Friday, 30 September 2011

Twenty-four hours with granddaughter


From yesterday lunchtime to today lunchtime we were over at H & R's while they stayed in London for Bloomsbury's 25th. It was the first time nearly seventeen months-old M was entrusted to us for the night, and the instructions were many and clear. It was a trust exercise for everyone involved.

In the event it was easy, M being in happy and playful mood throughout. At one or two points she frowned and was clearly aware something or somebody was missing but the frowns vanished and she was busy sweeping or transferring fallen leaves from one of us to the other, or placing them carefully into a box. Then, since it was a beautiful, most unlikely end of September day, she set off watering corners of the garden with her baby-sized watering can, always toddling and teetering. Then she would be fetching and carrying a set of coloured plastic balls, then crawling into her hiding place in the cupboard where we would give her her soft toys for company. On our walk through the cemetery she kept noticing the bold grey squirrels that were bounding and scampering everywhere. She understands a lot of words now and is making a variety of noises some of which are close to words. Book, door, and flower hovered on the edge of saying, then dada in the morning.

She lightens the heart. Not that it was low, but she has the power of lightening it further. It is pleasantly amusing,in fact dizzying to see a child run and sway and turn and take delight in tiny things. She is a particularly pretty child, in fact a rather beautiful child, and will, I suspect, make a very beautiful young girl, her eyes intelligent, full of animation and scrutiny. She loves books and will point to the animals in the picture when we ask her to. Turning pages is fun, even thick card pages. Bright colours are good. She smiled to greet us when we arrived and smiled every time one of us reappeared. So I will go into Hs office and work for a while then when I come out again, she grins.

C falls readily back into young mother mode. She is crisp decisive and business like but carries on talking to little M. while fixing her food or bathing her. She takes M down to the nursery for a music session and stays with the young mothers. I too find myself whistling and singing and talking away at her when with her, playing with her, commentating on everything we are doing.

She likes her bit of power, of course, so she'll try to get keys and shut doors to keep us in or out. Opening and shutting things is power. Throwing something is power. Handing me the watering can is power: fill it, she means. Who doesn't seek to control the world in however small a way? And we too like to be fun to be with so we play along with her. But the big decisions are ours: meals, bath, bed, lights on or off. These are tender decisions, gentling her into the security of routine. Float off to sleep now, there's nothing to worry about.

It is very good to be with a young child in good temper. Less good when her mood is foul, or when it is raining, or when you yourself have a pain or a worry. Good times are good times, which is not all the time, but this was an unexpectedly hot sunny day at the very end of September and the mood was sunny too.

I remind myself I shall be sixty three in a couple of months. I see the evidences of my ageing but experience them lightly. A certain heaviness in breathing, a certain stiffness in bending. I have lost about an inch and a half in height since I was twenty. My frame is broader, my head sunk further into my chest. If I hunch my shoulders my neck seems to disappear. Still, I don't look bad compared to.... to what or whom? Perhaps only to what I imagined sixty to be when I was twenty. It's not as bad as that. I carry on working in my usual semi-hallucinatory way. There are minutes, very rarely hours, when everything seems astonishingly lucid. One wouldn't, on the whole, want to trust those intervals entirely. I looked over my new book, due in early 2013, and that too felt like a period of lucidity.

Often this last year I have gazed extra hard at whatever was around me, thinking: This is what I will not see once I no longer exist. There's an instant of devastating terror in that, then a shrug of indifference, but even then, sometimes, the faintest glow of pleasure.

Being with granddaughter warms me to those moments by suddenly filling out the colour of all that is. It's pretty good, I think. It will do. Lucky to be here.

Thursday, 29 September 2011

Frivolity, fribble and procrastination: death by clerihew 3 and out

The Great Kendo... upon whom clerihews may be bestowed.

So we left the tag match / lumberjack contest with Duhig in the ring trying fancy moves, but here comes Adam Horovitz with a spectacular clothesline:

Jaques Tati
gets rather ratty
when people say
he's a French Will Hay.

Brought back to British comedy of the thirtes (a solid move), Andy Jackson is back in the fray, raising the tone:

J Night Shyamalan
Was thought the coming man
But his career now declines
We should have seen the Signs.

Few saw that one coming. I go for the Mid-Atlantic position;

Mack Sennet
as scripted by Alan Bennett:
all wistful charm and poise
with The Keystone Cops as The History Boys.

Duhig does what is technically known as The Italian Job, then twists himself upright again:

Luchino Visconti
Saw 'The Full Monty'
Which he thought was vile,
Bar Robert Carlyle.

Katy Evans-Bush goes off-piste:

Richard Burton
drew the curtain
over his marriages. Regarding divorce,
He drank, and expressed remorse

Now almost everyone is in the ring. Duhig goes for another continental shoulder press:

Dario Argento
Never went lento;
Though he made Giallo,
His films weren't shallow.

I counter with one that looks continental - a sly move I picked up from Kendo Nagasaki:

Karel Reisz
was not always nice:
his Saturday Night was followed Sunday Morning.
Let this be a warning.

Admonition is an illegal move and gets a public warning. Evans-Bush goes straight down the centre this time:

Cary Grant
loved his aunt.
When he was alone,
He would try her eau de cologne.

This could well be true. But then in a fantastic turn of events, the American champion, Gentleman Alfred Corn, goes enters with an unexpectedly classic hold (he has been reading the rule book!)

Dame Edith Evans
Let fly a "Heavens!"
When Bea Lillie (Lady Peel)
Downgraded her sex appeal.

Big Jim Lindop invents an utterly new move:

Absalom Rosencrantz,
Israeli director of the cult film "Totentanz,"
Though he may have wished it,
Never existed.

To which there is only one reply:

Whereas Guildernstein
thought existence perfectly fine,
though he was quite easy to embarrass
with a first name like Whereas.

Enough clerihew wrestling highlights, grapple fans, as the late Kent Walton used to say.

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Frivolity, fribble and procrastination: death by clerihew 2

This time film directors are the prey and it is developing into a full tag match with Andy 'Jacknife' Jackson, Ian 'The Leeds Drubber' Duhig, Adam 'The Horror!, The Horror!' Horovitz and Katy 'the Baroque' Evans-Bush. There's been nothing like it since Giant Haystacks and Big Daddy took on Kendo Nagasaki and The Mummy!

Actually if I throw in myself (a complicated wrestling throw but perfectly possible with practice) not to forget other notables it is more like a 'Lumberjack' bout, in which there are a lot of wrestlers inside the ring and a lot of others prowling outside. The wrestlers inside throw each other out, the wrestlers outside throw them back in.

I should add that we had a guest appearance by Salman Rushdie yesterday with a biting clerihew on Gunter Grass, so the stakes are high. The contributions at the time of selecting these highlights are 121 and rising. Amazing what the human spirit will do under duress.

This was the kick off:

David Lynch
would make films at a pinch.
but, once started, he'd blaze ahead
with blockbusters like Eraserhead.

After that it was mayhem, so a selection of throws and falls. We begin with certain classic moves:


John Cassavetes
Responded to Hollywood's entreaties
and directed movies till it hurt. He
made a few Dozen, only one of which was Dirty.

Wim Wenders
simply adored Eastenders:
high art was fine, he said, but soaps were higher,
as is perfectly obvious from Wings of Desire.

Frederico Fellini
Was fond of the old Martini
When asked what his limit was, for a laugh.
He replied "Eight and a half"

Lars von Trier
was grinning from ear to ear.
From Dogme to Dogville in one bound!
He was one dogged sneaky hound!

Oliver Stone
- I guess we should have known
the plot is always the same.
Carnage. The Government's to blame.

Ernst Lubitsch
exclaimed 'You bitch!'
I'll never vork mit you again, Greta!'
And then he ate her!

Then there was a dip into Russ Meyer territory before recovering propriety and Andy tagging in Ian Duhig

Duhig (ploy to go utterly contemporary)
Mike Leigh
Is likely
To do better than 'Happy-Go-Lucky'
Which was yucky.

Self counters (defensive move)
Clint Eastwood
even when deceased would
insist he
be allowed to Play Misty.

Duhig ripostes (obscure director ploy)
Nicolas Winding Refn
Made the film I just watched, which was effin'
Marvellous: called 'Pusher II'
I recommend it to you.

Tag / Lumberjack continues tomorrow

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Frivolity, fribble and procrastination: death by clerihew 1

G K Chesterton who illustrated Edmund Clerihew Bentley's clerihews.

I tend to write better under time pressure, but sometimes there is just too much pressure, as in the last few weeks, (or is it eternity?) However, such time generates an equal and opposite frivolity which has been squeezing itself into clerihews recently. This is a matter of Facebook sprints, getting in, writing a clerihew, then returning to see if others have responded - there are some excellent responses - then writinng some in return. It started here, with this nonsense.

Delia Smith
Has been revealed to be a myth,
Which is rather a pity
For Norwich City.

Moved to politics:

Angela Merkel
Has joined the Magic Circle.
Having made the Greeks vanish
She has started on the Italians, the Irish and the Spanish.

Then there was a series of exchanges with the lightfooted Andy Jackson, based on the discovery of the superfast neutrino:

So Andy:
Albert Einstein
Said 'this is a fine time
To tell me that it's possible for something to travel faster than light.
I bid you goodnight'.

Isaac Newton
Replied: That's a cute one,
and is bound to keep them busy.
One up to Izzy!

Steven Hawking
Said 'it's got everyone talking
But they'll soon get weary
Of Al's theory.'

Declared Game Over
Let There Be Light!
Good Night!

Though it odd
That there were so many articles
About indefinite particles.

The Son
Said no-one
But me
Is worth the definite particle 'the'.

The holy ghost
Doesn't like to boast
When he goes to Mass
He's a gas!

Said 'My way
Tends to be mercurial
Hence my angels Gabriel, Raphael and Muriel.

Was a believer
But Brahma
Was calmer.

It was getting rather theological. At this point I started one with Allah, thought better of it and went to bed.

There were other very nice ones but a clerihew duel, leading to death by clerihew seems an appropriately absurd end.

Some more tomorrow.

Monday, 26 September 2011

Late in...

... post tomorrow, in the meantime Beethoven String Quartet, Op 132. One of the greatest string quartets in the repertoire. Albeit not the greatest performance or recording. It's there between the notes.

So, from day to day.

Sunday, 25 September 2011

Sunday Night is...The Neutrinos

Norwich band, recorded live here in Norwich (not by me), The Neutrinos is, among other things, the band of Jon Baker, who, together with Sian Croose, directs The Voice Project that performed The Proportions of the Temple in the cathedral in May. I wrote about it here soon after. And also here and here as well as here.

Theology and noise


Andrew Marr was talking to Ed Milliband at the Labour Party Conference this morning, pressing him - not too hard one should say - on various matters including the key idea of growth, on Europe, on the new Labour proposals on capping student fees, on the riots, on past Labour failures, on the threat of strikes, on the relationship with the unions and on Ed himself.

There is something deeply irritating about hearing politicians talk (and indeed about the interviewers asking the questions). I think it comes down to this. The time spent on the interview is divided between firm answers and noise, the noise taking up the great majority of the time available.

The noise is about posture, attitude, psychological location, and an essentially theological framework people sometimes call core values. In so far as it is about the first three it is the same whichever politician of whichever party is being addressed. Welcome exceptions used to be the mavericks on either side, such as Norman Tebbitt and Dennis Skinner. The theology was quite different but the noise level was much reduced. Kenneth Clarke can still do a fair imitation of low-noise-level debate but it doesn't often help him.

Noise involves the repetition of great unquestioned generalities. It's like music-as-wallpaper. It is the vital decor that defines the room you currently live in. Growth is the current Labour wallpaper, firmness the current Tory one. No room is complete without its own wallpaper.

The language around the wallpaper (I think of the atmosphere of the room, the air freshener, the ambient flowers, what used to be the smoke in those old smoke-filled rooms, or the word-clouds generated by computers) is there to establish a normality composed of value words. A little while ago the word radical fulfilled this purpose. If it was radical it was good. That is what the word meant. Today it tends to be proper or right, which is an indication of political shift.

Radical suggested something revolutionary and dynamic, whether the proposal in question was so or not. It conferred a blessing. Change was good.

The move to proper and right, and let us add sensible - all words used with some frequency in Ed Milliband's replies - suggests a need for stability and steadfastness to something unchanging.


Where does the theology come in? I have been thinking about theology for some time now. In theology there is a discussion of values within a given framework, where good and evil are firmly established. God on the one hand, the devil on the other; the ranks of archangels, angels and the armies of the good and innocent on the one hand, versus the ranks of demons, sub-demons and unwitting indifferent accomplices on the other. I suspect this has always been the case in human affairs.

So, for example, it is not just certain ayatollahs who regard the USA as the Great Satan, with the side dish of Israel (and 'the Jewish lobby') as a lesser Satan or perhaps even the Supreme Satan, but a lot of people elsewhere, including in this country. The language would not be quite the same (one must allow for different congregations) but the relative theological positions are pretty well identical. One had only to listen to Any Questions the other day or the reporting of the UN debate to see that was the case. The battles here are not between people as they are but between Miltonic powers.

The positions in theology are always fixed though the occupants of the various roles vary. In the theology of British politics it is grasping capitalists who occupy the Satanic position for Labour, and a less well defined set of unwashed, violent Jacobins (or so I guess) for the Tories. These are the rarely referred to political demons. The bankers are the best current candidates for the grasping capitalist Great Satan position (welcome bankers, as if you didn't deserve it!) and the rioters and potentially violent and coercive strikers stand in for the unwashed, violent Jacobins. The God of traditional Labour is Justice: the God of traditional Conservatism is Stability.

The words proper, right, and sensible refer to old Conservative values. It is where the Labour party is. That is the air of the room, and the wallpaper of growth sits perfectly comfortably in it.

What irritates people about public political debate is the same old stuffy air and the constant attention to the wallpaper. The air is dense and the wallpaper a pattern of tired clichés. Ed handled himself pretty well in those terms. He has no choice. He lives in that room with the rest of the country and would be helpless out of it. He still irritated the hell out of me, if only because I like to see words do some genuine work.

Two addenda.

The first is that real politics - the politics of thought and action where words mean specific things - takes place in parliamentary committees. The committees are not charades. They are a darn sight better than Judge Judy, if a bit less folksy or short. Prime Minister's Question Time is X-Factor entertainment. X-Factor is, of course, hugely popular with a far bigger audience than BBC Parliament could ever muster, and cannot be discounted. Politics can't be confined to committee rooms, and there must be circuses, especially when bread is short.

The second is the real possibility of cracks appearing in the fabric of the political room: a wall being smashed in by a tsunami, the roof being blown off by a great wind, or the entire house shattered by a terrorist explosive device. These are the images of terror that usually keep the room in order. You don't want a tsunami, do you? You don't want to be blown up by suicide bombers?

But the cracks may be fault of the building itself, not a freak of nature. The cracks are part of the noise. The theology is firm but the angels are under review.

Here's a game. The angelic orders are:
1. Seraphim
2. Cherubim
3. Thrones

4. Dominions
5. Virtues
6. Powers

7. Principalities
8. Archangels
9. Angels
10. The Innoccent
And here is a list of demons according to Johan Weyer, with some helpful descriptions.
Beelzebub – Supreme Chief
Satan – Prince of darkness
Eurynomous – Prince of Death
Moloch – Prince of the land of tears
Pluto – Prince of fire
Baal – Commander
Lucifer – Dispenser of justice
Asmodeus – Prince of Gambling
Baalberith – Minister of pacts and treaties
Proserpine – Prince of demonic spirits
Astaroth – Prince and Treasurer of Hell
Nergal – Chief of secret police
Chamos, Melchom, Behmoth, Dagon, Adramalek & the generally guilty

We should try filling both lists up with whoever or whatever we consider to be appropriate.

Saturday, 24 September 2011

Interlude: a thorough rinsing

from The Werckmeister Harmonies, directed by Béla Tarr, adapted from The Melancholy of Resistance by László Krasznahorkai.

From my current translation of Judit Kiss's The Summer my Father Died

One day when I arrived relatively early at the hospital I sat on the bed and watched my father washing. He washed slowly and systematically. Face, neck, ears, the shaving foam behind the ears, under the arms, the chest and the upper part of the back. The careful movements that covered every part of the skin were a reminder of his childhood when there was no properly equipped bathroom and one had to bend over a full basin or a tub to perform the most thorough of ablutions, and though the luxury of running water might have rendered the whole process unnecessary the habit persisted even in this last phase of his life when my father had to lean against the basin because he was no longer capable of standing on his feet. Our habits of movement never leave us, remaining with us to the end so that we should be able to hang on to something firm when everything around us is gradually sinking; our fixed gestures, our turns of phrase, the shreds and patches of our thought all trying to render familiar our temporary lodging, to stuff the gaping holes in our fabric through which howls the cold wind of non-being. It’s quite pointless for him to wash so thoroughly, I thought, because my mother will soon be here and she’ll stand him up in the ancient shower from which unknown hands have long stolen both the handle and the shower-head, and she carefully sit him down on the one remaining plastic chair and scrub him down like a helpless overgrown baby.

Perhaps this is what old age is, I thought distractedly as I watched the fugitive drops of water run down his back, reaching the shore of his crumpled striped pyjamas, while the outside world finds ever narrower channels by which to enter the consciousness, its place being gradually usurped by habit. One becomes a kind of self-powered automaton that conscientiously grinds through its established routine, now and then dropping the odd hollow phrase that has ever less to do with the constantly changing world beyond; a desolate machine whose battery is running out, that stops in the middle of a room or on a street corner and the world pays no attention at all but rushes by on its business, until tender hands finally pick it up and clear it out of the way. That might be what old age is, and my dying father, who has never wanted to be old, might have to take a quick course on the difficult subject of ageing now. Watching his slow methodical movements a poem by Árpád Farkas came to mind, the one where he talks about old people bending over a sink, people through whom the twentieth century looks to rinse itself clean.

Such meditations are not covered by the usual mustn't complain. A touch of beauty helps, and certainly a thorough rinse. As we say in these parts, chiefly in this very room:

One is seldom consoled
by the thought of getting old,
but seeing where the century has been,
one could do with a good clean.

It is what the pronoun 'one' is for.

Friday, 23 September 2011

Festival Review 3: Busking Verse

Stanley Holloway reading pretty fast.

I cannot quite speak to the Poetry Workshop or even Superheroes and Evil Geniuses because I only looked in on those at the beginning, but might ask the presenters of the latter to render their own account. I can however say something about the Poetry Busking.

Imagine this. For the first time the Tour of Britain is passing through the town centre on the same weekend as the farmers' market both of which happen to coincide with the Saturday of the festival. Mr Martin Figura, ex-army Major, is dropping ranks to be our Sergeant Major. The crowds are already gathered round the stalls by the Market Cross and are beginning to line the streets. The mastermind behind the gathering is WRAC Thrower, and although she cannot be with us on the occasion, she is sending psychic signals from her secret bunker. I am not sure whether we have a complete Dirty Dozen but if not, we are not far short. Operations begin just outside the Library by way of preparation and the infiltration and occupation of the the market is soon enough accomplished. Then the poetics begin.

Among the great works orated to general notice (or should that be to General Notice) is Jabberwocky and Stanley Holloway's monologue, Albert and the Lion. This being the day of the great cycle race we have two poems about bicycles. It is a varied programme, the microphone carrying to at least four stalls back, while the world shops or stops. I perform some three pieces including John Crowe Ransom's Piazza Piece, seeing we are in a piazza. The weather holds though thunder is forecast. I don't think anyone minds the poetry. It's a free show and you can always move on.

There is about forty minutes of this before we move into the pub, our next venue. But that's not such a good move because people don't follow in. The race is almost upon us now. Eventually Sergeant-Major Figura tells us to stand at ease and dismisses us. We need a firm hand and are only obeying orders. Mission accomplished.

Putting aside the military puns, the whole thing is fun and is clearly worth repeating with different poems next year, though probably the Saturday before the festival rather than during it. We don't collect money or sell things but could hand out programmes and publicity.

Clearly, the occasion is not one made for complex personal lyric or experimental verse. It is, by its very nature, a touch declamatory. Comic poems and recitations are good. The better known the poem the more the audience will respond. Something needs to be familiar - if no more than a first line. A strong voice, a good sense of timing, a certain dramatic content all help. No need for costumes though. It is the ordinariness of the readers that works. They are just people getting up reciting things, more like a flash mob than an army really.

Thursday, 22 September 2011

Festival Review 2: Poetry in the Secret Cinema

Auden in the snow (just because I love the picture)

Friday night was the young poets and musicians in the secret cinema: five poets (Tim Cockburn, Julia Webb, Andrew McDonnell, Tom Warner and Kate Kilalea) and two sets of musicians (Horses Brawl, meaning Laura and André) and Ana Silvera. Horses Brawl came via Andy, though they had performed in Wymondham before, and Ana came via Kate.

The cinema has a bar at the back on a raised part of the auditorium. One step down is the main floor with tables and chairs, then there is a narrow raised stage just before the old cinema curtains. There is a faint David Lynch flavour to the whole which is rather attractive. Above the main floor a disco ball can be made to spin. As Angus, one of the poets in the audience said, it would make an excellent wrestling venue.

Horses Brawl started us off, then we had the five poets at about 10 minutes each, maybe a little more, then Ana at the keyboard and singing. A fifteen minutes interval was enough to get the drinks, but it was late, so for the second half the poets read just one poem each, followed by Horses Brawl. After that it was free for all for about forty minutes, with Ana coming back on to sing a song and a number of us doing a one poem turn, Tim doing a rapid fire Eminem.

The audience was about forty people which looks OK even in a cinema hall. The evening went down very well, though afterwards I thought we should have done as I do with the UEA readings. With five poets, three before the interval, two after, except in this case music-poetry (3 poets)-music-interval-poetry (2 poets)-music would have been better.

But these were all outstanding talents, all knowing how to handle themselves on stage, all different - Tim's ethereal, touching, beautifully made love poems, Julia's evocations of a commune life underscored with regret and irony, Andy's dreamlike landscapes and movements, Tom's wit and lyricism, very firm, clear and subtle now, and Kate with her shimmery broken complex narrative of voices that register then move on. It was a rich palette and the music was great. I'd certainly go to see both Horses Brawl and Ana Silvera, different as they are, if they were in the area, the first with their medieval and folk music on versions of old instruments, and Ana with her self-composed lyrics and part cabaret / part concert songs.

These were on the whole younger poets, poets near the beginning of their careers, but poetry does not belong to any age group or any social class. As I have often argued, poetry is hard wired into the human mind and body. Being in the presence of real poems is a haunting experience for anyone, in whatever sphere.

Perhaps we might say that a poetry reading between friends is, at best, a cross between magic and entertainment. Once given a defined audience the reading becomes a social act involving both magic and entertainment. The social act imposes an obligation that may be satisfied in many different ways. The context is always important. A secret cinema is ideal. There are possibilities here for the future. I would love to see an evening of music, poetry and conjuring, or acts with echoes of circus - a juggler, a tumbler, a dancer.

Perhaps we could get round to that.

from Twin Peaks

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Interlude: London and London

Yesterday the final judging of the Stephen Spender Prize at Stewart House, the University of London, home in the evening, today London again for the launch at the Hungarian Cultural Centre of the paperback version of Adam LeBor's thriller, The Budapest Protocol.

My job was to introduce Adam then talk with him about the book in front of a pretty well packed audience (a vaguely familiar face at the back, Nick Cohen I think, rises to complain that he can't hear so we raise our voices and speak closer to mic but presumably he still can't hear as he goes after ten minutes or so). Other than that it goes well with readings and conversation about the main themes of the book that starts out from the discovery of the Red House Report, a genuine document discovered by the French services after the war, of a meeting between leading Nazi industrialists at the end of the war that has been clearly lost, in which they plan for the establishment of a Fourth Reich through domination of the financial markets by transferring assets out then buying up industries in other countries.

This scheme is being brought to completion in the book, that also deals with the far right persecution of the Roma, the deployment of the Euro, the closing down of the press, and the use of modern computer technology by both plotters and the resistance. There are murders, conspiracies and affairs - things you expect in a thriller, and a great deal about Budapest which is convincingly depicted. (It is, after all, where Adam lives.) There are quite recognisable elements of the Hungarian political scene and I had to work hard not to identify particular characters with their possible originals. One figure suggests the late Jorg Haider, the Pannonia Guard are clearly based on the fascist Magyar Gárda, and the German companies at the core of the plot are modelled on the example of I G Farben. But Adam cautions against much closer identification with specific people, and stresses that the plot is a fantastical extension of certain tendencies rather than an analysis of what exists.

Anyhow, it all accelerates to a grand showdown at the end, everything firmly researched, as you'd expect from a top foreign correspondent.

As a passing curiosity Adam and I are wearing the same leather jacket over a light coloured shirt. Adam points this out in the Caffè Nero where we discuss the evening before it starts. Having finished I head back across Covent Garden where life still goes on, catch the earlier train I was hoping to catch, so arrive home a whole hour earlier.

Tomorrow to UEA and back to discussion of the festival.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

The Festival - a brief review

The first event was almost thrown out of joint by losing our first venue with less than a week to go. I couldn't even do anything about it because I was out of contact with the Escalator scheme so it was up to other members of the committee to fix it, and they did so, finding another restaurant for the lunch date with Richard Mabey.

This had been a sell-out for a while and having heard Richard speak a few times I knew it would be a good start. We have a full, if not too huge lunch, chat a bit, Richard goes out for ten minutes to compose himself, then returns to speak impromptu for about half an hour. His subject is the loss of children's freedom to move about in nature and get acquainted with it. This is not about lions and tigers but about whatever happens to be inhabiting the nearest piece of common land.

He begins by criticising television's obsession with the exotic and the wild, the use of CGI, and the emphasis on the dangerous. He talks about parental protectiveness and contrasts it with his own childhood - something we know from his books - given the whole day to wander about and do as he will. This strikes a chord with many of the audience, whose average age probably entitles them to a senior railcard, but who remember their own youth as being less hedged about with safeguards than life is today.

Why the older audience? Partly the price and partly the sit-down dinner. I don't think the young attend too many after-dinner speeches - the tradition involves a degree of educated respectability. It is people of a certain station in life who take part in such things. But there is absolutely no reason why the young should not attend a talk by Richard. Richard should by rights be their kind of hero. He is Green, he is a scientist, he is active, he speaks fiercely yet gently from the heart. He is a private man but he is crisply articulate. There is no puffed up rhetoric in him.

But the people who should really be here - the people at whom the talk is actually directed - are the mid-forties to mid-fifties parents who have been bullied and litigated into fear by almost every form of authority. They are easily bullied because they tend to feel guilty, particularly as parents. Contemporary economics doesn't allow for full-time motherhood, nor do many women want it. Fathers feel guilty just for being male: mothers for not being the right kinds of mother. Letting your child roam the fields or streets the whole day will not earn much public approval and may even result in the child being taken into care. There is the fear of bombs, of paedophiles, of cars, of falls from playground apparatus, of falls from trees, of drownings and of accidents of all sorts.

Then there is technology. Richard talks about the enticements of the internet, about the child tucked up in his or her room, wandering the streets, forests, precipices and ditches of an infinite network that continuously merges the real and the virtual. This is a subject touched on in the posts about Sam Riviere's work earlier: here it comes at us not as aesthetics but as loss of contact with nature.

Richard talks about tiny creatures, not dinosaurs. It is what lies to hand, or even in the hand, or even smaller - the kind of life seen most clearly under the microscope that we should respect. So we finish with small things. In response to a question at the end - possibly from me - regarding the notion of anthropomorphism and the old television programmes of Johnny Morris whose work, though very popular (I loved him as a child), was later fiercely criticised for giving animals funny voices, as though they were human, Richard answers that if he had to choose between treating animals like machines or like human beings, he would choose the Johnny Morris way, but that it is probably best to reverse the proposition, and that instead of thinking of animals as substitute humans we should consider ourselves more as animals.

Richard's books are classics of nature writing, but as the title of his second book, back in 1972, The Unofficial Countryside, tells us, they are not about Nature with a capital N, closer in spirit, in some respects, to Ian Sinclair or to Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts's Edgelands. His books do not apostrophise or idealise nature: they study, are humble yet proud, even stern at times, but overflow with warmth.

His talk set a theme that was to be touched on now and then throughout the week. Not so much nature in itself, as what it is like to be in nature, or indeed what it is like to live with our own natures.


In London today for the judging of the Stephen Spender Prize for the translation of poetry. Fellow judges, Susan Basnett, Edith Hall and Patrick McGuinness.

Tomorrow to London again to introduce and talk with Adam LeBor at the Hungarian Cultural Centre in Maiden Lane, about his novel, The Budapest Protocol.

Monday, 19 September 2011

On administering to art: the bellows-pumper

So I meditate, starting with this early poem from a set of poems about misericords in November and May (1981).


My sister sow pays homage to St Cecilia,
I merely pump away at the bellows
While keeping an ear cocked to her delicacies of feeling.

She has taken the veil but I am mother
To a thriving farrow. She tickles heaven
With her music while the family are tugging at my dugs.

I know my place well: strictly behind the organ,
But keep myself clean in the knowledge that
Whosoever administers to art goes not unnoticed:

But my sister, she keeps herself quite spotless,
The perfect nursery pig. Music charms
The ticks off a scarred hide. It is of immense value to pigs.


I am not sure whether the above misericord is the one I was writing about but it is not unlikely. One authority suggests that the creature pumping the bellows is a fox. I doubt it. There is a piglet suckling at her. And surely, the organ-playing pig is a nun of some sort. The headgear indicates a vocation.

Why does this come to mind? As readers of this blog will have noticed over the last few days I have been puffing the virtues and attractions of the Wymondham Words Festival, of which I am the chair, chief programmer, interlocutor and general factotum, though it may be argued that I need not in fact fac the whole totum since there are plenty of very capable, excellent people to take care of the various aspects of the festival. The committee is enthusiastic and efficient beyond reproach. It's just that I can't help feeling responsible.

Over the last few decades an entire professional field, based on degrees of mounting expertise, has developed and grown into an empire of dazzling palaces and Kafkaesque offices where the wheels of art are oiled and gilded, provided it is the right kind of art. Our committee is not that. We are amateur but, as the Hungarian would have it, szorgalmas, a lovely word that implies hard working and 'glad to be of use'.

At the closing event of the festival last night the harpist doing the musical interval asked me, in what I took to be a slightly miffed tone, 'Are you the organiser?' I don't quite know why my heart sinks at the term 'organiser', even if I am only a co-organiser, but it did. Another comment by a member of EB's entourage to the effect that I should be careful because, as he put it, 'creative people' (ie people like me, as opposed to others who were not 'creative') shouldn't be doing this kind of thing because it might ruin their powers of creation.

I say I don't quite know why my heart sinks at terms like 'organiser', but that's a lie. Actually, I do know and am about to explain, explain - as all these blogs do - to myself, perhaps especially to myself.

The explanation is there in the misericord and the poem - written some thirty years ago, I should say. I was a school teacher at the time of some six or so years of experience, still not quite comfortable in my role. I was OK, in fact I was head of an art department, but the world of teaching, of being responsible, of being called 'sir' seemed almost antithetical to the world of art. I did not seem to be leading 'the life of the artist' which was, according to my own lights, more bohemian, less happy with being a figure of authority, more isolated and generally romantic.

But I have been in education throughout, albeit at degree and higher degree level for almost twenty years, and furthermore in all that time I have not taught more than two days a week. Although I am still uncomfortable with official designations I am happy teaching: talking about things I like with younger people who also like talking about things I like, does not seem a bad deal. It has made me think about things I like and I don't think that has done me any harm at all as a writer. In any case if I didn't teach I'd be spending all my time at this desk while being out and being with young writers is energising. I am not short of energy.


But then those pigs and that concert. Becoming an artist, such as the organist pig, is a risky, and far from guaranteed, enterprise. It does mean, in some respects, taking the veil, and one is always aware that the veil is hard won. Moving to the other side of the organ ('organ' being a mischievously playful pun, but then art is necessarily mischievous, which is one of the reasons it feels a little uneasy when bearing responsibility and respectability) is a curious stretch. An organist pumping the bellows! Can it be done?

For the purposes of the festival I am a bellows-pumper. I feel responsible for ensuring that we get the right organists, that the organists feel well treated and appreciated, that they are treated as organists with due attention to their organist headgear. Behind the scenes I too am an organist. The other organists respect my toccatas and I respect theirs. But my job on this occasion is to pump their bellows. And then, say, a harpist calls me: Hey, bellows-pumper, are you responsible for this? and a gentleman-artist tells me, Pumping bellows isn't good for you, dear boy. It is unbecoming. Leave that to the bellow-pumpers.

But there is something in me that, for the moment at least, loathes the gentleman-artist. Contemptuous snob, I think. What gives you the right? I have heard that you have fiddled with the organ yourself but I have never heard you play.

A little ache remains. I have, after all, spent forty years of my life as an organist, with the desire of being a great organist. There are a few who would say it is not an altogether deluded wish. I have the letters, awards and reviews to comfort me at dark times though I never look at them and prefer simply to remember that they are there. An organist must be allowed such vanities.

The festival went very well on the whole. The attendances were pretty good and I think we are growing. We make a good team - Barbara, John, Robert, Ed, Jeff, Wendy, Pippa, Rachel, myself and now Moniza, not to mention our great sound man, Ian - and if any gentleman artist patronises any of us, let him at least drop a very handsome tip in our outstretched caps, because while we wear no veils and are there primarily to ensure that organs as well as organists may be provided, that there be money and publicity and design and amenities and lights and sound, as well as intelligent conversation, we do have caps for such occasions.


The reader of the above poem will be aware that by setting the world of art in the world of pigs I am only following the misericord artist. The bellows-pumper may be a fox, of course, as the authority suggests, and while I am pretty convinced it isn't a fox it is sometimes salutary to bear in mind that it might be.

I'll talk about some of the individual events later.

Saturday, 17 September 2011

Wymondham Words: Sunday Evening

Of Mice and Jackdaws: Storytelling by Candlelight 19:00-20:30 Arts Centre
with Elspeth Barker, Padrika Tarrant and Ceinwen Thomas on Welsh Harp

A great, dark and funny novelist and a genius of the haunting, tender and grotesque see us end the festival by candlelight.

Elspeth Barker

Elspeth Barker's is a wholly original literary voice. O Caledonia, first published 20 years ago, reads as freshly now as then. Steeped in classical allusions, rich in Scottish – and natural – history, fantastical in its highly wrought characters, this coming-of-age-novella is as passionately intense as it is wittily acerbic.

It opens, seemingly, with a murder and a suicide. Beneath the great stone staircase of Auchnasaugh and the leaded stained glass window emblazoned with the family motto Moriens sed Invictus, "Janet was found, oddly attired in her mother's black lace evening dress, twisted and slumped in bloody, murderous death." Her death is followed by that of the tame jackdaw, which "like a tiny kamikaze pilot... flew straight into the massive walls of Auchnasaugh and killed himself".
- Amanda Hopkinson, The Independent

Padrika Tarrant

In The Knife Drawer , dead bodies miraculously vanish as if scraped to nothing by pudding spoons. Marie's mother has rather lost her wits since she did away with her husband. She could swear they're out to get her; even the house gets messy on purpose, all by itself. A careless wish, made against a rainy morning seems to have conjured the grandmother into being; she is part guardian, part bad fairy. She is also sometimes an owl. Marie's twin is living in a hole in the back-garden, small and round as a cherry pip, waiting to be discovered. Marie is a gentle soul and tries to do her best for her strange ragtag household, but all the love in the world can't hold back an avalanche. - Love Reading

Ceinwen Thomas

And so the festival closes closes with candles. Next the reviews.

Wymondham Words: Sunday afternoon

Help Create a Tree of Words and Birds! 14:00-15:30 Library

with Belona Greenwood and Kate Munro

Children, parents, aunts, unclea and grandparents invited. The secret life of trees, the dressing of trees!


To Understand the Nature of Place: 15:00-16:30 Baptist Church
with Mark Cocker and Jeremy Page

Two outstanding writers reading from their books and discussing the Nature of Place and the Place of Nature in their writings.

Mark Cocker

Cocker takes us as close as we are ever likely to get to the seemingly familiar but alien world of a common bird. Crow Country is also an exploration of the relationship between birds and birdwatchers, and the nature of their shared landscape. Like all classic works of natural history, it is an extraordinary revelation of the riches and wonders that lie at our doorsteps, completely ignored. - The Independent

Jeremy Page

Page is clearly in love with this part of the world but, like Swift in Waterland, he sees its bogs, beaches and fields as a natural amphitheatre for existential torment. Salt finishes not far from the present day, but it feels like something much older. Such is its obsession with region, it's often possible to forget this is a novel, not a surprisingly well-written chronicle of an East Anglian childhood. - The Independent

Wymondham Words: Sunday morning

With Great Pleasure, Summoning the Creatures: George Szirtes and Andy Kirkham: 10:45-11:45 Arts Centre
Animals versed, written and musicked in a light meditation

George Szirtes (Accordionist', Best Poems on the Underground, read by Tara Fitzgerald)

Andy Kirkham

Mouse's Nest

I found a ball of grass among the hay
And progged it as I passed and went away;
And when I looked I fancied something stirred,
And turned again and hoped to catch the bird—
When out an old mouse bolted in the wheats
With all her young ones hanging at her teats;
She looked so odd and so grotesque to me,
I ran and wondered what the thing could be,
And pushed the knapweed bunches where I stood;
Then the mouse hurried from the craking brood.
The young ones squeaked, and as I went away
She found her nest again among the hay.
The water o'er the pebbles scarce could run
And broad old cesspools glittered in the sun.

Friday, 16 September 2011

Wymondham Words: Saturday Evening

Saturday Evening Programme

Electric Landscape: Peter Scupham and Heidi Williamson
Music by Jess Morgan
20:00-21:30 Baptist Church

A great, long admired poet and a first collection!

Peter Scupham is one of this country's major poets. His Collected Poems were published by Oxford / Carcanet in 2004 and his latest book Borrowed Landscape. He is a mesmerising reader of his own poetry, not to be missed. Hear him read his poems here!

The style of the poems holds different qualities in balance: both formal and conversational they encompass lines of great beauty and gravitas with a tempering wit. Scupham's reading is a pleasure to listen to as he brings out these contrasting tones.

Heidi Williamson's first book, Electric Shadow, (Bloodaxe 2011) is one of this year's striking debuts and a Poetry Book Society Recommendation. Her work has been used to inspire poetry and science discussions in schools and adult creative writing groups, and has featured in NHS waiting rooms, cafés, and at festivals.

Jess Morgan Singer-songwriter Jess Morgan makes roots music that is a half-way-house between British Folk music and Americana. Jess is a narrative songwriter and aims to pack as much power and intrigue into simple melodic stances as possible.

Find more artists like jess morgan at Myspace Music

The Full Programme

Friday 16 to Sunday 18 September 2011
A weekend of readings, conversation and music!

Weekend Events at a Glance

Friday 16 September
12.00-14.00 Abbey Hotel, Literary lunch with Richard Mabey
20.00-22.00 Ex-Services Club, Young Poets with music

Saturday 17 September
09.30-12.30 Baptist Church, Poetry workshop with Helen Ivory
10.00-12.00 Market Place, Poetry busking
10.30-12.00 Library, Superheroes and Evil Geniuses
16.30-17.30 Baptist Church, The Monarch of Wit
20.00-21.30 Baptist Church, Peter Scupham & Heidi Williamson

Sunday 18 September
10.45-11.45 Arts Centre, George Szirtes & Andy Kirkham
15.00-16.30 Baptist Church, Mark Cocker & Jeremy Page
14.00-15.30 Library, Tree of Words and Birds
19.00-20.30 Arts Centre, Elspeth Barker & Padrika Tarrant

Wymondham Words: Saturday Afternoon

Saturday Afternoon Program
Afternoon: 16:30-17:30 Baptist Church
The Monarch of Wit: A One-man Show About John Donne
with James Clarkson

Entirely Donne's words. It includes his early life in the 1590's as a witty young love-poet, his marriage which wrecked his career, right through to his turbulent relationship with God.

The Programme

Friday 16 to Sunday 18 September 2011
A weekend of readings, conversation & music!

Weekend Events at a Glance

Friday 16 September
12.00-14.00 Abbey Hotel, Literary lunch with Richard Mabey
20.00-22.00 Ex-Services Club, Young Poets with music

Saturday 17 September
09.30-12.30 Baptist Church, Poetry workshop with Helen Ivory
10.00-12.00 Market Place, Poetry busking
10.30-12.00 Library, Superheroes and Evil Geniuses
16.30-17.30 Baptist Church, The Monarch of Wit
20.00-21.30 Baptist Church, Peter Scupham & Heidi Williamson

Sunday 18 September
10.45-11.45 Arts Centre, George Szirtes & Andy Kirkham
15.00-16.30 Baptist Church, Mark Cocker & Jeremy Page
14.00-15.30 Library, Tree of Words and Birds
19.00-20.30 Arts Centre, Elspeth Barker & Padrika Tarrant 

Wymondham Words: Saturday Morning

The Programme

Friday 16 to Sunday 18 September 2011
A weekend of readings, conversation & music!

Weekend Events at a Glance

Friday 16 September
12.00-14.00 Abbey Hotel, Literary lunch with Richard Mabey
20.00-22.00 Ex-Services Club, Young Poets with music

Saturday 17 September
09.30-12.30 Baptist Church, Poetry workshop with Helen Ivory
10.00-12.00 Market Place, Poetry busking
10.30-12.00 Library, Superheroes and Evil Geniuses
16.30-17.30 Baptist Church, The Monarch of Wit
20.00-21.30 Baptist Church, Peter Scupham & Heidi Williamson

Sunday 18 September
10.45-11.45 Arts Centre, George Szirtes & Andy Kirkham
15.00-16.30 Baptist Church, Mark Cocker & Jeremy Page
14.00-15.30 Library, Tree of Words and Birds
19.00-20.30 Arts Centre, Elspeth Barker & Padrika Tarrant 

Saturday Morning Program 

Morning: 09:30-12:30 Baptist Church, Wymondham
Poetry Writing Workshop with Helen Ivory
Get writing, starting with collage - bring magazines and ephemera that grab you!

Helen Ivory's magical books are published by Bloodaxe. The most recent of these is The Breakfast Machine. You can see her reading here. She is an outstanding teacher of poetry,having taught for the Arvon Foundation, The Poetry School and at UEA amongst many other places.

Morning: 10:00-12:00 Market Place
Poetry Busking 
with Martin Figura, contributions from Moniza Alvi and George Szirtes among others

Morning: 10:30-12:00 Library
Calling All Aspiring Superheroes and Evil Geniuses! for Children
The authors of 101 Things To Do To Be a Superhero or Evil Genius invite you to a workshop and book signing.

Richard Horne and Helen Szirtes will help trainees develop their secret identity. Don't waste time as a mere mortal. Get your cape and begim your transformation here!

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Wymondham Words Festival

It kicks off today with the launch! Then into the programme:

Friday 16 to Sunday 18 September 2011
A weekend of readings, conversation & music!

Weekend Events at a Glance

Friday 16 September
12.00-14.00 Abbey Hotel, Literary lunch with Richard Mabey
20.00-22.00 Ex-Services Club, Young Poets with music

Saturday 17 September
09.30-12.30 Baptist Church, Poetry workshop with Helen Ivory
10.00-12.00 Market Place, Poetry busking
10.30-12.00 Library, Superheroes and Evil Geniuses
16.30-17.30 Baptist Church, The Monarch of Wit
20.00-21.30 Baptist Church, Peter Scupham & Heidi Williamson

Sunday 18 September
10.45-11.45 Arts Centre, George Szirtes & Andy Kirkham
15.00-16.30 Baptist Church, Mark Cocker & Jeremy Page
14.00-15.30 Library, Tree of Words and Birds
19.00-20.30 Arts Centre, Elspeth Barker & Padrika Tarrant

Tomorrow: Friday 16 September 

Lunchtime  Richard Mabey at 12:00-14:30 Number Twenty Four in Middleton Street(sold out!!)

Evening   Kate Kilalea, Tom WarnerAndrew McDonnellJulia Webb and Tim Cockburn, as well as music from Horses Brawl and Ana Silvera!

20:00 - 22:00 at the hidden treasure of Wymondham, the old Regal Cinema, at the Ex-Services Club, 9, Friarscroft Lane, Wymondham NR18 0AT

Five of the brightest young poets in the country and two marvellous musical performers.

Horses Brawl

Ana Silvera

More poetry on Saturday - on the streets, in workshops, in dramatic form and Peter Scupham and Heidi Williamson in the evening. Plus Superheroes and Evil Geniuses. More news - and links -  coming day by day! Come along yourself!

The full programme with details at the Facebook Page (scroll down!) and, for essentials,  as above, at The Book Fountain where you can get tickets too!