The Peacock Manifesto
It's only a week or so since I last mentioned Belle & Sebastian, and you know it feels slightly odd to be mentioning them again so soon. It wasn't always this way of course; there was a time when almost every day seemed to hold some burning need to be writing about the group, or at the very least because of the group. But you know things change, we all move on. Which is how it should be.
Somewhat strange then, for me at least, to be spending an afternoon in February 2001 reading a novel by one time Belle & Sebastian member Stuart David. Or perhaps not so strange, since David always seemed at least as interesting as Stuart Murdoch, and if Murdoch's songs continue to elicit fond memories, then it's David's assorted Belle memorabilia that have left just as lasting an impression. Stuart David's Ink Polaroids were something of a revelation when they appeared almost hand in hand with the If You're Feeling Sinister album, and they made for wonderful reading. Of course the concept of short, 'flash' fictions or poetry wasn't exactly a new one, but David certainly gave it new life with his snapshot snippets of existence. It was an idea that certainly fitted in with my love of detail; my love of cropping and reducing the image to, if not the essence, at least a more abstract playfulness, and as a result I thought that the Ink Polaroids were some of the best printed words I'd read in a long time. He later tried to expand the idea with his Little Ink Movies, which chronicled the bands' first trip to New York, but that experiment didn't quite work, which is no great criticism as such, only an observation, and there were still some lines there that were as beautiful moments of poetry as Murdoch would ever fit into his songs.
Last time I mentioned Belle & Sebastian I told of how I felt the reason for their downfall (in my eyes at least) was the fact that they succumbed to the evil of democratic Pop. I have a feeling that Stuart David partly understands this because it was he who finally upped and left the band to pursue his own directions in what always seemed to me to be partly exasperation, or at least frustration from the fact that instead of ending up as a collection of inspired ideas and moments, all Belle & Sebastian were eventually turning out were watered down compromises. I'm probably being completely unfair, but to an observer that how it seems, and you know, if you cant observe and say 'this is how I see it' and stand by that point of view at least until you feel differently, then hey... you might as well spend your life asleep.
So Stuart David left Belle & Sebastian, formed his own brand of Gang Pop in Looper, and made some divertingly likeable records. He also wrote a novel.
I have to be honest and tell you that I never read David's first novel Nalda Said because, frankly, I wasn't that interested. There was too much to read because at the time I was lost in a Lawrence Block obsession, and if you've not been lost in a Lawrence Block obsession yet I encourage you to do so right away. I also avoided Nalda Said for the very reasons that a lot of people no doubt snapped it up, and that reason of course is that it was 'a novel by the bass player in Belle & Sebastian'.
We have problems in our culture, don't we, with artists who try and do too much, who attempt to juggle work in too many different media. Maybe it's due to our obsession with wanting to stick things into neat compartments, I'm not sure, but even with lovers of so-called 'eclectic' culture we still seem to have problems with musicians who want to be painters, or actors, or authors. Or vice-versa (although it seldom happens in reverse, does it? And Damien Hirsts' dabblings in the world of pap don't really count). Maybe it's a justified wariness: witness Paul McCartney's paintings (oh hang on, witness his songs too...) or David Bowie's acting (I know he was great as Warhol, but let's face it, doing a convincing Warhol isn't exactly demanding). Maybe it's a wariness based on the idea that to achieve greatness as an artist you need to fully commit to one thing, to immerse and obsess with one thing at a time, to fully examine and make a sense of that thing; to doggedly master one craft and from that mastery create work of lasting significance. Maybe that's a terribly old fashioned way to think, I'm not really sure, not having read enough philosophy or sociology or whatever it is one needs to read to understand such things. But certainly it's an argument that bears a lot of weight. I'm speaking from experience too, from the point of view of someone who is the type for whom one medium simply isn't enough; for whom there are simply too many ideas and not enough hours in the day (and for whom too many of those hours are filled with doing something only tangentially satisfying) to do even a handful of them justice. Or indeed, any of them. So I end up with mediocre paintings, writing that meanders and never gets to a point, films that lack any real beauty or focus (nearly always IN focus though... ) and once upon every five years or so, music that is appallingly bad.
Maybe all of that is why I could only partly enjoy Stuart David's new novel The Peacock Mainfesto; maybe it is just too close to home. Maybe it's because the book is essentially about characters who have ideas but who simply cannot put those ideas into concrete form, for any number of reasons. A lack of expertise and knowledge, a frustrating lack of 'talent' (you know, you can hear the song in your head but you couldn't even begin to play it, or you know what the picture is going to look like, but it never does, and hey, don't start talking about how that doesn't matter because sometimes it DOES) or simply an underlying skill for sabotaging yourself at every turn. Oh yeah, and don't forget simple bad luck. The Peacock Mainfesto hits all those targets, and delivers the shots in a pretty speedy road-novel format, which makes for mildly diverting reading, but you know as road novels go it's no On The Road, and it's no Not Fade Away, and in fact Not Fade Away is the greatest Pop Road Novel of all time and is such a magnificent read that it's not really fair to mention it in the same breath. The Peacock Mainfesto simply doesn't have the poetry, the breadth, the depth or the manic power of Not Fade Away, but then what does? And speaking of depth, I was thinking all the way through that the book was going to be some kind of critique on the music business, of the manner in which business heads end up with the money whilst the people with the ideas always end up getting screwed, and in the end you it wasn't about that at all really and instead just ends up as a kind of existential 'we chase our dreams and life still ends up shit'. Which is fine, you know, but what about something else to get us engaged along the way?
All of which isn't to say that The Peacock Mainfesto is bad. It isn't. It's just not great either, and that's a shame because I happen to think that Stuart David is a much more innovative writer that this book suggests: David could be writing something genuinely strange and beautifully grubby, but instead he has turned in a 'mad Glaswegians in America' pastiche that runs in your mind like an instantly forgettable Brit Movie. Fine for a rainy afternoon with a hangover but sadly not much else.
© Alistair Fitchett 2001