Saturday, July 26, 2008

The art of brevity

In his panegyric for Penelope Fitzgerald, reviewing a book of her letters, Julian Barnes certainly brings out some interesting points, but, boy does he go on, giving close on 5000 words to this renowned miniaturist of a novelist. I'm sure there's probably some kind of literary equation, where the shorter the books, the longer the critical encomiums. And some of it just seems silly. Surely his detailed story of travelling back to London with her from a reading in York is the least interesting literary anecdote that's ever been shared? I've not read Fitzgerald so I can't comment on her place in the rankings of our top novelists, and certainly, there's much in this review that makes one interested to read her, but perhaps a little too much. To be fair to Barnes, I've got enough of a sense of her personality from his piece, that had she been able to read it, she'd have seen how overblown it was. In future, perhaps, less is more?

Mercury and Mad Hatters

I was in the Portland Basin museum in Ashton-under-Lyne yesterday afternoon, and amidst the depictions of ye olde Tameside life (long before it was called Tameside of course), and examples of industrial heritage, there was a little display case that pointed out that the Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland wasn't purely fiction, since hatmakers frequently became poisoned by the mercury used in the hatmaking process, and would appear drunken, and incoherent. Which seems a nice segue into this years Mercury music prize, for drunken and incoherent are some of the epithets flung at this mid-yearly attempt to boost sales of some of the years best British albums. But as always, far better that it's drunken and incoherent than boring and respectable. I've already been listening to four of this year's shortlist, so I can hardly complain about it, even if the one glaring omission, M.I.A.'s "Kala", seems a little inexplicable, unless, since its been around a while now, its wilfulness had gone from sounded fresh to sounding annoying. Judge Jude Rogers (which could be a good title for a tv series...) has entered robustly into the debate in the Guardian, praising the number of albums on the list this year, not by first-timers, but by artists who have always been well-respected, but only now are getting into their stride, such as Elbow and British Sea Power. It's a good point, well-made, though perhaps notable that neither of these albums have ever had a "Chelsea Dagger" style singalong hit. The hit, I think, can sink even the best of bands. My favourite on the list is Rachel Unthank and the Winterset's folk album "The Bairns" not least because of its inclusion of Robert Wyatt's "Sea Song", but I'd put your fiver on Burial. whose 2nd album "Untrue", though perhaps not as much "shock of the new" as his debut, has enough about it to become a 21th century "Blue Lines" or "Screamadelica," though Elbow's introspective melancholia might be just what Britain in 2008 is looking for.

Friday, July 25, 2008

The Apocalypse is Now

The 2-part eco-thriller, "Burn Up", of which I saw the first part yesterday - the final part's tonight - is a classier beast than other recent BBC dramas, though at one point you forget which drama you're actually in since there's Marc Warren (Hustle/Dr. Who) Rupert Penry-Jones (Spooks) and Bradley Whitford (The West Wing). I half expected Torchwood to appear at some point and introduce some extra-terrestrial element. Probably having its narrative squeezed into 3 hours has helped it somewhat. I said its an eco-thriller, but its really a techno-thriller with a bit of "greenwash" to use the term the oil industry uses here to talk about "renewables." Penry-Jones playing Tom McConnell, young oil exec, manages to sum up the climate change debate as "either we're right, or they're right", which certainly saves you having to watch "An Inconvenient Truth." The convenient truth here of course is that catastrophic as most of the numbers appear regarding climate change, for a writer - whether in fiction, or in a teleplay - catastrophe is always a box office winner. The apocalypse, once nuclear in nature, is now ecological, and though even less reduceable to a human narrative than an atomic bomb, it gives any number of writers something a little more malleable to play with than, say, 9/11. In a post-biblical age, it seems we are drawn more and more to biblical stories, of floods and apocalypses. It's somewhat surprising, watching "Burn Up", to find that the writer is Simon Beaufoy, most famous for "The Full Monty." I'm looking forward to tonight's conclusion. My standby button remains off.

Part Two wasn't quite as exciting as part one. Being set entirely at "Kyoto 2" in Calgary (why didn't they just call it Calgary then?) it was a bit of an uneasy mix between an episode of the West Wing (lots of scenes drafting documents) with an episode of "Spooks." I'm not sure I cared by the end, which of the "powers that be" won out. It was clever, but required quite a lot of suspension of belief. In the end, I guess it was wanting it both ways - to be a bit of a polemic on the one hand, and a thriller on the other. You only have to compare with Channel 4's classic "Traffik" to see how this kind of thing can be done. Worth watching, particular in the desert of summer viewing, but a little disappointing.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

When you were great

Was there ever a time when you were great? I think there was actually, even if I'm not sure who exactly I'm talking to at this point in time. I've long been of the view that musicians - at least rock and pop musicians - are touched with something remarkable for only a short time, and its what they do with that, then and later that matters most. In it's simplest form, I'm talking about individuality - and in doing so I'm talking about musicians who contribute something more than just their playing (though that can be part of it as well.) We've all seen bands who are looking for the latest wagon to jump on (which is probably why it's called the bandwagon!) and there are whole record company departments devoted to this. Yes, I know there's sometimes something in the air - whether in Laurel Canyon in '68 or the lesser Free Trade Hall in '76 - but whether this or not, doesn't seem to make too many odds. Individuality shines through, and you've only got so long to mine that seam whether it comes to you early or late. Of course it doesn't mean that all good music is made by teenagers and twenty-somethings, just that if you spend enough of this time doing what you should be doing (living, thinking, writing about it) then you'll probably be good for life. It allowed Morrissey to always have a store of thoughts, ideas, tropes and concepts to come back to for "You are the Quarry" or Bowie to wipe the memory of his dreadful eighties with the half decent albums that came after.

They say poets are best when they are young - though the current poetic career path is such a hard climb you wonder how many would get anywhere in five years, ten years whatever. A book of poetry could have a ten year curve to it - the writing, the acceptance, the path to publication, the wait for reviews and prizes, and finally, the sense that this has found a readership, however small and select, and, if its any good, or if tells a new story, or finds a new way of telling an old story, then it will have an impact on what comes next. But what if you start late?

I can well believe that one's world view is formed early, that one's influences are embedded in adolescence, and that one's preoccupations are at least beginning to form before your twenties, whether they are sex, or work, or politics, or nature. Yet for a fiction writer to build on that framework? There's life to be lived, for a start. The writing doesn't always come first, and sometimes comes very last. It's why there's more than a few good fiction writers who began after their children were over; or after they gave up some other career; or had a breakdown of some sort. Is the older fiction writer - telling stories with all the experience at his/her control? - as valid a model as the young poet, the young songwriter? If so, are these lives mirror opposites - with the "store" that a poet draws on later in life only a simulacrum of what's before, no different than the rough drafts, failed attempts and abandoned manuscripts of the young fiction writer? Or, is this the very stuff, the very thing, that the writing life is both afraid of and needs - the essential individuality that every artist must possess if they are going to do anything worthwhile.

An old friend has asked me why my music never progressed - or rather, he wondered if that was in fact the case - that the "sound" I make is the same, near enough, now as twenty years before. It has the same voice, the same-ish instruments, and the same homemade production. I was trying to explain to him, that since I'm not a "proper" recording artist/musician, I'm less interested in sounding like everything else on the radio, and more interested in some exploration of a small plot of land that I've made my own. I'm not even sure if its real - or whether, my musical interest, is itself a simulacrum, a version of myself that is forever going back over certain things: music as art project on the one hand, music as psychological examination on the other. I wasn't sure what I was writing about, and so I went back to some of the music I recorded in 1984-5, and yes, I'm there in my more recent stuff, almost exactly as then. The same preoccupations, the same aesthetic questions (or: if they're not questions - the same answers). I've recently been trying to synthesize my poetry into a single book-length volume, and though there's progression, there's also it's opposite. A hall of mirrors or a version of myself that's all about closing the door on a room and looking only at what's inside. I don't think that poetry and songs are necessarily adolescent, but I wonder, if away from a gaze that expects a progression - an increased sophistication with each iteration - something different can go on, than otherwise. When we look at the career of an Emily Dickinson or a Nick Drake, we are saddened that they never had the success that the work deserved; but part of me wonders if we need more of these hidden careers, the disappointment providing an opportunity to concentrate not on the career, or even on the work, so much as the inspiration that makes the individuality.

When you were great, I never knew your work. Now I do, I'm not so sure...

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

John Wilmot

Just watching The Libertine starring Johnny Depp as the Earl of Rochester aka John Wilmot aka the Libertine. Great film, actually. Not sure whether it was successful or stuff. My old friend Samantha was a great fan of Rochester, and she was always entirely accurate in her taste, and liked a bit of older stuff. I realise I'm a bit naive about the 17th century, and if the film has done nothing else, it will make me investigate. What's really scarey, is, that apart from the whores, the aristocracy, the arrogance, the theatre, the insensitivity and the nastiness, I really related to him. More, I AM him. Bloody hell. Proof, I guess, that I'm having a bad week. But, I'm beginning to think that it's a good week. The Libertine shows Wilmot as a flawed person, but an honest one, whose main problem was against the world he lived in. I realise I keep referring to things as Puritans and Cavaliers without really knowing what I mean by that. So, Spain beating Germany in the European Championships was a victory for the cavaliers, though it looked, for a while that the puritans were going to win - equally, Man Utd rather than Chelsea last year in the league and champions league. It's not one way, is it? Coldplay - a puritan band if there ever has been one - are doing well. I've a puritan in my head, with a cavalier mind, and the film made me think about what I really am. In a puritan age - which is where I think we are now - I'm Lord Rochester. There is a cost, there is a cost. I'm beginning to think it's worth paying.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

When the avant garde comes will I be invited?

I have often wondered, and its appropriate to think about again following this blog post in the Guardian from Lee Rourke, whether I would ever be thought of as part of a new movement? I've always felt I'd be more of a John The Baptist or an T.E. Hulne than the messiahs that followed, still, I like to think I know an avant garde work when I see it - or indeed write it. A bit like being a goth, if you call yourself avant garde, you're probably not, if you deny it, maybe you are. All you avant gardeists out there - you're just Iris Murdoch with more anal sex.

The Future of the Book

I'm not sure anyone can truly accurate in talking about the future of the book, when they never even asked my opinion. That said, they did ask the opinion of a few people I would have told them to speak to (though not everyone), and a few more I've not heard of, for a report for the Arts Council called Read:Write. See what they did there? Computer style terminology. Interesting stuff, though I've only just been sent it, so you get to read it before I do. Isn't that clever? Funnily enough I was just reading Douglas Coupland's "JPod" which is fun, but a little too arch for its own good. Its not quite as original sounding as his older fictions, perhaps because so many people have copied his style (something he makes a play on in the novel.) But it is fun. Just skip the computery bits.

I'm sure there are a million things I want to share with you, beyond that link, but after a couple of works working way too hard, I'm not sure whether my literary soul has died or is merely flattened at the back of the cupboard again. I was amazed and fascinated at a Redeye photography event last week by the blogger/photographer/generally good guy, Christian Payne, aka Documentally, who (pause for breath) live-streamed to the web from his Nokia N95 his conversation with me, which I'm sure wouldn't be easy for mere mortals as the digital evangelist that is Christian. If I look a bit worse for wear I'd just rushed back in the pouring rain from a hospital appointment. I feel I now need a smart phone!

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Writers aren't sports stars

Watching the Williams sisters compete in the Wimbledon final today, it was a rare moment when victory in sport would be tinged with sadness, and defeat tinted with pride. Usually in sport, its "winner takes all", the loser forgotten; but hardly possible when the winner and loser will be sharing Thanksgiving and Christmas together? I only mention this, in contrast to writing, which whilst also a pursuit of solitary excellence, hasn't got quite such an easy measure of "success" and "failure." "It doesn't matter what you think about your work," writes Anne Enright in short, perceptive piece in today's Guardian, the finished work is just as is, whether you thought it good or bad. In a completed story are the opportunity costs of all the roads not travelled. Enright is sceptical of poets who "just know" when something is right, putting it down to something melancholic in the poet's spirit.

Of the more melancholic poets, seeing Morrissey in Hyde Park yesterday cheered me up no end. An exemplarily chosen set, mixing Smiths songs, obscurities, solo hits and a wonderful Buzzcocks cover, ("You say you don't love me", turned into a Billy Fury-style piece of crooning, a massive hit, I reckon, if he ever releases it), Morrissey was not just in a good mood, and fine voice, but seemed at one with both his place - on stage, a showman - and his career, ranging all over the shop, with his fine band able to do justice to such rarely played songs as "Death of a Disco Dancer." How strange, that Beck, preceding him, and about to launch a new album, was so perfunctory, coming on like a curmudgeonly still-young Neil Young, with black hat, shades and coat. Last time I saw Beck - in about 2000 - he was an impish, glammy glittering uber-popstar, yesterday, despite a few flurries from his varied back catalogue, it felt like he was going through the motions.

And for some other points of view on the Amis religious debate blogged about below, try Fictionbitch, Richard Madeley, and even the Guardian. Read them all and pretend to your friends that you were actually there.

Finally, this year's national short story prize is having the shortlisted stories broadcast on Radio 4 next week. Still a little sceptical about identifying "best of breed" in this way, but pleased that two of the writers I met in Norwich last week, the established poet and novelist Adam Thorpe, and the Canadian short story writer, Erin Soros, are on the list.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

God and Amis in the Same Room

To Manchester University for the latest public lecture from Prof. Amis, this time with James Wood, and on the relationship between literature and God. A reasonably full Whitworth Hall, and I was remembering that the last time I was there, I was officiating at a graduate ceremony handing out scrolls. It's too big a subject of course, and the debate wasn't helped by the design - three men on a stage - and a vast hall ahead of them. Interesting that Amis quoted from Milton, Greene and Herbert; this was Amis the academic rather than Amis the satirist. The argument - a valid one - that literature is essentially secular, particularly the novel, but where the world in which it exists is a religious one, or rather where there is a struggle between the religious and the secular, then art inevitably reflects that society, that struggle, is a subtle one. As they were introduced to us as Professor Amis and Professor Wood, I got the sense that its not literature that wants to be an alternate religion, but academia itself. What is wrong with Martin and James? The professorial monikers hanging as heavy as ecclesiastical robes. Not, one thinks, an appropriate soubriquet for the writer of the scabrous "Yellow Dog." If the argument from the top table was both allusive and elusive, the audience let us down. Regulars at Manchester literature events knows the mad question is due at some point; where the questioner gives a partial biography, mentions their unpublished novel, and asks a question so oblique that the room appears to be on its side. Tonight we had pretty much five in the row, as evangelical hands shot up from the cheap seats. You have to feel a little sorry for evangelicals, not that they're the one section of society that is treated with withering contempt, as much as that they have an inability to recognise that their view of the world is a narrowcast one. It is impossible to imagine a novel that takes the evangelical seriously, after all, they take themselves so seriously - and the satirist is left with Chaucerian grotesques. Amis makes the point that even Greene's religious schematic creates an unreality that weakens the novels. For the second time in a fortnight, Cormac MacCarthy's "The Road" is a point of reference - and I have to squeeze my ears closed at the "spoilers" from the stage, I'm currently half way through it. Religion, in terms of tonight's meeting is very localised, Western, Christian, and it is Genesis and Revelations, with a nod to Job, that get the namechecks. The Bible is far richer a source for stories than its alpha and omega, but of course, it is original sin - and its fearsome opposite, eternity, that intrigues the novelist and the critic. A few interesting points were lost in the echoing space -: where are the secular novels that incorporate some kind of religious death? I wanted to bring up Louise Erdrich's "Tales of Burning Love" where the native American wife, walking out in the snow, becomes a metaphor. We live in an age, in Britain at least, where its almost impossible for a writer to give us a directly Christian story, since such a life and world would be unrecognisable in our low-key religious country. Yet, spiritualism, whether native American, or otherwise, has become the pick 'n' mix metaphor. Will Self creates his own inverted religion in "The Book of Dave", yet most novels remain both conservative and moral. Secular fiction - and Amis and Wood both seem to be hinting at this - loses out when it disconnects from the very human need to "believe."