Wednesday, August 29, 2007

The State of Things

Has the 21st century begun yet? I was wondering this - not the "numerical" years - but the sense of what it is,what it might become. There are some themes: global warming; environmentalism on the one hand; and on the other religious fundamentalism, globalisation, the inter-connectedness of all things; the "internet." But in the scheme of things these aren't the great rumblings of the nation states at the end of the 19th century - and the accompanying technological revolution - that only really made its mark after the first world war. Our concerns with the environment (belatedly) and global warming seem, to these eyes and ears, a culmination of sixties-seventies-eighties green movements - the difference being that now the Baby Boomers are top of the tree (Al Gore, Gordon Brown et al), they've lived with these things a long time, like women wearing trousers, gay men holding hands, and Yes Albums, they no longer shock the powers that be.

Wherefore art in all this? I suppose visual art has been a bit obsessed with decay for a couple of decades now - whilst the written word has remained solidly middle-class, middle-ground. There's an agelessness to our literary culture, which, though good on the one hand (writers who would once have been marginal, are now seen as national treatures), does mean that its concerns are sometimes a hotch-potch of those issues of the sixties-seventies-eighties, and the newer commodification of them. Ian McEwan's "Atonement" would be a good example of this. One of his better books, for two reasons: one, never that comfortable with the long haul of the novel, here, his Mini-novels are stitched together better than ever; and two, he seemed to reach back into a comfortable millieu - that of a military family, looking through the eyes of history (in other words, its unashamedly middle class.) There's now a film - inevitably, given that this is costume drama, albeit of a higher class - and unlike some of his previous involvements in the medium, this time, there's a real sense that it could be a blockbuster. In other words, McEwan is now, in every sense the establishment writer: writing about its themes and concerns, and also, benefitting from the cultural significance that gives him - in both intellectual cachet (his long story, "On Chesil Beach" has just been longlisted for our premier novel prize - I can't imagine any other writer getting a novella through that process) and commercially (this year's "The English Patient" seems to be the anticipation levels for "Atonement.") I liked the book, and mostly, I like the writer. Yet part of me goes back to that opening remark - has the 21st century begun yet? I'd say if our cultural high water mark is a film adaption of an historical novel from Ian McEwan, then the answer is "no."

Yet, one can feel a little sympathy for the concerns of late 20th century liberal England coming through, if only because of the scorched earth policy of Thatcherism - that the Baby Boomers didn't get the worst of it (thats left for those who left school in the midst of it, and those, a generation down the line who've never escaped it) probably allows them to feel belated victors, at least in the sense of our national priorities. A conservative nation has, far too belatedly, become a liberal nation, a delayed enlightenment you might think. It may stay that way - (America, that liberal nation has spent the last twenty years as a conservative nation, but seems to be turning back, which will help our own cause) - but, possibly, our liberals will just become more illiberal as they get older, and those who've grown up in the last twenty years consumerist years might be more hard-nosed and conservative then we'd think.

Though I think words like "liberal" and "conservative" - political distinctions, once only applied to a small voting elite, then spread out to include general opinion during some of the egalitarian advances of the 20th century, are less important now. What I see, in terms of "attitude" is determined far more by work, career, ambition, money, purchasing power, house prices, than other factors. We're 19th century mercantiles transplanted into a technocratic 21st century. Think "X Factor", think Ryanair and Primark.

One sign of an age that is unwilling to confront its demons - or one that is waiting for those demons to settle down into a more manageable form - is a retreat into the fantastic. I'm not just saying the light fodder of "Harry Potter" and "Lord of the Rings" - but in the number of writers now dabbling with science fiction. Recent novels by Sarah Hall, Kazuo Ishiguro, Margaret Attwood, Will Self, David Mitchell and Michael Cunningham have all been literary takes on the future. Faced with this, I've started taking more of an interest in the genuine fabulists. For if these writers sometimes aren't convincing in their futures (sometimes they make a very good job of it), the fabulists are only unstuck when it comes to character and language. I'm reading China Mieville's "Perdido Street Station", a massive novel set in an undisclosed world (future? parallel? distant? for the fabulist it doesn't matter - its an accepted place, that's all), which continues the dark humour and fecund imagination I've found in a couple of his short stories. Where it falls short, perhaps as always, is in the characterisation, ciphers from penny dreadfuls, cor blimey Cockneys reminiscent of a 50s sci-fi movie. Its miles stronger than "Specimen Days" or "The Book of Dave" on its imagined future creations, yet its the humans who suffer as a result - like they're not interesting enough.

Not that you can blame a fabulist for this - given the travails of our modern technocracy, the feeble storytelling of our reality TV - humans must seem the least interesting creature in our modern menagerie. In this, we find common ground between communist utopianists, death-cult fundamentalists, environmental mavens, information-heavy technocrats and solipsistic celebrities.

Given all this, I'm increasingly unsure I've got anything particularly useful to say. Sci-fi at least offers an escape from this vacuum.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Forgotten and Unfinished

There's a remarkably fascinating article about Ralph Ellison's legacy, in particular his unfinished second novel, in the Washington Post, courtesy of the ever-excellent Arts and Letters Daily, a length and depth of article that would be a rare appearance indeed in an English newspaper. What fascinated, as well as the literary detective tale, of piecing together the intentions of a dead author, was the detail on how Ellison's writing had become Casaubon-like in trying to get it right. The success (and financial success) of "The Invisible Man" would obviously mean his next novel had to be special - and better - and became, it seems, an impossible task. Even more fascinating was that Ellison moved to writing by computer at some point and immediately the options available to him to revise were suddenly endless. A friend complained about the wonders of modern sequencers such as Cubase - that they offered endless possibilities - whereas in the past he'd painstakingly created sounds or made edits, taking time and often irreversible. It seems that Ellison's novel had took over - and became, I think, an unfinishable work. Yet his literary executors are finishing it anyway. Whether this is a good thing or not is a moot point. In one part of the article it compares several lines - pre-and post-computer and Ellison had apparently always rewritten to expand, rather than to contain. In a recent post, Elizabeth Baines talked about the "over expansive" latest Harry Potter, and its need of an editor. Yet as a writer we all sometimes think we could write more and in depth about what we've only touched. These made up characters and made up scenes can have the depth and dimension given by a Proust, a Joyce, a George Eliot.

So it is, that I decide to check that I've "backed up" my own writings (of course, I haven't - not recently) and also to order them in some manageable way on the computer. We live in a world of hard not soft disks these days so I guess its worth saying something about folder structure. In "My Documents" (I'm PC, not Mac) you'll find a folder called "Writing" and within that sub-sections, "Poetry", "Plays", "Short Stories", "Other Novels" and a few other categories. I've got reasonably good at storing things accordingly but still something's get lost. I've not written any drama for a while, and decided to have a bit of a trawl through the "plays" folder to see what it contained. Astonishingly, for such an "occasional" side to my writing, I came up with 11 completed "dramatic works". Half of these are short film scripts, but there's a full length screenplay, a couple of potential TV dramas, a play, a verse drama, and 2 episodes of a radio sitcom. Amongst all this I found a dramatisation (for TV? who knows?) of a children's story I wrote years ago - that I simply have no recollection of turning into drama. I'm assuming I must have written it for a competition of some sort, but I simply can't remember! Also, a short script I wrote a couple of years ago refused to make itself known - and I couldn't remember the name, or the character's names. All I could remember was that there was a "sofa" in it as a prop. A laborious search of my hard disk brough up about 50 documents containing a "sofa" (Okay, I'm clearly no hard-boiled street writer), and luckily one was the one I was looking for. Ralph Ellison's executors make the point that it wasn't only the finished typescripts that held clues to the work but backs-of-envelopes, scribbled papers. How very true. For if a writer can't remember everything he wrote, why, and when, and where it is or in what state - then what hope the literary detective? Lesson to self: catalogue better.

Friday, August 24, 2007

You can be the next K. R. Jowling....

For those who don't get to read anything other than the Guardian, the Times is running a children's author competition.

"Peace" in our Time

David Peace's "The Damned United" doesn't really need my kudos to add to the many its already recieved, but I thought it was remarkable. Taking the 44 days that Brian Clough was in charge of Leeds United, and interlacing this real-time narrative with what had got him there - the past that drove him on to that fateful union with the team he most hated - is a piece of remarkable impersonation. I've been in Brian Clough's head for a week, and it's not a pleasant place to be - but endlessly fascinating. Importantly it feels real, with Clough a mixture of fear and arrogance as he knows that his dreams are only ever one bad result away from being dashed. For many people of my age - the football of that decade following the 1966 world cup - is a period of dashed hopes. English football would turn into the desperate hooligan-ridden debacle that would lead, finally, disastrously to Heysel and Hillsborough. But Clough's vision - of winning fairly, beautifully - "the beautiful game" is chronically juxtaposed against the realities of winning; of referees who turned a blind eye, of players not yet rich enough, and only a kick away from losing their liveliood, and of small-town directors who gained their power from their municipal football club. It's a brilliant decision to take this "small canvas" and use it to delve deep into the male psyche, the potency of sport, and the decline of England in the seventies. Yet, most of all its a portrait of one unique individual - and through him, an insight into what sport can mean to people, can achieve for them. If the book has a fault, then perhaps like all "biographies", its that the denouement is already known, that this chapter is destined for failure from the moment it begins. Peace doesn't quite know how to get out of the book; after all, Clough's real triumphs are poignantly there for all to behold - yet tantalisingly, in the future, in Nottingham Forest's triumph in the league and back-to-back European cups. In the "real time" of "The Damned United" there's no way of doing anything more than glimpse this. Its a perversity, to concentrate on the one abject failure of the most successful football manager of his time, yet it works, in no small part because of Peace's fascination with not only Clough but the small ponds that he trod in, of drink-sodden football journalists, smoking, swearing centre halfs, and local political businessmen on the make. Read it.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Getting Religious with Rickie Lee Jones

I've finally got a copy of the God Delusion, and look forward to reading it, but its strange, when one of your all-time favourite artists records a religious album, and, more shocking, its brilliant. So for now, here's the incomparable Rickie Lee Jones singing "Falling Up" from "Sermon on Exposition Boulevard."

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Don't walk in silence

They say you don't really miss people till they're gone. Tony Wilson, founder of Factory Records, self proclaimed "Mr. Manchester", and a unique individual, has died of a heart attack aged 57. I've been in the same room as him, though never personally met him. A few years ago Ra Page was going to set up an online music/poetry download store with him and I contributed to the idea, though it never came off. He's played - brilliantly - by Steve Coogan in the only true film about Manchester in the late 20th century; 24 Hour Party People; which was essentially Wilson's life story. When he compered this year's Big Chip Awards, on stage walking with a stick after his cancer, the very fact that he was there at all brought the biggest cheer of the night. Manchester was a grim place when he emerged in the late seventies, and he did so much to make it lighter. Today, its a little grimmer again.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Pop genius

I rarely hear/see something that kind of makes sense on every aesthetic/emotional level but this is pure pop genius. The video is even better....

Sunday, August 05, 2007

TV Party

I've always been fascinated by the way New York in the 60s/70s saw no contradiction between different genres being thrown together, and its a surprise that today was the first time I'd heard of TV Party, a cable show from an acolyte of Warhol with Chris Stein from Blondie as co-host. The DVD is only released in America (note to self: get multi-region DVD player!) though I'm assuming I'll be able to get some of it on YouTube (Klaus Nomi! Debbie Harry!)

Now, of course, there's a real split between the REAL famous people, and the wannabes. (See: Manchester International Festival et al). I'm reminded of this with a feature on "On the Road" - 6 years for it see the light of day, whilst Kerouac continued in obscurity. I was probably the wrong generation for "On the Road", since we were being told to "get on our bike" by Norman Tebbit at the time, oh, and get a job, and not be creatives - but I read it a couple of years ago, and its freshness, honesty and directness give it a continued artistic validity. Friends went "interrailing", but I don't think they ever stayed anywhere long enough to write a novel about it, probably thankfully. And, there's something about America's vastness and its pioneer history, that, probably until very recently, made it the ultimate "On the Road" experience. I'm a bit surprised that the Observer got a non-fan to talk about its influence, in the form of Hari Kunzru, who says: "To me, the lives were often more interesting than the writing." Indeed, Hari, indeed.

Oh shit, I'm now going to spend the next half hour watching Klaus Nomi videos on YouTube.

Friday, August 03, 2007

The Classics

I was recently given a lovely art deco style cabinet, which was just dying to be filled with books, but which ones? A consignment of forgotten gems from the Midlands solved the issue, and I've filled it with "classics" - half a row of those austere black-spined Penguin classics - a fair run of "modern classics" with that much loved Picador white-spines - and a sprinkling of odd and old editions of other books to fill it up. I'm still camera-free at the moment, else I'd take a photograph and post it up here. But trust me, its made me feel all grown up and serious at last. Probably a good job too, since I've been spending the last couple of days sending "virtual" fish to friends as I grow to embrace my Facebook persona. I'd thought it was a social network too far, but now I'm finding it quite fun. Heavens.