Sunday, May 26, 2013

Swimming Home by Deborah Levy

In Deborah Levy's Booker shortlisted "Swimming Home" nothing is quite as it seems on the surface. The poet Joe Jacobs ("JHJ") is in a villa near Nice with his wife and daughter and a couple of their friends. The sleepy village is one of bored intrigue, where a number of people have ended up drifting - the villas and cottages owned by an absentee landlady who apparently earned her money through high class prostitution. In some ways, this tableaux is one of the bored, classic tropes of the middle class English novel. It "Hotel du Lac" or "A Year in Provence" or "The Pregnant Widow" or "The Ebony Tower" or any number of Iris Murdochs. A retired doctor looks on curiously at the family in the neighbouring villa, and a German hippy acts as a reluctant concierge, but would rather smoke dope than do the odd jobs he's paid for.

Joe's wife Isabel is a war correspondant, and therefore they've reversed the usual patterns of family. He has stayed at home and looked after Nina, his fourteen year old daughter, whilst she has been away. They are, as always in the bourgeois  novel, more than comfortably off. The setting - in a not-so-distant 1994 gives the story distance, if not quite enough; for despite Levy being one of our more interesting contemporary stylists, the novel is defiantly old-fashioned in many ways. There are modernist echoes, of course, back to "Tender is the Night" or "The Good Soldier" where the ennui of the hot summer abroad seems to sap the characters nerve, and slowly strip them of the pretence in which they live their lives.

Yet, "Swimming Home" is very comfortably contemporary as well - in that the modern novel revels in surfaces uncovered, and secrets to be hidden and then revealed at the author's own time. Joe and Isabel's friends, the corpulent Mitchell and his wife Laura, are escaping their own disaster - their shop is going bankrupt - whilst for the poet and his wife, the tenuous tie of their marriage, almost always at risk from his affairs and her absences, is stretched taut ready for breaking. Into this walks disaster in the shape of Kitty Finch, a beautiful but painfully thin redhead, who is first seen naked in the pool, her body easily mistaken for a corpse. Finch has come over there for a purpose: to meet Joe, whose poetry she has found empathy in. Against all good sense, Isabelle carelessly invites her to stay, "buying" the clear lie of her story that she got the wrong dates for coming to the villa.

Rarely wearing any clothes, Kitty is a obviously a dangerous interloper into this fragile family tableau. The sensible 14-year old, who has done without a mother for so much of her life, is at first intrigued by this big sister, particular as she finally has first period.

So is this a coming of age novel? A family breakdown story? Or a tale of mental illness? A bit of all three it turns out. Kitty - known as "Kitty Ket" to the German who loves her - has been there before. A "botanist" and "poet" she has come to the apartment with a single poem in an envelope, entitled "Swimming Home" which she wants Joe to read. On such thin grounds is this novel of surfaces built, and part of her success, I think, is in keeping this fragile edifice upright. She does this through her writing which is careful, calibrated, and as shimmering as the French heat.

Yet this small group of people are thrown together not so much by circumstance as by wilfulness. This is the unfortunate dinner parties of the people-loving Divers in "Tender is the Night" but here it feels forced. Mitchell is a boorish Abe North type, drinking and eating too much, and not much liking (or at least resenting) his richer friends. JHJ is a poet like none that really exist, closer to the artist in Fowles' "The Ebony Tower" than any real writer; somehow living off his royalties. His own past is of the changeling. Born before the war he is a Polish Jew, whose own past and identity are pretty unknown to him. The novel starts with him in a car with Kitty, so the obviousness of their having an affair is flagged from the start, but when she takes her hands off the wheel, where will this riskiness take them? That in some ways is the novel's "tease." This group of people though don't really garner much of our sympathy. Its a short novel, and could easily have been called "dreadful people." Not a single character comes across as deserving our sympathy. They are selfish, and self-centred, and pulling those around them into their own self-absorbtion.

In some ways, the novels strength is this clinical characterisation. Everyone's actions, however well meaning are freighted with consequence. Isabel letting Kitty stay for instance (and why is it that Isabelle has the casting vote?) - is this because she really wants Kitty to have an affair with her husband? The retired doctor Sheridan is an accomplice in the melodrama from having called the paramedics to a crazed, naked Kitty Finch the previous summer. Sheridan is scared at what Kitty will then do as revenge. Yet what doctor wouldn't have take that decision? Claude the Mick-Jagger lookalike who runs the local bar is leching after the pre-pubescent Nina; whilst Jurgen is the classic unreliable servant, doing favours only where he feels it can give him some kind of an edge.

Into this appalling group, the damaged Kitty seems to swoop in to somehow be both angel and devil. Its not that she captivates the group so much  - she's too obviously mentally estranged and self-obsessed for that - more that she provides some kind of necessary grit in the unsaid seething politeness of this middle class cliche. Her own background is hardly mentioned - other than her time in hospital - but she swims in, literally, and everyone either falls in love with her, loathes her, or thinks she can be useful to them. We don't see the poem at the heart of things: and its a thin thing to hold things together. At one point the list of reasons that Joe Jacobs has come up with not to read a single poem becomes almost comical. I think the novel's small power is based upon its accumulation of little things: Nina's period; the growing tab that Mitchell has built up at the restaurant; Kitty's nakedness, Isabel's disappearance into town. They are staging their own drama (a melodrama in many ways), playing some kind of multi-dimensional chess game, the ending of which could go either way, but also feels inevitable.

This sort of fatalism is what drives the novel more than the characters - though the accumulation of detail, in small telling scenes is what Levy does best. There is not a chapter that is wasted. In many ways its a long short story. Apparently her first novel for 15 years, it doesn't feel like a book that was dying to be written. Its setting and characters are too familiar. There's little to make you think this is a parody of the bourgeois novel, instead it feels like it is the bourgeois  novel exactly, albeit with more than a frisson of existentialism. Kitty is the heart of the book, but she's a distant heart as well, and all too familiar - the broken girl, the beautiful but mentally unstable woman. She's there in Nicola Barker's "Clear" and Lee Rourke's "The Canal" and also in the TV series Luther; a brilliant, seductive, but damaged waif, almost a signifier for contemporary neuroses. As we reach the denoument - as, if you like, the novel's fatalism reaches its point of closure - I wondered again about its mid-90s setting. Its just pre-internet which helps (Jacobs having a fax machine in the villa seems a clumsy detail, for instance) but the timing seems more to do with how Jacobs is aged. It has to be set in the 1994 to enable Joe Jacobs to have been a Polish Jewish evacuee who never saw his parents after the war; yet this ghostly past is so lightly sketched I'm not sure it has any greater reality to it. Levy's interest is in the psychological deadness of her damaged characters, and that's inevitably focussed on their vulnerable present, rather than the demons of their past.

Outside of the tableaux the characters feel they don't exist - and that anti-realism just about gives the novel an intrigue that takes it away from its slightly characterless origins. Its symbols might be slight, but they are not without some intellectual weight.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Writing With and Without Fear

I used to write without fear. I didn't know what I didn't know. Like a child playing in front of the open grate, mesmerised by the flames and warmth but unprotected by a fire guard, I would write until I was roasted on one side, with nobody to pull me away. Partly this was because I didn't know any different; I'd always written - since being a child - and since nobody had took much interest in it, then why should they take much interest in warning me off? During my twenties I wrote a couple of novels, a number of short stories; beginning to photocopy them for distribution to a few friends, occasionally getting a poem or story published. This didn't happen until my late twenties by which time I was probably unteachable, caught in my own bad habits.

I began to take things more seriously: first a competition entry; then sending off to agents and others. I applied, and finally got on, an M.A. I still wrote with abandon, why shouldn't I? The fear came slowly, I think. Not the course, or my tutors or my fellow students - more the work was to blame. This new novel was different somehow. It could burn me. It could take me places I wasn't keen on going. It was more than a story. More than a tall tale. Slowly, I burned, slowly I moved away from the flame, put precautions in place. Then the writing world, which I'd known of, but never had much of an entry-point to, seemed ever nearer, and I approached that equally without fear. Beware of sabre-toothed tigers! At some point I began to write out of terror rather than unaware of the terror.

The fear was helpful. It kept my words under constant surveillance, it made me aware of their limitations; it made me think of what I needed to do to make them better. Fear made me a better writer. It made me a slower writer, it made me a more scared writer. Yet, the old fearlessness somehow remained. It would take a late night session; a glass or two of wine to intervene. But I'd trained myself to write breathlessly, fearlessly and that training held me in good stead. Only in the morning would I wonder what I'd done - think about this other fearless self that wrote at night and left something that I could only wonder at in the sober morning. Then the fear helped, I suppose, it clarified the confusions of the night before, it worked into the detail of the fearless work. At least sometimes: other times it stopped me. It stopped me from following through on the idea or the piece.

Time went on. I am older. I am a curator of old work now, as much as writer of new work. That was a different me, I think, that fearless one. It is better to be terrified; and to make sure things are perfect before you show them around; before you consider their vulnerability - yet I need the fearless writer to write the damn thing in the first place; the fearless me was the one that got to the end; the terrified writer is needed to look on this work with horror and make it approach some kind of completion. The fear has exactly the same role as my lack of it once had. It is to enable.

Do Movies Make us Culturally Lazy?

Last week I went to the cinema twice; first to see "A Taste of Honey", a film that is over 50 years old, and then to see the freshly pressed "The Great Gatsby." Suitably the first was in the grand surroundings of Stockport Plaza, and the second in the Dolby-enhanced experience zone of our local multiplex. I saw the latter in 2D, as 3D hurts my eyes, but the cinema was nonetheless full.

I mention this because I rarely go to the cinema these days. Not purposely, but amongst everything else its gone down my list of priorities. Besides, big TVs means that missing a film on the "big screen" is no longer the disaster it used to be. There may well be something about the falling off in quality of cinema - but I kind of don't necessarily buy that. The latter experience left something to desire. The multiplex had a small bar area with seats that had seen better days and lukewarm white wine; the first fifteen minutes of the film had large groups of people arriving late to find their seat; and, like most contemporary movies, Gatsby passes the 2 hour mark.

Yet cinema has proven remarkably resilient - albeit if the experience seems primarily aimed at a teenage/early 20s audience - with popcorn, and an adjacent Nandos. The films match this of course. There can be times when I've wanted to go and see a film but there's nothing on other than kids movies. (Its a bank holiday on Monday, I should probably have saved Gatsby for then.) Our art house cinemas are as likely to show a Tarantino as the "new" Tarantino, though festivals offer some hopes, though "catch it or miss it."

I love film. I used to sneak out of sixth form when I had a free afternoon and pop to an afternoon showing at the Cannock Classic, a three mile walk from school. The film club at university was the best and cheapest education I received in my first year at that institution. The video shop provided access to a smorgasbord of movies: from trash to classics (and sometimes they were both.) Yet at some point I kind of stopped going to films. The "must see" movies I haven't seen - whether its "Prometheus" of "Avatar." I catch things occasionally years afterwards on TV. I feel I've seen Harry Potter though I don't think I've caught more than a whole film.

It is, I think, easily to get culturally lazy through cinema. Partly as a shorthand for what other people are watching/seeing. The meme about "I've never seen Star Wars" shows our shock when people have opted out of this mainstream culture (and when did "cult" science fiction become necessarily ubiquitous?) - but also, and here's the rub, out "star" culture, our "celeb" culture, is primarily focussed on the beautiful people in the movies. Twas ever thus, I guess. Warhol understood: with his screen tests and his Factory "stars" - but he made unwatchable movies. The great artform of the twentieth century reduced to material...

...and I'm at one with thinking it is a great art form. Its certainly influenced by writing as much, if not more than novels have. I've written poems about cinema; and I still feel about the medium in a way that - even in the age of the HBO boxset, in itself a new "artform" - I've never felt for TV. Partly its the sort of films I've liked: noir is a genre that exists more on film than in books. You don't get noir on stage, that's for sure.

But "liking" a film is the easiest thing in the world it seems. The money spent is astronomical. Even now Goldman's warning that "nobody knows anything" is shown in the failure of something like "John Carter" (SF adaption - start of a new franchise - surely a winner?) or the unexpected success of the  "The Artist".  Yet a few days after seeing Gatsby, its Fitzgerald's prose that still shimmers, rather than Luhrmann's surfaces. I thought the film was thoroughly entertaining, surprisingly close to the book; but all of that effort and that's it a memory to be replaced - for most of the audience - by the new Star Trek movie or whatever big film is next. De Caprio, a good actor, is trapped in modern cinema as other good actors like Christian Bale or Ryan Gosling often are.

The Review Show was pretty dismissive of Gatsby the film, because it failed to get under the book. Would it ever be able? Great books rarely become great movies - though people try. This version of Gatsby was neither revolutionary or reverential. It worked best when it was more the former, and its a good modern movie, yet some well known in the source material that it was never in danger of celluloid overwhelming it.

Part of the reason I rarely go to the cinema is a social one of course. Two hours spent not talking to the person you went with! Catching up with particular friends too rarely these days, we tend to want to spend the time. But there's something I else I think. A list of the 100 best films of all time and I'll have only seen half - there's still time of course, but I've a pile of DVDs of classics and non-classics. I guess I've seen enough - just as I speak to people who feel they've read enough novels. As a creative practitioner do I want art that entertains or enriches? I can learn quite a lot from the structure and style of a great movie that might translate somehow into fiction - but many mulitplex films aren't that complex. The more complex narratives of the Sopranos or Fringe or The Wire seem to repay us more for the investment of time: movies are all about bang for the buck.

But if there is something "culturally lazy" about watching films I think its more to do with the Hollywood blockbuster as its evolved than something in the medium. These movies are such big events: the sequels create a narrative that feeds through from children's toys to pop culture parody (e.g. Spaced) to creating our own personal cultural signature. It becomes easy to fit in when everyone knows who Spiderman is. (Far easier than knowing who Fellini is.)

What place do movies play in the culture now? Where rock stars have faded in their excess, movie stars remain paramount in our celebrity culture - but the films themselves are more than that - they are so often cultural battering rams. Whereas a song or poem or a novel can still come from nowhere, a film - with its multi-million budget, its A-list stars, its billboards and trailers - can sometimes seem to scorch the cultural earth beneath it. Of course, the bigger the film the bigger the success, the less cultural impact it might really have - yes, you can see it three, four, many more times, but box office is primarily about reach: how many millions of people have been drawn into the cinema.

I was surprised as an adult rewatching "Jaws" and seeing "Saturday Night Fever" for the first time, how gritty those movies were. Like a book that surprises, they are still nuanced, despite the big set pieces that everyone remembers. 

Some of my best artistic memories are seeing movies. "Breaking the Waves" at Brixton Ritzy on my own in 1996 after I'd just moved to London - what an overwhelming movie that was; "Reservoir Dogs" at the Cornerhouse; years before (not a great film - but a great day, I was in Manchester for the anti-Clause 28 march) "Sammy and Rosie Got Laid"; "Vertigo" at the Lumiere St. Martin's Lane, in 70mm; "Blue Velvet" for the first time at Lancaster university cinema club.... though sometimes I've seen favourite films on TV, even in the black and white portable in my old teenage bedroom. I'm sure there are lots of great movies out there even today; from all over the world; but wonder as well if they're a little drowned out by the loud culture of the blockbuster; of the sequel. Will I ever see the lovely Spanish film "Solitary Fragments" again? A split-screen movie about the Madrid bombings I accidentally caught at the Viva! Spanish film festival. Or what about "Target" that brilliant b-movie, "Targets" featuring Boris Karloff and directed by Peter Bogdanovich? Will Hollywood ever make a film as perfect again as "Once Upon a Time in the West?"

I began this blog post with a provocation - wondering if film culture - the multiplex showing the next Star Trek sequel or whatever - was the worst kind of culture; its sheer excessive professionalism drowning out everything else - yet there's something to be said for the craft and intelligence that goes into even the dumbest movie. Luhrmann overplays the symbolism in "Gatsby" but I can't help but be impressed by the zoom in and out of the New York apartments. One wonders at the utter pointless spectacle of the party scenes - everything over the top, but little different at heart than last Saturday's "Eurovision" song contest in Sweden, or the set-pieces of the Olympic opening ceremony. Was it really a surprise that we got one of our most imaginative film directors to direct that live event?

My real concern is that there will be more column inches for big blockbuster movies this year than for every book, poem, play that is out there - and something "little" - like "A Taste of Honey" was "little" (though how large were its concerns, wonderfully, achingly large....) cannot hope to compete in this world. The "shock of the new" that came briefly with the Dogme directors; or with Tarantino; is now subsumed into the whole mad machinery it takes to make a major movie. In a world of "franchises" the first casualty often seems story - with plots turning on the needs of the special effects makers rather than the other way round. An endless stream of Star Wars movies, or a reboot of Star Trek look like having none of the inventiveness that's there in J.J. Abram's small screen "Fringe." For British movie makers, films only seem to get a green light when they are picking up on a tabloid worthy subject - such as Winterbottom's life of Paul Raymond. Film has always been a magpie looking for the best source material - but sometimes it feels like books are being written as film treatments first.

I've lost my thread: I guess I'm trying to say that the most thrilling things I've seen lately have been live events one way or another - and its been a long time since I felt compelled to go see a new movie. Probably my loss, of course, and I'm sure there are some great films out there. Just not sure when I'll get around to them...

Friday, May 17, 2013

Time to appraise late-period Fall?

Just over a decade ago the Fall appeared to be in a sorry state, close to terminal decline. After the excellent "The Unutterable" album, released on yet another obscure label, a disastrous tour had led to a major line-up change - not for the first or last time - cancelled or aborted gigs, and even a certain distancing from their number one supporter John Peel. Between 1998 and 2003 the Fall failed to come in for a session. Whether or not their live unreliability at this point or the lack of coherent management was to blame, who knows? The band that let out "Are you are missing winner?" was as brutally incoherent a combo as he'd ever assembled. Though it contained somewhat astonishing covers - Leadbelly, Iggy Pop and R. Dean Taylor - the rest of the album was hamfisted - the worst selection of original songs that had ever come out under the Fall name.

Yet if long-term Fall watchers had become worried that this was the start of a terminal decline it wasn't so. Endless touring had enabled them to road-test new songs that two years after "winner" were a world better. The first signs of this were on the 2003 Peel session, and the much-delayed new album "The Real New Fall LP (formerly Country on the Click)" was a massive return to form. It also included as close as the Fall would get to a hit these days, "Theme from Sparta FC" which got used on Football Focus every Saturday whilst the results were coming in. Despite the usual travails - an injury to Smith that had him in a wheelchair by the following year the sense was that the Fall were on a roll and as good as they'd ever been. Always playing the majority of their set from the last couple of albums, it was a relief when the weaker songs from before "TRNFLP" had been dropped and new songs such as "Blindness" and "What About us?" entered the set. First appearing in the odd interim release "Interim", this messy set of outtakes and live tracks is a crucial document in someways, bridging their two finest albums of the century. Those two tracks were on their final Peel session, for by the time I got to see them at the Manchester Bierkeller in the autumn, John Peel was dead. "Fall Heads Roll" was even better than the previous album, probably their best album of the century, yet even it doesn't really showcase the power of the band at this time. The call and response of "What About Us?" often followed on closely by classic "Wrong Place, Right Time" with the audience taking the microphone,  showcased a band that was reinvigorated.

It wouldn't or couldn't last of course - and halfway through the next American tour his band left. Like an ageing soul singer, he carried on regardless, his local support band becoming a "pick up band" for him It took a while for a new record however, and yet "Reformation Post TLC" is actually a double album - some long krautrock type tracks alongside the usual mix of rockabilly and His wife Elena Poulou the one constant during the decade, oddities such as "The Wright Stuff" where she sings lead vocal, are added to the Fall's repetoire of unexpected tricks. Always at least partially an electronic band, "Reformation Post TLC" reaffirmed that side of the band's sound for the first time since "The Unutterable" albeit more Krautrock than Chemical Brothers. Its one of their least essential albums, the band an interim solution - good musicians mostly, but lacking a sense of feel. Yet the most obvious statement of electronic Fall came in 2007's other album, the excellent "Tromatic Reflexxions", which was released under the name Von Sudenfed - a collaboration between Smith and Mouse on Mars. The oft-quoted "if its me and your granny on bongos, its the Fall" clearly didn't apply here - yet it remains the most successful of Smith's offshoot projects.

The next record  "Imperial Wax Solvent" was rawer and more coherent than the previous record, its probably the strongest album of the band  of Greenway/Spurr/Smith/Poulou/Melling which would continue through until at least the new 2013 album "Re-Mit." The album made the top 40, after all, their first album to do since Top 10 "The Infotainment Scan" in 1993.  Maybe it was the sad death of Peel, or possibly the increased "legend" status of Mark E. Smith (including the writing of the autobiography "Renegade") - but the Fall seemed bigger than ever, and he soon signed up for a proper tilt at the big time, joining major-indie Domino for "Your Future, Our Clutter." They'd also put out the Von Sudenfed album. A second top 40 hit followed and the album included at least one all-time Fall classic in "Bury Parts 1 and 2" where Smith intones "I'm from Bury." Yet seeing them in 2009, the band were sturm und drang than I'd remembererd: heavily dependent on a heavy bass and with an almost heavy-rock (or at least 70s rock feel to them.) "YFOC" was a darker album and the usual inconsistencies live - Smith abandoning the stage half way through songs, or being drunk, or fiddling with the amps, seemed to have become part of the show. A certain type of Fall fan revelled in the uncertainty - yet this record and the following "Ersatz GB" were somewhat hard to love.

For quite a while the Fall's writing technique has seen his various musicians come up with jams, songs, backings, and Smith has gone away and decided which ones to use and write lyrics for. Each of the last half dozen albums has had at least a couple of new classics, but whereas "Sparta FC" and "Blindness" amongst others were good enough to leave us no longer in awe of the great tracks of previous decades, only "Bury" from the last two or three albums has the same lustre. The new album "Re-mit" is again a more electronic record: here its Poulou lo-fi keyboards which have more of a dominance. The sound is experimental and esoteric, and there's a case to be made that its their best record since "Imperial Wax Solvent". Yet I'm struck by comparing it with the "Fall Heads Roll" and "The Real New Fall LP". These high points haven't been matched since. What we are maybe seeing is not a real dimming of the Fall, but a decade where he has had two bands: that first one, which left him in the lurch in America, and the one he's been with since. The everpresence of Poulou alongside Smith has created some coherence - yet this band's set, made up almost entirely of recent songs, with a couple of old crowdpleasers, is not amongst the best the Fall have ever had.

"Re-mit" though offers a new "remit" I think - less about the rockabilly riffs and more about a somewhat caustic electronic melange, it hints at the margins of the Fall's sound over the years. How does a Mark E. Smith grow old? His voice becomes growlier, yet its still quite sprightly on "Sir William Wray" and the remarkably odd "Hittite Man." The mix of caustic commentary (LCD Soundsystem's James Murphy gets the kicking this time round), and Lovecraftian mysticism, seems better for being coated in a patina of cheap electronica. Its short 40 minutes still finds space for the meandering solo track "Pre-MDMA years" one of the (increasingly infrequent) Smith interludes that in this appearance comes as a welcome reminder of how consistent his vision has been despite the many inconsistencies along the way.

I've not seen this band since a rather disappointing Manchester Academy some six months before "Your Future, Our Clutter" came out - yet hearing the tape of that gig, it was more about the Academy's muffling sound and the uncertain meandering of Smith that night.They are still playing live in a small town near you - and chances are that you won't hear anything as old as "Reformation Post TLC" never mind things from previous incarnations (though "Mr. Pharmacist" and "White Lightning" have proven resilient crowdpleasers).  The run from "The Real New Fall LP" to "Re-mit" is quite a remarkable one for a band who seemed a spent force only a couple of years before. The modern record industry hasn't been kind to a band like the Fall. No room for singles or E.P.s where they once did some of their more interesting work, and yet the remorseless album-tour grind doesn't seem that kind to them either. Like in the mid-90s, their last three or four albums have been a mixed bag, the latest dozen songs or so from the kitbag, that's all. Whether or not "Re-mit" is the end of a particular era, the start of another, or just another step in the road is hard to tell. Late Fall? He could have another thirty years in him yet.

There's a case to be made for the 21st century Fall as being as vital as previous versions - and certainly not any kind of retro act. The plethora of line-ups and the plethora of record labels haven't helped the casual Fall fan make sense of it all -go into the Fall selection in a record shop, and old albums jostle with the new; random compilations next to unecessary live releases. The thread of Peel sessions came to an end - and as far as I know the BBC hasn't invited them back in the door since - so those career spanning compilations "The Peel Sessions" and "50000 Fall Fans Can't be Wrong" haven't been joined by a good recent compilation. Where would you draw the line anyway? The things that many people love about the band are songs from a different life that Smith probably hasn't much thought about in twenty years or more. Yet the 21st century Fall is quite a robust outfit even so; even though there are different versions of it. He's talked about his many line up changes seeing him as seargent major dragooning the cadets into some kind of order; and there's something in that I think. Whereas previous bands might have been special forces, parachuted into enemy lines, this version of the Fall seems more of a combat unit, benefiting from their close comradeship over four or five albums, and battling resiliently to stay fit and focussed in the inhospitable terrain of the contemporary music scene.

That they still have more cultural capital than most bands is clear - and I'm reading at "Prole Art Threat - Poems for the Fall" next Thursday at the Lass O'Gowrie in Manchester.. To paraphrase one of his best loved songs: he is (still) not appreciated, but we're trying.

Monday, May 13, 2013

30 Years of the Smiths

"Hand in Glove", the first single by the Smiths came out 30 years ago today. I know this because I was at Stockport Plaza where Stockport Film Festival put on a great afternoon event. A showing of "A Taste of Honey" was preceded by a discussion with the music critics Mick Middles and Len Brown about their memories of the Smiths.

For those who don't know the connection its an interesting one. For Shelagh Delaney, the young Salford woman who wrote "A Taste of Honey" in 1958 was an inspiration for Stephen Morrissey. The line "I dreamt about you last night" from "Reel Around the Fountain" comes from the film, and the song "This night has opened my eyes" was a retelling of the story. Delaney was also one of the Smiths' many "cover stars."

Its 30 years since "Hand in Glove", yet that was released only 23 years after the film of "A Taste of Honey." Yet I think its fair to say we're more in the world of Morrissey and the Smiths, than the early 80s were in the world portrayed by Delaney. Though the demographic at Stockport today was around my age or older, there were quite a few younger people as well - and one old gentleman who was clutching a photograph of himself, as he was one of the urchines featured in the film. "They picked me because I was scruffy, whilst all the rest of my classmates were too tidy," he said, remembering.

And here's the connection, I think. For The Smiths, though instantly popular, spoke clearly and loudly to anyone who was an outsider - and that was the message of "A Taste of Honey." The articulate Delaney thought she could do better in depicting real life than the Terence Rattigan play she'd seen. In an age of "angry young men" and "kitchen sink dramas" "A Taste of Honey" still stands out as radical. Her heroine, Jo, is no victim, even though her life is grim. There's a hope and a tolerance here that speaks of a community spirit that was difficult but genuine.

As well as the film, we had a short video montage of "Hand in Glove", an interview with Morrissey from the 90s where he endearingly talks about his love for singers such as Sandie Shaw and Cilla Black. "Cilla Black broke up the Smiths," he said, half-jokingly, referring to their final recording, a cover of her "Work is a four letter word." Also, a short film, called "Unloveable", where an American Smiths fan comes to Manchester to see Salfords Lads' Club, the Kings Road, Southern Cemetery and the Moors, and is taken for a ride (literally and figuratively) by a Morrisseyesque stranger. Best of all, and coming before "A Taste of Honey," a short film about Delaney's Salford, which was filmed by Ken Russell for "Monitor" in the early 1960s. Delaney is a delight in this - and the pictures of a poor but thriving Salford, are contrasted with the bleak new housing estates that people were being relocated to. There's so much of post-war social history in this documentary fragment and "A Taste of Honey" itself; something that flows into the work of The Smiths.

But its also much more than "social history." Like so many great artists Morrissey made us see the mundane in different ways. The stealings from Oscar Wilde or Delaney; the references to the Moors murderers; the tongue-in-cheek but seriously meant ethical politics of "Meat is Murder" or "The Queen is Dead" speak of an outsider viewpoint that wasn't about "coming out" or being part of a "cult" but about allowing and enabling individuals to be outsiders. Jo and her mother in "A Taste of Honey", her black sailor lover, Jimmy, and her gay friend Geoff, are equally outsiders - and the connections become clearer.

I was also interested in how we choose to remember our social and cultural histories. A reminder that the Smiths were a "student band" even if Morrissey and Marr were never at university, that was their natural constituency - so a particular type of outsider. No wonder Tony Wilson never signed them - he preferred the boys in the gang mentality of the Happy Mondays. Yet, the Smiths, at least before the legal fallouts, were a tight-knit group. Only afterwards did we realise the band had internal troubles or that their lack of a manager led to them absorbing all the pressures of their success. Middles and Grant made the point that the Smiths were very different than the music around them at the time - and that's key I think. Also, the sixties wasn't really a touchpoint in the early 80s: the punks had dismissed the Beatles and the Stones; whilst the new music was all electronic instruments and production. A jangly guitar band that echoed the Byrds or the Hollies was not what the music industry was looking for; so of course they were immediately what it needed.

In many ways the politics of their songs was a personal one - so though Morrissey was a great lyricist, you could be a young David Cameron and think this is for you; at least if you didn't look too deeply. I remember that the NME and others tried to instigate a new movement of so-called "handsome bands" of which the Smiths were at the Vanguard. With the notable exception of James, all the bands that Morrissey favoured, came to very little. His own tastes were too esoteric, too uniquely his. And through this personal mythos he created something that had not a little success.

The world we see in that Salford film or in a "A Taste of Honey" would have been pretty recognisable to someone in the days between the wars, or even earlier; yet that world - of full employment, working class culture, ships on the Manchester ship canal - had changed massively by the eighties, not always for the better. This is pre-Beatles Britain, a time, in some ways, of innocence.  Its fascinating that a great British film like this, filmed in part in Stockport, can draw a big audience over 50 years after it was filmed, at least partly because of a young man from Stretford who made it part of his legend 30 years ago.Its important that he could find inspiration, not just from the otherworldy New York Dolls, but from something that spoke to him from his own background. I guess that's what we found in the Smiths as well; a poetry of the mundane.

Both Delaney and Morrissey seem to be outsiders who succeeded because their vision wasn't exclusive: but was actually as relevant or more relevant than the so-called mainstream of the day. Delaney's a world away from Rattigan's drawing room dramas; whilst the world according to Morrissey seems to have a relevance that few of us will find in Duran Duran's hedonistic "Rio" for instance.

If the theatre workshops of the late 50s gave Delaney her chance; it was the DIY culture of punk that opened Morrissey's eyes. Where the outsider connects with the hidden stories of others, there is always the possibility of a change in the culture, more a shudder, perhaps than a seismic quake, but significant nevertheless.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

Ever since her first novel "Behind the Scenes at the Museum" Kate Atkinson has managed to write novels that are both artistically and commercially successful. She's always been interested in genre - as the stories within stories of "Human Croquet" show as much as the Jackson Brodie  crime novels that she has been writing for the last through years - but also in unusual structures. That first Brodie novel, "Case Histories" was about the juxtaposition of seemingly distinct stories. One connecting thing between the crime fiction and her other novels has been a constant exploring of the messiness of life, particularly of families, of which she is perhaps our best chronicler.

"Life after Life" is her first non-Brodie novel for a few years and its a triumph. Ursula is born on a snowy night, but is strangled by her umbilical chord, and the doctor and midwife arrive too late to save her. The novel is over on the first page, except its not, for Ursula - "my little fox" her father calls her - has a second chance, and another, and another - life after life after life. In this ingenious novel of starts and endings, Atkinson plays around with the might-have-beens, the accidents that mean we might not survive beyond a particular unlucky incident. Ursula, slowly becoming aware of her "deja vu," accidentally or purposefully alters her history. Around her are a large middle class family, and there story is told from before the first world war until the 1960s. A story of a century of tumult, where Ursula and her siblings, her aunt and friends are to play pivotal roles. Her unlikeable brother Maurice gets a top job at the ministry, Ursula a more lowly one. Her father is a solid, kind banker, her mother Sylvia, a bright woman who gets increasingly angry and frustrated by the life she has been given, the downsizing of the family fortune after her father died leading her to always regret the loss, rather than revel in what she has: the strong family based around a lovely house that they name Fox Corner.

This is the southern middle class life of "Howard's End", perhaps the constant touchstone for a certain kind of English novel. Like in that book, this class have their own familial connections with Germany, a closeness that will be ruptured in a century of two great wars. Into this bigger story, Ursula's part slowly becomes clear. A summer visit to the Brauns gets her close to Eva, the daughter who will one day be Hitler's mistress. For like Stephen King's recent time travel novel, Atkinson wants to do much more than untangle a life of many second chances. King had to consider the possibility of an altered history where Oswald doesn't kill Kennedy; for Atkinson, and Ursula, the possiblity that she might alter the course of history and kill Hitler before he comes to power is an equally powerful possibility.

Yet though this second story - again, foretold in the first few pages of the novel - helps deliver the book's forward tension; it is in Ursula's life and family that Atkinson concentrates our interest. This is a book about the affirmation that a life should be lived, regardless of the bigger stories that can consume many lives. As we move seamlessly between different epochs, Ursula's life becomes more than its fractures and by the Second World War, she becomes one of the many stories of Londoner's battling against the might of the Luftwaffe, either (in one scenario) as an air warden or (in another) as a worker within the ministry. Her love affairs; the relationship with her scatty but lovely aunt Izzy; and the claims on family that periodically draw her back to Fox Corner, are all deftly worked into the tapestry of the novel.

There's an effortlessness about the construction which has always been one of Atkinson's key strengths. The joy of reading her is not in the withholding of what to come, but in the guessing what will come next. Her Brody novels frequently didn't need much working out; but the pleasure was in the way she engages us in her characters. She remains one of our best writers about people, and it seems to me that it is in many ways a more successfull book than, for instance, the similarly scaled "The Strangers Child." Always a joy to read, in "Life After Life" we're pleased to re-encounter the bigger canvasses of her early novels, for enjoyable as her detective stories were, the demands of the genre always seemed to hem her in a little. In "Life after Life" she is gloriously unhemmed. I knew from the structure that it was worth waiting till I had a good long period to read this long novel, and I was right to wallow in it. The multiple starts and endings work best when encountered in quick succession and I think the book would lose some of its power if read slowly or over a long period. So engaging is it that you'll not want to put it down anyway.

The only part of the book I had my reservations about was the one story that dominates at the centre - which I wonder whether was the starting point for the novel. For at the heart of "Life after Life" is another novel set in the days of the London Blitz. She writes well on this; her stories are very human ones, so well have we got to know Ursula, but so familiar is the British story here - from sitcoms to novels set in and around the war - that we don't really get anything new. Its a period that invites cliche, even when, as here, the characters are so well-formed, and the stories so believable. For the war has within it a million tragedies. In this context we see that Ursula's multiple endings are as nothing to the randomness of a bomb falling at a particular time and place. We are all survivors of our own lives, and that survival is what makes us human - we learn from our mistakes - but what of those who are cut short by their mistakes or worse, the grander mistakes of history?

As the last memories of the Second World War fades, it becomes history, a place for imagining, rather than one for remembering. For me it was the least successful part of the novel, not because its badly written or uninteresting, but because its a story that's been told in so many ways. Like in other alternate histories, Atkinson has found an ingenuity in retelling the story, but is interested in a single life - that of Ursula - and what might become of it through life's many twists and turns rather than the reshaping of world histories.

Its something of a tour de force, but eminently readable - that reminds us that over a writing career of nearly two decades, Atkinson has rarely failed to disappoint. A lovely, powerful, inventive novel that I'd highly recommend.

Saturday, May 04, 2013

Golden Ages exist alongside Humdrum Times

Asked on twitter whether we'd know if we were living through a golden age....

I was thinking about this with all the Thatcher-fanfare. I grew up with a wealth of cultural opportunities - I really did. NME, Melody Maker, Sounds and Record Mirror competed for my attention (lets not forget Smash Hits, Flexipop and Zig Zag among others). Post-punk, goth, new wave, new romantic, electro, rap, reggae, NWOBHM, industrial... a whole load of musical genres spoke of the fluidity of the age. This wasn't the downbeat message of Tory Britain or the legacy of the late 70s, this was a newness. I didn't think it was a golden age at the time, because I just assumed that there would always be that excitement...

Similarly, in film and TV: we had the launch of C4, and whole new strands of programming as a result, as well as the home video, which allowed us to sample all kinds of films, and record our favourite programmes for relistening. The 4-track recorder put recording tools in my 18 year old hands; and if we computing was still nascent, the iconography of the video game was already well established, so that TV shows like Max Headroom and Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy seemed genuinely now.  In fiction, not only Douglas Adams, but Iain Banks was creating a contemporary narrative that appealed. Stephen King was still at his best ("Christine", "Pet Sematary", "The Body"), and his earlier books were widely available. "Money" "Blood and Guts in High School" and "Cities of the Red Night" and "The Place of Dead Roads" came out just before I started University and I would read these classics not long after their publication.

I think the early 80s was a bit of a golden age - the explosion of creativity that came with punk leading to many different things - and new technology, from VHS to 4-track to early computers and affordable synthesizers bringing culture (and counter culture) even into a small art-free village twenty miles from Birmingham. None of this, of course, was helped by Thatcher or the Tories, much of it - low art, I guess - antithetical to their view of things. Or maybe, everyone's late teens is a golden age?

Did I at the time know it was a golden age? I don't think so - and, here's the rub, I was very much a consumer of it, rather than an active participant. There wasn't a lot of space in my University or in the wider world for suburban teenagers who thought they could write a bit. You had to be American or in London or in a whole different millieu to "make it." I scrubbed a way at fanzines and college magazines, at 4-track recordings, and handwritten poems, but without, I have to say, much in the way of a peer group.

That's what interests me about now - for if I said there's a clear distinction between the arts of then and now its that the internet in particular, but also the rise in participatory arts, has enabled a lot of writers, artists, musicians to go beyond their group of friends and put things out more publicly. Ironically, at the same time that this is happening, the mainstream media (and mainstream institutions: bookshops, HMV, universities) pretty much ignores what's going on. DIY culture may have begun as a web-infused space, but its now happening at a "pop up" near you. These scenes are rarely "public" because the one thing they haven't got is a marketing and publicity budget. It is word-of-mouth, or the networking of individuals that draws people in. But this is only as it should be. Kenneth Branagh in Macbeth may be the big sell at this year's Manchester International Festival, but its grassroots stuff such as the 247 Festival that surely create the cultural vibrancy...and if not leading to the next Shakespeare, may at least provide an opportunity on which the next Branagh can cut their teeth.

A "golden age" probably needs audience as well as practitioners - and perhaps, those few individuals who lift or get lifted above the scene which spawned them. That's yet to happen I think. Mainstream still looks to Oxbridge before it looks to the 3 Minute Theatre in Afflecks palace for instance. Chris McCabe's "Shad Thames, Broken Wharf"  or Lars Ilyer's "Spurious" seem to me to have a better chance of being talked about in a decade than more mainstream works.  Had we been going to literary nights in the Bowery with Kathy Acker and Dennis Johnson in the late seventies; fetching up at CBGBs to see Blondie and Television, would we have known that this was the golden age?

And I'm biased here of course: the literary works are odd things - happening in the oddest of places. "Scenes" are more closely allied with music or film - where you need different people to gather together. Yet there's something else as well, and this is perhaps where we are falling short, or yet to make the mark. There are plenty of good, competent books, plenty of nicely written short stories - but I'm not seeing that much in the way of the innovative, or the unusual. A "scene" has the advantage of drawing people in - even those outsiders whose work doesn't fit a prevailing mode - but it can also create a flattening; a desire to please, hoping for laughter, hoping for applause.

Artistically, I think these are good times, but there's still tinder here waiting for a spark - nostalgia too often rules - the old institutions are a bit impervious as ever, and nobody's got the money to build new ones; the audience is ourselves, and needs to be widened. Golden ages exist alongside humdrum times after all, and its not always easy to see where the one finishes and the other begins.