Wednesday, 31 December 2008
The divorced husband - an industrialist's son - is still talking in the cafe. Márai writes monologue like no one else. As I said before, it is best to think of his monologues as arias. In this case the aria is the length of a novella.
At first you think the speaker is setting out on a proto-Marxian analysis of literature and society, then you realise he is heading quite elsewhere.
Tell me, why are writers so slipshod when it comes to the question of money? They write about love, glory, fate and society, it’s just money they never mention, as if it were some kind of second order of existence, a stage property they deposit in their characters’ pockets so that the action may proceed. In real life there is much more tension about money than we are willing to admit to ourselves. I am not talking about ‘the economy’ now, or ‘poverty’: in other words not about basic concepts, but about actual money, the everyday, infinitely dangerous and peculiar substance that, one way or another, is effectively more explosive than dynamite; I mean those few coins or fistfuls of banknotes that we manage to grasp or fail to grasp, that we give away or deny ourselves, or deny someone else… They don’t write about that. Nevertheless the everyday anxieties and tensions of life are made up of a thousand such common conspiracies, misrepresentations, betrayals, tiny acts of bravado, surrender and self-denial: tragedies can develop from the sacrifices involved in working to a tight budget, or else avoided, if life offers another way of resolving the situation. Literature treats economics as though it were a kind of conspiracy. That’s exactly what it is, of course, though in a deeper sense of the word… - Real money exists within the spaces of abstractions such the economy and poverty. What really matters is people’s relationship to money, a character’s timidity or bravado concerning money: not Money with a capital M, but the everyday money we handle in the morning, the afternoon, and the evening. My father was rich: in other words he respected money. He spent a dime with as much care as he would a million. He once spoke of not respecting someone because the individual was forty but had no money.
It shook me when he said this. I thought it heartless and unjust.
‘He is poor,’ I defended him. ‘He can’t help it.’
‘That’s not true,’ he sternly replied. ‘He can help it. After all, he is not an invalid, he’s not even ill. Whoever gets to forty without having made any money, and he, in his circumstances, could undoubtedly have made some, is a coward or lazy or simply a bum. I can’t respect such a man.’
Look here, I am over fifty now. I’m getting older. I sleep badly and lie on the bed half the night in the dark with my eyes wide open, like a beginner, like someone practicing to be dead. I am a realist. Why, after all, should I fool myself?... I am no longer in debt and owe nothing to anyone. My only obligation is to be true to myself. I think my father was right. One doesn’t understand such things when one is young. When I was young I considered my father a ruthless, unbending man of finance whose god was money, and who judged people – unfairly – according to their capacity for making it. I despised the concept and felt it to be mean and inhumane. But time passed and I had to learn many things: romance, love, courage and fear, sincerity, and everything else – in other words, money too. And now I understand my father and I can’t find it in myself to blame him for the severity of his judgment. I understand that he looked down on those who were neither ill nor invalid and had passed the age of forty but were too cowardly or lazy or shiftless to have made money. Naturally, I don’t mean a lot of money, since there is considerable luck involved in that: great guile, sheer greed or blind chance. But the kind of money that lies within a person’s power to get, that is to say given one’s opportunities or horizons in life - that is wasted only by those who are cowardly or weak. I don’t like refined, sensitive souls who, faced with this accusation, immediately point to the world, to the wicked, heartless, greedy world that wouldn’t allow them to spend the twilight of their lives in a pretty little house with a watering can in their hands, tending their garden on a summer evening, their slippers on their feet, a straw boater on their heads, like any content small investor who had retired from working life to rest on his laurels of industry and thrift. It’s a wicked world, wicked to everyone equally. Whatever it gives it sooner or later takes away, or at least tries to take away. True heroism consist of the struggle to defend the interests of oneself and one’s dependents. I dislike the mawkish sensibility that blames everyone else: those ugly, greedy financiers, those ruthless investors and the 'terribly crude' idea of competition that prevented them turning their dreams into small change. Let them be stronger, more ruthless if they will. That was my father’s code. That’s why he had no time for the poor, by which I don’t mean the unfortunate masses, but those individuals who weren’t clever or strong enough to rise from their ranks.
Fascinating how Márai runs his comb through an idea as through a lush head of hair. But couldn't you just hear Mrs T saying all this, in much the same way? It doesn't mean this is what Márai himself thought. All we know is that he thought it possible to think this, and was curious. This is a 'character' speaking. It's just that when Márai enters a character, every part of him enters.
All this is draft, of course.
Tuesday, 30 December 2008
I have said something about 'proportionality' in Gaza. I am not sure the BBC can see anything like it. The story there is always 'evil Israelis kill innocent Palestinian children'. But they are not alone in that. For them - and others - the current situation did not start with the declared end of the ceasefire by Hamas and the stepping up of rocket attacks on Israel (over 10,000 since 2001), but with the genocidal desire of Israel (where almost everyone supports a two-state solution) to slowly murder any remaining Palestinians for the sheer wickedness of it.
Well, there is only one wicked nation on earth and we all know who the BBC and parts of the Left think that is. America may be the Great Satan, but Israel is the principle of evil itself.
David Grossman, one of the great novelists of our time, and long a supporter of a peaceful two-state solution as well as an opponent of settlements, whose own son was killed in the Lebanon War, which he also opposed, has recommended a 48 hour ceasefire to enable Hamas to call and end to its rocket attacks. The article is here. This is what he thinks Israel should say to Hamas.
...So as not to add to the death and destruction we will now hold our fire unilaterally and completely for the next 48 hours. Even if you fire at Israel, we will not respond with renewed fighting. We will grit our teeth, as we did all through the recent period, and we will not be dragged into replying with force.
However even he expects renewal of hostilities after forty-eight hours if there is no response.
If you hold your fire, we will not renew ours. If you continue firing while we are practicing restraint, we will respond at the end of this 48 hours, but even then we will keep the door open to negotiations to renew the cease-fire, and even on a general and expanded agreement.
I wish Grossman were right. There is, apparently, a possibility of Israel doing as he recommends, as reported, (even by the BBC). I wish he were right in thinking Hamas would hold off, though I would be astonished if they did. I simply don't think that is part of the programme. I don't believe Hamas actually cares for the Palestinians, else it wouldn't be planting rocket launchers in crowded city areas.
But you never know. Forty-eight hours might be a gesture the world might understand. Frankly, I doubt whether it would make a blind bit of difference to those who hate Israel's very existence, or simply, in a much more nuanced, sophisticated and delicate 'western' way, find it inconvenient.
Monday, 29 December 2008
One (Pearl) I partly understand. If she had a song to sing it would be this:
I am constantly hungry. Each time you move I think of my hunger.
I like your company. It assures me I will be fed.
I like your smell which is the smell of security,
But those other smells of those others, that now and then blow in,
They too hold the promise of food, of things at the edge of my imagination
Which delights in exploration, not only in food,
Because I am not a creature of one dimension only
As you can see in my eyes where other dimensions are moving,
Those I think of as ghosts, the ghosts of prey, the ghosts
Of sex, of moonlight and its homely territories,
The ghosts of comfort, closed spaces, of broods I might mother
Or might have once, who would then have required feeding,
So when I hunger, I hunger also for them.
Touch me, just there, at the neck, by the ears. Touch me
When I want to be touched, smoothing down my back
Especially at night when you speak to me and say: bed,
Which is not my favourite word or place but where
I welcome touch, the firm scratch at neck, by ears,
To see me through night when I hunger,
The hunger so sharp I could smash down the door
Which is always against me, every night locked against me.
The other’s state of being (Lily's) seems almost impenetrable. It is like picking up bits of burned paper near a recently put out fire. Occasionally a sentence with proper syntax seems ready to emerge, the rest of the time it's just fragments. Nothing but ghost.
Danger! Quiver. Hold. Creep. Hold. Flick. Lost. Danger. Hide. Hide now. Eat. Gut. Must out. Must. Dart. The sweet smell of scrunched chocolate wrapper. Bladder. The dangling feather. If I sit here a while… Dart! Danger! I am flame! I am lost! Burnt! Help! Hide! Hide away for ever!!
I think Lily is like Lucky in Waiting for Godot. One day she will make a very long speech that will go on for pages.
Sunday, 28 December 2008
Of course the whole thing is a disaster. For each person who dies it is a disaster and for those around them too. Nor is it going to stop being a disaster. Not for a long time.
On the other hand it is not being mentioned much that it was Hamas who declared the cease fire over and much increased their - mainly ineffective in terms of human life - bombardment of those parts of Israel within their reach. This is after Israel released 227 prisoners on 15 December as a gesture of good will.
So why did Hamas break their ceasefire when they did? I can't hear anyone asking. And why suddenly step up the bombardment? What was there to gain? Why now?
The Hamas charter calls for nothing less than the destruction of Israel. It has reiterated that many times. That is not a call for a two-state solution. Hamas knows that if Israel retaliates there will be many killed and, as often before, the effects of the retaliation can be used as part of the psychological war that Hamas hopes to win, for which the temperature has to be kept very high to ensure international support. Will Hamas worry about casualties? People who send out suicide bombers are not going to be too concerned about incidental loss of life when it is in hope of greater gain.
The Israeli response is being declared disproportionate, as before. But what would be proportionate? How would one go about arranging a proportionate response? Make sure one was firing duds? Aiming to miss? Executing a Hamas prisoner? Would that be internationally welcomed? Fixing the bombs so that when hitting a Hamas target situated in a crowded part of the city they only kill members of Hamas?
Hamas is already deploying longer range rockets. Iran is working towards the possession of nuclear weapons. President Ahmadinejad, the Christmas messager of Channel Four, has often called for the erasure and death of Israel.
You think they don't mean it? If you were surrounded by hostile states who have never recognised you, who have vowed your destruction and keep lobbing rockets at you, you might want to take it a little more seriously. On the other hand - and this is what I increasingly hear - you might be coming round to thinking that maybe Israel, the one country where Jews are not in a vulnerable minority, has outlived international goodwill (friends have said this much to me) and really should be vanished (unspecified how) along with all those Zionists who support it. Remember Zionism equals Fascism, Racism, Nazism, Genocide and the True Holocaust.
So take out most of Hollywood. And those powerful political lobbies. And the bankers. The Jewish bankers at any rate. You know they are to blame for everything. They have fingers in every pie. Then the professions. The press. Start by banning them from certain important jobs. What harm can there be in that? Stop them bellyaching if nothing else. Or at least give them something to bellyache about. Go with precedent. There's no shortage of precedent. And surely there must be a reason for all those precedents.
Not a good year coming.
Saturday, 27 December 2008
Not truly night, just a late winter afternoon, back from London, C would have come with me to the family reunion - brother A, his wife I, my father and K - but she still had a temperature, so best not.
Driving home in the dark with the radio on. Everything is turned inward. There is no landscape, no form, only wild lights coming towards you then past you or hovering, red-eyed in front, ahead. I am surprised there are not more accidents at such times because the sense of reality, the metal-hurtling-forward-at speeds-upward-of-seventy kind of reality, hardly impinges, except when one has to brake a little more sharply, or signal to overtake. The whole thing is a conversation with one's own body, the voices on the radio flickering in and out of dream-attention, the car the lining of one's consciousness.
I thought as I was driving of Max Sebald's death at the wheel, his heart attack and his crash, and wondered what would happen to those around me if I too bladed into the big nothing. It would be the work of a moment. A morbid thought, I know, but my father looks smaller and frailer each time I see him and I know he is unwell. Not so that he feels unwell for now, but ill enough to bring the sense of mortality looming up suddenly large and daunting like a truck at night.
And that took me back to the night drive back from Dahanu in India to Bombay two summers ago. A dark truck would appear now and then without lights on the wrong side of the carriageway facing us. You can't help wondering what the drivers are thinking. Perhaps it is no more than 'I have missed my turning so I'll just double back.'
Arriving home C and I sat down to some poached egg on toast. I felt practically no hunger. Then C took an apple and cut it into four. It was a beautiful ruby coloured apple, deep dark red, luminous, pure, sweet and white inside, or rather that special greeny-yellowish white that is essence of apple. And if this were not to be? I wondered for a second, this ravishing deep ruby coloured apple? And if the experience of life were apples and night-driving, then the blading into the big nothing?
The apple hangs somewhere, like the moon or the truck lights.
Gaza, I know. And son T off to Brazil. There should be a postcard one could send from the planet where one puts all this down in two or three brief sentences, so it all hangs together.
Friday, 26 December 2008
Just the usual. Throw acid at girls going to school. Threaten to kill any girls who want education. Make the schools close down. The kind of news you can pick up from anywhere, today, as it happens, The Times.
Never mind, just think, as some advise us, of the Taliban as "the present day Sandinistas". They are certainly, as Galloway told us, "not an enemy". Nor should we attack them, according to Simon Jenkins. For surely they banned the opium business, says John Pilger.
These are old old chestnuts. Only the girls with acid in their faces are new. But it's all right. They'll be old news by tomorrow.
The Homecoming: Ian Holm, Vivien Merchant, dir Peter Hall, 1973.
"Sorry, I've lost you." Pure Pinterism.
With Nat King Cole
The bleedingly, camply, ironically obvious.
The second sickly Christmas in a row. C goes down with flu on Christmas Eve and is in bed now. Otherwise, the children here, plus R and a friend S. S's medication, a Canadian brew, is very effective in that it enables C to stay up some of the time and join in board games such as Chronology, Frustration and Cranium. We watch one DVD, The Matrix, by popular vote. Presents. A cold, crisp walk round the back with a stop at The Green Dragon just before afternoon closing time. The light thin, faintly electric, the whole sky like a translucent sheet across the real sky. The children have just left.
The two deaths above. Pinter was indeed a poet but not in verse, not even in what is normally called poetry, but in drama. Even so he was a poet of affectations, the sinister always just half a step from the comic, and ever more so as time went on, the waiting for the punchline ever more anticipated. I suspect one or two plays will survive and will always be seen as great landmarks. YouTube has the whole of 'The Collection' available with Laurence Olivier, Alan Bates, Malcolm McDowell and Helen Mirren. Olivier is brilliant in it. Yes, it is Pinteresque. Pause. Repeat. Pause. Repeat another way. Pause. Repeat. Pause. Pause for ever. No repeat. The pause is the punchline.
Eartha Kitt was one of my mother's favourites, but that aspect of her - of them both - properly belongs in the Domain series that I intend to continue. Eartha Kitt and Mae West would have got on well with Camille Paglia, had they ever met. There is, somewhere, a school of 'make what works against you work for you'. A tough, edgy, ultimately admirable school. Maybe that is the definition of camp.
ps I won't be watching Channel Four, not even by accident.
Wednesday, 24 December 2008
It is Christmas Eve after all, so a deserved ending. Though I did leave out one interesting episode to which I will return some time soon, since it involves a pair of characters who appear in a variety of other films including Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes.
Last night I took Walter de la Mare off the shelf and read his short story 'The Riddle' again, which seems the most perfect of all hauntings in that it is frightening yet wonderful. Imagine the ghost of a very dark piece of chocolate with a mysterious liqueur at the centre. What is it? Is it even there? Is it lethal? Fully unexplained. Here it is.
And here if you want to listen to it. It's very short and preceded by a blurb from Miette, the story teller. Best to read it yourself from the text.
It is the first word of the story that grabs you. That word is 'so'. But don't open either link till tomorrow.
Have a very good Christmas.
I will always remember my father’s room. It was a long room, a real hall. The doors were covered with thick oriental rugs. There were a great many pictures on the walls of all kinds: expensive paintings in gilt frames, paintings showing distant, never-seen forests, oriental ports and unknown men of the last century, mostly with beards and dressed in black. An enormous writing desk stood in one corner of the room, the kind known as a diplomat table, over three yards long and some five feet wide, complete with a globe of the world, a copper candelabrum, a tin inkpot, an attaché case of Venetian leather, and a mass of ornaments and mementos. Then there was a collection of heavy leather armchairs gathered around a circular table. By the fireplace surround two bronze bulls were engaged in combat. The pediments of the book cases displayed other bronze items, eagles and bronze horses, and a tiger half a yard in length, looking ready to spring. That too was made of bronze. And all along the walls a range of glazed book-cases. They contained a vast number of books, four, maybe five thousand, I don’t know how many. Literature had its own book-case, as did religion, philosophy, and social studies, the works of English philosophers bound in blue buckram, and sets of all kinds bought from an agent. No one actually read these books. My father spent his time reading the newspapers and accounts of travel. My mother did read, but only German novels. Book dealers occasionally sent us their latest acquisitions and we got stuck with them, and the valet would sometimes ask father for the keys and arrange the newly accumulated volumes in the cases. They were careful to lock the cases, of course, ostensibly so that the books should be protected. The truth is they were locked so as to prevent anyone taking a book out on a whim, which rash action might result in them confronted by the secret and possibly dangerous material it might contain.
This room was referred to as father’s study. No one in human memory had ever actually studied there, least of all my father. His study was the factory and the club he frequented in the afternoons with other manufacturers and financiers, where he would enjoy a quiet game of cards, read the papers and debate matters of business and politics. My father was undoubtedly a clever man with a sound sense of the practical. It was he who had developed the factory from the workshop set up by my grandfather and expanded it into a major business. It grew in his care until it became the leading business premises of the country. This required strength, wit, foresight and a deal of ruthlessness, in fact everything required by any enterprise where one man sits in a room on the top floor deciding, on the basis of instinct and experience, what should go on in all the other rooms of all the other floors. My father had sat in that room of our factory through forty years. It was where he belonged, where he was honored and feared, his name being mentioned with respect throughout the business community. I have no doubt at all that my father’s commercial morals, his concepts of money, work, usefulness and capital, were exactly those the world, his business partners and his family would have expected of him. He was a creative sort of man, in other words not one of those tightfisted, ugly capitalists who sits on his money and squeezes all he can out of his employees but someone naturally bold and entrepreneurial who respected work and aptitude and paid talent better than he did mere mechanical ability. But this - father, the factory, the club - was yet another form of association: that which was sacred and ritualistic at home was more raw, more secretive at work and in the world at large. The social circle founded by my father among others would accept only millionaires as members, always just two hundred of them, no more. When a member died the circle chose a replacement with the same care and delicacy as did the Académie Française its own members or the order of Tibetan monks the new Dalai Lama among the upper classes of Tibet. Everything, the selection process and the invitation, was carried out with the utmost secrecy. The select two hundred felt, despite of title or rank, that they constituted a power in the state greater even that of a governmental department. They were the alternative power, the invisible partner with which official power was obliged to parley and come to agreement. My father was one of them.
from The Intended (currently in translation). The speaker is the divorced husband telling his tale to a friend, much as the divorced wife told her story to her friend.
Tuesday, 23 December 2008
The story of the Dummy. Told by the psychoanalyst. A very young Michael Redgrave with great mad eyes is the ventriloquist, Maxwell Frere. His dummy is Hugo. Maxwell and Hugo talk like a very bitchy gay couple, a kind of Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell. And Elizabeth Welch sings.
Again, it is an ancient trope. Body versus soul, the dancer versus the dance. Philip Larkin: I couldn't go round pretending to be me. It's best to know the pretence.
Received this poem by John Eppel from Zimbabwe.
They beat me with branches wrapped up in barb-wire,
they beat me with branches wrapped up in barb-wire;
my baby she crying, her face is on fire.
They say you are sell-out, you vote Tsvangirai,
they say you are sell-out, you vote Tsvangirai;
my baby, she dying, please God, tell me why?
They beat first my head then my back then my bums,
they beat first my head then my back then my bums;
they laugh and they say is like playing the drums.
I beg them for water, they say go ask Blair,
I beg them for water, they say go ask Blair.
Please, put out the fire in Mucheche’s hair?
My bottom is broken, can not sit or stand,
my bottom is broken, can not sit or stand;
Mucheche can’t breathe with her mouth in the sand.
They burned all our mealies, our chickens, our dog,
they burned all our mealies, our chickens, our dog;
my uncle, they hit him to death with a log.
For hours they beat me, for hours I cry,
for hours they beat me, for hours I cry;
please God, save my baby, do not let her die?
When they leave, like a tortoise I crawl very slow,
when they leave, like a tortoise I crawl very slow;
but my baby stopped crying a long time ago,
mwana wangu stopped crying a long time ago.
Mwana wangu means my child. John sends an article of just six days ago by Mary Ndlovu, whose husband died after having been a political prisoner for many years. In it she says:
Soldiers go on the rampage against civilians, nurses steal medicines to sell to patients, teachers abandon their schools, the government spends money to buy judges plasma screen televisions, while the nation starves and dies of cholera. Civil servants obtain their ‘salary’ by charging for ‘services’ provided, police arrest suspects only to get the bribe required before releasing them. Groups of unidentified men, undoubtedly state agents, kidnap and abduct people from their homes and offices. And party politicians – rejected by the electorate – masquerade as ‘ministers’ issuing threats, denials and insults even as the waves of disaster lap around their feet.
Surely this is a moral crisis above all else, a crisis of leadership, a crisis of citizenship, a failure of human beings to demonstrate the human spirit in any form. Zimbabwe has joined the league of societies whose collapse demonstrates how a venal, self-interested leadership can destroy an entire nation; political structures, economic structures, families and many individuals all crooked, twisted, debilitated and dying as expressions of any positive human endeavour. And we the people have allowed our most precious institutions to be destroyed and our nation to disintegrate....
... Zimbabweans simply cannot understand the apparent perversity of the South African government. Why can they not see the obvious, even when they are themselves in danger? Are they blinded by the 1990s success of their own political history? Are they mistaking Robert Mugabe for another De Klerk? Or are they too absorbed in their own political survival to deflect their attentions to the north?
If effective power-sharing or coordinated international administration does not replace ZANU-PF within the coming weeks, the alternative could be calamitous for the region. We could see the increasing flight of Zimbabweans to neighbouring countries, bringing with them disease of various kinds, desperation, and crime, along with the country’s coming to resemble the eastern DRC or Somalia, with lawless bands of armed men preying on the population, disappearances rising from dozens to thousands, and a haven for all kinds of international criminal activity, including drug running, illegal diamond trading, human trafficking, illegal small arms trading, and even terrorist training. The choice seems now almost beyond the reach of Zimbabweans. Having preferred individual over collective responses to our tragedy, we have passed on the collective response to the region. If the region fails to take up the challenge to insist on effective administration, preferably by an internationally supervised transitional authority, they will also suffer the consequences. Within a few months Zimbabwe will have tipped over the edge, and the failure to intervene to prevent further tragedy will bring disaster on all of us.
I have long loathed the Guardian's Saturday Guide. Reading anything useful in it is like trying to fish out a potentially interesting business card from a greasy spoon's bin liner.
It's the writing of course. It tries so hard to be cool it's actually covered in the sweat of the effort. Here, at random, are a few scraps:
It also impels one to steer clear of any parties Kerry Katona might be holding. But then, that's just common sense... If you were waiting for confirmation that Gavin & Stacey was 2008's biggest show... One nugget of yuletide joy in EastEnders is that the local paedophile has been captured... Even a child could make a watchable documentary about [Hunter S.] Thompson though that's probably not a good idea... The sky is falling, my friends. Winter is closing in, global recession is upon us, and if anyone was in doubt that western civilisation is doomed, Jive Bunny is making a comeback... Merry Christmas! Arsenic-laced minced pie anyone?...
I can't go on. The effort chiefly goes into dropping names in a mood of ironic disdain while trying to write post- post- post-Tom Wolfe style prose. Irony has much to answer for. But irony has many saving graces.
What I see is a bunch of grotesque thirty year olds winking at each other desperately pretending to be fifteen. Come to think of it, that is the malaise of our times: permanent adolescence. The dread of not being a teenager.
Merry Christmas to them all. Free arsenic all round.
Monday, 22 December 2008
Mirrors, staircases, attics, cellars, fireplaces, dolls, dummies, cats, sheets, graveyards, woods, deserted streets. And all this with the most reassuring middle-class domesticity. The secure is an illusion. Beyond the mirror lies the true world. Or one just as true. It is a very English ghost story, this pretence, this dual existence. Call on the old demons: class, repression, puritanism, tradition: everyone a burial of some sort. It takes a foreign doctor to doubt the warp and weft of it. 'Crypto-amnesia. Do I make myself clear,' he asks. But the old lady answers him in the crispest, coolest English way, with a casting out, before another presents him with Hamlet's father's ghost. Back with Sigmund and Karl.
The dummy to come.
Sunday, 21 December 2008
Adrian Mitchell died yesterday and Michael Kustow has written a very swift obituary in The Guardian yesterday.
He seemed to have been with us almost for ever. I was one of the young sixth-formers who attended the performance of Peter Brook's US for which Mitchell wrote 'To Whom It May Concern'.
To Whom It May Concern
I was run over by the truth one day.
Ever since the accident I've walked this way
So stick my legs in plaster
Tell me lies about Vietnam.
Heard the alarm clock screaming with pain,
Couldn't find myself so I went back to sleep again
So fill my ears with silver
Stick my legs in plaster
Tell me lies about Vietnam.
Every time I shut my eyes all I see is flames.
Made a marble phone book and I carved out all the names
So coat my eyes with butter
Fill my ears with silver
Stick my legs in plaster
Tell me lies about Vietnam.
I smell something burning, hope it's just my brains.
They're only dropping peppermints and daisy-chains
So stuff my nose with garlic
Coat my eyes with butter
Fill my ears with silver
Stick my legs in plaster
Tell me lies about Vietnam.
Where were you at the time of the crime?
Down by the Cenotaph drinking slime
So chain my tongue with whisky
Stuff my nose with garlic
Coat my eyes with butter
Fill my ears with silver
Stick my legs in plaster
Tell me lies about Vietnam.
You put your bombers in, you put your conscience out,
You take the human being and you twist it all about
So scrub my skin with women
Chain my tongue with whisky
Stuff my nose with garlic
Coat my eyes with butter
Fill my ears with silver
Stick my legs in plaster
Tell me lies about Vietnam.
There was a blithe certainty about his work from the beginning. The blitheness was heady then and was to remain likeable. And he was very funny. This is his often quoted Suez poem.
England, unlike junior nations,
Wears officers’ long combinations.
So, no embarrassment was felt
By the Church, the Government or the Crown.
But I saw the Thames like a grubby old belt
And England’s trousers falling down.
No one did it better than that. And he wrote this for David Mercer:
I like dancers who stamp.
Is for certain trees, some birds,
Expensive duchesses, expensive whores,
Elegance, it's a small thing
Useful to minor poets and minor footballers.
But big dancers, they stamp and they stamp fast,
Trying to keep their balance on the glob.
Stamp, to make sure the earth's still there,
Stamp, so the earth knows that they're dancing.
Oh the music puffs and bangs along beside them
And the dancers sweat, they like sweating
As the lovely drops slide down their scarlet skin
Or shake off into the air
Like notes of music.
I like dancers, like you, who sweat and stamp
And crack the ceiling when they jump.
I think he spent far too much time striking stamping attitudes, nor do I think stamping is all. The SS stamped too. But the blitheness remained, blitheness and, at best, a thoroughly good-hearted brio. Mitchell was a socialist, a pacifist and a Blakean, a Sixties man emerging out of the Fifties. I only met him once at a reading opposing the Iraq War in 2003 (yes, I opposed it.) Since no-one introduced us at the time he wouldn't have known me from Adam but he gave me a big sloppy hug. He gave everyone a hug that evening.
Christmas is the time for ghost stories. There is a British film of 1945 called Dead of Night, a portmanteau film, meaning it is made by several directors, pulled together into a single narrative based on a house party where the guests tell stories of supernatural experiences. Here is the IMDb entry. This is the poster.
The poster looks gorier and much more sensational than the film, which is rather beautiful and properly troubled. Looking at it one can't help thinking of M.R. James who is, I think, the touchstone for English ghost stories. There are three particularly good episodes. Here is the first, the Christmas party with a very young Sally Ann Howes. I will add other parts later. The whole film is on YouTube, in episodic chunks.
M.R.James himself said there were five key features of the English ghost story:
The pretense of truth
"A pleasing terror"
No gratuitous bloodshed or sex
No "explanation of the machinery"
Setting: "those of the writer's (and reader's) own day"
Well then., here is the gorgeous intro with the credits, followed by the Christmas Party episode.
The Christmas Party
The frame is the clever thing. It seems static, but it is what holds the mostly innocuous pictures in place. Then again it is not what happens but what one imagines might happen. Some of the time anyway.
Does one, should one, Google oneself? The general public opinion is that it is a sad thing to do, the equivalent of masturbation. Masturbation is something everyone feigns horror at doing yet statistics, however gathered, suggest that it is not an uncommon practice. The general public opinion is pretty well always a hypocrite and an ass.
Well, I am coming out of the cupboard on this one (in the socially most acceptable way, I should add). On the Googling part at any rate. I do occasionally Google myself. I have not yet gone blind or developed a dangerous venereal disease from doing so, though my points score in the mirrored halls of hell where the vain are condemned to spend eternity, must be adding up. I hope my good deeds balance out the evil. It is, I should add, a sin I commit particularly at book publication time, but since I seem to publish a lot of books, I expect I am in a bad way. Clearly not a serious person, un homme sérioux. On N'est Pas Serioux Quand On a Soixante Ans.
A friend remarked of another friend, a certain FT, that he must be exceedingly vain as he is always checking his appearance in mirrors and shop windows. I am not convinced. I suggest the compulsive checker of his or her own reflection is suffering from two kinds of insecurity, the first - naturally - regarding appearance (is it as bad as he or she fears?), the second regarding being there at all. There is a long precedent for this in my maternal Transylvania so it is a miracle I abstain as much as I do.
Self-Googling this morning I came across this. Another miracle! I have been turned into wine.
Now to more serious matters. (Clears throat).
Saturday, 20 December 2008
I pick this up, with no sense of shame, from More than Mind Games, where James Hamilton has had an excellent series on what he calls 'the friendly clubs', including Norwich, Ipswich, Watford, Luton and Southampton (scroll down for them all). James is a natural elegist, enthusiast and scholar. Football is its own elegy, all the time, which is - partly - what makes it beautiful. Football is the lost boys being wizards. Fair heartbreaking, I sometimes think.
Matt Le Tissier was one of the few English football geniuses of the post-war years. No wonder the England national team mostly ignored him. I prefer to think of him mad as a hatter, swimming the channel at the age of eighty.
Boyd Tonkin at The Independent has made the New and Collected his poetry book of the year. Isn't that marvellous? The older we get the more likely we are to be forgotten. Sometimes.
(Cynic: There is still time enough for that, nuncle...)*
I see the link only leads to The Independent in general. Here is the text:
New and Collected Poems by George Szirtes (Bloodaxe, £15)
Sometimes a collection of a poet's work opens up a vista of achievement as if for the first time. George Szirtes is still in vigorous mid-stream: he came to England as an eight-year-old refugee from Budapest in 1956. But this grand gathering of his poems shows – in more than 500 beguiling pages – just how tall he stands and how far he sees. From the off, Szirtes merged formal clarity and strong flavour with audacity and ambition of emotions and ideas. Any "difficulty" here lies in our history-haunted times and murky passions, not in wilful obscurity. Szirtes can just as often be comic, charming, playful: he's a poet for all seasons. From sonnets and ballads to engrossing long narratives, this treasure chest has gems for every mood. BT
I think there is a Times review in the pipeline.
I have been studying Lily, our residually feral cat. She is, I think, a cross between Kate Moss and Marcel Marceau. The behaviour and slinkiness is Moss, the body-and-eye language sheer Marceau. Every nervous twitch, every muscle of her small body is articulate. At first I thought her looks, shrinkings, stretchings, starings and flickerings were those of a neurotic guilty child, but now I think they are more complete, more theatrical than that. Her dish is by the fridge but she never allows herself to be fully absorbed in the act of eating. You walk past, she flicks a gaze at you and freezes for a second. You open the fridge door and her neck twizzles up then immediately ratchets back down again. The eyes widen, the nostrils shudder for a microsecond, then another furtive glance. It's all mute theatre. Lily-Bip. Now watch her feeling her way round an invisible telephone booth.
Friday, 19 December 2008
It is important in wiff-waff to distinguish the head from the hand.
(Arrow marks head, circle marks hand. Do I have to draw diagrams for you?*)
My waning wiff-waff powers are somewhat restored after a strenuous run out this morning. I am not half the man I thought I was but two-thirds. Having lost to the Wagnerian Geoff Dyer I thought my playing days were over but since then I have overcome an ace journalist-cum-daredevil-translator and now a poet-photographer-soldier-accountant of terrifying proportions. The trophy that had been sitting on the mantelpiece of the non-working fireplace in our bedroom may be due for another polish.
The trophy was won in the following manner in 2000. The town of W is the hidden dynamo of wiff-waff in the country. The butcher, P, is at the bottom of it. Hearing that I liked an occasional game he invited me to watch a league match in the comfort of a ripped plastic seventies sofa on a raised dais, otherwise known as the directors' box, in what used to be the slaughterhouse at the end of his garden. C and I went, the only recorded crowd ever at the venue. The windows were long broken and several cats had used the venue as a pissoir of last resort. It was a thrilling evening. P's team, known as The Saints, narrowly defeated a team consisting of a very fat boy with a demon serve, his fat father with a bad limp, and a man in a wheelchair who dominated the table without once moving the chair forward, backwards, or sideways.
Shortly after, P made a copy of the key to the slaughterhouse and told me I could use it any time providing I dropped the odd quid in the meter, that is to say whenever the lights went out. Later still, he invited me to become a member of the Saints C team. Only in a symbolic way of course, the way footballers hold on to small children's hands as they emerge from the tunnel. The children don't actually play. And so, understanding my position to be rather as a mascot, I went off to Ireland to be a Fellow at TCD, happy in the knowledge that I would not be called upon.
But one day, on a brief home visit, the phone rang and it was P asking whether I could play because the milkman couldn't make it. So I did get to play. To my pleasant surprise I lost two matches but succeeded in winning one. I was thanked and congratulated and returned to Ireland to write An English Apocalypse among other things.
The Fellowship was for a term. On returning home I received another phone call from P. The season was over and now I should come along and receive the divisional trophy which the team had won. It would be handed over at a disco in the nearby town of H. I reminded him I had only played once and had lost more games than I had won, but he insisted, pointing out that since a team is registered with four members, though only three played in any one fixture, I was not only entitled to a trophy but would be letting the side down if I didn't collect it.
So C and I went to the disco, boogied the night away, and I collected my trophy. 'You should keep that on permanent display in your front window,' they said. I have to confess I didn't always do that, nor have I ever turned out for the Saints (A, B or C) since.
It is not exactly Howard Jacobson. In any case I don't have the full competitive urge. I play better without it, I think. All I want is the equivalent of Villa manager Martin O'Neill bellowing at Ashley Young, 'You're a genius! You're a f.... genius.' That will do me.
*The website (Minor Tweaks) from which I have taken the photograph is helpful, noting:
In the illustration above, notice how the player is gripping the paddle with his hand. Notice, too, how his arm is fully extended and ready to meet the ball. This is not by accident. No. It is intentional.
Also be aware of how his headband is secured tightly around his head. This has been pointed out in previous lessons, but cannot be overemphasized: If you cannot see the ball, you cannot hit it (unless you get super lucky). For the long-haired player, a headband is not a fashion statement; it is a necessity.
Thursday, 18 December 2008
This via the ever splendid Norm.
The power of Ben E. King linked across the globe.
Meanwhile, back from London once again. I am going to deed-poll Backfrom as my new middle name. That's right after I have deed-polled Offto. Tomorrow I am off to the UEA for a game of wiff-waff.
To discuss Hungarian anthology at the HCC. In the meantime another poem from the Bestiary.
Sitting ensconced within his awful eyrie,
He applies to mice his all-compassing theory.
Against that theory, one may be quite sure
The very souls of mice are insecure.
For he, with his great overweening nous,
Knows better than they do what defines a mouse.
Wednesday, 17 December 2008
A very interesting PhD supervision today about aphorisms. The dissertation is already written and is being revised. It includes a large number of aphorisms made up by the candidate himself.
The first and major part of the thesis consists of trying to isolate and describe an aphorism because, as the candidate argues, many things are referred to as aphorisms when they are not precisely so. There are a number of very similar or related categories including precepts, maxims, sayings, gnomisms, apothegms, proverbs, idioms, mottoes, epigrams and so forth, from which the aphorism may be distinguished. Much effort goes into distinguishing. In the end all we seem to be able to say with certainty is that aphorisms are marked by brevity and disproportion between the saying and its import. This disproportion works, generally, because of the reference of the text to another, larger, more comprehensive text, whether that is literary or cultural. That is to say it conjures it.
But how does it do that conjuring? Isn't that the key question?
What, for instance, I ask, constitutes the journey between these various categories, and in what way does the journey to aphorism differ from the journey to a short lyrical poem? A short enigmatic poem by Blake might be instanced as possessing the power of and density - the sense of significance - of an aphorism, as might Jesus's suggestion that: "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God." (Matthew 19:24). Both would have a strong figurative basis. The poem is, of course, more metaphorical. metaphor, says Jakobson, is the essence of poetry. But it's the how of it that matters, surely? How do we get there? How does text lead us to context?
To put it very practically, on what basis would the candidate select his best aphorisms?
So we talk about such qualities as compression, synchronicity, elegance, wit, memorability, all of which may be required of poetry. But maybe synchronicity is less to be expected of an aphorism than of a lyric poem, which, Barthes tells us, is a single, indivisible signifier, that is to say an utterance chockful of synchronicity.
And what of the types of aphorism: the open, the closed, the witty, the 'philosophical'( yes, but what is it to be 'philosophical')? Now the candidate draws a line which divides into three (or more, for all we know). A class that subdivides into three at least.
It looks to me like a river with tributaries. But which of the tributaries is the river? Which bears the same name as the main river? Where is the source of our river? The Danube has at least two disputed sources as Claudio Magris writes. And what if the divisions were not tributaries but constituted a delta? So we have one original river which continues... where? And now it seems that it is a single body of water that is the subject, but a body to which we give various names as it divides. And if we only know one branch of the delta? Just one of the tributaries? Isn't that our condition, after all? Isn't that the language condition: names that offer the appearance of precision but are wholly dependent on interpretation and habit?
And that, I go on to suggest, is the trouble with the word poetry. How often have I been through this with writers of novels who say that they are actually writing poetry, it's just that it is in the form of prose? We spent an entire conference in India discussing this. And certainly there is an area of experience we may call poetry.
It is with that experience I sometimes begin new classes. I ask them what is meant by the expression 'poetry in motion' or 'sheer poetry'? Does it require an actual poem? Is poetry in motion a ballet dancer? Could it not be a canoeist, or even a boxer? Is there pure poetry in the perfect punch? In the addressing of an envelope? In washing dishes?
And most people say, yes, there is poetry in most things and it consists of X and Y and Z, only the proportions of X and Y and Z vary according to the field in which the 'poetry' is perceived to exist. Poetry, in this sense, is an effect, not a poem. A poem is a piece of writing that strives to produce a poetic effect. But that is not to ascribe any particular characteristics to a poem. The poem might as well be anything else. The term shifts mischievously from object to subject. And what is more, we might not agree on the effect. What seems sheer poetry to me might seem leaden prose to you. How then can I begin to describe a poem, the poem-object, to you?
I could perhaps describe an object that we could agree to call verse, because verse has certain definable components. There is not much subjectivity involved in the iambic pentameter, for instance. We can isolate the term: it exists independently of our apprehension. Ten syllables with - in the English system - an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one, five times in all, is an iambic pentameter. And so we can proceed with some degree of clarity. This is or is not an anapaest. This is, or is not, a rhyme. This is, or is not, a sonnet?
Well, yes, once we get to sonnets and ballads we are dealing with conventions, and conventions can be modified and altered until it no longer makes any sense to call a particular piece of verse a sonnet. There would probably have to be a very last position, some outpost of definition which would allow us to call a poem a sonnet when it does not appear to possess some critical number of the characteristics of a sonnet. I don't quite know where that last position is, nor would I be expected to know, only to assert. That last term, that moment before the sonnet loses all contact with sonnetness is like the image of "the last visible dog" that Russell Hoban referred to in his 'The Mouse and His Child', that is to say the last dog visible on a tin of dog food that shows a dog looking at a tin of dog food, that shows a dog... etc. etc. There is, somewhere, a last visible dog.
That seems hopeless. Nevertheless, I suggest, we would be capable of giving a generic definition of the category, sonnet, by simply adding the odd proviso. We would still have a dog, a sonnet, some notional object.
So let us say that a poem is a piece of verse that produces a range of effects that may be recognised as poetry. Recognised by whom? The 'best judges of the age'? The committee? Your sweet uncle Bertie? Who can tell. It will generally come down to the best judges on hand, those in whom you repose a certain conditional trust. You may not agree eve then. But you will, at least agree, that this is verse. Won't you?
So, I say, to the poetic novelist, let me talk about verse instead of poetry. Verse is what I write and you do not write. There are various existing descriptors of prose as there are of verse. Our words still mean something. The poetic effect? Well, let us discuss how it comes about in that piece of prose, weighing the X and the Y and the Z of it.
Does it matter? Yes, if you care at all for language, it does. It is, if you like, a question of integrity, without which nothing happens. Look, my very breath is poetry. It is just that you are not here to appreciate it. It's not verse though, not till I make it so.
This is the best known of Escher's photographs. It's called 'The Bank Director at the Baths', 1938 (source).
It is a splendid photograph, of course. What would a Nazi think of it? 'One more bloated Jew.' Only guessing but I doubt I am far wrong and, so guessing, I consider the date and reflect that he has six years left. And so has my grandfather and all my mother's kith and kin. Less for them. As for my mother herself, within two years she will be working with the man who took this picture. And those below.
Many more photographs by Escher here, here (scroll down for two), here click on images), and here . No doubt more.
I want to grab a few photographs by Károly Escher, to whom my mother was apprenticed in 1940. There are not many available on the web as far as I can see, but here is one:
ESCHER, Karoly (1890-1966). Tramway. Ca 1929. Gelatin Silver print. First in Hungarian Photography to produce images that are not sharp and never uses a flash. 6 3/4 x 9" Exhibitions: 1938 - Venice Biennale (Wins Silver Medal). 1965 - Retrospective, National Gallery, Budapest. 1995 - Howard Greenberg Gallery, "The Hungarian Circle". (From here.)
Tuesday, 16 December 2008
Still to-ing and fro-ing. Slept a mere two hours last night, set the alarm for five am, got to the station by 6.15, bought the ticket, waited twenty-five minutes for the train listening to Thomas Tallis Spem in Alium, train comes, change to Ely, wait another half an hour, hop on train to Birmingham New Street, thence to Coventry. JS meets me there and we walk about fifteen minutes to The Herbert Centre, where I find my Power Point Presentation is utterly vacant. Empty. Zilch. I strive quickly to prepare another at the suite of computers there using internet image sources, but that doesn't work either, so come 12.30 I am in the lecture theatre with no visual material, to talk about the work of artist Ana Maria Pacheco. So OK, I'll just talk for about forty minutes and ad lib my way through, and because I am good at that sort of thing, and know AMP's work well, it all goes remarkably OK, though I am constantly asking the audience - about 25 to 30 people - to imagine this and that, every so often opening the book I wrote about AMP and showing pictures to them. Of course it would have been better with slide images, they know that and I know that, but I strive to give value. In any case the whole subject is exciting, bursting with life.
Everyone seems generally happy with this odd blind-tasting of a lecture, then we go and see the exhibition where the centrepiece is this:
It is Man and His Sheep, the polychrome group of carved figures of 1989, the work that first witched me. Those are real teeth, and the eyes are of agate. The figure in the swimming trunks and swimming cap - but it is more Egyptian than modern - is the Man, and those plainly-dressed, cloaked, middle class women are the Sheep. They are life-size. Their clothes are hacked and gouged with chisels, but their faces are polished and seamless. They have lost, wicked, hopeless, intrigued, familial faces. They stand about not quite knowing what to do, but the leader in his swimming trunks holds aloft his ram's head staff and you know he can command them.
This is a narrative, but it is one I am making up, as by invitation. It is not the narrative given, because the narrative given is not fully given. It is ambiguous. Those large heads, narrow shoulders, short arms and delicate feet and hands, suggest childhood, but the faces are ancient and adult. Is the leader in fact leading? If the title were not Man and His Sheep would we think of sheep at all? The women don't look like sheep. The title too is simply an invitation.
Everything is given but nothing is explained. That's how it should be. That is the secret of its power. The whole is in fact magical theatre, solemn, frightening yet absolutely still. Nothing there to harm you. The group sings silently. It is a kind of growly nachtmusik they sing. In the dark - and I suspect they should be seen in the dark - they'd loom at you like fun-fair figures. They are, like most fun-fair figures, the marriage of the baroque and the naive -fetishistic. And I can say all this about them because the group springs one into words that spring as naturally as plants do.
AMP's later work is more didactic, more codified, less blunt. It is, in my opinion, weaker for that, but that's just, like, my opinion, man. In the eighties and nineties she was making startlingly original art of great scope, something way beyond the smart kids Emin, Hirst , the Chapman Bros and the rest. Not only sculpture but painting and print and book and drawing, all wound together around motifs that surface and vanish only to surface again. They are singing works, the best kind of work.They fill the world. They don't kill the space around them as friend SF says about work by Hirst, they make the space denser, which is the way I like it. That is what visionary / instinctive ambiguity does for you. It thickens life.
Monday, 15 December 2008
Some six or more years ago I wrote a monograph on the artist Ana Maria Pacheco. Tomorrow I go to The Herbert Art Gallery in Coventry to talk about her. There was a set of poems about Ana's In Illo Tempore series first, then we collaborated on a book, A Modern Bestiary, that came out as a very expensive artist's very limited edition and never did go anywhere else. I'm going to put up a few of them now and then, together with Ana's coloured etchings for them. so here is the first.
Suck the eggs
Of honest birds.
Of the brain.
Are not quite lies,
But all the same
The patient dies
My mother with George, shortly after her recovery from Ravensbruck/Penig
There are far too many things we don't know and never bother to ask. Sometimes I think there should exist a vast dump of accessible common memory, something like the internet where things chase themselves around the cosmos for ever and ever, ready to be summoned by accession date and password.
In 1940, under pressure from Hitler, Romania returned some parts of the Transylvania that had been sliced off Hungary following Austria-Hungary's defeat in 1918. That slicing isolated some five million Hungarians, leaving them as aliens in new countries without ever having left the town they were born and grew up in. So maps roll this way and that and the whirligig of time, as Feste put it to Malvolio, brings in its revenges. Briefly then, between 1940 and 1945, my mother's home town of Cluj, known to Hungarians as Kolozsvár, was returned to Hungary and this gave her the opportunity to go to Budapest to work with the marvellous documentary photographer, Károly Escher, whom I have mentioned before. I can't imagine her parents would have been too pleased about her being alone in a distant capital regarded by some as a kind of Sin City, but she was always headstrong and remained so. They must have been assured by Escher's reputation. Besides, her father himself had gone to America after the great crash of 1929 to work, I think, on the railroad, and to send money home. There is nothing new about Polish plumbers in England.
Escher was in fact so good I want to put up some of his photographs here for their own sake. It must have felt like a great privilege to be working with him and learning from him. She was only sixteen, beautiful, confident and full of life. She took on all kinds of other jobs, including modelling in a jeweller's window. She had very long and graceful fingers that she could bend right back without using the other hand and the jeweller draped those hands with jewels. There she sat for hours at a time. This much I know from her.
Budapest must have been an enormous thrill for her. She had recovered from almost two years of confinement with rheumatic fever and now here she was, independent, ambitious, on the loose. What was domain for her then? The whole city perhaps, and the imagined future of working in documentary photography. Hungary was under the control of Admiral Horthy who had been in power since 1920. Horthy was a right wing authoritarian figure in the Franco and Salazar mould. His governments banned the Communists and many on the left had to go abroad to find work. Nevertheless, despite having anti-Jewish laws in place since the early twenties, Hungary was not yet rounding Jews up and deporting them for extermination. That was not to happen until March 1944 once Horthy had gone. So she had something over three years of freedom.
In that time she met my father and his family, but that's a story I am putting aside for now, because I want to concentrate on the subject of domain.
That domain tightened in 1944. She actually moved in with my father's mother and sister and was deeply unhappy there. She later claimed that they deliberately starved her. I doubt it. The starvation would have been primarily emotional. She binged on love. She got little there and was possibly begrudged her food. It must have felt like being strangled.
Then she was arrested (details in the poem Metro) and taken to Ravensbruck, later to Penig. Humiliation, exhaustion and death owned that domain. She was almost dead when the Americans reached Penig. I will write more on this later, but among the troops who did the rescuing and looking after her in a military hospital was one George, the man in the picture above, who wanted her to go to the US with him. They are standing in the doorway of the military hospital, right there. He gave me one of my names though I am, clearly, not his son. I was born a year too late for that and have much of my father in me.
Sunday, 14 December 2008
Seasonal Christmas fare. First catch your children. Begin with Benny Hill and Robert Helpmann, add Dick van Dyke. Script, partly, by Roald Dahl. There's also Anna Quayle and Gert Fröbe and James Robertson Justice and Lionel Jeffries and even Barbara Windsor.
But that is genuine child's play compared to this. One of the greatest films ever made about childhood fear, The Night of the Hunter.
The film was a failure at the time. It was Charles Laughton's only directorial work. Robert Mitchum, who helped direct, is superb. The real child catcher. Simon Callow wrote a book about the whole thing.
Somehow Laughton walks the line between childhood fairy-tale and adult dread. I still have to steel myself to watch it.
My mother as a young girl. No date. Transylvania. C. 1936 at a guess.
I have long meant to return to the subject of my mother in the kitchen and the question of domain. I am saving the actual photograph to the end.
This is what I wrote on 22 November, beginning with some definitions of domain:
▸ noun: a knowledge domain that you are interested in or are communicating about ("It was a limited domain of discourse")
▸ noun: territory over which rule or control is exercised ("His domain extended into Europe")
▸ noun: the set of values of the independent variable for which a function is defined
▸ noun: people in general; especially a distinctive group of people with some shared interest
▸ noun: a particular environment or walk of life
It's the second definition I am interested in, the territory over which rule and control is exercised. What are rule and control? They are what we seem to need in order to keep the threatening and ravenous at bay. How are they exercised? How are they asserted, wrested, defended?
I talked a little about her restricted domain as a girl, following her bout of rheumatic fever:
But somewhere here there once existed a much reduced domain. A place by the window: skaters outside shouting and waving back.
That domain, that rule and control we all crave, a sphere in which our will matters, is the subject. It is often imagined that the traditional male domain was greater than the female. I am not sure this was the general case. When I think of the lives of most boys in most times, it was school, followed by work and a brief period of limited licence, then marriage and responsibility for ever and ever till death. There was no career. Perhaps I should repeat that: there was no career. There was a job that meant everything and which offered relatively little opportunity for initiative or control. The factory was not your domain if you worked on the factory floor, as one of my grandfathers did. Nor was the office, if there were superiors overseeing you. It was not impossible to advance there but the fact is that, by definition, the overwhelming majority did not advance. The job, at the same time, was, in essence, your certificate of masculinity. If you lost it, you were emasculated and became an object of pity and/or contempt. The same happened once you retired. You got under feet. Many shuffled off pretty soon after retirement.
Even if there was some improvement in your position at work it would still be subject to the approval of others above you. You had to channel your energies very hard to progress. You had to retain your vigour, inventiveness and optimism. Anything else and you'd go under, like the thirty-bob-a-week clerk in John Davidson's poem.
The home was distinctly not your domain. The home was generally the wife's. If you were lucky enough to have a shed or an allotment, or even, God granting it, a den, that was your playground. In the family you were brought in as a threat. 'Wait till your father comes home!' I don't think being a so-called patriarch was all beer-and-skittles. Once the long day was finished, often just one day a week for most, there might be both, together with some comradeship. Otherwise it was frustration, powerlessness, and in some cases drunkenness and violence. Most men got their wage packet and, if properly socialised, handed it over to the wife for housekeeping, with some pocket money for amusement (drinking or displacement activity) handed back.
This is the class of men that generally gets it in the neck as being vulgar, crude, worthless. Today the boys are taught their uselessness or made to feel it before they even get out there and work. The alternative is fantasy and a kind of despairing loutishness, an eternal defraying of the cost of responsibility. Because what does responsibility ever bring you? Answer: see above.
At least in the house, possibly (with luck) in the bedroom and above all in the kitchen there was a female domain. To be sure it was absolutely hung about with work and responsibility. But no-one told you what to do in your own kitchen. You had to manage it yourself. It was restricted as hell, and, unlike with the male so-called domain, there was no hope of advancement, to even the next level of motherhood or matriarchy. It was a trap full of children. You had authority over them, but, like the young women in Larkin's poem, they were pushing you to the side of your own life. And that was something you had to accept, lovingly or unlovingly. The steps were, proverbially, scrubbed bright. The nest was yours to make though it cost you in effort and upkeep. Dusk is a great time for voyeurs. Walking past lit rooms with their curtains still open you cannot help but notice how feminine most environments are. The house domain remains feminine even now.
Domains, or what you can make into domains, are very precious. Our domains are chiefly in our heads and our imaginations. Our entire habit of buying things on credit is an extension of domain in a world where we seem to have ever less power, or at least where we are so much more keenly aware of powers beyond ourselves. The bread must still be earned. The circuses have grown to phantasmal size.
But it is my own mother's domain: that house and that kitchen that is my concern. It is the way we were brought up to move and act in it that I want to explore. And will carry on doing.
Saturday, 13 December 2008
I have been back from so many places recently it might as well be London this time. Being an obliging sort of man I did a freebie (I mean it cost me the return rail fare to London) for a magazine I thought worth supporting and set off to be there for 11.00 am. The wind turned my umbrella inside out twice on the way to the station where the ticket office was closed since it was Saturday. So half an hour or so on the platform, my person centrally heated by the energy of Otis Redding entering through both ears and meeting himself vigorously in the middle. Singing this among other things:
There is a deeply searching essay on male self-image in the songs of Otis Redding waiting to be written by an appropriate person. Could be me. Might not be me. Probably will not be me. In any case Otis warms you somewhat on a frozen windswept bare platform. So shake. You might as well, you are shaking anyway. He also invented the lift, did you know?
The weather was no different in London. Umbrella blows inside out a third time.
On the way to the venue I walk past Stockwell Bus Garage, a great hangar with space for ten thousand small boys of circa 1960 with bus-spotter's notebooks in their hands. I was asked if I wanted to go bus-spotting at the age of ten by a classmate called Jimmy Kendall. I said I had seen a bus before. He explained about the numbers. Next thing was to get a big fold-out map of London with all the bus routes on it. The numbers I was most used to were 183 and 79, but there was a whole exciting world of more numbers waiting for us out there. The trouble was I was short sighted but hadn't yet had an eye test, so while I had no difficulty in spotting buses as such, the numbers were not even a blur. Nevertheless the power of having a big map in my pocket and almost countless numbers of buses to catch was as exciting as life could get at age ten, having already walked over a mined field between Hungary and Austria one night two years before, aged eight. Well, I think it was mined.
Jimmy Kendall later kissed a girl called Wendy on the very last day of school. She was standing against the back wall of the class. I liked Wendy anyway. After he left I told her I loved her. First girl I told that. And meant it. She gave a little scream then ran away. I heard from her last week. From Australia. She needn't have run that far.
The event? In a house/gallery full of Picassos, Matisses, Lucian Freuds, Craigie Aitchisons, David Hockneys and Tracey Emins among other things. It was all very friendly and rather mystifying. The magazine editor had, in the meantime, resigned, and the deputy editor was not there. I had written a poem about a Howard Hodgkins painting. There it was. I read the poem about it to about eight people, that and three more Hodgkins poems. Also present: Robert Vas Dias, Anita Klein and Eileen Cooper. One of my stranger readings.
This is Eileen. Very good painter. Find her on Google.
Friday, 12 December 2008
No rest for whacked. From Bath to London to Hitchin to Wymondham to Norwich to Wymondham and tomorrow to London and back again, before London again Monday and Coventry Tuesday.
In Bath reading with Zoe Brigley, young Welsh Bloodaxe poet, followed by Indian meal to midnight then hanging round the deserted bar of the hotel with Zoe, Tim L and Carrie E until about 1am when one of us (not me, constable) inadvertently sets off the bar alarm in trying to get a drink of water. We continue sitting around for another fifteen minutes waiting to see what will happen. Nothing does. Eventually the night attendant, a sheepish boy from somewhere in Europe, appears and smiles sheepishly but doesn't know how to turn off the alarm. Then, at last, someone else does turn it off. I was faintly expecting the cops to burst through the door.
The train home is delayed half an hour. Spend time listening on iPod toy to Beethoven's String Quartet op. 132, one of the greatest pieces of music ever written, and Schubert's Quintet in C, another of the greatest pieces of music ever written.
The university has been asking to see my naturalisation papers. After fifty-two years in England they had better check I am not illegal or a terrorist in a sleeper cell. No one ever bothered before. In any case I find it and see, surprisingly, that what I had remembered about becoming one of her Majesty's subjects was wrong. The wording, according to the 1948 British Nationality Act is THE ABOVE NAMED HAS BEEN REGISTERED AS A CITIZEN OF THE UNITED KINGDOM AND COLONIES.
So British, United Kingdom and colonies. A pretty kettle of halibut. Now they want to see my P60 to check that the NI number they have had for a number of years is the NI number they have had for a number of years. It is, I assure them, the NI number they have had for a number of years.
The meeting I dashed into Norwich for was. appropriately enough, about refugees and asylum -seekers, as part of the City of Refuge programme.
Directed to a lovely review of the New and Collected Poems in The Morning Star today. Which reminds me. The hotel had a decorative book-case in the restaurant. Clearly no-one was expected to actually take a book from it. I did this morning. There was a well preserved copy of a New Statesman anthology, including H.G.Wells's interview with Stalin. It is faintly comical, Wells imagining he is putting Stalin on a spot with the odd Fabian half-nelson. Bernard Shaw also finds it amusing, but then Shaw is a repulsive bag of self-conceit. Neither of them pick Stalin for the monster he is. At that precise moment in fact. The purges were happily proceeding while the interview was going on.
Incidentally, pleased the Menezes case has exposed the police cover-up. The thing stank to high heaven from day one. And now the knife-crimes figures. It is getting very hard voting for this lot.
Thursday, 11 December 2008
I am off to Bath for a reading. C set off to Hitchin earlier to look after her mother. Except the car has broken down on the way, with a flat tyre. The car was fitted with new tyres only last week, whether this particular tyre I don't know. She's at the side of the triple carriageway, ringing me. This is a couple of hours or so before I am due to get the train. So I ring the AA and tell them to hurry then call a taxi for myself to get down there. Who cars about cost? It'll be about half an hour's drive to where she is. The AA say they'll be there soon. The taxi arrives just as C is ringing. 'Don't come,' she urges me. They are almost there. So I send the taxi away with £10 for his trouble. He scowls. He has only come round the corner so there's not much call for scowling.
Meanwhile the rain raineth but the sky cleareth. Maybe it cleareth.
It will be a series of phone calls now to make sure she's OK.
The issue of assisted suicide. I understand there need to be safeguards. Old people, sick people, shouldn't be pressurised into it. There should be no guilt attached to choosing to stay alive by whatever means. But the fact is I myself would feel guilt if it were me. And I value my dignity too. The man in the news finished off the job himself. No-one murdered him.
I cannot begin to express how deeply I loathe those who mouth on about sympathy at a safe distance but still want the final say on what others do with their lives. I see them as a crew of moral Health & Safety officials who would prevent you crossing the road without their say-so. Totalitarians of the spirit.
Enough fuming. Other things to do. Check C. Shave.
Wednesday, 10 December 2008
My opinion on suicide has turned a 180 degrees since I was in my teens. My mother kept talking about euthanasia. I hated it. Her desire for death, after many years of suffering, seemed to be an infringement of my rights to feel rosy about life. It was adolescent self-centredness. That's how it seems now anyway. Everything at that age is an attempt to construct the world as one would wish it to be. An adolescent has so little control over anything and has such an insecure sense of self that other people's actions often constitute a threat. As Harry Enfield's teenager Kevin on the TV show used to repeat time and again: It's so-o-o unfair!
No, it isn't. I can see why she yearned for it. I can see I was a prig to feel as I did.
Now I am for it. Especially since the Scottish clergyman insisted that it is God's right to make us suffer and that we have no right not to suffer or to save other's suffering by ending our own. Not my kind of God then, vicar. That one can get lost.
In the current brouhaha about the televising of the death of one man who wished to be shown dying, whose surviving wife also wished it to be shown, I am wholly with the couple. I don't think it is sensationalist TV. It is reality, and it is about time death was shown as something real rather than acting and shoot-em-up. Someone pro-life on radio was saying there was no counter-argument to be heard on the programme. It's not argument. It is an event. No one has to watch it. People know it's there. It has been fully signposted. It is not glamorous. It is not youthful death wish. The man would have wanted to go on living if living had been possible. He would soon not have been able even to swallow. Would God have been satisfied then? As it was, from what I read, it was a loving leave taking.
I don't intend watching it myself. Can't, as we're out anyway. But I know it's there and am not sorry it is. The Roman route in such things seems far superior to the later model.
See comments but this one is mine and I want it here, where it belongs. As below:
What annoys me are those people who keep repeating:
Your life doesn't belong to you. Not even to those who love you. It belongs to us. To God, to the community, to anybody but yourself.
And then they have the gall to say:
We fully sympathise and it isn't aimed at you, but those who choose this method are cowards and bad citizens and will fry in hell (not meaning you, of course, because we have full sympathy for you.)
I've heard several like that these last two days. Go fuck your sympathy, is what I think. You don't have to do anything about it, you patronising bastard.
Events are almost more frequent than non-events at the moment but I am retrospectively registering these two, both in Norwich, both quite different.
Last Friday we had booked the King of Hearts - a very old building that serves as cafe, art gallery and music room/performance space upstairs - for the local launch of the New and Collected. The idea in this case was not to have a reading by me, but to invite writer friends, ex-colleagues and ex-students, including a couple of present ones (some of these categories overlapping) to come and read a poem. In the event there were some nineteen readers, which is a lot, plus me topping and tailing the two halves with drinks at half-time. I realised in the course of the event there could have been more, but it was a grand audience, mostly on the younger side of thirty-five, and it was as joyful as I can remember. I took sixteen copies of the book, all of which went. Then it was over to the bar for another couple of hours. What I love about teaching is that doing it it becomes blazingly obvious that poetry is not the preoccupation of the middle-aged and middle-class, but is live and shared and pleasure across all boundaries.
Then, on Monday night, Dragon Hall, another ancient Norwich building, or a dual event: the launch of Shuck, Hick, Tiffey including some of the music sung and performed, and the farewell do for the angelic Tom Corbett, who despite being angelic is nobody's fool. Tom has had an extraordinariy life as run-away, sailor, briefly priest, then publisher, headmaster and much else, lord of the universe for all I know. I think of him as an improbable cross between the angel Clarence in 'It's a Wonderful Life' and Jack Sparrow in 'Pirates of the Caribbean'. Clarence Sparrow set up poetry groups, set up publishers and was so bursting with ideas they had to tie him down with sellotape. He is also, according to one calculation, about two-hundred and forty-three years old.
The place was packed with about a hundred people, perhaps more. I did a read through of the Tiffey, or rather a spoken performance. The composer Ken Crandell then did about half of the work-in-progress with singer Anna Bentley - then Helen Ivory for fifteen minutes. A break, then a reading from me and from three other Gatehouse Press writers: Jo Kjaer, Gary Kissick and Jenny Morris. Then the well-deserved tributes to Master C. Sparrow-Corbett.
In view of my feelings about localities and communities, their potential exclusiveness and hostility, it is peculiarly good to have written three fully regional pieces. It's a kind of integration. We live here. By this river. Near that mill. In this town. In this city. On that street. It seems a proper integration to me, that is to say it is internationalism on the small, local scale. Whether it seems so to others, I don't know. I once wrote that all poetry was local, and in a sense it is. The Tiffey is our Pimlico.