Wednesday, 30 January 2013

From Erbil 4

The image, top left, is seen everywhere: Molla Mustafa Barzani, Kurdish president and leader of KDP in military kit. I will upload the photograph I took of the same image

Yesterday, the last grey day, work a little improvised but to good effect. We split into two groups at the university, Lucy and Adam taking a fiction writing workshop, me in charge of the poetry workshop. It began with the usual arrangement of poets, myself, Gulanar and Omar. with myself in charge. I only discovered that some minutes before the session.

By this stage I am usually happy to take on anything without worrying about it. I took the chair, introduced the subject slowly but briefly, making it clear that I wanted the students to be involved.

I first asked them to put up their hands if they had ever written a poem. One girl's hand eventually went up at the back, I asked her about it - then a few more hands went up. I then asked Gulanar and Omar if they could remember their own first poems.

There is a tendency to talk about poetry generally, about its spiritual values, about its subjects, about its traditions. That's very interesting but it is a fully dressed discussion in, I suspect, fairly predictable clothes. I wanted something a little more naked. It takes work and persistence moving discussion along. I tried to do that by finding a breathing space in the poets' talk and asking them to read a short poem. We finished up reading two poems each interspersed with discussion in which I would constantly try to involve students.

Then, after an hour or so, we got into a circle and I gave the students a sonnet to write, not a familiar form for them I think. I talked about the idea of fixed length, about the way the sonnet can develop from one subject to another and then to something surprising. I told them to ignore rhyme and just to use their instinct in where to end the line (we had discussed the concept and meaning of line earlier). They were lively and bold. I'd just dash around between them. I told them that the poem probably wouldn't be finished, but that they should feel no sense of obligation or responsibility. It's not a weight, it's just words.

Some wrote in English, some in Kurdish, some in Arabic. Their English was very good. The girls were confident in reading, and there was at least one very mature and talented boy.

It will be clear from the above that I loved doing this. I thought it was a worthwhile thing to do. People were appreciative, the whole was fresh to them. I have never felt comfortable talking de haut en bas - I like conversation.

From all I hear Lucy and Adam's class took a similar line and was also very successful. More perhaps in the summing-up blog.


I talk about my own experience above because that is where I was, and what I saw. It's what I know. After lunch a sleep. Rachel rings to ask if I would read We Love Life Whenever We Can, my Mahmoud Darwish adaptation, at the end of the proceedings in the evening. The poem is in Bad Machine.

An early tea then on to the bus. The evening is long, close on four hours. The first hour and three-quarters or so at the Peshawar Venue, is the Reel Iraq group reading the work they had translated from each other in their four days. They are clearly a close confident group. The readings are beautiful in English: John Glenday's quiet but perfectly balanced translations set the tone. The Kurdish and Arabic poems, as read by their authors, are emotionally intense and dramatic in performance. The Scottish English has a precision and delicate sharpness that offers a match in terms of concentration. I can't judge the Arabic and Kurdish poems, but they make good poetry in English. Jim Scarth makes a thank you speech. I am then invited up by the lady who had earlier referred to me as Mr Scissors. Having been told the pronunciation of my name after that, she calls me Mr Scissors again. I suppose she is under pressure. It's quite funny. Mr Scissors reads his adaptation of Darwish to general good will.

After the peformance, a break, a musical interlude by a chamber group, another break, then some serious and spirited folk dancing in magnificent costume. This is considerably cheering and we clap and some people dance in the relatively empty hall, which loses a little of its Stalinist sternness. Some affectionate leave taking, plenty of photographs.

Stay up till 3:30, three double Bush Mills. Wake at 6am, have breakfast. Delayed start. A summing up blog to come next time.

Monday, 28 January 2013

From Erbil 3

More rain as before, billowing, lowering, frowning, blibbing and blebbing. After breakfast a ride to the Tea House by the Citadel. This is the very centre of old Erbil and insetad of pale cars and no people, there are crowds, veritable crowds, or so it seems. It's not exactly Oxford Street on a Saturday at this time of year, and in this weather, but there is the grand bazaar with the Tea House opposite. The Tea House is a much less formal venue than the university, with part-tiled walls and crowded with pictures. It easily gets packed even when it isn't quite.

Four sessions: the first at 10-12 a discussion of short stories and novels with Adam, Mohsin Hamed and Omar Al-Saray, a good start. Then a two hour lunch break. A group of us choose not to go back to the Sheraton for buffet and prefer to walk round the bazaar. Good choice. Osama from the BC is in charge of us. Such a very good man. He takes us through food and woodcraft rows, past a stall selling rare animal hides, as almost here in the photo, but, considerately, just off-shot to the left, hanging on plastic rods.

We buy all kinds of delicious stuff, some more than others, Osama doing the bargaining and money changing. The bazaar is a mixture of the tourist trap and the not-quite-finished meeting the on-its-knees. I like it very much. In this respect it is like almost everything else, a country getting back onto its feet after its feet have been shot away.

In summer the temperature can reach 50C+ here and generators are vital. Nadia tells us food is cheap and plentiful in Iraq, that it's the land where 'no one can starve". The market - and the streets - are 90% men. The cafe where we have lunch is all male. The sky remains resolutely grey, the streets a mixture of mud and concrete. The cars remain resolutely white. It's like walking into an unfinished house. The citadel looms above us but we don't enter it until tomorrow. In the meantime the muezzin calls for prayers but there is no general rush to prayer mats.

After lunch it's the Reel Iraq project talking about translation: Scottish poets talking with their translatees. Lively and packed, the whole preceded by spontaneous singing. It is an old folk tune, a love story. The song passes from person to person, from man to woman and back. The very glamorous Samaqand joins in. A thunderstorm breaks out.

That is Samaqand in the middle with Kakman Botani on her right and the chair, Hindad A Qadir, on her left

Samaqand is very queenly. She is very famous. She makes little eye contact (practically none with me) but that is an aspect of her regal - and popular - persona. The planets move around her.

The singing is high quality, in tune, and bold with a lot of clapping and some finger-clicking. Nadia had showed us how to finger click the Iraqi way back in the bazaar but it's hard to master.

I join in the Reel Iraq discussion with just a tiny matchwood spoke in the wheel of agreement, partly as an automatic response to the enthusiastic privileging of anything, in this case of the local and oral as against the standard written (I mean WTF language am I, who am not of your tribe, or others like me, supposed to write in?) It's not important in some ways as there is no disagreement about the status of language versus 'dialect'. Of course they are both languages, neither more valuable than the other. I simply think that migrant people in cities can relate perfectly well to standard language, which has existed in every country as a way of ensuring that there is reliable communication between people speaking deeply local languages, and I suspect that the logical outcome of the moral stance on local oral language is Eliot's dislike of rootless cosmopolitans such as myself. And we don't have to guess where that leads to, because we already know where it has led to.

After that events move in a blur. Lucy and Gulanar Ali are involved in a discussion with Hameed Al-Rubayee and Kakmam Botani on literature and conflict. Well, there's been no shortage of conflict here and, under everything, feeling still runs high. Lucy has Belfast to refer to.

Gulanar Ali and Lucy Caldwell with white cars behind

Then I am involved - at the end of the long day - in a hasty discussion on National Literature: Is there such a thing. My line, as ever, is to ask what we are really talking about? State national literature? critical & canonical national literature? the art forms of the people? Who decides what is national literature? Is a national literature a good thing or does it lead us to define the nation in too restrictive and exclusionary a way. I mention my parents arriving in England with little more than the memory of Hungarian poems, songs, jokes and sayings (my father in his latter years would wake up in the middle of the night remembering such old sayings and jot them down). That was their national literature. 

And what of the current Hungarian government's project to define both a national culture and a specific form of nationhood. I say these things and half hear the rest because I am tired. But we have been talking for close on seven hourts in the day, and all I really want is a touch more reason and a touch less rhetoric. I doubt I am the one providing it.

But who defines rhetoric? And who am I to judge of other people's rhetoric or indeed the simple manners of speech in different cultures. I am just tired. I have also begun to wonder - as I always do after the second day anywhere - what I am doing here. Why me? What am I thought to have to offer? I am a poet but haven't said a word about my work as a poet, which is what I chiefly do and what I have dedicated the last fifty years of my life to. I have given away most of my new books, (asked to bring 20) to anyone who has shown the least interest and probably to some who have not.

These are thoughts I have every time I feel at a bit of a loss as to my purpose. I then reimagine my purpose to be as intelligent, articulate, courteous and generous as far as it is possible to be given the circumstances, and I continue in the way my imagination proposes. I hope I am being useful. I hope to do the state some service. Would you rather be a good man or a great artist is not a much-asked question. It would get some interesting answers. Surely one has to try to be both.

But this is about Kurdistan not about me. It is about finding some kind of affinity between people of quite different backgrounds who share a passionate interest in a certain form of art.

Peace on earth and goodwill to all folk. I hope, like Othello, to have done the state (whatever that is) some service.

Sunday, 27 January 2013

From Erbil 2

Cultural Centre of Saladin University, the entrance

Very full day in very full rain, the wind driving and swirling, the rain working its way up to major crescendos. Three sessions, the first on theatre, the second on epic poetry, the third on translation, then a reading with music in the evening.

The day sessions are in the main hall of the Cultural Centre, Saladin University. It's another postmod building and yet not really postmod. I am not quite sure what the term means in architecture now. It's not so much about irony as about a certain kind of playfulness, a playfulness that can look quite earnest on occasion. In heavy rain the irony, if there ever was any, simply soaks away and you don't feel so playful either, but its good to be under cover. We have carried our books to the hall (with help) and see the book-stall set up. Meanwhile people gather, mainly officials and students. We don't enter quite when we are due to because there has to be an official opening by the president, but then the president doesn't come because there is a demonstration somewhere in the city. We don't know what it is about.

We filter into the hall which is large and faintly Stalinist, comfortable, grand, with settees and extremely comfortable regal settees in the front two rows. A heroic portrait hangs above the stage which is furnished with four comfortable grand-looking chairs.

I have been in this hall or rather something very like it before. It is a hall of wary optimism with a strong regard for authority.

Everyone is equipped for simultaneous translation. We have three languages: Arabic, Kurdish and English. The translators' job is hard and generally thankless. We should thank these translators because they are very good.

The temper and fashion of such sessions is determined by custom, mood and precedence. Lucy performs heroically in the theatre session, lucid, full of courtesy and intelligent warmth, giving instances. The rhetorical forms are settling into my ear. The trick is to listen, listen very hard even if the rhetorical forms involve some repetition or circumlocution. The students are happy at the end and gather round Lucy. Then we all push off for lunch in another hotel. The rain is blowing here and there. The dinner is buffet style, the choice extensive and tempting. Water is brought to us at the table. We can ask for Turkish coffee. We talk while we may then we are back in the university again. This time on epic poetry where Adam is our representative. It's a difficult subject and much depends on the chair. The writers stand to read a passage from their work.

Half an hour break then it's the session on translation, all well bar for the fact I am the only translator among the three guests. But it skips along in lively enough fashion, thanks to the chair. Sometimes it's hard to know whether I am required to speak as poet or translator. Distinctly as translator this time. I've had twenty-eight years of translation to think about the subject so it's a matter of what to leave out rather than what to talk about.

I should have mentioned that the sessions are two hours long, and that after the lunch the students had gone so the afternoon was chiefly between professionals.

Then we eat again - another buffet in the same hotel before being driven off to the Shanadar Park Gallery which looks like an enormous stone yurt. Here the festival invited writers read five minutes each while a band plays along, the band consisting of a Korg keyboard, a clarinet and a violin. Their music is eclectic and in certain pieces quite virtuosic. Still, it's interesting to read to a musical backing. Adam being the first up is somewhat ambushed by it, reading the prelude to his John Clare book to music by Lionel Richie and the theme from The Titanic. After this the music beomes more folk-based with an occasional touch of jazz. The audience comprises the poets from the Reel Iraq group and they read one or two poems each, Billy Letford two by heart with great gusto.

I am old enough to remember a fashion show at midnight in Macedonia and haunting poetry readings in the night garden of the IIC in Delhi. I am not inclined to get ironic about any custom and while mood music under poetry is unusual in England, I know it is less unusual in other places. My first poem is not given music, but the other two are and it's interesting moving in time to it. I listen to the Arabic and Kurdish poems and note how much it is a slightly stylised dramatic performance complete with hand gestures and lilts of voice.

Life is always denser, more layered than you think it is. It's palimpsest not tourist brochure.

We are driven back to the hotel and have a drink at the bar, talking about China and daughter and taking chances. Tomorrow the pattern of the day is similar I see I've got the last session again, on the idea of national literature. Three two-hour sessions than my one-and-a-half hour one. It will be a matter of the last man - or woman - standing.

Saturday, 26 January 2013

From Erbil 1

View from the hotel. That's the direction we came from (I think)

Erbil is a city in Northern Iraq, not too far from the Iranian and Turkish borders. It is in the autonomous region known as Iraqi Kurdistan or the Kurdistan Region. In any case the the Kurdish Parliament is here and Erbil is one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world. In any case Wiki will tell more you about the city than I have a mind to do here.

Erbil, should anyone wonder, is a great deal safer than Baghdad and while we have to be careful we don't have to go around in armoured cars, wear body armour or have security guards. Not that we'll go far because the programme is pretty full.

This is the second year of the festival involving the British Council. Here's the link to the festival itself. We are led here by Rachel Holmes of the BC (see link) who was here last year too. The writers include Lucy Caldwell, Adam Foulds, Hameed Al-Rubayee, Samarqand Al-Jabery, Omar Al-Sarai, Muhsin Mohammed, Gulanar Ali, Kakamam Botaniwe and myself, but also many others. We also have Megan Walsh from The Times. Adam has got married to a lovely Canadian photographer whose name begins with C but I have just forgotten it. It's my age. She is taking photos of the festival.

It is of course interesting watching the British Council thinking. I have been a grateful beneficiary of their good offices, most often in the days once the cold war had grown lukewarm but was still a major issue. Then Central Europe was an important place: now it is less so.(I rather hope it will remain relatively unimportant for its own sake.) Sometimes I was invited abroad, or so I think, to represent the multi-cultural aspect of UK writing. I would go with other writers who were not fully 'English'. That goes on I suppose but I am not sure I was ever an ideal representative of multi-culturalism. Who knows, though. I might have seemed that way, and I'm not the best judge. One can't help wondering why the favour has been bestowed on oneself on this or that specific ocasion.

Now the important places are China, Africa, India, the Arab world and places like Kurdistan. The 'happening places'. There are some 40 million Kurds in Turkey, Iraq, Iran and elsewhere still looking for a state of their own. They are beginning to prosper now but there is a long way to go. 

The relationship between politics and culture runs deep everywhere: there is nothing shallow about it. My job here is simply to engage in dicussions on translation, the idea of national literature, to run a writing workshop and to read a few poems. Beyond that I hope to be an articulate, friendly, intelligent face. This too is a happening place.


That is my own background thinking. I wouldn't have thought of coming to Iraq myself, but having had the good fortune to be invited (I like being invited, most writers do, it's flattering) I thought a little about it. The security question in the first place. Then there is my family history. 

The flight from Vienna is about 5 hours, comfortable, the plane no more than three-quarters full. The sun was out and it was warm. Having had a total of about six hours sleep the last two nights, I eventually dozed off for an hour or more.  Erbil Airport (built 2005) still has the sense of a building site - not the main building but the views. The air foggy, possibly smog. The passport control checks eyes and fingerprints. The bus ride from the airport to the hotel - much the tallest building in the district - takes about 40 minutes. The houses are low rise, solid, arches, recessed balconies, quite clumpy like Froebel Blocks. The road is dusty and busy and the view from my room is plain. The true beauty of Erbil remains to be seen. Now it is dark and in half an hour or so we are going for a meal. A few more notes later.


A big meal with people from Reel Iraq, that's four more poets including Jen Hadfield, John Glenday and William Letford. I don't recognise Jen fully at first so we meet again this time with a big hug. Reel Iraq have been working with Iraqi poets on translation. The meal is buffet style and it's hard to know where to beging, or indeed end. After it we go to the bar on the top floor and look out on Erbil from the terrace. It looks better by night with its regular lights. The air is cleaner now. The citadel is some 10km away behind us. The bar duo do hits of the seventies and eighties. Two women dance. The rest of us shout. It is overwhelmingly loud. I drink one Bush Mills then retire. Work tomorrow.

Thursday, 24 January 2013

To Iraq and a Podcast Interview on Hungary

Tomorrow I fly to Erbil in Northern Iraq for a literary festival. It is my first time in that part of the world. We - I mean the group of British Council writers including myself -  will fly via Vienna, spending the night there before flying on.

My literary travels have taken me to the USA, to Canada, to Australia, India and China and a number of places in Europe, though never Scandinavia, nor to Russia. I have missed South America and Africa entirely. Malaysia may be on the menu in September. Fly-by-night affairs in some ways but proper unforgettable experiences too with friends made and sometimes retained for a long time.

There is not much money to be made by writing and still less in poetry, but a modicum of success will take you travelling, and I am very grateful.

Especially now. The last few weeks have been mind-breaking work. Reviewing (more to do) pieces for The Times, The Independent, for the South Bank, reports to write, the T S Eliot reading and prize giving, other readings, at UEA and elsewhere, and yesterday to London to record an interview for CBC about Hungary.

The interview is now a podcast and you can listen to it here. I am trying to describe the situation as I understand it. I try not to dramatise or overstate, as I think that can alienate possibly sympathetic people.

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

This too can be Hungary

Hungarian title: How to deal with fascists in parliament

A truly marvellous thing I've just been led to. How to respond to fascists in parliament. Representative István Újhelyi takes his turn as Speaker.

He says how disgusted he was by Jobbik's call the previous day for a list of Jews as security risks (you can see Jobbik representatives smirking) and tells the listening Jobbik group (the translation concentrates on the core of the speech and is pretty close word-for-word):

I have, as far as I know, no Jewish background but if Jobbik should happen to find any Jews in the family, I would be proud of it. I have, as far as I know, no Roma ancestors but if Jobbik should find one I would be proud of it. As far as I know I have neither Palestinian nor Turkish nor German ancestors. I don't know where my roots are, but I was born in Hungary so, in solidarity with anyone Jobbik cares to list, I pin this to my lapel.

Then he takes a yellow star from his pocket and puts it on.

He says 80-90% of members of parliament agree with him (though they made absolutely no noise when the Jobbik member made his speech the day before)

Then when a Jobbik member challenges him he dismisses the challenge.

This too can be Hungary.

Monday, 21 January 2013

That precise degree of discomfort

Out to a reading by three ex-students tonight. Ágnes Lehoczky, reading from her second book, Rememberer, Kate Kilalea, reading new poems but also some from her first book, One-Eye'd Leigh, and Matthew Gregory reading new poems, some published some not yet.

The whole reading was put together by Nathan Hamilton (another ex-student) of the Egg Box Press but also editor of the new anthology Dear World & Everyone In It which is to be launched this Thursday in London.

Despite the snow it's a good attendance (more ex- and present students in the audience). Matthew reads first, clear, not too fast, a series of poems about rooms, then two about America. The poems are mysterious narratives, beautifully and precisely written. They are quiet but perfectly gauged. They draw us in with images like clues in that they follow but we don't know where they'll lead. They lead in fact to complex states of mind, dramatised in such a way that the listener and reader comprehends them without having to dissect them.

Kate follows. She is a brisker reader and her new poems - she calls them love poems - part of a series, are full of fascinating fractures in which the notion of love is held before us but always questioned, always eluded by something quite sharp and abrupt. It's like hearing a kind of dialogue with the door shutting and opening. She talks about the feelings one thinks one should have and the feeling - or lack of feeling - one actually registers. I know the poems work - I am held by the changes in voice level - but I want to read these on paper.

After the interval it's Agnes. She reads exclusively from Rememberer, densely woven yet emotionally clear prose poems in which the speaker is in several places at once. Or rather, when she is in one place others arise in memory and imagination. The whole is dreamlike but again, like the poems of the other two, very precise. The word choice is always alert, occasionally a touch exotic, as if the poem had unearthed a rare metal. Quite often it is the word choice that indicates a poet. The right word in the right place but nothing too relaxed. The whole tense with the excitement of saying.

All three present some difficulties for the average reader but nothing so difficult as to prove an obstacle. Reading poems is not like getting pizzas delivered. It should be more like the receipt of a compulsive package. It should intrigue a little. Because the difficulty here isn't down to wilfulness or a desire to show off. These are serious yet glittering ways of discovering the nature of things in poetic form.

That's where we are going now. The new wave of poets will, many of them, have been through university where close discussion of poetry and its possibilities is an essential part of the experience. It is not about cleverness but about curiosity and desire. A poem doesn't have to reveal everything ; it doesn't have to dress itself in seductions; it doesn't have to console or comfort or make us feel mystically at one with the world. We're not at one with the world and that's the point. The poem's job is harder. It has to tantalise and remind us that the world we live in and the language we speak may engage in a dance but that the dance is not altogether comfortable.

The world is not now nor ever will be comfortable. It's the dance and the precise degree of discomfort that matters.

I say these poets are ex-students, but I reflect on what I have taught them and I can't actually think of anything. I think that like all real poets they have taught themselves and that those poets who teach them are there simply to ask them a few questions. The rest is theirs to solve.

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

A Piece in the New Yorker

Hari Kunzru

Since my last entry nothing much has happened to change things in Hungary. Prime Minister Orbán has not distanced himself from Zsolt Bayer's encouraging hints at genocide against Roma in Magyar Hirlap as referred to below, so presumably he does not disagree with it. Fidesz hasn't distanced itself either so presumably the party does not disagree with it, just as it didn't distance itself from Bayer's earlier outburst against Jews when he expressed his sorrow that 'Unfortunately, they [Jews] were not all buried up to their necks in the forest of Orgovány."

But then last week the novelist Hari Kunzru wrote his fine piece about threats to cultural freedom in Hungary for the New Yorker from which I quote a passage or two:

The courts are being packed with government loyalists, and media is scrutinized for “balance,” with the threat of crippling fines for those deemed to have strayed. Dozens of “opposition” journalists have been fired from state-run media...

In the art world, an organization called the Hungarian Academy of Arts (M.M.A.), founded as a private association in 1992, has recently been made into a public body and given control of the lion’s share of the national cultural budget...The eighty-year-old head of the M.M.A., György Fekete, has said that, in addition to artistic excellence, “unambiguous national sentiment” is required for membership in his organization. A member has to be “someone who feels at home and doesn’t travel abroad in order to revile Hungary from there.” He has pledged to prevent blasphemy in state institutions...Asked about the separation of church and state, he said that he wished it were not so, despite the fact that the separation is central to modern democracy. “I don’t give a damn for this modern democracy, because it’s not modern and it’s not a democracy.”...

Unlike Germany, which has transformed itself through a national process of Vergangenheitsbewältigung (“coming to terms with the past”), Hungary remains in a wistful, toxic relationship with the nineteen-thirties, with a fantasy of Jewish conspiracy and national moral decline. As the memory of the iron curtain fades and Europe recenters itself, Hungary’s fascist resurgence should be a matter of concern for all...

Since I am directly quoted in the article I have been rung up by some people, and today I had a conversation with CBC, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, and will record an interview with them next week, when, incidentally, I also fly to Iraq for the Erbil Conference, on which more material tomnorrow. I am also to give talk at the South Bank on Bartók and Nationalism, or rather about the context of nationalism. More on that too. In the meantime Bad Machine is published on the day I fly out, the 24 January and is launched on 31 January in Norwich, on the day I return. Life is going to be very hectic indeed in the next three weeks. I must breathe evenly.

Sunday, 6 January 2013

'Unfit for coexistence'

This translation of a petition demanding the expulsion of a founding member of Fidesz was sent to me by a friend. It speaks for itself, and tells you what is seen fit to print in Hungary. It is in effect a call for genocide against Roma. These animals must not exist. In any sense, says Bayer's article. I have featured him before.

György C. Kalman
To my non-Hungarian friends: 
On January 5, 2013, a petition was launched (árják-ki-bayer-zsoltot.html), addressing Fidesz, the ruling party of Hungary. The appeal demands Fidesz to condemn and expel one of its prominent founding members, Zsolt Bayer.
Mr. Bayer is a senior columnist at Magyar Hírlap, a Hungarian daily, where he published an article on January 5, 2013 (, about a heinous offense that took place on New Year's Eve, where the offenders were allegedly of Gypsy (Roma) descent.
Mr. Bayer stated in his article: 
"A significant part of the Gypsy population are unfit for coexistence. They are unable to live among humans. These Gypsies are animals, and they act like animals. They want to mate/rut whenever they see someone and with whoever they see. If they meet resistance, they kill. They defecate wherever and whenever they feel like it. If they feel obstructed, they kill. They want to get whatever they come across. If they do not get it immediately, they take it and they kill. These Gypsies are incapable of all human communication. Their animal skulls emit inarticulate sounds, and all they understand of this miserable world of theirs is violence. [...] Those animals must not exist. In any sense. This is what has to be solved immediately and by any means!"
The petition quotes his lines and continues:
"This petition with the signatures will be sent to the floor leader of Fidesz in the Hungarian Parliament and to the party leadership. 
Zsolt Bayer, founding member of Fidesz, in his article quoted above, has made it clear that he harbours murderous anger toward the Romas ("a significant part of the Gypsy population", as he puts it), and he instigates hatred against them.
Both the ruling party, Fidesz, and their government have claimed on several occasions that they reject all forms of racism. The signatories demand that Fidesz immediately condemn and expel Zsolt Bayer, as a direct consequence of their earlier declarations."

Sunday Night is...Pauline Pearce

From 1975 through to 1981 I taught art at a girls' school, an ex-grammar that still looked like a grammar and tried to behave like one. After a year or of teaching, by a curious turn of fortune, I became head of art while still in my probationary year thereby reaching the apex of an art teacher's career almost before I started.

It was, essentially, a middle-class white school with an increasing number of working class girls, a few of them Caribbean. There was no particular problem with anyone, but Pauline Pearce was certainly noticeable because even then she was big, as was her voice. She quite enjoyed being in the art room but it wasn't of central importance to her. And that was fine too, for there is no reason everyone should love what you do. She did her honest best
Having written a play a year for school performance, with music by students or fellow teachers, I wanted to produce a Shakespeare and, in my last year there, I thought Twelfth Night might be interesting with an all-girl cast. So we auditioned and Pauline came along. She had something of the ebullience of a potential Sir Toby Belch, so we cast her against a talented tall thin blonde Sir Andrew Aguecheek and started rehearsals. Pauline was enthuiastic but tended to forget her lines and at one performance, having accidentally banged her head against a door, she lost them totally and was in a state. Fortunately this was just before the interval and she recovered sufficiently to make a reasonable triumph of the second half.

Then she left the school, just as I did, and for a while that was the last I heard of her.
But then a few years later I picked up the local paper and there was a big photo of Pauline. Apparently ball lightning had come down the chimney in her family house and struck the dining table just as she was reaching for an extra piece of cake. It was a warning not to be greedy, she said.  The paper also said she was at one or other drama school and doing well. (The link is a more recent one but refers to the original incident and article.)

Once again, our lives diverged. And then last summer, in the riots of 2011, she was in the news again as the Hackney heroine who defied the rioters.

Suddenly she was everywhere, next to every dignitary that ever fancied being pictured next to a feisty black heroine and was even mentioned by Barack Obama as an example of female courage. It must have been a wonderful and somewhat dazzling experience for her.

But her story was a lot more complicated, as revealed by the Daily Mirror of the time, which is well worth reading, so please do. There had been a theatrical career (including playing Bessie Smith) cancer,  mastectomy, inadvertent drug-muling, three-years prison, a stabbed son, and terrible arthritis that meant she had to walk with a stick.

But the singing went on.. Here's her album

Life tears around in an awful hurry, bumping into people, not much caring where it throws them. 'I'll drink to her as long as there is a passage in my throat and drink in Illyria,' cries Sir Toby Belch. Have a good new year, Pauline. Sing on.

Saturday, 5 January 2013


Image from here

Tonight at Peter and Margaret's for their Mummers Play upstairs in the barn. It was only fifteen minutes but it had the lot: St George, the Dragon, the Northern Knight, the Quack Doctor looking much like Mr Pastry, and three or four others, including Master Scupham himself doing a good deal of growling. The costumes were gaudy, the stage simple. Wooden swords clashed and the core resurrections take place with the aid of quack medicine. The dragon was particularly charming and took just the right time to die and be resurrected. Honest rhyme took care to include specific local references and a collection went round in aid of the church. The audience, despite their evident respectability,  added to the raucousness. Subplots be damned, all plots be damned.  All was for the best in the best of all possible worlds.

The delight of such things lies in a firm determination to enjoy them and to do nothing by halves. Decking the hall with branches of fir, banging a drum, hamming, gurning and mumming are of the essence, the whole a carnivalesque answer to the pieties of the season.

There is something daemonic about the exercise after all, albeit in an antiquarian way. We know the Knights are childish braggarts, the swords are wooden, the dragon a kind of Pantomime Dame, the Quack Doctor a British cousin of the Wizard of Oz and that any Death present is sure to hurt no-one.

But it loosens the tight belt of reason a little: entering into a pact with the action we drop our critical faculties as might our trousers. It is paganism pretending to conform just enough for us to take the great red cross on St George's chest as a conventional nod to the God it represents. It would be interesting to see one of these as the afterword to a Passion Play. Maybe it has been done. I know little about the tradition but it would seem to fit.

Here is a Mummer Play script, not the one we had, but enough to give a flavour.

Thursday, 3 January 2013

In a Lonely Place (1950)

In a Lonely Place is categorised as a noir by IMDb  but the ways in which it is are outnumbered by the ways it isn't.

Since there is a good deal written about the film, most of it glowing (IMDb carries a good many lay reviews and Wiki has a round-up of the contemporary critical reaction) I want to think about it from a specific angle: the notion of centrality.

In a Lonely Place is not so much a dream-noir as a realistic psychological study characterised by ambivalence. There are other films where the central character is potentially a murderer, other films where the question of centrality is complex, but this is different because of the two potential central characters we are offered neither Dixon the scriptwriter (Humphrey Bogart) nor Laurel, the lovely B-film actress and neighbour (Gloria Grahame) fully occupies the centre. The centre remains a kind of echoing hollow, a fascinating spatial problem.

The film begins with the same device as The Killers (see earlier post): we are in a car speeding down a dark road.  Soon we are in a Hollywood bar with Bogart where he gets into a fight with someone who insults an alcoholic ex-actor friend who was once someone in the movies. Dixon's scripts are not doing too well now and he is drifting to the edges of the business but he is deeply principled and has aesthetic scruples about adapting bad books. He is immediately given a bad book to work into a script. The hat-check girl knows the book, so he asks her to come back with him to his house, which she does, and she gives him a summary of the book which he naturally hates. There could be sex but there isn't and he sends her off in taxi. Later she is found murdered and he is the chief suspect. The only person testifying that the girl left alone is the neighbour, Grahame. It all proceeds from there.

Dixon's problem is violence. He is full of suppressed fury  but he is also laconic and removed. He swings between rage and indifference. On one hand he wisecracks and makes, we believe, sound aesthetic judgments. on the other he fantasises about murder,though this is acceptedby everyone as an aspect of his creativity. But when he hears the hat-check girl has been murdered he feels nothing for her at all and accepts being a suspect with the assurance of one who knows he can run rings around the police.

This is strange behaviour. We develop doubts about him. Not becaause we think he has killed the girl (we have seen her go off) but because we wonder what he is capable of. He's more than a tough guy in the old Bogart sense. He is a potential psychopath.

Laurel, his witness, appears cool, ultra-sophisticated and completely in control. She chooses to help him because, she tells us - and him - that she likes his face. She finds it interesting. She takes charge of the relationship: pure silk, pure steel. Or so we think, but as time goes on and she becomes ever more aware of Dixon's violence we begin to fear for her. She moves from predator to victim.

No one is in charge. Both figures have drifted from the centre.

Laurel's toughness and world-weary sophistication is skin deep, Dixon's wise-cracking and aesthetic judgment are based on madness. Madness and weakness have taken the place of potential sanity and strength.

Nothing heroic happens. Nothing is properly solved. The killer of the girl vanishes into the shadows of the script.

The problem of the murder is not the real problem. The real problem lies elsewhere and is unresolved.

This should be very disappointing. There is no catharsis, no clear solution, nothing even faintly tragic except the sense of mutual loss at the end. Even that isn't a real loss because, given the circumstances as we have come to understand them, nothing could really be up for grabs.

And that is precisely what is intriguing. Things slip from our grasp. We contemplate clichés about violent men and domestic violence but there is little or nothing to be learned here. All the conditions of noir - shadows, angles, night, the constant sense of irresistible movement, spectral appearances, dips into dream, losses of consciousness - appear then disappear into mere circumstance

And it is, as everyone says, beautifully acted, photographed, directed and constructed - feasible yet startling. A tease that's also a vision. Consummate.

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

2012, a personal recapitulation

Almost a week since the last post. A few things to say, but maybe a very personal summing up of 2012 before it vanishes completely from sight. It has been a mad, sad, bad, but very active year. Please pass on this if you are as uninterested as you have every right to be.


On 6 January Lukas is born, our second grandchild, after a very long labour for Helen. A lot of university tutorials and some readings including at Bangor and Letchworth, then the Finzi Lecture at Reading in March,  followed immediately by the LSE debate on Hungary, which goes surprisingly well. That is almost immediately followed by the Norwich Showcase events at UEA. By that time I am making progress guest editing Poetry Review. My translation of Satantango appears in the US in March (May in the UK) - huge success. Roughly the same time my translation of Yudit Kiss's The Summer My Father Died appears here in the UK. 


More readings in April. Lukas has his operation. Some more readings, the tuition stint at Oxford Kellog. The performance in Norwich streets of Singing the City in mid-May. A week at Totleigh Barton to teach an Arvon Course with Marilyn Hacker. More readings. Recording BBC programme on Béla Tarr. Poetry Review wrapped up by end of May. Some teaching at the Royal College of Art. Launch of Poetry Review at the end of June at Poetry Parnassus, along with the Muldoon lecture. Working on Camarades collaboration with Carol Watts, performance at festival outside Brighton, the fields as muddy as required on such occasions. The Wymondham Words Festival is being planned throughout this period and into summer. Still in July the opening of the Titian Metamorphosis show at the National Gallery for which I was one of the poets invited to write a poem. Big event, big banquet at the NG, followed by pieces for Granta


Clarissa contracts psoriasis. Becomes Leopard Woman: her UV treatment begins in the first week of August (and goes on till the end of September, three times a week) scuppering any thoughts of time away. One of her close colleagues develops cancer while on holiday and dies of it all too soon. One or two readings. Early September the judging of the Stephen Spender Poetry Translation Prize. The Wymondham Words Festival begins on 15 September with Poetry Busking and goes on till 23 September, though I am in London at the National Gallery, tutoring a class on Titian with Frances Leviston. Two books appear at this time both published by Salt, In Their Own Words, an anthology of poets writing on their craft, co-edited with Helen Ivory (though she did more work) and In the Land of the Giants, my book of poetry for children, launched in Norwich on 27 September. Launched in Wymondham on 20 October. By this time university is up and running. More readings and travelling. Photographed by Derek Adams, give paper on Hungary to Peripatetics. At the end of the month to Newcastle University for my last stint as examiner on the MA. November: readings at Aldeburgh and Warwick.


All this time the condition of Clarissa's mother, Winnie, is deteriorating. Having been called to her deathbed in March, she survives, has another crisis in May, and is on her deathbed again in November before dying the following week on 17 November. The funeral service is put together by Clarissa. The toll this has taken on her in the last three years - she having taken on by far the lion's share of Winnie's legal affairs, financial affairs, healthcare matters, house sale, house clearing,  just as she had taken charge of Bill, her late father's legal affairs four years ago - is enormous. No time for art but a lot of marvellous photographs. Illness. Two grandchildren to help with on a regular basis. No wonder her resistance was low.


As for me, teaching classes and marking and supervising. I write the introduction to Catechism, the Pussy Riot anthology. Off to Newcastle University again to examine a PhD, Catch a bad lingering cold / flu (Clarissa catches it too). Attend and, as it turns out, take part in Krasznahorkai's event at the LRB Bookshop, chair the Milosz discussion at the British Academy the next night, then, the next morning, fly to Romania for the Bucharest Literature Festival. All this plus cold. Return. Upgrade a PhD student, dash off to London for the Poetry Society Lunch, then launch In the Land of the Giants at the Poetry Place. Dash off to Dublin to examine another PhD.  Five days later the sudden death of the exemplary and loved Dennis O'Driscoll. On a bright Boxing Day we go to Winterton beach with Amanda, Nick, Veronica and Michael, and visit the seals. Then some quiet. Here endeth 2012.


What have I done? Translated a good deal. Written a good deal. Handed in the new book of poems, Bad Machine, to be published here later this month by Bloodaxe and in the USA by Sheep Meadow. It is, by great good fortune and grace, Poetry Book Society Choice, so goes on to the Eliot Short List. The collaboration with Carol Watts - still not quite complete - has been exhilarating, as has the Twitter activity, well over a thousand small exhilarations in verse, or prose, in narrative or non-narrative form. The imagination feels healthy and active. 

One birth, three deaths. Maybe that is the way it has to be once we are over sixty. Now for Clarissa to get her strength back and find more time in the studio. Let's do a book together!