathrooms, its fountain, its chandeliers, its drowsy garden of old roses and ancient trees.

The garden was green and gold. It was the colour of leaves shot through with sunlight, of Isobel’s green skirt, of light skipping across the water, of surfacing as the spray flew upwards and turned to glitter. It could never be forgotten. I know it's supposed to be “all about the future” now: I’m supposed to be moving forward, but somehow I find myself coming back again, through the gate, down the path, back into the garden, pacing out the story.

Maybe I do think about it too much. Behind my own words, there’s tinkling laughter, mocking voices. They always did say I was too serious, too ponderous, too intense. “Don’t take everything so seriously,” Nancy used to say, exasperated with me yet again. “You’re being weird,” Alix said, her voice marshmallow-light, milkshake-pink. But this is my story now, so I can be serious if I want to be. I can tell it however I want.

Once upon a time it seemed easy to move forward. We couldn’t wait. We were following a line marked on a map in red ink, fast-track to the future, on the express route to tomorrow, no stops, no waiting. We skipped blithely along towards the horizon, arm-in-arm. But now I always seem to be walking in circles that spread outwards just as a pebble falls into water. A carousel, a circle of candles to be jumped for some reason I’ve forgotten. It’s as if I’m lost on the Circle Line, going on and on, down and down, rattling through the long dark tunnels with a tinny silver sound reverberating in my ears, always missing my way and ending up strung out at the end of a line I never wanted to take. I miss the exits, and now the future is just a dim light in the distance. I can no longer see it clearly: it’s just a blur, an imaginary thing. Maybe I am slumbering somewhere in an enchanted poppy field, though I still wear my red sandals for luck.

As to the past, that is done with now, shut up in books with hard covers, and arranged neatly on shelves in sections and sequences: maybe some old yearbook in the school library, doodles on the yellowed paper. It’s just history, like the lessons where we learned the dates of things: births and deaths, wars and peace treaties, controversies, grand betrayals. I wrote them down in my exercise book but somehow I never could remember them. They were erased by the slow, flickering tick of the schoolroom clock, and Alix’s hair gleaming in a shaft of sun. Of course, she wasn’t writing down dates: she was staring out of the window, or drawing swirly patterns in her exercise book: hearts and flowers, moons and stars, a kaleidoscope of colour like a bad acid trip and her name, ALIX, written in giant pink and purple letters, filling a whole page. She said history was boring. She rolled her eyes and said, “Who cares?” She was always more interested in the here and now, but she came top in all the history exams just the same. It was one of her paradoxes.

Of course, that was back when her own future was tangible, bright and light, a door opening, held out to her in the palm of an outstretched hand. “She’ll go far,” people said, and the headmistress wrote on her end-of-year report that she was a young lady with a bright future. She always seemed destined for driving down long, empty highways, glamorous in a gleaming white convertible, with the radio turned up and her blonde hair flying free beneath a wide blue sky. Of course, back then I would have seen myself in the passenger seat, but now I’ve drifted too far from the days of blue-sky dreams of open roads. I’m here now, trapped in this context: these four walls, this city, the yellow light of the afternoon. In the next room, the radio buzzes like an angry fly.

“So, what about the future?” people ask me: the personal tutors, the uncles who can’t think of anything else to say. “What’s next?” I can’t answer them. I shrug and say something non-committal; I have trouble imagining a future, trouble thinking about it. Perhaps that’s because I don’t want to think about it, not really. In the end, I’d rather think about the past.

This Might be Something Part 1

In the beginning, there was only green. Green and green and nothing more: the green haze of meadows; long leaf-green summer days; the glass green of a pool. In spring the trees were electric. The hedgerows flashed past me behind glass, bending away into nothing. There was only the endless green of the garden, blurring before me as far as the eye could see.

But I don’t want it to begin this way. The beginning ought to be so much more spectacular. This is our Big Opening, after all, so surely there should be fireworks, a band striking up, velvet curtains swishing open with a flourish? I want the shimmering of strings as the opening titles roll and we descend from above in a pool of light, a shower of glitter and confetti. The wave of a magic wand, the silver clash of cymbals, a puff of smoke, a cosmic explosion. The heavens and earth rising out of chaos as we slide out of the void and burst into being in tiaras, feather boas and sequinned shoes. The wave of our hands - hello there! we’ve made it! - and trumpets sounding out a triumphant ta da!

But perhaps there were no fireworks. Perhaps instead we came to life quietly, awaking first in the garden. Say it all happened slowly, amongst the roses that bled fat petals into our empty hands, with mossy grass between our toes. Or maybe it began the bare room, beneath the cold ticking of the clock on the wall, far from the green of the garden. Some sleight of hand and here we are: perhaps after all the end is where we start from.

Back to the start. Stop. Rewind. In the beginning there was green and only green. I’m going back through the gate, down the path, back to the beginning. I’m telling you how it really happened: with distant voices, and laughter. High summer again and the garden callow, viridescent. The garden is green and green and nothing more and I am lost again the long grass, where the lawn slopes away towards the still lake shore.

lovely lula

I think I have a new favourite magazine - the beautiful Lula. Just look at some of these glorious page spreads from the latest issue (no. 8) which I have been happily browsing this afternoon:

Whilst I can see that its style may be a bit girly and whimsical for some tastes, I have to say that for me it is an utter treat to read a fashion-led magazine which isn't entirely focussed on persuading readers they desperately need to buy this week's "must have" item and should slavishly follow the latest celebrity trends. Even better, Lula includes a minimal number of advertisements, which are placed only at the start and end of the magazine, meaning that as a reader, you aren't constantly bombarded - or worse, left wondering what is genuine editorial and what is marketing copy.

As the ever-wise Hadley Freeman points out, "contrary to popular belief, fashion magazines aren't catalogues" and the great thing about Lula is it really doesn't feel like one. Rather than being primarily about shopping, Lula is really all about inspirations, ideas and aesthetics. OK so I'll admit there's a "sleb" or two in there but at least they're not the usual suspects - this is, after all, a magazine that eschews the apparently inevitable choice of Victoria Beckham as fashion icon du jour in favour of such alternative (and far more interesting) choices as Louise Bourgeois, Gertrude Stein, Diana Vreeland and Peggy Guggenheim amongst others. And there are some thoughtful, interesting articles as well as beautiful fashion shoots - because guess what? The two aren't mutually exclusive! This issue, for example, brings together a feature on Edie Beale, a life-size dolls house installation by artist Heather Benning, short fictions by Rupert Friend and Louise Cork, and an interview with the incomporable Luella, as well as a whole treasure trove of lovely images to enjoy.

The only thing I would say is that the typography can get a bit annoying: the distinctive Lula font designed by Becky Smith and Pedro Cid Proenca looks cute for titles but becomes a bit unreadable when used for larger blocks of body text. But that aside - what better way than to spend a lazy Saturday reading Lula, drinking tea and eating ginger biscuits?

I'm now feeling inspired by... boater hats; grossgrain ribbons; birds and butterflies; tea parties; hats with veils; paper cut-outs; 1940s hair; anti-minimalism; giant Alice in Wonderland bows; doodles; latter-day Victoriana; cup cakes and cocktails; plaits; ephemera; Dalmatians; seamed stockings; misty old photographs; layering; eye-popping rainbow brights; and wearing socks with peep-toe shoes. Lovely!

can independent publishers beat the recession?

I was interested to read Hirsh Sawnhey's piece on The Guardian blog this week, How Independents will save literature from the recession. Writing from New York, Sawney reports that the city's commercial publishing scene is already beginning to feel the effects of the "credit crunch" ("sales are flagging... some predict 2009 will be the worst year the industry has seen in decades") and increasingly look likely to be shifting resources away from riskier, innovative titles from new writers towards "safe investments" like the ghost-written celebrity novels and autobiographies that are already so ubiquitous on the shelves of high-street bookshops.

The extent to which the same will be true here in the UK is currently hard to say. We can only hope there won't be quite such a dramatic effect: according to this post on Litfest's blog, Tim Waterstone has recently been speaking about how, historically at least, UK book sales actually increase in times of recession. That does make some sense to me: after all, a £7.99 paperback looks like a pretty good investment compared to a couple of pints, especially if you're like me and you can easily read a single book three, four five (ten...twenty...two hundred) times. And if you're in the mood for a treat, a book feels like a relatively reasonable and sensible impulse-buy compared with splurging on, for example, a pair of frivolous shoes (not that I would be at all inclined to do that, of course... hmmm... anyway...) So perhaps the credit crunch will see us all spending more evenings curled up with a good book and a cup of cocoa? It certainly looks likely to herald happy days for local libraries, second hand bookshops and the like.

However, even if the picture for the big commercial publishers does look a little bleak, it may be that literary culture will not be significantly affected. Sawnhey suggests that it will in fact be safeguarded "through the dark economic days ahead” by a core of small independent publishers, who are uniquely placed to weather the financial crisis, and I think he might just be right. After all, there's no doubt that smaller, more flexible independents are all ready well used to continually innovating and adapting their businesses, working with narrow profit margins, delivering a lot from only limited resources, and coping without expensive businesses lunches, glossy marketing staff and hefty PR budgets. And all this whilst building strong personal relationships with their writers, prioritising artistic experimentation and innovation and playing an important role as 'talent scouts' identifying and developing the most exciting new writers.

Given all this, perhaps Sawhney is right to suggest that the current climate will provide an opportunity for small independents to thrive in comparison to their market-driven corporate cousins. Let's hope so - because as Sawnhey himself rightly points out, "good things come in small, independently-owned packages!"

east london weekend

10 fun things to do:
  1. Wander through Columbia Road Flower Market on a Sunday morning for people-watching and a rainbow of spring flowers - daffodils, crocuses, tulips and hyancinths. Also good should you wish to pretend you live in a Richard Curtis film, not that you would really.

  2. Admire the Rob Ryan paper cuts in the Ryantown shop. This one is my favourite (so true).

  3. Go to a late, late night movie at the Barbican as part of their Do Something Different Weekend for the East Festival. However, speaking from experience I wouldn’t really recommend late-night Watchmen to those with a sensitive disposition and/or stomach.

  4. Walk down Brick Lane, stopping off for bagels and street art en route.

  5. Go window shopping at the ever-gorgeous Tatty Devine. 

  6. Admire the beautiful vintage-style bicycles and accessories at Bobbin Bikes. (I went a step further and took this beauty for a test drive.)

  7. Eat Vietnamese.

  8. Take a meander through Camden Passage in Islington for vintage clothes, antiques, bric-a-brac and general flea-markety ambiance.

  9. Contemplate the sparkly cupcakes at Treacle Bakery (though actually I reckon these ones are much, much better)

  10. Play a fun game of ‘I-Spy in Shoreditch and Hoxton’ scoring points for ‘Black Framed Glasses,’ ‘Ostentatious High-Top Trainers,’ ‘Trilby,’ ‘Asymmetric Fringe,’ ‘Wet-Look Leggings,’ Extreme Big Hair Situation,’ ‘Pet as Accessory,’ ‘Giant Sunglasses, Even Though it’s Not That Sunny’ and ‘Single Speed Bicycle’. Double points for any three or more in combination. (This one is the most fun.)

news and good stuff round-up

It has been a very busy week or two. It's been one of those times when I suspect I might be a bit mad even attempting to have a full-time job at the same time as studying for an MA. On the other hand, though, it's also been a really varied and interesting couple of weeks, so I can't really complain too much.

Anyway, I will shortly be heading down to That London for a few days, but first, here are a few things I wanted to post - a quick round-up of news:

Apartment is closing its doors... The unique exhibition space in a council tower block flat, co-curated by Hilary Jack and Paul Harfleet will close its programme with a show by Giorgio Sadotti entitled ‘PAUL, PAUL IS THE ART’. The show runs until 2nd April and viewing is by appointment - check it out while you have the chance!

Throughout March, look out for the project If you read this, I’ll give it to you by artist Katya Sander throughout the public spaces of Manchester and Salford. Thousands of pin-badges bearing the statement “If you read this, I’ll give it to you (but then you must wear it too)” are moving through the cities, travelling from person to person. Badges will be available at sites within the city, and can be taken from anyone you see wearing them. The project is part of Whose Cosmopolitanism? a series of public events to launch the Research Institute for Cosmopolitan Cultures (RICC) at the University of Manchester which has also included events with visiting speakers such as David Harvey and Jacqueline Rose.

The Other Xeno-epistemic is an interesting event coming up at A Foundation on Friday 20 March. The event is part of TAXED, A Foundation’s series of events designed by locally-based artists which explore the power of imitation, and “art’s capacity to import other people’s ideas, to shamelessly replicate successful existing models, to beggar belief with its flagrant piracy!” This event has been literally “taxed” from a workshop by Sarat Maharaj at Test Site, Rooseum, Malmö in 2002, and involves a “sideways” reading of a chapter from Deleuze & Guttari’s A Thousand Plateaus. Participants are each assigned a footnote to research in advance, and will come together to discuss their findings and ideas, resulting in what Maharaj describes as “the kind of crazy-paving reading that makes [artists] ‘dodgy’ from the ‘doctoral’ point of view”. You can read more here, including details of how you can participate and view the results!

Nominations for this year’s Best of Manchester Awards are now open. There are categories for art, music and fashion (though sadly not for writing) so get nominating all your talented friends and neighbours!

And coming soon... Artyarn will be artists in residence at Contact throughout April and May as part of the AIR programme. As well as workshops and yarn bombing, they plan to produce a new piece of work, the Knitting Orchestra - an experimental sound piece produced directly from the act of knitting.

Take a look at the new Preston Writing Network which aims to "put Preston's diverse and vibrant literary culture on the map," promoting and developing new writing in Preston through on-line activity and a programme of workshops, live literature and more. The network is the writing strand of They Eat Culture, a new arts development company run from the Continental Arts Space in Broadgate, and there's more information about how to get involved or submit work to the blog here.

Please find ZigZag! is a storytelling project launched by Litfest and writer David Gaffney. If you should happen to be in Lancaster, look out for a series of mysterious lost cat posters appearing around the city centre. These stories form the first part of a three-part story of unrequited love set in and around the Storey Institute. You can read more online by checking out both characters blogs - Fern and Charlie - though really, half the fun of this story is how it unravels in real time in the public spaces of Lancaster in a distinctly non-digital format.

Do check out Bewilderbliss, a new literary magazine dedicated to “new words from new writers” which showcases the poetry and prose of Manchester University and MMU postgraduate creative writing students. You can buy the brand new first issue (the theme is ‘The Guilty') from the Cornerhouse foyer bookshop where I hear you can also get hold of Belle Vue, another new zine I’m hearing good things about from reliable sources (see here and here). I'm loving all this DIY publishing action going on at the moment!

Kate from The Manchizzle is organising a get-together for Manchester Bloggers at Centro on Tuesday (10 March). I plan to be there, and will be wearing my name-tag with pride!

On a similar blog-related note... I am astonished by the wealth of great new Manchester blogs I keep coming across at the moment - it feels like I discover one practically every day. If you want a good read, may I point you in the direction of Equine Obesity, Mithering Times and Blunt Fringe just for starters? And whatever you do, don't miss Emily Powell’s My Shitty Twenties which is absolutely brilliant.

...I was reading somewhere recently that you should never write a blog post longer than a paragraph or two because people get bored and don't bother reading it. That's a rule I absolutely fail to observe on this blog, and I have certainly broken it very conclusively today. If you're still with me, well done you. And you'll probably be relieved to hear that I've now finished.

writing for pleasure

The second edition of the excellent Manchester Review includes an interview by MJ Hyland with Irish novelist Colm Toíbín in which he somewhat controversially claims there is “no pleasure” to be found in the process of writing:
Oh, there’s no pleasure. Except that I don’t have to work for anyone who bullies me. I write with a sort of grim determination to deal with things that are hidden and difficult and this means, I think, that pleasure is out of the question. I would associate this with narcissism anyway and I would disapprove of it.

Toíbín’s response, which was picked up by the Guardian on Monday, fascinates me precisely because personally, I couldn’t feel more different. I don’t think there’s any way I would ever write anything if I didn’t love the process of writing. Narcissistic or not, like Will Self - one of nine writers surveyed by the Guardian in response to Toíbín - I find the whole experience of writing enormously enjoyable: “the mechanics of writing, the dull timpani of the typewriter keys, the making of notes - many notes - and most seductive of all: the buying of stationery.” Maybe it’s because I don't do it for a living - or maybe it’s because of the kind of writing I do - but unlike Amit Chaudri, who believes “writing novels is no fun; nor is, generally speaking, reading novels” - for me writing (and reading for that matter, novels more than anything else) has always been a source of uncomplicated pleasure.

In fact, just thinking about this makes me sorry that I seem to do so little writing of fiction these days - I struggle to find either the time or the imaginative space to give to it. But I do miss writing more regularly and consistently, for the sheer experience far more than any actual ‘outcomes’. What I miss is the utterly self-indulgent pleasure of what A.L. Kennedy describes as “making something out of nothing, overturning the laws of time and space, building something for strangers just because you think they might like it, and hours of absence from self.”

Of course, I don’t pretend that writing - and especially writing fiction - isn’t hugely difficult. In fact, it's often a fraught process, with all the pitfalls that Hari Kunzu pinpoints “self-disgust, boredom, disorientation and a lingering sense of inadequacy, occasionally alternating with episodes of hysterical self-congratulation as you fleetingly believe you've nailed that particular sentence and are surely destined to join the ranks of the immortals, only to be confronted the next morning with an appalling farrago of clichés that no sane human could read without vomiting.” But it’s exactly that sense of a challenge, of problems to be overcome, of seemingly insurmountable obstacles in your path that makes writing fulfilling - and thus (or perhaps I’m just a masochist!) also ultimately enjoyable.

Consequently, I was surprised how many of the novelists in the Guardian’s survey appeared to agree with Toíbín, some even claiming they were simply in it for the cold, hard cash - though amongst the wealth of negative voices, Self and Julie Myerson (“Writing gives me enormous pleasure...it’s a joyous thing”) provided welcome relief. 

However, I have to say that I am tempted to take all of their responses with a pinch of salt - for as Joyce Carol Oates herself rather perspicaciously reminds us, D.H. Lawrence tells us to trust the tale and not the teller. Ultimately one can’t help suspecting that these writers are simply entering into a process of self-mythologising, consciously or unconsciously believing they should uphold the stereotype of the “tortured artist.” Of course everyone’s different, and my experience isn't necessarily true for everyone, but I do wonder if there’s just a tiny little bit of “protesting too much” going on here.

I'd be intrigued to know what others out there make of the question of "writing for pleasure". For those writers out there, is the process of writing something you enjoy, or is it just too fraught to be truly pleasurable? And if so - for those of us unable to command fees for our work on the Toíbín scale at least - what do you think it is that motivates us to do it at all?

monday inspirations: title sequences

I honestly think that the title sequence is probably my favourite part of a lot of films. There's something about that moment just when the titles begin, the music starts and the audience stop shuffling and whispering and chomping down popcorn and suddenly go quiet, as if by the wave of an invisible magic wand.

If I was a film-maker, I think I would especially love making those title sequences. Maybe I'd even forget about making the films themselves, and just concentrate on making really beautiful title sequences - hints to imaginary stories that are never told. For me, what makes the titles so interesting is that they are a question mark - they set the tone for what is to come, atmospherically, stylistically - but at the same time, they can't give too much away. But simultaneously, as a framing device, they demonstrate that the story is exactly that - just a story, no more, no less.

I was pleased to discover Art of the Title recently, via the lovely myturtleneck blog. Art of the Title is a site entirely dedicated to title sequences - taking its inspiration from that moment "when your heart sank just a little when you realized the Pink Panther movie wasn’t a cartoon." The site has a great selection of images from both iconic and little-known title sequences, as well as video clips you can watch.

A few of my favourite images from the site are here (To Kill a Mockingbird; Napoleon Dynamite; Vertigo; Juno - click on an image to see them in more detail) but I'm sure there's lots more still to come - after all there are some fantastic examples that they haven't posted thus far. Who could resist, for example, the glorious title sequence to Amélie?

Mmmmm... dreaming of summer and raspberries - ideally one for each finger. March is finally here, and it feels like spring is on the way. Other good things from today: mocha; homemade currant cake; a rainbow of coloured pens; listening to the new Lily Allen album (which I know I'm not supposed to like, but I do anyway); excellent new woolly socks; a riot of snowdrops, crocuses and daffodils in the park; getting things crossed off the to do list; and an enormous bowl of spaghetti bolognese on its way for my dinner. How have your Mondays been?

(It has become obvious to me from writing these lists that most of the things that cheer me up are things to eat. But what can you do? Can't help it - just greedy. Now I'm off for another piece of that cake...)