Sunday, April 29, 2007

Music competition

Those of you who receive my 'frankly more irregular than it should be' newsletter will know that I am running a competition to give away one of the signed limited editions of The Book of Lost Things. To be in with a chance of winning, I've invited people to nominate an album of their choice that means something special to them, preferably one that may be a little less well known than the norm, and to attempt to explain to others why it is worth listening to it. Further details are available here, but having thrown down the gauntlet, it seemed appropriate that I should nominate an album as well. (Actually, I may end up nominating two albums over the coming weeks, but it is my web site and if I am not permitted to cheat a little, then who is?)

So my first choice is A Walk Across the Rooftops by The Blue Nile, from 1984. If that seems like a long time ago well a) it is a long time ago and b) it's not as if The Blue Nile has been unduly prolific since then. The band has released four albums in 27 years, of which two, A Walk Across the Rooftops and Hats (1989) are pretty much perfect, while at least two-thirds of Peace at Last (1996) and High (2004) qualify for the same description, which isn't bad going by any reckoning.

I bought A Walk Across the Rooftops on cassette (such innocent times) in a record store in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware in 1989. Hats had just come out, but I had not picked it up, despite the critical acclaim it was receiving from all quarters. I had refrained from buying it because I was broke, which is a pretty good reason for not buying something. A Walk Across the Rooftopscost me $3.99, so I figured I wasn't taking a huge financial risk by buying it and it would allow me to find out what all the fuss was about.

The critic Giles Smith once described A Walk Across the Rooftops as "the noise of someone tapping despairingly on a radiator", but he meant it in a good way. I think. At a time when popular music seemed to be dominated by fly-by-night one-hit wonders and goons in pastel suits hanging off the sides of yachts, there was, and remains, something almost austere, even Spartan, about The Blue Nile's debut, at least at first listen. Certainly, that was how it seemed to me as I walked around the resort of Rehoboth Beach hearing it for the first time through the headphones of my little Sony walkman. There were the taps that Smith had mentioned, and then what might have been the bells of a tram, followed by a synthesized brass sound that could barely summon up the energy to exist at all. Suddenly, the most extraordinary voice emerged to sing the opening lines of the title track, underscored by clear-as-crystal pizzicato and a series of bass notes:

I walk across the rooftops/ I follow broken threads . . .

This was the voice of Paul Buchanan, and though it has changed as the years have gone by, deepening, mellowing, it was already one of the most potent and moving vocal sounds in modern popular music when A Walk Across the Rooftops was released. There is a frailty to it, so that it always seems on the verge of breaking, of collapsing in upon itself, but there is a strength underpinning it that prevents this from happening. It is a voice suffused with humanity. It is soulful in the truest sense of that word.

Buchanan was 28 when A Walk Across the Rooftops appeared, and the age of the group's members is crucial to an understanding of their work. Its three core members - Buchanan, Paul Joseph Moore and Robert Bell - had known each other since graduating from the University of Glasgow at the end of the 1970s. This is a group that emerged fully formed on its debut, a trio of men with life experience behind them, and A Walk Across the Rooftop is adult music. Its memories of rooftop walks on "graduation day" are just that: memories. Its songs speak of adult concerns:

If I tell you, will you listen?/ If I tell you, what will happen? ( “Heatwave”)

She’s crying in my shoulder/ Stay, and I will understand you (“Stay”)

Do I love you? Yes, I love you
Will we always be happy go lucky?
Do I love you? Yes, I love you
But it’s easy come, and it’s easy go
All this talking is only bravado

(“Tinseltown in the Rain”)

Was I an adult when I heard it for the first time? I was getting there, I think. I was 23, and I would graduate from university the following year. That summer, while I was exploring the US for the first time, my father would be diagnosed with cancer. By the time I got home he was too ill to recognize me, and he died shortly after. I had been in love a year or two before, seriously in love, and had seen how these things can fall apart so easily. Now I was with someone else, and I loved her. I cried only once over my father. That was shortly before he died, and I wept on her shoulder in a dark movie theater. To this day, I am convinced that I am the only person who has ever cried during The Silence of the Lambs.

The Blue Nile was the music that soundtracked this period of my life, yet I don't associate it with pain or unhappiness. When I listen to it now, I recall being far from home in a new place, with the sun on my face and a sense that, in the months to come, my life would change, and my destiny would lie in my own hands. And my life did change. By the end of that summer I had endured grief and loss, and had come through it. I moved on to a postgraduate degree in journalism, and thought that I might try to find a way to be paid to write. I parted from the woman whom I loved, although we remain in touch and are good friends. We visited the U.S. together, though, before we separated, and perhaps the seeds of the books that were to come later were sown during that visit. By returning, I seemed to be acknowledging that a link had been forged with these places that was destined to influence my life, or perhaps such is the benefit of hindsight. I went back to Rehoboth, and we played A Walk Across the Rooftops on the car stereo as we entered the town. We visited Maine, where I had worked after Delaware, and Virginia, where a small town in which we stayed provided the basis for a large section of Every Dead Thing. I walk across the rooftops/ I follow broken threads . . .

Unlike many albums from the eighties, A Walk Across the Rooftops hasn't dated. It still sounds fresh and pristine, a consequence of a decision by the Scottish hi-fi manufacturer Linn Electronics to form a record label just to release the album, so impressed was Linn with a sample track recorded by the band to showcase the company's audio equipment. Yet it is no sterile technological exercise in sound manipulation. It is a warm, organic record, its initial austerity gradually giving way to reveal the depth and intricacy of its arrangements, Buchanan's voice complementing the instrumentation, never crowding and never being crowded in turn, the various elements coming together to create seven pieces of music spanning less than 38 minutes that still sound like nothing else ever recorded.

Equally, its lyrical sensibilities remain entirely relevant: these are songs of love and doubt, of hope and experience. I saw Paul Buchanan perform live in London last year, in front of a crowd that could only be described as adoring. As the first notes of A Walk Across the Rooftop's title track began to play, I had to force back tears. If you asked me why, I couldn't explain, but perhaps some of it can be understood by what I've written here. Afterwards, I got to meet Paul Buchanan and shake his hand. I didn't tell him how much his music had meant to me. I was afraid that I'd gush, and I didn't want to embarrass him.

A Walk Across the Rooftops is not an album that yields its rewards immediately. It requires a little time, a willingness to listen, to explore. Hats, perhaps, is more accessible, but I came to it after A Walk Across the Rooftops and, while I love Hats, it doesn't have the same personal relevance for me. A Walk Across the Rooftops is a record for those who have lived a little and who, in doing so, have suffered and lost, but who have never lost hope. They will find kindred spirits here, and their lives will be richer for the knowledge of them.

This week John read

The Terror by Dan Simmons

and listened to

A Walk Across the Rooftops by The Blue Nile
23 by Blonde Redhead
Steve McQueen reissue (acoustic disc) by Prefab Sprout

Sunday, April 15, 2007


So The Unquiet has at last found its way into stores, in Ireland, at least. By this point, I should be used to everything that goes with publication, but I'm not. I think I forget just how much time I'll be giving over to promoting the book, and how the whole operation gets a little more complicated each year. I have a diary on my desk, and if I glance at it I can see that my movements from next Thursday until the middle of July have pretty much been scheduled in advance for me.

It's still mildly terrifying, to be honest. I'm not one of those authors who insists on being chauffered around, with someone else on hand to carry my bags and feed me grapes and strawberries, although sometimes I think that might be nice. Mostly I do my own driving, unless one of the sales reps fancies a day out, and I'm not really a big grape fan, come to think of it. So, for the next few months, I'll have a file full of flight reservations, hotel addresses, car hire reference numbers, media interview requests, and all of the other bits and pieces that I'll need if things are to run smoothly. That file will swell with each passing day, clogging up with receipts, faxed pages of schedule changes, scribbled names and addresses for thank you notes, CDs, apologies . . .

Every evening while I'm touring, I'll set my alarm for some ungodly hour, and ask the hotel to give me a wake-up call just in case, and then I'll lie awake worrying that neither will work. I'll pray that flights aren't cancelled, that my car starts without trouble, that I don't get a puncture. When I check in at airports, I'll try to be as polite and unassuming as possible, so I don't get marked down as a potential terrorist threat and find myself hauled off to the 'special line'. I'm a bad packer, so I'll always have too many clothes, but not enough of the right kind. My bag will start to weigh more as I gradually accumulate 'stuff' along the way, and I'll have to buy another one. Every time my big metal suitcase appears on the belt, I'll heave a sigh of relief that a) it's there and b) it still has all of its wheels. A year or two ago, I lost two wheels over the space of three days, and as a result my bag became about as mobile as a dead elephant.

There will be many stores I'll visit where the staff will be welcoming, and in which someone may even be familiar with my books, and there will be others where my arrival will be greeted with, at best, suspicion. To be fair, I bring the latter on myself, to some degree. I don't tend to have escorts with me in the US in particular, and I'm not sure that stores are entirely used to writers wandering in unaccompanied. I've even been asked to show some identification on occasion, just to prove that I am who I say I am. It makes me wonder who would bother to pretend to be me. Surely, any self-respecting fraudster or out-and-out nutjob would pick someone rather more high-profile. ("Hi, I'm Charles Dickens. You may remember me from such novels as Bleak House and Oliver Twist. I'm happy to sign whatever you have, except for Hard Times, as that one's a bit dull . . .")

Then there are the events. Thankfully, by this point I'm usually hopeful that someone will show up, especially at the mystery stores. Then again, there will be at least one event that's a washout, accompanied by the embarrassed shuffling of the bookstore manager and the knowledge that one of us is to blame for this travesty - probably me. Sometimes, life will throw a spanner into seemingly trouble-free works. I once spoke to a large, enthusiastic crowd at a library, only to discover afterwards that the bookseller involved hadn't ordered books in time, so there were none for anyone to buy. Even today, I discovered that one of the stores hosting a major event was giving out the wrong date to callers, and I had visions of disappointed people arriving a week late for the event. Worse, I had visions of nobody arriving on either day, right or wrong.

I'll feel guilty about the money I'm costing my publishers when things don't go well, and I'll end up paying for stuff myself to ease my conscience. I'll wait for news of the book's placement on the lists, and I'll be disappointed if it doesn't make a dent on them. If it does make a dent on them, I'll feel a moment of elation, followed by the realisation that now I'm going to have to worry about whether or not it stays there, and if so for how long. Someone will spot a mistake in the text, and will write to tell me about it. As a result, I will want to beat my head against a wall. I may even want to beat their head against a wall, but I won't be able to find them.

And yet every day there will be at least one moment when I will give grateful thanks for what I do. A reader will say something about my books that touches me deeply. I will enter a bookstore to see people waiting to hear me speak and sign, and each of them will be enthusiastic and supportive and more kind to me than I can ever deserve. In every town there will be a little time to sit down for a drink or a coffee, and to talk about books and writing and movies and little things that are hugely important with people whom I know and like, or with people whom I am just getting to know and like. I will visit new places. I will make new friends. My store of good memories will increase. I will be happier far more often than I am unhappy, and every evening my tiredness will dissipate as I stand up to talk and realise that the people listening are also tired, and perhaps could be doing other things, but have instead taken the time to come along and offer support to a relative stranger.

And I will know that I am lucky to be doing what I do, and that I should never take it for granted.

But I'm still going to complain occasionally. Otherwise, I'm afraid someone will figure out what a great life I have, and make me work for it . . .

This week John read

Echo Park by Michael Connelly
Prince: A Thief in the Temple by Brian Morton

and listened to

Ghosts of the Great Highway (reissue) by Sun Kil Moon
Saltbreakers by Laura Veirs
Under Giant Trees by Efterklang

Monday, April 09, 2007


My home broadband connection has been down for the last week or so with, as it happens, not entirely negative consequences. To begin with, I've managed to get quite a bit of work done on the new book, mainly because I wasn't distracted by e-mail and the general pfaffing about that I seem to do now that I have always on, Internet access, or at least as always on, as it can be when it keeps breaking down.

I also managed to get some reading done, a pastime that has become considerably more valuable to me now that the last refuge for those of us who like to read without being disturbed by inane cellphone conversations is
about to be taken away. As of the middle of this year, a number of airlines are to allow cellphone use on their flights, making life considerably more disagreeable for, well, just about anyone with an ounce of decency and humanity left in them.

It's strange to think that the most technologically advanced means of terrestrial travel should also have been the last place to have held out against the cellphone scourge, although it was always a matter of time before that happy situation came to an end. It was one of the reasons why air travel, despite its many inconveniences and frustrations, was still something to which I rather looked forward. Where else could I have, depending upon the destination, up to 24 hours of uninterrupted reading time, broken by the occasional movie, nap, bite to eat and, when necessity demanded, a little writing? Separated for a time from their cellphones, and from Internet access, people had to find other things to do with their time: reading, sleeping, even work, albeit work that could now be concentrated upon without fear of other passing distractions, such as the lure of the red flag in one's inbox or the insistent buzz of a cellphone. Hell, one could even stare out of the window at the clouds below and enjoy a moment of reflection, or engage in conversation with the person in the next seat, whether a loved one, a friend, or a stranger. And where better place to do this than high in the air, as close to God (or our gods) as we were likely to get while still bound by mortal chains?

From July, all this is destined to cease, because there are people out there whose lives are so empty that they cannot bear to be separated from their cellphones, not even for an hour. (And it's not as if all these people are brain surgeons or death row lawyers either. Frankly, if you're so important that you can't turn off your phone on a plane, in a movie theatre, or at a play, then it may be that you have no business being in those places in the first place. Lives are clearly depending upon you. Don't let us keep you . . .)

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Irish bargain airline Ryanair will be among the first to leap into the fray. On a certain level, I have no particular difficulty with what Ryanair offers - cheap flights to destinations that may or may not be within easy reach of where one might actually like to be - although I make a point of politely refusing to use its services unless absolutely necessary, as is my right. Politeness, though, is not part of Ryanair's vocabulary. More to the point, it is not part of the vocabulary of the company's chief executive, Michael O'Leary, a man who has yet to learn that there are still some cultures in which basic civility is not viewed as a sign of weakness, or that one can disagree without being disagreeable. "If you want a quiet flight, use another airline," he recently told a British newspaper when the subject of cellphone use on aircraft was raised. "Ryanair is noisy, full and we are always trying to sell you something."

(Incidentally, I suspect that Michael O'Leary may be contributing significantly not only to cheaper air travel, but to the cheapening of public discourse generally. Also, on the subject of selling things on aircraft, am I the only one who finds the sale of lottery tickets by flight attendants somewhat crass, and perhaps slightly worrying? The words "lottery" and "air travel" should not be found in close proximity at the best of times. Who in their right minds buys a lottery ticket on an aircraft anyway? "Stewardess, I have scratched my card to reveal three little aeroplanes crashing. What does this mean, exactly?")

But we have found ourselves slightly distant from our desired destination, an experience that will be familiar to anyone who has flown with Ryanair to, say, Paris. The fact is that there won't be a choice in the matter very soon, as where one airline leads, the others generally follow, especially when there is money to be made. Soon, the less-than-gentle tinkle of cellphones will be heard all over enclosed aluminium tubes filled with recycled air. Initially, short-haul flights are being targeted, but it's inevitable that longer flights will also begin to provide cellphone access. What then? Ds anyone really fancy being kept awake on a flight from London to Sydney by the witterings of the person next to them, or the beeping of incoming texts? Do the words "air rage" spring to mind? And it's not as if we can rely on the good sense and general politeness of the offending party to keep the conversation low, and to a minimum. Good sense, politeness, and cellphones do not mix.

Why is it, I wonder, that cellphone conversations are so much more intrusive than general conversations conducted without the benefit of an electronic medium? In part, it may be the volume at which cellphone conversations are conducted, as though users cannot quite believe that the technology available to them can actually be working as advertised, and a little extra lung power is necessary to get their message across. But I also think that humans are used to conversations involving more than one party. Our brains recognise the too and fro of normal speech and simply tune it out if it's not relevant to us, or we're not feeling nosy, but when one half of a conversation is hidden from us it throws our perceptions out of sync. It's a little like tossing a penny in a well and not hearing a splash. One has to wait patiently until it comes, otherwise the whole experience is rather disturbing.

So I'm going to make sure that I enjoy the remaining untainted time I have left to me on aircraft. I'm going to make a point of reading my book, or simply enjoying the silence, because soon I'm going to have to reconsider the wisdom of the whole travel experience. I'm going to be poorer for what is to come, but I suspect we will all be. It's just that some of us will be too dumb to notice.

This week John read

The Swarm by Frank Schatzing
The Life and Time of the Thunderbolt Kid by Bill Bryson
The Colorado Kid by Stephen King

and listened to

The Bird and The Bee by The Bird and The Bee
Drums & Guns by Low
Quartet by Pat Metheny and Brad Mehldau