Friday, 25 March 2011

Joy Division Cover Versions

Eleven bands covering Joy Division tracks. Some remain faithful, some put their own indelible spin on it, but most openly acknowledge their musical indebtedness to Joy Division. For a band that only lasted long enough to release two proper albums and a handful of singles, their influence has been enormous.

Enjoy and see if you agree with my marking of these bands' efforts.

1) Nine Inch Nails - "Dead Souls"
Musically a pretty faithful cover, though the buzz guitar isn't as defined as Albrecht's original. Trent Reznor's voice is quite smoothed out and not as desperate sounding as Curtis'. Their version of this appeared on the soundtrack to Brandon Lee's movie "The Crow".


2) Girls Against Boys - "She's Lost Control"
I really like this cover version. (Mind you, after Grace Jones' butchering of this song by slowing everything down to a dirge, anything is an improvement). The squalling guitar works really well against a faithful reproduction of the rhythm section. The vocal both echoes the effects applied to Curtis' voice and yet remains distinctly American, bourbon soaked and gruff. Even the video echoes those B&W photos of JD in their brick rehearsal space.


3) Radiohead - "Ceremony"
I am not a Radiohead fan. I am not in awe of every note they emit. I can't really say much about this cover version, as it seems absolutely faithful in every detail to the original - therefore I ask myself what's the point of it? It's slightly off in places, but even the vocals seem to tilt exactly for Curtis', though no one can quite capture his off kilter voice and emotional cocktail behind it.
As Thom Yorke says at the end of the vid, "Now what?'


4) The Cure - "Love Will Tear Us Apart"
Robert Smith's phrasing is a bit off-putting, but I do like the emotion he puts behind it. The music strips the song of some its complexity as it becomes a bit of a rumble, without the minor variations of the original. It's a curious mix and the Cure aren't a band I would have associated with Joy Division (the Goth thing was always more from their fans I feel), but there's something about this version that wins me over. I almost feel it's Robert Smith's apology for what might have been had the Cure not gone down the line of "Love Cats", but rather stayed more along their own Joy Divisionish "Seventeen Seconds" path.


5) LCD Soundsystem - "No Love Lost"
The weird thing about this, is that it's one of the most covered of JD songs. It dates from their punky 'Warsaw" period and maybe it's raw three-chord thrash is what appeals to those who cover it. LCD do it pretty fair justice, though it's gone a bit techno and lost much of its edge thereby. The harsh choppy guitar of the original sustains the long intro, with keyboards it just doesn't quite hold the same tension. The vocals are great though. There's a pretty bad Horrors version of the same song on YouTube, but I won't honour it with a link.


6) Moby - "New Dawn Fades"
Earnest, acoustic, folky almost, it lacks the menace and urgency of the original. String section? Let's leave that to Ramones covers shall we? The American voice and phrasing doesn't suit this song for some reason, unlike say the Girls Against Boys cover. I think that's to do with the particularly melancholic lyricism. The voice needs to suggest that it really is at the end of its tether.


7) Twilight Sad - "Twenty Four Hours"
I'd never heard of this band when I came across this on You Tube, but I love the monster wall of noise they conjure up for this song. Shoegazing does Division, who knew? The Scottish accent of the vocals gives the alienation a different regional feel, but no less disembowelling. All in all a decent fist of one of the saddest songs ever written.


8) 16 Horsepower - "Day Of The Lords"
This is a tricky one for me, since the JD original is actually one of my least favourite of their songs, despite it's lyrical greatness. I find the music plodding and leaden. So when 16H inject some musical colour and pazazz into it, it's hard to pick them apart for it, even though it's slide guitar suggests it's straight outta Texas rather than Manchester. I'm just a bit bemused by it all really.

5/10 (?)

9) The Killers - "Shadowplay"
One of my favourite tracks off "Unknown Pleasures" and they gut it completely. Everything about this interpretation is wrong. They happify it, prettify it, make it poppy. Uggh! The sit-down crowd passing a pleasant dinner evening is just about fitting for this version. Chicken in a basket?


10) Xiu Xiu and Deerhoof - "Insight"
This band have a whole series of YouTube videos doing different JD songs. There is a version of "Interzone" in which the keyboardist plays a whistle which is genius, but I've gone with their version of "Insight" which is tight, raucous and faithful. A genuine homage that seems to relegate the ego of the band doing the cover version behind the honouring of the song itself and I salute them for that.


11) Swans - "Love Will Tear Us Apart"
After JD ended, I still liked New order, but my favourite band status transferred to Swans and Sonic Youth from New York and the sonic landscapes those two bands produced. But Swans eventually had a change of musical direction and turned the amps down from 11 and took an acoustic turn. Michael Gira's voice just isn't that interesting when it isn't battling against a wall of noise and this version of a JD classic is horrible. A blot on both of two of my all time favourite bands


Bonus Tracks:

A couple of fun versions just to show I'm not completely zealous on all things Joy Division.
Steel Harmony provide a steel band version of "Transmission"

and a playmobil stop action version of Joy Division's performance of "Transmission" on the TV programme "Something Else"

The Steve Morris drumming and Ian Curtis dancing are spot on, but why Curtis is wearing a tie is beyond me, plus Hookey's bass isn't slung nearly low enough.

Thursday, 24 March 2011

One Billion Virtuososos - Friday Flash

He googled himself. He appeared 527th on a list of 632 bearing his name. In all of its derivatives.
414th out of 519 when multiple entries were discounted.
Search Engine Optimisation always felt a little sneaky to him. Not playing cricket, but there again most of these homonames and homonomenclatures hailed from countries where they probably didn't know what cricket was.
Other than an English archaism. Like him really.
And of course all 519 were writers like him. Well, not quite like him in point of fact. But they were writers.
All 519 had blogs. 156 had blogs to promote their e-books. That left 363 who were promoting things other than literature. Themselves and their spiked long-tailed passions in the main.
There was a motor-bike fiend evangelising oleaginously on carburettors. An alternative healer pontificating on chakras. She in turn was being needled by an acupuncturist who claimed her flows were all blocked. A moon child waxed lyrical during the hours of darkness, chatting live in real time only to followers on the other side of the world because her own people weren't nocturnal. There were several self-medicators and advocates thereof. A proponent of assisted suicide, who was only sticking around this world to bang the drum. A mercenary touting for work in a warzone, eulogising his acts of heroism from past campaigns, providing his own references. A dog breeder, a pigeon fancier and a badger baiter. A music afficionado who was not admitting anyone else's taste to challenge his own within the comments section. A bailiff and a call girl each recounting their working days knocking on people's doors, one repossessing, the other self-possessed.
Crocheters, cup cakers, those bemoaning the decline in the quality of modern day chocolate and rhapsodising on the late bonbon days. Type(cast)ing of which, there was a Tudor Court re-enactor as well as a fantasy role player extolling his adventures in a fantasy world on his virtual reality platform. This chimed with an actual fantasy author, one with literary product (the usage in the loosest sense) to sell. His was a troll site, in the guise of his fantasy main character, but he seemed to be involved in a flame war; with the real life author, or a genuine critic was however murkily unclear.
There was an animal welfare concerned butcher. An artist baker of ironic loaves of bread made from clay. A candlestick mime artist, contorting her body into all examples of the ornamental holder and with lit tapers sprouting from every orifice. A tinkerer-inventor posting from his shed in the bottom of his garden. A tailor offering seams of information about fabrics long gone from the bespoke catalogue. A sailor spun tales of his life hitting both the high and low seas. A invalided soldier detailed his recuperation, his intensive care regime and his intense rage at his quartered-at-home political paymasters.
There were tub-thumpers and apologists. But nobody here is shy as they offer up themselves. If they appear to be, it is simply their online schtick. A humble entreaty to treat their words gently and without critical faculty.
And none of it's fair! 519 writers and maybe only a handful of virtuosos among them. The democracy of ego.
519 smears of self, spread thinly across the blogosphere. The planet's virtual space junk.
Original content posted about their unoriginal lives. Life lived at one remove, further distanced by being written about. Composed. Edited. Fictionalised.
Updated wikipedestrian pages. Bulletins from the front. Despatches.
For this is how the species express themselves to themselves (and possibly, just possibly to one another. Or at least to anyone who clicks on the subject's site).
Desperately trying to share their isolated passions with those in the world community who are like-minded. So they no longer feel alone. Connection is all, the alpha and the omega, measured by the digits on the hit counter.
Like trying to find one's perfect soul mate. Whom you will never meet in the flesh.
Information is next in the roster. A glut of amateur tips and folkloric wisdom. There is no depth of reflexivity. Emotion is exhibited as just yet more data gloss.
Their frankly rank experiences are presented as if unique, and yet they know there is an elision between the 'real' them and the online persona, ever so slightly more thrusting and dashing as befits their writing being interesting enough to harvest readers.
Number 527, he tries to harvest souls. Through the old fashioned way. Writing a novel. It is not him and his life he attempts to broadcast about. He does not put himself at the forefront of the work. Though of course his fiction derives entirely from his experiences and knowledge. So in fact he is no different from them at all. Everyone's fictions are all just a question of degree.
The novel, the fictive, has never been any further removed from the immediacy of the culture as it is now.
The words, his words, subsumed in a morass of language, jottings, journals. Literature no longer at a premium, the ten-a-penny dreadfuls hold sway.
Literature is dead. Long live the fictionalisation of the real.
His name has just slipped another rank in the google listings.
He is 528th.
His book has too many zeroes in its Amazon listing to merit a sensible word to contain its numerate. Gazebozillion. Something hidden from view. Sunken.
He hopes he bookmarked the advocate of assisted suicide. He had been impressed with the unerring rhythm of the uploader's drumbeaten words.
He wishes now to be google delisted.
Therefore he won't even blog about it.

Taken from my flash fiction collection:

Available from Amazon Kindle Store

Friday, 18 March 2011

'B' Is For Better - Some top B-sides

Remember vinyl records? Remember 7 inch singles? The ones you could put into a jukebox. Usually with an A-side backed with (B/W) a B-side. Or as the Americans referred to it, a flipside. In the days before EPs, 12" singles, CD Singles with limited editions, remixes and everything that undermined the art of a B-side.

Well sometimes, just sometimes, the B-side was actually far superior to the A-Side. Here's a list of 10. I've inverted with B/W with a F/B for fronted by.


1) New Order "In A Lonely Place" F/B "Ceremony"
There was huge anticipation for the first post-Joy Division release and while Ceremony is good, "In A Lonely Place" is mean, moody and magnificent (helped in this video by Bernard's irritation with Steve Morris' slow tempo). But turns out both songs were actually penned by Joy Division after all, before Ian Curtis' death, since this one appears on some of their live bootlegs. Still great though.

2) The Jam "Butterfly Collector" F/B "Strange Town"
When they weren't rehashing old Motown numbers as B-sides, The Jam actually put out some great value singles because both sides were of high standard. Weller's ropey hitting of the falsetto in "Strange Town" put me off that track, but the B-Side is creepy, unsettling and lyrically quite brilliant.

3) The Birthday Party "Kathy's Kisses" F/B "Nick The Stripper"
"Nick The Stripper" is fairly routine BP sleaze fare, but when you scroll past the bog standard "Blundertown" which opens the flipside, you are caught completely off guard by the jazzy scuzz of "Kathy's Kisses" which hints at Cave's future solo direction. This track shows Cave has a fine sense of humour which BP die hards would not have permitted at the time, demanding music to shoot up in venue toilets by. I know, I saw them... I was at a joint headline gig of The Fall & BP. Half the audience were Nick Cave homaging in their look, the others all had Mark E Smith wonky bowl cuts. The Cave fans were complaining about the Fall fans slavishly resembling their hero; the Fall fans were moaning about the Cave clones. I kid you not...Me I liked both bands

4) The Cramps "You Got Good Taste" F/B "Faster Pussycat"
I love this track for the tease that permeates it top to bottom, in the music, in the lyric and in the delivery. Wonderful and burlesque.

5) The Ruts "Love In Vain" F/B "Staring At The Rude Boys"
If Staring was all Chart acsending tribal bop, Vain displayed The Ruts' other string to their guitar, of really rather noble white reggae. Added to that this is the song of singer Malcolm Owen's confession to his ultimately fatal battle with heroin and it's a criminally hidden masterpiece that always brings a tear to my eye.

6) Spizz Energi "Virginia Plane" F/B "Soldier Soldier"
Everything Spizz did was a bit throw-away, a bit jokey. But this is a wonderfully tongue-in- cheeky punk tribute to he who is the most far removed from punk, and Spizz does a fair Brian Ferry impression. Way better than the A-side.

7) The Clash "Armagideon Time" F/B "London Calling"
I like London Calling, but it's not as great as it's B-Side, even though it's a cover version of a Willie Williams song. The theme and sound of paranoia is common to both, but is so much more held under in Armagideon, that it is a far richer and denser song.

8) The Specials "Friday Night Saturday Morning" F/B "Ghost Town"
Ghost Town was obviously a seminal track for the Thatcher riot-blighted Britain of the 1980s, but The Specials never did a bad song and Hall's wistful delivery counterpoints the 'there must be more to life than this' tone of the lyrics here. This really is a hangover comedown song, but with such aplomb you know you'll go out and do it all again the following evening.

9) The Fall "Fantastic Life" F/B "Lie Dream Of A Casino Soul"
The Fall did honour the 7" format with many fine B-Sides, so it was quite tough to pick one, but I think the jaunty, sweep-along organ of this just clinches it for me. "People tend to let you down/ It's a swine". Quite.

10) Monochrome Set "Alphaville" F/B "He's Frank"
From disorder comes a really tight lead guitar riff and rhythm section. The vocal is pleasingly plaintive as well. Knocks the socks off the A-Side.

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Jamie Oliver's Dream School

Let's have this right, "Dream School" is many things, but it is not really about education.

It is first and foremost a programme commissioned by a TV channel, which means its primary concern is to draw in viewers to placate the advertisers. So it has to a) entertain the watching audience b) try and extend coverage to the newspapers and the blogosphere, in order to attract further viewers to watch it.

I think on this level it's rather successful. Though I have no idea of the viewing figures, to judge by the chatter on twitter and the number of people (like me here) posting blogs about it, I think it's created the necessary stir and pother. Plus some of its famous names are people with ready access to the media, so Alistair Campbell can write columns in the Broadsheets and Simon Callow gets interviewed about the enterprise in the arts pages. Job done I'd say.

I think that despite this cynical recipe of reality TV-meets-celebrities-meets socially concerning issue (education), the programme has a lot of salvageable insights. But again, let's not dupe ourselves that it is attempting to redress the educational ills of our country.

1) The call to arms to celebrities to mount a rescue mission is a mechanism I find depressing.
However, the calibre of someone like Lord Winston is a bit different to an ex-soap star dancing on ice. Winston, Rankin, Alvin Hall, Jazzy B & communications maven Campbell, have all turned out to have a natural aptitude to lead, to instruct and teach. To reach kids written off as unreachable (and who in plenteous moments of squaring up to one another or just being distracted suggest they still have such a propensity).

But there is still a lingering feeling of this is for charidee, or a good cause at least. I wonder what the celebs' thought processes were? Did they genuinely think they could help reach some troubled kids? (Starkey's continous sniping on feral children and generational spite suggests he had pre-conceived ideas far removed from this). Were they keen to be part of a differing model of education, but then what interest and investment do they normally have in education? Were they just curious to see how this social experiment might turn out? Did they want to test themselves, see if they could inspire a hostile, tough crowd? Were they doing their old mate Jamie a favour, or because he leaned on them and played some guilt card? I wouldn't accuse them of the usual celeb motivation, trying to get a stalled career back on track, since palpably none of these have stalled.

The one aspect of celebrity really does gall me, is Oliver's own presumption that with his celeb mates, he can cure the ails of Britain's education system. He bores on about his own educational failings and how he's overcome that. In the show we still get his other agenda of healthy eating, one that divides opinion straight down class lines, but it seems to me a touch indulgent on his part. He's already done "Jamie's Kitchen" and "Fifteen", we don't really need to see his efforts at teaching as well as the other celebrities do we? Interestingly Oliver seems to have the least tolerance for the disruptive ways of the kids other than Starkey.

2) The kids are an eye opener on maybe the state of contemporary Britain and maybe they're not. How representative are they? I do find it interesting that they're drawn from both middle and working class families, from private and state educational backgrounds. Also was there some sort of selection process? The nature of TV programme production suggests these were not the first 20 kids to answer the call. They almost certainly would have been sifted from others, even if there was no formal audition process like with the talent shows. Programmes like this go for those they deem are likely to be the most televisual, the most charismatic, the most obnoxious, the most endearing etc etc. The group chemistry is not just between the kids, but so that all things are on offer to all viewers.

There's no getting away from the kids having what I take to be severe concentration and focus problems. It's been a while since I was at school, long predating mobile phones. So I can't understand why the kids are allowed in class with their phones, where they are forever afforded the opportunity to text rather than listen to the teachers. Same thing with giving them cameras, whether to do Rankin's homework, or just have a personal record & log of their experience. If they want to tune out, then I have no problem with them having laptops and just surfing the web for their own interests and knowledge as long as they do it in a way that doesn't impinge on those who do want to learn.

Having said that, there are some who definitely are engaging with the teachers. And what teachers like Campbell & Winston are showing them is that they actually already have a reasonable body of knowledge that just maybe needs arranging in their own minds and brought out coherently and cohesively. In Campbell's opening class on why politics? between them they knew about the Suffragettes and the Civil Rights Movement. But there again, only one pupil knew who Simon Callow was... There's celebrity and celebrity I guess. And how dreary that the majority cause they suggested to campaign on was cannabis. Henry, a self-proclaimed stoner and keen advocate of the legalise it campaign, has expressed an interest in being a fireman. A stoner fireman, yeah that'll work...

Danielle arrived on the show it seems to me, clear that she had been given a priceless second chance that she could not afford to pass up. Hence she was the only one to stick out the biosphere experience and good for her, she's profited by it with a trip to Arizona. A simple incentive ploy that will be interesting to see how the other kids respond to it. Jourdelle seems similarly well disposed to making the most of the opportunity. He may not have many grades to his name, but it's not clear what he's doing there as clearly he is very able. Like anything in life, those committed to putting the work in, those willing to listen and learn, will most likely prosper. Not much of a lesson to be learned there. A lot of the chatter on social network sites that comes from other school aged kids, seems every resentful at the chance these 20 kids have been given. A reward for failing and bad behaviour they proclaim. While there maybe a modicum of logic behind such an accusation, they are only really demonstrating a similar the world owes me everything attitude as the Dreamschool kids. The 'if I can't have it, why should they?' attitude. Plus while there is a chance for educational rehabilitation, the larger opportunity is maybe being on television itself. To show your redeeming characteristics as maybe a self-promotional video. haven't most of the Dreamschool kids landed quite plum apprenticeships or courses? The show is an audition after all, but not for education, but for entry level into adult life.

Jenny is one who interests me, having already got into two fights, but very much on the backfoot in both it seems to me. But the moment I took to be significant, was when she was the only one who refused to have her picture taken, for her self-esteem is even more shot to pieces than the rest of the class. Rankin's simple genius step was to put each kid at the centre of attention, with adult make-up artists fussing over them like celebs, being the focus of his lens, having their images blown up large and mounted on projection screens, all things to boost their battered esteem (whatever their sound and the fury is meant to project, they have all been labelled failures and have absorbed this to their deepest cores). Any time a kid is praised for their work, you see their face light up like a beacon. And there's nothing wrong with that at all, except to reflect on how they've arrived at this state of being perpetually rubbished. I hope Jenny can be raised from her personal despond and poor self-image in the remaining shows.

3) The audience. What do people expect? Some slag off the kids. Because they don't have experience of such a culture. Many professional teachers are predictably up in arms about the show humiliating them by getting these rank amateurs in to do their professional jobs. They shouldn't worry. While some of the celebs have shown a natural bent to inspire, what school could offer the teaching resources of a biosphere, a CSI scene, an Intensive Care unit, two Saatchi creatives etc etc? We are hardly comparing like with like. It's called Dream School remember? For a reason, we can only dream of our schools being so well resourced. I suspect that even the gauges measuring PH, water temperature and the like used under Winston's guidance, are beyond the reach of most schools.

Like most reality shows, this contains elements of car crash telly, where people love to watch it through fingers splayed over their face "covering" their eyes and then complain rigorously about the rank bad behaviour and decline of civilisation demonstrated thereof. It's simple, if you don't want to get riled up, don't watch! But people love to feel superior. I think there's a lot to be drawn from such a programme, though none of it is probably central to what the programme purports to be doing. It is a window into some of today's youth. It does suggest that with the right inspiration, even the toughest kids can be stimulated. It tells us about attention spans and the changing demands this makes on learning structures. It shows us some of the values kids have, particularly notions of respect and disrespect, how they regard adults and celebrities. Their dreams of being famous and rich, but without an idea of a career to realise this endpoint. But it does not provide any blueprint for educational reform.

Rather it demonstrates the political football that education always is. From Starkey's blanket views and presumptions about children, about learning and 'standards', through to the reaction of teachers as expressed via social network sites. Education always polarises opinion - it was the only issue that made my father vote in elections, for once I'd finished my education, he stopped voting - and this show allows anyone on any part of the spectrum of belief to restate their opinions backed up with 'evidence' from the show. No one will keep a sense of proportion about the programme as it panders to all of most strongly held beliefs about a very sensitive subject.

The school is a dream, the show contains some distorted elements of reality, but in the final reckoning, it's all just diverting grist for the entertainment mill.

Thursday, 10 March 2011

What Price Artists?

In the third of my series of politics and culture, I want to offer a devil's advocate case for why no art form ought to be subsidised by funding from the public purse. It isn't necessarily what I believe, but it's a debate that in the light of economic recession and new technologies ought to be had. The Arts Council have been charged by the UK ConDem Government to cut its subsidy budget by 25%.

Okay Diablo, over to you:

When like all good libertarians you were reading Kropotkin and Proudhon, did you, as I did, imagine we'd all grow into a post-work, leisure economy? One in which our greatest export would be the arts, seeing as we would be free to practice and hone our creations all day, along with some sporting excellence for those who couldn't sit still at school. Well I certainly got that wrong and rather than giving up work, seems like we're going to be asked to labour for longer than ever in order to repair the shortfall in the nation's coffers.

In such an astringent economic climate, it is simply impossible for any arts body to ask for more public subsidy. But let's go even further in the national audit, why subsidise any art form at all? Possibly the UK's most successful art in commercial terms, is rock music. Yet of all art forms it probably receives the least in handouts. Wasn't it Mrs Thatcher who said the arts must pay their own way? Nonetheless, the taxpayer heavily funds Opera, Ballet, and about half of the National Theatre. Let's see them sink or swim under their own commercial efforts. Let's have the subsidised art galleries duke it out with the purely commercial ones.

But it's not fair I hear you chime. One is not comparing like with like. Bricks and mortar based art forms have far greater overheads than those art forms practised by individuals or small groups. Indeed and t'was ever thus. Within any organised society, art has always been associated with patronage, usually at the Court of the monarchs. By contrast, folk and popular art have always had to pay their own way, singing for your supper in taverns, or where ready-made crowds were gathered such as at executions and fairs, all the way through to the music hall, the jazz club and Tin Pan Alley. Just now the historical linkage with commerce seems to offer popular art the possibility of forging ahead of its laggardly, cost-bloated social superior.

Writers, singers, film and video makers and even certain visual arts can produce their art more readily and cheaply than ever before thanks to technology. But more significantly they can shape their own markets by directly selling to their audience and communicating with them online. The site-specific high arts of course struggle to do this. Virtual world and file sharing may just be shaping up as the prevailing market for the creative arts and if those classical forms mired in stasis cannot compete accordingly, then so be it. This is the pure market.

I'm not saying it's easy to tout your wares in what is a very crowded arts suk, but the means of production and distribution are now with the artists themselves. Most artists who build their careers online, are likely to be underpricing their wares at least initially in order to try and develop a fanbase. This raises questions as to just how do we as a society value our creative artists? If it's left to the market, then apart from the superstars at the top, then not terribly much. But again, QED when throwing that evaluation back on the current high arts we are still funding publicly. What does society see as the arts providing for its citizens? The high arts tend to be elitist, the low arts are seen as no less parochial. All sorts of theories abound as to the value added to the quality of life, an uplifting of the soul, the benefits of the aesthetic, the sublime and the cathartic. Mrs Thatcher didn't even believe in 'society', so where does that leave any of those theories? Love it or hate it, the internet bridges the atomised individual to the social network of the like-minded.

Art is at some level a medium of communication. From the creative imagination of the often absent artist (author, film director, choreographer, composer), to the receptive imagination of the audience. Let all art stand or fall on its ability to communicate thus. The successful pieces will speak to large audiences. The unsuccessful ones will slip beneath the waves. In doing so they will either pay their way or not. But that has to be the precise level playing field. No subsidy for any single art form. Put the onus back on us artists to reach out and find our audiences, communicate and move them. In this case the audience is always right. They vote with their fingers moving across mouse cursors, even if that is to order tickets for a site-specific event, rather than download a film.

So my challenge here is not solely to governments, but partly also to artists of which I count myself one. We are paid what society (the market) deems us worth. Again I'm saying it's far from easy to go out and find your market and then carve it out. But if you regard it as your calling, as a vocation, then you'll do what it takes won't you? No longer can an artist hide from his audience. Now we are all accountable.

To return to some political theory , may I suggest you read the below by Sergei Nechayev (if in your dim and distant youth you haven't already) and replace the word 'revolutionary' with 'artist' and 'revolution' with the word 'art'. Then, just then, we may get some worthwhile artistic production once again, that is neither resting on its subsidised laurels, nor wholly taken with its own delusions of originality. If the public want tradition, nostalgia, sentiment, they'll get traditional, nostagic and sentimental art; if they clamour for new ways of seeing, the market will provide.

"The revolutionary is a doomed man. He has no personal interests, no business affairs, no emotions, no attachments, no property and no name. Everything in him is wholly absorbed in the single thought and the single passion for revolution.

from “The Revolutionary Catechism”

Of course, an artist may not want to ditch his emotions entirely. Renders him far less likely to be able to connect with his fellow man. But the rest I believe holds up. Artists, forge your own value. Society is the market, is the size of your audience. Get talking with them.

- Devils' Advocate rests his case (The devil has all the best tunes)

Is art a vocation in the same way that nursing or teaching is seen as a calling and therefore viewed by governments as legitimately being lower paid because of the practitioners' commitment to their calling? Some other callings such as doctors, are not so shabbily paid. Who makes these judgements? But it is as the devil cites, very hard for arts practitioners to ask for more funding when other 'socially useful' realms are also going cap in hand. So what is an artist worth to their society?

Monday, 7 March 2011

Whatever Happened To The Political Novel?

In my second post on politics and culture this week, after yesterday's Academic History is Politics , I just want to consider why UK authors rarely produce political novels. After all in the US, virtually each presidency sees an anonymously penned best seller about goings on in the Whitehouse, such as"Primary Colours" and even now "O" already imagining the shape of a re-election campaign for Obama. Furthermore everyone can also play at guess the writer's identity to keep the interest bubbling.

Then there are those American Epic novels such as Philip Roth's "American Pastoral" or Don DeLillo's "Underworld" which are profoundly political works looking at generations of recent American history, or Roth's "The Plot Against America" which though smaller in timescale, is no less politically charged as it looks at an alternative history of an America under a pro-Nazi Lindbergh Presidency and remaining isolationist throughout the Second World War. There have been books aplenty about the Twin Towers, terrorism and the like, but very little over here in Britain, despite the fact that our suicide bombers were homegrown.

Britain used to have a fine history of the political novel, from Swift's satirical "Gulliver's Travels", through Dickens, Orwell and Koestler. But no more it seems. Maybe it's a by-product of us belittling and eviscerating our politicians through TV drama from "Spitting Image" through "Yes Minister" to the various Michael Dobbs' creations all of which DID start life as novels.

I will read any book I start all the way through to its end. No matter how much it stinks, there is always some redeeming element of it no matter how tiny. EXCEPT in two instances, though I still did crawl my way through to their sorry conclusions. And both were POLITICAL novels.

The first was "Demo" by Alison Miller which had a promising premise of starting on an anti-(Iraq) War demo, but turned out to be about the angst, loves, lives and gripes of a couple of Trustafarians. (For those unaware of the term, it refers to rich middle class kids who slum it, buttressed by the surety Daddy's trust fund when they tire of not having running water). The political backdrop was soon forsaken for a bout of navel-gazing little more sophisticated than a sixth-former's jottings in their creative writing notebook. There was still one - albeit happily tangential - redeeming feature of the book, in that the photo of a demo on the cover of the paperback edition I have, provided me with the title for my own political novel about demonstrating, the limits of opposition and homegrown suicide bombers.

The second book is by a Nobel Laureate no less. It made the Booker list for the year it came out. "The Good Terrorist" by Doris Lessing was a knockabout, overlong cartoon sketch about delusionary Far-Left radicals forming a terrorist cell. It was set in Brixton, a cliché which sets the tone for the novel's sledgehammer cracking of a walnut. All the characters were odious and you could almost visualise the author's sneer at her creations while she was writing them. I was so irritated by the book, that on reaching the conclusion I actually hurled it across the room towards the bin, a manoeuvre I have never done before or since. One of the inside leaves ripped in flight, the one and only time I have damaged a book.

So there we are, a metaphor for the lamentable state of the British political novel. I'll happily take recommendations of any you have come across in the last decade or so. I will accord David Peace's "GB84" a worthy mention as it dealt with the Miners' Strike, but even then it is really only Peace's remarkable writing style that carried me along, rather than the narrative content itself.

The question has to be asked, is the dearth originating because authors aren't writing these novels in the first place. Or is it that the publishers and arbiters of taste are knocking them back consistently. Or of course, that combination of the two, whereby authors look at the market and seeing the lack, deem that they'd be wasting their time penning a political novel and thus censoring themselves.

Sunday, 6 March 2011

History & Politics Go Together LIke Space And Time

The David Starkey argy bargy on Channel 4's Dream School got me casting my mind back to my own experiences of the subject, which I studied to part degree level.

The furious debate waging over Starkey's treatment of the kids taking place on blogs and Twitter essentially come down to which side of the political line you stand. The liberals are appalled by a man in a position of power and responsibility stooping to personal insults and put downs to a child. The conservatives applaud his view of the moral and behavioural decline in standards as evidenced by the children in the show. Sages point out that what did people expect, sending in a University lecturer into a secondary schoolroom of pupils who had evidenced an unwillingness to go through the school system? The logic being that University students are driven and want to be there to be lectured, whereas these kids pretty much don't (though the tenor of Dream School is that given the right guidance and inspirational leadership, they actually pretty much do).

Can I just nail that last illusion for a start? I attended University to study history. By the middle of my second year, I was ready to drop out because the University lecturers had killed any love I had for the subject. They weren't interested in teaching us, only in pursuing their own researches. Students were a contractual obligation. I learned nothing new about the subject in 18 months than I had at school. I merely covered different periods of history and countries. I only stayed on because I started writing stageplays which I could get produced by hungry student thespians. And not least because I changed my course to Sociology and Politics, an act which almost caused a riot in my conservative College since it had a reputation for being a history specialist and here was the first person in four years to jump ship to what they regarded as a wooly Lefty pseudo-science. All my tutors had to be found from outside my college. Said it all really. One of my courses was on Revolution and was a shared course with History, but my tutors were now from a Politics bent and not a History one.

History is made by the academics. For the discipline and rigours of historical research seemingly have to be signed off by presentation to academia for rigorous falsifiablity testing, even if the historical author is working outside of the University system. And that means academics, who are contracted to produce papers and publish learned books, are partly filtered in their choices by the market system. No one wants another book replicating the thesis of one that has gone before. New academics, seeking permanent tenure, look for a historical gap in the market.

Academic History is also made according to political allegiances. The very notion of a Whiggish view of History, of a slow but steady historical movement towards progress, is the liberal view writ large. That man's lot can always be improved through enlightenment and a more equitable levelling of wealth. This is of course anathema to conservative historians.

The Whiggish view I had been taught at school offered that from the first formal British Prime Minister Robert Walpole in 1715, through the Industrial Revolution, the First Great Reform Act of 1832 extending the vote, represented a triumphant march of progress only felled by the First World War and the Great Depression. In my conservative college, my tutor moved the datelines, back to the Glorious Revolution of 1688 (securing the British Monarchy for Protestantism for once and for all) up until the same Great Reform Act, was actually a triumph of conservative reactionaryism, as it held back a true universal suffrage and preserved huge imbalances of wealth. Just by moving the datelines by 27 years. He based his argument on research into a horde of up until then unexplored pamphlets and tracts by the Jacobites (The Catholics), 'proving' that their view was a whole lot more widespread than had been held perviously, even if they lost the wars and the battle for Royal Succession.

But here we still have the politics of those on high. This isn't the First Estate of the Clergy, the Second of the nobility, the monarch who stood outside of the Estates, this was the unofficial Fourth Estate of a fledgling literate media elite. This was still high politics, ignoring the grass roots of all those lumped together as the rest, in the form of the Third Estate. History until the modern age of recording technology of camera, of tape recorder, of microfiche and now digital technologies, has always been the realm of those with scribes and chroniclers. It has only ever been about High politics at Court, until those monarchies collapsed with the First World War. In those eras when edicts and ukases made by State rulers could still deeply impact on citizens, whereas now it's not the politicians so much as market forces which determine our lives, unless those disempowered leaders decide to take their countries into wars.

History is politics, both the politics of the hierarchies it has traditionally studied and with the personal agendas of the contemporary academic historians making those researches. Should we be surprised that David Starkey has made overtly political statements in all the furore over what in the final reckoning was an adult's lack of self-control of his tongue when addressing a child? I don't doubt that there are some very credible historians with less of a political agenda, but as is always the case, the TV historians such as Starkey and AJP Taylor before him, are not necessarily the best academics, merely the most photogenic or TV savvy of them. If Dream School wanted to pick an academic historian, maybe like with Mary Beard for Latin, they should have just gone for a non-TV brand name. But then I can't really see the point of having more than one University lecturer on the staff to see if University lecturers can inspire and teach secondary school kids or not.

We are always counselled to know our history because it repeats itself and we would be better prepared accordingly. This enables all sorts of political agendas to be wrought, appealing to various historical happenings for back up. The problem is that we never know which bit of history is going to repeat itself when, so such an argument is specious.

If I may be so bold as to quote from The Gang Of Four (no, not Mao's bunch, history see?) can I leave you with the following video:

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

What Is Experimental Fiction?

Beats the hell out of me.

And yet as a shorthand, sometimes I apply it to my work and myself as a writer when challenged to define myself.

I don't like the term. Experimental always exudes the notion that the work isn't finished. That it's still in progress, still a tad tentative, to be yet further moulded. It also forever defines itself in opposition to what has gone before. It is a break with the past, or at least a deforming of it. If evolution is an unfolding, an opening out, convolution is a rolling back up on itself. I can't help feeling experimental evokes the later rather than the former.

Okay, so even lacking a suitable nomenclature for what it is I write, I still feel reasonably confident over what its constituent elements are. And what maybe they aren't but are often confused as being 'experimental'.

Firstly I believe the fundamental foundation stone is that such literature is to be an art form. It may even prize artistry above more humdrum aspects such as story telling or character. Such artistry is in the realm of the aesthetic, that is reading such a book is an aesthetic experience. A thing of beauty, of spatial conception, both within the book's presentation, but also within the reader's contemplative mind during and hopefully after their passage through the book.

There are the aesthetic possibilities of the book as an artefact. Its visual presentation which shouldn't stop at the covers. It can extend to the typographies, other design features within the book, any visual formalism employed that means the text is not Xpp of block printed text. Having said that, the visual and design elements have to emerge organically from the text, not just be bolted on as some sort of eye candy.

But what writers I feel constantly overlook is the aesthetic of language itself. If the writer hits all the right notes through their sentences, through their word choices, there is an ineffable harmony of and through language communicated to the reader. Poets execute it, but to do so over the length of Xpp novel is far more demanding. It can be a lyricism and a rhythm, but I actually think it's more to do with the resonances of the words themselves. Most words have some sort of spectrum of shades of meaning. Look up their etymologies, see which have deviated from their origins and which have stayed fairly true to their roots. Consider those words that have similar meanings to one another, but how they actually differ. You can set up an almost unending set of reverberations by employing words that manage to intimate both or all of their shades of meaning simultaneously as they occur within the sentence. For example the word 'cleave' has two diametrically opposed meanings of cleaving something together and cleaving something apart. Then throw in the auditory (and when we read, we vocalise at some level inside our heads, we 'hear' ourselves read the words) component and maybe you can also have the c-Leave & clea-n echoes play around too.

So on the one hand you have the formalism, the look of the text. And on the other you have the linguistic possibilities. Both offer up non-linear writing. No longer do sentences have to proceed in orderly fashion, either visually or obeying strict syntactical ordinations. One can equate a sentence with a stem cell, in that all possibilities are still possible, even though the writer has made a selection of words on the page. I would always equate non-linear writing with how our human brains fire anyway. Language is formally linear, but human thought and human emotion are far from linear. They cut across one another, they inform one another, they cause some thoughts to fall away uncompleted, while others more vital tug at our consciousness for expression.

To my mind, somehow our formalist experiments ought to try and get to grips with these structures and represent them. There are new theories of mind, the counter-intuitive logic of quantum mechanics and the like which offer us stimulating models to jump off from in our works.

So what isn't experimental fiction? I think it's where narrative conceits in which certain metaphorical assumptions are laid out for the reader maybe about the irregular passage of narrative time or space in the novel (think magical realism for example), where these are explained in the text rather than emerging formally through the 'shape' of the text. It's where narrative explains itself and its conceits, rather than just have them emerge organically.

What is experimental fiction? At this juncture, it is catching up with the rest of the artistic world. It is revivifying the book by considering its form as artefact (and not as e-reader fodder). It is about reinjecting the primacy, the vitality and the duplicity of our language's plasticity. It's about reflecting on the nature of the relationship of fiction itself, in that menage-a-trois between author, reader and fictional character. And finally it's bringing all these elements together to provide an aesthetic pleasure within the reader as well as whatever pleasures are to be derived from story, from insight into the world, from emotional responses.

It is about returning literature to its pedestal as an art form, with the emphasis on both art and form.