Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 27, 2009

My Writing Year

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Near Christmas

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

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

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

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Swearing isn't Clever, but it is Funny

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

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

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

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

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

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

Old Rockers

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

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

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

Saturday, December 19, 2009

On McEwan

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 17, 2009

What Makes a Good Poem?

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

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Reappraising Nabokov

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

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

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

Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Absence of Literature

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Interlude Reading

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

Saturday, December 05, 2009

One day your prints will come

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

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

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

Clocks Ticking

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 03, 2009

The City and the City - China Mieville

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