Saturday, January 27, 2024

Don't lean on me man

Scribbled notes on a scrap of lined paper sold for £89,000 the other day. They were the draft lyrics for Rock n Roll Suicide and Suffragette City – complete with the added revisions ‘Hey man!’, ‘Don’t lean on me man’ and ‘Outasight’. The everyday nature of the materials and the rather unremarkable addition of those words might seem trivial or even banal if it were not for the huge impact of Bowie’s songs on popular culture. That scrap of paper, those hastily scribbled jottings are like visible traces of a creative process in vivo. Those songs echoed around bedrooms and shared houses, bedsits and squats, family homes and student flats. They were sung along to, played, replayed and performed time and again, spooling outwards, as it were, from those hastily scribbled lines. Of course, it wasn’t just the lyrics, it was the voice and the music too, the distinctive sound of that particular recording, distributed on vinyl, in its instantly recognisable cardboard sleeve. And it goes without saying, the RCA supply chain ensured that copies were there, ready and available in the racks and trays of LPs that like-minded people habitually flicked through when they went to their favourite record store, back in the day. Matter of little significance has, over time, become a much sought after collector’s item - the value of that scrap of paper far outstrips the value of the raw materials it’s made from, and the ways in which the words themselves wound their way around the feelings and impulses as well as the hopes, beliefs and dreams of a generation of listeners is difficult to capture because of its inevitable multiplicity. It may well have been the soundtrack of many people’s early lives - but then what lives? How did the lyrics come to mean in different contexts, how were they understood - how were they heard, misheard, disliked, detested? Material history can be a bit like that, for although we might agree on the importance of a particular artefact, its meaning is fundamentally unstable inviting interpretation, re-interpretation and misinterpretation. Music in popular culture seems to inhabit the outer reaches of such instability because of the way in which it is often woven into significant personal events, stitched in to one’s particular state of mind, the recreational drugs, relationships, lifestyles and ambitions of the time. Perhaps music in general does this, seamlessly attaching itself to the memories and affects, the distinctiveness of a life. After all this is key to the success of Desert Island Discs, now 81 years old. The 8 track format is such a convenient hook to tell the story of one’s life - or at least a version of it. With an aspiration to be a writer, poet or wordsmith and a nascent literary sensibility I was drawn to the words that punctuated the soundtrack of my early life. That soundtrack was made of vinyl. Singles and EPs that span around at 45 rpm, LPs at 33.3 rpm. Mostly I first heard stuff on pirate stations, on a transistor radio, on Top of the Pops or round at friends’ houses. But the LP soon became something to own. The record sleeve had the all-important supplementary information. The aesthetic of the art work, the names of the musicians, the way they looked, the way they dressed and how they had their hair - the instruments they played, who sang, who wrote the songs and of course, the lyrics themselves. No longer inaudible or misheard, there they were, nearly always on the back of the sleeve or on a pull-out, and you could read them, sing along or just pour over their meaning, if you could fathom it out. Some were more self-consciously poetic than others, some were just rubbish, but nonetheless huge clouds of creativity billowed out of that early flowering of rock music. It seemed at the time that the lyrics carried valuable messages. If they were not poetic they might gesture towards expressions of lifestyle, of taste, of belief and in doing so fashioned the habits of mind of a generation. Whimsical and romantic, uncompromising and rebellious, conceptual, quirky, hedonistic, we were served up with a range of possibilities, a wardrobe of identities that might distinguish us from the mainstream. Only a few at the time saw how the subtle threads of capitalism were part of this, establishing a marketplace in which even the costumes of anti-capitalism could be bought. And now, just the words remain – like a dog without a bone, an actor out on loan (it’s all there somewhere, even if the melody is hard to sing!). Skeletons, threadbare outfits. At an earlier auction the lyrics for Bowie’s Starman sold for £203,500. Unlike Suffragette City, these look like neat copy – presentable handwriting on graph paper with misspellings corrected, probably provided for publication of the official lyric sheet. They don’t have quite the same feel as the Rock n Roll Suicide and Suffragette City lyrics – they’re more polished, more self-conscious, but their market worth is still interesting, and given that an early demo of the song went for £41,000, a fifth of the price, it seems like the material trace of writing is an important marker for the collector, being closer perhaps to an autograph than a ghostlike voice, written by the hand of an icon, don’t lean on me man.

Sunday, December 10, 2023

Killers

 

Perhaps Martin Scorsese is playing with conventions, but 3 hrs 26 mins sounds like a very long movie. Killers of the Flower Moon is that long but I can honestly say that it didn't drag, the evening just had to be rearranged to accommodate it, and that's no bad thing. The murders, the casual racism and the downright evil intent of William Hale are dramatisations of real-life events that took place in the 1920s and were explored in David Grann's book of the same name Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI. The film script is based on the book. But although we get a bit about the FBI, the film concentrates on the strongly drawn characters and the atrocities that they unleash. Leonardo diCaprio, as Ernest Burkhart, is excellent at playing a character who is weak, confused and easily manipulated by William Hale (Robert deNiro) whose charitable mask hides a seething caldron of malice.  Most sources categorise the film as a Western and there's plenty to be said about that - how the genre has evolved and what it means now. I don't find it a particularly useful box to put this film in, but through a series of co-incidences, work on the mostly grim encounters between white settlers and Native Americans has been on my mind a lot recently. Delving into the work of Sebastian Barry had taken me into the brutal world of the Indian Wars - a bloody chapter in American history, which Barry handles so well. In Days without End he manages to weave in delicate intimacy, love and yes, even gender fluidity, with the trauma of human atrocity without lessening the impact or significance of either. I didn't need Faber to include the first chapter of A Thousand Moons in that book, but I went on to read it anyway. Equally brilliant writing. So although reading the two, one after another, was no co-incidence at all, I didn't think of either in terms of a Western - and good for Faber, they don't go down that route, either. Then, in a second-hand bookshop, I picked up West by Carys Davies. If anything was at work it was subliminal. I just wanted something fairly short, something with a lively narrative and a quick flick through suggested that's what I'd get. What a great first novel it is too. It's short, there's a strong storyline and some pitch-perfect writing. Always fascinated by writing about writing I thought she has a particularly deft touch in looking at that particular settler practice from a different perspective. One of her central characters has a Native American companion who dispassionately observes the act of writing 'the dip of the point of one of his half-bald feathers into the ink, the sound that was like the working of the claws of a small creature on a leaf or the smooth bark of a tree.' Wonderful! With a title like 'West' it's easy to think of it as a Western, but it's so much more than that. And again it exposes colonialism and the bloody violence of the settlers, the land grab, the fight for domination, the inhumanity of those who think of themselves as civilised or somehow superior. And then we watch the news.

Thursday, October 05, 2023

Why writing still matters, too

 

For the cover of Why Writing Still Matters I wanted an image that conveyed some of the messages that are to be found in the book - and that's quite a big ask. This image of Tom Price's wonderful piece called Network, which is in the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, was an obvious candidate. It might make you think of writing as it is becoming - writing with technology, which is consistent with the book's subtitle, 'Written Communication in Changing Times'. The fact that I'm in the picture as well is a bit of an in-joke. But in the end we went for the more abstract image which is credited to Nick Oakes but doesn't actually get any commentary. It's a photograph of initials and names carved into a tree trunk near the Alhambra in Spain. I like it because it references an everyday, but unofficial use of writing - using your name as if to say 'I was here, too' - here for as long as this writing surface remains. It will outlast the act of inscription, but anything further is uncertain. It is the trace of an action - a penknife gouging out the crusty bark of a tree. Someone leaves their mark, announces their existence, expresses their frustration, pledges their love or whatever. I like it because it can be read in different ways, and because it might provoke all sorts of different reactions. The specific detail of its origin and author(s) are unknown. The fact that it has been coloured with the primary colours that Miro was so fond of adds another dimension for me. That and the place in which the photograph was taken - I have fond memories of visiting the Alhambra. Visiting and queuing. Once we waited for 6 hours! It can be like that at the height of the tourist season. But, it's always worth it. The Alhambra and the Generalife are a potent reminder of Moorish rule in Europe and an important part of Spain's architectural heritage. A jewel in the crown of Andalusia. Of course, none of this is in the photograph, but it's what I bring to the photograph. And somehow when you put all that together you get more of a sense of what writing is, what writing does and then maybe, perhaps, why writing still matters.

Sunday, October 01, 2023

Paper matters, too


In Why Writing Still Matters I spend some time tracing the invention and development of paper as a writing technology, but not with the detail and enthusiasm that Basbanes applies in On Paper. But I do note that after the French Revolution writing paper began to appear bearing the names of new government offices and departments. Sometimes this was lavishly produced from engravings of the motif Liberty, Egality and Fraternity. Pictorial writing paper subsequently began to make its appearance on the correspondence of traders and shopkeepers, signalling a sort of sophistication or professionalism. By the early 1800s good quality writing paper was beginning to become available in England. Headed paper with embossed and ornamental designs was often printed with decorative or coloured borders. Some of this high quality paper was watermarked and used for invitations, greetings and to promote social events. Although the written messages inscribed on them were important, the quality and decoration on the paper carried an additional message - distinctive, expensive, tasteful, carefully chosen. Paper and printing were important to the prolific French novelist Balzac. This is partly because of his professional background as a printer, and partly because he was a keen observer of the practices of the Parisian literary world of his time and the gradual diffusion of literacy which was shaping the social and political life of the time. His concerns add texture to Lost Illusions, even when they stretch the bounds of credulity. When David, the printer's son proposes to his sweetheart he accompanies this with a lengthy discourse on his new ideas about paper making. 'Paper, which is no less wonderful a product than printing, of which it is a basis, had long been in existence in China when it penetrated through the underground channels of Asia Minor' he declaims. And this is just the beginning! This proposal speech spans five pages. What it offers us in terms of a detailed history of papermaking far outweighs its potential in the arena of courtship.

Sunday, September 10, 2023

Why Writing Still Matters

My new book Why Writing Still Matters was published by Cambridge University Press last week. I haven't actually seen a copy yet - distribution being something slightly different from printing and publication, but I'm fairly certain it exists in that particular material form. And that's actually a significant transformation because up until this point in time it has been entirely digital. From proposal through to draft and final chapters it has been a thing on a computer screen. During this time the 10 months worth of writing has found its way up and down the country, across to New York and then out to Puducherry (formerly known as Pondicherry) for proofing. I mention all this because it's directly related to a major theme in the book. I wanted to explore, to think about and perhaps rethink writing in the context of digital communication. Does writing still matter? Of course, it will come as no surprise that I do think that it still matters - but of course, how, why and in what ways is central to the book. I don't make much of the double meaning of 'mattering'. With the rise of new materialism that's become rather old hat, but nevertheless my book does dwell on the materiality of print and digital technology. And still I find myself keen - perhaps too keen - to actually hold the thing. It has had an ephemeral existence for too long. I want to feel its substantial form, its heft. I want to see it occupying some space on my desk, my windowsill, the kitchen table. I want to take it with me in the car and watch others browse through it. And I want to give a copy to some of those who have contributed to its development. It's almost as if its 'thingness', its existence as a work only becomes complete when it achieves a certain material form. Why should that be the case? A common sense way of thinking about this is to recall that I did actually set out to write a book. I wasn't thinking of an extended blogpost, a free-to-use extended pdf essay, a beer mat or anything else. I was imagining a book all along. I shouldn't be so surprised. An observation, that can be found in the book, is that we live in a sort of halfway house, in which pen and paper happily co-exist with keyboards and screens. Our local high street probably still has a stationer's that stocks pencils, pencil sharpeners, pencil cases and all the other peripheral devices associated with what is sometimes referred to as traditional literacy. We might need to Google 'stationers near me' to find it, but that's my point. Back to the book - Why Writing Still Matters ends up being something like a cultural history of writing. My rather unsystematic tracing of writing through its long history is a way of illustrating many of the amazing and inventive uses - and staggeringly tragic misuses - of the written word. Its reach and its influence. Writing itself is value-neutral and like any technology, it is malleable. But it has become an established part of how we develop perspective, how we legislate, how we govern and build knowledge. It's part of how we unite around a common cause. It's part of informed debate. Of course, it's a whole host other things too - and not all of them are so positive. But perhaps an education in and through writing is the best we can have. I hope I have contributed to that understanding - but all that aside, I have another hope, too. I hope those who get to the book will enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.

Saturday, August 26, 2023

Thinking about Yoko Ogawa

I read The Memory Police about a year ago and I thought it was so good that I should post something about it. I put the book down on the deep windowsill in my study which functions a bit like an in-tray. That's where I put things I'm working on, or things I need to attend to - work, parking fines, speeding tickets, tax notices and so on. For a while, each morning, I'd look at it and think about what I might write, but I couldn't come up with anything. Gradually things began to accumulate around it, and there were more pressing things to do, like my own writing for instance. Soon it was hidden underneath other stuff, well after the fines were paid and the tax notices filed away. But now there were papers to review, drafts to look over - maybe a new parking fine to pay or to appeal against, life goes on. It would be a fiction to I claim that I forgot about The Memory Police. It just got buried. It got buried because I couldn't work out what I wanted to say about it. Occasionally it would come to light again as I sorted through the mess of things on the windowsill. And if I tidied up, as I do occasionally, there it was - something I wanted to do, and I'd promise myself that I'd write something about it. But I didn't. After some time, maybe six months or so, I realised that I wasn't going to get round to it and that it would be better just to forget it altogether. It got shelved, somewhere or other. I gave up. The title stayed with me though, and from time to time I would mention the book to someone or just conjure up the strange atmosphere that it created for me. And then last week, when I found myself in a bookshop looking for something to read, I remembered it, but I couldn't think of the name of the Japanese author who wrote it. I felt a bit under pressure because I wasn't sure whether I'd parked my car illegally, but I googled the title anyway and there it was - The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa. The bookshop had a couple of shelves that featured Japanese writers, and that's what had prompted my memory. I quickly turned up three titles by Ogawa and chose The Housekeeper and the Professor. I'm about half way through it at the moment and it confirms my view that Ogawa is a brilliant writer. It seems good to post about it now and I certainly don't want it to sit on the windowsill like The Memory Police did. It's written in the same spare prose style, conjuring up this rather strange world, not unlike our own but different, of course, unusual perhaps. 'Haunting', I think it says on the dust jacket. But what does that actually mean? I have no idea, nevertheless it is - haunting, unusual, atmospheric. The reader is drawn into this very particular sort of world, detailed but impressionistic - both at the same time. If I said it was a bit like ink wash, I hope it doesn't sound as if I'm looking at it through the eyes of a romantic orientalist. It's like ink wash because it's beautiful, delicate and at the same time slightly out of focus. Blurred. There's craft and precision; every word contributes to the whole. In this sense, I'm reminded of Small Things Like These, in fact everything by Claire Keegan, although the result couldn't be more different. And just like The Memory Police, The Housekeeper and the Professor is about remembering and forgetting although so far, at least, there isn't the same feeling of oppression, the same political undertow that haunts the pages of The Memory Police. Even though I haven't finished reading it yet, it's a real achievement, and it probably won't ever sit on the deep windowsill underneath the random stuff that accumulates there.

Wednesday, July 12, 2023

The desk


When my mother died, I couldn't work out what to do with the desk she had. It was rather like the one here, and it had been part of the family home as we grew up. About five foot in height, the hinged front pulled down for a writing surface revealing a series of small cubby holes that could be used to store things like envelopes, tape, pencil sharpeners and so on. I say five foot in height, but I can still remember it towering over me, not being able to reach the flat surface of the desk top, and having to be warned not to bang my head on it. I've kept hold of it all these years, although if anything it's a bit low to work at as a stand up desk. It's become clear to me that this one is a rather cheap affair - my mother referred to it as 'post-war utility furniture' - and I know that's probably true because a friend of mine's got a posher version. Better cubbyholes and drawers and even a couple of pop-out lopers that support the work surface from underneath. My parents could never quite agree on what to call it. It was one of a number of things that seemed to index their different backgrounds. My dad just called it the desk and was even known to deride my mother for calling it a bureau. For her it was a bureau, and for me because I'm interested in writing and all its appurtenances it's come to be known as the 'secretaire' which could be thought of as it's official classification in the world of furniture - 'secretaire' or 'secretary desk', although I note, in passing that in The Luminaries Eleanor Catton simply refers to is as a 'secretary' (and she can do no wrong in my opinion). And there's an alternative, too, that I rather like - the escritoire. Somehow that seems to be far too sophisticated a word to describe my dad's desk, but doesn't that just show the way we value a little bit of French? Secretaire is good because of its connection with the word secretary - originally someone who was privy to private and confidential matters (including correspondence), but escritoire appealing because of its etymological connection with scribing, with writing, with mark-making. I suppose there's a book to be done on writing furniture - desks, tables, study rests, lecterns and not to mention all those rather ugly computer tables. I'd like to read something that really grapples with the peripheral material paraphernalia of writing. Maybe not just furniture, why not venture into stationery as well? Its inventive, technological and - well, material.