Small things

“The guy who lived downstairs didn’t have a nasty bone in his body. This made getting around difficult.”

(Unpublished, unfinished short story).

I’ve been reading “Sing To It“, a new collection of short stories by Amy Hempel, her first in over a decade. She doesn’t write many, but when she does they are extremely good. They don’t take long. There is no time for an arc as such, not easy to say for sure what happens to her characters either side of the text. If there’s a moral to these stories, it’s ambiguous. Some stories are only a page long (and the font is obligingly large).

Chuck Palahaniuk, who, if I knew him, would presumably hate me to refer to him as the author of “Fight Club”, said this about her:

“Every sentence isn’t just crafted, it’s tortured over.”

So I got into Amy Hempel simply because someone who I think is a great writer recommended her, and sometimes you want a doctor’s opinion about who should take your kidneys out.

I also like that quote about torture, I can believe it.

Short stories are the shrugged shoulder to the raised pointy finger of the giant literary work of genius. There is not much to look at except the sentences, their melody, little observations shaped into something more than simply what is being said. More than the person saying it and more than what they stand for. Something outside the visible, something you could look at and not see the writer.

I wish performing was a bit more like that but it isn’t always, and it especially isn’t always now. We all want to know who made everything and how, and why, perhaps so we are tempted to think we could do it ourselves. We want to see the evidence, check with our eyes that what we are experiencing is authentic, that we are justified in feeling something.

My opening sentence remains, the vertical blinking cursor daring me to add to it. Perhaps I won’t. This blog is already too long, and by the time you read it I probably will have shortened it still further.

One thing shorter than an Amy Hempel short story is a tweet, originally the sole preserve of anthropomorphised songbirds, now a popular vessel of communication amongst humans that customarily lacks the musical quality of the feathered variety.

Reading short stories helps me recover from time spent on Twitter. So it’s not just the brevity then.

(Sorry that was a bit of a moralising ending. Writing well is hard. Baby steps……)

In defence of journalism…

The first trick is to lure people in with a headline.

I’ve had my fair share of rants about journalists, public and private, as if they were all peas out of the same pod, and I’ve since regretted it. Writing blogs, rolling around in that vanity publishing utopia, has made me realise a few things.

And one thing’s for sure. I’m not a Writer. Not because I can’t do it, but because I often can’t think of anything to write about. It’s not easy. I wish I could simply shunt sounding things together, end to end, without it needing to be about something. This seems to work with music, but words need to hang on something, they must describe. We can’t all be EE Cummings.

Journalists, it seems to me, are in the trickiest position of all. They are obliged to write about the world as it is, or as it seems to them. The priority is to get copy out. Then they get censored (sorry, “edited”), squashed, collated, chopped. What’s left might be an opinion that is no longer quite their own, flapping like a dying fish on the deck of a sailing boat.

I’ve tried writing about music I like, and every time I try and describe what I think goes on, I often feel like I am just adding needless bumf to what is already there, like draping tinsel over a Ming vase.

It’s not easy. Dead heroes and heroines are easier to write about, because you miss them, so you write about that loss. The strange jolt of death that catapults an artist from forgotten to iconic for a few days. That’s readable. But it all reminds me of that film of Jackson Pollock painting with his turkey baister, crouching over a huge canvas. The action is all in his head, the spatial and textural sense, you are witnessing creation but not seeing it. Stravinsky sits at his desk with a pen and glasses, and out come the masterpieces.

So I’ve come to terms with the necessity of writing about the stuff “around” the music, the people writing and performing it, the people they in turn are seen to represent and reflect. Maybe music itself doesn’t quite fit on the page? Maybe audiences have to come out and get it themselves. Perhaps a tasty headline or a well doctored picture helps a bit, but in the end the horse and the water are still locked in timeless battle.

So, men and women of journalism everywhere, I hereby endorse the frankly worrisome task of writing about my upcoming album. My dad would have said “cheque’s in the post”. “I’ll BACS you” doesn’t really cut it, but thats all there is. I’m no poet, that’s for sure.

Coffee cup

The time is 12.23, , and as my weary eyes catch sight of a rubbish bin I feel, somewhat prematurely, the surge of pleasure at the thought of having dropped the empty coffee cup (held precariously between thumb and forefinger as the three remaining fingers grip my reading glasses with hopeless optimism) into it.

In the other hand is a copy of Yuval Noah Harari’s “Sapiens”, thick and solid. It has all the answers. Like a toddler’s drawing of a face, there’s a suspicion it’s not completely accurate, but its enthusiastic scrawl is bursting with enthusiasm. Everything has been, will be, and is, as ok as one could hope for in such a complex and fragile humanity, bound together as it is by fictions, folktales and trust in the future.

A kind of consensus of imagination, whether it be God, money, presidents or our inherent superiority to animals, holds this juddering juggernaut together. As the internet finally grants a voice to more people than ever, perhaps such agreements may fall apart, the human sprawl reveals itself, a mass of voices informed by everything from intense research to idle gossip. But more than ever, these voices demand results, to throw out history and start again, to take no shit from the old orders. Such demands have now spread to the human body itself, and a combination of computers and bio technology will offer us choice beyond our wildest dreams, if dreaming is still a possibility with all that machinery and bio mutation made flesh.

(Ok, his tone is a little more optimistic than mine, but it was a fun read.)

It was also a practical read; short chapters despite the weighty tome, easy to get one in between Facebook posts and other essential business. And, by definition, we all feel like characters in the book itself. By reading it, we somehow participate in an unfinished final chapter. As I multitask my way through a series of frivolous actions, I am paradoxically reminded of the freedom and the terror of being in a “foraging” society. The author certainly takes the nostalgia out of that little pipe dream. No time for selfies with a ravenous mammoth stampeding towards you and only a spear to catch it with. No time for much really. Pick the fruit and run. And no going back.

But in the present day drama of the coffee cup and the reading glasses, I emerge victorious, the cup making a soft landing between crisp packets, the glasses secured between my fingers. With a renewed sense of positivity, I go a-hunting and a-gathering into the jungles of Baker St.