Friday, December 31, 2010

Happy New Year

A Happy New Year to all my readers! (The fine bookends holding this year's Booker shortlist in place were a Christmas present, specially commissioned from a local woodturner at Chasewater. He'd not made any before and did a fine job.)

Wednesday, December 29, 2010


Rather than think about the year just gone I've been looking through a compilation I made of my writing from 2003. I put it together a year or so ago, so the dates aren't entirely accurate, but it came to a massive 150 A4 pages. 2003 was a watershed year in my writing as it was the year I started taking it less seriously; actually that's wrong - I've continued to take it seriously; but the year I reduced my commitment to it. There were good reasons: I'd had 4 short term jobs in less than 4 years, each one different, but going nowhere, and was just about to start a slightly longer term one, which, amazingly I'm still in. I'd also run into the ground a bit with my fiction. I couldn't really see where I could find the inspiration or the dedication to write another novel, which had been my obsession for best part of a decade, I'd stopped writing my blog, and wasn't having any luck placing short stories, and my brief interest in drama was coming to an end. Poetry, ironically, which had always been there in the background, was coming to the forefront at least partly because I'd started, with a couple of friends, the literary magazine, Lamport Court.

Looking back, I wrote a lot of fiction that year, or at least, it seems so - but these were often stories I'd finished earlier, or new pieces that I began and petered out. I was 36; it perhaps seemed time to put my literary ambitions on hold and do something - anything - else. I went to stay with a friend in France for a few days, and the country calm emptied my head of the angst I'd been feeling having to apply for new jobs every six months or so. Returning to Britain I stood on the railway station and watched the trains go by, in a dreamlike state; returning to Manchester I heard a mighty bang in the kitchen as the boiled eggs I'd put on, dried up and exploded out of the pan.

I'd recently had some poetry in "Reactions 3" a well-regarded UEA anthology, and, through Lamport Court, and the growing creative writing alumni community, seemed to be having conversations about poetry, thoughts about poetry. But what of the writing itself? None of the poems I wrote in 2003 made it into "Playing Solitaire for Money", but a large section of "Extracts from Levona" was written that year. The "everyday" poems I was writing seemed a little strained, everyday anecdotes I was trying to coat with surrealism. Towards the end of the year I'd have stopped writing poetry for six months or more. In the wider world the marching against the Iraq war was going on.

But looking back on some of the unpublished work I was writing that year is intrigueing. I was trying out different things - I'd always done this in prose, but was now doing it in poetry - I was also thinking seriously of what contemporary poetry might look like. I didn't write any of the more "concrete"/"flarf"-like poems that I'd toyed with in the year or two before; I was experimenting instead with traditional forms - "dialogues", "sonnets" - and a couple of long sequences which, reading back are obviously flawed, but are fascinating in a way. It is not enough, I think, to just carve out poems (or stories or blog posts) in the time available, but that you need to be doing it in a fertile environment; where there is time to fail, time to grow. I look back on those sequences and they are unfinished business, straining for something. Amidst the groping in the dark, there's an odd moment of magic, of connection.

There's very little that I wrote in 2003 that I would consider amongst my finest work, in any genre, and it explains my confusion at the time - five years after completing my M.A. needing to decide a little where my priorities lie. If I said in "life" rather than "art" I wouldn't be wrong, but best part of a decade onwards, I realise they are not so easy to separate; more, that its a matter of emphasis.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson

(Contains a few spoilers.)

When Jacobson read from "The Finkler Question" in Manchester before he'd won the Booker Prize, he asked the audience whether he should read the funny or sad bits, this being a funny novel about death. He's a consummate reader, and the scenes he read leapt off the page. There's little that's actually laugh out loud funny in the novel itself, but neither is it morbid. He's a consummate writer as well, and "The Finkler Question" uses all his skills for what might well have been a difficult sell.

Julian Treslove and Sam Finkler were at school together (in the sixties and seventies, though it feels longer ago) and kept in touch with their ancient teacher, Libor Sevcik, a Czech emigre. Two of the three - not Treslove - are Jewish and the book is primarily about different kinds of Jewishness in contemporary Britain. Primarily, but not entirely, from Treslove's perspective. The book's one consistently good joke is the replacing of the word "Jewish" with the word "Finkler." For Treslove wants at first to understand Jewishness, and then to be Jewish.

It is around this modus operandi that Jacobson spins a comic novel of ideas. Not since Daniel Deronda has the average reader had such a grounding in the finer points of Jewish doctrine, and Jacobson's real triumph is in doing this in a way that doesn't feel hectoring or forced. All the learndedness - basically "what it is to be Jewish" - is taken with a pinch of salt (beef.) Not that Jacobson's comedy is the laugh out loud variety. It relies on the spinning of yarns, dreadful puns, and a certain sprightly joi de vivre which enlightens even the darkest passages.

Both Finkler and Libek have lost their wives. For the older man it is a tragedy - the loss of his life partner and part of himself - but for Finkler it's never quite so clearcut, and we never really find out of what she died (cancer, perhaps?) That his best friend has been having an affair of sorts with her, in the mistaken belief that she is both kinds of a "Finkler woman" (she's a convert to Judaism) means that it is Treslove who is also in mourning. Treslove is the comic figure of the novel. A thinly-drawn 49-year old who has accidentally had two children, and makes his living as a celebrity lookalike (not one celebrity in particular - he looks like lots of different ones a little bit.) Getting over the solipsism and unbelievability of Treslove is one of the novel's first stumbling blocks; you feel that for Jacobson he's the useful fool, who anything can happen to. It's therefore also a novel about male friendship, which remains one of the defining themes of a certain generation of writers (think "The Information," "Talking it Over", even "Small World"). The tropes of a contemporary London come and ago, and provide a number of set pieces for these three very different men to share their very different thoughts on being (or not being) Jewish.

The comic tropes are themselves a little wearisome - and already seem a little dated (Amy Winehouse listed in a list of famous Jews for instance) - and in the group of "ASHamed Jews" that Finkler joins, you feel a joke as throwaway as Zadie Smith's KEVIN in "White Teeth." But satire has to risk falling, if it is to risk being funny. As the novel progresses, Treslove's fascination with a religion and culture he doesn't belong to becomes more serious, as anti-semiticism, even in the leafy environs of St. John's Wood, comes to the fore. There seems a lingering - and quite powerful - message here; that vigilance against anti-semiticism can never be enough. For such a political novel to have won the Booker is surprising in itself, but its concerns, though not to be dismissed, seem relatively trivial. There has to be an uneasiness, even in a novel where most of the Jewish characters are uneasy about Palestine, that Gaza is used as a throwaway backdrop to what is essentially a comedy of manners. Is this (to use one of Jacobson's favoured rhetorical questions) a comic novel about a serious subject or a serious novel about differences of opinion? To be fair it doesn't purport to have any answers: and the tackling of difficult subjects with quite a bit of flair, and not a little levity is to be applauded - yet so difficult are the subjects that they never quite go away. Can you joke about the Holocaust? Well, Jacobsen does, but to make the point that you shouldn't.

If this was purely a political book it's appeal would be limited however; it's far better a novel when it concentrates on the relationship between the three men and their relationships to the women (and children) in their lives. When Treslove goes against type and falls in love with a buxom Jewish woman, his two friends note with authority that he was looking for a mother figure. Amidst the comedy, the politics and the mourning, this is a novel primarily about male frailties, and can be both painful and acute at the same time.

It's the first of this year's Booker shortlist I've read, and there feels an element of long service award about it, though its pleasing that a novel that contains serious ideas, as well as seriously bad puns can be applauded, presumably on the sheer bravado of it's writing. Though engaging, the writing - or should we say the editing - is a problem. As a mid-list writer, maybe Jacobson wasn't given the time he should have been, but there are typographical errors, inconsistencies and far too many sloppy lines. One imagines the first of these will be fixed in any reprints, but the second and third are probably now set in aspic, as they were clearly not a problem for the Booker judges. It is, when all's said and done, a curiously old-fashioned novel, though set in a contemporary Britain, which won't frighten any conservatively minded readers, though they might be a little put off, as I was, by the detailed riff on the Jewish character who is trying to un-circumsise himself. In the matter of aesthetic taste, I'm as uncertain as Treslove finds himself when trying to pigeonhole Finkler.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Pathological Britain

With Christmas Day gone, and the news that we are a predominantly secular country these days anyway, thoughts turn to the looming VAT increase, and, in the Independent's cataclysmic words: "Nine Days to Save the Economy." Elsewhere children's authors decry the removal of a grant from Booktrust, just as, previously film makers decried the closing of the UK Film Council and sports colleges got annoyed about cuts to the sports budget, and probably, Regional Developers were unhappy at the closing of the Regional Development Agencies.

I sometimes think that politics in this country owes more to programmes like Yes Prime Minister and The Thick of It than the other way round. In short, the media seems to talk about a country that I hardly believe exists, never mind recognise. Perhaps its no surprise that in a year when we got a government that not only didn't we vote for, but was not even flagged up in advance (apart from those of us who have always been a little suspicious of the LibDem's "man for all seasons" politics), that it seems like we have entered "pathological Britain." To be pathological, of course, is sign of a "mentally disturbed condition".

It's been an odd year personally, as well as nationally. But the national condition is stranger in some ways: we are used to politicians and their promising jam tomorrow, but this is something new, this drip drip of future fear and dread. Perhaps its something to do with us being ruled by boys who went to boys schools and were looked after by strangers... the boarding school is writ large in the British psyche though most of us have no conception of it other than a fictional one.

If we are looking for fictonal models for the world we live in today, perhaps more even than in the 80s, it is Orwell's prescience of media-ubiquity in "1984" that is so apposite. If ever there was a book about delayed fear that is the one. Orwell saw clearly that institutions were ever more dangerous than people, a subtle distinction given the terrors of Stalin and Hitler that he had just seen write large. Phrases like "the big society" which were meaningless when first uttered, gain power through repetition. I don't think it is their linguistic ubiquity that matters so much as the repeating of a lie so often that it becomes, if not a truth, at least not a falsehood.

This resistance to authorised cliche is, I think, one of the more important roles for the contemporary writer. It's why I've been uneasy about some of the kneejerk reactions to particular policies that we've seen of late. It is important that writers are heard and have an opinion, but the best writers are more nuanced than contemporary media theatrics requires. I'm sure Philip Pullman (who I've not read) is more nuanced in his humanism in his books than he ever is in his pronouncements, just as Martin Amis's fictional satires are far more ambiguous than his highly quotable forays into the "sex war."

It is where the small press, the independent poet, the quirky and the unloved writer comes into their own - this resistance to authorised cliche. I hope to find time over the next few weeks to write about some of the lovely artefacts I've picked up this year; spending far more on these things than on 2-for-1 books at Waterstones. It is in the retail imperative - these "non books" that are already being made half-price as too-late Xmas presents - that seems particularly pathological. Everyone who values their local shops knows you need to keep using them, to keep them - though ironically it is in the very poor areas (or the economically inactive rural villages) where they are more likely to disappear from. Clearly the business rates in Didsbury or Highgate are less of deterrent to local shops, than the disposable income (and predilection for scatter cushions) of their customers.

Yet if reading and listening outside the mainstream has another benefit, it is that it gives you a better insight into that mainstream than the insiders themselves. Walking into HMV on the high street over the last few months, its been hard to find the CD or DVD sections never mind the particular item you want (and god help you, if you're looking for vinyl or boxsets or back catalogue!) for all the MP3 players, games machines and t-shirts. It comes as no surprise that HMV is having a bad Christmas. A year from now it may well have divested itself of Waterstones, which nobody who cares about books will be disappointed about.

There's been quite a few highlights of the year and most of them have included at least two of literature, music and alcohol. On a personal level, I've been reacquainting myself with the idea that I might be a poet, rather than someone who writes poetry; though I'm sure I'll probably disabuse myself of that notion sometime in the new year. This blog feels an inevitable part of the ebb and flow of my year now, in a way that it might not always have done. It evades as much as it includes (books that I've read but forgot to blog about at the time, for instance), but diaries and journals are always partial. I was reminded of this truth when reading Bruce Chatwin's Diaries earlier in the year. It illuminated, but obscured. Yet read in tandem with his books and Nicholas Shakespeare's biography, brought one closer to understanding one of my favourite writers. That we live in a country and a culture where a large book of letters by a writer who died over a quarter of a century ago, can be brought to publication by our oft-derided publishing industry, there's clearly still a culture worth looking for.

Despite this piece's title, I'm sanguine about our pathology. I'm neither in the media or political bubble, or based in our often surprisingly navel-gazing capital city; I sit outside - politics, finance, the media, even the world of "letters" - and it gives me a better view. The task as ever is to inculcate that in the art.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

National Short Story Day

Today is national short story day, appropriately on the shortest day. Information about events, readings, recordings and downloads are available on the website for the day, including one in Manchester this evening.

How do you celebrate National Short Story Day? Easy, really - just read a short story. In the spirit of the day I've made a quirkly little story that's never been published, available on my website. There are all sorts of stories, of course, from one's that just tell a tale, to ones that have a twist, to stories, like this one, which are more conceptual. The story is called "Backwards" and you can read it here.

As for recommendations... I like my stories to be a little macabre, and this brilliant classic from A.M. Homes is certainly that! Read "A Real Doll" here.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

From Ghent With Love

Not for the first time, seeing Manchester and England from a distance doesn't so much give you perspective as marvel at what we accept as normalised.

I spent last week in Ghent, Belgium for a succession of meetings and conferences. Ghent is the biggest student city in the country, and everywhere you go there are bicicle parks, and cyclists on the streets, hardly any with helmets. The snow that fell briefly on Thursday night was cleared away by morning, and I walked again the 2km to the conference centre, through a mostly pedestrianised city centre. The city centre spreads further than Manchester does, but it's very low rise, and the old Cathedral and other similarly iconic buildings are the landmarks that rise about the city-scape. The city's canals break up the landscape and seem to separate the different sections of the town. Much of the centre is under construction as a new tramline is put into place.

It's the first time I've been to a conference where the AV has been so contemporary - powerpoint and speaker side by side on the big screen, apparently in HD. The conference centre itself was a model of quiet organisation, and vast, with a series of technology related events taking place one after another during the week.

You look hard for a chain pub, take away or shop in Ghent, though I did glimpse both a McDonalds and a Subway, elsewhere it's a high class shopping town, Manchester's King Street, meets Chester. Most people, at the conference and in the town, spoke English, though there's a political dimension to this, as Ghent is part of Flanders, and currently Belgium is without a national government. It hardly seems to matter, so strong are the regional institutions. Explaining our regional/city structures to delegates from elsewhere in Europe sometimes seems like you are explaining a primitive toy that you have just created to an advanced civilisation. Even as you proudly show them how it works, you know how stupid it sounds.

Belgium's a country with the population of the North West, but with the infrastructure of a nation, and it shows. Its not just that the workforce is educated, and international, but that it's also educated for a purpose. There seems to be a much greater understanding and synergy between the public and the private sector, and our current politically led upheavals seem not just absurd, but frankly dangerous, when you look at how other parts of Western Europe goes about it's business. Prices are high, yet the restaurants are full. Bookshops proliferate, there are posters everywhere for art and theatre, and I managed to squeeze in an hour in a record shop, Music Mania, which was like the kind that hardly exist in England these day. The town itself is monocultural in a way that Brussels, for instance, isn't, and I guess it's a wealthy city. But how can this be? Alongside heritage, there is progression. The conference was hosting the annual "Future Internet Assembly" and the companies exhibiting were cutting edge - and far more about useful new applications and new technology than about marketing and sales. If the internet occasionally failed, it wasn't as bad as in Brussels, and certainly not as bad as I've often found in the UK.

There are things that frustrate, of course, but most of those things were a result of being a visitor and expecting to find the 24 hour opening shops, or the cheap takeaways that are the Americanised side of our convenience culture. We only need such convenience, I began to think, because of the inconvenient way we arrange our lives. Last December I was at a similar event in Strasbourg, and again you begin to see that the things that we are supposedly good at, those service economy activities that have displaced so much of our industry, we're not. I'd be hard-pressed to think of a Manchester restuarant that was as plushly appointed as the riverside Malthouse conversion of Belga Queen, for instance.

At the heart of everything you got a sense that history and innovation are bedfellows not enemies, and that a confidence in the regional and local institutions is key to their current ambitions and prosperity. At the heart of everything, a highly education population and workforce, with a sense that such hard work will be rewarded, not put into the melting pot of an uncertain future market.

Manchester is much larger than Ghent, and more well known, but in a busy week, it's advantages seem a lot less clearcut if it wants to punch its weight in the wider world. It is not just the major cities of Brussels and Amsterdam that are strong competitors in Europe, but these smaller cities. There was substantial local pride in Ghent, but it felt anything but parochial. Its too easy, when we talk about Europe to think about its poorer nations, and the problems faced there; but in the countries that were there at the start of the EU, and the Scandinavian countries north of there, you see so much that we should aspire towards, rather than dismiss as irrelevant, that our Anglo-Saxon parochialism, and confidence in failed neo-con market solutions seems self-flagellating. Walking through the streets of undiminished art deco architecture I wonder what unfortunate accident of birth and education makes us monolingual English so unable to even imagine our own lives and cities in the same way.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Goodbye Captain

The music of the 20th century has many unique talents, but Don Van Vliet, aka Captain Beefheart, who has just passed away after complications from M.S., seems sure to endure. If Miles Davis took jazz into different places, Beefheart did the same for the blues. His music, at its best, was a glorious hybrid, but unclassifiable in many ways. If at the start of his career there was a certain awkward psychedelia, and at the end, a difficult attempt to commercialise this least biddable of artists, at his music's core wasd something consistently unique. When you heard Beefheart, surprise and shock quickly turned into amazement and love. I do think that he's one of the few artists, and certainly one of very few in the "rock" sphere, who actually makes you listen differently. To appreciate Beefheart is surprisingly easy - the building blocks are the much-loved blues, his songwriting is subtle and strong - but in doing so he changes how you think about music.

Like many people of my age I first heard Beefheart at the end of his productive career. His final album "Ice Cream for Crow" came out as I was first listening to music and seeing him perform from it on Whistle Test, I think it was, was revelatory. Who was this strange man with the odd name who the rock encyclopedias talked about as an irrelevant curiousity? Visiting record shops I'd pick up the frankly bizarre cover of "Trout Mask Replica" and wonder what on earth it might contain. An artist who had had fans in the sixties and seventies, came to have a whole new generation as his productive recording career finished, partly because of illness, and partly as he began another career, as a painter. There were to be no reformations with Beefheart, no comebacks, simply a growing understanding of the remarkable trajectory of his music.

"Trout Mask Replica" is the weirdest album to make "best albums of all time" charts. I bought the double at University, drawn in by the lovely (and untypical) "Moonlight on Vermont" and the avant-guitar instrumental "Dali's Car." As a fan of the Fall, the Birthday Party and Bogshed it wasn't that difficult a record to get inot - but I think it was five years before I could listen to side 3! I loved the spoken word intervals, the mad skit-songs, the jazz tinctures of the way the Magic Band played, clearly in control, but to the ears, all over the place. The songs as well are fantastic. Investigating further, Beefheart's a puzzle - the cheaply available "Unconditionally Guaranteed" is a bland soft rock album, enlivened by the beautiful "This is the Day", his later Virgin albums are patchworks, sometimes successful, sometimes not, debut "Safe as Milk" sometimes feels like a period piece, whilst with "Mirror Man" it seems incomprehensible that it was ever released, so earthy and raw is it.

It is only in those passing years that the real Beefheart legacy came clear. Seen as a whole, everything he did is of interest, and like a painter, you feel there's a yearning for change, for perfection that the earlier works are striving towards, and the later ones are trying to recapture, or to pull in another direction. In "Trout Mask Replica", the frequently unavailable "Lick My Decals Off Baby" and the relatively mainstream "Clear Spot" and "The Spotlight Kid" you have the essence of the man. Yet its not the whole story. If the removal of Beefheart from the remarkable musicians of the Magic Band was an issue on "Unconditionally" and "Blue Jeans and Moonbeams", live recordings from the early seventies both with the Magic Band and the band that followed, showed the Captain was still a fantastic artist. The "album" - that shibboleth of post Sgt.Pepper rock music - was a struggle for such an instinctive artists. Later records revisited old sketches and left his critical stock high, whilst the more successful old friend Frank Zappa, could occasionally be relied up on to give Beefheart a commercial boost.

Listening to him now, and death inevitably draws you back to such a loved artist, the distinctions between the different records seem less obvious. "Mirror Man" seems one of the greatest albums of the sixties, particularly in its extended form - with additional tracks that weren't on the original, whilst a compilation of the Virgin years, "A Carrot's as Close to a Diamond as a Rabbit Gets" does a great job of filleting his later material. Over the last few years the Magic Band have toured successfully on their own, playing tracks from the impossible "Trout Mask Replica", and a number of other recordings - live and demos - have surfaced. In Beefheart I think we are doing him a disfavour to have hoped for another album; there's a certainty of vision to his recording career that goes beyond any one single album - great as some of them are. Exploited by a wide range of different record labels over the years, his catalogue remains a bit of a mess - one hopes a Rhino or Rykodisk will give it the due care and attention of Zappa - and it took me years to find a copy of the remarkable "Lick My Decals Off Baby". It feels personally sad to think of his passing, as my late friend Dan was the biggest of Beefheart fans. If there's a heaven he'll be playing Beefheart sides as I write. I am the generation for whom the Captain was already virtually in the past, yet hearing him on Peel for the first time, was like finding yourself in an inhospitable landscape, with a rotting wooden hut at the end of a stinking road, and inside, finding the greatest jewel you'd ever seen. RIP Don.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Books of the Year

The books of the year is upon us. Find it hard to understand why the Guardian and the like carry on asking the same old, same old and never find a blogger or two to add a bit of grist to the mix. Not that we'd necessarily add grist, when my favourite novel of the year is David Mitchell's "Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet." How many times will I have to tell you that this is head and shoulders above most novels written this year? The Booker judges may not be idiots, I've not yet read their choices, but they certainly run the risk of being idiots if there really were 6 novels this year better than this one.

Elsewhere, I've a lot of time for not-the-Booker joint winnter "The Canal" by Lee Rourke. Disclosure: I studied with him a decade ago, but when he came up to Manchester in the summer it was the first time we'd met for years. A gentleman and a writer.

My book of the year would be Bruce Chatwin's letters - wonderful to have this filling in the gaps of a life that shows that his facility for writing was there well before he published his debut, and somewhat more illuminating than another (auto) biography.

In poetry... well, obviously I had two wonderful collections published this year, so I can only give thanks to Knives, Forks and Spoons and Salt for delivering these little books to the wider world. I'll be reading on Wednesday 19th January in Manchester, if anyone wants to hear more. Small presses were where it's at, with great books from both those presses, plus ZimZalla, Penned in the Margins and ifPthenQ among others.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Albums of the Year

The Suburbs by Arcade Fire

I had enjoyed their previous two albums, but found there was something a little too bombastic about them. But when I saw them on TV over the summer festivals playing tracks from their 3rd album, the CD-length "The Suburbs", Arcade Fire had managed to add a new layer of depth and sophistication to their undoubted anthemic chops. The album didn't disappoint. Probably the best (only?) suburban concept album since "Quadrophenia" it bristles with intelligence, but is chock full of tunes you can whistle. Lyrically adventurous, and musically catholic, it delves in places that I didn't expect them to go (hardcore punk, songs that echo Hall & Oates, New Order and ABBA), but which make perfect sense. Like the Who or the Cure at their relative best, it leavened the seriousness with a levity, a humour and a playfulness that listeners of "My Body is a Cage" could hardly have expected.

Nerve Up by Lonelady

By some distance the best Manchester album of the year. I've known Lonelady for years, and some of the songs for nearly as long, yet the album, recorded in 4 weeks in an Ancoats warehouse, transcended this spartan process. A classic long player, with songs that echoed edgy Martin Hannett productions, but also had a wistful love of the scratchy Americana of early R.E.M. the real revelation was the Grace Jones-ish title track, a drum-machine led nimble dance number that tied together the record's other characteristics, and made sense of it all. Tight, taut, and utterly honest, this was a fantastic debut, that deserved wider acknolwedgment. In a year when the more coffee-table stylings of "The XX" won the Mercury, it is the sharper sound of "Nerve Up" that seemed more vital.

Your Future, Our Clutter by the Fall

The Fall's 21st century trajectory has been fascinating to everyone who'd written them around the turn of the century, and signed - though apparently no longer - to superindie Domino, "Your Future, Our Clutter" got rid of some of the meanderings of previous outings, and delivered a 75% hit rate, particularly on the new classic "Bury".
In a year when their Beggars back catalogue began to be reissued it was more than pleasing to know that their new material could stand side-by-side with it.

MAYA by M.I.A.

3rd album by M.I.A. and if it didn't quite get the plaudits of "Kala", it's not easy to see why not. Single "Born Free" was a fantastic piece of gothic dance, whilst the sound had hardened throughout. Perhaps the multiculturalism of the previous two albums had been absorbed a bit more, but as a state-of-the-art statement of music in 2010 it could hardly be bettered.

Congratulations by MGMT

Lukewarm initial reviews for their 2nd album were more due to its lack of a "Time to Pretend" than any real flaws in the record itself - which has a gloriously summery hippy vibe to it, without ever becoming self-indulgent. It's like the Mamas & Papas rediscovered for the 21st century avant garde. Full of arcane noises and with a folky vibe, it seems an anti-hip album, closer to Flaming Lips' "Embryonic" than the indie mainstream.

Disco 2 by Health

The year's outstanding electronic record was a remix album. Disco 2 mostly took tracks from their previous Get Colour album, but coming to it afresh without hearing the source material it had amazing coherence for a remix album. Every track is a sublime piece of contemporary electronica, but as a vocal band as well, it nods to bands like New Order and the Pet Shop Boys as much as to Orbital or Boards of Canada. A beautiful concoction, and well worth adding to any Christmas wishlist.

Small Craft on a Milk Sea by Eno

Returning to his electronic roots, rather than the song orientated material of last year's David Byrne collaboration or his previous solo album, Small Craft on a Milk Sea was a much heralded new release and didn't disappoint. The songs sounded as if they could have been written at any time since his first excursions into ambient music, but the production was fresh, subtle and contemporary, analogue washes of sound mixing with some more hardened techno beats. It almost felt like a toolkit for contemporary electronica from one of the genres acknowledged masters. Beautiful sequenced and packaged, its Eno's third winning album in a row.

Cosmogramma by Flying Lotus

If Hip Hop was anywhere in 2010 I wouldn't have expected it to be heading towards the avant garde, but Flying Lotus's latest album is a beautifully constructed bed of samples that becomes almost psychedelic in places. Listened to as a whole its a fabulous reminder of the power of hip hop beats.

Field Music (Measure) by Field Music

A double CD by a band who had previously passed me by, this was one of the year's most sophisticated releases, and had some of its best songwriting. The Sunderland band may owe something of their sound to unfashionable names like Fleetwood Mac, but they take the best bits of 70s AOR and crafted it a frankly stunning album, that has great production, brilliant arrangements and superb songwriting.

From the Cradle to the Rave by Shit Robot

DFA labelmates of LCD Soundsystem Shit Robot's "From the Cradle to the Rave" was a better record than LCD's 3rd album "This is Happening", matching it for electronic suss, but with far more of a pop/disco sensibility. The album you expected from, but never got, from Calvin Harris or Simian Mobile Disco.

Black Light by Groove Armada

A real surprise this one, as Groove Armada, ostensibly a dance band, turn up with a bit of gothic disco album. With surprise guest turns from Will Young and Bryan Ferry in the mix, the real influence is Siouxsie and the Banshees or even Yeah Yeah Yeahs. DJ music with a live feel, and some great songs - I heard Black Light round at the year's first (and probably last) barbecue and played it loads once I bought it. You feel that it is a DJ's album rather than a dance producer's album - and clearly curating their annual Lovebox festival has made them reach out not just to those unlikely collaborators, but also to whole new musical styles.

ADDENDUM (27/12/2010)

Two albums that should have made the list originally were Kelis's "Flesh Tone" full to brimming of retro disco, that sounds like it takes its cue from Italo House c. 1994, as well as being ultra modern; and the beautifully introspective "For the Ghosts Within" by the ever wonderful Robert Wyatt. A jazz album (kind of) including cover versions and collaborators its the sort of thing he's always done, but never quite so confidently.

And three albums that I've listened to after reading everyone else's reviews of the year and been mightily impressed by: "The Fool" by Warpaint; "Swim" by Caribou and "Queen of Denmark" by John Grant.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Readers - You've Never Had it So Good

I jolted upright on the train reading Robert McCrum's column this week. Over the last year his two most familiar tropes have been about e-books and literary generations, and it was all doom and gloom. Yet something's cheered him up this week. Just read this -:

"The world of pulling itself together....Even in hard times, there is always a literary marketplace, and this one remains extraordinarily robust. So I, for one, do not repine. From some points of view there is a literary bonanza going on. You may not like it, but it is indisputable."

Literary culture is not teetering on the brink of the abyss, as any regular reader of his column might have thought, but is actually doing okay, thank you. If even a literary insider is now optimistic about the future - and particularly e-books as being an opportunity rather than a threat - then maybe there has been a sea change lately. It might just be a flash in the pan of course; just as there was never much of a market for paid downloads before there were enough broadband connections in average homes to turn MP3 downloads into a consumer product, the availability of iPads, iPhones and now, the just-over-£100 new Kindle means there is finally a market for e-books, that includes the average book buyer. Whether publishers, agents or writers will cope with the £2.99 e-book is another matter, of course!

"Its hardly been a vintage year for prose," he writes, clearly not as impressed by Jonathan Frantzen as the majority of his Guardian colleagues. (And distinct from Blake Morrison's assertion that it has been "a very good year for books"). Yet, I'm puzzled by his wondering about a next generation of writers "to follow Zadie Smith and Hari Kunzru." If he's looking for 20-somethings writing novels there are plenty around; but surely Smith and Kunzru are the very writers we should be looking at to write the good novels of this millennium? Yet Smith seems to have withdrawn into the comfort of essays, and I know Kunzru more from his TV appearances and pronouncements than his novels. I'd argue that there have been some signs of a new generation of novelists this year, writers like Tom McCarthy, David Peace, David Mitchell and Jon McGregor, who are, several books in, coming into their stride - never mind the continuing excellence of someone like the ever-underrated Nicola Barker or Magnus Mills. Perhaps none of these books has had a "White Teeth"/"Brick Lane" style ubiquity, but maybe that in itself is a new generational thing. Subsequent books by writers like Kunzru, Ali and Adam Thirlwell have not created the buzz of their debuts - though one doesn't discount them from doing so, as I have a feeling that the writer left to work his or her way to the next plateau through a number of books, is the writer we want to wait for.

What's pleased me about this year, as well as having my own poems published for the first time, is the profusion of small presses doing interesting things and producing lovely editions. That, and the continuing vibrancy of the literary scene, both in Manchester and elsewhere, means that I'm far from wringing my hands about what McEwan or whoever is going to do next, but interested in the small pleasures that seem to be spilling out on an almost weekly basis. If there's something of a conservatism at the heart of much contemporary writing, I'm confident that it's also temporary. Readers, look hard enough, and you'll find you've never had it so good.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

A Literary Advent Calendar

With the literary festivals in the autumn, you could be forgiven for thinking things go quiet in the winter, but no, there's plenty of Mancunian literary action on. I enjoyed the launch of the new Hidden Gem press on Thursday, with readings by Emma Unsworth, Zoe Lambert and Claire Massey, as well as an impassioned manifesto on behalf of northern fiction from Sherry Ashworth, co-founder of the press. Their first novel, Unsworth's "Hungry, the Stars and Everything" is out in 2011, and has that most un-northern of characters as a lead, the metropolitan food critic. (The night's reviewed by Clare Conlon here, and since I was sitting next to have very little to add.)

Next week is the latest instalment of the Other Room, including Neil Addison, soon to be published in the same Salt Modern Voices series as myself, and, on Friday, the reissue of some of Anthony Burgess's novels, with a discussion featuring Jonathan Meades and Roger Lewis. Two other regular nights, Inn Verse and Counting Backwards compete for your attention between these two events, next Thursday.

Finally, though its not primarily literary, I'm involved in the running of Play Space, a free day of events for anyone interested in how art and digital meet, including workshops, performances, installations and an "unconference". That's next Saturday 4th December at the Contact Theatre and all are welcome, just register at the link above.

Who needs an advent calendar with so many events going on?

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Scene That Celebrates Itself

In the good old days (aka pre-Pitchfork) the music press was the home for the neologistic. Bored NME, Melody Maker, Record Mirror (and especially) Sounds hacks would listen to the godawful six records that had been sent them that week and give the scene a new name. Dance music probably destroyed the scene-makers, as it reinvented (or at least renamed) itself so often that you'd have 2-steppers and hyperdubbers never even crossing the floor to say hello, never mind dancing to the tinily bit different records that self-defined them. Best of all those silly made up scene names was The Scene That Celebrates Itself, which was basically a way of taking the p*** out of the po-faced.

I'm more than pleased that such bored journalistic name calling has found its way into the literary firmament, and post-blog awards, post-something else, the self proclaimed Beatoff Generation (Hashtag, natch, #beatoff) has coalesced around Common bar in the Northern Quarter, and other (un)seemly drinking establishments. (Yes, The Castle, I mean you.) A new wave of blog-writers who are not sure if what they write if fiction, or friction (nod there to Joe Stretch), and with the ADD attention span of a wire-haired teen high on vodka redbull cocktails, the #beatoff writers are not so much a scene as a movement. They are not so much a movement as a scene. Such is the complexity. Bloggers (Fat Roland, Lady Levenshulme, Words N Fixtures, Who the Fudge is Benjamin Fudge?), online zine editors (330 Words, B&N Magazine). In years to come people may (or may not) say, "Hmmm, never heard of them," or "whose round is it?" but for now hail the new revolutionaries, the hashtag heretics, the irreverent sons and daughters of Bez, Ren and Stimpy and Black Books, I give you the...#beatoff generation. Much more information from scenester Fat Roland is here.

(And next time you invent a drunken literary movement , make sure it's a night when I'm out!)

The Wind Up Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

The Wind Up Girl is an SF book published in the US last year. I wouldn't have even heard of it if it hadn't been recommended as part of the Manchester SF Book Club - though its been highly acclaimed, winning best novel at the Hugos this year, alongside China Mieville's The City and the City.

The world of the Wind Up Girl has too main components. It is our future, where sea levels have risen, and our petro-culture is over. As well, feeding the world is now a culmination of the Monsanto dream/nightmare, where giant agri-genetics businesses feed those parts of the world not destroyed by flood or pestilence. This genetically altered world is rife with disease, each new genetic modification leading to a range of mutating diseases.

Against all of this, is the Thai Kingdom, stubbornly fighting off both flood and pestilence. The kingdom is protected by massive dykes keeping out the waters, and an army of "White Shirts" hunting down and destroying any genetically modified materials being smuggled into the kingdom, in a pseudo-religious fight against disease. Ironically, the kingdom reminds me greatly of David Mitchell's depiction of 1799 Japan in "Thousand Autumns." Like that novel, here is a closed country that has turned its back on the rest of the world, and wishes to do things its own way, for fear of what the outside world will bring - and here as well, there is the smallest enclave allowed, where an experimental facility exists. The novel starts with Anderson, the "calorie man" from the agri-gen business, finding in the Thai markets new foods that have no connection to GM foods. The "ngaw" - a kind of lychee - hints at the existence of a secret Thai seedbank, untainted by modern genetics.

The book starts awkwardly, with three or four parallel stories. We see Anderson, his Chinese foreman Hock Seng, the white shirts on a raid of the "landing pods", and finally, the Wind-up Girl herself - a genetically modified "new person" developed by the Japanese as a perfect geisha. Bacigalupi's vision is confusing at first, he's not fully sketched out the world. Despite being a first novel, the world he's writing about has been there already in short stories. Then there's his prose, echoes of Ballard, but full with technocratic of detail. Yet much of the novel is dialogue, and the various characters, though convincingly drawn, haven't got convincing voices. In the Thai kingdom he gives us outsiders: wind-up, Chinese refugee, Americans, gangsters.

Some of the early chapters - such as the white shirts blowing up the dirigible on the landing pods are confusing at first - its only later you realise that we're in the midst of a power struggle between "trade" and "environment" - though potentially crass, this takes us deep into Bacigalupi's overall vision. Yes, its an ecological fable, a horrible parable, but he's thought through the various scenarios of his new world, and as the novel unfolds, the beauty is not in the story itself, but in the fleshing out our understanding of this world. The plot itself isn't quite so strong. The search for the "ngaw" seems to get lost. I'm still at a loss to know what Anderson's factory was trying to achieve - and the Thai seedbank, and its rogue geneticist creator (Gibson - a deformed, dying American), with his echoes of Kurtz in "Heart of Darkness" seems part of a greater narrative - rather than central to the novel. If "The City and the City" suffered a little from being a police procedural, so "The Wind Up Girl" suffers from its narrative drive. For trade and environment become involved in an open civil war for the heart of the kingdom, the Wind Up Girl of the title becoming the accidental catalyst for the war. Emiko, the wind up, is a sex slave, but she's also a "new person", but has been designed sterile and with an obvious gait that differentiates them from humans - as a previous experiment with cats had led to grinning "cheshires" taking over from the humble moggy.

The second half of the book, with its impending doom, has a real drive to it, and the book's real strength is that it gives the reader an exciting thriller, whilst still letting us into a highly imagined future world. Whereas Ballard and even Gibson would have spent the majority of time on defining their world, perhaps the modern reader requires less of that, and more action. Bacigalupi delivers, but it creates a strange hybrid of a novel, awkward in places, and with no obvious centre. Neither the Wind Up Girl of the title or the search for the "ngaws" and the seedbank becomes the centre of the novel, and some of the subplots - for instance the time we spend with the "white shirts" - are far less interesting. That said, the novel's reach is astonishing, and you can imagine that there are as many future stories in the world he has created as you might find in Iain M. Banks' "The Culture" or Mieville's fantasies.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Favourite Beatles Covers

It was Beatles night on X-factor, which made me think, that despite their songs being covered almost endlessly there aren't that many cover versions that I actually like. I'm sure there's more, but after a bit of thought, I came up with this list.

1. With a Little Help from My Friends - Joe Cocker
2. We Can Work it Out - Stevie Wonder
3. I Want You (She's so Heavy) - Eddie Hazel
4. Helter Skelter - Siouxsie and the Banshees
5. Happiness is a Warm Gun - The Breeders
6. Ticket to Ride - Husker Du
7. Something - Booker T. and the MGs*
8. Drive My Car - Cristina
9. A Day in the Life - The Fall
10. Here, there and Everywhere - Emmylou Harris

* Booker T and the MGs covered most of "Abbey Road" on "McElmore Avenue" mostly in 2 long medleys. The whole album is excellent.

The Poem / The Poet

I've been thinking about "the poem" and how it relates to "the poet." I'm part of an online poetry exchange with a number of other writers, where we share poems that we like. It's been an extremely enjoyable experience, only the odd poem or poet being one that I already know well. Yet, when it came to my turn last week, I went to a few books that I was considering, and looked through them increasingly in vain for a shareable poem. And these are books, and therefore poets, I like. There was the contemporary first collection which has some highly enjoyable sequences, but nothing smaller; then there was the selected poems by an award-winner now on her fourth or fifth award-winning book, and the poetry seemed flippant, flimsy. Then again the experimental poet, whose work builds up over pages, but doesn't easily reduce to a single poem.

Yet, when I think about poetry, when I think about poets, I think about poems. It is a particular poem that usually draws me to a poet, and makes me read deeper into their work, and it is the particular poem I go back to. As a writer, I've always been uncomfortable with the idea of writing poetry every day, or even regularly. The best poems are compressed (even when they are expansive), an idea explored fully and intensely in a small space. There are highly enjoyable stylists out there, who seem to write for fun, and if I enjoy some aspects of their work I'll probably enjoy it all, yet it is because they have written individual poems that still appear fresh to me, that I give them my time. Writing a poem, after all, always begins with a blank page, always starts "new", even if the tools you use might be well-worn, the ideas familiar tropes being explored by you, or someone else, for the umpteenth time.

It's perhaps why I still prefer to read poetry magazines than collections, as individual poems are likely to attract me, but then you buy the collection by the poet, and what stood out amongst the mass of voices, can sometimes seem quietened when placed amongst similar peers. I've never had to judge a poetry competition, but imagine it's a nightmare. A good poem can be many things, but it can never be generic. Something: the language, the idea, the execution, a turn of phrase, has to stand out, and as the one literary form that can toy with the abstract, the whole thing can be more than the sum of its parts.

The other difficulty I found in choosing a poem to share, was how little poetry is readable on the internet. Even (especially?) well-known poets, have ony a few verses available freely. I can understand the desire to promote the book, and to protect copyright, particularly for those poets taught in schools, but at the same time, the audience for a particular poet is so small, that I do wish more was available. Perhaps we should have an iTunes or online jukebox for poems, with an honest box, for each poem you download, or print a copy of.

Luckily, my turn on the poetry exchange won't come round for a couple more months, so I've time to keep my eye out for poems that I like enough to share.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Not a Moose in Sight

What I know about Canadian poetry and poets can probably be written on the back of a (very small) Maple Leaf, but ignorance isn't always bliss of course. I attended the launch of the new Carcanet Modern Canadian Poets anthology at the Anthony Burgess foundation , with Joni Mitchell songs wafting through my head, but not a lot else in the way of preconceptions.

Editors Todd Swift (he of the Eyewear blog) and Evan Jones read in turns from an anthology that, perhaps surprisingly, covers the whole of the 20th century - with the youngest poet born in 1962. No new generation then, more a re-appraisal, for a British and worldwide audience of a neglected canon. Anne Carson aside, few of the names will be familiar to a British audience, yet from the poems they read, this seems a matter for some regret. The poets may not be that well known here, but the poems that the editors chose to read were strong, immediate - and perhaps more surprising than anything to me, rooted in 20th Century Modernism. In choosing their selection the editors had realised that they had not a single dominant figure - a Les Murray, an Auden, a Heaney, a Walcott - around which a national poetry could be hung. A.M. Klein, a Jewish, Ukrainian whose family moved to Montreal, became that figure for them.

Other poets in the collection also had an internationalism to them, particularly British connections. It has always seemed a paradox to me, that Canada, through its Commonwealth connections, should remain so close to Britain, when physically it is so close to America. As he himself is a Canadian poet based in London, Swift felt those connections were important.

A quick search of Amazon sees that there have been other Canadian anthologies, and it will be interesting to read the introduction of this latest one, to see to what extent a canon unknown to me is being refreshed or rejected. There wasn't really time - or inclination - for questions, but one inevitable one came up. Where was Margaret Atwood? A poet before she was a novelist. "Read the introduction," said Evan, "but with Atwood and Ondaatje, their poetry wouldn't be in bookshops if it wasn't for their novels." I can hardly imagine a British anthology being brave enough to leave out its biggest names. Those other "poets", Young, Mitchell and Cohen are perhaps easily excusable omissions, yet I'm always intrigued by how so many of the best North American songwriters were actually Canadian. (A trend continued by Arcade Fire.)

But this was about the poetry - and the poems they read out sounded fresh, accessible, and with a certain sensibility that a closer reading may well define as Canadian. I have a little quibble with the use of the word "modern" in a book with writers born in the 19th century in it - they are clearly not "contemporary", but it was fascinating to hear a little bit of social history alongside the poems themselves. The Great War as a particularly monumental event for Canadians; or the love of "ice hockey", their national sport, finding its way into verse, just as cricket (rather than football) often has in England.

I didn't have much time to stay and chat, but there was a good crowd, of forty so people attending, and I'm sure the book will be a useful counterpoint to other national narratives. After all, Canada's another country with a fair share of English-speaking poets. It's literature remains both a pride, and a puzzle - having never won the Nobel for Literature, yet regularly appearing in Booker lists - and I look forward to looking more deeply into the anthology itself.

Another take on the night and the anthology is here.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Value of Nothing

Three things today gave an ample reminder of how our culture and our universities over the last dozen years or so have made Britain a better place in many ways, but also, crucially, a more successful place.

According to the Observer, despite the Harry Potter film series coming to an end, the studio where they were filmed is being bought by Warners. They are not particularly worried about the demise of the UK Film Council, but rather, are voting with their wallets in the UK film industry because of the talent pool that exists. At the end of the article it is pointed out that since Rowling's wizard first came into the public eye, £1.9 billion has been generated economically from the franchise.

In other news, Sebastian Vettel is the new F1 champion after steering his Red Bull to victory in Abu Dhabi. A German, in an oil state, for a team financed by an Austrian. What's British about it? The Red Bull team are based at Milton Keynes. F1 retains much of its engineering base in the UK. Though I'm sure their engineers come from round the world, its British base is not a coincidence. Though the franchising of F1 increasingly goes east to chase the money, the high end innovation and skills that makes the sport possible still has a prominent British base. I'm sure that our new government will say that our Universities' excellence in Engineering will be protected, but I wonder - I'm sure that it's not as simple as that; and that maybe a few future engineers will be put off by the high fees that will be coming in shortly. Certainly, those engineers I knew at college would have had to think twice before taking on such debt.

And, thirdly, long overdue, the designer Bill Moggridge just won the 2010 lifetime achievement award at the Prince Philip Design Awards. He designed the first laptop - the Grid Compass - in 1982, even being used on the space shuttle. Design is another British speciality, as Jonathan Ive, who designed the iPod and is Apple's chief designer proves.

So, three examples where Britain's have been innovative and highly successful - all members of what Richard Florida defined as the "creative class." In the same week we hear that EMI, bought by the financial genius of Terra Firma, Guy Hands investment vehicle, with mostly borrowed money, is likely to finally be sold into foreign hands, its success as a company utterly compromised by the disaster of its business model.

The vision of the coalition seems to be that those who go to university study only utilitarian subjects - that they do not have access to the liberal arts. Sport, media, arts and culture all provide more than economic growth of course; yet they are also drivers for economic growth. If only finance had such a record of achievement. In the 1970s and 1980s there was dismay and despair as our "assets" seemed to get sold to America. I've a Rough Trade compilation called "Wanna buy a bridge?" - yet our real assets, the creativity, and innovation of our people - and the strong liberal education that they received in the UK, are what gives us a competitive advantage going forward into the future - not the complex financial models of casino bankers. At this rate, Guy Hands will go down in history as the man who sold the Beatles. Despite the best education money (and the state) can buy, our current crop of politicians seem to know the price of every piece of debt, and the value of nothing.

The value of creativity and innovation is not always as easily measured as these examples, yet surely they give reason enough for us to want to protect the institutions and environment that can lead to such innovation? Whereas a merchant bank can relocate elsewhere, and the graduates of India, China and elsewhere are queueing up to work for them anywhere in the world, our creativity is less easily poached, less easily emulated.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Writing a Poem

There's a new post about how I wrote the poem "Late Love" from my collection "Playing Solitaire for Money" over on my author website.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Slow Prose

I've written very little fiction this year; in between two months post-operation when reading and writing were hard, promoting "Playing Solitaire for Money", writing new poems, recording music, and getting back to reading fiction, I've not found it that easy to sit down at the computer for extended periods. I'm sometimes a writer for all seasons, and at various times my energies have been spent on stories, poetry, music, non-fiction and even drama; yet the truth is I've always written in different genres in parallel.

I've been speaking with a few novelist friends recently - who've spent months or years on the particular book - and been pleased to hear of books being published or about to be published, or with an agent, or stories winning competitions. Yet though fiction sometimes seems to be everywhere, compared to poetry, for instance, its also, strangely, less visible. There seem even less places to get short fiction published than ever - and though there are more and more presses experimenting with short novels and new fiction - they often seem to be even more obscure than poetry publishers.

Not that its lack of opportunities that has stopped me writing this year, rather that fiction requires a level of deep engagement that hasn't really fit with my life this year. I'm sure its just a passing phase, as I've certainly things I want to write, but perhaps, having such a back catalogue of fiction to look back on, I'm prioritising - and concentrating on poetry for a while seems an eminently sensible move.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Occasional Thoughts on Songwriting: Dylan

I've been trying to write a blog post about songwriting for a while. Whilst there are endless workshops and courses and critical books about writing poetry for instance, I rarely see anything about songwriting. In University music courses I guess it's called "composition", yet classical composition is a whole different world. Given the return to a Brill Building style pop music it's a surprise that for every X-factor audition, there's not some time given over to teaching songwriting. After all, there might even be more money in it. I know that Arvon has run the odd class in songwriting; I think Ray Davies ran one of them; but it remains a dark art.

I've written songs almost as long as I've written poems, though the first music I actually recorded was when I was about 15. Not being a musician, it took me a long time to "write" actual songs, though in many ways I think that's part of the alchemy. Some people probably think I started making music because I wrote poetry, when in fact they couldn't be more different. I don't think there's more than half a dozen "poems" that I've ever tried to make into songs; and, the other way round, proud as I am of my lyrics, they wouldn't have fit well into my recent "Playing Solitaire for Money" for instance. There are a few poets who've dabbled, of course. Simon Armitage has a blues band; Don Paterson was (and is?) a jazz musician; Matthew Welton is working with a classical composer; lyrics have been put to music from W.H. Auden to Edwin Morgan. In 1952 the first British singles chart was published; and different versions of the same popular songs would often chart at the same time - this sales chart of "recorded music" replacing a previous chart of "sheet music." The crossover period didn't last long. A song became synonymous, if not with its writer, but with its performer. Much more recently we've seen "modern classics" such as Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" or abysmal chart fodder like "The Climb" adopted by a number of different artists; yet even when the singer doesn't write the song, it's the performer rather than the writer which we care about.

At this point, my thoughts turn, as perhaps they inevitably will, to Dylan. I've never been his biggest fan, yet have had an interest in him since first hearing "Like a Rolling Stone" when I was 14 or 15. Funnily enough, the music sounded much more dated then, than it does now. Electronic pop music was incredibly fresh, and this unadorned music sounded incredibly dated in comparison. No surprise that Dylan, like a lot of his peers, had a bad 80s.

There will come time to have a proper perspective on Dylan of course, but I got a little inkling the other night, watching a programme about the making of Bryan Ferry's Dylanesque album. It's an excellent, underrated record. There are few performer songwriters - Cohen, Lennon and McCartney, Mitchell, Robinson perhaps - who can furnish a whole album of songs for another artist, but with Dylan it's not the first and not the last. Ferry, no mean songwriter and lyricist himself, makes the point that the songs are often sketches, and that makes them much easier to fill in. I remember a quote from Dylan himself, where he said he never bothered with the pop arrangements of some of his songs from the mid-60s, leaving others to do it for him.

What seems interesting about Dylan now, in 2010, is that his songwriting hasn't diminished even if his voice is a mere shadow, and his recordings veer from the revelatory to the inconsequential. Only a couple of weeks ago the Adele song "Make you feel my love" was a top 10 hit again after it's use on X-Factor, yet, of course, it's not an Adele song at all, but from Dylan's 1997 masterpiece "Time Out of Mind", a dark, misanthropic album of ageing. Ferry also covers the song, far more sparsely; its close to becoming a modern standard.

Dylan's Chronicles autobiography talks quite a lot about his songwriting, and about the music, the writers and performers that influenced him. Dylan as "poet" is one of those recurring arguments that seems to want to confer something on him that's incorrect. He's closer to those older words: "bard", "chronicler", "minstrel", and in Chronicles that how he begins, going from town to town, then playing night after night, absorbing the great folk songs and then writing his own. That Dylan's influence is unparalleled is without doubt, but he wasn't even rock music's first great songwriter. The mythos and range of Dylan's songs is obvious, but was it as a seismic as shift as we get with Chuck Berry, who, in a handful of songs, defined the American Teenager? I think it was the Scorsese documentary that revisited the shock of Dylan going electric on his mid-sixties tour of the UK. The folk fans who booed and heckled and shouted "Judas" were complaining because they could no longer hear the words. It appears, in some ways, a loss of a certain innocence, Dylan's tasting of the apple, and choosing to leave his Eden. Yet his writing remains consistent, whether folk, electric or something else entirely.

Mythos, "the shared elements, characters, settings and themes in a set of works", is strong in Dylan; and his fame, his mystery, his influence all feed into that. His best songs are both the simplest, ("Make me feel my love") and the stories, ("Hurricane"), and Dylan as songwriter remains remarkable whatever the other components are. There are plenty of Dylan songs, "Blowing in the Wind", "Knocking on Heaven's Door", "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight", "Lay Lady Lay" for instance, which it hardly seems possible were written by the same writer. Hearing "Make you feel my love" on the Adele album it sounded head and shoulders above the other songs in a way that was surprising - yet its comparing the writing of a precocious teenager with a song written after nearly forty years of writing. Yet pop music is generally brutal. Those performers who are referred to as great songwriters are often given that soubriquet because of their style - they are "singer songwriters" - whilst others are not. Whichever components of U2 wrote the lyrics and melody of "One" for instance, are clearly wonderful songwriters, but they won't be mentioned in the same breath as Elvis Costello for instance, or Paul McCartney; neither of whom, sad to say, have had a hit for years.

I think Dylan's legacy created a sense that a songwriter was wordy, lyrical, a storyteller, a sayer of certain things, yet songwriting is every bit as mystical as Dylan's surrealistic drawls of the late sixties implied; and the written-to-order "Angels", or the heartfelt but simplistic message of "Live Forever" can be every bit as powerful as more complex numbers. The performer-singer-songwriter has a massive amount of ground to cover, particularly when they are also a "pop star" or a "personality", and there's clearly for most there's a well that is only so deep. One of the most successful songwriters of the last thirty years would have to be the British writer, Rod Temperton, who composed much of Michael Jackson's "Off the Wall" and "Thriller" albums, yet its years since he's had a similarly successful record. Dylan's "sketches", his care and craft, his evolving "mythos", and something unique in the man, have given him an apparently endless stock of subjects, ideas and the words to say them. It is for that, that he most resembles the great poets, I think, rather than the individual songs themselves.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Literary Pile-up

It's like a motorway out there; there's a literary traffic jam with events here there and everywhere as the festivals pile up in the short clear run between summer and Christmas. I hardly had a chance to go to what was, by all accounts, a well-attended literature festival, though I had a nice night last week at the Manchester Blog Awards at the Deaf Institute where, before hearing the winners, we had readings from shortlists past and present, and best of all a new story by Chris Killen which followed that teenage book tradition of offering alternate routes through the story, depending on the choice of the reader (or in this case, the volunteering onstage blogger.) Well worth a look at the shortlisted blogs, of course, as they're always the best of a remarkably good bunch. I missed the rest of the festival through other commitments, but managed to get back on the literary circuit trainer, for the first event I'd been to in years at the old Waterstones reading room, to hear Elizabeth Baines reading from her reissued "The Birth Machine." I don't think many books from 1983 would still stand up as well as this one appeared to. (In 1983 I was recording my "concept" cassette "The Cannibal City", of which, least listened to the better).

It's not just events that are piling up - as I've had a steady stream of books arrive through the post (Richard Price's The Island) picked up second hand (The Letters of Wyndham Lewis) or left on a friends kitchen table in Richmond, North Yorkshire (An Everyman edition Prose of John Donne). All remain unread at the moment, though I've found some time to look through the 2nd instalment of Nathan Hamilton's poets under 35 selection for the Rialto, more on which later.

Tomorrow I'm going to see avant rock classicists Swans at Manchester Academy. I need to build up my tolerance to obscure music between then and now.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Whatever Happened to the Avant Garde?

One of my favourite recurring discussions is about "whatever happened to the avant garde?" Salt publisher Chris Hamilton-Emery has raised the question on Facebook....

"What is now avant about the UK avant-garde? When everything is permitted and supported, and much experimental practice is now 100 years old, are we left with modal adjustments and questions of tone and affiliation? Can it be possible to make it new? Or merely make it again?"

It's a broad-brush question using "avant garde" to mean experimental literatures spinning from modernism, rather than a particular sub-genre. I tend to prefer the term Experimental Literature - and tend to use it to mean writing that is deliberately experimental, rather than writing which is genuinely new. Therefore George Eliot and "The Dubliners" are equally excluded, though they both offer something new, whilst "Finnegan's Wake" is included. There are a few experimental literatures that become mainstreamed I guess - the toolkit you find in "Ulysses" or "The Wasteland" is frequently used in contemporary mainstream literature, yet you can still read "Tender Buttons" and see the shock of the new as its impossible to assimilate it. I wonder if that's what we really mean by experimental literature, just the same as what we mean by experimental music. Chuck Berry may have been the shock of the new, so was "The Rites of Spring", but both are assimilated to the extent that we would tend not to include either in a survey of experimental rock or classical music. Throbbing Gristle and John Cage remain un-assimilated. I originally wrote "Velvet Underground", but they too have been - car adverts and influencers - perhaps its only time that matters here.

There's a tendency to think in terms of new "forms" - yet form and content seem to be entangled, necessarily. And I realise already I'm making a distinction between modernism, which one can consider a sensibility as much as a movement, and experimental writing, which might be seen as a genre in its own right, with its own conventions and orthodoxies. A history of experimental literature finds room for Sterne, but not for F. Scott Fitzgerald.

There's clearly an artistic aesthetic that we need to consider here as well. For to choose, is to also condemn - what we like and don't like. Yet if the music lover can be a Stockhausen fans who can listen to Queen, heaven forbid, then we need to fall back on our personal aesthetics. Is someone who only listens to extreme music really a lover of music at all? Or are they as limited as the Eurovision song contest completist?

And it's not always the case that one's taste is reflected in one's talent. We are not all Stuckists, mirroring our orthodoxies of taste with our orthodoxies of creation; rather it might happen the other way round - we write a poem, or a story or a novel and then look around to find the historical justification and lineage. I don't think we have the "anxiety of influence" so much as the need for it. A nature poet will find it easier: the lineage is there, whether Ted Hughes, John Clare or William Wordsworth; than, say, a British political poet (though if we ever find another great political poet, then he will too find his lineage, and Wordsworth is in that last as well.) In this sense, the role of the avant garde remains as it always has, as a questioning alternate history, that, given a fair wind, and, more importantly, talented writers, will rewrite that history to include and exclude different writers. But it requires that talent. If it is the Patersons, Armitages and Duffy's that are the defining British talents of the age, then it's likely that the historical lineage gets rewritten in a different way than if its a less obviously conventional bunch; yet their backgrounds are themselves unorthodox, perhaps that was the bigger hurdle, and communicating with a wider audience was the bigger leap of faith? If our experimental poets are just that, experimenters, or are indifferent talents, then there's not much chance of rescuing the past from those who are more conventional. Modernism may die with the last of us to care about it.

There have been several attempts over the years to will into existence a British avant garde - in fiction, particularly; and yet its a hard case to make; and perhaps only becomes makeable when you include big name writers like Burgess and Lessing alongside B.S. Johnson and Ann Quinn. We wait in vain for Stewart Home's masterpiece; for J.H. Prynne's crossover work.

It's this orthodoxy that worries me - and on both sides of the divide. I would hope young (or newer) writers, however "mainstream" their sensibility would not be deterred from experiments with form or content or language, but in the current literary climate, any interest in those things seems to define writers as outsiders, even if they are literary insiders. On the other hand, a novel as strange as "Wolf Hall" or "Cloud Atlas" is defined by its success and its conventionality, rather than by its strangeness. In Britain, that orthodoxy is accentuated by a suspicion of the foreign and the different. The shortlist for the inaugural Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry was laughably conventional. Like contemporary pop music, where the sub-Madonnaisms of Lady Gaga are marketed with an edgy subtext, contemporary writing remains too willing to please and be marketed; and "experimental writing" becomes a ghetto out of which it is hard to travel without papers.

Winter Literature

I wake up today to frost. A bright cold day. At home, so haven't had to struggle through the coughing crowds on the buses... snuggle up with a book, read some poetry. My grandad used to recite this one.

WHEN icicles hang by the wall
And Dick the shepherd blows his nail,
And Tom bears logs into the hall,
And milk comes frozen home in pail;
When blood is nipt, and ways be foul,
Then nightly sings the staring owl
Tu-whit! tu-whoo! A merry note!
While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.

When all around the wind doth blow,
And coughing drowns the parson's saw,
And birds sit brooding in the snow,
And Marian's nose looks red and raw;
When roasted crabs hiss in the bowl—
Then nightly sings the staring owl
Tu-whit! tu-whoo! A merry note!
While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.

(William Shakespeare, from "Love's Labour's Lost.")

Tuesday, October 19, 2010


Big cities suck in everything around them. So though I spent the first 18 years of my life 20 miles from Birmingham and cursing the hour long bus journey to get there for shopping or gigs, desperately missing the encores at various gigs at the Birmingham Odeon, when people ask where I'm from I occasionally have to say "Birmingham." I hardly came here for 20 years, but last couple of years I've been here a few times. The city centre is impressive indeed, they've done an even better job of regeneration than Manchester - the vision seems more joined-up somehow. Last night I had the pleasure of a civic reception in the Art Gallery - meeting in a beautiful round room, with Epstein's "Lucifer" as a remarkable, if somewhat inappropriate centrepiece. The Lord Mayor's speech welcomed the delegates (many of them from cities across Europe), to the city and talked about the great Victorian buildings, the city of "a thousand trades", the Staffordshire Hoard, (dug up a couple of miles from where I grew up), and the Lunar Society, which used to meet in the city. The art gallery and museum aren't full of indigenous objects, but are an emblem of Birmingham's 19th century wealth. Culture is now part of what Birmingham does - we had a fiddle band playing whilst we ate, a steel band playing whilst we waited - yet it's not in the soul of the city like commerce is. Birmingham has always known the price of everything, and has struggled hard to learn the value.

I could feel my accent growing stronger throughout the day, and the friendliness of the people was confirmed when, after asking directions back to our hotel, two policemen took pity on our bedraggled state (we'd brought the rain from Manchester) and gave us a lift back there. Only in Birmingham, I thought. There's something both laidback and earnest about the city - and as an Aston Villa fan, it was nice to be at a meeting where the jokes were about Birmingham City rather than the two Manchester teams.

Yet, I remain a little ambivalent. In another life I guess I could have ended up here - but there were little or no "knowledge economy" jobs here when I graduated, and I've noticed in the years since, that salaries in the city seem lower than elsewhere in the country. Manufacturing remains in the city's blood, and anything that isn't related to this seems to be looked on a little suspiciously. You'll be hard pressed to think of a list of Birmingham writers, the excellent Roy Fisher apart, and it is "greater Birmingham" that goes north to Lichfield, south to Stratford, that gives the Midland's its creative legacy. There's a case to be made that the Midlands is the heart of English writing - Shakespeare, George Eliot, Samuel Johnson - but it might be a bit of a stretch. I've never written more than a few words about the city, it wasn't, growing up, my local landscape, and if I came back here to work at any time, its likely I'd live, like then, far out of the city.

It remains a great Victorian city, and the disasters of the sixties - Birmingham's concrete ring roads, and ungainly Bull Ring - seem a long time ago. One of the speakers at the conference talked about Birmingham's economy being a one-legged stool, the car industry still strong, but unbalancing the city's prosperity. It seems, in many ways, a modern city - functional and centrally located - but I can't quite get away from my teenage memories of its concete brutalism, its lack of city centre pubs, and its suspicions of creativity. And I'm not even beginning to forgive the city for UB40.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Autumn Songs

I went to see Manic Street Preachers last weekend. It's amazing that they're still around, still making music. Not just because of Richey, but that would be enough to break up most bands, or because they said they'd break up after their debut, "Generation Terrorists", but because they've always seem the unlikeliest of rock heroes. The concert was at King George's Hall, in Blackburn, a small, fantastic venue, which I last visited more than 20 years ago to see the Fall. It's the first time in years that they've eschewed the stadiums and arenas, and was all the better for it. I realised I'd not seen them live since "The Holy Bible" tour.

The Manics polarise. The Americans don't even release their records, they're too "rock" for some, and not "rock" enough for others. When I said I was going to see them, there were a few raised eyebrows, yet I've always been a fan of the band. "Motorcycle Emptiness" from that debut album, and one of the first songs they played last week, was the first song of theres which hinted they might be something special. It's still got a gorgeous melody, and that's the thing - throughout the years even their weakest albums have been peppered with good pop songs. Their "greatest hits" album "Forever Delayed" is one of the great singles albums. Yet this is the band that every time it hits the mainstream veers away a bit for the next album. I still cherish the time they appeared at Glastonbury and said "they should build a bypass over this place" - heroically ignoring the hippy vibe, and playing to their idea of rock and roll. Yet that idea of rock and roll is what has always kept them going. In the early 90s, it was highly unfashionable. I think that's what appealed. Here were a young "indie" band not afraid to mention Guns N Roses in despatches.

Yet, seeing them on Saturday reminded me of how skewed their idea of rock and roll was. They're not a band who will change peoples opinion of them at this late stage. Some people will always feel they are plodding, overblown, dull even - yet the setlist for the gig reminded me that as well as the big anthems and the darker avant punk of "The Holy Bible" and "Journal for Plague Lovers" there's a post-punk strangeness to many of their songs. Playing their first top ten hit, the cover version "Suicide is Painless" was such as strange choice when it was released, and doesn't get less strange after all this time. "Roses in the Hospital" could be an outtake from an album by Television, and the synth-driven "If You Tolerate This Your Children Will be Next" must be one of the strangest records to ever top the UK charts.

Ostensibly a 3-piece since Richey disappeared, they are augmented on stage by others, and it's a full sound. Picking songs from throughout their career, a new listener would have been hardpressed to work out the order. They were fully formed as early as "Motorcycle Emptiness" remember - it wasn't just "Everything Must Go" that saw them introduce anthems into their set. James Dean Bradfield remains an unusual front man - after all it's Nicky Wire (and before that Richy James) who write the majority of lyrics - both an everyman, and a powerful rock presence, like a rock Russell Crowe. His vocals are a remarkable rock scream, yet America has never taken to the Manics in the way they've lapped up misery-rock from Coldplay and Radiohead, or gone for out-and-out hard rockers. Thinking of intelligent US rock bands like the Hold Steady and Cheap Trick, one's tempted to think that the Manics are on the one hand too British, and on the other, not British enough for US tastes. More than that he remains a remarkable guitarist.

If the new album, "Postcards to a Young Man", is really "one last attempt at mass communication", you feel it's already failed. This was a fan's crowd, and the lead single has already disappeared down the charts. Whilst they are able to write good tunes like the title track, or "Send Away the Tigers"' highlight "Autumnsong" you feel there'll always be another album. Their records remain articulate, intelligent, but they've never forgotten the basic dumb pleasure of rock and roll.

I remember reading an articulate article about U2, years ago, where it made the point that staying together - remaining friends, remaining a gang - was, perhaps, their greatest success. With the Manics, there's the never-forgotten loss of Richey James, to remind them of roads not travelled. Its ironic that when Blur reformed last year it was proclaimed as one of the events of the year. Yet how many Blur songs, other than the singles, have lasted beyond their albums? The Manics, with a hit catalogue to kill for, have a far deeper treasure trove to pull from. They became an overground band in the early nineties, alongside Blur, Oasis and others, yet surely should have remained an awkward little cult?

Years ago, comedy legend, Alan Parker, Urban Warrior, was doing a set at Balham's Banana Cabaret. "Manic? Yes. Street? Cool. But Preachers? Preachers?" They've kept the faith.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Funny Old Booker

Howard Jacobsen was a bit of a surprise to make the shortlist with "The Finkler Question", and unquestionably he was a bit of a surprise as this year's winner. Partly because the Booker doesn't, apparently, "do", funny books. Yet it sometimes does, sometimes did. David Lodge seemed to be regularly in contention; Julian Barnes made the shortlist with the humorous "England, England" one of his weakest novels; Roddy Doyle won with "Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha" and of course early winner J.G. Farrell also won "the Lost Booker" recently. Clearly comic writers will be gutted that funny doesn't mean, ignorable.

I saw him read from "The Finkler Question" recently - a very small crowd, but one that were mostly fans. This is a writer who people stick to, once they read, and even if this is not the long service award that Booker prizes sometimes go for in weaker years, I'm sure there's something of that consistency which has upped his profile. In questions after his reading, he said as much. Though I remember no great excitement when it came out, "Kalooki Nights" is now being referred to as his great book. Inevitably it didn't get onto the shortlist. So a quirky winner, a worthy winner and, having not read the shortlist yet, possibly the correct one as well; yet having given David Mitchell's wonderful "Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet" the heave ho from the longlist, the judges probably still have some explaining to do.

Jacobsen was born in North Manchester, yet his Mancunian credentials have always been a little hidden, despite setting works like "The Mighty Waltzer" here. I think he's the first Manchester winner - and I'm sure the city will embrace him now, if it hasn't done so much before. Aged 68, he's the oldest winner for a good few years, and that's probably a nice counterpoint to debut novelists. Like that other comic Jewish writer, Philip Roth, age appears to have suited his writing.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Indignation by Philip Roth

Between 1997's "American Pastoral" and 2005's "The Plot Against America" Philip Roth wrote a series of late novels that seem without rival, not just during that time period, but in the previous twenty or thirty years. Since then, his books have been shorter, but no less frequent, yet if I'd not lost interest, I'd certainly lost track. Short novels about mortality didn't really appeal as much as the majestic long novels about morality that had preceded them.

Which brings me to "Indignation." And what a strange little book it is. Settled in that fictional history of post-war 20th century America that Roth somehow makes his own, it tells the story of a Jewish New York student who, escaping from the strictures of his kosher butcher father, skips to the equally restricted environs of rural Ohio, namely a town called Winesburg. There is a real Winesburg, but surely this is a nod to Sherwood Anderson's smalltown masterpiece Winesburg, Ohio? A strangely distracting choice - but deliberate. For here is a community whose college is only Liberal on the surface; go deeper in and its a highly conservative institution. The protagonist, Marcus Messner, is roomed with 3 other Jews because of his name alone; and everyone is meant to attend church 40 times during their time at college, a "loyalty" card checking they have been doing so.

But Messner, our narrator, is not as he seems. It reminds me a little of that earlier great novella "The Ghost Writer", in its teasing use of the past to tell a moral fable, a teasing taster of a book, rather than a main course. Messner's life is tinged with death from the start. It has the backdrop of that forgotten conflict, the Korean war, somehow ignored when compared with World War II or Vietnam, and yet equally as careless with young American lives. He is brought up by a kosher butcher, and his earliest memories are of blood. He has run away from a restricted Jewish urban life, and finds himself in an equally restricted one. His fear of being drafted is what spurs him on in his actions, but he is an innocent abroad, a cipher on which Roth can splash a little bit of history's blood.

Yet, it is a strange novel. Messner's life is splattered, not with blood, but with sperm. The Roth of Portnoy is revisited in adolescence over-emphasis on that different bodily fluid. Women are all but absent, except as blow job perpetrator (his first girlfriend - who turns out, guess what, to be "mental" and then disappears despite there being a hinted-at backstory that it his her diabolical parents who have caused the dysfunction) or mother. Roth's reliance on the whore/virgin option is crass; and the novel is crass in other ways as well. Our narrator is not unsympathetic, but he is certainly un-empathetic, you hardly caring about his self-sort isolation. The story he tells is both self-involved and desperate - the key philosophical point being that small decisions, can have big consequences. Yet this feels contrived. Messner is a self-destructive narcissist, too clever for his own good, yet a messy contributor to his own demise. He senses danger and runs. His "indignation" a classic, but slightly unfathomable, character flaw.

As our (unreliable) narrator he feels like some kind of cipher - which Roth's best characters never are - a player in a mid-west Mystery play of sort. Other characters: the psycho girlfriend, the hypocrit Principal, the over-theatrical gay Jew, the fraternity paragon, are equally stock characters - and at the end of what is a wilful, distressing, intrigueing, and somewhat prescriptive novella you realise that Roth has written a 20th century Mummer's play, it's backdrop Korea, it's chorus, a hardly audible Hebrew.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

The Ghost by Robert Harris

I've been thinking about depictions of political leaders in fiction, and how Tony Blair seems to have been less fictionalised than Margaret Thatcher, whilst at the same time been regularly played "for real" in dramas such as "The Queen." Robert Harris's Prime Minister in "The Ghost" isn't Tony Blair, but there are a number of things that he takes from Blair. His prime minister has taken Britain into an ill-advised war in Iraq, has left power under a cloud as a result, has rumours circulating around him about his involvement in sanctioning torture of suspects in the War on Terror, has an overly-close relationship with the Americans, and has a politically ambitious wife. "The Ghost" is the story of his ghostwriter, who is helping him with his memoirs. Actually his second ghostwriter for the first has died in unusual circumstances.

I've not read Harris before, and he certainly pulls together a tight, taut story. There's a tension at the heart of what he's doing in that its less about the revelations of the Blair-like ex-PM, than the sense of jeopardy facing the ghost writer himself. I don't think this works particularly well, in that what could have been a brooding psychological thriller is always pulling in the direction of car chases, and physical jeopardy. Its unsurprising that so many of his books have been made into films because Harris is, to all intents and purposes, writing not only the script, but the storyboard - and his descriptions and scenebuilding almost seem intended purely for the screen. I've not seen Polanski's film of the book, but there's nothing in the novel that couldn't have made it's way to the screen. It makes for a strangely disappointing read, in that you're clearly in the hands of a strong writer, who is adept at sketching in a very powerfully rendered world, yet at the same time there's none of the more subtle surprises - psychological surprises - that a good thriller writer can give you. It's not helped by some sloppy editing (sloppy writing?) particularly around the book's use of key technology (minidisk recorders, the internet) at various points. A minidisk is referred to as "digital tape"; the ghost writer's laptop is the last one in the world without wifi... you get the sense that the novel was begun at least, earlier than when its set, yet such sloppiness in a tech thriller make one question the confidence with which Harris writes about politics. It's a shame, as there is much to enjoy in the book - which has come up with an original subject and format (the ghost writer writing his own memoir) - and it does a reasonably good job of getting to the heart of the contemporary political machine.

Monday, October 04, 2010

Art and Sport - the Remix

In 2002, when Manchester stage the Commonwealth Games they also had a cultural programme to go along with it, called, if memory served, Cultureshock. I recall going to a couple of interesting debates on the role of city in the 21st Century, and I've no doubt that having a cultural programme leading up to what is the 2 weeks of the games itself, was entirely positive.

Yet, I feel a slight uneasiness about the mixing of "sport" and "art" coming up to the 2012 Olympics for a number of reasons. Firstly, the ministry responsible, the DCMS, with the "culture" "media" and "sport" in its title, is a difficult mix. Government departmental divisions are occasional obvious (Health, Education) and occasionally not (Higher Education sits next to "Business"). There will be times, when that mix is potentially beneficial, and other times when it is toxic. It probably accounted for the Olympic landgrab of quite a bit of arts funding - after all, they're the same department aren't they?

Secondly, leading up to savage cuts across the public sector, the last thing art and culture needs is a muddied water. When a (privately owned) football club such as Portsmouth FC goes into massive debts, and its restructuring leaves not only the taxpayer but St. John's Ambulance out of pocket whilst paying all football debts "in full", one has less sympathy for a badly run business than for the fans and the creditors. Fans of football clubs pray for both a private benefactor and the taxpayer being the bank of last resort. Yet, there will be few parts of the subsidised arts that are so profligate as football. Though football may not be particularly profitable, it generates and then obliterates vast sums of money every week. Yet, outside of professional football and Formula 1 few sports are cash rich, or universally supported.

Imagine having a cultural event, say the Booker Prize, and then asking the sports community to have a "sporting" event alongside it. Absurd! Yet, that's what culture does with the Olympics. There are some good reasons - such as the international nature of the Olympics, and the need to culturally connect with all these different communities - and, the political reasoning, that as the Olympics is in London, the whole country must find some way of celebrating. Having said that, it is hard to say what the Cultural Olympiad projects are, other than high profile arts projects. The connection between the sport and the art is tenuous at best, and facile at worst. The Anish Kapoor statue on the Olympic site is a grand folly, though like many public art projects we'll likely come to love, or at least tolerate it.

It seems to me there's a difficulty in the relationship between sport and art, and its the mixed messages of "participant" and "entertainer." The majority of Olympic sports, even at the highest level, have poor crowds outside of major tournaments - they are, to all intents and purposes participatory, even at the level of excellence. Those excellent gymnasts, rowers, shooters, handball players may well be admirable, but its only once every 4 years, as participants in a big jamboree, that they become "heroes" on a parr with footballers or boxers. It will be rare that you find an elite athlete who has much of a cultural life. Footballers in the past liked easy listening rock, and now winebar friendly r & b - Beckham married a Spice Girl not a Turner prize shortlistee.

Where the confluence does exist is as passive viewers - whether at a stadium/theatre or 2nd-hand via TV. The NT Live series of events, "Proms in the Park" and other public art events deliberate ape the live football experience and the "fans parks" of the Olympics. Yet, these too seem contrivances. Great art is too non-negotiable to be packaged for the terraces - the "experience" though sometimes shared is more often a personal one, between a person and a painting, a reader and a book. The art launch is a social event same as footy in the pub, but with wine instead of beer, and even less interest in the product than a rainy Saturday in Stoke or Bolton.

When I was in school "games" and "art" were the preserves of the less intellectual students - but it was only the former that was compulsory. I hated games with sadistic Mr. Ricketts (a great name for a games teacher!) insisting we play Rugby or go on Cross Country Runs, but loved playing football after school, or, in the brief summer term, learning high jump or playing cricket. In later life, as a writer, and someone who works with the arts, I'm amazed how often people have screwed their nose up when I've mentioned the football results - yet this summer in Norwich had the great pleasure of watching South Africa with a South African poet and novelist.

It seems to me that like sport, part of the confusion is our dual roles of "consumer" and "participant." For reasons of both physical and cultural health we encourage participation in art and sport for our children; yet later on in life, going to an art gallery can have you criticised as effete in working class circles, or being a season ticket holder can draw sneers from the middle classes, even though we all take on different personas depending on where we are and who we are with at particular times. Whether we are painting a picture or watching a football game on Sky Sports, going to a gym or listening to a CD, the only connection is of "leisure." Excellence in sport and art rarely, if ever has anything in common. And it is excellence, whether in football or theatre, which we are willing to pay for, talk about. The rest, the slothful mediocrity of much art and sport, is there as pastime, as leisure option, as an "experience" rather than an "epiphany."

The remix of art and sport shouldn't even be tried. They are birds of a different feather - that some of us, the lucky some, I guess - find equally, but differently valuable ways of spending our time. Any other connection between them is expedient at best, and opportunistic at worse. We shouldn't try and pretend otherwise. Certainly sport at its best can be described as "poetry" as "theatre" - yet it doesn't attempt to be anything that it's not - whilst art only occasionally takes its inspiration from sport. Occasionally, The Fall's "Kicker Conspiracy" or "Theme from Sparta FC", or Don DeLillo's "Underworld" its a worthy pairing, but more often than not we're left with a contradiction - DVDs of David Beckham's most memorial goals, and piles of the Spice Girls unloved 3rd album.