Wednesday, 28 January 2009

The Society Pages


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.



16 comments:

puthwuth said...

Cat-swinging is in fact a reference to the cat-o'-nine-tails.

Not felix domesticus.

Equally, since I'm on the subject, the 'cat' in catgut is in fact a corruption of 'kitgut', meaning simply a fiddle string.

Billy C. said...

I enjoyed reading that, George...started my morning well. "You could have dropped me in a very big cup of coffee and never missed me." I like that. Espresso?

Just bought a new book to read on my hols to Portugal next month. "A Lucky Child: A Memoir of Surviving Auschwitz as a Young Boy" by
Thomas Buergenthal. Have you read it? Critique? I read very slowly. It's the eyes you see. Fifteen minutes at a time is max. Glaucoma. Old age.

Have y'all a good day.

George S said...

Kitten-swinging: the wielding of a small cat o' nine (short) tails.

I haven't read the Buergenthal, Billy. I have read some others. The classic, and best I know, is Primo Levi's If This Is a Man.

Billy C said...

Have read that Primo Levi book, George. I gave a copy to my son for Christmas. He's reading it now. An amazing book. Having read a few books on The Holocaust, the most amazing part (to me) was the time he spent after he was liberated. Until I read that book, I had absolutely no idea of the trials and tribulations those unfortunates had getting back home. Naievely, maybe, I was under the impression that all the prisoners were taken back to their homes in an orderly fashion.

Another book that fascinated me was Maus. It was a shock to discover that the principle character was a bigot even after suffering what he did. We live and learn.

How dare you put Don Revie and Brian clough in the same sentence! Phttt! :)

David Conn: The Beautiful Game. Excellent and I recommend it to you if you haven't already read it.

See winger in about a week. He'll have a copy of the Buergenthal for you.

George S said...

Thanks, Billy.

Revie and Clough: Clough had the same problem.

Mark Granier said...

"The classic, and best I know, is Primo Levi's If This Is a Man."

Yes, unforgettable. I admire Levi's poetry too, which some people are inclined to dismiss. I recently finished a good biography on Levi, and a delightful short book called 'Conversations' (with the physicist Tullio Regge): everything from Sci-Fi to the Talmud.

George S said...

Yes, I have Levi's poetry. It's good but it is not what he will be remembered for ("unforgettable"). I have read most of Levi, but not 'Conversations'.

Poet in Residence said...

I will always remember Brian Clough with affection, especially for ordering those two meat pies for half time with an appropriate two-finger signal to the serving lady in the steam at the back of the stand.

In his prime the best manager England never had. I've also read Primo Levi's book, got a couple of his around here someplace. At the moment I'm reading a Magda Goebbels biography as well as my daily ration of Thomas Bernhard. I tried a Schnitzler but couldn't hack it. It was what it was - a doctor trying to write a novel writing a novel that read as if a doctor had written it - so gave up after 50 pp.

Good luck with your eyes Billy. Long may they function. Maybe you can get those free talking books from the RNIB Library, they have thousands, and it's free postage.

Michelle said...

"You should have seen me, reader!" *grin*

George, you've missed your vocation as a society columnist.

Billy C. said...

"Good luck with your eyes Billy. Long may they function. Maybe you can get those free talking books from the RNIB Library, they have thousands, and it's free postage."

I've tried those, PiR. Unfortunately, I fall asleep too often while I'm listening to them. The after effects/affects [select which one is right] of having too many grandchildren who think this is their home. Thanks for the thought.

Poet in Residence said...

Ah well Billy, your lots of grandkids, and I'm sure the are grand kids, gives me another idea. Instead of 'reading' an RNIB book why not 'write' a book of your own but on tape like that woman from Gateshead (sorry name escapes me) and have somebody type it up. You could perhaps manage 30 mins a day away from those energetic saplings?

Billy C said...

Hope George doesn't mind us using his blog to converse. I'm sure he'll tell me if he feels I'm misusing his medium.

Already done that, PiR. Stephen Foster, boy, is my editor. Here is his first account of my efforts...

"Your novel is.....James Bond meets The Sixth Form at Mallory
Towers! It is indeed a truly new hybrid and I salute your 'cheek' in
constructing it. Well done for a proper good attempt at a first draft.

Now, onto some serious editing:"

After a year of editing....using my 24" screen, I'm just about getting there. :)

Poet in Residence said...

Ah then Billy C you've thought of everything! Good luck with your project.
George don't mind as long as folks keep it civilised. I've only been yellow-carded the once on GS.

Off to your boy Foster now to tell about Janko.

Poet in Residence said...

Billy, You're ahead of me. Good luck with your biog-edit.
Gwilym

Mark Granier said...

"Yes, I have Levi's poetry. It's good but it is not what he will be remembered for ("unforgettable")."

That seems to be a fairly common consensus. However, I am not so certain. Levi has the authority and the skill to occasionally do justice to the vatic pronouncement in a way that few others could manage (Blake? Yeats?). The title of his book 'If This Is A Man' is taken from one of the most powerful of those poems, Shema, (quoted in full, if I remember, as a preface/foreword). Another I'll never forget is 'Annunciation'.

Patricia Debney said...

Hello George

Do you know the line from the (children's) film Madagascar: Gloria, the large funky hippo, is mad about a certain giraffe, and says of this giraffe, in a very southern US voice, 'I just want to dunk him in my coffee!'.

So you could have just leapt in a cup to see what happened next...