Over on Arts Professional, someone thought I might have been visited by the Great Peter Street Thought Police last week, when actually I was just on leave. I spent much of the week in a nostalgic reverie kicked off by looking at Finnegan’s Wake (see last couple of posts) and an old flyer left in its pages, from Paris in 1986. And as M. le President est arrivé in London today, I thought I’d share. If it has no relevance, forgive me.
I was drawn into thinking of a year that probably changed my view of the arts in ways I didn’t understand even then. I was studying French and English Literature at Liverpool and spent a (not very) academic year at Paris VIII in Saint-Denis. (Best known for the World Cup Stadium and riots these days, but a lot less edgy than Toxteth back in 1985.) I immersed myself in what I then didn’t call the arts in a way I’ve rarely done since. Loads of gigs – David Thomas, Sonic Youth, Violent Femmes, The Pogues, Prefab Sprout, Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds (in his fantastically violent early period) and one of the best gigs I’ve ever seen, by Microdisney. I interviewed Del Amitri for my mate's fanzine. (Trout Fishing in Leytonstone, anoraks!) I even started on the slippery slope to really liking jazz, seeing Dave Brubeck, Sarah Vaughan and Archie Shepp. I also discovered African music from some of the friends I made in the halls, who were mainly not from France, but from Francophone Africa.
I read constantly, though on reflection I think 21 is too young to read the whole of Proust – I’d need a serious illness to repeat it now! I remember discovering Robert Desnos through a course I studied, and pretending to understand literary theory. (I missed out on the fact that Deleuze and Guattari were teaching there at the time, though I think I did once meet Jim Haynes.)
I got an annual pass for the Pompidou Centre and spent days on end there, and was inspired by the atmosphere and the connections it made, which seemed hugely different to anything I’d so far experienced at home. I did a Saturday morning course to understand modern art, which really opened doors for me. I sat through theatre I couldn’t quite understand. And I spent long afternoons catching up with the history of cinema, especially the black and white moody bits. (Although one of my fondest memories is of going to watch Absolute Beginners one sunny Spring day, thoroughly enjoying its neon gaudiness and then walking out into a bright Spring afternoon and putting my shades on… I’ve never dared watch the film again, because I just know it’s rubbish.)
I wrote loads of really awful poems and songs, and went busking on the Paris Metro. (Don’t Twice It’s Alright and Folsom Prison Blues, since you ask.) You can, should you so desire read one of the slightly better ones, archived from a 1987 edition of the magnificent The North at the Poetry Library’s magazine archive here. It was between poems by Edwin Morgan and Peter Porter which was a big deal for me at the time, and even now.)
I had ‘downloaded’ my favourite records onto about 20 or 30 C90 tapes (younger readers, ask an old person) which certainly is one argument for the benefits of the digital, personalised age. (I’ll be able to listen to a choice of 10,000 songs in my car on the way home tonight!)
What lessons did I draw from my nostalgia? The ‘cultural offer’ needs time and an absence of exams to flourish in a young person, and don’t let them think of it as culture but just exciting stuff. Great cities are brilliant and exciting, and big institutions can have a fantastically personal impact on individuals. Connections and hybrids are what make the world creative and exciting, not purity, and not boxing things off too strictly in terms of ‘culture’ seems like a good idea. And Microdisney records still sound great but ‘not-as-good-as-live’ whilst Finnegan’s Wake is still impossible to read.