Thursday, 31 March 2011

100 Word Review: Donkey Kong Country Returns

Despite having a mostly enjoyable time during my return to Donkey Kong’s Island, I’d like to moan about the stupid pig that pops up to show you the way after a few attempts at a level. He hops up and down, as eager to get your attention as a teacher’s pet who knows the answer to the question that will win 10 points towards the House Cup! Just because a level requires to be completed in such a specific manner that it takes me 50 attempts does not mean that I don’t know how. Bloody pig!

ACE cuts & Accountability

Yesterday morning, countless small poetry organisations found out their arts council funding had been removed entirely, while many larger, more lucrative establishments awoke to a fully replenished pot. Faber, this country's financially dominent poetry publisher, with a rather healthy line in middlebrow fiction, were awarded £160,000 of public money, despite their investment in new poets being far too little, far too late (eight pricey pamphlets over the last two to three years, none of which were permitted a title). A thus far mild recession has been used as the cover for an ideological attack on the arts by a government committed to the interests of big business and rather gamely hoping that the rest of civilisation will sort itself out.

In terms of the process behind these developments, the arts council has characterised its actions as a series of "tough decisions". Actually, their tack seems rather straightforward. The smaller, more socially progressive, less publicly visible organisations have been dumped, while those with a claim to being big stonking cultural institutions have largely escaped unharmed. It's a conservative redistribution of funds for a Conservative government.

On reading some of the justifiably outraged responses to this situation, however, there's a faint whiff of entitlement that undermines the case against this savagery. This piece in the Evening Standard bemoans the arts council's predisposition to favour poorer, more ethnically diverse areas, where, one might imagine, the money is most needed and the results easiest to ignore by an artistic establishment still in thrall to the image of the fiercely intellectual, explosively bigoted, white, male pensmith:

"So, let's get this right, I said. If I took over an old theatre east of London and put on a play about the slave trade starring West Indian actors... She interrupted: 'You'd get more money than you'd need.'
An organisation that is supposed to finance the arts sees itself as having some higher, missionary purpose, reaching out into places where there is little cultural life. No matter that the people who live there may not want it or that in pursuit of their sociopolitical endeavour they ignore artistic excellence."

Artistic excellence, eh? I wonder who gets to decide what fulfils that criteria, and according to what model.

Meanwhile, in today's Independent viewspaper, ACE is rightly taken to task for cutting the funding to the Poetry Book Society. But despite having an obviously rightous case to make, John Walsh can't resist tossing out some suspicious-looking assertions:

"For nearly 60 years, the PBS's distinguished judges (Philip Larkin was chairman in the 1980s) have steered the nation's poetry-lovers towards the best stuff around ... The Poetry Book Society has for 57 years kept us up to speed about our finest home-grown poets, and rewarded them every year."

If there's one thing you don't do when rallying to an organisation's cause, it's inadvertently point out its failings. One of the PBS's main problems in recent years has been its stylistically stilted tastes and failure to embrace the fuller range of British poetry. This holds true for both its book club recommendations and the TS Eliot shortlist, which has cycled through many of the same big names whilst entirely ignoring the majority of publishers. The idea of a list which doesn't feature at least two or three Faber books, the rest being made up chiefly of Carcanet, Bloodaxe and Picador, apparently doesn't bear thinking about. After all, these presses stand for 'artistic excellence', to the point where one genuinely doubts that all or even most poetry books published every year in this country are so much as glanced at by those elected to pick the 'best'.

This may even have been a concern of ACE in arriving at their decision. An extremely pissed off George Szirtes insinuated as such in his blog post on the subject:

"The Arts Council sent out an observer who could not have done a better of job of stabbing the organisation in the back if she had been paid to do it. Her report was grudgingly complimentary but noted that she would not have had quite that shortlist ..."

Then he tellingly adds:

"... (as if it was any business of hers to comment on it, ignoring the fact that there were two Nobel Prize winners on same list) ..."

Ah! Naturally, the shortlist can't be questioned if it has Nobel Prize winners in it, certainly not by someone who Szirtes "wouldn't particularly trust to make any judgment on poetry".

Who would he trust to make judgements on poetry? Perhaps someone like Ruth Padel, the chair of the 2010 Forward Prize committee, who went on to give a glowing review of one of the shortlisted titles (Fiona Sampson's 'Rough Music') in a mainstream paper and subsequently made a prominent appearance in Poetry Review, which Sampson edits, all while the prize was still in play. Private Eye picked up on this and noted that "only in zany poetry world" could such blatant back-scratching go on.

Perhaps someone like Szirtes himself, who has just judged the National Poetry Competition. He's objective and he knows about poetry, right? Well, after putting the following point to him in response to this point on his blog -

"Actually, I think this is exactly the sort of area they should be sticking their noses in. Not to find an excuse to cut funding, which is the way they seem to have played it, but to introduce some kind of accountability to the process. Really, though, a comment along the lines of "I would have picked different" is piss-poor - I mean something more like a rigorous assessment of the diversity of the shortlist over a number of years, particularly in terms of publishers, women and minority groups. Sadly, I think they could well have made a case for the actual prize-giving being tunnel-visioned and conservative, and published their findings."

- I more-or-less immediately received the following pair of responses: 

"I was about to type something rude here for you, Jon. Please don't bother coming here again. From now on I shall be deleting your snide little comments."

"You have a bloody nerve to talk about accountability! You certainly know how to pick your language! Would you like to make a charge of unaccountability or improper conduct now in public?"

Now, the National Poetry Prize is supposedly judged anonymously, and I was highly commended in it last year. But all of a sudden, I feel very, very much like I picked the right year. What are the chances, honestly, of a judging panel with Szirtes on it ever considering anything by me for a prize again? You can call this crazy paranoia, if you wish - I've heard enough now from other people's experiences with Szirtes to consider this view a reasonable one. (edit: Just to make clear, I'm not suggesting here that I've heard any inside info hinting that Szirtes has been a corrupt judge - just tales of other people's personal experiences in dealing with him, the underlying point being: if this is how he reacts to confrontation, why is he inherently likely to be a more objective, even-handed judge than the ACE officer whom he feels has no business commenting on the merits of certain poetry?)

Of course, it's this threat that hangs in the air and dissuades younger or newer poets from being forthright about serious problems of credibility within the poetry world. How easy is it to have your name repeated in higher circles (those likely to find themselves recipients and judges of prizes) as one of those trouble-makers who is best entirely ignored, for the sake of maintaining the standard of 'artistic excellence'?

All of which is to come to this point: the cuts are abrupt and highly damaging, but some accountability has to be called for. That arts organisations are run in such a way as to continually depend on public money is regrettable, though in some cases, one has to concede, unavoidable. But whilst the removal of funding from the Poetry Book Society is a terrible thing, the threat of the removal of funding should have been there from the beginning in the case of any organisation that couldn't adequately demonstrate a serious commitment to that "higher, missionary purpose" so off-putting to the Standard's correspondent. At its lowest, that higher purpose should be impartiality, a test which so many poet-judges seem to mistake for having a fixed and narrow idea of what "artistic excellence" should look like. Instead of accusers being put to proof ("Show us the minutes of the clandestine meetings then! Go on!"), the burden should be on the other side to show the effort that has gone into reaching beyond personal tastes and concentric circles of acquaintances.

Making this a central criterium of funding - and transparently so - would have been hugely preferable to the razing of the least visible organisations. In poetry's case, that might mean someone occasionally saying, "This book did absolutely nothing for me, but I have to admit that it was extremely well written." Can you imagine a poet saying that? I genuinely wonder, based on the general standard of rhetoric in criticism, articles and judge's reports, how many are even capable of envisaging such a concept, since instead the general standard of judgment seems to be personal emotional response.

And yet I would say that editors like Neil Astley and Chris Hamilton-Emery do place an emphasis on inclusivity that whould fulfil such a criteria. In Bloodaxe's case, they fully deserve their relatively small amount of funding (Neil Astley once gave a very full and generous response on this blog to my suggestion that the money would be better off elsewhere), although staking their survival on its continuance is, I feel, a dangerous game. If we have to accept the situation we've been forced into by a government with sinister and wrong-headed priorities, then an infinitely better scenario would have been putting the various arts instituions on notice and giving them a chance to prepare for a world without funding. I suspect that many who think they can't survive without it could, given sufficient warning and an adequate reason, find a way to go on. At the same time, making them fight to be recognised as the most progressive and open-minded, as opposed to the most pompous and jewel-encrusted, can only be a good thing.

Oh, and for what it's worth, George Szirtes' 'Reel', which won the 2004 TS Eliot prize, is an excellent book, which I highly recommend.

Wednesday, 30 March 2011

April is the school-est month!

...thanks to The Rush Hour Lectures, which will be hitting University College London throughout April. There will be Machiavelli, medieval manuscripts, Faroese chain dancing, and a spot of grimecore. Be on your toes, because they eschew a regular day of the week, and even a regular venue, but they all take place somewhere around UCL's Bloomsbury stomping ground. Lecture room doors swing open at 17:10 for a 17:30 start. Entry is free, as is wine! Check the schedule or the Facebook group for specifics.

They have been organised by Richard Cole, whom I first saw giving an erudite but very funny lecture on the subject of Runology at UCL's Bright Club. The Rush Hour Lectures get cracking (off) this Friday, April 1st, with "Masturbation - A Natural History", with a further 4 dates throughout April.

After that, the baton of Enlightenment passes back to The Camden School of Enlightenment in time for our show on May 10th, which will feature Stevie Smith, and A Field Guide to Fetishes, among other musings.

100 Word Reviews - Terror of Mechagodzilla

Of all Godzilla films, this features the most laughably bad English dub, with the actors sounding like they're reading from a stuttering autocue, pausing mid-sentence while the next tranche of text loads up. The editing is also hysterical: one sequence is shot so as to appear to depict two men standing on opposite sides of a door, both ringing doorbells and peering through the glass at each other. At least the monster scenes are suitably rough and tumble and Mechagodzilla a convincing weapon of terror, though newcomer Titanosaurus is (almost literally) a fish out of water, and swiftly thrown back.

Monday, 28 March 2011

100 Word Review - Batman: Arkham Asylum

A rare example of successfully integrated narrative and superb voice-acting, Arkham Asylum is a blend of gameplay styles that pits Batman's blunt tenacity against the Joker's months of planning and gift for murderous improv. Over the course of one brutal night, you play sleuth, pugilist and shadowy predator, armed with stunts, toys and a fluid and responsive control system that makes a little skill go a long way. Arkham itself is rich in detail, variety and monstrous atmosphere, and although most of the boss fights are tedious throwbacks, defeating the Riddler and Scarecrow at their own games is hugely satisfying.

Sunday, 20 March 2011

Mimesis Digital Chapbooks Relaunched

That renowned trinket collector Dr Fulminare has come across the winning entries from the 2009 Mimesis Digital Chapbook Competition and added them to his library of available texts at Sidekick Books. Since the Mimesis site has sadly disappeared for the time being, this is now the only means of accessing these fine mini-volumes by Ian McLachlan, Adham Smart, Jeff Calhoun, Alistair Noon and Carolyn Srygley-Moore. They're entirely free, and can be downloaded to Kindle or any other e-reader for reading whilst in transit.

Fuselit: Contraption previews

I've become paranoid that you all think this talk about finishing Birdbook and Contraption is all lies and distraction while we make off on a train with bulging suitcases of imaginary money. Here's some proof of what I've been doing nearly every evening for the past couple of months, a little at a time:

peony moon, etcetera and Magma

Here are some recent additions to my ewok warrior belt of honour:
  • Six poems at peony moon, Michelle McGrane's popular and active poetry previews site. Three are from Scarecrows, three from the forthcoming School of Forgery.
  • Three poems at etcetera. These are all new, although the first is a radical rewrite of a poem I had published ages ago. This version is going to be slotted into Coin Opera 2, which will be out later this year.
  • Five poems in Magma 49, edited by Julia Bird. One is available online via the link. I also read last week at the launch party for this issue, alongside one of my big influences, W.N. Herbert, whose verse "is manga made iconostasis" (his own words - you can see why I like him!)
I also have one poem in the forthcoming issue of Brand. Stay tuned too for news of an event I'm doing called 'We Eat Poets'.

Sunday, 13 March 2011


A quick briefing on some of today's Twitter excitement, courtesy of Microsoft.

First, this proclamation was made from the official account of Microsoft's Bing search engine:
How you can #SupportJapan - For every retweet, @bing will give $1 to Japan quake victims, up to $100K.

In other words, We've got a spare $100K. Japan's relief effort would like to have it, don't you think? But we're not going to give it to them. All right, we will, but only $1 at a time, and only if you mention our name. So, chop chop! 

A housemate of mine once received somebody else's order following a warehouse mix-up. It contained the autobiography of South London celebrity criminal Dave Courtney. Knowing me to be time-rich and discretion-poor, he gave it to me.  As a schoolboy, Dave liked amusing himself by assembling homeless alcoholics in the park, and getting them to compete in grotesque athletic contests for the prize of a can of premium strength lager. Little did he know that his Tramp Olympics would one day have a Microsoft marketing initiative created in its image. Dave Courtney's idea of branding was to use a knuckleduster with his name engraved on it. Today, Microsoft's was just as compassionate.

Soon, the virtual air was blue with responses ranging from How about you just give them the $100K? downwards. After several hours, Bing's silence was broken with possibly the most weaselly sentence written so far this year: We apologize the tweet was negatively perceived. Intent was to provide an easy way for people to help Japan. We have donated $100K.

Notice that they are not apologising for the tweet. They are apologising that it was negatively perceived. I'm not sure that's possible: the perception side of things is our job, and not theirs to apologise for. Anyway, I'd say the negative perception was bang on the money and needs no apology. It goes without saying that they regret that it was negatively perceived, but that's another matter entirely.

Microsoft's Bing was launched in 2009 with the strapline The world doesn't need just another search engine, it needs a decision maker. Well, it wants a better one than the one that's marketing Bing.

Friday, 4 March 2011

100 Word Review: Reviewing Poetry (by k)

I find reviewing poetry hard, because, depending on my mood, I'm too willing to see the good or bad splashes in a pamphlet, going 'yay' too much in a pamphlet I don't care about, or canning an interesting collection for hitting too many pet peeves. Reviews quickly descend into the sort of middling, C- level essays I used to turn out almost without free will in university, analysing the life out of any visible themes, instead of thinking 'hmm, should people buy this? People who aren't me – I know they exist. Somewhere. And they probably don't suck at reviewing.'

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

100 Word Review: Midnight Movies does Battle Royale

Watching Japanese schoolchildren go all Lord of the Flies at midnight in a cinema in Soho? Excellent. Costumes (including some very detailed replicants of those monstrous collars) and school photos? Fantastic. It's been 10 years since I last saw Battle Royale and it's fascinating realising the elements and nods that your teenage self missed, from silent movie blackscreens to the childish hopelessness of comforting your dying classmate with the words, “you're the coolest girl in the world”. Oh, and you could snag a suitably sweet and bitter Mitsuko-themed cocktail beforehand too. Midnight Movies crew, we'll see you in Brixton.

Designer downfall

I've just watched the film Downfall. Here are some assorted thoughts. I'll number them, if only because numbers will do a more agressive job of forcing some order on them than punctuation could.
  1. If you're thinking of watching it, but have only seen the YouTube parodies and you think that'll spoil the experience, don't be put off. The real version contains an almost-joke involving cutlery, that is at least as funny as most of them.
  2. According to the IMDB notes, Hitler wouldn't let anybody record his voice when not publicly ranting. The only known exception is a recording made secretly by the Finnish secret service during a diplomatic meeting, and it is on this that Bruno Ganz based his performance. Hence it comes as a surprise when in "Downfall", Hitler mopes and whinges more than he rants. It's more like being backstage during the interval at a Frankie Boyle show, where the first half hasn't gone down at all well.
  3. As such, I almost felt quite sorry for old Adolf, though couldn't help thinking he'd brought it all upon himself.
  4. Even when it's got to the stage when everbody's either getting paralytic drunk or shooting themselves, the toilets are kept spotlessly clean. By whom? we don't know, because the thing about totalitarian fascism is that it never gives credit where it's due.
  5. Having said that, during several scenes in which the SS is hanging people from lampposts (for, as far as I can make out, not being in the SS) it still feels like the Russians are the baddies.
  6. For instance, none of Hitler's henchmen gets summarily shot (unless they genuinely want to be). Lately I've read Isaac Deutscher's biography of Stalin, published in 1948 when he didn't know the half of it. Those Oberkommandos didn't know they were born.
  7. I had a niggling thought that I'd read about the whereabouts of Hitler's telephone. Devon, it turns out.
  8. There's a bit where Eva Braun admits to sometimes kicking Hitler's dog. Normally it's evil to kick a dog, but is it still evil if it's Hitler's dog? In theory, of course it is. It's not the dog's fault it's Hitler's. All the same, if you did ever meet somebody who'd had a chance to kick Hitler's dog and didn't, wouldn't you consider them slightly complicit in the Nazi regime?
So, those are my thoughts on the fictional, Downfall Hitler. In timely fashion, fancy frockmaker John Galliano has just decided (it is alleged) to air his thoughts on the real Hitler. (Enjoy the disclaimer, which seems to warn that The Sun contains strong views that some may find offensive). "I love Hitler" he allegedly says, with bumper-sticker brevity. That's certainly what it sounds like to me, and I speak as one staunchly unconvinced that Hotel California, played backwards, becomes "Satan he hears this: he made me believe in him".

It's hard to know how seriously to take him: he is dressed up as a clown. He's clearly the worse for drink, and that might be just the tip of his mental iceberg. Dior, however, has had to deal with this sort of thing before and can't be too careful. Here's Christian Dior's niece Fran├žoise, and her husband the British Nazi leader Colin Jordan, with some friends:

I say "friends", although most of them strike me as not wholly convinced that what they are all doing is such a great idea. Colin Jordan was once arrested for shoplifting three pairs of women's knickers (red) from the Tesco in Leamington Spa. He and Galliano would have had so much to talk about.