Sunday 31 August 2008

Sunday Night is...

...The opening shots of Béla Tarr's action-packed Satantango, the book by László Krasznahorkai that I am currently translating.

Not many people know that this is an out-take from Mamma Mia. What you may think is a cow mooing is in fact Pierce Brosnan's voice warm-up. Track's just a little slow. Meryl Streep is about to burst into Dancing Queen. She's third cow on right, next to Julie Walters, about 7'33" in. Well worth the wait. A Béla Tarr-Phyllida Lloyd co-production

From your own correspondent

Listening to the normally sane Broadcasting House this morning over breakfast. There is a long piece by correspondent in Germany in the 1930s which goes a little like this.

Here at Nuremberg the crowds are out. They are forming orderly queues and their uniforms may look a little dour, but, make no mistake about it, these people are having fun...

(SFX laughter and singing)

[Addresses person picked at random]

- Would you say you were having a good time?
- Ja, ja, a great time indeed.
- And why do you come here?
- It's an act of piety. We consider it a religious duty to the Fatherland.

(SFX: fire crackling)

...And here are people gathered around a fire enjoying toasting bread and frying frankfurters, the fire ingeniously fuelled by old books...

[Addresses another person]

- So why do you use books?
- Of course we are always recycling, thinking of the environment. The Fuehrer has always encouraged this. Excuse me I must get back to my frankfurters...

(more SFX: frying frankfurters, laughter)

...So we see, these people do not conform to stereotype. They carry on leading ordinary lives...

(SFX traffic)

...In Berlin the traffic flows smoothly, both U-Bahn and S-Bahn are clean and well maintained. Occasionally there is a little trouble in the suburbs but where is there no trouble? The trains run on time. The shops are full of goods and there is no shortage of police to patrol the streets and make sure the streets are swept and, if necessary, licked clean...

(SFX different traffic)

...I am standing by the walls of what appears to have been a religious building. On it we see graffiti such as JUDEN RAUS. And of course that reminds us that the German hatred of Jews dates back to the Great War when the Jews sold them out and stabbed them in the back, putting their puppet Weimar government in the freely elected Kaiser's place. This is something Germans tend to remember...

[Steps over corpse]

...Of course not everything is perfect. There are corners of the city where there is litter...

[Contemplates hanged bodies of gay man and gypsy]

(SFX Bierkeller band)

...But each society has its own ways and character. We tend only to hear about the darker side of Germany. But they are people like anyone else. People like us, in fact. People very like us.

But now I remember, it wasn't 1930's Germany. It was contemporary Iran. Make your own substitutions.

NEW WRITING 4: Tracy Horn

Delighted to have a new poem from Tracy Horn in NOTES. Information there. Please read.

Also new poem from me on the front.

Saturday 30 August 2008

Retrospect of Budapest 2

The synagogue on Rumbach Sebestyén utca (street)

We wandered in here while walking around the area I lived in as a child, the VII District, or Erzsébetváros (Elizabethstadt). The VII district was the ghetto during the war and our street was just inside it, within the dividing ring road. It still contains the Jewish triangle of three synagogues, of which by far the biggest is the one in Dohány utca, with the Holocaust silver memorial tree in the back yard. Like this.


I have no memory of ever going into a synagogue as a child. I doubt I was ever taken. It was going to be a new world without any of that cumbersome rubbish and the dead weight of God with his bloody hands and divine bad conscience. Even now I feel a slight shudder at the thought of entering one and being absorbed into its accusing spaces. It's like fossicking about inside a distant uncle's secret drawer and coming up with his underpants. It's embarrassing finding God's underpants. In any case I don't go into synagogues very often though I feel I should.

That's history for you. It rattles about inside your nerves and bones where you can't see it, but you know it's there.

The interior of the Rumbach Street synagogue is just a shell. Bits of mosaic and wall and railing and fitting lie around in photogenic light, like a wartime film set. What does remain whole, or has been restored so far, is rich and splendidly coloured. Around the octagonal hall runs a message in Hebrew, Hungarian and bad English, to the effect that the cornerstones of Judaism are faith and ethics but that neither is possible without the other. The designer of the building was the famous Ottó Wagner. A feral black cat stole in and out, slinking between the pillars with a worried look. The rest was ruin. The heart does stop a little of course, one should mention that.


X, not Jewish, was saying that she sometimes walks ahead of her husband who looks vaguely Jewish just to hear how people talk about him. In beer-halls and wine-cellars, in open-air bars there is a certain hostile look at times, though she, and I, may be imagining it.

The opposition party has plans, said Y, to change the constitution in order to do away with certain democratic safeguards and to give more power to the president. They are making ever closer contacts with the far right. And they will win the next election, they are so far ahead. Both parties are stupid and corrupt, Y continued, but Orbán, the leader of the opposition, is a dangerous man. Y says he would like to emigrate if the opposition got in. Y is over seventy. He is not Jewish.

The taxi driver (not Jewish) was talking about the decline of football in the country. Few people go to matches now. It's partly hooliganism, he said. The supporters of Ferencváros and, to some degree of Ujpest too. They are skinheads who look for fights. When there were violent protests against the government last year and the TV building was sacked, it was they who led the sacking, he said. Neo-nazis, he said.

I remembered a conversation some years ago with Z, ex-wife of Y. I mentioned the petition that Ferencváros should be banned from European competition because of the supporters' racist chants. monkey grunts and fascist banners. Some members of the Dutch football team, who were due to play Ferencváros, had been among the signatories. Ah, but you know who is behind that, she said. The Amsterdam diamond merchants.

I have not talked to her since.

On the other hand, Jewish Cultural Week was about to get under way the week we left. It looked a good well-packed programme, widely advertised. No crisis there. No, just a sullen seeping.

Retrospect of Budapest 1

It isn't easy, not easy at all. I ask myself whether I am over-sensitive to nuance, rumour, hearsay, odd stray bits of evidence. I know it is very different now from when I first returned to Hungary in the eighties and in the heady days of the early nineties.

What has changed? Budapest continues beautiful, in fact more beautiful than ever, if only because it is cleaner, better tended, less run down. There are drawbacks though. The wonderful tenement courtyards, those images of the soul inside the body, are mostly locked away now. Insurance insists on combination locks and other forms of security. Those times when I could pass a gate and be lured in by a glimpse of cobbles, greenery, washing, a bicycle, an arcade and the sound of a radio, then stand in the middle of a once-grandiose but now battered three-, four- or five-storey cortile, aware of the smell of cooking, of footsteps on the stairs, of the block's own personal square of sky above, those are mainly gone. The odd one may still be entered but there is a greater sense of intrusion and trespass. The stolen entry is no longer to haunted community but to vulnerable property.

And another part of me even regrets the loss of shabbiness, which was just another way of bearing witness to history. I know it is better for tenants now. Who after all wants bits of stucco to drop on one's head, for pipes to be leaking, for bits of railing to break off in one's hand while walking along the fourth-floor inner corridor of the yard? I am perfectly aware of my own outsider's romanticising of the squalid, it is just that I never thought of it as squalid. It was dirty but it sang. Now it is clean and mutters quietly to itself behind a locked gate.

Not that the city looks overtly over-commercialised. It has not become just another western capital. It is simply that it has aspired to regaining its slightly provincial, imperial air. Yes, but there is something brittle and self-conscious about its presentation of itself. It might not stay that way of course. And, yes, I would prefer to have houses that work rather than raddled romantic monuments. I don't live there, after all.


Visited the zoo. Hadn't done that, not once since that first return in 1984. Not sure why. It is a lovely humane place in one corner of the Városliget or City Park, with inventive, art-nouveau accommodation for the animals. The entrance to it is shown in the picture above. Note the elephants. Inside, there are little benches placed discreetly here and there, and fountains and stalls for refreshment. You can wander among the birds in the birds section. There are the children's enclosures where they are invited to touch animals that have grown used to it. Each building is a fantasy adventure and there is a great rock in the middle to accommodate the various bears. It was built as a private zoo back in 1866, one of the oldest of all zoos, then taken over by the city, expanded and remodelled, much of it by the historically minded Károly Kós. You can see and sense the optimistic scientific spirit that guided the project. Let us learn about the creatures of the world, rather than Let us glory in our power over the animals.

Walking round the zoo I too felt optimistic. If my original countrymen could think and feel like this there must be something admirable and playful about them. Perhaps that admirable, playful, enquiring, human element underlies whatever troubles and complaints they have now. Perhaps everything is all right. And look at those buildings back in the city. What a glorious cavalcade, what great energy and imagination and downright sprightliness.

It's just that I miss the courtyards.

Friday 29 August 2008


I want to reflect a little on elements of the visit - at ten days, our longest for a few years. But here are a few items I immediately picked up on returning, or indeed a day or so before returning.

1. The UCU saga that resulted in the brief disappearance of Harry's Place, with some strong posts at Engage, regarding the exclusion of David Hirsh from the activists' list of UCU. David replies here and proceeds here. An assessment by Robert Fine here. DSTPW is no friend of Harry as Harry has become and comments. It is instructive to see the UCU defending the right of people to make the occasional mistake of linking to the KKK fascist David Duke. Bit tactless, they suppose, but, hey, even Duke must be better than an Israeli scholar.

2. Can't miss this of course. Michael Palin's long lost little sister nominated by John McCain. I received an email tipping her to be picked many hours before the news broke at the BBC. Dunno how it's done. She sounds an interesting bundle of potential contradictions. Member of National Rifle Association, supported gay legislation but against gay marriage. Pro-life feminist. Astute move by McCain. For now.

3. And this, the sentencing of a man who knifed a BNP supporter who had been harassing his family. Victim's wife calls for justice. I cannot quite feel her pain. The BNP make great play of being the white working man's party. Er, no. They are racist fascist excrement in suits.

Reflections in another post then.

Thursday 28 August 2008

Hot and cool in Szígliget

A night here at Szígliget. Not at the ruined castle of course, but where the link points to. The place is an old Esterházy villa that acts as a writers' retreat. This week it is the association of young writers, the Attila József Circle (József Attila Kör, or JAK for short) that takes occupancy. It's like a conference but with visiting writers, readings and concerts. I was invited to do an interview, in Hungarian, with the poet Mónika Mesterházi. Talking a long time in Hungarian is always a slightly daunting process. The themes were to be my own work as a poet and as a translator, and the situation of Hungarian literature in translation generally. There is a two-hour window for this so it is extra daunting.

Yes, but it was all right. I don't say it was the most mind-blowing set of answers I have ever given, or the most elegantly phrased, but it is a sort of consolation that I could do it at all. Pulling faces helps - like Scolari at his conferences, but for much, much longer, with somewhat more abstruse subject matter. That is a lot of faces to pull. The young, as ever, are never impressed by anything but at least they don't turn up their eyes as if to say, Who is this old fart? They are cool, but not irredeemably cool. Well, let them be cool as long as they can, the rest of the time it's work and luck. Not to forget world-shattering genius.

Or, as a proper Hungarian writer Lajos Parti Nagy, whose interview came half an hour after mine, showed, you can attain cool by a kind of Hemingwayesque world-weariness. As a matter of fact I thought he was damn good at it. His interviewer was a young critic. Young critics are required to be cool. They take PhDs in it, and this one was post-doctoral.

The critic threw postmodernism at the writer. Are you, or have you ever been, a postmodernist? Clearly it would be a good thing if he were. LPN's answer was a sigh - Yes, you could read my work that way, and maybe it is and maybe it isn't, but isn't it the case that all the word postmodernism means now is that something is supposed to be good. What is the opposite of postmodernism? Something that is not good.

I thought that was a decent answer, and he went on giving decent answers, avoiding anything potentially incriminating. He was funny too. I wasn't. Just you try being funny in a foreign language while actually meaning to be so. Not easy. I don't do funny in Hungarian. Vaguely droll is the best I can do. But it may be just politely mystifying.

It was hot. Blazingly, wearyingly hot. Lake Balaton was 2km down the road. A number went for a midnight swim. Not your correspondent. Way not cool enough. At 5am in the morning the church bells rang insistently for early mass. The trains both ways were forty minutes late. I take back what I said about dazzling infrastructure.

Back in Budapest now. Last night here - heading home in the morning. The vultures of work and obligation are gathering over Norfolk.

Wednesday 27 August 2008

Almost Island

The second number of Almost Island is ready on the web. Edited by Indian writers, Sharmistha Mohanty and Vivek Narayanan, it contains poetry by Anne Waldman, W.N. Herbert, Forrest Gander, Nguyen Quoc Chanh, Namdeo Dhasal, Joy Goswami , and Jaime Sainz; prose by Sven Birkerts, László Krasznahorkai (the beginning of Satantango, translated by myself), Sharmistha Mohanty, Fabio Morábito and an essay by Claudio Magris, 'The Self That Writes'.

It is, clearly an international magazine, beautifully presented. Its chief concern is the balance between poetry and prose, in other words prose poetry, but also prose that shares qualities with poetry and vice versa. Anything that includes something by Magris has serious claims on status.

If this sounds like an advertisement, that is because it is in some ways. I have featured work by both editors on this site, have worked with them, and admire them. Also, it costs nothing to read, which is never a bad thing.

Tuesday 26 August 2008

Story 2: Prague 1968, Budapest 1968

Between 1956 and 1984 there were twenty-eight years of absence from Hungary.

Except for one year: the summer of 1968.

I was nineteen but I joined my parents and brother on our first revisiting. We drove there on 10 August and stayed in an empty flat in Pest, in the same house where old family friend R lived with her brother, I. R was an old pre-war friend of my parents, her by-then dead husband, B, having been the plumber with whom my father worked just before and after the war. R was not yet blind but was going that way. She was the old blind woman in various of my poems, including in 'The Courtyards'. She died some ten years ago.

What do I remember of 1968? First, the sheer omnipresence of the Hungarian language, that wall of sound met everywhere in the street, which sounded so familiar yet strange. The smell of the streets. The battle-scarred buildings and the remaining ruins.

It was hot and we drove to the Lake Balaton for a few days, where my mother ate the hottest paprika and I tried it but it almost blew my head off. On the beach there my brother and I made friends with a number of other young Hungarians. He fell for a pretty dark-haired Hungarian girl who shrugged him off, while I struck up a relationship with another attractive Hungarian girl, with cropped hair. I think she was called Eva. She wrote to me afterwards and I didn't answer. The letter I owed to her is just one of many - and ongoing - unanswered letters that will shower down on me like stones when I finally kick the bucket. I am sure Dante has something appropriate in the Inferno. Bright kid she was too, lovely and full of life. There are some photos of that summer, at home, including of us. I might put them up some time. The world was OK. More than OK. There was even a touch of gaiety in the air. Alexander Dubcek was holding his own in Prague. It was, and continued to be, an extraordinary year.

By 20 August we were back in Budapest, precisely half way through our holiday. I slept badly that night and put on the radio in the sitting room. It was about 5 am. The first thing I heard was the news announcing that the Hungarian army had joined the rest of the Warsaw Pact countries in marching into Czechoslovakia to put down reactionary unrest. When my parents woke I told them and they heard for themselves. The borders were all closed, except for one route out.

They decided straightaway to take it. We had never renounced our citizenship and both my younger brother and I were of call-up age. We shot out like the cork out of a bottle. It was at home in England I saw the self-immolation of Jan Palach. Things were as they were. The hard men had smashed their fists down on the table. The party was over. I did not return for another sixteen years after that.


P had been a prisoner at Mauthausen. He once told me that, on liberation, some prisoners had found a store of honey in the camp, ate it, and died soon after. I don't know whether he was a communist before but he was certainly one after, as was his wife, K, both communists of the old steadfast, whatever-may-happen-we-still-believe school. P proudly drove a Trabant in which dangled a sign saying Köszönöm hogy igénybe vett, which means roughly, thank you for needing me.

P was kindly and tubby by the eighties. He did a little post-retirement work and played bridge once a week with friends, always having a snooze in the afternoon. K didn't like travelling so he drove to East Germany once a year for a holiday and clearly enjoyed it. He would drive us around too, to places we should visit, in and out of Budapest. On one occasion we took the train and shared the carriage with an old peasant who asked him where the foreign family came from. 'From England,' answered P. The old man sighed. 'Ah, there they are free.' 'What do you mean?' asked P anxiously. For him, and for K, the world as it was was the best possible compromise, with still something to aim for. They were, after all, on the right side of life. 'We are all slaves here,' the old man continued, wagging his head. P was rattled. This was not an opinion he shared and he didn't think it was the best of all possible opinions for us to hear.'Well, we are all slaves,' he blustered. 'Some of us are slaves to work, some to our hobbies, some to our wives.'

He was sweet and benign. His son had died suddenly at the age of twenty-one, of a brain haemorrhage, while sitting on a park bench. That was before we met them, before we went to Hungary. He would have been precisely my age. (You even look like him, they'd say.) There remained the daughter, F, who had married T, another party member, who worked as a chief in the radio advertisement / propaganda branch of the party. T was very clever and had been involved in Vietnam in some function, probably the press, but I can't remember. A thin, bright-eyed man. He and F lived in the same apartment as P and his wife did. His bookshelves were lined with rows of works by Marx, Lenin and all the other necessaries.

In 1989 we were over at P's discussing the rapidly unfolding political situation. 'This is all very well, all this chaos,' said P , 'but what if they kick Gorbachev out and replace him with a harder man? What if that hard man declares, "Enough is enough!" and smashes his fist down on the table?'

T shrugged and smiled. 'The table breaks.'

He could see which way the wind was blowing.


The wind had blown. We were a year or two on. T and F had found new jobs, both as representatives of Amway - the American way - of selling goods directly. They were doing quite well. T was writing articles for 'Cats' magazine, which was about, well, cats. He got me to write an article for it too. It must exist somewhere.

But cats did not suffice. Nor did dogs (they had both). One day T did a bunk. He absconded with what money there was. Went abroad. Disappeared.

So there were three.

But not for very long, because dear old P had a heart attack and died. He had been fading and flickering for a while.

Two women left now, mother and daughter, who was now training other Amway employees.

Then Amway went west, or whatever direction such things vanish into. K had bad hips and then a fall. One hip was replaced. The flat they had been living in became unaffordable. They had to move. F continued working at this and that but work was hard to find. So they moved again, to something still smaller, though within a stone's throw of the earlier addresses.


K puts down her stick, sits at the table and serves tidbits with a glass of fizzy water. F is out at the call centre. She does twelve hour shifts and night shifts. She can't be here to meet us. The work is over an hour away by public transport and she has to do the shopping too. She is not expected home until shortly before midnight. Unfortunately, she doesn't sleep as well as she used to. But who wants to give a fifty-seven year old woman a job nowadays? Retirement age is sixty-two. Will they be able to live on her pension? K shakes her head. 'But I might not be around then,' she adds.

She seems to feel no self-pity, does not complain, and is only a little sorry to have had to leave the flat the family had all lived in. She doesn't talk about hardship. It may not be the best of all possible worlds, not even necessarily the best possible compromise, but it is still a world, still capable of some improvement, but when was it ever not?

Sunny outside, the estate gardens are lush and rather overgrown. Two cats now, one scrawny with a single working eye, the other terrified of all visitors. K and F walk a neighbour's dog. It is, in effect, half F's dog now. On the way out we stop to look at a painting. It's of two little children, a touch idealised if not quite Disneyfied. Who is that by? That's by an earlier member of the family, a handsome woman who ran a dress-shop and was something of a couturier. It shows F and the dead brother.

Monday 25 August 2008

Vote for me!

I had to pick this up from georgiasam, who is well worth looking up and reading in his late-imperial sourness (and some nice photos). While enplaned and in perusal of Harper's he comes across this..

...audacious bid for the post of constable in McCreary county, Kentucky:

‘So Bill Roberts was running for constable and Harry Vanover was his opponent, and Bill got to speak first. He said, “Ya’ll know me. You know I ain’t much. You know I ain’t never been much. You know I don’t ever want to be much. And if you don’t want much for constable, vote for me. If you want less, vote for Harry.”’

This is clearly so much the best electoral pitch I am astonished it has not occurred to Boris. I am confident it will.

Sunday 24 August 2008


There are times when Hungary feels like a good place to be. Among friends, of course. In good weather (and we have good weather). At times when Hungary is winning a gold medal at, say, water polo, a sport at which the country has always excelled. In the streets, the most resonant streets in Europe in terms of light, space, shape and human presence. In restaurants, eating good, decently priced food. Along the Danube, the most glorious of European rivers. The city is clean, the transport is efficient, the baths (that I tend not to go to though C does) beautiful, sad, glittering. Film is good. Theatre is good. You can, as the posters should say if they don't already, have a good time in Budapest.

For me it is a great mass of conflicting emotions. I have moments when I am blissfully happy, and others when I am on edge. It is, I suppose, the emigré's lot. Boring, boring, boring. But let me put it this way. The hereness of here I can fully experience, the insideness of here, never. The insideness is elusive. What I think I know by instinct I don't know on the pulse. Or possibly vice-versa. Hence the confusion.

But back to the water polo. Or indeed to the rowing of one sort or another.

Hungarian TV sports commentary is quite different from the British kind, especially when a Hungarian competitor is involved. The build-up is heroic, the glorious past is rolled out, the hopes of the nation are firmly fixed on the team or individual who is to be the saviour of the nation. The race begins, the progress of the Hungarian is followed prayerfully, a prayer that becomes ever more fervent as the race progresses. The competitor is urged on with religious passion. Not even Saint Teresa of Avila in her wild lament knew such pain and ecstasy. Look! Look! the commentator points. Ecce! Ecce homo!

And should the Hungarian win, the hosannas are tearful, voluptuous, iconic. The honour of the nation has been saved, the martyred saints, the downtrodden, the bones of the dead have been raised on high and dance on the right hand of God for ever and ever. Made it, Ma! Top of the world!

A little de trop, mes enfants, don't you think? sniffs the urbane cosmopolitan in me. Yet, I think I understand this. I am sure I have not sounded the very bottom of the ecstasy but feel I have a handle on it. The question is what I do with that handle.

Twins and triplets

I am picking these two signs of the times up from Engage and the Drink Soddens (see links on side bar). Late, I know - my excuse is that I am in Hungary where all is hunky-dory - but never too late to know which way some parts of the so-called left are drifting, and have already drifted.

The union of university teachers (UCU) happily links to a notorious Nazi's website and defends doing so, while the Socialist Workers Party calls for action against the British National Party by referring to the evils of the Holocaust that killed everyone - except Jews apparently. Or, if they did so, it doesn't count. So now you know who the Nazis are and what they do. You also know who counts for them and who doesn't.

The UCU and the SWP as twins? No, there is certainly a triplet in there somewhere. Oh yes, The Nazis. But of course the UCU and the SWP only mean the good Nazis.

Saturday 23 August 2008

House 1

I was wrong about the portraits of the poet in the hall. There are four sketches, head only: neat, dapper, moustachioed, delicate babyish features, slightly chubby, his dark hair slicked back, a small man as the features suggest. His name was Simon Kemény, and he had been a relatively poor poet and journalist until he met a well-known actress, Rozália Újfalusi. She is the one whose portrait faces me now. She had already been married once, to a man much older than herself who had died, leaving money for her.

Simon and Rozália married at the beginning of the thirties, bought the plot of land on which the house now stands and had an architect friend design the house in a vaguely baroque revival style, accommodating certain modern features such as square, uncapitalised columns. The house was finished in 1933 and painted that particular baroque yellow which is just on the ochre side of amber, the colour it remains today. They had a staff of three including a cook, a valet and a maid.

From here they conducted a social life, built up a library and lived affectionately together. She was considerably taller than he was and fondly petted him. By this time she no longer worked as an actress and had plumped out a little, though the green dress in the portrait hides that. Her expression there is kindly, somewhere between maternal and girlish. There were no children.

When the anti-Jewish laws came in he was not forced into the ghetto, possibly because he had been baptised at birth (or converted early), more likely because he was married to an Aryan woman. Conversion did not ensure exemption. Radnóti had converted early too and ended dead in a ditch.

Simon kept a war diary. I have a published copy at home. I read it some ten years ago and it seems a good business-like account, clinging to hopes of an allied victory. In any case they survived even though the house was hit by a shell that destroyed his library. An unexploded shell was found under the cellar a few years ago.

But late in 1944 they were raided by the fascist militia who were looting where they could. They told Rozalia that unless she produced all her jewelry they would shoot her husband. She produced it but they still shot him, out in the garden, along with the valet and Simon's brother who happened to be sheltering with them.

The rooms are generously wide, the ceilings high, though there is conspicuous subsidence. I'll write a little more about the subsequent history of the house in another post.

Friday 22 August 2008

Body and Soul

The exhibition, Body and Soul, is mostly of Hungarian photographers but not all. Hungary had some of the greatest twentieth century photographers: André Kertész, Robert Capa, Brassaï, Károly Escher (my mother’s teacher), László Moholy-Nagy, Márton Munkácsy…

Sometimes now I think I love photography as much as, if not more than, painting. It’s a close thing between the two. Barthes is, for me, the great writer on the subject, though Sontag and Berger are also good and thoughtful. I still feel it to be essentially a humanist art concerned with human possibility and limitation, whose claim to importance, unlike the other arts, is evidential. It isn’t so much composition, form, technique: it is the compression of everything to a mortal moment, a holding still of the evanescent. Exploration? Oh, most certainly, but exploration through recording.

The themes of the exhibition were portrait/self-portrait, the body, solitude, company, society, outsiders, conflict.

Of all those, the body seemed to me least satisfactory. Everyone - from the early pictorialists with their classic nudes, through Mapplethorpe, Helmut Newton, down to the deliberately unaesthetic photos of ordinary people, wounded people, the isolated anatomical dead and body parts – seemed to be trying too hard, with too great a consciousness of the body-as-subject. By choosing one approach they were making an overt gesture to ignore others. Maybe the body is just too full of meaning and culture, an over-dense text. Maybe it is simply that the body in a photograph, the body without the face, or rather without a face that can be read as soul, becomes entirely subject. Nothing returns the stare of the viewer. It is as if each single body subject, however treated, was simply The Body, a generalised lay-figure to which everything is applied, a figure that can never protest because it has no organs with which to protest.

But the portraits! I was overwhelmed. Everything stares back at one there. The dead who were alive, the fully living in their completely filled moment. Whether that life is presented as mask or image hardly matters. Their helplessness is our helplessness. They disarm us by never becoming fully subject. Something in them resists, remains playful, tender, vulnerable, grave, other, helpless and accusing.

Looking at the solitude series I wondered whether photography was necessarily a lonely art, bringing various conjunctions and coincidences into a single lens, in a single moment, seen from a single point of view, those conjunctions and coincidences unique to the moment. So solitude was natural to the medium.

Maybe. The pictures of people together tended more to the pictorial, groups enacting ideas, the whole somehow more rhetorical. Beautiful sometimes, forming geometric patterns, the patterns themselves set in some struggle between self and anonymity. The photographer was ideally a voyeur, lost in that struggle. There were some wonderful pictures in that class. C loved a particular Moholy-Nagy taken from above where a sigle figure in black and white stood before a clump of trees, the entire visual field a mass of abstract waveriness, visually exciting. I am less keen on his work, but I could see what she loved here, could understand why it could be loved, and that is a step towards loving it myself.

I’ll stop here or I’ll write a book. One last thing then.

The most arresting picture in the conflict section – and photography is just right for conflict, the perfect, sometimes almost too perfect (I think of Salgado here) blend of reportage and presentation - was not a piece of photographic art but sheer documentation. It was the iconic still from the well known and often played film of Beijing, 4th June, 1989, part of a report I watched in Budapest on precisely that day.

The man with his shopping bag stands in front of a line of four tanks. Immediately it is not the still moment but the movement I recall. The tank turns left, the man steps left. The tank moves right the man moves right. It is still possible for a man with a shopping bag to negotiate with a man in a tank. The man in the tank is still a man, not a tank. The man with the shopping bag is all our hope. And look how he holds death at bay. For a while.

The Electrification of the Soviet Union

Woke late yesterday. Very late – close on 10 am. I could not begin to explain how unusually late that is for me. So unusual I cannot remember ever waking so late in the morning. But good – I think we must have needed it. It was already hot and was to get hotter, rising to 34C by mid afternoon.

First there was some phoning around to do and answering emails as well as writing yesterday’s post. Arrangements to be made here and there. Eventually we walked down to Moszkva tér, the big square at the bottom of the hill, taking in a bank and lunch along the way.

At lunch we talked about love, chiefly parental love. C still keenly feels the death of her father. Some part is broken there. Fathers and daughters, she said. She was particularly close to him, but thinks there often is such a relationship between daughters and fathers. I said it was my impression that women tended to look for their own fathers in their choice of men, that is providing the father was the right father for them. And if their real father was not somehow ‘right’, they would look for that right father in the men they met as a kind of redress. Is this true? I don’t know but I have occasionally sensed it. Then, of course, it turned the other way, speaking about men seeking their mothers, or something of their mothers in potential wives.

Maybe that is true too. I have no real idea what I felt about the death of my mother in 1975. I seem to have written a lot of poetry with her in it, but whether that was love, or could be described as anything that had a name, I really don't know. We write because we don't know. We write to find out, and still we don't know. We only know we have made a shape and the shape is the equivalent of that which we do not know. More or less. If we are lucky. On reading my longest poem 'Metro' - yes, he actually read it! - my father said it was like moving around inside her. Is that then love? Can't tell.

We may, of course, fall in love with, or even marry, those who seem least like our parents. And yet there is, I suspect, some quality in the other that still echoes that which is rooted in us as our first and original apprehension of intimate life. Losing that does sort of break things up a little.


And how did our parents love us? Some parents, usually fathers, never use the word ‘love’ or rarely so. C’s father was like that, yet she knew he had loved her. But what does love mean when it is not avowed as such? We went through the feelings grouped under the term love. How vast that term is. It seems to me, I said, a term as vast as Russia. Continent sized. So vast it seems almost useless. Moreover it is a country of which every part is charged. The whole territory is electrified or radio-active. Trying to locate the source, or sources, of the radio activity, some Chernobyl of the emotions, defining the position of the generator is hard. Love is the electrification of the Soviet Union.


The word is imprecise: that is why some people don’t use it. They feel intensely and are aware of a mixture of feelings: anxiety, fear of loss, admiration, tenderness, pride, fulfilment, an increased sense of mortality combined with its direct opposite, a being-outside-time. I could run through the entire Shakespeherian list. Love is this, love is that, love is that happily defunct newspaper cartoon series called Love Is… in which two toddler-sized people, a boy and girl, deprived of their sexual organs, enacted a whole series of tokens or proofs of love. ‘If you loved me you’d bring me a box of chocolates every Tuesday’, ‘If you loved me you wouldn’t blow your nose in public’, 'If you loved me you’d do your homework and get straight As’… The word can be applied as a balm. Some people cannot bring themselves to apply balms. They want their words to be connected to something precise. C’s father was like that. And besides, he was a deeply shy man. As are many men, far more than the world might think.

Then, it being almost 3pm, we decided to go either to the zoo or to the Test és Lélek (Body and Soul) exhibition of photographs at the Fine Art Mueum. Too hot to walk around a zoo really, however architecturally strange the Budapest Zoo is, so to the exhibition on the other side of the Danube, in Pest.

Thursday 21 August 2008

Hungary 1

It is sunny and warm in Budapest. Our flight was delayed for about half an hour in Luton and then the taxi at this end was late arriving, chiefly because it was St Stephen's Day, when almost all the bridges across the Danube are closed in order that the great firework display may take place.

The day has been a holiday for a long time, St Stephen being the first Christian king of Hungary to begin with, then because it is when the settlement and occupation of the country is celebrated (everyone, but everyone is a colonialist if you scratch deep enough), as well as the first state constitution. After the war it was deemed to be the day to clebrate the communist constitution.

Lesson: try not to arrive on 20 August. (Having booked flights late we had not much choice).

This is the familiar house of our closest and dearest friends, L and G. They occupy one of the three flats in it and own the vacant one opposite theirs, downstairs across the hall. That is where we stay. Arriving here is always moving, a joyful occasion because of our long friendship, almost twenty-five years now, and because we only see each other once a year, if that. I suspect that if I have a residual Hungarian 'self' it is closely tied up with them, their being, their sense of being Hungarian. As for the flat, it is familiar by now, though it changes a little every time.

I have written about the house before. It is a typical smaller villa on the Buda side of the river. Built in the early 20th century for a poet-journalist and his actress wife, it's near the city terminal of the cogwheel railway. A large painted portrait of the wife faces me as I write. She is an attractive dark haired woman, her hair in a twenties bob. A portrait sketch of her husband hangs in the hall.

Over the next few days I'll say more about the house and the people who lived in it. Their stories are the sum of the country in little.

I'm here to work as well as relax. C emerges from the shower wrapped in a towel. It is always astonishing to me how slender and young she looks. I am not sure how I earned this. Well, I haven't. And now there is the sun too.

Tuesday 19 August 2008

NEW WRITING 3: Matt Simpson / To Hungary

Back to the mother country tomorrow for a week or so. I think I should be able to post from there.

I will also put up a series of engagements soon so anyone who reads this can come along should the idea appeal to them.

Also delighted to welcome a new poem from Matt Simpson in Notes! Will add more biographical information for him...

Eva Hoffman on language, music and violence

Eva Hoffman's 1989 book, Lost in Translation, about changing languages and cultures, is the classic on the subject. It is, I think, one of the great twentieth century books, combining memoir, clear analysis and poetic precision of metaphor and association.

Some time ago I said a little - too little - about Hoffman's new novel, Illuminations. I should have said more. However, today she writes in The Guardian. In it, she returns to the themes of Lost in Translation:

It was one of the powerful lessons of emigration that language is not only something you use, but something that lives within you, that shapes your perceptions, and constructs your very self. Without it, I lost my conduit to my own subjectivity. And so, I wanted badly to recreate in my second language the relationship I had to my first. In a sense, I wanted English to become a fully expressive instrument; and for that, I needed to learn not only its vocabulary and grammar, but its inflections and rhythms, its specific music.

Absolutely. This is one aspect of the question I want to explore about the Englishness of English poetry. She goes on to compare writing - essentially prose writing, the construction of novels - with music in terms of time.

…most forms of expression rarely attain the felt form, the condensed meaningfulness of music. Writing, especially in the extended medium of prose, almost necessarily deploys the materials of explicit narrative. It talks of specific situations or events, of "what happens", and sometimes what will happen next. Music also unfolds in time, and contains development, reiterations, turns of theme. But it rarely makes an argument, or "tells a story." Its meanings are built through a self-referential, inner logic. Writing is made of discrete particles of perception; music can sometimes say everything at once, can express both grief and joy in the same chord.

And finally she moves to a discussion of the relationship of romanticism to violence.

…But I also wanted to explore the Janus face of romanticism, the way that the quest for transcendent meanings can lead to the drive for violence, as well as for sublimity. In my novel Illuminations, these two polarities meet - and eventually, terribly collide - in an encounter between Isabel Merton, the protagonist, and her increasingly fanatical nationalist lover. Because music adumbrates meanings rather than ideas, it is rarely ideological; but its intensities have appealed to extremist ideologues of all stripes. Lenin apparently loved Beethoven's Appassionata. But in another sense, music is the opposite of extremism, or the simplistic reductiveness of violence; a great composition can include anger and even rage, but it contains these within complex and multi-layered form; and almost always, the music we love works its way through the darker emotions to a more reconciled acceptance.

Yes, 'the Janus face of romanticism', and 'But in another sense...' The issue of containment. In Clockwork Orange Alex is moved and driven by Beethoven's Ninth. Hitler's love of Wagner and Schubert. Romanticism and big numbers. Auden's Numbers and Faces in 1950:

...Lovers of small numbers go benignly potty,
Believe all tales are thirteen chapters long,
Have animal doubles, carry pentagrams,
Are Millerites, Baconians, Flat-Earth Men.

Lovers of big numbers go horribly mad,
Would have the Swiss abolished, all of us
Well purged, somatotyped, baptised, taught baseball:
They empty bars, spoil parties, run for Congress...

There are, of course, moments when romanticism is the only possible state of mind. English is the language of small numbers generally. It may be all those tiny parts of speech and the lack of grand military inflections. Almost all its abstractions are borrowed from Latin. Difficult to go horribly mad on borrowed abstractions.

One way of looking at poetry is as the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings. Another, as someone once said, is as "a shower of fine particulars".*

Boring as this may seem to those who live with it all the time, it was one of the attractions of English for those of us who grew up in constant expectation and fear of big numbers. And I am not thinking only of six million.


*Wrong. Misremembering a passage from Anthony Hecht's marvellous Venetian Vespers, thus:

To give one’s attention to such a sight
Is a sort of blessedness. No room is left
For antecedence, inference, nuance.
One escapes from all the anguish of this world
Into the refuge of the present tense.
The past is mercifully dissolved, and in
Easy obedience to the gospel’s word,
One takes no thought whatever of tomorrow,
The soul being drenched in fine particulars.

Monday 18 August 2008

New Poem on Front, from Hodgkin Suite

This is not the image I was writing about. That has disappeared and other versions of it look poor. But I like this one, so it can sit here, like a good painting marking a space and speaking volumes of its own.

Poets and their ideas: the web theory

I have been reading through John Lucas's England and Englishness, looking for material to help me with my subject at Liverpool in a couple of months time.

It is a very good, learned, fiercely argued book, but it's not exactly what I am looking for. It is not poets' ideas about England, not their deliberate constructions of Englishness that matter for this project: it is the sense of a people, or subset of people, talking - and, chiefly, writing - about anything at all.

Ideas do matter, of course, since they are latent in talk, and help form it - not just in terms of subject but in terms of tone, register, syntax, the lot. But it is not so much ideas as noise I am interested in.

In any case there is a danger with scholars, with ideologues, with the politically committed, of evaluating poetry in terms of ideas. If a poet's ideas are valuable then the poetry must be valuable too. If the ideas are wrong, so is the poetry. Under it all is an assumption that this writer's whole sense of life is wrong.

But the poetry is not the poet and, to my mind, reading a poem with the chief purpose of extracting ideas from it is like taking a chisel to a spiderweb in order to extract the spider. Blake, whom I adore, is not, I think, a better poet than Wordsworth through being a more radical political figure. I may like and approve of him more as a person but I wouldn't wish to shortchange Wordsworth's poems on such grounds.

The nature of the poem is to amplify and distil everything - ideas, sensations, observations, noises - into language that does several things at once. The construction is closer to the rhizomatic model proposed by Deleuze and Guattari in so far as I understand it. But what do I know? I am a poet not a theorist.

So let's call it a web for now. Where is the spider? Gone. It's all web. No webs without spiders, of course, it is just that it is the web that is the point, the thing we are looking at, not the spider.

It was a web I blundered into when I came to England, a series of webs in fact. It set me to making webs of my own eventually, but, frankly, even my own spider puzzles me.

Sunday 17 August 2008

Sunday Night is...

Double dose. The first is Eleanor Powell dancing in 1936, the second is from Gold Diggers of 1935, Busby Berkeley's masterpiece.

There is something languorous and ultra-disciplined about Powell's dancing. 'Why! This means war!' say those legs and hips, while the unflinching smile reassures, 'Yes, but it really won't hurt'. This is aboard the USS Imperialism, heading over the wide seas with the help of Uncle Sigmund and his spick 'n' span gun barrels.

So one jokes - so I, for one, joke - but these thirties dance numbers all have a strong undercurrent of nightmare. The greatest of them is Berkeley's Lullaby of Broadway that I featured here a long time ago but roll out again. Both are works of peculiar minor genius. Except the Berkeley is more than minor. The underbelly of the zeitgeist gets up, slithers, prances, draws itself up to its full monstrous height, stamps, salutes, marches and dances.

The great advantage of the US model over the Soviet and Nazi, is that it is human and forgives failure. Oh, and the sex. And sex is, after all, something like this.

Oh, please yourselves.

Friday 15 August 2008


To Liverpool today for the launch of books by two friends, Michael Murphy and Deryn Rees-Jones, both by Shoestring Press. Readings joined by another old friend, Matt Simpson. I have yet to read Deryn's Falls & Finds, but Michael's Allotments is a marvelous sequence. This is not a plug or an exaggeration. It really is so. I'll look to do a few brief posts on parts of it.

Probably more tomorrow.

Thursday 14 August 2008

The Eyewitness

The subject is greed. Or is it status? Or ambition? But then again it might be aspiration. Where do you start?

Here's a fat-cat. Consider him. He earns, let us say £200,000 pa. Is that well and truly fat? No, not quite grotesque enough. Let's start with a good Premier League footballer, who earns, say, £35,000 a week. He goes in for his next contract, knowing that one of his team mates is getting £40,000. Why isn't he getting the same. He demands a raise. Meanwhile, the £40,000 a week man...

And so on upwards, ad inf till you get to Frank Lampard and Cristiano Ronaldo. Is he asking for the raise because he desperately wants another £5,000 per week? Because he needs the extra spending power?

Unlikely. He wants it because he thinks he is as good as the better paid team mate. For him it's status! Respect! Self-respect! Plain justice!

He's an idiot, of course. It's mad money. But he doesn't have to be a footballer. He could be anything. Why does he consider it necessary to have madder money than the next man?

This is what Márai proposes in the voice of a woman remembering her husband in the early days of marriage, before they divorced a long time ago: husband said that this man acted as the ‘eyewitness’ to his life. He tried very hard to explain this. The way he put it was that in everyone’s life there was an eyewitness, someone with whom we had met in youth, the other being the stronger, and everything we did was an attempt to hide whatever we are ashamed of from this merciless judge. The eyewitness does not believe us. He knows something about us that no-one else does. We might become ministers of state, we might be awarded the Nobel Prize, but the eyewitness just smiles. Do you really believe in all this?...

And he went on to say that everything we did was, to some extent, done for this eyewitness: it was he who had to be convinced, it is to him we must prove something. Our careers, the great struggles of our individual lives were all, first and foremost, for the benefit of the eyewitness.

The 'this man' in the case of the story, the 'eyewitness', is a successful writer. The husband is a prosperous industrialist. but, in the terms of the book, and in the opinion of his (granted, subjective) wife, a very decent man. A gentleman. And so he is, and yet... (in Márai the story is always in the and yet.)

According to Márai then, the driving force is fear - the desire to hide something from one with a God-like eye. It is the naked Adam and Eve hiding from God in Eden. Status is the fig leaf.

As regards the question of whether the desire for status is a pathological condition that could be treated, he attempts no answer. There is the religious option, making humility a virtue (yes, but I am humbler than you are!), or the collective option in which it is the self is entirely subsumed into a greater good (you are all individuals!- I'm not!).

Márai has extraordinary persistence in pursuing the human predicament down its narrowest alleyways. He is unremitting in pursuit. He also wrote an early autobiographical book Confessions of a Bourgeois (not yet in English, but in French).

Wednesday 13 August 2008

Grey Goo Speaks Out

Lord Grey Goo in Liverpool

In an earlier guest post, plant biologist Anne Osbourn wrote:

We – the global community - must look objectively at the tools and resources that we have in hand and make responsible decisions about how to feed the world. This does not mean saying “Organic farming good; GM bad”. It means looking at all of the strings that we have to our bow and making responsible decisions - decisions that we are accountable for. This is not the time to bicker about the phase of the moon, small-scale farming, wide crosses, genetic engineering and biotech. These are just words. There are no scapegoats and by engaging in such bickering we leave people to starve and blame others for their demise..

Well, well, it may be so. On the other hand GM could be the underlying cause of obesity, knife crime, global warming, the Taliban, Martian raids on Windsor and premature hair loss. As for the starving, let them eat organic cake.

News from Nowhere

All purpose birthday verse, for dad's 91st tomorrow. Fully adaptable. Wears well, only occasional parts need replacing.

News in from Georgia, news about inflation,
news from the Games about nation versus nation,
news from the banks, news from the check-out queue,
but, for today, let the news be you.

News in from the country, news arrived from town,
news about David Miliband, news about Gordon Brown
news about David Cameron, who may not be True Blue
but, for today, the news is simply you.

News about the weather (rain followed by rain),
news about the guttering, news about the drain,
news about those NICE people who’ll ration jabs for flu,
but, just for today, no-one’s jabbing you.

No-one’s jabbing you today, no-one’s spreading gloom,
no bearer of ill tidings to burst into your room,
so turn off the TV, find something else to do,
today is meant for number one and, on this day, that’s you.

Party on, dude.

Tuesday 12 August 2008

The Englishness of English Poetry 2

That's three posts today which might indicate far too much time on my hands but I am in fact translating fiction. It's going very well. I am moving fast through gorgeous, apparently simple prose, but I do need to take the odd break so, in between Márai and heavy showers alternating with flashes of bright sunshine, I have been coming back to this question, particularly via Pevsner.

One useful way to go about this might be to take Pevsner's categories one by one, quote a few key excerpts from him as a description, then see if that makes sense in poetry. It should do so, shouldn't it? But even if it does, will the case hold with twentieth century and contemporary work.

So to Pevsner and his first chapter:

Hogarth and Observed Life

Now this decision of Hogarth [to produce his great series of paintings and engravings of social life] has several aspects specially significant in relation to his Englishness. One is his resolution to turn away from the Grand Manner and the subjects connected with it. It was a wise resolution; for England has indeed never been happy with the Grand Manner… the character of the English was against it too; that quality perhaps which shows in understatement and reticence, and certainly another and apparently more permanent quality: common sense or reason.

Hogarth agreed with Dr Johnson, who once said: “I had rather see the portrait of a dog I know than all the allegories you can show me.”

“…to Hogarth art is a medium for preaching … the most effective sermon is the recounting of what the observant eye sees around.”

Pevsner then picks Gillray, Rowlandson, Millais, Holman Hunt, Ford Madox Brown as preachers.

He has a separate list of observers: Constable, Turner, Cozens, Cotman, Frith, Joseph Wright of Derby, (but where is Stubbs?)

He talks about “the English interest in the everyday world observed” in psalteries and misericords.

Finally he moves from these to the rationalism and plainness of the industrial revolution, such as Paxton’s Crystal Palace.

So the question is: if this is a valid grouping how do the poets fit in? Who would go in this category?

Would Chaucer be at home here? Would, say, Pope and Dryden? Would John Clare? Or Robert Browning? The territory lies somewhere between reportage and social critique. Who represents this in our time? Auden? Peter Porter? (But he's really Australian). Philip Larkin? Peter Reading? Sean O'Brien?... I'll think this over. Any thoughts welcome.

The London Initiative

For 2012, of course. James Hamilton suggests we compete by not competing, thus:

* Just have the Queen cut the tape and then cut to the sport. The “John Smiths” approach.

* A “Jack the Ripper” theme: the murders are reenacted in a reconstructed Whitechapel in the stadium, and the killer, played by his close relative, the Prince of Wales, escapes through the crowd.

* Or go for the Blitz: bomb out the trams and buses on the day of the opening ceremony, then have what Spitfires and Hurricanes remain battle it out with Heinkels and Messerschidts over the stadium whilst inside in amongst sandbags, ack-ack guns and Anderson shelters WAAFs hand out builders’ tea and hang men in nuns’ costumes from makeshift gallows

* Deliberately misconstrue the stadium’s location and make the audience sit through “Titus Andronicus”.

* Oh, I don’t know. I’m feeling uninspired this morning. Let’s just do what we did last time:

I think we could do even better:

1. Get the Real IRA to ignite a few redundant buildings

2. Cover London in mud, generate a lot of fog and do The Dickens Games.

3. Persuade the Olympic Committee to include darts and turn London into a gigantic pitted dartboard.

4. Give it a water theme and remove the Thames Barrier.

5. Invite Diana Ross to kick a football. Or anything at all.

If we can't get Diana Ross, Donny Osmond would do.

Power Plays and Turf Wars

Like everyone else I have followed the events in Georgia and South Ossetia with a mixture of puzzlement and déjà vu. Puzzlement, because the Georgian president seemed to have made an extraordinary miscalculation in escalating - if he did escalate - the tension over South Ossetia. His gamble on western support so close to the heart of Russian sphere of influence seemed - if that is what it was - reckless. Déjà vu, because we have seen this before many times in Russian realpolitik. Security, influence, power, paranoia, patriotism. Will quotes this source about the heinousness of pan-Slavism and I don't disagree. He also quotes Terry Glavin where he says:

“Although it’s hardly a secret that Russian president Vladimir Putin has turned Moscow into a kleptocrat’s playground, that’s just half the story. The other half involves his trampling of democracy across a Canada-sized swathe of the planet, east of the Urals, that takes in all of Siberia and the Russian Far East.

“Mr. Putin has embarked on an authoritarian program of eliminating up to two-thirds of Russia’s 90-odd resource-rich provinces and territories.. .”

It's just that, somehow, I never expect it to be otherwise, because that elimination is part of the security-influence-power-paranoia-patriotism chain of obsessions. The obsession is partly sincere passion, partly the worst kind of cynicism. It's a bad mixture. Passionate cynicism is worse then indifferent cynicism because it does much more harm and kills more people. Nor is that anything strange or new in the world. It's the way it was in 1956 and in 1968. It's the buffer-state syndrome.

There is only so much pressure the West can bring to bear on Russia now. Bleak? Well, yes, it is. Bases and observation posts on Russia's 'turf' don't help. There is, beside, the Ukraine, Latvia and who knows what else to worry about. We talk about democracy but the Russians actually voted for Putin and his retinue.

Janet McBride at Reuter's offers a fairly broad overview

Monday 11 August 2008

The Englishness of English Poetry 1

Dr Johnson (observed by Hogarth) - see below...

This will be the first of a set of intermittent posts on a particular subject I am determined to think about, and, if possible to make some sense of. I think I'll have to begin on an uncertain autobiographical note then see where it leads.

At a certain - or uncertain - point in my early poetic career - is 'career' the word? do poets have careers? - well, let's say career anyway, I came to the realisation, or what I thought was a realisation (you can see how uncertain this is), that the reason my poems often sounded wrong was because the English language wanted to say 'English' things and I was trying to write like a translation of something else, possibly French.

This was not an easy realisation because it meant I had to change.

From 'realisation' to resolution is a short but heavy step, so I set out, in rather a conscious way, to write in English as it was written and mostly heard, that is to say in a kind of classless (or what I took to be classless) standard English. That is, as such a thing might have looked in about 1974.

In truth, I doubt whether it was quite standard English or standard anything, but there was enough of 'English' in it to push it through some barrier. It was perhaps a belated attempt at socialisation, a moving out of myself, whatever that was, into something in which language rather than self, was to be the main actor. In any case, it made a lot of difference. It was from that point on the poems began to appear in magazines and, eventually, books.

There has been a great deal written about the nature of Englishness, mostly since Britain started to break up, and I don't want to go over that ground again. Enough to say that, to me, the term 'English' implied a certain kind of relationship between the sensible world and the words that conjured or referred to it. This was not the logical conclusion of a painstaking investigation: it was an apprehension.

What I want really to think about now is what it was I thought I was hearing, how and where it was embodied, how far it was simply a product of its time, and how far it was imaginable as 'English'. I don't suppose I would have thought about it at all if I had been born English. It would have been the air I breathed, and chances are it would have been more specific, more localised, less standard. But I was without locality, without class. I had partly to imagine the air.


Nikolaus Pevsner's The Englishness of English Art was first given as a set of Reith Lectures in 1955. It was expanded and annotated for publication by the Architectural Press in 1956, and appeared in the Peregrine edition I have in 1964. Pevsner's chapter divisions, apart from introductions and conclusions, are as follows:

1. Hogarth and Observed Life
2. Reynolds and Detachment
3. Perpendicular England
4. Blake and the Flaming Line
5. Constable and the Pursuit of Nature
6. Picturesque England

I don't necessarily assume that Pevsner had got English art tabbed, but there is something in the above list, even if it isn't enough. Maybe it will help me a little with the poetry too. No doubt, I shall find out.

NEW WRITING IN 'NOTES' 2: Katy Evans-Bush

Delighted to have a new poem from Katy Evans-Bush, whose first book, Me and the Dead, is just out with Salt, and who writes one of the best literary blogs as Ms Baroque at Baroque in Hackney. (See also sidebar).

Sunday 10 August 2008

Sunday night is...

A bunch of doctors. Avoid them. Keep your bones in order.

This is, of course, one the great sequences from the best television drama serial by the best writer for television, Dennis Potter. The Singing Detective, with Michael Gambon as Philip Marlowe (not that one.) It's over the top, but not by much, not by much at all. Any thoughts in the brainbox, old chap?

Saturday 9 August 2008

Howard Hodgkin

Howard Hodgkin, Realism

I have always wondered why people paint if they don't like the stuff. True, there is an element of mere luxuriance in oil paint that goes against some grains and it may be that Howard Hogkins verges on what certain branches of society regard as de trop. Too bad. Can't be helped.

I like a bit of askesis myself, share some of the instinct for it, but Hodgkin gets to me. I can't be bothered to resist him. Not even tempted to. I welcome those gorgeous splodges of his. Not that he is a great epic artist like, say, Kiefer. He is not a whole desolate land soaked through with history. There is little outside world for him. He is an exotic plant in the corner of the room. A voluptuary.

He comes to mind now because I have been writing, or trying to write, a series of short poems about his work, partly as a result of the welcome prompting of a magazine. I have four poems now, all written very fast, including one about, or out of, the painting above. I still regard it as a draft. I don't quite know what I'm doing in fact. But that, of course, can be a good thing.

So what is it about this particular painting?

There's the spillover for a start, the rich bourgeois frame invaded by a heady colour that billows over it. The application is soft-handed, the paint pressed, almost pushed on. The turquoise verges on aquamarine. In the middle it blurs and muddies, then sharpens to a vivid streak of orange that suggests both flame and leaf. The whole is autumnal. The hint of sky and horizon behind the orange has a heroic feel as if Emil Nolde had been looking over Hodgkin's shoulder. Echoes of Nolde run through Hodgkin's work. He is a more pervasive presence there than those Indian miniatures people compare Hogkin's work to. The miniatures are delicate and spiky. Hodgkin is blunt. More Nolde. Nolde, of course, is more bitter, darker, more about premonition. Hodgkin is about memory, or rather nostalgia.

Nostalgia at its least sentimental is the sense of having been somewhere we had to leave for one reason or another. You get it in Elgar, in the Cello Concerto. You get it, much more poignantly and tragically in Schubert. Even in Verdi.

OK, let's not get too swoony, to twerpish about this. Hodgkin is a sensualist, that's all. HH in melancholy afterglow in a prospect of flowers. But the senses are what we work through and denying them does no one any good. They are something to hold on to, to celebrate. You don't get them for ever, not even for that long.

Friday 8 August 2008

The Enormous Face

What part of the psyche does it rise from? A cast of thousands all doing exactly the same thing. It is disturbing, oddly moving in its symbolism, but military, military down to every crossed t and dotted i.

The dead who made a wrong move are already rotting in mass graves at the edges of the city, in plots that will be sealed off for a thousand years - or however long the Reich lasts.

Well, Riefenstahl of course. All Olympiads are her Olympiad. As for the display it is just as Cole Porter wrote:

Hitlers do it,
Stalins do it,
Even Kim-il-Jongs and Maos do it,
Let's do it,
Let us form an enormous polyhedron made out of six hundred people wearing folk costumes with neon buttons!

But at the same time it does catch you somewhere at the base of your belly. It can even bring tears to your eyes. Because it represents a yearning for the great collective that is the combination of all our efforts. Look: we! we microbes! we atoms! we mere specks in the dust of the universe! what extraordinary constructions we can produce when we move as one!

Now, if you would only be nice to each other, says mother, we could all build a model of the Eiffel Tower out of rice crispies! Think what you could do if you stopped squabbling for a moment, or, worse still, sulking and going off into a corner on your own.

Yes, but it is never the Eiffel Tower. It is nearly always one enormous face, like the face of Stalin, or of Mao, or of Dick Powell or Gene Kelly. It is a single vast head we have made.

And so nightmare and reverie merge. The fireworks go off and blaze over the entire city. The firestorm is entirely under control.

The Olympic Games open

Very spectacular. This leaves us with a problem in 2012. How do you follow this paean to the collective? Here is my suggestion.

Busby Berkeley of course and, at ten minutes, it's much shorter than Beijing - and no expense on fireworks.

Small despairs, odd lacunae

What governs human mood? C says it shifts for her. Sometimes a dark week will fall across her path with no specific reason. Body chemicals? Hormones? The slow build-up of anxieties that mount under the skin and rise to the surface like a blemish that seems to blight the whole body? Keats's influx of nightshade, ruby-grape of Prosperpine?

Let's try Robert Burton, the first page of whose Anatomy of Melancholy begins with a paean to humankind, to man, who is:

...a little world, a modell of the World, Soveraigne Lord of the Earth, Viceroy of the World, sole Commander and Governour of all the creatures in it...

Well, there's only one way from there and it is down. In any case, we think we know better now, we sole commanders and governours of all creatures, we viceroys.

I am not much subject to depression, probably because I am one of life's fidgety doers, mentally at any rate. Oh, the thoughts that rush through this head and chase each other round like demented children! I land myself with several tasks at once and so skip on. Skip and chase. Skip and chase. When poems arrive they gather out of a seeming nothing, the mysterious pulp of what one never really sees or knows, but that, once given a promising exit, runs out and begins to gnaw language into shape. Maybe it is that that saves me. That, and those odd lacunae, little spaces, missing links that leave one puzzled enough to explore them. Tiny toothaches of the mind one can't help fiddling with.

They are accompanied by big plans. I land myself with commitments to big plans. So, for example, in November I am invited to give the Kenneth Allott lecture at Liverpool University and I am thinking of something like 'The Englishness of English Poetry', much like Pevsner with his The Englishness of English Art. It's a bit crazy really, particularly because I have no real scholarship to speak of, but the subject is, I think, one of those odd personal lacunae if only because I am not English by birth. I sometimes think I inhabit English like a lodger in an old fashioned B & B. What? Ain't you got no 'ome to go to? Not really. Home is another country, a notional place, a unscored music at the back of the mind. Besides, like Kinglsey Amis once said, 'I like it here.' Go for the odd walk down the prom, and that.

But back to melancholy - see, I have almost driven away the faint shadow that had settled over me only half an hour ago, or was it a deep dissatisfaction from having worked through the proofs of my Collected? - to melancholy that has never yet incapacitated me. Never have I, like GL, been unable to get out of bed for the sheer weight of it. My despairs, those I know about, are relatively small. They fall into those odd lacunae. Into language.

Speak then fool, no commander of creation, merely of a few words now and then. Emperor of lexicon and marginal. Ghost empire. Brief light.

Thursday 7 August 2008


That was London last night.

We had night thunder in Norfolk too. Lightning striking fairly close, some two or three seconds away, the double neon flash, then that croaky barrelling sound, much like heavy gunfire. A few moments and the whole process repeated now further, now closer.

In 1989 the Hungarian Writers Union treated C and me to a week at Szígliget, one of their retreats consisting of an adapted ex-Esterházy residence complete with grounds by Lake Balaton. It was the first week of March. The state was slipping if not yet crumbling, but a major flashpoint was coming up the following week: 15 March, the anniversary of the outbreak of the 1848 revolution. One writer we met had advised us to store up enough food for a couple of weeks. He expected violence. The mood everywhere was anxiety and occasional exhilaration. Seeing a state shift was like watching heavy furniture gradually moving itself across the floor.

Szígliget is beautiful. A ruined castle sits on top of a high hill, the retreat being further down the steep slope, about half-way between the castle and the lake shore. We had the finest room - the guest room - with an ornate balcony and an enormous white faience stove complete with putti. Outside in the plain corridor moved Hungarian writers who were working in smaller plainer rooms, none of whom we knew but got to know a little over endless games of table tennis that were to strain my back for the next six weeks. The next president of Hungary introduced himself as we sat on a bench. We had no idea he would be the first president of the new republic less than a year later, nor did he I suppose. He wore a blue tracksuit. He wrote short stories and translated fiction from English into Hungarian. He turned out to be a very good thing.

We could see some of the lake from the balcony. There are occasionally spectacular storms over it. One night we woke and thought we were in the middle of a cannonade. I think the lake must amplify the sound. We looked out to check that it was in fact thunder. So it was.

There was a brief storm this afternoon too but its approach promised more, was nicely grandiose and operatic. We could see the cumulus swimming towards us, a mountain of relatively amiable grey growing darker and denser as it rose. Then the grumbles began but no rain. The lightning was always elsewhere, the barrelling never too close, yet the sky continued to darken and, finally, eventually, spat out a few drops of rain, hammering the yard for a minute or two, offering brief violence before moving on. Bright again now.

Later this month we shall be back in Szígliget for a writers' meeting where I do an interview.

I have finished the proof-reading and am back to translating, thinking I should be writing. I will be writing.

We now have RSS

Look! We can deliver directly to your door, along with milk and copies of The Watchtower. See buttons at bottom left of page. Try pressing them.

This is all very modern. I think I have finally entered the world of steam.

GUEST POST 1: From Hunter-Gatherer to Global Citizen

As I have sometimes done before, I would like to present the occasional guest post. This one comes about through a long car journey and conversation with the author, Anne Osbourn, who is Professor of Plant Biology at the John Innes Centre and head of the Department of Metalogic Biology. She is also a poet. Here she considers GM among other things.


We used to be hunter-gatherers. That kept us pretty fully occupied. We didn’t have time to settle, build civilizations and invent the Wii. Then someone decided that it might be a good idea to collect seed from the odd grass here and there and plant it so that they knew where to gather next time. Things took off. Agriculture was born. Grasses underwent chance encounters. The brush of pollen against stigma led to new types of grasses that grew better and had higher yields. We settled down, cleared forests, and started growing monocultures (small scale at first, of course). We changed the face of the landscape.

The Roman Empire came and went, seed was transported round the world, yields continued to increase. The industrial revolution led to larger-scale farming. Bigger monocultures. Imports and exports. And then in the twentieth century we took on plant breeding big-time, producing ever-improved crops using various tricks – introducing different plant species to each other and encouraging them to have sex, rescuing the hybrid embryo from abortion using colchicine (a chromosome doubling drug from autumn crocus). We used mutagenic chemicals and irradiation to introduce more genetic variation into the breeder’s palette, so pushing the genetic resources further. We discovered the dwarfing gene. Judicious breeding of this into selected lines by crossing led to the green revolution – less straw, more yield. Cereal crops no longer grew waist high. We brought in a battery of fertilizers, fungicides, pesticides and herbicides to maximize output. Despite all of these efforts there is no respite when it comes to food production. Today yield increases are plateauing and new crop varieties continue to be overcome by ever- evolving pests and diseases. Herbicides are losing their efficacy. Our land is brimming with chemicals. The production of new varieties that will provide food security is a never-ending treadmill. There is no room for complacency.

Today many are starving because they cannot access local or transported sources of food. The reasons for this are complex and various. Elsewhere there is a huge amount of food wastage. Consumption of meat is increasing in parts of the world where incomes are rising, putting further demands on grain production. Demands on land for biofuel crops and record oil prices have all contributed to increases in the cost of food. On top of this the targets for plant breeding are moving. We know that the climate is changing but we can only hazard a guess about the kinds of conditions that the plants of the future will need to be able to tolerate - and about how far away the future is. We urgently need to move to more sustainable high productivity agricultural systems. There will be around 9 billion people on planet Earth in 2050 and as the population expands we will need more effective means of farming.

In writing this I do not mean to bring gloom and despair. Rather to highlight the fact that agriculture is not “natural” – although clearly the need to feed ourselves is. Humans have been engaging in genetic modification of crops since they first started cultivating plants. We have literally inherited the earth. We – the global community - must look objectively at the tools and resources that we have in hand and make responsible decisions about how to feed the world. This does not mean saying “Organic farming good; GM bad”. It means looking at all of the strings that we have to our bow and making responsible decisions - decisions that we are accountable for. This is not the time to bicker about the phase of the moon, small-scale farming, wide crosses, genetic engineering and biotech. These are just words. There are no scapegoats and by engaging in such bickering we leave people to starve and blame others for their demise. We have inherited the earth. And we have the power to change things. The responsibility for the future lies with us. Productive dialogue, baggage aside. Evidence-based advances. No loose words.

On agriculture

A chance encounter between grasses in ancient Mesopotamia.
Bread wheat.

The beginning of agriculture.
The foundation of civilization.

Kiwis to Norwich.
Food parcels to Africa.

See “On the brink of starvation” by Nick Danziger on the BBC at the following link:

Wednesday 6 August 2008

Dreaming John Pilger much the same as reading John Pilger.

In my dream he says that Japan was ready to surrender but that they were nuked by the US because that's the sort of thing the US always does. I don't think he need prove this in the dream. Neither does he. In my dream he explains that this is so because there is no greater evil than the USA with the UK coming in a close second. The rest of the West follows.

It follows that all the authoritarian regimes set up by the USA or the West are evil, even those that are not authoritarian. All authoritarian regimes that have not been set up by the USA on the other hand, are fine, heroic, innocent. So China, the Soviet Union, North Korea, Sudan, Zimbabwe, Iran, Syria etc etc, (the names roll off in this dream) are innocent victims.

And at the very end of the dream will stand Israel, its fangs dripping with blood, just longing to nuke the rest of the Arab world, because that is what Israel does. And the USA is only a pawn in Israel's game. Or is it vice versa? The dream isn't always clear about this. In any case, when you come down to it, the last image will be a fat, stupid, American standing on a blood-soaked field, grinning inanely, with a Jew sitting on his shoulder, whispering malice in the American's ear.

And that, in this dream, is why the Second World War was only mythically a good war.

Why was it only a mythical good war? Because if the Germans had been allowed to get on with it there would be no Israel at all and all the evil in the world would have been magically snuffed out.

Like that.

There's no point in waking from this dream. It is no different in waking life.

Proof-reading one's life

For the last week or so I have been reading and correcting the proofs of the forthcoming New and Collected Poems. It is - as I expect others who have done this would testify - a strange, disorientating, sometimes depressing, sometimes dizzying, experience. Everything comes back at you- time and self particularly. These are the voices you gave and made, emerging through a clouded mirror to form a compound yet recognisable shape that now appears: a half-familiar alien.

I remember talking to Peter Porter several years ago when he was putting together his first Collected Poems. I wondered how much he edited. He said he would not edit. What he had done, he had done. It was a pact with himself. You may not always like what you were but you should not deny it.

I, for my part, have taken out some poems that I thought - to use the common phrase - were not worth preserving. (Ah, but is any of this worth preserving? your demon whispers.) That was done before the proof stage.

And at proof stage?

I see how at certain stages, particularly in the middle, about the time of Metro (1988) and Bridge Passages (1991), where I am working my way through the Hungarian visits, impressions and memories, there are phrases I want violently to strike out. Just too much detail, too much the sound of material being wedged into too small a space. Private things, incidental things, the world falling about one's head as at some demolition one happens to be standing under.

And yet there are people who regard this as my most characteristic work. Maybe it is. Some of it appears in anthologies. Yes, but surely, those jammed-in verses like rush-hour trains with no sitting space might have been better regulated, run to a more precise timetable, added some seats. More air.

Maybe it's OK. Maybe it is just the oddity of the experience of meeting yourself, not as a figure passed in a mirror but as a figure emerging from one. And then there is the world the figure presents to you, a world that even as it falls about your head, forms itself into representations of all that was solid and spectral at the time and you couldn't quite tell which was what and what was which, but through which people moved like solid bodies. Your own solid body is in there somewhere.

Getting towards the end of proof-reading now. And seeing that I seem to advertising my own productions, I may as well go the whole hog and point to this, John Sears's study of the work, that I have not read and which may well surprise me. I rather hope it does.

NEW WRITING 1: Helen Ivory

As part of the revision of this site I intend using the Notes section to put up poems and bits of very short fiction by invited contemporary writers from the UK and abroad. I may put up the odd translation from Hungarian. The section will be renamed in due course and it may be that a few technical adjustments have to be made. Each contribution will be followed by a very brief piece of biographical or other information.

I hope to have one new piece per week and am delighted to launch this project with a new poem by Helen Ivory who is now working towards her third book.

Not sure whether to put up photos of contributors. I am inclined not to unless anyone advances a strong argument for doing so. Let us keep glamour - both male and female - a good arm's length away. Let it be in the work not the face.

Tuesday 5 August 2008

Raincoat (Fashion Notes)

Go to buy a raincoat. A serviceable raincoat. For me. I have an old grey one I have been extremely fond of but, well, RIP raincoat.

It is raining.

Go into several likely places (John Lewis, Debenham, Marks & Spencer, Top Shop - etc...). No raincoats. Not really raincoats. Vaguely rain-coatish jackets, vaguely military-style anoraks, nothing below lower bum length. Mostly warm and lined.  It is muggy and warm outside. No proper raincoats.

But this is England, where rain is obligatory on any day with a D in its name.

Not one raincoat anywhere. Not even one. Ask whether they sell umbrellas. Confused smile. It dawns on them I am now in light joking mode. What larks, eh Pip!

Venture into a kind of countryman outfitter's. Only ladies have raincoats here. Gentlemen can choose something that makes them look like the Grim Reaper on a particularly stormy day. I try it on. I smile into the mirror. Still Grim.

Finally into a very old-fashioned Gents' Outfitters. Served by extremely obliging salesman who treats me like a gent. May I bring you this? May I bring you that? Raincoats. 

Now I have a raincoat and a jacket. I am a gent.