Monday, June 26, 2006

The difference a day makes

I've always gone through different phases with books. Sometimes, I'll read voraciously and whizz through anything I can get my mitts on. Other times, I'll have utterly barren eras where a book barely passes through my hands, but for once in a couple of years (exaggerations hopefully excused for the sake of literary licence). In recent times - since I moved to Tokyo - I've gone through one of those lean periods, as I've mostly been far too busy in trying to lay the groundwork for the new life I started making for myself. Probably less than 10 novels in 3 years.

Over Christmas 2005, I stepped off the Tokyo wheel for a while and forced myself to relax, exchanging the East Asian archipelago of Japan for East Africa and Tanzania. Believe me, stopping can be a tough thing to do in this town. Whilst slowing down a while, I had the pleasure of immersing myself in the joys of Zadie Smith's debut novel, the intricately interwoven tale of multi-ethnic London that is 'White Teeth'. Not only was it good to step into the well crafted pages of somebody else's imagination for a moment, it was also a bloody good read.

Just completed reading my second novel in 6 months. Not exactly a cracking pace, it has to be said, but a pleasure to have done so all the same. Depicted above, I've just made it through my first take on an Ian McEwan novel, with 'Saturday'. I've never spent a great deal of time ploughing through the contemporary 'old British vanguard', yet was pleasantly surprised and a little proud of this gem. McEwan could very easily be considered as operating at the peak of his game. Richly descriptive, it tells the tale of one man's life over the course of a single day, again in London - the city of a million different stories.

All the more pertinent for me, the trials of the day of Henry Perowne were backdropped by the anti-war march held on February 15th 2003 - an event where anywhere up to 2 million people may well have taken to the streets of London to express their opposition to the then pending US-led (and British-followed) war in Iraq. A textbook case in military misadventure, if ever there was one. I joined this march, apparently the biggest public protest in British history, having felt a calling I couldn't ignore. I went along too with a MiniDisc player and a clip-mic, and recorded the sounds of the street, later working extracts from these recordings into some of the songs that appeared on my first album as Control K.

Having made my own attempts at representing this surge of popular feeling in art, it was a pleasure to discover somebody else having done so too, and at a considerably higher level than my efforts. While the world may currently lack the first 'great post 9/11 novel', McEwan's efforts at depicting the realities of the changed modern world that the Bushites forcibly dragged the rest of the planet into make for both a good read and a valuable document of these times. It's not entirely without traces of optimism too, though they are certainly subtle and read 'between the lines'.

When our grandchildren look back at the turn of the 21st Century, as we only recently did for the turn of the 20th, pointers such as this may well give them a good flavour of this era.

The question remains to be seen, however, whether they will be cursing us or praising us.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

'A new page': Brighton short story

Blogging does turn out to be a rather good way of connecting back to where you've been. Amongst my respondents so far on this blog have been old friends from my bookselling days in Brighton, which has in turn inspired me to check out what's going back on there. This is a community for some Brighton bloggers.

Idleformat mentions the new website he's worked on for showcasing Brighton writers, 'The Deckchair' (cheers for the highly complimentary and distinctintly self-deprectating entry on yours, my good man!).

I now have my first short story published with them, a tale of one young man and his gang's efforts to enjoy themselves on New Year's Eve 1999, the turn of the millenium. You can read it here. I anticipate this place becoming a repository for my thoughts of home and the older tales I came up with when at college. Can university really have been that long ago now? Where does time go in our lives? Mine gets lost in the Tokyo machine these days.

An invitation then for comments: How did you spend the turn of the millenium?

Rowan, another compatriot from the period of my life shifting dusty tomes and bestsellers, also alerts me to her pages. She has a personal blog here and a book review one here.

Dip in to literary Brighton. The water might be cold, but the hearts are warm!

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

That's The Way God Planned It?

There were many people described as 'The Fifth Beatle'. Officially credited on one of their records ('Get Back/Don't Let Me Down') and therefore being the only other musician to share their name on a hit single was Billy Preston. A gifted and soulful keyboard player who performed with many of rock and soul's greatest names, he has sadly died of kidney failure at the age of 59.

RIP Billy.


Migrants, foreigners, immigrants, expatriates, emigrants, outsiders, refugees, travellers...we're everywhere.

A recent BBC report notes a UN study showing that nearly 200 million people now live outside of their country of origin, with most of them going to rich countries. I got priced out of one rich country and moved to another. The Pakistani taxi drivers I met and talked with in Dubai last December moved from a poor country to a considerably richer one. We're both sending remittances back home - me to service my own debts, them to support their families in Islamabad or Lahore. I'd bet though that I'm treated better in my host country than they are in theirs, which is certainly not a boast. Apparently a high share of national income for places like The Philippines comes from money sent by money transfers.

If Bush gets his anti-immigration push through in the US, there'll undoubtedly be other huge consequences beyond the American borders, such as possible large slumps in other national economies (let alone the American one). Interestingly, the US has the highest number of international migrants at around one fifth. With the greatest of respect to many of the good people of America, it's not somewhere that I'd have ranking high on my list of places to migrate to. An American friend tells me of the palpable climate of fear stalking across Bushland right now. Still, if I found myself having to live in somewhere like New York or San Francisco for some reason, I'm pretty sure that I'd find a way of coping!

Japan ranks 20th in the UN report, with an apparent 2 million international migrants, behind Kazakhstan, Côte d’Ivoire and Jordan.

Existential questions

Criticisms can stick much more than compliments, even a sly, barbed aside. For a hundred big-ups, it's the one diss that'll be what lingers in the mind.

I was too young to read her work as an NME scribe in the 70's and equally as unlikely to pick up much of her 'Me Generation' 80's novels. However, when she began writing for The Guardian in the 90's, I'd often find myself reading Julie Burchill's columns. For one, she had relocated to Brighton, and any Brighton-centric musings in a national publication were inherently interesting to me. Above that though, the position she often took on many issues tended to be similar to my own. I don't recollect the contents of them that much, but as best as I can remember, it tended to be tirades against the insanities of the modern world so troubling to those who think and care about what goes on around us.

I may not remember the nature of what she wrote about, but there was one comment that remained lodged in my mind. To paraphrase: 'The 'I' key on her computer is broken from overuse'. This barb set in train the line of thinking that, perhaps either to be beyond criticism or to make their writings more interesting or readable, a writer should not write so much from a 'first person perspective' (i.e. I, me, mine). Perhaps the third person (he, she, it) was best, to be truly objective, or the second person (you) if one was appealing directly to an audience or readership. The passive voice ('it was done' not 'I did it') might even add a greater element of detachment, and thus cement the idea of the writer as outsider or commentator.

Still, having kept a hard-copy diary of personal thoughts, feelings and experiences for over 20 years now, I'm pretty solidly versed in writing from that first person perspective.

And herein lay the second conundrum.

The first, as hinted at in my initial posting, was 'to blog or not to blog'. The fact that you're reading this here and now says that I've moved beyond that one.

The second question was then about the nature that such a venture should take.

Should it be simply an online extension of the diary that has been my long-standing confidant? Perhaps to some extent, although there are thoughts and experiences one has that one doesn't really want to share with the world.

A step into journalism, given the revolution that blogging has been to traditional publishing? Maybe one day in the future, but it is a little early to be thinking along those lines.

A means of collating my various different projects together and acting as a 'news' service for them all?

Some kind of 'upmarket' looking Internet presence, a 'classy Myspace profile'?

Somewhere to throw the thought and opinions on the world around me which come up from time to time and that I feel the need to share?

In many ways, I guess that this will become all of those things, and hopefully more too. One cannot know how a venture will develop in its earliest stages.

And so what perspective to use?

Would Thoreau's 'Walden' have benefited from not having the personal touch of the writer actually experiencing what he was writing about? How about Orwell's 'Down And Out In Paris And London' - more interesting if fictionalised and designed to look like he was hiding something or making it up? Henry Miller's 'Rosy Crucifiction Trilogy' surely would have been less engaging if the reader didn't know that it was the author's actual life that was being writing about.

When I had my (minor) 15 minutes of fame as a rock 'n' roll singer in The Zamora, one of the main publicity angles was putting the singer (i.e. me) up front as the mouthpiece of the band. That was certainly an interesting experience of standing and blinking in the limelight, but also made me slightly wary of the public exposure that it brings about. For those of you who have long dreamt of fame as a way to 'be somebody', have you considered the down sides of it too? What must life really be like with your bad hair days on the morning front pages and journalists camped out on your doorsteps? Fame does not come without drawbacks too. For the record, The Zamora were not exactly papparazzi staples!

Athough my 'rock 'n' roll frontman' persona was also another mask - a patchwork puppet cobbled together from rock's back pages - my post-Zamora years have been coloured by the creation of a series of alter-egos under which to create and issue my works. Whether acting as a representative of an organisation such as Sounds Phenomenal or Peace Not War Japan, issuing electronic music as Control K, or the range of angles I've taken and the subjects covered in my writing, I've learnt to publically be more than one person, and often simultaneously. In 'Quadrophenia', The Who's intentions for the character of Jimmy were that he was somehow beyond schizophrenia. They created him to represent the 4 different personalities that made up the band - brash Daltrey, conscious Townsend, destructive Moon, steady Entwhistle. I'll take it a step further and say that this blog might just be a mouthpiece for my 'multiphrenia'. After all, it's a diverse world and reflecting that takes a diverse approach.

So to answer that existential question posed earlier. Yes, writing as 'I' is OK by me. I'll just try not to overuse it!