Back to basics (yet again)

Britain's latest literary manifesto declares war on the false and fanciful. But that's nothing new. Two Lakeland revolutionaries of the past would certainly have approved.
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The Independent Culture

If you're keen to launch a back-to-basics rebellion against the fussy and bloated art of your elders, better keep the message short and sour. John Lydon understood that. Punk legend has it that, before the Sex Pistols were more than a livid gleam in Malcolm McLaren's eye, the future Johnny Rotten walked into the Sex boutique on Kings Road wearing a Pink Floyd T-shirt. Except that he had customised it - with the word "I hate" inscribed above the band's logo. At once, McLaren knew that he had found his man.

If you're keen to launch a back-to-basics rebellion against the fussy and bloated art of your elders, better keep the message short and sour. John Lydon understood that. Punk legend has it that, before the Sex Pistols were more than a livid gleam in Malcolm McLaren's eye, the future Johnny Rotten walked into the Sex boutique on Kings Road wearing a Pink Floyd T-shirt. Except that he had customised it - with the word "I hate" inscribed above the band's logo. At once, McLaren knew that he had found his man.

For the past two centuries, artists and writers have delighted in planting the sort of explosive manifestos that blow up in the appalled faces of their senior colleagues. Often, their gist resembles the slogan IKEA used for their ad campaign: "Chuck out the chintz". With a staggering degree of consistency, the core of what counts as creative renewal stays the same. No frills, clean lines, firm rules, simple methods, a democratic style and a stern commitment to the here-and-now. Less is more, as the Minimalist mantra runs; or, as the Viennese architect Adolf Loos put it, with the tinge of menace that often hangs over such uprisings: "Ornament is crime".

From the right vantage-point, the pared-down Lyrical Ballads of Wordsworth and Coleridge and the three-chord anthems of Rotten, Vicious & Co belong on the same artistic street. Julien Temple, the director who first filmed the antics of the Pistols, clearly agrees. His new film, Pandaemonium, explores the turbulent partnership of Wordsworth and Coleridge. Not Sid and Nancy; but Will and Sam.

The latest bunch of slimline militants to disturb the peace of an over-dressed old guard are the New Puritans of British fiction. Mustered by editors Nicholas Blincoe and Matt Thorne, these 15 writers have whipped up a very non-puritanical storm of gossip about their anthology All Hail the New Puritans (Fourth Estate, £10). Whatever else they give up, the media spotlight clearly does not figure on the their list of Devices We Can Do Without.

At first glance, this is a playful project in keeping with the spirit of its commitment-phobic times. The NPs don't seem to take themselves quite as seriously as do (or did) their closest cousins: Lars von Trier and his wacky band of camera-shaking Danes in Dogme '95. And, if all our puritan preachers hanker after is publicity for some powerful tales of contemporary British life, they deserve a fair wind. This is an impressive showcase of hard-edged realist fiction, with compelling stories by Anna Davis, Candida Clark, Ben Richards, Geoff Dyer and Matthew Branton particularly worth the price of admission.

All the same, the New Puritan bullet points (see right) do carry some hefty historical baggage. To say so will hardly please the editors, for whom History ranks with Poetry as a depraved decoration that proper writers ought to shun. Historical context would probably be as welcome to the NPs as a leather-bound set of the complete works of Alfred Lord Tennyson. No matter; their manifesto asks for one.

I'm not the first critic to notice that the NP touchstones - "clarity", "textual simplicity" and "grammatical purity" in the service of an "ethical reality", "set in the present-day" - recall Wordsworth's Preface to the second, 1800 edition of the Lyrical Ballads. The Lakeland revolutionary (as he then was) demands a poetry made from "a selection of language really used by men" in order to express "the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings"; he lambasts "the gaudiness and inane phraseology of many modern writers" with their false and fanciful "poetic diction".

Now, the NPs seek to keep their fiction free of contamination by sickly versifiers. In contrast, Wordsworth et al rushed to embrace prose's wholesome simplicity. As did his poetic heirs. Early in the 1900s, WB Yeats staggered out of the Celtic Twilight to simplify his verse. Before, he had "made my song a coat," he wrote in retrospect, blinking in the fierce 20th-century sunshine, "Covered with embroideries/ Out of old mythologies". These days, he felt, "there's more enterprise/ In walking naked."

Nakedness remains the prime Puritan virtue. As for Yeats's old mythologies, they take a secular form for the NPs: the burdensome history and culture of the past as they affect (or infect) fiction now. In the introduction, Blincoe rails against historical fiction "written with the sole purpose of denying life. These novelists believe that literature belongs in a heritage theme-park," he fumes, "or, better, the grave".

Anyone who read (as I did ) the 129 submissions for last year's Booker Prize would have some sympathy. I never felt that upmarket British fiction stood in danger of turning its back on (say) the finer details of court etiquette in Renaissance Denmark. When it came to encounters with modern Britain, the talent proved much scarcer.

Yet it's the new mythologies that intrigue me. The NP editors pay predictable homage to the "cultural primacy" of film narrative (that deeply Victorian invention). They want fiction to "prove... the equal" of storytelling on screen. Where gods and monsters, kings and heroes, once crowded the fictional myth-kitty, now movies, TV and computer-games fill the vacancy for a shared body of allusion.

It's no coincidence that the first sentence of the first story refers to a Dreamcast games console. And many of the characters in All Hail the New Puritans serve or monitor the audio-visual imperium - as TV directors, games developers, porn-hunting detectives or even in Toby Litt's memorably nasty tale - unwitting actors-to-be in a hard-core porn movie themselves.

The funny thing is that, while the NP editors bow down before the mechanical or digital visual image, several of their contributors show exactly how it can mess you up. The theory purports to flatter new technology; the practice treats it with suspicion. Trust the tale, not the teller, said that original new puritan, DH Lawrence.

In fact, ambivalence towards hi-tech media lies behind most of back-to-basics crusades since the Romantic era. The 1800 Preface laments the reduction of modern minds to "a state of almost savage torper". Chief culprit is the "craving for extraordinary incident, which the rapid communication of intelligence hourly gratifies". In other words, Wordsworth blames the Media. Yet without that "rapid communciation" about (among other things) rebel writers and their causes, there would be no Romantic movement and no William Wordsworth, Lakeland Superstar.

Half a century on, The Pre-Raphaelites fled the urban grime around them for a pastoral never-never-land. Again, that flight was assisted no end by industrial dyes, by the pictorial tastes of muck-spreading Northern magnates, and by the fast distribution of the periodical press along newly-built Victorian railway lines.

Come the 20th century, and the advocates of a new simplicity at last began to praise the modern machine. Wildly in love with movies, newspapers, factories and fast cars, the Futurists and Vorticists delivered plenty of New Puritan iconoclasm. In a foretaste of later Keats-vs-Dylan quarrels, Marinetti's first Futurist manifesto of 1909 famously lauded "a roaring racing-car" above classical sculpture.

Yet in Britain, Wyndham Lewis, who issued his ferocious Blast manifesto against soppy Victorian culture in 1914, kept his distance from machine-worship. He condemned "Futurist gush" about aeroplanes as sentimental fantasy. The best of Lewis's fiction dramatises a kind of rage against the machines that drive modern life. With their uneasy mix of technophilia in theory and techno-scepticism in practice, the New Puritans share this self-doubt.

But why bother to take a gang of publicity-hungry young contenders at face value? In a year or two, some may be writing epic poems set on Jupiter or 500-page romances of the later Roman Empire. The media-friendly New Puritan postures will, inevitably, go the way of all flash. But they testify to a perennial - and fundamentally healthy - desire to clear the clutter out of culture.

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