Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Being a Changemaker at New Writing North

I’m pleased to finally be able to bring you news of a very interesting writing project that I formally started today. I’m working as a Changemaker on a 5 month placement at New Writing North, developing a new, youth-led creative writing project which seeks to document the opinions, concerns and frustrations of various young people in Tyneside and Northumberland.

For those of you who don’t know, Changemakers are a fantastic national youth leadership charity who happen to have a base in Newcastle. I got involved with them in September after successfully applying to work with and be trained by them. Changemakers organise leadership development modules alongside placements at host organisations, helping young people to gain real-world experience. New Writing North, who I’ve had involvement with in the past, are one of the hosts this year. The Changemakers mission is simple: “To create a world in which young people have the confidence to lead in employment, public life and society at large, and everyone understands that we need them to.”

So, what am I actually going to be doing? Well, in a nutshell, I’m hoping to collate a collection of creative writing by 15-25 year olds that deals, first-hand, with their experiences of ‘being a young person in uncertain times.’ As a young person who’s directly been effected by societal change and uncertainties, I think that the project is incredibly timely and has huge potential to open up a dialogue for, by and between young people and their peers within their communities and in the wider world. On the eve of George Osborne’s Autumn Statement, when we expect him to announce that austerity measures may have to be carried out until 2018, and with news of arts cuts in Newcastle over the past fortnight, I think this project has potential to become incredibly pertinent and I hope that it can bring young people’s concerns on these and other matters to the wide audience they deserve.

I’ll blogging as the project develops, but using a separate Tumblr site, which you can find here: www.uncertaintimesnwn.tumblr.com

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Fifty Cuppas

50 Cuppas is a new project, drawing attention to, via a chat over the nation's favourite tipple, all the brilliant people living and working in Tyne and Wear. If you want to get involved, please do get in touch!

Thursday, 20 September 2012

The Hardest Battle

"A poet is somebody who feels, and who expresses his feelings through words. This may sound easy, but it isn’t. A lot of people think or believe or know they feel — but that’s thinking or believing or knowing; not feeling. And poetry is feeling — not knowing or believing or thinking.

Almost anybody can learn to think or believe or know, but not a single human being can be taught to feel. Why? Because whenever you think or you believe or you know, you’re a lot of other people: but the moment you feel, you’re nobody but yourself. To be nobody but yourself — in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else — means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.

As for expressing nobody but yourself in words, that means working just a little harder than anybody who isn’t a poet can possibly imagine. Why? Because nothing is quite as easy as using words like somebody else. We all of us do exactly this nearly all of the time – and whenever we do it, we are not poets. If, at the end of your first ten or fifteen years of fighting and working and feeling, you find you’ve written one line of one poem, you’ll be very lucky indeed. And so my advice to all young people who wish to become poets is: do something easy, like learning how to blow up the world — unless you’re not only willing, but glad, to feel and work and fight till you die."

e.e. cummings

Monday, 17 September 2012

Careful Observers

I said a few months ago that I wanted to take some ‘down time’; to reassess what I’m doing what I’m hoping to achieve as a writer. I quoted other writers and sources of intrigue The Dark Mountain Project, Sam Riviere’s 81 Austerities, the Occupy Movement etcetera. – saying that I was – am – bored, frankly, of several things: chiefly the malaise of being an unemployed graduate, but also other things, such as 24 hour news feeds, Twitter, blogs, poetry itself, the me-me-me culture.

Reading this fascinating dialogue, between the poet and journalist Paul Kingsnorth and Doug and Kris Tompkins, former big business owners, I realise that my anger, confusion and hurt stems from not yet having a fully-formed worldview. I suspect that, being 24 years old, this is perfectly normal. Indeed, the above article implies that some of the most ‘successful’ entrepreneurs in history, including Tompkins’s former friend Steve Jobs, have not, or did not, find or attempt to find any such thing. (For the record, this makes a lot more sense in light of having read the whole conversation.)

Reading the latest reviews of my pamphlet, I was heartened and reinvigorated to hear that people I don’t know had recently found merit in poems which I have grown quite cold about. My publisher and other, experienced writers have told me that these feelings are completely natural: that poems written 2,3, 4+ years ago are always going to feel a bit incongruous; a bit jet-lagged, if you will. Nonetheless, being patted on the back is always going to feel good. I may have lost all desire to read a third of the pamphlet ever again, but that doesn’t mean others feel the same. This is the great thing about poetry: published in 1912 or 2012 – it can still win over hearts and minds, as long as it’s convincing.

That in mind, I’m sure you’re now hoping that I will go on (briefly) to link an environmentally-minded conversation to the misgivings of an unknown British poet. I probably won’t do a good job, sorry. It’s not important. If I’ve felt detached lately, it’s because I don’t know who I am. Don’t worry: I’m not going to go all Taking Back Sunday on you here, nor begin firing Nietzsche quotes your way, I’m just stating it as plainly as I can, for myself. I don’t know. I may know parts of it, but I don’t know it all. The quest probably isn’t to do so, though. I doubt there’s a holy grail, in a religious, spiritual or lazy metaphor sense.

I said in a previous blog that I want my poetry to rise to Adrian Mitchell’s challenge; for it to connect with those it portends to satisfy. For it to begin doing that, I think I must first spend more time – years, I expect – getting to know what the ‘it’ I mentioned above might be made of; what I believe and feel and want and need. There will be many wrong turns and dead-ends. Secondly, and (for now) I hold on to this, I think it must embrace fallibility and contradiction, especially my own. I don’t know what the results will look like, but I feel that I’m just beginning to get to a position where I want to write again; where I have that urgency. I’m excited and I’m terrified. I’m waiting as a careful observer.

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Interview with Jen Campbell

Jen Campbell (not related, honest) is the author of the fantastic Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops, as well as being a short story writer and poet. To promote the launch of her debut poetry pamphlet, The Hungry Ghost Festival, which was published by The Rialto on Monday, Jen agreed to an e-interview for this here blog.

I’ll start by mentioning how this came about, because we’ve never actually met. I read one of Jen’s poems in a copy of The Rialto magazine last year in which she name-drops the 35 bus which runs between South Shields and Sunderland – a bus I took to Sixth Form nearly every day for two years. Checking the authors’ notes, I discovered Jen is originally from Tyneside(!) After a few email exchanges, it emerged we went to the same school. A writer, from Cleadon, who went to the same school as me, who writes fantastic poems and has some of them published by an equally fantastic outfit? Well, I just had to know more!

Jake: Hello, Jen! Firstly, thanks a lot for agreeing to do this (rather bizarre) interview. For those who don’t know you and your work, how about a quick introduction?

Jen: Thanks for having me! Well, as for an introduction, I'm a writer and a bookseller. Poetry is my first love. I grew up in the north east, went to Edinburgh University and now live in north London, where I work in an antiquarian bookshop. I also have unhealthy obsession with tea and Jaffa cakes. 

Jake: Some of your poems deal with your childhood home and the surrounding areas in the North East, often focusing on memories of school and of your family. Has moving to other parts of the country, settled as you are now in London, affected the writing of these poems at all?

Jen: I think distance definitely affects writing. I very rarely, for instance, find myself writing about London. I don't know if that's because I live there and my poetry is linked in with nostalgia - I think that probably is the case. I do know that I miss the sea a lot, and I'm also interested in folklore surrounding the sea [especially mermaids and selkies], so when that appears in my poetry I normally link it up with memories of the north east.

Jake: If I’m not mistaken, Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops, which originally featured as a part of your blog, became the book it is because of a re-tweet from Neil Gaiman and the fan base and literary contacts he has. How do you feel about writers and their relationships to the internet? I know that’s quite a dense subject to take on, but I wonder if – despite all its benefits – the internet can sometimes just detract us from the important business of putting pen to paper?

Jen: Weird Things... was never supposed to be a book [it was a very pleasant surprise when it became one!]. I started putting the quotes up on my blog, and the links to those posts were thrown around Twitter by other bookshops and publishing houses; it was mentioned in The Guardian, Buzzfeed and The Huffington Post. I'd just signed with my agent, Charlie, for my fiction work when Neil Gaiman then blogged about 'Weird Things...' which again opened it up to a much wider audience. One of the people who read his blog post on my blog post [*mind boggle*] was Hugh, who works at Constable and Robinson. He used to work at Ripping Yarns [my bookshop] ten years ago, and found 'Weird Things...' amusing. He got in touch to ask if I'd be interested in making it into a book. We never thought it would be as successful as it has been [sitting in The Sunday Times Bestseller List for five weeks], which has been another pleasant surprise!

So, I can't fault Twitter in the amount it's helped me connect with other writers and also how it's helped me [and other bookshops] in the organisation of talks and events. It makes the book world a whole lot more personable, which is fab. 

However, there is that quote knocking around: 'Writing a book is 3% good writing and 97% not getting distracted by the internet.' There's definitely something to be said for that, too! Procrastination is a nasty bugger. 

Jake: Your poems often seem to me like Russian Matryoshka dolls; showing us, initially, quite a grand scene, but really there are many smaller things going on below the surface. I wonder if you could tell me a little bit about the processes you go through in writing poems like ‘The Patron Saints of Animals’, which to me is a great example of writing that appears simplistic, but is deceptively complex and well crafted?

Jen: I'm not going do an Alice Walker and say that my poems [like her characters] talk to me. However, I do find myself building scenes for poems in my head a long time before I start to write them down. They're forming there, until I feel the need to really write them down. That doesn't happen with every poem, but it does with ones such as 'Patron Saints...', 'Memories of His Sister' etc which have a bit of a narrative. 'The Patron Saints...' is, in my head, set in a farmhouse that was out the back of my parents' garden. So, to me, it's about a farm, but also a dysfunctional family who don't communicate with each other. There are also elements of the supernatural and rituals weaved in and also references to Animal Farm [to reflect the strange nature of the family it depicts]. So, one initial image does grow like a Hydra when I'm writing it; I try to capture it as best as I can, and just hope that other people enjoy it. 

Jake: Poetry pamphlets seems to be the ‘in thing’ at the moment, and not just for emerging writers – many established poets are using them to try and flesh out concise ideas or sequences, and the best examples often end up as beautiful pieces of art in their own right. Did you intend to produce a pamphlet sized collection of poems first, before thinking of a full collection, or was it quite an organic thing?

Jen: I hadn't always planned to, but I could tell when I was writing poems such as 'Angel,' 'Mountain Miners' and 'Cross-hatch' that I was collecting a lot of north-east themed poems. I could also tell that it wasn't going to be a full-length collection [I'm working on one of those at the moment which is about deformities and freak shows, tied in with myth], so a pamphlet seemed like a good thing to aim for, and rather appropriate for my first collection to be centred around my childhood. Pamphlets are a great way to get your work out there, and I've loved The Rialto for a long time so I was thrilled when they agreed to publish the collection.  

Jake: Finally, what’s next for your writing career, Jen?

Jen: Well, I'm working on a full-length poetry collection, and a novel. There will probably be a sequel of 'Weird Things...' at some point - at the moment I'm getting ready for the release of that in the States. :) 

The Hungry Ghost Festival is officially out now from The Rialto. Go and buy a copy!

To hear Jen reading one of the poems, have a look at her blog.

Monday, 16 July 2012

The Reluctant Protestor

Now that the Occupy Movement seems to have died down, or, rather, now that the majority of commercial media seems to have grown bored of it, this summer seems a pertinent time to use that distance as a point for reflection. I remember, last winter, when Occupy set up camp at Grey’s Monument in Newcastle, echoing the protests of those outside St. Paul’s and Wall Street.
For many, they were a figure of fun; washed-out hippies to be sneered at by passers-by on their way out of the Metro station. For others, the ‘core’ group, it seemed, acted as a catalyst for splinter movements of varying dispositions: from students in Che Guevara t-shirts to the city’s homeless, if there was one thing Occupy did well it was to provide an alternative sphere of congress within the super sphere of commercial life and ‘normality’ that tried, and succeeded, in going on around it.

I was working at a large, national bookselling chain opposite the protesters’ camp almost throughout its brief history. On lunch breaks in the staff room, we often heard various projected protests, as disgruntled people chanted into megaphones and tried, despite the rain and cold, to reclaim a little piece of the city. A criticism which has been directed at the Occupy protestors, and there are many, is that the Movement is undermined by a lack of clear goals. I’ve read and agreed with many deconstructions of the ‘we are the 99%’ slogan – of which this is the best – and a large part of me does agree with the people who said that their protests were futile because they sought an abstract absolution; some total revolution which was going to swiftly replace all the evils that those bankers did with sunshine and rainbows, complete, presumably, with golden pots of money to be redistributed Robin Hood style to the taxpayer.

But the part of me that wasn’t swept away by point of sale and conversion forecasts said otherwise. While perhaps there are various, easy blows to be aimed at the protesters, it somehow seems to me, now that I’m out of that job and can view the period with more objectivity, that what went on at the foot of Grey’s Monument last winter was, in the long term, probably far more important than the Christmas sales targets of the large, national bookseller. The 16 year old punk-rocker within me would have empathised, albeit far less cogently, with the ethos of the protesters, but 16 year old selves must evolve and sitting in the freezing rain in the middle of Newcastle in December is not for this 23 year old graduate. In a sense, this is rather sad and all too typical a condition of working, however briefly, in retail (and indeed within the consumer-capitalist society we inhabit).

A band I used to listen to tirelessly at that ‘16 year old punk-rocker’ stage was Rise Against. Their politically sharp lyrics, combined with a reckless sense of optimism in the face of an unjust world, all over the top of soaring riffs and machine-gun drums, were what formed and challenged some of the core beliefs I had, and, in some cases, still have. While I accept that a 16 year old’s perspective is necessarily bound up in being influenced a little too easily by alternative music and culture, and is arguably not to be trusted, I somehow resent my 16 year old self and the gung-ho approach to making things right that I thought I could embody. That same attitude was apparent in the Occupy Protesters. But I had bills to pay, an overdraft to get out of, a future to save for – it would have been, if nothing else, a forced anachronism on my part to pretend I still burned with the same fury.

Funny, then, that on listening to the new Rise Against album, Endgame, (released 8 years after Revolutions Per Minute, the album which inspired much of my teen angst above), the first lines should be: ‘Are there no fighters left here anymore? Are we the generation we’ve been waiting for? Or are we patiently burning, waiting to be saved?’ I don’t think I need to give any further explanation on that one.

The author and public speaker Charles Eisenstein – whose humility and insight in broaching the ‘big issues’ is genuinely refreshing – offers [though I am shoe-horning his comments to fit this retrospective narrative] a gentle reminder of the true purpose of the movement: to bear witness and tell the truth. ‘The physical presence of the Occupiers’, Eisenstein writes, ‘allows them to bring truths to public awareness, to speak the unspoken, because unlike words on a screen they do not go away without confrontation.’

That ‘bear witness’ speaks to the me of 2012 in a big way. In my last blog, I complained about poetry’s tendency to avoid political discourse. I agree with those who say political poetry should not be preachy, but the opposite – not even tackling the issues – is surely worse. While I’m not the same person I was when I was 16, and while you’ll probably not find me camped outside a monument next time a protest kicks up, you will, I hope, find me attempting poetry which seeks simultaneously to question, chronicle and make sense of these bizarre, infuriating and hugely interesting times in which we live. And I aim to embrace some of the contradictions and hypocrisies I’ve considered above, mashing my own quirks and flaws into the varying political discourses that surround these strange times. Auden said, ‘All  I have is a voice’. Sometimes, a voice is all you need to have.

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Down Time

You’ll have noticed from my recent blogs and Facebook rants, should you be ‘my friend’, that I’ve been a bit pissed off recently. I don’t want to delve too deeply into the whys and wherefores (hence the title of this post), beyond saying that I’m fed up with several things at the minute, one of which, sadly, is poetry. I feel the urge to take a step back, to get some air.

A while ago, Clare Pollard talked about the ‘overwhelming’ British poetry scene. She noted how it got her down: ‘millions of us, all frantically posting and waving and shouting ‘read me’’, suggesting sometimes she needs to remind herself why poetry is important, finding more and more that that importance, that urgency, stems from poetry written by those whose nations’ stability and freedoms are somewhat more precarious than our own.

While I’m all for blogging, networking and self-promotion, I have now reached a point where I really don’t want to hear about poetic in-fights and squabbles every time I go online. I don’t care who rejected you. I don’t care if you’ve set up a new magazine and are looking for talented new voices. I don’t care if you’re organising a workshop for young adults in Bognor Regis. At least not all the bloody time. And it is just about every time I go online that I see nihilistic PR or emotional rants, themselves often followed by a torrent of cynical cat-fighting and fakery. I’m certainly complicit – be it within the poetry community or not – in what Clare describes as the thousands of voices ‘jostling for position’. It’s all gotten very rat-racey; pandering, I think, too much to the dominant paradigm of consumer capitalism, a paradigm that is surely, in its current guise, at or close to a snapping point.

I’ve sensed my own work becoming more politicised lately, only I’m reluctant to push it any further in that direction for the time being because I’m aware of how hypocritical I come across. Take the above: you’ll doubtless see me promoting my upcoming reading in Norwich, or the workshop I’m running in August for the SeaChange project, or something else to do with poetry and books at some point in the coming days, weeks and months. Fine. Fine for me and fine for all the other jostlers, all of us trying to arse-kiss our way onto Faber’s list.

But I’m not writing the type of poetry that I think this country needs. I talked recently to a close friend who is not caught up in this bizarre world (a world, coincidentally, that my own publisher labelled equally as odd, stating that if people acted in such strange ways in any other profession, their colleagues would tell them to fuck off) who recited Adrian Mitchell’s (in[?])famous quote on poetry and its (often lacklustre) audience: ‘Most people ignore most poetry because most poetry ignores most people.’ While he admires my poetry and has enjoyed some of the other performances he’s seen and things he’s read, his opinion still stands. And it is hard to argue with.

So what type of poetry do I think this country needs? Well, for a start I think it needs the courage of projects like The Dark Mountain Project. It also needs the ingenuity of things like 81 Austerities (with perhaps a little less irony), and it certainly needs more of the attitude and honesty of bands like Jim Lockey and the Solemn Sun. But a list of upgrades and refinements isn’t going to do much. For now, I’m going to take a back seat and brood a while. If there’s one concrete reason why people still choose to ignore poetry, I think, frankly, Mitchell has already nailed it: a lot of it is dull and is wholly disengaged with the world outside of that which it purports to shine a light on.

Monday, 25 June 2012

A Culture of Entitlement?

2012 feels like a significant time to be questioning where England is going. On the day David Cameron announces huge shake ups to the benefits system; in a summer where we saw hundreds of thousands of union flags waved obediently at the Queen; and in the lead up to the Olympics – already dubbed a summer of global importance, in which the world will be watching Britain – all I have to say is this: how am I meant to feel about this baffled Britain, with its polarising extremities: its pomp and tradition; its history and heritage; its millionaires and  its homeless; its enormous youth unemployment and identikit town centres?

David Cameron has came out today and said that “For literally millions, the passage to independence is several years living in their childhood bedroom as they save up to move out; while for many others, it’s a trip to the council where they can get housing benefit at 18 or 19 – even if they’re not actively seeking work.” Cameron fails to realise that the issue is much more complex than that. I, for example, could be said to fit into both of those categories, the latter very unwittingly. While I accept that I am in a fortunate position to be able to retreat to my childhood bedroom to begin saving up to move out, I resent that what Cameron seems to be implying is that there are only two types of benefit claimant – those lower to upper-middle class young graduates who haven’t managed to get onto the career ladder, and those who, apparently, have never had any intention of doing so. He also, evidently, has never been to a job centre. As a new claimant, I understand that when we strip away social prejudices, there isn’t much separating me, the 24 year old graduate, and the 17 year old with no GCSEs. Both of us can, if we wish, make a mockery of the system, filling out a load of tripe on our jobseekers’ diaries to still receive 50 odd quid a week for the privilege. When he added to his concerns on the ‘culture of entitlement’, stating that those who have not found work after two or more years on benefits will be made to conduct some kind of “compulsory community work, such as tidying a park”, I really began to wince. The suggestion is simple: if I’m not putting money into the economy, I can’t possibly be ‘helping my community’, so I should take a minimum wage job and just get on with it. We are, at the end of the day, all in this together, aren’t we?

Here we reach my main gripe, not only with Cameron or his Con-Dem Coalition, but with the most alienating of all aspects of mainstream politics as I have seen them over the past 15 years: the belief that every other aspect of a fulfilled lifestyle is inexorably linked to the success of the economy. There was a time, during the lead-up to the last election, when David Cameron’s Big Society looked quite promising. His support for bottom-up, community driven entrepreneurial projects and social development schemes seemed genuine. Then he totally undermined himself and those schemes by taking a chainsaw to most of the basic infrastructures that are crucial to their operation, such as libraries and arts funding. Finally, he did a Bill Clinton crossed with an Ostrich, nose-diving his face into the sand known as it’s the economy, stupid.  

If we were expecting this situation to present the other major political parties with an opportunity to challenge Cameron’s faith in the economy, then we were wrong. Stephen Timms, the Labour MP and shadow financial secretary to the Treasury, has said that despite the rows over the budget reforms within the coalition, what they [Clegg-ron] should actually be concentrating on  is “get[ting] growth back into the economy”. I’m sorry, but does this not sound like an echo of David Cameron [discussing the Euro Zone]: “We need to get really serious about growth.” He’s serious, you know. Tell that to the people in the job centre. Wait, you mean they already do? Oh, and it’s not working? Ah. Yes. We’re back to my main point: all of these policies and suggested reforms and arguing are irrelevant when the bigger issue is taken into consideration: the economic system as we know it is fucked. I’m not talking as a banker, politician or wannabe broadsheet columnist when I say that, either. What I’m saying is it hasn’t worked for some time; its aims and objectives are rooted in the past, when there were less people, more resources and a more secure climate. As someone born in 1988, the vast majority of my life, right up until the financial crisis, was lived amidst the abundance of this capitalist system working, more or less without a hitch. I have known wealth and I was promised it would always be there, but I know it won’t. The vast majority of politicians pray at the altar of GDP to the Gods of the economy, but those Gods have abandoned us, and the sooner we realise that’s the case, the better. If Cameron is serious about appealing to the hard-working British families who are resenting those who believe they should get the world on a plate for nothing, he needs to realise that the solution, in the main, no longer lies in propping up a system which bottomed-out several years ago. We need real community investment, real equality and fairness and realistic ambitions to strive for – for the sake of ourselves and future generations. What  we don’t need is a man who’s never had to go into a Job Centre telling us how and where to start creating those things.

Sunday, 24 June 2012

Bruce Springsteen and the Pound Signs

This weekend I experienced two of the best musical performances I’ve seen in a long, long time. I’m not a music critic, but I know what I like and what works, and I’ve been to a lot of gigs. The two acts I saw within 24 hours of each other were both amazing, their shows life-affirming experiences for the power, inspiration and ethereal soul-lifting effect music can have when done with verve. But here, the similarities end and something far less tangible arises: namely an ambiguity in how two apparently similar events can, if we strip away the music and lyrics, be so very different. I saw Bruce Springsteen at Sunderland’s Stadium of Light on Thursday evening. It cost £65. He played for about 3 and half hours. The following night I saw Ajimal play a headline slot at local acoustic night, The Polite Room, at the Tyneside Cinema for £5. He played for 45 minutes. I don’t want to start deconstructing their sets and putting the performances into a binary ratio of money paid to time on stage because besides being dull, that doesn’t really lead me to the angle from which I want to view these two events.

My uncertainty is borne out of a simple question: how far does (and should) money be a facilitator of the arts? I’m going to get this out of the bag at the outset, by the way: I am a fully paid up hypocrite; as, I believe, we all are, to a lesser or greater extent. Here’s the start of my beef: a pint of lager (Foster’s, brewed in Manchester, England, and near Edinburgh, I believe) cost £4 within the confines of the Stadium of Light. Now, I won’t use this as a vehicle for my real-ale predilections, but even the most casual of beer drinkers knows that Foster’s tastes like camel piss and fag ash. My gripe is not with the taste, but with the siphoning off of money by a multinational brand, into the abstract wallets of its financiers and investors in London and other major cities. For every £4 of the amber nectar poured, I’d be willing to bet that less than 10% of that money stayed in Sunderland. I’m not saying that that is exclusively a bad thing (but it pretty much is), however, would it hurt SAFC/the promoters’ reputation to flex the drinks contracts for events, not to mention matches, and allow even one small bar to sell locally-brewed, infinitely more tasty real ale, keeping more of the punters’ money within the local economy and helping what is a burgeoning, albeit still quite niche, part of North East industry and social life? Really, what would the damage be to Foster’s? The hypocrisy, as you’ve surely already guessed, is that I drank more than one pint of Foster’s. Does that invalidate my point? No, I don’t think it does. In fact, I’d go as far as to say it reinforces it. The joy of capitalism, if you’re the MD at Foster’s, is that music and beer are ideal bed partners. Everyone knows this, particularly those at the SoL who, presumably, when purchasing bulk orders of naff beer, were rewarded with a hearty discount and a safe promise that it’s a win-win all round because people will drink the stuff (almost) regardless of taste and price. 

I am at once complicit in, shocked by, in awe of and confused by this leviathanic system. So much so that I needed to start a new paragraph highlighting the fact!

Those who are even vaguely familiar with the recent history and geography of Sunderland will know that the Stadium of Light occupies the former site of the Wearmouth Colliery, a place where men did what used to exemplify the spirit of the North East: dig shitloads of coal out of the ground despite the conditions and pay. Up here, everyone knows how this story ends: privatisation of industry; unemployment; end of an era. I’m not here to bash Thatcher for what happened on Wearside; for me to do so would be disingenuous – I wasn’t even alive when the wheels were set in motion. What I was fascinated by, standing on what had, only 20 or so years previously been a site of manual labour, was the huge irony created by the convergence of time, space and politics. Many of Bruce Springsteen’s songs are rooted in blue-collar narratives; tales of hard times and economic gloom; a making sense of the class system and its complexities and horrors. His new album, Wrecking Ball, continues in this vein and I credit Springsteen for that. Speaking out for and challenging a world that seems to have its shoes on the wrong feet is a commendable, brave and massively important thing for any artist to do and The Boss does it with tact. What I can’t quite be comfortable with is knowing how much money he must have received to sing us these songs when there must surely have been thousands of people in the audience who saved many months for the privilege. Don’t get me wrong, I know that a reputation cannot survive on kind words alone, and when all the other band members, roadies, technicians and multiple other people behind the scenes are taken into consideration, it’s not actually that expensive (and howay, he did play for a long time), it’s just interesting to note the discord between Bruce Springsteen the artist and Bruce Springsteen the millionaire.

The following night’s gig was an entirely different beast. Yes, a pint was only 5 pence cheaper, but it was, depending on whether you had the German lager or the Wylam ale, a far tastier/ more locally-brewed sensation. Ajimal is the name that singer/songwriter and all-round tremendously talented lad Francis O’Hanlon performs under, and the Tyneside Cinema is the region’s premiere independent cinema/bar/small venue. I’m not going to say much about his style or set as frankly the EP hasn’t even been released yet and this was one of those performances that words can bring little justice to. In short, it was amazing. On his last song, performing entirely without amplification, he walked throughout the crowd, strumming an acoustic guitar and letting his vocal range soar. Hairs on backs of necks were erect. A genuine talent shone. The 60 ish people in the room will doubtless remember the night for a long time, just as the 40,000 at Bruce Springsteen will remember his explosive night of grade A rock ’n’ roll for a long time.

So, cutting a long rant short and attempting to get some resolution on this, I put to you again the question I posed at the start: if money facilitates art, and let’s face it, it really does, how should we feel when we know it can be done equally well on a far lesser budget? I await your answers and philosophical/political takes on this because I’m sure I’m not the only one who finds it all quite strange.

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Review: Provincial by John K. Samson

Not a poetry post, but you need this album in your life. A huge fan of The Weakerthans for a few years now, I was pretty excited when I heard that lead singer, John K.Samson, had assembled a full album of his own material. I won’t bore you with too much factual guff on Samson and his musical career other than to categorically state that he is, in my opinion, the world’s best living lyricist, possibly of all time. That, of course, is a monumentally grand claim, but I honestly believe he is a real poet, penning better lines than half of the so-called greats. Anyway, if you are inclined to search his stuff out, I would recommend starting with his band’s second album, Left and Leaving, before you listen to this – the more ‘full’ sound of his Weakerthans material is probably an easier route ‘in’ to his work.

The first thing that is patently obvious when listening to Provincial is how much Samson is effected by, and ambivalent to, his Canadian landscape, particularly Manitoba. The conceit threading together this album is journeys, and in Canada they don’t get much more epic. The first song, ‘Highway 1East’, serves as a kind of epigraph on top of an epigraph. The album notes feature a quote from the poet Karen Solie: ‘Everything happens here, then nothing / for a long long time’. Samson broods similarly: ‘some sarcastic satellite says that I’m not anywhere’. We know, if we’ve ever used a Sat-Nav system on a long journey, precisely what he means: our technological tools make a mockery of us when we rely too heavily on them.

If there are radio-friendly pop songs on this album, they don’t come catchier than ‘Cruise Night’. This is Samson at his best: a deceptively simple, hook-filled guitar melody, an almost blasé rock ’n’ roll drum beat, and the apparently prosaic lyrics that say so much of everyday situations. Who hasn’t simply done as Samson sings and driven in one direction then turned around, for the thrill of nothing more than feeling all those pistons and horsepower through the wheel?

The allusions to video games in Provincial are brilliantly captured and as with nearly everything Samson writes, serve as microcosms for worlds and characters that shine a light on our own. In ‘When I Write My Master’s Thesis’, Samson opens: ‘Oh the streets of Grand Theft Auto San Andreas fill with smoke. The doorbell rings, I put my controller down, then pick it up and shoot some things.’ Again, it’s a scene most of us are familiar with, but Samson imbues it with substance, altering its meaning. That opening – ‘oh, the streets...’ – a song writing cliché if ever there was one, is tipped on its head in the next bar; the bathos flawlessly balancing nerd and masters student.

In the middle of the album, Samson juxtaposes the tenderness of ‘Letter in Icelandic from the Ninette San’ with the gutsy, jagged ‘Longitudinal Centre’. The songs work very well on their own, but it is their arrangement, in the above order respectively, that makes me really admire Samson’s craft. Take ‘Letter in Icelandic...’, with its simple chords, brushed snares and lilting violins and contrast it to ‘Longitudinal Centre’, the heaviest song Samson has recorded since his time in Propagandhi, and you get an ideal crux for an album; a hinge on which both sides expertly hang. Don’t let that last fragment fool you, though: the heaviness is an earned one, and it achieves those crushing drums and piercing riff because of lines that make you want to smile and cry at the same time. I feel compelled to quote an entire section in full, but the effect can’t be fully realised until you hear the lyrics with the music: ‘The sun pulls me out a bit and lets me go, and I’m a vacuum power cord in the back of that van full of kids cleaning carpets for the Lord, so I make a little list of sounds that have comforted us in the past: the roar of the rumble strips, and the Mennomite metre of the flood forecast, or how the wind strums on those signs that say the Atlantic and Pacific are the very same far away.’

I mean, come on, that’s genius, is it not? The album winds down, coming (almost) full circle, at least thematically, on the penultimate track, ‘Highway 1 West’. The refrain, ‘too far to walk to anywhere from here’ rounds off the feelings of isolation, of vastness, of being a speck of dust on the gargantuan map of Canada. But it’s the last song, ‘Taps Reversed’, featuring the excellent vocals of Samson’s wife, Christine Fellows, that really ends this album in the best way. Functioning as a sort of mock cutesy ballad for an old house, the dual vocals punctuate a dour, wannabe jumpy piano, stopping the song from sliding into forced pathos. If the stunning line – ‘the sidewalk cracks spell the way back home in one uninterrupted palindrome’ – don’t reflect Samson’s talent and honesty, then I don’t know what does. I sincerely urge you to seek this album out, then everything else by The Weakerthans. You will not regret it.