Monday, 20 April 2009

The Arts, Money and Britain's Got Talent

I went into Cambridge yesterday and met up with friends at The Fitzwilliam Museum and managed to totally ignore, the Impressionists, the Chinese Jade exhibition, the Dutch masters, the Renaissance and simply headed for the fish pie and gossip in the café there. ( If you want a private tour of the museum this link will take you to a wonderful tour of some of the pieces in the museum which are really worth mulling over, I have got many a poem out of this museum ). As I savour my pie I wonder whether several popes in the distant past have sat under the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel thinking only about what’s for dinner, which Cardinal is breaking his vows of celibacy and who is plotting what with whom and why? Great art and artefacts as backdrop rather than an end in themselves is nothing new, even Rothko did his four big murals for a restaurant and probably Michael Angelo if he were alive today would happily take a commission for some huge shopping centre ceiling if the money was right. Shopping malls are after all the twenty-first century cathedral at which people worship these days. It’s a funny thing about money and art, the two things seem to be thought of in opposition or at the very least that one compromises the other but then money has always been the bedrock on which much great art has been established. Without the rich patrons and the moneyed institutions much of which we now laud as great art, music, paintings, Shakespeare’s plays would never have existed. Of course some artists carried on painting and never received patronage but even Van Gogh only managed to keep going because others, usually his brother, financed his life style and freed him up to paint. The Arts Council appeared in the mix last century to ensure amongst other things that the patronage of the arts, of the little individual artists, the up and coming artists could thrive ( I count all manner of artists within that umbrella word, composers, new media artists, visual artists, writers, etc). One of its aims is to promote excellence and the only way they can be seen to be doing that is by giving money to a person to give them the tools to do what they do best, be those tools, time, resources, mentoring. An individual artist above all needs time and time is money. The Arts Council is cutting back drastically which in hard financial times is predictable and maybe even right. The big Arts Council projects supporting artistic institutions, publishers, magazines etc may well be the first to go to the wall or it may seek to support the middle men the institutions that foster artists and community access to the arts.

Individual artists themselves usually come quite cheaply in comparison to these kinds of projects. The usual grant for an individual artist is around the £5000 mark so if you get a novel, a decent play, an opera, a collection of poetry for £5,000 then it could be seen as quite a good deal and there is a definite product to point to which is harder with some community art projects which may only have soft measures to report back on how it achieved its goals ( people moving on a scale from 1 to 10 about something or other…i.e How often would you think of reading or writing a poem? 1 being never, 10 being all the time. On a scale of 1 to 10 how would you say this experience has been a life changing and enhancing experience 1 not at all…10 I am completely changed and happier person now with increased self esteem). I am not being cynical here I have seen these questions on arts projects evaluation sheets in the past. I wonder what the evaluation sheet for say Hamlet would have looked like if Shakespeare had to measure what difference his play had made. Of course much of his backing could not be deemed as coming from the public purse and he was also part of the financial syndicate that ran the Globe and the Blackfriars Theatre so perhaps he was wise enough to steer as well clear of a reliance on the fickleness of patronage as he could preferring to put his money where his mouth was, ie if the play put bums on seats, he made money, if it didn’t he lost it. Genius may win out in the end with a healthy dose of business acumen thrown in to help. No one seems to castigate Shakespeare for writing entertaining work the aim of which was to make money as well as to be great writing. Would Shakespeare , like Michael Angelo be casting around for a good way to showcase his talent, would he have shares in a West End theatre or be writing a fantastic libretto for the next Andrew Lloyd Weber show. I have a feeling he wouldn’t be doing street theatre in Bolton, not that there is anything wrong with that and he may even have started out writing plays for youth groups in Stratford but he would have an eye for the bigger audience, an audience that made money.

I think this has bubbled to the surface in my head now because I have been studying Elizabeth Bishop who managed to survive on an inheritance, small residencies and bursaries and grants from Foundations. She was a writer who often seemed to live with people to save money or stayed in houses offered to her by people who loved her work. She needed time as she was a slow careful writer, some poems taking years to come to fruition. If she had not inherited some money or been given grants I wonder what would have happened. Living today would that slow careful worker have been nourished, the system as it stands at the moment needs immediate results, no-one wants to wait twenty years for a poem to be just right ( Bishop worked and reworked her poem The Moose over such a period of time). There was an article in The Times last week about young poets dubbed Facebook Poets, young poets who are media savvy and whose work can go global hot from the lap top. I sometimes worry about those other young poets I know that are choosing to take their time and want to wait until they feel ready to publish, will they appear to be being left behind, it is necessary to get into the thick of it all as soon as you can, make a name, a high profile for yourself (Facebook or otherwise)? This is not a criticism of being a young poet or these poets in particular as I have heard a number of them read and their work is excellent,it is perhaps a concern that nurturing a new talent now does not seem to include just giving them time away from the hype to produce their best and mature, you have to hit the ground running these days.

Hopefully these Facebook Poets will be around for a long time, being published getting readings and improving all the time but then once you get into the maelstrom of being a busy young high profile poet how do you embed yourself in the everyday life away from all the rush and promotion. However I am perfectly prepared to believe that sheer talent will always find its true level even if you spend every night out doing readings and every day updating your Myspace/Facebook/Website/Podcast or Tweeting etc and on the other hand it will also 'will out' even if you spend your whole life in your parents’ house doing very little but reading and visiting the odd relative a poetic talent will find its way beyond those confined walls, only maybe you may have to send out to a few magazines and let someone at least have sight of your poems. You might be posthumously hailed as a great poet but you will have an audience eventually. Emily Dickinson seemed to manage that, although I wonder if Facebook had been around then whether she would have subscribed, many of her poems would be almost short enough for a Tweet? Perhaps the poet is a different beast in these global interconnected times and the skill set of a poet has now got to include these things other than just the ability to write something stunning, over and above the ordinary and prosaic.

It may be that the current hype around Susan Boyle the 47 year old singer on Britain’s Got Talent has also pushed these thoughts to the fore ( I will not furnish you with a link as all the world and her mother seems to know where to find the Youtube site in which she features). That phenomena may not have happened if she had gone out with that voice in her twenties. Being the woman who never had the opportunity to leave home, who just sat at home with her elderly mother, the cat and her voice for years, people are touched or driven to see her as something beyond just a good voice. Does it tap into that feeling that talent will somehow always be discovered and time may not always be against you but with you, I am sure Simon Cowell or his goffers probably pre-chose which song she should sing to ensure maximum weep factor, and a grand choice it was too, not a dry eye in the house. Of course those that have wept over her performance as a Cinderella story may also be weeping just a little for all those that sit at home with a talent that never emerges.

I am torn and arguing with myself here, perhaps you do always have to be proactive no matter what your age or how great your talent, that the expectation has to be that you have to put yourself is the way of opportunity. Susan Boyle had to get herself to the audition and sing after all. It’s the old Chinese saying, ‘Good fortune is the marriage of luck and preparedness for luck’, and preparedness now involves not only the talent and good work but websites, Facebook, Myspace and other forms of self promotion.Poets are of course no stranger to self promotion, Byron worked the media machine of his day like a pro, max Clifford could take notes from him. However perhaps we could persuade Simon Cowell to run a Britain’s Got Poets show?

Friday, 10 April 2009

Who Did It, Why, How and Were Prawn Cocktails Involved?

I have been reading a detective novel and mulling over the notes I made at the debate at the Literary Festival I attended about the genre. The detective/crime novel encapsulates death in this neat package, there seem to be some strange rules that can emerge or it may be that I see them differently from other people, although I will readily admit to loving them in small time framed stints of frenzied reading. Here are some things I have noticed.

There is usual a death or a few deaths but not enough to tip it over into war or a small scale atrocity but serial murders are permissible and at least two murders or one and an attempted murder are usually required.

The murderer does not kill without reason nor is a death senseless, there is some sort of internal logic to his/her/their actions even if it is only a need to pursue randomness itself but usually this is done to camouflage one particular act or murder.

There is someone, usually a detective, but not necessarily so, who seeks to impose some sort of order or just outcome on events.

Usually the thoroughly bad meet some sort of satisfactory end even if it is only discovery and being made to acknowledge publicly through the criminal justice system that they have been detected in their misdemeanour/crime/murder.

Accomplices usually mess up or end up dead.

The bringer of order or justice is usually fighting their own smaller demons whilst dealing with the bigger devil of a culprit. The bringer of resolution or justice is allowed flaws but not quite as big as the flaws of the main perpetrator of the main crime/crimes.

The genre leaves you feeling that there is some sort of resolution, very bad things are never waved on with a ‘ah well shit happens’ attitude.

Good people can do bad things but there is a reason we can empathise with them as to why they do such things. Bad people can do good things but their reasons are much more suspect and are usually driven by a need to appear good rather than embrace goodness.
Everyone is capable of bad things given certain circumstances but we never feel quite as satisfied if the ‘pushed to his or her limit’ perpetrator of a crime is given their just desserts rather than a real bastard of a perpetrator.

The current trend for serial killers to be also the bringer of justice is confusing but manageable if we feel they only serial kill bad people or inconsequential people.

Women detectives or bringers of justice or solvers of crime in many current expressions of the genre, have to exhibit their flaws mainly in the form of alcoholism, sexual promiscuity, a history of abuse of some kind or a feisty nature or intelligence at odds with the period of history they happen to find themselves in.

There are always reasons.

Strange coincidences are either not coincidences or are needed to drive the plot

Male detectives or bringers of justice exhibit their flaws mainly through bad temper, anger management issues, alcoholism, sexual promiscuity ( see female detectives re these last two) or post traumatic stress disorder following a nasty past experience either involving the armed services or a woman with a knife/gun/evil and twisted nature.

Sudden death is explainable on all levels.

A good crime novel is one that keeps you reading when you should be asleep and you have to be up early the next day and where you are convinced that if you read just one more chapter you can predict the outcome.

A bad one can make you laugh at the clichés.

There is a twist sometimes a double or triple twist but anymore twists and you get annoyed and this involves someone or something not being what it or they seem to be.

Someone has to lie or not tell the whole truth.

Good people can lie.

A serial killer who also kills a dog or a cat is irredeemable and can never double as a quasi bringer of justice.

Elderly women can be very shrewd psychological profilers. They can also gut you with a dull fish knife or a sharpened crochet hook whilst appearing to be in the early stages of Alzheimer’s.

Shy and nervous types are never actually shy and nervous types unless they are victims or are about to become victims.

Very clever characters that think they know what is going on are usually wrong or they are about to be murdered because they hint too publicly that they think they know what is going on.

A ‘Who Dunnit’ is a morality play and if it isn’t, amorality is the moral.

A plot is not a story but a story can be a plot.

If a police detective novel was a Greek tragedy the chorus would be the other policemen in the nick who can’t see what’s going on but don’t give a toss or moan a lot.

They must be neat but not too neat. The ending can be a total shock, a mild surprise, the outcome of what you thought by the middle of the book but discounted as too complicated. It can never be obvious unless the obvious has already been worried to death and found wanting but in a strange writerly alchemy is transformed to an ending of pure gold.

I know someone a few years ago who loved crime novels she went on a Murder Mystery week-end as a tenth wedding anniversary present from her husband, she ended up accusing her husband of the murder as she decided he was somehow ‘in’ on the whole event and he always seemed to be somewhere else when a murder happened as indeed he was at home she told me when something needed doing. She also had a mild case of food poisoning from what she suspects was the prawn cocktail but not her husband as somehow he knew to stick to the pate starter. They are no longer married.

Happy Easter dear reader, may the bunny of love and life give you something meaningful if only a chocolate egg.

Friday, 3 April 2009

Darwin, Trees of Life and Past Life

I caught a programme on the radio about Tania Kovats' piece in the Natural History Museum commissioned to celebrate Darwin’s birth two hundred years ago. She found a two hundred year old oak and cut a thin vertical cross section from it, including the roots and then fixed it to the ceiling of the museum. I was cleaning the kitchen floor at the time and had to stop to listen to her talking about her travels in South America and her immersion in Darwin’s notebooks. His drawing of a tree to explain some elements of evolution triggered her submission. The oak she chose was due to be felled anyway to make room for other nearby trees to grow and 200 trees were planted as part of the project on the same site . The art of felling such an enormous tree and also bringing up the huge rootball was left to a forester and a tree surgeon who you could tell by their voices at the time of felling the tree were very wary of arty farty people doing arty farty things however they were both there at the unveiling of the piece and they were both obviously moved by the final piece, like being inside the heart of a tree said the tree surgeon. Seems the best accolade to me and also says something to those who thought the choice of Tania Kovats as the artist to celebrate Darwin’s life and work over and above some of the other better known Turner prize winning artists was surprising.

I am thinking about trees a lot this week as the magnolia tree on the other side of the road is in full bloom and looking its magnificent spring self, all southern belle as usual. I discovered recently that the magnolia tree must have been present before the advent of bees as its flowers are designed to take the weight of beetles to pollinate it. It also has medicinal properties in the bark apparently that decrease anxiety. I find just looking at it decreases anxiety and makes you feel somehow rooted in the cycle of nature along with it.

I now have an alder tree growing rampantly in front of my living room and it has now reached past the bedroom window, it is very close to the house and when the wind rocks it at night it taps on the window. A visitor asked me if I found this spooky recently and I was taken aback as I find it reassuring as if the tree is just knocking to remind me that its still there and growing. My living room has been transformed into a kind of bird hide, the birds have become used to me now and I put out nuts and seeds hung in the branches and now there is a pair of blackbirds nesting in there. I am beginning to feel part of the tree another branch attached to the truck. As a child I was always desperate for a tree house but we never had the sort of garden that would support a tree never mind a tree house I had to make do with dens made in the local waste grounds with other children. I refuse to go down the nostalgia route idyllic endless summers of freedom being allowed to wander where ever we wanted without fear of anyone or anything because of course it poured with rain sometimes and there were small terrors to deal with; other children, strange adults that you could never fathom, the old man that flashed any passing child in the park. The terrors were not so well publicized but there nonetheless. A child in my class at primary school had a permanent blink brought on by an abusive father constantly whacking him every time he said anything. There was a girl in the next class up who drowned in the canal, did she fall or was she pushed, she and her younger brother were together and he used to always fight with her about everything including the fact that she was only his half sister and she had no right to boss him around. We never knew the full circumstances of her demise; all we knew was that the announcement of her death in assembly lead to a long rant by the Headmaster about the need to do as we were told. No grief counselling available then, more of a ‘see what happens if you don’t behave’ and the chance to push home the lesson of obedience to your elders.

Now I will get to the point; there was a boy in my class, Graham, who had a tree, not in his garden but in a patch of waste ground he controlled. Waste grounds were held by various gangs much like the high rises and low rises in The Wire. He and his entourage built a tree house, it was held together by the odd nail, chewing gum and spit and consisted more of a few old planks to form a floor than a house but it still deserved the name of tree house locally. I was regarded as slightly odd even as a child because I was somehow promoted two years above my chronological age into another class so at eight I was mixing with the top dogs the kings of the playground and now and then I was invited up into the tree house. The tree house was like Graham possessing a penthouse flat and a fortress rolled into one until someone has the bright idea of setting fire to the tree.

The news of the burning tree house spread round the neighbourhood so fast nearly all the children at the school came to watch its flaming demise. Graham was gutted, and for three months a reign of terror descended in which he or his main henchman, a fat boy called Aubrey interrogated other children at the school without recourse to the Human Rights Convention. Aubrey had developed the technique of sitting on people and farting in their faces to an artistic level but no one cracked or even admitted to knowing someone who might have done the terrible deed. I found it odd that Aubrey should be so supportive of Graham as he was never allowed in the tree house because he was too fat and might break it but maybe this saved his face as we all knew he would never have been able to climb up the rope which was the only means of access to the house. If they had thought about it more they would have discovered that the tree had probably been set on fire by accident by the local teenagers going up to the platform at night with their girlfriends for a spot of one to one action followed by a Woodbine or two. I was always amazed at the fact that the girlfriends would have had to shimmy up the rope without spoiling their beehive hairdos or splitting tight Capri pants that were the rage at the time amongst the older generation as I saw them then. It was either those older boys or Ken, the other mini child gang boss who could lie brilliantly, like a politician with a lot to lose even in the face of an Aubrey fart special. Ken kept a splinter from the tree like a piece of the real Holy Cross in a matchbox in his pocket for at least a year after the fire.

So now I am having a sort of ground level tree house experience of my own only mine comes with a carpet, four walls and a TV, beat that Graham and big farting Aubrey.

So now I am trying to keep up with a poem a day for the month of April challenge from the States in response to trigger words or phrases given only on the day and the poem has to be completed within twenty-four hours. It feels like a poem exam which you can’t revise for but actually I always liked exams, something about time pressure gives you a buzz and then you can always play around with the submitted poem long afterwards. I have also been further delving into County Durham and immersed myself into tales of the Lambton Wyrm, hanging a French monkey in Hartlepool and the fact that the county is the cold Mumbai of call centres.

So G20, a trillion dollars thrown into the pot to fix things, they don’t seem to be fixing things on shoe string budget or should that be a G string. Not sure whether the IMF is the best institution to help the underdeveloped countries it has been less than helpful in the past but will keep an open mind. Mrs Obama however is shown to be a real winner even giving the queen a sort of hug or as close to hugly as you can get with a queen.