Sunday, 30 November 2008

Now We Are Properly Sixty

Morning after the night before. Same cardi.

Last of the self-indulgences here. Masses of Facebook greetings and nice cards including a splendid rollicking verse from Peter Scupham. And daughter H produces an entire alphabet of verse, eg

...H is Papa's daughter
She looks like Papa too.
Some say that it is hard
To tell just who is who.
(Though H says that's not true.)

I was the Injury
Sustained back in the days
When Papa was a matador:
An interesting phase.

J is Jazz piano
Papa plays at night.
He cannot see the black notes so he
Only plays the white..

All true. My matador days were brief but glorious. I took the mat over to the door and laid it neat and flat, thereby immediately transforming myself from matador to flatador. It was easy. The rest is bull.

Verses come with utterly convincing drawings. Right through to Z for Zenith.

Present from combined second generation a finger-touch iPod. It's a beautiful piece of kit. I feel empowered and ready to face the next sixty years. Dinner with second generation plus quartet of lovely friends.

Self-indulgence stops here. And no YouTubery today. I think I have exhausted both YouTube's and my own patience with them for a week. Normal service to resume tomorrow.

Saturday, 29 November 2008

Birthday Music: Formby

I love inuendo, double entendres, mischievous rhymes, McGill postcards, the odd, coy, forgiving, sheer ordinariness of it. Let the beautiful go hang for a while. Let language go, get a decent pint, and snuggle down in the third-class railway carriage. Bring back Marie Lloyd, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter (a sophisticated lad by comparison). I mean:

...My pal puts Violet in his bath, Vi-o-let that makes me laugh
I've found where Violet lives not half, you can't fool me.
She giggles when he hugs her tight, when she's kissed she laughs outright
She had convulsions late last night, they can't fool me....

Eliot had a fondness for it. So did Auden. And as for Rochester...

Birthday Music: Lady and others

Late Lady Day, enjoying herself, the voice rising from one of the sweeter corners of hell, located in Yeats's foul rag and bone shop of the heart. But then Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, Gerry Mulligan, Roy Eldrige... just reeling off their names, as Auden almost put it, is ever so uplifting. So then: rising and uplifting.

Birthday music: Hound Dog

How to fill an all but fixed camera. Most early Elvis would do. Of course I am no more than about eight at the time and Elvis is forbidden. What I like about early rock 'n roll is the simplicity. No great tricks, just the odd reverb, the rest the sound of a half empty dance hall in Hastings or Bognor or Hackney. That and the juke box along the prom in the rain.

More birthday music: Ryan Giggs 35 today

Anyone who doesn't know the sheer exhilaration, instinctive grace, speed of both body and thought, and simple daredevil courage involved in football when played by people like Giggs has to... well, find it elsewhere I suppose.

Giggs is sharp and clear. There is nothing like seeing Giggs in one of his inspired moods running fast at a defence, the body tipped now one way, now another, the feet switching, hovering, then gone. It's the boy hunter's dream of elusion. There is a particular Giggs move, I think of it as the Giggs diagonal, when he starts from the left and moves like a bishop in chess to the centre, weaving as he goes. A number of examples of that on the film above. He is one of the greatest, most exciting footballers I have seen and he is still (just) playing.

Football can be lousy prose but if I wanted to know what poetry was, Ryan Giggs would be a good answer, a good non-bookish answer: a better answer than Cristiano Ronaldo. And as to dance? To art? Ryan Giggs, meet Fred Astaire.

A little birthday music 1

Mr Price. Mr Anderson. (No, not the one from The Matrix)

Now we are sixty

On the eve of my 60th

The night before. Posed. Lit. Suspicious. The last of the fifty-somethings.

A few short birthday posts to follow. Candles. Flickers.

Friday, 28 November 2008

Thanksgiving - a day late

From poet, Michael Blumenthal, who sent it from Virginia. Michael really is a very, very fine poet who has spent time in Hungary.

In A Time of Economic Downturn, I Gaze Up at The Sky

The sun came up this morning, just
as I knew it would. My morning coffee
tasted exactly like yesterday’s: a tad bitter,
but nonetheless revivifying. The faces
of our dead Presidents on Mount Rushmore,
are still there, speaking of their trials
and tribulations from their scenic outlook
of granite. Tonight, when I get home from work,
my lover will make her way downstairs,
wearing my favorite underwear. We’ll lie
in bed, pretending to watch a movie, but
both knowing what we really want. The Dow,
no doubt, will continue its slide, just as the moon,
that lozenge of indifference, will continue
its path downward among the clouds. All of us—
sun, moon, coffee, clouds— might feel a twinge
of guilt: such indifference to profit and loss!
Yet, all over the world, tiny birds with broken wings
and injuries of all sorts are making their way
back to their nests, even the waterlogged anhinga
is drying its wings in the sun. It’s good to know
so much keeps going on, despite everything.
Come closer, sweetheart, let’s put the film on pause,
let’s profit from whatever we’ve got— before
the closing bell, before the riffraff of recovery
finds us again and brings us down.

The riff raff of recovery is good. Film on pause. Happy belated Thanksgiving Day.

Cambridge, St John's College - the candle lit room

Driving to Cambridge takes about 75 minutes. Driving through Cambridge takes another 50. Dark, jammed, faint drizzle and the engine overheating.

When we lived in Hertfordshire Cambridge was where I'd go for half my books and we'd amble round some of the colleges like tourists, calling in on King's College Chapel, having coffee, wandering round the market, picking up a few paperbacks there, dropping in at Heffer's big bookshop. Some time in the eighties I was on the board of the Eastern region's literature panel, which would meet just up the road from St John's, but somehow I never once ambled into St John's. I read at various Cambridge venues, in colleges, in bookshops, but not St John's.

I hadn't realised how extensive it was. It is, I now confirm, extensive. We arrived at Patrick's flat at the back of the college, had a whisky, then dropped our bags in one of the splendid guest rooms, walking through building works, and a seeming endless set of courtyards to get there. We settled, washed and I worked out some kind of programme - I was to read for half an hour at Patrick's flat to whoever turned up - then Patrick returned to take us to dinner in the hall. Dinner was all gowned and suited. C was in sparkly, I in open necked shirt and leather jacket. It was the high table opposite a large portrait, beside the Master and opposite the ninety-five year old Maurice Wilkes, who had worked at the Cavendish and was the co-author of the first book on computer programming. He had gone up to Cambridge close on eighteen years before I was born. Sixty was nothing. Conversation about Palladio and Palladianism, about open air concerts. C in conversation with one of the female dons.

Straight after the meal we followed the Master to the long gallery, a very long long gallery, wood panelled and lit entirely by candles. It was like walking into Venice at night.

More Rembrandt?

Or De La Tour?

In any case it was ravishing, as was the Bridge of Sighs (find pics anywhere). Night glitter.

Then to Patrick's room. Some fifteen young people and scholars - from China, from India, from Germany, from Croatia, from Spain, literary scholars, an astrophysicist, a mathematician-concert pianist, linguists. It was a matter of sitting in an armchair and reading and talking. Another form of glittering.


If at night I should wake in a long candle-lit room with shadowy figures gathered in huddles before an ornate fireplace (rescued from a pub complete with renaissance marquetry) I will know I have been translated into another life, a life in which I don't belong except as a kind of ghost, passing through one wall then through the next. Together with Venice, the Place des Vosges in Paris, the Pazzi Chapel in Florence, my terminal courtyard in inner city Budapest and some very few other places, the long gallery has now become one of the sumptuous places of the world. One does not belong in sumptuous places - that is to say, I don't. I pass through them. They are not a possible dwelling.

I think of Martin Bell in his last Leeds room, of William Diaper "in a nasty garret". I hold the smell of them in my imagination before the sumptuous passages.

Thursday, 27 November 2008

On the move again

Just back from local BBC branch, havinglinked up with RTE to record The Arts Show that goes out next week. In half an hour or so to Cambridge to read again.


Messages from good friends in India, expressing horror and fear for the future, because if it does turn out to be a Muslim group that is responsible for the co-ordinated attacks, the tensions in India will probably produce Hindu reprisals. In any case, there is the sheer audacity and numbness of it. A young man (they all seem to be very young according to reports) in black shirt and jeans (they all seem to have worn black shirts and jeans according to reports) walks into a hotel lobby or a railway station or an apartment block, takes out his automatic rifle and shoots at random, killing many. Without expression he simply refills and fires again then moves on to kill more.

The chief principle of political violence is destabilisation. If the action sets two major groups against each other, all the better, because in the chaos, the force with guns can exploit the chaos and possibly seize power. It also shakes the faith of ordinary people in the ability of the state to protect them, so they look elsewhere. So they can be blackmailed and bullied.

To carry out such acts of random violence you must detach yourself from all feeling of human sympathy. You must not look in the eyes of those you kill: you must not make contact. You must blank them out. You must put ends above means, the aim of the operation above the value of an individual life. In effect, you must elevate yourself into a god.

Dying is normal, but to assume power over the deaths of others is an act of supreme arrogance. States assume that power in times of war when the debate is not so much about war between combatants, but about the involvement of those who are not consciously part of hostilities. The bombing of civilians. The shooting of bystanders. The execution of prisoners.

We die, we kill, we are killed. That's the way things are and have been. With a bit of luck we survive to live our natural span. People who deliberately focus on civilians are simply murderers. If they do so for a political purpose they are terrorists and murderes. Not militants. Not an army. They are murderers with a vastly inflated opinion of their own honour and righteousness. which also makes them hypocrites.

Wednesday, 26 November 2008


The news has been pouring in from Mumbai, that most of my Indian friends still refer to as Bombay. The Taj Mahal Hotel, near the Gateway of India was down the same road as our hotel almost two years ago. One of those friends, poet and novelist P, arranged to meet us at the Taj before moving on to a restaurant elsewhere. Extraordinary opulence. Not six hundred yards away people were sleeping in the street. Opposite, the dock from where we took the boat with P to Elephanta.

The Taj is burning as I write, and there are stories of a hundred or so people being held as hostage. Eyewitness accounts keep cropping up.

Day in: books and woods, etc

It seems a lifetime ago since I had a day at home. Officially there should be five of those per week, with teaching the other two, but there has not been much sign of free days recently. Suddenly there was time and I felt quite lost what to do with it, if only because tomorrow there won't be much time (recording a programme for RTE, going to Cambridge and reading), nor entirely the day after. For those people working in full time salaried jobs this will seem nothing to complain about but I don't do much 'rest' as such, nor do I do 9 - 5. Day begins about 7am and goes on till about 11pm generally. Feeling suddenly swamped by time I began to write a new article for The Drawbridge but not much else.

The cold has lifted to be replaced by mugginess drowsy with faint promises of rain. More books in the post. Not content with that I went out and bought some more: Crow Country by Mark Cocker, Wildwood by Roger Deakin and Rose Tremain's The Road Home. I have read most of Rose's books and think she is one of the best novelists in England.

I bought the books partly to cheer up Robert who runs the little independent bookshop in the arcade, he and his wife drawing no salary from it. He was a bit low because Christmas trade hadn't materialised. 'Not yet,' I said. 'They're probably snapping up the half-price white goods in Comet.' Roger is a retired businessman who could not afford to run the shop if he didn't have savings. He regrets having to sell what he calls 'chewing gum books' though even in those he is well undercut by the supermarkets. The town has more than its fair share of intelligent people but it isn't a bohemian hub thirsty for high lit. Which accounts for Robert having but one copy of the New and Collected, and there is no certainty he'll sell that, though the regional newspaper is doing a double spread about it on Friday. I showed Robert the John Sears book and could see him internally sighing. 'It will be read by people with glasses and beards,' I assured him, noting his glasses and beard.

As for Crow Country and Wildwood they are earnests of good intentions. I know something about birds but very little about the trees they sit on. Not for lack of willing, I should add, but nature - if that is what it is - or culture (more likely) did not have me down as one of the woodcraft folk. Beyond silver birch, weeping willow and oak and, OK, a fir or pine, trees have been the film extras on some endless Cecil B De Mille movie for me. Look! Is that Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane?

Yes, er, possibly.

Tuesday, 25 November 2008

Slant and tesknota

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant

Emily Dickinson

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant---

Success in Circuit lies

Too bright for our infirm Delight

The Truth's superb surprise

Is there any other way of telling but slant? How can telling help being slant when language is itself a slant thing, a kind of musical instrument set at a slant where the keys are constantly sliding and shifting? Anyone who has ever engaged in an argument knows as much. You said this! But I meant that! The words we use are turned against us. The meanings we think to load words with are interpreted differently by others.

Language is not a precise instrument. The dictionary in English is a record of usage, and usage, as we know, varies over place and time and person and occasion. The term idiolect is used by linguists to denote a highly personal language, a wholly individual language consisting of made-up words and phrases, shared with at least one another person. It is, of course, quite useless, except to convey a special sense of intimacy. Lovers construct idiolects to lock the world out. One or two special friends might do the same.

Idiolects can expand into ecolects, the language used, for example, within a family for similarly intimate, reassuring purposes. Some of these may be entirely new coinings, some might be ancient words revived and twisted a little. The Irish poet Paul Muldoon’s family - he tells us in an often quoted poem - referred to the hot water bottle as a quoof,.


Language is a musical instrument that is constantly slipping out of tune. We know this primarily when we translate into a language with which we are not deeply familiar. We are quickly made aware of the limitations of the dictionary and the phrase book, even in perfectly mechanical conversations, and when it comes to conveying subtle meaning – a matter of manners perhaps, a question of preferences, sympathies, pleasures and fears – we are likely to be quite lost. As a child immigrant in Canada the new words Eva Hoffman encountered meant nothing to her. They were strange, wooden things, riddled with holes, hollow, lacking any association or history. The English word ‘river’ for example, was a mere sound compared to the Polish word for river, rzeka, which was dense and magical with experiences, stories and poems. And yet rzeka is a perfectly ordinary word in Polish.

But the losses are more complex still. She talks, in the book, of leaving Poland, standing on the ship at Gdansk, and realising the loss of something quite intangible. Here she refers to another Polish word, tesknota:

"I am suffering my first, severe attack of nostalgia, or tesknota - a word that adds to nostalgia the tonalities of sadness and longing," she writes.

Tesknota means nostalgia with added tonalities of sadness and longing. She suffers tesknota as a thirteen year old girl. She names the feeling. It is of course a generic name. Words for feelings always are. Elsewhere she tells of being a child and hearing Polish peasants singing an ancient song when she has the same feeling though this time she doesn’t know for what. Tesknota. Nostalgia plus.

Idiolects and ecolects are, as we have said, unofficial, restricted forms of intimacy. Often we forget them as we enter the outside world, where there is, after all, some agreement as to meaning and has to be else nothing gets done. The same with language when we decide to move abroad. Our first languages become idiolects and ecolects. The old language remains, rich with tesknota, but the new language filters in and fills out, and becomes – or can become if it comes early enough - landscape, history and dream. The original mother tongue fades: the new foster mother fills out, gradually becomes more matronly, transfers its own nostalgias until they become our own. This too is a sad process. It is, after all, sad forgetting your mother..

...It is precisely its fugitive nature, its sense of precariousness, uncertainty, its treacherous failings, its grandeurs and pathos, its sense of nostalgia for a world of fixed and perfect meanings – its tesknota if you like - that make poets both love and distrust language. People generally long for meaning without quite knowing what it is they are longing for. Poets being particularly and acutely aware of language as a medium feel that longing, that tesknota, all the more. They are aware both of language’s potential and its shortcomings; of its rich fields of history, association and colour as well as of its flimsy, alien arbitrariness. Language to them is both intimate and exotic, familiar and strange. It is not as if all these strange sounds we make with our mouths and represent by means of marks, they think, were any more than a faint scratch on the huge glass of the universe.

These are excerpts from 'The Slant Door and Where it Leads'. In the circumstances of the last few weeks - the retrospective aspect of publishing the New and Collected Poems, and so forth - I have had to talk so much about my own circumstances and views that I have begun to feel a bit bilious. It isn't quite over as I am talking on Irish radio tomorrow and will be doing The Verb next week, though I'll be out when it is broadcast, and there are more readings and occasions to come, but I have started to feel that I would sooner talk about ornithology or nuclear physics or the fortunes of Doncaster Rovers - anything except the immigrant-language question.

The Domain series will however continue as that may build into an altogether bigger project.

Monday, 24 November 2008

Domain 3

My mother and her brother in about 1926

If I were Roland Barthes I would say the punctum was either the walking stick - a studio prop, I imagine - or my mother's left hand clutching at her white suit. I would wonder about the nervousness in that gesture and in the little extended finger. And of course, like anyone else, I would look hard into those eyes. Studio shots of children always makes them look somewhat terrified, but the brother's eyes are knowing rather than scared. As for my mother's, they challenge and ponder.

'Think of them as children once,' I would say to myself many years ago when faced with someone threatening or hostile. Odd to think of a life - a form - spooling back like that. Martin Amis's Time's Arrow applied the time reversing method to an entire book, but once the reader got over the glitter of the technique and was no longer dazzled by it, there was little left, except a cliché about a Dr Mengele figure. Moments were stunning, but the grip on life as a whole was crude.

Maybe it can't help but be crude. Time telescopes. Things either swell and gangle like the giant in Jack, or they curl up like specimens in a bottle. I could make her large or small, but I'd like to see her as she was.


This is the part of her life of which I know next to nothing. In the early nineties I was invited to Romania as part of a British Council writers' group, the others being Helen Simpson, Valentine Cunningham, Helen Dunmore, Geoff Dyer and John Harvey. I flew into Bucharest from Budapest. There was a party and the next morning I was shown round parts of Bucharest by a bright attractive girl who asked where I was going next. I told her Cluj. How are you travelling? she asked. By plane, I said. Her face fell. Which airline? she asked. I fished out my ticket. Tarom, I said. Her face fell again. Then she shrugged. I suppose it's all right, she reassured me. They haven't had a crash for two years.

The morning after that I was at one of the Bucharest airports, I can't remember which, but the one for local flights. It consisted of a shed with a bench on either side. It was a dull morning. A clutch of German businessmen did their best not to look concerned opposite me. We were ushered out on to the tarmac and on board. The plane started up. Immediately there was a smell of damp and burning. We took off. We juddered a little. Someone took a swig of something. I was getting a headache and had entered one of my resigned moods, the kind I used to get in Budapest taxis. Time went slowly, less arrow more lava. Two of the most beautiful air hostesses I have ever seen appeared and offered ice-cold black coffee. Beauty can be extraordinarily consoling. I'd be plunging to my death in good company and I frankly didn't care whether we plunged or not.

Safely landed I was taken to my hotel in the city centre. It had once been a grand hotel with marble panels and a mirror lined staircase. The marble was cracked with missing patches, the mirror blurred and green-grey. All the furniture in my room was falling apart. I opened a drawer and the front of it came away in my hand. The plugs were hanging off the walls. I turned on the taps and there was no water. I lay down. Then I was called to my event. Two men in the lobby wanted to sell me currency on the way out. I think it was currency.

The event was really a series of events in the university. A much respected and friendly translator and scholar, Bill Stanciu, offered to show me round. I told him my mother lived here and described what she told me about the house and its location. I told him it was in a hillside, overlooking a park with a skating rink. When she was ill she would stand in her window and wave to the skaters. It was the house where she contracted the rheumatic fever that led to everything else.

He took me to the most likely place. It looked convincing. No skating rink but a dried up municipal pond that might have served for one. Houses on a hillside, built into the hill. The bottom rooms would have been damp, hence the rheumatic fever. But I couldn't pick out the house. How could I? I tried to calculate which house might offer the best view of the now dried up skating rink. Several did.

But somewhere here there once existed a much reduced domain. A place by the window: skaters outside shouting and waving back.

Fiddly useless stuff. Hardly knowledge, not even particularly convincing guesswork. But maybe that is the most moving aspect of human life: the losses, the vanishings, the tiny scratches on the film of a movie in which we are watching a crowd roll forward. I did at least have some idea of the direction the crowd took. Everyone has to start somewhere.

Sunday, 23 November 2008

Radio spot: Points of Entry and the Cambridge University Library exhibition

I have a programme on Radio Four tomorrow at 3.30-3.45 pm here the first of a Points of Entry series, written by people who came to England as immigrants. I'm not sure whether I myself will be able to listen to it at the time it actually goes out since I am up at the university then, but, as with most BBC programmes, one can listen again via the web so that is probably what I will do. I will be curious to hear what I have said. I have the script of course but have not looked at it since.


I have also been redrafting the speech I gave yesterday at Cambridge University Library. It seemed to go very well judging by the response but, as I said before, speaking is one thing, reading and writing another. When it is ready I will try to make it available in some way.

The speech was on the occasion of the Library's exhibition of my life's work. It is extraordinarily flattering that they should have decided to mount the exhibition at all, complete with scholarly notes. I can't quite get over that fact to begin with. The exhibition itself takes up ten glass cases and goes right back to the beginning: to the anthology edited by Martin Bell at Leeds; various early small press productions; bits from articles I had written; etchings I had made and illustrations I had drawn; some correspondence, including a letter from John Betjeman and another from Jacky, my OUP editor; the rest being chiefly books. There are quite a few of those including my own, my translations, anthologies I edited and the books for which I wrote introductions. Just as well they didn't have the books for which I have written blurbs since that might have doubled the quantity.

C's work runs parallel with mine and there are examples from her art throughout: her etchings for our Starwheel Press productions, drawings for other publication, relief prints, and then the book covers too, as well as the big Budapest book of 2006 which is more her baby than mine.

It is very strange surveying one's own life like that. People say you remember your whole life as you are drowning. I have never drowned so I can't comment. In fact I suspect I wasn't quite taking it all in, talking to people in a polite daze. But I do seem to have been monstrously productive. Odd really, since I have always thought of myself as naturally lazy and procrastinating. Maybe it was all procrastination, a thirty five year long furious procrastination, madly idling while Rome burned merrily in the background.

It seems astonishing that nothing has actually fallen apart in the process. That, if anything, convinces me it must all have been dreamtime work, a facility on haunted autopilot.

I thought I had better comment on the exhibition here and mark it in some way since it is a way of showing gratitude. John Wells, who had kindly organised and annotated the exhibition, took us, along with his partner Sue, to lunch afterwards in a university restaurant overlooking the River Cam. The sun was dipping quite fast. It was cold and bright. Cambridge looked sturdy yet fragile in the brightness. C drove home while I sat, still in a daze. Not working, just a daze.

C is the toughest man south of the picket wire

C relaxing after a hard day's bricklaying

Picked up a gender analysing website from Norm. You put in a website and it tells you whether the writer of it is male or female. Turns out Norm is an effeminate, limp-wristed, mere 76% male. How could that be? He's Australian! *

Thought I'd try it myself and, yup, solid gold 85% male. But that was nothing to C, the website gender analyser declares her 95% male.

All those years of marriage. So that was the secret! Why hadn't I noticed the beard and the gun before?


*Late correction. Norm is Zimbabwean, from Bulawayo. (Notes from both him and Contentious, the latter in Comments. Apologies to Norm. I must have thought he was Australian because he often quotes from the Sydney Morning Herald.) And is in thrall to the Australian cricket team. Oh well, Zimbabwean... 76% is quite in order then.

ps According to another all-wise analyser (analyzer for US types) I am a visionary. I knew it. I could tell, you know. 85% male AND visionary. You can't do better than me at the moment, as U A Fanthorpe's St George once so memorably said.

So gissa job. Quick, before I quit.

Via the Trots.

Sunday Night is.. the toughest man south of the picket wire

John Wayne being John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart being Jimmy Stewart, both themselves and more than twice as natural. The Man Who Shot Lee Marvin, aka Liberty Valance.

The lines get a little confused in my mind but this is how I hallucinate them.

You look mighty pretty when you get mad..*.

Liberty Valance is the toughest man south of the picket wire.... [drum roll, fanfare, flashes of lightning, theme from Tom and Jerry, wait for it...] ... NEXT TO ME.

(Snarls smugly and leaves.)**

* Don't try this at home.

**Alternatively: Eats, shoots, and leaves.

That's it. There's no getting up from that. Out for the count.

Saturday, 22 November 2008

Domain 2

My mother, my grandmother, my mother's brother

Grandmother and mother's brother disappeared in the war. My mother came back and found the whole family gone. Transylvania was early on the deportation and extermination list. Dead, said the neighbours back in Kolozsvár (now Cluj-Napoca). Vanished. As had every item that had once belonged to the family. Everything had vanished. Did the neighbours take them? She thought so. She returned despising them. Once back in Budapest in 1946 she set to work and married my father.

This is probably the earliest photograph I have of her, though there is another I will put up that must be of roughly the same time. Skimpy as it seems I offer this bare narrative for now because the time I want to recall is some years later, when I knew her as my mother. What, after all, is a child to do but think of its mother as mother and father as father? The child's terms of reference are necessarily narrow. Parents, to him, are functions and presences. This post, like the previous one and those to follow, is about her as function and presence, as a figure in her domain.

I like the word domain. Brief definitions:

▸ 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 don't want to talk about gender roles in general. I feel I possess no authority to do so and would prefer to think of it in the terms specific to our family as I knew it.

In any case, there she is, in the photograph you have not yet seen, that I am keeping to the last, sitting at the table of the kitchen that was undoubtedly her domain in the second sense of the meaning. The room was hers to rule and control. It was not the only room of course. In the last years of her life she spent more time in the house than any of us. She had chosen the house, the colours in which it was decorated, picked the items of furniture and decided what to grow in the garden. My instinct would be to say the whole house was her domain, the two centres of power being bedroom and kitchen. Not that we knew anything of the bedroom, and in any case, it is of the bedroom as room to retire to that I am thinking, rather than of anything remotely sexual. Pain, exhaustion, sheer irritation, might take her there. We did not often venture there. The kitchen was, as kitchens generally are, a more communal place, but it was still her realm.

We had no idea what our father's realm was. If he had one we never saw it, felt it, or heard much about it. His place was out there.

Out there had been her place too, her natural place. As I said earlier she was an independent spirit who had trained to be a photographer. I could imagine her being a Diane Arbus or a Lee Miller. She had the curiosity and social boldness of the former and the courage and energy of the latter, as well as, what seemed to me then, and in a difererent way, still does seem now, an air of necessary glamour. Until she became desperately ill we rarely saw her without her full body armour of lipstick, mascara, powder, nail varnish and highlighted beauty spot. Her fingers were fascinating (there is a poem about them). They were exceedingly long and she could bend them right back without using the other hand. She was like a Javanese dancer, the nails sharp, red, curved. She had modelled jewellery in a jeweller's window. The jeweller draped necklaces over her fingers and she sat there very still while customers considered the price.

She was, in such ways, a fully autonomous sexual being. Not that we would have put it like that, but children are not stupid or insensible. That was a different kind of domain, one over which she seemed to exercise firm control. Firm but, as I began to feel once I was in my teens, not entirely calm or secure. She flirted and liked to appear knowing and daring. I half heard conversations in which she seemed to be hinting at knowledge beyond me, but I had a suspicion that this was bravado. Thinking back now I even wonder whether she wasn't rather prudish and shy and terrified of something. I wondered, and still wonder, what happened to her in Ravensbruck and Penig. Had she been raped or brutalised? She never spoke about any of it so there is no knowing, but there seemed to be something explosive and nervous about the whole bravado performance. In any case there were times when her actions were distinctly wild and weird.

She was her own domain in certain respects, in that the world at home revolved around her. She emitted powerful beams of guilt and ardency. Her love for us could never be repaid, that much was clear. It was the Jewish mother pattern without, ostensibly, a mother who was Jewish. After all we had been strictly told, several times, that she was not a Jew but a Lutheran; that she had been a political prisoner not a racial one. Her own domain she might have been, but always, in everything she did, it was apparent that it was a bruised domain, one whose defences had some time or other been broken and shattered.

There was nothing I could with any certainty call normal in this, so I cannot bank the sense of it in my deposit account of gender knowledge. On the other hand there was nothing much else to go on, so put it down as a wild shot. How little we base our knowledge on, I often think. How great a part is played by imagination and desire, the desire, above all, to rule and control domains of our own. Much to be said here, but in another post.


Cambridge talk was fine. I might put a link to it once I am sure of the text. It was fine for saying. It's always different for reading.

1. Abramovich, 2. Winnie the Pooh, 3....

Found this in The Daily Telegraph. Not on the web as far as I can see at a quick scan.

Abramovich, typical Englishman

The citizens of Krasnoyarsk, in Siberia, asked to identify the individual who best symbolised the typical Englishman, have chosen Roman Abramovich. The owner of Chelsea Football Club narrowly defeated Winnie the Pooh, James Bond and Winston Churchil.

As a result, a statue of Mr Abramovich will be unveiled on the city's Karl Marx Street, just a few hundred yards from a statue of Lenin...

Immensely consoling. I now see that I too can become a typical Englishman. One should first develop the ambition of course. The surrealism I have already. Now I just need the cash and the clout. Perception is all.

Friday, 21 November 2008

Late again

I have been writing the talk for tomorrow, titled 'The Slant Door and where it Leads'. Round the bend, I am tempted to say. Just finished a draft.

First thing in the morning take the car to the garage for a service. Send off comments on poems submitted to The Guardian. Then an interview with the regional paper, the Eastern Daily Press, followed by a photographer from the paper. Journalist himself a poet, very good young man. How young is he now? Everyone, as they say, is young.

External examining all afternoon again - finished - then to fetch the car (costs a cool £445) and back to the Cambridge talk.

Domain 2 will be done tomorrow. I have also put up a new, very old photograph on Facebook. Self at about four in leather coat and hat, looking entirely otherworldly.

The world? Turning cold.

In the meantime, hold the presses. Boris Johnson talks sense on immigration. Blimey, as someone might say. Cripes.

Also, stop press, one cat shits in bathroom. Don't know which. Why can't we just have a bear and live in the woods?

Thursday, 20 November 2008


A genuine pleasure at Warwick to meet and talk with Peter Blegvad, writer, artist, musician (an album cover above, face below)...

... who was taught, to his delight, by my close friend, poet, Peter Scupham...

...who, as far as I know has never even met A. L. (Alison) Kennedy, whom, however, I had met before and now conducted a conversation with on a sofa on the Warwick Writers' Room...

... all thanks to the auspices of poet, Mr David Morley...

I feel like a fan with posters of idols. I am in fact a fan of all the above, so, for once, a few more pics are permissible and in order.

This peripatetic existence is, however, making feel a little dizzy. I am in Cambridge on Saturday talking at Cambridge University Library where they currently have an exhibition of my correspondence and books. Reading poems elsewhere in Cambridge on Thursday...

This is beginning to sound like Jennifer's Diary. I had better shut up. I'll be back to normal tomorrow and return to the subject of Domain.

Wednesday, 19 November 2008


The University of Warwick on a dark night

The Warwick campus is the most magnificent I have seen, always excepting Oxford and Cambridge and Durham and Edinburgh, which are not in fact campuses. I was trying to think what it is like and it seems to me like an unlikely and somewhat opulent cross between a gated community in, say, Arizona, a suburb of Milton Keynes and - in patches - Las Vegas. The hotel I am staying in has all mod cons including this computer. If I were a student I'd probably decide to work and retire here. I would turn myself into Terry Pratchett of some ten years ago, and sport a beard and a big hat. Yes, Discworld. Maybe that is it.

And it has extraordinary teachers and writers. I will not even begin to list them because, after all, I work at UEA where there are writers of equal stature and I wouldn't want to start a fight.

The cabbie on the way in was, to some extent, Kartoon Kabbie, in that he griped about foreigners and immigrants. He had spent over twenty years working for Peugeot then they shut it down. No wonder he was glum. The work went to Eastern Europe. Cheap labour. Where's the fighting spirit? he asked. Whether it was capital he wanted to fight or the immigrant was not entirely clear. Both probably. And the football team down the tube too. Do you know how much they earn? £6,000 quid a week. Bet you don't earn that. I confessed I didn't.

The reading. I think it went fine to a big audience. I was aware of a certain emotional overflow, the effects of tiredness. I caught myself a breath short in the last poem, one about Chet Atkins. Steady on, I urged myself. You'll frighten the horses. You're already frightening yourself. The students bought books. What student anywhere buys books? With what money? Non studenti, sed angeli.

I'll reflect on this another time. Maybe. Meanwhile bless David Morley who brought me here and introduced me. And the Chinese Hungarian-speaking mathematics student, a delightful girl who wants to be a fashion designer. And the English daughter of, of all people, Tamas Gaspar Miklos. Two Hungarian voices, The disorientations of Warwick. Of Las Vegas. Of Discworld.

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

The Drawbridge - on 'trust'

I wrote a piece in The Drawbridge on the subject of trust. Here it is, compleat with all-but-speaking Likeness. Note Wallace Stevens. Out of shot but in text.

Domain 1

Photograph by Károly Escher

Having been asked about my mother recently, my mind went back, as it usually does, to a late photograph of her in our kitchen in London in 1973 or so. Photographs have always had a special significance for me: I experience them as a microsecond of life, like a voice about to speak but unable to do so. Roland Barthes's Camera Lucida comes closest to describing and analysing the phenomenon as I myself sense it.

Whatever the status of the photograph as evidence - and we know it can be misleading, doctored, falsely captioned - it remains a capsule filled with, and made out of, light. Breath, light, stopped voice. The breath of what has vanished. The image of our own vanishing. Nor is that vanishing specifically sad, if only because it assures us that there is a something that can vanish, in other words a something that is complex, mysterious, open to celebration, a distinct something in the universe so full of itself it cannot be reproduced or simulated, but is itself, wholly. Something of which we, by means of our sympathies and imaginations, may conceive a simulacrum and call it a life.

I remember the kitchen well. It was a mixture of natural wood, orange paint and black and white checks. There was a range of cupboards at eye level and another at floor level. The sink was in front of the window that gave out onto a lawn and a garage at the end where I once spent part of the night when they locked me out for coming home very late. It was to be a lesson for me, built on their anxiety. She came out a few hours later to let me in.

And there she sits at the table, much too thin, with what I read as a kind of terminal despair in her face. I know I may be reading back, falsely imposing the knowledge of what was to come on what was yet to be. But that was the way I read the photo the first time I saw it a long time ago. It is, I think, its stopped voice, its peculiar even light.

What I wanted to talk about, or begin at least to talk about, was not so much the signficance of the photo as the significance of the kitchen. Woman in kitchen. Kinder, Küche, Kirche. Not so much Kirche perhaps. Importantly - oh how very importantly! - Kinder. But, by this stage, most of all, Küche. Domain.

The trinity of female fate. The woman's domain as was. The haunting that continues to haunt.

I am, of course, delighted that it no longer has to serve as a prison; that our sisters and daughters can explore their lives in a far greater variety of ways. She herself could and did.

I have often written how she left home in 1940 as a sickly but vastly energetic sixteen year old, and travelled alone to Budapest to train as a photographer with the marvellous Károly Escher, one of whose photographs sits at the head of this post. She joined his studio, learned her trade, met my father, was removed in his absence (he was labouring in the Ukraine) first to Ravensbruck then to Penig concentration camps, was liberated by US troops, wended her dangerous way back home the way Primo Levi did, found my father, married him, joined a newspaper's photographic staff, bluntly turned down a Party instruction to inform on colleagues, insisted on our emigration in 1956, and continued working in photography despite declining health for as long as she could.

But then she couldn't go on. Heart was in a bad way. Constant pain, operations, difficulty in breathing. Hence that photograph: the one in the kitchen. Never any comfort of Kirche. Kinder flown or flying. Küche remaining. A good kitchen too, one she had fought for and insisted on. Insisting was a trait of hers. She was good at it. World champion insister with a cupboard full of gold medals. This was the gold medal kitchen.

I want to put up that photograph when I come to the right point in this brief series. Tomorrow I travel to Warwick to read and run a workshop, so there may not be time to explore domain as it should be explored, and it needs to be explored.

Monday, 17 November 2008

Another late night

Burning the candle at all three ends. To hear Sebastian Barry read and talk at UEA tonight followed by dinner. He is a most extraordinary reader, a kind of Dickens, moving constantly, acting the words. Quite enthralling. Bought The Secret Scriptures. Will read when time allows. Good example of novelist close to dramatist close to poet. Sprinkles magic dust like there's no tomorrow.

Poems in from Guardian poetry blog. To read tomorrow. Another full day. I'll be working on them on the train to Warwick on Wednesday I think.

Now to bed.

Sunday, 16 November 2008

Sunday Night is..Shostakovich

His Chamber Symphony 110a. It was one of the pieces played on Thursday by the Apollo Chamber Orchestra, conducted by David Chernaik at St John's Church. The other pieces were: Barber's Adagio, and, in the second half, Takemitsu's Requiem and Richard Strauss's Metamorphosen. In this recording it is Dan Rapoport and the Quadrivium Ensemble.

As to the Shostakovich, the equivalent of Sir Alex Ferguson's "Football! Bloody hell!"

Music! Bloody hell!

It gets a bit turbulent out there sometimes. Then it suddenly stops. Life, eh...

London, November

Dining room, Savile Cub

Friday morning talking with a young, very gifted Ugandan poet, Nick Makoha, to whom I am now officially mentor. That process having now begun I will not be referring to it again for professional reasons. It was a long four hour conversation in the cafe part of the RFH but it flew by. From there to the National Gallery Cafe to meet C and H, thence a quick walk down to Bush House for the interview, before making my way over to the Savile Club in Brook Street.

My room - a double room for C and I - was ready. I caught the old lift to the appropriate floor moving past columns, panelling, portraits and mythological scenes. There was time to relax for about twenty minutes relaxed. At 6.30 C arrived with bags and books. Jon C, who had organised the occasion and was going to be MC, also appeared. Back into my suit and downstairs. People enter. Old friend DL from schooldays, whom I haven't seen for several years. We stop and stare, not quite recognising each other. Old friends E and V, then relatives, and university people, and the writers, Linda Grant, Eva Hofmann, Ruth Fainlight, Alan Sillitoe, Jonty Driver, Erin Soros. More friends: via the Hungarian connection: scientists, doctors, psychoanalysts, architects. Ex-students. A number of people I do not know. It's a good turn out.

All this is a little nerve-racking partly because of the magnificent ceremonial surroundings (the soup kitchen of the ruling class...), but also because of the nature of the occasion and the audience. I always find it easier to read to people I have never met. We drink in the bar. A portrait of a tousled Charles James Fox (Spencer Tracy with a white quiff) looks down. I perform a few brief introductions. Then into the room where I am to read. Jon introduces, I read for half an hour, more or less chronologically, from earliest to new, then face a few questions, apropos of which see the post below.

Then we file into dinner in the glittering hall shown above, some thirty five of us. Dinner is served, light and delicious. Conversation, then the bar. People start to leave. Daughter H remains along with E and V who order a bottle of champagne. The five of us down it, laughing and joking, then eventually C and I are left, both a touch light headed. To room and shower.

How to thank Jon and Martin and the university for putting this on? How to thank anyone for anything? This place costs £900 a year to join. There are paintings and drawings everywhere. Luxury. I feel very spoiled. I would not describe it as a bad experience. It is, of course Prince Charles's birthday. Perhaps he and I have swapped places for an evening and he is in Norfolk translating or scribbling or marking.


The next day we walk along the South Bank from Waterloo towards London Bridge. I start to feel a touch overwhelmed. It has been a very concentrated week or so - Liverpool, Aldeburgh, Newcastle and the two London occasions. I am almost sixty. When I was twenty-five I thought nothing could be better and more impossible than having a book of poems published. It seemed desperately unlikely, given the circumstances: the transplantation, the second language, the lack of education, the necessity of making a living and supporting a family, the indifference of the literary world, not to mention my doubts about my talent. And all those years and years of luck it would take: the luck conspicuously missing from my parents' lives. I don't think all this consciously but I know it is there as a kind of shape inside my chest.

The Thames is choppy, the sun is coming out. Kids are skateboarding and trick-cycling as we pass, others are running up trees and turning back-flips. There is a rising and falling gust. Crowds drift and rest, stare out at the water, take photos of each other, hold hands, browse books, chat in various foreign languages. People come out of the space in front of me like a choir of souls and I think: this is all there is. It is extraordinary that this should be all there is, and marvellous. Luck is simply being here. Luck is that any of this should exist. I stop by a seagull who watches me without too much concern. The river is high. I could easily stop and just cry, for no particular reason except whatever I have already noted in this paragraph. I think I am tired and sentimental. But it's something in the chest and I am glad it's there. We stop in a pub for a pub meal. How easily I could fall asleep.


In the evening to Eva's for dinner with writers and critics, Elaine Showalter and her husband, English; Elaine Feinstein, Maxine.. I remember meeting Lyndall Gordon here and Gabriel Josipovici and marvel at Eva's circle. Elaine S tells a long and extraordinary family story, Elaine F reminiscences about London Yiddish Theatre, Maxine about life in South America and India, Eva about her experience as a visitor to a London Muslim school. We talk about the new post-1989 Europe...

We leave about midnight, get home about 2 am. Tomorrow to listen to Sebastian Barry at the UEA. Teach Monday and Tuesday. Wednesday and Thursday in Warwick, Saturday in Cambridge at the Cambridge University Library where bits of my correspondence and books are on show. Life continues like this until the middle of December.

Those lying novelists and those differently lying poets

Apache story teller

Before saying something about the Savile reading in the next post - a gorgeous occasion, like being turned into an ancestral portrait at one stroke - I need to pick up something I said there and to which Linda refers in her post.

I do occasionally exhibit a gift for saying the most inappropriate things at the most inappropriate times. Have foot, have mouth, will travel. With not only Linda, but Alan Sillitoe and Eva Hofmann, to mention only three important novelists present, I suggested novelists were liars. I didn't mean they were shady people whom you shouldn't trust with a fiver - indeed they are probably harder working, more honest pushers of the pen than most poets - but that when I was attempting to write a novel I failed because I couldn't free myself of the feeling that I was in some way lying.

'Telling stories' is, of course, what story tellers do, but calling them liars is a bit much. So, just before I remove this sackcloth and anoint myself with another sachet full of ashes, let me explain, as briefly and incompletely as such a space permits, what I meant.

Right from the moment I began writing poems (and it was, literally, a moment) I felt I was doing so because poetry offered a marvellous way - possibly the only way - of registering the world as it was. I mean broadly the sensation of being alive in a world of strange sensible objects, those strange sensible objects very much including people. It was almost an act of social withdrawal in that at that point in my young life I was feeling particularly uneasy with notions of social being, even with being 'yourself'. I had no idea what that you-self might be, and was, furthermore, aware that I knew even less about all those other selves I came into contact with. This despite the fact - possibly because of the fact - that I had long been aware of the world as a tragic, missing kind of place, full of desperate, threatened human voices. It was simply that the human voices I was hearing around me, were going around being 'characters' not voices.

This withdrawal from the social aspect of 'character' is what I meant by the solipsistic aspect of being a poet. It isn't a vain obsession with oneself. The self of that 'oneself' is interesting but unknowable. It is not a solid core. It is what consciousness registers through language that makes the essence of poetry. That is the space that the 'voices' out there - the desperate, threatened, lost voices - may come to inhabit. Honesty, for a poet, lies therefore in finding what seems to be a true balance between the world and language. Language is provisional: the world is unknowable

It seemed to me then that novelists, who have chiefly to be interested in people and what people are likely to do, would have to assume knowability. But knowability always felt to me like a short cut I couldn't take.

That is the solipsist talking, of course. Linda refers very kindly to Ésprit d'escalier, a new poem of mine in which a whole lot of people start talking to themselves on the bus and in the street, until everyone is saying the things they should have said at the time they were last talking to someone real but had failed to do so. The poem wonders how far the persons being ghost-addressed like this are not simply imagined by the speakers, or are in fact absorbed into the speaker as an aspect of themselves.

I did indeed laugh, when Linda politely asked whether this account of so many people talking to themselves was not in fact - a lie? A very good point. Clearly it did not happen, the incident never took place, except as sensation, a metaphor of some sort, and even so it did not happen on a bus, but at my desk some time after the sensation, and beyond even that, it only properly happened as it started moving through language: through verse, specifically through the sestina form.

But then, I later suggested to Linda, the poem never tried to persuade anyone that the events did occur. Surely it was clear that the whole thing was made up. There was not even the faintest attempt at persuasion, no pressure to 'suspend disbelief'.

What I didn't say to her (more ésprit d'escalier here) was that that precisely was the way in which the poem seemed true to me; that, when I looked at people absorbed in themselves while on the move, they seemed to be part of an all too real world in which the lost is indeed lost though one keeps trying to address it. That, I might have said, was truly my experience of the way things happen.

Is that clear? Probably not.

What my mouth did not say, chiefly because it had a foot in it (mine), was that story telling is its own truth, in that it is the imaginative ordering of things that might be, and have to be assumed to be in order for us to do anything at all; that story telling is a great and vital art; that we do, in fact, live in a world of consequences and cannot help but reflect on the fact. And that all that is undoubtedly true and not a lie. I might also have ventured that our notions of real people's real character may in fact be an aspect of the fictionalising imagination. They become part of our stories.

Which is, I would then quietly say to myself, if only to excuse myself, precisely what Barthes says in his Mythologies too; that cheap fiction actually buggers us up by reducing being to character to personality to function to powerlessness, while pretending that powerlessness is personality is character is being. And that that can feel like a lie of sorts. It was my fear of that lie that completely incapacitated me as a novelist because I could not quite believe in the proper density of my inventions. They should have been people and, above all, beings - those strange mysterious beings who actually inhabit the world with all their pity, grief, power, desire and need - but they were merely inventions. I knew I was inventing them and felt uncomfortable.

That, as I say, was the fear. But then good story tellers don't allow that to happen. Life does not drain out of their inventions because they invent in depth and under the proper spell of language. And they entertain and bind us as readers with their spell.

I could elaborate on this for much longer but this is a blog and so I shut up, first carefully taking the foot out of my mouth and making my apologies to the story-tellers, at whose non mouth-bound feet I am, much of the time,as happy to sit as is the rest of the perfectly real, true world. It is simply that there is more doing than being in stories. There is, on the other hand, more being than doing in poems.

Saturday, 15 November 2008


Royal Festival Hall, that is, which is where I write this. The bar area to be precise, with a jazz combo practising in the ballroom area. C is off for a walk to get her fix of architecture and light, which is what she chiefly lives on.

Hectic days. Thursday was teaching an MA class at the art college 10-12, rushing for a train (cancelled, find another train) to be in time for the PBS annual general, me being chair and all, dontcha know, then dash across to St John's Wood. Concert involves 23 strings playing Barber's Adagio, Shostakovich symphony (not the 5th), then a piece by a Japanese composer of film music (can't remember name, but provided on request, should there be one), ending with late Richard Strauss. What a dreadful memory I have for music references. Hopeless! I enjoyed the Shostakovich most.

In between: poetry readings from First and Second WW poets by Gerard Benson and Cicely Herbert before the interval, with me in the second half, framed by Japanese composer and R Strauss. Read some six poems on the subject of war, though when I search I find I have hardly written anything on straightforward war. Except for a new four part poem, first published in a magazine called .Cent, 'The Man Who Wove Grass', based on a story I heard on the radio of a shell-shocked soldier who couldn't speak until they placed him in an institution where he could speak to horses. He made his own clothes out of grass there. I was so struck by this it took up considerable headspace until the poem evolved. It's not in the New and Collected but will be in the next book, The Burning of the Books and Other Poems, due Autumn 2009. It seemed to go very well. Someone asked me for it so I gave them the sheets out of my folder. I can print it out again.

Night at H and R's with dream as described. Then for a first - four hour! - tutorial with a young Ugandan poet I am mentoring. Very gifted man who is going to go very far, I think. That was here at the RFH too. Then to meet C and H near the National Gallery, and on to Bush House to record a shortish spot for a World Service Arts programme. Very civilised, as ever. As ever, a bit abbreviated. I will be doing The Verb in the first week of December with Mr McMillan.

From Bush House to Brook Street and the Savile Club where they had a room waiting for us. Shower, lie down, sort out reading, get dressed. It was quite an occasion but I'll write a separate post on it.

This morning riding buses here and there. The top deck is great. Pretty soon, just three weeks, I should be eligible for freebies on transport. I intend to take advantage.

Maybe some pics later.

Friday, 14 November 2008

Interim / a dream

If I am unusually taciturn for a day or so it's because I am in London - as I was last night - dashing between appointments, readings etc. Recording for the World Service this afternoon, then the launch at the Savile Club. Last night at St John's Chruch reading as part of concert.


Tomorrow being Saturday I will try to write more since we are free-ish till the evening.

Dreamt last night I was driving to a reading while falling asleep and reading a newspaper. Dangerous, I reflected, as I was pelting along. Then I was in a taxi still on my way to the same place. Driver kept assuring me we were almost there, but we'd been going for hours. I am still falling in and out of sleep. After many hours, after which it becomes clear that we are nowhere near the venue, I find myself in the narrow hallway of a block of high-rise flats. The driver, a small chubby, faintly dusky man stands grinning beside me, my small bag on the floor. The door opens and a tall dark haired, quite attractive woman says something I can't make out. Where are we? I ask. The driver grins and says, almost conspiratorially,"On the continent". Brief panic. The young woman is asking me something. It sounds like, "Would you like a chocolate (or it might have been chocolate drink)? Can't make it out. It flashes through my mind that the driver wants to marry me off to her. I have been kidnapped.

Tell my dream to daughter H as we stand in the kitchen making some tea. Anxiety dream, she says.

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

Reading Carver

Reading Carver's 'A Small Good Thing' with a class this morning, reading round, voice by voice, some with colds, some with voice almost gone. We are bearing Carver's own 'On Writing' in mind as we go, so we take a paragraph or episode at a time. In fact, though I have often read this story before, I hadn't quite noticed how episodic it is, how filmic ("Came out best in Short Cuts," one student pipes up), and how determined it is to do things its own way. The sentences are reiterations of the same simple structure: She saw... She went... She stood... She turned... one after the other like a riff. Same with motifs: coma, hand... It is the blue collar man's distrust of fancy language, the preference for honest assembly line work.

And how beautiful it is. The short Hemingwayesque sentences, those stumpy fingers, are feeling very carefully round the edges of the mind under stress. 'On Writing' quotes Isaac Babel's "No iron can pierce the heart with such force as a period put in just the right place." It is the poetry of such curt, considerate craftsmanship that can be quite breathtaking.

In the story, about a car accident, the worried mother of the victim, comes across someone else in the hosptial, whose son who has been stabbed at a party. That person is as worried as she is. Later, on returning to the hospital, she asks about the stabbed boy and is told that he has died.

She does not register it. Or rather we are not shown her registering it. She has her own troubles. But we register it. It pierces our hearts with terrible force. He is nothing to us, but it is how things are.

How things are, is what he writes about so beautifully. Although I had read the story, as I say, many times, I had forgotten this incident, or maybe did not want to remember it. I could have wept for a moment. Then it passed.

Tuesday, 11 November 2008


I think I once had legs. They are almost gone at this time, not that it is that late, it just feels like it. It is the constant work.

Brain is fine. But who is to know? It is brain reporting on brain, and brain too might well be shot to pieces for all brain knows. This, I think, is the time to produce the other 'prophetic poem':

New Year Canticles

The new government is the old government,
The new year is the old year in new shoes,
The new testament is the old one reversed,
The new man is the old man newly cursed.

The new poor are the old poor plus a few.
The new itinerant is the old bum.
The new lie is the old lie, and then some.
The new Titanic steams on through old scum.

When they blew away the dust they found
a brand new darkness underneath.
It surprised them. They prodded it with sticks.
It didn’t move for ages, then it stirred.
It wanted naming but they couldn’t find the word

You think of your children in the early light
of the new era. You think of birds in flight.
You think of a cup in the kitchen in the broad
sunlight of mid November, of the faint noise of the road.

You think of the rhetoric of time
as a faintly bombastic ticking. You think of buds
ticking away in the branch under the rime.
The emblematic delicacy of soap suds.

And the notion of an uninterrupted passage
towards happiness, the joy of the unkissed moment
waiting to fly past you, reassuringly off-message,
like a ludicrous, airborne, angelic monument,

Cupid on a bender, a sweet urgent gust
of well-being. Love among the just.

The reference to the advent of Barack Obama is all but overt. There he is in the last section. It is nothing less than the full Isaiah. Or Virgil's Fourth Eclogue.

Can't quite remember when the poem was written. A good six or seven years ago, I think. It's in the New and Collected.

Monday, 10 November 2008

To Newcastle

This is as hectic as I have known it, nor is it over. It was a leaves-on-the line day for the rail services, everything late, trains cancelled.

The journey up began in sunshine and all was fine until Peterborough where I changed from cross-country to main line. Having bought a ticket without a reserved seat I thought I might not find a seat so asked the guard on the platform where might be the best chance. He laughed. There was not much chance anywhere on a Sunday, but if there was, then it would be in the front two coaches. Trying to board the coaches, however, was next to impossible because of humanity and baggage spilling out of it. It was like India. The ends of the carriages, as well as the gangways, were full. A poor woman in front of me had a reserved seat for coach A which happened not to exist. A foreign girl - from Eastern Europe judging by her accent - was already in a seat near me and was reading through what appeared to be her PhD. They exploit you, she said. They fill the train up with as many as they can. They don't care. There speaks Eastern Europe. Hello, UK.

They clearly didn't care. My return ticket had cost a few pence short of £100. Nowhere to put the bags or the heavy coat. Close on four hours of this would be (fill in your own word here). Why don't they put on more coaches? I thought. And where is missing coach A? I reasoned that perhaps the platforms in some cases were too short, or maybe that the extra coaches would make the journey longer. This may be true, but it's still (fill in your own word here again).

Then, by miracle, or semi-miracle, I noticed a vacant window seat by a table, next to a young woman. Not really vacant, but full of baggage. I asked if it was free? She frowned and said it was, then moved over. She was clearly hoping no one would ask. (Fill in your own word, once more) this! I thought. This is what we are like! She can see everyone standing and silently groaning, but wants an extra seat to herself. It was turning out one of my less philanthropic days. Bring on that global warming. Fry us now! She retreated into the DVD then into Bram Stoker's' Dracula'. Where is Uncle Vlad when you need him?

The sky darkened as we went on. Around Lincoln the clouds began to gather, all dove-grey, dove-bellied, squatting ever lower, broody. Then a lighter patch towards Doncaster. Suddenly a bank of fierce black, and a few furious drops of bloated rain. Through that. At York the train starts to empty The clouds stretch and scuttle on.

The reading itself was at the Live Theatre, Paul Batchelor presiding. I was reading with Gillian Allnutt, whom I had never met. After thirty years of poetry and books you'd think to have met everyone several times over, but we had missed each other. Good full house, Gillian first, so I could listen. Then, in the second half, she listened to me. At the end Mr Bloodaxe himself sold books while we signed. Then to supper. It was good. I know, I know. It sounds bland to say so. I liked her poems very much. Serious things, intent, a little skeletal, almost scraped clean, but then genuinely clean and free standing. Under the slight scaffolding, a substantial voice. I bought Paul's book and was reading it on the way back. A deeply impressive book, sharp angled, but rich, rare diction, a brilliant ear, much passion and high intelligence. Mr Batchelor will go far. At least he deserves to. Came away with Gillian's book too, and the new Elena Shvarts. Bloodaxe gifts.

The leaves-on-the-line were on the way back. And one train - yes indeed, the one from Newcastle to Peterborough - was cancelled so there was still more standing in the aisles. What a long-suffering passive lot we are, I thought. We should have been tearing the seats off and throwing them through the window.

The lesson? Avoid the line from Peterborough to Newcastle. Grasping incompetent bastard of a company. Use a bus. Fly. Drive. Let the planet burn. We can stand sheeplike in the aisles. Mustn't grumble, we'll be muttering as our hair catches fire.

Sunday, 9 November 2008

Sunday Night is..

And, of course, Kristallnacht.

The YouTube Kristallnacht material is poor. Either school projects, worthy of course, but being dutiful and enthusiastic is somehow off the point. Or there is footage with average music. Or there is fascist punk stuff. So no movie, just a little picture.

As to the First World War, I know by heart some of the songs of the period. We used to have a book of sheet music and the words went in and stayed in. I almost prefer the songs to some of the well-known first world war poems. They know both less and more. They are mostly in Joan Littlewood's 'Oh What a Lovely War' but they are best sung without accompaniment or bare accompaniment. Not sung too well in fact.

Now to Newcastle

Saturday, 8 November 2008

In which I discover a gift for prophecy

My own reading was on Friday night with Gerry Cambridge and Mimi Khalvati. It seemed to go well. They're good. I have read quite frequently with Mimi and she produced some lovely short poems in memory of Archie Markham. Everything I read was from the 'New' section of the New and Collected.

They included two poems I jokingly described as 'prophetic', in that the events they seem to refer to were a long time in the future at the time I wrote them. Of course they are not really prophetic. I do not have a vatic cloak though I have looked everywhere for one. Can't find one that fits. But, with or without cloak, it seemed to make particular sense reading them now. So let's just pretend they are the real prophetic thing.

I therefore present you with... the banking crisis poem!

Running man blues
for John Mole

when the money ran out, they all ran away
they hit the road running with runs on the board
but the bills they’d run up meant no prospect of play

they ran to breakfast in a seedy café
run on a shoestring they could barely afford
where the money ran out and they all ran away

they were running on empty with the devil to pay
the meter still running on the rusty old Ford
with the bills they’d run up still up on display

they’d run into trouble and ran through the day
with running repairs they would once have ignored
but the cash had run out, they were running away

there were runs on the Bourse and the Bank on the way,
one ran himself through with a samurai sword
the bills he’d run up left him no room to play

running scared, running low, running down, it was they
who had once run the world or had run in and scored
with the bills they’d run up in the games they would play
till the money ran out and they all ran away.


My Obama victory poem will follow. Bear with me.

Briefly home, Saturday night

On the road back from Aldeburgh: bonfires, fireworks, the great illuminated form of Blythburgh church, known as 'the cathedral of the marshes'. Peter Porter wrote a marvellous poem about it shortly after the death of his first wife. I wrote a reply to it, must be some twenty-years ago now, all in Burns stanza.

At Aldeburgh attended the morning reading with Tiffany Atkinson, Alan Brownjohn and Dennis O'Driscoll. What a lively affair this was! Tiffany is funny, sharp with an edge of melancholy. I had never come across her before but she was winner of last year's Aldeburgh first collection prize. She is from West Wales, and sounded absolutely assured.I bought her book.

Alan Brownjohn, though in his seventies, reads as though he has been shot full of speed. I hadn't seen so much vigour since the Nicholas Brothers did the jitterbug, the poems funny, wry, full of fury and lightness. It was one hell of a laughing first half.

In the second half came Dennis with his own dry humour but essentially darker, more turned towards the sense of mortality. Not reading very much, talking as much as reading. For my money a major, important poet. It was a terrific morning.

Quick lunch with Alan, Dennis, Helen, Martin and C, then to the New Voices reading, shorter than the others with more poets. All very different. Mixed, I thought. Very good at best. But I was a little tired (tiredness is a refrain this last week and will probably be next week too, so much so, I am not even going to mention it, its presence is to be understood between paragraphs).

Then I did my talk on Martin Bell in the old cinema. I love reading his poems and talking about him. Alan Brownjohn, who knew him well, and Penny Shuttle were in the audience. Time flew. Just enough for three poems.

Tea with Penny then home, as described. A little on my own reading and prowess as a prophet in the next post, coming right up.

Friday, 7 November 2008

Ultra brief

Home for an hour or so from Liloplod before heading off to Aldeburgh. Thence Newcastle. Home tomorrow night though, so more then.

Thursday, 6 November 2008

Liddypol, Lollipop, Lidl, Loblolly, Loadsamoney..

Hotel room with working wireless. By wireless i don't mean X but Y, as you no doubt realise. I have printed out the (eighth!) version of the lecture I am due to give tonight. I corrected for the last time about half an hour ago according to what seemed then a stroke of genius, but may well turn out to be something less. Too late now. Planned a very few poems to read too, so everything is as ready as it will ever be.

Train route, via Ely and Nuneaton. I know Ely platform better than the back of my hand and have certainly spent more time looking at it. It would, after all, be a sad affair to be spending a very long time staring at the back of one's hand, though there may well be a little Zen in it. As to Nuneaton I have waited on its platform too, but just once before, I think. Nuneaton has an air of post-industrial Adlestrop. Nothing comes and goes on the bare platform and mistier, farther and farther off all the Toyotas and Skodas of Warwickshire and Greater Birmingham.

All the way along the journey that slightly wet-looking, limpid, lightless light, as if houses had spent decades pressing their faces through water. It is what I think of as English light, a soused light, and not precisely light. I would call it dream light but it is more that state of waking from a dream very slowly, the dream-light hanging in there.

The Liverpool voice. I cannot help but think of it in terms of affection. That is quite something for a Manchester United supporter to be saying, but I am barely responsible for myself, I know not what I do. Chirpy and faintly inquisitive but matey, might locate it a little more accurately. The train grew dense with it, people on cellphones buttering each other up in Scouse. And the hotel staff are friendly and helpful. I know they should be, but hotels, especially reasonably smart ones like this one (The Hope Street Hotel, as it happens) tend to make me feel like a small errant boy in someone else's pristine parlour. Well, this one doesn't. It may be because I am in a suit and a white shirt but that can't entirely be it, can it? I am not actually wearing a tie. I don't much like wearing ties.

The light is exactly the same now at almost 4 pm as it was at 8 am. I like dependable light but I do think it should enjoy a good fling now and then, even in November.


It's done. It went far better than I anticipated or hoped. The lecture theatre is the place where dissections used to be carried out for the benefit of students who would crowd the amphitheatre. I left my coat and bag where the cadavers used to be stored before being wheeled out. It's an echoey place. A good crowd. I did the lecture then read four related poems. Signed some books, chatted a little, then went to dinner with the VC, the Dean, the Head of Department and others senior dons, as well as dear friend, M. In the audience, another old friend, Charley. Good dinner.

Now back in the hotel. Perhaps Beyoncé - also staying here - will drop in for a late drink? Yes, but I might be asleep. It could be straight Pete and Dud. Who do you think was tap tap tapping at the window, Dud? Who, Pete. Only bloody Greta Garbo... (see below, a little way in)

Go away, bloody Beyoncé...

Wednesday, 5 November 2008


Forget the qualifications. Put it down to being utterly tired. Besides, I always get nervous when talk turns messianic or hubristic. Sounds mean. It's not a day for qualifications. Will is right on that.

It's a drinking day. A great day, particularly for African Americans, but also for Americans generally: a good moment in American history. So let's just go with that. Here's a glass. And here's a Central European drinking it.

To the future! You too, Max Beckmann.


Tomorrow the trekking really gets under way. The Liverpool talk. Spent most of today revising and revising. Still don't know if I like it. But it's what I am going to say. Then, straight down to Aldeburgh. Then, straight up to Newcastle. Back down for two days teaching, then London, London, and London again. That's neatly before Warwick. And Cambridge. And London. And Canterbury. And Bath...


"That will do for now. And mood changing isn't to be sniffed at.

And stop with the cynicism already."

So who's sniffing?

It is - yes, it is - wonderful that the USA should have elected its first black president. Some Brits tend to sneer at Americans for being racist rednecks and it is true that segregation is still a living memory for some. Legally it ended in 1954 but in practice and piecemeal it continued for another twenty years or so. I remember the Martin Luther King speech and have clear memories of Black Power, of Eldridge Cleaver and Michael X, the Panthers, the Black Power olympic salute of Tommie Smith and John Carlos. I also remember the rise of the black middle class, the TV shows with Bill Cosby and, later, Will Smith etc. Brits tend to sneer but I can't see any major black political leader on the horizon in the UK. Brits talk the talk and limp a little.

Mood is spirit, spirit is symbol, symbol is message, plus all the vast air miles of perception. That Obama, who is such an excellent speaker, should have won, and won so handsomely, pleases me as a writer. An end to inarticulacy is a good thing. Some cheers for that too. Several hundred cheers for the black president. That is absolutely marvellous.


Coming late and very tired last night, I suggested not much will change. In the vital respect above much has changed. I do not anticipate cartoons of Obama of the same sort as cartoons of Dubya. That is now impossible. In image terms Obama is pretty well untouchable.

What might not change very much? Foreign policy may shift in emphasis but much is constrained, I think. Obama might want out of Iraq sooner, and he might want to be tougher on Iran or send more troops into Afghanistan. He might. He has talked about this, but I think he has made policy statements rather on the hoof. I don't blame him for that. He had to win an election, but apart from the slogan of Change! he has spelled out rather little.

He has spent some time repudiating old connections. All rulers have had to do that. Recall Prince Hal. He wouldn't have got anywhere while still tied to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and some of the others. The Right will point to contacts that he used to maintain, that he might still maintain. But he seems to have acted pragmatically. He has dropped that which would not work on the road to office or in office. That is not acting on principle: that is practical politics. Being, in this case, is a revolution: doing is not.

Incidentally, I don't really know what his principles are but I love it when his opponents throw the word 'Socialist' at him. As if that were original sin! But he can't let the word weigh him down so he shifts and pushes it away. I hope he has genuine socialist instincts and does some genuinely socialist things. Let him call it what he will.

Such instincts might best be seen in terms of domestic policy, particularly health care. We should expect some improvements there. How much room there is for manoeuvre, I don't know. I expect change to be incremental rather than dramatic, but I'm just guessing. Some change probably.

In terms of financial policy the Bush era is well and truly over and would have been whoever succeeded Bush. I have yet to hear (I might have missed it) how Obama intends to regulate finance, how he will approach those rescued private institutions, but we will find out. Maybe he himself doesn't know yet. OK, you say, you shouldn't be thinking of any of this, you cynic.


My image of the USA is of a vast slowly moving creature, slow because considerable forces tug at it in opposite directions. That is under general circumstances. In an emergency, if most of the weight shifts one way, it will move quickly, heavily, crushing some things in its way. The elephant begins to move like a donkey but with all the weight of an elephant.

How much does it matter who sits on top of the elephant-donkey is a matter of circumstance. In war it can matter a lot. In peace there is the sheer intractable contradictory mass. There is an entirely new rider there now. It is great he should be there. He looks terrific. Being there at all is a vast symbol. I don't know which way he wants to steer the creature, which way it can be steered. I don't know which way because he hasn't really made any clear noises about that.

Either he has a clear notion and is not saying, or he is what he seems to be, a pragmatist. His enemies say the former. I think the latter. Pragmatists don't tend to opt for dramatic change.

Consider me symbolically delighted, over the proverbial moon. It is, as the moon-lander said, a pretty terrific leap for man. Therefore I rejoice. Party time. Work later.

Forgive me. I have never trusted elation, not in the long run. Wind blows one way: I tend to lean the other. Can't help it. Just instinct.

Go on, help yourself to another drink. And should I be delighted that Palin is not going to get into office? Palin was never going to get in anywhere. False antithesis. Consider me pleased at that. The delight is not at Palin not getting into office, but at Obama getting in.