Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Cloud Talk 5: Cloud Crossing


Photograph by kind permission of Mark Granier, of his own parish, but a welcome visitor to this one. A perfect picture for the occasion. The cloud moves over two walls, a language behind each. Let us say. For the sake of argument.


...So, in the spirit of disordering, let me finish with two examples of what is possible, the first only briefly, as a mere glimpse

Judging last year’s Stephen Spender Prize, along with three other judges, I came across two fascinating examples of translation as the disordering of specific disciplines by, in effect, reordering – substituting one form for another. One of these translations won, the other was highly commended. I should say that this was due as much to the enthusiasm of the other judges as to my own.

The highly commended one by A.C. Clarke took a prose poem by Baudelaire, La Chambre Double, the beginning of which looks like this:

La Chambre Double

Une chambre qui ressemble à une rêverie, une chambre véritablement spirituelle, où l’atmosphère stagnante est légèrement teintée de rose et de bleu.

L’âme y prend un bain de paresse, aromatisé par le regret et le désir. – C’est quelque chose de crépusculaire, de bleuâtre et de rosâtre; un rêve de volupté pendant une éclipse.

Les meubles ont des formes allongées, prostrées, alanguies. Les meubles ont l’air de rêver; on les dirait doués d’une vie somnambulique, comme le végétal et le minéral. Les étoffes parlent une langue muette, comme les fleurs, comme les ciels, comme les soleils couchants.

Sur les murs nulle abomination artistique. Relativement au rêve pur, à l’impression non analysée, l’art défini, l’art positif est un blasphème. Ici, tout a la suffisante clarté et la délicieuse obscurité de l’harmonie….

And rendered it in Burns stanza, like this:

Room Wi’Twa Nebs

Ah’m in a room, a sonsie room,
nae breith o’ wind: saft colours soom
afair ma een – a blae-pink gloam
that’s ful o’ pace.
Ah lit ma idle fancy roam
oot o’ this place.

Ah’m in a dwam, nae wull at all
nae mair than thon saft cheers that sprawl
kivvered wi’ claiths that min’ th’ sawl
of flooers an’ sky,
an’ nae a paintin oan the wall
tae turn ma ee.

Fur airt oan canvas is tae drame
nae better than a scunnerin’ sham.
Sic parfumes cowdle roon th’ room
as blumes exhale.
Afair ma een th’ windies teem
wi’ billowin’ swell

o’ muslin hingers. Roon th’ bed
they fa’ like snae – an’ wha has spreed
hir ferlie shap a’ unperceived
upo’ th’ pillaes?
Hir een ur deip as pools o’ dreid
an’ fu’ o’ malice –…

Clearly, item A is not item B. For whale read camel. And yet it does something very interesting. It offers the reader a strict, local form in which the form is to a great extent the determiner of the meaning and tone of the poem, and applies it to a piece of prose in which the blend of idea and texture are of great importance. It is not just that this camel is not much like that whale, it is that this cloud, surely, cannot be very much like that cloud. The question must be: what do they share? And whether this camel is worth reading in terms of that whale? How far is the new cloud an entirely new cloud?

The jury could not agree on that. I, like the others, pushed it about gingerly on my plate, fascinated and charmed by it. I remembered how Edwin Morgan had rendered Mayakovsky into broad literary Scots, and how Ted Hughes had rendered the modernist-classicist Hungarian poet, János Pilinszky into a modernised form of Old English. We look at such things and ponder about their place in the world, chiefly because our sense of balance requires clear and distinct places. It is like opening the door on a room and finding strange furniture inside. It isn’t reproduction: it’s something else that would not, however, exist without its original referent and pattern. This cloud depends on that cloud. It is, at any rate, picking up something vital in the original.

* more piece to come.

Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Cloud Talk 4: Disordering, stormy weather

I have moved from cloud to music, because the effect of the cloud - its suggestive effect - is partly musical, partly lexical. Play, music, and cloud are the three terms used by Hamlet but they are parts of a single whole. The play is lexical in terms of language and action. It signifies actor, action and occasion. The music is what is made on our instruments. It signifies, as music does: as form. The cloud is the process of making and understanding.

The title of this whole symposium is Disordering the Disciplines. I’d like to make a small problematical contribution to that disordering and think of the possibility of substituting one form for another.

One of the most frequently translated major poetical works is the CommediaInferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso - by Dante Alighieri, the best known, most poignant and cruel part of the trilogy being, the Inferno. The verse form Dante made famous is terza rima, a form I have used myself on several occasions. The nature of terza rima makes it particularly suitable for narrative because its rhyme scheme is so organised that one verse of three lines is constantly hooking into the next through the use of rhyme, the order being: ABA BCB CDC DED and so on, potentially ad infinitum. This stepping forward is part of the poem’s voyage through the various levels of eternity, a stately progress to move the mind on, past scenes and characters that are witnessed or addressed by the central figure, Dante himself, or his companion, Virgil.

The fact is that Dante’s poem has been translated into various forms: simple tercets, prose, colloquial language, high language, pentameters, free verse and, of course, terza rima itself. Dorothy Sayers said of her own translation that she could not imagine rendering Dante without terza rima: the verse form was, she thought, integral to its meaning as a poem. Others have followed her, partially at least, in their own way – John Ciardi produces a strongly rhymed ABA CDC, EFE and so on; Robert Pinsky, a more variably rhymed, more roughly enjambed terza rima proper.

The complaint is often heard that English, not being an inflected language, is poorer in rhyme than, say, Italian, though this forgets the fact that inflected rhymes are generally deprecated in languages where they are likely to occur. The sheer variety of English vowels is more like to be the problem, but there is no insoluble problem in poetry.

Nevertheless the maintaining of terza rima over hundreds of lines is no easy task. The reproduction furniture makers might think it sufficient to match the form, but it takes a really poetic vision to turn that match into living language.

Let us assume we can do that, difficult as it is, and speaking as a practical translator of poetry and fiction from Hungarian - a little spoken or translated language - it is what I feel obliged to do. That obligation is what I must make clear, first and foremost. That, I take to be the base: that act of baseness, of forgery, of homage and mediation that we call fidelity or ‘translation’.

But fidelity to what? As a poet myself I do not know precisely what it is I am being faithful to, except some balance between the forms of language and a feeling that remains to be explored and clarified, as if emerging out of a cloud. One might set out to create the image of a whale yet end of with a perfectly good camel or a weasel, or what appears so to the reader.

* be continued

Monday, 29 March 2010

Cloud Talk 3: The cumulonimbus and the tuba

Cumulonimbus tuba via

[Back from London, gathering at EH's on Saturday night, the night in Hitchin, visiting greatly spirited dying friend in London this afternoon, then on to reading by Faber Academy poets in Great Russell Street. Just home, having quickly read emails, but not up to responding now. Tomorrow. Meanwhile, back to those clouds.]

We should probably leave the clouds at some stage and descend to earth, to the hard practicalities of translation. But I’d like to carry the cloud with us, as a cloud in the mind and the heart, even as we consider practicalities. The notion of the cloud envisages it as a location for seeking meaning, as a form that arises out of some necessity in the physical universe that is then echoed in the universe of the mind: the cloud becomes a limiter of knowledge, a wonderful sensory provider of the necessary possibilities of knowledge.

The cloud has form that is clearly perceptible. The poem talked of language as no more than punctuation and rhyme, that is to say convention. That is a dramatic hyperbole, of course, a kind of synechdoche for the other formal qualities of language as opposed to its signifying quality. It is a part that stands for a whole. The forms of language are what make language: that is the suggestion. Clouds have form: language has form.

And so to poems. Poems certainly do have form, are clearly formal utterances. My own poem works in quatrains and rhymes ABBA throughout.

One of the old, continually recurring debates with the translation of poetry, concerns fidelity to form. Fidelity to the lexicon is, we know, gestural at best, though it is the kind of fidelity we usually mean when it comes to translation. Is this or that word being properly understood? When the poet says whale, he does not mean shark let alone camel or weasel. All this is, no doubt, true and important, while at the same time we must be aware that rendering a whale as a whale does not solve all the problems of translation when it comes to poetry, if only because we are aware that, in poetry, it is not so much the mechanical, narrative function of the whale that is foregrounded (though it can never quite vanish) but some idea of what a whale denotes and connotes. A certain, fully contextualised whaleness is what is wanted, the kind of whaleness that is not altogether precise but - shall we say? - a little cloudy.

Fidelity to form works along different lines – lines, let us say, of matching lengths, in matching clusters, making similar gestures to sound at certain crucial points. There, we say, is an original work: here we are, reproducing its elements. We are not Chippendale or Sheraton: we reproduce their forms. We are makers of reproduction furniture, and reproduction furniture is, we understand, something between a homage and a cheat. That is not to say we are not craftsmen, because Chippendale and Sheraton are by no means easy to imitate – we deserve credit for our skill, but our very calling is a little unworthy, even a touch shady. We duplicate, therefore we are potentially duplicitous.

Very well, let us allow that. Nevertheless there are certain common forms, we might argue, that carry a certain inescapable history, in fact an entire sense of being with them. Say, the sonnet. Though there are various kinds of sonnet they do have certain commonly identifiable characteristics, such as having fourteen lines. We might also argue that if a poet has chosen a specific version of the available sonnet models that constitutes a conscious choice. One might find oneself accidentally finishing up with a Shakespearian sonnet with all that entails, but in proposing that possibility we should remember that we are only just down the corridor from the vast hall where a thousand monkeys are hammering away at typewriters until one of them finally produces Hamlet.

So, let us, hesitantly, propose that such common forms are part of the meaning of the poem. How important a part? We might, equally hesitantly, propose that the character of the voice is to some degree defined by the kind of posture it adopts in producing its music. Music was the other term Hamlet employed, of course, there being, ‘…much music, excellent voice, in this little organ’. Most ordinary speech is noise with elements of music: a poem though – this little organ, though sometimes it is a pretty mighty organ - clearly is music, an organized set of shiftings, working on some principle that gives it form, a necessary form. A violinist does not adopt the same posture as a tuba player...

* be continued.

Sunday, 28 March 2010

Sunday Night is... Ravel

The String Quartet in F Major, First Movement, played by The American String Quartet. It's 1903 and Ravel is just twenty-eight.

I remember hearing this for the first time at a small concert in a small town. I don't generally like going to big concerts because I know my attention span with music is concentrated, but short. I am easily distracted and start running away into my own thoughts, and before I know it, I have missed ten, twenty, thirty bars. The music has gone.

But this swept me away, utterly. It still sounds extraordinarily fresh in my ear. I don't know whether it is the romantic quality as it edges into modernism. Parts of it are like film music - or rather parts of film music are like it. I could imagine passages accompanying something by Hitchcock. But that is not what happens when I am really listening. I don't 'picture' anything. I just feel my senses quite alive, and am moved to a great shuddering degree. Maybe it's like surviving something. Maybe all art is that.

Oh, very well! Why not have the wonderful second movement too?

Cloud Talk 2: The Translators


...This time last year I was listening to Clive Scott give a fascinating lecture on translation, in which he criticised our common notions of translation as fakery, almost criminal fakery, and illustrated his thesis with possible readings of a poem by Apollinaire. As he talked he produced an ever more complex set of notations on a single sheet of paper, a set of notations, I thought, remarkably like a cloud, or, indeed, like a whale. It was a daunting lecture that made me think very hard not only about my concerns as a translator but as a poet. They were troubled thoughts, as is only proper. Out of these troubled thoughts came this poem:

The Translators

Sometimes you see clouds drifting past the city,
inventions of the sky,
within which images appear then petrify
and remain there in perpetuity.

Otherwise things shift with a certain insouciance
but keep moving. Meaning vanishes
into night, into the vacant parishes
of the imagination, into a non-presence

that is positively terrifying. But there,
the clouds still loom like statues
with faces, as if one could choose
to see them suspended in imagined air.

I have jumped to conclusions in my time.
What else would you jump to otherwise?
To orders? to attention? Look into the eyes
of language and you see nothing. Only rhyme

and punctuation. I have talked to ghosts
in ghost language, the solemn dead
at their jabber, hearing the music of instead,
the sigh of the wind at its last post.

I once had a mother who used at times to speak
but now I only conjure her. We carve
images into clouds so we should not starve
for lack of company. We break

the silence into pieces, syllables of space.
We are translated into ourselves. The sky
rushes at us. We observe it insouciantly,
watching clouds move, looking for a face.

We have seen mirrors in darkened rooms
hunger for you. We have seen the dead
in your streets. We have felt the dread
of our faces and the shapes a face assumes

in its own mirror. We owe them a shape,
all those faceless ones, you and I.
We should feed them before they petrify,
before their clouds pack up or else escape.

How do I know myself before I have created
my simulacrum? How are the hungry
to be fed? Listen, the sky is angry.
The gods are demanding to be translated.

- from The Burning of the Books (2009)

The central image there is of seeing faces in clouds rather than camels or weasels or whales. The poem proposes, in so far as poems propose as such, clouds like statues with faces, faces that are of vital importance. The face of the speaker’s dead mother is there, though he knows he is only imagining her. You look into the eyes of language, says the poem, and you see nothing except punctuation and rhyme. Eventually the poem begins to guess that it is our own faces we are looking for when we search the clouds of language. The point of writing is to translate clouds of experience into language that matters: to create our simulacra. The faces in the clouds, the poem guesses, are the only faces we have. It conflates various ideas: of seeing, of desiring to see, of interpreting, of translating and of creating and offers them as a single complex act in which, however, it still makes sense to talk of individual components. We are the hungry, says the poem at the end. The sky is angry and demanding. It is the gods there that demand translation. In other words, we experience our state of being in cloudy terms that require us to see images in them...


to be continued.

Saturday, 27 March 2010

Cloud Talk 1


The beginning of the talk about translation at the UEA Symposium: Disordering the Disciplines. I always feel awkward talking to specialists, and this was a half hour talk, so a little extra daunting.


...You will remember this famous exchange between Hamlet and Polonius. In Act 3, Scene II

Hamlet: Do you see yonder cloud, that's almost in shape like a camel?
Polonius: By the mass, and 't is like a camel, indeed.
Hamlet: Methinks, it is like a weasel.
Polonius: It is backed like a weasel.
Hamlet: Or, like a whale.
Polonius: Very like a whale
The Players have performed their play in front of Claudius and Gertrude. King Claudius, having recognised himself in it, dashes off, distraught; Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern have come to quiz Hamlet on his state of mind and to attempt a reconciliation, and finally comes Polonius who is essentially humouring Hamlet in his possible madness.

Just before Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern depart and Polonius appears, Hamlet talks to himself, saying:

Why, look you now, how unworthy a thing you make of me! You would play upon me; you would seem to know my stops; you would pluck out the heart of my mystery; you would sound me from my lowest note to the top of my compass: and there is much music, excellent voice, in this little organ; yet cannot you make it speak. 'Sblood, do you think I am easier to be played on than a pipe? Call me what instrument you will, though you can fret me, yet you cannot play upon me.

The scene ends with the famous ‘Tis now the very witching time of night’ speech.

The whole passage is about interpretation on three levels. The player’s performance lends itself to a specific interpretation, especially to a specific audience. There is something vital at stake and an action to follow. The parallels are clear. This character in the play equals this character among the spectators. This action in the world of the play denotes that action in the world of the audience. The play’s the thing to catch the conscience of the king. Hamlet modifies the players’ play in order to achieve a particular end. The point of the play is recognition.

But while we can see and interpret the player’s play with relative ease, in the scene with Rosenkrantz and Guildernstern we are presented with a different mechanism. Hamlet is the musical instrument that the two false friends would play. ‘You would play upon me,’ says Hamlet. ‘You would seem to know my stops; you would pluck out the heart of my mystery; you would sound me from my lowest note to the top of my compass.’ Hamlet moves on from the idea of an instrument to the music itself:’ and there is much music, excellent voice, in this little organ’. Here it is the nature of an identity that is at question. That identity is conceived in terms of music. Hamlet is an instrument that contains music, but the music remains secret, more of it, and more excellent than Rosenkrantz and Guildernstern allow for. It may be that to a good friend, a proper friend, that music might be revealed or at least partly sounded.

When it comes to Polonius’s cloud, however, no clear action, no clear purpose is implied. It is in some ways a game to be played by Hamlet against Polonius, - a game of ‘guess my subjectivity’- and poor, desperate Polonius just plays along. Nevertheless, the clouds are really out there and are really to be seen as they are, as clouds with a certain shape and form, and while we, or they, may dispute whether that form be interpreted as camel, weasel or whale, it is agreed there is a hump that provides a certain minimal basis for all three interpretations.

The cloud is an important game to Hamlet, but it raises an important question, particularly to a poet. Translation, a practical affair, is our subject but interpretation, a less clearly defined act, is our focus. It is not original to suggest that the act of composing is in itself a form of translation, or that listening even to the most familiar language remains an act of interpretation. But how does a translator tell the subjective from the objective, the camel from the cloud or the wood from the trees?

As a poet I am struck by the unfixity, evanescence, constant shifting of language, the way a word changes shape from context to context, how a phrase awakens a range of associations that the next phrase modifies. That process of building phrase on phrase, rhythm or rhythm, emotion on emotion, meaning on meaning, within certain assumed physical laws of a poem (involving lineation, metre, rhyme, punctuation, syntax) is what I think of as composition. The poet, according to this, begins with an idea, proceeds to a form, and launches a series of interpretations that hold the form together. In effect he starts with a play where some things are known, he moves this to the music of voice and identity and so creates a cloud. The cloud has a necessary form governed by physical factors that might suggest camels, weasels, whales or any other thing without necessarily confirmable as being camel, weasel or whale. It suggests. Something has formed the cloud. But it is not a clear intention. The cloud is as it is for a reason, a reason that implies, but can never quite offer, the clear hard core of substance...


I might continue with the text, but it may well appear on the symposium's own site. Or possibly, elsewhere. If anyone specifically wants me to carry on posting, I'll see if that is permissible.


Off in about ten minutes, to give one of the keynote presentations at the translation symposium at UEA. I am, perforce, using the dreaded ultra-managerial PowerPoint, which comes ready with bullet points. I have dropped all the bullet points and put bits of poems and prose there. I hope it works. What am I talking about?

Clouds. Shapes in them, forming them, reading them, interpreting them, transforming them, making new clouds.

Head in clouds, as ever. Feet, I keenly hope, on terra firma.

Friday, 26 March 2010

Stepping off lightly

I tell myself I am sixty-one but I don't believe it. Everything inside me insists I am somewhere between forty and forty-five, and I recall reading how sixty was the new forty, forty the new twenty, and twenty the new embryo. I think everyone my age does in fact look younger than I thought they'd look.

And then I think this is a lot of vain nonsense, isn't it? And I begin to suspect that it is something to do with being of my generation. I suppose I am, generationally speaking, a baby-boomer, but I doubt whether Budapest 1948 quite qualifies as baby-boomtown. Having emerged from one darkness the country was about to enter a new one.

Growing up in the sixties in England, all the images I had of middle age, let alone old age, were deeply negative. Who wanted to be middle-aged, middle-class, mid-station? There could be nothing less cool, and my generation - and all succeeding generations - have been obsessed with cool, cool as the one value you don't argue with. Cool meant you shrugged. You didn't care. You were beyond and above and through with that. You'd leave a beautiful corpse.

Being middle-aged was as far from cool as you could get. As for old age, that was so far off the radar, you might as well have been another species.

No wonder then that my g-g-g-generation shrink from time. Our younger brothers and sisters are of the Me generation. They dread time all the more. Larkin's marvellous line about young mothers with prams, about something 'pushing them to the side of their own lives' doesn't just apply to mothers. It is the theme song of the generations following Larkin, who never once seemed young himself

Just this morning I was talking to an old friend on the phone, an old dying friend. After the first five minutes of chat he found his breath and he was away, talking and thinking, erudite, opinionated, generous, sharp. He was like that photograph yesterday of the lightning on the side of the truck. He was rumbling on, full of electricity.

One absorbs all this, watches it flash and thunder, then pass by. One of my recommendations for poems is that they should 'enter firmly: step off lightly'. When my friend steps off I think it will be lightly, neither old nor young, not leaving a beautiful corpse, just a corpse.

The lightning in the truck continues flashing, and then one day the truck simply stops, and there he is, and there you are, stepping off lightly, like a fortunate man, living in fortunate times.

Thursday, 25 March 2010

Satantango: The girl in the pigeon loft

The book continues, as ever, harrowing and darkly comical - this part is chiefly harrowing, or, rather, becomes so. Here is how this episode begins.

It wasn’t easy. Back then it had taken her two days to work out where she should plant her foot, what to grab for support and how to squeeze herself through what looked to be the impossibly narrow hole left by a few slats that opened under the eaves at the back of the house; now, of course, it took only half a minute and was only mildly risky, entailing one well-chosen movement to leap onto the black tarpaulin covering the woodpile, grabbing the gutter, slipping her left foot into the gap and sliding it to one side, then forcefully entering, head first, while kicking away with her free foot, and there she was inside the old pigeon loft in the attic, in that single domain whose secrets were known to her alone, where she had no need to fear her elder brother’s sudden, inexplicable assaults, though she did have to be careful not to awaken the suspicions of her mother and elder sister on account of her long absence, because, should they discover her secret, they would immediately ban her from the loft, and then all further effort would be in vain. But what did all that matter now! She pulled off her soaked jumper, adjusted her favourite pink outfit with its white collar and sat herself at ‘the window’ where she closed his eyes and shivered, ready to jump, listening to the roar of rain on the tiles. Her mother was asleep in the house somewhere below, her sisters hadn’t yet returned though it was time for dinner, so she was practically certain that no one would look for her that afternoon, with the possible exception of Sanyi, and nobody ever knew where to find him which made all his appearances sudden and unexpected, as if he were seeking the answer to some long-ignored secret of the estate, a secret that could only be discovered by means of a sudden surprise attack. The fact was she had no real reason to be frightened, because no one ever did look for her; on the contrary, she had been firmly told to stay away, particularly – and this was often the case - when there was a visitor at the house. She had found herself in this no-man’s-land because she was incapable of obeying orders; she wasn’t allowed to be anywhere near the door nor to wander too far because she knew she could be summoned any time (‘Go fetch me a bottle of wine. On the double!’ or ‘Get me three packets of cigarettes, my girl, Kossuth brand, you won’t forget, will you?’), and should she fail but once in her mission she’d never be let into the house again. Because there was nothing else left to her: her mother, when she was sent home from the special-needs school ‘by mutual agreement’ put her to kitchen work, but her fear of disapproval - when plates broke on the floor, or enamel chipped off the pan, or when the cobweb remained in the corner, or when the soup turned out tasteless, or the paprika stew too salty - made her incapable of completing the simplest tasks at last, so there was nothing for it but to chase her from the kitchen too. From that time on, her days were filled with cramping anxiety and she hid herself behind the barn or, sometimes at the end of the house under the eaves because from there she could keep an eye on the kitchen door so that, though they couldn’t see her from there, if they called she could appear immediately.

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Storm Lorry and the Donnée


One of my favourite photographs by C, taken from the car as we were driving home on a stormy summer evening. The rain is hitting the windscreen, a storm is about to break out on the left and then we approach this lorry to our left fringing the storm with a lightning symbol on its side. It's a photo that speaks for itself and needs no voice, unless the voice is going to talk about something else invisibly, as if by lightning.

The image is so potent it might be considered to be a donnée. I remember a donnée from our early days in Hichin, when the houses next door to us were demolished, and I came home one dusk to find four white doves ranged around two black on the walls still standing. The poem that resulted, titled A Donnée appeared in my second book November and May, back in 1982. The true subject of the poem was the hinterland between dream, symbol and reality, when all three coincide.

The donnée presents us with moments of fullest, self-exhausting significance. I don't mean in the earth-shaking sense, simply in that the meanings or suggestions of things appear to coincide with their appearances. In the case of this photo it involves a deep pun of some kind.

But maybe the donnée lies all around us, unnoticed. What was the Cartier-Bresson phrase about the decisive moment? He also said this:

The creative act lasts but a brief moment, a lightning instant of give-and-take, just long enough for you to level the camera and to trap the fleeting prey in your little box.

And see, there's the lightning already in it, in that lightning instant of his, just as it is in the lorry and in the mind. A lorry full of lightning, shifting fast as lightning, and the poem too, wherever it exists, heavy as a lorry, fully charged with electricity, thundering along.

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

One is truly gratified...

Writing in yesterday's Guardian, Robert McCrum reflected on Ian Rankin's use of class terms in defining the position of crime writing and suggested a class structure for writers in Britain, like this:

The author of the Inspector Rebus series was being interviewed in advance of the Cologne literary festival. Rankin is a literature PhD fully versed in English-language literary tradition, who chose crime writing as a "good way of looking at society, and of exploring a city". But in his interview, he characterised crime novelists as "kids from the wrong side of the tracks, the non-literary brigade".

This isn't exactly an original perception, but Rankin's use of class vocabulary is unusual; no American would ever speak in such a way. And it got me thinking about the class structure of the British book world. No question there is one, though people will probably disagree about who's at the top and bottom of the heap.

At the top, to my way of thinking anyway, there are those impoverished aristos, the poets. To be a poet, however reduced and/or neglected, is to be a member of an elite; heir to a tradition that includes Chaucer, Shakespeare, Byron, Auden and Larkin.

Poets, for me, are closely followed by playwrights, for rather the same reason. Playwrights aren't aristocrats, but oddly vagrant. They're part of a tradition that is, arguably, the richest and most original thread in the English-literature tapestry. Write a successful play and you join Shakespeare (again), Jonson, Congreve, Sheridan, Wilde, Shaw, Pinter (there's no need, here, to get into an argument about the Irish contribution). I think it's undeniable that plays and players embody something uniquely demotic and uniquely English about our literature.

Then, oh dear yes, we come to the literary novelists. These are not (usually) aristocrats, but are rather middle-class types who spring from bourgeois society in all its complexity. Popular historians, biographers and memoirists share a similar position.

As Rankin noted in his DW interview, crime novelists in the 19th century were very much of this class. As crime fiction grew as a genre, however, it became associated with clerks and lower middle-class readers: people who commuted to work on trains and buses. Slowly, it became decoupled from literature and ended up "the wrong side of the tracks".

There, eventually, the crime authors were joined by thriller writers and spy novelists, all of whom have had to endure being patronised from a great height by the self-appointed priesthood of the "literary novelist". Part of this is inspired, as Rankin rightly notes, by sheer jealousy. Crime writers enjoy the kind of sales literary novelists can only dream about.

Finally, there is the literary underclass: the writers of celebrity biographies for whom very few have a good word to say.

My bold type, of course. Or should I say one's? One should, in any case, one imagines, live up to that. One should exercise one's elite privileges, which are... erm, occasionally being noticed by people like Robert McCrum. One notes the endless deference offered one generally, and while one, of course, deprecates deference, one hopes to bank it somewhere in the Bank of Esteem. One finds one's local branch of such a bank on the right side of the tracks, which is, one inevitably finds, one's domain. One is glad to be regarded as an aristocract, however impoverished. One supposes the ancient practice of flyting might still be open to one. Meanwhile one hopes one has a bit of spare change. For the dog, mister.


Who had called for a secret ballot on Gordon Brown's leadership back in January? Patricia Hewitt and Geoff Hoon. And before that in June 2009? Stephen Byers. And which three retiring MPs have just been suspended because of the Dispatches sting? Patricia Hewitt, Geoff Hoon and Stephen Byers. That could be an interesting coincidence.

I did watch some of the Dispatches programme yesterday. As with any sting, the experience was squirmingly embarrassing, as it always is when we do anything secret and underhand, leading people into a false sense of security, then observing them. It was especially embarrassing for Byers.

All three claim not to have done anything wrong, since the job interviews that had been set up for them were for work after they had left parliament. And there is this to be said for them: the fake company that had advertised was pretending to be a lobbying firm. Access was the whole point and though the MPs will have stepped down by the time they took the job they would still have access to Parliament. Lobbying is the exercise of influence. Knowing that, the MPs naturally played up their contacts.

The question was whether it was legal to lobby from a privileged position as an ex-MP. Who, then, is entitled to lobby? Is lobbying something to be approved of? How are pressure groups to make their opinions known? How do you prevent some groups gaining an unfair advantage? How do you define fairness and enforce it? Big money can always call on more influence. But big unions and consumer groups can also exert influence in the same way. The balance is the question.

Lobbying can, of course, very quickly become corruption, especially when it comes to payment. On the other hand, if you go for a paid job as a lobbyist it is odd to have a fuss made about cash for access. That, as I understand, is the job. It was not a job for now, but for after. Hence, under the current system, it was not illegal.

Nevertheless, it is not morally edifying. In fact it is pretty disgusting.

Do you get suspended for being unedifying, then? Do you get suspended for being a nuisance? Or do you change the rules?

I am not at all concerned to defend the MPs in question, or the practice itself. But there is the question of undeclared overseas trips to come. The expenses scandal has already run like a plague through Parliament. I don't think 'tough action' now - especially when suspected to be opportunistic - is going to be of much help in the plague wards.

Just the following observations to myself:

1. Long administrations generally lead to a blurring of lines and the beginnings of corruption. It was the same with the Tories before 1997. This isn't an ideological issue but a pragmatic one;

2. I don't imagine the cleansing of the Blairites will lead to a more leftward leaning party. It is still the party of Peter Mandelson in charge;

3. Righteous feeding-frenzies always have an uneasy element of hypocrisy, though that doesn't mean that a purge (I use the word advisedly) is not sometimes called for;

4. These particular suspensions are somewhat shady in themselves;

5. General cynicism in politics is a bad thing. Scepticism is wiser than cynicism, it's just that scepticism is multi-directional. It is not altogether stupid to be sceptical about ourselves. Cynicism is emotionally satisfying in the short run but deeply corrosive in the long run.

I persist in thinking that politics can be, and is, more often than generally thought, an honourable calling, even when those who are called are fallible and can, over time, become corrupt, sometimes without even recognising it.

The better answer might have been not to suspend the three and focus all attention on them, but to let them go, then firmly close the door on the practice.

Monday, 22 March 2010

This is the Age of Glorious Hyperactivity

The BBC has been criticised for having only 20% of its presenters or main characters over fifty years of age. There was one five minute patch on BBC yesterday where three programmes flashed up: Tropic of Cancer, Wonders of the Solar System, and some science programme, working on the principle of WHEE!!! BANG!!! POW!!!

They all seemed to concern the same young man, bouncing through life like the Encylopaedia Britannica on a pogo stick. The young man - who, on closer inspection, turns out to be three young men - is ninety-percent hyperactive and is / are clearly being pushed as a personality / personalities. Now I have checked, it is definitely three people. The trouble is that it all looks the same personality. Mostly this one:

Even the camera tricks are similar. It wasn't like this when I was young, though occasionally I might confuse A J P Taylor with Arthur Askey.

The difference is clearer to me today. We're all post-Askey now.

What I want is a fat, unfit, bald old man, or indeed woman, preferably tipsy, sitting in a chair and looking me rather sleepily in the eye. I want this figure speaking prose. Elegant prose if possible, not bourgeois gentilhomme stuff. Frankly I don't want to be dazzled. I am dazzled enough as it is.

Give me prose. Prose not pogo sticks.

Sunday, 21 March 2010

Sunday Night is... Paul Robeson

One of the voices of my childhood.


Bright sunshine this morning so an impulse to drive out to the sea, no clear idea where, but somewhere via Holt. I drive, C navigates and decides. We end up in Blakeney, parked at the bottom of the street just opposite Blakeney Salt Marshes. There is a long circular walk there along a ridge that finishes up in Cley, from where the road completes the circle back to Blakeney. From Blakeney to Cley along the ridge is about an hour, or more if you keep stopping as we do, listening to birdcalls, focusing the binoculars here and there. There are Redshanks and Oystercatchers, Brent Geese, Skylarks, Black Terns, no end of gulls and ducks. The wind is light. An old wrecked boat here and there. One Redshank on the opposite bank is busily chucking stones aside with a considerable clatter. It looks utterly preoccupied. The sky greys for a while then opens out again. The tussocks in the marsh look soft and inviting: pools and rivulets. Swans, cygnets. The air is delicious: my hand still smells of it. We lunch at The George in Cley and walk back.

Most of my life is spent at a desk, not walking and certainly not doing walks like this, but after the long winter of snow and rain there is something marvellously liberating about just getting up and going. My bird recognition is residual, often a matter of guesswork. I am urban man not nature boy by birth, but the years I have spent outside cities have mounted up. If I could take time out I would be happy to be instructed in trees, in wild flowers, in birdcalls, in practically anything. I love learning and listening and there are so many fascinating lectures at the university I would attend if I could.

Old age might be something to look forward to if one could keep learning and working.

Friday, 19 March 2010

From the Memoirs of László Szirtes 2: Death and trams

Some more about the family.

I was born in Budapest, in a small clinic in Ferencváros, the IXth District, in 1917, the first child after my parents' marriage in 1916. Two and a half years later came my sister Lili who now lives in Argentina, and two and a half years after that, my little brother Endre, who was killed in the holiday accident, buried under a pile of sand near a railway yard.

My father was born in 1886, my mother in 1893. I remember very little of them at that time. They were both thin. He looked like me, was never very elegant, wore a trilby and tie, dark suits and went clean shaven. He had dark hair, no moustache, a big nose - just like mine - and had had a bad operation when his was sixteen or so that left a two-inch scar under his arm. He was one of five children, with two brothers and two sisters. The two brothers went to grammar school, the gimnázium, and became educated men, unlike my father. The rest of the family looked down on him as a result. He got a job in the shoe factory instead and became a cutter, cutting the leather: quite a skilled job but poorly paid.

His sisters were never married and lived with their parents. They were called Riza and Ernestina, who was known as Tini. It was Riza and Tini who really brought me up. Riza, who was born in 1884, lost her only real love in the First World War and never got over it. She sacrificed her life to look after her parents. She earned a bit of money sewing at home or helped my mother when she had too much work. She was a dear, gentle woman. Tini, the plainer of the two sisters, looked older but was younger. She was resigned to doing the housework with my grandmother. She walked badly but loved shopping at the local shops. She and Riza would buy half a kilo of bread every day and 5 decagram of butter. There was usually a half kilo of cooking fat, and milk, of course, because there was no milk delivery then. Tini would carry the milk home in a jug each morning. Milk came in churns and we had to use it all up as there was no means of keeping it cool. Richer people had a kind of refrigerator that worked on ice, sold by icemen, which consisted of a tin compartment equipped with a tap through which the melted ice ran out into a bucket.

Their flat was in Eötvös utca [utca means street in Hungarian, you say it ootsa!]) and consisted of two rooms, a kitchen, a little hall and an outside toilet, all on the first floor of a four storey house. There was no bathroom.

The rooms were dark, the windows looking down on the yard rather than the street. The main room served as both dining room and bedroom. There were two single divans in there where my grandparents slept. All the walls were painted a light colour to compensate for the darkness - a light cream-yellowish colour. The furniture was old and dark though: a dining room table with chairs and a sideboard, all of dark wood. In my aunts' bedroom there were two single beds and a divan for me.

I didn't mind the arrangement, in fact I loved it. I would spend days with the three women - grandfather being out at work - and played football with friends in the same block, kicking the ball along the galleries, or table football, using buttons when we were indoors. Or we might go out to a small park nearby that was all earth and no grass, but had a few swings. There some places like this in Budapest, often poorly kept. One of my friends lived opposite us and we remained friends till the war. He was killed in Russia.

I was pampered and spoilt, regarded as the little bright chap of the family. School started when I was six. It was half-day school so I'd arrive home about one o'clock and every day my aunties would go down to the baker's and bring back a piece of pastry or mignon for me when I returned. They were very proud of me because I had good school results. My name was printed in capital letters in the yearly reports of the school.

But when I was twelve my maternal grandfather, the one who told me the Bible stories and who used to be a painter and decorator, died. That made a terrific impression on me. It was my first meeting with death. One day somebody is talking to you, the next he's not there. I attended the funeral but I couldn't cry. I didn't really understand adults crying.

My paternal grandfather never talked much about the Bible, but he would visit every day when I returned to my parents for parts of the school holidays. He always brought sweets with him. He'd buy soft creams and put them into his pocket so by the time he arrived they had all melted into a great mess in the brown paper bag. But he presented the bag to my sister and I with ceremonial affection. 'Look what I have brought for you, my dear Lilike and Lacika'. It was nothing but crushed cream and wafer.

Then the dear man was hit by a tram. He was about seventy-seven at the time. His skull was broken but he recovered and lived for another year and half before dying. I think I was fourteen. Being hit by a tram was the most common accident since everyone used trams. People hung off them like grapes. I was at home when it happened. A policeman called to say my grandfather had had an accident and been taken to hospital. Everyone rushed to be at his side but I was left at home to do my homework.

The accident with the tram brought with it some compensation that would arrive weekly in an envelope. There would be a scramble between my grandfather and grandmother for it. 'Who had to lie down under the tram for it!?' my grandfather would protest.

It became a family saying whenever reward of any kind was the subject. 'Who had to lie down under the tram for it?'

Tales from the Solicitor 2: The Rats

Why else have a solicitor than to tell you stories? This time we are talking about legal definitions. Does this thing count as this thing or as that thing?

He tells me of a business back where he used to live. There was a man there who had glasshouses by a stream and sold produce from them. He was doing pretty well. Then one day another firm bought some land further down the stream, built up the site and decided to drain their part of the stream for one reason or the other. The problem was that, in doing so, they disturbed a large colony of rats that immediately migrated further upstream and started eating our man's produce.

He rang the local council - the borough council - to tell them he had an infestation of rats. They asked him where the rats came from and he told them: from further down the stream where there was a new business.

Ah no, said the borough. The part of the stream where they come from is county administration. Those are county rats you've got there. It's up to the county to get rid of the rats.

A little miffed, our man went to the county council and asked them to shift the rats.

Ah no, the county replied. Those rats are on your premises now. They are borough rats, nothing to do with us.


The ways of the law are endlessly enlightening. Rats too are instructive.

Thursday, 18 March 2010

Mrs Schmidt's daydream in the den of vice

A draft translation from Krasznahorkai's Satantago.

We are in the inn, waiting for a shady, demonic pair of desperadoes, Irimiás and Petrina, to appear. The village had thought they were dead but they turn out to be very much alive. There is terror at the thought of them returning and exacting some sort of vengeance.

In the inn are the innkeeper; Kerekes a huge, belligerent drunk farmer; Halics a weaselly villager; his wife, the fervidly religious, Bible-clutching, Mrs Halics (who regards the inn as a den of vice); Kelemen, an old driver who has caught sight of the demonic couple and brings news of them; and Mrs Schmidt, fancied by all, but fancying none, bar the leader of the demonic pair, Irimiás. When she hears Irimiás is on the way she begins to daydream of a possible life with him, leaving behind both her husband, Mr Schmidt, and her lover, the lame Futaki:

From the film version, directed by Béla Tarr

Mrs Schmidt’s entire being was filled with excitement; she felt her skin pimpling over, scraps of thought swirling chaotically in her head, so she grabbed the edge of the table with her left hand in case she should betray herself in this great rush of happiness. She still had to pick her own things out of the big military chest, consider what she would need and what not, if, tomorrow morning – or perhaps this very night – they were to set off, because she was not in any doubt whatsoever that the unusual – unusual? Fantastic rather! – visit of Irimias (how like him! she proudly thought) could be no accident. She herself remembered his words to the letter… ah, could they ever be forgotten? And all this now, at the last possible moment! These last few months since the terrible moment she had first heard the news of his death had completely destroyed her faith: she had given up all hope, abandoned her best loved plans, and would have resigned herself to a kind of poverty-stricken – and preposterous – moonlight flit, if only to escape this place. Ah, ye stupid ones, ye of little faith! Hadn’t she always known that this miserable existence owed her something? There was after all something to hope for, to wait for! Now at last, there would be an end to her sufferings, her agonies! How often had she dreamed of it, imagined it? And now here it was. Here! The greatest moment of her life! Her eyes shone with hatred and an all-but-undirected contempt as she gazed at the shadowy faces around her. She was almost bursting with happiness. ‘I’m leaving! Drop dead the lot of you, just the way you are. I hope you get struck by lightning. Why don’t you all just kick the bucket. Drop dead right now!’ She was suddenly full of big, indefinite (but chiefly big) plans: she saw lights; rows of illuminated shops with the latest music, expensive slips, stockings and hats (‘Hats!’) floated before her; soft furs cool to the touch, brilliantly lit hotels, lavish breakfasts, grand shopping trips and nights, the NIGHTS, dancing… she closed her eyes so that she might hear the rustling, the wild hubbub, the immeasurably joyful clamour. And, beneath her closed eyelids, there appeared to her the jealously guarded dream of her childhood, the dream that had been driven into exile (the dream relived a hundred, no a thousand times, of ‘afternoon tea at the salon'…) but her wildly beating heart was, at the same time, beset by the same old despair at all those delights – all those many delights – that she had already missed! How would she now – at this stage of her life – cope in entirely new circumstances? What was she to do in the ‘real life’ about to break in on her? She was still just about able to use a knife and fork for eating, but how to manage those thousands of items of make-up, the paints, the powders, the lotions? how should she respond ‘when acquaintances greeted her’? how to receive a compliment? how to choose or wear her clothes? and should they – God forbid – have a car as well, then what was she to do? She decided to pay heed only to her first instinct and in any case, she would just keep her eyes carefully peeled. If she could bear to live with a man as repulsive as that beetroot-faced halfwit Schmidt, why worry about the hazards of life with someone like Irimiás?! There was only one man she knew – Irimiás - who could thrill her so deeply in both bed and life; Irimiás who had more virtue in his little finger than all the men in the world put together, who word was worth more than all the gold…. In any case, men?!... Where were the men round here, except him? Schmidt with his stinking feet? Futaki with his gammy leg and soaked trousers? The innkeeper? This thing here, with his potbelly, rotten teeth and foul breath? She was familiar with ‘all the filthy beds in the district’ but she had never met one to compare with Irimiás, before or since. ‘These miserable faces! What are they doing here? The same piercing, unbearable stench everywhere, even in the walls. How come I’m here? In this fetid swamp. What a dump it is! What a bunch of filthy polecats!’ Ah well,’ sighed Halics, ‘what can you do, that Schmidt is one lucky son of a bitch.’


I plough on with this whenever I am not actually in transit or at the university, or, as today, at the art school. Tomorrow I'll get back to my father's recollections.

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Gerevich, Karafiáth and Stevie Me

Yesterday was a dash down to the Hungarian Cultural Centre in London for the launch of New Order, an anthology of younger Hungarian poets, those who may be presumed to have come to some sort of maturity after 1989. I edited it fast - almost too fast in the end. The book was supposed to appear in 2009, twenty years after the key year, but though there was a pre-launch, the book was properly out yesterday.

The event was celebrated with the appearance of the two youngest poets in the book, András Gerevich and Orsolya Karafiáth, who are probably the most easily - and crudely - characterised. Gerevich, as one of the very few prominent gay poets in the country, and Karafiáth as - well, I had her in the introduction as a kind of Madonna figure, though Tibor Fischer, who was in the audience, preferred to opt for Lady Gaga. I suspect a trace of Cindy Sherman too, but then none of these comparisons sit absolutely easy.

Such characterisations are generally crude, especially in the case of Gerevich who writes beautifully, clearly, like a man with perfect balance, generally of love, but also childhood. My notes of comparison in kind (I leave stature well out of it - that is for the future to determine) was to Catullus and Cavafy. A short poem:

Family Chronometer

Letting my cocoa drip into the sea
I watched the sweet brown drops dissolve
in the calm, transparent, salty Adriatic,
then vanish in the space of a moment.
‘Today I’ve reached the age,’
my mother said as we finished breakfast,
‘my own mother was the day she died.’
I dived off a cliff into the water.
Last year I too knew the exact day
(I’d worked it out weeks in advance)
I reached the age my father
was when I was born.
It was a boring weekday, Wednesday,
we sipped morning coffee together in bed,
I felt your stubble when I kissed you,
like the prickly realisation inside me
no-one would upend that sandglass again.

- translated by Christopher Whyte

The characterisation is both more and less of a problem for Karafiáth because she consciously characterises herself. She does glamour, an ironic glamour, but glamour all the same; glamour, multi-media, self-myth and mask. The poems are like poignant song lyrics - quite simple cadence and rhyme, but with a genuine poignancy. But then, she says, the poems on the page are just a fraction of the whole - a band behind her (she founded a punk band), a painter on stage, and various theatrical effects. There are many pictures of her on the web. I wouldn't normally be interested in the look of writers but in her case it is her own clear choice and inextricably, overtly, part of her being.

And much much more, folks. As a reader of her poetry she is quiet and quite shy. Possessor of forty wigs, the one she wore for the event was blonde and curly, faintly Marilyn Monroe. Pale grey dress and nails. Full make-up. Short poem from a sequence:


The sky is scarlet. Or ochre.
It is here to be enjoyed.
Darkness shines on the water.
A demi-semi shade of void.

You know it well. The surging flow.
The clouds as they are floating by.
French blue. Red ochre. Silver.
The scene changing before your eye.

Gasping for air. Jelly-fish.
Waves. Cobalt, aquamarine.
A lake dried up. Cold ashes.
Blueness of the wounded skin

- translated by Peter Zollman

We don't in fact have anything like her in this country, nobody quite as high-profile. She is one of the best known poets in Hungary. She firmly distances herself from feminism. There are worlds and worlds of irony to be had out there.


This video, borrowed from here, really needs no comment. Steven Gerrard is the man who was charged with assault in a night club that was caught on CCTV. He was the only one the video actually showed hitting the victim. There were three friends of his behind not shown hitting him. Result in a Liverpool court? Gerrard free to leave without a stain on his character, the others charged, pleading guilty.

There is something very peculiar and somehow corrupt going on in Liverpool. I look at the Mascherano assault on the film: no punishment. I look at the Gerrard incident: no punishment. I look at the Ferdidand: three match ban, fair enough. Increased to four matches because Ferdinand appealed, citing the Mascherano precedent. Bad mistake.

I wanted to take this out of the purely football context because I find it shocking and disgraceful and rather worrying. I used to admire Liverpool as a football club and as a city. That admiration has been leaking away for a while.

As for the FA? Forget it.

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Alice and Burton: a late late review

The collision between Alice in Wonderland and Tim Burton was bound to occur eventually. Not too many casualties involved, I suppose, just the most important one. But let's start from the very beginning, which is generally believed to be a very good place to start.

In the beginning there was the book that began with a story and Alice feeling drowsy. Her book had neither pictures nor conversation. That's the first short paragraph. The White Rabbit appears in the second. In the third it has disappeared down the rabbit-hole and by the fourth she has followed it. Tis brief, my lord.

Once in, the madness begins: growing larger and smaller and larger again, entering domains of manners, voices, parodies of social types, all according to what we think of - via the second book - as looking-glass logic. The various grotesque elements of childhood and social life reappear as legend, nonsense, and potential terror, but Alice remains solidly commonsensical in the face of everything. She recognizes that the ludicrous is - if only just - under her control. She can manage. Wonderland is preposterous, threatening, pathetic, melancholy, fiercely intrusive, obeying no narrative schoolmistress, but insisting on being episodic and dreamlike. The only point of having got in to Wonderland is to experience its various corners, then get out.

Tim Burton's films are visually replete. Colour, mood, detail are all painterly. He is in most respects a painter and costumier. He springs out of the side of Brueghel, Bosch, Richard Dadd and Roberto Matta via Grimm and Hawthorne. But it is not so much the story that interests him as the visual possibility. Quite often it is the visual possibility of Johnny Depp whose range more or less defines Burton's. I am not always sure I like Burton as a painter - there is something deeply sticky in his imagination. The repleteness crowds in on me and clings to every exposed inch of skin. But it's fun for a while.

The problem is that Burton wants to produce a moral out of Alice that Carroll hasn't provided; Burton's moral impulse (do the right thing, American style) is entirely antithetical and, in fact, hostile to the spirit of Carroll (get on and cope with it, British style). There are no distinct provinces of good and evil in Carroll. The Red Queen is no worse than The White Queen. In Burton the Red Queen is bad chiefly because she offers the wrong model of female consciousness: the White Queen (who looks, disturbingly, like La Cicciolina) is good because she knowingly parodies a better model of female consciousness. But the best consciousness of all is Alice's, and she is pure twenty-first century, all-American girl.

The film Alice's project is to develop her consciousness as a young independent woman, which she does, with a vengeance. She takes on traditionally male roles that males fail to fulfil, or may be wrong in fulfilling, and has - dear beamish boy! - to slay the Jabberwock. No problem, squire. In the end she goes on to conquer China as a full trading partner for an elderly man who is soon going to cough it.

Odd, in the circumstances, that the most solid characters are male (father and intended father-in-law) and the most deluded, female, but then that's the world Alice is up against as Burton sees it. It is theology made simple. The bad men are easy to spot. The good males are dead daddy and a nice rich man who gives Alice a top job because, well, she's got balls. This is, perhaps, an aspect of the story that has crept in rather than been plumbed in, but I can't be sure. Is Alice living in a patriarchy or a matriarchy? A whole line of enquiry due here. And what exactly is the deal between The Mad Hatter and Alice? The Mad Hatter might be a Damaged Man, kinda cute and vulnerable. The moral fable goes foggy on me at this point. Maybe it is that the male role is to go mad, to give a woman what she wants, and then to die .

I have nothing against the bigger, in fact dominant, moral project of the film. The empowered female is fine by me, but I do have a great deal against muddle, saccharine sentimentality, and a poor version of education (make that any education) using genius to deliver its lessons. And Carroll is genius.

So, while, incident by incident, the film is lovely and replete and sumptuously visualised heart of Burtoniana; as a story it is as dull, and dull-witted, as a temperance tract delivered very slowly and all too clearly by a rather insistent, if confused, Victorian governess who bears a faint, but entirely misleading resemblance to Johnny Depp.

Sunday, 14 March 2010


Beginning of Ecstase (1933)

One of the great poetic transactions is between the consciousness and the world of material objects. People will do as people will of course, but they have to conduct themselves through rooms and streets full of miscellaneous things, and these things are intractably distinct from them. Hands warm objects, eyes lighten them, the nose detects them, hope hangs on them - they alter space this way and that. It is the real world meeting the ghost mind.

Here, in this first six minutes or so from the film in which Hedy Lamarr was famously shown swimming naked, there is a lot of shifting light and shadow before the newly married couple enter their flat. There is a mat, some shoes, a hand (a hand is also an object), a key and a lock, a sign, a lipstick tube that writes. After a moment of drunken fumbling the door opens, and he carries her, with some comical difficulty, across the threshhold. And there stand the objects. Suddenly we are assailed by a mass of household items in curious sculptural groups. Here are the bride's flowers and her extraordinarily long train that follows her like a kind of ectoplasm, growing longer and longer. A looming chair, some kitchen furniture, a basin, a litter basket...

She is entering a new life. He arranges his personal objects in meticulous, in fact obsessive, order on the bedside table.

The objects crop up, stand still, wait to be handled, to be interpreted and used. They will speak too, of their owners and their intentions, but essentially they will be just themselves, tokens of the solid world through which the consciousness must move, clad in its own solid body that can seem as alien as the objects themselves. This appears to be my hand. That thing below is my foot. This weight slumped in the bed is my body.

Now let's wake up.

Hydrotropism and other matters

Yesterday I am on the train to Cambridge to take a Poetry School class. It being Saturday the carriages are a little more crowded than usual and I sit at a table opposite a man with a trim white beard and moustache and a smart cap, reading The Guardian Travel Section. I guess he is Caribbean or African or possibly Indian (Trinidad?) but am not sure. We give each other a polite nod and half smile and I open my review book and start reading.

After about ten minutes he leans forward, smiles, and asks: Why do you think they do that? and he points to the full-page cover photograph of the travel section showing some coconut palms on a beach. They are distinctly leaning towards the sea. I put down my book and hazard a guess:


He asks me to repeat the word, so I do, with a brief explanation of what I think the word means. It is a word I learned in Biology at school, one of three such: hydrotropism (plants being drawn to water); phototropism (plants being drawn to light); and geotropism (plants being drawn to the earth, a characteristic, I suspect, I am confusing with gravity).

Ah, hydrotropism, he says. I don't think so.

I see that under the travel section there is a programme for the Cambridge Festival of Science.

Why not?

He says it would be primarily the roots rather than the topmost branches that would be drawn to water. Nor would it be phototropism or geotropism. And he tells me how coconuts often fall into the water then float away, which is not seed dispersal but something else. They remain edible. The salt doesn't ruin them. He asks me if I am a scientist. I tell him no. So what are you? A writer.

He takes it in but doesn't respond. I am sure he is a scientist so ask him if he is a botanist. No, a cell-biologist. Next I ask him about the John Innes Institute nearby. He knows it but did not work there. On the other hand he knows some of the people I know there and has worked with them.

He is in full swing now. He talks about plants such as seaweed, that taste of salt but actually keep out salt through their cellular structure. It seems the Sodium can't get through. And he tells of the occasion when some big shot scientist in Cambridge (where he studied) talked about the atomic weight of elements on the periodic table and how they would form a natural progression in terms I now can't remember, and how he - my fellow traveller - stood up and challenged him on the basis of evidence, and was dismissed by the big shot without his evidence being addressed. Later, it seems, my man's observations proved correct and he met the big shot again and confronted him with it, when an embarrassing scene followed, embarrassing for the big shot that is. So, I secretly guess, we find out who the real big shot is, but make no comment as the story is part of an enthusiastic account that flows on without any more personal triumphs.

I ask him what he has researched. He tells me he spent twenty years in tea. By now I have worked out - or has he mentioned? - that he is from Sri Lanka, so two and two get put together. From tea he went on to parsnips and eventually ended with onions. Potatoes, when I ask him, have too much starch. Less interesting.

It then turns out he has been studying theology too. He is a cell-biologist-chemist-theologian. Eventually, therefore, the conversation turns to God and the miracles of complexity far beyond the mind of man. He points to the sun and says: People think it is simple. It shines or it doesn't shine. But it is infinitely complex. Part of the divine.

At some point he asks me what I write. Poetry, I say. Books? he asks. So I drag out one of my books from the bag. He looks at the photo on the back.

A bit Hollywood, he says. Taken ten years ago?

It was taken in autumn 2008 but I just say: Less.

You look older, he says. Graver. More serious.

What a strange time this is on trains. On one train I look famous, on this one I look nine years older than my one year old photo, but grave. Grave and more serious. I will consider the advantages of looking grave and serious. Can I add these qualities to looking famous and work them into a presentational presence somewhere between Bertrand Russell, Charles Bukowski and Albert Einstein?

We are at Cambridge. He is still in full swing. The God tack has taken us into rather more predictable areas than hydrotropism had done. The train has stopped and he is talking. We get off. On the platform he gives me a leaflet about his theological work. I dash off to my class in a taxi.

I am workotropic.

Friday, 12 March 2010


In London to sort through more of my father's things, mostly from his small study where he kept his papers. The letters and papers are, of course, a practical business. What is not entirely practical are items like: stationery (rubber bands, paper clips, biros, pencils, sticky tape, labels, pencil sharpeners, rubbers, bulldog clips, post-it notes, notepads, paper-knives); photographs (official, photo booth, holiday snap, family memorabilia, unknown people, albums with photos in, albums without photos); printed material (holiday brochures, souvenir issues, old Hungarian boy-scout magazines),snippets regarding my own life (reviews, articles, mentions, invitations, programmes, not to mention various books all inscribed, the cards we sent with painting by C and verse by me); ID cards of one sort or another; old glasses and old glasses cases, dark glasses, travelling clocks, unused gifts, gifts long out of date (a 1960s slide projector with a screen in portable tripod. And scraps of paper with notes on, with lists of names or dates or items to buy or think about.

And stamps and stamps and stamps and stamps. And more stamps. Some very beautiful stamps. My brother A takes the stamps.

And a whole wardrobe, a rather more dapper wardrobe than I ever really imagined. Sharp dresser - in his way.

And the silence of it.

And all this goes into boxes and bin-liners and miscellaneous plastic bags. Though not the silence.

And there is a sense of achievement having done this and piled it into the car and brought it home and thinking - now where to put all this, where on earth to put it (and thinking: it would be far far worse for me should I go, so I should tidy up, not just my desk but my life, but meanwhile life is there to be lived and not tidied, and I go to bed with that.)

Thursday, 11 March 2010

Panel beating

Very little sense of recognition in Leeds. There has been a lot of building, of course. The city is heavily scored through with dual carriageways, so it felt oddly disturbing, as though someone were always putting an object or an unexpected space in the way of something familiar, glimpsed, then disappearing. I wonder how far geographies are imprinted on the memory? When the imprint is altered the experience tends towards dream, and it was a little like that.

At the station I was met by Michele and Wes who led me to a drink in a covered mall-like yard with various cafes. There Wes and I talked wrestling. It turned out his father was a professional wrestler - Wes produced a photo of him with vast shoulders and extraordinarily narrow waist, a body-builder c.1970 shape. He himself is writing about American wrestling, which is so different from the British now.

Then we were in the Salon where some forty people eventually appeared. The discussion itself was a little at cross-purposes, maybe because the purpose wasn't entirely clear. It might have been that we were defending poetry (any and all poetry) against censorship; or we might have been criticising the AQA for temporarily removing the Carol Ann Duffy poem, a dramatic monologue about a potential knife crime from the school's syllabus; or we might have been discussing the notion of authority in asserting aesthetic value; or it might have been the canon of great literature; or it might have been the poem and why it needed defending and how it might be defended; or it might have been the political, or other, utility of art; or it might have been psychological development in education; or it might have been the nature and power of institutions; or it might have been the monstrous bureaucracy and life-hating tendencies of health and safety; or it might have been about why libraries cut back on literature.

It was about all these things at different times, in the face of which the panel produced a remarkable - apparent - consensus. Any of these aspects could have taken up the entire time, probably usefully, but because I, for one, hadn't really grasped which of these subjects we should be discussing, or rather what was starting point and where we might go from such a point, I myself was at fault for blurring whatever there was that might have been sharp. And since I was the first speaker my effect will have tended to start the muddle. Mea culpa.

Afterwards, some ten of us headed off to the vast, many-roomed pub, where a certain amount of alcohol was appropriately consumed and a number of interesting debates were started, any of which might have led us straight back into the Salon but for the fact that the audience had gone home. We were at the pub till closing time, the last to leave, and, not having eaten, three of us - Michele, Ronan and I - our young poet and fellow panel member, Andrew, having left - looked for a late night take away and eventually found a simple, very basic Indian restaurant that was still open. Eventually Ronan and I were delivered to the hotel. It was about 12:30. Straight to my room but still awake for another half hour or so, but woken before 5am then walked the twenty minutes or so to the station.

Thinking back to the panel and the whole visit it is as if I had been walking through a dream landscape. Panels are notoriously hard to focus and this was particularly hard. I suppose one of us should have supported the ban on the poem, but since I was one of the signatories against the ban it wasn't going to be me. Nor was it going to be Andrew, and, frankly, it wasn't going to be Ronan and Wes either. Since it was Michele's petition I had signed he wasn't going to oppose himself. So what shall we talk about now? Which is how we finished up talking about all those things at once. Michele is a kind of libertarian, so I think Frank Furedi must be his man, but if he writes to correct me, I will offer him this blog space to locate himself as he best sees fit.

I propose a balloon debate in which I get to defend Mary Whitehouse. Or the prosecuting counsel in the Lady Chatterley case. Well, at least the Lord Chamberlain. I must purchase some green ink and a wig.

Tomorrow to London to continue clearing up dad's things. Out in the evening. The next day to Cambridge for a six hour stint for the Poetry School. If I am tired now I wonder how tired I will be by Saturday night?

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

And so to Leeds...

George at Leeds 1969

I was at the art school (ex Jacob Kramer) from 1969 to 1972, though by 1969 it was the first year of art under the wings of Leeds Polytechnic, which some time ago underwent another change and is Leeds Metropolitan University. The big new building you cannot see because the photographer is facing directly away from it, was still surrounded by what remained of the building site, and the pile I am standing on in that photograph is rubble. Behind me and about twenty foot down, runs the inner city motorway (LEEDS, THE MOTORWAY CITY cried the signboards!). If I turned to my left in the photo, scrambled down the hill I would be practically on Woodhouse Lane, looking up at the poly, from whose steps, one day, an ex-school student of mine, Emma, was blown by one great gust of wind that left her at the bottom of it, unconscious. I wrote a poem about it in An English Apocalypse that has a number of Leeds poems. Maybe the dreamlike effect of being carried off by the wind served as a metaphor for my experience of the place.

I loved Leeds for what it opened up to me. A studio, a sense of urban history, a kind of warmth and directness in the people I met, and the poetry, primarily through Martin Bell.

Martin Bell

I went to his weekly Wednesday afternoon sessions and was introduced by him to work by poets like Wallace Stevens, John Crowe Ransom, Alexander Pope, Norman Cameron, Peter Redgrove, Pierre Reverdy and many others, far too many to mention. Martin was, to me, the gift of poetry.

I proposed to C in Leeds, to be precise in The Cobourg pub. We lived together in Leeds for two years.

Martin did not love Leeds. His Leeds poems tell quite another story. Leeds was exile to Martin. To me, being young, it was the first big breath of adulthood.

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Defence of Poetry

Tomorrow to Leeds to take part in the discussion as per the title above. I am to speak for 7 - 10 minutes. Naturally enough I go back to Sidney and Shelley who wrote defences of poetry, because they thought it needed defending, and I suppose it always does.

And yet it doesn't and never has. It has been there since the beginning of language, possibly preceding the story which needs elements of established syntax. Poetry comes from song and cry, and that requires only rhythm and the resonance of living things. It is why songs could afford their fa-la-la's and nonny-no's, when prose can't be doing with such matters. The sound has semi-independent life. For that reason poetry has always been associated with magic. It conjures not so much the idea of things but the presence of things, and that is because it works as much through the body as the mind. Because the word is not only a signifier but a physical experience - a piece of nonsense with flesh on.

None of this exactly a defence. It just is so. Furthermore we know it just is. It is proved not in the mind but on the pulse. Elements of poetry constitute our attempt to represent the sensation of experience, though, of course, we experience our thoughts and feelings as well as the physicaliities of touch, taste, sight, hearing and smell. The logicalities of syntax tell us about these things and organise them into chains of cause and effect, but poetry brings them before us as experience in language.

So when it comes to education that is where I would begin - with the extraordinary strangeness, startlingness, beauty and horror of language. I would not, as Billy Collins puts it, torture the single significant meaning out of a poem then throw away the rest. The trick is to hear it, to listen really hard, almost in the spirit of rebellion, almost with the kind of contempt Marianne Moore writes about, because, down there, in those imaginary gardens, there are, there really are, real toads. The trick is to sense the language toad, not to find a use for the poem.

Uses exist, of course, but the chief use of poetry to sense the presence of the toad in language, without which sense nothing happens, without which the language enterprise is all imaginary gardens in which only ghosts can live. Shelley understood that.

But poetry in a more restricted sense expresses those arrangements of language, and especially metrical language, which are created by that imperial faculty, whose throne is curtained within the invisible nature of man.

That will do for a start. And so will this:

… Poetry is ever accompanied with pleasure

Without pleasure, nothing. Teachers: teach them pleasure. Something like this, anyway.

Monday, 8 March 2010

From the Memoirs of László Szirtes 1

Grandmother, Father, Grandfather
My father's mother, my father, his father, c.1919

Because his parents were poor and lived in a small flat, my father had to live with his paternal grandparents and his aunts in their own small flat. Here he is remembering, first his parents, and then his sickly maternal grandfather.


Most of the shops [in my childhood] were on the Körút, or ring road, which was only about three minutes walk from us. My father's workplace was far away and I never visited it. He never brought back colleagues from the factory, only his bitterness. He hated it beause he was very poorly paid and because he felt he could have done better for himself. One of the directors of the factory was his brother's brother-in-law who never treated my father as a relative and tended, rather, to push him down. Life was very difficult and I remember days when my father's hat preceded him into the flat and he came in swearing, throwing his wage packet angrily on the table. He was a rather gentle person otherwise and my mother tended to be the dominant figure...

My mother came from a slightly higher class - I think she was always conscious of it - but there wasn't that much difference. Her family were small tradesmen but she was probably a bit cleverer than my father.... To tell you the truth I don't know if my mother was ever in love with him.

She had dark hair, big eyes, a straight nose and a good slim figure. She was a very pretty woman. What I remember most are her eyes, very big, very searching.. Two of her sisters [she came from a family of ten] were already married by the time she met my father, but they didn't lead a close family life, not like my father's parents. They were colder people and the sisters didn't get on particularly well with each other. They were more strictly Jewish than my father's people.

It was difficult on my mother's side. Her mother had to look after a sick husband. He - my maternal grandfather - gave me the impression of being a wise old man, always in the bedroom under big white covers, his white beard and snow-white moustache showing over the sheets. He loved for me to sit beside the bed and would tell me stories. There was one that went:

Do you know how Christ became Lord? Once a year God listens to people. Whatever they wish for in the moment God is listening to them - though they don't know God is listening - comes true. Well, Jesus knew of this and for a whole year he kept repeating: I want to be King. I want to be King, so that God would hear him when his moment came, and indeed he succeeded and that is how became Lord.

Of course, I believed it and always thought how clever Jesus was. I asked him who told Jesus about this? He told me that Jesus read it in a book.

There was the other story he told me about Moses and the Ten Commandments, about how Moses was leading his people out of Egypt when the Red Sea opened up. He described it to me so vividly, all the time holding my hand - he was very sick but he never complained even though he had to have morphine, which made him very talkative - and I saw it so vividly the whole scene seemed real and clear to me. There I was sitting by his bedside and I saw the sea open.

He tried, in his own gentle way, to lead me into religion, chiefly through stories like this that told of miracles and marvels.


Do I edit? Of course I edit. It's the least I can do for him. The language is simple and though these conversations were recorded in fairly artless fashion shortly after the death of my mother, he normally wanted to tell a good story; to discover an ever-better, ever-improving anecdote. If he could have turned his entire life into one anecdote, ideally with a punch line, he might have been tempted to do so. Anecdotes are, after all, clearly defined shapes, and shape is meaning.

Here, I am just beginning to try to give him what he wanted. I must learn to render his voice with the proper colour in a language that was not his own. I expect clumsiness and blandness at first - then I hope to improve.

Sunday, 7 March 2010

Sunday night is... James Joyce reading from Finnegan's Wake

From p.213 of the book, the ending of part I. It begins at:

Well, you know or don't you kennet or haven't I told you every telling has a talling and that's the he and the she of it...

Follow it yourself, but here's a nice part from 5'59" in through to the end.


Ah, but she was the queer old skeowsha anyhow, Anna Livia trinkettoes! And sure he was the quare old buntz too, Dear Dirty Dumpling, foostherfather of fingalls and dotthergills. Gammer and gaffer we're all their gangsters. Hadn't he seven dams to wive him? And every dam had her seven crutches. And every crutch had its seven hues. And each hue had a differing cry. Sudds for me and supper for you and the doctor's bill for Joe John. Befor! Bifur! He married his markets, cheap by foul, I know, like any Etrurian Catholic Heathen, in their pinky limony creamy birnies and their turkiss indienne mauves. But at milkidmass who was the spouse? Then all that was was fair. Tys Elvenland! Teems of times and happy returns. The seim anew. Ordovico or viricordo. Anna was, Livia is, Plurabelle's to be. Northmen's thing made southfolk's place but howmulty plurators made eachone in person? Latin me that, my trinity scholard, out of eure sanscreed into oure eryan. Hircus Civis Eblanensis! He had buckgoat paps on him, soft ones for orphans. Ho, Lord! Twins of his bosom. Lord save us! And ho! Hey? What all men. Hot? His tittering daughters of. Whawk?

Can't hear with the waters of. The chittering waters of. Flittering bats, fieldmice bawk talk. Ho! Are you not gone ahome? What Thom Malone? Can't hear with bawk of bats, all thim liffeying waters of. Ho, talk save us! My foos won't moos. I feel as old as yonder elm. A tale told of Shaun or Shem? All Livia's daughter-sons. Dark hawks hear us. Night! Night! My ho head halls. I feel as heavy as yonder stone. Tell me of John or Shaun? Who were Shem and Shaun the living sons or daughters of? Night now! Tell me, tell me, tell me, elm! Night night! Telmetale of stem or stone. Beside the rivering waters of, hitherandthithering waters of. Night!


The texit he reeds is not presighsely the seim as in the booth. My foos won't moos either. Latin me that!