Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Performing Differently

I've never been that regular a performer of my own work, though I guess I've been reading off and on irregularly for about 15 years. When I had my Salt book out I did a flurry of "gigs" reading from that - but over the last year, I realise that pretty much all of my "performances" have been either collaborative and/or involved new work.

About a year ago I was asked to perform at Whitworth Gallery's "late night" - when I read some of my more technologically focused poems and one written for one of the art works showing in the "Dark Matters" exhibition. Performing in semi-darkness I could hardly see my audience - they could see me - and themselves reflected in the "snow mirror."

Then in the Spring I was part of an ensemble piece at the Custard Factory in Birmingham, where a dozen or so performers did a small segment of "Citizen Kane" - reinterpreting the whole movie during a fascinating and spontaneous hour and a half live performance.

A brief interlude of normality - my performing for the 2nd year in a row - at the Manchester independent book market in St. Anne's Square, and then onto the Flashtag collective's "WORD>PLAY" evening for Didsbury Arts Festival where I performed a soundtracked story where I'd written both words and music.

Then to last night, where I was so pleased to be one of the poets invited by Scott Thurston to read a "letter" from Bob Cobbing's 60s sound poetry piece "ABC in Sound" - where different word patterns for each letter created a wonderfully varied and somewhat mesmerising piece. With the minimalist "N" to go on, I extemporised a little, which seemed to go down well - probably a good thing, given that I was following on from established sound poet, Holly Pester. (The video is below, I'm about 19 minutes in!)

Bob Cobbing's ABC in sound - an Other Room ensemble performance from The Other Room on Vimeo.

So there you go, as much performance art as performance, I've thoroughly enjoyed these slightly unusual little projects - and in particular have enjoyed working with other people or working to a brief that is open to interpretation.

Its interesting - but you wouldn't know from the newspapers or cultural commentators - the wealth of interesting, improvisational work that is currently going on. All of these were really well attended, albeit in small venues; many of them had a multimedia component or at least were captured on film for later showing on the web. As an audience member I've been to quite a few other improvisational events - with musicians, sound artists, writers and artists - and they've almost all been far more interesting and inspiring than some of the more "traditional" audience-performer stand offs that we are used to; whether its Mark Leckey's live mixing at Manchester Art Gallery; the Janet Cardiff audio sculpture at the Sage or the improvisional music collaboration between New York and Manchester at Contact Theatre.

I think if the "real time web" has been transformative in how we consume the virtual world recently, this kind of "real time poetry" or "real time art" is successfully fusing the fun and edginess of a live performance with the thoughtfulness and depth of artistic creation.

May it continue.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

NW by Zadie Smith

 There are a couple of spoilers in this review.

In her debut novel, "White Teeth", Zadie Smith showed herself to be a writer both of talent and bravery. This was a vibrant debut that seemed unafraid - especially impressive in one so young - to be a big, baggy novel of the city. She was immediately applauded by a generation of writers much older than her, as "the real thing." Her second book "The Autograph Man" showed that she had more interest in the work coming across the Atlantic, gathered around David Eggars and McSweeney's magazine, than in Amis and Barnes. Along with Nick Hornby she was adopted as a kind of British wing of this vibrant new literary school. "The Autograph Man" disappointed, though it started well enough, and it seemed that she was torn a little between the novel that she wanted to write and that which was expected of her. The broad middle class comedy of her debut was reduced a little to sitcom-like skits by the end of this sophomore work. In retrospect, the subject-matter, a nerdish autograph hunter, simply wasn't strong enough to hold a novel. "On Beauty" found her on sounder ground, but in its plot steals from "Howard's End" and its American campus setting it seemed a well-written but complacent affair; despite the praise it got.

"NW" is her first novel for seven years, an astonishing gap really, and its a curious return, that does, to some extent fuse some of the disparate aspects of her talent, whilst at the same time, seeming tentative - almost like a restart for her career. Like "White Teeth" it is a London novel, and like Amis or Barnes she seems happier in its enclaves, for its the one part of the country where race, ambition and money are as interchangeable in a character's lives as they were in Dickens time. Taking as its subject a group of young people who grew up on a poor, but not unfriendly estate, "the Caldwell", the character's seem to be making up for the lack of jeopardy that seemed a failing in the middle class lives in "On Beauty", by being never that far from personal and societal precipices. This is not John Lanchester's snapshot of a street in "Capital" but a portrait of social (im)mobility over an awkward twenty years - the decades either side of the millennium. Smith is mostly deft at the cultural signifiers, whether its drugs, items in the news, or pop culture. There's never been any doubt about the authenticity of her writing - and her observational skills in "NW" are more honed than in anything she's written since her debut. At the heart are two school friends, Leah and Keisha (later changing her name to Natalie), who remain friends even after their lives change in different ways. These two girls -women - are the aspirant middle class. White Leah is unhappy with her own lower middle-class background, and is drawn to both the rough boys at school, and has "a phase" as a lesbian with the girls she meets clubbing and socialising. Keisha is from a West Indian church family, and is always set aside from almost everyone, finding solace in a similarly church-y boyfriend, with whom she goes away to the same University with. Keisha is driven - and will eventually become that rarity, a black female barrister - whilst Leah's drive is almost all in the negative. The story pulls us back and forth through their lives - and the lives of others; Nathan, a beautiful boy at school who once his football career ends, ends up on the wrong side of the tracks, and Felix, who in his thirties is starting a new life, having got out and away from the troubles that once defned in him.

We make our own choices, it seems, but those choices are already taking us back full circle. Natalie can never quite stop being "Keisha" and doesn't want to in some ways - being drawn back to the Caldwell when the difficulties of living a life she doesn't ever quite feel belongs to here starts to become a problem - whilst Leah, though on the surface successful, and having married a good man, for lust, is never quite sure that the life that she should be hoping for - house, kids, job - is actually what she wants. And these are the two who through hard work and their own personalities and friendships have made their own choices. Keisha's sister Cheryl gets pregnant young, and never leaves the Caldwell. Like in all families, Natalie can never quite drag herself away from her roots - she is always Keisha to her sister and mother.

Smith is excellent on family and relationship dynamics, and the book is at its best, when the subtle tones of our family and friend relationships are being contrasted. Yet it is also a tricky novel, experimental in the way her previous books have only occasionally hinted at. The perspective changes, as does the time line, but so does the style. The incident that starts the novel - where Leah gets scammed by a local addict - is both tiny, but emblematic. For in London you are only ever that far from the street - from homelessness, helplessness, and the inner city crime that is every night on the news. Her husband, Michel, is French African and expects her to want to children; she doesn't. But we leave Leah's story to find ourselves with Felix - here's a story within a story - the section entitled (lower case) "guest".Whilst the Leah section seems too thin, in Felix's section she is writing with an eye for realism, with little trickiness. If Forster is the model for "On Beauty" it is Woolf who haunts "NW". If Leah makes quite a reasonable "Mrs. Dalloway", Felix takes the same technique - a journey through a person's day - an ordinary day, one that shouldn't really be memorable, but becomes so tragically as it progresses. We learn about Felix's life through the minutiae of his day. He is doing "this" and "that", he's a bit of a chancer, but no longer the stereotype - his life is back on track - he's even getting rid of the negative things from his past; his disastrous mother, his imprisoned brother, and the strangely disfunctional relationship he had with a fellow addict in Soho. Felix is coming clean. This section, almost a long short story has a powerful climax that has already been telegraphed in the previous section - showing how lives intertwine - and it may well be the best thing Smith has ever written. The complex structure of the book is the complexity of the fragmented city. It's not unlike Ridgeway's recent "Hawthorn and Child" in this, but without that novel's deliberate randomness. Here there's a prescription about what is shown, what is told.

Leaving Felix, we  now follow Keisha through her rise from quiet school student, to university, to Barrister - along the way, shedding not just her name and the religious boyfriend from home, but much more. She falls in love with a rich, confident but somewhat insouciant city trader, Frank; like Leah, going far outside of her own background, yet never geographically straying far from it.

This is not a long book, yet it attempts to tell full stories of the lives intertwined. The "mini chapters" that tell Keisha and Leah's friendship is a reasonably effective deconstruction, yet at some point the sections get longer, and Smith is telling a linear story, at some length. It feels a contrivance that has outlived its usefulness. For like that advert where a couple meet, marry, have children, divorce in just a few minutes, we whizz through a life that we've already encountered but in a parallel deconstruction. Keisha/Natalie, like Leah before her remains a little unknowable. If this is the story of their disappointment, the mistakes they make, then it seems a little forced - as if the action is accelerated. There's talk of "living a dream" and in terms of their material lives they surely are - yet its hard to see what it is that is actually wrong in their lives; not even sure if they've actually met the wrong men. Thinking of similar couples I know of, its their joint-purpose that sticks out, and here Frank and Michel are offstage, confused at why their wives aren't happy. The external trauma that Leah faces, is a small, but significant one, but it hardly feels life-changing; here the middle-class "dread" - of being confronted with someone in your life that you're trying to avoid seems hardly the thing to bring on a breakdown; and likewise, with Natalie we see so many changes, from religious swot, to hardworking legal poster girl, to devoted mother and wife, to a woman who begins to search the internet for sex with strangers - here the fragmentary telling means that we're not so much shocked as unbelieving. There's something odd about all this as well: for these are the "This Life" generation - socially mobile, marrying for love and for sex, rich or at least not poor, in London, the city where everything is available, and yet they seem broken by it all. Writers like Margaret Drabble in "The Millstone" or Doris Lessing in "The Golden Notebook" told of woman's lives that were constrained by their circumstance, and what they had to do to break out (or to breakdown), but Leah and Natalie seem odd victims.

As the novel goes beyond its central scenes - the catastrophic event that effects all the characters in some way, but where Felix is the victim - the fragments don't add up so much as reduce. We are back on the Caldwell. There has been an incident. Nathan, the boy everyone loved, is now a homeless crack addict, Natalie/Keisha has come here to find what? An answer? An escape?  For though these lives are well-defined and their stories are somewhat compelling, there doesn't, in the end, seem quite enough to hold up the complex structure, and the long individual sections. In many ways, the problem is that which we saw in "The Autograph Man", that Smith's scene-setting is relatively small scale, even though her storytelling is large and vivid. There are few things more damning in English fiction than the phrase "provincial novel", but I'm thinking that if this wasn't set in London then that's what it would be referred to. Yet a non-London provincial novel would not be so obsessive about its postcode (from the title, to many, many references throughout), to its street names and districts. Like "Capital" this is a novel about the capital that stays very much within some narrow bounds - its much better than Lanchester's book, in that her real strength, in describing family and relationships is at the fore throughout. As a debut novel this would seem a powerful piece; as a fourth book it is not without its many pleasures - particularly in Felix's story - but it also feels like that the literary trickery, though often impressive, is more to cover up the novel's essentially slight concerns. Far more true to the contemporary experience than her previous satires, one is never bored by Smith's tightly controlled cast and locale, but one is never entirely convinced either. There are the makings of a very good novel here, but it does fall a little short, as the potential vast chaos of the city is reduced to small things: secrets shared, crimes observed, and friendships - always fragile - surviving, but at a cost.

Read an alternative review of "NW" from Valerie O'Riordan on the Bookmuunch website. 

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

In "Wolf Hall" Hilary Mantel did two remarkable things. She gave a voice to Thomas Cromwell, one of the more shadowy figures in British history, and in doing so she opened up the smells and sounds of Tudor England in a way that was astonishing. That book,.seeing Cromwell's rise at the court of Henry VIII, first through his intrigueing for Cardinal Wolsey, and then for the King himself had a particular design on us, I felt. The Tudors are a fascination that have always puzzled me, but Mantel showed us not so much the intrigues that led to the ditching of Henry's first wife as he fell in love with Anne Boleyn but the reasons behind it. For without an heir the newly peaceful England would be back at war - and as a distant outpost of Rome, its people would remain trapped in an age of fear and suspicion, unable to read the word of God in their own tongue. "Wolf Hall" showed the birth of protestant England, and it was this aspect - with Boleyn, Cromwell and others able to read the Tyndale Bible in private whilst their countrymen faced death for the same "crime" - that gave it so much of its fascination.

"Bring up the Bodies" continues the story. Boleyn is now Queen, her family are esconced at court, and Cromwell is now, amongst other titles, "Master Secretary" to Henry Tudor, middle aged and wealthy. The odd tense construction that she developed in "Wolf Hall" for Cromwell, is less obtrusive here, or perhaps more fluent. In that sense it is probably an easier read. The odd "said he, Thomas Cromwell" usage is for emphasis here, and only occasionally is the reader confused as to whom is being referred. Cromwell in middle age is denied the interior life that his younger self had - or at least it is more restricted; the bare facts of biography deny it somewhat. For Cromwell is now an arch-fixer, not just for himself, but for his circle, and inevitably for Henry. There's at least one misplaced "I" that I remember, wondering to what extent Booker winners ever get a proper editing, but otherwise the book is if anything more readable than its page-turning predecessor.

And in places it is brilliant. Beginning at "Wolf Hall" out hunting with the King, Cromwell notes his Lord has shown an interest in the plain, virgin Jane Seymour, and so it begins. With a son and heir, but with his own wife and daughters dead from plague (in the arresting opening scene, Cromwell has named his falcons after them), Cromwell doesn't mourn so much as put his experience and regret to the King's purpose. But he always has a soft spot for women; and tempers Anne's dislike of Katherine of Aragon's daughter Mary, or coaching the elusive Seymour. We are now at the heart of court; yet oddly, this second book seems less knowledgeable in many ways. The entourage of both King and Queen reminds one of The Sopranos, where individuals jostle for preferment, and never quite know if they are to be a "made" man or a dead man. Cromwell is a string-puller at the heart of this intrigue. He is no longer a confidante of Anne - for he is a confidante of the King - and whereas previously he owed allegiance to the Cardinal, here he uses cardinals, ambassadors, and Earls of the realm as mere pawns on his board. There is plenty here to arrest the attention; and occasional reminisces into the endless variety of Thomas's imagined past. Yet, this is less a book about Cromwell than it is about Henry.

For the Henry we think about from history is not the young fearless man, but the one of the six wives, the giant fellow who sits overseeing both court and country. We see a drunk Henry falling asleep after the hunt, and the Lords almost daring each other which will be the one to wake their king. We see him in love again, but this time with the demure Seymour rather than the alluring Boleyn. We see him at the heart of decision-making that are hard to fathom but which could pitch England back into favour with Rome, as the latter finds itself at war with France. Cromwell entertains the ambassadors; he arranges new sinecures for troublesome Lords; he gossips with the ladies-in-waiting around the Queen; he worries about his son's debut in the Lists (the jousting tournament that the King still performs in); he speaks little of the project that was Protestant England, except to somehow give a prayer in their own tongue to the troublesome Welsh; and he is the kings man in the Commons, wanting laws that will aid the people of England (a common man to the last, is Cromwell) and money taken from the coffers of the monasteries.

Yet this second outing seems both more familiar and less purposeful. It takes place in a tighter timescale, and has really one main story line. For Boleyn having provided Henry with only a female heir (baby Elizabeth) he now wants another woman, but having no heir, wants a Queen not a concubine. It is Cromwell's job to enable this. This then is a drama less about the country, and more about the intrigue at court. What the king wants of course, the king will have. This has become a given after the break with Rome; yet this is still a religious monarch and a religious country. An heir from another needs to be a legitimate one (for the king has one male Bastard already). The downfall of Boleyn and her inner circle is inevitable, we know that, and Mantel is superb in showing the way the drama may have unfolded - even though the history is a mystery. We are no longer in the superstitious England of the first book, but in an era where Tudor England will begin to assert its power and supremacy. This is the "great man" view of history - where we rarely stray beyond the courtly circle, and its rich families jostling for power and influence. To what extent you like playing Kings and Queens will determine how you rate this novel. What might be fascinating on a BBC costume drama seems melodramatic at times on the page. For Mantel is being truth to whats known, whilst constructing a fiction. Oddly, its the conspiracy-theories of James Ellroy that the book reminds me in places; as the style is as breathless in its way as his Kennedy conspiracy thriller "American Tabloid." But it also reminds me of a lesser book, one that also got carried away with the detail of its historical subject, and tackled voices from the past: John Fowles late, and disappointing "A Maggot." At times, Mantel all but abandons description as she shares in-depth conversations like characters in a soap opera; and the drive to some sort of conclusion is all that matters. Like a storyliner for an American mini-series she has to tie up all the loose ends that Cromwell has set hanging. For this is Cromwell as master-fixer. The end to his story will come in a third book, and he is already suspecting that his own end may be no less bloody than that of the Queen he helped place on the throne.

"Bring up the Bodies" is a brilliant read; a worthy sequel to "Wolf Hall" and in parts surpasses it in its style and readability. Yet it seems to me to not add too much to that book. It is tighter and more concentrated, but here the subject is more Henry Tudor, and less Thomas Cromwell. In biographies it is always the story of how they get to where they are that fascinates, not what they did when they got there - for the latter is already a public story - and I think that, if anything, is why the book seemed less remarkable than its predecessor. The story is less international in scope as well, for whereas the fate of England (both then and in the future) seemed to hang on the break from Rome; we are now cloistered in the politics of a Ceasar (or a Corleone.) The Lords and Ladies of Henry's court are frankly not that interesting. Like a Russian novel, they have several names, yet Mantel rarely gives them anything more than soap opera characterisation. This one is weak; this one vain etc. There is no great villain in the novel - yet surely they should be? Anne Boleyn is not fit for the role, for her "villainy" is to have given Henry no heir and for him to have tired of her.

The novel has remarkably given Mantel her second Booker prize. Without having read the others on the shortlist (and longlist for that matter), its hard to say whether its worthy. There are sequels that do something different and better than their predecessors - think "Rabbit Redux" or "The Western Lands" - but I'm not sure that one does. Its the classic "middle" part of a trilogy. "The Empire Strikes Back" may be the tighter film, but its not as loved as "Star Wars", and there's something similar about "Bring up the Bodies." Despite its name, its far less violent than its predecessor. The ransacking of the monasteries mostly takes place off-stage. Instead it topples into melodrama at times; for the courtly intrigue, and the gossip about Boleyn's alleged infidelities are the stuff of soap opera. Perhaps Mantel had no choice, given the facts of the time - but though it is a remarkably readable book, and the voice is, if anything, even more convincing than in "Wolf Hall", it doesn't add to that novel's achievements, and may, in some way, detract from them - for here we are back in the Tudor England that never really appealed; of great men and women, in great halls, eating great feasts. The historical novel, which you felt Mantel was giving an overdue reboot in "Wolf Hall", is not that easily removed from its default setting. Anybody who enjoyed "Wolf Hall" must read this sequel, I devoured on a plane to Istanbul, landing in the heart of one of the world's most ancient cities, with the intrigue of the 16th century spinning around my head, but its Booker elevation seems a conservative choice.

My review of Wolf Hall is here. 

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Long Fiction in the 21st Century

On Tuesday the 13th Booker prize of the 21st century will be awarded. It could make history, with Hilary Mantel becoming the first British author to win it twice, and, moreover, with a sequel to her previous winner. Though books from trilogies have won in the past (Pat Barker, William Golding) two from the same series have never won. There are a number of new names on the list, including Alison Moore's "The Lighthouse", from my own small publisher Salt. It may well be that Moore, or another newish writer will prove to be more than famous for just one book (though the Booker has done that as well in the past: think DBC Pierre or Yann Martel).

If the Booker felt like a defining prize during much of the eighties and early nineties, I don't think it has been so central to the literary discussion since. A competition where essentially the rules change every year - because each set of judges is so different - is not a place to go for a defnining narrative. Like the Turner Prize or Mercury Prize it's position in the ecosystem of its artform has periods when it appears to so get it right, and others when it appears to so get it wrong. Two distinctly twentieth century novelists, Julian Barnes and Howard Jacobsen won the prize the last two years, with novels that are far below their best; whilst Mantel joined Anne Enright and John Banville in the list of respectable mid-listers who were elevated a little by their win. Elsewhere, books by Adiga and Desai, seem one offs that have less cultural import than the Martel and Pierre.

In other words, forgetting about the Booker for a minute - where are the culturally important fiction writers of the last 15 years or so? (Century boundaries not being very helpful.) David Peace, David Mitchell, Magnus Mills, A.L. Kennedy, Nicola Barker, Will Self, Sarah Hall, Ali Smith, Toby Litt, Gwendoline Riley and China Mieville would be a good starting eleven, yet they've notched up not a single Booker win, despite (at a quick count) 8 shortlistings between them. If we're talking books, "The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet", "Three to see the king", "Five Miles from Outer Hope", "Day", "Wide Open", "The City and the City", "The Damned United",  "Cold Water", "The Carhullan Army" and "The Book of Dave" are important novels that any survey of the last decade or so would have to take into account and yet didn't make the shortlist.

Five of that first eleven did make the last Granta list of "Best Young British Novelists" in 2003 - but these decade long surveys are prone with difficulties - after all, Moore will be ineligible for the next list, despite "The Lighthouse" being a debut novel - and, should Will Self win with his first shortlisting "Umbrella", it will be a belated vindication (not that the writer of "The Book of Dave" and "The Quantity Theory of Insanity" needs any vindication) for his 1993 listing.

So, Tuesday's announcement will be interesting - the longlist (if not the shortlist) for this year's prize was certainly a more adventurous one - and good books such as Anne Enright's "The Gathering" or Arundhati Roy's "The God of Small Things" have won the prize without necessarily being representative of the fiction of the age. The books of course aren't changed by the winning of a prize, they would have been there to read regardless; but obviously the winning writers future (and if its a small press, possibly their publishers' future) will inevitably be changed by the success. Let the anticipation commence....

Monday, October 08, 2012

Casaubon in the age of Facebook

Culture has always been commodified. The Elizabethan theatre would expect an instant turnaround from its playwrights. A "hit" might run for longer, a "miss" would require a new play to be rushed onto the stage. There was probably a good market in fresco paintings in Renaissance Florence as well. Our current equivalent; a decade or so after the "cultural industries" became commodified - that post-Bilbao rush to urban cultural flag-planting - there are a number of questions relating to our new austeritied times. On the one hand there are probably more artists, poets and musicians than any time in history. On the other; where are the culturally significant? Are we stuck with "names" living off reputations forged ten or twenty years ago  - or in a world where curators can make a name from themselves by magpie-like, picking up the "hot" names just before they sizzle in the mainstream sun, is there some kind of arms-race amongst the big galleries; the big prizes?

Our audiences as well - are they "finite" or ever changing? Life is not so consistent as in previous generations. Watching a Simon and Garfunkel concert from the late 1960s we see not hippy flower children, but the well-to-do baby-boomers, post-marriage and possibly pre-children, respectable couples that are fated to the conventional marriages that Dustin Hoffman was ready for before he met "Mrs. Robinson". At a gallery launch in Manchester, you don't just see the same faces; but the same type of faces - a new year's crop of students, post-students, etc etc.

I marvel, even in the age of austerity, at how late Capitalism's exagerrated Ponzi scheme has somehow spilled over into culture. All this activity going into an album or a film that is forgotten after a weekend; a constant sense of activity to keep the paying (or non-paying) customer busy. How to keep up? How to even keep up in a smallish city like Manchester when this week alone there were two major exhibition launches? The First Cut at Manchester Art Gallery on Thursday (all I can say is GO!) and David Shrigley at the Cornerhouse on Friday.  The paper works in The First Cut belie this frantic activity - who knew there were s many artists doing frankly astonishing things with paper? Origami this isn't. Impossible to write a review based on an opening - but the sense of wow was there from the start, and the range and complexity of the work on display (from massive installations to tiny sculptures) made me wonder: who knew there was a whole world of paper-artists doing there own little thing? Perhaps that is what modern curation amounts to - a bringing together; not of a scene, but of like-minded artists. I've not been to the Shrigley yet, but here's an artist who is better known outside of Fine Art, perhaps like Grayson Perry, crossing that line. I imagine this will be incredibly popular; familiarity with an artist's name encouraging engagement. Though I doubt we'd see a Jack Vettriano show at the Cornerhouse; interesting how art is categorised. I was at the Buy Art Fair and the Manchester Contemporary the week before, and the former, with its commercial galleries, seemed not just stale, but little more than decoration - whilst the latter, representing a range of galleries where more cutting edge art is being exhibited - seemed not just collectable, but accessible. I'm wondering if we're seeing something of what happens a decade on from the "creation of a taste" that Tate Modern and the YBAs heralded. I headed to Damian Hirst's Artist's Room (a travelling portfolio, placing contemporary artists in provincial galleries) at the New Art Gallery in Walsall. It was great to see "Away from the Flock" again, like bumping into an old friend, and his work - anatomical, mortality-obsessed, always somewhat sculptural in its form - fitted surprisingly well with the Epstein's of the Garman-Ryan collection. Genuine dialogue between the two artists.

The artists gathered in the First Cut aren't made for a one-night wonder; there's too much technique, too much intricacy in the use of their material. Yet, we move on. I was interested to see that the Frieze fair now has a pre-2000 tent (and accompanying magazine.) On occasional trips to London or elsewhere I tend to visit historical shows. My interest in contemporary art is strong, but its contextualised for me, by a trip to the V&A or wherever. This is me catching up on the art history I never got at school or afterwards. But history also reveals. My poetry has rarely felt much affinity with whichever contemporary books are du jour at any one point. This week you could have drowned in poetry; it was national poetry day (this year's nonsensical theme: Stars), the Forward Prizes went to Denise Riley, Jorie Graham and Sam Riviere. The shortlist for the Manchester Poetry Prize was published. If you'd thought from the Riviere listing that there was some poetic break with the past - that a poetry that referenced the present, that appeared on a blog - could not only be published by venerable Faber; you'll look in vain for contemporary references in the Manchester shortlist, even as you admire the poems.  (Full disclosure: I entered this one, with poems that talked about the coalition government and Mars' Curiousity Rover.)

Micheal Chabon, last night being intereviewed as part of the Manchester Literature Festival, was philosophical about the failure of the John Carter film that he was part of. All that work (all that money) and the film arrived stillborn at the Box Office. This week we heard that career/studio wrecking "Heaven's Gate" was being reissued.

Pop into HMV and they're clearing out last Christmas's box sets so that £200 would buy you the complete Sopranos, West Wing, The Wire and "24", which would be an undergraduate module in 21st century TV drama all by itself. The reason these programmes are so long is the market: no longer a self-contained narrative, but something that has to reinvent and spiral out based on it being a hit in this most competitive of markets.

You see, there are two things at play here. The speed of transmission, or even of consumption of late Capitalism, when it's applied to art; and then the much, much slower transmission of influence, of hard craft, of individual vision, of articulating a personal space in a world that is shouting loudly about what sells and how. What should be a moderator between the two - critical culture - seems swamped by the hype of the market; or at least by the competing voices that require to be heard. Even in the blog space one tends to keep quiet about the crap that's out there, as there's only so much time that you'd rather concentrate on the good stuff. Since the millennium I get a sense that contemporary art hasn't been as effective as in the brash decade before; whilst at the same time appearing to be more successful.Are younger artists creating their own underground space (say, in zines, like Laura Oldfield Ford, or in quirky books like Shrigley?) but with the suss of the Hirst generation's marketing gene? I get a sense that poetry has been healthier this last few years from not being so dependent on Faber-favour, and would only wonder whether Riviere's "81 Austerities" should be interrogated in a wider context - whether the poets he shared Stop/Sharpening/Your/Knives with, or others. The HBO/TV boxset has given grand guignol drama on a scale that those of us brought up on the 50 minute standalone story can hardly believe has happened - and made most contemporary film appear childish (or at least, for a younger popcorn gorging audience than the serious work on our screens.)

An artist can only do so much - a life's work can be a series of moments - a great song may come in a minute. Needing an extra track to complete "Revolver" Lennon came up with "She Said, She Said" which kind of invented power pop. "The Wasteland" or "The Cantos" took large chunks of their author's lives. In Middlemarch we are made to laugh at Casaubon, the old academic, unable to publish, as he works on the impossible task that is the "Key to all mythologies" - but Dorothea marries him because she perceives in him a seriousness of purpose that isn't actually there (no more than it is in the dashing Ladislaw.) There are plenty of Casaubon-like tasks littered through 20th century art - whether it's "Finnegan's Wake" or the late novels of too many "great" writers. Yet we need a bit of that seriousness (even if we're drawing cartoons - will there be a better object this year than the new Chris Ware for instance?) As audience-critic-blogger we can just consume if we want - concentrate on the next thing, next show, next song, next poem, next book - and hardly have time to assimilate the last. Caught between the impossible task of a Casaubon, we relentlessly check the goldfish memory of our Facebook status. Somewhere in between these two extremes is where the worthwhile happens.