Saturday, July 28, 2012

More Ballard than Orwell, our Weird Country nailed by Danny Boyle

I've been looking forward to the Olympics. I enjoy spectator sport, and the Olympics is a bit of an all-you-can-eat buffet. I first fell for the Olympics in 1988 when unemployed after university, and getting up early or staying up late to watch the men's hockey at Seoul, coverage fronted by a young, cute Hazel Irvine.

Politically the Olympics is something else entirely, of course, like an unemployed man blowing his redundancy check on a binge holiday for all his friends and family, and the corporate omnishambles of the last few weeks have only highlighted how corporates interests are just that - "interests" - that we should look to ridicule and curtail at any opportunity.

To last night, then, and the opening ceremony. When did these become so much the main event? I guess we live in an age of spectacle, both live and on television, from SuperBowl to X-Factor. Luckily, somebody, somewhere made a brave decision that paid off and gave the ceremony to the singular vision of Danny Boyle, a diverse and creative film maker who went from the no budget of "Shallow Grave", to the countercultural classic "Trainspotting" to world-beater with the lovably sentimental "Slumdog Millionaire". He, in turn, gave over the music to Underworld, who soundtracked "Trainspotting" all those years back with the "lager-lager" refrain of "Born Slippy."

I was at a party at Islington Mill, where we watched the opening and ending in a communal situation, and turned down the sound for the A-Z of countries. The bucolic opening seemed more of a pitch to whoever commissioned "The Hobbit", Constable's Hay Wain reimagined as "The Shire." Angel-voiced children singing "Jerusalem" etc. - all very BBC. Then came the tumbling of Boyle's Horrible History. I grew up with the "industrial revolution" as the staple of my own history, and to be frank, I'm a little tired of it. Watching this in an actual mill, now re-used as an arts centre, seemed nicely ironic. History is perhaps not Boyle's strong point. Very Dickensian, we're still in thrall to a Victorian vision, when England ruled the waves etc. Then, surprisingly - one of many - we were thrust into the post-50s Britain of the NHS, as if a personal rebuke to coalition politicians, and accidentally, the clueless Mitt Romney. I have to say, I got a little lost around here - or the wine was beginning to take hold - but we had child catchers, J.K. Rowling, Great Ormond Street Hospital and god knows what else.

The whole ceremony had some of the something-for-everyone I'd expected, but it then upped a gear. There were two genuine innovations that seemed remarkable: the angels-on-bikes that spread out around the stadium; and Thomas Hetherington's remarkable lighted cauldron. Manchester's lovely but misplaced B of the Bang - an earlier Hetherington work - seems a distant memory. There were also two very good jokes: Mr. Bean playing a single note throughout the "Chariots of Fire" theme, upstaging the poor orchestral straight men playing the rest of the tune; and a somewhat silly-surreal film/live sequence where James Bond and the Queen parachuted into the ground. Very game, your majesty. She's probably wishing she'd retired a yaer ago. Mr. Bean, of course, is the most famous Britain worldwide - but this little piece reminded us of the sheer joy of when he first arrived, before becoming ubiquitous and annoying.

It was fascinating how many of the cultural icons here came from the wrong side of the tracks. There was none of the Andrew Lloyd Webber/X-Factor/Gary Barlow/Simon Cowell shite that passes for contemporary light entertainment. The Beeb, you felt, was kept well away from this one - having had plenty of C list celebrity fun with the torch relay. Compare tonight's line up with the Barlow-curated Queen's Jubilee concert... or rather, please don't. Rowan Atkinson cut his teeth on the alt. comedy scene in the early 80s, Boyle began with the no budget dark comedy "Shallow Grave", Underworld started as unpronounceable art band freur, before morphing into electronic pioneers; and Arctic Monkeys are just about the last great British indie band.

Arctic Monkeys came on to play two songs - their debut "I bet you look good on the dancefloor" and the Beatles' "Come Together." Alex Turner actually looked like the young John Lennon, lean, mean, and quiffed - and I was reminded that "Come Together" was so similar to a Chuck Berry song that Lennon had to make amends by recording several Berry numbers on the "Rock and Roll" album, the cover of which - Lennon in Hamburg in the 50s - Turner seemed to have styled himself on. Music remains Britains one world beater of the last 50 years; from the Beatles through to Adele, and it was no surprise that pop culturally obsessed Danny Boyle would do his best with a medley that included a personal "best of" list that could hardly be faulted; even if it occasionally slipped into Stars on 45 territory. One might have paused to wonder where classical music or jazz were in all this - or even contemporary literature or film - only to then remember that whilst we've been pretty unassailable in pop music this last half a century; in other art forms we're much less renowned. No YBAs were involved in the making of this it seems - though Martin Creed had started the day off with a nationwide bell ringing contest.

Even here though our mongrel nature came through. No idea why Boyle decided to single-handedly resurrect Mike Oldfield's career - though as English as his music is, the theme from Tubular Bells is indelibly attached to that most horrific of movies, the Exorcist. Also, if "Come Together" is part Chuck Berry; the soundtrack to that most British of films, Chariots of Fire, was written by the Greek Vangelis. Even Pink Floyd (a spellbinding use of "Eclipse" from "Dark Side of the Moon") seems as American as they are British. Perhaps that was the point: an island nation; a trading nation; our uniqueness is also due to our diversity.

When the Olympic flag was carried around the stadium, it was a genuinely emotional moment; and grown men were tweeting about the tears in their eyes as the much loved Muhammad Ali, ill with Parkinson's disease, made a welcome appearance. At that point you realised why all the dreadful corporate sponsors wanted to be associated with the Olympics, they stand so far from this triumph of the human spirit that they have to leach on it by association, whatever the cost. Luckily, it seems the Olympic ideal can cope with this cynicism; at least when its done with the humour, pathos and counter-cultural knowingness that Boyle gave us. Sebastian Coe made a less than impressive politician, but the singlemindedness he brought to his running has been carried over into his bringing of the Olympics to us. Not for the first time one is reminded that if you get the best people in to do a particular job then it will be done far better than any committee or demagogue can expect.

As Team GB came into the stadium at the end of the 200+ nations, dressed by Stella McCartney (a few minutes before her dad would take us out with a rousing "Hey Jude") apparently as extras at a Glenn Campbell convention; the whole madness of the whole thing seemed the point. Our weird dysfunctional country treasures its eccentricities whilst trying to eradicate them in the name of "globalisation" or "efficiency". Whether this is a last hurrah for British eccentricity, one can only doubt, though the managerial culture that was efficient enough to bring us the games, has clearly had to take a back seat now it comes to the money shots. Rather than the much quoted George Orwell, it seems that our dystopian suburban surrealist, J.G. Ballard is the muse that Boyle's vision of Britain was channelling - and we're the better for it. 

Bring on the games.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

The Emotional Life and Creativity

Workshopping a poem at the weekend, I'd taken this one along because it wasn't quite right in a number of ways. The workshop brought out its problems; though perhaps not its solutions. I'm not always that linear in my poetry - even though I sometimes appear to be. As often, I'll find a theme and spin a few different thoughts around it. I realised that the poem was caught between being linear and this more abstracted approach - and of course, to the reader, unless the juxtapositions are obviously different, there's a tendency to want to read these things straight.

Part of the reason was that it was a poem about mental illness - or was it? I'd begun with a conceit - even, a title - and had used this to write a poem that was quite dark in its subject matter. Yet it wasn't a personal poem and certainly wasn't "specific" about me or anyone else. Rather, it was seeking a little to pull together observations on how in adult life the "monsters under the bed" that frighten us as children can be real. I'll not post the poem here, as it's currently failed to express my thoughts - perhaps they weren't quite there; and the poem was more a random gathering of images. One person said that there are so many poems about personal experience of depression/mental illness that a non-personalised view didn't seem strong enough. I guess I agreed, except by the very sense of observation I think I was trying to move away from that more "confessional" strand - Plath, Berryman et al.

But it did make me think a bit. When I tried to write a poem a month a while back for National Poetry Writing Month it stopped me writing for a couple of months afterwards. I was literally sick of poems. Or rather, I was wrung out with the sense I was writing poems as "things" rather than poems that meant "something." Although I've always felt my best poems are, in a somewhat un-British way, poems of ideas, they've also only ever really come from the emotion: "only connect the prose and the passion" as E.M. Forster had it. When you write a poem about love or about death or about any of the very human things that console and confront us, do we always need to tap into the emotional wells? There are, of course, other forms of poetry than the confessional - and I'm uneasy about the poetry sequence that is always "in memoriam" or similarly felt; yet at times it sees poets at their very best. I think that has to be some distance.

Writing from emotion or at an emotional time can be cathartic but it can also be to much "about" the self when I think it probably needs to be "of" the self. There seems a distinct difference between things I've written when I've felt a bit of a "black dog" of depressiveness descending - which sometimes seems to be a ball of creativity that needs pushing out - and when I've written self-defeatedly about the thing that's depressing me. Too close to the cause of your anger, and the writing is infected by it, rather than inspired by it. Or at least, that's what I've often felt. "Revenge is a dish best eaten cold", they say, and it's probably true of writing as well.

Yet emotion is not merely a negative - love; elation; whatever - these are equally important - and, thinking back, I've often upped my game when I've been inspired, even briefly, by more positive emotions. Having just had a poem accepted for a magazine for the first time in ages, I wondered why that one in particular. And perhaps its because its a poem about desire; but not a delayed, or distant desire, but a palpable, real one. The girl in the poem has a face; even if I didn't actually go much further in describing it. If anything, it was a poem about a "moment" of desire; and that was already gone - already able to make the transition from feeling into art. Thinking back, and looking at the poems in "Playing Solitaire for Money" and even the first section of "Extracts from Levona", I realise that these often came out of a similar heightening of emotion. Looking back, they weren't necessarily great loves, or terrible despairs, but moments of anticipation, or splinters of uncertainty. The poem acts as a divining rod, often failing to twitch when it is moved over dry grounds, but frantic and insistent when it divines the water below.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Re-reading John Ashbery ("Soonest Mended")

I first came aware of John Ashbery in the late 90s. If that seems a little late its probably a sign of the impoverished poetry teaching I received on my undergraduate degree (the Morrison/Motion Penguin anthology, Heaney & Hughes) and a subsequent disinterest in poetry that lasted best part of a decade. I'd probably heard the name and would have looked up a few poems in one of those monstrous Norton Anthologies I'd had bought whilst studying 20th century American fiction. Poems like "The Instruction Manual" immediately resonated with me. It helped that I'd just started on an M.A. with his British publisher, Michael Schmidt, and over the next few years I picked up quite a few Carcanet volumes. I was amazed that, Mark Ford aside, nobody in British poetry seemed to have much time for Ashbery, (if they did like the New York Poets, it was always O'Hara), and when occasionally poets tried to write like him they would go for the surrealism and juxtaposition and miss what I always liked about his work: the generosity; the openness.

For I've always thought its a bit stupid trying to "understand" or "paraphrase" an Ashbery poem. He came out of a millieu that included Charles Ives and Jackson Pollock. We can hardly gloss their work - so why should Ashbery be any different? Of course, British poetry's infatuation with America had got as far as the Beats - for their looseness - and the confessionals - for their unbuttoned emotion; and Ashbery was something else. I got the chance to see him read a couple of times at the turn of the century, and he's thankfully still with us, aged 84, and still writing. That he's not won the Nobel yet is one of the Swedish Academy's most consistent oversights.

But all of that wouldn't mean much: for poetry is read one-to-one, or occasionally to a crowd where the experience is still the singular one. I can't get far in a Heaney book without putting it down; he has never seemed a "modern" poet to me; yet Ashbery - I'd realised I'd not been reading him for a while - is hard to put down. Flicking through the first 5 collections, anthologised as "The Mooring of Starting Out", I skipped the usual pleasures of "The Tennis Court Oath" and went for 1970's "The Double Dream of Spring." Its a more straightforward collection than people sometimes ascribe to Ashbery, but his work is vast and varied. These poems, written during a liberating time, the late 60s, seem to have a lightness and generosity that has none of the hippy overtones of the Beats or the English poets who attended the Poetry International. These are quieter works, about a complex America; as much Dickinson's quiet corners as Whitman's great spaces. One poem in particular stood out as I was reading last night. "Soonest Mended", a medium length poem from which "The Mooring of Starting Out" takes its name. Its easy to forget, with thinking of Ashbery as a "New York" poet, part of an urban demi-monde, how many of his better poems are embedded in lands, in other lands. "Soonest Mended" is about that other "hippy" dream, of going back to nature, or being from nature; but really, in typical with so much of his best work, the "it" in an Ashbery poem is a malleable one, he wants the poem to be applyable elsewwhere. The details of the poem "Angelica, in the Ingres painting" or "Happy Hooligan in his rusted green automobile" give it a centre, but one which doesn't dominate. It is a painterly technique, where the focus is as much on the horizon or the light, as on the individual figures that create that perspective. "This was our ambition: to be small and clear and free" he writes, a small ambition, at odds with "The American Dream" but also part of it - to have a little piece of this vast continent that we can make our own; where we can live, cheaply and happily. We know now how much that "dream" has been brutalised -

"It was still a shock when, almost a quarter of a century later,   
The clarity of the rules dawned on you for the first time.   
They were the players, and we who had struggled at the game   
Were merely spectators...."

- writing in the mid-60s, Ashbery is surely looking back. On what? The dust bowl farmers of his youth in the depression perhaps? But it feels a little timeless. This idea of familiar struggle; where we believe that our hard work and the close ties of our friends and family will keep us "in the game", and only later do we realise our role - as spectators (consumers perhaps). It seems a very appropriate poem for today; an ecological poem in some ways; this is shortly after "Silent Spring" for instancel; and the late sixties would see the music of the Band and others extolling a rural simplicity. Yet, for Ashbery, he isn't a sentimentalist (or at least not in this poem), and instead accepts time's passing as not a game to be "won" but as a life to be lived. The result: we may not be any further forward; yet we have to believe that it is possible - not necessarily for the great ambitions - but for the smaller ones. There is much more in the poem, and like so much of his work, a literal interpretation seems rather pointless. When others write Ashbery-like they often write with a rigidity that his plain, but expressive language avoids. He is uniquely expert at creating an atmosphere that seems to stay in the poem, beneath the meaning of the words. The colloquialism, "least said, soonest mended" that my own farmer grandparents would use to get over a minor upset, seems exactly right for the poem's tone of getting on with life, but still retaining our hope, based upon the strengths and desires we have had all along. 

The poem can be read at the Poetry Foundation website here and is in his "Selected Poems".

Sunday, July 08, 2012

The Stranger's Child by Alan Hollinghurst

Alan Hollinghurst's latest novel was a surprise absence from last year's Booker list; though having read the majority of the shortlist it, like a couple of the other novels on the list, is a contemporary history concerned with the secrets that we hide from each other; and the consequences therein. In five chronological, and somewhat separate sections, "The Stranger's Child" covers over a century, beginning just before the first world war, and ending in 2008. Amongst the many complimentary cover blurbs, the Independent compares it to "Middlemarch" which makes you wonder if the reviewer had read either this or the Eliot. For what "The Stranger's Child" is not, in any way, is a vast societal novel. Rather, Hollinghurst writes about minutiae; whether its the intimacies of gay relationships; or the architectural features of great houses; he is at heart a miniaturist.

Cecil Valance is a charismatic, aristocratic gay poet who visits with his new lover, the quiet, naive George Sawle. Sawle's family have a small house called "Two Acres"; he has a brother and a sister, and a young widowed mother who drinks too much. From this small beginning Hollinghurst maps out a century of emotional and literary intrigues. For George's sister Daphne, a susceptible, romantic girl of sixteen, is immediately obsessed with the visiting Cecil - who's undoubted charisma and confidence comes from his station in life; heir to a baronetcy, and member of a Cambridge secret society. She hands him her autograph book, but rather than a signature, over five scrawled pages, he writes what will become his most famous poem "Two Acres." This first section is Jamesian in its detail, but owes as much to that other gay writer E.M. Forster. "Two Acres" is a house not unlike "Howard's End" with it changing from country to city as the railway broadens the London suburbs into Middlesex. Yet, whereas Forster was comparing "new" and "old" money, Hollinghurst as ever, is enamoured of aristocracy; their giant houses; and their insouciant lives of privilege. The first section, "Two Acres" is as masterful as Cecil's poem; though we already feel that Cecil is going to be a minor poet - if not a minor character in the novel. The Great War is looming, and inevitably, all the character's lives will be shook up by this.

In many ways "The Stranger's Child" - a title taken from Tennyson - is the equivalent of one of those "group biographies" that have proven so popular when writing about the "Bloomsbury set." Here, Valance is another branch. In Hollinghurst's universe, he's in the Georgian anthologies, and knows (but doesn't have much time for) Rupert Brooke. Yet, his biography is very similar to Brooke's - a second rate poet who is remembered for some well-loved verses. Our fascination with the first world war; the Edwardian and late Victorian worlds that it destroyed; and with the emerging world that follows; is at the heart of this book. It's a well-trodden path of course - and at times one wonders why Hollinghurst's fascination with a world that has been written over three times already: in the contemporary books of the day; in the biographies of Bloomsbury and others; and in more than a few contemporary novelisations. The subject, however ably Hollinghurst rehashes it, is a tired one. Having read the recent Edward Thomas biography by Matthew Hollis I couldn't help but thinking how much more interesting Thomas's world is than this one. A "real" poet of the first world war, Thomas was from a poor background; working as a hack for many years; yet Hollinghurst - like McEwan in "Saturday" - has to create a poet of the aristocracy as his "hero."

For Cecil Valance is very much a "hero" in inverted commas. In him, Hollinghurst is writing the first chapter of a gay history of the 20th century, where gay men throughout the years pass down his coded poems like a baton. Though it's only towards the end of the long novel that this seems to be the novel's purpose. A young girl being privy to a secret is the slightly schematic plot line of McEwan's "Atonement", and, I wonder to what extent the success of that novel sent Hollinghurst to plough the same furrow? That said, it is "Brideshead Revisited" that the novel most echoes. There are plenty of mentions for "real" writers in the book - Waugh being one of them - but given that novel's beautiful writing and its inherent tragedy, it seems the setting up here of an almost parallel story, albeit with a literary rather than a Catholic subtext, is always going to come out secondary.

Hollinghurst is at his best in the first and fourth sections of the novel. In the middle two, we are thrown into the cast of characters - the Valances and Sawles mostly - at different points in the 20th century. He avoids the "big moments" - the births and deaths - and instead throws us into the aftermath. Daphne Sawle, now Lady Valance, but married - we discover in a neat feint - to Cecil's brother Dudley. This section is pure Downton Abbey. A big country house gathering with wounded war hero; visiting in-laws; damaged children and ageing matriarch thrown together for the purpose of the next revelation. Though, this and the third section - for Daphne's 70th birthday party, half a century later - have as much a touch of the plotting of Gavin & Stacey, where the two contrasting families and various hangers-on are thrown together once again, and the sparks fly.

For Hollinghurst isn't really doing plot: the plot is all hidden from us. There are secrets we know about (such as George and Cecil) and then ones that we don't - as we've only been made privy to certain aspects of the family history. Given that in the first Jamesian chapters we are told the meaning of every glance; the middle part of the book sags heavily into two somewhat endless "party" scenes - the first letting us glimpse the wrecked changes that the world has given us after the Great War - the second glimpsing sixties gay liberation. Unlike previous Hollinghurst's the sex is not overly described; yet he revels in writing about the preamble to sex - as whole scenes are set pieces leading to consummation in a glade or in a corridor. I guess, a little like Sarah Waters, this is one of the motivation's of writing these histories, with more candour than a contemporary writer would have done. Yet, at times sex - and relationshps - gets reduced to a transactional level which has little of the wracked pain of James or Forster at their most acute. In th 1960s section we are introduced to Paul Bryant, a young gay fantasist, working for a bank who becomes a somewhat sleazy biographer. Accidentally coming into contact with the Sawles and Valances's he's given an entree into sixties literary life that he yearned for reading Valance's poems, but otherwise would have not found it easy to find.

Bryant is the book's most troubling character - though there are plenty here who are unsympathetic, even grotesque (one of the joys of the book is the simple hideousness of almost all its characters, that Hollinghurst draws out with a certain sardonic relish) - for we next meet him in the mid-70s when he is beginning to earn a living writing reviews for the TLS. Like the first part of the novel this seems to work better; as it's squarely about a literary life. You have to feel, with the book's dedication to the late poet Mick Imlah, that Hollinghurst is writing something of a roman a clef, albeit about the generation before him and Imlah worked the London literary scene. Bryant, a sensationalist biographer who is terribly bad at actually interviewing his subjects, is skewered repeatedly as a comic figure; even as he somehow gets lucky and discovers the revelations that we, the reader, have been denied - even though we've been there at the start of things. In some ways, the book comes back to life at this point; the hubris and longeurs of those gossipy central scenes is sharpened and brought into focus as Bryant starts out on his literary detective story. Cecil Valance, from being a figure of fun, is somehow a "stayer", his few decent poems have made him more of interest in the late 20th century than he had been when alive. As his brother points out the irony of him being famous for a poem called "Two Acres" when he was heir to 3,000, the chopping and changing fortunes of a somewhat undeserving aristocracy are followed right up to the present day.

We get a sense of the great turning of history - but only a sense of it - for though these characters are famed in their day; know Generals and politicians, there does seem to be a mixed message in Hollinghurst's treatment of them. For, like the Bells, Stracheys and Sitwells they are mostly minor figures; more remembered for their chaotic personal lives than for their artistic endeavours. I'm never quite sure if Hollinghurst with his love for country houses, boarding schools and posh, artistic lives, is entirely satirising these people or not. The other characters - a German widow, Paul Bryant, a lesbian interior decorater - are, if anything, treated with even more disdain. The comedy, which is there, is one of manners - for this is, like Downton, superior literary melodrama at heart. Tying it to his earlier novels, there is also, I think, a fittingly successful attempt to tell a story of hidden or at least closeted, gay lives throughout a swathe of time, with a fragment of a poem offering an olive branch to each generation that manages to detect its code.

What we're doing reading this fake life in 2011/2012 I do wonder. It has none of the expansiveness of Burgess's "Earthly Powers", and comes up short, both literally and psychologically against those books it most echoes - Howard's End and Brideshead. I think Hollinghurst's meticulous prose, so good at the psychological miniature that starts the book, falls away, and becomes sloppy when it has to take in too much, or has to describe too much - a problem I also found with "The Line of Beauty." I sometimes think that like Dudley Valance - who covers up what he thinks of as Victorian ugliness with 1920s decoration -  he's boxing something in. After all, if there is a contemporaneous gay history of the 20th century its there - at least now - in the histories of some of it more illustrious poets and novelists. The usual Hollinghurst obsessions - with grand houses and even grander families - seems the least interesting part of this book. There's also a sense, with writing that is done in an equally grand matter, and which is highly conventional in its stylisation, that he's ignoring to the point of evasion the importance of modernism in all of this. Henry James or Edith Wharton may have been a little shocked by the ease with which his characters move towards consummation, but I think they'd find the book, if anything, a little too conventional for their tastes.

There is much to enjoy, and admire in the novel, but I feel it probably missed on the Booker shortlisting either because of its literary focus or because the theme of secrets hidden was also there in two books that did make the list, including the winning Julian Barnes. You can't help but enjoy Hollinghurst's prose, though its Jamesian overemphasis and tendency to melodrama makes me wonder at those reviewers who praise his great style. For someone like me, who has an abiding fascination with the literature of the first third of the 20th century there is much to enjoy, even though this is a fake branch of history that Hollinghurst has added. It has quite a few clever things to say on posthumous reputation, and, I think, on the need that marginalised communities have to find precursors texts - alternative histories. A long book, it's a worthwhile literary page-turner, yet, like "The Line of Beauty" it seems to be part of an over-populous part of the contemporary literary city.