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.