Tuesday, May 19, 2015

New Translated Fiction

There are many reasons to applaud the Man Booker International Prize going to the Hungarian writer, László Krasznahorkai. I'll confess I'd only heard about him in passing, through George Szirtes, who has been one of his two English translators, this is not so strange. English letters is a parochial world these days where mediocre works by late career novelists on the wane, or underformed debuts by sassy twentysomethings get a fizz of acclaim before being found (and found out ) in Oxfam a few months down the line. The sense that fiction has to be accessible is English fiction's great stupidity - leading to endless articles about why this or that popular author hasn't received critical acclaim, or bemoaning middlebrow literary fiction (often the dullest examples) for being too difficult.

Yet readers of books are able to delve deeper. Its why we talk about Kafka and Borges and Gogol and Dostoevsky, after all; and yet, popular fiction survives where it hasn't become an anachronism, just look at Agatha Christie's sales. Reading about Krasznahorkai I've found out two things already - his books are dark, comedic fables; and he writes in long, dense sentences. He's also been very successful in his native Hungary, yet his debut - one of the Szirtes translations - is only recently in English. I'm sure I'm not alone, having read the Booker citation, in thinking this is a writer I want to read. Where the writer is good enough, we're happy enough to put up with any difficulty.

And here is where the translator has such a role. Szirtes, interestingly, is primarily a poet, but he has always written very lucidly, and besides he is Hungarian by birth. He's not the only poet to have been a success as a translator. Yet would a leading poet have been interested in translating a less complex, less worthwhile writer? For translated fiction is such a small part of what we see in the shops that mostly it exists on tiny imprints, in small runs, by dedicated presses; either that or European bestsellers, crime fiction for instance, where its less about the style than the plot and setting.

The Man Booker International Prize was set up partly to internationalise the brand, and partly as a rival, however relatively small, to the Nobel. It has done a good job, but with three of its first winner American/Canadian there was a sense that it was rewarding those that the Nobel's blindspot for American writing had overlooked. With this latest award its brought into focus an obscure (to us) writer of international standing from a venerable country and language, reminding us, at the very moment that Britain contemplates leaving the European Union, how the shared culture and values of our art have so often been more important than the boundaries of language and nationality. Few English Literature graduates would not have read Kafka for instance - Krasznahorkai's avowed hero - and its a reminder, if we need reminding,  that some of the best, strangest and most vital writing of the 20th century was not written in English.

Some Nobel winners have remained pretty unknown, rarely read or translated, yet there's a feeling that here's a living writer whom we can get to know better. As ever, there were other writers on the list who might equally deserve our attention, but our culture can only benefit from reading outside of itself. Where, I wonder are the English equivalents? But you might as well say where are the English equivalents of Foster Wallace or Lydia Davis, for if we've not quite given up publishing serious literature, we've certainly not encouraged it.

I might end up hating Krasnahorkai of course, but at least, I'm now aware of him, and enticed a little by the sound of his books.  The judges, chaired by Marina Warner, have had a good day at the office.

Saturday, May 09, 2015

Our New Jerusalem

I grew up in Tory Britain, and it wasn't pleasant. Mainly, it was the lack of hope. The sense that whatever you did or aspired to the rug would be pulled from under you at some point. I went to sixth form in 1983, when all my classmates went straight onto the dole, into youth training schemes (which would seen be pulled) or joined the army. By the time I came out of University in 1988, the brief London-centric boom had petered out, and I found myself unemployed and stuck back with my parents. The "new world" that some Tory apologists talk about, of coffee shops, and immaculate high streets and whatever else had yet to be born, yet if you'd have gone anywhere else in Europe you'd have found a more civilised civic centre. It was only that summer that the restrictions on pub opening hours - a legacy from World War One - were relaxed. I got a job, but not the one I wanted, but it was a well paid one, and I was encouraged to buy a house, with a 5% deposit. When I moved, the economy had come crashing down for a third time in my brief adult life, this time with negative equity and interests rates in double figures. That was Tory Britain....

...but I was young, and in retrospect I'd have been better dropping out more than I did. Trying to get on proved difficult - they were always meddling. I though about teaching in F.E. but that was the year that the Tories had made colleges private entities, and as a result there was hardly a job to be found, so the course I'd got a place on I dropped out of. I stuck in jobs I didn't enjoy, because the fear of finding anything else was still there. It was only after Labour came into power in 1997 that I felt suitably confident about the future to change tack. It wasn't necessarily easy. I'd grown up with "inflation" being seen as the enemy (in much the same way as "the deficit" is the tale they tell us now) above all enemies, but both Labour and Tories colluded in "house price inflation" being somehow okay. I'd never planned to join the public sector - under the Tories it seemed a masochistic game - but I then worked in Universities, the voluntary sector, and finally for the council. Working hard, contributing to other people's well-being - helping the economy (I worked partially in business support) - yet come 2010 and the coalition, the good was undone with a frightening speed.

Labour had diverted funds to the most in need parts of the country but rather than embed it by looking at how local authorities were funded had connived a technocratic solution (New Labour's technocrats have a lot to answer for) which meant that come 2010 this extra money could be wiped out with a swipe of a pen, alongside the Regional Development Agencies and a load of quangos. My "quango" was part of a local authority so it survied a little longer, but then Eric Pickles came along with his over-enthusiastic axe. The last five years I've hardly had a six month period of stability even though my job has continued to be funded, as one cut after another has come down from the centre. Labour had also invested in buildings - schools, arts centres, health centres - after the massive neglect that we'd seen up to 1997, but what use is a building without things going on inside it? Yet after the disastrous flatlining in the economy in the first years of the coalition, more money for infrastructure and business support starting coming through again. The same people who'd gone freelance after being let go by the quangos probably got jobs back in the new quangos. In the name of "efficiency" central government red tape seems to have got more, rather than less, both in work and home life, as inefficient electronic systems replace inefficient people based ones. But just as Tesco's share price has fallen off a cliff as people fall out of love with its soulless offerings, British productivity and investment has gone pear shaped as the tightening of both private and public sector means that we all have to self-service everything these days.

For the Tories are the management class spoofed by John Cleese, and I've yet to see an example where anything actually works better under the Tories; whether run by the private sector or the public sector. So its both the death of hope, and their sheer meddling day-to-day incompetence that makes me shudder at the next five years. In a modern, connected sophisticated country, 90% of activity goes on without government intervention - they have power over the big things (macroeconomics, financial regulations) and the small things (sanctions or benefits that can ruin or improve an individual's life). The rest is up to us - and in the eighties when it seemed that Thatcher and her kind were in power for ever, there was at least the understanding that having made us unemployed she'd not want to see us starving (unlike her followers), and that we could do good for each other; by living our lives, by making art, and when the opportunity came (poll tax riots) making it very difficult for the powers-that-be who had long ago lost any right over our citizenship.

And so, having not stayed up much past the exit poll, as I'd an eye hospital appointment the next day (thought I'd better go before I was told to bring my cheque book), I woke to the worst-case scenario, of  Conservative majority in a divided country. I can't say I was entirely surprised, not because of any lack of decency on Milliband's part (though the technocratic nature of the campaign and the Whitehall-bubble nature of the leader can't have helped), because its the world I grew up in - of fear, not hope. I was younger then and I could sublimate my hope into other places: art, love, music, travel; now I'm wary to embrace a decade or more of anti-Tory action, even though I'll be watching to see if the demonisation of public sector workers continues, but I don't see a contradiction in looking after myself, whilst looking out for others. Labour needs to focus on the makers, the creators, the future builders, and find new ways to deliver on that hope. After all, Tory Britain is one of contradiction. Their obsession with home ownership has led to a massive decline in a property owning democracy; their talk about rebalancing the economy is merely shoving money into London-based investors' pockets.

So I've had my little wobble of woe, following Thursday's debacle.Someone needs to make the case for Europe - surely the thing which will split the Tory party asunder either this time or next - and the Union. A Flemish friend in Belgian, a country with deeper rifts between two regions (who don't even speak the same language), said that there are two things that keep the country together: Brussels and the Royal Family. Scotland hardly needs London when it has Edinburgh, and the Commonwealth example means there's no real barrier to keeping the Queen even if they ditch her constitution. Elsewhere in Europe, Catalan and Basque areas of Spain are autonomous in so many ways, yet like Scotland would be fearful of being adrift from Europe, even if they want some kind of break from Spain itself. The anti-European fear is of a federal Europe - yet it looks increasingly likely that they will need to find some way of making a federal UK possible.

Read the Tory manifesto and its full of uncosted promises (oh, the irony!) from millions of new apprenticeships, to discounts to buy Housing Association homes, to 7-day doctors' surgeries (when they couldn't even manage Andy Burnham's modest plan to allow you to register with any surgery of your choice - they only had 5 years after all!), without mentioning where they will get 12 billion cuts from. Yet I've already heard on social media that the things they are immediately trying to slip through are cuts to support for disabled people to get into work and the possibility of repealing the fox hunt ban. Such red meat to right wingers will probably be the price they have to pay to get through a deal with Scotland that is palatable to both sides.

In my own little world, hand-wringing at the incompetence and cruelties of Tory Britain is commonplace, and its our default position up North, without a Tory councillor to be seen for miles. Because they offered nothing more than repeats from the Thatcher playbook, because they never want to get their hands dirty enough to actually run anything properly, and because they still only represent 37% of the voters, never mind the population, we are better than them, we are more than them, we will outlive them, we will outthink. In the gaps that they leave through their cruelty, neglect and most of all their insouciance and incompetence we build our new cities, our new communities, our new Jerusalem.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner

Adam Gordon is a young American on what is basically a "gap year" in Madrid, a scholarship paid for by a foundation to support his research into the Spanish Civil War through poetry. A young, promising poet, with middle class parents, Adam is also self medicating along with a succession of white and yellow pills for his unspecified condition (he mentions at one point that he is bipolar.) In the first person narrative he begins with a regular routine, where his "project" is to see if he can actually feel any sort of "experience". He goes to the gallery, a short walk from his small loft room in the centre of Madrid, and looks at the same painting each day, having dosed up on pills and strong hash before hand.

Ben Lerner's debut novel, published in 2011, is part of a rich tradition of coming of age novels featuring young writers experiencing life for the first time. This novel almost seems a literary rites of passage for American writers - think "Less Than Zero", "Bright Lights, Big City" - but has its precedence primarily with Hemingway and "The Sun Also Rises." Yet taking place in 2004, this is yet another post-9/11 novel. David Foster Wallace's contention that our future novelists will get their experience from television rather than from real life is borne out here; yet 9/11 provided that unique thing for America - an incident that happened to them, without travelling to find it. Yet so televisual was 9/11 that most people did experience it on the screen. Replace "television" with "internet" and we have the contemporary experience as something that happens away from us, that our ennui is not caused by events as such, but our lack of events. So Adam self medicates. He avoids having a mobile phone (odd surely even in 2004) and wary of becoming the sort of American who never acclimatises, avoids the company of his fellow foundation fellows. He lives a bored, lonely life which eventually turns into something more real through meeting Arturo, a gallery owner, and a curator, Teresa, at a bar. He becomes part of this alternate Spanish set. They really are the beautiful people - rich, workless, or so it seems, political, as only Europeans can be, apparently promiscuous. Latching onto this life, his status as an acclaimed young poet only makes his own doubts even more vivid.

For Adam thinks he is a fake - that everything about his poetry is fake - he knows what he writes in his notebooks is made up, juxtaposed randomly. He is lying about his research. He is lying about everything eventually, using his decision to mostly speak Spanish, as a reason for his reticence. Bit by bit his unawareness that he is changing, that experience is what you do, not what you think about, comes out as his real "coming of age." In the meantime there are lots of drugs - but without any danger, it is easy to pick up hash from the dealers in the square, it is even easier to get through the massive stash of medications he takes for anxiety, sleeplessness, his mental state. The ennui is, anyhow, something that he pre-empts. He knows how solipsistic he sounds, how meaningless his life appears, how in even trying to apply meaning he is a dilettante. So much of what one expects from the unreliable narrator. There is something of the Jamesian hero abroad here - a man on whom people project so much, but which he gives little evidence of anything being there. Yet his personal insecurities, that manifest themselves in killing off and demonising of his absent parents, don't stop him being more than capable when he gives a reading or when he's asked to show his poetry. The reticence is seen as a sign of his seriousness.

Yet there's a sense where Adam is a fake, and his knowing that he is a fake is what is so key. Here he is, a funded rich kid slumming it in Europe for a year - the Grand Tour - and even if he avoids other Americans he begins to recognise a "type" like him, who appears Spanish, speak Spanish, hangs out only with the Spanish, but look closely, and you see they are deliberately separating themselves from the cliche of the American tourist in this subterfuge. If there's a protesting too much about this its because of how much more polyglot European cities seem these days; particularly in artistic, cultural and academic circles. The only poor people noticed in the novel are the African dealers, and after the Madrid bombing in 2004, they disappear, apparently rounded up by the previously tolerant police.

For yes, real life does come into this "gap year". Being so concerned about his lack of authenticity, Adam finds himself in the vicinity of "History." Yet the modern hero can do no more than queue to give blood, the rest of the time, joining the rest of the world on television watching what's happening a few hundred metres away. There's a more subtle question at play here, which is deftly handled, for the American becomes not just a bystander or a visitor but a representative of a culture - a culture where experimental poetry can do nothing, has no part. Anger over the right wing Spanish government's support of America is directly linked to Madrid being a target. Yet the problem with this "action" taking place in a novel that, like Houllebecq's existential debut "Whatever" is so otherwise inert, is that of course it is an appropriation. For Adam represents nobody other than himself. If anything he is escaping Bush's America, watching CNN for daily reports on deaths in Iraq. The novel is so through a solipsistic young American poet's eyes that the picture soon fades, and empathy is removed. The Spanish film "La Soledad" did a far better job of being obliquely there at the tragedy; but like McEwan's "Saturday" this is a novel where the characters are bystanders to history, untouched by it.

In many ways, how you to take to this short, fascinating, elegant novel will depend on how much you can take Adam/Lerner's self obsessive self awareness. There's a framework of sorts which helps - with "Leaving the Atocha Station" referring both to the Madrid railway and the Ashbery poem. In between learning Spanish and trying to get involved with two different women, Adam finds himself pondering art, and aesthetics. If nothing is real - if no experience is real - then how can the approximation of experience that great art promises be anything other than fake? He discusses Ashbery's line construction as one way out of the conundrum. It is a case, that the work of art refuses paraphrase, that it can be experienced but not explained. Sitting on a panel being asked about "Literature now" he wonders whether such a thing is impossible to discuss. He says he will never write a novel. Lerner, a poet as well, is nothing if not an accomplished trickster. He knows what he is doing, even as Adam doesn't.

I can hardly imagine a British debut novel being allowed to get away with the intellectual ennui, softcore privilege and consideration of itself, in the way that "Leaving the Atocha Station" does, yet this highly inward tale is a genuine pleasure; ideally read at a single sitting, where some of the more self-centred passages can be offset with the genuine quality of his writing. For Lerner writes long paragraphs that build up sub clauses on sub clauses, to create a similar hypnotic whirl to the self medicating head of the narrator. Madrid, and Spain (he visits Granada, fails to visit the Alhambra, visits Barcelona, and immediately gets lost and spends the rest of the day trying to find his hotel), are present, but hardly present at all in a sense, as the sensibility is that of the outsider. Yet America has gone as well. We know the narrator is speaking Spanish, so the writer gives us very few Spanish words. Its a deft act, which sees a self obsession, a self awareness that only occasionally becomes self immolation. As ever in these books, the narrator is puzzled by why the women won't make love to him (though one does, one doesn't - though she kisses him and sleeps with him) but at the same time makes no effort to tell them anything of truth. Like the elderly Strether in James' "The Ambassadors" the Europeans seem to appreciate the charms of the naive, unknowing American puritan, without the reader ever being that convinced by him.

There are a couple of missteps. The messaging with a friend in Chile who tells him a story of his "gap year" travel which Adam then appropriates as his own, seems a little too forced; whilst a scene where he expensively raids his parents' credit cards merely, it seems, to give his first girlfriend an awkward "farewell", seems to jar with the image we have of Adam as being a lovable fool; here he seems manipulative and callous.

Yet, despite this, I couldn't help but think its the best thing I've read for a while. There's originality here, albeit through a prism of McInerney, Houllebecq, and (especially) Ben Marcus, and similar material in Bolano's "The Savage Detectives" is so much more real. Like in Luke Kennard's poetry, Lerner has already pretty much admitted to or noticed the contradictions and failings of the privileged, self-aware but inert life of his protagonist, and holds his hands up half in satire, but half as if to say "what else can I do?" With a 2nd, apparently equally solipsistic novel recently published, 10:04, I guess there may well be a sell-by date on this kind of insularity, but you don't have to particularly like the flawed central character of "Leaving the Atocha Station", to find it one of the more interesting debuts of recent years.

Friday, April 24, 2015

From Prague to Fallowfield - Coming Up

Earlier this year I was invited to contribute to the Prague-based magazine VLAK, whose 5th issue can be ordered now. Available in May, it looks like it will be a beautiful publication, and I can proudly say that I'm published alongside such luminaries as Marina Abramovich, Alan Halsey, Charles Bernstein, Clark Coolidge, Allen Fisher and many others. It includes my new story "The Good Citizen." There will be a Prague and London launch coming up in May, more information nearer the time.

This is my 2nd publication of the year, as my long poem "Parallels" appears in the new issue of Prole. A state of the nation poem, I'm particularly pleased that I've managed to get it into print in the weeks before the new election.

Nearer to home, I'll be going to "Poets and Players" tomorrow. Centre for New Writing's John McAuliffe, Next Generation Poet Melissa Lee Houghton and Maria Isakova Bennett are reading alongside students from Chethams. Highly recommended.

Then on Monday, the ever excellent Verbose night comes round for a 4th time. This time its a special launch event for the 3rd issue of the evolving Confingo Magazine, which, if you remember, I was featured in the 2nd issue.

Also next week is the next Other Room, at the Castle Hotel on Oldham Street on Thursday.

Friday, April 03, 2015

Cornerhouse Memories

The Cornerhouse closed its doors for the last time yesterday (excluding a ticket-only event this weekend). So farewell a constant presence in the thirty years I've been visiting or living here. When all these Joy Division documentaries go on about grim Manchester, or city leaders talk about the renaissance after the bomb in 1996, it doesn't equate to my memories of the city, and a big part of that is the Cornerhouse.

Coming from a small village, visits to Birmingham were exciting as a teenager, though I can't say I did much art, just mainly music and shopping. When I went to university at 18, the small town of Lancaster was a great place to be, but lacked the big city attractions, so regularly we'd get on the train or share a car to Manchester. "Blue Velvet" the film that was the audience-choice closer last night, was one I watched at the University film club, I think, so it was probably "Sammy and Rosie Got Laid", a raw, northern British comedy which was the first movie I saw at the Cornerhouse. I've seen quite a few films there over the years, though less so of late, though that's as much my changing habits as anything else. For some people the Cornerhouse was always primarily a cinema, but I remember going to see the BT Contemporaries there in the 1990s with Damian Hirst's "pickled shark" on display, so I've been a regular visitor to its art over the years, though the quirky three gallery space has always been a difficult space for an exhibition to truly own, particularly as more multi media art became fashionable in the new century.

Then there's the bar - most people I've spoken to have forgot what the bar used to be like before the makeover in - when was it? - 2002? I used to like that old bar, it was a bit of a quiet hideaway on a Saturday night if you were meeting someone for a quiet drink. I was a regular for a year or so at a Monday night quiz where I went with members of a few bands I knew. Through work, since 2005 or so, I've got to know the Cornerhouse staff, and Dave Moutrey, its longstanding manager, and have used the extended spaces of the extension for plenty of digital events. Though the one time I actually "performed" there was before then - when I was asked to be part of a film/poetry night organised as part of the Manchester Poetry Festival (as it was then). Three films were shown, and the poets associated with each did a short reading. It was probably my first poetry reading, come to think of it.

When we started a little magazine, "Lamport Court", over half of our sales came from the Cornerhouse bookshop, and its worth noting that despite the film and the art, that the Cornerhouse has for a long time been the unofficial headquarters of the Manchester literary scene, a place where writers could easily sit on there own, with a coffee, writing the next thing. I imagine its had a cameo part in quite a few books and stories over the years. In the inevitable business plan for the exciting new multi-arts venue down the road, that its moving to, Home, I do hope that literature isn't forgotten, just because it doesn/t require the same kind of institutional investment as theatre, art or cinema.

The new place will raise the bar for a multi-arts venue, extra cinema space allowing more varied programming, two theatres rather than Library theatre's one, including a flexible studio space, and a new purpose built gallery space. I suspect that the artistic things I loved about the Cornerhouse - collaboration, festivals, serendipity - will all be enhanced at Home, which has the opportunity to be much more than "just" a programmed venue. What will be lost, of course, is the brilliant location, just beside Oxford Road Station, on Oxford Road, so almost always encouraging me to pass by or drop in, just for a coffee or a browse in the bookshop or in the hope of bumping into someone. The thing is, such serendipity is less about buildings or investment and more about people; so I'm not so hung up on the change - the world moves on. Coming from South Manchester on the tram, the new site is nearer to Deansgate-Castlefield than the old one was to St. Peter's Square, so I'm thinking I'll be popping by nearly as regularly.

Inevitably, the last few nights the bar and restaurant was packed, a sign of how many personal memories are wrapped up in the place. The Manchester I came to in the mid-80s had its ramshackle elements, but the Cornerhouse was a symbol of its modernity, at a time when film was going through a periodic renaissance, and there was a wide enough audience hungry for an emerging popular avant garde. I'm not sure if its ever shown any superhero or Tolkein movies - I hope not - but I'm sure it showed comic book adaptions such as "Ghost World" and "American Splendor". In many ways the art cinema defined taste for my generation - dark American independent movies such as "Blue Velvet" alongside startling European films by directors like Aldovomar. Manchester has never had a major film festival (though Cornerhouse's Viva - Spanish and Latin American film is a regular niche highlight) but in many ways, my memories are that the Cornerhouse programme was always a film festival, just as the art and music scene in the city may be enhanced by Manchester International Festival, but aren't replaced by it.

They had a giant pencil unstallation in Cornerhouse the last few weeks for people to put down their memories, and if I didn't partake it was partly through an uncertainty about nostalgia, but mostly because my memory of the place is so wide, so fragmented, covers so many different aspects of my life over the last thirty years. The news is that the building will be used by MMU for the next three years, before inevitable plans are made around the refurbishment of Oxford Road Station, and its not clear whether there will be any public aspect to that. Its sad that both the name and the building will disappear into memory, cultural institutions are grown not built, after all, but it is a different world now - with digital film projection, an internationalised art scene, and technology taking its place in theatre as well as other spheres. Goodbye, Cornerhouse, its been lovely having you around.

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Stations of the Cross

One thing I think I miss from not having much of a religious upbringing, is the full psychodrama of Easter. This is after all the really exciting bit of the New Testament, and the Christian church has done its best to create a compelling narrative of ritual to match the story of the Passion. It also inspires quite a lot of fascinating art, from Caravaggio's portrait of Jesus in Gethsemane, through Bach's St. John's Passion, to Mel Gibson's bloody but compelling The Passion of Christ. Passion is a fascinating word, and the archaism of the Biblical "passion" has always fascinated me. What is so passionate about this violent death? There seems a category error somehow. Then there's the Stations of the Cross, the resurrection, the ascension; and the rituals of the church alongside it.

Anyway, that's someone else's paraphernalia I think - we have an Easter holiday of our own - four days that can sometimes seem the dullest weekend of the year. Friends with families buzz off, desperate in the grey late winter/early spring to find some sunshine. We're tired by this time of the year. Working in the public sector, 1st April is also our first day of a new holiday year - accounts are finished off and passed over into the new financial year. April Fool's Day gives us a bit of light relief - on the one hand I thought the internet would ruin the jokes, but weirdly, since everyday on the internet can sometimes seems like a Fool's day, it doesn't seem to have. Marketing and P.R. departments let their hair down for once and are able to say "it was a joke" without much likelihood of condemnation.

It's a strange one this year - as I've got to April without quite thinking my way into 2015. Its been a busy year already, though partly through persistent colds and sicknesses, and with a couple of exceptions, a grey, grim weather. I'm a year older, and feel at this time of year, a little wearier. Yet if I take stock, its more because the year doesn't seem to have quite started yet.

Things will change: have changed. Its been a great year for artistic friends and acquaintances of mine. Lonelady's 2nd album "Hinterland" has come out to rave reviews and a #72 chart placing; a gem of a record from one of my oldest friends. Other people who have been working in the shadows seem to be stepping out - and yet I know how much graft goes into this. Paul Harfleet's "The Pansy Project" was featured in the Guardian; Jackie O'Hagan's autobiographical show "Some People have too Many Legs" is touring the country and even saw her being filmed for the One Show. Sarah Butler's second novel, "Before the Fire" has just been published, and later in the year will see new books from Elizabeth Baines, Neil Campbell and David Rose amongst others. I've always been surrounded by quite a bit of talent, its good to see that perseverance pays off.

It is this more than the big artistic statements that matters of course: but one would be churlish to not be excited by Home, the new art centre which will combine Manchester's Library Theatre and Cornerhouse, which this week closes it Oxford Road doors for the last time. So many memories - I think I would have gone there the first time I came to Manchester in late 1985 - alot of my life is there, yet I've been reluctant to join the memorialising; as the future is surely more exciting. New stories to be lived and written. It's a Manchester International Festival year as well - so I need to pay attention in the early summer.

So, I'm sat here in the middle of a 2-day working week, and carrying on in my own inimitable smalltime way, and thinking, that we do all right, though the psychodrama of a Tory government, which the coalition has been for the last five years, never seems to do anything for me, my life, or that of my friends and family. The thought of another five years of right wing managerialism, incompetence and indifference doesn't fill me with glee. A poem never changes anything of course, though I've written one, which will be out soon enough. On the other hand as an election junky I do find there's a palpable excitement about an election as unpredictable as this one. I would like another 1997 moment, at least once in my life - I suspect I won't get one this time, but you never know.
 


Sunday, March 29, 2015

Revival by Stephen King

Recently, faced with "readers block," I've found late Stephen King a good way of unblocking. But what King was I reading? "11.22.63" was a time travel story squarely set in the uncomplicated fifties that he's so good at evoking; "Mr. Mercedes" managed to be a detective story where the only horror element was in the world we live in today, whilst at the same time managing a not-embarassing take on the internet.

"Revival" is back to classic King territory - a slow burn horror story. I was interested by its premise. A young boy finds himself under a shadow of a charismatic preacher who loses his faith when tragedy hits his own life. The young boy finds his own way through life by picking up a rhythm guitar and playing for twenty years in road bands, before his heroin addiction brings him down. King has always had a good ear for rock and roll, even if I can't quite remember him writing an overtly rock and roll novel before; add in religion, smalltown Maine, and a P.T. Barnum-like evangelical miracle worker harnessing the power of lightning, and there's all the elements of a classic King. Sadly, "Revival" doesn't manage to mix them together well.

Jamie Morton is playing soldiers, a happy child in large religiously-inclined family, when the new charismatic minister, the young Charlie Jacobs arrives, to be followed shortly afterwards by his beautiful wife and their young son. Everyone falls in love with Jacobs and he's a well drawn picture of a charismatic religious leader ending up in a small community and having an impact on all their lives. Such a man would surely move on soon enough, but fate sees him abandoning the church with a final terrible sermon where he doesn't believe in God. The young Jamie was the first person he spoke to and he a lingering fondness for the Minister, having been shown early on Jacobs' interests in home made electronics. But Jacobs doesn't experiment just to provide a link between science and God, he believes in "the secret electricity" - which as the novel progresses we only learn has been studied intermittently over the centuries, but the books in which it has been mentioned are banned or held by collectors. Such Crowley-esque mystery is more Dan Brown than usual, and King's heart hardly seems to be in it. We have to take the supernatural on trust here. Considering how other worlds have been so believably intertwined with ours in books like "Firestarter" and "The Stand", it seems strange how perfunctory this is.

As Morton grows older, tragedy hits his own family, but we already know there is a "shadow" over his life. It is the adult Morton who is telling the story and on the first page he calls Jacobs his "fifth business". Yet for much of the novel the shadow that the preacher casts seems a benign one. First, he has his own tragedy, his own darkness, and then when Morton finds him again, this time as a carny, making magic pictures of pretty girls to take home from the fair, the musician is at an all time low, a heroin addict just wanting the next score, having just been sacked from the second rate band he's in. I never quite buy Morton's heroin addiction - he seems a jobbing, amateur musician, and there's little in his background to suggest that he would succumb to being a drug addict. Besides, when Jacobs, now going under a different name uses the "secret electricity" to enact a cure, we suddenly have a clean musician. When he next encounters Jacobs, he's more of preacher than a carny. He has started giving out miracle cures. Yet these cures have side effects, and Morton becomes concerned that Jacobs is dabbling with a darkness that is destroying people's lives. But none of this feels particularly convincing. The "secret electricity" is perfunctorily explained; so that when once again Morton becomes involved, he has to wait with an ageing Jacobs for a storm after a benign summer, before the electricity can be used again. Morton knows there is a darkness to the "cures" that Jacobs gives out, but because he is telling the story - and similar to "Mr. Mercedes" this bit feels a bit like a detective tale - we are at a distance from the reality. Everything bad happens offstage. Morton himself has occasional voices in his head; his brother Col, who was the first of Jacobs' "cures" has no problems at all. It is other people - his mother, his sister - who have had natural tragedies in their life. Jacobs wasn't there for them, but this is not even touched on. There seems little reason for Morton's curiousity, and even when Jacobs approaches him because his first girlfriend has come to him asking for a cure, it seems an absurd piece of machinery.

In many ways, this is a classic bit of shaggy dog storytelling. By the end of the book Jamie is sixty - placing the childhood start of the novel in the early sixties. The whole novel is just a preamble for a set piece straight out of  "The Monkeys Paw", with one final cure being attempted by a near-death Jacobs as he wants to open the portal onto life after death. We never quite understand the motivations and there's an irony that in a book of the supernatural, a logic to itself is what makes a book like this (like his early novels) believable or not. This tries too hard to come up with something plausible, yet I go the sense that it could have been done in a condensed short story if King hadn't wanted to spin several hundred pages of chance encounters before the denouement. Yes, the ending is genuinely dark and scary, and we finally agree with Morton that it would have been better had he never met Jacobs, so dark was the aftermath of his ministrations. It feels a little that King wanted to finally write that "rock and roll" novel whilst also having a good go at the evangelical placebos of a credible middle America, and they all got thrown in to this idea of "Revival" - a musical concept; but also straight out of Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein," - reviving the  monster - whilst also having something of the showman "religious revival."

Plenty there in other words for a compelling novel, but for once in King, none of the ideas really convince. The longeurs of the timescale, the nature of Morton as a retrospective first person narrator, the somewhat dashed off rock and roll elements - none really convince. When Jacobs is on the page it sizzles a bit more, yet we are always in Morton's words, and so we see the incarnations with a cynicism, that makes us wonder why he's continuing with the story. Without believable motive, the sense of uncovering or even understanding the nature of Jacobs'' experiments, exposing his evil in other words, seems contrived. That it is the last few pages, after the final denouement, that are the most effective, highlights how much the novel structurally misfired for me. The writing is the slackest I've read by him for a long time, for the second novel in a row (following "Mr. Mercedes") a middle aged man falls far too easily into bed with a much younger woman, and even Jacobs, who at times seems a genuinely intrigueing character - as a man who has been tainted by his curiousity, a bit like Frankenstein, or the hatter who goes mad from too much mercury poisoning - is dealt with lazily. Not one of his best.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

The Lost Art of the Greatest Hits Album

When you are a kid, the Greatest Hits album is probably all you know. Those bands you heard growing up before you could afford to buy the records have kindly put all their hits in one place. Its no surprise that some of the biggest selling albums in the UK (ABBA, Queen) and US (Elton John, Eagles) are Greatest Hits albums.

Once upon a time, in the sixties, artists tended to not put their singles on albums,  yet those compilations, "A Collection of Beatles Oldies," "Meaty, Beaty, Big and Bouncy" and "High Tide and Greeen Grass" were not big sellers at the time - coming so soon after the records themselves had come out. The baroque names probably didn't help either. I suspect they were probably priced more expensively as well - and also had to compete with the new album by the Beatles, the Who or the Stones as these bands developed so quickly.

So it was really the seventies where the Greatest Hits came into its own. Artists might be recording an album a year and a Greatest could give them a bit of a breather, and pull together the songs that had been played on the radio. Elton John, Linda Ronstadt, the Eagles and others were album bands who also had hit singles, but a Greatest Hits drew in the casual fans, the ones who'd heard that early song on the radio or perhaps bought the really big breakthrough album. There's sometimes some odd choices on these mega-selling records. "Border Song" on Elton's for instance. They are of their time as well - all three of those artists would have second volumes of greatest hits which would include some of their biggest later hits. Frequently a Greatest would be a way of getting mileage out of the back catalogue of an artist who'd just had a massive hit single. ABBA's Greatest Hits for instance was a bestseller, but made up for the fact that few people bought their first three albums despite some hit singles. As they became massive stars, it ended up being the first album that people bought by them.

As a regular trawler of second hand record sellers I've been picking up Greatest Hits. You might not think you need Cat Stevens in your life, but a collection without "Wild World" or "Father or Son" is slightly bereft - a Greatest Hits solves the problem. By the late seventies TV advertised Greatest Hits crammed more than the regular 10 or 12 sides - so the fidelity sometimes suffered. But New Wave and New Romantic bands are surely as well served by their greatest hits as individual albums. Want "Call Me" by Blondie? Then you need the exemplary "Best of Blondie" - only a shame that this iconic collection wasn'tm reissued on vinyl recently when their other early records were. (It had the advantage of being released before their less than stellar "The Hunter" album.) Madness, Human League, OMD - all bands that are probably best served on a decent best of.

The CD kind of ruined things of course. The 70 plus minute length meant that a greatest was no longer a sharp forty or fifty minute party record, but something crammed with every single, with the boring slow tracks as well as the pop songs. For Greatest Hits sensibly tended to be aimed at the seventies house party. Who needs that half paced love song that was the third single off the album? Of course, there are exceptions. ABBA Gold probably couldn't be beaten, whilst Madonna's "Immaculate collection" is amazing for the tracks it misses off (including a couple of UK number ones).

Nowadays of course there is every kind of compilation - even bands like the Smiths have spawned half a dozen. If in doubt, stay with the singles, as these were the tracks that meant the most at the time. I was as surprised as anyone how fantastic the Beatles' "1" album was - by concentrating on just their biggest hits it turned them from rock legends back into that brilliant pop band that they started out as. Latterday bands such as James are best showcased on their best of - whilst some bands who had just one great album and a smattering of singles - like the Stone Roses - seem odd in a  Greatest Hits context. That Greatest Hits by Guns n' Roses and Red  Hot Chilli Peppers have been so successful indicates the patchy nature of so many of their albums and must be a good way for a young rock fan to pick up a single disc best of - yet they hardly seem classic collections.

The days of bands releasing two or three singles a year off each album, moving on, maybe having a non album hit or two, seem long gone. Often there's one massive album and a longer career that's underwhelming. I'm sure boy bands like One Direction will have massive selling best ofs, but there's a cynicism to modern musical careers that means we've only had one song from Adele for instance since her mega-selling "21".

Growing up, I experienced the sixties mainly through compilations - the Beatles Red and Blue albums; Rolling Stones' Hot Rocks; Bob Dylan Greatest Hits; best ofs by the Small Faces and Jefferson Airplane; soul compilations of the Temptations or Isley Brothers or Booker T and the MGs.
Now, I quite like putting on a crackly old record, like Roxy Music's Greatest Hits (see above), a slightly odd choice of tracks, that nonetheless works as a great party record. Even hated bands like the Eagles can be made palatable by the filleting of a Greatest Hits.

Some Favourites.

1. Best of Blondie

Good as their albums are, this brings all their best tracks together. Non album song "Call Me" gets a run out, as do early non-hits "X Offender" and "Rip Her to Shreds." If you only listen to "Parallel Lines" (virtually a greatest hits in itself) you miss such gems as "Presence Dear" from the album before.

2. Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits

This was my first Dylan album and perhaps it should still be my favourite. Its a great track selection. Whether they were all hits or not, I'm not sure - but like alot of "best ofs" it serves as a track listing for the songs of his that lasted. Further volumes are weird and career spanning collections just to diverse - this is the one to go for.

3. Roxy Music Greatest Hits

"Virginia Plain" and "Pyjamarama" can't be found on their other albums - it tends to the rockier side of their back catalogue - and it finishes before they resumed with "Manifesto" - but its such a listenable record even if it feels like Eno has been asked to stand outside.

4. The Temptations Greatest Hits

Mine's a TV compilation with a terrible cover - but it brings together their late sixties psychedelia like "Ball of Confusion" and "Papa Was a Rolling Stone" with their earlier classic Motown. Cheap Motown compilations have been a joy throughout my life.

5. Celluloid Heroes - the Kinks

Seventies Kinks are a mixed bunch - weird double albums, concept albums, and no hits - yet "Celluloid Heroes" is a brilliant distillation of this period. Like the Stones "Rewind" it takes an unfashionable period and compiles it well.

6. Uncut Funk: the bomb - Parliament

In the late eighties it was hard to find Parliament records so when this brilliant compilation came out I bought it and played it to death. It has a picture of George Clinton surfing two dolphins on the cover, a brilliantly funny funk dictionary on the back. What's not to like?

7. Once Upon a Time - Siouxsie and the Banshees

Despite being dark and gothic on their albums the Banshees were also a brilliant pop band and this timely compilation of their imperial period is stunning, not a bad track on it. Twice Upon  a Time - double the length - and from their later career does a good job as well, but this is the one you need.

8. Snap! - the Jam

I wasn't a great Jam fan but this compilation convinced me. Originally a double album I've the slightly reduced track listing of the CD - a collection that crams as much of the band on as it can and yet never goes slack, surely the sign of a good band? The underrated Style Council are equally well served by the "Singular Adventures of..." compilation, which fillets even lacklustre albums for gems.

9. The Whole Story - Kate Bush

A classic compilation that still sells well today. Kate's early success tended to overshadow the songs that came after (at least until "Hounds of Love") but this brilliant selection gives equal billing to "Army Dreamers", "Babooshka" and "Sat in Your Lap." It means that a song as weird as "The Dreaming" is in pretty much every household in the country.

10. The Collection - Jefferson Airplane

I hardly knew the Airplane until Castle Communications started issuing cheap double albums/single CDs in the late eighties and early nineties. Cheap to look at, they were nonetheless intelligently compiled. For a while I thought this was the only Airplane I needed, but of course, they were a quality band and I've since investigated much further - but this was where I came in. I've also got great Castle albums by Melanie, Small Faces, Motorhead, and the Lovin' Spoonful. Worth picking up if you see them.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Gentrification of Urban Literature

I may not have grown up in an urban environment but I grew up as a writer as an urban writer. It was the only thing worth writing about if you came from the dullest of suburbs. The city was exciting. It carried on after dark (and in those days of restricted licensing laws, actually came back to life after dark after a six o'clock switch off), it threw all kinds of lives together in a melting pot, it had its own edgelands - abandoned estates or tower blocks where the police wouldn''t go.

The cityscape was an excitement that I couldn't avoid as a teenager, even if it came with danger and occasional fear, because it also came with opportunity. The music I loved took place there, both because bands themselves migrated to the cities and because that's where they played, and where I'd have to go to see them. The places they played might be swish nightclubs on a weekend, but would be handed over to guitar bands midweek; or more likely they were odd, scummy, barely legal places with sticky floors and unheralded entrances, down uninviting side streets.

As a teenager I quickly grew tired of fantasy and science fiction, and part of the reason  why was that the realism that existed in the city was equally as strange, equally as alluring. Whether drugs, sex, music or simply neon lights and speeding cars on rain-streaked streets, this was futuristic and fantastical to my mind. The hidden venue down a back alleyway, the first time down a darkened staircase, the opening out into a cramped emporium of sounds and sights for sore eyes? This was William Burroughs via "Blade Runner" and the Cantina-scene in "Star Wars". And it was in Birmingham or Manchester or Leeds.

Yet come out of these dives and the world was like the dystopia of "Blade Runner" or later "The Matrix" or "Strange Days." Our urban environment on film has been for  a long time a noirish nightmare of shadows. The abandonment of our cities - the no-go areas and slums - speaks of a traumatic human history, just as the great civic buildings, speak of their previous pre-eminency. And part of the allure of these urban spaces was the real story that took place there. After all I grew up during a period when cities were all but abandoned by our central government. With a critical election coming up in a few weeks, its worth remembering that the Conservative Party not only fails to win inner city seats, but has no real idea of what cities are except as speculative property plays. Like cartoon characters, the modern Conservative party makes it money in the city and then retires to its landed estate in the countryside. The riots of the Thatcher years; the long-running sores of the Irish "Troubles"; these held back cities from gentrifying even as elsewhere in Europe the city - which had never suffered quite so much of a battering as its blighted British or American equivalent - made a comeback.

Look around now, though, and a gentrification of our cities has taken place. The process of prettifying old manufacturing areas, and turning the old factories and warehouses into offices, shops and flats is close to completing in so many of our cities. Whereas spacious lofts might once have been taken over by artists in unsavoury parts of the city, nowadays its the property speculators who cut these spaces into multiple apartments, encouraging a new urban consumer - young, affluent, requiring to be near to work - into the city. Our gentrification is almost complete, and at the same time our literature surely gentrifies as well. John Lanchester's "Capital" for instance, which is less about "capital" as in money than our capital city, and takes place primarily in a rich suburban street. Or even Zadie Smith's "NW" where the council estate where her characters grew up is left behind, a place separate from the gentrified city. Our new urban literature is as much a daughter of "Sex and the City" and "Friends", a young urban middle class living in expensive rentals, defining themselves by shopping and lifestyle, as it is by their urban environment. Tao Lin describes the interiors or apartments and writes about lives looking inward to their computer terminals or mobile devices, but the external environment no longer matters, is no longer there. There would be little sense of a believable "fall" from the gentrified city to the slums, the kind of journey you used to find in "Bonfire of the Vanities", not when everyone is an Uber away from the yoghurt bar. The need to go down to Chinatown for your noodles is alleviated when a designer noodle or sushi bar has opened on every regentrified corner.

What might be better for our life - though one wonders about this as well, so dependent on debt-culture, so much of it being speculative property plays, so much of it fuelled by a shifting workforce - where our inner cities have gentrified, and the "problems" are either dispersed or ignored, also has a damaging effect on our art. For the artists studios get moved out. The dive bars and venues close down (The Roadhouse in Manchester being the latest to announce its closure), the marginal areas like London's Soho become inhospitable to anything other than mainstream culture. And with it goes our urban literature. The problems mostly still remain: just count the homeless on our streets as the refuges and hostels get closed down in the name of "austerity". When Galbraith talked of "Private Wealth, Public Squalor" did he envisage at time when even the public area would be privatised for profit, and the "squalor" would become outsourced to those who are least able to resist it? If our cities become walled estates, then so to does our urban literature.

Yet literature has to remain its relevance. We see how contemporary writers seem to struggle with the issues of the day - see the rash of post 9/11 literature, few of which have enhanced the writers' reputations. But even our urban crises are giving out different stories that literature has to find a way of telling. The riots in Manchester in 2011 were the opposite of previous rounds of rioting which tended to happen in marginalised areas of the cities; this was an imported opportunistic riot that grew via social media and disappeared almost as soon as it had begun. For the ongoing narrative in our urban environment is about gentrification and speculative property development. Forget that  Manchester had a record low number of new house starts in 2014, for the cranes in the city centre are rising again. I go round Europe a lot and in Amsterdam, Brussels, Barcelona, London and elsewhere I've rarely seen so much building work going on - large civic projects like Crossrail and HS2 are in some ways land clearers for the private developments that come in their wake. Old London has survived many things, from the Luftwaffe to urban blight, but its finding itself helpless at the onslaught of sovereign wealth funds as they offer a "scorched earth" policy for non-productive assets, such as the music shops around Denmark Streets or the night time economy in SoHo.

On the one hand one can't be too upset at losing illegal brothels, condemned buildings and fire-risk underground cellar venues, but its what they are being replaced with that shocks. Privatised public spaces, with security barriers; expensive rabbit warren apartments; empty office blocks sold off between developers as corporate property ploys; and much of it dependent on the infrastructure of public money that is being squeezed out of services and thrown at infrastructure projects as right wing austerity policies have calcified the economies, and old style Keynesian pump-priming has been required instead. But if earlier recessions got rid of bloated or unnproductive firms and companies, this new model seems to be bolster the fortunes of the property and finance sectors, where the former's tangible asset props up the latter's intangible one.

For an urban writer the story becomes more difficult to tell. Do we interiorise so our characters spend all their time looking at their tablets and moving between restaurant and coffeeshop like the world has reduced to the set of "Friends"? Or do we try and tell the story through its new institutions - its zero hour contracts, its passive non-unionised workforce, its hidden armies of contract cleaners and security guards, its call centres and marketing companies. Its a grimmer prospect for a writer than the squats and slums of Hulme or the crumbling urban heat of Brixton. A Martin Millar or Irvine Welsh or William Burroughs would surely struggle here. The crumbling nowheresville of urban loneliness has been exported to small towns and provincial suburbs, in the hidden lives of those refused benefits  or sanctioned for missing an appointment.

If urban literature offered something other than an exciting colour, it was because it was the place where society interacted, came into touch with each other. Our contemporary solipsism, where the girl down the corridor from me puts on her headphones even as she throws out the trash in order not to have to say hello to anyone, is the endgame of this debt-led economical model. For all the problems of the urban wastelands I grew up with, they were also creative hotbeds of possibility - designed and adapted by the young, the marginalised, the new, and the uncomfortable. Our current world offers up a consumerist panacea....we don't need something like Google glasses - we are already living it.

As the empty tower blocks fill up with temporary agency staff; as the bars get more expensive and the restaurants heap up the calories on mega burgers or speciality pizzas, as the drugs get taken behind closed doors by burnt out accountants and marketing consultants... as the last dive venue puts up the "For Sale" sign and the last second hand shop moves out to the declining highstreets of suburbs and districts, we need new words for our Bourgeois-opolis, our Google-towns. The world's problems are increasing, yet our urban centres are becoming Westworld-style theme parks away from the reality. How to write that? How to read that?

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Coming Up

In my head I've not been blogging much - but I think its probably because I've not done too many "catch up" blogs on what's going on out there. I don't really want this to just turn into a "review" blog so I will try harder....

Today... you can go to Poets & Players at John Rylands for poetry superstar Alice Oswald. I imagine it will be packed so get there early.

On Monday, we've a whole raft of superstars, the FlashTag flash fiction collective - kind of like WWF but with words or something. I think it will be Fat Roland, Benjamin Judge and Sarah Clare Conlon reading at Verbose, alongside an "open mic". The last two events were packed so come early. Both Fat Roland and Benjamin Judge did a reading last night at SFX at the Royal Exchange, so if that was a preview, you are in for a treat.

And the megastars keep on coming, as the very funny (and very good) Chris Killen will be reading in real life from his new novel "In Real Life" at ever entertaining Bad Language.

Then the Manchester art scene will be out in force on Thursday night for a final showcase of New Art Space Federation House developed by Castlefield Gallery. It should be fantastic. Details are here - and its from 6pm-9pm.

Enough to be going on with? I do hope so.

I'm now off to Levy Market where there's food, drink, fleas (its a flea market innit?) and musical performances.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Underworld at Albert Hall Manchester

The first thing you notice on arriving at Manchester's Albert Hall to see Underworld is the sparse stage layout, with two Apple Macbooks, to the left of a bank of keyboards hidden from view.

When "dubnobasswithmyheadman" was released in 1994, the World Wide Web was in its infancy, and though computers were used widely in music, they were nowhere near as powerful as they are now.

The concept of bands touring their classic albums is one that can seem purely nostalgic, and surely for electronic dance music, which is so often singles-orientated and defined by its time, the idea should be ridiculous. Yet, "dubnobasswithmyheadman" was and is an exception to these rules. As Karl Hyde admits from the stage, he doesn't like to look back, so was uncertain about this tour. Yet last year saw a massive 20th anniversary reissue of what in effect was their debut album (they sensibly kept the name Underworld from an earlier pop-rock incarnation) and its such a seminal piece of work that performing it live makes a strange sense.

Go back to the early nineties, and the "revolution" in dance music that had begun in 1986 with "Jack Your Body" and Chicago house, had hardly petered out, rather it had morphed into a more generic "dance" music. Technology had improved for a start, so that whereas earlier house tracks had been built round tiny samples, it was now possible to build much more complex tracks. You could go to a gig to see top 40 indie band and there would be only a couple of hundred people there; yet go to a rave the next night and there might be two thousand. It was this world that Underworld understood, explored and exploited. By putting their rock band sensibility to use behind a club type record they took dance music away from its instrumental tendencies and infused it with a lyrical sensibility. Listening to Hyde as his deep murmuring vocal underpins the brooding opener "Dark & Long" its hard to think of  a precedent. His often surreal phrasemaking is a poetry of urban life that perhaps owes something to Lou Reed, but musically, I can only really think of early Eno or mid-period Cabaret Voltaire as being anything similar.

And if Underworld sounded pretty unique in 1994 its why their sound hasn't really dated twenty years on. Tracks like "Mmm...Skyscraper I Love You" and "Spoonman" are long, multi-part songs that are like electronic versions of "Midnight Rambler", "Heroin" or "The End". There's also something of the metallic darkness of early Sisters of Mercy, especially "The Reptile House", in these brooding songs. Yet because they are underpinned by an insistent trance like rhythm (and "trance" was a sub genre they virtually invented on this album) even the darkest songs are danceable and mesmeric. Playing the whole of that first album and then contemporary singles like the Voodoo Ray-like "Rez" and finally the triumphant nineties anthem "Born Slippy NUXX" their two hour set is as perfectly judged as a good DJ set. And you realise how "dubnobasswithmyhead" - an unheard of double album - is so perfectly judged, including previously released 12" mixes alongside slighter songs that give the audience a breather. There are a couple of moments that if not dated, seem of their time, such as the reggae/dub style "River of Bass" (itself closer to the Trip Hop sound that was happening around the same time) and "Surfboy" (which incorporates elements of Deep Forest/Cry Sisco style jungle samples); but otherwise the decision to tour a twenty year old dance record makes perfect sense.

The single that followed the album, "Born Slippy" came out unheralded, though I was a big fan at the time, but when it was used as the soundtrack to film du jour "Trainspotting", it went to number two in the charts, not only their only top ten hit, but an anthem for that generation. Its depiction of a night out, with cries of "Lager, lager, lager" was both celebration and warning, yet it became - like "Born in the USA" - an anthem liked by the very people it was probably critical of. Caught in the middle of air-thumping men of a certain age during "Rez" and "Born Slippy" in a slightly too-packed Albert Hall, it reminded me of the way that the celebratory nature of early nineties techno, exemplified by Underworld and by the communal Megadog gigs, quickly became as unruly as Oasis at Knebworth. Twenty years on, the lads still want to be lads. Despite that, the gig was a triumph, and a reminder of the ambition of electronic dance music in that era. There was hardly anyone in the audience under forty (at £30+ a ticket, perhaps no surprise), but it did make me wonder what a new generation would be listening to which had the same kick.

I'd been making electronic music myself for a decade when Underworld appeared, and I immediately recognised a music that had managed to achieve that mix of the rock band and house music that I'd suspected would come along at some point; what's remarkable is how finely achieved it was, how unique, and, two decades on, how well it stands up.

(Try this track of mine, "Forcefeeding" from 1991, I needed the skills of a Darren Emerson to take my pseudo goth EBM in a more commercial direction!)

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Zoo City by Lauren Beukes

Lauren Beukes' 2010 novel "Zoo City" received quite a lot of attention when it came out and deservedly so. Ostensibly d a fantasy novel, the fantasy is so well grounded in a raw, contemporary, noirish Johannesburg, that the central conceit - that murderers summon up an "animal" from the undertow as a physical representation of their crime - becomes something that the reader soon takes on board, despite its strangeness. Part of that is South Africa itself, where black magic and the rituals that go with it are seen as being part and parcel of everyday life. The novel's feel is not a million miles from noirish films like "Angel Heart" set in a juju-obsessed New Orleans.

Zinzi December has a sloth for company. She is "animalled" and lives in Zoo City, a dangerous slum which has become home to others like herself. She has boyfriend Benoit, who has a mongoose for company and works as a security guard. Her own life is complicated - a drug habit means she's in perpetual debt to her dealers, and paying it off bit by bit by running email scams for them. Being "animalled" also gives her a psychic power, she can find lost things, and she makes her little money by doing this. When she goes to help an old lady find a ring that has gone down the toilet, it's just a normal job, until she comes back to find the old lady has been killed.

She's dragged into a world that she was trying to avoid - and gets asked to "find" a missing person, one half of twins - a pop music duo who are the latest big thing and are being moulded by a music industry big shot, the appropriately horrible Odi, who lives as a recluse yet has his fingers in lots of different pies. In her "former life" Zinzi was a journalist and she looks up her ex-beau Gio for help. Its a complex plotted novel with a large cast of peripheral characters who all have something to do with the conspiracy that's taking place, but its Zinzi, our feisty, flawed narrator who keeps things interesting. Animalled people are massively attached to their animal, so any separation from her sloth can cause great anxiety, yet at the same time, though some find it exotic, its also a sign of her outsider status.  And animals come in all varieties from tiny birds to a gigantic crocodile. It seems that these "familiars" reflect the status of the crime; in Zinzi's case, there are mitigating circumstances, her guilt is palpable, but sloth is a reflection of her conflicted personality - it sleeps most of the time, is sensitive and caring, yet has dangerous claws that can inflict damage - a bit like Zinzi herself.

Holding all of this together should be the hard part for any writer, but Beukes is adept at doing so. From the first few pages you can believe the world in which you've stepped. The fantastic tropes of the Undertow and the animals are explained away in a few extracted articles or academic papers, strewn throughout the narrative. This is the Ellroy of L.A. Confidential technique and it works really well once you get used to it - enabling Zinzi to stumble through the wider plot. For though she knows something bad is going on, and that she is becoming implemented, she becomes involved as the hustler that she is - with nothing much to lose, she decides to go along for the ride.

In many ways, the genre here isn't fantasy at all, but like Mieville's "The City and the City", a noirish crime drama. Zinzi is not so different in her accidental P.I. role than V.I. Warshawski in Paretsky's series of novels. Yet there's something other worldly about the novel that cleverly sees that traditional South African superstitions and magic are perfectly fitted to a contemporary fantasy noir.

There are times when the plot seems to get too convoluted, and some of the minor characters take on important roles, without the reader being entirely clear who they are. Yet there's a powerful driving sensibility from Zinzi's narration which holds the attention, even in a 400 page novel. As the plot points unravel and we see - at the same time as she does - what's really going on, what's also excellent is that there's no easy denouement. This is a cruel, Manichean world, where the Undertow has made a physical manifestation of people's crimes. Zinzi can't escape her fate, but she has to live with her actions. 

I thoroughly enjoyed "Zoo City" - and it seems, with her second novel, Beukes has managed to do something both original and familiar, with the setting in contemporary Jo'Burg, and its Zoo City slum, a brilliant setting for this fantastical modern noir.

Monday, March 09, 2015

Explaining Writing to a non-Writer

I've been blessed with a lot of non-writer friends in my life. I'd say that non-creative friends were my default in reality. Partly this was from where I was growing up, in a school and village where creativity was seen as decidedly abnormal (the school was particularly anti- creativity). Then at university, the "college" system at Lancaster meant that my best mates were studying engineering or physics or economics; not necessarily non-creative in their own way, but distinctly non-imaginative. Yes, they consumed culture, but they didn't make it. As I then worked as a computer programmer for 9 years, I was definitely an "outlier" in that world. Forget all that stuff about "get your kids to code" as being a creative discipline, the majority of programmers are not imagineers, but problem solvers. Because my own creativity has been very much at the right-brain end of the spectrum - making things up, flights of fancy, being more about the idea than the craft (I will come to that) - the differences with even some of my more creative friends has been profound.

With an old programmer friend visiting this weekend I mentioned my continued writing/music and he's known me nearly 30 years so he knows its part of me, but he was absolutely uncomprehending about the "need" to be creative as its something that's not at all in him. Yet he likes music and science fiction and films and art galleries....just has never had any desire to be creative himself. In the 70s and 80s you could get away with that in schools, though I'd thought that things had changed over the years at least with a broadening of the idea of creativity (rap music as valid as classical etc.), but we keep hearing that the liberal arts are being squeezed out of schools in favour of more vocational works.

Any way, we'd had a couple of glasses of wine so I tried to explain my creativity to him. I said that I though there were two axes (science types like graphs!), one of which has CRAFT at one end and IMAGINATION at the other. So my sister, who is a classically trained musician is very much at the craft end, but has rarely, if ever wrote a song; whilst I, who can't play for toffee, has been songwriting for thirty odd years. The sweet spot of course would be somewhere in the middle - a good musician writing good material. But there's also another axes I think - so imagine this as two pieces of wood nailed together like an X - which is about content, which is about what you write. Some people writer purely from the heart - i.e. if its not about them or happened to them, they can't imagine it - whilst others write from the head, e.g. researching a subject that particularly interests them in some way or another, or taking an idea and writing about it. Again, the sweet spot is probably in the middle - taking a subject that interests you (think of Kazuo Ishiguro's tendency to take big themes, but within them have more minor, personal keys, about love, family, memory, loss) - and personalising it in some way.

So explaining writing (or art or music) to a non-writer (artist, musician) this seems quite a useful way of putting things. It also says that someone who isn't creative might well be if they find a reason - e.g. my friend is a care worker working with the seriously disabled, there might be a time when he wants to articulate what he sees in some way, and perhaps abstract art might be a way of doing this - but that it might not necessarily be in the same quadrant as myself.

As a Pisces I'm always expected to be creative and dreamy, but there's always been a tension between head and heart in my work - I'm emotional and analytical (which explains how I ended up in computing in the first place, but also explains why I left) - and in reality I've always written from the head not the heart: part of this, I think, is making up for my perceived deficiency in craft. Writing is different than art or music, in that the facility for it is comes from the "head" - from "learning" - rather than pure instinct/ability. We all (or most of us) verbally communicate; not so many of us sing or paint. I suspect, though I may be wrong, that growing up as an incredibly imaginative child in a world that didn't really value the imagination (and rarely nurtured it, outside of my parents supporting for my strangeness!) meant that I had to overcompensate on the logical side - I had to find a justification for what I was doing, which took me into writing more analytically.

I think this is partly why I still like writing and making music, as it feels instinctive, purely imaginative, whereas in prose and even poetry, I'm constantly weighing up between the imaginative me, and the intellectual me. I rarely feel comfortable with "first person" in this sense, and if I like the confessional mode it is that strand of intellectualised confessionalism that you find in Lowell or Bishop, or going back, in Donne and Herbert. The frame in which my creativity works best needs to have at least some structure to it.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Godfather by Mario Puzo

I must have seen the film "The Godfather" half a dozen times. It remains one of the supreme pieces of storytelling in cinema, not least for the way that Michael Corleone, at the beginning of the film a returning war hero who wants nothing to do with his Mafia family, has turned into the successor to his father, the next Don Corleone.

Reading Mario Puzo's original novel, a bestseller that came out three years before the film, I'm struck by how many of the iconic scenes from the film are straight from the book. Copolla, after all, was a late attachment to the film.

"The Godfather" tells the story of Vito Corleone, Don of one of the New York Mafia families. The novel begins just before the wedding of his only daughter Connie, taking place at his home. We are given sketches of several characters who are going to ask the Don for a favour on his daughter's wedding - a favour no Sicilian can resist. The wedding itself is a lavish affair, and brings together the whole family but also the wider Corleone "Family" the enforcers of this criminal underworld. Drawn together by blood ties that stretch back across to Sicily, and over decades, the New York of 1945 - familiar to us from the ticker tape parades of Pathe footage - remains a place where communities still live in ethnic enclaves and where the law often holds less sway than the Mafia. Yet its also a parallel world. Outside the wedding the policemen patrol taking car number plates to see who is attending the wedding of Don Corleone's daughter. We are introduced to Sonny, the hothead elder son, who whisks a way a bridesmaid for the start of an affair on his sister's wedding day, to Fredo, the softest of the three sons whose portrayal in the movie by the wonderful John Cazale is the one character in the novel that is expanded in the movie; and finally to Michael, a returning war hero who defied his father by fighting for country rather than family - something incomprehensible for a Sicilian, used to the corruptions of state power - who brings with him his girlfriend, Kay, an All-American girl.

This long book is a massively successful page turner - but what is so compelling about it, even for one so familiar with the film is Puzo's absolute control of describing this alternate society that exists besides normal American society. Its rules - such as the "omerta", vow of silence - to its roles, with layers of deniability between the "Don" and his captains and the operations underneath - are made clear and vivid from the start. Here we are seeing a man at the height of his powers, a Ceasar receiving tribute. Yet what is equally brilliant is that such a world doesn't happen by accident, and doesn't remain unchanged through luck. The "families" of New York - swelled by Italian immigrants and soldiers returning from war - are at a critical point. The illegal gambling and alcohol, and strongarm smuggling that served them so well from Prohibition through and past the war, may not be enough in the new world. Drugs are the new "cash crop" and younger hotheads are wanting a piece of the action. The "older heads" are only a generation or two from their arrival in America. Corleone himself is named after the village he came from, having being smuggled to America after his father was killed. His own "early life" when he challenges the local hoodlum is sharply drawn (but the story is excised from the film narrative and used in "Godfather II".)

Yet when his refusal to join the drug trade leads to another attempt on his life, there is another war. A war that claims many casualties - including his own elder son, betrayed by his sister's husband - as well as crooked policeman McCluskey, which brings down the whole weight of law on the Mafia operation. The reason that gangsters stories so fascinate in movies and books is because of how they reflect the dark side of the society we live in. The human frailties that lead to prostitution, drugs, alcohol and gambling create a skewed morality where the illegal activities are "taxed" - but not by the state but through their enforcers both in the underworld and the police. With the whole book taking place within the enclosed world of the Corleone Family Puzo created a superb alternate society, where issues of fidelity, love and honour are played out daily, but without the more distant codes of a more advanced society. Michael Corleone who avenged his father being shot goes to a Sicily he never knew and lives a different life there for a couple of years before circumstance - his discovery and betrayal, the explosion that kills his Italian peasant wife, the death of Sonny - bring him back to face his destiny.

Set primarily in that 10 year period after the war the book is a brilliantly constructured story, that I was surprised to find as compelling to read as to watch. Puzo writes in a cool, objective prose that though it rarely develops into poetic raptures, is fresh and journalistic and adept at knowing how to tell bits of the story. When something bad happens we have often been elsewhere with one of the other characters and only then get the full truth of the story. It seems to me a book that is a genuine classic in its genre, as much for its writing as for the originality of the subject - which has now become such a cliche. In Vito and Michael Corleone he has created two of the iconic characters of the late 20th century. Hard to imagine reading this in 1969 without thinking of Brando or Pacino in the main roles, but so perfect are both of them for it, that reading the original novel there's nothing that seems wrong about that casting.

Not all of the novel makes it into the movies. I can see why the extended bits in L.A. and Vegas are excluded, featuring the singer/actor Johny Fontane (much closer in the book to Sinatra than in the film) as they feel like short stories almost, but in the book they are there for a good reason - to set up for the move West of the Corleone family and the rise of Las Vegas that will follow. I suspect that the hard boiled L.A. noir of Ellroy takes a little from Puzo's book as well as from the noir thrillers of Chandler etc.

I started reading this on a tired Friday night when I wanted an easy read, and it proved to be an inspired page turning choice, every bit as compelling as the film. The novel is highly economical with its storytelling and this is also what comes across in the film, yet every character has a reality to them that makes it far more than a potboiler. "The Godfather" was, of course, the invention that made Puzo. There are later novels that revisit the scenes but of course it was the filmed story - in "Godfather II" and less so in "Godfather III" - which occupied much of his career.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

Shortly after I'd started reading "Gilead", Robinson's prizewinning novel from 2004 it was listed as being one of the best novels of the 21st century by American critics. Highly acclaimed for her first novel "Housekeeping", "Gilead" was published nearly a quarter of a century after her debut - though she's since written two more novels.

"In 1956, towards the end of Reverend John Ames's life, he begins a letter to his young son," summarises the back cover, and that's the form of this insular novel. Ames is a third generation "preacher", his grandfather was an evangelical preacher of legend - some of them unsavoury - whilst he has settled down into an urbane life in a dirty poor Iowan town "Gilead" that exists merely as a staging place on the road to Kansas or St. Louis. Ames' life took an unusual turn late on when he married - for a second time - and he has a small boy. The elderly religious pastor, renowned only for his kindness and dedication, with little of the fire of his notorious grandfather, has been at home with his books for many years, a dedicated community figure, even as the congregation reduces and the span of history avoids this dusty outpost.

The setting of the novel seems important - for it places Ames as born around 1880, another world entirely, and his grandfather's main claim for fame was being an abolitionist who ran away with the Yankees during the civil war. Race is an underlying theme of the novel, though in mostly white Iowa, it is hardly present, until the last quarter of the novel, when a revelation brings home the still burning issues of segregation in America three generations on from that nation-defining war. Yet it would be wrong to say that "Gilead" is a novel that aims to take in the whole of America, for its scope and ambitions are far more closely defined than that.

In choosing the epistolary form we only have Ames as company, and though he is "open" with us the reader as he is addressing his young son, it is an "openness" that conceals. His own status as a "good man" is one that he struggles to reconcile with a sense of underlying failure. Yet so strong is his belief in God and the scriptures that he turns to the written word as being the best place where he might find the answer, even as life offers up both wonder (in his late marriage) and torment (in the return of his namesake John Ames Boughton to stay with Rev. Boughton, his ailing oldest friend.) Beginning almost as a sermon, Ames tells his histories - primarily focussing on his grandfather - less so on his own father - but interjects a present story, as his health fails, as the people around him interrupt his life, as he struggles through another Sunday. "When you do this sort of work, it seems to be Sunday all the time," he observes, sardonically. It is this tone of voice which is one of the books sustained pleasures. We are in the company of a good, learned, honest man, but he is no paragon, he is not a pious man. When parishioners go all "hell and brimstone" on him, having heard some preacher on the radio, he reminds them that the loneliest place, is that part of yourself where God has not reached.

Its a highly religiously-charged book, but never offputting as Ames spouts scripture, or scriptural commentary, or talks through his own sermons. In this, Robinson successfully manages to give us a philosophy wrapped tightly within the insides of a quiet novel. There's something very homespun about Ames, even though he's studied widely, and is something of a theologian; just as he's had to tone down his more bookish tendencies for his congregation, he carefully explains his reasoning - leavened with much doubt about meaning, albeit with no doubt about God - to the audience.

Gilead is hardly a place at all - yet it stands as some kind of monument to certain passings of American history. That man stopped off here to do various bits of work, and that manifested itself early on in the building of several ramshackle churches. It seems an America yet to be touched by, or even close to being bypassed by the twentieth century. Here in 1956, neither great war deserves more than a passing mention,the much more recent Korean war may not have happened at all, and Elvis Presley and rock and roll are yet to make it to this outpost of American conservatism. That placing seems somewhat deliberate, yet its also a little odd, for the young Ames as he remembers it are not about leaving (though his brother would, and eventually his father), but about an earlier past that was already fading when he was a young boy. He remembers vividly going with his father to search out the last resting place of his itinerant preacher grandfather - and tries, in the early parts of the book, to piece together the family secrets that drew a line between his grandfather and father. This idea of a struggle of what is good or right seems to be at the philosophical heart of the book. His grandfather may well have killed a man, and hidden fugitives from justice, yet in that man's philosophy it was his the right thing to do. Far worse is the betrayal of family, or the failure to stand up for your own kind.
John Ames has struggled all his life with these questions.

Knowing he is dying, knowing as well that at seventy seven, his free spirited young son, aged seven, will hardly remember him once he's gone, he worries about having not left enough of his legacy for his son and wife, having married so late, he never thought to put a little aside for himself. His long term friend Rev. Boughton is iller than he is, has a vast family, but is made unhappy that the favoured son, the one he named John Ames after his friend, has been away for so long. When the news comes that the son has returned, the older Ames is worried about what it meanss, for John Ames Boughton has never had faith, always got in trouble, and yet remains much-loved by his sister and father. That Ames is suspicious of his namesake manifests itself in awkward conversations, and even more awkward occasions where he suspects an interest in his young wife, and that the younger man might be a threat to the future happiness of his family.

Such are the small plot points and tensions of "Gilead." Its a languid read, but beautifully written, and Ames' tone is pitch perfect throughout. His own character remains a little opaque. Here is the sense of a life lived well, yet nonetheless wasted. Yet Ames' own redemption - for no sins as such - will come towards the very end, as he finally comes to love John Ames Boughton. This idea of delayed destiny - of God's purpose - seems to be one of Robinson's more subtle aims. The other, somewhat contradictory, is that for all the "goodness" of this small religious community, the wider tides of social change mean that the task undertaken by his grandfather to free the slaves, still remain in segregated America a major sore and rift. Yet these moral ambiguities, large in themselves, but filtered through small, if not insignificant moments in Ames's life, and through the voice of Ames himself, are filtered down to such a degree that I think it would be wrong to call "Gilead" out either as a moral fable or as philosophising text. More, it seems, that her fascination is in finding a way of documenting one particular smalltown life, where American history collides only tangentionally with, and that as this is that of a religious man, that much greater themes, of moral authority, of man's relationship with God, are interweaved carefully with it.

I read the book in several chunks, as the slow languid pace and the elegant prose are richly rewarding, yet aren't necessarily compelling you to turn the page. Its a book of details, many of which are only hinted at, because of Ames being such a careful storyteller. It is neither self-justification or explicit memoir - rather a careful sermonising of a family history by a man who has spent his life reading nuance into the words that he carefully puts together every Sunday for his congregation. Not for the first time, an American fiction that is so based in a devout religious community seems alien to a secular English reader. The fascination in some American - and Irish - fiction with a slightly pre-modern world where the church and its morality are all encompassing has its interest, always, but can also be somewhat inert at times. The book is immaculately put together, never that easy in the epistolery form, yet there are still some problems with it. When John Ames Boughton finally reveals his story, the retelling verbatim by Ames doesn't fit with the roundabout tone of the rest of the novel, and the revelation itself, a somewhat sleight of hand, seems leaden, almost unbelievable in this book's context - its clearly a deux ex machina to bring together an understanding between the two men. That said, its a quiet, powerful novel that I'm sure I'll be thinking about for quite some time.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Digital Dark Age

Vince Cerf, one of the founders of the internet has warned of a "digital dark age." Not because of an anti-technology bent such as you might find in Andrew Keen but because of the pace of change. Technology - and technology devices are moving at such a pace that increasingly we'll find it harder to access the photographs, films and emails that tell our story. In this context the idea of a "dark age" is where future historians have lost the information about our age. The ultimate irony that our information rich age may lead to an unplanned information drought. Few companies survive more than a couple of generations, hardly any for a  hundred years or more. Those future preparations - rich people cryogenically freezing their brains for future revival - are gambles on more than technology, but a faith in a technological progress that history doesn't always identify.

Shelley's classic poem "Ozymandias" with its idol fallen into the sand that has seen an empire perish is the most brilliant invocation of this. Yet Cerf is not a naysayer, he has a possible solution (technological of course), a cloud-based virtualisation of every "player", every software "viewer", so that we can in thirty years - regardless of where it has been moved or passed on  - replicate the experience of opening a JPG or a PDF of Word file.  Backwards compatibility lasts only so long. Even our word files - surely as ubiquitous as anything in the computer world - might find themselves unreadable in Windows 20, or - more likely - Microsoft as a company may have gone the way of DEC or ICL or Mercury Communications.

Anyone who creates for a living should be aware of this - and the idea of digital curation is a really current one - much debated in art and archive circles. This week the magnificent Whitworth art gallery reopens in Manchester - as lovely as the new space is, the true wonder is the Whitworth collection - hidden in basements and vaults. Yet as we move into an age of a reduced public sector what happens to those archives? Nicholson Baker has written eloquently of what happens when you lose the physical object to digitisation - that you also lose the context. That "save" icon on your computer represents a floppy disc that anyone under, oh, twenty five say, will have never seen in real life. Even now we find that old things are being found, which were thought lost, up in attics of houses when someone dies, or forgotten in archives and libraries. Like the reporter searching for the meaning of "Rosebud" in Orson Welles' "Citizen Kane", the sledge with that name on it, could just as easily be put on the fire as the house gets cleared out. As family lines decline or move out to other parts of the world - what do we carry with us? Photographs...memories....letters.... something - but modern life doesn't do too good a job at collecting those. A person's iPod might be a physical replica of their favourite records long after they've gone, but when the machine stops working....

I have a long history of interest in the subject of obsolescence in media. It fascinates me - as it seems that by putting our work down at all, we are creating an impermanent permanence. I am still scarred by a poem that got lost when I was eight years old, the only copy bundled away as my parents got angry at the mess I'd left things in. Since then I've mostly been careful but have had several purges. I used to overwrite cassette tapes not having the spare £1 for a new one.

At least there used to a physical product. A few years ago I realised I'd stopped printing off most of my work - and it just existed on a series of hard disks - and in fear I realised that I wanted a paper copy - I began archiving work to Lulu which allowed me a physical version. These non-books are a personal safety blanket. The thing about digital is that it only exists when there is a second copy - for the stand alone copy is fragile. Yet if you make music what do  you keep? The original tapes/mixes or the just the finished object.

Cerf's plan seems a good one - a cloud virtualisation engine where different versions of software can exist for ever more. I hope he's got a version of an Apricot programme which I wrote my first novel for instance! Of course the digital object is perhaps no more vulnerable than the physical one. The "lost works" of antiquity are many... we don't know if Beowulf is the only story of its kind and quality or one of many, its survival only coming to light in the early 19th century. I suspect it is safe enough now. We then have those handed-down stories, Socrates known through Plato's dialogues, or the New Testament stories from nearly a century after the events, or Franz Xaver von Schönwert's fairytales lost in an archive for 150 years and only recently rediscovered.

Concern over what we have lost are nothing new and imaginative writers have often played with such thoughts - think notably of so many of Borges' short stories - but then again, read Walter Benjamin's "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Production"  to consider whether we are going backwards or forwards. The specific of digital virtualisation - that it will be the machines or the software that stop us from playing or reading or looking at things we take for granted now - are new, as is the seemingly endless amount of information out there. A few years ago I was at an art group that was clearing out their office as their funding had ended. They had bin bags full of  VHS tapes of short films that had been entered into a festival. I imagine I haven't kept the original letters or original text that was sent in for Lamport Court, the magazine I co-ran ten years or so ago, though some may have survived.

It seems to me there are several layers of archivist. The personal, the public, and the professional. The personal is often the artist (or if we are talking of personal data, the person who stores your family photographs - I bet its your dad). The public is that which exists many times. Surely a record that has been made available in a million copies is unlikely to be forever lost. Then the professional: this blog for instance was being archived by the British Library, though I just checked and they stopped doing so in 2012... did they run out of money? Did my blog stop being important? Who knows? Then there's the Wayback machine which does a phenomenal job of snapshotting the web - will these things survive? And that's before you start talking about the unexpected event - the wars and natural disasters that can take apart even the best laid plans. I read with interest Peggy Guggenheim's autobiography recently where she talked about hiding her collection of art as the war started and then removing it to America as the war ended. This is a mix of the personal and professional. Like the BBC cameramen who kept a tape of David Bowie on Top of the Pops or an old Dr. Who episode - its much harder for things to be lost than you'd think.

Where Cerf is right I think is that a generation now creating and preserving work is not even aware of the limitations of the impermanent. Whereas a writer, painter or musician will have good reason to keep some tabs on their work even if they never look at it again, who now keeps old emails - whether personal or business correspondance. My Gmail goes back nearly ten years now but my Compuserve and Demon and Tiscali accounts before then are long gone. Even this blog - I did attempt to extract it a few times in the past, but if some trick of fate means that Blogger disappears, will I have the energy to find it from some digital archive?

I wrote last year about "the end of memory" - where tasks we used to undertake, such as remembering phone calls and directions, are being replaced by always on immediate technology. Maybe our experiential culture means that we no longer have much time for history. Is this a complacency I wonder? "Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it." In our late capitalist consumerist world, Apple or whoever don't want us to be nostalgic - whereas in the 80s and 90s they wanted us to re-buy what we had already had, a continuing repetition of nostalgia, now - whether its the Premier League with its Year Zero approach to past history, or Spotify with its all you can eat buffet of songs from every era without any historical context - nostalgia is only valuable as a product. Remake, remodel indeed. When something doesn't work - Windows 8, Apple TV, Google glasses - they get sent to the dustbin of history. There's always a new piece of kit to be sold to us.

And this is at the heart of things I think - that as we live in an experiential culture where every minute should be filled, we no longer have the necessity to be bored like I was so often as a child, and scarcity which saw me spending hours deciding which particular record to buy or devouring every book as if it was my last, is no longer available to us.  On demand TV, YouTube and everything else provides us with no need to look back. It possibly explains the first person of so much contemporary fiction; and also, when we do look back, whether Downton Abbey or Wolf Hall it is to make history also a product. Taken into the political sphere - a right wing government like the current coalition wants to create a narrative that implies a reduced public sector is the only option; whilst the left struggles with narratives that aren't backward looking. Our Conservatives no longer conserves, our socialists no longer have a collective vision for the future.

An absence of history - at school, in the fast rebuilding/regenerating of city centres and fast growing cities in the far east - seems to suit the relentlessness of contemporary capitalism. In this context complaining to Flickr or Google or Microsoft because they have extinguished our online album, removed the service we stored everything on, seems to place the consumer in the role of curmudgeon. The generation that embraces digital and analogue - my own generation - sits uncomfortably between the two: we haven't the photo albums that our dads kept, at least partly because we haven't always got the shelves or sideboards or lofts to keep them in, but neither have we the insouciance to let the "cloud" take over - that somewhere in the future it will be possible to search out that old photograph, that old email, that needle in the digital haystack.

If it is a digital dark age I think it will be in patches - there are patches we've already lost - and I don't think any preservation programme can really counter our personal and technological flaws. More worrying the movement to private collections via Google books, rather than public libraries and archives which are either no longer funded, overwhelmed with content, or have got rid of the trained staff who can interpret these collections, means that we may well look back at these early days of the 21st century and wonder why nobody noticed.