Smile! It’s the New Unsettlement

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I was intending to be in Dundee last weekend for a project that strongly appealed to my imagination: the reconstruction and subsequent demolition of a cardboard effigy of the Royal Arch.

cardboard arch 1

With my usual, firmly xenochronicitous grasp on reality, however, I forgot I had bought, several months earlier, a ticket to a Brian Wilson concert. (He’s doing Pet Sounds, people. That’s the Losers’ equivalent of the Book of Psalms.)

There is a certain irony in being absent from a spectacle intended to make us aware of an architectural absence, especially in order to attend a concert given by the profoundly withdrawn Wilson – or, indeed, as someone who has, as I have, been writing about precisely this theme for some time.

The imaginary reconstruction of demolished aspects of Dundee first started manifesting in my work in the nineties, so I was delighted to see it reflected in the desires of Dundonians gathered together for the City of Culture bid in 2013, and naturally incorporated them in my inaugural poem as Makar:

Let culture inscribe on its banners
we hold these desires to be Deep Sea Dundonian:

…that the Fifie be brought back like the mammoth from extinction
that the City Arcade be reopened beneath the Caird Hall

…that the Royal Arch be rebuilt
the Overgate restored

…that the spire on the top of the old Chamber of Commerce be completed
that the cobbles in Strawberry Bank be replaced by actual strawberries

Since then, on my Tumblr site devoted to Makaronic recipes of one sort or another, coincidentally called Strawberry Duck, I’ve suggested, variously, that the Royal Arch be reconstructed in corned beef tins, that it was, momentarily, reproduced as an assemblage of chickens, and that it was actually destroyed by Daleks. Clearly I’m pretty serious about this.

Dalek arch 1

But I have also been ruminating recently here on the reasons why Dundonians are haunted by the demolished symbols of their city, and speculating on what role the powers both temporal and cultural in our society – those who demolished or recorded the demolitions, and those who maintain control over what may now be created – have in the construction of the narrative of place.

This is partly because I’m picking up work on a public art project in Darlington, Westpark, where for fifteen or so years I’ve been coordinating an arts strategy with a local builder, the borough council, a school, a hospital, and numerous businesses, and thinking again about who tells the history of a place, and how that history is told – especially when the place itself is not perhaps seen as part of the big important narratives of capitals, industrial centres, or places of established artistic reputation.

Before I took up the Makarship, I worked on a piece in South Road, Lochee, with the sculptor David Annand, and I hope to extend my engagement with public art to other work in the city. But at this point, while I’m balancing my role in Dundee with my role in the North-East of England, I’ve confined myself to a series of virtual pieces – ideas that might or, more usually, might not be practical.

I’m very interested in the borderline between the practical and its antithesis. Not least because those who define it tend to be looking for ways not to do something: to be ‘practical’ can be as much a matter of censorship as it is of economics. As MacDiarmid once remarked:

…The kind of poetry I want
Is poems de longue haleine – far too long
To be practicable for any existing medium…

The long poem MacDiarmid is perversely referring to as impracticable, Mature Art, remains unpublished, just as Brian Wilson’s Smile remained unassembled for decades. (Mike Love, like many British publishers, is eminently practical.) But we have long been within that period of self-reflexiveness we think of as late or post-postmodernism, in which ideas of the virtual have allowed us to conceive of the version – of poems, albums, or cities – in new ways, and experience a new nostalgia for types of the absent or much-missed original.

In fact it’s been quite a while since Baudrillard argued that such simulacra – like the cardboard Royal Arch – have effectively displaced the idea of the original, and with it, perhaps, such sureness about what is practical. You could almost feel nostalgic. Oor Baudrillard…

About Bill Herbert

Poet and pseudo-scholar W.N. Herbert was born in Dundee in 1961, educated there and at Oxford, where he completed his DPhil thesis on Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid, and now lives and works in Newcastle. He is Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing at Newcastle University, and his books are published by, among others, northern publisher Bloodaxe Books. He is also the Dundee Makar, or city laureate.
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