Monthly Archives: January 2012

Desert Island Discs

Today is the 70th anniversary of that Radio 4 hardy perennial Desert Island Discs. I’ve been following the programme for at least half that time (scary) and in spite of the odd hiccup (was Michael Parkinson in the driving seat at one point or did I just dream that?) it’s still a marvellous institution, pandering one-hundred percent to my geekish love of lists as well as my fascination with other people’s musical tastes.

For breadth of intellect and musical depth it’s hard to outclass the choices of Vladimir Ashkenazy and Berthold Goldschmidt, while the prize for most misunderstood castaway must go to Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, who famously chose eight of her own (sublime) recordings to take with her to the mythical island. Entertaining to recall though her blunder is, I’ve always believed she made it through a simple misunderstanding of the rules.

Shameful though it is, I have to admit that I am one of those people whose previously good opinion of a castaway can be permanently cancelled out by a poor choice of music. The one person who has so far managed to conquer my prejudice in this regard was the late and very great J. G. Ballard, who appeared to flaunt his musical apathy as a virtue. I have continued to worship him anyway.

I think everyone in Britain must have played this game at some point, and although my choices might shift and change from week to week I’d like to celebrate the programme today by posting my current line-up. So (in no particular order) here goes:

Brahms Piano Concerto 2 Ashkenazy Wiener PO/Haitink

Dvorak Cello Concerto Du Pre Chicago SO/Barenboim

Mahler Symphony 6 Berlin PO/Karajan

Henze Undine L. Sinf/Knussen

Beethoven Violin Concerto (cadenza by Alfred Schnittke) Kremer COE/Harnoncourt

Bach Cantata: Ich habe genug Hotter Philh/Bernard

Bob Dylan Blonde on Blonde

Sandy Denny Gold Dust: The Last Concert

And (in the words of Roy Plomley) if all of the eight discs were to be washed away and I could save only one, it would have to be the Beethoven, a clever choice really because with the Schnittke cadenza it captures the genius of two heroes on the one record. And with Gidon Kremer (whose playing I could listen to until the crack of doom) that makes three.

If you’ve not heard the Schnittke cadenza, I urge you to try it – it reimagines Beethoven for the 20th century, and like all of Schnittke’s music it is inspiration straight from the jugular.

I thought choosing these discs would be fun, but in fact it was agony. I couldn’t possibly go to the island with no Shostakovich, no Scriabin, no Elgar Dream of Gerontius, no Tchaikovsky, no Bruckner, no Peter Maxwell Davies, godammit. It’s a hopeless task. I hate lists. I give up.

The book’s a tricky one – of course – and I would have to insist on taking two: Christopher Priest’s The Affirmation and Ted Hughes’s Birthday Letters.

For my luxury I’d take the ever-popular endless supply of pens and paper. I considered opting for a solar-powered laptop instead, but on balance thought this would be unwise as it would almost certainly get buggered up by sand influx after a year or two. And having to write with a pen again might help return my handwriting to the edge of legibility.

While writing this I’ve been listening to Anne Sofie von Otter’s recording of Kurt Weill songs. Another irreplaceable classic, and my sudden compulsion to hear it undoubtedly something to do with the odd (very odd) piece I’ve been working on these past three days……

Alfred Schnittke by Reginald Gray

Couple of things

Firstly, here is the ToC for the forthcoming NewCon Press anthology Dark Currents:

  1. Introduction by Ian Whates
  2. The Fall of Lady Sealight – Adrian Tchaikovsky
  3. The Age of Entitlement – Adam Nevill
  4. Electrify Me – Tricia Sullivan
  5. Alternate Currents – Rod Rees
  6. The Barricade – Nina Allan
  7. Things that Are Here Now – Andrew Hook
  8. Loose Connections – Finn Clarke
  9. Sleepless in R’lyeh – Lavie Tidhar
  10. Damnation Seize my Soul – Jan Edwards
  11. Home – Emma Coleman
  12. A Change in the Weather – Rebecca J Payne
  13. Bells Ringing Under the Sea – Sophia McDougall
  14. In Tauris – Una McCormack
  15. Lost Sheep – Neil Williamson
  16. The Bleeding Man – Aliette de Bodard
  17. George – V.C. Linde

The anthology will be launched at this year’s EasterCon. The wonderful cover art is by Ben Baldwin, who also created the amazing illustrations for ‘The Silver Wind’ and ‘Orinoco’ in Interzone and Black Static.

This looks like being an excellent book, and I am especially pleased to be sharing space with Tricia Sullivan, who wrote the intro for my collection The Silver Wind last year. My contribution to Dark Currents, ‘The Barricade’, was inspired by the landscape and legends of Cornwall and I was wandering around on the set of it only last week.

Secondly, I found out this morning that ‘The Silver Wind’ has been shortlisted for a BSFA Award in the Short Fiction category. I feel incredibly honoured by this vote of confidence as there seemed to be even more fine stories than usual on the nominations board this year. TTA Press have posted the full shortlists and a link to the story here. Needless to say I am delighted to report that Chris’s novel The Islanders has been shortlisted in the Best Novel category.

Thirdly, reading Tomas Transtromer’s poem Six Winters in The Guardian today made me want to start writing a new story cycle directly inspired by it. Each of these six haiku-like ‘chapters’ reads like the writer’s note to himself for the opening of a novel.

On a side-track, an empty railway-carriage.
Still. Heraldic.
With the journeys in its claws.

Simply sublime. And wintry. Makes me think of Tarkovsky. And want to stay up all night writing.

Some thoughts on a train

Returning from Falmouth, and reading Nicholas Royle’s recently published novel Regicide. Flashing along the luminous Exe estuary, and thinking about Alain Robbe-Grillet’s elusive first novel Un Regicide, which haunts Royle’s book, and seems to be pre-haunting The Affirmation. There are no copies of the English translation of Un Regicide available to order, anywhere, and I’m wondering if I can manage it in the original. Thoughts of the Robbe-Grillet lead me inevitably to Nabokov, Pale Fire, false kings, dead kings, check mate, shah mat. The whole of Regicide is like a chess game, and anyone who knows me knows how mad I am for chess in novels.

Through Wiltshire, and I move on to Peter Stamm’s envy-making, perfect, diamond-bright stories. Thinking sleepily of how damned brilliant he is. My head rests against the window, and suddenly we’re making an unscheduled stop at Reading West. Vast ambush of memory as timelines overlap. It has been twenty-six years now since I lived here, and still only yesterday. On through Reading. The gasworks rear up on my right, bringing back Regicide and that great little passage near the end about Jaz’s photos of the gasometers.

A very dear friend of mine lived out her childhood in the shadow of the Reading gasworks. She and her friends used an abandoned Hillman Minx as a hideout, and dared each other to climb the ladders running vertiginously up the sides of the huge gas tanks. I can never see a gasworks without remembering William Sansom‘s brilliant little story ‘The Vertical Ladder.’ Sansom is one of the unsung heroes of the English Uncanny. I first read ‘The Vertical Ladder’ when I was fourteen (in one of the Pan Books of Horror, of all places), not knowing a thing about it and forgetting the name of the author almost at once. The story haunted me for years but no one had heard of it or could tell me who had written it – except, finally, Chris, who in another of those weird juxtapositions of fate has been a Sansom fan for years.

Steaming in towards Paddington, the sparse trees a raddled grid against a blazing orange sunset. London envelops me. Half an hour later on Villiers Street I snatch some food and some London air before heading south.

I’ve been awake since five. I want to read more of the Stamm, but I’m too tired. When I wake up the train has reached Battle.



Anyone who is or who thinks they might be a writer should read this piece by AL Kennedy in today’s Guardian. Coming upon it made me want to jump up and down and shout hallelujah. Because this – ‘putting everything into writing’, as AL puts it – is what it’s all about.

The joy and fear and work involved in writing have to be real and full to have meaning and to achieve anything.

That’s it, precisely. And the joy of reading Kennedy’s essay lies in knowing she has the talent and the tenacity to put her money where her mouth is. Her fiction – sometimes thorny, sometimes abstruse, always felt, always meant, always intelligent – reads like a battle fought and won. She’s someone who stakes her life on her work. In other words, the real deal.

Above all, the pure act of writing – the truth that it is still there for you and you for it – is a wonder. And it need have nothing to do with the details of your life. Within it, you can be away from everything and saying out new dreams, just because you can, because human beings do sing for other human beings and make unnecessary beauties. Onwards.

Perhaps it is because certain sections of the literary establishment seem actively to fear fiction that takes risks that Kennedy’s most recent novel The Blue Book didn’t even make the longlist for last year’s Booker. It makes me clench my fists and grind my teeth to see our bravest writers so ill-served. Read Michael Bywater getting stuck into this groove here.

It’s ‘lit. fic.’ that has difficulties. Only a few, like Christopher Priest and Hilary Mantel, have the narrative genius to do it straight from the shoulder. The rest drift hopelessly into pink-embossed chick-lit or yet more nervous adultery in north London. With good reason. These are prissy times.

Great article. We’re not doomed yet.

Work on the new book is going well, even if the word ‘well’ has to let itself be defined in my own peculiar fashion. About ten days before Christmas I realised that the 20,000 words of draft I’d written to open the novel was not what I wanted. At all. So I dumped the lot. Today I got back to where I was and reached the 20,000-word mark (again) and this time it feels much more like it.