Thursday, September 01, 2005


Influence is a strange one, and one I will come back to, no doubt. It is, I think, about moorings, and personal ones at that. The writer is an individualist, and his writing is individualistic, therefore so are those moorings. Yet, there are also commonplaces. Few successful (and I mean here, good, as opposed to just popular) writers are entirely out of their time: a Kafka or an Emily Dickinson may be unnoticed by their time, but their work remains of it, even if it came to prominence later. The close similarities of Johnson's "Rasselas" and Voltaire's "Candide" are not so surprising, given the intellectual tenor of the times, they are both responses to the same stimuli. There's a nature vs. nurture argument here. It seems that all the texts that I studied for "O" and "A" level - i.e. between the ages of 13-18 are personal totems still; Donne and Herbert, Wuthering Heights, Waiting for Godot, the Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Othello. Yet they are not the main ones. Perhaps I was lucky: there all romantic writings, even, if somewhat 2nd-hand, the Beckett. Yet my nature was always towards the literary, rather than, say, the scientific or the practical. What fascinates me is those non-taught influences. In Liverpool today for The Summer of Love exhibition, I came across quite a few other totems. How was it that I unearthed for myself the Velvet Underground, Robert Wyatt (here in Soft Machine) and Janis Joplin? In the early '80s, the sixties were both too near and too far to have much currency; yet I got hooked on Velvet Underground almost before hearing them, certainly on seeing the "banana" cover of their debut. That, over 20 years on, I'm in a room listening to "Venus in Furs" and "European Son" surrounded by screens on 4 sides of visuals (that I'd never seen before), in a respectable art gallery... at what point did my counter-cultural references become that mainstream? At what point, did I embrace these then-unfashionable influences as my own? Of 120 people in my school year, I can pretty much guarantee I'm the only one to have ever listened to the Velvet Underground - then or now; yet, this is music that was being written and recorded at the time I was born - so on the one hand, it makes perfect sense, this was my astrological legacy, and on the other, how absurd!, since none of my contemporaries would have got it. (Though clearly, 1 in 120 people liking the Velvet Underground may be a little high, and if I'd widened the net a little, or, like later in life, narrowed it to only fit through a certain kind of person, I'd have surely found others.) But whatever the ramifications - this exhibition ticked off so many of my influence-points, that there's clearly something going on. Yet the wider cultural patterns of that period in history, haven't really engaged me in the same way. There were several times in the exhibition when the thought "bloody hippies" was my only rational response. Somehow, without nature or nurture having much say in the process, I was kind of right about all this stuff back then. The Robert Wyatt influence is even more obtuse. I had never even heard the man's name, until I happened on his single "Grass" on singles of the week, and several weeks - or months - later bought the album on which it could be found. What was it that I immediately recognised in this one very non-typical song of his? Who knows? Other than a kind of kinship. What is clear is that these "influences" were for something of the essence of the artist - not because of what I'd read in the papers, or because they were contemporary favourites - the opposite in many ways. It's hazy, but I feel that I came to William Burroughs through music such as Soft Machine (they took their name from his novel), and the Velvets ("Lonesome Cowboy Bill") rather than the other way round. How many years before I realised that the enigmatic "From European Son to Delmore Schwarz" was referring to a writer? Lately, uncertain of step, its reassuring to know how sure-footed I was in these early decisions. Taste both widens and flattens as one gets older. I should trust the bumpier road, it's a clearer route.

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