Monday, 30 November 2009

Bad Sex Award

So this is the man who won. Jonathan Littell from his Prix Goncourt winning novel, The Kindly Ones. According to the judges:

The Kindly Ones, which tells the story of the Holocaust through the eyes of one of the executioners, beat off stiff competition from a stellar shortlist that included entries from Philip Roth, John Banville, Paul Theroux and the literary rock star Nick Cave.

The judges paid tribute to the novel's breadth and ambition, calling it "in part, a work of genius".

"However," the citation continued, "a mythologically inspired passage and lines such as 'I came suddenly, a jolt that emptied my head like a spoon scraping the inside of a soft-boiled egg' clinched the award for The Kindly Ones. We hope he takes it in good humour."

The Kindly Ones is, of course, the ironic title for the Eumenides, aka the Erinyes, aka The Furies.

I suspect the bad sex awards are essentially British, inviting and producing a cross between a snort and a snigger. Howard Jacobson thinks, probably rightly, that (in English at least) the best sex writing is that which does not describe the act. I was writing to a friend in India who has been translating some Tamil erotic poetry, which seems to find a natural register, and in this case to locate it in the female voice (the Tamil writer being female).

It is not very much like the home life of our own dear queen.*

It may be that the often remarked-on concreteness of the English language, that tends to reject abstraction and ideas in favour of the empirical and tangible (the nation of shopkeepers being conspicuous disdainers of airy Frog waffle) produces poetically concrete metaphors that are always going to look somewhat ridiculous compared to the empirical concrete of the act itself in all its varieties. All this for THAT! cries the reader.

I haven't checked, of course, since these posts are all thrown off in a hurry, but my guess is that the best erotic writing in English will always veer to the humorous, or else avoid the act altogether and concentrate on the building up of circumstance.

In other word, I propose that all straight-faced sex-act writing in Eng Lit is, by definition, bad sex writing. Unless proved otherwise.

As concerns the politics of it, that lies with the Furies - the Kindly Ones.

*Gold and Fizdale, in their biography of Sarah Bernhardt, recount an incident from the London production: "After watching Sarah as Cleopatra, lasciviously entwined in her lover's arms, an elderly dowager was heard to say:' How unlike, how very unlike the home life of our own dear queen'."

Sunday, 29 November 2009

Sunday night is 'Now we are sixty-one we...

....salute Ryan Giggs, whose birthday it also is.

C shares hers with Robert Burns but I am very happy to share mine with (Sir) Ryan. I think he is the most wonderful footballer of my adult life. He has in body and spirit what I would wish for my poetry. And, as a player, he is as honest as they come. Even those who hate the team admire Giggs, because what, after all, is there not to admire? I am sorry he could never enjoy greater fame for the international team but do admire him for sticking with Wales, not because Wales is a better entity than England but because there is an admirable way of being true to where you feel you belong, and his is admirable.

It is ten years now since that extraordinary solo goal against Arsenal (included in the video), which is up there with any solo goal you are ever like to see, and that includes Maradona and Messi, and what is more, at a more dramatic stage of the proceedings than either. But it's not just the solo graces, but the team graces. When he is playing even half-way to his best, the team changes, has more energy, more imagination.

Most players of his kind - fast, light, elusive - have retired by the time they are thirty or so. To begin with they have been cut down so often they are injured out of the game. And of course they lose speed. And the sheer will and concentration. He is thirty-six today, same age as Lord Byron when he died. Lord Giggsy. Not bad, not mad, and not dangerous to know unless you are the defender marking him.

Saturday, 28 November 2009

Ancestral, on the eve of my sixty-first

...And 'mid this tumult Kubla heard from far
Ancestral voices prophesying war!

- Coleridge, Kubla Khan

I am reading a PhD for examining. Interesting, applying cognitive poetics to post-colonial poetry in the hope of arriving at a deeper understanding of both the poetry and the condition of post-colonialism.

I cannot say anything about the dissertation itself but was stopped for a moment when it talked of indigenous people being forced off ancestral lands. I began to think about ancestral lands. And, inevitably, about colonialism too.

First, I wondered about my own ancestral lands. As a Central European Jew I cannot think of any place that would be mine or ancestral, unless perhaps Israel, though heaven knows when my ancestors last set foot there. I don't know the names or locations of my ancestors more than three generations back. All I know is that they didn't stand still. They drifted about Moravia, Bohemia, Transylvania and Hungary, and heaven knows where else. Now they were here, now there. Ghettos, shtetls and pogroms, I suppose. And so it went on for centuries.

My sense of ancestral lands is what Eliot describes in Gerontion:

And the jew squats on the window sill, the owner,
Spawned in some estaminet of Antwerp,
Blistered in Brussels, patched and peeled in London.
The goat coughs at night in the field overhead;
Rocks, moss, stonecrop, iron, merds.

Very Chagallesque, don't you think, those goats in the field overhead? Lovers float in the sky, there are the soulful eyes of cows and, look, there through the window, rises the Eiffel Tower with a cockerel crowing behind it. I am squatting on the window sill, squatting I suppose, on other people's ancestral lands, with only my lower case j to keep me company, regarding patched and peeled London, thinking of rocks, moss, stonecrop, iron and merds, particularly merds, while the weather continues charming.

How many of us actually have ancestral lands? How far back do you go? Four generations? Five generations? Few people in Europe have had that stability, not since industrialisation. And before that there were other movements, trade movements, war movements, plague movements, pilgrimage movements, a great whirlwind of peoples blowing through fields and streets.

That seems to me one of the ur-patterns of life. Movement and dream and parting and arrival. Millennia of it. Even the Arabs, whose ancestral lands are part of the PhD thesis, are, the thesis tells us, ancient wanderers.

Now I don't know which is better. Long, stable, unchanged communities (shall we say five generations? six? seven?) or stray and windblown. The catalysed or the catalysers? The soil or the pollen?

Being of the pollen I can't always see the fuss about the soil. The making of the English landscape has been well documented. Look, let's build a hill! Let's divert a river! Elsewhere, another time, people were shifting sand and stone, putting up pyramids or cathedrals. Is that Ozymandias in the distance? On this spot I planted a cherry tree. On this spot perished my paternal grandfather. Or was it another spot?

I can't always see the fuss but I understand human distress and how being uprooted after years of stability causes distress. Broken movements, broken dreams.


Colonialism didn't suddenly just happen. It wasn't specifically a European capitalist venture. The human race has moved and made camp, displaced, absorbed, then moved on again. Some camps just last longer.

There was no Eden, no Paradise.

Except in our minds, because we make such places there, and understand the importance of Eden to those who have dwelt there, in some real space, real location, their minds lodged between the material and the imagined. There they lived with each other, protecting each other, talking to each other, singing to each other, every so often swearing at each other and even killing each other, like all tribes do, dividing and uniting, looking on this or that tree thinking: that's part of me, that is. That is part of us, the descendants of the ancestors. And they said and sang this in the ancestral language. And some of them moved on and some of them stayed for a while, and the language modified and absorbed the languages of those they displaced or were displaced by.

Meteors and shooting stars and bits of rock: moss, stonecrop, iron and merds. All things peeled and patched. Meanwhile the mind proposes numbers and sentences and music.


It is dark outside, and cold. I know this small town quite well. I am very fond of it. The desk-light has an intimate glow. This is where I live and where my ancestors lived. Desks, and lights, the intimate glow. And the language of that brief intimacy. C with me, now upstairs, moving a chair about. Son T currently in Ireland, in Cork tonight. H and her husband R preparing to move to Norfolk three days from now. And outside, the Chinese family with the struggling take-away, and the old man with the chewed up face in the betting shop who has been standing in its doorway as long as I can remember.

Friday, 27 November 2009

Marred Product

Andrew Marr

About this time on a Friday I catch Andrew Marr's 'The Making of Modern Britain' on TV. The archive footage is good and there is a broad narrative that seems reasonable most of the time, albeit deeply bent by retrospective wisdom.

Retrospective wisdom is annoying because it reads the future into the past when it wasn't there. Chamberlain was, it seems, a dolt for believing Hitler and everyone who cheered him was a minor insignificant dolt for believing there'd be no war. Dolts, the lot of them. We know there was a war so we know exactly what dolts they were. That's TV history. The next moment the British are shown preparing for war. No particular reason given, just a change of tone. No explanation. That's also TV history.

Mustn't bore them, you know. Not for a second.

What the combination of retrospective wisdom, the desperate desire to not bore us, and the fatal love affair with celebrity results in is less the Making of Modern Britain than the Making of Faces. Marr's face.

Marr's programme consists of Marr gurning in between clips of film. He gurns as himself and he gurns in costume. He gurns in funny voices, meaning he puts on silly voices for those who were wrong. And he does it all the time, every five minutes or less. Nothing is possible without a gurn and a silly voice. In today's programme alone we had Marr gurning as a Greenshirt, as a Butlin's camper, as a thirties bather and a great many other things. Silly voices all round even when not in costume. He has ridden a merry-go-round and he has gone round in dodgems. He is a ham actor. He hams it up leaving no minute unhammed. I fully expect to see him hamming it up in a concentration camp, doing funny Jew or funny German,

No, I don't fully expect that. But it's just round the corner, Andrew, if you want a go at it.

Genteel readers please close your eyes now. The fact is, every time he goes into a gurn or a silly voice I just wish he would fuck off.

Marr is not the star of history. He is not even an original interpreter of it. He is an intelligent man who knows perfectly well he is being a prat. I doubt it is even his fault. There is some producer prodding and daring him: Go on Andrew! G'wan! Terrific!

Much the best thing was the footage of the battle of Cable Street. At least he didn't pretend to be Mosley or an East Ender. How tempting that must have been.

I have practically stopped watching television. It fills me with despair even to think of it most of the time.

Thursday, 26 November 2009

A Very Modest Proposal

I know it's my fault in the following cases:

global warming
the credit crunch
bad markets
human mutations
dim children
thin women
fat women
women's eating disorders generally
bad shoes
no babies
any women (should there be any) who drive badly
women's lack of ambition
bad information / misinformation
my own health
the weather (weather girls are not to be blamed)
for not working till I die and coming home with beer on my breath
not being able to take the beer then having sex with under-age girls while knowing perfectly well what I do

Add to that my natural tendency to rape, pillage, murder, bully, fart aloud, and bring pain to my mother by being killed in some roadside bomb incident, and admitting the fact that...

"To call a man an animal is to flatter him; he's a machine, a walking dildo."
- Valerie Solanas,

"Men love death. In everything they make, they hollow out a central place for death, let its rancid smell contaminate every dimension of whatever still survives. Men especially love murder. In art they celebrate it, and in life they commit it. They embrace murder as if life without it would be devoid of passion, meaning, and action, as if murder were solace, stilling their sobs as they mourn the emptiness and alienation of their lives."
- Andrea Dworkin

"The proportion of men must be reduced to and maintained at approximately 10% of the human race."
- Sally Miller Gearhart

...I am obliged to agree that from the cradle until adolescence I should have been kept fully informed that everything I do or think or feel is irredeemably awful, and that even as a grown-up poet, I am, as Wendy Cope has it, a TUMP (totally useless male poet).

I therefore make the following very modest proposal.

I am still in possession of a set of genitalia. I admit they're not great, or at least I have never considered them great. They have been minor agents in the production of two children (and very nice too, thanks to their mother, even the boy) but in doing so they have fulfilled and completed their natural function.

Nevertheless I think they may be properly comestible given a little care and imaginative seasoning. The Hungarian poet, Virág Erdös, in her poem, 'Vision: Game Over' (the poem is included in the New Order anthology I have just edited) suggests:

Testicle Baked in a Roll. In the Admiral Bar apparently they use male apes, but I have a suspicion they add a little something extra. I particularly like them a little overdone.

It's not a big meal but might do to for a light lunch, like tapas, maybe a little couscous and relish on the side. Being Hungarian I cannot resist a dash of paprika (must be Hungarian, cherry peppers are delicious), or at least a splash of Tabasco. Erdös likes them overdone but I suggest serving rare. Gently fry in virgin oil. Could serve in breadcrumbs though we know how fattening that is, but why not? Just this time? You deserve it!

The younger the testicles of course the fresher and less potentially fattening. The operation could be performed shortly after birth with minimal pain, much like circumcision. Serve with fresh salad and, ideally, eat outdoors. Excellent for a summer picnic.

As for the genitalia of older men - if they have got this far - the taste does not improve, but they can be used to fill out mixed grills. Alternatively preserve and tin and dispatch to the hungry in the relevant parts of the world. Waste not, want not.

*Being contrite regarding my male faults it is quite certain that I have not exhausted them, so welcome any links to further incentives to self-chastisement and mutilation.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Lost Names, with three photographs of Barry Bucknell

A rare day at home, bar a visit to the dentist. Dentist fills one tooth, photographs another, says come back. Fine. It's a beautiful sunny morning, if blowy, and I return to translate, to write yet another introduction to something, and to deal with correspondence. The sun shines. Le soleil brille.

At about one C and I decide to have hot comfort-food lunch at the caff on the corner - sausages and mash for me, followed by jam roly poly - she has scampi and chips followed by carrot cake. You are such a girl, C! Pot of strong tea for two. Nothing in the caff can have changed since about 1961. They are playing, at reasonable volume, a long selection of songs from the period: Do the Locomotion, Wonderful Land, Love Letters in the Sand, Oh Carol, Bobby's Girl, Walking Back to Happiness, Runaway, Cumberland Gap, Telstar (Telstar, begob!)... and so forth. I name them and shame them. Well, actually I don't shame them - I recognize them and give them a brief, faintly absent-minded, mental caress as I would an elderly relative of the kind I don't actually have.

C and I start talking about names. I ask her about boys' names, since she does her day-a-week whack in a boys' school. We run across the names, the lost names, the boys she never teaches, the names that ring in the far distance with a dead sound on the final stroke of nine, as T S Eliot said of of the bells of St Mary Woolnoth. Where then are the:

Stanleys, Sidneys, Alfreds, Alberts, Grahams, Malcolms, Ronalds, Colins, Brians, Rogers, Ernies, Victors, Dereks (we actually begin with Derek because of Del Shannon and Del Boy and the Dels of my schooldays, Del Mackey and Del Parrott), Maurices, Leslies, Norberts, Percies, Terrys, Barrys, Garys... where have all the flowers gone? Now it's all Jacks and Toms and Tims and Georges and Bens and Simons and Robs and Wills and Dans and Steves and Petes...

I think of Barry Bucknell in his shed, Percy Thrower in his garden, of Erle Stanley Gardner and Stanley Baxter, of Colin Welland, of Malcolm Miles, of Stan next door, of Ron Knee and Roger the Dodger and Leslie Bricusse and Leslie Norris and Les Dawson, of Terry Paine, of Maurice Norman, of Nobby Stiles, of Victor Sylvester and Brian Blessed...

It's a decent pair of Norfolk sausages swimming in the gravy. The roly poly is constructed around the appropriate suet and is accompanied by reassuringly deep-yellow custard. It's like driving an Austin A40.

I myself have one careful owner, just a few spots of rust, with MOT till August and all working parts, though you have to go a little easy on the clutch.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Shruggists and 1989

These are the first few paragraphs of my introduction to New Order: Hungarian Poets of the Post 1989 Generation, to be published by Arc early in the new year. It is a fully bilingual book and contains work by István Kemény, Szilárd Borbély, András Imreh, Mónika Mesterházi, Krisztina Tóth, Virág Erdős, János Térey, G. István Lászó, Anna T. Szabó, Tamás Jónás, Orsolya Karafiáth and András Gerevich. The full introduction will be published by The Hungarian Quarterly later.


In case anyone should have forgotten, there was a peaceful revolution - a grand European revolution with global implications - exactly twenty years ago in 1989 though, if we have forgotten, it may be because we are still living in it. It was Zhou En Lai who, when asked in the 1950s about the effects of the French Revolution of 1789, is supposed to have replied: ‘It’s too early to tell’. It is too early to tell with this one.

Too early and already too late. Time, the post-modern phenomenon par excellence, is the great confuser and befuddler of chronologies. There we were, thinking it marched forward, in its somewhat unremitting dialectical way into some all but pre-determined future, with evolution as a series of revolutions, when it performed one of its periodic panic fits: a, more or less, bloodless revolution. It was, said Francis Fukuyama, the end of history. Maybe it was - then.

But history is not just events themselves, nor the consciousness of experiencing those events: history is what we write about what seems to us to have happened. Who did what to whom, in which order, why, and with what effect, is, to put it mildly, subject to interpretation. In retrospect everything seems inevitable: after all here we are at the end of it. It may be that the task of rival interpretations is to offer us ever more convincing form of inevitability, to act as Benjamin’s Angel of History but with an agenda, a case to make and a set of files to keep in order.

It was not just the physical Berlin wall that collapsed in 1989, but its equally important metaphorical-ideological-psychological equivalent. The usual wall consists of bricks held together with mortar. Should the mortar disappear the bricks might remain in place, simply sitting one on top of another, but there would be nothing except gravity holding them together - one good shove and over it would go. The parties, the ministries, the armies, the officials, the management, the cadres, the career paths, might all hang suspended for the equivalent of a historical instant but then the wall would be gone. And that is what happened. By 1989, the mortar that had held brick to brick had long turned to powder.

That mortar was compounded of belief, fear, and a kind of everyday confidence in its sheer existence, a confidence that, however dreadful it was, there was actually a kind of coherence, that things had to be as they were. I once wrote that the characteristic late-twentieth century Hungarian gesture was the ironic shrug, a shrug that worked its way through everything from social manners to literature. There were few ideologues left standing by the time the shrug was established. We were all Shruggists. What, asked my elderly party-member cousin, in the March of 1989, what if a strong man comes to power in Moscow, smashes his fist down on the table, and cries “Enough!”? His far more active party member son-in-law, smiled, shrugged and replied: “The table breaks.”

Monday, 23 November 2009

Light Verse

When I was but a young poet of thirty-two or so I met with one my heroes, Derek Mahon, who was then reviews or literary editor of the New Statesman. It would have been 1982. He took me for lunch (I do not mean he mistook me for his lunch) and invited me to review for the magazine. I don't remember much of the occasion, except that I was given (praise be!) Hans Magnus Enzensberger and Ronald Duncan. What sticks in my mind is the subject of light verse, having mentioned which I asked his opinion and he turned and glared at me, as a sabre-toothed tiger might at a relatively small feral cat, and snarled, 'I HATE light verse!'

I suspect that has changed with him. It hasn't with me. I have always loved light verse and do still. There is a kind of pleased-with-itself smug rhyme dropped in the ear of a gentleman at a plush club which seems a little superior, but it does guy itself with some proper jokes, such as those by Harry Graham of 'Ruthless Rhymes' eg:

Mr Jones

'There's been an accident,' they said,
'Your servant's cut in half; he's dead!'
'Indeed!' said Mr Jones, 'and please
Send me the half that's got my keys.'

I also mean sheer word play, sheer silliness, such as Samuel Foote's The Great Panjandrum (1755):

So she went into the garden
to cut a cabbage-leaf
to make an apple-pie;
and at the same time
a great she-bear, coming down the street,
pops its head into the shop.
What! no soap?
So he died,
and she very imprudently married the Barber:
and there were present
the Picninnies,
and the Joblillies,
and the Garyulies,
and the great Panjandrum himself,
with the little round button at top;
and they all fell to playing the game of catch-as-catch-can,
till the gunpowder ran out at the heels of their boots.

Though that is really early Nonsense verse.

Very well then - I like W.S. Gilbert and Ogden Nash and Thomas Hood and C.S. Calverley and Dorothy Parker, and, gorgeously light, Winthrop Mackworth Praed (1802-1839):

A Letter of Advice

You tell me you're promised a lover,
My own Araminta, next week;
Why cannot my fancy discover
The hue of his coat, and his cheek?
Alas! if he look like another,
A vicar, a banker, a beau,
Be deaf to your father and mother,
My own Araminta, say "No!"

Miss Lane, at her Temple of Fashion,
Taught us both how to sing and to speak,
And we loved one another with passion,
Before we had been there a week:
You gave me a ring for a token;
I wear it wherever I go;
I gave you a chain, - it is broken?
My own Araminta, say "No!"

O think of our favorite cottage,
And think of our dear Lalla Rookh!
How we shared with the milkmaids their pottage,
And drank of the stream from the brook;
How fondly our loving lips faltered,
"What further can grandeur bestow?"
My heart is the same; - is yours altered?
My own Araminta, say "No!"

Remember the thrilling romances
We read on the bank in the glen;
Remember the suitors our fancies
Would picture for both of us then;
They wore the red cross on their shoulder,
They had vanquished and pardoned their foe -
Sweet friend, are you wiser or colder?
My own Araminta, say "No!"

All these are play, and I love word play, much as - I suppose - most poets must, except in their most solemn moods, such as a New Statesman lunch for instance.

Then there's the sadness of it, the Edward Lear's The Yonghi-Bonghi Bo and this by Don Marquis:

one of the most
pathetic things i
have seen recently
was in intoxicated person
trying to fall
down a moving stairway
it was the escalator at
the thirty-fourth street
side of
pennsylvania station
he could not fall down as
fast as it
carried him up again but
he was game he kept on
trying he was
stubborn about it
evidently it was part of
his tradition habit and
he did not intend to
be defeated this time i
watched him for an hour
and moved sadly away thinking
how much sorrow
drink is responsible for the
buns* by great men
reached and kept
are not attained
by sudden flight but they
while their companions slept
were falling upwards
through the night

So bug archie writes to mehitabel, the cat. Delights.

*buns: drunken sprees (US, of the time)

Sunday, 22 November 2009

Sunday Night is... The Flying Pickets

Only You...and your sideburns in 1983. For The Flying Pickets see here.

1983 - Arrest of Klaus Barbie; red rain in Britain carried over from the Sahara; Simon Hughes defeats Peter Tatchell at Bermondsey; Michael Jackson does Moonwalk for the first time and, later in the year, 'Thriller' is released; US embassy in Beirut bombed, 63 killed; Hitler Diaries; General Election won by Margaret Thatcher on back of Falklands War; end of martial law in Poland; Korean passenger flight shot down by Soviet Union, 269 dead; bomb explodes on Gulf Air flight; Neil Kinnock becomes leader of Labour Party, Michael Foot having stood down (longest suicide note in history...); Microsoft Word's first appearance; Soviet Union invades Afghanistan; military rule ends in Argentina (see Falklands war, above, by-product); IRA bomb outside Harrods kills 6. All this courtesy of Wiki. Just dropping in.

We are in Scotland on Kintyre with the children. I am between November and May (1982) and Short Wave (1984), reading Hungarian history and preparing to go to to Budapest for the first time the next year. Also next year: the miner's strike, Iraq's use of chemical weapons,... the rest when I have a 1984 song on.

Meanwhile, reading, marking, examining...

Saturday, 21 November 2009

That hand

We have got pretty riled about the injustice inflicted on the Irish football team by Thierry Henry though I doubt whether the Irish would do anything but cheer if the same thing happened to (eight hundred years of oppression) England. When I fully understood that nothing gave the Scots greater pleasure than England losing at anything, I finally made up my mind to enjoy a good drink each time Scotland lose. (As far as football is concerned I could have drunk myself stupid the last few years, of course.) Why cheer? An insignificant little return for mean spiritedness, I suppose. I have never wished the German or Austrian or Russian or Romanian or Turkish team to lose. Hungarians get a decent choice of years of oppression. But what do I know? In such cases I am clearly Hungarian, a Jewish Hungarian at that. I like the Scots I have met. I think there are admirable Scottish virtues. I am very fond of most of the Irish people I have met and there are clear Irish virtues. I wish them nothing but good, as indeed to the Scots. And Welsh, should anyone ask. Did someone mention the Cornish? Yes, good to them all. But - symbolically, since sport is about symbols as much as anything - they can have this piece of pettiness back.

What happened is, of course, unfair. It is wrong. It is the sanctification of a moment of universally observed cheating. My immediate reaction was to resolve not to watch any game in the World Cup in which France were involved and devoutly to hope that they lose every time. That remains. The defeat is all the more wrong because the seeding of the play-offs was clearly bent to advantage the supposedly bigger teams and this result nicely rounds off the bending. Blatter seems to me a peculiarly loathsome piece of bloated self-regard nor does Platini endear himself to me.

Regarding Henry it is quite possible, indeed it is very likely, that footballers feign this or that, nor are the noble English or Scots or Irish innocent. Henry, however, has not generally been renowned for cheating. On this occasion he did cheat and, in doing so, saved his country - as it might have seemed to him in the split-second flash - from defeat and the humiliation that would follow. It is not so much that he cheated I blame him for, not that split-second decision, but for what followed, for the non-apology ('If I hurt anyone...') which is not an apology but an insult and either a gross lie or a marvellous piece of self-deception that more or less accuses the victim or over-sensitivity. I blame him for his smirking. I blame him for running around the pitch to celebrate. I blame him for blaming the referee.

The pressures on footballers, and particularly managers, to succeed is enormous because the stakes are enormous. I don't think it is primarily financial pressure - it is success/ failure / will I ever work again pressure. It is not the fact that individual footballers or managers are paid vast amounts that constitutes the pressure. People adjust to whatever they are earning and the sliding scale of failure and success simply moves with them. The question is not one of individuals but of teams and clubs and crowds and perceptions. Of an ethos. And of the livelihoods of a lot of people associated with success and failure.

A refereeing error is not just a blow to pride, it is potentially survival or death for many. Crystal Palace were denied a perfectly good goal some time in the eighties: as a result they went down and so did their finances as well as a number of people's jobs. I am not a Palace supporter. I am not a supporter of the Irish national team - but you don't have to be.

Like the Maradona moment Henry's handball was clearly visible on television. To act as though it didn't matter is to slap the averagely honest average viewer in the face. Who cares what you think or see? the authorities proclaim. We decide what's right round here.

For that reason I am all for instant replay technology. Refer it to the equivalent of the fourth umpire. Who cares if it adds a few minutes? Allow the captains two or three appeals per match. It would be fairer. It wouldn't reward the cheats. You could send them off, ban them for, say, three games. Or longer. They could appeal using the same evidence. Their appeals might succeed. The fact is there is actual evidence. FIFA already penalise players retrospectively.

Cheats who seem to prosper create a very bad climate., not just in their respective sports, but in life generally. It deepens cynicism.

Henry's hand directly affected the Irish football team who have suffered a wrong. Well, other teams have suffered wrongs and have not received redress. The wilder shores of Irish nationalism are no more attractive than The Citizen in Joyce's Ulysses. But being seen to prosper and failing to face the fact is gross behaviour, grossly condoned. I sincerely hope the French lose every game they play in the World Cup. That's despite the fact I far rather that France had won the last World Cup, Zidane and all.

Back from... Brighton

Couldn't post yesterday as I was in Brighton, doing two readings one straight after the other, the first at the university, the second at The Red Roaster Cafe - both very attended the cafe bursting at the seams. Reading on both occasions with Bernadette Cremin - who has Brighton in the palm of her hand, who says her poems, which sound to me good poems - and with open mic. Tom Cunliffe,artist and poet, who organised the events, has done marvels to build such enthusiastic audiences. Two different sets from me, twenty minutes each. All books sold so must be doing something right.

Part of the train journey back with Polish born poet Maria Jastrzębska talking about memory and fiction. Last leg of journey from Cambridge to Norwich packed solid. The train stops unexpectedly at a tiny station. Conductor explains that one passenger has no money for the fare. All he has is a Lithuanian ID and two bottles of vodka. Can't speak English. Meanwhile, man opposite is chatty to the elderly couple sharing the four seats round the table. He is a railway obsessive and lists precise times and types of trains on his journey to Scotland. The woman next to me listens politely. I am too tired to recount my experiences of train timetables and diesel engines. Do I have any experiences? I carry on reading the book, I have brought for the journey - as well as marking! there being no day free of university though I am supposed to be two days a week only - of which, the book that is, a fascinating book, maybe more another time.


Once home I rush straight to the Castle Museum where I take part in The Great British Art Debate?. Interesting playing bad cop on this, but I cannot find it in me to be good cop on the exhibition. It's not my role anyway. There may well be a great debate involved but it's not about art, nor is it about Great Britain, let alone British Art or - heaven forfend! - 'Great' British Art. It is about identity and stresses the usual worthy liberal values, values I fully support but which in this case entails British Art (whatever that is) effectively prostrating itself and apologising for its past, indeed for its very being. Post-colonial cringe in full swing. Or so I think. Scots don't suffer from this though they practically ran India. They are Proud Scots.

So there is at least a debate about Englishness (no Scots, Welsh or Irish artists in the show, which naturally enough concentrates on the museum's own collection from the Norwich School of Cotman, Crome etc), with art as evidence about what might define it, but a sort of doctored evidence, and in any case we don't even begin to define it. How can one begin to talk about this taboo subject without reference to the Wilton Diptych, Gothic architecture, Nicholas Hilliard, William Hogarth, George Stubbs, and William Blake, without a top class Turner or Constable. I really don't know. Maybe these people are too good, and we wouldn't want to claim that. We do have Emin, and Gilbert & George and Tony Cragg and Yinka Shonibare - all of whom, of course, critique Englishness (sorry, Britishness). But what are they critiquing? That we are not fated to see. As Howard Jacobson asked in one of his Independent pieces about the vigour of marginal art , What is it we are marginal to?

Embarrassment. Distance. But maybe something good will come of it, whispers my good cop. I always keep a little good cop in reserve.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Politicians I have liked and not shot

I know I cannot be a revolutionary because I am perfectly capable of liking those I disagree with and disliking those I agree with. The basis of such likes is not to do with opinion, it is with the way opinion is delivered. It is to do with intangibles. It is not to do with wanting them as friends or desiring to spend time with them, particularly not on any desert island with only one of them for company, but simply admitting them to the personal cast of the human race.

I have chiefly liked them because they seemed to talk like people. Not in any special way, just as themselves. They weren't presentations. Among Labour politicians, for example, I have particularly liked Neil Kinnock, Dennis Healey, Michael Foot, Robin Cook, Dennis Skinner, Shirley Williams and even 'Doctor Death', David Owen. I had respect for John Prescott at an earlier stage. These people seemed to be who they were as characters. Of the Liberals Paddy Ashdown was far above the rest. Charlie Kennedy was as he was.

The interesting case is the Tories. I cannot help liking Kenneth Clarke. I had a soft spot for Chris Patten. I even like and respect Norman Tebbitt though I think he is wrong about almost everything. I always thought John Major a decent man. Gillian Shepherd was probably OK. Carrington, though a toff, was an honourable toff.

It may simply be that I detected a spot of not much more than reasonableness and honesty in them.

I cannot see anyone in any party that I like as a person. The persons are kept back at some distance. All tan and no skin. I am open to offers of likability, but in any case, the liking has no political effect. When it came to a political decision, I would smile and say, 'Sorry, X, I like you but I am voting against you.'

A British Council representative once told me, 'I have friends among them but I wouldn't be surprised if one of them turned up one day with a gun, saying, "You're a good man, X, but too bad," and, giving a sad smile, shot me.'

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Nice thing

The publishers don't inform me of such things. Why would you tell the writer, after all? So I find that one recent book has won a prize:

Images of such award winners cannot even begin to convey the tactile experience of holding one of these books in your hands. But they will, hopefully, give you some sense (however paltry) of what has been lost in modern-day publishing.

This year's Judges' Choice Awards went to Circle Press for its printing of Full Circle Editions' (a new publishing house founded, in part, by Harry Potter's "discoverer-in-chief") The Burning of the Books (a poem sequence by George Szirtes based on 1981 Nobel Laureate' Elias Canetti's "book destruction nightmare" Auto da Fé, illustrated in gravure by Ron King)...

I know it's not the text that has won but the book as a production. Still. Maybe they'll tell me tomorrow, or next week. The production is beautiful and Ron King's images are wonderfully brooding, apocalyptic and full of their own allusions. Ron was the onlie begetter. Ron is a marvel. See above.


There is also this - the film of The Accordionist, originally made for TV. An alert listener / viewer will note that the spoken text does not match the text as seen. The seen text is the correct version.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Riling the Americans

Long after the article, eyes drifting over Polly Toynbee's piece for the Saturday Guardian, Here's a Hard Choice for Labour: leader or country (a version of Reasons to be Cheerful, No 2379) I catch this little cadence:

A new leader can change direction: Whiteley says Afghanistan is now a toxic lost cause with the public, and an exit strategy would be a winner. Leave aside whether it is right, if it riled the US that might be popular too.

My bold type. I wondered whether I had briefly gone mad. I know it's The Guardian, so I tried rewriting that as 'if it riled Barack Obama that might be popular too' and 'if it riled Hilary Clinton that might be popular too', but that clearly wasn't right.

For, in the first place, that indicates a total divorce between the President and the state of which he is President, and I didn't think we had given up on Obama (me and The Guardian) quite so soon.

And, in the second place, I wondered if it would help the Labour Party if, say, Alan Johnson went and punched Hilary Clinton right in the mouth. That would rile them pretty well. Oh, all right then, say he punched any American in the mouth. Or accidentally-on-purpose trod on an American's foot.? Or just swore at a bunch of them? Just about audibly? Or maybe we just rile them in a broad philosophical way by saying something cutting about, say, Mark Twain. That's bound to be a winner isn't it, just riling them? Or maybe we ought to go and rile George W Bush? But he's not there to be riled now. Still it could be a good habit to get into. Just riling them.

In fact, forget the other ways of winning an election. Just rile them. As, for example, when Guardian readers were urged to write to Americans in order to persuade them to vote the way they wanted them to vote. That kind of success, that kind of riling. The're all dumb fat slob rednecks anyway, aren't they? Fundamentalist, Bible-thumping, Jew-funded, war-mongering rednecks.

I think what gets me about The Guardian, and it gets me at about gut level, most often in the correspondence columns, but even more on the magazine correspondence page, is smugness.

The sheer death-defying classbound smugness of just being so deep down right, you know. So cool with being right. So cool deep down for being so deep down right. No counter currents in that consciousness. No doubts. Just that comfortable certainty that tells you you are morally the bee's best knees. Where the best thing you can possibly think of doing to demonstrate your rightness is to rile a category that belongs right where you know it belongs, where there is no doubt it belongs, where, essentially, the whole country knows it belongs, since we who are right constitute the country, the right country that is, the country that is worth listening to, the only one worth listening to.

So go win the election for Labour. Rile an American. Doesn't just thinking about it induce a nice warm glow?

Monday, 16 November 2009

Late back from London

...where I was doing the master of ceremonies bit of the Stephen Spender Poetry Translation Prize in Notre Dame University, near the National Gallery. The results have all been published. What does one say? It was a lovely occasion? Well, it was, but it's too late for a full description.

Another very full day tomorrow. And Wednesday, etc etc through to Saturday evening.

Then it all cools down a little. Or what is left of me does. Here's an André Kertész photograph. Now breathe evenly.

Sunday, 15 November 2009

Sunday Night is... Yma Sumac and more corruption

Yma Sumac singing Tumpa. The Inca Princess. My parents - particularly my mother - adored her. It was the five octave range, the glamour and the sheer scale. I think she might been on Sunday Night at The London Palladium once. Perhaps it was something like this.


The corruption I was thinking of on Friday wasn't big in scale, in fact it would not be called corruption, not most times, not in some places. The giving of gifts and the accepting of gifts. The courtesy versus the bribe. The way we offer gifts not for some concrete favour but because we hope to please. And in pleasing to receive the favour of no more than a smile. Or trust. So we give flowers, or chocolates, or treat someone to dinner. And then we're friends aren't we? And things follow from friendship? And where is the stern spoilsport Puritan who is against friendship? You will, I hope, speak up for us at the meeting? Put our point of view? We are friends, after all. How do I look in this? You look great. Thank you, you are a true friend.

It is customary to slip the guide a tip. You should slip the doctor 500 ft in an envelope at the hospital. Or at least offer him a chicken. Or rather don't offer it, just bring it. There you are, I thought I'd bring this for you doctor. You can get past the guard for £100. You'll never do a deal here unless you offer a gift - that is the local custom. They do it all the time. They are very honourable and won't sign a contract, saying if you can't trust their word they won't do business with you. Let me offer you a drink / a ring / a car / drugs / an envelope with cash in it / an even bigger deal

You can claim for heating and for phone calls if they are business. Just call it a percentage. I am sure we can come to an agreement on this. Well, let's not examine it too closely. Payment in cash? Look, we both know the score but something has to be hammered out. Shall we? Go on then. I work for them even when I'm at home, they can afford a paper clip / a stapler / a litter bin, /a set of old files / a table lamp / a coffee maker / a drill / just one pair of shoes. How many pairs of shoes have I / you worn out for them?...

Small corners, small deals that blow up under the microscope into luxuriant growths. Or, in other circumstances, circumstances without microscopes, small deals that blow up into such luxuriant growths they are the forest in front of you, and that's just the forest. See that forest? It has always been a forest. It's right there. You can practically smell it. Good hunting in there, they say. Bit empty of trees beyond that fence. Why would anyone live there, exposed to the weather. This is forest life. The world is like a forest. You learn to move in it and it's just fine. We are simply forest dwellers, it suits us. Those corpses? Such things happen in forests. And you know what? There really are forests. Can you deny that is a forest? That's all it is, nothing more. Forest world.

We are an adaptable species: we can live on plains, on islands, in cities, in fields, in forests, in gutters. None of this is surprising. There are of course the corpses, the corpses to balance with the friendships, the offering of chickens, the kind words, the tiny calculations of favour and the demands of favour. One slips into the other.

Is that a party of politicians there at the edge of the fields? Who is that moving through the forest? Whose mansion is that? Whose corpse is that?

Friday, 13 November 2009

Corruption corrupted

The furious devout drench is with us. Sky like smoke. Road like glass.

I listen to Gordon Brown on Afghanistan as I drive in to work. For the first time in a long time, apart from the first question where, to a three word question, 'Are we winning?' his answer bulldozes on for about three-hundred breathless words (how can he not see how counterproductive this is?) I think he is making his case well, or well enough. He argues that we are fighting the Taliban because of their ideological links and close collaboration with Al Qaeda who are currently holed up in the mountains of Pakistan under attack by the Pakistani army. He talks of extremists rather than Islamist extremists or jihadists but we broadly know what is meant. He talks of building up Afghan forces until they can take over the fighting and policing, and links it to reducing corruption. He mentions heroin, he mentions the village-based societies of the country, he talks of Karzai as having a desire (questionable to many, I imagine) to reduce corruption and he talks about pressurizing other members of the alliance to provide more troops.

Nothing unexceptionable here. However, he doesn't mention the threat to Pakistan's nuclear weaponry, which must be the main worry, almost too big a worry to be bringing to public attention; he seems surprised and slightly outraged - as he surely cannot be - that the Taliban are fighting a guerilla war rather than ranging armies in direct conflict; and he nowhere makes mention of the nature of Taliban rule as a possible reason for fighting them.

And that last point is the mootest. To supporters of the Iraq War it was about WMD, about establishing a secular democratic state in the region, and about liberating Iraq from the universally admitted horrors of Saddam Hussein. To opponents it was about a ruthless oil grab, though I have heard nothing about that recently, and about US triumphalism and imperialism. The question of the death count, and at whose hands, will continue unanswered except to those committed to one or other side.

Afghanistan was always primarily about Al Qaeda, about Bin Laden's safe haven. The rule of the Taliban was horrific but the argument against intervening - the argument against all interventions - was that it was none of our business, that the Afghan people would rise against the Taliban in their own time, and that mass beheadings, stonings, oppression of women, and so forth were a matter of cultural difference that we had to respect because we were no better in our own foul ways. That argument remains in place though it doesn't convince me.

Why not?

It is partly to do with the issue of corruption. When the recent election in Afghanistan was declared corrupt the cultural difference argument went out of the window. That was not what we expect of elections, we raged. When football stadiums were being used for mass public executions that was cultural difference.

I don't want to caricature this position too much because circumstances were different. In the case of the election we were supposedly in charge so were in position, supposedly, to enforce the cultural norms we expect. We were in charge because of the invasion. In the case of Taliban rule we had no influence and were certainly not in charge. So was it worth the war and the deaths and the being in charge in order to support a corrupt government with a corrupt election behind it?

Nevertheless, I still think the passion outweighs the facts. There are no mass executions, no terrorising of great swathes of the Afghan population, there are schools that girls can attend and there is progress on infrastructure. This is not nothing. It may mean we are imposing our cultural values on people from another culture but no one actually complains about such things, only that they haven't gone far enough or are not sufficiently secured. A corrupt election still remains a corrupt election - though it might be worth asking how many other places continue to have corrupt elections and at what degree of corruption, or have no meaningful elections at all - nevertheless there seems to be no doubt the Afghan election was corrupt. And we are in charge.

I want to think a little further about corruption - since it affects us all in different ways - in another post.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Devoutly drenching

Dire weather warnings since the morning. I am on trains again, London and back for the PBS Board and AGM. The train back packed to squeaking point, but no rain yet. Then, on the platform at Cambridge - where we arrive late - it begins, innocuously enough at first, and even fades a little on the second leg of the journey, so there is only a faint, barely-perceptible ghostly drip at Wymondham. But by the time I'm home from the station it is beginning to gather itself for a proper effort. Soon it snores and growls up, starts beating at the bathroom skylight and creeping in at the badly sealed hall skylight. It's still at it and is probably in for the night, possibly for two more days and nights. A furious devout drench, says Larkin. I suppose there is something devout about its earnestness, its sheer devotion to duty. Rain reporting, sir. Good chap. Go and polish those streets and when you've done see if you can get those gutters overflowing.

For some reason I start thinking of Frost's 'Home Burial' - the Jarrell and Brodsky essays - and want to reread it. This is how it begins:

HE saw her from the bottom of the stairs
Before she saw him. She was starting down,
Looking back over her shoulder at some fear.
She took a doubtful step and then undid it
To raise herself and look again. He spoke
Advancing toward her: "What is it you see
From up there always--for I want to know."
She turned and sank upon her skirts at that,
And her face changed from terrified to dull.
He said to gain time: "What is it you see,"
Mounting until she cowered under him.
"I will find out now--you must tell me, dear."
She, in her place, refused him any help
With the least stiffening of her neck and silence...

The question of verse as narrative has been in my mind this week, maybe that is why I think of this poem now, the sheer narrative that is, not meditation or development of idea, but story. What - apart from poetic 'effects' such as onomatopoeia, alliteration etc - makes it different from a story in prose. What is it about verse that changes story?

Another time... Late now. One tired week with one more to come. Then a spell of silence.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Two poems: G István László and Anna T Szabó

Two poets appearing in the Hungarian bilingual Arc anthology New Order, due out in January.

The Cat

Cats without mice are pointless, no use
to anyone, they guard kings on their deathbeds,
their gaze the farside of the significant moment
willing to help the fresh-from-the egg
bird-shaped mess on the car or the bins
to its death, to spread an infection that is not
a disease but scratches away under the skin
of conscience, to keep sharpening their nails
while feeling an aversion to time, disgusted
that what confronts them, here, in the misted mirror
does not fill it and cannot address them –
because there is no trace of night in those eyes,
which are light without shadow bare as
plain canvas. The true aristocrats are those
who fossick among rotten grapes and tin cans
to discover someone’s jar of cockles
while their whiskers never get dirty
who eat with indifference even when hungry
the way time gazes through trees.

G István László

ISTVÁN LÁSZLÓ GÉHER (pen name: G. István László),
was born in 1972 and is a poet and translator, work-
ing as an Associate Professor of English at the De-
partment of Comparative Literature at the Károli G.
University, Budapest. He holds degrees in Hungar-
ian and English Literature from L. Eötvös Univer-
sity in Budapest. He was a member of the Cambridge
Writer’s Conference, 1999, the International Writ-
ing Programme in Iowa, 2007 and the International
Writers Workshop in Hong Kong, 2008. In 2008 he
gained a three months‘ scholarship in Schloss Soli-
tude, Stuttgart, as a Fellow Writer. His selected po-
ems are to be published in a German-Hungarian bi-
lingual edition in autumn 2009. He has written six
books of poetry, most recently Homokfúga (Fugue of
Sand, 2008).

His translations of Plath, Dickinson, Shake-
speare, Hughes and Yeats have appeared widely in
journals and anthologies. His awards include a fel-
lowship to the International Writers’ House in
Rhodes, The Móricz Grant, an NKA Literary Grant,
The Babits Grant for Translation, the Radnóti and
the Zelk awards for Poetry.

Part 1 from This Day
‘Wherever I lie is your bed’

Imagine this. It was early afternoon
and I was out looking for a new apartment
wondering as I went, what next to do,
while staring vacantly at January stores,
their worn-out goods, their seasonal display
and thought of many things along the way –

suddenly everything vanished:
the tram clattered between the houses, over
the bridge, and instead of broad
vistas of river and road
dense fog hung over invisible water –
I stood astonished.

Fog everywhere: anxiety was a tight
cold sleepless night;
that’s my life I thought and felt it glide
swiftly away but I wasn’t part of the ride;
my life went on without me inside.
I felt it all but saw nothing anywhere
of the rails I was speeding on
safe across the bridge, on water, ground or air,
in the clouds or a plane high above land
with all assurance of reality gone
but for the cold metal barrier in my hand.

Nothing new then for two long minutes, no less.
And anything might happen now I guess.

Anna T. Szabó

ANNA T SZABÓ, poet, writer and translator was born
in Transylvania (Romania) in 1972 and moved to
Hungary in 1987. She studied English and Hun-
garian literature at the University of Budapest and
received her PhD in English Renaissance literature
in 2007. She was 23 when her first volume of poetry
appeared, and received the Petőfi Prize (1996),
founded for promising young poets. She has since
published four more volumes of poetry and has re-
ceived several literary prizes.

She has translated many poems and lyrics, es-
says, novels, drama, radio plays and librettos, and
writes essays, newspaper articles and reviews. She
also worked for the British Council as a co-leader of
a translators’ workshop in Budapest (2000-2004), as
the co-editor of the homepage of the Hungarian Book
Foundation and as a film critic and translator for
the journal Cinema (1997-2007). She is currently the
poetry editor of the literary journal The Hungarian
Quarterly which publishes Hungarian literature and
essays in English.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

It rains in Manchester

Not proper rain, not really, just a kind of mizzly puttering kind of rain, as if it longed to drench you and wash you away, but didn't quite have the energy to do so. The train journey is long and slow, just two carriages creeping up the map of England, past the flatlands of Ely and Peterborough, gentling into Grantham and Nottingham, then entering upon a few hills until the landscape either side does begin to drop away between Sheffield and Manchester.

From the station by taxi straight to the centre where the reading is to take place. Greeted by Simon R , my contact, then by John McAuliffe who appears with my fellow reader Vona Groarke, just flown in from Dublin where she has been carousing with her kinfolk. We sit and talk for a while then the reading.

Vona's is in two halves, the first crystalline, clear, minute and superbly shaped monastic notations, quiet objects of beauty, the second a magnificent translation from the Irish of, Lament for Art O'Leary, in which a woman and her sister lament the murder of the woman's husband. No man has been more admired and missed and well-regarded as Art O'Leary. He seems a vast commanding figure, cruelly done down. The women pass the keening between them. It makes me think of the function of keening. Patrick Leigh Fermor talks of professional mourners and keeners in Greece, as was common in many places: it is a gathering together of grief and praise on terms of eloquence. Is it the symbolic size of the figure I am pondering, and what the figure stands for? The sheer weight of the lament carries you with it. Each death is worth this. Each death is incomprehensible and comprehended. No death is worth all this. But then what else is life worth? I buy a copy.

My own selection is a fairly rolling selection. Who knows how it goes down? Can never really tell. Je sui comme je suis / je sui fait comme ca. Well no, pas moi, that is Jacques Prevert. Il est fait comma ca. And none of us is quite as free of responsibility as that.

Then dinner. Martin Amis joins us, and blogger friend Peter who now lives in Manchester. I eat pig's trotters. A mistake of the non life-threatening kind. Talk ranges from Metaphysical Poetry, the toothbrush moustache, and 1989, down to Rugby League and Arsenal.

The next morning I lead a class on Hecht's 'The Grapes'. I have talked this poem through a number of times, each time it's different. Yes, the theatricality, and yes, the air - or so it seems to some - of pomposity. More on that another time.

The very nice taxi driver who takes me there is Pakistani but is unsure which is the Whitworth Building. I ask him how things are in Pakistan. Very bad, he says. That's why we leave. Corruption at deep level, everywhere. Politicians just after money. I ask him what he makes of British politicians and their corruption. He laughs. It is, he says, 100,000 times worse in Pakistan. What we are doing now shows there is no corruption here.

What's that? I ask.

I am hurrying to take you to your meeting. That is straight dealing. At home they wouldn't bother.

The paragon of uncorrupted virtue steps from the taxi, finds his own way to the Whitworth Building and defends a New York poetic grandee. Incorruptibility is hard work.

On the train home a young girl with her mother and younger sister. The girl is loud and wants to occupy mother's emotional space. In fact the space of everyone in the carriage. She wants to be noticed. I think she might be a nightmare in school. Then, as we are approaching Brandon, she says: I like Brandon. The sound of the name. An incipient poetic instinct briefly rises to the surface.

Then she goes back to singing, I'm just a teenage dirtbag, baby... with some gusto. Mother remains quiet.

Monday, 9 November 2009


The ceremony beginning the reburial of Imre Nagy, 16 June 1989. As I remember I was standing just off the bottom right hand corner of the picture.

By the time the Berlin wall came down we were back in England, but from January through to September we were in Hungary - in a rather privileged position. I was British Council Scholar, originally for five months but then an extended period. We were living most of that time in the vacant flat of the sociologist and writer Miklós Haraszti who was then in the USA, as, what he called, "Dissident in Residence' at Bard College.

There is far more to say about him, the flat, the district, and when I get around to writing a proper book about life, the universe and everything - let's call it a memoir, for argument's sake - about this year and this place. Enough to say it was in central Pest, the University district, a very short walk from the Danube, as also to Vörösmarty tér, the central square where the publisher and friend for whom I was translating various things was located.

During the year we got to meet a number of the dissident leaders and became friends with the president-to-be of Hungary, the admirable Árpád Göncz, not that we had any idea he would be president then.

Day by day, week by week, the big wheels and small wheels were falling off the state to the extent that there was considerable apprehension that the whole shebang - party, state, country, people - would come to grief. Hungary was far ahead of the rest in this respect. I remember the TV interview with the Czech non-person Alexander Dubcek that could be received in Slovakia which was the subject of diplomatic protests. I remember vigils for Vaclav Havel and the great core events such as the gathering and march on 15 March and the reburial of Imre Nagy , the executed prime minister of the revolutionary government in 1956 on 16 June. I was at both these events.

There was the first mention of 1956 not as a counter-revolution but as a revolution. There was the cutting of the wire fence on the Austrian border. There was the visit of George Bush Snr, as of Michael Jackson. There was the tragic transmission from Tienanmen Square on 4 June. There were the tensions with Ceausescu's Romania. There was the constant heady edginess.

And Poland. And the keys in Prague. The wall and Christmas Eve outside the Romanian Embassy.

It seems no time, and it seems an age. I have every day's newspapers up in the attic. I have the little paper flag with the hole cut out of the centre. Possibly even the tricolour cockade.

At this distance does it seem a good thing? Were too many babies thrown out with the big bathwater?

I am absolutely certain it was a good thing. I am absolutely certain that getting misty-eyed about Stalin or about any of the central aspects of Eastern Bloc communism is being dishonest or soft in the head. There were babies in the bathwater, of course. No-one moves from evil to good in one simple step. It wasn't all evil and it certainly is not all good. But 1989 was not the exchange of a spiritual state of purity for a corrupt material state, as some would have it. The kind of social coherence created by suppression is not worth having.

Suppression is not to be welcomed. Oppression is not to be welcomed. In some ways, I preferred visiting Budapest in the eighties to visiting it now. But history is longer than twenty years. I was twenty years younger then. The world seemed a little simpler. The word 'freedom' had a solid four-square look to it. Now we tend to think some of it is smoke, and some of it is mirrors. We forget the solid part.

There was a very good BBC4 documentary on the end of the wall on Friday. I never mean to watch TV but this gripped me. It seemed fair minded to all sides but fully understood why it was good to see the wall collapse. What kind of state is it, after all, that has to wall its citizens? There remains something solid about the word 'freedom'. In some ways it is more solid than ever.

The word 'freedom' is, I think, more applicable to post-1989 than pre-1989. Complexity, after all, is one of the great freedoms, possibly the greatest.

Sunday, 8 November 2009

Sunday Night is... Buffy Sainte Marie

Little Wheel Spin and Spin, Big Wheel Turn Around and Around

I adored this voice when I first heard her version of the magnificent Lyke Wake Dirge. But she's not doing it on YouTube so this is the next best thing. It sends shivers up my spine.


Back from London. Father in hospital, thin, unshaven, wild looking, and talking a blue streak for almost an hour. One doctor reckons they poisoned him with the wrong medicine, he says. He can't stop talking. He is reckoning up what has happened, how he has got here, what all this is about. Naturally. 'Keep the beard,' I say as we leave. Can't imagine him doing so.


Then the Hungarian Cultural Centre for the pre-launch of the Hungarian anthology I have just edited for Arc. Comes out properly in January. Two of our poets are here though, Anna T Szabó and István László, together with translators George Gömöri, Peter Zollman and Ágnes Lehoczky. Place quite crowded out. Some poems by Szabó and László next. But late now.

Saturday, 7 November 2009

In passing

I rarely lift an entire post but I want to make an exception.

Islamists in southern Somalia have stoned a man to death for adultery but spared his pregnant girlfriend until she gives birth.

Abas Hussein Abdirahman, 33, was killed in front of a crowd of some 300 people in the port town of Merka.

An official from the al-Shabab group said the woman would be killed after she has had her baby....

This is the third time Islamists have stoned a person to death for adultery in the past year.

Al-Shabab official Sheikh Suldan Aala Mohamed said Mr Abdirahman had confessed to adultery before an Islamic court.

"He was screaming and blood was pouring from his head during the stoning. After seven minutes he stopped moving," an eyewitness told the BBC.

The BBC's Mohammed Olad Hassan in Mogadishu says that if the woman is also killed, her baby would be given to relatives to look after.

When men are stoned to death, they're generally buried up to the waist. For women, it's up to the neck: wouldn't want the breasts to be revealed.


In October, 2008, a girl, Aisho Ibrahim Dhuhulow was buried up to her neck at a football stadium, then stoned to death in front of more than 1,000 people. The stoning occurred after she had allegedly pleaded guilty to adultery in a shari`ah court in Kismayo, a city controlled by Islamist insurgents. According to the insurgents she had stated that she wanted shari`ah law to apply.

However, other sources state that the victim had been crying, that she begged for mercy and had to be forced into the hole before being buried up to her neck in the ground. Amnesty International later learned that the girl was in fact 13 years old and had been arrested by al-Shabab militia after she had reported being gang-raped by three men.

By way of . Indeed, entirely from.


And a fascinating piece from Nigel Parke's blog, Hanged man perspectives on The Who.

Canzone: Animal

GEORGE STUBBS (1724-1806): A Comparative Anatomical Exposition of the Human Body with that of a Tiger and a Common Fowl: Human Skeleton, Lateral View, in Crawling Posture, 1795-1806.

There is a new poem up in the front, titled Canzone: Animal.

As I said in the last post I shift between work, thinking and, curiously, not thinking. As far as poetry goes I am still in the Canzone room, working out its spaces and angles, trying to figure what it demands of me, what odd corner of emotion I will come across. I am pretty well convinved that thought and emotion are broad categories. One feels intensely but in so complex a way that to name any of the emotions or thoughts seems almost a profanity. It is one of the reasons I hate the emotional telegraphese of news bulletins, all that shrink-wrapped, opaque pabulum, the wheeling out of one tragic cliché after another. It is, if anything, the instinctive shudder at such opportunistic, and essentially lying, shorthand that made me a poet in the first place.

But writing is a slightly horrifying occupation. Part of me says I ought to be an emotional wreck, incapable of thinking, let alone working at these obsessive intricate demanding patterns, objectifying whatever it is I ought to feel. And why even write these words? You, goes the accusation, are turning your father and his sickness into an aesthetic object. You should not be writing but feeling, the accuser continues. There is, surely, something missing in you.

The simple answer is that I am a writer: that is what I am and do. But simple answers are not really answers, the accuser retorts. They are merely road blocks on the way to some city of truth that we cannot know.

So my next road block is to claim that I don't know what I feel until it passes through the filter of language. But why should it have to do so? demands the accuser. Isn't the poem a superfluous gesture, a refusal?

I go on to claim that gestures are what we have, for how are we to know the body and its depths without gestures? But these poems bear a signature, your signature, they are about you, a you that has subsumed the objective, out-there, real and equal, in fact greater realm of experience that is properly your father's, the accuser insists.

Listen, I reply. After my mother died in 1975, a good ten years later, I wrote my longest poem, 'Metro' which is entirely posited on her and her experience as I received it, and when I showed it, eventually, to my father - my father not being a literary man - he said that it was like 'walking about inside her'. He did not intend that as criticism, he simply recognised her in some sense. Isn't that a good thing? Isn't that what art is?

Talking of art, replies the accuser, didn't you also write in a poem called 'Hand Colouring' about how unlifelike, how unreal, how almost mortuary, it felt to be looking at photographs of yourself taken by your mother and hand coloured by her. 'Almost like embalment', you wrote then. And aren't you doing the same, and him alive? Embalming him alive?

Now we are at the borders of religion. 'Stranger, beware the false beguiling arts' says the Puritan motto in Stranger's Hall, Norwich, and didn't someone once say to me, that all this poetry was vanity? Yes, vanity of vanities, all is vanity, saith the preacher.

I come to my last visible answer, which is much like Russell Hoban's 'last visible dog' in his marvellous The Mouse and His Child. The answer goes like this and it is in the form of a question:

Who can tell how much vanity, how much deficit of feeling, how much embalment, how much gesture, how much preoccupation, how much self-delusion, how much aesthetic nit-picking, how much temptation to assume control of everything is involved in being who we are? Who knows where an instinct is bred, or indeed a sense of voice, balance, manners..

...and the question remains unfinished because I am now beyond the last visible dog, though I do not think it impossible that there might be another dog, and maybe another behind that one and that beyond all these dogs along the way, beyond my own road blocks, there is something we can yearn for and hope for, and could it not be that the thing one writes is a kind of offering to it?

But the dog's not there. That's what makes it an invisible dog.


So, now on the front is a new canzone titled Animal. It has been through six or seven major redraftings, the most abiding problem being the question of the pronouns: the I, the you, the we of it. It started with I and has finally returned to I. The I that writes this is perfectly aware of the difficulties involved. On the other hand that I is an optimist who thinks art can and should address life as best it can, not be an alternative closed monastic system (and believe me, I respect the integrity of monks.) In other words, 'I' means something in a poem. It means that something is at stake.

The word animal is so close to the word anima, meaning soul, that the one rings through the other for me. It is derived from the concepts of soul, mind and breath. All of these then.

Friday, 6 November 2009

The levels

My father is back in hospital after difficulties breathing. Hospital is about 120 miles from here and our car isn't working because the starter motor seems to have packed up but we can always hire a car tomorrow if it comes to that. I did speak to him on the phone while he was still in A & E a couple of hours ago and he sounded quite good, but this is the third dash to hospital in a month.

There is little sense of reality to any of this at one level - the mundane or daily level - and yet it is a reality we are, I think, familiar with at the level of the imagination. It is hard wired into us but so deep we are hardly aware of it except as a faint haunting sensation. Michael Hofmann once wrote a poem in which he said, 'We are fascinated by our own anaesthesia'. Well of course we are, just as we are fascinated by our own adrenalin. It is our fate to be fascinated by our own being, and by being I mean everything: our bodies, our moods, our consciousness, our presence among others. The out-of-body experience is perfectly normal in one sense.

In other words, this critical condition of my father is a strange, almost unwelcome, poetic experience. How terrible it should be so, I myself half think. I am peculiarly alive in one way and almost in a state of somnambulism in another. Meaning? I don't know what any of this means. I don't even understand the concept of meaning. All I know is that words keep putting themselves into a series of obsessive orders, the kind of order I am very familiar with when I write. Breath seeps into language. So I do write, in concentrated flickers. Or translate. And then I snap out of it and consider practicalities. But the practicalities are imponderable. There are hours and then more hours. Maybe weeks. Maybe months. Perhaps even a year. Or two years. Maybe just minutes.

It was the same when C was seriously ill thirty one years ago, Anxiety? Yes. Hope, yes indeed. Desperate hope. But also this odd alien medium, life, that overwhelms, is staggering and miraculous, and through which we move trailing clouds of anaesthesia much as Wordsworth's child trailed clouds of glory.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

The poetry of Dennis Bergkamp / poetry and winning

All day with poetry mentee, Nick, up from London. These are long intense sessions and quite tiring by the end for both. We talk about detail but also about ideas, about distinctions between performance and private reading, about range, about poetics and grace. Nick is an Arsenal supporter. He was asked recently what he would be if he weren't a poet? A poet was what he wanted to be, he insisted.

But let's put it another way, I say. If you were forbidden to be a poet but had to choose between being Cesc Fabregas, Thierry Henri, Emanuel Adebayor or Martin Keown which would you be? And this makes sense because there are certain qualities associated with these individuals that can be identified with aesthetic values.

Could we throw in Dennis Bergkamp? he asks.

Certainly, I say. So he could aspire to be the Dennis Bergkamp of poetry.

We could just as easily play the party game where we try to guess which person someone is thinking of by asking questions like: If X were a car which car would X be? Or a city? Or a tree? Or anything. There are qualities in all things we quickly learn to associate with whatever we desire, need, or aspire to.

Good friend Ed, the philosopher, was writing a paper on beauty and goalkeepers. He was talking about beauty in the moment of the great save. I doubted - partly out of mischief - whether one could build a case about beauty entirely predicated on given moments of a competitive sport where the main idea was not to perform acts of beauty but to win. Isn't winning the point of the game?

No, he replied, not necessarily. I go to Arsenal to see beauty, he said.

The question is not so much whether I believe him, though I am tempted to, but whether he would say the same of a QPR match. Ed has been a QPR supporter for many years. I wouldn't, I say to myself, accept the answer that QPR should win by playing beautifully. He would have to maintain that it wouldn't matter if they lost - and kept losing - providing they played beautifully.

But then I am hoping he would stick to his guns and say it didn't matter. In fact I am hoping I myself would say it. Of whatever I cared deeply about.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Márai on smiling

Judit thinks about her husband and his smile

Pass me that photo, let me have another look at him. Yes, that’s what he was like fifteen years ago.

Have I said I wore this picture round my neck a long time? In a small locket, on a lilac ribbon? Do you know why?... Because I had paid for it. I was just a servant then and bought it out of my wages: that was why I looked after it. My husband never knew what a great thing it was when someone like me paid money for something for which there is no pressing need, I mean real money, like the change from my wages or a tip. Later I spent his money as if there were no tomorrow, threw thousands around the way I sent dust flying with my feather duster on mornings when I was still a servant. That was not money to me. But when I bought this photograph my heart was beating fast because I was poor and felt it a sin to spend money on things that were not absolutely essential. That photograph was a sin for me then, mere vanity… I bought it all the same, sneaking a visit to the famous, highly fashionable photographer in the city center, ready to paying the full price without bargaining. The photographer laughed and sold it to me cut price. This was the only sacrifice I ever made for that man.

He was reasonably tall, a couple of inches taller than me. His weight was steady. He controlled his body the way he controlled his words and manners. He put on a few pounds in winter, but he lost them again in May and remained at that weight till Christmas. Don’t think for a moment that he dieted. Forget diets. It was just that he treated his body the way he might one of his employees. It was required to work for him.

He treated his eyes and his mouth the same way. His eyes and mouth laughed separately, as and when they were required. They never laughed at the same time… Not the way you did, my precious, so freely, so sweetly, with both eyes and mouth smiling, especially when you truly excelled yourself and sold that ring and came home to me with the good news.

That was something he could never do. I lived with him, I was his wife and, before that, his servant. Needless to say I felt much closer to him as a servant than when I was merely his wife. Even so, I never saw him give a full-hearted laugh the way you do.

He was far more likely to smile. When I met that hunk of a Greek in London, the man who taught me a great many things… don’t go bothering me with what he taught me, I couldn’t tell you everything, we’d be here till dawn… well, the Greek warned me never to laugh in company when in England because that is considered vulgar. I should just smile and keep smiling. I tell you this because I want you to know everything you might find useful sometime.

My husband could smile like nobody’s business. I was so jealous of it sometimes I felt quite sick just thinking about his smile. It was as if he had learned a high art at some mysterious university where the rich go to get their education and smiling is a compulsory subject. He even smiled when he was being cheated. I tried it on with him sometimes. I cheated him and watched… I cheated him in bed and watched to see what he’d do. There were moments when that was dangerous. You never know how someone will react when they're cheated in bed.

The danger was a deathly thrill to me. I wouldn’t have been surprised if one day he grabbed a knife from the kitchen and stabbed me in the stomach - like a pig at slaughter time. It was only a dream of course: wish-fulfillment. I learned the term from a doctor I consulted for a while because I wanted to be fashionable like the others, because I was rich and could indulge myself with a few psychological problems. The doctor got 50 pengő for an hour’s work. This fee entitled me to lie on a sofa in his surgery and to regale him with my dreams as well as all the rude talk I could muster. There are people who pay to have a woman lie on a sofa and talk filth. But it was I who did the paying, learning terms like repression and wish-fulfillment. I certainly learned a great deal. It wasn’t easy living with the gentry.

But smiling was something I never learned. It seems you need something else for that. Maybe you have to have a history of ancestors smiling before you. I hated it as much as I did the fuss about the nightshirt… I hated their smiles. I cheated my husband in bed by pretending to enjoy it when I didn’t really. I'm sure he knew it, but did he draw a knife and stab me? No, he smiled. He sat in the huge French bed, his hair tousled, his muscles well toned, a man in top condition, smelling faintly of hay. He fixed me with a glassy look and smiled. I wanted to cry at such moments. I was helpless with grief and fury. I am sure that later - when he saw his bombed-out house, or still later when they kicked him out of the factory and expropriated him - he was smiling the same smile in exactly the same way.

It is one of the foulest of human sins, that serene, superior smile. It is the true crime of the rich. It is the one thing that can never be forgiven… Because I can understand people beating or killing each other when they have been hurt. But if they merely smile and say nothing I have no idea what to do with them. Sometimes I felt no punishment was enough for it. There was nothing I, a woman who had clambered out of the ditch to find myself in his life, could do against him. The world could not harm him whatever it did to him, to his wealth, his lands, or to anything that mattered to him…. It was the smile that had to be wiped out. Don’t those famous revolutionaries know this?...

Etta's Week 3: Some poem links and true empowerment

Security... the appearance of too much of which is bad for you...


New GS on web:

In today's Poetry Daily, the 'Palladio' poem;

Poetry Daily also carries this article about the New and Collected by John Taylor, originally in the new Antioch Review;

As also at Poetry Daily a substantial biog note, though much of that is scattered here and there on this site anyway.

Elsewhere, at Poetry magazine of the Poetry Foundation, this prose piece about walking...


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Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Etta's Week 2: Verbing rain

I just want make sure you're well fed / I just wanna make love to you.


First serious daytime rain for a while. On Facebook I started with a pittance of rain. Someone in a heavier shower came out with a nice largesse. The rain having grown heavier here but not yet a downpour I returned with sniggering .

There is something comforting about transferring context. We may well have blustering rain, a drivel of rain, a blather of rain, sharp gusts of rain that is rain on tenterhooks. Rain barrages. Dints of rain, blurts of rain. Alternatively, we could have rain on points, rain that pirouettes in a whirlwind, rain that chirrups like sparrows, rain that shuffles, a boiling of rain, indeed a thorough bollocking of rain.

You name it, we have it.