Friday, March 28, 2008

Small "c" capital of culture

I was in Liverpool yesterday, since I like to go over now and then. It's more of a building site than ever, which surprised me - presumably this year of culture didn't stop the buildings that are going on. But you come out of the grubby-as-ever Lime Street and don't really feel that you're in a city where anything particular is going on, despite the billboards proclaiming it everywhere. Presumably later in the year all of this will change, but for now, a tourist would be disappointed I think. My favourite second hand bookshop, next to the station, is no more - it hung on grimly, longer than I expected - but now its gone, so Liverpool 1 Culture 0 on that count. However, things looked up when I got to the Tate, always a favourite gallery space, where they've had their most prominent rehang in years. Their exhibition of 20th century art is divided into the figurative and abstract over two floors, but in each case the theme weakens as you get towards the present day. There are a few misfirings - I felt the Andy Warhol cow wallpaper diminished the electric chair/chairman Mao prints over it; Warhol always teetering on kitsch, the wallpaper pushing it over - and though I like Mona Hartoum's work, the presence of three or four similar pieces actually detracted from the work - the frisson of seeing her electrified kitchen instruments lessened when you come to her cheesewire cot, or her knife handle wheelchair. The final room was an unmitigated disaster, a hotch-potch of contemporary art from round the world that was certain not abstract - but tended to be a half-baked documentary/artistic commentary on politics - a piece playing an amatuer recording of "Wonderful World" on a loop will probably cause health and safety problems for gallery staff, whilst a Julian Opie installation failed to achieve the optical illusion that it intends. That's the negatives out of the way; but the positives were many. In particular, a room dominated by female surrealists blew me away. I'd not seen any of the pieces before, and they had a freshness, and a cutting edge (politically and personally) that was quite inspiring. Similarly, by taking the theme of "bathers" in the first room, a powerful subset of ideas and representation was followed through a very wide ranging set of artists. On the abstract floor there was more of a concentration on particular movements: abstract expressionism; op art; minimalism but with some well chosen pieces - both well known and new to me. I can't remember the artist, but there was a brilliant silver disc on one wall, where the disc moved creating a powerful optical illusion. The show is full of these kinds of surprises. It's on for a long time, and I'm sure I'll revisit, since it covers much more than is really "doable" in a single go. Avoid reading the commentaries next to the paintings, if you can, since quite a few are absurdly reductive.

Afterwards, I met a friend and we went to see Hoi Polloi's The Doubtful Guest (based on the Edward Gorey cartoon) at the Everyman. A strange, funny show, and I enjoyed it - like the previous show of their's I'd seen, "Floating", it requires you to suspend your disbelief and open your imagination up, so one for imaginative children of all ages, I'd guess; though there's always a little padding in these things, with a sense that for all the dance, music and stagecraft, its been workshopped from something smaller. Yet something of the magic lingers afterwards, and you get a sense that there's been some magical transfer of imagination across the room; though to what extent that comes from Gorey's exquisite source material, and what extent to the players, is a matter for conjecture.

It's a shame the city's retailers don't seem to have embraced the opportunities of the capital of culture; the Waterstones was one of the most poorly-stocked and shabbiest I'd seen - where were the Gorey books for instance there? Most of the building work round the city seems to be leading towards the development of "Liverpool One", a new - guess what? - shopping centre. One hope's this year's legacy for the city is something more than their very own Arndale.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Opposite sides of the mountain

"Strauss and I tunnel from opposite sides of the mountain" said Mahler, "one day we shall meet", so writes Alex Ross in "The Rest is Noise." It's a quote that's stuck with me as I've read the first few chapters, and might be one that could be useful food for thought for any artist who is primarily taking a position. Its a reminder that the end result of art should be the same; something of value, something worth returning to, something - I tentatively add - that is new. Though "new" can mean many things; the artistic vision is always personal, so though a "new" Neil Young song might be as traditional as the hills, it will always add something to Young's singular vision. I don't think many musicians, poets or novelists would go through with the hard work, year on year, if they didn't consider it added something to what they'd done before. Ross makes the point that at the time of the premiere of "The Rites of Spring" there was little distance between the expectations of audience and artist - yes, it shocked and appalled some of the more conservative members of the crowd, but a few performances later it was the toast of Paris. Yet, at the same time, a change had come about - the "repertoire" was becoming fixed, the idea of a canon was being solidified. Ironic, really, at the time of great political and artistic change that came about in the first 2 decades of the 20th century, that the one result was a sundering of the relationship between artist and audience to such an extent that the latter would forever cry out for the familiar, whilst the former would increasingly refuse to meet the audience half way. It's the old, old story - yet it seems that before the phonograph, and other methods of "fixing" art, the audience was primarily interested in the new - not the same as they'd seen before. It seems hardly believable in an age of West End musicals, themselves increasingly a rehash of overfamiliar songs and plots, but before mass produced art was a possibility, art had to be "new" to get an audience.

Which brings me back to tunnelling through the mountain.... the first issue of James Davis's avant garde poetry magazine ipthenq dropped through the post yesterday, but despite its loose leaf format, and its concentration on a small group of avant garde-ish poets, its anything but inaccessible. I'm still reading the magazine, but the accompanying CD, with readings by Tom Jenks and Ceri Buck is a delight. Jenks' opener "Brief Lives of the Saints" and Buck's long poem "Permanent Agriculture" in particular are funny, informative, irreverant, and have more to them than more traditionally observational writers. Buck in particular seems a genuine "informationist" - her work part agit-prop, part political-seminar, part art-installation, yet having a cohesiveness and (vitally) a lyrical non-pomposity that belies any sense that this poetry is in any way pretentious. Tom will be reading with two other poets at "The Other Room" a new poetry night run in parallel with the magazine on 9th April at the Old Abbey Inn, just behind the University. With the last issue of the magazine I was once involved with, Lamport Court, due out shortly, I'm reminded that what we'd always wanted to do was have an "open" policy to poetry and fiction, letting the simple, the difficult, the traditional, the avant garde, whatever... sit side by side, as long as the work achieved its aim. Any pot holer will tell you that our mountains are riddled with holes, passages and tunnels; its a rich metaphor, worth exploring.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

The Rest is Noise

I took delivery of Alex Ross's monumental tome "The Rest is Noise: Listening to the 20th Century" today. It's a book I'd somehow heard about, and then found it in Waterstones and realised that yes, it was something I'd been waiting a long time for. Then, there was a review and an interview in the Guardian at the weekend. Essentially, a history of 20th century classical music, I've only just begun reading it, but already I know its going to be an essential addition to my collection. Importantly, Ross is not some ivory-towered musicologist in his eighties, but someone around my age, who took a very different route than me at 15, finding Shostakovich, whilst I was finding the Velvet Underground. Oddly, the latter get a mention on the cover, which wouldn't have gone down well in my school or household - yet that's what's got me all excited about this book; I've been a somewhat amateur fan of 20th century classical music for a while - and though I do like some older musics - its the 20th century composers that seem to resonate with me, even if its only through the familiarity of their influence. The first chapter sets a powerful start, the premiere of Strauss's "Salome" in 1906, bringing a welcome historiography to the party, alongside close readings of the work itself. On the afternoon of the premiere, Strauss went for a walk with Mahler, and that concert may well have been attended by Adolf Hitler as well as the German musical high caste. It's a reminder, if one's needed, that the 20th century began late; that it's political catastrophes were interlinked with its artistic triumphs and that its philosophical saws (or sores) were already well on their way at the century's start. Luckily, I saw Opera North perform "Salome" at the Sage a couple of years ago, so that piece at least is familiar to me: I can well see that the next few weeks may see me dipping in and out of the book, as I dip in and out of the contemporary classical sections of Amazon and eMusic. Ross keeps a regular blog with the same name as his book.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

"Vertical Integration" by Bonbon Experiment

I've spent the last week completing a new CD, called "Vertical Integration", and available under the name Bonbon Experiment. It's available free to download using a Creative Commons license, from

Monday, March 17, 2008

Who's that in your novel?

A very interesting and considered piece from David Jenkins in today's Guardian, about being portrayed in other people's novels. There's quite a bit of this in the news right now, partly because of the profile of the new Hanif Kureishi novel, and its something that I know has been blogged about quite a bit by other writers, like Elizabeth Baines. I guess the real person I've most written about is myself, so there's always a sense of who is being exposed here? But in 1995 when my novel "Lineage" was shortlisted for the Lichfield Prize, my dad, not a reader, read it. He was mildly surprised to find that the first chapter included an episode where the father went out on an icy lake near where we live, and the ice broke. In the novel, the breakage is fatal, for dramatic purposes rather than any patricidal purpose - but dad was amazed I remembered the incident, so vividly, since I couldn't have been even five. "Write what you know" and "who you know" I guess is the sting in the tail. It's always interesting when you read a novel about a hated parent/sibling/lover - because its something that we can all relate to in parts, but also when it seems so real (particularly if its a first person novel), you're always wondering how much and what bits are real? I think its in this that writers do exercise a little bit of cruel power. The Divers in Fitzgerald's "Tender is the Night" are a pair of my favourite characters in literature, yet they were modelled on real people, who, their friends always insisted, were terribly treated in this wonderful novel. I've always used fragments of real people in my writing, but have found the most pleasure when I've managed - somehow - to make people up. Interestingly, as well, I think friends who read your work, are probably interested in whether you've ever used "them" in anyway, and it can be as simple as a line or a characteristic that then makes them go, "but that's me!" And we all do it, and always do it without permission. There's another way of identification of course; I was amused to find that Slatcher's is a butcher's shop in Mark Powell's "Snap", and the row of shops also includes the names of two other friends from the MA in novel writing we all studied together. He'd not told me, and it was only when reading the passing reference that I could appreciate the mention. Luckily, writers aren't usually interesting enough to be featured in other people's novels, it's something that we reserve for our friends, families, acquaintances.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Viva! the movies

I managed to find time to go to Viva! the Spanish film festival at the Cornerhouse yesterday, and more by luck than judgement went to see La Soledad (Solitary Fragments.) It's a remarkably good film, winner of best film at the Goyas. Slow, cleverly framed, chatty, fragmentary it's like a low-wattage Aldovomar (in that there's less "event" and more "life"), with something of the ennui of Jim Jarmusch, or the stately pleasure of Wong Kar Wai. A slow unfolding of two loosely connected stories, a young woman and her young son moving to Madrid, and a widow with three daughters who lives there. The lack of explanation, and the fragmentary nature of the scenes takes a while to settle these relationships in the viewer's head, which seems a little too wilful, and there are a number of characters who are just there for a scene or two, and seem a bit too peripheral. What it does contain is a remarkable sense of ordinary life in contemporary times and - rare in an English/American movie - a concentration on the big issues of ordinary life; your parents growing old; unsuitable marriages; difficult relationships; illness and death. Yet none of this is handled grimly. The performances are stunning, particularly Petra Martinez as the mother of 3 daughters, singlehandedly keeping the family together through little nudges, little self-sacrifices. If it comes round again, or you have a chance to see it, take it. One film out of the many on show at Viva! isn't many, but that's the nature of festivals, unless you take the time out to catch as much as you can - it's hard to see more than a couple of things. I came back to watch Hitchcock's "Strangers on a Train", which somehow I'd never got round to seeing. Another riveting example of how to do it; though with this, "Vertigo", "Rear Window" and "Rope" the subject is always the same, "the perfect murder."

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Funky Paranoia

I've been listening to Talking Heads again the last few days. They're a band that weave in and out of fashion; too arty, too dancy. I remember it must have been my 15th birthday, and I was with my parents in the Woolworths in Stafford, and they wanted to buy me a record, and I think I'd only heard one song by Talking Heads at that time - "Once in a Lifetime" - but there was something alluring about a double live album of a band I didn't know. I got it home and it was horrifying - I'd not really heard any funk music, but I persevered and in many ways Talking Heads were my entry into dance music. Yet, listening to them now, you really get the paranoid nature of most of their songs and it was and is that paradox that makes them so great.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

The Three (or four?) Phases of Booker

The Booker Prize began in 1969, so to celebrate its 40th anniversary, a new prize was announced a couple of weeks ago, a 2nd running of their Booker of Bookers. 2008 is the 40th Booker (but won't be eligible I guess), whilst 2 joint winners mean there are forty one books in contention. I've got the list of winners and shortlists here, and I think the Booker's had 3 distinct phases. The first, from 1969-1979, when, as far as I can gather (I was far too young), it didn't gain much notoriety, and the books that won it were worthy, earnest, quiet novels, albeit with the occasional jolt (John Berger's pro-Black Panther gesture for instance.) Of the winners I'd guess that only Naipaul's "In a Free State" and Murdoch's "The Sea, the Sea" are still read. Mostly the lists were made up of those midlist, midcareer novelists that had been writing regularly for a decade or more. The second phase, all agree, began with the title fight between Burgess v. Golding, which the latter won, in 1980, though I guess you could see this as the last gasp of that particular age - established writers, not previously rewarded by the prize, coming up with a couple of late classics. From 1981-1992 has to be the Booker's golden age; a time when the Booker book came into its own, and, more often than not, the judges got it right. "Midnights Children", "Schindler's Ark," "The Life and Times of Michael K", all worthy winners; the next 4 years saw the shortlist triumph, I think, with books by Carey, Lessing, Ishiguro, Ballard, Atwood and Achebe, probably lasting in the memory more than the winners. Yet, from "Oscar and Lucinda" in 1988 to "The English Patient" in 1992, books with some lasting substance all took the prize. The third phase, I think, begins in 1993, when Roddy Doyle's "Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha" won the prize, proving that any well-written (and popular) book could win with the right set of jurors. Every year since, its been hard to know which way the Booker wind has blown, favouring unrepeatable one offs (Yann Martel, DBC Pierre) or long-service awards (Carey again, Attwood, McEwan). It's not that these books are bad (and Coetzee's "Disgrace" is a modern classic) just that they don't really tell us an awful lot about what's happening to our fiction, and, given the strange "qualification" to be a Booker novel (anyone but an American), the modern stateless novelist (whether it be shortlisted Michael Collins - long resident in America, or DBC Pierre, Australian-Mexican, both of whom wrote essentially American novels), was always in with a chance, given an enterprising publisher. Mind you, it's possible we're now in the fourth phase of Booker - where the last 3 winners, Enright, Desai and Banville, have gone back to the worthy midlists (though Desai's is the start of the career, she's hardly an iconoclast, and another stateless writer), that we saw throughout the seventies. In some ways I think this is the case. It's a devil to know what history will show - but when chapters by Stanley Middleton and V.S. Naipaul were roundly rejected a couple of ago, it goes to show how fashion's change; though I would say, that a literary novel with a wide audience (which is what a Booker winner is likely to be), has got a more than even chance of surviving. My own Booker of Bookers (having read a good number of winners since 1980 at least) would be "The life and times of Michael K" by Coetzee, closely followed by Peter Carey's "Oscar and Lucinda." More interesting, of course, are the books on the shortlist, where,"Illywhacker", "The Handmaid's Tale", "The Good Terrorist," "Earthly Powers," "Utz", "Atonement," "A Long, Long Way" and "Cloud Atlas" would all have been more than worthy winners.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Come Back Poetry, All is Forgiven

Whilst the Mail on Sunday continues its apparently random record collection (Prince, Jean Michel Jarre, tomorrow's Nigel Kennedy doing the Four Seasons), The Guardian's latest collection, starting next week is "20th Century Poets." As a spoiler (I'm guessing), the Independent has rushed out the first of a series of glossy booklets about much older poets - starting today with Chaucer. I'm only disappointed that the Guardian's little list is such a predictable one. Auden, Eliot, Plath, Hughes, Heaney, Larkin, Sassoon - is there one Guardian reader who doesn't know those already? It's like those little gift sets of poets, whittled down to a line up as predictable as anything. Imagine even a Pound, a Lowell or a Bishop in that set? Oh well, the set ends with a CD of readings, which should be worth having, at least; though in the age of Wikipedia and iTunes it all seems rather quaint to get a little insert with the paper! Though what is one to make of Sean O'Brien's muddied water of a column that is used to herald this new collection of poets? I've read it three times now, and I still have no idea what his point is, other than "poetry's good," and he's got a very weird way with writing sentences. Anyway, it's good that the Guardian Review seems to have remembered that poetry exists again. Simon Armitage's workspace, that Sean O'Brien piece, a book review about Dorothy Wordsworth and Linton Kwesi Johnson all in the same issue.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

The Cocteau Twins

I've been in denial too long. I hardly ever listen to the Cocteau Twins these days and yet they are, in many ways, my favourite band. A friend came round tonight and said "have you got any Cocteau Twins?" I said, yes, but couldn't find them for a while then I realised I'd actually got a "Cocteau Twins Box" which was basically a record case featuring just Cocteau Twins records and CDs and the damn thing was full! I'm listening to "Victorialand" as I speak and I'm thinking that Cocteau Twins are kind of a higher level to all other music and I'd forgotten this - how stupid have I been? - there's a purity and a beauty about them that is incomparable.... and in this age of comparison, they are the best band ever. My favourite band. Oh god. And I'd forgot how good they were - but more than that I don't know if I can cope with how good they are.... its so "emotional"....

Monday, March 03, 2008

Disappointing Narratives

Such is the dearth of good contemporary drama on television that when a new series comes on you want to give it time, even if it falls well short of what you'd hoped for. When two disappointments come simultaneously it makes you wonder whether there's something wrong with the format/the commissioning process or the broadcaster? In both cases, the BBC. "The Last Enemy" began promisingly, albeit bafflingly so, but three episodes in I'm keeping watching it more out of sympathy than enjoyment. It's not bad per se, (more of that in a minute), but it lacks both a centre, and a meaningful narrative arc. Its like a Faberge egg, glitzy, cleverly constructed, but ultimately pointless. The "surveillance" society that underpins it is the most interesting bit - yet its nothing more than a glorified cold war thriller in the way it uses this information. Had it been released as a cash-in follow up to "The Ipcress file" it wouldn't have felt out of place. Probably what lets it down is the lack of genuine belief in any of the characters or their improbably relationships (the obsessive compulsive Stephen Ezzard seems to have dropped his OCD just as soon as the writers had done away with a need for it), plus, a distinct cheapness to the sets and the filming. This is surely TV, nothing more. The heart of T.I.A. is a desktop computer in a grubby basement room at the Houses of Parliament, and every second scene is either in a council tenement or a dockside warehouse. The Bill has better production values. There's enough loose ends (is it anything else?) to perhaps keep me watching till the end, but I've so little interests in the lead characters plight, that I don't think I'd be that upset if the bad guys got away with everything. Yet, if "The Last Enemy" seems a misfire, at least you can see why it was commissioned; "Ashes to Ashes", ill-conceived follow up to "Life on Mars" is an absolute disaster. "Life on Mars" wasn't ever quite as good and clever as it thought it was, with some episodes little more than second rate police procedurals only loosely linked to the central concept. "Ashes to Ashes" tries to mash together its two timezones but you almost have to go out and make a coffee during these bits, so excruciating are they. Keeley Hawes, a favourite actress of mine in the past, is unbelievably bad in this role - but it's hard to say what she could have done better with such a messed up narrative. Yes, when Gene Hunt appears on screen there's the usual fun, just about, that made "Life on Mars" such a pleasure, but overall, I'm not sure I can bear another episode. Only "Torchwood" in its new series, rescues the BBC's contemporary drama output from disaster, with only the last episode, featuring the Grim Reaper and a 12th century plague and Owen "defeating death", being a bit of a misfire - easily made up for by the brilliance of earlier episodes. You notice that all of these shows have both a "concept" to deliver and a weekly episode to knock out, and it seems the pressures of dealing with both is showing. Situation drama, in other words, with wooden characters, and a troublesome narrative arc. With a box set of, say, the Wire, Battlestar Galactica or the West Wing, just an internet order away, the Beeb needs to do better.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Poets & Players at the Whitworth

Yesterday afternoon, to the Whitworth gallery for Poets & Players. Now Arts Council funded, Linda Chase brings together a mix of poets - well known and upcoming - and mixes them with music. So yesterday had the somewhat incongruous mix of avant-garde new music collective House of Bedlam, alongside the understated charms of Tobias Hill and four other poets. The Whitworth gallery is a wonderful place for a reading on an afternoon, with views into the park, and a sense of genuinely getting away from the hustle and bustle of a Saturday afternoon. The event was packed, and well more than the "40 people" that I reckoned, rather glibly, last week, was a massive audience for a poetry event. That said, its all a little on the patrician side, and the poets were all very proper. I enjoyed Martin Malone's poems about old neighbours, and late night taxi rides with lovers; they felt like something I could relate to; whereas, though they both read very well, the young women poets Rachel Mann and Rebecca Perry seemed more exercises in form; life perhaps not yet furnishing them with the material to match their undoubted facility. Hill was okay, though I didn't think the reading added to the pleasures I've found in his book; his concentration on the longer poems from that collection, Nocturne & Chrome in Sunset Yellow, perhaps missed out some of the book's slighter pleasures. In other words, it was all very pleasant, but - perhaps in keeping with a Saturday afternoon visit to an art gallery - nothing to particularly stay in the mind. Afterwards, talking to James Davies, who is about to launch a new experimental poetry magazine and publisher If P then Q, whether the way to grow audiences for new music and poetry is this "mix and match" approach - the avant garde musicians possibly gaining a bigger audience than they would have got at an avant garde poetry reading. I was saying to someone the other day how rarely it is for me to go the Royal Northern College of Music, despite it having some music on I'd undoubtedly like. All of these things require ways in. Manchester does it better than most, but it's still not perfect. And as always, I find myself somewhat mystifyingly in the middle of all of this - neither mainstream or avant garde; as put off by performance poets as by Radio 4 wannabees, wanting rock music thats a little more than drums and guitars, and classical music that is less up its compositional alleys; fiction that can have some of the vivacity of the best poetry, and poetry that doesn't get locked into its own sentimental conventions. Artists, writers, musicians all need a freedom to "be", but there's a sense that its more important that they "belong". Choose your sub-genre carefully, you may be there for some time.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Art March

A few announcements today. In that its the time of year, (white rabbits, white rabbits, white rabbits), when we step out of our winter clobber and start thinking about "2008" as a real entity. So I went to my first gig of the year on Tuesday, the excellent (and somewhat joyous) the Hold Steady - kind of like Phil Silvers fronting the E Street Band to look at. In their world its always 1978, but a febrile version of that year, where the Clash, Lou Reed, Fleetwood Mac and Cheap Trick happily co-exist. They're a new band for old people - the audience was all 40somethings - which is an interesting development in itself. Next week there's some literary and art events going on, Andy Leyland, a friend, but also an excellent oil painter has a collection of new paintings on display at the Arison gallery in Chorlton. I'm looking forward to Monday's preview even if it does clash with the Lamport Court/Parameter/Ugly Tree reading at the Briton's Protection. Its a packed programme so I'll see if I can make both. I'd particularly like to see Chris McCabe read - a regular in Lamport Court from when I was involved in the magazine - and, in "The Hutton Report", writer of one of my favourite books of poetry of the last few years. And current LC editor Neil Campbell reads from his Salt collection, "Broken Doll" on Wednesday at the Thirsty Scholar alongside 2 other local writers. Somehow I've got to fit in a birthday meal, and since I've hardly been in the flat for a fortnight, would actually quite like to stay in a bit! Not that easy in art March.