Friday, September 25, 2015

Digital Technology, the Outtake and Process

It could be argued that the 3 albums that Bob Dylan released between 1965-6 - "Bringing it all back home", "Highway 61 Revisited" and the double "Blonde on Blonde" - is the high water mark of popular music. One track at least, "Like a Rolling Stone", has been named the best song of all time on at least one occasion. When Walter Benjamin wrote his essay "Art in the age of  mechanical reproduction" he foresaw a time when the uniqueness of a live performance would be replaced by a unit of the factory age, the same image or recording repeated ad infinitum. That "capturing" of a moment changes how we view it. Their is a historifying ever-present in the current work. Yet, we have always tried to capture the artistic creation, whether through aristocrats commissioning frescos, hand-painted Wedgewood, or the printing press, the lithograph....

Digital reproduction makes replication ever easier of course, which brings us to the copyright laws which artists rely on, but which are increasingly battlegrounds around "value." This very week the news that a judge in the US has declared the "copyright" invalid in the ancient "Happy Birthday to Me", has potentially got rid of millions of revenue for its "owner". (They rarely went after kids parties, but would frequently charge for its use in films.) The recently enacted "Cliff Richard law" - which extended "mechanical copyright" (the recording, rather than the writing of the song) had some interesting side effects - the main one being a "use it or lose it" clause. For copyright on unpublished works can essentially be lost. Why would this matter? Except it does - because for every recording of that unique experience, there are others which didn't make the cut. Even in 1965, there were times when producers would splice tape together or otherwise change the origin of the original. The vaults of major record companies are surely like "banks" holding unknown treasures in climate controlled environs, as ferrous tape slowly but surely degrades, fifty, sixty, seventy years after it was stored there.... use it, or genuinely lose it.

For the record collector, the music fan, it is not enough that Dylan recorded the equivalent of 4 albums of sublime quality in a couple of years, for whatever "magic" was in the air then has long dissipated, only occasionally resurfacing with Dylan himself, or with rock and roll in general. The vinyl LP was joined by the CD and then the download as we choose more convenient ways of listening. The end result of this is that Dylan's celebrated (and inaccurately named, given its legal status!) "Bootleg Series" reaches volume 12, with what can only be described as the motherlode. For these 3 LPs will be celebrated with a double CD of outtakes (fair enough), a 6 CD comprehensive round up (it surely deserves such treatment) and,  almost unbelievable, an 18 CD box set costing several hundred dollars in a worldwide limited edition of 5000 copies. Creating an enviable collectible at the same time as protecting the copyright of every scrap from these recordings seems the aim. Though expensive, the 6 CD version seems the most interesting. For one disc is given over to "Like a Rolling Stone" - 20 run throughs - most of them recorded after the take that eventually got used. Here we see a masterpiece being made. The story of it is quite legendary anyway. Mike Bloomfield a guitarist of rare talent coming in after Dylan decided to move on from his usual backing band, the Band, and Al Kooper a session musician who accidentally played the iconic organ piece on the recording. For lovers of music this CD alone will be a fascinating window into creative process. For although its true that we are in the age of replication, there was a time, say, 1965, when what is being captured on tape is as near to the "moment" as if we'd had a tape on Beethoven or Wagner's works being given a first performance. For the studio as a machine in its own right is yet to be completed - perhaps a couple of years later that will change - but for now, the band set up and play, and we'll get to hear the song as it changes.

Its not the first or only time that a record has received such comprehensive treatment. There was a "Pet Sounds" anthology years ago - the Velvet Underground's four seminal albums have now been issued over 25 or so CDs with live tracks and other recordings. The idea of the "outtake" as being a valid work in its own right is inevitable in an age of reissues, of wanting, not to hear the iconic "original" but the "original original" - the demo, or the run through or the early version with the different lyrics. What do we learn from this? Literature - or at least is modernist brand - has being doing this for a few years - with facsimile copies of "The Wasteland" and others. For scholars, but also for interested others, it seems necessary somehow to look into process, to somehow understand the alchemy that creates a great work. I personally feel there is a difference between music and writing in this sense. It seems that "versioning" is almost always valid in music, that bands play their songs and sometimes move them on from the recorded version or are sometimes stuck with them; that the song that was "released" is freighted with other meanings (commercial potential, length for radio or album etc. etc.) or that once the multitrack had arrived on the scene, it becomes necessary to have different versions within the same version (think of those classic album series with the faders turned down, or reissues of "Let it Be - naked") rather than different takes of the same song. With music I can imagine (and have) gone back to an earlier version of a song I've written and been fascinated by the genesis of it - though more often than not, there's a single recording, with other bits overdubbed, and anything that didn't work has long been erased. With poems and stories I am generally aiming for the end version and the decisions I make along the way are, though not irreversible, sometimes appear to be. The reason is that the end version transforms any previous versions. Its probably true of music as well, but for some reason we can cope with different versions of the same song, whereas the same poem or same story needs inevitably to lead to its finished and final version. They are, I'm sure, exceptions, but its early, and I can't think of them.

In our interest in the genesis of great music we are betraying our interest in it as not merely consumers, though the imperative to release these impressive expensive boxsets is an expensive and commercial one. For we want, more than anything to be there in the studio where Al Kooper sits behind the organ, or at the concert in Manchester where Dylan is called "Judas" and responds with a blistering performance. The convenience and quality of the definitive version gives us so much, but it doesn't allow us to be there - it doesn't see us as a witness to magic. Even in my own music, going back through thirty years of outtakes can take me back to the room where it was recorded, to the person I once was, in the way that looking at old typescripts doesn't. Indeed, the thing we repeat is the anecdote when the magic happened, memories strained across time. Within the confines of a studio that has seen a previous thousand sessions and will host a thousand more, what is the alchemy of process that creates the greatest song of all time? We want to go back there - and touch, taste, feel it.

I suspect this is also time to update Benjamin, for we are now making Art in the Age of Digital Reproduction, and the moment when a group of people get together in an expensive studio and the engineer diligently marks the takes is long gone. Each performance now will more than likely be one instrument on its own, which will be "printed" in the digital audio workstation, Cubase, or Protools or Ableton. The vocal lines will be "comped" - edited - from one part of the song to another as if they are a sample themselves - and everything from the moment it enters the chain or recording from the air, will be converted to zeroes and ones enabling each aspect of the voice or instrument to be changed. What the future box set will give us will be a series of mixdowns, hardly distinguishable from each other. And if the "mastertapes" are available in fifty years time, they will be digital files that will somehow have to be reconstructed with some software emulation. Dylan's "The Cutting Edge" may well be the high water mark of our fascination with the magic.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Six of the Best

I was thinking I'm overdue a blog post and then had forgotten that today was the announcement of the Booker Prize shortlist. As I mused over the longlist, its followed the pattern, to the letter, of a third British and Irish, a third American, a third Commonwealth - which I suspect will become the default over the next few years. This can enhance the prize, even if it doesn't do much for British letters. I think the presence of Marilynne Robinson and Anne Tyler on the longlist gives the prize gravitas, even as we have to admit that the world of literature has changed - and the days of "big name" or even "midlist" writers may be over. Only Tom McCarthy - with his fourth novel - is a previous shortlisted writer, and he is very much a millennial writer - yet he's my own generation, so in his mid forties, whose "Remainder" only got published in 2005, and then by a tiny art press. We're perhaps in the age of one off books rather than of emblematic writers - perhaps thats a good thing - like in music, we are in an age of plenty, yet without any obvious giants. Maybe, thats always been the way, and perhaps the Booker is more about "The Life of Pi" and "The God of All Small Things" than it is about Julian Barnes or Ian McEwan.

Anyway, it looks a strong list... though I'm aware I've only read one of last years, so I'm in no hurry to plough through this year's.

Locally there's plenty of literature coming up - with Manchester Literature Festival just round the corner, (it starts on 12th October, and more on that nearer the time) but there other events taking place here, there and everywhere. A rare treat at Verbose in Fallowfield in a fortnight - when the tutors from the Manchester School of New Writing get a chance to put their best foot forward.
This Saturday I hope I can convince a few folks along to Manchester's newest lit scene hangout Chapter 1 Books for reading by my friend and fellow Salt Modern Voice, J.T. Welsch alongside Australian poet Michael Farrell.

Next week there are 2 great events at Anthony Burgess foundation - firstly a reissue of Burgess's Shakespeare book is celebrated next Thursday, then on 25th, two more writer friends, both alumni of University of Manchester (before it was the School of New Writing), Emma Jane Unsworth and Lee Rourke, talking about their different takes on writing about Manchester. I'm away for this unfortunately, but you don't have to be!

All good - and maybe it will help me get my literature hat back on. I've felt a little (a lot?) unliterary the last two or three weeks - hardly writing or reading a work. These creative troughs are part of the game I guess, but it seems ages since I wrote anything (though I finished three stories at the end of August!)

Though its a bit (a lot?) of a lottery, still time to save up your pennies, and get your entries into the Manchester Writing Competition - closing date for both fiction and poetry is a week on Friday. Now where's that idea I had....

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Still Playing Solitaire for Money

Facebook has informed me that its five years since my Salt Modern Voices chapbook "Playing Solitaire for Money" came out. Wow, where did the time go? And what happened next?

A bit of background. Despite having always written poetry, having co-edited a successful poetry/fiction magazine Lamport Court, and having poems in a number of reasonably illustrious places (The Rialto, the Reactions 3 anthology), I wasn't in any way part of the poetry scene, except locally. I would enter competitions, send off manuscripts, but not get that much interest, though a book of 4 long experimental poems, "Extracts from Levona" came out a few months before the Salt collection. Although Salt was renowned for supporting new poetry, the overheads - for both poet and publisher - of the slim volume were making it more and more difficult for early career poets to get beyond the magazines. I'd entered their annual prize, but didn't get anywhere, when, out of the blue, Chris Hamilton Emery contacted me with their new idea - a series of uniform chapbooks called Salt Modern Voices, which he'd like me to be part of.

Over the next few months a number of these came out - and I think in total Salt must have published nearly 20 of them. Some were for specific projects that might suit the format, a couple were prose, but most were like mine - poets who were doing something interesting, had some kind of profile, but hadn't got a book out. Of the poems in "PSFM" with a couple of exceptions I'd stand by it. If I'd had more room I'd have probably put a few more experimental, less lyrical verses in, but as a chapbook I'm still proud of it.

Because there were a number of poets in the series the idea of readings quickly emerged. Turned out there was an American poet in Manchester. J.T. Welsch who was also in the series, and me and him met and had a joint launch, and would become friends. A number of others in that first batch, Clare Trévien, Emily Hasler, Angela Topping, Shaun Belcher included went on a little "tour" with 3 or 4 poets from the series reading in Manchester, London, Nottingham, Oxford and at Warwick University - and I read at a couple of these.

The series continued for a while - including interesting one off projects as well as mini-collections by emerging poets - and the books were longer, and looked better than the Faber new poets series that came out around the same time. What was nice, as well, was though there were some younger poets involved, older writers such as myself were included.

Since then, outside of anthologies, Salt has stopped its poetry list, so as far as I know none of the SMV poets made it to a full length collection with them - though a number of the poets have had successful books published elsewhere by other presses, including Nine Arches Press, who have just launched a similar but different scheme called Primers, which is essentially 3 pamphlets in one book.

I don't think anyone made any money on Salt Modern Voices, but it was a valuable opportunity for me, but also having picked up alot of the others in the series, I found the format and the size perfect in many ways - a good introduction to a poet, or a self-contained project, without some of the longeurs you occasionally find in a full length collection. The pamphlet, like the anthology or magazine poem, provides a useful forum for poets - and indeed some pamphlets are virtually as long as the classic "slim volume" which these days tend to be not so slim at all. For a poet like  myself who writes in different styles and for different purposes over time, I think it acted as a good forum - and I certainly got to do a lot more readings through having a book to promote.

So, five years on, thanks to Salt and to Chris, and I hope if you come across one of these little gems online or secondhand you investigate

Monday, August 17, 2015

Manchester Post Modernism

In the Victoria and Albert museum's Postmodernism exhibition in 2011 there were traces of Manchester; Peter Saville's album cover for "Power, Corruption and Lies", New Order's "True Faith" video. Where you stand on po-mo depends on from where you start from. In one sense postmodernism is exactly what the name implies, an architectural movement that reacts against modernism, hence the demolition of the modernist Pruitt-Igoe housing project in St. Louis in the early seventies was seen as clearing the way for postmodernism.

Yet if po-mo is an architectural style its filtered through the policies and trends that lead to its implementation. For postmodern architecture can be seen as, on the one hand, monied grand gesture, and on the other, architectural inventiveness, revelling in the possibilities of new materials and designs; we are postmodernists because we can be.

In the other arts the postmodern is not so directly oppositional. Literary postmodernism seems to me to have two epochs, two approaches: the absurdist 60s/70s works of Pynchon, Gaddis and Barth on the one hand, and then again the more ironic work that followed in the 80s/90s - of which Mark Leyner's "My Cousin, the Gastroenterologist" (1990) is a high point. Ironic style is key to much of this later postmodernism, and the journalism of the Modern Review or, later, the writers gathered around McSweeney's are evidence enough of its mainstreaming.

I like to think of the postmodern as being two things: in some ways an inversion or conversion of the conventional - Oldenburg's giant pop art sculptures of penknives or Jeff Koons' "Puppy" made of flowers, or Craig Raine's "A Martian Sends a Postcard Home" - but also/equally a certain brashness that prefers the signifier to what is signified, the facade of the thing becoming more "real" than the thing itself. In this sense the remix, particularly cut ups or repurposings like Shut Up and Dance's "Raving, I'm Raving" or the 12" Gotham City Mix of the Communards "Don't Leave Me This Way" are only possible in a world where the postmodern is celebrated, not just accepted. But grand gestures are also there in Fiona Banner's appropriative work like "The Hunt for Red October" which takes the whole of a schlocky action movie and - from memory writes it on a gallery wall. Our current age of meta- is po-mo with a beard and a fixee - but then again, "the hipster" is a creation of postmodernism, we just never expected him to become taken seriously. (On screen, Nathan Barley, like Max Headroom and TV party before it are Postmodern; in a way that the revamp of Battlestar Galactica or Downton Abbey or Breaking Bad aren't.)

And po-mo has its fair share of bad art, bad TV, even good art masquerading as bad art. Despite or because of our grey skies, po-mo has a long Manchester history, and it seems that more recently, shows in our public galleries, appropriating The Smiths, Marx or other iconic bits of Manchester history are po-mo through and through. The Cornerhouse/Home programme over the last year or so, has all been about a po-mo appropriation; though there's a point it seems to me, where one of the obvious traits of the postmodern (its size, its garishness) is being itself subverted in a kind of po-mo minimalism, if that's even possible, which might be missing the point: or simply, in an age where we are all looking at tiny screens all the time, an inevitable miniaturising of (even) public experience.

I do think that po-mo, if it really is more about the signifier than the signified should be a grand gesture - otherwise we're merely talking about influence, not subversion. Manchester, though not as obviously in thrall to po-mo as London, LA, Tokyo or Vegas has (or has had) its signature moments. At a point in the remaking of the city centre where it seems every non-memorably sixties/seventies building is being pulled down to be replaced with an (equally non-memorable) allegedly more functional replacement, po-mo, which never quite put down roots, needs recognsiing.

That we have some po-mo architecture at all seems to be a mix of civic laissez faire, a latent situationism, and early-career statementism by developers and architects. Most, if not all of the city's po-mo architecture and interiors are pre-2008.

Best/worst of all is on the city's peripherary: the neoclassical megalithic shopping centre that is the Trafford Centre is a perfectly over-the-top example of what happenns when bad taste, too much money, and the dullest of concepts (an out of town shopping centre) combine. Faced with a large box surrounded by a car park, the Trafford Centre has been given a ridiculous external grandeur that is almost Vegas-like. Here, po-mo has a genuine architectural/civic purpose, to disguise the fact that this is a massive indoor shopping centre surrounded by acres of car parks, by making its facade appear to be like some kind of Disney castle. In a thousand years, archeologists may have no clearer idea of what this was for, than we have about the pyramids.

Such brash functionality (and think of the alternative: Arndale style brutalism), is rare in the city's po-mo. With the glorious Imperial War Museum North, the building is a materialised shell, echoing the dark nature of its content - a carapace that echoes the ominous Futurism of the tanks and weaponry inside. Its like the world's most sympathetically clothed bunker, or a building that apes the statementism of Epstein's "Rock Drill." The other jewel in our po-mo crown is surely Ian Simpson's glorious glass wedge, URBIS, now home to the National Football Museum. Built at a bit of a civic statement after the city centre's redesign following the 1996 bomb, it feels like a two-finger up to that domestic terrorism: rather than build new buildings that can be as solid against a blast as the venerable Corn Exchange which it faces, we'll build something that's ALL glass. Simpson's Manchester has never been quite so post-modern again, with bigger projects being more functional, paid for by investment money, which doesn't really give much time to adding to costs through adding a postmodern facade on, say, an office block. Of recent builds, only the Tracey Island style terraces of the new Co-op building, Noma, have any po-mo credentials. Elsewhere in the city, there's Urban Splash's absurdist Chips building, which now looks like a pre-crash last hurrah.

We can have regrets of course - that the "Berlin Wall" in Piccadilly Gardens somehow grew a po-mo skins over its minimal concrete blankness - or that Thomas Hetherington's stunning "B of the Bang" hadn't been built in the wrong place, with the wrong materials, necessitating it coming down. The strangely anomalous sign on the "Light" building in the Northern Quarter, or - just possibly - the big sign that lets you know you are at the not-in-the-least-bit postmodern "Home" feel like postmodern subtitles imposed on the city's generally pragmatic architectural mix. Interiors may be a better option - hardy perennial cult bar FAB cafe, the nicely flamboyant interior of Mr. Cooper's House, the restaurant in the Midland hotel, and of course, forgotten memories of the Hacienda that keep popping up every time there's some re-remembering of that increasingly mythical place.

I suspect the crash and subsequent austerity quelled desire for postmodernism in British architecture - and we'll probably only see its echoes and ghostly reminders in short term pop ups and digital projections. Yet for a style that began, there or thereabouts, forty years or more ago, its proved surprisingly resilient, I guess, the nature of po-mo's pick and mix theoretical underpinning meaning that its always there if you want it to be. Manchester has flirted with it, as it has with other styles, but I suspect the new aesthetic won't have much time for such ironical questioning. 

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Cold Light by Jenn Ashworth

One of the consequences of knowing quite a number of writers is that it adds to the pile of "must read" books, and sometimes a novel slips through the gaps. "Cold Light", Ashworth's second novel came out in 2012, so this is tardiest of reviews (a 3rd "The Friday Gospels" remains on the "to be read" pile.) Like her debut "A Kind of Intimacy", she's set the book in and around Preston, that forgotten Lancashire town ("city" now as the novel reminds us), north of Manchester. "Cold Light" focusses on the death ten years before of two young lovers Chloe and Carl, who drowned on Valentine's Day, apparently in a lover's pact. Ten years on a memorial is being built to remember them, but the day of civic pride digs up more than the memories of the past, when a body is inadvertently disturbed. Lola (Laura), who was Chloe's best friend, watches with fascination as the charismatic local TV presenter, a brilliantly described nonentity in a pink shirt, Terry, gets to revisit the biggest event to hit Preston since the last Preston Guild (the big festival that Preston perversely celebrates only every 20 years), a series of sexual abductions of young girls that led into the few months before Chloe died.

Set in the nearly-pre-internet world of the mid-nineties, the narrator is Lola, the unloved best friend, who - like Annie in "A Kind of Intimacy" has a certain dogged certainty about her, without that character's macabre element. For Lola, and Chloe's other friend Emma both have memories and secrets that the last ten years they've hid away from even themselves. Emma has never moved on from the memories of the sex attacker, whilst Lola at 14 found herself stumbling into terrible misunderstandings of what actually went on, particularly when, Wilson, a "mong" that Carl chased into the wood, goes missing and gets blamed for the sex attacks.

Lola is in her own way as fascinating as Annie, for she struggles with the unhappiest of home lives. Her mother Barbara is at the end of her tether, an older mother who is also a carer for Donald, who appears to have serious delusions, a kind, but bewildered man who is "a bit soft". The majority of the novel is shown in flashback. The modern world that Lola inhabits is a drab one, she's a cleaner in a shopping centre, time having stopped with Chloe. Yet those flashbacks are themselves fragmentary, as Ashworth withholds the details of a relatively small plot, and instead concentrates on the psychological interiors of her main characters. In describing the terrors of girlhood friendship, she gives the most vivid school scenes since David Mitchell's "Black Swan Green", whilst the scenes with Donald at home are poignant and painful at the same time. Lola is unable to escape school in her home life, and unable to escape home life at school. Her friendship with the popular but wild Chloe has given her rationale for being, yet even before Carl comes on the scene (and Emma, whose role in the girl's threesome is, to Lola, purely as disrupter of her friendship with Chloe), the intensity of their friendship is both believable and worrying. For Chloe likes being looked at, likes being the centre of attention. She is the import from another school and rather than hang out with the popular girls, picks up Lola as a devoted number two. When Chloe shoplifts, it is Lola who gets caught. Yet if Chloe has insouciance her more middle class parents cannot connect with her at all. They are unaware that Chloe is seeing Carl; Chloe using Lola's devotion as a cover. For a while you feel that Carl is just that older boy with a car that is the usual rite of passage, but bit by bit he becomes darker, more controlling. The adult Lola would surely be able to pick up on the threads of the story, but she's still infantilised by what has happened, so we get the younger Lola's perspective - caught up between the impossible loyalties of teenager years.

Whereas "A Kind of Intimacy" had a sometimes underdeveloped supporting cast, the other characters here are all well drawn, from Terry, the local celebrity, to the dreadful Carl, to the various parents. There's a genuine deftness about the way the three girls interact, each of them bringing to the equation their own weaknesses and strengths. Whilst Lola gets to go out as chaperone to Chloe and Carl, and has been given an old mobile by the latter, she has no real understanding of the psychodrama that is going on. The one weak point, I think, is the way that Wilson is introduced. He is conveniently chatty when Lola is told to leave Chloe and Carl in the car and "keep watch", but this initial conversation quickly escalates, as we later find out, into something tragic. As the local weirdo, he's a bit too convenient a fall guy, yet how else would the 14-year old Lola have come across him?

The novel's intensity increases as we come to its final quarter, as the past becomes real again - the whole scene of Chloe's memorial acts as some kind of "trigger warning" for Chloe - but as the various lies and betrayals that led to tragedy come clearer, the humour that's there in much of the fumbling teenage scenes disappears, as the story becomes much, much darker. Despite its domestic settings, it edges towards some intense gothic horror, as we see through Chloe's eyes what really happened. The "missing girl" seems a too common trope of early 20th century fiction but here its grounded in a mundane reality which perversely gives it much of its gothic power.

The Beginning of the End by Ian Parkinson

Some spoilers in this one, as its necessary to give a bit of the plot in order to write about it. 

In Ian Parkinson's debut novel, "The Beginning of the End", a Belgian man, Raymond, slowly falls apart. "Like every thirty-something, I gradually gave up, so slowly that I didn't really notice an incremental abandoning of my former beliefs and ambitions." He has worked at Siemens for fifteen years, lives in a nondescript flat, and has little romantic past to speak of. We meet him at "the beginning of the end" of the title - at the start of the crises in his life. There's not a particular trigger for his falling apart, and as he is our narrator, it takes a while to realise that is what is happening.

Finding himself the owner of a dog, after the previous owner, a gay neighbour, had killed himself. He had left the dog with Raymond and we see that Raymond has only the most passive sort of agency. Unable to function in the real world, he goes online, frequenting sex sites. He gives up his job, and flies to Thailand where he meets and marries Joy, a porn actress - or thats what she becomes on returning to Belgian with him. At this point his father dies, and he finds he has inherited a beach side property which in a few years time will be washed away by erosion. The book is punctuated by abrupt deaths, and in Raymond's telling, they have no more impact on him than his marriage, or other friendships. As he goes to live on the beach, occasionally looking through the boxes of his father's possessions but finding nothing, or rather - only clues that he doesn't then follow - Joy stays behind in his flat and becomes a well known porn star. Their relationship is only delineated by sex, which seems to be the one thing that will get him out of his torpor, but also provides him with; little pleasure. In one scene, Raymond and Joy visit another couple. "It was an enjoyable evening: Jan was a nice guy, friendly and relaxed; and Diana obviously loved sucking cock." In one of several deadpan graphic scenes in the novel Parkinson writes a graphic, soulless porn, that seems both to be in Raymond's voice but also to be an attempt to imbue these scenes with the same matter-of-fact ennui as the rest of the book.

For this 2015 novel is a clear descendant of Camus's "The Outsider" or, more recently, Houllebecq's first three or four novels. Yet if in Camus the shock was the insensibility, here we are in a more solipsistic age - there is little agency for Raymond. The occasional brief encounters with other people he shrugs off, as uninteresting - is this his own superiority or a falling into the depressive nihilism of his own personality? Only thoughts of sex - visiting massage parlours, anonymous chat rooms online - pul him from his inertia, and that seems just another form of nullity. He has given up in so many ways, yet with little of his previous life to go on, he seems a cipher to us. In some ways he sits clearly in a line of novels which attempt to illuminate our contemporary neuroses, in a world where everything is available, but where nothing matters. Yet its motives seem a little more  surface than novels such as McCarthy's "Remainder" or Rourke's "The Canal", with depressed inert loners as their central character.

Parkinson's style is literary but minimalist. Our narrator is very particular about his use of language, and there's clarity about everything he says, whether describing the disgusting conditions in the beach house, or sex with Joy, or a lonely trip to the supermarket. Its a sort of anti-style that I probably first encountered in Sylvia Smith's "Misadventures" in the mid-90s, or later in Magnus Mills or Dan Rhodes. Parkinson's book is more crafted than all of them, I think, yet it also hangs on the surface, deliberately refusing to dig deeper, and in its unwillingness to do so, sometimes seems to be  an exercise in nihilism. This wouldn't be a problem in itself, yet there's a lingering sense that its not quite the sum of its intrigueing parts. It's quite easy to see where the novel comes from in a literary sense - and its modern day concerns, loneliness, prostitution, the internet, pornography, are handled well - yet a little like Keith Ridgway's acclaimed "Hawthorn & Child" I found myself wanting something that was a little less arbitrary. I have a sense that the real battle in contemporary fiction is not between the factual and fantastical but between that which feels true, and that which is a second hand fiction. Though at times the novel caught hold of me, and I could appreciate its stylistic nudges, I felt that there was too much that was arbitrary, that seemed an unwillingness to commit to a story or a character. As a short story or a novella, I think I might have been convinced, but over the whole book, I lost interest, the flatness of the characters not giving creating a strain on credibility and our engagement.

As a debut novel it has a quiet power, but is better in its more intrigueing first half. In the beach house he begins to fall apart, yet rather than a Ballardian natural erosion, the first person narration makes it hard to empathise. I realised, writing this review, I was trying to find deeper meaning or themes which just aren't really justified by the text. We are left with just Raymond's breakdown.  Faced with a character who has given up almost on the first page, two hundred pages later we have only more of the same, a collapse that seems inevitable. As we seem to go full circle, and Raymond gets taken away to live alone in a flat, similar to where he began, the beach house becomes his necessary centre, the place he was looking for - to be alone, to end things, to connect with his unknowable dead father.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Nobody is Waiting for Your Masterpiece

One of the things about growing older, creatively, is that things go at different speeds. Just as a teenager's summer is apparently endless, in your late forties, it is hardly the longest day, before you're catapulting into making calendar arrangements for September. Creativity is different: a poem can be written in an hour, a story in a day, a novel in six months, a song in a couple of hours. Yet, these are as false timescales as how you think time passes whilst waiting for the results of a job interview, or being in the queue at the dentist. In reality, time passes, and how you delineate that time depends on your disposition.

As a systems kind of person I've also liked to see some structure, even to my famously unstructured creative life. Lots of writers are, I suspect, amalgams of chaos and calm; for it takes both to have the emotional whirlwind of a creative idea, and then somehow capture it on paper. That's why so many writers have rituals: favourite rooms and desks; particular notepads, pens or pencils; books lined up or ordered according to colour, size, publisher or the surname of the writer. This pretence at order is a good way to step away from the chaos.

At some point, dear writer, and I swear this will be true, you will settle down to the idea that what you are writing may not just be good... but could be a masterpiece. Another part of you will consider that this is the work that will be your masterpiece - the culmination of what's come before, or the moment your style and substance click in in such a way that they can't fail - that all you have to do is write it. Sometimes you'll start writing in a different way than before; and yes, that heady thrill, is merely a recognition of the novelty of your new work, not anything to do with its intrinsic quality.

But its important that you write something good: of course it is. That's why all those self-help books, "morning pages" and "7 basic plots" are so comforting - and usually written by people who have never written a masterpiece in their life. I like getting my literary advice from the giants. Sometimes they've been so kind as to leave behind a vapour trail of their genius - letters from Kafka, Fitzgerald or Plath - but sometimes we just have to dig deep in the undergrowth of their work. Shakespeare or Proust or Joyce or Cervantes provide ample ammunition in their work. Yet its not just monkeys with typewriters who can't write like Shakespeare. Hell, we can't even write like Agatha Christie or Ian Fleming (though our writers have tried.)

When I first started getting published, the confidence that I had in the work was matched by a sudden realisation that someone else liked my writing. Yet a few poems and short stories here and there, though getting admirable glances from this editor or that, never really turned into anything more. I had people who might be interested in what I wrote next, but because I write such different things, I've always been dreadful at following up such early promise. I realised a long time ago, that however good my work-in-progress might be, there was nobody out there waiting for my masterpiece. And that's still, sadly the case.... the work-in-progress could be the thing everything else has been leading to, but after twenty (or is it thirty years?) I may as well be starting from scratch, no expectations. Rejections come in many forms as well, and in some ways the "never send me anything again" from an agent who'd previously expressed an interest, though rude, was at least unequivocal on where he stood; whilst thankfully I've never had "I like your story, are you writing a novel?" which derails so many promising writers. In some ways the least helpful have been the kindest, "you can really write, but its not for us." For how many of us can "really write?" But take backhanded compliments where you find them, sprinkle with a bit of self belief and carry on....

There's a bit in Jonathan Coe's excellent biography of B.S. Johnson where he steps back and imagines a particular day in Johnson's writing life. "That was a good day," he says, or something similar. Forget about rejection, forget about Johnson's suicide, forget about anything else other than the mundane task of putting words on paper in a pleasing order. Johnson had self belief aplenty (until he didn't) and you could argue that if he didn't produce a "masterpiece" it was this self belief that was at fault - his quirky surety meant that he gave us those strange books of his rather than the imagined book we'd have liked him to have written. This is not uncommon of course, and in all fields of endeavour. I remember a review of "Sign of the Times" by Prince which tore it apart for its first CD being just half-baked demos (but what demos....the best sketches for a new music since "Revolver".) If "Sign of the Times" isn't a masterpiece then what is? We were, of course, waiting for Prince's masterpiece, or rather, like a rarified few artists, his NEXT masterpiece. (It was probably his last.) Even - especially? - our most successful writers and artists disappoint. The "second album syndrome" of "The Autograph Man" probably means we no longer expect Zadie Smith to give us her masterpiece. Like a few other recent writers, a debut novel is as close as we'll get, probably.

There are a few times - a few people - where expectations have been higher. Bruce Chatwin was a successful journalist, and successful personality, moreover, yet his much trumpeted book on "nomads" never materialised. Nicholas Shakespeare, on completing his biography, said it was an unpublishable mess. When you read "In Patagonia" or (his masterpiece?) "The Songlines" there are phrases that come dripping with life, that appear in a slightly different format, in his "letters" (more usually "postcards"). Yet in general, nobody is waiting for your masterpiece. Keats struggled to write the long poem that would surely make his name (it was short poems that did so after his death), Kafka struggled to get anything much published, and even instructed his executor to burn his unpublished works. Morrissey was a "face" around Manchester who it was recommended should go away and write his novel, rather than wait around on the off chance that Johnny Marr might pop around with his guitar. Yet much as I admired the early pages of his "Autobiography", it was more for the light they shone on his real masterpieces, "The Smiths" and "The Queen is Dead."

The alchemy that comes behind successful art means that its hidden, like the Great Oz behind the facade. Beautiful actors or powerful singers might get second or third chances based on their looks or their voice, but writers...poets.... perhaps their intelligence, perhaps their friendship circles, mean that there's faith in them close to home. A book can be accepted and take a year or eighteen months to make the shelves, never mind to be read and acclaimed. Here's the rub, that the masterpiece - whether "Catcher in the Rye" or "1984" or whatever, is being written when there is little or no expectation of one. Yes, Joyce was self-consciously writing a "masterpiece" from the day that the first chapter of "Ulysses" got published; but then again, he was no doubt also doing so with "Finnegan's Wake", and who, other than scholars, reads that now?

So here's the thing: the most exciting part of being a writer is when you not only write, but feel that you get it right. Sometimes you might be delusional, but, the one thing I can say that experience brings, is that you know when you've got a live one - same when you're writing/recording a song. The job then it to get it as good as it can be, and not skyhigh this one over the net, missing an open goal. Because nobody is waiting for your masterpiece, there's something else to bear in mind, when you write it (and you will, you will....) imagine what a surprise it will be. Of course, like "A Girl is a Half Formed Thing", the gap between action and acclaim might be the best part of the decade. But hopefully, McBride did what most of us do in between writing our good, bad and ugly words, she lived, she wrote, she got on with things.

Sunday, August 02, 2015

Of Booker and Bloomsbury....

My week has been anything but literary, as I was away with work in a sweltering Rome - a place where you feel its almost criminal not to be thinking about art, poetry and philosophy.

So I missed the Booker longlist announcement. The main thing this year, year 2 of it allowing American novels, is that its bounced back a little to the old Booker of the empire - so its USA 5 Britain and Ireland 4, Rest of the World 4; a bit like the Ryder Cup in golf in other words. So vast are the amount of American novels each year, I'd be surprised if we saw any less. What this says for British literary culture - just three novels, by O'Hagan, McCarthy and Sunjeev Sahota - I hardly know: not a single novel by a British female writer worthy of a longlist mention this year? Such is the nature of expanding the field. I can't say it sounds a vintage list, but the Booker hasn't been particular sure of its course for a good few years now - with a seemingly random book choice, being narrowed down somewhat arbitrarily, and one book being picked as first among equals without there being much rhyme or reason to it (such is the nature of book prizes.) Nationality aside, there seems to be quite a few "issues" based books on the list, with a usual Booker propensity for a historical novel or two. Unusually, (but pleasingly), the majority of the list have already been published. Let battle commence.

I suspect a hundred years ago, that "The Rainbow","Of Human Bondage," "The Voyage Out", "The 39 Steps" and "The Good Soldier" might not have been the judge's shortlist, though they are the books that have lasted. The BBC has been a bit sluggish about reflecting a hundred years of modernism, so I was excited to hear that last week they were premiering a new series "Life in Squares" about the Bloomsbury Set. Yet whether I was a bit tired last night as I watched on catch up, or whether the bewilderingly large cast (and the notoriously complicated relationships) of this "set" made it hard to engage with, I found it a bit disappointing. Do we even "do" the Bloomsbury set anymore? English modernism is an interesting subject, mostly for what it was not, rather than what it was - and though it was painting that brought Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant and the older Roger Fry together, it was only in literature - and the novel, not poetry - where English writers really embraced modernism. Elsewhere its Americans (Epstein, Pound, Eliot) or the Irish (Joyce, Beckett) where greatness lay.

But of course, we still talk about Bloomsbury for at least one reason, and that is Virginia Woolf, the unexpected breakout star of that shiny group of individuals. Unexpected because it is the Cambridge-educated gay men - Strachey, Grant, Maynard Keynes - who were the key players at the time, though the Stephen sisters - Vanessa and Virginia - are the fulcrum of the group. There was a TV dramatisation of the Pre-Raphaelites a couple of years ago that was colourful and fun, called "Desperate Romantics", I enjoyed it thoroughly despite (or because of) it playing fast and loose with history. I'm not sure what we did to deserve the full BBC costume drama approach to "Life in Squares" but it seems dark and drab, and could have done with a less serious, less respectful approach. I'd have liked to have seen it done like a series of "Skins" with maybe a story per episode - and a bit of on-screen intervention, like "Maynard, Economist" or "Vanessa, painter" - or even a bit of an idea about when exactly it was set.

I'll go back to it - as I've gone back to a Woolf biography - for though the main fascination with Bloomsbury has always been partly because of their upper class bohemianism, its "Mrs. Dalloway" and "To the Lighthouse" that explain why we are still interested.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Performance Capture - Ed Atkins at Manchester Art Gallery

A small woman of indeterminate age is standing in front of a monitor reading a script. She has wires from her head and hands, and is stood in a brightly lit studio space installed in the middle of Manchester Art Gallery. This is the first of three rooms devoted to Ed Atkins' "Performance Capture" at Manchester International Festival. The second room looks more like a control booth with a server rack and rows of computers running video capture software. In the third room, behind a black curtain, a giant screen has an avatar - just face and hands - with voice and movements altering every few minutes or so as the performers in room 1, rendered in room 2, inhabit the art work in this final space.

Reading the blurb about "Performance Capture" as you enter the gallery ("Please switch off your mobile phones as they could interfere with our equipment") or in the MIF brochure is unhelpful. Better to spend some time there. See what is happening, be present at the process. The words are Ed Atkins own. I hadn't realised but he is also the writer of the piece - that is important and I'll come back to it. In the script you can buy in the shop it looks like a poem, a long freeflowing loose narrative that keeps returning to certain themes, and at some points intersperses songs - finishing with the Elvis Presley associated classic "Always on Your Mind." The "story" is a future narrative set in a "render farm" where we are the pieces of meat. Although "poetry" - and the free flowing juxtapositions would be familiar to readers of avant garde poetry, like Robert Shepherd, Tony Lopez, Keston Sutherland (or even my own "Juxtaposition #4"),  the monologue sounds more like a fractured prose - I'm particularly reminded of Ben Marcus and his late 90s "The Age of Wire and String." Catching a few minutes of the piece - it seems hard to grasp - images of animals, meat, politics, zoom by - and the sometimes difficult or obtuse language creates an added layer of difficulty for the "actors" in the piece.

A few years ago I was at a seminar in Cambridge which was looking at how motion capture software and hardware could be used for different purposes - say, in business, or the arts - than for what it had already been used. The technology was there - an actor would have wires on their head, maybe on their hand - and the "motion capture" cameras and software would create an electronic frame which indicated the movement. The professor had come from Weta in New Zealand, world leading centre of motion capture because of the work Peter Jackson had done there on the Lord of the Rings movies. The actor Andy Serkis - namechecked in Ed Atkins piece - has since turned what was primarily a technical challenge into an acting one. Atkins' hardware, though impressive, is not so different than what I saw back then. Whole body capture, the kind you see in films, is more complex. Yet at the other end we are seeing technology available to an artist with a laptop and the right software. But like Michelangelo's trainee sculptors, there are banks of volunteers learning how to use the captured information and tweak it so that the end result - the face that we see speaking, appears somewhere near human.

I went on the final day of the residency and saw Atkins read his whole narrative - lasting just less than ninety minutes - almost the length of a film. It was compelling. The non-linear narrative had some kind of sense to it - then would drift off. You concentrated on the words, then on Atkins, then on the screens with the avatar voicing them. This is a kind of puppet play. Atkins coughs and takes a drink of his beer; the avatar makes the same shape, tilts his head to one side, but he is only a head, there is no beer. Though the aim of the piece wasn't a solipsistic performance - I'm glad I caught that. I think it may make more sense than the eventual end piece - where the story is a monologue told in voices. It felt like it should be one voice not a a cacophony. But its a work in progress. This end "performance" felt more intimate - a turning of a massive endeavour back into its components, a text, an actor, a camera, an avatar.

Like a lot of media art, there are questions about the end result. The putting different voices into another head - is that any different than the Gillian Wearing piece "2 into 1" from 1997? In this case, the text seems crucial - it is contextualised with the work. A "render farm" seen from the future - what does it mean? What happens when we become our avatars? Digital art, now that it is available, rather than has to be invented, sometimes seems to be reconstructing past tropes rather than creating its own, its needs meaning, needs a writer. The end result of all this endeavour - and it was an endeavour, a large team of volunteers, expensive kit provided by Cisco and others, three rooms of the gallery taken up, a massive list of contributors included a 3D company and Salford University - will be the finished art work. There is something compelling and fascinating about the avatar - partly because, like all CGI, its not quite able to replicate the human enough - there is something uneasy and unreal about it. (Its why motion capture in movies gives us Gollum or King Kong - transferring human emotion or movement into something unreal.) The head speaking seems a descendent of Beckett's "Not I" or the poetic monologue has echoes of "The Singing Detective."

Manchester International Festival remains an enigmatic success, enigmatic in that it has created a sort of big event culture in the city, with a kind of P.T. Barnum-like showmanship; yet dig a little deeper, and artists, when asked to do something here, are suddenly being given big budgets for work that is - if not avant garde - often more complex than the mainstream. This, Alex Poots last year, seems to have an emphasis on process as much as end result - and in a particularly contemporary idea of participation, where the public are invited in, but have very little agency over the work. There is also, it has to be said, quite a defiant political strand - whether in Maxine Peake reviving the Skriker, or in Atkins' future-text. Given that part of MIF's success has been its showmanship, I wonder if this tendency - in contemporary art and performance in particular - towards exploring and showing the process is going in a different and more interesting direction; its as if Oz has swivelled round, opened up the curtain, and said "hey, its all mirrors, kids."

I felt that Atkins writing - the monologue - was key to the success of this piece in that if there hadn't been some genuine content - then the whole endeavour would have just fallen flat, as a technical exercise. The idea of a "render farm" with its echoes of "Animal Farm" seemed powerful, and his poetic language, his willingness to interrupt his own narrative make it a frequently compelling word soup. When I attended that motion capture seminar a few years ago I could see the potential, but also that it was less about the technology (technology is always improving) but about the expertise: that what a business or creative would want from the university would be the knowledge and experience of the people who'd been working with the software and hardware. The end result of "Performance Capture" may actually be the experience of those working with Atkins on the finished piece; apprentices to the master stonemason.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Festival Season

We are in the full flow of festival season. Wimbledon ended yesterday, I missed Glastonbury (on the TV, god forbid I'd ever go!) as I was out of the country, and we are just over half way through the 2-week extravaganza of Manchester International Festival. I'm pleased as ever to see it in the city, but you'll probably have to go elsewhere to see how it was, as inevitably it always seems to come at a time when I'm very busy. I had the pleasure of hearing the Estonian choir singing Arvo Part in Whitworth Art Gallery on Saturday, but with some of the other shows sold out or finishing, I'm not sure I'll get to much more. I mused over this with a friend - I just don't go to much performance/theatre work - and with the highlights this year being mostly short runs in theatres and opera houses, (with much less of the Manc music that we've seen previous festivals) I guess its a classic case that you just can't do everything.

In the midst of this there's always other things going on in Manchester and I just hope that it all doesn't stop dead in a couple of weeks time, as the school's break up. That said Manchester's a massive building site at present as the tram second city crossing gets put in place - but there are also lots of roadworks, work going on the rail network, and a seemingly constant round of demolitions of sixties and seventies buildings in the city. Not since the post-bomb reconstruction after 1996 has the city been so transformed.This is of course the new economics, the state building, as the state recedes. Feels another phase of my long imagined Manchester novel.

I've managed to swerve the roadworks for a few things however. I enjoyed "Industrial soundtrack for the urban decay" at Home - a film about industrial music, a genre I've long had a fondness for, and which I was particularly into in 1983/4 when I was 16/17. (It also had a strong influence on the music I made at the time, and since.) There's a few mixtapes to listen to on the website of the film,  but good to hear from bands and artists who were almost invisible at the time. I remember how hard it was to get hold of records even though Psychic TV, Einsturzende Neubauten, Test Department and SPK were briefly being hailed as the next big thing. I never saw any of these bands live either as they tended only to play London, or maybe one or two other big cities. By the time I was at university the scene had moved back into the twilight shadows, yet it still remains an influence all these years later, and probably more well known now than then. The film's not on general release but will be issued on DVD later in the year. Worth seeking out.

I've been neglecting my reading, so not a lot of literature stuff to post. Though things carry on in the real world of course. I mean to get the new Best British Short Stories, ed. by Nicholas Royle, from Salt, reviewed here in the Guardian (and with a mention of Confingo magazine which I appeared in last year.)

Friday, June 19, 2015

On Expertise

Yesterday I was speaking at a symposium on "Big Data" as part of my work. Amongst the other presentations were ones on cosmology, mapping the human genome, and silicon chip design. It struck me, and not for the first time, how the vast majority of academics within STEM subjects - science, technology, engineering, maths - are almost always micro-specialists in their discipline, even if the knowledge they accumulate along the way is probably broader than that which those of us from arts, humanities and social sciences tend to have. The nature of contemporary science is that it particularly specialised, and that jobs and careers in these disciplines will tend to narrow individuals even further. This is not to decry their brilliance and experience, but the scarce resources that we have in terms of highly-qualified, highly-skilled researchers, have to be pushed into particular places. The cosmologist was not talking about astrophysics - the kind of thing that Brian Cox extolls about on his popular TV appearances - or computing, yet she clearly knew vast amounts about both; rather, her specialism was remarkably focussed - she was involved in projects looking at "mapping" what is invisible in the universe, through the lenses that are so much more advanced than even our famous Hubble telescope - a major collaborative project that is going to see an international telescope built in Santiago in Chile, a piece of kit with the beautiful droll name of the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-Elt).

Collaboration is central to these major scientific efforts - not just been people in the same discipline (who may, at times, be competing for resources and jobs) but also between disciplines. Here she was talking at a conference with computer scientists, for it will be their algorithms and programming languages which will make sense of the images being beamed back of distant galaxies; whilst the technological challenges of building the telescope itself will - like the Large Hadron Collider - be the result of an immense amount of engineering know-how. Science works this way, an accumulation of knowledge, building on the shoulders of giants, so that every Nobel winner is really a figurehead for a particular sub-discipline or for many other names who have contributed to that breakthrough.

It made me wonder, as I gave my own non-specialist (albeit relatively practical) presentation about data in the urban environment, how we as poets, novelists, painters, musicians and songwriters fit and compare. For the dedication we can put in - not just that fabled 10,000 hours, but our obsessiveness around our work - is surely different but similar. Where is the collaboration and multi-disciplinary necessity of the artist? For those trying to make the case for an A in STEM (STEAM ) for arts, one of the problems is that our individual artistic worth may well be "standing on the shoulder of giants" but are still likely to be one offs. Whereas Picasso might be able to say it was easier for others to do what he did, after he'd shown them how, such breakthroughs in art aren't obviously incremental. However great an artist, writer or musician is, when they die or stop doing their work, the work remains, but who can possibly continue it except as a pale shadow? I asked a computer scientist once whether there were any "abandoned routes" in the history of computer science - languages, or ideas that were abandoned because computing went a particular way. He looked at me like I was insane. The past has always been superceded it seems (though when Tim Berners-Lee was looking for a language with which to put into practice his ideas for an internet based information system, his HTML was a subset of SGML, which had been developed as a technical language by airplane designers in the sixties.)

Yet as writers there are always non-linear routes we can follow, same for musicians and painters. One of the most damning things about contemporary art forms (certainly as I get older) is how sometimes they seem so ignorant of what has gone before, making it less about advancement, and more an inferior photocopy.

I know that there are creatives - academics and otherwise - who are specialists, like my cosmologist co-presenter above. Translators, linguistics experts, classical musicians, editors and subeditors, music producers, art technicians, restoration experts.... yet being these doesn't necessarily lead to a great work of art; the technical skill is separate in some ways from the creative one. It means that hearing that Simon Armitage has been elected to take over from Geoffrey Hill as Oxford Professor of Poetry, you can approach it in two ways: at last a populist; or how can he replace the venerable Hill? Of course, many writers have to earn their living from their expertise and inevitably for some that will be in translation, or teaching or research into poetry or biographer of a novelist; but such "expertise" seems a little irrelevant when set against one's creative work; you may as well be a cosmologist who writes (or as in my case, someone with a digital background.)

I wonder if we sometimes glory too much in our playfulness to the extent which we can call ourselves "amateur" rather than "professional" writers? The distinction between the two seems to be like it was in the early days of the Olympics, that professionals get paid, amateurs don't. (But remember, the amateur was sometimes held in higher regard as "sport" was not then the multi-million pound business it is today.) The sense of being an "expert" poet or novelist would be an absurdity, even, I guess to an Amis or McEwan, yet we shouldn't shy away from the word. Perhaps the "novel" is indeed, still "new", that we were better off when all humanities were dumped under the category of "philosophy", "love of wisdom". And in some ways I like that, for what is novelist or a poet other than a lover of wisdom? We may not know the answers but we revel in asking the question. Yet as we know from history, its not necessarily the wisest who are the most successful, at least in their own times. How do we measure the expertise of Emily Dickinson or Franz Kafka? What is it about Shakespeare that makes him the "expert" from which all else flows? Our culture hasn't produced another Shakespeare anymore that the proverbial monkeys with typewriters tapping away infinitely have - though our cosmologist might have something to say about that (the big question in cosmology is that: we know the universe is expanding, but why is it accelerating?)

In other words our past writers may well be greater than any to come - how does that square with out "expertise"? Do we need another crack at this liberal education lark? Where do we start? What do we need to learn. Had I at any time in my life been able to take time off from the day job for three years would I have done the hard concentration necessary to do a PhD? And what then? Is being an expert in the words of writer A, better than having just read a mix of writers? I suspect there are different, non-specialised intelligences which some of us are better cultivating. So that after my talk yesterday, quite a few students and postgraduates came up to me, as my subject was broad enough and empirical enough to interest them. For all the wonder of science specialisation, and the sense that its great that people are out there figuring how to get more "juice" out of a small piece of silicon, I can't help think that such expert brains, funnelled into a particular direction, are different than mine in so many ways. One of the horrors of being a computer programmer for a decade was how ephemeral the end result could be - where the thing you then wrote, taking months over it, would soon be obsolete, and more likely replaced by something that could now be written in just days.

The "expertise" that feeds into my poetry or fiction is of a very non-specialised nature; I sometimes wonder if it exists at all. Yet there are times when it seems I'm just as good as the top scientist in their particular field. That my "field" is just me, is no reason to stop; not yet anyway.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

You Need Never Stay in the House Again

I shouldn't complain...but at the last count I could go to at least seven events in the next week - not all literary, but all kind-of interesting.

So if you've not got any plans, try....

The launch of a new exhibition and the new edition of The Modernist tomorrow night....

A new art project at the National Football Museum - "Out of Play" - about technology and football... that's Friday.

On Saturday I'm reading poetry (me! poetry!) as part of a pop up reading at St. Helens Central Library 1pm-3pm, with (I hope) some other poets.

All weekend, 2-wheelers are invited to put their ideas into the Manchester Cyclehack.

Monday sees Verbose return to Fallow Cafe, with a very special trip to the suburbs by Tom Jenks, James Davis and Scott Thurston, the founders of the Other Room, reading their own work together.

Tuesday then sees Les Malheureux, Sarah Clare Conlon and David Gaffney at the Didsbury Arts Festival - performing at the Art of Tea - alongside a poetry slam. Of course, Didsbury Arts Festival starts this Saturday so there's stuff on every day for the next week and a half.

Wednesday has a special night of international poetry coming to Gullivers early evening -  then later that evening its Bad Language across the road at the Castle. Amazingly its their 50th event with special guest Jo Bell.

Next Friday an unusual talk from Pariah Press at Anthony Burgess Foundation called "The  idea of death" - which I'm going to be away for, but with sounds brilliant.

Enough already?

Sunday, June 14, 2015

After K

He's still one of the touchstones, Franz Kafka. The new arts centre in Manchester, Home, has "Kafka's Monkey" as part of its opening season, and last night I went to see an oddity, a version of his unfinished manuscript "The Castle", filmed by Michael Haneke.  Originally shown on Austrian TV in 1997 it feels older, somehow, a faithful retelling of a somewhat untellable tale. For "The Castle" was one of those manuscripts that Kafka may well never have wanted to see the light of day. It's telling that the best way to describe the film is as "Kafkaesque", so emblematic has Franz's work become. The Land Surveyor turns up in a village on the outskirts of the Castle that has hired him. Its a great opportunity for the man, yet the labrynthine bureaucracy that led to him being hired is so deep in the past that initially he is denied access, even to a bed, given that he has no permit. He is then assigned two "assistants", spying on his every word, as he begins to make his presence felt in a community that lives under the whims of a faceless bureaucracy, where livelihoods can be destroyed through some unknowing gesture. The Land Surveyor (with no land to survey) is made of strong stuff, and will not take no for an answer. He has been given a name - "Klamm" - who has apparently hired him. When he seduces/is seduced by Frieda, Klamm's mistress, is it because he wants to get nearer to the source of his trial (to echo that other Kafka novel) or because she is another spy? The absurdist novel is turned into an absurdist film which is occasionally ridiculous, with the grotesques of the village reminding you of Polanski's "The Fearless Vampire Killers", filmed 30 years earlier. The depiction of East European peasantry having not moved on much in the interim. What makes the film compelling, apart from its still resonant source material, is its lead actors, where both K, (the Land Surveyor) and Frieda, are brilliantly portrayed. The film, like the book, finishes as Kafka wrote it, mid-sentence, the story unresolved; yet it feels that any resolution would be a betrayal of the system that exists in place at the Castle, which is perfect only that any possibility is interpretable. Such is the tyranny of bureaucracy. Required viewing for any of the current government's disability assessment advisors.

For what we still see in Kafka is a reflection of a society that at the time he was writing, was yet to be named. He gave us a language by which to mock, if not understand, the emerging technocracy. The ruthless efficiency of tyranny is surely based upon what Kafka's books described, a circumlocuting of man, so that he no longer has agency; but that those agents that destroy him are themselves equally powerless actors behaving on the nebulous instruction of the machine.

What struck me watching "The Castle" as well, was the humanity that is at the heart of his diaries and letters. When K meets Frieda in the corridor of the inn towards the end, both having committed a kind of betrayal, their speeches read like something out of the letters. For love, denied love, was Kafka's other subject, and provides the counterpoint to that cold humour of displacement.

A hundred years on from the first publication of "Metamorphosis", Kafka still has a cultural resonance, that has outlasted many of his peers. The troubled publication history of work that was not finished for publication at the time of his death means that there have been several "versions" of Kafka - rather than a definitive text. Add to that the ambiguities of his life and nationality, and it seems we are not quite done with him yet.

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Trigger Warning: These Poems are About Something

I probably have only myself to blame. When meeting other writers, particularly other poets, I've sometimes asked them what they write about, what their subject is. I'm interested from my own point of view, partly because the "traditional" subjects of poetry - love, elegy, nature - don't particularly interest me, or at least not all the time.

Up until the early 2000s, a certain mode had taken hold of British poetry, I think its fair to say, which you could probably describe as What Heaney Sees from His Window. The anecdotal, or the moment lived; the thing in view. Its not just in Heaney of course, but this sense of poetry that is personal experience, or if not experience, personally observed,  is the default mode. It is, to use well known examples, in the onion which Carol Ann Duffy writes about, even as she uses it as metaphor, or in the tire that Simon Armitage storifies, even as he adds the metaphysical. Where the imaginative or surreal came into poetry it was in a nicely protestant form, through story, fairytale, myth. I'm not saying poets didn't crave something else to write about, after all Heaney himself found a bit of a new lease of life with "Beowulf" a model that again has been picked up by poets wanting a big subject.

There was, as the anthology "Emergency Kit" (ed. by Kit Wright and Jo Shapcott) had identified in the 1990s, another "mode" of writing that was more elliptical, more strange. If you go into visual arts, we've long ago dumped the merely representational or the obviously viewed, yet British and even Irish poetry of the mainstream seemingly viewed such things suspiciously. Yet the flowering of poetry since the millennium and partly documented in books like Nathan Hamilton's "Dear World" shows a refreshing willingness to stretch beyond anecdote and personal experience, as valid as those modes can sometimes be. Our new nature poets are notably stranger in their approach than earlier ones, our anecdotalists, seem to have stepped through the rabbit hole, love poems are as diverse as love in the modern pluralistic world can be, even our elegies reflect the tragedies of contemporary life rather than merely age passing, and the way that we say these things has changed, is changing.

Yet, looking at a few recent poetic exchanges I'm a little worried that something else is beginning to overtake poetry on the inside track. There has been a recent tendency to reportage as poetry. At its worst, this has been the appropriation of found materials and dumping them in an inappropriate place conceptually, at its best this has been a certain documentary poetry. I'm not adverse to this. One of my favourite books of the last few years was C.D. Wright's "One Big Self" about prisoners, which took their own testimony and made poems of it (accompanied initially by photographs.) At a time when social media has pretty much become a platform for different self interest groups, we are seeing an over-policing of content that on the one hand identifies that poems can be about something, but on the other, insists that poems are EXACTLY about something. It strikes me that we use metaphor for a reason; that it has power beyond the events it describes.Yet at the same time, poetry's desire for a bit of a moment in the sun, means that art on its own is not a "story", instead work that gets noticed has to be "about" something.

Yet for me, without going into the language specifics of the L=A-N=G=U=A=G=E poets or a non commital "arts for arts sake" view, the work that I like best in all kinds of way is not, has never been, simply paraphraseable as prose. Wherefore Stevens' "Emperor of Ice Cream?" in this, and why do we love it so? And of course, the distinction is never that simple. Isn't it strange that the so-called conceptual poets, whose work we would expect to find hard to understand, are sometimes drawn to interpretable gestures? Or that a work of documentary, like "One Big Self", Dan O'Brien's "War Reporter" or Claudia Rankine's "Citizen", shortlisted for this years Forward Prize, can be a complex collage of forms?

When we look for a subject for a work - or the subject finds us - its usually somehow about connection. Why is that certain obscure points in history excite me when others don't? It's something to do with our artistic interpretation of the world. Perhaps more so in fiction, than poetry, where "making things up" used to be the whole point, this sense of "reality hunger" means that we sometimes look for the crutch of real life events as this makes the story less removed from our world. Yet the reason we talk about "Big Brother" is because of Orwell's imagination, not because of his reportage.

There has been a trend since the millennium for theatre that is based on real life events - even taking as source material policy reports or official documentation. This approach might be mirrored in Ken Goldsmith's appropriations for instance. This "documentary art" feeds our "reality hunger" in David Shields' words, and is ultimately interpretable. I've long been interested in the possibilies of written art that isn't paraphraseable, after all we have to hear a piece of music, experience a sculpture, see a painting to understand it. Even narrative forms, such as film, which are meticulously built, scene by scene have to be watched again (as I found the other day, watching the 40-year old "JAWS" again) and can change meaning. It seems one of the key elements of successful art, that it cannot be just described but should be experienced.

I wonder if our 24-hour news cycle, the inevitable desire to have "newsworthy" art - whether a Craig Raine poem, or prize-listed book - means that the genuine strangeness of the imagination becomes secondary. In the age of the superhero movie you'd think demand would lead to a whole new raft of superhero creations, yet instead Marvel raid Stan Lee's back catalogue for yet another revamp or reboot; even modern icons like Harry Potter are creations with a cultural backstory rather than genuine originals; our desire to dress up our children for World Book Day seems a betrayal of the imagination I had as a child (reading the book made me part of the interactive adventure, not wearing the clothes that the character wore on the cover), whilst adults "cosplaying" have replaced old mummers play archetypes with new ones from popular fictions.

So I get how we need to share in our myths, even commercialised ones (who wants to go to the fancy dress and be asked what you've come as?) but the literal application of the imagination is a second or third time removed from the actual art itself. Literalism sometimes seems as if its the unexpected yet inevitable next step after post-modernism has become exhausted: no, I'm not being ironic, I really do like ABBA/Lord of the Rings etc. etc. By all means be about something, but you don't have to be exactly about something -we have Wikipedia for that!

Saturday, June 06, 2015

From Finland with Love

I was on a rare trip to Bury Art Gallery last night, which is probably my favourite of the municipal art galleries in Greater Manchester. There have been some good shows on over the years, and it was the opening of a new show of contemporary Finnish Art, "New Narrative and Reader." As a big fan of all things Finnish I was interested in seeing this show. It seems a strong collection, both austere and playful, with a partial focus on portraiture that is then subverted; as well as some superb installed works, which make good use of the large open galleries of Bury. Its well worth popping on the tram to see.

Next week another important show - "Real Painting" - opens at Castlefield Gallery. The launch will be on the evening of 11th June.

With the sun streaming through my window and the word "June" on the calendar the year is going by far too fast. I'm sure I had some plans - like finishing the first draft of my novel by end of May! Hasn't happened, of course.... that's why deadlines are sometimes so useful. The annual Anthony Burgess/Observer competition prize for arts journalism is now open, and with a deadline of November, even I might make this one. Its good to see it becoming an established event in the calendar.

As I've not been writing this blog as regularly as before, I maybe forgot to mention that the 3rd issue of Manchester-based Confingo Magazine is now in the shops or available to buy online. Magma and Home are the shops in question, I think. Upping the art content for issue 3, its now got more of an art object feel to its production. Always fascinating to see how magazines evolve. A paying publication, its now accepting submissions of art and writing for issue 4, but please buy issue 3 to see what its all about. 

Part of my being busy is the plethora of literary events in the city - I think maybe everyone's clearing the decks before Manchester International Festival hits. Didsbury Arts Festival comes before then however, and seems bigger and better than ever this year. My friend, the novelist Sarah Butler has a "residency" during the festival "walking the edge" of the ward, and uploading a new piece of fiction each day. Such place-based writing is becoming very popular these days - and is just one of many events at this years festival which starts on 20th June. 

I'm also hoping to get along to Jackie Hagan's well received show "Some People Have too Many Legs" which following a successful tour is back for the Didsbury festival. Jackie says her show changes all the time, so even those who have seen it might welcome its return. 


Nightjar publishing, Nicholas Royle's occasional short story publishing venture returns with two new pamphlets from Alison Moore and Tom Fletcher. Single-story booklets, elegantly produced, but more importantly, with a high quality of stories, they are all limited editions, so  grab them while you can. A review of the latest couple coming soon.

I'm hoping to be doing a reading myself before too long, but more details soon. In the mean time, you can read a short story of mine "The Good Citizen" in VLAK, an extravagant 600+ page magazine of leading contemporary art, poetry and fiction, published out of Prague. 

Other recent work - my long poem "Parallels" is in PROLE, you can read an interview with me and my poem "The Octopus" (free) in "Bunbury Magazine", and I've a poem forthcoming in the next Cake Magazine.

Given that BunBURY is published out of Bury, and my poem in Cake was written in Helsinki, it nicely brings this roundup to a close. 

Thursday, June 04, 2015

Why do we only talk about bad poems?

I think the last time I remember a deep, argumentative discussion about a poem was when a pop star or film star wrote one (I can't remember who, its all a bit hazy). Yet, "Gatwick", a poem that Craig Raine has published in the LRB this week has caused plenty of discussion. In this poem (not online), a first person Raine is recognised by a young woman at airport security and then on the plane lusts after another woman. (NB. Changed this after comment below). Old man fancying younger woman is hardly news. Twitter and Facebook were full of discussion. On one twitter feed it seemed that this was just too good a chance to parody one of the doyennes of English poetry.

Charles Whalley, a regular reviewer, tweeted "jesus wept this is fucking grim." The poem's first lines (a first section of 3) go -:

Tom Stoppard sold his house in France. "I was sick
of spending so much time at Gatwick."

This, I suspect, is a found line, from which Raine weaves his poem, for he is also at Gatwick. There's hubris here, I think, after all, most of us might wonder why Stoppard's very first world problem deserves a poem; but here is Raine, being recognised by the girl at security. So far, so anecdotal. But in the third bit of the poem, "I want to say I like your bust" he says, before, apropos of nothing, having a go at her imagined mother. He then apologises, that he can't say these things, but he has done anyway.

I guess this is candour of a sort, though the poem sounds tossed off, in more ways than one. Apparently social media has been outraged at Raine's subject, yet when I first read it, I thought the humour being thrown in parodies of that first line in particular, were because it was such a patently bad poem. According to Facebook, even this is under discussion - and the outrage is outrage at the subject matter.

Having written about male lust for a younger woman, about desire late in life, and er... of hanging around in airports, I can hardly moan about the subject matter; but of course I don't think its likely I'll ever get a poem in the LRB (or would necessarily want one there) or be discussed in detail. I guess we only really talk about bad poems, and if this poem has any merit its because its just good enough to instil doubt, whilst being just bad enough to inspire parody. Its a long time since any Craig Raine poem has had any attention, so that's an appreciation of sorts; but it does make me wonder about how bankrupt our literary culture has become - that such nonsense can get published, and that having been published its the first poem for years that has been discussed at length.

Bizarrely, Sophie Hannah writes a riposte in the Guardian, that ignores the poem's quality in terms only of comments on its contents  when surely the two are linked? There is a serious discussion to be had about what subjects are not allowed in our strangely illiberal new media world. When Don Paterson wrote a prize winning poem about his love for an East European techno artist, there wasn't scorn, for it was a stunningly inventive poem, made the more so by its subject matter. Raine's poem seems off the beat in so many ways, that my real shock is that it has its defenders. Clearly, despite his poetry reputation being almost non-existent these days, Raine's profile as a man of letters still holds sway.

(For what its worth I quite like early Raine, but if anyone thinks this would have been published in the LRB without it being by a famous name, they're deluded.)

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Inside Llewyn Davis

I don't get to watch as many films as I used to, and I rarely write about them on this blog. However, I'd wanted to see the Coen Brothers' "Inside Llewyn Davis" since it came out in 2013, because of my interest in its source material, the Greenwich Village folk scene in the early 1960s, the febrile ground on which Bob Dylan's iconic career was founded. I generally think there are good Coen Brothers films and bad ones, though its been a while since I've seen one, and "Inside Llewyn Davis" actually has aspects of both their strengths and weaknesses.

Ostensibly a tale of a folk singer playing the Gas Light and other folk clubs in New York, Davis is portrayed as a hangdog loser, at first likeable, but as his bad life choices pile up, increasingly a bit of a douche bag. This complexity of character is one of the film's strengths. I'm reminded of Knut Hamsun's hero in "Hunger", albeit somewhat reversed, for Hamsun's author is an optimist whilst Davis is a pessimist. His misanthropy sees even the girl he's accidentally got pregnant berate him for being a disaster. For Davis is that worst kind of artist, one who is striving for integrity in his life as well as his music.

In some ways, folk music is the perfect idiom for such a character. On the one hand a music that began as peasant music is being listened to by a slumming intelligentsia in the New York of the early 1960s, and on the other hand, a bowlderised version of it, with sweet harmonies and All-American good looks is being played on the radio. Davis is a doyenne of this scene, yet his moment appears to have gone. He was once in a duo, but his partner in that act threw himself off a bridge. He bums money off friends, sleeps on couches, and is now trying to promote the album of the film's title, which his exploitative manager/record label owner hasn't even tried to sell. Basically Davis's integrity has got him nowhere. He does a last minute session for a novelty song about JFK and chooses a session fee rather than royalties as he needs some cash in hand - later in the film we hear that the song will be a smash hit.

Yet it is not Davis's music so much as his attitude that sees his life going down the tube. He had been in the merchant navy, like his father, and the music is an escape from that destiny - yet its true what the pregnant Jean says of him, everything he touches does turn bad. The film begins with him playing a song at the Gas Light and then beaten up outside - we only find out at the end why. This framing device - a bit groundhog day, works well to show how an artist has to plug away almost to the point of despair; for having virtually given up when a Chicago promoter says "I don't hear much money here", we hear, at the end of the film, an act playing on the stage after Davis; its Bob Dylan. The future is just there around the corner, giving the film a brilliant poignancy.

For folk music - and then folk rock - was a baby boomer music, appealing to that middle class audience that was becoming both politically and financially active during the 1960s; yet its early advocates were hardly that - esoteric professors who liked slumming it now and then in the village, or misanthropic outsiders like Davis, based, to some extent on Dave Van Ronk, the contemporary who most inspired Dylan.

Like Woody Allen, the Coens have a propensity for a certain quirky nostalgia, fashioning new stories out of old half-remembered millieu - like the silent movie pastiche of the deathly the Hudsucker Proxy. And also like Allen, they tend to originate their own source material. So as accurate in so many ways as the "feel" of "Inside Llewyn Davis" is, it both is and isn't a historical story. Davis is an invention, and in some ways, the truly interesting story of Greenwich village before Dylan, Joan Baez and others appeared, is subsumed into something smaller and less compelling. The telling of the story in Dylan's "Chronicles" is the most fascinating bit of that intrigueing memoir, and compared with that, the Coen's version seems in part just a number of gestures, despite an authentic sounding soundtrack. More puzzling is an interlude halfway through the film where, in typical Coen style, Davis goes on a road trip, with a heroin-addled John Goodman as a comic turn jazz musician. It seems a generic Coen episode rather than adding anything to the film, and when Davis finally gets to Chicago it is only to get another rejection and a bit of a wake-up call that his life isn't working.
Yet for all that, there is some method to their madness, as the comic side of Davis's predicament is shown through his accidentally losing, then finding, then dreaming about a ginger cat. For all the pleasure of a Goodman set piece, it hardly adds to the film.

Yet I think why I finally really liked the movie, and why I've been thinking about it all week, is that it does say something quite profound about the nature of the artist. For Davis is clearly a sideman to history, a John the Baptist, holding the fort till the Messiah arrives - and yet in that precursor nature, he becomes a very un-American hero; for America loves its winners, and Davis is almost collateral damage - yet there's something highly poignant about this. For we are less interested as viewers in seeing success  - the big stadium tour, the bestselling novel - rather, seeing the struggle to get to that point; yet by focusing on a Van Ronk figure rather than a Dylan, the Coens are giving us the poignancy of the creative artist who doesn't quite stack up to brilliance; the man who has a dream and follows it, however far down the river it takes him. There aren't that many films that seem to be do more than gloss over the art of creativity, but in its concentration on a particular moment, and on a particular lesser artist, the Coen's have created a lovely picture of the artistic underdog, which in some ways, is more truthful than the rags-to-riches biopic. Well worth a watch.

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.