Archive for February, 2015

Thoughts IRL

February 21, 2015

irlJust caught up with Chris Killen’s In Real Lifehis first novel in six years, which kind of makes him the Donna Tartt of Manchester. The book follows three characters, Ian, Paul and Lauren, across a space of ten years. The three were at university together and full of grand plans and big dreams. A decade on none of them have made it in any meaningful way – Ian has just sold his guitar and signed on for JSA, Lauren is running a charity shop and has little emotional or social life. Only Paul is anywhere near what you could call successful, having secured a creative writing lectureship off the back of his first novel, Human Animus. But he is a pathetic, grasping, insecure hack, his partner’s demanding a baby while he’s pursuing nineteen-year-old students through Facebook – Paul is weak and selfish in a peculiarly British way and has no more idea about what’s going on than anyone else.

The novel has the poignancy of old Facebook photographs. It’s sad to look at these people because you know what they’re going to become, what’s going to happen to them and the compromises they’ll make. Though Killen messes around with split narrative and typography, there’s no real artifice in his writing, no sense of tricksiness or superiority – he’s honest above all things, the laureate of a certain kind of awkwardness, and this makes In Real Life so compelling and so unbearably sad in places.

I knew Chris Killen a little when I lived in Manchester and the book serves also as a great portrait of that city. South Manchester in the  2010s was full of hip young writers like Chris Killen and Anneliese Mackintosh – and, er, not so hip young writers, like me. The choice Killen presents is stark: somehow carve a living out of the creative structures, or disappear into telesales hell. (At one low point Paul is writing tentacle erotic for $0.5 a word.) Manchester is a boom city now and when I hear council leaders from MCC comparing the place with London, ready to compete on the world stage, etcetera – I’m happy for them but I worry that Manchester will develop, as well as London’s economic success, a whole set of London-style problems: rocketing rents, rip-off employers, tracts of substandard, damp-infested housing, inequality, ghettoization and people on the make. As well as a beautifully written love story, In Real Life is the story of a generation emerging into a different and harder world.

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Guess Who’s Jack

February 5, 2015

brookmyreI stopped reading Christopher Brookmyre around the time of Where the Bodies are Buried, as from the publicity material, it seemed like the guy had given up writing funny, original crime capers and lapsed into MOR procedural crime – ‘the average detective novel’ as Chandler described it. (Check out the comparison between early and late Brookmyre covers, from Bent Spines, to see what I mean.) From 1996, the Scottish author had spun out complex and innovative stories featuring bizarre and elaborate plots and strange otherworldly characters. The Sacred Art of Stealing centred on a situationist bank heist, Attack of the Unsinkable Rubber Ducks on a fraudulent but convincing psychic. The tabloid PR conspirator of Boiling a Frog engineers a new cultural puritanism to make money for himself and his corrupt bishop clients.

The only conventional thing about Brookmyre was his hero. Jack Parlabane is a wisecracking alpha male journalist who’s prepared to do almost anything to expose predatory execs and thieving politicians. In the early novels Brookmyre had him scaling impossible buildings and hacking into confidential files. Brookmyre told the Herald that ‘Jack was always a bit of a wish-fulfillment figure’ – and the author compensated for this by throwing Parlabane into more and more challenging situations: in one adventure, he’s thrown in prison, in another, shot at like a clay duck on a corporate paintball weekend turned murderous.

Jack begins Dead Girl Walking as a compromised shadow: with his unorthodox style of reportage tainted by phone hack related activities, of the Murdoch press and others, he has been cast out of the journalism game, and his marriage has collapsed. Not only has Parlabane been destroyed by Leveson, he’s also being hunted by the MoD, the security services and god knows who else, for another computer hack, into the laptop of a senior civil servant. When an old friend hires him to track down a missing rock star, it looks like the answer to his troubles. Heike Gunn, frontwoman of hit indie band Savage Earth Heart, has vanished, Richey Manic style, on the verge of a major US tour. Parlabane combs Europe and remote Scottish islands looking for her.

I needn’t have worried about Brookmyre’s change of pace. All the old irreverence and wit is there – and the same contemporary motifs: punk rock, comic books, video games, Edinburgh-Glesca rivalry, scepticism, gadgetry, magicianship and a healthy disregard for authority and power. It’s now allied to a new, streamlined and pacy style, the style of a writer in pole position (although Brookmyre can’t help relishing his powers of misdirection a little too much). Brookmyre also does not make the MOR writer’s mistake of treating his victim like a cardboard martyr: elusive singer Heike Gunn is a compelling and believable co-protagonist. Brookmyre is sometimes over earnest but there’s nothing po faced about his prose. The ending gives us a potential redemption for Parlabane, certainly a new adventure, and maybe for Brookmyre as well. As he told STV Glasgow: ‘Every year there are more Scottish writers and they’re more inclined to turn to crime fiction. I think we’re seeing a constant enriching of the body of work and I think we’ll see all sorts of highly imaginative variations.’

Watching Too Much Television

February 1, 2015

One of the quirks of contemporary journalism is to take an innocuous cultural detail and use it as a hook to explore deeper issues. For example, scrolling through the Guardian ‘Comment Is Free’ site I find articles like ‘What the vaginal steam tells us about Western civilisation’ ‘Why HP sauce is a product of rapacious Western imperialism’ ‘Why Sport England is a product of evil Western neoliberalism’ and – a classic from the NS – ‘Why Movember is gender normative and racist’.

As one of my new year’s resolutions this year was to revive this blog, I thought I would emulate the winning CiF formula and have a look at daytime TV, in the hope that, in writing about seemingly insignificant reality shows I will gain insights into modern society and the human condition.

Come Dine With Me – I used to think this was the ultimate mediocre TV show. I used to say that this would be the show that was on a loop in purgatory. I used to say that, when Tony Soprano goes to purgatory after being shot by his uncle, he should have to watch the entire series run of Come Dine With Me in the hotel bar to atone for his evil deeds.

However, after having seen a few more episodes, I’m starting to really like the show. You probably know the format – bunch of random people have to cook dinner for each other, alternating between host and houses – and, as well as exploring the British obsession with the rituals of food (such preparation and drama to create something that takes maybe fifteen minutes to eat!) works as a gentle satire on bourgeois manners and rules, in the spirit of Flaubert or Jonathan Franzen.

Even the celebrity editions are good. There was a Come Dine With Me featuring Christopher Biggins who absolutely stole the show, making a series of amusing egg-related puns when host Edwina Currie served dinner (‘egg-zactly’, ‘en-ouef,’ etc) and the other guests, despite clearly having no idea who he was, were genuinely blown away by his warmth and charm. If I ever have an ‘ideal dinner party’ Biggins will definitely make the guest list.

Four In A Bed – Now this is the show that is on a loop in purgatory. In fact it’s on a loop in hell itself. After all my diligent TV watching Four In A Bed is the one programme that I just ‘don’t get’. It’s basically Come Dine With Me but with all the humour and good spirit carefully removed.

The show works like this. Producers select random people who own B + Bs. They then have to stay in each other’s B + Bs and rate the service. Guests are able to pay the full price, or more, or less, depending on their opinion of their experiences at the particular hotel. The pivotal scenes are where guests sit down with the hotel owner and explain why they chose to pay less, or more, than the price charged.

You don’t have to be Adam Smith to realise that a) people will generally find something to complain about and b) people aren’t going to pay full whack for something when they can get the same thing for less or nothing at all. Because of this Four In A Bed consists mainly of long, bitter arguments about aspects of a hotel’s service – food, décor, bed linen, plumbing, etc – and because small business people tend to be quite negative anyway this makes for a thoroughly depressing viewing experience. It is like being locked in a room with the kind of people who write regular and one-star reviews on TripAdvisor.

Two other things about Four In A Bed that annoy me. In keeping with the creepy pre-Yewtree tradition of introducing risqué humour into absolutely everything, the show’s title functions as a double entendre even though the show itself is on in the daytime and has absolutely nothing to do with sex or sexuality. Also, there is a chirpy incidental music track that plays continuously and after awhile makes you feel like your brain is trickling out of your ears.

Extreme Couponing – This is a US import on a digital channel called ‘TLC’. It features low income couples and families who collect coupons from magazine flyers, local newspapers and elsewhere, enabling them to save money on goods and services. You have to understand that the thrift culture in America is a lot more advanced than it is here – in many supermarkets, there’s no limit to the number of coupons a customer can use: if you have enough coupons, you can walk in and buy thousands of dollars worth of groceries and drive away laughing, having paid only a few cents. Some Americans clip coupons obsessively, order coupons online from specialist coupon clipping services, and even dumpster dive for coupons. These are the ‘Extreme Couponers’.

The show focuses on one couple or family at a time. The extreme couponers are mainly working class people from obscure parts of the Midwest or the Deep South so the programme works as an exploration of post-recession rustbelt America in the style of George Packer’s The Unwinding. There is also a genuine drama that hooks you. Couponers spend ten or eleven hours filling trollies with groceries, enlisting various family members and friends, planning their supermarket trips like a military operation. (As the writer S J Bradley pointed out to me, there’s a tangible Cold War aspect to all this – shots of basements stocked with cans upon cans of preservable staples like some vast presidential bunker at the end of the world.) You can see why people get into extreme couponing. You can feel the buzz when they get to the till, leading a supply train of loaded shopping trollies: the total goes up to maybe three or four figures, then ratchets back down to just a few dollars when the coupons are fed into the machine. Sometimes there are scary moments when the coupons for whatever reason don’t enter into the till’s calculation. Sometimes there are problems with the till itself, and a manager has to be called. You couldn’t do this in Britain – the risk of social embarrassment would be far too great – but Americans being Americans just work something out.

Another thing is that extreme couponers pronounce ‘coupon’ as ‘cuoupon’ (kyoo-pon). You have to say ‘cuoupon’ to be an extreme cuouponer. I don’t know why.

Gogglebox – A show that has broken out of the daytime TV ghetto and gone mainstream. I love it, except there are disturbing moments when I watch drunken hotel owners Steph and Dom and realise that this will be me and my partner in twenty years.

tonysopranopurgatory

 ‘I think I saw the couponing programme somewhere in the 600s’