|Hull Literature Festival 2001||8th - 18th November|
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It's a bit much that Kate Adie has pre-empted our planned marinometer ratings for Humber Mouth events by describing herself recently as an 'old trout'! She's been doing a warm-up gig at the Cheltenham Literature Festival where she accused her BBC bosses of wanting news readers with "cute faces and cute bottoms" rather than journalistic expertise. Of course this has all made for good headlines which doesn't do promotion for her new book From Corsets to Camouflage, about the changing role of women in the military, any harm at all; insiders at the BBC have blamed her "outbursts" ( more likely, we'd have thought, to have been carefully aimed shots ) on professional jealousy given her conspicuous absence from the current conflict in Afghanistan. However, it would be a shame if this detracted attention from what should be a vital debate on shifting news values, infotainment and the incursion of celebrity culture into 'hard news'.
What are critics for?
If you were present at an event, why would you need someone else to tell you what to think? And if you weren't present, how frustrating to read about the fantastic experience you missed. Are critics, like teachers, people who can't and therefore spend their time sniping at people who can? If so, being both critics and teachers, we are doubly damned. We are approaching the Literature Festival as critics rather than as writers not because we can't do it, but because we don't do it very often. It's the same argument as 'those who can't, teach', which, in some cases, is really 'those who teach can, but don't very often'.
The reason we don't do it more is that we (and, presumably, many other people) have manoeuvred ourselves into a Catch 22 situation. The imperative to maintain a regular level of income, created by our own choices over the years, precludes the risk-taking which creates the time to create the work to create a situation whereby that income can be raised in the way we would choose. Reading an account of Ed Ruscha discussing his work in a review of his exhibition at Inverleith House, Edinburgh 2001, reinforced the difference in focus between someone who is sufficiently confident in his position as a successful artist to explore (some might say indulge in) whatever imaginative pathways he chooses.
'I don't know where it's going to take me. I write my own history. My paintings are an involuntary reflex. I just follow myself. But I know that I love the letter E. Maybe it's the phonetics of it that I like. If you look at a word for long enough it begins to look ridiculous and lose its meaning. It is difficult to look at it in the scheme of things.' Noise, a piece of work made in 1963 which kicked off his success, was 'a neat paradox of mute noun and loud colour'.
Now, for someone whose life is organized around the earning imperative, it is difficult not to look at everything as it exists in the scheme of things. The scheme of things becomes the focus and the hope of shifting that focus for long enough to come up with anything as neat as a paradox of mute noun and loud colour, or to 'experiment with shifting perspectives and time frames' (review of No Bones by Anna Burns) just does not feature.
From where we stand, the creative and artistic concerns of artists such as Ed Ruscha require an abundance of time and mental space which appear to be self-indulgent. And yet this is all a matter of perspective. Given even a short time out, the possibilities for doing begin to fizz and the perspective rapidly begins to change. So what determines success as a doer rather than frustration as someone who doesn't do it much? A permutation of talent, luck, perseverance, absolute determination and useful connections, perhaps? How long would J.K. Rowling have been able to continue to pursue her determination to be a writer without the phenomenal success of Harry Potter? Would Martin Amis's autobiographical book Experience, well-written and absorbing as it is, have been as interesting if the family he describes had not included Kingsley Amis and Elizabeth Jane Howard?
Or when it comes to it, does the need to fulfil whatever ambition one might have need to override everything else? Because if it does, then that is why, in mid-life, there are those of us who know we could do it reasonably well, but don't do it very often. We fell at the first fence, when biology and nurture got us all confused. We have never quite managed to disentangle ourselves since or to convince ourselves that spending a week, month, year or as long as it takes playing with nouns or colour is actually a justifiable thing to do. We recognize it as a necessity and acknowledge the frustration its denial causes but we have never managed to rearrange our particular scheme of things. So Critical Eye is our opportunity to do, for a change, even though we are doing it as critics rather than creators, as people who don't very often, but might given half a chance.