Sunday, April 22, 2007

Purchase an aircraft, learn to fly

It's going to be a bit like fly-tipping, this post. This will (probably) be my last for at least a couple of weeks, as in a few hours I'm heading for Plymouth and I'm not sure how online I'll be able to be in my temporary apartment. (Yeah no I think it's always an apartment, but my residency is temporary; look we'll never get anywhere if that's your attitude.) So I'm going to dump a load of unsorted fragments here and then skidaddle, leaving you to sort the bric from the brac and the bobs from the bits.

The last two weeks have been a real full-on spin cycle and I can't tell you how much I'm looking forward to a three-and-a-half hour train journey tomorrow which will be the longest period I've spent awake and not working in an awfully long time. The first week of Speed Death rehearsals at NYT last week was -- for me -- incredible. Amazing not least after all the pertaining agonies to find yet again that exactly the right five people somehow ended up in the cast. They leapt in with both feet and all guns blazing (ow) and the generosity they extended to me and my inchoate ideas was just a huge rush. Thursday and Friday I really just got to let them play with the few shreds and patches I'd given them, and to sit back and watch, and whole extraordinary microdramas arose, fully realised, out of the foment. Wendy Hubbard, co-prime mover of Mapping4D and my director on the Sydney Kiss of Life, was in the room too -- voluntarily -- and characteristically astonishing, every moment of every day. I can't think of a more productive first week to a project I've been involved in, and I couldn't have been more proud of us all.

And then, since a week ago today, the task has been to script the piece. I'm not sure if I've described how this came about, the incredibly strange working pattern on this project, and if I haven't you'll have to forgive me, I'm not going to get into it now, it's not truly compatible with the propulsive intent of today's entry (and let us be clear, the Britain that is going to be forged in the white heat of this revolution will be no place for restrictive practices). But the headline is: eight days to write a full script for probably -- at every level, conceptually, practically -- the most complex piece I've ever tried to make. Not having sole-authored an ensemble script for more than ten years (unless you count the aborted Get Out Of The Car which had a sort of death-defying je ne sais quoi -- but this world was never meant for one as beautiful, and it eventually became The Consolations, which we all wrote together in a big sexy heap).

It's been incredibly binary. Day one of writing was surprisingly fluent and exciting and I felt great. Day two I started by re-reading the output of day one and determining it to be unmitigated bobbins. I then sat -- this is not an exaggeration -- from midday to midnight in front of my computer, completely unable to write a word. Not a thing. It seems absurdly self-regarding to call the sensation anguish, given what eighty per cent of the people on the planet are dealing with at any given moment: but it did feel strangely soul-peeling to not be able to write one word in twelve hours with the craziest deadline I've ever had already tolling in the back of my mind. And that's pretty much how it's been ever since: a good, productive day, making up for whatever lost time and, da-da-da da da da da, feelin' groovy; followed by a day biting the screen of my laptop and sobbing like someone told Halle Berry there ain't no sanity clause.

So there's just a few more hours before I have to send what I'm now very emphatically calling a DRAFT to Plymouth for printing and copying, and I'm still four scenes from the end and I literally have no idea what I've done... I think there's some good writing in there but whether it's at the service of the piece we all agreed to make, I don't know; there's some desperately weak writing which was there essentially as placeholder text because yeah obviously there was going to be time at the end of the week to go back and replace it. ("Ho ho, it is to laugh.") I've had to stop reading back over stuff and I've certainly absolutely stopped timing it. I have a feeling this script at first readthrough is going to run at least an hour and three quarters: which presumably means a running time on stage of comfortably in excess of two hours. The incorrect word there is 'comfortably'. (Though I have to say something truly appeals about that, given that we'll be in Plymouth hot on the heels of the Theatre Royal's very own goldenballs, Anthony Neilson, who doesn't think audiences should be exposed to anything longer than Bargain Hunt.)

Well, we'll see. It's a big risk, for everyone, and I think everyone's up for that.

In other news:

The new British Poetry issue of Chicago Review is out and I'm pretty pleased. The immense quality of the work surrounding my own tends, it turns out, not to make me look too much like the guy who crashed the wedding, but to endorse my stuff and make it look like you could reckon with it. It's a sufficiently nicely produced volume and well-enough framed by both sets of editors that I feel like it's a good place to be. Some of the additional material is a bit rum: there's a curiously rabbit-in-headlights review by Bobby Baird [click for pdf] of Peter Larkin's Leaves of Field, and a miserably condescending one [click for pdf] of Martin Corless-Smith's Swallows, which I thought (along with Peter Manson's For the Good of Liars) were the most rewarding books by British poets to come out last year. (The books came out, not the poets.) Kent Johnson turns in a near-review of Andrew Duncan so odd it's almost magnificent but definitely, definitely, not quite; and the usually reliable Keith Tuma presents a survey of younger British-based poets (Emily Critchley, Frances Cruk, Sean Bonney and the edge-of-seat/darkness brilliant Jow Lindsay) in which Tuma comes across as, basically, sort of stoned. But this is all rich tapestry blah and anyway none of the writing is unworthy of consideration.

Weeeeelll, except maybe the Guardian-style wallchart with which taxonomer-in-chief Andrew Duncan has favoured us. Titled 'Styles of British Poetry 1945-2000', it presents poetic activity in that period as a sort of spidergram of such resounding fatuity it's hard to believe it wasn't commissioned by Channel 4. I'm just agog at its bravura crudity and vandalism. It reminds me of the trashing of the Blue Peter Sunken Garden which prompted Percy Thrower to call for the immediate reinstatement of national service or public birching or something. Sixty-odd poets forced into groupuscules so bizarre it's impossible not to conclude they are the outcome of some hidden Oulipian sorting-room process. I'm up in the left-hand corner in the distinguished company of Manson, K Sutherland and John Wilkinson: we are the boyband called 'New Textual Obscurity'. The label's not quite as stupid as it easily might be but the gloss ("Marked by a loss of counter-cultural hope, social withdrawal, Adorno, and an increasingly personalized style that lacks a Pop component") utterly and completely misrepresents at least one of us at every step. More importantly, what the hell am I doing on there in the first place? Especially if the cut-off point is the turn of the millennium, by which point I had only published Boomer Console, of which Duncan was (not unreasonably but) extravagantly dismissive. Looking over it, I suspect Duncan has been compelled to include on his silly map pretty much everyone who's discussed in the issue, and that might well have been as dismaying to him as its consequences are to me and to everyone whose comments I've heard: except possibly not, because I suppose what really interests Duncan are these fantasy tribes, not the particular movements and tendencies of individual poets. If he's trying to insist that poets don't come individually-wrapped, he has a point, but he's making it in a way that has the potential to do unbelievable damage to the way that new readers orient themselves in relation to this sometimes daunting and bewildering array of work. At the very least, this stupid diagram should have been twice as populated, and the groupings much less rigid: but really I'm not content to accept the premise. It's specious and affronting, an attack on everyone named and everyone omitted, and the best that can be said about it is that it seems to be quite open to the possibilities of its own likely facetiousness, which I suppose would ultimately make it no more injurious than any other waste of paper.

More interestingly, Robin Purves has posted some great photos of the US of Stateside launch readings that I was drearily unable to take part in, plus extracurricular sundries; and also some video footage taken accidentally on a new digital camera in lieu of the expected stills, compiled into this inexplicably appetising travelogue:

You can imagine how touched I was to learn that the others were including some of my work in their own readings. That's what these affiliations are like -- not that Andrew Duncan Jeux Sans Frontieres piffle.

Other stuff I've liked of late that you can sort through if you like while I'm away:

Stephen Vincent is -- as far as I can tell I mean this pretty affectionately -- an odd cove, and his blog is restlessly confounding in what I suppose are commendable ways: which is to say, you spit some out and swallow the rest. But I really liked his recent post on Philip Guston. (Scroll down past the big empty space for the rest.)

Thomas Moronic is one of the very many international bright young things who gather around the comments section of Dennis Cooper's blog of an evening like howevermany Minipop Rimbauds hanging out in front of the 7-11 sharing liquor and sniffing glue and screaming improvised villanelles at the traffic. And he sustains (much more assiduously than I do) a really rich and beautiful blog which is always worth attending to. He's a fine and restless writer, and he's embarked on some sort of collaboration with the great, ceaselessly harrowing, recklessly heartening Kenji Siratori (who contributed a typically extraordinary text to my piece Past the Line Between the Land in 2003). So, I'm saying, if you feel starved of the Thompson's love while I'm gone, go bug T_M. (He has a neat-sounding band as well, called What The Moon Is Like.)

Three other blogs that'll go up in the links section here when I next springclean (hopefully before next spring) are kindly Thompson's-supporting Andrew Field's excellent The Arcades Project, full of good and insightful theatre writing, including a terrific recent piece on Katie Mitchell's Attempts on her Life at the NT, which I didn't see, despite (or perhaps because of) it being one of my favourite plays of the past few years; Itch Away, dominion of John Sparrow, who's sharp as a tack and definitely on the trail of something that's going to turn out to have been really important just too late for the luddite likes of me to get our heads round it; and the entertainingly self-promoting Blissblog of Simon Reynolds, the author of the incredibly fine and important Rip It Up And Start Again and much other indispensable music writing.

A couple of other theatre things. 1) Thompson's gets a nice mention from the lovely and perceptive Alison Croggon in a useful guide to arts blogging -- designed for Australian readers but universally relevant. 2) The wonderfully inventive and bountiful live artist Tim Jeeves is responding to the recent vicious cut in the Arts Council's Grants for the Arts programme with -- good gracious! Something more than the languid bitching everyone else is indulging themselves with at present. Check out Grunts for the Arts and see if you can help. And 3) Philip Ridley's new play Leaves of Glass opens at the Soho next week. You don't need me to remind you that Ridley is one of the most important and unduly neglected playwrights of his generation, and quite peerless in the ravishing commitment of his imagination and his passion. Many, many people have been permanently (and gratefully) rewired by plays such as The Pitchfork Disney and Mercury Fur, and his films The Reflecting Skin and The Passion of Darkly Noon (which has been much on my mind in the last week), and, going back a way now, his early novels, Crocodilia and the awesomely judged In the Eyes of Mr Fury. Furthermore this new production, by Lisa Goldman who has made -- let's be honest -- a really cracking start at Soho, has a remarkable cast including Ruth Sheen and the heartwrenching Ben Whishaw. I'm partly putting this here so I don't forget to book -- I'll be back in town for the end of the run and I hope I might run into Phil: he's a lovely bloke, warm and generous and full of a fizzing blacker-than-black humour. He's also doing some v rare poetry sets, and having heard some of this stuff at a benefit gig I put together a few years ago at which he kindly agreed to read, I can vouch for their entertainment value.

Ridley fans might also be, as I am, absolutely haunted by The Little Black Book project by the young Swiss photographer Tom Dura. Great work. Some of his other stuff, as showcased for example on Slava Mogutin's blog, misses the mark for me, but that's what being young and talented is precisely for, obviously.
Three quickies: The great (but infuriating but great) Peter Riley has an important new web site. (I hope he's relieved to have been idiotically omitted from Andrew Duncan's wallchart: though Riley's not averse to dabbling in the Snark-building exercise of insisting on schools and fronts where none in fact obtain.) I've only just discovered WFMU's Beware of the Blog which is a huge trove of treasurable audio dreck. And please don't ask me how long it took me to figure out how this worked.
And finally -- last and very much least -- if you're at a loose end while I'm gone and, say, desperate for some manner of harmless displacement activity while you, who knows, spend a whole day failing to write a single word of the script you have to finish by the end of the week... Well, on your behalf, I've thoroughly road-tested the profoundly degrading Impossible Quiz, as featured in a recent B3ta mailout, and can affirm its extraordinary capacity for making time go agreeably past while at the same time causing everything you've ever resented or disliked to seem trifling by comparison.

OK. I'm done. Last words to Carla Bozulich, because the Geraldine Fibbers' 'Dragon Lady' has been on repeat play on my iPod for longer now than I care to admit:

We'll take hostages, make demands
Set fire to all our best laid plans
We'll assemble volatile explosive devices
Sell them for exorbitant prices
Purchase an aircraft, learn to fly
Run out of gas while we're in the sky
Automatic pilot and x-ray specs
We were kissing in the cockpit when the airplane wrecked

In other words, I'm off to Plymouth to blow the bloody doors off. Coming?

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Standing on the top hats of giants on stilts

So last week I invented prosthetic synapses. OK, not so much invented as, you know, had an idea. About how you could maybe make artificial synapses out of, whatever, Quorn, and make new connections between neurons, between neurons in different people even. Play the brain like a Moog or a switchboard or something. (I heard an interesting discussion once of how the operation of the brain is always described in terms of whatever the most complex and sublime piece of communications engineering is in the culture at the time: so now, of course, the brain is "like a computer" whereas fifty years ago the brain functioned "much like a switchboard". I only mention this because my brain frequently feels as though it functions like a switchboard, in some retro industrial black-and-white landscape somewhere between Night Mail and Eraserhead. Presumably before that the brain was a sort of spinning jenny, or very like a sandwich in fact, or a soft grey involuted harpsichord about the size of a vicar's fist, and so on back as far as the astrolabe.)

I must admit I didn't invent the prosthetic synapse on my own, I was having dinner with an old friend, someone who used to be my boss in fact, back in the day when I had a proper job. (Don't stop breathing, it was about the most improper proper job you could ever imagine without actually being in PR.) The way she tells it I think I only got the job because when at interview she asked me what my weaknesses were, my mind went atrociously blank and I ended up haltingly confessing to never having been much good at hockey. We went on to spend an immensely cordial and overexcited couple of years developing an unconscionably complex and hermetic schtick, quite a bit of it in Latin and much of it centering on an imagined series of children's books featuring the erratic 80's Warwickshire fast bowler Gladstone Small, e.g. What's The Time, Gladstone Small?; A Sticky Bun for Gladstone Small; Put It Away Now Gladstone Small, &c. My ex-boss and I only see each other probably once a year now, but seem instantly to fall back into this private language on the dot of our reunion. (You have to imagine those gothic tales of identical twins who grow up neglected in an attic and speak to each other in an invented code of clicks and twitterings. Funny, you know, narrating all this, suddenly the opprobrium and resentment we drew from our colleagues all falls utterly butterly into place.)

Why am I telling you all this? Well, because I am a smug geek like the Comic Book Guy in The Simpsons and I feel this slightly revolting need to use my blog for self-mythologizing. But also, more importantly, because this happened. Before we went for dinner and invented Quorn synapses, I met my friend at her current workplace -- I feel coy about saying where, so I shan't, but it's an extraordinarily impressive building, and pretty much everyone who works there (that's an informed estimate) is seriously smart. You can practically hear the buzz given off by the hive mind: or maybe that's the air conditioning but in a workplace where everyone wears spectacles, sometimes more than one pair at a time, I'm prepared to believe it's the brains. These brains are not like switchboards. They don't conjure images of steam issuing from manholes or encapsulated messages disappearing up vacuum tubes. They really don't.

And so I was sitting there waiting for my friend and thinking how great it must be to work in a place where everyone's so smart and switched-on and I was a little bit envious, it was basically my usual 'I want to go to work in The West Wing' fantasy except considerably less plausible. And then it came to me -- and it's stayed with me --

Right now it is 1.0am and in nine hours I will be arriving at the first day of rehearsals for Speed Death of the Radiant Child and I couldn't be more excited, partly because this has been a long time coming, and partly because I'm excited about the ideas I've been forming, but mostly because the room's going to be full of incredibly smart and switched-on people. There'll be eleven of us round the table this week, starting the conversation that's supposed to lead (in five days) to my being able to write the script of the show (in eight days flat) that we then put on three weeks later in Plymouth. And it's all pretty daunting but it's the kind of daunting where you're just saying to yourself: OK. Let's do it. Let's see if we can match these nearly-impossible expectations. Let's see if we can exceed them.

And that thought is staying really fresh and compelling, not least because I've been lucky enough to spend all week around brilliant people and seeing and reading brilliant things, and I've never felt so much like an annoying homunculus standing not on the shoulders of giants but on their hats. The uppermost reaches of their big top hats. And the giants are on stilts. And the stilts are on casters.

It's absurd to even try this when I ought to be in bed but I want to have a crack at a roll of honour for the week. Please forgive my brevity and all the infelicities that go with it.

Nigel Charnock at the Drill Hall, a new piece called Single which is pretty much a down-the-line cabaret singing show. Who else would have the chutzpah to start with an unaccompanied 'The Water is Wide' from amid the audience? ...OK, Mandy Patinkin. Never mind. Point is, it wasn't at all what I was expecting, but I suppose if you don't (...better get ready to eat my cliche...) expect the unexpected from an offbeam genius like Charnock, you're pretty much just a dunce. It was pretty restrained even, apart from an odd moment where a scat solo spiralled off into farmyard impressions; I imagine he was pretty nervous and maybe he settled into it as the week went on. There's loads more he could do with this stuff, but he knows that, and either he's going to do it eventually, or he's already decided that isn't what he wants to do. What's not in doubt for a second is the extraordinary openness he has as a performer -- oh, sorry, all those words, vulnerability, generosity, and whenever I hear them I want to say "What? Vulnerable to what exactly? Generous how?" And then I go see someone like Nigel Charnock and all the parsing-posturing of my critical so-called life comes to look as self-serving and dishonourable as, for that moment, it is.

Clare Duffy (of Unlimited) was in town for LLGFF and we went to see a neat documentary about Tony Kushner called Wrestling With Angels. It was a judicious piece of filmmaking, though given the level of access the director had I'm surprised it didn't yield more surprises; but the real value of the movie is that Kushner really does come across as a most likeable, modest, sensationally articulate, genuinely public-spirited man, a real lionheart. As a result, I've been accompanying some of this last weekend's dreary admin tasks with rewatching the HBO Angels in America. It's far from perfect but there are great things in it, especially Jeffrey Wright who I'm prepared to believe is one of the two or three greatest screen actors of his generation. There is something about the mobility of film that renders Kushner's theatrical expansiveness slightly ludicrous -- but it could be that it was pretty ludicrous in the theatre too. I guess we'll get to see when the new Headlong production hits the stage in a couple of weeks.

Raimund Hoghe's Sacre, at the Barbican as part of Robert Pacitti's helpful (if idiosyncratic) SPILL Festival, was small, spare and ultimately stunning. Although I knew about Hoghe's long association with Pina Bausch, and had seen (but forgotten) a bit of documentary stuff about him, I've never seen his own work before and really didn't know what to expect. Now, having seen it, when I think about it I still don't know what to expect I'll think or feel. I've hardly ever known such a truly discomfiting piece of work: the genius of this two-man take on the Rite of Spring is that it purposefully restores to Stravinsky's score the physical jolts of alarm and trepidation that greeted its premiere in 1913. Sacre methodically, almost ruthlessly, forces questions about magic(k) and private ritual, and their connections with sex, with ageing and intergenerational relationships, with beauty and the ideals of physicality. It is severely beautiful, and I have to say I found it genuinely frightening at moments, sometimes almost preposterous: Hoghe's self-perception is devastatingly acute, and his performing partner Lorenzo De Brabandere exhibits an absolutely lovely mix of authority and ingenuousness. In forty-five minutes it made everything feel different, and then left you stranded in that weirdness, having to find (or to not find) your own way home. Quite extraordinary.

Ah, there's loads more I want to write about a dozen other things, but I must be sensible and consider the start of this project. I'm going to need all my wits about me and that doesn't happen by accident. That's sleep and vegetables and a certain amount of carefulness. Whooo!

Hopefully I'll be able to drop back in here again before the week's out and top this entry up with the rest of the stilted giants. For now, this is the Controlling Thompson disconnecting his mycoprotein lead and wishing you happy landings.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Johnny's so long at the fair

The titular reference is, in particular, to "Johnny's So Long" by Furious Pig (scariest. band. ever.), which my locally overexposed iPod just blurted into my appalled and gratified ear'oles in the supermarket, causing my philtrum to quiver and my basket of highly processed groceries suddenly to take on the appearance of the props list for a Paul McCarthy video. But I'm also using it as a vaguely elegiac summary of my own prolonged absence from these pages, wherein I, your hopeless and neglectful Controlling Thompson, am Johnny, and there was no fair as such, just a lurching maelstrom of colour-saturated chaos and out-of-kilter barrel-organ dreadfulness.

Anyway, hi honeys, I'm home.

The long silence can partly be attributed to the massive amounts of time I now seem to spend hanging out at Dennis's blog. The regulars over there are a truly revivifying bunch of diverse and almost universally attractive voices, and I learn a lot (especially from DC himself) and enjoy myself hugely; I've been on various listservs and in all manner of virtual groupuscules in recent years but the freedom over there to just chat and gossip and wisecrack and to talk excitedly about high art and low behaviour with equal unguardedness is brilliantly heartening and creative and, as I'm finding out, not a little addictive. One day everyone's going crazy for Perec or getting the lowdown on French politics or discussing great lost American architecture, the next is devoted to slash fiction or guro or the undersung heroes of European porn. It seems obvious that such meeting-spaces should exist: after all, it does nothing more than resemble how I actually live, how I think, how I use the internet... But it's pretty unusual, in fact, in my experience, and I would say that in itself it constitutes one of Dennis's most important and provocative artworks: which is saying something. So you can see why I'm a bit hooked. But equally, I should be working harder to make Thompson's a place more like that. I think it nearly is, sometimes, but DC posts six days a week and from the get-go the rhythm here has been different. I suppose that's perhaps because I like writing about the connections I'm making between stuff I see or hear or am involved in, which means (or has so far meant) saving up a week's or a fortnight's life and then writing a superlong essay that tries to account for it all and gather it together. But of course Dennis's place is just as good, even better really, at disclosing those connections, it just does it cumulatively and with less strenuous commentary. ...Oh, well, I dunno. Maybe Thompson's is always going to be a sporadic, text-heavy, wordy affair. Judging by most of the external links to this place, that seems to be my USP. Having said that, my sideline (private) blog for The Goodman Portraits is a very different ballpark, a mix of creative stuff and commentary and a lot more images and borrowed writings and so on, and although it's in temporary suspension at the moment it feels like a really nice set-up. Well Thompson's will be a year old in May -- maybe at that point I could redecorate, and start pushing the boat out a bit... What do you think?

The other reason I haven't been around of late is pretty obviously connected with the hysterical pitch of my last post. As will have been clearer to many readers than it was at the time to me, I was barely riding a hypomanic episode, of a kind that I only very rarely have. I suspect most bipolar people would probably agree that hypomania is (at least potentially) way more destructive than depression, which at least has the advantage of making you withdraw into yourself and disengage from everything. This has the effect of tending to protect other people from the worst of what you're feeling, and, equally, to insulate you from their vulnerability. Whereas the out-of-control surges in hypomania take you out into the world and makes you want to get in other people's faces, sometimes harmlessly, sometimes not. So all of that precarious stuff last time about the precipice I feel my professional life to be was pretty much the hypomania talking. (It doesn't mean the underlying sentiment isn't true, but such a bald and aggressive statement of it is so misrepresentative of my usual feelings as to make it effectively untrue in that setting.) Within twenty-four hours of making that post, I had gone off the edge of the flipchart -- that's the chart marked FLIP as in I think Chris just flipped all the way out -- and, among other silly and destructive things, taken an accidental overdose of painkillers. (Hypomania plus toothache plus a drawer full of codeine-based analgesics is definitely the recipe for a lost weekend.) At least that brought me down to earth with a satisfying bump. Most of the following week was a childish scribble of post-manic weirdness, a huge amount of erratic anger coming out, much of which led to a pretty ghastly meltdown in my working relationship -- and by inevitable extension my personal friendship -- with Theron, predicated on but not I think entirely provoked by our planned work on An Apparently Closed Room, which was to be the first of The Goodman Portraits. It was temporary, I think it's mostly mended, I have a feeling it might be the most productive series of conversations he and I have had in a lo-o-o-ong time. But while it lasted it was just miserable and bleak.

Anyway. Blah. I think I'm back on the rails again, a little tired and out-of-focus and starting to feel pretty daunted and excited about the work ahead, and not just the work, the being in and around the work. But that's fine. It's time to get real. And get busy.

I'm going to try and blast pretty quickly through some notes on what I've been up to in the world. All of this stuff, but all of it, deserves more thought and more attention. But you can do that, right? You don't need me telling you.

Probably the big cultural excitement since I was last here is that The Secret Public opened at the ICA. I was talking about looking forward to this show a few posts back, and the time went by pretty quickly, and suddenly it was there. The day it opened was the day my ICA membership card arrived (serendipity doo dah, says Mr Bluebird on my shoulder) and also the day everything went most horribly awry with Theron, so The Secret Public was the perfect bolthole.

First thing to say is that it's smaller than I expected. The list of featured artists is long and droolworthy but of course most of them are represented by being on tv. So in the end room on the ground floor there are these ten or twelve monitors and that's half the work in the show right there. Unfortunately two of the videos were out of action (I suspect the technician hadn't set them to loop, so they'd played once and gone blank -- well we've all done that at times) and as it's one-spectator-one-screen it wasn't possible in that first visit to sit in front of the two works I was most excited about: Charles Atlas's Because We Must, the fantastically inventive and funny and lurid video with Michael Clark & Co. (which featured in the wonderful Atlas season at Tate Modern last year); and a document of Mark E. Smith's play/performance Hey Luciani at the Riverside in 1980something. So I'll have to go back and do those. Out of what I did see, the most impressive video work was, perhaps surprisingly, Derek Jarman's Glitterbug -- I say surprising because I've seen quite a bit of it before, and I certainly know that Super-8 home movie strain in his work pretty well, and it doesn't always manage to transcend its arguable parochialism. But I found it very moving, quite unexpectedly: as a portrait (and that's a concept that's been on my mind a lot of late) of that milieu at that time -- a particularly heart-tugging appearance of a young and astonishingly fresh-faced Genesis P-Orridge, for example -- and in what look like outtakes (sort-of) from The Last of England; but also as an unusually direct encounter with Jarman as an artist and activist. In a sense, everything he was and is is in there somewhere. I know it was an emotional day anyway and my head was a fullscale pitch invasion but the tears I shed for Glitterbug were specific and dependable. Jarman's so exemplary. I couldn't help feeling my own shortfall. And even that self-doubt was feeding back.

Auto-thwackery aside, there's some priceless stuff in The Secret Public, not all of it on telly. The first room you go into, Eno's On Land is playing, there's a large and successful Victor Burgin piece on the wall, a selection of sensational Linder photomontages (in a way, nobody summarizes the dissident visual culture of the late 70s like Linder), and in a central display case, Peter Saville's original plates for 'Love Will Tear Us Apart' -- which, as I said over at DC's, is better than an old phial of Jesus tears any day for relic value. Richard Hamilton's Treatment Room (from 1982) is the best of the installed art, a devastating one-take demolition of Falklands-era Thatcherism. There are some poised and oddly troubling photos by Jon Savage; some fun documentation of the Neo-Naturists (whom I couldn't quite place, though Michael Clark cropped up and in one photo I thought I recognized Rachel Auburn, but I might be wrong); a confusing but lively piece by Stephen Willats; a far-from-exciting Gilbert & George (not sure that they fit here, at least not with a 1987 piece -- the late 70s / early 80s stuff is much more in tune, I'd have thought). Upstairs, just three pieces: a startling room-sized installation by Marc Camille Chaimowicz called 'Enough Tyranny Recalled', which looks like Leigh Bowery walked in and exploded; Bowery himself at the Anthony D'Offay show, posing his bloody heart out (the ideal piece for the show, though overfamiliar perhaps to devotees); and perhaps most striking and poignant of all, a wall-mounted piece by Trojan, whose distinct artistic sensibility -- in its own right as it were -- has tended to be drowned out.

So: oh, I dunno. It was exciting, disappointing, partial in good ways and partial in bad. A Pompidou-sized survey of this stuff must surely be a necessity before long; having each of the featured artists represented by a single work or series of works tends to underplay the urgent forward motion of the era, you end up with a lot of discrete moments and vertical movements. The sense of an artistic community and of the support and cross-pollination within it is strongish, as is the feeling of disciplinary boundaries disregarded in the productive heat of a unifying discursive aesthetic: but the clinching argument is missing. The overreliance on video art to get the big points across is perhaps inevitable but bathetic -- or at least the huddling together of monitors in one big bank, rather than allowing each work to claim its own space, has the effect of underestimating the authority of these artists and the strength of their imagery. If I was convinced that that was a curatorial principle, I might see the value in it, but I'd be interested to know how it was arranged when it opened in Munchen, whether the ICA is simply too small to accommodate the psychic scope of the show -- and the potency of the collated expressions -- even if all of the artwork itself will just about fit.

At any rate, I'll certainly be going back a time or two before it ends, and it's anyway clearly one of those things (I know most things are one of those things) where the more interestingly you can attend to it, the more interesting it turns out to be.

What else? Well the other big deal was David Lynch's Inland Empire -- which honestly I'd have to say I was dreading. I haven't really loved a Lynch movie since Lost Highway and I'm really not that interested in that side of his work which always gets described as 'dreamlike' or 'surreal' -- which was what most critical accounts (favourable and otherwise) seemed to be saying about this new film (along with more-or-less disparaging remarks about the dreariness of the DV image and the sense of longeur that seemed to go along with it).

So, what this tells us (I think) is something about the poverty of critical language outside of the academy for talking about film of this kind. I'm not sure what I mean by 'this kind' -- there's not a great deal around that's very like Inland Empire: normally when iconic filmmakers are refining their art (as art) to this degree, their status ensures a certain level of production values which I suppose serve in turn to underwrite their distinctive value(s) as artists. If Tarkovsky had shot Sacrifice on DV, in other words... -- Or you have some truly challenging outburst of sumptuous, disdainful fury like Ilya Khrjanovsky's 4 (which I picked up cheap on DVD this week) and the amount of money that's been spent on it seems itself to prevent the film from being classed as 'garbage'. The stigma of DV is not about image quality, in other words, or not just that; it's the (truly) mental image of Ken Russell's backyard home movies, the self-assured genius who can't get arrested in the industry any more.

What was I saying? Oh, yes, well it would have been an immense pity if foolish critics using inapt words like 'dreamlike' and 'nightmarish' had put me off seeing Inland Empire. (Just as the 'Poetry and Dream' display at Tate Modern continues to get my goat for completely mis-establishing a whole slew of artists -- as well as 99.9% of all known poets.) I don't know if I can do any better, though. I can only say that I was gripped in a way I've hardly ever experienced in the cinema: on the edge of my seat through some of the slowest and dingiest and most puzzling episodes. If I say I think it's a masterpiece, I've said next to nothing: but what impresses me above all is the refinement and the complexity of Lynch's operations. I perhaps disagree with his choices at some moments, but that's his privilege (and mine). Which privilege, let me say, is not to do with some specious construction of eccentric genius, but with a refinement whose propriety is entirely bound up with the particular and fundamental possibilities of cinema. In Inland Empire, Lynch has created a perfect cinematic fiction, in exactly the way that Borges, say, creates perfect literary fictions. The fiction is about the medium; the medium is entirely and thoroughly described and expressed through the arguments of the fiction. I've only ever seen Robert Wilson do that in theatre: in Wilson's case, of course, his first principle is utterly, irretrievably wrong, which is not true of Lynch; but everything that folds out from that first principle is, on its own terms, irrefutable and complete and itself a picture of the system in which it participates. This is something you may as well use the idiot word 'masterpiece' to describe, no?

A good thing worth mentioning in passing: I've only just caught up with liveartwork DVD, which seems to come about three or four times a year (issue 5 is quite newly released). Each issue comprises six or so substantial excerpts from video documentation of international live art performances, and/or made-for-video pieces. In the three issues I picked up (by mail order -- they came quickly and unfussily) there are extremely worthwhile documents of work by Brian Catling, Stuart Brisley, Goat Island (whose live work seems to transfer quite brilliantly to video, though I dare say it helps that they're making quite brilliant work in the first place -- I'm not sure if we have to start saying R.I.P. about them yet, do we?), the stunning Esther Ferrer, the irrepressible Robin Deacon, and so on and so on. Issue 1 has a wonderful piece by the German artist Eva Meyer-Keller, inflicting barely-imaginable cruelties on a succession of strawberries; on issue 5, my mate Emma Benson turns up (unexpectedly -- or at least, unexpectedly the first time I watched it) the best part of ten years ago, twitching and jerking in various corners of the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford in a Gary Stevens piece. Lots and lots for us to do; lots and lots for us to see, me and you, you and me, doo doo, doo doo. ...Where am I?

A depressing thing worth mentioning in passing: I think I have to confess I've finally reached my elastic limit with Salt. If you don't know Salt, it's been for the past few years an incredibly busy independent press, based in Cambridge, mostly producing poetry, about half of which I suppose falls within the ambit of my particular interests (in late modernist work and its close allies). They've harnessed print-on-demand technology to enable them to be more active and in some respects more daring than any publisher in this area has ever been before. Their list is huge and growing and, when they finally get The Salt Companion to Geraldine Monk out, I'll be (in a very small way) on it. The books themselves are not that robust as objects, but more and more attention is obviously being lavished on the cosmetics and that's probably not a bad thing. Perhaps the most contentious aspect to Salt's operations is that Chris Emery, who's the prime mover behind the press -- and, whatever I'm about to say, is an excellent bloke doing what he takes to be the right thing -- has from the get-go been boldly pragmatic about trying to get the work to new audiences by borrowing techniques, particularly around marketing and merchandising, from other (bigger) players and sectors, and allowing Salt to conform as far as possible to those pressures and assumptions that shape the literary publishing industry.

So a few days ago I get their newest print catalogue and at this point, with the best will, I have to hold up my hands and say I no longer recognize my own aspirations and commitments in this material. This really is the ugliest motherhugging brochure I've ever seen for poetry, possibly for anything. Salt is describing itself as "the UK's hottest independent literary press", as if any meaningful reconciliation could ever be made between the words 'literary' and 'hottest'; a block of text on both covers insist that I should "HURRY!" to claim an online discount -- in other words, I should HURRY to concede that poetry is a kind of material that need not be categorically distinguished from, say, cut-price carpets. Across two dozen pages, huge photos loom of these indescribably unprepossessing poets' faces -- I mean no disrespect to the gentlemen (and three ladies) in question, some of whom are friends, I'm just wondering at what point we decided to agree that promoting poetry on the basis of what its authors look like was a decent or honourable trade-off with a personality-obsessed literary culture. Substantial but entirely uncontextualised samples from each text are dumped on every page in a wretchedly outmoded and barely legible grunge typewriter font. Seeing writers of the stature and integrity of John Wilkinson and Alan Halsey peering out of this mess like nervous animals in a deregulated Russian zoo is, honestly, painful.

It's like that moment a few years ago when J.H. Prynne was suddenly the object of a media spasm due to some survey of British literary activity being published which suggested that he was, you know, a good poet: and suddenly Iain Sinclair's popping up on the Today porgramme with one brilliant pre-worked line (that trying to settle the precedency between Prynne and Philip Larkin was "like comparing electricity to nougat") and a lot of mischievous and strenuously disingenuous playing-down of the difficulties by which a novice reader is confronted in reading Prynne for the first time. As a dissenting friend wrote to me then: "It's good that people are talking about him, but there's no point pretending he's Patience Strong."

I'm sorry to say I think (on this evidence) Salt has now reached a place in its development where it is quite cynically and grossly misrepresenting some of the work on its list. To place Wilkinson's work, or D.S. Marriott's, under a banner that says 'sensational' and 'hot' is to distort that work and the kinds of relations it's interested in establishing with readers. I'm the first to agree that seeking a wider readership for difficult poetry in these modes is a necessity. I also think the breadth of Salt's list may help with that task. (I can imagine, for example, a reader taking a chance on Anthony Joseph's genuinely sensational -- and very finely made -- The African Origins of UFOs, and taking the leap from there to Marriott or to Bruce Andrews even, and all of that being OK.) But in its promotions and some of the language it uses to talk about the work it represents, it is plainly and quite actively aping a broader culture that seeks to soothe or airbrush or neutralize difficulty as if it were an embarrassing but remediable fault in self-presentation rather than an index of certain deep engagements that are integral to the original positioning of the work, not a reducible feature of its surfaces. There is no clue anywhere here that the work is not simply challenging but actually demanding -- it requires a kind of bravery and attentiveness on the part of the reader (I think attentiveness is becoming a kind of bravery in itself, actually) without which the standard contracts simply fall into a sort of disconsoled nullity. And this is the urgent problem with Salt's strategy: it is making promises that the work cannot, must not, endorse or hope to honour, and the result of this, downstream, is bruised and disenchanted readers who will not be able to understand -- and why should they? -- why it is that non-mainstream poetry has let them down in a way that the dull gestures of the mainstream never have.

The odd thing is that I'm pretty sure Chris Emery would say all the same things about the poetry that I'm concerned about here. Perhaps he'd say it's just a matter of degree -- presumably there are some lines he wouldn't cross because they'd seem disrespectful to the work and to its audiences, and he and I just draw the lines in a different place. But I'm not sure about that. Last week I did a reading gig for the literary society at my old school in Bristol and had a fascinating discussion afterwards with an extremely bright young woman who's working on Kafka and who rejected, pretty much out of hand, my 'two streams' account of recent mainstream vs. modernist poetic practice: she was insisting (not without strong argument) that the differences in approach to language-use and, for example, pictorialism were simply matters of degree. What I didn't quite manage to articulate at the time was that, in so far as she's correct, nonetheless such matters of degree are determined in part by the priorities that individuals and groups of writers establish for themselves, and these priorities may exert quite absolutely contrary pressures on writing activity that may in some other respects seem broadly continuous across the spectrum. On this newest evidence, Salt's foremost priority is selling books, not supporting and promoting poetry. Perhaps that's fair enough -- "supporting and promoting" is the kind of phrase that normally crops up in the mission statements of charitable organizations, and that's not what Salt is. I'd be interested to know, though -- in the week, incidentally, when the Arts Council's Grants for the Arts scheme is cut back by 35% (as part of the current push to ensure that in 2013 this country has absolutely nothing going on of any artistic or cultural merit or importance whatsoever) -- how much the significant recent ACE award to Salt has had a bearing on, or was from the outset dependent on this kind of lurid promotional crap. Or whether, as has recently been the case with a project of mine, it's simply a case of putting out the advert that generates the largest number of sales, with no particular regard for the sensitive management of the audience's expectations or a scrupulous fidelity to the ambitions of the artwork at -- or perhaps no longer quite at -- the centre of the activity.

Well, OK, rant over. At the other end of the spectrum from Salt's frantic dancing for chicken tikka, the vital and concentrated journal Plantarchy, out of Ohio from the offices of jUStin!katKO's Critical Documents, has published a new book from the restlessly exploratory cris cheek -- still, after all this time, the only poet on whom I've ever cut my lip. The Church The School The Beer takes its title from "a phrase used by some Inuit people to describe a tawdry journey that they feel is mapped out for them to make into modernity, from a child to an adult: the church - the school - the beer." The texts collected together here arise out of a complex interplay between live writing (talking while walking), transcription, surveillance and public or civic speech-acts. As so often with cheek, it's the slippage between these acts that is more productive (in a hermeneutic sense) than the barely plausible integrity of their momentary significations; therefore -- and this is usually true of cris cheek's work wherever I have encountered it on the page -- the book feels like a partial account, a problem, in some ways almost a betrayal or a reneging. But I suspect most books feel like that to him, most of the time: that they capture the image of the impulse, the record of the motion, the end of the beginning. So this is not a satisfactory book, really, but all the more engaging and provoking for that.

I've also been reading Userlands, the collection of short fictions which arose out of the early (or, at any rate, earlier) days of Dennis's blog, and the ad hoc community of writers who were gathering there at that time -- pretty various stuff but there's nothing I've found yet that isn't interesting, at least on its own terms, except perhaps for those one or two authors who are still in the early stages of digesting Dennis's influence on their own practice, and whose work here serves best as a reminder of how incredibly artful and poised his own writing has been all this time.

And another lovely book I picked up this past week is the (long-awaited -- by me, anyway) catalogue of the Robert Ryman show at Inverleith House in Edinburgh that was my visual arts highlight of 2006. Lovely but I must say it's not at all what I was expecting -- in contrast to the spacious and resounding show itself, the book is wordy and overpopulated, with each of the paintings given its own little essay, and plenty of artist/curator dialogues which you can re-enact in your own parlour of a Sunday teatime. It seems churlish to refuse this discourse, and already I can see that some of it is genuinely useful and extrovert, but I'm sorry the pictures don't get a little space just to themselves. It's sort of like a DVD where you can't turn off the director's commentary and the extras are interpolated with the scenes of the main feature. Odd choices but nonetheless a rewarding publication and a happy memento.

Probably most of my reading attention in the past few days however has been turned on Terry Eagleton's After Theory, which I must admit I never really knuckled down to when I first bought it last summer. I was reminded of it having been watching the new BFI issue on DVD of Jarman's Wittgenstein -- I really think one of my two or three favourite of his films, despite its sitting so oddly with much of the rest of his oeuvre. Of course the origin of the Wittgenstein project was Tariq Ali approaching DJ to direct a screenplay that Eagleton had already written (and which all sides seem to agree was not a fully or lavishly cinematic work on paper, though I guess why would it be?); Jarman of course couldn't reconcile himself with the reverence and literariness of Eagleton's script and made a movie that's full of his usual subversive esprit but seemed to Eagleton crassly incongruent with his principal intentions. It was obviously quite a spat, and not much to either's credit; but having watched Jarman's Wittgenstein I was wondering what of Eagleton remained in it, and how I (knowing very little of Eagleton's writing) might detect those traces. (I believe the two screenplays were published in one volume, in a funny, rather British, move to oil the waters: but I haven't ever seen that book and I'm not sure the idleness of my speculations really merits trying to track it down...)

Anyway, all of that led me back to After Theory, and though much of it is disputable and, underneath its amiable, slightly rollicking surface, ever-so-slightly prim (a similar feeling to reading Tony Harrison's poetry, say), it is a good and consistently interesting read, with whose underlying argument I think I am largely in sympathy. What I feel particularly at home with is the extent to which it is, for Eagleton, perhaps above all the body that persists after (just as of course it preceded) theory. This comes excitingly close to the route of the train of thought I was describing recently in my 'Incorporative dissidence' paper: which is to say, it seems to suggest that theatre can do something politically right now that no other artform is so well-placed to do.

I was thinking that all the more fervently earlier when I read the excellent Maxie Szalwinska's post to the Guardian theatre blog a couple of days ago on the topic of the silly micro-furore that seems (apparently -- it passed me by completely, I must admit) to have greeted the news that Sir Ian McKellen appears nude in the new RSC King Lear. I can't quite bring myself to post there, it's not an adequate forum for serious discussion (though Alison Croggon gamely has a go), but regular Thompson's readers will know how often my thoughts turn to naked actors...

I mean, yes, tee hee, but the more I try to think through this stuff, the more crucially important it seems to become. I'm currently trying to write on it, to clarify my thinking in respect of The Goodman Portraits, which I suspect will use nudity quite extensively. So, I imagine, to a lesser degree, will Speed Death of the Radiant Child: as, indeed, quite a bit of my work has right from the start. That nudity has only rarely been about eroticism (though it was in The Consolations and -- had I had the consent of the actors concerned -- would have been in the first version of Napoleon in Exile) but it was often about a kind of sensual tonality that eventually, in his horses, in 2003, became interesting to me in its own right. At that point, I started to want to think more carefully about something I'd up till then been doing really only instinctively. (All of my theorizing on theatre, such as it is, starts like that, I think: taking something I've been doing a lot and trying to slow down the instinctual impulses or reflex responses beneath it.)

On second thoughts, you know, I'm not going to try and precis that writing now, but perhaps when it's finished (which should be in the next week or so) I can upload the piece somewhere so that if you're interested, you can take a look and perhaps let me know what you think.

At any rate, for now, I'm excited about where Eagleton leaves it, and the agenda that that implies. It makes me all the more convinced that the question of how, and why, you put unclothed actors on stage -- and which actors and in what contexts -- is critically fundamental. (And all the fuss about McKellen -- and, to some degree, Daniel Radcliffe, though I think that's a much more interesting phenomenon -- no reflection ad hominem intended on either gentleman, naturally... -- completely and blessedly irrelevant.)

It's exciting not least because once again the really interesting stuff in town all feels in accord with the same basic commitments. It's as true of Jarman and Michael Clark as it is of cris cheek and the Userlands writers. Privacy (like its retarded and impoverished cousin, individual genius) is capitalism's Mini-Me; the body, before and after theory, is public first. This is the key to a door that's already ajar. Jump-cut to the exterior scene? All right, here we go with today's overheated peroration. The future -- by which I mean not the drab slanging match between implacably opposed but basically identical fundamentalists, conducted largely underwater, that is presumably our actual destiny; but the ideal, widescreen future, a vivid and equable future, hospitable to the body and fit for living in -- I know this for sure: that future does not belong to the coolly narcissistic, privately insured instincts of inhibition and self-denial.

Rant ends (a bit weakly). Four people applaud. Someone passes around a note that says "I think Chris needs to get laid more." Time passes. Thorin sits down and starts singing about gold. You can see: the round green door.