Monday, May 25, 2009


It is a truth universally acknowledged that someone who apologises for not blogging much, but says they will now start blogging regularly, will probably not. So, perhaps the reverse is true, and if I say I'm taking a fortnight off social media to do "other things", I'll be back here every day.

Anyway, I'm taking a fortnight off social media to do "other things", as there's a number of writing things I need to knuckle down to and (viz a viz the last posting) the ongoing static chatter of the blog/twitter/social media thing doesn't seem to particularly help. (Whether it hinders is another matter, we'll see.)

But wanted to remind readers of the next Other Room event, at the Old Abbey Inn week after next, and the same week, the Social Media Cafe Manchester. I may be found at both.

The Hay-on-Wye literature festival is on as well, apparently, if you like that kind of thing.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Generation ADD

A friend pointed out recently that my blog was becoming increasingly mistitled, as I was writing about digital and music stuff as well as literature. Short of having another blog, (always a possibility of course), what should I do? Bloggers are columnists of course, and I notice that if you read Mark Lawson in the Guardian in strays from talking about Late Review stuff, to other issues, whilst Rod Liddle in the Times has dual personalities in his two columns (his two blogs) about politics and football.

I'm relaxed about this - as increasingly our "postings" are mere objects that are directed to from elsewhere, e.g. Twitter or other platforms - and the idea of having regular blog readers disappears into the distance. Most bloggers, whatever their persuasion keep a bit of the personal. So Normblog's political rumblings are mixed up with a bit of Emmylou Harris and cricket, whilst Baroque in Hackney's literary salon frequently finds room for unexpected intrusions.

The friend's other point was that writing in this interlinked way, or, perhaps writing first and foremost to a blog, created some kind of incoherence, or a gadfly prose, that he, at least, found frustrating - or less effective than other things he'd read by me. I take such things seriously. This blog has never been meant to be my "literary legacy" or what I'd want to be remembered for. It is a first draft of my thought history, not the final version. Yet, at the same time, I'm more and more drawn to questioning that idea of the "final version."

I was pleased to read an article by David Allen in Wired UK's second issue where he considers whether our non-attentive nature, our wired information-age attention deficit disorder, is not the problem of us all being hyperactive digital kids, but how our brains really work. In other words, first thought is best thought, and like Molly Bloom's stream of consciousness, or Ashbery's poems in "the Tennis Court Oath", it is this interruptive stream that is our brains working as they should do. The twitter litany of "just got up/must have bagel/what did that guy just say on Saturday Kitchen?/anyone know a plumber near Aylesbury?/here's a link to my new blogpost" is a modern day evolving of "tiger to the left/woolly mammoth to the left/must move south before the snows come" - and, in fact, our hyper-specialising of the last century, loses in creative effectiveness what it might have gained in industrial effectiveness. As Allen writes "maybe we allowed ourselves to be taught to focus, to constrain our impulsive thinking, to pay attention, and in the process ossified our ability to multi-perceive?"
(Allen is a time management consultant - so this must have been a Damascene moment!)

In other words, my writing is no longer as speciality focussed, because the audience is beginning to be able to respond to this more fragmented, non-linear, collage-like media exposure. Coincidentally (or not - after all, these memes come along all at once, or else we don't even notice them), yesterday's Guardian gave several examples of this. There were the Black Eyed Peas talking about their new album as a version 1.0, ready to be upgraded, remixed etc. like software as the year's go on. (And bring it on, I say, sitting here with my triple LP of remixes of Shamen's "Pro-Gen).It's an idea I've had for a long while. What would happen if you keep retooling or upgrading an album or other body of work? Where is the definitive version? And is it just marketing? A band like the Fall, without ever giving pretension to something like this, always did that, particularly during their prolific Beggars Banquet years. Then you have Philip Glass interviewed, confirming my suggestion of Schubert as an influence on him, and talking about his need to create a body of work that reflects his interests over life....that a minimalist will always end up a romantic, and a romantic a minimalist. Thirdly, there's a fascinating article on the collapse of the DVD market. Yes, the DVD market, hardly a decade old, is now in collapse, and moreover, the studios who relied on this cycle of new and renewal audiences (cinema, satellite, rental, buy, terrestrial...) can't now have that same reliance. It seems the business practices that have maximised first weekend returns, don't now feed through into good video sales. (i.e. If I've paid to see a stinker, I don't also want to own that stinker.) Interestingly, it seems that it is our "experience" culture that may be to blame... as we no longer care where or in what format we receive the artform, as long as we get the experience. Opening weekend for the Bond movie is perhaps as important as the DVD boxset for The Wire. These are the optimum consuming experiences - as that is how we share our experience. This, I think, is where this blog culture, and its gadfly generation ADD nature comes into it. Its no longer possible to "look away now if you don't want to know the score," as that would mean consuming no media at all. At the point that both capitalist business models and political confidence are both at collapse, the hyper efficient market mechanism of real-time communication (24 hour news, Twitter, RSS feeds, iPhone and GPS), is working better than ever. Knowledge, as our MPs always realised (wanting to keep it to themselves), IS power.

As David Allen implies, refining your thought process for years and years down a particular narrow channel (hello, PhD students everywhere), may well be an educational model for a Fordist economy, not a Googleopolis. Malcolm Gladwell's assertion that becoming really good at anything takes a certain amount of hours practice (100,000 was it?) whether a violinist or a writer or a medic...seems a hangover from this specialist world. (It is Franny's reciting of the Jesus Prayer in the Salinger story, or the Buddhist monks with their chanting turned secular.)We still pay (overpay?) the man who has made 1,000,000 snooker shots or hit 1,000,000 golf balls, where application and skill together combine to make him better than his peers. Yet how many of us are in pursuit of the margin in our life? The majority of us have to operate in the sensory world, with multi-tasking as a way of life. At the very point where so many of us (men particularly) seem to be almost be bred to be single-taskers, and our educational and business systems are still built according to that paradigm, it is all drifting away. Our solution to MPs expenses is an accountancy model: check and audit each one in turn. Each expense will no doubt go through five or six hands all agreeing or disagreeing to the nuance of the rules. Much is often said about "emotional intelligence" or "political intelligence", they can perhaps be defined by what they miss... they are unauditable, they do not need to be audited.

And I can see I've hardly talked about literature, or art, or creativity...and I've written down only a first draft of these ideas...not the final thoughts. The final story in yesterday's Guardian talked about the strange death of 400 goats. Apparently their death was a mystery, but they may have died through terminal exhaustion, lack of sleep, from the ever whirring rotors of the nearby wind farm. That is the balance we have to be aware of :- to let our brains not rot with the sweetness of our overstimulation, but be able to pass on it, pass it on.

Writers Need Publishers

Imagine, for an instance, if the Tate, Tate Modern, and National Gallery, alongside every other publicly funded gallery in the country closed down because of lack of funding. It wouldn't just be an outcry about the philistine nature of our society, failing to show due care with its national assets, but a cry about the nature of the future: asking where our artists - one of the country's key "creative assets" - would be shown in the future? The art economy that makes a Damian Hirst worth millions, and a rich man, begins in many ways with a range of public subsidies, not all to Hirst of course. It's the same with theatre, and with classical music. But literature, the one art form that we are not just curators of the world's best, but historically, the world's finest, remains left to its own devices.

Writers need publishers, because they also need readerships. It is not Gilbert & George in their East End studio visited by some curious art fans that made them on the world stage, but major exhibitions in our public galleries. The publishing infrastructure is different... perhaps because it is by necessity distributed, and perhaps because, in its curation of the word, its somehow got mangled with the newspaper industry, its primarily a commercially driven world. Yet though it has been this way since the mass market book became possible, the world of gentlemen publishers mixing commercial hits with critical beliefs is long gone. If 90% of novels don't make money, then the publishers could of course just publish the 10% - but of course they'd then have less turnover, no need for staff, in fact, very little need to be publishers. They could just be fulfilment houses for Dan Brown and Stephen King.

It is the little publishers, who, over the last few years, with technology costs coming down, and the big publishers throwing up their hands in confusion at what might be "good literature", who have shown a massive energy. Yet, same as with CDs and DVDs, there's a declining market. Salt Publishing, coming to the end of an Arts Council grant, have found this underpinning vital to their business. Whatever you think of their business model - too many books perhaps, a diversity of authors that its hard to get your head around, concentration on the notoriously low-selling fields of poetry, short stories and lit. crit - their books have been always been lovely items, their literary aesthetic high, and their use of new technologies ahead of the game. A fall off in sales - part economic recession perhaps? partly operating in a falling markeT? - threatens the whole press. Their "Just one book" campaign a reminder that fans of the press who've maybe not bought from them for a while, might want to have a look. Like the Polar bear, once they're gone, they're gone.

But it takes me back to my initial point. Jen and Chris Hamilton-Emery would no doubt get good jobs in the commercial publishing industry, or, as likely, as ambassadors for literature/publishing paid out of the public purse. Yet, the thing that writers need more than another creative writing course, another Arvon weekend, are stable entry points - publishers, magazines, and events - where there is an opportunity to be put before the public. Literature is the cinderella of our subsidised arts, yet this week the BBC is running a "poetry" season which I would guess probably cost more money than the poetry budget of the Arts council this year. Writers don't need buildings; we don't need our Tate Modern or National Theatre or Bridgewater Hall. But we do need places for our work to exist; whether its a magazine or on a publishers list.

UPDATE: Chris Hamilton Emery's blog about the campaign so far, and why it was necessary.

(It can't help me think how difficult it is to keep any sort of creative infrastructure in this country without some public funding. Not necessarily of writers and publishers themselves, but by embedding them or supporting them from larger institutions.)

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

What if Julie Burchill is our George Eliot?

When Julie Burchill started writing for the NME in answer to their "young gunslinger" advertisement alongside future husband Tony Parsons, it was clear that she was a talent that we hadn't seen before. The world that she would write about wasn't yet invented, yet over the next thirty years she would be both a chronicler of it and a character in that world. As a writer from the left, but with political viewpoints that were often in conflict to it, she always achieved the first requirement of a good writer, to be independent in thought. Her newspaper career, the job that sustained her, was lucrative, not without controversy; and she was always entertaining to read - taking on feminist issues, but with no with no agreed party line, seeing before many others the important shift in how we view celebrity (most notably in her writing on Princess Diana), and drifting into areas that entertainment columnists weren't supposed to - politics and military conflict.

In many ways her writing and persona was a trailblazer for a new form of feminist thought that was a world away from the sisterhood of Spare Rib and the 1970s. Like many writers and artists who developed in the petri dish of punk, she was unformed on entering, and kept with her throughout subsequent years, that sense of independent attitude. She has never been anyone's fool, or has yet found a line which she is comfortable to toe. Moving from being a slightly spikey counterweight to the Guardian's often smug liberalism, to being a thorn in the side of the Times' old world neoconservatism, its a sign of her journalism's power that she managed to alienate both publications at different times.

Yet it is a novelist that we see both Burchill's true worth, and her flaws. Unlike a career novelist, her fiction has appeared intermittently as fashions change. Her early collaboration with husband Tony Parsons, "The Boy Looked at Johnny" was a punk rock cash-in; her bestselling "Ambition" was a lurid eighties confection; "Married Alive" was higher class chick lit, and "Sugar Rush" was sweet irony for Generation Y. She pre-empted the post-ironic fictionalising of the McSweeney's crowd in much of her work for the "Modern Review" an iconoclastic magazine that she ran from a cocaine haze from the Groucho club in those strangely inconclusive early 90s days of the Major administration. As new technologies began to become to the forefront, and the political shift which would bring in Blairism, slowly took place in the background, her work for this magazine, often introducing newer writers like Will Self and Nick Hornby, was a little-read, but much talked-about metropolitan tour de force.

A throwback to the eighteenth century journalist novelist, a Defoe for our times, slinging out appropriate pot boilers as and when the market moved that way; her own brand of me-first feminism has continued to chime with the age and an audience that is always intrigued, sometimes appalled, and rarely unentertained. Whilst more serious novelists gain kudos for their historical fictions or their solipsistic misery fictions, Burchill's work, always true, always ironic, seems the genuine unheralded story of the age. Think about it. When so-called (and male) serious novelists such as McInerney or Easton Ellis approach the fashion industry, when Andrew O'Hagan or Douglas Coupland writes about the perils of fame, Burchill has been there first. Her life lived, her succession of writer husbands, add to not just our interest in her, but a sense that we undervalue her at our peril.

A contemporary George Eliot wouldn't have written a "Scenes from Clerical Life" or "Silas Marner" so much as an "Ambition", chronicling the facile culture of the day. "Sugar Rush" is a brave, funny teenage novel set in Burchill's much loved Brighton, a "Mill on the Floss" for the noughties. As her journalistic schtick becomes a little out of fashion - for we are now in an age of austerity, and Burchill has always been a satirist at our Bacchanalian feast - we wait with interest for what's next. There is time for her "Middlemarch," a long novel on the contemporary world, set, I imagine in Brighton and London. Though her novels and journalism are virtually all out of print, everything sold well when it came out, so are easy to find secondhand.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Glass is sand, and pianos are string instruments...

Philip Glass at the RNCM last night for an intimate recital of 8 of his piano studies, Etudes, and other solo piano pieces. Remarkably I was in the first row, with just the "pit" in front of me. (Note to bloke with Afro, get a haircut.) So felt it a very privileged position. The sound was excellent, and what could have been quite intimidating, (for both audience and performer) an hour and a half of one man and his piano, was made very easy by Glass's relaxed attitude. The audience was almost entirely made up of people who'd seen "Koyaanisquatsi" on Channel 4 in 1984, so very homogenous. All the questions about "new audiences" for classical music should have been answered here:- here's your new audience, indie music fans in their 40s and 50s. Yet our next gig will probably be Kraftwerk, or David Byrne or the Arcade Fire.

I'd not heard the Etudes before and they're fascinating, as you'd imagine studies to be, approaching the piano in different ways. I was reminded that the piano is both a string instrument and percussive, and Glass's work has primarily worked with these two parts of the orchestra. He's the not the go-to guy for a brass ensemble for instance. Strings and percussion, fit both the minimalist and sequenced work that is his signature, but also his wider composition. In parts these Etudes felt closer to Schubert Lieder, albeit instrumental versions, with a few American forebears, notably Joplin, and on a couple of pieces Gershwin. Going in the other direction, and an appropriate libretto would turn them into the third Arcade Fire album. These, by the way, are all positives. If Glass is the most transparent of composers in the sense that his music works as popular idiom, it is also true that there is a grit to it, that is leavened by his innate tunefulness. He clearly went a different direction than Reich for instance, and though he may owe something to the experiments of later 20th century classical music, there seems something older, more romantic in his nature. He's a composer who has made himself useful to the film commission, or, as he reminded us of the origin of one piece written for the Dalai Lama, civic occasion. "We're not sure when he's arriving," he'd been told, "so can you make it of indeterminate length?" "Not a problem," Glass deadpanned.

It's perhaps incredible in its own sense that in an age where "classical" music seems to be divided between the repertoire on the one hand and classical performers as pop stars on the other, that a very serious musician/composer can be at once a prolific recording artist, film-scorer, collaborator (with dance in particular), and bestselling performer. This is not difficult music, but neither is Glass is easy, that facility with melody (never to be knocked) aside. When I saw his ensemble over a decade ago, it was the range of his compositions that impressed; he's no one-trick pony, yet he does have that remarkable arpeggiated signature, which, I'd say anyone who loves Glass would agree, is beautiful, emotive, and above all, powerful, however many times it has been appropriated. History may well say that the American composers of the second half of the twentieth century, particularly Adams and Glass, but also Reich, Carter and others, were both chroniclers of that age, and conduits to some kind of universal music, that is unafraid to unpick the distinctions between popular song, rock music, and the "serious" musics of the conservatory.

For yesterday's concert, I was left with a sense of being privileged to have been there, that he'd been able and willing to travel to the north of England, to play to a packed house in a small, venerable hall. Listening to him, before, during and after the concert, I was struck by how much his music has had a subtle influence on much of what I've written over the years, and also appears in much of the music that I like. Not for the first time, I'm struck how much the best of American art, music and literature continues to be distinctly the cornerstone of my aesthetic.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Nothing is New

At the Manchester Social Media Cafe, after Thursday's Futuresonic, Dave Mee gave a fascinating thinkpiece on the "Merzweb" - basically an idea that German artist Kurt Schwitters, a fellow traveller to the Dadaists, was in many ways acting out in his work much of what we now see in the web and social media. It runs parallel with the presentation I gave a little while ago that much of our social media present and future is prefigured in avant garde literature.

For Schwitters art was all around us, was collaborative and participative, was mutable, never finished, but also locative. His "Merzbau" was a living organism - a house usually - a space becoming filled. If you think of the web as this structure, as this holder, then what people do with this space is very like Schwitters Merzbau. The mutability seems vital as well. One of the things that I imagine will come out of Charles Leadbetter's "Art of With" article for the Cornerhouse is a reappraisal of the value=permanence equation. The idea had took hold earlier in the day, at the Futuresonic debate, that perhaps our online presence, our blogs our facebook pages, our drunk photos when we were 16, that these should degrade over time. Of course the commmercialisation of 20th century art (or rather it becoming a value-holder, to be traded like gold or platinum - and this includes not just one-off visual arts masterpieces, but copyright in literature, film and music)is based on a belief in permanence that the Pharoahs would relate to. Perhaps, in many ways, the last vestige of our Abrahamic-based faith can be seen in that desire for permanence. Yet Shelley's Ozymandias, "look on these works, you Mighty, and despair", never seems more prescient.

The art of decay, of things being unfinished, or changing is challenged by a commercial artist like Damian Hirst, or rather by the business model around his success. Hirst's fascination with decay means that like the Merzbau, his sharks should, after a certain time, putrify, to be nothing more than cultural memory; yet the value invested in them is a late 20th century alchemy, turning these impermanent artworks into gold, not realising that there value is only in the beholder.

Even in the internet's short life span there is a tension between decay and permanence. Seeing a website from 10 or 15 years ago now, particularly if its an amateur design, can be a jolt to the system. Yet the data on our Facebook page risks being around forever? We can only hope that some of these pages and websites disappear into nothing more than memory. Google has short-fused this process, at least for a time, for all data is now equal. It is the equivalent of the peat-bog find where it is not the mighty emperor who history now puzzles over, but the Tollund man. For art there is a challenge, but one that it shouldn't shirk. Our culture depends upon some kind of artistic inheritance, the "shoulders of giants", rather than letting "a million flowers bloom." I wonder if that is the tension that "The art of with" is now looking at...the tension between the forgotten sheath of letters from a literate woman in Victorian England, and the production of "Wuthering Heights" and "Jane Eyre". The internets million flowers are containers, more often; it is a container itself. Those YouTube videos with several million hits are unlikely to feature in any retrospective except out of chance. Earlier in the week I'd been to the Videogame Nation launch at URBIS. I've hardly ever been a gameplayer, so this 30 year old history was a museum piece of artefacts. "I like the shiny things" I said more than once, finding none of the nostalgic reverance that a game player would have found, but liking the styles, mannerisms and sounds of this commercial subculture. Every loft could probably furnish an exhibit for the exhibition; every car boot.

For me, what interested me about Mee's talk about Schwitters was its reminders that art hasn't always been about the single object; that in many ways this was a 20th century construction based upon two things:- the electronic recording (whether photo, film or record), and the legal (copyright) framework that necessarily sustained that. I could now, if I wanted, put my entire works on the web, to let it be found, or not found as is the case. As permanent as a thing can be (at least until the water needed for the cooling systems for the vast server farms runs out). I think there's another side to this though. The artist as entity. Its the challenge that I don't think is addressed by those calling for a more participative culture. In our short lives, artistic progress can take time, from gaining a facility, to finding the voice, to having something to say, to managing to say it. The "transmission mechanisms" for art are actually probably very good models that are being replicated across social media, rather than the other way round. "Open source" would be no new concept to the impressionists, the surrealists, the imagists, the PRB. Once an idea has been circulated, or the culmination of that idea has been made, then it is free to be disseminated. Wasn't Gertrude Stein's Paris apartment and those other salons of the day a meeting place similar to Tuesday nights? The cafes as Myspace or Twitter? Indeed you could argue that the transmission mechanisms then, letters sent back to friends in America or Britain ("You must come to Paris") were slower than email but as equally able to catch-fire.

The artist as an entity, as someone who wants to do this with their life, is actually the bigger challenge to the hierarchies of contemporary culture than anything else. History sees its more interesting work come from more interesting places, yet "old media" whether its the publishing industry or the BBC, is as dominated by Oxbridge as any other time. Those - like the Old Boys network - are "transmission mechanisms" across time; informal rather than formal networks, and therefore more powerful over time and space.

I think we can go back to the artist as entity, the idea of a "body of work", that can progress, that can change, that can grow, that can decay. Whereas celebrity culture spits people out for their 15 minutes, our gatekeepers are keener on having a fixed list of writers, composers, painters etc. Shouldn't those bright poets who made their mark in the early 70s be at least forgotten for a little while, at the very least so they could be rediscovered later? I kept being reminded of the great American chronicler, Walt Whitman, and his single work, his "Leaves of Grass," appearing in a range of different issues, orders, with poems changed, added, subtracted. This is a website for the 19th century, a written Merzbau, if you like. Whitman, saw America as a vast whole, but that to approach it you had to try different entry points, not start at an entry point in New York, and spread out like the settlers, but come from a thousand different points in the American landscape.

The artistic life lived sees change as inevitable, the works altering, both in themselves and in their context, or their intercontextual value. It is this, rather than the putting a price and value on a particular artwork, that is the more interesting. It is possible that the web will be like 20th century art, with a whirlwind of creativity passing through a different centre, leaving another -ism (another dot com boom) in its wake. Yet old websites, or ones with decaying audiences, are like empty properties after the boom has passed and the gold has run out; an artist goes on, repapers over the old canvases, changes, looks again, sees, in many ways, the bigger picture.

This Complex Web

I've spent the last two days at Manchester's Futuresonic Social Technologies Summit, running back and forth down Oxford Road, as I've had some critical things to do in work. I always seem to get some kind of "conference anxiety" three-quarters few the second day of events such as this - as the "input" level reaches critical, without any chance to "process" what you've heard. There were a number of themes at this years conference, and there are some good overviews on the site blog. Environment 2.0 is one theme - and a little like New Writing Worlds last year - there's a real tension between optimists and pessimists. That "global warming" is a key theme across all kinds of different conferences these days is a good thing, yet so intractable appears the problem, and so immense the disaster, that how on earth are artists, technologists, academics et al to respond? The optimists believe that technology will save all. Funnily this year there was less of an "open source" evangelism than you usually find at Futuresonic, a few pockets aside, but perhaps more worringly a certain complacency from the mainstream that social media and a more participatory culture will somehow solve larger issues. I'm a pessimist in this company since I don't find technology an answer on its own. Part of me wants to stand up and shout "you just need to start doing things right!" But of course institutions get things wrong, frequently - or, have too many vested interests to start with a clean piece of paper. I'm a recipient of technology's benefits, I guess - this blog is part of that - yet I'm always wanting to challenge the orthodoxy. It seems obvious to me that if technology is too far ahead of what people want and need then it will fail, just as surely if the need is too far ahead of what technology can do to fix it. There was subplot or two during the conference, around the digital economy, (and again pessimism v. optimism). Plenty of energetic start ups, but with a sense that to get one success, you need a thousand blooms. This is supply side economic oversupply at its worst. I'd hazard a guess that how technology and innovation will get us out of the current recession will not be through this excessive oversupply (of mortgage products, motor cars or Web 2.0 apps) but through a better and closely application of technology to peoples real needs. Plenty to think about.

On Wednesday night I went along to Cube gallery for the Futuresonic art strand, and its an impressive show. I also liked the reading of the Climate Change report outside of the gallery. I'm hoping to have a second, more extended look tomorrow, before seeing Philip Glass solo at the RNCM tomorrow night. Lots of people are taking better photographs than I ever could here.

Its a busy weekend, with Chorlton Art Festival also requiring a visit at some point.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The First Stone

I'm sure I'm not the only one who feels a considerable disquiet over Derek Walcott's removing of himself from the running for Oxford Professor of Poetry. In many ways this is less of a ceremonial role than the laureate, as the lectures that the poet gives are frequently the most important critical pronouncements of that poets career. It can only be with great regret that we now will no longer have Derek Walcott's Oxford lectures.

And the crime? There can be few statutes of limitations as long-minded as the anonymous smearer who still has a problem with a little local difficulty that Walcott had in 1982. This is not to denigrate sexual harassment, but to wonder whether all sense of perspective has deserted. There are murderers from that year who are now free to continue there lives unmolested. The social nuance of 1982 is very different 27 years later. Yet universities, those places of learning, can sometimes learn absolutely nothing. It is Coetzee's "Disgrace" or Roth's "The Human Stain" made real. The truth is, none of us really know what the truth or intent of that admitted scrape actually was. Our last laureate had a very public issue with one of his students - consenting adults or not - and those of us privy to even the slightest gossip on the poetry scene hear that certain male poets are notorious for their lasciviousness. Yet men will be men, and women will be women, and he or she without sin may cast the first stone. Walcott, having withdrawn with dignity, will appreciate that lesson. It is Oxford's loss not his. Whoever gets it in his place should resign immediately and ask that Walcott is appointed instead.

We are currently hearing of corruption on a scale of epic banality from our political classes, and yet it is the disgrace, the human stain of a remarkable poet who we besmirch. I am no apologist for bad behaviour between the sexes, but it's often a two-way street; and if the reported version is all there was, then there's no criminal offence, even if there's a moral one. And then again, our poets are now supposed to be sexless? We are supposed to believe that male lecturers have never tried it on with their female (and male ) students? We are treating poetry and poets according to some ridiculous morality test that all of us would somehow fail.

I am more appalled by Ruth Padel's poetry than I am by Derek Walcott's behaviour with his students in 1982, and this is not any moral stance, but a belief that we cannot know, we cannot know what that was all about, but we can know about the poetry. I'd hoped we'd got over the days of a fake puritanism, the condemning of Eliot or Larkin or whoever for the sins of their secret selves... yet we're still there, not noticing the irony, that our poets flaws are what make their poetry interesting.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

The Poetry that they Don't Teach You at School

Poetry readings are good value, for a few quid you get to see three or four poets, often interesting, sometimes excellent. The "sting" of course, is that there's usually a table of books somewhere near. Whereas a reading by a "name" will see a man from Blackwells or Waterstones hovering with a pile of Fabers or similar - pleasant enough, but nothing you can't buy from your local branch or the internet - a more obscure group of poets will come with a book table to die for.

Not a table, last week, but a bookshelf, at Bury Art Gallery, furnished a couple of gems (see above), the catalogue of the 2nd Bury Text Festival on the right, and on the left the anthology of the first year of "The Other Room." Both are handsome publications. Worth the price of admission on its own, for the Text Festival catalogue is the extract from Tony Lopez's "Only More So" some of which he read at last Saturday's reading. If some experimental poetry can seem an exercise in facility, this prose piece (that reads like poetry - a nice reversal of, say, the piece that Andrew Motion read on HardTalk last week) is Ashbery-ish in its juxtapositions but its surreality is an everyday one of observation, rather than something more dreamlike. Lines drop in from news articles of the day such as "Compensation paid to thalidomide victims is currently subject to UK income tax", or observations such as "We have a room full of people writing dialogue for digital agents." Here, Lopez is noticing how the contemporary sentence is the unit of rhythm, but these contemporary drop-ins seem like disruptions in the fabric of a more poetic, more ancient document, as if a reading by a medievalist or a hermit's ruminations are being interrupted by radio static. "Feeling content with form, I tried extension," he writes at one point, "Belief is the most challenging of human faculties." These apparent non-sequiturs make a contextual sense, as if we're weaving some blanket mixing emotion, memory and political anger. A brain working fully, in other words, across all the senses.

There is much else in the anthology to admire - but having heard Lopez's piece it was great to be able to re-read it. Visual art is alongside poetry and prose pieces. I was pleased to revisit one of Joe Devlin's Marginalias, as we published several in our very first issue of Lamport Court several years ago, as well as James Davies' humorously offbeat work. James features in both the text festival book, and as one of its founders (and half of poetry/art dualism Joy as Tiresome Vandalism) in "The Other Room Anthology 09/09." Having seen many of the poets read these or similar works live, there's a pleasure in revisiting those half-memories. Even those poets who perhaps didn't impress on the night, might offer something different on the page. One undoubted success, both on page, and when she read them live, was Alex Middleton's translations of Danish poet Inger Christensen, a series of litanies of the natural world, that sound both fragile and beautiful in English.

You can get the Other Room anthology from their website, and the lovely hardback catalogue from Bury Art Gallery.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Manchester Fiction Prize

I wasn't particularly inspired by the rules of the MMU's Manchester Poetry Prize, as its criteria, (number of lines/number of poems)seemed to preclude more interesting writing, (though the shortlisted poems are worth reading), so I'm pleased that this year, with the launch of the Manchester Fiction Prize, there's some reason for optimism. It's actually a short story prize, which is perhaps sensible, though makes the title a little disingenuous, (are good fiction and good stories the same thing?) and allows for stories up to 5000 words, which will enable the entry of short stories, rather than just stories that are short! I'm also excited by the judges: experienced editor and short story Nicholas Royle is joined by Sarah Hall and M. John Harrison, so a trio of writers who are not immune to more speculative forms of fiction. Sensibly, there appears to be no rules other than length. At a cost of £15 per entry its still a little like having a bet on the National, but I can't help but be excited by this, in a way I wasn't about the poetry prize, and given my recent luck with the National, better value for money. With a mid-August closing date, there's time to write something new, or hone something that you've been working on; with the Manchester Literature Festival as the all-too-appropriate time and place for the unveiling of the winners. With the shortlist for the Edge Hill Prize also announced recently, (for best collection), as well as the National Short Story prize, there's beginning to seem like a genuine infrastructure for promoting the form - that may mirror that available for poetry.

Although today's Guardian article on American women writers has much in it that needs saying, I can't help but think that Elaine Showalter's choices are a little too traditional; a little too in the mould of the "great American novel" template that she castigates for being too male. These are writers, she says, "with PhDs," (as if that is any judge of a good novelist), who seem mostly to have written alot of books, - and big books at that - and of a certain generation. Where is A.M. Homes or Suzanne Berne or Donna Tartt or Suri Hustvedt or Louise Erdrich or Lorrie Moore? Barbara Kingsolver is mentioned in passing, but surely "The Poisonwood Bible" would rate highly on any list of novels of the last twenty years? The article, of course, is an extract from her book, called "A jury of her peers," and Showalter, born in 1941, is probably doing an overdue service in reminding us of a female generation the equal of the Updikes-Bellows-Roths, but those male writers are undoubtedly giants, whatever their sex - there are few younger American male writers who would even aspire to that chimera, "the great American novel," and there's no doubt that a list of the best contemporary American fiction writers would feature female writers heavily.

Monday, May 04, 2009

30 Years of Hurt

On May 3rd 1979, Britain went to the polls, and the next day the Conservative party swept into power, giving Britain its first female prime minister and a sea change in politics that has dominated the country, and by extension, my life, since that day. It is perhaps only right, as the country suffers from the effects of the credit crunch, that the policies and personalities of that 30 years seem to be almost entirely played out, at least in the west. A year later, Ronald Reagan would become the American President, and 1979 would see the invasion of Afghanistan by Russia, and the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Both the Gulf and Afghanistan remain crunch points in the geopolitics of the world, yet with Obama's election in the US, and the crisis now affecting global capitalism, perhaps 2009 will see the end of the "shorter 20th century" - an epoch that began in 1914 with the murder of Archduke Ferdinand.

Historical epochs are defined by historians, and long after the fact. I find literature - and the other arts - are a better judge in many ways, in that it written of, by and for the contemporary age in which it is written. So rather than begin with an unfortunate shot in Sarajevo, you can begin with the premiere of "The Rites of Spring", as Alex Ross does in "The Rest is Noise", or perhaps the publication of "Des Imagistes" in 1914. A writing life, an artists life; these are both shorter and longer than a political life. Sometimes the writing and life is brief - like Keats - other times, the life seems to last beyond its historical place...

The catalogue of atrocities that Margaret Thatcher and her administrations laid on this country are great, and continue to resound. The idea that we needed to change with the times, would be a true one; yet Thatcher was an opponent of change in many ways, she seemed to need rupture, not change, with all its fallout. There's something of the scientist about her unwillingness to see or appreciate the consequences. Perhaps we needed a chemist at Number 10 in 1979, but it was an experiment that frequently killed the patient, with a laissez faire shrug of the hands, rather than a hearfelt mea culpa. The need for change, yes, of course, the century was all about change, but in our industrial partners, German, France, the other European nations, the commonwealth democracies, this change didn't require such a leader :- a wartime figurehead when there was no war. (Except, the one's she manufactured, in the south pacific, and the coalfields of the north.)

Worse, I think, and ironic in a way, from such a critic of the permissive society, was the permission that Thatcherism gave to some of the greatest enemies of a small country's social democracy; the powerful, the monied, the casual. The permission to make money any-which-way, is the call of the pirate, the robber-baron, whether in post-communist Russia, the East India Company, or Britain after the fall (of the Labour Party in 1979, and, yes, The Fall band, an offstage chorus throughout this time.)

In action and reaction she changed the Labour party more than she changed the conservatives (who still go to Eton, remember). I don't think its fair to blame her for the worst parts of the Blair years (no more than I'd thank her for Blair's very un-Thatcherite aim for ending child poverty), though you can blame her for the disastrous Major administration - who gave us the railway privatisation we never wanted, and, moreover, the incorrect sense that we as a country could not afford to do what's right. If there are some Majorian traits in Brown of late, it is a political hubris - ID cards for Railway privatisation, for instance.

Culturally, it is the great sweeping works, "Our Friends in the North" for instance, that best contextualise Thatcher. Recent novels like "the Northern Clemency" and "The Line of Beauty" sidestep, in very different ways, the reality. Her longevity gave us a sub-genre of art that existed at the same time as she did - an agit-prop sountrack from a myriad of musicians; contemporary satire from "Spitting Image" and "The New Statesman" - yet there's very little sense that we've come to terms with the epoch. For what she brought forward more than anything was the spreading of the self-absorbtion of the political moment into all aspects of life. Everything had to happen fast, and be unreversible, whether the council house sales or the bombing of the Belgrano; the long play of history was where she failed, dismally, utterly, temperamentally to make her mark, since she could not understand it. Thus, the political settlement of Northern Ireland took a different type of politician (perhaps one, fatally, with his eye on posterity rather than the moment) in Blair, and the devastations reaped up on the North, and the other nations of these islands, were left for others to somehow gather up and fix. Like a farmer who despairing at the weeds left by his lazy tenants, she came in the middle of the night and scorched the earth, not realising those tenants were at a wedding, or looking after their children, or leaving the land to recover, in the longer season of an average life.

That there will be no celebrations of this anniversary is partly a political one - perhaps Gordon Brown would be best having one, as a reminder of what we risk losing by giving another chance to the Conservative party still hankering for Thatcher's voice - but perhaps its also a sign that history has already begun to make up its mind. Literature and art may well be best served by no longer remembering her, ditching her into the history books like a Lord Liverpool, Thatcherism confined to a dustbin where all -isms eventually rot.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Chorlton Festival Programme Announced

I'm alerted to this year's Chorlton Festival, from 14-23rd May. It's a busy time of year - and I'll be at Futuresonic for the first part - but I'm pleased to say I should be able to make my friend Ruth Estevez reading from her novel "Meeting Coty" in the pleasant surroundings of the Lloyds pub on Sunday 17th May, she's got a supporting cast of local poets as well. Worth adding that though "Meeting Coty" is being advertised in a way that might appear romantic, and the setting is historical, we used to meet up when Ruth was writing the novel, and her style is elegant, condensed and powerfully descriptive.

A Tale of Two Carols

First things first, its without any reservations that I welcome Carol Ann Duffy's appointment as the new poet laureate. Its not just symbolic when a change like this happens, the first woman to ever hold the post, but a genuine sign that an institution has recognised the changes in the age. Under any measure, the last twenty years have seen an inexorable rise of the female poet. It wouldn't, I think, be such a "movement", had there not been such a lack in the decades and centuries before. Poetry is a small enough niche in our cultural sphere, that a poetry written only by one gender, seems impoverished, and Duffy, along with others - some of whom she mentioned in her Guardian piece yesterday - has done much to prove that's not the case. It's interesting that Simon Armitage, who was also mooted for the role, shared the triple grace of critical acclaim, commercial success and curriculum friendliness; and that both - reflecting three decades of active northern presses and poets - are both from and based in the north.

Andrew Motion did many good things in his laureate role - turning an unpaid sinecure into something of being "minister for poetry." Yet one cannot help but be glad that our official poetic centre has moved. Motion was usefully near to London, but, whilst at UEA, usefully far away. Though the train from Manchester is hardly ten minutes further away from the capital, there's a definite frisson in knowing that poet laureate lives a couple of miles from me, teaches a couple of miles from me. That is not to deny London its role - its where our poetry institutions are and still, despite the successes of Carcanet, Bloodaxe and others, where the publishing industry lives and works - but to authenticate a move away from a Londoncentrism that, for a young poet growing up anywhere else, would always be a barrier.

Yet Motion never attempted - was incapable of attempting - the one thing that British poetry has necessarily needed, artistically, over the last twenty years, namely, an accomodation between different influences and styles. As co-author, with Blake Morrison of the narrow, proscriptive, and dull, "Penguin Book of British Contemporary Poetry", how could he? Unfortunately for Carol Ann Duffy, her "to do" list not only includes being a cheerleader for poetry, and representing female, gay and Scottish poets, but also entering this debate.

I was at the Text Festival in Bury yesterday, where another Carol, Carol Watts, was one of three readers performing from their commissioned "Bury Poems." Along with Philip Davenport and Tony Lopez, we got a sense of one of the other poetic tribes - its self-defined avant garde. This is a poetry that is no less understandable or enjoyable than the mainstream, but has different aims, and different methods. What came out clearly, was that history, ideas, nostalgia, memory, of subject in these poems are relived through forms that are in turn expansive, word-focussed, and open-ended; poetry with a flow, rather than poetry that is pinned down. Carol Ann Duffy, one feels, will be a lot more open to a poetry world that is diverse and can make bridges between different styles and objectives than Motion ever would or could; yet she's also an insider, part of an expected orthodoxy. It will be interesting to see if the sense of what poetry is, and where it is coming from (particularly amongst new and younger poets), can expand under her watch. A laureate is hardly expected to be able to control the waters, but the Augean stables of contemporary British poetry remain in need of a little cleaning. A change of gender, as the writer of the "The World's Wife" knows only too well, can change the story as well.

(Post script, I'd called this a "tale of two Carols", but actually it's a tale of three, as yesterday on the way back from Bury bumped into my old friend, the Manchester poet Carol Batton - who, as ever, was kind and generous with her bags of poems. My friend Julia has uploaded a picture of one of the loveliest.)