Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Performance Capture - Ed Atkins at Manchester Art Gallery

A small woman of indeterminate age is standing in front of a monitor reading a script. She has wires from her head and hands, and is stood in a brightly lit studio space installed in the middle of Manchester Art Gallery. This is the first of three rooms devoted to Ed Atkins' "Performance Capture" at Manchester International Festival. The second room looks more like a control booth with a server rack and rows of computers running video capture software. In the third room, behind a black curtain, a giant screen has an avatar - just face and hands - with voice and movements altering every few minutes or so as the performers in room 1, rendered in room 2, inhabit the art work in this final space.

Reading the blurb about "Performance Capture" as you enter the gallery ("Please switch off your mobile phones as they could interfere with our equipment") or in the MIF brochure is unhelpful. Better to spend some time there. See what is happening, be present at the process. The words are Ed Atkins own. I hadn't realised but he is also the writer of the piece - that is important and I'll come back to it. In the script you can buy in the shop it looks like a poem, a long freeflowing loose narrative that keeps returning to certain themes, and at some points intersperses songs - finishing with the Elvis Presley associated classic "Always on Your Mind." The "story" is a future narrative set in a "render farm" where we are the pieces of meat. Although "poetry" - and the free flowing juxtapositions would be familiar to readers of avant garde poetry, like Robert Shepherd, Tony Lopez, Keston Sutherland (or even my own "Juxtaposition #4"),  the monologue sounds more like a fractured prose - I'm particularly reminded of Ben Marcus and his late 90s "The Age of Wire and String." Catching a few minutes of the piece - it seems hard to grasp - images of animals, meat, politics, zoom by - and the sometimes difficult or obtuse language creates an added layer of difficulty for the "actors" in the piece.

A few years ago I was at a seminar in Cambridge which was looking at how motion capture software and hardware could be used for different purposes - say, in business, or the arts - than for what it had already been used. The technology was there - an actor would have wires on their head, maybe on their hand - and the "motion capture" cameras and software would create an electronic frame which indicated the movement. The professor had come from Weta in New Zealand, world leading centre of motion capture because of the work Peter Jackson had done there on the Lord of the Rings movies. The actor Andy Serkis - namechecked in Ed Atkins piece - has since turned what was primarily a technical challenge into an acting one. Atkins' hardware, though impressive, is not so different than what I saw back then. Whole body capture, the kind you see in films, is more complex. Yet at the other end we are seeing technology available to an artist with a laptop and the right software. But like Michelangelo's trainee sculptors, there are banks of volunteers learning how to use the captured information and tweak it so that the end result - the face that we see speaking, appears somewhere near human.

I went on the final day of the residency and saw Atkins read his whole narrative - lasting just less than ninety minutes - almost the length of a film. It was compelling. The non-linear narrative had some kind of sense to it - then would drift off. You concentrated on the words, then on Atkins, then on the screens with the avatar voicing them. This is a kind of puppet play. Atkins coughs and takes a drink of his beer; the avatar makes the same shape, tilts his head to one side, but he is only a head, there is no beer. Though the aim of the piece wasn't a solipsistic performance - I'm glad I caught that. I think it may make more sense than the eventual end piece - where the story is a monologue told in voices. It felt like it should be one voice not a a cacophony. But its a work in progress. This end "performance" felt more intimate - a turning of a massive endeavour back into its components, a text, an actor, a camera, an avatar.

Like a lot of media art, there are questions about the end result. The putting different voices into another head - is that any different than the Gillian Wearing piece "2 into 1" from 1997? In this case, the text seems crucial - it is contextualised with the work. A "render farm" seen from the future - what does it mean? What happens when we become our avatars? Digital art, now that it is available, rather than has to be invented, sometimes seems to be reconstructing past tropes rather than creating its own, its needs meaning, needs a writer. The end result of all this endeavour - and it was an endeavour, a large team of volunteers, expensive kit provided by Cisco and others, three rooms of the gallery taken up, a massive list of contributors included a 3D company and Salford University - will be the finished art work. There is something compelling and fascinating about the avatar - partly because, like all CGI, its not quite able to replicate the human enough - there is something uneasy and unreal about it. (Its why motion capture in movies gives us Gollum or King Kong - transferring human emotion or movement into something unreal.) The head speaking seems a descendent of Beckett's "Not I" or the poetic monologue has echoes of "The Singing Detective."

Manchester International Festival remains an enigmatic success, enigmatic in that it has created a sort of big event culture in the city, with a kind of P.T. Barnum-like showmanship; yet dig a little deeper, and artists, when asked to do something here, are suddenly being given big budgets for work that is - if not avant garde - often more complex than the mainstream. This, Alex Poots last year, seems to have an emphasis on process as much as end result - and in a particularly contemporary idea of participation, where the public are invited in, but have very little agency over the work. There is also, it has to be said, quite a defiant political strand - whether in Maxine Peake reviving the Skriker, or in Atkins' future-text. Given that part of MIF's success has been its showmanship, I wonder if this tendency - in contemporary art and performance in particular - towards exploring and showing the process is going in a different and more interesting direction; its as if Oz has swivelled round, opened up the curtain, and said "hey, its all mirrors, kids."

I felt that Atkins writing - the monologue - was key to the success of this piece in that if there hadn't been some genuine content - then the whole endeavour would have just fallen flat, as a technical exercise. The idea of a "render farm" with its echoes of "Animal Farm" seemed powerful, and his poetic language, his willingness to interrupt his own narrative make it a frequently compelling word soup. When I attended that motion capture seminar a few years ago I could see the potential, but also that it was less about the technology (technology is always improving) but about the expertise: that what a business or creative would want from the university would be the knowledge and experience of the people who'd been working with the software and hardware. The end result of "Performance Capture" may actually be the experience of those working with Atkins on the finished piece; apprentices to the master stonemason.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Festival Season

We are in the full flow of festival season. Wimbledon ended yesterday, I missed Glastonbury (on the TV, god forbid I'd ever go!) as I was out of the country, and we are just over half way through the 2-week extravaganza of Manchester International Festival. I'm pleased as ever to see it in the city, but you'll probably have to go elsewhere to see how it was, as inevitably it always seems to come at a time when I'm very busy. I had the pleasure of hearing the Estonian choir singing Arvo Part in Whitworth Art Gallery on Saturday, but with some of the other shows sold out or finishing, I'm not sure I'll get to much more. I mused over this with a friend - I just don't go to much performance/theatre work - and with the highlights this year being mostly short runs in theatres and opera houses, (with much less of the Manc music that we've seen previous festivals) I guess its a classic case that you just can't do everything.

In the midst of this there's always other things going on in Manchester and I just hope that it all doesn't stop dead in a couple of weeks time, as the school's break up. That said Manchester's a massive building site at present as the tram second city crossing gets put in place - but there are also lots of roadworks, work going on the rail network, and a seemingly constant round of demolitions of sixties and seventies buildings in the city. Not since the post-bomb reconstruction after 1996 has the city been so transformed.This is of course the new economics, the state building, as the state recedes. Feels another phase of my long imagined Manchester novel.

I've managed to swerve the roadworks for a few things however. I enjoyed "Industrial soundtrack for the urban decay" at Home - a film about industrial music, a genre I've long had a fondness for, and which I was particularly into in 1983/4 when I was 16/17. (It also had a strong influence on the music I made at the time, and since.) There's a few mixtapes to listen to on the website of the film,  but good to hear from bands and artists who were almost invisible at the time. I remember how hard it was to get hold of records even though Psychic TV, Einsturzende Neubauten, Test Department and SPK were briefly being hailed as the next big thing. I never saw any of these bands live either as they tended only to play London, or maybe one or two other big cities. By the time I was at university the scene had moved back into the twilight shadows, yet it still remains an influence all these years later, and probably more well known now than then. The film's not on general release but will be issued on DVD later in the year. Worth seeking out.

I've been neglecting my reading, so not a lot of literature stuff to post. Though things carry on in the real world of course. I mean to get the new Best British Short Stories, ed. by Nicholas Royle, from Salt, reviewed here in the Guardian (and with a mention of Confingo magazine which I appeared in last year.)
 








Friday, June 19, 2015

On Expertise

Yesterday I was speaking at a symposium on "Big Data" as part of my work. Amongst the other presentations were ones on cosmology, mapping the human genome, and silicon chip design. It struck me, and not for the first time, how the vast majority of academics within STEM subjects - science, technology, engineering, maths - are almost always micro-specialists in their discipline, even if the knowledge they accumulate along the way is probably broader than that which those of us from arts, humanities and social sciences tend to have. The nature of contemporary science is that it particularly specialised, and that jobs and careers in these disciplines will tend to narrow individuals even further. This is not to decry their brilliance and experience, but the scarce resources that we have in terms of highly-qualified, highly-skilled researchers, have to be pushed into particular places. The cosmologist was not talking about astrophysics - the kind of thing that Brian Cox extolls about on his popular TV appearances - or computing, yet she clearly knew vast amounts about both; rather, her specialism was remarkably focussed - she was involved in projects looking at "mapping" what is invisible in the universe, through the lenses that are so much more advanced than even our famous Hubble telescope - a major collaborative project that is going to see an international telescope built in Santiago in Chile, a piece of kit with the beautiful droll name of the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-Elt).

Collaboration is central to these major scientific efforts - not just been people in the same discipline (who may, at times, be competing for resources and jobs) but also between disciplines. Here she was talking at a conference with computer scientists, for it will be their algorithms and programming languages which will make sense of the images being beamed back of distant galaxies; whilst the technological challenges of building the telescope itself will - like the Large Hadron Collider - be the result of an immense amount of engineering know-how. Science works this way, an accumulation of knowledge, building on the shoulders of giants, so that every Nobel winner is really a figurehead for a particular sub-discipline or for many other names who have contributed to that breakthrough.

It made me wonder, as I gave my own non-specialist (albeit relatively practical) presentation about data in the urban environment, how we as poets, novelists, painters, musicians and songwriters fit and compare. For the dedication we can put in - not just that fabled 10,000 hours, but our obsessiveness around our work - is surely different but similar. Where is the collaboration and multi-disciplinary necessity of the artist? For those trying to make the case for an A in STEM (STEAM ) for arts, one of the problems is that our individual artistic worth may well be "standing on the shoulder of giants" but are still likely to be one offs. Whereas Picasso might be able to say it was easier for others to do what he did, after he'd shown them how, such breakthroughs in art aren't obviously incremental. However great an artist, writer or musician is, when they die or stop doing their work, the work remains, but who can possibly continue it except as a pale shadow? I asked a computer scientist once whether there were any "abandoned routes" in the history of computer science - languages, or ideas that were abandoned because computing went a particular way. He looked at me like I was insane. The past has always been superceded it seems (though when Tim Berners-Lee was looking for a language with which to put into practice his ideas for an internet based information system, his HTML was a subset of SGML, which had been developed as a technical language by airplane designers in the sixties.)

Yet as writers there are always non-linear routes we can follow, same for musicians and painters. One of the most damning things about contemporary art forms (certainly as I get older) is how sometimes they seem so ignorant of what has gone before, making it less about advancement, and more an inferior photocopy.

I know that there are creatives - academics and otherwise - who are specialists, like my cosmologist co-presenter above. Translators, linguistics experts, classical musicians, editors and subeditors, music producers, art technicians, restoration experts.... yet being these doesn't necessarily lead to a great work of art; the technical skill is separate in some ways from the creative one. It means that hearing that Simon Armitage has been elected to take over from Geoffrey Hill as Oxford Professor of Poetry, you can approach it in two ways: at last a populist; or how can he replace the venerable Hill? Of course, many writers have to earn their living from their expertise and inevitably for some that will be in translation, or teaching or research into poetry or biographer of a novelist; but such "expertise" seems a little irrelevant when set against one's creative work; you may as well be a cosmologist who writes (or as in my case, someone with a digital background.)

I wonder if we sometimes glory too much in our playfulness to the extent which we can call ourselves "amateur" rather than "professional" writers? The distinction between the two seems to be like it was in the early days of the Olympics, that professionals get paid, amateurs don't. (But remember, the amateur was sometimes held in higher regard as "sport" was not then the multi-million pound business it is today.) The sense of being an "expert" poet or novelist would be an absurdity, even, I guess to an Amis or McEwan, yet we shouldn't shy away from the word. Perhaps the "novel" is indeed, still "new", that we were better off when all humanities were dumped under the category of "philosophy", "love of wisdom". And in some ways I like that, for what is novelist or a poet other than a lover of wisdom? We may not know the answers but we revel in asking the question. Yet as we know from history, its not necessarily the wisest who are the most successful, at least in their own times. How do we measure the expertise of Emily Dickinson or Franz Kafka? What is it about Shakespeare that makes him the "expert" from which all else flows? Our culture hasn't produced another Shakespeare anymore that the proverbial monkeys with typewriters tapping away infinitely have - though our cosmologist might have something to say about that (the big question in cosmology is that: we know the universe is expanding, but why is it accelerating?)

In other words our past writers may well be greater than any to come - how does that square with out "expertise"? Do we need another crack at this liberal education lark? Where do we start? What do we need to learn. Had I at any time in my life been able to take time off from the day job for three years would I have done the hard concentration necessary to do a PhD? And what then? Is being an expert in the words of writer A, better than having just read a mix of writers? I suspect there are different, non-specialised intelligences which some of us are better cultivating. So that after my talk yesterday, quite a few students and postgraduates came up to me, as my subject was broad enough and empirical enough to interest them. For all the wonder of science specialisation, and the sense that its great that people are out there figuring how to get more "juice" out of a small piece of silicon, I can't help think that such expert brains, funnelled into a particular direction, are different than mine in so many ways. One of the horrors of being a computer programmer for a decade was how ephemeral the end result could be - where the thing you then wrote, taking months over it, would soon be obsolete, and more likely replaced by something that could now be written in just days.

The "expertise" that feeds into my poetry or fiction is of a very non-specialised nature; I sometimes wonder if it exists at all. Yet there are times when it seems I'm just as good as the top scientist in their particular field. That my "field" is just me, is no reason to stop; not yet anyway.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

You Need Never Stay in the House Again

I shouldn't complain...but at the last count I could go to at least seven events in the next week - not all literary, but all kind-of interesting.

So if you've not got any plans, try....

The launch of a new exhibition and the new edition of The Modernist tomorrow night....

A new art project at the National Football Museum - "Out of Play" - about technology and football... that's Friday.

On Saturday I'm reading poetry (me! poetry!) as part of a pop up reading at St. Helens Central Library 1pm-3pm, with (I hope) some other poets.

All weekend, 2-wheelers are invited to put their ideas into the Manchester Cyclehack.

Monday sees Verbose return to Fallow Cafe, with a very special trip to the suburbs by Tom Jenks, James Davis and Scott Thurston, the founders of the Other Room, reading their own work together.

Tuesday then sees Les Malheureux, Sarah Clare Conlon and David Gaffney at the Didsbury Arts Festival - performing at the Art of Tea - alongside a poetry slam. Of course, Didsbury Arts Festival starts this Saturday so there's stuff on every day for the next week and a half.

Wednesday has a special night of international poetry coming to Gullivers early evening -  then later that evening its Bad Language across the road at the Castle. Amazingly its their 50th event with special guest Jo Bell.

Next Friday an unusual talk from Pariah Press at Anthony Burgess Foundation called "The  idea of death" - which I'm going to be away for, but with sounds brilliant.

Enough already?

Sunday, June 14, 2015

After K

He's still one of the touchstones, Franz Kafka. The new arts centre in Manchester, Home, has "Kafka's Monkey" as part of its opening season, and last night I went to see an oddity, a version of his unfinished manuscript "The Castle", filmed by Michael Haneke.  Originally shown on Austrian TV in 1997 it feels older, somehow, a faithful retelling of a somewhat untellable tale. For "The Castle" was one of those manuscripts that Kafka may well never have wanted to see the light of day. It's telling that the best way to describe the film is as "Kafkaesque", so emblematic has Franz's work become. The Land Surveyor turns up in a village on the outskirts of the Castle that has hired him. Its a great opportunity for the man, yet the labrynthine bureaucracy that led to him being hired is so deep in the past that initially he is denied access, even to a bed, given that he has no permit. He is then assigned two "assistants", spying on his every word, as he begins to make his presence felt in a community that lives under the whims of a faceless bureaucracy, where livelihoods can be destroyed through some unknowing gesture. The Land Surveyor (with no land to survey) is made of strong stuff, and will not take no for an answer. He has been given a name - "Klamm" - who has apparently hired him. When he seduces/is seduced by Frieda, Klamm's mistress, is it because he wants to get nearer to the source of his trial (to echo that other Kafka novel) or because she is another spy? The absurdist novel is turned into an absurdist film which is occasionally ridiculous, with the grotesques of the village reminding you of Polanski's "The Fearless Vampire Killers", filmed 30 years earlier. The depiction of East European peasantry having not moved on much in the interim. What makes the film compelling, apart from its still resonant source material, is its lead actors, where both K, (the Land Surveyor) and Frieda, are brilliantly portrayed. The film, like the book, finishes as Kafka wrote it, mid-sentence, the story unresolved; yet it feels that any resolution would be a betrayal of the system that exists in place at the Castle, which is perfect only that any possibility is interpretable. Such is the tyranny of bureaucracy. Required viewing for any of the current government's disability assessment advisors.

For what we still see in Kafka is a reflection of a society that at the time he was writing, was yet to be named. He gave us a language by which to mock, if not understand, the emerging technocracy. The ruthless efficiency of tyranny is surely based upon what Kafka's books described, a circumlocuting of man, so that he no longer has agency; but that those agents that destroy him are themselves equally powerless actors behaving on the nebulous instruction of the machine.

What struck me watching "The Castle" as well, was the humanity that is at the heart of his diaries and letters. When K meets Frieda in the corridor of the inn towards the end, both having committed a kind of betrayal, their speeches read like something out of the letters. For love, denied love, was Kafka's other subject, and provides the counterpoint to that cold humour of displacement.

A hundred years on from the first publication of "Metamorphosis", Kafka still has a cultural resonance, that has outlasted many of his peers. The troubled publication history of work that was not finished for publication at the time of his death means that there have been several "versions" of Kafka - rather than a definitive text. Add to that the ambiguities of his life and nationality, and it seems we are not quite done with him yet.

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Trigger Warning: These Poems are About Something

I probably have only myself to blame. When meeting other writers, particularly other poets, I've sometimes asked them what they write about, what their subject is. I'm interested from my own point of view, partly because the "traditional" subjects of poetry - love, elegy, nature - don't particularly interest me, or at least not all the time.

Up until the early 2000s, a certain mode had taken hold of British poetry, I think its fair to say, which you could probably describe as What Heaney Sees from His Window. The anecdotal, or the moment lived; the thing in view. Its not just in Heaney of course, but this sense of poetry that is personal experience, or if not experience, personally observed,  is the default mode. It is, to use well known examples, in the onion which Carol Ann Duffy writes about, even as she uses it as metaphor, or in the tire that Simon Armitage storifies, even as he adds the metaphysical. Where the imaginative or surreal came into poetry it was in a nicely protestant form, through story, fairytale, myth. I'm not saying poets didn't crave something else to write about, after all Heaney himself found a bit of a new lease of life with "Beowulf" a model that again has been picked up by poets wanting a big subject.

There was, as the anthology "Emergency Kit" (ed. by Kit Wright and Jo Shapcott) had identified in the 1990s, another "mode" of writing that was more elliptical, more strange. If you go into visual arts, we've long ago dumped the merely representational or the obviously viewed, yet British and even Irish poetry of the mainstream seemingly viewed such things suspiciously. Yet the flowering of poetry since the millennium and partly documented in books like Nathan Hamilton's "Dear World" shows a refreshing willingness to stretch beyond anecdote and personal experience, as valid as those modes can sometimes be. Our new nature poets are notably stranger in their approach than earlier ones, our anecdotalists, seem to have stepped through the rabbit hole, love poems are as diverse as love in the modern pluralistic world can be, even our elegies reflect the tragedies of contemporary life rather than merely age passing, and the way that we say these things has changed, is changing.

Yet, looking at a few recent poetic exchanges I'm a little worried that something else is beginning to overtake poetry on the inside track. There has been a recent tendency to reportage as poetry. At its worst, this has been the appropriation of found materials and dumping them in an inappropriate place conceptually, at its best this has been a certain documentary poetry. I'm not adverse to this. One of my favourite books of the last few years was C.D. Wright's "One Big Self" about prisoners, which took their own testimony and made poems of it (accompanied initially by photographs.) At a time when social media has pretty much become a platform for different self interest groups, we are seeing an over-policing of content that on the one hand identifies that poems can be about something, but on the other, insists that poems are EXACTLY about something. It strikes me that we use metaphor for a reason; that it has power beyond the events it describes.Yet at the same time, poetry's desire for a bit of a moment in the sun, means that art on its own is not a "story", instead work that gets noticed has to be "about" something.

Yet for me, without going into the language specifics of the L=A-N=G=U=A=G=E poets or a non commital "arts for arts sake" view, the work that I like best in all kinds of way is not, has never been, simply paraphraseable as prose. Wherefore Stevens' "Emperor of Ice Cream?" in this, and why do we love it so? And of course, the distinction is never that simple. Isn't it strange that the so-called conceptual poets, whose work we would expect to find hard to understand, are sometimes drawn to interpretable gestures? Or that a work of documentary, like "One Big Self", Dan O'Brien's "War Reporter" or Claudia Rankine's "Citizen", shortlisted for this years Forward Prize, can be a complex collage of forms?

When we look for a subject for a work - or the subject finds us - its usually somehow about connection. Why is that certain obscure points in history excite me when others don't? It's something to do with our artistic interpretation of the world. Perhaps more so in fiction, than poetry, where "making things up" used to be the whole point, this sense of "reality hunger" means that we sometimes look for the crutch of real life events as this makes the story less removed from our world. Yet the reason we talk about "Big Brother" is because of Orwell's imagination, not because of his reportage.

There has been a trend since the millennium for theatre that is based on real life events - even taking as source material policy reports or official documentation. This approach might be mirrored in Ken Goldsmith's appropriations for instance. This "documentary art" feeds our "reality hunger" in David Shields' words, and is ultimately interpretable. I've long been interested in the possibilies of written art that isn't paraphraseable, after all we have to hear a piece of music, experience a sculpture, see a painting to understand it. Even narrative forms, such as film, which are meticulously built, scene by scene have to be watched again (as I found the other day, watching the 40-year old "JAWS" again) and can change meaning. It seems one of the key elements of successful art, that it cannot be just described but should be experienced.

I wonder if our 24-hour news cycle, the inevitable desire to have "newsworthy" art - whether a Craig Raine poem, or prize-listed book - means that the genuine strangeness of the imagination becomes secondary. In the age of the superhero movie you'd think demand would lead to a whole new raft of superhero creations, yet instead Marvel raid Stan Lee's back catalogue for yet another revamp or reboot; even modern icons like Harry Potter are creations with a cultural backstory rather than genuine originals; our desire to dress up our children for World Book Day seems a betrayal of the imagination I had as a child (reading the book made me part of the interactive adventure, not wearing the clothes that the character wore on the cover), whilst adults "cosplaying" have replaced old mummers play archetypes with new ones from popular fictions.

So I get how we need to share in our myths, even commercialised ones (who wants to go to the fancy dress and be asked what you've come as?) but the literal application of the imagination is a second or third time removed from the actual art itself. Literalism sometimes seems as if its the unexpected yet inevitable next step after post-modernism has become exhausted: no, I'm not being ironic, I really do like ABBA/Lord of the Rings etc. etc. By all means be about something, but you don't have to be exactly about something -we have Wikipedia for that!

Saturday, June 06, 2015

From Finland with Love

I was on a rare trip to Bury Art Gallery last night, which is probably my favourite of the municipal art galleries in Greater Manchester. There have been some good shows on over the years, and it was the opening of a new show of contemporary Finnish Art, "New Narrative and Reader." As a big fan of all things Finnish I was interested in seeing this show. It seems a strong collection, both austere and playful, with a partial focus on portraiture that is then subverted; as well as some superb installed works, which make good use of the large open galleries of Bury. Its well worth popping on the tram to see.

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Next week another important show - "Real Painting" - opens at Castlefield Gallery. The launch will be on the evening of 11th June.

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With the sun streaming through my window and the word "June" on the calendar the year is going by far too fast. I'm sure I had some plans - like finishing the first draft of my novel by end of May! Hasn't happened, of course.... that's why deadlines are sometimes so useful. The annual Anthony Burgess/Observer competition prize for arts journalism is now open, and with a deadline of November, even I might make this one. Its good to see it becoming an established event in the calendar.

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As I've not been writing this blog as regularly as before, I maybe forgot to mention that the 3rd issue of Manchester-based Confingo Magazine is now in the shops or available to buy online. Magma and Home are the shops in question, I think. Upping the art content for issue 3, its now got more of an art object feel to its production. Always fascinating to see how magazines evolve. A paying publication, its now accepting submissions of art and writing for issue 4, but please buy issue 3 to see what its all about. 

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Part of my being busy is the plethora of literary events in the city - I think maybe everyone's clearing the decks before Manchester International Festival hits. Didsbury Arts Festival comes before then however, and seems bigger and better than ever this year. My friend, the novelist Sarah Butler has a "residency" during the festival "walking the edge" of the ward, and uploading a new piece of fiction each day. Such place-based writing is becoming very popular these days - and is just one of many events at this years festival which starts on 20th June. 

I'm also hoping to get along to Jackie Hagan's well received show "Some People Have too Many Legs" which following a successful tour is back for the Didsbury festival. Jackie says her show changes all the time, so even those who have seen it might welcome its return. 

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Nightjar publishing, Nicholas Royle's occasional short story publishing venture returns with two new pamphlets from Alison Moore and Tom Fletcher. Single-story booklets, elegantly produced, but more importantly, with a high quality of stories, they are all limited editions, so  grab them while you can. A review of the latest couple coming soon.

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I'm hoping to be doing a reading myself before too long, but more details soon. In the mean time, you can read a short story of mine "The Good Citizen" in VLAK, an extravagant 600+ page magazine of leading contemporary art, poetry and fiction, published out of Prague. 

Other recent work - my long poem "Parallels" is in PROLE, you can read an interview with me and my poem "The Octopus" (free) in "Bunbury Magazine", and I've a poem forthcoming in the next Cake Magazine.

Given that BunBURY is published out of Bury, and my poem in Cake was written in Helsinki, it nicely brings this roundup to a close. 



Thursday, June 04, 2015

Why do we only talk about bad poems?

I think the last time I remember a deep, argumentative discussion about a poem was when a pop star or film star wrote one (I can't remember who, its all a bit hazy). Yet, "Gatwick", a poem that Craig Raine has published in the LRB this week has caused plenty of discussion. In this poem (not online), a first person Raine is recognised by a young woman at airport security and then on the plane lusts after another woman. (NB. Changed this after comment below). Old man fancying younger woman is hardly news. Twitter and Facebook were full of discussion. On one twitter feed it seemed that this was just too good a chance to parody one of the doyennes of English poetry.

Charles Whalley, a regular reviewer, tweeted "jesus wept this is fucking grim." The poem's first lines (a first section of 3) go -:

Tom Stoppard sold his house in France. "I was sick
of spending so much time at Gatwick."

This, I suspect, is a found line, from which Raine weaves his poem, for he is also at Gatwick. There's hubris here, I think, after all, most of us might wonder why Stoppard's very first world problem deserves a poem; but here is Raine, being recognised by the girl at security. So far, so anecdotal. But in the third bit of the poem, "I want to say I like your bust" he says, before, apropos of nothing, having a go at her imagined mother. He then apologises, that he can't say these things, but he has done anyway.

I guess this is candour of a sort, though the poem sounds tossed off, in more ways than one. Apparently social media has been outraged at Raine's subject, yet when I first read it, I thought the humour being thrown in parodies of that first line in particular, were because it was such a patently bad poem. According to Facebook, even this is under discussion - and the outrage is outrage at the subject matter.

Having written about male lust for a younger woman, about desire late in life, and er... of hanging around in airports, I can hardly moan about the subject matter; but of course I don't think its likely I'll ever get a poem in the LRB (or would necessarily want one there) or be discussed in detail. I guess we only really talk about bad poems, and if this poem has any merit its because its just good enough to instil doubt, whilst being just bad enough to inspire parody. Its a long time since any Craig Raine poem has had any attention, so that's an appreciation of sorts; but it does make me wonder about how bankrupt our literary culture has become - that such nonsense can get published, and that having been published its the first poem for years that has been discussed at length.

Bizarrely, Sophie Hannah writes a riposte in the Guardian, that ignores the poem's quality in terms only of comments on its contents  when surely the two are linked? There is a serious discussion to be had about what subjects are not allowed in our strangely illiberal new media world. When Don Paterson wrote a prize winning poem about his love for an East European techno artist, there wasn't scorn, for it was a stunningly inventive poem, made the more so by its subject matter. Raine's poem seems off the beat in so many ways, that my real shock is that it has its defenders. Clearly, despite his poetry reputation being almost non-existent these days, Raine's profile as a man of letters still holds sway.

(For what its worth I quite like early Raine, but if anyone thinks this would have been published in the LRB without it being by a famous name, they're deluded.)


Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Inside Llewyn Davis

I don't get to watch as many films as I used to, and I rarely write about them on this blog. However, I'd wanted to see the Coen Brothers' "Inside Llewyn Davis" since it came out in 2013, because of my interest in its source material, the Greenwich Village folk scene in the early 1960s, the febrile ground on which Bob Dylan's iconic career was founded. I generally think there are good Coen Brothers films and bad ones, though its been a while since I've seen one, and "Inside Llewyn Davis" actually has aspects of both their strengths and weaknesses.

Ostensibly a tale of a folk singer playing the Gas Light and other folk clubs in New York, Davis is portrayed as a hangdog loser, at first likeable, but as his bad life choices pile up, increasingly a bit of a douche bag. This complexity of character is one of the film's strengths. I'm reminded of Knut Hamsun's hero in "Hunger", albeit somewhat reversed, for Hamsun's author is an optimist whilst Davis is a pessimist. His misanthropy sees even the girl he's accidentally got pregnant berate him for being a disaster. For Davis is that worst kind of artist, one who is striving for integrity in his life as well as his music.

In some ways, folk music is the perfect idiom for such a character. On the one hand a music that began as peasant music is being listened to by a slumming intelligentsia in the New York of the early 1960s, and on the other hand, a bowlderised version of it, with sweet harmonies and All-American good looks is being played on the radio. Davis is a doyenne of this scene, yet his moment appears to have gone. He was once in a duo, but his partner in that act threw himself off a bridge. He bums money off friends, sleeps on couches, and is now trying to promote the album of the film's title, which his exploitative manager/record label owner hasn't even tried to sell. Basically Davis's integrity has got him nowhere. He does a last minute session for a novelty song about JFK and chooses a session fee rather than royalties as he needs some cash in hand - later in the film we hear that the song will be a smash hit.

Yet it is not Davis's music so much as his attitude that sees his life going down the tube. He had been in the merchant navy, like his father, and the music is an escape from that destiny - yet its true what the pregnant Jean says of him, everything he touches does turn bad. The film begins with him playing a song at the Gas Light and then beaten up outside - we only find out at the end why. This framing device - a bit groundhog day, works well to show how an artist has to plug away almost to the point of despair; for having virtually given up when a Chicago promoter says "I don't hear much money here", we hear, at the end of the film, an act playing on the stage after Davis; its Bob Dylan. The future is just there around the corner, giving the film a brilliant poignancy.

For folk music - and then folk rock - was a baby boomer music, appealing to that middle class audience that was becoming both politically and financially active during the 1960s; yet its early advocates were hardly that - esoteric professors who liked slumming it now and then in the village, or misanthropic outsiders like Davis, based, to some extent on Dave Van Ronk, the contemporary who most inspired Dylan.

Like Woody Allen, the Coens have a propensity for a certain quirky nostalgia, fashioning new stories out of old half-remembered millieu - like the silent movie pastiche of the deathly the Hudsucker Proxy. And also like Allen, they tend to originate their own source material. So as accurate in so many ways as the "feel" of "Inside Llewyn Davis" is, it both is and isn't a historical story. Davis is an invention, and in some ways, the truly interesting story of Greenwich village before Dylan, Joan Baez and others appeared, is subsumed into something smaller and less compelling. The telling of the story in Dylan's "Chronicles" is the most fascinating bit of that intrigueing memoir, and compared with that, the Coen's version seems in part just a number of gestures, despite an authentic sounding soundtrack. More puzzling is an interlude halfway through the film where, in typical Coen style, Davis goes on a road trip, with a heroin-addled John Goodman as a comic turn jazz musician. It seems a generic Coen episode rather than adding anything to the film, and when Davis finally gets to Chicago it is only to get another rejection and a bit of a wake-up call that his life isn't working.
Yet for all that, there is some method to their madness, as the comic side of Davis's predicament is shown through his accidentally losing, then finding, then dreaming about a ginger cat. For all the pleasure of a Goodman set piece, it hardly adds to the film.

Yet I think why I finally really liked the movie, and why I've been thinking about it all week, is that it does say something quite profound about the nature of the artist. For Davis is clearly a sideman to history, a John the Baptist, holding the fort till the Messiah arrives - and yet in that precursor nature, he becomes a very un-American hero; for America loves its winners, and Davis is almost collateral damage - yet there's something highly poignant about this. For we are less interested as viewers in seeing success  - the big stadium tour, the bestselling novel - rather, seeing the struggle to get to that point; yet by focusing on a Van Ronk figure rather than a Dylan, the Coens are giving us the poignancy of the creative artist who doesn't quite stack up to brilliance; the man who has a dream and follows it, however far down the river it takes him. There aren't that many films that seem to be do more than gloss over the art of creativity, but in its concentration on a particular moment, and on a particular lesser artist, the Coen's have created a lovely picture of the artistic underdog, which in some ways, is more truthful than the rags-to-riches biopic. Well worth a watch.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

New Translated Fiction

There are many reasons to applaud the Man Booker International Prize going to the Hungarian writer, László Krasznahorkai. I'll confess I'd only heard about him in passing, through George Szirtes, who has been one of his two English translators, this is not so strange. English letters is a parochial world these days where mediocre works by late career novelists on the wane, or underformed debuts by sassy twentysomethings get a fizz of acclaim before being found (and found out ) in Oxfam a few months down the line. The sense that fiction has to be accessible is English fiction's great stupidity - leading to endless articles about why this or that popular author hasn't received critical acclaim, or bemoaning middlebrow literary fiction (often the dullest examples) for being too difficult.

Yet readers of books are able to delve deeper. Its why we talk about Kafka and Borges and Gogol and Dostoevsky, after all; and yet, popular fiction survives where it hasn't become an anachronism, just look at Agatha Christie's sales. Reading about Krasznahorkai I've found out two things already - his books are dark, comedic fables; and he writes in long, dense sentences. He's also been very successful in his native Hungary, yet his debut - one of the Szirtes translations - is only recently in English. I'm sure I'm not alone, having read the Booker citation, in thinking this is a writer I want to read. Where the writer is good enough, we're happy enough to put up with any difficulty.

And here is where the translator has such a role. Szirtes, interestingly, is primarily a poet, but he has always written very lucidly, and besides he is Hungarian by birth. He's not the only poet to have been a success as a translator. Yet would a leading poet have been interested in translating a less complex, less worthwhile writer? For translated fiction is such a small part of what we see in the shops that mostly it exists on tiny imprints, in small runs, by dedicated presses; either that or European bestsellers, crime fiction for instance, where its less about the style than the plot and setting.

The Man Booker International Prize was set up partly to internationalise the brand, and partly as a rival, however relatively small, to the Nobel. It has done a good job, but with three of its first winner American/Canadian there was a sense that it was rewarding those that the Nobel's blindspot for American writing had overlooked. With this latest award its brought into focus an obscure (to us) writer of international standing from a venerable country and language, reminding us, at the very moment that Britain contemplates leaving the European Union, how the shared culture and values of our art have so often been more important than the boundaries of language and nationality. Few English Literature graduates would not have read Kafka for instance - Krasznahorkai's avowed hero - and its a reminder, if we need reminding,  that some of the best, strangest and most vital writing of the 20th century was not written in English.

Some Nobel winners have remained pretty unknown, rarely read or translated, yet there's a feeling that here's a living writer whom we can get to know better. As ever, there were other writers on the list who might equally deserve our attention, but our culture can only benefit from reading outside of itself. Where, I wonder are the English equivalents? But you might as well say where are the English equivalents of Foster Wallace or Lydia Davis, for if we've not quite given up publishing serious literature, we've certainly not encouraged it.

I might end up hating Krasnahorkai of course, but at least, I'm now aware of him, and enticed a little by the sound of his books.  The judges, chaired by Marina Warner, have had a good day at the office.

Saturday, May 09, 2015

Our New Jerusalem

I grew up in Tory Britain, and it wasn't pleasant. Mainly, it was the lack of hope. The sense that whatever you did or aspired to the rug would be pulled from under you at some point. I went to sixth form in 1983, when all my classmates went straight onto the dole, into youth training schemes (which would seen be pulled) or joined the army. By the time I came out of University in 1988, the brief London-centric boom had petered out, and I found myself unemployed and stuck back with my parents. The "new world" that some Tory apologists talk about, of coffee shops, and immaculate high streets and whatever else had yet to be born, yet if you'd have gone anywhere else in Europe you'd have found a more civilised civic centre. It was only that summer that the restrictions on pub opening hours - a legacy from World War One - were relaxed. I got a job, but not the one I wanted, but it was a well paid one, and I was encouraged to buy a house, with a 5% deposit. When I moved, the economy had come crashing down for a third time in my brief adult life, this time with negative equity and interests rates in double figures. That was Tory Britain....

...but I was young, and in retrospect I'd have been better dropping out more than I did. Trying to get on proved difficult - they were always meddling. I though about teaching in F.E. but that was the year that the Tories had made colleges private entities, and as a result there was hardly a job to be found, so the course I'd got a place on I dropped out of. I stuck in jobs I didn't enjoy, because the fear of finding anything else was still there. It was only after Labour came into power in 1997 that I felt suitably confident about the future to change tack. It wasn't necessarily easy. I'd grown up with "inflation" being seen as the enemy (in much the same way as "the deficit" is the tale they tell us now) above all enemies, but both Labour and Tories colluded in "house price inflation" being somehow okay. I'd never planned to join the public sector - under the Tories it seemed a masochistic game - but I then worked in Universities, the voluntary sector, and finally for the council. Working hard, contributing to other people's well-being - helping the economy (I worked partially in business support) - yet come 2010 and the coalition, the good was undone with a frightening speed.

Labour had diverted funds to the most in need parts of the country but rather than embed it by looking at how local authorities were funded had connived a technocratic solution (New Labour's technocrats have a lot to answer for) which meant that come 2010 this extra money could be wiped out with a swipe of a pen, alongside the Regional Development Agencies and a load of quangos. My "quango" was part of a local authority so it survied a little longer, but then Eric Pickles came along with his over-enthusiastic axe. The last five years I've hardly had a six month period of stability even though my job has continued to be funded, as one cut after another has come down from the centre. Labour had also invested in buildings - schools, arts centres, health centres - after the massive neglect that we'd seen up to 1997, but what use is a building without things going on inside it? Yet after the disastrous flatlining in the economy in the first years of the coalition, more money for infrastructure and business support starting coming through again. The same people who'd gone freelance after being let go by the quangos probably got jobs back in the new quangos. In the name of "efficiency" central government red tape seems to have got more, rather than less, both in work and home life, as inefficient electronic systems replace inefficient people based ones. But just as Tesco's share price has fallen off a cliff as people fall out of love with its soulless offerings, British productivity and investment has gone pear shaped as the tightening of both private and public sector means that we all have to self-service everything these days.

For the Tories are the management class spoofed by John Cleese, and I've yet to see an example where anything actually works better under the Tories; whether run by the private sector or the public sector. So its both the death of hope, and their sheer meddling day-to-day incompetence that makes me shudder at the next five years. In a modern, connected sophisticated country, 90% of activity goes on without government intervention - they have power over the big things (macroeconomics, financial regulations) and the small things (sanctions or benefits that can ruin or improve an individual's life). The rest is up to us - and in the eighties when it seemed that Thatcher and her kind were in power for ever, there was at least the understanding that having made us unemployed she'd not want to see us starving (unlike her followers), and that we could do good for each other; by living our lives, by making art, and when the opportunity came (poll tax riots) making it very difficult for the powers-that-be who had long ago lost any right over our citizenship.

And so, having not stayed up much past the exit poll, as I'd an eye hospital appointment the next day (thought I'd better go before I was told to bring my cheque book), I woke to the worst-case scenario, of  Conservative majority in a divided country. I can't say I was entirely surprised, not because of any lack of decency on Milliband's part (though the technocratic nature of the campaign and the Whitehall-bubble nature of the leader can't have helped), because its the world I grew up in - of fear, not hope. I was younger then and I could sublimate my hope into other places: art, love, music, travel; now I'm wary to embrace a decade or more of anti-Tory action, even though I'll be watching to see if the demonisation of public sector workers continues, but I don't see a contradiction in looking after myself, whilst looking out for others. Labour needs to focus on the makers, the creators, the future builders, and find new ways to deliver on that hope. After all, Tory Britain is one of contradiction. Their obsession with home ownership has led to a massive decline in a property owning democracy; their talk about rebalancing the economy is merely shoving money into London-based investors' pockets.

So I've had my little wobble of woe, following Thursday's debacle.Someone needs to make the case for Europe - surely the thing which will split the Tory party asunder either this time or next - and the Union. A Flemish friend in Belgian, a country with deeper rifts between two regions (who don't even speak the same language), said that there are two things that keep the country together: Brussels and the Royal Family. Scotland hardly needs London when it has Edinburgh, and the Commonwealth example means there's no real barrier to keeping the Queen even if they ditch her constitution. Elsewhere in Europe, Catalan and Basque areas of Spain are autonomous in so many ways, yet like Scotland would be fearful of being adrift from Europe, even if they want some kind of break from Spain itself. The anti-European fear is of a federal Europe - yet it looks increasingly likely that they will need to find some way of making a federal UK possible.

Read the Tory manifesto and its full of uncosted promises (oh, the irony!) from millions of new apprenticeships, to discounts to buy Housing Association homes, to 7-day doctors' surgeries (when they couldn't even manage Andy Burnham's modest plan to allow you to register with any surgery of your choice - they only had 5 years after all!), without mentioning where they will get 12 billion cuts from. Yet I've already heard on social media that the things they are immediately trying to slip through are cuts to support for disabled people to get into work and the possibility of repealing the fox hunt ban. Such red meat to right wingers will probably be the price they have to pay to get through a deal with Scotland that is palatable to both sides.

In my own little world, hand-wringing at the incompetence and cruelties of Tory Britain is commonplace, and its our default position up North, without a Tory councillor to be seen for miles. Because they offered nothing more than repeats from the Thatcher playbook, because they never want to get their hands dirty enough to actually run anything properly, and because they still only represent 37% of the voters, never mind the population, we are better than them, we are more than them, we will outlive them, we will outthink. In the gaps that they leave through their cruelty, neglect and most of all their insouciance and incompetence we build our new cities, our new communities, our new Jerusalem.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner

Adam Gordon is a young American on what is basically a "gap year" in Madrid, a scholarship paid for by a foundation to support his research into the Spanish Civil War through poetry. A young, promising poet, with middle class parents, Adam is also self medicating along with a succession of white and yellow pills for his unspecified condition (he mentions at one point that he is bipolar.) In the first person narrative he begins with a regular routine, where his "project" is to see if he can actually feel any sort of "experience". He goes to the gallery, a short walk from his small loft room in the centre of Madrid, and looks at the same painting each day, having dosed up on pills and strong hash before hand.

Ben Lerner's debut novel, published in 2011, is part of a rich tradition of coming of age novels featuring young writers experiencing life for the first time. This novel almost seems a literary rites of passage for American writers - think "Less Than Zero", "Bright Lights, Big City" - but has its precedence primarily with Hemingway and "The Sun Also Rises." Yet taking place in 2004, this is yet another post-9/11 novel. David Foster Wallace's contention that our future novelists will get their experience from television rather than from real life is borne out here; yet 9/11 provided that unique thing for America - an incident that happened to them, without travelling to find it. Yet so televisual was 9/11 that most people did experience it on the screen. Replace "television" with "internet" and we have the contemporary experience as something that happens away from us, that our ennui is not caused by events as such, but our lack of events. So Adam self medicates. He avoids having a mobile phone (odd surely even in 2004) and wary of becoming the sort of American who never acclimatises, avoids the company of his fellow foundation fellows. He lives a bored, lonely life which eventually turns into something more real through meeting Arturo, a gallery owner, and a curator, Teresa, at a bar. He becomes part of this alternate Spanish set. They really are the beautiful people - rich, workless, or so it seems, political, as only Europeans can be, apparently promiscuous. Latching onto this life, his status as an acclaimed young poet only makes his own doubts even more vivid.

For Adam thinks he is a fake - that everything about his poetry is fake - he knows what he writes in his notebooks is made up, juxtaposed randomly. He is lying about his research. He is lying about everything eventually, using his decision to mostly speak Spanish, as a reason for his reticence. Bit by bit his unawareness that he is changing, that experience is what you do, not what you think about, comes out as his real "coming of age." In the meantime there are lots of drugs - but without any danger, it is easy to pick up hash from the dealers in the square, it is even easier to get through the massive stash of medications he takes for anxiety, sleeplessness, his mental state. The ennui is, anyhow, something that he pre-empts. He knows how solipsistic he sounds, how meaningless his life appears, how in even trying to apply meaning he is a dilettante. So much of what one expects from the unreliable narrator. There is something of the Jamesian hero abroad here - a man on whom people project so much, but which he gives little evidence of anything being there. Yet his personal insecurities, that manifest themselves in killing off and demonising of his absent parents, don't stop him being more than capable when he gives a reading or when he's asked to show his poetry. The reticence is seen as a sign of his seriousness.

Yet there's a sense where Adam is a fake, and his knowing that he is a fake is what is so key. Here he is, a funded rich kid slumming it in Europe for a year - the Grand Tour - and even if he avoids other Americans he begins to recognise a "type" like him, who appears Spanish, speak Spanish, hangs out only with the Spanish, but look closely, and you see they are deliberately separating themselves from the cliche of the American tourist in this subterfuge. If there's a protesting too much about this its because of how much more polyglot European cities seem these days; particularly in artistic, cultural and academic circles. The only poor people noticed in the novel are the African dealers, and after the Madrid bombing in 2004, they disappear, apparently rounded up by the previously tolerant police.

For yes, real life does come into this "gap year". Being so concerned about his lack of authenticity, Adam finds himself in the vicinity of "History." Yet the modern hero can do no more than queue to give blood, the rest of the time, joining the rest of the world on television watching what's happening a few hundred metres away. There's a more subtle question at play here, which is deftly handled, for the American becomes not just a bystander or a visitor but a representative of a culture - a culture where experimental poetry can do nothing, has no part. Anger over the right wing Spanish government's support of America is directly linked to Madrid being a target. Yet the problem with this "action" taking place in a novel that, like Houllebecq's existential debut "Whatever" is so otherwise inert, is that of course it is an appropriation. For Adam represents nobody other than himself. If anything he is escaping Bush's America, watching CNN for daily reports on deaths in Iraq. The novel is so through a solipsistic young American poet's eyes that the picture soon fades, and empathy is removed. The Spanish film "La Soledad" did a far better job of being obliquely there at the tragedy; but like McEwan's "Saturday" this is a novel where the characters are bystanders to history, untouched by it.

In many ways, how you to take to this short, fascinating, elegant novel will depend on how much you can take Adam/Lerner's self obsessive self awareness. There's a framework of sorts which helps - with "Leaving the Atocha Station" referring both to the Madrid railway and the Ashbery poem. In between learning Spanish and trying to get involved with two different women, Adam finds himself pondering art, and aesthetics. If nothing is real - if no experience is real - then how can the approximation of experience that great art promises be anything other than fake? He discusses Ashbery's line construction as one way out of the conundrum. It is a case, that the work of art refuses paraphrase, that it can be experienced but not explained. Sitting on a panel being asked about "Literature now" he wonders whether such a thing is impossible to discuss. He says he will never write a novel. Lerner, a poet as well, is nothing if not an accomplished trickster. He knows what he is doing, even as Adam doesn't.

I can hardly imagine a British debut novel being allowed to get away with the intellectual ennui, softcore privilege and consideration of itself, in the way that "Leaving the Atocha Station" does, yet this highly inward tale is a genuine pleasure; ideally read at a single sitting, where some of the more self-centred passages can be offset with the genuine quality of his writing. For Lerner writes long paragraphs that build up sub clauses on sub clauses, to create a similar hypnotic whirl to the self medicating head of the narrator. Madrid, and Spain (he visits Granada, fails to visit the Alhambra, visits Barcelona, and immediately gets lost and spends the rest of the day trying to find his hotel), are present, but hardly present at all in a sense, as the sensibility is that of the outsider. Yet America has gone as well. We know the narrator is speaking Spanish, so the writer gives us very few Spanish words. Its a deft act, which sees a self obsession, a self awareness that only occasionally becomes self immolation. As ever in these books, the narrator is puzzled by why the women won't make love to him (though one does, one doesn't - though she kisses him and sleeps with him) but at the same time makes no effort to tell them anything of truth. Like the elderly Strether in James' "The Ambassadors" the Europeans seem to appreciate the charms of the naive, unknowing American puritan, without the reader ever being that convinced by him.

There are a couple of missteps. The messaging with a friend in Chile who tells him a story of his "gap year" travel which Adam then appropriates as his own, seems a little too forced; whilst a scene where he expensively raids his parents' credit cards merely, it seems, to give his first girlfriend an awkward "farewell", seems to jar with the image we have of Adam as being a lovable fool; here he seems manipulative and callous.

Yet, despite this, I couldn't help but think its the best thing I've read for a while. There's originality here, albeit through a prism of McInerney, Houllebecq, and (especially) Ben Marcus, and similar material in Bolano's "The Savage Detectives" is so much more real. Like in Luke Kennard's poetry, Lerner has already pretty much admitted to or noticed the contradictions and failings of the privileged, self-aware but inert life of his protagonist, and holds his hands up half in satire, but half as if to say "what else can I do?" With a 2nd, apparently equally solipsistic novel recently published, 10:04, I guess there may well be a sell-by date on this kind of insularity, but you don't have to particularly like the flawed central character of "Leaving the Atocha Station", to find it one of the more interesting debuts of recent years.

Friday, April 24, 2015

From Prague to Fallowfield - Coming Up

Earlier this year I was invited to contribute to the Prague-based magazine VLAK, whose 5th issue can be ordered now. Available in May, it looks like it will be a beautiful publication, and I can proudly say that I'm published alongside such luminaries as Marina Abramovich, Alan Halsey, Charles Bernstein, Clark Coolidge, Allen Fisher and many others. It includes my new story "The Good Citizen." There will be a Prague and London launch coming up in May, more information nearer the time.

This is my 2nd publication of the year, as my long poem "Parallels" appears in the new issue of Prole. A state of the nation poem, I'm particularly pleased that I've managed to get it into print in the weeks before the new election.

Nearer to home, I'll be going to "Poets and Players" tomorrow. Centre for New Writing's John McAuliffe, Next Generation Poet Melissa Lee Houghton and Maria Isakova Bennett are reading alongside students from Chethams. Highly recommended.

Then on Monday, the ever excellent Verbose night comes round for a 4th time. This time its a special launch event for the 3rd issue of the evolving Confingo Magazine, which, if you remember, I was featured in the 2nd issue.

Also next week is the next Other Room, at the Castle Hotel on Oldham Street on Thursday.

Friday, April 03, 2015

Cornerhouse Memories

The Cornerhouse closed its doors for the last time yesterday (excluding a ticket-only event this weekend). So farewell a constant presence in the thirty years I've been visiting or living here. When all these Joy Division documentaries go on about grim Manchester, or city leaders talk about the renaissance after the bomb in 1996, it doesn't equate to my memories of the city, and a big part of that is the Cornerhouse.

Coming from a small village, visits to Birmingham were exciting as a teenager, though I can't say I did much art, just mainly music and shopping. When I went to university at 18, the small town of Lancaster was a great place to be, but lacked the big city attractions, so regularly we'd get on the train or share a car to Manchester. "Blue Velvet" the film that was the audience-choice closer last night, was one I watched at the University film club, I think, so it was probably "Sammy and Rosie Got Laid", a raw, northern British comedy which was the first movie I saw at the Cornerhouse. I've seen quite a few films there over the years, though less so of late, though that's as much my changing habits as anything else. For some people the Cornerhouse was always primarily a cinema, but I remember going to see the BT Contemporaries there in the 1990s with Damian Hirst's "pickled shark" on display, so I've been a regular visitor to its art over the years, though the quirky three gallery space has always been a difficult space for an exhibition to truly own, particularly as more multi media art became fashionable in the new century.

Then there's the bar - most people I've spoken to have forgot what the bar used to be like before the makeover in - when was it? - 2002? I used to like that old bar, it was a bit of a quiet hideaway on a Saturday night if you were meeting someone for a quiet drink. I was a regular for a year or so at a Monday night quiz where I went with members of a few bands I knew. Through work, since 2005 or so, I've got to know the Cornerhouse staff, and Dave Moutrey, its longstanding manager, and have used the extended spaces of the extension for plenty of digital events. Though the one time I actually "performed" there was before then - when I was asked to be part of a film/poetry night organised as part of the Manchester Poetry Festival (as it was then). Three films were shown, and the poets associated with each did a short reading. It was probably my first poetry reading, come to think of it.

When we started a little magazine, "Lamport Court", over half of our sales came from the Cornerhouse bookshop, and its worth noting that despite the film and the art, that the Cornerhouse has for a long time been the unofficial headquarters of the Manchester literary scene, a place where writers could easily sit on there own, with a coffee, writing the next thing. I imagine its had a cameo part in quite a few books and stories over the years. In the inevitable business plan for the exciting new multi-arts venue down the road, that its moving to, Home, I do hope that literature isn't forgotten, just because it doesn/t require the same kind of institutional investment as theatre, art or cinema.

The new place will raise the bar for a multi-arts venue, extra cinema space allowing more varied programming, two theatres rather than Library theatre's one, including a flexible studio space, and a new purpose built gallery space. I suspect that the artistic things I loved about the Cornerhouse - collaboration, festivals, serendipity - will all be enhanced at Home, which has the opportunity to be much more than "just" a programmed venue. What will be lost, of course, is the brilliant location, just beside Oxford Road Station, on Oxford Road, so almost always encouraging me to pass by or drop in, just for a coffee or a browse in the bookshop or in the hope of bumping into someone. The thing is, such serendipity is less about buildings or investment and more about people; so I'm not so hung up on the change - the world moves on. Coming from South Manchester on the tram, the new site is nearer to Deansgate-Castlefield than the old one was to St. Peter's Square, so I'm thinking I'll be popping by nearly as regularly.

Inevitably, the last few nights the bar and restaurant was packed, a sign of how many personal memories are wrapped up in the place. The Manchester I came to in the mid-80s had its ramshackle elements, but the Cornerhouse was a symbol of its modernity, at a time when film was going through a periodic renaissance, and there was a wide enough audience hungry for an emerging popular avant garde. I'm not sure if its ever shown any superhero or Tolkein movies - I hope not - but I'm sure it showed comic book adaptions such as "Ghost World" and "American Splendor". In many ways the art cinema defined taste for my generation - dark American independent movies such as "Blue Velvet" alongside startling European films by directors like Aldovomar. Manchester has never had a major film festival (though Cornerhouse's Viva - Spanish and Latin American film is a regular niche highlight) but in many ways, my memories are that the Cornerhouse programme was always a film festival, just as the art and music scene in the city may be enhanced by Manchester International Festival, but aren't replaced by it.

They had a giant pencil unstallation in Cornerhouse the last few weeks for people to put down their memories, and if I didn't partake it was partly through an uncertainty about nostalgia, but mostly because my memory of the place is so wide, so fragmented, covers so many different aspects of my life over the last thirty years. The news is that the building will be used by MMU for the next three years, before inevitable plans are made around the refurbishment of Oxford Road Station, and its not clear whether there will be any public aspect to that. Its sad that both the name and the building will disappear into memory, cultural institutions are grown not built, after all, but it is a different world now - with digital film projection, an internationalised art scene, and technology taking its place in theatre as well as other spheres. Goodbye, Cornerhouse, its been lovely having you around.

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Stations of the Cross

One thing I think I miss from not having much of a religious upbringing, is the full psychodrama of Easter. This is after all the really exciting bit of the New Testament, and the Christian church has done its best to create a compelling narrative of ritual to match the story of the Passion. It also inspires quite a lot of fascinating art, from Caravaggio's portrait of Jesus in Gethsemane, through Bach's St. John's Passion, to Mel Gibson's bloody but compelling The Passion of Christ. Passion is a fascinating word, and the archaism of the Biblical "passion" has always fascinated me. What is so passionate about this violent death? There seems a category error somehow. Then there's the Stations of the Cross, the resurrection, the ascension; and the rituals of the church alongside it.

Anyway, that's someone else's paraphernalia I think - we have an Easter holiday of our own - four days that can sometimes seem the dullest weekend of the year. Friends with families buzz off, desperate in the grey late winter/early spring to find some sunshine. We're tired by this time of the year. Working in the public sector, 1st April is also our first day of a new holiday year - accounts are finished off and passed over into the new financial year. April Fool's Day gives us a bit of light relief - on the one hand I thought the internet would ruin the jokes, but weirdly, since everyday on the internet can sometimes seems like a Fool's day, it doesn't seem to have. Marketing and P.R. departments let their hair down for once and are able to say "it was a joke" without much likelihood of condemnation.

It's a strange one this year - as I've got to April without quite thinking my way into 2015. Its been a busy year already, though partly through persistent colds and sicknesses, and with a couple of exceptions, a grey, grim weather. I'm a year older, and feel at this time of year, a little wearier. Yet if I take stock, its more because the year doesn't seem to have quite started yet.

Things will change: have changed. Its been a great year for artistic friends and acquaintances of mine. Lonelady's 2nd album "Hinterland" has come out to rave reviews and a #72 chart placing; a gem of a record from one of my oldest friends. Other people who have been working in the shadows seem to be stepping out - and yet I know how much graft goes into this. Paul Harfleet's "The Pansy Project" was featured in the Guardian; Jackie O'Hagan's autobiographical show "Some People have too Many Legs" is touring the country and even saw her being filmed for the One Show. Sarah Butler's second novel, "Before the Fire" has just been published, and later in the year will see new books from Elizabeth Baines, Neil Campbell and David Rose amongst others. I've always been surrounded by quite a bit of talent, its good to see that perseverance pays off.

It is this more than the big artistic statements that matters of course: but one would be churlish to not be excited by Home, the new art centre which will combine Manchester's Library Theatre and Cornerhouse, which this week closes it Oxford Road doors for the last time. So many memories - I think I would have gone there the first time I came to Manchester in late 1985 - alot of my life is there, yet I've been reluctant to join the memorialising; as the future is surely more exciting. New stories to be lived and written. It's a Manchester International Festival year as well - so I need to pay attention in the early summer.

So, I'm sat here in the middle of a 2-day working week, and carrying on in my own inimitable smalltime way, and thinking, that we do all right, though the psychodrama of a Tory government, which the coalition has been for the last five years, never seems to do anything for me, my life, or that of my friends and family. The thought of another five years of right wing managerialism, incompetence and indifference doesn't fill me with glee. A poem never changes anything of course, though I've written one, which will be out soon enough. On the other hand as an election junky I do find there's a palpable excitement about an election as unpredictable as this one. I would like another 1997 moment, at least once in my life - I suspect I won't get one this time, but you never know.
 


Sunday, March 29, 2015

Revival by Stephen King

Recently, faced with "readers block," I've found late Stephen King a good way of unblocking. But what King was I reading? "11.22.63" was a time travel story squarely set in the uncomplicated fifties that he's so good at evoking; "Mr. Mercedes" managed to be a detective story where the only horror element was in the world we live in today, whilst at the same time managing a not-embarassing take on the internet.

"Revival" is back to classic King territory - a slow burn horror story. I was interested by its premise. A young boy finds himself under a shadow of a charismatic preacher who loses his faith when tragedy hits his own life. The young boy finds his own way through life by picking up a rhythm guitar and playing for twenty years in road bands, before his heroin addiction brings him down. King has always had a good ear for rock and roll, even if I can't quite remember him writing an overtly rock and roll novel before; add in religion, smalltown Maine, and a P.T. Barnum-like evangelical miracle worker harnessing the power of lightning, and there's all the elements of a classic King. Sadly, "Revival" doesn't manage to mix them together well.

Jamie Morton is playing soldiers, a happy child in large religiously-inclined family, when the new charismatic minister, the young Charlie Jacobs arrives, to be followed shortly afterwards by his beautiful wife and their young son. Everyone falls in love with Jacobs and he's a well drawn picture of a charismatic religious leader ending up in a small community and having an impact on all their lives. Such a man would surely move on soon enough, but fate sees him abandoning the church with a final terrible sermon where he doesn't believe in God. The young Jamie was the first person he spoke to and he a lingering fondness for the Minister, having been shown early on Jacobs' interests in home made electronics. But Jacobs doesn't experiment just to provide a link between science and God, he believes in "the secret electricity" - which as the novel progresses we only learn has been studied intermittently over the centuries, but the books in which it has been mentioned are banned or held by collectors. Such Crowley-esque mystery is more Dan Brown than usual, and King's heart hardly seems to be in it. We have to take the supernatural on trust here. Considering how other worlds have been so believably intertwined with ours in books like "Firestarter" and "The Stand", it seems strange how perfunctory this is.

As Morton grows older, tragedy hits his own family, but we already know there is a "shadow" over his life. It is the adult Morton who is telling the story and on the first page he calls Jacobs his "fifth business". Yet for much of the novel the shadow that the preacher casts seems a benign one. First, he has his own tragedy, his own darkness, and then when Morton finds him again, this time as a carny, making magic pictures of pretty girls to take home from the fair, the musician is at an all time low, a heroin addict just wanting the next score, having just been sacked from the second rate band he's in. I never quite buy Morton's heroin addiction - he seems a jobbing, amateur musician, and there's little in his background to suggest that he would succumb to being a drug addict. Besides, when Jacobs, now going under a different name uses the "secret electricity" to enact a cure, we suddenly have a clean musician. When he next encounters Jacobs, he's more of preacher than a carny. He has started giving out miracle cures. Yet these cures have side effects, and Morton becomes concerned that Jacobs is dabbling with a darkness that is destroying people's lives. But none of this feels particularly convincing. The "secret electricity" is perfunctorily explained; so that when once again Morton becomes involved, he has to wait with an ageing Jacobs for a storm after a benign summer, before the electricity can be used again. Morton knows there is a darkness to the "cures" that Jacobs gives out, but because he is telling the story - and similar to "Mr. Mercedes" this bit feels a bit like a detective tale - we are at a distance from the reality. Everything bad happens offstage. Morton himself has occasional voices in his head; his brother Col, who was the first of Jacobs' "cures" has no problems at all. It is other people - his mother, his sister - who have had natural tragedies in their life. Jacobs wasn't there for them, but this is not even touched on. There seems little reason for Morton's curiousity, and even when Jacobs approaches him because his first girlfriend has come to him asking for a cure, it seems an absurd piece of machinery.

In many ways, this is a classic bit of shaggy dog storytelling. By the end of the book Jamie is sixty - placing the childhood start of the novel in the early sixties. The whole novel is just a preamble for a set piece straight out of  "The Monkeys Paw", with one final cure being attempted by a near-death Jacobs as he wants to open the portal onto life after death. We never quite understand the motivations and there's an irony that in a book of the supernatural, a logic to itself is what makes a book like this (like his early novels) believable or not. This tries too hard to come up with something plausible, yet I go the sense that it could have been done in a condensed short story if King hadn't wanted to spin several hundred pages of chance encounters before the denouement. Yes, the ending is genuinely dark and scary, and we finally agree with Morton that it would have been better had he never met Jacobs, so dark was the aftermath of his ministrations. It feels a little that King wanted to finally write that "rock and roll" novel whilst also having a good go at the evangelical placebos of a credible middle America, and they all got thrown in to this idea of "Revival" - a musical concept; but also straight out of Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein," - reviving the  monster - whilst also having something of the showman "religious revival."

Plenty there in other words for a compelling novel, but for once in King, none of the ideas really convince. The longeurs of the timescale, the nature of Morton as a retrospective first person narrator, the somewhat dashed off rock and roll elements - none really convince. When Jacobs is on the page it sizzles a bit more, yet we are always in Morton's words, and so we see the incarnations with a cynicism, that makes us wonder why he's continuing with the story. Without believable motive, the sense of uncovering or even understanding the nature of Jacobs'' experiments, exposing his evil in other words, seems contrived. That it is the last few pages, after the final denouement, that are the most effective, highlights how much the novel structurally misfired for me. The writing is the slackest I've read by him for a long time, for the second novel in a row (following "Mr. Mercedes") a middle aged man falls far too easily into bed with a much younger woman, and even Jacobs, who at times seems a genuinely intrigueing character - as a man who has been tainted by his curiousity, a bit like Frankenstein, or the hatter who goes mad from too much mercury poisoning - is dealt with lazily. Not one of his best.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

The Lost Art of the Greatest Hits Album

When you are a kid, the Greatest Hits album is probably all you know. Those bands you heard growing up before you could afford to buy the records have kindly put all their hits in one place. Its no surprise that some of the biggest selling albums in the UK (ABBA, Queen) and US (Elton John, Eagles) are Greatest Hits albums.

Once upon a time, in the sixties, artists tended to not put their singles on albums,  yet those compilations, "A Collection of Beatles Oldies," "Meaty, Beaty, Big and Bouncy" and "High Tide and Greeen Grass" were not big sellers at the time - coming so soon after the records themselves had come out. The baroque names probably didn't help either. I suspect they were probably priced more expensively as well - and also had to compete with the new album by the Beatles, the Who or the Stones as these bands developed so quickly.

So it was really the seventies where the Greatest Hits came into its own. Artists might be recording an album a year and a Greatest could give them a bit of a breather, and pull together the songs that had been played on the radio. Elton John, Linda Ronstadt, the Eagles and others were album bands who also had hit singles, but a Greatest Hits drew in the casual fans, the ones who'd heard that early song on the radio or perhaps bought the really big breakthrough album. There's sometimes some odd choices on these mega-selling records. "Border Song" on Elton's for instance. They are of their time as well - all three of those artists would have second volumes of greatest hits which would include some of their biggest later hits. Frequently a Greatest would be a way of getting mileage out of the back catalogue of an artist who'd just had a massive hit single. ABBA's Greatest Hits for instance was a bestseller, but made up for the fact that few people bought their first three albums despite some hit singles. As they became massive stars, it ended up being the first album that people bought by them.

As a regular trawler of second hand record sellers I've been picking up Greatest Hits. You might not think you need Cat Stevens in your life, but a collection without "Wild World" or "Father or Son" is slightly bereft - a Greatest Hits solves the problem. By the late seventies TV advertised Greatest Hits crammed more than the regular 10 or 12 sides - so the fidelity sometimes suffered. But New Wave and New Romantic bands are surely as well served by their greatest hits as individual albums. Want "Call Me" by Blondie? Then you need the exemplary "Best of Blondie" - only a shame that this iconic collection wasn'tm reissued on vinyl recently when their other early records were. (It had the advantage of being released before their less than stellar "The Hunter" album.) Madness, Human League, OMD - all bands that are probably best served on a decent best of.

The CD kind of ruined things of course. The 70 plus minute length meant that a greatest was no longer a sharp forty or fifty minute party record, but something crammed with every single, with the boring slow tracks as well as the pop songs. For Greatest Hits sensibly tended to be aimed at the seventies house party. Who needs that half paced love song that was the third single off the album? Of course, there are exceptions. ABBA Gold probably couldn't be beaten, whilst Madonna's "Immaculate collection" is amazing for the tracks it misses off (including a couple of UK number ones).

Nowadays of course there is every kind of compilation - even bands like the Smiths have spawned half a dozen. If in doubt, stay with the singles, as these were the tracks that meant the most at the time. I was as surprised as anyone how fantastic the Beatles' "1" album was - by concentrating on just their biggest hits it turned them from rock legends back into that brilliant pop band that they started out as. Latterday bands such as James are best showcased on their best of - whilst some bands who had just one great album and a smattering of singles - like the Stone Roses - seem odd in a  Greatest Hits context. That Greatest Hits by Guns n' Roses and Red  Hot Chilli Peppers have been so successful indicates the patchy nature of so many of their albums and must be a good way for a young rock fan to pick up a single disc best of - yet they hardly seem classic collections.

The days of bands releasing two or three singles a year off each album, moving on, maybe having a non album hit or two, seem long gone. Often there's one massive album and a longer career that's underwhelming. I'm sure boy bands like One Direction will have massive selling best ofs, but there's a cynicism to modern musical careers that means we've only had one song from Adele for instance since her mega-selling "21".

Growing up, I experienced the sixties mainly through compilations - the Beatles Red and Blue albums; Rolling Stones' Hot Rocks; Bob Dylan Greatest Hits; best ofs by the Small Faces and Jefferson Airplane; soul compilations of the Temptations or Isley Brothers or Booker T and the MGs.
Now, I quite like putting on a crackly old record, like Roxy Music's Greatest Hits (see above), a slightly odd choice of tracks, that nonetheless works as a great party record. Even hated bands like the Eagles can be made palatable by the filleting of a Greatest Hits.

Some Favourites.

1. Best of Blondie

Good as their albums are, this brings all their best tracks together. Non album song "Call Me" gets a run out, as do early non-hits "X Offender" and "Rip Her to Shreds." If you only listen to "Parallel Lines" (virtually a greatest hits in itself) you miss such gems as "Presence Dear" from the album before.

2. Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits

This was my first Dylan album and perhaps it should still be my favourite. Its a great track selection. Whether they were all hits or not, I'm not sure - but like alot of "best ofs" it serves as a track listing for the songs of his that lasted. Further volumes are weird and career spanning collections just to diverse - this is the one to go for.

3. Roxy Music Greatest Hits

"Virginia Plain" and "Pyjamarama" can't be found on their other albums - it tends to the rockier side of their back catalogue - and it finishes before they resumed with "Manifesto" - but its such a listenable record even if it feels like Eno has been asked to stand outside.

4. The Temptations Greatest Hits

Mine's a TV compilation with a terrible cover - but it brings together their late sixties psychedelia like "Ball of Confusion" and "Papa Was a Rolling Stone" with their earlier classic Motown. Cheap Motown compilations have been a joy throughout my life.

5. Celluloid Heroes - the Kinks

Seventies Kinks are a mixed bunch - weird double albums, concept albums, and no hits - yet "Celluloid Heroes" is a brilliant distillation of this period. Like the Stones "Rewind" it takes an unfashionable period and compiles it well.

6. Uncut Funk: the bomb - Parliament

In the late eighties it was hard to find Parliament records so when this brilliant compilation came out I bought it and played it to death. It has a picture of George Clinton surfing two dolphins on the cover, a brilliantly funny funk dictionary on the back. What's not to like?

7. Once Upon a Time - Siouxsie and the Banshees

Despite being dark and gothic on their albums the Banshees were also a brilliant pop band and this timely compilation of their imperial period is stunning, not a bad track on it. Twice Upon  a Time - double the length - and from their later career does a good job as well, but this is the one you need.

8. Snap! - the Jam

I wasn't a great Jam fan but this compilation convinced me. Originally a double album I've the slightly reduced track listing of the CD - a collection that crams as much of the band on as it can and yet never goes slack, surely the sign of a good band? The underrated Style Council are equally well served by the "Singular Adventures of..." compilation, which fillets even lacklustre albums for gems.

9. The Whole Story - Kate Bush

A classic compilation that still sells well today. Kate's early success tended to overshadow the songs that came after (at least until "Hounds of Love") but this brilliant selection gives equal billing to "Army Dreamers", "Babooshka" and "Sat in Your Lap." It means that a song as weird as "The Dreaming" is in pretty much every household in the country.

10. The Collection - Jefferson Airplane

I hardly knew the Airplane until Castle Communications started issuing cheap double albums/single CDs in the late eighties and early nineties. Cheap to look at, they were nonetheless intelligently compiled. For a while I thought this was the only Airplane I needed, but of course, they were a quality band and I've since investigated much further - but this was where I came in. I've also got great Castle albums by Melanie, Small Faces, Motorhead, and the Lovin' Spoonful. Worth picking up if you see them.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Gentrification of Urban Literature

I may not have grown up in an urban environment but I grew up as a writer as an urban writer. It was the only thing worth writing about if you came from the dullest of suburbs. The city was exciting. It carried on after dark (and in those days of restricted licensing laws, actually came back to life after dark after a six o'clock switch off), it threw all kinds of lives together in a melting pot, it had its own edgelands - abandoned estates or tower blocks where the police wouldn''t go.

The cityscape was an excitement that I couldn't avoid as a teenager, even if it came with danger and occasional fear, because it also came with opportunity. The music I loved took place there, both because bands themselves migrated to the cities and because that's where they played, and where I'd have to go to see them. The places they played might be swish nightclubs on a weekend, but would be handed over to guitar bands midweek; or more likely they were odd, scummy, barely legal places with sticky floors and unheralded entrances, down uninviting side streets.

As a teenager I quickly grew tired of fantasy and science fiction, and part of the reason  why was that the realism that existed in the city was equally as strange, equally as alluring. Whether drugs, sex, music or simply neon lights and speeding cars on rain-streaked streets, this was futuristic and fantastical to my mind. The hidden venue down a back alleyway, the first time down a darkened staircase, the opening out into a cramped emporium of sounds and sights for sore eyes? This was William Burroughs via "Blade Runner" and the Cantina-scene in "Star Wars". And it was in Birmingham or Manchester or Leeds.

Yet come out of these dives and the world was like the dystopia of "Blade Runner" or later "The Matrix" or "Strange Days." Our urban environment on film has been for  a long time a noirish nightmare of shadows. The abandonment of our cities - the no-go areas and slums - speaks of a traumatic human history, just as the great civic buildings, speak of their previous pre-eminency. And part of the allure of these urban spaces was the real story that took place there. After all I grew up during a period when cities were all but abandoned by our central government. With a critical election coming up in a few weeks, its worth remembering that the Conservative Party not only fails to win inner city seats, but has no real idea of what cities are except as speculative property plays. Like cartoon characters, the modern Conservative party makes it money in the city and then retires to its landed estate in the countryside. The riots of the Thatcher years; the long-running sores of the Irish "Troubles"; these held back cities from gentrifying even as elsewhere in Europe the city - which had never suffered quite so much of a battering as its blighted British or American equivalent - made a comeback.

Look around now, though, and a gentrification of our cities has taken place. The process of prettifying old manufacturing areas, and turning the old factories and warehouses into offices, shops and flats is close to completing in so many of our cities. Whereas spacious lofts might once have been taken over by artists in unsavoury parts of the city, nowadays its the property speculators who cut these spaces into multiple apartments, encouraging a new urban consumer - young, affluent, requiring to be near to work - into the city. Our gentrification is almost complete, and at the same time our literature surely gentrifies as well. John Lanchester's "Capital" for instance, which is less about "capital" as in money than our capital city, and takes place primarily in a rich suburban street. Or even Zadie Smith's "NW" where the council estate where her characters grew up is left behind, a place separate from the gentrified city. Our new urban literature is as much a daughter of "Sex and the City" and "Friends", a young urban middle class living in expensive rentals, defining themselves by shopping and lifestyle, as it is by their urban environment. Tao Lin describes the interiors or apartments and writes about lives looking inward to their computer terminals or mobile devices, but the external environment no longer matters, is no longer there. There would be little sense of a believable "fall" from the gentrified city to the slums, the kind of journey you used to find in "Bonfire of the Vanities", not when everyone is an Uber away from the yoghurt bar. The need to go down to Chinatown for your noodles is alleviated when a designer noodle or sushi bar has opened on every regentrified corner.

What might be better for our life - though one wonders about this as well, so dependent on debt-culture, so much of it being speculative property plays, so much of it fuelled by a shifting workforce - where our inner cities have gentrified, and the "problems" are either dispersed or ignored, also has a damaging effect on our art. For the artists studios get moved out. The dive bars and venues close down (The Roadhouse in Manchester being the latest to announce its closure), the marginal areas like London's Soho become inhospitable to anything other than mainstream culture. And with it goes our urban literature. The problems mostly still remain: just count the homeless on our streets as the refuges and hostels get closed down in the name of "austerity". When Galbraith talked of "Private Wealth, Public Squalor" did he envisage at time when even the public area would be privatised for profit, and the "squalor" would become outsourced to those who are least able to resist it? If our cities become walled estates, then so to does our urban literature.

Yet literature has to remain its relevance. We see how contemporary writers seem to struggle with the issues of the day - see the rash of post 9/11 literature, few of which have enhanced the writers' reputations. But even our urban crises are giving out different stories that literature has to find a way of telling. The riots in Manchester in 2011 were the opposite of previous rounds of rioting which tended to happen in marginalised areas of the cities; this was an imported opportunistic riot that grew via social media and disappeared almost as soon as it had begun. For the ongoing narrative in our urban environment is about gentrification and speculative property development. Forget that  Manchester had a record low number of new house starts in 2014, for the cranes in the city centre are rising again. I go round Europe a lot and in Amsterdam, Brussels, Barcelona, London and elsewhere I've rarely seen so much building work going on - large civic projects like Crossrail and HS2 are in some ways land clearers for the private developments that come in their wake. Old London has survived many things, from the Luftwaffe to urban blight, but its finding itself helpless at the onslaught of sovereign wealth funds as they offer a "scorched earth" policy for non-productive assets, such as the music shops around Denmark Streets or the night time economy in SoHo.

On the one hand one can't be too upset at losing illegal brothels, condemned buildings and fire-risk underground cellar venues, but its what they are being replaced with that shocks. Privatised public spaces, with security barriers; expensive rabbit warren apartments; empty office blocks sold off between developers as corporate property ploys; and much of it dependent on the infrastructure of public money that is being squeezed out of services and thrown at infrastructure projects as right wing austerity policies have calcified the economies, and old style Keynesian pump-priming has been required instead. But if earlier recessions got rid of bloated or unnproductive firms and companies, this new model seems to be bolster the fortunes of the property and finance sectors, where the former's tangible asset props up the latter's intangible one.

For an urban writer the story becomes more difficult to tell. Do we interiorise so our characters spend all their time looking at their tablets and moving between restaurant and coffeeshop like the world has reduced to the set of "Friends"? Or do we try and tell the story through its new institutions - its zero hour contracts, its passive non-unionised workforce, its hidden armies of contract cleaners and security guards, its call centres and marketing companies. Its a grimmer prospect for a writer than the squats and slums of Hulme or the crumbling urban heat of Brixton. A Martin Millar or Irvine Welsh or William Burroughs would surely struggle here. The crumbling nowheresville of urban loneliness has been exported to small towns and provincial suburbs, in the hidden lives of those refused benefits  or sanctioned for missing an appointment.

If urban literature offered something other than an exciting colour, it was because it was the place where society interacted, came into touch with each other. Our contemporary solipsism, where the girl down the corridor from me puts on her headphones even as she throws out the trash in order not to have to say hello to anyone, is the endgame of this debt-led economical model. For all the problems of the urban wastelands I grew up with, they were also creative hotbeds of possibility - designed and adapted by the young, the marginalised, the new, and the uncomfortable. Our current world offers up a consumerist panacea....we don't need something like Google glasses - we are already living it.

As the empty tower blocks fill up with temporary agency staff; as the bars get more expensive and the restaurants heap up the calories on mega burgers or speciality pizzas, as the drugs get taken behind closed doors by burnt out accountants and marketing consultants... as the last dive venue puts up the "For Sale" sign and the last second hand shop moves out to the declining highstreets of suburbs and districts, we need new words for our Bourgeois-opolis, our Google-towns. The world's problems are increasing, yet our urban centres are becoming Westworld-style theme parks away from the reality. How to write that? How to read that?