everything is broken

This week, I swear.

First, the boiler breaks (it does this frequently) - we get the British gas guy out (eighth time this year, SCORE), and then the freeview/PVR machine goes, taking the television channels and our large store of 'depressing movies we've recorded but not yet watched' with it; then the television itself threw a fit, started switching itself on and off and changing channels constantly, so we couldn't even watch DVDs. Then the boiler broke again, after only five days, and the British gas guy fails to turn up and says he rang us when all evidence (ie., the PHONE) says that's a ridiculous lie - and then (this is yesterday) the zip goes on my last functioning non-paint-splattered non-completely-ragged pair of jeans.  Next thing the books will all spontaneously combust.  Wait - no - the flat's riddled with damp.  PHEW. 

Matthew Hooton review

My review of Matthew Hooton's Deloume Road is live at Bookmunch.

stuff, etc

Non-MA fluff, now that I've got no more classes to bore you with:

For a few days there we had Sunshine!  It needs to be capitalised because it's very notable. I don't know why I keep living in countries where non-rain is so unusual, but I have to say, Manchester was lovely in the heat and the glare of the sun.  Over the weekend I spent two afternoons fiction-editing outside the cafĂ© across the road from our house. A crazy lady accosted us on the Saturday, perturbed that the pharmacy next door was closed; she refused to take our directions to the nearest alternative places, and instead sat beside us for about half an hour, bemoaning her fate. We suggested she could walk down into Chorlton and go to Boots or Lloyds or the other Coop Pharmacy, or get the bus to the huge Hulme Asda, or get the bus all the way to town, but she vehemently rejected all these ideas and just kept sitting there.  In the end there were three table-loads of people trying to help, to no avail, and eventually she marched off in a huff.  I saw her again on Monday, loitering outside the same pharmacy (now open), and refusing to go near the door.

But there was more to my weekend than panicking about my MA submission and trying to reason with crazy ladies; I went to a fancy concert!  One of my favouritist twitterers and bloggers, Steph, couldn't make the Manchester Camerata concert in Bridgewater Hall that night because she'd injured her shoulder.  She was fantastic enough to offer me her tickets instead, so me and Andy cycled into town and I pretended to be Steph at the box office - then we basked in Mozart and Haydn for two hours.  I'd never been in Bridgewater Hall before; it's very swish altogether, and the orchestra was glorious.  We got two whopping glasses of wine at the interval but we didn't rush to the bar quickly enough, so that by the time we were served it was nearly time to sit back down and we had to bolt the booze like a couple of kids necking cider out the back of a club.  We probably let the sophisticated concert-going side down a little there, but it was such a lovely night out, and though it was a massive shame that Steph couldn't make it, I'm so pleased I got to go.  On the way home we were biking along the flyover road thingy alongside the A5103, the Princess Road, and Andy spotted half a fish just lying in the road.  He's tentatively identified it as a trout. Unexpected.

And in other news, I saw a girl at the gym the other day who was working out in a bikini top.  I thought that was pretty odd, but maybe I'm showing my gym-naivety. Answers on a postcard.  I'm off now to avoid my D-I-S-S-E-R-T-A-T-I-O-N by reading some Jonathan Coe and watching Grizzly Man.

Alan Warner review - and interview!

My review of Alan Warner's The Stars in the Bright Sky, and my interview with Alan Warner(!), are both live at Bookmunch.

MA Semester Two, Week Twelve, Thirteen and rapidly entering Fourteen...

Okay, I'm jamming the weeks in here, but dudes, there's not much to report.  Classes finished with the final workshop a couple of Mondays ago at the start of Week Twelve, a monster session with four separate pieces to critique - a short story, two novel extracts and some flash fiction.  (Side-note: we haven't really dealt with flash on the course, though several people, me included, write and read it - but I think that's partly the legacy of the MA's history as a purely novel-writing course.)  The following day we had the last visiting lecturer - an editor with Gollanz who talked about all kinds of practicalities and dos-and-don'ts and the submission-to-acceptance-to-print process - all good stuff, though two and a half hours later I felt rather dazed and overloaded with information.  The rest of that week was taken up with frantic essay-finishing for Contemporary Fiction; the evil 6000-word paper was finally submitted on Tuesday of last week, Week Thirteen, and we all got fantastically drunk afterwards.  Two-for-one cocktails = WIN.

Next up was the submission for this semester's workshop course - 6000 words of fiction, which, in my case, means two chapters of the novel.  Since Wednesday I've been polishing and rereading and deleting and finding-and-replacing and scribbling all over printouts with a very fancy felt-tip pen that I found in the living room which is apparently a special 'art pen' and not designed for the likes of me with my underlinings and crossings-out - and I'm just about done, now.  I think.  Sort of.  So that's due today (Week Fourteen), and this time the University department's gone all high-tech and wants us to submit electronically, which is extremely fancy and modern and space-age.  Though things don't seem quite finished without a hard-copy.  Maybe I'll print a copy out and make a fake cover-sheet for myself so it all feels properly official.  Or maybe not.  We'll see.  Anyway I'll be submitting later today one way or the other, and there'll be more drinking.  (Right, classmates?)  Hurrah.  Then it'll be dissertation, dissertation, dissertation, all the way to September.  Scary.  This year's totally on speed; how the hell else could it be moving so quickly?

workshops! and longlistings!

So, you lot - you lot in the general Manchester area, anyway - what are you up to on the 29th of May, between 9am and 4pm?  Because, right, the brilliant Stephanella Walsh from The Creative Identity is running a workshop, and there's a couple of places left, and dudes, you should check it out.  What's the deal, you ask?  Well, Stephanella describes it as "a one-day intensive session for writers who wish to explore how our education, natural abilities, wishes, experiences and DNA shape what we write and how we write it."  Amongst other things you'll get to work out a twelve-month development plan for your writing AND she'll take your proposal/synopsis/first chapter, or whatever, and send you an appraisal within a month of the workshop. Tea and coffee thrown in, too - bargain!  It's not hugely expensive and sounds well worth the money.  So have a look and a ponder, and see if you can get on one of the few remaining places.  I'd go myself, but I'm doing volunteer work with kiddies in Manchester Art Gallery all that weekend.  And, ff you don't already read Steph's blog, you should check it out - she's got loads of writing advice and interviews and she's funny, to boot.

Second thing!  I found out this afternoon that I've been longlisted for this year's Bristol Prize!  I'm massively pleased and even if I don't get onto the shortlist (to be announced in early June) I'll still be delighted.  I'm in great company, too - Elizabeth Baines is on the list, and my writing colleagues Frances Gapper and Ben Cheetham, and Marli Roode who graduated from my MA last year, and my twitter pals Diane Becker and Jonathan Pinnock - and loads of others who I'm sure are just as lovely and talented.  So huge congratulations to all of them, and cue the breath-holding while the shortlist is decided!

Robert Shearman review

My review of Robert Shearman's Love Songs for the Shy and Cynical is live at Bookmunch.

best laid plans

I've got an MA essay due tomorrow.  I should be in the library right now, squinting at a print-out and going mental with a red pen - but instead, I'm in my mother's house in Dublin, having had two flights to Manchester cancelled because of the dreaded ash cloud. I hate that ash cloud.  Tomorrow I have to get up at 4am so I can get on a 6.30am flight home - then straight to the library to print out the essay and hand it in. I was planning a full-on beer session afterwards, but I'll probably fall asleep on the table instead.  But I'll limit the ranting, despite the flight-horribleness: I was in Dublin this weekend for my best friend's wedding, which was superb, AND I got to drink champagne on a balcony of a suite in the Shelbourne Hotel on Saturday night, and does it really get better than that?  I think not.   

minister for what?

Day two in Cameron's House, and this one goes out to our new Home Secretary and Minister for Women and Equality, Theresa May; and her pro-Section 28, anti-gay adoption policies.

This one's for you, Dave

You know when every song you hear seems relevant to your situation?  Morning, Mr Cameron.


Well, Big Liz has signed off on the regime change; the Conservatives are in and our PM is the nasty plastic-faced David Cameron.  I've lived in the UK for almost six years under a centre-left government, and there seemed a fighting chance over the last month that this election would shift things a touch further to the left.  Now we've got our first Green MP, which should be a huge cause for celebration, but Caroline Lucas's triumph is almost forgettable in the shadow of a new and massively unlikely coalition that seems like the nail in the Liberal coffin.  In general, I'm totally in favour of coalition governments; at the very least, they tend to reflect the wishes of the electorate, rather than forcing a single-party government out of a proportionally tiny segment of the vote.  But I'm finding it difficult to see the Tories actually forging a full and complete union with the LibDems; once the dust settles, the Tories will dig their heels in and Clegg & co will toe the right-wing line.  Or so it seems to me right now anyway, in the miserable funk of the immediate aftermath.  I'm contemplating my options, country-wise; I've emigrated before, and I'm totally prepared to do it again.  Bah.  I promise I'll resume regular ranting and bookish rambling soon - just as soon as I can break this BBC News 24 addiction. It's almost as bad as my popcorn and tea habits.

DJ Taylor review

My review of DJ Taylor's Ask Alice is live at Bookmunch.

MA Semester Two, Week Eleven

All my classes are on a Monday.  I managed to orchestrate this from the start, not because I've got anything so inconvenient as a job to get to, but because it seemed neat and I'm a fan of the elegant solution.  (Not that you'd believe me if you saw the squalor of my apartment - but, in my defence, piles of books and papers are talking points, right?  Right?)  So, obviously, bank holidays screw with the system.  Our contemporary fiction class was rescheduled to Wednesday, but I sat in on the regular Tuesday group instead because I had Important Things To Do on Wednesday (all of which were ultimately cancelled anyway due to a bastard head-cold, but there you go, and I'm typing this in my pyjamas with the duvet and a mug of Lemsip beside me), and the workshop will be tacked onto next Monday's class, resulting in one giant, formidable, exhausting, ultra-workshop, the workshop-from-hell, the work-shop-of-doom, the doom-shop, the killer class.  Etc. So there's that to look forward to next week; in the meantime, I hear you ask, what did we talk about on Tuesday?  (That was either you asking me a question, or the germs upping their assault on the insides of my head.  I'll keep typing either way.)

This week was a sort of continuation of the 9/11 discussion from last week, but this week we were looking at the British take on events.  We were to read Ian McEwan's Saturday and a short story from Martin Amis's The Second Plane, as well as articles the two of them published in the Guardian in the week following the attacks back in 2001.  So.  I read Saturday a couple of years ago and I didn't reread it for the class - I remembered it pretty well, I'm not writing a paper on the topic, and I was in the middle of Solar anyway and enough is enough - and, embarrassingly, I totally forgot we had to read the Amis short story and by the time I remembered, there wasn't enough time to get hold of the book.  Excuses, huh?  We all know I love Martin, but hey, even I have my reading-time limitations.  So I was probably at my least-prepared for this class, and had the beginnings of a cold, so my notes are rather limited and incoherent.  We covered similar ground as last time - why novelists rather than journalists were presented as the chroniclers of events, and how different novelists approached the topic.  Looking at the Guardian articles, Amis did a pretty pompous piece about species-shame which irked the class; McEwan was more populist in his article but veered towards condescension when he explained to his dumb fool readers what 'empathy' meant; Salman Rushdie took a Bush-like line, urging people to go out and eat bacon and kiss in the streets in a fist-shaking message to the East; Arundhati Roy placed the attacks in the context of a long history of America's assaults upon the rest of the world.  Most people in the group took great umbrage to her piece, which surprised me; it might not have been the most delicate or sensitive, but it was politically astute.  I remember reading it at the time, on a nervous plane trip from Prague to Dublin, and clipping it out of the paper, worried that the air-hostess would see me and complain.  I've probably still got it somewhere in my mum's house.  Anyway there was a discussion about how most of the writers used their rhetoric to create a sense of community, an us-versus-them mentality with the writers and readers on the side of the rational, the good and the Western, and the great unknown Other out there in the East.  Most of the writing around the topic we were able to find or reference was white, middle-class, usually male and overwhelmingly Western, and we talked about that; though I imagine that being based in England and reading the Guardian sort of biases things in that direction anyway.

We didn't talk about the books much; McEwan got a bit slated for his research-heavy prose (Solar is a way worse offender than Saturday, I think) and people weren't convinced by his characterisation, saying that his fictional 'family' was a mere device for yoking different viewpoints together.  The Amis story got slated.  That's where my notes and memory run dry - and that's where contemporary fiction comes to an end.  We've got one more week of workshops and another visiting lecturer person next Tuesday, and then it's dissertation all the way.

Excuse me now while I finish the Lemsip and worry about a looming Tory government.


Happy May Day, boys and girls.  I thought of having my own protest today - an anti-essay protest, which would involve burning my notes and throwing pens out the window - but then I decided that sounded like far too much effort, and I should probably just plough on.  'Ploughing on' consists of reading political opinion polls online and getting very worried that the Tories will take control and wondering where I might go to live in that case because Britain will indubitably begin to totally suck - and also the usual thing of staring aimlessly around the room.  Here are some things I think I could be doing instead of The Essay:

  • reading Tom Fletcher's The Leaping, which came out the other day and looks very tempting over there on the coffee table
  • reading Jonathan Coe's The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim, which has been sitting on the floor for weeks now, looking at me sadly
  • finishing Ian McEwan's Solar, which, to be honest, I'm finding a drag, but it has the bonus feature of Not Being An Essay
  • Oh, man, you get the gist.