Infectious Words: An Interview with Richard Strange // Language is a Virus from Outer Space

Normally we’re averse to introducing interviews with the location they took place in, but the House of St Barnabus in Soho is too beautiful to leave out. Sitting in the corner of Soho Square, the building features a chapel, literary talks and, in its bar, a large mock-Penguin cover painting with a theme of death. A founder member, Richard Strange is perfectly suited to the club; himself a stalwart of Soho, Strange flits — has long been flitting — between the worlds of music, writing and art. This Saturday, he will sit at the heart of an evening dedicated to William Burroughs entitled Language is a Virus from Outer Space — also the title of a cantata he has authored with composer Gavin Bryers. Aside from the cantata, which will be performed by We Are Children (We Make Sound) from the Institute of Contemporary Music Performance under direction of Audrey Riley, the evening will also feature a mish-mash of writing, video, art and visuals from a high-powered motley crew of artistic genius. We cut into Strange’s busy preparation schedule to ask him about the event.

So, let’s start with Burroughs.
I’ve been so lucky. I got bitten by the Burroughs bug probably in 1965, ’66, when, rather perversely, instead of being into trainspotting and fishing I was into contemporary art and writing. Burroughs – and the Beats in general, but particularly Burroughs – excited me and fascinated me. You couldn’t buy his books in London, but you could get them in Paris. A friend and I, when we were fifteen, hitchhiked to buy his books in Shakespeare and Co, and we came back with them almost like looters. This was absolute contraband we were bringing back, these books that were so naughty, quite apart from being incredible inspiring — anyway! I got into all that.

By the early 70s I was starting to make music, and of course by then the bug had got into my bones, and my songwriting was very influenced by Burroughs. His writing style was unusual; he had huge influence on rock music in terms of bands taking names from him: Soft Machine and Steely Dan. What I was writing was around him: I wrote about control, about drugs, propaganda, about conditioning people. Also with a slightly sci-fi, futuristic vibe; about gangs and so on. All those things sort of invaded my writing.

That band was Doctors of Madness. I hadn’t seen them for forty years, but when I was commissioned by Southbank Centre to curate an evening of Burroughs I thought: it’d be a lovely experience to do one more show before we pass on to the other side [laughs]. And I managed to find the other three guys, and they were all enthusiastic about doing one more show, you know… so we’ve been rehearsing, and it all sounds pretty good!

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The Complete Works, Southbank Centre, 06 October 14

The news in the panel before the readings was bleak, but not as bleak as in 2007. The Complete Works, a poetry mentoring project, is now on its second set of poets. To open this event at the Southbank Centre’s Literature festival, Bernardine Evaristo, the project’s initiator, led a discussion about diversity in UK poetry with Carcanet’s Michael Schmidt, Bloodaxe’s Neil Astley and a rising star, the recent Forward prize winner Kei Miller. An Arts Council report seven years ago, initiated by Evaristo, revealed that of the poets published by the major UK poetry presses, less than 1% were black or Asian. At the start of the panel Evaristo revealed the new figure, which is 8% (compared to the 14% of the minorities in the UK population). There’s movement to the right direction, therefore, but the panel agreed that the situation was far from ideal.

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John Cooper Clarke, Southbank Centre, 04 Oct 2014

Unlike anywhere else, in Manchester fiction precedes fact. Rumours begin with the kids outside the Civic Centre, gain power as they run through the back alleys of Ancoats and Altrincham, the rows of the Stretford End. Did you know that between Princess and Dickinson Streets there’s an entrance to a NATO-funded underground bunker? And that way before the press got hold of the affair, 1970s schoolboys who saw United manager Docherty’s car outside his mistress’ house sang ‘knees up mother Brown’ on match days? It’s impractical, the quantity of stories Manchester sustains: one city holding Marx and Engels, the Pankhursts, the Manchester Guardian, the Busby Babes. Yet if you look any of it up — if you ask the people who were there — it’s all deliciously, headily true.

The Lesser Free Trade Hall seems as doubtful as any Manchester yarn. The fact that the men who would eventually become the Buzzcocks, New Order, Joy Divison, The Smiths and The Fall managed to cram into an audience of forty sounds so unlikely. It has the same feeling of fabled romance that the Left Bank of the early twentieth century does when you’re young and literary: can it really be the case that all of those heavyweights knew each other?

Of course, once you’re older it seems obvious that everyone was in conversation, as everyone is in conversation now — as, indeed, being in conversation is the only way anything gets done. And the truth of Factory, for all its improbable mass, largely hinges on one man. Where I come from, people stand up straighter at the name Tony Wilson; tonight, his ghost haunts the stage as tangibly as if they’d holographed him there, like Michael Jackson or Tupac. The Lesser Free Trade Hall recurs like a leitmotif, or a perfume.

In 0161, legends come first and the truth grows around them.

More than Peter Hook’s How Not To Run A Club or Dave Nolan’s I Swear I Was There, Michael Winterbottom’s 24 Hour Party People (2002) gives the truest account of the Factory era. I’ve said that in Manchester myth comes before the facts, but perhaps Winterbottom’s film gets more at the heart of it by ignoring the distinction entirely, except where they might be the source of jokes and cleverness. Steve Coogan’s hyper-aware — impossibly aware — Tony Wilson captures better than realism could the character of a man who seemed to know everyone before they were brilliant. By all accounts, Wilson had the sort of meta-cognizant eye for music any manager would kill for. When Winterbottom has him look into the camera and say he’s ‘being postmodern, before its fashionable’ it’s verisimilitude, not anachronism. 24 Hour’s Wilson always knows more than he could, as befits a man who is today less a real person than he is a spirit conjured by the incantation of a hundred Manchester legends. (The city, too, has always been too clever for its own good.) Of course, there’s a word for this status. It’s iconic.

Tonight’s Royal Festival Hall gig features another icon, in flesh and bone. When John Cooper Clarke slopes into the room after the interval, he’s improbably, physics-defying skinny, with hair like goth spun sugar. It takes a while for your eye to adjust to his proportions, like getting your night vision or finding the image in a magic eye poster.

Razor wit, razor-legged Clarke. He’s introduced as being from Salford, of course: if Clarke’s lived in Essex for so long he claims to feel ambiguous about his hometown, it shows no signs of relinquishing its claim on him. His speech is taut, fast, repetitive, as densely layered as late Joyce or early Pynchon, colliding images hidden in lines like ‘London catchment area’ and jokes like ‘what is occasional furniture the rest of the time?’ He uses the word ‘fucking’ like other people use ‘um’, as punctuation. It’s poetry day – ‘stretched to a week. I blame Kate Tempest’ – but he claims to not participate, for the same reason his dad ‘never drank on Christmas or bet on the Grand National: one day for the amateurs’. On the usefulness of prejudice, he cites Peckham at night: ‘sure, those seven youths walking towards you with hoods, they could be Franciscan monks…’ On New Year’s Eve: ‘in Scotland, they celebrate mahogany. It means more than Christmas to those northern Pagan bastards’. On giving up drugs: ‘Now I can’t go back to Manchester, where drug taking is compulsory’.

Clarke’s gently surreal patter makes the poems feel like a diversion. Nevertheless, poetry is the order of the evening, and several stars from the back catalogue get a Royal Festival Hall airing, including the Sopranos­-famous ‘Evidently Chickentown’. ‘She’s Got a Metal Plate in Her Head’ highlights Clarke’s mastery of incremental repetition; a serious contender against The Smiths’ ‘Girlfriend in a Coma’ in any ‘works about a girl after a bad accident’ competition. Several shorter poems and limericks are particularly good, with Dr Clarke — as he refers to himself all evening — grinningly telling us that he has ‘subverted the form in order to point out a higher truth’. One, on necrophilia, is almost complete after the first line:

Fed up with foreplay and all that palaver?

‘Bed Blocker Blues’, with its refrain of ‘things are gonna get worse, nurse’ and the brilliant ‘Get Back On The Drugs You Fat Fuck’ show how age has become a focus. References to his memory also crop up, although this seems something of a feint: Johnny Clarke’s ability to launch from anecdote to anecdote has as long a history as Billy Connolly’s, and his late style remains as much barroom standup as it is lyricism.

Things have changed in Salford these days. The tramline which rumbles past Deansgate to the new Media City UK — great idea; baffling name — shows an alien landscape of empty flats. Opposite the Lowry museum, itself not that old in the grand scheme of things, there’s now a Lowry mall to offset the mills (when I took a friend to see the matchstick men recently the shopping centre was one of the few things she photographed, presumably harming Lancashire’s reputation no end). If putting the 6music offices in Salford is undoubtedly a very good thing, the neck-breaking towers of steel and glass are still a bit grim, in the same way as the Haçienda flats or, indeed, the Radisson Blu are.

Of course, this is the inevitable path of the post-industrial city seeking to survive, and the people are much the same as they ever were. But seeing Clarke on the London stage, there is nevertheless a feeling that is just as real for being thoroughly clichéd: they don’t invent them like him anymore.

Fahrenheit 451, Southbank Centre, 04 Oct 2014

Since the 1950s, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 has ignited the fears of literary Cassandras. The formal paradox in a dramatised reading of the novel at the London Literature Festival is that Bradbury’s plea for slowness and careful reading is rendered into a performance of a smooth hour and a quarter.

A reading is theatre stripped of nearly everything, and the director James Runcie’s insists on maintaining the asceticism. Here, as well as the intimacy of an unprotected voice there is a licence to look at another human speaking without the ‘frills’ of a set or costumes. To attend a reading, whether a dramatised text or of a play, is to witness a distillation of the acting into the voice. Concentrating on only the words therefore bestows the text with a concentrated force as does Bradbury’s novel. Jack Bechtler’s set consists of swathes of white paper, which are patched with blocks of text like illicit graffiti on the wall. There’s Boswell on friendship, as well as the one about breaking eggs from Gulliver’s Travels. Most importantly, up highest: two enormous blocks of Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach. The set, therefore, instantly anchors the performance into the dramatised novel. Not just quotes from the literary canon, the passages are second hand quotes from Bradbury, and as graffiti, there is a sense of an urgent desire to maintain. Apart from the words and five chairs, there is no set, and the actors are seemingly wearing their own clothes: this is crucial, because the only thing that remains is the text. The performance feels intimate, as if it were halfway between a radio play and a reading of new material in a small theatre.

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Poetic Movements: An Interview with Inua Ellams

Inua Ellams does so many things well that to write an introduction to his work is inevitably to understate. Adept with words and images, pages and speech, he is not only a leading poet but a playwright, graphic artist, designer, performer, and creator of The Midnight Run. His work in all iterations can be found on his website, and he is also a lyrical force to be reckoned with on his blog and twitter.

Next Monday, Ellams will appear in a reading at the Southbank Centre, performing alongside other black and Asian poets under the title ‘The Complete Works‘.

Monday’s event at the Southbank Centre will open with a panel debate on the status of black and Asian poets’ representation in major UK presses. Do you think the big publishers have improved since the 2007 Free Verse report? What’s the outlook like for a young poet of colour with sights set on these big houses today? (Or, indeed, in poetry generally?)
The statistics say so. Before the Complete Works and the Free Verse report, less than 1% of poets published by major presses were black or Asian. Now it is 8% and the change came about in just five years. In 2004, 1 out of 20 in the New Generations list were black/Asian, this year it is 4 of the 20, so things are happening. I think the outlook is far more positive than it was a few years ago.

There are still hurdles, still misconceptions and instances of dilution where a poet of colour perceives the need to culturally sanitise one’s self to be published. The challenge for young poets then is the exercise of balance and the further grounding and scrutiny of one’s poetics. Who exactly are you? Why do you write the way you write? What is it doing within the contemporary canon? How can you do it deliberately, etc. Obviously, the fact that we have to do such things is yet another hill to climb, given that white British poets do not have to interrogate their cultural poetics; it’s just a given that certain questions or stereotypes or assumptions will not be made of them, but it’s part of the game. If you want to play it, be ready to play.

Your influences take in a range of material from the big names of the classical canon to hip hop; and, perhaps relatedly, you’re a poet who seems equally adept on the page and in spoken word. Can you tell us a little about your practise? Are there still stereotypes that come up when you’re boundary-crossing, or is the poetry world open to eclecticism?
My attempt in poetry is always to create text which is underlined by a delicious sonic soundscape (that the ear hungrily and effortlessly devours). This text also has to sits well on the page, meaning that the sentences and syntax constructed for the ear must be pregnant with the potential for line breaks, stanza, verse etc (I’m still learning as I go – it is an endless lesson). Finally, I’m also still wedded to story telling, and because I am also a playwright/dramatist, I attempt to tackle or shed light on subjects in the narrative for.

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Reconfiguring: An Interview with Nicholas Johnson

Nicholas Johnson is a poet, publisher, events organiser and general agitator. Between editing poetry for Etruscan and running the Black Huts festival in Hastings, Nicholas will appear at Southbank Centre this Sunday, Oct 5th, where he will read alongside Johns Healy and Hall as part of this year’s London Literature Festival.

A lot of your work takes on specific historical events, and especially traumatic ones. How do you see this discourse between poetry and history functioning?
The chance to encounter social unrest and to make head or tail of it doesn’t occur very often, so for my poetics to make sense of it, and to engage with it, is not a given; in a way I grasp it with both hands. The key events I have been in the thick of, and been able to write about, were Catalan separatism (1986), martial law in New Caledonia (1988), and the foot and mouth epidemic (2001). Other incidents, like the Braer oil-spill (1994) and social unrest in Spain, have filtered through the rhetoric that is always necessary for my way of writing, and are evident less overtly.

Your 2002 collection Cleave was re-released in a new and reconfigured version last year. Can you tell us a bit about that?
The drawback of writing about Foot and Mouth was, although I lived in a farming village in West Devon and was within a firewall of pyres and sealed off land and farms, you were dependent on regional journalism, word of mouth, and whatever you could view over the fence. Years later I went back through notes and drafts to make new work, to improve first versions, to jettison what hadn’t worked and also to assemble work that had been written about — and responded to — the long term impact of Foot and Mouth once the cullers had left.

It was an early indication of Blair’s barbarism, extended especially to the rural heartlands, which frequently had their heart ripped out. ‘Contagious’ foot and mouth — often inaccurate — accounted for 75% of all culling, creating a domino effect on livestock and farms based on inaccurate findings. The same principles could be levelled against Britain’s actions in Iraq.

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Fish Friday #7: Wilfrid Wood

Wilfrid Wood works in a studio down the road from Don’t Do It in Hackney Wick. His smooth sculptures are made of plastic clay, and at first glance resemble objects of cute, harmless humour. Look for long enough, however, and their charm gives way to more sinister undertones. We met up with Wilfrid to ask him about his inspiration, background and sculptures.

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Fish Friday #6: Beatrice Dillon on Music

Beatrice Dillon is a musician, composer and a producer based in London’s Fish Island Lab studios. She’s worked with a broad range of visual artists over the past years. We met up with her just before she dashed off to Geneva for another collaboration. 

Talk to me about the origins of your work.
I grew up listening to music. My dad was really into collecting records; he wasn’t so much into rock music, but blues records and Irish records, soul and so on. I was lucky to grow up with tapes around the place. I got hooked on it and then started collecting records and worked in record shops and on radio – music, music, music. I studied art in Chelsea [College of Arts] and wrote my dissertation on someone called Harry Smith, who was a collector of American folk music and blues music. I managed to convince my tutors that it was totally legitimate to listen to music as part of an art degree. And then, after that, I eventually stopped kidding myself and went: actually, I just really like music.

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Strategies Against…: Ausweitung der Kampfzone 1968-2000, Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin

Ausweitung der Kampfzone isn’t a novel really known in English. Or, at least, it’s not known by that title; nor by its French original, Extension du domaine de la lutte. What might have been translated, as it is in the Neue Nationalgalerie’s current exhibition, as ‘extension of the combatzone’ was changed in English to a defeatist blurt of a title: Whatever. In some senses, this pessimistic philosophical counter-name to the novel’s original political one works. Michel Houellebecq’s debut captures well what Ta-Nehisi Coates calls ‘art as anaesthesia’; ‘cynical and bad-ass and made by people who will not be happy until you join them in the church of “everything is fucked up, so throw up your hands”’. In his Paris Review Art of Fiction interview, Houellebecq is open about his Calvinistic defeatism. ‘Entering the workforce’, he says, ‘was like entering the grave’. Intimacy, or lack of it, is similarly pre-determined: ‘some people have a sex life and others don’t just because some are more attractive than others’. His fixity is somewhat refreshing when read against the prevailing American narrative of life as ongoing project — if you’re not getting fucked, you need to be doing something about it — but it’s also faintly adolescent. There is a reason why the word ‘whatever’ is most readily imagined issuing in a drawl from teenage lips. ‘Extension du domaine de la lutte’, by contrast, makes one think of wider forces: of Hallin’s analysing the televised US invasion of Vietnam, or of Agamben writing that the camp is the paradigmatic space of the twentieth century.

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