Friday, 27 February 2009

Michael O'Leary, I'm beginning to think, is the world's greatest satirist...

He's like some character in a Bill Hicks routine magnified by, well, a large number.

'Every legal means'?

Trust me, Gordon. Most of us would be more than happy for you to drop the adjective from that sentence.


After an absolute ballache (as my brother would say) of a week, in which I have been forced to teach like I've never taught before, it was refreshing to check my e-mail and find an e-mail praising one of my lessons (one that I thought had bored the students to death). I was going to quote it, but my paranoiac instincts made me wonder if the sender might Google her own e-mail content...

Just been to a training session, which was actually a marketing opportunity for O.U.P.'s Hungarian wing. Most of the teachers present were not Hungarian, and those who weren't were TEFL bunnies. I was sat at the front trying to disguise the fact that I'm a moonlighting Eng. Lit. doctor.

Two very long posts to come soon - one part two of the 'Writers' thing and the other...well, the other is very long. I'm not sure where it ends up.

Wednesday, 25 February 2009

England bad, England good...

Darlington are going into administration. Given the situation we're in, it could - could - be the end.

In better news, I just swapped my SIM cards back to phone HMRC and spoke to a very helpful Mackem called Daniel, who assures me that I am now registered. They have something about avuncular northerners there - when I was trying to get my rebate, the only person who stopped me going stir-fry was a genial Yorkshireman called Mick who seemed as bemused by the process as I was. That's a bloody relief though, anyway!

Tuesday, 24 February 2009

'Miffy, Muffy, Tufty.'

A.L. Kennedy's new series on becoming a Writer.

I've a lot of time for A.L. Her novels aren't exactly wheel-inventing, but they're funny, compassionate, and well-observed (long-time readers will appreciate how odd it is for me to use these the last two of these words non-pejoratively.) Once again, though, this is the media playing up the cult of the Writer whilst laying the blame for a diminishing 'national literary culture' - who does she think she is? Sandor Petőfi? - on anyone but Writers themselves. This is a fallacy that benefits nobody but the nouveaux mandarins behind the now-global industry in postgraduate creative writing courses. But, A.L., isn't it often the case that these courses, which, whilst not exactly promising, intimate the enhanced likelihood of publishing contracts and/ or the representation of agents at their conclusion, reveal cohort after cohort of 'Miffys', 'Muffys', and 'Tuftys'? I know you're guaranteed to meet a grizzled, alcoholic ex-miner on every single CW course, but they usually soon become a totem for an authenticity which is subsequently, miraculously, distributed through and across the group. CW courses are full of people who are used to being told that they are relatively talented writers, because they are, who then choose to ignore the relatively part and decide that they don't need to graft to make it better. Unless 'grafting' means spending hours in a bar, talking not about books by other people, but by the minutiae of motivation and 'inhabitation' of voices as it pertains to their own work.

So many CW enrollees I have met read works of literature in a purely cannibalistic manner, looking to see what devices could give their projects a shot in the arm. Form becomes the instrument of a commercially-viable 'novelty', vis-a-vis the appropriation of people like Georges Perec and Harry Mathews to the ever-proliferating mass of CW coursebooks. To me, this is not an example of literature being regarded in good faith. I'll sit and talk drunkenly about books for ages, for far too long, but I can't participate in those seedy conversations where - for example - Henry Green's dialogue or Elizabeth Bowen's stillnesses become as little as something I can have too. Sure, I'll recognise a congruence of intentions, and there's writers who work now - M. John Harrison at his best, Peace, Chris Paling in parts - who I like because they appeal to my 'working' sensibility. But I could never look at Harrison, extrapolate a Mills & Boon-style template for the 'quasi-fantastic novel of northern melancholia', then work to it by rote. To me it's always something to work away from, to acknowledge as well as possible whilst drawing a line of consecration around it, than to chop up and decontextualise like some Sicilian tomb raider.

So Kennedy still wants to have, and still wants writers to have, their ego. They are still skinny and poor, they still live off coffee and perhaps something a little stronger in a giftless genie of fag smoke. They live at an extreme. IMO, the majority of CW students manufacture that environment as much as possible as a vital stage in that most ersatz of process, becoming Writer - I know a couple who could be said to have existed within this stereotype by necessity rather than by pretence, and it's no coincidence that they're the ones I might take seriously. But it is the ego of the Writer that obstructs the activity of becoming reader, which is, still, an unavoidable (and yet utterly pleasurable) necessity in the creative apprenticeship. The reason we are ending up with bucketfuls of myopic novels about adolescence and studenthood, which are, unquestionably, the dullest topics on which one might write, is because of the CW agenda's partial nurturing, which tells young writers they are 'good' but does not encourage them to look beyond the limited scope of their own experience and send them towards the rather bloody large stock of other peoples' which can be found, conveniently, in the average university - or even municipal - library. Don't talk about 'control' and 'motivation' as if you were Stanislavski until you've at least familiarised yourself with a page or 3,000 of Flaubert or James or Bowen, don't talk about 'atmosphere' until you've done M.R. James and Patrick Hamilton backwards, and don't talk about 'Japanese influences' because you're read a few pages of Murakami.

David Peace and Will Self have both talked, repeatedly, about the potential harmfulness of the CW system and I think it's time more people listened. There may be people reading this who are CW friends, and if you're my friend you're probably exonerated from this on the grounds that we've almost certainly been over this ground and you've agreed with me about the dangers I've mentioned above. I'm sorry, but I felt like I needed to say all of this.

Sunday, 22 February 2009

Edward Upward, RIP

I can't believe I didn't notice this for almost ten days, but Edward Upward, the last surviving member of the Auden Generation, has died aged 105. His early collaborations with Christopher Isherwood are some of the most interesting literary documents from the late twenties/ early thirties, and set the terms for how the developments of Surrealism were to be negotiated by English writers. His novel Journey to the Border is certainly worth reading if one is interested in the influence of Kafka on pre-1939 English fiction. Sad news.

Saturday, 21 February 2009

Derek Raymond

Read what I had to say about him here.

If anyone could keep a hard copy of this for me, I'd be very grateful.

(I'm glad to see a nod for Gerald Kersh's wonderful Night and the City here, as well.)

Fame, albeit limited

Apparently my note on Derek Raymond's I Am Dora Suarez is in today's Guardian. Mint.

Sorry lads, we're bizzies...

The police have postponed Everton's home fixture with Stoke so the BNP can have a get-together in Liverpool. With any luck, this means that Nick Griffin has got on the wrong side of the Blues' vaguely Christopher Walken-esque manager David Moyes.

I've met the Hungarian police a few times this week. On Tuesday, a couple of pensioners burgled a flat in our block (you've read that right - Jenny's description makes it seem like a particularly vigorous outing for Compo and co). The Rendőrség pulled up in their car about two hours later, just as I was attempting to get into the block without my outer-door key. The leader walked over to me and tried gamely to speak English while I tried gamely to speak Hungarian, a conversation which eventually elicited the information that I 'should' drink the bottle of wine I was holding in my hand. Still, at least he didn't confuse me with the superannuated robbers.

Then, on Wednesday, I made my usual short-cut to WestEnd mall, an implausibly large shopping outlet containing about three million shoe shops, through Nyugati Station. The station had been evacuated the day before because workers had found some unexploded WWII grenades on a construction site next door, so the Rendőrség had decided to go and do some tokenistic 'anti-terrorist' quota-filling in the station. As in Britain, this generally involves stopping all men between 14 and 40 and making them feel guilty for a couple of minutes. In this case, they checked my passport briefly and returned it politely, without the supercilious attitude that I've seen so often from British police (particularly at football matches, where I've witnessed some absolutely ludicrous timesheet-completing activities.)

Don't get me wrong, I'm very far from being one of those 'maaaan, the police are, like, always bad and that' type people,* and I've met some very polite and helpful PCs in Britain, Hungary, Italy, Portugal, and Spain (where an officer just chuckled and gave me the right answer when, rather tipsy, I asked him for directions to the train station I was standing right outside at five in the morning. In Italian.) But I'm convinced that I have one of those faces. My criminal record is pristine, but I have:

- been asked for my name and address whilst mucking about innocently in a park, aged 14.
- been thrown out of a W.H. Smith store by a security guard, aged 13, because I'd been in there 'too long'. (I was looking for Christmas presents, you wanker.)
- had my luggage and all my possessions heavily scrutinised by the French douanes at Calais on two separate occasions. I admit that the second time this might have been provoked by my making a sarcastic remark, but I only did that because the police were treating everyone like idiots, as they generally do in France.
- been put into an 'escort' on my way to a match at Lincoln, only to realise that it was full of the full complement of Hogan's finest, who'd travelled en masse to the end-of-season fixture in the hope of a 80s-revivalist pagger.
- Been accused at Carrow Road of beating up a Dagenham & Redbridge supporter outside the ground and stealing his ticket. In all fairness, this was due more to some lacksadaisical organisation (it's a long and boring story) on an ex-girlfriend's part than to over-zealous policing
, but still...

I used to sit opposite a hopeful for the police when I had a rubbish job at a stationery wholesalers. He was a nice guy, and intelligent, but he had this spooky regard for 'the law' as this immutable, inherently correct thing which made me wonder about what his attitude would be if he lived in a country which places less emphasis on personal freedoms than the UK - Berlusconi's Italy, for example. One of the many ways in which I used to kill time in that job was by constructing ethical dilemmas of ever-increasing baroqueness for him to solve, but his answer was always 'if it's against the law, it's against the law, and I'd arrest them.' I hope that not all potential PCs are so dogmatic. I should add, in mitigation, that he had an uncanny attractiveness to muggers and random assailants, and that he was from Grimsby, a town which could make anyone yearn for some Dixon of Dock Green-style idyll.

Anyway, I'm thinking of going to the football this afternoon, so we'll see how they do 'crowd'** control in Budapest.

* My uncle is a raconteur ex-policeman with a caché of good stories. He arrested Keith Moon at Prestwick Airport once. Moon pulled a 'gun' on him, and pulled the trigger, only for a flag with 'bang' written on it to protrude from the muzzle...
** Average attendances at Soproni Liga 1 games have dropped below 2,000 this season, largely due to the fact that Hungarian football has been ruined by corruption since 1989, and everyone in BP supports Italian, German, and English teams. 2,000 would be understandable in a country the size of, say, Slovenia, but Hungary's population is twice Scotland's. I'm thinking of going to see my local team, current champions MTK, play Kaposvar at 5.00pm, but I'm slightly depressed by the thought that they've had <1,000 gates this season.

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Quack, croak, glug, and whatever noise a water boatman makes Pt. II

Further to last month's note about an imminent proliferation of ponds, Teesside has got in on the act by creating a new waterfowl reserve at Saltholme, between Hartlepool and Billingham. There are already a few reserves around there, notably at Seal Sands, where we once spent a day on a school trip, learning absolutely nothing but having a fantastic time chucking sand at each other and trying to make the teacher cry. The article is right, though: there's definitely something East Anglian (read: Sebaldian) about that stretch of coastline, although I dare say that you can still go walking there without coming upon a method-writing UEA creative writing student at every turn in the path. Or Will Self.

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Yorkshire Gothic (Again)

Carol Rumens selects the 'Lyke Wake Dirge', a fourteenth century funerary poem in Cleveland dialect, as her poem of the week. Brrr.

Here is a link to Pentangle's brilliant setting of the poem, which unfortunately has a homemade montage of some American graveyards attached.

Some things turn out well in the end...

The man responsible for the song with the greatest pop-sax break in the world ever, although - controversially - not responsible for the sax break itself, turns up after having been missing for a worrying amount of time.

Were I ever to write a novel intending to capture the essence of the British 1970s, that video probably contains all the research material I should need...

Monday, 16 February 2009

Beat that, Gordon Brown...

For Valentine's Day, we took the chairlift up to the top of Janoshegy and messed around in the snow:

Hungarians, like most Europeans I have ever come across, don't find the notion of spending all Saturday in the pub watching Sky Sports News very appealing. Free time and fresh air are treated as sacrosanct, so the summit of Janoshegy was, in spite (or because) of the weather, crawling with daytrippers sledging, cross-country skiing, ambling, and, er, jogging. Anyway, it was all very bracing.

Fresh air makes you hungry, so we jumped off the bus back to Pest before it crossed the river and went for a pizza in a side street off lovably grim transport hub Moskvá Ter. Afterwards, we thought it might be a good idea to wander over to the cinema and see if there was anything worth watching. Our options were The Dark Knight (vetoed on grounds of length and Jenny's intolerance for relentless grimness) and Revolutionary Road (vetoed on the grounds of my dislike of shit films.) So, giving up on the idea, we set off through the mall to take a tram back to Pest.

Then we saw, of all people, someone who I am 99% sure was controversial Hungarian PM Ferencz Gyurcsany - apologies for using the English name order, I still can't help it - stepping out with his wife and who I presume was his daughter. They were followed by two heavies, so whether it was FG or not (and my new students say that there was no reason that it shouldn't have been) it was certainly someone reasonably important and stately looking. What was odd was that I didn't observe anybody making a big deal of his being there.

I hope for his sake he went to see The Dark Knight rather than Revolutionary Road. RR sounds like it has a serious dose of authenticity-itis: 'if it's miserable, it must be good etc etc.' Every cinema in Budapest is showing it about sixteen times a day...

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Self and Sinclair! Head to Head!

My friend Chris, or Attic Fantasist as he's known for blogging purposes, has beaten me to this, but the two most visible literary representatives of psychogeography in the UK both feature prominently in last weekend's newspapers. Firstly, Will Self describes his 'growing affinity' with fellow tramper - although, as AF points out, he would probably have resisted the 'psychogeography' tag - W. G. Sebald in a frankly curious Guardian article. Secondly, Rachel Cooke does a much more sensible piece on Iain Sinclair, in which she walks around Hackney with him in anticipation of his new book That Rose-Red Empire. Sinclair has, in the past, been slightly disparaging about Self's somewhat posturing take on psychogeography, which - as I understand it - runs the risk of making its theory and practice overly co-optable (Self might retort that Sinclair is one to talk, of course). Here's a chance, then, to compare and contrast their ideas as they are represented in the mainstream media...

Lots of Sebald features about recently, isn't there?

English Lessons in Petfood Wonkaland

Yes, a title like that should grab 'em.

Sorry to any regular readers for the low postage this last week. I've been working, and canvassing for work, a fair bit. I've finally got some lessons organised and have now even got a couple under my belt. Man. I'm teaching English as a language subject. How weird.

Anyway, yesterday I went to a town called Budaörs to meet with a company who need some language tutoring done a few times a week. As the title of this post implies, it's a petfood company, although the Budaörs site is (thankfully) not the factory. Anyway, I had to sit alone in the boardroom waiting for the HR manager to come and see what I was all about. It was like being in a Graham Greene, or perhaps Evelyn Waugh, novel: sitting alone in this swanky corporate facility, in an unfamiliar town, surrounded by a wide variety of sample petfood products, feeling absolutely knackered thanks to a lesson taught at 7.30 that morning. The place was a little bit like Wonka HQ if it appealed to dogs rather than children. If this wasn't surreal enough, the view out of the window was of the rather striking landscape of the Buda Hills, which look ever so slightly like Pennine crags.

Anyway, I got the work. I think I've established three contracts through the school, and I have a couple of potential private students. I finally feel like I live here.

I've also been designing my new blog, which will host all the outpourings of my currently frustrated inner football correspondent. The link will come soon. It looks nicer than this blog, possibly.

Saturday, 7 February 2009

A vain and self-serving request...

Would it be possible for anyone who bought the Grauniad today (Saturday) to have a look in the Review section and see if my contribution to the 1000 novels list was printed?

If so, could you save it for me? There's a pint/ glass of wine/ bag of paprika/ amusing postcard in it for you.

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

Pestering people... not my default position, but I'm being forced to do it at the moment.

If anyone needs any (paid) writing done - unlikely, I admit, given that most people who I know read this blog are themselves writers - please feel free to get in touch.