Monday, 29 June 2009


The house is strangely quiet after our three good friends left today. I chauffeured each to the station as and when, in between helping C put up her show, which looks magnificent now it is all in place. But we are both exhausted. Tomorrow early to Cumbria for Dove Cottage reading.

A brief reflection on last week's conference. As the week went on so the atmosphere became more convivial, more relaxed, with more people prepared to speak up. The two major topics of the second and third days - censorship and translation - overlapped a little. The censorship debate extended beyond literature. Vesna G proposed that it was all too easy to censor that which we don't like anyway. We can censor David Irving or Geert Wilders because we generally agree that we would rather not give such people a platform. The problem comes when people censor what we like. Or when we are made uncertain through acts of censorship by others from a different culture working among us. The Satanic Verses book burning and fatwa was an obvious case, but so were the Danish Cartoons and the play Behzti, that was closed down under pressure from fiercely demonstrating Sikhs. Afterwards I asked Vesna in private what she would do with Mein Kampf or The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. She took the Eastern European libertarian position. She would publish them both, she said, thus robbing them, as she argued, of their notoriety.

Her other major-line was about the insiduousness and danger of self-censorship. The examples raised in discussion were not all necessarily political, and tended towards the social or aesthetic. We tend reserve the right to reject that which is aesthetically dull or clumsy and that which is clearly anti-social. But what it these categories overlap with the political? Or if censoring one becomes the pretext for censoring the other? Under what circumstances may editors be said to 'censor' when they choose not to publish something? An editor's job is to edit, after all..

This is well-trodden territory, at least to Vesna and I. I am not quite sure how it touches on 'creative writing' as such except in so far that authors submit works to publishers who may accept or reject them.


Yesterday the sea at Cromer and at Overstrand. Cromer is semi-busy. A post-Edwardian melancholia hangs over it, despite the pier, the end-of-the-pier show (starring Andy Abrahams!), the ice-cream cornets, the crabs, and the faint, slightly greyish pearly surf settling over the stones of the beach. The Hotel de Paris failed to look as magnificently broody as I tend to remember it. There are holidaymakers here but they are mostly on the far side of forty-five. One small amusement arcade.

At Overstrand a sea-mist started rolling in and soon settled over the cliff too, the distinction between sea and sky eroding then gone.

Sunday, 28 June 2009


No post from me the last couple of days because we have our Indian friends staying with us and, naturally, we go out and do things. Today we are off to the sea. The weather is grey and edge-of-mizzly. Yesterday, while C and V (one of the friends were u in Norwich) I took P and S round Wymondham. We looked into the abbey where the Alexander Quartet happened to practising the Schumann Piano Quintet. We stayed and listened for twenty minutes or so, before moving on. It had begun to drip slightly with rain. We stopped in front of the house where Sebald's Emigrants begins - the next street but one down from ours - then, as we were looking at the war memorial with its nine Bunns (beginning with Bertie Bunn) the rain began to fall more heavily. As we moved up the high street it grew progressively heavier. We ducked into the local small cafe, ordered tea, tea-cakes, etc, and then the downpour started. It was, as P and S said, very like the monsoon. Soon the street was running like a river with plastic bottles flowing down it. Cars threw up great gouts of spray, nor did it stop but the rain, if anything, grew more insistent, more apocalyptic. Eventually, fearing our roof might be leaking - there is a leak when the rain is heavy and from a particular direction - I dashed home and, thankfully, found it dry.

The talk has been of poetry and writing, ever since the conference ended and after my reading at St Albans on Friday night to which P and S accompanied us. An old school friend, whom I hadn't seen for close on fifty years came along. I talked and read for an hour and spent some time on translation at the end. Verulaneum is beautiful. P and S thought they were in an enchanted country. The reading went very well and we almost sold out of the Collected.

Much to say and think about regarding the conference, but under different circumstances. This coming week is hectic and I am girding whatever loins I have. Unfortunately I have pulled a muscle I have pulled before in my back. Quick dose of Ibuprofen and some cream might see me through the day. And now the sun is out.

Thursday, 25 June 2009

Worlds Conference and the photograph

Eugene Atget, Paris

I have generally got in too late to post about the progress and details of the Writers’ Centre Norwich Worlds conference that began primarily with the theme of Creative Writing as a university subject, moved on, on the second day, to the consideration of markets along with censorship (what gets published, what doesn't and why, in which we discover that the average first novel sale is 300!) and cultural transmission (meaning what foreign books do and don't get published and why, in which we discover that Ken Follett is the most published foreign British writer), and will today consider the subject of translation. There is an official blog, written by Adrian Slatcher, to be found here, and a list of writers and contributors here, but I will add thoughts once I have had some time to collect them. One major feature compared to last year's on the Environment, is that it is less argumentative, less contentious, which doesn't make it duller, in fact slightly more interesting in an intricate kind of way. More later.

In conversation last night we were talking about photography, originally with reference to Geoff Dyer's work, but then moving on to Barthes and Berger, and it struck me that photography, in the sense of Barthes' memento mori, and Dyer's the ongoing moment, may be a post-Enlightenment protestant sceptic's best form of religion, in that it presents us with an image of time outside itself, of light (the ongoing) as a historical phemomenon (the moment). I had never thought of it that way before, and the moment I said it, it seemed to offer a genuine possibility. It is perhaps, I suddenly felt, how we hoped to escape the linear by entering a point further back along the line that nevertheless struck us as a presence if only because it remains in its own present..

This is a fascinating thought I want to explore over the next week or so, if I get the time that is, since on top of the last four weeks of furious activity (Arvon course, travel and marking, more travel, the wedding week, Rotterdam and now this) I have a week full of travel next week with the Dove Cottage reading (night away), London the next day and the day after,(Elaine Feinstein's launch, the T S Eliot Summer School where I have to make a speech) and the Chepstow reading on Saturday, returning Sunday.

In the meantime, simply gird your loins and get back on that road. And of course there was the annual epic Szirtes-Dyer ping pong spectacular. Another story.

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

The Death of Neda Agha Soltan

The young Iranian woman had got out of her car for air and was being no trouble to anyone. Then she was shot by someone - a soldier or a plain-clothes policeman, so they say - and she died. She is shown dying here.

Look if you want. You probably already have. I have, uneasily, uncertainly, but I have. I offer the link but I don't want to show it for various reasons, or so I argue with myself:

1. I don't need this particular piece of proof to know that the Iranian regime is violent, repressive and ruthless. I knew that already;

2. I don't need this piece of emotional stimulus to make me feel more strongly than I already do;

3. I suspect that to look at someone dying while being uninvolved is an act of voyeurism. I know we are fascinated by death and the sight of blood, but that is deeply confused here with a proper sense of moral outrage that one should be able to feel without the voyeurism;

4. I am uneasy about the replayability, disposability, mass reproduction of the event as image. It is troubling as a process. The death is troubling as an event;

5. I understand the necessity of the image, because of the importance of martyrdom in Islam and (so I read) in Iran particularly. In other words I recognize the possible effectiveness of the image as a weapon in a battle I would like to see won, but the death of the individual young woman is not simply a tool. It is the personal, private passing of a human being;

6. Such deaths are not peculiar to this particular moment in Iran. Such deaths are daily, everywhere, in murders, in accidents, in executions, in bad places, in ambivalent places, and in good places alike. This image alone does not condemn a regime. It illustrates one of the reasons why such a regime is to be condemned.

These are moral quibbles, I know. Death is death and it is like this, and this isn't an entirely private death, but a public one, taking place in a public context, recorded for public showing.

And still I look at it, and think she looks OK at first, then comes the trickle of blood from her mouth, then the nose, then the head, and I know, we know, she is gone and we hear the cries around her as others - those really there - realise it too. And looking on it I remember there are people here who defend the regime and dismiss its opponents as 'gilded youth', as tools of imperialism. Very well, I think, then sup on this. Here is some gilded youth.

So it is ambivalent and troubling, and maybe it is inevitable that it should be. Maybe that was its destiny as an image the moment someone started filming. So now the image has entered on its career, like the shooting of John Kennedy or Martin Luther King and the killing of Bobby Kennedy, it is just that the young woman was not a prominent figure, not accustomed to occupying the arena where death becomes symbol. Her symbolic death was not courted by fame. It has fallen into fame.

And we want to catch her before she does so, or maybe we half feel we should, at least if we have any tenderness in us. But already we are too late.

Monday, 22 June 2009


I said I'd put this up, so here it is...


What you get married for if you don’t want children?
Vivienne’s line in The Waste Land was not ours.
An afterthought perhaps, a bit bewildering,
Best left in the lap (or groin) of hidden powers.

It seems for most of life things just arrive,
That little if anything is got by scheming.
Some people prosper, some barely survive,
But time still slips by as if you were dreaming.

So children – two – we’re only twenty-four.
First Tom, then Helen, drop into existence .
We’ve not much option about being born; what’s more,
We tend to get there only with assistance.

Ah babies! Little squalling bags of need.
They smile, they bawl, they wave their limbs, and sleep;
They sick up food, they talk, crawl, walk, and feed,
They want new clothes and toys: they don’t come cheap.

Enemies of promise: prams left in the hall,
Said a curmudgeon writer one sour day.
You start with kids, it’s you left feeling small,
Damn children insist on getting in the way

But no, it's not like that, life never is.
They leap, they bounce, they speak, they grow, they think,
Discovering their own capacities.
The world expands around them, link by link.

They feel their way along as you felt yours,
And now you try to feel it for them too,
But their way’s different. They must walk through doors
You’ve never opened or have just peeked through.


First Helen’s birth. She was relaxed about it.
Quite floppy and unflustered, not too bothered.
Life was OK, enough to scream and shout it
Once or twice, before being firmly mothered.

Tantrums came later, a session or two of yelling.
What are babies to do, when what they want
Is somehow not within their power of telling,
Except to pull the odd dramatic stunt?

That passes: now it’s school, the social whirl,
Close friends with neighbour’s children, time for parties.
Time for Dead Lions, time for Birthday Girl,
Time for the cake, for orange juice, and Smarties.

Here comes the sandpit, the colouring book, the pet,
The kitten with her silent pitter-patter -
Here’s Piglet, here’s the starter Lego Set,
Here’s Fisher-Price, the Pollock’s Toy Theatre.

Here’s music lessons, arithmetic, PE,
Here’s church, and bible class, and grandma’s glasses,
Here’s grandad’s jokes, and Auntie Hilary,
And “All they do is dance” at dancing classes.

Here come the trips to Budapest. You’re eight.
The city streets with all their foreign glamour!
The sheer pleasure of staying up so late!
The boredom of it, summer after summer!

School plays, directing, acting, music, art.
Sophia, Becky, Magdalen, and Eng Lit.
The dawn-drenched essays with the midnight start.
Close-reading, poetry, fiction and lit-crit.

What was it next? The baker and the bar,
And Vision Express, and then a dose of TEFL.
My sense of sequence won’t go back that far,
It’s not impossible I’m talking piffle.

Italy comes in somewhere in between,
Or after, or before, I now forget.
You’re in your twenties, no longer a teen.
There’s all that Bloomsbury stuff to come in yet.

Ah, Bloomsbury, the Harry Potter coven.
The serious fiction fuelled by children’s stories.
While J K Rowling pops one in the oven,
Out fly a complete set of Edward Goreys.

Launches and lunches, publishing, corrections,
With late nights at the office chewing text.
The Gradgrind grind of editing whole sections,
No sooner done then starting on the next.

But love can blossom even as you toil.
Along comes Rich like a fine illustration.
Soon you’re together burning midnight oil,
And where there’s love there’s somewhat less frustration.

A Hundred and One Things to Do Before you Die?
Hmm, let’s make that a thousand, why not two?
Before we’re old and boring we might try
Another couple of thousand, plus a few.

In Haberdasher Road the pair reside,
Ancestral portraits lining stately halls.
Old Street and Hoxton Square await outside,
With smart appointments and brisk social calls.*

And now she’s marrying Rich we are the richer.
She was an Upchurch-Szirtés child when born,
And though love is the ancient great bewitcher,
She says her name has not been turned to Horne.

The Horne of plenty. Yes, we lose but gain.
It seems that much of time is so much seeming,
But loves come out on top time and again,
And this is a true wedding. We’re not dreaming.

From the beginning,
From the start,
From the first beat of the human heart,
There must be a whole of which we’re part.

From the beginning,
Within the genes,
From infancy, childhood, and through our teens,
We seem to imagine certain scenes.

Here’s a beginning,
Here’s scene one,
Here is the movie that life may run,
Here is the joy that the song is done,
Here is a daughter and a son,
And here we all are, everyone.

We’re here, we’re now, we’re in the flesh: we’ve seen
The ceremony, the ring, the kiss, the dress.
Our family’s doubled, we’re twice what we have been:
Double the day, the love, the happiness.


*This device is called irony. There are no ancestral portraits. Just in case there should be any misunderstanding. It's verse, innit? Some family events and in-jokes, la-la. It's not the blasted Waste Land (though it begins with it)!

Sunday, 21 June 2009

Blackbird and man

Neither of our cats had caught anything till now. I look through my window because of tremendous bird agitation. I see Pearl, our larger cat, being pursued across the top of the fence by a furious male blackbird. Cat is backing away, blackbird advancing. It turns out Pearl has small blackbird in her mouth. She doesn't know what to do. She leaps down from the fence, blackbird follows her, making a single high pitched furious sound, the bird's equivalent of barking or screaming, and continues, continues, without a moment's cease. Pearl retreats under the yard table. She still has the young dead blackbird in her mouth. The bird continues quite mad with fury and grief,.

I can still hear it. It is lamentation, alarm, anger and, occasional brief spells of exhaustion.

Earlier today, C and I were driving into the university. I drew up at a traffic light with two lanes. A big four-wheel van drew up on my outside with its nose in front, clearly wanting to be ahead. The lights changed and our old Ford starts easily so, without any particular effort, we happened to be in front. The road narrows to a single lane. We are still in front. The man is desperate to cut us up. He had intended to be quick off the blocks at the traffic lights and had somehow failed. The failure bugs him. I bug him. He is clearly furious. He tailgates me at a few inches off, no more than six inches behind at 40, then when the speed limit moves to 30 and I too move down to 30 he is practically touching my bumper. Then I turn off for the university. He hoots and gives me the finger. I hoot back and give him the finger. I too am angry. There was no need for any of this. I haven't done anything except possess a car that has started more easily and this, it seems, has driven him mad. So mad that he slows, stops and turns and follows me down the university drive. He wants a fight or a shouting match. But then we are in the car park and he can't follow there without a card. He turns back again and leaves.

Blackbird with lost young. Man with dented pride at not being able to cut up an older car. Both furious.

And now the blackbird is back again still doing the blackbird version of barking and screaming, and Pearl is still cowering under the table. No cure for the blackbird's grief. Too late for the young bird. The blackbird feels what we too would feel, yet the sheer intensity of his grief and fury amazes me. As for the man - his fury comes from somewhere I can only guess at. Bad day at work? Bad weekend? Natural belligerence? Nowhere near as sympathetic as the blackbird of course.

Sunday night is... Dave Allen (18 certificate) and a postman

The man (Dave Allen)... smoking a cigarette. If you are under eighteen, look away now..

Liverpool Primary Care Trust wants any new films depicting smoking to carry an 18 certificate while they are showing in the city.

Meanwhile, back in Norfolk.


New Writing Worlds begins tomorrow. Readings, discussions, dinners. I seem to have been here before...

Saturday, 20 June 2009

Rotterdam 5

So it is over. A busy last afternoon, with the discussion and reading of the translation workshops, then sound-checks, a last group dinner at a nearby Chinese restaurant. We occupy some four tables but several poets have gone. I am sitting with Tsead Bruinja, his wife Saskia, and L F Rosen. The dishes move round on the turntable and we talk. To Saskia about languages, about her interest in South African poetry and her times in South Africa. Tsead is to introduce the event I am to read in, with Vera Pavlova and Matthew Sweeney. We are in the small hall, while Tua Forsström, Gerrit Kouwenaar and Henrik Nordbrandt occupy the big hall. Kouwenaar is a monument in Dutch poetry so it is natural they need more space. But our smaller place fills up too, despite it being the last night and all goes well. We file down to the bar for twenty minutes before returning to the big hall where there is celebratory, summative event, with music, clips fragments of transltion and a reappearance by Kazuko Shiraishi with her scrolls and a poem translated by Allen Ginsberg. Comical highlight is the 'Chinese whispers' translation-chain where the first term - a sonnet by Luke Davies - passes through the poetic guts of various other poets, each translating into his or her own language before ending up in English again with Matthew Sweeney. Naturally, the whole thing is a hoot. Then music and photos and it's all over, then more drinks and chatter. About 1 am I leave those still remaining and return to the hotel.

Rotterdam is a very packed festival - I don't think there has been a day when I was not doing something, and I expect it was much the same for a number of the others. Occasionally I had to miss one event because I was engaged in a different one. But there is enormous conviviality - a party air - and the writers are fully catered for, with constant drinks and nibbles on supply. The photographs go up and down both inside and outside the building, so we all appear on the billing.

As ever, most of the practical running of the festival is down to young women. They rarely, if ever, front an event, though women do appear as major featured poets. It is the presentations and introductions that seem to be an almost entirely male preserve. There is a touch of old fashioned doctors and nurses in this, but it is bound to change I imagine. Neptun in Romania is particularly good in this respect, with as many leading women as men, maybe more. The translations into English, with one or two exceptions, are mostly good and very good, there being only one really terrible set. I was extremely fortunate to be translated into Dutch by Rob Schouten - his versions of my work were praised by various people.

All festivals are the same and all are different. Rotterdam is the biggest, most party-like. Sometimes at festivals I feel the poets are children looked after by kindly, occasionally stern nurses. This is unavoidable. Poets can be headstrong, vague in practical affairs, and anxiously vain. Little sign of vanity here.

All in all it has been marvellous. The sheer scale of supporting material - booklets, bilingual and trilingual, of selections from every poet, day-by-day anthologies, filming, photographing, recording, feeding, accommodating and big audiences of a range of ages, at every event. Friends to meet again (this morning chatting to Tua Forsström and her translator over breakfast, our last meeting in London at the South Bank some years ago), new addresses for address books. Ideas for mental notebooks.

It was, I think, Ringo Starr, who said that staying at the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi's retreat in India was rather like a holiday at Butlin's. That is about the right balance here: deadly serious at listening and reading, the rest of the time: Good morning campers!

Friday, 19 June 2009

Rotterdam 4

Festivals are holes in time, a series of electrified hours between periods of stupor and socialising. We must be grateful, indeed we are grateful, flattered to be considered worthy of international attention. My big photograph is currently gazing out over the big square along with big photographs of others. There is my studious-looking mug, like an actor or politician, dictator of dithyrambs, commissar of canzoni, president of pentameters.

And all this is, of course, faintly ludicrous but then you hear something you haven't heard before or touch base with something that seems fundamental. There is the spectacular, the full-throated, the elegiac, the contemplative, the martial, the enigmatic, the playful (Jacques Roubaud, twinkly and grand and dark). My personal favourite is still the steady clarity of Umberto Fiori, but then Umberto has been used to playing to big venues in his prog-rock days, so his stillness seems that much more found, fought for, assured, more starkly humane in him. He has done with mobs and hysteria. I think the readings with music and ritual are magical, powerful and indeed moving, but retain an element of showbiz for me. I don't for one moment believe that it is exploitative, only that, temperamentally, it misses something important. The big delivery, the emotional gesture, the rhetoric of moral certainty, however framed in human terms, move me less than words quietly spoken, when those words seem, for a while at least, to be all that hold the whole fragile world in place.

Late again. Tomorrow is the last day and I should have a free morning. I could do some more walking or get on with necessary work.

Wednesday, 17 June 2009

Rotterdam 3

Less busy day for me. Translate one more Rosen poem, then go on a jaunt with Piotr Sommer to the art gallery partly to see Van Megheren, the forger of Vermeer, about whom Derek Mahon wrote an excellent poem, but also Piranesi and Hals and Boucher and Magritte etc, and thence to the grandly gesturing Erasmus Bridge. Warm, close, as if expecting rain, but no rain. Turns out Piotr and I are much the same age and have been married almost equally long - he for 37 years, I for 38.

Two evening events: at 8pm the Dunya Mikhaels / Brian Turner reading with interviews first, something like a Star Chamber at the Hague with Turner on trial for war crimes. (That's before even considering his poetry - in fact the poetry is not much considered). All things considered, he turns in a very punchy performance once he reads (in one surreal moment I see him as leading the GI chorus in Christina Aguilera's version of Candyman) as indeed he probably has to. Musical interludes. Dunya M reads in Arabic with English translation running behind her. The poems are translucent, simple, delicately constructed. War poetry woven into the human frame.

At 9.30 another event - a homage to Jan Eijkelboom, in Dutch of course, with some film and contributions from readers and scholars and another musical interlude, with Brian Turner and Maura Dooley reading a poem each from Yeats, Eijkelboom having been Yeats's translator (Politics and Sailing to Byzantium respectively). Of course I - and the other non-Dutch poets who attend understand nothing but it is courtesy to attend. Courtesy makes the world go round. I prefer it when it is going round.

Yasuhiro is here too with charming Japanese professor and translator friend. Apparently the piece I wrote about the future of poetry for Romania last year, that he published in a magazine in his own Japanese translation, has been featured in various places and raised some comment, even in the communist daily paper. It is unusual to argue that poetry has a future. So I argue it has a future. To argue it has no future is to argue that breathing has no future. I propose that breathing has a future.

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Wedding 2 and Rotterdam 2

Leaving the ceremony (G and C in background)

The reception in the medieval hall was exactly the same mixture of the meticulously designed and shaped with the improvised. Circular tables, colour coded with each place at each table a variation on the main table colour, all the colour names taken from Dulux (was it?) paint charts. Close family at centre table, and so on according to family and youth and age, and ability to hear speeches. There was a master of ceremonies, then I read my second poem that I will put up as a separate post as it is quite long (intended to last 7 minutes), then speeches by the bridesmaids, one anecdotal, one like a game with gifts, then bridegroom and bride both speak, and finally the traditional best man who times his speech and barbs well, not overplaying his hand but playing a neat pack of rhetorical cards. Then it is down for drinks and dancing and music. The dancing is in fact up on YouTube, here. And then there's this:

R and H dansant

C and H dansant

The dancing goes on late. There's a lawn and a coconut shy, and young and old. A taxi whisks us home while youth goes on for half an hour more before they too are kicked out, but they go on somewhere else.

This by way of commemoration, for my darlings.


Rotterdam is well and truly on its way, and it seems a great success. The audiences are pretty packed even in the big hall, everything that could be thought of has been thought of, and the poets seem convivial, generous and happy.

It has not been my way to review readings, though thoughts about ways of writing and reading do arise. This morning, after discussing my interview slot with Judith, I carry on to the second translation session, returning a little later for a microphone check, then we do our interview in the foyer (again packed) which gets very nice response, and straight into readings by Umberto Fiori, Jacques Roubaud and Gert Vlok Nel, the South African poet / singer. I love Fieri's poems and delivery and will try to think why later (it's about 1 am now), but it is something to do with humaneness, modesty, clarity and a kid of capaciousness - the containing of much in little. Roubaud is splendid and monumental in his post-Oulipo way and Vlok Nel is fascinating altogether - he sings songs that blend a number of manners and influences, including The Green Green Grass of Home, touches of Beat Poetry, some elements of post-modernist play the whole folksong / C&W framework.

Straight into the Auden where I deliver my brief lecture, that is after an extraordinary film of Auden and Stevie Smith singing in a pub at the Edinburgh Festival of 1968. After me a conversation in Dutch between Benno Barnard and the host, then performances of three Auden songs set by Henze, and finally three poets - Luke Davies, Maura Dooley, and Matthew Sweeney - saying one poem by Auden and one by themselves. End with Night Train film.

The only unfortunate thing in this is that we miss the readings by Arjen Duiker, Sigitas Parulskis and Piotr Sommer, that I would really like to have heard, but can't as it is on at exactly the same time as the Auden.

Drinks, then bed. But a very good day and both my main events went well. I don't actually read till Friday night - with Vera Pavlova and Matthew Sweeney - by which time many of the other poets have gone but the audience will still be substantial.

Ah, hotel rooms, in which I spend the transitory, transient, semi-hallucinatory days of my life.

Monday, 15 June 2009

Some more wedding: the ceremony

There will be photos and films and the wide-screen, 3-D (red and green glasses provided), Cinemascope, sense-surround production is at post-production stage. In the meantime, words.

The morning sunny, the day hot. Too hot for a suit but suit it is. C splendid in aqua green, me in dark, cornflower blue shirt, plain purple tie with purple button-hole as requested. Drive in to Norwich. Take brother for a drink while C goes off to help bride dress. Brother and I sit under a shade in a cafe courtyard and talk music, about how far music represents real, specific experiences. He argues from Delius, I refute from Schubert. Then to the church hall and I go on to bride's hotel, meeting bridesmaids who have been told, Dress just as you like. Bride has no veil, no train, just a bit of purple in the hair. The dress when it appears is quite stunning, in white and turquoise, with flashings and vent and bodice and just a little lace. The five of us then promenade through the street with M our poet and photographer looking for photo-ops. H sees dress shop with some zany clothes and is egged on to be photographed in the window. She agrees. The shop helpfully make room and she strikes mannequin poses. More poses in other appropriate looking places along the way. We feel like a cross between a Mafia wedding, a Fellini film, and Reservoir Dogs.

Then the church hall. It's not a religious service: it's architecture of ritual around the act of taking the vows, exchanging rings, kissing, and signing the book, We enter by a side door and wait. The registrar, a woman, speaks broad scouse (later she will drop the accent and do elocution with hint of scouse). She is all good humour. She is anticipating enjoying this, and clearly does. When all ready, son Tom and my brother strike up a Grieg on violin and piano and bridal procession enters. It is to be both father and mother giving away the bride. Later both bride and groom will make speeches, intercutting with each other. Feminism in wonderfully soufflé mode, all good nature and naturalness, so it is natural and certainly right.

I read the poem on the front of this site, then Clarissa's sister and her daughter Catherine, play piano and cello. We get a reading from Freddie Mercury lyrics (Rich is a serious Queen fan). Then the signing of the register, and lastly, bride gets up to play piano accompaniment to my brother playing the coda from Brahms Hungarian Dance no.5. Brother is not only fully at home in this but more or less has it inscribed on his bones. It goes magnificently. More photo ops, then back down the aisle, in slow motion.

It is all wonderfullly good humoured, sweet, absurd, and moving. It is deadly serious and yet a party, a blend of the meticulously planned and improvised. Inside I am moved to tears, on the outside I just grin and grin. C, magnificent, beautiful and radiant is a little weepy then dances ahead to the medieval hall.

That's for next time. Now I think of weddings. I know many do without it. C and I did a very simple sliced white bread with practically no butter version. But there is something in the solemnity, the witnessing, the ceremonial, the sheer culminating joy and playfulness of it that works. All poets at heart are ritualists and anti-ritualists at the same time. Form and spirit as concord. An ancient metaphor.

Now to dash off to do a quick broadcast for Rotterdam radio. (Later: actually,er, Festival TV)

Sunday, 14 June 2009

Rotterdam 1

Dragging self from bed, packing, scurrying, then C takes me to Norwich Airport where I sit for two hours, drinking a coffee and dreaming. Flight efficient and short in sunshine, one piece of hold-luggage appears blissfully second off the belt, and within five minutes of waiting my lift comes and meets me. We drive the hour to Rotterdam. Flat fields (naturally) cows, a few sheep, one windmill, several rivers and canals. My lift is kind and good but speaks English a little haltingly. He is a furniture maker. I drift out of conversation into drowsiness. Rotterdam looms like Futuristic City with its various shaped towers an glissandos and edges and angles. The Maas on our left is broad and highly kitted-out for action, except that unemployment is high. The longest part of the drive is the one-way system round a single block. It takes 20 munites. But the hotel eventually obliges by coming to a compromise with the car, so the two draw up next to each other

As soon as I arrive - literally at the check-in desk - I am asked, 'Are you coming on the trip?' "Give me five minutes,' I say, dump my bags in the room then descend again, boarding the bus. On way there chat to Italian poet Umberto Fiori. In the garden of the kind ex-treasurer of the festival there is food and drink. Eleanor Livingstone from StAnza is there so we talk. Then there's Yang Lian, and the Dutch poet Arjen Duinker. It's hot. Sweeney somewhat over to the left, or right. Lady from Jerusalem Poetry Festival introduces herself. On way back to bus chat to Mourid Barghouti. I think I am quite famoused out.

There is little of me left and what there is needs to be horizontal. I have a very busy week ahead, starting tomorrow.


Thank you for lovely comments and postings on Facebook re: Book Quiz Triumph. Bear in mind that recognising a few quotations doesn't mean I am one of those bulbous-browed, European, intellectual types with a theory on everything and a soul as deep and profound as a lead mine. It just means I remember, what I remember, quickly. Nice, all the same.

Saturday, 13 June 2009


Rich and Helen on C's birthday, earlier

The morning of the wedding is thin cloud and blue sky, the cloud drifting generally north. It is harmless and is due to vanish over the horizon well before the wedding itself. The ceremony is in the hall at the back of the vast church where the art college holds its degree ceremonies. The hall is lined with historical portraits, long wigs to the left, short wigs and plain hair to the right. There is a raised stage with a grand piano on it. Six screens of a dark-to-middle green (Brunswick Green in my old paint charts) form the back of the congregation and two more are on the stage itself. C has made slip covers for all of them, also green but floral, faintly Tudor, with crimson flowers that echo the colour of the chairs. There are a few miniature trees with lights. Bride will be accompanied by both mother and father, and the groom's speech will be shared with the bride. Three musical performances involving musician members of the family. My brother A, a violinist with the CBSO duets with the bride and with son T, and niece and aunt play cello and piano duet. I read the poem that's up o front as part of the service. Then we walk the ten minutes or so to the hall for the reception in another medieval hall. Eating, speeching (my second poem-verse), and dancing till late. Taxi home for us.

A thicker swatch of cloud now, then small piercings of light: our neighbour's white wall blossoming then darkening.


News from Iran depressing but expected. Naturally, the election would have been rigged, but seems to have been so ridiculously rigged it may lead to discontent. I don't wish the bloodshed on anyone, but there's no tyrant like a religious tyrant.


The TV show is over, folks. It is always something of a humiliation to see one's face on the screen. It looks irritatingly not what we think it is, a weird object in space, going through a series of rictus gestures, a self that is not a self but a kind of puppet. But the puppet and its talented partner seem to have won the contest, for what such contests are worth.

But those picture questions. I had no idea who the man called Chapman was - he looked like a heavy-metal roadie to me - nor who the man doing 'Homer' Simpson's voice was. Not a clue. And, frankly, I had only the faintest of recollections of Linda Lovelace's face (or, I hasten to add, any other part of her). Never did see Deep Throat in action. For a moment I thought it was Elizabeth Taylor. As Natalie neatly quipped, people would not have been used to seeing Lovelace with her mouth closed.

Friday, 12 June 2009

Man on telly

George Szirtes is currently (between 10.00-11.00pm) to be seen on a television programme called The Book Quiz on BBC4 TV, where, like half the contestants, he is not famous enough to appear in the billing, yet , with the aid of the lovely Natalie Haynes, goes on to fight his way through to the final, where they face... and then go on to...

If you miss him tonight you could happily go on missing him but no doubt BBCi will persist in showing the programme for week.

In the meantime, in and out of Norwich. Wedding arrangements. Meeting groom's parents. Entertaining. Eating. Packing for Rotterdam on Sunday.

Thursday, 11 June 2009

Matt (2)

I met Matt through a review, not of him, not by him, but by me, of another poet. I didn't like the book.I thought it was doing something false. I was wrong but I not very wrong, and wrong in the right way, or so I still think. I received a letter from Matt arguing the book's case. I answered at some length, very courteously arguing my view. He wrote back with more argument, and I responded. We exchanged a few letters this way, arriving at a hearty respect and even affection for each other. It might be that he then invited me to Liverpool to do a reading and I accepted, or maybe we taught an Arvon Course together. The poet I had criticised was our guest reader. Matt suggested him, the old mischief,and I accepted the dare. When we arrived I discovered a third of the course were fans of the savaged poet. No tempers were lost, all was fine, much was understood and the criticised poet came and went with very good grace.

Year on year Matt and I were in correspondence. We met sometimes, more often we wrote and read each other's books. He was a great proponent of mine, particularly from Metro (1988) on. I admired his straight, warm, muscular and anecdotal poems of growing up in Bootle, of friends, of fishing, of class and of mortality. He put Michael on to my work and another friendship developed from that. To lose them both within a month is devastating. For those who knew them both, knew their generosity and commitment and help at regular first hand, it is like the loss of two major landmarks in a now more desolate landscape.

Here are three short poems by Matt from his New and Selected Poems of 1990, An Elegy for the Galosherman.

An Elegy for the Galosherman

Who pads the Bowles Street jigger now?
Who's pacing there on noiseless soles
breathing the bad-blood darkness in
between the sleeping back-to-backs?

Was it a dull bull-headed thing
betrayed by its own strength that chafed
the backyard walls? Or some
bewildered sad old man
who wished to keep the darkness clean?

I think the galosherman was a lamplighter. Matt explained at the time, and even ran the title by me as the title of the selected poems, along with others. This was the title I preferred and so did he. The voices I hear in Matt are a fascinating mixture of Dylan Thomas, Berthold Brecht, Norman Nicholson, Tony Harrison... maybe even Roger McGough, just a touch.

Territorials: Grandma

In the eye of Florrie's front garden
peppery-throated lilies grow,
loudspeakerfuls of sobering hymns
and mustering drums which at a flick
can swamp the Sodom-and-Gomorrah streets
with God's Own Light...

Tread softly, moggies of Other Persuasions
who'd drill your acids in her soil.

Gorgeous poem made so by the last two lines. The first line, I think: Too cosy Matt, this Grandma Florrie stuff, too sentimental. "Peppery-throated" though is pretty sharply observed, and maybe Florrie was too, and then "loudspeakerfuls" is Matt's Modernism butting in. Soon we're into the Bible-black Llaregub world with a minor fanfare of Dylan Thomas. Penultimate, the complex joke of manners in the moggies and their Other Persuasions - and, finally, that damn hard, peppery, terminal, cold detachment without which no poem.

The Song of Caedmon

And God said:
sing me somewhat, Caedmon.

I would have sung the mullet and whiting
shoaling at Whitby, the occasional porpoise
that breaks a summer horizon, the pugs
and goats poked into market.
I'd have had men listen
to new songs at harp-passings,
sung the wondrous windwork of gulls.

But God thought otherwise, sold me on dreams:
sing me Creation, Caedmon, the song
that's acceptable, that does me some credit.

So I the uneducated
was saddled with miracle; big words
broke on me, a galeforce of syllables
swept up from nowhere. I would have welcomed
a start nearer home, a local beginning.

But God thought otherwise:
work on my handiwork, carve it on crosses,
sing in Northumbrian the way the world got to
this bleak point of history. Sing to the mindful,
make me some worship.

I would have started the other way round,
charting our wonders, the wonders about us,
the disorder of gulls in a pleasure of words,
the glint of the mullet, the pigness of pigs.

...the glint of the mullet...

Now this is even better. I heard Matt read this a few times. The family voice, the respectable working class voice of "the song that's acceptable, the song that does me credit" is, I think, deeply moving. Especially since it is the voice the distilled Simpson-Caedmon figure. Matt, the Cambridge man, is rarely to be heard or detected except in the breadth and depth of his reading. He recalled to me how he'd giggle manically at The Goons, and cultivate a voice at Cambridge, where he would have cut a handsome figure.

He was a fisherman, of course, and many of the later poems in Elegy.. are about fishing, especially about the death of a policeman he used to go fishing with. Come to think of it there is a surpsing amount of death in the Selected poems - those celebrations of the vanished and unsung often stand by gravesides. And, ah, at this bleak point of history! When was it ever not, but the bleakness is sharp and clear next to the glint of the mullet and those piggish pigs.

All those poems about vanishings. There is a tragic layer under the familiar and joshing. One last poem then. The fishing, the dead policeman remembered in his last year..

O Wormes Meate

Bullying tackle through a kissing-gate that groaned,
bringing bait we'd dug the day before
to tease that 'fearfullest of fish,' the chub,
we walked a churchyard to the river bank,
past tangles of wrreaths clumped wet against
a wall, the earth still raw from burial. One year
of fishing left to you, a joke began its journey home:
'Look,' you said, 'some poor sod's being made a meal of there!'

...that 'fearfullest of fish', the chub...

There is Touchstone there, and Hamlet and Mercutio, and John Donne there, there but hardly there. Just enough there so you know it's not pushy or showing off or that malarkey.

The Ronaldo Case

I want to write more about Matt Simpson, and I might be able to do that a bit later, or maybe tomorrow morning, not in this post. I was preparing to explore the significance of the late elections, the operatic (opera buffo) manoeuvres of Gordon Brown with full closeted chorus of red-nosed Hebrew Slaves, and the election of the (now with extra egg ingredient) BNP here, as indeed, more worryingly, of Jobbik in Hungary, when the news of Ronaldo's £80 million transfer breaks. That means he costs £24 million more than Kaka, and that the combined outlay on the two is £136 million. Which is £36 million more than the whole of Newcastle United.

I am curious about the effects of the global financial crisis on football - including all the major English teams, since Liverpool seem to be feeling the effects. (There's Milan too now, of course.) And I think back to the fall of Leeds United that started when the team finished 5th in the Premier League, just out of the top four who were all going to receive serious income from playing in the Champions League. Leeds spent a vast amount of money, much more than they could afford, in the gamble to become a major European power. Now they can't get out of League Two (the humble old Third Division).

I suspect there is much that is precarious in football generally, but that Real have some sort of state support, a kind of insurance. Or so I read once, a few years ago, when their finances were in a terrible mess. I can't remember where I read that so I may be misremembering. The idea was that Real cannot be allowed to fail because Real is the face of Spain (Barcelona being a Catalan team cannot, and would not want to be, the face of Spain). So Real can pump up the balloon for ever without it exploding. It makes life very tough for the smaller teams in Spain of course, not to say a little boring for the fans at large. You might say that of England too but at least there are four teams, and possibly more, who might win major prizes. As for Scotland - I have always had a fond space in my heart for Raith Rovers, simply because I like the name (as does my father), but I hold out no great hopes for them.

Regarding Ronaldo himself, who knows? He had an extraordinary year last year and a very good one this, though as all the fans say, he has been difficult to love. I think he is a marvellous footballer but has limitations in that he is a player of minutes rather than matches. He has of course played superb matches too, but that is not characteristic of him. He is, as everyone agrees, peevish and vain and - quite often - lazy, but there is no denying his value to the team on the field, that is to say in that brilliant, time-dense moment that expands into a whole match in the memory, a moment that could happen any time and is therefore always a cause for hope .

As a person, he may mature into a more likeable human being but only if he gets laid off with some injury or other. I expect him to start brilliantly at Real then to get a little drunk on himself and alienate some of the others. Real have bought only attackers. Their defence needs support and it won't get it from CR7.

So maybe it was time for him to go. I suspect United have had his best years and that the team, with him, was on the turn in any case. I doubt whether CR7's graph, and with him the team's too, would have risen next year and still less the year after. Buying him for £12 million or so was a wonderfully successful gamble. Most gambles are not successful. We'll see what Real think in a year or so.

What I did love about his presence and attitude was his sheer nerve in doing things English players are generally dissuaded from doing for fear of being called Flash Harry or One-trick Pony. There is a long line of foiled genius in English football with its eternal cry of "Get stuck in!" It is as if people feared there might be something a touch effeminate in that flowing grace.

Well, there is. There always has to be. There is no genius without it. Courage: fine. Industriousness: fine. Heart: fine. Nous: fine. But grace and feint and delicacy combined with power and enthusiasm? Careful now! Damn Careful now! I think. But then I am a Hungarian by birth not a True Born Englishman.

Ronaldo could be absolutely exhilarating and I will miss that, miss it deeply. But others will come along and the team may - who knows? - actually improve.

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Back late...

...from C.K.Williams reading and dinner at university then in town. Earlier into town by bus to conduct two tutorials in a cafe over lunch. Plus this and that.

I'll write more tomorrow. Here's a piece of music to see us through the night. Will Chopin and Pollini do you?

Nocturne, of course, No.8, Op27 no.2.

Tuesday, 9 June 2009


Management will worry about the state of poetry. Is it viable? Is it maximising its potential? Is it meeting its aims and objectives?

Here is an aim and objective, or rather an aim that has sprung into an object. It is the mother of the murdered Shaquille Smith, Sandra Maitland, speaking in court of the loss of her son:

A knot is in our hearts that will not undo. A light has been dimmed and put out of our lives. We never had a chance to say goodbye.

I listen to it on the radio. The first phrase goes straight through me. The second I recognise as a trope. The third is the plain human cry. I have, you see, an aesthetic ear, and I cannot help hearing even grief as a shape. That is cold-hearted of me, but a poet is nothing if not cold-hearted when it comes to language. You must turn to stone, to ice, to feel it as shape even as it comes hot in the breath.

But that first phrase, the knot in the heart that will not undo, is perfect. It is the poetry of everyone and everything. It is what we want poetry for: to transform the world into meaning. The image is clear. Yes, it is a metaphor. It's what metaphor exists to do. I cannot help feeling the tightness of the knot, the contraction of the heart, of the muscle and the nerve, and the sense that one is doomed to live with it for the rest of one's life.

There is more. The internal pun on knot and not - I really can't help hearing it - drums on the ear. Great poets do not hold the pun in contempt, even at the point of death. They know its nonsense humanises them. John Donne , Ann Donne, Undone, wrote John Donne. So here comes Donne's knot in The Exstasie, the knot as love and fixity and tense desire -

Our hands were firmly cemented
By a fast balm, which thence did spring ;
Our eye-beams twisted, and did thread
Our eyes upon one double string.

And then I think of R.D. Laing's Knots, those small tightly bound furious knots of language as undoable unmeaning whereby we look to defend ourselves or accuse another. Knots of utter failure.

And none of this is pertinent to Sandra Maitland's intention. Intentions - aims and objectives - are nowhere. To speak or write poetry is not to realise an intention, but to produce a form, an object. I am not analysing her line, the grief-stricken mother's line, I am just trying to understand why it goes right through me with all the sense of naked human grief - grief naked yet dressed as itself, becoming more naked, more itself, in the dressing. And I know that the second part about the light dimming is more commonplace and comes from a more ready-made set of articles in the drawer of pain and that the mind is relaxing a little here while still staring about itself, still searching.

And then the cry. And the odd joy of having, if nothing else, at least the cry formed, shaped, properly and fittingly dressed, as if for ever.

Monday, 8 June 2009

Matt Simpson

It is a bad season. A day to the month after Michael Murphy's death comes the death of another poet friend, Matt Simpson. The news is very fresh so I won't write much. Matt was an old friend, a very good friend, another Liverpool man, perhaps more Bootle than Liverpool, working class and Cambridge, thick Scouse accent, author of several excellent books of poetry as well as studies of various Shakespeare's plays and of The Waste Land. He taught Michael. Introduced him to Deryn.

Matt loved music. I have sat in his room in Boundary Drive while he played me recordings of Haydn, Schubert and Tallis. In fact the very Spem in Alium I had up on Sunday.

He had gone in to hospital last week for a quadruple by-pass but even at seventy-three, he was tough and I was sure - everyone was sure - he would get through it. But there were complications apparently, and he died today.

Shock and terrible sadness. In another post I'll try to remember how Matt and I became friends. Not now. Dear old grouch. We last met at Michael's funeral.


At the end of this week, at the other end of this tunnel, our sweet spry bright daughter, Helen gets married to a lovely man, Richard, known as Rich. Middlesbrough boy. That is to be locally and everything is abuzz with activity. I cannot help thinking of that line from The Winter's Tale about the finding of Perdita:

Shepherd: Heavy matters! heavy matters! but look thee here, boy. Now bless thyself: thou mettest with things dying, I with things new born.

Not new born exactly, but in a way new born, as every wedding is, according to the bright dimensions of life.

Sunday, 7 June 2009

Gender gap

The future is female, as some of my female students were keen on declaiming back in the nineties, and the way things are going they might be right. The BBC was full of the survey that girls outperform boys at every subject and every stage after GCSE, including university. The Guardian article says:

The study highlights the fact that boys' school performance began to lag behind girls' at about the time the exams were introduced in the 1980s. It also cites a study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, in which more than 13,000 15-year-olds sat alternative tests in reading, maths and science. While girls scored better in reading, boys got more correct answers in maths and science. When the same pupils sat GCSEs, however, the girls did better in all subjects.

It may be that boys have suddenly turned stupid and girls turned suddenly brilliant. It may be that those millennia of invention, adventure, thought, articulation of feeling and experience, have suddenly vanished into thin air. I don't suppose it helps that as long as I can remember the arrival of exam results is always illustrated by girls hugging each other with never a boy in sight. It probably is the case that the approach demanded by GCSE is better suited to girls and comes at a critical stage of a boy's life. It might be that education is essentially female dominated. It might be that thirty years of being told they are brutal and worthless has bred low expectations in boys. It might be many things. It might be that boys instinctively vacate the spaces occupied by women and have been encouraged, and often told, to do so, whereas the reverse is admired and encouraged. (I remember being asked to leave the class I was teaching on one occasion - a good fifteen years or so ago now - because the visiting woman writer didn't want a male member of staff present).

The boys have withdrawn, into themselves, into the other places of the mind, into the corner into which they have been painted and into which they anyway have half a mind to go. Boys' confidence is very brittle indeed, and almost all the bravado and, sometimes, idiocy of display is an attempt to impress themselves or their friends in mutual encouragement. I find it rather heartbreaking. In the long run it means trouble for everyone. For now? Well, they're wastes of space, aren't they, Charlie Brooker? They've fouled up the world, he writes. They're good for nothing. He writes this on equipment, on furniture, in a dwelling, in a street, in conditions of health, in an employment produced by technology that is produced by male minds and male hands. Why is everything shit? Why doesn't he live ten times as long as he does now? It's because it's all been messed up. By men. Everything would have been perfect if men had never done anything, never existed. He thinks men are simple.

Except him, of course. He is not simple.

Sunday Night is... Tallis, Spem in Alium

Spem in alium numquam habui praeter in te
Deus Israel
qui irasceris
et propitius eris
et omnia peccata hominum in tribulatione dimittis
Domine Deus
Creator coeli et terrae
respice humilitatem nostram

I have never put my hope in any other but in you
God of Israel
who will be angry
and yet become again gracious
and who forgives all the sins of suffering man
Lord God
Creator of Heaven and Earth
look upon our lowliness


Kate Kilalea's launch on Friday at the Betsey Trotwood. Lovely occasion in a nice space, essentially the young packing the place out with the support of Christopher Reid, Ms Baroque, Roddy Lumsden, Tim Wells, current mentee Nick Makoha, contemporary students with books out or to come, friends, enthusiasts, Carcanet rep and scholar sister, Facebookers, parents and relatives of poet.

Good, controlled reading, paced and held, of very fine poems, a touch of Plath in the voice, complete with doors banging in the background and other voices in the distance. As for me, dash down, introduce, listen, chat, dash home.

On first train down to London a man across the aisle is pulling faces, talking to himself, making hand gestures, primarily at the young woman in front of me. She has a quiet, slightly-squeaky well-brought-up voice. She is polite to him and he is not a nuisance though he could get to be. I try speaking to him. I think he might be drunk but he doesn't smell of drink. Nevertheless he lurches. He keeps repeating that he doesn't know where he is. He is on the train to Cambridge. I ask the conductor about him. Conductor smiles and says he is harmless, travels on a concession, and is often on this train. At one point the man had made a gun gesture with his hand, cocked the trigger and shot one off at the girl. Later he sits down next to her and asks her what she is reading. She is reading a glossy magazine. The conversation doesn't get far. He is simply lost. I think for a moment of John Clare wanting to get home to Patty or to Mary Joyce.

Saturday, 6 June 2009

Another passage from Márai

The husband speaking:

Look, I was going on fifty before I understood Tolstoy. I mean The Kreutzer Sonata. It seems to be about jealousy but that is not the true subject. This masterpiece talks about jealousy presumably because Tolstoy himself was painfully sensitive and had a jealous nature. But jealousy is nothing more than vanity. It is pitiful and contemptible. Oh yes, I know the feeling quite well… all too well. I almost died of it. But I am no longer jealous. Do you understand me? Do you believe me? Look at me. No, old man, I am no longer jealous because, at considerable cost, I overcame that vanity. Tolstoy still believed in some kind of solution and he assigned to women a role that is half-animal; he thought they should give birth and dress in sackcloth. That is a sick, inhumane solution. But the other alternative is just as sick and inhumane, the one that proposes women as showy decorative items, marvels of emotion. How can I respect, how can I give my heart and mind to someone who from the moment of rising to the hour of lying down does nothing but dress and preen herself as if to say, Here I am… who apparently wishes to make herself attractive to me by means of feather, fur and scent… though even that is a lie. She wants to be attractive to everyone, she wants to lodge the spore of desire in each and every man’s nervous system. That’s how we live. Movies, theatres, the street, the café, the restaurant, the baths, the hills, everywhere the same unhealthy excitement. Do you think nature requires all this?... Like hell it does, dear boy! Only one social arrangement, one mode of production requires it: the one in which women regard themselves as items for sale.

Yes, you’re right, I don’t, myself, have a better answer, a superior system of production and social exchange… all the others people have thought of to replace it have failed. I have to admit the fact that, in our system, a woman constantly feels obliged to sell herself, sometimes consciously, more often subconsciously. I don’t say every woman is conscious of being a commercial object… but I daren’t believe that exceptions don’t prove the rule. I don’t blame women: it is not their fault. This presentation of the self as something ‘on offer’ can feel deathly sad, especially the foolishness, the haughtiness, the ironically flirtatious performance of giving-oneself-airs when a woman feels under pressure because she is surrounded by others more beautiful, less expensive and more exciting. What is a woman to do with her life, both as woman and as a human being in this free market, when, as today, women outnumber men in every part of Europe, when competition has assumed a terrifying intensity? They offer themselves, some virtuously, with downcast eyes, like tremulous, highly-delicate flowers who continue trembling in private in case time passes and no one carries them away, others more consciously setting out each day like Roman legionaries fully aware of their imperial mission to vanquish the barbarian… No, my friend, we have no right to condemn women. The only right we may have is to pity them, and perhaps not even them, but ourselves, we men, who are incapable of solving this long, painful crisis in the great market-halls of civilization. It is constant anxiety. Wherever you go, wherever you look. And it is money that is behind it all, not all the time maybe but in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred human miseries. That is the subject the saintly wise author of The Kreutzer Sonata never mentions in his furious indictment…

Friday, 5 June 2009


Well of course I voted along with all the silver-hairs and saw nary a yoof in or out of the polling station.

After the Attack of the Fifty Foot Women, the Attack of the Sideburns. I cannot honestly say I like, or have ever liked, Gordon. His bullying, blustering exterior may hide a heart of purest gold, but it would probably require a seriously invasive operation to get to it. Nor have I ever seen the great gulf in policy between him and Blair, as though they represented conflicting ends of the party. What the Blairites and the Brownites are fighting about is the equivalent of the mouse droppings of power. And the parliamentary party - not much to add beyond what has already been said by everyone everywhere. Not that the opposition or the Lib Dems are any cleaner or more appealing.

Nevertheless it is neither the leader nor the representatives I vote for. It is an idea that seems to me a better, more humane idea than the other one generally available. It is a much reduced idea, of course, and one unlikely to blossom in rural Norfolk, but it is still an idea.

And politics had better have some ideas otherwise it is just power and mouse droppings.

Now to London to introduce Katharine Kilalea's book One Eyed Leigh at the Betsey Trotwood in Farringdon. Back late. Again.


But I did like this by Robert Tait in The Guardian today:

After the debate, pro-Mousavi students took to the streets of Tehran chanting: "Ahmadinejad, impolite person, shame on you. Leave this country alone".

I'm sure Tait knew what he was doing when he put it like this, but bless him, the ducks, for raising a smile on my absurdly furrowed visage. Teach Ahmadinejad to be impolite.


Picture added (Saturday 6th) for lack of resistance. And now Caroline Flint..

Thursday, 4 June 2009


On 4 June 1989 we were in Budapest. We had been there since early January and were to be there for months yet. The walls of the world we knew were falling in slow motion and by 4 June it was clear that nothing would be the same again. The fatwa against Salman Rushdie had been declared in February (Valentine's Day) and I remember our Hungarian friends asking us what it meant and what we thought. Sometime during that year I was asked for a hundred words or so by the TLS in response to it and I duly wrote them. I can't remember what I said. It seemed crazy and nonsensical but a very long way away.

Then came Tienanmen, the days of build-up, the awaited arrival in China of Gorbachev, the light-bringer, in the expectation of whose visit the students filled Tienanmen and built the foam and papier-mâché Goddess of Democracy.

In the meantime Hungary itself was building up to the state reburial of Imre Nagy and the great mass ceremony in Hösök tere, or Heroes Square. The headiness of that moment was amplified by the extraordinary, apparently impossible events in China.

And then it broke and the breaking ran through us like a flood of icy water. We watched on Hungarian TV, in black and white. Everyone knows this piece of film by now but no apologies for putting it up again. To see this for the first time was to see the reverse side of the world. Nothing could have been more moving, more uplifting, more tragic.

It broke and there was blood everywhere. Our eyes and fingers were sticky with it. Twelve days to go to our own version of Tienanmen. Suddenly everything that had seemed, unbelievably, to be decided one way, now swung back into uncertainty, anxiety, fear.. All it would take was a few tanks and a volley of bullets.

I was writing the title poems of Bridge Passages (some nice reviews on the Amazon link that I never got to see at the time) in 1989, a kind of poem-diary of the turbulence of that year. This poem, Chinese White, was the Tienanmen entry:

Chinese White

Do you remember that scene in Ashes and Diamonds where
the hero rushes forwards through the clotheslines and bleeds
to death among the sheets? Or was it
Canal (I can't remember now). A square
of white turns slowly red. The redness fades
to black and white. The picture is a composite,

a form of poster. The War, the Resistance,
something about betrayal, all mixed up
in a child's mind who didn't see
the war, for whom it is a haunting presence
of sheets and blood. An image hangs and drops
in a grey passageway or alley.

His name was Zbigniew, and he wore dark glasses,
and later he jumped from a train (a true life fact)
because, well, Poles are like that,
they get drunk, morose,
etcetera. The girl who kisses
the boy was blonde as always. Was it an act
of bravery him getting shot

or cowardice? We could look it up in books
but that is not the point (we pull our serious face)
but something in the falling, the how
and where of it. And so wherever one looks
the same old images return and find their place,
a square, an alleyway, a row

of ordinary houses suddenly still and hot
and people falling lying as if on a square
of film. You see the victim's head
as someone aims and shoots him, and you cut
to tanks or bodies or a sheet hung out to air,
a white square slowly turning red.

Zbigniew Cybulski was the man.

And he did commit suicide by leaping from a train.

The films were by Andrzej Wajda and I watched them in my childhood on our first or second TV. It was in fact Ashes and Diamonds and here is the very scene (first three minutes). He doesn't die quite there. But it is wonderful.

And then there are the tanks, and the single man in China. And on the 16 June I went along to our own great square of white with 200,000 other people and stood there in the bright sunshine.

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Gold Dust

Went along to Anne Michaels's reading at the university tonight. A slightly muted affair. She was reading from the new book, The Winter Vault, as part of her book tour. Muted? That was partly because she speaks quietly and reads undemonstratively. The language of the book is, furthermore, close to poetry in its cadences and precision, a kind of overall, unified precision, and the reading being delivered in that quiet, even, sensitive voice, it was a little like being smothered with gold dust.

This impression is based on nothing more than an excerpt or two murmured into a microphone. I suspect the writing in this case positively needs the page. The slow sifting craft of it might acquire tidal force there.

Slow is right. It is hard to think that Michaels's previous book, Fugitive Pieces, was published twelve years back. I read that at the time on a recommendation from a writer friend (it might have been Stephen Romer?) and thought very well of it. A poet's book certainly, but sustained, tense and, at 300pp or so, about the right length.

So what does it mean to say a work of fiction is a poet's book? Because a poet is what she was before Fugitive Pieces, and a rather successful one too. Michaels talked about her need to move to fiction, of her desire to carry a reader with her for far longer than a poem could, about a page or two of poetry being incapable of comprehending as much as a 400pp book, about the notion of a small suitcase into which everything, but everything would fit.

A suitcase perfectly packed. The suitcase image was in fact an answer to a question I asked (I feel almost patriotically obliged to ask a question when the hall is quiet) about what it was like moving from poetry to fiction, and whether she had any models or exemplars in mind when considering Fugitive Pieces. There was no real answer to that apart from the image of the suitcase, with possibly John Berger in the shadows as a humane spirit.

What does a poet's fiction mean though? In structural terms - in her books anyway - it means abandoning the chapter-by-chapter, what-next aspect of linear development. That can be an exciting thing to do and to experience as a reader. However, time in fiction is a great playground in which anyone can play anywhere as long as they seem to be moving forwards, or rather as long as the effect of all the various to-ing and fro-ing is the sense of moving forwards. Novel as river, poem as lake, is perhaps a little too glib an analogy. There is change and movement even in a poem, and there are great stillnesses at moments in great novels, nevertheless the story in fiction moves forward while the poem dwells, or possibly develops whirlpools.

The trouble with the poetic novel - even in the best sense -is that it demands an even degree of fineness. Hence the gold dust. The big architecture of the story is built out of equally detailed fragments and that makes for a certain dullness and preciousness. My hunch is that fiction requires great spaces and more variety, that it can only admit the world through imperfections, through a kind of crudeness that comprises belly-laughs, direct action, extended metaphors, a longueur or two, and a touch of vulgarity along with the fine writing.

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Staying within the rules: losing your marbles

One distinction not much made in the case of MP's expenses is the one between rules and morals. Piaget wrote about the development of morals in children.

Before the age of five, he argues, children have little concept of either rules or morality (he calls this the stage of premoral judgment). The child simply doesn't understand other people's consciousness.

Next comes moral realism, where it is the rules that count. You keep to the rules because if you don't, you get punished. You may get a bad feeling anticipating such punishment and this may in fact feel like a moral sense. Bad effect is associated with wrong action.

After seven, says Piaget, we enter on the stage of moral relativitism that lasts the rest of our lives. We know rules are not immutable and that there may be moral reasons for changing them. We become aware of other people and their intentions. We argue. We relativise.


Well, that's Piaget and things move on. Nevertheless, I still can't quite see Westminster as an isolated moral vacuum, and there must be something in the distinctions made between keeping within the rules ("Still you keep o' the windy side of the law," says Fabian to Sir Andrew Aguecheek in Twelfth Night, when encouraging him to write a potentially actionable letter) and the moral spirit that might have enabled members to bear in mind the world outside.

One conclusion might be that rules actually supplant morality. They stand in for it. Rules, argues Piaget (from the way children played marbles according to game rules), are social conventions and when everyone around you is obeying the same social conventions, you feel you are doing nothing wrong.

Rules normalise games and close out other considerations. The rules of a game override other social rules while you are in the game. I remember feeling irritated because, when playing Monopoly on one occasion in my childhood, my mother insisted on giving us back the houses we had lost. Her feelings ran outside the rules. She was bending them for the moral ends of making her children happy. In my irritated mode I might have argued that she wanted more to be seen to perform the grand gesture of making her children happy and therefore not preparing them for life, but let that go. She would then have been shocked to have her motives so questioned, and indeed she might not have had any such motive.

How complicated the mind is.

So one MP is entitled to a house he lives in some of the time and thinks: Why should my daughter not live there some of the time? It is within the rules. And it may be within the rules. The game rules accommodate whatever does not directly run counter to them.

Morality must encompass something far wider than local game rules. We feel outraged because they have not been bothered, or even able, to encompass that wider realm, the realm that includes us.

Game rules are mob rule too. One man may never think of crushing the head of another, but within the social game rules of the moment, he may feel justified in doing so. I have watched wrestling crowds baying for blood. Mostly it is pantomime. But the baying is within the rules.

So now, we bay. That too is within the rules.

As someone in a letter to one of the newspapers put it: those who have committed fraud should be charged as criminals; those who have consciously bent the rules should be sacked or be told to resign; those who have stayed within the rules but have acted immorally should offer themselves to the public for re-election.

Maybe the rules need to be torn up from time to time in order to be reframed as morality. Maybe that is what a revolution is.

Monday, 1 June 2009

Briefs in respectable condition

1. Excuse:
Still getting my head back, having loaned it to the Arvon Foundation. I think it's the same head but it's doing a fair spot of rattling. More brain cells go missing.

2. And yet...
New piece of translation, in haste, for Mr LK of Hungary, on the occasion of him being asked to write an essay for the Tate.

On velocity
Laszlo Krasznahorkai

I want to leave Earth behind, so I dash past the bridge over the stream by the meadow, past the reindeer-feeding-trough in the dark of the forest, turning at Monowitz on the corner of Schuhkammer and Kleiderkammer, into the street in my desire to move faster than the Earth in whatever direction this thought has taken from the point it started, for everything has converged to such a point of departure, leaving everything behind, leaving behind the Earth, and I set off, rushing instinctively, doing the right thing by rushing because it wasn’t East or South or North I was heading or in some other direction in relation to these, but West, which was right, if only because the Earth spins from left to right, that is to say from a Western to an Eastern direction, because that is right, that’s how things are, that’s how it felt right, was right, from the from the first half-fraction of the instant in which I started, since everything moves most definitely from West to East, the building, the morning kitchen, the table with its cup, the cup with its steaming emerald-coloured tea and the way the scent spirals upward and all the blades of grass in the meadow that are pearled with morning dew, and the empty reindeer-feeder in the dark of the forest, all of these, each and every one, moves according to its nature from West to East, that’s to say towards me, I who wanted to move faster than Earth, and rushed through the door over the meadow and the dark of the forest, and had to move precisely in a western direction while everything else, the whole of creation, the lot, each billionth of a billionth component of this overwhelmingly vast world ,was continuously spinning at unimaginable speed from West to East; or rather I, who wanted to move faster, therefore fixed my own speed in the opposite, wholly unexpected, direction, one beyond the realm of physics, that’s to say...

The sentence continues for two more pages. Followed by a very short sentence. End.

3. TV fame and world-domination...
The Book Quiz programmes in which I, by the powers invested in me, did take part, are due for broadcast on Friday 12 June between 10:00-11:00 pm on BBC4, thus. Two thrilling semi-finals and a breathless, captivating final. Could there be better entertainment? (That was not one of the quiz questions, by the way.)

4. Telephone incident
Woman on end of phone. This is the X charity. We are very grateful for your support so far. I wonder if you have a few minutes to spare, so that I may tell you...

Me (cutting her off): You'd like more money?

Woman: Er, yes. I wonder if you would feel able to increase your support to (and she doubles the monthly amount)...?

Me: You mean double?

Woman: Er, yes.

Me: We can't do that...

We add on 20%, it's the best we can do for now. I wish she had started that way rather than beating about the bush. About fifteen years ago I was stopped in a street in London by a poor-looking woman with photographs of terrible mistreatment of children in one of the Arab states. She asked me for money and to sign a form. I gave some money and signed the form. Some three months later received a phone call asking if the same people could see me as they were in the area. Two men in suits. More pictures. They wanted thousands. I thought they were from Mars. Look around you, I said. Does it look as though we have thousands? It didn't stop them. Eventually they went. They really were from Mars. They mistreat their children all the time on Mars. And then you feel guilty for having let another five Martian children starve.

One should perhaps tell them just to go and have a revolution. Except that seems no like reply at all. Maybe they're trying.

5. Michael
It has been agreed that I could write a 1200-1500 word evaluation of Michael Murphy's poetry for Poetry Review. I have most of the work except the very last poems. Must ask D or M for those.