From Emo to Indie

Such is art to be introspective, but how much is too much?

The Emo Diaries: The Digital Generation and How They Express Themselves

Zach Braff’s would-be mistress in The Last Kiss first seduces him with the bittersweet truth that: "The world is moving so fast now that we start freaking long before our parents did because we don't ever stop to breathe anymore."

Mid-life crises make for less trendy material, and so it’s the quarter-life crises of hipster working professionals that have the digital generation all a buzz. Proving to the world they have their fingers on the pulse, the creative team of Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick – also behind My So-Called Life and the Leonardo DiCaprio film Blood Diamond – are set to release Quarterlife, an online internet series about twentysomethings "coming of age in the digital generation," on November 11th.

Quarterlife will be distributed through Myspace in eight-minute video clips. Shortly after, episodes will also be available for download off quarterlife.com – a new social networking site targeted at media-types and creative-wannabes with promises to help them "get discovered". The show itself follows a group of young writers and artists who are searching for their "big break".

Internet series have been made before, such as YouTube’s infamous http://nymag.com/arts/tv/features/19376/”>lonelygirl15. In 2006 Imogen Heap used MySpace to choose supporting acts for a UK tour. And more recently Film4 and Vertigo Films used MySpace to audition actors for Faintheart, a romantic comedy set for summer 2008.

But Quarterlife has been hailed by some in the media industry as "the first ‘network quality’ show to be produced specifically for the Web."

Harry Potter and Crises of Identity: Who do you belong to?

Last week, Harry Potter as a left-wing intellectual hero who triumphs over the middle-class petit bourgeoisie. The cover story, "Why Harry Potter is of the Left" identified the non-magical Muggles as the Thatcherite middle-class, and the magical population at Hogwarts as the intellectual aristocracy of the Left.

But this isn’t the first time someone has claimed Potter as one of their own. And this isn’t the first time that reader subjectivity clashes with current debates on identity politics.

Previously, parallels had been drawn between Harry Potter and Jesus Christ, not to mention the suggestion that Rowling’s books are none other than Looking for God in Harry Pottermodern-day adaptations of biblical parable. Some had suggested using Harry Potter’s popularity as a way to spread Christianity, and the Church of England even published a guide to evangelism using Rowling’s books.

Meanwhile, Rowling set cyberspace ablaze last week with her revelation that Dumbledore is gay.

London Gets a Big Dose of Canadian Indie

Canada has proved to be an Canada’s rock’n’roll renaissance unlikely hotbed of musical talent in recent years with indie-rock bands like Arcade Fire, Broken Social Scene and Feist. Some of the country's best bands are hitting the UK this month.

The crash-course in Canadian indie began on 26 October when the Montreal-based Arcade Fire brought their emotionally-charged live show to Glasgow. The band - on tour until 19 November – are busy promoting their second album, Neon Bible, while issuing witty and incisive rebuttals to the New Yorker’s music critic Sasha Frere-Jones, who recently called today’s indie music too white and too polite. They responded last week by compiling an mp3 of clips that prove he’s wrong. Their 2004 debut album, Funeral, was called one of "the decade’s most remarkable rock albums".

And that's not all. November sees an invasion of jittery dance-punk and introspective vocals from the northern bit of North America. The energetic British Columbian group Hot Hot Heat will be in the country from the 10th – 21st. Soon after Hot Hot Heat get started, the Ontario-based Alexisonfire will hit London on November 13. Finishing it off are The Weakerthans, the smart and introspective indie folk band with punk rock roots from Winnipeg, Manitoba. They land in the UK on November 23 and are promoting their new album, Reunion Tour.

Food-Obsessed: If we are what we eat, how self-absorbed can we get?

In what should have been an ironic joke – though probably just a result of poor planning – this week was both British Sausage Week and National Vegan Week. But in general this year has seen a deluge of debate and discussion on the things people eat.

Over the months we’ve seen piece after piece of quasi-anthropological "why do we eat what we eat?" writing, from Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Mineral – in which she documents a year lived as a locavore (one who only eats food grown locally) – to The Omnivore’s Dilemma – the book by Michael Pollan which looks at how our food is grown and asks (for reasons of both health and ethics) "what should we have for dinner?" For the more historically inclined, we have the natural and social History of Food coming in December.

Meanwhile, Milk-n-Honey, a play based on interviews with farmers, cooks, dumpster divers, and others involved in production and consumption of edibles is currently on in New York.

Also taking advantage of the fusion of food and ideas, the London Review Cake Shop opens 7 November, as the London Review of Books expands its property and mandate to include the sale and consumption of baked goods, hoping the move will not be seen as an emulation of the fusion of big-time coffee chains with equally big-time bookstores, but rather the "London coffeehouse of restoration times."

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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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