Friday, 31 December 2010

New Year's Eve 2010

A telephonist works by torchlight at the start of the three day week, which was introduced at midnight on 31 December 1973

The end of the year. It is also the birthday of our son, Tom, born on the very day that the telephonist above was working by torchlight. He was born in the Lister Hospital in Stevenage at about 1:30 in the afternoon. Husbands weren't encouraged to be present at first births in hospital. Just over two years later, our daughter, Helen, was born at home to an international deputation of five midwives, none of them English (one leading, the rest students) with a Hungarian husband standing by. She was the only English person in the room, and even she was born in China.

How little and strange the child inside the man
But there is no escaping him.
The bones and flesh expand around him
And all the usual processes that ground him.

And you, whose mind and body have moved on
from childhood to this median,
may know yourself loved as you keep moving,
these words being the evidence, the proof and proving.

Tom shares his birthday with Sir Alex Ferguson (Happy Birthday, Fergie), and I share mine with Ryan Giggs. Clearly there was something fated about all this. Tom, by the way is currently gigging in Slovenia. Last year it was Brazil. He gets around. Happy Birthday, Tom!


Thursday, 30 December 2010

On Being a Good Mother 3 (and last)

My mother after release from Penig, after physical recovery.

I should mention one vital thing in my mother's case: her great capacity for tenderness. It was a fraught tenderness, as much need as affection, but it was glorious. Perhaps that is one of the things about a good mother: a capacity, however latent, for tenderness. Love is too complicated for a child to understand, and talk of love is rather frightening. It is more responsibility than a child can cope with, an adult thing that lies beyond childhood. It is too easy a word for most adults too, too easy yet necessary, because we want it said to us. We want, as adults, to be loved, in an adult way, and adult ways are legion. Children don't know legion, or at least they cannot name it. It is too big a thing to name.

So early tenderness, so early refuge, so sheer physical presence, sustenance and contact can be established as a start. The warmth, softness and voluptuousness of the feminine are parts of childhood desire and set the pattern for later desires. (I have a keen memory of lying on a grassy hill and rolling down it next to my mother. I think I sensed some identification between the curve of the hill, the softness of the grass, and the body of my mother rolling beside me.) Tenderness helps us get over most things, and if we don't feel tenderness - and some people cannot help not feeling it - then at least a desire to understand the child in our care. We can, with work, manage the effort at understanding.

But in the end there is, I suspect, no right way to be a good mother. No book can offer appropriate rules. As the child becomes ever more conscious it is good for it to feel the difference and resistance of the mother, to sense that she does not come immediately when called, that she does not immediately do what you desire. Resistance is good too. It is good to feel the life in your mother as a separate life.

I think my mother hounded us a little too much, that she tried to drive us towards her own ideas of success and security. The desperation of her efforts became ever more palpable as time passed. The only time my father ever hit me was when, at the age of sixteen or so, I suggested that she wanted us to succeed so she could impress her friends. Smack across the face from dad. It was shocking at the time, but it was understandable. It told me that I was close to the truth and yet very far from it.

And of course she died before any of my books were published, so she would have died in fear and disappointment. She died partly because, by the end, she was tied to the house. She was tied to it because she was extremely frail physically and full of physical pain. The energy was waning and had nowhere else to go

The trajectory of her life included childhood illness, rejection by her brother (something of this appears in the long poem, Metro), the push for independence as a photographer, the terrible trauma of the camps, the return to illness and to motherhood with the fury and energy directed into being a mother whose children would be a success. But then they weren't - not on her terms - and then they grew and left, and she, in turn, was left in the house she had so desired with the kitchen she desperately desired, the garden, the small greenhouse with its tomatoes, and the terrible heat of summer 1975 that was eventually too much for her.

I feel quite stupid talking about her in terms of good or bad mother. I can't really tell what was good and what was bad in her. She was a person of great complexity. I am sure she is in my bones even now. I can't quite tell what she is up to in there, but I do know I would not be a writer, and certainly not a poet, if it wasn't for her. But then we are all people of great complexity, even the apparently simplest of us.

Let's throw away the books and the models. We do what we can with our demons and angels. We don't have to conform to any public face the world serves us with. We ride life and are carried along by it. There is limited choice in the available horses. Let the horse have some life in it, thats all.

Wednesday, 29 December 2010

On Being a Good Mother 2

My mother in our first year in England
My mother in 1957, England.

...very good mother? Not always and not in all respects, not in retrospect perhaps. There was also in her something a little mad, a little over demanding. She broke with close friends at the mere thought of one or other's thoughtlessness. She did try to be involved in, and if possible, control every aspect of our lives. She was manic in this regard. She had lost so much in life already that she was, I think, terrified of losing us. At two I suffered appendicitis. The doctor was called but was too busy having lunch so appendicitis turned into peretonitis (sad to say this experience of the medical profession has been repeated in various forms unto the present day). I was whisked off to hospital and, close to death, was operated on. My mother refused to move from my bedside until I was better. The hospital couldn't throw her out.

She would have killed or died for us, I suspect. She did, after all, say so herself. She liked to make us feel in debt. Guilt was her weapon of desperation. Much more could be said about this, running beyond the usual joke Jewish-mother syndrome, but I won't fill up space with it here. The point is we knew she meant well in doing so. She was a complex human being, as are all human beings, only more so. She was neither cook nor Virgin Mary - as if that was all the choice to be had! The terms never entered our heads.

In any case, I myself had no idea what else was possible. How could I? The Jesuits famously said that given the first seven years of a child's life they could form the man. John Bowlby, the Steinerians and others believe something similar. Whether they are right or not I don't know - nor does anybody else - but clearly the first seven years are important. In the traditional family structure most of that time would be spent with the mother, unless of course the parents were wealthy enough to employ someone else. Apart from the first couple of years in state crêches my chief memories are of her. I knew that mothers were often the last people called on by dying soldiers. I knew that to call someone's mother anything bad was the worst thing you could do, worse than hitting a girl, which was the second worst thing.

Perhaps that was the pedestal. Perhaps there should have been no such taboo, but there was only one person who could pass this taboo on, and that was her. We are, often, to a considerable degree, what our mothers make us. It's tough having that responsibility if you are a mother, but I am not sure how you would rid yourself of it, unless you decided to downgrade your contact with your children altogether. Some mothers do. You might well decide to do so. It isn't something on which I, as a man, have any right to a hard opinion. It may be that the period of pregnancy and the first period of contact with the new born child mean little later. Fine. Let the mother decide.

To put it briefly I have no clear idea what a good mother might be. Children take whatever is on offer, however complex, and my sense of life is that it is very complex indeed.

I wrote the post on fathers because, at Christmas with my children, and now ,grandchild, I couldn't help but consider the subject. In considering it I found no positive images of fatherhood in the public domain. Not one. None. There is a group called Families Need Fathers that would demonstrate by dressing up in Superman costumes and climbing high public buildings. They were generally derided and got a very poor press, from which I concluded that there was a fair body of opinion and opinion makers who felt that families did not need fathers. And if that was the case, where did that leave me?

The group still exists.

I imagine part of the problem for them was that their protests distracted from the problems of mothers. Women just wanted to say: Shut up and go away. We're not finished yet. This is about us.

And so you will find in the comments to my first post. This is not about you, it is about us, say a couple of comments.

I am not sure how I would choose between the traps of competence on a pedestal, and incompetence in the doghouse. I don't in fact think that - given the complexity of life and human beings - that is the choice. Binary choices are, in 99% of cases, wrong. Maybe it depends on which society you keep. Maybe if your society offers you only a binary you should find another society. There are very many societies within any society. Of the binary forms however only one - incompetent clown - seems to be publicly available for fathers, and I registered as much.

OK, I'm in the doghouse. It's just that this is my doghouse.

The poem on this or related matters? Various in Reel. This is how it seemed to me, looking back.

Sleigh Ride

You know the feeling but can’t put a name to it.
All beginnings are the same and all are forgotten.
Forgetting is what you’ve done. You can’t undo it

Now or ever. It is the cast you put on
Inside you. You have wandered about her body
All your life, are aware of it as the hidden pattern

You follow. It is as if your life were a parody
Of something she once told you. You taste her skin
First thing in the morning. It is a heady

Delicate babyish smell you must have breathed in
At the outset, when you started forgetting.
Her hands. The bird hovering. Later, a thin

Wrinkled integument with the sun setting
Inside it. Time slips away like the toboggan
Your father once pulled for you. You were sitting

With your brother, clutching him, hanging on
To his arm, everything around you white
And blurred, the sky, the trees, everything gone

Or going, slipping dangerously towards night
Where life too is slippery and you must cling
To the moon or whatever is solid. You’re right

To forget this, to remember absolutely nothing.

Tuesday, 28 December 2010

On Being a Good Mother 1

Mother as Gypsy 50s
My mother dressed as a gypsy, c.1954?

I wasn’t going to say anything about mothers or motherhood at all. After all, I am no authority. Nor was I an authority on fatherhood, I just observed my own, and referred to images I had seen at first hand. I tried to be intelligent about what I had seen, no more. And I have tried to be a good enough father without quite knowing what that might be.

But, having been invited to write about the Good Mother, I will go about it in exactly the same way, from personal experience and observation. I will have no axe to grind in this. I don’t want to turn back the clock to the 1950s or before, especially since I have a daughter I love, who went to one of the very best universities, then pursued a career. I am very glad she had the opportunity of doing so, and hope she continues to enjoy all the opportunities the world can offer and more. I suggested this in my last post. Nevertheless I am aware that I have been, very sweetly, invited onto a minefield. I know where the mines are of course, or most of them. They are in the script I have read, seen and seen performed these last thirty-five years. Nevertheless the mines are likely to move on occasion.


I started with my own father, so I will start with my own mother who left Transylvania at the age of sixteen to work in Budapest with the great photographer, Károly Escher. I assume her parents supported her in this and perhaps even helped her as it would have been very difficult otherwise and she always spoke well of her family. It argues a certain independence of mind in both her and them. Then she was taken off to two concentration camps, survived them, worked her way back through the fury and desolation of Europe to Budapest on her release, reunited with my father (himself back from the work camps), went home, found her entire family wiped out, returned to Budapest, married my father, had two sons, then suffered ever more painfully from a heart condition which eventually led to her suicide in 1975.

She was not a housewife. My brother and I were looked after by state nurseries while she went to work on the evening newspaper as a press photographer. It was only once she could not work on stories – possibly because of her heart condition, that being the story as I later understood it – that she started working occasionally from our Budapest home, retouching and hand-colouring photographs for, presumably, a photographic studio rather than the press.

My mother was storm not calm weather. She loved as storms do, intensely, drenchingly, with plenty of lightning. She was fiercely protective and treated us a little as though we were dolls, perfectly dressed. This must have been odd for a worker in a worker’s state, but then she was an odd worker. She was demanding of love. Love had to be demonstrated and proved time and again.

My father loved her to distraction, played lighting conductor to her lightning and did all the sensible things that needed to be done to allow her to flourish. She loved him to distraction too, though her way of showing it was in the form of calm-after-storm passion.

I have written a fair amount about her in the past and might eventually do so more fully. I am pretty sure that every major decision that involved the family was taken by her.


Did I think she was a good mother? I don’t think I had a view on the subject then. I don’t even know who might have had such a view. She was what we knew, and were, occasionally, blown away by. A mysterious being and a very close and intimate force of nature. It was certainly she who blew us away from Hungary to England, not my father.

Was she on a pedestal as a perfect home-maker or cook? The very idea, as applied to her, is a laughable middle-class fancy begot out of the possession of security when you no longer needed it. She needed it and, given what she had been through, that was hardly surprising. I frankly doubt she would have understood the idea of the perfect home-maker from where she started. Just give us a home, OK? Love and devotion were what she wanted and demanded from us. That, not home, was security for her. That was home. If she wanted a pedestal she would have got one herself and raged on it. Or my father would have got one for her and made sure it was well-enough made so she should not fall too far and hurt herself. He’d have surrounded it with cushions, but would have hoped she would carry on treading earth rather than ascending pillars.

Could I now consider the question of whether she was a good mother? The trouble is I have never had to face the prospect of being a good or bad mother myself, so have simply assumed that she was a perfectly possible model of what can work. I'm here after all. Still married after forty years. Still writing books.

But now I should consider some other models.

Tomorrow. This is already a long post. Maybe you are still reading. This is a very personal script. You can always go back to the other one. Meanwhile here is a poem from her section of 'Flesh: A Family History', in Reel. There was one occasion in Budapest when we were home and she dressed up as a man with a drawn-on moustache. My father came home and behaved as though he believed it was a man. They carried on calmly talking, until they burst into laughter. It was clearly a game that we, as children, were not involved in, nor was it explained. I think we were expected to find it funny. Well, yes, perhaps.

Her knees drawn together

Her knees drawn together under the table, she wears
A pair of man’s trousers and has pencilled on
A moustache. The elder of two children stares

At her, disorientated. Her voice has gone,
To be replaced by something deeper: a gruff
Stranger’s on an official commission.

If this is a joke it isn’t quite enough
To make them laugh or simply play along
But there is no way they can call her bluff.

Their father, engaged in talk, sees nothing wrong,
And frowns as if considering a question
She has raised. The world to which they belong

Is beyond speculation or suggestion,
Two grown-up dolls moving on a stage
In danger of spontaneous combustion.

He stands up. She rises. It takes an age.
The giants evoke a slow music of basses
And tubas. The terrible badinage

Between them comes to an end. Their faces
Burn with suppressed laughter as she wipes
Away the moustache. His finger traces

Her light skin between the smudged stripes.

Ain't it just the maddest stuff? That a mother may not be a home-maker at all, nor even quite a woman, but a peculiar autonomous being living a private life according to rules she herself makes? And yes, I suppose, I would consider her a good mother. In fact I am pretty sure she was a very good mother.

Monday, 27 December 2010

On Being a Good Father

When Father papered the parlour
You couldn't see him for paste
Dabbing it here! dabbing it there!
Paste and paper everywhere
Mother was stuck to the ceiling
The children stuck to the floor
I never knew a blooming family
So stuck up before.

Soon dad fell down the stairs
and dropp'd his paperhanger's can
On little Henrietta sitting there
with her young man,
The paste stuck them together,
as we thought t'would be for life,
We had to fetch the parson in
to make them man and wife.

- Robert Patrick Weston and Fred J. Barnes

The family gathered today for Christmas, that is to say, son, daughter, son-in-law and grand-daughter. I remember when I first contemplated the idea of being a father. There were three models, four if you included God.

One model was my own father, about whom I wrote in Reel and elsewhere, a mystery, but secondary to my mother, the soft distant hill behind her volcano. Secondary also in the sense that I got to know him second, and best after she died. He never seemed to me a figure of power, more an absent provider and whatever status he might have enjoyed at work meant nothing at home.

Another model was the stern Victorian pater familias, ruling with a rod of moral iron, and his alter ego - Hyde to his Jekyll - the drunken bully to be feared and to be overcome or escaped. I knew this Jekyll and Hyde only through literature and the imagination. He seemed real enough as an idea and as a nightmare. He was a probability we were always feeling lucky to avoid.

The third kind was the comic Pantaloon, a kind of diminished, incompetent male of the sort that papered the parlour as above. He was, by unconscious association, henpecked, impotent, more pitiable than contemptible. His emasculation was part of his fatherly job description. Joseph the carpenter appears in the Nativity then vanishes. The woman's son is conceived by God. The human figure can get stuffed.

There was potentially a fourth model, a kind of white-bearded benevolent patriarch surrounded by dozens of squabbly children, served on by a bunch of kindly squabbling women, muttering wisdom and blessings, producing multi-coloured birds as presents for his children on special occasions. But then this actually was God so it doesn't count.

There was something shameful in fatherhood, I suspected, something almost unbearable. The first and third kind were related in their diminution, a diminution so drastic it was almost deathly. This was the one Tommy Cooper sang about in 1961:

Daddy came home from work tired
His boss had been driving him mad.
The kids were all shouting, the dog bit him too
His dinner was nothing but boiled over stew.

I guess it was then he decided
Up to the rooftop he'd go
He was about to jump off when
The kids started howling below

'Don't jump off the roof, Dad
You'll make a hole in the yard
Mother's just planted petunias
The weeding and seeding was hard

If you must end it all, Dad
Won't you please give us a break
Just take a walk down the park, Dad
And there you can jump in the lake

- Cy Coben

A touch melodramatic possibly, but I sometimes imagined my father might feel like this. This father was the shadow on the stairs and in the parental bedroom. Fathers were not romantic lovers, not adventurers of the passions. Passion was what they could no longer afford. Adventure was what they should not attempt. Responsibility and the diurnal routine of providing meant passion had to be discarded. The best they could aspire to was Walter Mitty status, daydreamers of the time when it might have been possible to follow a male course of life.

I don't imagine any man grows up with the ambition of being a father. That comes or does not come, though it has been a source of shame - a curse - when it did not come. It is not accorded honourable estate in public discourse. There was no such thing as The Good Father, the best you could be was a good-enough father. Fathers in advertisements generally are incompetents, like the Pantaloon. With a great deal of training they might, just, become good-enough fathers.

But the course of human life entails procreation and the perpetuation of the species. Few couples, I imagine, make love with this as a primary consideration, but we know it to be a central part of human affairs. So we had children, children out of passion - and they are wonderful children - and, like most men, I suppose, I learned to love them as they grew, meaning I grew more and more attached to them, so much so that the attachment became an ache - one of the essential meanings of life. And as they grew through adolescence into independence and adulthood, I felt something of the expected personal diminishing, if only in feeling less necessary, less useful. Fortunately I had, and have, my resources and enjoy the same aching love from C as I feel for her. Sometimes it is hard to distinguish the ache from the various definitions of love.

Does that make me a good father? I don't suppose I am any of the possibilities I had considered in my youth, and I don't quite know what would make me good.

It comes back to something I first thought many years ago, when I first became a father. I considered the possible paternal models and what harm they might do to my ambitions, primarily to my ambitions as an artist. The enemy of promise was the pram in the hall, wasn't it? And didn't one need to experience the wilder, more unruly passions in order to know life as it should be known?

But then, I thought, human life was this, wasn't it? It was the whole, proper cycle as the world knew it, and if that was the cycle then I would go through it, because if I couldn't write out of that, if there was no poetry in it, then poetry was somehow beside the point. Then I'd rather be a human being than a romance. And so it happened I became a father, and so it is we are here, and though I am less useful in one sense, maybe in another I am not altogether useless, if only to say - look, here is the arc of life, and here is my position, and see, it's bearable. It is partly the ache that sees me through. In effect, the ache has been the poetry.

This is from Reel, a memory of my father in my early childhood.

My fathers, coming and going

Moustaches and grey homburgs: our fathers were
Defined by properties acquired by chance -
Or by divine decree. Standing behind her

In rooms, on stairs, figures of elegance,
They came and went in a murmur of soft voices,
Objects of bewilderment and romance.

How many of them on the premises?
Some worked twelve hours a day in an office
In the city, some placed bristly kisses

On our brows, some would simply embarrass
Us for no particular reason. Their age
Was indeterminate. They would promise

Anything befitting their patronage.
Were all these fathers one? And was it you,
My father, who pushed me in that carriage

I can’t remember now before time flew
And took her away as it will take us all?
I feel myself flying. It’s like passing through

Clouds in an aeroplane in its own bubble
Of air, a slightly bumpy ride down
Towards a runway as we rise and fall

Above the brilliant lights of a big town.

So there's the runway, and there are the brilliant lights, and I'm on the plane somewhere looking down. Good enough, I say.

Sunday, 26 December 2010

Kinks 1

There are very few songs where the first couple of bars announce themselves in what we now call iconic fashion. That is not merely in retrospect, meaning immediately recognizable when we hear it now, later, but recognized there and then, straight off. The first chords of the Elvis's Jailhouse Rock and the Beatles Hard Day's Night were that. It is the first five notes of You Really Got Me. I don't have the sheet music but it's the equivalent of F-G-G-F-G. It is very simple, raw, hard, straight and aggressive, no fancy chords. Then Ray Davies's voice comes, hitting the tune early, slightly whiny, faintly feminine, cracking a little, in unison with the last G and the song is up and running.

If it's as simple as that why can't anyone do it, or even the same performers do it every time? This ties in with something I always advise my poetry students: ENTER FIRMLY, STEP OFF LIGHTLY. Yes, but enter firm and fresh. I have no recollection of hearing that precise combination of first five notes before, not in that way. It was fresh.

Once started the tune doesn't stop but simply swells from raw to roar, upping its stakes. It retreats briefly to solo voice, then comes the guitar riff with the unrelenting bass, then it ups stakes again. Essentially, the song seems to be climbing pitch all the way to the end, where it suddenly stops on four chords.


It took a little getting used to the Ray Davies face. It looked young and old at once, maybe because of the gap tooth, maybe because of the strong lines forming round the mouth. There was nothing innocent about it, in fact it looked slightly debauched. For a sheltered fifteen year old, if one was going to look debauched (whatever that was) this was a good model, not too pretty or handsome (one was never going to be handsome) but with character (one might, eventually, possess character).

I was in my fourth year of what was then Kingsbury County Grammar School, a roughly twenty minute walk from home across the busy main road and the park. The fourth year was a relatively good one in a long, generally unhappy period. My school subjects were going well enough but I had no girlfriend, nor prospect of one, and was already falling in love with this or that far-out-of-reach pretty face. In the video above, at about 2 minutes, the camera picks out a pretty girl in the crowd of dancers, straight hair, fringe, lovely smile. She is dancing with someone, who turns round. He is a self-confident good-looking smug prat wearing dark glasses. He is what I was always going to be up against. Everything was always going to be out of reach. Out-of-reach was what defined life. On the other hand I was running and playing football which was something. It meant I was surviving. But then came The Beatles, The Kinks and the rest. Excitement and aspiration at once.

Aspiration to what? I had no idea. Perhaps only to this level of energy, a level of desire as raw and as self-confident as this. Having been brought up with middle-brow classical music, in a refugee blend of timidity, hysteria and expectation, You Really Got Me arrived at the door like a not quite permitted, not quite legitimate friend of a friend, someone you had to be careful of, someone not to be let into the house, and, ideally, avoided.

But what can you do? Those first five notes go straight into your spine and hit you very hard. Furthermore it was not only my spine it was pounding through, but through the very air. F-G-G-F-G. For something is happening here and you don't know what it is, do you Mr Jones? It was the sound of pavements breaking, something hammering through.

Saturday, 25 December 2010

Bartók for Christmas Day

Bartók himself playing. It begins with the beautiful Evening at the Village from Ten Easy Pieces for Children then the Ballade from Fifteen Hungarian Peasant Songs. (More here.)

And, for Christmas, a little wilder, the Australian, Hungarian-Roma-style three-piece girl band Vardos here playing a Romanian piece by Dimicu (the YouTube comments argue over it).

Friday, 24 December 2010

Lydia gets tattooed... Groucho Marx.

I know it is childish but I have an Orwellian fondness for George Formby, and all seaside-postcardly sniggerishness. The absurdity of embarrassment, the comedy of desire, the giggle of taboo: it is like re-entering childhood or, more likely, like never having left it. And the best never do quite leave it.

In any case, all that stuff has to have somewhere to go and a pun or a bathetic rhyme is as good a place as any. As someone once said, a nod is as good as wink to a blind bat. And when it is scored out of operetta but choreographed out of chaos there is something quite glorious about it.

I have read my way through some 2,500 poems, some 2,500 to go. Frivolity at half-time.

Thursday, 23 December 2010

A serpentine little waltz

It's Christmas, so maybe a a little more music than usual. And this is the perfect place to hear Shostakovich's Jazz Suite No.1, a slightly draughty looking hall, a fixed camera, the picture slightly out of focus, and a representative of the original Big Brother watching from the Circle at the back. The whole piece is lovely and playful and menacing...a seductive joke in a cold corridor.

More on Hungarian press freedom

There is growing opposition to the proposed new media laws in Hungary about which I have written here and here. Hungary's presidency of the EU is threatened and the government is now making faintly squeaky noises.

In the meantime, a few snippets:

Since it won the elections in April, Fidesz has amended the country’s constitution ten times - Euractive

“It’s a direct danger for democracy. The state will control opinion.” Germany said yesterday it was closely watching Hungary, where the ruling Fidesz party has this year used its crushing parliamentary majority to tinker with the constitution, strip powers from the constitutional court and dissolve an independent budget council that monitored state spending. - Irish Times

Hungary is due to assume the six-month rotating presidency of the EU on Jan 1, the same day that the government plans to reintroduce state censorship for all media. But several European nations have voiced concerns over the sweeping new laws, taking the unusual step of publicly criticising a fellow EU member. Daily Telegraph

Hungary's new law on media control throws EU into turmoil. - The Times (paywall)

Open letters remind Hungarians of their free press tradition - Prague Post

Full text of letter here.


Going down the Belarus route, eh? There's advance! You could go faster, lads. Try the pre-1989 Albania route for the real sunlit uplands.

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Ray Davies

Watched the documentary about Ray Davies of The Kinks last night. You can catch it here while it lasts. It is difficult to think of Davies as sixty-six but that is what he is. If any group has embodied the power and poetics of pop music it is The Kinks. Though the band was, musically, a very good rock band - and Ray Davies was generous in praise of his brother, Dave, with whom he was reported to have fallen out on various occasions - the Kinks was essentially Ray.

Quite apart from the music, and, above all, the lyrics, it was the ready-made clown face with its gap tooth, its intelligent eyes, its wry crooked smile and sad eyebrows that lingered after the clip was over. There was also something crow-like about it - as if he had been written by Ted Hughes.

It was a face that might have been designed for the Comédie Française, a sort of Brit Jean Luis Barrault.

A face with a fascinating pedigree, it was, and remains even now, elusive. And so was the identity of the band that first appeared with a couple of of hard pre-punk rock classics then extended into social commentary, music hall, pastoral, urban lyricism (Waterloo Sunset is the greatest London song since the war) and, occasionally, into whimsy, but always hard acid-bitten intelligent whimsy on the edge of melancholy.

The documentary was marvellous. Alan Yentob simply kept out of the way and left Davies with the film-maker Julien Temple, who created a kind of collage around Davies as he wandered around London in overcoat and hat. There was little posturing. It was, if anything, like letting a pop Philip Larkin or Dennis Potter roam around old haunts. It was good natured, literate, honest, witty and fresh.

I know other poets who admired him. If I had not become a literary poet but a song-writer I would like to have been Ray Davies. I would of course have to have written the music too because a song lyric is much less without the music. It is the combination with music that raises it into poetry. (Poems have to make their own music.)

My next few Sundays will feature The Kinks with a few comments about each song, along with lyrics.

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Very well then, I shall wear it... Imre Ámos

Imre Ámos Man and Woman (Fugitives) 1943

The following is part of a review I wrote for The Hungarian Quarterly of János Köbányai's, THE HAGGADAH OF THE APOCALYPSE: Imre Ámos and his times (together with his Szolnok Sketchbook in facsimile). Miklós Radnóti is the great Hungarian poet whose notebook, with the last great poems, was found in a pocket of his overcoat after he was shot on the forced march from the work camp at Bor. A facsimile of that notebook could be bought in Budapest. Imre ámos also died in the war, and a biography together with a facsimile of his last sketch book was also published. The status of such facsimiles is interesting. Somewhat like religious relics they are reproductions of numinous objects.

...Though self-definition is a luxury, the joy of life lies in an intense and endless sophistication that survives the individual who embodies it. The greatest paradox is that human life is the measure of all values and, at the same time, it is practically worthless. So, when we read the poems of Miklós Radnóti or gaze at the paintings and drawings of Imre Ámos, this paradox is brought to our attention with peculiar force. The sense of tragedy suffuses the work: it transforms it utterly so that the smallest detail appears fated. The works are embodiments of fate, beyond the life itself, and that is why they serve as interpreters for the rest of us. Nothing is accident. Maybe it was the comprehension of this proposition that drew both Radnóti and Ámos towards their far from inevitable deaths. Both could have taken opportunities to avoid dying: neither did. In this sense their lives were worthless, but in the opposite sense they became the measure of all values...

Ámos’s war experience was that of many male Jews: a sequence of demanding, often murderous labour camps, followed, at the point of exhaustion, by execution. It is true, as Köbányai says, that substantial work remains to be done on Ámos’s archives. It is certainly true that when I consult my Oxford Companion to Art I find a long entry on Chagall and nothing about Ámos. It may also be true that the suppression of Radnóti's Jewishness may have helped him to achieve national and international stature (I am not convinced of the effectiveness of the suppression) while the overt declaration of Ámos’s might have been a disadvantage to him. There are certainly some pretty dark passages in the history of Jews in Hungary. It may of course be simply that Radnóti is greater in his sphere than Ámos is in his. It is possible that the decline in Chagall's reputation has an effect on Ámos too (but how wonderful, vigorous and humane the early Chagall was!) It may be that Hungarian artists generally seem to have occupied peripheral places in European painting - unless they left Hungary.

Imre Ámos Green Divan, 1935-36

Much is possible. It is certain that Ámos was a striking and tragic artist, who was driven by “the spaciousness and grace” of Apocalypse to assume a role that transcended the busy commerce of art and art production. There is greatness in him, but it is complicated. I have a slight unease about the facsimile, about its role as relic, as commodity, and as politics. I don’t think artists and poets set out to be prophets and martyrs, and I worry about using them as such.

This is not a matter of some moral high-ground or even of rational wisdom but of irrational feeling. It is the feeling that alters the mode of perception: the prophet sees by feeling. It was irrational for Radnóti and Ámos to walk straight past the last open door of opportunity. They did it by feeling. “I strove only to show how a man, called upon to be a prophet, progressed towards the angelic state of being” says Köbányai. I prefer to imagine the poet blinded, uncalled, feeling his way forward towards one clear sound, of whose meaning he himself is utterly ignorant. It may be, that in this case, someone had dropped a dark hood on his head. Very well then, says the poet. I shall wear it.

Monday, 20 December 2010

International English as a Poetic Language

Nick and I were discussing his poetics, and naturally, we considered the nature of the language he uses. Nick is African but was educated internationally, mostly in England. His voice reflects this experience and in trying to describe that voice we found ourselves using the term International English.

We are used to thinking of specific varieties of English and - in the general effort to democratise the language of poetry and to bring Wordsworth's reaction against conventional poetic diction, in other words 'the language really used by men', up to date - we have tended to promote the regional and ethnic over what was called 'standard English' or what Fowler had as the King's (latterly the Queen's) English.

I say we promoted it but I wasn't in any position to promote it, discourage it, or even to ignore it. It was what happened. We moved particularly towards the Caribbean, to James Berry, Grace Nichols, Linton Kwesi Johnson and Benjamin Zephaniah, among others. It was a complex mood comprised of rejection of empire and central authority; a certain tiredness evident in 'Standard English' as owned by toffs; a yearning for fresh, unusual and exotic ways of saying; the integration of West Indian music from reggae and ska to two-tone; the potentially revolutionary excitement of the Brixton Riots; and much else.

But it wasn't just the Caribbean. Tony Harrison had pointed up the difference and tragic tension between working class Leeds and ruling class Oxbridge. The Scots revival was well under way with James Kelman, Tom Leonard and, later, Robert Crawford and W N Herbert. Bloodaxe's The New Poetry put heterogeneity at the heart of its substantial selection.

Language is constantly dying and the best poetic diction of any particular era enters the museum with it. Donald Davie's Purity of Diction in English Verse looked to locate that purity - the idea of such a purity - in particular poets but ended up primarily following the debates of the past. It might perhaps be possible to look for twentieth century purity of diction in poets like Robert Graves, Norman Cameron, Elizabeth Jennings, aspects of Larkin though certainly not all of Larkin, and, nearer our time, in Christopher Reid and Hugo Williams. But even then it might be not so much purity as chasteness of diction that we are talking about. (It was Chris Reid who once wrote in the LRB that the language of Brodsky's later poems simply wasn't English).


I want to speak up for International English because I am, like Nick, a poet removed from his original stable culture, a poet not so much of romantic exile as of displacement. I too write a form of International English, as do a number of others.

I remember the time when people were encouraging me to use more Hungarian words in my poems. Maybe they thought I would be writing in a 'truer' voice, what they might have regarded as 'authentic' or just 'exotic'. I rejected this. I was not exotic to myself. I did not think in Hungarian and it seemed downright inauthentic to go about pretending I was more Hungarian than I felt. It was like asking me to wear a read-white-and-green rosette.

Beyond my own position there lies an interesting question about the possibility of poetry in something as unrooted and dislocated as International English. Was it unrooted and dislocated? I myself thought so. There was a 1981 book titled Airborn, by Charles Tomlinson and Octavio Paz, that I reviewed for the TLS. I wrote that the poems lacked something and suggested it was a little like reading a book in Esperanto. Students of Esperanto wrote in saying I had no idea what I was talking about and that there was a serious body of poetry in Esperanto that was not to be dismissed. They were right, of course: I really didn't know what I was talking about, I simply imagined that a constructed language must lack the depth of association - the history - to be a poetic language.

But then I think of writers in their second language - of Joseph Conrad and Vladimir Nabokov above all. One can, I think, occasionally hear the odd strange, over-correct construction in Conrad. The ironic flamboyance of Nabokov's language is well known. They too - I suppose - are writing a form of International English, in other words a language that is not really used by men. Their English may be unrooted and dislocated but it is certainly not flavourless.

But what literary language is actually used by real people? I have written elsewhere - in the Dublin Review - how Michael Donaghy once said to me that community was everything in poetry. Michael played in an Irish band called The Slip Gigolos. I did not play in a Hungarian band called the Csárdás Hercegek. I did not think I was writing for communities but for transient individual beings on trains: people in between this state of stability and another. What language did they use? What might they hear?

It may be that 'the language really used by men' is simply a reaction to outworn poetic diction and that we overvalue, even fetishize, what we take to be the language of the street, especially if it is an exciting, politically charged street. We do this while knowing we don't actually speak it. That no one does in fact. It is not the street itself but the smell of the street we want in the poems. We want to smell what's cooking out there.

The great success of Daljit Nagra's Look We Have Coming to Dover is a product of Daljit doing exactly what I refused to do, which is to produce a knowing lyrical literary pastiche out of English-language Indian speech patterns. That, of course, was possible. There are no English-language speech patterns in Hungarian.

This is a very big box to open but Nick's poems put me in mind of it, and make me wonder how interesting it might be to describe a poetics of International English. I imagine International English as a rambling and tragic-jolly kind of house, like a big run-down hotel or doss house. Some estaminet of Antwerp perhaps, to quote kindly Mr Eliot. Nick might have a room there, as might I.

Sunday, 19 December 2010

Sunday night is... Márta Sebestyén

Szerelem, szerelem (Love, love)


Three reasons to love Hungary: the language, the poetry - and the music. And this voice.

Saturday, 18 December 2010

New poem on front: Footnotes, with a further note on shoes

Photo from here.

The poem (in five parts that I am tempted to think of as 'toes') is very new, hung out to dry on the line upfront.

How does it come about? Some months ago I received a Facebook request from Shoes or No Shoes, a website that accommodates a museum of shoes and works about shoes by writers and artists, with a catalogue of artists's shoes, as well as all the classic shoes available. It seems to be a magnificent obsession. If shoes are your interest, it is a must.

Nevertheless it was a strange request, strange for me, in that I had no especial interest in shoes. To be well-shod was to be quietly, comfortably, and appropriately shod for whatever occasion. In the beginning my mother wanted her children dressed to the nines all the time, and I have photographs of self in white socks and white shoes. This did not long survive the experience of England, and once I started kicking a football about in the playground my mother's hopes - and my shoes - were dashed. It was going to be very sturdy from then on. I suspect she thought it might be a rebuke to me to wear heavy dull shoes, but I took it as liberation.

From then on into teens durability was the main criterion. Later I did have a pair of pointed shoes, some Chelsea boots, and even a pair of sleek, silver-grey shoes. I felt a little shy and uncomfortable in them but I wore them occasionally, and as I grew into my twenties and my confidence increased a little, I became willing to wear anything, as befit an art student. Ragged was fine, colour was fine. Respectable was not.

The years of art teaching brought me out in occasional flamboyance - a brilliant apple-green jumper for example, while wearing glasses tied with string around my neck. I have no real memory of shoes then, which must say something about my attitude to them.

I was perfectly aware that the female relationship to shoes was quite different, almost erotic. I could quite see why, but I won't explore that for now, if ever. Not that there is nothing to explore, so who knows? I do think back to Linda Grant and her book and blog.

In the meantime, the poem on the front does mention the white shoes and ventures. ever so lightly, into the sphere of suggested erotics, but also (alas) of death. Ah dear, erotics and death: such is life!

Friday, 17 December 2010

Boys and illiteracy

So the headlines say, at primary level. It is a subject I come back to since the headlines on boys generally is always bad. When exams come round the papers carry photos of girls hugging each other with hardly a boy in sight. Imagine the fuss it if were to be boys most of the time with not a girl in sight.

The article on the BBC site doesn't mention girls in particular, but then a boys bad news story is always worth having. As an article in The Times colour supplement pointed out a week or so ago, even men joke all the time about how rubbish they are. In TV advertisements the woman is always clever, the man always stupid. Women are simply better at everything is the story. So it continues in film and TV - except in stories that are clearly presented as fantasy.

I don't imagine the story is exactly what operates in real life or down at intimate face-to-face level but long saturation in the world of stereotype does gnaw levels away, one after the other. The feeling is internalised until it becomes reality. It has been no different for about forty years now. It is not uniformly and always the only story but it's the big continuous tidal story.

And the basis for it? I don't know. Maybe it is true that my gender has simply become stupider with each generation but it would be hard to prove that. Demoralisation might be one factor. The sense of being without a role might be another. Boyish virtues don't exist except in terms of irony. Soldiers on the front are 'our brave boys'. Once home they are just a problem. Sporting heroes are only heroes while on the field. The rest of the time they are yobs with dosh.

Suicide in young males almost doubled between 1977 and 1996. The proportion of male suicide to female suicide at that stage was over 7:1. Women self-harm, men kill themselves.


Not so long ago there was a great wave of suspicion of men as fathers (violent sexual abusers, monsters of recovered memory syndrome, heartless absconders, wife beaters, irresponsible feckless deadweights), as secondary teachers (dry-as-dust sadists, bores, abusers) and, as for primary teaching (potential five-star abusers, perverts, keep them away at all costs, and, should they ever become heads, regard them as unfairly advantaged). By 2008 just 2% of primary teachers were male.

I dislike the cant phrases of our time, role model being a leading example, but mostly we know what they mean. When our son was at primary school one of his class teachers was a woman who distinctly disliked boys and favoured girls. She said as much.

There is very little incentive for boys to perform at anything. They know they are expected to be useless. A boy with spirit and little intelligence will kick against the traces, or simply kick.

The generations of subculture boys is trouble now and will be more trouble later. They are not as thick as they are told they are, but nobody is going to tell them otherwise.

Thursday, 16 December 2010

Two official poems

The first shot:

A Common House

Here he was born, on a forgotten floor
that dropped away in one or other raid.
Like you, he stumbled through the broken door
and found the place in ruins and was afraid.

Consider the small rooms of this one house
our common house, as somebody once said,
(more wreck than shelter, squeaked the tiny mouse
inside the massive warren of his head).

It’s where we work, both mouse and man. The sound
you can hear is the music of the wall
that we repaired and raised from the burned ground.
It’s what remains whenever houses fall.

The walls are dense with song. So what to do,
but open doors and let the music through?

And the second, as etched:

Open the door
Go and open the door. – Miroslav Holub

Open the door and enter the world through space,
By way of language, custom, and good grace,
This Europe, this world; a world as all worlds are:
And know it yours, as much as moon or star.

Great cities, long fields, mountains, rivers, and lakes,
Factories, institutions world makes or breaks,
Fast trains and airports lodged in the human heart,
Streets and parks, constructions of mind and art.

Here histories, manners, speech, vision, dance,
Commerce and custom, constitution, chance,
And strategy, seek concord and a voice.
Open the door. The house is yours. Rejoice

In both cases it is a little like writing with a hat on, in collar and tie. Let there be rejoicing, he pronounced in measured tones, in the hope of rejoicing.

On not celebrating Stalin's birthday: an institutional commission

Last night in London at the poetry opening of Europe House (note the Telegraph's way of headlining it: EU bureaucrats move into luxury new London address: Europe House). Time Out sees it in less jaundiced terms.

My task had originally been to write a celebratory poem for the occasion and to read it. On arrival I find I am a kind of host introducing the diplomats of nine countries (Denmark, Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Estonia, Hungary, Poland, Romania and Spain) reading poems in their languages followed by - as it turned out - excellent translations in English. I am a little surprised but shrug, smile and say: fine. I don't get nervous at impersonal public events if only because I don't hope for favours and don't much care - except, most importantly, on the human level - if I don't make a good impression. I do what I do, I read what I read, and it is not going to faze me, whatever it is. (I am far more nervous reading to those I know well or have got to know on another basis.)

And here we have poems by Pia Tafdrup, Paul Celan, Paul van Ostayen, Ivan Vazov, Doris Kareva, Attila József, Czeslaw Milosz, George Bacovia and Miguel Hernandez. The diplomats read very well (surprisingly well!) as though they were familiar with the poems and it mattered to them. The Celans are particularly moving, as is the József. Elaine Feinstein reads a few poems slowly and beautifully, then, because we were running ahead of schedule, I finish off with a vote of thanks and four poems, ending with the commissioned one. This is followed by eine kleine book-signing then supper and a dash for the penultimate train, which I miss, so get the last one, arriving home about 2am, heroic C picking me up at Norwich. Sleep only after 3am.

The poem I wrote - three quatrains - is etched on the inner door as people enter the building, and that, of course, is very flattering and grand. And there are innumerable Poems on the Underground posters of the poem available. So now I am a little flattered and a little grand.


I have always liked commissions. They are essentially requests. I like the idea of poetry as an art that is requested. People produce poems for occasions by instinct in any case, so there is nothing odd about being asked to write a poem for an occasion.

The difference here lay in being asked to write a poem in celebration of a formal opening for an international political organisation. The principle itself was fine because I am deeply pro-European, in most of the possible senses at least, and am so for some of the following reasons:

1) The curse of European wars;

2) The curse of rabid nationalism that leads to European tensions and wars;

3) The importance of tying together the potential conflicts between the two major European powers, France and Germany;

4) The potential for the resolution of tensions in the smaller European states, particularly in the Balkans, and, from a personal point of view, in the case of Hungary, Romania, Slovakia and Serbia. (I am aware this is only potential, but potential is hope);

5) The hope of a humane bond that might protect the rights of minorities all over Europe (Roma, Jews, Muslims, refugees of all sorts);

6) Very importantly for an artist, the sense of a coherent identifiable culture that provides a basis for the understanding and sharing of music, visual art, theatre, cinema and, of course, literature. We share so much: stories, forms, modes of feeling.

7) European culture is my home. I write in English, in England, and have been influenced by many English, Scottish, Welsh, Irish and indeed American writers, not to mention being befriended and informally mentored by Peter Porter, a Europhile Australian. But I am born out of the European experience, out of Hungary, Romania, Bohemia, Moravia, out of the residually Jewish refugee experience, and God knows what else.

Commerce, law and diplomacy are not my field. Like everyone else I have instincts and thoughts about such things, but I would not join a commercial, legal or diplomatic institution because, while such institutions are clearly vital, they operate in languages I neither understand, nor am drawn to. Furthermore, despite my rational belief that culture has a base in economics, my instinct tells me that such institutions develop out of culture, particularly as in the sense of (6) and (7) above, rather than vice versa.


The poem used by Europe House is in fact my second attempt. The first one I wrote was not considered quite celebratory enough in that it reflected on the ruins of Europe after the war and offered the idea of Europe as a kind of resistance or resurrection or last ditch shelter. In that sense it was not in the least celebratory. It wasn't so much Welcome To Your New Home as Look We Have Come Through If Only Just.

So I wrote the second, the etched and postered poem, with a little germ of reservation, slightly against the grain of my instincts as a poet. Was this what Martin Bell meant by a 'a secret and subversive pleasure'? Surely not. But was it like writing a poem for Stalin's birthday? Well, I wasn't being ordered to do it, nor would I have anything to fear if I did not write it.

In order to write it I had to recall the nature of the occasion and ask myself if I had hopes of a European project as located at 32 Smith Square. Hope without despair is pointless, but at births and weddings the accent is on hope. So yes, I had hopes as in numbers 1 through to 7.

Was the shifting of what The Daily Telegraph regards as a bunch of EU bureaucrats from one place to another - specifically to the old Tory HQ - a possible subject of poetry? I don't know but there was a certain subversive pleasure in adding to the discomfiture of the anti-European crowd (interestingly Nigel Farage has an office in the building!). Not, as Martin Bell would have had it, with a comical mask on, but dead straight.

So I did it, and there it is. It felt a little awkward. I would not want to do it as a job. My only proper qualification is that I can write verse as well as anyone. But it was a good evening. The diplomats were reassuringly human. They would have to carry on being diplomats who are, as has often been said, honest men sent abroad to lie for their country, and who are engaged in the very activities Wikileaks loves to leak. But they are not simply their functions. Very few people are, and those who are, are dry and dangerous. This was a human, almost shy occasion, and all the better for it.

I will put up both poems in the next post.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010


The best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity. Cue the rough beast slouching towards Bethlehem.

I don't know about the best and the worst. I have a corner of my heart reserved for Tom Stoppard who once wrote an article titled Tom Stoppard Doesn't Know. I am with you there, Tom, albeit without any keen sense of being better for it.

What is surprising, as my historian friend Richard remarked to me, is just how many secret files a kid in the army could access. Let's say approximately quarter of a million. Nor was he alone. Apparently some three million people had access to the information currently streaming through Mr Assange's highly sensitive orifices. That, Richard wryly added, is an odd definition of Top Secret.

Do I feel the world is a cleaner or better place for the revelation that when diplomat X said Y he meant Z? Or that dirty tricks departments have actually pulled off some dirty tricks? Do I - more to the point - enjoy the fact that the US of A has been embarrassed to the point of apoplexy?

No, the Great Satan has never seemed quite satanic enough to me, if only because other Satans seemed rather more satanic, and, frankly, still do seem more satanic, that is if Satan comes into this at all. But then The Great Satan is what we know, and we, being the Little Satans, must take our satisfactions where we can.

On the one hand an occasional display of dirty washing is behovely. It tells us what we already know, precisely because we understand, and have always understood, that the protestations of the the wearer of the washing are ridiculous. And if we do discover a few war criminals in with the vests and socks, that is a positive bonus for the world at large.

On the other hand we are certainly hypocrites if we pretend that we ourselves are determined to be honest and transparent at all times. There is a vast range of human obfuscation we refer to as tact, sensitivity, kindness and manners. Tell me truly, am I ugly? No, of course not. You have, er, character and, er, fine, memorable features. In fact you are positively handsome. In some lights.

We play games that require subtlety and illusion. We have our poker face and our sympathetic looks. We admire the trickster. We also like a bit of schadenfreude now and then. (Like now, for instance.)

I rather suspect that 249,950 of the 250,000 leaks will be forgotten within a few months. There may be greater circumspection and suspicion on behalf of the secret keepers as a result which would be the converse of what we claim we want, but there may equally be a greater sense of realism in negotiations and a greater degree of honesty about the necessity or otherwise of dirty deals. In the meantime a few covers will have been blown, a few lives shortened. They may be less virtuous lives than the ones that might be being saved but we won't know either way.

Perfect transparency is not possible, not even when you're trying. Is it desirable when possible? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. In the meantime if states want to keep something top secret they might try to restrict the numbers of those with access to it. Or you have a gradation from Truly Truly Secret down to Not Really Secret But Keep It To Yourself.. Is that a secret worth knowing? Ask Tom Stoppard.

Monday, 13 December 2010

The Hike

Full day teaching, mainly in individual tutorial form as it is the last week of the semester. Here is a snippet from my wrestling notes.


Jozsef and Baba settle into their chairs after their walk. A little nip of vodka for both of them in two small clear glasses. On their wall is an old engraving bearing the legend: The Hike.

It shows two men in trunks delicately embracing. The one on the left is standing on one leg, the other is bent under the crotch of his partner while his arms are linked behind the partner’s back near the bottom of the spine, raising him off the ground. The man thus elevated has his own arms about the first man’s back. His head is turned towards us. It is a gentle moment. A father or mother might lift a toddler like this and the toddler would have just such an expression of engrossed surprise. They might on the other hand be male lovers. They are show-ground wrestlers engaged in a position known as The Hike.

Jozsef is a wrestler, Baba his wife. This is a quiet moment for them in between Jozsef's hectic travelling. The photo does not show 'the hike'. I do however have an old print of it, given to me as a present by C. It's behind glass so hard to scan in. The image is precisely as described above, rather lovely and delicate, and though the figures are a little stout, they look as light as leaves. The human miracle of being heavy yet light at the same time.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Sunday Night is.... Radiohead

I have an unshakable belief in arriving at least ten years too late for quality popular culture. Sorts out the men from the goats. Or is it the sheep from the fish? In any case, I'm raising a hat to Radiohead fifteen years on. Fake Plastic Trees. Plaintive is as plaintive does, and this is beautiful and plaintive enough for a uniformly grey December afternoon darkening into evening. It's as if Thom Yorke's voice were seeping slowly from the clouds.

...And just about everyone else: hand on heart.

Back late from Bristol yesterday, a full day for The Poetry School on the material referred to in the last post. In fact the last post was the first sheet of a set of some forty sheets of an anthology I made for the occasion, but, as with all such anthologies, for use on possibly other occasions, some individual items from it have been drawn from other such self-made anthologies. My entire poetry teaching life has been full of specially compiled anthologies that branch out from each other and sometimes overlap.

The anthology simply moves through the various possible pronouns as well as reference by function or office (the Driver, the Bellman, Herr Doctor, the Headmaster) and proper names. It begins with John Heath-Stubbs's poem, Use of Personal Pronouns: A Lesson in English Grammar, and Ágnes Nemes Nagy's Journal, which is comprised of short poems employing you, I, he / she (Hungarian has no gendered pronouns) all to refer to a single first person figure, with they as opposition. The I section begins with Dickinson, moves on to Plath, Whitman, Simic, Shapcott (as a cow) and Hughes (as an otter). I won't try and go through the contents but the idea is to explore the dimensions of usage. Various forms are involved, including, at the end, clerihew and acrostic. I know very well I am not going to cover all the poems in any such anthology but it's like presenting a world in which we can point to various locations.

First, however, the reading of a few early sections of Wallace Stevens's The Man with The Blue Guitar, by way of prayer or grace before meal.

But why? Why this exploration of the uses of identity and consciousness? How does it help?

My hope is that it might serve to relieve a little of the burden on the imagination.

Because poetry is generally short and constantly in danger of seeming insubstantial on the one hand, and portentous on the other; because the common perception persists that poetry is the poet's peculiar way of wearing the poet's great, self-conscious heart on the poet's particularly fancy sleeve; and because the heart, that great metaphorical organ, is certainly in there somewhere, more, so to speak in the sleeve than on it, the weight of responsibility can be crushing, or at least distorting for a poet. The very title, poet, is enough to create a vacuum in nature, or at least clear certain rooms, even in the poet's own sense of purpose.

I would like to argue for a certain lightness of heart, for a certain irresponsibility, for a certain understanding of the gravity of play - not in the Martian sense of the 1980s where everything was fancy, everything was like anything else, everything was potential freshness without the ballast of content (content as the heart that might well resemble a slab of steak on a butcher's counter and be no more than a visual pun hoisted to metaphysical level) - so not in the form of post-metaphysical whimsy, as some, if not all of it, now seems to me, but as nimbleness of sorts, so that there might be different ways of drawing fingers across that blue guitar.

I would like to reduce the expectation in the writer of having something particularly weighty to say. I would like the weight to be found unexpectedly in the engagement with language so it is like something landed in your lap. It would be like finding a mysterious coin in your pocket or handbag. You don't have content (the weight of your heavy heart) and find a form for it, you simply learn to increase your acuity, to develop your ears and sense of touch so, when language moves around you, you have some intuition regarding where you are and where something valuable might be.

I don't mean the writer should simply announce, like John Cage, I have nothing to say and I'm saying it, and that is poetry as I see it, though that is, in one important sense, absolutely true. True it is, but it itself is a kind of cliché, all too easy on the ear. Not all nothings are alike, and if one nothing is different from another nothing, that is - is it not? - something. And we ourselves are - are we not? - something.

Because the human heart (to use a cliché) is full of clichés. It loves to repeat its own wise saws and mutter its comforting mantras. It likes to reassure itself that it is good and warm and beating: a proper presentable human heart. That it is a heart at all. It wants to reassure itself and the hearts around it, that it has been in the dark places and returned alive, an ancient mariner, a sadder and a wiser man rising the morrow morn. But it wants to produce the goods before it has completed the mariner's voyage.

The poet's voyage is through language by way of the imagination with all its possible freight of meanings.

Relieving the imagination of the sole weight of me with my baggage of wisdom and wise saws is much the same as laying down, for a while at least, a monstrously heavy piece of what seems to be vital baggage, an old trunk that weighs a ton even when empty (and it never is empty). Try another piece of luggage and see where it takes you. Try this face, this door. You don't need to be carrying that huge weight around. Try skipping. Try dancing. Try making this peculiarly complicated structure as if it were something you could live in. As if there were a you.

We don't matter much in the galaxy, but then what else matters? Language is an impossibly leaky system of control, but what else do we have? There's no such thing as four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence but it's well worth listening before putting a few notes down on the score, to listen, in effect, as if there were nothing but silence. Then playing in delight and darkness.

Listening and playing are valuable acts. Your hands are far too full of luggage to allow for much play. Many hands make light work. So they say. So we might assume. You might give it a thought, as one does. As he, she, it and they have done, and might do again at any moment.

I am only trying to lend you a hand.

A little anthology about the heart might be another fine mess to get into.

Friday, 10 December 2010

To Bristol with an I and a You and just about everyone else

A drawing by Martin Bell in my copy of the selected Stevens

To know that the balance does not quite rest,
That the mask is strange, however like.
– Wallace Stevens, The Man With the Blue Guitar

… They told me you had been to her,
And mentioned me to him:
She gave me a good character,
But said I could not swim.

He sent them word I had not gone
(We know it to be true):
If she should push the matter on,
What would become of you?

I gave her one, they gave him two,
You gave us three or more;
They all returned from him to you,
Though they were mine before.

If I or she should chance to be
Involved in this affair,
He trusts to you to set them free
Exactly as we were…
- Lewis Carroll

It is a pretty well accepted commonplace that the figure ‘I’ in a poem is not to be confused with the author in the evidential sense. Or rather not entirely confused - or maybe just a little confused.

But the person writing the poem is present as a voice or voices. The voice (s) is / are assumed. It is not exactly the author’s speaking voice that speaks but a voice in a poem.

Furthermore, it is likely that the poem will have a number of actors. One will do, but maybe more. One of these actors may well be an I but it need not be. It could be any of the available pronouns, or almost any. Certainly, a you could be an I in disguise, as could a she or he. One might choose to speak as oneself. Alternatively we could assume a collective voice. It is certainly something we could do. It helps to cut a figure.

But then the I itself (myself?) could be quite clearly someone else, as in a dramatic monologue. Imagination spreads across identities. Imagination is the key, after all, isn’t it?

A figure could appear as a name, a more specific invitation, a Tom or a Joan or indeed a full formal name like, say, Reuben Bright. A figure might be simply an office – a job, a role, a function.

A figure could certainly be they or them, but it is hard for an I to become one of them, unless the they is read as a form of we.

Frankly, we hardly know the I outside the poem, so it is no surprise when I finds itself dispersed, distilled, dissected, spoken for, turned round to face itself, or, like Bottom, translated.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Almost Island

Still from King Vidor's The Crowd

Newly available on the net, the remarkable Almost Island, an annual international literary periodical from India. It includes work by Adil Jussawalla, Christian Bobin, Alison Anderson, Miljenko Jergovic,Russell Scott Valentino, Sharmistha Mohanty, Sun Ganlu and Vahni Capildeo.

I myself have this piece in it. It rambles (boy, how it rambles, but then rambling is its raison d'être) from a naked child under a table, through André Kertész and King Vidor's The Crowd, considering names, pseudonyms and presences of various kinds, enjoying a few puns in Sim City and envies the Irish poet Rita Ann Higgins.

It has only just arrived. I always look forward to reading Mohanty and Capildeo. The rest are a pleasure in waiting.


A lovely thing today. I teach poetry to an undergraduate group, a particularly splendid bunch this semester, and among the early things we talk about is subject. I ask them to think about why there are far more poems about love, death and the moon than there are about embarrassment and plastic cups. So now they have put together an anthology devoted to plastic cups - and it's good! I think happiness is moments like this.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Nick Robinson on tuition fees

The furious morality play of fees / no fees, tax / no tax takes place in the following circumstances as described by Nick Robinson

Labour introduced tuition fees having come to power saying it had no plans to do so* and after promising in its 2001 manifesto that "We will not introduce top-up fees and have legislated to prevent them".

The minister who pushed fees through the Commons in 2004 was Alan Johnson. He admitted later that Labour was open to the charge that it had broken its manifesto pledge.** Behind the scenes he had fought and won a battle with the then-Chancellor Gordon Brown and his advisor Ed Miliband who wanted to introduce a graduate tax. Mr Johnson advised Labour's new leader "for goodness' sake, don't pursue a graduate tax"*** and has consistently argued that a graduate tax won't work.****

The asterisks are referenced below the article.

He goes on:

However, today the shadow chancellor tells the Times [subscription required] that his leader - by strange coincidence Ed Miliband - is right that "there is a strong case for a graduate tax, which may offer a fairer way of sharing costs between individuals and government."

The Conservatives opposed fees - including David Cameron, who wrote the party's 2005 election manifesto which promised "We will restore real choice in higher education by scrapping fees". He and they now say that choice will come by doubling fees.

The Lib Dems opposed fees, then pledged to oppose any increase in them and now say that that is, in fact, the right thing to do even though, they also say, that it's not what they would have done if the electorate had elected a Lib Dem majority government.

Politics is an extraordinarily opportunistic affair. It likes the familiar tune. It likes sound-bite and it likes fury, some of which, some of the time, signifies next to nothing.

I say next to nothing because while there are pros and cons regarding a graduate tax, no party that I am aware of is offering no increase in costs. I am a Labour supporter but to hear the party crying out against Tory cuts and against tuition fees when it was, to a large extent, the last government that necessitated the cuts and would have to cut now if it were still in power, and who introduced tuition fees in the first place, strikes me as pretty well white noise and none-too-convincing fury. It isn't a fury for something, not even particularly against something. It's stage fury on an uncertain stage.

Labour doesn't offer a socialist programme because it can't without a dramatic change in both the global and the local economy. The socialist models on offer look neither inviting, nor particularly socialist.

If I had to define electable socialism-as-it-is for myself, it would be a tendency, or preference, to favour the unfavoured at the least possible inconvenience to the voting public, which is the voting-public-as-it-is.

So that is where the where-it-is is. Though things may yet change. Everything is as-it-is until it isn't. And, actually, where-it-was, say twenty odd years ago, or even ten years ago, is not where it is now. The Euro looks interesting, in a Chinese sort of way.


ps The graduate tax seems fairer to me: the better off paying for the less well off over the long term. It wouldn't be without difficulties - people losing jobs, people between jobs, people downgrading, people trapped in jobs - but, given the ethos, the principle would work. The trick is to develop the ethos. Slow business, I suspect.

Monday, 6 December 2010

Wrestling: The Righteous Brothers (2)

John Cox

Patriotism was far more appealing. Big John Cox, the ex-ambulance driver from York, Angela Carter tells us, had memorised thirty six of Churchill’s speeches. She had read this in Mick McManus’s The Mick McManus Wrestling Book (another item missed by Michael R. Ball). There had been an American a few years before, a vast twenty stone man. He had been told to generate some heat on his debut at the Wythenshawe Hall in Manchester, and his idea of doing so was to introduce himself as an ex-soldier, which indeed he was. He had fought with our boys in the war. This got a big cheer. Up on the beaches. Another cheer. He waited for it to die down. And they were the biggest lot of dirty cowards he had ever seen, he added. The audience rose to its feet and wanted to murder him. It was never the same afterwards. He went about in fear of his life. He and his tiny wife scrambled about the country in a filthy caravan. She was never heard to say a word to him, but he was under her tiny thumb, or so they say. After a year he returned to America.

Mick McManus

The Righteous Brothers were mediocre wrestlers. Fowler worked hard to get them bookings, but their only regular bouts came in the South West. It was respectable Liberal country with a transient population of bohemians who were attracted to the idea of seeing Che and Ho’s namesakes in the ring. Ho and Che were rarely allowed to win in any case, so Fowler milked them for sympathy (One Day They Will Rise and Finally Break Their Chains). The odd excursion to London, to Croydon or Hackney, brought out the SWP crowd and a few journalists. They did once feature in a photograph in the Mirror, linked to another story, but that was as far as it went. The hard core was a small following in Plymouth and Bude.

The Righteous Brothers worked three summer seasons and the occasional winter gig, but it was disheartening for them. One day in 1976 they had a call from a wrestler acquaintance in the USA suggesting a visit. The American promoter was definitely interested. So Che and Ho left Fowler behind and got a flight out. Their movements became ever more difficult to trace. One day, after a card in Alabama, they were cornered in a bar by a group of drunks. Having drunk a fair amount themselves they took some punishment. They drove off into the dusk, missed their road - someone remembers being asked for directions - and must have got lost in a swamp. The car was dragged up later but they weren’t in it. They had simply disappeared.

The real Ho died soon afterwards. Fowler did once attempt to trace The Righteous Brothers. He found himself in front of a vacant lot where another bunch of drunks were hanging about. He was drunk too. A scorpion scuttled by in the gutter. The revolution eats its children. He turned round and came home.



Another wrestling hall of fame is to be found here.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Sunday Night is... Peter Cook's Alien Abduction

Genius will out. Credit to Ipswich.

Wrestling episodes: The Righteous Brothers (1)


Sociologists of the structuralist school believe that wrestling is a social ritual and therefore carries the values of the ruling elite. All rituals do this but professional wrestling, with its expanded theatre of stereotypes, provides the richest illustration of their thesis. The bibliography is long. Michael R. Ball’s hard-to-find book Professional Wrestling as Ritual Drama in American Popular Culture lists 170 relevant articles, putting aside fanzines or fictional occurences. It does not extend beyond 1989, since when much more material has accumulated, nor does it refer to Angela Carter’s ‘Giants’ Playtime’ (no.332) essay from a 1976 issue of New Society. Shame to have missed that. Ball was only after American examples of course but he would have found much to learn from the Brits.

The tygers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction and the subjects of sociological research are almost invariably wiser than the sociologists. Gray mentions a late eighties tag team calling themselves The Bolsheviks who sang the Russian National Anthem for WWF as their entry theme. Blindly arrogant villains, they stood in sharp contrast to the honest Nikita Koloff, who was likewise Russian, but remained a solid favourite.

The Bolsheviks

Long before the Bolsheviks, in the early- to mid- seventies, there was a British tag team called The Righteous Brothers. The Righteous Brothers consisted of Che and Ho, men with beards and a certain limited knowledge of the technical aspects of wrestling. They were before their time in this respect, as soon you would need no knowledge at all. They would enter the ring with a Black Power salute, strip off scarlet gowns to reveal T shirts with screenprinted images of their adopted characters, set off by psychedelic patterns. Their ankles were yoked together by a single chain that they ritually broke as they were being announced.

The Righteous Brothers’ real names were Mackenzie and Howe. Colin Mackenzie had been a stevedore in Liverpool and Chris Howe was a bricklayer from South London. They had been brought together by their manager John Fowler, who was a genuine innovator, the first of the ‘character’ managers,. He arrived in top hat, opera cloak and cane and a heavy fob watch, the archetypal capitalist driving his victims before him. His stage relationship with The Righteous Brothers was clearly exploitative. He made a great fuss of sneering at the Socialist Workers Party table outside and occasionally upending it. He would hold the chains discarded by the Brothers during the contest and strike at their opponents with it, working up a roar of fury from the crowd. Having worked in the theatre as a scene shifter and attended WEA classes in the development of socialism as an ideology, he was perfectly aware of his social and ritual function and could quote large chunks from the 1848 manifesto. Some time in the early seventies Fowler had made friends with a group of artists wearing Chinese ‘revolutionary’ outfits who had erected co-operative Mao tents at the ICA. He met Mackenzie and Howe later, Mackenzie at a dockers’ strike where he was distributing leaflets and Howe at a pub in Deptford. Fowler loved wrestling and so did they, two strapping lads without money. Mackenzie played football and kept fit at the local baths and Howe had done a little judo. That was enough. Fowler’s friends say that the idea for the tag team came from toying with the names and appearances of Mac and Howe. Howe sounds a little like Ho, and Mackenzie looked like Che Guevara.

Fowler knew that entering a commercial web meant playing by commercial rules. He would adopt the biggest grinning capitalist mask and play it straight. The Righteous Brothers was just perfect as a tag name. You never close your eyes when I touch your fingertips - you’ve lost that loving feeling was a terrific song and made fine entrance music (Fowler was an innovator in this too.) He had photographs taken of the boys, Mackenzie in camouflage gear and a beret and Howe in Mao jacket and cap with a red star on it. He even had Howe holding a little red book. The fliers said, The Revolution is Coming! Justice with The Righteous Brothers! The major promoters considered the idea of course, but were not taken with it. They knew their audience. Exotic was fine but not if it was serious. Class was irrelevant to them.