Wednesday, November 30, 2005

A Waste of Shame

I finally caught William Boyd's tele-play for the BBC Shakespeare season, A Waste of Shame, dramatising what may have been behind the sonnets. I caught it at 3rd time of asking, BBC4 being kind enough to repeat its gems, but if you haven't seen it, try to, since it was, given the limitations of the budget, and the "educational" purpose of the piece (its a joint Open University production) a revelation. My own shame: I hadn't a copy of the sonnets. Realised long ago that those "complete works of Shakespeare" are unreadable, no more than furniture, and so pick up various volumes as and when required. Luckily my local 2nd hand bookshop provided a good quality Arden edition of the Sonnets, and reading the introduction I can see that Boyd's setting of the scene owes a lot to recent scholarship: the Earl of Pembroke as favoured recipient; the importance of the historical context (death of Elizabeth, the plague year closing the theatres etc.) And, whatever the reason behind its writing, its a phenomenally sustained piece of work. With Shakespeare as a poet in drama's clothing, its easy to think of the Sonnets as a postscript. If the introduction to my Arden edition sees them slow to catch on, I'd probably agree, but wonder whether Donne's lyric poems would have been possible without such an outrageous precursor? Yes, there's perhaps no direct lifts in Donne, but the "permission" that Shakespeare gives seems obviously related. If the renowned Bard could express desire, then surely anyone could? In some ways the homoerotic nature of many of the sonnets seems both important, and irrelevant. We know the Jacobite court was not the most macho of places; the theatre of the day had all the female roles played by men or young boys; marriage and heterosexual sex led to childbirth - or syphilis. It seems that young beauty is what is being celebrated - youth and sexual attraction being clear er, bedfellows, in an age where life expectancy was short, the plague was a constant threat, and medicine was rudimentary. There's a great scene in the drama where Shakespeare takes "the mercury cure"for his syphilis. Although speculation on Shakespeare's life is pretty futile, it seems that Boyd's reading has a ring of truth about it, for which he should be applauded.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Football and literature

I have been interested in the extent of remembrance for George Best. George was 59, his peak was when he was 20-22, and he "retired" initially aged 26. Nobody under 45 should by rights be able to remember his playing, yet a bit like seeing the Sex Pistols or the Velvet Underground, everyone seems to have a memory. It's also strange, because in the sixties at least, its hard to imagine the usual middle-class commentators now writing for the newspapers, being regulars on the terraces. My own George Best memories are fleeting, and simply involve being in the same pubs as him on occasion, here in Manchester. I've a vague recollection that he'd be at various gig venues - places like the Roadhouse, Dry Bar and Night and Day - since, in the late 80s, early 90s they were about the only places that you could get a late drink. Sad as it is, and I'm aware that his funeral in Northern Ireland will be more like a state funeral than anything smaller, it seems that key to this remembrance is the insistence from the baby boomers that their memories are our memories; and that their heroes are inevitably our heroes. You see it in the preposterous UK Music Hall of Fame; the endless lists that place the mediocre "Sgt. Pepper" as the greatest album ever; and, perhaps in the continued primacy of a generation of (mostly male) writers now in their fifties. Ironically, George Best's long endgame - one that will probably see him buried with hardly a penny to his name - is perhaps the more genuine; his undoubted skills and charisma being rekindled in the memory as his last few "soap opera" years have unfolded. Neither George Best the man, or George Best the footballer was long enough on this world. Elsewhere we wallow in nostalgia. There aren't new literary or musical heroes that are allowed the same primacy in our culture. Yet, unlike the Americans, who rail against the dying light, and come up with, say, "American Pastoral", "Underworld", or "Time Out of Mind", using the experience of the life and the century, we have the Eurythmics Greatest Hits or Harold Pinter's poetry. Whereas Americans use sport in their literature, we seem reticent to do so. George Best's death has reminded us, that football is not just about the sport itself, but about the myriad lives it affects along the way - and that it's also about memory, Best coming to the club that was resurrecting itself from the Munich air-crash, that took the lives of so many of the Manchester United tea, as if fate had decreed some little recompense for that terrible loss. If I'm not mistaken, its a story entirely absent from the literature of our great baby boomer writers.

Saturday, November 19, 2005


Having just read and thoroughly enjoyed Andrew Biswell's "the Real Life of Anthony Burgess" I hesitate to make any kind of review - since in some ways, unlike with a work of fiction, it would just be filching from the book itself. It's enough to say that in this compact book, Biswell's created a comprehensive introduction to both the man and his work for new and existing readers. Though Burgess is no longer with us, many of the people he knew and worked with still are, so sensibly, I think, Biswell concentrates on the early life, and the prolific novel writing of the early sixties. Yet, he also provides a real service in annotating where the life and work intertwine, through his comprehensive knowledge of the work, both published and unpublished. I'd not thought of Burgess as a particularly autobiographical writer - there was always something too ambitious about his style and themes - yet he clearly was; and in a way that, though commonplace now, was probably unnerving in the more censorious climate of the time. He appears to be at some distance from a literary establishment; but having read Martin Amis's "Experience" about his father; and Andrew Motion's biography of Larkin, the post-war years weren't a great time to be a British writer. It's one weakness, I think, whether deliberate, or simply because it's not there, is that there's very little on his relationship with editors, agents, commissioners; which might give a different insight in the sometimes insane breadth of his work. Only in the discussions on "A Clockwork Orange" did Burgess appear to seek and find editorial collaboration. I'm reminded in some ways of Bellow, as detailed in James Atlas's biography. The Chicago man was another writer who started publishing relatively late, relied heavily on the various support that he got from marriage, and wrote almost quixotically, and not too financially successfully, until a big, unexpected hit. Biswell's biography sends one back, time and again, to the books, surprisingly few of which are still in print. It also, I think, has something to add to the the "art" of literary biography. It's not a day-by-day account, giving equal value to everything in Burgess's life, but instead, concentrates on what the author considers vital, both in terms of life events and books. In a world where most writers of non-fiction prefer to give their version of the truth, is scrupulous, not just in sources but in the various "truths" that are on both the public and private record about Burgess's life. In it's evocation of that unlucky generation, born in the first world war, and sent to fight in the second world war it is also a powerful portrait of a world that is not quite history.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Cultural Issues (a round up)

To The Tubes at Manchester University on Saturday night. These American theatrical art-punk-rockers were a friend's choice; but it was worth seeing, for their warmth to the audience, the professional verve of much of their Rundgren-ish pop; and the semi-naked backing singer. This was a little disconcerting, actually. Every second song seemed to require a different fantasy-figure to appear on stage, whether nurse, dominatrix or pole dancer. It seemed a little, shall we say, "seventies"? One song required the lead singer to dress as one of Kubrik's droogs, though what connection there was with A Clockwork Orange was hard to see. But in the way of things, the previous day saw Andrew Biswell read from his Burgess biography at Manchester city library. I look forward to reading it, but it has to be worth buying just for the account of Burgess's typical writers day, from kicking the dog, (he had a dog!) to smoking 80 cigarettes, to drinking enough alcohol to kill a lesser man. I have a sneaking suspicion the contemporary writer generally has to decline another pint, since he's got some interview on "Front Row" he's got to stay sober for. A shame. The death of John Fowles has seen the Guardian publish some of his journals for the first time. Despite printing several pages of the actual diaries, it seems a shame that it then has to sensationalise, out of context, in its news pages. Robert McCrum, as always, makes a better last word of it, teasing out the key quality of Fowles' work in making the experimental accessible. In a world of apparently schizophrenic cultures (in this week's Guardian we have praise for Mark Haddon's poetry cheek-and-jowl with a damning for Auden and Pound, for instance, make of that what you will), it is this which marks out Fowles' work as unusual. He wasn't a high-brow playing only to the gallery, or a low-brow playing to the groundlings. He pitched his performance straight at the whole theatre, take it for what it is. In this, at least, he reminds me of Burgess, both seeing value (and not just fiscal, though that was part of it), in working with Hollywood - its worth bringing Pinter into this triumvirate, since it was his adaption of "French Lieutenant's Woman" which is the one undoubtedly successful Hollywood adaption of Fowles. Good writers, and true ones, retain their value.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005


I've started writing poems longhand again. It's not that I ever gave up as such - poems can catch you unawares, and whatever piece of paper is to hand will do (I read today that Lennon's "Imagine" lyrics were on the back of an envelope; a much maligned medium!) but had begun writing them direct to screen, wondering if the properties of the computer word processor would have its effect on the work (the screen being landscape, not portrait for instance.) This tattered thing to the left is where I'm writing them now - unlined pages, which I think helps, and big enough pages to give me room to "spread out". Whenever I've bought a "special" book to write poems in it never works; but here they're stacking up, faster than I can type them up. I don't think I "do" tidy, not creatively at least. This seems about right.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Death of the Magus

It has just been announced that the writer John Fowles died on Saturday. He had been ill for some time. He seemed to me to be unique amongst British writers - neither part of a conformist mainstream, or of an avant garde. His books were amongst the most inventive of the 2nd half of the twentieth century. "The Collector" is a masterpiece of unsettling viewpoints, and unreliable narration - a precursor to Brett Easton Ellis and Michel Houllebecq in its fascination with a psychopath. "The French Lieutenant's Woman" is not only his most famous book, but perhaps his most influential - it prefigured the current vogue for historical fiction, but its essentially a modern novel, self aware, and cloaking its historical melodrama with metafictional devices. Even those books that were problematic, (and none of his novels is what you could call straightforward), were worth reading. If "the Magus" seems a little too much of a hippy puzzle, and "Daniel Martin" suffers from a bitter misogyny, it is more because of the difficult subjects that were set. The sense that he was a writer of a previous generation comes from the slight output of his later years; but I've always had a massive admiration for both the conviction and the quality of his work, and with the sense that he wasn't handed his success on a plate, but carved it, painful paragraph by paragraph. He will be deeply missed. (A post script, the BBC, not exactly renowned for either (a) being quick off the mark or (b) the least bit interested in any writers has been at annoyed at bloggers' lack of marking Fowles' passing. So, now I know, nobody does read this stuff I write! For more obituaries go here, and for sound of underfinanced, and overworked cultura l commentators exploding with justified anger at the establishment, go here.) . PPS Everyone's now happy, as far as I can gather - and I've discovered a few shrewd commentators into the bargain here 'n' also here) I've also got Anthony Burgess's 99 Novels somewhere around here, but like Jenny Davidson I can't find it. Andrew Biswell is reading from his new biography of Burgess tomorrow in Manchester coincidentally, so maybe I'll find it by then. I have a horrible feeling its co-habiting with Fowles' "Wormholes" which has also gone AWOL. Oh, for alphabetised shelves.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Definition of a decade

Has anyone seen the noughties yet? I only ask. Apparently the Social Issues Research Centre has discovered its the least er...cultural decade on record, with no defining music or fashion. I'm not really surprised - agreeing with Caitlin Moran that some things take time; and that its only when nineties man throws away his Blur and Oasis records will there really be any kind of paradigm shift. I also think the millennium had something to do with it. If decades take a while to kick start, then surely with centuries its even the more so. I think the 18th was still going strong in 1805 at the battle of Trafalgar; and probably only came into its own with the Peterloo Riots (stirring stuff); whilst the 20th century was sluggish in the extreme, requiring a great war to be got out of the way before Modernism and Communism could make their joint calls on the century. So we've got some way to go. And probably a good job since "noughties" isn't really a name I can conjure much with. I do think Caitlin has something here about the old generation throwing things out. Not just that a Booker Prize longlist that included not only Banville, but McEwan, Rushdie, Coetzee, Barnes et al; but a culture where those late sixties barnstormers will not let go. I'm not talking about Blair here - but despite being a not-exactly-young 38 myself, I'm getting tired of all these old farts holding centre stage in the culture, whether its the endless Beatles/Dylan retrospectives; the weekly Julian Barnes pieces in the Guardian; or the Star Wars-Narnia-Lord of the Rings obsession that still grips our cinema. Let go, won't you? But no, what happens now is that a few Young Turks get brought into the tent at the bequest of their elders. So there's no kicking over the statues; no telling the old folks that they just aint cool anymore.