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Full News Archive below:

05.08.08 : HARD TIMES

I mean, I really mean, but book titles and bad bad jokes! I don't know how I missed this one.

George Lang's Nobody Knows the Truffles I've Seen.




Send me any good ones (real ones) and I'll put them up here.




04.08.08 : SIR ALEX FERGUSON (STILL GOING ON...)

What Morris Sheftel says.




04.08.08 : ALEXANDER SOLZHENITSYN 1918-2008



"There is a passage in Victor Hugo's Ninety-Three where Dantenac is sitting on a dune from which he can see several church towers at once. All of them are in a great commotion, with every bell ringing the tocsin; but the sound is being carried away from him by a high wind and he can hear nothing at all. In the same way, since boyhood, Nerzhin had possessed the strange gift of being able to hear all those mute signals of alarm - the living tocsin of groans, shrieks, shouts and the wailing of the doomed that is for ever borne away out of earshot by a relentless wind." - The First Circle pp 244-5

Time has changed in some fundamental way since 1989. It is as if none of this had existed or had been blown "out of earshot by a relentless wind". Solzhenitsyn himself blown away, off course, beyond radar. For ever? Who knows? I doubt it.




03.08.08 : JUDGING... 2

The erotic is closely associated with the beautiful, with the possession of beauty - not so much as property but as a kind of merging-with. Beauty is not to be owned by either the beholder or the object.

And partly, because it cannot be owned like property, because it remains as essential and, notionally, eternal, it is something that has to be eternally sought.

This is very close to the idea of the muse - Graves's White Goddess - who is always, necessarily, elsewhere. An idea, after all, cannot be located in a specific individual place. It can only be desired.

You can argue this in reverse, of course, and propose that beauty is a projection of the desire to possess and dominate, and it may be that sometimes, or maybe that too. Nothing in the human mind is simply either / or. I suspect it is always better to try to understand the other half of humankind than to dismiss it as evil or stupid.

To return to the original cause: I suggest that one reason some men make a joke about women's 'frivolousness regarding appearance' (ie preparation of beauty) and 'appearance' (approximation to the idea of beauty) is, to some degree, part of the jar between something that is of the essence and something that is designedly worked towards.

It would be good to have a female view of beauty, of how it works and what it means, in oneself, in others of one's gender, in those of the opposite gender; one not starting from a point of sheer antagonism or the gaining of polemical advantage. Maybe I will get one. If so, it will get posted here.




03.08.08 : JUDGING BY APPEARANCES 1

Vast subject as a postscript to the last. Appearance, as emblem of spirit, is implicit in Plato for whom beauty was an aspect of divinity.

Beauty is, clearly, not simply the outward sign of physical health: it can be found in the weak, the poor, the savage, the dangerous. Apropos of Linda (see below) it may be that the reason men - and women too - may feel that a distinction between beauty and the dressing and preparation required to produce the effect of beauty, exists is because spirit is perceived as essential and, in some ways, eternal whereas the surfaces of the body are transient, and, from the spiritual point of view, frivolous.




03.08.08 : STUPID

This is beginning to sound obsessive but I don’t much care. Linda, who is a friend, has a blog titled
This is Misogyny
, in which she quotes from Kate Harding:

. one of the great rhetorical tricks of patriarchy, which is to define women’s value in terms of appearance, and simultaneously to define appearance as something so utterly trivial that only completely shallow and useless creatures — like, say, women! — would care about it.

That’s it. That and the title are the post.

The patriarchy. That’s you and me, you see. It’s not this or that man who happens to have said that. It is all men. It’s the sort of thing we say. Now it may just be because I am very odd but I have never in my life been in a company of men who have talked disparagingly about women. On the other hand…

One commenter, the last one there, Stephanie writes

That's why men die younger than women...stupidity blocks arteries.


I am not sure whether Linda’s example is such a stunning example of misogyny to start with. I mean I could think of far worse.

The idea that men die younger than women because they are stupid is not an observation that will ever strike the Stephanies of the world as being worse misandry than the silly quibble about clothes and appearance. I don’t want to roll out the old list of male contributions to science, philosophy, culture, the arts etc. I would just ask Stephanie to think about that for a micro-second. But sure, stupid. Stupid. Stupid. We are all stupid.

I suspect it may be that what she means is that men are stupid about women. It may be so (I doubt whether the thought is quite so nuanced), but if Stephanie’s intelligence consists of one liners like that it does not strike me she is particularly intelligent about men.

Why do I write this? Why do I ever bother to imagine reversing genders in statements like this, of which I read a dozen a day? I cannot begin to say how much it depresses and hurts me.

Maybe this patriarchy, of which I am presumably one, tends to die earlier because they have worked their socks off for someone else, at someone else’s pace, on someone else’s premises, without the reward of any particular respect or love for simply doing a job. That is what most men do. They – and I don’t mean CEOs and flash lawyers, most men are not that – I mean average, honest men of average intelligence, expend a lot of energy in early youth, enter the romantic whirlpool, get married then, in the traditional way, support a family. It is not an option not to. The chances are that their wives are also working now, but they know that in the last resort, the money depends on them, that without that job they are failures. And that for all its piety, the world will regard them so.

If they are lucky enough to have worked through most of their lives they will be retired, at which point they will get under their wives' feet. There are no children left around the place. They have no more purpose in life. They die. They die because that which they have given their lives to is over.

So maybe they are stupid in a way. I do not talk about myself now. I talk about my kind. The 'blokes' in workshops, factories, on building sites, in the street. We, the stupid ones, inevitably shown to be so in adverts, in TV programmes, in articles in the press, in educational policy, in social theory. The western patriarchy. Welcome. And I know this article will be greeted with a sour laugh by Stephanie but maybe 50% is true? Maybe 30%? If I am any proof it is seriously life wearying.




03.08.08 : SUNDAY MORNING IS...

David Miliband and Polly Toynbee...



Miliband (James Brown / Rev Cleophus James) delivers his Guardian article. Polly Toynbee (James Belushi / Jake Blues) sees the light!




02.08.08 : BICYCLE

A partly wasted day. Bought the most recent Coetzee and so far it is a disappointment. A series of essays like journalistic pieces, plus a bit of background flirtation etc. But I'll get back to it. It may be my fault.

Have also been trying drawing again for the book of three regional libretti due out in November. I draw an ogre for Tom Hickathrift to fight. He isn't bad. The form has life and substance but it feels a little mechanical in parts, like Hockney on crutches. Then Hickathrift fighting the ogre. Dreadul really. Eventually one of the ogre-killer sitting on top of the ogre that is beginning to get somewhere, but still not relaxed into a natural line.

Then a few goes at the demon dog, the Shuck. I have a reasonably good feel for human anatomy, but am less firm on dogs. Laboured. Dog torso like human torso but horizontal. There's not much in it (rib-cage, dip into stomach, rising for pelvis), but a little can tip it too far.

So a cycle ride round the town, down a mild hill, up a mild hill, the wind youthful and fresh in one's face. A slight twinge in the calf when pushing it hard uphill. Few people around, but that is because it is teatime and because the sky, that started blue, is slowly inking up.

I love the colour of the sky before a downpour. It's the mixture of greys and that faint aquamarine light that bathes everything. The rain not yet arrived, but sure to come.




02.08.08 : LAPLAND VERSUS SUNDERLAND

There is a comparison of sorts going on here, but not having been to either Sunderland or Lapland I cannot be sure which way it is supposed to work.

Former Tottenham midfielder Teemu Tanio insists he was happy to swap London for Sunderland, insisting it's lovely compared to his native Lapland. (Daily Mirror)

On the other hand, if Newcastle is Peru there is no reason why Sunderland should not be Lapland, or Middlesbrough Zanzibar. (See bibliography, third item down.)




02.08.08 : BANGLE PLUS

Apropos the bangle affair a friend writes to me:

As I understand it, the judgment was predicated on case law from 1983 which ruled that a Sikh boy could not be denied a place in school simply because he wore a turban. I don't really see how British civilisation is going to fall because a 14 year old girl wears a tiny bangle on her wrist. Since that judgment in the 1980's a couple of generations of British Sikhs have been educated and excelled academically without any trouble, contributed to British society by becoming doctors, lawyers, academics, engineers, businessmen, whatever. Isn't that what it's all about?

I found the reaction to the judgment amidst the chatter of phone ins and internet messages most interesting. Nice to see Sikhs being cast as bacteria inside the body of Britannica once again, we had been feeling left out for the last decade or whatever. Some of the chauvinist reactions have been paranoid and hysterical and quite amusing. It'll just make Sikhs work harder to excel, create businesses, and get themselves on the Rich List, to by-pass all of that. So I welcome a certain percentage of bigotry in order to remind the younger generation of the need for hard work. For a while there I think people were starting to get lazy.

Friend had been reading the Daily Mail comments. Don't do it! Don't go there! I want to scream, much as I try not to read most CiF columns, not having been within several miles of the Daily Mail for as long as I can remember. But then maybe one should sometimes. Because the voices in them exist and belong to real people right out there in the street, and, as friend says, it is salutary to remember that.

Later he wonders whether he has over-reacted. But then there are good reasons why he should - if he does - or why I might in his place, much as I do in my own. Serious reasons.

He is a very good man to be in correspondence with.

Another friend - a Hungarian - writes that the fascists in Hungary have been screening the notorious Nazi propaganda film Jud Suss. I'm going to Hungary fairly soon. I hope to be able to write something good about it. I would dearly love to.




31.07.08 : MORE BANGLES

Some disagreement in my part of blogland about the business of the girl with the religious bangle. It does not seem to me an issue worth going to war or law on, but then people often go to war (and law) on less.

And then you come to court.

Yesterday the judge condemned the “seriously erroneous attitude” of the school, which had equated the wearing of the bangle to displaying the Welsh flag - ignoring its religious importance.

However, Martin Ward, deputy general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said that he was disappointed.

“The school had offered the student reasonable alternatives to accommodate her religious beliefs, such as wearing the bangle, but not so that it was on display, and it is frustrating that the courts did not find this acceptable.”

It is possible that the school thought the girl was simply trying to be provocative, and, as some have pointed out, her general appearance in the photos does not suggest anything overly devout. She might be an annoying spoilt brat, she might be a selfless alpha-student. We are not told and are left to guess the former.

In any case, the school senses defiance. Where's it all going to stop? it asks. Then it clamps down.

Here are the two opposite blog points of view.

Supporting the ban Shuggy is chiefly concerned about who is running the place, the kids or the school? Being a teacher, he would, naturally, prefer it to be the school, and having been a schoolteacher myself I have some sympathy.

Which is more than Norm does, but then Norm hasn't had to be dealing with uppity kids in tough schools. He has never felt the pain.

Speaking for myself, if I were headteacher, this is not something I would have wanted to go to court about. Lawyers and doctors are two classes of people you ought never let near you unless at the point of a gun. I would simply have tried to be cleverer than the kids, which shouldn't be that difficult after all. I would have tried to work one of those useful, fairly meaningless, wangles that are the life-blood of the universe and suggest an amendment to the school rules, something precise and fiddly that would allow just so much and no more. A rule about size and number perhaps of specific, recognised religious symbols (list the religions, list the symbols, fix the sizes, eg no six foot neon crosses, for example, maximum size of single cross to be worn 3.2479cm).

Having done so and agreed with whatever body the school runs itself by, I would dwell on the generosity and tolerance of the rule stressing how it allows all religious identities to be quietly stated, within certain common sense limits. Having done this I would stick to those limits with a sweet stern smile and point out how it wouldn't be fair on someone else's identity if your symbol was bigger than theirs. Fairness generally goes down well with teengers. They are very keen on it.

Then if some pupil's bangle is 0.25mm too big, he or she is kindly requested to get a slightly smaller one. If someone suggests a Wiccan symbol, advise that the Wiccan religion will be suggested to the governors etc. Elvis is not strictly speaking a religion, you will explain.

I would like to call this the art of government, meaning the governed think they are getting something big but they are in fact getting something very small and controllable. Maybe The Prince has already had something to say about this. I'll just go check.

Shuggy may say it won't work, but it might. It's a damn sight better than going to court! Lawyers! A court! They're mad, the lot of them!




31.07.08 : AND SO?

Just that I myself find it odd, very odd, almost inexplicable, that practically all my instincts correspond to those I have described as Central European leftist. Odd because almost fifty-one years of my own life have been spent here.

I think my closest friends in Hungary are democratic, leftward thinking. It is, however, also possible that what I am describing is a projection of my personal instincts, or that my description of current leftward thought is skewed by personal experience.

I doubt it though. I suspect that if members of the intelligent CE left were to move here, or, more accurately, were to have moved here some time after 1989, they would have voted Labour and would continue doing so, having no major problem with either Blair or Brown except in terms of simple competence. They might or might not have agreed with Blair on Iraq but I doubt whether that would be the main factor in their voting. When push came to shove they would probably even go for Bush over, say, Castro, if only temporarily, hoping Bush would be quickly whisked off the international stage. They would have had their suspicions of Livingstone and would loathe Galloway.

I am speaking of my own generation nor do I see any major divide, at this stage, between my generation and our children. My father's generation is different. Brought up in a more authoritarian world, I suspect they would have happily opted for Reagan / Thatcher at one end of the scale, or Brezhnev / Honecker at the other. And while that may be a caricature, their instinctual preference would be for order, party discipline, firm command and predictability rather than the indulgences of unbounded individual freedom. No libertarians among them. Not even many liberals.

But then there are times when I myself am not at all sure of my liberalism. There is a part of me that regards full-on liberalism as a kind of lazy self-indulgence, and the sixties of my adolescence and early adulthood as a vacuous interlude in which people felt ready to spout the most abysmal nonsense with a passion that reminded me more of spoilt children and self-seeking than of proper thought or reasoned concern. I think I am with Malcolm Bradbury on that.

Of course, I generally argue the opposite with my father.




30.07.08 : LEFT OUT 3

So the left in Central Europe is faced with the following . On the one hand:

1. The legacy of a state that has acted on some socialist principles and has done so reasonably successfully in specific areas, chiefly infrastructure and utilities;

2. The legacy of a state that had brought about a degree of social levelling if not exactly social justice;

3. The legacy of a state that had brought about a certain social cohesion, partly through social levelling, partly through extensive support of cheap culture and education, and partly - inadvertently - through opposition to itself;

On the other hand:

1. The legacy of a party-state that had no real resemblance to open democracy, however it might pretend;

2. The legacy of a state that provided very little variety, and no great choice in either necessary items or consumer goods, whose economic foundation was inefficient production, inefficient distribution, inefficient service, resulting in periodic shortages, bureaucratic corruption and debt; a state that asserted it had no unemployment by virtue of employing a dozen to do the work of one, as a result of which all dozen had to moonlight and work themselves into an early grave; a state in which practically nothing could be assumed to be itself;

3. The legacy of a state that at any time could resort to force without having to explain itself to its people and was answerable only to a greater military force both inside and outside its borders.

America was never a problem to the CE left. The CE left knew no direct harm of America save betrayal, as they saw it, at Yalta, and the disappointment of 1956 when American help was vaguely, faintly, desperately, expected.

Post-colonialism was not a direct issue for them. Neither Britain nor America, nor any part of modern Western Europe was ever in a colonial relationship with it, except for the Habsburgs, who were at least a local colonial power. There is no experience of post-colonial guilt in Hungary, the Czech Republic, in Poland, in Romania or anywhere else. East Germany may be a special case. (On a personal note, I, as the spawn of Central European Jewry, feel pretty relaxed about colonial guilt myself.)

There's more, of course, but this is enough for now. What remains for the CE left is a residual belief in an amorphous mass of socialist priciples and sympathies; a wary but positive relationship with the democratic socialist state way of doing things (but which model?); a distrust, born of long years of endurance, of empty slogans, of demagoguery, and of big and small lies, along with a certain faith in science, in rationalism, in humanist culture, in argument and proof. The CE left are not to be taken in by advertisements. There is, in fact, a kind of intellectual snobbery about such things. The only aristocracy is the aristocracy of the intelligentsia. They are the intelligentsia.

Global warming, environmentalism? They know the Soviet bloc was a terrible polluter of anything it touched. They are - to a western leftist - faintly monstrous in their indifference to these panic issues.

There is, in other words, a considerable gulf between them and the western idea of the leftist. The two are hardly the same creature, but they live in each other's cages now. (Cue sound effect of growling.)




29.07.08 : LATE

No time tonight for proper posting. Guest for supper, a good friend, specialist in international relatons, in particular Russia. So the subject of the last two posts became part of the conversation but I'll wait with that for now.

C's mum had another fall today, possibly a hairline fracture of the wrist. C will have to take her to hospital tomorrow, which means driving down to Hertfordshire.

I must finish my triple review and conclude the proof corrections on the Collected. 500 pages! Work does not let up. Then the translations to be hurried on with. And the editing of the anthology of younger Hungarian poets.

Also considering refitting this blog, so it becomes a proper blog with links at the side and maybe even open comments. Maybe. Time is the factor. Then another part of the site - the Notes part - would become what it could have become earlier, a magazine with a featured writer - poem or brief article per week or so.

Weather report (RIP Zawinul). Thunder last night woke us with a few serious rumbles and blasts. The heavy machine-gun sound of rain on the skylights. Came down in the morning to find some of my papers scattered on the floor. Pearl in a panic?




28.07.08 : LEFT OUT 2

A Central European left-liberal is something rather different from the UK or USA version. For a start, left-liberal is probably about as left as left will go in Central Europe at the moment. I can't see the equivalents of what we think of as the Old Left anywhere, let alone the wilder fringes of the radical or revolutionary left. Of the right, yes. All too sadly, yes.

The instincts are different, as is the history. Their history, my history, the history that becomes consciousness: it is history that makes the difference. The post-war regimes of Eastern or Central Europe were nominally but, in many important ways, genuinely, of the left. Class was the core issue. There was a real revolution in class power. Top became bottom, bottom became top. You took the middle-class out and you shook it all about. Children of peasants and shop floor workers were given education and responsibility. Cities turned topsy turvy. Enormous apartments were broken up into smaller ones. Villas turned into apartments. The professor and the bus driver's front doors might be along the same corridor. Some of this was painful and even at best it was far from paradisal. It was poor, smelly, uncomfortable. It did peoples heads in. But it changed everything. That there was great brutality and stupidity involved in enforcing class change goes without saying, but I doubt whether any CE left-liberal would want to turn the clock back to feudal Hungary, or even to late nineteenth century bourgeois Hungary. Not exactly.

After class, it was security and solidarity, which in practice meant close adherence to the Soviet line. The trouble was that Soviet troops were the occupiers and that security could only be ensured by ‘vigilance’ which turned out to be oppression and repression. In the early fifties it was surveillance, arrest, imprisonment, torture, thumbscrew, iron maiden. No joke. After the revolution of 1956 it was bad at first then better. 1956 would not be repeated. The state became, in Miklós Haraszti's phrase, The Velvet Prison. You can have any colour you like providing it's a shade of grey and you keep your trap shut about certain important things.

Haraszti was talking about the late seventies and eighties. Now we're further down the line. No one was sorry to see the Soviets go, and if there ever was any western-style romance about communism as applied, it had long vanished by 1989. The bureaucratic state with its privileged Party members and apparatchiks had been all too close and all too stupid. Nor had state socialism been impressive as industrial or economic policy. It was mad. It was arbitrary. It cared nothing for consequences as it was answerable to no one. It probably did not mean to be despotic and short sighted it was just not bothered whether it was or not.

Similarly, the state as a career structure had been something you could engage with or not. That was not a matter of ideology. Ideology was ideology, career was career, and if the two were associated, too bad. Let honest cynicism thrive in its own quiet way. By the end, under late Kádár, the state was something you could live with while the going was good without exactly admiring it or loving it. You wanted it to be all over really but you weren't going to shed blood to shift it. In short, it had been crap without being the worst of all possible worlds.

It was chiefly the madness, the corruption, the careerism, the authoritarianism, the lying-rotten absoluteness of it that had irked. And the unreality of it all, where every value was whatever the state said it was, quite unrelated to cost and process. The state was essentially an unelected executive monarch pretending to be something else. There was, or had been, there still remained, the sliver of an ideology worth caring about but the ideology was not embodied, only caricatured.

That is not to say, as I understand it, that free-market capitalism was seen as a panacea or as the only alternative to this not-the-worst-of-all-possible-worlds in 1989. The state as part provider, part-patron, part-wise oligarchy (most liberals want a wise oligarchy, meaning themselves) could do good. It had done some good. Public transport was very good. The arts did well on the whole providing they did not quibble about politics. There was no competition. Romantic fiction was Charlotte Brontë, pornography was Emile Zola, end of story. Law and order were maintained. It was, in its way, neurotically stable.




28.07.08 : LEFT OUT 1

Many of these posts are written to clear my own mind about things. More coming up.

After writing the series of short posts, Pieties and Shadows about left-wing liberals in the West, posts in which I lined myself up with them then ended up separating myself from them, I thought back to the Human: Nature conference, on which I blogged earlier, and how Vesna Goldworthy, Adam Zagajewski and I seemed to be echoing each other's views and instincts.

I want to think about why that might be, and why the terms left and liberal might mean something else in what is sometimes called Eastern Europe, sometimes Central Europe, sometimes the old Soviet bloc etc etc. About how the definitions overlap and diverge. Never mind names. I shall just call it Central Europe but it will mean all these things.




28.07.08 : STORMY WEATHER

I know this is not Sunday anymore, but this is so beautiful, it makes one sing inside. I might do a few versions of Stormy Weather by others. Etta James did a good one. But this is from the film of same name. Lena Horne.1943. Wartime.



And there is stormy weather coming. It's hot and close now, just half after noon.




27.07.08 : SUNDAY NIGHT IS...

The great Fats disappointingly failing to misbehave. And she - Lena Horne? - is absolutely beautiful too. And Bill Bojangles Robinson dancing. Don't like it? Aw, go home.



That's enough for a Sunday when I am supposed to be checking proofs.




27.07.08 : AS YOU LIKE IT- LET'S PRETEND

It's a leap from Obama and Condoleezza to Orlando and Rosalind.

Last night we went to Old Hall to see P and S's garden production of As You Like It in the ex-disused farmhouse, presented by various talents in various guises. It was a gorgeous thing, not because it was perfect, but because it was essentially understood and voiced. Understanding and giving voice is the best you can do by Shakespeare.

On the surface AYLI appears a fribble, lighter than Twelfth Night and Much Ado, not in the class of A Winter's Tale, without the Mozartian delicacy of the Dream. But forget Samuel Johnson, forget Shaw, forget the often entirely obtuse Tolstoy. AYLI is certainly a light play but with marvellous and generous dimensions.

I am not going even to think about writing a proper essay about it, not here, so only this.

Illusion and pretence are central to the play. Everyone pretends - has to pretend - to be something he or she is not. So we get gender pretence, class pretence, kin pretence, philosophical pretence. If it can be pretended someone will pretend it. Through all this pretence the central characters are seeking love, loyalty and redress. The process of pretence is, however, valuable in that it allows them to try out the propositions they would have to live by once the pretence was over.

The main proposition - that about romantic love - is constantly shot at, undermined, parodied, ridiculed, taken to extremes, betrayed, yet the central characters continue to seek love. There are four marriages at the end. The main one, between Orlando and Rosalind, is the one we have been concentrating on. The other three are echoes of marriage. That between Celia and Oliver is untried, based on a miraculous character conversion that is explained perfunctorily in a single sentence (bad guy had religious experience and is now good guy). That between Silvius, the simple shepherd, and Phebe is a second-best affair that can happen only because Phebe can't have who she really wants. It's pretty well doomed. And the last, between Touchstone and Audrey ('a country wench') is just an excuse for a bit of slap and tickle then goodbye, never a proper marriage anyway.

So true and tested love has a one in four chance. And the bride herself, Rosalind, has already told us she has a sceptical view of what happens after marriage: "No, no, Orlando [she says, while pretending to be the male youth Ganymede]: men are April when they woo, December when they wed: maids are May when they are maids, but the sky changes when they are wives."

Yes, of course, this is a test Orlando has to pass, but does Rosalind believe or not believe what she has just said?

The fact is they marry anyway. At the end of the play Shakespeare produces a generous-sized parcel full of scepticism and melancholy, having tricked out each individual item in it in the fancy dress of wit. We have seen him doing this right before our eyes. We have seen him put each individual item into the box. We have seen him get his hearts and flowers wrapping paper. And finally we see him tie it all up with the pink silk ribbon of the multiple wedding.

There, he says. A big fancy box, all tied up with pink ribbon.That's you, folks. Know what I mean?

And we do. Because?

Because we say, So OK, Orlando (OK, Obama).

Because it is the generosity that makes us applaud.

Because we know just how much life has gone into the box.

Because we know the wrapping isn't the box, but we also know that the last thing left in the box is, traditionally, hope.

Because hope, we know, should be as crazy, as artificial, as fragile as this.




27.07.08 : PIETIES AND SHADOWS 4

Last brief one. I suspect Cohen is right when he says

I do not underestimate the significance of America rising above its original sin of slavery by electing a black President...

I mean he might not underestimate it for Americans (how would I know?) but he does, I think, underestimate it for us European liberals.

Jung has the interesting and, to me, attractive idea of the shadow. To put it crudely, as Wiki does here "the shadow is prone to project: turning a personal inferiority into a perceived moral deficiency in someone else.".

We enlightened, left-liberal Europeans are aware of living at fortunate times (fortunate for us) on the proceeds of precisely that which we criticise. I hardly need to roll off a list of these but they would include cheap imports, cheap travel (and oh what travellers we are!), high tech provided by huge corporations, globalisation, image items, fashion items, inequalities of all kinds... I begin to feel a certain nausea just listing them. The fact that we are not vulgar in our display of these is of no great help. These are the shadow lives we don't talk about, or only in pious terms. And where can we best project these shadows? Look no further than Uncle Sam.

This is not to say that Uncle Sam is a vacant space filled out with our shadows, it's just that it is convenient, in every sense, having the Great Satan there. And of course we know in whose vest pocket the Great Satan lives? The left-liberal cartoonist happily joins with the full-blooded anti-Semite on this one.

I don't want to do fancy talk. I am not the left-liberals' marriage guidance counsellor. I too am excited by the progress of Obama around Europe. I cannot help it. He brings out every left-liberal instinct in me. I think he will win. He is a kind of expiation for slavery.

Whose expiation? Oh, that's easy. Not the USA's. It's ours. The left-liberals' expiation. Obama is not the USA. He is in apposition to it. He is what we would desire of it with a clean conscience.



27.07.08 : PIETIES AND SHADOWS 3

Short entries for lack of space. But to continue:

The point Cohen is making is this:

It doesn't know it, but the liberal-left in Europe and North America has been lucky to have Bush.

By building him up into a great Satan, the oil man who invades countries to seize their reserves and the Christian who orders bloody crusades, they have hidden the totalitarian threats of our age from themselves and anyone who listens to them. Bush allowed them to explain away radical Islam as an understandable, even legitimate, response to the hypocrisies and iniquities of American policy. Even those in the European elites who do not buy the full 'America has it coming' package believe that Bush is a cowboy who doesn't understand that the postmodern way to end conflict is to compromise rather than fight.

I am not sure I understand either 'lucky' or 'postmodern' in this context but a tale might hang by both terms. It's the first term that I am picking at. After all, why would you as a left-liberal, want to be 'lucky' in this way? I am not sure you can demonise the left-liberal by showing him or her demonising someone else.

I'm picking my way through this carefully as I don't really know the answers. And you would be surprised (or not) how often that is the case.




27.07.08 : PIETIES AND SHADOWS 2

I wrote the previous entry after reading Nick Cohen's article about Obama, where he mentions the uneasiness of Jon Stewart's audience in laughing at Obama jokes. Is this because they don't want to be perceived as racist?
Cohen doubts it.

Gary Trudeau had Bush addressing Condoleezza Rice as 'brown sugar' in his Doonesbury strip. Ted Rall decided she was Bush's 'house nigga' and sent her to a 'racial re-education camp' to learn the error of her conservative views. Jeff Danziger drew her as Prissy, Scarlett O'Hara's slave in Gone With the Wind. All three white men had reached for the dirtiest racial insults they could imagine when confronted with a black woman who disagreed with their politics.



27.07.08 : PIETIES AND SHADOWS 1

The liberal consciousness is a strange and hybrid creature. I should know. I think of myself as a liberal. Give me a checklist of what you think liberalism means and I suppose I'd tick most of the boxes, though not, I suppose all. Nor would you probably. But this being liberalism, that's your affair.

One of the underlying assumptions of liberalism is that human beings are basically good, right-thinking and Guardian-reading, or would be so if only we (meaning you and I) could educate them. Thus the bad are the stupid. Bush bad. He stupid. America bad and fat. America stupid. Evil is that which is unenlightened. It does not know or will not admit the true facts, the true relationships, the true values that we, in our liberal way, are happy to distribute and disseminate, because the stupid are not in possession of them and would not recognise them without our help. Give us the tools and we'll wean them from The Daily Mail, Fox News etc etc.

That's half of it at any rate. The other half of it is that you can also be bad through cleverness. The bad are fiendishly clever. They are manipulative, scheming, underhand, darkly brilliant. They may even be cleverer than we are. Or seem so. Which only makes them more evil. Drug-dealers, industrialists, neo-cons, Zionists. They only look after number one. They form cabals. They infiltrate our ranks. They dissimulate. They conspire. You have to be clever to do all this, we can't deny that. But it's the wrong sort of cleverness.

The trouble is that this doesn't quite fit into the liberal view because we don't know where the fiendishness comes from. It's just there. And this makes us uneasy because it is pretty close to what the ultra right think (they'd laugh at Obama for other reasons). The ultra-right are clearly wrong, not because they are clever but because they are stupid. And that is a relief. We can cure them of that. We are cleverer. When we think such things we have a superior way of thinking them, for superior reasons. And it is not that exactly we are thinking anyway. It's not exactly the same. What we are thinking is more intelligent, much cleverer than that. The stupid wouldn't understand. They'd be put off by the long words to begin with. For them, people are wrong because they are the wrong people. It's not like that for us. Not quite. That really would be stupid.

This whole entry is an example of liberalism, you see. I am being reasonable, working it out: a bit of this, a bit of that. But underneath it all, I suspect I know what I am going to say, and that it will be the right thing to say. And I am still ticking most of those boxes.




25.07.08 : NEWS FROM ELSEWHERE

A book William Morris never got round to writing. Elsewhere is always a good alternative though. My mind was 'elsewhere'. Whither lies the land? Elsewhere.

So I listen to Gordon Brown make the best of it and I listen to the SNP candidate who seems a decent cove, as you English RAF types say. Then I listen to the man a little-less-than-affectionately known as Auld fish'heid and I think, loathsome as you are, this is a high piece of restraint you are indulging in. Or not indulging in.

Because, truth to tell, I don't in fact blame the government for the global situation. They can't help the oil. They could reduce the tax on it but then they'd only have to go and find the money elsewhere, which is the place everyone always wishes it would be found, because, in that sense, we are all Nimbys.

So I don't blame the government for that. I don't blame them for the credit crunch either, or rather not too much, not too directly.

In terms of economics in general it has been a goodish government, all eleven years of it. It might perhaps have predicted harder times ahead, as such were bound to come. The principle of making virtual money go round ever faster, to my layman's eye, runs roughly the same risk as riding one of those things that used to go round very fast in public playgrounds before Health and Safety laid its extremely dead hand on it and everything else. Centrifugal force would guarantee that eventually we got thrown off. Grazed knee followed. Occasionally - God help us all! - a broken bone or two. The mourning would go on for months.

Thus credit. I pretend to lend you money and you pretend to earn it, thereby keeping everybody in real jobs and real consumer durables or less-than-durables. White goods for white gods. Our western cargo cult.

So, no, not that, and I am not an Iraq-ranter (illegal war, evil neo-cons, the Jew under the lot (copyright TSE), oil. hegemony, genocide, war-crimes tribunal, worse than Karadzic etc etc) though I was not a supporter, and I think we are right to be in Afghanistan. So no, not that.

What then? Well, the sheer self-preening flabbiness of the remaining enterprise. The pious speeches sounding ever more tired, ever more like QVC, the sheer lack of spine in saying something then holding to it. That: These are tough measures we are taking because we are a tough government. You mean you don't like them? Oh, OK, we'll do something nice instead. Because we do nice things because we are a nice government. Tough? Well, of course. As long as you don't mind.

And I am aware that this happens to every administration that has been around long enough. And I am sorry Gordon Brown isn't better than he is because, quite honestly, I would like him to have been, and, equally honestly, anything that refers to nationalism smells to me of fascism without the trimmings.

So now we are elsewhere. Or rather nowhere. In between. Within eighteen months we will be in a different elsewhere. Jolly good then. Or not so jolly good.




25.07.08 : EARLY BLUE FRIDAY

In London to meet Sudeep Sen, then in Hertfordshire with Cs mum, so a very early blues. Sort of. Enough driving blues for now. This is Etta James with 'I Just Wanna Make Love to You'.



The least PC song in the world. The girl is sacrificing a lot. Don't do it, honey. He ain't worth it.

More sensible stuff later.



24.07.08 : BLUE THURSDAY

Big Joe Williams, in sepia. 'Baby Please Don't Go' and others. More strings on the guitar than usual.



But then they're all big.

"Big Joe played a 9-string guitar which he pounded, slapped and drove like a demented downhill slalom through a thicket of seminal Delta blues, singing in a gutsy, raw, emotion-exhausting voice. Many of his songs were loosely constructed around the beaten chassis of a familiar Mississippi tune or riff, but in his hands they were totally personal, often topical masterpieces. And in spite of a shoe-string budget for Arhoolie founder Chris Strachwitz when he recorded the bulk of these tracks back in 1960, the re-mastered CD sound just jumps out of the speakers and tears chunks off you with its teeth...”

(Ian Anderson — Folk Roots)



24.07.08 : ALL FUR COAT

...and no knickers, traditionally. A nice variation on that here via The Plump, referring to an article I scooted over without reading in Monday's Guardian: an interview with Barbara Ehrenreich, in which she mentions diets.

*

You might also care to look at this, via HP. As Will might put, just saying, like. (Nice thoughtful piece by Shuggy there now.)

My furious linking here (just think how much more I could link to!) is a worthwhile escape from correcting proofs of inordinate size and weight.




24.07.08 : MADHOUSE 2


To revive one of the poems from the forthcoming The Burning of the Books, Circle Press 2008 (and The Burning of the Books and other poems, Bloodaxe 2009)...

Madhouse

The point about the madhouse is that it’s virile.
The point about the madhouse is that it sticks by its beliefs.
The point about the madhouse is that sanity is bourgeois.
The point about the madhouse is that no one is acting.
The point about the madhouse is that no one gets in by simply being nice.
The point about the madhouse is that it liberates the spirit.
The point about the madhouse is that you can think just what you like there.
The point about the madhouse is that anyone can enter.
There’s nothing special about the madhouse, people come and go all the time.
There’s nothing threatening about the madhouse, we are all of us dying.
There’s nothing terminal about the madhouse: you go along for the ride.
There’s nothing sad about the madhouse: weeping and gnashing of teeth, that’s nothing.
There’s nothing mad about the madhouse, it is sanity by default.
We are sane by default, we are mad by design, but the mad are more admirable.
Admirable is the ape, the bulbul, the mitochondria, the swelling of the larynx,
Admirable the orchid, the garlic, the fire inside the shut book,
Admirable the cry of the tortured, the lost voice of the nightingale, the laughter
in everything ostensibly sane but tending towards madness
such as sunlight, the slow rain, each pendulous drop, the wide road,
the brimming eye, shadows, picnics, public conveyances, thunder.
Nature is a madness with a method and all the madder for that.
Culture is a madness everyone inherits.
Science is a madness in love with numbers, the perfect amour fou.
Health is a madness that shifts from minute to minute, gesundheit!
Money is madness that fills your pockets and leaves a silver slugtrail in the garden.
The point about the madhouse is not to describe it.
The point about the madhouse is not to change it.
The point about the madhouse is to live there
to accustom yourself to its immaculate manners
to dwell in the house of the Lord for ever
with the prophet, the poet, the dwarf, the scholar, the fire.

Another round. Doubles for everyone.




24.07.08 : MADHOUSE 1

Karadzic's local was called The Madhouse. In the TV pictures yesterday the bar was displaying photos of Mladic and RK, and the regulars were fervent that he was a hero, that he did nothing, killed no-one, ordered no-one to be killed. Evidence? Pah!Fixed. Conspiracy!

Note that it isn't, He killed them and it served them right! or It was either us or them.

It's just as in the case of Kuntar a few posts below. As it is every time.
1. Denial (It never happened, we don't do wicked things.)

2. Historicising (It happened a long time ago, it wasn't us. Not personally.)

3. Fiction (So and so has written a novel, but who's to know what's true, what's fiction?)4. Myth (It is the sort of thing that happens in the scheme of things, an archetypal pattern. It's not real life.)

5. Justification (Those who claim to be victims are clinging somewhat unnaturally to the myth. It must serve their purposes. They are devious. No wonder people hate them.)

6. Someone like Karadzic was bound to come along and do what was necessary.
Familiar? I leave out stages 7, 8 and 9 on grounds of good taste.




23.07.08 : BLUE WEDNESDAY

All that death, with flies hanging by a thread tend to make a man nervous. Almost as nervous as Willie Dixon.



Straight-faced, no trace of irony. Scarily nervous, I would say. Another of those pure, clear bellows, no fuss.




23.07.08 : DEATH OF A FLY

I am sitting and finishing the newspaper when I become aware of a noise that has been going on some time. It is the high pitched buzz of a fly trying to get past the window pane. It takes me a little while to locate it as I expect to see it moving, but then I see it in the corner of the window pane, caught up in a very delicate web, already half-cocooned.

It's not a big fly but it is about four times as big as the spider that warily scrambles close to it, then away, out of its panicky, but hardly effective reach. The spider is this little British funnel-web, a Zygiella x-notata, also known as a Missing Sector Orb Weaver. He (because it is, I think, a male, males being smaller and more active in the summer) looks like this.





The buzzing continues, but it is getting fainter. After several sorties the fly is giving up the ghost. The spider is less wary now. Then all the buzzing stops.

I feel odd just watching, witnessing an inevitable death. I don't know if I wish to save the fly. I don't think I do. Why should I, except out of a sense of general pity? Nothing should die like this. It is, in any case, too late. The poison is in him. This - the death of a fly - is nothing in the scheme of things except a big meal for a small spider. But all the same, something is going out of the world and I cannot help but be aware of that savage going.

Beside me, on the table, the newspaper shows a photograph of two beautiful young thirteen-year old twins, one of whom has died of a cancer that afflicts just sixty people per year in the country. Her eyes are full of laughter. The mother says she was smiling and laughing to the end.

The fly is silent now. The little spider has fully wrapped it and has dragged it down level with the bottom of the pane where there is another dead fly, similarly wrapped.

On the radio a soprano is singing. I was so tied up with the death of the fly I forgot to listen to the announcement. I don't recognise it. Lily is sitting on the fence in hunting mode. She won't catch anything. She never does, but lives in constant hope, at constant alert. The force that through the green fuse drives the flower drives my not-so-green age.

Heavy matters! heavy matters! but look thee here,
boy. Now bless thyself: thou mettest with things
dying, I with things newborn.



22.07.08 : BLUE TUESDAY

Is Skip James, who is not making a great job of the guitar, but whose voice is ghosts and a thin layer of dust.



It's the opposite of the ferocious gutdriven blues of Howlin' Wolf. You're half spirit already, brother.




22.07.08 : THAT'S WHERE THEY'RE BURIED




It's the mysterious patch of black hair on top is the truly sinister thing.

It's the mildly spoken ones who talk wildly for three hours without ceasing.

It's those utterly convinced of their history and destiny.

It's the half-way scholar, half-way poet, full-time quack.




21.07.08 : CYCLE RIDE, DROWNINGS, SPIN AND BATS

Good to get back into cycling just before dusk. It is cold and the wind bites at your ears a little but it is quiet down the paths and lanes. No traffic, or hardly any. The corn is as high as an elephant's thigh (it never reaches his eye in Norfolk, or indeed anywhere), almost ready for the harvesting.

On an Italian beach two gypsy girls lay drowned while "holidaymakers continued enjoying the sun" according to the Telegraph. It was at Torregaveta, near Naples. They had been selling trinkets earlier and had gone in for a swim. This, if true in the way it is presented as being true, needs no comment from me or anyone else.

It is the season for drownings. In The Guardian I read that children's author Richard Kidd has drowned in the Philippines.

The North Norfolk coast has treacherous sudden currents. Children tend to die there too.

I can't have dreamt it, can I? Polly Toynbee in Saturday's Guardian worrying that Labour can't spin it any more.

Dusk. The bats are flying. One bat anyway. I am translating. Perhaps I'll get back to Coetzee, but have books to review now and fairly fast.




21.07.08 : BLUES WEEK: MONDAY

Blue Monday brings you Howlin' Wolf and Smokestack Lightning.



Blues is simple in structure of course but depends on a peculiar mixture of ferocity and pathos. You get more ferocity than pathos out of Howlin' Wolf. It's like that suit on him. The whole body is bursting to get out of it, just as the voice is bursting out of its twelve bar prison. So she got sassy on him. That's what the howling is about.

And this is how it goes

Ah-oh, smokestack lightnin,
Shinin, just like gold,
Why don't ya hear me cryin?
A-whoo-hooo, oooo,
Whooo.

Whoa-oh, tell me, baby,
What's the, matter with you?
Why don't ya hear me cryin?
Whoo-hooo, whoo-hooo,
Whooo.

Whoa-oh, tell me, baby,
Where did ya, stay last night?
A-why don't ya hear me cryin?
Whoo-hooo, whoo-hooo,
Whooo.

Whoa-oh, stop your train,
Let her, go for a ride.
Why don't ya hear me cryin?
Whoo-hooo, whoo-hooo,
Whooo.

Whoa-oh, fare ya well.
Never see, a you no more.
A-why don't ya hear me cryin?
Oooo, whoo-hooo,
Whooo.

Whoa-oh, who been here baby since,
I-I been gone, a little, bity boy?
Girl, be on.
A-whoo-hooo, whoo-hooo,
Whooo.

And then there is always the railway, as in Sonny Terry.




20.07.08 : CATCHING UP: SAMIR KUNTAR

I have read a little since returning about the case of Samir Kuntar's release and have followed the general revulsion in the west, as well as the Guardian interview with Kuntar, reprinted from the Tel Aviv newspaper, Ma'ariv where the reader was subtly reminded that the author of the article was the daugher of an Auschwitz survivor, and therefore, if she didn't feel moved to repulsion, nor should anyone else.

Let me leave our own repulsion or lack of it to one side for now. As regards the facts of the case, the trial and the subsequent history, I expect the Wiki account above is reasonably accurate or accurate enough. I am more concerned with his welcome as a hero, and why he should have been seen as such in Lebanon by Druze and Christians and all.

Some think - and they may be right - that there is a particularly fierce, closed discourse of violence in the Arab world. Others, such as Linda at Norm's suggest that it is primarily a not uncommon ideological mindset at work (she refers to Lessing's The Good Terrorist, I book I have previously discussed).

For myself, I imagine what weighed with those who welcomed Kuntar as a hero was his claim of innocence. Such claims are often taken at face value when people want to believe them. Of the pro-Palestinian views I have read, none mentions the murder of the child but they do make a point of dwelling on Kuntar's age (16) at the time. For them it would not do to dwell on the specifics of the murder. It is not something that could be easily done when there is pride at stake. They look for equivalents and hypocrisies and 'root causes'. But root causes always go back further than you think and the roots tend to run in surprising directions. Not that that matters. Your version of the root causes must prevail.

It may be that in the culture of violence a child murderer is seen as a hero. If it is so, it is indeed horrific, and it suggests that those who welcome murderers as heroes are themselves willing participants in smashing a small child's skull with a rifle butt and are therefore less than human, indeed less human than the murderer, who might have acted on the spur of the moment. For, after all, those who celebrate him as a murderer are performing a much more deliberate act. They are, in effect, re-enacting it.

I think, however, it is more likely that when you want a hero you don't want him to have been a child murderer. You believe his story, his plea, because, in the end, he is on your side. So he isn't a child murderer anymore but an innocent, falsely accused. A soldier in hostile territory.

Which, of course, does not excuse those on this side who do know he was a child-killer and still take his side. They are one stage on from those who welcome the murderer because they genuinely believe him not to have been one. Those on this side have no serious reason to doubt it. But they accept it, smashed skull and all, because that is the side they want to take, not as participants, but as spectators. Because that is the side that must always be taken.




20.07.08 : HARPING ON...

Another Sonny (Boy Williamson). You start working through these clips and you think: yes, I can listen to one more. Giving the harp (mouth organ or harmonica to you) its due. A man with a bowler hat, umbrella and briefcase comes to you in the night, singing this.



As boys my brother and I were given harmonicas. We'd play trios with dad, or, when dad was driving somewhere, my brother and I dueted in the back. Not quite like this, of course.

Dad had his mouth organ in the work camps of the Ukraine and Belorus in the war. He'd play and the others sing after a day of tree hewing and dragging. One of three survivors of the forced march back, he escaped by running off in the fog. The rest, those who hadn't already died in the camps, died once the march reached its destination.

A few years ago we travelled with him to a boy scout reunion in Hungary. The seventy-, eighty- and ninety-year olds were gathered round the campfire, singing and telling stotries. He played his harmonica. A simple instrument can keep you going.

I think we shall make this blues week. Mostly men in suits. One blues clip per day along with the usual posts.




20.07.08 : SUNDAY NIGHT IS...

Double bill of Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee with Pete Seeger, Hootin' the Blues'. They get into When The Saints...at the end but you can skip that.



Sonny and Brownie made regular apparances at Seeger's kitchen table. I love this, especially as performed in suit and tie with a bright shiny watch. If buffering is slow, rewind and go again.

And then there's this. Easy Rider. Now you can lay that kitchen table.






20.07.08 : THE DELIGHTFUL GENTLEMEN PRESENT

A little niggling thing left over from the otherwise excellent course. On the last reading night one of the students, an older woman, talented, intelligent, successful at business, read a short poem preceded by a brief apology to the three marvellous, delightful (or whatever, in any case a very small minority of) gentlemen present. The poem wished God to start creation all over again, rewarding the tenderly nurturing caring female of the species and punishing or simply abolishing the male, whose sole activity is bullets and bombs and something also beginning with B that I can't now remember.

Odd, I thought. If I had read a poem that I had preceded by apologising to the truly lovely, gracious ladies (note ladies, not women, just as note gentlemen etc) in the audience in which I wished God to start creation again, rewarding the inventive, creative, active male of the species and punish (or get entirely rid of) of the vain, dull, beauty-obsessed, venomous female of same, I would - rightly - have been torn to pieces and eaten alive. I try to leave ridiculous and false generalisations out of my conversation, partly because I don't actually think such things though I am perfectly aware of the clichés.

I didn't say anything. Why, after all, make a fuss about it at the conclusion of a successful event? Nobody noticed it, it just slipped by. The sentiment is taken for granted anyway. Men? Idiot warmongers, end of story. Except our sons of course, who will save the world. Until they grow up when they become idiot warmongers.

It was not even the thought, if one can dignify it with such a term (everyone gets angry sometimes, then they write poems out of the anger), but the being patronised I didn't really care for. I am not an exception. I am a man like all the other men in the world.

It was a paranoid moment but let me indulge it for a moment. In that paranoid moment what I thought was that any man who walks into a company of women is being quietly, charmingly, tenderly, weighed up for the drop. One wrong step and down you go, sir, charmingly torn to pieces by the tender, caring, nurturing half of the species. Never, ever, not for one micro-second think otherwise. Which may perhaps be one of the reasons among others that almost all arts courses are, by a great majority, female in composition. Men just fear going there. There is nothing you can do right. You can only do wrong, and you won't even know when you've done it.

Paranoia, of course. The truth is that I, personally, am marvellous, delightful and charming. As is everyone else.




19.07.08 : FROM ARVON TO THE PLAGUE VILLAGE

So, instead of a long interrupted rail journey, a lift from A who lives not far away. A's experience as a scientist is much the same as mine as a writer in an institution of HE, by which I mean my last employer, the art college, with regard to bureaucracy and so-called 'transparency', the operation of which must be keeping a good many managers in jobs.

The devising of ever more arcane systems with ever more changes of language to keep the peasants working requires a growing army. I have seen administrative staff expand five fold in as many years in small institutions. Prime example is the endless requirement to fill forms that do not only duplicate, but triplicate and quadruplicate information; information that is, in any case, not used and hardly read. I know. I have been there, have done it, and it was the quintuplicate check that finally called for the existential emetic.

We are both agreed the ship is likely to sink under the weight of its administrators. The rats are already deserting, or are being pushed overboard to make room for more office desks. Or so says this rat.

My current post is in a big baggy university state as opposed to a plague village. The state is humane in that it is broken up into relatively free units. In the plague village I left it was a memorable day when the dictat arrived demanding that all internal communications be formatted exclusively in 12pt Arial, justified left.

I thought this a little freakish, but A says her own instituiton has recently received the same dictat. She had been applying for something or other that required the filling in of a form. Her research record is international and vast. She is the recipient of various prestigious grants. The man at the other end of the form rejected the form as flawed, including all the relevant attached papers and the research record, because it was not in 12pt Arial. He has his priorities and his job to think of.

Meanwhile the streets are filled with people pushing carts, ringing bells and calling on the populace to bring out their dead.

The rest of the time, which was I suppose three-quarters of the time, we talked about science and art, the relationship between them in terms of process and manners, about education and travel, about the nature of expertise, etc. That was good talk. But it's the bureaucracy parts I now recall, if only because it's what recurs in almost any conversation between people at the teaching / laboratory / studio / book end of things.

It's good to be home. C showed me two paintings in progress relating to the Palladio project. They look really promising. I check on Norm, the Drink-Sodden and Snoop to make sure I am back in the real world.

I am griping. I must be.




18.07.08 : ARVON 5

So, the end of the course, heading towards midnight. Yes, it went very well to judge by customer satisfaction, and that's the point.

Also, it is the first time I have been here when it has not rained, not seriously anyway. I read student work in the morning but had only time for a very short walk up the track past the great redwoods, skirting the stream. The texture of redwood bark is practically gothic. You expect to see blood seeping from one of those wound-womby tangles. The moss invites stroking. It's like stroking a short-haired wild cat

Last thing, I pass the office and there is P, one of the course directors. I drop in and we start to chat about football, Aussi rules first (the directors are from Melbourne). From Aussi rules to our own dear game. He says he found it hard to understand the level of commercialism here. Recalls hearing Nigel Reo-Coker, a West Ham player who had just had a very good season, saying he now hoped to be transferred to one of the top clubs. In Australia the players are reallocated at the end of the season and the bottom team gets some players from the leaders.

Personally, being the age I am, I remember the abolition of the maximum wage, with Johnny Haynes of Fulham as the first £100 a week footballer. Top whack before was £20 a week, maybe a few quid more than my dad earned, which was far from a fortune. The best a footballer could hope for was to be the landlord of a pub when he retired. But then they smoked and drank and bet on the horses or greyhounds too. Christiano Ronaldo would have been hoping to run a little transport cafe in Lisbon.

Is he still with us, by the way? I'll check.




17.07.08 : ARVON 4

As I said earlier, these courses might as well be taking place on a small island on Jupiter as far as world news is concerned though I do check the BBC when I get in the office to catch up with email and write these posts. But there is no time for dwelling on anything else but the job in hand.

I am asked several times a day whether I am exhausted, and the fact is I am not at all exhausted, not even tired. On the other hand I sleep well, if not for very long, say six hours nightly.

In the office where I am typing: photographs of the directors and the assistant, the director's' little daughter, postcards, notices, a Guardian poster featuring varieties of sheep (could be useful), photos of miscellaneous others. The walls are covered.

Inside the house: pictures of John Osborne, of Osborne productions, Sir Larry with Joan Plowright (she of the deeply sexy voice), and with actress X, with actress Y; posters of plays in various languages, including Hungarian (Look Back in Anger is -presumably - Duhongo ifjusag, literally Angry Youth). No shortage of that ever, is my view.

Out in the grounds: the rolling lawns already mentioned; garden statuary of a mysterious kitsch sweetness; a bench here and there for a view of hills on either side; dense foliage; paths branching and rejoining; clouds emerging from behind the hills, shoving their way forward, emitting the odd spatter, no more, not so far.

In conversation with eminent plant biologist, A, over lunch and tea about what constitutes creativity in science and whether there are common terms that might be used to describe both science and art. Later she reads poems about her grandparents and parents: her origins, her genetics, Three generations of women going to the cinema, falling in love with James Stewart, Gregory Peck, Tyrone Power (such names) and becoming Merle Oberon, Jane Russell, Vivien Leigh (such names), The genes of movie dreams.

So it goes. It is these odd things out of which people try to make shapes in the half-way-song that poetry is, between talking and singing and chanting and making noises.





16.07.08 : ARVON 3

Late venture to the computer again, picking up email and keeping up these brief notes.

Very unusually I have had a morning NOT in direct contact with the students but with their work to read, so, after I had read it, I went for a walk, through the estate with its uphill lawns, greenhouses, occasional flowers, its woodland walk, up to a farm track that I followed some way towards the farm. It was a pleasure, of course, though of an unusual kind for me, in that I rarely have the time or occasion to take a reasonable walk by myself in the country. It is the inborn urban streak in me. Nature is a blank faced exotic in some respects, the world of fairy tale and pastoral poetry. Precisely what the true nature writer detests, I suspect.

Not that I ever desired that this should be so but it is simply not my first landscape. First landscape is stair, courtyard, archway, bulging statue, graffiti, the big rhetorical facade of the academy, the little half-dark cubby hole of the tobacconist or toyshop, the park with its sudden windy spaces, then, later, the sound of traffic, the sense of gunfire, vague sounds of collapse.

But I think I could go native in nature. It would be a serious effort of course, but I love much nature writing especially in poetry. John Clare, of course, but those pre-Darwinian fantasists of flora, fauna, lake and river, furlife and fishlife. Erasmus Darwin, for one, and my minor treasure, William Diaper.

No ideas but in things? Things, most certainly, but fantastical things. As if nature were what it actually is to the wicked, one-and-only human imagination: part-science, part-function, part-pleasure, part-dream.




15.07.08 : ARVON 2

Reading work last thing at night, reading work first thing in the morning, and since I wake about 6.15 that is quite early. But it works. The mind is sharp at that time: there is a convincing sense of clarity.

Then at 10 I run a workshop till 12. I read from Diane Arbus - her views on photography and how it ties into writing. Discussion follows. My three photo books are handed round: Egglestone, Arbus and Kertesz, and they choose pictures.

We write a circular haiku, a bit like exquisite corpse, in that the second contributor picks up the last like of the first and so forth. I have never done this before. I think it works well going by the results. More talk. This time it's about endings, whether it is the firm closure or the light stepping off I prefer to advocate.

Lunch follows, then I read, sleep for about fifteen minutes then conduct tutorials from 2-6 (actually 6.20). Then supper, then Kate and I read. Discussion follows.

*

It is very strange to think of myself as an almost sixty year old man. My father thinks it is very strange for him to think of himself as a ninety year old man. Strangeness, which is always there, becomes stranger still as you plough through time. And it is strange being with people of your age and to think of them as people of your age, while the thought that it is mortality, that is all, flits in and out of your head.

Strangeness. Flittering. The studio we worked in in the morning is an old converted barn. On the floor, by the wall, lay a tiny very sleepy bat, smooth brown, its little wing-arms just visible, like the edges of a plastic mac. We raised him from the vulnerable floor to the stone ledge above our heads. A little panicky whirring and hovering. Then nothing.

You can see why the great undead should appear as vampire bats. In between creatures, part bird, part rat or mouse. Flittermouse. Fledermaus. Flittering in the twilight between day and night. Rather beautiful I thought, just its edginess, its tiny sharpness. Its vulnerability. Its otherworldliness.




14.07.08 : MONDAY - ARVON 1

From the Foundation that no news penetrates or permeates, where the clouds gather in private conclaves and enclaves over the blue remembered hills.

Five and a half hours journeying from platform to carriage to platform, almost ad inf, arriving at the resdience of the late theatrical Osbornes. I love it when the landscape darkens and the hills start rucking up like a badly fixed carpet. It begins about Leicester. On way up finished Life and Times of Michael K by Coetzee and was reading Diane Arbus's own notes to the Bloomsbury edition of her photographs. She says some wonderful things that are just as applicable to writing as to photos.

I will have more to say on the Coetzee - I shall be a Coetzee expert by the time I am through - but, again, it is a masterwork about what it is to be human when everything is stripped away. Odd last section that I must think about and come back to.

But not now. Far too much to read and to be intelligent about.




13.07.08 : SUNDAY NIGHT IS...

Mark Kermode in ecstasies about Mamma Mia, the Abba musical.



Although the review is sheer delight, I expect it is considerably better than the film. I am still untempted. From tomorrow morning I am at The Hurst, the Arvon Foundation, teaching a course with Kate Clanchy. Normal service will, I confidently expect, will be maintained. Some lovely football clips, as ever, at James Hamilton's. But then he is a United fan, like me. Who needs Ronaldo?




12.07.08 : COETZEE AND SHAMI CHAKRABARTI

They are not intimately connected except as thoughts. I keep realising that I haven't really finished with Coetzee. There's too much unsaid, too much unexamined. And C, who has just finished reading Disgrace, says she does not find his writing austere, or that 'austere' is not quite the right word.

And yes, I agree with her. It is not. One major omission in my posts about Coetzee (though almost exclusively on Disgrace) is the central character's growing obsession with his unwritten opera on Byron's time in Italy. It begins in Lurie's mind as an attempt to understand the lyrical climax and demise of a voluptuary in Ravenna, but, as his own isolation and suffering increases, it becomes less a full opera, more a stripped-down articulation of a single voice, that of Byron's mistress Teresa Guiccioli, not when she is with Byron, but long after his death, in her own old age, about the time she is writing her account of Byron.

The opera becomes an anti-opera with the only instrumentation an old banjo and, appropriately in Disgrace, a dog on stage as witness, possibly to howl. Nice article here. The article cites this passage from the end of the book where Lurie is contemplating the fate of his opera.

The dog is fascinated by the sound of the banjo. When he strums the strings, the dog sits up, cocks its head, listens. When he hums Teresa's line ... the dog smacks its lips and seems on the point of singing too, or howling.... Would he dare to do that: bring a dog into the piece, allow it to loose its own lament to the heavens between the strophes of lovelorn Teresa's? Why not? Surely, in a work that will never be performed, all things are permitted?

It is an aesthetic that is being arrived at, and in many ways it is Coetzee's aesthetic too, the aesthetics of experience, of the old dog. But where C is right is, of course, is in that we do not, cannot, forget that the dog-and-banjo performance has evolved from a potentially voluptuous opera. It is the product of a stripping down.

*

Oh, Shami! I had almost forgotten her.I was listening, in desultory fashion (the best and only possible way), to Fi Glover's 9am show on Radio 4 where Shami got to pick the 'inheritance tracks'. She picked Louis Armstrong's, 'It's a Wonderful World' and Nina Simone's 'I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free'.

I know it's awful but my mind and heart begin to curdle. Yes to Life? Of course. What's the alternative? Yes to Freedom? of course. But stirring anthems on same? I feel I am being hit on the head several times with the same blunt, boring instrument. The music is being chosen for The Message. It is the Mormons calling every week, the Jehovah's Witnesses, the Mother of All Good Intentions. It is a righteous, killing, boredom.

Take the money and turn the music off. And you can do the same with Joan Baez's 'We Shall Overcome', and even Dylan's 'Blowin' in the Wind'. Let the wind blow. Let music be music not an ointment.

Bring on the dogs. Bring on the banjo.




12.07.08 : BACK FROM... ETC (WYNDHAM LEWIS)

Only London, where we took a boat ride up and down the Thames and lunched in Greenwich. Odd never to have done this before, and rather nice to think of the river being a superior form of bus lane. Picked up a free Dark Waters map based on Peter Ackroyd but a pleasure trip like this is no more than a glimpse of anything. Good to live by a river though. If I lived in Budapest it would be good to be within sight of Danube, maybe even on the Pest-side embankment. When the Great Flood came we'd all be drowned.

Went to see the Wyndham Lewis portrait show at the NPG. A man generally regarded as of the far right (he wrote a book in 1930 in praise of Hitler), he nevertheless regarded himself as of the far left. Well, he never set out to be a lovable man, as titling himself The Enemy would indicate. Portrait paintings of self, of Pound, Sitwell, Eliot and Spender.

Not, I think, much of a painter. Paint is the stuff he has to put on if he wants a drawing to be in colour. But a terrific incisive draughtsman capable of much more than the perfect mechanical line that brutalises the form into a model of efficiency, hard as that is to do. The line has something of Ingres about it, without the courtliness. But he also manages considerable psychological complexity which, I don't think, Ingres has ever been accused of. Or maybe I am being unfair to Ingres who really is a brilliant draughtsman but whose vision somewhat chills me. Raphael resurrected as a French haute-bourgeois with bad constipation. In any case. Lewis manages to find points of rest somewhere between the demands of commanding form and the tug of registering a human presence.

I'll go back to his One-Way Song, his one major venture into poetry. As I recall it had a grinning, inistent mad vigour, a voice practically all self-conscious persona. Extraordinary energy though - the full energy of projection.




10.07.08 : LILY - THE MASK!

Lilymask.jpg

You would not think this was Lily, the sleek silver beautiful one, but here she is, caught in the act of metamorphosis into her true self. A smiley mug.

Our two cats are quite different from each other in this respect. Pearl, of whom a dignified graduation photo will be provided later, is a highly intelligent cat with a PhD in Food Studies.

Lily, I'm afraid, left school at the first possible opportunity without any qualifications. Ideally, she dreams of being a glamour model sunning herself at the end of a diving board, and will do anything to get into a picture. The mug does not lie, Reader. What you see is what you get.

Where did we go wrong?

*

Today to London, thence to Arts Council meeting, thence to... well it will be our anniversary tomorrow, so somewhere anniversarish.




09.07.08 : MOSLEY GUILTY

Is Max Mosley chiefly culpable for being filthy rich; for being filthy rich and being the son of Oswald Mosley; for being filthy rich, the son of Oswald Mosley and a powerful figure in an environmentally-unfriendly sport; for being filthy rich, the son of Oswald Mosley, a powerful figure in an environmentally-unfriendly sport and having sex with prostitutes; for being filthy rich...and...and..and having an orgy; being filthy rich etc etc, and having an orgy with some women in military uniforms; for being filthy rich etc etc, and having an orgy with some women in German military uniform; for being filthy rich etc etc and having an orgy with some women in German uniform, speaking in German? Or because the orgy had a Nazi theme?

A case for Justice Popplecarrot.

Hang him. Ideally in uniform.




09.07.08 : LAST WORD (FOR NOW) ON COETZEE: THE ACCUSER

Of course, if Coetzee himself did not pay serious attention to the accuser (the female ascetic in question) he would not have written the books. If he did not worry about the association between maleness and colonialism he would not have written books exploring the association. Like all great writers he writes because he is troubled and wants to see what will happen once he lets a thought have its way.

The accusation is, indeed, a concern. How can it not be? Nevertheless, one does not like accusers. If you really want a good accusation, do it yourself. None better. And - to return to themes mentioned in the posts on nature - the desired can desire, the indigenous are rarely the permanently indigenous. People and desire, peoples and desires, have generally moved, invaded, settled, intermarried, dominated or gone native, have fallen in love with the strange and exotic and been swallowed by the strange and exotic. Each is his or her own exotic. Nobody falls in love in Coetzee.

I was born, or so I discovered, a Jew - part of a subset of a nation, a subset that has always moved, and has always colonised, albeit powerlessly, seeking some power, seeking sustenance and security. Desiring. Mine is not the only nation or subset. Nevertheless it is one of the patterns for nations, tribes and groups. We move. We desire. It is the way, one of the multifarious ways, of the world.

At the same time, we put down roots in place and language. I was a Hungarian-speaking Hungarian child, but of a nation never securely regarded as Hungarian by the Hungarians. Yet Budapest is my indigenous landscape, the Hungarian language my late mother's mother tongue. Somewhere in the cellars of my mind there are Hungarian children moving among candles, speaking to each other of whatever part of the darkness they inhabit.

Tragedy is as remorseless as history. It is not necessarily the story of the fall of a particularly heroic figure. It is Everyman's Everystory. Its alterego is Everycomedy, because, in the face of tragedy, laughter is an appropriate response, as appropriate as tears or despair.

Not many laughs in Coetzee. His majestic writing has no great warmth (you need a little warmth to laugh, to generate more warmth). It would regard warmth as a sentimental weakness. But that is its limitation too.

It could be that it is not exactly laughter I am missing (I find laughter in Kafka and Beckett) but a certain indulgence, an indulgence in the great sensuous, sensory earth-bed of language. That is why I am a poet.

It is that, in its dusty, melancholic but loving form, that is so warming in Sebald. The richness of Sebald's soil (and David Grossman's for that matter) - the historical and linguistic soil, I mean - allows us warmth as well as despair. This may be a weakness. It is, I find, a necessary weakness.

But then Sebald's soil is the bloody but fertile mass of Europe. Coetzee's soil is the hard dry edge of the plain. We are back to place again. It is not that Coetzee's figures are not human: they most certainly are, but they move in a fixed world of moral choices. They take their pleasures with a heavy heart. They worry that their pleasures, their desires, their failures, are fixed and weighed in some existential-historical balance and found seriously wanting. That their erections (in every sense) are the beginnings of violence and destruction. Their accusers are hard-faced and hard-hearted. They - both Coetzee and the acusers - are, in this sense, pure post-colonial.

But the kindest and sweetest can kill with sheer weight of kindness and sweetness. The most nurturing can suffocate by overfeeding, just as the least lascivious can murder with aridity.

In the end, I think he worries too much about the wrong things. He listens too hard to the accusers. That way lies tragedy and no laughter.




09.07.08 : FOUR LETTERS SPELL BLUE

I have noticed a sinister development at Chelsea FC. They are making a sly grab at all top footballers with four-letter names. They already have Cech, Cole (A), Cole (J), Alex and Deco. They are now, appropriately enough, in an act of polymorphous perversity, bidding for Kaka. That is six in one team.

On the positive side, one must admit they let two go earlier (Duff and Cole (C)), but I would not be surprised to see them bid for Kuyt, Saha, Bale, Song and Dunn.

Wipeout. But they shall not have Park or Nani. Not for all the money in the world. Well, not Nani anyway.

* ps I realise this is a sad and flimsy little post, but be assured I shall not be doing a post on footballers whose names rhyme with cocoa.




08.07.08 : NOTES ON COETZEE 9: BACK TO THE KENNEL

Coetzee has in fact imagined a controlling (if not controlled) woman's voice. It is in In the Heart of the Country, (1977) an early book, where, in the figure of Magda, the most unreliable of unreliable narrators, he anticipates the figure of Lucy, Lurie's daughter in Disgrace. Both live on distant farmsteads in South Africa, both are estranged, not only from men but from romantic notions of love.

Magda is, to some degree, a virago as imagined by a man. She makes her own reality, does not know what she wants but wants it intensely, is full of bitterness and fury, cannot tell truth from lies. The book, as far as I have read it, is a tour de force of writing, often compared to Faulkner in style.

Clearly, the Magda-to-Lucy spectrum fascinates Coetzee, but he is not being merely mysogynistic. He really wants to understand their rejection. He senses their being is a judgment on his maleness,a judgment not merely aesthetic but moral and political. I suspect that what he suspect is this:

In the rejection version, maleness is intrusive. It 'invades' and 'colonialises' the female body. It carelessly anf violently creates colonies of potentially neglected children. Because the possible invasion can be both feared and welcomed it creates the conditions for madness, and that too is feared and resented. From this point of view, for this reason, the dog (the figure of the dog is central to Disgrace, is its chief poetic image and emblem) must be neutered and kennelled. Wild dogs, feral dogs cannot be tolerated. But then the whole nature of the dog is wild. You can never quite trust a dog.

And so, according to that imagination, which Coetzee strives to understand, and to some degree empathises with, colonialism and masculinity, rape and rapine, possession and exploitation are brought together in a single package.

The trouble for such a consciousness is that dogness is an aspect of nature, the very nature such a version of events might invoke as defence. (Man=technology=guns=the obvious. Woman=nature=shelter=the obvious.) One version of Magda's story is that she is raped by the native South African. Lucy actually is raped by native South Africans, symbolically and historically the victims of colonialism, and therefore images of nature..

What then is nature that she should provide? What is the autonomy of the body? Of territory? Of culture? Of kinship?

No answers, only attempts to understand. And, just possibly, desire that develops into love, that develops into devotion and some kind of fusion.

Reader, she married him. Reader, he married her. From dog to human in a single step. A very complex step. From nature to culture? From the barbaric to the civilised?




08.07.08 : NOTES ON COETZEE 8: A PERSONAL ASIDE ON THE GENDER WARS

A personal is never merely an aside of course. I like finding books that have been annotated by their readers. It alters my own reading, being aware of them and their thoughts. So this aside is more central than the word 'aside' suggests.

I am a long-way from being an ideological creature. Ideology seems to me a strait-jacket that prevents honest movement. In that respect politics, for me, is the art of the possible, in which the desirable contends with that which is necessary for any desirable to take place. This seems to me a kinder, more productive attitude in the long run. In the very long run, I admit.

People, as I understand it, are predisposed neither to be good nor evil, though they may do both good and evil. Their compass is set by the star of what works, the astronomy of survival. The desirable lies beyond survival, of course, hence the problems with desire.

Men and women cope with being men and women. Some of their interests coincide, some do not. It may be that stability of relationship, an ethos where tenderness is possible (even likely), an earth where the world is tidal and follows the sea rather than the wind, are of greater value to women than to men. It may be that exploration and development of relationship, an ethos that values the boundaries of body, mind and intellect over tenderness, and an earth where the wind bloweth where it listeth are of greater value to men. It may be that such differences are precisely what are valued in one by the other. It may be why they need each other. But terms like 'men' and 'women' are generalisations. In practice we are more complex creatures than either of these generalisations imply. We are contrary: we want what we do not want and not always when we want it. Few of us are all generalised-man, or all generalised-woman.

In any case, people make accommodations. Making accommodation is an act of the imagination as much as of the will. So we imagine what the other wants and may be moved to accommodate their want. We may not wish to dominate the other, to subject it to our own will. But it is never as easy as anyone says not to dominate, or not want to dominate (though we may use euphemisms), or, conversely, not to be dominated or not to want to be dominated (euphemisms here too). There are grey areas, there are contrasting areas. Most of the time, however, we cannot help wanting to dominate. To dominate is to control and to control is to avoid vulnerability. This applies to both genders.

We cope with what we can cope with, and we reach for the desirable that is compatible with other desirables as well as with the desires of others. We do so to a greater or lesser degree. It is just that our imaginations are limited while our desires are not. Out of that incompatibility are born conscience and art, which combine to form the politics - including the Furies - of art.

Or so it seems to me on a sunny day in July in my sixtieth year in my thirty-eighth year of marriage, in not the best of all possible worlds, but the world which is, as always, the best of times and the worst of times, the worst, as always, more clearly imaginable than the best.




08.07.08 : NOTES ON COETZEE 7: RUTHLESSNESS

Of course, it is ridiculous to compare Coetzee's two novels, particularly - from this point of view - Disgrace, with what I think Freely herself would consider as a fribble. Neither is 'evidence' in the great gender trial-in-eternal-progress where blame is duly apportioned and crime, socially and psychologically, punished; the court where we are often summoned to appear as witness or accused.

Coetzee's moral and intellectual power comes from a certain ruthlessness. This is perfectly clear in his book of essays Stranger Shores, where, for example, he discusses the works and lives of Alan Paton and Helen Suzman. He rolls out the feast of their virtues and achevements, but then gathers up the corners of the used tablecloth and shakes out the crumbs, examines the stains, assesses the value remaining. The figure he finds most sympathetic in the essays is Doris Lessing who, like him, "has nothing but scorn for correctness, whose genealogy she (correctly) traces back to the Party and the Party Line." He means, of course, the Communist Party, but the weight is all in those lightly ironic but telling brackets.

So, impatience and ruthlessness in the face of the 'correct', the PC, the half-baked, the morally simplistic, the less-than-honest account of human life, is central to the power of his writing. In this respect his tragedies do have an intensely moral aspect though that has less to do with 'lasciviousness' than with the demands of intelligence.

The true charge is: You are intelligent enough to have known better or, at least, should know better now. How plead you?




07.07.08 : NOTES ON COETZEE 6: EXCURSUS ON VULCANIA

A brief - all too brief - aside on Vulcania. Coetzee is a male writer who knows most about male desire. We can assume that he understands Lurie, as it were, from the inside, and is therefore chiefly concerned with Lurie's fate and state of being.

Freely's book assumes that female desire is at least as various, as intense, as 'lascivious' as men's. But there are other factors at play that lead male and female desire to diverge in many respects. Most of these involve common assumptions regarding vulnerabilty, relative physical weakness, child-bearing, loss of fertility and loss of the beauty associated with fertility, which is also loss of one important form of power. It is, after all, power if you can make someone respond physically and involuntarily. Power is control and control is both exciting and assuring, because it renders one less vulnerable. But that power goes and one resents that, as one does the loss of any power, so one has to - one instinctively does - prepare for it.




07.07.08 : NOTES ON COETZEE 6: OLD DOG AND THE VULCANIA

It would, perhaps, be presumptuous of Coetzee to assume knowledge of female desire, but I have just been skimming Maureen Freely's 1994 novel, Under the Vulcania, a sort of romp about female desire set in a brothel for women, and it seems to me that the women there are just as, if no more, lascivious than men.

'Lascivious' is a word that comes dripping in sin. Men's desire is visible, women's less so. A woman once described female sexual excitement as an inner eye dilating. The eye remains inner.

But back to our dogs, because these dogs are not only the dogs of desire, the hounds of spring on winter's traces, as Swinburne put it, but also the running dogs of capitalism and colonialism.

So what is Lurie's fatal flaw? Is it, as he thinks, or allows himself to think, desire? Or is it something else riding alongside desire, or on desire's back?




07.07.08 : NOTES ON COETZEE 5: OLD DOG

Tragedy is not moral judgment. Tragedy is the working through of what begins, in extremis, to appear as more and more unavoidable. Lurie is not bad, as such. Men are not evil. The evil of their imaginations is, simply, imagination.

And what of women's imaginations? We do not learn much about that. We meet only four women of importance to the plot. They are the original source of temptation (the unwilling femme-fatale girl student), the agent of vengeance (the female academic), the virgin-hermit (Lucy) and the kindly and accommodating earth-mother (Bev Shaw, a friend of Lucy's, whose actual job is - almost comically in view of its appropriateness - putting down dogs out of pity). Interestingly Bev Shaw is perfectly willing to, and indeed keen to, lie down with Lurie.




07.07.08 : NOTES ON COETZEE 4: OLD DOG

You don't set up a scene like the robbery, assault and rape straight after the conversation referred to in Coetzee 3 without expressly inviting the reader to assume that one is a consequence of the other. This is what desire leads to, at least male desire. Surely you can see it has to be governed. Or neutered. That is what Lucy would say, though she does not. Otherwise it leads to rape - and colonialism.

Coetzee is a great writer though, and his mind doesn't run quite like that. Instead he shows you the worst that can happen, then leaves the reader with it. He plays it out as tragedy, and tragedy is, after all, as we are taught, the fall of a noble individual because of some fatal flaw.

Short entry for lack of space. Continued...




06.07.08 : SUNDAY NIGHT IS...

Mr Cohen, getting older, the voice getting more gravelly, and probably better for that.



Dance Me to the End of Love. We could refer to back to Professor Lurie here, but that is optional. And seeing next week is our 38th anniversary, let's dedicate this to C.




06.07.08 : THE SEBALD INTERVIEW

This is absolutely wonderful. Of course one forgets the precise sound of voices, and even hearing Max talk I find I have somehow lost him, distanced him.

But what he says, and his interviewer, Michael Silverblatt, is brilliant and asks precisely the right questions, is unforgettable. It is clearly the vision of a great writer talking humbly, perfectly straight, about what matters. Ignore the chirpy song that tops and tails the show



I'll get back to Coetzee soon. I will choose some music too.

And here is the RTE radio show I did with Aengus Woods about Max Sebald (whose name is misspelled in the programme). The whole via here.




06.07.08 : NOTES ON COETZEE 3

The key moment in Disgrace, the very core of the book, is where Lurie and his daughter, Lucy (who is, he suspects, a lesbian, or has certainly withdrawn from relationships with men and even from her female friend, and is living alone on a minimal farmstead looking after her dogs) are watching wild geese on the dam.

Lurie wants to explain his actions and condition to Lucy. She, for her part, is interested to hear 'a moral dinosaur' speak. I will quote short excerpts here:
'My case rests on the rights of desire,' he says. 'On the god who makes even the small birds quiver.'

[Here he sees himself back in the flat of the girl who has been the occasion of his downfall.]

I was a servant of Eros: that is what he wants to say, but does he have the effrontery? It was a god who acted through me. What vanity! Yet not a lie, not entirely.

[Then he remembers the incident of the dog they once had, that Lucy faintly remembers, recalling that it was a male and saying:]

'...Whenever there was a bitch in the vicinity it would get excited and unmanageable, and with Pavlovian regularity the owners would beat it. This went on until the poor dog didn't know what to do. At the smell of a bitch it would chase around a garden with its ears flat and its tail between its legs, whining, trying to hide...'

[Lucy doesn't see the point. Nor does he see it quite, and tries to explain by saying that dogs can be punished for misdeeds...]

'But desire is another story. No animal will accept the justice of being punished for following its instincts.'

'So males must be allowed to follow their instincts unchecked? Is that the moral?'

'No, that is not the moral. What was ignoble about
[the spectacle] was that the poor dog had begun to hate its own nature. It no longer needed to be beaten. It was ready to punish itself. At that point it would have been better to shoot it.'

'Or have it fixed.'


[Vision here of the 'fixed' dog, 'padding about the living room, sighing and sniffing the cat and getting portly'. Lucy asks if he has always felt this way, and he says no, only sometimes, ending '...desire is a burden we could well do without.' to which Lucy replies: I must say... that is the view I incline towards myself.']

Don't you just love the phrase, 'that is the view I incline towards myself?' Now that is blissful writing!

And what happens next? Three black males immediately come along, forcibly enter the house, rob them, beat up Lurie, rape Lucy, then shoot the dogs. Well, well...

More soon.




05.07.08 : NOTES ON COETZEE 2: DISGRACE AND MASCULINITY

In Disgrace the story of colonialism is associated – if no more than that – with masculinity, at least in so far as colonialism and masculinity are the two stories going. Coetzee never claims that colonialism is a product of masculinity, because he knows if he did that he might as well go on to claim that anything that men do is a product of masculinity, including sainthood, philanthropy, art and innovation of all sorts. And any of that might be so, but all that would prove is that masculinity was various.

Nevertheless, in both Disgrace and Barbarians the parallel between colonialism and masculinity exists, it is just that in Disgrace it is explored to a much greater degree. The story begins a little like Roth’s The Human Stain, and there are certain parallels with Mamet’s Oleanna in that the key relationship is between an older male academic and younger female student or employee, but Coetzee thickens the brew by clearly linking the case of Professor David Lurie with Lurie’s study of Wordsworth’s Romanticism and Byron’s years in Italy, about which he is trying to write, for the first time in his life, an opera.

Lurie is fifty-two. He is a successful-enough, respected-enough academic who has grown bored of teaching, though he was never particularly good at it, and is facing a mid-life crisis, though Coetzee never says anything quite so dull. Lurie is simply a man who has had failed marriages and is used to seducing younger women with whom he forms no lasting bond. It is primarily an itch that drives him, a desire, albeit a complex one. One day he meets his nemesis, a female student who allows herself to be seduced by him, thinks better of it half-way through but is not quite firm enough in her rejection. The details of Lurie’s fall are fairly predictable. What is less predictable is that in facing his colleagues he rejects apology and contrition beyond a formal level, even though this would save his career. The implication is that by doing so he would be lying about his real state of mind. It would be denying his nature, the nature of his desire, his masculinity. There is also the implication that it is precisely this that some more severe female members of the faculty would have him deny and apologise for.

The reader feels that there is no small element of contempt and coldness in Lurie, and yet something heroic too. He has, he believes (again without saying so) acted in the spirit of the Romantic poetry he has been teaching (much later he will go on to quote the most problematic of Blake’s Proverbs of Hell: ‘Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires’) and that he has given up everything to the principle: I have stopped pretending: I am what I am. Everyone loves Blake. They think he is cuddly. He isn’t but he is a visionary. Lurie is far from that. He is just a bright, obstinate, well-educated, self-centred man with a certain contempt for what he considers to be dishonesty or lazy thinking. How far Lurie makes a fetish of his personal honesty, and how far truth to desire matters, is one of the central questions in the book.





04.07.08 : NOTES ON COETZEE 1

Disgrace is a more complex book than Waiting for the Barbarians though the same themes haunt both.

I am, by the way, particularly conscious here of the nature of these notes as the semi-private jottings they cannot fail to be, for either people know the books already, in which case they don't need another review so long after their publication, or they haven't read them in which case, apart from encouraging them to do so, I have no particular qualification or desire to do anything other than to think around what they make me think, and such thoughts, while private, are not private when read in this space. They are articles, journalistic notations, my equivalent of Hugo Williams's 'Freelance' column in the TLS, though, being of a more restricted nature, with a more restricted audience, less concerned with mask. But that suits me.

So let us begin by saying (in lecturer manner) that the main theme of both books is responsibility: responsibility and ageing.

The responsibility, in both cases, is colonial in the most obvious sense, meaning colonial intrusion, occupation, oppression, cruelty and exploitation, some of it unthinking, and even, by its own lights, humane. The colonel of the Third Bureau of the Civil Guard in Barbarians is clearly a sadistic apparatchik, the worst kind of fascist. The best that could possibly be said of him is that he possesses a certain courage in the field and that he is efficient, but both he and his men are easy to read. They are possessed by a kind of madness. The fact that they settle on a relatively peacable outpost of empire, run by a relatively sane and honourable man, and then proceed to wreck not only the outpost but the 'barbarians' from whom the land has been wrested, as well as, ultimately, the empire itself, is part of the parable the book presents us with.

In Disgrace the situation is contemporary South Africa. The patently colonial arena is a small farm - hardly a farm - where the daughter of disgraced Professor Davd Lurie tends dogs and tries to work out a modus vivendi with the black 'barbarian' household of Petrus, who is clearly progressing from being a humiliating 'boy' or labourer to a landowner with genuine power. It is a dangerous and delicately balanced accommodation. History is against it, the edges of cruelty (here seen as perpetrated physically by the 'barbarians', but wrought out of revenge for the cruelties they have suffered at the hands of the whites) are rusty, bloodied and very sharp.

In the simplest sense both Disgrace and Barbarians are apprehensions of terror and disaster proceeding out of colonialism, more specifically out of the South African model.

But nothing is that simple, since the theme of age, of loss of male authority and potency is treated with equal seriousness and is felt more directly through the main protagonists of both books.

The colonial theme is easy compared to this. It is this aspect of the book, along with the marvellous quality of the writing ('austere' is the word most commonly used to describe it) that raises both books to the level of convincing tragedy. Frankly I don't know at the moment which of the two books is the more powerful.

Barbarians immediately struck me as a great book. It has the majestic forward momentum of great books. It is what novels can be when written out of great knowledge. It feels a little like Dostoevsky. The central character acts as an almost Christ-like figure in that he embodies the sufferings and cruelties of the world in a quite conscious manner, but there is nothing pious or preachy about him. He is highly fallible.

Disgrace operates on other levels too, and being set in our times, carries a greater weight of realism, the sheer fuss and noise of situations we recognise as resembling ours. The theme of male authority, potency, responsibility and, perhaps above all, desire, is carried over from Barbarians, but is here confronted by and challenged by persons closer to us than the inhabitants of the imperial outpost in Barbarians.

Specifically male authority, potency, responsibility and desire then. I was talking to a female scholar only a week or two ago about, among other things, Coetzee, and she remarked that she could not enjoy Disgrace.(I should add that I cannot help noting that all the reviews on the back of my edition were written by men.)

Thereby hang so many tales I could not begin to unravel them all, but I will do a little picking and pulling at a few in following posts, as and when I find the words to do so.

For now, the sun is shining. It is 8.45 in the morning. I am showered but unshaven. R and H are still in their room, sleeping or drowsing. C has had her shower. The cats are sitting or ambling here and there. Later I shall go into the university to meet a prospective PhD student. The sky is beautifully clear.




03.07.08 : BRIEF NOTE

Not back from anywhere. Translating and storming my way through Coetzee's Disgrace, which prompts many thoughts, but later. H and R with us for a day or so.

In the meantime a touch of John Cooper Clarke in the night.



More tomorrow.




02.07.08 : WAITING FOR THE BARBARIANS

By Constantine Cavafy (1864-1933)
translated by Edmund Keeley


What are we waiting for, assembled in the forum?

The barbarians are due here today.

Why isn't anything happening in the senate?
Why do the senators sit there without legislating?

Because the barbarians are coming today.
What laws can the senators make now?
Once the barbarians are here, they'll do the legislating.

Why did our emperor get up so early,
and why is he sitting at the city's main gate
on his throne, in state, wearing the crown?

Because the barbarians are coming today
and the emperor is waiting to receive their leader.
He has even prepared a scroll to give him,
replete with titles, with imposing names.

Why have our two consuls and praetors come out today
wearing their embroidered, their scarlet togas?
Why have they put on bracelets with so many amethysts,
and rings sparkling with magnificent emeralds?
Why are they carrying elegant canes
beautifully worked in silver and gold?

Because the barbarians are coming today
and things like that dazzle the barbarians.

Why don't our distinguished orators come forward as usual
to make their speeches, say what they have to say?

Because the barbarians are coming today
and they're bored by rhetoric and public speaking.

Why this sudden restlessness, this confusion?
(How serious people's faces have become.)
Why are the streets and squares emptying so rapidly,
everyone going home so lost in thought?

Because night has fallen and the barbarians have not come.
And some who have just returned from the border say
there are no barbarians any longer.

And now, what's going to happen to us without barbarians?
They were, those people, a kind of solution.

As to who the barbarians are, that depends on which side of the wall you are sleeping of course.




02.07.08 : BACK FROM LONDON

Well, this may or may not turn out to be interesting, so I won't say anything unless it does, and so far it hasn't. I hope that's clear. What I did on the train was to read through Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians. The further I got the more I thought, Why haven't I read this before? Because there I was, only a week or so ago, talking to him at the UEA and listening to his lecture on censorship. Because, make no mistake, this is one of the great books, one to compare with Platonov's Soul, of roughly the same dimensions and weight.

The odd thing is that if I had read the book first I would have talked to him more easily, because a great unread writer is terrifying. A great read writer is altogether more human, has become fully human through his writing because he has made you a little more human in the reading.

I throw this word 'human' round too easily sometimes. To me it is a term of approval, a full value. I suppose I must think well of the best of humanity, and imagine that even the second best, or third best, is worth having. In fact to think it all worth having is an aspect of the best of humanity. Though dreadful inhumane things happen in Coetzee.

And that is as it should be, because we don't want to get sentimental about this 'human' business. You have to include, understand and sound the full grossness and horror of the condition. Knowledge of it has to be in your bones. I think it's there in mine somewhere. The trick is not just to know it and to be aware of it but still feel the whole lot is worth caring about. As Coetzee does.

The title, of course, is adapted from Cavafy. Here is my favourite Keeley translation of the great poem, followed as a pattern by Coetzee. I'll put it in a separate post, just above this one. So.




02.07.08 : BACK TO NATURE

It is good to get a little venom out of one's system (see below). I could work myself into a habit of biting and spitting but it's not The Hungarian Way.

So back to Cambridge. Mr Ian Sinclair is a splendid man and an excellent writer, and, on top of that, a raconteur of shining brilliance. Being a raconteur, he raconted. I think the broad theme of his racontation was that the past was being turned into a virtual museum of the future. Or that the future was being turned into a virtual museum of the past. People, he suggested, had started to remember things that were only visualisations of something that hadn't yet happened, such as views from as-yet-unerected buildings. Architects and planners were using vast sums of money to build grands projets that no one ever visited, that never could be visited because of the security and the parking. A certain Will Sulkin, pilot of the future (the architect version of Dan Dare) was laying waste to vast virtual tracts by joining up bits that didn't exist.

The racontation wound in and out of illustration and counter-illustration. But what do we say, I asked (in effect) when people who move into the virtual future, such as Stevenage after the war, show a genuine fondness for it when remembering it, that is to say in a remembered past, and even claim to have enjoyed it in the past present (the present as was)?

The present doesn't get much of a look-in here. And that, I suspected, was the proverbial (or virtual) beef.

Suhayl Saadi delivered a complex and serious paper about language and memory, outlining the advantages of mixing languages, of working with puns, of resituating or undercutting the various standard discourses of power. No racontage whatsoever. I like Suhayl and very much enjoyed his book Psychoraag (the book can be dowloaded from the Chroma website) so I won't attempt a precis. To proceed from Sinclair to Saadi was to move from a virtual umbrella to a very real dissecting table. Or possibly a sewing machine.

After coffee, the composer Ilona Sekacz talked about memory and music and about writing music for films and theatre. Although her name may not be generally known, the chances are most people will have heard her music. I had certainly heard her extraordinary and haunting music for the RSC's production of King Lear. Anthony Sher, as Clown, acted Michael Gambon (as Lear) completely off the stage which meant once the Clown had vanished so had the play, alas. After Lear, Sekacz spoke of bugle calls and how each bugle call carried a special message right down to 'Stop picking your nose, Private Jones, you horrible little man.' Sekacz was lovely and full of beans and probably got through only half her material.

Then I did my bit (see a couple of entries below.)

After drinks Rebecca Solnit for about an hour. But that woman can write! It was a long line of thought to follow but it ended up with Yves Klein. I think I must read more Solnit. (Humble correction: I must read some Solnit. I had never read her before and won;t pretend I have.) I mean there is a kind of post-hippy drift about her thought, a kind of "Wow! It's all out there!" but it's backed by serious reading and pretty angelic prose. OK, so let's go there. As youll see there is a lot of 'there' to go to.

Today's back from? Another post.




02.07.08 : FIRST A MOTH. OR BUTTERFLY.



This one is actually a moth, a Scarlet Tiger Moth to be precise. On my way to the railway station at W (just so that I would have somewhere to be back from) I saw what I thought was a butterfly, not a moth, very like this in colouring. It was butterfly-shaped, about an inch or a bit more in wing span. It briefly alighted and trembled on the fence around a development that hasn't yet developed, the fence a piercing blue, with the firm's name - Gladedale - painted in every panel. Because it has been there so long the local youth have started transposing the letters so it sometimes reads Gay glade, or lad Gale or Gal lade. I am giving the boys marks for invention. (Report to me afterwards.)

But the butterfly (or moth) was sudden and ravishing. I hadn't seen one as deep-dyed scarlet before, certainly not one with black fringes on its wings. As far as I can see there is no British butterfly of those colours and this moth was the closest I could find. Small butterfly size, more butterfly shape, not the Dracula's-cloak shape of certain moths.

Any suggestions?

*

Talking of Brits I see Andy Murray has lost. Too bad. I don't care for him much, in fact I would be pleased to see him lose any time. This is a trick I learned from the Big Macs up north. For years, like a naive innocent, I supported Scottish sportsvolk, whether individual or team, until I discovered the only miserable, small-minded pleasure most Scots got out of life was seeing England lose at anything whatesoever. So now I am glad to see them lose at anything whatsoever. You see what a monster you have created, O Caledonia?

On the other hand all those society columns in the papers encouraging Andy to become more loveable and British can fry in hell (said he, twirling his dashing RAF moustache). I would not wish him to become more mealy-mouthed just so that he may be the subject of a thousand journalistic air-kisses or the equivalent of My Little Pony on Henman Hill. He should have the courage of his convictions and put up with being cold-shouldered by the English. I would almost admire that. And I hope you lose next time too, Andy.




02.07.08 : QUICK NOTES ON MEMORY MAPS

Memory Maps are a wonderful idea. They are explained here by Marina Warner, who is one of the presiding presences at the Cambridge conference. The keynote speaker of the current conference, Rebecca Solnit, opened this up in the morning by talking about the way memory maps might be constructed for San Francisco where the average residence in any single home is four years. This, to me, made a great and welcome change, from the abiding concern - equally valuable no doubt - of indigenous people who have always lived where they live. Most of us are not that and while she ended with Gary Snyder's, 'The most radical thing to do right now would be to stay at home', I say, 'Nice work if you can get it,' to that.

In any case, the substance of her talk was about collecting memories and activities, of shops, of meeting places, of secret corners, of institutions - indeed anything that people can remember, and overlaying them, like a palimpsest (not a word she used, but one used by a questioner afterwards.) Since I have often considered undertaking such a thing for a single Budapest apartment block, this felt spiritually like homeground (yes, accept the pun) to me.

Robert Macfarlane talked about the attempt to install a giant wind-farm (or wind-factory, as he called it) on the Isle of Lewis in the Hebrides. There were two aspects to the argument for the rejection of the wind farm, one being that the land the company proposed to build on, a peat bog, had been dismissed as a void, an emptiness, which it was not. The second aspect, the refutation of this presentation of the area, was a sheet of local words applied to the peat-bog and the work that was done with it, a set of very fine distinctions, under the heading A Counter-Desecration Phrasebook produced by a local man, and given to us on two sides of closely printed A4. It was meticulous and moving, the descriptions precise. What you take to be nothing for your own purposes is a great deal to others and in its own right, was the argument. It - Robert's, the local man's, the residents' - was a cogent, controlled but passionate argument. I only hesitate very briefly over the word 'desecration' since that prods me back to the sense of religion, of theology that - rightly or wrongly, I can't tell - seems to attach itself to all environmental debate. Maybe all it means is that we should hold some things sacred in whatever secular sense the word sacred possesses. Inviolable? Unquestionable?

Jules Pretty spoke of walking the East Anglian coastline, of the 1953 floods, of boatyards, of erosion, of the collecting of objects along the shoreline, some human, some natural. It was richly visual and ranged far and wide. There was more critical talk of wind-farms, but also a well-reported local incident when a man whose house was endangered by rapid erosion gathered up industrial waste and dumped it at the foot of the cliff in order to slow down the process. I can't recall the details here, but I think the man was ordered to take the waste away since there were interesting fossils in the cliff that was of special scientific interest and the erosion was welcome from this point of view. The man then appealed and won the case, arguing that his human rights had been infringed.

This brings us face to face with the rarely-spoken main difficulty, which is the balance of human lives and livelihoods on the one hand and the sacred (that which can be desecrated) on the other. Sometimes this is far from clear. I asked Robert afterwards whether he was against wind-farms in principle. Not at all, he said. But it would be better if they stood along the A14. (Do you get strong enough winds by the A14?)

I'll save the other sessions for tomorrow.

Tonight's back from will be from London.




01.07.08 : ANOTHER BACK FROM...

Cambridge this time, the Memory Maps conference. Some very good papers here, but it's late so I'll write things up later. In my spot I talked a little about, then performed Tiffey Song, the libretto I wrote for the composer Ken Crandell for the opening of the Tiffey Trails. It performs OK. Little proper scholarship as such, but a single flow down a very small river along with the history of some of those who have lived beside it.

I note Eve Garrad's resignation letter to UCU here. Only had time to scan it. Also get part of it via Engage. If I were a member of UCU I too would resign. As it is, I link to these and hope others read too.




30.06.08 : SUNDAY NIGHT SHOULD HAVE BEEN...

This bunch, praised and presented by Phil Jupitus. Loads of vague, Brit charm...



Yes, The Ukelele Orchestra of Great Britain. I was hesitating between this and between their version of Kate Bush.




30.06.08 : TALKING

Peripatetics is a group of academics, profesionals, architects, scientists, writers and politicians who meet once a month at the home of one of the group who then lays on wine and nibbles while another member gives a paper about something not wholly fixed in their subject field. Then there is a brisk, convivial discussion-cum-inquisition.

I am not sure how I came to be invited to join but it was some seven or eight years ago. The range of subjects was wide, as you'd expect, and I heard some fascinating papers, but then, having myself delivered a couple of talks (one on wrestling, one on poetic form), life became very busy and I started missing sessions, many months of sessions. It was a long break, whatever it was, to the extent that I thought I was probably out of it, though I kept getting the invitations. But people won't invite you for ever if you never turn up.

About three months ago I went along to a presentation on art and science, and, having been my usual vocal self, was quickly nabbed to take a session myself, which is what I did last night.

This being the last meeting before the summer break, it was preceded by dinner in a nearby pub, then, the food being cleared away, my talk, with blackout and a dreaded Power Point presentation. I have never once prepared one of those and associate it with maddening, oppressive, managerial drivel, but it worked and served fine as a slide-show to my subject. The subject was the relationship between visual art and poetry, touching on ekphrastics, including some photography, ending with a few relevant recent poems.

This is something that has preoccupied me for a few years, but in the way that things generally preoccupy me, that is to say I skip about from twig to twig and think I know something about the tree, never mind the whole damn forest. It is the way most poets operate, I think, and it amazes me how when they sing a few notes the whole damn forest somehow manages - however hazily, however fleetingly - to appear. Illusionists!

But that is only on lucky days. It is a daunting prospect being faced with very sharp, sometimes sceptical, minds and in this case, there were three art historians as well as historians and literary theorists present. I wasn't going to be able to bullshit my way through. I tend, anyway, not to write everything down, but have a few notes and hope for the best.

But it worked out just fine, the projector didn't break down, the quality of the pictures was good, the talk seemed to make sense to those whom I most feared and the poems were liked. The whole forest did, somehow, seem to appear, albeit as uncertainly and fleetingly as ever. The question session afterwards was friendly and long and enthusiastic. So, all-in-all it was a good thing. But bloody poets and their bloody insubstantial verbal forests! It is a nebulous occupation, with nebulous apparatus.

And, since this is the case, I also think to myself, how odd, how very odd - and indeed I think this before, just before, just after and long after, quite frequently in fact - how extraordinarily odd that I who did not go to university but to an undistinguished London high school, then to an admittedly very good art college where, however, absolutely nothing formal was ever taught, that I should be here talking to highly educated, bright and relatively powerful people, including senior Labour politicians, and that they should be listening.

Thinking this I feel the common-or-garden, jumped-up oik's intense anxiety that his non-credentials will be discovered and that he will be unmasked as the impostor he actually is. And that is mixed with - how to put this politely? - the same oik's defiant inner cry of Blow you all, I don't care, I will do as I do do, I'll just say what I think and you can take it or leave it.

Sometimes I think that if I didn't have an element of the second, the first would crush me. But then I remind myself that I am not a specimen of anything - never think of yourself or even of others as specimens of anything - but a human being talking to other human beings, and that thought helps more than fear or defiance would.

So, I venture to one of the senior Labour politicians, how is Gordon Brown? She smiles and asks the question back at me. Not so good, I tell her. She nods. She likes him personally, notes an unsung kindly act of his, but admits it would take a substantial economic upturn to save him and the party. What would you do? she asks. I mutter something about appealing to morality, to long-standing ideas of justice, etc. And what would that mean in practice? she pursues. I mumble something else about tax and about income differentials then shut up. Now I really am out of my comfort zone. I feel like some idiot mouthing: Let's all be nice to each other. Idiot. Idiot, I think to myself. Illusionist! Idiot!




29.06.08 : MISC 2

An exchange with Todd Swift on Eyewear. Todd criticises the small publisher Salt for abandoning its avant-garde roots (whatever that means now), in the process saying:

Salt's now a business, and the model is partly borrowed from Bloodaxe, and partly from Faber. The idea that poetry is "for everyone" is good in principle, but trite pap when put into practice. Read Bernstein, among others, on this. There is a little thing called "taste" - and sadly, in Britain, most people without much experience of poetry express an interest in precisely the sort of neo-Georgian slice-of-life empirical rubbish that Salt poets and poetics used to question, and present a viable alternative to. The Salt "brand" is in danger of becoming meaningless - all things to all people.

I ask what he means by taste? Todd replies:


"Taste" is really a big subject, of course. I say things about it all time time at Eyewear.

My feeling is a certain rather traditional taste has been in the ascendancy in the UK for some time. One that seeks for craft in poetry, and perhaps too much slice-of-life - I sometimes write poems in this vein myself; as exampled by Armitage's response to Alex Turner's lyrics...

...I felt that the idea that poetry should be opened to all, while wonderful as an idea, could founder on the fact that most non-poetry readers have little active or engaged taste, but received and often simple expectations from a poem.

I dont think that means anything much except I am OK with this, I am OK with that. Well, I'm OK with that, but

I don't think that matters very much, Todd, not unless one is trying deliberately to write down to people (always a mistake, people are not to be written down to.) Most poets are not trying to do that.

Pace Bernstein most poets are not major innovators either, but 'major'-ness is not in itself the whole story. Poets do not have to make decisions about 'writing for all'. They have to write what genuinely fascinates and compels them. That sounds simple but is devilish hard in practice.

Poetry is not an abstruse science. It is to do with the business of being human which is something we share with all other human beings, whose feelings and experiences are not trite.

It is however an art, which means it is difficult to do well, whether we are Schoenberg or an Arctic Monkey. There is no obligation on us to be either. Nor can we really have it every way at once, which is why I asked about taste, about what you meant by that, since it is a word with a specific history, and implies the aesthetic judgment of that part of society that considers itself the best. It certifies itself in most cases.

So which is that part of society? Whose taste are we supposed to be following. Bernstein's? Armitage's? Marilyn Hacker's? Alice Oswald's? John Ashbery's?

Todd points me to Bourdieu, adding

I don't believe one need follow any dominant group's "taste". I think there is too much taste /fashion in the poetry world(s).

But then whose taste is he talking about in the original post?




29.06.08 : MISC 1

Just a few Sunday morning jottings. I don't know whether visitors can actually see my YouTube clips onsite, but I can't. I get messages saying they can no longer be viewed. Why?

*

Friday into Saturday, old college friend CS staying with us. He is a couple of years younger and is one of the four fellow art students who came down to London from Yorkshire to our wedding in 1970. He has been living in Liverpool for years, teaching in various schools, writing songs, singing in a kind of jug band, making short films, writing poems. He is also the member of a socialist walking group. Over breakfast we talk about Gordon Brown and the Labour Party. And now with Wendy Alexander and another by-election looming.

There is very little prospect of a way-out, we agree. One can't go back to pre-Kinnock Labour: the union base is mostly gone, the established-working communities vanished, the money is flying globally in virtual land (though real people go really hungry), out of control of this or that government.

CD mentions the tankers' strike. But that wasn't a union strike. I recall the last one, the fuel blockade of 2000, an action by individuals for short term mutual interest facilitated by modern communications. I even wrote a poem about it in An English Apocalypse. This was it:

Blockade

Where ideology fails, mere livelihood
takes over, seeking its bottom line,
wherever that is, in vision or in blood

or further regions impossible to define.
The cross of St George flutters on the pole
behind men picketing in a benign

huddle, comfy, but barely in control
of the world that they are bringing into being.
They form a solid yeomanry in droll

revolt against powers that even now are fleeing
the cities they rule from. From what far regions
have the yeoman risen? Where are their all-seeing

leaders and prophets? Their everyday religions
are bottom-line affairs with few demands,
offering basic warmth for mild allegiance,

composed of mostly affordable deodands:
crumbs for the ducks, a tip for the paper-boy,
a Christmas kiss, holding a mother's hands,

comfort for the dying. I'm thinking of Joy,
Ruby, Ted and Jerry, their children trapped
in kitchens and sheds a real storm would destroy

in minutes, and Stan, hollow-eyed, flat-capped,
whose tools we inherited, and Percy Bunn
the handyman and glazier who dropped

dead at the church fete, and gangling Ron
the caretaker, whose wife left and he drank
for weeks, and every picket the son

(or daughter) of people of such social rank
as drop away now, lost in the dawn retreat,
the tankers rolling past them, faces blank.

I mean, it was not hard to see what was happening. It was the new post-Thatcher, post-Clause 4 world rolling in. But then the Apocalypse sequence had quite a bit on that.

So what now? asks CS. An appeal to morality? An honest appeal saying this or that might hurt but you know it is right? Perhaps. You dont know till you try.




28.06.08 : PERFORMANCE 2

Well, one gets passionate about what one does, does one not? Or maybe it's what one would like to do. Or what one thinks one does. Or what one fails to do. That's a lot for a single 'one' to be solving. So why not something completely different? In advance of something different again for Sunday



Mr Bowie who once cleaned house and knew how to write a hook chorus line.




27.06.08 : PERFORMANCE

An invitation from Nathan to comment on his post about poetry in performance (or as performance, or, to quote Nathan, "spoken word, stand-up poetry, what have you", though he ends up calling it "Live Literature" (as opposed to, say, Dead..., or Recorded, or...?) No matter. I can see why he would want to sort out some thoughts on the matter.

The core of the post is an attempt at definition. This is what he writes:

1) A good/matured Live Literature act avoids disingenuously and lazily positing or counterpointing some shadowy poetry 'elite' or 'aristocracy' it seeks to antagonize and agitate. This is a big (insecure) and narrow-minded cliché that is rarely relevant, interesting, or even accurate -- the good stuff lies elsewhere, further along, after assuming artistic importance in one's own right.

2) Similarly, a good/matured Live Literature act should not describe a non-existent stuffy and failing poetry world it is here to save –- this, again, is disingenuous nonsense normally used to hold up an empty, self-aggrandising rhetorical position predicated on a flawed understanding of poetry, poetics and poetic history. It should be proud of its roots, and it should deal with its ancestral genealogy of forms with an open mind, rather than adolescently attempting to distance.

3) With good Live Literature, the words should be doing most of the work. Or, the words should be the driving force of the act/performance/event. If another aspect holds sway -– the action, for example -– it becomes other –- e.g. theatre or dance. Or, if a beard holds sway, it is Scroobius Pip [cheap gag, best ignored as irrelevant]. As a further example, a comedy song can be considered as within the bounds of Live Literature if the driving force of the artistic enjoyment/understanding is from the words –- foregrounded use of rhyme or rhythm for humour, surprise etc (and cf. earlier posts about poetry and music).

4) With Live Literature, the words must be good (in whatever way) words; surprising words, as with any form of literary endeavour. Too many Live Literature acts are little more than incoherent shouty doggerel polemic –- not literature, or even really Live in most senses of the word.

So, in summary, anything where the words are foregrounded or are the focus in an interesting performance conceit or frame; anything where the energy comes largely from the words and their manipulation and impact in a live setting, is potentially good/matured Live Literature. But in order to be considered a good/matured Live Literature event, the words should be the biggest thing on stage. The mantra should be: The Words Must Do The Work.

Clearly Nathan has seen bad things (as indeed have I). It is, of course, hard to disagree with his points in general, since terms like disingenuous, lazy, empty, self-aggrandising, flawed and incoherent define themselves. Pretention to anything is either tedious or unintentionally comical.

I have nothing against any kind of performance involving words, actions, music, or comedy. Things just are. Or things are not. A performance is a performance and if it avoids qualities like disingenuousness, laziness and so forth it can stand as performance of any sort. The stage is its own peculiar place.

Peter Brook had it right when he talked of 'the empty space'. The empty space is a transforming space, a ritual place, a charged space, a magic space. When treated as such the results can be electric. What is it like? It is, to begin with, a place of stillness and magnification. A single slight gesture is magnified a hundredfold when given its due space and distance. It can take the breath away.

Space and distance. That electricity rarely works when performer and audience are too complicit. It is difference that makes the power. That is why there is that extraordinary thrust when the performer makes briefly to move out of the performance space, when the singer extends a hand to the audience. It is the breaking of a spell, a sudden shift of boundaries. But you have to have the the space before you can break it.

The finest poetry creates its own place of power through words. It does so by itself, not through somebody selling the words. The words in the best poems don't need any more than speaking. You don't have to put emotion into them. What you have to do is to hear their strangeness and, within the strangeness, to hear the emotion in them, the whole odd electric experience vibrating as in a diaphragm. The diaphragm is all you really need. You could practically whisper poems like prayers. Their words will fall into the silence of the transformed space like a meteor shower.

Poems may be performed or said by anyone. That is their democracy. The poet reading his or her own words is an extra. Some poets can make that transformed space by simply being there. They don't have to go round, as Larkin said, pretending to be themselves. They are servants of the words, not entrepreneurs of the self. They just help the poem into space. The vibration, the meteor shower, follow.

What I loathe about certain kinds of performance is the element of matiness, the sense that we are all one big crowd, all of one heart and mind, a kind of yes-machine. I hate the joshing, the egotism, the falsity, the waste of such things. Poetry is not a party. My instinct is to withdraw from all such parties. In fact I am pretty certain it was that specific instinct which led me to poetry in the first place.

Cabaret is fine, magic shows are great. I love circuses, transformations, anything that takes us to the other side of the mirror into the otherness of life suspended. I even like the music hall tradition where the audience joins in the chorus. I like the singing at the stadium, the spontaneous wit of the spectator, the zigger-zagger man with his few simple inventions. They have their honesty. They are not selling.

Frankly I don't give a toss about bums on seats or hands in wallets when it comes to poetry. The stakes are far bigger than that. Popularity is a cheap party trick. Nor, on the other hand, do I want poetry to be particularly difficult and have no real patience with academic poetry that despises the amateur, the simple, the common word in the common place.

The game is elsewhere, in deeper jungles, in spaces transformed by human experience. Listen. I don't want to clever with you. I don't want to be mates with you either. Not in this space. I want us both to feel our strange aloneness in space, and observe how these words for a second flicker between us like lightning.I believe in the I-and-Thou of poetry, in the let's-cut-the-crap and listen with the core of our beings. Accept no substitutes.




27.06.08 : A ZIMBABWE NOTE: REDDY




From DSTPW. Follow link there. Thanks Will.




26.06.08 : PATIENCE AND PSYCHOSIS

Hay fever symptoms all but vanish. The rest of the time finishing external examination reading for Bath Spa then returning to the translation of a chapter of Miklos Vajda's memoir for The Hungarian Quarterly.

This is a task I chose to do because it is historicaly fascinating and because it is by a dear and valued friend who turns out to write like the angel I always suspected he was. Here he is watching his mother, who is an aristocratic woman, and his godmother, a beautiful actress, playing patience.

After supper she lays out the small cards in neat piles. She draws each one using the thumb and forefinger of her right hand with a slight snap as she pulls them from the pack in her left and turns her head a little as she searches the table to see where the rules allow her to place them. Another tiny snap as she lays the card down. She knows four or five varieties of patience, this being something she inherited from her mother, and each has a name though I can only remember Roxanne and the Greater or Lesser Olga – grandmother’s name. The long, red-nailed fingers move gracefully, elegantly, economically, fingers from my childhood, exactly the same, moving to a choreography much like that of eating. The fingers are quite different from my godmother’s, that other great player of patience. She would lay out the cards on a special half-size drawing board covered in blue canvas, usually while in a half seated position on the divan, her movements unlike my mother’s, with an elegance she had not inherited but cultivated, a little amused by her own self-consciousness, as if she were playing the whole game in inverted commas, not believing in it as my mother does, but carelessly, as mere amusement, playing in whatever fashion she chose to play, while talking, making telephone calls, someone giving her cue-lines as she learns a role and rehearses it, often simply messing around. It is as if she were playing some light-hearted fugue of many parts whose melody was a continuous sequence of divisions, expansions, and variations, the end playfully turning back on itself. She draws the cards with delicate hands, a look of curiosity on her face, the cluster of golden bangles quietly clinking on her wrist. She looks around, her eyebrows sail upwards, she ponders a little, then with a grimace of pleasure or resignation comments on her decision and gently, easily, lets the card fall, not worrying too much about where it lands. My mother, on the other hand, concentrates furiously when she plays. It matters to her: when I address her during a game she does not reply immediately but her hand hovers in the air, she looks up and takes a break. She feels it necessary to arrange the cards neatly in proper rows. I know a great deal depends on whether the game is concluded successfully or not. It sometimes happens, albeit very rarely, that she cheats a little, as she confesses with an embarrassed little smile when I wickedly question her. She is happy when the cards come out and, sometimes, seriously upset when they don’t. If ever I ask her what she is thinking of she usually just shakes her head and doesn’t answer. She won’t allow me a glimpse into her private world. I know that the game, in which strategy plays a small enough part, helps or does not help fulfil some secret longing. Now that secret longing is almost certainly something to do with me, or so I think. She wants not be retired when she reaches sixty. It’s not impossible that she keeps quiet because she regards it as somehow childish, this activity; childish that she should risk all her secret, most important hopes on a game, though of course she does believe in luck. She is a touch superstitious and believes in the kind of providence that may be influenced by the commission of good deeds to offer rewards in this world out of a sense of fairness or patience, much as I myself once did until my seminary education, complete with a mass of spiritual devotions and doubts, resulted in turning me into a Roman Catholic atheist.

They both live through the Stalinist fifties and she is imprisoned on a trumped up charge after which she emigrates to the USA where he, now a convinced Marxist, goes to visit her. The passage above is in long retrospect.

One watches or overhears the oddities of other people. The other day, returning from Newcastle, a couple of off-duty policemen - or so it turned out - got on the train and began a conversation. As ever, one was loud and did most of the talking, the other sniggered and added comments as and when opportunity arose. I was reading and only slowly cottoned on to them because they were discussing traffic accidents, particularly tragic or grisly ones. They seemed to enjoy them. In two separate incidents, it seemed, all the occupants of the car had died, including two young women. There was no shock or sadness in the voice of the loud one, nor any embarrassment at talking of this in public. Death was part of the excitement of the job, it seemed. Death down quiet country roads. A bit of a lark. The conversation remained bizarre throughout. Two ghouls relaxing after a good day's work. Two psychotic cops in rural Norfolk.




25.06.08 : POSED / UNPOSED: NEVERTHELESS

Hay fever hits me like a sack / ton of bricks / bag of cement / rhino with constipation. Similes are like strawberries in this respect: pick your own. Anyway it hits me. Hard. It was worse twenty years ago. It happens more rarely now that I am older. Nevertheless it's bad. This is how it works. You wake streaming and hot. You move to sneezing, you develop a lightning headache, you grow even hotter. Your eyes smart. You drip and groan.

Nevertheless I go off to the university for the MA interim exam board, or rather am taken by C in case I crash the car on the way. Once in the room I feel better. Meeting lasts hour and a half, about an hour longer than I imagined it would.

Then home and lunch, waiting for a ring from Jemimah Kuhfeld, photographer, who wants to come and take some photos of self for a collection of poets' portraits. Hay fever doesn't bring the best out of me, nor does it improve my admittedly low photogenic potential, so I inwardly wish it all another day. Wishing in such circumstances is not effective. It remains - it remained - this day.

So I drive to Anthony and Ann Thwaite's place about five miles off to pick Jemimah up there, she having spent an hour so photographing them. Nice girl. It turns out she had won first prize in a poetry competition I had judged some ten or more years ago. We talk comfortably in the car (no hay fever symptoms) then, on arriving, I make her a cup of tea just as C is arriving back from the shops. After that Jemimah gets busy, posting me here and there. I am wearing red socks. We have turqoise walls. I am a Chagallian figure in Chagallian surroundings. She wants to show me wearing red socks. She wants to show the turquoise walls. She photographs my socks.

It is not the most natural thing in the world to pose as though you were not posing. You have to have belief to be able to do it and, frankly, I lack belief. Nevertheless, I do my best to radiate calm, self-possession, lack of vanity, benign philosophical indifference, and general ineffability, none of which do I actually feel, but hope to look as though I were feeling. Dammit, I am a poet. I am allowed to look weird. Like an elderly barrow boy. Maybe I do. Maybe I don't. Maybe I will never know.

Nevertheless, it is soon over. I drive Jemimah to Norwich railway station and we talk about India.

Home again.

After some work and supper we settle down to watch Germany play Turkey. By this time I have quite fallen in love with Turkey and they remain fit objects of my affection, all the more so for losing in the most unnecessary fashion.

Come on Russia! Come on Spain!

Jemimah Kuhfeld's photos are here. (No, I am not the blonde babe on the right.) The poets here.




24.06.08 : BACK FROM...

As TA said to me yesterday: You always seem to be back from somewhere. Today's back from is from Newcastle where I was external examiner for a PhD viva, a cool four and a quarter hours train journey, which is two hours less than I first thought it might be but still useful for reading. Doctorate subject: creativity and the body. Messrs Bill Herbert and Sean O'Brien resident in corridor. All goes well, with very nice internal examiner (it always sounds a bit surgical put that way), who is a proper scholar like wot I ain't. On way out of university pass St James's Park in the taxi. Newcastle United FC. It looks quite smart. I ask the driver if he has been in there much. He hasn't. Not much worth looking at recently.

I am being asked to do various lectures. One is at Liverpool University, the Kenneth Allott for November, and now three at Newcastle, a set of three in a week in spring. It's the Bloodaxe series that finishes up in a book. Having talked about pre- and post-1989 writing in Eastern Europe over lunch that might provide a starting point. I think history might be the main issue for me. Big Time Clio's low budget movies. My only concern is that I am always a bit shy of blabbing at universities, not having gone to one myself. Art college doesn't really count.

I haven't written much about politics recently. Not that political life has come to an end, just that it is the same old same old. What is there to say about Zimbabwe that I and many others haven't said before or are saying now? Does it need me to say Mugabe is a monster? Do I think we should do X or Y? I don't know. If I think of something even half-way witty, wise or original to say, I will say it.

I did however finish reading Eva Hoffman's Illuminations, a properly substantial novel of ideas, in fact so many ideas - and mostly political - that I found it riveting. On one level it is about a concert pianist, but really it is about the conflict between those who in Yeats's 'The Second Coming', possess "passionate intensity" and those who "lack all conviction", the worst people being of the former class, the best people of the latter. Except in this case the latter class are not at all the best. They are smug, meaning-lite western ironists. The book asks how far classical Romantic music is fed by the same passions as political fanaticism.

Much more to say on this, but I will first say it to Eva herself. Tomorrow for that.




23.06.08 : TERRIFYINGLY SMUG

The Guardian, as ever, squeezing dishwater out of the rags of the English language. Kevin McCarra this time.

It is terrifyingly smug to assume that Spain would be beaten purely because Italy had won every previous competitive match between the countries since losing the very first, at the 1920 Olympics.

I try to fathom the possible meanings of terrifyingly and smug but it is utterly impossible, except as mood music. Look, it screams, what exciting material you are reading! You can have terror (a nice loud emotion) and smugness (the chief vice in the sportswriters' theology)!

In the meantime I ask who is smug? Is superstition a form of smugness? Is precedent a sign of smugness? Where does the concept of smugness come into this at all? (Answer: nowhere).

And what is terrifying about this nonsense statement? Only that the nonsense is faintly shocking from a supposedly intelligent newspaper.

Otherwise, I am surprised to find myself supporting Russia and Turkey in all this, though I have a horrible feeling it will go to Germany because, well, it generally does. I feel terrifyingly smug about this conjecture. Beware the terror of my smugness!

I'd be quite happy with Spain, but on the whole I would prefer the Russkis. And Arshavin at OT.




22.06.08 : SUNDAY NIGHT IS...

..seeing how we have been Germanic recently, it is Brecht and Weill, Mack the Knife from the film of the Dreigroschenoper, 1931.



And also as the Finale



Flesh creeping, stirring and always new. Also always new, these lyrics for the finale from somewhere near the bottom of the rusty bucket of truth.

Tom and Dick fish muddy waters,
Wish each other quickly dead.
Yet in the end around the table
They both share the poor man's bread.

Therefore some live in the darkness
And others live in light.
We see those who live in brightness
But those in darkness are lost to sight.


I have had Lotte Lenya and Ute Lemper in this spot but finally settled on these.




22.06.08 : BUG


Geoff Dyer at Norwich Castle. June 2008

As some may have read in The Observer I played a game of ping pong with Geoff Dyer whose account of the game is brief and brutal. He ran it by me first and I said: Go ahead, but I don't want to be standing too near you when it comes to the great cull of the elderly, infirm and degenerate (degenerate = entartete in German). I realised as I was typing just now, by the way, that I had written inform instead of infirm, which is a nice accidental piece of irony since clearly being not in form was part of the equation.

What Geoff actually says is this:

With all this intellectual exertion, it's good to get some physical exercise. I play ping-pong with George Szirtes, the poet. I win. I'm not boasting. I'm telling the simple truth. He lost and I won. Convincingly, mercilessly. To be frank, I don't just beat him, I crush him like a bug.

All I say is that we Eastern Europeans are perfectly used to being bugs. If it's good enough for Kafka, it's good enough for me.

The truth for the genocidally competitive out there is that Geoff is fit and plays sport regularly. My practice is playing Geoff Dyer once a year. He also has nine years on me. It is possible, of course, that he may actually be better at ping-pong, though the final score in terms of games was 2-6, and I was 2-1 up. Some really nice rallies too, long spectacular jobs. But it's true. I did lose, generally to 16 or 17 (we were playing to old 21 rules). I blame my varicose veins, the old ticker, and severe astygmatism.

And the bat. Mustn't forget the bat. Useless **** bat!

I have begun to see Geoff as the German in the Citroen adverts, fighting a duel then pulling up in front of the Brandenburg Gate to the sound of The Ride of the Valkyries.




21.06.08 : COMMEMORATION

Today, the commemoration service for Bill, C's father. People from near and far. Win, C's mother begins by reading from Romans, then a series of tributes along with three hymns, two piano duets from our children T and H, the first a delicate piece by Bizet, then, rousingly, a gallop through Arndt's Nola, a piece Bill loved to play as a duet, getting ever faster, ever madder, as in the second part of this old clip, which is indeed harshly clipped at the end.



The enigmatic, the delicate, the absurd, the sacred and the guffawing. This for him. And I read two poems both written for him in his lifetime, birthday gifts, cards, one more Bizet, one more Nola.

This, the Bizet:

Blackbird

An old song this, how the blackbird rolls
that damp ball of whistle round his throat
so it comes out clean on white scrolls
of invisible music, a banner afloat
on thin seas of noise, like the text of an annunciation.

Bring forth, it says, and my soul doth magnify…
and holiness and righteousness…
for every creature that lives shall die
and yet remain, nor ever grow less

in the throat of the blackbird, in each and every variation.

And this equivalent of Nola, full of puns on Bill, for the absurdist, pun-lover in him. Not poetry. Verse. Pick the Bill's out it.

The Great Bill of 1992

The Bill is due, the Bill is here,
the Bill comes this time every year.
In spring the Budget, the Bill in May
when everyone has Bills to pay.
In Bilious blasts spring chickens thrill
and birds in thousands coo and Bill;
umBilical, the knots are tied
in churches between groom and bride;
the Billionth Bride precedes a file
of bridesmaids Billowing down the aisle.
In Billericay builders build;
in Oz the Billabong is filled
with Billet-doux and Billycans
discarded by disheartened fans
of Billie (ie Holiday) who
sang love Bilked and Feeling Blue.
The Bildungsroman blossoms forth
in books of the Teutonic North;
that bloodbound parasitic worm
Bilharzia begins to squirm
or cussedly to self-destruct
by flirting with the Bile-duct.
Billposters post, flyposters fly,
their Billboards blank and bored and dry.
DeBilitated by small beer
the Bilingsgate crew disappear.
Now Bilberries begin to peer
(with hey the doxy, and such gear),
and Thespians in robes and tights
demand a Thespian Bill of Rights.
I too might, were I of that bent,
adopt such an haBiliment,
but fear to seem a Billy-goat
and therefore end upon this Note.

Much loved, much admired man.



20.06.08 : AFTER NATURE: CONCLUSION

The last morning was led by Gwyneth Lewis. It was intended to be, and so it served, as a kind of summing up, a bringing together of themes through another theme. Much as I enjoyed and appreciated the other speakers this was the one I immediately felt was close to my heart. Erin Soros, a very good Canadian writer, who is currently a fellow at the university, suggested afterwards that it was a gentle speech. I did not think it was, or that, if it had a gentler air, it was because it it did not rush from dramatic proposition to dramatic proposition. It was, for me and for others too, I think, more a matter of understanding, discrimination, fine distinctions combined with a good no-nonsense toughness.

Again, I refer to Bournemouth Runner for a good summing up of the contents. The chief virtue of it for me was that, in talking to writers, it addressed writing. It began from language and the possible relationships of language to nature. There was in the speech an intense care and attention to detail, to the honesties and obligations of language to register life, without spectacular heroics, without an accompanying orchestra of doom. The orchestra was not accompaniment to the language: the orchestra was in the language. And though this figure of speech is mine not hers, it was that music I heard.

Life, in poems, it said, or so I heard, was not a matter of warring binaries: not nature versus man, not evil versus good, not modern versus pre-modern. Such oppositions are of course necessary in the world of practical thought. Either one falls to the ground in stepping off a thirteenth floor balcony or one does not. It is not matter of nuanced opinion. But literature, and poetry in particular, is not primarily concerned with opting for the alternative but with what it is like to be facing alternatives. And that is important because, as human beings, we experience life as both subject and object. Literature reports on that experience. Poetry is the moment explaining itself as moment. As full moment.

The sentence above is just language of course. Itself a moment. But unless we shape moments into language we get a dangerously restricted sense of our lives as phenomena. This is not aesthetics: it is a form of deep honesty, a kind a properness in our relationship to world and to life-as-mind-and-body. And we know this. We all know it. Knowing it is as natural to us as singing.

So what GL said moved me. It was a kind of love the talk conjured in me. And relief too. It was like being presented with a landscape one could actually walk in, hearing the sparrow in the garden with the same astonishment as watching the Northern Lights.

And that, possibly, is what took me back to Richard Mabey too. Listening to nature, I eventually understood from him, was not an obligation, a corrective, a rebuke: one listened because it was moving. He was, he said, moved by the sound of nightingale, and all the more moved the more he could hear it in all its complexity.

So, to my surprise, I returned to him, the only speaker to make a practical suggestion to writers, a difficult but not impossible suggestion about the minds of marshes and mountains. Because, as GL pointed out, that precisely is the business of poetry, or at least part of poetry, along with listening to human cries and to the movements of the sea of history. It is what Elizabeth Bishop hears in that marvellous poem I have put up here before, a good while ago now, 'At the Fishhouses', that ends:

I have seen it over and over, the same sea, the same,
slightly, indifferently swinging above the stones,
icily free above the stones,
above the stones and then the world.
If you should dip your hand in,
your wrist would ache immediately,
your bones would begin to ache and your hand would burn
as if the water were a transmutation of fire
that feeds on stones and burns with a dark gray flame.
If you tasted it, it would first taste bitter,
then briny, then surely burn your tongue.
It is like what we imagine knowledge to be:
dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free,
drawn from the cold hard mouth
of the world, derived from the rocky breasts
forever, flowing and drawn, and since
our knowledge is historical, flowing, and flown.

*

And in the evening more readings ending with John Coetzee to a packed audience, talking about censorship, citing letters and reading from The Life and Times of Michael K and Waiting for The Barbarians. The words clear, dry and clear as the whitest of bones, somehow unremitting. Human bones. But as you read the flesh goes on, assembles itself, into body and spirit.




20.06.08 : AFTER NATURE 2: AN EVENING READING

GD read a splendid piece about visiting Walter de Maria's The Lightning Field. Like much of GD's writing it is an enquiry into the ineffable or mind-blowing in human, often comically human, terms. I am a great admirer of GD's writing and intelligence. My only hesitation about entering GD's world, except as a visitor, is that it has assumptions about the world I cannot quite share on a visceral level. Furthermore, I think AZ and VG might feel the same.

In GD's world the individual leaves a limited stable base to seek intimations of grandeur in a pioneering spirit. In 'our world', that is to say Adam's and Vesna's and my own, there is no limited stable base, and intimations of grandeur are associated with all too present earthly powers. That is history.

GD escapes class, escapes academe, escapes genre boldly to go forth. We have only just escaped the goers forth, we are, and seem forever to have been trying to, come forth. GD is from the, fortunately somewhat ironical, world of Neil Armstrong, we are of the world of Svejk, survivors serving in the wrong army. It is the comedy that keeps GD human and entertaining and admirable and amenable for me: it is the English in his American.

GE offers another tradition altogether. GD goes to The Lightning Field, marvels at it, but sees no lightning. GE has twice been struck by lightning. She travels alone, she journeys across the ice, she falls through. She has done so much. She is a mariner. In her adventures she reminds me of Rutger Hauer's replicant in Blade Runner and the much quoted speech that begins: I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser gate. If there were sizes of T-shirts saying Been there, Done that she would require an enormous t-shirt, saying Struck by lightning. Twice..

But she is clearly not a replicant or a cruiser of Venusian valleys. She is small and cuddly and benign, a little maternal and rather modest. And that is inspiring. Though I am inspired by a kind of inspiration I don't quite know what to do with. And this is odd. For it is the Arctic she speaks about. Like her, I would prefer to have the world end in ice rather than fire, so the melting of the ice is clearly convincing as disaster, quite apart from the lives of the Inuit.

But, mutters the oddity in me, the Inuit, are, after all, mortals like ourselves, who are born, flourish and vanish, not just as individuals but as people, as peoples have done since the beginning of time (that is if time ever properly began except for us humans). My sympathy stirs for the Inuit much as it stirs for any other vanishing tribe, and this being the end of the Liverpool Street-Norwich line, that tribe may well be ourselves.

And there's the even odder rub. I do not feel a dreadful vacancy at the thought of the disappearance of our particular species. I love people, am of the human race, would not wish harm on most of it, but am not to be frightened by death, that is to say by species death, any more than I am of the death of those I love, whose lives I can enter readily through the imagination.

It was Sir Walter A Raleigh, the 19th century professor, not the Elizabethan swashbuckler, who wrote:

I wish I loved the Human Race;
I wish I loved its silly face;
I wish I liked the way it walks;
I wish I liked the way it talks;
And when I’m introduced to one,
I wish I thought "What Jolly Fun!"

Well, I thought when I first came across that, and do excuse the language, I know what you mean Sir Walt, and you're damn witty and all, but all the same: fuck you. Fuck you good and proper, you contemptible snob..

I am of the human race myself and do not feel like putting such a distance between it and myself. The distance does not exist. My body is human, my language is human, my habitation human. I have a certain species loyalty. I hope to cash the loyalty card in at the bank of language and much may it be worth, and it if turns out not to be worth much I shall be disappointed but not devastated. It will still have been worth doing.

And my Svejk world with its horrors and laughter, with its odd, faintly elegiac sense of falling off the world of power, is an interesting sub-species of the whole. Never mind trekking across the ice: we have spent generations just trying to scramble onto it in our minds.




20.06.08 : AFTER NATURE 1

As may be imagined it was sheer copiousness, readings and conversations into the night that have got in the way of these notes. I now want to catch up a bit, aware that other people are or will be blogging the conference, particularly Bournemouth Runner and Alison Croggon (for The Guardian here).

The symposiums fill the morning, some three hours or so of a couple of initial addresses by the invited writers, followed by discussion. Then there are the 5pm readings at the Millennial Library, and the 8pm readings at either the Sainsbury Centre or, as last night, in the big Lecture Theatre. I tried to be present at as much as possible, considering I still had university work, and hadn't completely recovered from Romania, with more travelling and engagements to come.

*

I was probably unfair to the first session which was led by, let us name them, Gretel Ehrlich and Richard Mabey. I had actually missed the keynote discussion on the Monday night in which the determining mood was Doomsday. As a leading environmental scientist apparently put it, if we imagine the life of the planet as a train journey from Liverpool Street to Norwich we are at Norwich. End of line. End of story. Despair follows. That's all, folks. Good night.

And that seemed to me the tone of GE's and RM's talks in different ways. Both assumed apocalypse and even if we rejected, as GE did, the biblical notion of the Fall - for why, after all, should we be stuck with western religious patterns when we are talking about the world? - the language kept slipping into biblical paradigms, as I have already described, with the pressing, if implied, antithesis: man (especially modern western man) bad; nature (and pre-modern, non-western, man) good.

Where I was unfair was in extracting the core from the fully dressed body of the discourse. This is a habit of mine for good or bad. My ear is attuned to particular notes as, I saw, were the ears of fellow Central Europeans, Adam Zagajewski and Vesna Goldsworthy. Extracting what seem to us essential notes, may not mean objectively extracting the essential. I might come back to why the Central Europeans respond as they do.

The next morning it was Adam Thorpe and C K Williams. I missed most of AT's as I had to be about university business, catching only the last fifteen minutes or so of it, but I understood it returned to religious ideas of apocalyptic panic and evil. But in this view it is the scientists themselves (the priests of our day, says AT) who constitute the evil (evil was the word used). They create the poison then strive to sell us the antidote.

CKW began with one of his poems. The poem concerned a group of prisoners who are jealous of a man who lived in freedom with nature. The man however tells them that nature is violence, red in tooth and claw, before modulating to hope. Bournemouth Runner (see above) gives a very good rundown of what CKW covered including the discussion of Paleolithic cave paintings and Cormac McCarthy, but what I particularly remember was the note he ended on which was Beauty: the sense of beauty.

I asked CKW what he thought the beauty did. Was it consolation? If the train is going to crash at Norwich should we console ourselves with memories of the beauty of Manningtree? with the beauties of the station and the buffers? No, he was quite clear, it was not about consolation. But we never did get to the bottom of the beauty sense, or even into what we conceive of as beauty. Beauty is too big, to difficult a question to make a side-dish. Does beauty therefore have a moral force? The Nazis loved Schubert and Wagner. Alex in The Clockwork Orange commits violence, hearing Beethoven. Beauty may not be morally improving. Perhaps it is simply capable of ennobling us, pointing to states we might glimpse or aspire to without achieving them.

AT was more for direct action. Writers should employ their cultural visibility to draw attention, to protest, specifically against the pharmaceutical industry for a start. Once again AZ and VG shrink back a little, as do I.

In the early evening readings by two Portuguese speaking African writers Mia Couto and José Agualousa, both a breath of fresh air. Funny, magical, confident. Then Geoff Dyer and Gretel Ehrlich.

Continued in next post.




18.06.08 : LAKES

Late back in the rain. Morning debates led by Adam Thorpe and C K Williams. Three clear parties seem to emerge in the writers. The Anglo-Americans, the Central Europeans and the Asians. All tell different stories, all move from different landscapes of anxiety or desire. I'll reflect on this tomorrow sometime or pretty soon.

In the afternoon a whole series of readings, culminating with Geoff Dyer and Gretel Ehrlich. Then supper table with C.K., Adam Zagajewski, Alison Croggon and Tishani Doshi. Messrs Dyer and Thorpe join later. Just reeling off their names, as W H Auden said of lakes, is ever so comfy. John Coetzee at next table. I think we all feel a little in awe of him. (I do, anyway.)

Stories of elsewhere. Then sleep and nature call.




17.06.08 : NATURA NATURANS

Or 'nature naturing', getting on with what it does so well, earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic explosions, cataclysmic storms, forest fires, landslides, multiple rape by normal looking ducks and so forth. That's when it's in a bad mood. It is probably just pathetic fallacy, nature looking at humans and putting them in a bad mood.

Well, no, but, on the other hand. Two speeches today, the first by arctic traveller. Cataclysmic change. The ice drastically thinner. Inuit livelihoods and lives lost. That is the report. Under it the theology of the fall, which goes like this:

Once upon a time, a long time ago, everyone was indigenous. No one moved around much and all was well with the earth. Then some tribes turned nasty and greedy and non-indigenous, losing contact with nature and wrecking the planet. At some stage this latter non-indigenous group, a bunch of colonialists (white people, Europeans and Americans) fell from grace and started down the path to destruction.

I ask about the theology. When did the nasties become the nasties? When was the fall? Was it at the beginning of modernity? Which was when? Was it at the time of the industrial revolution in the eighteenth century? Was it at the birth of capitalism, that is to say sometime in the 17th century, say in Amsterdam? Was it the Enlightenment? Was it the Renaissance? Was it perhaps Christianity? When people first began to build cities?

The Arctic can be tough, we are told. You have (I quote) to shit on the ice sometimes. OK. So was it at the point when some vile colonialist capitalist scum declared, I am fed up of shitting on the ice, I will call that nice Polish plumber? Was it this that upset the balance of nature?

I do not doubt - I am in no position to doubt - the experience of those who measure the effects of climate change. I am not obliged either to doubt or believe it. I am however obliged - if there is a half-way decent chance of human-caused climate-change being true - to act upon it. When the fire alarm goes off it is generally better to vacate the building. But I am uncertain about the theology.

For theology it is. There is distinctly a fall. The word 'sin' slips by. Greed is a vice. Greed invites punishment and is getting it. There is a clear moral element and a clear falling off the standards maintained by the indigenous and noble who live in harmony with nature.

Theology unresolved.

The second piece argues from a more local but less indigenously rooted position. It argues that we should change our language about nature. Rather than imposing false metaphorical frameworks on its apparently passive body, making nature the object of our subjectivity, we should try to write as though we were speaking for nature, as nature's amanuensis (the word used). Let us try writing as if we were the mountain or the marsh. We should write as if to articulate the concerns of the barn owl and cut the specious anthropocentric comparisons. Let us move towards biocentrism.

This is an interesting suggestion but it raises the question of how one goes about voicing for that which has no language, or rather for that whose 'language' is not constructed out of our grammars and syntaxes. In any case, there is some suspicion of the argument that human history, the discourse of human relationships, is to be abandoned. Some point to the Nazi recourse to blood and forest, and their identification with nature (those Jews were so unnatural they had to be stamped out). The absoluteness and authoritarianism of those who would be checking the correctness of biocentric discourse - because, it is impressed on us, anthropocentricism follows on racism and sexism. The language needs to be purged by the purgers.

Still, it is fascinating and possible in some sense to be taking on the mask of a natural object, as if one were a kind of genius loci. Maybe that's what is involved.

Excellent readings in the evening by Adam Zagajewski, Gwyneth Lewis and C.K. Williams. Occasional bits of nature to be found there.




16.06.08 : NATURE, THE NOBLE SAVAGE AND I

New Writing Worlds begins at the UEA. This is half-festival, half-conference. I am sometimes associated with it but less so this time as the subject is nature and I am not known for my writings on the subject.

In fact I feel a little uneasy at mentions of the great N word. It is nearly always employed as an antithesis to whatever is human, and more often than not, it is represented as the Great Good Thing, humans being the Great Bad Thing.

Corollary to this is the supposition that the closer we are to nature the better we are. The more primitive our life the better. It is Rousseau's Noble Savage (NS) on a return visit. Except it's not the NS himself but a European with several plane tickets, on a world jaunt, preaching a European version of it.

We had this on Sunday. Young traveller gets depressed so goes off on jaunt to every corner where noble savages are to be found. Everywhere she finds a shaman, some mind-blowing drug and Peace, man. Once, you see, there was just this really cool Eden, where there was no headhunting, no cannibalism, no human sacrifice, no despoliation, no murder, just this really cool balance with nature where no one suffered from depression. Because it was Wild, man. The music was cool, the drugs were cool, the shaman was cool, the weather was - well, cool enough for the NS in his natural habitat - and all was brightness and primordial bliss. Because nature is essentially nice and wild and the NS is constantly in touch with it.

So NS was happy in primordial bliss until the Europeans arrived with their vile, depressing, death-bearing Mozart and Schubert, their Botticelli and Shakespeare, not to forget their guns and germs. The germs killed the noble savages; the missionaries tortured them and made them wear bowler hats before selling them down the river; and as for the guns, just don't ask!

Of course I prefer grass to concrete and trees to missiles. On the other hand I like a great deal that civilisation - meaning specifically European civilisation - has produced in the way of science, technology, art , philosophy and law without feeling bound to worship it. In fact I enjoy the luxury of feeling a little ironical about it.

And, being of the vile sort, I cannot see the great moral benefit of worshipping natural forces or anything that doesn't wear shoes. There is no irony whatsoever in that.

We are not separate from nature. We are of it, whatever it is, and have both nurtured it and exploited it. Much, as I imagine, the NS has done, albeit in a more limited way. I suppose I am simply not a believer in primordial bliss.




15.06.08 : SUNDAY NIGHT IS...

Tom Lehrer's Masochism Tango .



A darker Flanders and Swann. People who like words more than music. Music as wit.

Oh, and while on music, let me link to this lovely post, where Gadgie has two Janis Ians. Two in terms of time, that is.




15.06.08 : ROMANIAN RETROSPECT 4

When I first read Christopher's poem I wasn't sure who we were, how far the poem was the voice of an outsider or an insider. The detachment and authority of it - Audenesque, elegant, graceful yet apparently relaxed - spoke a mindset I did not identify as Romanian. I heard it as the poet's normal voice, that is to say not as one of a possible set of dramatis personae. But as the poem moves on, particularly from about half way down, it becomes increasingly clear that it is a citizen of Romania speaking. That is clearer because the language too changes, becomes more direct. The references to recent political history are reported more nakedly. The playful tone of the beginning, almost more Brodsky than Auden - "The man in the blue bathrobe, he is ours,/ blabbering, twisted like an ampersand" - requires a certain distance. By the end that tone has gone. The distance has vanished.

It is a fascinating development in the poem as poem. Christopher spent an entire year in Romania. I wonder whether it is the oddity of the experience - of being constrained to be part of the fabric, albeit for a fixed period, rather than, as I have been, a startled and fascinated visitor - that is being enacted in the poem.

There is a notion here - somewhere between the poem and the reader - of history as infection. We catch history as we might a set of powerful germs. Romania's history is of a severe sickness survived. The period is not forgotten. Even if mind should forget, body does not. Or rather, if that is too Cartesian a distinction, consciousness might forget but the nervous system does not. The dreams persist, physical and psychological habits remain like nervous tics, the object of fear has gone but the experience of fear continues to circulate throughout the body politic. Body politic: a phrase Christopher uses and one I myself used in a poem called 'Romanian Brown', a product of my first literary visit to the country ("... fingertips of neighbouring literatures / touch across the corpse of the body politic.")

Because it is the history in the body one feels in Romania. The body politic truly is composed of bodies, is experienced bodily as a body. It is a kind of jarring detected more by the senses than the intellect.




15.06.08 : DAVID DAVIS

We live in surreal times. Apparently 57% of the Labour voting public support Davis's action in protesting against 42-day detention whereas 70% of Tory supporters do. Can this really mean that 43% of Labour supporters are in favour of 42-day detention?

No, it means Davis is a Tory and that matters more than whether 42-day detention is or is not desirable. So you get Alan Watkins in The Independent telling us that Davies is a ridiculous man acting out of pique.

The anxiety not to let Tories have credit for anything strategically useful means one has to discredit the person and, if need be, the cause. It is the age of appearances after all. The fact that Davis is breaking Tory ranks is of secondary importance. He remains a Tory. His actions therefore can have no value.

Personally, I do not care for Mr Davis. I do not vote Tory. I see no possibility of voting Tory in the future. History is against it for me and, in any case, the Tory understanding of society is not my understanding of society. It is not the society I believe in. That is why I don't vote Tory. It's very simple. But does it now mean that the kind of society I believe in approves of 42-days detention rather more than does the society Davis believes in? That now Davis is against it the cause itself must be ridiculous ?

Should I be voting for André Breton next time round? At least he's dead.




14.06.08 : ROMANIAN RETROSPECT 3: A POEM BY CHRISTOPHER BAKKEN
Some Things Along Strada C. Rosetti


Far too quiet last night out on the street.
Dreams of police. Today we hog four chairs
in a café off Revolution Square,
where solitude and expensive coffee
agitate our collective memory.

The man in the blue bathrobe, he is ours,
blabbering, twisted like an ampersand
on his perch between bank and bar: one hand
on his cane, the other held out for beer.
He hasn’t had a shave in nineteen years.

We claim the palaces and museums,
the royal portraits on the Atheneum,
but blame the stray dogs and immigrant scum
on the old regime, whose blank bravado
still hardens all the faces in the Metro.

This week the diplomats and presidents
will affirm Europe’s doctrine in the East;
the yellow stars of the Union will increase
another star or two, new flags to cover
the old murals, the sickles and hammers.

Still, some things along Strada C. Rosetti
blur more than they clarify: budding trees
compete with wide Ottoman balconies
for the right to make shade. Light, meanwhile,
stagnates in a satellite dish. All style

is sacrificed to communication,
all music to the traffic’s cloying hiss.
The beautiful civil servant knows this,
since she works with facts, and yet her high heels
and headphones imply there’s something she feels

we all feel—we want to hear ourselves think,
we want to rise above the uniform
sidewalk blocks. The old cobblestones were torn
up years ago, along with the mansions
and monasteries. The old city was done

being old, we were informed. Not that we asked.
Those who were shot have had twenty years
to make peace with the silence they silenced here,
even if the dictator failed to confess.
His concrete horizon’s left to remind us

what it takes to scare the mind out of a man.
We want to see ourselves too. The police
block every street today, but they are our police.
Neither gypsy dogs nor glue-sniffing teens
can take that from us. We know it means

something now to sit and read a book,
to read something true. Yes, we want to be
seen, but don’t want to be watched—this, the relief
of a generation who couldn’t say, but knew
the National Library belonged to them too.

There are five real newspapers to read now
and a sign across the street can advertise
LEGAL TRANSLATIONS, but it’s still not wise
to have speech handled by professionals.
Better now to just shut up, pay the bill,

join the amateur rabble on the street,
or claim our place along the balustrade.
Just outside, the uniformed riot squad
is shoring up its bulletproof phalanx.
The anarchists will refuse to break ranks,

will affirm their faith in all disorder.
Yes, we’ve had disorder here. On this square
in fact, here on display, the souvenir
of a body politic that has a soul:
our library, still pocked with bullet holes.


Christopher Bakken
Bucharest, 2008


Some remarks by me in another post.





13.06.08 : ROMANIAN RETROSPECT 2

Received a poem about Romania from American poet, Christopher Bakken, who has just finished his Fulbright year in Romania. I have asked his permission to print it here. It is a fine, elegant and troubled poem that picks up some of the same tremors as my own poems about the country have registered.

What is numinous about Romania, what glows and radiates, is its peculiar condition of being suspended between modernity and the Dark Ages. In patches it even hits at post-modernity without ever having properly passed through its predecessor. It is the disjoint, disjunct, the blurring of certainty. Places that are wholly coherent don't carry quite the same charge. There are cities of modernity, cities of incipient post-modernity. There are ancient cities, well-preserved medieval cities, late imperial constructions of golden avenues and deep, somnolent boulevards. Bucharest, however, is an earnest of the Romania beyond it. It bruises and lurches in the same way.

The bruising is there in the speeches. Mostly they are too long, too keen to touch the right buttons, drop the right names. Look, they say. We have read Foucault, Kristeva, Irigaray, Derrida and Zizek. Our intellect comprehends them. But it's an intellect that is always looking over its shoulders as if in fear of the evil eye, seeing a sinister shape in the forest of discourse. And every so often it swells to a ponderous grandeur. It rages and boasts. Both past and future are daunting so it puts on a display.

I am trying to understand it. I would like to comprehend that mixture of the ferociously correct and the corruptly louche. The mutter, the drawl, the scowl and the fear, the jokes, the odd bruising, rusty metal of it. Undoubtedly it is intriguing and intrigue is part of poetry, its incipience, its not quite saying but singing. The sheer Balkan throb of it.

It is chiefly Romanian patriarchy I am talking about. The matriarchy is less abrupt, less anxious, less long-winded, somehow more at home in the world. Part coven, part harem, part mystical sisterhood, it seems to me stronger and more tolerant than its male counterpart. They make me feel very welcome. I sometimes think it is my tendency to relaxed courtesy they find amenable. Possibly, they recognise some of the forces, the more romantic forces, driving my poems. I am, in some ways, one of them, not of the patriarchy.

I realise I am forcing the language a little here. It is striving too much, almost pretentious. Stray thoughts. Can't help striving.




12.06.08 : ROMANIAN RETROSPECT 1

This was my fifth visit to Romania, the first having been in 1993, a non-literary visit, including a very long train ride from Budapest to meet and stay with my never-before-met cousin, Feri (or Francisc, as he was obliged to be known), a recently widowed man of the same age as my own father. He had somehow escaped the fate of the rest of the family, none of whom had survived the war.

A kindly and, understandibly, melancholy man, he lived in Cluj or Kolozsvár or Clausenburg, the Romanian, Hungarian and German names for the city that was now resoundingly, ear-splittingly Romanian. The train ride had been on the filthiest train we had ever ridden in Europe. The toilets didn't work, had no doors, and there was no water. The seats were grubby. I wrote about the journey in a poem called 'Passenger'. Arriving at the border we were held up for hours and the one black man on the train was taken off and eventually returned. The station at Cluj was dingy and smelled strongly of piss. Francisc (I shall continue to use the official Romanian names) was waiting. He found a taxi but told us that he would not be speaking Hungarian in it as it was not safe.

The city was dirty and demoralised: the shops were empty, the public transport rusty and patched with miscellaneous blobs of paint. There were piles of rubbish in the street. I had never seen so many crippled people. This was more than three years after the toppling of The Great Conducator. The city was run by a furiously nationalist mayor called Funar who tried to obliterate any memory of Hungarian presence and power. Again, most of this is written up in the poem 'Transylvana' where Francisc acts as our Dantean Virgil (Virgil being a not uncommon Romanian name, in any case). The sad little details accumulated and within two days I was depressed, irritable, wanting out. I did not blame the Romanian people for any of this. They were clearly suffering. Pity and sadness and fury were mixed in my mind. It was very tiring.

After that, from 1997 onwards I returned four times as a writer. Each time the country had healed itself a little more. The Romanian writers, particularly the women, were mostly warm, outgoing, intelligent, passionate and generous, with a sense of fun. There were others, chiefly men, who were morose, uncommunicative, pushy, possibly crooked and oppressive. Such men were, however, a minority. You find such qualities everywhere but not in such clear contrast and relief as in Romania.

I made good, lasting friendships. The writers and translators and organisers - again particularly the women - also had a more than residual religious attitude to life, almost all of them being Orthodox rather than Catholic. Their religion was mixed with elements of magic and superstition, a blend that sat piquantly with their intelligence and gift for writing. They were the embodiment of a certain poetic state of being, living metaphor. At the same time, the world in which they worked and to which they responded, while no longer crushed by authoritarianism, still seemed to me to comprise elements of fear, corruption and obsessive bureaucracy. It was as if the TGC hadn't entirely vanished but still lived in the nervous system. The state was a recovering alcoholic. It still stank of stale wine.

The smell lingers even now, but grows a little less heavy with each passing year. Some of my fellow writers had a very keen nose for that faintly sinister smell. OK, I argued, but you mustn't judge the place by where you come from: you must judge it by where it has been. For me that is 1993: for Romanians the worst of the Ceausescu years after 1972.

And that puts me in mind of the word 'feral' that I applied to Bucharest yesterday. Both our cats are rescue cats. Little Lily must have had some terrifying experiences in early kittenhood. She still shrinks from the hand that would stroke her. I think she will lose this in time, but for now she continues jumpy and shifty eyed. She had a feral beginning: is still part feral. But how beautiful she is. How lithe, how delicate. How much, in other words, a proper cat.

Bad treatment creates its own dependency. Bad wine and bad leaders enter the blood and you cannot quite flush them out of there, not for years. Beggar on foot, as Yeats has it, becomes beggar on horseback lashing beggar on foot. So beggars continue until there is no beggary.




11.06.08 : BACK FROM ROMANIA

Pretty exhausted on roughly four hours sleep a night, so more tomorrow. Lots of catching up to do.

Pictures of Bucharest follow. It didn't snow and I didn't take the photos. But they get something of the feeling of the place. When grand, overwhelming, overloaded, late empire, almost oppressive, faintly Hammer Horror. Outside, vast desolate squares, wide roads, then narrow spaces and low-grade Stalinist high rises. A feral city.










09.06.08 : QUESTIONS AT CONFERENCE

Today's colloquium had more coherence and better presentations. Hungary was well represented in this. Attila Bartis read a short piece about writing and solitude, in which he imagined waking up in the morning and finding there was no more literature. Not only that but all memory of previous literature had also been eaten away by some virus in the mind. Would the world be any different? he asked, and answered, No, it would probably go on in exactly the same way. The shops would open, the banks would carry on working, people would carry on living and dying.

And this gave him hope, he said, because that has always been the situation from the very beginning, and yet literature has survived.

I liked this argument because while I am not sure if people's sense of occasion - love, commitment, sickness, birth, death - would be quite the same without a past that had embodied it in language, it admits the zero option and turns it on its head. Going from there, life can proceed without too much abstract anxiety.

Another interesting presentation was by Peter Esterházy. He talked about the Holocaust and how the chief question was Where. He proceeded to tell us of a visit he paid with his family to Auschwitz and how his daughter, who was very fond of old 'uncle' Imre Kertész, looked at the pictures of what had happened there and wanted to go. He ended by pointing out the dangers of forgetting and of loss of understanding./ In language that is - in literature.

The question that struck me is an ancient one that cannot quite be answered. It was this: Suffering happens. We ascertain where and record it as documentary as a first step. In time, as the victims and witnesses die off, the document changes, slowly, to fiction - to art. But when it turns to art it becomes one of many fictions, or, as Peter Porter put it in one of his best poems, "hurt fades to classic pain". Its immediacy fades, its power to electrify and shock turns to form. After a while people begin to say: That is a terrible story, but it is just another story. Maybe then, they continue, it is not true. It is not a happening but a form.

Esterhazy made a good answer, saying that events in themselves were dumb and had no voice. Literature is what offers voice.

Yes, good answer, but almost too good. I found myself thinking that one of the greatest human virtues is doubt, and that nothing that has not been through the crucible of doubt is worth much. That somehow literature has to struggle and be nourished by its own skepsis

Bartis's point in a way. To know that saying and forming is nothing, but then to say and form.




09.06.08 : BRIEF FROM NEPTUN

Big prize giving last night: Orhan Pamuk receives the Ovidius Prize and Irina Denezhkina the Festival Prize, the one I won last year which comes complete with a handsome sum. Earlier, I found a table tennis table and was beaten, consistently, by Piotr Sommer who is very good. Peter Esterhazy arrived yesterday - rather surprisingly we had never met properly or talked, so this time we did. Spent time talking to Druze Israeli poet Naim Araidi: he in despair of the world and in contempt of US (no culture, nothing but profit, all shallow, all vulgar). I defend American culture pointing to Whitman, Dickinson, Stevens, Eliot etc. He npoints to Hollywood - vacuous trash, he says. I like him. He is a good man but there's no persuading him.

This is just chat. Now for breakfast.




08.06.08 : NEPTUN 2

After the readings, drinks at the Writers Union, the bar TV showing the Portugal-Turkey match. Long conversations and a late night, about 12.30 followed by middling sleep then, after breakfast, the first part of the conference proper. Subject: The Future of Literature: The Literature of the Future.

The keynote of any literary conference anywhere is despair, with its concomitant states of depression, anxiety and a certain Stoical panic. This is obligatory. We are the last people on earth who understand the true meaning of value, after us the deluge. As I noted last night, my intention was contrarian: I chipped in with a bit of cheer and kept the speech as concrete and defined as I could. This may be dull, bone-headed English empiricism but it seemed not entirely unwelcome. I rather suspect it is simply human. Smile a bit as you are talking, is good advice.

Writers talking to writers about writing should be imagined as a variation on Degas' L'Absinthe. "We've gone to the dogs, old girl." "Never mind Alphonse, drink up, you pig."

Off to play table tennis against Piotr Sommer. I reckon he'll beat the living daylights out of me. He looks fit, for a start.




07.06.08 : NEPTUN 1

It's about four hours by bus from Bucharest down to the Black Sea. Neptun is one of a series of resorts near Constanta and Mangalia, where the conference part happens. On the way down I sat with Japanese poet, Yasuhiro Yatsumoto, distinctly a good guy,who lives in Germany and has done for a while. I asked him compendious questions about Japan, about politics and poetry and way of life. If he had stayed in Japan, he said, he would probably not be a poet because the white-collar work ethic dictates you work 12-14 hours a day in the office. Suicide rate is very high as is death from work and stress-related illness. Most of the women have children then work part-time. They count up their husbands' working hours so that if the husband should drop dead - which would be an economic disaster - they could present the hours to a tribunal in hope of damages. Only one poetry publishing house in Japan now - average sales 500. Everyone reads manga. Corporatism and competition and children driven to education within an inch of their lives.

I read tonight, and as the winner of last year's Festival Prize, read first. Same place: a big wide room opening onto a garden with peacocks. The closer it got to dusk the more the peacocks cried and screamed, often in unison. Unscheduled, the minister for culture appeared - a famous composer - and proceeded to read five times as many poems than anyone else. Only relief, the interruptions by the massed choir of peacocks. Depression and embarrassment, unnoticed by minister. Some habits die hard. Some very good readings otherwise. Cameras, TV, recording: the strange twilight life of international poetry.

I have to make a speech too tomorrow in which I have set myself to sound an optimistic note about the future of literature. I guessed that everyone would be riding the fast train to doom. One title listed is: What Frigging Future. Ach, mannerismus. I shall strive to spread sunshine and joy for the sheer frigging contrariness of it. My corpse will be fished out of the deeply depressed Black Sea the next day.




06.06.08 : BRIEF FROM BUCHAREST

Sun and heat. There is something feral about Bucharest. When it is grandly imperial it is drunk on its grandeur: it sways and billows, dresses itself in frills, frogging, epaulettes and petticoats, crowns and bowlers and big big boots. It positively cross-dresses. But the poor and the hasty keep breaking in. They spread between the palaces like weeds along a military highway, camp followers of a vast shambolic camp. The heart aches and drowsy numbness follows. Meanwhile the actual roads are almost eight carriages wide, the public spaces are big enough to accommodate the most popular hangings and conflagrations. Ferenc Karinthy's city in METROPOLE must be modelled on Bucharest. Centuries of poverty then the big blow out, the whole chaotic, unplanned, disorientating. Pathos and tragedy.

Ioana I. took a couple of us for a quick tour of the inner city soon after arrival. Though I have been through Bucharest at least four times this is the first time I have actually been given a tour. It is distinctly not a humanist city.

Tomorrow to Neptun. One of those spells where I lose the world, almost entering a trance. Shrug and go. Shrug and speak.

Irish writer friends to arrive.




05.06.08 : BILL'S OBITUARY
&sr
My obituary for Clarissa's father, Bill, appears in today's Independent, here. One could write a book about him, but then he has written it himself. And a rather good book it is too. Gorgeous in parts.

In mad rush with commitments. Ten minutes ago finished draft of review, also for the Indy, of Marcus Tanner's The Raven King, about the compiling, then loss, of the Corvinian library, by the renaissance ruler, King Matthias (Mátyás, if you are Hungarian).

Now to write a short speech for Romania on notions of the future in British poetry. We have had a few of those.

*

Listening in the car yesterday to Barack Obama's speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee - the very heart of 'Zionist Neo-con conspiracy'. Fascinating to hear him coming on so strong for Israel. We know he is good with rhetoric, the powerful three-shot reiterations and emphases, the pace, the diction established along the line between realpolitik and appeal to idealism. Fascinating appeal at the end for a coming together African-American and Jewish interest. Fascinating, the heavy, almost bellicose hammering of Iran and the assumption that pulling out of Iraq is the springboard to pressurising Iran with the same military action. Not sure how that would work.

A distinctly presidential speech though, quite JFK-ish. And there's the magic. I wonder how his statement of intense commitment to Israel will be received by those who would back Obama but not Israel. A poser for them.




04.06.08 : BACK LATE - AGAIN

Cambridge this time, visiting my Italian translator, poet GN at Girton College. That's after a morning at university catching up and completing things. Slept an hour or so in the afternoon.

G gave us a tour of Girton estate. I had been there before, twice, but hadn't had a full look. Rabbits everywhere. Cows. Calves. Roses. Cedars. Orchards. Tennis Courts. Picnics. Amphitheatre int he garden. Cricket pitches smooth as billiard tables. The Fellows' garden. Paradise gardens. All of it paradise.

Privilege? What else? Lucky students. They'll go off next year to earn £60k in the city working terrible hours, said G.

Ah, the Rupert Brookes of high finance. More tomorrow.




03.06.08 : BRIEFS, SHORTS AND OTHER REVEALING ITEMS OF CLOTHING

No, not really, just late jottings, having returned from the local BBC studios to record The Arts Show for Irish radio (RTE Radio 1), or rather take part in a live discussion with Aengus Woods over in New York about Max Sebald's work. Met Aengus at Dun Laoghaire, delightful young Irish writer and scholar. Odd to be talking with him through the show's presenter, Sean Rocks.

This sort of link-up means sitting in a tiny room about the size of cupboard with big cans round your ears for about an hour then talking for some fifteen-twenty minutes into a microphone. Aengus talked about The Rings of Saturn and generally, I about Austerlitz and generally. Lovely conversation, could have gone on for hours. Aengus read the beginning of Chapter 3 in The Rings of..., where Sebald leaves Lowestoft, I read from the section where Uncle Alphonso takes Austerlitz to look at the moths on a moonless night.

I was reading Austerlitz on the train back from Haslemere and my eyes filled with tears. Embarassing when sitting opposite someone. It seemed to me the book was inexhaustible.

*

I loved the West Dean visit though I am mightily tired now. It's not my practice to talk about institutional visits in detail. I am aware I am impinging on the private lives of people but the session this morning that should have lasted two hours went on, very pleasantly, for three. Talking in such circumstances is exciting and I don't feel tired at all. The essential theme - though it carried on growing branches in various directions - was what we are doing as artists, whether we have a social function, how we survive in institutions or become institutions. There is a long essay to be written about this. Not now, when my eyes are drooping.

*

The morning session at the advertising agency on Monday was only partly about technique and device, partly, of course, it was about the ways writing might have designs on us. We recorded ten times more material than will be usable, and I found myself arguing that it is not poetry's business to be caring about popularity or sales, that it has to remain disinterested if it is to be worth anything. Of course I want to sell books, but I don't want to write because I want to sell books. An advertising agency has to sell something, however subtly. That's the difference. Poetry is not for selling anything. Its task is to give you a sense of things as they appear to exist through language. That is its redeeming, political function. It keeps language - the unfixed, variable, perishable stuff on which we depend - fresh, clean, usable.

*

On the last leg of the train journey back, at the far end of the carriage, a young man with a very loud voice is chatting up schoolgirls. I wonder if he is being a nuisance to them. He sounds faintly like Kenneth Williams on turpentine. At least I make you laugh, he insists. And it's true. They laugh. A lot. Once he has established his laughableness he can yap away to his heart's content and even allow them to interject a sentence or two, their words full of giggles. Of course, we all have to listen. The voice, the manner, seem faintly sinister to me.

*

On the way down, a railway farce. I am supposed to go from Victoria to Chichester. The electronic board says take the first four carriages for Portsmouth (hence Chichester), the rear four go to Bognor Regis. The train divides at Horsham. Which is front? Which is back? Which end of the train? It turns out the carriages at the back of the outward route, that is to say those nearest the buffers, constitute the front for the purposes of the announcement. Odd that. Even odder, there aren't eight carriages. And, by the way, the last thing the electronic sign said was the whole train was going to Bognor. That was only in the very last minute as we set off towards the train. No Portsmouth. Well, bugger Bognor as - was it George V? - was supposed to have said on his deathbed. Man on platform says: Yes, we have lost four coaches, change at Horsham.. Careless to lose four coaches, I think. Especially my coaches. Inside the signs and the automatic voice repeat what the man has just said, but then the conductor comes round and says: Ignore that. Change at Barnham.

The train starts and the voice we are supposed to ignore carries on repeating the ignorable message. At every station (it is a stopping train), those who get on do not know the whole gory TRUTH, but the conductor does not correct the false impression being given by the automatic voice that repeats its information every ten minutes or so. Everywhere around me the elderly are getting confused. Then the conductor returns and says, Change at Horsham after all. A train will be waiting for you. The rest of the train goes on to Bognor. Well, yes, we assumed we were on the Bognor train.

Then, just before Horsham she's on the tannoy again. Change of plan. People for Portsmouth (hence Chichester) stay on. Bognor passengers change. The train will be there waiting for you. So suddenly Bognor people are pouring off the train where there isn't actually a train waiting for them. We arrive at Chichester 15 minutes late.

After the talk E and I are driven to supper at R and W's, half an hour away, the house they themselves designed and built overlooking one of the many harbours. Calm. Birdsong. The late sky full of light.

*

As concerns UCU, I follow these links. This one and this one.




03.06.08 : JUST BACK FROM X AND Y AND Z, ABOUT TO GO TO Q

Away last night at West Dean doing a reading-cum-talk on relationship between writing and visual art. On the way down stop for a BBC radio programme at the advertising company BBO, to discuss similarities / differences between advertising slogans or jungles and poems, with Matt Harvey as presenter. This morning a long and wonderful seminar with the students at West Dean, and in an hour an half's time to the BBC locally to do link up with Irish radio on the subject of W.G.Sebald. Tomorrow to Cambridge. Thursday to London, Friday to Romania.

It gets a little tiring at times.

More later.




01.06.08 : SUNDAY NIGHT IS...

Márta Sebestyén and Muzsikás (more information here.) 'Azt gondoltam esõ esik...' (I thought it was raining but it was the tears in my eyes...) No movie, just stills. Note the one of the men scything, all smoking pipes.



Sebestyén sang on The English Patient. Have seen her perform - with Julian Joseph! - and met her, briefly... The political role of Muzsikás's music in 1980s Hungary was considerable. The young were listening to it, and dancing to it. It was a melancholy-optimistic kind of statement about place and belonging before the change of system and the fractures since. This is what we are, where we come from said the music. We belong together. Actually most of them came from Budapest, as did Sebestyén herself.

It was difficult to tell how far this aspect of the underground opposition was primarily concerned with the fate of Hungarians in Romanian Transylvania, how far it longed for the old pre-Versailles Hungary which included Transylvania, or how far it was an assertion of independence from Soviet occupation and domination I don't think it had a malign bone in its body in any case.

We spent most of the year in Budapest in 1989 and used to hear this music from the school opposite where the kids were dancing. Next Friday I myself will be in Romania for a few days.




31.05.08 : REZNIKOFF 1

Charles Reznikoff, poet of the Objectivist school, used transcripts of trials at Nuremberg, and of the Eichmann trial. As Janet Sutherland points out in her essay at the back of the Black Sparrow edition of Reznikoff's Holocaust

Reznikoff is interested only in the primary sources: statements made by witnesses and, to a lesser extent, affidavits and certain official war documents presented by trial lawyers... Reznikoff edits his source material so skillfully that the reader of Holocaust never is aware that the words on the page are drawn from courtroom transcripts.

She goes on to compare one of the poems with the text it quotes. Reznikoff, she says, uses them "without alteration in his poem."

Enough. I only refer to the post here, particularly the comments quoted from a website called Lenin's Tomb, to which you can follow the link if you like. It is because of such comments that I provide bits of Reznikoff's book. This from the part titled 'Ghettoes'.

2.
An old man carrying pieces of wood to burn
from a house that had been torn down:
there had been no order against this -
and it was cold.
An S.S. commander saw him
and asked where he had taken the wood,
and the old man answered from a house that had been torn down.
But the commander drew his pistol,
put it against the old man's throat
and shot him.

6.
Three o'clock one afternoon
about fifty Jews were in a bunker.
Someone pushed in the sack at the opening
and they heard a voice:
"Come out!
Otherwise we'll throw in a grenade."
The S.S. men and the German police with rods in their hands
were ready
and began beating those who had been in the bunker.
Those who had the strength
lined up as ordered
and were taken to a square in a single file to be shot.
At the last moment
a group of other S.S. men came and asked what was going on.
One of those who was ready to shoot answered:
they had pulled the Jews out of a bunker
and were about to shoot them as ordered.
The commander of the second group then said,
"These are fat Jews.
All of them good for soap."
And so they took the Jews to a transport train
which had not yet left for a death camp -
Russian freight cars without steps -
and they had to lift each other into the cars.

The Jews in question, one should know, were starving. Some had the swollen bodies of those who starve. But it's dull by now, surely. Exaggerated. Sentimental propaganda, you say.

Bruno Schultz was shot much like this. My father's father and all my mother's side, bar her, disappeared into such wagons. And this, you tell me, is everyday life in Gaza.

I really don't want to cite long passages of Reznikoff, just one or two of the milder passages, later. I mean, after all, you know all this already. Why should I repeat it? Why should anyone repeat it? What are they after?

I don't know what I am after. I only know this is not dead knowledge. Indeed, I am aware of sufferings and hardships in Palestine as in other places. I am aware the incidents above are only an atom of a million cruelties on earth, it just seems a little too recent for it to be balanced out by false accounting. It's only three years before I was born, after all. But it is this - such acts as Reznikoff recounts - that Israel is accused of. Israel's existence is claimed to be the equivalent of Nazi Germany. It was Tom Paulin who referred to the IDF as the Israeli S.S.




30.05.08 : SATC MEETS AVRAM GRANT

In Peter Bradshaw's Guardian review of when Carrie met Harry and Barry and Larry. Can't resist.

This is a movie so unbelievably girly, whirly and twirly that, on leaving the cinema, I felt like reading three Andy McNabs back to back, just to get my testosterone back up to metrosexual level...It tells of their laughter, their tears, their breakups, their bonding, and yet again their tears. As I left the auditorium, the overwhelmingly female crowd were eagerly saying to each other things like: "I was crying for Carrie ..." "Oh no, I was crying for Samantha ..." "I was crying for Charlotte ..." They interrupted their conversations and looked over at me, concerned, as I leant against the wall, bit deeply into my SATC-promotional Galaxy chocolate bar and, empowered by the film's emotional literacy, found that for the first time I was able to weep for Avram Grant.

Now drop the others and let this man write the football reports for The Guardian. Thank you LG, albeit inadvertently, I imagine.




30.05.08 : ENERGY



I cannot think of more energy compacted into such a small, thin body. It is the body of an artist in his seventies. Like all older people - and I must remember that I am due to become one myself - he is shrinking, but as he shrinks the energy becomes more transparent, more viral. It is, I suspect, partly a sexual energy. It often is with men, that is if energy remains at all. It is in the eyes and the movements of the body. My guess, not based entirely on physical observation and hunch, is that though he is married, he has flirted with and bedded a number of women. Blake said what men wanted in woman were the lineaments of gratified desire. It was also, he suggested, what women required in men.

It may be so. But how complex if so, since the nature of desire is to be intermittently gratified, or not entirely gratified, or not gratified at all, if only because once it was gratified it would no longer be desire. It would be gratification. I don't think this is entirely a language game. I suspect everyone knows what Blake meant.

Complex or not, I think this man comes close to Blake's imagined figure. Nelson guiding Leviathan. He is constantly planning, making, playing with form. He responds with his guts, but the guts are sly. They have learned. He also cuts deals. He loses friends then re-makes them.

His eyes are on a gentle slant, like Chagall's. He has suffered and people around him have suffered. He is ill now, as I am looking at him, but he does not look ill. He looks like a fully charged battery. He is working with a young woman, an attractive, lively young artist. My guess is that she enjoys working with him. It may - may it not? - be good to know that one is desired by someone even at that age. Which age he does not look, except a little in his skin, but never in the eyes or in the movement. I measure him up. I like him. I warm myself by his energy. He makes me feel good as I set out in the rain.




30.05.08 : FEEL GOOD FACTOR (1)

There is no need for a rational debate. There is no need to discuss detail. Some things just happen because the atmosphere is right for them to happen. You just know, positively know, something is so because everyone feels good about saying it is so, because to say and feel so when everyone else says it is so, is to feel good. By 'you' here I don't mean whoever happens to be reading this. I mean just anyone.

My instinct is always the opposite, to the degree that I must occasionally ask myself whether this contrarianism - because that, I guess, is what the instinct is - is based on any more than an automatic response. Maybe no more than a fear of mobs. That line in Simone Weil, that Seamus Heaney quoted and which I myself have often used because I recognised some important part of myself in it: Obedience to the force of gravity: the greatest sin is the key. Maybe there is poetry in gravity, but it is the contrarian in me that is the poet. I shall never be Poet Laureate with an instinct like that. No finger on the pulse.

But this is just to get something out of the way.

A few posts ago I wrote about the commercial value of 'feeling good about yourself'. It is a commercial value because it is the easiest consolation when you think you have little else. You feel good about yourself by having other people tell you they feel good about you.

This has been the case with the bandwagon against Israel. Let me reiterate: where Israel has done wrong it should be criticised in exactly the same way as any other state (supply your own list - come on, it's not difficult). I think it should withdraw to the 1967 border with a small militarily-strategic adjustment here and there. Some give and take. And it should do its best to help whatever the other state is. Providing the other state stops lobbing bombs into it. Geographically Israel is a tiny island with a vulnerable body in a huge and hostile sea. Its memory is seared by the sort of experience you will find turned into narrative poetry by Reznikoff. To compare Israel's behaviour to anything, just anything, in the witness files at Nuremberg, is plain obscenity. I would like to repeat the word: obscenity. To show what I mean I'll put it bits of Reznikoff in the next few days, and you can give me instances of the IDF doing similar things. Deal?

But no-one wants to think about that now. That stuff? they think. It's been done to death. It's just a lever that that obnoxious country with its obnoxious citizens are pulling so they can go about their obnoxious business. Holocaust Day is Blackmail Day, the ultimate victimisation scam. Concentration camp guards? Journalists doorstepping Ken Livingstone. Massacres, tortures and death camps? Chapman Brothers.

No, maybe it doesn't go exactly like that most of the time. In order to feel safely good about yourself you can't go quite that far. Yet. But once you get a few people feeling good about themselves in thinking this, you too might start to feel good about yourself. That's how it works. You hardly realise it.

Part of you resents the sense of obligation anyway. It's as if you were guilty of something you had nothing to do with. Why should these people make you feel guilty? Only barbarians do the kind of things that are supposed to have happened then. You're not a barbarian. Why should you feel that you even possibly could be? Why should you be in any danger of feeling bad about yourself? That's if it happened. Or was it all fiction, a kind of post-modern paradigm? And the secret thought: Perhaps they had it coming to them anyway. Oppressors. Obnoxious people.

This, apropos the UCU motion, approved, about which read here, here and here.

I suspect it was less a political than a psychological vote. For the above reasons. More later.




29.05.08 : BACK LATE...

...from London, this time, to meet RK about the forthcoming Circle Press The Burning of the Books - our Elias Canetti project - then at Elaine Feinstein's Launch of The Russian Jerusalem, which I have reviewed for The Guardian - presumably to appear soon. Something on all this tomorrow. On train reading Sebald and Reznikoff.

The rain is of the wet variety. One drop and you're drowned. There are a great many drops. All falling at once.



28.05.08 : GUARDIAN FOOTBALL

If anyone wants to know what The Graun's football writing is like, take a deep breath and down you go.

Here

You may come up now. Long way down, wasn't it? Smug, pointless, lazy, cheesy, poncy and utterly utterly insufferable. Congratulations Barry Glendenning. First among equals.




28.05.08 : SHOULD NOT EXPECT

I remember the arguments around the time of Eysenck regarding IQ and race. Now The Plump picks up, via Will (linked within his post), an article on the BBC website about a certain Professor Charlton in Newcastle who thinks:

Working class people have lower IQs than those from wealthy backgrounds and should not expect to win places at top universities.

The post-war experience both here and in the old Soviet bloc countries was that working class people do very well, thank you, when given the opportunity and that class was not a matter of genetically transmitted stupidity but of health, money, time and low expectations.

The suggestion here is that the poor are poor because they are stupid and therefore deserve to stay just where they are.

It is not so much because it is morally disgusting, though it is, but because it is so blatantly untrue that my gorge rises at it. The first untruth is that IQ is the sole test of aptitude for study; the second, and more pernicious, is that you could make assumptions about the performance of an entire class at anything.

Some believe that the IQ test in itself has a class bias. In Eysenck's time it was suggested it had a racial bias. No doubt an IQ test measures something more than class or race, but no test by itself provides grounds for such vicious generalisations. I rarely feel like shooting anyone but this man comes close.




27.05.08 : TELLY NEWS

It rained all day yesterday and so it continued early this morning before tailing off into a vague, wispy greyness, the sky occasionally showing through cloud: scalp through old man's hair.

Slept badly the last two nights, waking early, unable to get back to sleep, crawling off to watch soporific television. I often wonder why we keep the television at all and it can only be because it is the most effective sleep-inducing facility in the house. Films? Get the DVD. Sport? Go to the pub or to a friend. News? Need you ask?

I am faintly aware of early morning telly news. The BBC news is, in effect, a children's programme, a kind of moronic Blue Peter for the prematurely middle aged. A middle-aged boyish man (Peter Purves) and a slightly younger woman with regular features (Valerie Singleton) smirk and make babyish jokes or look momentarily stern, their language pitched at the blandest local free-newspaper level. Terrors and banalities alternate: frown and smirk, frown and smirk. (John Craven had, I suspect, a far wider vocabulary and a better editorial sense. At least he was talking to real children.) I turn on the radio and my IQ immediately doubles. I can almost pass Key Stage 1.

I flick through the channels. Someone seems to have fixed everything at minimum attention-span level. People grin, wave their arms, bellow, look hearty or slinky or plain braindead; cameras swoop, dive, act neurotic; lights in the digital doll's house constantly dim and brighten as if to remind us that we are still alive in some form. I feel a certain horror vacui. God is dead and his corpse is stinking all over the screen.

This is not cheerful, fellas. Not cheerful.

How quiet it is outside now. Ten pm on a Tuesday evening. A lovely piece of writing before me that I am striving to translate. Some proofs to correct. University work to mark. The almost life-sized plaster bust on the windowsill gazes modestly down at her almost exposed right bosom. I love her face. How still it is.




26.05.08 : REVIEW OF METROPOLE

A nice review of my translation of Ferenc Karinthy's Metropole joins Jonathan Derbyshire's earlier one. It is here.





Interestingly - and wrongly - the reviewer assumes I chose the title. Gives me credit for it. Undeserved.




26.05.08 : DEMOCRATIYA AND HECHT'S SOFA

New Democratiya is here.

Ms Baroque continues on her elegant way here and here with me muscling in on behalf of Anthony Hecht's sofa. Note Hecht's stated preference (in my comment) for Right Said Fred's I'm Too Sexy*, as vouchsafed to me by Hecht himself in Bury St Edmund's some twenty years ago. What a lowbrow that Hecht was!

Why, he might even have written rubbish like this.
Said Avram Brown:
I hate to see a man done down,
Especially such a tender plant
As Gordon Grant.

Except he didn't. I did. So easy to get the two mixed up nowadays. Son of the manse: son of the mensch. But which is which?


* Must I do everything for you? Read and inwardly digest the following lyrics:
I'm too sexy for my love, too sexy for my love
Love's going to leave me

I'm too sexy for my shirt too sexy for my shirt
So sexy it hurts
And I'm too sexy for Milan too sexy for Milan
New York and Japan
And I'm too sexy for your party
Too sexy for your party
No way I'm disco dancing

I'm a model you know what I mean
And I do my little turn on the catwalk
Yeah on the catwalk on the catwalk yeah
I do my little turn on the catwalk

I'm too sexy for my car too sexy for my car
Too sexy by far
And I'm too sexy for my hat
Too sexy for my hat what do you think about that

I'm a model you know what I mean
And I do my little turn on the catwalk
Yeah on the catwalk on the catwalk yeah
I shake my little touche on the catwalk

I'm too sexy for my too sexy for my too sexy for my

Cos I'm a model you know what I mean
And I do my little turn on the catwalk
Yeah on the catwalk yeah on the catwalk yeah
I shake my little touche on the catwalk

I'm too sexy for my cat too sexy for my cat
Poor pussy poor pussy cat
I'm too sexy for my love too sexy for my love
Loves going to leave me

And I'm too sexy for this song
.

Pure Hecht!




25.05.08 : SUNDAY NIGHT IS...

The great Aretha with her girlie backing group of all shapes and sizes.



The Blues Brothers, naturally.

eg

Jake: How often does the train go by?
Elwood: So often that you won't even notice it.

or

Elwood: What kind of music do you usually have here?
Claire: Oh, we got both kinds. We got country *and* western.

or, alternatively,

Jake: The band... the band...
Reverend Cleophus James: DO YOU SEE THE LIGHT?
Jake: THE BAND!
Reverend Cleophus James: DO YOU SEE THE LIGHT?
Elwood: What light?
Reverend Cleophus James: HAVE YOU SEEEEN THE LIGHT?
Jake: YES! YES! JESUS H. TAP-DANCING CHRIST... I HAVE SEEN THE LIGHT!




24.05.08 : WANTED

West London football team needs manager. Could it be YOU?



Are you between thirty and fifty, suave, elegant, witty, mystical, rakish, sexy? Do you have charisma? A top tailor?



Is there a touch of the celebrity about you? Or any member of your family? Or circle of friends? Are you a stylish shoulder to cry on?



Have you ever played football? This could be the post for you. Send photo.




24.05.08 : BELFAST INTERNATIONAL

The airport that is. The reading last night was in an independent bookshop, No Alibis in Botanic Avenue. A proper independent with its own choice of books, and good for them. Long live independent bookshops with their posters, magazine, pictures, readings and love of the thing for itself.

The event was arranged by the Budapest-based, English-language literary magazine Pilvax t. Two editors, Aaron and Tom, both there, showing other Central European English-language lit mags, Tom reading a story too. The audience young and youngish. I think I was easily the oldest person in the room, but it was all pleasure and warmth. Conversations afterwards about writing and art and about Hungarian political mood.

Thence five of us to a nearby restaurant, some pizza and a long ornate conversation about language, innateness, ideas of beauty, the sublime etc, involving Stephen Pinker etc. Last people to leave. Thence to a bar filled by the assembled and very loud jeunesse of Belfast where, conversation proving impossible, I walked back to the hotel, where the receptionist was a poet (he had written some 250 poems, he told me, but none recently and was off to do a degree in theology, having converted from RC to Baptist) and where the dining room wall was a large purplish picture with the last four lines of Yeats's 'The Lake Isle of Innisfree'. I mentioned this to the morning receptionist and he saidthe only poet he ever studied in school was Seamus Heaney. To rephrase Sir Alex: Poetry! Bloody hell!

Home late this afternoon...




23.05.08 : TO BELFAST

To Belfast this morning for a reading at the No Alibis bookshop in the city centre tonight.

Whenever I think of Belfast I think not only of the Troubles but of our old radiogram in its wooden case with the round mesh-covered speaker, and the slow dim green light brightening as the set warmed. There, on clear plastic, were written the world's magical, mysterious names: Hilversum, Belfast, Luxemburg etc. Someone will remember more, and no doubt I could too, were this not written in a hurry.

One of the great adventures of childhood: turning the big knurled dial along the waveband and shifting the wire through the whistles and cracks and strange languages of the unknown. Shrill voices, impatient voices, voices speaking very fast, singers booming in and out of focus, orchestras playing marches and waltzes. Budapest, Belfast, Brussels... a dangerous exotic planet.




22.05.08 : MORE BIRD LORE

Our yard is a veritable Garden of Eden where the lion lies down with the lamb, or at least the cat lies down and looks at the bird. Today's guest-star bird was a juvenile Great Tit. One of these:





Just to check that it wasn't a Coal Tit, I Google-imaged: first, British Tits, then, Great Tit. With predictable results. It is somehow stirring to be among the British Tits.

I mean Elgarian.




22.05.08 : FITBA AND ART

At university yesterday talking through a transfer to PhD level with a brilliant young Canadian poet whom I had taught at MA. Long conversation about the thesis itself, well over time but fascinating, contentious, good spirited. Then a brief interview for a podcast on Creative Writing. C had spent the night with her mother and talking to pensions and insurance people in the morning. Exhausting for her. She drove back to pick me up. Then a quick Chinese take-away

That was because we had arranged to watch the final with friend M, recently separated from wife and daughter. He now lives in a flat in the next town and we had been meaning to call in for a while. A Manchester City supporter, he had promised no ridicule if we lost or played badly. It turned out to be a tense, exciting three-whisky match. Scotch rather than Irish.

I was reading the papers online this morning and came across a report on the match by Benedict Nightingale, normally the drama critic of The Times. Clearly, the idea was to get him to see the game as theatre. In the course of it, he says:

Football at its best, and here it was often at its best, is a blend of chess, ballet and war.

Yes, I do see that. Sport is, after all, dramatic in many respects. It can be balletic in that it demands grace, strength, imagination, speed of thought and movement; shading off, as we move to the war analogy, into military values of courage, endurance, determination, self- and group-discipline; and then, as regards chess, into decisions chiefly on the managerial side regarding formation, assessment of strengths and weaknesses, strategic thinking, adaptability, and appropriate boldness and caution.

I have never gone for the argument that art is about superior sensitive types who are all spirit and intellect whereas sport is about muddied oafs and flanelled fools, an altogether more primitive form of life. That seems to me like class contempt (occasionally, when it comes to the sweat, stink and competitiveness of it, gender contempt.) Speaking for my poetic self I'd sooner watch a middling football match than a middling play: I'd sooner listen to a Radio 5 football commentary, even with the preternaturally repulsive Alan Green, than be tied to a chair and forced to listen to most Radio 4 afternoon plays. Please God, not that! The middle class admiring its own sensitive belly-fluff.

The essential distinction between art and sport, I suggest, is that art is consciously about life, that is to say it is - however instinctive in mechanism - a form of reflection whereas sport is a symbolic acting of life. To put it very crudely, art is about the past, whereas sport is set in the present.

That is crude of course, since sport is eternally reminded of precedent, it's just that the actual action of it is not a reflection on that precedent: it is the unrepeatable unpredictable present, simply happening. Art too has its sense of happening as we see it, but it is essentially repeatable. You can produce the same performance, read the same poem or novel, look at the same picture, hear the same piece of music and it isn't like replaying a video, that is to say a mechanical repetition. Each repetition is live.

There is the paradox then. Art gives shape to what we have passed through and what we may therefore imagine passing through. Sport is a passage now, no time for reflection, no live repetition, only the filmed match, the action replay. That is why it leaves us a little breathless and inarticulate - and rightly so. The winner soars. The loser is shattered. As the great Sir Alex once said: Football. Bloody hell!

The match? Great engrossing stuff, very even, anybody's game. Cheer up Avram, I think you are a bit of a genius really.



21.05.08 : CHAMPIONS

And only just. A marvellous match and I actually felt sorry for Chelsea at the end. Neither side should complain or crow.

And the rain, and Ferguson's hair practically washed away, and Terry's utter misery.

Sometimes they really are beautiful games. Too late to say anything more now. Maybe tomorrow.




20.05.08 : GENUINE MOONBATTERY: IMPROVISATION AND MEANING

I received an email from a student in Syracuse, New York, who was asking about a particular poem of mine that appeared in Poetry.

This is the poem as printed in the magazine, along with the photograph to which it referred.

I post my reply, not so much because I am determined to become a public service accessing my glorious works, but because when I am asked questions it makes me think and, in doing so, something occurs to me, in this case about intention versus discovery and the demands of form. But first, the poem about which the student was asking.


Sudek: Tree

The visionary moment comes
just as it is raining, just as bombs
are falling, just as atoms

burst like a sneeze in a city park
and enter the dark
as if it were the waiting ark.

You open your hand and blow
the dust. You pick and throw
the stone. You make the round O

of your mouth perfect as light
and the tree bends and stands upright
in the stolid night.


And the reply:

There is little to say about the poem, except that I was attracted by the photograph - one of a long series Sudek made about the tree in his garden as seen through the glass of his shed, or something like a shed.

Because the tree looks luminous and faintly ominous too it struck me like something in a vision. It wasn't the meaning of the vision that interested me, not some kind of prophetic insight into the future - so much as that there existed this way of seeing a perfectly ordinary tree. Its existence in a world of big things (the bombs) and small things (the atoms) - both destructrve - conjured the miraculous aspect of life, the sense that all phenomena are extraordinary, in this case, the beautiful shimmering tree. Its darkness suggested death - not heavily, but just enough to suggest that we do not have forever. The dust that the 'you' (you being anyone at all) blows from his hand may remind people of Eliot's "I will show you fear in a handful of dust". I think I might have had some memory trace of Eliot as I was writing the line. But in my poem the figure blows the dust away. It acts by throwing the stone and preparing to make a sound. It asserts itself, if only by a contextless act and making the O shape with its mouth. Of course O is a cry of wonder, but, at the same time, the figure 0 means zero. In other words the sound has no importance other than that it exists, like the tree. And the fact that both exist is a kind of miracle.

It is, I suppose, despite the darkness, a 'glad to be alive' poem. I should stress that the paragraph above is not what I had in mind when I started writing. The paragraph is about what I discovered as meaning. It isn't THE meaning. You will notice that the poem is made up of four verses of three short lines each and that each stanza has three end rhymes. Once that process starts the writer is to some degree having to deal only with what it is possible to rhyme and fit into the short line: in other words one has to wait to see what comes up before writing the next thing. You can't figure it all out from the start then go ahead and write it. Sometimes it seems to me a kind of miracle in itself that language will push you into certain corners that lead to thoughts and feelings you would not have discovered otherwise. Discovered meanings are not intentions. Unlike intentions, discoveries are never complete. Writing poems is like bat flight: bats don't know exactly where they will fly when they set out. They operate by sonar. As we all do. Randall Jarrell had something about that in The Bat Poet.

I wish I still had the copy of Jarrell's lovely book. It may be that daughter H has it. It was, after all, a present for the children. Which one? That would go back some twenty five years or so.




19.05.08 : UNNATURAL

Following this story with a certain interest. I am rather suspicious of the cheap use of Frankenstein as a scare figure. I have always wanted a bolt through my neck but it's unlikely to become a fashion item now, and in any case I am too old for fashion items. It is the cry of Unnatural!!! I chiefly distrust. On that basis you can start throwing away everything that's in your house, empty out your medicine cupboard and start cultivating the hair on your chest for those cold winter mornings. We don't mess with nature? Yes, we do, and often for the better.

And there are a great many other human characteristics that seem 'natural' at one time and 'unnatural' another. Let's not even begin talking about sexual behaviour. Or gender roles generally (see Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn in the clip below.). 'Natural' is, in most cases, whatever you get used to. Granted, you get used to it, because it seems easy to do so: it comes 'naturally'. And then...


The Roman Catholic Church has branded the use of hybrid embryos as "monstrous" and says tinkering with life in this way is immoral.


It is always difficult conflating nature with morality. The accusation that something is 'unnatural' doesn't seem to me a sound basis for a criminal prosecution. We have been tinkering with life for an awfully long time. We have cross-bred animals and plants, we have married and bred for advantage, we have practised contraception, we have developed IVF... we have always shaped whatever nature has given us.

The question here must be who is being harmed for what reason? The hybrid embryo would be kept for up to fourteen days then destroyed. Nature destroys embryos considerably older than that in a miscarriage, never mind a natural disaster. The embryo might help an already living child survive. Anything can be abused. As ever, it is a case of laying down agreed guidelines and having an efficient supervisory body.

As to the Whatever next? argument, every wedge ever has had a thin end. It would not be wedge if it didn't. Wedges are what we use. It is rarely we kill ourselves or others with them.

Dull post? I agree, but then..

*

...talking of tinkering with nature, we try to give Lily a worming tablet. For her, this is deeply unnatural, so she does the natural thing and vomits it up. Tapeworm breathes easy.

And then the tendency of both cats to go into automatic behaviour once they see a bird beyond reach. The jaws begin to tremble and go clack, clack. They make a strange noise that is almost like barking. Very quiet barking. It looks and sounds uncatlike, unnatural.

Do cats have souls? If it is a matter of eyes, Pearl has deep soulful moments, gazing into our own. Lily has no soul. She has neuroses instead. It is perfectly natural to have a neurosis or two about one.




18.05.08 : SUNDAY EVENING IS...

Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant in Bringing up Baby. Bliss!!! The fastest and most risqué of screwball comedies, bending gender, Hepburn coming on like a force of nature... Nine minutes of immortality:





In moments of quiet I am strangely drawn towards you. But, well, there haven't been any quiet moments!

There are volumes to be written on this but I have no intention of writing them. A late white night when you can't sleep? Reach for that intercostal clavicle and you'll be just fine.




17.05.08 : RETOUCHING

Travelling back from Winchester yesterday I kept picking up discarded newspapers until I had worked my way through all the ex-broadsheets, and in one of them I found an article on a famous American retoucher of photographs on whom all the top fashion and movie star image producers call when they want to get rid of unwelcome buboes or blackheads on a model's otherwise flawless face.

It immediately reminded me of my own mother's work. After some time as a press photographer in Budapest (she had made her solo way to Budapest in 1940 at the age of sixteen to bcome an apprentice / assistant to the great documentary photographer Károly Escher) her heart condition restricted her to working in the studio and the lab, hand-colouring and retouching photographs. Sometimes, when she worked at home, I'd watch her with her delicate razors, her tiny sable brushes, and miniature tubes of photo-oil colour, slaving over the light-box.

The memory of this is so strong and poignant that I have written of it in poems and other pieces. In fact I possess a few hand-coloured photographs she made of my brother and I, our faces tinted to look like dolls or, as I later thought of them, as grave images, as if we had died and were being tidied up for public presentation. That wouldn't have struck her, of course, and I was a little ashamed when at some stage I began to regard them as vaguely macabre items. Barthes said all photographs were memento mori: these photographs were the proof.

What kind of presentation though? Naturally, the images existed in cultural context that could not have suggested death to her. The colours are a little Disney, of his Snow White period. I cannot now think of Snow White without the pathos of an era that has vanished into the same space as Pompeii or Ancient Egypt. Disney's Snow White was in fact her era.

Our hair is plastered down, our clothes very neat, we are posed in a studio. Everything about the picture assumes the fittingness of artifice, finding it healthy and even natural, more natural, perhaps, than nature itself. Yet Escher represented one of the high-points of lyrical documentary realism

Much to say about all this, sometime; the notion of documentary, the notion of truth - the sense of truth.




17.05.08 : NATURE NOTES FROM AN 11X6FT CONCRETED YARD

This morning in the yard, a pair of goldfinches. Like this.



Dangerous ground, sweethearts! Though remembering the hunting talent of our cats, welcome in, make yourselves at home.

Then, walking up to the station past the cemetery, a set of chaffinches. Like this:




Some people might be surprised I can tell a crow from a swan, but I spent hours in my youth testing my ornithologist / violinist brother on bird-recognition using various books. Some of it has rubbed off. But I don't have his paranormal powers: he can tell the song of a chiffchaff from the song of a chaffchiff at five miles, even before they have begun to sing!

Actually, isn't it a bit early (late?) for goldfinches?




16.05.08 : BACK FROM WINCHESTER

Another of those brief late notes. Travelling most of the day to Winchester, doing a reading and talk to the students, then travelling back on the rush hour trains, which are nevertheless interesting for the gallery of fellow passengers.

The reading? Lovely. It is vastly consoling to talk to a young audience, some fifty or sixty or maybe more of them, and sense contact. I sometimes wonder what on earth I have to say to those who have lived through circumstances so different from mine. But then that is the nature of circumstance: you can never tell what will survive. Sometimes you think: one roll of the tide and you will be washed away like the sandcastle left by the kids before they run off to tea. But then maybe there is a second roll of the tide and you are still there because something of what is left behind looks interesting enough to someone from another world, with whom all you have in common is your humanity.

It is nice to think that might be true. And sometimes it seems so. Not that you'd ever know. What is the balance between beach and sea? Dunno, shrugs the driftwood.

*

I pick up an Independent in the waiting room cafe at Cambridge. China. A child on a stretcher. Caption says she did not survive long after the picture was taken. One looks at the small strained, almost empty face. If there were enough pity in the world... but the world ticks on, the tides move. I am aware of the hollowness in my bones. That line in Browning's poem, 'A Toccata of Galuppi's', the one that begins Oh Galuppi, Baldassaro, this is very sad to find!.. and ends I feel chilly and grown old.




15.05.08 : WILD PLACES

Robert Macfarlane's Mountains of the Mind was a wonderful and substantial read, not because I am likely to be found up a mountain, clinging to a rock - like Auden in his Bucolics, I tend to think "Five minutes on even the nicest mountain / Is awfully long" (just feel the texture and avoirdupois of that "nicest" and "awfully"!) - but because the mountains within - in the mind, in the language - the meaning of mountains, if you like, is beautifully discussed and richly felt through by someone who is actually clinging on by his fingertips, and enjoying it.

The new book, The Wild Places sets out as an attempt at rebutting the declaration, from E.M. Forster in the first place, that there are no more wild places in England. I have not finished the book yet, having dipped here and there, so my thoughts are chiefly about what R said yesterday.

R read two passages from the book.

In the first, he is on a ridge in the Lake District, by some frozen water. He describes the scene, the sensation of being part of it, of being a tiny speck in the moonlight, while "star photons and moon photons and sun photons" are coming at him at 186,000 miles an hour.

In the second, he is walking along an ancient holloway or trackway in Dorset, holloways having, he says, "come to constitute a sunken labyrinth of wildness in the heart of arable England".

It struck me that, though some of the journeys in the book were undertaken with another man - his close friend, the late Roger Deakin - part of the power he experiences in nature - the sense of wildness itself - was a product of solitude, or if not always solitude, at least a distance from society; that beyond that, the elemental experience of the ridge was amplified through science, through knowledge of photons, the speed of light and so forth; and that while the holloway may have become a repository of wildness it was originally a product of human intervention.

In effect, neither experience was independent of human history, human context, nor was it possible - I guessed - for it to have been so independent since mind, as much as language itself, is historical, a product of context.

This has been a difficulty for me in considering environmental politics. Can we assume that the makers of the holloway had a 'good' attitude to nature while the producers of the urban 4x4 vehicle have a bad one? And say we agree that the latter is bad, may we therefore assume that the former were consciously doing what was 'best for the planet'?

Let's go further. The users of the holloway head off to markets. Around the markets grow towns. The towns become cities. People's minds meet in cities: they produce the telescope, invent vehicles and isolate photons. At what point should the whole shebang have stopped?

I suspect that history is driven as much by technology as by economics. Modes of production change things, but the issue of technology has a certain independence. This is not orthodox Marxism as I understand it, because it assumes a curiosity in human beings beyond immediate economic necessity or interest. It is the sheer for-the-hell-of-it aspect of things. Something becomes possible. We develop attitudes and languages to accommodate and 'naturalise' it. Research, knowledge, productions expand not just because people need to work and produce but because they are curious, restless, or simply bored.

None of this is to 'disagree' with an environmental agenda. The balance between human activity and the environment is always one of negotiation. A state can guide the nature of that negotiation. It can balance the need for controlling human activity with the necessity of encouraging it. I doubt whether it can do all the negotiating by itself without imposing unacceptable levels of authoritarianism, but it does have a long-term responsibility for the future of those it represents.

Personally, I am an urban-born creature, a product of second-nature, a toiler-would-be-flâneur; worse still I am one of Eliot's notoriously 'rootless cosmopolitans'. Notions of 'the land' always leave me like Auden on his mountain. My family has never possessed 'land'. Nor a 4x4 (I too loathe the monstrous me-first egomania of the things).

On the other hand, R's notion of wildness was something I could identify in my own life in so far as it was a microcosmic wildness. To put it another way, wildness was simply phenomena and attention directed to phenomena.

The sentimental-romantic aspect of environmentalism is an object of some suspicion to me. There is a touch of Wagner there, the part of Wagner I least trust, which is the identification of the heroic with the natural. Pretty soon I begin to see troops of health-and-efficiency fascists triumphantly marching up the crags of 'racial purity.'

What makes R's books not only beautiful and admirable but, for a temperament and history like mine - even more importantly - acceptable, is history and solitude and attention, the negotiation of the atom with the photon somewhere along a stretch of overgrown holloway.

These holloways [he says] are humbling, for they are landmarks that speak of habit rather than suddenness. Trodden by innumerable feet, cut by innumerable wheels, they are records of journeys to market, to worship, to sea.

Douglas Dunn, in a marvellous poem called 'Second-hand Clothes' (from his 1981 book, St Kilda's Parliament talks about spending time in such a shop, watching a girl as she "anoints a dress / With four silver coins", going on to other items such as a single " ... cufflink, scarves, or socks, / A glove, or soup-stained tie, / Or a large box of dust...' At the end of the poem he goes home, crawls, as he puts it, into his mouth and sits down. There, he falls into "a cloth sleep" and concludes:
There's nothing to be done
Save follow the lost shoes.

And there they go, down the long long holloway. I think we should follow.




15.05.08 : LISTENING TO ROBERT MACFARLANE

RF was the speaker at the UEA tonight, reading from The Wild Places. Some reflections on that tomorrow - wildness, intervention etc.

Too late now. It's midnight. The pumpkin has just turned up.




13.05.08 : IRENA SENDLER AND FEELING THROUGH LANGUAGE

The Telegraph obit shows a young girl, still chubby faced and slightly toothy, her eyes possibly astygmatic like my own, but charming in a faintly Teutonic way. In fact she was Polish and saved some 2,500 Jewish children in the Warsaw ghetto. She did so despite being tortured and sentenced to death. Having escaped, she did not lie low but went straight back to her work of rescue.

We contemplate acts of courage and wonder whether we would be capable of such things. I wonder about myself. I often doubt it, though there is always hope. Would I be endangering simply myself or those around me? And what would the stakes be? In what desperate circumstance would I be able to carry through the act of self-sacrifice? Perhaps the less I thought about it the better.

The most I have done, as far as I remember, was to carry a burning item down the stairs of a friend's highly inflammable house, the place garlanded with Christmas decorations. I didn't think twice about it, not did I consider it an act of courage. It just seemed necessary. But to have been burned and then go back in? That in effect was what Sendler did. It is right to remember her. I'm glad to do so here.

*

Yesterday lunchtime I was talking over a book with T. T is older than I am and has seen tragedy in his life and in those lives nearest to him. I myself have seen a little. We were talking about the way people respond to such events and I said something I have often thought. I recalled that at the worst of times I seemed to feel nothing. To some degree, I ventured, this might have been delayed reaction, often severely delayed:a fit of weeping and tremors years after.

Thinking about this further it was often as if some feeling had been exhausted in the imagination before the event that did or did not follow. Imagining what might happen would - and sometimes still does - fill me with fear and dread: when the event actually happened I was on another planet.

As T and I talked I wondered aloud whether it was that such events were too complex, too large to conjure in a single overwhelming emotion. I told him that most often I seemed only to begin to know what I felt once I was writing, discovering it in the process of writing as the words swam in and out of focus. Feeling had to enter language before becoming truly feeling. That this seemed almost monstrous to me but that it was undoubtedly the case. Perhaps, I wondered aloud, that is what being a writer is: discovering or exploring feeling within the medium of language from a stunned, almost exhausted and certainly over-imaginative base.

And then I remembered the line from Hamlet about conscience making cowards of us all, where the word 'conscience' might mean 'consciousness of what might happen': imagination in other words. Dread. So, for a writer, a poet at least, or let us say a certain kind of poet, dread is followed by numbness - numbness being the space in which one might or might not act - to be followed at some stage by language, the melting of that which is frozen into the otherworldly warmth of language. One carries the burning object down the stairs in a state of reasonable numbness. The fire in the language is kindled some time later.

Could it be so? Is that part of our function as poets, not to offer catharsis but a structure grief and dread and delight may briefly inhabit?

But Irena Sendler inhabited life and gave life to others.




13.05.08 : WATCHING LILY

I am watching her from my desk. She is up on our neighbour E's outside toilet roof. Her little silver and black body is at rest but her head is in constant motion. I suspect that is the feral cat in her. She is never relaxed, always twitchy, always turning round, especially when she is eating. The only time she is partly off-guard is when she sits in the empty bath. Then she begins to purr, and suffers being stroked and tickled. Her current vantage point on E's property comes up to the top of the brick-and-flint wall between us and next door.

This wall is too high - though not by much - for her to contemplate leaping from the top of it into next door's garden. One of our cats did once leap from our first floor window into E's garden but hurt her leg in the process and did not do it again. I can't quite see Lily doing that though she is in a state of continuous agitation. The birds skim fairly close to her and there is a nest in the nearby gutter. Now she is crouching, her big wide eyes utterly fixed, but her ears are swivelling. Now she is doing it again, head jerked one way then another, all electricity and instinct. And again. And again. She briefly directs her gaze into our yard. She must be frustrated.

Her left ear moves independently of her right as if conducting an orchestra through a particularly furious passage. Never let your left ear know what your right ear is doing. She is a great delight to look upon and study.




12.05.08 : PREPARING AN OBIT

Have started composing WSU's obituary for The Guardian, or that at least is the intention. They did agree in principle despite never having heard of him and probably not caring much about the lives of missionaries in China.

A review of WSU's book, A Prevailing Wind reflects on how he would spend his time roaring through Beijing on a motorbike, often with an American girl riding pillion and remarks how 'On the same bike, Upchurch drove at eighty miles per hour through a checkpoint manned by armed guards of a Chinese warlord, and "really enjoyed" the experience of being shot at; his pillion passenger did not share the enjoyment.'

WSU himself suspected that the Baptist Missionary Society regarded him as 'a picaresque rogue' given to extramural activities. He was certainly a daredevil and a dazzler. He was probably as much medical officer as missionary in the western wilds of China where he worked fifteen years.

He was both simple and complex, as complex as a man could be. The simple side was practical: getting good things done, preaching the Word, getting on with the job. The complex side was the intellectual wild-garden that was his mind. You could lead him from A to B in a discussion but never to C because there he would be, coming back at you from Q. It was as if a poetic imagination had colonised the head of a dashing, exotic , muscular and rather distant cousin of a provincial Lupin Pooter, moving from a world of idiosyncratic everyday Pooters to normal Chinese villagers and monsters and back again, becoming partly Richard Hannay in the process. You see? Complex.

An obituary could not begin to list his countless adventures, the comical, self-mocking sharpness of his observation, his towering but generous sense of self or his mischievous love of words.

The church does not get a good press now, and missionary activity is regarded as a branch of colonialism: getting the natives to wear bowler hats and sing Onward Christian Soldiers while, occasionally, being consumed by cannibals.

But missionary life - like all life - was much more complicated than that. Almost as complicated as WSU's theology, which was a mixture of socialism and saving souls. One very touching card we found after his death was from a young Chinese woman in a Luton church, who had written it to him in heaven after his death, in which she expresses her great love of him, almost as a bride, the whole thing written without a trace of self-consciousness.

Life is crazy, and more of it that we think, as MacNeice wrote. Incorrigibly plural. That will do, and more than do. Whatever WSU believed, I doubt whether I believe it, but I believed him as himself and all the contradictions he contained. Good for the contradictions, I say.




11.05.08 : SUNDAY NIGHT IS...

...The Incredible String Band. This was what being a hippy meant. I know one should never trust one, but then they write and sing something like this, a song I myself learned on guitar in my less than shining youth.





Don't look for a video, there isn't one. You could spend time examining the album cover instead. Pure psychedelia at the point of turning.

And what did being a hippy mean then? I mean beyond the elves and the travellers and the bells and the flowers and the granny glasses and the wispy beard and the spaced out look and the tinkly tinkly noises somewhere at the top of your nose?

At about this time a properly hippy friend took us to meet a venerable hippy in a flat somewhere in London. I can't remember very much about the meeting now (not only because it was the sixties) except that Venerable kept repeating Outasight, man, outasight... and so, I expect, he is now.

But this is a lovely song and the Incredibles sounded like nobody else. Give Outasight his due.




10.05.08 : NEW POEM ON THE FRONT

It's a canzone. I think I am getting the hang of this. See notes. In memoriam.




09.05.08 : SIXTY



Amsterdam Klezmer Band...in Hungary.


Also see this article (thanks to.)




08.05.08 : IN PLACE OF NOSTALGIA

Hot streets, but a strong wind bowls you along and cools you. In London for the PBS meeting, afterwards walking back towards Euston with Daljit talking about a sense of England. I entered a very different England to the one he was born into. There was no Hungarian 'community'; our skin colour was the same as the locals', we brought little with us that they would have found overtly unfamiliar, not so that they'd really know anyway.

There were our faces of course, which could, on closer inspection, give us away with a bone structure, a look in the eye, a way of moving our mouths that were still full of strange sounds. More importantly there were our accents, our clumsy syntax, our manners, all distinctly unEnglish. But it was not so much they - the locals, the natives - who sensed our foreignness. It was we ourselves. We knew what we were, we knew it from within. We were foreigners. Nor was it an issue. We expected to be foreigners after all, that was why we were here.

The England of the mid-fifties had not yet absorbed the shock of Suez. The wind of change hadn't yet turned into a stiff breeze. Much of the globe was still pink. There was still some cachet to things 'made in England'. It felt oddly proud to be a part of that, even - perhaps especially - coming to it from the outside; to have become one of the New Elizabethans by association.

There was no postcolonial guilt. The mood wasn't bombastic or jingoistic: empire was simply the way of the world, the realpolitik of the - on the whole - pink world. Empire was how the world had always been. How it would be.

That didn't mean the place was particularly clever: indeed, it was dull. It was insular. But you couldn't blame it for that. Insula means island, after all. The place was an island. That, I think, is how it must have looked to my parents. And it was free, extraordinarily free, and safe. It was the word 'free' my father repeated when I interviewed him on tape some thirty years ago. I, of course, couldn't quite grasp the length and breadth and weight of the word. He had a better grasp of it.

That, at any rate, that freedom and safety was the idyll, for a time at least. It was very far from the comprehensive reality. The reality was also mean, prejudiced, conformist, class-ridden and oddly stupid. Nor did that reality trust us, or even like us much. But we didn't know that then. We couldn't read realities when they came at us in a strange language. How could we read them? We had known worse, much worse. In the great scale of all possible worlds it was as close as we had come to breathable air. So we looked at the sea in Westgate and marvelled, and breathed.

No, not nostalgia, for anything. Just a snapshot, one taken by my parents, briefly recalled, as honestly as I can. Look at our funny faces, our queer noses, our deeply weird clothes.




07.05.08 : SCALE

I'm reading Elaine Feinstein's book The Russian Jerusalem for review in The Guardian. It is a fascinating and moving idea, partly time-travel, partly fantasy, partly documentary, partly poems, springing from her great love of Russian poetry, particularly the poems and person of Marina Tsvetaeva. The writing too is a poet's writing, by which I do not mean flowery, but short, direct, rhythmical, precise. Writers like Akhmatova, Mandelstam, Pasternak, Ehrenburg and the rest make their entrances, hold conversations and vanish into gulags or survive. I've not finished yet but am greatly cheered by it, cheered because it has a transparency, an honesty of desire that inhabits a space between poetry and fiction and seems to thrive in it without any fancy workings.

*

The death toll in the Burma cyclone tragedy rises. I have often thought - as who has not, I suppose - about the tragedy of big numbers. The world is big numbers comprising the countless living and the countless dead. The brief insignificant vastness of the individual vanishes in that arithmetic, never mind in the cosmic scale. For now it is rain, floods, fallen trees, swollen bodies, crushed bones. Miles and miles of it. The imagination has seen it all before and will, no doubt, see it again.

There is a battery operated pendulum clock on the wall over my desk. It shows a red boat with a single mast flying a red and white flag. Behind it stands a lighthouse, striped black and white. The sea is mechanically flicked in with toy-town arabesques. The anchor on the side of the boat is so situated under the cabin that the two cabin windows suggest eyes while the anchor itself hints at a smiling mouth. It makes me think of Edward Ardizzone. The pendulum rocks to and fro with a tiny mouse-like squeak at either end of its tiny rigorous journey.

Earlier today the piano-tuner came, a tall, slender young man, blind in one eye and not seeing much with the other. Nevertheless he is always elegantly dressed, in white shirt and dark trousers, the shoes impeccably polished. He is, as ever, accompanied by a friend who guides him here and there but sits quietly reading during the hour or so it takes to do the tuning.

The two cats have had a leisurely day in the warm sun. Lily the Sprog was chasing some insect in the earth who seems to have stung or at least tickled her. She quickly got over it. Pearl the Huge has been rolling over on to her back and gazing at me soulfully.

I write these things down for the sake of scale. Because of the miles of fallen trees and bloated corpses. It's like counting one's own fingers time and time again.

*

I should have mentioned that the poem on the front, Chet Baker, appeared in The Irish Times on Saturday and that there is a very nice review by Jonathan Derbyshire of Metropole, the novel I translated, here. The hard copy is due to appear in The New Humanist.




06.05.08 : STROKESTOWN IN RETROSPECT

The odd thing about poetry is this: that while most claim it is no more than a dying minority art form indulged in by middle-class sensitives overdosing on vanity it is not simply that.

The fact is everyone knows what it is and what it is for. Everyone means something when they exclaim: That's sheer poetry, that is! and Look at that now! Poetry in motion! The sense of poetry is hard-wired into the human mind. It emerges out of us as a word does after silence, that moment when you are speechless then begin to form a sound. It releases and holds.

Among the prize winners this year was an investment banker who gave up his job because he wanted to write - after years of busy silence emerges a string of words that gives form to the sensation of watching people form shapes in the air with their hands, an action he speeds up in his mind, which speeding-up makes him think of birds twittering, but then of birds in cages. This seems to him important because it speaks to the experience of freedom and mortality. He does not think this - the thought I have just summarised - he sees hands forming shapes, people at Tai Chi in a park in America - the rest just arises.

Mind seeks echoes between world and language. Every mind does this. Lack of echo leaves us with sullenness and, sometimes, poison. Metaphor is echo. Bronowski stepping into the pond (in the film below) scooping the mud is echo. His act is poetry in motion: simple, dramatic, almost too perfect, but stopping short of perfection and self-admiration. Bronowski understood this. He wrote a study of William Blake that I used as a student when writing a thesis on Blake. Language has led him to the edge. That moment of stepping in is the echo. Poetry is that kind of stepping in, shoes and all. But it cannot afford perfection. It is the lack of absolutes that makes poetry: not smoothness but falling short. Almost a clumsiness. There is an element of uncomfortable soaking in it.

*

Small town Ireland has a seething conviviality in the evenings. The bars are jammed, people move from one to the other. People understand poetry, not as a literary form - that is incidental - but as an instinct. The conviviality is generally forgiving. The actual poets, those who dedicate themselves to the art, who understand the instruments, who have a trained instinct for literary form are, by necessity, a little apart from that conviviality: they are not its voice. They are the moments beyond conviviality, a little (sometimes a long way) out beyond it at the edges where the individual elements of the conviviality awake to dawns and mirrors, to the air of nothing but a desire that does not know its end or name, nor ever can know.

In the meantime, the pond, the mud, the shoes soaked through. Then the walking on, your feet still wet, back into the bar, the words fresh in the mouth. They are, after all, your people, the only people there is. A few drinks. Then move on once more.

OK, so not Strokestown, only thoughts, and personal ones at that. I am by now a veteran, a bestrider of festivals, carrying my own reserves of vanity with me. But never mind the business of literature. Give me intelligence. Give me rawness. Give me a shape to make, one that echoes whatever it is I know of the world, and help me make it.




06.05.08 : BY WAY OF SUNDAY, INSTEAD OF A LITLE MUSIC..

With thanks to Snoop, from whom lifted. Jacob Bronowski in The Ascent of Man.





The Dead
from The Penig Film

The stone-cold body that is dressed to lie
along the couch. The stone-cold body dressed
for flames. The stone-cold body in its dry

pod lowered into the ground. The still chest.
The flat hair. The calm statement made
to last. This little life that is compressed

into calendars, into cupped hands, its unplayed
movie locked inside its cells. Where to begin
so the arc of it should rise before it fade

like the rainbow that hovers a few minutes in
the gap between rain and sun, nothing special,
just the usual rainbow, the usual rain, the tin

and copper sound of water falling? To fall
like that is the most natural thing. You raise
your arc, someone observes its brief unofficial

blossoming, utters a few words of praise
then carries on contemplating the arc
of their own being. Here we’re in a dead daze.

Here is only Penig, the rainbow gone dark,
all inky greys and blacks, a film’s crude
shifts. Once there were girls running in the park,

once there were dates and weddings with fine food,
once there were offices and lifts and beds
that offered sleep like a filmic interlude.

Wrong movie here. Those terrible shaven heads
rise out of a doomed quarry in the last scene
of a discarded reel that the director shreds

as incriminating evidence. What we see on screen
is what remains of it. The arc is chopped
into pieces then spliced together, a vague sheen

of events without detail, everything cropped,
cropped hair, cropped hours, cropped fields and grass. Time
is given short shrift, as if darkness had dropped

on it from a height, crushing it to a single chime.
Ask not for whom it chimes. The extras are paid
in dead coinage, dime by worthless dime.



So step forward into the pond.




05.05.08 : KNOCK KNOCK

Where are you? Knock. Yes, but where are you?

Knock, actually, its airport high on a hill and managing gloriously without a radar. Two wings and a prayer are all you need.

Only some six minutes to write this because I have no more change. Strokestown was a very full bag of delights with considerable liquid to follow. Last night to 3am or so. Or possibly not.

No time for a report. A copy of the Irish Independent beside me, a number of books in my bag, I have a couple of hours to read and improve myself. Home tonight and more over the next few days, in the happy days of Boris Cojoneson.

One big aeroplane, one small out on the runway. It must be a madonna and child.



03.05.08 : STROKESTOWN RACES

I will eventually have to write a short monograph on the internet cafes of rural Ireland and the backstreets of urban India. Here goes.

Strokestown is bigger than I had pictured it to be, but it is still exceedingly small. The big house is, however, big, with a brutal enough history of its own as a delightful guided tour of the gardens about two hours ago brought out. We end in a 1740 gazebo with Venetian windows, intended to give a view of the (then) ongoing deer hunt. Like a telly, suggests CD. Yes, so what's on? Bloody deer again. It must be a repeat.

I arrived last night, driven from Knock airport (it sports a statue of the virgin by the wall as you drive out, Our Lady of The Car Park presumably) by a nice couple from Chester and/or Birkenhead. The festival began last night at the hotel itself, with the winners of the children's competition reading, then, after a few drinks, it was the satirical poem shortlist reading, the winner being a sung poem about Bertie Ahern. Then more drinks. First at the hotel then at the spirit-grocer's a few houses down. Though I have been to a few rural pubs in Ireland I hadn't been to one of these before. You pass through a small innocent looking grocer's shop via a plain door to a slightly larger, seething bar. There till 1.30 am, after six Jamesons but perfectly steady.

It turns out, or so I heard both on TV and by excited and despairing word of mouth, that Boris is the new mayor of London. It is hard to resist exclaiming, Crikey! as in, I hope you know what you have done, citoyens. I even heard Boris make a magnanimous tribute speech to Ken. It is perfectly possible that blondes do indeed have more fun but London is a very big adventure playground. And in any case the corpses of Labour councillors need to be cleared off the streets first. I suppose it's just history on its mad rounds.

Readings all today, ending with James Harpur and Ciaran Carson, both beautiful in quite different ways, Harpur melancholy, monastic, mystical, like prayers shaped out of despair with the hearsay of some small light just over the horizon.

Carson is magnificent. The scope and authority is immediately apparent: there is so much of life in his poetry, a passionate human life as full of detail as a main street on a busy Saturday. But the street leads both back and forward in time. It's a proud governed excess, eyes, plate and heart all full to overflowing.

Remarkably, the sun is out and so is my money. There is but one hole-in-the-wall in town and I am off to find it.




02.05.08 : BRIEFLY FROM...

...Stansted Airport, about to embark for Knock and the Strokestown Festival, thereby missing the results of the London mayoral election. I think London may be on the verge of voting in its first virtual mayor. Boris Johnson is not, of course, a living being, but a character created, then discarded, by Evelyn Waugh when he was writing 'Vile Bodies'. Possibly not vile enough.

Since Strokestown has been described to me as a marvellous festival in a place that comprises one big house and two small streets like a pair of crossed pencils, communication may not permit me to post from there, but if I can, I will. By pencil if necessary.

Enough cosmopolitanism and jetsetting. Even as I speak, my private Ryan Air jet is being cranked up by my trusty valet, Jenkins.




01.05.08 : A LITTLE FEMALE APE

An occasional series. This from Jan Moir in yesterday's Telegraph:

Scots peer Lord Laidlaw liked to arrange Monaco parties with fine wines, an elegant dinner and post-prandial entertainments provided by a tri-lingual bisexual, a gigolo, a bondage queen and their assorted lively friends.

Far from castigating him or labelling him a hopeless addict, I suspect many men would do exactly the same - if they had a personal fortune of £730 million and the energy to get the whole thing organised.

However, be honest, most husbands couldn't arrange anything more complicated than a golf four ball or a bit of toast and marmalade without generous input from their wives and two written reminders.

Let's just try that the other way, shall we?

However, be honest, most wives couldn't arrange anything more complicated than a shopping expedition or change a plug without generous input from their husbands and two written set of instructions complete with diagrams.

OK, let's have a bit of outrage out there. Only about my version of course, which I freely admit is likely to be untrue. Let Jan's be, for heaven's sake! Now that, you just know is true.

*

The Mikes evening was grand and warm on the one hand and a little sad on the other. Not because Mikes has been dead for twenty years but because his prime audience is not so young either. I was on first and feared being too serious. I was talking about him as a writer. Someone whispered to me afterwards: You know, of course, he couldn't write very good English. It was Diana Athill who did the editing for him.

I can't vouch for that though there was a very moving old Panorama film from 1956 with Mikes and Charles Wheeler reporting from within Hungary in the last days of the revolution. Mikes's English was not exactly standard. It is true that a person will write much better than he or she speaks. Nevertheless my observations on the finer points of his humorous prose may not rest of very firm grounds.

As Jan Moir might put it: most men can't string a sentence together without being corrected by their multi-tasking female editors.

Give or take an exception or two.




30.04.08 : ONE SMALL STEP FOR GINGER, ONE GIANT LEAP FOR MAN U

Little ginger boy steps up...



... there it goes. There it went.




29.04.08 : PORTRAIT OF MY MOTHER IN AN AMERICAN GARDEN

Not by me, but by the Hungarian writer Miklós Vajda, with whom I edited An Island of Sound, the Harvill anthology of post-1989 Hungarian fiction and poetry. Now this is absolutely gorgeous, honest writing. I am trying to do my best with it.

She stands in the kitchen, in a kitchen, not our kitchen, not the old kitchen, not any of our old kitchens, but her own kitchen, an unfamiliar one, not mine, and she cooks, stirs something. She is cooking for me. That’s another new thing, a strange thing. But there she stands, repeating anything I want, anywhere, whatever I happen to want most, at the time I want it. I am here: she is not. And there are things I do want. But even if I didn’t want them she would carry on coming and going, doing this and that, entering my head, calling me, talking, listening, now in delight, now in pain, thinking of me or looking at me, ringing me, asking me things, writing to me as if she were alive. I am insatiable: I am interested in all that is not me, in what is private, in affairs before me and after me, in her existence as distinct from mine, and I try to fit the jigsaw together, but nowadays, whatever she is doing – and I can’t do anything about this – is always, invariably done for me, because of me, to me, with me or on my behalf – or rather, of course, was done for me.

At this very moment I want her to stand there, there in that kitchen, stirring away. Let’s have her cooking one of those dishes she learned abroad, making a caper sauce to go with that sizzling grilled steak. But I often have her repeat a great many other things too: for example I have recently taken to observing her secretly from the bed as she slowly removes her make-up at the antique dressing table with the great gilded antique Venetian mirror hanging over it, looking into the antique silver-framed standing mirror before her, going about her task in a business-like manner, applying cream with balls of cotton wool, her hands working in a circular motion, efficiently, always in exactly the same way, pulling faces if need be, puffing out a cheek, rubbing her skin then smearing with, among other things, a liquid she refers to as her ‘energizing mixture’ and which dries immediately so she looks like a white-faced clown. Then she wipes it off and I fall asleep again. The room is covered in mirrors, each of the six doors of the built-in wardrobe has a mirror-panel right down to the bottom. My bed is there in her bedroom: my own bedroom is being used by the German Fräulein. Sometimes I wake late at night just as she enters from the shower, wearing her yellow silk dressing gown and I hear her as she applies creams and lotions for the night before going to bed, as she moves around, gets comfortable, clears her throat and gives a great yawn before falling sound asleep, her mouth open, contented, breathing loudly exactly the way I catch myself doing nowadays. Or I am watching her at eleven in the morning, as she steps into a car, fully made-up, elegantly dressed wearing a hat and gloves and high-heeled shoes, as she throws back the fashionable half-veil, pulls out of the garage, turns in the drive, takes the left-hand lane – the traffic is still driving on the left – and sets off from our Sas-hegy apartment in what is now Hegyalja út, into the city centre to execute her various commissions before meeting her friends in the recently opened Mignon Café – the first of its kind in Hungary – or at the Gerbeaud where she might go on to meet my father who sometimes strolls over from his office to talk over their plans for the next day or whatever else is on their minds.. Then they come home together to eat. Or I see her in Márianosztra, or possibly, later, in Kalocsa, at the end of her monthly interviews, being led away by a guard armed with a machine-gun, out of the hall that is divided in half by rolls of barbed wire, leaving through double steel doors, overlooked by enormous portraits of Stalin and Rákosi, and I catch a glimpse of her as she is shepherded away in a procession of prisoners and guards, and she freezes for a moment, conscious perhaps of me looking at her to look back over her shoulder, sensing me standing there, staring at her. The guard’s flat cap is covering half her face but her half-closed eyes, her shrug, her faint smile and her suspiciously lively expression tell me more than she has said in fifteen minutes to the flat-capped guard.

MV is from an old aristocratic family. He has spent his life as a lektor, a translator of English language plays for the Hungarian stage, and, first, the Literary Editor of The Hungarian Quarterly, then its General Editor. He has survived Stalin, Stalinism, Kádárism in all its colours, the 1989 revolution, and all the grubby stuff since. Now retired he has finally started writing that memoir which promises to be a major work.




28.04.08 : AMERICAN PIE

Driving, I turn on the radio and hear Joe Queenan talking to professional celebrants in the US. Celebrants offer a range of services including funerals, weddings, civil unions, divorces, recoveries from illness - just about anything folk feel ought to be marked with a ritual of sorts. I stay listening because of Bill's funeral service on Friday.

It is strange. Those voices quickly begin to annoy me. American voices - exclusively women - celebrating the act of celebration. The point, they explain, is that everyone has to feel good about themselves.The right to life, liberty and and the pursuit of happiness has morphed into the right to feel good about yourself. I can see it now, engraved on stone:
Thou shalt feel good about thyself.
That's what the services they offer are about. Folk feeling good about themselves. Everyone feels good. The folk who have required and paid for the service feel good, the folk who attend the celebration feel good and - especially - the celebrants, the folk who deliver and get paid feel good. They feel especially good. Everyone feels good about himself / herself. If only the whole world could feel as good about itself, we would all feel good about it. And about ourselves. And that would feel good.

An interview near the end of the programme amplifies the situation. Celebrant-trainer, asked whether being a celebrant is better than having a nine-to-five job. What she says is this (I do not quote exactly but from memory):

Well, you do this 9-5 job working for capitalism. Then you got to get out of the corporate world and make time for yourself. You get to be you.

So that's the opposite of capitalism then. It's you. Being you. Feeling good about yourself. You and your self on a bender for ever and ever. Amen.

I feel a vague urge to stick my finger down my throat but that wouldn't make me feel good about myself. Still less about my trousers.




28.04.08 : ZIMBABWE

As was inevitable, as happens every time, in every place, as I suspected earlier, come the reprisals. Pointing this out, I realise, turns me immediately into a colonialist, neo-con, wildcat, racist, Zionist, militarist.

That's OK. Just practising.




28.04.08 : LATE TAG...

Apropos my entry of 25 April - six random things about one's inscrutable, estimable self - memory jogger follows..

1. Hair dark but greying: beard every colour under the sun, hence no beard.

2. David Bowie cleaned our house in the days when he was David Jones, c. 1967. Long story... Single occasion

3. Doctor once told me I had an extra rib. Was briefly fascinated but have never checked and seems unlikely. (All the same I remember it...) Either the doctor was a joker or I really have one. Could donate it, either to Chinese restaurant or to womankind....etc etc etc


I am tagging:

Linda
Stephen
Alison
Jonathan
Andrew
Meghan

May the force be with them.




27.04.08 : SUNDAY NIGHT IS...

The great Michael Hordern Lear, with Frank Middlemass as Fool, Gillian Barge as Goneril (sounding mightily like Margaret Thatcher), John Bird as Albany and John Shrapnel as Kent. It tends to halt and start but it may work well for YOU...



On a station somewhere between Nonsense and Pain, the platform quite quite bare.



27.04.08 : NOT QUITE SHINING

From the town of H to Oxford and back then home. Saturday was, frankly, a blur. I caught the train to Kings Cross, then the tube to Paddington, then the train to Oxford then a taxi to my hotel. Hotel had an odd feel. Check-in asked if I wanted a meal. No, I said, just a snack. They told me I could get that at the bar. Did I want to be woken in the morning? I asked them to wake me at 7. Not seeing the stairs, I took a narrow slightly rickety lift up to the second floor and found my room.

My room was decent but the chair was jammed between the bedside table and the desk so there was no prospect of sitting at the desk. Put stuff away, boiled kettle, made coffee, had shower. The shower not quite hot, though the basin tap was scalding. I lay down on the bed and watched a little TV before deciding to go down to the bar. I thought briefly of the manyhotel rooms I have stayed in as a writer, from the flophouse with no door handle, loose wires, cracked toilet and incontinence sheet near Lime Street station in Liverpool, to the five star hotel in New Delhi where I was followed everywhere by sartorially elegant staff dying to do me a favour. This one was more The Shining than Down and Out in Paris and London.

I took the left turn out of my room to what promised to be a staircase. I found myself in a crumbling disused part of the hotel, walking down two floors into nothing. Plaster on the floor, wires visible in the wall. The corridor was full of turns. It did not seem a good place. I walked up a little quicker than I had walked down, not quite sure which turn I had taken because there seemed to be more floors than two on the way up.

Then down to the bar. No one there other than one other potential customer, a young father with his baby. Check-in promised some barstaff. A nice Eastern European girl turned up. Jamesons, cup of tea, a plateful of wedgies. The TV on, the father and baby gone. I set to checking my Derek Mahon lecture for Monday. The young father returned with his wife and another couple.

I don't know what time it was. I went up and turned on Match of the Day. Woke at 5, woke at 6, drifted off. They didn't ring at 7. It was a forty minute walk to the college where I was headed.

The session there went very well, but everything before it now seems not quite real. Probably the effect of running around so fast. And the funeral. The various journeys back, then C and I drive home to relieved cats and faint smell of catpiss.

So where's your head at, GS?




26.04.08 : AT THE FUNERAL

The day of Bill's funeral. C had been down some days: I drove there this morning. T and H and R already there: the dark suits, with or without dark ties. I change into mine. There we all stand in Reservoir Dogs outfits. Then ever more people arrive, most of the extended family. The sun is shining. We drink tea and nibble slices of toast. The undertaker arrives more or less in time. I drive just behind the hearse, some six or seven cars following. It is a busy Friday. We go the back route part of the way at a stately 25, speeding to 30 on the dual carriageway.

The service is attended by some thirty people including members of the Chinese church in Luton. It isn't long but is led by someone who knew Bill and admired him. A hymn, a prayer, a reading from Ephesians, the sermon - personal and clear - another prayer, the second hymn. We file out and stand around the flowers talking.

This is the script. But of course it is far more than that. Or at least, if it is a script, it is properly scripted. There are tears, as there should be. There is singing. There is a ritual, a kind of mark-making. It is not the object of faith that touches me but the act of it, the desire for it, the shape of it. It seems to me a human act in that it aspires, and aspiration in the face of death is what we have. It is right that a mark should be made. And it is, in this case, a communal mark, not in the cheap sociological sense but in having a benign common focus: the specific shape of a specific life. This marks the shape.

And afterwards we go back to the house, consume sandwiches, nibble cakes, sip tea and talk, just ordinary talk. And W is constantly being talked to. She has been filled by a certain energy that is enabling her to go on, almost buoyant, for far longer than we thought she would manage. Back here at the house of course, Bill is everywhere. Later, after everyone has gone, W picks up a pair of glasses. Whose are these? she asks. They are Bill's. But now that everyone has gone the exhaustion catches up. The remaining shapes are much less clear than the one we formed at the service, than he formed, or seemed to form just long enough for it to be a mark. Which is, in the end, the human mark.

*

And wonderful old Humph has died, a mere youth in his mid-eighties. So a piece of time snaps off. No more I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue. The programme seems to have been on all my life with everyone getting older and older but not changing, inventing the same things time and again so it seemed both fresh and familiar.

Quiet here, apart from the faint sea-sound of the computer, like holding a shell to your ear.



25.04.08 : SIX RANDOM THINGS ABOUT MYSELF

One should never ask a writer to talk about himself / herself since once they start there is no stopping. The writer's own being is, to himself, the nearest object of fascination. Fascinating in the sense of weird rather than wonderful. None of us is wonderful. We're probably not even that weird. We are just adept at making fictions and metaphors of ourselves.

But in any case, I have been tagged by writer friend Patricia Debney to jot down six random things about myself, so here they are:


1. Hair dark but greying: beard every colour under the sun, hence no beard.

2. David Bowie cleaned our house in the days when he was David Jones, c. 1967. Long story... Single occasion

3. Doctor once told me I had an extra rib. Was briefly fascinated but have never checked and seems unlikely. (All the same I remember it...) Either the doctor was a joker or I really have one. Could donate it, either to Chinese restaurant or to womankind.

4. Longevity seems to run in both my family and in my wife, Clarissa's. Her grandfather lived into the nineties, her father to a hundred. My paternal grandmother also lived to be a hundred out in Buenos Aires. My father is currently going on 91. I do not harbour such ambitions and have no relatives on my mother's side, not even my mother now. Family motto appears to be: If they let you live, live. (Opt out clauses do, however, seem to exist)

5. My nails and hair grow very quickly. I wake on nights of the full moon. This is vaguely disturbing.

6. People think I am very productive, but that is because I am essentially very lazy. Or very restless. Distracted from distraction by distraction, said Eliot of travellers on the tube. That would describe me: distracted from one piece of work by another piece of work because I am too lazy to finish the first piece of work. That is, I suspect, the poetic condition. On my wall a quotation from Mozart. I continue to compose since it exhausts me less than resting. I can, however, watch cats and rain and even stones for as long as fifteen minutes at a time. That is practically Zen, man.


Now to tag some other helpless weird writers. Who shall it be? I suppose I had better ask first...




24.04.08 : GEORGE MIKES AND EPIGRAMS

I am giving a brief talk on the Hungarian-born humorist, George Mikes (pron: Mick-esh) next Wednesday at the Conference Centre of the British Library in London. Its part of a programme that will include Charles Wheeler looking at him as a journalist and witness as well as two psychoanalysts and a physicist. It seems a company well-equipped to cope with every eventuality. Which way should I go? Well, here's a thought.

When I think of George Mikes I think of lines like these:

On the Continent people have good food; in England people have good table manners.

Many continentals think life is a game; the English think cricket is a game.

Continental people have sex life; the English have hot-water bottles.

The English have no soul; they have the understatement instead.

All these examples are from near the beginning of the first and still most popular of his How To.. books, How to Be an Alien (1946).

Such literary epigrams, antitheses, quips, apercus – whatever you want to call them – are not falsifiable scientific propositions. That is to misunderstand literature. They need not even be true, not exactly, though we do prefer them when they have the vague scent of truth about them somewhere, however partial the truth. They are not wisdom either, or not exactly: they are, rather, exercises in style.

Language in the epigram, as indeed elsewhere in literature, but far beyond literature too, is not a neutral vehicle for conveying information: it is a medium that creates experience.

Epigrams take us on elegant brisk journeys; they are smart ripostes in which X proposes, Y disposes. They are beautifully crafted little musical instruments, exquisite jewelled needles that can do real harm. There is nothing quite so lethal as a neat binary:

Four legs good: two legs bad.

Me Tarzan, you Jane.


They sit at an angle to us now, part of a world that seems suspiciously contrived. What can you do? Binaries contrive. Is that not right, Jane?




24.04.08 : UCU BOYCOTT, REBOYCOTT..

Apropos this and this. I am not a UCU member but it is an education to see the exchange of emails regarding the Israel boycott, I myself having been sent the lot by email. Some genuine idiots like Benjamin think this is a storm in a teacup. Teacup maybe, but plenty of poison in it.

Eve Garrard over at Norm's made the following observations:

The boycotter's decalogue (by Eve Garrard)

Some members of the academics' union (the UCU) may be wondering how to do this boycott stuff which produces such heated debate on the union activists' email list. Here are some suggestions...


How to be a union boycotter, in 10 easy steps

(1) Insist, again and again and again, that the union is morally obliged to boycott Israel. Explain that boycotting any other country would involve ignoring issues of geopolitical complexity and might send out the wrong message to someone or other.

(2) Flood the UCU activists' list with detailed and sometimes accurate descriptions of Israeli crimes, but preserve complete silence about crimes of far greater magnitude committed by anyone else.

(3) Take care never to acknowledge that Israel has been under murderous attack since its inception, by people who quite often declare their genocidal intentions towards Jews. Explain that these people will treat Jews with exemplary respect once they get power over them.

(4) Sneer if anyone mentions suicide bombing, especially of colleges or universities, or rocket attacks on Israeli schools - these things are of no concern to an academic union.

(5) Constantly ask why there can't be a secular bi-national state instead of the Jewish state. Don't ever ask why Pakistan doesn't want to form a secular bi-national state with India, or why the Irish Republic doesn't want to form a secular bi-national state with the UK, or why Poland shouldn't be pressured to form a secular bi-national state with Germany. (At least, don't ask these things in the presence of any Pakistanis or Irishmen or Poles.)

(6) Use as many of the classic tropes of anti-Semitism as you can pack into your discourse, especially references to powerful well-funded groups controlling agendas and threatening world peace, and to people dishonestly complaining about anti-Semitism. Take care, however, to refer only to Zionists.

(7) Frequently declare that no one is ever allowed to talk about any of these things. If anyone disagrees with you, complain (preferably in the national press) that you're being silenced.

(8) Don't forget to mention the Nazis when you're describing Israeli policy and/or practice. If any anti-boycotters mention the Nazis, say that they're exploiting the Holocaust.

(9) Assert that you have a long and honourable history of fighting racism. Cite various musical events you've attended to prove this claim. Ostentatiously drop several Jewish names at this point.

(10) Persist in carrying out steps 1 through 9, even if it turns the activists' list into a poisonous cesspit. Ignore and even relish the increasing concern of your Jewish colleagues, since with luck your activities will drive them out of the union, thus making it all the more pliable to the boycott project. And even if this terminally damages the union, what does that matter? A strong and thriving union, in which Jews could feel just as much at home as non-Jews, is of no importance to you. (Eve Garrard)

With many thanks to Norm and Eve.



23.04.08 : RUSH

Still rushing to fit things in, get things done. I don't know if I have ever known a solid stretch of two weeks or so like this. Light postings possibly, unless the daemon seizes me and sets the mind racing in this direction.

After the MA extended class yesterday - the last class of the taught period - they invited me for a drink in the post grad bar. I stayed an hour or so over a couple of Jamesons then had to dash to feed cats.

Tutorials throughout today, then call in to farewell for LB, friend and artistic director of the puppet theatre. His departure is a fraught, sad business. LB had a rare genius for dancing along the narrow of line of childhood-adulthood in his productions, extraordinary, magical, surreal things. The spirit of Miro meets Melanie Klein meets Pinnocchio - it's what the blurb for the art of LB should say.

Everyday following this is packed from the early early morning to the late late night. I note these things down in the spirit of semi-private jottings, semi-journalism, as excuses.

Maybe more later.



22.04.08 : RAPIDLY FROM PLACE TO PLACE

Brief entry for yesterday as I was away. We drove down to C's mother as C will be with her for some days. I took the train down from there to London where I was meeting the Hungarian Cultural Centre in the matter of the younger Hungarian poets' anthology. Lunch in an Italian nearby then hurry off to meet daughter for a coffee. Always good to grab an opportunity to see one of the children especially if I am nearby - it's a short walk from Maiden Lane to Soho Square - after which I found a pub and read through a PhD upgrade, making notes in time for a meeting on Thursday. After that to launch of the anthology of the anthology of Jewish Exiled Writers, If Salt Has Memory, where I read my poem and listen to some four others including Gillian Slovo, then have to dash. Hungary represented by MS in the anthology and GG and MG from out. On the way out stopped by PL who introduces me to Behnam, the young man mentioned in my post below. Lovely, smiling face. Must try to do more for him.

This is an extra hectic week. Sometimes I wonder how I get through such times but then reflect others do much more, so, take a deep breath. Drive home. Arrive back about 11 or so.

The matter of the Euston Manifesto. I read Alan Johnson in Comment is Free, with its usual putrid comments. If any of those braying correspondents had any feeling for human life they would not write the way they do. One commenter describes the situation in Iraq as "hilarious'. Ha-bloody-ha, as they say in Budapest. It's as if public affairs were part of some giant ego boost: I told you so!!! You're a fascist wanker!!!! We will grind you under our heel!!!!!. I try to think of them as human beings but all I see is a blot of raging purple. I don't have time now, for obvious reasons to get into detail in it, but then Norman Geras, who was one of the authors of the manifesto, handles it much better here, a post that is best read with his other one, the comment on David Edgar's article on Saturday, since they address the same issue. He also cites Andrew Anthony's response to Edgar.




20.04.08 : SUNDAY NIGHT IS...

..a verse about Stoke City football club with Jerusalem (er...no, idiot, it's Holst's Jupiter, and thanks Mr TD for pointing that out) playing in the background. You have been warned. Yes, it's sentimental, and no, I am not a Stoke supporter but...




.. I think it has the Penny Lane touch. At any rate it touches me. A hat-tip then (a cloth-cap tip?) to Mr Stephen Foster, author, who may drink white wine but does not, will not, could not, drive a Volvo.




19.04.08 : ARGUMENT

Steven Poole in The Guardian writing about Austin Dacey's book, Secular Conscience: Why Belief Belongs in Public Life. Poole says:

No one expects a combination of JS Mill and Melanie Phillips, but here we are. Austin Dacey attempts to construct a secular ethics that can be "objective", by reference to Spinoza, Kant and Mill, and dubious appeals to things like evolutionary psychology. He also claims to want to invite "faith" into public debate, rather than ignoring it as a matter of "private conscience". (Conscience is not private but social.) It turns out, though, that Dacey has already decided what will and won't count as a proper argument from the religious ("What they cannot do is ... "), so it looks rather like a trap. Not surprising given the reason for the book's sense of urgency, which is the incipient Islamist apocalypse: "In the face of a challenge to the future of European values, the official ideology of multiculturalism has become a pact for mass cultural suicide." By this point near the book's end, those who believe that our civilisation depends on the freedom to publish racist cartoons will be nodding energetically.

My emphases. So that's how it goes, you see. Wiki - pretty reliable in this instance - has the prehistory:

On September 17, 2005, the Danish newspaper Politiken ran an article under the headline "Dyb angst for kritik af islam" [9] ("Profound anxiety about criticism of Islam"). The article discussed the difficulty encountered by the writer Kåre Bluitgen, who was initially unable to find an illustrator who was prepared to work with Bluitgen on his children's book Koranen og profeten Muhammeds liv (English: The Qur'an and the life of the Prophet Muhammad ISBN 87-638-0049-7). Three artists declined Bluitgen's proposal before one agreed to assist anonymously. According to Bluitgen:

One [artist declined], with reference to the murder in Amsterdam of the film director Theo van Gogh, while another [declined, citing the attack on] the lecturer at the Carsten Niebuhr Institute in Copenhagen

In October 2004, a lecturer at the Niebuhr institute at the University of Copenhagen had been assaulted by five assailants who opposed his reading of the Qur'an to non-Muslims during a lecture.


I saw the cartoons (who didn't?) They seemed extremely mild compared with many cartoons about Christianity or Judaism. The cartoons were published in the Danish magazine. There were some complaints and there was a judicial process at the end of which it was concluded that no violation of the law had occurred. It was only after that that two Danish imams added three images that had nothing to with Denmark, images that were rather more offensive, and circulated them, as a result of which some newspapers were closed, and riots and burnings took place.

All this is pretty old hat.

But now, according to Poole, those who supported the publication of the 'racist' cartoons (cartoons that had nothing to do with race only with fundamentalist aspects of Islam) are going to be vigorously nodding their heads in approval, condoning racism, therefore being racists themselves, in other words, since no greater pejorative exists, pieces of offensive subhuman slime not to be touched with a bargepole.

This is the argument as I see it. Be warned. Agree with me or you're scum.




19.04.08 : CAT, USE OF ; MANAGER, USE OF

Two quite different cats. One - Lily - small, slim, lithe, beautiful, flicker-eyed, neurotic hunter and haunter of bathrooms and bathroom implements, comes with own necklace of dark fur; the other - Pearl - fat, heavy, stolid, steady malevolent eye, half a short moustache, flies through the cat-flap so hard it has become detached and I have just attempted to glue it back with impact adhesive. Her own impact will probably dislodge it. She also chews paper and card, so when I come down to my desk I find the edges of manuscripts gnawed through with the evidence all over the floor.

Two cats is a lot with a tiny yard for which we had constructed a shallow flowerbed of four-bricks depth. Flowerbed is now empress-sized cat-convenience. Nothing will grow there.

There are moments we think one will have to go and Pearl is clearly the more likely candidate. Now thinking how to draft an advertisement. What about this?
One grey-and-white cat available for permanent loan. Fat, greedy, lazy, sly. Looks like Hitler. May be used as ballistic missile, ideal for trebuchet or dambusting. Self-propelling. With a little retraining may be employed as rent-collector / bailiff. Save breaking doors down. Alternative use as paper-shredder. Save on confetti! Go green! Get married!.

Irresistible! Pearl, Pearl quanto mi costi!

*

I see the Chelsea manager, Avram Grant, has given a gruff interview. I like it. I take it as a sign that he knows he is to be sacked whatever he does, whether it is win the Premier League or the Champions' League. He has been traduced for months despite taking Chelsea within two points of the title. He's ugly. He's Jewish. He's Israeli Jewish. End of story. Bring back Christ.




18.04.08 : BEST OF ALL POSSIBLE...

This is a story for Dr Pangloss to stick in his pipe. A brief glance at the annals of human cruelty is enough for several lifetimes.

On the other hand, C tells me that while she was with her family, a neighbour called, a lovely man, all sweetness and kindness. He has lung cancer. He sways into the house in the way weakened people do (C half demonstrates).

I have just come from the hospital, he says. They tell me I have... he looks lost for moment.

He fishes in his pocket for a piece of paper. He reads it.

Alzheimers, he says gently.




18.04.08 : MORNING THOUGHTS 3

Then back to the flat, looking at books, making plans for more books and eventually I'm on my way back by train, exhausted again.

C and sis meet me as I walk towards the house from the station. I spend an hour or so talking with W, joking, teasing, asking questions about her time as a trainee nurse in Dundee. W is the closest and most faithful reader of my poetry. She was delighted her daughter wanted to marry a poet. I am not sure all religious families would.




18.04.08 : MORNING THOUGHTS 2

So we stop at a strange little bookshop that sells rough-and-ready hand made books. A dreamy looking young man in hat and wispy beard opens up. We finger booklets and books, smile at one-liners that are almost poems, at pop-ups, at bits of Dada and general book anarchy. How lovely these things are. I eventually buy a book lovingly put together by a man who has spent a long time interviewing victims of Alzheimers, as well as a selection of writings by Alfred Jarry. The little lovely fiddly things stay where they are.



18.04.08 : MORNING THOUGHTS


Woke early but stayed in bed a while, then showered and downed a bowl of cereal. R was out swimming and visiting a friend. I suggested to H we go to some greasy-spoon caff, eat some poached eggs on toast and consume big mugs of coffee. So daughter and dad set off down the City Road, just round the corner from The Eagle pub where weasels traditionally go pop. It's a working caff, long communal tables almost all full, some with men in yellow fluorescent jackets, some with men in suits. Two Eastern European girls serving. H and I find an empty small table by the window and talk talk talk.

What about? Art, London, God, WSU... Son T rings from Dubai where he is DJ-ing. He gets around the globe. An hour or more goes by then R comes and joins us. W talk more. The workers come and go, more coffee comes and goes. Eventually we head back to H and R's. No point me starting back to the house in Hertfordshire yet as C and sis are out arranging certificates, funerals etc. Aim to get back for about 3pm.




18.04.08 : NIGHT THOUGHTS

I think the following regarding my own demise at some future date. These will be the requisites:

1) I disappear in a puff of smoke

2) The smoke disappears

3) Some word-shapes I have made in the face of evanescence hang around as long as people and circumstances remember or value them, but since they themselves are evanescent, as evanescent as poems and language, the stays themselves are not really stays. They too are smoke.

4) Then that smoke disappears.

5) And it will have been the best and worst of all possible worlds as well as the most median of all possible worlds because what else do I or anyone else know? Because that is the glory of mortality. I do not expect to be greeted in heaven by a combined choir of T S Eliot, George Herbert, John Wilmot, Andrew Marvell, John Clare, John Keats, not to mention Elizabeth Bishop, Wallace Stevens, Theodore Roethke or other ghostly essences.

6) And I will have loved as well as I could and have had the great good fortune to be loved. I do not bother to define love as a term. I accept it. Plop. In my lap. Thank God or Whomsoever or the swirl of atoms that comprises me and the rest of the whole boiling.

7) There ought to be a 7 since 7 is a far better number than 6. So this is 7.

Tra-la...



18.04.08 : MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT

I wake at daughter H's at about 2.30 a.m. so here I am at R's computer. How crazy and sad and merry and utterly full of itself and the tearfulness of things life is.

Having stayed at university to teach, speaking on phone to C, I went to hear L read and be interviewed in the main lecture theatre. She was very good of course and J, her interlocutor, clearly knew her work far beyond the new book. I find I'm sitting in front row next to Stephen Fry's mother whose family goes back to Czechoslovakia and Hungary and Vienna. After the reading I dump my bag in the car park and someone says hello. She looks familiar but we have only met once. It was at the cinema, she says, at The Lives of Others. She tells me what she is doing and mentions her grandmother was Russian. Is no one in England simply English? I begin to think not.

Then we go out to eat, K, our companion is also partly Czech .

In the morning L and I talk. Her phone rings. Someone is asking her about Amy Whitehouse. Who? Whitehouse. You don't mean Amy Winehouse? Yes? You want to know who she is?

This is a comical conversation as I cannot imagine a world not wallpapered with images of Amy Winehouse. It is comical and comforting. It is very good indeed to know that someone doesn't know. Who is Amy Winehouse? A popular entertainer, m'lud. And Mrs Mary Winehouse? Ah, her! Possibly it is Amy Whitehouse that is the chanteuse with the beehive hair. Did Mary Whitehouse sing? History is dead. We no longer know.

L and I drive to London. I learn about Jewish funeral customs. Not having been brought up with Jewishness of any kind except that which is in the blood and on the walls of the less pleasant places of history, it is all new to me. It is what my Jewish / non-Jewish mother kept me from / kept from me.

I drop L at the railway station in H and go to the house. The family is there. They move from practicalities to tears to laughter as though the needle of emotion couldn't quite settle anywhere if only because it couldn't bear to. We eat and talk. C has had a migraine. W blinks and smiles and converses, the conspicuously empty chair behind her.

H and I compose a letter to be sent out regarding arrangements. We fiddle till we get it right. Suddenly I am exhausted and lie down and fall into fitful sleep. Then it is time to go to London to keep another appointment, this time with A, our Berlin friend, my agent in Germany. I catch the train with H and we talk about WSU, his mind, his book, his sermons. We talk of plans and dreams. One heartbreakingly extraordinary dream of H's.

We part at King's Cross and I proceed to my appointment. I thought we were meeting at a restaurant but it is in a cottage in Southwark with nine other people round a table in a tiny room. There are agents, publishers, translators there. Book fair people. They come from Germany, from Scotland, from New York, from Sussex. I have met three of them before. We eat and talk. It is a perfectly normal dinner party. X tells me about Fassbinder's plays. We talk about Iceland and the port of Hamburg with Y. We drink Talisker whisky that is passed round in a little communal silver vessel whose name is discussed but has gone into one ear and is still making its journey through my skull before exiting at the other.

At 11 four of us set out for the underground station, A and E and R and I. It is only a few minutes on the train to Old Street, the nearest station to here. I have given the little presents C and I to A to pass on to our dear friend, novelist K, with her new baby.

To bed straight away. For three hours or so. This morning back to the house in H. I will take C home to Norfolk. Her sister and brother are there. The place has been full of people ever since.




16.04.08 : WSU 1907-2008

C's father died this morning. He had had a stroke the day before. I was just in my last half hour of teaching the MA group when the news of the stroke came through. I dismissed class and C and I drove down to Hertfordshire immediately. He was, we understood, in hospital in a coma.

C's mother and a good neighbour were already at A&E and had been for hours. He was on a trolley. His chest was rising fairly firmly but not too regularly. We waited a couple of hours then the doctor came. Nice man, possibly from Singapore. He did a number of elementary tests from which he concluded there had been brain damage due to an internal haemorrhage. "I cannot be optimistic," he said. We had not expected him to be.

Eventually we left for the house in nearby H. Others were on the way: C's brother and sister. I drove back to Norfolk to teach today. C rang mid-morning to say he had died.

The house was full. Soon our children were there too. Should I come down? I asked. C said, no, there isn't room in the house. Come tomorrow. LG is reading at UEA tonight. Life will go on, and though I feel a great exhaustion at the moment I know myself well enough to be sure the exhaustion will lift for a good while tonight.

WSU was an extraordinary man: tough, adventurous, kind, shy, articulate, well-read, eccentric. He had spent eighteen years in the wilds of China and talked with Chiang Kai-Shek. He was on the same boat as Empson. He was a prisoner. He was a warder. Mostly he was a wholly unorthodox Baptist missionary with a theology all his own. He was a tall exotic plant among tidy flowers, a sprawler among sharply trimmed lawns, rising above not a few vicious shears. An ostrich among pigeons. I suspect he was that rare thing: a Great Man.

One of the greatest twentieth-century Hungarian poets, Agnes Nemes Nagy, suggested in an essay that poets were scientists of the emotions, research scientists looking to name new realms of feeling, the emotions ever more precise, ever more nebulous and unstable. The poems were the namings, monuments built out of precise, nebulous, instability.

Love is a huge word: it spreads and billows and fogs and aches. We want so much of it. When I think of what I felt for him the words - the crude words - that come to me now appear in the order in which they chronologically appeared from the time I first met him: fear, respect, admiration, love.

And there were years of laughter too. We laughed and argued a good deal.

Nemes Nagy is right I think but you need a cold eye, like Yeats's horseman, to begin the naming. My eye is not quite cold enough at the moment.

WSU had written his memoirs, a wonderful quirky read. In fact I have posted a few short excerpts here in the past. I will write his obit for one of the papers. I cannot quite think about it at the moment. I think of C and her family, long prepared yet shocked (he was as lively and alert as ever right till the last moment.)

I write this in my university office, having finished a dayful of individual tutorials and attended (briefly) an open day for visiting prospective students. Outside the rooks are cawing. Bare trees moving gently in the wind. Scraps, like these notes.




15.04.08 : LATE

Late back, though might not have been back at all. Serious developments at C's family. No more than that for now.

This might be an opportune time to put in the last-but-one of the Márai excerpts. The heroine / narrator, Eszter is speaking.

- No, I said. It is simply that I don’t believe it, Lajos. There is no such thing as a prosthetic being. You can’t graft the moral character of one person onto another. Forgive me, but these are just ideas.

- No they are not just ideas. A moral character is not something you inherit but a quality you acquire. People are not born with morals. The morals of wild animals, the morals of children are not the same as the morals of a sixty year old circuit judge in Vienna or Amsterdam. People acquire their moral characters in the same way as they acquire their mannerisms and their culture. - He was speaking like a professional priest. – There are people who are more adept at moral character, yes indeed, there are moral geniuses just as there are musical and literary geniuses. You are such a moral genius, Eszter; no please don’t deny it. I feel it in you. I am tone deaf when it comes to issues of morality, practically illiterate. That is why I needed to be with you, or that at any rate is the chief reason, I think.

I was obstinate.

- I don’t believe it, I said, but even if it were so, Lajos, you cannot want someone to act as moral nanny to all kinds of morally imperfect beings. A woman can’t play moral nurse her whole life.

- A woman! A woman! he said quickly, courteously waving my answer away. I am talking about you, Eszter. I mean you.

- A woman, I said and felt the blood rush to my face. - I know you mean me. I have had enough of being model for a false view of the world all my life. Get that into your head at last. There is no point in me saying it again… though maybe you are right, we cannot remain silent about this for ever. I don’t believe in your ideas, Lajos, I believe in reality. The reality is that you deceived me; once upon a time they might have put it in more flowery, romantic language: I was your plaything, your toy. You are a strange gambler, someone who plays with passions and people instead of cards. I was one of the queens in your hand. Then you stood up and went off elsewhere. Why? Because you grew bored. You had had enough and simply walked away. That’s the truth. That is the terrible immoral truth. One can’t throw a woman away the way one does a matchbox, simply because one has passions, because that happens to be one’s nature, because one finds it impossible being tied to a woman or because one has ambitions, because everything and everyone is merely useful. I can understand that… it is a low act with something human in it. But to discard someone out of sheer carelessness, that is lower than low. There is no excusing that because it is inhuman. Do you understand now?

...Lajos replies:

It is not enough to love somebody, you must love courageously. You must love so that no thief or plan or law, whether that be the law of heaven or of the world, can come between. The problem was that we did not love each other courageously enough. And that is your fault because a man’s courage in love is ridiculous. Love is of your making.

'Love is of your making'. What does that mean? Does it mean the idea of romantic love is a feminine construction? That the idea of love-and-marriage is such? It is not what feminists think. But how gender-exclusive are such constructions? Don't we in fact collaborate on anything that makes life tolerable in given circumstances, and by tolerable I mean exciting as well as stable, or at least stable enough for us to pretend to happy endings.

Can we take either character at their own evaluation in this book? Can we go on to imagine a book that ends: "Reader, I married her!"




14.04.08 : BACK TO MáRAI

Now where were we? Yes, Eszter's niece Éva is telling her about her father, Lajos, the man Eszter once loved but who married her sister.

Lajos is a powerful, irresistible fantasist who lies all the time while being entirely convinced of his truthfulness. Éva has been talking about him as a quintessential male figure.

So she goes on:

Yes, yes, she said innocently and opened her big blue eyes to indicate her seriousness. Men. There are such men, men unbound by family, possessions or territory. They would have been hunters or fishermen in the past. Sometimes father was away for months and then we were educated in institutions run by nuns who were good natured but a little scared but tried to keep us in order, as if they had found us abandoned by the roadside, as if bits of the jungle were still sticking to our hair, as if we had spent our time dining with monkeys off trees bearing loaves of bread. You see that is the kind of colorful childhood we enjoyed… Not that I am complaining. Please don’t think I am complaining about father. I love him, and I think he was nicest to me when he returned from one of his longer excursions a little exhausted, utterly broke, looking as if he had been fighting wild animals. It was really good at such times, for a while at least. On Sunday mornings he would take us to the museum then to the sweetshop and the cinema. He would ask to look at our exercise books, clip on his monocle and would chide and teach us with a solemn frown… It was all most amusing, father as schoolmaster, can you imagine?

Yes, I said. The poor thing.


These are two women talking, but they are of course written by a man. It is a man imagining what these particular women might think and providing them with his own thoughts. Let's go on. Lajos himself is with Eszter now. He is mercilessly exploiting her. She knows this, but he confesses;

I have always been a weak man. I would like to have achieved something in the world and I believe I was not altogether without talent. But talent and ambition are not enough. I know now they are not enough. To be properly creative one needs something else… some special strength or discipline or some mixture of the two, the stuff, I think, they call character… And that quality, that talent, is something that is missing in me. It’s like a strange deafness. As if one knew the music, the tune being played, precisely but could not hear the notes. When I met you I was not quite so certain of this, what I am telling you now… I didn’t even know that you represented character for me. You understand?

No, I honestly replied.

Somehow it was not his words that astonished me but his voice, the way he spoke. I had not heard him speak like this before. He spoke like a man who… but it is almost impossible to pin the voice down. He spoke like a man who has seen or discovered something, some truth, or is on his way to doing so though he could not yet declare it because he was getting ever closer and was shouting his impressions at the world for all he was worth. He spoke like a man who felt something. It was not a voice I was used to with him. I listened without speaking.

It’s so simple, he said. You’ll understand it straightaway. It was you, you were what I was missing, you were my character, my being. One recognizes this sort of thing. A man without character, or with an imperfect character, is morally something of a cripple. There are people like that, people who in every other respect are perfectly normal but for a missing arm or leg. Such people are given prostheses, an artificial arm or leg, and suddenly they are capable of working again, of being useful. Please don’t be angry at my analogy, but you must have been a kind of artificial limb to me… a moral prosthesis. I hope I haven’t offended you? he asked tenderly and leaned over to me.


It is a mistake listening to Lajos, but then Eszter's love for Lajos is not quite dead though she tells herself it is time and again.

The question then for us of the male persuasion - as I will show with another excerpt later - is what to make of Ester's choices and decisions. What makes women go for bastards in other words? What does the bastard offer? Are all men bastards in some sense? Not only bastards but also ridiculous popinjays like Lajos? Does their bastardness lie in simply not being what women want, or being all too much what they want? Whose projection is Lajos?

No, we're not back to Freud. Just quoting an old novella. I'll think more after another entry.




14.04.08 : BEHNAM - A PETITION AGAINST EXTRADITION

I do sign petitions from time to time, usually without much hope of success, and am wary of doing things simply to salve my conscience, pretending to be doing something substantial when I am not. Especially with online petitions. But what can one do. Sometimes this is all. Sometimes it's a start. Nor is this much.

I have signed this petition and I hope to persuade any readers to do so too.

This is what it says:

Category: Human Rights
Region: United Kingdom
Target: Home Secretary Rt Hon Jacqui Smith MP
Description/History:
BEHNAM AND FAMILY MUST STAY!

Behnam, an outstanding BA Hons Fine Art student at Central Saint Martins College of Art & Design, University of the Arts London, his younger brother, an A/S level student at Quintin Kynaston School, and their mother are in urgent need of asylum in the UK.

What Behnam and his mother face is deportation to prison, torture and possible death.

As a former teacher at the boys' school and now a close family friend, I have known Behnam for 4 and a half years since his arrival at the school. I vouch for the family's complete integrity.

Behnam is a delightful, popular young man, an exceptionally talented artist, much of whose work reflects his open-minded approach to matters such as politics and religion. This, alone, would place him in great danger in today's Iran.

Aged just 21, Behnam has already held four solo art exhibitions in London as well as exhibiting alonside other artists.The family is an enormous asset to our society.

The image included is a painting by Behnam, aged 16, depicting the view of a political prisoner looking out towards freedom. The doves and the Statue of Liberty are outlined in the colours of the Iranian flag. Around the image are representaions of the ancient Persian Human Rights Codes of Cyrus.

In April 2005 two of Behnam's friends were arrested at Behnam's family's home in Iran for allegedly printing and distributing anti-regime literature.

Three days later Behnam's father was arrested on arrival at Tehran Airport. Beaten and interrogated about the whereabouts of his wife and older son, Behnam's father was released following the payment of money.

He warned his wife in London, that she and Behnam were wanted by the authorities and could not return to Iran. He was subsequently re-arrested and held for 15 months until he was conditionally released.

The family claimed asylum in the UK, but their story was not believed in court, their claim was rejected. It again failed on appeal and this has now been upheld at a reconsideration hearing. Shortly after receiving this news the boys' mother collapsed and was taken to hospital.

The family sought to take the case to the Court of Appeal, especially as there is evidence which was not available at the earlier hearing, but their application has been rejected.

A fresh asylum claim based on additional evidence has been submitted.

Their position is one of great danger. Both Behnam and his mother have been tried and sentenced in absentia by a court in Iran on political charges. Behnam has been sentenced prison for 5 years, his mother to 7 years.

Even more shocking is that they have been warned that they will receive lashes, 70 in Behnam's case and 100 in the mother's. Knowing the people concerned we cannot see how they could survive such a brutal ordeal.

The Iranian regime has an appalling, and deteriorating, Human Rights record - including executions of minors, floggings and other forms of torture.

We are completely dismayed and outraged by the suffering this delightful family are going through.

The family is at real risk of deportation to Iran. A campaign has being launched to stop this.

As a first step please sign the petition. Together with the paper petition, over 8,370 people have now signed the petition.

THEY MUST NOT BE RETURNED TO IRAN TO BE TORTURED! THEY MUST BE ALLOWED TO STAY IN THE UK!

If you would like to get involved in the campaign please let me know.

On behalf of the family, thanks for your support.

Pauline Levis
Coordinator, Behnam & Family Must Stay Campaign

It came to me from Pauline via the blessed Facebook. It has some uses after all. You can sign through the link.




13.04.08 : ZIMBABWE

I have had a bad feeling about this from the day after the elections in Zimbabwe. Nothing could be more certain than that an election is being stolen, beaten, bullied out of existence and that the rest of Africa seems to be quietly condoning it. Shame on them. Shame on Thabo Mbeki.

There will be blood. And it will be mopped up behind closed doors.

There will be starvation but no one will see the graves.




13.04.08 : SUNDAY NIGHT IS...

... the Hungarian Gypsy jazz genius, Béla Szakcsi Lakatos (the pianist, who looks like a cross between Michael Moore and Mohamed el Fayed). The general sound is close to John McLaughlin while the vocals verge on Trilok Gurtu. I was going to do The Four Tops. Another time.





A little more from Márai in the next post.

A nice - possibly longer - exchange with Mark Granier over my reading of the Bernard O'Donoghue poem below. Might follow that up.

A thunderstorm here about an hour ago, the sky suddenly darkening with that deep watery look, then the flash and, almost immediately, the crack and bellow, holding for several seconds, like a shout from an ancient cave. A few more following, going on for about twenty minutes. All dove-grey now.

Man U 2 Arsenal 1. The intolerable voice of Alan Green on radio growing more tolerable if only because of the progress of events. The only possible reason.

Enough. Back to Szakcsi.




12.04.08 : BACK LATE FROM LONDON

Spending Friday night with painter friend H in Battersea. Ground floor flat. Late talk after late food. Deep sleep. Then to my father's. Too late to write much now, will write in the morning.

BUT - and this is to be cheered to the very rafters - the Guardian at last publish a wonderful review of Padrika Tarrant's book of short stories, Broken Things. It is a short review but appropriately enthusiastic. I paste it in here:

The weirdness of the everyday

Nicholas Clee on Broken Things | Shadows in Wonderland

Saturday April 12, 2008
The Guardian


Broken Things, by Padrika Tarrant (Salt, £12.99)

In Padrika Tarrant's fabulous, unsettling collection, psychosis offers surreal insights, with her protagonists feeling themselves blessed with an ability to see beyond the surface of things. One brings home a dead dog, and tries to make him whole again by patching him up with bits of household detritus; but he howls all night. One waits for her husband to return from the shops; she is livid at his delay, because "Four months is an awfully long time to take when you only nipped out for a newspaper." One, shockingly, finds an abandoned baby and believes him to be God, pleading with her, "Please pick me up. Please love me. I am a little baby and I am so frightened."

The consciousnesses of these people - a few of whom are dead - roam free of ordinary constraints. But Tarrant's stories are also rooted in the everyday: the world of giros, bleak shopping centres and unsympathetic bureaucracies. Her language is both precise and arrestingly strange: "a voice like wet leaves"; a man sleeping "with his arms over his face as if he were being mobbed by birds"; a clock's tick, "calm as stones". The hallucinatory landscape of Broken Things invades the reader's consciousness, too.

If he thinks Broken Things is good, wait until Tarrant's novel, The Knife Drawer appears. It's still with the agent. All the publishers say it is brilliant but too odd for their lists. Shame on them. Tarrant is a genius, the closest thing we have to Bruno Schulz while being entirely herself.




11.04.08 : TWO THOUGHTS FROM MáRAI

As from the book I have just corrected final proofs on, Esther's Inheritance (Knopf / Random House), due later this year.

1.
I know, she answered. Father never remembers reality. He is a poet.

Yes, I said, my heart a little lighter. He might be a poet. Reality gets confused in his mind. That’s why you shouldn’t believe everything he says… his memory is poor.

Guilty, as charged, but honest withal. I mean I never pretend to be remembering. The Muses are the daughters of Memory, not Memory herself. Blake preferred Imagination. 'The poet lies for the improvement of truth. Believe him.' (Charles Tomlinson)

The next is longer, about maleness, or rather certain aspects of certain kinds of maleness, and love. There are other passages I will add soon, but this will do for now.

2.
Father is not really an urban creature, you know. No, don’t protest, I think I might know him better than you do. There is nothing of the materialist in father, possessions mean nothing to him, he doesn’t even mind whether he has a roof over his head or not. There is something in him of the hunter-gatherer who rises in the morning, gets on his horse – he always kept a car even at the worst of times, usually driving it himself – and sets out into his own patch of savannah or forest, which in father’s case was the city, sniffs the air, stays on the alert, hunts down a suitably large banknote, roasts it and offers everyone a bite; but then while there is anything left of the prize, for days or even weeks on end, is not interested in anything else… And when it comes down to it this is what we love in father, and what you too love, Eszter. Father is capable of discarding a piano or a decent job the way other people throw away used gloves; he has no respect for objects and market value, you know. This is something we, as women, cannot understand… I have learned a great deal from father but his real secret - his carelessness, his inner detachment - I cannot learn. He does not feel closely bound to anything, the only thing he is interested in is danger, life being the most peculiar danger… God alone knows, God alone can understand this… He needs this danger, this life among people but without human ties; he breaks ties out of curiosity and absent-mindedly throws them away. Did you not realize this when…? I mean, did you not feel it? Even as a child I felt we were meant to live in a tent, a migrant tribe traveling through country that was sometimes dangerous, sometimes pleasant, father with bow and quiver in his hand going ahead, spying out the terrain, dashing to telephones, listening, watching certain signs then suddenly full of energy, fully alert and tensed for action… elephants approaching the drinking pool, father in his covert raising the bow. Are you laughing at me?

No, I replied, my throat dry. Carry on. I won’t laugh.

Men, you know, she said in a wise pedagogic manner with a light sigh.

I did laugh. But I immediately grew serious again. I couldn’t help but notice that Éva, Vilma’s daughter, this child to whom I lightheartedly adopt an adult, grown-up woman tone, knew something about men, certainly something more and more certainly than I did, I who could have been her mother. I scolded myself for laughing.


More on this later. I just translate the stuff. But carelessness and inner detachment? That I know.




10.04.08 : NOTHING LIKE A GOOD FALK

I have redd yerdes on thisse gentilman. Verily lette him Falk himselfe. Preferably with his own yerde.


And in the meantime, this, stolen from Olly's Onions. A tedious argument of insidious intent...





It's a good phrase that first four note theme. It does go on somewhat. And never mind the invisible dog.




10.04.08 : THE YOUNG TALIBAN SOLDIER

I want - only briefly - to think about two war poems here. One is a new poem by Bernard O'Donoghue, the other - by Keith Douglas - is one of the best known English poems to come out of the Second World War. Here is Douglas's Vergissmeinnicht, the German word for Forget-me-not:

Vergissmeinnicht

Three weeks gone and the combatants gone
returning over the nightmare ground
we found the place again, and found
the soldier sprawling in the sun.

The frowning barrel of his gun
overshadowing. As we came on
that day, he hit my tank with one
like the entry of a demon.

Look. Here in the gunpit spoil
the dishonoured picture of his girl
who has put: Steffi. Vergissmeinnicht.
in a copybook gothic script.

We see him almost with content,
abased, and seeming to have paid
and mocked at by his own equipment
that's hard and good when he's decayed.

But she would weep to see today
how on his skin the swart flies move;
the dust upon the paper eye
and the burst stomach like a cave.

For here the lover and killer are mingled
who had one body and one heart.
And death who had the soldier singled
has done the lover mortal hurt.


And here is Bernard O'Donoghue's recent poem, Vanishing Points:

Vanishing Points

Safe in an armchair at the dentist's surgery,
you observe your daughter's treatment:
being cruel to be kind again. You fix on
the criss-cross of her trainers' soles
in the foreground, on past her brave socks,
grazed knees, school jumper and clasped hands
to the vanishing-point that is her head,
laid back. It is the same perspective as
in the photograph of the thrown-away body
of the young Taliban soldier. His trainers,
similarly foregrounded, look as if
they could be the same designer label.
But this vanishing-point is past his head, way out
in the impassive desert sands towards Kabul.

The poems follow similar tracks in that they humanise the dead enemy, the first by associating the German soldier with human love and sentiment, the lover and the forget-me-not, the second by identifying the dead young Taliban with the writer's daughter prone in the dentist's chair. The love felt towards the daughter is transferred by association to the Taliban. Look, he even wears the same designer trainers as she does. Perhaps.

But she is having dental treatment which is "being cruel to be kind". He, on the other hand has been "thrown-away". We don't know who has thrown him away. To throw a dead body away like rubbish strikes us as a cruel thing and not kind. Presumably only the enemy would throw him away, not his comrades, so - presumably - it is the enemy, that is to say ourselves, who have perpetrated the cruelty.

The parallel is beautifully seen in the O'Donoghue, marvellous humane poet as he is, superimposing one on the other.

Nevertheless, I kept hovering over the notion of the Taliban soldier (that presumably is the picture O'Donoghue was remembering).

Well, let us stop calling him O'Donoghue. I know him as Bernard, the kindest and most liberal of men. Then why do I hover?

In thinking of Vergissmeinnicht we are aware of the dead German only as a combatant in battle. The fact that he is part of the Nazi war machine seems secondary, since we accept the fact, or now, at this distance in time, we do, that the German army was not always necessarily the same as the SS, the Gestapo or the concentration camp kommandant. We see him - as Keith Douglas, himself a soldier, soon to be dead, saw him - as another fighting man, part of the mortal tussle.

But what if he was a member of the Gestapo or the SS or a dead concentration camp guard like the man Lee Miller photographed? Would we then be ready identify him with the lover or with the helpless girl in the dentist's chair?

Because I can't help thinking of football stadiums in Afghanistan. The public executions, the stonings, the investment in a belief order that leads to terrible cruelty. The young Taliban may have played no part in it, but is he just a plain soldier as we assume the German in Keith Douglas's poem to be? Is he simply caught up in a patriotic war of some sort? Is he?

I don't know. I hover and cannot make up my mind. I don't think he is swopping places with my daughter.




09.04.08 : TOOTH

Lost one in Dun Laoghaire. It cracked just before my reading and fully fell out over last Irish breakfast. Actually, not a tooth but one great mass of amalgam, silvery black, something from the prehistory of dentistry. No pain, no obvious hole, just a pale little remaining wobbly stump.

So back home and to the dentist today. A Hungarian dentist in a group practice, an attractive woman in glasses, her assistant glamorous, blonde, like something out of Baywatch but in a white coat instead of a bathing costume. They are larking about, chatting, having a good time. Well, I think, I might as well be treated by beauty as by charmlessness.

I show them the monster-size lost tooth-filling that I have been carrying in mypocket. The dentist looks intelligently at the gap. She easily pulls out the remaining stumplet with a flick of her wrist.

We'll need to extract, she says.

Fine, I say.

She brings out the needle, injecting above the tooth and - this will be uncomfortable, she warns - in the roof of the mouth. I feel very little.

It numbs. They carry on chatting as it does so. They playfully complain about men, half addressing the remark to me.

What's the problem? I ask.

Their sheer existence, the dentist replies.

Can't do much about that, I answer. They laugh.

Then the drilling begins. After the drilling, the yanking, a loud procedure somewhere inside my skull. Dentist tells me it is going to be even more uncomfortable (they are, presumably, not allowed to use words like 'hurt' and 'pain'). The rather glorious secret is that it doesn't hurt. Not a bit.

They are impressed. Deeply impressed. Let them remain so, I think, as they staunch the blood. Life goes on for them. I go out, sit for ten minutes with teeth clenched around a piece of lint hoping to frighten the child sitting next to me. She has seen far worse in computer games, I suspect.

I go to the bathroom, spit out the bloody lint, wash my face, comb my hair. So there you are, I look at myself. Never much liked that face but it's doing all right for almost sixty, minus one tooth and a little discomfort.

Could go for the full Martin Amis. Could go through the Experience. But no. Grin (not too widely) and bear it. Carry on bearing it.




08.04.08 : DUN LAOGHAIRE 4 (ENDS)

So, Brian Turner, Sinead Morrissey and Kei Miller and the prizes.

Brian Turner is the ex-Iraq soldier who wrote Here, Bullet. I don't suppose it is common that an MFA Creative Writing graduate joins the army, but that is what Turner did, serving in both Bosnia and Iraq. It isn't common for soldiers to be publishing poetry, full stop. Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Isaac Rosenberg in the First World War; Keith Douglas and Alun Lewis in the Second were important figures, as, in a different way were, say, Robert Graves and Edmund Blunden in the First and Martin Bell of the Second. That's leaving out the Americans, of course, like James Dickey and Randall Jarrell.

After that there is little - of which I at least am aware - of great moment, though the Vietnam War did produce R L Barth who seems to me a fine and too-little-known poet.

Turner's poems hinge on witness: on precise registration and on understanding of events and states of mind. I have the book already and have high regard for the poems as poems, that is to say irrespective (if one can be irrespective) of their function as documents. Broadly speaking the poems, but even more Turner in the flesh, are against war - not specifically this war, but war in general.

The reading was animated, aware of its particular status, almost like a sermon from a pulpit but too intelligent and sensitive to become one. He ended it with a poem by Yehuda Amichai, a fine gesture. There were no heroics but plenty of lament and danger. We must sow the poems now and see what they produce a year or two from now. I think there will be some sturdy plants among them.

Sinead Morrissey writes remarkably well at pressure, squeezing language till the pips squeak. She says her poems in small, sharp points, almost foot by foot, but there is no denying the power. The poems have scope too, well beyond the personal. She followed Turner, which can't have been easy, but immediately set her own presence.

Kei Miller's first poem was a rather beautiful thing, rolling and sensuous. A Jamaican, he wrote about England, "a place of bad food, bad dancing and bad weather". This always goes down well in Ireland, of course, though - in Ireland at least - I think it's best left to the Irish. (Never piss on your host's rug to please the other visitors, might have been my mother's advice and being a well-brought up boy, I don't. Nor have I ever pissed on Ireland's rug. In my own quaint refugee sort of way I actually love both Ireland and England, and I don't mind who knows it - though see An English Apocalypse if you do want to see the latter blown up five different ways.)

Actually Mr Miller is a very fine poet. It is the playing to the galleries I loathe, whoever is doing it. That is the performer shtick that shticks in my gullet. Whatever people are doing, do the opposite, my mother might have said. She did. Stand up to the prevailing wind. You don't need to make a big fuss about it. It's nothing heroic, it's just for the sheer feeling of the wind in your face, not at your back.

Of the prizes, the Irish Times brought Harry Clifton, whose work I have only known in individual poems, but the new book looks like a real monument, an international humane monument at that. The young poets prize went to Dave Lordan though my pick would have been Billy Ramsell. Both performed their poems with great gusto but Ramsell seemed to me to have several dimensions to spare: playfulness and tenderness as well as sheer force. I have never loved force in itself. All four poets were good, of course. That goes without saying and includes Nell Regan and Nuala Ní Chonchúir.

The PEN reading was just what it should be. Self-effacing, pointing to absent poets and the silent, dark places that exist both elsewhere and among us.

I thought Belinda McKeon, the curator, was a wonder.

*

There's an interesting Charles Spencer review of the new Mark Ravenhill plays here where he says:

The really brave thing to do now would be to write a play suggesting that the West's intentions weren't entirely dishonourable when it came to getting rid of Saddam Hussein...

I know, I know. That sound is the wind of most of my fellow artists whistling at me. But it would be brave, wouldn't it?




07.04.08 : DUN LAOGHAIRE 3

Back through hail and sunshine to greetings of cats and vague exhaustion.

I think I will write couple of posts thinking back on the festival, one that has left me exhilarated as well as exhausted (three nights with bed at 2.30, 1.15 and 1.30 with all the attendant faint niggles of strange beds, meaning little deep sleep).

But exhilaration above all. To begin with, I cannot think of any possible improvement on the introductions to the readings, each introduced by a different writer. At many places these are somewhat perfunctory: a quote or two from the back of book, and one off the web. Here, each was meticulously and enthusiastically researched and damn eloquent into the bargain. Each was a little piece of literature in itself. Peter Sirr's to CD Wright and Seamus Heaney was a model, almost a brief essay, but they were all wonderful - and I had the great good luck to be introduced by Colm Toibin.

It is the level of discourse (I do not now mean in the specialist sense) that was most rewarding throughout. Dennis O'Driscoll and Thomas McCarthy talked about Theodore Roethke with extraordinary effect: O'Driscoll droll, understated, wise, deeply learned; McCarthy with a faintly statesmanlike eloquence: the former a beautifully carved wooden pew with a couple of grotesques; the second a firmly upholstered chair at a debating table. It was simply gorgeous to listen to. Two superb poets of course.

Other specific brief memories.

Alan Gillis: a series of Rabelaisian crescendos and modulations, like a wide river full of energy and pity.

Meghan O'Rourke: Small, sharply controlled clear voice, precise, a New York dark shot. Lyrical as black coffee.

Daljit Nagra: Expanding into the current, surging between his Daljit Nagra impression and the Khan Singh Kumar of that first rising of his fin. There is a dramatist in Daljit: all those monologues and voices making a society.

On my own night I sit in the wings and try to listen but it's harder as I know I am to appear. So (and this will not be at all enough):

Henri Cole: Holding space, almost hesitantly, tenderly, but with passionate, understated power.

Mimi Khalvati: The most graceful of formal voices, but rooted beyond formality in a pattern of experience, ritual and loss.

I'll try to gather a few thoughts about Brian Turner, Sinead Morrissey and Kei Miller later. And others too.

My own reading? Yes, it went very well. A lot of books went too. I cannot help but think of the reading of poetry as an act of intimacy: as one person speaking to several individual and distinct, unknown others, each a 'one' in his or her own right. I don't want to bellow at people, I don't want to smooch them. I don't want them to think me a bit of a lark or an entertainer or some mournful mask of myself. I don't want to sell them anything. I want to allow them a little space to breathe between poems because listening takes concentration, and then half-speak, half-sing to them as a person might to another when in the right frame of mind. And that means both of us listening to language itself: language as the air between us. That's the idea anyway.

The nights were social. Drinks and talk, but no one falling over, no one becoming overbearing or preposterous. Delightful, generous nights. Beautifully planned and executed days and evening are a great deal of help in that regard.

A last entry on this tomorrow.




05.04.08 : DUN LAOGHAIRE 2

Sunny morning, soon to be overtaken by the new Ice Age. I read tonight with Henri Cole and Mimi Khalvati, who has not arrived yet.

Yesterday, after the 320-odd children we took the train to Bray and back. Big dinner at 4.30 at the Gastropub that I could not help but think of -probably none too originally - as the Gastropod. Talking to Jane, the local councillor and supporter of the event and to Sasha Dugdale. Sasha and I had met before, at the Akhmatova event in London a few years ago. She talks about Moscow, about Russia, the new rich, the new playwrights that she translates for the Royal Court.

Outside it looks as though the rain is about to fall. C and I dash back and returning to the Pavilion Theatre it does fall, thick, wet rain. Trousers quickly soaked through, flimsy umbrella flapping in a useless panic.

It's Antonella Anedda, Jamie McKendrick and Bernard O'Donoghue. AA reads in Italian, JMcK reads his English versions. Her poetry is short, clear, compact: a sense of history and landscape pressed together. The syntax - in English at least - straightforward. I want to read more of her.

Jamie gives his best reading - of those I have heard of course - the new poems darker, as allusive as ever, as dreamily indirect and aesthetic, but sharper, more bitter. He hangs at the lectern like a slipped raincoat, leaning forwards.

Bernard is the warm, humane and direct speaker I know from all the books, celebrating and mourning the non-literary. Easy to forget the non-literary: people in settled places going about their lives. The pathos and power of the straight line from cradle to grave.

We buy books then have a drink at the Gastropod before returning to the theatre for C D Wright and Seamus Heaney. The rain a mere windblown spatter now. The place is heaving of course. As ever, we are next to Henri Cole with Anne Enright on the other side. Peter Sirr gives splendid potted essay on the work of each poet then to action.

C D Wright's poetry is angular, odd (she herself says so and claims so), quite sharp edged, entirely original, as if feeling were being pinched out in the crevices between language. They come at one quite hard. To be read. She leaves the stage inviting us to listen to 'your chieftain' meaning Seamus.

Seamus reads. The burnished language remains but it is burnishing personally darker material. Descents into the underworld, things closing, meetings with ghosts. ending with a series of short poems moving - like District and Circle - through the underworld. The poems are intensely torchlike. His language sense is entirely different from CDW's. Not angular and edged but luminous. And - of course - generous. Which is why he is loved.

Afterwards to the bar. Gabriel Fitzmaurice is there, Colm Toibin, Anne E, Ruth Padel and CDW herself. Colm is a great admirer of Krasznahorkai. We rhapsodise together a little on this mutual cult. I spend half hour talking to CDW, US politics, academe... Then Alan Gillis, Belinda, Paddy Bushe and... Mark Granier arrives and introduces himself. I carry away various kindly books.

It's 2.15 am by the time I head for bed. Six whiskeys and bolt upright.

I follow news from Zimbabwe with ever greater gloom. Mugabe is closing them in, wanting to chop them down into little pieces, cow them with arms.

More next time.



04.04.08 : DUN LAOGHAIRE 1

Hard to get online apart from this pay-terminal in the lobby of the Royal Marine.

Second day of Dun Laoghaire. Arrived in fine weather, breeze blowing through but warmish, as now. The hotel is refurbished to full mod con standars. The harbour is just down the road and the Pavilion Theatre where we perform is even closer.

Belinda McKeon made a rich, allusive introduction concentrating on the notion of imperfect knowledge. She moved through poems by some of us, her language dense with metaphor. A poet's speech though she herself is a novelist. Rather brilliant, I thought, and said so afterwards. She looks so young you'd think she'd be out clubbing or skateboarding.

Afterwards we walked along the jetty. Two Swiss teachers stopped us to talk - as we were doing so a man stopped and remarked how the construction work on the main jetty was being done by 'foreigners'. An Irish fella cannot get a job, he said and moved on.

In the evening to Ruth Padel's keynote speech, focusing on Tennsyon, Dickinson and David Harsent. She explored sound, particularly vowel sounds, the way they link and drive poems forwards. Also on the unsaid. The central idea was fascinating though I kept - as ever - wanting to put up my hand and cry: 'But...'. That would have been foolish because the argument did not depend on accumulation of fine detail and specific claim. Good. Then drinks in the bar with various including Ruth, Anne Enright, Jamie McKendrick, Alan Gillis and Iggy, whom we first met in Melbourne at the Book Festival. A few whiskeys.

Sleep interrupted. Too hot. THis morning together withg Paul Tubbs I read to some 250 primary school children - a rather frightening prospect as I haven't done anything like that for years but it all went beautifully, the children full of enthusiasm and full of questions afterwards.

Tonight, two more readings, including C D Wright with Seamus Heaney. More later.

Excuse typos. Writing fast.



02.04.08 : FULL DAYS IN DUBLIN

Looged on in rooms at Trinity. Yesterday was very long and very full. Rise at 5.30, fly at 11.15. Taxi in to TCD, find rooms. Go out to do radio programme, about 30 minutes interview and poems with Gerald Dawe (to air on Saturday, 7.30 on RTE - poetry is a more serious business here and gets good coverage), coffee and snack with Dennis O'Driscoll, then straight on to the reading with Derek Mahon and Mary Morrissy.

Very big turn-out, so big we had to be shifted to a larger lecture theatre. Brendan Kennelly in audience. Stephen Matterson introduces Eilean Ni Chuilleanain introduces the three poets. Derek on first: full of humour, light, informal ending with a very strong new poem; then Mary reaing from soon-to-be published novel in the voice of Sean O'Casey's sister; then me. Twenty minutes each. Lots of long applause. Then for meal with company and Gerry Dawe.

It was the first time I had read with Derek Mahon and, being an established admirer of his work it felt like a considerable honour. In fact I was nervous starting - could hear my voice shake but the words came out firm - but picked up. Talking over dinner too was good. I had met DM before but conversation had been friendly-brief. This was more relaxed, funnier, more serious. EnC next to us talking about abroads we both knew. C beside me laughing with MM and GD. About 12.30 back to rooms.

Sleep poor and short, so today, dropping into Taylor's Gallery where C exhibits, a visit to the National Gallery to meet scholar and translator Peter France who happens to be here. Wanted to catch his talk on translation at 6pm but could not be traced anywhere in the building though we looked for over half an hour.

Then home to sleep. In the evening to O'Neills to watch football over whiskeys. Tomorrow morning to Dun Laoghaire for the festival.

Bertie Ahern resigned. Reporters gathered round. Man in cafe said to me: The King is dead. Long live the King. I wondered what he was talking about. Then I heard about the resignation.




31.03.08 : CLOSED SYSTEM AND GENRE: NOTES

A few stray notes arising out of correspondence about reading genre in poetry in terms of open and closed systems:

What do I mean by a closed system? What I mean is that the nature of the vision is set within the genre, with all the strengths and weaknesses of genre. The strengths are traditional: new work is informed by a specific history and the reader immediately knows where he is. It is a safe place, a connoisseur's place. The reader's chief pleasure is in distinguishing the individual, original touches to the basic model, to the underlying network of myth. The weakness is restriction: the pull of the original patterns traps the work in its ambit. Paradoxically, the better, the more smoothly it runs, the less power genre work has to surprise. At that point the reader admires the sheer efficiency or glossiness of the example in front of him. Scary video games are a good example of this: the graphics keep improving but the structure does not change.

This is a problem in straightforward poetry where the aim is to restore the shock of experience through language. Poetry cannot afford to be closed. A certain roughness can even be a virtue. The words in a good poem have not been sealed off from the essential complexity of existence, a complexity that by its very nature strains against closure. The error (in my view) of many contemporary arguments against closure is that they are based on a misunderstanding of what closure is. It is not a matter of prosody or poetic form but of narrative. Closure happens when the basic terms of any given narrative follow the line of least resistance.

The problem is less marked in song or in poetry for children. Expectation is stronger in song because of the firmly entrenched verse-chorus model. Most song plays much closer to stereotype and tone, working elegant individual variations on the set theme.

In Prelutsky and Gorey's children's poems the pleasure is largely down to irony. We know the children are being presented with nightmares that we no longer experience as nightmares. They are theatrical echoes of the unheimlich put on specially for children. The further irony is that by the time children read them they are not really frightened either: they enjoy the thought of being, or having once been frightened. It is possibly one of the early childhood experiences of irony.




31.03.08 : THE ENGLISH SURGEON

That was the name of a television programme yesterday about Dr Henry Marsh, a neurosurgeon who regularly goes to the Ukraine to work with Dr Igor Kurilets, performing operations for free, chiefly removing brain tumours. He gives his own account of the work here.

Most of the time I have no idea what is on television but since, in a manner of speaking, we live above the shop, or what used to be the shop (my work-room, C's studio, and a kind of bookroom / C's office now plus a room with a piano and more books) the upstairs TV gets turned on randomly, often after a long day downstairs, during or after a meal. I had no idea this programme was on but flicked to it and remained transfixed till well past midnight.

I had heard Dr Marsh being interviewed on radio before. Quite a ripe, plummy voice, measured, slightly weary, but impressive. A substantial human being doing good work.

Just how good, and under just what circumstances, is decribed on the magazine article linked to above:

The hospital reeked of ammonia - the only disinfectant available at the time - and much of the building was in darkness. There were endless dark concrete corridors, a few battered pieces of furniture, and no medical equipment visible anywhere. The 'resuscitation room' in the Emergency Department consisted of a battered trolley without any medical equipment in sight whatsoever. While walking along one of these awful corridors a young doctor suddenly bounded up to me and started talking in broken English. He had never met a Western doctor before and had taught himself English by listening to the BBC. He explained that he was in charge of the department of spinal trauma and immediately said that the situation in Ukrainian hospitals was utterly terrible.

A few years ago I was in Romania with other writers from all over the world for a conference when my fellow British writer, novelist PB, suffered a heart attack and was rushed to the hospital at Constanza where I spent some time with him. Dr Marsh's description immediately brought it back. The hospital appears as one of the Black Sea Sonnets in Reel. This is the poem:

Hospital

You press the button but the lift won’t start
however you keep slamming at the door.
You must get out. The hospital needs treatment
more than its patients. There is a secret art
to finding the right staircase. Every floor
could be another. Your appointment
is with M.C. Escher, dying in a ward
suspended in a wing elsewhere. The lost
are fading into kindness or are restored
to a fading kind of health. We have crossed
some great divide into this. There is sea
in the walls, sea in the blood, in the head
of the man on the ventilator. The dead
sing down the lift shaft. The lift itself stands empty.

Incidentals. The Ukraine is poor and Dr Marsh is a remarkable figure. The central event was the removal of a brain tumour from a very poor young man who could not afford the operation, one that had to be performed with cheap equipment, including a battery operated drill, without general anaesthetic. It was harrowing watching. Harrowing but wonderful, because instead of the ketchup-splattering of feature films this was a living, wide-awake man's brain. The man behaved admirably. He was calm. He smiled, though he had been afraid. A good - even saintly - friend had accompanied him from his home village. The operation was fraught with risk but was successful.

In the course of the film we were shown an appointment with a beautiful 23-year old woman who was going to die though they could not quite tell her that, not straight away. Others too were dying or had died. Humanity was in the corridor, not queueing in orderly fashion, but being pacified with a box of chocolates.

The programme had already been shown as a film to universal praise. I thought it was a marvellous, truthful, patient documentary. I had given up hope that such things existed. And humanity came well out of it: no better no worse than it often is. But worth a few sacrifices. Maybe more than a few.




30.03.08 : SUNDAY NIGHT IS...

Kilrush, Ireland, 1963.




As noted yesterday, I go to Ireland for two readings on Tuesday. Attending plenty of others. Will keep posting for Dublin and Dun Laoghaire.




29.03.08 : APROPOS HUNGARIAN INTERLUDE - AND...

It does rather break my heart referring to my birthplace repeatedly in these terms. I do not imagine that the links below (just three of many, not to mention all the disgusting Youtube clips, with even more nauseating comments below by supporters) represent a beautiful, intelligent and long-suffering country.

But what is one to do knowing such phenomena are on the rise? What phenomena?

Try this and this or this or this.

Proper nazi scum and proud of it, sporting neo-nazi flags and emblems, spouting hatred against Roma and Jews and all foreigners.

Their kind is bubbling under all Central Europe and scabbing away at little corners of the West too.

Gloomy post, I know. I must look for some decent Sunday viewing and listening tomorrow.

What shall I say of the weather? That the sun has been pushing its occasional way between big-shouldered winds that have twisted the washing on the line and turned it over and over? That the wind has been almost warm?

On a more cheerful note, to Ireland on Tuesday to read at Trinity College with Derek Mahon (one of my early heroes) and novelist, Mary Morrissy, with a half-hour radio spot on RTE before then.

On Thursday to the Poetry Now festival in Dun Laoghaire to read with American Henri Cole, and the excellent Iranian-born Mimi Khalvati. Also reading to children and contributing to a reading on political struggle with, I have decided, a poem by the Kurdish poet, Choman Hardi.


* Someone points out that the pictures and articles about the Gárda relate to last autumn. The organisation is growing. Here is a short video of their march through one of the main Budapest squares this month.






28.03.08 : MODERNISM AND FORM 3

I suspect the terminology is wrong. Let's stick to poetry for now. Modernism is a historical movement that, like all historical movements, had to fight to establish itself as the most comprehensive, most convincing poetic of the time. It was not a single current with a single purpose but a confluence of sorts, one that, furthermore, began to diverge the moment it came together - that is if it ever did properly come together with all its schools and manifestos. There was not a single formal language: in fact it was less to do with form than with rhetoric, fields of reference and a broad desire to give voice to new experiences. Pound, Eliot and e e cummings, for example, wrote rhymed quatrains as well as vers libre. Yeats never stopped doing so. Is Wilfred Owen a Modernist? Is Graves? Are Brecht, Auden and MacNeice? If not, what are they?

The problem with formal pattern was that it was associated with the wrong things. The Imagists talked of not composing according to the metronome. It was the metronome and all it entailed - the forms of rhetoric it conjured - that was, briefly, the enemy. It is interesting that while some poets, some of the time, seemed to be freeing themselves of mathematical patterns, the modernist architects were developing new, ever stricter formal equations. Nor is there any lack of strictness in twelve-tone serial music.

It is only fairly recently that people have suggested that formal verse was an expression of repressive, authoritarian, right-wing, imperialist, proto-fascist politics. This is such palpable nonsense I hardly know where to begin. Ask Tony Harrison, ask Marilyn Hacker...

There is no serious poet in the world who has not learned from Modernism. I have learned almost everything I know from it. But what he or she has learned is less to do with rhyme or metre or stanza than with narrative. That, in turn, has been informed as much by cinema as by literature. Cinematic narrative is now often more complex than literary fiction. Its language of hint, enigma, fracture, return, inconclusiveness, doubt and complex register are part of the mainstream audience's field of expectation. They are so in poetry too. Nevertheless movies are not formless, not without rhythm, stanza and rhyme, or rather, their cinematic equivalents.

All poetry deals with constraint of some sort, most importantly the constraint of language itself. To talk of Modernism as something that is happening now in the realm of form; as a movement that, while being over a hundred years old, needs its battles to be fought anew, is extraordinarily romantic. There is always romance attached to iconoclasm, to being isolated and in the right rather than in company and in the wrong. Except that the avant-garde is rarely isolated. It is generally a matter of groups and group-speak. Modernism as the tailwind of history is everywhere around us: the romance of the avant-garde has little to do with it. It takes far less courage to wave an avant-garde flag or replay events at the Cabaret Voltaire (Zürich 1916) - something that every generation of students is keen on doing - than it does to construct a building where people may live.




27.03.08 : HUNGARIAN INTERLUDE

Excerpts from correspondence:

1. (England)
...Yesterday I was working with a party of Hungarian Jewish students from Budapest. Because most of the boys were wearing a yarmulke I assumed this was a real orthodox group. Their teacher explained that if they wore a yarmulke on a Budapest street there was every likelihood they would be physically attacked. The boys were, he said, enjoying the freedom here of being able to safely wear their yarmulkes in public...


2. (Hungary)
...We are in Budapest since the 15th of March. We saw the rallies & herds with masks& Arpad-sflags & Molotov cocktails.

The political situation is disastrous. It's not a deadlock any more, it feels like an inevitable fall into an abyss.

I hope I'm wrong.

It's very cold & windy, sometimes it snows & then the sun comes out; it's a relief, but not a genuine one, everybody knows. The city is full of bad tension, but stilll, still, is full of broken beauty.

I travel from one end to the other, register the changes, the losses, the new elements. See friends, talk through the night, or we meet in coffee-houses & have fast, very dense conversations, because time is short & we are afraid of breaking the fragile perfection of the encounter.

The Danube is angry & powerful, green-grey-brown...


3. (England)
... Sometimes I wonder whether I have been oversensitive to the antics of those who always exist in any society. Do I imagine the country to have become a more barbaric place in the last ten years? If so, why? Why do I imagine it? Why in fact is it so (if it is)? Maybe (I sometimes think) there is some long unexpressed poison there, as there might be in the other old Warsaw Pact countries. Maybe the Soviet-led period was too committed to telling people that they were innocent victims, not perpetrators, of the war and its atrocities.

I don't want to magnify what is small. I can think of all kinds of historical reasons for Hungary being the way it is. Nobody is going to turn the clock back to the 1949-1989 period: that is not to be expected. It is a fascinating experience to watch how history blows the grass this way and that way.

Nevertheless, it seems to me a sour time. I can tell from the voices of my friends that they are fearful, anxious, and unhappy. I love Budapest of course. I love my friends. I love the historical alcohol of Budapest. One can keep drinking it as one might drink a river...


4. (Hungary)
...It feels that the city & the country is dipping into a deep dark water, there is such a feeling of loss & desintegration. And fear of course, much more then anger that was dominant before. Now most of my friends are resigned, as if hope were lost. Some, the older ones say that unfortunately they wouldn't see when times will get better again...

That's so tough & heartbreaking.

The Danube is angry & dirty.

When I travel around in Poland I have the conscioussness that that is a lost place - I hope this won't happen to Budapest...

Of course, the people beating up the Jewish boys in Budapest are actually protesting against Zionism and the cruelties and injustices of the fascist Zionist entity. I mean, who knows, those boys might emigrate to Israel, join the Israeli army and become settlers. Or they might know some people who might do that.




26.03.08 : MODERNISM AND FORM 2: GENTLEMEN V PLAYERS

I hope, in thinking, to become a little clearer about this since my own work tends in specific ways (more rhyme and stanza shape than metre) to be formal and I have instincts that do, on occasion, yearn to be argued. Therefore...


The Modernists versus The Rest debate is a bit like the old cricket match between the Gentlemen and the Players where the Gentlemen were clean-living amateurs with big clean thoughts and big clean cars and the Players grubby-fingered professionals with small blurry thoughts and small cheap cars. But which is which? Who are the Gentlemen and who the Players?

It may be interesting to see the High Modernists as a kind of aristocracy passing on their crowns and baubles to the next generation. Emperor Eliot and King Pound (not to mention Barons Joyce and Beckett and Arch-Duchess Woolf) establish the dynasty that - so they say - runs, via Wallace Stevens on to Basil Bunting, to Edwin Morgan and Roy Fisher, thence to Charles Bernstein, Ron Silliman and any number of others. Princes all. Not for the hoi polloi. Caviare to the general.

Some would include the Beats here but I don't think Ginsberg and Kerouac are Modernists as such. The return to Whitman is a return to Blake, is a return to the broad runs and riffs of the Bible. In some ways I think of the Beats as Fifth Generation Romantics (1st Keats/Coleridge etc; 2nd Tennyson etc; 3rd Georgians: De La Mare etc; 4th Dylan Thomas, New Apocalyptics; 5th The Beats) doing Coleridge things with Wordsworthian notions of the demotic combined with Whitman and Blake's ideas of visionary spaciousness. Not Princes at all but Outlaws in versions of spaced-out Lincoln Green.

The best Modernists are Gentlemen but of the beaten about kind and it is the beating-about more than the aristocracy that appeals to me. These Gentlemen tend, says Mark Jarman on Alfred Corn's blog (scroll right down to last comment), to be of the Right politically.

By the way, the dirty secret of Modernism, which Duemer seems to regard as an ultimate good, was and is fascism. For some the New Formalism was, indeed, a response to Modernism, but not necessarily a conservative one, either culturally or politically. It was a response to the sort of monolithic attitude that Duemer seems to have appointed himself to enforce.
.
That is after Corn, who, in the main body of the post, had written:

...there’s no intrinsic connection (as is sometimes claimed) between traditional prosody and right-wing politics, witness Bertolt Brecht, Auden, Rukeyser, Brooks, Lowell, Walcott, Heaney, Hacker, Rafael Campo, and Reginald Shepherd. It was Pound, the free verse promoter, who was Fascist. As for elitism, go to the Ford Motor factory during coffee-break and read the assembly-line people a rhymed poem by Frost; then read them a poem by, say, Ron Silliman. Ask them which one they like better. It’s going to be Frost every time. Meter and rhyme are what the salt of the earth prefer. Pop music has it, rap artists have it, comic poetry has it. It ain’t elitist. To appreciate all the current experimental poetries, you need quite a fancy education. Which doesn’t make them invalid, it just narrows their readership to an elite, one that ought to be acknowledged as such. Face facts: prosody doesn’t belong to any particular demographic, it cuts across all classes.

There are two distinct questions here.

The first concerns the political sympathies of the writers and whether their views are embodied or implicit in their texts whether that text be in verse or not.

The second concerns the forms the writers employed and whether those forms necessarily embody or imply specific political positions, as some would claim.

This leaves the question whether the form of the text is an essential part of the text. I have my own ideas on that.

More to come.




25.03.08 : MODERNISM AND FORM

The normally unquestioned assumption is that Modernism is a left wing movement. One assumes that, rightly, of the Constructivists and to some extent of the Bauhaus. We know that the Viennese architect Adolf Loos wanted to do away with all ornament, primarily because ornament was bourgeois. We know that pitched roofs were regarded as emblems of crowns and therefore as ideologically unsound. The bourgeois were the enemy. They were conservative and stodgy and repressive. Any opposition to them might be thought to be left wing. To manufacture mass-produced objects for the masses was forward-thinking, egalitarian and honest.

In the previous century, William Morris, a socialist, was certainly not against ornament, nor was he bourgeois. Unlike the Modernists-to-come he was in revolt against mass production, chiefly because it tried to replicate craftsmanship. He thought the work of human hands working with natural forms was the right expression of the socialist ideal. Natural form, however, was anathema to most Modernist architects. For them geometry and logic were better. What they desired was clarity, light and a certain moral astringency (sex in the open air or on the roof, not in that Rietfeld chair, thank you).

Morris and the Modernists were united in rejecting the fake, the superfluous, indeed anything that hid the true state of things. We might take that as a common cause.

Nevertheless their formal answers were very different. Why? One important reason is that the possibilities offered by their respective technologies were different. Would Morris have designed the Weissenhof estate near Stuttgart if the technology had been available to him? I doubt it but who knows? One of those useless hypotheticals.

The proper question I want to raise - or rather begin to raise - is whether specific forms embody specific ideologies. Was the architecture of Italian Fascism, or the movement-through-planes of Futurism formally so different from works by left wing contemporaries?

It is not so much architecture I am thinking of as literature. The questions are far from new but are prompted in this case by something Mark Jarman pointed out regarding the political views of Eliot, Pound, Woolf and others

I am aware that this is dreadfully hurried, very general, and far from perfectly formed. Mere notes. No time now, more later.



24.03.08 : MODERNISM

We have our two children and H's partner with us. The latter two are looking for places to get married in and have fixed up a few appointments at likely venues. Exciting stuff. I might put up a few pics of the venues they are checking.

Receive email this morning asking me to do a reading at a chapel about an hour or so away in Suffolk. Of course, I think. So I write to say what dates are suitable of those they offer. I notice there is no mention of a fee, so I ask whether there is one. Well, replies the organiser, no, there isn't but we can do a 50-50 split on the entrance fee. It's a most beautiful chapel and most invited poets in fact contribute their share to the upkeep of the chapel, she adds. OK, a good cause then. I ask if there is any provision to cover the travel expenses. Quite smart perfunctory answer back. Answer: No, take or leave the 50-50 (which is usually donated to the chapel).

Now, if I had been asked directly whether I would like to do a free reading with proceeds going to a beautiful chapel in need of upkeep I think I would have simply said: yes. But the invitation mentioned nothing about chapels or contributing to upkeep, it just asked if I would do a reading. I do as many free readings as I can. The Poetry Society's approved rate for readings about ten years ago was £100. I have done many for less even very recently when it was a good cause or not too far away. Two freebies in Oxford in the last month for example. People generally paid travel or at least offered a meal.

This one has annoyed me. Should I be annoyed? Would, say, Carol Ann Duffy do anything for less than £500 plus First Class travel? I doubt it though I am willing to ask her. And I would do it for free if that was the way they had put it... What do fellow poets think?

A nice debate on two sites, beginning at the poet Alfred Corn's and continued at the splendid Ms Baroque's about Modernism and its political orientation. Is Modernism a left wing or a right wing movement? What evidence either way in terms of form and track record? I join in at Ms Baroque's but I want to think more about it here. Later.




23.03.08 : SUNDAY NIGHT IS...

Jacqueline du Pré, Elgar, and Daniel Barenboim looking startlingly like a cross between Eraserhead and the sullen kid in The Big Lebowski.



I know. Elgar. Imperialism. Tom Paulin says so. Grandeur and melancholia. I myself noted as follows:

Death by Suicide*

It began with the young men. They lost touch
with something important almost as soon as words
entered their mouths. There was not very much

they could say with them. They ambled in herds
like sick cattle, bumping into the edges
of the world. People were sorry afterwards

though some were glad. They leapt off ledges,
drugged themselves, spun from light-cords, drew
knives across their necks. Their very bandages

were infected and their mothers knew
in odd dark moods that they were bound by fate
to join them. And so it spread, steadily through

the whole island, until it was too late.
Life had thinned to a fragile carapace,
bones turned to cartilage. There was a spate

of immolations in the Fens, a case
of hanging-fever in Derby and a bus-load
of climbers cut their own ropes on the rock-face

at Malham. Whole families buckled. Death strode
through darkened living rooms where the radio
droned on, taking possession of one road

after another. Everywhere the sound of low
weeping. Some said it was mere melancholy -
you only had to listen to Elgar, the cello

concerto, to hear the national folie
de grandeur
: all that aggression dressed
as modesty. Meanwhile the race was busily

killing itself, the sun was sinking in the west,
and one could read the experts’ eyes, which were
distinctly bleary. They too were depressed.

The poem is a kind of comedy and Elgar a player. Aggression dressed as modesty? Yes but...

Most poetry is an implied yes but... (or it ought to be). Yes, but, sucker as I am I find this wonderful seductive music. As I do a lot of Late Romanticism. No triumphalism here, just hills and clouds and stone, a kind of desperation. Most romantic feeling is aggressive because it swells and expands and asserts its own importance.

I distrust the prim purists who say nothing after Mozart is any good until twelve-tone. I like goulash. I like curry. I like red wine. And I like this - that moment at 1'48" when the cello rejoins the orchestra. It is that little scratchy space of detail that Barthes in Camera Lucida referred as the punctum in photographs. Life, light and darkness flood through it.

Yes, but...

*The fourth of five Apocalypses in An English Apocalypse (2001)




22.03.08 : THE TRUE ENEMY OF TIBET IS WALL STREET

I like this from The Guardian. The Tibetans are not rebelling against the Chinese because they want independence from China, not really; not because they don't regard themselves as Chinese, nor because they see the Chinese as oppressors. No. What they are really fighting is 'the utopia of modernity', meaning capitalism. The true enemy is McDonalds's and Adidas.

As Pankaj Mishra says:

...the Chinese failed to consult Tibetans about the kind of economic growth they wanted. In this sense, at least, Tibetans are not much more politically impotent than the hundreds of millions of hapless Chinese uprooted by China's Faustian pact with consumer capitalism. The Tibetans share their frustration with farmers and tribal peoples in the Indian states of West Bengal and Orissa, who, though apparently inhabiting the world's largest democracy, confront a murderous axis of politicians, businessmen, and militias determined to corral their ancestral lands into a global network of profit...

...Tibetans, however, seem to have sensed that they confront a capitalist modernity more destructive of tradition, and more ruthlessly exploitative of the sacred land they walk on, than any adversary they have known in their tormented history.

Plenty of support for the article in the correspondence below it.

So it's really a western anti-globalisation issue that is driving events, globalisation being more destructive than the Cultural Revolution, or Pol Pot or the Taliban in Afghanistan...

Could it not possibly be that the long-suppressed Tibetan longing for independence has found a historical opportunity for action just before the Olympic Games when China might be paralysed by other events? Nah. Thought not.

*

ps. In the same issue my review of Michael Hofmann, here

.




21.03.08 : LEBANON IS PALESTINE

Little things / that you do / make me feel / I'm in love with you.

Love reigns supreme in Sukhdev Sandhu's review of Under the Bombs in the Telegraph. The film is "a striking and often very moving work of guerilla filmmaking about the 2006 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, a 33-day siege that left 1,189 men and women dead and created a million refugees."

Sandhu writes:

...As much as it dramatises the two characters' own struggles to come to terms with the present blighted situation, the film highlights with revelatory force the extent of the misery wreaked on the Palestinian people by the Israeli forces. The pair's journey is constantly hampered by collapsed roads, bombed bridges, wrecked petrol stations.

The very preconditions of civil society have been obliterated. As they pass by the homeless and the orphaned, they see, as we do, billboards featuring the images of Iranian ayatollahs or bearing the defiant slogans: "You have destroyed the bridge. We have mended their hearts - Hizbollah."

Some may feel that the film focuses on personal grief at the expense of political analysis or denunciation.

God forbid anyone should feel that. Especially since Lebanon is now the Palestinian people. In the meantime thank God for Hizbollah who so faithfully represent the entire Lebanese people and who take such care to position their military away from the civilian population, thereby mending broken Lebanese hearts.




20.03.08 : WORLD RECORD! THE LONG AND THE SHORT OF IT.

Och, this happened a while ago but I completely forgot. From the New York Times, sometime last year.

The long and the short …

Number of “novellas in three lines” written for a French newspaper in 1906 by the anarchist Félix Fénéon, and translated by Luc Sante for a forthcoming book . . . . . 1,066 (Sample: “‘If my candidate loses, I will kill myself,’ M. Bellavoine, of Fresquienne, Seine-Inférieure, had declared. He killed himself.”)

Words in the longest sentence in George Szirtes’s English translation of “War and War” by the Hungarian novelist Laszlo Krasznahorkai . . . . . . . . . . . . 3,095


Eat your heart out, Henry James!




20.03.08 : NEW POEM UPFRONT / STEREOTYPICAL

The poem, Chet Baker, appeared rather quickly out of the air, no specific intention, just a sound; possibly just a draft quickly redrafted once or twice, maybe no more than a throwaway, but I'll let it hang on the line for a while and see if it is still there once the wind has blown hard through it.

*

I was waiting for an article like this about Heather Mills in The Guardian. It does not disappoint. Mills has lied and twisted and ranted, but underneath all that, the article claims, it is women who are are the true victims. Mills is the victim. A £24 million pound, always-travel-first-class, private-bodyguards, must-have-own-helicopters-plus-several-houses-complete-with-staff kind of victim.

And there is certainly something in the range of abuse Mills has received that runs true to the stereotypes listed in the article. Stereotypes are the first bits of china to be thrown at someone who seems to have the right kind of china to begin with. Maybe Mills is being pelted with certain female stereotypes that she has been carrying about her person. But stereotypes are vicious. Can't be true for anyone. Certainly not for women.

Here on the other hand are some rarely mentioned stereotypes for men that Mills was throwing at McCartney. I list:

wife-beater
alcoholic
dotard
man-child
has-been
emotional cripple
tight-wad

Except, one does not think of these as stereotypes but as qualities deemed to be latent in the male of the species. And some males do indeed possess these very qualities. Unlike women who, of course, never conform to stereotype. Apparently McCartney didn't either. Wrong bits of china.




19.03.08 : IRAQ

Yes, it is the fifth anniversary, so perhaps a sentence or two on it. To rewind, I was against the war not because I thought it was all about oil, or because I thought the US was and is desperately wicked and needs continually to be resisted at all costs, even by heroic figures like Saddam or bin Laden. I actually imagined there might have been a strategic decision at some level to 'solve' the Middle East and, in doing so, prevent future 9/11s, by:

a) exerting pressure on Iran and Syria and Lybia;
b) establishing a secular or near-secular democracy in a promising looking country (Iraq);
c) deposing a murderous dictator who was diverting aid that was supposed to relieve the effect of sanctions on the most vulnerable of his citizens;
d) wiping out the WMD of the same;
e) .. yes, safeguarding the supplies of oil.

All these, I thought, would be factors. I tend not to believe governments when they talk big on altruism (deposing a dictator) chiefly because democratic governments are subject to elections and therefore need to safeguard the interests of their electorates (by preventing more 9/11s). Sometimes the two go together. Altruism is OK providing it doesn't ruin the folks back home or upset them too much. A little show of altruistic heroism is also fine providing it doesn't cost too many lives and doesn't go on too long.

I was against the war because I simply didn't think it would work. I had no doubt that the coalition would win the straight military combat: it was what would follow that I was concerned about. Not that I have any special insight into these matters, but Bush didn't seem the brightest or best of men to me and I was in any case sceptical about the US will to pursue anything for a long time should things get tough. The Vietnam syndrome. They have in fact lasted longer in Iraq than I thought they would.

I also did not think it would necessarily make the world a safer place. Not in the short run, anyway. Not in view of rising Islamism in Europe and in the UK as everywhere else. Other opponents of the war made the same case. The difference between them and I was that if peace did come, if Saddam disappeared, if some part of the strategic goal could be achieved, then, I thought, the short term risk (but what is short term?) - even here in the UK - might be worth it. You can't fight everything by proxy nor can you act entirely out of cowardice. The USA had already been attacked. The attack was one of the chief driving forces of the war.

I dismissed the illegality charge that is still being bandied about because it stank: because the veto that made it "illegal" was the work of France and Russia who were by far the biggest arms suppliers to Saddam and who therefore stood to lose their favourite customer. Also because the people who cried illegality then (and now) also cried out against the legality of Israel, a state that was created legally by the UN. There were other agendas at work here.

I was glad to see Saddam fall: I was sorry to see him hanged the way he was hanged. I was glad of the Iraq elections and continue to be sorry about the dead. Norm, who supported the war, gives proper weight to the dead on his blog.

The recent Iraq poll is not a terminal piece of good news but it is something. The Bush bluster on the other hand is contemptible. But then so are those who rush to dismiss the poll results.

There are two sets of events going on.

One set is in Iraq, where life is volatile and dangerous, but an improvement on a year ago, possibly with more improvement to come. All this is bought at a terrible price, but then good things often are. Of course it is not up to us to judge the price being paid by others. But those others must be given time to assess their own affairs and to consider the price they have had to pay. That's what a poll - with all its imperfections - is designed to do. It's something. As were the elections.

The other set of events happens here. Some people hate Bush, the US, the Neo-Cons so much that they see the war as being exclusively between themselves (the forces of good) and the Bush cohort (the forces of evil). Evil cannot be allowed to win. The Iraqis themselves don't count for much only as a useful (often estimated) body count. This can work on both sides of course but, inevitably, the highest mortality estimates are the most polemically useful mortality estimates.

So now? Now we are there, we wait and work and see. Having gone in we don't cut and run and abandon those who have tried to realise the better, the more workable elements of the whole thing. That would be truly cowardly and contemptible. Very little in history is clear cut (though some things are). Very little in history is pure good versus evil (though some matters are). Iraq is neither: it is possible better versus possible worse. Desertion is desertion though.




18.03.08 : THE DAY-MARE SPLEEN

Friend enquires after the difference between rage and spleen. To be splenetic is to be bad-tempered and spiteful, but the word spleen has a history.

The spleen is an organ in the body associated - through the idea of humours - with melancholy. There is a rather nice, if long (some 830 lines), poem by the seventeenth century poet, Matthew Green, called The Spleen where he describes the condition then looks for ways to cure it. Here are a few lines from near the beginning:

First know my friend, I do not mean
To write a treatise on the Spleen;
Nor to prescribe when nerves convulse;
Nor mend the alarum watch, your pulse.
If I am right, your question lay,
What course I take to drive away
The day-mare Spleen, by whose false pleas
Men prove mere suicides in ease;
And how I do myself demean
In stormy world to live serene...

So spleen makes the nerves convulse, it is the daytime equivalent of the nightmare, is associated with suicide and stormy conditions outside, and, as the poem progresses, with 'frightful figures', with 'dead weight', with rainy days in general. Green recommends exercise: hunting, bowling etc, or distraction. Eventually, being a Quaker, he settles for quiet and tranquillity.

Baudelaire picks up the English word and titles a whole section of Les Fleurs du Mal 'Spleen et Idéal', the section containing no less than three poems, all called 'Spleen'.

In Baudelaire though the word means something else, implying a permanent state of restless dissatisfaction and boredom, the kind of thing the English refer to by the French word ennui. Here is how the best known of the Spleen poems begins in the Imitations by Lowell (still the best, accept no imitations):

I'm like the king of a rainy-country, rich
but sterile, young but with an old wolf's itch,
one who escapes his tutor's monologues
and kills the day in boredom with his dogs;
nothing cheers him, darts, tennis, falconry,
his people dying by the balcony;
the bawdry of the pet hermaphrodite
no longer gets him through a single night...

Nope, I don't think the old wolf's itch is exactly what Quaker Matthew Green had in mind. This is more like a decadent, almost sadistic world-weariness, possibly a bit like what the Germans call weltschmerz, that sense of too much, already or, as Wordsworth puts it: 'The world is too much with us; late and soon, / Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers...' Meanwhile the translation of Baudelaire's The Flowers of Evil (to give it its English title) where the Lowell first appeared translates 'spleen' as 'bile'.

In fact this post, with its chasing round and round some shadow rage, that is not rage after all,may be counted a bilious exercise. Bile = spleen = melancholy = rage = world-weariness = depression.

But where are my hermaphrodites? What have I done with that balcony? Had the rain today. Could play darts, I suppose.




17.03.08 : RAGE

I have not posted on politics recently because I have been away and other things have preoccupied me, but also because, apart from the budget and the whole financial world falling to pieces, a ridiculous mock 'election' in Iran, bloodshed in Tibet, the blowing up of a yeshiva in Israel, the revelation of MPs' second home allowances, the awarding of £24 million to Heather Mills, the fifth anniversary of the Iraq War and a few right wing skirmishes with police in Budapest on 15 March, the world goes on its merry way and I have nothing of significance to add to what is already said by those better qualified to say it.

I would nevertheless say something about education, arising out of two recent conversations about working class aspiration, the nature of adult education and university education (apropos of which I have been re-reading Richard Hoggart's fine address to Glasgow University back in 2001, that I am sure The Plump knows very well) but I will save it for another time.

Moreover I have been asked to write a piece for the Rage! issue of The Drawbridge, an article that has to be in rather pronto and for which, therefore, I have been saving my declining powers. Rather flattering, I think, considering the illustrious company. The editor has glanced at this blog and thinks I do a line in rage. We shall have to see. Am thinking of calling it The Seven Railings, railing against seven deadly things. Will write it this week. Just have to think of another four deadlies. Then work up a proper rage about them of course. Cold rage, ideally.

Spent the day translating. Weather gloopy all day as if sickening for something. Every so often the clouds bring up a bit of phlegm then carry on drifting aimlessly, always looking as though they are about to hawk but stopping short.




17.03.08 : POETRY AND FORM

I know, I know, far too much YouTubery, too much monkey business, but being mentally tired yesterday I cruised YouTube in that link-and-association way that the half-asleep tend to do, and in so doing came up against this wonderful old clip that says a lot about poetry and form in dance. Form is not starchy manners. It can be something like this, thank God. Just watch those bodies, watch those feet, iambing and anapaesting.



That's your domestic staff, mate and they're better than you. Slim Gaillard and all. Now, go dance.




16.03.08 : SUNDAY NIGHT IS...

Candyman, a successful brew of the Andrews Sisters and Christina Aguilera...





The Aguilera is really a cartoon performance (with Rosie the Rivetter making a couple of brief appearances) but there is something that she - or rather her video - catches and stretches to breaking point in the Andrews Sisters. Of course, the Andrews Sisters (Patty, Maxine and Laverne) are better in themselves, unbroken, glossy, brash and full of life.

Long long time ago I bought a cassette of the Andrews Sisters that we used to play on long drives - and I want to stick the one YouTube version of Bei Mir Bist du Schon (a Jewish song if there was one) at the end of this - but as I was driving or being driven I would think of the peculiar poignant quality of the music. Because it was distinctly USA GI Joe dream-stuff: the gleaming car versus the bombers, the bulging white fridge versus the dance-floor on leave, but above all it was the confidence versus the fear. The confidence was in US expansion (Rum and Coca-Cola), in the rightness, smartness, coolness, fun, sexiness and properness of it (because the Andrews Sisters, unlike Christina Aguilera, are unimpeachably proper).

And the three girls, edge-of-vampish but actually somewhat inward, and yet bursting somehow, especially Paddy whose eyes and mouth are animated by a genuine high-power battery, are all disciplined, and watch-where-you're-putting-those-hands, and at-ease-soldier.

So here is Bei Mir Bist... too, since I wrote nothing on Saturday, being in London with more discussions (Europe, Europe) and a reading at the HCC to mark 15 March 1848, the revolutionary youths of March.







14.03.08 : TO FINISH OFF PALLADIO WITH THE ANDREWS SISTERS

My first real day at home just translating. So briefly to return to Palladio. For the last time. Talking about the poem that was and now is on the front.

The third part tries to imagine modern life with its microwaves and broken chairs, its messy human lives, and the general messiness and vulnerability of human life with its vanished families, its bloodstains, its damp. Human beings in human spaces, versus human beings in perfect places.

The fourth is about imagining systems, plans, the taming of nature (the wind trapped in parentheses). The Apollonian imagination is tidy, based on rule and proportion and grace. Palladio is the epitome of Apollonian art. Every section (down to the wee-est mouse) is perfectly to scale, as are all those systems like the Golden Section, Corbusier's Modulor, that measure and parcel everything. We know human life is not like that. We know that even great country villas are destroyed by time, neglect and violence. That is the balance here.

The fifth and last part is about Palladio's own buildings, their clarity, politeness (wash yourself in my light, conformable), their locking out of the chance encounter (no black holes here, no storms...) The sense that perfect proportion and lightness of touch are super-musical, that echo the music of the spheres, the music the planets were supposed to make on their circuits. The last verse of part 5 is in praise of clarity, hence of Palladio. The music / architecture parallel is what holds throughout.

Reading poetry is not, despite these notes (which are purely personal) not primarily an act of the scholarly intellect, but a kind of falling into, falling in with the evocative power of words and images. Poems are not equations but spells. Spells with very precise ingredients. Much like music or architecture, in fact.


2.
I am not arguing that the villas were not built for living in but that the kind of life they invite is not much like ours. Even in Palladio's time, the stable boys did not live in the villa, nor did the gardeners, not even the stonemason. The villa was une machine à habiter - for the wealthy.

I don't intend to get heavy-handedly Marxist about this but one cannot entirely forget it. And the same is true of course of all palaces or grand houses: their living arrangements are microcosms of the societies that produced them. The poem gives Palladio credit for having entered the lives of ordinary people in terraced houses through references in doorways and porches. Nevertheless, Palladio is certainly bound up with gracious country-house living. I feel that, nor can I help feeling it, indeed feel it stronger with Palladio than with, say an equivalent artist in another sphere. I feel it at exactly the same time as I feel the beauty of the forms.

The contrast you refer to is between models for living and living itself. There is a contrast there. Nor is that contrast a criticism of Palladio: it is simply the pointing out of a reality that we cannot help but face.

On a broader plane there remains the contrast between human constructions and the field of mortality they actually occupy. To point this out is not to criticise either the construction nor - however pointlessly - the fact of mortality. Did we not die, I suspect, we would not love or aspire either.

*

Lastly, for today, though it's not a Sunday, a clip of The Andrews Sisters. That sound. Of whom more at the weekend.



Boogie-Woogie Bugle Boy...




13.03.08 : DELHI ENDS

I never thought I would be involved with India. I imagined it a British affair: Paul Scott men in white suits, gentlemen in solar topees, ladies nostalgic and nervous about what did or did not happen in the Malabar Caves, the convoluted journeyings of Kipling's Kim, a slightly acid Noel Coward noting how people put their Scotch and rye down, then lie down. The jewel was part of a crown that had nothing to do with me. It was the British end of things, never in a million years the Central European, sub-class: Hungarian, sub-class: rootless cosmopolitan end.

Nor did I have a hippyish longing to wear faded jeans, to grow a beard, to bum around and seek spiritual enlightenment with some Maharishi. Frankly, I thought the Beatles were ridiculous swanning off to the little white-bearded spiritual car-salesman and I always had a soft spot for Ringo's comparing his time there to a week at Butlin's. My spiritual life was full enough, thank you. I forgave the Beatles of course, just as I forgave them those terrible mock-military uniforms. Liverpool lads at play. Fair enough. But really! I don't even like the heat.

I have now been there three times and am fully fearful and aware of saying anything categorical. Only this.

There is no doubt at all that one is talking about a great, intelligent, high, and, in many ways, humane civilisation. One only has to exchange a few words with the remarkably learned, humorous, sharp but courteous intellectual guardians of the sub-continent to feel this. Of course one knows (I am in third person mode here) that this may be the equivalent of pronouncing on the standard of park football on the basis of having watched only a few top-four Premiership matches, but one makes allowance for that. Especially after revisitiing Old Delhi.

The thought that stays with me, that troubles me, concerns the condition of humanity at large. Is there any high civilisation without barbarity? Is any civilisation necessarily 'high' civilisation, a high civilisation being one that produces great and lasting works? Does 'high' necessarily mean 'aristocratic'? In what sense aristocratic? Is high civilisation (any civilisation) bound to be a compact between the courteous and the brutal? I don't mean specifically in India, but in Europe too. Is a beautiful palace the equivalent of a thousand starvations and beatings? Does that mean the palace is not beautiful simply by virtue of being a palace? Does not the imagination construct palaces as well as huts? What to do with the palaces of the imagination?

Old old questions and no firm answers. Not unless you want to destroy ancient Buddhas, concrete over the knot gardens and destroy the universities. But then you may as well cover the field in human skulls.

Poems are not palaces of course, and one may persuade oneself - as I do - that they exist for a purpose, whether that involves Mallarmé's notion of purifying the language of the tribe, or my own hunch, a hunch I have argued before, that poetry exists so we may come to some kind of arrangement - however brief, however fragile (and all the greater and more lasting for that) - between language and the experience of living?

My guess is that an enlightened scepticism about palaces is the only possibility. How can one not be glad that works beyond one's immediate concern or scope exist somewhere? But dreams of magnificence and the beauties of form and proportion are never to be entirely trusted. Your palaces are built on bloodied marshes. My words are built on mud.

And this is always salutary reading:

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.


No competition of course but this does lead me back to Palladio so I am putting the last parts of the poem on the front.





12.03.08 : EVENTS: EASY COME, EASY GO

Intentions are always overtaken by events. I want to write more about Delhi and what passed there but I have no time now. Yesterday down to the Guardian Newsroom for talk about the literary effects of immigration, emigration, refugeedom, migrantdom, pretty well the whole works.

Marina Lewycka is charming and sharp as you would expect, her cut glass English accent (taught English by some part of Malcolm Muggeridge's family or entourage) forming part of a choir with Daljit Nagra's London, Sarfraz's media-from-anywhere and my oddly off-centre standard English. We read a short excerpt each of our voluminous works then respond to Sarfraz's questions.

But we are all birds of different feathers really. Marina and I should probably be one package while Daljit and Sarfraz should be another. D and S are to do with post-Empire Asian life, M and I are snagged by rusty shreds of the old Iron Curtain. But M is taught English by Muggeridges whereas Old Saint Mugg was just a face on telly to me. (I did read some of his books though.) M starts writing when she becomes aware of her Ukrainian history and difference, I start at seventeen when I become aware that poetry is a condition of language.

We are all internationalists, natch, I mean how could we not be? but I suspect we all mean something different by that. A couple of good questions about Britishness versus Englishness, and about what the white working class means to us. S* and D handle this very well, generously, without leaping onto the easily available high horses. M and I have other stables to manage with only a couple of skinny Rocinantes at our disposal,, but what I actually say is it has as much to do with class as whiteness. That is where the centre-of-gravity actually settles.

Then it's all over bar couple of drinks and some books to sign and I fall asleep on the long train ride home. Heavy come, heavy go.


*See nice article by Sarfraz here.




11.03.08 : REFLECTIONS ON DELHI: 1

A long 19 hour journey from beginning to end. Home late. This afternoon to London, the Guardian newsroom.

The last morning's discussion was partly about the relationship of seeing to reading, or, as I tend to think of it, the relationship of primary experience to secondary experience. This could take a long time discussing so just the briefest kernel of the issue.

Allan Sealy begins by telling us about his experience of the Arctic and the Aurora Borealis and his desire to write about the deserted red-stone city of Fatehpur Sikri, the ancient Mughal stronghold that I visited some three years ago, without first filling his head with knowledge. He wants to distinguish between first-hand experience and book-learning.

On the other hand we had the long debate the day before about the relationship, following Nietzsche, between fact and interpretation, which claims that there are no objective facts, only interpretations, so, as the pomo theorists have it, it doesn't matter if you fall out of a window and break your neck, gravity still remains merely interpretation - part of a narrative or discourse - not fact (a crude example but see Sokal, et al).

The young bright sparks particularly love this kind of theorising because they are all theory and no experience and because it makes them feel clever and superior. They have sharp white teeth and nothing to bite on, so they attempt to redress this disadvantage by denying that anyone ever has had anything to bite on. So, for example, Bei Dao's experience of the Cultural Revolution means nothing in particular. He, as well as we, is simply part of a historical process. They can state this for a fact. They can say something about the historical process, observing it from some vantage point outside it. History is their enemy. I remember one young theorist dismissing Max Sebald's oeuvre as 'Central European miserablism'. Dresden? Miserablism. Same message. We young, our teeth sharp: you old, your teeth blunt, and not through biting. We smart and cool: you thick and sentimental.

They look at us pityingly.

One young novelist said he has striven hard to get rid of all facts in his book. (He will nevertheless expect something that he can interpret in terms of rupees and dollars for his endeavours to help him go on interpreting.)

OK, he is wrong, but one has to go some way down this path with him before turning round. As Claudio Magris implied, he could not run the full distance with Nietzsche on this but that doesn't mean the mad philosopher was mad. My own line is that there are clearly some differences between seeing-as-fact and reading-as-interpretation - that there is a difference between seeing the Aurora Borealis and reading about it, or seeing pictures of it - but that:

a) We experience reading too;
b) We do not go naked before objects, nor did Allan see the Aurora Borealis with a naked, innocent eye;
c) The imagination is also a fact.

In other words experience - our apprehension of first-hand facts - is complex. We cannot put aside what we know, we can only delay its impact by an act of the will. The second-hand can act on us much as the first-hand can. The writer needs to hold knowledge at bay only to the extent that it follows half a step behind. It has to follow, or nothing gets done. If it doesn't follow at all we are lying to ourselves.

Furthermore, since it is impossible for us to truly know each other (even our closest and most intimate contacts remain a closed book in some respect) or ourselves (we do not have thoroughgoing knowledge of ourselves), the contact with the world through the agency of another human being's mind in the form of a book or a film or anything else strikes us as almost as real as anything else, or, at any rate, part of reality. In other words, a novel, a poem, a work of visual art or a piece of music is not necessarily worse for working through or being about other such works; that it is in fact unavoidable that it should do and be so. A writer need not have been in a house fire to write about a house fire. It might help if he had burnt his finger sometime but even that is not a requisite. Something however is. What? We don't know, not exactly, but we have been there.

Are we merely personal interpretation and no fact? Certainly not. We have a responsibility to each other because the one thing we do know is that our arguments are not perfect, even our arguments about interpretation. And beyond the failure of the artistic enterprise to convince us that the world has substance and form, is comprehensible, and is, in fact, out there, beyond language, beyond, as Magris had it, "the shipwreck of knowledge" there remains the fact of the voyage itself, and there remain our fellow voyagers.

Each and every individual voyage is wrecked, but hope remains. We set out in hope and are aware that it is good to do so, that beyond the place where we personally founder, there are further places that constitute an image of the real: that the sea has been real, the boat has been real, the sweat of our companions has been real. The enterprise of art is an attempt to give a value and shape to that reality: to sing very close to the music of what happens.

Look, I can still taste the salt. Look at the marks on my fingers. Watch these glittering eyes.




09.03.08 : DELHI 3

So what do we talk about?

The relation of experience to writing; the notion of experience, of fact and its interpretation; about style; about history; about the self and its shadows; about the Danube and the Cafe San Marco; about the Cultural Revolution, the Misty Poets and Mao; about the fragility of life; about Goethe and Newton; about film and music; about speed and slowness; about Browning and Nietzsche; about time; about function and amelioration; about failure; about the shipwreck of knowledge; about kinds of knowledge; about art and photography; about theory and its relation to practice; about the notion of trust, about some idea of responsibility (is what we do of any use to anyone?)...

... and mostly these themes hang together under specific headings. Bei Dao is moving and dreamlike and oppositionist, a severe critic of the American psyche, visionary, precise, warm, clear. Claudio Magris has read everything and cannot quite follow Nietzsche on interpretation, is funny and wise and endlessly humane; Allan Sealy, gentle but passionate, tentative, almost diffident in manner but firm and adventurous in mind; Sharmistha Mohanty speculates wisely, searchingly and patiently about what lies between fiction and documentary because such things are important; Vivek Narayanan leaps and probes, his mind running fiercely. As for me? I talk my head off, as usual, watching myself that I should not run away on what seems intoxicating, the taste of eloquence, a quality I admire - but distrust in myself.

And there are the other interlocutors, all of whom keep me pepped up, mind racing. And as ever, next to the sense of mind-on-adrenalin, a kind of deep-sleep melancholy about the very notion of that excitement. Inevitably, at a certain point of such proceedings, especially in circumstances so continuous and intense, the melancholy grows steep and, frankly, I can see no point in any of this - in anything of much. That is also the point of exhaustion. It lasts about an hour or so, then I am up again, sprinting.

This afternoon I suggested to Bei Dao we visit Old Delhi. Third time for me, but he has never seen it and it is an experience not to be missed. India is extraordinary. On the one hand the newspaper delivered to my door every morning with page after page of female film stars and starlets in cheesecake poses, plus a few growly looking male film stars, next to articles about International Women's Day, which seems to be entirely a matter of Shilpa Shetty lookalikes sprouting heels, chests and money. On the other hand the great humbling zoo of Old Delhi with its alleys, beggars, Moslems and Hindus, its rickshaws, its stalls, its thin goats, its crowds; crowds so dense you wonder how they can move at all. The great sweep of the poor and not so poor who remind me of paintings by Repin.

Do I feel comfortable there? No, not comfortable. I am a spoilt European. But I do feel human, my sense full. I am not in the least afraid. I think I trust these people as they trust each other. It is not very far, but it is something.




07.03.08 : DELHI 2B

A late post after tonight's evening readings in the same garden. Not quite such a big audience this time and there is the distraction of mechanical noise in the background, but the readings are fully focused. Meanwhile, a cat leaps off the far wall, slinks one way, slinks back, leaps back on to the far wall, returns, repeats the exercise twice more. A brindled cat, though mostly in shadow. I register this while listening.

It is warmer, a little humid. In ten days time the gods will turn the heating on full blast and my chances of survival would be much reduced were I still here.

There is so much music. Even as I write in a corner of the accommodation lobby, a woman on TV is singing. Mani Kaul, the film maker, was explaining the principles of raga to me at lunch apropos last night's concert. The concert was a single 45 minute raag and though I know next to nothing about raag I thought I could tell that the melody was constantly avoiding the tonic. It began with about ten minutes of deep quiet ornamented moans at the bottom of the fretboard, then working its way up the with ever clearer melodic patterns until it got to the top at which point the melody line went into repeat mode and the drum, which had been utterly unemploye till the, took over, creating an extraordinary range of rhythms. I can't remember the name of the instrument though I do have it written down upstairs. It consisted of two gourds (that is to say shapes derived from gourds) with the long fretboard between. Four strings. Knowing nothing about something usually means one quickly gets bored, but not this time. Part of it was suspense, seeing how long the drummer would wait, fingers at the ready, before he actually did anything. It turned out to be a little over half an hour.

This is, of course, the crudest and most ignorant of descriptions. Nevertheless it IS a description. Diffidence is not my middle name.

After the readings tonight a group of us was discussing the caste system and comparing it to English notions of class. They are, we concluded, quite different because the English system is less overt and no one knows where anyone else stands in the pecking order of respect. Hence the deathly diffidence of the aspiring lower middle class. Hence the silences, the changings of subject matter, the fear of manners, of looking too big or too small, of putting one's foot where one's mouth should be. There is, from a foreigner's point of view, a thin charm to this, but, God knows, it's thin!




07.03.08 : DELHI 2

Time snatched as we are kept busy. This morning it was Bei Dao and self talking about poetry and language. This afternoon it was Bei Dao on his own poetry with a lot fascinating material about The Cultural Revolution and some of its inadvertent side effects. Claudio Magris talks tomorrow. I read with Vivek Narayanan tomorrow evening.

The readings are in the gardens of the annex, in front of a beautiful young tree. They are very well attended, the audience - as I have noted before in India - closely attentive. Then music, of which more later.

Have to dash. Outside, the world.



06.03.08 : DELHI 1

Arrived here late morning in bright sun. Hot and close. As usual little sleep on the plane - which was, I add as an advertisement, a Jet Airways (India) flight. It was much the most comfortable journey, seats well desogned, leg room, great courtesy, excellent food, the screen sharp and clear and loads of movies to watch, starting where and when you please. That is economy class. I assume the first class / business class are given massage and a personal visit from Kylie Minogue.

I watched No Country for Old Men, right through and am still quietly dwelling on it. Wonderful statuesque cinematography, hard-comic dialogue, a nightmare killer, bodies everywhere (but surprisingly little violence) - a contemplation on how anyone, anywhere, can come to a rough end and how death looks like faintly like Charles Bronson in a crude wig. It was like being thumped on the head with hammer wrapped in a hundred layers of bandages. Kind of droll after a while. Oh yes, and brilliant. My head still hurts.

Here, greeted by organiser and friend SM. The usual threading the eye of the needle traffic...

More later. Did I say it was hot and close?



05.03.08 : HEATHROW

...is remarkably efficient today. Terminal 3 is definitely better than Terminal 4, The long bus journey from W to here spent reading G M Hopkins, Claudio Magris, Bei Dao and Paul Celan. All useful. It is a long time since I read Hopkins, especially the prose. What a splendid observer, thinker and feeler he was. Bei Dao is very good too. I know Magris chiefly for 'Danube' - the book I have been dipping into is Correpondances. There is a roughly Sebald shaped cloud there and in many other writers now. The world registers itself as history, association, musing and melancholy.

Delhi is 31C apparently. Not so here, though the airport is the usual stifling, airless, holding station. Hours to go yet.




04.03.08 : INDIA AND BEYOND

To India tomorrow to trade serious banter with Bei Dao, Claudio Magris and assorted sages from India itself. New Delhi, India International Centre here I come (again.) Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!

And having had the Great Computer Wipe-out, which ranks only below the Great British Earthquake - not many killed in either case - I quite forgot an event that had gone down the computer plug. Fortunately it is the day after I return from India. Here it is:

Easy Come, Easy Go

Tuesday March 11, 7pm

Venue: Guardian Newsroom, 60 Farringdon Road, London, EC1R 3GA

Tickets: £5 PEN members, £7.50 non PEN members



Britain has always had an uneasy relationship with its migrant communities. Literature can fuse these tensions into enormous creativity. George Szirtes (The Budapest File) and Marina Lewycka (A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian) have both used their writing to explore the legacy of arriving in Britain as political refugees. Daljit Nagra's poetry (Look We Have Coming to Dover!) gives voice to a more recent generation of migrants and their children. Chaired by Sarfraz Manzoor, author of Greetings from Bury Park.

Tickets include a complimentary glass of wine after the talk, courtesy of Waitrose Wine

How to book: Call 020 7713 0023 or book on-line.

I hope to reflect further on my adventures as a political exile, age eight. Explosive stuff. Hungary could not contain me. My personal Little Printer samizdat sparks the revolution.




03.03.08 : PALLADIO (3)

from the correspondence (parts 2 and 3 of the poem are now on the front)...

The second part is about proportion, which is so important to the Palladian ideal. And who was it who said that "architecture is frozen music"? I think it was Goethe. It's a nice idea. Mozart seems to me a rough analogy to Palladio.

The third part and fourth parts are about the imagination that conceives such buildings and actually imagines living in them.

The third part tries to imagine modern life with its microwaves and broken chairs, its messy human lives. The general vulnerability of vanished families, of bloodstain and damp. Human beings in human spaces, versus human beings in perfect places.

Perfect places exist in the mind but even there only flickeringly. The two most perfect architectural spaces I know are the Pazzi Chapel in Florence and the Place des Vosges in Paris. Both are courteous, human-sized, fairly plain.

The Pazzi speaks to the body, holds it to earth but so lightly you hardly notice. It is a chapel, and if I were invited (like Larkin) to construct a religion I would place its navel right here. It would be as much godliness as I desired and there would be noises outside, street noises and park noises. It would be one of earth's good mortal places. God would be Stephen Dedalus's "a shout in the street."

The Place des Vosges (I can't resist the romantic snow-laden view of it here) is, I suppose, a kind of enlightened aristocratic space blended with edge of revolutionary. The square is to be played in and to gather in. The buildings do not overpower the trees. The geometry of the gardens is not an act of tyranny over nature. I have been there on Mardi Gras with balloons and children in masks. By 'enlightened aristocratic' I don't mean a bunch of decent kings and barons, but a mirror image of what is noble and generous in us.

The Pazzi Chapel is 1460, Place des Vosges early 17th century. Palladio comes neatly between those two dates and his too is, no doubt, a humanist vision, but while the Pazzi Chapel and the Place des Vosges are urban spaces, both of them open to the often discordant music of what happens, Palladio's work is chiefly set within rural estates. The concept of private property is deeply inscribed in it. The villas generally look kinder than some urban buildings tend to look and be (dreadful things can happen in beautiful places), and take considerable care not to be grand or humbling. They are often working farms, not Dracula's castle of tortures, or trumpet-blowing, lard-arsed, population-starving versions of Versailles. They do look damned beautiful in a philosopher-philanthropist kind of way, bestowing a certain largesse.

But it's not largesse I want. It is space and speech and peace and noise and right of entry: the sense of feeling large simply because the world is so. In the Palladian ideal my eyes flick around in search of the hidden bloodstain and I keep wondering about the vulnerable vanished families somewhere beyond the purlieu of the estate with its gamekeepers. I don't have this problem with Mozart when it comes to it. There is blood and damp in him.




02.03.08 : SUNDAY NIGHT IS...

For he on honeydew hath fed
And drunk the milk of paradise...


STC meet Mr Dury, aka The Person from Porlock.






02.03.08 : DUBLIN 2, OR RATHER, REWIND TO LONDON 2 AND ONLY A LITTLE DUBLIN 2

I ought to retrace my steps to London first. We spent the night at daughter and prospective son-in-law's flat, me still struggling with a cold and creeping off to watch Bad Television (the only thing that is guaranteed to put me to sleep within two hours.) In the morning C and I were to meet an ex-school student of ours, chiefly mine, the glamorous L, who we hadn't seen for twenty-four years.

We meet in a cafe near Chistchurch Spitalfields, the great Hawksmoor church. L as glamorous as ever. Her life has been a series of transformations, from school, to university, another university, to hanging around, to years abroad, to being head cook at the National Gallery, to Mistress of Clippings for Lynne Franks, rising to PR there, then arranging outside broadcasts for MTV, then back into restaurants, now possibly (according to The Evening Standard) the next TV domestic goddess, but also writing. It is all rather wonderful and dizzying, not to mention the lost loves and the beautiful children. A series of disasters, she says. No, I say, it is a little like my publishing history, a series of falls from open windows in which I have found myself not broken-boned and brained, an untidy blot on the pavement, but, somehow, upstairs as by an act of anti-gravity.

We drive to Stansted where C drops me. Now let us move on.

But where? To the room in the Surgeons? I don't think so. I met my other fellow judge, V, on Saturday morning. We had not met before. It was a good meeting. The judges were going to get on. Humour, confusion and passionate partisanship were not going to be mutually exclusive. The wind was still beating about the streets looking to blow people over. Lunch was in an Italian vegetarian restaurant. Saturday in any city is noisy, Dublin being no exception. Then back to work. After some five hours of haggling we arrived at a result acceptable to us all.

The natural thing to do after such a satisfactory resolution is to go for a drink and gossip. To Buswell's then, to whiskey and wine. Then to a restaurant with more wine. The restaurant seems to be full of parties of very beautiful young Irish women celebrating birthdays or just the fact of being beautiful young Irish women. But they are over there somewhere in the blur of low-lighting. I talk with CW, the judge of the Gaelic competition who happens to be living in Budapest. The restaurant being so loud I cannot hear any of the others and can only just hear CW. He feels good in Budapest. He has a flat in the XIII district, a corner of Budapest I know quite well. We talk extraordinarily personal detail for no particular reason. I understand this to be part of my failure to become entirely English and reserved. After restaurant we part and I go with V, organiser P, and his poet wife E for another drink.

I drink Irish whiskey all the time while there in the certain knowledge that I can take a lot of that stuff without getting heavy drunk. (Once, in Listowel, I had eleven in a row and was mildly so, but woke up next morning with a clear head.) I have a strange constitution. I can only drink a couple of glasses of wine with enjoyment and only a couple of pints of beer but my body accepts whiskey the way it does water.

I am not sure the world needed to know this. It is, however, distinctly useful in Ireland.




02.03.08 : DUBLIN 1

Back from Dublin about an hour and a half ago. Dublin is generally exhilarating, a place where people love to talk and drink. The reason for being there was to judge a poetry competition with a lot of entries, discussing matters with my two fellow judges. That was to take the whole of Saturday, in a class room in the College of Surgeons working entirely without anaesthetic, unless one counts the duller poems.

But back to Friday. I had arrived in rain, which is not unusual in Dublin. This time there was a gale blowing too so the flight was about 45 minutes late. One of my fellow judges, who was flying from Manchester was due an hour or so later, but the wind was so strong by the time her flight was due to take off that Dublin closed down and she was held up for four hours, arriving just before 1 am.

I had a dourish taxi driver - very dour for a Dubliner - into the city though he began to relax as the journey of about an hour or so went on. There is building everywhere but it's slowing down now, he says, and the immigrant labour - large numbers of Poles and Latvians - are likely to be heading home. Two young Polish workers were stabbed to death earlier in the week by a demented youth with a sharpened screwdriver. Not a racist incident, says todays Sunday Times (The Irish Times, that is), or at least, maybe not.

The hotel is in Stephen's Green, a very large handsome square with a park in the middle, but since the traffic is re-routed there my taxi drops me on the far side just as the wind and rain are gathering their skirts and beginning to bellow and screech. I eventually locate the hotel, an old-fashioned upright kind of establishment, very clean with neat smart rooms and no fancy stuff. Approved by the clergy, I think. It is indeed a proper kind of place, apart from the Dali print on my wall, but even that is a modest, eyes-lowered, thoroughly decent piece of Dali, its allusions to sex, sodomy, masturbation and coprophilia so light and delicate you hardly notice them.

No sooner do I settle in, wash and shave than it's time to go down into the lobby to meet P, poet and organiser, his namesake P, poet and publisher (one of my fellow judges, the Ireland based one) and the judges of the Irish and Gaelic sections of the competition. We head for a nearby hotel for drinks then dinner. The English-language section of the competition has about 100 times as many entries as the Gaelic and about 40 times as many as the Irish. This leads to conversation. As ever, I defend the Demon English or at least attempt, like the little Dutch boy, to put my finger in the hole of the dike of historical loathing. It's vain to do so, but I have grown fond of my host culture and exhibit an unfashionable loyalty to it. I even grow a little passionate in suggesting that it is not the only colonial power in history, nor necessarily the most wicked, but of course everyone only feels their own pain, and that kind of pain is a comfort and a blanket. The danger is that it eventually becomes a part of the body. I am not unaware in arguing such a thing that it it cuts not only both ways but every way. Well, tough. Let's kick off the blanket and see what's left.

Easier, far easier, said than done.





29.02.08 : C'S EXHIBITION / AN OLD GIRL / ON THE ROAD

Brief, possibly intermittent postings as I am travelling. Now in London following the opening of C's exhibition last night at the Boundary Gallery. A lovely occasion with friends and artists from here and there. Two rooms to exhibit in, the drawings grouped together as are the paintings, all looking very substantial. Her name on the vitrine. Some three or four pictures sold with a couple put on reserve by people and the show is on till into April. Delighted for her. Of course everyone spends hours on their feet, talking away, catching up.

An old woman no one knew came in near the end in hope of a glass of wine. She could barely walk and needed support every step. She slumped in a chair. I don't think she looked at the pictures and the wine had already been put away. Half an hour passed. One of our friends, H, offered to give her a lift back. We helped her back out into H's car, a highly complex and painful operation for her. The old girl had decided that she and H should go for a meal in Compton Street. I don't know whether H had been apprised of this (H being very kind will likely have done what the old girl suggested). How had old girl got to the gallery in the first place - it is, after all in St John's Wood, not in the centre? It seems she caught a bus. She was only in her mid-seventies but moved as though she were thirty years older. I had a sneaking thought that she might not be what she seemed (that bus ride! how?), that she was a wicked old girl looking for a glass of wine and a meal. And she was going to get the latter. And a lift to Soho and probably home too! But maybe she was just a little confused... Must ask H when next in contact.

I do not forget the question of Palladio and will pick that up when I am a little less in between places.




27.02.08 : A VERY MINOR EARTHQUAKE

Long long day, rather exhausted and a cold coming on. Tomorrow London and the opening of C's exhibition at the Boundary Gallery, the next day Ireland, returning Sunday to teach Monday then fly to India on Wednesday for a few days.

Never mind, we did have an earthquake. Both C and I woke at about 1pm hearing and feeling the rumble. Thought our house guest for the night had fallen out of her bed. Then thought, no, N is as slim as they come and if she did roll out of bed it would make less noise than Liteweight Lil our Kitten of of Zero Gravity jumping off a chair. So, general doziness, and a brief snort of wotthehell and soon back to sleep. On the other hand one of next door's timbers snapped, they say.

My last faintly remembered earthquake was Budapest, possibly January 1956. Must check. Dad was shaving at the time, he told me. A bus skidded off the icy Margaret Bridge into the Danube and killed some passengers. Possibly all the passengers. Me? I thought it was just the way the world worked. Every so often it wobbles a little. Who doesn't?

Palladio will have to wait. He's had 500 years, so a day or two won't hurt him. Maybe tomorrow morning.





26.02.08 : PALLADIO 2

On part 1 of the poem (on front of site):

...The poem chiefly deals with Palladianism in England, its effect on country house architecture, on the building of banks and churches, its influence on even the humble doorways and porches of ordinary terraced houses. There is something grandiose and respectable about this, something ornate and exotic too. I think of the Palladian Timon's Villa in Alexander Pope's poem as an expression of architectural folly in an English climate.

That is what part one is about....

Grandiose and respectable? Isn't it simply human to be - sometimes - grandiose and respectable?

I was at a discussion on Sunday about attempts to bring together visual art and science. Among the remarks was one that noted that, today, scientists were far more likely to be talking of beauty than were artists. Scientists look at some configuration in a microscope, or a pattern of stars and it takes their breath away. Nature does that. Its sheer complexity. Nature is beautiful.

Yes, I objected, but beauty and art are not the same. Art is a human endeavour to find meaning in experience and must therefore comprise both beauty and ugliness. Then someone interjects: Art is not about ugliness.

Now this is very shorthand as any report of a conversation has to be if it is honest because we don't spout essays at each other. Art, I would have remarked in my essay had I had it to hand and been asked to deliver it as an intervention, arrives at a state of complex beauty in which the greater the complexity - the more it embraces - the more miraculous and beautiful it seems. That does not mean it has to look or sound extraordinarily clever or brainy - in fact it may look and sound astonishingly simple because the complexity has been distilled into form... and so no doubt, I would have gone on gloriously or otherwise. But then this is not an essay either. It is only a prelude to saying that ugliness (the hairy, the uncouth, the misproportioned, the vicious, the hoarse, the bloody inconvenient) has somehow to be embraced and given its proper place. What is that line of Swift's The Lady's Dressing Room? Ah yes, Oh, Celia, Celia, Celia shits!

Thank you for pointing that out, kind sir, Celia might have responded, you misogynistic pervert! I won't speak for Swift, nor would I want to rub anybody's nose in what is not aesthetically pleasing, but there is, I would plead in mitigation, a little part of us that knows it to be the case; that we are such creatures, and that beyond our ablutions and what Tibor Fischer referred to as 'the pleasure park' of our bodies, there is a world of survivals and affairs that we do not choose to bring into conversation - ('And how were your stools today, Jack?' 'Pretty good. Your menses?' etc) - but which nevertheless comprise us

The engine room of human life and human commerce comprises all it can comprise and our efforts to make the beautiful, the perfect crystalline Apollonian structure, are only valuable when the processes that bring them into being are somehow part of the fabric.

I confess that, by temperament, as will be obvious from my own work (all those stazas, all those rhymes), I spend more time in Apollo's urban apartments than in Dionysus's rural stews, but I am perfectly aware of the murders that have taken place in the building - the poems had better bloody well be aware - and have some notion of the soil the tenement is built on. (Well, hello Mr Dionysus. A drink? Well, OK...Can't stay long though...)

Palladio. I am as interested in Palladio's murders as in his jewels. I cannot, of course, assume that Palladio himself was not. Palladio's jewels may be my urban apartment. It just looks a bit too clean from here. Grandiose? Respectable?

No, that is not the whole story, but it's worth stating as a start.




25.02.08 : PALLADIO 1

Well, yes, Palladio. Let's be historical about this or as historical as we can get here and, more visually, here, and, photographically, indeed atmospherically, say here (click on photos).

Smooth and rough, rich and poor, machine á habiter or ghost in the machine. What do we - meaning I, or you - feel in contemplating, thinking about or, even, entering such places? This is not a casual question. Not merely, if you like, the hoary question of 'heritage' meaning the entrance of the paying hoi polloi (meaning you or I) into places of gracious living where they may admire the fine or, just as likely, gross taste of the wealthy panjandrum in terms furniture, carpets, paintings of ancestors. Congratulations on your history, o common man! See what glories your betters achieved! Do you not enjoy the privilege of being allowed to pay and look at it?

No, not quite that, though that too (you can never quite forget that) but the contemplation of objects that really are, no question, no doubt, beautiful.

Beautiful in what way? Let us then say Palladio's way. Palladio who is best known for designing country villas in the Veneto and whose visual language has become a part of architectural language generally, to the extent that high street banks, late methodist churches, ambitious town halls and even humble terrace-house porches speak a form of pigeon-Palladio. This is going to be a series of posts based round a set of poems produced for a forthcoming exhibition in homage to Palladio, an exhibition to which C is contributing as-yet-unpainted pictures and as-yet-undrawn drawings, and for which I was asked to write a poem.

This poem, as is the way with me, has finished up (if it has finished) as a series of sections, that I will put up on the front page of this site, section by section, starting tonight. CL who suggested I write a poem said he found the poem difficult at first, so I wrote him a brief paragraph on each section. I'll include that paragraph, but it is not the commentary on the poem that matters here so much as the discussion that develops from it.

I find the discussion interesting because I myself want to know the relationship between beauty without a context and beauty within a context. The former is, perhaps, impossible to conceive and yet we can - perhaps - detach certain qualities from their associations. That's what is going on here.

A little song may be called for in the next post.





24.02.08 : SUNDAY NIGHT IS...

blue but not gloomy. Couldn't get down to London for Linda's appearance here, so, instead, another lady...



Biilie and Satchmo... And it is the poet, Peter Scupham's 75th birthday, in honour of which a birthday verse is to be found - on the front. Happy birthday, Peter.




23.02.08 : THE FREE ADVICE MAN

I want to follow up the rough v. smooth line of thought, especially through an exchange with an artist friend about the architect Andrea Palladio. It will be Palladio's 500th anniversary this year and the friend, with some others, has planned an exhibition in London of contemporary paintings on the theme of Palladio. C has been invited to contribute and I have been asked for a poem. I have written the poem and sent it: the discussion ensued from that. But later.

For now: have posted the Michael Hofmann review to The Guardian, the external examiner's report on some forty odd pieces to the university concerned, written a blurb for a very good poet, Frank Dullaghan's first book and have written most of a review of a tribute volume to the great Hungarian poet Attila József, it being the 70th anniversary of his death last year.

But in the middle of this the phone rings.

It is J-P from Washington. We have never met or spoken but had a mutual acquaintance in the London dwelling Hungarian expatriate writer, Victor Határ. It seems that J-P also knew him and somehow he has found my number. He tells me he wants to move to London, has very little money and requires accommodation. We talk on like this, and he puts me on to his website and CV, where I discover, via a New Yorker link that he was known as The Free Advice Man.

Do read the New Yorker piece for yourselves as it is a story worth reading. Apparently, The Free Advice Man sat on a folding stool in Bleecker Street New York, with a board saying: J.P.'s FREE, OBJECTIVE AND REALISTIC ADVICE ON ALMOST ANY SUBJECT.

In the article we read that, "Altogether he has given advice to about six thousand people only four of whom were dissatisfied. What happened is that they failed to follow his advice." There are some nice examples of the process whereby advice is given, eg

TFAM (The Free Advice Man) to young woman standing before him, reading his sign: Hi, what do you do for a living?
YW (Young woman): Not much.
TFAM: But what?
YW: Acting.
TFAM: Not doing too well?
YW: I don't want advice about that. I already get too much.
TFAM: Let me ask you a question. Are you invested in any stocks and bonds?
YW: No.
TFAM: Good. Stay out of that. Got any land?
YW: No.
TFAM: Too bad. Get that.

The article goes on: "When people tell him they don't think they have any problems, he tells them that he thinks they do. He recommends that they go recline and reconsider. Something will come up."

Read the rest. There is a postscript you can click on where you discover that his pitch has been queered, in Washington now, by The Three Free Advice Ladies, beautiful sirens or witches, depending on your point of view.

The Free Advice Man is now a chef, looking for a room in London in a house where his chiefly (and other - indeed plenty other - qualities) might help pay the rent. If interested in helping, look here in Craigslist.

His character reference is a British Professor at the Central European University. Let me - or him - know if this happens to be what you are looking for. Everybody has a problem. This could be the answer.




22.02.08 : SPLENDID AND DISREPUTABLE FATHER...

Redskin versus Paleface, Raw versus Cooked, Esau versus Jacob...the list goes on. I was reflecting on our distrust of the smooth. Tom Paulin, for example, expressing a distaste for Ian Bostridge and his extraordinarily pure voice. On the other hand, let us say, Tom Waits. Do we then choose between Ella and Billie Holiday, and if we go for Billie, do we want her early self singing 'Easy Living' or the late cracked, 'Strange Fruit'?

I suspect the balance in the last twenty or thirty years has swung strongly in favour of the raw, towards Waits, towards 'Strange Fruit'. Rough, for us, became authenticity. In an age of spin authenticity offered an antidote, a refuge. Martin Bell's splendidly rumbustious 'Ode to Groucho' hymns his subject thus:

What you had was a voice
To talk double-talk faster,
Twanging hypnotic
In an age of nagging voices -
And bold eyes to dart around
As you shambled supremely,
Muscular moth-eaten panther!

Black eyebrows, black cigar,
Black painted moustache -
A dark code of elegance
In an age of nagging moustaches -
To discomfit the coarse mayor,
Un-poise the suave headmaster,
Reduce all the old boys to muttering fury.

A hero for the young,
Blame, if you wish the human situation -
Subversivest of con-men
In an age of ersatz heroes:
Be talkative and shabby and
Witty; bully the bourgeois;
Act the obvious phoney.

That's only the second part of a three part poem that ends with the glorious line:

O splendid and disreputable father!


We know the age of ersatz heroes as well as Groucho in the thirties or Martin Bell in the fifties did, maybe better, though we would probably not use the word ersatz. We know the suave headmaster, the nagging voice, the real con-man, the genuine phoney.

And yet, there is the reverse side of the coin, that plane where Mozart and Bostridge and Ella and Fred Astaire continue to move among angels. Where is that plane? What is it worth? How does it sit with us and those splendid disreputable fathers?

Just thinking.




21.02.08 : THE PRICE OF AIR(S) - PERSPETTIVA, DOTTORE!

Actually, the price of poetry books. This is my part of an exchange with Welsh poet Gwilym Williams, now resident in Austria, who writes on his blog here and here. Gwilym's blog discusses poetry in general and he has interesting things to say about D.H. Lawrence among other things.

The essence of his argument is that, considering their size in terms of pages, poetry books are very expensive. Furthermore, there are relatively few words per page so one is paying even more for even less. He calculates that he has paid roughly 12p per page for Seamus Heaney's District and Circle and argues that poorer prospective readers are priced out of buying books of poetry; that there may indeed be an element of profiteering going on.

He has put up my answer as a post, so I am returning the compliment. Thank you, Gwilym.

'I am not sure anyone has yet accused a poetry publisher of profiteering or cashing in. Almost all of them work at a loss, subsidised by the publishing house through sales of more popular books. As far as I know, the Penguin Modern European Poets and the Penguin Modern Poets series was subsidised by D H Lawrence's 'Lady Chatterley's Lover', and Secker (my first single-book publisher) ran poetry on the back of sales of Erica Jong's 'Fear of Flying'. Bloodaxe and Carcanet could not operate without public subsidy, which does however insist they contribute by producing broadly popular books too (such as Bloodaxe's anthologies).

I am sure you know that poetry is not priced by the word. The economics of poetry publishing is more complicated (and more fraught) than that. I am relieved that publishers publish poetry at all. A popular poet like Wendy Cope or Carol Ann Duffy may sell as many as 30,000 copies partly through being on school syllabuses. Most books of poetry sell in their hundreds, and not many hundreds at that. When my own Reel won the T S Eliot Prize for 2004 it sold some 3,000 copies - which was remarkable, but that's a one-off (my usual sales in latter years have been around the 1000 mark, good for poetry but hardly anything else). I think some fairly recent survey found that 67% of all poetry sales were for books by Seamus Heaney.

Which brings me to Heaney. He has actually won the Nobel Prize for Literature so on the words-per-pence count he is worth a great deal more than, say, I am. And compare the cost of a poetry book to the cost of a meal in a cheap restaurant. There are not many places in England you can have a two course meal plus a glass of wine for under £10 per head. Compare it to a cheap bottle of wine. The wine goes of course. Heaney is worth two bottles on that count. And he lasts for ever or as long as you or I live. Compare it to almost any other pleasure people don't think twice about spending on. A train ride to London and back, second class, will cost me more than twice as much as my forthcoming book will cost you.

Perspettiva, dottore!'





20.02.08 : FRANKENSTEIN, DRACULA AND THE WOLFMAN

The Mohamed Fayed story has gone down in history as a mixture of pathos and comedy. I can't entirely resist the comedy element. Particularly this, of course:

The murder was, he said, the result of an audacious plot hatched by Prince Philip, who was not only a member of the Frankenstein family but also the real ruler of Britain and a crypto-Nazi. Philip was assisted by his son Prince Charles, Mr Al Fayed claimed; they were the two principal royal plotters, the senior male members of what he called a "Dracula family".

Hard to resist the conjunction, that is, of Frankenstein being a member of the Dracula family. Then there is the 'Crocodile Princess'. It's good. It's very good, but he hasn't gone far enough in my opinion. It's a missed opportunity. Here, after all, is a horror movie to trump all previous horror movies such as King Kong vs Godzilla and Frankenstein meets The Wolfman.


Scenario:

Prince Philip (Frankenstein) is plotting with Prince Charles (Dracula) - OK, I know even the Daily Mail has got so far, but are too thick to go on - the murder of innocent naive American tourist, Diana (played by Tuesday Weld).

He enlists the help of the Queen (Bride of Frankenstein, natch), Rupert Murdoch (The Creature from the Black Lagoon) and a nauseating butler (The Blob).

Alistair Campbell (The Wolfman) persuades Tony Blair (Child of the Damned) to arrange an accident employing the driver, Henri Paul (The Alien) of Diana and Dodi (Jack Nicholson) to drive into bright flashlights operated by Russell Brand (The Mummy) on 'The Night of the Living Dead'.

Paparazzi (Zombies) enter and eat everything in sight.

Dracula marries The Crocodile Princess and she gives birth to Captain Hook.

It's a winner. Not to forget the horrendous head of MI5, Sir Richard Dearlove. Yes, it's him. He's behind you!...





Ridley? Wes? Abbott and Costello?...




19.02.08 : THE X / Y CONVERSATION

So what was going on in that exchange between X and Y?

X, the older man, had over the years, shown great kindness to Y, though this had cooled a little in the last five or so. Nothing hostile, just a sense of greater distance. The conversation, an off-chance drink together in a pub, was the first they had had outside of larger gatherings for a while.

Y is pretty sure X has Israel in mind, at least partly. They could argue about this but the subject has not been overtly stated. Once stated it could perhaps be discussed. But that is not all of it (nor is it ever when Israel hovers in the background.) Y thinks X's curious comments - curious because they had not been talking about the situation of Jews or about anti-Semitism, but about politics at large - must spring from some moral perception that what X actually does think might lay X open to charges of anti-Semitism and since X himself is convinced he is not anti-Semitic (being a humanist, atheist, man of the left with a long record of generosity, how could he be?) he is keen to forestall any hint of such a reproach should the conversation stray into that territory. He stamps on it, more forcefully perhaps than he himself intended, at this point. Now.

How convoluted, how complex the mind is. How difficult to pronounce on.

Nor is that is not the end of it, thinks Y. X knows Y's background, not perhaps in intimate detail, though Y has very rarely referred to it and is unlikely to do so. But that only makes things worse for X. He feels Y has an invisible grip on him, or rather that he might have such a grip, and the possibility of that is even worse. He fears Y might address him from some moral high ground of suffering, both racial and personal, and therefore imagines Y playing the victim card. The victim card is the Joker. He wants a moral game without Jokers. He suspects Y would not play the victim card, but that may only be because Y is subtler than that. Y wonders whether X is projecting Y as a sly character. Like much of his race, X might think (thinks Y). But voicing that thought, however silently, however briefly, makes X feel worse still. He blames Y for this (suspects Y). X might well be thinking: Look what you made me do! And after all, is it not true (the little demon grows a shade bigger) that they have a tendency to slyness? And cruelty. Just look at Israel. Just think of the uses to which the Holocaust is put. X feels a certain solidarity with John Berger, Norman Finkelstein, etc etc. Why should a man not think the truth?

Y, for his part is also stuck between truths. He is quite aware of the possible misuse of his racial and personal history and is convinced it would be unjust to lay this on anyone, least of all on someone who has shown him kindness in the past. On the other hand the history is as it is and he can't make it disappear. In fact it is getting harder to make it disappear. He bears a certain responsibility to both the truth of the historical events and to proper human relationships in the present. And of course Jews have no monopoly on suffering. But how can you compare the historical sufferings of the working class (generally incidental sufferings but no less real for that - he himself considers himself to be of the left) with a racial group whose sufferings were specific, systematic, and intended to be humiliating and final. No one has intended to liquidate the working class. Individual members of it are dispensible to those who exploit them but they are needed as a class. Nothing works without them. That is, after all, why they are called the working class.

X's comments worry him and prey on his mind. He cannot help remembering them, just as he cannot help knowing what he does know. He cannot help feeling a little frightened and wondering if this is how holocausts begin.

Is that an end to it? Maybe not even then. Y thinks he is going mad. Paranoid. Turning into R.D. Laing.




18.02.08 : GOOD MAN

Key reading by Norm of Tony Judt's article in The New York Review of Books on the Holocaust here.

*

Encounters I have known or witnessed.

X: The working class has suffered much more than the Jews have.

Y (The majority of whose family was wiped out in the war): Yeh.

X: Jews have no monopoly on suffering.

Y: No, they don't.

Y smiles in relief at such a satisfactory conclusion to the conversation.

End of conversation. They drink and talk of something else.


Y (thinks): X is a very good man in his late seventies. There is no point in upsetting X with any personal point-making. Beside who would want to cast such things into balances and make points? (But Y remembers the conversation nonetheless.)

Exeunt omnes.

*

And here's another pretty thing from Hungary. Même temps, même moeurs.




17.02.08 : SUNDAY NIGHT IS...
Dance night...



... with The Nicholas Brothers from 'Stormy Weather'





17.02.08 : IN THE FACE OF HISTORY POEMS

Published together with the photographs to which they refer can now be found on the Poetry site: here. Just scroll down and click on the poems (as indeed on the other highlighted work!)




16.02.08 : GHOSTWRITERS

Art is a house that tries to be haunted. - Emily Dickinson

Ghosts are a poet's working capital .- Peter Scupham

Imaginary gardens with real toads in them. - Marianne Moore

Ghostwriter, noun: a person employed to write material for another person, who is the named author. (OED)

Philip Larkin (on being asked why he did not give more public readings): I couldn't go round pretending to be myself.

There is always something strange in the neighbourhood and, in the first place, it is you. Or I. Or whoever is doing the perceiving. I did not include above A. E. Housman's famous test of of a true poem, which is when you remember it while shaving the hair on your chin stands up. (OK, he was a man...) Just as the hair is supposed to stand up in the presence of a ghost.

But why is there something strange in the neighbourhood? And what has it to do with art? Since this is not a book, not even quite a notebook, I am posting just a few notes at a venture.

On the simplest level, almost anything perfected disturbs us and seems a little otherworldly. After all, there are very few perfect things in the world, unless you take the line that perfection comprehends imperfection and is all the greater for doing so, an argument I could go a long way with, if only because the notion of perfection is frightening. As Sylvia Plath says, in 'Edge'

The woman is perfected.
Her dead
Body wears the smile of accomplishment,
The illusion of a Greek necessity
Flows in the scrolls of her toga,
Her bare
Feet seem to be saying:
We have come so far, it is over.

Yes, but there is more to this. All missed possibilities, whether good or bad, continue to live within us as shadows of the lives we find ourselves living. We can and do become 'other' to ourselves. It may be salutary to do so. Je est un autre said Rimbaud. On the other hand there is the out-of-self experience Philip Larkin feared. The point at which the famous figure begins to talk of himself in the third person.

More importantly for some, like me, is the sense of the past within the present. The film Ghost Busters was partly about the fear of such ghosts becoming oppressive, overwhelming monsters. Hey! the present is so much fun you don't want to let the past get a look in! Give it a blast on your slime gun.

But the past has made you. All exiles carry ghosts within them, those ghosts of first things, first real things, the ghosts of primary worlds. The smell of walls, the half-recognised noise outside the window, the taste of a madeleine. It is not nostalgia (if only it were so simple!) it is life crowding up from the back as well as from the front. People don't like it because the past carries obligation and responsibility with it. It can shrink you and bend you. If you don't want obligations and responsibilities and fear being shrunk and crippled you won't want much to do with the past.

There is, most crucially, the ghost in language, the feeling that life haunts language in a ghostlike fashion, glimpsed now here, now there, offering a shudder here, a shudder there, but that when you put out your hand through the words to grasp it, it escapes you. Your hand passes straight through it.

The poetic enterprise - I have said this so often before - is not to do with prettiness or fancy talk. It aims to be the clearest, plainest speech available given the specific apprehension of specific events. Take a few words jammed together in a pattern that is close to heartbeat and song, and see whether those words can start becoming a house the ghost may enter and inhabit (but it's only a ghost in there, even so!)

You make the house that tries to be haunted. You cultivate the imaginary garden and hope to find a real toad. You try invest your ghosts there as a form of working capital.

Speaking for myself, over the years I think I have been trying to build something like a house, a kind of four or five or six or seven storey tenement block such as the one I was born in. The shapes of the poems look to build architectural shapes or habitations. The history that haunts the building is that of real people, real events. In other words they are, or feel their way to becoming, imaginary tenement blocks with real people in them. Or so I would wish, so hope. I don't want a machine for living in. I want a ghost in the machine.

In that respect we are our own other. Our own ghostwriters. We go round pretending to be ourselves in a language that offers only haunted habitation.

But there are real toads there. And there should be real people too, shouting, waving their arms about. Much as in life.





15.02.08 : BRIEFLY, TO OXFORD AGAIN

Off to talk to the Hungarian Society in Oxford University. Title of talk: The Ghostwriter. You need a ghostwriter? Who you gonna call?






14.02.08 : FROM HUNGARY COMES...

Young Hungarian journalist here on behalf of a Hungarian Web portal that has expanded into a number of other areas and is now a major player (dontcha just love phrases like that?). Very nice guy. Very bright. Speaks very good English too having spent a year in Ohio. He - or rather the website - is doing some feature on UK culture and he spotted my name somewhere. I am hardly known in Hungary, he remarks. I know, I say. What do you make of that? he asks. Not much, I reply, except that I find their incuriosity curious. So does he, he says, because they like ex-Hungarian-boy-makes-good stories. He has dug out a copy of The Budapest File in Budapest, but that was all he could find, and little else in the files. I know, I nod. There is a bit more than he has found but not much. Still it is curious, he repeats.

Curious, I suppose, in the sense that for over twenty years, on and off, I have been writing English poetry about Hungarian life, not a topic much covered in earlier, or indeed present Eng Lit. And in the same time I have translated hundreds on hundreds of poems, edited anthologies, and translated several novels. Plus the national epic play. I have done the literary state some service, as Othello almost puts it.

But this is fruitless to contemplate. So I don't contemplate it. I wouldn't in any case want anyone to publish me out of a sense of obligation and I very firmly do not believe in trying to persuade anyone to take an interest in something that they have little interest in, particularly if that interest happens to be me. That's just the way it goes. On the odd occasion when I permit myself to think of this I register the curiosity, not so much at their lack of taste in failing to recognise my, no doubt, stupendous genius, just at their incuriosity. Curious, I think. And curious it is.

As for the rest I have absolutely nothing to complain of and consider myself extraordinarily fortunate to have received the encouragement I have received. Thirty years ago the thought of even a first book seemed like a distant dream. Now the whole thing is rather dreamlike. As are so many things. So no complaints. Dream on, big baby.

I escort the young journalist back to the railway station. The next feature in the series will be Brian Ferry. So Brian Ferry and I.. You see what shining stars we are. The paparazzi dog my every step. Honest.




14.02.08 : MEANWHILE IN CANADA

Here and here for a start. Very good man, Mr Glavin.




14.02.08 : SIMPLE BEINGS

It's true that boys who lack firm parenting and social advantages cause many of the worst problems in our communities, but, generally, if you feed and exercise male children, let them shout "bang", dismantle radios and develop a few hobbies, they're fairly simple creatures.

Rowan Pelling in the Telegraph in the course of warning parents of the danger of teenage daughters. Because she couldn't leave it there. Because, after all, being, occasionally, petulant, contemptuous, vicious little beasts who, in her words, "frequently aim to skewer their parents on the knife-edge of their own growing pains and insecurity", is a sign of sophistication in a girl. Stick with thick boys, is her kind advice. She herself is about to have her second son. I hope she realises - and tells them - how simple and thick they are. Ever so subtly of course.

We ex-boys are indeed simple creatures who shout, 'Bang!' and dismantle radios. We are the sort of simple creatures who have provided Rowan Pelling with the computer on which she has written her piece, the technology that enables her newspaper and her previous magazines to be produced. And beyond science and all its various applications for good and bad, the disciplines of philosophy, psychology, the arts etc etc. I've been down this road before of course and periodically one has to go down it again.

What the article, what Ms Pelling, and all those who think like her do not understand is that the dismantling of radios is an act of intellectual curiosity, that it is precisely such "simple" acts - acts that she equates with shouting 'bang' (can't you just see that self-satisfied smirk on her face in coming up with that formulation) - that have formed, changed and continue to change the world around her for - I would guess - the better. And I suspect she would think 'for the better' too, that is if she thought a little further: more manageable (though never entirely manageable), less dangerous (though never without danger) etc etc etc. ad almost inf.

End of boring but perfectly legitimate litany that occasionally needs repeating in case boys regard themselves as entirely manipulable, simple twits whose best option is to run around shouting 'Bang!' Which they generally do since that is what they are constantly told they are. What happens? They run with it. They shoot others and themselves. What else, after all, are they capable of? Dismantling radios? For geeks.

When something goes wrong it is of course our fault for meddling with the radio in the first place. When it goes right it is never right enough. 'Can't you get that stupid thing to work better?'




13.02.08 : LOVED SOUND 2

Somebody out there thinks the post yesterday is some kind of - no doubt suspiciously patriarchal - Victorian sentimentality. I suggest they do not understand a) the purpose of these posts which are not prescriptions for other people's happiness, and b) the conditions, such as faced by the two men in Krasznahorkai, that can make the associations of laughter - laughter that is not mocking, not vicious, not at jokes or at anything overtly funny - so welcome. I personally notice that such laughter tends to emanate from women. Who can be just as stupid, grasping, vicious, cruel and downright poisonous as any man. That is not the point.

Someone else writes what they want is women belly laughing, slapping their thighs, striding, running the country.

Welcome Indiana Jones. May I introduce you to Mrs Thatcher? Or do I suspect a certain kowtowing to any potential Lara Crofts out there?

As to niceness I am happy to do what Auden suggested on given occasion: I have no gun but I can spit.






12.02.08 : LOVED SOUND

One of the loveliest of sounds: a woman laughing in another room. I don't know why it should so fill one up. Maybe it's childhood, the half-understood happiness of your mother, or maybe it is the deeper, almost archaic sound of delight in sheerly being-here-and-now. I have written on women's laughter before, the bubbling forth that comes so naturally to them but which is nothing particularly to do with humour since often it is without perceptible object, just a muscle that runs through the entire body, a kind of physical relief or, rather, release. Laughter like that sounds benign, pleased to be alive.

The sound of water running into a jug is close, the next associated thing in a chain of associations, and, moving down that chain it is not impossible that we should arrive at another noise: the swish of wind in the leaves of a tree. Still further down the line, a long way down now, even the ticking of a clock might be found there as a form of delight, bringing home, as it does, the reality of each drop of life or light, at any rate something liquid and momentary.

Not always of course.

In a passage I have just translated from Krasznahorkai, two men are waiting for a dreaded appointment, an official summons whose purpose is not yet clear. They are sitting on a bench outside a door ready and impatient to be ushered in. The corridors are tiled, there is only the piercing buzz of the neon light, the whole place is dim. There are two visible clocks. A clerk comes and goes, glances at one of the clocks before disappearing again. One of the men begins to speak:

'The two clocks say different times, but it could be that neither of them is right. Our clock here,’ he continues, pointing to the one above them with his long, slender, refined index finger, ‘is very late, while that one there measures not so much time as the eternal reality of exploitation, and we to it are as the bough of a tree to the rain that falls upon it: we are helpless against it.’ Though his voice is quiet it is a deep and musical manly voice that fills the bare corridor. His companion who, it is obvious at a glance, is as different ‘as chalk from cheese’ from the individual radiating such confidence, resilience and firmness of purpose, fixes his dull button-like eyes on the other’s time-worn, suffering-hardened face and his whole being is suddenly suffused by passion. ‘Bough of a tree to the rain.....’ he turns the phrase over in his mouth as if it were fine wine, trying to guess its vintage realising somewhat indifferently that it is beyond him. ‘You are a poet, old man, you really are!’ he adds and marks it with a deep nod like someone frightened by the idea that he has inadvertently stumbled on some truth.

Now if suddenly they were to hear the sound of a woman's laughter down that corridor, a light, luxuriant laugh without guile and viciousness in it, it would be as though the light had brightened a little and they could go through the door awaiting them with a certain resolve, a shrug and - since I have used the word 'light' twice already in this brief paragraph - a distinct lightness of heart. Light, light, light. There. That's three lights.




11.02.08 : WAVE TO ME

The Archbishop business rumbles on, or, rather, mumbles on, but I shall not utter another er or um on this subject. Just a little note on the Saturday Guardian's property page (titled 'Snooping Around'. This caught my eye-

WRECK OF THE WEEK

(House in Somerset, blah blah...). £180,000


What: A four-room annexed cottage

Condition: (Blah, blah...) You might be able to do it for less than £100,000

Why you should: (It's pretty)

Why you shouldn't: You'll end up with a two bedroom, one-reception cottage with no room to extend - and a very close neighbour. But next door is also for sale at £320,000, so you could buy it and knock through.

Ah, those Guardian readers with their Comment is Free and a cool £600,000 to spend. Do wave to me from your helicopters...Ah Seumas and Maddie, there you are.





10.02.08 : SUNDAY NIGHT IS...

Mahatma Cane Jeeves, alias...



*And something new on front.




09.02.08 : A WORD FROM THE PULPIT

The Archbishop story rambles on. But that is the nature of Archbishop stories. The Anglican church is one of those strange institutions, a church not founded on religion, its creed a little bit of this and a little bit of that, and we stand for, er, this, unless it is possibly, er, that, but rather well behaved, you know, except when it occasionally isn't, and Trollope has it neatly and humorously, as Shakespeare, the church, an England in miniature, this Eden, the silver thing in the silver whatsit, as it were, or if not quite that, for nothing is quite that, not quite, at least, now, a decent middle-class England, of, as Larkin, ha ha, had it, of cycle-clips and awkward reverence and the holy end and what will remain of us is love, which is so very true, and have I mentioned the Arundel Tomb? Because there are, as you know, a lot of awfully nice churches, some of them sadly a bit, er, empty, though Betjeman talked of a Gothic Renaissance rather than the Gothic Revival, and we mustn't forget the martyrs, there are the martyrs, and now there is this rather awkward schism between the liberal western, er, branch, and the African brethren regarding gay priests, and it is a jolly hard job holding it together, but the Archbish is a very good sort, practically a saint, and yes, a lot of property, a kind of proputty, proputty, proputty as Tennyson had it, you know, since you are a literary chap and you'll be familiar with, er, but very little vulgarity, because, well, non angli sed angeli, or, as Sellars and Yeatman so delightfully put it, ha ha, Ten Sixty-Six and All That, awfully good, 'Not angels but Anglicans' (which really is awfully good), but there is a quiet place for God in all our lives, and for Sharia Law too, because that's not the kind that chops off people's hands, good gracious no, or honour killings and forced marriages, no it's the decent side of, and the jolly good thing is, because there is, on the one hand, law and on the other, er, whatsit, and we mustn't forget charity, and the charity commission, quite a different thing, of course, just my little joke, and all those quiet rural parishes, and the sound work, and there was Woodbine Willie in the trenches, though we are all against smoking now, it's not just Captain Mainwaring and Warminster, or not exactly, and so you see, and what with, and therefore, and we have to get along with each other as best we can, with love, and have you read George Herbert...?

Yes, your Grace, I have.




08.02.08 : MIDWINTER SPRING

The sun has been out most of the day and it is decidedly spring-like. I was walking through our tiny arcade and it struck me how quickly the season had come round. All right, it is still early February but the sense of time as an ever faster roundabout felt particularly strong, almost dizzying.

Midwinter spring is its own season
Sempiternal though sodden towards sundown,
Suspended in time, between pole and tropic.
When the short day is brightest, with frost and fire,
The brief sun flames the ice, on pond and ditches,
In windless cold that is the heart's heat,
Reflecting in a watery mirror
A glare that is blindness in the early afternoon.


Thank you, Mr Eliot. But it's not quite that. It is later. Summers never did go on for ever, not in England, nor did winters come to that but just now the seasons are rushing after each other rather furiously. Time is like Lily our lightweight cat (a Bengal mix) whose body is always coiling for a dash or a leap.

It seems paradoxical that time should actually become more frisky as it proceeds. For children, such as the twelve or thirteen year old boys and girls who hang around the 24 hour shop after dark, it will seem slow and stolid and dull. But for me it will always be strange being here. Wherever here is. But maybe it is so for everyone.

*

Finished Linda's book and have written to her. It is a very good book indeed, her best novel. I may lay a bet on it for the Booker. Most of the day has been spent putting the computer back in order, uploading, sorting. C sends out the invitations to the opening of her show that starts on the 28th, here, at the Boundary Gallery. Here is one of the paintings, just a small copy for now:









07.02.08 : IN PRAISE OF ROWAN: ECUMENICAL

Archbishop and Mullah agreed
to go halves on the gown and the creed,
remixing the Ave Maria
with I've just met a Girl called Sharia.

A podcast by Poetry magazine is to be found here. Two of my poems feature, but also some very good conversation and some excellent poems.




06.02.08 : 6 FEBRUARY 1958

It is, I suppose, strange that as a barely nine year old boy I should have taken the Munich air crash, the destruction of a team I had only just heard of, quite so seriously. Odder still that I cannot actually remember the news. I think it might have been before we had a television. What I do faintly remember is the patched-up remnant team fighting their way through to the Cup Final and a point of conversion that coincided with my own first attempts at playing football. I must have been reasonably good by the following year as I was in my primary school team, and the team got through a junior cup competition whose final was actually played at Wembley.

Not the stadium of course, but a park in the same borough. It was my first piece of successful - and possibly last - public art too, the drawing of a footballer heading a ball with the twin towers somewhere behind and the caption 'Heading for Wembley' that the teacher singled out for special praise. For a foreign child in his second year in England that was not too bad. I played on the wing or possibly centre forward in that final, that we won 2-0 with two goals by Gary Mills, a handsome boy with a quiff.

From May 1959 I was spiritually committed to Manchester United. Spiritually, I say because we lived in London and a trip to Manchester seemed unlikely. I joined no supporters club (I joined no clubs at all) so it was a solitary passion, only watching the team when they came to Chelsea or Fulham or Spurs or Arsenal, often with my father, later with this or that friend. Teams are tribal in most respects but I was not aware of having joined any tribe. If the team stood for anything, or symbolised anything in my child's head, it was the possibility of survival and a particularly courageous and graceful way of returning to some arena. It mattered to me how the team played. Drama and beauty (that I would not then have called beauty) would have been essential.

I loved the colours too, though my secret favourite colour was midnight blue. The deep red and white and black was a firm, bold heraldic combination: nothing dreamy about it. Maybe that too was a kind of symbolism: the red of blood, the white of grace and the black of death. (Of course the Nazis used it too...)

This is getting altogether too deep and yet there would have been something in the colour that mattered then. (My first football match in Budapest featured the Ujpest Dozsa team who played in a kind of violet or dark lilac, like Fiorentina, and I remember being impressed by that. I have no idea what colours the other team was wearing.)

As for aeroplanes, our first ever flight was to England on a dark early December day. There will have been some association at work there too.

The names of the dead players have been familiar to me for decades, possibly ever since 1959. Today is the fiftieth anniversary of the crash. Harry Gregg, the goalkeeper then, who survived the crash, was speaking on the radio earlier - clear, articulate - a brave man who went back into the wreckage when the pilot was shouting at him to run clear.

There is no use getting sentimental about the grandeur of a team you never saw play. But maybe not seeing was the secret: those shadow bodies with real names lodging themselves in the imagination.




05.02.08 : LIFE GOES ON

You win some, you lose some. This time I've lost some, but a new hard drive is on its way. Anyone who has sent me emails recently might like to email me again, especially if it is about dates or has attached bits of writing, or is indeed responding to attached bits of writing from me

Linda's book The Clothes on Their Backs has arrived and I am half-way through already. Not having material to work on I could simply sit and read. It is marvellous in two important ways for me: in terms of language and in terms of narrative timing. The narrative moves in and out of the past remembering events at moments prompted by associations rather than - it seems to me - by some mechanical dance of plot. As for the language, it is doing far more than simply acting as a minicab for the story. It is precise, charged, full of detail, the rhythm spot on. It is a proper sleek poetic engine. The book is more than that of course, but I'll write about it more thoroughly - and contrary to Best Reviewer's Advice - once I have finished reading it.

Less time for reading blogs today on computer 2, having had to dash into the city by bus to deliver computer 1 to the undertaker/resurrectors and then trying to phone and join up what loose pieces of self-as-information were left on Number 2.

*

Tonight's dinner time TV was about artistic elephants that paint with their trunks. People saying silly excitable things in deranged quiz-show manner: "And now the real test! Will a painting by an elephant pass the scrutiny of the London galleries?" That's not much of a test, gentlemen. A suite of paintings by a blind mouse in a jockstrap would do that.




05.02.08 : MAC DISASTER

Coming down last night after supper I found the screen of my MacBook dead. Couldn't switch on or off, eventually pushed the button and turned off. Turned on again, the dreaded question mark started flashing. Took out original install disc, put it in pressing the C button but installation would only go so far - up to the point where the programme asks you where you want to install, when it offered nothing to install onto.

Dead end. Dead computer. Fortunately I back up fairly frequently so haven't lost everything. Nevertheless have lost recent email contacts and other vital stuff, including of course anything done since the last back up which means translation and letters.

The old computer is still here and that is what I am using now. This sounds like a job for a specialist, a kind of spectral resurrector. More on this later. If anyone out there has bright ideas do email (address on front of site). I can pick up those on the the old PowerBook.

Meanwhile....



03.02.08 : SUNDAY, VIA MICK HARTLEY



Thanks, MH





03.02.08 : AN UNUSUAL POST IN WHICH...

... I register a hitherto unrevealed hatred and a surprising pleasure.

The HATRED is of interior designers and of the products of interior design, indeed of anyone associated with the foul swamp of clean lines, bare walls, latest technology. modernist purity, glass of any kind, steel, the colour white and the very notion of ancient slate as an internal wall. One day last week - possibly Friday - the TV got turned on to a programme called Grand Designs about an architect called Pease who had designed his own post-Corbu house, only richer, barer and more expensive, as viz here. See that glass? That only costs about £1200 per square metre. When you press a switch it mists up and becomes opaque. Immediately. That's what they're paying for. Our windows do that when you breathe on them funnily enough. The text says:

Many would find the stark modern lines of this house overbearing, but Martin and Katherine are adamant that every single element of the Bristol Sugar Cube oozes their personalities.

Oozes is right. They have oozed into my brain and I object to their presence there. They cost me five-minutes of uninterrupted uncontrollable swearing.

It is not even so much the conspicuous consumption as the smugness with which it is presented. The kitchen tap costs the price of a small car.

Let that pass. Le Corbusier's villas were for the very rich but the architecture was new and faintly breathtaking, in a spooky sanatorium sort of way. Very moral it was too. The villas lectured you. You had to be pristine to live up to them. Clean lines. Modulor proportions. Post-renaissance, you see. Man is the measure of all things. Now let my things be the measure of you. Well, serve the rich right, I say. Beautiful shapes. Visions. Suffer for them, darlings. Given five years in those chairs you'll not be looking so smug.

Yesterday's Guardian magazine had a section called SPACE, subtitled: Simply The Best. It consisted of more white statements-of-smug, best of all the opening spread that showed a bookcase. Now what do you think is on the book-case? Things that are about the height and width of books, but all of precisely the same dimensions and all precisely the same green. All arranged in the best possible taste. Like an empty head.

Death to interior designers. May we have a little more blood please?

*

The new PLEASURE - and I never thought I would say this - is in vegetables. To me carrots, potatoes, broccoli etc, were extras on the film-set of food. You had to have them in a crowd scene, but you would not want a turnip as a star. Vegetables don't do much. They can't sing, can't act, can't even dance a little. Their very virtuousness is off-putting. The best you could do with them, I thought, is roast or fry them, cover them in a sauce that contains some garlic or lemon or paprika, then at least they'll be crisp and acquire some second-hand flavour.

I was wrong. C had ordered vegetables delivered from a company she heard about at the local market. Yes they are virtuous and organic, but they are not wearing sandals or acting particularly superior. In fact they are rather cheap. The vegetables arrive in a cardboard box and - may I be forgiven for what I am about to say by the ghosts of all those baked beans and fried eggs and rashers I have eaten on suitable and numerous occasion - they are delicious. The carrots and the potatoes get out on stage and come back stars. They taste very good. There's not the least tinge of virtue about them. They're spuds. They're carrots. They're the People and proud of it. They don't need the sauces. They can look after themselves.

I stand to one side humbled and exhilarated as they receive their Oscars. That doesn't mean that the next time I am in some pretty town, hungry in the morning, I will not be going for beans on toast.




02.02.08 : NOTE ON OXFORD VISIT

How beautiful Oxford is! And those fairy-tale colleges from whose windows you can imagine princesses waving handkerchiefs (or, alternatively, a 1920s Hooray Henry emptying a chamber-pot). They seem too good for mortals. I remember being taken there by my parents in my early teens and thinking: It's another world, one nothing to do with me. Another form of life.

The word 'privilege' was not to hand, nor did I feel in the least chippy about it. At that moment Oxford was not in the world of Marx: it was something referred to in Hans Christian Andersen.

A few years ago I wrote a poem about visiting the Esterházy palace at Eszterháza in Hungary, another beautiful, though later and more melancholy construction, where Haydn had lived, composed and performed for his patrons. I imagined - for a few lines at least - the peasant looking on as the vast yellow dream-house slowly rose from the ground. I could easily imagine him thinking something similar. How beautiful and how removed from him it was, apart that is from his rents and taxes. There were a few plaster cherubs spattered with bullets inside.

Even now it is not exactly privilege that strikes me in Oxford, not in the economic sense, and I still don't feel chippy, merely a little naive. Even though daughter H actually went to Oxford: it is just difference, otherness, a beautiful head in the distance.

Nice reading, albeit in a crisp new lecture hall rather than a panelled old common room with portraits of Daisy Ashford's Ancestors gazing down, as on earlier occasions. Suddenly, blindingly, the students seemed very young. Physically, I mean. Slender, almost elfin. Beautiful creatures from the planet Zog. But that may just be my age. Everyone seems to get prettier and prettier now as time goes on. They are all elves and eloi. Not at all like those pictures of Larkin as a student. Foppish Larkin! What a thought! Their minds are as well-furnished as ever. They are as charming as ever. They write two long essays a week whereas most university students have difficulty writing two shorter ones a semester. Drinks after, with, eventually, some mention of the President of the Union who invited Irving and Griffin. The students didn't say so, but he sounded like a perfectly repulsive fop to me. The worst Oxford can offer.

Put up overnight in a spartan room in Wadham, toilets and showers downstairs, no bedside light just a sink and a phone. No breakfast included. I found breakfast next morning in the covered market, a place called Browns', a Portuguese, indeed Madeiran cafe with checkered floors, plain tables, plastic ketchup and brown sauce bottles on the table, fluorescent strip lights, a few glossy photos of Madeira stuck to the walls, everything miscellaneous. It was a proper greasy spoon and reassuring. It felt like home. Fried eggs and baked beans on toast with a mug of strong tea. Written on the edge of a shelf, indeed on two shelves, the same legend: MAY PEACE PREVAIL ON EARTH. Good idea.

*

Copy of Poetry arrives from US. It's a bit of a thrill to be on the front with Louise Glück and Jorie Graham. And the new Bloodaxe catalogue, also arriving today, includes both the New and Collected Poems of GS (a hefty 448 pp) but also the study of his work by John Sears: Reading GS (another hefty 320 pp) (links later.) Almost 800 pages of GS for a mere £22.95 the pair, both books to appear simultaneously, actually, and very precisely, on my sixtieth birthday. It is a little overwhelming. I feel an Oscar speech coming on, so I'll shut up now.




01.02.08 : WRITERS, PERSONAL EXPERIENCE, LANGUAGE: CELAN

My feeling is that writers cannot help but draw on their personal experience and that that will inform their language in various ways.

The first and most obvious example of the personal in poetry is where poems employ the pronoun 'I' and the reader takes that 'I' to be engaged in events directly experienced by the author. This is not the same as reading a poem for psychological evidence of the state of being of the author, not exactly, since the 'I' in a poem is always a separate subject from the author and most readers do at some level recognise that. Nevertheless the 'I' acts on the reader in a way that invites a reasonably intimate identification, unless it is clear that the 'I' is serving as a kind of dramatic monologue. The speaker of Browning's 'My Last Duchess' is clearly not Browning himself but speaks as the 'I' of an assumed character. It is possible for the first person singular to be located in almost any of the available pronouns but the mode of address will be different in each case.

The next level of reference to personal experience is by the evoking of events or situations that the reader may assume to have been directly experienced by the author. The poets of the First World War were actively involved in the war even when they were not writing of their part in events. The subject is still clearly identifiable as the war.

Beyond that, the reader may be aware that the writer's work has been strongly informed by his or her consciousness or memory of certain events. A war poet writing after the war about another subject might nevertheless be aware - as might the reader - of the nature of that consciousness as an influence. A writer who had suffered a great personal loss will at some level possess the consciousness of the loss.

None of the above need have a strikingly dramatic effect on the nature of the language, certainly not to the degree we find in Celan. Celan, in fact, makes a hard case to argue from because there are few comparable poets. The argument in his case might be from a deeper trauma that is both more personal and more universal.

The universal trauma in his case was, I think, the attempted extermination of the Jews. It would have shocked him not just as Jew but as a European. The treatment meted out to Jews in the 1940s seemed so far out of character with the expected course of European history; so vicious, so humiliating, and so, in effect, mad or beyond reason, that the languages available to treat of it seemed inadequate. The feeling that language was inadequate to represent the weight and significance of the events was not restricted to Celan. Primo Levi talks about it. The Nobel Prize winning Hungarian writer, Imre Kertész's first major work, Fatelessness, ends with the impossibility of applying the smooth, easily available, manipulable language of those who have not been touched by the disaster to the disaster itself. The language of Fatelessness (narrated by a fifteen year old boy) is classical and simple but his books since have employed an increasingly complex syntax, with ever longer reflective sentences as if language had to be constantly examining itself. David Grossman's major work See:Under Love, contains a section that is almost impossible to read as narrative. This may be what Adorno meant about poetry after Auschwitz.

I sometimes wonder whether the complex moral and political argument involving the uniqueness of the Shoah - the attempt, that is, not only to exterminate but first to humiliate and torture an entire race - is specifically an European argument. The Shoah happens in the twentieth century when ideas of progress and evolution are dominant. Universal education, advances in science and medicine, the breakdown of the remnants of the feudal system, the notion of rationalisation as the triumph of reason had, I think, to some degree at any rate, prepared Europeans for the prospect of ever greater enlightenment. The First World War on that view would have been the great purgative ("Like swimmers into cleanness leaping," wrote Rupert Brooke who died in the war). But the war was itself a vast historical trauma for all concerned. The tension between the expectation of hope and progress and the fear of devastation was enormous. The expectation of hope and progress made the Shoah almost inexplicable. It was not so much that there hadn't been humiliation and genocide before, it was just that twentieth century Europe was distinctly not the place where the hopeful would have expected it.

Both Celan and Kertész were directly affected by the trauma of the Shoah. One could argue that the long persecution of the Jews in Europe had an effect on the language of Kafka and on aspects of modernist experimentalism. This is perfectly understandable in my view. Speaking personally for a moment I suspect the poet's key experience is of the simultaneous treacherousness, fragility and beauty of language and of the narrow divide between signification and meaninglessness or distortion of meaning. This is related to the question of community. How far is the language of the community to be trusted. What if the community doesn't trust you? What kind of language are you left with outside the community?

This is, I think, what we see in Celan. Celan's language is clearly not that of the community that does not trust him. He cannot trust the community either. He cannot trust their language. Therefore he must find such forms of the beautiful and valid in language as can survive exclusion from community. Poetry, as Auden had it, survives in the valley of its saying. Celan's valley is deep, intense, strange, beautiful and narrow. Others could not live there for long. Not could he.

The community spreads into the various valleys where we live, even second-generation post-Shoah poets like myself. We could not be as isolated as Celan was.

*

Oh, the self-sacrificing courage. There they go writing their names in the stars again. Poor bloody stars.




31.01.08 : OXFORD BOUND: THE DAY I SCORED AGAINST ARSENAL

Big stormy winds. In an hour or less I am off to Oxford to read to the OUPS. A good four hours plus by train, returning next morning. Just had interesting letter from India regarding language and experience in writing, particularly with reference to Paul Celan. I have replied to a short question with a long answer (I suspect all answers to serious questions are either of one word or of several pages.) Thoughts on this when I return.

As to Ryan Giggs (cf yesterday) we do at least share a birthday and a certain longevity. I well remember scoring that goal against Arsenal in the semi-final of 1999. Or was that him? No, I definitely think it was me.




30.01.08 : THE RYAN GIGGS OF POETRY: THE WOLVES

Examining a PhD viva today. Not having done this before I was a little nervous. Not because of the dissertation which was excellent but the protocol. How strange this is. In Budapest academics go into viva action wearing suits. Should I be wearing a tie? Bow tie? Satin slippers? A wig?

Frankly, I can't remember what anyone was wearing at my own viva, least of all myself. I seem to recall there being a lot of people there, dozens of them. Well, at least four. The room still seemed overcrowded. There's one too many of us here, I thought, and it's me.

This time just the two of us doing the examining, the other being EH, who has been referred to as the Thierry Henry of classicists. I tease her about this. It's because I keep crossing from the left, she says. OK. Va-va-voom.

I am not sure what I am of the poetry world. Can I really see myself as Ronaldo, all those formal step-overs? No, I am not Ronaldo, nor was meant to be, as Eliot said about Hamlet. Giggs on a good day would do me. Now all it requires is for someone to point out this blinding truth and I can die happy.

*

I write nothing about the hideous events in Kenya but it's hard to forget the sight of a group in the middle-distance bringing their machetes down time and again on some poor unseen man. I write nothing but cannot help seeing. Hobbes quotes Plautus: homo hominis lupus. Man is wolf unto man. I wrote a play with a song that had the Latin tag for its chorus. Has a nice jingle to it.

But it is no use thinking that's just Africa and Africa is very far away. Sarajevo is not so far, and I remember Srebrenica. I think of Europe and Goya's Disasters of War immediately comes to mind. And so much else, not least of the lives of my parents and their contemporaries.

One of the great truths - and one has to feel this rather viscerally for it to mean anything - is that the reasonable, tolerant, liberal state of affairs we enjoy is neither natural nor secure. It has been hard fought for. The wolves don't just go away. We ourselves are the wolves, the dogs beneath the skin. We have learned to behave for now.

And then I touch the heads of those I love. There is no feeling more tender than that.

Make sense of the two then: the thin precious skull and the wolf at the flesh. I can't. Never could.




29.01.08 : THE SOLEMN EYE

Review in The Guardian of the new show at the Hayward, Laughing in a Foreign Language. Adrian Searle doesn't like it. It doesn't make him laugh.

It's interesting that visual art on the whole doesn't do gags. Literature does. Some of the greatest literary works are funny: Don Quixote, Gargantua and Pantagruel, Ulysses... Byron's Don Juan is a wonderful comic poem. We know that laughter is often comprehended in writing. There is laughter in music too. In opera, in orchestral works, in jazz, in songs. But visual art: not so much.

Or rather there is laughter, but art with laughter carries a different label. There are comics and cartoons. Pete and Dud are the exceptions in seeing the joke in the Leonardo cartoon, and because they are irresistible, here they are:




One reason why they are funny is because they are supposed to be solemn. You do need to be solemn or it doesn't work. But whence the great solemnity? Thereby hangs a long tale of which this is just the briefest beginning.

Galleries are much like churches and curators are much like priests. There is nothing funny in the liturgy.

Galleries are much like churches partly because a lot of the material actually used to be in churches, but partly because art objects are valuable. People pay big money for art. Books are cheap, concerts and records are cheap. Not art. Art costs: money requires dignity. Acquisition and maintenance of value are serious affairs. One should not forget this. There are other considerations of course, but this should not be forgotten.

The art gallery begins in private hands, a combination of the wealthy patron's benevolence and vanity, the collector's cabinet of curiosities, and the need of institutions to be commemorated and publicised. Living in a protestant, post-puritan culture we tend to go for galleries that have a stripped and hallowed quality. It is not images we are encouraged to worship: that goes against the grain. It is the art-experience, which is a sum of the image, the art-church with its art-liturgy, plus the mysterious saintly aura of concrete value. We are given to understand that we must work to appreciate art, to be worthy of it through the application of the appropriate, prayerful work ethic.

The funny artists are generally surrealists: Magritte, Ernst, Miro, Chagall. They can see the world comprises laughter even though surrealism is in itself a serious business. But even so you don't go into a gallery to laugh at Magritte or Ernst or the others. Tush, tush. Be quiet there.

Art has made me stop dead in my tracks. It has moved me to tears. It has affirmed things I didn't even know needed affirming. Individual works have given me joy. They have even made me smile. I mean individual works of art, not the apparatus that surrounds art, not the holy hush, not the institution with its all-pervading air of self-importance, its smell of money, its solemnity.

For solemnity is what is required. The priesthood requires it. The liturgy requires it. The art-experience requires it. Sometimes even naked emperors require it. You mustn't laugh at Damian or Tracy, you know. That would be most disruptive.




28.01.08 : GOOD GOLLY

University all day from the early early morning to the early early night as Little Richard sang. I tell you it was just like this.



In the head only rather than in the corridors or down the concrete stairs or in the seminar rooms, the offices, the lecture theatres, the concourses, the cafeterias. Just grey and white, like that.

At home a report on the upcoming PhD. Invitations to places, including Belfast. I think I am awake, but can't be quite sure. Reading for the Oxford University Poetry Soc on Thursday evening. Better be awake by then.




27.01.08 : THE PILLAR OF SOCIETY



About three hours sleep last night which is enough for a cat providing it takes another three hour sleep within half an hour. But I have not had another sleep so am mildly sleep-deprived.

It has been a beautiful late-winter's day, a thin blue sky lightly fluffed with cloud, the air chill but not cold, everything - except me - fully awake as if the year had opened its eyes wide for a moment before nodding off again. Drove to D, a retreat in the south of the county, now used as a weekend education centre, to talk to some poetry students. The retreat has an austere primness, too nice for a properly self-flagellating religion. Imagine an average pillar-dwelling desert father shopping for furniture at a 1950s version of Ikea. Stayed there once. Talked about form and productive, liberating constraint. Two students tell me they hate constraint. They only want to go wild. Wild, you hear!

I hear.

Rabbits dart to and fro across the narrow country lane. Blackbirds seem to follow them like avian bodyguards. Too late for the road-kill fox a little further down.





25.01.08 : TELEGRAPH VERSE

When I read the letters in The Telegraph
about the state’s envy and spite
I consider the writers’ postal address
and think to myself: Too right,

Too right,
a voice rumbles inside me,
instinctive, truculent, rough,
growling, Spite is exactly the ticket
but never, you bastard, enough.



Ahem.

If interested in seeing what the poems and images from Poetry magazine look and read like here is one of them. Someone has just suggested I might write about Palladio. It sounds interesting.

The Thai meal (two minutes walk from us) was excellent. C gorgeous and delighted and tearful and full of life. Bill Bryson was at the next table with a couple of people. Traveller discovers good restaurant. Mr B lives locally.




25.01.08 : C'S BIRTHDAY: THE CANZONE

And a new poem on the front for her. That is my fifth canzone and probably my last, but it is interesting to find a form and see how it fits, how you can move around in it. That is why I tend to write more than one in a newly discovered form.

What is fascinating about the canzone it is its zonality: each verse is a zone dominated by one of the five words you come up with. At the end of the first verse (which is the point when my five line-endings are decided and not before) the new word appears twice at the end. The following verse picks that up, says one brief farewell to the dominant word of the last, drifts about the new dominant word, ends on the next and so forth. The form is constantly flying into your face like a strong wind as you grip the rope of feeling tight, the rope attached to something you can't quite see. It sounds convoluted and clever, but the game is feeling, feeling pushing against language.

But to more exciting things. Gifts. Items:
One pair of earrings to go with the Christmas necklace (costume jewellery, the kind poets can afford)
One turquoise-ish but perhaps more blue, dress
One purple top
One black top with floral pattern and silver
One gorgeous shirt-like top with slightly military collar, but gauzy.

All this from money coming in from Poetry magazine, the essay about poems-as-sleeves. The February issue has seven of my poems on photos complete with photos. I have only seen a PDF so far, but those who have seen the real thing are enthusiastic. Also some nice emails.

Meal out tonight! High society! Well, maybe the local Thai.

Still marking.




24.01.08 : DON KEN

Catching Kate Hoey and Ken Livingstone on the radio this morning was an interesting experience. I kept thinking Ken was sounding more and more like a Mafia godfather.

Q: So Al, you got a thing against Lemmy, right?

A: Yeh, right. That Lemmy's gone right off the rails, I'm telling you. I gotta do what's right for the city, you understand. Lemmy is one bad guy.

Q: You don't like him, is that right? You tell your boys to go wipe him.

A: Look, liking don't come into it. If I wiped everyone I didn't like there'd be far fewer peoples around, got me? It ain't Lemmy. It's what Lemmy does. What Lemmy says. So I say to the boys: Guys, we do one devastating critique on Lemmy. Then we drive him into the ground. You understand metaphor, right?

Q: They're your boys but it's the city that's paying for them.

A: Sure the city pays. Yeh, but I'm the city. I'm looking after the city's interests. The city's interests is my interests, ain't that so, Spider?

Spider: So right, Al.

A: Besides it ain't my system. Do you think I like the way I have to operate. Nah, I wanted it fair and square, all above board. But you gotta take what you're given. And it ain't so bad. The city's got protection now. The boys see to that. And if there's a problem, it soon disappears.

Q: So, do the boys work for you or the city?

A: They work for me, sure, but that means working for the city. Take the case of Lemmy. When I tell them to go out and wipe Lemmy, they do it for the city, but on their own time. They do it out of love. They love me so much that when I say to them: If anyone asks whether I told you to wipe Lemmy on city time you tell them I didn't say that, right? And they answer straight away: You didn't say that, Al. If you're gonna wipe him, I say to them, you do it out of hours, in your hours, at your place. Not in City Hall. That's if you do it. Which I didn't say, right?

Q: Your boys work long hours for you, Al.

A: They do 37 hours for the city. But for me they do 70, 80 even. That's love. That's family. You gotta understand love. You gotta understand family. You know what the trouble is with the world? No family values. But we got them. So it's easy. What they do for me they do for the city in the city's time. What they do regarding Lemmy, that's outside the city. That's family time. A guy's gotta have clean hands. Look at these hands. Do they look dirty to you? You want a good manicurist?

Q: They must be real keen, Al, to put in that extra work for you, wiping out guys, above and beyond the long hours.

A: I told you. Loyalty. Love. Family. My boys are loyal. They love me. We're one big family here.

Q: And the creaming off of cash and the cosy deals that people talk about?

A: Look, everyone has a bad deal some time. So money disappears. But we'll find the bills. The boys are looking into it, right now. They'll do a good job, don't worry about that. That's once they've fixed Lemmy.

Q: And the broad that took the holiday on money from City Hall. What did you make of that?

A: I was devastated. Big Pete was devastated. Spider here was devastated. We was all devastated. Were you or were you not devastated, Spider?

Spider: I was devastated.

A: See, he's devastated. But not as devastated as Lemmy will be.

I think it went a little like that.




23.01.08 : TELL THAT TO FRED ASTAIRE.

Still marking and then some translating. Some days my judgment completely goes and I quite lose faith in myself. But then that is the fate of most artists. It is a precarious trade, like gathering samphire in 'Lear'.

That's a glamorisation of course. If Lear's samphire gatherer loses grip he is dashed to pieces at the bottom of the cliff. I know the mind has mountains, cliffs of fall, frightful sheer etc but actually most of us don't finish up in psychological shards and splinters. Having been steeled in the early school of hard knocks (those years of rejection slips!), we pick ourselves up, dust ourselves down and start all over again. Or, as Martin Bell put it, still dapper, still Astaire.

Hah!

Astaire?

As if!

And yet we do get up having got up so often before. And this little excursus is nothing to do with my writing at the moment, though we could neatly segué into that, dear mountain-mind, just all this essay reading and report writing and not necessarily agreeing with colleagues, and feeling a bit thick at times, or at least under-read, under-schooled.

Turned down a very nice Irish radio programme to discuss Milan Kundera. Why? No time at the moment. Too much academic stuff. In any case I haven't really returned to Kundera for some years and there's no time between now and next Tuesday to return to him. Apparently, says the producer, very few people want to talk about him now. Another case of sic transit perhaps. Or fashion. The whirligig of time.

Norm writes a good piece about the current Gaza crisis. And Democratiya sends a link to various bits of fascinating, relevant, political YouTubery.




22.01.08 : LATE

More tomorrow. About time I wrote a short entry anyway. Recorded two poems for use by Poetry magazine. They are doing some eight of my poems on photographs, together with the photographs. It meant going into a BBC studio, reading them (twice) then having the CD turned into a data file. The issue is out in February.

Lot of marking. All work no play turns Jack into an axe-wielding maniac. Fortunately my name is not Jack, or Johnny. Just a little tired. When they told me I was going to be a reader it was something else I pictured.

C's birthday on Friday...




21.01.08 : JOHN CROWE RANSOM'S PIAZZA PIECE: VOX

Ransom (1888-1964) is a deep dyed silver poet, the best of silver. Why silver? I think, in his case, it is the consciousness, his and our consciousness, that he is working with material that is already elsewhere, somewhere just off the nostalgia highway; material that is unlikely to be current or popular or full of major perceptions, and yet is substantial, humane, edged with darkness. It is elegance worn with a certain ironic theatricality.

Silver Poets of the Sixteenth Century was an anthology put together after the war, collecting poems by Wyatt, Raleigh, Surrey, Sidney and Drayton, a pretty marvellous bunch who could sing both high and low. As can Ransom.

Piazza Piece is one of the poems I have by heart. This is how it goes:

Piazza Piece

—I am a gentleman in a dustcoat trying
To make you hear. Your ears are soft and small
And listen to an old man not at all,
They want the young men's whispering and sighing.
But see the roses on your trellis dying
And hear the spectral singing of the moon;
For I must have my lovely lady soon,
I am a gentleman in a dustcoat trying.

—I am a lady young in beauty waiting
Until my true love comes, and then we kiss.
But what gray man among the vines is this
Whose words are dry and faint as in a dream?
Back from my trellis, Sir, before I scream!
I am a lady young in beauty waiting.

A sonnet for two voices, it is partly about lust and partly about death: the lust of the old and ugly for the young and beautiful; Death's desire for the Maiden. In many ways it is pure cliché, a piece of Victorian melodrama with the old man in his dustcoat almost visibly twirling his moustaches and the maiden, in white, striking a suitably Pre-Raphaelite pose. The confrontation makes for a deliciously corny and yet vestigially threatening recitation if given vox.

And what is vox? Cf. Shakespeare in 'Twelfth Night':

OLIVIA
How now! art thou mad?

Clown
No, madam, I do but read madness: an your ladyship
will have it as it ought to be, you must allow Vox.

This little exchange occurs after Malvolio has been inveigled into believing the lady Olivia is in love with him and has been imprisoned for his apparently mad behaviour. Feste, the Clown, reads Malvolio's letter from prison in a "mad" voice. To allow vox is to imitate to an almost ludicrous degree.

So one allows Piazza Piece its own vox because the poem absolutely demands we grant it.

The gentleman declares himself in the first line, describes himself in his dustcoat (dust and death, dust and age) and tells the maiden that he is trying to make himself heard by her. Presumably he is uncertain whether she does hear him. Comes the little sensual detail of the ear that he mentally fondles. So soft, so small... Then he imagines the younger men, victims of romantic love, whispering and sighing as they woo her, but immediately moves away from them to chill her heart by pointing to the hoariest of romantic symbols, the roses on her trellis and, in so doing, aligns himself with Herrick - another Silver Poet - who is himself echoing those long before him. As roses are beautiful so you are beautiful, as roses wither and die, so you too wither and die, sings an echoing chorus of ancient poets out of ancient wisdom, since Vox is most effective with an echo tunnel (a little like Elvis's reverb).

Cometh the moon, now spectral, haggard and foreboding. Your blood, madamina. Your youth and energy. All that silver draining away.

The maiden replies. She draws herself erect, declares her beauty and foresees her fate with her "true love", but then sees or hears (or maybe she has already heard but not seen) the man in the dustcoat. She defies him, Victorian fashion: Back from my trellis, Sir, before I scream! restating her beauty and maidenhood as if to say: I, Sir, am archetype as you, Sir, are archetype.

Archetypes, yes, but "trellis" is a little knowing. It is not just her trellis she would be keeping him from, you can bet on that. You hear the faintly leery inuendo at a slight distance. The dustcoated old lecher is perfectly capable of the most dreadful double meanings. Lewdness is knowledge, for him: knowledge lewdness. But he remains a gentleman (Ransom always remains a gentleman).

Which is not to say that Piazza Piece is specifically coded for more lust than you think you are getting, but you can feel the presence of lust (your lust), just as you can feel the presence of death (your death). Death exhales its cold breath at you even while it is clowning and capering. It is merely vox you understand. Just vox. You must allow vox,it pleads.

The madman in his cell, the clown tormenting him are just vox . Vox is the gentleman in the dustcoat fondling that soft small ear. The maiden playing at being The Maiden is also vox. The irony is not clever-clever. It is only melodrama in so far as it acts at being melodrama. Under the theatrics reality appears in the form of a courteous cough at the end of a garden at dusk. But it's a real cough at the end of the garden. It is the equivalent of what Marianne Moore said poems were: Imaginary gardens with real toads in them. Voilà, the toad in the dustcoat, the silver moon happily silvering above both gentleman-death and oh so maidenly-maiden. It still shakes me.




20.01.08 : SUNDAY NIGHT IS MUSIC NIGHT

Michel Petrucciani: September 2nd



Wiki:

Michel Petrucciani (December 28, 1962, Orange, France – January 6, 1999, New York City, USA), was a French Jazz pianist.

Michel Petrucciani came from an Italo-French family of a musical background. His father "Tony" played guitar and his brother Louis played bass. Michel was born with osteogenesis imperfecta which is a genetic disease that causes brittle bones and in his case short stature. It is also often linked to pulmonary ailments. In his early career his father and brother occasionally carried him, literally, because he could not walk far on his own unaided. In certain respects though he considered it an advantage as it got rid of distractions, like sports, that other boys tended to become involved in.

At an early age he became enthusiastic about the works of Duke Ellington and wished to become a pianist like him. Although he trained for years as a classical pianist, jazz remained his interest. He had his first professional concert at 13. At this point in his life he was still quite fragile so had to be carried to and from the piano. In general his size meant that he required aids to reach the piano's pedals, but his hands were average in length. By age 18 he helped form a successful trio. He moved to the US in 1982. In the US he is credited with leading Charles Lloyd to resume playing actively and in 1986 he recorded a live album with Wayne Shorter and Jim Hall. He also played with diverse figures in the US jazz scene including Dizzy Gillespie.

In 1994 he was granted a Légion d'honneur in Paris.

His own style was initially influenced by Bill Evans although some compare him to Keith Jarrett. He is often deemed to be among the best jazz pianists to ever come from France.

On the personal side he had three significant relationships. His first marriage to Italian pianist Gilda Buttà ended in divorce. He also fathered two children, one being a son named Alexandre. One of these children inherited his condition. He also had a stepson named Rachid Roperch.

Michel Petrucciani died at 36 from a pulmonary infection. He was interred in Le Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.

*

He is a beautiful, melancholy yet strutting pianist. Defiance, depth, a kind of railing against the night.




19.01.08 : PROTEST AND RESPONSE

I went along to join the protest against Arts Council England cuts in Norwich's Chapelfield Gardens, hearing a few speeches and a band, then marching down to the city hall to hear more music and speeches.

The event was very well attended - not vast like the Poll Tax but a good show, better than I thought it might be - and the march made a reasonable length, stewards, police and all. Friends, acquaintances and colleagues here and there so plenty to talk to, among them LB, Spanish-born artistic director of Norwich Puppet Theatre, whom I have long considered a genius as well as a friend, raising a children's art to art for any age through a mixture of surrealism and improvisation. He is expecting his redundancy notice next week. One of the only two puppet theatres in the UK is to disappear.

The speeches. Local MP Ian Gibson* is last but one to speak at Chapelfield before we set off. A popular-populist politician's speech that invokes Iraq, Afghanistan, WMD and military spending as the cause for the closing of theatres, publishers and so forth. The Olympics gets a mention too, but the military stuff is there to get a cheer. It does. Speaking for myself, I have never known any state to balance its military budget against its arts budget and Gibson will know that as well as I do.

And the fact is that it is neither military spending, nor, as it turns out, Olympics spending at the root of the cuts. There have been no cuts to ACE. In fact it has had an increase in line with inflation.

I had written to the Literature Panel of ACE to plead for the continuing support of the excellent Anvil Press. I've had two letters back, one with a bit of hand-scribble under it to personalise it, since I know the writer, but both letters simply repeat the general line that within a limited budget there is an obligation to encourage new enterprises at the regrettable expense of some old ones.

Well, yes, that might be an argument:

1. Were it not that organisations that had only recently been encouraged - and funded to spend on expansion - are suddenly chopped;

2. Were it not that money seems to be drifting - as I noted before - from the smaller to the greater or potentially greater (governments want big results, big figures, big noise: Damien Hirst is a vast blessing for them)

3. Were it not that the reasons given for the cuts were so vague, or indeed so false;

4. Were it not that the time allowed for response and consultation has been deliberately and disgustingly short.

It is the last two points that are utterly unforgivable.

This is how it goes. Organisation gets a letter, if it is lucky, to say: You are not doing this and this and this. You have a month to show us that you are.

The trouble is that the this and this and this are vague non-specific items. In so far as they are at all specific the organisation, that can do nothing over Christmas, hastily does its sums and checks its records to say: You are wrong. In so far as you are specific at all, you will see we have in fact done this and this and this.

But too late. They were not really being invited to reply. They were being invited to fail as quietly as possible.

Cowardly and unforgivable.

Message:We don't want art on your doorstep. We want Brit Art.

*For the record Gibson's record, note link,also note my bold type, is:

Voted a mixture of for and against Labour's anti-terrorism laws.
Voted moderately against the Iraq war.
Voted very strongly against investigating the Iraq war.




18.01.08 : KEVIN KEEGAN: THE BUZZ (2)

Update: James took the prompt and now we are updating each other. I suspect James is more sensible, but no poet has ever got anywhere by being simply sensible. And even in terms of sense, look at Newcastle's record under anyone else in the last fifty years and compare it with Newcastle under Keegan. It is romantic, but it is true. Mind you, that Bilic is a clever guy. Isn't he the one who got Lauren Blanc sent off in the world cup semi-final by pretending to have been hit by him? So Blanc did not play in the final. Can't see wor Kev doing that. That doesn't make Bilic wrong this time though, of course.

*

It is a firmly English trait to choose heart over head, yeoman over intellectual, meat and two veg over fancy sauce. Elegance is tolerated but not be indulged. Up and at 'em! Stop farting about! Get rid of it! Fancy Dan! All fur coat and no knickers! The sayings of the people.

English football has tended to be like that. Fast, furious, courageous, never-say-die but a bit simple, a bit welly and dash. Lots of buzz. And if you dash your brain against the window, dear fly, never mind. Love the spirit!

Keegan was actually much better than that. There was the eternal buzz and there was a certain brittle, manic cheer and madness, but the man was not an idiot. Under Keegan Newcastle were - sometimes - wonderful to watch. They did not win titles but never in anyone's living memory have they done so. The closest they got to it was under Keegan. But the cult of success in which Second is Nowhere, in which First is Big Money, does not sit well with carnival and 'mere' style.

Now which do you want more? A dour gold or a dashing, buzzing silver? That is if there were no other choice. Newcastle have opted for the man who brought them the silver. The sense of intoxicated happiness in Newcastle supporters was palpable. I haven't seen anything like that for a good long time. The press is counselling caution. After all he only got silver. There must be something wrong with the man.

Like the supporters I feel rather intoxicated and cheered by the whole grand gesture. Keegan's notion of English is at least a memorable English, memorable in flashes perhaps, but not dull. There is a largeness and gaiety of the spirit in it. There is generosity in it too. It will get things badly wrong at times but it will also get things superbly right. There will be buzz. The north east is a good place for that. Then, if he does buzz off, there might still be the silver, or the memory of something that looked like silver, promised silver.




18.01.08 : KEVIN KEEGAN: THE BUZZ (1)

I am trying to prompt James into a posting on this because it is, well, as much fun as football gets these days.

A close, and alas, late, friend once said to me: I can't stand Keegan. There he goes buzz buzz buzzing round the pitch like a bloody fly. He is so annoying, I want to swat him." Another friend disliked him because Keegan did not vote Labour as a result of having thought about it, but simply because his family were traditional Labour voters. I shrugged my shoulder, gallic fashion, and let it pass. So, should he 'think' and vote Tory? I did not ask.

Keegan was one of the great European footballers, twice voted European Footballer of the Year, not while with Liverpool but with F C Hamburg. Only one British player has won it since, and that is Michael Owen, now at Newcastle with our Kev (though notoriously negative about Kev in his autobiography).

When Keegan came back to England as a player he revitalised two teams, one being Newcastle United, the other Southampton. He seemed to carry the buzz buzz buzz of success around with him.

Then he went into management. First at Newcastle where he created one of three most exciting teams of the last fifteen years (the others being Arsenal and Manchester United). He took Newcastle from potential relegation and the third tier, to champions of the second, then into the Premiership where they became a great power playing mad, wonderful attacking football. They were a top five team and second twice. After the first when they were run out of it at the end by Manchester United, there were plenty of Newcastle fans who thought he wasn't quite enough for them.

Interestingly enough so he did he and he left. Buzzed off. Newcastle's decline from there was rapid.

Next he went to Fulham and brought them up a division. Then - buzz - off he went.

Next he became England manager. Famously, he resigned after a home defeat by Germany, having made up his mind in the toilet. He declared he wasn't good enough, that his mind was not up to the tactical level required. Everyone in the press and the world generally agreed. Buzz off, Kev! He did.

Thence to Manchester City. He did pretty well with them too but the next season wasn't so good so he resigned. And that was it. Not enough buzz.

Till now.

But this isn't a football anorak site so what intrigues me is not so much the Konundrum of Kev as what he represents. So one, not too long, post on that after this.




18.01.08 : ARCHIVE AND A BIT MORE NUMBER LANGUAGE

I have just signed a licence to allow the British Library to archive this website / blog. The request came the other day. It seems a good thing, as well as a nice compliment. A good thing because occasionally I have lost whole series of posts for mysterious reasons.

Apropos of the lexicographical excursion regarding Alan Shearer's one and twos, here are some more numbers generated by speculation about Newcastle United FC.

Coleman is looking for a return to management in England, but he told the Daily Mail: "Newcastle are a fantastic club and Kevin is a man I respect, but I'd be a very bad number two.

"I'd never entertain that after five years as being a number one."

Coleman's agent Alan Smith told BBC Radio 5 Live: "I don't think for one moment it will happen.

"I have a feeling everyone is putting two and two together and making four, I don't see the chemistry between him and Kevin."


Putting two and two together and making four is clearly a mistake. But at least everyone can count up to five.

I want to write a little about Kevin Keegan returning to Newcastle. Next post.




17.01.08 : THE BEST NATIONAL ANTHEMS

Norm has agreed with Timothy Garton Ash about the finest national anthems. Here is my own favourite:



Hail hail...





17.01.08 : SEDUCTION 2

Sexy word 'seduction'. Its association with the word ' love' is practically non-existent. We know about 'going out on the pull'. I think of magnets and iron filings: the more iron filings the more spectacular and marked the pattern. And 'spectacular' is good. Seduction is to be witnessed, if only by one's own internal spectator. It is a performance. You hypnotise. You exert sway. It is a test of your prowess. You pass the test. You are powerful and exciting. It is the best known secret.

And it is indeed exciting. A little seductiveness in normal life is an exciting thing. But seductiveness is not quite the same as seduction.

Between men and women (as between gay people no doubt, but my authority can only extend as far as my own experience) the possibility of seduction is part of everyday social life. It is what makes us attractive to each other. It is part of the compliment we pay each other. It is a deeply civilised thing. We charmingly agree to be each other's sex objects up to a determined point. The question, of course, is who does the determining and that is always in doubt. But doubt too is part of the excitement. The control of doubt is civilisation. Flamenco dancing is civilisation. The waltz is civilisation. The jitterbug is civilisation. Civilisation is form.

Charm, vivacity, intelligence, suggestion of depth and, of course, beauty as enhanced by whatever enhancers are currently perceived as enhancements, are all aspects of seductiveness. Seductiveness is something almost everyone aims at. That's fine too. Nor is it any use railing against beauty, just as there is no use railing against charm, vivacity, intelligence etc. Beauty too is form, but a much deeper form than we usually think, just as form in a poem is not to be fully counted in syllables or stresses. Beauty has internal proportions too, and they include combinations of charm, vivacity, etc etc etc.

Seduction though is something beyond potential seductiveness. Seduction is a decided act, an exercise of dizzying power that has no end beyond completing itself as power. Love and longer term relationships, are almost incidental extras. Seduction is partly self-admiration: the job of the seduced is to reflect the glory.

The gender war is about power of all kinds, not just about overt political power. Power is the word as well as the fist. It is not only the point of the gun but the precise shape of lip and tongue. Power is attraction and rejection. But then the gender war is not a war as such, more a war game in which we lose our hearts as well as our bodies and minds. To lose your heart is not to be seduced. To win a heart is not to seduce.

'The heart' is romantic vocabulary, of course. But you'll know what I mean. Everybody will know what 'the heart' means. I should add that I have long admired that old saying of the cynic La Rochefoucauld. I quote from memory:

"Whoever would love if they did not know the discourse of love"

That may be so. It may be that we are wafting on clouds sent up seven or eight hundred years ago by the fairy-tale castles of Courtly Love. But of course we know the discourse of love. Like seduction it is dizzying. But the discourse of love leads somewhere else, into a subtler, deeper, more humane contract.




17.01.08 : BRIEF PLEASURES OF THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE (1?)

One and Two

Shearer told BBC Radio 5 Live on Thursday: "I don't know whether, one, he wants a number two, or two, I would like to be one."


Definitions Webster's Dictionary 1913

ONE

-one [From Gr. -w`nh, signifying, female descendant.]
(Chem.)
A suffix indicating that the substance, in the name of which it appears, is a ketone; as, acetone.

-one(Chem.)
A termination indicating that the hydrocarbon to the name of which it is affixed belongs to the fourth series of hydrocarbons, or the third series of unsaturated hydrocarbonsl as, nonone.

One, a. [OE. one, on, an, AS. ["a]n; akin to D. een, OS. ["e]n, OFries. ["e]n, ["a]n, G. ein, Dan. een, Sw. en, Icel. einn, Goth. ains, W. un, Ir. & Gael. aon, L. unus, earlier oinos, oenos, Gr. ? the ace on dice; cf. Skr. ["e]ka. The same word as the indefinite article a, an. [root] 299. Cf. 2d A, 1st {An}, {Alone}, {Anon}, {Any}, {None}, {Nonce}, {Only}, {Onion}, {Unit}.]

1. Being a single unit, or entire being or thing, and no more; not multifold; single; individual.

The dream of Pharaoh is one. --Gen. xli. 25.

O that we now had here But one ten thousand of those men in England. --Shak.

2. Denoting a person or thing conceived or spoken of indefinitely; a certain. ``I am the sister of one Claudio'' [--Shak.], that is, of a certain man named Claudio.

3. Pointing out a contrast, or denoting a particular thing or person different from some other specified; -- used as a correlative adjective, with or without the.

From the one side of heaven unto the other. --Deut. iv. 32.

4. Closely bound together; undivided; united; constituting a whole.

The church is therefore one, though the members may be many. --Bp. Pearson

5. Single in kind; the same; a common.

One plague was on you all, and on your lords. --1 Sam. vi. 4.

6. Single; inmarried. [Obs.]

Men may counsel a woman to be one. --Chaucer.

Note: One is often used in forming compound words, the meaning of which is obvious; as, one-armed, one-celled, one-eyed, one-handed, one-hearted, one-horned, one-idead, one-leaved, one-masted, one-ribbed, one-story, one-syllable, one-stringed, one-winged, etc.

{All one}, of the same or equal nature, or consequence; as, he says that it is all one what course you take. --Shak.

{One day}.

(a) On a certain day, not definitely specified, referring to time past.
One day when Phoebe fair, With all her band, was following the chase. --Spenser.

(b) Referring to future time: At some uncertain day or period; some day.

Well, I will marry one day. --Shak.

One, n.
1. A single unit; as, one is the base of all numbers.

2. A symbol representing a unit, as 1, or i.

3. A single person or thing. ``The shining ones.'' --Bunyan.
``Hence, with your little ones.'' --Shak.

He will hate the one, and love the other. --Matt.
vi. 24.

That we may sit, one on thy right hand, and the other on thy left hand, in thy glory. --Mark x. 37.

{After one}, after one fashion; alike. [Obs.] --Chaucer.

{At one}, in agreement or concord. See {At one}, in the Vocab.

{Ever in one}, continually; perpetually; always. [Obs.]
--Chaucer.

{In one}, in union; in a single whole.

{One and one}, {One by one}, singly; one at a time; one after another. ``Raising one by one the suppliant crew.''
--Dryden.

One, indef. pron.
Any person, indefinitely; a person or body; as, what one would have well done, one should do one's self.

It was well worth one's while. --Hawthorne.

Against this sort of condemnation one must steel one's self as one best can. --G. Eliot.

Note: One is often used with some, any, no, each, every, such, a, many a, another, the other, etc. It is sometimes joined with another, to denote a reciprocal relation.

When any one heareth the word. --Matt. xiii. 19.

She knew every one who was any one in the land of Bohemia. --Compton
Reade.

The Peloponnesians and the Athenians fought against one another. --Jowett (Thucyd. ).

The gentry received one another. --Thackeray.

One, v. t.
To cause to become one; to gather into a single whole; to
unite; to assimilite. [Obs.]

The rich folk that embraced and oned all their heart to treasure of the world. --Chaucer.

TWO

Definition:
Two (t[=oo]), a. [OE. two, twa, properly fem. & neut.,
twei, twein, tweien, properly masc. (whence E. twain), AS.
tw[=a], fem. & neut., tw[=e]gen, masc., t[=u], neut.; akin to
OFries. tw[=e]ne, masc., tw[=a], fem. & neut., OS. tw[=e]ne,
masc., tw[=a], fem., tw[=e], neut., D. twee, OHG. zw[=e]ne,
zw[=o], zwei, G. zwei, Icel. tveir, tv[ae]r, tvau, Sw.
tv[*a], Dan. to, Goth. twai, tw[=o]s, twa; Lith. du, Russ.
dva, Ir. & Gael. da, W. dau, dwy, L. duo, Gr. dy`o, Skr. dva.
[root]300. Cf. {Balance}, {Barouche}, {Between}, {Bi-},
{Combine}, {Deuce} two in cards, {Double}, {Doubt}, {Dozen},
{Dual}, {Duet}, {Dyad}, {Twain}, {Twelve}, {Twenty}, {Twice},
{Twilight}, {Twig}, {Twine}, n., {Twist}.]
One and one; twice one. ``Two great lights.'' --Gen. i. 16.
``Two black clouds.'' --Milton.

Note: Two is often joined with other words, forming compounds signifying divided into, consisting of, or having, two parts, divisions, organs, or the like; as two-bladed, two-celled, two-eared, two-flowered, twohand, two-headed, two-horse, two-leafed or two-leaved, two-legged, two-lobed, two-masted, two-named, two-part, two-petaled, two-pronged, two-seeded, two-sided, two-story, two-stringed, two-foothed, two-valved, two-winged, and the like.

{One or two}, a phrase often used indefinitely for a small number.

Two, n.
1. The sum of one and one; the number next greater than one, and next less than three; two units or objects.

2. A symbol representing two units, as 2, II., or ii.

{In two}, asunder; into parts; in halves; in twain; as, cut in two.

*

Besides which there is what children understand by doing number ones and number twos.




16.01.08 : AND SEDUCTION...

Linda has the following Christian Dior quotation on her blog about fashion, The Thoughtful Dresser: No fashion is ever a success unless it is used as a form of seduction.

Now thereby hang a lot of thoughts all crowding together and since it is a bit late now I can only indicate a willingness to put them into some sort of order soon.

Because seduction is one of those powerful words, indeed a power word. To seduce is to bind someone to your will through attraction. And the end of seduction? The "having seduced"?

I wonder about this now because I am invited to be on a panel discussing literature and seduction, apropos of the Seduced exhibition, at the Barbican, along with Rowan Pelling and Philip Hensher. This is very flattering, not to say seductive. Albeit I have another appointment on the date in question so I am not sure what to do. I'll give it till tomorrow.

Not that I am any kind of expert on seduction as a subject. But I must have sounded as though I was at one time since I was later part of a dinner - the only male among some eight women - discussing the potential exhibition before it started. I wrote about it here at the time, speculating on my minority status. At the time I didn't think the assembled company was going to take much notice of what I had to say (which was to do with definitions and distinctions) nor did it. Inwardly I shrugged and thought: ladies' night out. At worst (for me) the show would be women discussing their own sensuality in a happy self-satisfied glow. Do it, girls, but don't include me, certainly not as a token, I thought. At best, it could be a collection of interesting historical and cultural artefacts telling a broad but rarely told story; a story in which I, as a man, might be allowed some part. (No, don't tell me what part, thank you.)

But if dressing - and on Linda's blog that means primarily women's dressing - is intended to seduce, then perhaps it's worth thinking again.





15.01.08 : OFFENCE

I was going to post on the subject of offence and incitement to religious hatred apropos the Ezra Levant case (and see here for an opposite but perfectly civilised view), but I am far too tired to take it up now. The essence of my piece would have been that regulation in any area that involves an assessment of subjective response is difficult and best avoided if possible. Do you feel hated? Do you feel offended? Are these hateful people? Are they offensive characters? And then?

Note to myself: before sounding off it's best to imagine the worst possible offence you could be caused, or the publication of something that you might perceive to lead to hatred of you or of something you hold dear.

So no, I am not going to sound off at this point, if ever. I would never want to take recourse to law or regulation to protect me or my ideas, even my ideas about my own being. I might want to punch someone or trade insults. Most of the time I would hope to argue and persuade.

When a cause seems hopeless, as with the publicity-seeking Oxford Union invitation to David Irving and Nick Griffin, I suggest and hope - and did suggest and hope - that those who issued such invitations might be refused other invitations elsewhere. Groups and societies have their own ways of responding.

In terms of law, for what it's worth, I think Ezra Levant is right, despite his grandstanding, despite the overt publicity seeking, and everything else. I think he is right that he does not have a case to answer. End of story. Of the case, that is.




14.01.08 : ELIOT PRIZE

In internet cafe just off Tottenham Court Road, having stayed the night in Euston Square in the tiniest room ever equipped with a double bed. Otherwise all mod cons of faintly Lilliputian kind.

The readings were packed, especially since the theatre had omitted to notify the ticket office, so those who should have been sitting in the front row, including myself and some of the publishers and a judge had to look for non-existent unoccupied seats at the very back of the circle. That's fine. It's like being on the terraces at a football match about twenty years ago.

The audience was intent, John Walsh who introduced the individual poets ran a baroque eye over their careers and productions. Youngest poet was Frances Leviston at 25. the oldest Edwin Morgan (not present except on a recording) at 87. In between a good range of poetry and delivery, some loud and clear, some hushed and foggy. I have my own favourites here but am not letting on. Have reviewed two of the books and blurbed a third.

On the way out I talk to one of my ex-MA students KK who tells me her first book has been taken on by Carcanet and will be published in March. Wonderful news. Very talented, very individual writer. Was journalist in South Africa, still very young.

It is raining lightly outside. At the end of such events things fall apart, the centre cannot hold and mere anarchy is loosed upon the world. I slouch, rough beast fashion, out of the Bloomsbury Theatre thinking to grab a bite but the nearest I can think of is Euston station where I join the night travellers, the tramps, the drugged and the bemused in queuing for a burger. Horrible dripping thing. A grand guignol snack.

Back to the tiny hotel room that is my Bethlehem. Have speech to make tonight. Very tedious brief.




13.01.08 : PETITIONS

One petition I signed yesterday was Peter Ryley, aka as Fat Man on a Keyboard, who says:

I was in London yesterday for another meeting of the UALL campaign against the changes to funding that threaten University adult education. The one thing that has surprised us is how successful the campaign has been. Something that both the Government and those of us who work in the system thought would go through unnoticed has become a very uncomfortable issue, with a Select Committee inquiry taking place this coming Thursday.

UALL is the Universities Association for Lifelong Learning. Teaching on various BAs and MAs I have taught a number of mature students of all classes who have brought a vast amount free intelligence, fun, seriousness and perspective to the younger students.

Once you begin to wonder what mature students are doing for the economy you may as well shut any course that does not lead directly into business or industry.

But then you may as well shut down your tap root into humanity.

In any case, the petition I signed goes directly to 10, Downing Street and for all I know it may be particularly effective, so here is the link to petitions generally, and the one for lifelong learning. Do think of signing it.

*

I am down in London tonight and tomorrow for the T S Eliot Prize). Tonight it's the reading at the Bloomsbury Theatre. Tomorrow I give a brief introduction-and-thank you speech before the actual prize announcement and presentation at the Wallace Collection.





11.01.08 : FROM THE SUMMER OF MY FATHER'S DEATH (2)

A little more from Judit Kiss's memoir...

When I normally entered the room my father would be sitting up in bed fiddling with his notes or trying to consume the rest of his by-now cold dinner. This time his movements had slowed, his look was a touch clouded, his voice weaker and more shaky but beyond that there was no sign that he was about to die. His face lit up when he saw me. He put down whatever was in his hands and looked up at me expectantly.

“What’s news?” he asked.

Apart from referring to the business of doctors’ rounds and general hospital routine he had nothing new to say himself. My mother brought him the daily papers each morning but he no longer wanted to speak about the news printed there. He listened patiently as I gave an account of the previous day’s petty domestic affairs then turned passionately to his chief concern. That most pressing of concerns was the manuscript and his attempt to explain why actually existing socialism – to the building of which he had given his entire life - had collapsed. Each evening I would carefully read him the chapters so far finished and we’d spend next day’s visit discussing how to perfect the text. Despite the fact that it was some years since I had read anything he had written and that he had long given up the idea of discussing with me whatever was most important to him we made allowances for each other. Perhaps this should have served as a warning that some major change was about to occur at a deep level. But we both pretended not to have heard the ominous rumblings of that change and spent our time discussing whether the third chapter should come before the second or vice versa.

It was my mother who saved his life while it was still possible to save it. The first time he was ill the diagnosis showed two large growths in his head: they were assumed to be of distinct metastases that it would not be worth operating on. It was at the end of a hot August and, by some quirk of fate, I had just arrived in Budapest for a conference. Before leaving I spent a couple of days happily traipsing the streets of my birthplace. One afternoon, on the way home, to my greatest surprise, I came across my father on the Metro, a red-faced, heavy-breathing fellow passenger. He was sitting opposite me with an enormous suitcase either side of him.

“So where are you going?” I asked him, astonished.
“Home,” my father groaned.

“And the two suitcases?”

“Books. They kicked me out, you know.”

My father had been teaching a good thirty years in one of the Budapest universities. He had long passed pensionable age but would have been happy to work on had they not unexpectedly told him at the beginning of the summer that he should go. I knew this was a terrible blow for him, but he looked perfectly all right that morning when he set out.

“Are you ill?” I asked

“I have a terrible headache,” he answered.

“Have you taken anything for it?”

“Nothing works now.”

“What do you mean now? Has it been hurting long?”

“For weeks.”

*

Apropos of "really existing socialism". Tony Blair joins the board of J. P. Morgan at £500,000, maybe more, a year, part time. Who has been selling indulgences then? And Peter Hain forgets a mere £100,000. There is ever more a touch of Animal Farm about the place. Maybe it is unavoidable after almost eleven years in power but... it is really existing something.





10.01.08 : LET THE BIG FISH EAT THE SMALL FISH

Apropos of yesterday's entry, the fact is the local music festival is very good indeed and is powered entirely by the energy and dedication of its planners. I like things that begin at ground level and rise. The new Arts Council cuts have not affected the music festival as it is not grant dependent, but nationally, like most other nations, we are in a subsidy system.

In sly fashion Arts Council England announced its cuts just before Christmas and have given a number of organisations just five weeks to respond, knowing that of the five weeks two would be taken up with Christmas and New Year. A good time to bury bad news indeed. Nor is there a single list, as far as I can find out, of all cut organisations, but I do know of three important publishers - Arcadia, Dedalus and Anvil, and at least one long-standing magazine, the London Magazine, whose existence is now threatened.

Then there are the theatres. Marvellous small scale places, thriving on intimacy and invention. In our area Norwich Puppet Theatre, (see here too) one of only two permanent puppet theatres in the country), and Eastern Angles Theatre Company.

Even closer to the ground Creative Arts East that engages in a wide range of activities at local level is threatened.

As is The British Centre for Literary Translation that was founded by the late W. G. Sebald, and is the only institution of its kind in the country.

These would all be dire losses. I have already written in support of one affected organisation, signed a letter in support for another, and added my name to petitions. On 19 January a march will take place in Norwich in support of the puppet theatre. I will be on it.

The cuts have been featured at Harry's Place but of course everyone has covered the story, as here and other places. The principle seems to have been: feed some at the expense of others, particularly at the expense of the small ones at local level. As The Guardian reported on 17 December:

And there are 41 organisations being rewarded with settlements twice as high as before. The biggest cash winner is the Roundhouse in Camden, north London, which will see an increase from £600,000 to £1m. Elsewhere the Thames Festival will see its funding rise from £47,500 to £158,000; Leeds-based Unlimited Theatre can expect an increase from £31,000 to £86,750; the London-based live music producer Serious Events will get a rise from £160,000 to £384,000, and Birmingham Jazz has been told its funding will rise from £23,000 to £71,500. More money is also being spent on the visual arts, a particular priority for the Arts Council.

It is not the Olympics that is eating the smaller fry. Look at the cities above: London, Leeds, London, Birmingham. It is the Arts Council that wants big.




09.01.08 : THE TOWN OF W

Big winds blow across Scotland and the north of Britain but here it is more a matter of gusts of slap-in-the-face strength. In an old house like this you can hear wind sluicing through chimneys and through doors. When it rains the skylights are drums. Other than that the walls are very thick, there is no cellar, and the back of the house faces onto the neighbour's garden, then the meadow with its seasonal sheep. It is quiet. Sometimes at night you hear an owl hoot. If you look out of the back window at dusk you can see a solitary bat loop and flap. The bell-ringers of the Abbey practice on Tuesdays just across the meadow.

It sounds rural, and it's not far off. The town of W has a population of about 12,000 but looks like a village in the centre, comprising some six or seven old streets with centuries-old houses. The market cross in the middle is an octagon on wooden stilts dating back to the seventeenth century. Kids gather round it kicking their heels, trying to amuse each other with bikes, footballs and skateboards. The kebab shop on one side is staffed by Turkish Kurds. It is where late drinkers go. Woolworths, a smart clothes shop, a chippie, a vet's surgery, a charity shop, an estate agent, and a shop selling edge-of-antique knick-knackerie surround the triangular marketplace. The four central pubs cater to different clienteles. One does Sky TV and football with the occasional dodgy auction upstairs. On has tables outside and quite a big restaurant inside. Big blokes with bald heads tend to sit outside. A little further up the road is the yoof pub that does entertainment most nights. You can go out the back and smoke miserably in the rain under umbrellas. Nearest us squats an ancient dwarf of a pub, straight out of Hobbiton with nicely crabbed little rooms. We sometimes meet friends there.

There is a music festival in the summer due to a committee in energetic overdrive, and it's not bad at all. There is a small art deco cinema hidden behind the bland brick frontage of a servicemen's association. It shows wartime films and tries to invite their long-retired stars along two or three times a year.

At the bottom of our own street is the site of the old Briton Brush factory, a major employer up to about twenty-five years ago. The next village down is called Spooner Row because spoons were made there, or at least those who made spoons lived in the row there.

Also in town, the vast police-station, the biggest in the county, an information gathering megalopolis. We see no policemen, only the odd car cruising by. Lotus Cars are just out of town. Another way lies the new Norfolk and Norwich Hospital and, beyond it, the university.

It's an in-between sort of place: somewhere between run-down medieval working town and middle-class picturesque.

So now you know all this, your mission, 007, is to infiltrate the town and be voted mayor within five years.

*

Oh, and Hillary Clinton confounded the pundits by beating Barack Obama last night (incidentally, apropos of nothing, barack in Hungarian means peach: 'Peaches' Obama). A wildly way-over-the top Channel 5 news reporter had so far written Ms Clinton's obituary he had more or less had it printed on vellum and bound in calf-skin. He'll have to undo all those bindings now.




08.01.08 : HELEN MERRILL, CATS AND A FAT SCHOLAR

Marking university work and hanging on to my cold which has now moved from nose to throat and chest. Welcome to the interior! Also reworked the poem on the front after consultations with composer, Ben. Fascinating. I have written texts for eleven musicals and operas - all on a small scale - plus three oratorios, and in all of them I provided the words and let the composer get on with it. This time the words are going to and fro. Once we have resolved on them I'll put up the finished version which even now is looking very different from the first text.

C returned from work with two CDs, one by Diana Krall, the other by Helen Merrill c.1954. Krall is magnificent in a lounge concert sort of way, Merrill is the full husky, smoky nightclub chanteuse, the voice rubbing up against your ear as a body might do. Here she is much later in her career still filling the air with swirls of vocal smoke





Our two cats are the antithesis of each other. Pearl: large, solid, still, long gazes deep and long into our eyes, gobbles her food up in one greedy swoop with nose twitching intently for more, generally incurious if statuesque in a faintly Mae West fashion; Lily; small, lithe, athletic, constantly on the move, playing and hunting, eyes flicking now left nor right, food taken in miniature snacks, no great hunger, her slenderness pure Audrey Hepburn.

Put onto interesting obituary of Professor Rashid Kaplanov in yesterday's Times by James O'Fee.

Fascinating man. Who invents people like this? If it weren't an obituary I wouldn't believe it. Pearl in body, Lily in mind, I would say.




07.01.08 : A CATECHISM

Working at my desk in the toils of another cold I break for lunch and hear part of the Radio Four play.

Q: What is the subject of the play?

A: A CIA man comes to Ireland ostensibly to compile his book of statistics, having earlier allowed Osama bin Laden to escape on horseback from the caves of Tora Bora.

Q: Is the CIA man generally incompetent?

A: He is generally incompetent.

Q: In what way does he show his general incompetence?

A: By betraying himself at every turn.

Q: Working for the CIA, is he also therefore an irresponsible warmonger and a supporter of President Bush's disastrous policies in the Middle East, above all in Iraq?

A: You may rest assured on that point.

Q: In considering his character would you say he was a good father and faithful husband?

A: He is neither a good father nor a faithful husband, as briefly but forcefully illustrated by an illuminating telephone dialogue.

Q: Does anything enlightening happen to him in Dublin to demonstrate his crassness, such as an encounter with those considerably brighter and better than him?

A: You may rest assured that it does.

Q: Describe the circumstances of this demonstration.

A: He is attracted to a beautiful young Irish woman who is clearly far cleverer than he is.

Q: And is he duly upbraided for the sins of his country?

A: He is duly upbraided.

Q: And are the Irish people generally depicted as an altogether more wonderful species of human being than Americans?

A: The truth of that assumption is amply demonstrated.

Q: Need we go on?

A: No, we need not go on.




07.01.08 : NEW ON FRONT

Two songs, specifically for music, a collaboration with composer Ben Foskett. I am not sure yet what if anything Ben will do with these, but he expressed an interest in one passage from the long poem, Backwaters: Norfolk Fields about a man obsessed with cars whose marriage was falling apart. Something like that, he says.

This is something like that. Only not in sonnet form but as short / long line songs. They seem OK to me at the moment, so let them hang there on the front.





06.01.08 : CREDIT WHERE IT'S DUE

The last three weeks have brought tides of germs and now here are some more. Never seen a Christmas like it. I am now going to put my full English face on. Imagine me stirring a cup of tea, sniffling and muttering: Mustn't grumble. And indeed I won't.

Was watching football in my decrepitude (Newcastle being bombarded by Stoke) this being succeeded by the Antiques Road Show. Michael Aspel outside a royal castle near John O'Groats - the Castle of Mey - typical grand looking pile with turrets. Full of the Queen Mother's corgi-tartan kitsch. Says Aspel: This castle was close to ruin until the Queen Mother rescued it.

I think about that for about five seconds. I am imagining QM, paint-roller in hand or maybe mixing a bit of mortar, climbing up a stepladder. A long shot, I know. The heroic work of rescue was more likely to have been undertaken by workmen.

Her heroic part was paying for it. And, er, whose money was that then?

The Castle of Mey website has her renovating and restoring it as well as creating the beautiful gardens. Gallant of her. Credit where it's due.

Forgive that juvenile comment. Never mind. It is Sunday. Here is some music.








04.01.08 : CANZONE

A few drafts of a fourth canzone. The name means 'song' but it is as much dance as song. The dance is around five words occupying line-endings that take you through sixty-five lines. Its effect is zonal, each verse of twelve lines dominated by one of the words. The last five lines end with each of the five words. In the meantime there is an interweaving of end words so it almost feels as though you were growing dizzy about each one in turn.

Is this simply some virtuosic five-finger exercise? Only if you let it be so. Only if you think those black and white drawings of feet in the old dance diagrams are sterile formulae. But then you will never feel the dizziness of dancing, of the intoxicating pattern of feet shifting round fixed points.

And beyond that the sheer human passion of moving to music. That is the project. But it's not easy, nor should it be.

*

But what is human can be savage, cruel and terrifying. Let's not flatter ourselves about this. Or this. Or this.

One knows it is there within us, this capacity. The Hungarian fear of it is expressed in the phrase: Elszabadulnak az indulatok: the furies will be let loose.

An old unpublished poem:

Stone

Oh to be cast in stone
stone that cannot suffer or see
to be as round and alone
as a pebble, not me.


To sit where cars are parked
by revolving supermarket doors
near faces smooth and unmarked
as untrodden floors,

With eyes as clear as glass
on windows freshly glazed
on skyscrapers, or grass
unmown, ungrazed,

Wild eyes light as pollen
Wild stone in empty yards,
eyes clear and flat and solemn
as business cards.

Oh to be cast in stone
stone that cannot suffer or see,
to be as round and alone
as a pebble, anything but me.





03.01.08 : FROM THE SUMMER OF MY FATHER'S DEATH (1)

Judit Kiss's memoir about her father, translated from the Hungarian:

The summer of my father’s death the sun in Budapest was sweltering and oppressive. The chestnut trees along Németvölgyi Road were bowed in the extraordinary heat and the leaves of the one before our house had begun to yellow much too early. Polluted air shimmered above the city. The light low-necked summer dress I had put on for the journey to the hospital seemed inappropriately coquettish in the dramatic circumstances. Neither of us knew just how dramatic at the time. Along the way I stopped near the southern railway terminal, ran past the dank smelling cellar doors of Nagyenyedi Street and stopped for a moment where the roads crossed. The Magdalen Tower of the Bastion known as the Vár, opposite presented an enticing undulating mirage. The road was up in Alkotás Street: one section was closed off and the traffic in both directions was diverted down the lane the other side of the trams. The throbbing machinery seemed to be swaying ominously in the heat like three iron witches at a cauldron. The traffic lights weren’t working. As I crossed the tracks keeping an eye on traffic from the right I was almost knocked down by a car moving in the opposite direction. The car braked in time but almost broke Gigi’s wristwatch. I started back in shock. The driver glared at me and shook his fist in fury while I spread my arms in apology, as if to say I had never expected the traffic to come at me from that direction.

My father knew nothing of the heat. He was shivering in vest, pyjamas and dressing-gown at the end of the corridor on the second floor of the hospital, in the private room that Dr Cserjés, with his Midas touch, had procured for him. My father in his narrow domain of off-white ceramic tiles, an iron bed squeezed between two walls, complete with metal cupboard and metal framed chair, lay untouched by the heatwave that was turning the whole city into a sticky molten mass. He was preoccupied with the task of getting the manuscript of his latest book into shape. It was the second time my father found himself in hospital with a brain tumour, the very day the children and I arrived from Geneva. When this first happened seven years earlier Dr Cserjés operated and after the critical five years of post-surgery my father was supposed cured. In the summer of 1999 when, to the surprise of everyone, the tumour reappeared, secretly reinstalling itself in my father’s ever active brain, the doctor’s decided on a second operation, my father only regretting that this meant the loss of precious months of work on his book.

My father lay on the second floor of the National Neurosurgical Institute, or, as it was commonly known, the hospital in Amerika Road. The hospital had once been a Jewish charitable institution. I have no idea whether my father knew this, whether he had returned to the bosom of his ancestors to die or whether his iron will had wiped any reference to Judaism from his encyclopaedic mind. In the first few days, with a great deal of determination, we managed to help him downstairs to the courtyard with its stunted trees and scratched benches which was all that remained of the gardens that once surrounded the hospital. But movement became so difficult for him after that we no longer to tried to get him into the fresh air. The next time I saw the courtyard was when my brother and I crossed it a week after the last walk, on the way to the mortuary. I was astonished to see how small the remaining island of green was among the mass of ancillary buildings. The week before when each step was a struggle for my father it had seemed enormous.

At the beginning of that hot July we did not yet know they were to be my father’s last days. Hurrying down the Metro steps in the afternoon, I stepped through the automatic doors of the carriage, changed to the rattling little Millennial line, then ran down Hermina Street with a sense of freedom, my mind preoccupied with the problems of daily existence. There were no eloquent messages of farewell, no entitlement to famous last words. I strode over the steaming asphalt with the blind self-confidence of the living, of a mother with small children, of someone replete with qualifications, one capable of making a successful career abroad, through queues smelling of perspiration, smiling at the porter whose brows wrinkled with suspicion as I passed him like someone on a special mission. The mission was to arrive at my father’s bedside. I did not admit even to myself that this apparent self-confidence concealed the silent terror of not finding him on the ward.

To be continued...




03.01.08 : MY CHIEF OBJECTION...

C asks me to expand on this. I think it is the notion of God as the Supreme Benevolent Narrator that I find difficult. I have no problem with the sense of the numinous or sacred as such. I have no problem with mysticism or piety. I think these are natural, sometimes welcome, states of mind. I have no difficulty with some undefined kind of communion with the intuited core of the condition of life. The notion of the world as father or mother to us is not without value.

I don't even mind the symbolic codification of numinous experience in elements of what are referred to as sacred text. Once you get numinous experience codification is certain to follow. I don't mind the codification but I consider it, like all other comprehensible acts, to be a human act. Bibles and Qurans are not rubbish. They are the work of human minds straining after the numinous.

But they are not the unmediated voice of God. If there is a voice of God I imagine it to be closer to the voice of the whirlwind as heard by Job rather than to the supposedly reassuring murmur of the Supreme Accountant, Revisionist Historian, Murderer and Fixer who tells you He is on your side and that everyone else deserves to go to hell.

The father of the central character of The Kite Runner is a priest-defying atheist. By the end of the book the story-telling son is praying to God, as well he might. He is in effect praying to himself. He is writing the damn story after all. Frankly, I prefer the father, as much on aesthetic as moral grounds. Too much monkey-business, too much divine intervention by some half-hidden hand. I would far prefer an honest conjuring trick.

Hosseini's book is not an entirely honest conjuring trick. The best conjuring tricks are dangerous precisely because it is not God pulling them. We humans fall down chasms, burn our fingers, are hit by buses and whirlwinds, are killed by tigers and other humans. We long for the moral law of returns so we devise card-tricks and learn to walk high wires. But we cannot then turn back on those who have fallen down chasms and declare them retrospectively to have been agents of moral law.

That is Pollocks.




03.01.08 : THE KITE RUNNER (3)

The problem with the contemporary novel in some - maybe most - of its incarnations is that it offers you psychological density, that is to say models of the world in which you are encouraged to believe, but when it comes to the crucial moments of action, the mechanics of plot, it drains the density and flattens out the model until it is little more than Pollock's Toy Theatre. A load of old Pollocks. It hits me like an act of betrayal. (By the way, click on the Greeting Cards tab on the left of the Pollock's site for a decent set of images.)




There is such a moment in The Kite Runner where, after many years, the central character comes face to face with the enemy of his youth. The level of manipulation is such that at this point I stopped believing in anything that followed. From then on all I was seeing was pattern. The hand of the author was everywhere, moving the puppets from place to place while all the time assuring us that this was not puppetry but cinema verité.

I like puppets as it happens. Indeed, I like Pollock's Toy Theatre. We used to present performances for the children when they were young, C and I, using accordions, mouth-organs and home-made footlights. I like acrobats, jugglers, dancers - the Artificers of the Real. I suspect I am, in some fashion, one myself. I also like and respect the real. I love photography and documentary and interview and reportage, the sound of the voice in the street, the touch of the hand in the crowd. Furthermore, I like stories. Of course I do. I love fables and magical transformations. I grew up on Andersen and the Brothers Grimm.

But just as I hate mood music over news and documentaries, so I hate the orchestra of the moral order drowning out the voices in the windows so lovingly described and opened to us. It is my chief objection to religion.




03.01.08 : THE KITE RUNNER (2)

There is a certain hokum in novels that one either revels in or shrinks from. I shrink. This is partly to do with the exigencies of story telling in terms of realism. The Kite Runner is full of symbolic coincidences and symmetries. Everything comes round, everything matches. The moral order becomes a magical order; a debt here will be settled there; a seed planted in one garden must flower in another a thousand miles away. And in that flowering lies 'salvation'. Even when the field is littered with corpses, the orchestra strikes up, there is a surge in the violins, and the first theme is recapitulated with an extra pathos and grandeur.

In some ways The Kite Runner is Gone with the Wind relocated. No wonder people like it.

But what is wrong with that? Surely - I argue against myself - the melodrama, the sentimentality that Hosseini himself acknowledges, is hard earned. And what would we be without it? Perhaps we need to fulfil our desire for moral form in order to improve our capacity for moral form.

And there it is again, that word 'form'. My shrinking is from a kind of dishonour to form.

In poetry we understand the overtness of the form. We know that poetic form is not a representation of life but an extra object in the world. We know the world as noise and we make music that is clearly music. The one true test of that music is that it should mean pretty much what music can mean in the world, that is to say it should be a music made of the world, something close to the music of what happens.

There are fascinating shapes and edges to this. The prose poems of, say, Charles Simic and the later anecdotal poems of Louis Simpson. We test form all the time, knowing it is form we are testing.





03.01.08 : THE KITE RUNNER (1)

Finished The Kite Runner and, as is my instinct and (possibly, bad) habit, I want to put down a few preliminary, half-formed thoughts. Not so much about the precise quality of the book as a novel. Clearly, it is a good novel. The thoughts are about what that sentence means.

The first thing it means to me is a slight sense of disappointment, the sense of being in some way cheated. Not deliberately, of course. The story is humane and harrowing, observant, lyrical, and honest in the way novels are honest. I have no doubt at all that Khaled Hosseini is a good man and a very gifted writer. The book held me pretty well all the way through. It held me as stories are supposed to do.

So where do I begin with this disappointment?

Surely the problem does not lie in the depiction of emigré Afghan families, or emigré families generally. That I recognise viscerally to be true: the diminishing of the first generation, their loss of status, their nostalgia, their non-comprehending determination. I am pretty sure that is so. Plenty of other books testify to it. That is moving and true.

Nor is there any doubt about the depiction of life in Afghanistan, the presentation of character, the perception of how such a society works, psychologically and politically. This is one of the great triumphs of the book, the book's chief particular interest. Of this I am persuaded.

I do not doubt, not for a second, the feelings of either the characters presented or of the narrative voice doing the presenting. There are no false claims made. No, it is something else.




02.01.08 : THE SUMMER OF MY FATHER'S DEATH

At last, the first vaguely healthy day in the house for two weeks. Redrafting the translation of The Summer of my Father Death of which a passage tomorrow. I was trying to explain to a friend what the book is about and why it's so very good. It's like this:

The central character was only 12 when he was placed in a provincial orphanage by his Jewish mother who was trying to keep him safe from the Fascists in the war while she herself hid out in Budapest. They both survived though the rest of the family perished. By the age of fifteen the boy was a convinced communist and got expelled with immediate effect from the orphanage when he recited a revolutionary Attila Jozsef poem. He joined an underground communist cell and returned to Budapest and became a lifelong orthodox party ideologue. His mother left for Australia before that happened and though she desperately loved him he rejected her, nor did he ever tell his family about her.

He was a university tutor who toed every hard line out of conviction and wrote book after book in support of the Soviet system. He supported the invasion of Czechoslovakia regarding Dubcek as a traitor etc. Nevertheless, he was in many ways a deeply decent, very honest, driven, idealistic man, a great consumer of books. But since he came from wealthy bourgeois stock the Party never really trusted him.

The book is an attempt to understand him with affection, to come to grips with the tension in him between that which was broadly humane and that which was cold, absolute and blind. The marvellous thing is that this is done with real affection by someone whose own position is strongly on the left, who is very intelligent and can write. That whole generation has vanished under a cloud of opprobrium, as cold-war Stalinists, the lost Erich Honeckers of history. No one in Central and Eastern Europe wants to know about them now. Nevertheless, it is fascinating how they became what they became. Not only fascinating but important. Important partly as an aid to understanding the relationship between experience and ideology, partly to understanding the forming of a particularly Jewish-atheist European frame of mind as it rises out of the Holocaust (you can trace it right through to Israel too of course); partly, and maybe most importantly, because twentieth century history requires the perspective of both Soviet style communism and of twenties and thirties style Fascism, both consequences of the First World War, in order to come to terms with where it is now. To be a bit generous with those it tends chiefly to demonise.

*

How TV News works: Channel 4, John Snow, in Iowa, talking to truck drivers about their voting intentions. He talks to one who says one thing, then he talks to another who says something different. So there you are, he says, facing camera. Opinion seems to be evenly divided.

How true that is. You talk to two people and they say different things. One each. That's divided. That's even. Can't say fairer than that. I love that So... All so's should be like that.

Thank you, scientific method.




01.01.08 : MAGDA SZABó

My obituary for the Hungarian novelist and poet Magda Szabó appeared in The Times, here

This is how it begins:

“My desire was precisely to be what I have become,” said the Hungarian poet, novelist and dramatist Magda Szabó in a late interview. “I would not have liked to endanger that prospect by expressing something poorly or making a hash of articulating an idea because that would have had tragic consequences in my career. It would immediately have been turned against me, because so much else has been turned against me.”


Do read on...





01.01.08 : BEYOND THE BOY RACERS: MEASURING UP (2)

I think about the boyness of boys, the malehood of young men and I feel apprehensive for them. The recent advice that little boys should be allowed to play with toy weapons is something of an advance but it is very late in the day.

Most of the time boys are simply not supposed to be boys. They are supposed to measure up to something but they are given no clue as to what. It is not that they do wrong. They just are wrong. That is the message they get every day from all public channels. They are hopeless, foolish, vicious, weak, untrustworthy indeed worthless precisely to the degree that they are boys. They do not measure up. Nor do their dicks. Dicks and dickheads are what they are but they fail at that too. So news such as this is no news really. Happy New Year lads.




01.01.08 : BEYOND THE BOY RACERS: MEASURING UP (1)

Like most people I get dozens of spam advertisement every day advertising sexual products, especially those guaranteed to give me a bigger dick. Thank you, chaps, a most kind thought. In these the line is that girls may say they value other of your sexual charms and accomplishments but really they are only interested in your size, you know, like we are only interested in the size of their chests. The girls in the photos advertising dick enhancements are not, interestingly, big in terms of chest, just girls, albeit somewhat zonked out by the size of your manliness.

Frankly, I don't care too much either way right now, but manliness is an interesting topic to which I occasionally return when prompted by some article or conversation.

Allow me for a second to consider the pissoir. Once upon a time men just stood in rows by the trough, let flow and thought of higher things. This is not so much the case now. Men take some care to avoid standing right next to each in such situations, particularly the younger ones, ducking off instead into the compartment with the bowl where they can perform in privacy.

When I was at school communal baths were common practice after matches. They were the site of various ribald songs, the words of which may be becoming folk memory, I am too old to know. I am not saying I felt this was a wonderful lark. Being quite a shy boy myself I felt awkward but accepted it as nothing dodgy or essentially shaming.

There is, I suspect, a greater embarrassment now. There is the wonderful 1916 photograph by André Kertész that shows four foot soldiers sitting on a field lavvy next to each other. I wrote a poem about it that I may print here some time. And I did write a clerihew on the footballer Pele that goes:

Edson Arantes do Nascimento, usually known as Pele
hated a mêlée,
and would do anything in his power
to avoid the communal shower.




31.12.07 : TOM'S BIRTHDAY

His 34th today, the lad. Here is one for him:

Twice seventeen is thirty-four,
the man is twice the boy before,
you have the key, you have the door
you have the means,
and ‘means’ means generally more
than in one’s teens.

And yet though I have much preferred
my adult life I’m sometimes stirred
by years that have grown faintly blurred.
(I blame my glasses.)
Time is simply what has occurred:
the thing that passes.

And you, my lord, how young you seem,
your manhood hardly come on stream!
Your youth, dear sir, seems quite extreme
almost indecent,
since what, for me, is partly dream
for you is recent.

But damn it all, it must be so.
However years proceed they go
in steady order as you know.
I’ll grow more ugly,
So happy birthday. Ho ho ho!
Don’t grin so smugly!





31.12.07 : FORTHCOMING NEXT YEAR (8)

And two translations:

Esther's Inheritance Novella by Sándor Márai, translated from the Hungarian by self (Knopf)

Gorgeous, gorgeous story about the intrigues of a wholly untrustworthy fantasist as seen by the woman who loves him but is exploited by him.


Metropole Novel by Ferenc Karinthy, translated by self (Telegram)

Dystopian vision in which a linguist finds himself landed in a city where he cannot understand a thing. Dark, obsessive, claustrophobic and funny.




31.12.07 : FORTHCOMING NEXT YEAR (7)

Shuck, Hick, Tiffey (Gatehouse Press)

Three oratorios on regional themes with the composer Ken Crandell.

plus, abroad, volumes of 'selected poems' in Italian and Romanian.




31.12.07 : FORTHCOMING NEXT YEAR (6)

The Burning of the Books (Circle Press)

Not to be confused with, er, The Burning of the Books (Bloodaxe, 2009). This is a limited edition collaboration with the artist Ronald King and is a set of poems based on Canetti's Auto da Fe. The Bloodaxe book will include this and other sequences.




31.12.07 : FORTHCOMING NEXT YEAR (5)

Reading George Szirtes (Bloodaxe)

Not by me but by John Sears, a study of the Werke of Meister Szirtes, to be published at the same time as the New and Collected. I will have had no input into this but have read occasional papers and essays along the way. I will tip my hat to my critically perceived doppelganger and bow deeply to the author.




31.12.07 : FORTHCOMING NEXT YEAR (4)

The 'New' part will include essentially shorter poems. The longer ones and the sequences are saved for the next collection, to be titled The Burning of the Books (see above). This way no one nails down my coffin and, like James Brown, I leap out and sing my head off till the end of the show.




31.12.07 : FORTHCOMING NEXT YEAR (3)

New and Collected Poems (Bloodaxe / Sheep's Meadow (USA))

Collecteds are frightening in the way funeral wreaths are. They don't necessarily have to be 'Complete' but they are clearly much bigger than a 'Selected' might be (I had one of those in 1996 with OUP). The book will also be published in the USA by Stanley Moss's Sheep's Meadow Press.




31.12.07 : FORTHCOMING NEXT YEAR (2)

Next year I shall be sixty come November. I feel not a day older than 58, with occasional interludes of 12, thank heaven, but then that is what being a man is.




31.12.07 : FORTHCOMING NEXT YEAR

I want to add an entry here on the books to appear next year but the site keeps rejecting it. This sometimes happens so a few very short entries like this might clear the blockage.




30.12.07 : READING

I am about to start reading the universally praised The Kite Runner that C has just finished, while continuing to translate Yudit Kiss's Az apám halálának nyara (The Summer My Father Died), a sample on spec for a wise UK publisher. I have never done prose on spec before but this is special. I should also be translating the latest Krasznahorkai. I will. I do. I have (partly).

On blogs: Ms Baroque writes as beautifully and interestingly as ever and loves one of the films I most love, Bergman's Fanny and Alexander. I must put in a post listing the blogs I most often read. There is a slightly out-of-date Links section in the side bar.




30.12.07 : HEALTH REPORT

I thought it would be good idea to have a really dull heading so here it is. Health remains a problem. C now has a rather high temperature and is in bed. B has the horrible gastric monster back. T has had a bad cold. H suffered worst. The gastric tornado tore through her with particularly devastating violence. Having been sick fifteen times during the night a few days ago, not to mention that which I won't mention, she rang the doctor hoping she'd come out. Fat chance. She had to go there. My long list of complaints against the medical profession grows but I won't itemise now.

As for me. Still not 100% but better. Tolerable.




29.12.07 : MORE GIOTTO: 1. THE PERFECT RUGBY PASS

I did mean to finish this - not that one ever finishes such things - because tailing off is never satisfactory. So, here is the Birth of Mary from the Padua cycle (see below for more)



We are, naturally, back in the house of the Annunciation to Anna, since it is Anna who is giving birth - to Mary, Christ's mother. The woman in the porch passes a bundle to the woman in the doorway then the series of bodies turns ever more towards Anna until she receives the child at the other end. Follow the hands as well as the faces. The arc is perfect. Go catch! with Mary as the ball. There is something direct, funny and joyous about this simple movement. We move from profile from the left to to profile from the right. Anna faces that movement with anticipation.

It is not one of the great pictures but has remarkable life and energy.It embodies the mother's happiness. Being what is called a simultaneous narrative the child Mary appears again at the foot of the composition being nursed and cleaned. The floor scene precedes the bed scene but is less important so is shown on a smaller scale. The composition is brought back into the middle with a slight spiral, like a shell. Simultaneous narrative is clearly not a naturalistic device but a frequently used narrative one before the world of realistic expectations established by perspectival illusionistic space takes over. Illusionistic space is the world of science moving in on the imagination and fixing it in the world of observed fact.

You might think Giotto's figures no more than little doll-like mannequins, but that is not where the humanity is to be found. It is in the spatial organisation of the imagination, the way it privileges human feeling above all. And there is nothing 'little' about those figures either. They retain an air of the monumental.




28.12.07 : A FUNERAL

To the funeral of a young man, son of one my last year's mature MA students, killed in a car crash along with the girlfriend of his brother. The brother survived as did the girlfriend of the dead boy, who was just 24. I had never met him but taught the father for two years. It was a lovely group and we were all fond of each other.

The funeral is in a picturesque village, the church pinnacles and perpendicular gothic. Inside it is wide and bare, a big Catholic church turned very puritan, probably by the iconoclast Dowsing who passed through here. But I read that later. I am early and sit in one of the back pews staring at the only painting in the place, a crude modern work showing a strange white cross with a red hand, like the Red Hand of Ulster, coming down from heaven. It disturbs me a little as the service begins. How does it come to be there?

I am aware I cannot quite submit myself to the ritual. I rarely can. I notice too much. My mind flickers too much. The one moment when I am shaken by the weight of the thing is when the pall-bearers enter with the coffin. It is not so much the flower-covered coffin itself as the elderly pall-bearers who carry it. They themselves are stiff and unmoved, creatures out of time from some myth beyond myths. The footsteps of death seem quite real in their tread.

There are lot of young mourners, almost half. The dead girl's friends are here too. The clothes vary. Mostly sober and dark but by no means all. The young women are aware of it being an occasion for dressing up and they do so, generally subtly, but with some colour here and some sparkle there. Some of the younger men too are aware of dressing up. One in front of me a has brilliant brocaded jacket.

The service has been put together by the family. Family and friends speak, the father reads three poems by his son - who was a talented student on a writing course run by a friend - someone sings, a piece of the boy's favourite music is played. There are tears.

Eventually we file out. Father and I embrace. I think the party afterwards will be flooded out by hundreds of people. Father says why not have a drink at the pub in the next village. But when I get there M and H arrive in their car and there isn't anyone else so we have a drink then head home.

I should say the female vicar made the best of an impossible job trying to preach about someone she didn't know well. It is an invidious task. I don't want anyone to do that for me. Let my funeral service be in Medieval Danish, Royal Ruritanian or a form of Greek no-one can actually find in the dictionary. Let it be something repeated without understanding for centuries, nothing but pure polished sounds that are no more than signals for a kind of formalised grief. And maybe a few maidens dancing in front of the coffin. That would be nice.

The variety of clothes reminded me, altogether inappropriately, of the Stanley Holloway monologue about a working class funeral that begins:

Our Aunt Hanna's passed away,
We 'ad her funeral today,
And it was a posh affair,
Had to have two p'licemen there!

The 'earse was luv'ly, all plate glass,
And wot a corfin!... oak and brass!
We'd fah-sands weepin', flahers galore,
But Jim, our cousin... what d'yer fink 'e wore?

Why, brahn boots!
I ask yer... brahn boots!
Fancy coming to a funeral
In brahn boots!

I will admit 'e 'ad a nice black tie,
Black fingernails and a nice black eye;
But yer can't see people orf when they die,
In brahn boots!...

It has humour and a proper sadness.

Rest in peace, young HW.

*

As for the other funeral, Benazir Bhutto's, it is too early to speak. The Guardian immediately started a whodunit on CiF. Bring on the usual suspects. But everything is confusion there. Apparently she was not killed by the bullets or directly by the explosion. Others in the car did not die. She banged her head on the sunroof. Or some part of the sunroof. No bullet marks, no shrapnel. No autopsy either. Perhaps she just choked to death on a Twiglet.





27.12.07 : MEMORY WIPE

Today's Guardian on educashun.. a report written by one Robert Hill

... a former adviser to Tony Blair, and published by the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL). The study said that staff from the lead school should "saturate" the weaker school and push through changes in the first days of a takeover..

It said: "The lead school will conduct a short analysis and confront the partner school with the realities of the situation and the underlying problems that have been ducked. They will identify staff who are in effect hardened blockers of progress and deal with them. In some cases, individuals in the underperforming school will recognise that the increased expectations and pace are too much for them and leave without the need for formal procedures. But others may have to be persuaded or required to go - though the number of 'casualties' in terms of staff (and students) is often relatively small."

The researchers described the takeover process as "wiping the memory of the partner school and reprogramming it".

I would say "words fail me" but they generally don't. .

OK you oafs, blithering bellows, rump-extensions, tell us about "progress". Every year has brought reforms. First everyone runs east because that is what you say progress is, then they all run west because you've changed your minds. You have done nothing except change your minds - and the lot before you - for twenty years or more. And every time you said: Let there be a cull - and, lo, there was a cull because every time there were enemies of "progress", those evil "forces of conservatism", that is to say anyone who remembered anything at all, who must all be in their seventies by now. Is it the old you are after? Or your own trained minions who are examining children within a millimetre of their tiny lives?

Where are you progressing to, you dolts?! Which way are you going? Surely things are getting better and better. You tell us so each year. Have you not culled the wicked yet, not after ten years? Why have you not succeeded in "saturating" them and wiping their memories? Are these not enormous failures on your part? Someone must be to blame at your end. Saturate! Saturate! If you want a job well done, do it yourself.

"Progress" is one of those grand meaningless terms employed by just about everyone for everything. The progress of the German army was halted at Stalingrad. Those Soviet bastards had had a bit of saturation too. What they really needed was their memory wiping.

Wiping memories is an essential part of any grand scheme. It always is.

*

In the meantime, this. Look! They're culling themselves! And wouldn't you just know it:

But Mr Knight said teaching was now "the career of choice for many highly qualified, talented individuals".

He went on: "Ofsted has said this is the best generation of teachers ever.

"Early retirement and churn in teaching is in fact good compared with equivalent professions."

He said: "No government has done more to support teachers".

On the other hand:

More than 250,000 qualified teachers no longer work in England's schools, the Conservative Party says.

And nearly 100,000 switched careers between 2000 and 2005 - more than double the number that left in the preceding five-year period.

The Tories say their findings - based on government figures - point to rising numbers leaving the profession because of poor class discipline and red tape.

But Schools Minister Jim Knight said recruitment was "buoyant".

Figures also show that thousands of people who train and qualify as teachers never go on to work in schools and this appears to have increased in recent years.

The government statistics show that of those who qualified in 2000, 2,100 never taught in schools. This rose steadily to 2005 (the latest available), when 7,900 of those who qualified have never taught.

I know, it's only the Tory opposition saying this, but no one is actually denying it.

Never mind. Bring in the commandos. Bring in the Daleks.

Whoops! They are already here.





26.12.07 : INTERESTING TIMES

Interesting Christmas in the Chinese sense. Just as well we came. Apart from the general condition attendant on being a hundred and eighty-seven respectively, complemented by broken bones, chronic leukemia, long term restricting bowel problem etc, the moment we arrive the gastric bug hits the house with copiousness at either end, accidents, exhaustion. That is over Christmas night and through the whole day. Myself on sixth day of stubborn cold, waking at 3.30am to hear first effects of gastric etc on the elderly. Gaspings and cries of a winter night.

Children arrive about 11am, fortunately in relatively good health, T with cold, H and R just over cold. C prepares big Christmas dinner with help from self. The elderly remain in bed, except when they are dashing to commodes for one or other reason. So day goes. We play Chronology with kids, exchange presents, do not overindulge but for opening a bottle of vintage wine (gift from W and B's Chinese friends, never likely to be consumed otherwise.) There is also champagne, would you believe, Harvey Nichols (same Chinese source).

C and I drive to the hospital to pick up necessary prescription. Thence to chemist. Eventually the children get off back to London. I worry about them driving back, especially with T feeling worse, but they get back fine I discover when I ring.

This morning C wakes up with the gastric bug. I am last man left standing. But the sun is out, the flags are fluttering over the fort. Walk down to small shop. No Guardian today, they say. Return with Indy and Telegraph. Lower headline on Indy: Drug promises end to migraine misery. Rather Private Eye that. Turns out Brit doctor was experimenting with drugs (in a nice way) on five patients with migraine and it worked: "some spectacularly". Doesn't say what "some" might mean out of a sample of five. Five doesn't sound like a thoroughly road-testing kind of number. Merry Christmas.

Gifts of the Magi: Grot, Fartingflu and Mucus.

Stop press: Last man was standing.




24.12.07 : INTERMISSION - CHRISTMAS EVE

Can't do the Giotto today as I haven't found out how to copy the image address on the computer here. Might be able to do it tomorrow with a bit of guidance.

'Here' is with C's parents, packed into the back bedroom. W frail, pale and sick twice. B sturdier. Both are moving about with frames. Whoever makes jokes about old age and Zimmers is not within sight of the punchline. Odd to think how, when young, we consider ourselves immortal. Even death can't kill us then. I am now in my sixtieth year and I do begin to see a kind of story arc that must at some point come to ground. In this house the ground is close. I can see it and smell it. C clears up her mother, gets on with things. I help where I can. Tomorrow, Christmas Day, we'll clean the house a little before the children arrive and while the turkey is in the oven. Can't tell what the night will be like.

Back home the cats and our friends. It turns out that Lily is a cross between a Bengal and a Tabby: independent, not cuddly, full of hunting and games, fond of water ("Often," says the book, "to be found in the bathroom." Spot on.) Pearl is a bicoloured British short hair of some description. Sturdy (you can say that again!), home loving (check), downright lazy (her own individual contribution).

I still have the remnants of a cold I started almost a week ago. Weather warmer though.



23.12.07 : GIOTTO IN PADUA (4)



This is the last of the Joachim panels. Joachim has been assured he will be a father and Anna has had the angelic visitation I reproduced in the first Giotto post. The broad formal language has been established. Now we are at The Golden Gate in Jerusalem and, finally, Joachim and Anna are together again, full of good news and reassurance. They are kissing on the bridge that leads to the gate. A small group of women flow forth from the city accompanying Anna. Behind Joachim there is only a shepherd we met in one of the earlier panels, that and the wide blue space he has just left.

The architecture here is monumental and massive. The arch is a form of celebration, an open golden mouth, the arch itself echoing a rainbow. The architecture that once expelled Joachim now draws him in. The only troubling figure here is the woman in black, the donna velata who has no specific narrative role. She is not a figure out of the narrative itself (which is adapted from the non-canonical Gospel of James), she is, rather, a brooding reminder of something, perhaps of no more than that, in the midst of happiness, there are the seeds of tragedy. I think this figure is Giotto's invention. She is certainly unsettling there.

But this is still in the realm of symbolism that can be transcribed in words. The metaphor implicit in form hinges far more on the long sweeping lines of the women's garments that echo each other and set up rhythms. It is their music, and the way that music billows through the enormous gate, approaching the two little bubbly arches of the bridge. The watchtowers above the gates present a stricter geometry, flat, sceptical, blunt: and so it is possible to feel several things at once, to sense the authority or even the autocracy of the city rising above the small bubbles of happiness in the meeting. The right edge of the donna velata's gown does not sweep. Instead it leans to echo the movement of Anna's forward movement while the stiffness of the woman's head resists the plunges of the rest of the other women as they crane their necks forward.

I haven't said anything about colour yet though colour too is vital; those pinks and reds and lilacs playing off each other either side of Anna, pressing her closer to Joachim; and how could I not mention the glorious white cry of the central anonymous woman's robe. Her white against the mysterious woman's black.

And now a detail:



The gesture of the kiss is superb: Anna's hand on the back of Joachim's head, her other hand on the side of his face. Their eyes are almost in direct contact, their arms and haloes forming a highly active closed and concentrated world full of tenderness, energy and relief. This is a human kiss, a kiss that is compounded of various intensities, that is, above all, joyful, and is well worth comparing with the kiss of Judas that comes later in the cycle. And something else: something vital. It is where their faces meet on the picture: right down the line of the angle of the wall so that they seem to be at once joined and separated by it. These edges and apparent coincidences, the coincidences between human form that we read and interpret as faces, hands, arms, legs, torsos and gowns speak - or sing - the same formal musical language as does the architecture, the line, the mass and the colour. It was Goethe who declared that architecture was "frozen music". Here one can see what he meant.




22.12.07 : GIOTTO IN PADUA (3)

Yesterday the diagram, today the full colour view. Here:



It is dazzling. We stood in a queue than had about twenty minutes inside. The building itself is nothing much, in fact it's rather ugly, like a minor underground station, the windows only on one side. Nor is it big, but the effect of the whole is enormous. There are thirty-eight narrative pictures, and if you want a guided to tour the whole, here is a good link.


Here is the first of the cycle, not because it is the greatest of the individual pictures but because the new language is as clear here a elsewhere. The intensity of colour may change from picture to picture, but that is normally variable in photographs.



In art, as in poetry, I am interested in form-as-feeling, not form as some glorious if tacky piece of craftsmanship-for-its-own-sake, nor indeed as a demonstration of how clever we are (though I do love magic tricks, tightrope walkers, acrobats, dancers and jugglers and think part of the glory of life resides with them, with their sheer exuberance, but more of that some other time). What matters is that I know that form is feeling and metaphor as well as an answer to experience and would like to begin demonstrating it in a way that isn't properly covered by much writing on visual art.

So here is the temple. It's a peculiar architectural contraption. It stands for the institution from which Joachim is being expelled for being childless; childlessness being seen as a punishment by God for some unnamed sin. Effectively Joachim is being cast out of the religious community. The architecture is the community, a kind of abstraction or boiling down of the details of a temple into something fragmentary yet ornate that is enclosed and arcane but includes an altar and a pulpit. This kind of semi-literal symbolism is part of the visual language, but any symbolism that can be transcribed in words is only a part, not the whole.

Joachim is cast out. Hidden from him behind, community life goes on, boxed away. As the commentary on my link says, the void into which Joachim is being cast is indicated by the abrupt space at the right of the picture, and that is emphasised by the rising pulpit that acts as a precipice - ahead there is not only width but depth and a great fall. This isn't the illustration of religious dogma but the understanding of a state of mind: Joachim's state of mind. It is part of the human condition.

The diagonal setting of the architectural forms speeds up the action, zigging and zagging, and then, if you follow the tops of the near walls, your eye is led to the apparently leisurely movement of the priest's green-clad arm. So easy for him. So inevitable. Angles resolve to curves here but the curves shorten. Suddenly the building stops and Joachim's body is already partly beyond it, leaning forward, about to topple into the psychological abyss. From the top of the altar to the top of the pulpit another diagonal drives him down and on. Only his face is turned against the direction in which he is being propelled by both impersonal stone and the echoes of the two priestly heads.

All this is achieved with minimal means. There is no rhetorical flourish, no melodrama, just the terror of being alone and deserted. We focus on human feeling, not on divine injunction, and we feel it all the more keenly because of its apparently simple austerity. No one is trying to sell us a pup. This isn't PR, a good day to bury bad news. It just is. Go and be cast out of a high window. Face the barren ruin that is your life. Start again, if you can. The height of the pulpit is a sentence stopped in mid-speech, the heart itself stopping for an instant, but we know that the sentence will be picked up in the next part of the story. That the heart will soon start beating again




21.12.07 : GIOTTO IN PADUA 2



This is the plan of the Scrovegni chapel. You could look it up for yourselves of course and it's not my business to be an online blogging art pedant. Apart from anything else I am barely qualified for it, but since I do love this chapel and venerate Giotto, a little basic information may be useful. The pictures run right round in three tiers and tell the story of the childless couple Joachim and Anna who, through divine intervention, succeed in bearing a child, Mary, who then, by way of a different kind of divine intervention, gives birth to Christ. We move through the birth, childhood and ministry of Christ to the Passion, Crucifixion and Resurrection.

This will seem a bridge - or pontiff - too far for my atheist readers (frankly I am not entirely certain of my own location on the section of the great map that reads from absolute rejection of the metaphysical to a humane credo ad absurdum) but the point about Giotto is that he is the first and one of the greatest Christian-Humanist artists, which makes him one of the greatest European artists tout court and while the splendid Mr Hitchens's God may not be at all Great (indeed I agree with him on this as on many other matters) religious art is not about nothing, as I believe he himself is happy to admit.

So let us call it something in the human spirit, and particularly human in Giotto's case, because Giotto (and Andrew Graham-Dixon is quite right here) sees the events of the Christian cycle as human events; that is to say he tries to understand how human beings may feel when confronted by the vast scheme or non-scheme of things. Not that human feeling is the be-all and end-all of the Giotto version because it is not so in life either. I may feel this or that when confronted by something as vast as a volcanic eruption or as small as an ant scurrying through blades of grass but my feeling does not impinge on the volcano or the ant. "Canst thou pluck out Leviathan with an hook?" God asks Job. Nevertheless, the apprehension of the vast human /non-human world as an organism with a moral aspect seem to have been a productive part of human experience. And so, without any more ado, on to the Best of Giotto: the Giotto at Padua show. It is, in effect, The Art of the New.

The Annunciation to Anna (see below) offers us the key elements of Giotto's new vocabulary: a narrow stage across which the world moves as in a medieval pageant; a certain depth and modelling, just enough to allow a sense of psychological physicality, where gestures and facial expressions are empathetically readable as if from within the subject; a reduced number of symbolic and compositional elements such as architecture, robes and articles, in which human bodies themselves perform some of the roles of architecture which is to say they are by no means incidental but serve to invite the viewer to experience powerful but complex emotions, anything from fury and terror through awe, suspicion, guilt, desire and loss down to the greatest possible tenderness.

It is essentially a tragic vision of humanity, tragic because humanity has enormous capacity in Giotto. No European artist before Giotto presented viewers with such complex potency. There, I have used the word "complex" again, but then that is the whole point. To be human is to be complex. Let's take that as read. More pictures next time. Well, maybe just a peek ahead now.






21.12.07 : THE OVERWHELMING AND ENTIRELY CHEERING VIRTUES OF CATS

Before I return to the paintings there's a letter to the editor by the author Amanda Craig in the Society of Authors' magazine, The Author. A conversation is under way about writing and depression, in the course of which she says:

It is my belief that the writer's traditional choice of a cat as a companion during the hours of creative agony is a disaster. Cats are all very well in their way, but sharing your space with a creature even more self-centred, indolent, cold-hearted and greedy than yourself is never a good idea.... Dogs, on the other hand, offer us all the unstinting devotion, slavish admiration and gratitude we could possibly want, plus the benefits of twice-daily exercise in fresh air.

This, sounds to me like a case for Snoop, but let me be absolutely clear that our cats are selfless, constantly busy on good works, more affectionate than your granny and are so charitable they share their food with us at all times. They salute us every morning when we rise, make the bed, do the vacuuming and whenever they see us depressed whisper in our ears: Cheer up. You're a genius. I have total belief in you. Nothing beats a cat when you're down. In any case there is no-one - and certainly no cat - more self-centred, indolent, cold-hearted and greedy than I am, thank you. As for the term, "fresh air", I will have to look that up in the dictionary.




20.12.07 : A FEW PICTURES ON THE WAY TO CHRISTMAS: GIOTTO DI BONDONE (1)

Nottingham. Cold house, hot cafe, cold street, hot train... result a cold, exacerbated by a train journey to London and back today. A handsome, streaming, temperature-up, energy-down cold. Too bad.

While taking my ease on the settee and glaring with rheumy eyes at television I come upon* Andrew Graham-Dixon's programme on the Pre- and Early-Renaissance in Italy: Cimabue, Duccio and Giotto. Ravishment, absolute ravishment! I used to teach this period in school in my art and art history days, and that gives me an idea. Over the next week I will take a series of Early Renaissance works and and woffle on about them, and, since I wrote my degree thesis on Giotto, I will begin with him.



We are in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua. The son of a notorious moneylender hopes to expiate the family sins by commissioning Giotto to cover the chapel with frescoes tracing the story of Jesus from the childlessness of Joachim and St Anne, through to the Resurrection. This is some time between 1303-1310.

What Graham Dixon doesn't talk about is composition and composition is vital to Giotto. As with all TV programmes about art they do zooms on detail and swivel here and there just to keep the picture moving ('cos that's the nature of TV, innit, the eejits!) Graham Dixon talks about feeling. I am chiefly going to talk about composition without which you get only 10% of the feeling. But I won't do it now in detail (remember I am a sick man), only to say that in this painting of the Annunciation to St Anne (or Anna), the angel that pops in at the window seems to be yanked in by the movement of the girl carding wool in the porch. The composition here is a gorgeous toy. Everything is staked on that diagonal from the angel to the servant girl's right hand. Even the architecture (even? the architecture is vital to the feeling in all Giotto's paintings) runs diagonally with the theme. Meanwhile, the enormous St Anne worships, a part of the celestial mechanics that pierces her heart.

*I never know what is on television and switch on blindly when tired.





19.12.07 : SLIGHTLY GRITTY

Nottingham railway station is a mess and a mystery. No general information board on the platform on arrival (heading for Beeston) and no one to ask. So I climb the stairs to bridge level which is being renovated. No information there either and no one to ask. I make for the what might be the entrance and find myself on platform 1 where the electronic signal says the train I want is back on the platform I have just left. It's a long platform with two trains on it and no sign as to which train is which. It is about to go. I quickly climb on board and ask whether it is the train I want. "I hope so," a woman tells me. Then it doesn't go on time after all and passengers are getting on and asking me if it is the train they want.

It is quite a nice game really and one should be grateful to the railway company for providing amusements in the Festive Season. Strangely enough no one seems that grateful. We are not pulling crackers and no one has a party hat.

But it is the right train, my stop a mere six minutes down the line. Poet, literary scholar and now publisher JL waiting for me. We drive to their house. Big house, walls covered in books and pictures. P brings tea and bits of Christmas cake. A couple of whiskeys and conversation before going to the reading at a small cafe which fills up with 30 and has rather more than thirty present, a nicely mixed age group, neither solidly old nor solidly young. (Age apartheid is generally the rule. One age group tends to drive out the other. As one of my students once said he didn't want to be sitting with a lot of woolly jumpers. It felt unnatural. Not here.)

Anna - who is much younger than I am - and I perch on stools and do our readings. People buy books and ask questions. It is a busy street. At one point police and ambulance go screaming by but then they are gone. I like cafe events.

Afterwards, an Italian meal with other writers and academics. At the other end of the restaurant a raucous party is taking place with the occasional deafening roar.

Back to the house. JL and I sit up till 2 talking poetry and bits of politics. JL was a CND member and helped the miners during the 1984 strike. Spends a lot of time in Greece now. He is lovely to talk to as he has read everything and will talk about everything. Books, art, music, politics, cricket, football...

The house is a little cold, but then so is the weather. More politics over breakfast then a lift to the station. JL gives me his memoir of living in Greece. I start to read it on the train.

C is out when I arrive. At home I find an email with a friend pointing me to a site that compares poets to wines. It's a very short list of extremely grand poets so am extraordinarily flattered to be there, even though it says:

George Szirtes
An honest, slightly gritty wine that requires a serious meat dish to release its full authority.


Could be worse. A lot worse. And I think I must own that "slightly gritty" taste.

So. Bring me meat.




18.12.07 : TO NOTTINGHAM AND NEW POEM ON FRONT

Reading tonight with Anna Woodford. Train journey of relatively short duration compared to some. More later.

*

And more on Capello. The beer view here, the wine view here. I see there is fun to be had in the comments column of the latter. I'm the whiskey view myself. More bragadoccio than catenaccio.




17.12.07 : BETTER GUNS

Major General Jalil Khalaf, new police commander of Basra makes the following points, among others:

The British unintentionally rearmed Shia militias by failing to recognise that Iraqi troops were loyal to more than one authority;

Shia militia are better armed than his men and control Iraq's main port.

Does this mean that when arming the Shia militia the British handed over better weapons than they themselves possessed? Unintentionally? ("Oops sorry, you got the better rifle there. Ah well, I suppose you might as well keep it...") If not, whose are these 'better' weapons?

This is the police chief talking. And isn't it the police that is supposed to be infiltrated by various militias? Is it the police that is going to prevent the disgraceful killings of "non-Islamic" "incorrectly dressed" women?




16.12.07 : SATANTANGO

It is a long time since I put up a piece of translation-in-progress so why not now? This is László Krasznahorkai's 1985 novel, and first big public success Sátántangó. Forgive the bit of flattering of self in the comment. I didn't write it and it's the only English text on the book so far. In any case it seems appropriate now when we are rapidly approaching Christmas Eve, the traditional night for ghost stories.

One morning near the end of October not long before the first drops of the mercilessly long autumn rains began to fall on the cracked and saline soil on the western side of the plot (so that later the stinking yellow sea of mud might render footpaths impassable and put the town too beyond reach) Futaki woke to hear bells. The closest possible source was a lonely chapel about four kilometres south-west on the old Hochmeiss estate but not only did that have no bell but the tower had collapsed during the war and it was too far to hear anything at that distance. And in any case, it was not of distant bells these ringing-booming triumphal sounds reminded him but something quite close swept along by the wind (“It was as if they came from the mill…”). He propped himself on his elbows on the pillow so as to look out of the mousehole-sized kitchen window that was partly misted up, towards the faint blue dawn sky but the field was still and silent bathed only in the ever fainter bell sound; and the only light to be seen was that percolating from the doctor’s window among the other houses set well apart on the far side, and that was only because its occupant had for years been unable to sleep in the dark. He held his breath because he did not want to lose a single stray note of the rapidly fading clangor in order to know the truth (“You are bound to be asleep, Futaki…”) and in order to be assured to of it he needed to hear every single sound, however isolated. He hobbled on his famously light feet like a cat padding across the ice-cold stone floor of the kitchen (“But is no one awake? Don’t people hear it? Is there nobody else?”), opened the widows and leaned out. A sharp damp gust caught him so he had to close his eyes for a moment and apart from the cockcrow, a distant bark and the howling of the persistent wind that had sprung up just a few minutes earlier there was nothing to hear however hard he listened but the dull beat of his own heart, as if the whole thing had been merely a ghostly game, half-dream, as if (“… somebody out there wants to scare me”).

It's a beginning... And here's a clip of the seven and a half hour movie by Béla Tarr based on it.



It helps if you like rain...





15.12.07 : ENGLAND IS ITALY

The Italians take over English football which might or might not be a good thing, but it is certainly a strange thing. A Scandinavian, perhaps, there ought to be something in common there, but Italians? It used almost to be an antithesis, English - Italian. For the Italians it is not about 'the beautiful game'. They have never quite believed in that: for them it is about winning Mafia style, with ruthless efficient charm, 'the elegantly effective game'. England, on the other hand, has traditionally gone for 'an honest game' meaning getting stuck-in, getting rid of it, wearing lion-hearts and bandages. Italy had sun and stilettos: England had mud and the shoulder-charge.

And it is not just Capello but his management team, all Italians. A wholesale take-over. Maybe it is the cafe and wine culture hoped for by Tony Blair that is finally arriving. Maybe all those lattes are finally working.

What is even stranger is that a glance at the press shows that the virtues they detect in Capello are actually English. He will 'blast' those namby-pamby, spoiled brats who have no heart for battle! He will also 'blast' the WAGS who distract everyone with their shopping. He will make honest men and women of them. These jumped-up working class yobs will be shown their proper place in society. They'll get properly stuck in.

'Honest 'is not necessarily what the Italian game has been famous for, so I wonder how long this romance between the press and Capello will last? Capello may be clean as the proverbial referee's whistle but the romance never lasts long, not ever, unless he beats the Germans 5-1 in Germany and then he might get six months peace. I doubt whether it will run so kindly with him. The press has already had a story about him 'taking drugs' as a player. It turns out the stuff he was taking was legal at the time and that everyone else was taking it on medical advice. It's the first chink in the armour, the first of the blades to explore it. There will be more. Build em up, knock 'em down. That's the whole point, isn't it?





14.12.07 : LEGGE OVER: JOHN AUBREY ON THE MEDICAL PROFESSION

John Aubrey is history as fable and foible. I was sitting in the cafe at the corner working my way through a dish of comfort food for lunch, reading the following, concerning William Butler, physician, Born 1535:

[He] never tooke the Degree of Doctor, though he was the greatest Physitian of his time...

...I think he was never maried. He lived in an Apothecary-shop in Cambridge, Crane's, to whom he left his estate, and he in gratitude erected the Monument for him at his own chardge, in the fashion he used. He was not greedy of money, except choice Pieces of Golde, or Rarities.

Once, on the rode from Cambridge to London, he took a fancy to a chamberlayne or tapster in his Inne, and took hum with him and made him his favourite, by whom only accession was to be had to him, and thus enriched him.

He would many times (I have heard say) sitt among the Boyes at St Maries' Church in Cambridge...

...He kept an old mayd whose names was Nell. Dr Butler would many times go to the Taverne, but drinke by himself. About 9 or 10 at night old Nell comes for him with a candle and lanthorne, and sayes, Come you home, you drunken Beast. By and by Nell would stumble; then her Master calls her drunken beast; and so they did drunken beast one another all the way till they came home...

...A Serving man brought his Master's water to Doctor Butler, being then in his Studie (with turn'd Barres) but would not bee spoken with. After much fruitlesse importunity the man tolde the doctor he was resolved he should see his Master's water; he would not be turned away, threw it o the Dr's head. This humour pleased the Dr, and he went to the Gent. and cured him...

Now that is something I should certainly try at our local health centre, the swines.

He was much addicted to his humours, and would suffer persons of quality to wayte sometimes some hours at his dore, with Coaches, before he would receive them. Dr Gale, of Paule's School, assures me that a French man came one time from London to Cambridge, purposely to see him, whom he made staye two howres for him in his Gallery and then he came out to him in an old blew gowne. The French gentleman makes him 2 or 3 very lowe Bowes to the ground. Dr Butler whippes his Legge over his head, and away goes into his chamber, and did not speak with him.

Well, precisely. That is what they are like down the health centre too. Drunken gay paedos who do not hesitate to whippe their legges over. I have often thought my Master's water might be put to better use.




13.12.07 : CHAGALL


Marc Chagall I and the Village 1911

Chagall was a revelation to me when I was nineteen. It was, I suppose, a question of depiction; the depiction of worlds and ideas beyond the ordinary (and yet how weird!) framework offered by perspective; a new experience full of sharp, dynamic angles and stuffed with dense colour that seemed to spin out of night. It was like being suddenly woken from a dream..

Chagall's early pictures are little do with dreams though. There is nothing misty or vague about them. They are playful, hard, constructions of memory, cast in forms anticipating Constructivism and contemporary with Cubism (the former is dated to 1914, the latter to about 1910 or so). In any case, Chagall meant freedom. If one wanted for two people to meet upside down, why not suspend the laws of physics? If one wanted a meeting between nature and cosmic events why not just arrange it?

First you have to arrange the elements in pictorial space and that is easiest if you have a central composition, as the picture above does. Then you have to break up expectation of form by juxtaposing near and far. Dispense with single light source, natural colour, modelling and horizon. Diagonals will get you twitching and circles will get you whirling. Energy is vital. If you can maintain energy the pictorial world is your oyster. Go, get drunk on it.

I loved this painting. It was almost like a religious experience seeing it and understanding it. The world was not a blank collection of dull objects in an over-determined, rather fussy space. Painting was not an artistic kind of photography. It was vision.

For now, the headiness of it. I was falling in love with colour at the same time as I was falling in love.




12.12.07 : ELEGIAC

A funny moving occasion tonight. Three retirements from the university, CS, VS and RY, all three there for close on thirty years. Farewells are often an unsettling blend of the sentimental and the the perfunctory, but this time, after wine and canapes in the theatre, the three retirees put on a show. CS read a poem that told a tale and included in a hidden way all his colleagues names, including newcomers like me. Then VS and RY performed a bit of Waiting for Godot. VS then conducted a splendid Joycean spoof on his retirement, eloquent, funny, learned and beautifully timed. RY followed with the bits of Beckett's Molloy in the French, and finally VS and RY reunited for more Beckett.

So what is so good about this? They were performing for an auditorium full of colleagues who were clearly fond of them. They performed without grandstanding, made no speeches, enjoying themselves by being fully civilised, true to their literary loves. The texts they read were delightful and - especially the Beckett - perfectly made and delivered, so an edge of regret and elegiac bleakness was not entirely off the menu.

Although I hardly know the three - well, only a little - I felt moved and cheered. It was extraordinarily humane, as fine as it could be. I don't think I had felt this before at other retirement occasions. It was what universities could be about and it was good to know that.





11.12.07 : GIFTS

Yesterday, after teaching, to the launch of Gift at Jurnet's Bar. Gift looks like a gift and is a collection of love poems, edited by Helen Ivory and Tom Corbett and published by The Gatehouse Press, who have also published another anthology, Not Expecting Fish, launched on the same night. See link to Gift.

The place is packed and the entertainment includes a female barber shop quartet (should that be a 'hairdressers shop quartet'?). The ladies harmonise and descant and end the evening by seductively singing 'Santa Baby' to MF who sits facing them as if about to be electrocuted.

As to the book, a lot of poems, some very nice ones, on all aspects of love. There is always a feeling that poetry is something that is bubbling under the communal mind and that bubbling under is in fact its job. It's a nice evening, the kind of evening that for mysterious reasons always leaves me feeling a little desolate, the desolation nothing to do with the quality of the event, only with the peopleness of people, which is touching and lovely and all the more desolate for that. No, it's hard to explain. I suspect it's part of the human condition: the clock ticking in the heart.

At university now. Talking of clocks my watch battery has run down and my mobile phone battery is low so my sense of time will have to be psychobiological rather than objective. The sun is out. It is crisp and brilliant, a faint pink glow edging towards orange and peach. I have finished the frivolous task of compiling a clerihew book complete with pictures. It will go to various friends - those at least who might like this kind of nonsense. Not all friends do. I will have to guess who.




09.12.07 : COMEDY AND A SUNDAY TREAT

My Saturday Guardian Guide, in the shape of William Cook, describes a Robert Newman gig / DVD as follows:

Together, they comprise an explosive exposé of Anglo-American foreign policy, and they should be compulsory viewing for anyone who still doubts that we're woefully deluded about the real reasons why our governments go to war.

Sometime back in the eighties there was a programme probably called Saturday Live on which Ben Elton appeared in a gold lame jacket and only had to utter the words 'Mrs Thatcher!' for the audience to fall about laughing. Indeed there was no need to say anything else. Nor can I remember anything else he did say. Nowadays I suppose just saying 'George Bush!' would do. So shall we just leave it there? Imagine me, there, Rob. Imagine me imagining you saying 'George Bush!' and imagine me laughing.

It's so simple when you are not woeful. Good to be among friends.

In the meantime, a treat via poet Angela Topping who sent this to me via Facebook.








08.12.07 : IN GLAMORGAN, LOOKING AT CERI RICHARDS

At the University of Glamorgan last night for a workshop and a reading, invited by Tony Curtis, with Sheenagh Pugh, Philip Gross and Chris Meredith also there. It is about six and a half hours to Cardiff then Trefforest with four changes, the weather holding throughout.

The last leg of the journey from Cardiff in the direction of Pontypridd is the loveliest on the eye. Suddenly it's valleys and high hills, the full maternal works, the little train chugging along, broadcasting safety messages at least twice in twenty minutes. And apropos of safety there are ladders in the carriages though we pass nothing in the landscape that seems to require ladders. Maybe later there are precipitous fallings away where a six foot ladder might be useful, though I cannot quite think what for. In the valleys we pass through a ladder might serve to stand on should we choose to put a fairy on top of a tiny Christmas tree.

We drink coffee in Tony's office before the event, then comes the class which is fun, chiefly on the use of lyrical 'I' taking in John Heath-Stubbs, Hugo Williams, Charles Simic, Emily Dickinson and Stephen Crane along the way. Then I do an interview with a young Uruguayan born student and then the reading. All well there. Two nice young Hungarians in the audience, one a student, the other editing a film magazine. She gives me a copy of the magazine.

Afterwards we drive back to Barry to Tony's house, his wife Margaret greeting us. Tony is a great collector of pictures, particularly by twentieth century Welsh artists and we talk considerably about art. Ceri Richards is his main man and Mel Gooding's study of Richards is placed in my bedroom to browse before sleep.

I well remember Ceri Richards as a major figure from my first year or two at art college, though his reputation had been somewhat eclipsed by then by those of the brasher Pop Artists and the tragedy-proportioned wide open spaces of the US Abstractionists. Colour-field men blowing the world away. Performance art and Conceptual Art were on the rise too, so the rich seam of lyricism - mainly Celtic - that Richards and Collins and Alan Davie represented was vanishing with a bold mystic glow over the horizons of Studio International.

Richards was deeply influenced by both Matisse and Picasso but there are elements of Blake there too. Looking at the work now some of that is maybe too obvious though there is plenty of mystical ripeness and rejoicing left. I think it is possibly only Howard Hodgkin of the major figures and, in a different way Lucien Freud and Frank Auerbach, who represent painterliness now. Painterliness: the actual love of paint, which is, I would suggest, also love of life, and if that seems too much of a rhetorical trope, tough luck. Most of our lot - the current generation led by Venerable 'Bling' Hirst and the Ineffable Dame Tracey of Margate - offer us hollow conceptual bellowing, icons of the suffering botched self, or sly winks in mixtures of irony and opportunism. And of course, the block-headed simplicities of the 'statement'.

Ceri Richards did not offer statements. He offered song.

Late to bed after whiskies and wine and lovely food and talk. I still wake just before six and read a little more, making a start on Ursula LeGuin, who immediately strikes me as a far finer writer than Philip K Dick whom I have also been reading. Then it's breakfast and a quick drive round Barry Island on a grey gusty damp morning. Once there were holiday camps and amusement parks. The small station is drenched.

On the way home - and it is a long way - the Cardiff-Paddington leg, I sit at a table with a retired female teacher and a big jovial Welshman, whose pretty and chatty daughter - mid-twenties at guess - sits across on the other side of the aisle. It turns out they are from Newport, fans of Newport County football club, and are on their way to Basingstoke to watch their team play away. The weather is so awful the game might be called off.

Do you follow Newport County everywhere? I ask. No. Just this time. Only to Basingstoke. Have you ever been to Basingstoke? I enquire further. Never. They are delightful people. If the match is called off they will just drink all day before getting back on the train. Dad doesn't even like football that much. Like most Welshmen he prefers rugby. Happy day's drinking then.

And many thanks to Tony and Margaret and Glamorgan for having me.




06.12.07 : A LYRICAL TERRORIST

That is what The Guardian headline calls poor little Samina Malik. Has she been sentenced to transportation? Torture? Even jail? No. But she has certainly been sentenced. Unjust. Unjust.

Burton [her defence] said: "She became hooked on Abu Hamza-type addresses and that affected her mindset." The jury was told that she joined an extremist organisation called Jihad Way, set up explicitly to spread terrorist propaganda and support for al Qaida.

Jonathan Sharp, prosecuting, told the court she visited a website linked to the jailed cleric Abu Hamza and stored material about weapons. The court also heard Malik belonged to a social networking website called hi5, describing her interests as "helping the mujaheddin in any way which I can".

Under favourite TV shows, she listed: "Watching videos by my Muslim brothers in Iraq, yep the beheading ones, watching video messages by Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahri and other videos which show massacres of the kaffirs."

Extracts from the poems are helpfully given, only, alas, in odd lines that cannot help the reader appreciate the full lyrical grace of the whole.:

One poem, called The Living Martyrs, said: "For the living martyrs are awakening/ And kuffars [non-believers] world soon to be shaking."
Another line ran: "Let us make jihad/ Move to the front line/ To chop chop head of kuffar swine."
A second poem was called How to Behead. "It's not as messy or as hard as some may think/ It's all about the flow of the wrist," it read.

Another section said: "No doubt that the punk will twitch and scream/ But ignore the donkey's ass/ And continue to slice back and forth/ You'll feel the knife hit the wind and food pipe/ But don't stop/ Continue with all your might."

Ah, the sufferings of poets for their art! Those dreadful kaffirs! Perhaps she will write more valuable poems while in the discomfort of her own home. Why not just call her a poet-in-residence?

The minor fact that she is a repulsive human being is not, of course, a crime. The delicate rococo charm of her poetry surpasses all such considerations.

We kaffirs are once again guilty of Islamophobia. As Muhammad Abdul Bari, secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain said:

Many young people download objectionable material from the Internet, but it seems if you are a Muslim then this could lead to criminal charges, even if you have absolutely no intention to do harm to anyone else.

On the other hand, death is too good for Salman Rushdie. Natch.






05.12.07 : AN ARTIST'S STATEMENT

The new Democratiya arrives. It's on the net and well worth reading. I haven't yet had a chance to read it myself as yesterday was a full day's teaching followed by a party for the current university MAs, a dozen of them, charming, talented and dressed to the nines. Why, it was practically the Oxford May Ball!

Should I mention Mark Wallinger winning the Turner Prize? Do I care? Surely I should... isn't it just the most important, cutting edge, zeitgeisty beano in the world?

I started falling asleep when artists started making statements, or got their art to do it for them. Statements such as: capitalism is bad that sell at millions of dollars to, er, capitalists. Or such as: globalism is bad that they hope will be globalised as quickly as possible. Wallinger's winning piece says Iraq is bad. Is that what it says? Yup, that's what it says all right. Must be art then.

Wallace Stevens once suggested that the poem should resist the intelligence almost successfully. He also said:

Poetry is the supreme Fiction, madame.
Take the moral law and make a nave of it
And from the nave build haunted heaven. Thus,
The conscience is converted into palms
Like windy citherns, hankering for hymns.
We agree in principle. That’s clear. But take
The opposing law and make a peristyle,
And from the peristyle project a masque
Beyond the planets. Thus, our bawdiness,
Unpurged by epitaph, indulged at last,
Is equally converted into palms,
Squiggling like saxophones. And palm for palm,
Madame, we are where we began..

Peristyles and masques? Beyond the planets? Oh, we have our bawdiness all right and no palms, and it isn't a matter of almost successfully resisting the intelligence but of bypassing it altogether.

In the meantime C's birthday presents have stretched over three days now including a) part of a big bunch of deep red roses, 2) a pendulum clock showing a ship with two faintly Ardizzone gulls and a striped lighthouse, and a nicely heavy plaster bust that is now on the windowsill propping up seven volumes of Hungarian dictionary.


In odd moments have been composing more clerihews, some forty now, that I shall make up into an e-book attachment and send to such friends as may be interested in such things, complete with pictures of the heroic figures who provide the subject matter of these brief but intense and fascinating biographies.




03.12.07 : BARBERSHOP

Handed in the Paul Durcan review to The Irish Times. Durcan is like one of nature's tricksters who nevertheless is mummy's good boy. Perhaps one needs the other: that may be what gives him his great appeal. I have never felt life was as he feels it to be but it is fascinating to see it through his eyes. He sports an Irish blend of virtues, if virtues they are, or at least one version of Irishness as virtue. Life, according to this myth, is a lachrymose tall-story built on loss. It's not Joyce or Beckett's way but it may be Synge's way. Paul Durcan: playboy of the western word.

After university I catch the bus in the rain to meet C who is having her hair done in town. I stop off for a Jamesons and a coffee at Take 5, my favourite bar. There's a big roaring fire and -it may be - African music with a faint reggae beat. Sotto voce. I read the paper and listen to a small group of northern businessmen propped at the bar. Otherwise it is relatively empty but it will fill up later.

Then I walk in more rain, heavier this time, to Diva, the hairdresser. C is still in the chair with M joking and snipping. A group of schoolgirls in the corner. An androgynous silent figure next to me reading a magazine. I remember when I used to be sent to the barber as a boy, how rudimentary it was. Two Greek barbers with crinkly black hair. Some old stray magazines on the chair including the very naughty Parade with its bare breasted pin-ups. That is next to Reveille and The Dandy. Called up to the chair to receive my short back and sides. Dead simple. A whiff of adulthood and Brylcreem. The thought of soft arousing distant and dreamt-of female flesh. The deliciousness of imagined perfume. The autumn wind. The light greying and blueing. The monkey-puzzle tree in someone's front garden. I think I am twelve, or is it thirteen. Perhaps even fourteen. Life is yearning and doubt and anxiety, even a faint terror.

Then C is ready, cropped and spiked and elfin. The rain has stopped.

Two new poems have been proposed by different American editors for the Pushcart Prize. And Poetry (Chicago) is doing a group of the In the Face of War poems, complete with original photographs, in the February issue. I am practically American.




02.12.07 : A FEW AFTERTHOUGHTS ON VENETIA, AUBREY AND L'INCONNUE

In typing up the passage from Aubrey I couldn't help but notice how he dwelt on the physical description of Venetia Digby and the thought sprang to mind that he was describing her much as one might describe a horse or some other possession. I partly dismissed the thought because in admiration one simply notices what one admires and admiration being an aspect of desire one cannot help but admit thoughts of possession.

Nor is this a purely male tendency. The end of e e cummings's poem may i feel said he goes:

(tiptop said he
don't stop said she
oh no said he)
go slow said she


(cccome?said he
ummm said she)
you're divine! said he
(you are Mine said she)

I know, it's early on a Sunday morning for this kind of thing... but then, just to check, I looked elsewhere in Aubrey. I did not have to look far. Here is how he begins his brief life of John Dee (1527-1608)

Hee had a very faire cleare rosie complexion; a long beard as white as milke; he was tall and slender; a very handsome man. His Picture in a wooden cutt is at the end of Billingsley's Euclid

Edward Davenant was "of a healthy complexion (except the gout), rose at 4 or 5 in the morning, so that he followed his Studies till 6 or 7..." and Thomas Bushell: "'Twas the fashion in those dayes for Gentlemen to have their Suites of Clothes garnished with Buttons. My Lord Bacon was then in Disgrace, and his Man Bushell having more Buttons than usuall on his Cloake, etc, they sayd that his Lord's breech made Buttons and Bushell wore them: from whence he was called Buttond Bushell.".

And so on. Linda says there is no depth without surface. That is so. We cannot see the depth, but note the surface as an earnest of depth: depth on display. That is what is, or can be, confusing. I remembered being referred to as a dandy by Hugo Williams (it was in one of his Freelance columns). He meant in a literary sense and meant it well and kindly, I think. But who knows? Even I wouldn't know if I said it of someone else.

As to Venetia Digby and L'Inconnue, "live fast die young leave a beautiful corpse" is a key romantic tagline. Better, I suppose, than "Live slow, die old, leave a putrid bag of bones and flab".

And so one's heart goes out to all the beautiful dead young. So one notes the complexion, the perfect, fleeting, delicacy of the cheeks and teeth and fine nostrils, the gestures of the bona roba blended with the modesty of tender innocence. And the buttons. All those buttons for ever and ever.

Because what is clearly unfinished freezes the moment of hope and aspiration in everyone. And to have your bust melted down and lost, as happened to Venetia Digby, is not the worst of fates because Venetia Digby is clearer as an idea and lovelier in that vanished statue than she ever could be in Van Dyke's portrait, lostness being intrinsic to the idea, not only of beauty, but of love that can't know everything and always retains something of the L'Inconnue, indeed has to retain it if it is to survive.




02.12.07 : AUBREY'S VENETIA DIGBY (2)



...Sir Kenelme had severall Pictures of her by Vandyke, &c. [See above] He had her hands cast in playster, and her feet and Face.

[Aubrey then refers to verses about her by Ben Jonson, and to the fact she had three children "viz. Kenelme, George, and John.", then goes on..]

...She dyed in her bed, suddenly. Some suspected that she was poysoned. When her head was opened there was found but little braine, which her husband imputed to her drinking of viper-wine; but spitefull woemen would say 'twas a viper husband who was jealous of her that she would steale a leape...

...About 1676 or 5, as I was walking through Newgate-street, I sawe Dame Venetia's Bust from off her tombe standing at a Stall at the Golden Crosse, a Brasier's shop. I perfectly remembred it, but the fire had gott-off the Guilding; but taking notice of it to one that was with me, I could never see it afterwards exposed to the street. They melted it downe. How these curiosities would be quite forgot, did not such idle fellowes as I am putt them downe.

["Did not such idle fellowes as I am putt them downe." So the heart breaks. So desire. So beauty. So L'Inconnue.]




02.12.07 : AUBREY'S VENETIA DIGBY (1)

Here is the - literally - brief life of Venetia Digby, as written by that wonderful old chatterer John Aubrey.

[Born 1600. She was secretly married to Sir Kenelm Digby in the Spring of 1625 and their first child was born in the October of that year: but the marriage was not acknowledged until 1627. Absurd reports were circulated that Digby had killed her by insisting on her drinking Viper-wine to preserve her beauty. At the time of her death in 1633, Ben Jonson, Thomas May, Joseph Ruther, Owen Feltham, William Habington, Lord George Digby and Aurelian Townsend commemorated her loss in verse.]*This note by Oliver Lawson Dick, Aubrey's editor.

VENETIA STANLEY was the daughter of Sir Edward Stanley. She was a most beautiful desireable Creature, and being maturo viro was left by her father to live with a tenant and servants at Enston Abbey in Oxfordshire: but as private as that place was, it seemes her Beautie could not lye hid. The young Eagles had espied her, and she was sanguine and tractable, and of much Suavity (which to abuse was great pittie.)

In those dayes, Richard, Earle of Dorset (eldest son and heire to the Lord Treasurer) lived in the greatest splendor of any nobleman in England. Among other pleasures that he enjoyed, Venus was not the least. This pretty creature's fame quickly came to his Lordship's cares, who made no delay to catch at such an opportunity.

I have now forgott who first brought her to Towne, but I have heard my uncle Danvers say (who was her contemporary) that she was so commonly courted, and that by Grandees, that 'twas written over her lodging one night in literis uncialibus:

PRAY COME NOT NEER, FOR DAME VENETIA STANLEY LODGETH HERE.

The Earle of Dorset aforesayd was her greatest Gallant, who was extremely enamoured of her, and had one, if not more children by her. He setled on her an Annuity of 500 pounds per annum.

Among other young Sparkes of that time, Sir Kenelme Digby grew acquainted with her, and fell so much in love with her that he maried her, much against the good will of his mother, but he would say that a wise man, and lusty, could make an honest woman out of a Brothell-house....

...She had a most lovely and sweet turn'd face, delicate darke-browne haire. She had a perfect healthy constitution; strong; good skin; well-proportioned; much enclining to a Bona Roba (near altogether.) Her face, a short ovall; darke-browne eie -browe about which much sweetness, as also in the opening of her eie-lidds. The colour of her cheeks was just that of the Damaske rose, which is neither too hott nor too pale. She was of a just stature not very tall....

[to be continued]




02.12.07 : L'INCONNUE

Cover story in The Guardian magazine yesterday was the supposed death-mask of the young girl known as L'Inconnue:



This is her and this particular photograph is from a website dedicated to Maurice Blanchot and his contemporaries. The legend is that she was a young 19th century woman who drowned herself in the Seine, possibly because of an unhappy love affair, but that when she was fished out they found her so beautiful that her death mask was turned into an icon and a muse for poets and artists. The cover tag line is "Introducing the most kissed woman in the world".

This ties in a little with my short post on the subject of beauty yesterday, but it is particularly interesting because we ourselves possess a cast of L'Inconnue that I picked up in West Alley market in Hitchin for next to nothing, fascinated by her beauty, thinking she might be Charlotte Brontë. She hung above the kitchen door there, but when we went away for most of 1989 to Budapest and let our house, we found on our return that the people who occupied the house had removed and hidden her, presumably thinking she was spooky or bad luck. She was, I think, deposited in the cellar. She now hangs in the book room, next to mine as I write. Good to know that Rilke and Supervielle and Aragon all devoted attention to her. Beauty and death. Death and beauty. It reminds me of that touching unforgettable piece in John Aubrey's Brief Lives about the Lady Venetia Digby. This is what Wiki says about her. The Aubrey passage doesn't seem to be on the net so I'll dig it out from among the books on the shelf.




01.12.07 : COUNTER DEMONSTRATION

It is very good news that British Muslims organised a counter-demonstration against the Sudanese government in the case of Gillian Gibbons. I am delighted they did so as this was precisely the kind of human gesture that was wanted. The 'official' spokesmen for Islam in this country are hopelessly mired in bigotry, duplicity and special pleading so people have no way of knowing whether they represent the views of Muslims at large.

If this demonstration generates sufficient momentum there is a chance that more moderate Muslims might become the public face of Islam in this country.

I also see The Guardian prints a letter signed by Ken Livingstone, Harold Pinter and others in support of Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, who intends to alter the constitution so that, among other centralising measures, he can be re-elected until he is 95. People in Venezuela may well vote for this. If so that is their business. But would the signers of the letter like it if Bush or Putin could be elected beyond their terms? For the rest of their natural? Would they regard that as a democratic move? Surely they wouldn't want "the smell of Satan" hanging around another forty years or so.





01.12.07 : AND A NOTE ON BEAUTY

In a responding comment on her own blog, Linda Grant says:

Personal physical beauty, ownership of expensive items of clothing, and attention to one's dress are three separate matters, each of which can exist independently of each other.

I am sure that is true, but item 1 there - personal physical beauty - is the thing at premium. The progress through both sets of metamorphosing faces is a kind of haunting, a proper ghostliness that walks through the flesh and bone walls of anyone's face, that lies under the closed eyelids of the half-conscious mind.

It is because we are mortal that we love it and hate it at the same time. I knew one beautiful woman who did not want to be told she was beautiful. Beauty, she said, was too much to lose.

Men are judged by many things (too many things I sometimes think) appearance among them, appearance naturally including beauty, but in some - only in a fortunate few in my opinion - beauty wears age, raggedness and ravages quite well. I like to think it is the same with some women - indeed, I find it so - but it is rarer.

There is nothing original in suggesting that beauty is much harder on women but that is not entirely because of the so-called market value of beauty. It is the haunting, intoxicating, faintly woozy presence of those beautiful female faces that will not leave us alone, neither men nor women.




01.12.07 : MORE METAMORPHIC FACES

I find these metamorphosing female film stars at Colin Will's.

One commenter there finds it "spooky". Indeed it is unsettling, more so than the paintings were, probably because these are photographs of real women and the continuity is a little more strained in places, so one feels the skull being pulled out of shape.

What joins both sets of faces is the idea of beauty, the hypnotic power of the eye and, to a lesser extent, the slightly smiling, slightly cynical yet generous set of the lips. Paintings refine and distil the desirable, move it from flesh to abstract form, but a form that is, at best, filled with spirit. The movie stars are more consciously masks, their way with the spirit more externalised, more spread over the surface.




30.11.07 : TEDDY BEARS' PICNIC 2

Now they want to shoot her. The song warned you about those woods.

I suppose most demonstrations of this kind are carefully put together by someone in authority and given the nod by the state. But you have to have a reasonable number of bloody, feeble-minded, self-righteous, murderous individuals turn up. Throw a few coins their way. The charms of Sudan. Why don't we all go there? Such a civilised place.

See also here, and while we're at it, here. Dave Allen thinks he had it tough.



29.11.07 : TEDDY BEARS' PICNIC

I well remember The Teddy Bears’ Picnic: If you go down to the woods today, you’re sure of a big surprise….

Gillian Gibbons is up for trial in Sudan today. The facts of the so-called case are already well known. The children she taught chose to call their class teddy-bear Mohammed, an act which, according to the charge, involved “insulting religion and inciting hatred”. You see, this was her responsibility. She let the children choose that very nice name because the children liked their teddy. That was way back in September though, since when some well-meaning pious soul has shopped her, so now, just in time for Christmas, she faces forty lashes or a prison sentence.

Much has been written about this but the charge is not wrong. There is incitement to hatred. Only it’s not Gibbons that is doing the inciting: it’s the sharia court. No surprise there, not down those woods. They boil in hatred, they wallow in it, they apply it liberally, why, they lash it on. Forty lashes of it.

Ah but it is because – you must understand – Moslems so love Mohammed, says the cleric interviewed on telly.

Love does interesting things. In the case of fundamentalist Islam, the religion of peace, it does hate exceedingly well. So well you can hardly tell the difference between hatred and love. Because, of course, if you love so much you must simply hate those that don’t love so much. Surely you see the logic of that? Please make an effort to get it through your thick skull. Do move on. Nothing to see here, folks. Just move on. And while you're moving why not sing along? Here’s some music..

For every bear that ever there was
Will gather there for certain, because
Today's the day the teddy bears have their picnic…


As Dave Allen used to say: May your God go with you.




29.11.07 : LANCASTER GROTESQUE

Back from Lancaster, via Manchester airport, on a little propeller-powered plane. Last time I was on one of those was between Bucharest and Cluj. It smelled of damp and burning and cold coffee was being served by two ravishingly - in fact quite unearthly - beautiful hostesses. If the touch of beautiful fingers could have heated a cup of icy black coffee they would have done it. I had given up hope of living and was calmly, almost blissfully resigned in a way my ancestors would have been proud of. One friend had earlier assured me: They are perfectly safe planes. No more than a crash every couple of years.

In Lancaster I was reading with a young Polish writer Joanna Skalska. She and her translator, Ian Seed, boxed and coxed their way through a short story - now in Polish, now in English - about a young woman living alone in a house who finds a policeman knocking on her door to warn her about undesirables entering and taking up residence in people's attics and cellars. They go up to the attic to check whether that is so in her case and, sure enough, there are signs of rough habitation. The policeman wants to stay behind and protect her but she refuses. As he is leaving, but still talking outside the door, the intruder appears in the hall. He is tall and dressed in jeans and a denim shirt but has no facial features. His face is a white blank, an empty puppet's face. She realises it is her death she is meeting, but feels calm about it. She didn't have to change the locks, ends the story. She only had to learn to live with death under the same roof.

It is a very good story, a perception of things that falls naturally to Eastern and Central Europeans. You could say I felt at home in it. It was the detail of the faceless face that stuck with me. If a face without features appeared in an English-language story we would expect it to be as a piece of Gothic horror. We would expect a gory assault. Not in the dear old motherlands. There the tradition conjured would probably be the Grotesque. There such creatures are everyday events. They arrive and settle in the attics and cellars of history and you learn to live with them and even give them the odd grin. Look at, death, the old fool,we would say. He has even forgotten to put his nose and eyes in this morning.




28.11.07 : BATH AND IRVING/GRIFFIN

In Jane Austen's Bath, so to speak, externally examining which is, on the whole, the more respectable form of examining. Thence to Lancaster. There are these bursts of peripatetic, hotel and railway, life that are like being gently prised out of the bed of reality. In an internet cafe playing a lot of South African music which is, as ever, full of lilt and pep.

I haven't metnioned the Oxford Union fracas with Irving and Griffin, two loathsome individuals whom I would go a long way not to share a room with. In principle I am wary of the No Platform platform and would prefer to consider that the very thought of inviting them should not have popped into the organisers' tousled Oxford heads. The organisers wanted publicity and they got it. I would not want to live with that publicity though: the man who invited Irving and Griffin in for a chat would not - should not - be welcome at public events elsewhere.

Ah but that is a pipe dream, of course. Social ostracism is not always an attractive alternative to the punch in the mouth or sheer physical obstruction (- Shall we ignore that nasty Mr Hitler? - OK, let's not invite him to tea...)

On the other hand actions have consequences and the Oxford scum who invited Irving and Griffen should be held responsible in whatever way seems appropriate to whomever. They knew what they were doing.




26.11.07 : DONNA E MOBILE

At least here she is:



Passed along to me down Facebook channels.




26.11.07 : INTERIM

Cold night. Uncertainties about C's parents so everything seems interim. I tried to write yesterday evening, got so far then stopped. Woke very early - about 3.30 am - and read. Two books on the go about which I might write here if there is in time. One of them is Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?, the 1968 book on which Blade Runner was based. I am not an SF fan so this is a change for me. About half way through.

At least one book arrives per day, some of it poetry. I now have Julian Stannard's new book and David Morphet's too, not to mention the review books, of which I finished Paul Durcan for The Irish Times.

Travels ahead and several readings.

A rather dry entry this, but time and conditions...





24.11.07 : THEY GET DIVORCED

Always fascinating to observe the English at moments of embarrassment. There have been one or two firing squad incidents and burnings since the footballing apocalypse but not quite the great conflagration in the public square.What we have had instead are all the fine features of an acrimonious divorce. I listen in. THis is how it goes:

I never should have married you, you bastard. Why didn't I listen to my deepest instincts? You have been a loser from day one. I sacrificed my life for you, my best years gone, now here I am a laughing stock. Not one day of happiness! Incompetent fool! Liar! Clown! I shall take you for every penny you've got. You understand? Every penny! etc etc.

The fact they have been married for a very few years, that everyone's best years are always either ahead of them or in the past but never in the present, that only a few weeks ago they were celebrating a number of fairly heady victories together, and that even in the last tragic crisis, the accused had staged a remarkable recovery that, had he not been knocked out by a late sneaky punch, they might have been celebrating still, has all gone down the tube.

And then the divorcing party makes the final and most damning accusation. You tried to be popular with me! You listened to everything I said! That is the worst thing I could say about you or anyone! No character! Now go!




23.11.07 : TERMINAL COURTYARD

Phone call this morning to say ambulance sighted outside C's parents' house, that on investigation C's mother has had a fall and broken bones, at first it seems her wrist, but possibly her hip too, and she is 87 and how would she be looking after her 100 year old husband who is in fine fettle but for a wheelchair and the 57 varieties of pills he has to take so that his heart doesn't leap from his mouth or his gut drop out at the other end? C dashes straight down. I go by train an hour later, keeping in touch.

I was telling my very nice Italian translator (how very nice to have a very nice Italian translator) that I have it all worked out where and how I am going to die. I tell him about the courtyard at 10, Magyar utca in Budapest in the street where the more acceptable nineteenth century bordellos used to operate; I tell him about the courtyard's perfect proportions, its 19th century Venetian arches, the buckled glass in its windows; about the pigeons that flap and lilt about that small humane space as might thoughts about the head of an intelligent well-disposed, scholar with a glass or two of wine in him; about the wooden cobbles that sound soft under one's feet; about the discoloured stucco and stone with its remnant graffiti; about the convenience of the courtyard having two exits so you don't feel cornered when the razzia arrives; about the growly sound of the main road on one side and the fainter noise of the little street on the other side, both complemented by the palest of grey-white noises of those who live and work in the building; about the added convenience and pleasure of leaving through one of the arched gateways, the one on the quiet side, and finding oneself almost opposite the Karoly gardens where children play in the shadow of the Karolyi palace that is now the Petofi Literature Museum, and about the delightful three or four or five storey tenements that surround the square that contains the garden, about which housemaids used to stroll with their soldier lovers while listening to a band play in the gardens.

And while - given the condition that I am actually there to die and not go back out into the street that was once full of bordellos, maids, soldiers and the terrifying militia of history - I am not in a position to see all that, I am nevertheless in the position to think about this, as about a first and primal reality, one dark with history but as humane as civic gardens and bands and wooden cobbles...and, to tell you the truth, I don't say all this, though I think it and feel it. I think of dying as OK, I really do, but then of course thinking it is not the same as doing it, as I was saying this morning to our elderly neighbour before setting off.

But these are floating thoughts, and here are houses and hospitals and wheelchairs and the whole grisly business of urine and veins and pains. So let's leave things here for tonight, a night, by the way, of a full moon. I never sleep well on nights of the full moon. It's my Transylvanian heritage. But that's another life entirely.




22.11.07 : A LAUNCH

Some interesting correspondence on war crimes and international law that I am still digesting. In the meantime a couple of hours of teaching at the art college, home to read more external examining stuff, then out to the launch of Joanna Guthrie's book, Billack's Bones where I read for ten minutes (two poems from The Burning of the Books sequence based on Canetti, and the series of short poems about William Diaper, the minor 18th century poet) then Joanna reads and receives flowers. The place is full and some of my ex-students are there from the art school, the darlings. It is also the launch of Rialto 63.

Joanna is very good, the poems crunch and swoon, on the edge of melancholy but very sharp. My link to her above has a good poem on it. Then we stand around with drinks and chat. I seem to know almost everyone here. That is what comes of living and working in a place for fifteen years.

*

And Colonel MacLaren has been taken out on the parade ground and officially shot. His body has not yet been set on fire. There is a general sense of realism about. The appetite for burning bodies is a little low. Meanwhile rain, rain in dribbles and spittoons and miniature buckets.

I'll try to be more serious tomorrow, after I have met GN, Italian poet and scholar at Cambridge who wants to translate me into Italian. There are a few of my poems in Italian, but not a book. It would be rather lovely should that happen. I am grossly flattered in any case.




21.11.07 : FROM 2007 TO 1956

I sat down to watch the England-Croatia match. I am not endowed with special prophetic powers and have no particular trust in my instincts, knowing them to have been right and wrong in roughly equal proportion, but there was a certain feeling about this and it was not good. So it proved. It was a poor display with the occasional ten minutes of brightness, but the two early goals against England demoralised the team and even once the scores drew level it felt precarious.

Interesting to follow the mood of the commentary. A bright beginning, then the two goals. We are rubbish, say the commentators, everyone is playing abysmally. Then we equalise. Suddenly it's a wonderful match. Then Croatia score and it turns out we were rubbish all along.

So there will be execrations and executions. Half the first team - much the better half- was missing: Rooney, Owen, Terry, Ferdinand, Ashley Cole, Owen Hargreaves and what is more the goalkeeper was tender and nervous. But that is not something we care to note. What we want is blood and fire. The public burnings.

The mob want this and the press want it. Especially the press. Fury is energy, and energy is cathartic. It is also dramatic and sells papers. I don't want it. I never do, nor ever will. I think it demeans us. But it will happen anyway.

*

After it's over BBC4 have an hour programme about Hungary (essentially just Budapest) in 1956. Friends and acquaintances are there: GG and MS, those who were in their twenties at the time. Budapest looks ravishing of course, it always does. The programme is not an enquiry of any sort, It is satisfied with blunt statements, old footage and old faces, eloquent, elegiac, celebrated, gone. The commentary offers no proposition, argues nothing. I am moved by it and faintly repelled at the same time. Repelled by the way it subtly swoons over itself. Nobility comes easy to it.

There was one revealing moment when the oldest eyewitness and participant was explaining how Molotov cocktails worked. You threw one, a fire started. The tank crew have to come up. Then they catch fire. The soldier caught fire, he said. The soldier leapt out, he said, and then came the guns firing. He picked up an imaginary machine gun and, suddenly full of furious energy, went rat-a-tat-tat, not once, not twice but three times, spraying the blind room with memory. It was as if there could never be enough of that moment.

It strikes some that way. But there was film of the open boxes stuffed full of paper money donated to the families of the dead, untouched vast honesty boxes, and there was the sad delirious happiness of having defeated the occupying, overwhelming Soviet army.

Human beings are extraordinary, delicately poised between worlds. One foot is in the land where the gun goes rat-a-tat, the other foot is in the place where people dole out money and live for whole days in a kind of generous heady blessedness.

Meanwhile back in the UK: rat-a-tat-tat Colonel MacLaren, young Private Carson, Lance-corporal Bridge, old staff-sergeant Campbell. The bodies to be burned, beaten and hanged from lamp-posts.




20.11.07 : A POEM BY MICHAEL BLUMENTHAL

Back late last night from London of course and up early to get a lift to university, thence go-go-go all day so rather sleepy now. My lift back is from good friend and neighbour MB who teaches Politics and History with American-Russian relations as his special field. Every Tuesday morning he gives a lecture, this week on 9/11, up to and including the invasion of Afghanistan, and it is all too interesting for me not to ask how it went and what the students say.

One or two conspiracy theorists, says MB, but most agreed with the Afghanistan action. One Muslim in the group and one Russian, the Russian being the biggest conspiracy theorist. But then, says MB, Russians tend to be.

And so our conversation as we drive home is about International Law and war crime. MB's position is that both are very murky affairs, lacking clear definition and impartiality, but that, nevertheless, we are better off with International Law than without. And I don't suppose any different though I am more sceptical than he is. And that includes about war crime too. This is not exactly wholesale scepticism but a feeling that realpolitik generally trumps everything else and that therefore emotionally charged declarations aboutInternational Law and war crimes are best treated as approximations to bluster. My instinct is not to appeal to high politics or realpolitik, but to a more local and locatable and therefore definable legal structure, the more precise , the more laced with precedent the better.

I know this is not practical but then neither is International Law. It is an instinct. Distrust the rhetoric of morality when it appeals to laws so clearly associated with interest. After that go your way, because, after all, there is no immediate alternative. "The more precise, the more laced with precedent the better"? That's the poet talking. With the odd revolution thrown in for good measure, I should add.

This is a poet talking too, Michael Blumenthal. I received his poem by email today. I think it is a beautiful poem and I have his permission to reproduce it here, so am delighted to do so. It's for Thanksgiving Day.


For Grief Will Ultimately Have Its Way


is not what I’d like to say to four-year-old
Aaron J. Fisher and his proud young father, here
in the Norfolk YMCA men’s locker room, grief

will have its way in love and in the body, grief
will have its way, as will disappointment, much
as we’d prefer it to be otherwise. Still, the

pileated woodpecker breeds in the woodlands,
the screech owl prepares to strike from its branches
at dusk, the clacking storks return each summer

to chimneys in Hungarian villages, and wherever
two fleshes meet, there's always the possibility that
spirit will follow. Soon, we shall sit at our tables and

feast—vegetarians, carnivores, omnivores of every
lust and persuasion, as fickle November looks down
on us, brilliant or inclement as it needs to be, and is.

Who knows where our lust for meaning will take us
eventually? Who knows if our volatile essence can
go on, grasping both ends of the rope at once, seeking

justice and the world? Brief links in the eternal pity,
a writer once said of us, brief links in the journey
that begins at the table, and ends in the stars. So

bow to the plundered grace of the defeated fowl
that lies before you, bow to the beneficence of fork
and knife. Smile on, young Aaron, smile for everything

that life can bring you.
Grief will ultimately have its
way, that's for certain. Let joy have its way now.


Norfolk,Virginia
Thanksgiving, 2007






18.11.07 : SUNDAY TO MONDAY

Tomorrow night I am reading at the launch of Magma 39 at 8pm in The Troubadour along with considerable numbers of glitterati. My piece will chiefly be about the poem, 'Airs for William Diaper' that I wrote for Magma's 'Presiding Spirits'. Sharing the lion's share with me will be Anna Woodford, to whom I acted as mentor on the Jerwood-Arvon scheme a couple of years back.

It's going to be a long day, as was today. We returned from London about forty minutes ago from visiting my father and step-mother, the drive hazed with intermittent blizzards that look like an early computer game with you as the pilot sending your rocket through a meteor shower.

Tomorrow, early in to university, two classes, tutorials in between, dash down the station, returning home about 2am, out again early the next morning, with meetings and teaching till 6pm. I also have external examining reading for Bath, review books for The Irish Times and Poetry London, and a PhD to read. Beyond all that I shall be 59 the week after next, at which point I will have travelled first to Glamorgan, then to Lancaster and flown back from Manchester just in time for candles and cake. What a little jet setter I am. Isn't that the cat's whiskers and the pig's bladder? My carbon footprint grows to the size of the distance between Manchester and Norwich, but I can't get back in time otherwise.

Norm's answer to my query on war crimes has driven hundreds of readers my way via Andrew Sullivan. The trouble is Norm answers as I thought he would but there's a bit of me still niggling at the practical application of the principle. A war crime has the air of an enormity. Damn it, I expect it to be an enormity. I remember a German female member of the armed IRA saying to me in Dublin - we had been hopefully introduced in the hope peace might break out in complicated ways - that the British invented concentration camps (in South Africa) and were worse than the Germans. But then she was German and very much wanted to blow up as many English as possible. It was not possible to argue with her that the Boer camps were not extermination camps. A war crime was a war crime to her. Tit for tat. Was Churchill a war criminal? Does that make him the same as Adolf? Hoary old questions I know, but I can't resist. Just asking.

Maybe more thoughts on this later.




17.11.07 : PING PONG

From poo to pingpong in one easy step. Yesterday, for the first time in a few years I played a match of pingpong with N, and to my considerable surprise squeezed a win at the cost of severe loss of breath at various points. I am not Howard Jacobson in this respect but I am not altogether hopeless. Desks, however, do not keep you fit. What I really want is to get from this:



to this:



Or indeed this. Why, I was once Tri-State champion of the Lesser Antilles!



I'll give it a couple of weeks.





16.11.07 : THE GUARDIAN'S MINUTE-BY-MINUTE POO

Day's work, then daughter H and partner R arrive. We get a nice Thai take-away. In the meantime England are playing Austria. Not a great game apparently, but then why would it be? It's practice for Croatia. So I look at the BBC report that shows England have won 1-0. Poor first half, improving in second, play orchestrated by Beckham.

Dare I look at The Guardian's minute-by-minute report? It's generally a bit like having one's throat cut slowly by a fifteen year old who cannot even handle a knife. This time it's worse. It is by a twelve year old called Scott Murray. Why do I bother with the idiotic, slap-head Guardian sports pages? Since when have I wanted to be informed and entertained by twelve year olds with a mental age of nine? Less than nine. This one is an infant carefully examining and approving of its own poo. Look, look, look at my poo! he giggles. It's just poo, I tell him. Everyone does poo. Oh but he is so inordinately proud of his glorious poo. He holds it up on his finger. Poo! Poo! he cries delightedly.

Please don't encourage him.

Never. Never again. God help us. Mayday!




16.11.07 : POETRY READINGS - AN INTIMIST VIEW

There are three elements that feed into the idea of the poetry reading.

There is the history of reading aloud as entertainment for a small circle, an act of intimacy, as it might be to children or to a lover or as a couple reading passages to each other in bed or over the table, or maybe a small group of friends. I hesitate to call this entertainment simply because entertainment suggests amusements and distractions and this is the opposite. It involves trust and close attention, because the material read might be of the sort that starts thoughts, memories, feelings and ideas, and the level of communication is such that one might say to the other: Wait a minute! Read that bit again! The noise is quiet and low, capable of being broken, the whole moving like a fugue in chamber music, returning, reiterating, nothing detachable.

There is the tradition of oral literature as a communal act, in which the audience is part of a field, in which the exception stands out. Everyone is laughing so you begin to laugh ("So why aren't you laughing, misery-guts?") Or everyone is rapt ("How can you not be moved by the words of the preacher? Are you unfeeling?"). These acts unite communities about a single focus. It is a good feeling to be part of a community, especially one well-disposed. You get it at sporting events and certain concerts. There is an exhilarating transfer of energy between speaker and audience. The mass is confident, sharing a kind of distilled intimacy. There are people dancing in the fountain. People hug you in the street. (Alternatively, they hang you from the nearest lamp-post.)

The third element is the notion of the authentic. You go to hear the author because he or she is The Author/Performer. Author's poem strikes you differently because Author is actually there. Author is his/her own relic, his/her bones glow. It seems important that Author be present because the expectation of seeing Author is an important part of the experience of being there. Author - if only for the time he/she (damn English pronouns!) is on stage - is transformed, elevated, a religious icon with the miraculous power of transforming words that if read by someone else would seem less electric. Author wears Walter Benjamin's aura and can't get rid of it on stage, not for a minute. Of course if Author were not Author but Singer / Actor / Saint/ Celebration / this holy relic business would be far more likely ("I got a bit of his liver!" someone says in a Sixties poem apropos fandom).

For me personally the first is easily the most important. I did not begin to write because I wanted to be popular but because I loathed and distrusted the whole notion of popularity and all it tended to imply, particularly in impressionable youth. It implied indifference to truth, whatever truth was (and truth could include the imagination.) I began to think of myself as cautiously, even tremulously unimpressionable youth. I also distrusted the personality cult, the let-me-touch-the-hem-of-his-robe mentality.

Didn't I want to be loved and adored, poor diddums? Of course I did, but not under mass circumstances. And I would have called it respect not adulation. Respect comes through intimacy: adulation is always on the edge of being a scam. I was young and tremulous and tough.

Poetry readings are strange occasions as they comprise all three elements and people, being human, come for all three reasons, the reasons not necessarily compartmentalised like that. Poetry audiences are heroic in that they are aware that work and concentration are involved in listening. They could be comfortable at home and read the poems, if they are available for reading, at their own pace, but here, they are, they have put on their coats (if old, their cardigans, if young their black, or whatever is cool, outfits) and traipsed to hear the stuff that may or may not rise off the page.

I don't much like crowds, even happy ones. I like to think of a crowd as a group of ones and of myself as addressing each one as a one. I am aware that there is a certain courtesy due to that one. I am grateful he or she has come. I am aware of my own powers of concentration and try to be aware of his or hers. I have a certain obligation to entertain as well as speak complex truths, or what seem to me to be complex truths in the crucible of language, because complexity is hard and that precisely is what makes it so valuable. That is its truth quotient and truth is much rarer than anyone thinks. And I cannot help but be aware that I too am a person, albeit a person in some kind of spotlight, that is to say in the position of a magical object. I am obliged to do what Larkin said he would prefer not to do, that is to pretend to be himself; because language has a public face and that face has somehow to be presented, whether washed and shaved or duly grizzled and magnetically decayed. That's the spotlight face. If you don't want to wear it, don't stand in the spotlight.

But I start as one-to-one. It seems to me the only tolerable way. And I am reading, not performing a cabaret act. I did not set out to be a cabaret act. I like cabaret up to a point, but this is not a cabaret: it is me (or you) in the silence of the very big night taking in words as we do the cold starless air. Thank you for coming out with me, I say. I hope it has been a good evening for air and words, although it is cold and there are no stars.




15.11.07 : NORM ON WAR CRIME

I know this is not my field but... Well, I am a human being and I think a bit so I occasionally open my mouth in the presence of the wise.

Norm’s position in this piece, as I understand it, is that the deliberate killing of non-combatants is a war crime. In principle this must be so but in practice, I rather suspect that most wars, by this definition, will have involved a considerable number of war crimes.

I wonder how useful it is to have the category crime coupled with the category war especially since the sanctions against war crimes are unlikely in many cases to have much effect, the winning side in wars having the power to determine the status of the acts they have undertaken in order to win that war. The point in civil criminal law is that there is assumed to be an independent judiciary with adequate powers to apply laws. There we may have various degrees of homicide including various classes of manslaughter, along with a long list of mitigating factors. In other words there is a complex procedure applied to complex acts.

If such complexity were applied to war crimes then the concept of a deliberate act of murder would become very difficult, especially in the case of bombing. An act of bombing in which there are non-combatant casualties might be – and of course has been – argued to be justified on grounds of it having been the lesser of two evils, where continuation of the conflict would lead to many more deaths. This would be a difficult argument in a civil case and is much criticised when it actually happens as in, say, Beslan. A calculation has been made and a risk taken. The risk has failed. Was it incompetence in terms of some detail of the calculation? Is that a crime? Was it the bungled putting into effect of the calculation? Is that a crime? Or is it the undertaking of such a calculation in the first place that is the crime? The fact remains, of course, that people are dead and might not have been and that is horrific enough for societies to seek culprits.

Norm is talking about Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but he could also be talking about Dresden and Berlin or London and Coventry, or if there are differences between the former two and the latter two how are those differences defined? There is presumed to be a difference between the politically expedient mass murder of specific people – the Polish officers at Katyn Forest, for example, and the genocide of an entire race for meta-political reasons (though politics, at some remove, would be part of the reason for the Holocaust). What of politically motivated assassinations? What of potentially justified assassinations? Who does the justifying and on what grounds? To whom do we attempt to justify? That, I suppose, would have been Milosevic’s argument at The Hague.

I know Norm will, rightly, send me back to Michael Walzer. I raise these questions here since this is a blog with blog-space and the term war crime seems to me in danger of being not so much a charge under law as a few indiscriminate tons of moral outrage dropped on the field of death, the effect of which outrage being very like that of a bomb in that it flattens everything in sight.

Yes, Nuremberg, of course, but...




14.11.07 : A FEW MORE CLERIHEWS

For lack of time - guest and dinner and talk. So:

Marie Curie
worked in solitary fury
but once she’d discovered radium
she could fill a stadium.

*

Eugene Onegin
just failed to meet Ronald Reagan
(known as the Great Communicator.)
His train came in later.

*

Gordon Brown
was a Proper Noun.
Balls and the Millibands
merely ampersands.

*

Katie Price
is not to be confused with Posh Spice.
Despite what many claim
they are not the same.

*

Meryl Streep
was always reckoned deep,
while Angelina Jolie
was practically holy.


OK now, go to bed. Ain't you got no homes to go to?




13.11.07 : OFFENCE

We were talking today about whether it was possible for a piece of art to be perceived as ideologically or temperamentally suspect while at the same time retaining its integrity as a work. The occasion was a poem about the famous Sheela na Gig at Kilpeck Church. For the Wikipedia entry see here.

What is a Sheela na Gig? This Kilpeck version is a 12th century carving that shows a female grotesque grinning and opening her sex with both hands to the viewer. It may or may not represent an ancient fertility goddess but the original purpose or nature of the carving is not entirely to the point.

The point was whether a contemporary poem in which she was addressed first in various playful literary terms, such as Mistress Piss Pot, and then more directly in terms that recalled prostitution, was likely to be misogynistic. There are three questions here.

The first question is whether any poem about the figure is bound to be misogynistic, or rather, whether the figure invites misogyny.

The second is whether the association of the Sheela na Gig with prostitution, however playfully proposed, is likely to be so.

The third question - my question - is, 'so what?' Or rather whether 'so what?' is a permissible question at all.

I rather hope the question is permissible, if only because the notion of offence as either crime or taboo, seems to me a form of censorship, a kind of "thou shalt not say, thou shalt not even think". It is privileging politics over art where art is not the decorative but the forming of language about what is perceived to be the genuine state of things, whether that state is or is not as it is perceived. We can never know in art whether what we perceive is the genuine state of things, we can only know that we genuinely apprehend something to be the case and then trust to the forms of making to redress whatever may be gross in our apprehension.

You are wrong and offensive to think this way is a statement of power. I suspect the genuine is subject to higher tests than those of offence. In the last analysis it is form that convinces. It's what Pound said: Technique is the test of sincerity.

And yes, yes, yes to that. But then there is the case of Pound himself. There are no given certainties in art. Except this one.

This sonnet is one from a sequence called 'Romantic Love' in Reel.

The man who had raped the girl at the pool recalled
his wife, how he’d bring her her morning tea
then feel her tits, and they’d fall to it enthusiastically.
That at least was his story. His listeners were apalled.
He clearly missed her although he was a brute
who had probably forced her to have sex
on his own terms. By now she was his ex-
and he’d been alone for years. That was the root
of the problem, an educated man remarked.
He talked of fucking. She referred to it
in other terms. It was her breast and not her tit
he held. Such a man should not have embarked
on a mature relationship. These sorry pricks,
he ventured, are soon hoist by their semantics.

The poem is about fancying, falling in love and romance generally.




12.11.07 : LONG DAY SHORTS

A very long day indeed with two hours sleep, early to university, home, then out again to a reading, so the problems of the world can hang themselves for tonight. A few haiku and clerihew to fill the yawning gap:

Butcher*

The butcher’s true love
is ping-pong: top-spin, back-slice,
and that demon chop.

*This is true. It is our local butcher Peter Parkes who has a demon serve too.


Working Table

The bureaucrat at
his morning table. Papers,
shrouds, endless white sky.


Cricket

Summer’s icumen.
The empire of lost causes
loses a wicket.


and two Clerihews for Wystan Hugh Auden

W H Auden
Hasn’t got round to writing an ode on
A cigarette.
Not yet.

*

Wystan
adored Tristan
but was not sold
on Isolde.


After this it gets complicated.




11.11.07 : SUNDAY AND THE SEA

With friends E and V who were staying with us we drove out to Cromer to watch the sea. The wind was high, the waves raging, the pier closed for repairs. The sun ran in and out of clouds, dropping the foot of a rainbow in the sea far far off. The Hotel de Paris - closed for weekends, accepting only coach parties, and discouraging anyone who simply wanted to call in to use the toilets, rose gaunt, splendid and spooky against brooding grey.





Imagine the Hotel de Paris with a thunderous dark grey cloud behind it, with a touch of The Shining.

We stopped in the pub for a coffee and a drink and walked a little way along the beach the wind singing and bellowing about us. Then we drove to Overstrand to that large Edwardian piece of mock-Tudor, The Sea Marge




with its enormous minstrel-galleried, open fireplace bar and sat as the rain came and went. It's rather good for the wind to be blowing right through your skin for a while. It's a kind of spring clean.

Then home. Work to do. But before I get down to it a link to an interview with a woman called Gina Khan by Ophelia Benson over at Butterflies and Wheels. Go see.




10.11.07 : A STATEMENT FROM THE MINISTRY OF TRUTH: EDUCATION (SCHOOLS) DEPARTMENT

We are living in glorious times. Our children are ever better qualified, their future – and ours – ever brighter. 99% of all school leavers have four A levels or more. The numbers of those claiming benefit after leaving school have gone down and down. We confidently look forward to a time when everyone goes to university and no one is claiming benefits. The super-heads we have appointed to rescue the very few schools that were failing have utterly transformed those institutions. Their students come to school enthusiastic and leave enthusiastic. Our policies have empowered such wonderful dedicated heads and their extraordinarily talented and hard working staff, who have received the best training, training of hitherto only dreamt of standard, to maximise their potential, to turn chaff into wheat, to feed the hungry, to top league tables and to put this country at the cutting edge of academic achievement.

There remains, however, an almost insignificant minority of failures: schools where the heads are weak, where they fail to sack their incompetent teachers, and, as we know, there are few people more incompetent than incompetent teachers, teachers under whom little or nothing of value gets done. Indeed it is worse than that. This tiny minority is a drain on our resources: they damage your children, they ruin our figures. We have to extirpate these parasites, weed them out, drag them kicking and screaming from the soil they are bent on holding on to and destroying. If we do not act now this country will go to the dogs. They, and they alone, are responsible for the upbringing of our extraordinarily talented and hard working young people, and we must make an example of them. As the first step in this process one in every five teachers in all schools will be taken out and shot. Once this is done the country can go forward and enjoy the fruits of our brave and radical policies, including, I am delighted to announce, the new school-leaving age of twenty-five.




09.11.07 : THE THREAT IS NOT A THREAT, ALTERNATIVELY...

I am regularly sent a particular analysis of current Hungarian and European politics. I understand that its perspective is that of Fidesz, the party generally positioning itself on the centre right, though personally I am never quite sure where they imagine centre to be. I have written about the dificulties of the left (in so far as there is a left) in Hungary before, as well as about the low standing of the governing MSZP (the Hungarian Socialist Party) following the scandal of the "We lied morning, noon and night" speech by the Prime Minister last year.

Why am I uncertain of Fidesz's notion of the centre? It is because of material like this:

In reaction to the prevailing situation, several communicational offensives have been launched. [By the MSzP - GS] One of these focussed on the resurrection of the “extreme rightwing threat”. The scheme is familiar: the MSZP magnifies existing, but marginal extremist manifestations and - by invoking the “Fascist danger” - attempts to revitalise its electoral camp. The example of the case of the “Hungarian Guard” is emblematic…

OK, so far the standard rubbishing of warnings about right-wing extremism, (like the Magyar Gárda being armed and declaredly fascist) but then, a little later on this follows:

Finally, an interesting new information, which has bypassed the attention of many is worth mentioning: currently, the negative assessment of the MSZP surpasses that of the traditionally least popular extra-parliamentary extreme rightwing parties. [my italics]

So the rumours about the revival of right wing extremism are false as shown by the fact that, er, the extreme right is less unpopular than the centre left.

An interesting detail in the general note of right-wing triumphalism.

Interesting also to see on YouTube that clips of the 1956 revolution are often accompanied by texts and voice-overs that claim 1956 as a revolution against left-tinged liberals and that the truly heroic effort now would be to rid the country of left-liberal scum.




08.11.07 : THE JOYS OF VERSE ADVERTISING

Like everyone else on earth I receive advertisements by email. Fortunately my computer knows a rat when it smells one but some get through. Those of a very delicate disposition should stop reading here, those over eighteen and of a strong constitution, go right on.

In my salad days when I was green as a valley and sang in my chains like the sea I dutifully committed to memory lines like:

You'll wonder where the yellow went
When you brush your teeth with Pepsodent!

And

You'll look a little lovelier each day
With fabulous pink Camay!

And, reader, I did look a little lovelier each day. Then.

Alas, the teeth are, I must confess, more Postwar Central European than Millennial American, in other words a touch (whisper it) yellow, and damn crooked, the bastards. And that is despite Pepsodent.

But now, as everyone will be aware, the accent is not so much on the tooth end of things but below the salt. Nevertheless, advertisements do not often come (if you will pardon the expression) in verse.

This one, however, caught my eye. Nervous dispositions look away now. This is your second and last warning.

That's great you've found a girl that's hot
You wanna hump her juicy t**t.
She's so attractive, she's so nice!
But would your penile size suffice?
Not sure she will wish for more?
You need a thing she would adore!
But how to grow it long and thick?
Your only hope is MegaDik!
You'll get so wanted super-size
And see great pleasure in her eyes!
Your rod will bang her p**n so deep,
Tonight you'll hardly fall asleep!

So try today this wonder-pi'll
And change your life at your own will!

Please note those delicate asterisks. I am a compassionate man. I am also versed in verse. The diction in line 4 draws my attention. "Would your penile size suffice" is, titter ye not, a bit of a mouthful. All those wide 'i's, and the break from general colloquiality. I am imagining addressing the hot female of line one with the question: "Does my penile size suffice?" I am imagining the answer.

Anxiety, male anxiety, you have much to answer for, including violation of a harmless tetrameter. I am tempted to continue the advertisement by other means but I shall desist.

Now go in peace.




07.11.07 : CARING ABOUT FICTIONAL CHARACTERS

There is a whole knot of interrelated posts here regarding why we should care about fictional characters. It begins with Ophelia Benson, passes to Norm, then to Mick Hartley.

The answer to this is bound to be long and tentative, but my guess is that the imagination does not distinguish carefully between the real and the imagined. Indeed, it has to imagine itself first, then, being sceptical of its own powers as well as of its possessor's powers of observation, shift the objective into its own subjective realm. Anyone who has ever heard someone telling an anecdote knows this to be true. The anecdote is an act of the imagination that demands that facts conform to the shapes of the imagination.

So we have few reliable data to the objective reality of others. We understand that others exist and that we live in a world where not to acknowledge their existence would quickly lead to ruin. We know that dogs have a far keener sense of smell, that birds of prey have sharper eyes. Consciousness tells us we are subjective beings, that the evidence of our senses is not enough. It is precisely because we have imaginations that we can cope with the world: we can construct the scenarios in which the world makes sense in the ways we are capable of apprehending sense.

This is not the postmodern fallacy that all is subjective'. The fact that we know we are shaping apprehensions of reality into sense means we are properly sceptical about our imagination too. And that is how literary, theatrical, cinematic, and other artistic conventions work. They frame the imagination, allowing it scope but limiting it. That is the vital function of art.

That is why, say, opera and theatre look and feel so wrong when filmed realistically, in real castles and real forests. The 'real' breaks our sense of convention. Instead of beautiful song we wonder why some idiot is bellowing into his beloved's ear: We must flee, we must flee!

This is the essential question behind the essay I wrote for the Eliot Prize and the one currently in Poetry. I do actually want to know the answers to such questions, not just for 'art's sake' but because they have great psychological and political implications.

A terrorist is someone who can't understand the true nature of theatre. He thinks life is theatre.

* And now I see Linda is treating of the subject too, probably before this post of mine and referring back to an earlier post of mine on Doris Lessing. Walls have ears and mirrors. It's not a bad conversation though.




07.11.07 : I DREAM ON WAKING OF SYRIA

I generally wake before the Today programme starts but this morning I woke a little later and these three consecutive items floated past me in a half sleep. I think I dreamt them.

Jeremy Bowen talks about Syria. What he says is that he has just been to a Syrian house to a party, dancing and all, women and men, to western music. He asks the people there whether they are Islamic fundamentalists, and they reply, Good gracious, of course not. He then asks them whether they are nice people. Of course, they reply. We are nice people. Prepared to be nice even to those impossible Americans? Yes, even to those horrible Americans. We are that nice. Could you be our friends? asks Jeremy. Yes, of course we could be your friends, if only it wasn't for those horrible Americans (not to mention Israelis, because we don't mention them.) We are, after all nice people. Jeremy Bowen concludes: Syrians are nice people. If only we could get that through the thick hateful heads of those who doubt that, we could all go for holidays in Syria and dance with nice people at nice parties. Because that, after all, is what Syria is. I have seen it with my own eyes. Nice.

This is followed by an interview with a Syrian spokesman, who confirms the fact that Syria is nice people, unlike some others we could mention. When he is asked about what it was that Israel bombed so mysteriously on 19 September, like, could it possibly have been a nuclear site, he replies, Of course it wasn't a nuclear site. It was vacant, utterly vacant, nothing there. That was just the Israelis being the usual bullies. Internal reasons. What would you expect? But in that case, the interviewer mildly presses, why not show us photographs of it, since all we have are satellite shots of a place that has been freshly and neatly covered up? Let's get back to basics, replies the spokesman. Fair enough, says the interviewer, sorry to have asked. Back to basics. So would you sit down at peace talks that involved you recognising Israel and its right to security? Wow, hang on there, spokesman replies. That's, like, so-o-o hypothetical. We don't do hypothetical. But you are for secure borders? asks the interviewer, in a general principle sort of way? Of course, purrs the spokesman. Secure borders. We are nice people after all and nice people need secure borders.

The item that follows this is Thought for The Day, and Martin Palmer's thought is that usury is bad. Usury (Usura, usura... as Ezra Pound that well known left-liberal poet wrote). Three great religions have been against usury, he says. They are Christianity, Taoism and Islam. No one missing there then. Sad to say, he adds, Christianity picked up this vice during the Reformation, until then it had been cleaner than clean and only truly horrible people charged interest. The fact that Christians barred those horrible people from other trades so that they could do their usury for them is a minor glitch in the story that should most certainly be overlooked. The Medici bankers were clean. Their money practically glowed with goodness. And look he says, repeating the names of the three religions, how successful the Islamic banks are, growing faster than anything in the galaxy, and they charge no interest.** They grow out of sheer goodness.It would be fair to call it holy wealth. Greed is bad. Islamic banking is the dog's bollocks. Look how fair Islamic societies are, how evenly the wealth is distributed. Nice people. Not like the you-know-who. Supported by you-know-who. You know it makes sense.

And then, somehow, I didn't wake up. Or I did. I can't remember now.

**I have now cross-posted this among the Drink Soaked, where Dirigible - in the comments section - gives a helpful link, Mr Hutton of all people, for which many thanks.




06.11.07 : IT IS ILLEGAL...

"... for a woman to be topless in Liverpool except as a clerk in a tropical fish store" (via the blessed Norm)

The BBC says so, so it must be true. But as with every law it is the exception that fascinates. As exceptions go this one seems a little mean. Were I proposing laws I would add the following exceptions:

.... except when dressed as a parrot;

.... except when dispensing soft drinks to men aged 75 or over;

... except when there is a changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace;

... except during natural disasters, such as floods and plagues;

.... except when dispensing soft drinks to men of 65 or over, providing the men can be proved to be of sound mind.

I would like to think there may be other exceptions in Liverpool. The rest of the country can go hang.




05.11.07 : DORIS LESSING'S THE FIFTH CHILD

First a big welcome to Linda Grant's blog. It is The Thoughtful Dresser (no jokes about thoughtful sideboards or thoughtful tallboys), which might succeed in making even me think more deeply about the subject of shoes and so forth. There are no depths without surfaces, says the masthead motto, and I cannot disagree. Most men, she laments, or guesses, have only three pairs of shoes. I have more than that but I do not dwell upon their condition. Go see what she has to say on that subject and on many others, including handbags.

*

Impatience with Geoffrey Hill is a sign of tiredness. His gruff, pinched, late lyricism, so ascetic after the baroque richnesses of, say, Tenebrae (that are not to be confused with he Tannochbrae of Dr Finlay's Casebook) are not calculated to please someone coming to him after racy Mr Croft's Pushkinics about the even racier Spanish Civil War and the grouches and ghosties that are its legacy, and the compulsive Ms Lessing of whom more now with a touch of Tenebrae at the end.

The Fifth Child is part gothic tale, part morality or fable. Patricia Highsmith wrote some excellent versions of the latter and The Fifth Child reminded me of them while being distinctly chillier.

The writing here is much superior to the writing in The Good Terrorist about which I wrote a few days ago. It is superior not by virtue of the texture (I doubt Lessing does texture) but by virtue of absence of texture, in that the texture is almost invisible. The book is all pace and inevitability. The touches that would count for texture in another book are here precise buttons and triggers. Reading it is like being harried along by a bird of prey with beak and claw and gimlet eye.

The story tells of a shy young middle-class couple who get together and are soon very happy. Not only are they happy they are grossly fortunate. They have rich and generous relations who provide for them and their ever growing family. She wants eight or ten children. He has to work his socks off to support them, but they are both determined to populate the world with happiness, for which read: fecundity. So from happiness to happiness, from fortune to fortune, from child to child. This is, you very quickly realise, the story of a particularly insulated form of hubris. Nemesis must follow.

And of course it does. The first four children are great and good, pure Sunday supplement, then comes the fifth. Think Demian, think Gremlins. The child is a throwback to some primitive age or, maybe, or so you begin to think,not a throwback at all but a vision of the future. The child is a judgment on happy self-satisfied smugness. Judgment follows. Judgment is the future.

The smugness is almost entirely the mother's by the end. The judgment weighs more on her than on the husband. He pays with exhaustion: she pays with nightmare. But the moral balance is very carefully adjusted. The monster-child finds company among vicious young gangs who take to him and even follow him.

The book first appeared in 1988. It is not difficult to see the story as the late-eighties' revenge on the easy sixties, the rape of Laura Ashley by other means. And it is interesting, n'est-ce pas, how both The Good Terrorist and The Fifth Child, in their entirely different ways, stick knives into the curious and rather unlikely twin goddesses of domesticity and utopianism.

Lessing by this time is clearly conservative rather than radical, conservative at least in that her virtues are stoicisim, self-sacrifice and the kind of sensibleness associated with almost Thatcherite values, meaning thrift, hard-work and a proper respect for well-gotten gains. Solid grocerly book-keeping. But the claws are sharp and black and the wings move fast. One false move and your head is off.

*

Here, to end with, is the gorgeous burnished Geoffrey Hill of Tenebrae.

Idylls of the King

The pigeon purrs in the wood, the wood has gone;
dark leaves that flick to silver in the gust,
and the marsh-orchids and the heron's nest,
goldgrimy shafts and pillars of the sun.

Weightless magnificence upholds the past.
Cement recesses smell of fur and bone
and berries wrinkle in the badger-run
and wiry heath-fern scatters its fresh rust.

'O clap your hands' so that the dove takes flight,
bursts through the leaves with an untidy sound,
plunges its wings into the green twilight

above this long-sought and forsaken ground,
the half-built ruins of the new estate,
warheads of mushrooms round the filter-pond.

Bit Yeats, bit Eliot, but wholly Hill.




04.11.07 : HILL AND CHUMBAWAMBA

Heavy day yesterday. Three hours of workshop, four hours of tutorials, and an hour and a half or so in the evening of reading and talking. An upright piano had been wheeled into the Green Room (our regular meeting place) and, one of the poets being a handy jazz standards pianist, he sat and played for another hour or so. In the meantime I had collected some poems for an ad hoc competition and took them away about 11.30 to read.

It is - or can become - a peculiar exercise talking about one's own art. Some poets have suggested that a working poet should keep away from such occupation - Auden was one who advised against it - and I imagine there may come a moment when I say, Enough, I have refined the few ideas I have as far as they can be refined, at least by me, and have expended as much passion, wit and earnestness as I could, now let me move into that tent in the desert and contemplate my poetic bones..

Poets in education, especially higher and postgraduate education, make an industry now. It is what we do to keep alive, and we had better be some good at it, or else it's torture for all parties. So far I have been buoyed and excited by the peculiar electric buzz of forming and exploring. All artists think about their practice and about the practice generally so when they are put in a position where they are paid to articulate what they think they should do so as clearly as they can. I hate the coy, the fake, the feeble, or sometimes aggresive and patronising piety of those who assume priestly garments and go about in the equivalent of purple gowns. We are human beings talking and singing to human beings: I am not interested in the rest of the apparatus.

In any case, woke at 4.30 and read, then did sudokus etcetera in a copy of The Independent I discovered in the bar. Three books with me: the Pushkinian sonnets of Andy Croft, the Lessing I have already mentioned, and the new Geoffrey Hill whose sparse grandiosities have begun to annoy me. And that bloody title, A Treatise of Civil Power, as to say, Me Milton. Grr.. there go my heart's abhorrence, water your damn flowerpots do... The lines are there in Robert Browning's, 'Soliloquy in a Spanish Cloister'. My eminent scholarly notes, set in 10 point Bodoni, letter spaced and leaded 3pt, will follow.

Hill is a marvellous poet at best but sometimes I want to play Chumbawamba to his portentousness.




03.11.07 : A FAR HOUSE

Not that far, in fact, just rural Leicestershire in deep mid-autumn with the low amber sun first thing in the morning, echoing the colour of the leaves.

I am teaching - if that is the right word, I am never sure - a group from various parts of the country. I photocopy like the devil before arriving, make up anthologies, themes, reference points, superfluities. The actual organisation of sessions I leave till late, with a couple of spare ideas to introduce should one of them not work.

But what to do? These are human beings, mostly my age or older, and these are words and forms and voices that have exercised some hold on me, or at least interested me, and I am happy to talk about them for hours, though I do not intend talking for hours.

It's an old house with a crisp institutional interior. Conference centres are mostly like this. Blunt, bland decor and furniture, the blow-me-up face of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century. Outside, the amber sun, the amber leaves just tipping into red and brown and black.

Have brought reading. Now on Doris Lessing's The Fifth Child, a very different experience from The Good Terrorist. Another voice entirely. Dark, firm, fast, ominous.




01.11.07 : DEMONS

A little something from the Telegraph about the rising fortunes of the far Right in Eastern Europe. Harry de Quetteville writes from Berlin:


What, then, would EU party planners make of a very different set of ceremonies put on these days across the region so recently clasped into the brotherhood of Europe? What would they say about the scene at Buda Castle, historic seat of the Hungarian royal family in Budapest, in which the extreme Right-wing Magyar Garda, or Hungarian Guard, swore in new members?

In the heart of one of "New Europe's" metropolitan gems, with their red-and-white striped flags- a take on the wartime Arrow Cross emblem, their black-and-white uniforms summoned up, unchallenged, the demons of 70 years ago.

Six hundred new members swore allegiance to the Garda last weekend, taking their oaths to restore Hungary's "physical, mental and spiritual self-defence" in front of a crowd of more than 1,000. The political party behind Magyar Garda, known as Jobbik, may seem unthreatening. It has no parliamentary representation.

But Hungary's main Right-of-centre party, Fidesz, fought elections in 2006 with Jobbik's support, whose dedication to preserve Hungarian culture and "defend the nation in extraordinary circumstances" has already frayed nerves among Jewish groups.


Dead right about fraying nerves. One of the best Hungarian novelists has upped and moved to Berlin and he isn't the only one.

It becomes clearer as time goes by that 1989 was not by any means a straight switch from, what we might agree for now to call, state socialism or at least Soviet hegemony to parliamentary democracy. The great cathartic bursting through the Berlin Wall was just that: catharsis, not ideology. It was a big bang, and meant the end of something without signalling the birth of a clear alternative.

All the old satellite states have lurched from passion to indifference and back, from left to right and back, from illusion to disillusion to illusion and back to disillusion; listing, if you like, with ever greater listlessness. Ships and states list: the passengers grow nervous.

You watch the far Right parades with the sub-Nazi uniforms and attempted swagger and you note the faces. It is not exactly the blunt features with their furious pouts and cold slaughterhouse eyes: they exist everywhere and always do, roaming the mean alleys of their limited imaginations. Their sullenness is childlike and not entirely beyond hope. They grow older. They have kids. If they don't beat them to a pulp, they learn a certain code of domestic tenderness. They learn to love a few things, or at least hate them less.

It is not they who cause the listing. It is those with a genuine history of pain and lies, those who can no longer tell the difference between pain and lies. And that hurts all the more. Given a decent run everything would settle down for a while, until life ran out and the new generations tried to work their way through the same history, starting elsewhere, a little further on. But for now it hurts and inflames. The demons gather in the blisters.

*

New poet with poems in the Notes section, Sudeep Sen, who is a very prominent Indian writer. Do have a look.




31.10.07 : BE VERY AFRAID

This being the day it is I have stolen this from Harry's Place. Property is theft. Ta, very much.



Now I am going out to listen to Blake Morrison at the UEA and to partake of a suitably horrific dinner.




31.10.07 : DORIS LESSING: THE GOOD TERRORIST (8) ENDS

The success of the book lies in spending so much time in the closeted company of the feeble, the crazy, the lost, the pompous, the strutting and the venal. It may be that too much time is spent with them at the beginning but sheer proximity is necessary to watch the bombs hatching. Out of this ridiculous mess, says Lessing, comes the egg of the bomb.

It is a microcosm, a sort of Ship of Fools, that is to say a representation of human folly that is not so much realism as fable. Not a case of this is what radicalism was like in the mid-eighties, but this is how cruelty can happen for what may seem good reasons to those committing acts of cruelty. The former is the occasion of the latter. It is its sub-group. It is better, argue the fabulists, to understand the pattern than to exhaust the occasion.

The novel's contract with reality is different from the poem's contract with reality, but reality itself - the out-thereness of it, the strange semi-documentary concreteness of it - is the same for both, exerting the same pressure. And this is true not just of novelists and poets but of humanity at large, or rather of that aspect of humanity that comprehends -however inarticulately - what the project of novels and poetry, indeed of all art is about, art being the place where experience, imagination and language flow into each other.

If there are shortcomings in The Good Terrorist it is in terms of language. Language is the contract and Lessing's contract here is not quite watertight. It is not a wholly binding contract. The language is a bit too busy and flat for it to be so. Nevetheless it is a contract, and the reality to which it would bind itself is not far off the mark. The vacuum in Alice is the one the novel cannot quite come to grips with. It is through language that it might have done so.




31.10.07 : DORIS LESSING: THE GOOD TERRORIST (7)

It is partly a generational fury but, as conversations between Alice's mother, Dorothy, and Dorothy's best friend show, the fury had already possessed the parental generation. Dorothy is from partly working class roots, looking to provide a better life for her children. Her fury is the original John Osborne, Arnold Wesker kind of fury about class injustice. Class is what was wrong with England. That is what then leads to injustices elsewhere. The English would be OK if it weren't for the toffs. All the other causes: CND, the colour bar, the tail end of empire are all aspects of this.

Alice herself is cross-generational. She has the maternal self-sacrificing instincts of the previous generation but they are applied elsewhere. The whole notion of aspirationalism is anathema to her. Most strikingly, she is proudly English. She is not an internationalist but, while not exactly a sentimental nationalist, she is someone to whom the words of Blake's 'Jerusalem' would make perfect sense. She rejects Russian and Irish forms of revolution. What she wants is a decent home.

The decent home is her balloon. That is where her fury is stored. To establish that she would happily destroy everyone else's. As Donoghue says, she is not blessed with imagination. What she wants is to be 'good' and to make the gestures of goodness. Her love for and dependence on a psychotic wastrel who is sexually indifferent to her and who, she thinks, is as dependent on her as she is on him, is an important image of goodness, fineness etc for her.

It is the psychotics she wants to comprehend and protect. That is an aspect of her 'goodness'.




31.10.07 : DORIS LESSING: THE GOOD TERRORIST (6)

As vision then, it is a vision of ideas as embodied in people. Lessing herself was married to a doctrinaire communist and moved in radical circle so she had a fair idea how such group dynamics functioned. She would have understood the importance of the 'leader' figure, the emphasis on 'correct' interpretation of key - almost holy - texts, the concomitant obsession with procedure and the notion of 'the enemy'.

Alice's group, and Alice herself, throw around the words 'fascist', and 'imperialist' with such frequency they come to mean anyone they don't like or who diverges from the approved interpretation of the key texts. The words are balloons filled with the hot air of fury. This is a balloon that keeps going up if only because hot air rises. And it hardly matters whose hot breath goes into the balloon s long as the balloons keep rising.

Fury, the book assumes, results in cruelty that does not perceive itself as cruelty because the fury is self-serving. The fury is contained in the balloon. The cruelty is not. Alice's cruelty to her parents leads us to the only heroic figure in the book, Alice's mother, who ends up in much reduced circumstances all because of her kindness to Alice.

The fury is contained in the balloon and the most frightening characters are those whose entire existence is in the balloon. So it is with the bomb-making Joceline. The balloon offers discipline and discipline of some sort is what the fury craves. It's the army by other means. People want to do what armies do.




31.10.07 : DORIS LESSING: THE GOOD TERRORIST (5)

Characters in novels hold you while they are acting, and these characters are constantly in action. The reality of a character such as, say, Philip, the doomed and fragile painter-decorator-builder, holds the attention because his sequiturs are all too painful. And so with many of the others who slip in and out of the book, much like squatters themselves.

One last word to Denis Donoghue then he can put his cloak away:

Mrs. Lessing is not a stylist. Perhaps because she hasn't decided whether words can be trusted or not, she is sullen in their company. In ''The Golden Notebook'' Anna refers to ''the thinning of language against the density of our experience,'' a predicament equally bewildering to her creator. Sometimes Mrs. Lessing treats words as servants, and finds that servants so treated respond with ill will. Sometimes she writes as if to imply that reality best inscribes itself by remaining indifferent to the blandishments of eloquence. Mostly, her style is a prose without qualities, as if it refused to consort with the corrupt glory of Shakespeare's tongue. The words on the page are there to be seen through, not regarded…


And there is a point. The Good Terrorist is a robust novel with no particular power of language. That, one could argue (and structuralists might argue) is an essential feature of the novel with its emphasis on syntax and action. It is not rewarding in "What writing!" kinds of terms. But it is a humane work, and in many ways a believable work. The natural comparison would be with Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent




31.10.07 : DORIS LESSING: THE GOOD TERRORIST (4)

And there's the nub. In so-called realist novels we expect to find a reality we recognise as a form of documentary truth. But, I suspect, we are wrong. It is not documentary reality we are offered. I don't have to believe in the feasibility and faithfulness of all the details of a work such as The Good Terrorist. It is not documentary but vision. I would not criticise the book at any point for its external probablity, thinking squats did not function like that, people didn't behave like that, that radicals were not quite so stupid or so hypocritical. Here they are as they are. If I wanted a critique of late 80s radicalism, I would not go to a novel first. As Denis Donoghue says with another fine flourish:

''The Good Terrorist'' is bound to give comfort to the middle classes, if only because their enemies, Alice and her friends, are so ludicrously inept. Bourgeois liberalism is safe if these are the only opponents it has to face. I don't know why Mrs. Lessing has committed such a libel upon hippies. She has sent them back into the world with nothing in the way of imagination to keep them going or enhance their drift, and she has withheld from them the only imagination in their vicinity - her own….

I would go to the novel - and this is a very well paced and, eventually, compulsive read, because, after all there is a bomb ticking, there are guns waiting to be fired, there is a race against time, there are deaths and suspensions - to the novel, as I was saying, to understand what the apprehension of a certain state of mind amounted to. I would do so to try to understand how the mind can detach actions from consequences and survive among non-sequiturs of both comic and tragic dimensions.




31.10.07 : DORIS LESSING: THE GOOD TERRORIST (3)

At this point it is pleasant to engage with the critic Denis Donoghue who reviewed the book in The New York Times and who can certainly turn a phrase. He finds Alice a little self-satisfied, saying:

… Alice exercises such a preference in favor of herself and her friends that any further tenderness on my part would be redundant…

It is a nice phrase produced with an eloquent swish of the cloak, rather like matador with an imaginary bull, the whole act itself involving a satisfying sense of self-satisfaction. It's the eloquent Irish in the man, but he is not far wrong. The point however is that Doris Lessing knew that before he did and she should get some credit for that.




31.10.07 : DORIS LESSING: THE GOOD TERRORIST (2)

Too late for spoilers now, I can reveal that the story involves a group of miscellaneous self-styled revolutionaries in a London squat, chief among them the central character, Alice Mellings who, at close to forty, is getting a little old for this sort of thing but whose busy practical / maternal instinct will keep the radicals well supplied not only with food, but with plates to eat the food off, if not quite placemats and doilies. On the one hand she is all loyalty and good will to her comrades, on the other she is a screaming abuser of her now divorced parents as well as of everyone even faintly as middle class as she is. She is, we are I think given to understand, albeit a touch ironically, a GOOD hypocrite. In fact there is so little connection between her apprehension of her own immediate condition and the condition of anyone outside that condition that we no longer think of hypocrisy, but of a serious psychological disorder. People in book clubs speculate whether she was sexually abused as a child. I can put them out of their misery. She was not. Doris Lessing made her up. She had no pre-existence.

The rest of the comrades come and go. The males are either idiotically incompetent or sinister, more likely the former. It is worrying how many female authors assume this as a matter of course, but in this case the women not only make the sandwiches and fix the plumbing but manufacture and deliver the bombs too. Why not cut out the middle man after all? Of the rest they form a stereotypical bunch of militants of any description, an Angry About Anything Brigade.




31.10.07 : DORIS LESSING: THE GOOD TERRORIST (1)

Never say I am a close follower of fashion. When fashion is happily breasting the tape of its single-lap 400 metre race I am still tying the laces of my schoolboy plimsolls and preparing to get On My Marks.

So after a mere gap of twenty-one years I am reviewing Doris Lessing's The Good Terrorist, a book recommended by a good friend and rather dismissed by others.




30.10.07 : POETIC GRACE

An odd thing to go on a two hour train journey to attend something an hour or so long, then to get back on the train for another two hours but that's the price of living in Norfolk and attending events in London.

Last night's event was the launch of the new Oxford/Carcanet anthology and my special interest was the inclusion there of poems by Grace Ingoldby, who was a friend. She was known principally as novelist but in her last five years or so she wrote more poetry. It seems odd that she has been dead two years now. I wrote her obituary in The Times, or it may have been the Independent. I must look it up.

But then Grace was, underneath it all, a poet, as indeed are a number of novelists. You tell by the texture of the writing, by the lilting and flickering line of narrative. They seem to be as much, if not more, fascinated by the act of writing and its sense of the world as by the story itself. In those terms Grace was always a poet. The photo of her in the book is insouciant, teasing, self-mockingly reproving. Underneath that was the darker, tragic face one only caught in odd moments when she would briefly weep. Her son had died in a fire and she never stopped thinking of him. I remember her swimming in the sea, going far out. But it was cancer that got her, that solid birdlike face and movement (she loved birds) becoming frailer and even more birdlike.

We first met at the home of a painter friend, down in Wiltshire. We were messing about and teasing, trying to get a handle on each other. There was some larking about with the notion of Rilke possibly going on to write The Joke Books of Malte Laurids Brigge. She laughed a great deal. She could be highly social. I remember travelling on a train with her, she getting into conversation with the elderly ladies opposite us with her part-posh voice.

We taught a number of Arvon Courses together, and attended conferences in Romania, in Neptun on the Black Sea coast. She read a long poem that was all poetry yet free of 'poetry', and that is what she was writing generally, working outside the compass of contemporary verse, yet recognisably, pressingly, a poet.

Her few poems in the new anthology seem to have been reprinted more or less as she drafted them with odd punctuation, broken enjambments, unfinished yet somehow better for that.

A good evening generally with some particularly striking work by one or two poets that I might return to. Crowded too, and hot. Feeling a bit poorly throughout. On the train back a young woman sitting opposite me was up for conversation. It turned out she had just completed her degree at the art school I left this summer. We talked the whole two hours about books and art and mutual acquaintances. I would probably have festered in a sleepless half-sleep otherwise.

The discussion of the act of making has been going on here. Some nice quotations on the subject.




29.10.07 : BACK TOO LATE FROM LONDON

To say anything of interest or length. Bit under the weather too. It was the launch of an anthology at Foyles that i felt I just had to go to. More next time.




28.10.07 : FROM THE ARCHIVES: WRESTLING FOR BRITAIN




I thought I had lost this programme about British professional wrestling and, in particular, about the career of the Hungarian-born wrestler, Tibor Szakács. I wrote and presented it for Radio Four a couple of years ago. It includes bits of poems. The website is here, the programme can be heard here. It is about half an hour long and refers to the Westgate boarding house whose proprietors appear in another photograph I have at home.

It is beautifully produced by Tim Dee. I can hardly hear myself through my accent (can that accent be ME?!) and the whole thing feels a little tentative until the phrases come and I feel in my element again: "the trudge through the masks of history, like the trudge from Hungary to Austria with ever more mud on our shoes", "the tabloid poetry of wrestling". And so forth. It reminds me why I became fond of wrestling in the first place. The comical sadness of it, the utter down-at-base, down-on-your-luck, down-at-heel humanity; the notion, as one poem near the end has it (it appears in An English Apocalypse), of the gods looking down with hooded eyes and Justice with her lottery ticket. I must go to more wrestling. That thick British brew.

Here is the man himself, mistakenly billed on YouTube as his younger brother, Peter. A very late fight - note the hair and posture - against Johnny Yearsley).



And here is the poem, set in Norwich Corn Exchange:

The Wrestling

The Corn Exchange is a gaunt railway hall
in the Balkans. Three rows of sundry chairs
at each side of the ring are set out as usual

but you can sit on tables like other punters.
A man or woman with a face quite fallen in,
entirely without teeth; three obese mothers

with fat children; rows of elderly women
in cardigans; a bus driver, a pair
so dense with studs (a rough-cast Pearly Queen

and a King Cobra) they almost buckle
under the weight. And stolid oldies, wise
to the ways of the game, quite as fantastical

as the wrestlers themselves, their heads topiaries
or billiard balls, who know the throws and holds,
have known them for years. The strange cries

of birds, a jungle chattering, the piercing scolds
of angry deities. Anyone not from here
is hated with a pantomime fury. Scaffolds,

hanging-trees, iron maidens, objects of fear.
Two fat leotards, one in a Union Jack,
the other in glitzy blue, engage. The gods appear

and watch them with hooded eyes. Bones crack.
Pantomime turns music hall. It’s Marie Lloyd
and the Great War making a belated come back,

a forlorn intimacy crawling from the void,
its grossness sweet and almost delicate,
like love between the lost and the destroyed

or a face in the blurred gallery, painted by Sickert.
The human need for blood, bone, gristle, flesh:
for Justice with her scales and lottery ticket.

It's just as well that ticket rhymes with Sickert.

p.s. New poem on the front.




27.10.07 : WESTGATE 1957: A PHOTOGRAPH

I found this photograph behind the desk when clearing up and it took my breath away a little.



It shows a group of refugees together with the landlord of Penrhyn Lodge, our off-season boarding house on the Kent coast, Mr Pulford, with his wife, his daughter and their dog. The faces are of the period but the man and woman that take my eye are the second man from the left and young woman just below him, seated on the extreme left.

I recognise them immediately. I have his name, Leo Sz but hers escapes me for now. A pity since I was a little in love with her later as a fourteen year old. He was an artist, a painter. They lived in Hendon and went about on a black motorbike. He was trying to make a living from his paintings. Their flat was small, heated with paraffin heaters and bar heaters. It was hot. His family were communists who had fled to Chile then returned after the war once the new communist regime was in place. I think it must have been a disappointment, in any case they, Leo and - was it Magdi? Zsuzsi? - left the country.

My mother, who nurtured our more bohemian acquaintances made close friends of them and we kept in contact after Westgate. One Christmas we were sitting in their hot apartment. Brenda Lee was singing 'Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree' on the record player and she asked me to dance. I was very shy and simply being asked melted something in me. I dreamt of her for a while. She was full of laughter. Later they moved to Cornwall, thinking perhaps of the St Ives school.

His paintings didn't sell. We were still in contact when I myself went to art school and visited them. He had taken work in a power station. He showed me a big painting, a wave crashing in. I had seen paintings like that before and felt superior to such stuff. I didn't say so but have the impression I was noticeably unimpressed. I very much regret that now. One regrets things. Not so that it kills, but that it humbles.

I think they separated, she and he, then we lost touch. I love his face in the photograph there. Her hair is blown to one side by the wind.She looks pretty but a little awkward. That scarf. There is a very young man at the end. He looks like Leo's brother, though I dont know whether he had a brother. He is probably still around. The rest will be old. Very old except for the child. Our host wears a white dinner jacket and a bow tie. His wife below him has the kind of English face I seem to have met many times since. It's a decent face. It must be early spring. March perhaps. April maybe. We left for London in May.




26.10.07 : R. B. KITAJ


Synchromy with F.B. / General of Hot Desire (1968/9)


F.B. is Francis Bacon, of course, and there he is in the left-hand panel. The General of Hot Desire is from Shakespeare's Sonnet CLIV that goes:

The little Love-god lying once asleep,
Laid by his side his heart-inflaming brand,
Whilst many nymphs that vowed chaste life to keep
The fairest votary took up that fire
Which many legions of true hearts had warmed;
And so the General of hot desire
Was, sleeping, by a virgin hand disarmed.
This brand she quenched in a cool well by,
Which from Love's fire took heat perpetual,
Growing a bath and healthful remedy,
For men diseased; but I, my mistress' thrall,
Came there for cure and this by that I prove,
Love's fire heats water, water cools not love.

R.B. Kitaj who has just died was a literary kind of painter which was one reason certain art critics did not like him and poured scorn on him in his later career, but he was an excellent draughtsman and a gorgeous colourist. To his critics he seemed heavy and somehow pushy, a man of dense intelligence leaning on a paintbrush. To me, and to figurative but non-representative artists, he was a kind of difficult beacon. He was a friend of Hockney's, but whereas Hockney remained light and decorative and witty, Kitaj felt the weight (there goes that heaviness again) of history. Germanic rather than French and certainly not English. No lyrical nostalgia, no enchanted grove, no vanished empire, just a luminous truculence.

Thanks to Anthony Rudolf who has sent around a collection of obituaries to which I now link. David Cohen in the New York Sun, Marco Livingstone in The Times, Michael McNay in The Guardian, Richard Morphet in The Independent, and anon in The Daily Telegraph. There are others too.

Thank you, Anthony.




26.10.07 : 23 OCTOBER, HUNGARY 2007

Hungary continues worrying. Last year there were violent clashes on the fiftieth anniversary of the 1956 uprising. This year there was less trouble, and that chiefly from the far right, whose rise and presence is a factor in both internal Hungarian politics and in the outside world's view of Hungary. Last year the ostensible trigger for violence was the speech made by the prime minister since September 29 2004, Ferenc Gyurcsány, secretly recorded then released, in which he said: "We have lied, morning, noon and night". The actual message of this was that "we" should stop lying and that the "we" referred to parties of all colours who had made over optimistic claims, particularly before the general election, about Hungary's economy.

That is not how it was perceived, of course. I wrote about this at the time, here and other posts either side of it. I also posted about the presentation of Gyurcsány in anti-semitic terms (though there is considerable doubt about whether Gyurcsány is Jewish at all and the offending poster has vanished into cyberspace).

I will ring and speak to friends, but in the meantime here are three articles from the current Budapest Sun, on

1) The armed Magyar Gárda (The Hungarian Guard). Key passage:

The black-and-white signs, some showing Hungarian Nazi leaders during the war raising their hands in a "Heil Hitler" salute, read, "History repeats itself. You can still turn back."

The Hungarian Arrow Cross regime was responsible for the deportation of some 450,000 Hungarian Jews to Nazi death camps, mainly Auschwitz.

The Gárda was founded by the leadership of the far-right Jobbik party, and has sparked heated political debates over the past few months.

Its militant anti-gay, anti-Roma and anti-Semitic rhetoric has led Jewish and Roma rights groups to ask the government to ban the Gárda, although the organization claims it is focusing on mundane tasks since its establishment, such as cleaning cemeteries.


2) On the events of three days ago. Key passage:
Clashes between police and protesters began when participants of the official, authorized far right anti-government demonstration decided to leave the venue of the protest and march towards Nagymezô utca and the Opera [where prime minister Gyurcsány was making a speech - GS].

Since just such a march had earlier been banned by police officials, riot police corralled demonstrators towards Nyugati Pályaudvar (the Western railway station), where rioters turned over, and set a van and a water canon alight, and attacked policemen and journalists.

After the first clash, demonstrators split into groups and clashed with police squads in several places in Districts V and VI, using Molotov cocktails and firecrackers.

Police managed to stay in control of the situation, however, and had normalized the situation by 9pm.


3) On Hungary's economic situation. The writer works for the IMF, one should add, but the IMF is of major importance here as elsewhere. Here is the beginning of the article:

Since mid-2006, incomes in Hungary have stopped catching up with those in the richer parts of Europe.

This underperformance has been reinforced by recent data: Hungary's second quarter GDP grew at less than 1% on an annualized basis.

Domestic demand was particularly soft. On the back of subdued investment, private consumption fell.

Absent buoyant exports, the outcome would have been even worse. The disappointment is acute because, in comparison, growth in much of Europe - in the advanced and emerging economies - remained vibrant.

This weakness in income growth is due, in part, to the much needed fiscal tightening.

Since the fiscal deficits of earlier years* had become untenable, the government had to impose self-discipline, and a necessary cost of that discipline is slower growth in the short-term.

Once the tightening stops, the negative impulse - the downward drag exerted on domestic demand - will also stop.

But it would be a mistake to assume that growth will automatically resume when the fiscal consolidation is completed.

So no smooth passage ahead whoever is in power. One very good friend has a high opinion of Gyurcsány but a poor one of the party he leads. Corruption, bumbling, bombast... the usual things. Meanwhile also the usual full uniform of visceral loathing with the far right of Jobbik as the plumed cap on top of the thick head.

*This was what the "lying morning, noon and night" was about, and those earlier years extend back to well before Gyurcsány was in power.




25.10.07 : BLAME THE BEARD

Why are Liverpool losing matches
when they once were feared?
Why are they playing in mere snatches,
in faint flashes, pisspoor patches…?
It must be Rafa’s beard.

Why are Liverpool under pressure,
seemingly low geared?
Why aren’t they brighter, quicker, fresher,
their passing neater, sweeter, plusher…?
It must be Rafa’s beard.

You read it here first. Goatees are the devil's work. Not that I care. Get Boris Johnson in to manage them. The man can tackle. At the risk of repeating this clip ad infinitum I think there's something to be learned here:





It's the very best of Boris. It's the way he'd run London.




24.10.07 : DORIS LESSING

So I fall in love again, this time with an eighty-eight year old woman. I have always loved late-summer and autumn in women - indeed I generally like women as individuals - but that particular period especially because of the depth it brings to the best of them.

Octogenarians are another matter though. The fact is that though the books are here I get to see her before I read her, because she is the writer tonight at the UEA's Festival. And she is superb: funny, clever, substantial, wide-ranging, generous but sharp, in fact wholly admirable, not like a talk-show at all, but frank as only the old can be frank. She is in pain and stone-deaf, she says. Then she smiles and quips and moves on.

The event consists of a conversation with Chris Bigsby who handles it impressively well, joshing and teasing her into answers. He clearly knows her work through and through and enjoys being with her, as does she with him. The talk is chronological, beginning with the First World War, her childhood and her parents, her first marriages, the Communist Party, the arrival in England, progress with books, changes in direction. Nothing about the Nobel Prize which, presumably, she prefers not to talk about. This could all be tedious, but it is extraordinarily sprightly, warm and humane. She is a very tough cookie indeed. And that, in her case, is a good thing.

I know she was in the news today because of what she said about 9/11, about it not being such a big deal as the Americans thought it was, but no one asks about that once questions are offered to the floor (and it is a very full floor, with extra numbers watching on a screen in a different lecture theatre). They do ask her opinion about Tony Blair, who she couldn't stand, dismissing him as a showman. This is nothing to do with Iraq: it is something she thought from the beginning in 1997.

Then someone asks about feminism and women. She had already given an account of squads of young women in the First World War handing out white feathers to any man they thought should be in a trench, including one to her father who had actually served in the trenches and had lost a leg. Feminists should bear that in mind, she says. Nor did she like the Libbers of the sixties, primarily because they moved into the political area where they turned against each other. When she does say the obvious thing that the old say, that the young have it soft and expect too much, no one seems to mind. And when she says that being old is not what it seems, that the face she sees in the mirror is not what others see, but someone far younger, with greater energy, it seems obvious yet new, because here she is saying it, and it is perfectly obvious that the body and face in her case have little to do with the voice and the mind.

She does little reading from books, less than a page, but we can read for ourselves. Probably too tiring for her.

As for the 9/11 quotation featured in most newspapers, if I took a dislike to everyone I disagreed with on this or that point, I would have precious little communication with the world. An evening, to put it in a nice round cliché, of pure joy.

Tomorrow a little on what I read of the 23 October commemorations of 1956 in Hugary.




24.10.07 : SVANKMAJER AND A HUNDRED TO ONE

A Haiku:

Rain

Rain, the constant rain.
The paper lies face up. Whose
face is rain mourning?


Gesundheit!

Actually I started wanting to write about Jan Svankmajer's film Lunacy, and maybe I shall, here's a trailer (in Czech) anyway...





then I came across another film reference, at Norm's who got it from Damian that is entirely different but eminently satisfying. So here it is:





As to Lunacy it is a late film by the master of grotesque animation, clips of whose films and various shorts are so copiously available on YouTube. Czech surrealism has a long honourable pedigree and somehow it has continued with no visible means of support, at least since 1989, unto the present day.

The conditions that created Czech surrealism were, I suspect, the same that kept it going until our modern year of European velvet revolutions. It worked alongside, sometimes overlapping with a different tradition: cool intellectual irony with a base in lyrical realism as we know it from, say, Kundera. On balance I would sooner live in a society of Kunderas rather than Svankmajers but I certainly wouldn't want to live without Svankmajer.

Lunacy is however, it seems to me, a rather heavy and tired film, a straight allegory of 1960s freedom out of Edgar Allan Poe but involving the Marquis de Sade versus repressive absolute systems of so-called sanity. Svankajer himself appears at the beginning by way of prologue. He is both deadly serious and droll, but the drollness is essentially in service of the deadly seriousness, which may be the chief mistake in the film. It is usually better the other way round. The deadlier the seriousness the more the need for drollness. And that drollness was a chief characteristic of early and middle Svankmajer.

I am not convinced that either De Sade or the sixties were quite as grand as they might seem through the eyes of liberationist nostalgia. The taste for De Sade was primarily oppositionist: no one actually wanted a country run by the Marquis, not even in the sixties. Especially if you were a woman without a strong predilection for masochism.

To be fair about this, nor were the sixties quite so bereft of intelligence or doped-out-of-the-head or sheerly and utterly cool as common mythology would have them be. I was in my early and middle teens through most of that time. It seemed exciting enough but oddly undangerous (the seventies and eighties seemed more dangerous to me). While the classic Svankmajer shorts are products of the seventies and the eighties their psychological and political feet are firmly planted in the sixties. And those feet are a little plodding in Lunacy which is a good forty-five minutes too long. Now the notion of sprawl would make an interesting post but that's for another time. This post is itself beginning to sprawl.




24.10.07 : NEW WORK AT THE INTERNATIONAL LITERARY QUARTERLY / LOVE

The International Literary Quarterly is a wholly new web magazine, about to be launched, that will contain work by, among others W N Herbert, Carol Novack, Gabriel Josipovici and myself. It is all very impressive and, like a web magazine, gets work around without either generating or providing much money. But then poetry doesn't do that anyway, or only in certain restricted places. And the magazine is not only poetry but prose, or in Novack's case something in between that may be prose-poem or prose fragment as a thing in itself. Let's leave the definitions and read when it appears. I think there may be a common interest here with the web journal from India, Almost Island, whose centre of interest is perched precisely on that overlap between poetry (writing in verse), and prose, (non-lineated fiction and the novel).

My own contribution to the ILQ is a verse sequence trying to understand the origins of love. It consists of nine poems there and now a tenth poem which is due to appear in The Rialto . The sequence was conceived as a potential book, a sort of homage to C - and why shouldn't one be able to write such things, such as Zhivago was writing for Lara? - that would not consist of 'love poems' as such but of trying to weigh the origins and labyrinths of the experience packaged under the word 'love'. I mean something more like Eros than Agape, a region that hardly has a name of its own but which I think is a deep, central and valuable human experience that I was lucky enough to see in action in both my parents and C's parents.

It is a project that is, I feel, essentially heroic but not much mapped, perhaps because enduring love has little overt fictional dynamic whereas broken and disappointed love is practically all dynamics and overtness. (Think of Tolstoy on 'happy' families.) And since poetry, or so I think, is an attempt to apprehend the how-ness and what-ness of things, whereas the story (or so it sometimes seems to me) is chiefly concerned with the effects of actions, it may be worth trying to map the experience in poetry. Poetry, as has often and rightly been said, has a cold eye, but its heart and guts and body work at heat. Maybe the whole book will never be written, maybe it will turn out to be just a sequence or so.

Talking of India, I want next to include some work by the Indian writer Sudeep Sen in the Notes / Magazine part of the site. I'll get to that in the next couple opf days.




23.10.07 : MORE ACTS OF WRITING

In verse form, this time, from Jane Holland:

WAVELENGTH

I build the perfect silence with my hands:
a pyramid of sorts, an arch, the gaping
mouth of Agamemnon's beehive tomb.

When all is said and done, what will remain
but silence? I've lost the will to speak
but send my empty hands to seek new land.

They will come back. Will they come back?
Distilling words until no words are left
becomes a concentration of the mind,

an endless search for essences of sound:
the slack white sands, the echo of the hills.
Will they come back? They will come back.

You'll know the perfect silence when it comes.
It has the outward look of architecture
(structured stress), the inward hum of bees.

It stands alone, discarding time as one
who, trusting, shrugs a raincoat to the ground
before the storm is through. No reckless jump

from words to space, but something planned,
a leap of faith, inevitable to those
who welcome it into their silent band.

from Mark Granier:
Life Model

An image, word or phrase drops
itself like a hint, and you follow
to see where it leads. Nowhere perhaps,
or you may be simply too slow
to keep up. Some of the best stuff
is given – a splash of laughter
from the drowned – though only if
you are in a position to hear.

Sometimes it helps if you've nowhere
to go but inwards. If, say,
you must lie, naked, on a floor,
while an artist scribbles away,
lines may leak in: benison
of rain filling a basin.


This from Caroline Clark:

When I write with full concentration I have the sensation of moving unerringly towards. This preposition ‘towards’ sums it up for me. Towards what? My source, home definitely. I start towards this place whenever I enter my writing fully or am working on a difficult translation. I find myself moving, sometimes racing, through words and sounds unable to let my thoughts drift and in that concentration and drive towards an end I find myself simultaneously in another bid to reach a different destination – the entrance to my hometown L. I sense trees to the right and the fields below, the central white line of the road running straight ahead, and the rising wooded slopes to the left overshadowing me. I am moving towards the place where L begins; my final destination becomes the town. And so I write, transcribe, decipher and unravel meaning all the while with a vision of the final stretch of road taking the rise which will come out into an open place, no more trees but the beginning of a town. This for me is where L begins, not with the signpost some fifty metres beforehand, which is still in the darkness of the trees. But I never reach this place. When I come to an end this sensation fades. I just forget about this other effort, which until a minute before had been so frantic.

When I first became aware of this habit of my mind I was fascinated and comforted to know that for me all effort, all striving, somehow will take me home. That is the way it is for me now, but I like to think I will change, perhaps I won’t always be in this place of constant return. Perhaps this habit of mind developed to act as a beacon when I face the unknown.

And here is a wise thing from the Irish poet, Desmond Swords:

When I started, the first poem i wrote straight off the bat came after attending an art gallery in Liverpool, and my head was fizzing with one of the four human poetic joys Amergin outlines in the the 7C poem heading the Auraicept Na N-eces: translated by George Calder in 1917 as The Scholars Primer, but which literally means the working methods of the knowing/knowledgeable ones; and which lays out exactly what the poetic gift is and how it works:

"The joy of fitting poetic frenzy."

The poem was untitled, and was the touchstone text of the bardic tradition, the Irish equivalent of Horace's Ars Poetica i suppose, and the joy came from "grinding away at the fair hazelnuts" which fruited bountifully on the nine hazel trees ringing the Well Of Segias, which is the mythical source of the Boyne, Ground Zero and Garden Of Eden of irish myth. But whereas the fruit on the tree of knowledge are imbued with a guilty connotation, the nuts at Segias Well are seen as an enobling thing to be after tasting, and this was achieved by catching one of the mythical Salmon of Wisdom - bradán feasa - which fed on the nuts and eatying it.

This is laid out in the Fianna cycle fo irish myth, in the tales surrounding Fin McCool and the druid Finnegas, whose etymological root is Finn Eces, meaning bright wisdom. Finnegas caught the salmon of wisdom and due to not knowing his pupil Deimne was really Fin McCool, a prophecy of him catching it but not getting the wisdom contained therein, was effected when Finn got an accidental fish fat splash on his thumb and stuck it in his mouth....

... the one thing I have learned in my short time dabbling, is there are numerous ways of working to create verse. Metrical poetry is great because it forces us to learn discipline. The write-through is probably just as, if not more, challenging and would be at the opposite end of the compositional spectrum, but also forces us to learn a very strict discipline. Slam and performance is great as we can use to to up the energy levels at a recital; and really whatever it takes to make something happen on the page, i think is fair game. And as long as we try to cultivate the poetic fizz Amergin describes, then the other human joys a poet experiences can also occur. The "joy of fitting poetic completion" when one has created something they are happy with, which helps us gain another of the four joys:

"The joy of health untroubled by the abundance of goading when ones takes up the prosperity of bardcraft."

And some shorter ones via Facebook. Andrew McDonnell:

It's connecting those things that have been stalking the edge of your vision for weeks - shaping what's just out of sight. sometimes a kind of failiure: a jam jar trap for words, images, moments that gets shaken up at twilight, tipped out at dawn.

More short ones:

It's a weight on my heart which wont go away unless I can make some abstract sense of it. - Victoria Baker

My brain begins to rush and a whole wave of words or sentences fall out of my hand and onto the paper- phew! That's what it's like for me to write a poem - Steven Pottle

It is most often hours, days of frustration followed by a brief overnight burst of euphoria and then the cold morning light - Martin Figura

The Mamet quote* [See Andrew Shields, earlier] is nice. I go into some kind of odd focused 'trance'. I think that's the only way to describe it. I also look starey eyed, I'm told. I like the total focus when my head noise shuts up, and I can listen. - Helen Ivory


There, I think that's a reasonable number. I am going to think about the answers for a day or so then see what they add up to and what conclusions may be drawn from them, small sample as it is.




22.10.07 : JOHN BRATBY AND DORIS LESSING

The Lessings have just arrived: The Good Terrorist on LG's recommendation and The Fifth Child by AS's. I look forward to them and want, in fact, to quote from Lessing's notes on 'The Language We Use' at the back of The Good Terrorist.

But Bratby. John Bratby. There could hardly have been a more famous British painter before Pop Art and irony came along than John Bratby. Not that I liked his work. It seemed forced, pushily clumsy, sub-Van Gogh and sub-Sickert. Last week I found his novel Breakdown in the window of the friendly local second-hand bookshop, bought it and started reading it.

It is a somewhat extraordinary book, written at the height of his fame in 1960. The first twenty pages or so - there are a lot of ink drawing illustrations by the author that looked better for being in black and white - were so execrable I thought his editors must have been incompetent. But I stuck with it because it was nothing if not vivid in describing the tail-end of the fifties in Bohemian London. It reminded me of the marvellous documentary maker Dennis Mitchell's A Soho Story (all Mitchell's early films are gems, especially Morning in the Streets). Interesting then for the milieu.

Then, little by little, the book grows interesting for its style. Ten years before John Fowles gave English literature its first postmodern ending in The French Lieutenant's Woman, Bratby spends an entire chapter overtly frameing an alternative to the story he is actually writing. He is full of constant authorial interventions, like the Bob Hope asides-to-camera in the Road films. After a while you get used to being poked in the ribs by the authorial finger and stop minding. He picks up and drops characters at will. His central character is self-loathing and self-indulgent, opinionated, ugly, violent, uncertain of himself. Sometimes he is a pain and you want him to shut up, but he carries on talking.

Its very ugliness is readable. So you go back to the ugly pictures, and you remember he painted Gulley Jimson's pictures for the film adaptation of Joyce Carey's The Horse's Mouth and that he also co-wrote The Devils with Aldous Huxley. His pictures now sell for five-figure sums, which is not very much compared to our Demian. Chickenfeed. The book itself is retailed by some second hand book dealers at £6, by others at £160. There is no knowing anything. History? That's dead people, isn't it?

*

This is what Doris Lessing says about The Good Terrorist. She says she had received a letter from an ex-member of The Red Brigades who said, 'Everyone now was accustomed to seeing them as accomplished and ruthless killers, but at first a muddled amateurism had been more like it. Then..."their language took them over and they became the professional killers we all know about."' She goes on:

The language of revolutionary groups was formalised, to the point where it was easy to laugh, and sometimes the users of it did laugh. But taken seriously, words led to deeds... The question is, what languages do we all use that, taken to extremes, could damage us or others?"
.
Mallarmé: the task of the poet is to purifier la langue de la tribu. True, we are not angelic washers of language, but let's keep those hands above the table.




22.10.07 : NO OBEDIENCE

I am going to vary the Act of Making posts with other things adding contributions as they come in, sometimes - as they have - in verse form. Thank you to those who have contributed so far. I will post each contribution.

This time only this: some people wonder why I don't like the high-priest posture. The dislike has grown in me. I have no doubt there are mysteries, that is to say processes that do not seem to be exhausted by a logical enquiry: it is not them so much as mysterious ways of speaking about them that I distrust. It is the assumption of the mystagogue's garb. It is the Pope's ex officio. In so far as it is possible I want to speak of humans not gods, and while the human includes the mysterious as I have tried to define it above, I believe it behoves us speak as we might speak on the floor rather than from the pulpit. Why? Because the voice of the mystagogue despises and patronises the floor and issues edicts that must be obeyed. OK. No obedience. Politely, courteously even, but no obedience.




21.10.07 : THE ACT OF MAKING 2

I am glad to see some of these coming in now as well as a discussion started on Everypoet, led by Rob Mackenzie who sends the following (I may quote from full answers but where there is a weblink I am giving it):

When I sit down to write a poem with whatever image, phrase or idea that has prompted me to do so, it’s like driving without knowing how the gears work – very start/stop. I jot down a line or two and then work obsessively on them for a while without going any further.
Sometimes the car engine dies completely.

Other times, the first few lines emerge with what seems like just the right rhythm, tone, syntax and register. The car inches forward and then grinds to a halt. I might get it going again and inch forward several lines, or (more usually) I might have to stop and return after a few days.

When things start to go well, with the first two or three lines in place, I get caught up in the rhythm of the drive and the strangeness of the scenery, which often seems to appear out of nowhere. I know that a poem doesn’t come from some ‘beyond’ or from a Muse, but the sensation can sometimes feel like that. Eventually (rarely at the first attempt), I find the destination (even though I didn’t know what I was driving at when I started). At absolute best, when I look at the route I took weeks or months later, even I am taken aback. In fact it’s only when that happens that I know I have a poem worth anything.

From W.S. Graham’s poem, The Thermal Stair, which is dedicated to the painter, Peter Lanyon, who died in a tragic accident:

You once said in the Engine
House below Morvah
That words make their world
In the same way as the painter’s
Mark surprises him
Into seeing new.

For me, that describes the sensation of writing at its best.

This is Angela France:

For me, it most often starts with a wordless line: I can hear it – not as a rhythm or metre, not with any words - but just a sense of the way it rises and falls and a sense of some of the vowel sounds and lengths. I am then in a state of watchfulness, waiting for the image or connection that will give me the approach, the way in. During this time, I can feel the line in my mouth and almost taste it and I am hyper-alert to the world around me. It can recede if I’m busy with other things but it doesn’t go away.

When I find the approach and sit down to write is when the sensation of making begins. If I’m lucky, I can get into that space quickly- if not, then I have to slog at the early lines until I can slip into it (and usually have to cut away that scaffolding later). It’s a paradox that, although it is all about language, it is so difficult to find the language that can accurately describe it. I experience it as a letting go and sinking into the poem: it feels as if I am no longer using language but inhabiting it. If someone disturbs me or calls while I’m in that space then I can barely string words together to speak to them – as if my ordinary, everyday language is not available in that place.

And this, A.B. Jackson:

It feels to me like drawing, since this is what I did naturally from the age of two. More specifically, figure drawing: so first and foremost I'm looking for a shape which resembles something alive and in motion (albeit frozen in a certain attitude). And by shape, I don't mean the form of the poem, but the lineaments of a certain kind of reality.

Once the basic figure is done, I scour it to see what details are necessary: a bit of shade here, a stronger line there. Sometimes I botch it and rub it out. Sometimes I overcrowd it with cross-hatchings when a simple highlight will do. The key choices will tend to fall to the eye, although there is also the final tuning process: each line will get twanged to make sure it's OK, by whispering the poem over and over. Sometimes a peg needs turning.

A stanza, then, should sound like a recognisable chord. It should also look like one, but what this ought to look like I don't know until I see it ... it's a new chord, after all. Whatever tonal qualities are present I haven't consciously planned, either, but in the final poem I can see them as a series of minor and major constellations of vowels and consonants. Part of the fun afterwards is to trace the lines of connection between them. It is this involuntary patterning principle which gives the process its feeling of magic, I think ... like drawing a horse's head with your eyes closed ... but really it's just years of practice, and probably connected to a synthesis of left and right brain activity in a singular moment.

Primarily, It's a process which involves the pen and the page: I see what I'm doing only in the instant of making the ink mark, and don't follow any kind of 'internal poem' pre-existing in my head. There's no voice behind the curtain, and I'm not taking dictation. And the re-writing process is like a four-hour sound-check by your average rock band, checking the tuning, the ensemble playing, what the mix is like on stage through the monitors and how it sounds up front to the audience. And you walk from the stage to the stalls and back again repeatedly, to hear it from both sides.

And Andrea Porter has a very interesting view involving autism and hyperactivity in language, of which a taste here, but the whole answer on her website.

when I write I think I become focused to almost a quasi autistic state when temporality, conventions of language and connections become unconventional. I even become almost over sensitised to the point where loud sounds, particularly sudden ones becomes painful (as is the case with many autistic people). At home I even have certain obsessions or routines like the need for a mug of tea and certain things around me. The world around me can become so fluid that I have taken a couple of heartbeats to actually recall where the hell I am and in the case of fiction once, who the hell I am, when I stop writing. This of course is only peculiar to me and may make me sound mad but then I think writing is a disciplined form of madness. I am in all other respects quite sane ( but I would say that wouldn’t I ) but when things or ideas have been whirring in my head for a certain length of time the only relief for me is to choose this small private so called psychological disturbance. This ability to choose and continue to choose is maybe one explanation as to why some writers and poets have experienced the distress of no longer being able to come back from the journey or disappear into a bottle to ease the crossing of some undefined boundary.

And the rest should be read too.

The reason I am asking is not because I want to see everyone's spiritual holiday snaps or because I want people to describe what they discover in their navels, but because the relationship between the desire to say-cum-sing on some particular subject and the encounter with language is fascinating if you are at all interested in language. The very metaphors we choose are part of the understanding. Robert Graves talked somewhere about writing in a light trance brought about by cigarettes and coffee. I have not yet asked Charles Baudelaire but will get around to it.

This all comes out of Don Paterson's essay in PR with which I find difference at various points. I suggested a response to Fiona Sampson but the problem there is the time-scale. The next two issues are already covered after which the subject might have gone a little cold. (Mind you, I am not sure it ever goes utterly cold since we have too much invested in it.)

If more interesting ones come in, I'll give them space. Meanwhile Turkey and Kurdistan, meanwhile, to change the subject from navels to supposed pits, a timely piece by Hak Mao here. Our daughter's partner is from Middlesbrough. Good man.




21.10.07 : GALVANISED CORPSES

First, today's haiku.

Car Park

Glass breaking at night
in the car park. The stars fall
like tiny cats’ eyes.


A snippet from Paul Johnson's review of Housman's letters in The Literary Review, via the ever useful Arts and Letters Daily.

He could be sharp. He refused to be included in an anthology with Meredith 'as I am a respectable character and do not care to be seen in the company of galvanised corpses. By this time [1903] he stinketh for he has been dead twenty years.' He wrote: 'I do not want to write letters to a woman whose name is Birdie.' He wrote: 'Mr Thomas thanks me for "a poem", and prints two: which is the one he doesn't thank me for?'

Having one's corpse galvanised is likely to an expensive process. Not advised. Reading snippets that have been pre-snipped is perfectly all right though.




20.10.07 : EMPIRICAL AND KIT DOWNES

Kit Downes was the very young and very brilliant pianist who worked with C and I on our performance of Tifey Song back in July. He is a member of the band Empirical who were the featured band on BBC3's Jazz Line Up today. They sound very good indeed. Here is their MySpace page. If you like this kind of jazz - and I do -you will like this. There is a bit of YouTubery there too.

*

Incidentally my review of Tim Parks's essays, The Fighter, is in today's Guardian, here.




20.10.07 : MOURINHO VIA HAMILTON

I refer those interested in sport to the always excellent James Hamilton, from whom I am pinching this YouTube link. Sport isn't what my mother thought it was, something that people do to make up in body what they lack in brains. It is a human enterprise, much like dance with much the same kinds of beauty. Its deep competitiveness is not a sign of human lack but an image of the history of humankind, an extraordinary striving to survive and celebrate the happiness of surviving. It is, I think, survival more than triumph at the heart of it.

And this interview with Jose Mourinho is remarkable - honest, intelligent, generous and touching - not so much because of what James says about the great sadness he detects in Mourinho's eyes and the shoulders or clothes - the man is in running gear and running is what he wants to carry on doing, as he says - but because of his simple well-earned pride and the way he addresses the press.

Mourinho is an extraordinary character. I rather hope he comes back, ideally to Manchester United when the great SAF eventually retires. Unlike James I don't think England would destroy him. I rather suspect the English press is no worse, and for all its venality, may be better than many other presses including the Italian and the Spanish. Mourinho seemed to like it all. Anyway, here he is, filmed by someone semi-official, the camera occasionally losing sight of him in the ruck. One of those nice things.



Oh, and here is a haiku. An end haiku this time:

Stationery

Her stationery
is studded with pink light-bulbs.
This must be heaven.

Of a sort...




19.10.07 : THE PAINTING OF MODERN LIFE

Down in London today, on a whim really (good to be able to whim to London) where I meet mentee AF. But first to the British Museum to see a wonderful exhibition of Indian painting: Faith, Narrative and Desire. I wish there were images from it on the web so I could drop one in. Here is something of the kind, not from the exhibition, that I found elsewhere. It is 18th century, ragamala, that is to say a music painting, along with some poetry often on the back of the picture, a slim, delicate, aristocratic Indian version of gesamtkunstwerk.



It is the delight and depth of the work, the colour and line and narrative that is such a wonder. There are other things beside leisure and love and the refinements of court life, of course. The ragamala at the British Museum were based on the months, so somewhat like the Tres Riches Heures of the Duc de Berry. But there are battles, gods, work, hunting and so forth. And one beautiful woman with a yoyo of the same period, the yoyo supposedly - according the accompanying text - representing her affections in love, now up, now down.

From there to the Hayward for The Painting of Modern Life exhibition. The paintings, apart from those by Gerhard Richter, Luc Tuymans and Wilhelm Sasnal, are defiantly dour and dire.


Wilhelm Sasnal: Factory

Most of the artists actually admit to hating painting but they paint photographs, they say, to get extra distance from the subject. To give it a different sense of time. They hate doing it but they just gotta do it. Not surprisingly it does look at though they hate the very stuff of paint. Somehow the Indian artists give the impression of loving it. I don't suppose that is allowed now.

Sasnal, Richter and Tuymans manage a kind of melancholy monumentality that touches on something profound but in terms of subject and treatment most of the rest are portentous and somehow bleating. As to what they say, those blessed artists' statements displayed on little cards, I wish they wouldn't. It's a kind of ventriloquist's dummy-speak, or to put it another way, it is what is left in the washing bowl after the politically-aware theorists have finished washing up. What Hockney was doing there, heaven knows. Warhol just about fits. What does he say about the bodies in his car smash series? It is the equivalent of: I know they were nobodies, not celebrities of any sort, but see, I am commemorating them. And so they are, commemorated: they are dead and smashed up and still utterly anonymous. I expect that's the way they would have wished to have been remembered. It was generous of Andy.

The little booklet that accompanies the exhibition contains gems like: "Paintings with groups of people emphasise the contemporary fact that the more we are together the more we are alone."

Indeed they do, and that level of perception just about sums it up.




19.10.07 : ACT OF MAKING 2

Some nice things coming in, but this one is particularly good. It is from Andrew Shields, whose own poet blog should be regular reading for poets. This is what he says:

1. In a profile in the New Yorker back in the 1990s, David Mamet said something like this: "Writing is the only thing that stops the thinking, you know. It's the only way to turn off all that dreadful noise in there." I've always loved that line, as it perfectly captures one sensation I have when writing: that it fully occupies my otherwise utterly restless mind, turning off even the almost endless musical soundtrack that plays in the back of my head (picking up on whatever I happen to have heard most recently, whether it be the music of a commercial, the theme song to a children's program I watched with my kids, or Thelonious Monk). [If anybody who reads this has the complete New Yorker in electronic form, can you try to find that profile of Mamet for me and check his precise words?)

2. One of my touchstones for a long time has been Jorge Luis Borges's "Borges and I": "I shall remain in Borges, not in myself (if it is true that I am someone), but I recognize myself less in his books than in many others or in the laborious strumming of a guitar." I recognize myself less in my own writing than in the writing of others (as all these quotations suggest), but in the act of writing, there is even a third person present: not the one who will later have written, and not the name that attaches itself to what that one will later have written, but the one who is writing. The one whose mind is quiet?

3. In Anna Karenina, Levin mows: "The longer Levin mowed, the oftener he experienced those moments of oblivion when it was not his arms which swung the scythe but the scythe which seemed to mow of itself, a body full of life and consciousness of its own, as though by magic, without a thought being given to it, the work did itself regularly and carefully. Those were the most blessed moments." The "most blessed moments" in creative work are those moments when the mind is quiet, the self disappears, and the work does itself, "regularly and carefully."

Okay, I did not "keep it simple," George, but it is honest! :-)

And this is the poem he puts with it. It is his own, and as he says:"And then there is the sensation of not-writing, or between-writing":

AFTERMATH

Another journey underway,
the painter on the foredeck of
the overloaded ferryboat
sees, past the sea wall and out
over the straits, the aftermath
of sunlight from behind the clouds,
a brighter form of rain. The harbor
opposite moves from blur into focus
as the ferry moves, its wake
first spray in the painter's face.
Light and cloud and mist: what is
to be captured on canvas. He'll hold
the brush in the air the way the ship,
sailing without a sail, hangs
before it falls again down on
the waves. Behind him, every stroke
he's ever painted; the unpainted
before him, this passage from one harbor
to another, the ferry rolling,
with every breaker, deeper down
in what is, what will have been.

More comments welcome.




18.10.07 : THE ACT OF MAKING

First today's haiku:

Blackberries

Blackberries. Autumn
rising with a little blood
to pucker the lips.


In the first of his two essays on The Lyric Principle in the latest Poetry Review Don Paterson explores the nature of the lyric voice. There are one or two things I might disagree with there, indeed something in the very principle itself as he understands it, but I will pick that up later when I have more time. My prime beef is that he mystifies a little too much. Too much high priest stuff.

Which is not to say there is nothing to be priestly about, or, if not exactly priestly, then at least complex in the way our feelings about the numinous, or what we apprehend as numinous, tend to be. Here is a passage I like. Interestingly it is where Paterson is treating directly of his own experience. He talks about silence as the ground of poetry:

What the silence itself invokes is, and should probably remain a matter of personal conviction. For what it's worth - for this author, it seems to stand for a realm of perception where all things are connected as they were in our very early childhood, before the fall into time and category, a fall brutally reinforced by the acquisition of language. Without making the distinction between self and other, mother and breast, sky and earth, without the clear differentiation of things, there can be no proper experience of their temporal or causal sequence, and hence we had a different perception of time passing...

This seems to me a pretty clear description of Kristeva's notion of the semiotic, or of Lacan's pre-mirror infant stage but before I get my theoretical knickers in a twist it is enough to say that while it isn't quite like this for me, I fully believe him when he says it is like that for him.

In Dumfries I was reading with a young poet who is working with Douglas Dunn at St Andrews but - though I have to check this - has also been talking to Don Paterson. I think she is very good indeed. Her name is Laura Helyer, and we have been having an exchange about blockage and ways of starting again.

It is in fact at this very point where I part company with Don P. I was trying to explain how a particular poem, Silk, the poem now up on the front of the site, got written. I answered because she very much liked the poem and because we were talking about difficulties in writing. I will quote what I said about the poetic process, then follow it (with her permission) with what she so beautifully said. So, me:

But I too like the poem [Silk, despite it being written in twenty minutes in a workshop led by Penelope Shuttle]. Such things ought not to work if one believes in inspiration as the conscious gathering of material to a point that was already apparent somewhere, ie "I feel a certain emotion towards this person / landscape etc and am aware that there is something I need to say." But that may not be the way it works, or rather, not the only way it works. Other factors are part of the process.

... I tend to think the material for poetry - the materia poetica - is unformed but has a centre somewhere within and when it sees a bolthole it is told to leap through, it forms itself in the leaping. Unformed energy with a core. Core meets world and language = poem.

I then asked her for her sense of the poetic process. This is what she said"

I think writing for me always begins with a sort of desire, obsession, awakening to something – that feeling of homesickness – was it Frost who said that? – that is wordless to begin with. And then the process of growing it is like dancing or swimming, having to get past that pain barrier first before you can enjoy a sort of fluency and grace and ease with it. Then it feels like you have no body at all and no sense of time passing.

That too has it. It is beautiful and convincing which is all you can ask. I think the sense of being in a non-temporal zone, as Paterson describes it, is dead right. I feel that too. That, I suppose, is what some call inspiration and I might call intense concentration, like Yeats's long-legged flly on the stream whose mind moves upon silence.

But there remains something else. Ideally I would join poetry to the rest of the world, not isolate it in its mystical harbour, not even in my own body. The fisherman, the lost reader, the tailor, the child running his or her finger along a windowsill, the soldier gazing at his boots, the welder, the cook, the pianist idly striking the odd chord or fixed on a difficult passage, all know this feeling. Or so I believe. Vermeer perhaps knew it best among the visual artists. The poet deals in language itself and language is both solid and vacuous, both flintlike and dreamlike. That is its peculiar navigation. It is where metaphor meets the body. But even so it is chiefly metaphor. I may waste away if I do not write but I will not starve.

I would like to open this line of thought to others and invite any poets reading this to send me their account of the sensation of writing. Keep it honest, keep it simple. As simple as it will go, at any rate.




17.10.07 : HAIKU

I have written about the notion of authenticity before, proposing the Chicken Tikka Masala theory of cultural cross-fertilisation in which cultures feed into each other irrespective of which is politically the dominant one.

In the age of post-colonial theory my own will seem less rousingly angry than those in which the colonial force is generally presented as the (male) oppressor of a (female) victim. So WJT Mitchell writes on the relationship between text and art. Art is the poor woman chained to the rails by the moustache-twirling, top-hatted figure of text as Bad Sir Jasper.

Translation theorists on the other hand advise us to go in fear and dread of intruding upon the helpless text. Do not adapt to the receiving culture (meaning only, I suppose, anglo-american culture) for fear of betraying something. Authenticity? Difference? The proper otherness of the other that may not be referred to as 'the Other'?

Dunno. My Chicken Tikka Masala - which I now see Heston Blumenthal trying to cook up - is presumed to be the prime case of inauthenticity. It is not a dish served in any part of India. That is true: nevertheless it is a dish and it tastes of something that is its own self.

All this by way of saying something on the haiku, that 17-syllable Japanese form (a stray thirteenth century escapee from the longer and more serious renga), which has bedded down here in Anglophone land and feels almost second nature now. Yes, it seems odd that a form that is comprised of pictures or ideograms should have made such a journey, but journeys are the heart of culture. Clearly the haiku had struck a chord beyond the sheer exoticism and fancifulness of twentieth century Japonaiserie. Earnest scholars tend to hate such things because they lack proper context, deep knowledge, expert discrimination etc.

But tough. People respond to what they understand and resonate to, and in the case of the haiku they have resonated in their millions. What creative course has not begun with the haiku or at least introduced it somewhere near the beginning of the process? Relatively few, I would guess. And why? Because in its stripped down elegance, its restricted imagery, rhythm and simplicity of form it immediately cuts out the rhetorical clutter associated with poetry by those who know little of it. Furthermore it lightly applies its delicate ET finger to the poetic pulse. The distinction between life and language blurs for a second: the shape of saying gathers into it.

I was, and continue to be, a little wary of great aggregations of haiku since, in the end, I want more. I want a free run up and down the rhetorical register of Europe, feeling the need to include the clutter and dash of the west which is, after all, my ancestral home. And yet...

One day, a few years ago, the BBC asked me to write a haiku for a special Haiku Day, when masses of them were to be interspersed between normal Radio Four programmes. Being me, I finished up writing a dozen or so. This was the one that was chosen.

Woman

She touches her hair
and leans to her work, her neck
a wave of the sea.

Hmm. A bit on the sweet side, I thought at the time, preferring some of the others. But then I wrote more. Just for amusement (and some amuse me) I will put up one unpublished haiku per day in the blog for the next couple of weeks or so. It will go at the top of the post and will probably have nothing to do with what is under it.

I suppose this springs out of the sudden sally with clerihews. I'm toying with one on the fall of Ming but let that pass for now. (How Ming chimes with my note of exoticism in this post! Surely an omen.)




17.10.07 : MEARSHEIMER

Interesting post here regarding the well-known co-author of The Israel Lobby and Foreign Policy. Or maybe not so well known.

Thanks to Snoopy.




16.10.07 : POSTSCRIPT ON THE FALLOUT

Andrew Anthony's chapters deal with: early radicalisation and anti-Americanism (everything is their fault, then ours and Israel's, anything else is preferable); Nicaragua (mixed bag, Sandinistas not saints or even successful, Irish volunteer deriding him for being English); multiculturalism (9/11 and its apologists, Satanic Verses); race (springing out of mulit-culti, racism, victim mentality, misguided attempts at setting right disadvantage, the guilt mantra); crime (ambivalence and disengagement, not interfering, intervention); Islamophobia (we go to town here, nor is it difficult to go to town plus antisemitism etc); Iraq and Afghanistan (the Enlightenment v. its enemies); 7/7 (and its apologists; Hirsi Ali (defence of); Michael Moore (hypocrite, falsifier of evidence); the Danish cartoons (and Bezhti).

Most of these are or should be on the agenda for a humane left, but it is not so much the left as liberalism at issue. How far should we go to defend liberalism? Is liberalism being destroyed by liberals or by those who think of themselves as liberals, or by the hard left, or by the fascist right of any description, the last generally located in fanatical religionists rather than actual BNP.

Apart from Denmark of the cartoons and the Holland of Theo van Gogh it is an Ango-American-centric book for obvious reasons, London being home ground.

Most of the lines Anthony takes would be shared or near-shared by the left I tend to read and agree with. The most difficult territory is crime and particularly black crime within the terms of racism. The broad brush of a book like this is not much good when it comes to points that need distinctions and refinement and precision. It is on racism and crime that the book is most vulnerable to criticism as being hard to distinguish from right wing opinion. Anthony's case or something like it could be made but not with the blunt instruments at his disposal. (Is a wide brush a blunt instrument, m'lud? You're allowed to mix one set of metaphors only. Let off with a warning.)

As I said earlier, the language of social morality as generally accepted is the all-purpose wide-brush blunt instrument of the left. Terms relating to law, responsibility and control sound better spoken in that language. Anthony's most vulnerable arguments are those where the language he must deploy is not sufficiently differentiated and looks as though it has spent time in the editorial offices of Thre Daily Mail.




15.10.07 : HERNE BAY TO DONJONG HEIGHTS

A few more thoughts on Andrew Anthony's book later. A pretty full day at the university with a fuller one to come tomorrow. Classes fine. On return home, at long last, I put in Jeremy Millar's Zugzwang DVD that he gave me at the Sebald conference at the Tate. I haven't had time to look at it before through being away and generally working socks and other footwear off.

Zugzwang, this part of it at any rate, posits a French academic going to Herne Bay to trace the footsteps of Marcel Duchamp, following up some notes Duchamp made regarding the R. Mutt-signed, tipped-over urinal (known as Fountain, see below)





and the great glass called The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even.





There is also a subtext about death and disappearance - a kind of mystery story. The spoken text is in French, the subtitles in English. We begin at the Gare du Nord on the Eurostar and soon find outselves in Herne Bay. The voice puzzles over Duchamp's notes and explores the various sources and potential meanings of Duchamp's art. This is over a series of long, spacious, fixed camera video shots of Herne Bay details with faint hubbub background. The cutting is delicate and episodic and feels grand, a touch - not inappropriately - funereal. Indeed, the shots are beautiful and one can stare at them for a long time. It is like gazing at a still lake with minimal ripples.

Occasionally the text gets clotted, examining its ideas the way a handsome melancholy drunk might examine the curl of his own lip. Very French. And then it picks up again piling up associations that are less French than Sebaldian. Sebaldian is what it all is really. I don't think the writing in itself, good as it is, is of quite Sebaldian standard but it has heard the echo and it may be - it always is! - too much to ask for more. (The Sebald manner is ready for pastiche, as is any pronounced manner.)

In any case there are the images and they do slot together rather beautifully and eventually the pace too settles in a Sebaldian way with the odd visual pun or elegant analogy. It is as if the relationship between text and photograph in Sebald had been reversed and it was all those miscellaneous postcards coming to life.

So there is a real beauty to it, and my slight impatience with the philosophising gestures dies away. There is scale there and under the visual and textual sonorousness a intelligent high-seriousness that is not entirely solemnity. But I will look at it again, maybe later in the week given the time.

*

At university NH calls in to give me a copy of Ben Borek's Donjong Heights, a novella in Pushkinian verse. It's a damn handsome book in hardback and the bits I have previously read whet the appetite for more. I will review it for Poetry London, along with Sean O'Brien and Neil Rollinson's new books. Deadline mid-December but plenty of wordroom. In the meantime I commend it on the basis of what I so far know. It was a book I wanted to write about and am pleased to have the chance to do so.




14.10.07 : OBESITY MEANS THE END OF THE WORLD

Now this headline seems to me very likely to be counterproductive. Rather than making obesity big it makes climate change small. Oh, it it is only like being fat...




14.10.07 : THE FALLOUT

Almost finished Andrew Anthony's book. I don't think there is anything surprising there in terms of specific themes, except perhaps the Nicaragua chapter and that is only because Anthony was actually there. The personal incidents concerning street assault and burglary I had already read in excerpts. I think he misses out one or two classic 70s tropes such as revealing the true oppressive nature of the state by committing crimes for which one will be oppressively and revealingly arrested, but there were so many of those it hardly matters if a few go missing.

What I would never have gathered from Decca Aikenhead's review is that the book has substantial reading behind it and more than a decent amount of research. It's good journalism and presents an argument. Aikenhead's review was simply the equivalent of a petulant pout as if to say: I liked playing with you once Andrew but I'm not going to speak to you and you're not in my gang anymore. In any case he does not whine on about his or his parents' life and hard times as she suggests he did.

Of course the argument is presented in terms the gang that Anthony is arguing with don't want to use. This is partly because, as the book proposes, left has become right and right left so life has got very confusing. Since that proposition lies at the core of the book, to engage with it at all would suggest that your much valued leftness might possibly be regarded as rightness elsewhere, and that would never do.

More interestingly, indeed more fascinatingly, it is the language of the debate that is problematic. If one took the British electorate as a whole, going by its voting habits, it is more likely to be Sun / Mail / Express / Telegraph reading than Mirror / Independent / Guardian reading. The political centre of gravity is nowhere near John Pilger or George Galloway or Ken Livingstone or even particularly Gordon Brown. I suspect Blair was not far off, nor is Cameron. That is in terms of action, meaning agendas, programmes, attitudes and issues.

Yes, but the rhetoric, the actual language of debate, employs a vocabulary determined more by the left than the right. The right has no rhetorical lexicon of any general moral value. The moral lexicon belongs to the left: the right can only argue by resorting to it. One has only to think of terms of values such as 'radicalism' (meaning good), or 'justice' or 'fairness' and so on to see that they spring out of a socially reforming, egalitarian, pacifist bedrock. Only in sport do the figures of patriotism, self-reliance, martial spirit and competition play a positive part.

And this, since I myself believe in egalitarianism, justice and fairness etc, may be to the greater good but it leads to a considerable snarl up in debate. Anthony's arguments are sound and worth pressing but he has to fight tooth and nail not to present them in rhetorical forms that are the province of the right. You can feel the struggle of reason against language. The language is a strong, all-but-irresistible headwind. And the gang that now wants rid of him experiences that headwind as tailwind. Whatever he says is going to sound wrong. Whatever they say is bound to sound right.

Language is always a battlefield in politics. Appropriating it and thereby defining your own particular take on Newspeak is the target. By doing so you make certain thoughts impossible or at least very hard. Nor is it always a consciously conspiratorial act to seize the means of definition. You can be dragged towards it by a kind of magnetism. Peope go where they feel comfortable and left-speak is comfy.

Time and time again I return to the Simone Weil: Obedience to the force of gravity, the greatest sin. It is too late to be fighting gravity once you have started falling. Anthony's book argues that we are falling and there may only be a few stray branches to grab and cling on to.




14.10.07 : I DIED FOUR TIMES: I GET LOST EASILY

I arrive back late last night from Sheffield where I was taking a masterclass as part of the Off the Shelf literature festival that is still very much on. The masterclass was eight poets in three hours which is quite a short time each as in normal practice one can easily do a whole hour on a single short poem, but practical affairs are practical affairs and it all worked well enough.

The session was on the upper floor of a gallery overlooking Sheffield's big troubled lottery project, a performing music college that failed and is now the Sheffield Hallam University students union. It looks remarkably like four huge curling stones clustered together. No doubt there is something symbolic in that. Alternatively one could regard them as four electric kettles for which an equally powerful symbolic argument could be be proposed.

I saw little of Sheffield since the walk from the railway station to the gallery is five minutes, but the little I saw awoke a feeling of profound desolation. L, who welcomed me, was very enthusiastic about living there, but then she had been born and bred in Sheffield, her father having been both a miner and a steel worker. Now there's no new work, or very little. The big public gestures: the curling stone building, the great wet wall by the station that is christened by locals 'the urinal', the Spearmint Rhino club next to the curling stones are a kind of visual bellowing in an empty bar. The once big football teams are propping up the old second division. It is tragic in human terms and never mind The Full Monty. It's not going to be cured by a bunch of male strippers. It needs money and work and belief.

The literature festival is something, so is the idea of Sheffield as a city of refuge. The hills are spectacular. The cooling towers remain as memorial art works. The Park Hill flats were blown up to be replaced by their exact contemporary equivalent.

The old People's Republic of South Yorkshire probably needs fewer big public gestures and more small ones.

Almost needless to say the train journey home was a mess and resulted in missed connections. The smell of chaos and shabbiness is hospitals and public transport is so general as to be taken for granted.

*

Taken for granted means mildly dispiriting. Forty-five minutes on Ely platform with everything closed including the toilets is no fun. Fortunately this time there was an earlier train so it was only twenty minutes. On the way out, in fact on the first train, a young man opposite me started a conversation. He had the voracious gleam-in-the-eye of a newly converted Christian evangelist and that is what he turned out to be. I cannot quite voice him but it was something like this:

I am going to York to testify at the theology department. Invited by a theology student friend. I am witnessing to the power of God to heal and change. I am an example. I was not a good person. I had a very bad car accident. Drugs and booze. Crashed at near a hundred. My head was a mess. You wouldn't think it but it's only held together by wire. I died four times and was brought back each time. So I think I was spared for something.

He looked as though he might have been a bit of a tearaway a year or two back. He went on:

I travel a lot now. I fly from Norwich to Schipol then anywhere. That's the testifying. After tomorrow I am going to Norway. The north. I love the cold. Next year it's the Arctic. I hate summer. I want it to be freezing all the time. I go about in shorts in the cold. Heat stifles me. That's why I love the Arctic. Though it's melting fast.

He and I were both supposed to change at Thetford but the man in the ticket office told me not to bother and change at Ely instead. The conductor came round as we were talking and I checked about the change with him. He too advised changing at Ely. The young man clutched his ticket. Yes, I see, he said. But I am going to stick to Thetford. I just want to be right and do what it says on my ticket. In any case, I get lost easily.

It struck me as odd that a world traveller of the testifying class who had died four times and was intent on exploring the Arctic in t-shirt and shorts should be so worried about sticking precisely to what it said on his ticket despite being advised by rail officials that he need not bother.

Since the train he caught at Thetford was exactly the same one I caught at Ely I met him again on Peterborough platform. The express service to York was standing at the platform. It was the one before I was going to get on. Are you getting on? I asked him. It goes to York. No, he said. I'll get the right one. I left him there and hopped on.


Having almost finished Andrew Anthony's book I want to write about it later today if I find the time.




12.10.07 : BEYOND ALL THIS FIDDLE

Apropos of a 1989 clerihew I wrote while in Budapest Will has found the very Sam Fox video that was playing in the Budapest Metros at the time. How weird, haunting and oddly postmod it is that the marching season and the daily breaking down of political barriers that culminated in the cutting of the iron curtain and the fall of the Berlin Wall, with everything that follows from that, should be accompanied by Sam Fox's eighties hairdo, embonpoint and ample poitrine in dynamic motion, as if it and history were all the time running towards each other to form a confluence of Liberty and glorious Hungarian porn that even in 1989 was setting its baby feet on the path to Eurofame. "Touch my body," sang Sam. Meanwhile young Hungarian porn dealers were thrusting patriotic hard core at passers by in the underpasses. Not quite the Sixties, you understand, not drugged up, but clear and logical, simply waiting to be defined, lurching towards definition. And the speeches and the re-burials, and the revelations tumbled out like someone of roughly Sam's proportions but much bigger, state-sized, unfastening her enormous state-supplied East German, one-size-fits-all manufactured bra.




12.10.07 : STAGS AND GORES

Headline in Budapest press says British stag parties have earned the city one thousand million forints. Divide that by three hundred and sixty or so to get the pound sterling of it but it's still a tidy sum. My favourite Budapest courtyard is in a street that used to be known for its bordellos. So I read.

I wonder if that means Temple Bar in Dublin is experiencing a downturn of the same?

And Al Gore wins the Nobel Peace Prize. While in impromptu headline clerihew mode:
Al Gore!
Small bore
goes global.
Wins Nobel.
A draft. Now to polish it for the next ten years.




11.10.07 : DORIS LESSING

No news to anyone that she has won the Nobel Prize for Literature. I think that means I had better start reading her. She is one of many illustrious writers who have the unsought for distinction of not having been read by me, or at least having been intended to be read by me but without a hard enough flame of intensity to actually make it happen.

I did hear her read - indeed read with her - at the ICA some three years ago. It seemed to me at the time that she was distinctly a good thing. Now it seems she is a great thing too. I grace the occasion with a laureate poem.

Doris Lessing
whom I once had the pleasure of addressing
may have turned out to be a blessing
and reading her now seems to be more pressing.

That is, technically, a non-Clerihew. A Clerihew is a biographical verse that has four lines of uneven length, the more uneven the better, and the first of which should be the person's name. After Edmund Clerihew Bentley.

Such as:

Tony Blair
Said: It isn't fair
That everything I own
Now belongs to Gordon Brown.

or a double one:
Thomas Hardy
Never met Linda Lusardi.
History is full of these
Sad missed opportunities.


OK, so the first is improvised. Write your own. Or see Auden's Academic Graffiti. Here is a very little picture of Auden to help you on your way.







11.10.07 : GUEST POST

A response to the piece on Eagleton and Amis, with permission from the writer.

When I was growing up, things were bad for Asian and Black people in the UK. The level of racism was visceral and looking back, incredible. Things have changed so much from then, obviously for the better. But things changed in another way in 1989, with the Rushdie affair. All of a sudden there was a cause for new activists to latch onto, and ‘identity politics’, such as they were, were no longer based on a common experience of post immigrant struggle and ethnic solidarity in the face of racist hostility. All of a sudden, something very atavistic and dark took place --- a form of religious identity politics asserted itself virulently, and was locked into global Muslim politics. It was sparked by the pronouncements of a priest in Iran, linked to the religious politics of Pakistan. All of a sudden, Islam became the primacy source of identity for Muslims; there was no desire for a secular expression of cultural or social affiliation. The Rushdie affair was as much a sideways expression of hostility and distancing from Hindus and Sikhs (kaffirs who had little in common with the need of the Muslim hour anymore), as anything else. From herein, ‘identity politics’ would be as much about religious grievance, victimhood, self-pity, and self-interest, as about truly combatting racism, or ennobling through cultural endeavour, as any conception of a collective self-identity as a minority might do.

And all those men were born in 1989 --- Bunglawala, Sacranie, all of them. They leveraged ‘multiculturalism’ for their own narrow agenda, and in doing so, defecated in that well. Behind them lies a psychosis of anti-semitism amidst their self-contextualisation in a narrative of Islamic rise and fall and struggle. I saw all of this at first hand. Before this even registered on the radar of mainstream society, you could see it in the kind of chauvinism that was on display at colleges and universities and a slow descent into an ugly supremacism that fed off a deep sense of grievance and inferiority complex and rage. You could see minds closing like one of those stop-motion photography films of a flower blooming in reverse, petals folding in on it self. It was self perpetuating, self enraging, grievance seeking, outward-blaming. It was as if a rare form of plutonium had been planted in a furnace that could never stop splitting and fission-ing. No matter what happened in society, no matter how much things changed, grievance must always be found, victimhood must always be perpetuated. This was linked to specific ideology, the ideology of Maududi and Qutb, and disseminated and promoted actively by individuals and organisations. And it wasn’t until later that I began to see and understand the psychosis of anti-semitism that was at the heart of much of this.

Most Muslims would not be hostile towards Jews, or think that they deserved to be wiped off the face of the Earth, because the majority of Muslims are not the faces you see on TV or peddling the Islamist line, and I have lived with and loved Muslims, and mostly they just want to earn enough to feed their families and live in peace. Imagine yourself and your family, and they are like that.

But sadly a larger proportion than is healthy would agree with those dark sentiments about Jews, and the ambience amongst many Muslims, abetted and complicitly tolerated by the men of 1989 and their descendants, would not be sensitized enough to condemn or recognise it for the poison that it is.

The collective noun of ‘Asian’ is a hollow one now. What does it mean? And it was around that time, (the late 80’s and early 90’s), that the first fruits of all those struggles against racism began to be felt. Visceral racism of the kind that was as much a part of our lives as oxygen was no longer acceptable. We began to see ourselves reflected, without condescension or tokenism, in the common culture. A generation of British Indians came of age and we had almost taken a route to by-passing prejudice that in time I was to see as the most effective response to those immediate problems we had faced. We’d been told that the way to immunise ourselves from the racism we would face would be to study hard, excel at university, and take advantage of business opportunities so nobody could harm us. These were the cultural pressures and orientations we lived under. All of a sudden, the shrill cries of confrontation and accusation and (sometimes) belligerence that characterised ‘identity politics’ seemed impotent and destructive. We were more fleet-footed than that. Whatever prejudice there was would not prevent us from succeeding. That’s when I began reading and trying to make sense of where we were, and I began to see traces of earlier footprints. Although vastly different in history and context, still, to a certain extent, Jews had already been through what we were going through. How to survive as a minority within a Western culture, how to balance the demands of old values and religion with the modern world, the assimilation anxiety, which could be both debilitating and creative, the suffocation of family, the backwardness of some religious orthodoxies, the implications of immigration, the tensions within your group, the very idea of thinking of yourself in terms of ‘tribe’, the sadness and melancholy and guilt of it all, the happiness and even pride of it all.

Of course this was not a perfect fit, but it became a trail I could make out, and it offered a template for understanding where I was. You can see it in Leopold Bloom, in Portnoy’s Complaint, in some of Saul Bellow’s short stories and characters. You can see it in some of your poems. I suppose this is what made me a semito-phile (is that a word? It sounds quite clinical. Is ‘Jew Lover’ better? But that sounds like a slur, like Paki Lover or Nigger Lover, oh well, language eh?) And it is what makes me so repulsed by the anti-semitic discourse that takes place now, the prejudice that is part of that plutonium in the furnace today. And in truth, it is probably what makes me more sensitive to its manifestations and implications than your average gentile man (let alone British Indian).

But it also makes me fear the collective wrath upon anyone, because when there is wrath, it sometimes falls on my head and the head of my family too, even though we have nothing top do with Islam, when my uncle was abused horrendously by bigots in the street for his brown skin after July 2005, because ultimately this mis-trust and fear works itself out indiscriminately, in personal ways. I just want everyone to work this out, peacefully.

And yes, the onus is on Muslims to do a lot more --- not because they are collectively culpable and guilty of anything, but because their religion is being used in such a way that violates what they claim it stands for. But I understand their sorrow and fear and shock as much as anything else. It must be hard for them to front up to those men, so frightening in their belief and rhetoric, so ready to violence, as anyone else would be. We need them to do it. We should support them when they do. Because real ugliness is brewing.




11.10.07 : QARRTSILUNI

I should have linked before to Qarrtsiluni and shame on me that I only do so now through a piece of my own appearing there (in fact one of two pieces, both briefly seen on my own site as drafts).

I think we will get ever more web magazines and a good thing too. They will eventually be just as important as the paper ones but more drunkenly various. Like MacNeice's tangerines.




11.10.07 : ONLY HERE FOR THE CRACK

This crack and the craic that follows. As cracks go the one in the Tate Modern is big. More than that it is significant and what it signifies, according to the artist, Doris Salcedo, is "the chasm between the lives lived by white Europeans and those who immigrate to the continent from the developing world."

It is as well to know. There might have been so many things the crack might have symbolised but this saves us the problem of wondering. THAT is what it is. Can't you see it spelled out, you dire cracked philistine with your terrible cracks about cracks?

Let me relieve you of the weight of your brains and TELL you, says the artist. THIS, this exactly, is what the chasm between the lives lived by white Europeans and those who immigrate to the continent from the developing world looks like. Now it veers to one side, now the other, and see that little bit there to the right about 7 metres from the entrance, that has a particular meaning that I am not now about to reveal. Ponder on THAT.

OK. Now see this asterisk, right here *? That asterisk signifies the loss of the rainforests. Mark it well. And this one here * signifies the score between England and France at rugby that I am not about to reveal. And this one * signifies that I am in a position to tell you its precise signification but can't be bothered. This last one * signifies that a piece of art that is about one thing and one thing only is about as useful as a bicycle without wheels. And that if the signification it ascribes to itself is simplistic rubbish there rises a doubt in my mind about the existence of any bicycle or part thereof whatever.

This is not a relecftion on the crack itself. A big crack in a big building cannot help but impress. The bigger the building the bigger the crack. So much more vanishes into it.

(The third response on CiF by one Gyda Gwen looks pretty good to me.)

*

AND a little more on the Amis article. I made no comment on what Martin Amis said, or is supposed to have said, to Ginny Dougary, nor its interpretation or possibly ironic context, but I have now read it. It is, I think, ambiguous and it would help if he cleared it up. However, since the article begins:

Martin Amis is jumpy. He sees the secret police everywhere. His eyes dart around, starting at shadows, and his concentration is shot. For a while he’s fine and we’re back to the effortless flow of elegant sentences; the lazy, patrician drawl – and then, arrrgh, back comes the paranoid facial freeze, the whole body tensing and doubling over as he scrabbles to conceal what he fears his tormentors will find.

... I suspect the idea was to set up Amis in a particularly unfavourable light so I am not entirely convinced of the good faith of the rest.

ps The asterisk between the Salcedo piece and the Amis is, I declare, entirely devoid of signification apart from the poetic fragment in your readerly head.




10.10.07 : EAGLETON

It is general sport to take people who are dead some time then dump on them for reasons best explained by later conditions. Terry Eagleton has just been doing that with Kingsley Amis via views on Martin Amis. The elder Amis, according to Eagleton, was a compound of every bad -ism that can be assembled. He was racist, misogynist, anti-semitic, homophobic. The lot. On the other hand the family says what the family says (see the Telegraph link below). As for the younger Amis he is, says Eagleton, the BNP in training.

The Guardian gives space to Eagleton. The Telegraph offers the Amis family response.

The trouble with name calling is that it eliminates any need for argument or evidence. It is calling for immediate mob justice. That leaves me feeling that whatever the case on Amis I would prefer his corner to Eagleton's.

The passage in Eagleton's CiF piece that commentators have tended to pick up is this:

But there is something rather stomach-churning at the sight of those such as Amis and his political allies, champions of a civilisation that for centuries has wreaked untold carnage throughout the world, shrieking for illegal measures when they find themselves for the first time on the sticky end of the same treatment.

Well, yes. It is only this civilisation that has been wreaking untold carnage throughout the world, not Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, South American dictators and dozens in the Arab world, never mind certain African states, emperors and presidents past and present, and if some people in London or indeed Manchester get themselves blown up here and there, they get no pity from Eagleton as it is just the "sticky end of the same treatment." If all civilisations that have wreaked carnage are subject to the same treatment, just blow the world up now.

Oh but leave the Guardian. And definitely leave Professor Eagleton.




09.10.07 : INSTEAD OF A POST

As I went out early and am back late, here is a link to Mick Hartley to the Ayaan Hirsi Ali story. The Dutch have decided that if someone wants to cut her throat they should go right ahead. On the other hand, and good for them, this.

Also a very kind email and vast thanks to Matthew Iles who has sent me word files of, it seems, the lost entries on this blog. Bless you Matthew. I will stick them back on and save them, like a good boy.




08.10.07 : LOST POSTS

It is a little annoying when two months of your journal goes missing swallowed by cyberspace but I am being stoic and chilled (note contemporary argot!) about it. It has happened before. I should save the entries regularly but all goes well for months so I forget. Most of my posts are written straight online so there is no copy elsewhere, but I might do a bit of backfilling as and when I can. There was that lovely Crazy Gang feature from the Tube, for example.

One hell of a past nine days, with the full-on but exhilarating teach of the Arvon Course, then the prize giving near Ipswich yesterday and today, a lot of teaching, hasty preparation, then two events in the evening. I have just returned from the second of them, the launch of Padrika Tarrant's book of short stories, Broken Things. If anyone has genius, Paddy has, a dark frail yet remarkably resilient and brilliant imagination, and it really is imagination, not fancy in the Coleridge sense, in that it is not making things up but proceeding from the terrifying heart of things. I don't do adverts, but this is as close as I get. And someone really ought to get on and publish her long fiction, The Knife Drawer, which is, if anything, even better and - forgive the cliché - utterly unforgettable. Buy the short stories and read them. Not a million miles from Bruno Schulz, but here, round the corner.

I must return to Redgroviana soon as it is a serious and substantial subject. But not tonight. Tomorrow night there is another event, the launch of the UEA anthology.

I see the essay I wrote for Poetry has been picked up for comment on Ed Nudelman's blog here and by Don Share here.




: HARD HOURS

Before I left Totleigh Barton PS gave me a copy of the Stride collection of Peter Redgrove's interviews and essays, The Colour of Radio. Although I am reasonably acquainted with Shuttle-Redgroviana I was keen to delve into this and fell to doing so on the train and later when I got home.

My curiosity is tinged by an element of apprehension. There are aspects of Redgroviana that strike me as remarkably forceful but so different not just from my own life but from life as I understand it to be lived generally that I cannot quite accept them. As with many books I find myself arguing, but with Redgrove I feel I am arguing with a mage-sage-shaman who reminds me of a Bestiary verse I once wrote about someone / something else, that went:

Bear

Such a vast creature. His mind embraces
Everything. He bends your ear.
His furry breath fills up your skull
Until you disappear.

So yes, there is this apprehension of disappearing into someone else's energy field. I mean distinctly someone else's. For while there is much in his thinking that strikes me as having truth, the terms of that truth seem unacceptable.

What do I mean? I will try to explore that, but to begin with there is the Jungian psycho-biological package that seems OK for a mind that focuses on its own, and the world's general energies but not for a specific historical mind like mine. The big statements about magic and menstruation and tantric sex (if that's what it is) seem out of scale and proportion to the kind of life that moves me, which comprises the minutiae of everyday life such as the work of the office, the factory floor, the bus, where such things are not symbols of alchemical powers but the affairs of people who are trying to put a living together.

I like and respect and admire Redgrovian energy, the gifts and warmth of spirit of PS and the heroic strivings of such as Redgrove. But I am not naturally a joiner of covens. I have nothing against them but any covenites and covenants must accept me and be able to speak to the world I feel at my fingertips.

This is, I am aware, a rather personal entry and of little interest to those of my friends and readers who are more interested in politics, as indeed I am, because it is after all the place where the fates of those in offices and factories is decided.

Here is a poem, written for PS as a response to an exercise. It is one world, if you like, talking to another that is not hostile to it, and to which it itself is not hostile. The Redgrove world is like a house that is rather wonderful but not my own. I will put the poem on the front too. (And I should add, I got some good poems out of PS's fine sessions, because PS is actually a darling as only an idiot could deny.)

How long are your hours? asks Penelope Shuttle

My hours vary. See the sign on the door.
Some days I’m out twenty-four hours or more,
stacking my hours neatly across the floor.

The hours line up. They tend to speak in chorus.
Their eyes are sharp, their skin porous.
Are you against us? they demand. Or for us?

My hours are easily broken down. They break
into ever smaller pieces. They shimmer and shake
their dazzling heads. They give me a headache.

My hours are constantly sloping off. We belong
to other schemes of time,
they say. Our song
is there if you listen close.
My hours aren’t long.

Look, even now they have wedged themselves between
two thoughts in the tiniest space. They dream
of history. My parents dream them. Hard they are, and lean.


Hard and lean are the hours I learned from my parents. They stay with me.

ps I see a lot of my earlier entries have been wiped by some accident or bug.




: MARAI REPLACEMENT 1
from Conversations in Bolzano

Carefully concealing the cards in his pockets, he sought out Signor Mensch. He found him behind the church, in a single storey house, in a dark room that overlooked the courtyard, surrounded with caskets and balances. At first glance it seemed that the person of the usurer was a libel on his name. There was little that was human about him. A short, scrawny creature, he was sitting in a dressing-gown at a long narrow table, the fingernails of his delicate, yellow hands grown sharp and curling, so that he appeared to grasp things the way a bird of prey seizes its quarry, his lank grey locks hanging over his brow, and his small, bright, intelligent eyes, eyes that glowed from beneath deep wrinkled lids, staring with burning curiosity at the stranger. He greeted Giacomo in his dirty kaftan, lisping and bowing stiffly without rising from his chair, mixing French, Italian and German words in his speech but mumbling all the while, as if not quite taking him seriously but thinking of something else, not really listening to his guest. "Ah!" he said, once the visitor had given his name, and raised his eyebrows until they met the dirty locks above them. He blinked rapidly, like a monkey hunting for fleas. "Have these old ears heard correctly? Is an invalid to trust these poor ears of his?" He spoke of himself in the third person, with a kind of tender intimacy, as if he were his own nephew. "Mensch is a very old man," he lisped ingratiatingly. "No-one visits him nowadays, old and poor as he is, " he mumbled. "But here is a stranger come to call," he concluded and fell silent.

…..

They spoke quietly about money, the way lovers speak of their feelings. There was no preamble: they got straight to the point, passionate, full of curiosity, like two professionals meeting each other at a party, like guests who isolate themselves in some alcove so they may discuss the marvellous secrets of their common trade while the hostess is busy playing the piano or someone is reciting verses, to argue a point about masonry or the physiology of the emu. Money was the subject they talked about, their speech plain but littered with technical terms, and there was no need for a glossary since both were entirely at home in the matter. "Security," said Mensch, and the word fizzed in his mouth like an oath. "Credit," declared the other with some heat, convincing and natural, certain that nothing could be simpler, as if the sound of the word and its firm enunciation were sure to touch the old man’s heart. They discussed the two concepts readily and at some length. If anyone had been watching them from a distance he might have thought he was witnessing an abstruse argument between two scholars. Both of them were articulating deeply held beliefs, beliefs that corresponded to the essential inner truths and realities of their beings, beliefs so fervently adhered to they would have staked their lives on them. Because what "security" represented to the one, was represented by "credit" to the other, not just at this precise moment, at the specific dusk of this one evening, but at other times too, in every circumstance of life. That which one could conceive of only in terms of security and guarantee, the other demanded in terms of credit from the world, his demand consistent and passionate beyond the material business of the present, itself an item of faith. One could only experience the world in so far as he could accept it as security, the other wanted all life on credit: happiness, beauty, youth, but above all, money, possession of which was the essential condition of life. It was ideas, not amounts, that they were discussing.

……

Signor Bragadin’s name clearly impressed the money-lender. "A most honourable gentleman," he said, blinking even more rapidly than before. "A sound name. Worth its weight in gold!" There was a certain suspicion in his voice for he was sure that the stranger was wanting to cheat him, to sell him something of dubious value, something that didn’t exist, that, ultimately, he wanted to sell Signor Bragadin’s own person. "A ring perhaps!" he ventured, and raised his little finger with its long, black fingernail, crooking it to indicate that almost anything was better, more valuable, more apt for commercial purposes than a human being. "A little ring," he wheedled in a singing, pleading voice, like a child asking for marzipan. "A little ring, with a precious stone," he added grinning, and winked, rubbing the thumb and forefinger of his right hand together to demonstrate what a pretty, fascinating object a little ring could be, especially one with a precious stone, a ring on which one could offer some security.



: MARAI REPLACEMENTS 2
from The Rebels

Havas is standing in the doorway, wiping his walrus moustache with the back of his hand, smiling, he bows a little and, using one hand only, fusses with the unbuttoned collar of his shirt. As he smiles his eyes are almost entirely obscured by the rings of fat that surround them. He makes a welcoming gesture towards the door and allows them to pass through it ahead of him. His breath reminds Ábel of kitchens, of washing-up and cold lard. That might be because the hall too smells strongly of stale food and the table of the room into which they are ushered is covered with the neglected remains of food in bowls, on plates and in cups. None of this would strike him as shocking were it not for some glimmering memory, larger than life, that he has seen all this and experienced it before. But at the same time he knows for a fact that he has never been here. It was a dream, a dream in which he had met Havas, who had appeared, exactly as he has just done, in his doorway, wiping his walrus moustache with the back of his hand, buttoning up his collar with the very same smile. It is as if he has experienced it all: the smell of cold food, everything down to the last detail, the smell, the quality of light, the sounds, all exactly the same. He knows that this is the only possible way for the pawnbroker to appear, smoothing his moustache, fussing with his collar… never before has he been quite so shaken by a sense of déjà vu, to the extent that he takes a startled step back. But the pawnbroker fails to notice his shock, bows low before them and ushers them into the room then closes the door.


…..
‘So I have worked out my own diet. Flesh is the most easily digestible material, gentlemen. It breaks down so readily. I only have to cook twice a week, on Saturday and Wednesday. Nothing but meat. I can’t eat in restaurants,’ he said closing his eyes, ‘because the portions I allow myself there are so miniscule they attract too much attention. You get to an age when you don’t want to draw too much attention to yourself. In my case,’ he hesitated as he licked a finger shining with grease, ‘I have to eat two pounds of meat at any single sitting.’
He picked up a hunk of half-chewed ham on the bone, raised it to the light and took a bite out of what was left on it.
‘I feel positively ill otherwise,’ he declared. ‘I must have precisely two pounds of flesh, without bread, once at dinner, once at supper. I cook such meat as will keep for a few days. I have to watch that there is some variety too. I have an extraordinary digestion. It will accommodate four or five kinds of meat, and indeed desires two pounds of it, but if I eat only one kind, say for instance two pounds of beef at dinner, my stomach demands attention by the aftErnõon. Pâté is my chief source of nourishment, I keep a constant supply of various pâtés because they keep best without going off. Sometimes I have to eat in the aftErnõon too. May I offer you a slice?’




: MáRAI REPLACEMENTS 3
‘Dear God,’ he muttered with distaste. ‘They are making cheap imitations of this now. It comes from Poland, so the fakes must be made there too. Genuine kontuskova burns your throat…. Birds?’ he turned to face Tibor. ‘We get what we get. It was pawned like the rest if you please. It was offered to me though I cannot think why I accepted it. I’m not a pet shop. But it was such a tiny singing sort of bird…a siskin, if you know the species, gentlemen. A person gets lonely. It sang when I woke in the morning. You wouldn’t believe, gentlemen, how quickly a lonely person such as I can get used to a singing bird. Trouble was he couldn’t get used to meat. He only sang for two days.’
He looked straight ahead, with sad reminiscing expression.
‘Why should I buy him seeds and millet, I thought, when I have so much meat? Swallows eat flies. Why shouldn't a siskin eat meat too? The cupboard is always full of meat. I gave him tiny snippets of the finest veal. He couldn’t get used to it.’
He waved the matter away.
‘I couldn't keep him long. I am not, I repeat, a pet-shop. This was a piece of speculative business, you understand gentlemen? I never take animals as surety. But Havas has a heart and one day a lady comes in, a lady of mature years who has seen some troubles in her time, and pushes this cage over the counter. What is your ladyship thinking of? I ask her. What is the value of a siskin? Now I really have seen everything. Tears and words. It was this thing and that thing. She desperately needed four crowns. She was expecting some money in three days time and she swore by all she loved that she would bring it in because this bird was everything in the world to her. Call this business! I said to myself. But she wouldn't go away and the bird started singing. Three days, I said, fine, because I was in a good mood and I have a heart. The young gentlemen cannot begin to imagine what people bring in. People of the utmost refinement… the entire town. Naturally, I don’t say anything. But the bird kept singing. It’s hungry, I thought. But it didn’t eat the meat and then it stopped singing. I knew it would remain on my hands. What would a lonely widower want with a caged bird?’
He propped his heavy brow on his hands and stuffed the cigar into a cigar-holder.
‘Now imagine, gentlemen. On the third day the lady returns. She stands at the counter. Here are the four crowns my dear sweet Mr Havas, may God reward you for your kindness. May I please have my bird back? What bird? I say. She begins to tremble and stands there her mouth wide open. The bird Mr Havas, she says, my bird, the siskin you kindly agreed to take for a couple of days, my darling little siskin? And she grips the bars on my counter. I look at her and think, yes indeed you should return that bird. The problem was it was no longer singing.’
He indicated the litter basket full of bones and left over food in front of the stove.
‘Fortunately the cleaner only comes in last thing in the evening. So I let down the shutters, go up to the apartment, searched through the litter basket and found the little creature. It was already rather stiff. Lucky I still had it, I thought, now Havas, go out and show the client that you don’t lose anything through carelessness in this business. I picked the little bird up, and placed it in a box, properly packaged as the contract regarding all returned articles requires. It was no bigger than a pocket watch. I tie the box round with string, as is proper, and seal it precisely as required by the contract. I pass it back over the counter to her and wait for her to say something. What is this, Mr Havas? she asks and turns the box round in her hand. For God’s sake, what is it? You should have seen the lady, gentlemen. She was wearing a pair of knitted gloves that only half covered her hands. She had a little black straw hat on her head, worn high like this. One siskin, I answer. I wait. She breaks the seals, tears the string and there’s the siskin. She lifts it out, holds it in her palm and gazes at it. I thought she was going to make a scene. But just imagine. There was no shouting, all she said was: oh, oh.’
‘What did she say?’ asked Ábel and leaned forward.
Havas gave him a glance.’She said: oh, oh,’ he repeated. ‘Nothing else. Nor did she go away but just stood there with the bird in her hand, the tears dropping from her eyes. Then I grew angry because isn’t this just the kind of thing that happens when a man listens to his heart? Why cry for the bird, your ladyship? It wouldn’t touch meat. Are you not ashamed of yourself, all this fuss about a bird?



: POETRY IRELAND PIECE 2

2.

Gadgets in themselves don’t interest me. I don’t play computer games. The fact that I have a website is down to my son who, besides being a musician, is the sort of man who can cook you up a website, which he did one day, one for me and one for my artist wife. He asked me what features I wanted on it. I wasn’t interested in things that flashed or ran around making fancy patterns. I have no desire to be cool. A website could be useful as a repository of information at the world’s fingertips. Only, I eventually thought, I could also keep some jottings on there, ideas and observations of this or that sort. That is how my own blog began, at a point when I was hardly aware of blogs. Then I went to India and kept a diary and soon found I had some readers.

Every form of communication has its own mode of address. It develops its forms. Keeping an online diary – or not so much a diary as a book of jottings – is a semi-public, semi-intimate act without an established form. You discover the form as you go and as the readership grows. I don’t mean to intimate mine is a huge readership, I only know how many hits I am getting. For all I know it may be the same dozen people coming back time and again.

My own interests are clearly poetry and visual art, but also politics and football and a number of other passing things. Writing down as clearly, sharply and gracefully as I can what I seem to be thinking clarifies matters for me. The performance of writing something that is more daily column than diary, is no different from the performance of writing anything. Writing down your ideas about, say, poetic form, or imagery, about the Middle East or about anything, makes you write better. You develop a voice for it. Sometimes it is tentative: sometimes it is ripe. Sometimes, I dare say, it is overripe. I enjoy writing, turning the voice this way and that, wondering what it will say next. Some posts have turned into essays that have been published or are on the way to publication. And of course there are the poems on the front page, some of which make their first appearance there as what seem at the time to be final drafts. They sit on the porch, sunning themselves, until I notice something wrong with them and have to call them in again.

I have made the acquaintance of a number of intelligent others this way - poets, artists, psychologists, political commentators, academics and so. I read what they write: they read what I write. Some have become influential in their fields through the medium, moving into newspapers. A community of ideas and sensibilities develops fairly quickly, and for a poet who lives a lot in the language inside his own head (generally called ‘the poetic condition’ however public the poems turn out to be) this community seems reasonable and natural. The voices have no physical locations. They are rude Ariels whose limbs are trapped in a distant conjectural tree. Sometimes they sound a little like Caliban and Sycorax combined. But their islands are elsewhere. As is mine. Life is elsewhere, said Rimbaud. In this respect he is right




: POETRY IRELAND PIECE 1

Technological change is not apocalyptic change. It was Paul Delaroche who, on seeing the first Daguerreotype, exclaimed: From today painting is dead! That was in 1839. A considerable amount of painting followed and continues to follow. I forget which poet it was who wrote that in the age of the aeroplane we can forget about metre and which it was that answered that you still need to feet to run. The heart does not cease working on a moving pavement. Neither does the development of the web mean that the nature of poetry published on it must be different. Certainly one can devise poems that exploit the possibilities offered by computers and the internet but the world and our bones will keep intervening and until the world and our bones become part of the e-fabric the web will serve more as a venue than an actor.

That is not entirely true in so far as it refers chiefly to the making of poems and to our sense of what a poem is. But processes are rarely so direct. Delaroche was right in one respect: the obligation to render simple likeness was now reduced. Technology is not apocalypse but it does change life: often it is the most decisive element in change. The change is rarely instantaneous – the atom bomb is an obvious exception – but it can be revolutionary at its own pace.

What the web makes possible is the rapid transfer of ideas as embodied in texts, visual imagery and sound. It enables all but instant communication between those who share such ideas or are exploring them; between those who would otherwise not have met. It is the great disseminator and it disseminates from individual computer to individual computer, from person to person. In that respect it is at the opposite end of the scale from TV, film and the newspapers, the media that created what became known as the ‘admass’ and which has not stopped existing.

The advance of globalisation in publishing as elsewhere has led to a situation where few bookshops stock poetry. The books aren’t there, there are fewer sales: there are fewer sales, there are less books in the shops. On the other hand books as physical objects are easier and cheaper to produce than they have ever been, providing you don’t have to make a serious profit and pay yourself as well as other people. People like books. Books are good objects.

It is not the production but the distribution and the degree of notice the books attract that matter to the writer. The web is in some respects like an infinitely large notice board on which anyone may post, but it is not just that. Anyone can pass around a manuscript too and used to do so, the manuscript travelling from hand to hand. So poets circulated in the Elizabethan period. Much depended on who hands were receiving and passing on. In that respect the web is a partial restoration of the status quo ante. It is not just from the personal email, but through the posting of links that influence and value are established.




: BACKFILL - THE LULLABY OF BROADWAY

Patching up, here are the two clips that add up to Busby Berkeley's The Lullaby of Broadway, from Gold Diggers of 1935. It make you wonder what Gold Diggers of 1940 would have looked like.


and



And the beginning parts of the poem-radio piece I wrote about it:, broadcast a few years ago now:

Lullaby of Broadway


We dance our way through nineteen thirty five
down a moderne staircase into the heart of a ballroom.
The band is playing but no one else is in there.
It’s nineteen thirty five and they are waiting

for something to happen, for an army of pianos
to scoot and swivel towards them, or a pool to open
its petals under their feet and the girls to dive in,
for two lovers to kiss and a park to start singing

in a glossy routine to a poetry of numbers.
We’re Gold Diggers of nineteen thirty five
under the direction of Hollywood’s Busby Berkeley
but it could be Eisenstein or Riefenstahl,

this year before the Triumph of the Will,
the year of Italy in Abyssinia,
the year, in Russia, of Zinoviev,
a year of show trials, beatings, executions,

Gold Diggers all, in nineteen thirty-five,
still hoofing our way to darkness
in gorgeous giggles of satin and leather,
at the point of departure

on a balcony of the eleven-hundredth floor,
at the point when the dancing stops and the falling begins,
when the hauntings we invite begin to move as a body,
when we, the people, collude with the people’s chorus

and all those notions of what it means to be a people,
stirred like hot coffee into a world of steam
and desire, right to the point of terror and heartbreak,
here at the point of departure.


*

This is the film, dear listener, I want you to imagine:
The film of the girl in the bed above the traffic,
dreamt by a man with a camera for an eye,
a single watcher in the night-time sky;

a watcher too in the rational and remorseless morning,
the hour of the journey to work that serves as a warning
to keep your pecker up as the jackboots march past you,
as the dizzying patterns you whirl in outlast you,

as the coffe boils over and the nipple strains in the cup,
as you watch the milk in the saucer when the kitten laps it up,
as darkness descends on the lampshade and the clock
and only dancers pass through the doors of the sleeping block.

*

Listener, listen: here’s the sound of a city
before your time in a history turned dream
you recognise while never having seen it,

pale as the flesh you are born from, turned to music,
transformed into prophetic modes of feeling,
to poetry composed of vulgar snatches,

a world of Freudian slips, half-conscious puns,
longing, desire: long stockinged legs, a bra strap
struggling to be hooked, and something boiling

which you will wake to in a wasted Europe
in sixty years of endless repercussions,
millennial voodoos, chanted, domed and harried

by chorusmasters, visionaries, demons.
The clock ticks on. You don your satin slippers,
and step out into night under the planets.

More backfills later.




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: THE MASTER OF FLEMALLE: THE FORMAL ATTITUDES OF GRIEF



The Entombment by The Master of Flemalle at the Courtauld

I wanted to think about this screen a little, not so much from the religious or iconographic or even semiotic point of view, more as a formal, almost abstract, expression of human experience. I sat down in front of it, not long enough, some twenty minutes or so and just looked. These are only notes.

Painted about 1420 or so, it's not an overwhelmingly large screen. We know who the people are. The donor kneels in the left hand panel and the customary figures of the Entombment populate the middle with its double arch: the Virgin Mary, Joseph of Arimathea, Nicodemus, another Mary, St John the Beloved Disciple (with the flaming red hair) and Mary Magdalene with her oil. The figure holding the white rectangle of cloth must be St Veronica. Plus angels carrying the instruments of the Passion. The right panel shows the Resurrection.

It is the central panel that grabs the attention of course, though the figures of the two thieves on the left hand panel are particularly pained and writhing, the one on the right seeming almost a continuation of the winding scroll issuing from the donor's mouth.

And it is that: the interplay between harmless scroll and the agony of the twisted body that typifies the mechanism of the whole picture.

In the central panel, three jagged patches of red pick up the red in the donor's garment. Everything in the picture is jagged of course, but the red performs a particularly agitated dance of blood: the angel, the crazed St John and the kneeling female figure (the second Mary) in the foreground whose garment pools and blobs into the foreground.

But then it is the white jags that take and shake the eye in a little ring of unremitting white edges, each as sharp as knives: Christ's winding cloth, the nearest woman's headdress, the white band on Joseph of Arimathea's hat and the broken white of Veronica's napkin against which the Virgin Mary's face swims towards dead Christ's all but knocking his head sideways. It is the pressure of grief. Everything is peaking, everything is collapsing towards Christ's head.

Let's forget the religious significance of the work for a moment and think of it as the death of a man on whom something depends. It doesn't matter what. It is not the cosmos, it is this small human corner of it that clashes around us. And yet it is a disciplined grief, barely controlled but controlled all the same. It contains a range of emotions but at the heart of it is a keen pity the sound of which is so high it rings in St John's ear.

I wish I could write much more about this here but it's the wrong place. What I sense as meaning and feeling is form. The more complex yet orchestrated the form, the more humane it becomes. It accords with what is best in us. It leaves us grieving in a monstrous world but ennobled, consoled and shaped by a certain comprehensiveness of vision. Let no one tell you art is not important. It can save your life. I sometimes think this picture could save mine if it had to.

I want to end with this image of two heads, St John and Nicodemus. They seem to me wonderful art, but only truly wonderful in the context of the whole picture.




Form and face and condition are one.




: 02:09:07 MEANWHILE

Yesterday a large party gathered at parents-in-law house, more than expected really, so rather than face a 4pm tea with nine others, having eaten a 1.30pm lunch, I politely begged to be excused and went for a walk through the town of H.

H is where we lived for twenty years. It is where the children were born, grew up and went to school. We lived in a Victorian house opposite the library, the house rented from said parents-in-law for ten years, then bought from them. No front garden at all but quite a long back garden. We built an extension and I worked in a box-room in the roof.

So much for the house. Despite several and regular visits back I hadn't walked through the town for years. It is quite a steep walk down the hill into the centre. There was the second-hand bookshop where I built up a cheap library. I walked in. The shelves were in the same place and the books somewhat disconcertingly ordered almost exactly as before. Already I felt a slight tremor of - well, what? nostalgia? not exactly - more something that simply registers the time that falls away from you, that you shed like skin. I bought a few books then meandered through the rest of town.

I could see the place had smartened itself up a bit - the people I passed were elegant in a t-shirt and baseball-cap wearing sort of way. They seemed to be mostly men who kept themselves fit by working out somewhere. The shops had not changed much apart from one or two new restaurants, cafés and smart furniture stores. The narrow river and the architects' office were exactly the same. It was a pretty town, and the central market square was now a piazza with cafes, a children's merry-go-round, and more men in t-shirts and baseball caps, muscle toned and a touch tanned too.

I sat in the piazza and read bits of the new books - some Brecht poems, some Bernard Spencer - vaguely aware of the day dying around me. People were leaving tables and moving on. A man in a straw hat two tables up was staring into space.

I moved on through the old arcade, towards the library in whose car park we once had all four wheels of our car stolen. It was a quiet street then and was so now. Our house lay just over the busy road. The front door was a kind of cabbage green. I looked in through the window. The owner had put an ironic modern horn-gramophone on display there like some sort of trophy. Beyond was a workstation with computer and music stuff.

All this time time was leaking out of me, leaving me faintly melancholic yet curiously rapt by the process. It was like being the ghost of myself. I walked back into town, past the church where I had written my first properly long poem, The Swimmers. The market was closing up. There had been a stall there with an elderly but very long haired Viennese man who sold all kinds of junk and to whom I talked occasionally. One day he told me he was rich, having made his money writing pornographic novels. I confess I did not believe him. More reader than writer I thought. But he was probably dead now. So now there are two of us walking through here.

And this morning, back home, going out to buy some milk I pass the town noticeboard and see the little A5 leaflets lifting and flapping in the draught between the car park and the high street, and somehow this is all appropriate, as appropriate as Derek Mahon's mushrooms in that disused shed in County Wexord. Powdery prisoners of the old regime. As are we all, poor fools.




: 02:09:07 HUMBLED


From BBC News website, 7.25pm.

"Humbled South Korean hostages return from Afghan ordeal"

Humbled? Is the BBC a Taliban website now? Why humbled, you jackasses? What do you know about humbling, you lard-assed louses? Humbled like a first division team against a lower division team? You mean they had it coming to them? That it served them right to eat humble pie, these cocky South Koreans trying to do some good in Afghanistan?

Get rid of that word. Now.



: 31:08:07 COD CONFUCIOUS, CHARLIE CHAN AND ERNEST BRAMAH


I have been reading a proof copy of Sid Smith's House by the River, a strange and wonderful fiction about two young misfit missionaries in China at about the time of the Boxer Rebellion. This was a gift from writer RM who is himself going to China soon and whose wife is a sinologist. (I met her at an event at the London Book Fair a couple of years ago.)

China is a big and well-furnished experience on C's side of the family, and reading through Smith it occured to me that the story is written a little like a magic lantern slide show of Terrible and Magnificent Events, but that the conversation was not unlike the 'mandarin' of Ernest Bramah, the early 20th century author of books such as The Wallet of Kai Lung and Kai Lung Unrolls His Mat, odd excursions into what would now be called 'Orientalist' whimsy, not too far down the road from Charlie Chan, the Chinese detective hero of a long series of films in the thirties and forties.

Chan would often quote cod Confucianisms such as "Humble sandwich in good company make glorious feast". Bramah's version of this kind of thing went: “It has been said there are few situations in life that cannot be honourably settled, and without loss of time, either by suicide, a bag of gold or by thrusting a despised antagonist over the edge of a precipice on a dark night.” (I quote this from Wiki though I have a couple of the old Bramah Penguin editions upstairs.)

Contemporary criticism has tended to disapprove of exoticism but I can't see how a degree of exoticism is avoidable in the face of the partly known, or why it should be regarded as entirely a bad thing. Yes, it turns what is familiar to the object into the Other for the reader, but practically everything is an Other to anyone who is half alive.

In the meanwhile, Sid Smith describes a marvellous shamanic exorcism, invents some curious and witty Christian apologetics, and provides his own version of Bramahism.

It's just the imagination doing its job, professor. The imagination, constable.

Another side of the English eccentic. And it turns out Bramah's real name was Smith.




: 30:08:07 BEFORE AND AFTER


Back in the late evening from a visit to London to see artist RK with whom I am doing the Canetti-based book, The Burning of the Books. R is slowly closing down his studio near Portobello Road on the corner of a mews. I remember visiting his earlier studio in Guildford where I wrote a piece about him for one or other art magazine.

I always think of R as a magician of some sort. Those extraordinary slantwise eyes that glitter and flick or sink. He is seventy-five now and smaller, generally shrunk, but radiates an almost radioactive energy.

I ask him what age he thinks of himself. Ten, he says, remembering a plane crash he was in when the Junker carrying him home from school in Brazil tipped over onto its side on the runway as it was landing. He remembers the ten nuns who were also on board and how, as the wind blew away their hats one older one was left utterly bald. He had never seen a bald woman before and it has stayed with him.

I said I am often about eight years old or so in the back of my mind. Yes, that too, he says. But then, he adds, sometimes I am in my twenties or a sexy thirty. That's the odd thing, he goes on. I still feel that age, still have the same responses, the same appetites, but the outside is different.

And tonight, coming home, C produces a batch of old photos of ourselves and the children and friends, most of the friends older then and now dead. Poets, English and Hungarian.

I have never liked the way I look, but always, in seeing old photos, I think I wasn't at all bad - then. But it is always 'then'. I seem to have missed myself by the whisker of a decade or so all my life. And how beautiful and young the children are, and C, like Julie Christie, with the long hair. She has not changed much, but for the hair which is spiky and neatly tousled in shades of blonde and brown.

The train home very cold, but the light as it is fading is a gorgeous bronze turning foreground objects - a truck, an outhouse of some sort, something left in a field - a sombre dark silver. Which was the colour that most entranced me when I was a child, the silver of toy soldiers, rails, or the moon shimmering down a lamppost.



: 29:08:07 THE JOYS OF BEING SIMON HEFFER

Simon Heffer discussing the murder of young Rhys Jones in The Daily Telegraph.

It is easy to justify the compassion and sentimentality that made the mainly middle-class Attlee government pursue a more blanket welfarism than Beveridge intended. In the immediate post-war period, what was then the respectable working class lived in often frightful conditions. Especially in bombed-out urban areas, the accommodation was cramped, primitive and temporary. Things that even the poorest person today takes for granted - mains drainage, proper sanitation, a cheap power supply - were frequently unknown. It was right to want something better. But it was wrong to want it at the price of stripping people of what had always been their responsibilities for themselves and their families, and of removing all incentive to get on in life and to provide for themselves. [My italics.]

These choices are indeed terrible. I can just see the moral dilemma in 1945.

“Should we provide mains drainage, proper sanitation and a cheap power supply?”

“But that might mean stripping people of what have always been responsibilities for themselves.”

“I quite see that. We can’t possibly strip them of that, can we? We had better let them rot.”

Simon Heffer is a moral man. At least from his photograph he appears to be a man.




: 28:08:07 ED HUSAIN

I have just finished reading, no doubt after everyone else, Ed Husain's book. It offers little comfort. Nice guy, quite happy to believe in his teens that nobody who is not Hizb deserves to live, least of all Jews, Americans and Brits. Carries on believing this while undergoing this or that conversion to this or that variant of Islamism, eventually getting turned off by a real stabbing. Goes into banking, leaves banking. Does TEFL in Syria and Saudi Arabia. The first is OK, the second is dreadful (the book isn't a suspense story so this is not a spoiler). Joins the Labour Party, foresees dread things in UK and elsewhere.

It is a decently written book by an intelligent and earnest - and presumably couragous - young man. He find the UK rather humane compared with the Islamicist societies he had pinned his hopes on before, especially Saudi which ought to have been the embodiment of everything he desired.

The Islamicist society he describes is yet another, and less attractive side, of boy racer: the absolutism, the intellectual arrogance and cruelty. The harbouring and nurturing of resentment. The secret clubbiness. The hatred of 'softness' which is read as wickedness, the hatred of democracy that is seen as apostasy, the hatred of of the kuffar who is regarded as subhuman.

A boring, vicious, resentful, self-important, exclusive, racist batch of sulky teens pretending to be adults. Welcome to Hizb-ut-Tahrir. And welcome back to something like a life, Ed Husain.




: 27:08:07 RESPECT: THE DARKER SIDE OF THE BOY RACER

I have lived through thirty years or so where it has grown worse and worse to be a boy. The manual jobs have been disappearing, the self-respect of earning your way has gone with them. The boyish impulse to rebel has not been channelled into anything useful. Schools want results for league tables and exams reward very un-boylike values. They no longer reward the stored then loosed energy, the obsessive rush, they reward the steady accumulation of brownie points. They no longer value the continued whole picture which boys require as their sense of the world, they ask for more touchy-feely local virtues, such as empathy here and there. Boys are always going to come second in that.

Then they are told, and they read – if they do read – that they are worthless, that they will never amount to anything. They are scum.

On the other hand, the rebel, dreaming, logical streak – something that has and always has had a deeply positive side - brings them images of success through a terrible form of rebellion, the world of gangs and guns and hos and drugs and loyalty and fear. And look how great life is seen to be for those who succeed at this! Big cars, sexy women, fancy houses. Respect. It is the only way to gain respect. You’ll never become what your teachers want you to become. You’ll not do as the progressive prison governors with dead boys’ bodies on their hands, who want you to talk and get in touch with your feelings, demand. They are just asking you to be girls again, and you’ll never be as good as a girl at being one. You also suspect that even if you did half succeed you’d not get respect from either boys or girls. So you do the big daft enormous things. You blow away whatever is an obstacle. What’s the alternative? Blowing yourself away. Down you go, boy racer.

Some ten years ago I suggested we were breeding a generation of feral boys, ever younger, ever more lost. And that whatever right-thinking girls say there will be a trail of macho-admiring girls who’ll come along for the ride and maybe even imitate them. We are slowly getting there.



: 27:08:07 HELLHOLE

Daughter H and partner R with us since Friday afternoon. Saturday was hair appointments in Norwich for H and C, both coming back altered, while R walked round the shops and bought one or two things. I translated. Much playing with the kittens Big Pearl, and Lily Lite, both of whom are under the weather, the former on medication.

Yesterday poet CH and her partner R arrive about midday, then we are off to A and N's where their guests, P and S (all these damn initials!) are waiting for us to take them on a tour of three interesting churches near Aylsham: Cawston, Salle and Booton, to include a meal at the Black Boys Pub in Aylsham.

All three churches are special. Cawston has a magnificent roof full of vertical hammerbeam angels, Salle is spacious and has squatting angels and Booton is an eclectic, haunting nineteenth century gallimaufry with exquisite rococo-gothick towers surmounting a heavy small, slightly claustrophobic mausoleum-like building, in which the choir is dark and fuggy and the angels oversize and overbearing, like a bad melancholy dream.

Lunch at the Black Boys, so called because black slaves were kept in the cellars there, with passageways to other Aylsham buildings. I think of slaves in the west of England, not so much the east. This would have been 16th and 17th century. Odd to be dining greatly above a historical hellhole. Dainty, country streets and out beyond, though not far beyond, the North Sea and a cliff walk to Cromer with its pier and end-of-pier entertainment, suitably Archie Riceish.

Below the pier a family setting crabs to race, big crabs, brown, common in Cromer. Cromer crab. Delicacy. And above the bar, the boards. Towering above the lot the dark looking Hotel de Paris, where I am determined to stay a night or two in almost-off season.

More later.




: 25:08:07 FOOTBALL, PLEASURE AND IRRESPONSIBILITY

James at More than Mind Games is, as ever, intelligent and perceptive and I was picking up on something he, and then a commenter, wrote about the England-Germany game that England lost 1-2.

Mine is not a sport website but it occasionally reflects on this or that event, usually football, and on this occasion a little thought began to grow though I am not sure where it is going. This is what I wrote on James's comment boards:

Not that the result mattered, except psychologically, but psychology - don’t you think, James? - has been, is, and will continue to be a problem for England. There is no carefree play, even in a friendly: there is little pleasure. And now having lost to a German reserve team with an average , first exuberant, then tight, then finally fraying performance the psychological pressure is greater still. There are and always have been good, intelligent, skilful players in the team, but pleasure is thought to be wrong, somehow irresponsible. A little irresponsibility would be a great load off some of the players’ shoulders. It’s part of confidence, after all. Wright-Philips is the obvious example. He actually looked joyful, and, I would say, therefore, dangerous.

The relationship of irresponsibility to pleasure to danger to delight and to success of a sort is what is fascinating, way beyond football. Ideas generally travel in pairs and the idea of of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi as boy racers presented itself as a kind of trouvé.

Boy racers are selfish and dangerous, drunk on speed. But it also takes skill and courage to drive fast. It is the context of civic streets as race tracks that is the problem. High blood and the desire to transgress, however,