Sunday, June 25, 2017

The End of Cultural History

When Fukuyama wrote about the "end of history" in 1992 he was prompted by the fall of communism in 1989. taking the intellectual gamble that the "cold war" and its ending was a defining moment. Debunked somewhat since - not least by 9/11 - there's a certain sense-making that went into that declaration. The short twentieth century would be one that began with the shooting of the Archduke Ferdinand and ended with the fall of the Berlin wall. Had she been of the persuasion to argue with cultural commentators, my grandmother (1904-2000) might have found a problem with such neat boundaries.

It is in our nature - or at least it has been - to package up the past into manageable historical chunks. Whereas history follows the flow of political and economical upheaval, culture is both more malleable and more troublesome. We teach culture through its epochs, we exhibit it according to a timeframe, as a new show at Liverpool Tate - covering Weimar art 1918-1933 - again shows. Here a political boundary frames the cultural boundary; ending with an abruptness that we know from our history books - and from, say, Isherwood's "Goodbye to Berlin."

I picked up an educational art book this week - "Modernism in Dispute" - which came out in 1993, and traces modernism throughout the 20th century. Its final chapter, through concentrating on the sixties, does include art up to a Richter picture from 1989, very close to the time of writing. Yet the 1990s seems the last point that we have a clear view of the cultural world with an obvious cut off point (the millennium), even if it is only now that we are beginning to historify those movements - YBAs, Britpop, grunge. A recent comeback by TLC, has seen some quick flicking through the cultural history books to anoint the original incarnation as the start of a process that continues unabated through Beyonce, Rihanna and the rest. Yet even the nineties seems under, or un-documented in some way. You'll look in vain for a book on the "nineties novel" for instance - though it can be argued that it was the high water mark for that form; and as for poetry any discussion of "modern" or "contemporary" poetry seems to stretch way back - the deaths of Hughes and Heaney hardly being enough to put them on the history shelves.

I think part of the reason for this is that cultural lives are so much longer now than they used to be; with a demographic audience bulge - the baby boomers - refusing to give up house space (literally: they own all the houses) to the younger generation. So a venerable poet like Sharon Olds or Michael Longley can be shortlisted for contemporary prizes, not as a long service award, but on the merits of their work. (I won't comment on the merits - but it would an unusual poet to write their best work so late in their career.) The music industry is even more prone to this. At Glastonbury, at least one eighty something - Kriss Kristoffersen - was making his debut, whilst headliners included Barry Gibb, Chic and the Jacksons, which would have seemed historical in 1980. In this context the member for Islington appearing to rapturous crowds seemed positively youthful. Not that I'm not unaware of my own creeping years - with nineties icons Foo Fighters and Radiohead headlining two of the days, it could be argued it was a line up made for people now in or beyond their forties.

The other reason we don't seem to have much cultural era-defining these days, is that the "end of history" was closely followed by a new year zero: with the creation of the world wide web. Someone somewhere should be doing a PhD on the relative "online" presence of cultural materials pre- and post- the web. From the mid-90s onwards, the breakdowns between eras has been stopped by us being in the first tranche of the new information age. Twenty years seems hardly enough to process the cultural impact of the web - and it seems because of this people have stopped trying. By this time in the 20th century Ezra Pound had marshalled his Imagists to create an anthology, whilst a series of Georgian books stood in traditionalist opposition. We live in a an age of cultural plurality, where the Rolling Stones are still touring, Carol Ann Duffy and Billy Collins are the most well known poets of the time, despite their more iconic work being long since past, and where we are just about celebrating (if that's the word) two decades of Harry Potter. The cinema of this new century is predicated on franchises that were nurtured in the last - either film ones such as the Star Wars universe - or from that glory of post-war American culture, the comic book superhero. Jeremy Corbyn, Donald Trump and Theresa May will all be aware of Batman and Superman and Wonder Woman and Planet of the Apes - even if Ghostbusters and Star Wars are aimed more squarely at my generation.

It seems that the speed at which modern cultural consumption takes place now puts demands on its producers; so that the boxset serial is now an industrial product running for between five and ten years. In this landscape a single book, or a nascent poetry scene, or an emerging art style, find it hard to find traction. I suspect in twenty years time there will be celebrations of artists, writers and musicians that we are missing as we speak, simply because of the over-production of cultural artefacts.

With Manchester International Festival starting on Thursday for just over two weeks, this biennial is now old enough to have its own history, and has certainly changed the cultural landscape of the city, though whether it has had as much impact culturally as economically is another question. There are a series of debates at this year's festival, but they are primarily about the world, not this small part of it: yet surely there is a time for some cultural reflection on our blockbuster culture, of which MIF is now part? Have any of the shows that it has put on lifted themselves into some kind of cultural status? I'm not so sure...rather it seems that this is the new travelling circus, rocking up in a new city every couple of years, and putting on an extravaganza that we are unable to match when it's not here. Glastonbury, that doyenne of festivals, has the same sense of itself as cultural event. But looking back historically, festivals and Expos and the like were always about the potential to create change, rather than simply replicate themselves: so Monterey and then Woodstock are iconic showcases of sixties music; or the Armoury Show was when European modern art exploded into Britain. Perhaps our very connectedness mitigates against that these days? I will look for signs of cultural seeds taking root over the coming weeks.

So if there is a book on, say, 90s poetry, or first decade or art, or the novel in the internet age, I'm yet to read it. Perhaps Fukuyama was expecting too much of humanity's political and economic elites, and should have addressed his argument at a more socio-cultural level. It may not seem to be an imperative that we "fix" this lack, but without the commentary, without the critical culture, without the sense of unseating icons, or making the case for new ones, the culture itself stultifies, into mere commodity.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Manchester: City of Literature

On Thursday I attended the official launch for the bid for Manchester to become a UNESCO City of Literature, part of its creative cities network - an excellent initiative that sees cities worldwide networking and creating partnerships and exchanges through their mutual love of different art forms. I was at the launch a few years ago in Norwich when they announced their bid - and let's hope we're successful, and also, that it kickstarts a more wider understanding of Manchester's role as a literary as well as a sporting and music city. The full press release can be read here. 

It seems only appropriate, since its something I don't think I've blogged about directly before, to consider my own take on Manchester's literary history. On a personal level, if its true that I first came here for the music, I actually came back for the literature, specifically to study on an M.A. under Micheal Schmidt (who was there on Thursday) and Richard Francis at the University of Manchester.
But outside of the personal, I think Manchester's literary history is undoubtedly tied up tightly with its political and economic history. Though the city goes ways back - to Roman times - the modern city is Victorian, though, arguably, we can see that over the last twenty years, its moving to a post-industrial architecture that sits along the Victorian, and it is the late twentieth century - of a declining urban centre - which is being erased. But one of the great things about books, of course, is that they can last much longer than the edifices that possibly inspired them. In a cosmic game of paper > scissors > stone paper outlasts stone more often than not; though Manchester's history has it both ways - a first folio of Shakespeare sitting in the gothic splendour of the John Ryland's library - one of the 4 libraries, alongside Chethams, Portico and Central - which sits at the heart of the Manchester bid.

English literature casts long shadows, and its sometimes hard for newer trends to overthrow them. Its fulcrum remains London, of course, with its many publishing houses, and its multitude of writers. As the centre of political power it was always the centre of cultural power as well. Our poetry - rarely urban - nonetheless is centred on the capital, our most lauded writers, Shakespeare and Dickens are both umbilically linked to there. Yet, our literature when its mapped out - there are plenty of literary geography's of Britain - tends to be elsewhere: in the shire counties, in the market towns, particular of the English Midlands and later, at the political fringes, in Scotland, Wales or Ireland. In this context Manchester might seem a literary backwater: yet by the 18th century, with the industrial revolution in full swing, the burgeoning middle classes - made wealthy through this new industry - were creating the cultural institutions in the city that stand to this day: from the Lit & Phil, to the libraries, to the University. Yet, its not wrong to say that Manchester's literature was intrinsically linked to the age of enlightenment: where political tracts from Chartists to Marxists to Left book Club members sat alongside scientific literature, economics, and moral works from non-conformists preaching to the working classes.

In such an age, imaginative literature sometimes seems an indulgence, and if there's a core failing in the city's literary figures, it might be this: that we are too drawn to realism. Yet that too has its advantages. Our earliest figurehead, Thomas de Quincey, is most famous for his "Confessions of an English Opium Eater", and the most interesting works about Manchester in the 1990s were Jeff Noon's "Vurt" and "Pollen", psychotropic cyberpunk fantasias set in a recognisable Manchester. Cities are magnets for writers - so that any literature of the city tends to be catholic in its appreciation. We count as our own those born here such as de Quincey, who despite a very Mancunian waywardness left and held right-wing political views, those who have studied here, and Anthony Burgess, who rarely returned to the city but was prone to such statements as the "the novelist is Mancunian"; those who have taught here - such as W.G. Sebald, Michael Schmidt, Carol Ann Duffy; and those who have visited here - there's a blue plaque for Charlotte Bronte on the side of the Salutation pub.

In this reading of the city - you'd have thought Manchester, with a newly educated middle class, the John Owens University, and a heady mix of methodism and later Marxism, alongside an incoming population of Irish labourers, would have immediately created its own literature, like other urban centres in the USA for instance. Whereas the 18th century novel had grown out of that grubby trade, journalism, by the mid-19th century, there was an audience for magazine writers, and from the serial, would come the hardcover three volume novel. Elizabeth Gaskell moved to Manchester after marrying a Unitarian Minister. His chapel was on Cross Street - where de Quincey was born, and where today Carcanet Press has an office - and she would eventually move to the suburbs, and a house on Plymouth Grove which has been recently restored. In novels such as "Mary Barton", "Cranford" and "North and South", as well as her "Life of Charlotte Bronte", she became a major writer of the period, and is both revived (in film and theatre) and read today. Dickens - who would write about Preston in "Hard Times" - was a friend. "Mary Barton" is set in Manchester, and seeing a dramatisation at the Royal Exchange a few years ago, adjacent to where it was set, highlighted the importance of literature in documenting realistically a fast-changing world.

Realism was and remains the Manchester literary idiom. It's there in the 1876 novel "The Manchester Man" by Isabella Banks, in Walter Greenwood's  1950s "Love on the Dole", through to Tony Warren's concept for a northern drama, "Coronation Street" , and later still Andrea Ashworth's domestic violence memoir "Once in a House on Fire." Amongst other novelists we find the forgotten Manchester Grammar School boy Gilbert Cannan, who Henry James referenced in his essay on promising novelists, and the very much remembered University of Manchester graduate Anthony Burgess. I've not yet managed to read any of Cannan's work, but Burgess is now celebrated in the city in a way that was hardly imaginable twenty years ago. An emigre writer, and initially a composer rather than a writer, his most famous books are international in focus, are linguistic fantasias in style; yet he would write about Manchester in one or two novels, such as "The Piano Players" and in particular the first volume of his autobiography.

Later on, novelists like Booker winner Howard Jacobsen, whose "The Mighty Waltzer" reminisced about his North Manchester Jewish youth, and my old tutor, Richard Francis, whose comic novel "Taking apart the Poco Poco" takes place in Stockport, have used the city as a backdrop as well as having lived here. Its strange how little the city has featured in fiction; perhaps its frequent setting for TV dramas - "Cold Feet", "Cracker" and "Queer as Folk" as well as "Coronation Street" - and films - Manchester noir, "Hell is a City", "The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue", "Control" and "24 Hour Party People", and "28 days Later", Manchester almost always depicted as a gritty northern city where anything can happen, has made it more difficult for its writers to ground something in this place. There are exceptions of course and younger novelists like Emma Jane Unsworth, Joe Stretch and Chris Killen have used the city as a backdrop to 20-something lives, none more successfully than Gwendoline Riley's first two books, "Cold Water" and "Sick Notes." Then again there is Shelagh Delaney's remarkable debut play "A Taste of Honey" and its equally excellent movie.

If the city has not yet spewed up its version of Chicago's Saul Bellow, or a "great city novel" to rival those American urban writers, perhaps this is as much to do with the British literary scene - both concentrated on London and likely to dismiss anything outside of M25 as parochial (whilst Zadie Smith's "NW", set in a single postcode, would never receive that epithet!)

Twenty years ago Penguin, in conjunction with City Life magazine and editor Ra Page, came up with a collection of Manchester stories, realising, correctly, a groundswell of writers based in and writing about the city. Inevitably, in a music obsessed city, it also included contributions from Shaun Ryder, Mark E. Smith, Dave Haslam and Tony Wilson. The only surprise was that Alex Ferguson wasn't included. Yet amongst that predictable positioning, the range of writers was impressive, and if there was a second volume today, it would no doubt be more so. Like Iowa, famous for its Writing Workshop, or UEA, for the UK's first creative writing M.A., with wide ranging writing schools at MMU, Manchester and Salford Universities (and outlying Bolton), its tempting to see Manchester now as a finishing school for writers - cosmopolitan enough to be a good alternative to London, cheap enough to make it attractive to talent on a low income, and with enough of a literary scene - particularly live literature, to help nascent talent develop. Last years Booker longlist had two Manchester connections, ex-student Wyl Menmuir and tutor Ian McGuire, whilst Carol Ann Duffy, as professor of poetry at Manchester Met has continued the city's thriving poetry reputation.

Ah, yes, poetry - again, I've struggled to know what to say about Manchester and its poetry. There are probably more poets in the city than ever before, and certainly than other cities. Our most famous names are transplants such as Jackie Kay and Carol Ann Duffy, or ones who have left like Sophie Hannah and Lemn Sissay; there are many poems about Manchester - as a number of anthologies ("Best of Manchester Poets", "Sculpted: Poetry of the North West") have indicated. There's an experimental poetry scene to rival any in the country, and performance poetry, at least that of a certain variety, feels like it began here, and still thrives in a range of nights, and through initiatives such as Contact Theatre's "Young Identity" group. After the terrible events at the Arena a few weeks ago, it was a poet, Tony Walsh, who found the words for the city's grief. Yet again, though there are many poems set in the city, or about the city, I'm not sure there are many that are emblematic. Just as film sometimes seems to be the city's driver of narrative, so music can sometimes seem to be the driver of it's poetry; "The North will rise again," "Manchester, so much to answer for."  "To the centre of the city where all roads meet, waiting for you." "When the rain falls hard on the humdrum town." "Please don't put your life in the hands of a rock and roll band." "You're like Manchester, you've got strange ways." "Spend a year in a couple of hours on the edge of Beasley Street."

The next few months and years will hopefully see more focus on bringing together this scattered history - a tableau of influence and connection that is as random as any city but together pulls into some kind of word tapestry. Manchester, city of literature, it has a ring to it.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Cop Hater by Ed McBain

I don't read that much detective fiction but when I do I've always liked the hard-boiled or the noirish. Oddly I've never picked up an Ed McBain before, despite being a big fan of one of the writer's other pseudonym's Evan Hunter, whose 50s jazz noir "Second Ending" is even more a favourite than "Blackboard Jungle" (the template for the notorious "Rock Around the Clock" film.) I picked up "Cop Hater" as its the first of his 87th Precinct novels. In an introduction to this reissue he talks about how he had the idea to write a series of books about a group of cops rather than a single cop or detective - and how any "murder" story tended to be a bit fake when the protagonist was anyone other than a cop - e.g. a private detective.

"Cop Hater" has the same clipped style I remember from the Hunter novels, but though a genre book, its not all about the action. Starting with the murder of a plain clothes policeman, this novel puts the precinct at the centre of the action - as the various cops we are introduced to are all potentially lined up as the next to be killed by the "cop hater." Yet McBain moves out of the precinct and into the homes of the men who have to keep the city safe. They are all individuals with their own personalities and home lives. Steve Carella and Hank Bush are the duty detectives who go out to find out why the first cop was murdered in cold blood. They find the smallest of clues: half of a footprint. First of all they think the answer must be in the files - particularly when the partner of the first cop is also killed. Yet they can't find any examples of motive.

The city - a city like New York in its size and ethnic mix, with a river running through it - is as much a character as any of the cops. Its the summer of a heatwave, and the heat makes everything seem hard work. The city newspaper, a scandal rag, is desperate for an angle, and wonders if its teenage gangs who have killed the cops. One journalist, Savage, starts taking things into his own hands, acting as an agent provocateur, leading to another cop being injured with a zip gun from one of the teenagers.

Carella is in love and his girlfriend, Teddy, is a deaf mute. He has promised to marry her, but like all cops' wives and girlfriends she fears for him not coming home. Meanwhile Carella can't get out of his head images of his partner Bush's descriptions of his florid wife, Alice, who always wears black lingerie. This is a book that is determined to be a raw and edgy read, and that kind of edge is what makes the book still highly readable so many years on. The 87th Precinct stories would continue throughout McBain's long career, all set in the same district of this imagined city.

It's been a really refreshing read - McBain's approach influencing later police dramas like "Hill Street Blues" whilst at the same time taking inspiration from "Dragnet" but taking things in his own gritty direction. I'm sure I'll look to reading some more after finally getting round to this "debut" episode.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

EEK! by EEK! - new electronic music

EEK! by EEK! is a new project of electronic instrumental music. 8 tracks of jittery electronica taking in old school techno, acid and trance, and mixing with contemporary dubstep, glitch, its ideal for Sunday morning listening or Saturday night jigging around.

My first release for six months - this is a 30 minute side project that harnesses the digital sounds of the Korg Volca FM with the analogue Korg Monotribe, ably assisted by my venerable old Roland Juno 6.

Just over 30 minutes - across 8 instrumental tracks that are free to stream or downloadable for 25p each or £2 for the album. ENJOY THE EEK!