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?