Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Only fitting that if I fit another blog post in before the New Year, it's a review of the year's most lauded books - I don't think there are any particular spoilers in this, unless you're unaware of the history of the Tudors!

Popular and critical favourite for this year's Booker, it's little surprise that "Wolf Hall" by Hilary Mantel has received such acclaim, as its in many ways a tour de force, a big, baggy, ambitious novel, that at the same time is highly readable. I've ripped through it since Christmas day, not bad for a book of 650 pages, fitting in between Dr. Who and the Christmas Turkey. What it is about the Tudors? I did them at school - early at school - and found them boring even then. Too many different kings and queens, too much intrigue, a world that seemed to be decided at the high table of a dozen houses in the country. Yet we keep coming back to them. Whether it's Shakespeare's plays, "A Man for All Seasons", the TV series "The Tudors", films about Elizabeth I or now, "Wolf Hall." I must admit I don't share the fascination, and so I came to "Wolf Hall" erroneously thinking it was about that later Cromwell, Oliver, not Thomas Cromwell, fixer in the court of Henry VIII. Clearly, despite all the media coverage, I'd not been paying attention! Anyway, from the first few pages you're transported - and the word is the correct one - into Tudor England, or rather, Tudor London. The country we know was so much smaller then, a rump island on the edge of Europe, its leadership the source of constant warring between different factions of nobles, and still, at the start, a Catholic country ruled spiritually from the Vatican.

In many ways, "Wolf Hall" is less about Henry VIII than about the birth of Protestant England. It is Tyndale's bible that has had more of an effect on the English-speaking population in a few years, than any other book in history. Read the Bible in your own tongue and the interlocutors - a priestly class that is appointed by a Pope, and owns a third of the wealth of the country - are now to be questioned. Though Tyndale and his followers are liable to be executed as heretics, amongst the educated classes it is not unheard of to be reading the book. Yet it is Henry's wife's inability to give birth to a surviving male heir that is equally vital - for the English succession of the Tudors was bloodily fought  for. In a world wracked with plague, another king dying or without legitimate succession threatened not just the succession but this newly minted England.

It is this world that the risen Thomas Cromwell, from a poor background, now takes centre stage, an actor adept in the most dubious roles of the day: lawyer, financier, merchant. We see history not through its kings or warriors but through its accountant, its fixer. The novel's therefore a somewhat quixotic project, centreing on Cromwell, and the approach is not alway successful. For as Cromwell rises, the major highlights are not the milestones of history, but of his own advancement. Lord Chancellors come and go almost accidentally, even if Cromwell is at some point involved in the action. Cromwell is courtier to all the leading players of the day, Wolsey, More, Anne Boleyn and Henry himself; a Tudor-age Zelig. It's hard what to make of Mantel's Cromwell; for he is a historical character brought to life, and yet to gain our sympathy for him as a character, we spend alot of time in his thoughts and in his dreams. It is hard to imagine such a man of figures and statutes having the hinterland that Mantel gives him; or, given the world he moves in, such a fascination and interest in the domestic. One might question her choice of protagonist, but can hardly doubt her ability to bring him to life. Tudor London is almost palpable - a small village - with the court of the many-faced Henry at the centre of it. Few, other than Tudor scholars, will not get lost in the gigantic cast of nobles and churchmen that people Mantel's novel, and there are times when the writers' familiarity with this cast fails to be passed over to the reader.

Mantel's stylistic choices are particularly strange. The novel is in the present tense, with Cromwell rarely referred to by name but as an all-seeing "he". This strange decision does give the novel a claustrophobia, somewhere between first person and localised third, but it also confuses the hell out of the reader at times. There are whole pages that are incomprehensible, as if they've been taken from a novel twice the size, but the explanatory chapters are missing. It's probably this stylistic oddity that would have made the Booker judges think twice. Yet you feel there is some method in this madness. For the febrile world of Tudor politics requires this kind of intimate chaos. Without giving us a primer in Tudor jurisprudence, how else can we get to the heart of the intrigue? Oddly, since I doubt he's a writer Mantel's been compared to before, it is James Ellroy in "American Tabloid" who most comes to mind. You take Mantel's Tudor court in the same spirit as Ellroy's cast of CIA operatives, corrupt politicians and the like in 60s America. She could do with a little of Ellroy's zip as well, for the novel at times lumbers along in the foothills of her - no doubt - copious research.

It's a strange place for the English novel to find itself, at the court of King Henry VIII. For its a period which feels like the birth of England, losing its dependence on the European aristocracy that conquered us, then shepherded the nation. You can probably,.at a stretch, find parallels with Blair, Campbell and the Iraq War in the diplomatic intrigue, but it would be a stretch. The novel seems to work in reclaiming (rewriting?) a key part of history - yet it's not clear where any sympathies lie. Cromwell's lie with the dreadful Wolsey, yet surely ours cannot? Modern England stems from our nationhood, our parliament, our separation from Rome, our English Bible(s), our laws, finance and commerce, even, though a republican hates to say it, our royal succession. It seems, oddly for an historical novel, a very personal project - the writer is so deeply immersed in the period and the characters, as well as that difficult writing style, that it's hard not to see it, at times, as something not for the world. The lack of certainty about Mantel's motives extend to the title, "Wolf Hall", residence of the Seymours, hardly present in the book. This is, you feel, (and interviews with her indicate it to be the case) only the first half of a longer novel. Good as "Wolf Hall" is, and it is, in many ways, an excellent novel, it does fail to transcend its material - rooted as it is, in both Mantel's immersion in her subject, and in the immutable milestones of the history book that it never quite moves away from.

Yet if that's a little too critical, focussing on the novel's problems, it's achievements are also real. I don't read enough historical fiction to know where Mantel sits compared to other tellings of the period - a lot, I think, is taken for granted, and probably rightly so. How to approach Henry VIII and his separation from Rome in any sort of new light? In this she succeeds admirably. The book takes you in to a world that is only very slightly like our own. The viciousness of the punishment's meted out to "traitors" would make a Taliban blush; and reminds us how religious absolutism has no place in a civil society - or rather, that a society cannot function civilly where that is the case. Serving the king, whether as Lord Chancellor, wife, or in any minor role, is no protection against his capriciousness. In securing the state for Henry and the Tudors, Cromwell and others replaced one kind of absolutism - of the Pope - with another, to their own detriment, eventually. Since finishing the book I've been reliving it, as it does provide a rare immersion in a world that is both imagined and real. It is Mantel's absolute obsession to the detail of the period that eventually becomes not the book's achilles, but it's triumph. Closing the book at the end, you'll find Tudor dirt wedged between your once clean fingernails.  

Sunday, December 27, 2009

My Writing Year

Is this the last post of 2009? The last post of the noughties? Maybe... I've written more on this blog that last year, less than the previous two. Perhaps it creates its own rhythm?

Its been an odd year in many ways, busy, fast-moving, and, up-to-a-point productive. A lot has happened since a year ago, but also, perhaps not that much. These annual surveys are a bit meaningless I guess, but like the seasons, good to mark their passing.

I had a couple of things published, both online, at Horizon Review, an essay I wrote last year, that, with the adulation for "The Road" growing all the time, seems appropriate and timely in its observations on the contemporary apocalyptic, and the 2 pieces I wrote for Flax Books' "Mostly Truthful." Non-fiction all of these, of course. I enjoyed reading in Lancaster's Storey Institute at the Flax launch, not just because I enjoy reading my work, but because it was such a pleasant environment to do so. An honourable mention as well to the lovely idea that is Everyday Genius, to which I contributed a piece in the Autumn.

Online is the way, one way or another - whether its eBooks, iPhone Apps, or print-on-demand - online facilitates. I have no problems with this, but if new writers have to also find "an audience", and this online presence is their way to it, then one does wonder about publishing as a model? Good writers may be many things but rarely are they good marketeers. Nearly four hundred downloads of my earlier novella "For the want of a gas barbecue" from Feedbooks, I know nothing about this "audience", as the site has such poor social networking characteristics. Soon, before or after the new year, I need to think carefully about improving my own online presence - for the first time, with mobile devices such as iPhones, I think there may well be an audience for writing via the web. I don't think you'd want to read "Wolf Hall" this way, but maybe there's writing better suited to the medium.

I've written poems and fiction this year as well, but in between times, in between things. I need to spend some time completing that which is in draft, and concentrating on what to write next. It may mean prioritising. But for now - for the next two weeks, I'll have a bit of time to reflect on things, package things.

Last post of the year or the decade? Four days left, time enough to change my mind.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Near Christmas

The snow has made life a little miserable for people this week, though I always quite like it when the weather manages to slow us all down. Manchester has been treacherous under foot, but I live close enough to the city that it hasn't affected getting into work, even up till Christmas eve. Because its not just the end of the year, but the end of the decade there's all these lists coming up about "best books" and "best films" and "best albums." The decade hasn't really left too much of a cultural footprint - perhaps the great politic issues of the time; from 9/11 and "the war on terror", to the growing worry about climate change (culminating in the near empty rhetoric of Copenhagen), to globalisation and the ensuing financial meltdown; have been too all consuming, yet too distant, to create the human narratives that great art requires. Yet from "24" through to "The Road", the filtering through does take place.

Despite "long tails" and social media; it's the mega-blockbuster, from "Da Vinci Code" to this month's "Avatar" that has "united" us, yet its a unity of a shared popcorn more than a shared culture. That our audiences prefer adolescent spectacle than a deeper conversation is perhaps a given.

Yet 2009 has had its moments. I've read some good books, from this year and previous years, and blogged about those as I've gone along. Nothing spectacular in fiction, but some good novels nonetheless. I'm finishing the year reading Hilary Mantel's Booker winner "Wolf Hall" and after a few pages already feel somewhat immersed in the febrile politics of Tudor England. I think its been something of a remarkable year for poetry, in contrast, or maybe I've been paying more attention. Tom Chivers' Crashaw Prize collection from Salt Publishing was a highlight, and other Salt collections from Luke Kennard and Chris McCabe have repaid the time. The best poetry books require time; and reading George Szirtses excellent "The Burning of the Books," there does seem a welcome move away from minimalism, to lets call it maximilism in the best writing of the moment.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Swearing isn't Clever, but it is Funny

I bought "Killing in the Name" on CD-single when it first came out in 1992 from the little record shop in the arcade in Eccles. I used to pick up any new singles that looked interesting, and a band called Rage Against the Machine certainly fit the bill. No exaggerration to say that the first time I played it, it blew me away. There'd been a few rap-grunge crossover records, most notably the Red Hot Chilli Peppers' "Give it Away", and Bodycount's "Bodycount's in the House", but Rage's debut was something else. The album was every bit as good as the single, and both "Killing in the Name" and "Bullet in the Head" were regulars at the Ritz on a Monday night. I crammed into the same venue to see them play their later, a gig that remains one of the most incendiary I've ever been to - and would definitely be in my all time top ten.

Yet, Rage were always contradictory. They arrived on these shores fully formed, and signed to a major. Their politics, which echoed the activist politics of hardcore bands like Fugazi and Consolidated, were part of what they did, but seemed a little strange in a UK context - after all, these were the dull days of John Major's premiership not the all out war of the Thatcher years. Musically, as well, that rap-metal template was something they never really deviated from, even on their only partially successful cover versions album, (where, their takes on icons like Dylan and Springsteen seemed a little less successful than their rap covers.) Yet they remained a real favourite of mine over the next few years - and, if second album "Evil Empire" lacked the dynamics of their debut, "The Battle of Los Angeles" and particularly the single "Sleep Now in the Fire" was almost as good as their first.

In many ways then, the internet campaign which has put "Killing in the Name" to number for Christmas 2009, ahead of a truly dreadful song recorded by this year's mediocre X-factor winner, chose its song well. A modern classic, with that refrain, "fuck you I won't do what you tell me", which retains its adolescent anger, but was always funny, since I remember everyone shouting along to it, punching their fists in the air in unison. Rock protest songs work best when they can be appropriated for any kind of campaign, and "Killing in the Name" is in many ways a "Times They are a-Changin'" for the grunge generation. Neither Kurt Cobain or Eddie Vedder wrote songs with a public, rather than private focus, and in Rage, the protest song - still alive and well in rap - made a welcome come back.

Yes, Sony are a multinational, yet it's always been the case that major labels have recorded outsider artists. There's no greater capitalist than Richard Branson, but his Virgin records found room not just for the Sex Pistols, but genuine outsiders like Robert Wyatt. Labels like Rough Trade, Creation and Factory, may have had a different philosophy from the majors, but you only have to read the stories of their various original demises to see that its creative freedom that matters, not corporate structure. For a time in the 90s, some of the biggest selling bands were global phenomenon like Rage Against the Machine, the Beastie Boy, NWA and Pearl Jam, rather than the Whitneys and Mariahs that had once dominated the sales charts.

At the end of the day, we'll always just music on what we hear - not anything else - and that a 17 year old song can still upset the armchair listener, but also inspire 500,000 downloads in a week, shows that its as great a track now as when I first heard it. Indie purists (and I've been one) may ask why it can't be something more obscure or on a minor label that is used as the jump-leads for kickstarting this kind of protest, but I can't see the navel gazing music of so much contemporary indie having the sheer bravado to make a difference. In a couple of years time, we might find a whole new range of poltically inclined bands who were inspired by this one instance. Maybe it doesn't quite stick it to "the man", but in giving us a different narrative, it reminds us of how music has the ability to surprise us.

As someone who is not immune to writing the odd protest song myself, it made me go back and have a listen to "Wonderful Products" that I recorded last year.You can't even buy it, just download for free.

Old Rockers

I went to see the reformed Public Image Limited last night at Manchester Academy. They did a full 2 and a quarter hour set as advertised, started and finished on time, and Johnny Rotten (he seems to refer to himself as that, not John Lydon), was on fine form. I realised its the first time I've ever seen him live either as Sex Pistols or PIL. Public Image's original heyday was virtually over by the time I was getting into music, aged 14-15, in 1981-2. I remember "Flowers of Romance", their 3rd album, coming out and liking it even though it was clearly unlistenable! It's aged very well, of course, a unique uncompromising statement, that couldn't ever hope to have the influence of the earlier "Metal Box." By 1984 PIL were just another rock band and though "This is not a Love Song" and, later, "Rise", were student disco favourites,  I remember hearing an appallingly bloated live album, "Live in Tokyo", that a friend had bought and not been impressed. Be interesting to hear it again. In a world of the Cure, Killing Joke, SPK, Psychic TV, Cocteau Twins, the Fall and others, PIL seemed a minor player, and the Sex Pistols legacy, with its rockist songs, and cartoon-punk stylings never really appealed.

So, I'm there, watching Johnny Rotten for the first time, realising I've always had a lot of time for him, but that unlike 90% of the audience he never meant that much to me personally. Now, at a surprisingly young (and very sprightly) 53, he seems more than ever to be one of the timeless greats, a self-creation that can and did do anything he wanted. If PIL's music has its fair share of bombast and silliness at times, it also has a grandeur, a seriousness, and an intensity that I responded to last night. There was something in the air as the 70s turned into the 80s, and music was dark, serious and intense to reflect this. I now know that "Metal Box" in particular was a key influence on many of the bands I liked at the time. As the excellent post-punk history "Rip it up and start again" highlighted, the punks may have been style revolutionaries, but it was the post-punks who were the musical ones. I've often thought that pop music in all its many facets is a young man/woman's game - "Metal Box" was released when Rotten was 23. It's that period - from maybe 15-25 when musicians and songwriters seem to have their best ideas. I remember feeling older, and more "past it" in my mid 20s than at any time since, a sense of the moment passing. What's great about seeing PIL last night, 17 years after they last strutted the stage, is that sense that even if the best of Rotten's work creatively was done a quarter of a century or more ago, it's still part of him, still where his identity lies.

See the legends when they come to town, that's my motto. Finally catching up when Johnny Rotten, was nothing but a pleasure.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

On McEwan

It must be a little infuriating for Ian McEwan, that most nuanced of writers, that praise and criticism for his work are anything but nuanced. There is a vehemence against McEwan’s work from certain quarters that almost makes him the James Blunt of literature, bought by all, praised by few. This story was played out again this week, when Sam Jordison's playful "worst novels of the decade" blog post brought out a flurry of McEwan haters, and, a long (and slightly mad) response from David Sexton. Poor Sam, who'd only mentioned one McEwan in his own blog post, for getting the response "by and large, bloggers remain writers who have not been able to find more rewarding outlets for their work and are therefore pre-packed with resentment, whatever subject they address." It was, one would have thought, the commenters on blogs, rather than bloggers who'd singled McEwan out. And poor McEwan to have such a perceptive critic as David Sexton on side, who, reviewing McEwan's books, "enjoyed and admired them all," kind of proving Sam's point.

It is, of course, this kind of unquestioning praise, that raises the McEwan haters' ire. Rare, it seems that you can appreciate McEwan's craft (as I do), but be baffled by the adulation for some of his weaker books. Perhaps, given a long enough career you'll create a few hardened positions on both sides, even as your audience grows book by book. Part of the dismay that some find in later McEwan may be because of his career trajectory, from dark, edgy short story writer to an elegant chronicler of (small c) conservative England. England is his subject, even when his books travel far and wide. Whereas the younger McEwan’s stories seem set in an entirely fictional milieu, a parallel world to the real seventies going on around him, his later books have found him at his best writing about a certain type of urbane England, past and present, which, on closer reflection, is where he came from. 

It is strange that a writer who is engaged with writing about the contemporary condition, as McEwan is, should be chastised, in part, for being true to himself. The later McEwan (perhaps since “Amsterdam”) is interested in a sub-class that few of us ever know or meet, yet it’s a class that in many ways does run the country – and we’re lucky, that in the absence of someone with Gore Vidal’s connections, McEwan has belatedly made it his subject. That his books still have the very readable mechanisms of love story, thriller or historical novel makes him that rarity, a literary writer who is widely read.

Looking back, the McEwan of the seventies and eighties wrote more interesting books, yet they are often na├»ve pieces of works, pushed along by a certain sense of impending doom. The protagonists of his early stories and novels are often unlucky ciphers, caught adrift in a world that they don’t quite understand, but through their actions have come to pass. This existential trepidation had its high point in the remarkable cold war thriller The Innocent. A piece of studied noir, to me, it was his most achieved work until Atonement.

Something changed with Enduring Love, in many ways a tour de force, but a book that shows too clearly McEwan’s faults as well as his achievements. It’s essentially a book about a marriage breakdown, hidden behind a psychological thriller that wouldn’t be too out of place in an episode of Cracker or the Fixer. There’s a real disdain in the novel for characters who are in any way coarse or ordinary. It is clear that McEwan's sympathies now lie with the educated, and occasionally, in Enduring Love, and to a greater extent in Saturday, it is this lack of sympathy for the characters from outside the professional classes which stands out so glaringly. Someone else once mentioned that despite taking place on the day of the London Stop the War march, none of McEwan's characters actually go on it. It's used as a backdrop only. Yet I don't think this is a failing, rather a failing of us to understand what McEwan is now doing. Go to David Peace if you want event reportage in your novels, for McEwan is now examining the psychological state of a particular class. 

Atonement, in many ways is key to this. A writer of great set pieces, you've sometimes seen the stitching together too easily, even a powerful work like Enduring Love, but with Atonement, the different sections are handled evenly. It's a construction, a fake, just as the stories that lie behind the novel are, and a reader could feel manipulated (you're meant to feel manipulated) by the novel's extended lie, it's slow reveal; yet it's this holding back that makes the novel work so well. We feel we know McEwan's characters, yet their flaws are held back, we need to grow an understanding of them. Like Iris Murdoch, with her intellectual menage a trois's, kind of romantic fiction with a PhD, the later McEwan novels seem to have "found a way" - his subject is becoming clearer, he is interested in the psychological stresses of his characters, faced with first the ordinary stresses of life, and then, ramping up the pressures (and nobody does invasion of space quite like McEwan), the extraordinary ones. I'd be surprised, now he's found this groove, if he doesn't stick with it for the remainder of his career. If there is some "class envy" about the well-to-do characters in these novels, then I'm not surprised. See them not as societal statements (as unfortunately some critics still do) but as psychological explorations and McEwan remains always worth reading. His novels are not without their faults, but it seems to me that a writer should receive a proper criticism for what he is, not for what he is not.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

What Makes a Good Poem?

I only ask. I've just received some poems back from the Rialto that I sent some time ago. I've had 3 poems in the Rialto over the years, though they've always been somewhat odd choices. These poems I sent were amongst my very best, so I thought. I'm pretty sure, when you write a bad poem, that you send things off more in hope than expectation, but when you write a good one, and they are rare, there's an element of greater concern when they get rejected: maybe I know nothing, maybe, this, which is the rare good one, the best I can do, in fact, is still pretty mediocre. I'm not a fan of mediocre poetry in my own work or anyone elses. When you "interrogate" even one of your good poems it tends to fall apart; so hard is the art. Though I think, over time, I'm quite a good judge of my own work, I haven't the luxury of everything (anything) I write being published. I wrote another "good" poem (in my terms) recently and I'm very pleased with it, but also scared... whatever is good in my criteria doesn't necessarily filter through. Already, good poem that it is, I know it's not perfect.. What to do? What to do?

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Reappraising Nabokov

Stephen Smith's brilliant Broomfield style documentary travelogue in search of the essence of Nabokov was an exemplary TV take on literature, despite its punning title, "How do you solve a problem like Lolita?" It's also full of surprises. The somewhat odd decision to refer to Nabokov, as NabOkov aside (that was how Nabokov said his own name, yet I've never heard anyone say it that way before), the footage of Nabokov himself was revelatory. I hadn't realise he spoke English with an English, not American accent, presumably from him having studied at Cambridge in the early 1920s. England left little impression on a travelling life that began as a rich and privileged Russian, saw him live in both Germany and America, and ended with 17 years living in a hotel in Switzerland. When I read "Lolita" in the mid-eighties, there wasn't the same notoriety as maybe there is these days, or rather, discussions about it were a little more adult. It's clearly, as Smith tries to prove, a moral tale, first and foremost. Interestingly, Martin Amis, an articulate Nabokovian, points out that it is not Lolita itself that is troublesome, but that Nabokov went back time and again to the story of an older man and a young girl, the subject almost obsessively revisited.

Yet, Nabokov the artist does seem to be a man of continual obsessions, whether through his writing or his butterfly collecting. Rightly, I think, the capture and pinning down of elusive beauty, which the butterfly collector does, is seen by Smith as pivotal to Nabokov's vision. He's referred to as a writer of contradictions; as if such a thing is in itself unusual. Writers, I think, are inevitably contradictory, at least the very best are. There is something contradictory in the very art of doing it: sitting in solitary confinement writing something that is then shared with the world. A man who was born in 1899, Nabokov, in this documentary, seems a clear internationalist, one who spanned the century, yet chose carefully his obsessions, his interests and his aesthetic. In a town house in St. Petersburg a few streets away from revolution happening, Nabakov wrote love poems instead of journalism. Such an aesthetic sensibility can sometimes be seen as the worst kind of dilettanteism, yet when the work is so lasting, it makes one consider again the utilitarianism of art. A utilitarian art has very little to recommend compared with something more rarified.

Stephen Smith's obsession with his quarry (and at one point an interviewee, the literary editor at Playboy, says "you are beginning to look like him") seems perfectly at one with the subject. Lolita, in my memory of the book, but also echoed in the Kubrick film version, seems both hymn to and elegy for American life. Lolita prefigures David Lynch's dark fables of what goes on behind the picket fence. A perfectly judged documentary, catch it whilst you can.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Absence of Literature

It's half way through the last month of the decade; the sun is shining, and I'm doing some late Autumn tidying, as I've been so busy since coming back to work in September - in that time I've been to Cyprus, Brussels, Strasbourg and London with work, and to Lancaster (three times) for my writing. There's only so many weekends etc. I've neglected writing and music in the interim, though fitted little bits of the first in here and there - though music has remained a little harder to find time to do. I've almost completed my new album "You want to know something?" but the majority of that was written and recorded in the first 6 months of the year.

I've also been "archiving" some of my old writing, which has been useful and instructive, but as I go back further (I'm at 2001), there seems little point just compiling a PDF of that time, there has to be a little revision, a little reflection along the way, otherwise its a mere exercise in filing. Perhaps this is a once only chance to fix any little problems etc. with things I wrote best part of a decade ago. I'm not a great one for wholesale revision; after all, I was a different person then.

And I do feel that I'm at the end of something, not just the year, or the decade. Perhaps the intensity of the project I've been working on for the last few years? But there's something else...something darker perhaps. My own "New Labour" years has been spent working almost entirely on short-medium term projects in the public sector. I've enjoyed some of the work, but been frustrated by many of the institutions. In Strasbourg the last few days I'm seeing a "grown up" country; France and Germany now know they didn't have to adopt the Anglo-American model, and are probably damn glad they didn't. If this part of France seemed a little bourgeois, a little too comfortable, then I'm not sure that it should be seen as a criticism. Bourgeois, like bureaucracy, is a French word. I sometimes feel that we in the UK aspire to both, but they are not meant to be aspirations but descriptions. Whatever one thinks of Europe and its institutions, it seems that there is a consensus, at least in the core European nations about national, regional and European institutions; policies may change but the institutions are set. In contrast with the UK, with our inadequate regional/local democracies, and our filling in the gap with politically expedient "councils", "boards" and "agencies", which have, over the last 30 years have all but followed the political will. A new government in the UK will almost certainly disagree not just over policies but institutions. It's treating UK PLC as a series of medium term projects.

So, after a decade (under Conservatism) working in large private sector organisations, and a decade (under New Labour), on public sector projects, I've pretty much gone where the opportunities were at the time, rather than having a "masterplan". I'm sure I'm not alone in that. We react to the world as it is, not how we want it to be.

I keep seeing the absence of literature everywhere; as an artistic parallel to times when we have institutional uncertainty, I think we also have cultural uncertainty. Britpop style rock and roll probably perished under the hands of Simon Cowell; so that the only consensual culture over the last decade: Harry Potter; Dan Brown; Big Brother, X-Factor, is one that I've been only tangentially interested in. That's fine, of course, and the margins are always the more interesting place to be. But its not just Amazon who says "if you bought this, you might be interested in Peter Kay/Jeremy Clarkson/Chris Moyles/Cheryl Cole" whenever you approach a mainstream choice - you get the sense that the "two cultures" I grew up with; not high and low, but mainstream and avant garde, hardly exist anymore; or rather the bellowing noise of the former makes it ever more difficult to create a space for the latter. Our small magazines, our experimental art, our poetry readings get diminished because of their status as "minority sports." Reading the "books of the year" in the Guardian, Sarah Crown, the poetry editor mentions the poetry news stories; the prizewinners; the large presses when surely the story of the year has been the emergence of a generation who don't take Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney, "Rattle Bag" and all, as there link with the past? Books by Tom Chivers, Matthew Welton, Chris McCabe, Daniel Kane and Luke Kennard strike me, along with initiatives such as The Other Room and Stop/Sharpening/Your/Knives as having severed any umbilical cord with the consensus poetry that spawned New and Next Generation poets? Maybe the individual poems or collections aren't yet quite "there", but the writers seem infinitely more interesting than that consensus.

Perhaps, decade end, as we come to terms with blogs, twitter etc. not as technological novelties, but part of the regular communication landscape, the end game for a certain complacency might be upon us. I've read/seen various pieces on the YBA phenomenon being played out; and perhaps its time not for a new art movement, but for another art to take up the cudgels. All the kids of punk parents don't grow up to be Lily Allen of course, but she seems a fundamentally more interesting pop star than the X-factor wannabes, (whose parents must surely have been buying Wham! records by the bucketload, if the preponderance of George Michael songs on these shows is anything to go by.)

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Interlude Reading

In between novels (reading, not writing), and not sure what I fancied next, knowing that I'm on planes and in hotels next week, I remembered the 2 short story stocking fillers I'd recently got from Nicholas Royle's handsome Nightjar press. A single story, in a handsome limited edition, for £3 each, they're lovely artefacts, and yet another example of how small and new publishers are trying new things. I enjoyed both stories, by Michael Marshall Smith and Tom Fletcher, and as you'd perhaps expect from serial anthologist and MMU lecturer Royle, they're squarely in the realm of modern gothic. As someone whose favourite book as a teenager was Harlan Ellison's remarkable "Shatterday" collection, I'm becoming convinced that the best contemporary British writing owes more to the Moorcock, Ellison, Blish and Ballard than to the more mainstream sixties and seventies fiction. Fletcher's The Safe Children is a condensed gem, beautifully poised, and both economical with detail - as only a short story can be - and with enough background to make you treasure every word. Smith's What Happens When You Wake Up in the Night is a great concept, and has a similar sense of existential dread, but perhaps doesn't quite nail the concept as well as some of his other stories. With a new story in the series due in the spring from the prolific Joel Lane, I'll look forward to these interludes, between more substantial reading.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

One day your prints will come

Seventy years of American printmaking are celebrated in "The American Scene", a British Museum touring exhibition which finishes at the Whitworth Gallery next weekend. Better late than never, I got around to seeing it on Friday. It's a fascinating alternate history both of American 20th century art, and American life during that period. I confess I know very little about printmaking - it sometimes seems a laborious process with debatable results, particularly in this day and age of mass reproduction, but there's also something inspiring about it, as whethers its a woodcut or a lithograph, there's both craft and art in the production and presentation. This exhibition makes you want to know much more of printmaking, because the end results are so uniformly excellent.

It acts as both history and art history because of the iconic nature of some of the images; many of which are familiar from depictions of 20th Century American life. It's primarily an exhibition of the urban, though not entirely, and the prints would have been distributed all across America. There's a visceral excitement of early 20th century pictures of illegal boxing bouts, or of overheated New Yorkers sleeping on their summer roofs, then there's a realism about ordinary life, that the more democratic form of the print made possible. As the century moves on the artistic as well as the documentary aspects of the prints become more important. I loved Hugo Gellert's "The Fifth Column", from 1943, its depiction of a rat and an American flag being almost "pop art" in its simplicity, and it was fascinating to see prints from artists like Pollock and Bourgeois who are usually known for other arts. The plates from the latter's "He disappeared into complete silence" with its surreal textual accompaniments were a particular joy. Text plays quite a part in the exhibition - including a Frank O'Hara collaboration - but so do the key art movements of the century.

Like "Angels of Anarchy" at the Manchester Art Gallery these are often small, delicate works, and it takes a while to see them properly under the protecting light. As an aside, I wonder if our remembered twentieth century, with its mass production, and its work appearing almost accidentally, in small galleries, or through limited editions, becomes harder to see because of this smallness? The religious art of the past was meant for the open space of the religious building; the public art of the late 20th century revelled in competing with the size and noise of modern life; "The American Scene" is a quieter documentation, but one that is no less revealing because of it.

Clocks Ticking

There are more clocks ticking at the moment than usual, even at this time of the year. Here goes the year, we say, or here goes the decade. With the UN Climate Change summit in Copenhagen next week, a much larger clock ticks. I've written elsewhere about Cormac McCarthy's "The Road" being the most talked about book of recent years,  but with the film about to come out, it will inevitably reach a wider audience. The catastrophe in that book is unnamed, Biblical in its intensity.I'd be an unusual green activist, I guess, in that I've always hated much about the eco movement, the hypocrisy on the one hand, (never a bad word said about the tobacco companies for instance), and the fervosity on the other (ethical abortions, optimum populations, animals are better than people etc.), but just as the early Christians met in secret and were accused of eating babies, perhaps such extremities are inevitable in any new ways of thinking. (And its the hippy generation with their Agas, 4-wheel drives, large houses and recyclable shopping bags who particularly annoy me - showing that the eco movement, over 40 years old, at least, has no excuse for novelty.) Yet, looking around at my life it has its greener tinges - I don't drive or own a house. Truth is I don't really want to do either; my life would be best served by living in a connected village, where I could grow my own food, have a compost heap, walk the (imaginary) dog, write my stuff, use the internet instead of having an office, trains for the longer journeys. So my scepticism about eco-activists is as nothing to my anger at politicians who continue to have such an unjoined up way of thinking. I don't think economic prosperity and green policies are incompatible; I do thinik rapacious capitalism (hello banks), the Apple business model (an iPod is for a year, not for life), cloud computing (all those server farms, all those Google searches, all those avatar lives), and a non-integrated transport system are incompatible.

As a writer I can't so much write about climate change science - leave that to the scientists - or even its effects (leave that to those who are either seeing it first hand, or being affected by it first hand - I want to hear the Bangladeshi poets, not the Ian McEwans on this one), but I can try and be speculative about how we are. My grandparents were farmers and nothing ever got thrown away. When my grandfather died in 1983 we emptied out the shed at the farm (truth is it wasn't a shed, but a vast reclaimed army nissan hut) and found the truth of that nothing being thrown away. My own parents hadn't much spare money, and you'll still find my childhood marbles in a plastic margarine container from about 1976; but not only that, as children we liked the recycled serendipity of things - whether it was following Blue Peter's instructions on making wombles from old toilet roll tubes (probably to be stopped today on health and safety grounds), or saving any spare food for next day's leftovers. I've a flat full of stuff that I've not thrown away, old ring binders, wires and connectors for music, cassette tapes and exercise books.

In other words, and I'm only speaking for Britain here, but our conspicuous consumption is a recent and localised thing - related to class and easy money, but also to lifestyle and how as society we have constructed our lives. The roads will remain gridlocked where that is the option necessary to fit in family life, work life, all the necessaries; the bins will be overflowing where we are just replacing our plastic bags with a recyclable one, and yet have a wrap of packaging around everything we buy (even the Saturday Guardian); our health services will be overstretched as we replace the local economy of the butcher and baker, with "all year round" vegetables and meat, bringing pre-packed food to the sedentary; and as someone who has travelled more with work this year than ever, where we design our political and economic systems to accomodate the magnetic pull of London.

The MPs expenses scandal was all part of this; the banking crisis as well; the sub-prime toxicity; but its little things as well - unimportant things - the Europa league, the mega sales of the latest Dan Brown,  the BBC on location for each and every weather broadcast, BOGOF offers in the supermarket...

...clocks ticking then; and it will be Bangladesh or the Phillipines who first see the hand approaching midnight. Britain has to do what it has so often in recent decades done, and done badly, change quick enough, to stop the rot setting in. Our political hubris is what is carciogenic, and what happens in Copenhagen, whatever we sign up to, will not matter a jot, unless we get the other bits right - a holistic approach to living in the contemporary world.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

The City and the City - China Mieville

I realised I'd not found time to blog about the last book I read, China Mieville's noir fantasia "The City and the City." If previous Mieville novels have been set in a an imaginative elsewhere, The City and the City is much closer to home. It's rather brilliant conceit is a city that is cleaved in two, but the border between Beszel and Ul Quoma is not in a particular geographic location, but something else. The complex geography of the two cities is, like Mieville's previous creations, one of his triumphs, a highly believable mean streets. By taking the conceit of the "divided city" and riding with it, he creates a remarkable sense of place and displacement. Of course, the two cities are brought together when a crime takes place, and the Beszel detective Tyador Borlu begins to investigate. The city is set in an Eastern Europe, in a recognisable world, though these strange cities are almost cut-off from the rest of the world. There is something in antiquity which led to this strange city, and it is policed at the margins by "breach", a shadowy police force that will punish quickly and unequivocally anyone who breaches either city's borders. As a metaphor for a fractured state its remarkable. Tyador is a recognisable archetype, the cop who ignores the advice of his superiors because he gets obsessed with the case. Yet it is the nature of that case which in the end weakens what is in other ways an excellent read. The murder investigation is a little hackneyed, the "mystery", as it unravels, nowhere near as interesting as the strange world in which it happens. At the start you think that the book is going to be darker, with the political forces of the two cities at the centre of it, but Mieville shies away a little from this, and in the end its primarily an otherworldy police procedural. This reader very much enjoyed the conceit, there are small pleasures on each page, but there are also longeurs, and Tyador aside the other characters lack defnition. The utter strangeness that I got when reading "Perdido Street Station" or some of his short stories, is less pronounced; Beszel could almost be the Baltimore badlands of The Wire, but in taking us away from out-and-out fantasy worlds, Mieville's moving towards a more radical reimagining, closer to Ballard and Ellison than the fantasy set.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Is the short story female?

This year's Short Story prize shortlist is an all female affair, which prompts the question "is the short story female?" I don't want to answer it particularly, but I have been struck that whether its a prize list, the new publications announcement from a small press, or even the much talked about new novel, let alone the cream of the blogging crop, the longstanding gender imbalance in favour of male writers seems, finally, to have tilted. Of course, gender is no symbol of quality or otherwise, but I do seem to have encountered quite a bit of art recently that could only be female. "Angels of Anarchy" at the Manchester Art Gallery I blogged about earlier, but yesterday, on blogger Katherine Woodfine's suggestion I went to the Whitechapel to see Sophie Calle's exhibition. The centrepiece exhibit is "Take Care of Yourself" where over a hundred females are asked to interpret a "Dear John" email that the artist had received following the end of the relationship. Highlights include a female shooter using it for target practice, and a female parrot tearing it apart with her beak. However its a textual work, and many of the responses are textual, analyses of the act. In a packed room, the constant repetition of this one small piece of personal history gets louder in the retelling. It would be impossible to take in all the responses, and as a result, what begins as a playful exploration becomes increasingly unnerving. The original letter from an unnamed man "X" can't really cope with the weight of the explication. This "going over" of why a relationship has ended is disconcerting, like an outtakes reel from a particularly intense episode "Sex and the City." I'm reminded of the approbation Robert Lowell received for incorporating personal letters in his later poetry - and this using of something real and personal, but depersonalising it, then amplifying it, creates a sense of discomfort. The exhibition is a retrospective, though this piece is recent, and this discomfort comes through in many of the other pieces. I think its a remarkable show, but I can't exactly say I liked it.

But going back to that original question - I think in an age where "feminism" doesn't speak with one voice, its fascinating to see a certain female colonising of spaces that were once seen as more male. The writers on the national short story prize shortlist are no more speaking with one voice than a group of male writers would - and Hilary Mantel won the Booker with a book about a very traditionally male subject - yet I do wonder whether what we are seeing, as no particular generation comes up to challenge the alpha male postures of Amis, Boyd et al, there's a gap in the market for a particular type of robust masculinity. I read and enjoy a lot of female authors, but the ones that I don't like tend to be the ones who are clearly not speaking to me. For instance, I can appreciate that Carole Ann Duffy is a good poet, but she's not for me. Her poetry seems directed elsewhere - not necessarily just to a female audience, but certainly, not at me personally. If a poet or story writer has an ideal reader, we have to sometimes be aware that it's not us. (I'd say the same for Salman Rushdie or Seamus Heaney, so its not just a gender thing.)

I can't find the link but there was an article in the paper last week that certain universities, I think Oxford and Manchester were mentioned, where there are now "male support groups" being set up to conquer a "crisis in masculinity." In typical newspaper fashion they asked the editor of Loaded magazine what he thought of it, and you can probably guess the rest. Yet, given that men are still routinely criticised for not being communicative enough or not sharing their feelings, perhaps we should applaud any thing that is not quite so either/or. The "X" of Sophie Calle's exhibition wrote a long, sometimes self-justifying, sometimes awkward letter - a communication that ended with the somewhat unfair request that she "take care of yourself" - the artistic response seems an amplification of "talking it over with your girl friends". At the same time Martin Amis has fanned a few flames (flames that weren't actually there, until he brought the subject up), around his new novel, where he blames feminism and the sixties for his sister's early death. These gender divides remain unhelpful, yet we play at erecting the barricades, "Sex and the City" to the left, football and beer to the right. Social media, Twitter and the iPhone seem to have, in a way that's been somewhat unheralded, broken down a few barriers between technology (that male obsession) and communicating (that female one), so the two are intertwined.

The short story, I'm sure, is neither one gender or another; yet there remains a challenge for publishers - and writers - in that male readers, that small, vanishing group, tend not to read books by female authors. Partly its marketing (just look at the typography on Kate Atkinson's back catalogue, for instance, or Salt's "for mothers and lovers bundle"), but it might also be about intention. J.K. Rowling chose to go by her initials to encourage male readers of her boy wizard books; I'm sure "Wolf Hall" will break out of the book groups to male readers. (After all there's a wolf in the title.)

Saturday, November 28, 2009

"To fling his soul upon the growing gloom."

It's a wintry morning, after a cold night. There were specs of snow seen in Manchester, the sudden drop in temperature bringing with it a certain gloom. A friend on twitter sees a song thrush in the garden, and you realise it's exactly the kind of day that had Thomas Hardy thinking of "every spirit upon earth/seemed fervourless as I" until he heard the darkling thrush that had "chosen thus to fling his soul upon the growing gloom."

Travelling south I've been feeling a little Hardyesque myself this morning, the darkness of the daytime sky not helping my mood. I'm tired, I think, as the year draws in, yet haven't time for a rest - not a proper one anyway, with a full calendar, work, social, and work-social. I've been cramming in experience as well, and it tends to frazzle one's innocence sometimes. Amongst the books I found in Morecambe and Lancaster last week was one by Andre Malraux where he writes about "museums without walls" - which seemed so appropriate to the discussion at "The Art of With" at the Cornerhouse on Wednesday that one is amazed by the serendipity. Malraux, writing after the second world war, talks about our galleries and museums as a recent ordering of things. As an active participant in the French resistance he had more reason than most to think about these institutions as signs of our "civilisation", but also, to question a little, the patterns that are made from art without purpose other than to be shown, collected and preserved. At the Art of With, following up his thoughtful essay on curators as gatekeepers, Michael Connor spoke about the idea of curation from a non-collecting perspective; yet the art gallery as "keeper" of our cultural flame has another role, which is not only to preserve, but to commission, to show, to purchase, to collect, to value - and perhaps, finally to "judge", not in the present, but for the future.

What is it that we keep? What is it that we discard? And what's our reasoning behind each? The BBC famously wiped old Dr. Whos and Top of the Pops yet kept endless news broadcasts. Perhaps it was right - maybe as this archive becomes available on line we can see some new narratives emerging from a history that can be revisited as it was perceived at the time. The "lost music" or "lost performance" sometimes seems almost tangible. Yet, without the Man from Porlock, perhaps Coleridge's "Kubla Khan" would have ended not as a fragment but as an overwrought, overlong epic? The accident of history that somehow preserved Beowulf seems almost magical, like something from Borges, a document that is only partially there, its history obscure, a tantalising teaser of all the lost epics that we haven't found.

Back to Connor's essay, he made an interesting contrast between Clay Shirky's book "Here comes everybody" which hardly mentions art, and the Whitechapel's recent Manual for a 21st Century Arts Institution  - which rarely mentions the web. I'm struck by this. for its clear that the arts, at present, through events like Art of With, is wanting to bring in "thinkers" from other spheres like Shirky, like Charles Leadbetter, like Malcolm Gladwell, like Andrew Keen. Yet is this in itself a crisis of definition - where the discourse has to be filtered not just through other thinkers, but in a language which seems mutually exclusive? Its like the arts hasn't begun to have a language around which it can sensibly talk about the future - yet its deeply felt thoughts on praxis, on aesthetics, could surely colour the somewhat drab debating points of the flash 21st century thinkers? Perhaps its not Malraux and Walter Benjamin who we should be in dialogue with, but linguistic thinkers such as Levi-Strauss and Pierre Bordieu? "Here Comes Everybody" as I'm not sure everybody realises, is from Joyce's "Finnegan's Wake", of course.

These thoughts of curation, collecting, saving, preserving, came to mind again on Thursday at the two excellent exhibitions I visited in Manchester. "Homegrown" at URBIS is a celebration of 30 years of UK Hip Hop. I realised, looking at the earliest exhibits that I was there near the beginning of UK Hip Hop, listening to my Streetsounds Crucial Electro albums, and obscure b-boy tracks heard late at night on John Peel. "Buffalo Gals" and "The Message" were like bombs sent from the future. That the few UK tracks at that time couldn't really find a way round the American slang language of hip hop, meant that it perhaps never had the same success as house music, another black American form, remember, which, being primarily instrumental, didn't cause the same tongue-twisting trouble for home counties homeboys. UK Hip Hop in many ways doesn't seem to be particular genre in itself, but some kind of wire looping back and forth across the Atlantic - and then further afield - and twisting itself around techno, house, triphop, drum 'n' bass, dubstep and grime - all of which, in one way or another owed a debt to hip hop culture. Walking round the gallery, shards of half remembered electro and rap interrupted one's flow, like some cultural hip hop jam.

Another cultural jam, melange, medley or melting pot, was there to be seen on the other side of the side in the hallowed halls of Manchester Art Gallery. "Angels of Anarchy", a look at 3 generations of female surrealists is a superb exhibition in every way but one; it showed art that I had never seen before, much of it good, some of it excellent; it was a long overdue retelling of a familiar story - surrealism through its women artists; and as a piece of art history/art research it was exemplary. I felt the space somehow didn't work that well - perhaps the small, delicate nature of many of the artworks became a little overawed in such a large hall. I wanted, I think some of the fun of surrealism recreated in the gallery space. The pictures of Dali at the International Surrealist exhibition in London in 1937, in a diving suit that almost suffocated him, had the playfulness that surrealism always seemed to have to me. Like Fluxus or situationism, a formal historical "walk through" seems a little wrong. It was only a shame I'd missed some of the events - talks, and films - that accompanied the exhibition.

Why did I like the "Angels of Anarchy" so much? Perhaps the same as with "Homegrown", it felt like it meant something to me. The reason there were so many surrealist women painters, even as the males remained as patriarchal as ever about it, was surely because the favoured subjects of surrealism; re-imagined still lifes, self-portraits; dream and fantasy; were subjects that hadn't been totally owned by male artists. By allowing art to be about domestic objects turned unreal, or about fantasy or dreams, surrealism allowed people to talk about things that in another context would be seen as negative, "hysterical" objects rather than art objects. One thing I noticed, which didn't seem to get a mention in the exhibition, was the strong use of colour in the paintings and particularly the exhibits. 20th century art sometimes seems a battle in extremis to control both form and colour; "Angels of Anarchy" revelled in both.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

novel-nausea AND essay-ennui

Writing in the Guardian Zadie Smith speaks of her own novel-nausea, a recognisable imaginative writers block, in response to a polemic that has just come out in America asking that novels should be more full of the "real" and less of the made-up. A novelist who has been having a sabbatical reading other peoples' novels, and writing essays about them, Smith, as so often in her non-fiction is easy to both agree and disagree with. (A fine essayist, she's not one for inclusive conclusions.) As someone who has most recently had published three essays, two that are kind-of memoirs in Mostly Truthful, and one, an essay about the contemporary novelist's choices, in Horizon Review, perhaps I'm sharing some of that novel-nausea.

Yet it's actually an argument like this, as Smith indicates, which sends you back to the wonders (and truths) of imaginative fictions. Rather, she says, than a good novel being a predictable thing, it always surprises us, in a way that good non-fiction rarely does. But it is the word "good" that matters here, of course. Bad novels are everything that can give you novel-nausea. What she doesn't mention - and I'm not sure if the source book by David Shields (that will be the well known David Shields then?) mentions either - is the role of "style"; for it is surely style as much as plot or character that gives a fictional or imaginative work its enviable strangeness. David Foster Wallace, who, like Smith, I have alot of time for, writes memorably strange fiction and non-fiction; the latter, using the toolkit of the novelist, of the imaginist. In America the long essay flourishes in magazines, and, to a lesser degree, here as well, in "Prospect" and (most recently) Manchester's "Corridor8." These essays have made stars of Malcolm Gladwell, John Gray and other thinkers (or re-thinkers, I know their ideas are not uniquely theirs). In a world that craves certainty and explanation; yet at the same time asks for celebrity and opinion; the essayist probably has a stronger foothold than at any time since Matthew Arnold. Reading, as I did on my degree, his "Everlasting Yeah", or Ruskin or Mills, I couldn't help but think how much more fun it was to read George Eliot's fiction, hewn from the same raw materials, but fed through the intimately real characters of Dorothea Brooke or Daniel Deronda. It is Orwell's last 2 novel-polemics we read now, rather than "Under the Whale".

For the essay has its own achilles heel, its lack of imagination. Whereas the novel can smuggle in any kind of truth - even if the more it takes on journalism or the moral essay, the less successful it usually is - the essay can only use the tricks of the novelist, not the imaginative heft. Smith's listing of "perhaps 10 great novels a decade" seems about right, but that's her ten great novels, mine would be different, as would be yours; and it is their strangeness and their messiness that makes them great. For instance, the flaws that an unsympathetic reader might find in Barbara Kingsolver's highly politically charged tale of western malpractice in the Congo, "The Poisonwood Bible", are as nothing to it's many wonders.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Secondhand Book Shortage in Morecambe and Lancaster!

there may well be a secondhand book shortage in Morecambe and Lancaster after my visit yesterday. Here was my impressive haul...

Lovely afternoon in Morecambe though it's still quite rundown, as this picture of fondly-remembered Frontierland shows.

Enjoyed the Art Deco grandeur of the Midland Hotel, overlooking the bay from the bar area,

...and here's another picture taken a little earlier in the afternoon.

The Art has Left the Building

When Urbis was designed and built, following the 1996 IRA bomb which ripped the heart out of the city, it was as part of a new visioning of that part of the city. Public space was transformed, with that part of the city, ravaged by sixties town planners and soulless shopping centres, opened out again so that the great buildings of Chethams, the Corn Exchange and the Cathedral became integrated back into the heart of the city. Urbis, an ultra-modern design, became a key part of that transformation, refusing the easy lure of heritage, in favour of something that in shape and style could be an architectural icon for Manchester. Alongside the Hilton, the Lowry and Imperial War Museum North, it added a highly recognisable piece of architecture to the city.

The planners and the city leaders who led on this, were rightly lauded for their vision - after that 1996 disaster. Good architecture in a city context is not an easy thing to do, and their are plenty of examples around UK that prove that. Lottery and other funding made this easier, of course, but it is the "vision" that was important. Yet, inside Urbis, there was none of that same vision. A half-baked collection of unconsidered interactive exhibits; a pristine, and soulless corporate vision of a city, less ambitious and engaging than a 3D Ladybird book of the city would have been. Those same visionaries, had no vision for the space, or what it should be. I went round (paid a fiver, as it was in those days), with my friend from Liverpool, and said "this is stupid, it's not about urban life at all, it should be an art gallery..." I'd been to a wonderfully bustling exhibition about Hong Kong city life at the Hayward a year before, and seen how it could and should be done.

Amazingly, over the last few years, Urbis has looked outward, and through a series of temporary exhibitions that reflected and contributed to the urban experience that is everywhere around in Manchester, a vision emerged - one that was not so dissimilar to what I'd seen at the Hayward a bit earlier, the idea of an art gallery as a dynamic, fast-paced experience. The excitement of the iconic building, reflected in a throbbing, exciting interior.

There was no vision at the beginning for what Urbis was all about, other than a piece of a regneration jigsaw, a plastic square on a Mancunian Monopoly board. Job done, the planners moved on, and presumably, the city pretty much forgot about Urbis, and, clearly, let artists and curators get on with the job of making it a key component of Manchester's official city vision, original and modern.

The art has not quite left the building, but is about to. The decision to move the National Football Museum from Preston to Manchester makes sense only in the sense of "numbers" - yes, it will get more people through the door in Manchester than Preston, but see what has been lost? The art, and with it, any vision of Manchester as taking cultural seriously. For though we have our high culture citadels (the Bridgwater, the Lowry, the Royal Exchange, Manchester Art Gallery), and our low culture ones (M.E.N, Eastlands, Old Trafford), neither are really creations of our age. I didn't and don't expect our current bureaucracies to have the power and vision of the Victorians, but I do expect them to create a space where those who might have a vision could make it happen. In retrospect, Urbis's empty interior was something that nobody thought about until the cost of running it, year in, year out, became clear. A museum, worse, a museum of football, is nostalgia run riot. No more chances for Mancunians to laugh at Liverpool's Beatles obsession, when we choose the past ahead of the future. Buildings are often no more than Rachel Whiteread's concrete filled interior spaces imply they are, "holders" without particular meaning. Churches become pubs and old mills become apartment blocks.

For art, it won't make much difference, for the art can still happen outside of the agreed spaces, unofficially, like the now-venerated Tony Wilson once did with Factory Records and the Hacienda. But imagine what might have been. If the city had set up Urbis with a Charter or a vision, to be a new kind of "institute of contemporary arts" for the 21st century. Take your children to that, make it a place for vibrant thought, discussion, and creativity. Let the mediated experience become the unmediated future.

So, in a political climate where the money for both football museum and art gallery comes from a department that manages to mix "culture, media and sport" in a single acronym, I only wonder what's next for the city? We talk about echoing the Victorians, by wanting the Palace to become an Opera House. Well it's only an echo. This too is nostalgia, high brow thought it might be. Then again, Charlotte House opposite the Central Library is now empty, the Odeon remains closed; the BBC building will have to find a new usage. If we're willing to give Urbis away to the most prosaic idea that comes to town, then let's forget about vision. Turn all of these into shopping centres; northern Trocadero's; outposts of Arndales; or, let's make them into a museum is applicable to the age, welcome to the Oxford Road Museum of Reality Television, welcome to the Truman Show.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Decade Talk

The Times' list of best hundred books of the decade, is a journalists' list, a news list. There's quality in there; Cormac McCarthy's "The Road" is the number one choice, but there's also the books that defined the decade, hang the quality; Harry Potter and the Da Vinci Code amongst them. When the Guardian does this sort of thing they tend to do a better presentation job of it (you'll have to crawl through 17 pages of the Times unhelpful website to get to the number one).What's most noticeable is the amount of non-fiction, from "No Logo" to the report on 9/11 that make the list. Books about globalisation, terror and financial meltdown seem to define the decade in some ways. We have problems with nomenclature during the first 20 years of the century. The "noughties" will do as a joke. In talking about the 20th century we use our Kings as markers, houses are Edwardian or Georgian; but with a long-lived monarch where do we go? Whereas the years up to 1914 can seem now as "prelude to war" we can't predict any futures, so this decade surely begins, really, psychologically, with the "twin towers", even if, as a number of documentaries, and writers like Robert Fisk have indicated, this may well have been the end-act of a certain kind of appeased terror. After 9/11 the west was not going to remain non-interventionist, at least where its interests were at stake - and as globalisation shows, those interests are intertwined, and everywhere. But back to that list; the Booker prize winners have already been winnowed away, only Martel, Hollinghurst and (bizarrely) Adiga, by my reckoning, making the cut, though a number of short and long list titles are included. A list that finds room for competent but unremarkable books like "The Powerbook", "The Accidental" and "Fingersmith", makes one wonder if Virago's champions are alive and well and writing for the Times; whilst the choice of non-fiction from Hilary Mantel and Margaret Atwood seems a little perverse. There's little left-field fiction in the the list; no Magnus Mills (2001's "Three to see the king"), no Will Self ("The Book of Dave"), and little American writing, (no "Netherland" and no "This Book Can Save Your Life"); and the poetry selection is safe and uninvolving. (I would have Bolano's "The Romantic Dogs", translated by Laura Healy). All lists are arbitrary of course, but what's interesting is that the previous week's list of the decades top 100 films, shows the "noughties", if not quite a golden decade, to be at far more worth celebrating than you might have imagined; the high number of non British-American films, being a sign of where the quality lay - though the top 10, with 8 out of 10 being British or American seems absurd. I imagine their top 100 albums of the decade will be an absolute hoot however.

Saturday, November 14, 2009


I had a helluva week. Theatre in Oldham last Thursday, the youth play "Heaven Spot" developed by Oldham Coliseum; music at the academy on Saturday, a sold out Yo La Tengo; and literature on Monday, Elizabeth Baines reading in Chorlton at the Book Festival. Knuckling down since then, working hard, cold nights, a certain waiting-for-the-weekend angst. Now its here, and I need to slow down, and then speed up. Ideas flashed by me all week, are those stories? or concepts? or am I too unobservant to see? I spent a while working through the back catalogue on Monday, getting back as far as 2002, in my writing, (a year when I seemed to write primarily about the internet and paranoia), and listened to a cassette I'd recorded as long ago as 1985, putting it on a second time as I struggled to recognise who it was that I was then.

I seem swamped in memories at the moment, echoing in my dreams alongside more troublesome thoughts. I'm thinking of myself as a little boy again, the age of innocence, and it's hard to do that without a certain pain. You remember the awkwardness rather than the innocence, I Think. I don't think I could write about my childhood - isn't it too generic? Yet I can smell the classroom, and there's something ineffably modern about my life, even as far back as 1972, a five year old in a hospital being saved by "modern medicine." Images of the hospital ward as I convalesced are some of my earliest memories. I didn't want to get out of the dream anaesthesia state; I remember a white hotel room surrounded by cards, and as I recovered, the squirrels - my totems - on the hospital lawns coming up to the window.

Memories are almost like the impressions left over from the stamp of life, they are inert, and unchangeable, but you can, like an archivist, find something more, go deeper into the canvas, go "oh, yes, that was why." Watching a drama of Margaret Thatcher's last days in power on the television it treats it - perhaps as it should - as a Shakespearean political drama - yet the life outside the commons, led by that disastrous administration, is absent. We only see the Conservative party as a comic creation, more Dickensian than Shakespearean. 1990 I was unhappy in my first job, or was I, at that stage, at least happy in it? I'd just bought a house, moved in, set up home, cut the lawn, filled the fridge. The unhappiness grew over the next couple of years; no political responsibility for that, I guess. There's a photograph somewhere of me at the Labour party winning party during that year's local elections. Thatcherism had no answers to the questions that it raised. Scorch earth policy, and the north has not yet quite recovered; yet they talk of this recession as the "longest" or the "deepest" - it doesn't feel anywhere near as disastrous? The social contract has held; but for how long? Next year we will see.

I half feel I should start another blog for my thoughts on politics, technology and the like; yet I distrust the truthfulness of commentary; of think tanks. I still have the higher respect for the truth that fiction can articulate. I need to have a read through the Times' "Best hundred books" of this underwhelming decade, to see if we are still managing it.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

"We are a corrupt people involved in a collective lie"

I take the title from a recent blog post by the Guardian arts critic Jonathan Jones. What he actually says is "We are a corrupt people, apparently, involved in a collective lie." I'm interested in that "apparently" surrounded on each side by a comma. It's a brilliant line, and I'll come back to it's meaning in a little while, but first that "apparently." Does he mean "we are a corrupt people apparently" or that we are "apparently involved in a collective lie" or both? It's important. The sentence, I feel should read, "Apparently, we are a corrupt people involved in a collective lie", since he's using the phrase with some irony. It would not work otherwise - for he is not talking about our politics, or our ethics, but about our art.

There's comedy in the phrase, and it's asking the unaskable question. If, (to remember Pangloss in "Candide") we are living in the best of all possible times (for art) then how come the art isn't greater than it is? And though Jones is talking about the UK contemporary art scene he could, one extrapolates, be talking of art in this country (or this English-speaking culture, to be more accurate) in its entirety. It was a question I began to ask at the recent AND Festival in Liverpool: I was intrigued by this idea of a new art that sits between cinema-digital technology-games and visual art; but does it actually exist? More importantly, is it any good? I can well believe that we are living in a golden age for technology, but does this translate to art?

To go back to Jones, it's clear that contemporary art, in the echoing chamber of the Tate Modern's Turbine Hall, and in the slipstream of the YBA's, Sensation, and the Frieze fare, does exist as a phenomenal commercial success, but as an artistic success? Those agent provocateurs, Hirst and Emin, seem increasingly likely to be remembered for their historical rather than artistic role; whilst the artists that I rated highest, Gillian Wearing, Rachel Whiteread, and Anthony Gormley, are at interesting points in their careers, their best works already iconic, and part of the language, and a question remaining over whether what they do next can extend their reputations, or risk cliche.

Yet, outside of the gallery, there are few art forms that have had a renaisance over the last 20 years. Theatre's new trick, first showcased in David Hare's "The Permanent Way", - the documentary drama - seems to show that television has taken over the theatre in more ways than one; whilst it would be a brave critic who argued that the latt decade in pop music or film was up there with the highlights of the past. A cliche it maybe to laud its achievement, but the American TV drama of the The Wire, The West Wing, 24 and the Sopranos, may well be the leading cultural achievement of the last dozen years - that and reality TV, which at least has the benefit of not aspiring to high art.

For literature a close reading of the prize shortlists, whether for poetry or the novel, indicates that there has been no presiding spirit or leading group of writers; that Martin Amis and Ian McEwan and Julian Barnes remain the big hitters of fiction, and poetry hasn't had a new "star" for 20 years or more, yet literature like art, remains in a constant state of cheerleading. There have been some good books over the last decade or so, even if by long-established authors, yet it's clear that the new century, a decade in has not seen a narrative or lyrical surge to match our technological advancement. You won't read this anywhere in the critical infrastructure, which speaks of each Booker shortlist as "a very good one", or our annual poetry crop as "a very good year for poetry". The hundreds, now thousands, like myself, who've been through the creative writing courses; the every-town-has-one literary festivals; none of this seems to have created, as yet, a new golden age for literature. In fact, what seems most apparent, is the intolerance shown to voices that are not firmly in the mainstream, or writing with the values and aims of the commercial fiction writer. Here as elsewhere one can only ask. Are we a corrupt people involved in a collective lie? Apparently.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Manchester's Literary Renaissance

I couldn't help smiling at this posting in the Guardian about Manchester's Literary Renaissance, if only because of its somewhat haphazard nature. The Manchester literary scene ebbs and flows over the years, with magazines, readings, writers falling in and out of the city as life and literature changes for all of them. At this point in time, there's certainly a critical mass of writers based in Manchester, with courses at all 4 Greater Manchester Universities (Manchester, MMU, Salford and Bolton), and rarely a week goes by without a reading night.

Yet the city remains a little stubbornly unliterary in some ways. Though the critical mass of writers will no doubt look locally on occasion for their subject matter, it is usually its underbelly that makes it into fictions such as those by Joe Stretch and Chris Killen. Though for every Cracker, there's always a Cold Feet, and Didsbury suburbs feature in the work of a number of Manchester writers.

The Manchester Fiction Prize was won by an established writer with few connections with the city, Toby Litt, whilst Carole Ann Duffy's poetry, though it sometimes references the city, is anything but Mancunian, if that means anything. Even our most famous literary son, Anthony Burgess, only really wrote about the city in his memoirs, though he had enough of a chip on his shoulder to state that "the novelist is Mancunian."

Many of those writers linked with the city, involved in the city, myself included, are emigres, and I still rarely see the city that I know, usually love, and occasionally despair of, depicted realistically - or even with the definition that you find in the songs of Mark E. Smith and Morrissey, or in great TV like Cracker and Queer as Folk. The great Mancunian novel remains stubbornly unwritten - and it is Gwendoline Riley's slim vignettes (not mentioned in the article), "Cold Water" and "Sick Notes" that would be key texts in any "writing about Manchester."

Jerome De Groot, who writes the article, is based at the University, and on the board of the festival, so its nice that he balances the institutions with the literary underground, and good to see Jeff Noon's Manc classic "Vurt" remembered in despatches. For me, writing in the city since 1995, its only recently that I feel that I have enough perspective to write substantially about the city.

My own favourite story is of Borges, visiting England with his mother, having won the inaugural International Publishers Prize in 1961 visiting Manchester to pay homage to De Quincey. I like to think Borges sprinkled a bit of his magic in the waters of the Irwell, and we occasionally catch a glimpse in the Mancunian rain.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Four Different Styles

A week ago I was on my way to Lancaster for the launch of the "Mostly Truthful" anthology. I've been so busy since that I find it hard to remember it's just been 7 days - and I've not had time to blog about it.

The four readers appeared in the same order as in the anthology, and we read most of our contributions in the hour session. It was fascinating hearing Kate Feld's take on Manchester, her being an American transplant to the North West gave her a different view of the city. Her second piece, which talks about how she now has an "imagined" English childhood overlaying the reality of her own was a reminder of how our memories of growing up are both unique, but also generic. I read from both of my pieces in the anthology, before giving way to Katherine Woodfine whose "journey" (the nebulous theme of all our work) was a cross London one. Finally Jane Routh read about different kinds of "journey", the passage of the rural year, in two pieces from a monthly diary she's been keeping.

What interested me, and interests me always, about an unexpected grouping of writers such as this, is how there were four very different styles, and more than that, four very different sensibilities. I've sometimes read anthologies or collections where there seems little to distinguish the styles of a particular group of poets or writers, and I guess commercial fiction works on that premise - yet it's the one thing that a writer can bring to the table that is entirely their own. I don't think that any of the four of us had much in common in terms of either our style, sensibility or even life experience, but what we did have was points of intersection - across all of these - which is, at the end of the day, what connects us. Literature, language, speech - these common understandings, for both us and the audience, are intersection enough.

We arrived at the same time, and left separately; Lancaster overcast and wet. I came away thinking of a realm of possibilities, and pleased for the opportunity.

Friday, October 30, 2009

The Old Gang

The first of MMU's Autumn season events on the set of Stargate aka the Geoffrey Manton Building, saw the launch of two Carcanet poets' new collections. Matt Welton's new book has a title that comes in at 101 words, which, considering I once published a poem called "Mad Children with Tongues as Long as a Splinter were Licking the Creosote off Fences in Search of Unnatural Highs" I can only applaud. However it will forever be abbreviated to "We Needed Coffee but..." In what was a genuinely jolly evening, one particular joke was led by MUP's Matthew Frost, introducing Welton, who had promised to memorise the name of the book, and then dead panned, "I have done, The Book of Matthew", referring to his first collection.

I step ahead of myself though. Jeremy Over began the proceedings, with a slightly tentative reading of poems from his sophomore collection Deceiving Wild Creatures. Reading from a mix of "found" poems and poetry that in his explanations at least, was embedded in a certain sense of obscure English eccentricity, I have to admit that I was intrigued more than engaged. Each poem had a deep love of the sound of words, but also seemed a little jerky, the frequent use of the "etc. etc." and the poems ending somewhat suddenly, or with a final line or two hanging there, deliberately jutting out. These poems seemed more suited to page, and the repeated readings that would allow the reader to gain entry into their particular quirks. There were jokes, and smut, there as well, but as I discussed with a friend afterwards, it was a little Radio 4. The book itself though, from a first dip in, will deserve far deeper engagement, particularly in its use of a curiousity of language. The last poem he read, a prose poem, nodded heavily towards Ashbery's "The Instruction Manual," though, curiously, given he's a Carcanet poet, he only mentioned English models, such as John Clare.

Welton is a difficult poet only in the sense it is uncertain what he will do next in performance. Renowned for reading without notes, he also isn't afraid - particularly in poems such as these which were primarily written in collaboration, sometimes with artists, sometimes with musicians - of a genuine performance. Using a small sampler/loop player, and with lines from the poem, "Dr. Suss" on the Powerpoint backdrop, he began building this long poem layer by layer, so that a chorus gradually built up word by word, to which he overlaid variation after variation, finally becoming a cacophony of voices. It was a virtuoso performance that you feel will be different each time he attempts it. Clearly having a good time, in front of a large crowd, he gave us a number of other poems from the collection that are primarily textual experiments. A difficult second book, some time after his debut, "We needed coffee but..." looks an interesting, if sometimes daunting read.

Two poets then, who seemed to me to have only a little in common, but who both offer a reinterpretation of what it is to be a contemporary poet, both in terms of performance and the poetry itself. Over's experiments are not immediately successful in the live setting, but on a first look at the book, I think they'll be worth the exploration; whilst Matt remains one of our most individual of talents. Neither offered much concession to venue, city or audience - which in itself is pleasing - as the large audience was hopefully challenged a little. Certainly its a good start to MMU's autumn season. Bumping into John McAuliffe from the other University, he reminded me that their reading season starts a week on Monday as well. Manchester blog awards shortlisted blogger Matt Dalby, (is 3 Matt's a record?), who sat next to me, writes about the night here.

With so many familiar faces in the audience, some of whom I used to see going back to those old Waterstones readings when Welton was the store's poetry buyer, it was inevitable that we'd end up in the bar. On an unseasonally warm night, we sat outside Kro 2, the night already enlivened by the intellectual pump-priming of the early evening poetry. Manchester seemed buzzing with possibility. I mentioned the second "Art of With" debate at the Cornerhouse, which takes place on November 25th with a focus on "artists and curators." Room for a poet or two, I think. My own "a writers guide to social media" on 18th November at the Chorlton Book Festival, should also be another opportunity to meet up.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Oldest Debate

It is one of the oldest debates in literature - between poetry and prose. Once there was only the former. Whether it was blank verse or rhymed, creative work was always poetry. Prose was used for the utilitarian. Fiction writers generally never worry about this. The rise of the novel in the 19th century usurped many of poetries functions leaving it with a rump that could only be done by poetry. The poet as mystic continued as a bit of a perk of an otherwise daunting job. Yet the late 19th century saw poetry written every bit as prosaic as the worst novel, which in turn led Pound to call for the break of the pentameter.

The debate's been resurrected in a lively way by poet Katy Evans-Bush, on her blog. Poets worry endlessly about this, yet I'm not sure that the reading public is that concerned, 75 years after William Carlos Williams' "This is not to say", about it being just "chopped up prose." Read recent books by Matthew Welton and Luke Kennard for instance, and these are poetry collections full of words, many of them in paragraphs. Some poetic sensibilities, like F. Scott Fitzgerald, were useless poets, others, like Borges, are most remembered for their fiction. As I said, its only poets who seem to worry about this debate. There's plenty of contemporary (and non-contemporary) poetry that can be paraphrased as easily as prose (one of the responses to Katy wonders whether inability to be paraphrased makes something a poem.) I do think, as I responded in that post, that we're using the wrong words. Poets use poetry and poem to mean pretty much the same things. Nobody says "I'm going to read some prose", whether its a blog, a literary review, a story or a novel. Funnily enough, it seems that poets are the verbose ones on the blogosphere. Novelists, presumably, have to save their words for their long novels.

Interestingly, another highly stylised novelist, Philip Roth, wonders whether the serious novel will go the way of poetry in the age of the internet and the short attention span. Now we know, Roth's late masterpieces are coming at such a rate, not because he desires immortality, but because he's afraid there will no longer be an audience in ten or twenty years. Admittedly, reports the Guardian, he made these remarks to an online editor. Perhaps he'd find it amusing the handwringing in the world of journalism about the future of newspapers, and whether or not they can save in an online world, either behind paywalls or through advertising. The calm proposition of the novel seems a safer bet to be honest - though Roth may be right; his type of novel requires a sitting down from the reader, a deep immersion, that I hear English undergraduates on the bus down Wilmslow Road baulking at. ("I had to read all the books, and they were so long," spoken incredulously.) Gone it seems are the days when I didn't get out of bed for two days risking deep vein thrombosis to complete Fielding's "Tom Jones" in two mammoth bed-ins.

Again, there's a nugget of truth here. I can see the modern literary novelist becoming as acquired a taste as the contemporary poet. Martin Amis's great story, Career Move, where sonneteers are big in Hollywood, and screenplay writers publish only in little magazines, turned somewhat real. Perhaps that's already happened. Ironically, poets, whether good or reluctant performers, at least have a product that stands out in the live arena, whilst there remains nothing quite as annoying for the listener - and probably the writer - than a few pages of a novel in progress, pleasure deferred. The poet gets writers block in a different way than the novelist of course - the poets gets it daily, every single time they start a poem, for poems are like patches of water in a scarce desert, whereas a novel is the Ganges, that suddenly goes dry at a distant tributary, or during a dry season.

I've often looked aghast at the creative writing industry and wondered how come we're able to churn out 2000 writers a year, and not, at the same time, 2000 readers? Surely the rise in University places should have been a good thing for serious writers? Yet English whithers on the vine in many universities, literature being replaced by language in the syllabus. I wonder, is there still a book that goes round a college like a virus, word of mouth, claustrophobia of the corridors, simply a book for the right time and place? You'll be hard pressed to find a graduate from 85-88, without some Kundera on their shelves for instance, whatever their discipline. Or are the medics, lawyers and accountants of the future cauterizing their wounds, applying their torts and auditing their figures with the intellectual backdrop of the World According to Chris Moyles or The Lost Symbol?

Saturday, October 24, 2009

The Crash

It's 80 years since the Wall Street Crash and, because of our recent travails, Newsnight and Newsnight Review ran a programme on it last night. Worth catching on the iPlayer. Newsnight Review asked the question about how art would respond to the credit crunch. After all, from books like "The Grapes of Wrath", to songs like "Buddy, can you spare a dime?" the crash of 1929 went into artistic as well as economic history. The panel was heavily American-focused, and concentrated a little too much on a film few have yet seen, Michael Moore's "Capitalism: a Love story."

What annoyed me about the programme was the assumption that this credit crunch is inevitably a subject for an author or film maker to grapple with. Perhaps the example of 9/11, whose spectre has inhabited the insides of lots of bad novels (and a few decent ones), this decade has made the world expect the instant rebuttal system of a political party, rather than the measured reflection of a writer. But there's something else...I've yet to see the consequences of this recession in the way that the recessions of the eighties still burn into my mind. Rather, I'm still seeing the consequences of the "boom", the ridiculous house prices, the unsuitable inner city apartments, the valuing of economic growth above all other values, the targets culture of the public sector. And, guess what? I've been writing about these pretty much constantly for the last ten years. Not that you'd know this - as getting a London-based publisher interested in anything with an anti-capitalist hue to it has been almost impossible. Newsnight interviewed some improbably named chick litter, drinking cocktails on a manhattan balcony, talking about her book about downsizing Hedge Fund wives.

You realise that the literature of the decade has been an odd mix of champagne froth and misery memoir, with serious writers stepping back into history as they look on dumb founded on the contemporary world uninterested in it, or unable to understand it. In 1998 I was writing about a Capitalism that was a pyramid scheme of false information, overexpectation and short-term gains, as a character built up a company purely to float it on the stock exchange, its product as ephemeral as anything Enron gave us. In one scene a group of protestors from a northern industrial company try and disrupt a product launch, as their own factory is been closed down.

The writing about the American thirties concentrated on the economic tsunami that swept through the nation, not on the billionaires who'd had to lose a few zeroes off their income. In my essay "Writing Catastrophe" earlier this year I talked about the tendency for post-apocalyptic scenarios in contemporary literature, a view echoed in the programme, but questioned whether this particular crash would lead to a novel like "Bonfire of the Vanities." I'm still questioning. A book like "Netherland" by Joseph O'Neill captured some of the post 9/11 angst of New York, but the victims of the Madoff fraud will have their safety nets and their story, one driven by greed, hardly makes them interesting case studies.

The real tragedies of this recession will be elsewhere, in the council estates and poorly built housing, in the broken marriages and errant children - and more than that, in the aftermath, if a dozen years of progressive politics gets sweeped away because it wasn't progressive enough, because it believed that the market was self-correcting.

Writers can't just take on those subjects like a new set of clothes, particularly if their fascinations have been the millionaire class. The writers on Newsnight review were more circumspect than the film makers and internet editors - suggesting that it takes time to make this your story. Only Jay McInerney, who had already written twice about the glittering world of the New York rich in Brightness Falls and the Good Life, is preparing his next one to include much of this material, but its always been his territory. I think it was Simon Schama who added that there also an alternative narrative to the thirties, the promises of socialism. Our skies may not be as dark with Nazism as they were back then, for which we have to be grateful, but neither are they as light with promise.

There's a nostalgic tendency to British fiction that precludes a more immediate response to issues of the day. There's not a writer like McInerney or Easton Ellis who is alert to the zeitgeist and can simply adjust their latest writing to match it. I'd say that the more interesting responses are likely to be found through allegory or story. A writer like China Mieville, with radical politics to match his radical writing, knows fully well that a critique of our current systems would be more a fantasy set in contemporary London, than set in one of his parallel worlds. With the internet providing the "instant response" button that we require to current events, the writer's job here, doesn't seem to change. All I can hope is that those of us who can and do write about contemporary issues, may become a little more noticeable than we have over the last few years. In a 2006 poem called "Mean Time", I asked the question "What is the central act of our time?" Lamport Court, where it was published, is now online at the Poetry Archive where you can read this and other work.