Thursday, 31 December 2009

In praise of Melvyn Bragg...

...and the best of radio, which includes Laurie Taylor's Thinking Allowed, Michael Rosen's Word of Mouth, as well as the reports on From Our Own Correspondent, James Naughtie's Book Club, and Matthew Parris's Great Lives, just to mention Radio 4 and not Radio 5 which I also listen to (Matthew Bannister, Last Word, Simon Mayo and Mark Kermode's film reviews...)

The Radio 4 list above ranges from the excellent to the solid, nothing worse. Half the time I don't know when anything is on and just happen to switch on and stay switched on, especially in the sleepless parts of night.

I do however know when In Our Time is on. For the average BBC programmer it must have seemed an improbable proposition. Choose an abstruse subject and let three academics rabbit on about it, firmly under the control of Melvyn, who will hurry them on. Give it a prime slot. G'wan!

I look at the list on that link, from Mary Wollstonecraft today, through The Samurai, Pythagoras, The Silk Road, stretching back right down that road, and marvel at it. The academics assembled are generally articulate and clear, and, if not clear enough, Bragg asks them - sometimes a little testily - to clarify or does the clarifying himself. Today on Wollstonecraft was outstanding: the core ideas, the context, the development, the significance all presented, not so much as education but as conversation. Conversation of a sort. The programme doesn't consist of arguments around an idea, it is concerned with the display of a body of available knowledge. There isn't an argument about the rights or wrongs of Wollstonecraft's ideas, for example. It is a way of laying those ideas out and giving them some kind of context.


The Reithian mission was to educate, inform and entertain.

Education always sounds like hard slog, and, besides, we live in an age that distrusts educators because the term implies asymmetry. One person (the educator / adult) is assumed superior to the other (the ignorant / child). Personally, I don't mind the hierarchy of being student to a teacher, providing I trust the teacher. I firmly believe a good teacher will leave me intact as an independent and equal being, one moreover whose independence is all the firmer and richer for what he has learned, which will not be just facts but ways of knowing. Nevertheless, the terms teacher and taught will still sound undemocratic. And possibly dull. Like schooldays in adolescence. So quiz shows are devised as an alternative form of residual education in facts. Some laughter, some competition helps the medicine go down. But they avoid the word 'education'. The only people who bandy the word about with confidence are those who are convinced they have a firm message to convey, often of a social or moral kind. We don't really like them, or at least I don't. "The public need to be educated about X". Mostly I assume them to be liars or simply stupid.

I am happy to let go of the idea of entertainment generally. 'Entertainment' tries so hard to be entertaining I immediately start feeling sorry for it, or annoyed by it. On the one hand it is like a child who fancies itself to be the perpetual centre of attention. On the other it is a parent always watching my behaviour. It knows what I think before I myself do. Or so it assumes. It puts on funny voices and waits for laughs that it itself provides. It constantly miscalculates what I might find funny. There is a great deal that calls itself entertainment on radio but very little that is. So let it go. I don't protest: I simply turn off.

Information is fine, or should be. We are sceptics in everything now of course, and it is in fact wise to be sceptical, especially about information, but it is very hard to do without it. I want it. I want it cross-checked but I still want it, whatever the field, however pressing or remote the need. I want to know more about the world as and when I can. Information enlarges.


Melvyn Bragg's great gift is that he can hold these three strands together in the right proportion and feed them through his practiced hands. His researchers deserve medals and encomia, no doubt, but he still has to distill and form what they feed him, as he works together with his producer, who needs to be at least as firm and intelligent as he is. Encomia for her too.

I once shared a taxi with Bragg and John Ashbery and Les Murray. I think it was at a Cheltenham Literary Festival many years ago. I think it was the same occasion though one (Bragg) might have been Cheltenham and the other (Ashbery and Murray), the South Bank. I was the lightweight in any case, in fact in both cases. Lord Melvyn was not yet a lord and though he didn't look quite as young as in the photo above, he did not seem as august and patrician as in most recent photos.

Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Some recent reading or about-to-be-reading

One of the problems with teaching writing, translating writing, and writing writing is that one doesn't get to do much reading (apart, that is, from reading the writing that one is teaching, translating or writing).

My Christmas books therefore have been / are. Early proof version of Trezza Azzopardi's latest novel, The Song House; advance copy of Rose Tremain's latest to be, Trespass; Miklós Vajda's Anyakép, amerikai keretben (Hungarian text, translates as My Mother's Picture in an American Frame); Vera Forster's A Daughter of Her Century; Julian Rubinstein's Ballad of the Whiskey Robber; Arthur Phillips's Prague; Amos Oz's Rhyming Life and Death; Tim Dee's The Running Sky; William Oxley's Working Backwards and Michael Walzer's Thinking Politically.

I have read some of these or some of some of these and all of others. There is also the latest Hungarian Quarterly which is excellent on 1989 and on the dreadful situation of Roma in Hungary. Plus diving in and out of books of poetry by Linda Saunders, Caroline Carver, and the marvellous Marilyn Hacker's translations of Marie Étienne's King of a Hundred Horsemen.

If I could write about them all, I would, but time is always short and I am behind with projects. I receive on average four books a week through the post throughout the year. That is not including books by friends as and when they appear. For my choice of poetry books of the year (and others' choices) see today's The Morning Star...

I keep wanting to go back to older poetry - to the eighteenth century for which I have deeply sneaking fondness (all those discursive heroic couplets on every subject under the sun), to Chaucer and Langland...

Robert Hanks does a post around my Akhmatova Variations, along with a discussion of the word 'wimbly'; and Rob Mackenzie, to my delight, picks Burning... for one of his poetry books of the year

Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Kitchen Domain


I have long meant to come back to this subject because important things remained unsaid. The earlier postings were here, here, here, here and here, in that order, with an extra one here. What is missing is the time in England, but that's for another time. Here I want to look at the end.

Why now? Because I have just been doing the washing up after dinner. I generally do it because C, the kitchen goddess, does the cooking. I did it for myself for three months in Dublin and it was OK if limited. She does wash up sometimes though, especially when I am not around.

Let me get technical here. When I wash up I put the various parts of cutlery into discrete parts of the plastic rack: the spoons in one, the forks in another etc, the principle being that when drying I pick up all the spoons in one go, then all the forks. It is not a matter of major importance but it seems logical and, in every sense, fitting. C, in her office as goddess, generally flings them in wherever she fancies, as is her perfect right.

There is nothing at stake. She has never said to me: why not do it like this? or why do you do it like that? Nor do I ask her why she does it like she does and why she doesn't do it as I do. Who cares how it is done? But in any case, my principle is: never quarrel with a goddess when in her domain. Recall the case of Diana and Actaeon.

As a matter of fact I have never quarreled with women. It's not in my nature to do so, and my nature is, naturally, greatly formed by my mother and her domain. I don't mean I do as instructed, I mean I do as I do, while remaining as courteous, charming and obliging as I hope I can be. It's not an act: it's how I am. I never question how they go about things, or even think of ordering them about. We both have worlds to bear on our shoulders. The world is as it is and our shoulders are as they are.


My mother's last domain was the kitchen. The condition of her heart began to deteriorate and going to work was out of the question, as was house cleaning. She was on her own. My father was at work, sometimes travelling from building site to building site in various parts of the country; my brother was at school and when he came home was expected to practice at least four hours on the violin because the violin was to be his lifeline, as indeed it became; I came home from school and sat down to homework. I was also expected to practice the piano, which I did, though I was of very average talent and musicality. There wasn't much TV.

They were quite difficult years, filled with talk of euthanasia and depressions. After a while the council arranged for cleaners to come in. Or maybe they just helped with cost - I can't remember. This was the point at which resting actors and waiting-to-be singers called in to hoover and dust, one of them being Mr David Bowie-to-be. That is about 1965 or so. I am sixteen or so.

My mother was as she was - a furiously intent creature in a state of intermittent pain and exhaustion - who had always lived partly through her family. That was a legacy of her own circumstances and history. The house we were living in was the house she was determined to have, and it was the kitchen, the kitchen in the picture above, that truly mattered. As ever, she got her way. It was, after all, she who was going to be at home, her life that was going to be at the heart of the house, the kitchen being the heart.

Through the window she could see the back garden. We set up a small greenhouse and there she tended plants. This was a middling suburb of London. Lower management. It was relatively quiet and out of the way on a small Edwardian-period estate where the roads were named after poets: Shelley, Byron, Coleridge, Wordsworth and Southey. We were Shelley.

The kitchen having become her domain she both did and didn't want us there. We would be called upon to help then summarily dismissed because we weren't doing things quite right. Oh, get out of my way! You're more hindrance than help! My brother and I didn't know quite what to do. We wouldn't be let anywhere near the cooking even if we had asked. Domain meant authority. Domain gave her pride and justification. I may be a sickly woman, she might have thought, but here I am indispensible. Here things are under my control. Here my fury is my own.

The kitchen was where we generally ate, at the table where she is sitting in the photograph, unless there were visitors when we used the through-lounge. There is something about the whole house now that makes me shudder. The kitchen seems to me one of the possible models for a room in hell. I didn't like it then and looking at it now is troubling. If kitchen is self, this was an alien self to her. In the end, after I had gone, it became intolerable to her too. Whatever is intolerable is there in her face, in her very posture.


That is the trouble with domains. They come to dominate and then consume. I have to remember how she loved that kitchen and how important to her it was that we should have it, even at the cost of being gazumped at the last stage of purchase.

I look at my domain now, which is essentially this desk, this room, this keyboard. I see the mass of papers on trays, the books not quite in order on the shelves. It looks unfinished but that is how I prefer it most of the time. I have another domain in language, in poetry. C has her studio and her office. She has her visual domain. The rest of the house is common ground. I know the danger of kitchens as domains and am glad our daughter is not forced into it, willy-nilly, because there is no other option. I also know the world is not a creature of our convenience, that it is as it is at any given moment, though it is open to change between such moments. Our shoulders are as they are, but we can always do a bit more . So we think and hope.

I think that kitchen explains something of me too. I think it is part of the poetry, pat of the demon that keeps things burning.

Monday, 28 December 2009

Monday Night is... Shoes and Evil

Losing track of the days of the week, so here, instead of Sunday...

It all begins with shoes, then moves to faces. The beginning of Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train (1951). Robert Walker, nauseating yet plausible, plays one of the great evil roles opposite Farley Granger playing the clean cut tennis star. In terms of evil Walker's is a wonderful performance, rivalling Robert Mitchum in either in Night of the Hunter (1955) or Cape Fear (1962). But maybe Walker's Bruno Anthony is the best because he draws evil out of others.

Films the last three days. But the question of evil in the movies - I don't mean horror film evil, I mean proper nauseating, plausible evil - is an interesting question. Now who have I missed out?

Raymond Chandler, one of the two scriptwriters, for a start. And Patricia Highsmith, of course, who wrote the book. Thanks to Mark (in Comments). And I keep thinking that Walker looks like so much like a cross between Robert Vaughn and Bill Murray, that they might have been Walker split into two. Which then raises a further question about the typology of the iconic Hollywood face, male or female. One could move as on a spectrum from Cary Grant, Rock Hudson, Dean Martin through the Walker Three, or Monroe, Mansfield, Dors...etc. But that is not my agenda for Tuesday.

Sunday, 27 December 2009

The Damned United...

I have already written about David Peace's book, so I didn't really fancy the film, but I think the film is better. Not that Peace is a bad writer, it's just that the mind that conceived the book, as evidenced by the book, seemed to be too keen to impress and sound tough. Sounding tough is no better than sounding fey, and I didn't feel I had any insight into either Brian Clough or into Peace's character ' BrianClough'. He was unbelievable as what he was supposed to be.

The film however does present the viewer with a believable human being. Some episodes in the book are wisely omitted -the smashing up of Revie's desk for example, which might have made a spectacular scene but which the director, Tom Hooper, and writer, Peter Morgan, presumably recognised for the melodramatic touch it was. On the other hand the omitting of the early book episode where the young Clough's career as a player is finished by injury did remove an important aspect of the character's development, and its replacement by the perceived snub of Clough by Revie doesn't quite serve as motivation. Yet Michael Sheen's 'Clough' is a human being, now petty, now grandiose, now magnetic, now lost, not merely the projection of an idea. The relationship with the Peter Taylor figure (the excellent Timothy Spall, naturally) is touching and funny, and while not necessarily representing the relationship between the real Clough and Taylor, it is believable (just about) on its own terms.

The film isn't sentimental tosh like Looking for Eric (see below) but I did wonder as C and I watched it, whether it was sufficiently interesting for her as a film. She likes football, watches it, genuinely appreciates it and has memories of Clough, but all the same I suspected that interest in the film as a representation of an actual Brian Clough was probably greater for me than for her. Women are generally off-stage in the film. We glimpse them as firm matriarchs but they have no effect on the action, which lies entirely outside their sphere. In Looking for Eric they were adored and idealised: here they are pretty well absent and the men are not even sexy. It is more biff, beef and boot than Posh and Becks.

The trouble for me was that the real figure behind the film actually dominates it. We never see what made Clough successful nor why his relationship with his players worked, and without some treatment of this the figure must remain a little thin. What is a leader? What is it to be led? What is a team? What is team-spirit? What inspires? What is the blend of rhetoric, example, intimacy and distance that produces something extraordinary and coherent out of the ordinary and incoherent. These are political and military matters and, historically, more in the masculine than in the feminine realm. It is not so much a matter of empathy or even character: it is a matter of mechanism, that which works, which is like a machine. The sheer curiosity of it. I missed that.

That may be too much to hope for. Each medium creates its own reality, and one has to let go of the thing represented and concentrate on the presentation. The reality is that Clough would have been just an interesting but unimportant man if he had not succeeded spectacularly as a manager. The presentation was of an interesting man who happened to be successful at something that was not interesting as a mechanism, which resulted in a good, edge-of-anorak film. But it wasn't the anorak, it was the boiler suit I wanted. And I suspect there would have been real dramatic potential in it.

Friday, 25 December 2009

The Cantona Mask

Michael Brown's pastiche of Piero della Francesca's 'Resurrection': 'King Eric' (1997)

Knowing fondness for football, son T's present was two DVDs, Looking for Eric and The Damned United. I hadn't seen either of them at the cinema, so C suggested we sit down and watch them - one last night, one this afternoon.

Looking for Eric is sentimental tosh. I say that with regret because there was much to like in it and I wanted it to be good. It isn't terrible sentimental tosh, in fact it is quite decent sentimental tosh but the term 'sentimental tosh' does seem to be recurring. It sentimentalises and intantilises the working class men it wants to promote. The postmen / supporters at the core of the story are really the mechanicals from A Midsummer Night's Dream in modern terms. They all have hearts of gold, but are comically inept in their attempts to declare their souls. They have no knowledge of themselves. They are, as all true working class men are apparently, supporters of Castro and Mandela, but they are, inevitably, fat and balding with bulging castrato (beer) bellies. They are the male sex gone to seed. As for central character, postie Eric, he has never got over over his dad jabbing his finger at him at his wedding. He is a ruined man from then on. He is thin. The others are fat. Blame the patriarchy, I say.

The ladies? The ladies are quite different of course. They are 'nurturing' out of every pore of their bodies, entirely adult and lovely and idealised, and darn clever too, going to university while being single mothers. Not like the blokes, who are either thick as planks and wholly inarticulate or thoroughly bad vicious bastards. The two sons of the central character (who is clearly related not only by occupation but by appearance to Il Postino) are both wasters who come good. The males in other words are ridiculous gormless dwarves waiting to be redeemed by a word of wisdom or an act of courage from mummy/Snow White..

...but then along comes Cantona.

Cantona is interesting in this respect. He is deeply French and talks in French half the time while mumbling in English the other half. He is, however, straight-backed (very straight-backed), has no beer paunch, is proud and clever, unafraid to be enigmatic, and takes no shit from anyone. And he wears his collar turned up. When men put on the Cantona mask they become a proud class dealing blows to the evil. Men recover their self-respect when wearing the Cantona mask.

So the solution to paunch, castration, gormlessness, gun crime, panic attacks, impotence, cowardice and infantilism is to act like Cantona. A little touch of Eric in the night. Go on, you can do it. Turn your collar up, be enigmatic, keep your back straight, take no shit.

Cantona is at the centre of the painting above. There he stands for something between sainthood and military pride. He is still, in most United fans' estimation, the greatest ever. The fact that he was not above kicking opponents or treading on them, or of drop-kicking a spectator, is part of the spell of wish-fulfilment. The weak want to be strong, the conformist wants to be a rebel. In that respect Loach gets it right.

Nevertheless, there is something patronising and sentimental in Loach's film. In A Midsummer Night's Dream we know the hierarchy. In Il Postino the postman is inspired by Neruda (another foreigner). Here the Cantona model is offered far too easily to a class that is far too easily sentimentalised. And the men - all the men - are pitiful infants until they put on their Cantona masks, which only proves how infantile they really are. Unless they're Cantona they're nothing but a sentimental, impotent haze.

Christmas Eve

So, like ghosts of Christmas Eve, we go to Midnight Mass at the Abbey, which is literally round the corner and looks like this inside, only candle-lit and packed....

And from the outside, like this...

...just less ghostly. Being High it is smells and bells and the full articulation of Anglican vowels. It sings, it processes, it prays, it sermons (it even quotes Oscar Wilde), and eventually it takes the sacrament, which is an altogether serious matter and we sit that part out. It would, after all, be strange to drop in, have a quick nip of blood and flesh, then be off again. A serious house on serious earth it is. We don't wear cycle clips, and are not ruin-bibbers, randy for antique, though those Norman arches remind us that just this sort of thing has been going on here for nine hundred years. And this midnight is what the faith is about, because without the next day, nobody would be going through any of this, nor would these Norman arches with their lozenges and diapers be curving over us.

Besides, I find these services moving, or rather a peculiar, almost incomprehensible, mixture of the moving and the mannerly, like a tea party at God's, with nice china and biscuits delicate as doilies. But God is there in the tea or in the cup, or in the pot, along with the blood of the martyrs and the idea - the core idea after all - that the God being worshipped is, in his own poets' mouths, "begotten not created".

But no, I am not of this or any religion's party, nor indeed of what Parliament refers to as 'the party opposite' by which I don't mean the party of the devil but of the great atheist evangelists. I am of the puzzled party who is astonished to be alive at all, because living is astonishing and not quite credible. Nor does it go on for ever, so, eventually, naturally, I am of the dead party, the Party of the Dear Departed too.

Maybe a small but thunderous Methodist Chapel in, say, Leeds or Wigan, might be fun. Perhaps a brass band. And a bit of subsistence-level pro-wrestling straight after, down at the corn exchange.

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Sophie Tucker as... and Harry Langdon as...

Today has been family Christmas Part 1 with the next generation. A full day of preparation, then Christmas dinner, big, grand, the lighting of the pudding, the chocolates, the games ('Chronology'), then the young males of the species set to assembling C's new desk which comes in 2,000 separate pieces with 20,000 screws and dowels, complete with instructions that bear as much resemblance to the actual process as Mickey Mouse does to Marilyn Monroe, but they, being ingenious and energetic representatives of their gender, put it together in about 90 minutes. In the meantime, food-obsessed extrovert cat (Pearl, as played by Sophie Tucker)...

Sophie Tucker as 'Pearl'

....hangs around making darts and squeaks, and is occasionally satisfied, while paranoid, smaller cat Lily (as played by Harry Langdon)...

Harry Langdon as 'Lily'

...hides, creeps, shudders and tries to make herself even smaller than she already is.

Then a cold supper and the departure of R and H to their new home about twenty minutes away. T stays the night. He is off to gig in Brazil in a few days, including his own birthday, which is New Year's Eve.

So now Lily creeps out and even prances about in a ginger kind of way. (Langdon gives a very good impression of Lily smiling). Tomorrow quieter. Christmas Day quieter still. Then we go visiting and become the younger generation.

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Note on tesknota to follow, but for now...

Too late back from the emerald city of Norwich, where son, daughter and son-in-law were gathered. From there to a bar/cafe called The Workshop which looks like something out of Paris or Amsterdam in about 1972. I say this in full approval. In any case it is full of young things, or youngish things, and a screen in the downstairs back room is showing Au Bout de Souffle on a loop so Jean Seberg's beautiful face comes round again and again (I was one of many millions who fell in love with her, then fell in love with any girl who looked even vaguely like her), and Jean-Paul Belmondo keeps stroking his lips, Humphrey Bogart fashion. Meanwhile I notice there is some truly execrable poetry in the dialogue, probably just execrably translated. The Workshop serves pizzas that barely fit through the door, so the five of us share one, then have another half by way of afters. Downed with Guinness.

That is why I am sleepy now. All significance remains on hold.

Monday, 21 December 2009

New Poem on Front: The Word

Not that new. Drafted months ago, then forgotten, now brought out and redrafted about six more times, and now it seems to hold its own. A song for the times.

Sunday, 20 December 2009

Sunday night is.... Spike Milligan on Harley Street and a Cracker

I did impeticos thy gratillity; for Malvolio's nose
is no whipstock: my lady has a white hand, and the
Myrmidons are no bottle-ale houses.

Excellent! why, this is the best fooling, when all
is done. Now, a song.

Christmas Cracker Question: What must auctioneers know?

(scroll down if desperate to find out...)

Forays into Spike Milligan country are dangerous and should only be undertaken using proper breathing equipment. The air is rare in those wild crags. Modern liberal attitudes are likely to perish in the freezing cold that immediately seizes them as soon as they enter the zone.

But Miligan's zone is not to be confused with that of people like Chubby Brown or others not likely to appear on television screens. The difference is simply that Milligan is a natural absurdist: in the world he inhabits everything is off-kilter, manic and fierce: the less likely something in reality the more likely it is to be the case with him. He was, famously, a depressive. He saved himself by ransacking the great trunk of the forbidden and throwing whatever he found there all over the place. He had no real discipline and was likely to explode at any moment. In fact he hardly knew the difference between a good joke and a bad one. It was the fury with which he threw himself into both that won him his uneasy, edge-of-hysterical laughs. In this instance it includes a, now politically-sensitive, dwarf. John Bluthal, a regular side-kick, is the other main actor.

Milligan plundered race and sex. He loved those burlesque women with vast breasts. Were they sex-objects? Of course they were, but then everything was an object to him. His audiences never felt comfortable, not even then : today's audiences would be in acute discomfort all the time. I went with the family to see him in his one-man-show, The Bed Sitting Room, which was as much improvisation as script. It was the mid-'60s. Things were generally exploding anyway.

I now think of Spike as more spirit than man. An imp, a boggart, a demon, a spectre, a poltergeist, a hobbledehoy. And yet a human being, who is all those things at once.

I find almost all contemporary radio and TV comedy unbearable: unbearably smug, horribly uninventive. Their very crudeness is safe. We know for certain no one will be offended by it. I wait for the cosy references, the proper attitudes and the whacking down of the same old improper attitudes, time after time after time, and think comedy lost something very important when the universities took it over. It has become far too knowing; far too knowing-better. There are great exceptions: Merton, Izzard, Noble, and one or two others. They don't need sit coms, they don't even need panel games (the equivalent of the class clown being returned to class). Just let them loose in those frozen wastes where the spirit is still creating chaos. Corruption out of corruption.

...I am indeed not
her fool, but her corrupter of words.

Christmas Cracker Answer: Lots.

Saturday, 19 December 2009

Burning reviews - collecting more, plus two nice links

A glowing one in the excellent new magazine, The Raconteur, and a nice one in the Eastern Daily Press...

There's a nice Christmassy game being played here. Title: Dead White European Males (I myself hope to become one in due course, nor are my hopes unrealistic.) The idea is to choose between two DWEMs, in this case between Joyce and Eliot. I have gone for Eliot, just...


And a television programme on children's games, titled Hop, Skip and Jump, here on BBCi. BBC4 is the new BBC2 and channel 4 together. This is a gorgeous compilation of children playing out of doors before, during and after the war, with old footage, the adults they have become since remembering the songs they used to sing. I didn't know that poorer children would crowd at the windows of the middle class on St Valentine's Day and sing for money, which would be thrown down to them, sometimes heated to red hot first so the first hands to grab got burned. On film.

Friday, 18 December 2009

Copenhagen: signing

I have had three or four emails, all containing the same text, asking me to add my signature to it. It's from Avaaz. There's your link, if you would like to sign. I don't mind signing it. In fact I will sign it. It is easy signing such things. My name can became 13,758, 252. I can save the planet. I don't have to give up anything much. When the planet crashes it will not be in my name. I hope the planet remembers that.

Only, I don't quite know what it means to save the planet. I assume the planet - as the piece of rock under us, will survive. Not all of us will survive, but then in the long run none of us do. The planet might well look different at some stage and instead of us all rushing around killing each other, or being normally flooded or killed by volcanoes, earthquakes, lightning, and germs, it might all be achieved quite another way. More species might vanish, just as they have vanished, as others have been generated, as we ourselves were generated.

I am not at all sceptical about climate change, or indeed human-generated climate change. I would have to be much better informed and better qualified to evaluate that information and make a conscious clear decision as to whether I was sceptical or not. I am dependent on others in this matter as on much else. People such as my academic colleagues who have been bending and hiding some information and ganging up on those who disagree. But people do do that sort of thing when something vital is at stake. It is wrong but they do it. Bending, hiding and ganging doesn't mean they are wrong in their calculations or that others who agree with them are wrong in theirs. Though I must say that two years ago at a conference one of them spoke to declare it was too late anyway. It was only going to be a cosmic five-minute's worth before we're drowned in the vast tsunami.

Over the last decade or so I have been told of various disasters that are about to befall us all. Should I run through them all from AIDS, through the Millennium Bug, through SARS, through bird flu and swine flu - and I am sure I have left some things out? And people have died of these things (not sure about the Millennium Bug) but none of them was quite the apocalyptic movie it was predicted to be. That doesn't mean this will not be, just as it doesn't mean that the next strain of bacteria might not wipe us off the surface of the planet, which will, I expect continue to survive for a while, though it won't do that for ever because planets simply don't. No planet does.

And I don't really know that the petition says much more than: For God's sake let's be nice to each other, everyone pull together, beware catastrophe! And I am generally in favour of being nice to each other and pulling together, and I really don't want a catastrophe. So I am happy to sign this petition as I do others for various political causes, not because my individual signature means a jot, not even because, in most if not all cases, all the signatures taken together mean a jot. And certainly not because I want to show my friends that I, too, am nice, a member of their civilised enlightened company, that I am pulling together with them, avoiding catastrophe and saving the planet. In fact, somewhere inside me, I feel a certain contempt for all the forces of panic. Can't help it. Sorry. I think the contempt is probably chiefly for my own potentially panicking self.

So I will sign because if there is a chance that the poor will become still poorer - and it will, as ever, be the poor that will die first - I would rather they didn't. Is Hungary one of the rich countries or a poor one? Is Saudi Arabia a rich country or a poor one? Is a poor family in Britain a rich one in Singapore?

Tom Stoppard once wrote an article titled: Tom Stoppard Doesn't Know. Well, I don't know either. In some ways, I suspect, I will sign the way I sign a leaving card for a member of staff that I have only once or twice spoken to in the corridor. I rather like to think that when Delacroix was painting his Liberty on the Barricades I would have been among the crowd following Liberty. I like to think that. I hope I would. But I don't know. How could I possibly know?

But it is easy signing a e-document. So consider it signed in a slightly diffident, self-contemptuous, panic-contemptuous , particularly right-thinking-enlightenment contemptuous way. Who cares? It's signed. And look: as I put that last full stop to that last sentence, they have signed. Signed something.

Thursday, 17 December 2009

Jan van Hogspeuw finds Beauty

Adriaen Brouwer: Unpleasant Duties of a Father. Oil on panel. 20 x13 cm. Alte Meister Gallerie, Dresden, Germany.

In Larkin's poem, 'The Card Players', "Jan van Hogspeuw staggers to the door /and pisses at the dark". It is, he says at the end of the poem, "the secret bestial place".

The Flemish-born painter, Adriaen Brouwer (1605-1638), who worked mostly in Holland, was just thirty-two when he died and was buried in a common grave. He had been a pupil of Franz Hals. Most of his pictures are very small - though this is one of the smallest - and of this kind, that is to say low-life genre, showing peasants in rough inns, quarelling, fighting, belching, playing cards,tickling each other, reaching under skirts and into codpieces, gobbing, playing music, singing and bawling. It is generally assumed that he spent time in such inns. He certainly never made money. Nevertheless, his work was collected by his contemporaries, Rubens and Rembrandt, who appreciated the sheer beauty of his painting.

Beauty seems an odd word to use when it comes to subjects like his. There were many others working in the field. Adriaen van Ostade (1610-1685) was a fellow student of Hals's. Jan Steen (1626-1679) was of the next generation. Before them all came Pieter Brueghel the Elder (1525-1569) who had painted peasants at weddings and peasants dancing: little squat people kissing, kicking up their heels like jolly asses. And Bosch who, when he was not painting demons, painted passing pedlars and country scenes.

That is the subject. The vision is not quite the same thing. One could call it realism as opposed to the idealism of the Italians, but it is too comical to be simply realistic. It is knowingly funny. But while Brueghel was the greatest and most comprehensive of these painters - one of the great painters of the world - Brouwer was, though minor by comparison, the more beautiful.

Why were the subjects funny? Why were they subjects at all? Why beautiful? Because in themselves they would not be thought beautiful, if by beauty we mean grace, proportion, and potential for heroic action or heroic languor.

The background to this is too well-known for me crudely to run through it, enough to say that with the advent of Protestantism and the disappearance of the noble patron and the wealthy ecclesiastical patron, the notion of idealised form began to vanish along with the subject of religion. The artist was out on the street, trying to sell his art on the market and in the shop. Artists began to specialise: some in landscape, some in seascape, some in interiors, some in townscapes, some in animals, some in still life and sub-groups of still-life, some in portraits or civic groups, and some in genre scenes, that is to say scenes of apparently ordinary people doing ordinary things. Rembrandt was the one great exception who did everything, even including religious scenes, beginning to define what a humane, Protestant sense of religion, so suspicious of image as idolatry, might find acceptable and inspiring: a new kind of image.

Genre was ordinary people doing ordinary things, except they weren't exactly ordinary. They were often divided according to class and arranged into narratives that illustrated, commented on, or referred to the wise saws and proverbs of the times, what one might call its developing, half-conscious ideology. Vermeer (one of the greatest of all painters anywhere and any time) and De Hooch, along with Metsu and others, specialised in in middle-class houses and events, though brothel scenes and love assignations were quite common among them. Some showed the servant class at their unreliable antics. And some, like Brouwer went to the bottom of the social scale.

It wasn't people at the bottom of the social scale who were his patrons, of course. They could not afford paintings. He was painting for the classes above, those who wanted to share a joke about those grubby peasants whose hovels they might have passed on journeys: the vulgar, the uncouth. The peasants were the joke. They were being patronised. What most clients wanted was the equivalent of those little iconic figures we even now find on the doors of public toilets in some places. Being plain if well-turned out burghers themselves, they simply wanted such things well done. The Lowlands for low humour, we grin. The mannekin pisses. You wouldn't get Michelangelo's or Donatello's David doing that.

Along with the mocking there was the notion of the body we all knew, doing all those things we know it did but did not think of as lovely. It was the peasant's body that could bear that burden. As for pissing, our servants will do that for us, as someone might - probably should - have said.

But Brouwers! He is the Watteau of the hovel, the barn and the dive. He is an exquisite painter. That won't be obvious from a reproduction but it needs stressing that that is precisely what he is. You have to see his work before you, exactly as you have to see Vermeer's. He paints the crude, the low joke, the paunch and the rags, so the paint itself is gorgeous. It is his compliment to the unidealised human form and the unidealised human sphere.

And more than that, he is extraordinarily tender. Not his subjects, no - it is he, his hand and his eye that are tender. The blue hat in the picture above, for example, is wonderful, a touch of genius. Normally you'd expect a colour to be picked up elsewhere else in a composition, to form a sort of rhyme or complement. Not here. Hardly at all. The soft violet-blue hat blossoms like, well, a violet. It is the poor man's flower. The bellowing face behind the father softens into the dark. The father wipes the baby's bottom slightly screwing up his face. It is not the subjects, to repeat, that are tender: it is Brouwer's treatment of them. And so small! So delicate, like a child's messy hand.

People are as they are: they do what they do. These are among the things they do. This may be how they (we) do it. We are not all beautiful. We are not all marble and silk and litheness and power. We are of this world too. The world recognizes a joke, it understands what it is to be a butt of jokes, to be, in effect, a baby's butt, a belly laugh for the superior. And this too belongs to the world, and it enters this tiny dark intimate space this way, delicate as Watteau, Jan van Hogspeuw and Dirk Dogstoerd and Old Prijck,on their way out to where, as Larkin writes, "the rain / Courses in cart-ruts down the deep mud lane", which is only the flipside of the Voyage to Cythera, to a different kind of music.


ps The image wasn't visible for some readers. Do let me know if you can't see this new version.

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Snow in London

Set off to London via Hertfordshire at 9am, home just before 9pm. C at her mother's, myself at the PBS for a meeting. The snow tentative rather than fully committed but making a decent show without settling. Still, it is good to feel those sharp little taps on my face then have them dissolve and run down my cheek. I put the ragged umbrella up - we have a sad collection of ragged umbrellas, since whenever we buy one it goes ragged within a week - and watch the raggy parts sag and billow. Only yesterday one of the ragged umbrellas all but exploded in my hand as I was putting it up and a nice spike of it gouged a sliver off my index finger.

My father, about whom I have not written for a couple of weeks now, is on the relative mend. It seems one of the doctors poisoned him, which is the way another doctor put it. Had he taken the medicine as dispensed he would have been dead in two or three more days. He couldn't breathe, he couldn't keep food down, he couldn't evacuate, he was losing weight so rapidly I thought - we all thought - he was a goner. Whether it was the prescription itself or the misreading of it that led to this is impossible to say without a more detailed enquiry that he doesn't actually want. He is not quite back to what he was but each day he grows a little stronger. We are a hardy bunch really, that is unless people start bumping us off, or we decide to do it ourselves. Both courses have been followed in the past. We like to keep options open.

Too late and too tired to do anything much except perhaps put up this YouTube of The Limeliters performing Flanders and Swann's 'Have Some Madeira my 'Dear'. It is a wonderfully melodramatic and leery performance, better than Flanders and Swann's own, the best I could find, and one to add to the sung light verse canon.

'Have some Madeira, my dear / You really have nothing to fear...'

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Kathleen Jones on The Burning of the Books

A writer is lucky to get such a generous, considered discussion of his book as here and here by the writer and journalist Kathleen Jones.

The book is doing all right. It had that very nice encomium in The Independent, was one of The Times's books of the year, and it turns up in The Guardian round-up too. And there was Sarah Hymas's interview-cum-piece at Echo Soundings / Litfest. It has also been among the books of the year here and two or three people there (at Michelle's). And at the Scottish Poetry Library by Kapka Kassabova. Poetry books are lucky to be reviewed at all in many cases. I think Magma may have reviewed it but I haven't seen the review if so.*

There is, of course, the T S Eliot 2009 short list but that is a long way off and very remote. And, mustn't forget, a poem from the book is up for The Pushcart Prize in the USA. (A couple were up last year but didn't get anywhere...)

Just taking stock. I used to keep a scrap book of these things, but haven't done so for seven or eight years now, so this is the only record.

In any case, the worst hasn't happened. I was worried about publishing a book less than a year after The New and Collected Poems in case everyone should have had enough me and my works.

*Update: Rob Mackenzie kindly sends me the Magma newsletter, the book reviewed by Matt Merritt, ending:

...this willingness to develop themes through sequences is both a strength and a weakness, the former because Szirtes knows how to achieve subtle, cumulative effects, the latter because at times, there's just a hint that he's trying to wring every last word from a subject. The fine occasional poems that end the book, on the other hand, suggest that Szirtes knows just how much is enough.

Too damn right I am trying to wring every last word. No doubt I'll carry on doing so. It may be a weakness but it's in the boy's nature.

Monday, 14 December 2009

Bishop apologises

Armed Forces bishop apologises for Germany comments

The Rt Rev Stephen Venner, the new bishop to the Armed Forces, has apologised for claiming that the SS could be admired for "their faith in the fuehrer and their loyalty".

The remark, he said on BBCs PM programme, was taken out of context. What he meant was the SOME of the SS were admirable, not those who were torturing people or executing them or driving them into concentration camps, but faith was anyway a jolly good thing, and pretty admirable, and we would have to sit down with these people and talk about it some time. And it was indeed a just war, because all these people had lived in conditions of, er, war, so we were right in waging war so they might, er, stop. And some of them would stop, so our boys had better not shoot those but the others.


Straight-faced Disclaimer

This is, of course, a parody and not fair. I mean I fully understand the analogy is not perfect and it's bad sport to reach for the Hitler card, though the words are not far off what the gentleman was saying on radio a few minutes ago. But you can see Bishop Venner thinking, 'Well, at least they have faith, and faith is where I came in, so there must be something good about it. And of course they're very loyal, and loyalty is a good thing. And it is Christmas.'

I just think he is wrong about the faith. And if that is the argument for a just war, there are likely to be better ones around.


The antidote! Take this. Quickly. With many thanks to son, Tom, who pointed me to it.

If all else fails that's my next career move. Crane operator. A life in solitary.

Sunday, 13 December 2009

Sunday night is.... The Inkspots

Ivory 'Deek' Watson, Charles Fuqua, Orville "Hoppy" Jones (singing bass) and Bill Kenny (singing high tenor) who, in 1932, made up The Inkspots: perfect enunciation, the respectability, the suits, the tie, the slight raffishness when the pretty girl passes, the touch of humour and self send-up. This is 1939 and the record sells 19 million copies. The sound is as dated as Al Bowlly and as sweet. But the context is quite other.

Writing for occasion

Titian, Flaying of Marsyas, c.1570s

The wind may blow where it listeth but there are times when it is actually drawn or desired to list here or there: these are what we might call the occasions of verse, and what such occasions may well occasion is occasional verse.


One view of poetry posits a world that is mysterious and possesses independent will, or indeed a number of separate, discrete wills. These are the individual, often contrary, wills of spirits that may be addressed, appeased, aroused or summoned. The wind is under their control and bloweth where they listeth. Robert Graves referred to those who were in thrall to them as Muse poets, and pointed to Keats's La Belle Dame sans Merci as the true figure of the Muse. Like the lady of the poem, the Muse was capricious: she rode the poets, possessed them, then left them. The best the poet could do was pray to the moon, to enter the appropriate trance under her influence, and prepare to be discarded. In this version of poetry it is not exactly an engagement with the irrational, but whatever reason there is in it lies beyond mortal wits. The Muse poets line up with Dionysos.

And you can see why they, and any poet, might do so. You cannot, they would rightly argue, reason your way to a poem. There is about the act something instinctive and capricious: now it works and now it doesn't for no known reason, and even when it does work you can't tell exactly what it does. And since the cult of Dionysos is an ecstatic, drunken cult, the best thing you can do is to go out of your head then stick your head into the wind and hope the wind listeth your way. You do, don't you, want a total disordering of all the senses, along with Rimbaud? The rest is nothing.

Flaws? Getting drunk or stoned or out of your head in any way you choose does not make you a poet. Nor does lying by the road hoping for La Belle Dame to come along. Excuse me, lady, you look very like La Belle Dame... but then so do you, madam... You do understand your serious calling to be a Muse, don't you? You do understand it is a privilege to feel my inspired hand on your inspiring etcetera? Won't wash. A bad poet isn't a better poet for being drunk or for imitating Nature grown wild.


In the opposite camp is the poet of parallelograms, Apollo's boy or girl (more often boy traditionally) to whom poetry is a kind of gradus ad parnassum, the steps of which include intellect, learning, the social graces, irony, the form, structure. To him, a poem is a rational task in a reasonable, albeit highly complex world. Poems embody ideas, preferably interesting ideas. Poems behave in orderly, almost courtly fashion. They follow rules, however complex, because beyond rules there is only chaos. It is up to him, the Apollonian poet, to preserve the essential order of things, to deride that which departs from such order, to create reasonable orchards and magnificent glass orangeries with the wholly reasonable figure of Apollo at the centre of the fountain, preferably shown in the process of flaying Marsyas. And if Apollo happens to look like Alexander Pope flaying Lord Hervey that just goes to show what intellect may aspire too. Pope lisped in numbers, he says, 'for the numbers came'. The shape comes from the numbers or meters.The energy required to fill the shape comes from somewhere else, a rage against chaos: which too is a kind of ferocity.

Graves, naturally, had no time for Pope, or for Dryden, or for Johnson, or for Auden. But then he had no time for Eliot or Dylan Thomas either. Graves was following other orders. The Apollonian poet sits in his Palace of Art and constructs parallelograms and crystals against danger. The Gravesian ducks through the intoxicating forest seeking Diana and her nymphs, seeking danger.

Both models have certain attractive, not to mention entertaining, features. Without contraries is no progression, wrote Blake, and wanted them to remain contraries. They should not, he believed, be reconciled.


We do have doubts about occasional poems. They seem foredoomed to be duds. Who would wish to be the laureate of birthday cakes, or worse still, of royal encomia? Only a sell-out. The best you can do in the situation, so goes the argument, is manners, and manners are a form of toadying.

But there are and always have been good, sometimes great poems, written for specific occasions, or out of specific occasions. I call Ben Jonson, Andrew Marvell, Byron on his own thirty-sixth birthday, Dylan Thomas on his thirtieth or on the funeral of Ann Jones. Rites, celebrations and ceremonies are part of the job. There are, of course, private occasions and public occasions for poetry. The private are expected to be sentimental: the public to be sententious.

The problem is expectation. The occasion can determine too much: that the poem should be constrained to say worthy things; that it should mind its manners; that it should avoid offence; that it should say in verse what might be better said in prose, or take the place of a vow or a gift. Yet even if writing such a poem were a problematic act, it might still be possible to argue for the poem as an example of humane art, as a fitting structure for what is properly felt to be important.


There is something in poetry of the offering in any case: as speech offered to commemorate a birth, a wedding or a funeral. The poem might be song, the part song-part speech of the event, an event that naturally invites reflection. It might look to be the fitting structure. Poetry is, after all, a shape in language, whether raw or cooked, whether drunk or sober. Poetry without shape is not poetry.

But energy and opposition are also required.

There is bound to be an element of both the Dionysiac and the Apollonian in art. The two elements cannot be reconciled but they cannot be entirely without each other. Those who on honeydew have fed and drunk the milk of paradise, are quite capable of composing poems about poetic meter for their children, as Coleridge did.

I have loved writing poems for occasions: they were excuses to write. Sometimes they had a spinning headiness that was set to spin right off but just held in. Those I think were the best poems, language setting off, getting lost, landing eventually in the world of the living. Others were simply as well made as I could make them, looking for a door to get lost through, but staying where they were. Sometimes the pattern in them compensated. If I hadn't started the best ones they wouldn't have existed.

In the end, poems make their own occasions, their own necessary ferocity. But they need occasions. It is their ferocity that saves them. Apollo flaying Marsyas.

Friday, 11 December 2009

Being professional

I can't quite remember when this highest form of praise was introduced. I do remember it was around some time in the late eighties when, as schoolteachers, we were exhorted to be professional at all times. And then, when I moved into higher education, some senior member of the college came in to welcome us as professionals and academics, people with proper professional pride. 'So and so is a true professional' was the equivalent of five gold stars. We were doing things properly, by the book. We were 'of the professions'. We were truly, as Márai might have said, not just, 'respectable citizens' of the republic of something but, most importantly, professional respectable citizens.

To act professionally was not necessarily to act kindly, to act with understanding, to act according to conscience or to act with devotion to the underlying cause, but to be proper, to act by the book according to the current conception of the book. Professional conduct had been defined by leaders and committees and might be redefined next year, but for this year it was such and such a procedure, and following it was professionalism. The army were 'the professionals'. There was a television series called The Professionals. Highest praise. The worst thing you could be was 'amateur'. To be amateur was to be hopeless. No standards. A mess.

But I have never felt professional in my life. I have felt conscientious, occasionally to the point of agony and sleeplessness; I have felt devoted at times and indifferent at other times; I have tried to understand those in my care as best I could; I tried to be interesting and friendly and interested: but I never regarded these things as professionalism. Professionalism was getting my reports in at the right time, phrasing them in the correct way, taking my part in the career structure, making constructive criticisms and looking for ever greater efficiency, or rather, ways of registering ever greater efficiency even when the result of registering was less efficiency.

This process has come a long way. First, students were invited to evaluate classes on forms, which is fine and even useful. Then students were instructed to anonymise their work so that we shouldn't be able to discriminate against them, and to put their evaluations of the class into an envelope that we might deliver their sealed evaluations to the appropriate place. Then it was further determined that only students should carry the envelope to the appropriate place. Why? Because we were not to be trusted, of course.

Not trusting us, or anyone, is truly professional. Distrust is the one true mark of the professional.

At one place we were invited to sit in on each other's classes and observe, and then, together with the observed colleague, put together an A4 sheet noting the general condition of the class. But that A4 sheet was far too simple and amateurish. Soon it was broken down into sections and micro-questions. This was then fed through the system. It was very professional. On one occasion I simply wrote '[Colleague] X is a privilege to work with' and fed it into the system. No one complained. No one even noted the fact. That too was professional. Everyone is so busy being professional they rush to file things away and don't have the time to read them. Filing is professional. Reading is amateur. Unless you are a lawyer, of course.

After all these years I have grown pretty well certain that my deepest instincts are deeply unprofessional. When I see a group or an individual in front of me at some institution of learning I don't think: there is a professional procedure to go through, I think: they are people, let's talk. I actually trust them. Do they trust me? God knows. I know the institution doesn't. That's because it's professional.

People are in free fall. Professionals move steadily, ever upward. What was professionalism in the eighties is sheer amateurism now.

I continue to genuflect to professionalism because that is what I have to do when I am on duty. But my knees are getting very tired. And so are the knees of the other people in institutions. Or so I suspect. Can we trust each other to say as much? Oh no. Not professional.

Thursday, 10 December 2009

Edward Thomas 'Lights Out'

Lights Out

I have come to the borders of sleep,
The unfathomable deep
Forest where all must lose
Their way, however straight,
Or winding, soon or late;
They cannot choose.

Many a road and track
That, since the dawn's first crack,
Up to the forest brink,
Deceived the travellers,
Suddenly now blurs,
And in they sink.

Here love ends,
Despair, ambition ends,
All pleasure and all trouble,
Although most sweet or bitter,
Here ends in sleep that is sweeter
Than tasks most noble.

There is not any book
Or face of dearest look
That I would not turn from now
To go into the unknown
I must enter and leave alone
I know not how.

The tall forest towers;
Its cloudy foliage lowers
Ahead, shelf above shelf;
Its silence I hear and obey
That I may lose my way
And myself.

'Beneath it all desire for oblivion runs', wrote Larkin in 'Wants', repeating that line as frame for his second verse. And it does, nor do we resist it, least of all when falling asleep, or at times when we are just exhausted or out of hope.

The great trick is not to sound self-pitying. Then the just as great trick of dramatising that desire without the poem itself sounding lethargic. There is a remarkable stroke in this poem by Thomas, probably greatest writer of melancholy in England in the twentieth century. We think we are getting an even-paced Georgian poem with a few necessary graces but line three drops away from us, vanishes from under our feet, through the simple device of an enjambment. So 'deep' appears at the end of one line, and its partner 'forest' at the beginning of the next. It is the forest floor that gives way. After this our sleep will never be untroubled. The next enjambment of lose / Their is gentler by comparison: it is a shock to fall through but the landing appears relatively soft. For now.

And now that we are at this level we seem to go on, moving on relatively firm ground (though we can never forget how far, how deep, we have fallen and might fall again) so we move, even then, with some trepidation through the next verse until the last line - And in they sink - where we imagine we have two simple iambs, as in And in they sink, which is slightly disconcerting because of the implied internal rhyme, that slight grunt of in, sink, but then there is the odd sense that it isn't two iambs after all, but the triple thump of spondees: And in they sink.

We are stumbling again, tumbling down a little Lethean slope. And the next verse is no more reassuring. We have got used to the first two lines of each verse rhyming with each other. Here, instead of a rhyme, we get the same word ends. Love, despair and ambition all end. The insistence of ending takes precedence over rhyme. This ending is too insistent, too urgent. The slight Georgianism of Then tasks most noble, a conventional phrase with a nagging archaic inversion, is a period grace, a potential weakness that the poem can afford, because whatever reassurance such a phrase might offer has long been undermined.

The forest is dark. The desire in the fourth verse is plain enough. The voice wants sleep, oblivion, more than it wants what it most loves. There, beside us, is our lover, our partner, the dearest presence, but that's not what we want here. It is sleep, but sleep of the fallen through, oblivious kind, a self-vanishing. And we don't need to spell that out, do we?

Now the forest is huge, merging with clouds and that simple towers / lowers rhyme is again tripped up by a strong enjambment : lowers / ahead, the sound of ahead another grunt, a double grunt. Then comes a double hush, shelf upon shelf.

The end of this sleep is the losing of oneself. I don't think this feeling is unfamiliar to us. Larkin's sense of the same moment is blunter, less subtle, but of unmistakeably of our time:


Beyond all this, the wish to be alone:
However the sky grows dark with invitation-cards
However we follow the printed directions of sex
However the family is photographed under the flagstaff—
Beyond all this, the wish to be alone.

Beneath it all, desire of oblivion runs:
Despite the artful tensions of the calendar,
The life insurance, the tabled fertility rites,
The costly aversion of the eyes from death—
Beneath it all, desire of oblivion runs.

We know about Edward Thomas's oblivion in the First World War, so his poem strikes us as foreknowledge, the nerves creeping under the stream of time and language, letting Lethe or Acheron, whichever dark river runs through that forest, chill it most. He lets his hand trail in it, the hand turning colder the longer he trails it.

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Caring: welcome to UK / Girl on a Motorcycle

Friend of ours in London, about our age, maybe a little younger, a very beautiful, highly intelligent, lively, kindly woman, who has been painted by many artists. Her foreign mother has dementia and is entirely incapable of looking after herself. Friend brought her over from abroad so she could care for her. She herself was born here, is a British citizen (since what else would she be?) Mother had lived here for years.

Our friend was an art historian, lecturing here and there. She sometimes wrote articles. Her flat is full of books, piled in columns on the floor. The flat actually belongs to her son now. Her ex-husband is elsewhere.

Our friend receives £60 a week as pension. She also gets £50 a week as carer for her mother. The local private nursing home charges £600-750 a week. The unenticing council home charges £400 a week. Mother being foreign she can't get a place there. Friend can't get out of the flat because mother can't be alone. The ceiling of the bedroom collapsed and the flat flooded a little while ago.

You wonder what the council does for £400 a week that she is expected to do for one-eighth the amount?


picture: Cleanup workers (Liquidators) going to the Chornobyl Plant. Photo by Lu Taskey.*

Another friend, The Plump, has a marvellous post about a Ukrainian girl on a motorbike. ""Good girls go to heaven. Bad ones go to hell. And girls on fast bikes go anywhere they want," she says, and where she wants to go is the ghost town of Chernobyl. Originally this is Will Popinjay's discovery. But you'll find it over at The Plump's, here. Go, as he advises, right through the photographs and texts.

*The motorcyclist's own text. These liquidators are going to their deaths.

1989: Going for a Walk

Back very late last night from London where Arthur Phillips, Tibor Fischer and I talked about our memories of the year. Arthur wasn't in fact there that year though he was the next, out of which he wrote his novel, Prague. Tibor was there from 1988-1990 and made a film for Channel Four's Dispatches, of which we saw about eight minutes, mostly Victor Orbán, in one shot artfully poised by the statue of the poet Attila József with whom he seems to me to have little in common.

We, meaning C and I and the family, spent most of 1989 in Budapest. I wrote a book of poems, or rather the title sequence of it, Bridge Passages (shortlisted for The Whitbread Poetry Prize in 1991) while I was there as well as translating Madách and Kosztolányi and writing two broadcasts for the BBC.

The unspoken (or not much spoken) theme of the evening was 'Let's not be too gloomy', though, to tell the truth, considering the prospect of a right-wing Fidesz landslide with only the fascist Jobbik for opposition I can think of very little that is more gloomy. As Tibor pointed out - and he is a supporter of Fidesz - once they get in, and if the majority is big enough, Fidesz will be entitled to change the constitution. Hungary could revive the old 40s vaudeville act of an authoritarian 'Regent Horthy' with a fascist 'Szálasi' snapping at his heels. There are, it seems, plenty of people there who consider that an attractive prospect. The uniforms are in place. My parents who told me that Hungary was, at heart, a fascist country, and against whom I argued because I didn't believe them, might - especially my mother - have been right.

But let's not be too gloomy. That description doesn't fit those I know and have met and loved, nor does it, I think, describe the youngest adults, who are a more international generation than any before them, and who could bring the Hungarian virtues of energy, intelligence, humour, ingenuity, and passion out into the fresh air. Little Hungary (Greater Hungary in its dreams) is like a particularly small house in a row of terraces in a decaying slum. It's stuffy. The great vehicles of global commerce drive by outside so exhaust fumes waft through it. The brilliant child, the abusive father, the neurotic mother all live there. 'This house used to be so nice,' weeps mother. 'The neighbourhood has gone down,' growls father. ''I am going for a walk, but I'll be back,' mumbles the child.

If Hungary does move overwhelmingly to the right, I will not be back. I don't claim to be a brilliant child. I'm out already and I am no longer a child. Nor was I ever brilliant.


As to the evening, Arthur is New York, funny, self-deprecating. I haven't read his book but I will. Sounds good. Tibor is droll and dry as ever. I have read his books, most of them. Me? I am a poet and this audience hasn't come to hear poetry, they want jokes and argument - so I feel I am boring them. Too bad, if so, I reflect in melancholy mood on my long way home. To Hungarians I will never be anything but a translator who can do the state some service. But I have done that for twenty-five years and once this new anthology is out I think I will have done enough. I think it's time I went for a walk myself.

Monday, 7 December 2009

Ends and breaks: young poets

Today I said goodbye to a group of young undergraduate poets from America. They were such a bright bunch from top universities, bristling with reading - particularly modern but all the general greats as well as Dickinson and Whitman. I liked them a good deal and parting with them after three months or so, with a day a week, was, for me, an oddly sentimental occasion. We have fun in class, at least I always try to make it fun, but fun with passion and intelligence, so we laugh while we concentrate. And that makes for warmth of feeling.

I think one of the hopes of the humanities is to bring the best out of people by bringing out their humanity. The arts can do this particularly well. They can, but don't always, since the arts, especially the making of them, involves vanities and vulnerabilities. Artists cannot be insensible nor can they lack a sense of self: all they can do is to affect insensibility at times, as much for protection as anything else, and they can try to look cool. But sensibility is not enough. Nor is cool. Humanity is a matter of dimensions.

Writing, at best, is a wrought set of dimensions within which it is possible to live. The young poet moves from self to language, makes a self inside language. That language provides its dimensions, the dimensions within which a written self can live. And through those dimensions it begins to explore the world, which is out there and not the self alone, but the wind and the cold and the cry of animals and the whistling of the planets and the voices of others.

It has been a very long day and tomorrow is no shorter. I am down in London at the Hungarian Cultural Centre in Maiden Lane with the US author Arthur Phillips and with Tibor Fischer, discussing 1989. University in the morning, train in the afternoon, event in the evening, train at night.

Sunday, 6 December 2009

Sunday Night is... Noel Coward

Coward in 1955 on American TV absolutely ripping through 'Mad Dogs and Englishmen'. The man is just too too brilliant, dear boy. His timing is out of this world. 'Same native, pay no attention...'


On Friday to see the UEA students performing Ödön von Horváth's Tales from the Vienna Woods. They do a rather good job with some smart direction, right down to the risqué café scene that begins and occupies most of the second part after the interval. Horváth was terrified of thunderstorms and was killed by a falling branch on the Champs d'Elysée in the middle of a thunderstorm. He was thirty-six. Like all Hungarians he was vastly productive but he wrote in German. This was the Christopher Hampton translation.

It's as much cabaret as play, very dark and very acid, somewhere between Brecht, Wedekind and a more petit bourgeois Joseph Roth, an original variation on the idea of the 'Folk Play' or Volksstuck. It's the '30s. The Austrians are all busy giving Nazi salutes. They are all hypocrites. They are pretty well all decadent. Some are downright evil. Some are faintly likeable. But they sing throughout. The plot is essentially a moral melodrama, but it's the vignettes that carry the pace.

I wish it were a less timely piece.


Now’s the time for inflatable Santas and sledges
Sing holly, sing brolly
For curtains of lightbulbs dripping from lodges and ledges
Sing dilly sing dolly
Sing melancholy

For buffoons in big boots, for belly-laughs in the bar
Sing holly, sing brolly
For a bunch of wise lads bending over the boobs in The Star
Sing dilly sing dolly
Sing melancholy

For ladettes in high heels tottering drunk down the cobbles
Sing holly, sing brolly
For midriff and miniskirt, for minces and winces and wobbles
Sing dilly sing dolly
Sing melancholy

For time and for tide, for the taxi that’s waiting on no-one
Sing holly, sing brolly
For sales and for gales and for so on and so on and so on…
Sing dilly sing dolly
Sing melancholy

For so on and so on and so on and so on and so on
Sing dilly
Sing dolly
Sing holly
Sing brolly
Sing it

Sing melancholy.

And so on...

Saturday, 5 December 2009

Hungarian Fascists in London

Hungarian neo-fascist party, Jobbik, has set up an office in London tying in with the BNP. Must be anticipating rich pickings and trawling for resident Hungarian support.

[Jobbik] already has links with Mr Griffin, who has previously met its representatives. Jobbik has also joined Mr Griffin’s European alliance, which is seeking the support of seven EU parties to create a pan-European group and claim about £360,000 a year in taxpayer funding.

This from The Times up from HP.

Troops of the Magyar Gárda (Hungarian Guard)/

The leader of Jobbik, Gábor Vona, is also the leader of the banned but still operating Magyar Gárda (Hungarian Guard) militia, Jobbik’s uniformed wing.

No Comment / Dead Souls

Corus story

Lloyds story

RBS story

I think we can come to a compromise on this, can't we? The bankers could forgo their million-pound bonuses in return for the services of the unemployed steelworkers as subsistence labour for, say, twenty years. Plenty of uses envisaged: security force, private army, dead souls á la Gogol (a kind of toxic debt)*, rickshaw service, organ donors, paving stones, water features...

A work force is infinitely adaptable. Just needs a little imagination.

The Season of Good Will is upon us.

*'In the Russian Empire before the emancipation of the serfs in 1861, landowners were entitled to own serfs to farm their land. Serfs were for most purposes considered the property of the landowner, and could be bought, sold, or mortgaged against, as any other chattel. To count serfs (and people in general), the measure word "soul" was used: e.g., "six souls of serfs". The plot of the novel relies on "dead souls" (i.e., "dead serfs") which are still accounted for in property registers.'

Friday, 4 December 2009

The disadvantage of being behovely

I suspect I might have been born aged forty-two, which is, as the whole world knows, the answer to life, the universe and everything. Having arrived in England at the age of eight I quickly regressed to about age seven but eventually found my way back to forty-two. At sixty-one I am forty-two even now as I write this with my forty-two year old fingers.

Perhaps we all home in on an age, show signs of it before we get there, and thenceforth remain there until something breaks. I'd like to say I was for ever twenty-nine or even thirty-six but the truth, I feel, is closer to forty-two. Still, that's nineteen years younger than sixty-one so I don't complain.

I imagine forty-two because my parents told me I had the manners of a wise old man as an infant, weighing things up and pronouncing perceptively on matters such as Hungarian foreign policy, the rate of wheat production and on broad philosophical questions, such as 'Which way is up?' A wise old man as an infant can't be older than forty-two. Any older would be plain ridiculous.

I don't think I had any great desire to be a child. I don't remember any such desire. For that reason I came to pop music rather late by modern standards, surfing in on the '60s and firmly established on the beach by the time it got to the '70s. So, by the time Bowie came around, for instance, I already felt out of the pop ambience. Pop was something that happened in late childhood, aka adolescence. It was for kids. I was not a kid. Kiddishness I have slowly recovered in my retrospective forty-two year old fashion. Much like dancing, in fact.

But then I also hated being of the crowd. The latest books, the latest music. I resisted it for being the latest. If it was good it was going to be good after it was no longer the latest. I wanted detachment. Stevie Smith once said she never read anything less than two-hundred years old. She exaggerated but the idea was quite appealing in its mad way. I wanted to discover things entirely for myself then make some kind of choice about it without the tide of opinion washing in one ear and out the other.

Weird, eh?

This reflection was triggered by listening - actually listening - to Morrissey on Desert Island Discs this morning. I hadn't paid him great attention in the '80s. He was clearly interesting but somehow it wasn't quite behovely to pretend to be of that pack. This despite the fact that Morrissey himself is only eleven years younger than me.

He sounded interesting on the programme, very self-conscious, very droll, confident, a touch confrontational, intelligent, an original. He clearly valued words-as-lyrics, at one point likening Lou Reed to W.H. Auden. Well, maybe.

I'll listen now.

Thursday, 3 December 2009


I rarely disagree with Norm, but I'm not sure about his post titled Straw Lerman regarding Antony Lerman's view of the Demjanjuk trial. It begins:

Talk about inventing an argument so that you've got something to write to the contrary. Antony Lerman has found a reason for worrying about the Demjanjuk trial. It's that the trial could be 'ratcheting up expectations of some final closure'. Lerman explains:

This, for me, is the major flaw in the process – encouraging people to believe that we have come to the end of dealing with the consequences of the Holocaust. As if history is now done and dusted. Or that closing the door on the last trial makes further reckoning with the past impossible. The hunt for Nazi war criminals, which always attracts huge international attention, has greatly contributed to this distortion of reality. It reduces our image of the Holocaust to the unspeakable acts of the evil criminal, who is then tracked down, exposed and put on trial so that a final reckoning can take place in a public, adversarial confrontation with the memories of Holocaust survivors.

It may satisfy some visceral need to see the individual as the repository of evil, a symbol of the horrors, who is then removed from society, but it's too neat. All the complexities of the Demjanjuk case prove that.

I don't like to overstate things, but what useless verbiage that is. To try an alleged participant in a genocide that killed millions and still stands as a symbol of modern-day barbarism in no way implies expectation of final closure with the trial, or supports a belief that the consequences of that epochal horror will be concluded by it...

I wish Norm were right but my hunch is that the Denjanjuk trial will be seen by many as a closure of sorts. After all there are a great many people who actively want a closure, if only because lack of closure implies an obligation.

Thank God we can forget about that lot then, they think. And now they can stop whining about it too. And using it as an excuse.

Haven't people always done this and is this not why closures are suspect? There are few, if any, closures of memory or the imagination. but there are certainly closures of the will.

When disaster strikes someone, or indeed a people, there is action. Some help, some weep, some stay quiet and some rejoice. Schadenfreude is not an uncommon feeling. Being obliged to feel guilty for even a smidgeon of it, is a burden and nobody likes carrying a burden. Lay it down!

The disaster having happened and the bodies having been counted, the next stage is documentation. Who are the dead? Where are they? Who did it? How? Where are the survivors? What will become of them? This produces evidence, trials, and political solutions.

The next stage is personal account as memoir. I was there, I experienced it, this is what it was like as narrative. This is my story. Forming a story is already a modification that enlarges some facts and shrinks others. Some facts it forgets altogether. Stories follow certain archetypal patterns, so do these stories.

The stage after that is straight literature. Fiction. A certain distance is required for all art. The remarkable thing about, say, Radnóti's last poems is that he could be both there on the death march and still be elsewhere in his mind. He could maintain distance. But that is poetry, which is not exactly fiction. Constructing a novel in which the documented takes second place to the invented moves the event still further off. Survivors might find such fictionalised accounts disturbing. Though they themselves may, for sanity's sake, have started to see their experiences on a fictional plane. Art is, after all, an attempt at sanity, at giving the shock of events form and meaning.

The next stage is cliché, commonplace, myth: the lay figure. Ken Livingstone accusing a doorstepping reporter of being 'a concentration camp guard'. I wasn't expecting The Spanish Inquisition! was the Python joke. What was the Inquisition? Three absurd cardinals in a living room. I wasn't expecting the Holocaust! would not have worked then, but give it twenty years and, who knows?

Myth-cliché is the last stage before events break up altogether.

Then, as myth becomes commonplace and, eventually a joke, the original event is questioned. The questions become respectable. So we get revision. Perhaps the whole thing never happened like that. Perhaps the bad people weren't all that bad, nor the innocent so innocent.

That is the stage we are at with Twelve Jewish Children and with the acceptance of Islamic anti-Semitism. It never happened. They are all liars. They capitalise on it. They are all headcases. They deserved it.

So now the last of the last real characters in the documentary, of the evidential stage, is brought to trial. Rightly brought to trial, in my opinion, because it is the trial and not the sentence that matters here.

And no, it is not a closure, but it is an excuse for closure. And that is all some people need.

Now at last will you shut up! they'll hiss. Look, there's nothing there. Perhaps there never was. Schadenfreude is not an uncommon feeling. Being obliged to feel guilty, for even a smidgeon of it, was a burden and nobody liked carrying a burden. Lay it down!

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Márai: a perfectly dressed ghost,

Judit, the abjectly poor beautiful peasant girl, turned maid, turned wife of the son of a rich industrialist from whom she separated before the war, is in Rome in 1949 or so, with her jazz drummer lover, having left Hungary after the communist take over. It is night, almost dawn, and she recalls the chaotic days after the siege of Budapest. All the bridges have been blown up. Th city is a smoking ruin from which the survivors emerge. A hastily constructed temporary bridge spans the Danube and there are long queues of ragged filthy people either side waiting to cross from one side to the other. As she is crossing she spots her ex-husband on the other side and runs to meet him.

...I couldn’t believe my eyes. You know who stood in front of me on that improvised bridge among queues that stretched into the far distance, some ten or twenty thousand people in the smoky, sooty town where there were few houses left unmarked by shell or bullet holes? There was hardly an unbroken window anywhere. There was no traffic, no policeman, no law, nothing, a place where people dressed like beggars even when there was no need to, deliberately looking wretched, ancient and penniless, growing wild beards, stumbling about in rags to awaken others’ pity. Grand ladies carried sacks and everyone had a back pack like village brats, idle itinerants…. My husband stood in front me. It was the same man I hurt seven years ago. Exactly the same, the man who, when he understood that I was not his lover, not even his wife but his enemy, came to me one afternoon, smiled and quietly said:

- I think it might be best for us to separate.

He always started sentences that way when he wanted to say something very important: ‘I think…’. Or, ‘I imagine…’ He never spoke his mind directly, never hit you with it in the eye. When my father could take no more he would exclaim: ‘Godammit!...’ And then he would hit me. But my husband, whenever he couldn’t bear something, courteously opened a little door each time, as if what he were saying was merely something to consider, a by-the-way thought, in the course of which the true import or damage hidden in what he said could slip by you. He learned this in England, in the school where he studied. Another favourite phrase of his was: ‘I’m afraid that...’. One evening, for example, he turned to me and said, ‘I’m afraid my mother is dying’....

What strikes her is how beautifully he is still dressed,

...Any ordinary person might imagine that a man and woman might exchange a few words on meeting by the Danube, among the ruins of Budapest, after the siege… They might, for example, start by establishing the fact that both are still alive, don’t you think? “I’m afraid’ or ‘I think’ – one could imagine that, But my husband’s mind was elsewhere, so we just sat in front of the cave opposite the mineral springs and stared at each other.

I stared pretty hard, as you can imagine and I started to tremble. It was like being in a dream: the fog and the reality, both at once.

You know I am not any kind of ninny, darling. Nor am I a sentimental little tramp who starts bawling when she feels on edge or when she’s moved by a farewell. The reason I was trembling was because the man sitting beside me, opposite the vast tomb that the whole city had become, was not a human being, but a ghost.

Sometimes others only persist in dreams. Only dreams- dreams more effective than formaldehyde - can preserve apparitions like my husband as he seemed to me at that moment. Just imagine! His clothes were not ragged! I can’t remember precisely but I think he was wearing the same charcoal grey double-breasted suit I last saw him in, that he wore when he told me to my face, ‘I think it might be best for us to separate.’ I couldn’t be sure about the suit because he had many others like it… two or three, single-breasted, double-breasted… but in any case the same cut, the same material and produced by the very same tailor who had made his father’s suits.

Even on a morning like this he was wearing a clean shirt, a pale-cream lawn shirt and a dark grey tie. His shoes were black and double-soled. They looked brand new, though I have no idea how he could have crossed that dusty bridge without a speck of dust sticking to them. I was, of course, perfectly aware that the shoes were not new and that they only looked that way because they’d hardly been worn, for after all he had a dozen like them in his shoe-cupboard… I had seen enough of his shoes on the hall seat when it was I who cleaned those fine leather objects. Now there he was, wearing them.

They talk about things being fresh out of the outfitter’s box. But this was not only a box but a mass grave out of which people had climbed. It was the ditch out of which he himself had climbed. There was not a crease on the suit. His light beige gabardine raincoat - Made in England - was casually draped across his arm, very roomy, almost obscenely comfortable as I remember because it was I who had unwrapped the package from London when it first arrived… Much later I myself passed the shop in London from which the coat had been purchased, there in the window among other things… It was the raincoat he was still wearing at that very moment, thrown across his arm in an almost careless fashion now, because it was a mild end-of-winter afternoon.

He wore no gloves, of course, because he only put them on in the very depths of winter when it was freezing. So I looked at his hands too – they were white and clean, his nails so unobtrusively manicured you’d think they’d never seen a pair of scissors… That was him all over.

You know what was the strangest thing? When you put him in with that crowd of filthy, muddy, grimy, ragged people creeping over the bridge, his presence was practically incendiary. And yet he was almost invisible. I wouldn’t have been surprised if someone from among the crowd came over, took him by the lapels and shook and poked him, just to check that he was real…Imagine what would happen in the French Revolution, in those months of the Terror, when aristocrats were being hunted all over Paris the way children hunt sparrows with catapults, if an elderly nobleman appeared on the street in lilac frockcoat and powdered wig, amiably waving at carts filled with fellow counts and earls of his class on their way to the scaffold. There would be nothing between him and my husband – each as spectacular as the other. He was mysteriously different from the toiling throng around him, as if he had emerged not from one of the many bombed-out houses but from an invisible theatre, a piece of period drama for which he was appropriately fitted by the dresser. It was an old part in an old play, the kind that was never going to be put on now.


It was the end of the story for members of his class. They had no role in the new regime.

It is the persistence of class ethos that Márai is getting at and in fact admiring. The quiet pride in maintaining appearance and appearances. He himself was far more like the husband than the maid / wife, of course.