Sunday, March 27, 2011

Political Poetry

I've written a short essay with my thoughts on "political poetry" and a few examples from my own work on my writing website here.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Literary Dedication

Writing is both a privilege and a pressure. Yet any genuine writer will tell you how hard it is to stop, to give up. Writers block is much misunderstood - its more often writing too much, rather than not enough; watch or read Michaeal Chabon's "Wonder Boys" for a glorious example. Poets dry up, but they still write. I remember Larkin summing up his own writing career, and including, alongside his poems, the many reams of library minutes he'd overseen.

But as Cyril Connolly noted all those years ago, there are many "enemies of promise." Success can be one of these, oddly enough. I've known a couple of published novelists who've withdrawn from the fray after their next novel has been questioned by their agent or publisher. There are also plenty of published writers who carry on regardless, sustained by an audience, a publisher, or even just the compulsion.

In the music business, which is in many ways more brutal than the books business, we've seen classic artists like Bob Dylan and Neil Young coming out of a decade of poor work to produce great albums again. Whether a writer could publish, say, half a dozen clunkers, before returning to form, is doubtful. Readers aren't that loyal, and, after all, a novel is rarely like an album, able to be filleted later for its rare highlights.

I've been off all week, and its taken that long to get my perspective back after a busy three months, including quite a lot of displacement. Fun as the trips have been, I always need some time for reflection, but also time for some of the things that hang around the edges of creativity. A scribbled book full of half-written poems is no different than a multitracker full of unmixed songs. Work has to be done to finish them off.

All my life I've been keen on finishing things off, or at least parcelling things up, providing some curatorial design to my own music and writings - and this week has been partly about that. A new CD has just gone off to the duplicators, and it will be finished next week, (more of that then). The first track recorded for this new release was recorded in January 2010, so its 15 months in the making, which is about my average these days.

Funnily enough, the latest poems in "Playing Solitaire for Money" were written in January 2010 as well, so whatever I've written since then - perhaps thirty or forty poems, of which maybe a third or a quarter are worth persevering with - is beginning to find its own shape. If I was off for another week, then that would be the next project, as it is, I'll print them off, and carry them with me as I go here and there again.

I've no pram in the hallway, but Connolly's enemies of promise were many. And, as you get older, its less about promise, than purpose. Twenty five years of writing seriously may not have taken me to Gladwell's "10000 hours" but I'd like to think I've learnt something over the years. Much of that is about not writing; I'm just working on a story that I had the idea for at least five years ago, perhaps longer, but only started a couple of weeks ago. The actual writing (of a story that will end up less than 2000 words) could probably be fit into a single working day; it was the not writing it that took the time.

When I do manage to find a week to be creative, like this one, my frustration is how little I actually do. In the past I've been known to spend half of it writing or making music, but these days, the more critical issue is about "head space." So I've finished reading two novels that I began months ago, visited the fascinating Anish Kapoor exhibition at Manchester Art Gallery, heard Paul Farley and Micheal Symmons Roberts read from their new book "Edgelands", and a few other things. It's the main reason I didn't arrange to join the march in London today against the cuts. For once, its a march that I think can have some impact, if only as a mobilisation of a large number of ordinary people; which no government can be entirely happy at being on the wrong side of. But joining them would have probably took a big chunk out of my week (I'd probably have gone down yesterday, come back tomorrow)and I'm trying to eke out this space for creative work.

I watched the first part of the new BBC adaption of "Women in Love" and it reminded me that its been a while since I read Lawrence, but also, that he seems to have fallen off the literary radar a little over the last decade or so. If ever there was a writer who had literary dedication, it's Lawrence. From the wrong side of the tracks, he arrived both fully formed and formless; a new voice in a time of new voices, a powerful figure, an immense talent. Who else was such an influential critic, iconic novelist, brilliant short story writer and highly original poet? There sometimes seems an abundance of Lawrence, but his world view crossed genres and forms in a way that we now know to be incredibly rare. Like Hemingway and Joyce its hard to separate out the life in exile from the writer; but whereas Hemingway's late work was a shadow of his early writing, and Joyce got lost in his blindness (actual, and the creative blindness of "Finnegan's Wake")Lawrence last two longer works were "The Virgn and the Gipsy" and "The Escaped Cock" (aka "The Man Who Died"), both amongst his best.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

A Life Apart by Neel Mukherjee

Neel Mukherjee's debut novel "A Life Apart" (first published in India in 2008) is a young man's picaresque. Beginning with the funerals of his parents in Calcutta it tells the story of Ritwik, a young Hindu, who then moves to England in the 1990s, but can't shake his past from him. Told in the localised third person, it has the feel of a first person narrative, for except in a couple of places, the novel takes place in the moment, with the future closed. Arriving at Oxford on a scholarship, Ritwik thinks his fellow students are conversing in German (its a Liverpool accent he hears). The English title "A Life Apart" describes the novel well, but so does its original title "Past Continuous", for the novel includes extracts from a parallel story, a novel that Ritwik is writing about an English woman in India at the start of the 20th century.

The various strands of the novel create the book's forward movement - and the sense of the picaresque. Everything is connected in Ritwik's life, even though he does not easily see the connections. In Oxford, his confusion in the seminar room is interspersed with his incessant cottaging, having sex with strangers in toilets and elsewhere. This too is a life apart, but when a friend at university talks to him about child abuse, he realises that he too was abused, and just about picks up the courage to ring a help line. Yet Oxford is a staging post, not a destination, and the heart of the book is in another parallel story, when he comes to London to work as a carer for an old lady in Brixton, Anne Cameron. In the dusty twilight gloom of her large house he finds secrets to match his own, and another connection with India, where her and her family once lived. As the door opens on Ritwik's own life - and, like an unreliable narrator, he's curious about the world, whilst in denial about much of his own life - reality closes in on him. After his Student visa runs out, he becomes one of the invisible, and is drawn to an underworld of prostitution and rent boys.

In a long book, we are constantly engaged in the minutiae of Ritwik's world, often shockingly - with Mukherjee being as forensic about the cottaging rituals in Oxford, as he is about sponging down Anne Cameron in Ritwik's role as carer. In the end it is the novel's sheer abundance which is its real strength. Ignoring the tropes of magic realism that post-Rushdie writers have often used, it feels like a different approach to writing about the "innocent abroad" - literary in parts, (both in the story Ritwik is writing, and the way he sees the world through his learning) - yet earthy, deliberate and detailed, particularly in the sex scenes. Some first novels seem to be a brisk run-through of life at the time of writing, breathless but transitory; "A Life Apart" crams everything in - perhaps too much at times - yet is also somewhat sedate in its pacing. I read the book fast, but over a period of several weeks, and the novel's various episodes seemed to allow me this luxury; for the style of the writing breaks up the narrative, so that it sometimes feels like a series of connected vignettes - closer to Henry Fielding than to Henry James in other words (or at least in terms of the sexual content!) In the end it isMukherjee's delight in every aspect of Ritwik's life and world that comes through. I'm reminded a little of one of the book's blurb writers, Rose Tremain, for isn't Ritwik as conflicted in contemporary life as Robert Merivel is by 17th Century England in "Restoration"? Yet, Ritwik seems another of those contemporary characters who could only be written about today - for life happens to him, rather than by him. If the young hero of the twenties and thirties influenced the world he was part of, and the hero of the fifties and sixties ran way from that world "on the road" or wherever, the contemporary hero seems hardly able to exist in the world, without being crushed by it. By the end of the novel the echoes that Mukherjee sees with the early 20th century Swadeshi movement have faded away into nothing. Its a downbeat novel in many ways, but far from sombre. I'd heard Mukherjee read from the latter part of the book in Norwich last year, and was surprised, on reading it, how that section - looking after the ageing Anne Cameron - came so late in the book; yet its clearly the key that brings the various episodes together.

Monday, March 21, 2011

At the end of an art experiment?

Next week the "regularly funded organisations" that the Arts Council has been funding for years find out if they are still regularly funded. The last few years has seen unprecedented arts spending, particularly in building new or extending and renovating old theatres, galleries and museums. Art as a driver for urban and civic renewal probably began with the Bilbao Guggenheim, but arts funding and a benign, supportive government (and councils) has seen a flourishing over the last fifteen years that we are unlikely to see again in our lifetime. It has been both success and failure - with the Tate Modern at the one end and the ill-fated Public in West Bromwich at the other. If in Manchester we still have our own glass elephant, in Urbis, at least its an imposing one, even if its about to enter a 3rd stage of its short, ill-defined life, this time as the National Football Museum.

Yet, if there was is one civic art project that I personally look on with both pride and admiration it has to be the New Art Gallery in Walsall. The regeneration it promised to bring to its end of town may be yet to come (Urban Splash have been advertising their unbuilt flats next to it, almost as long as I can remember), but as building in itself, as a gallery, and as home to the Garman-Ryan collection it is immaculately conceived. The building, first of all, four storeys, two upturned oblong, might seem less impressive on first glance, than the odd shapes of the Imperial War Museum North or Urbis, but it is elegant nonetheless, like giant fence posts at the end of a drab Midlands town centre.

Inside it is even more so, with traditional materials, wooden floors, stairs and wall coverings, giving it a quiet timelessness that glass and steel can never quite achieve. The gallery spaces are even better - extensive, connected, and perfect for both a busy tour and quiet contemplation - the latter being something that you rarely get at Tate Modern for instance. Best of all, the Gallery, ten years old last year, has an artistic purpose that Urbis or the Public could only dream of it. It was built to permanently house the Garman-Ryan collection. Kathleen Garman was mistress, and eventually wife, to the brilliant American sculptor Jacob Epstein. A middle class girl from Wednesbury, near Walsall, she ended up, with her siblings, at the heart of 20th century modernism. The collection bequeathed by her and her friend, the sculptor Sally Ryan, to Walsall art gallery, includes a rich selection of Epstein's work (including many head sculptings of Kathleen, her children, and other luminaries of the day), as well as contemporary artists, and impressive works from antiquity. Spread over two floors, the collection deserves repeated visits.

But the gallery also has a large exhibition space, usually given over to contemporary and/or community exhibitions. Over the last year the artist Bob and Roberta Smith has taken over the space, has been the gallery's artist in residence, and now curates an exhibition that takes its cues from the lives of the Garman's (particularly Epstein's tragic -and unacknowledged son, Theo). What to make of Bob and Roberta Smith? His (for the name is in itself a distraction) art seems to be rooted in the formlessness of the YBA generation, poking fun at the contemporary world, but also raising the political temperature of a sometimes apolitical generation. The bric-a-brac sculptures and bright painted signs and statements that dominate his work in the Gallery, seem out of place far from the shallow day-glo glare of Hoxton or wherever. This is an overly knowing art, that perhaps works best when it works in conjunction. "The Life of the Mind" takes on the lives of the Garmans and Epsteins sculptures of his daughter Esther, and tries to make connections between artistic and everyday lives, between facile objects and gallery exhibits.

On Saturday, there were a series of accompanying sound and performances taking place in the gallery. With Epstein's sculpture of his daughter Esther looking on, and Bob and Roberta Smith's signpost statements bright and amateurish behind, two young orators tried to outshout each other with monologues, responding to a painting of Valerie Solano's shooting of Andy Warhol, the woman with a SCUM (Society for the Cutting up of Men) and the man with a SCUW (Society for the Cutting up of Women, presumably) t-shirt. In another room a man unwraps chocolates, whilst twisting a Rubik's cube. Walsall, not known for pretension, looked on amused.

There's some good work in the exhibition, and I was particularly pleased to see some photographs by Helen Chadwick as well as her famous "Piss Flowers." Excellent autobiographical pieces by Sarah Lucas and Tracey Emin are also there, as the cream of the YBA contribution, and as well as transplanting Epstein's Esther, a Van Gogh sketch is also removed from the permanent collection into this part of the gallery.
It's all good fun, even if it left me feel a little annoyed at the continued jokiness of post-YBA British art. Ostensibly an exhibition about art and life, and how the two collide, Bob and Roberta Smith's seems a particularly inappropriate artist to be able to delve into this subtle relationship. Everything is potentially a joke, or potentially not; and the diversity of the curated pieces seems as child-like as the curator's own kindergarten writings. Not alone amongst contemporary artists in resting heavily on the written word, Bob and Roberta Smith's own words seem more appropriate to the carnival, which his work in the exhibition seems to mirror. Carol Ann Duffy's recent selection at the Tate in Liverpool, in contrast, seems much more considered. Go see, but for the individual pieces, rather than the zany connections.

The bigger picture, I guess, is that Epstein is an artist who already connects in many different ways - through his contemporaries; through his historical antecedents; and through his influence. The Garman-Ryan archive offers much in the way of fascination, but I felt that it was the US art scene of the 80s and 90s, with its frivolity, its chaos, and its crassness, that Bob and Roberta Smith was bringing up here: and there seems little obvious echo of 20th century modernism. I'm not an art historian, but the misunderstanding seems an important, perhaps even a serious one.

Yet, we should revel in this, for where will its like come again? The Bilbao experiment - of art for regeneration has been rolled out substantially throug lottery largesse, so that there are far more impressive gallery spaces in the UK than I can ever remember. Whether its the Baltic, the Tate Modern or the New Art Gallery, these spaces bring out the best in contemporary, historical and touring art. Yet they are part of a powerfully symbiotic creative infrastructure that involves community artists, creative partnerships in schools, visiting shows, artists in residence, and the post-YBA flowering of British art. Yet for all the money on show at Frieze or wherever, for all the graduates pouring out of art schools, for all the artists studios, and expensive art publications, has the last 15 years or so really been a golden age? It feels that the time has passed on again - that there's an internationalism, a globalised art elite now that trots from festival to festival, country to country. The work itself hardly has time to settle, to find roots. Some of these new buildings - and certainly some of the projects that fill them - will no doubt be hit next week by arts council cuts; yet the visual arts has made a brash, loud case for itself, bouyed by free entry, its role in regeneration, and the media interest in everything from the Turner Prize to Banksy.

We have gone beyond the fusty permanent collections of municipal galleries, and indeed, some of these are now being sold off to pay for children's centres and whatever else, to a need for art spaces to be as dynamic as new media, as fast moving as film, as contemporary as the latest Apple advertisement. The need for a permanently revolving series of exhibitions (all free at point of use) is not only an artistically challenging one, but an expensive one. Urbis had no permanent exhibits during its most successful phase, but that creates its own challenges. Contemporary art is verbose, has many voices, and yet one wonders how much of it will survive time's filter? At every auction house there are 19th century landscapes and portrait paintings, only memorable if they accidentally have some connection with a still pivotal figure.

The New Art Gallery, Walsall, exemplary in every way, will no doubt remain a key civic rallying point - on Saturday it was busier than the ICA last time I visited (and with better exhibitions) - but elsewhere, you wonder whether this particular experiment - art as civic enterprise - is nearing its end.

New Formats

I was fascinated by the news in today's Guardian about "flipbacks" a new book format that you flip from top to bottom rather than side to side, like a shorthand notepad. With thin paper, small pages, its refreshing to find there are some new ideas coming from publishers rather than handwringing about e-books etc. Responding to the recieved wisdom that books are just to big to carry with you (has anyone felt the heft of an iPad?) I had to glance twice at the date to make sure it wasn't a Guardian April fools. (Of course, being the Guardian, it might still be, and their news editor has just "scooped" one of his colleagues.)

Great to get a Guardian story on a slow news day (er...maybe not, there's Japan, there's Libya....) but a Google search tells you that Flipback is a BHS Boys Clothing Brand (something to do with skateboards I imagine), so be interesting to see if they are more than a passing fad.

To ensure a dubious future, Hodder and Stoughton are launching in dead June with a dozen "holiday reads" including the large (but already well-read) "Cloud Atlas" and the short (and slightly holiday-unfriendly) "Misery." I personally love all these kind of things. I still regret not buying some Factory records DATs back in the day years before I got a DAT player (for my own music) - and have recently picked up a few cheap price "film and book" packs, as well as all those little Penguin 60s and the like. We've had colour your own covers of classics, and reissues in hardback of modern classics - so I'm game for a few flipbacks on my shelf.

Surprised that the book industry hasn't followed the record industry in realising that collectibles are the other end of the equation to downloads. The poor quality of contemporary paperbacks - bad binding, cheap covers, and poor paper stock - makes them disposable; and its why I've loved recent hardbacks such as Julian Barnes' Arthur and George or David Mitchell's Thousand Autumns... individual authors like Iain Banks have books reissued in nicely designed "sets" - yet my bookshelves crave a publisher like Penguin or New Directions or Picador where there's such an overwhelming sense of aesthetic, only poetry publishers like Salt and Carcanet, and a few reissue specialists like Hesperus, seem to take this kind of thing seriously.

I reckon I'll buy a Flipback or two out of curiousity, or if not wait till the whole set are on discount at The Works, sometime before Christmas.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Some Things

Yesterday was a step back in time, as along with JT Welsch I had an opportunity to talk to creative writing students at the University of Manchester, courtesy of John McAuliffe and Vona Groarke. A step back in time, as I was one of the earliest students on the MA in Novel Writing (as it was then) - third or fourth year - with Richard Francis and Michael Schmidt at tutors. The University continued with a creative writing course after they'd gone (respectively to Bath Spa and MMU) but it was a good few years before it reinvented its creative writing provision as the Centre for New Writing. All to the good, and it was nice to be asked back, as with all the glitz of "the Martin Amis years" there sometimes seems a bit of amnesia about the courses that preceded it. We read a couple of poems and talked a bit about our different journeys to being published by Salt.

On Sunday I'd popped to Vintage Village in Stockport, and was pleased to find, amongst the bric a brac and classic clothing, a nice little book stall. I picked up quite a few literary tomes, including a nice catalogue for a sixties exhibition of literary memorabilia. Made me think that we should have a museum of literature somewhere in the country! In these straitened times its unlikely.

Its the start of the competition season, I realised, when I got an email for this year's Manchester Fiction Prize. So popular was the 2009 prize that you'd probably be better off doing the lottery, I guess, but at least prizes concentrate the mind, and there's plenty of time to get your entry in. Disappointingly, for a prize that costs £15 to enter, there's a 3000 word limit. Hey ho, it is what it is.
Anyway, there appear to be a few more homes for short stories than there used to be, if this invaluable list from fellow Salt-y Tania Hershman is anything to go by.

Next week there's a couple of interesting literary events at Anthony Burgess Foundation. Don Bogen and Ian Pople are reading on Monday, and Paul Farley and Micheal Symmons Roberts are reading on Wednesday. More details of each on the Burgess website.


When I left Helsinki on Friday morning the news from Japan had not yet come through, and so it was a double shock when I switched on the television back in the UK. Since then, of course, the absolute horror that the country has been facing has grown almost hourly. At times like this, everything else seems to fade into the background, rightly so. You can donate to the Red Cross appeal here.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Message from the Frozen Sea

A month ago it was minus 20 degrees and even the Finns were complaining. I landed on a misty Tuesday afternoon at Helsinki airport, with snow all around, but the runways and roads clear and the cold no more than a winter day in Manchester. Arriving at Helsinki bus station, there's something subdued and utilitarian about the city around you, near Soviet-style grey blocks, enlivened with a mix of American, German and Finnish brand names. Everywhere in Helsinki is in on itself, a reflection on the long dark winters, with the entrances to buildings hidden away, or anonymous. The city has been built against the weather it seems, double doors everywhere, and even the grand facade of the central railway station only to be entered through wooden doors more appropriate to a Lutheran chapel than a major transport hub.

The second thing I notice about the city, after these cloisters, is the care taken with design. If the buildings from the outside are austere, everything inside is modern, designed, intricate. Finland seems to work like a single organism, that mixes that northern collectivism with an independence of spirit. A couple of times during my visit, for a meeting about "digital clusters", I encountered disagreements between Finns, or someone going the wrong way; there seemed a certain irritation about these things, as if a perfect system had got a minor flaw. Design, I began to see, was the Finnish way of improving the systemic. Imagine, I thought, if England worked well, rather than hardly at all. I think that's why we admire Finland.

For would you live here? At the top end of Europe, nearer St. Petersburg than Paris, with a history that mixes isolation and invasion, and with a language that is by all accounts one of the hardest to learn. On Wednesday I walked through the city, taking the couple of hours of spare time I'd got to orientate myself. The night before the streets had all seemed similar, the maps had been incomprehensible to a pedestrian, and the street names blurred into one; but, with daylight, and a sense of which direction I was going in, the city seemed perfectly well organised. No-one jaywalks, cars stop as soon as you are anywhere near to a zebra crossing, and there's a constant stream of buses, trams and even pedestrians.

Usually you can tell which direction the sea is in, from the colour of the sky, the sound of gulls and the smell of salt air, but here the sky is either a breathtaking blue or a stubborn grey, and the sea offers no clues. Turning a corner the port area is laid out before me, the boats tethered not just to the dock, but to the water itself, a frozen sea, with, in the distance, a brief glimpse of blue open water of slowly encroaching spring.

Finland has a remarkably quiet modernity about it, whilst the city itself looks locked into 20th century austerity. In the hotel, in the city hall, in the airport there is free fast wi-fi, and though the Finnish language remains a hieroglyphic to outsiders, most people speak (and seem happy to speak) English, even their websites being in dual language.

At the old Ford factory on Wednesday night, we are given a presentation on "Helsinki Cruise to the Future" where the city is encouraging the large leisure cruise ships that are a growing part of the city's economy, to disembark more of their passengers. Compared with other destinations Helsinki looks uninviting. Art, culture, shopping, restaurants, leisure activities, and, of course, saunas, are going to be the carrots to encourage the world's wealthy leisure passengers to sample Helsinki. They should do. Beyond its slightly soviet style architecture, and the drabness of the endless winter, is a vibrant hidden town of style, shopping and sophistication. Look closely, and beyond the hats, gloves and overcoats, and the Finns are immaculately dressed; and though I'm sure there are pockets of poverty here as elsewhere, the sense was of a well-behaved, cultured city. Finland's population are growing older, yet unlike some cities, you notice babies being pushed around in prams or on the trams.

The cold means that the public areas aren't the outdoors, the public squares - at least not at this time of year, but in the academic bookstore, a large crowd are stood listening to an in-conversation between a Finnish author and his interviewer. The English language poetry shelves (heavily devoted to American authors, and American editions of European authors like Cafavy or Lorca) are twice the size of those in the Arndale in Manchester. Every restaurant we go into is full; and the food belies the city's isolation, fresh and inventive. Next year Helsinki is European capital of design, and the range of boutiques and shops selling high quality clothes, homewares and furniture is impressive. At a presentation about the programme, there are a few technical teething problems. In the land of Nokia, whoever decided to use an Apple to give the presentations faced that company's universal non-compatibility, and we struggled with videos that didn't start or a slideshow that didn't fit the screen. It was kind of reassuring to know that the Finns can be a little amateurish on occasion. I imagine they're already working out how to fix it, however. A strange, abrupt, and not entirely successful piece of performance art by three young women, going under the name Nutty Tarts, brought that evening's presentations to a slightly perplexing close.

I'd arranged to leave in the early morning, as though flights to and from Manchester are regular, they fall differently on different days. Waking at 5.30pm this morning, I was half regretting not having another day or two here, and thinking that the snowfall from the previous night might have impeded the road to the airport as it surely would have done in the UK. At that time of day, Helsinki shouldn't be up and working, but it already was, and catching the fast shuttle bus directly to a busy airport, and a full plane back to Manchester, I left the city certain I'll be coming back some time.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Generation Gap

I turned 44 on Friday, which seems, suddenly, to mean something. My forties is speeding by. Whatever it is I need to do, then I'd better start doing it now, or soon. I've not really much a sense of what the "mid forties" should look like anyway. Too old to be a footballer or a rock star; beginning to go grey or bald or whatever else; its a "dad" age; yet I've not got kids. So how do you reinvent this?

Also, the last year or so I'm willing to admit to a generation gap. I'm lucky in that as well as having friends the same age and older than me, I also know people a lot younger. Ten, fifteen, even twenty years hasn't seemed to make that much difference to be honest, I've felt a shared sensibility, however loosely. The ubiquity of the music and other cultural references that I've always liked, has meant that you expect the Cure or Joy Division or Radiohead or whoever to be as familiar (or more familiar) to the average culturally-inclined 20-something as to my own generation.

Because I still listen to chart music, pop music, its here you see a real difference. Listen to contemporary pop (R&B seems so not the right phrase) such as Jessie J, or Far East Movement or Tinchy Strider and it's an entirely different aesthetic; almost totally divorced from the cliches of sixties pop and rock (whether Motown or the Beatles), it seems both technologically futuristic (in its musical soundscapes) and pre-modern at the same time. The songs themselves are simple jingles, reminding me more of Brill Building pop from before the Beatles than the more complex pop of the sixties onwards. We're back to a time of uber-producers and the vocalists being as manufactured as the anodyne pop of the late 50s. It's not necessarily a bad thing; after all the MP3 player and the ringtone are the AM radios of the present - but it does throw away the sixties hegemony, in a way that is something new. I guess the generation of record company executives and producers are now younger than me, growing up in a purely digital age. At the same time, the safety first approach of programmes like "Glee" and the "X-Factor" sees the classic song in the same way as the 50s music store might have done, the version less important than the sheet music (or the Midi file).

But if there's a cultural generation gap then its a complex one; as without having the demographic breakdown to hand, its hard to know who is reading the Stieg Larsson books or watching "The King's Speech" or buying the Adele album or whatever cultural signifier is currently hottest. I guess it's that an ageing population, with two generations of baby boomers now getting older, is also a conformist culture. The success of Adele, whose second album has just sold a million in no time at all, and is top of the UK and US charts is a case in point. On her debut she covered a late Dylan song ("Make you feel my love") and on her new album she does a bossa nova version of the Cure ("Love Song.") What 19 (or 21) year olds are into Dylan and the Cure? Probably the stage school type. And when she sings her instant classic "Someone Like You", its a 21-year old writing a life experience song that seems to belie her young years; except, of course, heartache's particularly acute as a teenager. That it's arrangement and her performance of it are, to these ears, closer to karaoke than to Roberta Flack, is more a criticism of the kind of emotive culture that we have these days, than Adele per se.

Last night I saw "The King's Speech" and like the director's previous film, "The Damned United", it had inch-perfect performances, a solid historical backdrop, and, I have to say, nothing much more profound than that. There's a staginess to "The King's Speech" which is probably appropriate to the thin material, whilst "The Damned United" saw the darkness of David Peace's book replaced by a mix of comedy and pathos. The inimitable Timothy Spall replaces his curmudgeonly Peter Taylor with a jovial Winston Churchill. I found "The King's Speech" slow, sometimes boring, and betraying the director's TV origins. None of this is a surprise of course, but there's also something worryingly revisionist in this story of King George VI. There are few families of whom we know so little, yet have read so much, as the Windsors of course, and like "The Queen" before it, a story is fashioned out of the thinnest of details. Scorsese it is not.

So I'm sat here in the middle of an age that on the one hand seems to have a new cultural language (Jessie J, Tinchy Strider, video games)and feel fascinated, but generationally a world apart; and on the other finds room for such well-made, but highly conservative products as Adele's "Someone Like You" or "The King's Speech." The former are American products filtered through a manic British street mentality; the latter are British staples exported to the U.S. (and the world) with as much success as single malts and Burberry. Thinking of the literary world in this context, World Book Day yesterday was, to those of us who care about literature, as relevant as the Grand National is to racing buffs, a nice idea but for those who ignore it the rest of the year. "One Day", or "The Time Traveller's Wife" or whatever other free books were handed out, are already ubiquitous, and making them available free is all about getting to those people who don't read at all, I guess. Laudable, but hardly going to lead many to a wider appreciation - any more than a visit to see "The King's Speech" will open up a larger audience for British film.

As the world tips on its axis in the Middle East, and our P.R. led coalition government throws our few remaining contemporary civilities in the air in the hope they break into pieces, I'm not sure if the gap I'm feeling is generational, cultural, or emotional. I can, and will (I guess), ignore it, and concentrate on the marginal stuff, that still has more interest to me - but I've always hoped for some reconciliation between my own tastes and interests and that of the wider world; as well as having a horror of the kind of cultural nostalgia that its so easy to fall back on.

Friday, March 04, 2011

Get Shorty

The Booktrust has provided a well-chosen list of contemporary British short story collections, which shows a healthy appetite for the best books, rather than necessarily the biggest names, with smaller presses Salt, Peepal, Social Disease and Comma all represented. Not much to add to a list that I can heartily recommend - I've several of the books on it, and have earlier excellent collections by Lasdun and Kennedy.

Tomorrow is World Book Day, which is all well and good, and there will be lots of literary events around. Oxfam in Didsbury is handing out a C.J. Sansom medieval mystery and Carol Ann Duffy's "The World's Wife", from about 5pm, but arrive earlier and you'll be able to browse their extensive secondhand collection.

Literary folks should no more be peeved by the mainstream focus of tomorrow's bookfest than racing types should be sniffy about the Grand National. It's not really aimed at us, after all round these parts, every day is World Book Day.