NB – for salient information on Birmingham City University’s Institute of Creative and Critical Writing and what it hopes to achieve, the Fellowships’ aims and interests go to the website. For a typically enthusiastic and rambling review with some great links, please read on 🙂
The walk down Gas Street Basin was uneventful. No soundtracks to my walk, my iPod had died on me, and an attempt to stream Pink Floyd’s ‘A Saucerful of Secrets’ from Live at Pompeii through my phone failed to connect the moment just after the ‘Syncopated Pandemonium’ section began to segue into the final ‘Celestial Voices’ suite.
I could only now play the final suite in my memory, viewing the film in my mind’s eye. The spirit of Syd Barrett; Rick Wright, all beard and steady cool; Roger Waters, the orchestrator, the seer and sage; Nick Mason, laying down the intricate patterns and beats, an insane magician, replete with handlebar moustache and black vest, and David Gilmour, not just singing, but bellowing the final wordless section like a caveman would, blinking and twitching and roaring at the sun, to try and gage life’s meaning. (Which one’s Pink? All of them, mate.) I have said for a long time that I want this version of ‘A Saucerful of Secrets’ played at my funeral, and to be played loud enough so I can hear it. There had been a high profile funeral on Wednesday. One spirit shadowing us all, even now more so in death – what had been before is scarred on us all. Conversations turn to the dead. Taking our influence from them, and every day preparing to celebrate, mourn or mock their lives and achievements. Boston, Iraq, Syria, Texas. James Herbert, Richard Griffiths. Iain Banks and Wilko Johnson preparing for their last bow. Anne Williams and Margaret Thatcher. William Moody aka Paul Bearer, the manager of WWE’s favourite undead son, The Undertaker. Celestial Voices all. David Gilmour’s final cry piercing my ears, I walked up to Brindley Place with the ICC behind me and saw smart office workers in the Slug and Lettuce on my right and the Pitcher and Piano to my left with the dead tattoed on them, all in some way affected by the departed. All afflicted with old values endlessly regurgitated and adapted to their own ends. I walked on past the bins.
Oozells Square in contrast, burst with colour and vibrancy. An eruption of pink blossom on the trees stood out against the modern building of The Royal Bank of Scotland, one of my better temporary employment roles in 2005. And Ikon Gallery behind me, which would host tonight’s inaugural Institute of Creative and Critical Writing event. The Institute is now part of Birmingham City University’s excellent School of English. Undergraduates, Post-Graduates, alumni and literary enthusiasts made the reception area a hive of bodies and excited voices. A wine reception. Old friends and new acquaintances all around. A fine choice, as I got my first glass of complementary red wine, followed very quickly by a second. In half an hour, we went upstairs to the second floor, where around a hundred chairs were filled, coats and wine glasses on the floor.
The evening was introduced by the MA Writing Course Director Dr Gregory Leadbetter. Mobile phone ringtones were silenced by embarrassed owners, though he didn’t reply with his usual jocular “Instant death”, which I’d been familiar with in his seminars whilst studying. He introduced the programme and the visions of what the Institute will offer. “Supply creates demand in the arts” and current economic factors reflect this, he said. The Institute would now create the supply, and include public events in partnership with Writing West Midlands, the Library of Birmingham and The National Association of Writers in Education, involved with many disciplines within literature and tonight we would enjoy poetry, fiction and non-fiction and theatre. These public events would show how writers write and how thinkers think. The crowd sat back in their chairs with their listening faces fixed in concentration. As a writer and performer, I have often been fazed by these faces, believing them to be faces of boredom, annoyance or extreme disgust. In certain sections of my own body of work, this probably is the case, but tonight I was beginning to realise, that these faces are those of the people who are listening intently, letting the words and actions shape their minds and visions and being. The readers tonight were from the Fellowship of Writers from the Institute, and, under the church-like arches of the gallery, complete with tapestries from the Russian artist Timur Novikov, the first reader, the poet David Morley was introduced.
“It doesn’t matter that you don’t understand the words. ‘Hash choo choo.’”
The stifling heat of the gallery combined with the hastily drunk wine (‘no red wine in the galleries’ –a possible title for one of my punk rock songs?) made me start scribbling on my ticket. On writing my review the day after, these words are barely incomprehensible in meaning, but I remembered looking around at the tightly packed galleries, with no room for a quick escape, especially as I could see what I considered to be bailiffs and members of the Russian Mafia with hidden sub-machine guns guarding the exit. The women in the room all started to resemble Charlotte Gainsbourg. I wondered where my creative thought was going with this. David Morley invoked the spirits of the recently departed with his poem “The Crowd” which he was commissioned to write in the aftermath of last year’s Hillsborough enquiry. A commission, he says offers restriction, however that is the way to release creativity. Looking at my notes, as I’d decided to write a review of tonight’s proceedings, I could see that my creativity had indeed been launched by the restriction of tonight’s task and the two glasses of red wine (I will never be one of the great drunk writers.) All my notes and thought-processes, ‘A Saucerful of Secrets’ and the thoughts of the departed all merged with another. ‘The Crowd’ told of walking hearts, of solidarity, invisible defiance and unity in the face of what happened before. “You will not chant them back into the Earth.” Marvelling, I looked at what was in front of me. The power of the poet in profile. My autism nearly made me shriek with laughter, so I bit down on the zip of my cardigan to stifle my fits of wonderment and delight. “We, the crowd.”
Next on was Patrick McGuinness, who again, would invoke the spirits of Margaret Thatcher to mirthful snarfs from the audience. I wondered how I’d get on with McGuinness’ readings, seeing as I’m not hip enough to have a working knowledge of the Cold War and Russia, or at least talk about it with authority. “Poets slow things down” his editor had commented during reading a draft of one of his works. The room, from being a hive of bailiffs and Russians with sub-machine guns now inexplicably turned into a room full of Buddahs of Suburbia and Naboos from the Mighty Boosh. Ever changing upstairs, for whatever strange reason I would be confronted with in a few minutes. The poet Campanu, who is an organ of McGuinness’ work, was introduced to us, in his striving for “progressive literature” echoed the departed Richard Griffiths’ character in Withnail and I, all yearning for lost days and lovers. A reading from “The Last Hundred Days” depicting the trial of Nicolae Ceausescu, the last Communist President in Romania, comments on the clothes that the leader and his were tried and murdered in, fabrics and materials covered with dust. Type in the leader’s name into YouTube, and the execution is there for you to watch providing you have a googlemail account as it will check your age. The end of the regime. Had my thought processes pre-warned this? Had I had a future memory of this when David Morley was reading? Why the thugs at the doors? What was in that red wine? This was creative thought in action. So far, it was being an excellent evening.
Before the break, we’d have a talk by Caroline Jester, the Dramaturg and Literary Manager at Birmingham REP. If playwriting was under threat, a transformation would be necessary. Jester’s work would aid this transformation by unearthing talent and creative energy. Creativity, as now harnessed by the work of the Institute of Creative and Critical Writing would be the step forward. The beauty of playwriting, she said, was the fact that you need to get inside all characters, and think what each other would say in response to the other. The body language, the tones, the implicitness and explicitness. Her ideals have been developed into REPWrite, which is an digital platform for writers who wouldn’t usually collaborate with each other, and moreover, to get those who wouldn’t usually engage with the arts to do so. Here, the arts would work with industry, and new creative universes would be unleashed, all with the aid of a computer and internet access. I remembered a live interview which had been on the television a few years ago. The panel were sitting in a line, as the last member of the discussion group was Arnold Schwarzenegger, his gap-toothed smile beaming, taking part in the discussion. Artifically, almost as with a brain in a jar typing out thoughts, but made even more real due to the progressiveness of modern technology. The ideas were in this one room. The living and the dead, futures and pasts. Walt Disney and Simon Cowell cryogenically frozen in time, to be unleashed again in 500 years. What, indeed, on Earth will they see. Humanoids, hissing static, day-glo beings? It was time for the break, and again, to view the pink blossom exploding against the background of the Royal Bank of Scotland, and the emerging whirls of sound coming from those ready for a Wednesday night on Broad Street. I enthusiastically showed my scrawled notes to my friends “It’s my inner voice” I enthused, and laughed when I was told that my inner voice probably sounded like a Terry Jones pepperpot lady from Monty Python, and looked like me in drag. Where to go to after this launch? We’d go to Snobs, we’d joke. Not been there for nearly ten years. But that, reader, will be another story.
After the break, we went back to the second floor by the lift, and heard the celestial voices of the lift installation – Martin Creed’s Work 409 For Lift and Choir of Bass, Tenor, Alto and Soprano Voices, performed by Ex Cathedra. Back into the white space of the Gallery. Dr Gregory Leadbetter announced that he would be reading from Sally Read’s new collection ‘The Day Hospital’ published by Bloodaxe Books. The atmospheres conjured by Sally Read’s poetry, influenced by Sylvia Plath, lets us stay in the walls of the hospital, with orderlies and patients continuing their disembodied conversations for ever, slowly dissipating into the ether. The situations become slowly more surreal and disembodied, as if we are floating around, all seeing, all viewing. Spirits locked in perpetual limbo. We were now with the departed with the poetry, forever in their dimension.
The evening then slowly changed tack, and morphed into a more light-hearted, but still within the metaphysical, or suburban psychedelic. We were treated to Helen Cross, the author of My Summer of Love, reading a short story about students in the shadow of the Thatcher’s (her again) reign. Effigies of the departed leader and also Ronald Reagan, Pope John Paul II and dear old Rupie Murdoch were being carried to a demonstration by an earnest young activist when suddenly she’s egged by an unseen assailant. Fleeing back to her student digs, she sees that all of her student friends have suffered the same indignity. The question is why – is it an issue of gender, race, sexuality, political allegiances? Or is it that they are just students? And who’s the assailant? Is it a student prank, a hate crime, or perhaps even from the local children’s home and hostels on the more seemier side of the street? In Helen Cross’ sublime story, the answers didn’t come easily, nor was there a pat, trite resolution. The focus is on the student’s journey, from unsure activist to true leader. I’m sure there was a deeper political allegory and maybe I could have entertained some po-faced critical thought in all this, but it was so subtlety done I couldn’t be bothered and simply enjoyed a damn good story, excellently told.
The evening was completed with a reading by writer and broadcaster Ian Marchant. Whilst writing he also performs with his friend Chas Ambler in the band Your Dad, within which he lives the rock and roll dream on his own terms. On staying in hotels on the road, he says he doesn’t throw the telly out of the window as he’d need it to watch ‘A Touch of Frost’ on when he gets back from his gig, and kettles are switched on and The Spectator is read. Recently, Ian Marchant has written a series of non-fiction books: Parallel Lines, about journeying on railways; The Longest Crawl, which tells the story of a travel around the British Isles from the south to the furthest point north, all mapped in real ale and pork scratchings. He is currently working on a book about the history of the counterculture in the UK called A Hero For High Times,(Being an account of the life and opinions of Mr Robert Rowberry) or, A Younger Reader’s Guide to the Beats, Hippies, Heads, Freaks, Punks, Ravers, New-Age fellow Travellers and Dog-On-A-Rope Brew Crew Crusties of the British Isles, 1956 – 1994, together with an epilogue entitled How to get your Head Together in the Country. 1994 being the year where the counterculture suffered most and never really recovered as a force, due to the Criminal Justice Act, and the death of John Smith and the spirit old Labour, and the electing of Tony Blair with his (again) Thatcherite New Labour policies. I am looking forward to this book, especially seeing as I believe that the counterculture died in 1995, when Hollyoaks started on Channel 4, and the young people started to care about hair products and read FHM and/or Sky Magazine. But it’s Ian’s book and he did it first. Today though, he was going to recount us a story from his latest book Something of the Night , a book about the British Isles at night, again, using memoir, escapades and psycho-geography to weave a narrative about things that you don’t see, or sometimes don’t want to see, because they all happen at night. A great story-teller (I’m avoiding the obvious clichés as writing about Ian Marchant will eventually end up like a music critic writing about The Fall) he told the story about how he looks good on the dancefloor like the young lady in the Artic Monkeys song (which I hated when it was released as it made me feel dead ancient at the age of 26) and how he went and visited his two daughters at their University to go to a student disco, or club night as his youngest pleaded he called it. Excited at either being able to strut his stuff to Abba, or perhaps even witness the bacchanalian debauchery of what the young people get up to in the 21st century, he found himself sticking out like a rather large sore thumb in an oppressively loud and claustrophobic room, drinking pints of fizzy piss. To make matters worse, the young people are not the nymphs, faeries and tanned chiselled Gods that he may have hoped for at a 21st century gathering, but gurning monstrosities and dead-heads, marching to increasingly unlistenable music. No free love to be found here. The counterculture turned around into an oppressive regime under an oppressive regime. Escaping, he tells us, he finds his own idyll in a quiet country road, with suitable refreshment and relaxants, remembering the books of his youth, wishing he could sail away in search of the moon with Blake’s faeries and creatures of the night.
The event finishes, and everyone agrees that it’s an excellent night. The launch of the Institute of Critical and Creative Writing has been a complete success. Afterwards, a group of us ignore the fact that no idyll will be found on Broad Street on a Wednesday night, and certainly no nymphs and faeries either, as bass-heavy music burst from cars and young women catch their death of cold in too-tight dresses. We cross the road to the nearer Wetherspoons pub, The Figure of Eight, where the bar staff are used to people spilling change on the bar and counting it with shaking Steptoe fingers. When in Rome. No whisky tonight I think, as I’ve got paracetamol but no ginseng, and I’m afraid I didn’t actually notice what porter-based ale I had. A great end to a great evening. Walking home in the night, I listen to another song through my iPhone that I always thought I would have played at my funeral, possibly when the congregation enters the place of rest. ‘Left Bank 2’ by The Noveltones, a beautiful piece of music used in the Gallery section on the old ‘Vision On’ programme. Serenity in the night, and perhaps even, I could dispense with the idea of thinking what music I’d have played at my funeral, but what my Desert Island Discs would be. Both ‘Left Bank 2’ and ‘A Saucerful of Secrets’ would feature, and Radio 4 listeners would raise the counterculture again. It had been an excellent evening, one to linger on in the memory, to derive meaning from and influence in a most beneficial way. Living spirits, and spirits of the age.
Author’s Note I:
On Friday, my iPod is now ‘alive’ again. However, my iPhone was pilfered on Thursday and now missing presumed ‘dead.’ One of the Boston bombers is dead. And, most unfortunately, Storm Thorgerson, designer of excellent LP sleeves, including Pink Floyd’s best ones, is also dead. No room for Kurt Vonnegut Jnr quotes here.
Author’s Note II:
The universe moves in very strange ways, eh readers?
Author’s Note III: (this bit’s actually important.)
Joining me that night were:
Go check’em out!!