Thursday, 26 June 2008
Of course, the snitch-system will be operated by text, which I suspect is less because it's a conveniently impersonal method of communication and more because businesses love taking advantage of popular neophilia. If a text is involved- so their rationale about our rationale goes - then informing on a fare-dodger will be a little bit like X Factor. Maybe they could go all out and call it Strictly Come the Transport Police Will be Waiting at the Next Station or Britain's Got Ticket Machines Installed at all Stations Now, You Will Not be Allowed to Buy Tickets Onboard Our Services and hire celebrity conductors ('Is the chav in seat 23B fare-dodging? Text Brian Harvey now on 602002!')
Seriously though, what kind of paranoid, Daily Mail-reading anti-human would even contemplate 'texting' to confess their suspicions about the provenance of another passenger's ticketing arrangements? (Clue: the answer might be in the question.) Who makes rail travel in this country such a chore- fare-dodgers or the train operators themselves? It would be sensible enough to install automatic barriers, or just to do something radically practical like, ooh, I don't know, having a conductor on the train in the first place. The jargonistic language ('a commitment to fare collection') is a cynical deployment of a vocabulary which we automatically, unquestioningly associate with the idiom of Customer Service: when we hear about a company's 'commitment' to a policy, it's usually to do with them 'sourcing the best local produce' (lies) or keeping bills at a minimum (Pinnochian lies). So, as soon as we hear a phrase like that, we assume that it's a gesture made in the favour of the customer. Utter cynicism, utter manipulation.
I don't need to wave statistics around to prove that the hike in train fares in the last decade has been astronomical, but I can tell you - with a completely straight face - that a discounted ticket in this country costs two to two and a half times the price of a full-fare, bought on the day one on the FS network in Italy. I can also tell you that the Italian network charges pro rata, which means that you pay for the distance you've travelled rather than for where you've travelled. It is, for instance, cheaper to travel to Barrow-on-Humber than Hull from Scarborough, in spite of the fact that you would have to pass through Paragon Station on your journey and that the former station is an extra thirty (or more) miles further away on the other side of the Humber. I read a year or so back that, as it is cheaper to get a ticket to Berwick-upon-Tweed from Darlington than it is to buy one to Newcastle, GNER (as it was at the time) had ticket inspectors on the platforms at Newcastle with the ludicrous task of sending people back onto trains as they had paid the lower rate to get to a station fifty miles further away. Let's try another one: unless you ask specifically, or you have a friendly ticket vendor (not uncommon, thankfully), you will not be offered the cheapest fare to your destination because the cheaper fares inevitably involve the sale of multiple tickets, and the 'commitment' to providing the lowest fare extends only as far as absolute literalness (ie, typing 'Norwich- Bristol' into the ticketing computer rather than 'Norwich - London, London- Didcot, Didcot - Bristol). It isn't expensive to travel by rail in the UK, it is a systematic rip-off exacted upon a captive market who are simultaneously being cajoled by the government into utilising greener - ie, public, ie, rail-based - modes of transport. They can talk all they like about building Maglev lines that will connect London and Newcastle in an hour and twenty minutes, but how much would the fare cost? By today's standard, an on the day ticket would be in excess of three hundred and fifty quid. And there would still be rail replacement services (aka requisitioned school buses built in 1936) at weekends.
I think National Express are trying to imply that fare dodgers cause the exorbitant prices. I'll leave you to be the judge of whether or not that is the case.
Anyway, I thought this bit was great:
“People were shouting, a girl was coming down the stairs looking awful. I didn’t think anybody would get off that top deck alive.
“My neck was hurting a bit but the paramedics gave me some ibuprofen.”
That rhetorical swing from major to minor keys, from death and derring-do on the A19 Stockton by-pass to a minor scrape at a coffee morning: that is incredibly northern. I'm still wondering if the Gazette's interviewee was Mrs Brady of Viz fame...
* Being a generous sort, I've neglected to point out that the bus was a rail-replacement service (DUC makes mano cornuta signs) which was only operating because signalling cables had been stolen in the Hartlepool area. Except I've mentioned it now. What would you want with signalling cables? Either someone has got a to-scale railway in their back garden (not overly likely in Seaton Carew), or some eco-anarchists are redressing the scars of the Beeching disaster by building a network of secret lines across the UK (or Fantastic Mr Fox has realised the benefits of an integrated transport system).
Wednesday, 25 June 2008
A while ago, I left a post declaring this to be my favourite single - and, indeed, song - of 2008 so far. I've now found a video for it, and it almost does the tune justice - I'm not usually a huge fan of 'live performance' vids, but this one works. Take note, all you Minibertines: this is what it's supposed to be like.
On another note, I'm glad to see S&D rigorously maintaining the historical links between the west coast of Scotland (where they're from) and C&W. And they're nice people as well: they once came down to Sonic after a show and danced with everyone instead of piously going back to their hotel room (this is the unglamorous reality of the touring indie band, in my experience: a couple of cans of warm Red Stripe after the show, then the manager bundles everyone into the van so they can go and eat Pot Noodles in a Travelodge.)
Anyway, there's a lot of talk about the over-hasty 'adultification' of children these days. I was beginning to suspect that the phenomenon of the preternaturally pious child was a thing of the past, until I read this excellent story...
Seriously, that could only happen in Yorkshire.
Tuesday, 24 June 2008
More of this over the week, undoubtedly.
Monday, 23 June 2008
So when you want the students to define what 'experimental' writing might be, it tends to come down to thematics as well, however closely linked the content might be to its formal articulation. As soon as Woolf becomes biographically ascertained as a feminist, she becomes appealing: Mrs Dalloway is anti-war (yay!), pro-woman (double yay!), which means that the 'pretentiousness' (boo!) that it initially presented becomes irrelevant. The experiment in Woolf is entirely a matter of the political opinion that a few biographical details allow the students to read into the text. Moving through the 20th century, we have Burroughs, who is 'experimental' because his works depict drug use, and Ballard, whose works are 'experimental' because they portray a reasonable amount of transgressive sexuality and a hefty dose of shopping malls and car lots. The plurality and inclusiveness that seem to be indicated by the thematic decisions a writer makes are seen as attempts to subvert the literary norm. There is virtually no understanding of a politics of form, particularly as it is applied to fiction. My suspicion - which some of my more interested students have confirmed - is that the secondary curriculum insists that the very notion of such a politics is oxymoronic. Secondary schools have been coerced by Blairite pseudo-egalitarians to teach literature only according to an index of 'relevance' that the texts can be seen to produce after the fact. Friends of mine who teach English in schools confess their frustrations at the suggestion that Shakespeare be taught via hip hop lyrics* and that Charlotte Bronte be reduced to Chick Lit avant la lettre.
For what it's worth, I believe this policy more or less represents educational suicide.
Recently, this tendency has begun to manifest itself in novels themselves. The 'Granta Generation', or at least some of its members and affiliates, are the first identifiable genus of writers to have had their academic groundings in post-structuralist thought and continential philosophy tempered by the consensus-reinforcing discourses of 'accessibility' and 'relevance'. Having gone through university reading Borges, Nabokov, Joyce, Beckett and Robbe Grillet, they're aware of the aesthetic and even ontological reasons for employing modernist and (more commonly) post-modernist narrative techniques. They're also more acutely aware of the fact that the people who review their books and evaluate them on the panels of literary prizes have had a similar schooling in the ways of High Modernism, and that these people are likely to place a premium on whether or not their novel makes its obligatory formal concessions. As a result, the big challenge for the Granta school is managing to slip their self-obsessed - how many of their novels don't employ a romantically-differentiated protagonist with an admirably hip appreciation of music, art and literature? - realist works through the mesh of formal demands impressed on them during an English degree's Pyrrhic triumph?
Since around 1980, one big get-out on this front has been Magical Realism, a formal approach that had a genuine political relevance in the turbulent post-1945 history of South America, but has now been softened in order to let authors masquerade their faux-naive whimsy as an authentic challenge to ideological norms. Similarly, a Vonnegutian self-reflexivity has consistently emerged in novels which are, on every other possible count, works of unquestioning realism (hello, Martin Amis). I mean, how many people read London Fields because it foregrounds its own fictionality as opposed to the fact that it presents a vaguely edgy universe of spivs, books, sex and big money? In other words, the forms which were supposed to carry that 'politics of form' have been recuperated by ideology - yes, I know that this is a not a new point - by an ice cream-soft post-modernism in which estrangement devices function as nothing more than cynical acknowledgements that some people genuinely believe that structures in themselves can articulate an ethics. Socially, I've called this bacchanal of mediation the 'literature of caveat' before, but I'd never realised how nice the phrase looked written down.
I wouldn't like anyone to mistake what I'm saying here for an argument that is completely resistant to any fiction which can be read without an enormous amount of mental outlay. I'm one of the biggest Sherlock Holmes geeks I know, I contemplate joining M.R. James fan clubs, I love the visceral readability of Irvine Welsh and John King and David Peace. Furthermore, this isn't against realism per se: Zola was the stimulant that carried me over the finish line of my own A-levels; I love the Brontes, David Storey and James Kelman. I don't think the world would be much fun if all books were like Finnegan's Wake or Watt or Blood and Guts in High School or Project for a Revolution in New York. I'd much rather read Patrick Hamilton that Mark Z Danielewski; I prefer Elizabeth Taylor to Marguerite Duras. What I would say is that my attraction to realism is something that has perhaps developed out of an ongoing exasperation with the disarming of modernist and post-modernist formal technique through its application in a spirit of bad faith. I'd rather have Peace's rush-and-cut Pennine poetics than Yann Martel or even John Banville any day of the week.
This week, I've been reading a lot on contemporary poetics for a mixture of reasons: thesis work, general interest, a need to see how my own poetry fits into the ideological debates and schisms that have characterised the poetry scene in Britain since the 1960s. It was refreshing, given how jaded I feel by the prospects for the novel (I think Party Going by Henry Green is more radical than any English-language novel with a comparable audience from at least the last twenty years), to have my suspicions that the appetite for innovative practice in poetry is still thriving beneath the twin surfaces of sixth from and the Guardian Review confirmed. I mean, I read Prynne and Lee Harwood and the more recent Barque Press stuff and whatever Jacket is currently offering, so I know it exists, but I hadn't read much of the critical debate around it. It's wonderful to see a (relatively well-known) literary avant-garde so hostile to the consensus poetics foisted on us by school - where the primacy of Hughes, Plath, Larkin, Tony Harrison et al goes more or less uncontested - and the liberal media's reluctance to acknowledge the existence of anything more complex than Don Paterson and John Burnside. That this underground poetics has achieved some of its ends without feeling the need to appeal to a base, patronising notion of relevance - and, anyway, we'll leave the rapping to a 'pioneer' like Andrew Motion, a man who perhaps epitomises everything that is sick about English writing today - is particularly edifying.
The energy of the small press/ avant-garde scene has, undoubtedly, been underpinned by the apparent paradox of the marginality of poetry when it is compared to fiction. Even the big names of British poetry - let's say Paterson, Burnside, Paul Muldoon and Hugo Williams - don't sell that many copies. They make a living as poets by touring and reading, and often supplement it by lending their services to the ever-expanding ranks of university creative writing programmes. Poets, unsurprisingly, don't sell film rights (though I wouldn't be surprised if Paterson managed to wangle himself a detail somehow). Our experimental poets, then, are virtually all employed elsewhere, commonly as academics, but frequently in less obvious fields. They work on the margins of the margins, and the need to please mainstream publishers/ TLS reviewers is, to put it mildly, a secondary or tertiary concern for them. By contrast - as Adrian Mole finds out when hawking Lo, the Flat Hills of My Homeland - experimental novels in the modernist continuum (as opposed to the transgressive/ sci-fi stuff in the Stuart Home orbit) are almost entirely suffocated. When something weird that's too unmistakably brilliant to be ignored appears (my argument for this is Sebald, though I know his work is not to everybody's taste), its challenging formal devices are rapidly disseminated into the works of writers who are much, much more concerned about the signings and the film deal than they are with the technical and political niceties of what they're handling. If you don't believe me, go to Waterstones and look for post-Sebaldian novels. You'll recognise them from the blurb's manic insistence of the acuteness of the author's rendering of the 'problems of memory', or some such jargon, which will be tied into a given 'traumatic event'. I can guarantee for starters that none of these works will do justice to Sebald's legacy, particularly because they a) manifest no sense of humour whatsoever and b) trade a genuine historiographical motive for what Karl memorably once described as a sense of the 'vaguely spooky'. Recently, I noticed a novel called The Angel of History, which is a fictionalization of the last days of the life of Walter Benjamin, the philosopher-historiographer whose thought echoes through Sebald's novels. Somehow, a circle is closed and a little part of the soul of fiction is gone with it.
I don't have a conclusion for this - it's more an attempt to get down some thoughts which have had a hornet-like presence in my head for at least the last six or seven years and probably longer. Now and again, I come upon little pieces of writing that ventriloquise the hornets: as my Mum once said upon my rather earnest attempts to explain Saussure or Bakhtin (I forget which), 'I've always thought that but I'd never have put it that way'. You get to a point in your line of work or whatever you want to call it when you've earnt enough stripes for the things that were once piddling or whimsical concerns to become career-defining issues. For me, the hostility to 'difficulty', and the endless bullshit pumped out in the name of realism, is that particular problem. There is more that I could say about this, and will at some other point, but if you've read this far then you deserve a cup of tea or a pint. Thanks for reading, if you were.
* Radek was a leading proponent of Socialist Realism, a particularly odious piece of Bolshevik cultural proscriptivity which (effectively) insisted that working-class intellectual horizons should be set more or less at the already-known and frequently encountered. This thinking bequeaths Big Brother and Road Test my Girlfriend, or whatever that program with that troglodyte from Hollyoakes is called. As with most Stalinist principles, Radek's idea translated exceptionally well into conservative ideology. Attridge is a contemporary literary critic whose specialises in so-called 'difficult' works and linguistics. Thinking about Radek has reminded me of my favourite moment in George Orwell, although I can't remember which book this particular vignette is in. Orwell describes a Left political meeting in the 1930s in which a very middle-class commissar, up from London, was addressing a group of miners. The commissar, presumably revelling in a puffed-up sense of intellectual authority, took the opportunity to denounce the works of Shakespeare for the 'bourgeois ideology' they supposedly contained. Presumably, in the commissar's head at least, the miners should have been reading Gorky or James Barke (though the latter's tendency towards modernist wordplay might have made him persona non grata too). At this point, two of the miners took it upon themselves to stand up and defend Shakespeare (and his politics) in minute textual detail, completely humiliating the speaker in the process.
** Better, surely, to teach hip hop on its own merits rather than as a medium which was potentialised by a 16th century plawright. Which it frankly fucking wasn't. Sorry to lose the measured tone here, but the double-relegation that happens in this case - Shakespeare is presented as being as 'interesting' and 'accessible' as Chuck D, whilst Chuck D's own talents are institutionally authenticated only by their supposed comparability to Shakespeare - is insensitive (maybe 'imbecilic' would be a better term) in so many ways.
Because I had to pay my bill, I just phoned Anglian Water's call centre, which I believe is in the comparably fine (if rather more strenuous on the legs) city of Lincoln. It's one of those things that you choose to do first thing on a Monday morning so you can't procrastinate about them later in the week - I thought I was being canny. Unfortunately, I am now terrified in a way that I can only describe as being comparable to the edmotional state of the heroine of a Hammer Horror film about 75% of the way in. Their automated courtesy message - the one that says 'Thankyou for waiting, your call is valuable to us etc etc' (well, of course it is) - altered the longer you were on the phone. After a couple of minutes, it began to sound incredibly harrassed and claimed to be 'really' sorry that I had been kept waiting: I don't think I've ever heard an automated message in the throes of a panic attack before. However, what really made the whole experience worthwhile is their choice of hold music. I understand that selecting tunes to play in the dead time of caller waiting is difficult, what with PRS laws and the like, and I have been slightly irritated recently by the unoriginality and downright emotional manipulation of using Pachebel's Canon (Eon, or EON, or whatever they want to be called). Anglian Water, however, have gone the other way, eschewing the pseudo-calming effect of Classic FM recognisability in favour of deliberately trying to evoke an atmosphere of inscrutable evil. In a move worthy of Nigel Kneale or Ray Bradbury, Anglian have decided to use some crackly-sounding Wurlitzer fairground waltz to 'soothe' customers on hold. Utterly inspired. I would love to have been a fly on the wall at that marketing meeting. I swear I'm going to have dreams about being chased around some rural fair by a bearded lady screaming that she's 'really sorry' for having made me wait to pay my water bill tonight.
If anyone else would like to experience Anglian Water's inventive approach to customer services, please call 0800 1693630. As it's Glastonbury week, maybe you could tell them you're only 'here for the music'...
Saturday, 21 June 2008
I'm also, retrospectively, fascinated by the potential future usages of the 'solitary' tag.
Friday, 20 June 2008
'The Miners' Strike, always on the end of the news'
'Gdansk was crap/ Warsaw was crap/ Solidarity was crap'
'The papal visit promised much but didn't deliver'
Needless to say, the chorus goes 'the hair was crap/ the clothes were crap/ the music was crap/ except one.' I remember John Peel or Mark Radcliffe saying that the 'one' was Ian Curtis, but surely that was in the 70s?
Roberto Donadoni (a sort of Hollywood version of Sir Alan Sugar - damn, now they've got me at it) has chosen to couple Antonio Cassano, a man so hot-headed he probably has to spray his hair with fire retardant every morning, with the Bayern Munich striker Luca Toni, who looks like the sort of big-hearted lunk who would work a double shift digging in a coprolite pit so his best pal could go off and impregnate his girlfriend.
Pearson also manages to dub Toni the 'Italian Billy Whitehurst', in an obscurist tribute to the cartoonishly tough 80s journeyman who was allegedly so hard/ insane that he spent his spare time bareknuckle fighting with gypsies...
Thursday, 19 June 2008
The Minibertines phenomenon seemed to have, to some extent, gone away last year with the rise of prog-fantasy-disco bands like Klaxons and, more recently, Late of the Pier. I might have been critical of the NME-fabricated 'new rave' business - and will continue to be so as it applies to one-dimensional outfits like Hadouken!, Does it Offend You, Yeah? and The Whip - but at least Klaxons re-introduce something resembling vision and ambition back into the mainstream of guitar pop. With them, at least there is some kind of umbilical link to genuinely innovative music (a touch of the Silver Apples, Eno, even Broadcast). At least they want to present the world as a crucible of possibilities, rather than turning to the drab social-realist cliches that the music press continue to refer to as poetry. Even the widely-touted Artic Monkeys are lauded for their 'observational wisdom', a wisdom I would contend as not extending beyond the ability to name four different things you might see on a night out (a kebab shop, a taxi queue, the ubiquitous white-shirted lumpenprole, a pretty girl whose eyes are 'too big for this town' and other such fantasies of referentiality.) For me, the comparisons between Alex Turner and Morrissey have never held up: The Smiths took the image-vocabulary of kitchen sink and embedded it within a frame of reference incorporating Genet, Cocteau and Gide. What's to differ, for example, the eponymous 'Sweet and Tender Hooligan' from Querelle of Brest? You wouldn't get this nuanced play of erotic potentials in an Arctic Monkeys song (though Pete Doherty might make a hamfisted go of it) and you certainly won't find it in One Night Only's writerly imaginations.
The music industry- the London-based music industry- has seized on the commercial potential of what they imagine to be gritty authenticity. As a result, bands like this have become unwitting slaves in a factory of tropes. The fey, slightly pretty boys who get excluded at their cruel school. The maturation of those same boys into sharp-suited raconteurs who can quote Larkin and mix it with the hard lads on the pool table. The pub that has looked the same for years. The misunderstood pale girl who will, after months of mistreatment at the hands of a local rough, realise that the guitar-strumming scamp in the corner is her knight in Hedi Slimane armour. Relationships start, to the sound of strummed Rickenbackers and walking-basslines.
Semantically, lyrics and videos in this vein are not hard to pull apart. England is going to the dogs, it's full of unlyrical, badly-dressed thugs, and one is automatically poeticised by daring to demonstrate their 'difference' to the cultural wasteland that surrounds them. Read Baudelaire, scrawl Rimbaud on your satchel, Free Pete Doherty: 'this stuff writes itself', as Karl might say. It's Britpop all over again, in that the 'alternative' that is being offered draws on an acceptance of the world as boring, inevitable, and liable to induce a sense of ennui alleviated only by petty disorderings of the everyday order, which will inevitably reassert itself in the end. This vision of the (musical) poetic promotes an acceptance of a tragic vision that can only lead to apathy and the failure to ask the important questions about precisely what it is that brings about the banalisation of the everyday. To be 'independent', in this account, is to swim with the current of Larkinesque determinism: here, joy is momentary, disappointment preordained, and happiness apolitical.
Furthermore, to invoke a more pedestrian quibble, these kids are from Helmsley. If you haven't been to this delightful little market town in the Vale of Pickering, let me tell you one thing about it: it's the only place in Yorkshire more determinedly middle-class than Harrogate. It's a lovely place to get a cream tea on the drive back from Scarborough or Whitby. There are nice antiques shops there. In this video, One Night Only seem to have been persuaded to present themselves as desperate gunslingers straight out of South Elmsall or Fitzwilliam. Rebel imagery clearly sells, but could they not have done something more honest with this, like a promo in which they flirt with the vicar's wife at a church fete or swap the price tags on artisan chutneys? I would have respected them a lot more if they had.
Last weekend, we had been intending to go to the countryside but, on Firday night, I stayed round at Lorc and Mark's house for far too long, doing what you do round there; namely, drinking whatever continential lagers the Co-Op have put on offer, watching movies, and consuming the culinary delights available at nearby gastronomic institute 'Mr Pizza'. So I merrily pottered home at about half-four in the morning, thinking how nice the early morning light was, pleased that I had crossed the 'mugger/ jogger'* date-line and trying to decide if I should bother going to bed at all. When I got home, I did go to bed, and didn't arise until half past eleven, by which time it had started to rain in a particularly attritional manner. Given the paucity of efficient public transport services to most parts of inland rural Norfolk (getting to Blickling Hall, which is about twelve miles away in Aylsham, would have taken the best part of three hours), we rethought and decided to go to the Norwich Castle Museum.
Now, the Castle Museum had become something of a point of shame as regards my campaign for students to 'properly' get to know the city they move to, as I have lived in Norwich for nine years (one whole third of my existence) without having managed to go to it. I've always appreciated the look of the Castle- the outside isn't the medieval facade, but a nineteenth century patch-up, and DUC cause celebre John Soane made external alterations prior to this- and I'd even, on occasion, gone right up to it in order to appreciate the view of the city the motte affords. However, I'd never gone in, assuming- with absolutely no justification whatsoever- that the insides would be boring, cramped and parochial (but not in the fun, Blytonian-surrealist, peculiarly end of the world way that Withernsea Tower of Terror was.) As usual, my knee-jerk impulse proved to be utterly wrong.
The Castle Museum was absolutely spell-binding, an insane combination of a hands-on kids' museum, a fine art gallery, and the inside of a W.G. Sebald novel. Upon arriving, we had a stroll round the marvellous taxidermy exhibits: I now know what a bittern looks like, and why I'll never mess with a Polar Bear should I happen to wind up in the Arctic one day. Up to this point, the museum did have that slightly melancholic 'Sebald and Benjamin' effect, with dimly-lit display cases painted in an archaic shade of Mallard green and buttons that triggered barely-there recordings of roars, tweets and hisses. This, I thought, was a provincial museum at its finest, with a collection that was less representative of its local area than of what the interests of the patricians in that area were: those interests, of course, producing the collections that would eventually be philanthropically donated to the people of the city. If there happens to be a collection of Roman arrowheads discovered within the radius of the city, its presence is virtually always contingent on the benevolence of wealthy amateurs. It's like perusing an architectural manifestation of the psychopathology of Victorianism, with the symptomatic accents falling on hobbyism and civic duty.
From here, however, we found our way into a gallery showing the work of the Norwich School, a group of Dutch-inspired landscape painters whose style was forged in the imagination and technical vision of John Sell Cotman. Many of the paintings had helpful glosses next to them by local writers and artists including, pleasingly, one by UEA's Professor Clive Scott (my secondary supervisor until his retirement, and something of a virtuoso in describing the interdisciplinary transactions between visual and verbal media). I didn't know much about the Norwich School before, but I was hugely impressed by what I saw. For a start, it was fascinating to see the city in which I've lived for almost a decade represented as it was on the immediate cusp of industrialisation: Cotman's paintings seem to depict the degringolade of English agrarianism, and are inhabited by an almost Luddite tension. They also convey a melancholy sense of Norfolk as a county that was in the procedure of losing its national status, of being marginalised as the northern towns grew. Still rather Sebaldian, then.
We passed through a small display of teapots(!) to see more paintings, including some older Flemish landscapes and some later 19th century realism (there was also an absolutely wonderful Hogarth painting of a drunk spewing into a bedpan). A central hall exhibited works chosen by the Norfolk public, which included the efforts of some of Norwich School of Art and Design's alumni from the sixties and seventies. It was good to see the taste of local people reflected in what was on show, particularly as it seems to have proved the point to local arts administrators that non-specialists won't simply select whimsical pieces or works in which prosaic or sentimental realism triumphs over something more complex. The amount of abstract/ modernist art on show in there seemed to suggest something about the success of making experimental art accessible to a wider public via projects like the Tate Modern and the Baltic. I genuinely believe that the 'elitist' perception of modernist art (and, by extension, literature, music, and cinema) has been decently disabused by the decision to allow, and indeed encourage, the wider public to engage with it on their own intellectual terms.
As if this wasn't enough, we discovered- after a sally through the dungeons and keep, which are displayed in typical Terry Deary-style 'making history fun' fashion (no bad thing, perhaps)- we discovered still more art. This, to my surprise, was a small(ish) room inhabited by lesser-known works by the likes of Francis Picabia, Max Ernst, Lucian Freud and even Magritte. In Norwich. And hardly anyone knew they were there. This led to the ecstatic rambling that always happens when my prejudices are disproved, and I declared Norwich to be the 'best-equipped small city in modern art terms in Britain' (we also have the Sainsbury Centre) or some such hyperbole. It probably isn't, but this was a fantastic surprise all the same.
You can't really top chancing across some Max Ernst on a rainy, provincial, June afternoon, so we left- via the slightly uninspiring shop- after that. That, teacher, is 'What I Did Over the Weekend'.
Tuesday, 17 June 2008
There might be some more incidental pieces on here in the next 48 hours, perhaps including a description of my exciting trip to the Castle Museum on Saturday. If not, there's some proper stuff in the pipeline.
Saturday, 14 June 2008
Friday, 13 June 2008
The Duke of York, whose escapades in times past with Mrs. Clarke and the army had brought him into trouble, now divided his life between London and a large, extravagantly ordered and extremely uncomfortable country house where he busied himself with racing, whist, and improper stories.
Lytton Strachey, The Victorians
Thursday, 12 June 2008
Wednesday, 11 June 2008
How weird is the bit where Jimmy Page starts playing in a different key? It sounds nothing like the record.
Griffin depends on liberalism for his political platform, and his ongoing use of Voltairean justifications (namely, that people might not like what he says but the freedom of the country depends on his right to say it anyway) flies in the face of the fact that, no matter what any BNP sympathiser will tell you, it it precisely this right that would be rescinded immediately after they came into power (should such an eventuality ever occur). You often hear the right-wing press blathering about the 'thought police' and freedom of speech: this ongoing freedom frequently seems to be equal to the right of more extreme reactionaries to go on spreading hate. Yes, that does sound overly dramatic, but it's true, isn't it? People like Griffin are constantly acting as though they're giving us 'the truth', spinning this bromidic rhetoric of 'bluffness' and 'honesty' as though the only reason they weren't getting through to people was some pinko conspiracy rather than the fact that their putative constituency know the social millieu which the BNP purport to understand far, far too well to ever want to vote them into power. All we hear from Griffin is a constantly-shifting diatribe about which minority to blame for the state of the nation, and how their 'removal' (you have to be suspicious about what he means by this) would automatically improve everything. He has no grasp of anything other than a knack for making the hackles rise on similarly insentient intellects. The liberalism that defends Griffin and the BNP is effectively defending nothing, a completely unhelpful contribution to political discourse with nothing new to offer apart from the exacerbation of social divisions.
On his visit, Griffin dismissed those who criticised his presence in the county as “a bunch of silly students and elderly University of East Anglia lecturers who do not represent Norfolk people”. I wonder if the elderly UEA professor he had in mind was Professor Ian Gibson, left-leaning MP for Norwich North for the last 11 years? Gibson is a popular MP who represents some of the poorer areas in Norfolk (Mile Cross, Catton), not the more student-favoured wards in the south of the city (Charles Clarke's territory, but largely Green in council elections). Furthermore, isn't his dismissal of the 'elderly' weird? Is he saying that the 'elderly' are unrepresentative of Norfolk people? If so, he should take a trip to Cromer or Caister or Hemsby, or just swing into any rural Norfolk pub for a chat with those sat at the bar. Either that, or he's suggesting that the elderly aren't capable of making decisions about politics, presumably on the grounds of their senility. Reminds me of another famous politician, that does.
It's the old 'anti-intellectual' rhetoric that pisses me off the most, I suppose. Us academic types get a hard time in the media and from the right wing: I mean, we're just so out of touch, aren't we? It might be worth pointing out to Griffin that he's clearly the one out of touch, as his electoral returns don't exactly manage to live up to his publicity. What he doesn't know, I guess, is the high proportion of students at UEA who were born and bred in East Anglia, or that it's intake is predominantly lower middle class. A 'man of the people' routine is being pulled here, at which point it's important to point out that Griffin was educated at two private schools before going on to study law at Cambridge. As for 'silly students', he should know: he left university with a Third.
Is there a point to all this? Apart from the obvious one, no, unless having a mildly cathartic rant counts. I am sick of hearing this from the right, though: the old 'all "real" people are paranoid racists like me, it's only the "not real" people who stop them from achieving political power.' I can only respond to this point with some bluff common sense of my own, in the form of the question 'how does one identify "real Norfolk people"?' I live here, I've paid taxes here, I vote here. I'm guessing Griffin's "real Norfolk man" is none other than Tony Martin, rather than the surprisingly high number of Norwich born and bred (genuinely working class) socialists. Grr, in other words. And grrr again.
Saturday, 7 June 2008
Friday, 6 June 2008
1- I got quite absorbed by Orhan Pamuk's Snow earlier this year.
2- I have a longstanding ambition to visit Istanbul.
3- I like the diacritical marks used in Turkish more than the diacritical marks used in any other language (except perhaps Hungarian, where the diacritical marks are similar).
4- Turkish places names are pleasing- particularly 'Trabzon'.
5- Play good football.
6- The fact that, if you sit alone in a restaurant in Istanbul, you will be accosted by a performing troupe who will attempt to soothe your solitude. Perhaps this only happens to Michael Palin though.
7- On whim.
8- Typically British favouring of an underdog, although Turkey are clearly not the real underdogs in this tournament. The real underdogs are absolute no-hopers, and hosts, Austria.
9- Don't like all the racist hostility that has been manifested towards Turkish people by English football fans over the last few years.
10- Could celebrate victory by eating interesting Turkish sweets.
Tuesday, 3 June 2008
Anyway, there is a big shortlist here. A lot of people would go for Tim Parks's A Season with Verona, which details the adventures of the author (a professor of literature in Milan) as he tours Italy with Hellas Verona's hardcore. ASV is 'about' lots of things apart from what happens on the pitch, although the actual football ends up lending the book a novelistic narrative structure as Hellas escape the drop into Serie B with a second leg play-off win against Reggina in the Mezzogiorno. Parks deals with the prioritising of regional over national identities that he (rather paradoxically) sees as being Italy's defining characteristic, with the 'rhetorical, figural potential' (cf. Paul de Man, Allegories of Reading) of the game, with racism and anti-semitism, with the sublimation of violence into sport (via Cesare Pavese), and with the contradictions and self-deceptions that are inherent in sporting fandom. It really is a very good book. There's also The Miracle of Castel di Sangro by Joe MacGinnis, the tale of a side from the backwoods of the Abbruzzan Apennines who make it to Serie B against all the odds (the English equivalent would be a level 10 team reaching the Championship). MacGinnis doesn't know his football as well as Parks, and he's also less up to speed on Italian culture, but, once again, the sheer weirdness of the club's season lends to the book the feel of a novel. The characters are all larger than life, even though we know they're real, and they all seem to be mired in corruption, indicating that MacGinnis has a Raban-esque feel for the tawdrier side to his subjects. An honourable mention also to Jonathan Wilson's Behind the Curtain, which is the story of football in eastern Europe before and after 1989.
The winner, though, is closer to home. Harry Pearson's The Far Corner has more modest aspirations than Parks or MacGinnis- its author clearly has anthropological interests (he discusses Mass Observation, amongst other things), but doesn't seek to turn them into omniscient philosophical readings of the world. It's geographical scope is locked, more or less, between the Tees and the Tweed, and it is fundamentally episodic rather than driven by the structure of the season. Over the course of the 1993/1994 campaign, Pearson visited a variety of north-east clubs, ranging from the great (Keegan-era Newcastle United) to the mediocre (Darlington, Hartlepool) to the absolutely miniscule (West Allotment Celtic of the Northern Alliance). Though he never explicitly states it either in The Far Corner or its unofficial sequel , Racing Pigs and Giant Marrows (which consisted of a series of outings to country fairs in Durham, North Yorkshire, Northumberland and Cumbria), Pearson's objective is to give some account of the identity of the 'real north'. While the likes of Paul Morley, Simon Armitage, David Peace, Stuart Maconie and Bill Drummond have tended to create a symbolic geography of English northerness which is based along the M62 corridor, and is centred on Leeds and Manchester, Pearson- as the title implies- writes about the less well-known lands beyond the A66.
County Durham and Northumbrian dialects are way more detached from RP than the bristly north midlands twang one finds along the M62, and are in many ways closer to Scots. Geordie and Ptmatic are the English equivalents of Occitan, Sorbian or Sardinian, and would probably be afforded language status in a country less politically obsessed with the notion that all those who live within its boundaries must have a common linguistic identity. Phonetically, Italian and Romanian have more in common than the accents of Southend and Sunderland or Bexley and Blyth. Pearson digs out this difference by chasing up specifically north-eastern pursuits and obsessions. Although he visits all the region's league clubs, as well as a couple of sides who were then in the higher reaches on the non-league game such as Gateshead**, Bishop Auckland and Spennymoor, his main focus is on the delightful and deranged world of the Northern League. If those words would, to an Italian, suggest a weird right-wing separatist party, they have some of the same connotations in this case. In most parts of the country, football below Step 4 (the regional leagues a couple of divisions below the Conference) isn't very important, and attendances frequently drop below 20. By contrast, the Northern League is something of a cause celebre once one passes Northallerton (home to its most southerly club). Although the higher attendances- for derby games and season finales- aren't enormously high by the standards of the level, most teams pull over 100 fans on average, and an average NL weekend will see a couple of thousand people watching games in old pit villages such as Esh Winning, Crook, and Horden. The league has a particular draw for non-league football pervs, and at least one weekend a season is scheduled so that the groundhoppers (some of whom have to cross time zones to be there) will be able to take in several matches, as well as- one would have thought- numerous pints of real ale.
However ideal this might all sound, there is a problem. While most of the Step 5 leagues have regularly launched clubs up the Pyramid system, occasionally seeing their former charges (Accrington, Rushden & Diamonds) reach the Promised Land of the Football League, the NL has failed to promote for something like 13 of its last 18 seasons. Most of its champions have declined promotion on the grounds of the costs of travelling to places like Manchester and Staffordshire for pointless midweek games, but the league committee also clings onto its members like acrumbling empire opposing secession. Consequently, the 'Far Corner' is woefully under-represented at the higher levels on the national non-league game. When the Conference (then known as the Alliance) was first formed- or so the story goes- the NL was offered the chance to become a fever at an equivalent level with the Northern Premier League (to which it now, in theory, promotes to) and the Southern League. Presumably, this offer was made on the basis of the disproportionate success of the NL clubs in the Amateur Cup and (later on) the FA Vase, although there was a strong tradition of the area's clubs reaching the early rounds of the FA Cup proper as well: Blyth Spartans, famously, made it all the way to Round 5 in the late 70s. If the NL had accepted the Alliance's offer, the north-east would still to this day be jammed with teams from the Durham and Northumbria, and it doesn't take a great stretch of the imagination to conceive of teams like Blyth, Spennymoor or Durham City gaining enough impetus to acquire league status.
Instead, as Pearson wonderfully evokes, the game in the north-east has become introverted and frankly surreal. Meat packets are offered as half-time raffle prizes, a mysterious paragon of footballing jargon is encountered in the North Sea winds at Seaham, and Pearson is accosted on a bus in Rowland's Gill by that most stereotypically north-eastern of figures, the 'price of beer bore' who knows the cost of a pint of Camerons in every licensed establishment from Piercebridge to Bamburgh. The north-eastern football fan (and by extension, all the people of the north-east) is characterised as witty, cynical, friendly and gifted with a profound understanding of the importance of the minutiae of life. The Far Corner is, like Orwell's 'The Lion and the Unicorn', a study in Englishness, but it seeks to turn the Orwellian/ John Major-ian vision of 'old maids biking to Holy Communion through the mists of the autumn morning' on its head: as Pearson points out, that isn't the vision of home that occurs to most Geordies or Mackems when they're exiled (as he was) in an off-licence on the Old Kent Road.
Anyway, this eulogy probably needs to stop now. Read it, even if you're not a football fan- it will still make plenty of sense.
* Yes, please excuse the awful pun.
** Who are, happily, on their way back up now, with a new ground on the way.
Monday, 2 June 2008
Anyway, this is the video for the KLF's 'It's Grim Up North':
And, as if that wasn't enough, here they are celebrating the merits of 'Northwich, Nantwich, Knutsford, Hull' on TOTP (as The Justified Ancients of Mu Mu):