Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Debates not contributed to

Forget about roads not travelled, there's an increasing number of debates I've not been contributing to. The travails at the Poetry Society (details are all over the web but here's one of the more reliable summaries) seem sad, because small organisations can have an impact far beyond their size, and good corporate governance is as important here, as it is at News International. The devil makes work for idle boards to do it seems. As neither subscriber to Poetry Review or member of the Poetry Society, its the kind of club that brings out the Groucho in me, but I'd hoped at some point in the future, as a poet at least, to have some nodding acquaintance with either.

As for the Booker longlist, announced yesterday, its the old and the new, as ever, and it increasingly seems the novel's top contest is as open as a Golf major in the post-Tiger Woods days. (Tigers do well in the Booker by the way, so its not a totally spurious analogy!) Great to see small publishers on there, again. I've not read any of the books, so I can't really comment. I have a sneaking suspicion that the "big names" might not make it to the final six, if only because quite a few of the new books seem quite interesting and original in subject matter (if not in style.) A judging panel including the ex-head of MI5 and the writer of "The Woman in Black" is likely to be going for a good story or two, I'd think.

What's clear - or has been for a few years - is that there's no new broom to the Booker, no new generation of writers taking all before them, and proclaiming the irrelevancy of those that have gone before. History features strongly, as ever, the Indian subcontinent seems to have fallen a little out of favour (or maybe it's just this year), and there's a welcome return to the list with Jane Rogers indepedently published pseudo SF novel.

I like the Booker, its quirks, its annoyances, and spits and spats - and also its occasional ability at picking out some of the better books of the year. I've read 7 of the last 9 winners, but only one ("Wolf Hall") genuinely seemed the best of the bunch.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

In Residence

I'm at a "writing residency" today, for 2 and a half hours at least. This is part of a project called The Reading, and takes place in the Untitled Gallery, which is a tiny room underneath the Friends' Meeting House in Manchester. 72 writers are contributing and I'm following on from Kay Boardman, who I don't know, who may well be (one Google search later, so may not be!) an editor of a book on "Popular Victorian Writers".

So, all being well, from 12pm I'll be avoiding the sunshine and the jazz festival and sitting at a screen waiting for inspiration - my words being simultaneously broadcast to the Cornerhouse and other venues about town. Best keep it clean then.

Tweet me at @adrianslatcher if you've any words you'd like me to inculcate into the text and reception willing, I'll see what I can do!

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Performing Seals It!

The Manchester International Festival finishes today, and although its a bit difficult to be objective, given that few people will have been to more than a couple of shows, because of the cost and the variety, it seems to have been another success. There were tickets still on sale as late as yesterday afternoon for the remaining shows - which, though surely not ideal, at least let people make choices after the reviews came in.

I popped into "11 Rooms" at Manchester Art Gallery yesterday - I simply hadn't found time and opportunity before - and the place was packed, and indeed closed its doors early. Performance art, that mainstay of TV comedy skits on art, has clearly come of age. Maybe it was already there... David Blaine in a box, or the hourly stints on the 4th plinth at "One and Other." I don't think I'm being elitist when I felt that I didn't want to be crammed into a small space watching this or that performer. The performers I have seen this last couple of weeks - Rickie Lee Jones, Paul Heaton, Lonelady - have been of the musical variety. In each case, although seeing them live seems a privilege it is the work that got me there. Classic albums from Rickie Lee (she took us through her first two albums in the order they were recorded), familiar songs from Lonelady, a brand new ensemble piece by the Beautiful South frontman.

I could (and perhaps should) have gone to something every day and night this week, but I've had to limit myself. In all of this "performance" you wonder where anyone gets the time to do any work nowadays. Bjork apparently doesn't speak for a day after the performance; yet everyone's been hoping to "star spot" round town, as if seeing someone outside of their show, drinking beer in Albert Square or coffee in the Cornerhouse, is somehow a more authentic experience. After all, its no surprise that you might bump into Damon Albarn out and about, as he's garrisoned in Manchester for a few weeks. The more authentic experience, of course, is the performance; but even more than that - it's the creation of the art, and that, so often happens outside the performance space.

I'm thinking of this because next Sunday I'm going to be in a "performance" space, one of a relay of writers in "residency" for a couple of hours at Untitled Gallery, a subterranean space under the Friends' Meeting House (run by Metallica fans if the typeface is anything to go by!) Jane Chavez-Dawson's "The Reading" is being broadcast onto screens across the city, including the lobby of the Cornerhouse. A full list of writers is here....

This piece appealed to me on a number of levels. Firstly because it is about writers doing what they do, usually in silence and isolation. Secondly because of its democratic nature - which has appealed to a wide range of Manchester's writing community. And thirdly because the chance to sit down and write something in "residency" even for just a couple of hours, feels a real privilege. In other words, it amazes me that any work at all gets done these days, so inculcated are we in the primacy of performance.

As a poet, as a well as a fiction writer, I know how long it can take for a poem to make it from first draft, to being ready for the world, to being published. For our art, I think this has implication, in that its only when a book or record or film is completed that the world sits up and takes notice. Our instantaneous culture is one of over-production, yet for an individual artist or writer this is so difficult. No wonder there's a trend in the art world towards minimalism, it's all people have time for.

Yet if you make art in isolation, it can be hard sometimes to know where it might fit in. There are writers who are fixtures in certain magazines, or who are an obvious fit for this or that project. Yet if you follow your own path - wondering where it might lead - it can sometimes seem out of synchronisation with the times. A disinclination to be a "celebrity" is anathemic to modern culture. Bookselling demands not only your presence, but your performance. In our cultural zoo it is the creatives who are best at being performing seals who often are most successful, at least in the short term. But all this activity is often counterproductive. I've read more about the Poetry Society in the last month than in the previous ten years, and all of it is to do with their administration and nothing to do with poetry (though there are poets involved.)

Anyone who is interested in contemporary art can find themselves invited to previews every week of the year - yet it is the silent contemplation on a wet Wednesday afternoon that offers the real communion with an artist, just like the real communion with a writer is in private, with the work. Anyone who has sat there uncomfortably as a friend asks to read your latest poem knows how irrelevant your presence is to the reading - after all the "presence" is all in the work. All art is performance, but when everything is performance, I fear a little for the art.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Vault by David Rose

Reading David Rose's debut novel "Vault" I didn't quite know what to expect. After all, Rose has been a writer of unusual, terse short stories for decades, and this - his first longer work - is novella length, and described as an "anti-novel." I shouldn't have worried.

At its heart, "Vault" is a noirish thriller, and Rose provides both the tension and the detail that such a description deserves. It strikes me that if you play with genre fiction of any kind - the war novel, the spy novel - then the best way is to play the genre bits as straight as you can. In the hands of a careful stylist, and Rose is certainly that, details are both spare and appropriate. Our lead character is a cyclist, a World War II sniper, a Cold War accidental spy, and defiantly the "hero" of his own life. McKuen is himself a character in a novel, which dramatises the life of this fascinating maverick, yet in "Vault" the "real" McKuen is also commenting on that life, correcting the errors, puncturing the mythical. What might seem a gimmick is far from one. In fact, the dual perspective provides a powerful way to tell a life from two different perspectives. We are given the action scenes through the novelist - who plays up the heroism, creates an atmosphere, and creates an anti-hero. Then, through the narrator, the myth is punctured, the man seeps through.

If not a unique way of telling a story, "Vault" is cetainly more explicit about its dual narrative. Usually it would be the narrator who inflates his own importance, and up to the reader to do the puncturing. A fictional life told through the key moments seems a rich model - it's not so far from Anthony Burgess's "Earthly Powers" or Jim Crace's "Aracadia" after all - but given the subject matter, I think Rose gives his subject a depth and perspective that a less postmodern treatment would hardly do justice to.

After all, this is, ostensibly, a historical novel. Our main character is a minor player in large events. We get a very personal story. His two main skills, as sniper and cyclist seem wonderfully complementary, and in both the war scenes and the racing scenes we get the sense of a talented loner having to learn how to be part of a team effort for the greater good. That's as far as Rose goes in spelling out any deeper meaning, and the novel is the better for it. I've written before about a certain kind of contemporary "mock noir" which takes the conventions of genre fiction and adapts them to other scenarios, and there is an element of this double-take in "Vault", yet at the same time, Rose stays true to his character's life. There is no retrospective analysis; no attempt to contemporarise the past. I'm no cyclist but the descriptions of racing seem lived, real. Isn't sport so often praised for being a metaphor for war? Here the link is made explicit. The myth busting real McKuen never stops mentioning his busted knee and what it prevents him doing.

There's much pleasure to be had in this short novel, and though its easily read in one sitting it seems more substantial than many longer works. What it takes from the short story is a purity of vision. There are no subplots, no side issues. the dual narratives (with chapters named 1a, 1b etc.) is used for a reason, rather than strictly adhered to. Only when reality and fiction are far apart do we get two different accounts of the same story, elsewhere, Rose uses the method to drive forward the story. I wondered about a few of the details in the war scenes, with references to "no mans land" and "trench warfare" being associated with the First, rather than the Second world war; though I imagine they are accurate enough, they cause a jolt with a reader accustomed to certain conventions, and perhaps should have been removed. Generally the war scenes are very powerful. The sniper is such a tiny cog in the big wheel of battle, that his decisions are both "life and death" and hardly relevant to the bigger picture. Chasing through Europe after the German retreat, he comes across latent horrors, and it brings out his own dark side in a way that the tumult of war doesn't. This haunts him in civilian life, and cycling, one feels, is both escape - and in what it takes out of the competitive rider - penance.

There's something of Calvino's appropriation of genre writing in "Vault", and inevitable echoes of Graham Greene; whilst the bleak south east of post-war Britain reminds me of the same landscape in McEwan's noir novel "The Innocent", yet these are echoes rather than signature themes. McKuen listens to Mahler, and there is something musical about this book. The clank of the bike chain, the silence after a sniper's kill; Rose seems acutely aware of the auditory possibilities of the worlds he is documenting. It's a wonderful little book, that is a pleasure to read.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Blackwater Lightship by Colm Toibin

Colm Toibin's acclaimed late 90s novel "The Blackwater Lightship" is a story about three generations of an estranged Irish family brought back together by the news that Declan, brother to Helen, is dying. In an arresting opening scene, Helen is acting as a party host for her husband, whilst preparing for him to take their two sons away for a week. As soon as she has seen them off, she has a visitor. Her brother Declan has asked for her to go and see him in the hospital. Declan has AIDS. This elegant opening is used by Toibin to set up a contrived setting, where Declan is taken to his grandmother's where 3 generations of the women in his family are brought under the same roof, alongside 2 of his friends. We discover that Helen doesn't speak to her mother, and that her mother and grandmother also don't get on. The silences of broken families are filled in by them all being brought under one roof for the first time. Of Declan we learn little, other than what he was like as a child, he is defined almost entirely by his illness - the friends who have tended to him, and now, reluctantly, at his request have let his family back into his life. We find out more about their lives than Declans. Toibin's adept at describing the replacement family a gay man builds around him when his real family exclude, or are excluded.

The setting, on a crumbling coastline, where the Blackwater Lightship is a metaphor for what has been lost (there were once two lighthouses, looking at each other, like lovers across a room). Over the course of the novel, which follows the trajectory of Declan's illness, the three women are asked to confront their hostilities to each other. Whether or not you are taken by this novel depends, I think, on how easy you are with Toibin's manipulations. The only straight men in the novel are dead (Helen's father) or absent (her husband), and the story - an unwrapping of past hurt, missed opportunities - is played out through the women in the family, with their shared love for Declan, being the glue that starts to bring them together again. Helen is a successful head teacher, her mother is a thriving business woman, yet they cannot see their similarities. Rural Ireland is played out as a place that has to be got away from, else it will draw you in and strangle you - yet there are no great events in this family's life, the betrayals are unspoken, perceived. Helen's husband tiptoes around her past, and decides not to delve too deeply when she doesn't invite her family to her wedding. Yet, Helen has estranged Declan as well. Here is hurt left to grow over the years.

The other Toibin I've read, "Brooklyn", takes a similar theme, but the millieu is different, an oppressive Ireland of the 1950s dominated by poverty and priests, with power maintained through silence. In 1990s Ireland, Toibin seems to be saying that the silence is what remains.

It's undoubtedly an elegant novel, and Toibin's prose is much praised, yet he writes in a transatlantic style that though it travels easily (to Booker shortlists and to American universities) isn't really strong enough to carry what is, in many ways, a long short story. If the Jamesian languidness of "Brooklyn" (and presumably "The Master") aren't quite formed in his prose at this point, there's still a pointing towards it. Like Ishiguro you feel that there has been a deliberate excising of a more emotional style. Yet, transatlantic as it might be, its also a very middle-class novel. These characters would easily fit into the mainstream of British literary fiction. Like in Mike Leigh's film "Secrets and Lies" you only really feel they exist within the parameters in which we see them. The backstory is just that, in the background, to illuminate points of difference between the claustrophobic cast of characters.

Family and death - perhaps "The Dead" retains a hold over Irish fiction even now - yet this novel seems almost pathological in its self-imposed misery. Unlike Anne Enright's similarly themed (but differently structured) "The Gathering", there is not much fun to be had. I can't remember another novel that so dwells on the illness of one of its characters, another pathology - perhaps the end of the 20th century allowed the "taboo" to be not just lifted but explored? There is resolution of a sort, after all there has to be, given the novelist's contrivance, though its of a tentative sort. Helen's mother would very much like to come and see her and her children, but she promises not to stay "overnight." Certain proprietaries are necessary it seems, not to mend the past, but to retain the truce. Toibin seems to be saying that in a very modern Ireland, nothing much has really changed, underneath it all - but perhaps the reader, or at least this reader, requires a bit more convincing. "Get over yourself" you feel like saying, but in this novel, nobody would have the language for it; and, unusually for an Irish writer, neither does the novelist.

Business as Usual

Dragging myself away from the News International scandals (and trying to wonder why since everyone I know has been suspicious of the "Digger" and his nasty little newspapers for as long as I remember, the political class are only just realising it. Reminds me (as many things do) of the tale of the frog and the scorpion).... as I say, dragging myself away.

In Birmingham on Monday I had a long-overdue visit to the magnificent city Art Gallery. As well as sitting there enthralled by Epstein's "Lucifer" I spent some time with their pre-raphaelites, read about the progress of the Staffordshire hoard (which was dug up a couple of miles from where I grew up), and had lunch in the wonderful Edwardian Tea Rooms. The real reason for going was to see the "Home of Metal" exhibition in the basement. Something strange hearing Black Sabbath, Diamond Head and Napalm Death in an art gallery. Birmingham's attitude to culture always seems a little ambiguous. I looked in vain in Waterstones for any Roy Fisher. Still writing at 80, he seems a nearly invisible figure, even in the city where he came from.

I'm writing about the West Midlands - partly about my own past, but partly the landscape, partly trying to uncover the somewhat hidden literature of the city - and it strikes me that there remains a literary hole of sorts, despite the usual preponderance of literary festivals etc. The Lichfield festival this week has brought in Carol Ann Duffy and Gillian Clarke as the main poetry event. The recovery of the Staffordshire Hoard reminds us that Mercia was once a powerful kingdom. I wonder what its "national" literature would look like?

There's a sense of overstimulation elsewhere as the Manchester Festival continues in the city. I've hardly had a chance to see the main events, never mind the fringe, though was so glad I went to see one of my musical heroines, Rickie Lee Jones, on Sunday night.

There's quite a lot of static on the poetry airwaves at the moment. Like buzzing fly at the window I can't quite ignore the furore over the Poetry Society/Poetry Review whilst realising that it has little relevance/resonance for me, either as a poetry reader or writer. Poets, despite the popular perception, do seem to like a scrap - a shame that this one appears to be about the administration rather than the art. The Forward Prize shortlist is the usual mix of the well-known and the new, and you get the sense that "prizes" are now the poetry equivalent of patronage, great if you get them, furiously derided if you don't.

Little pleasures continue: there's an Oxfam "book jam" on Sunday night in the Northern Quarter at Apotheca ; there's a competition to write "quickies" (adult flash fiction - that's what happens when you let the Chorltonites into the Didsbury festival!); the Other Room returns with its packed summer programme, next Wednesday; and Kate Feld is running a workshop on creative non-fiction leading to a competition for this year's literature festival.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

The Cult of Beauty

Our relationship to the Victorians is always an intricate one. We still live in and love many of their houses; we are sniffy about "Victorian values"; we have a Commonwealth when once we had an Empire. Victoria was on the throne for so long, however, that it is the later part of her reign that we are seeing in our minds-eye when something is described as "Victorian." Yet Albert died in 1861, and the museum that bears her and his name, the Victoria and Albert (or "V&A") only took that name at the end of the 19th century.

It's an appropriate place for an exhibition on late Victorian art and design. "The Cult of Beauty" is billed as the first comprehensive exhibition of "the aesthetic movement 1860-1900." The V&A may well be my favourite British exhibition space, and as ever with their major shows its a curatorial triumph. At its best, the V&A augments its remarkable exhibits with a vast sweep of historiogaphy, and the Cult of Beauty is no exception. From paintings, to artefacts, to a whole range of late Victorian social and cultural histories, the show is in some ways breathtaking.

What was the "aesthetic movement" then? This is an exhibition that takes in the Pre Raphaelites, Whistler, Leighton and other late Victorian painters; finds room for designers such as Morris and Liberty (whose shop still exists in Central London), and still find time for the fin de seicle decadence of Wilde and Beardsley.

If "The Cult of Beauty" has an agenda it is to revitalise our interest in this familiar, yet increasingly distant time. In parts it succeeds. Our 20th century middle classes are stubbornly enamoured of the late Victorian aesthetic, whether its willow pattern China, or Morris's wallpaper. The examples given throughout the show are luscious, pristine, but at the same time trite. This "aesthetic" was one of a very particular, and peculiar design. New materials and techniques provided artists with the means to produce things of beauty, to their own design; yet this was also a precursor for the "mass produced". The arts and craft movement, as idealised in William Morris's utopia "News from Nowhere", would end up influencing the mass-produced.

The four spaces given over to the exhibition take a chronological and thematic approach. The Pre-Raphaelites, though towering over the exhibition in terms of their influence and quality, are seen in the context of their times, their influence extending beyond their own work. But though the exhibition shows their influence, it is not theirs alone. The vivid colours and even more vivid life that we saw in the recent "Desperate Romantics" TV show comes to mind; the set designers of that show had clearly done their homework. I loved Millais's "Esther", where General Gordon's coat was turned inside out producing the vivid patterns you see in the Biblical character's beautiful gown, and the red-haired heroines of PRB legend return again and again in the art that follows. I was fascinated as well by the story of the Grosvenor Gallery, which was opened as a rival to the Royal Academy and became something of a home from home for the Aesthetic movement. It was here that Ruskin famously slammed Whistler's painting for "flinging a pot of paint in the public's face."

This exhibition was full of such historical gems as this - and you realise how febrile the capital's artistic scene must have been during the late Victorian period, even as Victoria herself stayed in secluded mourning following Albert's death. The riches of the Empire were finding their way directly into the homes and tastes of London's middle classes. Whereas the Pre-Raphaelites had worked with carpenters to design furniture to their taste, or had scoured London for 17th century eastern pottery, by the 1880s and 1890s, the wealthy middle classes were keen on showing their own ostentation. Pottery from Stoke-on-Trent emulated Chinese willow patterns; whilst furniture makers and metal workers created elegantly designs. The exhibition even imports a pair of iron gates, which were built to show off the skills of the craftsmen who made them.

A reader of Quiller-Couch's first edition of the "Oxford Book of English Poetry" (1900) is struck by how well-formed is the English canon, up to the age which has just finished. Yet the last 50 or so pages of the book are full of tedious versifiers, reminiscent of Tennyson, but without the great man's brilliance. Few survive in our memory. Modernism was not just the period that followed, but a necessary reformation, and the same is true elsewhere in the arts.

The British painters that came after the PRB seem minor. After all, in Europe a revolution in painting was being undertaken. Whistler seems a bridging figure, both between old world and new, but also between the tastes of late Victorian England and the revolutions on the continent. Other painters we look at now for their decorative powers. Leighton's Flaming June for instance (not featured in the exhibition - but there are other examples of his work), or Albert Moore's luminous "Azaleas." (My favourite painting in the show.)

The natural world is popular with the Aesthetic Movement, but its the peacock that dominates, the exotic beauty of its feathers, becoming a leitmotif, particularly in Whistler's the Peacock Room, which is recreated via audio visual display. One can only admire such attempts at bringing art to the centre of life, but we also see how increasingly these attempts are part of "fashionable society" rather than an art for all. Art for Arts Sake, as Whistler's regular pamphlets would have it, becomes a stick which Punch cartoonists can beat the asethetic movement. In Oscar Wilde, we have both an exemplar of the aesthete and the period's most lasting criticism. Few dramatists are revived as frequently. If Wilde was very aware of the absurdities of the movement, as is clear from "The Importance of Being Earnest", he was mocking his own friends and circle, for the benefit of a wider, more conservative audience. Today, we share the laughter, mocking the pretension, whilst still admiring the decoration. It is the pre-Victorian imagination - the romantic poets, J.M.W. Turner - that still dominates British aesthetics, yet Victorian kitsch casts a long shadow.

The "decadent" 1890s end the show. We see revolutions in book design, exemplified by the Beardsley illustrated "The Yellow Book." Here we have a vibrant literary journal, and an enthusiastic educated audience for its writers and illustrators. Yet if, from the distance of a century or more, we are looking for "decadence", its not in the "shocking" illustrations of Beardsley, or stories of the trial of Oscar Wilde, but in the bourgeois sensibility of the times. Wonderful as this show is, I think it falls short of rehabiliting its art. There is something a little too mesmerising about this "cult of beauty", that seems to reflect the technological advances and great wealth of the late Victorian British Empire. You will look long and hard for the real Victorian England, particularly the non-Metropolitan world. Aestheticism brought a certain European sophistication to the galleries and drawing rooms of London, but quickly became commoditised by the class who embraced it - who, in turn, felt morally outraged by the artists (such as Wilde) who had provided their guilty pleasures. For all that Rosetti, Millais, Morris and others were dedicated to illustrating truth through beauty, at some point their innovations became little more than bourgeois fashion. In the end, it is in the history of design and home furnishings that the Aesthetic movememt influenced, rather than the history of art. At its best, the paintings of Hunt and Millais, "Goblin Market", or "The Portrait of Dorian Gray", late Victorian art and literature has a fragile magic to it. It is no surprise that we still admire their buildings, and their interiors. In this exemplary show at the V&A, we see an earlier age of commerce than our own, and the echoes are very clear. Yet we have forsaken beauty for expediency, satire for prurience, Whistler for Emin. The exhibition's title is a clever one for a "cult" can mean two things; an obsessiveness about something which others don't share, and something that appeals to a small group of people. In calling the aesthetic movement "the cult of beauty" the curators of this show are noting only how strange we would now think it to want to design our lives along aesthetic purposes. Modernism, a far more European movement, never really took hold in Britain, as a previous show at the V&A amply demonstrated; and the strong hold that the aesthetic movement still has on our visual imagination is perhaps one part of the reason why.

Monday, July 04, 2011

American Account

The last of Martin Amis's Public Lectures tonight at the Martin Harris Centre at the University of Manchester was an independence day special, with him being joined by Erica Wagner and Will Self to talk about America. As Ian Mcguire, from the Centre for New Writing, made clear in the introduction, its a big subject. Too big in the end.

All three speakers were a little bit American. I didn't know that Self had an American mother (but British passport, which delayed him somewhat in one post-9/11 visit, "Are you an apple or a pear?" the customs guy asked him, repeatedly.) Wagner, an American by upbringing and accent has lived here since her late teens. Amis, of course, writes American, however English he speaks, specifically in the accented "Night Train", but also in his attempts to bring the full American hubbub of U.S. prose to his British writing. (He also emigrates on Wednesday, with his American wife and American children, becoming a - very - Englishman in New York.)

The big subject was a problem. Amis talked of the discovery of America across the frozen Baring Straits; Self, accidentally given the anti-American role (not really necessary, I thought), preferred personal anecdote to historical relativism, though smirking at the space mission naming of its Atlantis after a mythical, sunken continent, whilst Wagner seemed almost apologetic of her accent; whilst conceding that being an American in England had given her immediate authority on its literature, even if she didn't quite know it. One of her first book reviews was of a Western... so, hell, she'd better know a bit more about Westerns.

It seemed a given that we should talk about America in the context of anti-Americanism, the post-9/11 dislike and misadventures across the world. I'd have preferred a debating point on "why America matters" rather than another going over the decline of Empire. Certainly, on July 4th, it was interesting to hear an overview of America that crossed time and nation. There were some interesting points. "America is a world", said Amis, "India is a world, Brazil is a world," disagreed Self, "not America." It could have made an interesting debate in itself, but wasn't followed through. It was, Wagner, I think , who talked about American literature being better for embracing a multiculturalism it had found in British literature. I'd have liked more on that. Is it true that the British + authors like Rushdie and Ondaatje have made America think more about cosmopolitanism? I'd dispute that, but I think she was hitting at a larger truth, that in a globalised market place, authors are now hybrids. Books like "The Kite Runner" or authors like Junot Diaz are American +. But as Amis pointed out, Bellow (as a Jew) and others were always American + anyway.

The beauty of tonight's talk, looking back on it, was that there was a certain joie de vivre about it, despite the concentration on America's myopic world view. There were a few open goals missed, I felt. That there's been a Reagan statue unveiled in London today, for instance. The post-Iraq, post-Blair worldview seemed a little too easy. Everyone's a little disappointed in Obama it seems; but Britain, and its own neo-con coalition was not mentioned. Talking about Blair seems easier somehow. Misadventures abroad have longer consequence.

Yet, when we did touch on novel writing, the three speakers were mostly acute. The instance response to 9/11 of writers hasn't been that great. As Amis said, DeLillo got terrorism much better in "Mao II" and "White Noise" than "Falling Man." Self's dismissal of Jay Mcinerney's "The Good Life" (though he didn't mention it by name) seemed the wrong choice. Mcinerney tries to incorporate 9/11 into the early 21st century contemporary sequel to "Brightness Falls" and though it does feel contrived in parts, I actually think he is doing the very difficult task of being too contemporary, which meant that 9/11 had to be incorporated. The incorporation seems trite, but I don't think he ever exploits the subject.

But that conversation, like a lot tonight, didn't go much further. After all, Amis is one of those who has written extensively post-9/11, and readers of "The Second Plane" are quite rare. The audience questions were, in that uniquely Manchester way, as random as you might expect. I've often felt a "Question Time" format with submission before the event might work well at this kind of event, but, for these public lectures the University of Manchester have stuck with a slightly dull format that could probably benefit, as gracious as Mcguire was, from a more pro-active chair, or a more mediated public response.

As ever it was good to pull out the best thoughts from our esteemed speakers. I'd have liked to hear more from Wagner on literature, as I've always been impressed by her editing of the Times book section, but she was relatively quiet on the subject. It was Amis who mentioned most books by name. Self was funny, particularly when asked to respond to the maddest of the audience's questions (something about drugs and religion that none of us really understood), and made a good case for reading Kafka's "America" if you really want to understand the country. Amis got his best response when he quoted Larkin; Manchester audiences always enjoying the erudition (I think it was Milton last time I saw him here.)

If tonight felt a bit like a missed opportunity, I don't think the audience were too minded. I didn't recognise a single person from the Manchester literary scene, yet the Martin Harris centre was virtually full. Here, it seems, is a very different audience than you see elsewhere at literary events in the city. The slightly null feeling I had at the end of the evening probably came from this juxtaposition. Finishing his four years in Manchester, Amis has proven there is an audience for this kind of event, and it will be interesting if he's left some kind of legacy on the city, with the students he's taught, the conversations he's had. Perhaps even in what he writes next.

With Colm Toibin replacing him in the Autumn there's clearly more than a change of "manager", like when Derby County replaced Brian Clough with Dave Mackay: the styles were very different, but they got a similar result.

Festival Season

Manchester International Festival began on Thursday. Counterintuitively I went down to London Friday, as I'd long planned to, to see "The Cult of Beauty" at the V&A (more of which later.) MIF (or #MIF11 on Twitter) isn't a festival that you can take the full two weeks off for, as it would probably bankrupt you. Most people I know have booked for one or two events and will see what else they might catch. Yet there's also a festival pavilion in Albert Square, many of which events are free. So, over the next week or two I'll be catching a few things I'm sure. Its also spurred its own fringe, this time with quite a large, coherent programme. The "Not Part of" festival takes its name from the somewhat dismal community offerings of the first MIF, but has thankfully grown into a welcomed little brother of the main festival. As ever in Manchester, the city is a diverse beast, and events not associated with either festival of fringe are going on at just the same time. So tonight I'll be going to the last of Martin Amis's public lectures as Professor of Creative Writing at University of Manchester.