Saturday, November 05, 2011

The Tie That Binds

The first time I ever got paid for writing something was in 1985. I'd forgotten about it until yesterday when I found myself in a dusty corner of Manchester University library faced with a long shelf containing bound volumes of The Times Educational Supplement from the sixties to the nineties. I remembered writing a piece for them, and some of the aftermath. I knew it had printed in August, and I knew it must have been the mid-eighties, so it was easy to find. Hint to aspiring writers of educational stuff - pitch your article in July: they are desperate to fill the August columns. My piece was a lighthearted one about the tyranny (which seems even more in evidence now) of the tie as an essential item of the male teacher's wardrobe. I never liked wearing them, and expressed my view in the article. I now wear ties for graduations and funerals, never for an ordinary day at work; but in a school, then as now, it was considered a major transgression not to wrap a piece of silk or polyester around your neck every day. So I wrote this:

We were on holiday in France when the article was printed, and in those pre-mobile days, virtually uncontactable. About a week into the holiday, we found a working phone box and fed it with ten-franc pieces to speak to my father, just to report that we were having a great time. "Have you done something?" he said. "I'm sure I heard your name on the radio - something about an article.." I thought it must be the TES article, but didn't think much more about it until we got home, to find requests from various newspapers for interviews. By then, the moment had passed, of course. This was classic silly-season stuff, but I gathered that for a couple of days the article had generated phone-ins on radio shows and some brief comments in newspapers.  Probably the best part of the whole episode was the cartoon which accompanied the piece, reproduced above. I wish I could ever have looked that insouciant and elegant...

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

David Lodge

To the Whitworth, to see David Lodge talk about his new novel, based on the tangled love-life of H.G. Wells. I've admired Lodge for decades - Changing Places is one of the great comic novels, and certainly one of the top three examples of campus fiction ever written, I think.  Lodge also wrote The Art of Fiction, one of the most sensible things available on that topic. Mostly, when authors are promoting their latest book, the routine is that the author reads a bit, and then answers some questions (often completely footling ones: "Where do you get your ideas from?") before everyone queues to have their copy of the book signed. Lodge didn't do this. Perhaps because he spent his working life as an academic, Lodge decided that the best thing to do was to give us a lecture on Wells. It was quite a formal one - he read, at a lectern, from a script, with very few ad-libs, in a style I imagine Birmingham Eng Lit undergraduates would have recognised. It was, nonetheless, an enlightening and engaging talk, ranging over Wells's incredibly productive career, and making a strong claim for a revaluation of his reputation. At one point, Lodge recounted how the elderly Wells refused to move out of London during the blitz, declaring that he would not be beaten by "that shit, Hitler". and that he took his turn firewatching in a tin hat. Wells presciently saw how aircraft would be used in future wars, and also posited the development of something very like the WWW - the World Brain, which would keep all human knowledge on microfiche. Lodge, whose hearing is weak, was supported by an energetic assistant signing his words.  He then did the readings and answered questions, which for once were pertinent and intelligent - and no, I didn't ask any. One point which he spoke about at length was the emergence of what he called the "bio-novel", the fictional work based on the life of a real person. A Man of Parts is one such of course, as is Lodge's Author Author, based on the life of Henry James. Julian Barnes's Arthur and George would be another example. That seems to me to be an interesting line of research - I'm just wondering what other novels fit this category. Lodge said that his rule was not to make anything up except the dialogue and the extradiegetic narrative. As he said, that solves a basic problem, since the plot is already there. Rather than tell the whole life story, he comcentrated on the central years of HG's life, when he was extraordinarily entangled with a series of women.
What was so attractive to women about Wells? He was short, physically weak, and hardly a pin-up. But he was full of energy, full of ideas, and compelling as a speaker. That seemed to do the trick. His narrative gift, allied with his knowledge of science, makes his work unusual, and, according to Lodge,  ripe for rediscovery. Of course. Lodge's book will obviously aid that process. At the end of his life, according to Lodge, Wells was working simultaneously on two factual pieces, one which despaired of mankind ever evolving into something nobler, and one which predicted a utopian future. I wonder what he would make of us now?

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Roma Tearne

To the place everyone now calls the Burgess for a Manchester Literature Festival event with Roma Tearne. She was reading from her most-recently published novel, The Swimmer, and talking about her career, her novels, her other activities as an artist and film-maker, and, inevitably, about her views on Sri Lanka. She left her native country for Britain in 1964, and has made her life here ever since. Sadly, when someone asked her if she ever planned to go back to Sri Lanka, she replied that it was impossible, given the death threats she has received as an outspoken opponent of the regime.
Most writers, because they are writers and not performers, don't read their work particularly well. Roma is an exception. She read a passage from The Swimmer beautifully,  bringing a poignancy that was palpable to a scene of great sadness. She answered questions with great good humour,  and revealed a good deal about her working methods. One particularly striking aspect was her revelation that she always starts with an image. In the case of The Swimmer it was a photograph of a windswept Aldeburgh beach on which three figures were walking. She imagined the story of these three characters, and the novel grew from there. Several members of the audience commented on the power of her landscape scenes, and one questioner asked whether she painted landscapes - yes, she does. The evocative atmosphere of the East Anglian coast, with its melancholy emptiness, and sense of liminality, seems an appropriate setting for this tale.
What's more, she has used one aspect of The Swimmer to inform the film that she made for the Venice Biennale. The novel, which features a plot about a Sri Lankan immigrant,  is used to complement the horrific footage of brutal attacks by the Sri Lankan army on the Tamils during the civil war. The found footage is intercut with the new film, shot on iPhone to merge with the raw images of the massacre.
It was a privilege to have a short conversation with her after the event, and now I must get down to reading the novels, starting with the semi-autobiographical Brixton Beach.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

My Motorway Reading (2)

I've posted before about the fatuous and often bizarre language used by companies to describe what they do. The slogans and mission statements often use 'solutions' as a catch-all term, and tend to pomposity when describing the most mundane matters. I observed a cracker today, on a van belonging to a company I hadn't heard of before: ProLicht, with the trendy inter-capital. Their business, according to the statement on the van, is "turnkey solutions for national and international corporate brand programmes." No, I had no idea, either. So I looked them up. As you might expect from the name, they are a German company, and their business is making signs. So, "turnkey solutions for national and international corporate brand programmes" means "signage". Their website is a treasure trove of corporate bollocks-speak, often using those incomplete sentences. You know. Like this. To seem more important. Or something.
They clearly don't think it's necessary to tell us what a turnkey solution is, so I checked with Wisegeek (much plagiarised by students, I note in passing) where  I am told that a turnkey solution is "a solution that can easily be implemented based on the resources already at the disposal of a company or individual." I'm not sure that gets me much further, but maybe it means that ProLicht will make you some signs that you can afford. I'm not sure, and the language of the website doesn't enlighten me further. For example – “Our customers are happy to work with us. We see this in the fact that they are doing so more and more intensively. Every year, they develop their cooperation with us on an ongoing basis.” I’m assuming that, as a customer, developing my co-operation with them on an ongoing basis means I use them more than once. Obviously, the fact that  “The entire process chain within view ensures the best quality” will make me want to use them again. It would, I’m sure, be enlightening to meet them. After all, “We would be happy to present in a personal meeting our company, our mindset, our approach, our diverse references and why our customers continuously extend their cooperation with us.”

Saturday, August 06, 2011

Far out, man.

I spotted this poster whilst enjoying an excellent Warsteiner at Mary and Archie's yesterday. I took a picture on my rather basic phone, which is rubbish, so I found a better version here.  It's a poster for Cream's farewell gig, at the Royal Albert Hall, in November 1968. It's fascinating for several reasons. The groovy outfits sported by Baker, Bruce and Clapton are, even at the distance of 42 years, startling, but you might be able to make out that there were two shows, at 6.00 and 8.00, and that there were two support acts, Yes and Rory Gallagher. And that tickets were a whole pound.  I've been trying to think what a pound would buy back then - I was just 14 when they played this concert. According to this site, it would be about £12.90 in today's money. So, quite a lot to a 14 year old, but not a fortune, to see arguably the top rock group in the world at the time, together with another huge act, and a highly regarded third act. What would it be today - U2 supported by Coldplay and Rufus Wainwright, perhaps?
They played two sets, separated by just two hours, so presumably, Cream can't have played more than 45 minutes, and maybe Yes half an hour (one song for them) and Gallagher perhaps twenty minutes. One creepy reflection: Clapton is, of course, still going strong, as are Bruce and Baker. Rory Gallagher died years ago, but who would have thought in 1968 that, with dozens of line-up changes, there'd still be an entity called Yes, still touring and making what we used to call LPs, over four decades later? This rather disturbing publicity shot of the current band, featuring three very long serving members, shows that there are no strange portraits in anyone's attic.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Feet of Clay (2)

A.C. Grayling's pieces on moral dilemmas in The Guardian (later collected into various books) always impressed me. Witty, erudite, elegant, they anatomised the modern ethical landscape, and presented solutions that were often informed by references to classical literature. Grayling has had his detractors as a so-called media don, but it always seemed to me that you don't get to be a media don without some reputation to start with. Schama, Starkey and the rest became TV personalities because they were serious academics with prestigious positions, not the other way round.
Grayling would be an obvious champion of the humanities at a time when they are under threat in the academy.  So it was not a surprise that he should be the figurehead behind the launch of a new educational institution, the New College for the Humanities, dedicated to, as Grayling says on the website, "personal enrichment, intellectual training, breadth of vision, and the well-informed, sharply questioning cast of mind needed for success in this complex and competitive world." Well, that's just great, and many of us in the humanities would love to work for an institution with that as a mission statement.
But here's the rub. Elsewhere, Grayling asserts that "We're open to anybody who has talent and ability." Well, up to a point, Lord Copper. The standard fee for the NCH will be a whopping £18,000 a year, meaning that it is out of reach for all but a tiny minority. Given the promises that Grayling is making, the fees might be justified in some people's eyes: stellar academics (Dawkins, Pinker, Ricks et al) supported by a dedicated teaching staff unencumbered by admin duties, who will offer small group and one-to-one tuition. Marvellous. But that £18k fee, despite some suggestions that some students will have the fee waived, remains a huge barrier.  I'm reminded of the well-worn quip of  Justice Mathews - 'In England, justice is open to all - like the Ritz Hotel.' 
What makes the enterprise (and that's clearly what it is) smack even more of opportunism is that perforce, since the NCH isn't an accredited university, study will lead to a University of London award, and students will use  London facilities. Even the course materials have been lifted wholesale, as Amanda Vickery, and a number of others pointed out. As Vickery said on Twitter "NCH thinks my 18th-century women course worth £18k. Come & have it for half that, & taught by Prof who designed it." Moreover, it transpires that the "Professoriate" of big name dons might teach for as little as one hour per year.
It's difficult to see what NCH can offer, other than an alternative route into a prestigious degree for the rich who don't manage a place at Oxbridge.  The NCH, if it were to charge low fees, or use sponsorship to offer humanities degrees to the brightest, would be a noble enterprise. As it stands, though, it is, in its way, simply another example of the commercialisation of HE in this country.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Feet of Clay

I began writing this post before the news broke today that Johann Hari had been suspended by The Independent, so much of what I was going to write is redundant now - read the Guardian article for the details I have been a fan of Johann Hari for some time. I liked his style, and that he seemed an individual in a sea of identikit rent-a-gob commentators. I sometimes disagreed with him, but always found his articles lively and entertaining. Then the news that he routinely passed off quotations from books as quotes he had obtained in interviews appeared, and he immediately lost some credibility. That was compounded by his initial denial that this was wrong.
That was bad enough, and then, a couple of days ago, Nick Cohen wrote a blistering piece on Hari, characterising him as a vindictive and deceitful prat. Then a  tweet by David Allen Green, alias Jack of Kent, suggested that there was something even murkier about Mr Hari. Green wrote this, which confirmed that the Orwell Prize winning author seemed to be at the very least condoning some juvenile and nasty behaviour.  This evening, Green said that he now knew the identity of "David Rose", but was not going to reveal it, for fear of triggering an expensive libel action.
It's a sorry tale, and you wonder if Hari can recover from it. I can't imagine taking one of his columns at face value again.
Update: and, according to Guido Fawkes, even his Orwell piece was nicked.
Update 20th July: Hari has taken his website down completely.
Update 21st July: Hari is accused of more dishonesty here.
Update 26th July: Hari has broken his silence to say he's been instructed by the Indy not to say anything until the outcome of their investigation. Meanwhile, the Orwell prize committee all but confirm he's to be stripped of the prize. 

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Fartlek with Laura

OK, I'm 56, I'm unfit, and I'm overweight. So I had a choice to make at the end of last month - do I renew my gym membership again, or try something else? I'm not a great fan of the gym, as I've mentioned before, so I decided to save my money, and try a different tack. I'm lucky enough to live close to an urban water park, so I have the perfect environment for some outdoor workouts. I came across the C25k (Couch potato to 5 kilometer) programme, and on the recommendation of a friend (thanks Lisa!) chose the NHS version. The advantage of this is that you have a podcast to guide you through, rather than having to check your (in my case, non-existent) watch to keep on track.
The  programme itself seems to be based on what I used to know as Fartlek. My gym teacher at school, Reggie Bell, used to make us do fartlek at the end of games sessions. As the name was already inherently hilarious to us, we used to find it hard when Reggie's rich Lankysheer voice urged us to "do some Fartlek, lads!" The word is Swedish, and means speed-play, and the technique is really simply about alternating bursts of more and less intense activity. The etymology is interesting - the first syllable survives in the German "Fahrt" meaning journey. "Gute Fahrt" - bon voyage - can always raise a laugh in a German lesson, and you can hear the Viking echo of "lek" in Yorkshire where kids still ask their mates if they are "laikin' out".
Anyway, I downloaded the podcast, loaded up the iPod,  and have now completed the first week. Your guide is Laura, who is very encouraging and sympathetic. She tells you when to run and when to maintain a brisk walking pace. Whilst you are running or walking, music takes over - a kind of bland, sub-Coldplay vaguely uplifting wash of guitars and keyboards when walking, and a more urgent generic 70s / 80s rockular sound when running, probably knocked out in a morning by old session guys on union rates.  One riff sounds suspiciously like "Sweet Home Alabama". But I digress.
You run, you walk. You sweat, you get a bit breathless. Laura encourages you - "You're doing really well," she says. How does she know? But it works, and eventually, you have managed a fairly basic half-hour aerobic workout. And that isn't much at all, but it's a small step for me. I do feel a bit fitter, and I will try to complete the nine-week programme. So far so good. And Laura says I'm doing great.
Photo: by me!

Sunday, July 03, 2011

See You Later, x

A typical exchange with the spotty youth manning, or teenagering, the supermarket checkout yesterday. After we paid and packed, I said "thanks" and he said "see you later." Actually, what he said was more like "see yers later", but that's besides the point really. Now, unless I've missed a very subtle invitation from a boy young enough to be my grandson, he didn't really mean he'd see us later. He didn't even mean he'd see us. "Later" has been added to the ubiquitous "see ya" for no apparent reason, as far as I can see. I'm tempted in these situations to say "oh right, where shall we meet?" or something along those lines. It's another example of how informal speech has replaced formal in situations where two people's lives intersect briefly. For some reason, we have to appear to be on terms of deep familiarity. "'Scuse me, mate," someone said as he approached me for directions the other day.  I'm not his mate, and "excuse me" would do the job. "Cheers," says someone when I hold the door in a shop. I'm not having a drink with them, merely offering a tiny courtesy. The worst one doesn't occur in speech, but in email: an increasing number of my students seem unable to complete a message without signing off with a 'x'. Aaargh!

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

David Mitchell: Critical Essays

This is a first for me. I'm reviewing a book that I haven't held in my hands - yes, it's my first e-book. My friend Anthony Levings, the onlie begetter of Gylphi, the new publisher for arts and humanities, sent me an E-Pub version of this new volume of critical essays on David Mitchell, and I've been reading it on my iPod.  It's been an interesting experience, and largely an enjoyable one. I'm still not quite used to turning over the virtual pages with a finger gesture on screen, but I was agreeably surprised by how book-like the experience was. The print is clear and crisp, and I can annotate as I might a physical book. I won't rehearse here all the pros and cons of ebooks, but suffice to say that this convinced me that the format is viable, useful, handy and attractive.
What of the contents? The volume, edited by Sarah Dillon of St Andrews, arose from a conference held there, the first on Mitchell, and it ranges over his entire oeuvre, including his most recent novel The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet in Dillon's introduction.  An added feature, most unusual in books of this type, is a piece by the author under consideration, in which he expresses his delight in the critical attention his work is receiving, as evidenced by this volume. The articles, by an eclectic bunch of academics, demonstrate the variety and complexity of Mitchell's work. As a particular fan of Cloud Atlas, I was very interested in Will McMorran's contribution 'Cloud Atlas and If On a Winter's Night a Traveller: Fragmentation and Integrity in the Postmodern Novel' in which he demonstrates some striking parallels between Mitchell's Matrioshka doll structure and Calvino's endlessly recursive vignettes. It certainly enhanced my understanding of both Calvino and Cloud Atlas, which I have used as an exemplar of the postmodern novel in my teaching.
'The Stories We Tell: Discursive Identity Through Narrative Form in Cloud Atlas' by Courtney Hopf offers some sharp insights on the self-reflexive nature of Mitchell's fiction, and 'Speculative Fiction as Postcolonial: Critique in Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas' by Nicholas Dunlop higlighted aspects of those two novels that have been neglected so far in the developing critical response to Mitchell's work.
It is clear that David Mitchell is a very important contemporary writer, and Gylphi can be proud that they have produced the first critical work about him. I am sure it won't be the last. Like all good works of criticism, it sends you back to the original texts with a renewed interest and curiosity.  This is an auspicious debut volume for Gylphi's Contemporary Writers series. I look forward to the next one.

Sunday, June 05, 2011

Rue des Mensonges

One of the pleasures of the internet is making connections with people who share your interest. Martin Phipps, a Canadian, whose path I would not otherwise have crossed, is one such: our mutual interest in Anthony Burgess led to some exchanges via Facebook and the Burgess forums, and made me keen to read his novel Rue des Mensonges. The book is published, as Martin's others have been, through Blurb, an innovative internet company offering authors the chance to self-publish and market their work. The result is, in effect, a bespoke copy of the book delivered to your door. I liked the quality of the paper and the binding, which I'd say was better than most mass-market paperbacks these days.
So- what do we have here? It's a short (about 130 pages) fast-paced thriller, set in locales ranging from expensive Paris penthouses to Roma encampments in rural Slovakia. It has a very contemporary feel, since the backdrop is the recent financial scandals and the global economic downturn. At the centre of events is the unpleasant crooked former financier James Moody, now enjoying his ill-gotten millions in Paris. His plan to disappear by faking his own death begins to unravel, and triggers a quickly moving succession of scenes in which Moody becomes embroiled in a maelstrom of lies, deceits and double-bluffs. What distinguishes this from your standard thriller is that the novel engages with the moral bankruptcy of modern capitalism, embodied in the figure of Moody. There are no clean-cut heroes on the street of liars - everyone, to a greater or lesser extent, is on the make. It's gripping, vivid and thought-provoking. Great stuff, Marty!

Saturday, April 09, 2011

No problem revisited

I blogged before - blimey, nearly six years ago - about the use of "no problem" as an all-purpose response by people who serve you in shops, bars etc. There was a classic instance of it last night. We went for a pre-event meal to a branch of a well-known pizza chain, whose name begins with Pizza and ends with Express. In a largely empty restaurant, we were escorted by our waiter to a back room, which was perfectly pleasant, but from where we couldn't be seen by the passing trade on the street. We decided we were too old / too uncool to occupy the visible seats, an idea confirmed as we were joined by punters of a similar age.
Anyway, pleasant young waiter took our order. Drinks would be 'no problem.' The fact that we didn't want water as well as beer would be 'no problem'. The fact that we wanted just one salad to accompany the pizzas was 'no problem'. Could we have a soft egg on the Fiorentina? No problem. Could we have some pepper? No problem. Could we have the bill? No problem. Could we actually have the correct bill, with the special offer price he had recommended? No problem.
Pizza Express operates a rigid recipe control system, to ensure that wherever you are, your Fiorentina is going to be the same as the last one you had. So I wish their training people would instruct waiters that the language has a number of responses that are appropriate to customer questions - of course, right away, I'll bring it to you now, certainly... Getting staff to use them? - no problem, you'd think.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

In this day and age

I found this story astonishing. In the year of my birth,  about a mile from where I lived, a teenage girl was being sectioned under the mental health act for the crime of having a baby. That boy, a few months older than me, was adopted, and has never known his mother.  I thought this kind of barbarity had stopped before the war - it's a shock to know it was still going on in my lifetime. There's a happy end, of a kind - but as the woman's second-born son says, she's the victim here.

Chinese Whispers

An interesting example of how stories are distorted in the telling, and how 'news' is created. Yesterday, at my place of work, there was a power cut. It happened around lunch time. I went out of my office to see if it was just my room, or more general. It was quickly apparent that the whole campus had lost electricity. Soon, a helicopter, a fire engine and two ambulances arrived. People on the corridor were immediately speculating as to what had caused the problem. In the space of three minutes I heard that construction workers on site had cut through cables, that there had been an explosion in a lab, and that there had been an explosion elsewhere, that the helicopter was there to take someone seriously injured to hospital. The local press reported it as a major incident.What had actually happened, it transpired, was that a power cut in the area had caused a distribution board to short-circuit, making a loud bang. Maybe whoever called 999 had been a little over-dramatic in describing the event. I imagine that person is a bit embarrassed.
The campus was not evacuated, classes were not particularly affected (especially as not that many classes happen on a Wednesday afternoon) and things were back to normal by mid-afternoon. Nothing to see here, move along...
Image: DailyPic

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Nick and Nick

To the IABF once more for the latest in their literary event series. The subject this week was Nicholas Royle, together with Nicholas Royle. Royle mark 1 is an academic, the co-author of the very successful undergraduate text An Introduction to Literature Criticism and Theory, and the sole author of The Uncanny. He is also, and this was one of the main impulses for the event, the author of an intriguing new novel, Quilt. This new work gained laudatory reviews from some very important people, including Cixous and Kermode, so this is clearly a major work. T'other Royle is the Mancunian short story writer and novelist who also teaches Creative Writing at MMU. He is also the publisher of beautifully produced chapbooks from The Nightjar Press. I have admired his short stories in the past, and very much enjoyed his reading at an Edge Hill conference on the short story a few years ago. Our paths have crossed professionally too, when he was the external on a PhD viva. This Royle has developed a line in rather chilling, discomforting prose, with a dash of the surreal. Uncannily, the other Royle has similar tastes.
Obviously, the two Royles are frequently confused. What I didn't know until this event was that Nick Royle the academic had written about Nick Royle the novelist, and had delivered a conference paper about him. This was at a University of London conference, and the two of them had arranged to meet there, but in a kind of publicly theatrical way. Nick mark 1 delivered the paper, and then stepped down from the platform, shook hands with Nick mark 2, who stepped up to take questions on his own novel. An uneasy silence ensued...
Of course, the two Royles are inextricably entwined. Look on a book site and you'll see there's no discriminating between the two. The Manchester Nick mentioned that, at the Cheltenham Festival, he'd done a talk and then was invited to sign books, many of which were - well, you fill in the rest. The Sussex Royle has a short story in the other Royle's new anthology, and so the seeds for more confusion are being planted there too. To digress briefly, congratulations to Edge Hill student Claire Massey on being included in Nick's new Best of British collection, where she finds herself in the company of Hilary Mantel among others.
The IABF event was well-attended, and the format of alternating Royles reading from their work made for a lively opening half. They then had an informal chat, and took questions before signing their (own) books.  Despite the frequently rather dark materials of the respective writers' work, the evening was light-hearted and very enjoyable. As always at the IABF, a good few friends and acquaintances were present as well.
We came away with a copy of The Uncanny and The Matter of the Heart, which will be the first in what I expect will be a Nicholas Royle reading marathon, of both flavours.

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Bedlam sans Merci

To the Dancehouse with Caroline for a celebratory gig with Louis Barabbas and the Bedlam Six.  The prolific Mr Barabbas has a new album out, but this gig was really a showcase for the band, and an opportunity to feature John Otway, self-styled "rock and roll's greatest failure", whose extraordinary career includes two hit singles and being voted seventh in a poll of Britain's best songwriters - just after some unknown called McCartney.
Much of the gig was organised via Facebook,  and this was a boon, because it meant that punters were able to avoid the stupid admin charges that the ticket-sellers add on. In fact, the whole thing was a great bargain. After paying via Paypal, an email from the band was exchanged at the box office for a ticket on the night, which also entitled you to a CD of the show, and a mention on the cover. Louis certainly isn't going to be a millionaire any time soon working this way, but he will have a loyal fanbase.
The venue was pretty full, and we arrived just in time for the opening, energetic song. If you haven't come across Louis Barabbas, imagine a louche, bowler-hatted figure, wild-eyed and bearded like the prophet, frantically strumming a guitar and singing like Tom Waits would if his voice was a bit more gravelly. The band is the usual rock line up - bass, drums, keyboards, lead guitar, rhythm guitar and, er, trombone, used to good effect in most of the songs. Louis shares lead vocals with Alison Cegielka, a sultry chanteuse with a clear, melodic voice. Her duets with Louis - and most of the songs are written to be sung as duets - work surprisingly well, her smoothness complementing the rasp of Louis. 
The songs are uniformly dark, dealing with a downbeat world of gloom and doom inhabited by eccentrics, inadequates and losers. If Weill and Brecht had written for rock band, it might have sounded like this. Not for nothing is the Barabbas label called Debt Records. One little line sums up the mood of the songs for me - a character says " I'm a man of my word, and the word is deceit."
The gig was divided into three, with LB performing a short opening set, and giving way to John Otway, on his own. 
I didn't know what to expect of him really, dimly remembering his 1977 hit "Really Free" which had a quirky charm. Otway, it turned out, is a natural showman, making much of his apparent amateurishness, and producing a nicely-judged stream of comic and self-deprecating patter. Genuinely funny and inventive, having fun with a theremin and with a bizarre double-necked guitar, which was used to do a cover of Sweet's Blockbuster. After a tune with the band, Otway left, and the final session was back to Louis and the Bedlam Six. They really raised the roof, and had everyone dancing is the aisles. It was an energising, entertaining night out. Can't wait for the CD!
Update: 'er indoors points out that LB has a blog here.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Seeing Galileo

Gylphi, run by my friend Anthony Levings, published this book last month, and it is a strange beast.  I have been trying to make my mind up about it, but trying to categorize it is difficult - it contains poems, essays, playlets, photos and meditations. It's a collaborative effort, from Jason Lee - no, not that one - and the photographer Rebecca Griffith. This Jason Lee is Head of Film and Media with Creative and Professional Writing at the University of Derby, and an expert on transgression. Certainly, this book is a kind of transgressive artefact in itself, in its resolute defiance of category.
The reader's experience is, and I'm sure this is deliberate, an uncomfortable one. Beginning like a modern piece of lit crit, complete with scholarly references and a bibliography, it locates John Milton within the contemporary zeitgeist and then swiftly, and occasionally bewilderingly, moves on to introduce Galileo, Prospero and Caliban, the Virgin Mary, Picasso, Fassbinder, T.S. Eliot and a range of other fictional and real characters, inhabiting landscapes real and imagined from New Jerusalem to Pisa, Florence, and beyond. The text is illuminated by Griffith's evocative black-and-white photographs, taken on instruction by the author in the cities where Milton may - or may not - have encountered Galileo. The central conceit of the book is an encounter between these two figures, which spirals into a consideration of the modern and postmodern world of existential angst and technological carnage. The figure of Milton, the author of Paradise Lost seems to anchor the ancient world, and the figure of Galileo, with his telescope, seems to represent the modern world. Here, in these ancient Italian cities, the two worlds collide, and the two visions inter-penetrate each other. Of course, the fact that both the protagonists went blind adds a further layer of postmodern irony to the idea of what they 'saw' - as does the decision to illustrate the book with photographs.
The early poems in the book explore the nature of the encounter between Galileo and Milton using a sometimes daunting range of references and allusions, expressed in ludic and occasionally baffling free verse. Here's a typical sample from the poem 'Seeing Galileo I':

Scrying the inexcusable,
Telling the tale of the future
Of the world corporations only allow;
For the man who posts a letter in every
French box in the city - hold it there, Daguerre...

This is playfully obscure, using, paradoxically perhaps,  the predominant metaphor of the text - sight - to describe a future unknowable to either of Lee's protagonists. The meaning remains opaque, though, and I wonder about that placing of 'only' - might it have been better after 'the'? And what's a French box? A letter box, or...? Doubtless the poems will repay further study, and indeed this is a book to return to, as, although it is unified by its theme, it has the feel of a series of loosely connected pieces, an anthology of sorts.
In other parts of the book, critical discourse and historical narrative give way to other types of writing. I was particularly struck by the Edward Bond-style playlet 'The Four Minute Warning' which vividly dramatizes our inhumanity in extremis during an apparent nuclear attack.
I'm still not sure about this text. It's certainly intriguing, and challenging, though sometimes too much so for comfort. But then, I'm sure it isn't meant as a cosy read.  A couple of stylistic touches did jar, however:  Lee tends to write sentences without main verbs. Like this. As if it's advertising copy. Which it isn't. That's probably me being pedantic, I suppose. I also couldn't really go along with his occasional baring of the device; for example, he leaves what appear to be notes to the photographer  in his text as annotations. I'm not sure that works, but, like other features of the book, it underlines the boundary-busting nature of the enterprise. On a more positive note, it's a pleasure to read and to handle such a well-produced volume. The production values are high, and would put bigger companies to shame.
So - a challenging, provocative and original book, that blurs conventional genres and plays fruitfully with our postmodern condition.