Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Room for one more

We're approaching that time of year when newspapers begin compiling their 'best ofs'. I know this because I'm putting together Metro's sports books of the year - currently headed for me by Matthew Syed's brilliant Bounce: How Champions Are Made. While I digress, the William Hill Sports Book Of The Year 2010 is announced next week: Syed has been shortlisted and I've reviewed two of the other nominees for Metro as well; Duncan Hamilton's A Last English Summer and Luke Jennings' Blood Knots. The latter is lovely, as is the man - I interviewed him around his nomination for The Samuel Johnson Prize. But it would be a major surprise if he won - as a memoir about fishing it's not really a sports book.

Anyway, if I do get to write about my favourite fiction of 2010, Room by Emma Donoghue will be right up there. The book "triggered" by the Josef Fritzl case has stayed with me like no other this year, and so it was really nice to get the chance to speak to her about it for The National. Here's the piece, published this week - and if anyone has, ahem, room to read one more novel before the end of December, this is undoubtedly the one.

Thursday, 28 October 2010

Apollo: This Is For All Mankind @ RNCM, Manchester

Last year, Brian Eno's 1983 ambient masterpiece, Apollo, was performed live for the first time at The Science Museum, to celebrate 40 years since man first walked on the moon. With one of the Apollo moonlanding craft as a suitable backdrop, the Icebreaker ensemble played live as BJ Cole plucked away on pedal steel. Above was an edited screening of Al Reinert's 1989 lunar documentary For All Mankind - which used the Eno album as its soundtrack.

It was one of those 'I was there' events - and I wasn't. But the set-up was replicated (minus the landing craft) at RNCM last night - and, for me, completely changed any misconception that ambient music is just background noise for art installations. And that's despite the presence of pan pipes.

Clearly, the images helped. The combination of sound and vision was, at points, incredibly moving. We're all familiar with the first steps on the moon and those famous first words. But the gentle power of the music somehow emphasised the bravery of these astronauts. As they strap themselves on top of a rocket for a trip into the unknown, we're not treated to crass, white noise-style representations of burning fuel, but a quiet piece that instead correlated with the idea that this immense human endeavour hung by the slightest of threads.

Once they reach outer space, the globe is circled to the strains of An Ending. Easily the most melodic and beautiful piece here, the images of Earth become poignant, almost sublime. The footage taken on the Moon is captivating beyond words. And trust the Americans to take a car there...

Beforehand, Tim Boon - Chief Curator of the Science Museum - gave a dryly-delivered but instructive talk about Eno's project and the nature of space and time. It transpires that two of the astronauts took country and western music to play on the Moon - which connected with Eno's idea that this was a new frontier for America just as the Wild West (which C&W celebrates) had been. Hence the pedal steel and music that projects across huge, wide open spaces. Quite brilliant.

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Anthology Action

Last night I was at the Beirut39 event at Manchester Literature Festival. Beirut39, for those who don't know, is a project set up by the Hay Festival and Bloomsbury to highlight the 39 best young Arab writers. In the summer, Bloomsbury published their work in an anthology. I haven't read the whole thing - just the three entries of the writers who were there last night - but judging by the work of Abdelkader Benali, Yassin Adnan and Ala Hlehel, the quality is good.

What really struck home last night was this sense that politics, religion and tradition are an inescapable theme for these Arab writers. And that was much the same feeling I got from Granta: Pakistan, a wonderful anthology of new writing from that country. I subscribe to Granta anyway, but with work from Mohsin Hamid and Mohammed Hanif, this issue was particularly strong. So I ended up writing about it for The National, as you can see below.

What came out of both Granta: Pakistan and Beirut39 was this idea that to truly understand the issues facing a country or a people, fiction is crucial. In fact, I would argue I learned more about the life of a Palestinian man living in Israel via Ala Hlehel's short story than I ever would in a newspaper.

Arts & Life
20 Oct 2010

Monday, 18 October 2010

Friday at In The City

Full confession to make: despite being a resident of Manchester for ten years and despite writing about In The City for Metro year after year, I've never actually been to this festival of new music before (incidentally, these were previews, not reviews!). My excuse? A combination of being away the very weekend it was on, and not really being that interested in seeing a bunch of "hotly tipped" bands in Brannigans.

But In The City seemed to get something spectacularly right this year - not least because it has relocated to where it should naturally have been in the first place: The Northern Quarter. There was a real excitement in the streets on Friday as people rushed from venue to venue check out a much-tweeted about band. In short, it felt like a proper festival, and the people I spoke to said it was the best In The City in years.

First up were Rapids! at Umbro's impressive Dale Street space. Sadly their MySpace is undergoing maintenance at the moment so I can't expand upon my initial impression that they sounded a lot like Foals and a little like Bloc Party. All shouty vocals and intricate guitar. Still, they had Steve Lamacq nodding in the shadows, looking very much like the indie godfather he is. And "hello, we're from Bournemouth" has to be the most unintentionally hilarious piece of stage banter to a bunch of early evening Manchester hipsters in quite some time.

On, then to Dry Bar. The last time I was there I was DJing at the much missed Helen Of Troy Does Countertop Dancing night, and it stunk. But I was really impressed with their new, clean, and wide open basement space. And The Bewitched Hands filled it nicely. They look like a bunch of beardy West Coast slackers in love with sunkissed psychedelia (apart from, ahem, the girl in the band. She didn't have a beard). So it was quite nice to find that they're French, and not entirely in love with psychedelia. In fact they revealed a shared love of straightahead singalong pop (Work) and bouncy indie (Sea). But a frontman in glasses? Only Jarvis Cocker can pull that off. I say this as a full time glasses wearer myself.

Talking of refurbed venues, The Castle now has a really very good gig space out the back. Intimate, though, isn't the word. It was absolutely rammed for Working For A Nuclear Free City - and unsurprisingly so. I wrote about their interesting mix of Krautrock, electronica and straight blissed out rock back in 2006, and their set four years on merited a fresh look at their back catalogue. In the past year I've seen Battles and Caribou pack out Academy 2 and Deaf Institute, and WFANFC are on their propulsively epic level. Check out Autoblue - it's the kind of tune Karl Hyde would have ranted over in Underworld's Dubnobasswithmyheadman days.

Knocking me out of such reverie was Youthless. Quite simply, they were the best, most impactful and exciting new band I saw all night - a two piece very loosely from Portugal who absolutely rocked Umbro. Nominally just a drummer and a bass guitarist, armed with an array of effects pedals they mutate into a garage dance/rock monster. Sometimes this trips over into straight metal, but seeing as all continental Europeans must at once stage have an Iron Maiden obsessions, this is understandable. Maybe two's all you need for a band these days.

In fact, I'd been expecting one for Windmill back at The Castle - Matthew Dillon. For he is Windmill, and has been for two albums of delightful piano-led alternative rock. But here he had a full band and it really made sense, widening his sonic pallette and suggesting there's more to come when Dillon sits down next year to write his theird record. He still sounds like he's from New Orleans rather than Newport Pagnell, though.

Dutch Uncles are very much an English band, and as such a fitting way to finish the evening. Their jumpy, frenetic indie-pop and post-punk has been so hotly-tipped for so long one wonders whether the buzz is actually becoming a millstone. While their peers - Delphic and Everything Everything - have signed deals and released albums, Dutch Uncles are still on the fringes. Some of that might be down to an ill-judged release on an enthusiastic German label, which means they're not labelled as being "new" anymore. Some is certainly down to a sound which is perhaps just a little too clever to fully engage. Tonight, they play their best song - Face In - first, when the sound isn't quite right.

Dutch Uncles 'Face In' from Love & Disaster on Vimeo.

Not the In The City "moment" I was expecting then. That came with Youthless. But the star of the evening was undoubtedly Manchester's Northern Quarter. The range of venues was impressive, and the city came alive. More of the same next year please. I might even make it two years in a row.

With thanks to Holly and Will at In House Press for arranging the wristband

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

The Man-chester Booker Prize? Not really

Quite exciting that Manchester now has incumbent Nobel Prize and Man Booker Prize winners. Well, kind of. The Nobel Prize winners are Dutch and Russian, and saying Howard Jacobson is a Manchester author is a bit like saying Oasis were a Manchester band: they may have been born and educated here but as soon as London called, they were off.

But anyway, I'm pleased a comic novel has finally won the Booker, even if I think Paul Murray's longlisted Skippy Dies - which I really loved - definitely suffered by Jacobson's presence. Two comic novels on the shortlist would probably have been too much. Spending the last two weeks on holiday has allowed me to catch up with some of the other books on the list though, and I have to say In A Strange Room by Damon Galgut is just fantastic.

If you're holidaying anywhere in the next few months, this is the book to pack - a meditation on not just why we travel but what we remember years later. It was never going to win the Booker because a) it's really three short stories and b) it's not really clear whether it's actually fiction at all. But I'm glad it was shortlisted as that was the final shove I needed to buy it. I'm in Greece, and the first exchanges are in Greece. It all came together in a really affecting read and I will be busy spending autumn recommending it to whoever will listen. But maybe it's just because I love South African authors, too...

Thursday, 30 September 2010

Arcadia @ The Library Theatre @ The Lowry

And so to The Lowry, for Tom Stoppard's Arcadia. It was great to see The Library Theatre's first production since its temporary relocation: putting it politely, the basement space in the Central Library was getting so tired and unfit for purpose, it was beginning to make the company look a bit amateurish. Last time I saw something there (Tom's Midnight Garden, I think), the set looked so flimsy, my heart was in my mouth every time a door slammed shut.

I'm writing a story for The Stage about the move, so you'll excuse me if I don't go into too much detail as yet. I'll link when they publish. But the idea is thus: three productions a year at The Lowry until 2014, when hopefully LTC will move into the Theatre Royal on Peter Street, which has been operating as an amusingly cheesy nightclub for years (I went there when it was Discotheque Royale, and just about survived). I hope the move comes off, although I can't help but think a completely new space - like The Lowry - might end up being cheaper and better. Refurbishing and running Victorian buildings is never easy.

Anyway, the relocation to The Lowry throws up one other issue - greater expectations. Next week, after all, Arcadia is in the same building as The National Theatre On Tour's version of Alan Bennett's The Habit Of Art. Not everyone in Chris Honer's production was up to the task, but those that were - particularly Charlie Anson as Septimus Hodge - suggest that The Library's focus should be on unearthing exciting new acting talent in the next four years.

Here's the review.

Thursday, 23 September 2010

Hamlet @ The Crucible

Reviewing Hamlet for The Stage last night, I was struck by how theatre has succumbed to the cult of celebrity as much as any other creative medium. It's great that John Simm is playing Hamlet, and he plays one of Shakespeare's finest characters well enough to suggest that he may well have a long career as a classical actor ahead of him. But how many people were at The Crucible specifically because it was John Simm in the lead role? Aye, there's the rub.
An up and coming star from RSC would have been, probably, just as impressive. Indeed, when David Tennant was forced to pull out of the first weeks of Hamlet in London last year, his understudy received fantastic notices. But still people wanted their money back. They wanted to see Dr Who.
Which is a shame. After all, the play's the thing. And we lose something of its power if its famous face becomes the attraction rather than the power of the words. Anyway, enjoy the review, below.