Literature: The art of recycling

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Indy Lifestyle Online
The immediate response to "Bicycle Thieves", the first piece in Blake Morrison's new collection of recent journalism and stories, is: haven't we been here before? Anyone who has read And When Did You Last See Your Father?, his deservedly acclaimed memoir of Morrison senior, will recognise the title of the collection, Too True, as one of his father's rueful catchphrases. There's more than just a familiar ring to "Bicycle Thieves" - there's a conscious cinematic reference. Like Vittorio De Sica's1948 flick, Morrison's story involves a father and son on a search for a stolen bike, a quest that requires venturing into unfamiliar urban terrain. But whereas in Ladri di Biciclette, the father's livelihood depends upon finding his velocipede, in Morrison's fable, the well-to- do narrator becomes unhealthily preoccupied with retrieving a bike that his son has soon resigned himself to having lost.

Passing common experience through a filter that adds descriptive technicolour and sharper moral definition is something Morrison (above right) excels at. It's not surprising that "Bicycle Thieves" has been made into a short film, or that it has been chosen to kick off the thematic tussle between fiction and non-fiction that binds this mixed bag together (an interview with Valerie Eliot here, an iffy reflection on porn there). In his introduction, Morrison suggests that "we're more suspicious of the made-up than we used to be" and that "narrative non-fiction", a genre that he, Hornby and a host of other Joe Publics have propelled into the bestseller lists, answers our need for a real-seeming halfway house. According to its author, "`Bicycle Thieves' begins as non-fiction and ends as fiction. I went round the local council estate fruitlessly searching for my son's bike and then wondered what would have happened if I had carried on looking."

Certainly, the prose can often shrug off curiosity about what is and is not autobiographical in a way that suggests Morrison's poetic instinct is still intact (even though he has not written a poem for 10 years now). His eye, initially wary but increasingly sympathetic, surveys Greenwich's notorious Ferrier Estate, molten in the summer sun: "Searching for deeper shade, we sit in a gully of broken steps. Around us pigeons purr and tick over, scanning the concrete." The only problem with "Bicycle Thieves" is that it resolves itself too neatly. The narrator discovers that two wrongs do not make a right, but this isn't Morrison confessing a real misdeed, so much as celebrating the power of "non-fiction" to spark imaginative understanding. It feels more like a closing speech than the first round in a debate.

It's not surprising to learn that Too True marks an end, of sorts. Morrison is "drawing a line under a certain phase of my writing". That won't be apparent straightaway, though. This week, his translations of Friedrich Ruckert's Kindertotenlieder are being staged at the Lyric, Hammersmith by Robert LePage. The enfant terrible was so impressed by his take on the Bulger case, As If, that he invited him to follow in Mahler's footsteps and rework some of the 400 elegies Ruckert wrote lamenting the death of two of his children.

While we're on a cheery note, there's a season starting at the South Bank assessing the links "between illness and the imagination". Today, if you've got the stomach for it, you can attend surgeries on Greek notions of insanity, the Shakespearean body politic, Romantic diseases (with Richard Holmes) and a discourse on "The Art of Dying"; how Proust can change your concept of death, perhaps.

Blake Morrison pre-screening talk at the Gate Cinema, W11, (0171-727 4043) 6pm, Sun 10 May

`Sick Notes: Illness and the Imagination', all-day events today, RFH, SBC, London SE1 (0171-960 4242) pounds 4/ pounds 2.50 runs to 23 May

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