Sunday, February 10, 2008

Gordon Brown and wasted talent

In today's Observer, the Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, writes about wasted talent.

"British literature is full of laments for talent wasted, potential unfulfilled and opportunities forgone. Just think of Thomas Gray in his 'Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard' reflecting sadly on the unfulfilled, unnoticed fate of a 'mute inglorious Milton'."

Whereas you sometimes felt Blair's literary references (e.g. Thornton Wilder in his 9/11 speech) must have been handed to him; Brown's references - Gray and Milton - aren't the stuff of spin doctors. I'm interested in that lament for "talent wasted, potential unfufulfilled and opportunities forgone." In last week's paper the new Granta editor, Jason Cowley, wrote a brilliant piece on Charles Hills, the writer who ordered a hit on his mother's lover. It's a terribly sad story of literary failure, of - indeed - that "potential unfulfilled", yet despite the extremity of Hill's crime (a particularly sordid piece of tragedy - but read the piece) he was a very recognisable figure; the literary outsider; the self-annointed bohemian; the creative egotist even, believing in the break that never comes. It's Knut Hamsun's narrator in "Hunger", or Henry Miller in so many of his books, or Trocchi in "Young Adam." Those works of autobiographical fiction given the bohemian outsider some of its allure; after all - wasn't the life and the work so clearly entwined? I'm sometimes asked why I don't give up my "day job" to be a writer - though its sometimes forgotten that I did do, once, for a good two years. The answer is complex: but its a mix of things; I've never had much time for bohemia, too ordinary to be an outsider; but also I don't think I've ever had the true "drive" of the creative egotist - there's a certain madness in the self belief that you can create about yourself, as a "writer", particularly an unsuccessful one, that - it seems in the case of Hills, was genuinely delusional. If you like, I looked into the water, and remembered I couldn't swim. Perhaps a braver (not necessarily a better) writer, would have jumped anyway, wondering if the water itself was delusional. But there's something else that Cowley touches on. He met Hills, liked him, very occasionally commissioned him. I'd imagine that his fee for this story in the Observer magazine was probably more than Hills ever received; the journalist - even the literary journalist, being far more valuable a commodity than the majority of imaginative writers. Back to Gordon Brown, and its instructive that he uses a literary example to better describe how he wants our society to offer opportunity; after all literature is the Cinderella of the funded arts; the British Council is under threat; and the "space" for literature seems small compared with the space for fame (I would imagine that Martin Amis would swap all the recent column inches for a more favourable view of his last novel, "Yellow Dog", for instance). As someone who did my creative writing MA at what now appears to be the early days of the boom (1997-9), I'm not wsure here in the mix of talent, potential and opportunities I fell down - or even if I did? The three writers on my year who got published are, respectively, no longer writing; a creative writing lecturer (but they were already), and a literary scenester, doing a bit of this, a bit of that. We were all fiction writers, not poets - but there's been a surfeit of both ever since coming out of course after course; yet, despite all this activity, I'm sure we're not living through a literary golden age.

My concern, I guess, is that there's little that government can do to stop the "waste" of talent - whatever that means (pay artists to create? that would be nice...that would be a pipe dream...) - but that it could do a lot more to support potential, or provide opportunities, yet it can't be target-based, it can't be single-track, a poet might write a screenplay for instance, or an artist become a singer in a band. One's disgust at the public money that disgraced Tory MP Derek Conway gave his son for doing nothing is that sense of entitlement. As Carole Cadwalladr says in the Magazine, "while it's possible Fernanda Amis might have a facility for words given who her daddy is and her granddaddy was, I suspect she won't have too many problems getting published." Aye, there's the rub.

This blog aside - which in itself seems like a dive into an unknown river, with goggles, not knowing who is watching - my own observation over the last ten years is how much further away from the opportunity I've gone - perhaps if I'd remained in London I would still be meeting Jason Cowley and the like at parties, as it is, the literary scene in Manchester is primarily populated by the creators; had I written something wonderful last night, or a week ago, who would know? who would read it? where would it show? I've other friends - writers, singers, artists - who, though perhaps more dedicated than me, to their particular path, are no nearer to making it work. Artists aren't meant to have the skills of accountants, project managers, coordinators, even teachers - yet those are the "roles" we end up playing. Yet the good work is not done in any of those roles - or even in writing this blog - it's done in the darkness, under difficult situations, in strife or in terror or in euphoria. Where, I ask, are the intermediaries who can shine the necessary light?

No comments: