Monday, 16 November 2009

Younger than that now

There’s been lots of coverage in the last couple of weeks of 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and the subsequent ‘domino’ effect across Eastern Europe. Whenever I think of that November, I also remember my first naïve steps into 'arts development', as it’s when the first issue of Scratch, the poetry magazine I used to edit and publish, came out. I recall stuffing envelopes with fresh-smellign magazines whilst watching the news on tv.

I started the magazine with a strong interest in how poets were reflecting the 2nd decade of Thatcherism with a kind of expanded, po-mo-realism, wise-cracking and allusive but political at a deep level. Although there were some signs of hope (the Green Party got 15% of the vote in the European Elections in 1989, for instance), it could feel as if nothing was ever going to change. So why not start a poetry magazine that would show that, as I put it in the first editorial, ‘the exercise of the imagination is an act of liberation’?

As is only normal and proper there’s a lot about that first issue that now makes me cringe and smile simultaneously – the youthful self-righteousness, the slack use of Letraset. But no one can deny that within a year of me starting a poetry magazine, the Berlin Wall was paperweights across the world, repressive communist regimes had crumbled, Ceausescu was dead, Thatcher was out of power, Nelson Mandela was free and my wife gave birth to our first child – who says poetry makes nothing happen? (Of course, I can make a strong case for personal responsibility for only one of the things in that list.)

Why am I sharing this, other than to mark the occasion? Well, it’s something to do with change. In that first editorial, I also quoted Greil Marcus:

‘It was too easy to lose touch with rage, with a sense of what is good and evil, to lose touch with the idea that its worth something to make, and try to live out, such a distinction. These are the politics of the freeze-out. They turn into a culture of seamless melancholy with the wilful avoidance of anything that one suspects might produce really deep feeling. Raw emotions must be avoided when one knows they will take no shape but that of chaos.’

Change runs through a number of recent posts – perhaps because I’m personally very alive to it right now, mainly because it’s in the air. I suspect we’re not in a melancholic freeze-out, with two tribes eyeing each other guardedly, but in something both more manic and more ersatz than that. (As with the ridiculous attacks on Gordon Brown last week.) It can feel like raw emotion or personal interest is all that’s allowed. Whether we are actually shaping chaos to a greater degree feels highly debatable. We seem to know change is-a-coming, in a way few did in 1989, but are we any better prepared?

The question I keep returning to, in our culture and in our Culture, is how we bring into actual being a proper combination of emotion and analysis, imagination and intent, change and continuity. And as in 1989, I have a hunch that if the arts can’t help, we’re going to struggle.

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