Front & Centre is a brave and challenging magazine. Edited by Matthew Firth, it began life when he was studying in Scotland, but went back home with him to Ottowa. The submission guidelines give a taste of what the magazine is about:
“We are looking for fiction set in a realist tone, that concerns the contemporary. We are strictly non-genre and DO NOT publish science fiction, horror, fantasy or fluff of any kind. We prefer dirty realism, urban angst, noir and tales of ordinary woe.”
Issue 3, in 2000, included one of my earliest and most misanthropic, stories, “Twitchy”. It’s nice to see that, eleven years later, it’s still going strong and publishing stories that are uncompromising and arresting.
Matthew is an exceptionally talented writer himself, and his own short story collections – “Strange Meat”, “Can You Take Me There, Now” and “Suburban Pornography” – are well worth checking out. You can also find him showcased on Laura Hird’s cult website, and an interesting interview with him on Verbicide.
As this is my first literary magazine inclusion for several years, I owe Matthew thanks for his support. It’ll be nice to be in print again.
38 Degrees, the online action pressure group, have gathered 420,000 signatures against Andrew Lanlsey’s proposed NHS reforms, a set of proposals driven by ideologies which have blighted this society since Thatcher’s days.
Recently, I visited a friend who was in hospital after having a replacement knee operation. She spoke about her conversations with staff who were facing cut after cut, and were being forced to make painful decisions about patient care and to work above and beyond the call of duty.
One piece of information infuriated me. Just before the Royal Wedding, staff had been told that if they “volunteered” to work on a Bank Holiday, they would be paid… wait for it… 60% of their normal salary for the day.
Not time and a half. Not even, from the “bad old days” when unions actually had the power to protect their workers, double time. 60%.
That the bastards who lord it over our country can demand this is indicative of the existence of the kind of society those on the ideological New Right have manipulated so long and hard for. Thatcher has won, because we now live in an economy where the working poor’s wages are so depressed and have been for so long that they will do anything for a few coppers more.
Executives in the financial sector pay themselves huge bonuses on the fallacious grounds that if they aren’t, they will “pack up and go elsewhere”; the criminal tragedy is that the midwives and cleaners and radiologists have never had the opportunity to “leave”, to “go elsewhere”, and are trapped, imprisoned in an economic straitjacket that means they will continue to be exploited in order to feed the profits of the few.
Lansley’s much trumped “competition” will only make matters worse. A Health Service that was once owned by us all will become the property of the few, of global corporations and investment banks and “entrepeneurs”. In that sense, it will become exactly the same as council houses which are now owned, not by the people who live in them, but by mortgage lenders; or utility companies, sold off as a great democratizing measure, which are now owned by multinational corporations after the little investors sold off their shares after a couple of years to pay for a much-needed holiday.
If we can provide something publicly for £10,000, why are we not suspicious of someone who offers a service at £9,000? Where are the corners being cut? And, given that within that £9,000, there is a built-in shareholder payout and a profit margin, who exactly is stumping up to fill the black hole in the accounts?
Of course, first of all it’s the client; but most of all, it is the worker at the bottom of the food chain, the person who has to accept wage freezes and cuts, not because they are free to take their skills elsewhere but choose not to, but because they have families to feed. That is why so many of the working poor are having to turn to charity food banks. Soon, we will just be like our “special friends”, the Americans, the greatest country in the world, where everyone who does anything useful has to work three and four jobs to pay the rent.
And, of course, that makes no economic sense socially. Money is shuffled to the executives and shareholders, who buy Ferraris; meanwhile, the country stumps up in welfare provisions for the poor, while loss of tax revenue and high street sales depress the economy. It is macro-stupidity.
We have always known that the “free market” is only free for the rich, who then rape and pillage our communal assets in order to feed their rapacious greed; so why do we keep voting for mainstream political parties whose raison d’etre is to perpetuate inequality, to pander to the rich, to squeeze the life out of the poor?
The extreme left is, I believe, discredited and out of date. The only hope for a fair society, as I see it, lies in Green politics and protest movements that promote sustainability over growth, fair taxes, communal responsibility and a vision of society that is much bigger, much broader and much more fulfilling than the utter crap Cameron is trying to sell us now. Interestingly, The Politcal Compass’s analysis of the UK political parties in 2010 clearly suggests that the only left-wing alternative in the UK is the Greens. That’s why I recently joined, and why, like many, voted SNP for my constituency and Green for my regional MSP: a left-wing, sustainable, environmentally friendly, independent small country is where I want to live.
In the meantime, I’ll sign petitions till the cows come home if it has any braking effect on the relentless acquisitiveness of the society Thacher has engineered. Surely the corporate greed of the few and the blatant exploitation of the weak must end sometime.
You wait fifty-two years to hear a young, female blues guitarist playing live, and then, like buses, two come along in the same month.
A trip through to Edinburgh to The Caves (good venue) to see Joanne Shaw Taylor. I’d recommend her first album, “White Sugar”. She has a classic soul voice, all husk and grit, and her guitar playing is gorgeously mature, capable of pyrotechnics but also easily capable of driving a song with a sexy slowhand: I think “Heavy Heart” is a stonewall classic.
Live, she’s wonderful, but it’s all just a little bit flash and thrash for me. Going for the traditional power trio approach, songs are generally played at a hundred miles an hour and at level 11 on the amp; she batters the life out of “Who do you want me to be?”, “Watch ‘em Burn”, and a Hendrix cover, “Manic Depression”. There’s nothing wrong with that because it’s great fun, but when she slows it down – such as on “Time Has Come” – her guitar really steps up and takes a bow and, just as importantly, the sound mix (complete with crackly connections) lets us hear that fantastic voice.
She’s a confident young woman; “Kiss the Ground Goodbye” is about her frustration at the lack of progress in her career and her stalled potential, probably written at four years of age. She leads her band – two thirds of the support act, so I hope they get paid double – effortlessly too. She plays a few numbers from her new album, “Diamonds in the Dirt”, which suggest it’s well worth investigating.
“Blackest Day” – another absolute cracker from “White Sugar” – begins in a laid back fashion, but develops into a show-stopping solo. It’s a great set, despite the fact that I think there are occasions when less would be more, and I’d definitely catch her again. Both she and Chantel McGregor are gathering lots of attention from the music industry: I hope it’s not the gimmick appeal of pretty blonde lassies playing the blues, because both are excellent musicians. It’ll be interesting to see if the machine allows them the longevity of male blues guitarists; it’s great to think that, in their 70’s, they’ll be doing a BB King in stadiums across the world. Pity I won’t be there to see them.
February 2012: this post gets far more hits than any other post on my blog, largely, it seems, because of searches for “The Lowry”. I sincerely hope it’s not car crash traffic because it’s a bad review: the theatre company deserves much better than that!
A wonderfully, gob-smackingly, gloriously awful experience.
I’ve always thought two phrases that should never go together are “avant garde” and “political”; in this production, they come together, clash headlong and scream at each other for the evening.
I’m all for theatre in languages I don’t understand; one of my most memorable theatre outings was to a version of “Hamlet” in Russian about 30 years ago, stunningly realised as a spotlit chess game, freeing the drama from the language so that the dynamic of the corrupt court could come to the fore. I’m also all for drama – and music, and art – from around the world coming to our shores, so that audiences realise that western sensibilities aren’t the only way to do it, thank goodness; every community should have its own visiting Croatian experimental theatre group. But there are limits.
Based on a putative student anarchist bomb plot to protest about Austro-Hungarian oppression and bourgeois decadence in Zagreb in 1910 – as far as I can gather – the production is part drama, part lecture, part installation art, part mime, part improv, part musical performance and, I’m sorry to say, wholly a mess.
The set is industrial; there is a metal cabinet which has drawers strung with springs which are plucked; lots of pieces of wooden dowelling are rolled angrily across the floor for several minutes, then teased into place to form radial patterns; there are various tubes and funnels that performers speak lines into or out of, for no discernible reason; there is a metal frame from which these tubes and funnels are hung, along with three metal gratings on springs which may or may not represent prison bars; this frame, rather like a set of goalposts, is pushed forward on rails, and then pulled back, and then pushed forward, and then pulled back, and then pushed forward…
The music, played on everything from a squeezebox to a saxophone to the spoons, is suitably cacophonous for a mid-European Absurdist Theatre company called The House of Extreme Music Theatre, and the performers are suitably serious, especially one bloke who ejects spit at a very loud volume into any available orifice (including a trombone which he obviously cannot play) and grimaces, mimes and dances like an extra from a zombie movie on acid. The mime – oh my goodness, such a lot of mime – is the type of stuff you might do with a Drama class of thirteen year olds for the last ten minutes of a wet Friday afternoon, stretched out to fill 75 minutes (“Be a tree! Be the wind! Be the anarchist echo of reaction against the wretched dignity of the petit bourgeoisie!”).
And all of this I would have accepted freely if there had been one moment, one image that made me gasp in wonder. A pity it didn’t happen.
Look, there may well be – in fact I’m sure there are – people who go away from this marvelling at its experimental nature, its absurd power, its alienation of audience from act; but that is to intellectualise it, and to exclude the natural human reactions necessary for engagement with drama; I may admire the theatrical techniques (I didn’t) but if I just don’t get it, then you’ll lose me. And, much as I fail to appreciate poetry that can only be understood with footnotes, and much as I rebel against art that needs the artist to explain what I should be thinking, drama that assaults the senses without sharing a plot or introducing a character I can feel something about leaves me utterly cold.
Having said that, I’d rather have theatres full of this than bow to the Philistine, profit-led attitude to the arts that prevails in our government, and in those universities which quite happily divest themselves of cultural activity which doesn’t fit with their hellish, technological, research-driven “visions”.
One good thing, though; Manchester’s The Lowry is a strikingly handsome building and a beautiful space for the arts. I’ll be back there.
Unfortunately, a couple of cancellations from the performance list mean that the programme is curtailed somewhat, but this is still a good wee event that deserves to be supported.
Jim Gilbert of folk duo Wing and a Prayer starts off the evening in good style, with one of his own compositions and a very creditable John Martyn cover. Good stuff; regular performers at Tchai Ovna, they’ll be worth checking out.
I read an extract from the first chapter of my novel: I can’t call it new because it’s been on the go so long, so its nice to remind myself what it’s like. It goes down well, though I felt a little flat.
Chik Duncan performs extracts from his children’s novel in progress. He’s a polished performer, and should be doing lots of work in primary schools: kids must love him. Talking to him afterwards, we discover that we graduated from Glasgow University in the same year, and both in Philosophy (him single honours, me joint). However, given that I spent the vast bulk of my time in my final year playing pool, snooker and darts – anything to avoid classes – it’s hardly likely our paths never crossed.
Nayan Patel has come off the street to investigate the joint, and reads some of his poetry. It’s good stuff – quick and witty – and if he finds himself a good writers’ group to push him on, I suspect we’ll hear a lot more from him
Graham Keen’s poetry is also witty and truthful, with a sharp working class edge in the finest Glasgow tradition. He performs at The Scotia Bar, bastion of local writing for generations; I think I did my first ever reading there nearly twenty years ago.
The event organiser, David Manderson, finishes off by reading a short but tantalising extract of his new novel, “Lost Bodies”, to be published next month. There will be a book launch at The Arches, so I’ll post information about that. If you’re into crime fiction, this sounds right up your street.
Tchai Ovna is a cosy place. Smelling of wood smoke and spices, it has a lived in feel, like a room in a croft; it’s the kind of place you wish you’d spent your childhood in. I bet it’s lovely in the winter, with the fire blazing.
Very Nice too. Some pals and I go away for a long weekend every year around this time. Last year was Venice (possibly my favourite ever city), the year before Aix-en-Provence (utterly magical). Nice is a different kettle of fish; built up, it’s a place where the eddies of wealth and power and consumption all come together; it’s obviously a place where the rich come to recycle their wealth through the casinos, marinas and yacht merchants, fabulously expensive designer stores, eye-wateringly plush hotels and fancy restaurants. As such, it’s not really my kind of place, but time with my friends is always welcome.
And it’s a great place for dotting about. Lunch over the border in Italy at Ventimiglia was lovely, though the town is awash with North African migrant workers fleeing the troubles in Libya; at the station, Red Cross workers handed out food parcels to dozens of desperate young men while their numbers were matched by threatening looking police. A long walk along the coast to Villfranche was great too. Trips to Monaco (lots of high-rise hotels and big fuck-off yachts) and Cannes (setting up tat for the film festival amongst the genteel hotels) kept us busy too.
The Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Nice is well worth a visit. I’m a bit ambivalent about modern art, largely because I think the language used to discuss it is deliberately designed to exclude ordinary people, and to create an artistic class that is self-referential in the extreme: a recent visit to the Scottish Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh had me spitting feathers at the utter pretentiousness of much of the rubbish there.
However, as with all art, there is stuff that has the capacity to move deeply, and the Nice museum – a striking modern building that closes in on itself while at the same time looking out across the panorama of the city – contains some terrific work. I particularly liked Assan Smati in the temporary collections: his big pink centaur was stunning. I also like Sara Sze’s installations, one (“The Uncountables”) a dazzling collection of tiny bric a brac that invites you to mull and browse and speculate.
The permanent collection is great too. Best of all for me was Yves Klein’s “Portrait Relief de Claude Pascal, Arman et Martial Raysse“. A photo doesn’t do the depth of blue and the gorgeous topography of the sculpture justice. It really is a wonderful piece of art. So too is Niki de St Phalle’s “La mariée sous l’arbre”, a sculpture of tiny things, again drawing the audience in to little secret places where little secret things lurk.
Nice has its charms too, including a lovely Russian Orthodox Cathedral. And if you do go and need a place to eat, Pelican’s Station in Rue de la Prefecture is great; classic French food, reasonable prices and a very charming host, Laurent, who is obviously hugely proud of his restaurant.
The Writers for Japan anthology will be published by Cargo Publishing, with a target date of 24 June. After a promotional reception at the Japanese Consulate in Edinburgh, there will be a major Glasgow launch. Further events may follow. The final line up – including many top notch writers – is:
On The Brink Of Being A Great Success by Katy McAulay
March 14th 2011 by Annika Firmenich
Leviathan by Stuart Wilson
Haiku by Agata Maslowska
The Unbeaten Track by Andrea Mullaney
Peach Cigarettes in Tokyo by Kirsty Logan
Still Life by Emma Briant
Sakura Season by Lorna Callery
Jizo by Paul McDonagh
Snow Melts by Helen Sedgwick
Aokigahara by Eamonn Bolger
Ohayō Gozaimasu by JL Williams
Mum Fūsui by Cara McGuigan
Make Up, Sake and Firemen by Deborah Andrew
the dance of the year by John Brewster
A Glasgow Haiku by Kate Hendry
Hikikomori by Alex Cox
Saigō and the Spider by Iain Paton
Sinkhole by Iain Maloney
Bushido by Gar Hunter
Lost for Words by Paul Marsh
The Watchers by Nick Boreham
A Thousand Cranes by Fleur Capocci
Wedding Poem by Vivien Jones
Kimono by Lynsey May
The Lovebirds by J David Simons
Morning Haiku by Kathrine Sowerby
Hokusai’s ‘Great Wave off Kanagawa’ by Jim Stewart
From Out Waste Places Comes A Cry by Norman Bissett
Matsu by Paul McQuade
Building Edo by Michele Waering
The Positives by Steven Fraser
Haiku for Japan by various writers including the Open University
Bellflowers by Raymond Soltysek
A Year In A Kimono by Sam Porter
Nothing like a Real Smile by Ewan Gault
When I was a Ninja Turtle by Alan Gillespie
The Crane by Marise Morse
The Looking Glass and I by Layla Blackwell
Gion-no Ki by Sam Porter
A Letter of Mutual Understanding by Jackie Copleton
Late Night Searching of ‘2011 Tōhoku Earthquake and Tsunami ’ on Wikipedia by Mark Russell
Arashi by Nicola Robson
The Emperor’s Crows by Fiona Thackeray
More details to follow.
I will be reading at the monthly writers’ event held at the Tchai Ovna Tea House (West End) in Otago Lane at 8pm on Friday the 13th of May. The line up – including Graham Meek and Pippa Goldschmidt – looks fantastic, and it’ll be good to be reading again with my old colleague from the Paisley Writers’ group of the 1990s, Graham Fulton, a great poet and brilliant reader who’s just had a new collection published.
Thanks to David Manderson for the invitation.