Tuesday, September 29, 2009


For a couple of years I've been looking for a pair of decent bookends. Yes, I've got shelves and book cases, but I've also got books on every other available surface, and those old fashioned adjudictors of mantlepiece collections, are just what I need. Yet, bookends aren't part of the fashionable modern interior it seems....and on the odd occasion I've found something that might do the job they've seemed too heavy or too gauche (there appear to be quite a few "erotic" bookends around, for those er... neo-classicists amongst you.) What I was looking for was something plain, but elegant, sturdy but not overly obtrusive. Two bits of nicely lacquered wood with a carved animal feature to add character, for instance. £6.99 from Didsbury Oxfam on Saturday. I am a happy man.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Art & Commerce

There's not much in the Bloomberg New Contemporaries exhibition at the Cornerhouse that you'd feel comfortable with on your dining room wall, and, equally, there's little at the Urbis Buy Art Fair that I really want to see in a gallery. An observation, that's all, that when we talk about "art" we mean different things in different places, just as when we talk about "books" or "novels" we may not always be using the same measuring device. I admire any artist, from Vettriano down who manages to make money from their art, but the work that most surprised me at New Contemporaries - which showcases the best of the degree shows - is not aiming to be above anyone's mantlepiece any time soon.

I've always tried to go along to the New Contemporaries show, but realise it might have been a couple of years. What does it say of the state of the art? (Or the state of art?) I think there are threads of narrative, rather than a grand design. The conceptual appears to have played itself out, and in many ways I would say the binding thread for this years exhibition was one of "representation", which is one of the oldest of artistic aims. A representative art speaks of a generation that is perhaps re-learning how to look, which in itself offers a new intellectual challenge. Not all of this is successful, and some of the painters, illustrators (yes, drawing, that lowest-tech) and sculptors seem to have an affinity with the less flashy side of seventies art; a low key expressionism, a slightly affected minimalism. My three favourite pieces were all video works. Richard Healy's two video pieces were astonishing; playful, warm, confident, and easy with their postmodernist self-awareness. Brasher was Rachel Mclean's reinvention of Scottish mythos in her day-glo video montage, "Tae Think Again". So easily done badly, the sheer bravado of the piece was a clear highlight of the exhibition. And though I'm not sure whether it's much more than a very good joke, Susanne Ludwig's video installation left my smiling long after I'd left the gallery.

The gallery wasn't very busy, early on a Sunday afternoon, but I'd recommend a visit to what is a diverse, considered show.

"Buy Art Fair", in comparison is a commercial bazaar, with hundreds pushing through the space. You know the kind of thing, by now, commercial galleries, touting living room accessories. Artists must pay the bills, and a friend met us later, very happy that a couple of his paintings of the crane-scape of Media City's evolution had been sold.

In the distance between the exhibitions at Cornerhouse and Urbis you can find something of the gap between art and commerce. (It's worth adding, that the Manchester Contemporary, a side exhibition at Buy Art Fair, was a laudable attempt to narrow the gap, with providing space for some of Manchester's more contemporary galleries.)

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Writing Life in Colour

I've been archiving my writing life the last few weeks, via Lulu's print on demand facility. It's quirky, but does the job I need it to do. And by keeping it simple, I think they look quite nice in a home-made sort of way. Only another ten volumes or so to go...

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Random Something

It seems I wasn't the only one to be a little concerned at the Booker's past-fixation. It's not that they're in the past per se, but, as Elizabeth Baines points out, their contemporaneity. That the Booker is only one aspect of this is remarked upon by Tim Adams in the Observer, and now, Kim Stanley Robinson makes a good case for SF being worthy of inclusion. I'll certainly look out at the recommendations. Fascinating that James Naughtie, Booker judge, bemoans that no SF was submitted by publishers, though the admission that the Professor of English at UCL is "not aware of science fiction" should make John Mullan ponder his job decription. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy of course; what sort of book makes the Booker list? Either something set in the past, or in an exotic location...so lets enter those type of books. Having said that, a shortlist that is entirely made up of novels set in the past does make one question the judges. Perhaps they didn't want to be comparing books so different as to be incomparable. And Robinson's key point is worth repeating: "A good new novel about the first world war, for instance, is still not going to tell us more than Parade's End by Ford Madox Ford."

But let's be honest, this is no golden age for fiction, and the fascination with the past is a symptom of this. It doesn't make them bad books, it makes them limited books. But I'm not sure what arts are going through a golden age. Certainly not cinema or rock music. The vivid invention found in comic books, American TV serials, circuses and multimedia spectaculars since the early 90s might now be petering out...contemporary classical music is a niche art form. Architecture and visual arts have had an arc of grandeur that may, in retrospect, be fuelled by marketing and money. Theatre and poetry remain anachronistic. Digitisation has yet to give us a D.W.Griffiths rather than the sideshows of the Lumiere brothers.

Anyway, one finds gold in the unlikeliest of locations. Would a visitor to New York in the seventies have imagined that St. Mark's poetry project and CBGBs would become the temples of a renaissance rather than interesting cultural-anthropological niches?

The Didsbury Arts Festival runs next week, and there's a cornucopia of events. I think you don't plan it, just turn up somewhere, and there'll be something unusual on. It's all very Didsbury of course, (which is different, somehow, than very Chorlton).

I've a number of creative things to do today, and over the next week or so. I keep having vivid dreams, and being very busy has meant that although I don't have much time for reflection, I find that there's layer on layer on stimuli waiting to be processed. Part of that, of course, is looking back and I'm still reading through old computer files and listening to old music in a way of remembering things that I've perhaps half-forgotten - not so much the pieces themselves, but the intent behind them.

Friday, September 18, 2009

In from the sun

I've been in Cyprus since Tuesday, on work trip, and have an evening of travel ahead of me. Its been generally lovely weather and the people have been really hospitable, but it has been work, and after four full days I'm a bit desperate for some "me" time. I found myself talking to the mayor of Paralimni yesterday about George Seferis, as the only Greek poet I know, but I hadn't realised that much of his work was written in this part of Cyprus. I'll have to dig out my "Selected Poems" in English when I get back. Having read alot about the imagists recently, there's something mystical about seeing Greek language on all the signs. (Many early imagist poems were also Hellenist, with titles and epigrams in Greek.) Oh, for a classical education. Yet, despite all the culture shock, the world is the same all over and the local authorities want similar things for their citizens as anywhere else in the world, and see technology as one of the ways of achieving it.

I've written a few lines of poetry, but nothing finished yet, as it's been very much snatched time between the official functions. I arrive back in Manchester in the early hours, and I'll need a bit of time to reconnect with the day-to-day.

The reason for the visit was partly because all projects kick off again in September - we're a service economy; a people ecology - and all that people activity has to take place Monday-Friday, mid September to mid December.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Every Generation Gets the Beatles it Deserves

I was unusual among my friends in liking the Beatles. But my love for them went back to when I was eight or nine and the two double albums 62-66 and 67-70 had been bought into the house a joint present for me and my dad. I took them away and never gave them back. Far more than the music of the mid-seventies they appealed to me. There was plenty to like, from the kiddy-friendly movie "Yellow Submarine", to early singles like "Can't Buy Me Love" that you could sing loudly, to more sophisticated fare. Quite early on I made "A Day in the Life" my favourite song, not knowing that this "obscure" track had received universal critical adoration since the day it was released.

Yet I'd say my generation, born at the end of the sixties, is the least smitten with the band. We came of age in a world of synthesizers, drum machines and floppy fringes and to be honest the authenticity of the Beatles was part of the problem. It's later generations that craved the simple pleasures of the original guitar combo. I was probably as interested in the "story" of the Beatles as the band itself - and waded through Philip Norman's "Shout!" preferring the picture book approach of the American-perspective "Beatles Forever." (Norman's choice of title said it all - naming his book after someone else's song - the book seemed more interested in the money than the music.)

But every generation gets the Beatles it deserves (as I wrote in a previous post). I've always found it hard to imagine the Beatles being anyone's favourite band, for two reasons - firstly their wonderful diversity makes them a difficult band to love wholesale, and secondly, unless you were "there" at the time, how could you possibly have a personal connection with this band? The Beatles, after all, were for everybody. I gave up on them for a bit in my teens, preferring the music that my parents couldn't and wouldn't love, the Cure, Joy Division and Cocteau Twins. Saying the Beatles is your favourite band seems a little on the perverse side, like having Shakespeare as your favourite writer; yes, yes we know they are good, but what about your own view? And to be honest, apart from Liam Gallagher, I don't think I've ever heard anyone call them their favourite band. The Clash, Joy Division, Led Zeppelin, Adam and the Ants even...but not the Beatles.

In the early seventies it wasn't yet clear what a sudden decline there would in the quality of their solo work. You could easily make a passable Beatles album out of the best of "All Things Must Pass", "Ram" and "McCartney", "John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band" and "Imagine", and accompanying singles. Yet by the time the "red" and "blue" albums came out there was a need to remember them at their best. Despite their faults, those two albums "cherry picked" the albums, and included the best of the non-collected singles and b-sides, and songs that had been hits for other people, such as "Obla-di Obla-da", "Michelle" and "Yesterday" became canonical. If the Beatles had suddenly reformed in 1976, their nostalgia set would likely enough be drawn from those 8 sides. Ironically, apart from the old slavish devotees like ELO, the "influence" of the Beatles own sound was hard to find in the seventies and eighties.

That they had fallen out of favour was even clear when Lennon was so tragically murdered. "Double Fantasy" was a world away from being a Beatles album, it was an adult, not an adolescent work, and Yoko Ono was a key component of the record. It was a mild critical and commercial success before he died, and then it was his solo records, "Imagine" in particular, which were revived. It wasn't John the Beatle that we remembered, but the John of the Amsterdam bed-in, white pianos, Yoko Ono and "Give Peace a Chance." Had he lived, its hard to see the eighties being kind to Lennon. The Geffen label he'd signed to saw many of the 70s artists David Geffen had given contracts to, such as Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and Donna Summer, release the most disappointing records of their careers.

The key "Beatles" record of the era was a novelty, the illegal bootleg that became Stars-on-45, a medley of the best bits of a dozen or so Beatles records was one of the biggest records of 1981. All we needed, it seemed, was not love, but the hooks we still heard at wedding discos. The late seventies and early eighties saw EMI treat the Beatles as poorly as any other back catalogue artist, with compilations albums called "Beatles ballads" or or compiling their movie songs.

It was the CD that saved them, as it did so much of the record industry. Re-issuing the catalogue was what financed the late 80s record industry, and the Beatles albums were the jewels in their crown. Realising that many of their best songs never made an album, "Past Masters" 1 & 2 swept up the debris, and briefly, "Sgt. Pepper" was back in the charts again. By the nineties, the CD reissue industry had become more and more bloated - it was not just original albums, but box sets and deluxe editions that the fans craved (or at least: that they'd buy.) Whereas every band worth its salt has had a boxset released, the Beatles canonical status meant that everything they ever did was worth a release. Combining a TV series, a glossy book, and a series of double CDs, the archives were raided to give us the Beatles, once more, this time as historical artefact.

Into the new century, with the internet age upon us, the contemporary fan wanted something simpler, and the single CD "1", collecting their number ones on one packed disc became one of the best selling CDs of the new decade. Here, in an age where people were starting to listen to songs as downloads or on MP3 players, the front cover was a vague design that had no connection with the band it contained. Its phenomenonal success seemed to imply that the Beatles would remain with us forever, even if, like ABBA or Queen, they were now reduced to a "canon" of twenty songs or so.

What then to make of the remastering of the original albums, from the original tapes, and, for completists, mono and stereo versions? This Beatles reissue programme seems like one last attempt to make money out of the catalogue, given that the recordings begin to go out of copyright in 2012. In other words, for EMI to keep selling their music their needed to be a new "digital remaster." Yet aware that people consume songs in games as well as on the radio, the Beatles Rock Band reinvents the band as animated moptops for the first time since "Yellow Submarine." Whatever your thoughts on their music, you can't deny we get the Beatles we deserve.

The History Books

Some of my favourite novels of the last few years are historical; "The Poisonwood Bible"; "The Plot Against America" and "American Pastoral"; "L.A. Confidential"; "Oscar and Lucinda"; "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao"... so surely I shouldn't have much problem with a Booker shortlist that owes more to the history section of the library than current affairs? Well, yes and no. There's certainly some interesting sounding books on the list this year, whether its the semi-autobiographical "Summertime" by J.M. Coetzee, Hilary Mantel's much-acclaimed "Wolf Hall" set during the 16th Century, or Adam Foulds story about the life of John Clare, "The Quickening Maze." Yet, when all six of the shortlist are set in the past - with only the Coetzee being within my lifetime - one has to wonder, yet again, about the English novel. The books I listed at the beginning, American and Australian, seem to be history books in setting only, their concerns primarily contemporary. Will this Booker list have a similar focus? I do hope so. Of course, its what we do, in Britain, "the history business", its why people come to Stratford, to Windsor, to York, yet I can't be the only one who is uneasy that not a single contemporary-set novel published this year was deemed good enough to make the shortlist of our main literary prize. Those who do not remember the past may well be condemned to repeat it, but those who only remember the past, may struggle to be ready for the future. Good novels will be on this list, I'm sure, but one has to hope that its just the quirk of one year's shortlist, and that our best contemporary writers are addressing the challenges of the modern age, not just finding security in the certainties of the past.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Literature Played at Variable Speeds

The writers of stone tablets maybe managed a page a week; perhaps the ornate scripts of a Medieval monk took almost as long to craft a perfect page; moveable type saw a page set in several hours; a page could be typed in an hour or less on a typewriter, yet few writers were good typists. (Orwell's handwriting was so illegible that he had to do his own typing of "1984" even as his health faltered.) The many millions of copies of the new Dan Brown novel will have been printed at breakneck speed over a number of weeks, I imagine. A single web page can be written and published in the time it takes to think the words, and be distributed to the whole world, or at least that bit that is watching, at the touch of a button.

Literature has always ran at different speeds; in the writing of it, in the finishing of the manuscript, in the print and publication, and in the distribution; then there is the reading. However long the Dan Brown novel took to write, it will have been written to be read as quickly as possible. One of the oddest elements of the Harry Potter phenomenon was the desire to be the first readers to have completed the latest book. As those books got longer, and the time between appearances got longer, it was as if a gourmet feast was being swallowed down with the alacrity of a TV dinner.

Some books require repeated readings to give up their secrets, others are still unfinished, unfinishable. I've yet to complete "Ulysses", and the last time I tried to begin "from the top", it was the Sirens chapter that derailed me again. I've read the end, the middle, the start, but not the whole novel. A Borges story could be re-read on a perpetual loop, understanding not coming any quicker because one had memorised the piece. A memorisation of a passage of Shakespeare or off "Dover Beach" will give off more than an understanding, but an "inhabiting" of the words, yet the full meaning might not come even then.

But we live in fast times, we live in an impatient age. Blog posts are first drafts, sent out with only a cursory editing - and, increasingly so are first novels, newspaper articles and volumes of poetry. All text is dynamic of course, a book is not a machine with a certain number of moving parts which have to be in the same order to work; however if there turned out to be a "director's cut" of "White Teeth" or "Remainder" I doubt that there'd be many who'd have the time or inclination to read the new version, or, indeed, wonder at any differences. I've 3 versions of "Lady Chatterley's Lover", you can read both "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" and "Stephen Hero;" "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao" is even briefer, but maybe not as wondrous, in its New Yorker magazine version.

I've been thinking about this as I've re-read some recent prose. I know how long it takes even to write something that has appeared to come easy. There are some stories that I've sat down with a dozen times and not moved a word forward. I tend to avoid writing anything if I can't write anything good. Yet even as a I read what I've been working on, and seeing that it's not all bad, that there could be something of value in it already, which just needs work to become what it could be, then I also see something speeding away from me. I'm wanting fiction that is as fast as the age, I'm impatient for it. I don't mean I just want a "page turner", after all that's more to do with the speed of action, than the speed or otherwise of the writing, rather, the speed of the inaction is a problem - a "light" prose is almost a necessity. I cut out the dead wood, I prune, and trim, and cut; I expunge awkward formulations, convoluted sentences; the words are "true" to the subject, and say only that, yet that very lightness creates a problem - it's hard to stop reading at speed; it's hard to take in the detail. I've made a virtue of an economic descriptive style, and I have forgotten how to read it slowly. I don't want to read slowly. There is no reason to...

...I always liked "White Teeth" because it was so full of stuff, that, more than any other reason was why it seemed a good first novel. I was hungry for content. There are stories within stories, and Zadie Smith is a highly amusing teller. But you read a big Proustian book like Philip Hensher's "Northern Clemency" and there's hubris amongst the description. Its a vast book that demands its read reasonably fast, or else you'll despair at never making it to the end, yet the writing wants you to read slowly; yet hardly gives you the sustenance that slow reading requires. A non-literary novel from an earlier age will now seem too slow and too solid, whether its a workmanlike prose or highly literate.

Literature has always played at different speeds, but I'm not sure now, as writer as well as reader, what we want or expect. Something too complex will seem too slow, something simpler, but more honed, we'll whizz through without giving it the time it may require. All that's left are impressions, tastes. Somehow, as a writer, you have to ensure that the essence of the work remains, and style, length, and ease of reading, as well as the words you use, the sentences you form, are all part of that. Get it right, and the world, I suspect, is yours for the taking.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

In Praise of Print

There have been a few Twitter threads recently asking "what is your oldest digital photo?" I guess I've got a few from 1999-2000, as that was the first time I had access to any sort of digital camera. I'm quite careful to keep archiving "My Documents" so even though those snaps would have been loaded onto a computer that was the one before the one before this one I've got a folder somewhere that says "Archives."

I've been writing to screen regularly since 1990, and for many years would ensure I'd got a print copy of absolutely everything I'd just written. CD-Rs, USB sticks and portable storage are all quite recent things; and, just like everyone else I've got lazy. The problem with backing things up electronically is that you can't actually see what's there. The shoebox under the bed full of photographs is there to be discovered - and its contents understood - ten, twenty years from now; but as for the USB stick? Will they even be readable in a decade or another piece of obsolete technology.

It is with this in mind that I've started to archive my writings on paper again, but rather than a lever arch file, I've gonna back to Lulu.com's Print on Demand facility. Its still not the easiest thing to negotiate, but with a bit of time and effort, putting together a "paper archive" is easier than ever. Even a prolific author's lifetime work doesn't add up that many pages or volumes in the scheme of things - yet just as we take endless digital snapshots (and treasure only a few), our writing on blogs, or into word documents probably doesn't get ordered now until it actually is ready for publication. When I was writing a novel full-time I used to print off the morning's writing for checking and re-reading in the evening.

Even at a time when I'm thinking about how writing can be made available online or via e-readers or iPhones, being able to get a good printout of your work remains important; both for re-reading and editing the work, and for creating an archive that seems to have a little more permanence than a series of "virtual files."