Friday, December 30, 2016

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

 Tried to keep spoilers to a minimum - but some aspects from the start of the novel and some of the broader scenes and themes are discussed. 

"Station Eleven" may be the least dystopian dystopian novel you'll ever read. Switching between the collapse - caused by the "Georgia flu" which quickly and without ceremony wipes out 99% of the population in 24 hours - and twenty years afterwards, when a sort of new normality has evolved, the novel owes more to contemporary fantasias such as A.M. Homes' "This Book Can Save Your Life" or Douglas Coupland's "Girlfriend in a Coma" than "The Road" for instance.

The book begins in the place of connection - with a performance of King Lear taking place in Toronto, with the lead actor, a fading Hollywood star revisiting the boards in his favourite city. This will be Arthur Leander's last performance. He will literally die on stage, despite the best efforts of a paparazzi turned medic in the front row. It turns out Leander's will be the last natural death before the tsunami of the Georgia flu envelopes the city. Like all "collapse" novels, there's a certain fun to be had in the slow, then fast breakdown of the normal norms. From a panicked phone call from an emergency ward to all phones being dead takes a matter of days. The medic, Jeevan, holes up with his disabled brother and enough tinned food and water to survive the first few weeks of the catastrophe. The catastrophe itself is never explained (another common trope) though the sense of it being a "visitation" is taken up by at least one of the characters, a shadowy Preacher, whose "cult" threatens what stability has been built up in the desolate future.

The future has hope of different sorts. The devastated North American population has decamped into small settlements away from the rotting cities, and returned to a settlers life, of hunting and farming, small groups of people able to fend for themselves. The sense that there was much darkness and terror - the on the road fear that permeates every page of  "The Road"  - is there, but it is underplayed. St. John Mandel has a different schematic in mind. There is the Travelling Symphony, a ragbag of Shakespearean players and musicians which moves from settlement to settlement like the circus of times past. It provides a home and a cover for its participants, one of whom, Kirstin, was a little girl in that King Lear performance twenty years earlier.

More similar to Hollywood disaster movies than other catastrophe fiction, Station Eleven revolves around a small group of characters who are wittingly or unwittingly connected to Leander: a comic book "Station Eleven" written by his ex-wife Miranda; his best and oldest friend Clark; the little girl; his second wife Elizabeth and her traumatised son Tyler....

The novelist slips in and out of the pre-collapse era and the "present" of the novel with abandon. In many ways the Travelling Symphony allows her to play with a picaresque approach - no surprise, that Patrick deWitt, of "The Sisters Brothers" eulogises about it on the cover - but at the same time the scenes which are the most vivid are the ones about Leander and his life before the collapse. Coming from a small island off the Canadian coast, struggling in the big city of Toronto before becoming an international, worldwide star, he's an unlikely hero - and indeed he's dead before the future has even began. The reason it reminds me of the A.M. Homes novels is this sense of tenuous connection - of a group of people whose lives are suddenly affected by an experience.

In many ways its a chaotic novel that shouldn't really work: the strands pulling it together, the oddly elusive Station Eleven comic (whose author we hardly get to know or understand), the idea of the Travelling Symphony, the sinister cult, the settlement of people at the abandoned airport, that performance of "King Lear", all of these elements are thrown into a mix, like a particularly unappetising stew, but somehow St. John Mandel manages to pull them all together. There's a sheer likeability about the prose - like fellow Canadian Coupland - but also a sense that she's not taking any of this too seriously, but merely wanting to take us on a ride. In some ways its a bit of a hall of mirrors. The airport destination is only mysterious when we don't know about it - when we are told the backstory it becomes a benign haven; whilst the cult seem to be there to provide a little bit of tension, an antidote to the hopefulness of the Travelling Symphony. Like David Mitchell in "Cloud Atlas" she is wanting to give us a sense of hope and connectivity - of a world that might have lapsed to a pre-modern state - but also gives us hope. "Station Eleven" is a bit of a conundrum: its the novel's title and a piece of ephemera that somehow connects the individual characters - yet it doesn't have quite the overarching power of Will Self's "Book of Dave" in the novel of the same name. Described in some detail, its a graphic novel about a society that has escaped from the earth on "Station Eleven" - a metaphor for the oncoming collapse, perhaps, but never really explored as more than that. In the end I had to conclude it was just the author having a little bit of fun - if you're not a graphic novelist, why not write one in the context of your fiction?

There is little here about "how" people survive - little of the jeopardy of those early days and years - and also an unwillingness to really think through that only after twenty years are we beginning to see the possibility of electricity being restored again. It is the author's fourth novel, and the dystopian trope proves a useful one for her inventiveness. It's highly readable, a great word of mouth success, and with a lightness of touch that makes me want to read more of her; if it lacks a greater profundity, then perhaps that's more our expectations with any novel that is post-catastrophe, rather than any great failing of it in and of itself.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Mild December

Its been an unusually mild December, so no festive frost, not even the usual seasonal sludge and rain. Perhaps that's why I feel particularly unfestive. I finished work yesterday, realising I needed at least a day or two before catching up with family, and I feel like I'm in some sort of fog. I think that's the 2016 blues for you. Although its personally been an okay year, that's through hard work,  gut determination and throwing off those ever-present shackles of self-doubt; approaching fifty, I guess one doubles ones efforts. But with the rest of the world reeling from celebrity artistic deaths like Bowie and Prince, followed by the dismal step backward of Brexit, and then the cataclysm of Trump as American President at the same time as the Cold War starts heating up again, and Aleppo becomes a tragedy of our times, its hard to uncouple one's own slings and arrows from the general malaise.

I marvel at how many people I know have managed to move on in their lives and their art, either through change of job, place, career or relationship - sometimes all four - whilst my life seems wilfully static, coming into a fifteenth year at the same employer, around a decade in my rental... creatively it's been hard to fit things in - I've written, more music than prose, more short pieces that long, but its been a year of failure in the wider sense - of pieces failing to find a home etc. My reluctance to spend more time on my writing comes from the difficulty of getting anywhere with it. Funnily enough, I've been more stoic than ever about my position as a "writer" and despite what Morrissey once said, I like it when my friends become successful.

This week I've heard of an old school colleague who passed away - the best sportsman in the school, as well - and of friends coming to terms with medical problems. Lucky then to have the first world problems, of too busy a life, of wondering what to do next... and yet, I do think there's something in the zeitgeist that creates an morphic resonance at times, so that we act as if under a dark cloud. Most of my life has been under Tory governments, and the ultimate puzzle for me has been the lack of optimism they engender. They never build anything, make anything, create anything or inspire anything, and yet the British like them in their times of grumbling.

Not an end of the year piece - that will come - more a taking stock as I settle down for the Christmas festivities. Out with a friend last night, we talked about Christmas traditions, and how all families have their own, and the sticking to them is what counts, even as they change subtley over the years. Our Christmas gets stretched out these days, with my sister usually visiting the family on Boxing day, so leaving me and my parents for a quiet Christmas together. Maybe I should go back to those old traditions, when I used to scour the Radio Times for what films would be on, and diligently watch the Marx Brothers or Woody Allen seasons on BBC2 or Channel 4. I've seen just about everyone in Manchester this last couple of weeks; and managed to make it down to London to catch friends there as well, so in some ways, I'm now ready for a bit of quiet time - and family time.

It's still mild, so I hardly need the heating on, but will enjoy a quiet night in this evening, hunting presents that I bought a couple of months ago and hid somewhere in the flat. My out-of-office is on at work, and I'll not be checking it till the New Year; I'm tempted to close down my Facebook and switch off my mobile as well. Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas, every one.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Last Non-festive Post of 2016

As it's December tomorrow even the reluctant Christmassers like myself will probably have to succumb to gluwein, advent calendars, Best of the Year lists etc.


Which means there's been plenty else going on, with no baubles attached. Manchester has two fascinating large art shows, (and one fascinating small one) at the moment. The small one, Miniature World at Castlefield Gallery looks at the idea of the scientific amateur, running from Lubetkin's London Zoo penguin pool, to the recreation of a black hole, to recreated battles using models from Games Workshop, its playful, subversive and a full gallery group show to return to. Artist's Rooms - Andy Warhol at the Whitworth and a curated photography show, Strange and Familiar - Britain through the eyes of international photographers, at Manchester Art Gallery, bring two things - Warhol and photography - that are relatively scarcely seen in Manchester's main galleries.

I'm pleased that after my "fallow year" where I've not managed to get much published at all, I'm in a new anthology, "Not a Drop", which contains poems in tribute to the world's seas. Its not yet available to buy, but hopefully will be on the Beautiful Dragons website soon. The recent launch at the Portico was well attended and excellent.

I've recently been part of a collaborative process of "spontaneous writing", l'Harmonie Process, curated by Zoe at Confingo Magazine, the first anonymised parts of this work are now up online. The latest issue contains a new story by the excellent David Rose, whose "Posthumous Stories" was a highlight a few years ago, and is, I think, his first new story since that collection. I read a draft of the story and I'll be pleased to see it in print. Issue 6 is now available to purchase online (a bargain £5) or in selected stockists. Serious writers and readers should take note.

Beyond such things, there's been a usual mix of literary nights, tonight is Bad Language for those in town (its my week off, so staying local), and next Wednesday is the Other Room - both at the Castle.

Non-fiction for once, but my friend Nigel Barlow has been working on a book about Manchester's history for the last few years, "Around Manchester" and I saw a copy this week. It's an  impressive size book, beautifully produced, and from the bits I read of it, a compelling read - it takes the various areas of Manchester and walks (literally) through their hidden histories. Psychogeography is perhaps part of it, but I think Nigel's take on the city is less over-philosophical, and more in a tradition of social and cultural observation - think Henry James' "English Hours", or even Sebald's "The Rings of Saturn." Its peppered with contemporary photographs of a Manchester that is changing at speed. And since it is nearly December, it would make a perfect Christmas present!

I think I forgot to mention it on this blog - but last week I released, under my Bonbon Experiment alias, the 2nd of my "Test Pressing" E.Ps - five Post-Trump minimalistic electronic songs to download or stream.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Punk's Not Just Smells Funny

The news that Joe Corré , the son of Malcolm Maclaren and Vivienne Westwood has "celebrated" 40 years since the release of "Anarchy in the UK" by burning his inherited punk memorabilia, as a protest against punk becoming celebrated by the establishment, is a reminder, if we needed one that Malcolm Maclaren was always more a Situationist than a punk. He got lucky with the Sex Pistols, having previously managed a later incarnation of the New York Dolls, in that his manufactured band turned out to be the real thing in more ways than one. After Johnny Rotten left the band, Maclaren kept it on the road as a music hall act, with travesties like the "Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle" and "Sid Sings", before moving onto the next big thing. It's fascinating that he abandoned the genuine pop star that was Adam Ant to create his own one in Annabella Lwin of Bow Wow Wow, to much less success; then onto a number of trend-hopping albums, catching the tail of early hip hop with "Buffalo Girls", but then failing to do much with micro-trends on his subsequent albums.

Corré is of course at liberty to burn whatever he wants of his own, but it seems a particularly soulless gesture. Punk was never about artefacts of course, and yet at the same time, it so was. By the late 1970s the London punk was as ubiquitous an image of the city as the Beefeater or the red bus. Real punk music and attitude decamped from Maclaren's King's Road fashion emporium, from the moment "Anarchy in the UK" had made it - on its 3rd attempt - onto vinyl. Corré is, like his mother, in the fashion industry, and though fashion has always been quick to exploit high street trends, Maclaren was at least savvy enough to know that it was music that led fashion not the other way round. It does seem strange than a man whose career has been in fashion, could suddenly get so angry about punk being commodified. His old man was the first to do that, and quickly showed very little interest in the music side of it. Johnny Rotten, of course, became John Lydon, and transformed rock music for a second time with PiL, whose post-punk excursions sound stranger and more relevant the further away we get from the source.

It seems that indeed, those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it, and nostalgic or not, the museum-ifying of punk rock seems a better way for someone to find out about the movement than through listening to latter day "punks" like Green Day, or through wearing hip retro clothing. See any photographs or videos of punks in the provinces from the late 1970s onwards, and you see this was not outsider chic, it was just outsiders. There was, I'm sure, a fashion element to it, and the art sensibility of managers like Maclaren and Anthony H. Wilson certainly helped clothe angry working class music in a suitably alluring mythology, in a way that the American punk wave - from Ramones, to Talking Heads, to Patti Smith - understood implicitly from the start.

This week, the eighties styled pop dilletantes, the 1975 had the NME album of the year, with a sound that is about as far away from punk attitude as you can imagine.  Perhaps a few young, budding pop stars might be just a little inspired by the actual footage and iconography of a punk rock aesthetic that was never intended to last. As I said, Maclaren and Westwood's son can do what he wants, but burning punk memorabilia in a set piece on the Thames, is Situationist, it's a media stunt, it's many things, but it's not in the least bit punk.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Art in a Post-Truth World

The "word" of the year is "Post-Truth". We are truly immersed in the Age of Meta- as I wrote a while back. Post-Trump (only, not coincidentally, two letters different) what has changed?  I guess we're all in some kind of post-truth daze.

Art can be both canary in the coalmine of contemporary thought and, more often, a delayed reaction. The rush to publish that comes after a major event - especially in the West - means that we sometimes get some immediate bad art. Yet, the other thing that happens: some political or social cataclysm makes us look around for the evidence in plain sight. But is there an art of the disaffected? Those left behind by globalisation? The tyranny of the mediated mainstream means that there sometimes seems just one trajectory these days, rather than a series of alternatives. Growing up in the eighties there was a definite alternative to the mainstream, in music especially, which wasn't just a commentary of the times but a rejection of the values of the times. Though it was good that pop stars of that era addressed social issues in their music, I still can't help but think that the plush wine-bar sophistication of the Blow Monkeys or the Style Council wasn't as effective a critique as the more abrasive underground. Social commentary smuggled into clean pop music can end up just being a lost message. If we've seen one thing this dark summer, its that dog whistles have been replaced by just whistles, for all to hear, and clearly.

Pointlessly, perhaps, I'm sure my next musical E.P. will be obliquely or directly in response to our new right wing world. May as well say something whilst we still can.

Elsewhere, art goes on. There's a new show "Miniature World" at Castlefield Gallery which broadens our sense of wonder to embrace the "scientific amateur" - a showed packed with little wonders, its on throughout the rest of the year and into January. It's also Kwong Lee, the director's, last show there as he takes a break and moves on to other things. Tonight there's a celebratory party for his many years of contribution to the Manchester art scene. Its a reminder of the strength of a particular community.

The week's other new show, Artist Rooms: Andy Warhol, at the Whitworth opened yesterday and I missed as I was at a poetry reading myself, as a participant in a new anthology from Beautiful Dragons, "Not a drop", celebrating the world's seas. The "sea" I got to write about is a small strait between Estonia and Finland, and not surprisingly, though written before the Brexit vote, it talks a little about the idea of "Home", and nationalism in a different context. 

Tuesday, November 08, 2016

Just Kids by Patti Smith

For some reason I didn't get round to reading Patti Smith's compelling memoir "Just Kids" when it came out, but sometimes you realise you're reading a book just at the right time, and that's what it felt like picking it up last week. For "Just Kids" is an autobiography of an artist's life - it skips over childhood and family, and stops just before Smith became famous with "Horses." Yet, it's not just an autobiography, but also a biography, of her close friend, lover and artistic other half Robert Mapplethorpe, the radically inventive photographer who's iconic picture of Patti adorns the cover of "Horses."

But all of that is to come. For Smith moves to New York, nearly penniless, but rich in dreams, in the late sixties, having already given up her unexpected baby for adoption - a pregnancy that, still a scandal in those days, put paid to her teaching career. Brought up in a poor, but loving home, her entrance into New York life was at a time when the city was at one of its perennial high points. With Woodstock about to happen up state, and with protests against the Vietnam war dominating the news, it was a city both exciting and impenetrable, and Smith's arrival there was a tough one - until one day she bumped into Mapplethorpe, from a similar background to her, albeit a much stricter Catholic one, and as determined as she was to live an artistic life. Smith's exemplars were poets - Blake, Rimbaud, Verlaine. Whilst Mapplethorpe was more obsessed with the contemporary - particularly Andy Warhol and his real-life artistic Camelot of the Factory. They were lovers, before he realised his own sexuality. Perhaps Smith's own unusual androgyny helped here (Ginsberg would later try and pick her up, thinking her at first to be a very pretty boy.) Yet in Smith's semi-mythic telling, their sexual liaison was only a small part of their love for each other - a love that would continue through their mutual successes, right up to Mapplethorpe's AIDS-related death.

It's a fascinating portrait of a self-willed artistic life. Moving from sleeping on the street and on friends' floors, until they can afford a tiny room, this is a story that only the two of them were privy too. He is an artist making Joseph Cornell-like installations whilst she is both artist and poet. Her poetry heroes are mostly the dead - most of all Rimbaud - though she finds herself surprised to discover Jim Morrison who is channelling the same ghosts. Her musical hero is Dylan, who makes the words important. After a trip to Paris with her sister (her family are clearly supportive of her, but she hardly lets mention of them intrude on the myth-making) she returns to find Mapplethorpe ill and in a bad state. On an impulse she drags him to the legendary Chelsea Hotel where they are given the smallest room. It is of no matter, however, as here they are suddenly amongst their peers, or those they want to make their peers.

Despite little or no money, this is recounted as a golden time. Surrounded by artistic heroes both Patti and Robert have the time to explore their own art. He is yet to be a photographer, she is yet to be a singer, but in this exquisite telling of that time, you see how the different aspects of both their arts are allowed to chrysalise and grow. After Mapplethorpe finds a boyfriend, they still remain incredibly close, symbiotic in their love and need for each other, even as his darker side draws him to the S&M scenes which will eventually percolate his iconic photography. This is no rags to riches story - they both take longer to make it than either of them thinks - but they are also single minded in their pursuit of art. Her occasional jobs and his hustling are both means to an end. In the febrile environment of early 1970s New York they feel that it is their time, their age - they seem a different timbre from the sixties hippies, harder in some ways, but also more independent. Patti rarely does drugs, whilst Robert will try anything. Their contrasts are part of their symbiosis. Fascinatingly neither of them yet realises what they will become. Rarely have two young people so willed themselves to be artists. He is drawn to the gay demi monde of Warhol's Factory, whilst she finds herself offered opportunities as an actor particularly after she turns her haircut into a Keith Richard's styled mop. Cast as a lesbian in her final play, her director despairs that she isn't really the part that she looks. Smith is indeed something new, as is Mapplethorpe.

Around the Chelsea Hotel, and Max's Kansas City they both get more and more drawn into the world they have looked at from outside. Smith meets Hendrix, Grace Slick, Janis Joplin (for whom she writes a poem), but it is the great poet Gregory Corso who leaves the biggest impression on her. Meanwhile Mapplethorpe becomes closer to the art scene, both in awe of Warhol and jealous of him. As they stop being lovers, they remain friends and confidantes - though Smith worries that the duality of Robert's nature - Catholic boy flirting with the devil - is taking him into places she doesn't understand or want to go. It's fascinating, given her most famous line is "Jesus died for somebody's sins but not mine." No longer his lover, she meets other men - Jim Carroll, also a hustler, and who she appears to be in love with, Sam Shepherd, who writes a play with her then returns to his wife, and Allen Lanier, singer with Blue Oyster Cult, who she meets through Sandy Pearlman - he's their manager, and him and Smith are both writing rock reviews for similar publications. When she finally does a performance its supporting Corso at St. Mark's poetry project and she shocks the place by being accompanied by Lenny Kaye's guitar. It's a sensation - that leads to her first poetry collection - but it's also planned to be. Patti and Robert have been observing fame for so long that they understand its mechanics and when the right moment comes are ready to pounce on it. In a rare moment of self-criticism Smith admonishes herself for not thanking Corso and Robert who helped her put the night on.

Smith is a wonderful guide through these times, detailed, mesmeric, and she writes like an angel. But its a compelling story. Only now and then do you reflect how much of a story it is - the details of the life blur what might have actually happened - this is Smith's telling of it, a mythic tale to join the mythic tales of her heroes. It is this sense of an artistic destiny, and the importance of creating a framework in which her and Robert have willed themselves into being artists, which is so great about the book. You put the book down wanting to time travel to NYC in 1970. Like many good writers Smith is a clever observer of the world she was walking through - of course, more than many others, she became a participant in something bigger - her debut album in 1975 was proclaimed as a masterpiece, but it wouldn't be until "Because the Night" three years later that she'd have a hit. Lanier - her longest relationship after Robert - and Fred Sonic Smith, her later true love and husband, are hardly mentioned as if the importance is to the primal relationship with Robert. It's therefore a partial memoir, I guess, but none the worse for that. At the end she says that only her and Robert knew this part of the story and with him gone it's her job to tell it.

I'm reminded of other artists, writers and musicians I've known, particularly female ones, who've worked so hard to construct a viable artistic world in which they can thrive, even before success has come. It's as if the first work of the artist is to draw the world that they want to exist - for Smith in 1970 it didn't exist, there were no poet-rock stars, certainly no female ones. She had to create that role, that world. For Mapplethorpe it was the same. His work, once shocking America with its bullwhips and its S&M, is now seen as utterly iconic, a mastering of a unique and highly influential photographic style. I first saw Smith play live in the 1990s, where she hardly touched on her 1970s albums, concentrating on the records that had come out from "Dream of Life" onwards. Similarly I saw a Mapplethorpe show in London, where alongside the pictures of Patti Smith, and the S&M, there were some of his glorious still lifes of flowers. 

"Just Kids" is a brilliant dual biography of two equally important artists, who, not finding a template that would fit their own vision of the world, made something new. This memoir is the story of how they got there.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

The Autumn Rush

It's been a busy couple of weeks. I was in Tampere, "the Manchester of Finland" for a conference the week before last. Missing the Manchester literature festival 2nd week as a result, but I did get  to see a pyro-show, a modern dance troop, a jazz band, a Moomin mural and the world's first cyborg; all of which is suitably Finnish, and part of the reason I always love my trips to that country.

Coming back I recovered just in time to go to Goat, Hookworms and Jane Weaver at Albert Hall, and mid-week caught Heaven 17 playing their debut "Penthouse and Pavement" before morphing into their proto-Mark Ronson act B.E.F. with slightly cheesey turns from Mari Wilson, Glen Matlock ("Pretty Vacant") and that bloke out of the Farm, before Glen Gregory returned to the stage for "Boys Keep Swinging" and the inevitable "Temptation."

My only literary night of the week was at Verbose on Monday in Fallowfield where it was great to see Clare Dean read again - a return showing for Nicholas Royle's "uncanny" short story pamphlet series published by his Nightjar press as single volumes. 

Then it was time for some art again, as the new show at HOME opened on Friday. Rachel Maclean is a young Scottish artist who creates over-the-top grotesque movies, photographs and sculptures all inhabiting a strange Alice through the Looking Glass / Wizard of Oz world that aesthetically seems part Teletubbies, part Hieronymus Bosch. This new show Wot u :-) about? incorporates a new film, Its Whats Inside that Counts, where the somewhat simplistic narrative (People are transfixed by internet celebrity pin up, who gets literally "trolled", as people's addiction to data becomes a metaphor for our inner decay) is made so much more by her tendency to constantly switch the tone, and stretch these ideas through her confident and exuberant film making - with CGI, performance, and Sesame Street-like costumes all combining in a seamless piece of extravagant pop cultural overkill. The large sculptures and photographic collages that you need to walk around to get there are in themselves wonderfully extreme, but its the film where all of this seems to come together and make a kind of nonsensical sense. On a continual loop and across three large screens, the film is well worth the time, and for once, dropping in at any time in the performance is actually designed into the piece's fragmentary narrative. Over the last two years, the mixed-media, overtly filmic, sense of contemporary internet-inspired solipsism has been a constant theme of HOME's opening exhibitions, but Maclean's show seems a culmination of this - perhaps the vision of a single artist providing a welcome unity. Allergic as I sometimes am to slightly non-ironic takes on our current digital self-obession this seemed one of the first times where an artist is embedded enough in the currency of this world to not make it seem like a piece of zeitgeist-pandering. Like Matthew Barney's "Cremaster" there's plenty to enjoy in the spectacle, regardless of what your feelings are about the subject matter. We also popped into Hotspur Press where Richard Shields was showcasing a number of Shining-influenced works in a short-run "Retrospectre" exhibition. A good reminder that its sometimes good to revisit older work by an artist for a different audience.

More art this afternoon, to Islington Mill for a short performance, We Are Resident. This coming week, there's a fundraiser for Jonathan Wilson, a young performance poet, part of Contact's Young Identity, who is going to Nepal with VSO - that's at Solomon Grundy's on Thursday. An event to celebrate Frank O'Hara is a week today at the Royal Exchange.

Plenty of regular literary nights as well - including some Halloween specials - and I'm looking forward to this Small Press Symposium the Saturday after next.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

The Return of the Mid-list.

Paul Beatty's winning this year's Booker Prize for "The Sellout" - a 2nd triumph in two years for Oneworld Publishing - seems to highlight a few other trends. The idea of an A-list of authors - or literary celebrities - has long seemed out of date. In the UK there hasn't been another "generation" with the same clout as the Amis-Barnes-McEwan one, and it seems that authors with big books - e.g. David Mitchell with "Cloud Atlas" - haven't necessarily become the cultural arbiters in our less cerebral age. In the US, the big advance, the first novelist, the blockbuster writer of the American epic still exists of course, its part of the culture. Yet with big names such as DeLillo and Roth and Atwood and Morrison still around, its not as if the culture hasn't its peacocks.

Yet in the real world of publishing, its instructive to think of those writers toiling away - what used to be called "the mid-list" - with the support from a small, loyal readership, and a diligent and supportive editor and agent.... the mid-list had seemingly disappeared as publishing houses made all their money on the blockbuster hit, and put their money on the wunderkind debutant. Yet looking at Booker winners over the last few years, its the mid-list, coming up to speed with their second, third or - in Beatty's case - fourth book, that have been the recent winners. The brilliant debut is rarer than the myth it seems - and likely to be a bildungsroman rather than the more ambitious novels of early or mid-career. Interestingly, Beatty is far from being an ingenue - his first novel published in the mid-1990s, and they've come out with sluggish infrequency since. Notably his publishers have tended to change with each book, usually a sign that the books have been hard fought for.

Not since Adiga's "The White Tiger" in 2008 has a debut won the Booker, though writers like Catton and James almost appeared to be debutants. Its a reminder that rather than being the long-term achievement award it is sometimes criticised for beinng, the Booker is actually quite obliging in supporting the mid-list, and therefore supporting literary culture in general. It makes it a bit deaf to iconoclastic debuts or writers, more akin to the BBC Sports Personality of the Year, awarding to a writer who has reached a certain career peak. Mantel of course was the archetypal mid-lister before "Wolf Hall" made her a literary superstar.

It's 3 years into the Booker's internationalism, and true to form, its shortlists and longlists have tended to a third British, a third American, a third other. That means its now 4 years since there was a British winner of Britain's primary book award. Its always been an odd beast, of course, British publishing embracing non-British writers such as Lessing and Rushdie as its own, and there's always the ambiguity of the literary Irish of course. Beatty seems to have won - in  a year after "Citizen" and at the tag end of Obama's presidency - with an on-point novel about America's contemporary crisis, so doesn't, in retrospect, seem so much of a surprise. The Booker usually prizes readability, even when a more experimental novel wins, so its interesting reading that its a difficult book - but also a satire, the first to win since "The Finkler Question" then.

As ever the BBC's live coverage - squeezed into half an hour on BBC news channel - was appalling, and makes me wonder why when a baking show can have spin offs, or Glastonbury be broadcast in its entirety, why they can't or won't make more of the Booker. That's our literary culture of course. For Beatty, who gave a humble, emotional speech, this will be a big profile raiser, for the rest of the short and longlist there have been sales boosts. The prize culture moves on. Next stop the Nobel awards - lets see if Dylan turns up. 

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Oh Dylan!

In an age of Newsthump and Dailymash its hard not to think the Nobel literature prize committee wasn't essentially "trolling" the world with news that, having ignored the cream of American literature for decades, it was finally giving its laureate to that... (song) writer Bob Dylan.

Nobel has history here of course, it has honoured Sartre and Churchill. Literature in Nobel terms means writing, in whatever format, and I suspect the Dylan laureate is partly to recognise that. It gives the sense that for a certain generation (mostly in their fifties and sixties now - are the judges younger?) - that a good attempt at songwriting in 1962-7 is the be all and end all of popular song, and firmly puts literature in its place -  as this is not about the best "writing" but about something else entirely. Maybe the Nobel judges want to meet the enigmatic Dylan? Though, God knows why.

Dylan is, don't get me wrong, sui generis, and in many ways, as well as those wonderful sixties tunes, it is the longevity of his relevance that matters. It's a massive category error giving him this prize however. He needed lyrical help in his mid-seventies purple period, has been identified time and again as a great magpie when it comes to the actual words he uses, picking (and stealing) from history, and it's wonderfully quixotic of Nobel to give a prize for writing to someone whose last two albums have been cover versions of standards, rather than his own songs.

I should probably write about my own Dylan experience some day - but one can't help but think that this award is just Nobel accepting its own absurdity, looking to get some headlines, and cooking a snook at the American literary firmament which it has never acknowledged: no Ashbery, no Roth, no DeLillo. But oh, Dylan!

Saturday, October 08, 2016

Nostalgia's False Memory Syndrome

Imagine seeing Patti Smith in 1978. Here she was at the height of her powers, her third album "Easter" about to drop, rather than swimming against the tide, she'd been the first wave on the punk shore with "Horses" and now she was an elder stateswoman of the movement. She'd even had a genuine hit with her version of Springsteen's "Because the Night." I guess a contemporary retelling of a concert from that period would cherry pick those first three albums, and create a kind of Greatest Hits set. We'd have "Land" and "Gloria" and "Pissing in the River" and "Kimberley" and "Rock and Roll Nigger" and "Free Money" and "Aint it Strange." I've been listening to "Easter Rising" an American radio broadcast from 1978 which - with a change to the law a few years back - is one of many semi-official releases from a wide range of artists which you can now get. It's a fantastic visceral performance and I highly recommend it. However, this is an unedited show, not an "official live album." There are just three tracks from "Horses", though a rampant "Gloria" is one of them, and nothing from difficult sophomore album "Radio Ethiopia." There's a blistering "Babelogue/Rock and Roll Nigger" to start the set, preceded by a rambling, powerful recitation "The Salvation of Rock." There's plenty of the new album, but there's also thrown away cover versions - "The Kids are Alright", "Be my Baby" - again not unusual for bar bands of the period (and of any period.)  Some of the new songs - probably written during endless touring - such as "Space Monkey", aren't going to be career highlights. There's much intersong conversation, a reminder that this live show evolved from the spoken word shows with which she began her career, and a couple of times she hands over the mic to the boys in the band. Mostly she's in rich, powerful voice, but the covers in particular seem thrown away, party songs to pad out the set or give (and us) all a breather from the harsher songs that make it onto record.

I used to buy bootleg tapes back in the day, mostly as souvenirs of gigs I'd been to - but occasionally to hear a band live I'd not seen. I've a stunning Dream Syndicate set from the early 1980s that surpasses their own excellent live album "Live at Raji's", peppered with cover versions, obscure b-sides, extended jams. This is the live band on fire. If you go to concerts these days you realise how processed the experience can be. You know from Twitter what time the band goes on stage, and from the venue curfew what time they come off. will tell you what they played last night. A set is carefully crafted, as audiences want a known thing. Usually it will be the new album with a few choice cuts from the last one. Surprises are few and far between. Go and see a new band and the set will evolve towards a debut album that bit by bit cuts out the chaff, yet its sometimes the chaff that makes the live show a different experience. It's probably why writers rarely mention gigs in their novels. It's hard to nail down the actual experience with the cliche.

Last week I watched a film I'd been meaning to for a long while, the German movie The Baader-Meinhoff Complex. My first memory outside of family life is sitting up in my parents bed and reading the newspaper or hearing the radio and asking my dad why anyone would want to murder athletes. This would have been 1972 - when the Red Army Faction murdered Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics. The film is taken from a book, that is seen as the best account yet of the R.A.F. One of a wide range of revolutionary groups that grew out of the student protest of 1968 across Europe and America, like ETA or the I.R.A., this wave of violent protest continued through the seventies and later. Yet if the aims of some groups is explicit - a United Ireland - the Red Army Faction were anything but. An outpouring of anger from a younger generation, drawn to revolutionary struggle, seeing Vietnam, Algeria and (particularly) the occupation of Palestine as part of a long-scale war between elites and the people, frequently from middle class families whose parents had been part of the Nazi administration or infrastructure, the R.A.F. appear, from this distance, as unknowable. Besides the moral ambiguities (not so ambiguous perhaps: most of the people killed by their actions were bit part players, collateral damage; though they also undertook political assassination), there's a sense that as a group involved in armed and violent struggle, rather than seeking a political solution, that they would now be uneqivocally called "terrorists." The film is reasonably good on these complexities. Whereas Baader is part petty-criminal, part revolutionary idealist in the Che Guevera mould, Meinhoff was a successful left wing journalist before she made the transition from reporting on the struggle to being an active part in it. She's a fascinating character, who gave up her children for the good of the "cause", who provided both an intellectual heft to the R.A.F.s pronouncements, but allegedly - as older than the others and with a different background - became increasingly isolated as the movement, driven underground, but supported by sympathisers, continued to terrorise. The deaths of Meinhoff, then Baader, Ensslin and Moller, in jail whilst on trial, the latter three in an apparently coordinated suicide, brought the story to some sort of closure, but what struck me about the film, and reading about them online, is that this is a piece of relatively recent history where the truth or objective truth has been almost completely erased. We have the facts of the deaths, of the murders - and some writing - but underground movements by their very nature aren't self documenting. (Unlike state terror, which tends to be immensely bureaucratic - hence the millions of words of the Chilcot report.)

For those in West Germany in the 1960s and 1970s, the repeat traumas of the German nation - the defeat of the First World War, the great depression of the 1920s, the rise of Nazism and Hitler, the militarisation of society during the Second World War, the defeat in 1945, the exposure of the Holocaust, and then the partition of the country and finally the building of the Berlin Wall - must have somehow seemed to be continuing with Baader-Meinhoff. The terrorist cell has power by being "anywhere" - a mass movement like a ghost. With the Cold War at its height, the increasing statism within the East, the sense that a revolutionary movement was everywhere amongst an alienated youth in the West must have created a strange sense of angst. As fascinating as the film was - I felt like I'd opened up a whole world of different questions - some of which remain today: e.g. the anti-semitism of the R.A.F., how did that fit in with their reaction against the Nazis? And also to what extent does state power control the narrative of history? Can we go back and imagine what its like to be in that time, in that place? Of course we can try, but we are different people. Looking around us, the petri dish that creates our choices is so different than for a previous generations... the circumstances are difference.

Nostalgia is different than an awareness of the past, I think its when that past is filtered, curated, and looked through with the lens of the present. Historians know the importance of contemporary sources; but also we see how "those who were there" can distort through contemporary lenses. Patti Smith has told elements of her own early story in "Just Kids" - we use these retrospective testimonies to uncover a version of the past; for the past doesn't exist at the time - for our present is never aware of it's future self - and therefore all looking back is nostalgic in some way, because the exact place and time can't be recreated. When we do this for legal reasons - e.g. the Hillsborough inquiry - or for artistic ones, "Wolf Hall", Jeremy Dellar's "Battle of Orgreave", there's a sense of isolating the incident, drawing a line around it. My testimony of Hillsborough is not an important one in itself. (I switched on the TV to watch the match and the terrible event was unfolding on camera...) But when you were there, you can at least remember something of the context of the times - if not what you were wearing, what you were listening to, what your day to day was.... nostalgia's false memory syndrome is where it discounts our own tangential testimonies, and replaces them with a shared myth. History - and official versioning of the past - has to somehow uncover what happened, even when that was deliberately not documented. I wonder, in this age of the quantified self, whether we will have a quantified space and time, as well, where a recreation of life through digital media can be made to some extent. The past is always a construct, perhaps we are for the first time building it as we go.

Saturday, October 01, 2016

The Season to be Literary...and Arty...and Musical

I haven't had a pause.

Nine days ago it was the "Buy Art Fair" and "Manchester Contemporary" at Granada Studios. I went along to the launch on the Thursday night. A wide range of contemporary galleries from the commercial end in the "Buy Art Fair" and the more artist led in "Manchester Contemporary" showcased their work in the annual show. The two sections felt more integrated than before - rather than the latter being seen as specialist and I think it probably helps broker the gap between the two. Spending much of my year aware of how uncommercially minded art can be, it's good to occasionally remember that many painters and other artists do need to sell their work to carry on their practice. Like seeing live music, there's never a bad thing having an original rather than a mass produced print on your wall.

Last Saturday it was Poets and Players at the Whitworth Gallery. Pascale Petit was accomplished, a new sequence that read like one long poem, about her mother, but also about belonging and mental health; but Daniel Sluman was revelatory, his confessional poems about disability and love delivered with a confidence to match the lyricism of the words. For once it was the "player" who stole the show for me. Solo violinist Coco Inman, a final year student at Chethams performed some Bach and then, a 20th century showstopper by Eugène Ysaÿe. The violin often has a physicality about it, and Inman moved like a dancer as she performed these challenging and beautifully executed pieces.

The week began with a Bare Fiction magazine showcase at Verbose at Fallow Cafe, packed as ever, and only sorry I had to leave earlier because of an early start. On Tuesday, to Odd bar in the NQ, where a friend, and the co-editor of Confingo Magazine, Zoe Mclean, has a small selection of her photography - inspired by sheet music - hanging. Wednesday was more poetry with Forward shortlisted and Next Gen poets Melissa Lee-Houghton and Luke Kennard performing work from "Sunshine" and "Cain" their brilliant and original new collections from Penned in the Margins. It would have been nice to have seen a larger crowd, and I was struck that despite Manchester being knee deep in poets, there are quite a few who you only see at events where they themselves perform - I'm all for the participatory, but it felt that they missed a good opportunity to see contemporaries at the absolute top of their game. 

After poetry, short stories, with the celebration of ten years of the Edge Hill Short Story Prize - for a best collection - commemorated with a reading at the Portico Library from the accompanying anthology. It's a handsome hardback, and the three readers, Zoe Lambert, Rachel Trezise and Jon McGregor reading in full stories from the book. Earlier in the evening I managed to snatch an hour at the M.A. degree show at MMU School of Art.

This weekend it's artists film weekend at HOME, and I'm sorry I missed the opener, Birdsong, a collaboration by artist/film maker Clara Casian and musician Robin Richards - the latter performing a live score. There's a second opportunity at Stockport Plaza on Thursday. 

The house is a mess, I've loads of personal admin to do, I've not read a book or watched a video in weeks... but it's not a bad city to be in is it?

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Writers & Politics

All writers are political, I think, but I've never thought - until recently - that's its helpful or necessary for writers to be party political. Despite the literary world still being skewed somewhat in favour of wealth and privilege, the nature of the lottery of writing is that writers aren't all that often from the ruling classes, though they frequently have been to the best schools and universities. In my own time, the "right wing" writer has been an, at times, mythical beast. Margaret Thatcher famously chose thriller writer Frederick Forsyth as her favourite; the choice of Ted Hughes ahead of Philip Larkin for poet laureate was a rare time when the leading contenders were - at least notionally - to the right of the political spectrum.  In the 1930s, writers did join the British Communist Party, for reasons of conscience, of solidarity with what was happening in Spain and Germany, and sometimes out of ignorance; but as often as not they would leave the party because of the unfulfillable expectations. Whereas a writer like Orwell could not in good conscience give a free pass to a left that was as murderous as the right, his publisher Victor Gollancz fell out with him over the same dilemma (he had no dilemma, as a publisher - perhaps like right wing media moguls today - he didn't want to risk muddying the waters of his own project.) The Norwegian Knut Hamsun was admired by the Nazis; writers - often Jewish - were one of the main groups cracked down on by Hollywood as a result of appearing before McCarthy and the UnAmerican Activities committee; Ayn Rand and and L. Ron Hubbard turned their ideological works into actual ideologies. On other side of the coin, politicians have frequently written novels, very successfully in the case of Jeffrey Archer and Chris Mullin's "A very British Coup". The magazine Encounter was funded by the CIA as part of cold war propaganda - a story satirised in Ian McEwan's "Sweet Tooth."

McEwan, in an interview reflecting on the Iraq war discussed with his wife that he'd use his influence with Tony Blair - who he knew a little - to contact him somehow and get him to stop the war. Looking back, he marvelled at his hubris. Where writers get involved in politics its often in the local or domestic sphere, and more as a high profile supporter - e.g. J.K. Rowling's support for various causes and political parties - than any direct involvement. I've always wondered about whether its a good thing for a writer to be a member of a political party - for however "liberal" the rules, the reality is that the "narrative" of a political party, wherever on the spectrum is not one that can be interpreted by one individual. Certainly there was a groundswell of support for Tony Blair when he came to power, and in a different time, there seems plenty of writers who are full square behind his ideological opposite Jeremy Corbyn.

I was briefly a paid up member of the Labour party - though I thought of myself more as a supporter - a fellow traveller if you like - than an active member. I'd have been horrified - this was the nineties - if my writing, which has always been broadly on the left, had been picked up as not following a party line. It's perhaps instructive that I left the party around the same time that I was writing a broadly political novel. Having worked in reasonably close proximity to politicians and political ideas for a number of years, I'm more convinced than ever that the probing and ambiguity of good writing, is incompatible with the "single party line" of political activism. This brings us to the current state of the Labour party, the cult of Corbyn, and the irrefutable fact that he's been re-elected yesterday by the membership.

On my Facebook feed there seems a general support for Corbyn from the writers I follow, but in many ways this seems a support for the politics - anti-austerity, anti-war - that are so associated with the brand. My initial reluctance to support the man in 2015 was always his foreign policy stance - particular his anti-Americanism, his past willingness to share platforms with a number of despicable regimes, and his past record in not just opposing bad wars such as Iraq, but any military action such as the intervention in Kosovo. But I'm a writer not an elected politician - appalled as I am by war, I see the geopolitics of the world as a fascinating - perhaps the most fascinating - of subjects. Writers have written about wars in their lifetime, wars they have experienced, wars from history....and imagined wars such as in Evelyn Waugh's satirical "Scoop." It does not make us supporters of them. Even in the genteel drawing rooms of a Jane Austen novel, the barrack room, and the army are a presence. As writers we draw the world as it is, as we see it, as much as how we might want to see it.

In the U.S. Donald Trump is looking ominously electable, and there would, I imagine, be few writers of fiction or poetry who would endorse him. In Philip Roth's "The Plot Against America" he imagines a 1930s where the near fascist aviation hero Charles Lindbergh would have been swept to power providing a right wing government in America as Hitler pillaged Europe. Alternate histories such as "The Man in the High Castle" or "SSGB" are part of the writer's armoury. In the century-sweeping "Life after Life", the justification for the time travelling narrative is partly to answer that most famous "what if...." "what if you could go back in time and murder Hitler."

I've been surprised, fascinated and appalled a little, by the nature of the cult of Corbyn. For me, the mass resignation of Labour MPs, was a direct result of an unexpected trauma - the Brexit result - which saw the Labour party - whose MPs and supporters had predominantly supported the "remain" camp despite that aligning them with Cameron and Osbourne - and partly occasioned by the incompetent and hamfisted approach that Corbyn and his top team had adopted in their reluctant "remain" campaign. It may well have been a coordinated coop, but if so, its "war planning" - that Corbyn would step down if unable to form a full opposition bench - showed a lack of understanding of the man, and to be fair, of his mandate. Even Thatcher went when faced with the mutinous amongst her peers.

Yet in the torturous weeks since Brexit happened, the Tories have defenestrated not only their leader, but apparently the majority of their 2015 manifesto, avoided a bloodletting election by letting Theresa May step nimbly over the political corpses of her rivals, and given us a new, unelected government powering ahead on a mandate that - to leave Europe - which they still haven't managed to define. As a writer I sit there and wonder about the Labour party in opposition. I don't want to be a party activist - but I do want a Labour party to do their job. The difference between me and a Corbyn fan seems to be that they would view the resigning MPs (elected by the public) as not doing his job, whilst I would see Corbyn and his team, whose first year in shadow opposition has been autocratic, vague, uninspiring and more than that, administratively incompetent, as not doing theirs.

So where do we go with writers and the political scene? The left leaning writer has a more conducive political canvas than ever - yet whereas poetry and fiction can often be highly political and politicised, the best work is that which is ambiguous, or which plots the times, or which doesn't just see one side of the argument. Thinking of "GBH" or "Our Friends in the North" those two blistering political pieces - the first reflecting on the chaos of Liverpool under the stand-off between council and government; the second a complex telling of the hollow lies behind so much of the sixties and seventies' political landscape. Both of these, as examples, are aware of the contradictions and messiness of politics, which is best reflected by an art that is equally complex. The simple solutions of writing that toes just a simple political line is surely more propaganda than anything else; yet I wonder if the writer who finds themselves cheerleading too hard, not just for the left vs. right, but for the peculiarly strange accidental leader that is Jeremy Corbyn, risks missing an ability to reflect any kind of truth. Writers have a tendency - in Tony Wilson's words - to print the myth, and we can surely expect a few novels in the next few years that play out the recent political failures of Cameron et al.

I often think I can predict to some degree the "what next" direction of our political or social landscape - a useful forethinking for a writer - but at present, we have two parallel things which seem almost impossible to predict: hard vs soft Brexit for the government and the Tory party; and the popularity amongst activists for Corbyn's non-pragmatic populism, vs. the needs of a centre-left coalition in order to unseat a right wing and ideological government. Though I would never criticise anyone, writer or non writer, for whatever activism they want to follow, I think this might be a time, when I comment less, observe more, and see which way the plot might possibly develop.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

The Beatles and I

When people ask me whether I like the Beatles, I've always said that I grew up with them, so like other memories from childhood they are a welcome memory, even if you eventually grew out of them in adulthood. Of course, you never can quite grow out of the Beatles, at least partly because of the nostalgic music industry putting out new "versions". So after the "Love" album, "Let it Be Naked", the comprehensive remasters, the mono vinyl box, the American albums, "Magical Mystery Tour" deluxe edition.... we now have a new documentary, Ron Howard's awkwardly titled "Eight Days A Week, The Beatles, The Touring Years".

I'm just about the last generation to be contemporaneous with the Beatles, so my pram would no doubt have rocked to the latter day Beatles tunes. I imagine my parents were too busy with their demanding first born to notice "Sgt. Pepper" coming out that summer. Later, when my dad got his first music centre it coincided with the "red" and "blue" albums, and I must have been eight or nine when I used to borrow these and play them in my bedroom on my mum's old record player. Precociously, "A Day in the Life" was my favourite song -  it was only later that I read the various books about the Beatles and got to fill in what is a now familiar story. The other thing I remember is one Christmas where all the Beatles films were shown: so we got "A Hard Day's Night", "Help!", "The Beatles at Shea Stadium", "Yellow Submarine", "Magical Mystery Tour" and "Let it Be", a celluloid alternate history of the band.

On  Thursday, when the new Beatles film premiered, the marketeers cleverly had live streams from the red carpet (actually blue carpet for some reason) event in Leicester Square, where after Edith Bowman and John Bishop interviewed various celebrities and connections. A surprise appearance from Yoko Ono, who we saw embrace with Olivia Harrison, was a prelude for the main course, as Ringo and Paul arrived, looking as boyish and svelte as ever, given their advancing years. It's a reminder that The Beatles is a tightly controlled commercial affair these days  - the days of exploitation by record companies long gone, as the remaining Beatles and the estates of John and George, ensuring that the product is looked after.

The film itself wasn't exactly a revelation in that so many stories of the Beatles are well known, and that footage of Beatlemania, first in the UK and then worldwide, was always the end of their first act - following that tutelage in Hamburg and Liverpool. Stories unveiled in the film, in particular their refusal to play to segregated audiences in "Jacksonville", have been heavily flagged. Yet sat in a full cinema in HOME in Manchester with an audience that went from people in their twenties to their seventies, the sense of participating in something was a very strong one. The film itself rushes by in a beautifully edited homage to the band, that still manages to convey something of the times in which they lived - but this is not a social documentary, or rather the social documentary element is to show the Beatles as they were, as this unheard of phenomenon for which there was no precedent.

From their first headline gigs at places like Manchester ABC (beautifully restored footage), through to their arrival in the U.S. with "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" already number one in the charts, to the later tours where the audiences just kept growing, but the atmosphere was already darkening even before the "Beatles are bigger than Jesus" headlines that - in a sixties version of a Twitter storm - led to burning of Beatles records in the south, this travelogue manages to show how on the one hand  they were just a rock and roll band, but also something else.

I was struck that we are lucky to have the Beatles - that America in particular was lucky to have the Beatles. This Beatlemania, with the screaming girls, the newly liberated teenager suddenly given a voice, could have happened to anyone - but it happened for a tight knit group of four friends from Liverpool, who were polite, charming and funny in press conferences, who went along with the juggernaut that they were part of through the urbane calm of Brian Epstein's management and George Martin's steady production hand. What would happen next: this generation becoming the hippies, the peaceniks, the Vietnam and civil rights protestors was already beginning when the Beatles landed at Idlewild. The signs protesting their haircuts were a first shot in a culture war, that wasn't even acknowledged. I got the sense that "old America" - the tin pan alley world, was more than happy to make money out of the Beatles, believing that they were a product that could be endlessly marketed to this newly wealthy teenage market, and did think there'd be another one along in the minute. What happened in effect was the Beatles provided a turbo charging of history - whereas there was only one Elvis, able to be mainstreamed through Hollywood B movies - there were four Beatles, and they were the eye of this storm - ably supported by a loyal group of friends/employees from their Liverpool days.

The story comes to the end with the chaos of their 1966 tours. The new songs on the reflective "Rubber Soul" are unplayable live, particularly in these studios, where there music is piped through inadequate P.A. systems and it resembles more a giant P.A. than a concert. For a band who by this stage had played over eight hundred times, this led to them using muscle memory to get by. The performances from 1964 and 1965 are incendiary compared with their last ones. Finishing off at the vast Candlestick Park we see the anonymous white van in which they are bundled back to safety - and its easy to believe in the back, as recounted in the film, George saying he wasn't going to do this anymore.

Along the way we see some great footage - a brilliantly raw "I saw her standing there" for instance - plus some "talking heads" who, for once are used appropriately - Sigourney Weaver and Whoopi Goldberg with personal testimonies of going to see them live - and a commentary from the four Beatles, new interviews with Ringo and Paul alongside judicious archive quotes from John and George. The story ends with the coda of the Beatles on the Apple building during "Let it Be." There hair is now regulation hippy. that late sixties Laurel Canyon look and sound as Lennon, vocals on point as ever, sings "Don't Let Me Down," whilst a tiny Yoko Ono is seen in the corner of the shot.
This is not the story of the Beatles, but it is one story of the Beatles, and the flowering of their artistic muse in the studio, let loose by being one of the first bands to give up touring is another story. Yet the Beatles phenomenon required their presence.

In the audience a couple behind me couldn't resist singing along, but not to "Can't Buy Me Love" or "I Feel Fine" but to naff album tracks "Act Naturally" and "Baby's in Black." Had the Beatles just carried on as that kind of countryfied covers band they'd have no doubt made their money, but it was the songwriting unleashed with "Love Me Do", "Please Please Me" and "From Me to You" which made the difference. Hearing them leap straight into "Help!" or "A Hard Day's Night" still gives a jolt - one that even the later material from Pepper onwards never quite achieves in the same way. Their guitar sound is a lovely amalgam of Buddy Holly and Chuck Berry, their vocals owing as much to the Everly Brothers as Elvis. What alchemy made these four people come together (!) in this way at this time? More than the Kinks, the Stones, the Who, the Beach Boys etc. their components seem uniquely complementary to be much more than just a band - but what they would become.

After the credits rolled, newly restored footage of the Shea stadium gig, where they couldn't quite believe the size of the crowd, as they played for a mere thirty minutes. Already they were over. By 1970 they had split, leaving behind an unprecedented back catalogue. None of their solo careers ever came close to what they had been. Lennon's murder destroying any hopes of the band getting back together again. I was 13 by then, a Beatles obsessive at that age though I'd not get any of the actual albums until a few years later when CDs arrived;  Beatles albums being ruinously expensive compared to mid price releases by Bowie or Joni Mitchell. The Beatles Live at the Hollywood Bowl album has been remastered and reissued as a tie-in with the film. Unlike the Stones or Dylan whose long live career is as important as their recordings, the Beatles remain tied to those pristine studio recordings, yet this film reminds us that their initial success came out of four musicians standing up and entertaining their audience. From small clubs, to British theatres, to American arenas to the football stadiums, and then astonishingly to nothing.

Old enough to be have born whilst the Beatles were still operating, but too young to remember, their live career is an enclosed one, witnessed by more people than any gigs previously, but still a relatively small audience - the mix of cover songs and originals from those first five albums is only half of their story - and this film, though it offers up few surprises, brings back to life what it might have been like: there would be greater live bands, but there wouldn't be a greater phenomenon.

Monday, September 05, 2016

The Limits of Talent

Going through some old books I came across "Take 20" the UEA anthology from 1998 edited by Andrew Motion. I applied for the UEA creative writing course initial in 1996 and was told, I think, it was too late, but maybe I should try the following year. I did and got an interview. The course leader at that time was Andrew Motion, soon to be Poet Laureate. I was going there to study fiction, so although he has written novels and biographies as well as poetry, he was an odd choice to be leading the country's most famous writing school.

I leafed through the book and what struck me was firstly, how many obscure names were listed - perhaps in any student anthology that is going to be the case, and also, amongst these a few that stood out as having become famous. When I went for my interview I was the only male amongst a group of female candidates, and whilst we waited to be called I was surprised to find that my own credentials ("shortlisted for the Lichfield Prize.... a few poems and stories in magazines") were pretty poor compared with two of the women, who'd published novels already. The first of these was a genre novelist wanting to study the course to move into literary fiction, the second was a woman called Frances Liardet whose debut novel I bought after the interview from the bookshop on the UEA campus. Liardet - whose debut "The Game" - I thoroughly enjoyed, obviously got on the course, whereas I didn't (Motion had a bad back at the time and was taking strong painkillers, and by the time he saw me, the must have worn off and he was in some discomfort, and I gave a pretty poor interview to a somewhat preoccupied interviewer). Yet the piece of fiction from Liardet here in "Take 20" is the last I heard of her fiction. The second novel "Salt Life" mentioned here, never appeared as far as I can tell, though an Arabic speaker, she also did some translation.

That was 1997 - this came out the following year - and the following names are familiar to me, Trezza Azzopardi, whose debut novel "The Hiding Place" was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2000 (I've not read it, so I wonder if it's "Bar the Rest" the novel extracted from here?), the poets Sarah Corbett and Owen Sheers, and Ashley Stokes who published me years later in "Unthology 4" from his Unthank Books press.

The biographies at the back of the volume are the usual mix of prizes won, works in progress and books about to be coming out - UEA having an enviable success rate. As this was a period before social media, in the early days of the World Wide Web, its perhaps not surprising to read that some writers had fallen by the wayside. Saddest of all, Stephen Foster, a Faber published author, and partner to Azzopardi, drowned in 2011 after being let down by mental health services. 

There are a number of poets in the book alongside Corbett and Sheers and I re-reading them, I was impressed by the work of Stockport-born Joyce Lambert and American Shawn Walker, but I've struggled to find a reference to them on the internet - I wondered what happened to them?

Being UEA its an international anthology. I could have been part of this cohort, if only my interview had gone better. Instead I went to the University of Manchester, a course solely focused at the time on novel writing. We had our own tragedy there at the time, one of my fellow students, taking her own life. The last time I saw her, oddly enough, was on National Poetry Day, when Andrew Motion amongst others was up at Waterstones to read from a new anthology. I got a nod of recognition from him, which was nice. Of my own cohort, several have published novels, most successfully Lee Rourke, but it's taken a bit longer I think.

The people who study on creative writing courses have talent - they are not coming out of nowhere. God only knows how many writers the country can "support" in some way - back then there were less than half a dozen courses in the UK, and Manchester was probably second or third behind UEA in reputation. Now there are hundreds of courses - B.A.s, M.A.s, PhDs in creative writing. I suggested that we could have an anthology in our year at Manchester (I'd seen previous years from UEA) but it was tactfully suggested to me that not everyone on the course was up to scratch. There were only ten or eleven of us so I guess it might have stood out - besides, our job that year was to finish a novel not to get involved in side projects. Cheap publishing and the sense that it behoves students well to prepare something for publication mean that alot of courses now issue anthologies - including my alma mater who launch their latest this Thursday at Anthony Burgess Foundation.

As I struggle still with my own writing, I wonder on the limits of talent - for to get as far as a creative writing course is to get "so far." Literary lives are by their nature more likely to be obscure than famous. A good pub quiz question might be to "name Booker Prize winners" and see how many people would get. Our famous writers aren't always the ones who have written our most famous books. Back then, of course, I suspect nobody on my course (or the one at UEA) took any notice of a first children's novel by someone called J.K. Rowling that came out at that time. I think talent gets you so far - it gets you noticed, maybe - but then again, there are many, many competent writers out there whose "talent" I guess is of a journeyman nature. On the one hand it is what you do with it that matters, on the other hand where it takes you. I'd recommend Liardet's "The Game" for instance, its an excellent coming of age novel, that stayed with me a long time after I read it. On my own course, the first person to be signed to a deal was an exciting writer called Mark Powell who managed two books, "Snap" and "Box", before life got in the way.

In the Premiership each club has an academy churning out exciting young players, but rarely do a crop all flourish at once, or to the same level. The first teams of Manchester United, Manchester City, Arsenal and Chelsea rarely feature more than one or two "home grown" talents. To stand out you have to really stand out - not just be good, but lucky; not just lucky, but hard working; not just hard working but able to do a particular role. Writing is less obviously meritocratic than football - there are still plenty of books published by celebrities for instance. I guess most course tutors will quickly latch on to a writer with "potential" but I suspect that's all it is; though there is something to it - I don't think there will be many suprises about who makes it, maybe more about who doesn't.

And "making it" is a weird term in the context of literature. Being published? Being read? Winning prizes? Yet this is a stupidly niche industry even today. Twenty years seems long for an apprenticeship but as we live longer, as we do our creative work alongside other work, it shouldn't seem that surprising if occasionally it takes that long to get "success" - yet it can work the other way as well. Motion's crop of 1997 would probably not have been particular enhanced by him including me as part of it; whether my own career would have had more of a chance with the contacts and reputation of UEA, who knows? It could easily have gone either way.

Monday, August 29, 2016

The Pyramid by William Golding

William Golding's 6th novel "The Pyramid" (1967) was his most autobiographical. In its three delineated sections the narrator Oliver retells stories from a childhood in a sleepy middle-class English village between the wars, though the date isn't obvious at first, particularly in the first story, and only becomes clearer throughout the novel. Though the stories are distinct, it does function as a novel, for this is the village seen through the prism of the life of one who is due to leave it.  The first story is the most clearly a Bildungsroman, as Oliver, at home at his parents preparing to go up to Oxford, struggles with an unrequited (even unannounced) love for the distant Imogen, already engaged to an older man, and is distracted by the earthier charms of the sexually alluring Evie Babbacombe. In the stratified society of the (aptly named) Stilbourne, both are impossibilities for Oliver. His family, with his father a pharmacist, are a solid middleclass, who strive to be acceptable in the company of the richer members of the village society; whilst Evie, her father the Town Crier, is an impossibility.

The action begins when Evie, who until that moment he has hardly noticed, calls on Oliver to help her out. She has been driven in a stolen car by his more worldly neighbour Robert, and the car has been driven into a ditch - apparently as they let the brake go whilst in the middle of a sexual tryst. The naive Oliver agrees to help and becomes embroiled in the complexities of Evie's life. For she works for the doctor as a receptionist, and in this role he sees her often. Yet Evie, a young girl - just fifteen -  blossoming into womanhood and becoming irresistible to the gaze of various men in the village, is not quite as she appears to Oliver's cloistered view. He can't see past the surface, and having seen that she may be "loose", he becomes obsessed with finding out - and in an uncomfortable scene rapes or sexually assaults her. The novel is all told from Oliver's point of view, and is a sometimes confusing story, as the various strata within the village are hard to contemplate from this distance. "The Pyramid" of the title is - according to a gloss I read online - the class system, but despite young Oliver trying to have a life within the all-seeing village, at the same time as pleasing his class-conscious and puritanical parents, and to arrange his own future as a chemist at Oxford (though part of him wants to follow musical leanings), these nuances seem overwrought in a novel that is written not in the 1920s where it is set, but nearly half a century later. The style is in parts that of a book of that earlier era, and one can't help but think of the cartoon village life of the Professor Branestawm books, or Miss Marple's English villages, where every character is a "somebody" - a doctor, a newspaper editor, a lord mayor or whatever. Yet this sepia tinted writing is not afraid to write about sex in a way that would have been contemporary, yet, because it's Oliver's sensibility, is still frustrating in its reticence.

The first story is the longest and only at the end do we uncover the truth of Evie's story, that it is Oliver who has been the perpetrator here, taking her virginity, but also ruining her reputation in telling tales about her. The young girl has been trying to keep safe in a world where men have become predatory, and had perhaps hoped for good Oliver to help her, but he ends up being responsible for her having to leave the village. The unreliable narrator returns a couple of years later to be co-opted into the village's opera society - an irregular performance that causes much acrimony in the village. Here its less musical or acting talent that enables the cast to assemble, rather their respective social status. A flamboyant, probably gay director has come down to help direct the musical, and Oliver is co-opted in for both his musical ability and to play a couple of walk on roles. This second story is played as farce, and yet with its am-dram theatricality is the least appealing of the stories. It seems corny and cliched, bearing in mind this is writing after Coward, after Orton. The farce is as much off stage as on. The now married Imogen is the lead by virtue of her social position, though we hardly heard of her after the first mention in the first story, and turns out to be unable to sing - a result that has turned the director to drink.

The third story redeems the novel in some ways, though its also perhaps the darkest. Returning to village in 1960 Oliver visits Henry the garage owner who now has a number of enterprises in the village, and finds out that "Bounce" his old violin and piano teacher has passed away. Bounce was mentioned in passing in that earlier story, but here we get the story told from the beginning, from when he first went for lessons aged about ten. The real story is that Bounce, a rich spinster, had the first car in the village, supplied by Henry who had insinuated him into her life, taking advantage of her attraction to him, to give himself a lift up. He brings with him a wife and kids who end up living at Bounce's house, her desire to be near Henry making her a bit of a dupe. Yet for all that, Henry always helps her, out of guilt, perhaps, or out of some filial love. This intrigueing relationship is again seen through our unreliable narrator's eyes, even worse, as a gossipy ten year old, he diligently feeds back inside information to his curtain-tugging mother. Bounce gets old, gets mad, and gets sent away. Her story is a tragedy, and in many ways the book is less about Oliver than about these small tragedies of lives lived within the exigencies of their place and time. Within Stilbourne every nuance is soon made public, and the stifling nature of "society" in a close community is clear, yet the outside world - to which Oliver and Evie both disappear into - and from which the opera director and Henry emerge from - is invisible.

I'd been meaning to read a lesser Golding for a while, but this proved to be a disappointment. Given that he's one of our few Nobel writers, I can think of few novels from that period - it was written in 1967 - that feel so tortuous to read. It's a very dated work even for that time. It inhabits the same world as novels by  Kingsley Amis or Iris Murdoch or Margaret Drabble, but becauses its set in the 1920s it has a horribly quaint feel to it. The middle section is almost unreadable, a dated farce; whilst the opening section appalls more than a little as you realise that our narrator is the perpetrator in his lustful pursuit of misunderstood Evie. The final section, with its particular tragedy, is by some distance the best part, but even here, there's a sense of a private conversation ongoing. Clearly the work was an important one for Golding to get out of his system, but half a century on, it feels not so much a minor work by a great novelist, but a novel that makes one question whether beyond the originality of "Lord of the Flies" and "The Inheritors" he deserves to be remembered at all, and I wonder if he's one of those novelists that outside of that still popular debut, anyone still reads him? 

Friday, August 26, 2016

Return to Mid-Wales

I spent most of my family holidays in Wales. We went from caravans in Borth to a chalet at the "Happy Valley" park just outside of Tywyn, and later a holiday home further north in Llandudno. Yet despite - or because - of this I don't think I've been back to the Welsh coast since I left home at 18. So this week I decided to make amends and catch the train to Aberystwyth and stay there for a few days as a base. Not driving, I was reliant on trains and had discovered the "Explore Wales Pass" which gives you "four days in eight" of travel for £69, starting as far east as Crewe.

Aberystwyth is a university town, and the beach is purely utilitarian, a small pebbly space. Yet its a lovely small town, which seems somewhat uncorrupted by the times, despite the inevitable (and welcome) 24-hour Spar and Cafe Nero amongst the local shops. There's plenty to do there, from a vertical cliff railway, to the nicely landscaped castle remains looking out onto the bay, to the imposing National Library of Wales which I got to just before closing time on a grey Monday. Here there was a fine exhibition by Aled Rhys Jones in response to the poetry of David Jones' "In Parenthesis" his modernist classic account of the battle of Mametz where 4,000 Welsh infantry died in the Great War.

An early start on Tuesday took me along the River Dyfi towards Tywyn, the seaside town we'd spent so many years at. My plan, on a lovely day, was to catch the Tallylyn Railway up to Dolgoch falls. The light railway I'd not been on for best part of 40 years, but as the oldest volunteer maintained one in Britain its been taking passengers up the valley towards Snowdonia since the 1860s. Amusingly for me, the air was full of Brummy and Black Country accents, a reminder that this part of Wales has a longstanding affinity with the part of the country I'm from. Speaking to my mum afterwards she mentioned several friends who had caravans or cottages on this coast line. Tywyn was always the sleepiest of towns and we'd usually go down the coast to Aberdyfi for the beach, or given our propensity for holidaying in the wettest weak of the year, we'd find a castle or a market town to drive to.

Aberystwyth was a good place to stay, but not as convenient for the west coast train line which runs on a single track for long stretches, and where there are no local trains just the nearly two-hourly trains from Birmingham and Shrewsbury which split into two at Machynlleth before going on to Aberystwyth or Pwllheli. I stopped off at Machynlleth, by friend Amy having tipped me off as it being a good town for a books. Sure enough I picked up a couple whilst waiting to change trains.

On Wednesday I decided to go as far up the coast as I could find time for - and stopped off first in Barmouth and then at Harlech Castle. Arriving at Barmouth around ten, the beach was still uncolonised, a glorious expanse of sand that takes ten minutes from prom to sea. Passing the fun fair and the donkey rides you come round the corner to a secluded harbour, where kids are crabbing, small boats are available for hire, and the distinct smell of seafood emanates from the cafes and restaurants. The old town is lovely, a couple of snaking roads, where old churches and chapels have been turned into antiques shops, and little cafes have set up every few yards.

Harlech, half an hour further north, see the train passing past numerous little "settlements" where a clump of holiday homes or static caravans are next to their own private stub of beach. By Harlech, you've come in land a little, as the rock escarpment on which it is based, has been colonised as the sea has pushed back a little. The castle itself is of course a wonder. It took just six years to build, in the 13th century, at an astronomic cost, and has survived numerous sieges in the centuries since. It struck me that a castle is the medieval equivalent of a nuclear deterrent, it has very little military use, but is a sign of geopolitical power. For a castle's strength - as a secure place overlooking the land it controls - is also its weakness - for when a castle's rulers have had to retreat to their battlements surely the fight is as good as lost? At various times the castle has passed between hands, from Norman-English to Welsh custodians. Now, of course, it has world heritage status, and a lovely visitor's centre. The walk up from the station was a steep one. At the top of the building, much to my surprise, I heard my name spoken, and there were two friends from Manchester with their family, as equally surprised to find me there. Of all the castles, in all the world, we had to walk into this one....

With the weather turning on Thursday I decided to come back to Manchester, had I been off for a fortnight I think I might have stayed a couple of days longer, but I'm planning to go back to this part of the world more regularly from now on. Weirdly enough, some of the things that I've loved about European travel, heritage and the sea, are so easily found on the Welsh coast, but also something else; in a world that feels overpopulated at times, the sense of the crowds thinning out, and a calmer, less frenetic way of life is palpable. Seeing this coast by train was a first, as well, and was as much a part of the fun as the destinations.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

The Shooting Party by Isabel Colegate

 Includes some spoilers. 

I saw the 1985 film "The Shooting Party" with James Mason as Sir Randolph Nettleby and a whole host of other distinguished actors many years ago and it stayed with me. Only later did I realise it was from Isabel Colegate's 1981 novel. Colegate is one of those post-war novelists who rarely get a mention nowadays, but on the evidence of "The Shooting Party" she has an elegance to her writing that should never go out of fashion.

Taking place on the eve of war, a shooting party is taking place at Nettleby's country seat. His wife was a confidante, possibly even lover, of the late King Edward VII, and with his death the "Edwardian age" - that brief sojourn between the start of the new century and the Great War, is already passing into history. The book touches on both the political situation and social changes, yet it is at a distance, for the way of life embedded in this Oxfordshire great house focuses on a surface decorum. The invites to this shooting party no longer include the King, but there are various nobles of the era. The book deftly moves between its large cast of characters both upstairs and downstairs, as a comedy of actual manners is played out exquisitely. It's hard to imagine that Julian Fellows didn't closely study it in his scripts for Downton Abbey, yet there's something somehow generic about this much written about era. Neither a contemporary reading like Waugh or a post-modern take, there's a subtlety at play in this book which is both forensic in its detail of country life, and at the same time a knowing elegy for a time that is no more.

In the film, if I remember correctly, the tragedy that takes place towards the end of the book, when one of the country men gets accidentally killed by the brash noble who has committed to this being a sporting contest rather than a gentlemanly one, is then overshadowed by the phone call that indicates the death of the Archduke Ferdinand. Yet in the book this is only told allegorically - but from the very first line: "It caused a mild scadal at the time, but in most people's memories it was quite outshone byy what succeeded it." In other words, the reader has the overhang of history to see that there are clear parallels between the mindless slaughter of pheasants at the shoot, and the callous disregard for human life that is to come.

What makes the book - and film - such a joy is that by concentrating on a single weekend in the country Colegate succeeds in bringing a light on so many aspects of that dying Edwardian society. The rural peasants are poorer than before because of changes in the economy, yet they trust more to the benign dictatorship of the country lord than the workings of (Liberal) politicians in London. A curious radical, Cornelius Cardew (not the avant garde composer!) has attempted to stop the slaughter in his attempt to promote vegetarianism and land rights for the poor. He gets more time from the bored Lord than from the suspicious peasantry in the local inn. Meanwhile the women and children of the family, and the wives of the shooters are a backdrop chorus, bored of the shooting, and indulging in various fancies and affairs. In a world where marriage is of convenience, and to hold together landed dynasties, affairs are not just tolerated but encouraged. One of the Nettleby grandchildren is an artistic child called Osbert who has a tame duck who he is worried will go out when they are ready for the carnage of the duck shoot - the traditionally vicious end to the day's shooting. At the same time - and it is a small duck - we get a wide portrait of the rural community that exists to serve the Nettlebys, from the unfortunate Tom, a dirt poor poacher, to the gamekeeper and his bright son who is wanting an educated future, but cannot bring himself to leave his father's care.

The two central plot lines centre around one of the younger shooters though. Lionel Stephens, who is training to be a lawyer, proves himself to be as good or better shot than Lord Gilbert Hartlip, widely thought of as one of the best shots in England. This unspoken sport between them ramps up as the shooting party goes out for a second day. Stephens has a nonchalance about him which is shaken on the day by his love for Lady Olivia, the married wife of another of the day's shooters. 

This is an exquisite novel of Edwardian country life that doesn't spare the grime and ugliness, whilst at the same time giving us a vivid portrait of the game sports which are so important. The subjects under the surface - the Irish question, David Lloyd George, the rural economy, and the thought of a war with Europe - are there, but also absent. Nettleby alone sees this world that he knows so well disappearing, but by temperament and upbringing he doesn't know what to say. We know that the war that will follow will devastate the ranks of the aristocracy and the middle classes as it will the working class. The last few pages of the book take us forward through those histories - it feels an unecessary coda perhaps, but also gives us a sense that these are not fictional lives but are stand-ins for some very real ones. A short novel, its a genuine pleasure that stands up better than many more regarded works of the era.