2016 Wasn’t All Bad — If You Picture It Like This

On top of everything else that happened in 2016, it wasn’t a great year for my blog posts. I’ve managed to update the blog at least once a month for the past few years but since my post on the EU referendum at the end of June, I’ve only managed one more — an overdue review of Isabel Costello’s debut novel (albeit a long one).

Looking back, despite my best intentions, I’m still not exactly sure why I’ve not managed to keep up the previously modest level of posting activity. It’s probably prioritisation by default as I’m still writing and doing just as much interesting stuff in between. There’s also been various developments with the novel that I’m not really able to publicly blog about on here.

But one thing I’ve kept  doing, mainly because it’s nowhere near as time-consuming as blogging, is taking lots of photos.

So in the spirit of a picture telling a thousand words here’s a photographic run through 2016 with a bit of commentary along the way

Perhaps one reason for being distracted from blogging is that I’ve spent the past year working in Soho. For example this place is just around the corner…

Beer Porn @ Brewdog Soho
Beer Porn @ Brewdog Soho

…and even though it’s no longer the groovy Swinging Sixties, there are enough spontaneous ‘happenings’ around where I work for me to have grabbed the odd evocative photo, like this one…

Swinging Soho July 2016
Swinging Soho July 2016

I walk past this iconic place almost daily (it was interesting to see it featured in The Apprentice this year)…

Liberty at Night
Liberty at Night

…and along here often too (and at the moment it’s worth walking to the end of Carnaby Street to the pop up shop set up by the V&A Museum in association with their You Say You Want A Revolution Exhibition).

Carnaby Street
Carnaby Street

And there’s plenty of things to be distracted by nearby — like the amazing Christmas angels in Regent Street…

Regent Street Angel, Christmas 2016
Regent Street Angel, Christmas 2016

…or just weird London scenes like this.

Oxford Street, Summer 2016
Oxford Street, Summer 2016

Sometimes it’s been restorative to occasionally get away from it all and lie (albeit briefly) under a tree on a patch of grass in one of those rare summer lunchtimes.

The Best View of London on a Summer Lunchtime
The Best View of London on a Summer Lunchtime

I don’t say much here about the ‘day job’. Until late 2015 that was partly because I might have been taken out and shot if I said too much! OK. That was meant to be a gross exaggeration about working in a government ministry but the way Theresa May’s government is treating its civil servants then perhaps it’s not. Nevertheless, I have a hazy recollection that I may have signed the Official Secrets Act, not that I had access to much secret stuff but I did work almost literally at the heart of government. I walked daily through the doors of a large ministry — one that was often on the front page of the newspapers — and shared lifts with cabinet ministers.

While I wasn’t exactly Sir Humphrey, I was given invaluable direct experience of the the way government works.

And in terms of writing benefit, I gained insider knowledge of the criminal justice system, through working with the police, HM Courts and Tribunals system ( even doing some work for those seditionary “enemies of the people” in the UK Supreme Court).

It’s all fantastic material should any of my future novels head in the direction of crime or politics.

The organisation where I now spend most of my nine-to-five working hours couldn’t be more different.  I won’t go into specific detail but it’s a media-tech company (hence the Soho base) and uses a lot of clever technology to encourage people to pay money to look as absurd as the people below…

The Future of Entertainment?
The Future of Entertainment?

(Apparently the gun isn’t on sale yet.) Actually, the VR (Virtual Reality) experience is so immersive that these people won’t care how they look from the outside. I’ve tried VR and it’s convincing. I predict that the technology could be on the cusp of going mainstream. And don’t take my word for it — creating a VR game was another activity to be featured on this season’s Apprentice.

2016 produced some unexpected recognition for my writing — non-fiction this time.

I was elected (or admitted or whatever they do) to full membership of the British Guild of Beer Writers. It might seem surprising to some that this organisation even exists but it has a few hundred members, including household names and virtually every author of a book on beer or pubs or contributor on the subject to any broadsheet newspaper or TV or radio broadcast.

I was elected to full membership on the basis of published examples of my writing (which I don’t tend to talk about much on this blog) so it’s a huge honour to be in the company of so many illustrious and expert writers in that field.

Here’s the image that adorns my entry in the BGBW website directory.I’m hard at work at the beer tasting side of the job!

British Guild of Beer Writers Profile Picture
British Guild of Beer Writers Profile Picture

Being a member of the guild let me rub shoulders with the movers and shakers of the beer writing world at their awards ceremony, including the odd, hairy beer-loving celebrity.

Two Hairy People
Two Hairy People

But even though my blog posts may have slipped off the radar, I’m still writing a lot of fiction, even on holiday in France (see below).

Writing by the River Dronne in France
Writing by the River Dronne in France

I could get used to that lifestyle.

With various things happening with The Angel (which, as it’s a book, have been invariably slow moving, I’ve been hard at work on another novel. A heavily adapted version of the new novel’s opening even won a prize in the Winchester Writers’ Festival Writing Can Be Murder crime writing awards this year.

I’ve kept in touch with many writing friends, enjoying their successes, for example, with winning stories at Liars’ League and other writing -related developments that can’t be blogged about. I’ve also kept up my involvement with the RNA (see previous post) and received another great critique from their New Writers’ Scheme.

By providing a series of non-negotiable deadlines every few weeks, my membership of a writing group in London has proved invaluable. I’ve propped myself up and carried on writing well into the early hours on several occasions by working on a piece from the new novel. In the summer I carried on once or twice for the whole night — going to bed (briefly) once that sun had risen.

The standard of my fellow writing group members is generally excellent (one reason why I burn the midnight oil to try to make my submissions at least presentable) and we’re very fortunate that the group is run by someone who’s a professional writing tutor at City University and novelist.

The group’s feedback is excellent — both illuminating and honest — although not usually as brutally frank as the comment below.

Honest Feedback
Honest Feedback

I’ll save details of the current work-in-progress for another post. However,  the next few photos might give a clue about some some of the things I’ve been doing that could act as background research for the world of the novel.

Here’s a shot of a pile of books waiting to be read…

Books for Research 1
Books for Research 1

…and below is another example of my methodical approach to shelving books (Owl Song At Dawn is an excellent novel published this year by my old City University creative writing tutor, Emma Claire Sweeney, who organises Something Rhymed — see earlier post).

Research 2
Research 2

I’ve not been to any music concerts quite as jaw-dropping at Kate Bush’s Before the Dawn (whose recording of the shows was released a few weeks ago and allowed me to relive sitting right in front of the spectacle — and the sonic battering of Omar Hakim’s drums — listen to the extended version of King of the Mountain on the CD and you’ll know what I mean).

But during the year I’ve been to see a couple of other giants of music from the past thirty or so years. Most recently I saw Nile Rodgers, also at the Hammersmith Apollo, who performed an incredibly energetic set of hits by Chic, Sister Sledge, Diana Ross and others (several of which I heard a few days later being played from loudspeakers in Hyde Park’s Winter Wonderland) and he also played an obscure favourite of mine, Spacer, originally by French singer, Sheila B.

Nile Rodgers, Hammersmith Apollo, 23rd December 2016
Nile Rodgers, Hammersmith Apollo, 23rd December 2016

Seeing Bruce Springsteen live has been one of those bucket list items I’ve always wanted to experience so I took my opportunity when he played Wembley Stadium in June along with 80,000 or so others. Elsewhere in the stadium were Bruce fans and writing acquaintances (and tweeters) Louise Walters (whose second novel is published imminently) and Pete Domican.

Springsteen’s stamina and his rapport with a stadium audience are awesome. He played from around 6.30pm to just before 10pm, non-stop. The sound where I was sitting in the south stand was fairly ropy but I was more dumbfounded by the behaviour of the people in the (not very cheap) seats around me. As can be seen from one of the earlier photos, I like a pint of beer, but many of the mostly middle-aged, middle-class audience seemed to treat the Springsteen show like a visit to a very expensive pub — possibly reliving their rose-tinted memories of some student bar. They constantly shuttled to and from the very expensive Wembley bar and then, inevitably, to the toilets. While loudly declaring their devotion to ‘The Boss’, some dedicated fans danced with their backs to the stage and got so drunk they either had to leave before the end. Some wouldn’t have remembered it anyway.

Springsteen,Wembley, June 2016
Springsteen,Wembley, June 2016

I was a little dubious in advance about another music-related experience in the summer — visiting the Latitude Festival in Suffolk in July. I wanted to go mainly to see Grimes: who’s nothing to do with the music genre grime, but a hugely innovative and original musician from Canada whose music defies any easy description — being both catchy and experimental — and mainly, but not exclusively, electronic.

It was described as one critic as being simultaneously like everything you’ve ever heard reassembled and remixed in a way which sounds like nothing you’ve ever heard before. That strikes me as something interesting to aspire towards in writing.

What massively impresses me about Grimes is that, with the exception of a couple of guest vocalists, she writes, sings, plays all the instruments, produces and engineers her recordings. I never get bored listening to her most recent album, the brilliant Art Angels . ‘Don’t be boring’ is another great rule of thumb.

Her live performance was equally original and self-reliant, accompanied by only a couple of dancers and her recent collaborator, Hana, on guitar (on left in photo below).

Grimes at Latitude, July 2016
Grimes at Latitude, July 2016

While waiting for Grimes, I had an unexpected opportunity to see Slaves, a two man guitar and drum modern-punk group. While the group themselves would be unlikely to dispute that their music is the opposite of subtle, their performance was amazingly good humoured (with songs about commuting like Cheer Up London or fat-cat bankers ‘Rich man, 
I’m not your bitch man‘) and created such an engagement with the audience that the FT reviewer described it as ‘life affirming’.

Before Slaves I was blown away by an electrifying performance by Christine and the Queens. Along with Art Angels, I must have listened to Chaleur Humaine (Christine and the Queen’s debut album) more than any others this year. I went to one of their two shows at Brixton Academy in November for a repeat of the live experience.


I’ve always had a fondness for French electronic music (Air are another of my favourites). When Héloïse Letissier (Christine is her alter-ego) announced ‘Welcome to the French disco!’ at the start of Science Fiction, one of my favourite tracks, it seemed an appropriate riposte to the narrow-minded bigotry and xenophobia that has scarred other aspects of 2016 which far too many despicable politicians and newspaper editors  spent much the year cultivating.

Christine and the Queens are inclined to do unexpected cover versions live and I had the spine-tingling moment of serendipity when they covered Good Life by Inner City, at the time of its release in the late 1980’s a much-underrated track, but one of those tracks everyone seems to know — maybe because of the almost improvised vocal line that wanders where it’s least expected? But I guess Christine and the Queens may have picked it as an antidote to all 2016’s other shit?

At the other end of the socio-political spectrum to Slaves’ music, I’d been wary of Latitude’s reputation as the Waitrose of music festivals — with rehabilitated hippies regressing to the behaviours they liked to say they indulged in their youths. And, indeed, during the day there was indeed a scattering of baby-boomer types trying to press-gang their extended families into enjoying the festival in a conspicuously worthy way.

Boomer grandchildren were transported around in flower-garlanded trolleys like this one…

Starting Them Young at Latitude
Starting Them Young at Latitude

…and as it got later the place became more like a pop-up Center Parcs, except the vegetal aromas in the forest weren’t coming from wood burning fires. Eventually as the night wore on and the older people retired to their luxury tents the sound-systems and DJ sets attracted large, bouncing swathes of  younger people, like moths to the flashing lights.

Wandering through the woods I came across a series of artists’ nstallations — and immediately recognised the brightly-coloured faces of David Shillinglaw’s work (whose studio I visited a couple of years ago with Love Art London). He’s an exceptionally friendly person and showed me around his unmistakable collection of positively painted sheds, which transformed into a music sound-system after dark.

David Shillinglaw at Latitude 2016
David Shillinglaw’s Exhortation at Latitude 2016

I’d visited Latitude for the music but was most impressed by the festival’s showcasing of all types of art. When I first arrived I stopped off at the the literary arena to listen to an author interview with the Bailey’s Prize winner, Lisa McInery. It was a nice touch to have a bookshop on site.

Coming a few weeks after the EU referendum result, Latitude was a refreshing distraction that emphasised the pleasures found away from the poisonous and vindictive political atmosphere. Ironically, the industries represented by Latitude — art, music , comedy, dance, theatre and literature — are those in which the UK is an undisputed world leader (reflected in much of the content of this blog over the past few years) but seem undervalued by the closed-minded, xenophobic, anti-intellectual, expert-dismissing philistinism of the pro-leave bigots.

The opposite of a huge festival like Latitude is the proverbial gig in the back of a pub. I spent a fascinating evening in July on the Camden Rock’n’Roll Walking Tour, led by Alison Wise. Covering the amazing musical heritage of a relatively small part of London between Camden Town tube station and the Roundhouse near Chalk Farm.

I was especially pleased that we stopped off in several pubs on the way. Each pub had a strong association with one of Camden’s music scenes through the last few decades. The Hawley Arms was Amy Winehouse’s local (with the likes of the Libertines as regulars), The Good Mixer was where the leading Britpop bands hung out, the areas around Dingwalls and Camden Lock have many punk associations and the Dublin Castle in Parkway launched the careers of Madness and many other early eighties bands.

Dublin Castle, Camden
Dublin Castle, Camden

And here’s me with Molly from Minnesota (the only time I’ve ever met her) inside the Dublin Castle in a photo taken by Alison at the end of the tour.

A Pint with Molly from Minnesota in the Dublin Castle
A Pint with Molly from Minnesota in the Dublin Castle

It’s surprising how many of Alison’s tours round Camden and elsewhere are filled by tourists from overseas rather than native Brits or Londoners. Even though I’d worked in Camden for five years a while ago I still learned a lot from the tour — all relevant for writing purposes too. Alison also does Bowie Soho tours and album cover pub crawls which I’m sure are excellent.

I’ve read a lot of books over the year, although nowhere near as many as I’d intended. I’ve worked my way through a lot of musical biographies and autobiographies, including Chrissie Hynde’s frank Reckless, the bizarre Paul Morley prose of Grace Jones’s I’ll Never Write My Memoirs and the beautifully written (and non-ghosted) Boys In The Trees by the wonderful Carly Simon.

A few Sunday Times bestselling blockbusters have also made it on to my reading list, mostly out of curiosity to understand the reasons for their success. After having read them, in most cases, I’m not much the wiser.

So I’ve been busy, enjoying lots of new experiences and taking many more photos than those above. It’s even more worthwhile then those experiences to settle into the subconscious, interact and collide and spark off little bits of unexpected inspiration I can later use in my writing. And to help the process, there’s nothing like  taking a bit of time out and reflect.

So the last photo in the post was taken on a long walk between Christmas and New Year s the sun was setting over the Chilterns — a hopefully prescient, peaceful image to usher in 2017.

Deer Against the Chilterns Sunset
Deer Against the Chilterns Sunset

Prince Filtered

Another major figure in rock music passed away last week. Unlike the subject of the last post, Sir George Martin, Prince died at the depressingly young age of 57. Perhaps by demographics or coincidence, Prince was one of the extraordinary number of popular music stars who were born in 1958. Others include Madonna, Kate Bush and Michael Jackson.

I was never Prince’s most devoted fan, and it appears there were plenty of those, but I bought most of his best-known albums from the 1980s. Like many, the first I bought was Purple Rain and then explored his back-catalogue with 1999 and stuck with him for the next couple of albums, including Around the World in a Day – and all of these were released in the space of a few years. He maintained this rate of output at a time when other artists who’d reached a level of success, such as Michael Jackson and Kate Bush, began to take four or five years before releasing their next albums.

Even so, despite continuing at this prodigious rate throughout his career, Prince apparently died with over unreleased 500 songs locked in his Paisley Park vault.

Of all the press and online tributes to Prince that on The Economist website’s Prospero blog was particularly thought-provoking.

(This blog is consistently interesting on the arts in general — as is the concise arts section in the printed edition of The Economist.)

While praising his invention and originality, the blog article raised some questions about Prince’s musical legacy. It wondered if it might be blemished by his famously explicit lyrics: he was the artist who provoked the introduction of the Parental Guidance stickers in the US. I still remember my curiosity at reading the lyric sheet to the notorious Darling Nikki (was she using the magazine physically or as a source of inspiration?) Only a few years these lyrics would have appeared relatively coy. (Apple oddly suggested a playlist to me recently titled Head Music — yes it was that sort of head. Some tracks dated back to the 199os and left much less to the imagination than Prince).

Standing at 5’ 2” and with his flamboyant image sometimes bordering on the effeminate, it seemed puzzling that Prince was regarded as such a sex symbol. Perhaps it was his openness in singing about sex and his inhibited performances – or maybe that he shared how much pleasure it gave him?

The blog also made a related, but wider ranging point that is also very relevant to writing: Prince’s unusual attitude to the editing of his own work. Compared with his contemporaries, his output was unusually vast. Prospero suggests: ‘Perhaps he could have been a better filter for his material…even “Sign o’ the Times”, his 1987 double-length masterpiece, said the doubters, might be thought of as one of the greatest single-length albums never released.’

Prince changed his name to a ridiculous, unpronounceable squiggle in the 1990’s because his record company, Warners, suggested that he was saturating the market with his own music and therefore reducing its value by its ubiquity. It had the opposite effect to the ‘less is more’ argument that’s often attributed to the rare magnum opus produced by a Great Artist — music that’s Worth Waiting For.

What the impatient fans probably don’t realise is that it’s perversely in the record company’s interests to ration their artists’ material. Prince’s attitude seemed to be that if he’d written and recorded a song then why not release it and let his fans decide for themselves whether it was a track they’d put on a playlist or consign to obscurity.

This is an interesting contrast to the traditional record industry practice of bundling tracks into albums  or, in many cases, padding out the strong tracks with fillers. It’s the ability of consumers to pick and choose individual tracks to download that has exploded the music industry’s business model in the digital age (after the initial disruption of piracy). (Fortunately the required continuity of narrative offers literature and film a degree of insulation form this trend.)

Prince’s output was so prolific, despite his regular release of albums, that he gave away songs to other artists. While I knew about Manic Monday, I never realised that I Feel for You by Chaka Khan or Stand Back by Stevie Nicks had Prince writing credits — and Kiss was given away before being claimed back and then covered by Sir Tom Jones.

It wouldn’t be surprising if it was this incredible capacity to generate large amounts of new material was, apart from his virtuoso guitar playing and mastery of other instrument, one of the main reasons why other artists were so keen to work with him. One of Prince’s most bizarre collaborations is one I’ve had on CD since the early 90s — Why Should I Love You with Kate Bush — and Lenny Henry on backing vocals!

Prince’s approach to editing (or not editing) his vast output has parallels with creative writing. For example, Prince would never presumably have suffered from writers’ block. I’m currently reading a book on creative writing written by a tutor from a well-known Masters’ programme — and it’s remarkable how much of the book is devoted to generating ideas for readers or students to write about (free writing, notebooks, journals and so on).

After a while I began to wonder whether people who needed to use so many techniques as prompts would ever be productive or interesting writers. They might be able to hone technique but if there’s no story they feel compelled to tell then surely that would show up in a lack of emotional or intellectual engagement with the reader on the page?

An album like Sign O’ The Times (which Prospero considered in need of editing) would be the equivalent of the 700 or 800 page tome, like Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings or Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries. Not that these three books need to be edited (I’m sure Prince fans would say his double album wouldn’t either) but it’s received wisdom that book buyers are deterred from picking up novels over the 150,000 word mark (being nominated for the Man Booker or similar seems to be one of the few ways of overcoming this reluctance).

And for every long novel that’s published there are bound to be hundreds in the slush pile whose sheer length might have been the main factor in deterring an agent or editor from taking them on — open up the Word file, look in the bottom left, word count over 150,000? Press Delete.

When I’m in a bookshop, I’m also wary of picking up chunky books. The argument goes that I’ve only got a finite amount of time in my day for reading and far too many books I’d love to read to fit into that time: the shorter the novel, the sooner I’ll be able to get on to the next one. And that might apply while I’m reading if the novel isn’t particularly gripping.

But, as with most readers, when the book is absorbing and entertaining (when you literally ‘can’t put it down’) then the opposite is true. You don’t want it to end, you savour the last pages and want to linger in the novel’s world longer before saying goodbye to the characters. This is no doubt why there’s such an insatiable market for sequels (even Harry Potter’s getting another one soon). Yet the author may have gone through the manuscript and deleted huge amounts of perfectly well-written material in order to come in under a word count.

It’s similar with films,  with the market for DVD extras and Director’s Cuts for familiar films, yet a running time of over two hours is still a negative factor on the basis of taking time out of from the viewers’ lives. Even so, it’s surprising that writers don’t tend to do the same, especially with the option of online publishing.

Possibly this reticence to commit is due to a mutual lack of trust between consumers and the gatekeepers (the editors, record company labels, publishers, film companies, etc.). Consumers are reluctant to initially invest time in something they’re told they’ll like (or ought to like) whereas the gatekeepers know their markets are largely ruled by inertia (people like what they know they like already — unless they’re convinced by clever and expensive marketing that everyone else likes something).

In literature, authors tend to pick up Prince-like tendencies as they become more secure in their publishing careers, with editors often taking a less interventionist approach (the increasing length of the Harry Potter books is often cited as an example). Conversely, if readers think they know they’re going to like a author’s writing then they’ll be less wary of investing their time in advance of reading it.

Some authors, like Ian McEwan can go in the opposite direction. Reading his novels, with their concise, illuminating prose, raises the question of whether McEwan drafts slowly and deliberately or whether the pared-down, economical effect is the result of many revisions of painstaking editing. If the latter then the reader might sometimes wish McEwan had been a little less incisive and left in some of the deleted text for our pleasure. Yet to do so would dilute what is so admirable about his overall prose style.

I sometimes come across this dilemma when I’m workshopping in a writing group. A writer might bring along a section of a manuscript that’s filled with brilliant description in a paragraph, sometimes relating to the same subject. The typical response is to suggest that the description be pared down — only leave in what’s necessary to advance the plot and the character.

And so the writer is told to pick the best of their all-round strong writing and discard the rest — even though it might be almost as superb. It’s a paradox that the way to highlight excellent writing is to destroy much of it.

On the other hand another writer whose talents are more concentrated on other aspects of writing (e.g. plot) might be encouraged for descriptive prose which is less thrilling, precisely because there’s less of it to be selective about praising.

It’s part of the ‘kill your darlings’ advice which is often misapplied to suggest there isn’t a place in any novel for writing that’s a pleasure to read for its own sake. It also fits with the exhortation that ‘less is more’ but it’s far easier to say than to put this advice into practice. Often people will receive feedback from creative writing workshops or tutors with the vague advice that ‘this should be shorter’ but then also ask for missing information on backstory or description to be included.

Perhaps ‘this should be shorter’ really means that the person giving the feedback would have rather spent their hard-pressed time doing something else than reading the writing in question. In which case, the more honest feedback would be that the writing wasn’t particularly engaging (or that, as I’m sure often happens, the person giving the feedback wasn’t devoting their full attention in the way they might if they’d paid to buy a book).

So how would Prince’s back catalogue fared if subjected to a creative writing workshop? You’d have hoped that the likes of 1999, When Doves Cry, Sign O’ The Times, Nothing Compares to U, Raspberry Beret and Little Red Corvette might have made it through the workshopping process but some of the more esoteric material might have remained in an even-larger vault — even though it may have been stronger than much of the other music in the charts at the time.

This poses the question of whether an artist’s legacy stands on the peaks of his or her achievement rather than its consistency. Is a musician’s or writer’s reputation enhanced by hiding their lesser works?

By retaining a huge amount of control over his work, Prince took the view that he’d let the public be his editors. Perhaps Prospero was right in that his legacy amongst the critics might have been stronger if he’d been more selective but the lesser known work will have been enjoyed by some people. Would it have been right to have killed that small pleasure in the name of reputation?

In His Life

I don’t normally join in with all the RIPs messages on Facebook and Twitter and so on that follow the deaths of well-known people. However, George Martin, who died recently at the age of 90, was an exception.

It’s indisputable that he made an enormous contribution to popular culture by guiding the music of The Beatles with intelligence and innovation. Although he didn’t write or (mostly) perform the music, his influence was indispensable.

His crossing of boundaries between genres opened the door to the Beatles’ innate curiosity and desire to push the boundaries of pop music (as it was then). George Martin’s background in classical production and, most importantly, comedy records with the likes of Peter Sellers and the Goons not only meant he was the only A&R man who saw any potential in the Beatles but also allowed him to explore techniques that had never been used before in recorded music.

To go from recording Please Please Me to Tomorrow Never Knows (still one of the most experimental tracks ever released on a popular album) in the space of three years is completely mind-blowing. For seven years he managed to keep two of the most talented ever singer-songwriters working together and  made them more than the sum of their phenomenal parts.

The fact that Lennon and McCartney split all their song-writing credits 50-50 until even past the end of The Beatles (Give Peace A Chance is co-credited to Paul McCartney) must have been, at least in part, an incredible reflection of the atmosphere of mutual openness and lack of ego that Martin’s tolerant personality fostered.

In Studio Two, Abbey Road
In Studio Two, Abbey Road

George Martin was  born in the 1920’s: closer to my own grandparents’ ages than even of my parents.While he produced the likes of Helter Skelter, he also brought out the streak of English nostalgia that characterises many of the Beatles most loved songs, especially around Sergeant Pepper and, in that sense, his passing cuts that link of continuity with the England of the past which cuts through so many Beatles songs (Penny Lane, A Day in the Life, Polythene Pam, Golden Slumbers, In My Life, Eleanor Rigby, Yellow Submarine and many more).

In my  (humble) opinion the work he produced with the Beatles is the greatest and most significant cultural achievement of the 20th century – both artistically in itself and for its enduring influence. The fact there’s a quite a bit of throwaway rubbish in there only emphasises how supernaturally great the best of it was.

the Beatles catalogue is an example of a truth that relates to all artists’ work: that it is the heights of achievement that are remembered while the low-points are usually discreetly forgotten  (there weren’t that many duds in the Beatles’ back catalogue — but Wild Honey Pie and Dig It?). Create a work of genius and you’ll be remembered for that alone (as evidenced by the great fondness shown towards Bowie’s music after he died.)

The Beatles also embraced another principle of great artists — of moving forward, reinventing themselves and not churning out the same old style of music (as most of their sixties contemporaries did — and some still do). And in George Martin, the Beatles had the perfect foil for their innovation.

From listening to the many tributes — and a repeat of a fascinating BBC6 documentary — it seems very unlikely that George Martin ever dismissed the Beatles’ novel musical suggestions. He tried to understand the sounds they’d imagined (especially John Lennon) and translate that concept to make it work as best practical — the splicing together of Strawberry Fields Forever being a famous example.

Most producers wouldn’t have had the patience. Similarly with writing, it’s sometimes an easy option to give feedback that sets another writer on a safe but formulaic direction. The non-prescriptive approach typified by George Martin is similar to the approach of a sympathetic and encouraging editor or writing tutor.

From the use of feedback at the start of I Feel Fine or the sitar on Norwegian Wood, The Beatles weren’t afraid to experiment —  and to fail through their experimentation. George Harrison’s Indian inspired songs aren’t likely to be everyone’s cup of tea but they represented an incredibly imaginative approach to instrumentation. Without the sound collages of Revolution 9 would the Beatles have sewn together side two of Abbey Road so seamlessly?

One aspect of George Martin’s career that was perhaps viewed too literally  in the various tributes was the way he wrung amazing sounds out of primitive technology. George Martin should be given credit in general for the way he applied technology to art — starting a process that’s still being explored today.

Until the Beatles Rubber Soul and Revolver (and Brian Wilson’s Pet Sounds in response) music had been recorded largely as it was performed.

In the atmosphere of the sixties’ ‘white heat of technology’ EMI had recruited a brilliant team of engineers to work at Abbey Road who, in some ways, worked in the same highly professional way as their equivalents in NASA who were pushing their technology to the limit to get a man on the moon. George Martin could rely on the engineers’ ingenuity and diligence to record the Beatles’ boundary-pushing sounds.

I was fortunate enough a couple of years ago to actually go inside the famous studios (I even used the Gents’ toilet the Beatles would have used — and it’s probably not changed since then).

It was an event to mark 80 years of recording in the studios and it was held in studio two — where the Beatles recorded almost all their material. Much of their original equipment was on display — the tape machine that recorded Sergeant Pepper and the mixing desk used for Abbey Road. 

The pianos used on the records were also present. In the photo above I’m standing nearest the incredibly anonymous looking upright piano that was used most frequently in their recordings. It looks like an instrument you’d find in a church hall or a school music room but its tones are ubiquitous. They’re quite possibly being played by a million devices around the world at any given second.

One story about George Martin that was often repeated often in his obituaries was that he was the last record producer in London who hadn’t turned the Beatles down. Even despite Brian Epstein’s commercial influence in the north, all the other A&R men had seen no promise in the band whatsoever.

This is often seen as a ‘perseverance pays’ or a ‘talent will out’ story but it might be better to view it as a lesson in what might never have been.

In his fascinating book The Great British Dream Factory historian Dominic Sandbrook speculates what might have happened to the Beatles had George Martin not trusted his instincts and turned them down. Sandbrook thought Lennon would have surfaced into the public consciousness somehow but the other three may have remained in obscurity in Liverpool (as did Pete Best, the sacked Beatle).

I disagree with Dominic Sandbrook’s prediction. Paul McCartney’s talent is so immense that he surely would have achieved some professional musical success, although without the collaborators who pushed him on to greatness. John Lennon — who knows? Maybe if his musical ambitions were thwarted he’d have gone into another art form (remember he published books of his drawings) or perhaps politics?

Either way all those timeless songs would never have made it out of their respective bathrooms or local pubs. And remember that every other record label had rejected the Beatles. Rather than arguing this shows the process worked, it should be appreciated how it very nearly didn’t — whether because the auditioning system was flawed or because those making the decisions were so wrong.

As a result every music lover should be eternally grateful that George Martin didn’t sign some me-too, manufactured, formulaic act and took a risk in embarking on that wonderfully imaginative journey with The Beatles. If the measure of a good life is to leave the world a better place than one found it then George Martin well and truly passed the audition.

The Long Road from Rebel Rebel to Hero

The media last week was dominated by the sad death of David Bowie. Television specials and special printed tributes were ubiquitous, packed with quotations from figures from all walks of life — not only musicians and artists but the most un-Bowie-like people, such as politicians like David Cameron and Nicola Sturgeon (ironic, given that one of the very few public comments Bowie made during his final illness was to urge Scots to vote ‘no’ to independence).

The release of his last album only two days before his death heightened the shock many felt at the news. This was perhaps all the more profound because of his influence on the tail end of the baby-boomers. This is the generation that’s slightly younger than Bowie, in their mid to late fifties and early sixties — and hence likely to be at the high point of their careers. These include people likely to be in positions of power in the arts and media establishments and to thank Bowie for . They’re likely to thank Bowie for bringing a sense of subversion and his message of individuality to their formative years.

Now he’s gone — and by natural causes too — everyone who remembers him in his prime has a reminder of their own mortality.

Where Ziggy Played Guitar, Heddon Street, 11th January 2016
Where Ziggy Played Guitar, Heddon Street, 11th January 2016

I’m too young to remember much of Bowie in the 70s — just a few catchy singles but definitely nothing of Ziggy Stardust.

It was Ashes to Ashes that made the first significant impression on me. I can still listen to the song over and over again. I love its its uniquely strange sound (especially the grunting monster yells on the album version) but listening to it again, it’s amazing how much of a template the rhythmic elements in the backing track became a template for so much eighties music (listen to the funk bass and the choppy guitar sound).

I did think the video (with all the nascent New Romantics as extras) was mostly a load of pretentious bollocks it was still quite a moving experience to see the famous Pierrot clown costume in the David Bowie Is exhibition at the V&A in 2013. I wrote about my thoughts on Bowie and the exhibition at the time in this post especially his influence countering homogeneity.

In retrospect the fact that the exhibition was staged while Bowie was still alive showed how indisputable his influence had been — even before the inevitable posthumous reassessment.

While Bowie has been mourned and celebrated worldwide, he emerged from London at the turn of the sixties as a completely original talent — typical of the eccentric and unconventional type that England has the indisputable knack of creating.

It’s been plausibly argued, for example in a recent London Evening Standard article, that the creative arts industry is the UK’s biggest industry sector (if you deduct the taxpayers’ bailout of the financial industry which is officially first). And while Bowie was a product of this uniquely British creative culture, he’s certainly done a lot to perpetuate its continuity, (Although it’s been pointed out that Bowie and Alan Rickman, who sadly died a week after Bowie, were both products of a socially upwardly mobile culture that may have already begun to recede).

On a similar theme of post-war British upward mobility, I read that Major Tom, Bowie’s persona in Space Oddity, was inspired by a poster he saw as a child in Bromley for a music hall performance by a Major Tom. This turned out to be Tom Major-Ball, the father of another high-achiever from Brixton, future Prime-Minister John Major.

With its themes of isolation, disconnection and remotely observing the world while also being the centre of its attention, Space Oddity can be seen as more than a topical song that was cleverly timed to coincide with the Apollo moon landings. It can be interpreted a prophetic analogy of the journey into the orbit of celebrity stardom that Bowie had been set on trying to achieve for several years while working packing boxes and in other dead-end jobs in 60’s Soho.

David Bowie’s wider influence on modern culture was so significant that he must have the rare distinction of special tributes in the likes of OK! and Hello magazines as well as the very rare honour of a two page (rather than the standard one page) obituary in this week’s Economist (note the respectful reference to Mr Bowie.

The proof was in the playing. Mr Bowie grew up as David Jones, a sharp-toothed kid from dull suburban Bromley whose parents held no aspirations for him. Through a talent born of yearning he had transformed himself into Ziggy Stardust: extravagant, flawed and sexually polymorphous, tottering on platform shoes and hiding behind a mask of paint…Mr Bowie had taken a while to attract attention. Stuck in 1960s London, he picked up a saxophone and considered jazz, then flitted between bands; he moved from mod to Buddhist, from rocker to folk artist, hanging around London’s Soho with its sex shops and music clubs, exploring sexual ambiguity. Despite the success of “Space Oddity” his early albums drew little attention. It was only with the fifth, “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars”, (1972) that millions of teenagers in semi-detached houses just like the one back in Bromley took him to their hearts and turntables.

As the article points out, what’s not been emphasised in most of the coverage of Bowie’s profound impact on 70’s culture (in music, fashion and, as it’s being argued in defining attitudes towards gender and sexuality), is that Bowie was far from an overnight success.

Ironically, for an artist who’s credited with revolutionising many genres, David Bowie (or at first David Jones) attempted to break into the music business for over five years before achieving a breakthrough.

His first single was released in 1964 and an album (which failed to chart at all) in 1967. The first chapter of the David Bowie Is book (which must be the definitive publication for Bowie fans with its vast range of photographs) relates how David Jones (and then Bowie) relentlessly tried to break through into the entertainment industry, following trends from Mods to psychedelia, and not just as a musician. He had a manager, Ken Pitt, from 1966 onwards who advertised Bowie as an actor in casting publications. Of course Bowie did follow an acting career later but it’s doubtful if he’d have diversified into a successful musical from an acting background (Kylie Minogue is probably the exception that proves the rule).

The first section of the David Bowie Is exhibition curated many exhibits from this long period of failure – and it’s telling that David Bowie preserved these artefacts as carefully as he kept the items from his more successful eras. They were placed at the start of the exhibition, perhaps to emphasise the huge but thankless efforts he was making while many other artists achieved instant success.

So the artist elevated by the cultural establishment now as a figure who is said to have changed the world with his innovative genius was almost completely ignored by the music and other creative industries of the 1960s. It’s only due to Bowie’s tenacity and belief in himself that he persisted and was very belatedly given the stage and exposure for his talent.

Trident Studios, January 2016
Trident Studios, January 2016 Where LIfe on Mars, Space Oddity, Ziggy Stardust and Many Other Classic Songs Were Recorded

And although it could be argued, at least retrospectively, that Bowie was a product of the disruptions in social conventions of the time, there was no-one in the music business on the lookout for looking for a flamboyant, gender-blurring singer who’d constantly reinvent an image as soon as it became popular. Even a couple of years after its release in 1969 Space Oddity could have been viewed as a one-hit wonder. Life on Mars, Starman and Ziggy Stardust didn’t appear until the early seventies.

In some ways, Bowie’s career is great testament to the value of self-belief and perseverance. However, during this period he was disillusioned enough to announce  in The Ship on Wardour Street, that he was taking a sabbatical from the London music scene.

The Ship, Wardour Street, Soho
The Ship, Wardour Street, Soho

He said his intention was to become a Buddhist monk. Fortunately he didn’t and he eventually worked on mime, dance and experimental art, such as the Beckenham Arts Lab. Such influences may have given him a more interesting image as an artist when he eventually became established as a singer but he could equally followed a non-musical direction.

Bowie had countless rejections over many years and the only person who can really take credit for David Bowie’s body of work and artistic legacy is David Bowie himself. No record company or manager was looking someone to fill a Bowie-shaped gap in their roster of artists.

Some of the Classic Tracks Recorded At Trident Studios, Soho
Some of the Classic Tracks Recorded At Trident Studios, Soho

Bowie is another example of an immensely talented artist who went from being virtually the only person who believed in himself at the outset to an undisputed, global cultural figure. And there are many examples of similar artists, famously The Beatles, and writers, most notably J.K.Rowling who were passed over by record companies or editors because they didn’t offer what was currently popular in the market.

Such examples are often used of how endless persistence pays off. This is true in the case of those who eventually break through, but it’s impossible to know how many potential Bowies fail to achieve recognition, no matter how hard they try.

It’s easy to tell creative people to be persistent because it’s easier to rationalise a lack of success due to an according lack of perseverance rather than lack of talent or (perhaps worse) a lack of appetite for risk or ambitions or just plain lack of insight by the cultural gatekeepers.

Perhaps this long period of toiling in the shadows is why Bowie was always regarded by those who knew him as polite, down-to-earth and very humble. Those who’ve lavishly praised him need to thank his persistence for the enormous influence that stemmed from it. As is said in a paragraph from the book of the V&A exhibition:

David Jones grew up in 1950s London dreaming of being a successful entertainer. As David Bowie he tried, tried very hard, and became a world-famous performer. In the process he helped establish a key part of Western twenty-first century liberal belief: that anybody should be allowed to be they want to be. Self before duty, with duty a choice. He did not invent the idea, but he did promote it to a huge audience. The marketing worked and the London of today, ethnically diverse, culturally open and relatively tolerant, is an ongoing testament to that belief. In the remaining years of this century there are plenty of groups for whom such a culture in anathema. It will be interesting to see how this journey, which started in Brixton, London SW9, continues to unfold’

Geoffrey Marsh, Exhibition Curator in David Bowie Is catalogue.

Ziggy Stardust Plaque Heddon Street, Mayfair, 11th January 2016
Ziggy Stardust Plaque Heddon Street, Mayfair, 11th January 2016


This Woman’s Work

It's Coming!
It’s Coming!

Warning: contains a few set-list spoilers and lengthy, unrestrained, gushing sentimentality and a few misty-eyed personal reminiscences.


We knew we were on Row E — so good seats — five rows back, obviously. So we counted backwards as we walked through the stalls K…J…H…I…H…G…F…E

Er, what’s happened to A, B, C and D? This must be wrong. This can’t be happening to us. And then the people in the adjacent seats said they’d thought the same too.

There must be another row E in the stalls somewhere — one that isn’t really right in front of the stage — one that isn’t only feet from where Kate Bush would be standing in half-an-hour’s time for her second performance in 35 years.

What my friend Andrew didn’t know (and I guess no-one else did either) was that when he’d hit the enter on the day of the Kate Bush fan pre-sale was that the Hammersmith Eventim Apollo’s seat rows A-D were to be removed to accommodate the unusually demanding  theatrical requirements of the exactingly perfectionist performer.

In a State of Shock -- With My Sister
In a State of Shock — With My Sister

The need for the larger stage was revealed during the show with numerous trap-doors and pieces of stage machinery concealed beneath. At one point Kate Bush herself must have crawled under the stage virtually opposite my feet (I won’t give the explanation — it would be a big spoiler). I was also close enough to fear at one point that I’d be whacked in the head by a strange, rotating musical instrument.

I was in seat 14 — about four seats to the left of dead centre — which puts me in very select company. However, from the reaction of everyone else to discovering the true location of Row E, it seems they also applied for the tickets as normal fans. So no music festival style VIP-only cordon by the stage for Kate Bush. However, I’m sure all of us lucky enough to get hold of any tickets at all through the booking process (even the fan-sale) felt very privileged indeed.

email of the year
email of the year

Apologies if my (or, more accurately, my friend’s) extraordinary good fortune is provoking any raging jealousy (it certainly would with me) but it goes to show that Kate Bush see,s to have prioritised her fans — while expensive the tickets weren’t the sort of Russian oligarch prices that she could have charged — and the reselling sites are actually trying to charge. (Buyer beware — ID is checked against tickets on entry.)

Also the production itself must have been orders of magnitude more expensive to stage than a conventional rock concert. The only equivalents in musical theatrically I can think of are Pink Floyd’s The Wall or the Beatles-based LOVE in Las Vegas. The latter was brilliant but, of course, the singers and the band weren’t playing live.)

And I am a genuinely huge Kate Bush fan — as seasoned readers of the blog may remember. (I posted this very long review of Graeme A. Thomson’s biography, Under the Ivy, and was also excited enough to write a post when The Director’s Cut was released.)

I have virtually every piece of music she’s ever released — and I’ve been listening to it on shuffle for the past two weeks. And not just the albums but vinyl single B-sides and bizarre CD single curiosities like Ken — with lyrics asking if the former GLC leader is a ‘funky sex machine’ (really). 

I was wondering if she’d keep the local London political theme going with the comeback but, sadly, Boris was missing from the set-list (if you’re reading this Kate, there’s still time to dash it off).

And, as my post on the perceptive analysis in Under the Ivy points out, Kate Bush’s music has been a big influence on my writing (he adds, remembering that this is — loosely — a blog about writing). It’s also been the soundtrack to certain very significant episodes in my life.

I’m sure the number of female characters in my novel or and my attempts at writing from a female point of view have been heavily influenced by the extraordinarily insights that Kate Bush’s music and lyrics provide into female perspective, notably in songs like Hounds of Love, Running Up That Hill. Similarly, I also might not have had the nerve to go into certain territory in the novel that deals with the closeness ‘between a man and a woman’ without following Kate Bush’s courageous example in those amazingly intimate songs on the second side of The Kick Inside. 

This isn’t just a male perception, I know her themes resonate deeply with many women. My sister was sitting next to me during the show and she was incredibly moved to be there in the presence of a woman who’d been a huge influence on her life.

There are several slightly buried Kate Bush references in my novel – one from The Dreaming was picked up straight away by fellow Kate Bush fanatic, Anne, from the MMU course. (Anne’s going to be fortunate enough to see the show in a couple of weeks). And there may be other subconscious influences: I now wonder if an inspiration for having a painter in the novel is down to side two of Aerial. If so, thanks Kate for opening the windows to me about the world of art.

Omar Hakim's Drumming Was Breathtaking in Running Up That Hill and King of the Mountain
Omar Hakim’s Drumming Was Breathtaking in Running Up That Hill and King of the Mountain

To reinfoce the point that Kate Bush’s music has long been part of my life, as well as my sister, I went to the concert with two ex-school friends.

I remember sitting in my bedroom with my friend David on holiday from university discussing The Hounds of Love, especially The Big Sky 12″ Meteorological Mix — ‘That cloud looks like industrial waste!’ being one of her lesser known lyrics. I remember moaning, pre-Hounds of Love about the interminable wait for her next album — it turned out to be three years — perhaps the 35 years I had to wait to see her live has served me right for my ungratefulness?

Kate Bush’s most profound effect on me — and something that’s likely to be very deeply ingrained — was when I studied for a year at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Just before I flew out to the US Running Up That Hill, which I loved, had very recently been released. But the album Hounds of Love hadn’t. At that time Kate had only achieved cult recognition in America — a sort of indie, student act. While Hounds of Love was becoming a huge seller in the UK, it hadn’t even been released in the US, where I couldn’t get hold of it. This was, of course, before the days of the internet, iTunes and even the post could take two weeks to arrive. I was desperate to listen to the album that I’d waited (I thought then) for so long to be released.

I was pretty homesick, at times, with the culture shock when I first arrived in California and the American lack of appreciation of Kate Bush’s genius probably made me even more miserable. But a few weeks after the UK release and after I’d kept visiting the record shops in Isla Vista to keep asking when it would arrive (I think they’ve all shut now), the album was quietly released in the US. I got hold of a cassette version — and played it incessantly.

Kate Bush was so brilliantly, beautifully eccentrically English. Whenever I missed home, I’d play Hounds of Love and,Running Up That Hill in particular — and it would make everything about England seem so much more reassuringly close. Eventually the album broke through in the US in a modest way and Kate Bush’s videos were played on MTV (although they used the Wogan show appearance of Running Up That Hill rather than the apparently over-erotic dance video).

With many other British bands becoming popular in America at that time, in our apartment MTV was a frequent reminder of home  — with videos like Dream Academy’s Life in a Northern Town (‘the north’), Whitney Houston’s Saving All My Love for You (London) and Shout by Tears for Fears (Durdle Door in Dorset) almost like mini-travelogues.

There are many other Kate Bush related memories, like sitting with a girlfriend at university at the end of Nic Roeg’s film Castaway (I think I must have read in the reviews about its copious nudity) when a very familiar voice began singing an unknown song — Be Kind to My Mistakes — still very obscure. ‘Sit down. We can’t move. It’s Kate Bush’. I’m not sure she was thrilled as me about staying all the way through the closing credits. Or the first time I heard King of the Mountain — the first new song to be released in 13 years.  I was driving but I welled up — ‘Sounds a bit odd. Mumbled. Hold on. I like those drums. It’s good. It’s bloody good. She’s back. She’s back and she’s still good.’

And on Wednesday she was standing right in front of me. No one else was in the space between me and the person who’d created the music — and images — that had affected and influenced me so profoundly. At fleeting points in the performance I must have been the closest person to her. (My coat, which I’d left against the bottom of the stage, was suddenly covered by one of the props during one section and I was worried it would get dragged on stage by accident).

One of the Most Sought After Pieces of Tissue Paper in London -- The Ninth Wave
One of the Most Sought After Pieces of Tissue Paper in London — The Ninth Wave

For the whole audience, being in the presence of Kate Bush was an overwhelming experience in itself – throughout the show you didn’t have to look far to spot people in floods of tears. We were close enough to see every expression on her face – and rather suffering stage fright, as had been the fear, she appeared humbled and genuinely surprised by the spontaneous standing ovation when she first walked on stage.

One of the strange aspects of the recent media coverage of the concerts is that virtually all the images used of Kate Bush have been those taken in her twenties. This might be unsurprising because there have been extraordinarily few photographs of her in the past 20 years – a few very artfully created portraits for the CDs and less than a handful of ‘real life’ photos – the most recent being when she received her CBE from the Queen last year.

It’s been rumoured that she’s now very self-conscious about her appearance but she didn’t give any indication that she was. Nor ought she to be – she looked wonderful. Of course, she wasn’t going to be in rolling on a mat in a leotard. At 56, she appears to have aged gracefully and while she wore bulky outfits, she certainly doesn’t look, close up, as if she has any weight problem at all (some newspaper columnists and reviewers ought not to base their comments on concert photos or observing from a distance).

She did the show barefoot and her feet were occasionally within theoretical touching distance. When David’s wife Sue (who was in the circle) asked if Kate’s toenails were painted I was able to say without hesitation that they were’t. After all, I’d been looking at them for nearly three hours. I was so close to her physically that I could even see the thin plaits she had woven into her famously thick hair and trickles of sweat glistening on her temples.

Remarking on her physical closeness isn’t meant to be weirdly obsessive and stalker-like – all the people I know who’ve seen the concerts and everyone who’s tweeted has said similar. But this was someone who been in a huge, life-sized poster on my bedroom wall throughout my final year at university. She was stepping out of the page and into the sensual world. What was the biggest privilege of being so close to the performance is that I’ll no longer think of Kate Bush in terms of the images of quarter of a century ago – as a two dimensional icon – but as a person who’s as real and tangible as someone I might bump into in the pub or on the tube.

I’ve read some comments on Twitter comparing the show to a religious experience. I can see why — the emotion was so overwhelming it was physical for me and, I’m sure, for most of the rest of the audience. However, in my case, it was the opposite of religious — the icon we’d all only known from music and images was manifested as a ‘normal’ person — albeit one recognisable from all the images and able to sing with that beautiful voice. She might be a creative genius but she’s actually just like the rest of us — a point so obvious it’s banal to make about most artists. But this was supposedly the music industry’s eccentric recluse, someone whom I don’t think has given a TV interview in over 20 years.

I’d kept lowering my expectations before the show – and the moments between the band arriving on stage and Kate Bush herself were heart-pounding, as much with dread as anticipation. Surely she’d only be able to use the lower registers of her voice and the songs would sound OK but not a patch the records?

Lily, the opening number, seemed to have been chosen to as a vocal warm-up her voice – short, low phrases with the backing singers in full-throated support. But she sounded amazingly good. Then it was straight into Hounds of Love – much earlier than I’d expected but also a low-pitched vocal. Suddenly, the fourth song, Top of the City, its slow passages sung with heart-melting softness (‘he’s no good for you, baby, he’s no good for you now’) alternating with soaring, climactic high-notes. Her voice was sounded, incredibly, as good as the original recordings.

In her own lengthy programme notes, which are remarkably personal and detailed (longer, even, than this blog post), it’s revealed that there’s a sound engineer solely dedicated to her vocal sound. But I was close enough at times to hear her voice unamplified and it was genuine – no auto-tune for Kate Bush.

An Amazing Array of Instruments
An Amazing Array of Instruments

Vocally, Kate Bush is one of a kind and the second public live performance of songs I knew so well was an experience I never expected to occur at all, let alone witness myself. What was even more extraordinary was that Kate appeared very conscious of the audience’s response. She’s by no means an in-your-face stage performer and her facial expressions and small gestures to the band won’t have been obvious from the back of the theatre. She grinned in a deadpan way at the start of the show, almost appearing awestruck by the audience’s ecstatic reception (as if gesturing ‘Are these people really going beserk for me? They are? This is unbelievable. Well, here I go.’)

She was subtly looked at people in the audience, even making eye contact after which she’d smile, rock her head from side to side, move her feet a bit more emphatically and then deliver another astonishingly perfect vocal. It was if she was asking ‘Are you enjoying this? Am I doing OK? That’s good. Now I’m really going to go for it.’ Perhaps lots of famous performers do this if you get close enough. But, as she expressed with her the request for no cameras, this low-key but emphatic connection with the audience was an amazingly intimate experience. (Later, in the conceptual parts of the show, she concentrated on acting in character.)

I’d expect most of the looks she got in return would along the lines of ‘Yes, you’re doing brilliantly, Kate, and by the way you’re a bloody genius’. I was trying to convey as much. But her modesty and initial tentativeness provided an insight into the creative process – the greatest artists are also generally the most self-critical and depend and thrive and on the reassurance of their audience. This is particularly performers but no doubt also includes many writers too. It was a profoundly humbling experience — feeling as if Kate Bush was looking at me, checking that I enjoying the show she’d put so much effort into staging. I’m sure she felt the same about the other 3,000 people there but these were moments of absolute individual pleasure.

Somewhere Handy to Put My Magazine While I Put My Coat On
Somewhere Handy to Put My Magazine While I Put My Coat On

I won’t go dwell on detail about the theatrics of the show – there are many glowing news reports and reviews on the web. And the spectacle is so impressive that’s it’s better to let the narrative play out itself.

With tickets for the second night I’d managed to avoid knowing too much detail about the show until I’d seen it for myself. I’d largely avoideded knowledge of the set-list (so I was one of those who gasped when the opening chords to Running Up That Hill appeared so early in the show). I bought the excellent programme but I’d avoided reading it before the show. So I had no idea that the very young, gangly backing singer who appeared to take an increasingly more prominent part in the show was someone with particular significance.

In the rocking-living-room-HP-sauce-and-toad-in-the-hole interlude (it’s too bizarre to concisely describe and the dialogue probably won’t win a Booker Prize for David Mitchell), my sister asked ‘Do you think that’s her son?’

‘No,’ I thought. ‘It can’t be.’ After all, his existence was secret until she sang exultantly about him in Bertie on Ariel — when he was about eight years old. But then he did seem to be the right sort of age and he did look very similar to those photos of Kate Bush’s brothers from the start of her career – and the way she stood behind him looking enormously proud as he lolled on a sofa mulling out loud whether to watch QI or Liverpool v Chelsea on the television? It was indeed ‘that son of mine’.

With that discovery, everything suddenly made sense. The woman who wrote songs like Breathing, the Kick Inside, Room for the Life, Cloudbusting, Mother Stands for Comfort, A Coral Room and This Woman’s Work– all about birth and parenthood – wanted the audience to share her enormous pride in her own son. That this intensely private artist wanted to introduce her audience to her family was an incredible gesture of bonding. This is why I’ve been quiet for the last sixteen years – he’s been the priority in my life – and isn’t he wonderful? She was inviting us to celebrate her music and her family – this woman’s work indeed.

Without Bertie, we now know from the programme, ‘this would never have happened’ and he was the force who ensured his mother overcame her fear to ‘commit to pushing the “go” button’. The timing of the shows must also have been determined by Bertie’s involvement – albeit in a very non-rock’n’roll way.

As his mother writes in the programme: ‘In order for him to be part of this, which was always part of the deal, he has had to work really hard in order to keep up his school commitments as well as his commitments to the show.’ So it’s fair to assume that the rehearsals will have been timed to start after Bertie finished his GCSEs in the summer. Presumably he’ll go back to studying for his A-levels after the last show on 1st October.

One of Kate Bush’s most haunting opening lines is in Blow Away (for Bill) on Never For Ever — take a look at the cover of that album and it will clear up any doubts about her recurrent themes of female sexuality and motherhood: ‘One of the band told me last night/That music is all that he’s got in his life.’

These shows, and their incredible gestation time, are perhaps a sign that she took that lyric as a warning. Music isn’t all Kate Bush had had in her life. Given Bertie’s role, these live shows haven’t been half a lifetime in coming – they’ve been staged at the earliest possible opportunity.

As Graeme Thomson says in Under the Ivy what’s particularly remarkable about Kate is ‘the extraordinarily positive ways in which Bush views men’ — and she brought on stage the man she’d brought into the world herself (or, at Bertie’s age, more the Man with the Child in Eyes). This was another profound statement about creativity — and one that seems to tie in with the otherwise rather baffling wooden puppet-mannequin that roamed the stage in the second half. 


Bertie’s involvement isn’t cheesy or sentimental either. If anything he was a more confident performer than his admiring mother. Being so close to a sixteen year old acting out the role of the painter in A Sky of Honey, in which he sang his own song, Tawny Moon, (I don’t whether Bertie or his mum wrote it — but she wrote some classic songs at thirteen), made me forget I was at such a momentous event. Willing Bertie to pull off such a professional performance was, bizarrely, like being, in the nicest possible way, one the audience at a school play – albeit the most incredibly imaginative, spectacular one ever.

I found an interview from 2005 on the Guardian’s website in which Kate Bush describes how Bertie reacted to the news that his mother was going to meet the Queen: ‘The thing is I would do anything for Bertie and making an arsehole of myself in front of a whole roomful of people and the Queen, I mean …’

In front of Wednesday’s roomful of people she certainly didn’t do that.

Incidentally, the request not to use cameras applied to the actual performance (see below). The security people were perfectly happy for people to take pictures before and after the show. Even so, I’ve cropped some of the images to avoid revealing anything more than the musical instruments on stage you’d expect from a conventional show. While I could have taken a photo of Kate that was much closer up than anything that’s been published I wouldn’t have dreamt of doing so – let alone posting it online.

Kate Bush's No Cameras or Phones Request
Kate Bush’s No Cameras or Phones Request


The Hottest Ticket in Town
The Hottest Ticket in Town

While ‘unbelievable’ seemed to be the word applied an unbelievable number of times to British sporting achievements, ‘bonkers’ seems the  most appropriate description to apply to the cultural and social impact of the Olympics – especially after that closing ceremony. Its astonishingly uninhibited chaos mixed flashes of genius with the heroically tacky and cheesy – and slightly sadly probably showed a more accurate reflection of British popular culture than the mesmerising Opening Ceremony.

It feels a world away now but the Opening Ceremony set the tone for what appeared to me to be a staggering transformation in the collective mood – certainly in London.

London 2012 -- Doubters
What We Were Warned About.

What seemed to make the change in mood of the last couple of weeks genuine — and profoundly touching — was the collective astonishment – we couldn’t believe that we were pulling it off.

Beyond the worries about crowding and traffic there were at least a couple of major problems that could have occurred at this Olympics: terrorism and rioting. Fortunately neither the events of July 2005 or August 2011 were repeated. But we all collectively held our breath and by the end of the games all the doubts, warnings and cynicism were forgotten. Instead we all went bonkers.

Walking around LondonI was reminded of the title of the Jeremy Deller retrospective earlier this year at the Heyward Gallery – Joy in People. And very serendipitously I came across Sacrilege, Deller’s bouncy castle Stonehenge in Victoria Park, Hackney (it only stayed a day in any one place inLondon on its cultural Olympiad tour). I also saw another piece of British bonkerness in Victoria Park – the eccentric Universal Tea Machine.

Jeremy Deller's 'Sacrilege' -- Victoria Park, Hackney
Jeremy Deller’s ‘Sacrilege’ — Victoria Park, Hackney

Back to the Opening Ceremony, the first point when I realised that I was watching something really spectacular was an overhead shot of the molten iron circle being symbolically beaten by foundry workers. I thought ‘Hold on that looks a bit familiar’ and the shot cut to two glowing objects moving overhead from the edges of the stadium. Then the molten ring lifted and everyone knows what happened next — the Olympic Rings of Fire were assembled above the stadium.

(I haven’t heard it mentioned elsewhere but I picked up a definite nod to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings with the green and pleasant land turning into a furnace of fire-beaten rings.)

The Mall As It's Never Been Before
The Mall As It’s Never Been Before

More anything else, for me,  in the incredible show, it summed up the essence of creativity — taking a symbol as familiar as the Olympic rings and presenting it in an entirely new, innovative way. It was as masterful as reading the denouement of a brilliantly plotted novel — a moment of unexpected, revelatory insight into what came before.

The Opening Ceremony drew on skills in which it was generally acknowledged that Britain was almost uniquely good at – creativity, innovation, contemporary music and design. Although with Britain third in the medal table (and writing just after the closing ceremony) perhaps we should put sport higher on our list of national strengths.

Skills in which Britain leads the world – such as advertising and television – both based on the creative manipulation of imagery – and this has been transferred to the games. It’s amazing to consider the attention to detail involved in London 2012’s branding. The presentation of the venue has been amazing.

The colour scheming of the games has been meticulous – and brilliantly successful in an understated way. The largely restrained palate of colours used for the games was clever: an aqua blue, orange, yellow and the two most prominent – the bright pink and deep purple. These colours don’t clash with many, if any, flags and they simultaneously convey both excitement and informality (the pink) with a stately  self-assured competence (purple).

What An Arena -- Beach Volleyball on Horse Guards Parade
What An Arena — Beach Volleyball on Horse Guards Parade

No venue has used design to appear as stunning as the unlikely temporary beach volleyball arena on Horse Guards Parade, which I was lucky enough to get tickets for on the first Sunday of the games. It’s a shame the security fences mean that it’s been difficult for non-ticket holders to get a view of the stadium.

It has seated an incredible 15,000 people and was constructed in the few weeks between Trooping the Colour and the Olympics – and I can say from personal experience it was no ramshackle affair. It had to be solidly built to cope with the energies of the crazed, conga-dancing crowd.

The Horse Guards Conga -- It Felt This Blurry Too
The Horse Guards Conga — It Felt This Blurry Too

Beach volleyball has been one of the revelations of these Olympics – I’ve read several newspaper articles which, in pre-Olympic times, might have sneered at the event’s supposed frivolous, if not outright exploitative, image but they’ve all concluded that the Horse Guards stadium has provided wonderful entertainment – and that the players are also serious athletes.

I’m normally someone who would run a mile from an event with cheerleaders and similarly mandatory jollity. But faced with the rather un-British beach and tan culture. Londonreacted in the best of British traditions – it took the piss out of it. The staging of the event was staged with such exuberantly over-the-top genius that it even used the Benny Hill theme tune – not to accompany the knowingly camp dancers but for the volunteers who levelled the sand – ‘The Rakers’ (who sounds like an American college basketball team).

The Cheerleaders Play With Their Balls
The Cheerleaders Play With Their Balls

The atmosphere was infectiously surreal – four second blasts of music accompanying the action and absurd crowd participation (a bizarrely eclectic mix of Blur, LMFAO, the Beach Boys and, of course, Dizzee Rascal himself), I doubt many London audiences would jump out of their seats as readily to perform a huge conga around the stadium and when Madness’s One Step Beyond boomed around the seat of British government at 11pm on a Sunday night there were 15,000 pairs of arms moving up and down in unison.

Uncle Sam at the Beach Volleyball
Uncle Sam Made An Appearance at the Beach Volleyball

After a while  the over-the-top announcer’s voice became extremely familiar and once the penny dropped there was no doubt – it was the man himself – Peter Dickson – the ridiculously hyperbolic Voice-Over Man from the X-Factor, Britain’s Got Talent and many other programmes. He’s the voice that always seems to announce that this week’s warbler is the ‘biggest selling female artist in the history of the universe’.

USA v Argentina -- The Sporting Action
USA v Argentina — The Sporting Action

Like everything associated with the rest of the event, Peter Dickson hammed it up spectacularly: ‘I hear the Prime Minister has an early morning tomorrow and he’s asking if we’ll we turn the noise down?’ (Incredibly cheesy but the bizarre location demanded it.) No guessing what the crowd’s answer was.

The setting of Horse Guard’s parade, with the purple-decked stadium, a rectangle of beach sand in its centre and Nelson’s column, Horse Guards, Big Ben and the London Eye visible on the skyline provided an iconic image.

Sitting in the ‘Downing Street End’ of the stadium I wondered what other country would site a beach volleyball stadium within 50 yards of its government’s centre of executive power? Only one that was bonkers. And that sums up the genius of these Olympic games: I had one of the most enjoyable nights of entertainment I can remember in a long time.

There are 15,000 Crazed People Lurking on the Left
There are 15,000 Crazed People Lurking on the Left

Sie Liebt Dich

I was writing the novel in the small hours of last Friday night and it seemed apt to drop into the dialogue the German title of one of the two songs the Beatles sang in translation for the German market in their early years. Virtually everyone in Western civilsation and beyond knows about the Beatles’ apprenticeship in Hamburg.

In fact at the end of last year I went to see — and thoroughly enjoyed — the musical Backbeat at the Duke of York’s Theatre on St. Martin’s Lane which is based on the young Beatles experience in Germany. By remarkable co-incidence, Ruta Gedmintas stars in Backbeat — playing the artist Astrid Kirchherr who is credited with being a huge influence on the embryonic Beatles. (It closes at the end of February so I’d recommend anyone to go and see it. I got seats in the second row, which was rather marvellous.)

But it’s probably only Beatles fans that know that the band sang German translations of She Loves You and I Want to Hold Your Hand — and apparently these recordings are particularly rare as they were made in Paris — the only session the Beatles ever recorded outside the UK.

Co-incidentally, after I’d written the a reference to Komm Gib Mir Deine Hand, the other translation Sie Liebt Dich turned up on my phone on shuffle when I was going for a run yesterday. Listening to familiar songs sung in a different language must be a little like the experience of non-native English speakers listening to popular music, which is predominantly sung in English more or less everywhere.

The lyrics to She Loves You/Sie Liebt Dich are actually so simple (although effective) that I could understand virtually all of the German translation, even with my limited grasp of the language. (Having spent much of the last 10 years making business trips to Germany, I’m much better at understanding German — from overhearing conversations, watching TV, reading newspapers/billboards — than speaking it myself.) I guess that a familiarity with hearing simple English almost ubiquitously in popular culture must give non-native English speakers much more confidence when learning the language.

I’ve found a couple of German-originated clips of the songs on You Tube.

Sie Liebt Dich should appear below (except if, like me you’re using Chrome when, for some odd reason it fails to show):

I haven’t done a detailed comparative analysis but my initial impression is that Paul McCartney’s vocal is far more prominent on the German version than the English recording of She Loves You. I can well imagine McCartney being much more willing to put himself out to do whatever he could commercially when the Beatles were breaking through whereas Lennon would probably have treated it like an embarrassing joke.

She Loves You is one of the first songs I ever remember. It was released before I was born but I remember playing my parent’s copy as a young child on an old record player — and probably wrecking it too. It’s a paradoxical song. I’d never list it as anywhere close to being one of my favourite Beatles tracks but I always enjoy listening to it a lot more than I thought I would.

The ‘yeah, yeah, yeah’ refrain might be putting me off — what was seen as rebellious and daring nearly 50 years ago seem fairly puerile now. But the rest of the song is so densely packed with hooks (harmonies, furious drum fills, the fascinating atonal chord at the end) and played with such energy that it stands as a condensed version of what makes a great pop song — or any commercial work of art. It’s instructive to me with my writing — surely I can write a chapter with characters having dinner in less than 8,000 words if so much can be packed into two and half minutes of music and be all the greater for it?

An argument can be made that the popularity of the Beatles marked the emergence (at least into the mainstream) of art-driven, hedonistic youth culture. See this quotation from the brilliant Ian MacDonald from ‘Revolution in the Head”If it has any message at all, that of  I Want to Hold Your Hand, is of “Let go — feel how good it is”. This implied…a fundamental break with the Christian bourgeois status quo. Harbouring no conscious subversive attempt, the Beatles, with this record, perpetrated a culturally revolutionary act.’

Ironically, after the feedback session I had with the MMU MA class this evening, I’ll probably end up cutting the section with Komm Gib Me Deine Hand mentioned but I’m sure I can work in the reference somewhere else.

Do It Like A Dude

The Angel has an old-fashioned love triangle at its heart and, while I know the eventual outcome I want to write, I’ve been gripped by an internal debate about how much of this tension should be shown in the novel in terms of what the BBC call ‘sexual content’.

This is a difficult question to wrestle with in various ways although I’m convinced that all writers of novels (or of drama) that involve adults in close, emotional relationships must at least consider, but not necessarily write about, the sexual behaviour of the characters — even just to establish that there is no sexual relationship between them.

In real life, as well as in literature, there are many relationships that seem to defy gravity on intellectual, social or various other personal issues but must obviously work at a deeper sexual level — women falling for the bastard or cad or men being mesmerised by a pretty girl are stereotypes that are clearly true. There are many biological and psychological reasons why relationships aren’t driven by rationality — and that people often pursue relationships that logically they know aren’t good for them.

Also, despite (or perhaps because of) much more openness about ordinary people’s sexual behaviour — look at the covers of most women’s magazines and a few men’s — no-one really knows with much certainty what everyone else is up to. There are plenty of surveys but they’re almost by definition self-administered so no-one can verify how truthful are the responses (it’s considered that men tend to exaggerate, women to under-report). This is probably truer the more unusual the behaviour is. Paradoxically, despite sexual behaviour being driven by very deep biological and psychological motivation, most people seem to be anxious to know what’s ‘normal’ — if only to then outwardly appear to be so.

For this reason it’s probably one area where workshopping might yield responses which would be not that representative of readers as a whole. I’ve participated in a few workshops where the writing has involved descriptions of illegal drug usage. People tend to be quite guarded in their reaction — ‘I have a friend who told me that this description is more like ecstasy than speed’ — not wanting to be thought too boring and unconventional as to never have tried the drug but certainly not wanting to admit anything like familiarity with it. And why should they do anything else? Participating in a writing workshop doesn’t oblige anyone to reveal their history of drug usage.

Assuming the feedback gets beyond the tittering ‘Bad Sex Awards’ stage and one gets an honest and adult discussion, it’s still probably true to say that a similar type of reaction applies to sex as it does to drugs: an understandable wariness of revealing personal experience through expressing views on the writing (although people’s experience of sex must be much more widespread and doesn’t (normally!) have associations of illegality). This is wariness is probably more true the more unusual, or even deviant, the behaviour. Consider what might happen if (say) a woman wrote a scene where a man pays a prostitute to perform something exotic for him and one of the men in a workshop starts to correct all the details — she might get useful feedback but no-one would look at him in quite the same way again. (There are all sorts of intriguing permutations about who may be bluffing who in this sort of scenario.) There may be an exception when the action described is so extreme and unusual that it can be thought of abstractly and impersonally — in the City course there was one novel that dealt with incest and this was so bizarre that it was surprisingly easy to comment about.

Reading fiction is also appealing to many people because of its privacy. If you’ve never touched drugs, and don’t ever intend to, you might still have a fascination for imagining what it might be like to snort line-after-line of coke at a glitzy party or have some hallucinogenic trip. Similarly, most readers of the Twilight books don’t want their blood sucked by a vampire but that doesn’t stop them being amazingly popular. So it is with sex in fiction — there’s no doubt people like reading about it but a lot of this enjoyment is probably down to its absolute privacy.

While I’ve been agonising about how much of my characters’ sex lives I show or tell or hint at, I’ve realised that I may being incredibly prudish by the standards of popular culture with which young people are familiar. One of the most popular songs of the last couple of years is about, to put it mildly, curiosity about the same sex — Katy Perry’s ‘I Kissed A Girl’ (‘and I liked it’). My eyes popped out last year when I saw my children quite happily watching Katy Perry’s video for ‘California Gurls’. While I think it’s pretty harmless and, in some places, quite hilarious (the whipped cream aerosols) — she ostensibly appears in it stark naked (albeit lying down) — see embedded video below from YouTube.

Katy Perry says she was brought up a strict Christian and has been critical of her current rival — Lady GaGa, whose exuberance I quite admire. My teenage, secondary school age daughter asked me if I knew what the song ‘Poker Face’ was about? ‘A card game,’ I said innocently. ‘No. It’s about a woman having sex with a man while fantasising about it being another woman.’ ‘Oh!’ Things have definitely moved on a bit since ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’.

Similarly we were listening to the Top 40 rundown and I asked the title of the Rihanna song at number two. ‘”S&M”, dad.’ I’m not sure if my teenage daughters knew exactly what this meant but the lyrics of the song didn’t leave much doubt: ‘Sticks and stones will break my bones/But whips and chains excite me.’

People might argue that this is all about boundaries being pushed but I’m not sure where the limits will stretch to after the precedent set by a new singer from Essex, who’s just won a BRIT award, called Jessie J. Her first single was called ‘Do It Like A Dude’ and, while I’ve only heard the less explicit version, there’s no doubt what it’s about — something that ‘Lip Service’ pushed the boundaries of terrestrial TV (albeit digital BBC3) by showing — although even then Ruta Gedmintas was only shown from the back. (And I don’t think ‘Do It Like A Dude’ refers to same sex relationships either.)

When I was doing the Open University Advanced Creative Writing course I was picked up by the tutor when a female character says the word ‘twat’ (as an insult about a man) — ‘a woman wouldn’t say such a word’. While this could be the view of a certain demographic of readers, if the generation who have been brought up listening to Rihanna, Katy Perry, Lady GaGa and Jessie J take up novel reading then it  will take considerably more to shock them.


This is a post mainly about playlists associated with novels but also has a few references to the BBC3 TV programme Lip Service, which ended its first series last night. Having had a look at a few website analytics I have to start with an apology to the people who’ve ended up on this blog after doing a Google search for Lip Service’s Ruta Gedmintas (or in one case Ruta Gedmintas’s feet!). I think there’s only one blog post about her — in the context that her very effective playing of Frankie in the series eerily summed up the zeitgeist of one of my novel-in-progress’s characters). Nevertheless, for some odd reason this site seems to occasionally turn up in Google searches associated with the actress. This might get worse as I’m going to mention her again in this post.

So if you’ve landed on this page looking for some nice photos of Ruta Gedmintas then the best I can do is provide a consolation link to a photo on the programme’s official Facebook page that captures a beguiling, almost feral look to Frankie — click here to see it (you don’t need to be signed into Facebook to see it). (There will be also be another Frankie related link later on.)

I mentioned David Nicholls’ use of playlists in the last post. In ‘One Day’ Emma makes Dexter a couple of laboriously compiled cassette tapes — from tape-recording on to a cassette tracks from vinyl records and CDs in real time as you had to from the mid-70s until the era of the MP3. Even though CD-ROM drives came along in the mid-90s, it was a bit later than that that the likes of iTunes and Windows Media Player allowed instant playlists to be compiled and burnt to CD — and later digitally — and now we have semi-predictive services like Spotify which make the whole process almost subconsciously easy. My computer made up a playlist last night (presumably from tracks I’d played a lot or hadn’t skipped and it kept me awake an extra hour as I didn’t want to stop the fantastic tracks from coming.

What playlists — and the ‘my music’ concept as a whole — seem to tap into is a deep-seated desire to identify oneself with your favourite music — almost as if that might partially define your personality. Music is often used in TV and film in a similar way and Lip Service has been a good example — the track listing of music from each episode has been demanded by fans and published online.

I’m also very fond of thinking about music in relation to the parts of the novel that I’m writing and I’ve got a habit of describing the music characters are listening to — James likes ‘talented, blonde singer-songwriters like Pixie Lott’ and Dido, Emma likes William Orbit and Kim is a bit eclectic, enjoying a bit of John Tavener or Thomas Tallis as well as Gabriela Cilme (‘Sweet About Me’) and the Walrus of Love, Barry White plus another significant act to be revealed anon.

Referencing music is great but one thing I’ve learned about novel writing — Penny Rudge mentioned this when she talked to our City class — is that quoting lyrics is done at a cost — a pretty high monetary one. Even a line or two needs permission (unlike, perhaps, a quotation from a longer written work) and that might cost into the hundreds of pounds — and the author usually pays the rights holder. So it’s a lot more cost-effective to cite the title and artist and hope the readers can fill in the lyrics for themselves (if that’s really necessary) as there’s no copyright on titles and names. It could be argued that playlists like those created by David Nicholls and Lip Service are actually intellectual property in themselves — I seem to remember a court case in the distant past about this connected with Classic FM first starting up.

As The Angel is set largely in a pub, I was speculating last night listening to my auto-generated list that it would be almost inevitable that there would sadly be some riotous party for me to test my writing skills on and, as part of that, I wondered about taking a page or two just to list the music — as other writers tend to throw in odd bits of ephemera like shopping lists or envelopes.

And then in a moment of pure serendipity, I noticed a tweet from Kudos TV’s head Lip Servant on the very subject of playlists. (I’ve exchanged a few tweets with @LipService_BBC3, most recently today when I forwarded a link to the Arts Desk review of the last episode, which has a comment from me added. She’s also read the existing posting on this blog.) This tweet revealed that Ruta Gedmintas had been persuaded to publish her Frankie playlist — songs on her iPod that she used to work herself up into the right mood for the character — so the concept of establishing character via music choices obviously works for her.

It’s on the Notes page of the programme’s Facebook site but can (I think) be accessed without needing to be signed in. Click here to read it: http://on.fb.me/9q7qOV .

There’s even a link there to hear them all on Spotify, which I might have a go at doing out of curiosity as I’ve never heard of most of them. I do, though, have the Florence and the Machine and Bat for Lashes albums so I probably know them. It’s not too surprising to see Björk and the Prodigy there given the character she was playing. However, for me, the serendipitous part was finding the title of a track listed in the playlist that I’d written as the closing line of the novel extract that I workshopped 10 days ago (and wrote about three weeks ago) which a few people who read it said was perfect for the scene I’d written — and I can see why it’s also completely apt for Frankie. I’d probably watched a couple of episodes of Lip Service before I decided on this song but her playlist wasn’t published until this week. Here’s how I referenced it in my writing:

‘Her hand reached into his lap and grabbed the entertainment system’s remote control from where it had dropped…She entered the title of a song that seemed perfect for the pair of them. The screen displayed a list of versions she never dreamt existed but she chose Nouvelle Vague’s cabaret cover over the Dead Kennedy’s original. As she sipped her drink, the suite infused with the sophisticated sound of brushes against drum skins and the ironic twang of the double-bass. Then a cool French chanteuse started to croon “Too Drunk To Fuck”.’

One Day

‘One Day’ by David Nicholls won the Sainsbury’s Popular Fiction prize at the Galaxy National Book Awards last week. I’ve mentioned this book in passing a couple of times on this blog since I read it in the summer.

I’ve found the book interesting for a number of reasons. It has quite an interesting cover and this is also plastered with all sorts of endorsements which largely serve to position it in the market: ‘big, absorbing, smart’ (Nick Hornby); ‘incredibly moving’ (Marian Keyes); ‘totally brilliant’ (Tony Parsons); ‘fantastic Labour boom years comedy’ (the Guardian) (although less than half the relationship occurs under Blair); ‘you really do put the book down with the hallucinatory feeling that they’ve become as well known to you as your closest friends’ (Jonathan Coe). That’s just the covers, there’s plenty more epithets in the first two pages inside.

One clever thing about having these quotations on the cover is that it makes it look like a film poster. And the book is very cinematic — so much so that a film is already in production. (The author wrote some of one of the series of ‘Cold Feet’ — and this book has many echoes of that TV series.)

These endorsements are very accurate as they position the book into a sweet spot that sits between the lad-lit of Parsons and Hornby, chick-lit with a dark touch of Keyes and the modern comedy of Coe — and with a ‘bit of politics’ thrown in by the Guardian. And that’s exactly the genre — a funny book written by a man that also appeals very much to women. A look at the 262 (at time of blogging) 5 star reviews on Amazon appears to show they are predominantly penned by female names (although, of course, women do read more book than men overall).

I have a feeling that this book is significant because this genre may well be something of a new phenomenon — non-gender specific and a synthesis of lad-lit and chick-lit — whereas previously these commercial social comedy novels have tended to have been aimed at either gender. Again, the cover is significant — two silhouettes — each of a man and a woman. I has the mark of very careful marketing as if the publishers had taken a punt on a book that didn’t ‘fit’ directly into any neat category. And, if so, I’m very glad this has worked because one of the other reasons I bought and read the book is because it seemed to fit the genre I’m writing in.

The book follows two characters, Dexter and Emma, and switches between their points of view. However, my reading is that Emma is the character the author is most attached to, as I find her more realistically drawn and complex (but that might be my male POV). And I think this may tap into something mentioned by Graeme A. Thomson in his analysis of Kate Bush that I blogged on a few months ago — an innate curiosity about how the other half feels (either as intimate lover or as gender in general). I’ve noticed recently in women’s magazines how they often have a ‘typical’ man writing a column that is meant to give the readers some idea of a male perspective on an issue (although I’ve been fairly infuriated by the views of most of these supposed representative men in the few I’ve read). But I think that Nicholls has shown there’s quite a sizable market for novels written by men that perhaps don’t achieve the ultimate insight of providing an authentically female point-of-view (although if you want that authenticity then there’s plenty of female writers to pick from) but are actually more interesting and enlightening by presenting a sympathetic interpretation of what a male author considers to be a female perspective.

Actually I find that women writers are a lot less neurotic about writing from a male point-of-view — they just get on with it — but perhaps that’s maybe because they’re less likely to be challenged over its authenticity by men.

Going back to the Amazon reviews, I’m not sure if I’ve seen a novel like this that has polarised opinions so much — not so much in the star ratings but in the comments that accompany them. Many of the five star reviews say it’s one of the reader’s favourite ever books while the one-star reviewers completely damn it on many different aspects, predominantly technical.

Having come out of the City University course where I’d spent six months reading other students’ writing with a very critical eye, I’ve started to read published novels with the same perspective and, in many, I have a mental pencil which strikes out words and makes notional comments in the margins.

Reading ‘One Day’ was oddly both infuriating and quite affirming because there were passages where I thought ‘if I’d have brought that to the City workshops I’d be slagged off mercilessly’. There were the dreaded adverbs (particularly hated when applied at the end of speech tags), long passages of dialogue where despite it being between two characters (male and female) it became unclear who was speaking, some occasionally very stilted dialogue (Dexter’s mother) and in some passages the POV kept leaping all over the place (sometimes within the same paragraph) — although there were amusing occasions when I was reminded of Douglas Adams when the POV suddenly switched to a minor character.

Also, and I’ll try not to spoil the story, there’s a massive twist to the plot that relies completely on a co-incidental, totally random event — which is something all the how-to advice tells writers never to do because the plot should derive from character. However, I actually liked that twist because it was genuinely surprising and it does throw the reader — I’m not sure that it helps the remainder of the book that much but it did pack an emotional punch and that part was well-written.

Having finished and reflected on the book, I think that all of the above are perhaps why readers like it — it’s not too perfect, the imperfections perhaps bring the reader closer to the characters in an informal way. And also it shows that many creative writing class shibboleths are quite over-pedantic anyway.

I liked the book even though the characters aren’t particularly likeable — often people will criticise books by saying they need to ‘like’ the characters — but I’m not sure whether this is mainly a defensive reaction that a reader likes to use to make a statement about how they’d like to be perceived themselves.

Overall, the book succeeds because it does something that, in my experience, creative writing courses fail to emphasise — perhaps because it’s so fundamental — it makes the reader want to know what happened next. By taking a clever device of basing the action every day on 15th July from 1988 to 2007, Nicholls has (most of) the readers hooked — and it’s a life experience saga too — the characters will be just about 40 by the end of the period.

Almost all popular fiction (which is the category of award ‘One Day’ won) succeeds because readers want to find out what happened next. I find it quite odd sometimes when someone writes on my drafts (‘looking forward to what happens next time’ or ‘always like yours as it has me turning the pages’) because sometimes it seems like the readers have more interest in the events in the story than you do as a writer (perhaps because you have the burden of inventing them?) but in a workshopping session one is more likely to be praised to the skies for a nice sounding phrase or a piece of imagery.

It’s good to have this counterbalanced every so often by reading warm and funny novels like ‘One Day’ and also appreciate the genuineness of many readers’ reaction to it — and good that there are awards that recognise this too.

I also liked the use of pop music in the book too. The book’s website had a lovely feature where it listed the tracks Emma had put on compilation tapes to give to Dexter. I e-mailed the author to discuss the relative absence of Smiths’ tracks and he was a nice enough chap to send me a quick reply on the subject.

Running Up That Hill

It’s quite a surprise to have  what seems an innate appreciation of an artist (in the general sense of the word) explained by reading some analysis that explains possible reasons behind a latent, unconscious bonding  – or at least have light cast upon it. On holiday I read Graeme Thomson’s recent biography of Kate Bush – ‘Under the Ivy’  (Omnibus Press) – which bills itself as ‘the first ever in-depth study of one of the world’s most enigmatic artists’.

It’s a curious book – mostly biography gleaned from interviews with figures relatively peripheral to Kate Bush’s life and from press interviews with Kate Bush herself. She’s certainly a fascinating and enigmatic subject but what lifts the book above the levels of most music biographies is Thomson’s critical interpretation of her music, somewhat in the vein of Ian MacDonald’s classic about The Beatles, ‘Revolution in the Head’.

There were a few passages of analysis in the book which suddenly grabbed me and made me think ‘that concept is similar to what I’ve been trying to get over in my writing’.

One trait I have is to tend to throw in all sorts of cultural references and allusions, which is what Kate Bush tended to do in her lyrics – almost to the level of self-parody in ‘Them Heavy People’ but there’s far more – think of Molly Bloom’s speech from ‘Ulysses’ in ‘The Sensual World’ (my favourite Kate Bush track of the lot), or the obvious ‘Wuthering Heights’.

Yet Thomson points out that these cultural references are a paradox and something of a deliberate obfuscation because her work is impossible to fully appreciate solely by academic analysis:

‘Bush’s music takes us somewhere else, somewhere deeper…It’s a very inquisitive, giving quixotic thing…there is no need to join every dot, or explain every reference. That is a game for those who can’t trust their own responses without first looking for an intellectual hook on which to hang it. Kate Bush is all about emotion: the things she uses to get to those emotions aren’t necessarily important. You either hear it and feel it – and trust what you’re hearing or feeling – or you don’t.’

I particularly like the last sentence: you’re either the sort of person who trusts your emotional reaction or you aren’t. This ties in with some current debate about writing, especially of the more literary genre – does it work on an emotional level or does it solely exist to perform intellectual gymnastics?

No-one who’s seriously listened to Kate Bush’s music can underestimate its sensuality. The candid attitude towards sex, even in songs released in the 1970s, is quite revelatory and far more insightful than many of her female successors (think of the relatively crude shock-tactics of the likes of Madonna or Lady GaGa). However, even knowing the song for 25 years I hadn’t fully realised (shows how closely I read the lyrics) what she was trying to suggest in one of her most well known singles, ‘Running Up That Hill’. To quote Thomson:

‘Originally called “A Deal With God”, the song spoke passionately of Bush’s impossible wish to become her lover, and he her, in order that they could finally know what the other felt and desired. It was a sobering comment on misfiring communication and the impossibility of men and women ever really understanding one another, and yet – in capturing the basic human need to strive for compatibility – it was not without hope nor optimism.’

I’d say that many novelists also try to set out to achieve this ‘impossible’ ambition (trying to fully understand the experience of the other gender) – to know ‘what the other felt and desired’. It’s certainly something I’m fascinated with – as I have a novel that switches between male and female POVs in a putative relationship.

It’s pretty evident that these songs have lodged themselves quite deep in my psyche and bits of them seem to come out when I’m writing. I had a playlist of ‘quiet stuff’ on my laptop which featured a lot of Kate Bush songs and I have listened to this over the past few years at very low volume as I fell asleep in work trips in various hotel rooms around Europe.

There’s another aspect to Kate Bush’s work that makes it more approachable from a male point of view which I’d never realised until reading this book – and yet it’s so obvious. She likes men. Thomson says of one of Kate Bush’s most touching songs:

‘Aside from its luminous melody and swooping chorus, “The Man With the Child In His Eyes” is one of the first example of the extraordinarily positive ways in which Bush views men. She is surely unique among female songwriters in that her canon contains not a single song that puts down, castigates or generally gives men the brush off. She has been feminist in the bluntest sense – she wants to preserve and embrace the differences between the sexes and understand the male of the species. Many songs display a desire to experience fully what it is to be a man; she invests them with a power, beauty and a kind of mystical attraction which is incredibly generous. “It’s not such an open thing for a woman to be physically attracted to the male body and fantasise about it” she once said. “I can’t understand that because to me the male body is absolutely beautiful.”’

I knew that Kate Bush had a large gay (male) following but it was only after reading the above interview quotation that I the penny finally dropped. On a similar vein I’m wondering about buying ‘Adventures in Kate Bush and Theory’ which is full of analysis (as it says in the publisher’s press release) ‘written by a queer woman in her late 20s, its answers are delivered in a unique way…showing that theory can be sordid, funny and irreverent’. I wouldn’t mind too much if those three adjectives were applied to my novel, at least in part.

Sneaker Pimps

More odd musical/novelistic connections: one song I belatedly discovered is by a little known band called The Sneaker Pimps. Even though I only heard it properly on a compilation last year it dates back to 1996. Given my recurring themes in The Angel it’s probably not a surprise (but one I only just realised) that it’s called ‘6 Underground’. It’s more than just the title that resonates — it’s also the general feel of the track (a sort of soporific shuffling beat) and the lyrics.

There’s a bit of a refrain alternating ‘underground/overground’, which is quite apt but I particularly like the sense of contempt hidden behind a veneer of patience. I especially like the couplet:

‘Don’t think because I understand that I care/Don’t think because we’re talking that we’re friends.’

And I like the nihilsm of:

‘Talk me down, safe and sound/Too strung up to sleep/Wear me out, scream and shout’

The intonation of the singer, who’s now called Kelli Ali, fits in my mind the sort of attitude that I’ve tried to depict in Kim in the extract that I’ve written to send out for my reading when we come back after our Easter holidays on Monday. She’s massively in debt, been betrayed by someone who she thought was her boyfriend, is hungover and has to entertain this City banker type who she thinks feels quite sorry for himself as he’s just been fired — but she needs his money. She’s only really prepared to be as civil to him to start with as is strictly necessary (‘don’t think because we’re talking that we’re friends’) but he disarms her by his childish enthusiasm and honest compliments to the point where he wins her round and actually manages to get her to drop a lot of her front too.

I’m not too sure what I think about what I’ve sent out to the rest of the class overall. It’s 2,600 words (a little over so Alison might shut me up again) and it’s just two people in a confined space in real time from one POV. It sows a lot of backstory and primes the rest of the narrative though, after the initially more dramatic scenes of the first two chapters. (Most of the class haven’t seen these but Alison has — and she’s given me feedback on them so I’m not going to get her to sit through me reading those again.) The reader will find that James is into cooking, that Kim is in a bad state (asthmatic. in debt), that she works in a pub part-time, that James doesn’t find her very attractive (bloodshot eyes, dirty clothes, spotty) — he’s surprised at one point that she has a female shape.

Yet the two of them both want something from the other. James wants some sort of validation and approbation of his appreciation of art and music. Kim wants to keep her head above water professionally and financially: she’s also in a situation from which she could be persuaded to escape.

I found the video for the song on You Tube so here it is. (Note the nose piercing.)

I came across an autobiography of Kelly Ali, the singer in the Sneaker Pimps (at the time of ‘6 Underground’ anyway). It’s quite fascinating and she has the same kind of voice and philosophy that I imagine Kim to have, with a few important differences. Seems the other pimps were posh kids from the north east — one of them and his father were accomplished fine wine tasters and could identify reds from tasting them (more echoes of my writing there, especially from ‘Burying Bad News’.).

Silly Love Songs

In the reading I’m doing for the workshop on Saturday I mentioned a couple of pieces of background music that set the mood in a tastefully refurbished pub (‘marinated in a knowing, post-modern irony). These happened to be playing on shuffle on my computer as I was writing it. One is ‘Amoreuse’ by Kiki Dee, which is a song that few people probably know by name but most people will recognise. It’s actually a French song to which Gary Osborne put English lyrics (who wrote ‘Get the Abbey Habit’ and the lyrics to Elton John’s ‘Blue Eyes’ if I remember correctly).  

The other was one of my very favourites (and not just because of its drinking related title) — ‘Love Hangover’. I like the Associates version but the original Diana Ross recording is both incredibly seductive (in the opening) and then has the most incredibly charged erotic energy — the hi-hat making it pound along. I think I remember some Paul Gambaccini programme on Radio 2 describing how that Diana Ross was reluctant to record such a blatantly sexual song at first and the producer had to seduce her into it with the lights turned down very low.  (There’s something similar about it on this website.) It’s unusual as it’s written by two women — Pam Sawyer and Marilyn MaLeod.

I came back to try and find it on the laptop and did a filter for everything tagged with the word ‘love’. I don’t consider myself to have a collection with loads of soppy songs and it probably removed about 80% of the tracks. However, I was stunned by how many of those that were left were tracks that I really like. Having ‘love’ in the title almost seems to be a predictor of quality. Of those that are on the playlist are gems like ‘Big Love’ by FleetwoodMac, ‘I’m in Love with A German Film Star’ by the Passions, ‘Sowing the Seeds of Love’ by Tears for Fears, ‘Love at First Sight’ by Kylie, ‘Tainted Love’ by Soft Cell, ‘Friday I’m in Love’ by the Cure, ‘I’m Not in Love’ by 10cc, ‘Justify My Love’ by Madonna, ‘Love Shack’ by the B52s, ‘Love is the Drug’ by Roxy Music, ‘Whole Lotta Love’ by Led Zeppellin, ‘Funeral for a Friend (Love Lies Bleeding’ by Elton John,  ‘Damn I Wish I Was Your Lover’ by Sophie B Hawkins, ‘Saving All My Love for You’ by Whitney Houston, ‘Love is a Battlefield’ by Pat Benatar (I Love That) and, of course, ‘Silly Love Songs’ by Wings…though I wasn’t so enthused by ‘Boys (Summertime Love’) by Sabrina.

I’m not arguing the self-evident point that lots of pop songs have ‘love’ in their title but that I’m far less likely to skip to the next track when I’ve filtered for the word. This makes me think that. perhaps, that for a lot of artists that they are more confident of titling a song with a potentially ‘cheesy’ like ‘love’ when it’s a strong, good quality track (i.e. because it’s good they don’t need to be defensive about it). Paul McCartney’s lyric to ‘Silly Love Songs’  sums up this critical tendency. This is less true of the likes of Diana Ross but very true of the more macho male groups and singers. I think that may be a lesson for writing as well — if you’re dealing with emotions then it will work if you do it directly and confidently then that will be the best remembered of your work.