Feeling the Gravity

After a delightful month breezing through The City and The City, the pulpy and energetic Boxer Beetle by Ned Beauman (which for my money is everything a debut novel should be), Cat’s Cradle by Vonnegut and Hegarty on Advertising (mixing business with pleasure) I decided I’d gathered enough reading momentum to make an attempt on Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon.

Swinging by the bookshop and picking up a rather nice ‘deluxe’ edition, complete with lovely rough cut pages, beautiful cover art and that wrap around, extended cover thingy you can use to hold your page (Google tells me these are called ‘French flaps’ which made me giggle in spite of myself…) I was feeling good. And did I imagine a slight glimmer of respect in the eyes of the guy behind the till?

Gravity's Rainbow Thomas Pynchon

Gravity's Rainbow

Anyway, new volume purchased I made my way home to my usual reading spot on the couch to crack the spine, where it ( or I, depending on how you look at it) failed the Come Dine With Me test. Miserably.

The Come Dine With Me test is something each book I read must pass, as my flatmates will have this program (or Snog Marry Avoid or Gok Wan’s fashion fix or Embarrassing Bodies) on the TV at all times. Come Dine With Me is a blanket term term for all distractions. The book I am reading has to hold my attention against a back drop of loud noises, jingles and mesmeric, hypnotic flashing lights. It must keep me absorbed on the tube, at lunch time, in the midst of seething crowds, mobile phone ring tones, rehearsing actors…in the noisy world I live in, I use fiction as a bomb shelter to protect me from over exposure to external stimuli. What use is a bomb shelter if you can’t get into it?

Some books do make you work harder than others though. A void was a bit of battle, but one I fought and found ultimately rewarding…but the shame I feel at failing at Joyce is a heavy burden to bear… So, into the isolation of the bedroom I went. Determined. Undefeatable. I proceeded to read the same page about seven times. I got caught in a prose feedback loop. The words just wouldn’t go into my head. They hit my ocular cortex and ran off like water on goretex.

In the cafe this lunch time, a colleague asked “Good book?” I nodded that, yes, it is. “What’s it about?”

“I…I have no fucking clue whatsoever.” I admitted.

Gamely, I started reading with a highlighter in hand. I’ve been illuminating in neon green any term, word or reference I don’t understand so it can be looked up, and the passage reread. The pen will be finished before the book, no doubt. The first 25 pages look positively radioactive.

With over 400 characters and a plot like an Escher painting …Rainbow has a reputation as being one of the most picked-up-then-put-down-books of all time…I have bitten off more than I can chew.

Gravity’s Rainbow is bonecrushingly dense, compulsively elaborate, silly, obscene, funny, tragic, pastoral, historical, philosophical, poetic, grindingly dull, inspired, horrific, cold, bloated, beached and blasted. . . .” (Richard Locke, The New York Times Book Review)

On the year of its release the trustees of the Pulitzer Prize overturned the judges’ decision to award it the coveted prize, and so no work of fiction received the Pulitzer Prize that year. This is what I’m dealing with.

I sometimes think (perhaps wishfully) that when a book is too complex for me to read it’s advocates are simply to vain to admit they to don’t get it, and consequently give it a place in the canon so as not to be embarrassed if it is good. But then I think…maybe I’m just not very bright ( after all, I am inordinately amused by the term ‘French flaps’…)

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Kraken

I’m not the most hardcore of fans when it comes to the mythos… in fact I’ve probably spent more time playing ‘Arkham Horror’ than I have reading the works of H.P Lovecraft. This isn’t because I’m a massive player of board games ( although an adolescence spent amongst the paint fumes and bodily odour of Games Workshop does ingrain one with a life long and inescapable affection for the rattle and clatter of D6 rolling across miniature landscapes like giant boulders of fate) it’s because a game of ‘Horror’ lasts for about a fortnight. The very complexity of the game warps the universe directly around the board and players. The hands of the clock stop as they try and work out who’s turn it is to move (the hour hand squabbles with the minute…swearing it’s been ages since it’s last turn). If you’ve ever played a game of Monopoly to conclusion…it’s like that but each game of Monopoly is a turn of ‘Horror.’ A pizza you ordered weeks ago (or so it feels) turns up, and the players begin scraping together their money, only to realise the in-game currency is worthless outside the mad streets of Arkham. And why is the delivery guy talking so slowly? Does any one have a spare action? You send a hateful look across the board. If only they’d listened and passed you that shotgun…

Inevitably the game ends with whatever God you were trying to prevent rising eating you, the town, and the world. After that many hours, after so much investment, being devoured by Cthulhu is a genuinely painful experience.

I originally intended this post to be a shout out to Archie, the squid in China Mielville’s brilliant Kraken, another world-ending cephalopod, but as I’ve already been rabbiting on about how much I loved that book on my Linkedin amazon book feed, I figure I’ll give you my top five list of Squid Monsters. Why not? 

The Squid from Watchmen

Massive squid monster from Watchmen

When Ozymandias, the worlds smartest man, needed to create a monster to terrify the world away from the brink of nuclear Armageddon, he wasn’t messing about. Reptiles? Insect monsters? Nah, not scary enough. He went straight to the Cyclopean psychedelic giant squid monster. After levelling New York city he beamed this many tentacled behemoth straight into the rubble. The leaders of the world pissed their pants, aimed there missiles into space,  and the world was saved.
I have it on good authority that when Watchmen was adapted for film the squid monster was absent, not for reasons of  elegant story telling or modernisation, but because this beast, in IMAX, moving about and making squid noises would be so terrifying audiences would be driven insane with fear.  Eagle eyed fans will have noticed the sub quantum intrinsic device sign on Ozzy’s doomsday machine (S.Q.I.D) and shuddered. Squids are just freaky.

Paul the Octopus

Paul the psychic and evil Octopus

It’s an Octopus, not a squid! Quiet you. By merit of his psychic powers Paul had to be included in this list. The world’s media were in uproar when he successfully predicted the winners of last years World Cup draw. I put it to you that, rather than predicting the winners, Paul cursed the losers. Occult beams of misfortune radiated from his sack-like head. Missed goals and injuries plagued his victims. I have it on good authority that the FA is now secretly nothing more than a cult dedicated to the worship of Paul. His power grows daily.

The Kraken

Kraken

The Kraken

Norse mythology tells of gargantuan Squid, that emerges from the inky depths to attack ships. The fact that these legends in all probability stemmed from accounts of actual attacks by Giant and Colossal Squids makes the Kracken all the more scary. Imagine yourself in a creaky, leaky wooden boat in the dead of night. Sure Sharks are scary, Pirates are scary and getting bumped by a whale would be catastrophic, but imagine how you’d feel if you felt a wet tentacle stealthily wrap itself around you ankle? To use the parlance of my home town, that would proper shit you up.

Cthulhu

Cthulhu

Cthulhu

Silver medal goes to the Beast from the deep. He who dreams, and will soon rise. A creature of unquantifiable power. The Sea’s will boil. The sun will go out. Etc Etc

Tentacool

Tentacool

Tentacool

He may be #72 in the pokedex, but he’s #1 in this list. Locked in a lead lined room in the basement of a secret Japanese mental facility there is a man called simply “The Programmer.” The most evil man to have ever lived, rumour has it he interned briefly at Gamefreak during the 90′s where he conceived of his most evil creations: Zubat and Tentacool.

Part Jellyfish, part squid, all evil ( Jellyfish do not have movable tentacles, or the beak Tentacool’s evolved form Tentacruel has, thus for the purposes of this list, it is a squid)

You’re far away at sea surfing along, minding your business and suddenly the screen blurs. An encounter with a wild Pokémon! Maybe it’ll be something cool. No. It’s a Tentacool. Oh well. I’ll just grab some exp. points and be on my way. Tentacool used Poison Sting. Zapdos is Poisoned! You use a Full Heal. Tentacool used poison sting. Zapdos is Poisoned! Fuck this, I’m off. You try to run.  Wild Tentacool used wrap. Cannot run! Repeat about a million times. Lose hair.

Pure evil.

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The disapproval of librarians and the crimes of Joe Orton

Joe Orton, Fines, Prison, Vandalism

I am a library pariah. I’m deeply sad to say I owe Manchester Central over thirty quid for books I took out months and months ago. And still have. My university threatened to withhold my degree until I paid a staggering debt I owed them, for books I don’t think I ever really read. Some nonsense about  Russian Cinema…maybe? It cost me about forty pounds.

As soon as those bad boys are on my shelf, something happens, and my brain thinks “these are now mine.” Stupid brain.

And then, when I come to return them, pay my fine, take the slap on the wrist, if a fine of thirty pounds can ever be called a slap on the wrist, I am met with the disapproval of librarians.

A friend of mine has studied to be a librarian and in a breach of the secret agreement they are all forced to sign (in blood) I have it on good authority that an entire term is spent teaching proper disapproval. It is a stylised, ritualistic art form, steeped in tradition, not unlike the Geishas of Japan. Each esoteric adjustment of the glasses, tilt of the head, tut of the tongue and arch of the eyebrow is a choreographed, symbolic gesture to shame and disgrace the tardy, the disorganised, the overdue.

I’ve been stung so much, so often, I’ve resolved never, ever to use a library ever again. It actually works out cheaper to buy the books.

But this is nothing. Small potatoes.

Joe Orton, one of my playwright heroes, writer of Loot and subject of the incredible “Prick up your Ears” (Screen play by Alan Bennet) had a bad run in with the library. The mischievous and subversive sense of humour that appalled sixties Britain, before finding an outlet in his work, was aimed squarely at Islington Library.

Joe Orton altered book Joe Orton Altered Book

Over months and months, Orton and his friend, lover, and eventual murderer, Kenneth Halliwell, stole over seventy books, smuggled them out in a satchel. In their one bedroom flat they painstaking altered them. Monkeys faces, rude words, genitalia…anything that would offend and confuse polite society and delight the average twelve year old. Below is an exerpt from the brilliant BBC documentary A Genius Like Us. The tweedy irritation of the librarian ticks all my boxes, “Someone was attacking our books!” and the way he reads the altered dust jacket actually made me cry with laughter. Whoever made that man sit in front of that camera and read this hopefully received a huge pay rise.

Also, the guy who investigates the thefts and hunts Orton and Halliwell down actually comes across as being pretty cool. Like that guy from Life On Mars crossed with Arkwright from Open All Hours.

This is a link. Click it. Enjoy.

Trapped by a clever letter, a man with a hunch, and a bit of typewriter forensic science. They each got six months in prison. Six months…

Joe Orton Altered Book

This is another link. Joe Orton after being released from prison, smirking like he got away with it.

Interestingly, the altered books are now on permanent display at Islington Local History Centre.

The librarians versus Joe Orton. Who won? Joe Orton won.

Joe Orton Altered Cover

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The New Uncanny

This gallery contains 9 photos.

Uncanny X-Force X force, the X-men’s black ops. hit squad have been given a new run. Always my favourite X spin-off, with the possible exception of X Factor Investigates, at the risk of geeking out, they’ve been the strongest comics … Continue reading

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February Reading List: Auster, Chabon, Sullivan.

After a rough weekend, on a particularly bleak Monday last week, I went on a sneaky, ill-advised, lunch hour Amazon shopping spree. The Punsters amongst you might have been tempted to say “It left an Amazonian hole in my bank account” but I already googled Amazonian as an adjective and I’m not totally convinced you can use it in this way, as it means tall rather than large, and refers specifically to females.

“Oh, but we could say Amazonian, as in the forest, meaning a hole in your bank account the size of the Amazon…”

Don’t you just detest punsters?

Anyway. I’ve come to terms with my poverty striken situation and am enjoying the delightfully staggered arrival, oh so slightly tinged with residual guilt, of my purchases.

Check em’

Sunset Park Paul auster Michale Chabon Map and LegendsHey Whipple, Squeeze This

I’ve been a Auster fan for a long, long time. I’ve read all his novels, his autobiography, and his nonfiction. Travels in the Scriptorium, and the work that preceeded it all seemed to centre on characters that were older men, but since Invisible, he’s swung to the other extreme, to play the serious young man trying to find his way in this turbulent world angle.

I’m on page one hundred so far, and so far so good. The thing with Auster, what keeps me coming back, is at times the strange mechanics of his fiction all mesh together in a perfect moment. He isn’t one for flowery phrases and imagery. In fact, he can rarely stray beyond a baseball analogy without being cringe-worthy, but what he does well is structure. His stories are built with stories inside stories, and at the places these narratives meet there is a brilliant symbolic friction. The Book of Illusions is the perfect example of this. The story of the man writing a book about a man who made films, and the story of those films all included separatly as stand alone narratives, but all part of the same novel, all components in the weird modernist story machines Auster builds.

I had doubts about Invisible, Man in the Dark, and Travels in the Scriptorium. But each time, two-thirds of the way through, Auster somehow twists a tense, or drops a simple revelatory statement and suddenly the whole thing explodes off the page. I’ve got a good feeling about Sunset Park. I’m waiting for him to spring it on me.

I have noticed that, now in his sixties he’s become a bit of a dirty old man though. Invisible had more than it’s fair share of incest, and Sunset Park has rather a lot of sodomy performed on an underage girl. I for one arched an eyebrow.

Michael Chabon was my favourite writer of 2010. My friends are sick of hearing about The amazing adventures of Kavalier and Clay and the Yiddish Policemans Union, so I’m taking it to the internet. The man is a genius. This is the first of his nonfiction I’ve read, and the chapters on Sherlock Holmes and Will Eisner bode well for the rest of the book.

Seriously though. Check out The Amazing adventures of Kavalier and Clay. I would go so far as to say it was my favourite book.

And lastly, seeing as I work as a marketing assistant for a theatre, I always try to smuggle some self improving knowhow into my book diet. Last month it was From the Folks who brought you Pearl Harbour, the seminal, gossipy inside account of the New York ad industry that inspired Madmen. This week its Hey Whipple, Squeeze This. Widely proclaimed to be the bible for copywriters everywhere, I’ve got my highlighter at the ready.

In fact, one way or the other, I’ll give these proper write-up when I’m finished with it. I might even award them points out of ten. That might be fun…

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C.W. Stoneking @ Manchester Academy

CW  Stonekind @Manchester Academy

C.W. Stoneking is a man who suffers from the duel handicap of being born in both the wrong place and the wrong time, an antipodean blues singer and banjo player hopelessly lost in a world of pre-war Americana, voodoo and tall tails. But rather than be alone in this world, he transports the packed academy’s sweaty patrons with him, into the deep dark jungles of Africa, the whisky soaked, dangerous dives of New Orleans and the sweltering fields of the south with a set of songs drawn from his King Hokum and Jungles Blues albums.


Wandering on stage without ceremony, decked out in a crumpled linen suit and bow tie, the glare from those newfangled ‘lectric lights causing him to squint as he drawls a brief salutation while the primitive horn orchestra haul there trombone, tuba and bass into position. Manchester Jazz Festival missed a trick by not booking C.W. His brass band play Dixie-land and Calypso with enough ‘authenticity’ (a tedious and outmoded concept if ever there was one) to satisfy purists and enough energy to get the feet tapping of those for whom Jazz is a dirty word. Had he been given a slot on the St. Annes’ square open air stage the place would have been crowded in even the most persistent Mancunian drizzle.

Like all great Blues men, C.W. is the central character in his own mythology. Stories from his ship wreck, and his time working as a voodoo doctors’ assistant in the delta are told in ‘Jungle Blues’, ‘Jungle Lulliby’ and ‘The Love Me or Die’, all of which are high-lights of an excellent set. The story about his time working on a dildo farm was particularly hilarious, despite the awkwardness it caused me ( I was with my girlfriends parents, sans girl friend).  The patriotic bombast of ‘Brave Son of America’ is undeniably great and sung with conviction, and the creepy creole of ‘Don’t Go Dancing Down The Dark Town Strutters Ball.’ is hair raisingly atmospheric.

Maybe he was born in the wrong time, but he was born to play the blues, and we’re lucky to have him with us this side of the 1930′s.

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24/7 Theare festival

24/7 party people


For a week in July 24/7 theatre festival falls upon my hometown like a bolt from the (occasionally) blue skies, giving Manchester’s theatre scene a massive jolt with its fresh, innovative fringe performances. Taking place in both the city’s most prestigious venues and in spaces that have not previously been used for theatre, 24/7 consistently puts on a stunning bill of new plays performed by new actors.

On the brink of their 8th festival year, I blagged an interview with 24/7’s founder David Slack in their Northern Quarter HQ to get an insight into the festivals roots, and gain an understanding of the herculean effort that goes into delivering one of Manchester’s greatest cultural assets.

David, how did you start the festival?

I’d trained as an actor at Arden, between 95-99 as a mature student. After graduating, I didn’t get many opportunities to audition for the stage, although I did get a number of TV parts.

After a while, I landed some work at the Edinburgh fringe festival, and was commuting from Scotland to Manchester to do my work on Cold Feet. It was great to have regular theatre work, and, as a showcase for new work, The Fringe is amazing. It struck me that Manchester could do with something similar. We founded the festival on the 24th of July, which is where the 24/7 comes into our name.

We’ve tried to keep that fringe style, sixty-ninety minute performances, get in-get out. Because a lot of the venues we use aren’t dedicated theatre spaces, we can’t have intricate stagecraft and sound. We always say that the actors and the script have to do the work at 24/7, which is quite refreshing I think. A lot of the bigger theatres are trying to do filmic stuff, huge productions to attract an audience. We’re interested in a return to spoken word theatre, the power of suspension of disbelief, what theatre as a medium is really good at.

It took us two years to put on the first one, and we lost money on it, not that that really matters. But we’ve been given a lot of support in later year’s, sponsorship from M.E.N, the council, Manchester Airport and the Co-operative. We’ve just become a registered charity, and after seven years, had our logo trademarked.

What factors influenced your decision to show new work exclusively?

Well, from the first year we decided to only put on new plays, plays the directors won’t have seen before, the audience won’t have seen anywhere else, and things actors won’t have performed in previously. This works well because, as it’s a showcase for new acting talent, as well as new writing, it provides a level playing field. Actors won’t be able to research how previous actors played the role. They’ll have to make it their own, because it’s never been anyone else’s, if you know what I mean.

How does the selection process work for scripts?

We make the call out for work, 60 minute long plays that haven’t been performed elsewhere. This year we received around one hundred and twenty scripts. These are then read blind by a panel of 41 readers. We’re usually able to put a program together after this, but there have been times when we’ve had round table discussions to break a deadlock. Sometimes doing a script in hand read through.

We put on 21 productions last year, but since we’ve become more established, and we don’t need to make as big of splash in terms of the number of productions we put on, we’re looking to reduce that number and focus on making the plays we do put on just that little bit better.

How does the relationship work between the festival and the writers?

Well, any writer whose work is accepted to be part of 24/7 immediately becomes executive producer of the production. We supply them with access to our network of actors and directors, but the decisions ultimately are made by the writer.

We then support the productions by getting the spaces ready, providing technicians and tech support, front of house service. By empowering the creators in this way, we don’t have to worry about the art, and the artists don’t have to worry about logistics. We’ve accepted 123 productions over seven years, and not one has had to drop out.

You’ve got a bit of a reputation for using unusual spaces. Which ones stand out in your memory as working particularly well?

The basement bar at Palace theatre worked really well. The audience was moved from room to room as the play progressed. Each room had its own feel, created a different atmosphere, which was really interesting.

We’ve had venues with pool tables and bowling alleys, the function suite of the co-operative building, plays set in pubs, where one character nipping to the toilet can provide interesting possibilities for the other characters to talk behind their backs, and also splits the performance…characters from the same play, the same performance in separate spaces. Each space presents new challenges and new possibilities. Some, like the corporate suite we staged shows in last year lack the style your average theatre space has inherently. But the quality of the shows always carry us through.

Over the years, our audience has grown, so we’re on the lookout for bigger spaces at the moment.

Can you give us a scoop of any surprises 2011’s festival might have?

We’re considering a big sleep over, and also, maybe, maybe, in coming years a twenty-four hour performance. We’re also looking into collaborative work with other organisations.

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