I got into The Civil Wars about a year ago when their memorable debut album, “Barton Hollow”, became available on e-Music, so I thought I was ahead of much of the curve in the UK since it didn’t come out here until a few days ago. Serves me right for being so smug; the Queens’ Hall is full to bursting with an audience who already know all the words.
Since discovering them, I’ve spent a lot of time wishing I was as handsome as John Paul White, or wishing I had a girlfriend as gorgeous as Joy Williams, or wishing I could sing as well as either one of them. I’m not, I haven’t and I can’t; life’s tough.
I haven’t heard two voices that belong together so much since Simon and Garfunkel. Artie used to say he was so in synch with Paul because of the intensitiy with which he studied the way his partner sang, the way his mouth formed words, so that he could mirror it. That sounds odd, but by gum it worked, and those voices were perfect together. Much the same with White and Williams. Watch the attention they pay to each other in this lovely video of them performing Leonard Cohen’s “Dance Me to the End of Love“, Williams watching intently the movements of White’s fingers on the fretboard as they sway together. It’s one of my favourites.
From the raucous train whistle hoot of the title track to the anguished interplay of the harmony on their breakthrough song, “Poison and Wine” – a song which actually doesn’t really go anywhere but is quite lovely anyway – these two people were made to sing together. It must take a huge amount of work – it can’t just come naturally – but every crescendo or diminuendo, no matter how brief, every entrance to and exit from phrases or even single notes, every grace note and inflection and breath and sigh are all in perfect sync. Both have fabulous voices with perfect pitch and real range, White digging deep or soaring high and Williams belting out like a diva when necessary on songs like “Dance Me…” and “Falling”. There’s lots of gentleness too; a song like “I’ve got a Friend” could veer towards the twee end of the spectrum if it wasn’t delivered with such sincerity.
In addition, they are both very charismatic. White is all Alabama gentleman, laconic and dry; Williams is playful and flirtatious, befitting her Californian roots. They are also genuinely taken aback by the audience which is, I have to say, absolutely brilliant, probably the very best audience I’ve ever been part of. The songs – and this is generally speaking quiet folk music – are listened to in utter silence and respect (one mumble way up the back was quickly shooshed by numerous people), and in between the songs the audience goes nuts in appreciation. Completely nuts. Williams thanks the audience for being “pin drop” quiet and then totally raucous; White assures us that we’re the audience of the tour. Watching their reactions to the roar of approval they get after every song – Williams beaming delight, White lowering his head and shaking it gently in bemused disbelief – I believe them. It was a privilege to have played my part.
The only flaw is that there isn’t enough. The whole of “Barton Hollow” gets an airing, and there are four or five other songs, including their winsome, witty take on “Billie Jean” that has become a bit of a You Tube sensation. They are at the very beginning of their career together, so they haven’t built a huge repertoire. I may have to wait for the second album since Williams is expecting – the “wee one” (she has Edinburgh connections) is apparently going bananas tonight – but it’ll mean the shows will be longer. Quite frankly, they could have just played the whole set again and the audience would have been perfectly happy.
Really, this duo is musically perfect, as well as being charming and beautiful: Peters and Lee they aint. They are going to be deservedly huge, but I hope never so huge that they have to play to arenas; it would be such a loss not to see them in an intimate venue like this when the atmosphere is just so magical.
Kapka Kassabova is a colleague of mine, though there’s no reason why she should know it. We both work at the University of Strathclyde, she in English and me in Education. However, when Jordanhill dies its sorry death in July 2012 and we all troop down to the main campus in the city centre, perhaps our paths will cross: I hope so, because I’d like to learn to write half as beautifully as she does.
I have just started reading her memoir “Twelve Minutes of Love”, a gloriously sensual account of her ten year love affair with the Argentine tango (“the only tango”, she writes). It’s a stunning read, full of esoteric detail of the dance’s history, its music, its steps, its etiquette. More than that, though, it is a subtle but nevertheless forensically honest account of her soul. In throwaway lines, she hints at the uncomfortable “longing” which permeates her life as well as the ethos of the dance: “Our faces were very suddenly close,” she writes, “which was a bit disturbing, but not as disturbing as the sudden closeness of our bodies. I could feel his body heat. It had been some time since I’d last felt the heat of a man’s body.”
She speaks a great deal of this intimacy which is at the same time fulfilling and disturbing, joyous and sad. It’s an intimacy that has its own climax, the “tangasm” of total abandonment and oneness that two partners experience when they achieve that ineffable euphoria of “clarity of mind and crispness of step in the declining afternoon of San Telmo.”
I have brought my sister along as a birthday outing. She is addicted to dancing, there is no other word for it. In the last decade or so, she seems to have been brought to a new life through the tango, ballroom, jive (of so many kinds), salsa, Lindy Hop (the sound of which always makes me smile), LeRoc. She recognises much of what Kassabova talks about: of the “virtual nation” that is tango dancing; of living a life based around where and when the next dance is; of the all-consuming need to find a partner, any partner, for that twelve minutes of love. What she doesn’t comprehend, though, is Kassabova’s revelation that she doesn’t dance much any more; like an addict, she had to go cold turkey. That suggests the book will have a lot to reveal about tango’s emotional cost.
Jeff and Sari of the Dance House give a tango demonstration which is, of course, smooth and sensuous and playful and beautiful. What strikes me is the intricacy of the wordless conversation that is obviously going on because of the way in which she seems to know exactly what he wants her to do at any given moment. The steps, the leans, the drags are all executed with an apparent effortlessness that can only come though a level of communication through weight and balance and inclination and the slightest of pressures that seems like telepathy.
A thought occurs to me. Kassabova is very sweet and charming. She listens to people intently, smiling and nodding, and, unlike many authors, makes sure she answers the questions asked of her in the way the questioner demands, not the way she wants; she is more than happy to respond to someone else’s agenda rather than impose her own. It’s impossible not to warm to her.
I wonder if this is a product of tango, of having to read partners so intently, of being serially compliant on the dance floor? Does tango make you a good listener, or do you need to be a good listener to appreciate tango?
Jeff and Sari make me gasp and smile and laugh; my sister, for the umpteenth time, asks me if I fancy learning to dance for myself. No. I am not a dancer. I have a body built for the clumsy scrum of ceilidhs. My sister is the dancer. I write. Kassabova can do both.
More than that, though, is that the beauty of the dance is something I want to admire, and that beauty is not going to be heightened by me stumbling and fumbling my way to some sort of proficiency. I love Portuguese fado, which, like Tango, has been pompously declared a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity; but the beauty of the fado is not going to be radically changed by my learning Portuguese or, God forbid, by my taking singing lessons. So let Jeff and Sari and Kapka and my sister get on with it, and I’ll admire from afar.
But Kassabova’s honesty also has me thinking that perhaps the reality is that I have problems with intimacy, I like my space to be private (very West of Scotland); Kassabova notes absolutely truly that in the West we connect with each others’ bodies through sex, nothing else. Perhaps, deep down, the reality is that I see the dance not as an abandonment but as a terrible responsibility to that fleeting partner whose body heat excites and disturbs us.
Perhaps I’m just a bloke with issues.
Colm Tóibín is asked about three questions by Sarah Mansfield and a couple by members of the audience: there’s no need for more, because he’s such a brilliant raconteur and dizzyingly erudite philosopher, he only needs a sniff at a topic before he whirls off into a huge peroration on tonight’s subject, families. He is here to read from his new book “New Ways to Kill Your Mother”, a compendium of scandalous tales of the families of famous writers. In the case of Thomas Mann, they don’t get much more scandalous.
But that’s just the taster for Tóibín’s thoughts on the whole kit and caboodle of relatives. He has interesting ideas about the way in which mothers are excised from the novels of the 18th and 19th centuries in favour of aunts to allow female characters like Emma Woodhouse and Fanny Price to actualize and grow; he speculates on sibling rivalries like the Mann and James brothers (that’s Henry and William, not Frank and Jesse); he muses on Beckett’s easy love for his father and furiously difficult love for his mother; he reckons he’s discovered the source of Synge’s “Playboy of the Western World”; and he reveals that Sinéad O’Connor has a lovely relationship with her novelist brother Joseph and all her family is lovely and her memoirs will be lovely too.
He is an easy, charming, polished conversationalist, the kind of person you could listen to over a few pints of Guinness for several hours, by which time you’d be semi-comatose and he would still be sparking brightly.
Day 2 of the Write Now conference is devoted to panel discussions and research papers. The first I attend is on Fact, Fiction and History, with three historical novelists talking about the process of writing. All – especially Sally O’Reilly talking of her research into a re-imagining of the “Shakespeare legend” – are really interesting. I do, however, have a little bit of a problem with this form of reflection on the methods of writing, not because it is not useful but because it seems to me to perpetuate a monolithic university structure that actually has more to do with a self-referential and self-perpetuating academic culture than it has to do with adding to the sum of human knowledge. More of that later.
My own session goes well: however, with my “little often” approach to stimulating writing of teenagers at school, fellow presenter Maeve Tynan worries that we are in total disagreement, given her “strategic imitation” approach that is based on using the work of “master” writers to hone craft. Of course, we’re not: I’m absolutely in favour of learning from exemplars and models as essential practice in school or university. She describes her own practice, which sounds fantastically stimulating; it’s a far cry from the practice I’m trying to change, whereby school teachers spend two weeks forcing every child in their class to complete a twist-in-the-tail story “for their folio”, and giving them no other opportunities to write creatively for the rest of the year.
The Scottish Writers Centre also announces itself. It’s a relatively new venture driven forward by lovely people like Gerry Loose and Ron Butlin. They are absolutely passionate about providing a non-academic forum for writers and it is, I think, much needed.
A lot of activity now revolves around university creative writing courses: magazines are springing up as undergraduate projects to provide outlets for students at particular universities to publish their work (Octavius, for example, will, in its own words, “feature a range of prose and poetry written by student writers from colleges and universities across the country”); many of the fine new publishing houses have close links with universities; and live events such as the excellent From Glasgow to Saturn (linked to an online journal) and Words per Minute (along with some other quite dire live projects) arose from university student activity. This, I have to say, makes me worry about access, diversity, inclusion and democracy.
While no-one who works in the university sector has any intention of excluding anyone – I know and respect hugely a great many individual university creative writing teachers, and they all have the very best of motives in everything they do – nevertheless, the structure of universities is essentially hierarchical and elitist. Looking at person specifications for posts in any department, the prime consideration is research. Therefore, to become a university creative writing teacher, you first have to be a researcher, second a creative writer and third a teacher.
I have always suspected that what this does is fuel activity which supports an industry of academic articles, peer refereed journals, conferences and promotion structures leading to professorial chairs based on research “output”. Many researchers I know and respect in the education field blithely talk of “playing the REF game”, and it is a game in which the rules and access to play are made up and controlled by those who are already at the top of the leader board.
Now there is nothing essentially wrong with this: if it is what universities do, it is what universities do. And there will always be a demand for acknowledgement, accreditation or certification by those who learn in that way. But by collaring the market – and let there be no doubt, universities are interested primarily in the bottom line – then those who have no access to universities will be excluded. In addition, courses which become “unviable” or which are deemed not to fit with a university’s strategic plan may find themselves “disinvested” or even closed, and the corresponding infrastructure can be drastically affected; if it can happen to courses in nursing and community education, it can certainly happen to creative writing.
The end of the conference is marked by talks from three big guns in Scottish literature, Alan Bissett, Ewan Morrison and Zoe Strachan. Strachan ably defends the notion of universities being involved in creative writing programmes, and points to her own course which, she says, was populated by a mainly working class cohort (although David Kinloch, at the SWC meeting expresses concerns about the demographic of creative writing courses). However, she also casually admits that publishers and agents like to build relationships with writing departments because they have access to a pool of talent which is already developed, already edited, already vetted. That worries me, because in a world in which publishing opportunities become more and more scarce – Morrison paints the bleakest of pictures of a so-called “democratized” industry – it may soon be the case that a creative writing degree is the minimum qualification to even get into the slush pile.
At events such as this, I am often asked, “And where are you studying creative writing?”, as if a graduate qualification is the only worthwhile mark of a writer. On a couple of occasions, eyes have glazed over and gazes have swept the room for more worthy and interesting contacts when I say I have never studied creative writing at university; on one occasion, someone came back to me and breathlessly said, “Raymond, I didn’t realise you had a BAFTA!”. The first magazine I was ever published in was Rebel Inc.: it wouldn’t have been seen dead in a University department. At that time, there was a vibrant community group culture (magazines like “Cutting Teeth” from the Castlemilk group was another great publication) that I am worried may now wither as a result of swingeing public sector cuts combined with the rapacious acquisition of creative writing activity by universities.
I speak as an academic, and as someone who may in the near future embark on a PhD, not, I hope, because I need a job in the university creative writing sector or because I want to call myself a Doctor, but because I want to have the support to help me develop my writing and my novel: and I am absolutely sure that is why everyone does a PhD. But, as I say, I worry about the culture that is being created, simply because universities are the biggest kid on the block. Only proper government funding for community arts activity in general and writing in particular through organisations like the Scottish Writers’ Centre can prevent what would amount to a privatisation of cultural development.
Had an interesting day at the Write Now! 2012 conference at the Mitchell Library. Run by the University of Strathclyde, this year it became part of the Aye Write! festival.
Thanks to having to deal with problems at work, I missed the opening keynote, but got there in time to hear successful novelist Sara Sheridan talking about narrative drive. She was suitably down to earth, encouraging writers to put away their preciousness and concentrate on the story. I found her advice on storyboarding and auditing particularly useful, running through passages of my own and being depressed about how few pictures I could find in them. Back to the drawing board, it seems. Literally.
Next was a short session from Helen FitzGerald, Sergio Casci and Claire Mundell was a bit short on the specifics of how to adapt prose for screen (and vice versa) but was nonetheless entertaining in rich anecdotes that stressed the need to network and collaborate. Certainly, my best experience as a writer was working with the wonderful Clara Glynn and Carolynne Sinclair Kidd on an adaptation of my short story “The Practicality of Magnolia” just because I got to work with people who had the vision to turn my story into something far more beautiful than I could ever have imagined.
Nicola Morgan, hugely prolific author and all round guru (check out her fantastic blog, Help! I need a Publisher!) offered advice that was pin sharp and refreshingly lacking in any sort of bullshit. She calls herself The Crabbit Old Bat because of her reputation for telling it like it is: thank god someone is prepared to do that. I’d heard much of her advice on submissions to publishers before, but it was good to hear it reiterated so succinctly.
Finally, Christopher Brookmyre was hugely entertaining in conversation with Kapka Kassabova. Brookmyre is also from Barrhead; he’s a million times more famous and successful than me. I don’t mind.
Tomorrow should be interesting, with a range of panels and research presentations. I’ve got a slot at 1.30 on creative writing teaching in secondary schools based on the work I’ve been doing with Education Scotland. I’m looking forward to it.
Nice to to see some pals, including Iain Paton and David Manderson. Iain’s “By the Sword” has recently been published by Wild Wolf Publishing, while David’s “Lost Bodies” was one of my favourite reads of last year.
ps – the photo is from an exhibition in the Mitchell of puppets from the collection of puppeteer John M. Blundall. The characters are from the Mabinogion , which is, he tells me, the Welsh precursor of the Arthurian legend. I love the green face: she is, apparently, a mad queen.
It is, of course, trash TV. “Make Bradford British” is a crude amalgam of various reality shows, cheap and not so cheerful fare like “Big Brother”, “Wife Swap” and “Come Dine With Me.” The premise is simple: various cultural, ethnic and religious stereotypes from Bradford – “Britain’s most divided city”, is the fatuous claim – volunteer to spend time living with each other in some sort of half-baked and nasty social experiment.
It is an execrable, faux documentary. The “diversity and community experts” are little more than commentators, adding the occasional sound bite to tell viewers what they should be feeling (“These people have to live together” we are told, just in case we hadn’t got the drift) and pronouncing the annual Scottish New Year celebration as “Hoggamunny” (“I don’t understand the question,” says a white girl, “what’s a Mahoggamunny?”). Meanwhile, the production values clutch at the sensational like the drowning man clutches at the proverbial: cue Rasheed, the jolly Muslim fundamentalist, giving up mosque to spend a day in some stately home with the group, praying in the car park, his nose almost pressed against the side of the minibus (couldn’t they find somewhere with a little more dignity?) while elderly liberal Maura weeps her new found understanding.
And yet… and yet…
I have a complicated relationship with the concept of “Britishness”, and not because, like many Scots, I see my identity as lying solely north of the border. No, it is more to do with my genealogy. My father, born in Lipine, near Katowice, in 1913, was Silesian Deutsch Volk; his status as a Pole was merely an accident of politics. So, after 1939, he joined the Wermacht, fought on the Eastern Front where he got frostbite and was wounded and was then transferred to the Western Front, where he was captured by the Americans to begin a whole new time line in the UK.
That, as a boy brought up in the jingoistic days of 1960s Saturday afternoon cinema (“The Battle of the Bulge”; “The Great Escape”), was difficult to accept for a while. How could I be British when my father fought for the ultimate bogey man, Adolf Hitler? How could I be British when the British would quite happily have killed my father on the battlefield?
Let there be no doubt: I’m glad my father was on the losing side. I think World War II and the overthrow of Hitler was one of the few righteous wars in history I would have volunteered to fight in, like the Spanish Civil War or The Opium Wars (on the side of the Chinese, of course). Certainly, there was a moral dimension to it that has been lost in the corporate imperialism of most conflicts since, such as Haliburton’s invasion of Iraq.
But it does rather complicate things. In the TV programme, mixed-race bar owner Audrey talks of the “scales falling from her eyes” when she realises the impact her own racist language has on others: something similar happened the morning my father took the twelve year old me aside and showed me his Iron Cross and explained how he got it. I realised that, in the great game of international politics, a whole nation of people could one day be our allies supplying our Kings and Queens, the next day be our deadliest enemy, and the day after that become our family.
One character in the programme, a black man of West Indian descent called Desmond (yes, that’s right) is interviewed before he meets his house mates: he beats his chest and says that being British is “in me heart”. Later, after hearing an uncomfortable discussion about language with a harmless but insensitive old buffer called Jens who claims that he was only joking when he used to talk to his former police colleagues about going out “Paki bashing” and referring to blacks as “black bastards”, Desmond finds a hole in that huge heart of his. For decades, he had, in his own words, pushed the casual, unthinking racism “under the carpet” in order to just get on with it; obviously distressed, he finds that there is no longer any space under that carpet.
I have no wish to suggest my experience as a white kid was directly comparable to Desmond’s, but I grew up with similar casual references to my difference. I was regularly called a “Polack” by schoolmates and even by colleagues up until the 1990s; teachers referred to me as “Banacek”, a nominally Polish detective on TV played by George Peppard. I have become somewhat sensitive when, on introducing myself, I am asked, “What kind of name is that?” “It’s a surname,” I replied once to a parent who asked me that question in the middle of a busy corridor at a parents’ evening. “Yes, but where does it come from?” was the retort, my irritation failing to make an impression. “My father,” I said, and I was looked at as if I was an uppity moron.
Britain is, for me, simply an organisational entity, and I “owe” it nothing more than that I pay my taxes and obey the law; in that sense, I am a much better Briton than many of the beknighted movers and shakers held up as examples of “Great” Britain, the Sir Richards and the Sir Alans who tax avoid like crazy or the chief police officers and civil servants and MPs mired in corruption. I believe I am a good citizen – I regularly give to charity and am as kind as I can be to others – not because I am part of a Great British Big Society, but because it is the decent thing for an individual human being to do.
A later show, “Prejudiced and Proud”, continues the theme, looking into the lives of Tommy Robinson, founder of the English Defence League, and Sayful Islam, of whatever banned group he leads this week. Neither man has little substance outside his ego: both are filmed smiling with smug satisfaction in the midst of the anger and chaos and violence they preside over; both claim moral authority, yet a moderate imam points out Sayful’s total lack of intellectual credibility for the position he has set himself up in, while Robinson wanders the streets, drunk, baiting people with references to Anders Breivik who, of course, declared war not on Muslims but on the children of white liberals. The leads are merely self serving opportunists, but it is the wider cast of characters I find most confusing – the Muslim boys who look lost and terrified at the venomous reaction they generate, the tattooed skinheads who, like Hitler’s bierkeller shock squads, inextricably link bullying drunkenness with political agitation. The notion of finding common ground with such people based solely on a shared skin colour or language or religion or place of birth seems utterly strange to me; I see nothing that I would identify as my “culture” in any of them.
But I am undoubtedly Scottish. I cheer on the Scottish football team (and anyone who is playing against England) and, in certain situations such as English pubs, vamp up my Scottishness. I am as prone, I suppose, to tribalism as the next man or woman. However, I am also aware that I have no Scottish “blood” in me, whatever that means, and have therefore made a choice. Perhaps that is why we seem to have even more difficulty defining what is “Scottish”, why we feel Scotland as a place that includes all, why we find it impossible to define a Scottish writer any more clearly than as someone who was born in Scotland or who lives in Scotland or who writes about Scotland or who…
But would I die for Scotland? Never. I may fight for a moral or political cause I think is right, or to protect the weak, or to stand up for liberties I valued. But I cannot see myself ever putting my life on the line for some indefinable, amorphous collection of human beings whose only common bond is that they find themselves bounded by the same arbitrary geopolitical borders on a map. Neither can I imagine ever asking young people – who, it has to be said, are rarely the sons and daughters of the rich who start wars in the first place – to go off and put their lives on the line in my place
Britain, England, Scotland – whatever the country, that indefinable notion on its own just doesn’t seem to be worth it.