Cold War returns

The similarities between Afghanistan and Indiana, USA plus other tales from the arts world

So much for détente. The Cold War (Arts, circa.2007) is back on, complete with all those wonderfully droll references to sub-zero temperatures. Just when the Royal Academy appeared to have gained permission for the From Russia exhibition, British ambassador Tony Brenton was summoned to explain to the foreign ministry why British Council offices in St Petersburg and Yekaterinburg had opened despite a demand to cease their activities from January 1st.

Of course, the rather sour irony of all this is that, back in the land of Shakespeare & Fry, the Arts Council continues its cull. Following on from Equity’s gnashing of teeth last week, the Tangrum Theatre led London in silent protest, whilst the National’s artistic director Nicholas Hytner (despite being head of one of the 75% of organisations to receive increased funding) branded the ACE’s spending review a ‘strategic catastrophe’ and referred to its regional bodies as those ‘unacceptable fiefdoms’.

Middle Eastern Politik

Due to return to the Royal Festival Hall in a weeks, the Israeli pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim became the first person in the world to possess both Israeli and Palestinian passports after being granted Palestinian citizenship for his efforts promoting cultural exchange between Israel and the Arab world. Presented the passport after a Beethoven recital in Ramallah the pioneer of peace and understanding said: ‘I hope that my new status will be an example of Israeli-Palestinian coexistence’.

Such tolerance and understanding does not appear, however, to be notable attributes of the Afghan state-run Film Council. Wary of the reaction to the rape scene in the film adaptation of Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, they banned both its import and exhibition. The incredulity felt by many Afghans at what has been perceived as an inflammatory and anti-Islamic act prompted Paramount Pictures to fly the film’s three child actors to a secret location in the United Arab Emirates, scared for their safety. The only other place where the story was also nearly banned due to a clamorous reaction to the rape scene? Indiana, USA.

Let It Be Known, There's Money in Poetry

£15,000 worth to be precise. Sean O'Brien scooped an unprecedented poetry double (and the increased cash prize), after adding the TS Elliot prize for poetry to the Forward gong he collected last year. To say that poetry is the new investment banking might be a bit hasty however; I don't see Tony Blair (proud employee of JP Morgan) penning his own 'Ode to Haditha' on the side just yet.

In music, Radiohead continued to disrupt the industry's economic stability, playing a EMI combusted all on its own and Jarvis Cocker slipped effortlessly on to Radio 4, offering a refreshingly passionate assessment of fanzines.

Elsewhere, in Italy, nude models took heart from the Hollywood pickets and went on strike for better pay and conditions (it's 'a tough, cold job' noted Antonella Migliorini,42) and everybody (apart from our own Ryan Gilbey) gushed, fawned and bowed at the feet of the Coen brothers' No Country for Old Men. One suspects, in many cases before the film was even watched.

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David Keenan's new novel is a dizzying recall of adolescence

This Is Memorial Device vividly recalls the teen years of the post-punk generation. I'm just not sure I wanted to remember.

Imagine dropping down the ­metaphysical wormhole to the scene of your adolescent self, with all your mates; with all that immortal music, sex, drugs, madness and tempestuousness. For some of us it’s a place we would rather not revisit. For the post-punk generation, David Keenan’s debut novel sends us plunging into that era anyway – violently, viscerally, surreally – in this “Hallucinated Oral History of the Post-Punk scene in Airdrie, Coatbridge and Environs 1978-1986”. Keenan’s real-life west coast Scotland is the home of a fictional dissonant, radical group called Memorial Device, whose underground misadventures are transmitted through a constellation of eyewitness accounts and psychedelic reveries from the damaged, delirious misfits in and around a band that sounded, as the narrator Ross Raymond describes it, “like Airdrie, like a black fucking hole”.

Such were the post-punk provinces across the UK, vividly realised here, populated by John Peel apostles transcending dead-end reality in bedsits wallpapered with pages from the NME and Sounds, romantic young minds consumed by Johnny Thunders and Iggy Pop, Jack Kerouac and H P Lovecraft. These are murky everytowns where, as Ross writes, “music deformed my life rather than just changed it”.

Keenan – an author, journalist, jazz critic, obsessive scholar of psych-folk – has a febrile imagination and his fiction debut is a fantastical meander in intense, magical-realist prose. Much like in youth itself, you’ve no idea what’s happening, or where you’re going, each chapter a crunching gear change of new characters who fizz in, dazzle, disappear and reappear. The chapter headings are filled with unfathomable imagery:

 

22. Ships Rising Up and Passing Through the Water Full of Sunlight and Memory the Tricks That It Plays: Bruce Cook on Autonomic Dreaming with Lucas and Vanity and all the baggage that comes back to haunt you like ghostly ships at the bottom of the ocean in a graveyard beneath the sea breaking free and rising to the surface.

 

This is the breathless style that dominates the book. Full stops are sporadically abandoned for chaotic streams of consciousness (Paul Morley’s sentences are tweets in comparison), like being trapped inside the amphetamine-boggled brain of Spud in the celebrated job-interview scene from Trainspotting (a struggle at times, with none of the daft jokes). With each new voice comes more forensic musical analysis, lurid recollections – of a barbaric scalping, of wanking on acid, of porn, puke, piss – and densely packed rushes of salty information. Ross’s co-author Johnny McLaughlin recalls his sexual exploits as a 17-year-old: he was “a collector . . . a gourmet, a pussy-eater (a body-gorger) (a piss-drinker, a shit-lapper), a woman-lover, a tit-biter, an auto-asphyxiator (an ass-lover, a panty-smotherer), a heel-worshipper (a hose-hugger)”. There’s as much sex here, it turns out, as music.

There are inevitable echoes of those fellow countrymen of Keenan’s, the literary dark lords Irvine Welsh and John Niven, yet little hilarity. But, mercifully, there are also passages of surrealist beauty: through prison bars, a main character is hypnotised by the moon, bathed in its “strange silver glow that made it seem like it was on fire, like ice on fire”, feeling “like a crystal ­being cleansed”. The last chapter is stunning, a soaring, existentialist, cosmic crescendo.

Memorial Device’s lead singer, the charismatic, amnesia-blighted, journal-writing Lucas, has his writing described as “a walking frame or a wheelchair, a crutch, which when you think about it is what most writing is, something to support the figure of the writer, so that he doesn’t fall back in the primordial soup of everyone else, which is no one”. Ultimately, This Is Memorial Device uses post-punk merely as its skeleton frame. It is a meditation on memory and perspective, on the magical forces of language, on the absurdity of existence and the dreadful thoughts bubbling like toxic fluid below the fragile surface of every human brain. Despite its black-humour set pieces (and a comically colossal, micro-detailed appendix, the undertaking of a madman), it’s a serious, disturbing book, free-form literary jazz for agonised over-thinkers, perhaps like the minds of intense young men.

In these creatively risk-averse times, it’s heroically bizarre, if more admirable than lovable. By the end, you’re exhausted, and happy to file it away for ever, along with the young life you no longer wish to live.

Sylvia Patterson is the author of “I’m Not With the Band” (Sphere)

This Is Memorial Device by David Keenan is published by Faber & Faber (298pp, £14.99)

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times