Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Giant Haystacks

Listen to the obituaries for Haystacks:

Inside Giant Haystacks was hidden a little sheaf of gold, but he was to make his name as an entertainer in a field full of corn... His mother was gentle...His size made him miserable as a boy...

...a kind, intelligent, deeply religious man devoted to his wife...

But what did he say?

I’m a total loner. I travel alone, I wrestle alone. I look after myself.


I felt like a conductor of the Hallé Orchestra, able to play on people’s emotions.

His real name was Martin Ruane and he was brought up in Salford. At fourteen a teacher broke a cane across his back and he left school. Three years later he married Rita, a Catholic, like himself. He worked in a woodwork factory and a tyre firm, then became a lorry driver. He was also a doorman in Salford night clubs. One day a friend persuaded him to get into the ring. It was difficult at first but later he caught on: the niche that had been waiting for him all those years years opened up and he took his place. He became an entertainer. He created Haystacks. He broke ten fingers, both kneecaps, both elbows, crushed several ribs, snapped his collarbone and lost all his front teeth. He became a god in India, a cult in Africa an exemplar in Germany. He made money but stayed in B & Bs. He bought an expensive house that he lost on a bad business deal. Then he got cancer. He was fifty two when he died on the verge of a comeback.

They wanted to see this big, bullying, ignorant pig who tormented their heroes get his come-uppance and end up on his arse.

He refused to fight on Sundays. An honorary citizen of Zimbabwe. Paul Mc Cartney, Frank Sinatra and Evander Holyfield adored him. When he was down on his luck he ran a debt-collection agency.

It was a good life.

He earned about sixty quid a week, went into car dealing and debt collecting. His voice almost inaudible in the baby sized hospital.

Monday, 29 November 2010

Wrestlers' Names

I have always loved the names of wrestlers, so here are a few:

Sheik Abdullah Abbas; Ace Abbott; Kenny Ackles; Adrian Adonis; Keith Franke; Dick "the Bruiser" Afflis; William Afflis ; Francisco "El Charro" Aguayo; Francisco Aguayo-Escobosa ; Kara Ahmed; August Ahrens; Babu Ali ; Ali Aliba; Jack Allen; Tiny Anderson; Andre the Giant; Red Andrews; Lady Angel; Vittorio "Argentina" Apollo; Mitsu Arakawa; "Baron" George Arena; Bert Assirati; "Killer" Buddy Austin; Ali Baba; Giant Baba; Adrien Baillargeon; Lionel Baillargeon; Paul Baillargeon; Tony Baillargeon; "Dirty" Dick Barkley; The Beast; Bialo the Giant; Big Daddy; Chief Big Heart; Black Venus; "Crusher" Jerry Blackwell; Cecilia Blevins; Lofty Blomfield; Elmer "Pet" Brown; Frank Brown; Jack Brown; Tiger" Jack Brown; "Harlem" Jimmy Brown; Bad Leroy Brown; Luke Brown; Lyman Brown; Natie Brown; Orville Brown; Sweet Georgia Brown; Lord Leslie Carlton; Primo Carnera; Steve "Crusher" Casey; "Leaping" Larry Chene; Liz Chase; Bobby Chick; Mr. Chin; Sir Dudley Clement; C.B. Cochran ; Little Coco; Ripper Collins; Eddie "The Brain" Creatchman; Fuzzy Cupid; "King Kong" Emile Czaya; "Carnation" Lou Daro; El Gran Davis; Man Mountain Dean; Dingo the Sundowner; Eric the Red / Eric the Animal; Bruno Erlington; Espectro; Chief Kit Fox; French Angel ; George "Scrap Iron" Gadaski ; Pinkie George; Giant Haystacks; Gordy Gordienko; Gorgeous George; Soldat Gorky; Frank Gotch; Jan Gotch; Tarzan Govender; Eddie Graham; Dr. Jerry Graham; Grand Wizard / Abdullah Farouk ; Leaping Larry Hatfield; Betty Jo Hawkins; Luis Hernandez / The Medic; Happy Humphrey; Kazuro Huriguchi; Irish Jackie; Scott Irwin / Super Destroyer; Ivan the Terrible; Jaan Jaago; Brother Jonathan; Farmer Jones; Junkyard Dog; Johhny Kace; Duke Keomuka; Don Koloff; Nick Kolonis; Bomber Kulkivitch; "Jumping" Jack Kusas; Ed "Strangler" Lewis; Evan "Strangler" Lewis; Luther Lindsay; Eugene "Big Daddy" Lipscombe; Kid Lipton; Danny Little Bear; Steven Little Bear; Little Beaver; Chief Little Eagle ; Chief Little Wolf; Sky Low Low; Clarence "Cowboy" Luttrall; Prof. Boris Malenko; Plum Mariko; Mike Marino; Tiger Joe Marsh; Magnificent Maurice; Bert Maxwell; Moondog Lonnie Mayne; Mike Mazurki; Jack "Sockeye" McDonald; El Medico; Flash Monroe / Gene Dundee; Gorilla Monsoon; Bull Montana; Hombre Montana; Lenny "Bull" Montana; Vince Montana / The Spoiler; Muhammad the Butcher ; Mary Jane Mull; The Mummy; Skull Murphy; Nouroulah the Terrible Turk ; Buddy O'Brien; Neal "Swede" Olson; Oro; Jess Ortega / Mighty Ursus; Zoltan Papp; Sailor Allen Parker; Ali Pasha; Ivan Rasputin; Billy Rayburn; Billy Red Cloud; Chuck "Popeye" Richards; "Nature Boy" Buddy Rogers; "Yankee" Joe Rogers; Strong Rogers; Billy Rolling Thunder; Dr. Benjamin F. Roller; Mike Romano; Billy Romanoff ; Black Jack Ross; Don Ross / Ripper Savage; Mile High Ross; Morris Sigel; Ruffy Silverstein; Big E. Sleeze; Shirley Strimple; Tibor Szakács; József Szerb; Shag Thomas; Jim Thorpe; Major Tom Thumb; Chief Thunderbird; Chief Thundermountain; Count Joseph Varga; Count Antonio Verdi; The Viking; Pancho Villa; Villano II; The Wildman; Bearcat Wilkerson; Bearcat Wright; Yousouff the Terrible Turk; Yukon Eric; Babe Zaharias; Stanislaus Zbyszko; Wladek Zbyszko; Vanka Zelezniak; Ben Zersn


That is several novels and an epic poem.

Watching Hitchens interviewed by Paxman tonight. A sort of Sartrean hero. I admire him greatly. The interview was not half long enough. It's not a good sign being interviewed now. The trick is to read him.


It is my sixty-second year to heaven. It's a cold dark night. C down with cold. Daughter H down with cold. Baby Marlie with temperature and it is due to get colder tomorrow. Today was relatively easy. Love, we were young once and ran races...

Self with cousin Judit. Not yet up to running races. (photo: thanks to cousin Daniel Gorloveztky, son of Judit, in Argentina)

Sunday, 28 November 2010

Sunday Night is... Andrews Sisters x 2 Boogie

Rhum Boogie (1940) from Argentine Nights


Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy (1941) from In the Navy

I have a fondness for the Andrews Sisters brand of high gloss optimism. It's wartime and the people they are singing to will not all come back. But there they are, boosted on Buicks and Boogie and Rhum and Coca-Cola. And they are very good, full of fun and animation, somehow unbroken.


It has been a time for writing - seven poems in the new series now, all different forms, all experiments, all the product of three days intense concentration, delight, and language gymnastics. They are touching something sufficiently deep to work, I think, but it's too early to tell. I had more or less run out of poems to send out when people asked. The very last have now gone to The Spectator which will print four. My review of Krúdy appears in the latest TLS. And 7-1! to go with the seven poems. But for all kinds of other things - colds, sadnesses, arrangements, exhaustions - it would be a perfect run of days. Poetry has always been stolen time for me. Even now I feel faintly criminal to have concentrated so much on writing it. It does make it sweeter of course, with just that undertone of bitterness at it being so rare. I'd like to make the seven up to a round dozen and I think it is possible. Perhaps within seven days.

Saturday, 27 November 2010

Wrestling episodes: A little night wrestling

At the Ambassadors

Larry Magnolia has poured himself into his gold suit. Mal Gallicott is snarling in his leopard skin lapels. And what does Larry say? He is pointing at the gaffa tape on the mat.

You want tawdry, ladies and gentlemen? we give you tawdry.

You could dance, you could go out for a decent meal, or drive out into the country in search of an appropriate fairground, looking for the taste of raw nostalgia. And you could find it. It doesn’t have to be real. Nostalgia is happiness at the edge of language, a tip-of-the-tongue elusive flavour. You could even find it here if that was what you wanted. Nostalgia as tawdriness worked into a glossy routine. It’s not what they want though. Not exactly. What they want, what they have become addicted to, is truth, and truth precisely in this guise.

A boy in a white mouse outfit runs about the room. He has a slight paunch and a long ratty tail. A man at one of the tables pretends to pick fights with him: the mouse hides behind pillars or flaps at him with his little hands.

An elderly man three chairs down, his face impassive, immobile. A couple opposite with the same statuesque stillness. They’re dotted here and there. Their faces have slipped and settled.

The wrestlers have entered the ring. The first has a sweet, effeminate softness in his body. He is known as Boy. He is neither particularly tall nor particularly wide. His wears his hair mullett style. He looks like a boy on the market, nothing more, but he plays hero in a Union Jack costume. The softness and ordinariness is what Larry Magnolia is picking at. But the irony is more complex than he knows. It’s there in the costume. We are Brits, the costume says. We are not enormous yankee myths projected onto glossy limbs nor are we Braveheart leading a bunch of brittle vainglorious Scots. But just in case you’re thinking you can mess with us, we carry this smelly old linament bottle full of irony, and should it come to that, we’ll smash your fucking face in with it.

His opponent for tonight, the heel of the contest, is Todd ‘Skull’ Harte, nineteen stone and rising. Skull wears black and has a small but engaging repertoire of sneers: the sneer contemptuous, the sneer threatening, the sneer puzzled for when he’s thrown, the sneer twinkling for when he has inflicted some pain on his opponent and the sneer jovial which quickly shades off into the sneer ironic that undermines the rest.

And I tell you what. It frightens me, says Larry Magnolia.

Nineteen stone Skull and twelve stone Boy are father and son.

Father charges at son. Throws him once, throws him twice. Suplex. Suplex. Quick, like that. Holds him in a standing headlock, then applies a double wristlock and head scissors. You don’t want to hurt your lad too much. Throws him again. The Boy goes hard on his back. The round consists entirely of Skull playing rag doll with him. So does the next. If you were coming for the first time you’d wonder how it is that the Boy survives, especially as he has already been thrown out of the ring twice. But when you get used to the rhythm of the thing, you see there is less contact than you imagine. The choreography is fine. You get a body slam and the arms go down hard to make a wonderful boom that makes you think your vertebrae have just impacted with your sacrum so you’re fused forever, you and the mat below you,. But give it a head shaking three or four seconds and you’re up delivering a forearm smash or a flying mare or smashing your opponent’s head against the ropes. Your timing has to be right.

By the third round things have changed. The Boy spins away from his father, leaps over him, rolls under his legs, bounces off the rope and tips him over, so both his shoulders are touching the ground. That’s one fall to The Boy. Hero: one, villain: nil. Perhaps the twist in the proceedings has come a little early for you? Myself, I don’t think it’s too bad. In fact there’s nothing shamefully below par here, not by today’s standards anyway. The moves are good, the timing’s pretty well on the spot. As for the plot, the narrative if you like, it has a certain flow and tension.

The girls in the audience fist the air. One middle aged man at a table takes Skull’s side and encourages him, but Skull loses this one because the story demands it. He returns to the dressing room. The fat man slinks back, a whale moving through the water which divides before him.

Friday, 26 November 2010

The Time It Takes To

The Time It Takes
Quick time. Slow time. Time flies – Phyllida Barlow

By the time they got to Phoenix it was late.
Quick went the movie but the talk was slow
Down empty roads with hours to navigate.

From Tucson up through Arizona state
There’s nothing you would recognize or know.
By the time they got to Phoenix it was late.

It’s like an anecdote you’ll not relate.
You watch dust fly as wind begins to blow
Down empty roads with hours to navigate.

Time flies like dust, no time to contemplate
The journey. You go where you have to go.
By the time they got to Phoenix it was late.

The things you say! The words will not run straight
So time moves on with nothing left to show
Down empty roads with hours to navigate.

Let’s cut the talk completely, wipe the slate.
They drove in silence and preferred it so.
By the time they got to Phoenix it was late
Down empty roads with hours to navigate.

Thursday, 25 November 2010


Yesterday morning to Wysing Art Centre to meet my artist collaborators Caroline Wright, Helen Rousseau and Phyllida Barlow. For almost a year now, fairly regularly but not too often we have met at Caroline's studio at Wysing to have discussions about the relationship between visual art and the word, recording the discussions, entering them on a web-site, elements of which are open and elements of which are for conversations continued between the group.

For me it has provided almost half a book of poems related directly to specific works by the three artists, or rather springing out of them. That was until summer when I was working at full tilt on other projects and obligations. That stage of the work was marked with an exhibition at Ipswich. There is still an exhibit at Wysing and we met in the gallery with a few other artists present to continue discussions.

Now we are entering another phase. Up till now all I have written has been about work by Caroline and Helen, with one poem about a work by Phyllida, but now I have seized the opportunity of a few days to start on Phyllida's written contributions which are her notes scanned in and put up at the website. I pick phrases and expand them, trying to turn them into structures that have some organic life of their own.

I have always loved working in this way, in a form of annotation or marginalia. It is like entering a house only to open the windows to see what is visible from there, to survey the land beyond the house itself, a land I myself have come from but which now seems like a sudden strange universe with which the house seems to be in balance. The view from there is the thing. As though the view constituted were a house with more windows.

After Rose Tremain's beautiful reading last night at the UEA we went for dinner with Chris, Pam, David from the university and Rose herself with Richard Holmes. Richard was telling us about his adventures in hot air balloons in Albuquerque. He described the forest of balloons rising and hanging over the town and the mountains. He is writing about what the world looks like from the air. Maybe this Wysing project is a little like that too, like hot air ballooning, the words being the hot air that keeps the balloons jostling and afloat.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Back to Wrestling: Story

Having got the batch of stock characters with variants, the difficulty is to know what to do with them. Bad is bad and good is good is limiting, but then this isn't Dostoevsky or Proust, this is a morality play in the beer hall.

There is of course the technical quality. Good wrestlers will be not only courageous and athletic and able to engage in effective mumming, but will also possess a large vocabulary of moves that they can execute slickly and convincingly. Their understanding of their opponents and the possibilities offered by each move and counter-move should provide enough variety to make a twenty-minute or half-hour contest. Naturally, young wrestlers and learners have to be inducted in some way so there will be contests with limited vocabulary. Here, acting and character must stand in for skill as best they can. Between holds and throws and the less convincing pummeling and beating, they need to work their routine through a story of some kind without being dull. As Frost said: No surprise in the writer no surprise in the reader. As Martin Bell wrote: Help me to tell the truth and not feel dull.

The story is two-fold. First the story within the evening. It is how the matches are arranged, what order, what is at stake, what bit of spectacle can be introduced in terms of costume or stage property. The evening will close with the most popular contest. A well arranged bill will draw us towards that end.

More interesting is the story of the action in particular matches. If I am right that the power of the match narrative resides in its symbolic value, then it should be possible to tell the story of the match in the most resonant manner. Most contests consist of one wrestler apparently beating the other to a pulp, then the one being beaten suddenly resurrects, leaps to life and inflicts similar punishment on the first. The contest often comes down to this: Punch has the cosh and beats Judy, then Judy grabs the cosh and beats Punch, the pair alternating almost, it seems, ad inf. This quickly grows boring. It should be possible to work changes of pace into some kind of development.

Perhaps it is not even so much narrative as poetics. Opera, after all, works with the polarities of good and evil. They are instinctive termini to move between, and there might perhaps be a rough and ready poetic structure to be wrung out of those savage pratfalls, those blind appeals to justice , the appeal to beauty and energy and the urgings to blood and death. None of those things is crude: they provide the dynamics of the most subtle, most delicate, most sophisticated of art forms.

There are specific forms of poetics for almost all human activity. That poetics is what is being referred to when one fan says to another: What a great goal! or What a match! The effect of the old class system was to heighten the separation of mind from body. The workers did the body stuff: the educated did the mind stuff. The workers had dirty hands: the thinkers had clean hands. The workers had wrestling: the thinkers had poetry, opera, fine art and the string quartet.

But it ain't necessarily so. These are not the distinct activities of different kinds of human being. The virtues of one furnish the other. The grace of one powers the other. And I would be very surprised if, at some level, we didn't know that. It is just that in class terms there is too much at stake: what each possesses is guarded jealously from the other. Poetry is not for the toffs, nor is sport for the plebs.

As for wrestling, its small violent theatre is, nevertheless, theatre. It even has the masks and the music. It just needs a good director and a genius choreographer.


ps I have been pointed to a tweet in which the performance poet, Luke Wright, asks if I am the Alan Titchmarsh of literary poetry. I expect the boy means well. Like Titchmarsh I am a Hungarian refugee who writes poems about burnings of books. Alan and I have always had that in common.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Back to Wrestling: Characters

The British cast of characters is limited compared to the American. That is to say in my own, admittedly limited, experience. So far I have seen the following villains that I recall:

A shaved green dwarf: Clearly a villain, especially since he was fighting a handsome hero. Nevertheless, the dwarf 'succeeded' in tying the hero's limbs into a knot. A small alien from another planet. Think of the Mekon in Dan Dare or an evil genie escaped from a sinister bottle.

Giants: five or six, generally depicted as mean, stupid, lumbering and glowering, though the Norfolk based Pit Bulls, including the 30 stone Bulk, were local heroes. Not so much heroes in, say, Suffolk. Prototype: the local Ogre of Smeeth, to be defeated by gallant Tom Hickathrift.*

Flash Harrys: Sometimes Americans, sometimes Italians or Frenchmen. Foreigners are generally Flash. They brag, scowl and cheat. There are exceptions. Nordic types are generally heroes.

Narcissists: Similar to Flash Harrys but for the fact that they are possibly gay or hint at gayness. There has clearly been a homo-erotic aspect to wrestling in different places at different times. There were wrestlers such as Adrian Street, Bobby Barnes and the camp, ballet dancing American genius, Ricky Starr, but gayness is less of an outsider issue now so old camp is new camp, presenting itself between a different set of inverted commas - or so I suppose from the outside and I might be wrong. All the same, it would be hard to see a new Danny LaRue or even Lily Savage, starting from where they started. Time moves on. When I was Fellow at Trinity College Dublin, in 2000, preparing to write the wrestling novel that was not to be, I put some wrestling photos up in my office and people asked me if I was gay. I have yet to see a camp or narcissist wrestler in mucho macho Norwich.

Death mask variants: Locally we have the baseball-bat wielding, black and white painted demon, the Kendo Nagasaki samurai model, Count Bartelli, Dr Death himself, the Mummy and others. Partly Hollywood, partly horror film. I haven't yet seen a vampire, a werewolf or a fully fledged zombie but there's always hope. Meanwhile there is the relatively small store of gothic and UK Halloween. The masked are there to be unmasked. Essentially they are leading double lives. Baseball Man dramatically unmasked himself last week. A little bathetic at times. (Kendo was never unmasked as Peter Thorne of Crewe, but as a man with a tough scalp tattoo, in effect another mask.)

The rabbit or coward: Acts hard, pouts and runs or is simply there to be a rag doll to be thrown about. Cheerfully booed by the crowd.Helplessness is hard. You can't play it up.

Bad ganglang boss: Long leather coat, sunglasses, jewellery, or more likely would-be gangland boss. Drugdealer, possible paedophile.

These are the main types of villains. The heroes are less interesting in that there are fewer models. Clean-cut and handsome will do, though if you are local you can be the deepest-dyed villain and you'll still be hero. As dear Mr Best (Bestashvili) our Georgian landlord in London explained to me in 1973, the reason the huge statue of Stalin was still standing in Tbilisi at that time was that though he might have been a bad man, he was, nevertheless, our bad man.

There is, interestingly, a special place for the biker hero, probably best represented by Johnny Brookside, long-haired, slender, spectacularly athletic, born out of heavy metal. Heavy metal tends to be the medium for everything. Wrestling, apart from Ricky Starr, is a heavy metal world.

Female wrestlers can be either heroes or villains and switch more readily from one to the other. The local brand still serves, but as I wrote earlier, the catfight is not exploited in sexual terms. It is simply Rough Girls fighting between themselves. It's What Really Goes On When They Are Not Being Ladylike. But after the fighting and snarling they can switch sweet back on, should they want to.

What to make of this and the dramas they engage in? Next time. And I'll add a couple of links and pictures.

Monday, 22 November 2010

Back to Wrestling: Drama, Story and Character 1

There have been studies of wrestling's gallery of characters but they are, as far as I am aware, mostly American. I have no immediate interest in American wrestling, though I have read a couple of American wrestlers' autobiographies. I am fascinated by the British range.

In essence it is simple. Good fights bad. Good doesn't necessarily win, in fact Good often loses, but it's a long game, since Good will angle for a rematch, which is followed by another rematch and so on, and so it is always possible that Good might triumph in the end. That hope must always remain.

The bad must also win, and more often than the good, because wrestling must refer to something in real life. In real life, the crowd know all too well, the winners are seldom good and the poor are less powerful than the rich.

Because this isn't fair, it is frustrating. Frustration is, in effect, suppressed energy. The product is transferred energy: energy must be expended on it. A display of violence something close to anarchy is required, but the anarchy - in British wrestling particularly - is essentially pantomime. The anarchy seems to resemble Bakhtin's idea of carnival, but, unlike carnival, it doesn't reverse the order of society. It curses it, laughs at it and guys it, but in the end, accepts it. There isn't an equivalent of the wealthy or tyrannical to be defeated or mocked. The wealthy and tyrannical never enter the arena. Authority, however, does.

Authority exists in the form of the referee. The referee, like everyone else involved in the spectacle, is a character within the drama, not an arbitrator following some external procedure. The referee represents authority and authority is blind. In a typically British understanding of authority, the referee figure is never corrupt, merely stupid and easily taken in. This might reflect the underclass view of the state: it certainly enacts it. The state often supports the unworthy and the crooked through simple blindness not out of sheer hostility. The referee, by the way, never resorts to the signals in the diagram above. The diagram shows how justice might work if it had eyes.

It is only the 'manager' character who is truly wicked and corrupt. The manager may appear with one of the fighters, inevitably the villainous one. Manager manipulates, distracts attention, harms the heroic opponent in any underhand way he can. His business is in the dangerous space between the ring and the front row. If the identification of the manager with a real boss is too powerful then Manager is in the front line for a beating. The suspension of disbelief has to be balanced quite astutely for Manager, because real violence has been known to have been visited on him (or indeed her as in the case of local Sweet Soraya / Saraya once, if I remember right.)

Among the contestants themselves the villain role is often preferred to the hero or 'blue-eye' role because the villain generates heat. The excitement of stage hatred trumps the excitement of stage affection. Heroes will get cheered partly in themselves but more for punishing the villains. Justice - the deepest formalised instinct here - must be served.

Of the two qualities desirable in heroes one is tribal, the other aesthetic. The hero represents the local, and the local is very narrowly defined. It is the same in wrestling as in all supporter sports, in that your greatest rival is the next and nearest and most comparable. If you are from Norwich, then the devil is from Ipswich. In aesthetic terms, you are expected to be handsome, but if you are local enough this goes by the board.

I'll think a little about the specifics of heroes and villains next, but also about the form of the drama.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Sunday Night is...Beethoven's Cello Sonata no3

Glenn Gould piano, Leonard Rose cello.

If I could come back as an instrument it would certainly be as a cello.

Back to Wrestling : Savagery

Clearly pro-wrestling is about something other than a technical contest according to fixed rules between two fairly equally matched wrestlers. There are several kinds of bout.

Tag matches, for example, involve two against two, three against three, four against four, and so on, the ostensible rule being that while only two wrestlers are in the ring at a time, either may touch the hand of his or her team mate waiting by the ringside as a signal that he should take his place.

But there is much more. There are handicap matches where one big man might fight two smaller ones at once. There are lumberjack bouts and cage bouts. A pretty comprehensive list is given here. These include: ambulance matches, bar room brawls, blindfold matches, junkyard scrap, object on a pole match, weapons match, singapore cane match, and, in extreme forms, thumbtacks death match, human torch match and chamber of horrors. For female wrestlers add catfight, bra and panties match, good housekeeping match and evening gown match. Altogether the site lists well over a hundred forms.

There is no denying the sadistic aspect of the spectacle, though outright sadism is more the ghost on the stairs than a fully kitted figure in the hall. Wrestling is organised in small promotions or circuses where fighters have to fight each other all the time. If they really hurt each other there'll be one contest less next time and probably a smaller crowd. In any case a circus is a team and a real sadist would quickly become unpopular.

Ritualised violence is central to human life, no matter whether you are a pacifist or a warmonger. It exists partly to give form to suppressed transferable energies, partly to help us imagine pain and death in a controllable environment. No violence, no death: no art. No Macbeth or Lear, no Beethoven or Schubert or Bach, no Chaucer, no Keats, no Giotto, no Delacroix and certainly no Picasso. Gender makes no difference, it simply shifts the arena a little. The cultured experience violence through language; the underclass through the body. That is, of course, too hard and fast a distinction, but it indicates a spectrum.

Form too is violence of sorts in that it insists, asserts, cuts, and drives. Wrestling form does much the same. What is peculiarly British about it, as it is practiced here, is that it presents savagery as intimacy. The whole family is there, the children are looked after, the handicapped are treated with considerable care and tenderness, the raffles offer anything from DVDs to matching lilac envelopes and writing paper (I know, we won a set once). If a child has a birthday everyone is encouraged to sing Happy Birthday and a gift of some sort is produced. When the women fight (as they did this time) it isn't played for sex but as a stage for female athleticism, spite and fury with the odd feminine gesture thrown in (a wave of the hand, a wriggle of the hip, a look from under the brow) but then it's back to the business of flinging each other about.

Wrestling has to look dangerous and bloody (wrestlers will cut themselves on small razors to get a show of blood) and it certainly takes courage, strength and athleticism (most of the time), but the chief danger is accidents. Pain (aka Dr Death) is the ghost on the stairs looking down on the hall with its semi-comical guests, the characters at the party, but the hall itself is full of our clutter, is cheap and cheerful, and the guests seem to be grinning and bearing it.

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Back to Wrestling 1

Last night to the British Legion Centre to watch the pro-wrestling, or, more specifically, to see one of my current MA students in the ring - a poet-photographer-wrestler is a rare thing. I know Byron boxed but he never took on Giant Haystacks.

Big turn-out, the biggest I have yet seen in the area, so full they had to keep bringing extra chairs in. We took our friends N and A with us and a number of the students came along in support of our boy. We were fourth row back and found seats through arriving early. The raffle tickets come round, the pints are carried in.

The crowd for wrestling is generally what the US model (Gilbert and Kahl) label working class, working poor and underclass. They themselves put on a show, jeering, waving fists, occasionally making to attack wrestlers, in one or two cases advancing to the ring and possibly making attempts to hurt them. But it's a family audience, lots of children, lots of very overweight men and women, lots of remnant leather, biker and metal costume. Some of them are entirely passive. It doesn't matter much. The wrestlers' business is to generate heat, in other words, fierce partisanship. Cries of Break his arm! Do him! Who are ya?! Dirty Londoner! Go get him! Do it again! Fat bastard! are favourites. It is almost the point of wrestling to bring the crowd to a point when they are on their feet, shouting, exchanging threats and insults with the wrestlers.

But it is all fully formalised. The wrestlers don't touch the jeerers and the jeerers don't touch the wrestlers. Sometimes I am reminded of what Dostoevsky wrote about the Russian orthodox service, the service with rituals but the children running about, a mixture between order and anarchy. There is also the balance between the pantomime savagery and the essential mildness of temper. Of the savagery, a little more tomorrow. Late now. The Sebald finished. Some poems packed off. More work to come.

Friday, 19 November 2010

A Secret and Subversive Pleasure 5

Roland Barthes

Schools rarely have time for such things, and a teacher can’t do everything. A teacher can on the other, through work and luck, intrigue, excite and be honest about not knowing. Exams and grades don’t much care for not knowing. Multiple choice doesn’t do intrigue.

My own point of view is that poetry should be taught but that its character should be acknowledged in the process, in other words that it be recognised to resemble some of the other art forms – music, dance, visual art.; something that is like a performance but one that performs itself in the ear – in the auditory imagination - given the chance.

Strangely enough, the poem is less like a novel than you might think. The poem begins with the cry, the story with what happens next. The cry names the thing, the story tells us what it does and what happens in response. Roland Barthes said the lyric poem was a single indivisible signifier. The great Hungarian poet Ágnes Nemes Nagy regarded the poem as the naming of a single complex experience. Poetry, said Auden, was a way of happening. The most beautiful music, said Finn MacCool, was the music of what happens.

The trick of it then is to hear the poem, not to explain it. Teaching poetry is the training of the ear. That takes time. But if you can open those ears (and they are never as closed as they seem) you have begun a process that is, and should be, a pleasure. Since it is never fully communicable, it remains a secret. And because it insists on ambiguity and multi-dimensionality it is, in effect, subversive in a world that has no time for such things. But that is the exciting part.

Ágnes Nemes Nagy / W. H. Auden

Thursday, 18 November 2010

A Secret and Subversive Pleasure 4

There are two ways of approaching poetry I consider counterproductive, as did Bell I imagine (though he does not address these points in the poems):

1. The use of the poem simply as an illustration of a point about something else.

Wilfred Owen’s poems may be comments about the First World War, but their value does not lie in entirely in their usefulness as source material. They are not statements: they are complex constructed, improvised language machines that do a lot more than show pity or record scenes of distress. They are not to be turned on and off. They want to remain in what Auden called the ‘auditory imagination’ and they often do. Poems are multi-dimensional because they employ the full resources of language.

2. Concentrating too much on what this or that line of a poem – or the whole poem – means.

The whole point is that, like language itself, the poem means several things at once, and intends to. The poet himself or herself does not own the whole meaning. The poet doesn’t own the poem because the poet doesn’t own language. The various meanings can be discussed of course, and discussed with great pleasure, but there isn’t a universally valid paraphrase to be squeezed out of them. You don’t solve a poem. In a society accustomed to functional prose there is considerable pressure on people to find the simpler meaning inside the poem: to discover what the poem ‘actually means’. It’s no good that way. A single meaning is the opposite of a poem.

The complexity is nothing to be afraid of: it is an intense form of pleasure. Complex meanings are not difficulties, as such. Imagine overhearing a conversation about yourself through a partly opened door. Suddenly all becomes ambiguous and uncertain but intriguing. You want to stay and listen. Poetry is overheard like that. You hear over and under it. As you do, the potential meanings open up and seem endless. Overhearing is a secret and subversive form of pleasure, you might say: secret because it doesn’t entirely reveal itself, subversive because it undermines the sense of certainty. Once that is understood we can talk about meaning, but not before.

The tendency to treat poems as though they were problems is a problem. Meaning in poems is cumulative. You take what you can, when you can, but you can come back for more. It’s not that poetry doesn’t make sense: it is that it makes several kinds of sense at once. Like music. Once you get students to understand this much they can often do the rest. Understanding a poem is not a dreadful responsibility. It is overhearing language at play in its own maze. That multi-dimensionality is what authorities and institutions don’t much like. It is a little godlike. No wonder the authorities had it in for Prometheus.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

A Secret and Subversive Pleasure 3

Bell’s second enemy was the nature and values of the institution. Schools have tended to demand uniformity, respectability as well as results. They demanded more of the first two in Bell’s day, both as pupil and later as teacher. Our schools – I myself have taught in a number – do however demand results of an increasingly Gradgrindian kind functioning in a Gradgrindian society in which the supposedly less relevant subjects – the arts and humanities – are considered luxuries and less important. We are constantly testing to the point that subjects become functions of testing and results. For various reasons to be dealt with later, poems are not amenable to testing of this kind, let alone multiple choice answers.

Another enemy Bell sees, as witnessed by the poems, is the class, that group of sheep and goats the teacher is supposed to guide towards a sheepfold of starred A grades, or whatever seems feasible under the circumstances. The class is a group. Bell, I suspect, sees poetry as essentially a singular, solitary, perhaps even necessarily lonely series of encounters with something vital. He may well believe - as might I – that poetry is the opposite of parties and groups and institutions. A class behaves like a class or gang in some ways, but a poem is often a deep communication from one mouth to a single pair of ears. A class is composed of single pairs of ears. Poems are to be listened to intently. The language in poems, even of apparently the simplest kind, requires concentration to expand. It might be that poems are desperate, fastidious outsiders, like Baudelaire, or thieves of fire like Prometheus.

On top of this Bell considered himself a Muse poet – his relationship, as he saw it, was with the same goddess that Robert Graves worshipped, that is to say a being that took you, took you alone, rode you, led you through hallucinatory scenes and terrible desire then discarded you. Bell believed that poetry was, in some way, dangerous.

If you consider this to be adolescent (and I don’t) it is best to take it up with Robert Graves, Thomas Wyatt, Sappho and a good number of marvellous poets. It is in any case worth remembering that the class is composed of adolescents whose instinctive notion of the poetic (not that they would describe it in that way) may be an early form of the same vision. The students are not all responsible commuting citizens preparing for middle management or sound employment of any kind. Glamour is second nature to them: they are very ready to find things dull. Ask them what they understand by terms like poetry in motion’, or a phrase like, ‘that is sheer poetry’.

Granted, if you are a teacher, you are a representative of the institution that pays you and expects you to deliver results. You cannot go very far by identifying with the students, nor would the students welcome it. You cannot be played by Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society, which is a gross sentimentalisation of a real issue. But unless you understand the connection between the energies in poetry and the energies in growing children you will find it difficult. That is assuming you like poetry in the first place.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

A Secret and Subversive Pleasure 2

I thought he was referring to his own experience. His poems about teaching show the class as a savage environment where the teacher is forced to assume a ridiculous fiesta mask in order to survive. The class, however, is determined to see through the mask and start kicking it to pieces. The headmaster is no help. He is a bore and hypocrite who gets his own poem, ‘Headmaster: Modern Style’. Head and Assistant Head form a grotesque comic couple in the poem. Having dealt satirically with the managerial headmaster in the first seven parts of the poem Bell moves on to the deputy:

Let’s turn aside
As Augustine might turn from a chapter on pride and concupiscence,
And consider poor Joe, Conk’s deputy.

Joe does administration. It does for him. He’s done by it.
Nothing comes right. He mutters about it.
Prometheus-Conk goes free. Joe gets the vultures.

Chief eunuch of the stock-room! Emperor of pen-nibs –
Footprints that vanish in the snow from Moscow!...

This is a caricature school, a burlesque, opera buffo of the kind Martin enjoyed in his capacity as opera critic of Queen and Harper’s Bazaar, but it does pick up something about the nature of institutional life spent with growing boys and administrative pettiness.

Real schools are not made up entirely of sadistic children, managerial grandstanding headmasters and flustered administrators. School teachers can be heroic hard-working figures who face difficult classes and exhausting demands. Today they are under increasing pressure to achieve results, not always in favourable conditions.

Caricature the image may be, but the caricature is not without basis. The first enemy of poetry in the Bell view, is, absolute authority and what is more, an authority with the wrong values. To a schoolboy growing up in the Twenties and Thirties that authority represented the injustices of society at large. The spell in the army in combat will only have reinforced them. The poet in those circumstances acts as a kind of clown in the way the Marx Brothers did, as did Bell in some of his own poetry. Authority was against the freedom of the spirit. Poetry was the definition of freedom and independence of the spirit. School and poetry were, at the least, uneasy bedfellows. There is undoubtedly a sentimental and romantic element in this, but it cannot be entirely forgotten, even as we teach. Prometheus is somewhere at the bottom of this.

Monday, 15 November 2010

A secret and subversive pleasure

Straight after university I was down at the Writers Centre to talk to poets engaged in school work. I had been asked to present something around the Martin Bell lines to the effect that "Poetry should not be taught in schools: it should be a secret and subversive pleasure. This is how the presentation begins:


It was the poet Martin Bell who suggested that to me in 1971 or so. He might have been drunk at the time – Martin often was – or he was just feeling mischievous. He had, on the other hand, taught English in secondary schools after the war – that is after his time as a soldier in the Italian campaign – his experiences of which can be read in his Collected Poems (see ‘The Enormous Comics’ and ‘Fiesta Mask’ and ‘Headmaster: Modern Style’), so he could be presumed to know some of what he was talking about it.

He was enormously well-read and knew great chunks of poetry by heart. He was my first real poet: an outsider who had exiled himself from London to Leeds (he did regard it as exile) and who, even at 53, was a rebel like those he admired: Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Auden, and Groucho Marx. As he wrote in his ‘Ode to Groucho’:

Great Anarch! Totem of the lot,
All the shining rebels

(Prometheus, of course, and that old pauper
Refusing cake from Marie Antoinette,
And Baudelaire’s fanatical toilette,
And Rimbaud striding off to Africa,
And Auden scowling at a cigarette…)

Prometheus, the thief of fire; Arthur Rimbaud, the emperor of adolescent visionaries; Baudelaire, a doomed fastidious hedonist; Auden, a Marxist in the Thirties (Martin’s own youth), and Groucho Marx, whose speciality was épater le bourgeois in burlesque comic mode are the shining rebels here. Bell was also, like a number of his poet contemporaries, an adherent of the other Marx, Karl. He was an ex-member of the Communist Party of Great Britain - a Marxist-Freudian to give him one of the labels he sometimes gave himself.

But what did he mean, ‘poetry should not be taught in schools’? After all, he himself had taught it in schools for fifteen years or more, years about which I knew little. Was it just post-adolescent guff about ‘a secret and subversive pleasure’? Or was it failure talking?


I thought Martin was wonderful, everything I needed as a young poet, a 'splendid and disreputable father' as he wrote about Groucho Marx. But was it failure talking? To be continued.

Sunday, 14 November 2010

Sunday night is... Janis Joplin, Summertime, Stockholm 1969

Short posts for now because I am marking and trying to write a long piece on the poetry of W G Sebald, having just finished the long piece on Hungarian photography, and written one short poem. But Joplin can sit in for me since it has been a sunny late autumnal kind of day and the way she sings it, ie beautifully, the song feels autumnal rather than summery.

Saturday, 13 November 2010

Whenever we can....

We love life whenever we can
a variation after Mahmoud Darwish

We love life whenever we can.
We enter the grocer’s, the baker’s, the chemist’s
    the post office daily.
We love life whenever we can.
We borrow each other’s books and paperclips
    and forget to return them.
We spruce ourselves up for a meeting, order
    a taxi, climb into a bus or a train.
We love life whenever we can
    and so we sign letters and cards and spend
    the evening walking the street
when the winter is fiercest and the light
    in the windows and amusement arcades
    snarls at the darkness and the sea is quietly chomping at
    the cliff and the owl and the rat and the fox move over and
    through and we hear them and listen.
We love life whenever we can.

Friday, 12 November 2010

Two childhood poems with exclamation marks in the title

The first one jumps out at you shouting BOO! Oh the woes and terrors of childhood! Woe, woe, and thrice woe! Can't find the drawing for this now but it will be around somewhere.


O parent behold your slumbering child
within the arms of the bear.
The animals round him are fearsome and wild
and threaten the babe in your care.

Wild asses, wild piglets, wild dolls and wild mice,
wild woomeroos stranger than dreams,
from realms of Chaotic and Rough and Not Nice,
from Cities of Sorrows and Screams.

O child, remember that tight little suit
you wore when you slept in your cot -
when you were still safe from the Foul and the Brute?
Well - once you get out you are not.

Caution's the word. The world can be awful.
You don't want to end up a grizzly bear's jawful.

and, complete with Helen's drawing..


Down with Boys

Frogs and snails, frogs and snails,
This boy here's as hard as nails,
Hard as nails and tough as old boots,
Solid as an oak from crown to roots,
Solid as an oak and thick as a plank,
If you hear the sound breaking glass you'll know who to thank.

You'll know who to thank, you'll know who to blame,
You'll know who'll keep on breaking glass just the same,
You'll know his wicked eye and you'll know his wicked ploys
And you'll hear the righteous crying out against small boys:

Down with boys, down with their eyes!
Cut the little Goliaths down to size!
Confiscate their catapults, remove their grins!
Tie a ten ton weight around their shins!

But just when he is chained and gagged and trussed,
CRASH! another window-pane bites the dust.


[...Lad just off to a demonstration...]

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Naturally the Foundation...

Paul Nash, Totes Meer

Remembrance Day today. Yesterday, not my normal day in at the university, I am in to attend a meeting, then to talk to some prospective postgrads. I have this strange fetish of wearing jackets (I like pockets) and, as it happens, there is a buttonhole on my lapel into which I insert a poppy I had bought I'd forgotten where.

I notice I am in a minority of something approaching one. It may be because I have a jacket and lapels and others don't. It is impossible not to think of Larkin's One dark November day when he is about to be snatched off to the sunshine of Bombay (Mumbai wouldn't have rhymed, but then these were pre-Mumbai days), to be greeted by Professor Lal / (He once met Morgan Forster), / My contact and my pal.

Those lines frame the relevant part, which is:

   Did I recall the date -
That day when Queen and Minister
   And Band of Guards and all
Still act their solemn-sinister
   Wreath-rubbish at Whitehall

I always think of Larkin's generation as thick in beer and fags and dismissing any opposition with, 'Bloody rubbish!' which, when said loud enough and often enough, can be rather effective. I mean only a fool would think the opposite, wouldn't he? Don't give me that nonsense. My childhood was a forgotten boredom, etc.

So there it is, the solemn-sinister rubbish. And I walk around with this patch of solemn-sinister rubbish, not even a bona fide Brit, but an incomer Hungarian, sporting an emblem of remembrance.

Because I do, sort of, remember them. They were just before my time, of course, but were very much in my parents', and though they did not set out specifically to save my parents or indeed any of their ilk (to think so would be sentimentality), they did their part in saving them, and, in so doing, saved me. And the poppy is a small thing really. I have a faint memory of slipping a £1 piece into the box, not thinking too hard about it, supposing it would go to someone associated with the soldiers of the last world war, or some in this, who could do with it. I can't help feeling pleased about being alive and being grateful.

I can see what Larkin meant, of course. He meant the imperial bit about being a skint Great Power that brings its troops home for lack of money making a big imperial fuss. He wrote the poem in 1961 after all. And he was just the generation to be fed up of war-hero dads with their tales of derring-do (not that his own father did anything of the sort.)

Yes, but every nation does the same. People say it is glorifying war. Well, courage in combat is not without glory. Never has been without glory if glory means what I think it means. Nevertheless, few people want to start wars just so they can die gloriously, like swimmers into cleanness leaping, to quote Rupert Brooke. It is not an invitation to an orgy of militarism that all decent folk should shudder at. I mean the decent folk who spend their hours playing ever more realistic shoot-em up military games on the computer.

Of course war is misery and murder, but so is peace sometimes. Which may be why wars sometimes break out.

I do not forget Wilfred Owen's

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori

Not the high zest then. Not the ardency. But at least the memory.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Two early children's poems...In my Day / Henry

Well, not exactly for children, but with a certain childish delight. I have been using my Facebook profile to put up poems from this particular series that I wrote to drawings by daughter Helen when she was just a wee slip of a very little girl. But the profile status has very limited space allowing for only the briefest of the poems, so here are two of those too long to fit on Facebook. Some others will follow. Helen's drawings came first. These two are more nonsense than anything, the second a touch noir:


In my Day

In my day, a gentleman (she said)
Would wear a tartan sock over his head
And stuff two buttered muffins in his ears.

And I myself would ride to town with clocks
Attached to both my elbows. (Alas, the clocks
Have long stopped ticking.) I'd sit in my box
And throw live rabbits at Sir Henry Beerbohm Tree
And he would gently lob them back at me.

I do think the gentlemen looked gallant with muffins in their ears..
How wonderful and gay it was, my dears.



Henry! she remarked,
It's months since you have had your ankles barked.

Henry! Henry! she hinted,
I do think you should have your eyeballs squinted.

Henry! Henry! Henry! she implored,
Do go out and get your fingers scored.

Henry! Henry! Henry! Henry! she desperately pleaded,
Haven't I always told you what you needed?

All all, all, all, all in vain.
Henry stood in disdain
And pondered heavy dark thoughts in his brain.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

A quick history lesson

Make it full screen. With many thanks to The Plump (and he to John).

I wish the changing map had a timeline attached to it. Naturally I am watching Hungary, but am puzzled sometimes to see it writ large and Austria small. Up until the Ottoman invasion in the early sixteenth century the size of Hungary was more or less as shown on the map. You can see Suleiman's forces sweeping up the map and squeezing what remained of Hungary into a corner. The Ottoman empire reaches the gates of Vienna before being driven back by John Sobieski. But once the Turks are out it is the Vienna Habsburgs who rule. Even under the Austro-Hungarian Empire the Hungarians are very much number two. The map presents Hungary as a major European force from near the end of the seventeenth century. It wasn't that.

One important strand of my argument in the photo essay (now sent) is that the Hungarian psyche comes furnished with an apprehension of instability. It is prepared for flux, for displays of courage, for encounters with fear, for loss of control (including self-control) its baggage ready packed for another wave of migration, so when Hungarian photographers move abroad it is what they take with them. In this respect, it has been pointed out, the Hungarian psyche resembles the Jewish psyche.

It may then be that Hungary's periodic fits of anti-Semitism are a forestalling device. The Jews are the chief bearers of the fated psychological gene. Get rid of them so we don't catch the illness we have suffered often enough in the past.

And, of course, most of the migrant photographers and intellectuals of the Hungarian 1920s were Jewish.

Monday, 8 November 2010

Alone in Berlin

George Grösz,Pimps of Death 1919

Eventually I got round to Hans Fallada's book, though C had beaten me to it. I had other things to read and stuff to write. But in between all that I consumed it in three days or so.

It is a marvellous book - from most points of view. As a study of unlikely, unspectacular conscience and courage in action it is remarkable. The small and helpless are faced by a terrible political machine but they persist. As a study of character in its two central figure it is brilliant. Out of very little Fallada builds not only two complete human beings, but beings with extraordinary yet believable fortitude. It is also a visionary book as a study in complicity and evil. The society at the heart of it is examined with a pitiless gaze. One of the terms used about it in press reviews is 'redemptive'. Yes, it is, and, again, clearly, pitilessly so. There is almost nothing to provoke redemption and that, precisely, is the point.

The story is simple and well known. At the most triumphant moment of nazism, the fall of France, an elderly couple get an official letter to inform them that their son has died in action. The news all but destroys the relationship between the taciturn, apparently apolitical foreman carpenter and his anti-Nazi but undemonstrative wife. Then he gets an idea. He will do nothing more than write postcards of protest and plant them in various public places for people to find. This is a mortally dangerous thing to do but it brings the couple together in a warm human bond. A wily old police inspector, a tool of the nazi state, is put on the case The other people in the old people's flat include an old retired judge, a crook, the family of a young SS officer and an elderly Jewish woman whose husband has already been taken away. That's all you need to know. Events proceed from there.

I said I thought the book was visionary. In fact it is a fable about conscience and courage, albeit a fable set in very much a real place. It is not full psychological realism since only the central couple, and perhaps the police inspector, are drawn at depth. Others are more figures, emblems, screaming caricatures. None of the nazis can do anything but scream or yell, they are all stupid drunken sadists of endless malignity. I accept that nazism was endlessly malign, and that people did behave in intensely malign fashion. I rather miss knowing what made people nazis, especially the more intelligent, more sensitive among them. Because they must have existed - not at the ideological sharp end of course, not in the Gestapo or the SS perhaps, but in the party. People like Gunter Grass perhaps, or our present pope.

Evil in the book is a cloud that has descended on a nation, a cloud that drives everyone one way. It has no development section.

That is not a shortcoming in the book. The book has no interest in that. It was written in twenty-four days from within the cloud. There was no time to ask how the monstrous sadist became so monstrous, so unremittingly evil. You just had to deal with it and decide how to face it. The state was given. The state becomes the language.

So it is only my own curiosity. I very much want to know what might turn a gentle, well-disposed, intelligent human being into a moronic death machine. Let us say Siddique Khan, for example.

Wait, I can guess. Human emotions are not subject to the names we happen to have given them. They will not abide such clear definition. Gentleness and compassion are not entirely distinct from self-pity and fury. They are all in the cloud together. It is the cloud one must look into.

Fallada is looking at its effect, not its structure. What else was he to do?

Sunday, 7 November 2010

Sunday Night is... A new recorded Canzone

Most of the recent canzoni, except 'The Small of the Back are related to the decline in my father's health leading to his death. Gloomy stuff perhaps, but trying to wrestle with ideas and levels of consciousness.

Canzone; Animal by George Szirtes

Canzone: Animal

My father sits in the armchair. I watch him blow
out air that fills the room. He’s reckoning
how much air remains to him. I too blow
out air, our two breaths rising blow for blow.
I see his hands curled tight. They are animal
claws, old bones. One gust of wind would blow
him away. He couldn’t ward off the blow.
He is so grey he almost looks like smoke,
a curling wreath of ancient cigarette smoke,
the kind that in his youth he’d gently blow
in front of him, over a plate of chicken bones,
his fingers now very like chicken bones.

Whatever are we to do with all those bones?
Should we take the dust and gently blow
it into the fire? Dust may settle on bones
but these are living organs, living bones
that must for ever be shifting, reckoning
up their own vertebrae, all those fiddly bones
adding up to a figure, a figure not just bones
but flesh and tissue and blood, pure animal,
whole animal, the spirit that we mean by animal.
Touch the hand, the soft pad round the bones.
Can all this vanish in a puff of smoke?
Show me the mirror. Let me see the smoke.

But maybe that is all we do see – smoke
curling into a face, illusion, phantom bones.
We read shape into everything and smoke
is apt to read shapes into, cloud and smoke:
both incidentals. Put lips together and blow.
You know how to blow? Then blow away the smoke
and see what remains, that nothing after smoke,
that nothing hardly worth the reckoning,
that, all the same, we must be reckoning.
The shadow moves across him, much as smoke
drifts over landscape where some animal
is grazing quietly, being nothing but animal.

Perhaps he is that grazing animal
we glimpse through fog that may be drifting smoke.
There is in his eyes a trace of animal,
just as there is in mine. What frightened animal
is scampering there on delicate bones
in the distance? Then which is the true animal?
The one that grazes, or scampers? What animal
does both? And that field across which high winds blow
bending the trees? Will the armchair too blow
away? What is it to blow away an animal?
Even animals come to a final reckoning.
Time is not infinite even by animal reckoning.

Words turn round, recur: invite a reckoning.
We sprinkle words like dust. Intelligent animal,
shrinking in the armchair, beyond reckoning
of words, here’s what words have to offer: the reckoning
is in language which is itself a blur of smoke,
a mirrored cliché full of blind reckoning.
But what else, dear animal, can reckoning
achieve apart from this structure made of bones
and syntax, accident and echo; brittle bones
of sound, the tongs and bones, the reckoning
of syllable on syllable, the rhythm, blow on blow,
of pace and run, till we come by that final blow.

The chest rises, the lung dilates. Suck and blow!
Keep moving, thoughts; listen out for bones
whispering in the flesh, their song like smoke,
their words those befitting the fleet animal
glimpsed in the distance, leaping into reckoning.

Saturday, 6 November 2010

The Voyeurs, after André Kertész

André Kertész: Circus, c.1925

The Voyeurs

What are they staring at? Haven't they seen enough?
Perhaps it's natural to stare at backs.
Just as we pass a lighted window light makes
visible that wealth of alien stuff
of which half our minds are made,
leaving us lustful, lost and afraid.

They too are in transit. Look at his hat
(a straw boater), her headscarf (a long
inverted flame), the way their clothes hang.
There must be a hole in the wooden slat
and beyond it something perfectly new
and terrifying that light will not let through.

from Blind Field (1994)

The inverted flame (the shape made by her headscarf) is an ancient symbol of death and eternal life I first came across in Botticelli.

Friday, 5 November 2010

Hand colouring

The advent of digital photography has relieved photography of its burden of evidential truth telling. Before digitalisation and Photoshop a manipulated photo was, we felt, a fraud whereby enemies of the state might be wiped from history. The small case we brought out of Hungary also contained some of my mother’s hand coloured photographs. I remember watching my mother working with half a razor blade and tiny tubes of photo oils mixed in a saucer. I couldn’t quite tell – still can’t - where she drew the line between evidential truth and embellishment, between document and lies. And yet I only had to look at her face. She generally wore make-up. Her lipstick was scarlet and she blackened a beauty spot on her face. She was considered rather beautiful partly as a result of these embellishments, so when she relieved a pair of photographed eyes of their bags, or rouged a pair of cheeks into faintly mortuary bloom it was no more than she would have done for herself. She did it for us too, for her two children. We too were given mortuary cheeks.

Some more thoughts about the Hungarian photo essay.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Some Hungarian women photographers

As ever, less is known, less widely about them, but some were quite wonderful. For instance there is Kata Kálmán (1909-1978), who documented working class life in Hungary, like this:

And like this:

I take these photos from here and there. There is a single comment on the page with the boy eating bread. Thanks, I was looking for a high-res picture of that boy, eating bread. By the way the picture was taken in 1931, the boy's name was Varga Laci (family name, given name order), he was 4 years old, and he died in the same year.

Or there is Kata Sugár (1910-1943), about whom I can find little:

And the marvellous Sylvia Plachy (1943-)

and Kati Horna (1912-2000):

Kati Horna was the close friend of Robert Capa in Berlin and Paris, and - so it seems -already established herself, introduced him to the right people for whom he could work. She then photographed the Spanish Civil War. Not the front, not so much the combatants, but its effect on people generally.

I have draft of the essay that needs a good deal of overhauling and I still have the cold, now in stage two, the stuffed up stage.

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Heavy cold, taking the waters

Martin Munkácsi taking a shot of a diver for Harper's Bazaar, at Long Island, USA,1935

Woke with sore throat and soon enough the cold arrived, so I have been working and drifting most of the day. The work is the 5000 word essay on Hungarian photography for the coming show at the Royal Academy. It is one of three essays as far as I recall and I don't know what is in the others. What I do know is that I am the Hungarian-born contributor so I imagine I am to provide a Hungarian perspective, which might be to show in what way the Hungarian photographers represent something specifically Hungarian and why this should have proved to be so successful in the period between the wars.

Organising a 5000 word essay on the basis of limited knowledge and a few ideas is quite hard work, but it's almost done.

Underwater Swimmer, André Kertész, 1917

In the meantime the piano tuner calls. I am looking up references. My nose drips. Another idea this time to last me through three paragraphs. If poetry is the best words in the best order, perhaps an essay is the best paragraphs in the best order. I still have another 500 words or so to play with, then I'll see whether I have bored the pants off myself and everyone else. I do think there are some ideas in there. Are they good ones? I will have a clearer idea tomorrow. In the meantime, one more Hungarian swimming pool.

Károly Escher, The Bank Director's Bath, 1920s (I've had him before)

Water as a subject: science, beauty and mirror. Broken form, grace, weight, vulnerability, occupation. I have a head full of water at the moment.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010


Driving into Norwich, I leave the A11 at Cringleford, moving off the sliproad, up the slope, to cross back over above the A11 into Eaton Street and hence, back under the A11, to Bluebell Road. There is a young muntjack standing right by the road, its hindquarters slightly protruding into road space. I am going very slowly but it doesn't move. It must be petrified. There is no going ahead for it without descending into the fast and dangerous A11. There might be turning back if only there weren't a stream of cars moving, moving slowly, but moving, as I am moving.

The muntjack is so still that I wonder for a moment, as I pass it, whether it is a joke, a stuffed muntjack. Its eyes look glassy. It does not stir a muscle. I steer a little to my left to give it clear space. I wouldn't want to startle it down into the main road. Already I am past it, and I see the car behind me has slowed down for a second or two, before also steering wide of it. But then the muntjack moves, not its feet, only its tail, and only a little, almost indisceribly, but sufficiently to show it is flesh and blood. How long can it stay there, frozen, without the impulse to run one way or the other?

I think briefly of Elizabeth Bishop's wonderful long poem, 'The Moose', the sense of nature being 'out of place' but oddly totemic, as something that joins us, astonishingly, briefly, so that we all feel a little lightning-struck, as still in our minds as the muntjack in body.

There is something in that curious, all but unplacable act of bonding that is hard to describe (I sometimes get it with the cats when our eyes meet, but not quite in this way.) It is as if we had seen a ghost, all of us at once. It is the ghost of the existence we have never led but know to be possible. The muntjack for a moment inhabits us, then, given a good deal of luck, it turns and dives back into the trees to our left and we forget it.

Memory isn't like a photograph really. It is more a shudder.

Monday, 1 November 2010


It is, of course, a coincidence that the mild occasional excesses of the US Tea Party occur in the administration of the first black US President. The man caressing the head of the young female protester with his foot is just a good old fashioned conservative Republican. The poster saying 'Use your vote like a rope: Hang 'em high' (referred to near the end) is nothing to do with the honourable old habit of lynching. The political orientation of Barack Obama is sadly somewhere between Stalin, Chavez and Hitler. But then that's what having a National Health system does for you: it turns you into Stalin or, trim the moustache, Hitler. And that is why gun sales are soaring. It's really nothing to do with Obama being black. That is just a coincidence. And didn't he bring the world banking system down? Well, as a Muslim, he would, wouldn't he?

I know this is all too easy. I wish I thought this little post was about nothing.

Sunday Night is actually Monday morning.... Fernand Leger (1)

Ballet Mecanique (1924).

Back late from London and The Battle of Ideas at the Royal College of Art. Something on that tonight.