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. 

Monday, August 15, 2016

What are your poems about?

Nature, love,'s perhaps no surprise that poets come back to these fundamentals so often.  You have to write about something don't you? In a recent interview for online magazine Prac Crit, Matthew Welton says "One poet I met said when he was writing his second book that ‘the trouble is that now I have to find fifty other things I need to say’ and I thought ‘well, I don’t have anything to say’." When Welton first appeared in print in the late 90s in Faber's "First Pressings" and Carcanet's "New Poetries" he seemed very out of sync with the contemporary idiom of British poetry, which had by that stage taken literalism as far as it could go. The "poetry of things" - as in this poem is an anecdote about something, or, if a metaphor was a literal metaphor - so Duffy's onion, or Armitage's tyre were equally explainable, paraphrasable, seemed to have created a false accessibility, in that the best poems are often allusive, yet meaningful.

At 14, studying the metaphysicals, I think I was suspicious already about the idea that "this poem means this" - I rebelled a little against literalism. It wasn't the metaphysicals I disliked, but this reducing of them to something they (in particular) were not. Later, I realised that metaphysicality, that most of elusive of poetic movements, was something plainly and patently missing from much contemporary poetry. In contrast, in a blind reading in an exam I remember being given (I found out later) Matthew Arnold's troublingly beautiful "Dover Beach." Here metaphor hides meaning, or rather there were layers to unfold, with no certainty of what was beneath. No wonder McEwan uses the poem in "Saturday" as the captured family try and puzzle and disentangle from their tormentor.

Contemporary British poetry has had some shift away from literalism, a surprising jump if you look at the generation beforehand, yet in doing so, the question that Welton articulates - "you have to write about something" - has been answered in a certain negative; that there is more to the poem (like a painting, like a piece of music) than in the literal or the purely figurative. Yet at the same time there has been a tendency for the more successful books of recent years - think "Dart", "Her Birth", "Night", "Look! We have coming to Dover", "Rain", "The World's Wife", "Stag's Leap" "Drysalter" - to be most distinctly about something; the sequence as book in particular offering that certainty, that literalism that we seem to need, even if the poems themselves provide some more devious pleasures;  as before, death, love, nature.

The truth I suspect is that we need both these things. An allusive and elusive poet such as Luke Kennard has often provided much pleasure, some understanding - pop cultural references next to the higher brow - whilst at the same time rarely giving us a poem that is simply paraphraseably "about something." I can't find the quote, but Ashbery long ago said something along the lines, that he didn't want his poems to be closed, but to offer an openness that perhaps didn't represent the reality of a specific thing or image, but instead reflected the reality of how we perceive  the thing or image (fragmented, juxtaposed with this other thing etc. ) A poem, once read is not unlocked, but can be returned to. Yet in Kennard's new book "Cain" despite much cleverness (and it is clever, and a joy to read), there is a subject of sorts. This, like the list above is actually sold as being about something. That the poems are also about other things - not just divorce, estrangement, breakdown - is not so much their byproduct but their point. Similarly, Andrew McMillan's "Physical", with its frankness about gay love/gay life is patently about something.  Within that particular house of course are many different rooms.

I remember reading many years ago a biography of Adam Ant (don't judge me), where Goddard/Ant admits that what he did take from McLaren who managed him briefly then stole his band, that all his good ideas needed to be not in the slogans of his art work but in his songs. From this, came "antmusic for sex people" - so McLaren unplugged this jukebox and did us all a favour. Its a reminder that sometimes we need to make sure our thoughts are on the page, especially if they have a good line with them, if they have a good joke attached to them, if they can last beyond the poem and the page. If I have a difficulty with the literal in poetry its that it doesn't often repay the attention given it, by forsaking something - maybe language, maybe something more visceral. If I have a tendency in my own work to get buried by an aesthetic its worth remembering that we all like to hum a good tune now and then, that it doesn't necessarily have to be the chorus. I suspect when Welton, for example highlights an unwillingness to have poems that are "about" something, its because its a dislike of reductionism: I don't want the poem to be just about this one thing. Elsewhere in the same interview he's asked about his references to coffee (e.g. in the title of his second collection) and he says, yes, he drinks coffee, he likes coffee. This is the detritus of our life pulled into the patterning that any poem ends up being. Perhaps a poem about coffee would never really be about coffee. Just as in the iconic Frank O'Hara poem "Why I am not a Painter" his painter friend has a painting which has something that looks like "sardines" in it because "it needed something there" - which he then removes because "it was too much", yet the painting ends up being called "Sardines". In Armitage's "The Tyre" or Duffy's onion poem "Valentine", the main image is there, it is immutable in the picture. The metaphor an accessible one. I think this is partly why poets love things such as the Shipping Forecast, because the naming therein has a beauty that has both explicit meaning, and acts as a rigid metaphor. It's much harder in some ways to take out the "sardine" and yet still hint at its essence - yet surely we want to do this, unless we are wilfully obscure?

A poem doesn't have to be about anything, but because it's a poem, it now is about something - if only itself. The literal path is as frustrating as the one that's off-road. I'm actually impressed when poets manage a sequence about those weary subjects - love, death, nature - as I feel I don't have an honest lexicon to deal with them - my love, my experience of death, my urban landscape are not accessible via poetic cliche, or direct metaphor - the real things are too strong or (worse) too prosaic. Yet if I talk about something else - lets call it the ineffable - then how to write that down. When I read "Dover Beach" blind, I seem to recall that I went over the top in my description of what the poem was about - as about unfulfilled sexual desire. It became about my response to the poem, as much about the poem itself. So that when I ask a fellow poet what they write about, or someone asks what my poems are about, I should hesitate about the answer: they are about something, even when they aren't.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

The Definitive Version

A few years ago I wrote an unpublished story about a man who goes around murmuring all the time - and people start following him because they think his outpourings are mystical truths. Inevitably one man thinks he can make money out of this, takes the preacher in, and writes down everything he says hoping to get "the definitive version" which can then become the centrepiece of an organised religion.

I think our desire to have the finished or "definitive version" of art comes from the codification of scriptures - even though in the New Testament we still manage four different versions of the story of Christ. We know that the codified Bible was a political statement, with many books that were circulating disappearing - gnostic gospels and the like - as the official church tightened its grip. The reformation in Europe insisted on letting people have access to "the word of God" in their own tongue loosening the power of the interlocutor, the priest - yet not until Vatican II in the sixties were Catholic ceremonies in anything other than Latin. What is the definite version anyway? Particularly if it can be translated....from English in that beautiful piece of literature the King James Version.

I was reminded of my ruminations on this having read this week of the academic who has published a paper on finding that the American and British versions of "Cloud Atlas" by David Mitchell are very different. Apparently British and American copy editors frequently change things for their local audience in new novels (I suspect its more of a one way street - we seem quite accepting of American usages and spelling in the UK) and this practice led to Mitchell correcting two different versions of his own novel. As one lay unedited he made changes to the other and the various additions and deletions weren't lined up. Reasurringly he says: "It’s a lot of faff – you have to keep track of your changes and send them along to whichever side is currently behind." The author, in other words isn't really minded that there are two versions out there, subtley but noticeably different.

Of course, Professors have more time on their hands, and their is a whole industry of literary textual work. A writer like Joyce keeps academics busy for decades on textual variants. The view of course is that there IS a definitive version; that the writer meant there to be a "perfect" version, when in reality the exigencies of publishing (never mind other issues in the days before Word Processing) mean that texts are never finished, they are always abandoned (Paul Valery?) to their fate one way or another.

I guess as writers we like the idea of perfection, though rarely attaining it, yet I guess we are still aware of the importance not just of words, but of exact words. One of my earliest published stories had the ending changed by the editor when it was published, and I changed it back as soon as I got a chance. Yet I'd have no problem going to that or many other stories now and fixing a few grammatical flaws. The writer I am now, is not the writer I was then. In poetry words are important, but a corollary of the poet who insists on 20 or 30 versions of a certain poem, surely is that they only reached their "definitive version" through iteration and versioning. Sometimes something must be lost as well as gained in such writing. I suspect that this "sweating the small stuff" is a sign of writerly uncertainty rather than confidence - all of us have taken the comma out, put the comma back in.

"Versions of some of these stories/chapters have appeared previously....." is a common formulation. I think it was Jonathan Franzen who bemoaned internet culture and the idea of a fluid rather than fixed text, saying something about nobody wanting a different version of Gatsby for instance. Yet Fitzgerald's other masterpiece,Tender is the Night, was widely published in a different order (chronological) than the version that we have nowadays. A friend who has a regular book club says that on a few occasions people have turned up with old editions of books which are different versions. I've an abridged by the author Somerset Maughan somewhere, I've also (all published in Penguin), "Lady Chatterley's Lover" and precursor texts. Translation also matters - and some notoriously poor translations of classics mean that its not always possible to be reading the same book that your lecturer read twenty years before.

As a writer, as a lover of versioning in music, I quite like this lack of a definitive version. Walter Benjamin wrote in "the age of mechanical reproduction" about the effect of this might have on us as consumers or music. The piano piece is not different in every parlour, but is defined by the recorded version. Benjamin would raise an eyebrow at contemporary practice I think: classical music from the 20th century does venerate the composer-conductor version sometimes, or composer-performer version, yet we have no way of hearing Mozart himself for instance. The fetish of "original instruments" is a fetish, but I can understand it - yet if someone covers a Beatles song, they won't be setting up their studio with the limitations of a four-track recorder will they? The record industry has recently plundered its vaults for versions of classic songs - the height of which must be the whole CD that a recent Dylan archival trawl dedicated to "Like a Rolling Stone." Here we keep coming back to the definitive version, but have the various stages before and after it that didn't quite work as well. In films we have the Directors Cut, or in some cases, like the Star Wars movies later reversionings which means the original cut as seen in a cinema in 1977 is no longer widely available.

Modern novels sometimes proceed to print without an editor, or with only cursory editing, and I sometimes think that close textual analysis is a sciencifying of the arts that adds little, whilst appreciating the literary archiving that goes to the trouble to find undiscovered works or paragraphs. The internet, with the its ability to shift text on an instant, so that the wikipedia entry is never definitive but always in flux, creates the ultimate versioning jukebox - yet at the same time we crave the sense that we are not being cheated. The new Harry Potter text may not be what you hear in the theatre since it will have been tweaked during performance. A second edition will ensure the coffers keep flowing. Without the first folio we'd likely not have half of Shakespeare, but certain plays, like "Hamlet" are very different in this version.

I guess this only really matters where different versions compete for space. I've noticed a tendency with cheap compilations of late to insert a few later recordings without really telling you. It becomes possible to see how the definitive version can fall away. On the other hand, a novel like Junot Diaz's debut appeared in a very different format in a magazine some years before it was completed. This ur-text is not the novel "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao" but it is a version of it. I read a great SF novel called "Monument" and was pleased a few years later to find the novella version that had originally appeared in a magazine.

For a mostly unpublished writer the sense of what is definitive is very malleable - I try and get to final versions with my work - but of course they can always change if publication is an option. I've cut stories to reach a certain word length, and I'm never quite sure if the longer version is the one that I should preserve or not  (did the cuts matter? or were those words just colour?) It was quite pleasing to read Mitchell's response to the Professor - he didn't think his book would be being read or studied ten years on - he realises it means there are two versions out there in the world, but in the context of "Cloud Atlas" a novel which is consumed with the concept of ideas being passed through time and space, it seems only appropriate.

Monday, August 08, 2016

Meme and Mythos

Yesterday, popping into the artist-curated show at Whitworth Art Gallery, Elizabeth Price Curates, I quickly slipped below the slightly obvious themes - Sleeping, Working, Mourning, Dancing - and spent my time with some of the original works. Unlike so many shows like this, there were few works that I was previously that aware of, always a joy, but what was particularly interesting was seeing three pieces; a short film extract from Charles Laughton's mesmeric "The Night of the Hunter" in "Sleeping", and a sculpture of Eleanor of Aquitaine, wife of Henry II, in Mourning; and in Dancing, some photographic stills of Throbbing Gristle/COUM Transmissions' Cosey Fanni Tutti. I don't know much about Elizabeth Price's work, but I do know her work - an ex-member of C86 band Talulah Gosh - and a near contemporary (she was born the year before me.)

Only a couple of weeks ago I'd revisited "The Night of the Hunter" for a "cover star" (Robert Mitchum) for my new E.P. "Test Pressing #1" whilst I recently read a series of poems about that other "She Wolf" of English history, the Empress Matilda; and with Hull as city of culture next year I've been reading up on and talking about Throbbing Gristle/COUM Transmissions and in particular their notorious ICA show "Prostitution." There was something pleasing but also a little unsettling at coming across a few of my personal reference points in such close proximity in this exhibition. None of these are the most obvious of touchstones - so finding out that Price is a near contemporary gives a bit more rationale to what otherwise might be a sense of coincidence.

In our current age of quickly spread "memes", its a reminder that we should be less concerned with these shared ideas, than with the hotch potch of ideas, influences and references that come together in our own personal mythos. The (younger) poet Luke Kennard has surprisingly resurrected the Biblical Cain in his latest book, the useful example of Cain - forced to wander the world - as a personal guide/avatar. Biblical precursors remain potent - though it was the unlucky dead brother "Abel" I referenced in my 2008 song "The Undefined."

I find there are certain historical and literary precursors I do come back to in my songs, poetry and music - less memes than a personal mythos; and seeing some of that mythos collected together by Price was actually a reassurance that the things that matter to me aren't necessarily just affectations but are important parts of the weave of my cultural life. Not to make too much of it of course, but I think its important that as a writer that we are more attuned to the mythos than the meme - the latter can come of course - but in reality its as interesting for us to explore our own obsessions as our own life. Sometimes that comes out explicitly in our art, other times its much more at a tangent.

Out in the mainstream of course, we see the bookshops selling out of a Harry Potter playscript, and not to denigrate popular art, but I've never been that comfortable with the shared love of the ubiquitous. Its 50 years since the Beatles "Revolver" and remarkable as that record is, I would probably choose "The Who Sell Out", "Da Capo", "Daydream" or "Aftermath" from 1966 - they are not necessarily better records, but they haven't quite the ubiquity of the Beatles. The plethora of characters in Beatles songs, like Harry Potter, seem to be closed archetypes rather than open ones. Even Father Mackenzie or Eleanor Rigby (a nod to her of Aquitaine!) seem like finished works that close off further investigation. Not so with Bryan Maclean's "Orange Skies" or even "Nowhere Man" from the previous year's "Rubber Soul."

I think what I find interesting about popular art at its best is where it feels open to interpretation and re-interpretation. With Harry Potter like Dr. Who or Star Wars there seems to be the canonical; that no amount of fan fiction can move us away from. A character like Count Dracula on the other hand enables endless interpretation.

More recently you find that there is so much writing that acts a little bit as a reinterpretation rather than an original. Think of all those books that plunder Henry James or Jane Austen  or Joseph Conrad. Our own mythos enables us, I think, to begin to imagine something newly formed, that doesn't owe its existence to an obvious predecessor.