Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Our own Great Big Shining Star

Cover of Niall's latest novel projected onto a stage curtain

Talking for a moment about happier academic events, last night Niall Griffiths gave his inaugural professorial address: he's our Professor of Creative Writing. If you don't know Niall's work, it's scabrous, demotic voices-from-the-underclass stuff, often featuring the Welsh and Scouse underclass (he mentioned last night that there's a Welsh-language dialect called Scwelsh: Scouse Welsh). Lazy early reviewers talked about him as an Irvine Welsh acolyte, and perhaps early titles such as Sheepshagger and Runt did misdirect a little in that general area. I've taught Niall's work quite successfully over the years: my favourite is his scumbag road trip novel Wreckage, which locates the aforesaid scumbags touring North Wales in a Morris Minor robbing post offices in their cultural context of Welsh-Irish hardscrabble Liverpool. Niall says the novel's a failure but what do novelists know about it eh?

An enthusiastic audience awaits

So anyway, Niall spent a couple of hours with me in class talking about his vicious attack on celebrity culture, A Great Big Shining Star, which some of the students had managed to read before the lecture. For a writer with a reputation as a wild man, he's actually rather moral and old-fashioned. Having dismissed Martin Amis ('smells of falseness') and the postmodernists, he agreed that there's a kind of Victorian condition-of-England flavour about the work, though he maintains that he's rather more optimistic than the characters. That said, he warned us not to expect happy endings any time soon, despite his medication.

Niall takes aim at the Granta set

After a stimulating couple of hours I went off to teach my media class, catching up with Niall for his evening lecture to a distinguished audience in the relaxed atmosphere of the theatre over a glass of sulphurous wine. I couldn't possibly enunciate Niall's lecture here: I need to read it slowly and follow some of the threads of quotation and argument before I understood it fully, but some aspects came over loud and clear. Amongst them: Basil Bunting good, the Granta set (Amis, McEwan, Barnes & Co.) bad. He spoke up for 'dark' writing – citing Alan Warner – and rejected the notion that dark = depressing: the dark writer, he seemed to say, takes up the cross for the rest of us. For all his occasional sweariness, there's a definitely a moralist in there. Niall also spoke up – hence the praise for Briggflats for writing that represents vernacular and accented speech, and makes literary experiments.

He rather sadly and entertainingly took issue with John Banville (from the land of Joyce!) for linking grammatical error with moral failure in a piece aimed at Warner: honestly, what a dumb thing for such a good author to say.

Beyond what Niall said – and I'll come back to it when I get my paws on a script – I thought it was wonderful and important to have someone like him there. He's a shaggy, edgy, lightning-quick intelligence with a rough tongue and a pronounced Liverpool accent. He is, in short, a creative writer. His lecture demonstrated a huge range of reading and thought, but it was delivered in an uncompromisingly personal style. He isn't tame, neat, tidy or polished, and this alienates some people (and may lead to them underestimating his keen mind). As he pointed out and I'm well aware, the academy can be too ready to exclude those whose faces, accents or looks don't fit. It was me who suggested appointing Niall a Professor: because he deserves it, but also because he symbolises some key facts we may have forgotten. The academy doesn't own culture or criticism, we just take part in it. We shouldn't be trying to tame it, own it or make it nice. We need to be in there adding our ideas and making it easy for the excluded to join in the conversation: appointing Niall does exactly that.

Then we went for curry and wine and we'll draw a veil over the rest of the proceedings.

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