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.

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Solstice by Joyce Carol Oates

I'd always been a bit confused by Joyce Carol Oates - there were so many books! Anyway, I picked up this Virago, "Solstice", a novel from 1985, from a local charity shop and read it in a couple of sittings. It tells the story of Monica, a woman nearly 30 years old, who is running from a divorce and starts teaching at a prep school. She meets Sheila Trask, a widowed painter, a dozen years older than her, who is the local celebrity-eccentric. Told mostly from Monica's point of view we see their relationship develop from chance encounter to intense but unresolved involvement. The stolid Monica used to be a "golden girl", whilst Sheila is an exotic. What is the nature of the friendship? What is the attraction? It's the first Oates I've read, and I was immediately struck by its confident and almost forensic characterisation. Both characters are drawn vividly. It has something of the Thelma and Louise about it - with two lonely women with their own secrets becoming close, dangerously close friends. Sheila is an artist and at first Monica has little interest in the world - indeed, Sheila keeps it in the background - her "other life". The limits of friendship are played out as well as their intensities. Monica has herself a secret; a scar the only outward sign. Oates is brilliant on a certain gauche bohemianism, and in some ways this could be seen as a satire on the American art scene of the sixties, seventies and eighties with its "superstar" artists and its particular "fashions" for "scenes." Yet, well sketched as this backdrop is, it's only a backdrop. The smalltown gossip and the mundane life of a prep school teacher are as important. As the friendship deepens so its tensions expand. This is love, intense, but unexpressed, always close to breaking. Monica becomes something of a Toklas to Sheila's Stein, sorting out the paperwork, and steering Sheila towards the long-awaited solo show that the latter seems intent on putting off forever. The two women go out flirting in redneck bars, until something goes wrong, and Monica refuses to go again. The book is an emotionally charged portrait of the changing status of their relationship, and there is always the sense of some coming foreboding, yet it is not Sheila, but Monica who has the eventual breakdown. Here the book fragments, and the change of the last few pages lacks the tautness of what has gone before. Considering there has been so much emotional honesty, Oates resorts to a slightly baffling series of inferences. It is Monica who has a breakdown, but it's hard to be sure which particular thing causes it. Here its as if Oates has no real way of ending the book. They are not to become lovers, though it is clear that Monica loves Sheila; her breakdown is foreshadowed throughout the book - by the breakdown of her marriage, perhaps by her own suicidal tendencies(?), her aborted child, rough sex with one of Sheila's friends that may or may not be rape. Men are all but absent from the book, except for their destructiveness. "Solstice" has no more meaning in the novel than it was the title of a sculpture by Sheila's dead husband. There's the smalltown America of Updike, and perhaps more accurately, Lorrie Moore, in this story, and something of Henry James' internal landscapes of emotional intensity - yet with a violent physicality that see both characters embroiled in battles for their sanity, their self-worth. The shifting sands of an intense friendship are adeptly handled, and only the need for a denouement - and the uncovering of past secrets - seems a cheat. Like Anne Enright's "The Gathering" the past boils up, late in the book, yet there seems no reason why we as readers couldn't know more. For much of the novel we see things from Monica's perspective, then at the end find everything fragments - her breakdown, her illness, her loss of job - all seem to have been sprung on us in an attempt to finish what was otherwise such a taut novel. Its the first book of the prolific Oates I've read, but I'll certainly look to reading more; a good, but slightly unsatisfying work.

Friday, October 01, 2010

After the Reading

I realised, yesterday afternoon, that I was getting a bit edgy about my reading at the Didsbury Arts Festival. Despite regularly standing up in public and regularly organising events its usually to do with other things - and not my own work. Also, because there were so many other things on last night - from competing events to parents' evenings for teacher friends - my carefully press-ganged crowd was looking rather thin! Of course, it all ended well. A small, but distinctly literary crowd (artists, writers, academics) joined me and James Davies, co-organiser of The Other Room and publisher of If P Then Q, for an hour with "Two Contemporary Poets." James used projections in his work and did a fascinating and varied performance of several distinctly different pieces. Although I've seen James read several times over the years, I realised it had been a while, and I was so glad he was able to join me. The most "conventional" piece - a long, fragmented poem called "Budgies" of which he read just a section was particularly funny, whilst his final piece, a litany of discarded poems - with the dates of their abandonment given like a reading at the Cenotaph must have put a chill in the soul of the writers in the audience.

After a short break for drinks, I read mainly from "Playing Solitaire for Money." Having gone to such efforts to make the sequence of the collection work well, I kept to this in the reading, choosing several poems from each part of the book. A couple of poems required explanation, I felt; not of what they meant but where they had come from, or why I'd written them. Towards the end I read four or five new poems, which seemed to go down reasonable well - inevitable tweaks that I'm sure I'll make, notwithstanding.

So it's over, for now at least. Feel a little psychically as well as physically tired - as someone who maybe reads a couple of times a year at the moment, each reading does seem a particular piece of work in its own right. For those who weren't able to attend, and to have a proper "launch" for the book, I'm planning something in town, probably in November. For now, I can relax a bit, and just enjoy the long weekend of artistic excess that is the Manchester Weekender, and, maybe, even get back to the real business of writing. One thing about poetry, that's probably not so much true of prose, is that the performance of the poetry, even if you're not a "performance poet", is, I think, as much part of your art practice as the written words on the page. At their best, the readings, and the close reading complement each other.

Just to finish by giving my thanks to Didsbury Arts Festival, particularly Maria Stripling and Linda Chase who did all the hard work organising the date; to Pizza Express for being such willing hosts; to James for agreeing to read with me; and to everyone who gave up their Thursday evening. It was a good night.