Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Why Manchester Needs to do Better

It might seem a strange time to be saying that Manchester needs to do better. After all, the eyes of the country have been on us this week, with the ongoing Labour Party Conference; and this coming weekend "The Manchester Weekender" highlights the confluence of festival delights in the city such as the Food and Drink Festival and Abandon Normal Devices alongside other great things going on.

And yet, at the same time the Manchester Evening News is finally moving out of the city centre to Chadderton, an inevitable result of it's sale by Guardian Media Group to Trinity Mirror. More than that, you look at the new political landscape, with a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, and now an equally young Labour leader, and the centre of political gravity seems ever more in London. We now have career politicians in charge of all 3 parties, and it's almost impossible to be a career politician (or a career publisher, or a career TV producer or many other jobs)outside of the capital. Wherever their seats are, their lives - and their families - are London focused. Add in forthcoming storm of public sector cuts, which will surely fall heaviest on the North, and the hyperbolic snowball that will be the 2012 London Olympics, and one wonders if Manchester's ability to retain and attract talent, will continue as it has over the last decade.

The literary debates of the moment seem to come from a resurgent capital. Despite the strong creative writing departments at each of our universities, the large crowds expected for visiting stars like Frantzen and Heaney, and the many writers - this one included - still based in the city; I get an uneasy sense that the move away of literary life from the metropolis that began perhaps twenty years ago, is not a done deal. With hardly a commercial publisher outside of the south east, Northern publicly supported presses like Carcanet, Arc and Bloodaxe which have done so much to be both locally based but internationally focused, will surely face more difficult times in the years to come.

For writers, the lure of the capital can only increase. Pleasing as it is to see the media interest in Tom McCarthy for instance, one wonders if a northern-based writer would have had such wide access to the media? I've seen a few creative talents head south - or further - over the last few years - and I fear that Manchester has not yet done enough to rescue it from being, if not being culturally provincial, a cultural province. In the last few years of Urbis as a cultural centre they came up with the brilliant idea of a "best of Manchester" - a culturally confident identification of next generation talents. With the building's closure, so went, it seems, the awards.

Ironically, some of the worthy initiatives of the last two decades, for instance, around a more inclusive literature, also seem to have fallen away. The establishment has a habit of re-filling the space if the pressure on it recedes. Literature may not be as "hideously white" as other parts of the arts, but if there was once was a cultural thirst for new voices, and new experiences - it seems to have been sated. Forget "long tails", mainstream culture has a habit of expanding right up to the margins.

But this is just an observation, rather than a obituary. I was driven through the city the other day, and saw how areas such as Wythenshawe, Harpurhey and the city centre had been improved over the last dozen years, with new schools, new houses, better public services. It didn't look like the city I first came to in the late 80s - far more than a table of statistics, you can see progress and improvement - and modernity - all around the city. I can't believe that this is just a facade - the city's streets are buzzing with the many languages and accents of all major European capitals. Yes, the BBC can move to Salford, yes, our economic future can be bet on hi-tech, and green-tech; yes, an audience will always exist here for the best of the world's talent - whether Kraftwerk or Seamus Heaney - but we need to continue to find ways, grass roots, DIY Mancunian ways if necessary, of developing the city's art, theatre, music, and finally, literature. As football managers at both United and City have found out over the years, to stay where you are, you have to get better.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Didsbury Arts Festival

Just a reminder that Didsbury Arts Festival is upon us. There is a cornucopia of delights. There's a full outdoor programme today, a chance to shop locally and see local artists at the same time, as well as a wide ranging literary programme.

Highlights include...
Bird Stories with Nicholas Royle in Fletcher Moss Park (Sunday 2pm)
From Namibia to New York - poets Steven Waling and Edmund Prestwich (Monday 7pm)
Magic or Science? - Elizabeth Baines (Monday 7pm)
Jon Mcaulife, Rachel Mann and Annie Clarkson Poetry (Tuesday 7pm)
Nightjar press launch - (Wed 7pm)
Adam O'Riordan reading - (wed 7pm)
2 Contemporary Poets (Adrian Slatcher and James Davies) - Thurs 7.30

Full programme of poets and writers here.

As for me, I've got to think "what shall I read?" and "what shall I wear?"

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Are we still culturally American?

Blake Morrison's review of Jonathan Frantzen's new novel "Freedom" masquerades as a cover article for this week's Guardian review. It reviews the novel in a context that is already accepting of the way the book has been received in America. Frantzen, a serious novelist who is popular, who seems to most frequently make the news for his discomfort with that popularity, has already been on the cover of Time Magazine, and "Freedom", - nine years in the writing - has already been acclaimed as not only a great American novel, but a Great American Novel. "Freedom" isn't released in the UK until 23rd September, yet is already being promoted as a phenomenon. Part of this is because of the popularity of his last book, "The Corrections", and partly because of the debate in America. Great American Novels have several characteristics of course - they are long (even if "The Great Gatsby" and "The Sun Also Rises" are incredibly short) and they are written by white men (even if "Beloved", "Another Country" and "Uncle Tom's Cabin" weren't.)

Frantzen's books always sound a little exhausting to me, yet clearly they are ambitious, if, at the same time, being centred in a middle America that remains, to these British sensibilities, our imagined consumerist heaven and hell. What interests me more is the question of whether we are still fixated on America culturally. There have been a few Great American Novels recently it seems. Denis Johnson's "Tree of Smoke", Karl Marlantes' "Matterhorn", to name two. It's a tradition that seems to go back to DeLillo's overblown "Underworld" or Tom Wolfe's even more overblown "Man in Full", where the hype of modern publishing - usually spent on honest pulp like Dan Brown - gets intertwined with the hype of American cultural hegemony to create some kind of literary monster. The rest of the time, of course, Britain steadfastly ignores most American fiction - and even chooses not to publish a good amount of it.

Morrison begins his review by talking about the whole idea of who is "number one" amongst American writers, but it settles down into a detailed, and, to be honest, quite dull review of a long book, going into detail about the plot for a novel that very few in the UK will have had a chance to yet read. One to come back to after you've read it, I guess. In contrast, I've tried, but failed to find the Guardian's review of Barbara Kingsolver's "The Lacuna", a book that slipped out in the UK, before it made the Orange list. Frantzen is in conversation with Dave Haslam in Manchester on 3rd October, which will cost you nearly as much as the book, but should be an interesting discussion.

Yet, whilst I'm pondering the Great American Novel, I've Arcade Fire's 3rd album, "The Suburbs" playing on a loop in the background. If I found their previous two albums good, but a little bombastic, "The Suburbs", to all intents a concept album, has struck a chord. A British band's concept album about living in the suburbs would surely turn into a travelogue of cheap drugs, and quick sex, a la The Streets or Hard-Fi; British music retaining a resolutely teenage edge. Yet Arcade Fire's album hits deeply on a sense of "yearning" for a recent stable past. Middle class life is here as a given, and the music is full of the contradictions we feel when we look back on our younger selves. The stability of our homes and our friendships contrasted greatly with our fears and hopes about the future, yet looking back we see what we have lost and what we now most want to recreate - whilst still being glad to have escaped the insularity and conformity of that past. Like that great chronicler of American life, Neil Young, Arcade Fire are, of course, Canadian.

In our approaching middle age we have rarely been able to achieve the American dream-lite that so many British people crave; yet remain culturally attached to America by language, economics, consumerism, even politics. That we share little of that country's fundamentalism or its "self-evident" freedoms, means that culturally we revere its brashness and boldness - hence not only the hyping of "Freedom" but the Guardian's recent obsession with Lady Gaga's "cultural significance." As someone who has always found my cultural bearings in the U.S., particularly its avant garde and its urbanism, I look with interest - and a little scepticism - on these sudden flurries of interest around a particular writer or pop star. Yet, maybe, with 9/11, George W. Bush and even Iraq receding into memory, its time to look at America (through its culture, at least) with closer attention than we have done recently; and, to turn a phrase, understand a little more, condemn a little less.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Art Week

It's been a week of (visual) art, that, with the opening of Liverpool Biennial last night, and the Abandon Normal Devices Festival next week, could become a month. It might be because it's so comprehensively at the heart of Arts Council thinking (and funding) but it sometimes feels that visual arts is a colonising force, trying to co-opt other art forms into it's aesthetic sphere. This, by the way, is not necessarily a bad thing, as visual art has made a very strong case for itself over the last decade or more for its "importance" - something that poetry for instance, or contemporary music, could learn from. A visual arts aesthetic, and the accompanying culture of critical discourse around it, is something we can all benefit from.

The highlight of the week - and a highpoint for Manchester this autumn - is the opening of the Rafael Lozano-Hemmer exhibition at Manchester Art Gallery. Taking over the entire top floor, a mixture of new and old works, all of which he categorises as "Recorders" (the title of the exhibition.) Technically complex, but emotionally simple, by appearing in the city's most traditional of galleries, there's a real "mainstreaming" of digital or electronic artistic practice. More on this exhibition some other time, as I need to go back, in my own time. He's talking about his work at the Whitworth gallery later this afternoon.

Art can sometimes seem temporary - an exhibition come and goes - yet, for an artist the art remains, part of ongoing practice. So it was great to be able to help with showcasing the Windhorse project, which, having hung in All Saints Park as part of a previous exhibition with the Cornerhouse, had now been ported into the virtual environment Second Life.

What is fascinating about both these exhibitions is how the distinctions between what is a "digital" and what is an "analogue" project are being broken down, a breakdown being made explicit in one of the ANDFestival events "Analogue is the new digital" next week. As someone who called one of my compilation albums Digital-Analogue (reflecting the recording techniques used), its remains an interest.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Let a Thousand Poets Bloom

Alison Flood's heartfelt enthusiasm for seeing Seamus Heaney read led to her asking the blogosphere what else she should read. (You can hear what she heard in these podcasts from the Poetry Trust.) Floodgates opened! You'd have thought nobody reads poetry, yet over a hundred responses (mine included) came through; from lists of books/poets to sage advice on websites, poetry lists and anthologies.

It was bit of an eye-opener as well. I've always known that British poetry has a few much-loved big names; Don, Carol Ann, Simon, Seamus etc. - so famous they only need one name - but, in the rarified tropics of the poets I know, nobody has much to say about these writers. It was quite a surprise to see people recommending, in all seriousness, some of these big names - it's easy to forget they have "fans", an "audience", that's not just because they're on Radio 4. All to the good of course, but it's also a little bit worrying; for does that interest in such books filter down into an interest into the wider art? Poetry, more than any other art, should be about "if you like A, you might like B."

I'm a bit used to Guardian blogs being dominated by obscurantists. Certainly in fiction, you'll hardly hear a good word for Amis, McEwan et al, these days. Yet the poetry crowd seems more loyal, or, perhaps, more conservative. I'm sure Alison will gain more from the suggestions to read "The Rattle Bag" or "Staying Alive" than my suggestions (C.D. Wright; Les Murray; Edwin Morgan), as she seems, in her response to Heaney to be responding to the traditional elements of poetry - poetry as elegy, or memory, or even the sound of a classic poet reading well. Yet, I remember reading that other anthology (also mentioned) "Emergency Kit", where the compilers were keen on giving a wider sense of what poetry can do, than those traditional virtues. Poetry doesn't have to be rural; it doesn't have to be sentimental; it certainly doesn't have to be nostalgic.

I guess that I'm genuinely puzzled, not by the conventional choices, but that the rural, the sentimental, the nostalgic should be what we look for in poetry. I look for the contemporary, the surprising, the idealistic, the intellectual leap. I'm sure you'll find these in Heaney, he's written enough, after all, but it seems that these are not the things he's loved for; not the things that his most enthusiastic reviewers praise him for. But this is the nature of poetry enthusiasms -: If I find myself standing up for Armitage to experimentalists ("its not just comedy, not just observation," I'll say, "he uses language brilliantly, his poems take an idea and run with it") or Ashbery to the conventionalists ("the thing is you don't have to try and find meaning in Ashbery - his work is demotic, he doesn't give it meaning, so you can find your own way to understand it"), I should at least admit that these aren't the poets main thrusts. The thing is I like Armitage for his comedy and observation, the other stuff is him doing it so much better than his peers; and I like Ashbery for obscurity, his absurdity, when I find meaning there as well it's a bonus.

It's why there cannot be a single track for poetry. Unfortunately, the desire to widen the poetry audience leads to this single track taking precedence. It probably diminishes the close-reading (and close-criticism) that a presence like Heaney receives (I'm unlikely to read him, never mind analyse him in context), whilst at the same time creating a bit of a league table - where there are poetic Chelseas and Manchester United, and poetic Blackpools and Wigans, with little chance of the top ones falling, or the lower ones improving.

What the response to Alison's request shows is that it is far better to "let a thousand poets bloom" and for poetry to be capable (as it is very capable) of responding to a wider range of human needs and emotion than one poem or poet (however "great" or "popular") can ever hope to fulfil.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Readings, Poets, Novelists

The last two readings I've been to have been by novelists. Last night, at Blackwells, to see Lee Rourke read from "The Canal", and a week or so before Howard Jacobsen to read from "The Finkler Question," at the Anthony Burgess Foundation. The latter has now made it to the Booker shortlist, the former to the Guardian's "Not the Booker" list. In both cases, a small, select crowd, most of whom had either read the book or the author, listened to well-read readings, and then asked, and had answered a range of thoughtful questions. In both cases, the audiences didn't have too many "civilians", appealing, it seems, to writers, academics, and other literary types. Manchester's poets, were mostly absent. I always joke that poets and novelists are like characters in Oklahoma, the "farmer and the cowman cannot be friends."

There's always a sense that poetry is less popular than fiction, yet poetry readings are regularly busy affairs, though less (much less) concerned with selling books. It's like the novelist is an advert for his product, whilst the poet is the product himself. Jacobsen said he once read at Buxton literary festival and was advised by Roy Hattersley not to read from his work, and that he'd sell more books as a result. I guess there's something partial about a prose reading, yet I'm not so sure. Seeing Anne Enright read from "The Gathering" stuck in my mind when I read her book, and even where there's less of a "voice" in a work, in both of these recent readings, the reading of the work, and the intelligent discussion of the themes written about, seemed enhancing. In contrast, although I admire poets who are able to read their poems, and talk about them, there can be too much explanation.

Thinking about this as I prepare for my reading at the end of September at the Didsbury Arts Festival. There are readings all week, so there will be plenty of chances to compare and contrast.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Canal Dreams

In the dog-days of the 20th century, was it late Spring? Possibly, probably? A group of writers, recently finished studying at the University of Manchester pitched up in a quiet early-week Castlefield, at the long gone Bar Abaco(now Choice restaurant) where we assembled the chairs in a semi-circle and read, without a microphone for about an hour to an appreciative audience of friends and literati.

That was the last time I saw Lee Rourke read, and so though we've keep in touch over the intervening years via the internet, and particularly his running of the online magazine Scarecrow, Saturday will be the first time I've seen him for a decade - when, I'm pleased to say, he's reading from his second book, and first novel "The Canal" at Waterstones. I'm not going to review the book just yet, as I'm still reading it - but suffice to say that's he's a writer of ideas, with a romantic heart, and a certain off-kilter neurotic realism where he takes the themes of the age, boredom, hopelessness, ennui, and crafts something poignant and powerful out of it.

The reading's free and at 5.30 at Blackwell's bookshop near the University. I'm very much looking forward to hearing him read, and more than that catching up for a drink with him. All those years ago at Bar Abaco, we stepped outside after the reading and must have walked the canals back into the city centre. This time, the canal is in London, and the title of his novel. There's a nice circularity to that, which wouldn't be out of place in one of his tight, taut stories.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon

Micheal Chabon is one of those lauded American novelists that always seem to hover just a little out of reach. There's such a lack of interest in US fiction in the UK that its only the occasional book ("The Corrections", "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao") that seems to get marketed here. Partly its the prize culture, where American novels (with the exception of the Orange Prize) are generally excluded. If all book discussion is about the Booker we get this really strange world. It's like a sixties radio station that never plays the Beatles.

"Wonder Boys" is perhaps his best known novel, partly because of the Michael Douglas film. It tells the story of a dissolute writer, in his early forties, endlessly rewriting the titular "Wonder Boys" whilst his life, addled by pot, and punctuated by longstanding affairs (despite him being on his 3rd wife), goes to pieces. Like "The Sportswriter" or "Bright Lights, Big City" or any number of other novels, this is a recurring theme of American fiction. It's lead character, Grady Tripp, (a self-explanatory name), is also our narrator, and he's an unreliable one in the sense that he's not seeing his disintegrating life, on this "lost weekend" where his wife has left him, and his editor has come to town to find out what has happened to the undelivered 4th novel. It's a funny book, from the off, and has the cavalier anything-can-happen momentum of a road movie, though his characters stay static. Like a lot of novels of its period (mid-90s) it seems half-written with Hollywood in mind, or as model. This is "Bad Behaviour" or "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" or "Falling Down", and like the latter has a middle-aged man (Micheal Douglas in both films!)at the heart of things. Funny how times change, it's hard, a generation on, to imagine how someone has fit three wives, three novels and concomitant affairs in by their early forties! But this is the Kerouac/Carver role model that is key to much late 20th Century American fiction, rolled over into the late eighties/early nineties. I say that, though, come to think of it, there's not much to place it other than its obvious contemporaneousness.

Yet, Chabon's clearly not just wanting to write a piece of slapstick. There's something of the small town absurdity of John Irving about the book. Picking up his editor Crabtree from the airport, Tripp also picks up a transvestite who sat next to Crabtree on the plane, and a tuba they'd assumed was "hers" but becomes a leitmotif through the novel, a comic caul that stays with Tripp through his weekend of breakdown. Like those big family novels of Irving, there's also a gaggle of extended-family characters. The wife, the wife's family, the mistress, the mistress's husband, and, as lecturer in creative writing, a gaggle of student-writers, one of whom, the self-hating James Leech, has written a novel of brilliance.

As a book about writing it has its own pleasures. Chabon is fantastic on what he calls "real writing" and "real writers" and links it very much with a certain kind of midnight madness. In these days of blogs and Microsoft Word, this kind of writer/writing seems almost anachronistic, yet we all recognise it as authentic - even if, thinking about it, the only chaotic, alcoholic novelists and poets I've met are the ones who have always preferred the "pose" to the "prose." It's also a superior kind of campus novel, with some of the comic absurdity of David Lodge or Malcolm Bradbury, with a writing weekend happening tangentionally, as Tripp's life implodes. I get the sense that Chabon wanted to write about writing, but was aware of how self-indulgent that can be. In truth, this is a novel about breakdown, and, (in common with many "lost weekend" books) a final fling of male extended adolescence. The maverick, lovable Tripp is also a nightmare to everyone in his life, particularly himself. His editor, his wife, his in-laws, his lover, even his students, (particularly the underwritten Hannah - a beautiful young girl who rents a room from him - yet seems to disappear from the novel once Chabon - and Tripp- has decided that an affair with her would be a complication too far), all care about this wastrel, whilst at the same time having given up on him. Man goes to end of road. Man wakes up. Man changes, might be the plot synthesis.

I rushed through "Wonder Boys" in 24-hours, as its pleasures, like an Irving novel, are many. The classic plot arc allows Chabon to fit in ruminations on the campus novel, an overly-detailed and lovingly portrayed Jewish family Passover, as well as the sort of capers that you won't find out of place in a teen movie like "Superbad." There's a slightly timeless quality to it as well, a recognisable every-American-town, that makes it still highly readable fifteen years after it was published. I'm not sure that it does the writer-plot as much justice as, say, Stephen King or William Goldman has done in the past, and it's comedy, though good, is a little relentless at times, moving between schtick and slapstick, as if to save the screenplay rewriters work.

Reading Chabon's biography on Wikipedia, Chabon himself had spent years writing a sprawling second novel (after instant success with his first) that was rejected by his agent, before completing the "Wonder Boys", and many of the pleasures of the book come from this imagined novel, and the literary references that pepper the text. I will certainly look to read some more by him.

Reading it immediately after another book about writers, (Sean O'Brien's "The Afterlife"), the contrasts are interesting. In many ways Chabon's plot is hackneyed, generic and there are characters that are underused (Hannah) or tossed away (the transvestite), yet the writing is never less than up to the task in hand. In "The Afterlife" the story is an original one, the setting specific in time and place, and the aims laudable, but the execution was poor. Chabon has been a great fan of pulp fiction (and its one of the sub-themes of "The Wonder Boys") and storytelling, and this imbues the novel. I'm wondering if it's not poets' obsessiveness with language that so often undermines their attempts at novels, but their undervaluing of the joys of the story? It's a theme I might come back to..

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

The Problems of Crowd Sourcing

I'm always fascinated by examples of crowd sourcing being used in the arts. There has been, since Clay Shirky's "Here comes everybody", a sense that the arts should remove the gatekeepers and let the people decide.

It's the very ethos of the Guardian's "Not the Booker". Wondering about all those books read by the Booker judges and that didn't make the longlist (or weren't even considered) Sam Jordison ran this alternative list last year, where the discussion was equally as interesting as for the official list. Pointedly, there was a more contemporary slant to a list that, last year at least (and to a lesser extent this year), was steeped in the past. Booker judges, it seems, prefer well-researched novels - the rest of us have more catholic tastes.

This year, the discussion on the Guardian books blog has been rich and varied - with over a hundred eligible novels put forward. However, on confirming the short list, the Guardian organisers discovered some slightly odd voting patterns. Writers were mobilising their Facebook friends to sign up and comment. The crowd, when mobilised, becomes a mob of sorts.

A few Christmasses ago, Cornerhouse, Manchester's art cinema, asked for choices for a Christmas film. The crowd wanted "Die Hard" rather than more traditional fare such as "It's a Wonderful Life." There was an element here of "daring" the art cinema to put on something so mainstream. They stuck by the deal, and it was a welcome sell-out.

What's fascinating about this year's "Not the Booker" is that it wasn't only the Guardian's staff, but other commentators on the thread, who had been active in the discussion (and on other Guardian' blog threads), who pointed out block voting. Like Union meetings where the mobilised mob misses the debate, and only turns up for the voting - there was a concern that this had happened here.

Given that books on the shortlist will be well read, sell a few more copies, gain some publicity it's probably a list worth being on - but I'm wondering why there is this "mob" rules approach to books. If I've already read a book (David Mitchell, Martin Amis), I'm not really going to read it again to be part of the Not the Booker discussion, though at least I'll have an opinion. I read Jen Ashworth's "A kind of intimacy" not because it made last year's list, but because I'd seen her read from it a couple of times, and found something genuine in her prose. I'm interested in this competition not because I want a particular book to win it, but because I want to be drawn to a list outside the Booker's predictability. Yet, if there's been a bit of mobilising of the mob for the shortlist, then to what aim? If these 5 books are any good, we won't mind, but if they don't appeal to us, then the chances are that few people will bother picking them up, reading them, or contributing to the discussion.

With Sam Jordison and Sarah Crown re-opening the voting with a List A and List B, the debates on the blog are fascinating - an open door on a process that asks serious questions about the unmediated "crowd sourcing" of opinion. What I find surprising is the football team approach to this whole experiment. The question one commentator asks: "is this a popularity contest to see which authors have the most mates willing to spend a couple of minutes creating a Guardian account?" is at the heart of the crowd sourcing conundrum. In a world as small and rarified as books, those with a deep interest can be easily swamped by those with a shallow one. Yet, at the same time, there's clearly some genuine enthusiasm for some of the books on list A as well as list B.

It's a fascinating experiment, and the openness of the organisers is to be applauded. They seem genuinely not to know what to do about this! The crowd is now being asked to arbitrate on whether or not there has been a "crime." No participation without responsibility, of course! For my part, I'm more interested in the books raised above the parapet by the discussion (far more than you'll encounter on the review pages), than in the weekly read (for which I'm not sure I'll have time or inclination). Just as I don't buy a Booker book just because its on the list, neither will I rush out buying Not the Booker books. What is so positive about it all, is the genuine enthusiasm, not just for fiction, but for a wider range of styles and names that is usually pushed our way by the supermarkets or even the publishers. In all of the discussion on what is the role of the "author" in the new social media world, its clear that its the "word of mouth" of the reader, particularly when mobilised by an accessible author, that is still paramount.

As a final point, several authors, Jon McGregor, Linda Grant, Stewart Home to name three, have contributed to the thread - the enfant terrible that is the latter turning out to be reasonableness personified. Careful, Stewart, you've a reputation to defend!

UPDATE: The pre-amble is now over, and List A stays. Will be interesting how people respond to the crowdsourced shortlist. Latest news from the Not the Booker is here.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Unconnected Things

Sean O'Brien's "The Afterlife" came out to respectable reviews. It is set in an ill-defined summer of 1976, with four friends in the salad days after university and, it seems, before real life sets in. 3 of the 4 are poets. The narrator, Martin, will become an academic; Alex the driving force of the group will become rich; and Jane, the beautiful but fragile girlfriend of Alex will become Sylvia Plath - a dead poet with a magical "afterlife". It's a great conceit, and the reason I wanted to read the novel. O'Brien is a prize winning poet, but this is his first novel. Reviews of it made a big thing about it not falling for the poet's curse of being overwritten or over poetic; instead it's a remarkably straightforward affair. It's a great story, and O'Brien is very good on both the dynamic between the characters - the jealousy, sexual and literary - and on the poetry world (easy satires of small magazines, literary prizes and publishers.) The problem is, and it is insurmountable, that he simply cannot write decent prose. This is one of the worst written "literary" novels I've ever read. His dialogue doesn't distinguish between the characters, he's unable to give any sort of believable sense of time and place, his descriptions are bland and cliched. Giving himself a potentially brilliant, and certainly original, scenario, he throws it all away. To be fair, my copy was a (very sloppy) proof, but I'd read about the novel with interest as it sounded like an interesting story, which it is. All in all, a missed opportunity.

But then again, what do I know? David Mitchell's "Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet" is perhaps stylistically the best English novel I've read in a decade or more, but that wasn't enough for the Booker shortlist. Andrew Motion leads this year's judging panel, another poet-novelist, and I wonder whether poets sometimes have a tin ear when it comes to prose? Mitchell's novel is a remarkable work, that probably doesn't need Booker approval, but, still, it does make me wonder.

"C" by Tom McCarthy makes the shortlist, and he was in conversation with my old friend Lee Rourke earlier this week. Lee is reading at Blackwells in Manchester this Saturday afternoon. It will be great to see him again, and hear him read from "The Canal", his first novel. (No links I'm afraid, Blackwells doesn't seem capable of actual "information" on its website, but I'm assured he's reading late afternoon.)

Lee's novel should have been a shoe-in for the Guardian's "Not the Booker" but the nature of the vote (choose your favourite on the blog) has led to a slightly homogenous shortlist that even the organiser has wondered if it suffers from too many social media block votes. Whether it survives the recount, we'll have to see. My choice, (mainly because I want to read it), the Guardian first book shortlisted novel by Steven Amstermdam, doesn't make either list. We'll watch this crowd-sourcing experiment with interest.

The XX has won the Mercury Prize, the worthy Interpol tribute band being a rare shot of genuine indie cool in a shortlist of painful mediocrity. Having had to listen to Paul Weller etc. endlessly, the judges clearly went for the XX's beautiful minimalism.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

On Bruce Chatwin

I'm reading "Under the Sun" the letters of Bruce Chatwin. It's easy to forget that Chatwin, who died in 1989, was only first published in book form in 1977 with "In Patagonia". Before then he'd already been writing for magazines and newspapers, had studied archeology, and most significantly perhaps, had started his career at Sotheby's. The letters complement Nicholas Shakespeare's excellent biography of Chatwin, and do so, most of all, by re-telling the life in Chatwin's elegant prose. Whether or not he was a "born" writer, his observations, from an early trip to Afghanistan with Sotheby's onwards, are linked closely to his later work. I've read up to 1970, and have been gripped by the this loose re-telling of his life through his private correspondence. There is little that is "personal" in these letters, but there is much to recognise of Chatwin's later skills. He is a close observer of what he sees, but, and this perhaps explains why university never suited him, he is not attracted to dry details, or subjects studied in intimate depth. A synopsis of his proposed "nomads" book (which should have been finished nearly a decade before "In Patagonia" came out), shows him finding it difficult to fit all his enthusiasms into the "box" of a particular subject. In many ways he's the least biddable writer ever. Even journalism only suited him when he was able to redefine what that journalism meant.

I've always thought of Chatwin as a novelist rather than as a travel writer. He seems to owe more, for instance, to Fitzgerald than Hemingway - though he followed the latter's path in many ways. There may be more literal truth in Hemingway but there is more moral truth in Fitzgerald, and I think Chatwin combined the best (or some might say the worst) bits of both - looking on a Hemingwayesque landscape with a Fitzgeraldian eye. It is his prose that inspired me twenty years ago when I first read "On the Black Hill" and "The Songlines." Though a lifelong traveller, it is the static pleasures of the former book that stand out. If Chatwin's exotic travelogue - his own nomadic nature - was what appealed to early readers, it is something more permanent that remains in his prose, and which, I think, you'd find in his appreciation of cultures around the world.

In the introduction to the letters, Shakespeare wonders why his reputation has suffered recently (to which I'd ask, has it?), and Blake Morrison in his Guardian review asks if anyone still reads Chatwin? There's little enough of it to read of course, just five generally short "novels" (I use the word loosely) and two collections of other work. Now, there's the letters, and it is Chatwin's voice and his enthusiasms that comes out so strongly. I read writers lives not because I particularly want to know who they were sleeping with, but how, they ended up as the writer they became. There's a tendency to read Chatwin backwards, from his early death (he was 49), and its a different but entirely compatible journey to read him forwards.

As a writer published almost exclusively during the 80s he is often placed alongside Rushdie, McEwan and Amis, but he's an older generation than them. His personal life, including his homosexuality, are clearly important as to understanding him, but I think it's important to put him in his true historical context. He was already twenty years old at the start of the 60s. He seems the last of a particular kind, in some ways. I read one reference to the Beatles in his sixties letters - and, as someone who'd already done his own exploring in the east, he's dismissive (and it has to be said, snobbish) about the "hippy trail." Not for Chatwin the backpack, he's more the Victorian Gentleman Traveller, staying at chateaus, and, has high-powered friends almost everywhere he goes. Yet, unlike those Victorians, he is no apologist for Empire.

Because he died young, and, in the public view at least, looked youthful, we sometimes think of Chatwin as callow explorer, but its clear from this book that he's anything but. I've always felt that he's an experimental writer, and he's far closer to William Burroughs than Edgar Rice Burroughs, yet the clarity of his prose, it's very English "properness", have obscured this. He was still learning his craft, at least in terms of how to structure books, and in doing so created something of a new genre, that luckily, found a willing audience (and many lesser copyists.)These letters, on having read about half way through, don't give the whole life (though Shakespeare and Elizabeth Chatwin provide excellent notes throughout), but they do add something to our reading of Chatwin. Here is the sensibility, and some of the experiences, that would find there way into his exemplary books.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Tony Blair in Print

It's nice to know books still matter. The embargoed memoirs of Tony Blair, "A Journey", were released yesterday to non-stop news coverage. It's one way to create a stir, I guess, getting everyone to speed-read at the same time. I guess in some way you could call this the final Harry Potter book, as I think the Blair years and Rowling's boy wizard seem inextricably linked in my brain.

In my last blog post I talked about portrayals of Thatcher in fiction - well, Blair has generally been portrayed only realistically. Maybe it's the lack of Spitting Image, or maybe its the 24/7 news cycle, but Blair, Presidential, always on-message, a decent enough actor (remember the appearance with Catherine Tate?) seems to defy charicature. That's why his memoir will be interesting I guess, as the image we have of Blair is very much the image that he's made available. He's his own self-construction, and that, more than anything, I think, perhaps explains his latterday hubris. More than any other politician I can remember, Blair has always been in control of his own narrative, and this seems his final major rewrite. It is why he finds it so hard to apologise, or, when in power, to change with the times - and why yesterday he was still going on about the New Labour project as if it is current, rather than from a different world.

By the middle of his second term even Blair had forgotten what the point of Blair was for, and yet as the poster-boy of a new politics, this man, heading into his fifties, struggled to articulate a vision beyond spin. Yet, if the liberal intelligentsia were somehow let down by Blair over Iraq, it seems an incomplete picture - the hatred out of proportion. After all, would Bush have gone to war without the UK? Yes. Would any other leader - Labour or Tory - hitched ourselves to the US - yes again, I fear. The memoir will be fascinating for not just being about Iraq. For in Bosnia, saving many Muslim lives, and in Ireland, Tony's sense of destiny, and his control of his narrative was matched by events as they unfolded. They both required Blair as political superhero vaulting over the barriers and making things happen. The long slog of post-conflict Iraq, with its insistence on "detail" was never one of Blair's strengths. I remember before then, how many policies had been set up with broad brushstrokes and powerful rhetoric, the detail to be worked out later, by lesser lights. The Blair who made a stirring speech on the information society in the late 90s, leading to massive investment in e-government, hardly spoke of the subject again, and - pointedly - was yet to send an email himself. The hardest thing for contemporary Blair to contemplate is the idea that he is "yesterday's man", yet for all the fascinating snippets yesterday, that seems to be the case. The "second acts" that we see from Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton are yet to happen - for, in the American narrative tradition, you have to fail, before you can be forgiven, and to be contrite. It is a narrative that the protagonist has lost control of.

Looking back to how Blair has been portrayed fictionally, it strikes me that if we should have satirised Thatcher a bit less, in order to confront her flaws in flesh and blood, we should have satirised Blair a bit more. Only Steven Bell comes to mind, and nothing there is as memorable as his portrayal of John Major. Looking back I can hardly remember Blair being there, other than the set piece speeches, and that, at least is a credit to the grown-up politics of the Labour government, at least until 2003. Until the house price boom, Iraq war and the credit crunch, there had been a welcome period of stability, and of confidence in ourself as a nation and in the good leadership in Westminster. Blair was so often on television in the 24-hour news age, commenting on everything from Diana's death to Deirdrie Barlow's incarceration on Coronation Street, that he perhaps became a fictionalised version. When we see him fictionalised in "The Queen" it is exactly how we imagine him.

I first mentioned Blair in a song I wrote in about 1996.

"Tony Blair asked me what book I was reading/
I said it's a book without any pages/
He said he would read it however outrageous."

This was before he was Prime Minister, and I think I got then the sense of theatre about him, that, yes he could read an empty book, and like the Emperor's New Clothes, see in it what he wanted to. He makes an appearance in the novel I wrote on my M.A. but it is the real Blair, arriving from Sedgefield by helicopter for the victory speech at the Royal Festival Hall, a genuine historical cameo. The politics in that book was an invented politician/businessman - who turned out to be a pretty good representation of the all the chancers who would surround New Labour; an unholy mix of Mandelson, Campbell and Ecclestone. I'm not sure I mentioned Blair again in my fiction after that (1999), yet I've recently gone back to him, writing an alternative history where he never became Prime Minister. I think the key point that I made earlier, that Blair was in control of his own narrative, means that there is little "after life", either in popular culture or people's affections. Only when the sun shines brightly on Blair do we really remember him. The hatred he engenders seems ill-directed, for one policy decision, that history has yet to adjudicate on.

Popular culture rewrote the Blair years as spin, with Malcolm Tucker as the embodiment of Alastair Campbell in "The Thick of It". Yet the common factor in these portrayals is always of a weak prime minister at the heart of it, manipulated by his Machiavelli's and Talleyrand's. And Blair was never weak. The question of why Blair needed these particular skills at court, and why he invested so much in these attack dogs, is one that still puzzles me - the Labour Party, which seemed to be his one true "enemy" when in office, was still in awe of him getting it into power. The flurry of autobiographies from the New Labour kingpins is clearly an attempt to continue controlling the narrative, yet, as we look aghast at the coalition's dismantling of many of the social justice interventions of Tony Blair's government, it's clear the real story will have to come from outside the loop. There will be plenty of material to work from.