Sunday, February 12, 2017

Writing and Memory

A few years ago I began writing a story about a person who could remember everything - every face, every incident. What would that be like, I wondered? To have this constant "chatter" of the past in your head, so that walking through a crowded station you would recall every instant that you'd seen each of those people, what you knew about them, what you'd overheard them say.

I was therefore fascinated to read this article in the Guardian about a rare condition where people can remember everything about their own lives. In these cases, there is usually something going on, an obsessive compulsive disorder; some trigger or trauma; and often a way of remembering that is in itself systematic - such as keeping  a daily diary.

Rembering is what writers do, of course. They observe, they jot down, they remember. The scene that appears many years later, is plucked from a memory, maybe even a mislaid or forgotten one. The written version becomes the definitive one, and in stories its how we tell our memories. In legal disputes it is in "what you remember" that is often being asked of the defendant. The "I couldn't remember" response of powerful people to events that they were present at is no guarantee that they don't. Not remembering is almost as useful an alibi as not knowing - "plausible deniability". When there is a crime - a murder, a hit and run - the police ask for witnesses at the scene to remember what they can "however trivial." Our memories aren't the imprint of facts, but the interpretation. The policeman who draws a gun, remembers the moment that he thought he saw the other person reach for one; the person caught up in a fight tries to recall the moment he could have stepped back and avoided being hit. These things happen in an instant.

Yet writers' memory is more than that. I don't think I know any writers who have that "total recall" of these rare cases in the Guardian article, but I know from my own remembering how much is stored up there. How a single trigger - a smell, a name, a photograph - could perhaps bring back a whole connected set of memories. When writing a novel years ago, I wrote about my nanna's house, and distinctly remembered the green meat safe in the larder. I had not given that house, that room, that detail a moments thought in perhaps twenty years, but one memory led to another, and evoked a picture, in some detail. Yet there are other times when we can't remember. Did we vote Green or Labour in that by-election in the end? Did we go out on that birthday or to that band? Who was there with us? We can't remember. Occasionally a photograph will turn up and will mess up our memory. The three of us who used to hang out together, yet in that photo its a different three, the memory is intact, but the memory isn't shared.

In analysing the patients with perfect recall, of course the only things that the doctors could be sure of were the verifiable details. "On this day....this happened." And yet even that's a strange one. I remember my parents coming into my bedroom one morning before school to tell me John Lennon had died. So that - with the time difference - must have been the day after it had happened, not on the day itself. Lovers make a note of anniversaries...of when they first met, or when they first got together. Yet it is the date or the moment? As a writer I find myself drawn to facts, but confused by them, needing them verified. Wikipedia gives us no excuse not to; but also, in itself needs to be verified. I used to be able to mark the years, the months by what I was doing - by my job, or where I was living, or if none of those, by the new music I was buying. But grow older and the apparatus drifts away. Was it that year or the other one? Working for the same employer and living in the same flat for a decade, where are the fault lines. I make a note on when I wrote this or that poem - but not everything is accurate - and by the time the poem appears, the source is forgotten, we shape our memory patterns.

The novel I'm working on is all about memory - memory is in the title but also in its DNA - and it looks at paralelling private and public memory. How the powers that be have their own reasons to deny memory - to deny truth - to rewrite the past. Even in a city like Manchester, there's been a narrative for twenty years now that "regeneration" came on the back of the I.R.A. bomb, ignoring that had their not been a bomb there was already regeneration - that things would have still happened, just differently. (There was no bomb in Liverpool or Leeds or Newcastle or Birmingham in that period yet their centres have also been remodelled.) As a creative writing graduate of University of Manchester, I'm sure they might welcome any success I eventually have, but though a graduate of the University, I'm not a graduate of their School for New Writing - which followed on from my time. I'd be an awkward success, I imagine, with my tutors long since gone to Bath and Glasgow.

Yet I think in an era of the digital where everything is available - we also see how invisible things can become. The terrabytes of data created everyday are lost or hidden. It is Facebook who decides to push old memories, some welcome, some less so, on our timeline, not ourselves. Surely future literary biographies if such a form still exists will have to rely on digital sources rather than letters. They will exist somewhere surely, but just as surely, they may also be gone, not just lost but invisibly so. The discovery of old Bob Marley "tapes" in a damp basement at least highlights something might be on them - our redundant memory sticks and landfill hard drives don't provide that truth. I suspect the cost of "retrieval" of the past - our current near present - will be hardly worth the effort. The valiant efforts of special collections in libraries and archives still exists as a testament to our belief in preservation, but as we see institutions turned over, and municipal galleries closed or sold off to developers, the sense of where our archived memory might exist is also a problematic one.

As a contemporary writer that's one of the reasons to write about contemporary things. I recently put a few Manchester stories together in a booklet because I realised that they related to a lost version of the city. Mentions of the bomb, the Arndale bus station, the J.W. Lees pub in the Arndale centre, demolished bars in Hulme, as well as the people, events, times and customs (smoking in pubs!) seems long ago now, that there is a definite break with the past with now. Yet our contemporary story - if not published  -becomes a history tale soon enough. Sometimes we need the perspective that allows us to sift different aspects of the past. Our longer lives, our multiple generations (There was recently a family in the news who had six generations alive at one time) shifts our sense of time moving on. My strong memories of my grandparents link me inexorably to the start of the 20th century - through them - and through knowing them, I can imagine a world pre-the First World War even. Hard to believe! Yet at the same time as we have these longstanding memories - and a media age in which we can see the past, I think we risk becoming inured to protecting it. The cataclysms of Brexit and Trump seem on the one hand to be the last hurrahs of the Baby Boomer generation, reaching for the fear button in their dotage, but at the same time part of the irony of both Brexit and Trump's nostalgia for an older simpler world is that they want to dismantle our fragile modernity. Like Wall Street Amish unaware of the future, their view is anti-memory. It relies on us forgetting, on a deliberate, protracted forgetting. Don't ask where Gatsby got his fortune... don't wonder about Bulstrode's past. Writers know this instinctively.

We write to remember, we have to write so as not to forget.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Teenage Dreams are Hard to Beat

Despite having being writing and recording songs since 1982, and having had a synthesizer (Roland Juno 6) since the start of 1984, it was in September 1985, recently back from a post-A-Level holiday in Australia, and just before I started at University, that my music found its place. The reason: a 4-track recorder, originally borrowed from a friend. For a "one man band" who didn't play very well, and wanted to sing as well, the 4-track was a revelation. Simple to use, and cheap to operate (it used standard Chrome C90 cassettes) I quickly recorded two full cassettes of new music, a C90 offering 45 minutes of recording, taking up both sides of the tape (enabling - as I'd soon find out - the opportunity to play music backwards!) These first recordings were a mix of multi-layered instrumentals, which in retrospect owe something to Phaedra-era Tangerine Dream, and tentative pop songs. I had no drum machine, so the rhythm electronic music that I liked from people like Cabaret Voltaire would have to wait a bit. My lyrics had mostly been written during that summer vacation - but other influences found their way into the titles of the songs: "Kiama" was a town in New South Wales, whilst "The Wasp Factory" was the book I'd bought at the airport on my flight over to Brisbane, and seemed appropriate to the "buzzing" sound on that instrumental. (At the time I had no idea it would become a classic.)

The best tracks from these two hastily assembled cassettes would make up my first "proper" album "Mortal Mime". A 2nd release "17 Schemes (of dare & folly)" with its 23 minute long opening track "Complexities (Pt.1-6)" would follow later.


Subsequently armed with a drum machine, and borrowing a more preset based synthesizer - the Sequential Circuits Max - I recorded more songs, and, alongside the ambient instrumentals and tentative pop songs, began recording some beat-based music. 3 "singles", "Alternative Product", "Tamarine" and "The Sorrow and Other Short Stories" were recorded in quick succession, including versions of some of my early pre-4 track songs, as well as at my most accomplished track to date "We R All Essentially Gods." 



By summer 1986 I was working on a 3rd album "Entering the Adult Frame" - still mostly longer songs, but more ambitious ones - as "The Adult Frame" with its lyrics about growing old and missed opportunities indicates. At the time I was 19 years old, my first year at university had been great, but had fled by. Instead of finding "like minds" for a band, I'd made good friends who were more interested to listening to music than playing it. Lancaster at the time was not a particularly cutting edge town. The band for freshers week were The Sweet, and the biggest crowd I saw during that first year, was for ancient folk legends Fairport Convention at the Town Hall. In the wider world: the analogue electronic music that had come out a few years earlier had been taken up by the corporates and highly produced versions - Tears for Fears, Madonna - had taken it far away from its punk/new wave roots. Recording on hissy 4-track cassettes (though it was good enough for Bruce Springsteen's "earthy" "Nebraska" album) was against the tide in more ways than one. The Smiths and R.E.M., with not a synthesizer in sight, were the big bands on campus. Yet I persisted as a "bedroom musician" and my "folly" (literally: as my new artist name was The Folly, perhaps taking after the famous folly in Lancaster), came up with a 3rd full length cassette. Amongst its seven tracks is a long beat-driven instrumental called "King & Kingdom Come." It sounds like a proto-house record, but was recorded some six months before I'd heard "Jack Your Body."
I've been going back through these old recordings - long since digitised - and now have put together a 2 CD compilation of 1985-6 4-track recordings. The tracks are long (over long in places) but inventive. The vocal tracks are perhaps the weaker pieces, as I was only just beginning to learn how to write songs (do you ever learn?) and my passive Lawrence-from-Felt voice is often deep in the mix. By the end of 1986 I was moving on - including another long electronic track "Work Addiction" which in its original recording (included here) ran to 16 minutes.

The best of this period are probably the ambient instrumental pieces - and a compilation cassette I put together the following year grouped them all together on a C90.

Yet what's interesting, looking back, is that I was still a teenager when recording all of these - albeit one who had left home, and was studying a degree. Later volumes will see my music become more song orientated, more sophisticated, but I'm glad I've still got these recordings - and that over thirty years later I can re-present them.

If you could go back and give advice to your younger self - what would you say? That it will be all right? Perhaps. Maybe I didn't need the advice - for I kept recording - and still keep recording - despite a lack of support, and even outright hostility at times. These are the recordings of a private obsession - though I'd play them to you if I asked - and so seem to exist in a place of their own. It's impossible to think back to being a teenager, to recreate that younger self, particularly when so little of it seems worth that much. Yet, I'm so glad I was obsessively creative during those years. The poems I wrote (such as the lyrics for the song "Tamarine") are adolescent, and any stories I wrote feel wooden or derivative, but the three or four hours of music I made, has its own integrity to it.

The 2 volumes of the 4 Track Years Vol.1 can be downloaded or streamed here PART ONE and here PART TWO.

Further volumes covering 1987-8 and 1989-90 will follow. 



Saturday, January 21, 2017

In Praise of Weird Records

The new uncut magazine has a list of 101 Weird Records. It includes a few of the normal suspects - "The Philosophy of the World" by the Shaggs for instance, but at #1 is an album that is so familiar to me, and such a beautiful listening experience, that it seems no more of a weird record than "Sgt. Pepper" or "The Who Sell Out", namely "A Wizard, a True Star" by Todd Rundgren. I've been listening to the CD its coupled with in a recent reissue, "Todd", and that's a weird record....as is "A capella" where Todd just uses his own voice for all the instruments. Their list surprisingly includes no Robert Wyatt, and seems uncertain about whether to include oddities such as Metallica/Lou Reed's "Lulu" which are only odd in the idea, and not really in the listening.

Anyway, I've been a connoisseur of odd records all my life - this list - not in any order other than first come first served - sees oddness in different ways; the nearly unlistenable; the strange concept; even just odd pairings.

1. Leichenschrei - SPK. An industrial album that I bought in the early eighties, its still unlike anything I've ever heard. I think I hated it for ages, and then briefly it became a compelling favourite. A sonic collage - what is going on here? Voices come through the mist. "He tried to give me syphillis by wiping his cock on my sandwich," indeed.

2. The Point - Harry Nilsson. This is such a celebrated oddity that its very strange that it never makes the Uncut mix. At the height of his fame, wilful genius Nilsson came up with "The Point", a primetime American children's TV cartoon.

3. The F*** C*** Treat Us Like P*** - Flux of Pink Indians. Amongst all the CRASS-affiliated anarcho punks, Flux were amongst the most experimental. This is a near unlistenable collage piece - highly charged and political, from the title onwards. Facinating stuff.

4. End of an Ear - Robert Wyatt. There's a term "Wyatting" for putting something unlistenable on a pub jukebox. Unfair of course, for Wyatt is one of our national treasures, but he's an acquired taste - and his first solo album was an uncompromising free jazz melange - half spoken vocals, odd time signatures, you name it. Other Wyatt - from his Matching Mole albums, to "Dondestan" and "Old Rottenhat", are odd listens, but this one remains enigmatically difficult.

5. A Capella - Todd Rundgren. Giles Smith, in Lost in Music, says there's nothing so risky when going into a record shop as asking for the new Todd Rundgren album. In the 1970s and 1980s his wilfulness was legendary. A Capella takes some topping however - every sound made by Todd's voice and fed through an early sampler.

6. The Moon and the Melodies - Harold Budd/Cocteau Twins. Being a big Cocteau Twins fan in the early eighties I loved everything they did. Bit of a surprise when they did this album with ambient pianist Harold Budd.

7. Over the Rainbow - Virgin Prunes. Everything the Virgin Prunes did is odd, including their masterpiece "If I die, I die" - but this compilation of odds and sods is peculiarly so. I only have a copy because a friend bought it and hated it so much she gave it to me. The odd bits of an odd band.

8. NY Scum Haters - Psychic TV. Before they released a cavalcade of live albums came this one. Just after their wonderful "Dreams Less Sweet" - this was the unvarnished Psychic TV. PTV/Throbbing Gristle could probably fill a whole weird records list.

9. Thank You - Duran Duran. Covers albums can be things of wonder or disasters. Few manage to do both so often as this one from Duran Duran. Amongst the expected somewhat pedestrian retools of glam icons, they give us their take on Public Enemy's "911 is a joke" and Grandmaster Flash "White Lines." Wonderful/ludicrous in equal measures.

10. Peter and the Wolf - David Bowie. Forget The Laughing Gnome, Tin Machine or that godawful cover of God Only Knows, this is David Bowie's oddest release - a narration of the story of Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf. Of course it is.

11. Ear Candy - Helen Reddy. Actually not as odd as it should be - and a pretty decent album of late seventies soulful power pop. The oddity is that this is produced by Kim Fowley. Yes, Runaways svengali Fowley. With Helen Reddy.


12. Earth - Neil Young. Neil Young makes the Uncut list with "Trans" - odd only in that he uses vocoder - on what is one of his stronger eighties albums. "Greendale" is an odd concept album for instance, and what about "Arc" the feedback drenched companion to live album "Weld"? But I think his last live album "Earth" deserves inclusion. Pulling together songs from across his career with a "green" perspective he decides - oddly, perversely, in a way that sometimes works and sometimes is hilarious to add in sound effects to the live album e.g. crickets chirping.

13. Sympathy for the Devil - Laibach. There's a small number of albums that consist of only one song in multiple versions. This Laibach album covering the Rolling Stones album is one such. Brilliant but quixotic.

14. Beach Boys Love You - Beach Boys. There are other Beach Boys oddities - "Party" for instance with its party sound effects, or their transcendental M.I.U. Album, but Beach Boys Love You saw Brian Wilson return to the fold, virtually a solo album, and as a "where Brian's mind was at" as odd as it comes. Brilliant but if you wanted to know what he'd been up to - it had been watching Johnny Carson.


15. Johnny Yes/No Soundtrack - Cabaret Voltaire. When I was a big Cabs fan in the early eighties I did my best to buy all their new stuff - that included this mesmeric, monotonous soundtrack album.  

16. Tricks of the Shade - The Goats. A concept album about how America was going to pot and becoming a theme park for authoritarian Uncle Sam. Madcap and malevolent. 

17. Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants - Stevie Wonder. At his seventies height he recorded this mostly instrumental album. What was going on? Who knows? A near career threatening double album.

18. Gling Glo - Bjork. Before KUKL, before the Sugarcubes, before "Debut", there was "Gling Glo" - an Icelandic language jazz album sung by the young Bjork. A curiosity.

19. He's the DJ, I'm the Rapper - DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince. Their second album was a rap first - a double album. Given how thin most rap albums were at the time this was an impressive achievement - but filled out with scratch tracks and other less than essential pieces and never reissued in full on CD. 

20. Pander! Panda! Panzer! - Mark E. Smith. The Fall are of course highly quixotic and with the one constant of Mark E. Smith - surely a solo album should have been great? Except this and its predecessor were both "spoken word" albums, made up of text, cut ups etc. Strange even by Fall standards. 

21. A Trip to Marineville - Swell Maps. In the 80s Swell Maps, one of the more arty punk bands, had disappeared from sight, so it was years before I heard them - but what a greatly inventive band, never more so than on their debut, an avant garde post-punk mix thats well worth seeking out.

22.Préliminaires - Iggy Pop. There are many oddities in Iggy Pop's back catalogue but this album of French chanteuse songs inspired by Michel Houllebecq, is particularly odd.








Sunday, January 15, 2017

Young Hearts Crying by Richard Yates

In Richard Yates' penultimate novel "Young Hearts Crying" (1984) he revisits the fifties setting of his debut "Revolutionary Road" - the novel that brought him back into attention, and to print a few years ago, and was subsequently made into a film. In "Young Hearts Crying" Michael Davenport is an attractive, intelligent Harvard graduate, who has previously made his grade as an Airforce gunner in the tail end of the war. Davenport had a good war, and in a sense this backstory is given only as a rite of passage, but surely informs his psychology . He wants to be a published poet, but perhaps more importantly, wants girls. This is a pre-sexual revolution 1950s, and though the trappings of genteel moral codes are being stripped away, he is no Burroughsian transgressor, and falls for the first beautiful girl he finds, Lucy, a blank slate on which he can impress his longings. In turn, she is an heiress - though she hides this from Michael - who is wanting to escape from the stultifying conformities that her class and riches could bring her.

This is the America of opportunity after all - Madmen territory - but where some of the certainties that informed the Jazz age writers have disappeared. In some ways, Michael and Lucy, are less Gatsby and Carraway, and more this decades' "careless people". Art, and culture becomes the route into some kind of self-awareness, or escape. Yet, with so little jeopary in their life, this becomes - like in "Revolutionary Road" - a route only into the kind of bourgeois life they've both, in their different ways, been trying to escape. Between Fitzgerald and Franzen, their chronicler is Yates. Davenport is a complex character. Bundled into a marriage he didn't expect, his ambition outweights his talent. The short plays that were lauded at Harvard impress on him that he'll become a writer, but he supplements this, in lieu of using Lucy's money, with a copywriter job for a trade magazine. Here, in New York, him and Lucy are at the beginning of their lives - but whereas in, say, Jay McInerney, there would be the sense of an upward trajectory, Yates is the chronicler of a certain nuanced disappointment - a jaded American dream that being for "everyone", can never deliver on its promises beyond the mundane.

The Davenports have a child and move from their small flat to a pleasant suburb and Michael catches the train in every day where he meets the amiable Irish painter, Tom Nelson, whose popular canvasses are far away from the becoming fashionable "abstract expressionists." Yates is briliant at sidestepping the cliches and expectations of a novel of artists, by concentrating on these figures that will be marginalised by history one way or another. Tom has been born poor and so is exaltant in the money his popular work gives him, whilst Michael is the epitome of the minor poet, a forgotten name published by a small press rather than a public poet like Robert Lowell or a beatnik such as Ginsberg. That's not to say that Yates ignores the bohemian scene - for his other friend is an abstract expressionist painter, whose sister is a lifelong unconsummated desire for the frivolous Michael.

Around a series of carefully constructed scenes, we rediscover various characters - and introduce new ones - through a thirty year period. Still ignoring Lucy's inheritance, the Davenports move to a tiny house in the countryside near the Nelsons. Here - on an estate which is run by a group of old style theatrical types - Michael's ambition and self-loathing become more apparent as they contribute to his failing marriage. He is vicious about the gay characters hiding out here (one actor is a famous character actor who is blacklisted by McCarthy) calling the place a "fruit farm." His lack of sympathy is in itself what gives us sympathy for him as such a flawed character. His own plays get unperformed, and his poetry becomes safe and mediocre, each book receiving less attention for the first - where the long poem that concludes the book slowly becomes an American classic, and one he can never quite repeat. When the end comes for him and Lucy its no surprise, but its victim is less Lucy and their child, than Michael himself. This man-child, who is proud of his brief boxing near success in the air force, constantly wants to prove he is the better man. He is that overbearing alpha of American literature, yet whereas in Mailer or Heller, the man would become a successful bully, Yates is brilliant at creating characters who are far from predictable, whose flaws and strengths are balanced in them. Back in New York, away from his wife, he finally has a breakdown and ends up incarcerated, the heavy drinking causing him to have a number of psychotic episodes. These - almost always off stage in the novel - see him become drunk, and obnoxious and having to prove he is the best man in the room. His lack of social empathy turns out to be his great character flaw, his self-love and self-loathing combining to create a somewhat tragic character.

Yet the book is much more than that. Structurally, its surprising and elegant. The first "book" sees Michael and Lucy's life; the second follows hers after the split; and the third follows his. Lucy - freed from Michael still doesn't have an interest in the destiny of her class, money, marriage, kids, and instead she throws herself into different artistic pursuits - trying her hand as an actress, a short story writer, and eventually, an amatuer painter. We see now that her need for Michael was based upon this. Both of them seek out creative and artistic life like moths to a flame, but raw ambition on his part, and naked desire on hers, they never quite achieve what they are looking for. She finds solace in therapy, him in drink. At the same time, its now the sixties and both embark on endless affairs. For Lucy they are always sexual - her money enabling her to just throw herself in with some man and not be afraid of leaving. For Michael, he needs to be looked after, to have an adoring sexual partner. As their daughter grows up she becomes more withdrawn, and joins the hippies in California to her mother's chagrin. 

As Michael makes it into his fifties, now a lecturer at a small rural college, married to a much younger careers counsellor, he should be contented but is further away than ever. He frets over unfulfilled sexual relationships, and over the flawed male friendships he's had over the years. He finds a job back where he grew up, near Boston, and is suddenly overwhelmed when his new boss - much younger than himself - highly praises his signature poem. Meanwhile Lucy has given up her fortune and by the 1970s has thrown herself into good works for Amnesty International, probably the sort of work that a rich, educated woman of her class would have always done, had she not chased the chimera of artistic happiness.

Like all great novels - and I believe it is a great novel - its much harder to "review" than those that are more flawed, for it it the meticulousness, as well as the quality of the writing, which makes it such a compelling read. How much of the novel is autobiographical? Probably quite a lot - as Davenport is Yates's age - but he's created characters who are dialled down, rather than dialled up (Yates was briefly a speechwriter for Robert Kennedy), far from the bright lights of fame and the compelling history of mid-late 20th century American history. Like "Stoner" or the short stories of Andre Dubus, this more prosaic world is in itself compelling; for when he pulls back the curtain, Yates looks in and beyond suburban America and its inhabitants and teases out the secrets that they keep even from themselves. It's a wonderful novel.

Monday, January 09, 2017

The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes

Julian Barnes has always written well about music and in his first novel since the Booker winning "The Sense of an Ending" he gives a narration of the life of Shostakovich. Made up of short, emblematic paragraphs, the novel is like a diary, so though we were in Shostakovich's head and sensibility at all times, its written from the third person. This gives the novel both an intimacy and a distance. The intimacy works because this is an artist in extremis, under Stalin's Russia, whilst the distance sometimes means that Barnes overwrites or over explains what is happening. I guess there's a difficulty with an obvious historical fiction where we are trying to be in the protagonists head - yet that wasn't a problem in "Wolf Hall" or even "The Damned United" - so I think that uneasiness between the two modes is partly because Barnes' Shostakovich is both knowable and unknowable.

The novel starts with an anecdote. Two men on a train during the war. The train stops unexpectedly. The two men get off and share a vodka with an amputed beggar on the station. The scene is strange, gnomic. It doesn't pretend to know who the other man is, or the beggar, or even where they stopped. This allusiveness has a purpose. We are drawn into the head of Shostakovich, a man who is so enveloped in his music, that he doesn't have the mental space to consider what is happening around him. Or rather, the thing happening around him, the purges, the show trials, the displays of power, has so little to do with music - and yet he finds, under Stalin there is nothing more untrue. The music has everything to do with this. A review in a newspaper of his Shakespearean opera calls his music a "muddle" - its not even a review, but an editorial. Shostakovich, Russia's premier composer, is suddenly a persona non grata. In his flat he waits each night on the stairway with his suitcase packed, so that when they take him away they won't disturb his wife and child.

Barnes' novel is brilliant at setting out this claustrophobia, this fear, this sense of uncertainty. The culture of Stalin's Russia is one that makes nobody safe, not for long. Worse than being denounced almost, is being favoured, for being favoured is no guarantee. Whereas after the Russian revolution art and music flourished for a while, by the 1930s there is a new sense - where all art has to be for the benefit of the revolution, and for the common man. Like Mao's Cultural Revolution later in the century, or the killing fields of Cambodia, the 20th century communist ideal found no room for art that it considered bourgeois. Ordinary Russians would whistle his "Song of the Counterplan", a piece of film music that accompanied a Soviet-realist art but by the time of his 5th composers were also on the frontline of Stalin's all encompassing power. :Lesser composers disappeared, greater ones fled the country to America. Yet Shostakovich stayed. He wrote the "patriotic" "Leningrad" - his 7th symphony - and his stock rose. The book flits back and forth in time. The first part - where he is suddenly at risk, his music denounced, is powerful, the more so for their being little back story or context. This is a Kafkaesque tale of a man suddenly at the whim of "power". (Barnes talks about Shostakovich's 3 conversations with - capitalised - Power.)

It feels a very current novel. Wasn't Pussy Riot's incarceration a canary in the coalmine of Putin's Russia's new religious-backed authoritarianism. There are echoes throughout history of strong men cracking down on not just political dissent but perceived artistic dissent. In this hall of mirrors Wagner is disallowed until the Hitler-Stalin pact and then he is played, before being disallowed again. On a trip to America, Shostakovich is given a script in which he denounces - amongst others - Stravinsky, his musical idol. The Russian system is so debased that the only people who can buy musical manuscript are those approved by an officially sanctioned composers' union. How to explain this control to a west where - after the war - certain on the left will forgive Stalin anything, because he is not a fascist?

The short book gives a real good sense of the paranoia of the age; our Shostakovich tells something of his own history - his own loves and life are sketched out. It feels a not entirely successful telling however, - that distance that comes in, where Barnes interjects and lets us know some of the backdrop. An always consummate novelist, latterly - in this, and in "The Sense of an Ending" - he sometimes proscribes too much, and sometimes, for effect, holds things back. A more knowing Shostakovich might have been a more useful narrator. The real thing - the creation of the music is offstage - yet there are hints at his genius; that opening anecdote is returned to. "The noise of time" is referred to portentously on occasion.

You almost need to read the book with a biography of the composer next to you, and the "Leningrad" on repeat. It's a fine, tantalising novel, well written, engaging, but which perhaps doesn't quite succeed in its ambitious retelling of this tale. There is much atmosphere, and the sense of foreboding of Stalin and then Krushchev's Russia is compelling, but I'm not sure its much more than a very elegant exercise at the end of the day. Yet that's probably fine as well, as the prose does offer a little bit of music of its own. The short block paragraphs are like a musical score, and our Shostakovich can hear the music in his head, and in turn, we can hear his voice in ours.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Mild December

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Last Non-festive Post of 2016

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

But ITS NOT DECEMBER YET.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Punk's Not Dead...it Just Smells Funny

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Art in a Post-Truth World

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

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

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

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

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


Tuesday, November 08, 2016

Just Kids by Patti Smith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 30, 2016

The Autumn Rush

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

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

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

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

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

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


Wednesday, October 26, 2016

The Return of the Mid-list.

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Oh Dylan!

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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 08, 2016

Nostalgia's False Memory Syndrome

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 01, 2016

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

I haven't had a pause.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Writers & Politics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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