Monday, 28 March 2011

Irrepressible creativity on the London Scene

Walk right out, sit right down

Readers may be aware of stirrings around the Writers Forum Workshop series in London. This series offers a room where people without any literary reputation can read their poems aloud to an audience which is there to hear new poetry. Discussion is banned in the sessions, but as they normally take place in a pub there is plenty of opportunity for people to hear reactions, and to discuss points of art, in the outfield. One of the two organisers resigned in July 2010, upsetting the fan base. Then in September 2010 twelve people sent a letter to the other organiser announcing that they were setting up a new series of open events, as they found him hard to work with. (The letter is currently available on the web here The dissident group set up forum/ reading events under the rubric of ‘Writers Forum Workshops (new series)’. The new series would not have Lawrence Upton as its director/ administrator. The letter was signed by Sean Bonney, Wayne Clements, Johan De Wit, Steve Fowler, Antony John Francis, James Harvey, Jeff Hilson, Matt Martin, Stephen Mooney, Nat Raha, Linus Slug, Jamie Sutcliffe. While the sessions were always full of people with no understanding of poetry, the persistence of the avant-garde members meant that some share of the sessions was taken up by modern-style poetry, obviously varying from year to year.
(The rest of the world uses 'workshop' in a different sense.)

There is also a Writers Forum publishing house. While the sessions have always been completely open, and dominated by students and out-patients, the pamphlet series reflected Bob ‘the Gob’ Cobbing’s view of the universe. (Policy since Cobbing’s demise in 2002 then has inclined to follow his line.) The anthology of the first 500 titles was a memorably dreadful book, full of spattering and whitterings. Of the 1500 titles now published, it is fair to say that, if you read all of them, you would die. However, of the ones I have read, there is a deposit of pure gold at the bottom of the slagberg. The production values were miles below standard (this has changed since 2002), but there are important titles by Colin Simms, Sean Bonney, David Sellars, and Adrian Clarke, for example.

It is fair to say that the indifference of WF to the arts of publishing contributed to the obscurity in which the ‘London School’ languishes when it comes to being read by people who don’t go to Writers Forum. (‘School’ doesn’t mean they all swim head to toe.) We recall that truly important work has been produced by Maggie O’Sullivan, Ulli Freer, Adrian Clarke, Harry Gilonis, Gavin Selerie, Robert Hampson, and Allen Fisher, for example. I think we have to mention Veer Books as being the most satisfactory series of books collecting classics of the London scene going back to the 1970s as well as the new work, which is at a historic peak right now.

I think keeping the WF name is a mistake and unjustifiable. The basis on which this is wrong is unfortunately bourgeois - it relies on a notion of property, and then of inheritance, which is rather distasteful in an artistic context. If Cobbing owned the name, and passed it on to two people, and Lawrence Upton is the only surviving office-holder (after Adrian Clarke’s resignation), then the name does belong to Upton. Since the assets of an open reading session are, simply, the powers of the listeners to transform the poem for the poet whom they are listening to, the name on the flier is hardly of great importance.

We do not have any photographs of Lawrence behaving badly. However, there is a long history of people feeling that he is officious, long-winded, authoritarian, dogmatic in condemnation and loyalty, uninterested by most aspects of poetry, is stuck in his ways, has a mausoleum view of the avant garde based on genealogy and obsequy, etc. He has been described as ‘the Berlin Wall of the London poetry scene’. All of this coagulates like treacle but does not solidify into fact. But the split in this writers’ group is exclusively about Upton’s personality, not about literary differences. The workshop could sustain those, its members do not have to agree with each other about what the next poem should look like. Also there was no big bad thing that anyone has been able to name - just a persistent irritation. In fact, it is not too much to say that if Lawrence promised not to undertake any more monologues, in particular ones about loyalty, the rules of art, and his holidays in Cornwall and Serbia, he would be forgiven.

The twelve names include an impressive array of talent, many of them have been significant in AE’s past and no doubt will be in its future.

Any account of Upton’s history as someone dogmatic who annoys people has to go on for long enough to admit that WF was thriving under a duo which included him, and that there were at least enough people swarming around the WF scene to form a secession and stalk out.

My feeling is that the key events in the poetic realm are irretrievable, the evidence too fleeting to be recoverable. It would be hard to construct an account which all parties would agree to. Most probably the process had to do with dynamics of personal exchange which are too subtle to be caught.

Going back almost 20 years, the planning process for Angel Exhaust (not yet called that) involved meetings between Adrian Clarke, Andrew Duncan, Johan de Wit, and Robert Sheppard, which were chaired by Lawrence Upton as he was felt to be someone who could keep control of the time factor in the discussion. (I think Gilbert Adair dropped out before the meetings started.) The objective was to find a literary programme which a magazine could implement, and the starting point was to create an outlet for the London School. The challenge of writing policy texts which the other editors could agree to was extreme. Lawrence was a good chair and I am grateful to him for facilitating this process.

I think the trouble with Lawrence is that he doesn’t want to react. He has taken on systems of values, to do with Marxism and art, and sees all questions as being solved by them. In a way, this is selfless. He does not own the opinions, he is merely the servant of the person who owns them. But if you disagree he accuses you of disloyalty. The ideas Lawrence serves are condensed and immobile, like a house. They are deeply unlike ideas, but they are like property. Lawrence has an abiding feeling that everyone else is a deviationist, but what we are supposed to be loyal to is lost in the fogs of time. It is something like ‘all art has to be non-discursive, free-form, yibble-scribble’.

This conflict may give glimpses of process. Metaphors, for example - one thinks of the title of a 2011 conference on ‘legacies of modernism’. What does this mean? it starts with something big dying, we all stand around the cadaver and try to grab bits of it? Like a turkey or something? If you go for this lethality (someone has to die before you inherit the asset), it is a story like ‘The Midsomer Modernist Murders’. I don’t accept that what is happening in 2011 is a continuation of something that was happening in 1920. This is too much like trying to prove ownership of a house (”root of title” I think you say).

The unstated word is ‘ownership’. Lawrence owns WF but doesn’t want to use that term. Cobbing owned it & Lawrence inherits. And suddenly taking direction of the London School is a breach of Lawrence’s property rights. And we are being directed by the dead. I don’t think that legitimacy is something which comes from the dead and which is posted to us through a letter-box shaped like Cobbing or Upton. The funerary urn as message box. You press a tap and out comes a handful of dirty ashes in the form of acknowledgement from Kruchonykh, Hugo Ball, or Pound. Thanks a bunch. This preoccupation with legacy and inheritance has an unfortunate alliance with the belief that all talk of creativity, talent, personal choice, is bourgeois subjectivity. Both lead to a rigidity in the decision process. People writing poems following inherited rules, observing regulations, being like an official in the Ministry of the Avant Garde. Then, in the end, an authoritarian interpersonal style.

The theory is that anything freeform like ‘sound poetry’ or ‘visual poetry’ is subjective. But the subjectivity embedded in it can become vestigial, ritual, ineffective. Dogma too is subjectivity in cadaverous form.

I think it is actually a form of weakness to want to "acquire" the 50 years of history of Writers Forum. Surely the poets at the new series have autonomy & sovereignty and don’t need a legacy title? Surely the signatories to the letter to Lawrence are talented enough to float their own ship? And surely the London Scene is happening more than ever right now, and 2011 is not thirty years too late?

The key factor on the London 'underground' scene has been the strong interpersonal bonds which override artistic differences. Occasional rifts have little effect on a geology of mutual affection.

Sunday, 20 March 2011

Edenkoben Blog, Andrew Duncan

Edenkoben Blog

I can’t do diary entries about the book I am trying to write because it is all too intense. But I get fifteen minutes off from time to time and i can write about that.

The first week here was lost due to migraine. I was unable to work. It was just due to moving countries i think. I like staying in one place, I find it very hard to convince myself that i actually want to go somewhere else. So at a rational level i am glad to be here, at an unconscious level I am in panic and disorientation. Or maybe it’s anxiety about writing the book.

I got a DVD-box with 50 films from the ‘Scotland Yard’ series (1955-9 I think) and was very happy watching those in England. Part of the project here is a scheme for investigating German Pulp. I was aware that in Germany 30 edgar Wallace ‘Krimi’ adaptations were filmed in quite a short period after 1955 (possibly 50). I was curious about “bad German films” and by extension “bad taste in Germany”. Also, in the problem of entertainment in central Europe: the entertainment sector seems to have been colonised by American and British products. This applies especially to the old communist bloc: there was this terrible earnestness, everyone was supposed to learn classical piano, go to ballet classes,and read Pushkin, there was no communist entertainment sector. (Which isn’t quite true, as we shall see.) I got hold of a couple of the Edgar Wallace films on DVD: they aren’t bad and they don’t take themselves at all seriously. (It comes out like ‘valise’ in German.)

This doesn’t quite mean that I am trying to write a science-fiction novel in the style of 1950s B-movies. Not quite, anyway.

(March 15) We went to Wissembourg. This is in Alsace and just on the French side of the border. Alsace was annexed by France in 1648 and although it was german-speaking at that point a slow process of francisation has taken place.
I was enthusiastic about the Alsatians not being nationalists: they always wanted to be part of France even while remaining protestant and keeping their language. It shows that you don’t have to base everything on ethnic identity. I couldn’t get agreement on this. There were election posters up and some were for for a local Alsatian party: “’s Elsass unser land”. But the slogans on the poster were about bilingualism in administration and autonomy. No mention of separatism - they want to be part of France, and there have been Alsatian parties for many years who wanted to be part of France but wanted a better deal for the language.

Wissembourg has a bilingual market - some stallholders speak French and some german. The design of houses is what attracts attention. The houses look very much like houses in the Palatinate, although not identical. In the central square there are some that look more French - dormer windows, metal window-frames, curved iron ferronnerie on the balconies. But the date of the buildings was during the period when Alsace was part of Germany (2nd Reich) after 1871. We couldn’t work this out. Maybe the buildings were put up deliberately to show that the people regarded themselves as French.

It seems to be completely vines here, but in fact there are some asparagus fields if you go a few miles on, and there are some trees for almonds and figs. A notice said that people are trying to develop a Pfalzisch (Palatinate) cuisine based on figs, or at least using figs. Red Pfalzisch wine features a lot, I was surprised, I am told that it has been developed a lot in the last ten years. I drink it because it doesn’t exist in England, it’s not the best red but it is distinctive. The white is much better but then everyone knows about that.

I have a whole apartment in an old house on the edge of town. The apartment has a Kachelofen (tile stove), not in use. I can’t work out all its working parts. I think you put coal in at a stove somewhere and then pipes carry the heat to other parts of the building. I read in a book I got here that the early version had earthenware pots (‘thin unglazed pots’) because they worked out that they retained heat very well (like bricks in a storage heater) and the mutation into Kachelofen with the earthenware tiles came much later. The ones here are glazed in green and grey and look very handsome. The house was bought by the region (Palatinate) when it was ‘marod’ and done up. ‘Marod’ means ‘bashed about a bit’ or ‘derelict’. It’s what they say about a government that is about to collapse or an insolvent firm. But the earliest meaning is ‘soldier unable to march’, and hence ‘marauder’.

Email from John Kozak: “May have mentioned this, but did you ever meet my colleague Nick Bretherton, whose father was on Bomber Harris’s staff? “Bomber” was a bowdlerised sobriquet, he being known as “Butcher” to the chaps. Harris’s team built test blocks of flats and designed their incendiaries to ignite soft furnishings; aimed for working class areas to maximise the kill count, avoiding the middle-class, Hitler-supporting, districts. Max Hastings used to play the Decent Tory on the Graun’s comment page and occasionally the LRB, but is very much the Voice of Foam in the Mail: a photographer chum who worked for him at the Telegraph shudders at his memory, explains why Pte Eye call him “Hitler”.”
I read two books about the bombing campaign before coming here. It looks pretty much as if it was all ethically flawed and inhuman, illegal, and based on a complete miscalculation in military terms. I read Max Hastings on 'Bomber Command' because he is so enthusiastic about Deeds of Valour and so when he says it was all a horrible mistake you have to agree. 600,000 dead civilians. I read Martin Middlebrook’s book about the Hamburg raids (three nights, one book) and he points out that the industry was south of the harbour, and included wharves building submarines, and north of the harbour it was all residential. But Harris only planned to bomb the north, the south wasn’t even in the target zone. When I read that sentence I was just appalled. No migraine, I just went pale.
I had to get into this a bit because WG Sebald had written a book about it and I knew it would come up at some point. I don’t think it’s legal to bomb civilians. The ‘rules of war’ say you can bombard cities under siege, but that implies that you have infantry dug in around the city.
Hastings remarks that none of the English war films shows the bombing of civilians as heroic/ desirable/ intended. He cites 100 war films between 1945 and 1960, blimey, it seems like 500. ‘Cocoa, sir?’ But I think this gives us a verdict; the British people were supposed to be the force behind all this and they found it so unattractive they didn’t want to see it. There seems to be this pervasive, central lie: Harris knew he was bombing to kill civilians in maximum numbers but the paperwork never conceded that. This is where we start to think of a war crime: why cover it up if it was legal and a ‘morale builder'? (More accurately, a proportion of the British public would have been happy to watch that stuff on screen, but it wasn’t enough of the public.)

The sign in the town centre says that Edenkoben has a population of 6600. However the infrastructure is there for a much larger town. Basically it is a tourist town, on the Weinstrasse [Wine Way], and dead in winter. There are vast numbers of Weinstuben (sort of between a shop and a pub, ideally run by the owner of the vineyard) and the plan is that you go to a Weinstube run by the vintner, sample all the wines produced a few fields away, and buy a bottle of the one you like. The sign says that the earliest form of the name is ‘Zotingowen’, ‘at Otto’s farmsteads’, so the ‘koben’ is just borrowed from the word for ‘pigsty’. The town is full of wooden arches which cross the street and which have vines trained over them which will be flourishing with green leaves in the summer. I wanted to go to the Heimatmuseum [local history museum] but it is only open in season, and it is a wine museum. Every second building sells local wine. Maybe Z’Nottingowen’ means ‘at Nott’s farmsteads’.

Much fuss here about the defence minister having copied parts of his doctoral thesis on constitutional law. Could be just omissions from the footnotes but Spiegel magazine claims there is an entire thesis by someone else copied into it. This is something that didn’t come out by google searches but by the second wave of digging. Politicians aren’t meant to have detailed knowledge, but to synthesize other people’s work. OK, but taking without acknowledgement is theft, that is less ambiguous. He has already given the doctorate back, an unusual step. I wonder if there is an appropriate ceremony. Zu Guttenberg is the most popular politician in Germany, a poll showed that 78% of people thought he should play an important role. He is glamorous, his wife is glamorous and coutured up, they appear in ‘Gala’ which is like Hello magazine. He comes from a noble family which owns forests, she is Bismarck’s great-granddaughter (but doesn’t look like Big Otto). Whereas Merkel is about as glamorous as Gordon Brown. One comment here is that plagiarism is most common in law and theology, the professions of people who are supposed to protect morality. Another theory is that Guttenberg’s early nonchalance about the ‘parallel passages’ was because he didn’t know they were there, he had paid someone else to write the whole thesis. (later development: Guttenberg resigned.)

The big local supermarket has a second hand book section under the same roof. You put the money in a tin, as I eventually realised. There were two books side by side by Hans grimm and verena Stefan. Stefan’s book (“Sloughing skins”) was a primary classic of feminism, circa 1970, written when nobody knew what the word implied, when it was a sort of ‘trip’ or ‘experimental consciousness’. Grimm was a writer much-favoured under the Nazi regime and preoccupied by the need for Lebensraum and so forth. He wrote about colonists in German South-West Africa, a regime in which up to 1914 most of the natives died. It was sort of a dress rehearsal for later endeavours. It just seemed so weird that they were side by side on the shelf. I suppose if you are going to be an expert on German culture you ought to know about the literature of the Third Reich, those books are there in the supermarket, very cheap, it’s an opportunity. But I think I will just pass that one by.

Rosvitha points out that the krimi i watched on Sunday (“Notruf 110”) was a continuation of a series which began on East German TV. After the reunification, they brought in new police commissars, but it is the same series, set in Halle. Rosvitha says that the old episodes had a completely different set of manners, the police bosses just treated their underlings like dirt, and the cops were always giving criminals moral lectures. So real features of East German society were there in the TV programmes, let through because no one in charge noticed them. This is part of the “communist entertainment industry”, which really did exist.
There was a juvenile delinquent, a sort of biker plus teddy boy, such an obvious suspect that it had to be someone else. After a certain point it turned out that he was Russian: the commissar goes to a sort of club room and the kid jokes about him in Russian to all the other delinquents hanging out. The commissar turns out to speak perfect russian and gives him a real dressing-down. Calls him ‘ptichka’, which means ‘little bird’.
I suppose there was a russian garrison, the Red Army had its forward bases close to the border with East germany and not days away in Soviet territory. So there were marriages and also russian kids.
I doubt I can get old episodes on DVD, they might turn up on German TV at about 3 am.

Bought some soap powder to wash a woollen sweater by hand. Having done this I found a label which said it was polyester cotton. Dummkopf! But the label also says you can’t spin dry it. Big problem. But this was the only non-machine wash item I brought.

Much discussion about ‘The King’s Speech’ which is showing in Karlsruhe. I try hard to get it across that I would never watch a film about the royal family unless it involved decapitation. On the poster for ‘A single man’ Colin Firth and Julianne Moore are lying side by side with their heads on cushions and it is striking how well Julianne’s hair matches the cushion cover. Mmm! Tasteful! I couldn’t help thinking “gay film based around the soft furnishings”. Big cliche i know. Rosvitha asked me about Christopher isherwood, I couldn’t come up with much. I think i read three of his novels, ‘A Single man’ was so bad that i stopped. Claudia saw the film and said it was too tasteful, too much based around the decor. What did happen to isherwood? In 50 years after 'Goodbye to berlin'?

There is a poster in one of the shops here showing Lex Barker, who played the hero in a large number of Karl May Western films in the 50s. These led on to the spaghetti Westerns. There is clearly something in common with the Edgar Wallace series here. Both are lucrative examples of the German entertainment industry. But both are set in the Anglo-Saxon world. This allowed for an effect of Diminished Reality and this was part of them being entertaining and undemanding. The wallace films aren’t exactly spoofs, but there is an element of casualness and comedy about them. The thriller mechanism still works, but the dialogue involves quite light-hearted repartee.
There is concern here that other Europeans don’t read German literature or take much notice of Germany. It may in fact be true that the failure to export ‘light entertainment' limits the interest in ‘serious culture', and that producing media celebrities like Tom cruise would make people more interested in German novels. I looked at an issue of ‘Gala’ and only two of the stories were about German stars, both TV presenters. So everything else was about the US entertainment industry. Literally, that includes Australians (N Kidman) and English people (Jude law), but without American films they wouldn’t be household names in Germany. It’s easy to exaggerate how interested Europeans are in anything that come from any European country except their own. But American entertainment is big everywhere.