Higher Education Academy Winning Essay

In the spring I won the Higher Education Academy Student Essay Competition, which paid for my Kindle. Hurrah! Anyway, below, my winning essay on “What do English or Creative Writing have to say to an age of austerity?”

When the recession first bared its teeth a literary friend of mine was blasé. Writers are used to being poor, she said, what’s new? She was right. The age of austerity is simply the rest of the world getting a glimpse of life as lived by “lifetime English majors” (as Buddy Glass called us) and creative writers since – oh – just about forever. Writers ranging from George Orwell to Hunter S Thompson, Oscar Wilde to Mavis Gallant, have lived in – and written some of their most exquisite, lacerating prose on the subject of – abject poverty.

You will have to have another job, Italian novelist and poet Natalia Ginzburg noted matter-of-factly in her essay, My Vocation, a love-letter to the art of creative writing. Few writers are fortunate enough to be able to prove her wrong. Even when times were good for the rest of the world: when hedge funds grew into dense money-thickets and credit was easy, when house prices rose and investment portfolios swelled with promise, writers shared little of the bounty. There were – and are – exceptions, of course. Some writers sell enough to buy a house in the country, a few nab movie deals, or churn out novels regularly enough to enjoy life in a certain style. Once in a while, a six-figure publishing deal makes headlines. For most, though, the act of writing, even for publication, is so remote from any prospect of financial reward as to render money virtually meaningless. The best advice I can give you, a literary agent told my course-mates and I, is to marry someone with money. She was only half joking.

Writers take for granted that talent, education and dedication do not necessarily lead to material success. This particular reality has come as an ice-water shock, however, to those who followed the beaten path from A-levels to university assuming it would lead them right into a secure job in their chosen field. During the boom years this progression seemed irrefutable; like two-plus-two equalling four. All you had to do, in order to have a comfortable life, was learn something useful like business, banking, marketing, or management, and then sashay into a comfortable office, regular paid holidays and the eventual promise of a respectable three-bedroom semi somewhere on the commuter belt. When there were plenty of well-paid jobs available choosing to pursue English or creative writing was seen as at best frivolous, and at worst a dangerous brand of stubborn, self-defeating stupidity. Writers, like other artists, were asked: “Why don’t you get a proper job?” Now, there is no such thing as a “proper job”. Graduate unemployment is at a record high and it isn’t just humanities students who can’t find jobs. According to the BBC more electrical engineers are unemployed than are modern languages graduates, and fine arts is no worse a course, in terms of employment potential, than economics or civil engineering. The promise of the proper job turns out to be hollow.

Because English students and writers have never really participated in the collective fantasy of eternal satisfaction through consumption we are uniquely placed to help our stunned compatriots make necessary adjustments. Creative writers and English students don’t make calculations based on salary packages; we choose differently. We don’t talk about how much money we will be earning in five years, but about the novel we’re writing, our next article, or the screen-play we are going to adapt. Since we have no corporate ladder to climb, no water-cooler politicking to do, we spend our time reading, writing blogs, publishing journals, running workshops or teaching. We define ourselves by what we create in a world where the phrase “creative type” is commonly used as a pejorative. Compelled to question the petty orthodoxies about what we should or shouldn’t do with our lives, creative writers develop the habit of asking questions, of deciding for ourselves – day by day – who we are and how we want to live. “Freedom is a choice,” Hunter Thompson said, “You decide who you are by what you do.” Because writers have typically fallen outside of society’s casual assumptions about money and success we have learned the art of self-definition.

Writers have valuable truths to share in an age of austerity. We can encourage people to stop chasing illusive financial gains and focus on building a life around work they love. We are here to testify that creative work is a vital and satisfying life choice, not a privilege of rich dilettantes. Most of all, writers are proof that poverty is not fatal. We know from experience that there are many ways to take the sting out of a scant bank balance. Our leisure time is different: most writers don’t spend Saturday afternoons shopping, or own the latest flat-screen TV. Instead of going to restaurants we have friends round for dinner. We cultivate gardens, learn to sew or cook, take the time to bake home-made Christmas treats or make our own marmalade. We are familiar with frugality, with library cards, discount vouchers, charity shops, battered trainers and hand-made gifts. Rather than feel deprived, writers and “lifetime English majors” embrace the challenge of freedom and creativity, and can help show society that there is more to life than scrambling up the property ladder, or wearing the latest fashion. As Henry David Thoreau, a writer who knew a great deal about austerity, so beautifully articulated: “It is life nearest the bone where it is sweetest…. Superfluous wealth can buy superfluities only. Money is not required to buy one necessary of the soul.”

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Music Writing Clash Zero dB

Here’s a profile I wrote for Clash in 2006 about two-man band Zero dB.

Trace a line from The Police to Sun Ra via a menswear shop, Newcastle and the Big Chill and you’ll emerge through the looking glass into the bent, sun-blitzed world of Zero dB. Where, for the last six years, Neil Combstock and Chris Vogado have been conjuring up aural mischief as remixers for the likes of Peace Orchestra, Truby Trio, Hexstatic and Original Soul Boy and the legendary Sun Ra.

Now, with debut album ‘Bongos, Bleeps & Basslines’, Zero dB are stepping from the brackets of the liner notes to deliver a joyously muddled musical adventure that veers and swoops, punch drunk, from dance floor to cocktail lounge.
Relaxing at his home in the heart of Barcelona affable Chris Vogado (first record: ‘Outlandos d’Amour’) admits he never meant to end up in a band. “I always wanted to be an electrician – and I was for a bit… it didn’t take me long to realise it wasn’t a dream job.” A stint in tailoring followed. “The worst job ever. Too many inside leg measurements. Was it women’s tailoring? No. If it had been I might not be here now,” he chuckles. On a music technology course in Newcastle he met Neil Combstock, and the pair started working together after the both drifted down to London. Alongside their extensive remix work they started releasing their own tracks, beginning with ‘Come Party’ (still, Chris says, the ultimate floor filler).

“Thirty or forty” tracks later and Zero dB were ready to skim the cream to create ‘Bongos, Bleeps & Basslines’, beginning with the title track (Chris’s top pick of the album), a barefoot-electro tribal funk anthem. His second favourite, ‘Sunshine Lazy’, oozes with affection for the bossa nova music he grew up on, all loping beats and hazy heat-shimmer vocals from Nouvelle Vague collaborator Phoebe Tolmer.

Elsewhere the record skips merrily between genres, appealing, Chris says hopefully, to any audience from WOMAD to Homelands, jazz festivals or the Big Chill. “We could fit into all four – we’ve done the Big Chill before, and I’d love to go back, but all of them really.” Robust internationalism is very much part of the Zero dB experience, actually, with Chris in Spain and Neil regularly moving between Tokyo and London.

“We recorded the album in London though,” Chris reports. “We both realised that to get a really good album together you need to be face to face. Otherwise, when you start arguing about it, it’s too easy to put the phone down.”

And they’ll be reunited soon, he says, to take the album on the road. “We’re producers first, really, and DJs second, but we’re going to try something live this year. The album sounds very ‘live’ and we want to capture that atmosphere – it’s going to take a big band though.”

Meantime, Neil is back in Tokyo and Chris and his wife are looking forward to their first holiday in, well, six years. “Since this whole thing started, actually,” Chris says with a mock sigh. “We might jump on the ferry and go to Ibiza. That would be nice.”

The Lost Brothers – So Long, John Fante

The Lost Brothers started as a “joke” according to Oisin Leech but he and musical partner Mark McCausland soon found people taking their dusty, gentle folk harmonies to heart. Their deubt album Trails of the Lonely is one of my favourites: a Simon & Garfunkle drinking whisky-laced coffee in the rain with Burt Jansch affair (which they recorded in my native burg, Portland OR) that is both fresh and ageless — so I tracked down Oisin to find out what makes the Lost world turn. Hats, poetry, Powell’s Books and Bob Dylan are in; OK! magazine is out…

The full interview is forthcoming at Pennyblackmusic. Meantime, mark your calendar for the release of new album So Long, John Fante on 25 November and its launch at at Dublin’s Workmans Club on 30 Nov.