It’s on every radio station I seem to switch on: Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars singing ‘Uptown Funk’. I’d heard this catchy song before, enjoyed the cheeky video, but in February it became part of the soundtrack of my life.
It was the music blaring out of the loudspeakers as my children came skiing down the slopes with shiny badges and faces to match. It was the last song on my car radio before I had my fateful meeting with a literary agent and editor. It was the song I heard just before I embarked upon a challenging training course with a difficult client. And, in each case, the outcome was as happy and snappy as the song itself. So it has become my ‘good luck token’. Think I’m all bark and no bite, all dreams and nought to back it up? Just you watch!
So it made my day to see Michelle Obama dancing to it on Ellen:
Anthony at dVerse Poets Pub has us talking about music being the food of love, and urging us to play on. Who am I to disagree? Musicality, rhythm, sound is all-important to me in poetry – when I read the poetry of others or when I write my own.
When you were mine I took you for granted.
I lost you and never noticed you had gone.
My desk, my car, my home bathed in silence –
I believed them calm. I thought I relished the peace.
Then one day I wandered by chance to a small room
cloudy with sweat, bulging with smoke, but a space
For those who prefer their Valentine’s Day with a bit of humour and bite, here is a fun single about men and women by that Belgian genius Stromae. Thanks to my children, who brought him to my attention, although his lyrics are maybe a bit too grown-up and cynical for their age-group. The voice of his generation (he is in his 20s, although he sometimes looks about 15), he has a very wise head on his shoulders, and manages to temper his cynicism and despair with humour and compassion. And not afraid to make fun of both sexes in this battle song à la Stromae:
Quick translation: ‘You men are all the same…/ a band of wimpish philanderers/ so predictable… I’m not sure you deserve me/ You’re lucky that we love you/ You should thank me.
Easy to say that I’m too whiny/and that I like too much blablabla/ but no, no, what you call my moods are important/ life is for having children/ but it’s never the right time/ of course you’re there for making them/ but for raising them you’re all absent…
When I’m no longer beautiful/ or at least, not naturally so/ oh, stop, I know you’re lying/only Kate Moss is eternal./Ugly or stupid, it’s never good (enough)./Stupid or beautiful, it’s never good./Beautiful or me, it’s never good./ Her or me, that’s never good.
The irresistible syncopation of the Claude Nougaro song ‘Le Jazz et la Java’ (see the link below) inspired this poem, which I am offering up with my best Christmas wishes to the last Open Link Night of the year. Let’s celebrate in style with dVerse Poets!
Yesterday I read my first official YA novel – because I am of that generation that didn’t have literature aimed specifically at my age-group, or paternalistic age-banding on books. By the time YA literature made its official appearance, I had grown up and preferred to go back to my childhood favourites when I was in a nostalgic mood (Swallows and Amazons, Treasure Island, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase or Ballet Shoes). I had no desire to relive my late teens, when back in high school all I wanted to do was be as pretentiously grown-up as possible.
But for a friend and fellow member of the Geneva Writers’ Group (who moreover shares my love of popcorn!), the one-woman dynamo that is Katie Hayoz, I decided to forsake my stupid genre scepticism. I find genre such a meaningless category anyway. Her book ‘Untethered’ is labelled YA fiction, as the protagonist is a teenage girl. (But then, The Lovely Bones, Catcher in the Rye and The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter should all be categorised as teen fiction.) It’s also labelled a paranormal novel, which is more than a little misleading, although it does deal with astral projection.
However, this is not a post about genre fiction, fascinating though that subject may be. Instead, it is about the importance of narrative voice. The narrator of ‘Untethered’ has a remarkably clear voice of her own: self-absorbed and whiny at times, self-justifying and pretentious at others, but also sharply observant, funny and poignant. Unique and yet representative of teenagers everywhere. Or the teenager we think we remember we were.
This is the one thing that literary agents say over and over again about submissions: what makes them instantly prick up their ears and read on is this strong individual voice. Yet it is far rarer than you might think. I read so many books this year (140 at last count) and only a handful or two of those have that truly unique voice. Confidence, an above-average plot and a polished style: yes, there are dozens like that and I rank many of my favourite authors amongst these. But a voice that grabs you (even when you don’t much like it) and takes you into their world (however unfamiliar)… it is an exhilarating experience when that happens. I’ve felt that this year with Katie Hayoz’s Sylvie, Denise Mina’s Garnethill, John Burdett’s Bangkok Eight, Jean-Claude Izzo’s Marseille trilogy. All very different voices, but all whispering (sometimes shouting) potently in my ear.
Then I realised that it’s not just in literature, but also in music that I am bowled over by unique, strong, perhaps even unfashionable or unlikable voices. What I call ‘lived-in’ voices – people who have experienced much, suffered and not always overcome. Voices of experience, voices on the edge. Voices that you wouldn’t want to hear on your children, but in which you perhaps recognise just a little bit of yourself. Yes, I admire the perfect pitch, poise and modulations of great singers, but it’s these ‘broken’ voices, simultaneously world-weary and world-hungry, that make my heart do a double turn.
Good morning heartache, good morning Billie Holiday, Jim Morrison,
Lady sings the blues. Her haunting voice and heart-breaking rendition of love-songs (and abuse songs) have marked me for life. This is for that marvellous combination of jazz and poetry proposed by us tonight at dVerse Poets Pub.
I had the pleasure of being in London last week. Mostly for work, but I did get a day off for good behaviour and went to see the David Bowie exhibition at the V&A. Any regular readers of my blog will know just what a big Bowie fan I have been since the age of about 10, when I bought my first single of ‘Scary Monsters, Super Creeps’. One of those small vinyl 45 records – remember those?
It was very, very busy, with visitors of all ages and nationalities. I could see grandparents who had probably disapproved of Bowie at the time, youngsters who were toddlers when Bowie last toured. One of the best things about the exhibition was that it was mainly about Bowie the artist, the sheer breadth of his vision, interpretations of his work, his cultural influences (what had an impact on him and how he in turn impacted others). Not so much about his personal life, his marriages, his drug-taking and other adventures. And that’s how it should be.
Maybe there was an oddly elegiac feel to the exhibition, not just celebrating his life and achievements, but almost rounding them off, stamping a seal of finality to it all, as if nothing more is to come. Luckily, the man himself proved them wrong, releasing a new album just before the exhibition opened. ‘Here am I/ Not quite dying’ he sings slyly in ‘The Next Day’. And it’s that deadpan humour, that dirty grin and naughty twinkle in his eyes that I have always loved about Bowie.
I prefer to rejoice in the music and words of the past five decades, equally fresh and enigmatic today. The exploration, the persona, chopping and changing, referencing the work of others and his own past work: there is so much richness and complexity there, you can never get bored. He contains multitudes.
Above all, what I find inspiring is that he was not only a genius (or at the very least a hugely talented musician and artist), but that he also worked very hard for all that he has achieved. He left school at sixteen, but continued to educate himself throughout his life. He makes fun of his pretentious suburban teenager self, choosing books whose titles would make him look good as they peaked out from his pockets. Yet, somehow he devoured everything, absorbed everything, forced himself to learn, for example by listening to jazz ‘until I learnt to like it’. He experimented with automatic writing, cut-up technique, Buddhism, expressionist art, German synthesizer music… and yes, drugs. But he cleaned up just in time.
He had a very clear vision of the future, huge drive and no doubt that he would achieve stardom on his own terms. From the very start, when he was still a teenage singer and saxophonist in various bands, he was intent on controlling all of the aspects of stage production, not just music, but image, costumes, lighting, backdrop (more Ground Control than mere Major Tom, as one reviewer recently put it). Throughout, he never pandered to his fans, but continued to produce just the kind of music he wanted to make. Thinking out loud, in a way, and taking his followers with him. Or not. But not really desperately caring either way.
The boy who was ahead of his time and years. The man who never forgot the boy inside. Always open to learning, to trying something new, to collaboration. And the new album? Growing old gracefully and disgracefully, with all the pain and nostalgia that entails. Beautiful.