Friday, 30 January 2009
Books read, notes made. The sun is out but it's cold. In twenty minutes or so I'll walk down to the station then get the Stansted Express at Cambridge. Still more to read. Of the reading of books there is no end, and that is because as Ecclesiastes [12:12] tells us: Of the making many books there is no end.
So someone has to read them. Every book is read by someone, some time. Go, enjoy. Go, dig. Maybe something from Belfast. Maybe not.
Thursday, 29 January 2009
He wrote the second sexy book of my youth that was not pornography but literature. And he wrote the Rabbit books. He was cooked, not raw, a paleface not a redskin. He also wrote verses - verses, I think, rather than poems, because he was too smart, too playful, too literary for poetry (the best poets, I suspect, have a touch of the redneck or simpleton in them). The Collected Poems are undoubtedly secondary to the novels. Here are two squibbish brief ones.
Rexroth and Patchen and Fearing - their mothers
Perhaps could distinguish their sons from the others,
But I am unable. My inner eye pictures
A three-bodied sun-lover issuing strictures,
Berating "Tom" Eliot, translating tanka.
Imbibing espresso and sneering at Sanka* -
Six arms, thirty fingers, all writing abundantly
What pops into heads each named Kenneth, redundantly.
Crossing from a chore as the day
was packing it in, I saw my long shadow
walking before me, bearing in the tile
of its thin head autumnal news,
news broadcast red from the woods to the west,
the goldleaf woods of shedding branch and days
drawing in like a purse being cinched,
the wintery houses sealed and welcoming.
Why do we love them, these last days of something
like summer, of freedom to move in few clothes,
though frost has flattened the morning grass?
They tell us we shall live forever. Stretched
like a rainbow across day's end, my shadow
makes a path from my feet; I am my path.
Not quite the right ending there, perhaps, but elegiac and sweet down the first twelve lines. The endings of the poems were nearly always a bit too rounded up. That comes of being a paleface. But he did wit well, a little scholarly, a little polite, but distinctly witty and a touch waspish as with Kenneth, above. But Rabbit was the real real deal.
*Sanka = decaff coffee
As for me, I finished the first draft of the first Newcastle lecture, just putting a toe into the second. Splashed out on a Satnav in the afternoon. Now I can find my way upstairs in the dark.
And tomorrow to Belfast to bestow blessings on someone who needs no blessings from me.
Wednesday, 28 January 2009
The bookshop at the Wapping Project is about as tiny as a bookshop can be. I would prefer not to swing a cat in it, though a very young kitten might be tempting. It is, in fact, a small garden greenhouse with crates full of books down one side and a tiny table and computer at the far end. A cast iron stove heats it. Ten people on cushions on the floor plus a reader constitutes a very full house indeed. It was, under the circumstances, a capacity house.
Lydia, who runs the bookshop, is an ex-undergraduate of mine who now writes pieces for Harper's and the FT. On an earlier visit to London I had picked up one of the free papers and, leafing through, recognised a photo of her as an example of vox-pop, individual-touch, cutting-edge, street-wise fashion. Before that she had been working on a magazine where I had published a few poems, a combined arts paper called .Cent. Besides Lydia in the room were Bigna Pfenninger, the editor of The Drawbridge, for which I have written a couple of articles, of which this is one, with one to come (on Ego). It does issues by theme (here are previous themes), and these are by people like John Berger and Jose Saramago and Geoff Dyer and Dubravka Ugresic and Isabel Allende... ... enough advertising.) With Bigna was with a friend from Context, the Dalkey Archive Press magazine. I am hopeless at names and even if I caught it properly the first time I have lost it now, apart from an email address that doesn't look like the name I must have heard. In any case you have Lydia, Bigna and X, three young, intelligent, efficient, beautiful, women all running things. It will be probably be the world next and good luck to them. I suspect the world would run just fine.
This is beginning to sound like a social column, so a little more in the same vein. Walking into The Wapping Project I realised I had been there before, for a meeting at the time the new head of BBC Radio Three had been appointed (I can't remember why I should have been invited), though it took Jules Wright, Director of the Wapping Project to remind me that that was almost eight years ago. She too had been there of course. So, now you know about Jules Wright too. She was very hospitable and was also sitting on a cushion inside the greenhouse. As was another ex-student, Jack Underwood, who is now building a reputation as a poet, and will be included in a forthcoming younger British poets anthology.
I lose track now. Ah yes, the social column. Your correspondent was wearing black trousers, a dark brown shirt with a black cardigan on top and a dark brown cord jacket. Black shoes. You should have seen me, reader! You could have dropped me in a very big cup of coffee and never missed me. It was all very nice. Lydia said to read just as long as I felt like, so I talked and read for about forty minutes, after which followed questions and much conversation and a very nice duck dinner. (I seem to order duck every time I find myself in a nice restaurant.) Sweet course being a little late, Jules advised me to grab it, plate and spoon and all, and eat it in Lydia's car on the way, so she could return the the crockery the next morning. It was an entertaining ride, bumping over traffic calmers in the old Mini, the ice cream sliding to and fro in the narrow dish, while the voice of John Cleese dispensed directions from the satnav. (Turn left. No, left. Left, you fool! Never mind!)
I made the 10.30. At Chelmsford a large businessman, breathing heavily, came and sat opposite me and did the Times Quick crossword, slowly. He had a moustache and looked vintage 1970s. I had been reading Tibor Déry's Niki: The Story of a Dog for which I am to write an introduction in the New York Review of Books re-issue, but decided to put that away for a while and take out David Peace's The Damned United, a book that friend M had lent me a few days before. It's a work of fiction about Brian Clough's short time as boss of Leeds United, written from Clough's point of view.
The businessman spotted me reading it and said: Very good book, that. So we got talking. He was originally from the North East, somewhere between Newcastle and Sunderland, a Sunderland supporter and a semi-professional footballer in his youth. So football was the subject: Leeds United, Derby Country, Norwich City, Don Revie, and Brian Clough. Sunderland beating Leeds in the 1973 Cup Final. And time passed and I went back to my book, and eventually, once past Ipswich, the train emptied out and cooled down. And yes, it is a good book. Home about 1am.
Tuesday, 27 January 2009
I read (in haste) that it has been suggested that, rather than going to the surgery, patients phone in to their doctors, thereby saving on carbon emissions. Maybe, but I envisage the following:
VOICE: Thank you for calling. All our doctors are busy right now, but your call is important to us. Please hold the line (meanwhile...two hours later....)
VOICE: If you have a runny nose, slight temperature and a touch of sickness, please ring off now. ... If your joints ache and have done so for more than three days, press button 1.... If you are having trouble with your digestion or with your plumbing generally, press button 2.... If you think you've gone blind or deaf or lame or mad, please press button 3. If you would like to hear a brief patronising remark by one of our doctors, please press button 4....
It is button 4 you will grow to know and love.
(Heads off to London.)
Monday, 26 January 2009
This is where I am reading tomorrow night. Or rather the bookshop that is part of it. On Saturday I am in Belfast, examining. The following Wednesday talking at the LSE.
In the meantime, between endless marking, and stuff I should be doing, I am crawling along, occasionally sprinting, with the three lectures (three evenings in a row) I am to give in Newcastle in the middle of March. The subject of those has long been in my mind in a general way, but only now is it beginning to take some shape. It is, after all, two hours of consecutive talking, so it had better add up. I am starting from seas and rivers, with a brief stopover at a delta and a lagoon. Wet wet wet. And cold.
What I generally feel when putting together any public lecture is a vast ignorance. This partly comes from having read everything I have read for myself without all the usual scholarly apparatus or guidance. Art college education, when I went, consisted chiefly of being physically in an art college with some other students, and occasionally talking to a passing artist. Learning things wasn't what we did. We learned being. I don't say I didn't enjoy it. As one Canadian lecturer put it to me in my first year: We're not interested in artists. We want to make beautiful people.
So here I am in the middle way, a beautiful person (and not so beautiful either) pulling together thin strands of knowledge from books my eyes have skimmed, scooted, blundered and scribbled through. And what have I learned? A limited number of ways of looking at a blackbird. Let's say, thirteen.
I am not writing anything on Gaza at the moment. I will be curious to see whether the current casualty figures hold up. An Italian paper today has reduced the estimate by half, and I remember Jenin when they plummeted from 1500 to about 60 or so, But that may not be the case, and however many deaths there have been, they are still deaths. Nothing to crow about. As if. History is the usual nightmare.
Which could take me back to the subject of the Newcastle lectures. Cold dark deep and absolutely clear. Something is.
Sunday, 25 January 2009
It is C's birthday!!! Poem for her, on front of site. Or, if too lazy to check, it's here as well.
Timing is all, and as your eyes move along
the page, like a typewriter, pressing the return
key, you begin to hear the riff of time’s song-
lines, filling up, taking over. So you turn
round and, there in the mirror, you find a script
written without your permission, which, you learn,
is the script of your life in progress, a life stripped
from you and turned into a pattern that is more
pattern than you’d like, stricter, more tight-lipped
more revealing... But, you ask, how can we restore
the body into its lovely shapes, send the music
of time into reverse? Is there a way to score
music so it holds us in eternity, in some classic
frozen moment? Are the shapes we discover behind
our backs capable of movement - jerkily physic-
al, broken, like this line - into ourselves, refined
like oil, or gold? Here is a hand, two eyes
a mouth, each fine detail singing in an unlined
unwritten poetry that takes everyone by surprise,
the street itself moving in time, its music faint
but relentless, of happening, of song-lines, lost cries.
I can't find a video clip of Jimmy Durante singing it, so it's just the record going around, but the song flitted across Radio Three this morning straight after they played a choral version of the original The Lost Chord, that is to say Sullivan's music to words by Adeline Proctor. Durante's take on it belongs to the grand repertoire of comic songs. Only he can sing it, of course. I'll get back to Lilian Gish and 'The Wind'. To be taken in small sips.
...And it is interesting in itself, the way we develop specialised languages to deal with situations, so that in the end we have several voices and go through life carrying round a permanent, semi-conscious library of them, a library that, for most of life, is in the business of expanding and developing ever new sections, wearing out some old ones in the process.
For some it is a matter of pride to say: I talk just the same to everyone. It is, in some ways, a curious form of egotism, as though it were a matter of honour and virtue not to bend to the other or others, not to take on a little of their presence. I had a friend who took great pride in being honest, in giving his opinion whatever the cost. The pride was in the giving of the opinion. The pride was, in effect, greater than the opinion. It was a form of display and control. The truth was to be seen being determined in his way. No mealy-mouthedness for him. His yea was yea and his nay was nay. Except nay was far more forthcoming, if only because nay is generally more dramatic. Ideally there would have been a bodily attitude, a gesture, some series of noble direct movements such as you can find in Victorian aids to orators. A proper drama. The point was it was clear and looked authoritative. Unfortunately, the opinion ceased to count for very much after a while. It was just a touch overbearing and annoying. Eventually just dull.
So we talk differently to different people in different situations. Human communication is infinitely supple: language is capable of a vast range of inflections. It's what poets live on after all. It is the gift of fine hearing that distinguishes them. That is why hearing a poet consistently blustering or making an uninterrupted series of authoritative gestures always sounds slightly false. Something vital to the act is being deliberately dropped. What remains is the impression of a moral bully, and - maybe worse - a psychological huckster.
In politics the balance is different. We expect a degree of hucksterism. We want it. We want chords to be touched, grand phrases and reiterations, the rhythms of public emotion. Such rhetoric is almost a form of courtesy, just as in ordinary life we might welcome someone asking how we are, or a compliment when we have made a special effort to appeal. There are appropriate gestures in all situations but they tend to merge into each other so we have to work at decoding them: courtesy from shiftiness, eloquence from grandiosity, substance of message from form of message. We actually want to decode: code is courtesy.
Jonathan Raban is looking to pick out the radical elements in Obama's speech, and having looked, like all who look and wish to find, does find some. They are not concrete proposals yet, but indicators of intention: one hangs on to them in hope. Each man seeks what he hopes then looks for some confirmation that what he has found is really there.
For example, Guantanamo Bay is to be closed. Very good. It shouldn't have been there in the first place. Then two ex-detainees turn up in Al Qaeda videos. Does that mean it was wrong to close Gitmo? No, that is an instance of choosing ideals over safety. It is concrete. It corresponds to our notions of justice. I very much doubt whether Abu Ghraib post-Iraq invasion was as bad as Abu Ghraib under Saddam, but in torture and humiliation there is no delicacy of comparison. In our politics - and that is to the credit of our politics - it is simply wrong. In any case, closing Gitmo is psychologically welcome. It is tough being your own villain and it's a relief to think we can go back to being, however relatively, virtuous and right.
This does not mean the question of the ideal versus the safe is going to go away. It never goes away. Nor are we ever absolutely virtuous and right. God is absolutely not on our side. Obama's speech shows that we should try to be virtuous and, in so doing, end up being - and feeling - right. There is much that is to do with virtue rather than expediency in the speech, but, in financial terms, it has to be expedient too. Some of the speech is just what we like to hear. Some of it will get done. We decode the courtesies of the speech to try to guess what that might be.
Sometimes the thought of that decoding makes me feel tired and rather old world - by which I mean European, with a European's history and experience, furthermore a specific kind of European, that is to say one of Hungarian and Jewish extraction with all the baggage and consciousness that implies. But that does not mean I have no hope, nor that the experience is all gloom. Much that looked desirable but impossible has happened in my lifetime.
That hope, perhaps, is what I want to read into Obama's speech, and much of it is there. It really is. Look! I'ts there, I can see it. And that's more than good enough to be getting on with.
Saturday, 24 January 2009
On the way down to London I read Jonathan Raban's analysis of Obama's inauguration speech in the Guardian Review.
More on that tomorrow, but first one small thing that amuses me - not Raban's doing (not entirely) but the sub-editor's - is the Pearls of Wisdom style highlighting of this sentence:
The words of most inaugurals would sound insane if spoken quietly, indoors; and they sometimes sound that way when carried on the wind via loudspeakers and vast JumboTron TV screens.
It is, of course, quite possible that if Obama had addressed the millions from his podium the way he talks at his dining room table he might have sounded equally insane. A little matter of context, perhaps.
Friday, 23 January 2009
We moved into the region, into this town, into the very middle of it, during the last recession in the mid-90s, so the house - an old butcher's shop, then various tiny restaurants, and lastly a failing gift shop - was dirt cheap. There are only five streets to speak of in the centre though the town as a whole extends in estates, so, altogether, there are some 12,000 people living here. There are in fact plans to build another 3000 houses in it which would add about 50% to the population, but that's another story.
Our tiny sixteenth-seventeenth-eighteenth century one-way street was then two-way, and buses and trucks went up and down it occasionally scraping against the upper storeys of the various jettied houses. Next to us was a decayed house-security agency manned by one bluff pipe-smoker who saw little business (the house had rats), opposite us one of the only three gunshops left in this farming county, its gentle and kindly owner continually standing over a bunsen burner, filing and polishing. There was a dress shop that would have done Wigan Pier proud in 1940, a bicycle shop, a stationers, a tattooist,and a decent caff making standard comfort-food steak-and-kidney pies and Yorkshire puds, with tables outside on the narrow pavement. One of the attractions of the street was its invitation to sit out on a sunny morning, imagining I was living Norfolk's version of Viennese cafe society, scribbling in a notebook with a fine fedora on my head and a mug of sloppy tea on the table, leafing leisurely through the New York Review of Books and the Wymondham and Attleborough Mercury. Besides, the house was fascinating, with a circle of rooms at top and bottom and a steep narrow winding stairs curling round the central fireplace, the shop with its wide picture window making a good studio for C, and the old kitchen and washing-up area serving as office for me. To top it all there was a direct view of the old Benedictine abbey from the upstairs window.
It was idyll, but run-down idyll, which is the only sane form of idyll in my view. The high street, which was the main through-road cross-country, was about fifty yards up from our front door, and there was a burgeoning crop of charity shops, the usual harbingers of recession. Besides the banks and two chemists, there was in the high street: a florist, a baker, a butcher, a chippie, a jeweller, a hotel, an optician, a tea shop, a betting shop, two shoe shops, two electrics shops, three pubs, a branch of Woolworths and the Somerfields supermarket.
The local population shuffling up and down the street was mostly on the far side of seventy, old boys and old girls who did not live down our street, which had become faintly bohemian, but behind the high street in a vast and extending gerontopolis consisting of sheltered housing and old people's homes. The old women would sit in the tea shop while the old men limped in and out of the betting shop. Kids would gather under the market cross in the centre or practice their bands in the youth club, which soon disappeared.
It was a pretty town, so bohemians, arties, stray university professors, and a few second-homers were attracted to it. When the region organised open studios our small street was, and still is, well provided for.
In other words, the demographic was mostly elderly retired rural working class, a few poorer families living on scraps, bohemians, arties, academics and, in the larger houses, a few toffs including an eccentric reclusive cousin of the Queen Mother, Lady Tetley, who wore a shaggy coat and dragged bags around.
One of our more-prosperous arty neighbours referred to Somerfields as Scummerfields. It's a horrible term and I wouldn't myself use it, but the store certainly was, and remains, basic. The poor went there in the mid-nineties and they shop there now. We go there for milk, bread, and standard fruit and veg. Then we scarper off to Waitrose on the outskirts of town. We ourselves are arties, after all.
Since the mid-nineties we have had the years of boom, including re-paving, re-signing, a clutch of pretty nick-nackery shops run by women with a bit of time on their hands, and the inevitable baskets of hanging flowers. Some of those women might secretly have been novelists or journalists. Mostly they liked buying in stuff that others like themselves would like to buy from them. Now, whatever Gordon Brown says, it is bust time. Nor can he keep saying, as he does, over and over again - as he did on the radio again, again, again, this morning -that it's not bust, certainly not his bust, but global, as if global didn't include, even **star**, the UK. The female novelists and journalists are not sitting at the Viennese steak-and-kidney caff on the corner, nor do they flaunt their Jimmy Choos and Dolce & Gabbana at the check-out in Somerfields. I still, regrettably, fail to engage in book-chat with them in the cereals and household items aisle. Instead there are the aged, the lame, the obese, the chain-smoking, the slightly-off-their-heads, harassed, fast-food-and-lottery-ticket-buying poor.*
Maybe I should try Attleborough instead.
*Note carried over from post below but appropriate to this: As Dubois rightly points out in the Comments, the Cross Keys is now closed and boarded up. Then there were two pubs.
Thursday, 22 January 2009
The papers at the moment are busily reviewing Shane Watson's indispensible How to Meet a Man After Forty, in the course of discussing which book, William Leith (yesterday) wrote pitch-perfect Guardian:
The reason that the man shortage has become the perceived reality is that women in their late 30s write books and newspaper columns, whereas men in their early 20s tend not to. They just sit around talking to their mates about football and cars.
It's true. Norfolk is, as I have often noticed, full of of women in their late thirties writing books and newspaper columns. Somerfields is packed with them.
And down the road, at the Cross Keys*, men with 'mates' are talking about nothing but football and cars.
The idyllic bliss of it! Two delightful stereotypes touched in with the lightest of brushes!
Ah yes, but what tops it all however, what makes it sing, what makes it authentic Spirit-of-Guardian, is that the article knows itself to be rubbish but still likes to hear itself say such things because only then does it know it is among friends.
UPDATE NOTE: See post above.
Tuesday, 20 January 2009
Only one piece of news today. This:.
The rest will be found just about everywhere.
It is an extraordinary occasion, of course, all broad brush, all mixed palette (in every possible way), now Aretha Franklin, now Itzhak Perlman and Yo Yo Ma, now a poem by Elizabeth Alexander, with a reverend here and a reverend there, and vast crowds and big coats, and the whole parade in the freezing cold as far as the eye can see. Sometimes I wouldn't mind being American. This was one of those occasions.
Because being American - part of 'a young country', as President Obama reminded us - the bouquets of hope seem more luxuriant and yet more ordinary. Because, as again he reminded us, America is a compound of everything and everyone, without a real stake in atavistic score settling. Because, though its brief history is far from universally glorious, it really is possible for the son of a poor black African immigrant to become president. (In Britain Eton tends to come in useful.) And, more than anything, it is possible to believe that a whole society can renew itself. It is possible to believe it because here is the living proof. Here, look at us, we have voted in a black president!
And that is actually momentous. Wonderful. Dazzling. Quite brilliant. Don't give us 'the patsy'. Don't give us 'the military-industrial complex'. Here he is, full straight eloquence and gravitas.
Is he a symbol as much as a person? Yes. But symbols are not hollow. There are times when they are solid, electric, stuffed full of life, dizzying and dangerous. They are the broad-brush poetry of life, and whoever said poetry was always on the side of the angels? Leni Riefenstahl's work is beautiful and symbolic and poetic and deadly poisonous.
Obama is the opposite kind of symbol. He has not stepped over the border into myth. He remains fully human. He gives hope that he, and we, may remain that way.
The speech was masterful. Darkness, modulating into hope and encouragement, but never quite letting go of the dark. It was the US version of Churchill's blood, toil, tears and sweat set piece. Being the US version there remained a line of playful joy running through it. Interestingly, he told his audience they were in a war, a war against what you might call, though he didn't use the word, terror. He told them there would be really hard times ahead. He told them about unemployment and global warming and invited them to choose ideals over safety. Now there is a complex idea. And, to my mind, a very good one. You've got to draw on all that good neighbourliness, can-do, folksiness and join it with toughness without rancour.
The text of the speech is everywhere, including here. You get the whole thing.My clips may disappear because of copyright here or there, but it's all safe for posterity somewhere. And it's nice to have them here.
I stopped everything to watch the event on CNN video live. I am glad I did. Go, Obama!
This shouldn't really be a tail-piece, it's far too good, but this is the best thing I have read on Gaza since the whole thing began. It's by Peter Ryley, who occasionally comments here as The Plump and contributes to the DSTPFW website as Gadgie. thank you, Peter.
Monday, 19 January 2009
In The Night of the Living Dead there is no Shaun.
In the last Millennium the lights have gone.
In the War to End all Wars the Dogs of War have buried the last bone.
In Last Man Standing the last man is last and lives alone.
In the movie version of The Apocalypse the ghouls
Creep out of institutions, corporations, schools.
In the book of the film of the Book of Revelations
The state Reveals All and there is Peace Among the Nations.
In the Armageddon game available for your Pod
Is lodged a fatal doomsday bug called God.
I cannot help you, says the helpful booklet of facts,
The Gospels you know, but thereof follow The Acts.
I cannot serve you, says the server. Quit the site.
Your gig’s defunct, not worth the gigabyte.
I cannot help you go with the same flow,
The bank says to the stream. The answer’s No.
Far off in the distance hangs the dome
of St Paul’s and everywhere faces
cast adrift are going home
to all their secret places.
Offer us shelter, Lord, in the remains of Elmet
Or if that’s too much to ask, provide the odd tin helmet.
A ditty written for a painting by Sally Flint. Let it be a warning.
Sunday, 18 January 2009
The Wind, 1928. The music, by Carl Davis, is - and I rarely use such terms - mindblowing. The images are romantic poetry, the sublime in terms of film. The train journey with which it begins reminds of Jarmusch's marvellous Dead Man, a 1995 Johnny Depp movie. I take the following from the information provided by the The Jew of Malta (he or she has been reading Christopher Marlowe) who put it up on YouTube along with other great silents.
"This elemental drama plays like a darker version of The Gold Rush, in which the continual incursion of the natural world externalises repressed anxieties and desires, rather than facilitating comic ingenuity or conventional pathos. To an extent, these anxieties centre on the sexual life of the protagonist (Lillian Gish) who, upon arriving in the country, is almost immediately forced to choose between three questionable suitors. Fortunately, Sjöström directs Gish so as to bring out her naturalistic proclivities - or, more accurately, deflects her melodramatic proclivities into the desert landscapes which form a backdrop to her performance. Shot on location in the Mojave, these are the centrepiece of the film, engulfing the characters in a manner that was to be literalised in the original conclusion, but was tactically omitted - much to Sjöström and the cast's dismay. The wind sequences are particularly astounding, produced by eight aeroplane propellors that allow Gish to perform her trademark swoon and collapse on an entirely realistic pretext. At the same time, this desert-based drama is prevented from reaching the status of a proto-Western by the conspicuous absence of horizons, which reduces vast expanses to small wind-, sand- and night-bound units, thereby speaking to those national anxieties figured in the false dichotomy between Letty's claustrophobic cabin and the outdoors or, more generally, between the banality and grandeur of America." - Billy Stevenson.
There is often more elemental power in early silents than in many later, technically sophisticated, films. Despite the frequent resort to melodrama it is sheer driving vision that carries them. Characterisation is rudimentary, as perhaps it has to be without dialogue and the spoken word. Melodrama has a dream-dimension. As in dreams, persons and objects loom and drift and blow about our sleeping faculties. We feel their vast presences.
I let this article, a version of Andrew O'Hagan's George Orwell Memorial Lecture, pass in last week's Guardian Review, but I am very glad to see Tim Lott responding to it in the correspondence column of yesterdays's Review with a certain, to my mind, justified indignation.
The tenor of O'Hagan's lecture is that the English are a brutal, torpid, useless, subhuman race, unlike, say, his own noble, native, spirited Scots. All this is written without nuance or anything much in the way of evidence. In the course of this racist manure he ignores... well, some of what he ignores is there in Lott's letter, eg.
First, he writes: "Thatcher is said to have been genuinely shocked by the ease with which England rolled over ... England lost its unions and nationalised industries without a blink." This ignores - for a start - the miners' strike, the Wapping strike, the Brixton riots and the Toxteth riots. It also ignores an array of other protest responses, such as the alternative comedy revolution, pop music from the Smiths to the Beat ("Stand Down Margaret") and the vast numbers of working-class people who voted against Thatcher.
Second, he writes: "The English working class are far ahead of every other European lower class in the sheer energy of their indifference." Any kind of supporting evidence for such an extraordinarily sweeping statement might have made this more convincing.
Third: "The statistics show that English football fans abroad will still turn to violence faster and more regularly than any other football fans in the world." Which statistics are these? Incidentally, the English have a lot to learn from the Scots about violence - a United Nations report in 2005 showed Scotland to be the "most violent country in the developed world".
Fourth, he writes: "Orwell would have rolled into the towns of England on a Saturday night to examine why people were so quiescent, demoralised, so fearful of outsiders, so drawn to fantasy and spite and so lacking in purpose as a social group." Orwell would probably have produced some kind of factual observation to back up such an assertion.
Fifth: "Depression among children of the poor is recorded as the worst in Europe." O'Hagan doesn't cite the source, but he presumably has in mind the Centre for Economic Performance report published recently - which refers to British, not English, children.
Sixth: "The underclass is the most conservative force in Britain." Is there any evidence for this - from a breakdown of voting rolls, for instance?
Seventh, he writes that "in some quarters" the English working class is "fascistic". Is it really so uniquely full of "spite" as O'Hagan asserts? In 2007, police figures were published for 2005-06 that showed 5,124 racist crimes in Scotland. Given that the population of the rest of the UK is 10 times greater and contains five times as large a proportion of ethnic minorities, this is proportionately a far higher figure than in England. Incidentally, extreme religious sectarianism of the sort that scars the Scottish working class is more or less unknown among the English white working class outside of a few areas of Liverpool. Also, according to figures cited by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, one in four gay people have suffered violence in Scotland.
Eighth, he writes: "As we have seen in the banking crisis, the English people call for sedation, not sedition." As opposed to the anti-capitalist rioting that took place on the streets of Glasgow, Edinburgh, Belfast and Cardiff?
He refers to "the English arrogance which resides in the view that they are naturally dominant in the British Isles". But the English are naturally dominant - 84% of the British Isles is English, 8.5% Scots. It is Scottish arrogance that finds this simple - and neutral - fact so painful to acknowledge.
Speaking with my Hungarian hat on, if O'Hagan had talked about any other class or nation that way nobody would think him anything but a simple racist. The test for loathsome aspects of racism / sexism / any other -ism ? Try replacing the object of speech with another group.
Saturday, 17 January 2009
Friday, 16 January 2009
Tonight S calls round and after a while we talk, as often, of books. She is interested in fiction and reviews it for the press, but she reads little poetry. I begin to talk about Elizabeth Bishop, about how I think she is a great poet and that this poem, below, is one of her greatest. Here it is.
At the Fishhouses
Although it is a cold evening,
down by one of the fishhouses
an old man sits netting,
his net, in the gloaming almost invisible,
a dark purple-brown,
and his shuttle worn and polished.
The air smells so strong of codfish
it makes one's nose run and one's eyes water.
The five fishhouses have steeply peaked roofs
and narrow, cleated gangplanks slant up
to storerooms in the gables
for the wheelbarrows to be pushed up and down on.
All is silver: the heavy surface of the sea,
swelling slowly as if considering spilling over,
is opaque, but the silver of the benches,
the lobster pots, and masts, scattered
among the wild jagged rocks,
is of an apparent translucence
like the small old buildings with an emerald moss
growing on their shoreward walls.
The big fish tubs are completely lined
with layers of beautiful herring scales
and the wheelbarrows are similarly plastered
with creamy iridescent coats of mail,
with small iridescent flies crawling on them.
Up on the little slope behind the houses,
set in the sparse bright sprinkle of grass,
is an ancient wooden capstan,
cracked, with two long bleached handles
and some melancholy stains, like dried blood,
where the ironwork has rusted.
The old man accepts a Lucky Strike.
He was a friend of my grandfather.
We talk of the decline in the population
and of codfish and herring
while he waits for a herring boat to come in.
There are sequins on his vest and on his thumb.
He has scraped the scales, the principal beauty,
from unnumbered fish with that black old knife,
the blade of which is almost worn away.
Down at the water's edge, at the place
where they haul up the boats, up the long ramp
descending into the water, thin silver
tree trunks are laid horizontally
across the gray stones, down and down
at intervals of four or five feet.
Cold dark deep and absolutely clear,
element bearable to no mortal,
to fish and to seals . . . One seal particularly
I have seen here evening after evening.
He was curious about me. He was interested in music;
like me a believer in total immersion,
so I used to sing him Baptist hymns.
I also sang "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God."
He stood up in the water and regarded me
steadily, moving his head a little.
Then he would disappear, then suddenly emerge
almost in the same spot, with a sort of shrug
as if it were against his better judgment.
Cold dark deep and absolutely clear,
the clear gray icy water . . . Back, behind us,
the dignified tall firs begin.
Bluish, associating with their shadows,
a million Christmas trees stand
waiting for Christmas. The water seems suspended
above the rounded gray and blue-gray stones.
I have seen it over and over, the same sea, the same,
slightly, indifferently swinging above the stones,
icily free above the stones,
above the stones and then the world.
If you should dip your hand in,
your wrist would ache immediately,
your bones would begin to ache and your hand would burn
as if the water were a transmutation of fire
that feeds on stones and burns with a dark gray flame.
If you tasted it, it would first taste bitter,
then briny, then surely burn your tongue.
It is like what we imagine knowledge to be:
dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free,
drawn from the cold hard mouth
of the world, derived from the rocky breasts
forever, flowing and drawn, and since
our knowledge is historical, flowing, and flown.
Why is it a great poem? Why is that my whole body freezes and shivers at the end, and why I am on the edge of tears that are nothing to do with sentiment?
First we have what seems a long introduction describing every part of a scene in great detail, not only through the eye, but the nose. The image of silver hits us in line 13 and stays with us, transforming everything after it, almost as if the fish the old man had been catching for years had become the shore. We are chilled down, everything is strange, even a little exotic, but the language is plain, almost blunt, using words like the helpless exclamation, 'beautiful', as if the poet were stepping out of the scene for a moment, finding herself wordless and breathless. It isn't just glitter though. There is blood, and rust, and the Lucky Strike, and business, and look, the old man too is covered in silver.
There are sequins on his vest and on his thumb.
He has scraped the scales, the principal beauty,
from unnumbered fish with that black old knife,
the blade of which is almost worn away.
Then we see the tree trunks and the stones and the hint of a descent into the water.
...down and down
at intervals of four or five feet.
And now, for the first time, we feel the shock of the water. Cold dark deep and absolutely clear... It is ominous and staring us in the face. It is like our death yet it is no more than nature. It just is. Something, at least, there is that is cold dark deep and absolutely clear. But then follows an apparently light comical interlude with the seal. The speaker seems to have, or is rather playing at having, established communication with it. There is a joke about total immersion. She sings a Baptist hymn to the seal who appears to listen then disappears into that cold dark deep absolute clarity with a sort of shrug /as if it were against his better judgment.
The words are still faintly comical but are on the verge of leaving the comic for something else. And then the choric line returns. Cold dark deep and absolutely clear...
She looks back at the firs waiting for Christmas. Human festivals and human hymns, the ceremonial world of the human imagination.
But then she swings round again to the water that she has seen over and over again:
...slightly, indifferently swinging above the stones,
icily free above the stones,
above the stones and then the world.
And something begins to open up, partly in her, partly in the world. And then comes the thought, the possibility of entering the sea, doing no more at first than dipping a hand in, and immediately the bones would ache, and the hand burns
as if the water were a transmutation of fire
that feeds on stones and burns with a dark gray flame.
That dark grey flame unites ice and fire.Then she imagines its bitter taste. Tasting it comes the revelation that has been haunting the poem all this time, the sense of that this cold dark deep and absolutely clear thing has a meaning that is just out of reach:
...It is like what we imagine knowledge to be:
dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free,
drawn from the cold hard mouth
of the world, derived from the rocky breasts
forever, flowing and drawn...
It is knowledge of a sort, imagined knowledge, out of the cold hard mouth of the world, that mother whose breasts are of rock. But the sea is in permanent flow, flowing, drawn...
... and since
our knowledge is historical, flowing, and flown.
And there is the knowledge that has been at the tip of our burning tongue. It is historical knowledge, and since time passes and history is a product of time, it too flows. History is flown knowledge.
In great poetry knowledge flows out of the mixture of sensation, memory, thought and apprehension. It is historical knowledge. The old man, the seal, the hymns, the extraordinary otherworldliness of the ordinary tinged with silver, blood and rust and work is part of it.
Here is a place to start. A first poem against which others can be measured.
Thursday, 15 January 2009
Semi-feral Lily amuses herself with a piece of chocolate wrapper. It crackles and shines and when we pick it up and rub it between our fingers she is all furious attention. We pretend to throw it and she darts off to look for it, then turns back over her shoulder, guessing she has been tricked. Then we do throw it and she scrambles and pounces on it with both paws, picks it up in her mouth and brings it back half-way to us.
Or she plays with it by herself., tossing it, leaping after it, like Christopher Smart's cat Jeoffry (in Jubilate Agno), in the following way:
... at the first glance of the glory of God in the East he worships in his way.
For this is done by wreathing his body seven times round with elegant quickness.
For then he leaps up to catch the musk, which is the blessing of God upon his prayer.
For he rolls upon prank to work it in.
For having done duty and received blessing he begins to consider himself.
For this he performs in ten degrees.
For first he looks upon his forepaws to see if they are clean.
For secondly he kicks up behind to clear away there.
For thirdly he works it upon stretch with the forepaws extended.
For fourthly he sharpens his paws by wood.
For fifthly he washes himself.
For sixthly he rolls upon wash.
For seventhly he fleas himself, that he may not be interrupted upon the beat.
For eighthly he rubs himself against a post.
For ninthly he looks up for his instructions.
For tenthly he goes in quest of food....
She does indeed roll upon prank and work it upon stretch. She flicks the wrapper away and lies on her back at stretch admiring it, then flicks it again, carries it here and there, to the edge of the rug, then lies beside the rug with one paw under it to feel for it. She is wholly absorbed in this for a good ten minutes, then, quite suddenly, forgets it and strolls away. C and I enjoy watching her play. She doesn't do much else. That is the entertainment. The rest of the time is cowering, and sneaking, and darting, and scurrying, and lying down, curled into a ball, the startled eyes shut.
Here is the next episode of King Vidor's The Crowd.
When I get my big job, Bert. I'll take care of you for this...
Wednesday, 14 January 2009
Sometimes, when taking classes, I ask students what might be meant by expressions like 'poetry in motion' and 'pure poetry'. Having got, say, Beyoncé or Nigella out of the way (what you might consider the Barbara Windsor answer), not that I have ever received the true Barbara Windsor answer, we get down to the elements that might comprise such a quality.
The more I have thought about this the less I think 'poetry' is the best complete descriptor of, well, poetry, since 'poetry' in the broader sense is a perceived condition that we might find almost anywhere. What poets do is to aim at producing the poetry sensation in language by writing verse. They get there not by starting from poetry and proceeding through bits of poetry and ending with a poem, that is to say equating process with product, but by the more definable and distinct activity of writing verse. By verse I don't mean this or that technique nor do I mean that which is generally referred to, somewhat vaguely, as 'traditional form'. I mean the activity of arranging words in lines in order to achieve the condition of poetry, which is, in the first place, little more than an apprehension of a state potentially poetic.
That's too abstract for now, but it is the beginning of a line of thought that, I suspect, has not been sufficiently explored. The magic of the activity - the 'poetry' of the process, is the trancelike sharpness of the movement through language, along and in and out of lines of words. Words that, among other things, grow out of analogies. This thing is like that thing is one of the core human discoveries that continually delights. It is like a key to the universe: code echoing code, quality echoing quality.
It is natural in such a context for the words Ryan and Giggs to present themselves. But it is not Giggs himself ('poetry in motion', 'sheer poetry') that is the point here. Today, in an available ten minutes, I glance at the Guardian and see Robert Bagchi writing in article about Giggs. Nor is Bagchi - though it is a very nice article - the point. The point is three phrases that he quotes, two of them about Giggs, the first two from Alex Ferguson.
The first already is well known and describes Ferguson's feelings on first seeing the boy Giggs in a schoolboy game. Ferguson says: He looked as relaxed and natural on the park as a dog chasing a piece of silver paper in the wind.
The second, Ferguson adds: A gold miner who has searched every part of the river or mountain and then suddenly finds himself staring at a nugget could not feel more exhilaration than I felt watching Giggs that day.
The third is not Ferguson but the late Don Revie talking, not about Giggs, but about another marvellous winger, Eddie Gray. Revie says: When he plays on snow he doesn't leave any footprints.
These are all beautiful inventions. They are poetry, in language, spoken by men you would never associate with poetry but who can apprehend it and find those telling analogies. It is the silver paper that grabs me in the first, the word exhilaration in the second, and the whole concept in the third.
Let nobody tell you that ordinary people are without poetry, that it is difficult stuff only for the clever and highly educated, who know the right fancy words, that it is a secret esoteric club to be defended by select intellectual bouncers. I am absolutely certain that the sense of poetry is part of the human fabric. It is not a case of most people ignoring most poetry because most poetry ignores most people. It is that people have been allowed to grow up with the feeling that it ignores them. Why has that happened? Why is it still presented as a difficulty rather than as a pleasure?
Because there you go: Ferguson and Revie. And Ryan Giggs himself. And the language weaving itself around him, woven by such as Ferguson and Revie. Poetry in motion.
The travelling and the meetings and the academic vaudeville are catching up on me and I am, as John Berryman once put it, 'heavy tired". Well, not exactly, I think he was in fact "heavy bored", but when you're heavy tired.... I may return to this keyboard tonight but, until then, I leave you in the brilliant hands and vocal chords of Dudley Moore...
Came home, found this on YouTube and started laughing. A long tired, involuntary, sweet laugh. And while laughing I was somehow overwhelmed by affection for the man who was making me laugh.
Britten, and Brecht / Weill, parodied by Dud in Beyond the Fringe, when I was but a wee boy of eleven or so, my breath coming in short pants, and he nobbut a darkling graduate with his first flop of hair...
Tuesday, 13 January 2009
Life, surely, does not get more various than this. I shall look back on this time in ten years and wonder where all these halcyon days went when life was one long train ride. Except coming back was not a train ride.
But what did I go down for? A meeting. Was it an interesting meeting? It was an interesting infuriating meeting about poetry and where it goes and who funds it and what they fund and why they fund and why it exists and why anyone bothers etc. I grow fierce, excitable and foreign on such occasions and want to bellow: Poetry has been with us since the dawn of time, and it will carry on being with us until we die out. I don't care about your money and your surveys and your evaluations, this is not flower arranging or Disneyland (though flower arranging is an art too) it is a core human instinct and no one should apologise for it or go begging and, furthermore, it's a proud high craft and one of the greet deep pleasures, and I myself am proud, and you neglect poetry at your soul's peril. In other words, don't make us go through it time and again, why we are the deserving poor: you don't get it - it's your loss.
But then that's not what such meetings are for. They are for 'constructive' ideas and about cash and about high profiles and bums on seats. So we talk and talk and eventually the money will get dealt out by someone who has probably not even read what our great minds have combined to produce. And wherever the money goes, poetry, that great proud craft, the highest and lowest and most common art - because we all speak and most of us write - will continue to exist because that's the way it is, the way we are.
Then the meeting is over and I sit down and have a glass of water, chatting to fellow poet, F then go down to the BFI to meet daughter, whose birthday it is, plus son T, fresh back from Brazil and soon to be son-in-law R who is battling furiously to get his new book wrapped up. And this is nice. We talk and talk. I drink two Jamesons (a sweet cello-like burn as it passes down the throat) then, head back to King's Cross, where I get on the Cambridge train.
But at Cambridge I find the connecting train is not running because of a fatality at Thetford. No trains tonight. The best I can do, the guard says, is to catch the next train to Ely then ask God for help, or else find a taxi. Another person, a woman, is also wanting to get to Wymondham so we decide to share the taxi. The driver is a nice man who has been in the job about six months and has never heard of Wymondham, nor has he ever driven a far as far as Norwich. The train staff says we can reclaim expenses. The expenses between the woman and I are £80. We drive under the waning full moon for an hour - I guide the driver to Wymondham then explain part of the route to K - and now I am back. The woman is the daughter of a Jungian psychoanalyst who has written books, and she herself was an investigative journalist for The independent but is now working in the City. She is going to be almost an hour late for a business dinner at the big house in the hamlet of K. She swears like a trooper, has a deep tan and blonde hair with highlights. She is totally pissed off with people throwing themselves under trains, if that is what has happened. No consideration. On calming down she reckons it is the waning full moon that brings on the madness. .
It is true. I sleep badly when the moon is full. My werewolf ancestors are turning uneasily in their graves. They want out.
Monday, 12 January 2009
The Eliot readings last night at the Queen Elizabeth Hall were good as ever, in fact one of the best. A very big audience. The 900 seater 95% full. Good for poetry. A lot of people I have met before of course, but it's not an occasion for long talks. This morning found Robert Crawford at breakfast so talked long to him, partly about Eliot (we're both big fans) and partly about painting (he paints, I used to paint - that's after 5 years of art school and a number of years practicing afterwards with a few passing exhibitions of no great consequence.) I don't think we had ever met before but he was in the audience at my StAnza reading last year, he tells me. The hotel room was tiny. Just room for the bed and a wall-fixed TV at 90 degrees to it. My feet and head were practically touching opposite walls. Hotel describes itself as 'minimalist'. Truly, I lead the life of Riley. The trouble is you can never know which Riley. Tried to catch the grand 3-0 but too late, even at 90 degrees. Saw microseconds involving the goals. Meaningless.
It is much warmer today. Almost too warm. Gusty and edge-of-showery. Eliot's 'Preludes' weather. 'And now a gusty shower wraps / The grimy scraps / Of withered leaves about your feet / And newspapers from vacant lots...' (OK, so too late for withered leaves.) I spent much of the morning in the British Library reading a doctorate, with another to read on the late late train home. The lighting is truly terrible, though the proper 'Reading Rooms' may be fine. The only reasonably lit public place is the canteen. I don't think they want to encourage reading on the premises.
Tonight I make the 'thank you to everyone' speech at the award. Home very late. Tomorrow back down again. I think I have a form of madness but am too busy to work out what it is except that it involves trains.
In an internet cafe. I have developed a fondness for such places. I remember one in the back streets of Bombay / Mumbai. I think of myself as a pigeon roosting on a chimney stack. This one is relatively clean and bright.
Sunday, 11 January 2009
...London this afternoon for the T S Eliot Prize readings at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, then the prize-giving itself on Monday where, as chair of the PBS, I have to say a few formal words. I will never forget the gobsmacked, wholly unexpected dizziness of the announcement when I won in 2005. It's a tense party on Monday night. I will get home about 1 am and will have to go straight back down again for another meeting. I fact it is another fully packed week, not one entire day at home at my desk.
I have just been listening (when I should have been working) to Ruth Padel on Desert Island Discs. Her choice of music overlaps considerably with mine. She had Verdi's Requiem with Joan Sutherland and Marilyn Horne, conductor: Solti); Beethoven's String Quartet in A Minor (The Borodin Quartet); Kathleen Ferrier singing Down by the Salley Gardens; Muddy Water: I'm Ready; a Greek song; E Voi Ridete from Cosi Fan Tutte; Bach's Double Concerto; and Melina Mercouri singing 'The Boys of Piraeus'.
I'd certainly have the Beethoven and the Bach, and maybe the Salley Garden too (in Britten's arrangement though, with Peter Pears singing). Muddy Waters is terrific of course, and Mozart? Possibly the Requiem, so not Verdi. (Imagine a Desert Island choice all requiems!) The Greeks may be replaced by a Hungarian or two. And then there would be the jazz, one or two specials. Maybe a Chopin? But I am already over. And one soul classic, probably Otis or Aretha. And...
The Crowd, 6. Taking films would also be nice.
Saturday, 10 January 2009
Israel stole the Palestinians' land. An interesting trope and a very common one:
Jews steal land. They don't fight for it, they don't buy it, they don't expel people from it. They wait until someone is out of the house, until their back is turned and then they sneak up and take away what doesn't belong to them. A bit like Fagin's bunch, in fact. Remember this trope and keep using it. It is not justice we are talking about here. It is character. And that's the Jews all over, isn't it? No guts. No courage. Never stood up for themselves in the war. Tried to lie low. Natural for a low people. Ever seen a Jew athlete? Seven stone weaklings plotting behind your back. Thieves with forked tongues only out for themselves like any thief. Embezzlers. Cowards. Thieves. Sorted.
See how easy it is? Keep trying it till you get it perfect.
Friday, 9 January 2009
I want, in as much as I have a brain left, to start thinking about the lectures I am due to give in Newcastle, not in any structured way, but in the form of speculations that may not appear to add up to a single articulate whole. Not yet anyay. Small jigsaw pieces that may eventually add up to a picture.
These are just preliminary fragments. Semi-articulacies
My broad project is to understand whether political circumstances in Eastern Europe in 1989 have produced a new poetry. Why would they? How would they? The political dissident poet György Petri, wrote some time in the nineties: 'My favourite toy as been taken away.' Then he died. Why is it that a number of the major post-war Hungarian poets died soon after 1989? Did they lose not only a subject but a role? An audience? When people don't have shoes, said István Vas, they need poems. Once they have them they don't need them so much. Did that audience not need the poets?
This is only the more overt aspect of the project. Much has been written on political poetry under Soviet Communism, on reading between the lines during censorship, on the complicity of writer and reader beyond the official line in closed societies. Can you describe this, a woman asks Akhmatova as they queue at the Lubyanka prison. Yes, she says.
Heroic dissidence is a fascinating category, one partly glamourised in the West. I wrote about this for the Herbert conference in Krakow. It is a glamour we think we lack, whose absence we sometimes lament. Are we nostalgic for it? Do we lionise those we can project as heroic dissidents? Do we want dark times so we can write more luminous poems? Live more luminous lives?
Because this isn't exclusively a matter of poetry of course. Poetry is never an exclusive matter in any case. It is tied to the world or it's nowhere. 'Most people are not interested in most poetry,' Adrian Mitchell famously said, 'because most poetry is not interested in most people.' Well, yes, maybe, but what kind of prescription is that? How does a poem go about being interested in "most people"? Mitchell also wrote a poem about somebody being beaten up by the police or the secret services while a poet watches then "pisses off to write a poem about ants." But isn't that a case of the poet pissing off to write a superior poem about other poets pissing off. We armchair warriors. Armchair pacifists too.
Fragments, as you see. The beginnings of fragments. Here's another clip of Vidor's The Crowd.
Alas, and alas.
Thursday, 8 January 2009
Exhausted. Bad sleep. Working till close to 10.00 just to stand still, so more Crowd. Two parts that link.
Wedding. Honeymoon journey. Anticipations of sex. The sweet awkwardness, fear and anticipation. The nervousness conveyed with delicacy, humour and tact, without an ounce of sentimentality. The crowd remains individual and human, resolving itself into two fellow passengers. Switch to - is it? - Niagara Falls and a patch of pure lyricism, the patch owing to anyone anywhere, but never more than is genuinely and properly felt. Like an arrow shower / Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain, wrote Larkin in 'The Whitsun Weddings'.
And then she lies back on the grass, and the words: You are the most beautiful girl in the world! appear. He speaks his little bit of poetry about the Falls. Anybody's poetry. A happy domestic scene follows. Family arrives. Joke falls flat. It matters. No-one fights sea monsters or takes arms or challenges the gods but it's an epic journey all the same.
... from cafes
And banquet-halls up yards, and bunting-dressed
Coach-party annexes, the wedding-days
Were coming to an end. All down the line
Fresh couples climbed abroad: the rest stood round;
The last confetti and advice were thrown,
And, as we moved, each face seemed to define
Just what it saw departing...
Vidor lived to be eight-eight, dying in 1982.
Wednesday, 7 January 2009
No attempt to show the central character as any more or less than he might be. The gum-chewing date. The awkward way he puts his arm around her on the bus. The disposal of the chewing gum. The casual cruelty and yet the pity. All the fun of the fair. The phantasmagoria. The snog. The exposure. The exhausted ride home. The preliminaries. The marriage, sudden, substanceless, questless. Fate winding and unwinding. It is not a quest but a survival-and-loss narrative, an extraordinary epic project: Mass Observation as tragedy.
It's not the Hollywood myth. Rooted in Upton Sinclair and John Dos Passos but not exactly critique, not ideology, instead a kind of lyricism partaking of both epic and tragedy. Theodore Roethke's poem Dolor, might have been written for it.
I have known the inexorable sadness of pencils,
Neat in their boxes, dolor of pad and paper weight,
All the misery of manilla folders and mucilage,
Desolation in immaculate public places,
Lonely reception room, lavatory, switchboard,
The unalterable pathos of basin and pitcher,
Ritual of multigraph, paper-clip, comma,
Endless duplicaton of lives and objects.
And I have seen dust from the walls of institutions,
Finer than flour, alive, more dangerous than silica,
Sift, almost invisible, through long afternoons of tedium,
Dropping a fine film on nails and delicate eyebrows,
Glazing the pale hair, the duplicate grey standard faces.
I loved this poem the first time I read it. There is something in it recognizable at a very deep level regarding the sheer, stubborn objectness of objects in a world where people too are objects, among crowds of objects.
My thoughts are still somewhat scattered and fragmentary. I have been writing poems, three in as many days, five in ten. And redrafting. Composition always slightly discomposes me.
Tuesday, 6 January 2009
Adolf Merckle suicide: German who lost £1bn in the financial crisis jumps under train (story). Put in mind of several other stories, including the one below.
Edwin Arlington Robinson
Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
We people on the pavement looked at him:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean favored and imperially slim.
And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked,
But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
"Good-morning," and he glittered when he walked.
And he was rich--yes, richer than a king--
And admirably schooled in every grace:
In fine, we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place.
So on we worked, and waited for the light,
And went without the meat and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.
A train, not a gun, in Merckle's case. Merckle might have been slim and handsome once. The interesting technical thing in the poem (and there is a lesson, a vast complex, difficult lesson, to be learned here), is that it succeeds because of a deliberate clumsiness. I am thinking of the last line of the second verse, with that flat 'and'. Glittering while walking is splendid but the and' makes you feel you have stumbled into it. Getting the right clumsiness is the trick.
There is another version of Richard Cory, by Simon and Garfunkel. Here it is:
Much as I would love the current conflict to stop immediately I suspect it will go on now until a certain negotiable point has been reached. I don't think that point has been reached. I don't say that because of any wish I might have. It is simply what seems obvious. This is because I think the Israeli action is not about 'punishment', collective or otherwise, but about 'deterrence' and Hamas rockets are still going in.
In the meantime I have not signed any petitions because, as far as I can see, they are mostly being aimed one way only. I could not do that. Not because I think Israel must always be in the right. I regard Israelis, and Jews generally, as no better or worse than anyone else, with much the same spectrum of behaviour and reaction. There are miserable bastards there as everywhere else.
What I have done is donate money to UNICEF, specifically for helping the children of Gaza. I hope it goes to them. I commend this way to those who care more about the suffering than about the perceived evils of the Jewish state, Israel. That, for now, is the last word I am saying on the subject.
I used the impersonal third person pronoun quite deliberately then. Blogging is a question of ones. Websites become meeting places of potentially thousands of ones. But one is never exactly in a crowd, operating with the full dynamic of a crowd. It is not, in other words, a mob. I like that. People get excited, people say things they may or may not regret, people erect personae and pseudonyms to try out views and opinions. That seems healthy to me. The important thing is that they talk. When I first came across one of the most popular political sites, Harry’s Place, it seemed to me like a bar-room brawl. It was rough and rude. No one actually got hit. People could come and go there, like the ubiquitous Benji, and make contrary noises, but no one beat him up. It is only voices that are being kicked and punched. It is writing. Good writing is real, as I have said: the written existence, and the written existence should be able to take a beating. But even a written bar-room brawl quickly grows tedious. The writing goes out of the window. One might support (broadly) one side against another, but abuse is just abuse after a while.
Nevertheless there is a considerable amount of intelligence circulating in such places, at higher or lower temperature. I myself joined a website as an occasional contributor. The left wing Drink-soaked Trotskyite Popinjays for War was Left as I understood, or rather liked the Left, in that it was clearly egalitarian and sprang from a kind of gut connection to what seemed to me passionate and worthwhile in the consciousness of the poor and the underprivileged. As the name suggests, it started as a reaction to something said by George Galloway about Christopher Hitchens. I am not a hero-worshipper of any sort but I’d take Hitchens against Galloway any time. Nor was I a supporter of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. It wasn’t so much that I was for them that I disliked the grounds and forms of rhetoric on which they were opposed. My favourite saying is the Simone Weil I have often quoted: Obedience to the force of gravity: the greatest sin. And in my field, the arts and humanities, there is a very strong gravitational pull. It doesn’t, of course, mean that the gravity is wrong, but it is always behovely to resist rather than going with the flow. Especially, or so I feel, for a writer.
Eventually of course one spends more time with like-minded people. There is local gravity everywhere you stand. One ought to resist them too, simply on the anti-gravitational or Groucho Marx principle of not joining any club that would have you as its member.
See, I have shifted through one’ and I’ to ‘you’. That ‘you’ is the sign of an emerging credo. The pronoun I have so far left unused is ‘we’. That is the pronoun I most distrust. Oh, how very much I prefer ‘you’ or ‘one’ to 'we'. Much harm comes of 'we'. One is simply stuck with ‘I’.
The web, as has often been said, is an entirely new social space. I don’t accept the criticism that it is purely virtual, any more than a letter is. The first novels, Pamela, and Clarissa by Samuel Richardson were epistolary, comprised of letters between people who were not in a position to speak directly to each other. It is the written lives of people that engage, but those written lives are lives all the same, real, tragic lives.
The virtual aspect of the web – the lives of the Sims, for example – might be interesting if only it wasn't such bad writing in terms of plot, character, option, dimension and everything else. Good writing is never virtual in that sense. There is always a mind and body and heart in it. That gives it plot, character, option, dimension and everything else. Good writing is being really there.
The social space formed by blogs is a real space with real people in it. And it is a remarkably wide, almost limitless space. It is, in many respects, a revolutionary space, similar to the one created by the technology of mass printing, or what McLuhan called ‘the Gutenberg Galaxy’. It is, of course, one of a clutch of revolutionary spaces such as data storage and retrieval, close circuit TV, live broadcast, computer graphics, digital photography and a few more the reader here will no doubt think of. Most of these others, however, are generally more problematic than blogging if only because blogging is not, as they are, one core addressing a mass, but a series of one plus one plus one thinking, really being there.
And they can, really, be anywhere. Some tell you more than others about their physical location. The physical location can be the point. Others are geographically more elusive. It is possible to locate them too, but unless they say where they are, I think it is presumptuous of me to enquire. I know that I am in touch with people in all corners of the earth.
By being in touch I mean two ways, First, simply by reading them; second, by engaging them in conversation through their Comments section. One discovers differences and affinities. One discovers tempers, habits, interests, obsessions, voices. One may agree or disagree with them, but if one keeps returning to them it is because they are interesting and substantial. One guesses at their dimensions as one would with real people, really there in front of one.
I don’t much like the word. It comes from weblog but it sounds like blagging and plugging and bigging, and, as one literary website has it, Bleeugghing. The word isn’t attractive but the activity is worthwhile. Why?
I had no particular intention of writing a weblog originally. A site was suggested and I was asked what areas I would like in it. What I said then is, more or less, what you see on the site. The News was supposed to be simply a kind of listings. If anyone was interested it would tell them that I was going to do this or that public event. I tacked on Notes without a clear idea what that would be, just thinking it might be good to have a spare pocket or shelf. I still don’t quite know its proper purpose because the News section soon developed into a journal of thoughts and observations that, or so I first thought, I was chiefly writing for myself. Occasionally there would be, and is, a crop of events to list, but something else took over. Now it is a conventional blog.
I am a writer. I mean constitutionally a writer, meaning I write myself into a kind of written existence. My full existence therefore is, partly, a written existence. The old woman who said How do I know what I think till I see what I say? was a very wise old woman. How do we know what we think until we set it down and strive to develop it. Before that there are instincts, reactions, quick formulations that pass for thought. I am also, by nature, a fast thinker, sometimes faster than is comfortable. When compressed into the discipline and rhythms of poetry that can be useful. In terms of thinking through it can be too fast. The sheer manners of writing down thoughts slows and refines.
That is the reason I keep the blog up. I would not be writing a diary otherwise, and have only intermittently kept one (I found my 1996 Arizona diary on Sunday!) I like the brief flight of thought, the part poetic registering of sensory and other experience. All that will be obvious.
There was the question of language, the mode, if you like, of address. I think in most cases blogs – the interesting ones – mark out an interesting new hybrid territory of writing, somewhere between a column, a letter, and an intervention in a conversation. The best are not as formally public as a column (or a review), not as chatty as one kind of letter or as formal as another, but somewhat more formal, because more deliberate, than an intervention in a conversation. That, at least, is how I think, this particular blog has evolved.
Monday, 5 January 2009
King Vidor's 1928 silent, The Crowd. Here beginneth...
The first time I saw this it struck me as great cinematic poetry. No great heroes or heroics, only the ordinary borne along on great gusts of flame. I'll put up bits of it during the week and say more later. Watch the boy coming up those stairs.
No, it's not like going to the Antarctic and back, but it does take a good five hours cross-country with two changes of train. That is why Sunday's post did not appear - lack of radio contact. I had been invited by Angela France to run a one hour workshop and do a reading for her group and that is what Sunday night was.
A little background. The genesis of this goes back to my complaint a good while ago about an invitation to read poems to a small group that told me, rather grumpily, that I would be paid nothing, should expect nothing, not even travel expenses, that there would be an entrance fee but that most writers donated it to the upkeep of the place, meaning, so should I. I turned it down, not because I don't do things for free - I do, when asked nicely or when there is a genuine good cause to be supported - but because I didn't like the manner of the person doing the inviting. Posh woman whistling up entertainment, I thought.
In a similar way I recently received an invitation from a well known bookshop in Paris. Of course, I said. Nothing was said about payment but I am too much of a gentleman to ask and usually someone mentions it sooner or later. I don't hold out for minimum fees, like some. I don't insist on minimum accommodation of four star hotels. Offer me something, speak nicely to me, and I am yours.
Some time after accepting the invitation I did ask, because dates were crowding in on me. At this point it turned out there wasn't going to be a fee. They had forgotten to tell me. Very well, I shrugged, can you at least pay my travelling expenses? No, they said, but we can give you accommodation for one night and if you want to come back you can stay in the apartment another time. At this point I thought, why not? It is going to cost me about £200 but it's such a nice thing to do. A little later I received another email that said the accommodation was off too. On the other hand, by way of encouragement, they told me who else had accepted the same conditions: X and Y and Z... If these important writers were prepared to accept so should I. That was the implication. It was the implication that settled it for me. That, I thought, was arrogant of them, dropping names and leaving me with a sense of obligation.
Was I flattered to be asked? Yes, of course. I am always flattered to be asked anywhere and this, given the history and reputation of the bookshop, was particularly flattering, but I wasn't sure whether I was prepared to pay a lot of money to be flattered, not during term time, in the winter, when I am away a lot anyway.
I must say I felt mean thinking this. But then I thought, surely they are the ones being mean. I would go if they paid just part of my fare but I didn't want that 'greater folk than you have done this, sonny' business. In the end I felt quite angry. Yes, they would guarantee a large audience and sell lots of books. So they said. Well, they might sell a lot of books, but it would be they who would be selling them. A bookshop is a commercial business. They have money. Much more than I will ever have. They could at least make a gesture of hospitality. We pitiful, easily flattered, poets are suckers for gestures. But we should not be assumed to be pitiful. It wasn't even the proprietor or the manager who had written to me. He / she / it, presumably, was above such things.
Martin Bell once cursed the head of the institution I attended as a student. The head of the institution immediately fell ill. Beware the power of poets, pitiful as they are. They can curse, and flyte and rain misfortunes down on you.
And so my anger grew. Why should I be bullied by the supposed flattery? I have read in many places the equal, and more, of the bookshop and they weren't expecting me to come running out of sheer joy at being flattered. Let the others go if they want. I won't. Stuff them. If it is fame to be summoned to famous places, bugger fame. And so it stands.
Juvenile, I know.
END OF INTERLUDE
The group in Cheltenham have very little money but they offered me a fee without traveling expenses and when they found out the cost of the journey they brought the fee up. The very kind proprietor of a guest house, a member of the workshop, offered me B & B for free. Both B's were good. It was generous. They were good people and the evening was a real pleasure. Alison Brackenbury and Nigel McLoughlin were in the audience. I drop their names because it's always nice to guide people to good books. And because it is genuinely flattering that they should come along.
I was thinking of an interesting exercise for them and came up with something - a couple of things - that I might put up as a post since they spring from some ideas about the narrative structure of lyric poems. The other thing I was going to do on Sunday was add to the Sunday night series of music or films, so I will do that tonight instead. In fact right now. The space above this.
Saturday, 3 January 2009
I have lived in important places, times
When great events were decided : who owned
That half a rood of rock, a no-man's land
Surrounded by our pitchfork-armed claims.
I heard the Duffys shouting "Damn your soul"
And old McCabe stripped to the waist, seen
Step the plot defying blue cast-steel -
"Here is the march along these iron stones."
That was the year of the Munich bother. Which
Was most important ? I inclined
To lose my faith in Ballyrush and Gortin
Till Homer's ghost came whispering to my mind.
He said : I made the Iliad from such
A local row. Gods make their own importance.
So wrote Patrick Kavanagh in 1938, speaking in passing - knowingly in passing - about 'the Munich bother'. Well, yes, we have lived in important places too and have the hindsight to know what became of the Munich bother, which, despite Gods making their own importance, turned out to have been a very significant bother.
Martin Amis has certainly been in important places and written importantly about them. He and we, both, are aware of that importance in the writing and, to greater or lesser degree, are wary of it. I should say I bought the book yesterday on an impulse, on popping into our little local bookshop and feeling I should buy something to help keep it going. So, Amis it was.
And Amis does not disappoint. He sometimes irritates but he does not disappoint. He held me through the night and the morning.
The book is a collection of his published work in the form of essay, report and fiction on the subject of 9/11. Let me get out of the way what irritates first.
Small stylistic twitches, for one thing. The deployment of obscure words where a perfectly good non-obscure one is ready to hand. I can't be bothered here to pick out the examples, as I would in a paper review, but it strikes me as an unworthy trick, an old one, and over-effortful.
The second irritation is less easily identified, but is, I think, a kind of conceit in the writing, a reaching after ponderous epigrammatic certainty, which is partly what the wary reader might well be wary of.
Then there is the quibble about the term 9/11. It's an American term because it was an American event. I think we can all get over that. Interesting things get said in the course of his essay, 'September 11' but the least interesting is the quibble about the styling of dates that is supposed to serve as framework.
And there is the one work of fiction, 'The Last Days of Muhammad Atta', which, I think, is poor. Poor, because I don't believe any of it. I don't mean by that that it is improbable. I am sure Amis did his research and I fully understand that it is an attempt to imagine the condition of the real figure, Muhammad Atta. I don't believe it because I know it is a work of fiction and that what he presents as events are things he has made up. True, that is the condition of fiction, but Atta was not fiction. There is a historical process, I think, that has to take place before life, and particularly a life so filled out with intent and intervention, can become fiction. It's not always a salutary process. Amis here reminds me of the boy who rushes in to grab the best seat in front of the TV because something important is on and he must be first. Frankly, Amis and his imagination simply don't matter in context. He is not only secondary to the event, he is utterly insignificant and doesn't know it. Not that he is more insignificant than anyone else, it's just that he should know the degree of his insignificance. He did something like this in Time's Arrow, which was also dodgy and presumptuous. And he wrote a book called The War Against Cliché, so he should know what a cliché is. Hard to see it in oneself, I grant that.
But the book remains compulsively readable, not so much because of what he argues (it isn't always clear to me what he is arguing), but because the mind at work is dramatically engaged. When he takes off the Great Journalist / Public Figure hat he is just a man like any other - albeit a highly gifted, intelligent, passionate and elegant man - trying to understand what is happening in the world.
The reason I am not clear about what he is arguing is that the terms Islamism, Islam and religion generally, flitter in and out of the discourse. He casts a fearful, furious, horror-sated eye now at one, now at the other, now at the third. It is hard to argue with his feelings about jihadist Islam. I suspect it would take considerable hypocrisy for any liberal or socialist to dismiss his position. It is not a good position but we are in it. Amis has done a fair degree of research into the roots of jihadism and the history seems right. It is the reading of the psychological condition that is the issue. Is he right on that? We shall never know, but I find the reading convincing. The lesson is that it seems more appropriate, somehow more proper, to attempt this understanding through the essay rather than through fiction. For now.
I am not sure he knows what he thinks of religion generally. He is rightly suspicious, but he doesn't quite work himself into the Hitchens, Dawkins, Harris, Dennett position. And after all, the world has got so far with religion: the windings and focusings of the spirit in organised pursuit of transcendence don't necessarily lead to mass murder, nor have they very often done so. Bach and George Herbert and Farid ud-Din Attar, writer of The Conference of the Birds, do not share a bed with Sayyid Qutb. Religious zealotry - much like ideological zealotry - does lead to murder, but the common denominator there is zealotry. Zealotry tells us we are doing God's will, or the Party's will, or history's will, and that that is far more important than the next man's life.
Amis is a damn smart writer, there is no doubt, and every writer is allowed his or her weaknesses both as a writer and as a mind (though failures of mind eventually do tell in the writing). In the end what Amis is, indirectly, writing about is what defines us. We don't know that yet, but it may be an idea to come up with some definitions before we are wrongly defined by others. We are currently living in times when Gods are busy making their own importance. What do we say to them?