This section is for any other thoughts and feelings that don't fit easily into the other categories - a kind of pseudo-blog so to speak.
I couldn't keep up the notes for lack of time - late nights, excursions, more banquets, so I'll be fairly brief now and hope to catch up on detail later.
We saw gardens, we toured in boats, we explored famous houses, were shown room not open to the public. Our guides were beautiful with beautiful manners and beautiful clothes. It was all beautiful. But it is the music I will take away with me. First there was the master musician in the small room with its cups of hot green tea (video clip to follow once back on the blog proper), then ever more music and singing as we went along.
The festival itself takes place near the Red Bridge and involved flowers and the reading of the classical poem to celebrate the Slender West Lake. Both P and I had been put to translating it - only four lines, but heavily rhymed, with seven characters per line, which could be translated as seven stresses in English terms. The poem was read, and P and I read our translations while clutching little bouquets of grass. Two beautifully dressed, beautiful girls performed a lotus petals ceremony. People sang, then off we went on a boat trip to another garden and another mansion, a special guided tour with more zither music on the boat. We cruise along the Slender West Lake past banks of bamboo, past willows, past little islands and moor at another formal garden built by another rich businessman. Rich businessmen seem to have built everything. A beautiful girl gives us a beautiful tour that ends up in a high pavilion overlooking the lake while more beautiful girls in even more beautiful costumes play flutes and zithers and bowed instruments. Beauty - visual, philosophical, aesthetic and downright decadent - is clearly a central issue in the culture, especially if one has the means to indulge in it. The rich have the means. The emperor arrives on a visit and remarks how fine it would be to have a pagoda. No problem, overnight a new pagoda is raised. There are rainbow bridges, straight bridges, step bridges, screens, calligraphic inscriptions everywhere. Occasionally I feel a residual puritan overload, but, for heaven's sake! It is undeniably beautiful. The art of the Chinese garden is complex, involving rocks, plants, water, air, time, habitation, poetry and philosophy. I have no wish to be facetious about it. Beautiful is what it is.
Then there's a symposium in we speak about poetic form with some press present, and then another banquet and a late night.
Next day, Sunday, we are driven to the best restaurant in all China, hosted by the owner himself, who does indeed serve an outstanding meal. Half way through, the chef arrives to demonstrate the art of tofu cutting. This is extraordinary. The tofu has to be sliced into absolutely equal pieces each about a micrometer wide. The chef does this very fast with a cleaver, a wooden board and a smear of water. It looks like magic. It took him a year to master it. I would never master it. Most of us wouldn't. After the meal K embarks on a calligraphy marathon.
From here to the mountain top, though it is just a gentle hill that feels a little like a mountain because the area around Yangzhou is flat. The cabin at the top was visited by the Chinese equivalent of the Emperor Nero, who buried hundreds of girls in the valley, got beautiful girls to carry his boat when the canal ran dry, and changed the examination system. Yangzhou is famed for its beautiful girls. Some are in the valley.
We sit down in the cabin and a young singer from the Peking Opera entertains us with a song. She is wonderful - her hands move in the in delicate, sharp, conventional gesture, as does the whole body. The eyes and face are part of the drama. It is seductive and movingly beautiful (that word beauty again). They ask if I can sing something, but I recite them a poem instead, complete with theatricals. Then we have another song. More calligraphy follows. We now have two pieces of fine calligraphy. The head forester of the region is also a leading calligrapher. He produces pieces for us all. The singer is on video now.
So on to another restaurant, hosted by the head forester, Mr Hang. It's the last meal in Yangzhou, and this is where the homespun singing starts. Members of the group sing folk-songs, popular songs, songs from operas. I sing something on request. L sings. More singing follows. This is more like an artists' gathering. It reminds me strongly of Ireland. The bus takes us back to the hotel so we can pick up our bags, then a bus ride and a very fast train ride back to Shanghai, all the time doing an interview with a young literary journalist.
This morning, Monday, a recorded dialogue with L, then the second and last event at Fudan University - P and I give short talks of about 20 minutes each, then discussion and a final reading of poems.
There are certain 'logistical difficulties' in the arrangements of our programme that still have to be sorted out and absolutely have to be sorted out by 11am tomorrow morning. We shall see whether they are.
It is almost 11pm on Friday. A quick recount from last night to here.
K took us to the Oriental Art Centre in Pudang to a concert by the group Amrta (meaning Sweet Dew). Amrta consist of six member, five female on male. The leader / composer plays percussion (a seven sided drum) another plays a plucked instrument like a long-necked lute, another the accordion, another a bowed instrument, another a series of flutes, and the last sings. They were aiming at a fusion between East and West - the accordion is evidence of that. They were wonderful individually and even better together. Their theme was the season, at times delicate and haunting, at other times wildly energetic. At one point there was a percussion duet, almost a drum duel between the male and the leading female player which seemed distinctly erotic. The solo voice when it came in was clear and plangent. All five female players were very beautiful: for a moment I thought of them as a musically upmarket Spice Girls. I will look out for their music once home. Back late to the hotel.
This morning to the railway station and a fast first class ride to Yangzhou for the autumn poetry festival of The Red Bridge. P and I were set to translate a classical Chinese poem associated with the town and the lake there, called The Slender West Lake. The classical form involves four lines, each seven characters, with a lot of tonal and end rhyme. The text itself is conventionally picturesque as literally translated.
Yangzhou station is a very long way from town and we cross the Yangtze, or Yellow River, as we go. The hotel is very smart. We have an hour and half there to complete the translation (completed n so far as something like this can be completed in such a time frame). Then on to a bus to a garden restaurant in the older part of town. The garden is very old indeed - some 1700 years old and very complex, rocks, trees, mosaics and water, though it would be hard to see this in the dark if we hadn't brought our torches. The dinner is in the summer house overlooking the garden. The summer house is very cold. There are over a dozen of us round the table as the baiju, a strong white liqueur made from sorghum keeps getting filled up as more and more toasts are raised. There are two female artists, the rest are poets and critics from various parts of China. We are offered books by one poet and will give him ours tomorrow. The gathering is jolly and getting jollier.
After this to another quarter, a long narrow very straight street opposite a gate, one aimed at tourists, lined with red lanterns, with elegant clothes and expensive items for sale, but we are heading for a small room to hear a recital on the guqin, a seven stringed zither, played by a master. We gather on benches and are offered tea and the master plays and sings ancient songs. (I have photos and a short video of this). To my western ears it is a distant, sad, deeply sensitive sound, held together by some repetitions and changes of mood. The instrument is so quiet at times one can hardly hear it; at other times it is struck with great force then hushed. Our Chinese friends are clearly absorbed and moved. The owner of the house says one of the songs played by the master is the finest performance of the piece he has ever heard. The tea goes round in the growing cold. The master sings a short solo verse, then he both sings and plays. By this time I am beginning to hear motifs and imitations of human sounds - a lot of vibrato, some steely sounds, a lot of tonal whispering and sighing.
Then home. Tomorrow the festival where we recite our translations.
In fact mostly in transit. Wednesday morning was translation from K, a more straightforward poem and one roughly in my alley, so it should be fun. I have a draft but it's very early. Barely had we finished and grabbed a quick lunch at the hotel than we were off to the twin towers of Fudan to do our event.
The weather had swung suddenly from warm and sunny to a powerful cold wind and shreds of rain. It was back on with the overcoat and holding tight to the umbrella. The lift swooshes up to the 15th floor and thence round a corner to the lecture room. The plan is for each poet to read two poems each with translations.
Professor C introduces. I go first. I read the sonnet 'Water' and a newish short poem 'We Love Life Whenever We Can' after - quite a long way after, in that it is set in England - Mahmoud Darwish. This being the department of Comparative Literature, both poet read translations of the same poem by P, then they read their with translations by P and myself. THis is followed by discussions between ourselves on the nature of poetry and of translation, then it's open to the floor. One student asks about iambic pentameters, another wonders about the possibility of translating poetry at all.
It all goes swimmingly but we have to hurry as a minibus is waiting tod rive us Jin Zé, a village some hour and a half away. We are to stay there the night. It is dark and cold when we arrive, but the house we are driven to is extraordinary. A factory some ten years ago it is now a complex of traditional Chinese rooms, workshops and two small theatres and much more. The whole is set next to the river and a shallow decorative stream runs through it. Our room is immense and while traditional equipped with luxurious modern items such as a jacuzzi and a toilet whose lid lifts automatically. The water in the basin smells and tastes of sulphur so we have big thermos flasks of boiled water.
First we have to dash into the village for some food. That is to be obtained in a small rudimentary restaurant with a single plain room filled by one round table. The food, as ever, is excellent, as is the yellow wine. Z, one of the Chinese PhD students - an English speaker - has come with us. We drink toasts and try to write down a rough translation of a classical Chinese poem we are to translate, but it doesn't get far. On the way home we cross an ancient rainbow bridge, that is to say one continuous arch, with no rail. It is wet and steep and dark, the river rushes under. C slips but is OK.
Back in the room we get alternating sallies of ht and cool air, and lovely as this is it is disconcerting so we don't get much sleep.
Next morning it's sunny and cold so we walk into the village. The bridges are ancient and round, called rainbow, the tiny houses very basic but the river that runs through it is beautiful. We enter two temples, one that used to be dedicated to the master of the village, the other Buddhist with a huge gingko tree in the yard. We pass through the narrow poor shopping street selling essential items. On the way back we bump into L who has booked a boat. P and C don't fancy it, but Z and I get in and we go up and down the river and under some of the bridges.
Lunch is communal. Then K gives us a lightning tour of the premises that truly are extraordinary. There are gardens and vast rooms - the size of a minor cinema, filled with craft objects of all sorts. And ancient beds. And furniture. And costume. There are young people working in the costume department. In one of the vast rooms an ancient woman and her daughter are working at traditional looms. Just when you think there can't be more you go up another flight of stairs and are in another hall.
All this is a project run by an artist Mr Hu, with some associates. They bought the factory ten years ago and in another three or five hope to have it fully ready. It is exhausting just to think of it.
On the way home we call in at Mr Hu's apartment. He is very courteous. Has just been calling on Prince Charles in England who is very keen on the project and has visited it. We are offered tea and biscuits and pears.
Then we're off for a quick fast food snack before dashing to the concert of which more in the morning.
Good to get out of Shanghai, for all its grandeur and variety. Tomorrow we move on again.
It is very strange having a birthday so far away under such circumstances. It is 22:45 here and we are back from the University of Shanghai where we have engaged in readings and discussions from about 2 pm onwards, ending at 9:15, that is with a round-table break in between where the I was duly toasted and sung to. Of four planned distinct events three merged into one before dinner, leaving one - joining the student poetry society for a reading - after. This was a flexible, relaxed and perfectly workable arrangement: it had a happy informality. In any case the reception at Shanghai was extremely warm and my heart warms to those we met there.
The morning had begun less well with translation. Yesterday I was translating L, while P translated K. Today I was with K. He and I have a lot in common I feel - in fact we both feel - but it was a tough session and I was near despair at the end of it. I felt stupid because there were so many ideas involved in the relatively short poem K gave me that I could see no possibility of comprehending them all in a single poem that sounded like a poem. More than that, I couldn't see how the poem would hang together in terms of images and feeling: there were trains and fruit and items of equipment and divided competing selves and a whole self or being, but I was only grasping at the relationship between them, trying to understand how abstractions could be concrete in Chinese. I kept asking questions trying to find something to hang on to. Maybe I have found something: maybe not.
I will work more on the poem tomorrow. I want to get it right because I like K very much and suspect his poems are actually very good. In fact I am certain they are, but how to get my head around them? I will do my best.
Being frustrated, I kept thinking that both K and L had translated at least five of our six poems, but that was without consulting us at all. Were our poems so simple that there was no need to ask anything? Was our culture and language so clear that it required no mediation? No questions of idiom, register, ambiguity and mood? And how did their translations relate to our original poems? It is most flattering to be translated, of course, but beyond the gesture, beyond the constructing of a no doubt elegant Chinese translated-poem, what had moved across languages and cultures? Across minds, nerves and hearts?
The frustration was associated with the daily social experience in which our various extremely kind Chinese hosts have been prepared to feed us handsomely but have asked us nothing about ourselves and haven't even addressed us, but talked among themselves as if we were of no interest to them. It was not the fact that we were poets honoured in our own country, not the vanity, simply that we were guests and strangers who might have something to say, even if only now and then. It seemed a strange kind of hospitality, like rich parents buying their children expensive toys to keep them quiet. Thinking of this I grew angry and miserable. And this being my birthday, of course, I felt a degree of self-pity.
I am honest about these thoughts, but I must also be honest with myself, and admit that I might be wrong; that the lack of interest may be diffidence, or a desire not to be intrusive. People sometimes say the English are cold: I usually answer it is not coldness but shyness and diffidence. Maybe these people's hearts are warm and it is simply the thought of the potential language difficulty that deters them, that makes them fear that questions and conversation might lead to embarrassment.
My darling C manages very well. I often wonder if the working day here is dull for her. The visit having been cut from four weeks to two has meant that the occasion when she might have talked about her art has not been possible to arrange. While I am translating she has, among other things, been reading through the proofs of Satantango. In odd moments I have been tidying up translations of poems from the Hungarian, and once in bed, reading more of Linda Grant's 'We Had it So Good', which is excellent, possibly her best. But I am only just over half-way through. This is on my new Kimble. I gave in and bought one.
Tomorrow we read here in Fudan.
First impressions come first and are modified by whatever comes along, and although we have been here only five days we seem to have modified ourselves and Shanghai into the rough shape of a round table. Round tables at lunchtime and in the evening signify meals, chiefly delicious meals. I feel I am part man-part digestive tract. The hospitality has been astounding and almost continuous.
But there have been walks too. After the grand opera of the city centre (Blade Runner without the rain, music, possibly, by John Adams) we have walked a little. The best and longest walk so far has been through the old Colonial quarter, where the French, the Germans, the White Russians, refugee Jews and just about anybody in transit fetched up for some years. We walked with fellow poets with a kindly English-speaking scholar to interpret as and when one of us got near him. The streets darkened. The French palais, the German tenements, the early modernist low-rise blocks, the classical columns make a haunting chorus: the dead and departed have wafted off to other physical or metaphysical shores, leaving behind only their voices in brick, stucco, iron, glass, curlicue, pediment, capital, swag, arch, window-frame and basic proportion. I know it was colonialism, but there is a kind of warmth to it, ambling along under the skyscrapers.
Shanghai is enormous. It is not enormous like London, which dissolves into suburbs once you head north passing Edgware Road or Swiss Cottage; Shanghai suburbs are more versions of the centre, just a touch plainer and more functional. Now and then a Blade Runner set lurches into view, then your eyes rise again to thirty, forty, fifty storeys. There is nothing like Kensal Rise or Burnt Oak or Wimbledon or even Peckham. Everything is newer and higher and cleaner.
Talking of clean, the silent electric-powered scooters are brilliant and London and every other British city should hasten to deploy them. No pollution, no noise, moving without fuss through crowds of bikes, as if the sound of traffic had been turned off.
I write this almost as though it were a travelogue, but it's a working trip and the work of translation has now begun. Tomorrow we have events at the University of Shanghai, on Wednesday at Fudan.
It is intriguing to wonder what our hosts make of us. It is very hard to tell, but that may simply be a question of cultural difference. Journalists, whose business it is to ask questions, ask one or two then go off to write their stories. Otherwise people don't ask anything. Whether that is because they consider it intrusive or because they are not interested is hard to say. It is probably the former: an aspect of manners.
I haven't mentioned a visit to an artist's studio. I immediately warmed to the man and loved his work. I will write more about it later, once we are home. For now just this: round the corner from the studio was a People's Park. In fading light people were dancing, mainly the old, moving in pairs, but also a single male figure, arms lightly flapping at his sides, moving his feet to the tune, turning the odd circle. It moved me to tears. Sometimes I think I would give up all the bronzes in the world for this, this dancing in the growing dark, with bats swooping overhead, and eventually dense dark, just white shirts billowing like ghosts, as if to say, We too are here and will remain here.
I am taking a day or two off the blog but will be back after that very shortly. Too much to absorb, too many contradictory feelings.
Very sorry to hear of the death of Gary Speed. Who knows why people take their own lives, as he appears to have done. I have known some. He was a fine player and seemed to be successful as a manager. He looked, well, likable. It's a shock, even to someone who knows practically nothing of the man, the sheer sudden ravine-like dropping into whatever death is. The pressing of the button, the blink of an eye, a sudden gust at a street corner.
The temperature here rose to 22C today but is due to cool down by as much as 10C tomorrow. The translation starts tomorrow. Let us work.
The brew thickens from day to day. This morning we caught a taxi to the University of Shanghai, a 1994 grand campus in white, complete with gardens, statues, lake and a range of buildings in sculptural formation. We were met at the gate by D, head of the Chinese Department, who escorted us to his room where we met his colleague, Professor L. Tea was immediately served and we fell to discussing the events of next Tuesday, which, it now seems is to be an afternoon and evening set with talks, discussions and readings over three hours with a break. This was a good opportunity to bring a present of books as gifts. I had brought the New and Collected, The Burning of the Books and, since this was a university, John Sears's fine study of my work. I hesitate to give this book as a gift because it seems conceited to do so, but if there was an appropriate occasion for doing so, this was it. P brought three of her own books and L a number of his. It was a proper gift-giving. We were then taken for a sumptuous lunch in a room off the main university restaurant accompanied by a young journalist from the Shanghai Weekly Press who eventualy got in a couple of questions for P and I. Lunch was completed with more yellow rice wine.
Then we set off in two different taxis, L, C and P in the first, K and I in the second some ten minutes later.
We were driving through downtown Shanghai to the Shanghai Museum. The full postmodern magnificence of the megalopolis is revealed at the museum where those sculptural groups of buildings put on what, in flight terms, could be described as an aerobatic display. It is dizzying, but then almost the entire drive had been through tall buildings, some with complex decorative shapes. Downtown Shanghai is, I thought, the urban version of Baudelaire's forest of symbols, except it was not nature but design, engineering and business providing the symbols. It is impossible not to be impressed. I was impressed.
But the point of the drive was to visit the museum and be shown its great ancient bronzes by the curator of the bronzes department, a friend of L's. First we headed deep underground, some 80 metres deep as I think someone said. There we were shown into a chamber like a temple courtyard built of rare wood and with a rockery of sosmething like sandstone. Equally rare. The temple ceiling was a painted sky that could brighten to full daylight or darken to dusk.
First came the scrolls of calligraphy, some meticulous, some furious, some with drawings, some without. There were poems and notes in colloquial form. They were followed by delicate bamboo sticks inscribed with passages from the I Ching, their beautiful but microscopic character like magical insects scurrying into meaning. Next, the ancient bronzes came out of their boxes: ritual vessels, some large, some relatively small, some with ancient green paint, full of geometric faces of beasts, characters of dragons and stags and birds.
We studied them, but time was short. Each one of the objects we were shown should be studied by itself for years though that is of course impossible. It was an extraordinary privilege to be shown these artifacts brought out of store and to be able to examine them, in however ignorant a way (my way was deeply ignorant) without glass, within touching distance. There is never enough time to learn everything but one should try. It is the sheer age and depth of Chinese civilisation that is so potent and so challenging for outsiders. We were given a quick look at the jade section, about one item of which L had written a poem that I will be set to translate.
From the museum onto the underground to travel to meet a good friend of L's, J, a high official - and calligrapher - from the Shanghai Municipal Education Commission. He had invited us for a meal. This was at a restaurant in the stadium area which, said L, was a rough equivalent of Soho, full of young people and entertainments. J welcomes us, and we are soon joined by R and G from Shanghai Vision, a lifestyle magazine. R speaks good English and makes ready conversation. We sit down in another private room in a big restaurant, the table round, the dishes succeeding each other, accompanied by tea and more yellow wine, of which several glasses are drunk and with which several toasts made. More wonderful Shanghai food, slightly less spicy this time.
The interesting thing is that I rise from these meals without feeling full. Maybe it's the pace of eating, maybe it's the absence of rice or potatoes or pasta, maybe it is the sips of drink in between, maybe it is the free order of eating - a series of nibbles - that leaves one feeling quite light, and despite the wine, quite sober but elated. Conversation flows on with the wine. The project we are engaged on is appraised, and enthusiastically approved. Our very kind host expresses keen interest.
Then out into the night and another taxi, a ride back to Fudan past very high buildings, some with crowns or hats or headdresses, the windows of each high-rise, neat, square, formal, twenty-first century. I am raring to get to work.
The sun still bright but growing cool as the evening comes on quite quickly. I make these notes out of curiosity and delight as ever and every day is a little different. It seems we have quite a busy schedule ahead: it sounds exciting. For fear of seeming intrusive rather than use full names I will return to my usual habit of using only initials
Now it is morning, quite early, the light steely. Yesterday lunch with P and L who arrived first thing. Lunch was round the corner with dumplings and soup, the dumplings with pork and crabmeat, delicate in texture. I work in the hotel room for a couple of hours then at 3:00 a journalist from an important newspaper comes to do an interview. She talks to P first, then to me. She is a tall, elegant young woman, the questions mostly about translation.
Soon enough then it is time for dinner, this time official and properly dressed. I put on my suit, C assembles herself and we go downstairs where Professor W and two young female students are waiting to walk us to the restaurant which is some ten minutes away. We chat as we go and soon we are in a different street, bright and quite grand, a kind of local West End. We proceed up escalators to the restaurant which is very smart indeed. Inside we are shown to our room where we meet our host, Professor C, academic staff and writers. Arranged round a circular table we are served a range of delicious food, four courses of cold and then hot, pork, duck, freshwater shrimp, freshwater fish, vegetable dishes, chargrilled green peppers and many other delicacies, some spicy, some lighter, with Chinese wine, one red and then yellow rice wine, the latter like a dessert wine served warm. It is a gorgeous round deep flavour. The conversation passes from food to wine to poetry and translation. It is our formal welcome and it is in style. There are traditional courtesies and food is one of them.
So now on to the third day. My impressions of the first day are part of a whole. No one can sum up the corner of a village in a paragraph, let alone a city or a country and I really have no clear idea of anything yet. All to learn.
In the meantime I press ahead with the translation in hand in odd spaces and the proof reading of another until the work of translating Chinese really begins.
The air here is rather good. I read about pollution in Beijing but Shanghai is fine. A few people with face masks but not many.
It is an enormous city with a population of some 23 million so I have no sense of it as space yet. I note the roads are emptier and wider, that the buildings in this part of the city are not the Blade Runner set I was half expecting, but more the standard socialist utilitarian with the odd frill and the specific Chinese extras. In any case this very brief sketch is of our area mostly.
The shops, mostly equal-sized units are mostly utterly transparent so one is aware of a cube with goods inside. The cubes don't go in for branding: they are not environments in the modern western through-design sense. During the day they look functional, no more, even a little untidy. But this isn't downtown Shanghai - it's the university quarter. The students here, so we are told, used to sleep in dormitories of some eight beds each, now it is mostly rooms shared between two. Fudan is one of the Oxbridge equivalents in China. There is some nostalgia here for twenty years ago, before Shanghai went sonic, but it maybe the general nostalgia every generation feels for its own youth.
The city is a web of four lane carriageways down which we sweep with the odd glimpse of some architectural feature. In some ways it is all better by night. The shops are lit, there are stalls selling food along the pavement. There are bicycles whizzing along both pavement and road, and scooters weaving in between people. Occasionally there is a cycling transporter - one set of pedals and a very big trailer full of lightweight goods. By night the little, slightly ramshackle cafes and eaters, glow with a jewelled life. There are stray cats too - two white ones stare back from a steep grass verge next to the campus.
It is different in the northern suburb where the artists' studios are. There the restaurants are bigger, and there is a more conspicuous element of style, but it remains in touch with the functional. Essentially a restaurant is a hall with tables. And smoking is permitted everywhere, including in the restaurants we have so far visited.
But we have yet to explore downtown and the more tourist areas. What we have seen so far is mostly for native Shanghai consumption in one small quarter.
As for the hotel itself it stands near one of the university entrances, just off Handan Road. From our window on floor 5 (the ground level is referred to as floor 1 here, so we are on the fourth floor in English terms) there are tall trees, pine I think, certainly evergreens, and the sloping roofs of other buildings. Noise from the main road is not too intrusive - a constant conversation of car horns. Louder is the university broadcasting system which announces events and lectures and occasionally offers a burst of music.
Small notes, small exceptions.
No welcoming party as such but the poet Xiao Kaiyu, who, poor man, has had to wait for us to turn up late. The airport (the biggest I have seen) is not quite deserted, sparkling clean, but we're still glad to leave it, as we are all airports.
Kaiyu's English is cautious at first but improves through the day. His birthplace turns out to be close to where C's family spent most of their missionary days in Sichang. Glad to note that our taxi-driver's ring tone is 'Old Macdonald'. A touch of the surreal after a long flight is generally welcome. We sweep down the free flowing four-line highway that heads straight as a die into Shanghai. It's quite a long drive. Chinese road manners resemble the Indian a little, without quite the carnival spirit.
Finding the hotel is not as easy as we had hoped, because while there is no problem with Handan Road, there are a series of almost unsurmountable problems about locating the Qingyun Hotel. At one entrance the cabbie starts losing his temper with the uniformed guard at the entrance. But then we are here - a *** hotel all mod-cons and internet, gratis.
We strive to lie down and sleep, having been awake for something like nineteen out of twenty-two hours with only a four hour sleep preceding. C manages, I don't. And soon we are downstairs with Kaiyu again, and he takes us for a very late (Chinese time 3:15 pm) lunch which turns out to be five times as large as we can eat, but then he gets us a taxi and we roar off into the very north of the city to visit the studio of his artist friend, Chen Qiang. The studio, part of a disused factory, is enormous. Qiang's work is abstract, beautiful, patient, crowded, full of small specific marks in apparent motion.
Though he speaks no English, Kaiyu's has improved a lot and he acts as interpreter for us. Qiang introduces to other artist friends in equally enormous neighbouring studios. They all work with various aspects of abstraction on a large scale. In fact the Shanghai School is primarily an abstract movement, very well known and very highly valued in China and abroad. We tour the studios, greatly impressed and determined to argue for a Shanghai School exhibition back in England.
Then Qiang drives us to a nearby restaurant where an absolutely enormous meal is ordered, every part rather exquisite, but still impossible. The conversation moves around art and poetry and the changes in Shanghai.
Kaiyu remembers he had arranged for us to meet the head of the Shakespeare Research Institute at Fudan, Professor Tan Zheng. So Qiang drives us miles and miles back to the hotel from whence he goes home. Kaiyu, Tan Zheng, C and I adjourn for coffee in a nearb coffee place popular with international students. Talk here of Shakespeare and Wilde and influence, and history plays, and religion in China, including the growing Christian influence.
A ten minute walk back to our hotel and here I am, not knowing what is to happen tomorrow and thenceforth. All will become clearer tomorrow. Possibly.
In the meantime we have grown very fond of Kaiyu and liked everyone he has introduced us to. To work then.
There has been a history of mishaps and last minute changes associated with this trip and the last day was no exception. Having had the hotel changed at the last minute, and failed to check-in online, I also failed to check-in on the machine, so when I got to the check-in desk it was explained to me that although the travel agent had changed my reservation home, as according the changed length of stay, it had failed to change the ticket itself, so I was coming home on two different dates.
I spent some time on the phone to the travel agent explaining this and they then spent some time on the phone to Virgin explaining it. In the end it appears they couldn't change it since that could only be done once we were airborne.
Once on the plane there was another delay of about an hour and half for various technicalities, so we arrived late, though the flight itself was smooth. In between reading I watched two complete films and parts of three others as part of in-flight entertainment.
I caught twenty minutes of 'We Must Talk About Kevin' which looked stunning but with practically no dialogue, and I quickly got the idea that Kevin was evil and that Tilda Swinton was not coping very well with it. In fact she made me think of Mia Farrow in Rosemary's Baby, only she had had the baby and it had turned out to be Kevin. More bad or hopeless males. The fact is we are evil: get over it, girls and drive a stake through our wicked wicked hearts. Either that or drive a steak through our stomachs.
Then I watched a bit of X-Men (the new one), and it was mildly entertaining bilge, until I could stand no more bilge and turned it off not caring a fig who zapped who next.
Then, with some foreboding I turned to Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris, the trailers for which had almost made me retch (I exaggerate, oh yes, I exaggerate). But I had also read good opinions of it by people I admire, so I stuck with it and am glad I did. Owen Jones, an aspiring writer, on the verge of what is clearly going to be a disastrous marriage, wanders away from the nauseous company, very much including his fiancée, gets lost, and is picked up by an old yellow car the occupants of which turn out to be... No spoilers here, let us reveal merely that the film is to do with notions of the Golden Age, and how no age is golden in its own eyes. Sentimental, yes but not to trailer level. Old fashioned as a Neil Simon comedy might be in that it's neat, it has an idea and it delivers it on time with just a little touch of red ribbon. A faintly tired warm glow of innocence attempted, but worth watching, especially in-flight.
The real beauty of the night was a thriller, a Spanish film with subtitles, Cell 311, about a prison riot. Brilliant, angry, tightly told, full of twists and turns, excellent acting, the whole packed into a concept delivered without ribbons just waiting to explode, much like the riot itself
Little or no sleep. Virgin Atlantic keep a neat plane, even one that is only two-thirds full, the food decent.
Storm-lashed, safe in a friend’s house
deep in a bog above Spiddal,
we weathered flaps of sheet lightning,
ripples of muscular dark, spittle
hissing on windows, slates – night arched
so beside and full of itself
it outfleshed the wildest word-cries,
precipitated our sound sleep ¬–
wriggled its way into the creased
morning, post-coffee, as we packed,
bundled clothes, paperbacks, sleepingbags
sweetened with sweat – tomorrow’s
and slung in the boot.
Mark Granier was born in London in 1957, but came to Dublin in the early 1960s and has been living here since. He has published two collections with Salmon Poetry, the first, Airborne, in 2001 and the second, The Sky Road, in 2007. Awards include a first prize in the UK 'New Writer Poetry Competition' in 1997 and The Vincent Buckley Prize in 2004. Apart from his literary blog, Lightbox, he keeps an occasional photo-journal, Skyroad.
You, Beautiful Anon.
Most poets secretly believe
they run on heart-break,
so you have to watch yourself
when a poet tells you that they love you
especially, with their eyes or through a gesture.
When this happens you should seek out
pockets of resistance, scan the horizon for
possible escape routes, remain calm.
This may not be brief, this could hurt very much.
The poet wants to draw the click of vanishing
heels across your path, would like to offer you up
as blood sacrifice for rain; but understands
your ambivalence, and hopes you come round to the idea,
for great poems die laughing from this lack of courage,
their veteran ghosts stalking hope with a pen.
One old soldier sets up camp in your heart.
You only know this from spies, and from
the bloodless trace left in the corner of your eyes.
I know Tracy Horn's work through a competition of which I was the judge and she was the winner. It was quite a large, prestigious competition and I was struck by the energy and invention of her poetry. After some years out of touch she sent me some poems and I am delighted to have one from her here. I think she teaches in London and am waiting for a short biographical note from her that I'll add once it arrives.
War and Peace
I’ve known some places, peaceable now,
where war has been shrill and thunderous.
Our first house, when I was five and life
all play, crashed overnight into a heap
of bricks and splintered slates, bombers
lumbering just above the air-raid shelters
where kids were whimpering and adults
seen battlefields and heard dead men
keening underground of stuttering rifles,
drowning in gas – fields now given back
to grass and husbandry; and once I climbed
through asphodels and boulders to
a pock-marked castle, to find a soldier boy
restoring icons on its chapel wall;
have stared over a city-dividing barricade
at armed men with different convictions
who might have waved if only they had been
allowed, gazing back through their binoculars.
Afghanistan, Iraq, Georgia. Always someone
resisting change or having change thrust at them;
always someone holier, with whom you may
have raised a glass and sworn enduring friendship
at the end of an ordinary day.
Matt Simpson has published six outstanding books of poetry, the most recent being In Deep (Shoestring Press) as well as books for children and several books of literary criticism. He lives in Liverpool. He will be reading at the Aldeburgh Festival in November
First, Most Human
The first word: light.
The first fear: dark.
The word that made us unravels in the dark;
The dark is unravelled in the light we heard.
There is another word: a first, a command.
The first principle in a world created of abstracts,
light, dark and joy. The first rule: do not eat.
The first renunciation
of possibility, the trading of one awareness
for another, although there is no buyer,
there is no horse, there is nothing,
and for the first time the human will
asserts itself as it will continue to,
and for the first time the most human emotion
makes itself felt and the first sorrowing shadow
casts itself with the apple to the ground.
Katy Evans-Bush was born in New York City and has lived in London since she was 19. Her poetry and essays have been published on both sides of the Atlantic. She is a regular contributor to the Contemporary Poetry Review and writes the literary blog, Baroque in Hackney. Her debut poetry collection, Me and the Dead, is published by Salt.
The man trapped inside his body
hears his heart pound
like a hot little mouse on a wheel.
Too many snakes squirm
in the dark well of his belly.
He feels his liver grow cell by cell.
So he begins to live inside his head
in the clean-cut world of numbers
as drawn by a digital clock.
At night he sings facts to himself like lullabies
and pushes the heavy boat of his body
into the empty and chemical dark.
The Dog in the Sky, Helen Ivory's second book, offers a view of the world that is skewed, vibrant and larger than life. Here words turn into tiger-moths or laughing birds, the Minotaur finds his Ariadne and Pinochio’s sister cuts loose from her strings. The Dog in the Sky is drunk on life, on love, on air thick with peach light, but also shows the flipside where you can’t trust the earth beneath your feet.
SOME REVIEWS OF SUDEEP SEN’S WORK
‘I read Rain with considerable admiration and pleasure. It is a word-perfect collection and its subject matter is both the measure of the rain and the spoken line’.
—AMIT CHAUDHURI in The Statesman ‘Best Book of the Year’
‘Sudeep Sen’s poems are a present which bring — like all true poetry — so much companionship’.
‘A rich, fluent, cosmopolitan voice’.
— PETER BRADSHAW in London Evening Standard
‘Sen [has] extended the range of Indian verse in English to encompass a variety of alternative views of language, history and culture’.
Cyclopaedia 2003/4/5 (Penguin)
SUDEEP SEN [www.sudeepsen.net] is the 2004 recipient of the prestigious ‘Pleiades’ honour at the world’s oldest poetry festival — the Struga Poetry Evenings, Macedonia — for having made “significant contribution to modern world poetry”. Sen studied at St Columba’s School and read literature at Delhi University and in the USA. As an Inlaks Scholar, he completed an MS from the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University in New York. Winner of many international and national prizes, he was awarded a Hawthornden Fellowship (UK) and nominated for a Pushcart Prize (USA) for poems included in Postmarked India: New & Selected Poems (HarperCollins).
for Leela Samson
Spaces in the electric air divide themselves
in circular rhythms, as the slender
grace of your arms and bell-tied ankles
describe a geometric topography, real, cosmic,
one that once reverberated continually in
a prescribed courtyard of an ancient temple
in South India. As your eyelids flit and flirt, and
match the subtle abhinaya in a flutter
of eye-lashes, the pupils create an
unusual focus, sight only ciliary muscles
blessed and cloaked in celestial kaajal
could possibly enact.
The raw brightness of kanjeevaram silk, of
your breath, and the nobility of antique silver
adorns you and your dance, reminding us of
the treasure chest that is only
half-exposed, disclosed just enough, barely —
for art in its purest form never reveals all.
Even after the arc lights have long faded,
the audience, now invisible, have stayed over.
Here, I can still see your pirouettes, frozen
as time-lapse exposures, feel
the murmuring shadow of an accompanist's
intricate raga in this theatre of darkness,
a darkness where oblique memories of my
quiet Kalakshetra days filter,
matching your very own of another time,
where darkness itself is sleeping light,
light that merges, reshapes, and ignites,
dancing delicately in the half-light.
But it is this sacred darkness that endures,
melting light with desire, desire that simmers
and sparks the radiance of your
quiet femininity, as the female dancer
now illuminates everything visible: clear,
poetic, passionate, and ice-pure.
A bright red boat
Blue fishing nets
Ochre fort walls
Sahar’s silk blouse
gold and sheer
Her dark black
A street child’s
holding the rainbow
in his small grasp
My lost memory
white and frozen
now melts colour
ready to refract
One Moonlit December Night
One moonlit December night
you came knocking at my door,
I took my time to open.
When I did,
there was just a silk scarf,
frayed, half-stuck in the latch.
I meticulously stitch time through the embroidered sky,
through its unpredictable lumps and hollows. I
am going home once again from another
home, escaping the weave of reality into another
one, one that gently reminds and stalls
to confirm: my body is the step-son of my soul.
But what talk of soul and skin
in this day and age, such ephemeral things
that cross-weaves blood and breath
into clotted zones of true escape.
What talk of flight time and flying
when real flights of fancy are crying
to stay buoyant unpredictably in mid-air
amid pain, peace, and belief: just like thin air
sketches, where another home is built
in free space vacuum, as another patchwork quilt
is quietly wrapped around, gently, in memoriam.
Time for another voice. Here are some poems by the Indian poet and novelist Priya Sarukkai-Chabria, whose work is full of a passionate energy. I met Priya and Sharmistha Mohanty on my first visit to Delhi or the Katha Conference in 2004. It was my first visit to India, and the novelist and essayist Tim Parks and Jack Harte, the Irish storyteller were there too. I heard Priya and Sharmistha read then we got to exchanging books.
Priya Sarukkai-Chabria's most recent publication is Dialogue and Other Poems, part of a two-in-one volume of poetry brought out in January 2005 by the Sahitya Akademi of India (Anna Sujata Mathai is the other poet featured in the volume). She has also published poems, short stories, book reviews and essays in a number of journals in India and abroad, including Adelphiniana published by Roberto Calasso, the India International Center’s Quarterly, The Little Magazine, New Quest, Aphrodite’s Garden, Journal of Indian Literature and L A B. Her novel, The Other Garden was published by Rupa in 1995. She has also completed another novel, Or Else.
Four poems on colour.
Poems for Malavika
Day breaks in the body's night
There's an egg whose centre is an eye,
an opening, looking out. An ebony blink loosens
a riddle, a beginning:
The core is dark yet filled with light. In this way
do all things come to life: in the secret soot
of body, soil, and cosmic birth.
As seed, as thought, in a swaddled act
planted in sounds forever unheard
cells divide, universes form and spin apart. Yet
what law rules we must begin blind
and so carry its trace throughout our lives, dark ash
to which we return, compacted?
Not brown nor yellow but in between,
mingling sinews of earth and light
as country roads and skies cloudy
with rising dust, as a small car's tracks
skid towards evening.
Ochre is the colour of interiors, and memory.
The planeload of passengers sleep
curled like fetuses in seats too cramped
to hold dreams of arrival and departure.
Below the porthole, clouds stretch
shaking the dew off a night's gathering
on the far ocean. On either side, the sky extends
in deep-sea colours: the stilled
sapphire and ultramarine of space.
The plane swims on, on its solitary path.
In a corner, a slash of red
as dawn cracks open
over a different continent.
of birth and death,
mark of life and its ebbing
(as in: her blood’s turned cold)
it continues its double-helix path
through our living, through our art,
through our killing,
remaining itself, a flow, a wash
untainted by its setting (as in
a hymen broken, a head lopped off,
Shade between extremes (as in:
the shut eyelids’ passage
from white-hot to coal black) red
is the thrall of fall, its glow.
It is us.
It is a great delight to be able to publish some new work by Alex Skovron, whose work I should have known, but started to read after I met him in Melbourne. Being prose poems they bear strongly on the discussions we had in Delhi. There should be a hefty indent for the first line of each piece but I can't quite manage that yet. I'll solve it.
Here is Alex's biographical note:
Born in Poland in 1948, Alex Skovron lived briefly in Israel as a boy, and emigrated to Australia in 1958. His family settled in Sydney, where he grew up and completed his studies. Since the early 1970s he has worked as a book editor for publishers in Sydney and Melbourne, and was general editor of The Concise Encyclopaedia of Australia (1977–79); he now lives in Melbourne, is married with two grown-up children, and works as a freelance editor.
Skovron’s poetry has been published widely and four collections have appeared to date: The Rearrangement (1988), Sleeve Notes (1992), Infinite City (1999), and The Man and the Map (2003). Among awards received for his poetry are the Wesley Michel Wright Prize (twice), the John Shaw Neilson Award (twice), and, for his first book, the Anne Elder and Mary Gilmore awards. Skovron’s most recent book is a prose novella, The Poet (2005), joint winner (with Kate Grenville) of the FAW Christina Stead Award for a work of fiction. A number of his short stories have appeared in print, and a volume of prose-poems is in preparation.
THEY ENTER two by two, abandon twilight to its own defence. The clouds have blackened, burst their moorings, it’s pounding animals of every kind, the gutters teem, the downpipes profusely bleed, the noise, the noise. All eight secure, I speculate refreshments, they concede. A lemon squash, a diet Coke, a double malt, a double malt, brandy with ice, vodka, pineapple juice. I swivel the third Glenlivet for myself. The nibbles come: bruschetta, vegetable rolls, we dissect the elapsed elections. The weather roars, the staircase clatters and clumps, our two housemates dismount, they’re off to respective gigs but join the cabal pro tem. A cunning mobile bleeps, the daughter performs a stand. The son also rises, they vanish down the corridor, into the downpour’s decibel gloom. Front exit bangs. We trickle to the dining-room, I allocate portfolios, we sit to deliberate. Entrée concerns the unravelling Atlantic pact, over a cylinder of herbal bread fuelled with zucchini soup. I uncork a debatable shiraz while cannelloni’s dealt, followed by a discourse on the discord in the D of C, a heaped salad in Greek, immense potato latkes, a thing the PM said. The French come in for a serve, lightning attends, it’s very pouring still. One diner, swept up in the drink, is filibustering on the Middle East, rapidly losing votes; his better quarter delivers a west-bank jab, he sinks, on fire still. The rain apart, the new silence is singed. Ice-cream, coffee soon. I flaunt my goblet to tender a burnt toast.
NOTHING PLEASES Kezelco like photos from spectacular places. Although made queasy climbing a playground pole, he can perch with his lens on level eighty-six of the Empire State and study the circuit-board streets, the matchbox blocks, without the minutest shudder. It’s the knowledge of being safe, he speculates, as the ghost of a 767 muddles his depth of field. In Auckland he gazed vertically down from the summit of the Sky Tower through those floor-glass windows you can walk over, his camera cocked, feet floating. Then there’s the Eiffel, up every metallic step of which he jogged in fitter days, a Nikon bouncing at his neck. But Kezelco likes the older world the best – he’ll happily swap height for history. And though London’s all very well (the holy old Tower, plus glory-grey St Paul), his ultimate is Italy. He has stood at the roof of St Peter’s sempiternal rock; scrambled over the golden gothic epiphany lighting La Scala’s town; assailed the breathless thousand-year Campanile pencil of St Mark (collapsed Bastille Day 1902, rebuilt by 1912); raced up 416 ecstatic Tuscan steps to conquer the belltower (Giotto, Pisano, Talenti) guarding St Mary del Fiore, to capture that city too. And as for Pisa, he has rolled about like a drunk on the ramps of Babel, film freshly loaded, his angles confused (like the skirt-sucking Rotor at Luna Park), wondering what that other Pisano murmured in 1292 when he dropped a plumbline to record the lean of the land.
SHOVE ME the winegrain goblet, the dark’s redescending, I need a nighthood to unfurl – though hey, no blinkered gladiator I; no andabatarian eye beneath this cowl of curls, albeit balding they be, no nouveau-pauvre naïf who’s lost his sober- tooth glee to some gladrag dolly’s glisten, all for tuppence. Oh, I get my cognac, my come-uppance. (Swive and survive, said He, ever the poet.) But listen: I may be a smidgin drôle, but an ept imbiber, one godwillingly able to stay ‘above the table’ – though yes, when it comes to sciamachy’s musty shelf, I’ve always availabled myself: I shadow my shade, bludging a grudge, pump up the necessary fuel to lubricate a little pas de l’un, a duel – why, with myself, comme d’habitude. If not, I can be rude (to others): about His weather, her farded facial, their shonky food. Or: into my steady study, my anaconda gloom, I soon reverse, till it’s pouring a poem (Maman, il pleut à verse)! It all depends on circumstanze, the moon, my Inbox fullness (latterly many spams deep). So much for poetic feet. But coming back to sex: I know a guy who falls asleep lying awake searching for his clit; a gal with lipstick on her labia majore. Ah, amore! As for me (and it), I drive myself, it’s true, rev up my own little peccadillos, but I watch the rearview mirrors, and the roads: conspiracy theories sprout like tools of toads … Out of wine? Fine – no bellum causae. Now, where was I?
The AC of the blog. Splendid poet and one of the most refreshing, keen, fierce and honest minds I know. I quoted her correspondence with me in the T S Eliot Lecture in 2005. Her own website is referenced in the blog in the News section. Her full biographical note can be found on her site, here.
We were woken too early, before the moths had died in the streets,
when buds had barely hardened in the frost, when stars are hurtful
and famished. They took us through gardens and past the halls
where once we had lingered, past the houses and doused markets.
Our footsteps echoed back like iron. Of course we were frightened,
that was a given, of course we remembered photographs we had studied
that then had nothing to do with us. The empty light of morning
made anything seem possible, even freedom, even God. We stumbled
on familiar roads, and everything turned away from us,
lamp-posts, windows, signs. They weren’t ours any longer. Even the air
greeted us differently, pinching our skin to wake us from its dreams.
Words of course were beyond us. They were what killed us
to begin with. They were taken away from the mouths that loved them
and given to men who worked their sorceries in distant cities,
who said that difficult things were simple now and that simple things
no longer existed. It was hard to find our way, we understood
the tender magic of hands, we knew the magic of things not spoken,
but this was a trick we couldn’t grasp. It lifted the world in a clump of glass
and when everything came back down the streets had vanished.
In their places were shoes and clotting puddles and sparking wires
and holes and bricks and other things that words have no words for
and that silence swelling the noise until you can’t hear anything at all.
It’s said that the dead don’t dream, but I dream of flowers.
I could dream so many flowers – lilies like golden snow on water,
hyacinths the colours of summer evenings or those amaranths they call
love-lies-bleeding. I dream of none of those. I dream instead
of wind-blown roses that grew in our shabby yard, of daisies
glimpsed through the kitchen window, of marigolds that glowed
through nets of weed. But most of all, I dream of red anemones
that never grew in my garden. They rise on slender stalks,
their seven-petalled heads bobbing and weaving in the wind.
Wind-flowers, Pliny called them, because they open only in the wind,
and the wind scatters their petals over every waste in the world.
Vivek Narayanan is a young poet I met in Delhi. Sparklingly bright, sweet tempered and enthusiastic, deeply read, his head was bursting with a dozen ideas all at the same time. And that is meant as a compliment. He has written both poetry and fiction. His first book is noted below the two poems underneath. For official blurb purposes here is the nthposition biog note, that goes:
Narayanan has lived in India, Southern Africa and the United States. His short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Agni, Best New American Voices, The Post-Post Review and New Indian stories . His poems have appeared in Harvard Review, Fulcrum, Rattapallax and the anthology Reasons for Belonging: Fourteen contemporary Indian poets .
(to Shuddhabrata Sengupta)
The dump is the very sprawl it once preceded,
distilling our dreams to grit. Mouth at every door,
abandoned to kitchens, it trailed the radial roads
and signed the city’s nascent borders with its seed.
Half animal, half machine, half sapient, the dump
is death’s drowsy interlocutor:
sticky newsprint, smeared fat, pitch smoke, carburettors,
potash alum, fruit husks: submerged in the incessant
fill, they eat the earth and are mourned.
Your cheap locket, semblable,
lost at the carnival, adorns another’s neck,
that of an iron bar. Crows scuff
your skin flakes, make strings there of your elastic
flesh, a patient work. No first hello, no one sign off:
the dump will crush your angel on a pin.
One summer, I was hitching through upstate New York
and found myself, on the way to Ithaca, outside a roadside bar
on the edge of an unknown town. I'd been waiting there
for half the day. Now it was dusk, the mosquito hour,
and no one was stopping-- unsure, maybe, of whether
I was a murderer or not. The bar's neon tubes
came on, and I wondered, would I end up spending the night
outdoors again, with a cop's flashlight at 3 a.m.?
A car stopped. It was a nice middle-class car,
a Honda or a Nissan, and in the driver's seat was a fat-faced man
with glasses and a moustache. He was grinning. I put my pack
in the back seat, part of which was full of some odd
contraption. I got into the front, and we were off.
"Whew," he said, "I'm bushed. Just got done
with a good few hours of my weekly tennis." I nodded
in lieu of an answer. Then: "Where're you from…", etc.
"I used to be a bit crazy in my younger days, " he said,
"sort of like you. Lived around, moved all over, worked
different jobs. Some crazy places. Like Oddessa, Texas.
Ever heard of Oddessa, Texas? Digging for oil. Back then
it was amazing money. But dangerous, very dangerous. I mean,
it was nothing for a guy to go off to work in the morning, come back
in the evening missing an arm or a leg or part of a limb."
He was talking, and I was getting drowsy
from all those fast and sharp curves he was taking.
I wondered why it was that people told unpleasant stories
driving through the postcard woods in their nice cars, back
from tennis at the club. I wondered why he was telling me
the story at all, out of nowhere, what his designs were,
what he wanted. I wanted to look at the trees:
through the side windows, the trees were dark striations;
in front, white smoke in white light.
"Oddessa, Texas." The name sounded invented.
He was still talking when we were into Ithaca, but I
had lost the thread. He took me to the cheapest motel.
I asked him, "Wanna come in for a minute?"
"Uh, no, do you mind if I don't? I have to get back
and, you know, the wheelchair¾
it's just such a pain to get it out." Puzzled, I looked
into the car again: the form of his thighs dissolved,
imperceptibly, dark below the steering.
These poems also appear in Narayanan's book, Universal Beach (Harbour Line, 2006) and on the Open Space India website. I am glad to give them a gentle extra push into Anglo-American air.
I met Sampurna in Rashid's bar with the other writers in Bombay. She gave me a poem sheet from a forthcoming then sent me a couple more poems by email. I liked them both very much but am, for now, using the longer one, which is full of controlled energy, and besides, makes reference to Hungary. I hope to use the other one later. Here is a little more information about her.
Born in Dessie, Ethiopia in November 1970 SAMPURNA CHATTARJI is a poet, fiction writer and translator. Her books include The Greatest Stories Ever Told (fiction) and Abol Tabol: The Nonsense World of Sukumar Ray (translation) both published by Penguin India in 2004. Her poetry has featured on Hong Kong Radio; in the international documentary Voices in Wartime and in First Proof: The Penguin Book of New Writing from India 2; Fulcrum Four: Fifty-six Indian Poets). Her first book of poems Sight May Strike You Blind is forthcoming (January 2007) from the Sahitya Akademi, New Delhi.
or two things about home
The page falls open at ‘Questions of Travel’.
Burroughs’ Intersection Reading is happening to me,
life intersecting reading, every book I open
telling me something I need to know.
"Just where and under what circumstances did you read?”
Oh, just a little weary, my body dragging on snags of time,
my mind scrambled by six airline meals and one lost day.
She says it so well, Elizabeth: “Think of the long trip home.”
If only one did, before. Before this after
math of bones not fitting, before this after
noon sleep of fatigue before this after
towards what is already failing to be
its own reward, the trip of having been
This is my I Ching for now,
The Complete Poems of Elizabeth Bishop,
falling open at the page that will tell me
everything I need to know.
“Oh, must we dream our dreams
and have them too?”
Easy to imagine a winter this summer
amidst the reek and swelter, a thirst for snow.
“It’s not funny when your nose freezes,” a friend says,
“just walking out the door.”
I never said it would be.
I know first snow, I have seen it in Krakow,
I have sat in a café and watched the fallen leaves dance
and the first snow fall and the sun shine through
its falling on to this page
"It is necessary to travel. It is not necessary to live.”
They were talking of space travel, as if all travel
weren’t into space, governed by anything but metal
and aerodynamics. Sometimes a postcard is enough.
Sometimes the limits of control are incidental to what must
be, essentially, about silence. A cup in my hand, I travel.
A book on my lap, I travel. Words on the screen, I
Haven’t said where it was that I’m going, or where it is I’ve been.
Elizabeth, “Should we have stayed at home,
wherever that may be?”
He did, Orhan, “never left Istanbul”.
Miniatures, engravings, memoirs –
So many ways of knowing what’s
Dear, refamiliarising the familiar.
So many ways of seeing from afar
What’s perennially near, outside
A window, in a hallway down the
Stairs, in a cupboard filled with
Glassware, in the thirst for a river,
In the smudge of newsprint the
Delicate shiver of recognition, a
Face that never really belonged
To the past. This is another kind
Of living, strange to my blood,
Lusting for movement, rusting
Without. This he could never be
Me. But I could learn something,
Yet. Learn to dwell on the notion
Of staying, the slowness of rooms
Opening out into a quickening of
Breath, the concreteness of cities
Closing the arc of supposition,
The imaginary real, the real
Imagined, every scene seen or
Read or known, every turn
Corroborating what books have
Shown me, the cobblestone path,
The church spire, the red-eyed
Bird, the burr or the twang or the
Purr of the voice I have heard
So often in my head. Every new
Place is an open invitation to
Disappointment. But I count on
Delight, and only exhaustion can
Make me stay in bed and exist,
Quote Orhan, “like the Divan poets
Who praised and loved the city not
As a real place but as a word.”
Find me a word I might love
Enough to live with. Bind me to
A promise of rest.
I’m told it’s Hungarian sausage, from an Indian friend in Austria.
A hard white cylinder, twisted at one end, like a sweet.
The white is a dusting of flour (on wax?),
the cylinder hard and white like a bone.
Tear the twist of wire off, unwrap the flour-skin.
The meat inside is hard and red. With a sharp knife, cut a slice.
Bite into the little red disc.
It’s sharp, and salty, and good. Could do with a glass of wine, though,
to go with this Loidl Spezialitaten, this Haussalami,
saying the words all wrong, but wanting
to say them, wanting the mouth to do more
than eat this red and salty foreign meat.
What is it about Hungary these days? Should I treat them as signs?
Why else should I be reading Sandor Marai, recalling Csoma de Koros,
the Hungarian who walked to Tibet and died in Darjeeling?
If that’s not a sign, what is? Darjeeling, my home for thirteen years.
I left, at thirteen, and what it left me was a taste for mist
and gloomy afternoons, a relish for steep roads and gabled roofs,
a zest for steamed pork momos and cups and cups of tea.
Not for Csoma de Koros, he died of malaria in Darjeeling.
And Marai committed suicide in San Diego. What is it about Hungarians
You read too much into what is, after all, a series of chances.
A chance gift, two chance gifts, no, three if you count the sausage.
The Hungarian Who Walked To Heaven, a short book.
Conversations in Bolzano, a tale of Casanova.
And the sausage.
And when Casanova speaks of Venice, lovingly, ravingly,
he speaks to me of Calvino’s Invisible City.
Oh, you read too much.
Go back to the Hungarians. “Who are the Hungarians?”
Lapps? Finns? Turks? Huns? Koros was keen to find out.
Instead, he found a monastery, a bitter cold and a language
he would learn, a grammar he would take back for the world.
Which journey ends the way you imagine? I try and imagine
a journey on foot, in bitter cold, in rags. All I can summon up
are prayer flags, the tall fluttering wisps of cloth I walked past everyday
without noticing what they might be saying, blind to the language
of signs made of wind and air, white on blue, white on grey,
speaking to spirits that must have watched me go. And the more
I’d like to stay with Hungary, the more Darjeeling comes back –
the sound of Buddhist gongs, the stench of horse dung,
the juice of the Bhutan apple spurting on my tongue, the sight
of a yellow light in fog – each separate and terrible, each sign
invisible inside me, marking me for who I am, foretelling every
word, every action, that I might one day make.
Press deep, cut through to the bone.
Sharmistha Mohanty is a prose writer in her early thirties, living in Mumbai but originally from Bengal. She has published two books, One and New Life
Of New Life Nilanjana S. Roy said: Mohanty has an astonishing, utterly distinctive handwriting.
Shubhshil Desraj in The Sunday Tribune of India added: Sharmistha Mohanty has the gifts of a sharp intellect, ample literary power and immense imagination. With artistic skill, she finely paints [her central character] Anjali’s life in brilliant life-like colours. Liberally making use of symbolism, religion, mysticism and materialism, she creates a fascinating work of literary art..
She has also written a film script, Nazar, directed by the prominent film-maker, Mani Kaul.
For my money, she writes superbly, somewhere along the invisible line between poetry and prose, where prose is poetry by other means. This is an example of her shorter work.
Long after the man with green coconuts has come to my door, holding out a coconut to me with his right hand, his body and head just a little bowed towards me as if this were a ritual, and perhaps it is, between him and me; after the schoolchildren at the church school have all run out in a rush, flowing over the steps and the slope and gone home, their mothers sometimes waiting for them all day on the church steps; after the vegetable seller at six and the fruit seller a few minutes later have parked their carts next to each other so that it is easy for their customers and so that they can share stories in the lull when no one comes; after the gym has closed with its slim women in track suits and Lycra so unsuited to this weather, and the long imported cars parked in front of it have driven away; after the trainers at the gym, Iqbal and Bernard have finished their work and Iqbal is perhaps doing his namaz on the wooden floor of the gym and Bernard is packing his things; and Bernard told me the other day when I was there that whatever you do here is fine, but really the best thing you can do is to go walk by the sea at sunrise, what can be better than that; after all the thin maidservants with protruding bones and a hurried walk have finished their jobs of cooking and cleaning that will fill their whole lives till the very end; after the tiny yellow birds have stopped flying in and out of the tamarind tree, making the ripe tamarinds shake and fall; after darkening shadows have taken away the old man who sits on his small balcony staring out all day, near his staring face a huge palm leaf swaying like an immense fan; after the sun has very, very slowly, moved down towards the horizon and finally descended into the Arabian Sea in a vehement orange glow and made it possible for the evening to begin, but only much after the church bell rings for evening prayers at seven, and even after they are over and people descend silently down the steps and the slope an hour later, so that the day is lopsided; it is then that the smell of evening dinners mingle with each other, Sindhi, Bengali, Bohri, Goan, East Indian; and an enormous moon rises behind the spire of the church; and in the plot next to the church four men sit around a fire and make chapattis amidst the stacked bamboo, marble, and wood while nearby large rats wait for leftovers; and the chowkidars of the buildings cook their dented vegetables for a solitary dinner without their wives and children who are in the northern hills far away, so far that it takes six days to get there memsahib, and as the dinner cooks they play their wooden flutes, solitary notes and a few half formed melodies that the evening sea wind takes down the street to the corner store where young men smoke cigarettes; and the teenagers wearing spaghetti straps, and shorts, and baseball caps lean against cars and move their bodies exactly like the Americans they see on television; and eventually everything falls silent, and not every window has a light; and the candles at the foot of the statue of Mary at the bottom of the church steps and in the grotto on the left, are all burning still, which means it is a good day for someone like me who likes to watch the flames but must depend on others to light them; and the mango, tamarind, gulmohur, and peepul trees can hardly be distinguished from each other, although the moon has climbed higher leaving the spire of the church alone against the dark sky; the shadows of the palm fronds move slowly on the darkness of my wall, and the clouds slowly, slowly, over the sky; now the street takes a long breath and the candle flames on the church steps begin to tremble and the steps themselves; the trees lean close towards each other to form a forest, so that I could be wandering in its vastness away from the world, searching, searching for what ought to be my life but is not; emerge again, onto the street’s dark spine, wondering whether I wait to live or if waiting is also living; the street never forces a choice; it allows the alternation of insight and emptiness; when insight sharpens and has nowhere to go it turns into emptiness which slowly gathers strength to become insight again; now the street exhales, stirring the gutters choked with fallen leaves, but keeping to itself the uncontrollable fluctuations beneath things; revealing only flames from Diwali and stars from Christmas; old couples who have settled their lifetime of differences and now walk together in great peace, the church bell which is loud enough to wake us at dawn if we are already aware of the half light, and soft enough not to if we are sleeping; and as the street exhales and sways, the darkness above comes closer, and there appear a few incisive stars that have cut open the sky of smog and dust and smoke.
I want to extend this section of the Notes (to be renamed) to act as an anthology of single short works in poetry and prose by writers I come across and admire. And since this idea occurred while I was in Delhi for an excellent conference organised by Sharmistha Mohanty, whose work I want to include here, it seems appropriate to start with the writers participating, beginning with Mariko Nagai, whose brief biog I take from the website of the Temple University in Tokyo where she teaches.
Born in Tokyo, Japan, Mariko Nagai has lived in Europe and America most of her life, earning a Master of Arts degree in Creative Writing with poetry concentration from New York University, where she was the Erich Maria Remarque Poetry Fellow. Her first novel, Aubade, explores different kinds of relationships men and women have with lands and the different "fates" they are forced to live with based on their circumstances. Written in experimental narrative structure and using the loose framework of historical and traditional facts, characters in this work reside in ethical context in which they must find ways to navigate, negotiate, or, in some cases, defy the environments in which they find themselves.
Mariko Nagai has received numerous awards and fellowships for her writing. She has been the recipient of the prestigious Pushcart Award twice, in both poetry and short story, and has received numerous fellowships and scholarships from art foundations and writers' conferences. Her writing has been praised as possessing "the linguistic gifts to become a true poet" (Philip Levine) and "gifted with unusual insight and exciting and graceful language... one feels in her a deep commitment to poetic tradition" (Galway Kinnell).
Histories of Bodies
That’s how we can distinguish a man from a woman, or from ourselves: only in a moment
of embrace. Judgment on bodies has already passed, they say that we are like any
other, cock is a breast, balls another pair that swings like hands
of a clock. Our stories have no listener; our stories are like any other.
We misunderstand each other, our bodies the only proof of intimacy, a repetition
of bodies coming together as we move on top or under each other,
we fill each other with ourselves in the moment of embrace,
an imago stretching its wings out, two bodies connected by an embrace.
“Hush,” you say, “I love your body,” “I get hard only for you,” “I am yours only.”
You say that sex is another word for how we leave the body, or how, like the Whirling
Dervishes, we seek the eternal in the embrace, in the moment of unveiling
the white so much like a butterfly, or our selves. You hold your cock, you release
come like a magician releasing the doves. They land on my stomach, they stay there
until they dry like scabs over wound.
“Love is another way to say how unoriginal we are,” or, “You and I are separated
by a word, a mere word.” Love is a division, it is a barrier that makes us who we are,
another word for how repetition becomes the way we part from each other, over
and over again, love is another way of saying, Your face in this light is how I want to remember
you, a face only few steps away from death, this is when I like you the best.
You call it shoah, the unrepeatable. Here’s a picture: soldiers burning books,
another picture: soldiers dragging an old man who held the Torah as if it were
his child, or God. Let us move thirty years ahead: here’s a picture of students burning
books, another of students pushing an old man clutching the Classics.
The faces of these boys are so many years before any partings they can understand,
their bodies taut with how little years they have. Pictures are repeatable, so are events.
God loves innocence and children, but two are not the same.
I say that the holocaust is an image of bodies ahead of all partings.
The souls have already forgotten the rib cages, the backbones that protrude like a broken
violin. A picture: bodies after bodies thrown into a ditch. The only thing
separating a man from a woman is by how their sacks are carelessly placed:
here is a man, his balls have shriveled down to the size of a large pea; there, a woman,
where her breasts once were, two broken pendulums that no longer tell time hang.
I want to say, the shaved heads tell all: holocaust is the debasement of bodies,
where bodies turn into grotesque universality. In this picture, a woman lies on top
of two men, their mouths open as if almost a kiss.
The proof is the body, not in words: you lie on your stomach, slowly rocking yourself
to sleep as if the bed is another body you can ease yourself into. I lie
next to you, my thighs slightly open like a window, or a door, anyone can look
in, even you. But we have stopped our movements already. In this early morning, words
are bodiesheaped up high, each body imprinted with past, they are remembrance. But we have
already turnedour eyes inward, we do not hear. Each come-cry hides in the cave of the mouth,
stays inside of us like doves in a magician’s pockets, waiting for the signal they’ve been
trained to recognize.
|Magdalena, my mother at about 40|
|Taken in Kolozsvár / Cluj, c 1926|
|This is the wedding in 1970, Swan Road, West Drayton, London. You may be able to hear the Heathrow air-traffic in the distance. I can't remember who took the pictures. A local firm, I expect. We were given a white musical wedding album to store them. It plays Für Elise, one of the tunes I learned early on in my piano lessons days, possibly still back in Budapest. More likely it was with Miss Weese, who was Canadian and was in a wheelchair on account of polio in her childhood. She had sixteen cats, who occasionally sat in on the lessons, and a lady companion we hardly ever saw.|
From correspondence, otherwise I wouldn't have the time to formulate anything for now....
I saw that you joined the protest against the Iraq War. The French are very anti the war but they have all sorts of 'ex-colonial' problems of their own, a lot of these in West Africa and to be honest the stand the government have taken is simply based on self-interest I think. I am terribly pessimistic now about the way the 'industrial' nations are treating the 'unindustrial' world. I don't like the words 'developed' and 'undeveloped' because it implies a judgemental attitude. A lot of these problems stem back to colonial legacies and ultimately to the need for natural resources, principally oil, by the industrialised world which uses them in such a thoughtless manner. The French, for example, help to keep 'their men' in power in Gabon, Congo and Angola in order to control their oil supplies from these regions. In Congo Brazza they did this in a terrible double-dealing way by supporting two sides to the point of civil war, a conflict which was hardly reported but which cost thousands of lives.
I did, as you say, oppose it. Not entirely for the reasons that many others seemed to have opposed it, ie the spectre of an oil-grabbing, war-mongering, neo-colonial idiotic-brutal Bush-led Uncle Sam, but because the strategy that I imagined lay behind it was faulty and short term.
What hypothetical strategy was that?
The USA was attacked on 9/11 by Arab religious-political discontents who themselves were chiefly fired up by the situation in the Middle East. Ergo: the problem of terrorism = the problem of the middle east = the Israel-Palestine conflict. Possible solution: put pressure on both the Palestinians (including their supporters) and on Israel; on Palestinians by establishing a friendly democracy (or whatever passes for such in the region) in one country thereby squeezing the others (cf Libya, and perhaps Syria), then by drawing up the road map, sidelining Arafat, and exerting economic pressure on Israel. Desired result: the rapid establishment of a
Palestinian state, the draining away of support and funds for Bin Laden, etc, etc. No more 9/11.
This hypothesis has the virtue of some realpolitikal intelligence. However, there was no guarantee that Arafat could be sidelined (still less what he represented), no guarantee that Israel would or could deliver (cf Sharon's general stance and current predicament), and, worse still, perhaps worst of all, even with the 'war' part of the war won, the lack of a long-term plan or idea how to handle the the situation after that, was a serious flaw. I suppose they must have looked at Northern Iraq and the success of the Kurds, and thought they could achieve that in the rest of the country
I didn't think they could achieve it (if that was, in fact, what they actually wanted). They haven't achieved it. Nor is there a likely solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict in sight.
As regards the morality of the whole enterprise, the failure of the WMD argument is not to be swept under the carpet. You cannot send an army out on a passionately argued premiss that is not only false, but which you might very well have known to be false. The tortures and humiliations in Iraq are a bad sign in any case (rotten tree, rotten fruit) though Guantanamo Bay is in some ways worse. And what it could lead to is still worse. The more a powerful nation conceives of itself as righteous and wronged, the more it is likely to become just what its enemies have always imagined it to be. And I am not one of its enemies.
Was it a particularly immoral war in its actual realpolitikal genesis and conduct? Considering war simply as war, I doubt whether there have been many wars that were moral, not even WW2. I don't think the world went to war to save the Jews, to save the Poles, or to save an abstract elusive concept like Democracy. War is a suspension of peacetime morality. It is brutally pragmatic. Material and psychological factors shift states and tribes into wars, and the rhetoric of morality is just one of those factors. It is not so much the death of innocent civilians that damns this or that war. That is a tragic given from the very beginning.
Misleading nations is wrong though. Breaching the agreed rules of treatment is wrong. Breaching Geneva conventions is wrong. By definition.
Interesting to read your views on the Iraq situation. I have always had the feeling that the Israel/Palestine road map was thrown up as a kind of smokescreen to what was going on in Iraq. Israel has been playing the strong man for some time now and the Iraq war, if anything, seems to have upped the robustness of their actions.
How much is the Israel/Palestine situation really an originating factor in 9/11? Weren't a lot of the terrorists Saudis? Isn't Bin Laden sufficiently well funded from Saudi to be able to keep his international terrorist network afloat? I have a feeling that the action against America reflected anger against Western values and American influence in the Middle East as much as anything. What I think is sure is that the strong anti-feelings against America which existed among a few Arabic people three years ago are now shared by many people in the broader region. Friends who have recently returned from Morocco speak of being uncomfortable living there and I feel sure this would not have been the case three years ago.
I don't see the smoke-screen aspect of the Iraq war. It's a mighty big smoke screen that has been smoking since 1948, if so. The fact that the 9/11 bombers were Saudis doesn't mean very much at all. Certainly they did not represent the Saudi regime, and the rhetoric employed in Arab proclamations constantly refers to Israel. Israel, alas, has had no option but to play strong man, since all the states surrounding it want it wiped off the face of the map.
A little digression here. The foundation of the state of Israel is referred to throughout the Arab world as The Catastrophe and were Israel not strong it would be dead. The right of return, a phrase now much used, refers to the return to the territory of pre-1967 Israel, which would effectively be the end of the Israeli state, and anyone who has been so relentlessly persecuted and cannot rely on its host nations, deserves a state of its own. Having said all that I am for an Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 borders, with perhaps the militarily vital Golan Heights thrown in as security, then for the foundation of a stable, well-funded and properly supported Palestinian state. And of course I am against aggression, thuggism, etc, wherever it happens.
Western values and American influence where? In Syria? In Lebanon? In Libya? In Iran? In Jordan? I don't even think Egypt has it high on its list of problems. And if the influence of Western values is against Sharia law, beheadings, the cutting off of hands, and the spread of militant Islam I am not, in my heart of hearts, against it.
At a rough guess I think the rising Arab hostility is compounded of a) a militant and crusading religious revival, that relates to b) a sense of wounded pride at the loss of Arab unity and Arab power, that relates to c) the tremendous inequalities in most Arab societies between the wealthy and the abjectly poor who need to recover pride and dignity in ways other than that offered by western socialism, which relates to d) the Cause of Palestine, which, in microcosm, is perceived as the symptom of everything that is wrong with the divided Muslim world and its struggle to attain a powerful unity, which then relates to e) the work of the USA, and hence the rest of the western world, in maintaining the state of Israel (something the US started doing only after 1967).
That, I think, is something like the brew. I can't see Sadr, or Osama Bin Laden, or Arafat actually proclaiming socialism, democracy, tolerance, moderation, or indeed most of those western values to which I am proud to subscribe. Nor do I see them encouraging the more liberal Arab values that produced such great advances in mathematics, astronomy, architecture, medicine, literature and the arts generally. Hate depends on fire, which depends on fuel. Why are the refugee camps still the refugee camps after fifty-six years? What happened to the original refugees? In which states are these refugee camps? Of which state are the refugees citizens? Israel? Palestine? (but there was no such state before, unless you mean Jordan, which was in fact founded to be the home of Palestinian Arabs, I believe. So a new state needs to be founded).
At bottom the problem is the break up of empires. Empires compete with each other, draw maps, push populations around, then, when they break up, leave vacuums over which people fight.
Everyone can see what the solution to the middle-east crisis could be: a Palestinian state, newly founded for the refugees of the area, and a secure state of Israel living in neighbourly amity. Israel would have to clamp down on its own religious militant expansionists, but it could do that. Why doesn't that happen? If South Africa can find a solution that does not entail massacres (and nobody thought that could happen), so can the middle east.
The solution is central both to the rhetoric of those who employ it, and to the action the rhetoric calls for.
It is very odd for me (most of whose family were Jews and murdered in the war, but who has never had a shred of Jewish religion or culture) to recall how much the left wing supported the establishment and survival of the Israeli state, both in 1948 and in 1967. I am not saying anything now the left did not say until about 1973. I expect you are thinking that Szirtes must be a right-wing weirdo somewhere in his bones. If you do have a trace of that feeling try going through my remarks and isolating what seems to you wrong, right wing or weird.
I speak at length because I do feel passionate. And fearful,I should add, particularly about aspects of the left which seem to have turned sharply to the right in this area. I have heard socialist academics at the UEA say things like: That's one in the eye for the Jews. I think history has been here before.
Sixteen variations on a couplet of Anna Akhmatova’s
For me, praise from others is like ash,
from you, even abuse is praise
tr Richard McKane
I can dismiss the praise of all the rest
But when you censure me I still feel blessed.
The praise I get from others is mere guff.
For me your slightest cavil’s praise enough.
I don’t take compliments from anyone:
Your mere abuse is worth a smug well done.
When others praise my poems, it makes me spit.
I just adore it when you say they’re shit.
When creeps such as McGarrigle praise my books
I’d give the world for one of your sour looks.
Why do those filthy bastards pat my back?
I’d sooner you frowned and told me what I lack.
Am I obsessed? I want your kicks and blows
Not slimy compliments in Grub Street prose.
Hit me again. Abuse me. Burn my books.
I hate their wimbly praise and simpering looks.
They think it’s love but they’ve not met my muse.
Give me those beetling brows with their j’accuse.
One word from you and all Parnassus quakes.
A whole choir of cheap hacks go down the jakes.
Down at Groucho’s they may quote my quips
But I prefer the gall from your tight lips.
Those boozers at the LRB may grovel,
I’d sooner share the flat beer at your hovel.
Much though they praise their approbation fails.
I want you on my back with those sharp nails.
People can say what they like; deep in my head
Their smiles corrupt. I want you in my bed.
A brown-noser is of all critics least.
Come bite my arse, you cool sadistic beast.
Your soul’s the greatest thing since sliced white bread.
Don’t butter me up, god, burn my toast instead.
Two-hundred dead in a series of co-ordinated bomb attacks. The TV is terrible, its clichés an insult. 'Madrid tonight is a city in mourning...', 'There is a sense of rising anger among the community...' I loathe these portentous phrases which resolve everything into a pat formula and an earnest look. The newspaper are better because they are distanced by having to write prose of some sort. Prose is a form of distancing, a journey through the proprieties of syntax, and distancing, in this case, signifies respect.
My own feelings of course are a bunch of screaming clichés too. Sorrow, fury, hatred. I want nothing so much as to seize the perpetrators and torture them slowly to death. I want them to feel their own intentions on their own skins and souls. I don't think of myself as a violent man (who have I ever hit?) but in these circumstances I am a one-man mob and execution squad.
I can imagine the retort of the righteous. If the perpetrators are ETA / Al Queda / Red Brigades / Fascists / Doomsday Millenarians or any other, can you not see that the violence wreaked upon the people they represent is the true cause of this, that by making war on Afghanistan and Iraq for example, you (meaning us, meaning each individual Spanish dead) have committed an equivalent act? No, I cry in this mood, I don't think the acts are equivalent. People die in wars, but civilians are rarely selected for death as deliberately. You will tell me about Dresden or Hiroshima, and I will agree those were terrible acts, but, I will reason in myself, they were acts of aerial bombardment which had already become a staple of war. Dresden and Hiroshima were just bigger, more terrible versions of Coventry, London, Warsaw. I will then also admit that this is not an excuse nor a justification, but even while admitting this I will think that death comes to us all, and one of the ways in which death comes is war. I think I have in my mind a category called War where I expect certain things to happen and am steeled against them. I have another category called Accident or Fate in which anyone may die. Nor do I think of death, in these moods, as the worst that can befall us, for, I feel at such times, we must all die. Instinctively I will still feel that the bombing of civilians in Madrid is not the same as wartime bombing in which there are civilian casualties. I don't think of acts of war, however terrible, as deliberate, specific and measured in quite the same way, acts in which the victims are known, projected and gleefully counted. No, I go on, it is not the death, it is the specific, calculating desire to cause specific death that fills me with fury. That and the glee.
I don't think I know myself. I have seen death, both violent and peaceful, and have, in my childhood, lived a little among bullets, tanks, mobs and corpses, though I hardly remember them now. I know my parents were by-the-skin-of-their-teeth survivors of horrors whose faint echoes rumble through me. I wonder sometimes what kind of unseen trace they have left in me; in which part of my brain they continue buzzing away like wasps in a wall. I think I harbour explosive forces a long way down. And somewhere close to that same deep pit there is a feeling, a faint but persistent notion of the value of the individual soul, of the eternal wanderings of that soul, which is a small, tender, courageous yet fearful thing. I don't understand the relationship between this small wandering thing and the explosions around it, or at least I only understand it in an intellectual sense, as contrast, counterpoint, cause-and-effect.
I think of all those two hundred souls on the train, and the will that sets out deliberately to snuff them out. The souls - or what can I call them? these traces, these ghosts of value, energy and desire - hovering like a heat haze about the scene, hovering like specks of dust, or like Giotto's tiny angels about the dead Christ. Then I haul this image back because it rises in my chest with a kind of fury.
The book is 'She Stood There Laughing', by a good friend, the novelist Stephen Foster. I read it lightly, quickly, on the way to the Bath Literature Festival. I have so much else to read at the moment: competition books, books by friends, poems by students, but 'She Stood There Laughing' was right for a journey. It is the story of a season following the fortunes of a once important football club, Stoke City, and therefore comparable to Tim Parks's 'A Season with Verona'. It is also a kind of shared adventure between father and son, a bonding exercise with a specific, traditional focus. The book set me thinking and writing, to Stephen in the first place, but also in the kind of detached, loosely meditative way I want to employ for these Notes.
The book (whose title refers to Tom Jones's hit of long ago, 'Delilah', a song that is now used by Stoke supporters, albeit with modified words) is very good, well above the usual level of football books, and, to my mind, preferable to Nick Hornby, who always looks to me as if he is trying too hard to ingratiate himself with right-thinking people everywhere. It is, as I would expect from SF, extremely well written, close to actual speech and thought, meaning I recognise it as being his measured speech, his measured thought. There is also that melancholy humour I associate with all English football, and especially the Stoke end of it. The sense of obligation, loyalty and belonging is the fascinating thing, the way that people (particularly men) take it on as a life-experience, turning acceptance into an act of desperation and heroism.
It is, naturally, interesting to compare 'She Stood...' with Tim Parks's Verona book. Parks is a born intellectual who experiences with a furiously active brain first and an obstinate gut second; SF is closer to the people who are his fellow supporters, and I can hear him explaining some Lacanian idea to them, easing them into it. Parks is, in any case, an Englishman in Italy, an outsider by definition: SF is OF Stoke (you can take the boy out of Stoke, but... as he himself says) so supporting Stoke is a form of solidarity with origins. There is, sometime, an interesting book to be written about the sense of belonging - to place, class, gender etc - and how it is embodied in football. It would have less to do with any particular season, and more with what this book already does to a fascinating degree, that is associating with the fan-base.
Speaking for myself as a so-called Manchester United 'glory hunter', I had no opportunity to enter football the way SF did. I entered as a foreigner, through myth, specifically through the Munich air disaster myth, the myth of that February dawn (was it dawn? it always seems like dawn to me) in 1958 when the greater part of a brilliant young Manchester United team was wiped out on the snow-covered airfield. Newspaper photographs of the incident combined with a minimal knowledge of football as a game lit some spark in me. It was the first I knew of football in England and it coloured the rest. It was about the time I myself had begun playing football for my primary school (a period beginning at age 10). Football was tragedy, grace and resurrection. Glory hunting indeed.
As concerns the more tangible aspects of glory, there was relatively little of it to be had for a long while, not, at least, until the advent of the Best-Law-Charlton period, and that didn't last all that long (1964-68). In 1962 the team was almost relegated (in 1973 it actually was). The next year, 1963, after an indifferent season, United won the cup against the then more fancied Leicester City, who had finished some 8 places above us in the league.
Beyond 1968 there was little but expectation. But the idea of United, which means the notion of an attacking, flamboyant, but often ineffective team towing disaster in its wake, was an oddly spectral issue. I had little actual desire to see them too often. After all, I was not OF United, the way SF is OF Stoke. United was an aspect of persona and history, of being me. I saw the team play a few times of course, but I have never in my life been part of a crowd as such, not even of a society or class, nor did I ever join the United 'supporters' as one of them. Life had dropped me here or there, and that was fine by me. I think I sat and watched my own life projected onto a football pitch.
During the very long Liverpool era, United followers lived on scraps, while still being haunted by the gods of 1957-58.
This is, essentially, romantic longing - soul and mind stuff - rather than group loyalty. More Keats, or perhaps Coleridge, than Kipling. The entire apparatus of devotion is different from where I stand. I don't think SF, or indeed most proper supporters, would even recognise my form of 'support' as such. It is perhaps no more than what a boyhood myth looks like through the wrong end of a telescope.
I begin these notes because I have just been on the point of abandoning the reading of a novel – My Name is Light, translated from the Spanish of Elsa Osorio. Its subject is the regime of the junta in Argentina in the 70s. The reason I am on the point of giving up (though I might return to it) is because I feel cheated. I thought I was reading a work about moral complexity but after a while I found that while characters had serious choices to make I was no longer left in doubt as to which characters were good and right and which were evil and wrong. It was as if the author had pretended to be talking about one thing but was all the time talking about another. The book was shifting ever more quickly from provisional categories to absolute ones. And while it was ever more clearly concerned with right and wrong actions, I felt that a wrong action had been committed on me in the name of a right one.
There are of course reasons to treat such subjects in terms of absolutes. Clearly the actions of the military torturers and executioners exist in the realm of the absolute. My unease is less to do with the presentation of good and evil as with the identifying of these categories in specific so-called ‘rounded’ characters.
The problem begins with the victims. The victims are presented as simply fighting for “a fair society”. There are degrees of relative virtue among them but these are to do with courage not with the substance of their belief. The victims are pretty, warm hearted, pacific in nature. We see how the other, evil, side fight, but not how they, the fair side, fight. We are told about the fairness of the right side’s case but are not actually shown them fighting for it. Nor are the details of what they mean by fairness ever disclosed or described. They are simply assumed to be the antithesis of what the other side stands for. But we are never told about the values the bad side is actually shown fighting and torturing for. That remains a blank. Instead of value there is a vacuum.
The evil is partly summed up in the character of the soldier, Animal, who describes his prisoners as dangerous murderers. Not quite incidentally, all the victims are shown to be female, some of them mothers. Animal is soon revealed to be no more than a sadistic brute, an exaggerated version of most of the men characters who are either sadists or weaklings. Our view of him is articulated through his sexual partner, and potential wife, Miriam. She considers men to be either easily manipulable dummies or vicious and disgusting beasts, with nothing in between. Miriam’s own moral ambiguity is quickly excused. She does at least have some ambiguity.
We are not invited to consider what is the psychological mechanism whereby Animal can regard harmless lovely girls and mothers as dangerous murderers. For a while Animal is seen, by Miriam, as a potentially complex human being, but that mask is quickly stripped away. The clear implication is that there was never anything but evil there, and it was only blindness in the character closest to him, Miriam, that led her to perceive any attractive characteristics in him.
When I think about fiction I must remember I am a reader (like all readers) with psychological baggage of my own. I must also remember that having conspicuously pointed to the existence of such baggage I may be engaged on an act of special pleading. I may simply want my views to be interpreted favourably, with sympathy.
What, however, are these views?
Firstly, I dislike the assumption of victimhood (though, doubtless, there are real victims in the world), the arrogation of that victimhood and worth to women (many women are both virtuous and worthy), and the arrogation of all violence and bestiality to men (no doubt there are such men). I know I think of some of this simple arrogation as moral duplicity and hypocrisy. I must bear all this in mind even while recalling that for the last thirty years I have been aware of the pointing and accusation of female fingersand voices. All men are rapists; all men are bastards; the world would have been far better if men had never entered it. I have actually heard all this directly, read it regularly and understood it to be implied incessantly. But I could be wrong. I might just be thin-skinned. I might even perhaps be a potential rapist and bastard, and maybe the world would be better without me. That might objectively be so. That would be a truth hard to bear.
Secondly, I am aware I have a fundamental distrust of moral certainty and of the, what seem to me, dubious justifications of such moral certainty. I fear that feeling may rise to such a pitch of intensity that it justifies anything. It may even be a distrust of feeling as such. I have sometimes tried to distinguish between intense shallow feeling and less demonstrative deep feeling. I don’t know whether this distinction is worthwhile. After all, I myself feel both ways: intensely, volubly, delicately, and troublingly deeply. The fact that this works its way through certain characteristic forms of language is what makes me a poet.
But maybe I don’t altogether trust the poet. Yeats’s praise of warty boys and liars, the notion of the truest poetry being the most feigning, run counter to something in me. I started writing because I wanted to tell the troubling, complex, magical truth, not to whip up another set of turgid, if exciting lies (ah, lies and truths: the truth is not so simple.)
I might be fooling myself about the lies. No-one sees their own hypocrisy. Everyone is surprised by the mirror and others’ perceptions of themselves. Not totally of course. One has some idea of the effect one has on people, because one gathers evidence all the time. Not only gathers evidence but acts on that evidence, and when things are going well, one is left to assume that the evidence must have been good. Nevertheless I tend to prefer a degree of scepticism and circumspection with regard to the evidence. I know there are things I prefer to believe about myself and am aware I may be editing the evidence as far as it is practical to do so. Then there are the motives and natures of those providing the evidence. What a world of mystery that is!
There is no serious problem if a fiction articulates simple morality, with good on one side and bad on the other, both immediately recognisable. Of course it runs the risk of being dull, but, providing it follows certain rules regarding myths and follows them with some ingenuity, it can still be a substantial, even monumental work. Entire cosmologies can be constructed on these principles, almost in the way of Elizabethan ‘humours’. The point of this is to allow each characteristic full play in the subjective (assumed objective) cosmos of the psyche, or what Blake called the Imagination. It can however produce and support prejudices and hatreds once removed from the realm of the subjective and displaced into the realm of the objective. (“Men with black hats – or black skins – are evil”) In other words the mode has fascist tendencies. Everything is invested with clear hard impersonal meaning.
What scrapings these are, from what a weird barrell...
A Tim Burton film with mixed reviews. I thought it was terrific, the best Burton yet. The story will be familiar from the press: the father, who has not spoken with his son for three years, after having, according to the son, ruined his wedding by telling interminable and ridiculous anecdotes in the course of his father-of-the-groom speech, is dying and the son is called home. Such story-telling is, the son believes, a merely a form of egotism, lying and attention-grabbing. He is fed up of the father’s inability to tell a true story straight, and regards him, rightly, as an inveterate fantasist. The film itself is narrated according to the father’s notion of narrative, by the son, and consists of a series of formative anecdotes about the father’s youth. The dying father is played by Albert Finney, the father in youth by Ewan MacGregor.
The anecdotes are, to my mind, wonderfully inventive and funny. Their chief motifs are imagination, kindness and courage, their narrative lines are drawn from fairy-tale, folk-tale and circus, and their recurring images are those of water, fish and spirits: a fluid medium. We move between episodes of father’s youth, and the process of dying in his old age, between the claims of fantasy on the one hand and journalistic reality on the other.
The two narratives maintain a remarkable balance. Clearly our sympathy, once the action begins, is with the father, but we are never made to feel that the son is unfair or unkind. Like all sons he needs to emerge from his father’s shadow and to re-establish his relationships with the father on his new adult terms. In this respect the film is about fathers and sons. It states a problem and suggests a resolution based on flexibility and affection without underplaying the difficulty. The death of the father is beautifully judged, as an anecdote told by the son in his father’s terms, and the funeral that follows, which might have been a terrible sentimental botch is prevented from sliding into kitsch by our knowledge that the story is only as told by the father.
It is worth adding here that the father-son theme comprises a subtext on masculinity. The male characters are highly active fantasists or figures of fantasy; the female characters are essentially objects of the male characters’ attention, desire and fear. The males are giants, dwarves, gallants, heroes, inventors, poets, werewolves, bankrobbers, salesmen: the female characters are princesses, wives, mothers, witches, little girls and visions. The film may be understood as a hymn to the ridiculous and vainglorious triumphs of the specifically male imagination with its love of derring-do, its devotion to romance, its great childlike delight in sheer energy, and, above all, in its recognition of its own ridiculousness. It is the constant loving flirtation with the ridiculous that adds power to the brittle charm of its tall tales: it humanises the film.
But the film is, above all, an apologia for the imagination, and, by association, for Tim Burton’s own oeuvre. The argument, and it is a compelling argument, is that the crooked path is, on the whole, better than the straight one. The imagination, the film argues, is valuable both psychologically in that it energises mind and body, and socially in that it is enjoyed by others and begets love in those who are most worthy to give love. It is, in other words, a successful social tendency or strategy. When the son begs his father to be, for once, who he really is, the father indignantly replies that he has always been who he really is.
So we only have his word for it. There is, in fact, very little verifiable reality that we can take for granted. Of all the film’s stories only two are presented as verifiable: the wartime episode where the father is presumed missing in action but returns (a wholly different, much more elaborate and ridiculous version is presented by the father, of course, but the basic truth remains verifiably the same), and the doctor’s account of the son’s birth. The rest exists in unverifiable territory: territory that in fact has no need of verification or, rather, verifies itself. We know little or nothing about our fathers, and indeed about other human beings at large. It is stories that we know not people. A man’s stories are himself, says the son at the end. In other words, to take a leaf out of high culture, there is no way of telling the dancer from the dance, or the sea from the voice singing the sea. In this respect Burton echoes Yeats and Stevens, not in their density or significance, but in his own folksy, gothic, haunted-humorous way. In fact Burton is a kind of mix of Hans Christian Andersen, Washington Irving and the Brothers Grimm: sentimentality and darkness struggle in him, but in Big Fish it is laughter, generosity and delight that emerge as the leading figures. Take my word for it.
The paragraphs below come about as a result of an exchange with Tim Parks - in fact it is part of the exchange, but it's not private, it is simply more thinking and mulling over. If anyone with a vestige of interest in the implications of professional wrestling, particularly in Britain, reads this, do drop me a line if you like. See the home page for the contact email address. I might go on at some stage to explain the nature of my interest in wrestling, but let's leave it like this for now.
[We touch on the question of 'choreography' in professional wrestling...]
Yes, the point is well made. In fact it goes deeper and, in some respects,
stranger. Choreography is probably too much to aim for in wrestling - there
is a sense of half-improvisation in it, recognized sequences, recognized
gestures. Hence the accidents and injuries. The figure of the referee is
crucial in the theatre of it: a good referee is in fact a 'bad' referee. The
point of the referee is to mess things up and corrupt things further. The
referee is an emblem of official blindness and injustice. The crowd alone
perceive 'justice' and in recognizing that it is not done, feel free to
channel their energies into the theatrical heat of the contest. The referee
is, in effect, every judge, policeman, authority-figure who frightens or
rejects them. Amusingly, the brother of my real central character, also a
wrestler, turned to refereeing once his career was over but had trouble
finding engagements because he insisted on actually refereeing.
A further complication is the role of the so-called 'managers' of the
wrestlers, who are really agents provocateurs, passing their clients
baseball bats and other 'illegal' weapons through the ropes, in full sight
of the crowd (though with a show of secrecy), and 'out of sight' of the
'referee'. Julie, our local female wrestler, a pretty and very tough girl,
who fights under the name Sweet Saraya, has often played 'manager'. As such she has been attacked and seriously assaulted by a hostile crowd. The other wrestlers had to leap in to rescue her.
The distinction, during the engagement, between combatant, official and
spectator is constantly being eroded. There are so-called 'lumberjack'
contests where a bunch of ten or more heavies (actually other wrestlers not
currently engaged in the ring) hover round the ringside waiting for a
wrestler to be thrown out so they can chuck him back in. Like lumberjacks
with tree-trunks I suppose. Their real role, however, is to get into fights
with each other outside the ring and to initiate mass brawls among or just in front of the spectators. They hit each other with anything handy - folding metal chairs etc. This erosion is part of the excitement. It happens within six inches of your nose. Sometimes the wrestlers land in your lap.. It has happened to us more than once.
I have seen various such contests. And there is indeed, as you say, an
analogy with the nature of political debate on TV, radio and such. No
literature without conflict, I guess. Barthes's Mythologies is good on this,
though I am not with him on every point.
The wrestlers certainly show courage and skill, so the issue of 'fixing' or 'choreography' is always a contentious issue for them. Many years ago the popular wrestler, Jackie 'Mr TV' Pallo wrote a short self-proclaimed exposé of the game under the neat title, YOU GRUNT AND I'LL GROAN. It got him into terrible odour with the profession. The trick is not to regard pro- wrestling as a sport, pure and simple, but as what some wrestlers themselves do: as a 'sporting entertainment'. There is no cheating in it, just as there is no cheating in theatre. There is grace, athleticism, power and, as I have already said, sheer raw courage. Don't knock it. Develop a healthy respect for it. I have.
The Walberberg Conference is organised by the British Council and brings together a number of selected UK writers - in this case David Edgar, Jonathan Coe, Andrew Motion, Helen Simpson, Jo Shapcott and myself - and a group of about fifty assorted German-based academics, publishers and journalists. We give readings, conduct interviews and conversations and even do a little Creative Writing. Our UK contingent proved to be a happy band and since these Notes do not deal with gossip or anecdote it is enough to say the whole thing seemed to go extremely well.
But what is the 'thing' that 'goes well'? In the abstract the project would appear to be diplomatic, worthwhile, amusing, rather Malcolm Bradbury, but potentially a little self-important and managerial.
Perhaps the experience that struck home most to me was the quality and intensity of listening among our German hosts. Readings were scheduled for forty minutes each at a single stretch: twice as long as in England, where the fear of boredom and politely rampant egotism is unobtrusively blended with short-term concentration and philistinism to create a faintly apologetic, entertain 'em and get off approach. Sometimes the word 'healthy' is attached to the notion of philistinism, probably out of a sense of unease that the very concept of philistinism might conjure its notional antithesis, which is...? Good question. What precisely is the antithesis we fear? Preciousness? Aestheticism? Effeteness? Solemnity? Humourlessness? An 'unhealthy' intellectuality, connoting dryness, absoluteness, perhaps even militarism of what the English think of as the 'Prussian' kind?
These are speculations. Anyone who feels like it could write to me and add or subtract a descriptor or two, but I confess I enjoyed it. It made a nice change from appearing as a 'writer' , which is to say a personality, as we often do here; to appear, if you like, as 'writing' instead. The earnestness of the listening then is a compliment to the writing rather than to the charms or otherwise of the writer.
Odd how both in India and in Germany there is the same intense willingness to listen. I don't suppose we would often couple the two nations and cultures: they are utterly different in many respects, yet, perhaps for quite distinct reasons that I cannot explore in such a restricted space, they care about writing. They are not gestural places. Maybe words lead somewhere more easily. Perhaps writing is closer to the heart of things.
My family background should equip me me with a wariness of Germany and all things German. And indeed Germany itself is fully aware of that in a general way. On the last night our conversation in a small group came round to Leni Riefenstahl. I said that the some of the images of the Berlin Olympiad taken in isolation - the discus thrower for instance - were in fact beautiful and that our anxiety about them might be retrospective. I could sense the edgy anxiety at my proposition. I don't even know whether I fully believe in the proposition myself. It wasn't mischievous of me to float it like that, but it might have been perceived so. Nothing is completely finished with. But I was aware that my poems had been genuinely heard. That they had become a small, but properly attended factor.
Walberberg is a village about 20 minutes from Cologne and the conference is held in a Dominican monastery, now permanenetly occupied by six monks, of whom I saw one, in his white robes, gravely proceeding down the corridor as I was heading to breakfast.
|Three years or so ago, here in Wymondham. Go and visit her own site when it is up and running, which should be very soon. This too has been improved in quality.|
|This one in Budapest, 1989, in a studio. The woman photographer wanted to take several pictures of her. The first version I put up was rather pixellated. I have tried to improve the quality now.|
She sat in the pizza parlour with the river
Rushing behind her. The trees were involved
With the wind. There was something fearsome and resolved
About the way water was running for cover
Into the dark edgewise of time, as rivers do,
Being emblems of time, and our two faces
Dropped with it into their own dark spaces
As if we could watch our mortality falling through
The air. Just so had queens died young and fair,
And there was dust in the food, in the light, in our eyes,
Caught in our lashes, and this was love, its thin
Fingers moving through our dust-laden hair,
Its heart in its mouth, its mouth stopped with sighs,
Calling for us to enter, and we stepped in.
On the other hand India carries about it a consciousness of grandeur. This consciousness seems to me ubiquitous. The poorest street urchin has a spark of it. She or he - the gender of the child is hazy, the eyes large and soft, the hand gestures cajoling and caressing - may only have glimpsed it but already it is fully absorbed. Squalor can be borne because it is transient: the soul’s true business is before and beyond it. And that may account for the discernible edge of haughtiness in the most menial of office-fillers. I detect it in my servile bellboy, at the back of his eyes. I am surrounded and cornered by it as the street-traders, those Vendors of Indispensible Trash, thrust their wares at me. Am I projecting a kind of self-contempt when I attribute haughtiness to them? It reminds me a little of the joke about the old-fashioned so-called socialist states: we pretend to work and they pretend to pay us. In the game of complicities the tables are turned. I may have the money but they have the mystical status, for I can never have money enough to rise above the baubles they offer, nor move beyond the ambit of their persistence and craft. What they offer is the same to everyone: it levels down. They are the holders and keepers of sacred objects. The ritual of commercial exchange is enacted everywhere, even in smart shops. The bargaining and cajoling, the faintly contemptuous teasing and toying are part of a ritual that dignifies the seller, transcends the imperative, the tedium, of sheer bread-winning. Ritual is there to dignify: that is its psychological function, and, beyond psychology, it encourages us to believe that we live in a world that is numinous and ordered. Dignity, in other words, is an aspect of the numinous.
The great kings and their poets, the artists, musicians and architects; the statesmen, administrators, financiers and warriors; the goddesses, queens, wives, concubines, mothers – and the poetry that they produce and elicit – have sprinkled their dust on everything. What appears to be degradation may in fact be merely a stage in the progress towards transcendence. The dust of the kings is the dust of the street. It carries both disease and delight.
Even as I write this I am aware of the level of my own rhetoric. In my damped down Western way I keep a wary eye on my perceptions and superlatives, on my ability to con myself. I give language watchful sidelong glances. I don’t forget my context in the mean streets of high-rise irony, in the puritan school of work and deserving, of the distinction between mind and body, flesh and spirit, poetry and tosh. I think India must have mildly disorientated me, and that that might be a good thing.
No, of course I don’t understand it. How could I? There is the scale to begin with. America is big too but the USA is, in most ways, comprehensible. We have read it, watched it on screens, think of it, almost, as a set of domestic spaces settled over the wilds of myth, but the myth is as familiar as the domesticity. The roads look like roads, the trains like trains, the people like people. Whereas in India?
I am in an office in Agra, The man behind the desk is dressed in a suit. The office is dark, the furniture miscellaneous, the desks and chairs like items rescued from an old schoolyard. Apart from the computer in the corner it looks as if the place hasn’t changed since Satyajit Ray filmed it, or something like it, in about 1955. The wall behind him is high, patchy, peeling, vaguely custodial. Here and there, at no particular level, a few glossy photographic posters intended for tourists are sticky-tacked to it. Immediately behind him a statue of Ganesh. He looks up, a figure of relative importance, sizing up my importance. He weighs his importance against mine. I think he is used to this. I am a scruffy writer supported by the India Tourist Board: he is a tidy representative of the same in an untidy world.
And then the creatures. They mostly amble or squat, unhazed by the traffic around them. Camels, cows, dogs, goats, donkeys, a monkey crossing the street. They feel certain of their place in this world, which is either stiff with dignified stillness or loping, swarming, pattering and weaving in an endlessly negotiated space. People behave like vehicles: vehicles like people. They step close on each others’ heels, swerve round each others’ bumpers and grilles. SOUND YOUR HORN, say the notices. They do. KEEP YOUR DISTANCE. By no means, unless distance means something so minute, so microscopic that only death can wriggle through the gap. Women side-saddle on backs of bicycles. Motorised rickshaws flapping and puttering. Children tapping at car windows as the cars move. Fatalism? Bravado? Just life as it must be lived, as it is expected to be lived.
The hotel is grand, imperial, marble and mirror, but brought up to date, Or some date. The doormen are punctilious, military, accoutred. The corridor attendants scamper and smile, competitively obsequeous. My personal attendant has a deeply pockmarked face. He must have suffered from a serious skin complaint in his youth. He dashes before me to open the door for me, he dashes to turn down my bed cover, to fetch and carry, to find me an electric adaptor which he produces triumphantly from his pocket. How alien I must be to him. I wrench my mind away from the subservient look on his face and think of the dives and alleys of Old Delhi, which is probably where he has come from. I want to like him, but liking is not an appropriate relationship between guest and bellboy, or whatever he is. I think of the Hungarian poet, Sándor Csoóri, in London, in 1989, making small talk with the embassy driver. The driver was probably a KGB officer of some description, but Csoóri was a democrat. I admired him for it.
The hotel is icy cold. The restaurants are cavernous refrigerators. The Ssteel (sic) Bar is like a hangar, dark and slick. A large screen shows silent continuous sport. After 10pm the music begins to pound: heavy rock riffs impossible to speak over. There are only eight of us in the place, and at least four are off-duty employees. The noise level eventually drives us out.
On the other hand… Everything in India seems to be on the other hand. On the other hand the overt intelligence, the deeply civilised courtesy, the magnificent deserted monuments that speak of a sweeping, sophisticated humaneness: the reconciliation of ideas, the intermarriage of symbols. On the other hand those impressive, radiating elements that I must try to talk about later.
I like football. What I mean is I like the drama, the skill, the almost aesthetic side of it. Poetry in motion. There are great sights: Best or Giggs on a run; hulking, almost ungainly Zidane, turning and scooping a perfect pass or thundering a shot home with no apparent backlift; Beckham on those slightly bandy legs of his (why doesn't anyone ever mention the fact that they are bandy?) giving everything and floating impeccable long balls into the path of any centre-forward you care to name or indeed (excuse the cliché) bending it into the net. I even find the sight of Roy Keane on one of his psychotic missions strangely moving. As you might guess I am a Manchester United follower, albeit a rather shadowy one of very long, pre-1958 standing, but, much as I hate to admit it, I can extend this love to Thierry Henry when he does his nonchalant shrug, dart and curl trick. He makes me forget for a second that he is doing it for Arsenal. There are a great many beautiful things in football - grace, power, courage, doggedness, genius, teamwork, sharpness, bluntness, guile - but it always feels a little arty-farty putting them down. Football even brings out the latent anorak in me. I keep football annuals by the toilet. They are by far my preferred toilet reading.
But I rarely go to matches now. I met Tim Parks in India, having already bought his football book, A Season with Verona, before departing. There was, needless to say, hardly any time for reading anything there, so, once home, in between reading the mass of books I am obliged to read for one reason or another, I delved back into it. It really is very good. Parks, who lives in Italy, follows his local team, Hellas Verona, for a whole season, travelling with the most fervent supporters, a group labelled racist and xenophobic by the rest of the country. He is with them more or less throughout, at every match, home and away.
There is no denying the fact that the chants of the fans are racist, sexist, xenophobic, and generally obscene, but what Parks wants to explore is the level on which this bundle of hostilities actually works, what levels of irony or self-parody are involved. I find his perceptions convincing and exhilarating. The best thing about it is that the perceptions are registered in the course of full engagement with the team, and without any sense of superiority or worthiness. Also that there is neither piousness nor barbarity in his treatment of the dreaded yellow-and-blue, 'gialloblu' brigade. He suspects the horror with which people throw their hands up at this deliberately uncouth band. He is sceptical of the depth of feeling the righteous appear to register. He actually wants to know how human beings work, and, I must say, as someone who, for historical reasons, expects to be on the wrong side of such brigades, I far prefer understanding to demonisation. Or rather, I recognise that there is, and has to be, a place for demonisation, and it is best as shadow rather than as substance. For the crowd the football match is a kind of satyr-play, and all the better for it.
My feelings about this are probably evident in the first piece I pasted in the Notes section, about nationhood and identity. It also comes out in my researches into British professional wrestling.
The point is that pieties cramp and eventually kill the human spirit. They do far more harm than good. Courtesies are better than pieties anyday. Satyr plays are better than sermons.
There is in fact a vision of triumph in a football crowd, but it is hedged about with apprehensions of disaster. After all, the supporter is helpless in the face of events. Personally, I find pooled emotion both moving and terrifying. It is, in its own way, the Romantic sublime working at the level of agreed conventions, the knowledge that, after all, football is nothing but a ball, a field, a net and a bunch of Shakespeare's mechanicals. But that is not a bad description of the human condition, is it? Or indeed of the group. A pooled and consoling helplessness.
I almost forgot to say that I also like the book because it is really well, sometimes beautifully, written.That is probably the best, the indispensible, thing about it. Not often one can say that about a football book.
Something breathless about it all: the experience, I mean, not Indian life so much, which, on the contrary, seems to comprise a good deal of stillness. People are almost statues at times: bits of plants or dead trees. Nothing has changed, nothing can ever change. And they remain like this in the midst of an almighty whirl of movement, that seems to exist outside any world of rules, and yet with a sense of courtesy. No-one is bothered if another car cuts him up on the road. They all toot, much as birds call to each other. And the wreckage: the wrecks of houses, of shops, of almost anything that can be wrecked. The daylight that shows through. The swirling detritus on the roadside. The confidentiality of lanterns in wayside bars: threadbare intimacy. But there's also a kind of fury lurking there. Priya, poet and novelist, my Indian friend, writes that the library in Pune has been ransacked and books destroyed because someone wrote a book using material from it, a book they disapproved of. The thought, the fury, hurts her. There is perhaps something boiling under the eternal calm, something that shows through the beautiful patterns of courtesy. And it too is tangible. It is in balance with the other energies, seeking some compromise with them, like the acquiescent nods to the various religions that you see in the architecture and symbolism of Fatepuhr Sikri, the deserted city near Agra. There is a hope that all this conflict can be turned into harmony - and, miraculously enough, harmony appears like a great bushy head with staring eyes, smiling.