It Felt Like a Very 1962 Conversation

So I went to the festival and watched this fly with unusually long legs that was more like a spider (but it was flying) drift around above the writers heads at the International Writers Conference. I was pretty sure it was the spirit of Burroughs just checking into see what was happening fifty years after the major conference he attended in 1962. There was a slightly manic energy around, writers who became more dishevelled as the weeks went on. I got a shot on the same typewriter used by Sylvia Plath and had some odd conversations in the yurt. There was a man who claimed to be able to heal all pain. A lecturer stealing sandwiches who told me that Jeremy Benthem is stuffed and on display in University College of London. This pleased me. He said the lecturers used to wheel him into meetings sometimes. Then his head fell off. So they made a new one.

Ali Smith read a story about a woman whose heart becomes wooden branches that grow out her chest and begin to bud. I have chatted with Ali before but when she reads, she really is a cut above, a cut apart, she is a writer who knows how to cut, to cauterise. I was reminded of Patti Smith talking about flying shamans in society, about writers, or musicians who are flying shamans, and what that means. That drew me back to an interview I had with the artist Michael Parkes where he talked about his painting of Venus, with Mercury flying down to show the gods that this avatar’s arrival is an earth shattering, life-changing event. He said that when he tried to paint Venus he was trying to paint behind the veil, to capture the essence of something that is truly beautiful. I thought it was a political stance to take against a world that favours nihilistic art at times. It’s not that nihilism is not valid at times, it’s just that he was saying that for all this worlds trouble at the very centre, at the absolute pulse, is this light. This absolute, unbelievable light. It’s what he is searching for as an artist. He sends out a pulse, or a radar that other artists respond to because they recognise this pulse too. So I was chatting to Ali about this and it felt like a very 1962 conversation but a very important one and I was totally inspired by meeting her. Kelman was astounding as ever. I saw him twice. He had the launch for his new novel Mo Said She Was Quirky (I got mine signed) at Word Power bookshop. Word Power is one of the coolest independent book shops in the world and when I’m there I always happen upon some new interesting person, or political discovery, or novel, or poem. Elaine who runs the place is a fount of all things useful to literati and readers alike, if you are ever in town then please do pop along there. Anyway. Kelman read from an essay he’d written about the original 1962 Writers Conference, and the reasons why he was choosing not to actively chair a day at the event. I will post his essay below. Occasionally I am aware that I am in the presence of someone who is so thoroughly grounded in a sharp, political, humane, fundamentally generous truth as an artist, that I feel both humbled and like a total idiot — Kelman is one of those few people. Writers today are expected to provide many elements of a ‘package’ that is becoming standard within the industry. I have been fortunate to not be too touched by that myself right now but I see it all the time. Kelman reminds me that it is absolutely, irrevocably, okay to just be who you are as an artist. I use the word artist quite deliberately with Kelman because to me he is a master painter (with words) he is the kind of person you should study (like the young painters did back in the day) and you should not be sidelined by the controversy that seems to follow him because it is far less interesting than he is. I think people focus on his political elements because he is so powerfully honest. So I saw him twice, and he signed my book and I got to chat with him a wee bit and was probably still in the kind of awkward space I might be if I happened upon Kafka at a reading but nevertheless it reminded me that all I ever need to do is to write from a true place. By that I mean — if I write from a place that is true then it will produce something of worth. Everytime. It’s not up to me too much to worry too much about plot or what is readable, or entertaining, or marketable or any of those other concerns — that really is the business of people who sell windows — not people who are trying to express something fundamental about being. Is this overly hippified shit? I don’t know but writers like that, or like Welsh at the writers conference, they do something that is about a definitive freedom, and confidence, to develop work without limitations — other than your own. People who are caught up in the academics, in the technicality, in the mechanics — they are missing something vital. So these wee fleeting moments in the festival were great for me, like a wee shot of peyote in the desert, just enough to get a writer through winter. I have come home since the festival and finished my thesis (on writers from the periphery and the importance of peripheral works to the future of literature) which helped me clarify why my approach to words is important, and why I will stick by it.

So I have almost finished by short story collection and I am back into writing my new novel. As Kelman said when he was interviewed by Liz Lochhead — the only thing that is ever important is to return to the words. Things will change. The world will change. We may or may not be able to pay our electricity bill and that is nothing new. What still matters putting down what you choose/how you choose to do so. That might mean writing without thinking. That might mean planning every element. It might mean really learning how to listen so a voice can come through that is not just a puppetry of lit-shittery. What I think about is how totally fleeting this existence is and how I understand less about it each year and when I go, I want to know that I wrote what I had to — pure and true. To have that single minded desire to make one word follow another, or to follow one word through another as time passes.

That’s what happens, then the sun rises, and the beach light is grey, and the telly license people are still total idiots, and milk needs bought and the baby has just reminded you that this exact instant is the only one that really counts.

It is what it is.

During the festival I also read at Summerhall, in a room with a hook in the ceiling where they used to hang horses to dissect them. The place had a great atmospheric stripped back vibe about it. The event was Bucket of Tongues organised by Kevin Williamson (stole the show) Irvine Welsh (a genius and a gent) and a team of writers from Chicago vs Edinburgh brought into entertain the good and the ugly. It was sweaty, it was real, it was my favourite event of the festival. It was nice to meet Alan Bissett properly and see part of his surreal spider show. John Hemingway’s stories about his father and Norman Mailer were profoundly humane, surreal and hilarious. I met the owner of the new venue afterwards and had a great chat about Patti Smith, masturbation, and the process of creating an arts venue to rival any other in Europe. It’s an exciting venture, Neu Reekie are going to make their home there and I will be reading at their opening night this month (Belle & Sebastian are on the bill) as well as some amazing readers and animation. It’s nice to move home from London and find something like Neu Reekie going on, it has an energy, a now-ness about it you know. You should go — or be square and shit-bored daddy O.

This month I’m really pleased to be mentioned in Polari by Michael Langan recommending The Panopticon on their weeks reading list x


Here is Kelman’s article on The British Council and the Edinburgh Writers Conference

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And now here are The Dirty Three to play you out …

The Scotsman Reviews The Panopticon

Book review: The Panopticon

Published on Saturday 12 May 2012 00:00


Stuart Kelly hails a novel that gets inside the soul of its troubled heroine


Jeremy Bentham might well be surprised if he learned how influential his ideal prison – the Panopticon – would be in terms of aesthetics. The circular prison, where the prisoners can be seen all the time (or rather, where they know that they might be seen at any time, and therefore internalise the surveillance to the extent that the prison controllers don’t need an actual person continually watching) plays a significant role in Angela Carter’s Nights At The Circus, and is central to both Charles Stross’s Glasshouse and Hannu Rajamieni’s The Quantum Thief. It was discussed at length in Michel Foucault’s Discipline And Punish, his ground-breaking work on the transition from public, retributory execution to private, supposedly rehabilitating incarceration, where, as Foucault elegantly and paradoxically puts it, the soul becomes a prison for the body.

It is the title of Jenni Fagan’s novel, already selected as one of the “Waterstones 11” promotion of the best debut works of the year. It is the most assured and intriguing first novel by a Scottish writer that I have read in a decade, a book which is lithely and poetically written, politically and morally brave and simply unforgettable. To give some indication of the maturity of this novel, I should confess that initially I had one or two queries about certain decisions about style and plotting; which, on reflection, I increasingly saw as strengths – and very meaningful strengths – rather than weaknesses.

The Panopticon is narrated by a girl who calls herself Anais Hendricks. Abandoned at birth, she has been through 51 residential and fostering placements, and a brief period of adoption ended in tragedy. Aged 15, already boasting 147 charges of theft, possession, vandalism and breaches of the peace, she has been sent to the Panopticon after a WPC with whom she was pursuing a vendetta was battered into a coma. There was blood on Anais’s school uniform but she cannot remember the crime.

Anais’s voice is an intricate blend of the demotic and the hauntingly lyrical. This is the sound of children who have read Trainspotting: radge and chore and womble and umnay. Fagan makes Anais a baroque curser, who could out-swear Sick Boy, and the real sense comes across that such inventive profanity is the only power available to the powerless. It is not the paucity of vocabulary but an anguished frustration at wanting swearing to hurt again. This is offset by psychologically acute moments of transport. Anais plays her “birthday game”, inventing a glamorous childhood she never had. She develops her own arcane mythology of “the experiment”. Not having a mother means she was never really born at all, but cultured in a petri-dish. Men with broad-brimmed hats and no noses are using her to discover just how much a nobody can take before they break. There are moments which are genuinely distressing to read, which return the reader to a painful sense of how mindlessly and unspeakable cruel people can be. But it is marbled with cynical, smart comedy: Anais, for example, when she is told to participate in group events as a way of coping with her trauma, thinks “Okay then. I’ll bowl myself better. I’ll ice-skate tae f***ing happiness every Friday f***ing night”.

Fagan is exceptionally skilful with bathos, a notoriously difficult literary register; here, however, it manages to be funny and heart-breakingly tender at the same time. When Anais tries to recollects scraps she has heard about her birth mother, she thinks “if they fried my mother’s voices out, did she still know who she was afterwards? They found her naked outside a supermarket supposedly. In labour. Psychotic. They never did say which supermarket”. This both defuses and humanises, and frequently it grounds Anais’s fantasies in the all too human. Likewise there is an astonishing cadenza of all the questions which social workers don’t ask. “They dinnae ask about the terrible baldness of the moon, they dinnae ask about rooms without windows or doors … they didnae ask me about blood in an empty bath, and they didnae ask about what Theresa was gonnae do when she got out that bath – she was gonnae curl up with me and watch a movie. We were gonnae make microwave popcorn.” Bathos renders that innocuous, almost inconsequential, detail into a vivid means to express phenomenal loss.

I had some reservations that certain plot lines drop from prominence as the narrative hurtles towards its catastrophe. It seems, however, as if there is a deliberate strategy to avoid certain forms of narrative closure. It is in keeping with what the authorities might describe as Anais’s “chaotic” circumstances. People disappear. Things are permanently unresolved, or unresolvable. In contrast with the crime novel, where despite its claims to verisimilitude, there is always resolution, Fagan’s novel is both more naturalistic and pleasingly oblique. Life, as Stevenson said, is “infinite, illogical, abrupt and poignant”. To render this novelistically is a rare achievement. There were moments when I felt a didacticism crept into the dialogue; and felt suitably chastened when I realised that critics never really complain when the middle-class characters in an Iris Murdoch novel pontificate about philosophy. Characters have a right to opinions even if they don’t have mortgages.

The Panopticon appeals to writers since in some ways the novelist is the prison’s arch-overseer, able to look into the minds of the characters. But that comes with a duty: to keep your eyes open even when you’d rather shut them. Fagan is gloriously open-eyed about immaturity, maturity, sexuality, crime, dispossession and more. Her ability to capture the cross-currents of language, the impersonations of consciousness, is admirable: “I am not that important”, Anais thinks, “and that is just fine by me. I propose a stiff upper lip and onward Christain soldiers, quick-bloody-march. This is Anais Hendricks, telling the nation: to be me is really quite spiff-f***ing-spoff, lashings of love, your devoted BBC broadcaster since 1938”. (I also adore the tmesis, that self-interruption of words).

As a debut, The Panopticon does everything it should. It announces a major new star in the firmament.


The Panopticon

By Jenni Fagan

William Heinemann, 324pp, £12.99


Rudyard Kipling, Penetration & Rebel Inc

I had the good fortune to get these first four copies of the original Rebel Inc magazines recently, also an original chapbook by Edinburgh poet Paul Reekie and A Visitors Guide to Edinburgh, a collaboration between Kevin Williamson and Irvine Welsh. That’s what I’ve been reading this week and it’s been great. A Visitors Guide to Edinburgh is very funny, very old school, very of its time and a nice take on my beloved hometown. It made me remember the first times I took ecstasy, odd little bars and shops tucked away in town and favourite clubs I used to go to when I was fourteen wearing velvet hotpants and platforms – like Pure on Calton Road, or sometimes the bigger ones in Glasgow. The interview between Kevin and Irvine recorded when they had taken ecstasy together for the first time is kind of innocent, it’s nice, it reminds me of what seemed like a hopeful time. I saw James Kelman speak recently on how he felt about being a post-colonial author. He said he did not see the fact he writes in his own tongue, in his own way, as a colonial issue but a class issue and one that has been going back throughout Britain forever. He said he never felt like he needed to stick his hand up and ask for permission on how he wanted to write a story. We need literature that does not hold it’s hand up and ask for permission, that does not sit up nice and play ball, that does not ask politely to be let through doors, we need it more than we ever have done!  I also enjoyed Zap- You’re Pregnant by Paul Reekie. I liked a lot of lines — including fuck you, Rudyard Kipling, or, the radio speaks to me, every bad songs about us or: got to get my flaps down here, excellent. I’m sure I know the private party of the opening poem. I did not get to see Reekie read in Edinburgh when I lived there and will not have the chance to now as he recently passed away, I hear he is exceptionally well missed by those who love him. The Visitors Guide to Edinburgh has Greyfriar’s Bobby on the front of it. I was playing in a punk band in Edinburgh when I was fifteen and there were rumours among the punk community that it would be a good idea to ram raid Bobby right off his marble statue and take the wee iconic mutt hostage. This plan originated from my old bass player Angry Al and was thought up to save a venue that was frequented by many musicians, artists, degenerates and general lunatics and was being closed down by the council. We didn’t do it but it did make me laugh when I saw the cover. I’m off up to my homelands this week and I intend to drink water from the tap, talk loudly in my own tongue at the breakneck speeds we at home call ordinary conversation, have a cup of real tea, go read a poem to a Highland cow (from a distance cos those fuckers are unpredictable) spend some time with friends and also bring me back some stones from my own shores. Below I’ll post a pic of my first band with me Angry Al, and Dave dcb. I think they called me Jailbait as my stage name, our bio said I slept in a body bag and claimed to have been conceived at the exact moment that a pregnant Sharon Tate was slaughtered by one of Manson’s gimps. This would have made me about twenty years older than I am but I was so young when I was gigging that it didn’t really matter much. Sometimes it is the myth of a thing, the creativity of perception, that is what counts. The Failures Bought was taken at the Water of Leith, right down on the docks where we used to rehearse, by an old scrapyard near the rehearsal hut thing we had. Penetrating voices going through my head, I haven’t listened to a thing they said, always there with the answers, won’t suffer the consequences … don’t dictate to me. My favourite song when I was fifteen xxx