Monday, March 30, 2009

Spring Forward

Clocks went forward at the weekend, and I haven't caught up. This time of year is always hectic. The moveable feast that is Easter doesn't help either. Yes, I know its only a long weekend, but since schools close, and so much of the public sector has its holidays in line with the schools, you find theres a hectic rush to get events and openings in place before the holidays. Everything is seasonal - but is creativity? There's probably some matrix that you could do. Certainly the winter months don't offer much incentive to go outside the house. Yet, the long nights, and struggle against the elements doesn't seem that creative. Maybe its a time to settle down and read a few books. The summer, though, how can you be sat inside at your computer on a day like this? I spent school holidays at my grandparents' small farm, and whilst my sister roamed the fields, went horseriding, I stayed at the kitchen table, drawing and writing. Yet, its not the whole story of course. I remember wandering for hours, taking the do a walk. But I wasn't one to let the weather decide what I'd do. My dad, who has read around 3 books in his adult life, never could understand my reluctance to leave the hearth. What he didn't get was that I really valued the time I didn't have to go to school, as it gave me the time to do my own thing. Writing, music, creativity, are all selfish pursuits in many ways - and perhaps why there's so much reluctance to appreciate them outside the classroom. What did you do over the holidays? Oh, I stayed in and wrote the start of a novel. But didn't you go anywhere?

I've got today off - another time of year thing, as the holiday year ends tomorrow and I'd a day left - and I've just been catching up with the busy week I've just had (and thinking about the busy week to come) when really this should have been sacrosanct as a creative day. Perhaps that's our national holiday need - a day of creativity. Let's have it every month, then. Despite all our "life cacheing" via the internet, its just so much of this, and this and this - I don't think social networking tools yet do much for the longer game, the big plan, the developed or developing idea.

Its already starting to be the festival season - flat racing, literary festival, arts festivals, Glastonbury, Edinburgh - as we fill the summer months with outdoor jamborees. I have a feeling that nothing much gets written in the summer...

"The Wire" starts tonight, with much fanfare on BBC2. But I can't help but note what supine cowardice of the schedulers has it starting at 11.20 every week day night - yes, finishing after midnight. I can certainly say it "The Wire" is good post-pub viewing, but also that you might drift off with dreams/nightmares of Baltimore. Since, most regular watchers will either PVR or "watch again" (assuming they've got those rights?), might it have been simpler for the BBC to just give us all a box set or have it as an iPlayer only special. I think its creator David Simon said in a recent interview that HBO gave him $100 Million to make the Wire over its five seasons. The budget of a blockbuster movie, then, or the cost of Sir Fred Goodwin's pension over a similar time period. Or untold number of episodes of "The Weakest Link." Whatever the BBC has paid for it, why haven't they had the courage to strip it at 10.00 each night? It's clearly the spot it should have been put on at.


I'm going to try and avoid blogging (and limit twittering) for the rest of the day/week (see comments above), so just a reminder that the 1st year birthday of The Other Room takes place at the "Old Abbey Inn" at Manchester Science Park on 1st April. Readings by Tim Atkins, Phil Davenport and Lisa Samuels with the new anthology of The Other Room's first year, on sale.

Monday, March 23, 2009

What of & What about...

What do you write about? What is it that you want to write about? It's a question I ask, particularly of poets. I'm not so much interested in the subject but of the compulsion. Have you, of all these billions of people on planet Earth, got something to say, and, as importantly, a way of saying it? I'm envious of musicians, after all, a few chords can make the tritest lyrics sound meaningful, and its that transmission - from the creator to the listener (or the reader, or the looker)- which is, ultimately what's important. Yet communicating in a common language, a shared language, seems to put an even greater on what it is you write about. Have you a hook? An idea? Have you a story - in the sense that the "news values" of the day make into a story. "Boy runs away from school, police are concerned" may be a story, but it doesn't do justice to "Catcher in the Rye." Yet many stories have a news value - explicitly so in something like "The Secret Agent" where the "news" of the day is intertwined with the story. Poems, of course, often have their own news values, relating to a different currency :- for instance the death of an obscure poet may not be "news", but it could well be to those who knew him or her and may not only lead to an "elegy", but a reappraisal.

There's the story all around us, of course, and digging for it, is part of the fun(k) we get ourselves in. I wrote an album and a half worth of songs the last year or so and I'm definitely at the bottom of that particular well in terms of lyrics. Songs, like poems, need to have some resonance with the writer of them, otherwise they're just "there", not "lived" at all. In my case I think its a little bit of intellectual frostiness - I need some thawing, a Spring clean of the brain. I've had a week to do that to the flat, and, to a lesser extent, myself; but feeling more energised, more relaxed is one thing - the intellectual Springcleaning is more the opposite - not reorganising or throwing out the baggage, but revitalising: more renovation than restoration I think.

So, I have lots of things frothing away, but do I want to say them? Do I know how to say them? Music, in many ways, offers "the way", quite easily. There are very few Bob Dylans out there, whose musical template rarely shifts, and then mostly to let in a slightly different approach to the words. The musical ideas themselves can suggest a way forward, the lyrics, only of secondary importance sometimes. Yet, I feel there needs to be something conceptual, or at least intellectually stimulating about all jousts at artist targets. Being good enough isn't enough if the ambition is of a low level... though sometimes we fool ourselves, a "good poem" should be ambition enough, even if it could take us ten years to have enough for a collection.

I've squandered this week, artistically, you could say, by not getting down to doing something - or even, to thinking about the one thing I should be doing. I'm not so sure. There's some contradictory subjects battling away for me attention. There's also a problem particular to me, I think. I've written so much already. I risk running over ground I've already travelled over, and I'm not quite that kind of writer. Retreading old fictional ground seems an admittance of some kind of failure, of the original pieces, or of the inability of art to move the problem on. Creative writing can only reveal not solve.

Yet, starting to think of putting some older stories online, its not because I believe there's particularly an audience for them (or for online in general), more that its an important reminder to myself of ground travelled, destinations visited, creative challenges met.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

New Blog for my Writing

I have finally got round to setting up a new blog for my poetry and fiction, and other writings. The link has been updated on the right of this post, or you can go directly there from here. At the moment it just includes links to any of my work that is still on the internet, but over time, I hope to add a range of stories and other work to download, as well as the occasional poem and non-fiction.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Other Room Anthology

"The Other Room Anthology 08/09 features work from David Annwn, Richard Barrett, Caroline Bergvall, Stuart Calton, Lucy Harvest Clarke, Patricia Farrell, Alan Halsey, Tom Jenks, Alex Middleton, Geraldine Monk, Maggie O’Sullivan, Robert Sheppard, Harriet Tarlo, Scott Thurston, Tony Trehy, Carol Watts and Joy As Tiresome Vandalism. The official launch is at the next event on 1st April, but you can pre-order a copy now and have it sent to you by post."

- The Other Room

Peace in Our Time

There was an interesting and polarised debate on Radio 5 last night, following the film of David Peace's book "The Damned United." The Clough family were unhappy about the book, as were several of the players pictured in the novel; and obviously a film is far higher profile, and most people who go and see it won't know that its a dramatisation of a work of fiction, albeit one based on real events, but will see it as essentially a biopic on Clough.

Martin O'Neill had been to see the film. He had joined Forest shortly before Clough started there (and its worth mentioning that the book is not about these later triumphs, his greatest, but about that 44 day interregnum at Leeds, following his previous career pinnacle at Derby County.) His view was measured. He saw it as an entertainment, that occasionally strayed far from the facts, and occasionally, in Michael Sheen's performance, resurrected Clough before our eyes.

The book, I've written about before, is a tiny masterpiece. Regardless of its veracity, it reads real. And in a week when Rafael Benitez has finally signed a contract with Liverpool, delayed because he wanted control of transfers, seems, to this non-insider, to give a genuine sense of what football was like in the late 60s and early 70s, with Clough as the arriviste bringing success and confrontation in equal measure. Peace, interviewed on the show, is a little dissembling when he says its "a work of fiction", for, like James Elroy, he's wanting to use historical fact as closely as he can. This is not the "new journalism", nor is it the "faction" of a staple ITV drama; its a deliberate blurring of the edges, but requiring the reader's buying into its legitimacy to make it work. But I think, in this book at least, he chose the only viable option - after all, only rock 'n' roll has been worse served by the novel than football. A successful novel about football, has to, in my opinion, stick to the historical record. The only other option, is to write about the anonymous side of the game, the park footballer, or the amateur side. For as soon as you mention "United" and "City" and "County" and set it in a particular era, the reality of so many memories is there before you. (Similarly, a novel about music in the sixties could just about get away with an imaginary beat combo, as long as the Beatles and the Stones are not supplanted.)

Given the tendency of football to navel gaze, and at the professional level to be hostile to outsiders, its no surprise that football is the most antagonistic about an outsider writing a book from an "inside" perspective. Given that the story of Clough has been told many, many times - not least in at least two autobiographies from the man himself - Peace deserves praise for getting it (mostly) right. It is, after all, only a game. I'm looking forward to the film.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Art & Politics

I'm wondering whether the relationship between art and politics is currently the wrong one. There are quite a number of explicit criticisms of the politics that has took us into Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as of specific "establishment failures", (such as dramatisations of particular events such as the De Menezes shooting.) It is disappointing, to me at least, that art seems to mostly engage with the political/societal in such a direct way. For two reasons: firstly, because in doing so it takes on too many of the conventions of reportage, and, secondly, because art seems particularly well equipped for nuance and uncertainty. Not that anyone ever asks, but if I had to say what my primary subject was as writer, I'd more than likely say "doubt." Pinter's anti-war poems always seemed a let down from a writer whose critique of society had always been so piercingly oblique: I always wondered whether he felt that the art had let him down, once he became a political activist where the emphasis was on being direct. More worrying, of course, is despite the disquiet that many writers feel for politics in this country (and by extrapolation, America), how little it appears in the major works of the day.

But it is not just the direct relationship between art and politics that concerns me. I'm frustrated how little art itself seems willing to be a political movement. Am I asking for a return to Manifestoism? Perhaps I am. It seems that the creation and consumption of art can be a highly political act; and in the current time, that political action has to be in its implicit critique of consumerism and the capitalist financial model. In this version: a little magazine, a blog, a download, a painting can be political simply by disengaging with the production/promotion model. But there's something else that art needs to do, if it is to re-engage politically, and that is to do so within some intellectual framework. In other words, challenging assumptions of what is art, and why we are artists.

It is perhaps a lot to ask. Yet, it seems to me that good art gets it right more often than other media. The art that survives creates a version of the historical times that it was made in, in a way that is more valid than any "official" versions. The art is immutable, but the meaning can change. There's actually an infantilism about much artistic debate - from the old chestnut about the South Bank Show dumbing down (through showing Will Young), to the way a children's author such as Philip Pullman becomes one of our highest profile public intellectuals, to the ongoing "ne'er the twain" will meet misunderstandings of the poetry world. These all strike me as being partly because of art (and contemporary artists) unwillingness to make a political stand, for their view of art. Depending on the art form, the only intellectual positions taken are by marginalists - but not the marginalists of the new and coming work, but the outdated or the parochial.

If an artist or writer or musician has a clear intellectual-political position concerning their artform; then it matters not whether the work or the artist themselves is explicitly political, for surely, everything they do will be implicitly political as a result of their intellectual starting point?

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Something to Read Online

I'm pleased that my essay "Writing Catastrophe" has been published online as part of issue 2 of Salt Magazine's "Horizon Review," and for two reasons. Firstly, I sometimes bemoan that although I spend a lot of time on the web, I don't read that much on the web. There's a generosity about an online magazine like Horizon, both in terms of the amount of material it makes available, but also from the writers themselves, some very well known, who are beginning to value an online platform such as this, as much as a paper magazine. The second reason relates to the essay itself, which, almost alone amongst the content of issue 2, talks primarily about the "novel." It's perhaps not surprising that Horizon concentrates on short fiction and poetry, but in terms of critical culture - and I'd perhaps include literary blogs and review sites amongst this - I think its important that the novel is not just left to the more august paper publications, the reviewer-bloggers and the academic monograph.

That said, it's interesting to read my essay, alongside Sophie Mayer's "Queer British Poetry". The full title, (and the shortened version does it a disservice) is "Hanging Out Beneath Orlando's Oak Tree, or, Towards a Queer British Poetry." Here she talks of poets needing to be more militant, in their subject matter, to be, in the words of post-punk band the Au Pairs, "equal, but different." Strangely she asks "Where are the great AIDS elegies?", well, I mention one, in passing, Thom Gunn's "The Man With the Night Sweats," in "Writing Catastrophe." Mayer's is a fascinating essay, because so much experimental writing, turned out to also be transgressive writing; if gay writing today is conventional novels like "The Line of Beauty" and "Fingersmith", then maybe it isn't sexuality that determines our artistic self, but repression of that sexuality. The Writer, I would tentatively say, wants acceptance for the writing, far more than for the self. (Though, aren't they indistinguishable?)But think that's edging into a different essay...

So I've already been inspired into other directions, other tangents, just skimming the magazine this Tuesday morning. I'd say there are considerable tensions, not consensus, in the contemporary literary firmament, which get articulated every time I speak to a writer; between poets of different styles; between the literary writer and the commercial writer; between the young and the slightly older. It is one of the reason's I want to write about novels that others may have read - since, they have become cultural artefacts that have a life of their own in the way that only very rarely a poem or short story does. Yet, like a glass of expensive wine, after two many cheap bottles, the right poem or story (and there are surely plenty here that will fit that bill), can raise the palate. Horizon, is, after all, a literary magazine. Who'd have thought they'd survive into our modern age?

Elsewhere in the magazine you'll find stories, (inc. one by my friend Elizabeth Baines), poems, (Katy Evans-Bush delightful Pirate Prufock) plays (!), reviews and interviews and in its podcast - which, editor Jane Holland rightly says - might be a good place if you are "looking for somewhere to start" you'll find Gwendoline Riley and Fiona Sampson.

And like any literary magazine, I don't think its for reading all at one go, but dipping into next time you're looking for something more inspiring than that dog on a skateboard. Woof. Wheeee.

Saturday, March 14, 2009


Watched last night's Rough Trade Story. It wasn't particularly revelatory, but some decent old footage (mostly of Geoff Travis's black power hair!) Rough Trade always meant something to me - even I wouldn't just buy bands because they were on the label (unlike 4AD!) - for Robert Wyatt, Scritti Politti, the Fall, and of course, the Smiths. Apparently indie music was at its most successful when they went down the pan in 1991 - a bit of a rewriting of history. Post-Smiths the indie scene was utterly dire, add to that a recession (sounds familiar?), and its hardly surprising that that was when they went down. I was really only listening to hip hop and American pre-grunge (Sonic Youth etc) then.

I've been incredibly busy, following Newcastle, with London, and I'm doing a short presentation in Liverpool on Monday about social media and the arts, which I'm looking forward to - then, I've the rest of the week off, and its long overdue. Need some quality time with my "art" - and the flat seems very unloved at present! There's quite a bit of "unpacking" of my last few posts that I want to do as well.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Where is the literature?

I was at the Clicks or Mortar? conference at Tyneside Cinema yesterday. The symposium was about the role of venues in the digital age - a dichotomy of "clicks" or "mortar". As often happens at events these days, there's ample representation of the visual and performing arts, and a small, but noticeable gap for literature. Literature, of course, exists, offline, is non venue-based, despite the plethora of festivals and readings these days. That even these can exist in a variety of places - theatres, cafes, bars, bookshops, fields, market places - should offer some lessons about "venue" - but literature remains quiet. More worryingly, as Dick Penny, from Bristol's Watershed (and Dshed digital venue)said "we are living in an audio-visual culture these days." This has some very large implications for literature - because its saying that, since the age of the printing press, since mass education began - the arbiters of our culture have been writers: whether poets, legislators, priests or journalists. If the inevitable consequence of the digital age (and the generation that have grown up only knowing a world with the internet and digital images/sounds) is an ending of that age-of-text then surely we should be worried. At the moment, as I've made the point before, the web remains a text-based medium. Yet a culture of video games, short messages, flashing images, 3D films etc. is sensory - external, all around us. Reading, and writing, require a certain calm, a certain isolation. In this new world, even with our own "bubbles" (ipods, tomtoms etc), where is this calm?

Peter Greenaway was one of the highlights of the day, giving an extensive polemic about the "death of cinema". He made many points, both valid and contentious, but two keys ones sat in my mind. Firstly, that the crowd gathered in the dark in the evening to have a one way experience with the optical illusion of the two hour film on a project screen, is surely now an absurdity - that all those things about the experience are no longer sustainable. Secondly, that if we are now in this audio-visual age, that we have a problem, because we are so visually illiterate. Painting, he contrasted with film, as having thousands of years of history, film has 115 years and it is "over."

There's an irony about all of this of course - in that the disruptive technology of the internet is being adopted by the very things that it is most likely to replace: the BBC, for instance, and, yes, cinemas like the Tyneside and the Cornerhouse. The beautifully restored Tyneside is also highly connected, with good internet access throughout the building that allows things to happen - artistic and otherwise - throughout its diverse physical space. Like the Cornerhouse, it acts as both cinema and art venue - and as Greenaway's presentation makes clear, there is little distinction - amongst artists, at least - between both mediums. However, I'd add that the great wonder of 20th century cinema, like the Victorian novel is both an accidental anomaly that has become its own high-watermark - and something that has, inevitably to change. Theres a confluence took place: of talent, audience,technology and for want of a better word, "timing", that means the motion picture has held us in its thrall for best part of a century. I watch "The Last Picture Show" of "Cinema Paradiso" and I don't recognise that cinema going experience, any more than I would the Saturday matinees or the Drive-ins. My cinema going experience - a flat suburban one, dull Odeons, limited choice - was changed not by the multiplexes, but by the art house cinemas, and, yes, by the choice that the video player and multi-channel viewing (starting with the "option" of Channel 4) gave me. If those "new markets" were themselves made allowable by the success of, "Star Wars" and "Jaws", then so be it.

I think what is intriguing about the "venues" and their management, is that they have an impossible tightrope. Ideally their model should be beginning to fade, with any space becoming a possible replacement for the Cornerhouse or the Watershed. But these venues, holding houses for art, if you like, are culture-shops in many ways. They are in ideal locations, at the heart of a city's young urban cultural life. They are not, noticeably, growing... but neither would you close them down. Their success is of appealing to the young urban consumer. Where they are in the wrong place or have the wrong or even worse, an unclear function (Sheffield's centre for popular music, the first incarnation of Urbis, the Place in West Bromwich) they will fail, and fail again. A conversation was had about turning old Woolworths into cultural venues, but as someone pointed out, the reason that Woolworths failed was because not enough people came through the door.

I've noticed recently - with exhibitions at FACT and the Cornerhouse - that the venue is becoming a constraint on the art in many ways. There's an absurdity about going to a cultural venue, not to look at a painting or see a performance, but to watch a video (particularly when, in that same building there are high quality cinema screens being used to show an Oscar nomination rather than video art), or to hear some sound art. I think new forms of art are exploding from the venue, whether on the internet in the public space, and arts venues and festivals need to see this and replicate it.

Literature, I worry about. It remains mute at these events. Yet, as Peter Greenaway made the point, so much film is just animated stories, books with pictures. The irony is - I've mentioned recently - that writers are sometimes becoming "middlemen" in the cultural value chain, not originators or initiators. Greenaway recently illuminated Rembrandt's The Night Watch, and has turned it into a movie - seeing it as a source material, a visual journalist's account of a murder that has taken place.
Because literature has no venue, because, as well, it is everywhere (or at least, because writing is everywhere), because we no longer venerate the word (the Holy Books, the American constitution) - and may even abuse them instead (Jade Goody, Ashley Cole, because there's a "commercial" literature that dominates and doesn't receive public funding; because writers themselves baulk too much at the idea of art or of originality - all of these make it vulnerable. It has already gone from the centre of the university experience, I think; and there are few writers under 50, here or abroad, that seem to have the cultural heft of their predecessors, still writing deep into the night. We were not always a written culture, not even always an oral one. Did the crowds attending the mummers play or mystery play catch all the words, or simply revel in the physical action, the costumes, the spectacle? Yet there was a story - a telling - and a structure - an ordering - to even those representations. In many ways, a conference like yesterdays highlighted which art forms are most vulnerable in the modern age - and it may well be the representative ones (film or recorded music) rather than the experiential (theatre, dance). Greenaway mentioned that he had been commissioned to make a film by Nokia for its mobile phones - and his work is more likely to be presented, not in a cinema, but as public art, or in a gallery, or for a festival now, than as a conventional film. He is, of course, not the most conventional of film makers. Yet with the Hollywood blockbuster costing so much to make - the odd Slumdog apart - then the representative arts run a great risk. The Guardian yesterday pointed out that the game Guitar Hero has sold nearly as many copies as the best selling album of all time, and in much quicker time.

This recession that gathers around us may not be so bad for art, but it may be disastrous for the commercialising of that art. The refurbished Tyneside is a beauty, a gem, but it is also a living venue, a high church of culture. The audience at the conference was predominantly white and middle-class, the panel's predominantly male. Literature, as always on these occasions appeared absent. I'm hopeful that this absence might simply because literature have sorted it out already (though I know that's not entirely the case), but I also fear that the written word, which underpins so much of our great culture, may be chopped up, mixed up and made incomprehensible or easy to ignore by this newly pervasive multi-sensory audio-visual cultural world. The gatekeepers, whether arts bureaucrats, educators, politicians or Apple and Sony, won't notice till the damage is too far gone. It is the writer, and only the writer, who can continue to insist on his or her relevance.

Sunday, March 01, 2009


I'm in a writing trap. Or rather I'm in a trap that affects my writing. But I'm not trapped. There's a difference between being trapped, and a trap, of course. Being trapped, implies something psychological, or something malicious that has happened to you. A "trap" though, is no such thing, its something that has a beauty to it, in some ways, a trap is set, it waits there, it has purpose, and, if it's sprung, then there's a sense - from the setter of the trap - of a job well done. And a trap might be beneficial to the victim, you set a trap for an animal that shouldn't be in your house, in order to re-house it, for instance. Anyone who has ever tried to set a physical trap, also knows that the trap mechanism isn't the key - no, it's the bait, it what leads you in. My trap is of that variety, I think. I'm being lead in, by a breadcrumb trail, and then snap, down comes the door, and I wonder how I got in there - and, whether there's a way out. That's how traps work of course, they're not inevitable, they are placed in the way of things, and if you fall into them, sometimes its because of a good reason, because you were too tired, or hadn't been looking where you were going.

I'm not sure I'm being clear, but I'm like a mouse exploring a house, much of my time is spent aimlessly, trying to find my way around - surviving if you like - but mice are curious. They know that others are in the house, and that, if they come into contact with them, then maybe it won't be so good for them. The mouse knows he's not meant to be here, but can't help himself. If you like, I'm looking for the breadcrumb trail, I'm looking for the trap. For a story can be a trap, as can a style. I'm in a trap, even if I'm not yet caught, because the traps are all around. I've sniffed out another breadcrumb trail today - the poetry one - and its as sure as any other going to trap me again. I never learn. Leave the poetry alone! I want to say. Leave the cheese alone! little mouse.

Snap goes the door. And I'm not sure how I get out this time either.