Tuesday 25th September: To Clapham Books, to hear Will Self read from and talk about his latest novel Umbrella. The bookshop was full to overflowing, and so too was my brain by the end of the evening. Will Self began by disparaging authors who give long, filling-in-the-background intros before reading from their work, and then, with a bravura ‘Having said that’ qualification, spoke engagingly at some length about the structure, writing process and origins of Umbrella. This stream-of-consciousness novel has no chapters and no paragraphs, and Self talked of aiming to convey the immediacy and chaos of lived life. The passage he read, set in London in the early 1900s, from the perspective of 14 year old Audrey Death, was rich and vivid and captivating. Then, the mandatory questions-from-the-audience, which Self answered generously and expansively, and I scribbled down excited notes about anti-psychiatry, the importance of ’embodied’ fiction (Self characterised much contemporary fiction as ‘disembodied’), Jacob’s Room by Virginia Woolf (Self’s retrospective template for Umbrella), E.L. James as ‘cavity mind insulation’, and the one joke (apparently) that appears in Umbrella, which is a corker. Self proclaimed that he loves London (big tick in my book), and also spoke about wanting there to be poetry in his writing. From the section I heard on Tuesday I’d say he’s achieved that. Umbrella is vying for top spot on my what-to-read-next list.

Friday 28th September: To the Poetry Café for Fourth Friday. This was my first time at the monthly event that features live music alongside invited poets. There were also a few open mic spots to start the evening, and Joolz Sparkes read a new poem, inspired by a visit to the 9/11 memorial in New York, a strong piece of writing powerfully performed. The music was provided by Pete Burke and Doc Stenson on acoustic and slide guitars, with a bit of mouth organ thrown in, and some bluesy singing. Not my usual cup of tea, but it gave a different vibe to the evening compared to other spoken word events. Three of the invited poets were from Smokestack Books – Owen Gallagher, reading, in his soft Glaswegian brogue, wryly arresting poems; Victoria Bean, whose collection of pithy and often poignant poems, Caught, came about from a year spent observing cases in a magistrate’s court; and Brian Docherty, another Scot, previewing poems from his forthcoming volume. Lastly, Australian poet Andy Kissane impressed with poems both humorous and moving. I was particularly struck by his poem in the voice of the widow of Hungarian poet Miklós Radnóti and another imagining having coffee with Osip Mandelstam.

Saturday 29th September: To Level 5 Function Room at the Royal Festival Hall for an afternoon focussed on B.S. Johnson. Will Self curated the event and asked his three panellists – novelist and Johnson biographer Jonathan Coe, and academics Philip Tew and Julia Jordan – to give a short talk about an aspect of Johnson’s work, as the starting point for a wide-ranging and highly stimulating discussion. More scurrying of my pencil across several pages of my notebook. We covered class consciousness; existential authenticity; the ultra-novel (as opposed to anti-novel); Johnson’s view of himself as heretical and his dislike of the ‘experimental’ tag; his legacy – how much he still speaks to young people (I nodded vigorously, remembering my first encounters with Johnson’s novels, and that anguished struggle for truth), and the recent resurgence in academic interest; and much much more. It was heartening to realise Johnson’s passionately engaged books are still read, debated, argued over; and exciting to learn that 2013 will see a new compendium of his writings, edited by Coe, Jordan and Tew, as well as a DVD of his films from the BFI.

notes from B.S. Johnson discussion

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