Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Long Hand of the Writer

A nice little Twitter discussion last few days around "writing longhand." Alex Preston was thinking of doing it, and being encouraged by Jon McGregor and Lee Rourke. I put my twopen'th in, but it got me thinking.

I've deliberately written poems longhand these last few years - though during late nineties/early noughties I was equally as likely to write poems to screen. There seems no reason why that should be a bad thing; and I found it interesting in terms of form and content; but in reality, I've nearly always written poems longhand, the scribbling out, the flash of inspiration, all seems to encourage it. But I've written good poems direct to screen as well.

Fiction's different though. I've been a type-writer since 1990 at least - helped along by access to word processors (typewriters were another matter) and a reasonably fast typing speed. When in full flow on fiction my handwriting had difficulty keeping up with the thought processes of getting the writing down and I still think that's true to a large extent; but that said, I've been struggling to get prose down in any way shape or form of late, and wondering whether something of this might be the ubiquity of the screen - the ever present internet in the corner of my vision.

When I participated in the multiple writer residency "the Reading" recently I found myself able/forced to write to the screen for a good 3 hours. At home, the distractions become too easy. Yet I've never given up longhand entirely - the issue has always been the extra work involved in typing it up (with the caveat that you get to 2nd draft it - but I'm a pretty good copy typist, so to be honest, I don't do much revising when doing that.) (And besides, my handwriting is sometimes illegible.)I was surprised a while back to find that the novel I'd begun on my M.A. was started longhand - though only the first few pages. In those days it was easier to be without a computer, now they seem a little too ubiquitous and maybe that's the problem. It almost takes a leap of faith to believe that you can go back to writing longhand - even though you know that Martin Amis and William Gibson still do (I think), and that the majority of writing that you revere was written in that way. Who used to type up these manuscripts? Obedient spouses? Hard-pressed publishing assistants? The writer...? In other words, you can romanticise the "longhand", when it can sometimes be cutting off one of the better tools the modern writer has.

I carry a pad with me these days, and every now and then start something longhand - either because I'm away from the computer, or, as importantly, because I'm wondering if that might be a more efficient way of channelling the imagination. Yet I've sat on trains with a laptop and written 3-4000 words - highly productively - so its not just that.

But anyway, the Twitter conversation got me thinking, and I was away from a computer for a few days up in the North East, and I had a pad with me, and a bit of spare time, and I started writing a story. I'm going to try and finish it in that form, even knowing that I've the job I've entering it on to the screen at some point; the writing doesn't necessarily seem that different, but I do think there's something in seeing the words immediately on the page - for if the computer can be a match for the notebook for writing, I'm still sure it's not what I need for reading my work.

The strangest thing was how it did tie my imagination a little behind my back. For I'd no computer on which to check a word, or a spelling, or to look up a particular technical term or other such detail. Those gaps are starting to appear in the narrative as I write, and I find it the least appealing part of the process. Just as Hemingway's newsman's Remington seemed to be echoed in his taut writing style, I think the longhand writer is potentially handicapping the imagination, by taking away the extended tools by which it now functions so seamlessly. My longhand story suddenly feels less modern than ones I write straight to the screen. Yet, for me, at this point in time, the suggestion seemed a good one. Short fiction in particular - but longer stuff as well - doesn't seem particularly interested in the modern at present; and by going back, I wonder if I might unlock at least something of the difference.

(Adrian uses Muji exercise pads. They are cheap, comfortable to hold, and the pages are wide).

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Albert Angelo by B.S. Johnson

English fiction of the post-war period is a series of roads not so much less-travelled as roadblocked off. Quite a few of those roads exist in the ever inventive work of B.S. Johnson. Periodically, we are encouraged to read Johnson, but I wonder if more than a few people actually do? Yet, if you pick up Jonathan Coe's biography, "Like a Fiery Elephant" (a description given to the Albert character by one of the schoolchildren in "Albert Angelo"), you need also to read the work.

"Albert Angelo" was his second novel and deconstructs the very form. Published in 1964, Johnson uses the (many) tools in his arsenal to tell a simple story in a multi-dimensional way. For Johnson all fiction is a version of a lie, but rather than leave it at that, he both gives us a conventional narrative (albeit seen from a number of different angles) and then exposes the lie. Yet, this is no mere gimmick. We've surely got over the idea that novelty in fiction "doesn't last", after all, Tristram Shandy is still with us, and the contemporary novel can sometimes seem to deserve every adjective other than "novel." Albert is an architect manque struggling with his designs for buildings that never get built, whilst affording a cheap lifestyle through the horrors of being a supply teacher. Recovering (or not recovering) from rejection by a girlfriend who Johnson has punningly called Jenny Taylor, (get it?), Albert (Mr. Albert, or Albert Albert, we are never entirely sure), resents visiting his parents, resents the education system that sends him from one underwhelming Secondary Modern to another, and most of all resents his own misery.

Of course, an architect should find work, but there's a clever humour in the chosen profession that he cannot quite follow, for Albert is a poet of architectural design. He tours a begotten post-war London looking for gems of Georgian, Victorian or later architecture, whilst despairing at the awfulness of the new Sadlers' Wells. In his classes he struggles with a worsening disorder amongst unruly pupils that could almost have been written today in the aftermath of the riots - students who can't write, and don't care that they can't; teachers who have given up; and an education system that seems to deliberately want it that way. The late 50s/early 60s of Johnson's imagination is carefully wrought, and puts into perspective contemporary writers who write about the period through a tinge of nostalgia.

Like Burgess, he takes after Joyce in wanting to show all of life, and only wishes he could not just describe but let you experience life. It is the paradox of "Ulysses", that by showing us our "reality", we look away, not recognising the methods that are needed to tell it. Yet, Johnson's world is nothing if not plainly wrought. A visit to see Chelsea (then as now, a mix of the tawdry and the talented) is described as minutely as the tortures of his school life. It's perhaps worth saying that we're further away now from my school days, than they were from the world Johnson depicts. The failed relationship with Jenny is the pain that keeps hurting for Albert, and stops him from moving on, even as he romanticises the relationship. Faced with an unruly class, he's daydreaming of an idyllic camping trip where they were at their best together. As he pulls himself together the pupils notice his erection under his trousers. But Johnson wants to not only write about sex, but about semen, about menstruation. Why, he seems to be asking, can't these experiences make the page, as well as others? Aren't they what makes us human?

Trawling round London late at night, sex seems infinitely possible, and love impossibly so; this is the world of Dennis Potter's "Lipstick on Your Collar". Like Burgess;s Droogs in "A Clockwork Orange" his teenage scoundrels are both demons and potent symbols of what the writer can no longer be; yet the pupils are drawn with some warmth. Johnson, one feels, was a good teacher, even if the litany of descriptions that Albert's pupils give his fictional surrogate say otherwise. School then was a mixture of sadism and crowd control, leavened on occasion by the passions of the odd teacher, or the attentiveness of a rare pupil.

This part of the novel (called "Development" - another part of Johnson's deconstruction) is a carnival of different styles and perspectives trying - and in many way succeeding - in giving a genuine picture of the somewhat tawdry world he's describing. There are some parts which haven't travelled; a joke about a tramp being asked by a prostitute if he has a (French) "letter" for protection uses a phrase that's now forty years out of common currency; black characters have "negroid features". Yet, there's a strange modernity to it all. Johnson is of our age, after all, the Beatles were already moving on from "I Wanna Hold Your Hand." His pupil's most frequent criticism of Albert is that he should "cut his hair." Here is the small town FE lecturer of "Lucky Jim", but in world that is far from as comic as Kingsley Amis made out. The techniques that are most radically realised, are probably not the infamous hole cut through a page, but in the new openness that "art" could embrace at that period. The sixties may have been good for Johnson, if he'd been a decade younger. Like Potter, or Burgess, there's the regret of sexual opportunities not readily available. The book is explicit, sweary, ribald; it's after all, after the Chatterley ban, even if the Lord Chamberlain is still censoring the theatre.

For Johnson, for Albert, we have a world that has no room for dreamers, no room for romantics, and the answer seems to be to just "accept." If the format of the contemporary English novel was complicit in that acceptance, then Johnson's stylistic experiments make so much sense. Telling us what his lies actually are("she wasn't called Jenny", "that story was my fathers",) seems not so much another layer of artifice as technique to make us question all stories, even the ones we make up ourselves. How rosey are our spectacles? Reading "Albert Angelo" seems to take us back to a recognisable world, not too different than our own. It's owning up to its poetic licence, gives it a veracity. Like Lee Rourke's recent "The Canal", the distinct place names of a village-y London transplant us firmly to a place and time. To be read in our time, a novel doesn't need to have been read in its time, and Johnson had a tiny audience, a tiny influence; yet it reads - not so much as a period piece - but as an important document. Without being explicitly a "youth" novel like "The Outsider", Johnson is an angry enough young man, and, from this distance, seems far less compromised than Kingsley Amis, for instance. We don't revere our cult books in the same way as we do American writers, yet Johnson's mundane supply teacher is not so far removed from Bukowski's post office worker, after all.

Why read B.S. Johnson? Well, I was looking for a palliative after some of the recent contemporary-historical novels I've read, and it proved an efficacious one.
Also, there's a must-attend Johnson retrospective as part of this year's Manchester literature festival. Though his life and character are interesting, it is what he does in his books, and that's the writing as much as the parlour tricks, that makes him so vital, the best part of three decades after his death.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan

Half Blood Blues was kindly sent to me by Serpent's Tail after it was longlisted for this years Booker. A 2nd novel by a Canadian writer, you can see why it appealed to publisher, and, to a lesser extent, Booker judges: telling a somewhat unusual story, that of an American Jazz band caught up in first Berlin, and then Paris at the outbreak of World War II. The twist in the tail is that their trumpeter, Hieronymous Falk, is a young black German, and, as the one surviving record of the group - "Half Blood Blues" - shows, was a unique talent.

Edugyan begins, not with the band in Berlin, but in Paris, as they make their final flee from the Nazis, following that auspicious recording. Flash forward half a century and Sid and Chip, the two survivors of the band, are called to Germany for a documentary about this legendary session. All is not as it seems, and our narrator, bassist, Sidney, is both uncomfortable about the return and drawn - as he always has been - by the insistent Chip. He was dragged into a brothel aged 13, by his more talented rhythm mate, and here he is, an old man, being dragged across the Atlantic, to face, as only Sid knows, the truth about the past. For "Half Blood Blues" is a book about secrets and betrayal. But like "The Kite Runner," "The Gathering" or "Atonement," the reader is kept waiting for the truth. A common enough contemporary trope, in some ways, this gives "Half Blood Blues" the air of a shaggy dog story. That Heironymous has somehow survived the Holocaust, creates a second quest story - as, following the revelations in Berlin - Chip and Sidney hunt him down in Poland. Given the momentous times they lived through, three old pals burying the hatchet seems a slight return.

The Booker, in not allowing American novels, has had a bit of a penchant for American-style novels the last few years, and this, like "Vernon God Little" or "Keepers of the Truth" is American to the core. Despite plenty of research, the story seems to lack veracity - partly because the act of ventroquilism that Edugyan gives us with Sidney is that of an old man telling stories on the stoop, never quite getting to the point; and partly because we are seeing this through time and memory. Music is notoriously hard to write about, and Edugyan does a good job of it, but what she gains in matching Sidney's jive with the spirit of her musicians, she loses through the somewhat playful way that the jazz band makes its way from the heart of the nightmare to safety. Its not just that Sidney is an unreliable narrator, he comes across as an unreliable witness. Not that all books about that period have to be morality tales - yet there seems something a little casual about this particular story of betrayal, given the events happening all about them. Also, Sidney's obfuscations make it a somewhat frustrating read. I'm remembered of Allan Gurganus's similarly obfuscatory "The Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All". Alone, Sidney's narrative isn't quite entertaining enough to make up for its shagginess. There's a love story at the heart of this as well, but Sidney's love for singer Delilah, and the latter's protectiveness of the young, vulnerable Hieronymous doesn't quite do it for me. Is it just sex? Or is it something more? With Hiero's voice being silenced throughout most of the narrative (though he gets given voice when it suits the author), he seems a mute character, brought alive by a music that, of course, we never get to hear.

Yet as I was about to give up on the book's longeurs, it begins to come alive. The rush from Berlin to Hamburg to Paris, and then the panic as they then have to arrange an escape to America (a near impossibility for the German-African Hieronymous) is truly gripping, Sidney's digressions notwithstanding. Here the backwards looking structure makes sense, for we know that they survived, and that the meeting with Hieronymous will be the climax of the book. The love and rivalry between these three men has sustained them all in different ways through the years.

I'd be surprised if it makes it beyond the Booker longlist, as its a somewhat frustrating read, and much too long in its early part, yet if we take it for what it is, both an old man's picaresque back into his regrettable past, and a not inauthentic paeon for a lost music, it works well enough on those terms.

For another point of view Bernadine Evaristo reviews it in the Guardian here.

Saturday, August 20, 2011


I've been putting a tape (yes, a tape!) together for a friend, and most of the tracks on it are from the 90s. What do we even think of this decade? Britpop and Nirvana, Friends and Alan Partridge, leaving the ERM and New Labour? Whereas the 80s seems to have an identity now, a polarised one, with the glam of the New Romantics alongside the strife of the Miners Strike, the 90s could well be characterised as the boring decade, at least in the UK.

Prosperity didn't come till late - the mediocre John Major government dominated the decade, but has left no legacy memories (but a privatised rail service), whilst New Labour's late century ascendancy has its awkward moments: Cool Britannia and Millennium Dome. Blair is remembered now for his Iraq misadventure not the slightly uneasy triumph of his 1997 landslide.

Musically, as books like Seven Years of Plenty have tried to show, it was a vivid time, but in retrospect surely "grunge" and "Britpop" were weak constructs that merely saw alternative and indie music making a final surge into the mainstream, with a few great bands at the heart of each. The 90s was a catholic period, with illegal raves having turned into lucrative festivals and franchises. Going back through old 7" and 12" vinyl I was struck not by how dated the music was - much of it stands up - but how, outside of the Blurs and Oasis's, we hardly hear any of the second division acts today, and how late 80s records (such as "The Stone Roses")seem to speak for the decade in the way that the Clash's "London Calling" seemed to herald the 80s.

Personally it felt like a failed decade - certainly my generation bore the scars of Thatcher, and we seemed to work hard for little gain. Friends married later or not at all, opportunities seemed scarce, and hard-earned. There was none of the insouciance of a generation that came after, with Easyjet and Ryanair flights taken as granted, a booming job market (at least until the last couple of years), and the wonders of the iPod and internet. In the 90s, I felt we all tread water, waiting for the future we'd been promised the decade before. Our favourite shows were Friends, This Life and Cold Feet, comfortable fantasies about people like us who were prettier and richer, but with all the same problems. Its easy to forget there was a house price boom in 1986-8, before things went sour again; the house I struggled to buy in 1989 in York would have been half the cost eighteen months earlier.

Yet, coinciding with my twenties, the 90s felt like a period when I was in a rush. I wrote 5 novels, none of which got published, but 2 got shortlisted for prizes, and I dedicated myself to studying full time, had 5 jobs in three different cities, changed career, bought and sold a house (at a loss!), rented nearly a dozen rooms and flats; recorded at least 7 "albums" (on cassette naturally - CD-R's were another bit of that delayed future!); bought my first (and 2nd) PC; went onClub 18-30 and Amsterdam trips. Looking back I bought CDs and vinyl - the latter were usually half the price of the former (and nowadays its the opposite, go figure!) - and lost a bit of my interest in literature only for it to come back towards the end of the decade. I was in a hurry to become an adult, at the same time, the world was welcoming the extended adolescence. Prosperity is part of it, of course - without it, you do live for the day.

Alternative comedy and music had stopped being political - the entertainment age was beginning; repackage, repackage as Morrissey prophecied on "Strangeways, Here We Come"... CDs were joined by (just about) affordable PCs and the internet felt like a private club with its own rules and etiquettes, rather than for everyone, and for everything. That said, I was on email by the middle of the decade (several years before Tony Blair ever sent one), and you knew you would never go back.

The 90s - not easy to love, but even harder to hate - a bedding in of 80s modernity, a last gasp for the Baby Boomer generation (Clinton, Blair), a consumer age, but without the money (and cheap credit) to do much about it.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Salt Modern Voices Interview 2: Lee Smith

Salt Modern Voices are a series of poetry and fiction pamphlets published by Salt Publishing. This Autumn, several of its authors will be touring the UK and reading in various venues. More info on this can be found on the website. In the lead up to the tour, SMV authors will be interviewing each other and posting the results on their personal websites. In the first of these, Lee Smith and Claire Trévien interview JT Welsch on form, masculinity, and his American heritage.

Interview with Lee Smith

In the second interview, made available here for the first time, questions from Claire Trévien, Mark Burnhope and Adrian Slatcher have been asked of Lee Smith, whose collection "Away from the City" was No.1 in the Salt Modern Voices series. Growing out of an exhibition of photography and poetry, the collection explores not just connections between written and visual arts, and also the two cities, Melbourne and Cambridge, where he has lived, and where the poems were written.

A lot of your poems seem rather minimal. When they're not 'short', they often consist of taut, clipped lines, or short numbered sections. One of them is a haibun. There are photographs included in the collection too, which add to a kind of 'travel journal' feel, where these elements might be collected together to chart a journey. Do you see visuals as an inherent part of your practice? Could you tell us something about your composition and organising principles?

Away from the City is indeed a travel journal, an account of a year spent in two cities. I wanted the poems to form a series of images, short instances of emotion, movement, or even nothingness, that transport the reader through these urban environments. This journey is very much a visual experience. The photographs create an atmosphere within which the poems emerge. This process reflects how many of the poems were written - observing and capturing visual exchanges, and then interpreting these elements in poetic form. I can't write long poems. The images get lost in the writing. I don't have a huge attention span, so the more immediate these observations are, the more they are allowed to resonate.

The title seems deliberately misleading considering the predominance of urbanity in these poems, but then as one realizes that it's a tale of two cities, it seems perhaps as if the title captures that sense one has when 'belonging' to two places: of always missing one when with the other. Did you write your Cambridge poems in Melbourne and vice versa, or where they done in situ?

The title does hint at that sense of belonging in two places. Indeed I did write some Cambridge poems in Melbourne, and vice versa — which led to a number of interesting links between different poems. I think the title also tries to convey the feeling of movement in the series as a whole. I felt sometimes that by merely walking and observing the people who inhabit the city, I was moving further away from it.

We're used to a "transatlantic" language writing between Europe and America, I wonder to what extent you felt you had to choose or develop a "trans-pacific" language to write about two such distant, and distinct cities as Cambridge and Melbourne. There seems a consistency in your writing between the two places, but its quite impressionistic - as if you're seeing both the new and familiar for the first time. To what extent was this deliberate?

When I first began writing these poems in Melbourne, I had been there a number of times previously. I was familiar with most of the city, but I still felt like a tourist every time I returned. I tried to harness these feelings of alienation, but apply them to local, everyday situations. Perhaps it's this element of alienation that ties the language of the two cities together. Or it may be that influences on my own dialect had seeped through when writing this series — I felt very strongly connected to Melbourne after I returned to Cambridge.

I like art/text collaborations - for you was this always an important element what you wanted to do? I'm interested in how the exhibition, and then the pamphlet emerged, and whether you had to write within those constraints, or found this enabling?

The collaboration with photography was an essential element in the germination of this book. I felt inspired by the way that these two cities had very clear visual identities (architecture, fashion, business etc.) and the power that photography has to capture poetic visual images. The original exhibition of Away from the City contained 24 photographs, and only eight poems. I wanted to experiment with the way that people navigated around the images and text, and what parallels they would draw between them.

With the pamphlet, I constrained myself to including only twelve poems from each city. Here I wanted the images created by the poetry to be in the foreground. The choice of using only eight photographs was a difficult one, and perhaps I would choose eight different ones for a new edition.

I'm just interested in what other poetry you like/read - particularly given that you must have come across a lot working for Salt. I published some of Chris McCabe's early poems for instance in Lamport Court, and his approach to how the poems look on the page, as well as the kind of short poems he does, seems to have something in common with your work. Did the Salt list/or particularly other poets feed into your work is it something in parallel?

Working for Salt obviously exposed me to a huge array of contemporary styles. And to an extent, I guess editing and typesetting the Salt list allowed me a broader knowledge of the range of poetry being published. I remember, not long after joining, reading Luke Kennard's The Solex Brothers and thinking how completely different it was from anything I had studied at university. It encouraged me to experiment with style, and I remember writing many more prose poems after reading that book.

I've tried hard not to emulate poets that I enjoy reading. It spoils my experience of their poetry. However, looking back on the poems now, I can see elements of Matthew Sweeney, Tobias Hill, Bashō. I believe I first read McCabe's work after writing Away from the City.

On the whole, I'd rather remove myself from style comparisons and influences. My fear is for a reader who stops mid-way through one of my poems (or anyone else's) to consider who the poet has been influenced by.

I believe you're returning to Melbourne. Where next for your artistic practice then?

I've just invested in a new camera, so more photography/poetry collaborations. I want to experiment more with exhibitions and digital. There may be room for a 'spin-off' pamphlet, but I certainly couldn't manage a full collection.

Melbourne's a perfect place to develop the visual aspect of my writing. Also, I'm looking forward to having a huge range of creative artists (music, art, design) to collaborate with. The poetry community in Melbourne is very different to the UK. I like the idea of not having to conform to a particular school/publisher, developing new audiences, and generally not being outcast by an antiquated poetry establishment.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

What to Read When You're Not on the Beach

Summer reads dominate the newspapers. Usually at this time of year they're short of news, not this year of course. But there's something a little annoying about the sense of entitlement that sees August as a month to pack bags for two to three weeks and find a beach to read on, or whatever. Not all of us are following the political classes to Tuscany. Sunshine's in shorter supply than news this August.

But even in the summer, there's still a residual amount of literary activity. It could take most of the summer to read through the massive programme of this year's Manchester Literature Festival. There will be a few gems, I'm sure, and having the Anthony Burgess Foundation as this year's hub will cement its role as Manchester's new literary centre. Very much looking forward to a celebration of B.S. Johnson for instance. The Anthony Burgess Foundation has a brand new website just in time, not just for the festival, but for next year's anniversary of "A Clockwork Orange." This weeks Manchester riots give a contemporary and sociological subtext to the work. As a few commentators have pointed out, Alex and the Droogs are younger in the book than we see in Kubrik's film version.

If poverty and lack of opportunity create riots, they don't necessarily lead to criminality. An admirable art project from Arthur + Martha, with some text help from various writers, wonders what the equivalent of Engels' 19th century poor would be - and focusses on the cities homeless. Tweet From Engels (@tweetfromengels) gives voice to the homeless, funnelling their words through Twitter and is well worth following.

Admirably, at a time of year when most literary events shut up shop, The Other Room stays open for business. The week after next, the 27th event in this always fascinating series, takes place at the Old Abbey Inn on Wednesday 24th August.

I've been trying to organise myself a bit more in order to enter a few of the plethora of competitions that seem to exist these days. There's been an extension to the Didsbury Arts Festival short story and poetry competitions (Theme: Maps, Deadline: 26th August) and there's also an intrigueing new opportunity from Art group Blank Media Collective. Slightly more in the distance - the chance to have a poetry collection published should never be ignored, if only because it forces you to organise and arrange your work. The Anthony Hecht prize offers not just publication but money. What more could a poet ask for?

Coming up soon, as well, I'm one of a series of writers giving workshops at part of the Calderdale Writers Roadshow. I'm running a workshop on Creative Non Fiction on September 10th - but there's plenty of other opportunities, and a good enough reason to pop out of Manchester to nearby Calderdale.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Now is the Time for Your Tears

I'd like to spout some half-baked theories of disaffected youth; link the marauding teens with MPs expenses and banker greed; pontificate on our X-Factor meets Grand Theft Auto culture...

...but I can't because I'm too sad. Tonight's riots in Manchester, murmured throughout the day, but so flagged up that I thought they couldn't possibly happen - that the troublemakers would be stopped as soon as they crossed into the city centre - ended (if they have yet ended) far worse than I could have imagined. Marauding through the city - slipping from the main streets to the Northern Quarter - it looks like independent businesses as well as flash stores will have borne the brunt of the carnage. London braced itself for more violence with a show of police strength, but the meme had moved, to Salford, Manchester and the West Midlands. I feel that the riots are following me around, hitting every place I've ever lived (Croydon was last night's shocker), though I trust the well-behaved youths of York will spare me another night of personal sadness.

I've spent the last decade wanting to make things better within the limits of what the public sector can do, decrying the materialism and consumerism of our culture - but they're one and the same thing aren't they? Young people want "something to do" up to a certain point of self-gratification; hanging with their friends, messaging each other; getting the latest trainers or mobile phone, whatever the cost; and...finally, today, arranging a riot with a sense of Machiavellian planning that puts most Flash Mobs to shame.

Too early to see the damage; too early to see if it will flare up again. In Looters v. Police, the former are winning at the moment. What's at the end of it? An unlucky lottery of court cases? Juvenile detention? We've long admired America; its capitalism, its brands; are we now admiring its broken youth? Its extremes of wealth?

Another day for such thoughts. Bob Dylan once wrote the song "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" in which he held off your sympathy, "now is not the time for your tears." I've felt that for a day or two, the awful happenings in London, the tardiness of our political classes, the media circus of 24-hour television. Each fire, I thought, would bring death with it - not just flames. But somehow the city burns, the windows of the supermarkets and the fashion shops crack; and the horror goes on - live entertainment on a warm night for an incomprehensible generation. Now, with Manchester, fair Manchester, vibrant Manchester, the people's Manchester in the path of these misguided lotusts, now, as Dylan sang, now is the time for my tears.