For me 2023 was a year which was bookended by two big-ish publishing projects.
For the first half of the year I was working on Waiting for the Gift, an anthology of short stories each of which takes its title and inspiration from a track on David Bowie's 1977 album Low. The book features original stories from some of the best short story writers around, as well as a graphic piece with text by Keeley Forsyth.
This is the follow-up to We Were Strangers, which did the same thing with Joy Division's Unknown Pleasures as its starting point. That book did quite well, as these things go. It sold in decent numbers, got some fairly high profile reviews and people generally seemed to like to it. So I was very excited to put together a follow-up volume and honestly, I'm so pleased with the end product. In actual fact, the work I was doing on the book was final stages work as it was a long-drawn thing, with Covid intruding on the publication process, adding a year to the whole process.
Sadly, since it popped out into the world this summer, it hasn't done as well as its sister volume. There really haven't been many reviews at all and I've not seen any social media posts from any readers. Which is a shame, but that's how it goes. If it sounds like an interesting read - and, as I say, it's a book of which I'm deeply proud - you can buy a copy here: https://www.confingopublishing.uk/product-page/waiting-for-the-gift-stories-inspired-by-low
Towards the end of year, I started work on Ghosts at the Old Library. Levenshulme Old Library is a former Carnegie library in a patch of South Manchester where I live. It was closed as a library in 2016 but was then taken over by some local residents who set up a charity to restore the building and turn it into a community arts centre.
Ghosts at the Old Library was a project I devised which saw me write a story inspired by the building. I commissioned three other writers to do the same: Adam Farrer, Melissa Wan and Marie Crook. The last of these, Marie, is an emerging writer who I mentored for two months, helping her get her story into shape but also giving her broader advice for a career in the arts. We then staged a series of readings in the building, with the audience split into four different groups each evening and then led from room to room where they would hear each story in full. I also commissioned Laura Deane, a local artist, to turn the stories into chapbooks. These were illustrated and printed in Christmas card format. We also each recorded our stories at ALLFM, the resident community radio station at the Old Library, which will be broadcast and made available during the Christmas period.
This project could easily have yielded a number of headaches. Mentoring and commissioning a writer I don't know at all is something new to me and could easily have gone awry - I could have picked the wrong person, the project could have been not for them, my mentoring could have been awful - but Marie, thankfully, turned out to be an excellent writer and engaged entirely with the project. The readings involved us all reading out stories simultaneously, meaning they all needed to take roughly the same length of time to perform. This could very easily have caused problems - tailoring a story to a very strict length is tricky to do once, doing it four times felt unrealistic. Nonetheless, the stories all ended up taking precisely 14 minutes long for their respective authors to read aloud. The performances too had their risks, but they all went smoothly: lovely writers, all game and exuding positivity, sell out audiences, loads of praise and lots of money raised for a beloved community building.
My story for the project is called 'Plum Porter' and is set in an imagined near-future in which the library has been pulled down and a block of flats built on the site. A retired builder relates what he experienced when working on the foundations and he discovered a door in the ground which leads to... well, I suppose you'll have to read it for yourself. You can order a set of copies of all the stories here. You can also listen in to ALLFM from 10pm on the day after Boxing Day to hear the recordings we put together of the stories or download them as a podcast (once they're up - stay tuned!)
.Music: my radar hasn't been as attentive as it has in previous years. I enjoyed Alison Cotton's The Portrait You Painted Of Me, Keeley Forsyth's Limbs and Laura Cannell's Antiphony of the Trees, but the most affecting event this year has been the passing of Mimi Parker of the band Low.
Low have been an incredibly important band to me for almost twenty years. They're a band whose albums I've eagerly awaited, whose live concerts I've routinely attended, and whose weekly lockdown videos (Friday I'm in Low) were one of those small digital-domestic miracles which seemed to make it all seem vaguely bearable. Even this year, I went to see them perform live at Manchester Cathedral, my first post-Covid gig, and was particularly eager to hear a new track they'd recorded: a cover of 'Dance Song 97', my favourite song on Sleater Kinney's Dig Me Out, a record which to me practically radiates the feelings, textures and memories of my own adolescence.
In between those two things though - the Manchester concert and the release of the Sleater Kinney cover - Mimi Parker passed away at the age of 55.
Since then I've listened to Low almost every day. Low is essentially a twosome - Parker and her husband Alan Sparhawk - meaning the story of the band is now at an end. It's odd to hear the music reframed, now a set body of work rather than an organic and ever-evolving entity. Those tiny moments of improvisation, those creative tics which just happened to strike on the day of recording, somehow they are all now cast kstone, Low's body of work now a legacy.
I often wonder what it is about their music that seems so compelling to me - so close to something like perfection.
There's a simplicity at the heart of Low's music. Even their most experimentally baroque tracks can be pared back to the base elements: a simple guitar pattern, light drums and a pair of voices - Parker's all angelic purity and ice cool light, Sparhawk's textured with a rockier, more human anguish - tracking one another. There's something quasi primal about two voices in harmony: it's often said that the voice is the earliest instrument, and two voices singing in unison provide a richness, a depth which isn't really found anywhere else in nature.
They also know how to structure those simple songs, know which melody will touch on the listener's emotions. There's an old quote from (I think) Martin Amis about how it feels like there's a space of the human brain which is the perfect shape to receive the poems of (I think) Philip Larkin. I feel the same way about Low. It feels like their music has been created to occupy a particular void - whether in the human mind or in whatever we mean when we use the word soul, I'm not sure. There's a quality to some of Low's music which feel like a healing power, or something akin to that power, but what malady it treats and what the end effect is, these all remain a mystery.
Knowing that the owners of these two intertwining voices are a happily married couple who share a religious faith adds something to the mix: there's an interior logic to Low's music which, while it can draw you in - inviting you to decode, to connect the dots, to shade in between the lines - is nonetheless ultimately inaccessible.
Simply put: the mystery fascinates. I hope, now that Low is a legacy - recordings from the past - rather than a living, breathing entity, the mystery remains.
A number of years ago I wrote a story called 'Do You Know How to Waltz', a title taken from a track on Low's third record, Curtain Hits the Cast. The story was published in Congregation of Innocents, an anthology of ghost stories inspired by Shirley Jackson, a copy of which I sent to the band. A few years later I got in touch with the band's management as I had an idea for a book which I thought they might be interested in - I'd put together a short story anthology based around Unknown Pleasures and Low (the album). Low (the band) had never had a tent pole album, a Pet Sounds to hang their reputation on. But they fit the bill for the anthologies I like to put together: writers love their music, and there are hints of narrative, character and drama, although all of it is suitably subtle and submerged enough for the writers' imaginations to bring forth a response. With Double Negative and the acclaim it received, it seemed perhaps that big album had arrived and I really liked the idea of putting together a book which responded to contemporary music.
The band seemed positive but, as with the majority of these things, progress stalled as first other projects intruded and then Covid struck. I considered revisiting the idea with HEY WHAT which seemed to garner further acclaim and reach a wider audience. But, well, it wasn't to be. There is an anthology of short stories inspired by Low's music which I look forward to reading.
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