Friday, 17 November 2017

A BRIEF GUIDE TO BASIL BUNTING'S BRIGGFLATTS FOR FIRST-TIME READERS







Briggflatts by Basil Bunting is one of the great poems of the twentieth century, though it has not always occupied a central place in discussions of modern poetry. The reasons for this are complex, and have to do with a range of contentious biographical and historical factors (such as the marginal status of modernism in the UK and Bunting's own variable reputation). Another factor, the poem's supposed difficulty, requires some qualification. Briggflatts is a dense, carefully wrought high-modernist work. As with other poems in this bracket (The Waste Land, The Cantos, The Maximus Poems) it repays diligent close reading and re-reading. But it is arguably more vital (and, dare I say it, accessible) than those works, and can in fact be appreciated pretty well by first-time readers. As a teacher of undergraduate students over the last few years, I have found that Part 1 in particular lends itself very well to group reading and seminar discussion: indeed, the first section of Briggflatts seems to me to serve as a far better introduction to modernist poetry in a pedagogical context than a work like The Waste Land, with its copious and contested layers of allusion. It does help, it is true, to have a skeleton key to unlock the door to Briggflatts. But I think the really essential facts about the poem can be summarised in a relatively tight space. The following brief guide should hopefully provide a good foundation for first-time readers. My intention is to try to shine light on the basic subjects and structures of the poem, without diminishing its music and magic.



AN, 2017





Part 1


Season: Spring


Phase of Bunting’s life: Childhood


Location: Northern England


 

Part 1 is the most immediate and tightly structured in the poem. Twelve stanzas, each of thirteen lines, sketch an idealised panorama of Northumbria (in Bunting’s poetic vocabulary this meant pretty much the whole of Northern England). The verse here is emphatically musical, foregrounding alliteration, assonance and internal rhyme, with a stark rhyming couplet at the end of each stanza to draw it to a close. In one sense, this is pure sound evoking a pastoral idyll and it should be enjoyed as such: Bunting himself said that readers (or listeners) shouldn’t try too hard to uncover ‘meaning’ beneath the musical surface of his verse. At its simplest, this whole section is an extension of the song of the bull (‘Brag, sweet tenor bull’) in the first line.

 

However, that is not quite the whole story; there is also a definite realist narrative here. Bunting is recalling a childhood ‘holiday romance’ with a girl called Peggy, which took place in the early 1910s in Brigflatts (the correct spelling), a tiny village in the North Pennines. Rawthey is a river; Garsdale, Hawes and Stainmore are nearby locations; the stonemason and miners are local characters. Part 1 is therefore the beginning of a process of remembering real things, literally the first chapter in an autobiography. Deeper history also comes to the surface with the first, brief appearance of the Viking warrior and sometime ruler of Northumbria Eric Bloodaxe, killed in battle on Stainmore around 954AD. This enigmatic darker image or ‘tone’ prepares the way for the mournful conclusion to part 1. Spring ends, the natural presences begin to die and rot, and somehow—we never quite find out why or how—the poet’s idyllic love affair with Peggy is ‘lain aside’ and forgotten.

 

 

Part 2

Season: Summer

Phase of Bunting’s life: Early adulthood to early middle age

Locations: London; North Sea; Italy; North Pennines; Middle East; Mediterranean

 

Part 2 is by some distance the longest in the poem. In stark contrast to the chiselled stanzas of part 1, part 2 is an eclectic collage of clashing poetic fragments, perhaps intended to mirror the immature, evolving state of Bunting’s mind throughout his wandering 20s and 30s. We start with an intentionally dramatic change of location, from the idealised North to artificial, money-obsessed London (Bunting is nodding at similar depictions of the capital in Wordsworth’s Prelude). From this point onward there are continual geographical shifts (again, this is a recollection of real events in Bunting’s early life). We are treated to a short tour around 1920s Bloomsbury bohemia (lines 1-23), a jaunt along the Italian coast and mountains (most of the middle of part 2 from ‘About ship! Sweat in the south’) and finally to a more obscure conclusion that includes flashes of the Middle East, where Bunting spent the latter part of World War II (‘Asian vultures riding on a spiral column of dust’) and generalised Mediterranean references—as well as spending the early 1930s in Italy, Bunting returned there during and after the war as a soldier and intelligence agent. In between these biographical fragments, more indirect passages and mythical subjects jostle in typical high-modernist fashion. The Bloodaxe narrative is treated more fully: we see Eric cruelly commanding a longship in the North Sea (‘Under his right oxter …’) and then dying a horrifically violent death back in the Pennines in the first great climax of the poem (the long passage beginning ‘Loaded with mail of linked lies’). Paralleling this episode, Bunting nods in the final lines of the section at the Ancient Greek myth of Pasiphae, who gave birth to the Minotaur after an encounter with a bull sent by the sea-god Poseidon (note the subject rhyme with the bull at the start of the poem).

 

As well as being a sometimes chaotic—though often beautiful—record of the frustrations of Bunting’s early adulthood, part 2 is also the place where the underlying moral of Briggflatts is first advanced. Put very simply: human beings cannot control the world, they must find a way to co-operate and co-exist with it. As Bunting put it (far more eloquently) in his ‘Note on Briggflatts’: ‘Those fail who try to force their destiny, like Eric; but those who are resolute to submit, like my version of Pasiphae, may bring something new to birth, be it only a monster.’

 

 

Part 3

Season: n/a

Phase of Bunting’s life: n/a

Locations: Edge of the world; Northumbrian arcadia

 

Part 3 is outside the main structure of the poem: it refers neither to a season nor to a specific period in Bunting’s life. Nevertheless, Bunting intended it to be the climax of the narrative. In musical terms this is the ‘loudest’, most forcefully expressed part of the poem, the place where the moral first hinted at in part 2 is affirmed in a dramatic ‘big reveal’. The section is based on an episode from the medieval Persian epic poem Shahnameh, which includes a portrayal of the Greek leader Alexander the Great (356-323BC). In Shahnameh, Alexander journeys with his troops to the mountains of Gog and Magog at the edge of the world. At the summit he leaves his men behind and encounters an angel (Bunting has him played by the Biblical figure ‘Israfel’) who is poised to blow a trumpet to signal the end of the world. There is some ambiguity in Bunting’s retelling of this legend. What exactly happens to Alexander on the mountain? Why does Israfel ‘delay’ in blowing the trumpet? What sort of divine intervention is at play here? Yet the underlying moral is clear. Alexander tries to conquer the world and reach the limits of experience, but in doing so he is ultimately returned back to the ground, to his homeland (for Alexander this was Macedonia, but Bunting describes it here as a kind of Northumbrian arcadia). Lying dazed in the moss and bracken after his fall from the mountain, he encounters the hero of Briggflatts, the slowworm (actually a snake-like lizard) who advises him to lie low, be patient, persistent and mindful of the beauty of his surroundings.

 

This is the most abstract moment in the poem, but there are also clear parallels here and throughout part 3 with Bunting’s biography. The opening passages of the section caricature greedy, powerful people who obstruct creativity and make life a literal shitty nightmare. As a struggling poet for much of his life, Bunting had built up some resentment towards these establishment ‘turd-bakers’, such as the businessman and newspaper owner Lord Astor (‘Hastor’). The overall narrative shape of part 3 also mimics the curve of Bunting’s middle years: after spending much of the 1940s in Persia (poring over works like Shahnameh) he returned in the 1950s to Northumberland, the homeland from which he would eventually write Briggflatts.

 

 

Part 4

Season: Autumn

Phase of Bunting’s life: Late middle age

Locations: North Yorkshire; Lindisfarne; Tynedale

 

Part 4 is the shortest section in Briggflatts, and is best viewed (or heard) as a penultimate, minor-key movement resembling those in pieces of classical music (Bunting called Briggflatts a ‘sonata’). You don’t need to follow this musical analogy too closely, but it might be worth spending some time looking at the way Bunting weaves together different textures and ‘themes’ in the second half of part 4.

 

Aside from its musical properties, part 4 is also notable for its elegiac subjects. It begins with allusions to the sixth-century poet Aneirin (the correct spelling), whose most famous work Y Gododdin describes the Battle of Catterick and its aftermath in North Yorkshire around 600AD. The purpose of this allusion is twofold. Firstly, Bunting is nodding at what is in effect the first Northumbrian poem (although Aneirin was a ‘Welsh’ poet, we should remember that the Welsh or Britons lived in Northumbria prior to the Anglo-Saxon arrivals of the fifth and sixth centuries). In terms of the realist dimension, there may also be a glance here at the war and destruction Bunting witnessed in the mid-twentieth century (we are now, chronologically, up to the 1940s-1950s). More personally, the litany of death and decay segues eventually into a recollection of the lost love affair with Peggy. In some of the most moving lines in the poem, Bunting says ‘goodbye’ to his memories of Peggy as he settles down to lonely old age in post-war Northumberland.

 

But there is some light in the gloom. Aside from the redemptive music of the baroque composer Domenico Scarlatti, we also encounter the Northumbrian Renaissance of the seventh and eighth centuries (a dramatic ‘rebirth’ following the violent period marked by events like the Battle of Catterick). Among other achievements, this cultural upsurge produced the Lindisfarne Gospels (celebrated in the gorgeous passage beginning ‘Columba, Columbanus …’), a beautiful illuminated book created in part to celebrate the life of the Northumbrian saint Cuthbert, who appears here as the (positive) mirror image to the (negative) portrait of Eric Bloodaxe in part 2. Aside from his Northumbrian pedigree, Bunting gives Cuthbert a starring role because he reputedly ‘saw God in everything’. In line with the moral of Briggflatts, Cuthbert was a quiet hero living on the margins of society who loved nature without seeking to control it.  

 

 

Part 5

Season: Winter

Phase of Bunting’s life: Old age

Locations: North Northumberland, Farne Islands

 

If part 4 was mostly tragic notes with a brief major-key interlude, part 5 is the opposite. Like the final movement of a symphony, this is a resounding conclusion to the poem (‘years end crescendo’) although it ends with a sad diminuendo.

 

In musical verse that often recalls the ‘Sirens’ episode in Joyce’s Ulysses, Bunting revisits the idyllic landscape of part 1 (the powerful opening syllable ‘Drip’ recalls part 1’s ‘Brag’). But now that he is an old man the perspective is different. We have moved from the mountains in springtime to the Northumberland coast in winter, where the sea speaks of finality and the end of a journey. Having accepted the need to be patient and respect human limitations in the face of nature, it is now possible to appreciate the precious details of life: rock pools, a spider’s web, the lapping of the ocean, the way birds fly in harmony, the skill of shepherds in handling sheep dogs, the inexplicable wonder of the night sky. There is a kind of spiritual idealism here, and this conclusion is certainly upbeat and effusive in some ways, with the faint suggestion of a happier ending to Bunting’s life than was predicted in part 4. Part 5 is on the whole concerned with images in themselves rather than any more complex symbolism, but the line ‘Young flutes, harps touched by a breeze’ may just carry a hint of the optimism Bunting felt in the mid-1960s, when he was ‘rediscovered’ by younger poets and finally became a celebrated literary figure. However, there is still the nagging sense of tragedy that has persisted throughout Briggflatts. As the stars shine out over the Farne Islands, where St Cuthbert once lived and worshipped, Bunting remembers Peggy for the last time, and awaits a final ‘uninterrupted night’.

 

 

Coda

The Coda is a fragment composed prior to the rest of the poem, which Bunting rediscovered and welded on at the last minute. It is a condensed summary of the key philosophical motifs in the previous sections: the power of music, the impermanence of all creation, the impossibility of knowing everything. Tellingly, the poem ends with a question mark (this is a work of literature that proclaims its own uncertainty and inability to conquer the world with language). For all that, one thing is certain in the end: as Bunting once remarked, Briggflatts is ‘about love, in all senses’.








Thursday, 29 October 2015

GET REAL, TOMORROW IS NOT GOING TO HAPPEN. BY DAN HODGES.



Hi. I’m Dan Hodges. And I tell it like it is.

Like. It. Is.

If you believe everything you read on Lefty Twitter you’d think that time progresses in linear fashion, one day after another, week succeeding week, month upon month.

But hang on. Let’s stop and think for a second – is this really what’s going on here?

No. It’s not.

And I’ll tell you why not. People like me – go on, call me a ‘Tory’ if you like – know that in the real world things like this just don’t happen.

Apparently, when the clocks strike 12 tonight, by some magical process of Socialist metamorphosis, today will just magically turn into another, newer, and different day. When the Earth gets to the end of its daily cycle it will just spontaneously keep on spinning, in a kind of Hard-Left utopia of ongoing movement.

Except it won’t. Not now. Not ever.

Because this is the Real World. Where Real Things Happen. In barely formulated tabloid-ish sentences that have somehow made their way into a broadsheet where they masquerade as incisive realism. With their no-nonsense tone. And their full-stops.

My trick is to take exaggeratedly cynical negative statements with absolutely no intellectual basis and make them seem like bullshit-free common sense. The sort of common sense that just so happens to coincide exactly with the latest Conservative Party policy announcement.

I say things aren’t going to happen. Categorically. End of story.

Sometimes they do. Sometimes they don’t. That gives me a roughly 50% success ratio, which is just about enough to insulate my reputation and guarantee my salary at a newspaper for which pessimism and demagogic mean-spiritedness are strategic imperatives.

So for the last time, oh my Lefty comrades.

Tomorrow ain’t gonna happen.

Not now. Not ever.

Not even tonight.

Deal with it.

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

THE GUARDIAN'S JEREMY CORBYN COVERAGE IN 15 HEADLINES

1. ‘Corbyn is on the ballot for the Labour leadership election: but he’ll never win’
2. ‘Corbyn is doing well in the Labour leadership election: why he definitely still won’t win’
3. ‘Corbyn is doing better than we thought: but voting for him would be childish and wrong’
4. ‘Corbyn has a massive lead in the polls: they must be wrong’
5. Michael White: 'Corbyn would return Labour to the 80s’
6. Martin Kettle: 'Corbyn would return Labour to the 80s’
7. Polly Toynbee: 'Corbyn would return Labour to the 80s’
8. Tony Blair: '[jazz hands]’
9. Peter Mandelson: 'Corbyn would return Labour to the 80s’
10. ‘0.01% of new Labour supporters once voted Green: cancel the leadership contest’
11. ‘Editorial: Please please please don’t vote for Jeremy Corbyn’
12. ‘Editorial: Vote for … Yvette Cooper?’
13. ‘Do you think if we relegate coverage of the leadership election to lower down
the page that will make people forget to vote for Corbyn?’
14. ‘Shit, still not working: so how the hell are we going to cover this political development that seems to, like, mean something to people?’
15. ‘Jeremy Corbyn’s style evolution’

Thursday, 18 June 2015

BARGAIN-BIN NAIRN: MY LONDON TOP 10

I'll be leaving London in a few weeks to return to the Motherland (Newcastle), so thought I'd compile a LONDON TOP 10 based on my nearly four years in the capital.

These are tourist or daytrip recommendations I suppose, with the sort of faint psychogeographical ground bass you might expect from someone of my age, gender and epoch.

I will confess at this point that despite strenuous attempts, I do not now, nor do I think I ever will, love London. My abbreviated epithet (epitaph?) for the city is:

DARWINIAN PUDDLE 

By far the best thing about London is its people: their variety, proximity and vitality. This might be a sentimental cliche, but then I love both cliche and sentiment and try to avow these values at every available opportunity.

Most of the places on this list are neither blockbuster highlights nor hipster curios. Rather, I've tended to go for generally popularly celebrated sites from the recent-ish past (often the mid-twentieth century) which have somehow clung on in spite of the topographical atrophy of the neoliberal period, but which haven't (yet) been invested with Sinclairean gothic glamour. Having said that, St Mary Woolnoth is included.

Anyway, enjoy!



1) CECIL COURT, COVENT GARDEN

A street of bookshops just off Charing Cross Road (a street famous for its bookshops which now has very few good bookshops - the best second-hand store as far as I can make out is now Skoob in Bloomsbury). Personal favourites are the place that sells 60s sheet music and the shop selling framed collections of stamps. Still possible to buy something good here, or at least have fun browsing.



2) THE BARBICAN, BARBICAN

An absolute pearl of aristocratic Brutalism. Okay it was always for the nobs, but this has made it difficult to get rid of while most of everything else has been destroyed. An oasis of rigidly good modernist design in a swamp of capitalist decoupage. 10 out of 10.



3) THE BLUE POSTS, BERWICK STREET

A slightly dilapidated pub in Soho, for those who like that sort of thing (me). It's a good shape, is not overly hyped, doesn't get too full, and sells Snyders Jalapeno Ptretzel Pieces, an ineffably good American snack that goes very well with a Stella or a Kronenbourg 1664 (another thing in favour of this place is the absence of both real ales and craft lagers).



4) ACE CAFE, STONEBRIDGE

A biker's cafe just off the North Circular. Sells cheap hearty food and always has some sort of shindig going on in the carpark. Jon Savage probably loves this place. A living embodiment of Richard Thompson's '1952 Vincent Black Lightning'.



5) CRYSTAL PALACE PARK, CRYSTAL PALACE

The dinosaurs are incredible, and you can see the countryside in the distance. Modernist sports centres alongside Victorian non-ruins. A profoundly haunting and fun day out.



6) AREA AROUND CROMER STREET, KINGS CROSS/BLOOMSBURY

There's a really weird topographical lacuna just south of the British Library bit of Euston Road. Lots of genuinely grimey pubs here, one of which has gaelic football memorabilia on the walls and serves the Worst Meal I've Ever Had in London: a fucking unspeakable ploughmans lunch. They may have shut this place down by now. Difficult to believe these forlorn streets are in Zone 1.



7) ST MARY WOOLNOTH, BANK

A dark and terrifyingly powerful building, with a claustrophobically beautiful interior. Belly of the beast, and certainly nothing Christian about it. Ian Nairn's liver.



8) ALL OF SOHO

The one part of London with any discernible civic atmosphere. A pretty unbeatable place to walk around on a summer's day. Humanity amid the hieratic callousness, though not without its own dark side, of course. I would recommend a trendy eatery but to be honest I think Chipotle is the place here that has given me the most pleasure. Actually, Wrapchic near Golden Square does a pretty amazing curry burrito. Go there.



9) PAOLOZZI MURALS, TOTTENHAM COURT ROAD STATION

What has become of them? Genuinely worried. On a related note, will there be anything left of central London after 2018?



10) HIGH ROAD LEYTON--HOE STREET, LEYTON/WALTHAMSTOW

My best period in London was June through August 2013. I'd finished my PhD and was writing the Oasis book, which I now realise was probably a once in a lifetime gig for a writer in terms of sheer self-indulgent enjoyment. I would walk 30 mins each morning from Leytonstone to Walthamstow tube and thence to British Library, walking through Bakers Arms and the Pakistani stretch of High Road Leyton, past the Romanian enclave on Hoe Street and the place where William Morris was born, ending up at a Walthamstow just beginning to ride the crest of gentrification, but still in this section pretty working-class. It was a bright, hot summer after a long, cold winter. I listened to Definitely Maybe most days, and was grateful to be alive.

Friday, 12 June 2015

NOTE ON POP LYRICS

Tom Ewing is very kind about that Oasis book I wrote last year. But as I let him know on Twitter, the absence of lyrics was a legal rather than a formal innovation—the original ms contained a fair few block quotations and such, which I had to remove when the band’s management denied permission for usage.

I was pretty gutted when the person at Sony came back with a no. However, from a writerly perspective it was fun to come up with paraphrases to insert in lieu of the actual quotations, and I think they actually made for much smoother and more integrated prose.

One of the original ideas for the book was to try to close-read the lyrics as you might poetry. My academic training has been partly in Ricardian practical crit, New Criticism, Leavisism, etc, so in a sense that was just the technical apparatus I had at my disposal. Also, although I’m fully aware that poetry and pop lyrics are qualitatively different beasts, one of the book’s arguments (reflected in its method) is that pop lyrics can be as resonant as literary works, especially when they somehow manage to condense, reflect and even shape popular consciousness—as Oasis lyrics clearly did. It seemed to me that Noel Gallagher had been unfairly singled out for poor lyric writing, in light of the obvious force and timeliness of his best lines, and given that the vast majority of pop lyrics are spontaneous and messy creations, which is anyway part of the point.

So I really think the lyric issue is at the heart of the whole Oasis narrative, and indeed of readings of pop in general. The best pop criticism has to find a way of acknowledging the patent absurdity of using discursive language to analyse emphatically non-discursive, non-readerly linguistic fragments, while also trying to hold on to the fact that these fragments are integral to why songs do or don’t work.

On a side note, it’s actually quite an interesting sub-area, the legal side of quoting pop lyrics. As I understand it, ‘fair use’ of prose in a critical work is relatively relaxed, but use of poetry much more stringent (you can only quote 20 lines in one article, and then non-consecutively, or something like that). And for pop lyrics there’s another turn of the screw—you have to pay huge sums for use of even one or two lines. On the one hand it’s ridiculous that lyrics are worth more than poetry, given the concentrated labour that goes into writing a poem (compared with eg. Kurt Cobain reputedly writing almost the entire lyric sheet for Bleach in the van on the way to the studio). But then I guess this proves the argument about the much greater capaciousness and collective resonance of a good pop phrase—‘verbal graffiti’ is the term I use in the Oasis book.

Thursday, 23 April 2015

ELECTION 2015

At the very least, the 2015 election is an interesting rebuttal to Peter Mair's notion that Western democracy is 'hollowing out'. In fact, after a couple of decades of hollowing, it seems that the British system is starting to grow bulk again.

This is the third time I've been able to vote, and the first election in which anything resembling actual analysis of the parties and candidates has seemed desirable/possible.

As far as I can make out, in my consitutency (Leyton and Wanstead), there are three choices:

1) Greens
2) Spoil me ballot paper
3) Labour

About which I am thinking thusly:

1) The Greens are tempting, but the candidate is a former The Bill actor called Ashley Gunstock. Not necessarily a beyond-the-pale transgression, I know, but it seems to chime with my impression of the party as a whole as bit middle-class and vacuous. The policies are pretty sound, even courageous. But do they have an inkling about the working-class vote in the North, Wales, etc? I'd say probably not, but please feel free to disabuse me.

2) Did this in the council/European elections. Also very tempting, and I don't have any underlying ethical qualms about it. In fact, anyone who tries to tell me ballot-spoiling is apathetic and nihilistic can fuck right off and vote Lib Dem.

3) Which leaves Labour. A few months ago I would have said not in a million years. But then the candidate in my consitutency is a member of the Socialist Campaign Group and Left Platform, and now there is this prospect of a Labour-SNP alliance, perhaps with the Campaign Group MPs holding some sort of balance of power ... Increasingly, this is looking like it might not be such a terrible option.

But can one really vote for a party that will put Ed Balls in charge of fiscal policy?

Why aren't the SNP standing in England?

What's a brother to do?

See, it's exciting.

Thursday, 17 July 2014

OASIS BOOK REVIEW ROUND-UP

Well well well, treatments of the Oasis book are now coming in thick and fast ...

First up, David Stubbs wrote an excellent long-form review essay in Review 31 under the lyrically apposite title: On the Crest of a Wave. It's a great piece of prose in its own right, and contains the seeds of a longer argument DStubbs is developing all about (I think) 1996 as the pivotal year in recent cultural history.

Nextly, under another great title (Are Oasis Socialists?) VICE's Noisey blog published an interview I did with Josh Hall (also, incidentally, another top-notch writer - see for example here). The VICE copy-editing leaves much to be desired, but once you've waded through the typos there's some very valuable stuff in there, particularly about the Left and heritage.

There's that psychogeographical tour of Manchester thing on the Bloomsbury blog I mentioned in the last post.

Most bizarrely of all, perhaps, I managed to get Oasis into this week's TLS. Yes, that's right, the Times Literary Supplement has actually gone and fucking reviewed my book about Definitely Maybe. The piece is relatively short and isn't available online if you're not a subscriber. What's more, it was written by Joe Charlton, one of the two or three people from my Northumberland comprehensive school with any shred of influence in the contemporary British culture-sphere. But still. The fucking TLS. What would Liam Gallagher make of that, I wonder?

Finally, and most importantly, my intellectual soulmate Rhian E. Jones has written a cracking essay over at Velvet Coalmine, which glances at the Oasis book, but is really just a spot-on summary of everything that matters most in the world right now. Praise her, with great praise.

Oh - and Rhian and I were both interviewed by Dorian Lynksey for a piece about Britpop in this month's Q. Paolo Nutini is on the cover, which is, I suppose, pretty shit. But still, the piece itself is good, and at least this time around I haven't incurred the Twitter wrath of an entire region with a couple of quotations from a phone interview I barely remember.


There may yet be more to come ...

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

DEFINITELY DEFINITELY DEFINITELY OUT NOW

Well friends the Oasis book has finally emerged from the primordial swamp and is now available from at least some good bookshops in the UK and the rest of the world.

The launch is this Wednesday, 16 July, at 7.30 at the Peckham Pelican, Peckham. I'll read a short extract from the introduction to the book, and the inimitable David Stubbs will play some 1994 tunes. Everyone is welcome and there's no ticketing.

Extracts from the book have been published at ...

Stereogum

Flavorwire

+ The Quietus

Bloomsbury's 33 1/3 blog is also publishing some associated features this week as part of "Oasis Week".

First up: my short autobiographical take on the album. I barred first person from the text proper for various stylistic and political reasons, but thought it might be nice to do a brief sketch all about ALEX NIVEN for the sake of scene-setting, empathy, identification, all that shite. Later this week there will be a Video Vault feature nodding at the album's influences and a psychogeographical tour of Manchester featuring Maine Road, Mr Sifter, and Adolphe Valette.

More to follow on reviews, talks &c.

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

NOTES ON THE GUARDIAN NORTH-EAST/DETROIT ARTICLE

Perhaps because the football season ended so anti-climactically this weekend, the north-east of England has since taken a diversion into socio-cultural terrain to enact a now familiar ritual of tragedy-as-farce played out in the national press. (See also the social media accounts of pretty much everyone from the region over the past couple of days.)

Seeing as I was one of the interviewees for the piece by Andy Beckett that started the whole fuss on Saturday, here's some of my thoughts about both the article and the response to it ...

Firstly, some notes about the format of the piece. My contribution was to be interviewed by Andy over the phone some six or seven months ago. The conversation lasted about an hour, and although a part of me was initially sceptical about the fact of the article being written by someone from [evil voice] The South, I was impressed by Andy's intelligence, inquisitiveness, and above all, his sympathy - arising, I think, out of his own socialist beliefs and certain of his life experiences - in highlighting the profound social and economic difficulties the north-east has faced in recent years, difficulties that have often been occluded and even ridiculed in the mainstream media. Inevitably, in the final version of the article, my comments had been whittled down to two or three short quotations (which are, by the way, kind of embarrassingly ungrammatical - proof of their spontaneous, extemporised origins I think).

I fully expected this to happen and nothing in the piece misrepresented my feelings in any way. At the same time, of course there was a hell of a lot of stuff that I mentioned in that 1-hour phone conversation that didn't make it into the final cut.

On the one hand, I'm tempted to to follow incumbent politician Chi Onwurah's lead by claiming that the choice of quotations and the overall thrust of the article was selective, that there was a lot of more positive stuff mentioned in the interview with Andy that wasn't used in the published version. I could go on about how I think the north-east is the greatest place on earth (I do), talk about how desperate I am to get back there (4 unsuccessful job applications this year and another pending), reel off soundbites for the sake of balance about the growth of tech start-ups in the region, moderate increases in house prices, the fact that Newcastle's nightlife is still thriving, the continued outstanding creative achievements of the area's sons and daughters, how wonderful the landscape is, and so on and so forth.

All this stuff is true, but to be honest, I'm not writing a tourist industry brochure or massaging PR for the Nissan car factory. Besides, as the ever trenchant Ross Lewis pointed out on Twitter: "You can love the best of a place and also be ashamed of it and try and change the worst aspects".

I don't want to speak for Andy Beckett, but I should imagine there are a couple of reasons why his article was not entitled "The North-East of England: Some Pros and Cons" or "A Rounded Portrait of a Part of the Country That is Essentially Quite Similar to Everywhere Else".

The first, obviously, is that no editor would have published it and no reader would have bothered to read it through to the end. Outside the world of corporate hospitality literature and marketing hyperbole, articles about a particular subject will of necessity take a specific line of argumentation, and the Guardian piece was in my opinion an entirely fair-minded exploration of the (factually indisputable) notion that the north-east has suffered in recent years from socio-economic decline. If this premise was subsequently simplified on a superficial level by headlines, choice of images, pull-quotes, the Detroit parallel, etc, then that's the nature of journalism, and it's surely not all that difficult to see beyond this paraphernalia in order to see the nuances of the discussion contained in the actual text. Accusations of a "hatchet job" are laughable, and should be rejected out of hand by anybody with any sense.

The second reason I think for the critical angle taken in the piece is that criticism of the way recent political history has unfolded to the detriment of certain parts of the country are much-needed. If I knew the Detroit analogy would be used in the quite the way it was, I might have been more wary of deploying it in conversation with Andy. But then again, I think the parallel is pretty apt (though of course only partially so), because Detroit is the archetypal example of a post-industrial city/region that has suffered very badly over the last three decades - in a broadly similar way to the NE - from the neoliberal double whammy of deindustrialisation and massively reduced social spending.

I think that anyone who cares about the north-east is likely to feel a sense of anger about the fact that it has, inarguably, suffered in certain concrete statistical ways in the post-Thatcher period. Nitpicking about the finer points of the Detroit analogy seems to me pretty foolhardy in light of the essential connection between working-class Western cities that have been continually passed over in the race to liberate the market and bolster the wealth of the super-rich in the last three decades. (Moreover, looked at another way, as someone pointed out on Facebook, isn't being compared to Detroit - cradle of Motown, Eminem, MC5, and Iggy Pop - quite a bit better than being compared to Croydon?)

I have sympathy with some of the defensive reactions to the Guardian piece. Perhaps there's always something slightly questionable about being told by an outsider that the place you live in might have problems, and it's a natural human reaction to respond to such claims with proclamations of local pride and useful additions to the discussion that try to provide examples of north-eastern resilience and ingenuity in the face of social and economic marginalisation.

But I think a better way to react to the article than trumpeting local success stories and worrying hysterically about how negative PR might deter capitalist investment (which I'm going to go out on a limb here by suggesting might not necessarily be a plausible or even a worthwhile solution to the problems faced by the vast majority of north-easterners), is to use the example of the way the region has been shafted by the London-based institutions of the English Establishment over the last few years as fuel for political anger and constructive determination to change things. The former ultimately plays into the hands of the Tories, while the latter offers the hope of something much more valuable.

There are way more than 100 reasons why it's great up north, but right now offering a coherent, organised alternative to the south-east and its capitalist mega-city is not one of them.

It could be.