Friday, 30 April 2010

Farewell to Creative Writing at the Art College 2

John Wonnacott: The Norwich School of Art 1982-84 (Tate Gallery)

From 1973 to 1992 I was teaching in schools of various sorts, sometimes as a fractional member of staff but from 1975 to 1987 as a full-time head of art and art history departments. The children were young and this was the time I began the 5am rising regime that helped me maintain my reading and writing.

It might have been in 1990 that Ian Starsmore, who was then head of theory at the art school in Norwich (the art school has been through four names so far so I'll just call it the art school), having invited me once or twice to do lectures in the past, primarily on the Starwheel Press, that C and I were running in the eighties, asked me to run a day or two in poetry for some students, funded by the regional arts board.

Soon after that he asked if I would like to write a poetry course for a proposed BA in Cultural Studies. The course would be five terms long and I could assume 12 weeks in each. I was not going to write a chronological Eng Lit course though I would have loved some time of systematic historical reading, so I constructed a course based loosely on genres across time periods. I didn't know of any precedents. Each genre would be a term, with an introductory term where an element of each would be studied. The genres were Poetry as Song, Poetry as Narrative, Poetry as Discourse (meaning ideas generally), and Poetry as Reports on Experience. Each genre was subdivided into various subgroups. Songs of celebration, songs of sorrow, songs of work, songs of love etc. Examples of each kind were read next to each other across chronologies. This would then be the basis of a practical exercise. The course proposal was accepted (it included some passages of prose) and I was taken on on an hourly contract basis to teach it.

The Cultural Studies degree also comprised visual art - there was a parallel course run by the painter Graham Giles, and, of course cultural studies itself as the main part. But this form of cultural studies was not the standard combination of marxism, feminism and psychoanalysis, building on structuralism and post-structuralism. It also involved culture in a more local sense: the exploration of Norwich and Norfolk history, sociology and myth.

The whole made a rather marvellous idiosyncratic mixture that employed very few resources. Everything was taught in one room that had constantly to be adapted. Was it intellectually coherent? Probably not, but it was exciting.

As concerns the creative writing - or rather just poetry then - I was anxious as I had never structured a course like it before, had never delivered anything like it, and had not actually taught on third level education at all. The first day I turned up for a staff meeting I was welcomed as one of 'our new academic colleagues'. I had never thought of myself as an academic. I had gone to art school not university. I feared I would be out of my depth.

There were over two hundred applications for 16 places in the first year according to the then course secretary. The first year was tentative for me, though I could see there were three or four talented students. I taught on blind faith and by sheets and sheets of photocopied text in, sometimes, microscopic print. (I still have the masters of most of these). It was a relief to get that first year over. I would drive the two hours to Norwich from where we lived and back. The next year, when there were two years of the course, and a new set of students, I would stay overnight with old friends P and M on the far side of the city.

In the third year, in the autumn of 1994, I was appointed to a half-time fractional post as senior lecturer. That was when we moved up to Norfolk. Son T was about to enter his third year at Bristol, daughter H was about to start at Oxford.

It was from that point on that the poetry course began to gather flesh and creative writing started to develop a prose component too.

Thursday, 29 April 2010

Briefs and a little Satantango

Not sure we learned much new tonight. Clegg looked a little more flustered, Cameron a little calmer yet angrier. Brown less liable to extend the hippo smile. Essential issues: cuts now or later? VAT (on jobs) or not? The responses to the question on immigration was really an auction on who could get the lowest numbers. The affair of Bigot Woman was clearly fresh in everyone's minds. Oddly enough the question did not exactly presuppose the desirability of the auction. It might have meant to, but it didn't. Curious to hear Brown talk about the needs of the middle classes on education when addressing a question from a teacher from a school in a deprived area.

I cannot see Brown winning. No one can. The prospect becomes dimmer with each day that passes. Nor can I see Clegg keeping him in power. Brown is a boxer who keeps throwing the same punch each time with ever less power while walking on to punches that seem to rain on him from everywhere. He's practically out on his feet. So it's prim-mouthed Dave. A relatively weak Conservative government, hobbling through.


Wonderful to hear of Fulham coming through to the Europa Final. I don't think any of their matches have been shown live, have they? A touch disgraceful if not. Liverpool, the bits I saw, looked tired and clueless. End of Rafa imminent. Gerrard nowhere. My admiration of Gerrard as a person has long vanished. I suppose he might still be capable of putting on top performances but he looks a shadow of a man and player at the moment. A full reflection on the football season will follow at some stage.


The question of the art school writing course also to be considered. Thereby. Tale. Hangs. Maybe piece of Tale in the morning. Tomorrow I travel to Bristol and stay overnight.



...Futaki carefully put out a hand as he leaned on his stick and teetered towards the door, his hair tousled, his shirt hanging out at the back, his face as white as lime. With great difficulty he removed the wedge, stepped outside, but the shock of fresh air immediately had him on his back. The rain was beating down as hard as ever, each drop ‘an inimitable messenger of doom’ exploding against the moss-covered tiles of the inn roof, against the trunk and branches of the acacia, on the uneven glimmering surface of the metalled road above, down below the road on the space by the door and on Futaki’s juddering and stooping body as he lay sprawled in the mud. He lay there for long minutes, as if unconscious in the dark, and when eventually he managed to relax, he immediately fell asleep, and if it hadn’t occurred to the innkeeper, some half an hour later, to wonder where he’d got to and shake him into consciousness (‘Hey! You gone crazy or something?! Get up! You want pneumonia?!’) he might have remained there till the morning. Dizzy, he leant against the wall of the inn, rejecting the innkeeper’s offer (‘Come along, lean against me, you’ll get soaked through to your asshole out here, so stop it…’) and just stood, stupid and drained under the pitiless power of the rain, seeing but not understanding the unstable world around him until – another half hour later – when he was utterly soaked he suddenly noticed he was sober again. He nipped round the corner of the building to piss by an old bare acacia and, while doing so, looked up at the sky, feeling tiny and quite helpless – and while the endless stream of water gushed from him in powerful masculine fashion he experienced a fresh wave of melancholy. He continued gazing at the sky, examining it, thinking that somewhere – however far away – there must be an end to the great tent extended above them, since ‘it is ordained that all things must end’. We are born into this sty of a world, he thought, his mind still pounding, like pigs rolling in our own muck, having no idea what all that jostling at the teats amounts to, why we’re engaged in this perpetual trotter-to-trotter combat on the path that leads to the trough, or to our beds at dusk. He buttoned himself and moved to one side to be directly under the rain. ‘Go wash my old bones,’ he grumbled. ‘Give them a good wash, since this ancient piece of piss won’t be around much longer.’ He stood there, his eyes closed, his head thrown back because he very longed to be free of the obstinate, ever recurring desire to know at last, now that he was near the end the answer to the question: ‘What is the point of Futaki?’

What indeed? We may find out...

Wednesday, 28 April 2010


The interesting thing about this terrible moment for Gordon Brown - for whom I have begun to feel a kind of sympathy I did not think I would - the moment that he loses his temper with one of the electorate he has just talked to with an electioneering smile on his face, and with whom he has coped perfectly well, is that it is not unusual to think another human being is a bigot. Nor is being bigoted an unusual condition in the human race. It is not confined to this country, not to a particular party base, not to an age group, not to a class, not to persons who might be thought despicable in any particular way. The woman herself claimed to have been a Labour voter. She might well have been. Now she might be one of the Labour voters draining away into the swill of the BNP. After all, there isn't much that divides her from them.

Only today we had our first BNP leaflet (Mid Norfolk) slipped through the door, albeit coyly folded into an advertising brochure. 'We need to invest in our services and the NHS' says one BNP voter pictured on the back. It is just that he prefaces this with British Jobs for British Workers (his capitals). The female voter pictured next to him is similarly on the xenophobia wagon. That is the the BNP's Unique Selling Point (my capitals) as far as they are concerned. But bringing home the troops and raising the weekly pension - other named policies - might well appeal to Bigot Woman, who is, in the end, just a woman. She is practically on their doorstep.

There is the joke about the government preferring to elect a new electorate and voting out the old. That too is understandable at times. A prime minister cannot afford to be overheard contemplating that prospect. Just as the last government in Hungary couldn't afford to call the people names behind what it thought were closed doors. Now they are out and flat out, and look who has taken their votes. The far right.

There is a delicate moral problem here where flattery, tact, hypocrisy, and contempt combine to make a noxious fog it's hard to see through. But maybe one should try. Who knows? It might even pay off.

At Oxford, Jon Stallworthy was recalling how Philip Larkin would respond to people who had sent him poems he didn't like. He would simply write back, saying, 'These poems have the voice of true feeling' and leave it at that, hoping that he would then be left alone. The trouble is that, when I actually think of it, this smacks of something perfectly horrible, something so horrible as to be almost evil - all the more evil for being so understandable. I don't mean that Larkin was evil, but that this move, this smug little, lying little, patronising move, seems to me the beginning of a bottomless contempt. Far better to tell the truth in the most humane way possible.

If this world were just one degree better than it is, Gordon Brown might have stopped and tried to persuade the woman, in the best and nicest way he knew, that she was wrong. Forget the schedule for ten minutes. This is what should have been overheard not the grumble afterwards. This should have been the news. Prime Minister detained in argument on a point of principle. He could just have tried. He could have listened and argued. She was showing bigotry - but she was also a woman who might have been persuaded she was wrong.

The rest is microphones and electioneering. Part of the same machine as the apology that followed. In his tempers at least, Brown is not a machine, but a hassled, anxious, angry, desperate man. I rather fear for him.

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Farewell to Creative Writing at the Art College

After a long day's travelling from Oxford - about five and a half hours - touch base at home, then out to the launch of VETO, the magazine of the art college's Creative Writing course which is ending this summer after eighteen years of operation. The rather illustrious history of the course is worth recounting though not tonight because of sheer exhaustion, compounded by the thought of a heavy day tomorrow, half a day's teaching in Thursday, and a journey to Bristol for a reading there on Friday.

It would be a good thing to tell the story of the art school course since it is a fine example of the way institutions destroy precisely the things that they are supposed to nourish. Institutions do this all the time and have been increasingly likely to do so as time has gone on.

The launch was sweet - in an artists' studio space behind a big store in one of the poorer parts of town. The students put on nibbles, wine and soft drinks and had put up some visual work. Joe, the editor of this last volume, organised the reading part of the event. I said a few words, then GM, my colleague and boss there of some ten or more years, said his piece, then some of the contributors read their work and said pieces, and I read poems by three absent earlier students, all of whom had gone on to books. Not bad for an undergraduate art school course, nothing to do with Lit in the academic sense: several books, several Gregory Awards, several postgraduates and doctorates.

How did it all get started? And how did it finally meet its doom? Read the next exciting - and instructive - instalment.

And sew to bead.

Monday, 26 April 2010

Brief from Oxford

First Peter, now Alan Sillitoe. Daughter H being about to give birth any day now, I am longing to say the Shepherd's lines from The Winter's Tale:

Heavy matters! heavy matters! but look thee here,
boy. Now bless thyself: thou mettest with things
dying, I with things newborn. Here's a sight for
thee; look thee, a bearing-cloth for a squire's
child! look thee here; take up, take up, boy;
open't. So, let's see: it was told me I should be
rich by the fairies. This is some changeling:
open't. What's within, boy?

I am not equipped to speak of Alan as a novelist and only a little of him as a man: a calm phlegmatice presence, a radio ham, a man with a fascination for maps, a man without the least pretension, without the least air of 'literary man', still less of 'classic'.

When I was young the thought of death had a certain romance. Was it Martin Tupper who wrote the book of poems called Death's Doings? No, not Tupper. A man called Richard Dagley, 1827. I have a copy at home that I haven't looked at in some twenty years. One would, of course, die in a fitting way, in an appropriate romantic finis, possibly suddenly, possibly ceasing upon the midnight with no pain while listening to a nightingale, possibly spitting blood, possibly by plague or execution.

Or perhaps it wasn't quite so romantic even then, simply distant, and distance, as they say, lends enchantment. One knows life is finite, to be rounded off. So get with the rounding.

In his last ten years my father was walking through an ever less populated personal landscape. Having over thirty people attend his funeral was surprising. I wondered if there woould be even ten?

The erosion of contact is part of the process. And it is not enchanting. I don't mind dying, said Woody Allen. I just don't want to be there at the time. Maybe one isn't entirely. Maybe whatever is 'there' isn't any place we would know. Maybe it is always a 'here', that we mean.

Then, for a while, the 'here' washes off us and seems 'there' again.

It is sunny is Oxford. Tonight I read again after the workshop of this morning. This is the 'here' I recognise and know. And now to plan the reading...What's within, boy?

Sunday, 25 April 2010

Sunday Night is... Quinn Lemley, 'Bewitched'

Rogers and Hart, Lorenz Hart acerbic, witty, risky, possibly drunk. And brilliant.


After one whole quart of brandy
Like a daisy I awake
With no Bromo Seltzer handy,
I don't even shake.

Men are not a new sensation;
I've done pretty well, I think.
But this half-pint imitation
Put me on the blink


I'm wild again
Beguiled again
A simpering, whimpering child again
Bewitched, bothered and bewildered am I

Couldn't sleep
And wouldn't sleep
Until I could sleep where I shouldn't sleep
Bewitched, bothered and bewildered am I

Lost my heart but what of it?
My mistake I agree.
he's a laugh, but I like it
because the laugh's on me.

A pill he is
But still he is
All mine and I'll keep him until he is
Bewitched, bothered and bewildered
Like me.

Seen a lot
I mean I lot
But now I'm like sweet seventeen a lot
Bewitched, bothered and bewildered am I

I'll sing to him
Each spring to him
And worship the trousers that cling to him
Bewitched, bothered and bewildered am I

When he talks he is seeking
Words to get off his chest.
Horizontally speaking
He's at his very best.

Vexed again
Perplexed again
Thank God I can't be over-sexed again
Bewitched, bothered and bewildered am I

(Reprise at the end of the show)

Wise at last
My eyes at last
Are cutting you down to your size at last
Bewitched, bothered and bewildered no more

Burned a lot
But learned a lot
And now you are broke, though you earned a lot
Bewitched, bothered and bewildered no more

Couldn't eat
Was dyspeptic
Life was so hard to bear;
Now my heart's antiseptic
Since you moved out of there

Your chance-finis
Those ants that invaded my pants-finis
Bewitched, bothered and bewildered no more.


Now to Oxford for two nights.

Saturday, 24 April 2010

Stolen time / Down time: Night Thoughts

For years I have woken up with dreams of fear and failure. The sense of the dream haunts me as I rise, but then there is so much to do, the dark dream seeds get ploughed under the light and fury of day.

Last night we had friends and family round for supper, a bunch of writers and artists, and it transpired that we all suffered spells of depression. Nothing debilitating - clearly not, since we all looked pretty well undebilitated and we are all productive. It was suggested that depression (we are laughing as we talk) is just a natural part of being an artist. Art requires considerable nervous energy and concentration, and is not guaranteed to be successful. There is generally a winding up towards the task, like winding a spring, and then either a winding down or a sheer drop and drastic uncoiling. In between the bouts of energy and what, sometimes, feels like success, one simply gets tired.

Success is, in any case, the most relative of sensations. One has ambitions, but each ambition, in appearing to be satisfied, simply leads to another one. Recalling my early years of writing, that anxious, sustained, sense of unsuccess in my twenties, my rational self should conclude that I have been far more successful than I ever imagined. This is an argument.

But arguments mean nothing. In writing, in art, perhaps in every endeavour, there is only ever the now and the future. The past has vanished. And there is only a limited amount of future for any of us.

I sometimes suspect I distract myself by taking on more work than seems feasible. There is no time for a dip because there is always something else demanded. The sheer energy generated by switching from task to task has an amplifying effect. Up to certain limits I actually write better with less time.

This goes back to my very beginnings as a poet. I began writing at school when I should have been doing something else. Writing was stolen time. Nor has it ever stopped being stolen time. Like reading for pleasure. Stolen time is intense. I can't write slowly, nor ever could. That stolen time needs to be snatched, the action squeezed under high pressure. The capacities I have developed are those developed under high pressure: speed, instinctive decisions, wanting even the language to be part of the squeeze of guilt, demanding the squeeze, demanding the difficulty.

The guilt itself gets squeezed into night, into dreams, into the sense that one is always behind events, never quite competent enough to deal with them. There is a hinterland between waking and rising where I must be distracted. I listen to the news. I amuse myself with a game. I can't always read then. The hunched soul has to breathe a little and expand before entering the vortex again.

I suppose the thought of Peter's death, the death of an enormously intelligent, mentally active, spiritually alert man, leads me to write this. That and the night.

Friday, 23 April 2010

St George's Day

Raphael: Le cheval qui rire*
Horse: 'Nice one Georgie lad, now let's go for a drink'.

Apart from all the red crosses in the windows - and I am glad to see them triumphantly struggling to be reborn as celebration (as they should be) rather than as resentment - it is, I have been kindly reminded twice, my name / Saints day.

Saint's days always remind me of the scene in Chekhov's The Three Sisters where the old doctor, Schebutykin, presents Irina, the youngest of the three sisters, with an expensive samovar on her saint's day, whereupon her older sister, Olga, covers her face with her hands and cries: A samovar! This is dreadful!

I feel a bit of a fake for the following reasons:

Born as Gábor, meaning Gabriel
With György as George, a dubious second,
Adding on Miklós as Nick for third,
An archangel may well be reckoned
Something above the average Ariel
Or any fierce heraldic bird.

But, in transit George took over
And angel became dragon slayer,
A Palestinian Christian saint,
A slightly dubious second layer
Of self, less name than failsafe cover,
Aged like craquelure on paint.

There’s still a name left, one unnoted
On my passport, yet provided
As initial on my credit card.
How come this name has been elided,
So fundamentally demoted?
Old Nick’s not gone, just 'en retard'.

Poet greets himself with a verse.

I held this over from yesterday because of Peter's death. Even now it seems all too frivolous and light, but the sun is out. There should be some frivolity and lightness. It's good for the spirit.

*(Thanks to Nell, who sent it the picture.)

Peter Porter, 1929-2010

Among painters, Peter loved Piero della Francesca above all, I think, followed, in no particular order, by Carpaccio and Piero di Cosimo and Pontormo. But he loved all the Mannerists. We used to talk about art back in the eighties when I was still a young poet, much helped by him, in his kindness and endless curiosity. He had enormous range as a poet, covering more ground than any other. That too was a product of curiosity. I wrote this for him on his eightieth birthday. We last met about three weeks ago when he was still full of conversation. His new Selected Poems are due next month.


1. Visitation: The Burning Mothers

If only, she said, we could be born of fire
as well as die in it, if only our mothers
could be called to be flames, or be eaten
by flames and be ash like all those others;
if just once the flames could be beaten
down that burn us from within
so that we ourselves might finally retire…

I watch them flickering into life, their gowns
blown this way and that, with each child
about to be born into light and those faces
impassive as the logs that must be piled
on to keep them burning: savage graces
for ever under the bright skin,
billowing fires of burning towns.

2. Supper at Emmaus: An Empty Plate

The plate will be empty off which they must feast.
The eye of God will sort out man from beast.
The grace of God will change the nature of bread.
Wine will be blood as soon as the Son is dead.
The grace of God exists that grace might be
Lodged somewhere in creation: gratis, free.

3. Deposition: Discord in Colour Theory

Here it’s the wind that dominates. You’ll note
Those somewhat surprising colours. I combine
Them against expectation, so red, for instance,
In the form of pink, is darker than yellow
In the form of orange. As for the blue, that sozzled
rain-dark pastel blue that seems to float
between tones so the whole thing’s shrill
or gives an impression of shrillness, a dance
expressive of frenzy if you like, that billow,
that settlement of blue-grey you couldn’t quite define
as blue of any one sort but leaves pink dazzled,
that’s what the rest sink into or settle on,
while at the bottom the luminous figure of John,
the beloved disciple, glows, squat and still,
so light on his feet you’d not think he supports
the death of God and the wind that blows
the world awry and away so everything flows
towards a grace that elevates what it distorts.

*This poem originally appeared in Poetry Review

Thursday, 22 April 2010

Teeth and the Parthenon

About a lifetime ago (say ten years) I was on my way to do a reading - it was at the French House in Soho - and was chewing a piece of gum when suddenly I found a very hard bit in it. On examining it more closely I found it was a tooth, one of my front teeth. As soon as I realised it, the tooth's absence became blazingly evident. I felt for the space with my tongue and there it was. And there was air and a sense of cold. I touched it with my finger. It was a missing piece of plate armour. I was vulnerable. I couldn't say th properly. I couldn't say s. At the reading I immediately made a reference to it because I was so self-conscious. I knew what a gap tooth looked like. It looked aged and ill. I was a male crone.

On the other hand there was something martial about it. It might have been knocked out in a fight or at least an accident. It might have even been glamorous, like something one could cultivate.

Then I remembered the dentists of my childish yesteryear. The terror, the horrible sweet smell of gas. The noise of the drill. The utter helplessness. Vulnerability again.

At the age of fourteen or so I was told by my dentist (mistakenly, as it turned out) that my teeth would have gone by the time I was forty. These were, of course, post-war Budapest teeth. Ill nourishment, pollution, and the poor state of Stalinist dentistry might have been to blame. Not that I have any clear memory of dental care at the time. The dimmer kind of American tends to taunt the British about the state of their teeth. They just don't want a National Health service, of course. I have imagined refuting them. But these are Budapest teeth, I would explain. I came by them honestly. And I would go into a version of the replicant's speech from Blade Runner.

Yesterday at C's mother's I kept looking at her front missing tooth. Again the vulnerability, Nature red in one less tooth. And she was grinding them. She is old, a darling, a good woman, a tough woman. But grinding teeth and one front tooth missing is altogether too much tooth.


There is, as I remember, a scene in Huysman's Á Rebours, where the jewelled-tortoise man, decadent aesthete Des Esseintes, remembers having to go to the dentist in an emergency. Here is the passage:

The dentists he usually consulted were well-to-do practitioners who could not be seen at a moment's notice; a visit must be arranged beforehand, a regular appointment made. "That is out of the question, I cannot wait," he told himself; so he made up his mind to go to the first dentist he could find, to resort to any common, low-class tooth-drawer, one of those fellows with fists of iron, who, ignorant as they may be of the art (a mighty useless art, be it said by the way) of attending to decayed teeth and stopping hollow ones, know how to extirpate with unparalleled rapidity the most obstinate of aching stumps. Places of the sort open at daybreak, and there is no waiting. Seven o'clock struck at last. He dashed out of doors, and remembering a name he knew of such a mechanic calling himself a dentist and living at the corner of a neighbouring street, he hurried thither, biting his handkerchief and keeping back his tears as best he might...

...Confusedly he remembered dropping into an armchair before a window, and stammering out, as he put a finger to his tooth: "It has been stopped already; I am afraid there's nothing can be done."

The man had cut short this explanation peremptorily, inserting an enormous fore-finger into his mouth; then, muttering something from under his lacquered, pointed moustaches, he had picked up an instrument from a table.

Thereupon the drama had begun. Clinging to the arms of the operating chair, Des Esseintes had felt a sensation of cold in his cheek, then his eyes had seen three dozen candles all at once, and so unspeakable were the tortures he was enduring, he had started beating the floor with his feet and bellowing like an animal under the slaughterer's knife.

There was a loud crack, the molar had broken in coming away; he thought they were pulling off his head, smashing in his skull; he lost all control of himself, howled at the top of his voice; fought furiously against the man who now came at him again as if he would plunge his arm to the bottom of his belly; had then suddenly stepped back a pace and lifting the patient bodily by the tooth still sticking in his jaw, had let him fall back again violently in a sitting posture into the chair; next moment he was standing up blocking the window, and puffing and panting as he brandished at the end of his pincers a blue tooth with a red thread hanging from it.

Half fainting, Des Esseintes had spit out a basin full of blood, waved away the old woman who now came in offering him the stump of his tooth, which she was preparing to wrap up in a piece of newspaper, and had fled, after paying two francs, taking his turn to leave his signature in bloody spittle on the steps; then he was once more in the street, a happy man, feeling ten years younger, ready to be interested in the veriest trifles



When we lived in Brockley/Deptford in the early seventies, our dentist's surgery was in a tall neglected white building whose facade was covered in clearly visible spidery cracks. One enormous bad tooth. Part advertisement, part admonition, part pun.

There is a fine poem titled 'In the Lake District' in Joseph Brodsky's magnificent book, A Part of Speech (1980). Here is how it begins:

In those days, in a place where dentists thrive
(their daughters order fancy clothes from London;
their painted forceps hold aloft on signboards
a common and abstracted Wisdom Tooth),
there I - whose mouth held ruins more abject
than any Parthenon - a spy, a spearhead
for some fifth column of a rotting culture...

Translated by George L. Kline

The image of the ruins of the Parthenon gets something dead right about my own tooth -sense. That's why I remember this verse so well. A fifth column and the rotting culture are sort of jokes, but the idea of that perfect colonnade, wrecked, refers to the breaking of something sacred - a defence, a temple, both.

There is, however something about an over-full, over-gleaming set of perfect teeth that sets my own on edge. It's glib, it's pushy, it's somehow fascist.

Dentistry is almost painless now and mostly carried out by beautiful young women from another part of the world. They touch one's teeth with steely proficiency. You might feel a slight discomfort, they say, as they probe. My own teeth are so wasted they are practically nerveless: they hardly notice anything. But of course I make brave, as though there was pain to be overcome; a non-existent pain that I do, almost effortlessly, overcome. I am vulnerable sitting there with my mouth open, unable to speak. I have two missing teeth at the moment, not at the front. They'll probably stay missing. All I have is this hollow pretence of courage.

Now spit out. they say. I do.

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

To London and out tonight

James Joyce's Molly Bloom. Why do things always look better on girls. Va-va-voom, and all that. Via a site with some literary tattoos.

Was going to see P but he is too ill now. It is very sad. Nevertheless, still London for meetings then read at the Poetry Cafe, and stay overnight at C's mother's. Life is all too too too. The desk is a mess and so is my head (the two usually go together). The air of unreality is familiar and haunting. Ever more so. Perhaps if life were tidy then I would be. This is all the product of the dreaded word YES (see above), a word people generally like.

The sun has come and gone and returned, as have the flights, though dear Budapest friends L & G are stuck in Rome, others got stuck in Paris.

En passant, in transit, sic transit.

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

That liberating sense of melancholy

This from yesterday when I was thinking about the implications of past tense and present tense in story telling, and eventually proposed that, while the past tense may be melancholy because it is over and nothing more can be done about it, it may yet be liberating because fables, fairy stories, magical tales, all happen at its non-specific depths, in dim distant places at dim distant times.

It helps of course that the past should not be too specific. Once you introduce the specific you are, in fact, projecting the present tense back into the past, eg On the 17th of February, 1836, on a dim winter afternoon in Rochdale, a man in a in a tall black hat was leading an equally black Labrador down Drake Street, past the costermonger's stall... The whole point is to take you there, so you might as well be in the present. That past is stuffed full of informants, as Barthes called them, all of which offer some guarantee that this is a real moment in a real place. That is not melancholy.

Then there is: Do you remember when we ran full tilt down the hill and we tripped and started rolling down towards the trees and the world vanished in a blur and you were saying something just as the rain started... Here we are entering a kind of hinterland in which the subjective has only just arrived before the whole thing is lost. I remember, and, in remembering, feel what I then felt.... the sensation of rolling, the feel of the grass, the sound of a voice and the touch of rain. There is melancholy here because the vanishing is the point. Vanished, gone, past.

But maybe there is a possible liberation here too, because memory has become a possession. We own the memory by interpreting it, by giving it some shadow of meaning. Poetry begins somewhere at this point. The melancholy, the ache of it, is something we can return to and reinterpret. It is like sinking ever deeper into the soil we stand on.

And, at some stage we might say, So there they were, rolling down the hill and the trees rushed to meet them, when their bodies broke apart, their heads in the branches, their organs passing into the trunk of tree, and their voices were no longer their voices but just rain and wind and grass, which is now at a point between fantasy and metaphor and could go either way, but whichever way it goes now depends on the imagination seeking its own truth, that is to say a meaning that seems a shadow of an experience.

And here we are in the realm of art, which, for a writer, is the realm of language. And that art might say, 'Hold your horses, you are taking too much of a liberty, this is too lush. Let's edit that again into something harder, sharper, like They started rolling down a hill. They rolled fast, but soon they reached the trees so they had to stop.'

And this reminds me of a time when I myself was a child, on a holiday of some sort in the hills near the city, and there was a cherry orchard, and we ate a lot of black morello cherries, and my mother was with us and she said, let's roll down the hill. Or I said it. Or maybe neither of us said it and it was just me rolling down the hill.

And that is over, whatever it was, which is melancholy, but see - it's at just that distance in time and space now, and has been a there long time, when I am free of it, so the whole thing resolves into the sense of rolling and the taste of black morello cherries and the sense of being a child with a different body and a different mind. And this set of factors could assume almost any shape that makes sense. A rounded independent shape. One of many other shapes that roll around in the spaces of the auditory imagination.

Monday, 19 April 2010


Augustus Leopold Egg, Past and Present, 1859

The UEA reading tonight was the novelist, Jim Crace, some of whose work I have read and admired. I say it was a reading but the reading was a very short part of it, just five pages from his new book, All That Follows, the rest, most of an hour, a kind of introduction, autobiography, history and technical discourse. It was all fascinating, including the early political activism, idealism and notions of heroic action, but it was the technical part that stays with me now.

The way he told it was that he wanted to write this new book, this very different book, to address his youthful self in order to see where he was now, but that, stylistically, the book required a major change from the earlier work. He tried this and that but whatever he did, he said, the beginning felt 'baggy'. Then he turned on the radio to hear Stephen Pinker use the word 'baggy' in referring to the past tense. And that struck a spark. He changed his own book from past to present and then it came alive. He went on to enthuse about the present tense and offered a fascinating illustration from an anecdote about Groucho Marx.

In this anecdote, Groucho is in his seventies and is invited to a party he'd rather not attend. So he goes early, drinks early, does a few neat put-downs then leaves. Just as he is leaving the hostess stops him gently and asks him: Hope you had a good time? To which he answers: Yes, thank you, but this wasn't it. Groucho's past tense is a much longer past tense than the hostess's. I think that was the point. The important point was the intensity, the closeness, the tension of the present tense. It seemed to be a good thing.

And, of course, the Groucho anecdote is itself in the present tense, as are most jokes (Man goes into a bar...). But, as Crace was speaking, I began to wonder under what conditions the tension, the closeness, the intensity operated? Immediately, the thought of Kafka came to mind. Metamorphosis, for example, in the present tense would be quite a different thing (Man wakes up to find...). The classic fairy tale, of course, begins in the past tense (Once upon a time in a land far far away...)

So the next conjecture is that the present tense works far better in realism than it does in fable or fantasy. It might in fact be the realistic trope par excellence. OK. Simples. See Walter Benjamin, 'The Storyteller'.

But then there is also something sad about the past tense. Crace himself brought up the sentence: I want to see that film as an example of energy and drive, as opposed to, I wanted to see that film, which, he said, was a story. Well, a story is no bad thing, but the deep, real, unremitting fact that actually gets to you, is that you have missed the film. The film is done, gone, over, in the past. Too late, the saddest words.

So the past tense is doomed. All the present tense of the characters is in the past. Nothing can change any of that now. And somehow, in that past, which is another country, they do do things differently. They ride around in pumpkins, they slay dragons and they turn into insects of all descriptions. It is sad but liberating. Perhaps that liberated sense of melancholy is where the poetic imagination truly lives. What's the Faulkner book? Ah yes, As I Lay Dying...

Sunday, 18 April 2010

Sunday Night is... The Man on the Flying Trapeze

Max Fleischer's Popeye. One couldn't, of course, approve of Popeye but there is something thick-headedly resilient about the old ageless lunk. Olive Oyl is probably an appropriate vehicle for his affections though whether he is of hers is difficult to say. Bluto might well have become the Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze.

'...He walked out on the whole crowd
Leaves me flushed and stirred,
Like Then she undid her dress
Or Take that you bastard;
Surely I can, if he did?

- Philip Larkin

A weekend miscellaneum

A quiet weekend, quiet, that is, apart from the pounding of fingers on keyboards and the tolling of the church bells. That is now, on Sunday.

Yesterday, the sight of many crosses of St George, his Day celebrated a week early. There is a choir of Lifeboatmen (waterboatmen?) - or are they the local Lions? - singing in the market square. A manly chorus of sea shanties. Blow the man down, bullies, blow the man down.... About a dozen of them. R, of the bookshop stops beside us. Who's minding the shop? I ask. He too is a Lion. I am not a lion but a lamb. Should I lie down with R. for the sake of peace? No, not enough of the lamb in me.

The stalls are doing hoopla and fishing for plastic ducks. There are cakes and hot dogs. There is, in fact, a traditional plastic duck race down the mighty River Tiffey but not today. You can bet on the winner. Today there is a bookstall where I buy two paperbacks for 10p each. A man can never have too many cheap books.

Two lanky late-middle-aged figures are dressed as clowns - more Samuel Becket than Coco or Corky. In trampish ragged black suits and bowler hats, they are dead ringers for Vladimir and Estragon. They are not doing anything particular when we come across them, just sitting on a bench and engaging the passing kids in conversation. Like Vladimir and Estragon they have seen better days. Godot does not appear. Maybe this should be St.Godot's day?

But it's towards the end of events and the street, as you move away from the square, is very quiet.

I had spent the morning and early afternoon reading through a PhD upgrade. In the evening P and M for dinner. P is seventy-seven now but is as fiercely ebullient and funny as ever. P is a reader of the Feudal Times and Reactionary Herald so we can bat around the subject of last week's political version of The Weakest Link (hence no link) in which Nick ('the most popular leader since Winston Churchill' according to the polls - a fair comparison, surely) emerged triumphant. P is full of scorn. Scorn for Nick, scorn for Gordon, scorn - deep scorn - for Dave. P would prefer Dr Johnson for prime minister but the good doctor, that harmless lexicographical drudge, is not standing this year. So what would be the next best thing? A cross between Lord Carrington, Norman Tebbitt and David Gower? Boris Johnson (no relation to Samuel) a distant third?

It's an early supper and, P & M departing by ten (leaving me with a batch of new poems), I wash up, then we watch MOTD on a day of marvels (now a weekend of marvels). Apparently the good Lineker has literally hop-skip-and-jumped for twenty-four hours solid from Tenerife to get to the studio in time. Barely a crease. Hardly a puff. He doesn't even allude to it very much. It is a rather exciting season, about which I will write in due course. What is more Blackburn Ladies beat the Bristol Academy 2-1. There'll be unrest in Bristol tonight.

Today more sun. Odd to think of a pile of ash drifting above us, preventing flights for the fourth day running. So I do not meet my charming German agent, A, in London for lunch. So splendid Canadian poet J, another PhD in progress, will not be flying in from Canada for her annual review. So son T has had to cancel his Polish gig. And soon we may be starving for lack of imported food. Waitrose will be the first to go. So there are friends and relatives of everyone stuck where they are stuck. It is a very peculiar few days, something like August 1914, the world faintly suspended.

I have written at length to P on his poems. In the afternoon a short exhilarating cycle ride, donning helmets, past a field of rape not yet in bloom. Back to translation and the finishing of the terza rima essay. Ars far too bloody long, vita all too damn short. If I were Lord Byron I would try to swim the Hellespont this evening then see what the caravanserai offered as entertainment.

On Wednesday I read in London at the Poetry Cafe as half-myself and half-everyone else. Thus.

Friday, 16 April 2010

Voting: an interesting conundrum

If I have certain principles, and those principles lead me to adopt a particular ideological position, and if that ideological position is better embodied by one political party rather than another one, does that mean I am committed to voting for that party whatever the situation because the other parties are not founded on the kind of principles that lead to the ideological position that is embodied by one particular party rather than another one?

So, if I have such a commitment does it mean that whatever the position of the other parties on this or that individual issue, I will not be voting for them because they are not founded on the kind of principles that lead to... embodied... etc?

And, given that, is any argument from any of those other parties likely to sway me in my commitment? Would it be possible for another party to come up with something so attractive, on a single issue, or two, or three, that it would lead me to switch my vote?

If truly not, then am I wasting time reading manifestos, accounts of manifestos, newspaper op-eds, weighing personalities, potential holders of offices and all the rest - and should I just short-circuit the whole process by giving all that a miss?

In other words, would it, in a philosophical sense, be possible for me to vote Nick Clegg or David Cameron?

Note it is not that I need specific reasons for not voting Nick Clegg or David Cameron, or indeed Gordon Brown, or, (indeed) any other figure who might head the party I might be considering voting for at a local level since I would not, in practice, be voting for Nick Clegg, David Cameron or Gordon Brown but for my local representative, candidate X, even while being committed to the party to which I have been committed, fully aware of the fact that my vote will not change the fact that the party opposite will carry the seat.

I know it sounds very complicated - but it is simply the question of the swing voter. On what grounds am I voting if not principle? Embodiment of principle? Specific, smaller aspects of principle in practice? Whether I like the idea of higher / lower national insurance? The state of Gordon Brown's teeth? The sound of his voice?

So why I am looking at David Cameron, thinking he looks a bit beaky and prissy, or Gordon Brown thinking he is slowly metamorphosing into a human rhinoceros, or Nick Clegg, thinking, Holy Smoke, Boy Wonder, great hand gestures, perfect address to camera, time to leap into the Batmobile?

Most people I know already know who they will vote for. End of story. No argument will shift them. So is that it? Could I go Green? Could I vote for Boy Wonder? Should I join the Bullingdon Club as a lowly chauffeur? Would it be logical?

A case for Inspector Geras.

Och. Let's do some poetry next.

Thursday, 15 April 2010

Election Debate 1

Is this like the Big Brother House where one gets thrown out each time? It plays a little like that. I don't think I learned anything I didn't already know, unless it was something about Nick Clegg and a few details of LibDem policy, so, in that sense, he must have won. He won primarily by being there.

In one way I loathed the whole exercise but it was, nevertheless, fascinating for all kinds of loathsome reasons.

Q: Why loathsome?
A: Because it is fascinating.
Q: In what way fascinating?
A: It's the old tension between the spurious and the authentic.
Q: Spurious? How so?
A: In the most complex way. It is clear that there are lines to follow, attitudes to strike, key phrases to be pushed, manners of addressing one of the six publics, that is to say: the camera, the audience, the questioner, the master of ceremonies and the other two leaders. So you wonder what remains that is not synthetic. At the same time you are aware this is not a beauty contest or a talent show. It is about government, policy, values - in other words lines, attitudes, key phrases. This is confusing. And spurious.
Q: In what way authentic?
A: They really are the leaders. They really are soliciting our votes. The issues they are addressing are real issues. And yet...
Q: And yet?...
A: Speeches in parliament are one thing. Speeches at party meetings are another. Speeches on the hustings and at public meetings are yet another. I have learned how to read those. I trust those forums. Television is something else. It is something I have learned not to trust. Nick Clegg's naturalness was perhaps the least natural thing. And, frankly, it is not Nick Clegg's naturalness I want to be thinking of.
Q: Will you watch the next debate?
A: Give me time on that.

From the Memoirs of László Szirtes 3: First job

My father, with his scout friends. Almost all the men were to be killed in the war. Not sure about the women, but I'd be very surprised if they all survived. My father is the 2nd from the right.

So it continues...

I finished high school when I was sixteen years old, and the first thing was to find a job. I was qualified enough to work as a clerk in an office and, through my uncle, I was introduced to a company, Ruszt Dávid, that manufactured, sold, and exported textiles. The factory was outside Budapest but the office was in town, near the basilica.

I worked in the invoice department and it was deadly boring. It had a big wholesale counter where people came in from different shops to buy socks or stockings by the dozen and I had to do the invoices.

This was 1933, the year that Hitler came to power in Germany, and fascism was already on the advance in Hungary. My name being Schwartz (meaning black) everybody called me Fekete úr (Mr 'Black' in Hungarian). They asked me if I minded at first and I said No: Fekete, Schwartz, it was all the same to me. The fact was they didn't want to call me Schwartz in front of too many people, since Germanicised names were associated with Jews. When I was called over to the shop I had to go with the invoice book. The man read off the items and I had to get on with entering them and writing out the invoices, morning, noon and evening. Every day I walked to the office and whenever I passed the basilica I muttered to myself the Latin tag written on the facade of the building: ego sum via, veritas, et vita. I am the way, the truth and the life.

After about two years, one chap in the export department left the company and, as I had taken English as a school subject - they asked if I'd like to move there. The department consisted of three or four people under a director and dealt with exports to British colonies such as Singapore and Hong Kong. I was delighted to accept the offer and spent another two years there. I had to write letters in English, which I enjoyed. I had a very good book of commercial English correspondence and learned a lot by reading it in the evenings. They were pretty happy with me there.

But I didn't really like the company. It was a family business of sorts: there were two brothers who were chairman and managing director respectively, and both were unfriendly. The chairman brother was elderly - a real pig. One day I saw him walking along with his chauffeur about two steps behind him when he suddenly spat on the floor, turned back to the chauffeur, and told him to step on the spit. I had never liked him but from that moment I hated him.

I had a great surprise on my twentieth birthday in 1937. My cousin was married to quite a rich man who had been running the Hungarian branch of HMV and had recently been transferred to Vienna. He seemed to get on with me and asked if I fancied going to Austria for a holiday. My mother's sister had a little sweetshop in the Kaiserstrasse. I had a little money myself so I wrote to him to say I'd like to do a little hiking in the Austrian Alps. He wrote back to suggest I called on him in Vienna and that he would contribute to the costs. I mentioned this to a friend in the boy scouts, who spoke very good German and he said he would like to come too.

The scouts are another story.

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

One last cloud out of James Hogg 2

Part the Second:


He seated himself on the pinnacle of the rocky precipice, a little within the top of the hill to the westward, and, with a light and buoyant heart, viewed the beauties of the morning, and inhaled its salubrious breeze. "Here," thought he, "I can converse with nature without disturbance, and without being intruded on by any appalling or obnoxious visitor." The idea of his brother's dark and malevolent looks coming at that moment across his mind, he turned his eyes instinctively to the right, to the point where that unwelcome guest was wont to make his appearance. Gracious Heaven! What an apparition was there presented to his view! He saw, delineated in the cloud, the shoulders, arms, and features of a human being of the most dreadful aspect. The face was the face of his brother, but dilated to twenty times the natural size. Its dark eyes gleamed on him through the mist, while every furrow of its hideous brow frowned deep as the ravines on the brow of the hill. George started, and his hair stood up in bristles as he gazed on this horrible monster. He saw every feature and every line of the face distinctly as it gazed on him with an intensity that was hardly brookable. Its eyes were fixed on him, in the same manner as those of some carnivorous animal fixed on its prey; and yet there was fear and trembling in these unearthly features, as plainly depicted as murderous malice. The giant apparition seemed sometimes to be cowering down as in terror, so that nothing but his brow and eyes were seen; still these never turned one moment from their object—again it rose imperceptively up, and began to approach with great caution; and, as it neared, the dimensions of its form lessened, still continuing, however, far above the natural size.

George conceived it to be a spirit. He could conceive it to be nothing else; and he took it for some horrid demon by which he was haunted, that had assumed the features of his brother in every lineament, but, in taking on itself the human form, had miscalculated dreadfully on the size, and presented itself thus to him in a blown-up, dilated frame of embodied air, exhaled from the caverns of death or the regions of devouring fire. He was further confirmed in the belief that it was a malignant spirit on perceiving that it approached him across the front of a precipice, where there was not footing for thing of mortal frame. Still, what with terror and astonishment, he continued riveted to the spot, till it approached, as he deemed, to within two yards of him; and then, perceiving that it was setting itself to make a violent spring on him, he started to his feet and fled distractedly in the opposite direction, keeping his eye cast behind him lest he had been seized in that dangerous place. But the very first bolt that he made in his flight he came in contact with a real body of flesh and blood, and that with such violence that both went down among some scragged rocks, and George rolled over the other. The being called out "Murder"; and, rising, fled precipitately. George then perceived that it was his brother; and being confounded between the shadow and the substance, he knew not what he was doing or what he had done; and, there being only one natural way of retreat from the brink of the rock, he likewise arose and pursued the affrighted culprit with all his speed towards the top of the hill. Wringhim was braying out, "Murder! murder!" at which George, being disgusted, and his spirits all in a ferment from some hurried idea of intended harm, the moment he came up with the craven he seized him rudely by the shoulder, and clapped his hand on his mouth. "Murder, you beast!" said he; "what do you mean by roaring out murder in that way? Who the devil is murdering you, or offering to murder you?"

Wringhim forced his mouth from under his brother's hand, and roared with redoubled energy: "Eh! Egh! Murder! murder!" etc. George had felt resolute to put down this shocking alarm, lest someone might hear it and fly to the spot, or draw inferences widely different from the truth; and, perceiving the terror of this elect youth to be so great that expostulation was vain, he seized him by the mouth and nose with his left hand so strenuously that he sank his fingers into his cheeks. But, the poltroon still attempting to bray out, George gave him such a stunning blow with his fist on the left temple that he crumbled, as it were, to the ground, but more from the effects of terror than those of the blow. His nose, however, again gushed out blood, a system of defence which seemed as natural to him as that resorted to by the race of stinkards. He then raised himself on his knees and hams, and raising up his ghastly face, while the blood streamed over both ears, he besought his life of his brother, in the most abject whining manner, gaping and blubbering most piteously.


Here endeth the Tale of the Cloud...

One last cloud out of James Hogg 1

This is the first passage from James Hogg's The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner that I wanted to quote in the lecture of translation and clouds, but it was obviously far too long. So here it is in two parts, next in the next post.


George was, from infancy, of a stirring active disposition and could not endure confinement; and, having been of late much restrained in his youthful exercises by this singular persecutor, he grew uneasy under such restraint, and, one morning, chancing to awaken very early, he arose to make an excursion to the top of Arthur's Seat, to breathe the breeze of the dawning, and see the sun arise out of the eastern ocean. The morning was calm and serene; and as he walked down the south back of the Canongate, towards the Palace, the haze was so close around him that he could not see the houses on the opposite side of the way. As he passed the Lord-Commissioner's house, the guards were in attendance, who cautioned him not to go by the Palace, as all the gates would be shut and guarded for an hour to come, on which he went by the back of St. Anthony's gardens, and found his way into that little romantic glade adjoining to the saint's chapel and well. He was still involved in a blue haze, like a dense smoke, but yet in the midst of it the respiration was the most refreshing and delicious. The grass and the flowers were loaden with dew; and, on taking off his hat to wipe his forehead, he perceived that the black glossy fur of which his chaperon was wrought was all covered with a tissue of the most delicate silver—a fairy web, composed of little spheres, so minute that no eye could discern any of them; yet there they were shining in lovely millions. Afraid of defacing so beautiful and so delicate a garnish, he replaced his hat with the greatest caution, and went on his way light of heart.

As he approached the swire at the head of the dell—that little delightful verge from which in one moment the eastern limits and shores of Lothian arise on the view—as he approached it, I say, and a little space from the height, he beheld, to his astonishment, a bright halo in the cloud of haze, that rose in a semicircle over his head like a pale rainbow. He was struck motionless at the view of the lovely vision; for it so chanced that he had never seen the same appearance before, though common at early morn. But he soon perceived the cause of the phenomenon, and that it proceeded from the rays of the sun from a pure unclouded morning sky striking upon this dense vapour which refracted them. But, the better all the works of nature are understood, the more they will be ever admired. That was a scene that would have entranced the man of science with delight, but which the uninitiated and sordid man would have regarded less than the mole rearing up his hill in silence and in darkness.

George did admire this halo of glory, which still grew wider, and less defined, as he approached the surface, of the cloud. But, to his utter amazement and supreme delight, he found, on reaching the top of Arthur's Seat, that this sublunary rainbow, this terrestrial glory, was spread in its most vivid hues beneath his feet. Still he could not perceive the body of the sun, although the light behind him was dazzling; but the cloud of haze lying dense in that deep dell that separates the hill from the rocks of Salisbury, and the dull shadow of the hill mingling with that cloud made the dell a pit of darkness. On that shadowy cloud was the lovely rainbow formed, spreading itself on a horizontal plain, and having a slight and brilliant shade of all the colours of the heavenly bow, but all of them paler and less defined. But this terrestrial phenomenon of the early morn cannot be better delineated than by the name given of it by the shepherd boys, "The little wee ghost of the rainbow."

Such was the description of the morning, and the wild shades of the hill, that George gave to his father and Mr. Adam Gordon that same day on which he had witnessed them; and it is necessary that the reader should comprehend something of their nature to understand what follows...


Part 2 follows.

The 39 Steps - now with Irony!

Receive the regular email announcement of new productions at the city theatre. They are doing a stage version of The 39 Steps. It says this:

I say! Looking for a jolly good evening's entertainment?

Look no further than THE 39 STEPS, taking place at the Theatre Royal next week. It's a thrilling tale, adapted from Mr Alfred Hitchcock's well known film, and won the prestigious Laurence Olivier Award for Best Comedy.

Follow the adventures of our hero, Mr Richard Hannay, as he attempts to thwart a sinister plot to undermine they very Britishness of our way of life. He's dashing, he's handsome, he's brave, and he sports a damnably fine moustache into the bargain.

Well, jolly good and all that, but, quite apart from the fact that Richard Hannay is supposed to be Canadian I say I can supply the irony for myself and tend to carry spare pocketfuls of inverted commas in case something needs hasty application thereof. However, I am sparing of their use, since I suspect some things come ready with their own, the great original 1935 Hitchcock version, being conspicuously well supplied, and yet - nota bene - still oddly thrilling, which I sincerely, without any inverted commas at all, doubt whether this stage version is likely to be.

Suggested moral: The more you flash your irony the less you have.

Here is a nice part of the Hitchcock. It has the extra ingredient of Comedy that serves in the office of Irony.

Better than the John Buchan original book, for precisely that reason. They might be basing the stage play on Buchan without knowing it, of course. What irony! And you get an election speech too, where you could spend a little time sorting the comic from the serious, and wonder whether the Britishness was worth defending. But that's about as much irony as my brain can cope with on a Wednesday morning. Toodle-oo.

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Blank Slate

The leader of Jobbik, Gábor Vona (centre, back, plain clothes) among his 'troops'. He says he will enter parliament in uniform.

The emergence of the far right is all the fault of the liberals and the left, says the reliable old right wing Budapest Analyses, arguing:

In Hungary, the right-radical party Jobbik emerged from a virtual blank slate over the last couple of years, to some extent with the covert support of the centre-left government, which needed a far-right menace to justify its constant war cry of the rise of a fascist danger. It probably never considered that this could become a self-fulfilling prophecy and that the far right would escape control, as appears to have happened. Jobbik has established itself as a real player on the political scene, gaining 14.7 percent in last year’s European Parliamentary elections on a relatively low turnout and gaining 16.66 percent in the April elections to the Hungarian parliament, nearly overtaking the burnt-out left.

It used the threat of it and thereby created it, where it simply did not, could not, never did, exist. There is no wolf at all, or virtually no wolf, but then you cry wolf, and create the wolf. There never was a MIÉP, never a Csurka, never a march of blackshirts through Budapest in 1995 that I myself saw. Csurka was never a member of parliament. It wasn't black shirts but a blank slate I was watching.

Now one in six Hungarians have voted for fascists. That was the fault of those who told you there were fascists. If they hadn't said there were fascists, there wouldn't be fascists. They wished the fascists into being. There was just a blank slate before.

This is not the product of nationalism, xenophobia, racism and history. It is the product of people who have been fighting nationalism, xenophobia, racism and history. Had they not fought these things, they would not have existed. Nothing exists on a blank slate. Not even on a virtual blank slate. Only virtual things.

So now the right have the field to themselves. How pleased they must be to have the left burned out. Burn their books next, I say. Let's make a blank slate of them.

In Budapest it is only one in ten who voted for Jobbik, meaning nine in ten didn't, and a new Green / Liberal party outpolled them. It's something.

Monday, 12 April 2010

More Merry Popery

I only have a very faint memory of killing Christ, possibly a few years before I was baptised. As for the Holocaust, I have exploited it daily. My mother's days in Ravensbruck and Penig were a jape intended to blacken the name of the Catholic Church. She collaborated in this with my father who spent his happiest days in the labour camp in the Ukraine.

What is more, if the UK Government does not force the Vatican to apologise at once, I will use my financial muscle and withdraw the entire contents of my current account from Barclays Bank thus bringing the financial system to its knees. You have been warned. I am 'powerful and refined'. I passed Eng Lit O Level in 1965 like nobody's business.

The nearby well has been covered for too many years for me to poison it but give me time, and I'll find it.

Sunday, 11 April 2010

Sunday Night is... Melody Gardot

Melody Gardot's Worrisome Heart.

Gardot was one of the performers on BBC4's Great American Songbook,(catch this while you can) and C & I both thought she was rather marvellous. There is some of her on YouTube but not enough. When she sings of the Worrisome Heart she know what she is talking about. From Wiki:

While cycling in Philadelphia in November 2003 she was hit by a Jeep Cherokee whose driver had ignored a red traffic light.

In the accident she suffered serious head and spinal injuries and her pelvis was shattered in two places. Because of these severe injuries she was confined to her hospital bed for a year and had to remain lying on her back. As a further consequence of her injuries she had to re-learn simple tasks such as brushing her teeth and walking. The most noticeable effect of the neural injuries she suffered is that she was left hyper-sensitive to both light and sound, therefore requiring her to wear dark sunglasses at nearly all times to shield her eyes. The accident also resulted in both long and short term memory problems and difficulty with her sense of time. Gardot has described coping with this as like "climbing Mount Everest every day" as she often wakes with no memory of what she has to do that day...

...Gardot started music lessons at the age of nine and began playing piano in Philadelphia bars at the age of sixteen on Fridays and Saturdays for four hours a night. She insisted on only playing music she liked, ranging from standards from The Mamas & the Papas to Duke Ellington and modern groups such as Radiohead.

During her time in hospital she learned how to play the guitar and began writing songs, which were made available as downloads in iTunes and released in Some Lessons: The Bedroom Sessions in 2005. She began to play these songs at venues in Philadelphia and was spotted by the radio station WXPN, operated by the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, which helped to launch Norah Jones. As well as playing her songs, WXPN encouraged her to assemble a demo, which was quickly picked up by Universal Records.

Released in 2006 and then re-released by Verve Records in 2008, her first full-length album was entitled Worrisome Heart. After meeting her in New York City in 2008, producer Larry Klein began working with Gardot and they released her second album, My One and Only Thrill, on April 28, 2009. Also in 2009, Gardot released a live EP, Live from SoHo.

Her take on Somewhere Over the Rainbow was gorgeous, but so was her Get Out of Town, and Someday My Prince Will Come. The YouTube version of Rainbow.. suffers from bad sound quality.


Meanwhile the far right in Hungary is expected to make large gains in the first leg of the general election today. Frankly, it makes me want to weep. More worrisome heart.

Footnote on Hardy

People at times of tragedy tend to say, 'We must make sure this never happens again' as if they had any control of words such as 'sure' and 'never'. Then there are the conspiracy theorists, their conspiracies just gathering speed. Conspiracies of Russians, of the EU, of the USA, of Al Qaeda, from Machiavellians of all descriptions. It is strange, of course, straight after the Katyn events. Another forest, more fog, more Polish bodies, but I am not a Machiavellian. My instincts whisper it is a miracle that more disasters do not happen. At such times I tend to think of poems like this.

The Convergence Of The Twain
(Lines on the loss of the "Titanic")

In a solitude of the sea
Deep from human vanity,
And the Pride of Life that planned her, stilly couches she.

Steel chambers, late the pyres
Of her salamandrine fires,
Cold currents thrid, and turn to rhythmic tidal lyres.

Over the mirrors meant
To glass the opulent
The sea-worm crawls--grotesque, slimed, dumb, indifferent.

Jewels in joy designed
To ravish the sensuous mind
Lie lightless, all their sparkles bleared and black and blind.

Dim moon-eyed fishes near
Gaze at the gilded gear
And query: "What does this vaingloriousness down here?". . .

Well: while was fashioning
This creature of cleaving wing,
The Immanent Will that stirs and urges everything

Prepared a sinister mate
For her--so gaily great--
A Shape of Ice, for the time fat and dissociate.

And as the smart ship grew
In stature, grace, and hue
In shadowy silent distance grew the Iceberg too.

Alien they seemed to be:
No mortal eye could see
The intimate welding of their later history.

Or sign that they were bent
By paths coincident
On being anon twin halves of one August event,

Till the Spinner of the Years
Said "Now!" And each one hears,
And consummation comes, and jars two hemispheres.

- Thomas Hardy

Whether the Immanent Will, aka The Spinner of the Years, is the product of a conspiracy theory, of course, remains an open question. But the sense of ninety-six dead (possibly ninety-seven), many of them the leading figures of a nation, all at once, in one room, in a historically hostile space, cannot help but impinge on the consciousness as more than a simple error on part of man or machine.

However, the fact that it so impinges is not a factor in the odds on or against simple error, including the simple error of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. An inch this way or that has always been part of human life. Sure and never have never made much sense to me, within my very narrow, personal sense of 'never'. Even conspirators are subject to it. The sea-worm and the Shape of Ice are factors.

Canst thou draw out Leviathan with an hook? asked God of Job.

Sometimes, yes, Job might have answered, and sometimes no.

Saturday, 10 April 2010

Late back

Reading in Bury St Edmunds. Very good. All books sold including my reading copy plus one to send on. Quite a long set with a fair amount of talking in between, but I think that is fair to an audience - just breaks in between concentration. Second half mostly new poems.

More on other matters tomorrow.

Friday, 9 April 2010

Ginger Rogers, momentarily beautiful.

Ginger Rogers was probably the first woman I fell in love with, in the way you might - and do - fall in love at nine or ten. Tonight on BBC4 there was the latest in a rather splendid series on The Great American Songbook, but in between an earlier programme on the Hollywood musical and the Songbook there was a half hour of Astaire and Rogers clips. I have said before that if I could come back in another life I'd like to come back as Astaire, but, watching the clips this time, it was Ginger Rogers I found myself thinking about.

When I was nine (or indeed ten) I thought she was as lovely a human being as there could be: sylphlike, playful, sometimes perfectly heartbreaking. I knew she was a woman, of course, and that was the essential part. She might have been the first I knew of beauty, the first woman (w - o - m -a - n, as Peggy Lee was to sing) to whom I might consciously have attached the word.

But then she wasn't really beautiful, not as such. She could look beautiful as some women can, but essentially, it dawns on me now, she was simply pretty, like a wholesome lift- girl. And in a way that's even better, because whenever she was beautiful she was transformed.

I recall a colleague at another place telling me she was all against beauty. She had read Naomi Wolff on the beauty myth and saw how beauty was a tyrant, especially standard beauty. And someone else once said they didn't want to be told they were beautiful as it would be all the harder to lose the beauty as the years went by.

But what to do? Beauty isn't something you argue someone out of: it was instinct not ideology I experienced at age nine (or ten).

And the reason it grabs us so - both men and women - is precisely because it is what we have to lose. Nor is it simple. One beauty is simply the potential of growing into a kind of perfection. Another is the point itself. A third is the growing out of it. Still another is the being beautiful. Yet another is the presence of it. Beauty is mobile like that.

It is inevitably tied in with the condition of being firmly alive both in its fullness and its wasting. There is no human beauty that is not temporary, or even momentary.

There is a passage in László Krasznahorkai's Satantango in which the innkeeper in a crowded, excited inn, is desperately lusting after the attractive Mrs Schmidt, and has deliberately been turning the heating up so that she might remove her coat first, and then her cardigan.

However, ever since it had come to his attention a few days ago, that the bonds between Futaki and Mrs Schmidt had, so to speak, ‘loosened’, he was hardly able to conceal his delight from people because he felt it was his turn now, that it was his once-and-for-all opportunity. Now, weakening at the sight of Mrs Schmidt delicately pinching the blouse about her breasts and using the garment to fan herself, his hands began to shake uncontrollably and his eyes all but misted over. ‘Those shoulders! Those two sweet little thighs rubbing against each other! Those hips. And those tits, dear heaven!...’ His eyes wanted to seize the Entirety at once, but in his excitement he could only concentrate on the ‘maddening sequence’ of the Details. The blood drained from his face, he felt dizzy: he was practically begging to catch Mrs Schmidt’s indifferent (‘It’s like he was some kind of simpleton…’) eyes and, since he was incapable of freeing himself from the illusion that he could sum up every situation in life, from the simplest to the most complex, in one pithy phrase, he asked himself, ‘Would any man stint on the heating bill for a woman like this?’

This is lust-in-action of course, but it weakens him and makes him foolish.

Perhaps the difference between lust and love is simply that lust assumes the immediate is permanent while love knows full well it is not, so its heart goes out to it. The Entirety as against the Details. It's a start, anyway.

I was too young to lust for Ginger. It was love at first sight really, but it couldn't last. Neither her beauty, nor my childhood. It is very hard on those that have beauty and very hard on those that don't. Hard on those who desire it too, of course.

Nevertheless, sometimes it's harder to be a woman. So they tell me.

Thursday, 8 April 2010

What he might have said

Gordon Brown being interviewed on radio this morning runs two lines:

1. My chancellorship was great. We said we'd bring down inflation and unemployment, and we did. That is what I meant by no more boom and bust, not anything else.

2. The banking crisis was absolutely nothing to do with us - it was a global thing, well, actually a USA thing, their triple A rated sub-primes. Nothing to do with me. Global. Have you got it? Global. In case you missed it, it was, what was the word? Yes, global.

His Mansion House speech in 2007, congratulating the City and encouraging it to carry on, began as follows (my bold type):

Over the ten years that I have had the privilege of addressing you as Chancellor, I have been able year by year to record how the City of London has risen by your efforts, ingenuity and creativity to become a new world leader.

- Now today over 40 per cent of the world's foreign equities are traded here, more than New York:
- over 30 per cent of the world's currencies exchanges take place here, more than New York and Tokyo combined,
- while New York and Tokyo are reliant mainly on their large American and Asian domestic markets, 80 per cent of our business is international, and
- in a study last week of the top 50 financial cities, the City of London came first.

So I congratulate you Lord Mayor and the City of London on these remarkable achievements, an era that history will record as the beginning of a new golden age for the City of London.

And I believe the lesson we learn from the success of the City has ramifications far beyond the City itself - that we are leading because we are first in putting to work exactly that set of qualities that is needed for global success:

- openness to the world and global reach,
- pioneers of free trade and its leading defenders, with a deep and abiding belief in open markets,
- champions of diversity in ownership and talent, and of flexibility and adaptability to change, and
- a basic faith that from wherever it comes and from whatever background, what matters is that the talent, ingenuity and potential of people is harnessed to drive performance.

And I believe it will be said of this age, the first decades of the 21st century, that out of the greatest restructuring of the global economy, perhaps even greater than the industrial revolution, a new world order was created

When asked whether he took responsibility for everything that had happened under his chancellorship and premiership, he said, 'Of course I do', but made it clear he was not to blame for any of the ill-effects.


This is what I would like him to have said:

By the time we came to office in 1997 we had little or no manufacturing base. We had abolished Clause IV in 1995. Communism had collapsed in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. For a year or two it seemed it really was the end of history. New markets were opening up there and everywhere else. We had been shaken by the events of the late seventies and eighties, and although the eighties were tough and hateful the country was on a reasonable economic footing when we took over. There was no way back. We ourselves didn't want to go back. The only way forward was to use what strengths we had and hope to improve the situation of the poorest, of the health service, of education, employment - in fact of all the usual objects of our concern. And, I contend, we did do so.

The only strength the country really had following the Thatcherite revolution was money and the City. Very well, we said, that is what we will use. We will not push the ideology. We will be, in Harold Wilson's words, pragmatic. Pragmatic is what we were. We moved forward little by little, often in very difficult circumstances. The country was with us. That was partly because the broad centre of the country could afford to be, and we had to keep them affording to be.

Economic activity was the mainspring of everything. The more activity, the more energy. Governing such energy is a very difficult business, because, once you have decided to live by it, you have to let it have its head, while making sure it works for the greater good which is not, I assure you, its tendency. If some people got very rich, that was the price we paid. In any case, no state's economy exists in isolation from another's in our world. That is what I mean by 'global'. Labour moves around - that being a key aspect of the EU - and so does capital. Feverish movement is of the essence, providing you can be in the place where that feverish activity is at its greatest, a feverishness much magnified by contemporary technology and communications. The money passes through your hands and a useful part of it sticks. Nothing new about that as a principle: it was just that the circumstances gave maximum momentum to the principle.

Believe me, it could be pretty scary, the way the momentum kept us spinning ever faster, but once on that roundabout, it was impossible to get off. There was no opportune moment - and where could we go anyway? We either lived by it or didn't live at all. Don't think for a second that the Conservatives would have done any different. They'd just have cared a lot less about where the less advantaged people in the country stood. Their philosophy would have demanded an even faster rate.

It was a scary ride but, look, you had ten years of dizzy, exhilarating well-being. You travelled, you bought big, you were expansive. Don't tell me you didn't enjoy it. I know you will take scant comfort at the moment from inflation being low, but your life would be much worse if it was high.

My own chief regrets are less about the economy than education, health, bureaucracy, immigration, multiculturalism, and yes, probably the wars. But I'll talk about those things another time.

I am not trying to be anything or sell anything here. I just tell you: this is where we are. We did as we did because it seemed to us the only possible thing to do. That was the Nu-Lab deal. Should we have regulated earlier? Yes. But when? At what stage to intervene? You tell me. You push the stop button and watch the bodies fly off.

So yes, I'm afraid it's all a pig's ear. And we're worse off than many because of all that stuff I was congratulating the City for doing in 2007. And no,I didn't save the world. But at least I'm used to it and have, maybe, learned a few things.

Bit long winded, I know. But that's just me. That's the least of your worries.

That pitch would probably suit me for now.

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Dismay the sixth.

The prospect of the election brings me out in dismay. I don't think I have ever felt quite so negative about voting for any of them. The Punch and Judy exchanges, the opportunistic short-term biffs and oofs, the sheer mendacity, smarm, and vitriol count is going to be too much for my delicate constitution.

I loathe Gordon, I loathe Milliband (both Millibands), I loathe Harman, I loathe Alan Johnson, and I certainly loathe Peter Mandelson. Charlie Whelan! I mean, does one even have to consider Charlie Whelan? Only to loathe him all the more. The idea of gratifying any of them, let alone as a complete set, makes me fairly sick.

That's a lot of loathing to go round and I can only see it getting worse as the campaign wears on. Oddly enough, I do have some sympathy for Alistair Darling, Labour's John Major figure. He seems to have kept his dignity so far.

But the personality game is part of the repulsion. Frankly, I don't think it will make very much difference who gets in, unless it's a hung parliament and the LibDems manage to force through proportional representation. That would be a difference. For the better? Possibly, though endless alliances with fringe parties are rarely for the good of any state.

One could just give the whole campaign a miss and vote on principle rather than manifesto and personality, and that, I expect, is what I will do. I don't actually believe manifesto promises anyway. The one principle that remains in this is to support the party that is likely to do more for the weakest and poorest. In principle. I know that's a fat lot of good, but I can't, off-hand, think of anything better.

Perhaps we'll get a visit from one of the parties. Haven't had one in the sixteen years we've lived here so far.

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

Le soleil brille

A special occasion. One needs to say it in French to get the full otherness of it. The sun has been out all day and I have been out in it. This is not a matter of great or grave consequence to the world, of course, but it made me feel better about catching the bus into town - had to run for it, which is good for me - to meet young brilliant KD, pianist, with an eye to a collaborative venture. We talked a good deal about tension and release in music and I was exploring how this applied to poetry. What is a poetic line and what is it measured against? How does a free improvising post-jazz pianist know when he's playing badly, or has just played a wrong phrase or chord?

After KD, my second appointment, TW, poet. A day full of youth. The nice Polish girl behind the counter smiles. She can look pretty gloomy at times, but I have been a regular there in the past, so we can share a wry smile even when her mood is low.

Too late for Dury now. Tomorrow to London to meet US poet Alfred Corn. On Saturday I read in Bury St.Edmunds. The next Wednesday in Cambridge for concert in memoriam Mátyás Seiber. I wrote four short rain songs for the Czech-born composer Karel Janovicky to be performed there. Rain seemed the most appropriate at the time. These were the songs:

Rain Dance
For Karel Janoviczky

1. Recitative
Just imagine it – a field of endless rain
In the heart, in the head.
The sky a smear, a pond, a sift, a stain,
Impossible to see through or ahead.
So it begins in fields of mud
An English winter, English flood,
A flood of fear, a tiny finickety
Spark of electricity.

Let’s move say the clouds, shift, and get on with it.
Let the rain fall, let earth be done with it.

2. Slow
In long sodden trenches in a long sodden war
The map of Europe changes.
Amid shell and gas and boom and roar
Time estranges, rearranges.
Rain, rain, nothing but wild rain.
Nothing but the solitude of knowing.
Nothing but rain, neither coming nor going.

Stand still in the moving river
Flowing on for ever and ever.

3. Fast
When the ship of fools is launched
With all its fribble,
When rain performs its dainty little dance
And drainpipes dribble,
When wind plays catch as catch can
With gust and swipe,
When mischief enters the heart of man
And trip means tripe,
Let man jig to the whimsical shower
That sweeps up minute
Dispenses with hour
And drops him in it.

So too- ra-loo and too-ra-li-a-lily
A man drenched in rain looks extremely silly.
And too-ra-loo and too-ra-loo-a-lying
A drenched figure can look quite terrifying
With all the too’s before and now and after
The rain is giggling on the edge of laughter

4. Stately
The broad rain coming down in flapping sheets,
The long battle against a drawn-out dark,
The drops glittering on naked clothes-lines,
The well-stocked ark.

The whistling of small birds among wet leaves,
A scroll of gulls, an even stream of cloud,
The mist round the towers of the cathedral,
The pale grey shroud.

The sun as prospect, rumour, hint and sight,
The blue edging the grey under the white,
The broad bright patch that puts the cloud to flight,
The light! The light!