Tuesday 30 September 2008

Thank you for explaining that to me...

A bit tired after two late classes in a row, but one interesting thought. We are reading a good poem by one of the students, one that builds on a strange, quite visionary idea, but is framed with lovely, delicate, almost tentative irony, so the vision retains its power without bombast, when, in talking about it, another student, rather than trying to sum up in more or less abstract terms what the poem is about, conjures an image of his own, that is related to the one in the poem as if by a kind of sideways step from a fixed spot.

And I am thinking: Wait! Have I been missing something all this time? Is there some fascinating, perfectly valid process in poetry, or indeed the other arts, whereby the reader is not conducted to a statement about subject or condition, but where the original begets further originals as by a kind of chain reaction, the whole chain springing from and along the lines of a certain symbolic potential, whereby invention triggers invention. And, if so, could we posit the generating power of the poem as a kind of test of its quality, requiring that a poem rooted in the imagined tangible should lead not out of the imagination but deeper into it, into the imagined tangible.

Because, after all, the dullest thing you can say about a poem is something like: This is about jealousy and conflict, which is a move away from experience into an almost pointless generalisation about experience. It's like saying: Feel this punch on the nose? That is about anger. To which the answer might either be Thank you for explaining that to me or, say, a pinch on the cheek.

Or, to put it another way, to suggest that since a poem is an experience, not a statement about experience, a valid critical response might be framed in terms of experience rather than statement.

OK, I know it's weird. It is just that I was so taken by the listening student's response that I couldn't help thinking there was something wonderful about it, and that it must have taken a certain quality of stimulus to produce that.

Monday 29 September 2008

Amusements at the Reichenbach Falls

You know how it is. Holmes and Moriarty wrestling on a cliff edge with the Reichenbach Falls thundering behind them...

This Bail Out Wall Street drama is actually becoming quite - is 'exciting' the right word, or is it 'comical'? No,no, no, not half sombre enough, surely! But you can't be entirely sombre at a cliff-hanger. It's either suspense or laughter.

I came home from a late class at the university (just as a lot of people were arriving to hear the late Cherie Blair speak in the Lecture Theatre) to the news that the House of Representatives had voted down the big $700 billion bail-out scheme. It seems the Republicans voted it down, not because they thought it was a bad idea - in fact they were all prepared to support it - but because nasty Nancy Pelosi had the gall to blame the current administration for the mess. How could she do such a thing! The administration had only been in power for eight years!

What she said towards the end of her speech, recommending the measure, was..

"[W]hen was the last time someone asked you for $700bn? It is a number that is staggering, but tells us only the costs of the Bush administration's failed economic policies — policies built on budgetary recklessness, on an anything-goes mentality, with no regulation, no supervision, and no discipline in the system."

...and other stuff like it. Well, you can't go around saying things like that when it's a bipartisan bill and it is clearly nobody's fault, nor ever has been, especially not the administration's. "If she's going to say things like that, we're just not playing!' said enough Republicans to sink the bill, as a result of which the Dow has dropped a record 700 points. But it's a matter of principle. Sooner let it fall twice as much as have your record so much as referred to!

It is hard to believe the Republicans could have been so stupid, because it is going to play very badly for them in the press. Obama has already taunted them with preferring party pride to the interests of the country. I can't quite see the escape clause out of that one. That is unless the Republicans can turn round in one extravagant gesture and accuse the Democrats of having effectively finessed them out of office by betting on their stupidity, a bet they won.... but then, er..

Note: Mark Granier at Lightbox has posted a very intelligent, well argued response to my comments about Damien Hirst. I will follow that up as soon as I can.

Uncle Gabriel from Cluj

I was leafing - in a purely digital way - through the BBC website when I came across an old familiar face. It is Uncle Gabriel from my mother's home town. Apparently he is in the Cluj team against Chelsea. Easily stressed as you can see. Only plays in floodlit matches. Not good with crosses. Chelsea's kit is blue but they are not properly blue through and through. Not yet. Give Uncle Gabriel a chance.

Sunday 28 September 2008

Sunday Night is...Boogie

I don't wanna be a lawyer...

... all I wanna do is just play the clarinet / piano / bassoon / ukulele / harpsichord / tongs and bones / Moog synthesiser...

Saturday 27 September 2008


One or two people are asking why I wrote so despairingly about the Gordon Brown moment at the Labour Party conference. This is why.

1. Sarah Brown says a few words to welcome her husband onto the platform. Result: one and a half pages in today's Guardian bearing the huge headline,


One and half pages, because...?

2. In the same newspaper, an article by Jonathan Freedland, in which he writes:

The immediate risk for Cameron is that he is simply dwarfed by the scale of the meltdown. One cabinet minister this week said he regarded Cameron as a "good times" politician, his smiley, wind-turbine brand of politics fine when the sun is shining but too lightweight for grave times such as these. It sounds wishful, but the minister might have a point. Blair's sunny style, which worked so well in the prosperous 1990s, might not have connected in a recession either.

This could explain why Brown's jibe that this is "no time for a novice" struck home. Home Office minister Tony McNulty said that at that moment he could feel Cameron and George Osborne shrinking back into short trousers. He was crediting that to Brown's speech, but the real trouser-shriveller is surely the economic crisis itself.

I don't care what Freedland says about Cameron or Brown, it's the passage I have emphasised in bold that I find so painfully inadequate. To say that it is jejune, petty, stupid, pointless, brainless, desperate is to be kind to it.

I don't care whether or not Mrs Brown introduces Gordon, and I certainly don't care whether half a sentence in a speech has succeeded or not in making people feel that they are back in short trousers, nah-nah-ni-nah-nah. It utterly pisses me off.

What I expect of a prime minister is that he presents us with the state of affairs as he sees it, relates it to certain principles, suggests what might be done, what are likely to be the results of doing it, and why, if he is a Labour prime minister, it is worth doing.

This is not an impossible demand. The rest is stupid games and I have had enough of stupid games.

Down the mine

I want to pick up from The Plump's comment on the last Márai post below, because it opens a compelling door.

I think Blackwell and Seabrook's point is well made. People who have been bullied all their lives (come here - go there - get on your bike) will feel a certain resistance to still more change, especially when imposed - even by the cleverest, most sympathetic people - from the outside. That resistance can be radical.

On one side of this radicalism we find the far outreaches of nationalism, xenophobia, and stupid, instinctive, short-term, vindictive, lumpen bigotry.

There is another side to the question of resistance, of course. Miners led very hard lives but, in some respects, they did not want those lives changed. It was the circumstances and rewards they wanted improved, not the sense of community and pride in the face of hardship. The hardship was a cohesive force.

There is a solid human aspect to resistance. Revolutionary change is usually theoretical. It is the big things rather than the details that are imagined changing. Revolutions, in practice, are always something else, something other than imagined, destabilising even to those who support them. They eat their own children for a start. Eating people is wrong. It is difficult to live without some stability.


Writers rely on the precarious stability of language. It's like an artist not trusting fugitive colours. I think of Blake on Reynolds:

When Sir Joshua Reynolds died
All Nature was degraded;
The King dropp'd a tear into the Queen's ear,
And all his pictures faded.

Reynolds experimented with Lake colours that decayed far too quickly - in his own lifetime.

Writers depend on stable reference. Signifier should bear some reasonably constant relationship to signified. It has often been said that part of a poet's function is celebration: the preservation of fleeting phenomena in a medium that is, ideally, less fleeting. That is why all kinds of people write verses on weddings, birthdays, funerals. They are attempts to carve something into the language. You can't carve into that which is fugitive. Even the writing down of events in diaries in the plainest of prose is an attempt at carving.

There is an implication here that, by extension, the referents themselves should remain stable. This would include social circumstances, cultural practices, ideas, values, desires and even dreams: it seems to demand an ossified world of stable meanings. Márai's novelist tells us that his values, his compass, his entire craft depends on a vanishing social framework. He is working down a mine where the coal is all but exhausted. The colours are fading even as he writes.

We could regard him as a hidebound reactionary and indeed, in some ways he is. But that is not all he is. His whole aesthetic is based on the knowledge that the seam has been almost, if not quite, worked out, that the colours are fading. This, he tells us, is the nature of things. He is an elegist by nature, meaning that he gazes upon things dying and is not wholly consoled by a glance at things new born.

Lázár, the fictional novelist, is unlikely to have been a great writer, except by a kind of pathos. We sense the tremendous intelligence in him, or as much intelligence as his deeply intelligent creator Sándor Márai, allows us to sense. We can sense his coldness, his cruelty, his jealous passion, his fortress-like vulnerability. We don't have to like him. We don't have to accept his prescriptions (the narrator of the novella does not accept them.) We don't have to listen to his elegy.

But we are, I suggest, richer for understanding it and understanding the part of ourselves that recognizes things. Anything: words, places, people, sensations. Recognition means literally re-knowing. There is no recognition without stability, nor knowledge either. And we, as creatures, are deeply aware of our instability and our lack of knowledge.

So there is a heroic enterprise after all, and it is not without its radical edge, if only in recognising that the edge is where we live. Language shifts as we shift. It is always shifting. Language is the ghosts down the mines. Writing is a way of seeking the proper way to address them. That is a radical programme.

Friday 26 September 2008

Márai: the conservative writer.

Another passage from the book in translation.

...‘I see you don’t believe what a traditional, old fashioned, law-abiding man I am, madam,’ he said. ‘We writers may be the only law-abiding people on earth. The middle classes are a far more restless, indeed, rebellious bunch than is generally thought. It is no accident that every revolutionary movement has a straying member of the middle-class as its standard bearer. But we writers cannot entertain revolutionary illusions. We are guardians of what there is. It is far more difficult to preserve something than to seize or destroy it. And I cannot allow the characters in my books – those who live in readers’ hearts - to rebel against the established order. In a world where everyone is in a veritable fever to destroy the past and to build the new I must preserve the unwritten contracts that are the ultimate meaning of a deeper order and harmony. I am a gamekeeper who lives among poachers. It is dangerous work… A new world!” he spat with such agonized and disappointed contempt that I found myself staring at him wide eyed. “As if people were new!...’

‘And that is why you were against Peter marrying Judit Áldozó?...’

‘It wasn’t the only reason I couldn’t allow it, of course. Peter is bourgeois, a valuable member of the bourgeoisie… there are few like him left. He embodies a culture that is very important to me. He once told me, by way of a joke, that I was the key witness to his life. I answered, equally by way of a joke, but not altogether as jokingly as you might at first think, that I must look after him out of sheer commercial interest, because he was my reader, and writers have to save their readers. Of course it was not the size of my readership I meant to preserve, but those few souls in whom my sense of responsibility to the world I know continues to exist… They are the people for whom I write… if I didn’t there would be no sense in anything I wrote. Peter is one of the few. There are not many left, not here, not anywhere in the world… I am not interested in the rest. But that was not the real reason, or to put it more precisely, nor was this the reason. I was simply jealous because I loved him. I have never liked surrendering to my feelings… but this feeling, this friendship, was much more refined, much more complex than love. It is the most powerful of all human feelings… it is genuinely disinterested. It is unknown to women.’...

Almost everything he says is questionable. In so far as all Márai's characters, in all his books, embody a full development of ideas, a range of ideas, this is one of those ideas. The idea about disinterested love is different but I include it to show how quickly Márai slips from one intensity to another. He may simply be talking about Platonic love, or homosexual feeling as divorced from desire, which he well understood, and wrote about in adolescent terms in The Rebels.

Nabokov, Trilling: the sob in the spine, part 2

Nabokov is holding his books. Or someone else's books. One should always wear a bow-tie when talking to authors.

Nabokov, Trilling and the sob in the spine, Part 1

Since he has come up in the comments on the last post, here he is, the arch paedophile News of the World scum.

Superb interview. Note how it is Mr Nabokov, Mr Trilling. RESPECK!

There isn't enough shifting of chairs in interviews nowadays.

Thursday 25 September 2008


One of the differences between novelists and poets is that novelists make people up and make them do things. This assumes - or so I, as a poet, assume - that others can be knowable, or, rather, that they can be presented in a way that makes them seem knowable. So you get the phenomenon that novelists talk about, when a character: 'just develops and takes over the book'. As I remember, Barthes was very sceptical of character and preferred to concentrate on action, which just shows he was a poet at heart. Doesn't he say somewhere that a lyric poem is a single complex indivisible signifier? I can't be bothered to get the book out now but I remember thinking at the time: yes, that's my kind of theorist.

Because, I suspect, language behaves more like a lyric poem than a chain of clear signifiers arranged according to syntax. That idea is, for now, just between ourselves, but one day I'll get out there and prove it. Politicians and advertisers already know it, as do lovers and the knitters and spinners in the sun. You will say that that is not how we produce a balance sheet or an economy and I'll admit you're right, but I'll point to the current financial crisis and insist it proves my point.

But back to character. People are clearly characters. Today for instance a relative from Australia came and he is clearly one of those (a character, I mean). Characters in books talk and act and move through life on the basis of the consequences of how they talk and act. Novelists will tell us what they think as well but that only matters in so far as they act. See Barthes on actions. So relative has lunch. He talks and acts, and I can see the life he is referring to is a complex thing, troubled, fancy, paradoxical, sad and different, and that there is most clearly a ghost in the machine (I always assume there are ghosts in machines, it's much the safest). But what could I possibly say about the ghost, his ghost - his character - that I could actually persuade myself to believe?

Nothing, reader.

And it's the same with others. I am not totally autistic so I do admit there are others in the world. I am aware of their ghosts flitting about here and there, and am certainly aware of the machine of their actions. But as an honest poet I will admit that their sheer existence is such an extraordinary object, their actions so much like tiny versions of Olympic opening ceremonies, that I am fascinated by the firework display of their being and can't even pretend to see who exactly is applying a match to the blue touch paper of their presence.

You may think that is a serious personality defect on my part. A monstrous self-centredness. But I don't regard myself as any more privileged, any more knowable, any less strange and firework like, even to myself. And, as I have said before, I sometimes look at animals, our domestic cats being the closest to hand, and consider their own strange ghosts and tempers and machines. Just as strange, just as apparitional, just as autonomous. There is a certain egalitarian principle there, I hope you agree.

If I have socialist, materialist instincts at all, they follow from this level playing field of strangeness. In the end you trust others precisely because of their weirdness, density, impenetrability: their discreteness (not discretion, never discretion). It is a peculiar instinctive morality that goes to make poets. It is a peculiar lack of imagination, not a surfeit, as is often believed.

We spend so much time imagining the real we never really get on to imagining character and character development. The best of us know it exists and that development is the heart of being human. It's just that its workings have a sacred opacity. It's just that we feel that the unknowability is an essential part of the same thing. The worst of us feel the same but the worst don't know anything else. They are plain bastards.

Beware of so-called poet-princes, monsters who call themselves poets and write reams of what they call poetry but which is in fact a kind of self-hypnotic voodoo. Listen very hard. Listen sceptically. Because all poets worth their salt are sceptics. And though they can talk they are primarily listeners. Even their doziness, otherworldiness, daze, or what Graves referred to as the poetic trance, is a product of sceptical listening, not to notions of character but to phenomena, to all that may be listened to.

And as for politicians and princes, don't waste time imagining characters. Watch what they do. What they do is their character.

These are notes to myself, reader. When I say 'you' I mean 'I'. Please remember that. Thank you.

Wednesday 24 September 2008

In praise of dullness

Most American presidents and senators have tended to look like actors playing American presidents and senators. Come to think of it some of them were - and are - actors. British Prime Ministers have generally not been dashing and actor-like. Voters have tended to distrust them when they were. Sometimes they just came to a bad end - Eden, Macmillan, Blair in his own way.

I don't really want a celebrity as a prime minister. To be brutally frank I don't care what he or she looks like, smells like, what their family is like, what his/her voice is like. There is a form of being like something that is not any of those things.

I can quite see Gordon's PR people saying: You have an image problem, Gordon. People perceive you as being a dour bully who used to be competent, determined and straight but is now incompetent, vacillating and pointless. The economy is down the drain, the party is falling apart, your promises mean less than they did and people are audibly sharpening knives. Can't do much about most of that but If you dropped the dour, with a bit of luck, the rest might follow.

So, Gordon, conference coming up, TV cameras, speeches. You are going to practice smiling until you develop a permanent rictus. The full smiling course might take a few years and we don't have that so see what you can do in a week. When things are falling apart you want to project an image of togetherness. This is where Sarah comes in. Like that other Sarah, hockey-mom Palin, or George W. See how they all line up on stage? Togetherness. Unity. Solidarity. You don't want to overdo it, of course - the UK consumer is not yet the US consumer - so say something about not getting your family involved, exposing them to public scrutiny and so forth. Project virtue. Substance. Authenticity.

And this is where a good song comes in, something upbeat, optimistic. Things can only get better. Or like that but different. That at least would be true. But no, what you want to say is we are already high and on an up. We are going higher and higher. Come. Let us say Jackie Wilson.

Meanwhile on the Wilson video a man is ironing. His toast starts to burn so he leaves the iron face down so now his clothes are burning too. Everyone else is at the concert but his ticket flies out of the window. He follows it out onto the ledge. The ticket blows away. He grabs hold of a drainpipe and it comes away with him. He manages to swing round to another window but the man who opens it simply knocks him off so he falls to the ground and is smashed to pieces. As he is falling he dreams he has arrived at the concert where everyone is boogying.

Look. You shouldn't be on the window-ledge in the first place. Not in your purple loon pants. You had some dignity once. It was worth something. Sub-prime dignity is worth nothing.

And that is the quality I was looking for, that like something. Like dignity, like honesty, like integrity, like a downright dullness if you like.

Tuesday 23 September 2008

Higher and Higher

Now what's the first thought you have on hearing Jackie Wilson's classic soul track?

Gordon Brown of course.

I am lost for words. Bring on Sarah. Bring on Jackie Wilson. Don't do it, Gordon. Don't do it.

Please. Just. Don't. Do. It.

(More lost words here.)

And, sadly, the video is not altogether unfitting. Things fly out through the window and you're left clinging on.

Pathetic and contemptible. The man is dead in the water.

Monday 22 September 2008

At the Other end

Nice post by Mick Hartley here, discussing a programme I haven't seen. This does not distinguish it from all the other programmes that I haven't seen, am not at this moment seeing, and will probably not be seeing in the future. There is much on television that I do not see. Most of it in fact.

Having posited whales as The Other, the programme, it seems, went on to provide analogies to great white whales in the shapes of Osama Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein.

'Other' discourse tends to run along these lines:

The Other is a bit like the Sublime used to be (the whale used to be Sublime once), but enjoys a higher moral status because a person who regards another as The Other is invariably prejudiced and ill-intentioned. Otherness is a kind of imperial projection or projectile. Savages are the Other. Natives are the Other. The Other is the other end of the gun. But the real Other, that is when it is at home, not being any trouble to anyone and not being The Other, is a deeply decent, highly civilised being.In fact the Other is quite clearly nobler, cleverer, wiser, more courageous, and in every way better than you are, you swine.

The above is mostly Edward Said in porridge version. Porridge in: porridge out. You're not listening!

In gender terms The Other is woman (if you are a man). This does not mean, on the other (not Other) hand, that man is an Other if you are a woman. It's the moral shtick again. Is that clear, pigface?

Let me run through it again for you. The whale is at the other end of the harpoon. Since whales are nicer than harpoonists, it follows that Osama the Bin Man and the the late and deeply lamented Saddam Hussein are big noble whale-like manifestations that have suffered and continue to suffer our imperial projections and projectiles.

There. Be glad of the education. As for me, je est un autre, so watch your step and kindly stop pointing that thing at me.

Sunday 21 September 2008

New Poem on the Front

Title Bathing and Singing...

Sunday Night is...

Double dose of the same. Al Bowlly and Bei Mir Bist du Schoen and some haunting film...


Of all the boys / girls I've known, and I've known some
Until I first met you I was lonesome
And when you came in sight, dear, my heart grew light
And this old world seemed new to me

You're really swell, I have to admit, you
Deserve expressions that really fit you
And so I've wracked my brain, hoping to explain
All the things that you do to me

Bei mir bist du schoen, please let me explain
Bei mir bist du schoen means you're grand
Bei mir bist du schoen, again I'll explain
It means you're the fairest in the land...

The Yiddish version with the Budapest Klezmer band, plus old postcards. Otherwise hauntings.

Pootergeek's* Bane

A letter in yesterday's Guardian Magazine:

Bill Vellutini, Nigella Lawson's English teacher, considered her "very attractive" at school. This is wildly inappropriate, at best.

I note the words 'wildly' and 'inappropriate' and 'at best'. Golly, I thought in my prime Boris Johnson mode, what would it take to be a little worse than 'at best'?

I seriously wonder what she, the writer of the letter, considers so inappropriate about noticing this, even wildly so. At best.

Is it that Lawson was younger than Vellutini was? I'm not sure what Nigella Lawson looked like when he taught her English, but it is not impossible, given her current appearance, that she might have been attractive at the time she was doing her A levels too.

Is it that he was a teacher and that therefore he was under obligation not to notice?

And if he did notice that she was 'very attractive', is it that he should not have said and should not ever say? (Perhaps he didn't say then, not even in private, not to anyone, we cannot know.)

Is it that he says so now? His language seems to be restrained, even neutral. I detect no significant drool factor in it.

Is she claiming ("wildly") that the fact that he notices that she was 'very attractive' between the ages of sixteen and eighteen is a projection of his filthy, wolfish, lust on the innocent blank-slate Nigella? That he is practically a paedophile?


Over the years I have taught a great many very attractive girls, both in school and in higher education. Against all the odds attractive girls seem to appear in life. It now seems to me that a great many of my female students were and continue to be very attractive. No doubt I will continue to teach attractive students. Some of them might even have thought me attractive one time or another. The issue is not that one notices but what one does.

Now this is the great trick the letter writer misses: the trick is not to do anything about it. It takes a little practice. One gets used to it. It is not altogether unpleasant. You have your responsibility as a teacher, they have theirs as students. That's your contract.

It is not part of your contract that you should develop cataracts, that you should cut out your eyes and tongue, that you should cauterize your senses and parts of your brain. If these things should be required they should be written into the contract from the start.

Ah, the letter writer might argue, but this is the invisible contract. The implied contract.

Apart from noting with Groucho Marx that an unwritten contract is not worth the paper it's written on, I might suggest that the true invisible and civilised social contract is that we do notice each other's appearance. In ordinary life paying a little formal attention to such things may even be perfectly proper. The true invisible contract is to be alert enough to know what the other party might like us to notice or not notice in direct communication. Because there is indirect communication too of all sorts. No literature without it. No human life either.

As to teaching, we have cautionary examples. Paolo and Francesca in Dante show what comes of reading together. Abelard and Heloise shows us the dire results of transgressive pedagogy:

Wishing to become acquainted with Heloise, Abelard persuaded Fulbert to allow him to teach Heloise. Using the pretext that his own house was a "handicap" to his studies, Abelard further moved in to the house of Heloise and her uncle. She was supposedly a great beauty, one of the most well-educated women of her time; so, perhaps it's not surprising that Abelard and she became lovers. Also, she was more than 20 years younger than Abelard... And, of course, Fulbert discovered their love, as Abelard would later write: "Oh, how great was the uncle's grief when he learned the truth, and how bitter was the sorrow of the lovers when we were forced to part!"

And we know how that ends. One becomes a nun, the other is castrated.

Ah! Now I see what the letter writing is driving at! That must be the solution!

I am assuming Mr Vellutini did not venture beyond a very post facto use of the term "very attractive". Maybe the letter writer is not so much wanting to castrate him - not entirely, only a little, only mentally - as to accuse him of being a cad. At any rate, I hope so.

* See sidebar for Pootergeek. Nigella is occasionally conjured there.

Saturday 20 September 2008

Bedford and Northampton

Reading and talk in Northampton. It's late so just two facts and you can take these from me.

a. Bedford is actually the size of Mexico City.

b. Northampton surpasses Venice, Prague, Budapest and St Petersburg in sheer sumptuousness. (See above.) The Fishmarket (see below) is second only to the Pazzi Chapel

Friday 19 September 2008


...the cold that is. If that's what it is. It looks like a cold, it behaves like a cold, but it could be a fancy new allergy I have been cooking up, moving on from hay fever to cats. Well, I hope not. The cold is far more likely. The only thing I could concentrate on was finishing off Art Spiegelman's Maus. I don't know why but I have been avoiding it all these years.

Well, I do sort of know why. Somewhere inside me I know it all already, or at least as much as I can deal with rationally: as to the rest it can feel like vicarious horror, which I distrust more than vicarious pleasure. Viscerally, I don't feel the world is to be despaired of, and the normal accounts, unless somehow transfigured, as by Levi, or Kertész, or worked through into larger, difficult redemptive patterns, as by Sebald or David Grossman - or even, extraordinarily, by Reznikoff - are matter for despair, a kind swelling, conglomerate, bud of poisonous despair. I know this side of humanity exists, but I know the other side too.

Maus is good, but chiefly because of the parallel relationship, as everyone has observed, of the narrator with his camp survivor father. The graphic novel seems an appropriate form. The odd, dark, macabre, slightly crude drawings act as a bridge between the generations, a child's offerings to his lost, distorted, half-destroyed father.

And so to bed, as Mr Pepys used to write. I will stream horizontally. Tomorrow to Northampton to read poems and participate in a round table about Europe. Must get my beauty sleep. Perhaps I will wake up beautiful.

ps. I have added Bill Herbert' magnificent site(s) to the roll on the left. Hit the one to get a portal to the others. A highly metamorphic poetic gentleman of the Scottish persuasion and absolutely full of life and invention joie de vivre and stuff like that. Makes you feel better.

Thursday 18 September 2008

Synchronised swimming

Translating poetry is a practical question, if only because if you regarded it as a theoretical one you would probably never start.

A translation is not the original poem in another language but, with luck, a decent echo of something the translator has heard in the original, working its way through the receiving language. It's a journey, much like a poem.

Where we go in that journey is, to a considerable degree, determined by who we are, where we are, where we are expecting to go, and where we are accustomed to going. All these involve variables. It doesn't much matter whether we are native speakers of the poem in its original language. Any comparison of two interpretations of the same book, of the same poem, of the same passage, in the same language, will demonstrate the fact that people read differently. Consequently there isn't an aggregation of fixed individual objects that adds up to one agreed fixed and unified bigger object that is the sum of its parts. Meaning doesn't work quite so directly, quite so controllably, quite so exclusively in any field, let alone poetry, which thrives on ambiguity.

Nevertheless, there are a number of features we can agree on. Is this poem about a coal scuttle or a nightingale? There seems to be a nightingale in the poem and no reference whatsoever to coal scuttles. Probably not about a coal scuttle then.

And as to this nightingale, we can see that the nightingale appears at the beginning. Or the middle. Or at the end. It appears in conjunction with certain other factors that seem to depend on it, or it on them and these things seem to happen in a certain order. Let's also note the poem has sixteen lines and is divided into four quatrains. No ambiguity there. The poem seems to be regarding itself as a song. Very well then, it is a song. It lilts. It has certain manners that seem reasonably clear. The form behaves a certain way. Look, there it is, behaving.

You can't quite describe its path so as to make it as useful as an OS map. But then that is the same with any poem you yourself write. As a translator all you can do is to move like the poem-to-be-translated moves.

In practical terms - I am speaking for myself now - I read the thing, make a quick, rather intuitive decision about the way it moves, then get on with it, solving the technical problems of movement rather than trying to keep my sense of meaning continually updated. Meaning can look after itself. Meaning arises out of process, is itself process. The form will create meaning. Watch it move. Watch it behave.

The exercise starts off like synchronised swimming but then, with luck, it turns into something a little freer than that, a kind of response and echo. And there we are, afloat. The water is dark. You can never quite see what's going on underneath it. But the bodies seem to be moving in some sort of harmony of behaviour. Floating is meaning.

Wednesday 17 September 2008

Confrontation: apropos Damien

There's an interesting comment by Mark on my recent post about Hirst, in which he quotes Robert Hughes.

I don't fully concur with Hughes. I have seen Hirst's shark and could understand its power as physical presence, not as aura. Of course it is, as Hughes says, a decaying marine organism but the confrontation with it is something different. It is startling and, while far from 'sweet' (see Radford's goal), it does hit one - like a demon in Bosch, or even Michelangelo. Or the dog in Goya, as above.

I am not comparing the shark to Goya - and the rest - in terms of value but in terms of psychological location. Not that Goya's remarkable painting is anywhere near his greatest work. It is not vision realised in ghostly, sinuous, transcendental paint, in paint as paint, which is what he could do at his best, no, it is rather, stripped down vision and confrontation. A kind of potent bareness. It is not all art has to offer but it is one of the experiences it offers. Hirst's shark is a similar kind of confrontation.

Confrontation is, I think, a proper area for art. There is a process of reorientation within the world that is the natural product of all substantial art. It is like the discovery of a room in the soul that did not exist before and from whose windows everything looks different. That view - that difference - is something you have, thenceforth, to take into account. It can be 'sweet' as well as 'shocking'. You can be confronted with delight and profusion as much as with horror and vacancy. Currently we trust horror and vacancy rather more than sweetness.

The catch

There is a catch to the idea of confrontation though. Confrontation as convention - the frayed and boring formula of the artist "challenging" the viewer - is so much rubbish unless the artist himself or herself is equally confronted and challenged.

Young artists are constantly told they have to "challenge" the viewer. Who tells them this? Their teachers, their funders, the stuff they are given to read. Challenge is insitutionalised to the point of meaninglessness. "I am being a good student. I am scandalising." No you're not, you are just being a conventional didactic bore.

You can't challenge from a position of superiority, in didactic fashion. That old call to the artist - épater le bourgeois! - is pointless unless the artist too is scandalised. The 'bourgeois' is so used by now to being "challenged" that he finds it cosy. You don't confront or challenge a dog by feeding it.


Hirst's first works were genuinely confrontational, not through aura, through what one knew, was told, or expected of them, but because they acted that way as physical objects. But you can't keep doing that in the same way. Not all the irony in the world can bring about that reorientation. What you have left to play with is aura. Aura and money. And so you carry on making the two the same thing till you can no longer tell the difference between them.

Tuesday 16 September 2008

Just an artist - more on credit

Damien Hirst gets so buried under hype - his own and other people's - that it is sometimes difficult to remember that he is just an artist. . - Simon Morley

I have nothing much more of value to say than I have said before about an artist of nothing much value. Except money, of course. And how safe is yours nowadays? Best bank on Damien Hirst then.

There was once a footballer called Ronnie Radford who played for non-league Hereford in the early 70s. Hereford beat Newcastle United in the Cup on a rainy day with a great thirty yard strike from Radford that was caught on film by the BBC. It has been replayed a thousand times since.

Hirst's art is a little like that. One big shark, then loads of replays, plus a few fribbles. A kind of diamond-encrusted Hereford United.

But there's a difference. Because Hirst, unlike Radford, had genius, you see. How do I know? Because so many fine, upstanding people have told me so. Nick Serota told me, Norman Rosenthal told me ("Rosenthal is a big friend of Hirst's") and, most important of all, Charles Saatchi told me by putting his money where his mouth is.Because who knows what any art is worth unless somebody puts their money where their mouth is.

But money is not quite enough. After all, Saddam Hussein, paid his Boy's Own-meets-Playboy style artists very well. Saddam's mouth never found the ear of those who matter in the long run.

Who matters? is the question. How do we know that any art is good? There is little that is objective about aesthetic value, especially visual art that deals in unique objects as commodities, or multiple objects with some limited direct underwritten relation to a single unique object.

Walter Benjamin used the term aura to refer to such works of art. The aura did not reside in the objects, per se, but in whatever external factors made it numinous, turned into a cult. He thought the age of mechanical reproduction would destroy that notion, emancipate it "from its parasitical dependence on ritual".

Wrong. Wrong, alas.

Hirst's art is full frontal cult, 99% aura, the great ripe fruit of capitalism. Not "the aestheticisation of politics" (Benjamin) but the politicisation - and capitalisation - of aesthetics. It is the credit that does not get crunched.

The discovery of the power of credit in terms of 'right' opinion and publicity coincided with the rise of neo-liberal economics. Art history, according to this account, is not a spiritual force that develops along evolutionary lines as Modernism thought it might be, but is what you say it is. That is if you have a mouth full of noise and money.

It is exciting seeing shares rise, house-prices rise, credit surfing the waves. It is exciting watching the Hirst phenomenon. The more excitement the bigger aura, the greater the confidence in Hirsts. People get a kick from it. They can hardly tell the kick they get from looking at a piece of Hirst from the kick of simply knowing about its excitement. The two wash together. Blithering idiots like Janet Street-Porter (I don't get offended by much, but she does it for me) are addicted to surfing the waves. Surf addicts. Aura addicts. It makes them feel cool. They feel so cool they forget they are idiots.

Hirst money is cool money. It's fun money. He is a national treasure, a music-hall artiste. But the treasure is other people's sweat. The music-hall is a whispering gallery papered with money. And it's not that different from Saddam really.

I am not putting up yet another image by Hirst. Here's Ronnie Radford's goal instead.

Front page translation

This morning an email from Sweden asking if I knew of any translations of a four-line poem by Sándor Kányádi (pictured above). I checked through my books and there wasn't, so I offered to translate it myself and have quickly done so. There are two versions for reasons I explain on the front. Some other notes there too. I'll come back to the issue of poetry translation soon.

Monday 15 September 2008

Guest Post 2 by Mike Bowker

I want, from time to time, to invite specialists in their fields to write a post. I don't mean polemics, simply such things as may pass in intelligent conversation. Last time I had Anne Osbourn on GM crops, this time it is Mike Bowker.


I do not think that Russia will attack Ukraine in the near future, but there are some similarities between the cases of Georgia and Ukraine.

First, in both countries there were popular revolutions (2003 and 2004) which resulted, much to the distaste of Moscow, in the election of pro-western leaders - Saakashvili in Georgia and Yushchenko in Ukraine. Second, both countries are seen as being of vital strategic importance to Moscow, and the Kremlin has become increasingly concerned over their drift into the Western camp in recent times. Moscow is particularly annoyed that the Bush administration has been lobbying so hard for them both to become members of NATO (although the Ukraine public is less sure about joining). Finally, both have pro-Russian autonomous republics on their territory which have campaigned for independence in the past - in Georgia Abkhazia and South Ossetia, in Ukraine the Crimea.

The Crimean population has a Russian majority, most of whom wish to secede from Ukraine and rejoin the Russian Federation. In the past, Moscow has always rejected such demands, believing any such change of borders can lead to instability and set dangerous precedents. The recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states on 26 August, therefore, represented a major change in policy which has worried other Soviet successor states, including Ukraine. In the light of this policy shift, it is possible that Moscow might reconsider the status of the Crimea, but it unlikely to use force as it did in Georgia. This is because there are many differences as well as similarities between the two countries. Ukraine is far larger for a start, it has a bigger military and would, for that reason alone, be far more difficult to defeat. Ukraine is also a divided nation, with ethnic Russians dominant in the East, and ethnic Ukrainians in the West. If war starts in the Crimea, it could possibly escalate into civil war with many Ukrainian Russians backing their compatriots in the Crimea against the central authorities.

If there is a desire in the Kremlin to extend Russian influence, pro-Russian Transdniester in Moldova might be a more attractive option. Moldova has not been courted by NATO as yet, but would be far too weak to resist Russian power.

In fact, Russia’s propensity for expansion should not be exaggerated. In many senses, Georgia was a special case. Saakashvili certainly deserves a share of the blame for the war in Georgia. Whether tricked, provoked or whatever, his decision to launch an attack on South Ossetia on the night of 7 August was foolish in the extreme. Russia was always likely to respond with overwhelming force and at enormous cost to his country. The leaders in Ukraine and Moldova have, so far, been rather better able to manage the difficult relationship with Russia than Saakashvili. No one might wish the presence of Russia as a neighbour, but you cannot wish away geopolitical reality.


Mike Bowker’s research has concentrated on the Soviet Union and Russia. He has written books on superpower detente (with Phil Williams), Russia’s role in ending the cold war and Russia’s relationship with the US in the context of the war on terror. He has also co-edited volumes on International Relations Theory (with Robin Brown) and Russia in the Yeltsin period (with Cameron Ross). He is currently working on a project which extends his earlier interests and relates to the deteriorating relationship between Russia and the West under the Putin administration.

Tectonic plates

Peter Kenny, managing director at Knight Equity Markets in New Jersey, said the financial world is on the verge of a complete reorganisation. "The US financial system is finding the tectonic plates underneath its foundation are shifting like they have never shifted before," he told Reuters. And Bill Gross, chief investment officer at Pacific Investment Management, warned of an "imminent tsunami" as dealers are forced to unwind complicated derivative and swap-related positions.

Good term, "reorganisation".

The only thing I know about high finance is that I know nothing about it. In a generally dumb way, borne of ignorance, I had been suggesting for some time that circular borrowing - assuring credit by even more borrowing - cannot go on forever. Clever theory might have said something to the effect that the faster money goes around the more consumer demand increases, the more production has to increase, which means that more people are employed, which means people have more to spend, which means they spend more, which means people borrow still more money to start businesses, to buy still more things that require still more production, that generates still more jobs. And it all works while everyone is borrowing. Which is why we used to receive several posts a month encouraging us to take out another card and borrow much more.

So everyone borrows and no one pays back except with money that has yet to be borrowed. Dream money for buying dream houses. Then come the tectonic plates and the houses fall down with no-one to foot the bill. Meanwhile the sun shines, the rain falls, and we carry on going to work as long as there is work to go to. I promise to pay the bearer on demand... promises, promises.

I told you I knew nothing about it.

It also occurs to me that I was talking about just this subject some time last year, with the novelist Hari Kunzru who was planning to write, or was actually writing, a novel about it. So how's it going, Hari?

Sunday 14 September 2008

Sunday Night is...

Ann Miller, Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra...

from On the Town. High-spirits. Ann Miller is ace. Note the Victor Mature look-alike prehistoric man.

One day I will write a deeply theoretical essay on the use of dinosaur and skeleton imagery (Bringing up Baby, Jurassic Park) in Hollywood.

On the other hand...

Horizon Review and the future of poetry

From Salt, edited by Jane Holland comes the first issue of Horizon Review. A proper e-magazine with articles, reviews, stories and poems. Solid. It could almost be made of paper! And the contents are good. It will go in the left-hand links bar from now on.

I suspect e-publishing will become an ever more important part of writers' lives - particularly poets' lives. It is not commercial and is therefore under less pressure to be big-name populist. The ideal will remain to publish and be reviewed in book form, but reputations can be built in this more fluid but still selective environment.

In so far as Salt is concerned - like Bloodaxe and Carcanet before (and still) - it is a force for good in that it prises poetry from the grip of those who regard themselves as its narrow brotherhood of custodians. Chris and Jen Hamilton-Emery at Salt have realised that the prising can take place on two levels - the free domain of the web that won't pay you directly for your labour, and the book domain where the difference in price between a handsomely produced object and a cheap paperback is not so great as to put off those who actually think of buying poetry in book form.

On the one hand, free floating text as idea and song, on the other the tactile beauty of the solidly crafted book.

People, particularly institutional and institutionally-funded people, whose chief concern is an accountably-representative ledger of bums on seats, worry about the future of poetry. I have never ever worried about an activity so deeply inscribed in human instinct, intuition, intelligence, desire, need and practice. Specific publishers, specific books, specific magazines come and go as they have always done but they are not poetry.

True poetry is always underground, always the samizdat-bloodstream bubbling up through language. Publishers, magazines, media slots are the temporal vehicles through which poetry is disseminated. I want them all to survive and prosper, of course, and, if they are intelligent and open-minded, they will - for as long as their cycle of energy lasts.

Credo for a sunny Sunday morning.

Saturday 13 September 2008

A little more Márai

More passages from Márai's The Real Thing or Real... still haven't decided on a title...

I slept deeply that night. I was like a burned-out element. The current runs through something and burns the resistance away. The soul darkens. When I woke and went into the garden – it was early spring and the mornings were warm with a touch of the sirocco so some days I had breakfast set in the garden – my husband had already gone. I breakfasted alone, sipping bitter tea, not feeling hungry.

There were newspapers lying on the table. For lack of anything else to do I read one of the headlines. A small state had just disappeared off the map. I tried to imagine how the people in that foreign country might feel, waking up at dawn to discover that their lives, their customs, everything they believed or had sworn by, had disappeared from one day to the next, had ceased to matter, and that they were now on the threshold of something entirely new – maybe better, maybe worse, but something that at any rate was utterly different from the country they knew, which might just as well have sunk beneath the waves, and that was where they had to live thenceforth, under entirely new conditions, underwater… I thought about it. And also about myself and what I wanted...

...Do you know the feeling you get when you are beyond pain and despair, beyond the most tragic events, and suddenly become very sober, indifferent, almost cheerful? For example when the person you loved best is being buried, and you suddenly remember that you have left the refrigerator door open back home and the dog is probably eating the cold meat you had saved for the wake?.. And the very moment when everyone is singing and standing around the coffin, you start arranging things, whispering, as calm as you like, something about the refrigerator?... Because we are quite capable of that, we live between such infinitely divided shores, in a world of such vast distances. I sat in the sunlight and it was as if I were contemplating someone else’s bad luck, thinking quite coldly and rationally about all that had happened...

Tomorrow I am reading and talking at a small place near Stoke-by-Nailand in Suffolk...

Friday 12 September 2008


Stairs leading down to scene of crime.

No, you see, officer, I finally lost it while I was watching a television programme, Behind Closed Doors, about the insides of buildings you rarely get to see. I like architecture, officer. I can tell a Tuscan from a Doric, what is more I can tell a Corinthian from a Composite. I am a semi-educated man of good character. But I could tell something was wrong when a crack appeared in my forehead and my underpants caught fire. Normal middle-aged grumpiness, you think? But I murdered him, officer, that's the difference. The body? I'll tell you where it is in a moment.

There is a kind of disease suffered only by presenters on television, a version of St Vitus dance. They are seized by it the moment they appear. It is like convulsions, officer, but it goes with a voice. The hands make jerky movements, the chest heaves forward, the whole body buckles. The head lurches towards camera and the mouth opens to such a grotesque extent that you can see the tonsils dancing somewhere at the back of the throat. That is disturbing enough for persons of delicate sensibility such as myself. But then the voice. It cannot speak a sentence without exploding at least twice, with words like FANTASTIC! STUPENDOUS! JUST LOOK AT THAT! BRILLIANT! No, it doesn't matter what order the words come out or what the subject is. It is an earnest of enthusiasm.

The young man - Charlie Luxton I think his name was, though it hardly matters now - wore a sky blue pullover that changed into a red pullover then into a yellow pullover. I thought I recognised him from CRACKERJACK! but realised I had murdered the whole cast of that programme several years ago. First he enthused about the inside of a Dollis Hill bunker. He was in paroxysms about something. Was it the damp? The dark? Let it pass, I thought. Down, thou climbing sorrow, hysterico passio, down!

Next he was in the Queensway Tunnel under the Mersey, rapturous about the extraction system, about wheels going round (I believe that is the general character of wheels, officer) and pistons pumping (they do, in fact, pump).


From there he proceeded to a Thirties building, also about some mechanical business. It's all becoming a fog, officer. I'll spare you the details.

But what did for me was the Joseph Bazalgette building, the sewage treatment plant at Crossness in London. Magnificent, of course. I say it myself. A Victorian engine room in full technicolour, pumping away at the heart of empire, processing shit at the time of cholera and the great stink. It was a genuine item of steam punk, a cross between The Great Western, a Byzantine temple and a perfectly upholstered Gentlemen's Club. It had been tenderly restored. It was in full working order. A man like Mr Luxton shouldn't have been let loose in it. He was not a fit person.

If he had been delirious so far he was now utterly transfigured. St Vitus possessed him completely. The trouble with this form of possession, from my point of view, is that there is something quite exceptional to look at in the background but there is an afflicted idiot in front of it, constantly dancing, enthusing and bellowing, so you see nothing, hear nothing, except him.

Mr Luxton was allowed to pull a string that looked remarkably like the flush of an old fashioned toilet. A simple thing. On pulling it, a faint whistling sound was heard. I think it was this that finally unhinged him, as he did me. EXTRAORDINARY! he cried. UNSURPASSABLE! BLERIOT! STOPGAP!! CRUMHORN!!!

From there his attention passed to the number of flywheels, the number of stairs, and, lastly, to the sheer gallonage of excrement the thing could handle at one go.


I did.

It was at this point I followed him down the stairs into - if you'll pardon the expression - the bowels of the building, my brow cracked wide open, my lower body wreathed in flames.

I killed him, I confess. I think I beat him to a pulp. I have a vague memory of flushing him away. That is where you will find him, officer, though, possibly, not in one piece.

I'll go quietly now. Here are the underpants. You may need them as evidence.

Thursday 11 September 2008

Sarah Palin - The Norfolk Connection

Never mind the false scandals. Here is a real one. According to the Norwich Evening News...

Historians have today claimed that presidential race hopeful Sarah Palin has family links to Norwich.

The vice-presidential candidate's great, great, great, great, great grandfather Robert Gower was baptised in our fine city back in 1723, according to researchers.

I mean, how great is that!

But Norfolk won't be voting for her.

Dr Ian Gibson, Labour MP for Norwich North today expressed surprise at the news. He added: “She has certainly set the cat among the pigeons in the US, but some of her views are really rather extreme and thankfully would not, I think, be the Norfolk way of thinking.”

Dr Gibson, a stout Scot, certainly knows his Norfolk. No one here holds extreme views and cats who show a keen awareness of which side their bread is buttered never even think of encroaching on pigeon territory.

There is a local saying applied to cases of obvious inbreeding: Normal for Norfolk. I am sure there'd be a welcome in the Norfolk hillsides for Sarah.

ps. Why is Nikita Khruschev standing behind Palin. He was not that kind of Republican.

*By the way, this is Oliver's link (see comments). Ach, might as well embed and save you the trouble.

Meet Sarah.

Apropos Georgia / Reginald Shepherd

I thought I'd put this link to Michael Totten on since Snoop points me to it. It's a long and fascinating read with accounts of events long before the recent outbreak of overt hostilities. A colleague at university is preparing an article on Georgia as I speak.

As Shuggy, not too long ago, correctly pointed out none of us bloggers ('I am a simple poet, ma'am, begging your pardon, and you know what terrible politicians poets tend to make, I mean fancy making a line walk on five feet!') is expert at this, though most of us know enough to be wary of partisan lines taken by newspapers who often rely on partisan sources. The noises made by Moscow, referring to the President of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili as a 'war criminal' sound very familiar to my cold-war ears. Regarding Totten's article I will take the Wittgenstein line - 'what we cannot talk about we must pass over in silence' - but that's not to say I may not point to someone who probably does know what he is talking about.

I still remember a pre-1956 Hungarian cartoon (in Ludas Matyi, the Party's equivalent of Viz) that showed Dag Hammarskjöld, the then UN Secretary, leaving bloody footsteps wherever he went. Hammarskjöld's were not the footprints later discovered in Budapest.


I was very sad to hear of the death of the American poet Reginald Shepherd. He is on the sidebar to your left. Shepherd was a fine, extraordinarily intelligent and articulate poet, not only a genuine passionate, highly skilled writer but, going by the evidence of his blog, a good man. See for yourself.

More rain - nothing but the rain - and MARK GRANIER

I want to pinch a couple of pieces from the comments boxes and put them on display before they vanish. Some lovely things on rain, and I welcome more. Not so much the actual rain, of course, more the observations, notes and poems.

from The Plump

Writing 100 lines is the perfect metaphor for English rain - the earth groans 'oh no not more. What am I going to do with it all'? But the severe schoolmasterly clouds insist on the relentlessness of the task. Everything is sodden, the plants are lush green through binge drinking.

I, too, like to stand outside in Greek rain, especially in the summer. There the earth sighs in gratitude and the plants have the perky, bright green of the moderate continental drinker. The only drawback is that the local electricity sub-stations are overcome with shock and plunge us into darkness at the hint of a storm.

Tywydd Mawr

Mae'na sŵn o'm mewn i sydd i'w glywed
yn glawio'n dragywydd,
a lliw'r diawl ym mhyllau'r dydd,
lliw gwaed yr holl gawodydd.

(Dunno what it means or who it's from, do know it's in Welsh and that it's an englyn [All together now - "There'll always be an Englyn..."]. George Szirtes PLC is a culturally diverse site.)

3 & 4
Two from Mark Granier, of whom another in NOTES

Plain Song

An uncalled-for
refrain –
curtain-call –

the tall
swish rain.


Only one figure
moves on the dark mountain, a
twist of rain-bright road.

from Three For the Road (The Sky Road, 2007)


Now turn to Notes...

Wednesday 10 September 2008


Up at university during the day, chiefly reading a PhD dissertation and setting up teaching material for next term. At lunch met young Vietnamese poet, Phuoc-Tan Diep, who came to England at the age of three with his family. He is now a doctor at the hospital. He spoke very warmly of the family's reception in England, which was pretty well my experience too. This can be uncomfortable reading for those who prefer to present the country as an unfriendly, xenophobic, exploitative host, and no doubt, at different times, with different people, it can be. But when it is not so - and I think we could summon up a fair crowd of witnesses here - it is worth saying as much.

Apropos of which I have been invited by Radio 4 to write a piece about our own family's flight from Hungary and arrival in England. It'll have to be written fairly fast in the middle of a great deal else. The poems in An English Apocalypse, even those that remark on the grotesque or declining aspects of England are, in a way, love poems. Realistic love poems, if you like, not idealisations or whitewashes. I am as capable as the next immigrant of seeing blemishes, but I can't forget that the face that was turned towards us was a welcoming, efficient, generally kindly face. Life here can be stupid, brutal, dull and craven - as it can in all places - but it has never been barbaric, oppressive, deeply corrupt, or hopeless.

And England beat Croatia 4-1 tonight, in Croatia. I read some of the pre-match views and John Terry's confession that the England team had no confidence. The response of press and public? Kick them in the teeth again. Croatia was 3-1 down and their supporters were bouncing up and down, actually supporting their team. Unlike England supporters - and that is even when England aren't losing. As I say: stupid, brutal, dull, craven it can be, and oddly gutless. But it doesn't last. And in an odd way I almost prefer it to a patriotic orgy.

Better still is irony. As I once heard a Spurs supporter answering his son on the way into White Hart Lane. It had been a bad season so far. Boy (looking at programme) asks: Is this the team we put out last week, dad? Dad; Yes, son, you don't want to change a losing combination. Then they go in and cheer the team on.

I don't have Setanta but I watched the goals here. Nice things.

And Linda is on the Booker short list! A very very good day.

Tuesday 9 September 2008

Briefly 2: Furniture

5. A late addition (late to Democratiya too) is this piece by David Clark in which he reviews the western liberal response to the Georgian situation. Here are a few passages:

[Rather than making comparisons with the cold war of the 20th century]...A more revealing historical comparison is perhaps 1848 – the so-called Springtime of Nations – a year of revolution for national and political freedom that engulfed Europe only to succumb, within a few months, to the forces of counter-revolution and reaction. The leaders demanding self-determination for the peoples of Germany, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Romania and the Czech lands, among others, were a mix of constitutional liberals, democrats and republicans; their opponents, the autocratic continental powers of Austria, Prussia, Russia and the Ottomans...

...It might seem odd in an age of political cynicism in which the fruits of past struggles are taken so casually for granted, but Guiseppe Mazzini, Lajos Kossuth, Stanislaw Worcell and other leaders of 1848, who came together as exiles in London to form the Central Committee for a Democratic Europe, would have recognised in today's Europe the fulfilment of some of their highest ideals. They struggled for national liberation, but their instincts were deeply internationalist and they assumed as a matter of course that a Europe of free nations and peoples would come together in fraternal and voluntary union. Mazzini was among the first to call for a United States of Europe...

...There have always been those on the right astute enough to see through Putin's sly appropriation of Stalinist symbolism and recognise him as an archetypical nationalist strongman. A generation earlier, the same sort of people lauded Pinochet, Zia and Marcos. ..

He then cites writers on both right and left who defend the notion of spheres of influence, particularly Russia's sphere of influence, then goes on:

...Even the Guardian's editorial writers fell into this trap when they described NATO expansion as a 'sphere of influence' project comparable to Putin's, as if there could be any equivalence between a voluntary association of democracies and an authoritarian hegemonic block constructed by means of military intimidation and energy blackmail. The way to avoid conflict, apparently, is for NATO to 'stop rearranging the furniture on Russia's sensitive southern border' (Guardian Editorial 29/8/08). Discounted in this assessment is any recognition that people living next to Russia have the right to determine their own international alignments, especially if they conflict with the preferences of leftwing journalists and pundits living safely in the UK.

This presents obvious problems in relation to the professed democratic values of the people making this argument. The way round this is to question whether the western orientation of former communist countries is really democratically based at all. According to Milne:

American military bases have spread across eastern Europe and central Asia, as the US has helped install one anti-Russian client government after another through a series of colour-coded revolutions.

This is an astonishing distortion of what has been happening in Eastern Europe since the end of the Soviet era. These governments haven't been 'installed'; they have been elected in almost every country where the people have had a free and fair opportunity to decide from themselves. It is from the demands made by these voters that the clamour to join NATO and the EU has come, often in the face of disinterest or scepticism from western elites. There has been no American plot or even a consistent and coherent American policy, as the confused and disjointed response to the Georgia War amply shows.

Yes, I am generally in agreement with this. I want to to be true. One part of me though fears that the claims of realpolitik generally overrule the claims of virtue. It is, after all, my own, and any Hungarian's, experience; and it is in fact precisely what happened in the nineteenth century. I do not doubt that Russia is a paranoid state. Its war losses were enormous after all. It has just lost an empire based on what it broadcast to be virtue.

Clark is right though: there is no 'equivalence'. Those who claim there is do so because their ideas of the politics of virtue are based principally on hatred of the west, and of the USA in particular. Anything the west / USA does must then be opposed. Anyone who opposes, not even what it does, but what it may support, must therefore be in the right. For me, if I had to choose, it would be the west every time.

But Clark does simplify a little in support of his argument. The politics of virtue are rarely purely virtuous. Hands are never absolutely clean. Russia does feel walled in, and whatever regime had been in power there, it would have acted just as Putin's mafioso-Russia acted. We know this, and so did Georgia. Encouraging Georgia was the easy part. It was The Voice of America that encouraged the revolution in Hungary in 1956 then failed to deliver anything.

The west can't "rearrange the furniture" in other people's houses of course, or 'install' anything, but it can approve or advise, especially it is asked to lend some of its own furniture. The art and psychology of such advice is complicated, not so much flag-waving as brain surgery.

As students in Leeds we lived in a block just below an elderly woman and her middle-aged daughter, both of them neurotic, depressive and undergoing treatment, some of the treatment electro-convulsive. A previous tenant had left an old piano in our flat and I was longing to play it. The women asked me not to, or if I was going to, to let them know in advance. And even then I was to play quietly and for no longer than half an hour at a time. I did not think these were ideal circumstances for making music. It wasn't convenient and one couldn't just do it when in the mood, but, slightly resentfully, I still played the piano in the way they asked so as not to drive them to more sessions of ECT. I did not bang on my rhetorical drum all through the night.

Briefs - Things Read

1. The first of a series of discussions of the Israel-Palestine conflict in 'a cool hour' by Samuel Fleischacker at Norm's. I'll keep reading this. Almost anything said calmly in the arena is worth listening to.

2. Christopher Hitchens on Sarah Palin at Slate. I have said nothing about Palin because I have no real idea what to think of her. I would sooner have a Democrat in and would be happy if that Democrat were to be Obama, but Hitchens is right about the kind of attacks launched on her. I can see that a pretty, fiery, straight-speaking, hockey-mom makes a useful iconic figure and counter-weight to Obama for the Republicans. On the other hand the anti-abortionist, creationist, global warming dismissalist (I don't mind global warming argument providing it comes from intelligent well-informed sources, but simply shouting It's rubbish! is not an argument) side of her don't tally with my folk back home. Actually, the Democrats wouldn't be attacking so hard if they weren't scared of her. Ironically, of course, the more they attack the more reason they have to be scared.

3. This report in The Guardian on the argument for GM foods. It follows from an earlier guest post by Prof Anne Osbourn, about which I wrote a further post here. I am deeply suspicious of pious, wealthy, foodies imposing their superstitions on the starving. If that's what it is.

4. And lastly, back to Hammershoi, the ever-readable Ms Baroque I know we cross-refer each other but I think she is excellent and am flattered when she occasionally quotes from here.

Monday 8 September 2008

God on Trial revisited

I am returning to this because I said I would and because I have been prompted by an artist friend's email. He agrees with my general assessment of the play, only pointing out the possible redundancy of the device of the contemporary visitors with which the play begun and ended, and which served as a brief interlude between scenes.

Yes, that's interesting, and probably right. It may be that, because the trial itself was a matter of rumour and legend rather than historical record (but what would historical records have made, if they did exist, of the conversations in those terrible huts!) it was felt necessary to frame it quite clearly as drama, as imagined, as something detached from, even distanced from, that which is known.

So what we had was a play within a play, something entirely the product of a writer's imagination. One might argue - and it wouldn't surprise me if Cottrell Boyce did argue this with himself - that imagining this specific trial ran the risk of trespass; that entering those huts with impunity, with, if you like, immunity, was a complex, awkward, intrusive act. When I was writing my own long poem Metro, I took my mother to the gates of Ravensbruck, but did not follow her in. There were places I did not feel entitled to go.

The delicate line Cottrell Boyce would have had to tread was the one between a realm that was specifically, temporally, Jewish, and the existential realm that pertains to anyone, in which the intensity of suffering becomes a pressing but open metaphysical question. He had to keep just on the latter side while feeling the presence of the former.

The fact that he succeeded as well as he did says much for his skill and tact. There were only two moments when the play threatened to spill out of the existential into the intrusive.

The first was when the following argument was put: If (ran the argument) it is the best of our kind who are being sacrificed for some future good, that would surely leave only the worst as survivors. The danger of this is reasonably clear. As put by an outsider it can be read as pejorative to those Jews (not Catholics like Cottrell Boyce) who did survive. The current lot are sneaks and thieves. The worthwhile ones are all gone.

It's a risk but had to be taken because, having imagined the trial, the thought was not only possible but - given the premise that many great minds and spirits perished in the camps - it was inevitable. The argument does rather suppose that those who are not regarded as great minds or great spirits are less valuable and that goes against the grain with me, as it will with many others. It was, let me put it this way, a delicate moment in the trial.

The other point was the Anthony Sher speech, the speech of the rabbi at the end. The charges laid at Yahweh's door are indeed terrible and not to be gainsaid, all the evidence being to hand in the Bible. How plead you, God? Guilty, as charged. End of story, or so you'd think. But when God is, most notably, accused by Job in the Bible, he does not deign to answer, responding instead with another question: Canst thou pluck out Leviathan with an hook?***

That was not offered as an answer in the play. All that happened was that, when summoned to death, the rabbi and the others covered their heads with their bare hands to indicate reverence and prayer.

What one asks - what I assume the writer asked of himself - was whether the rabbi's list of accusations was being levelled at the metaphysical God or, specifically, at the God of the Jews. For the rabbi it was clearly the God of the Jews. That, after all, was the whole point of his speech: Yahweh is, or rather was, our bastard.

What level of identification was being invited there? Who is included in that our? Is the outsider / trespasser / to be included? Or was the outsider being invited to say: So they were just as bad, serve them right, good riddance. Because this is the argument employed by the neo-fascist anti-Zionists.

Israel = Nazi Germany. Palestine = Auschwitz. That means it's all quits. Back to square one. Back to 1933.

I don't think Cottrell Boyce was implying that. I have no reason to think it. The quality of the play was the guarantee that no such implication was intended. Or so I think. That, of course, assumes that artistic integrity acts as a guarantor. It's the Lady Chatterley defence on another plane. The art project allows questions that would be impossible elsewhere.

As an artist I have to believe that. I have to believe it or I could not operate in the realm. But one eyebrow is always raised. It is, sometimes, an effort keeping it raised, but there's no choice.


*** As 1066 And All That used to say: Do not attempt to answer this question.

Sunday 7 September 2008

Sunday Night is...


Runaround Sue. With the Del Satins backing.

There is something touching now about early white rock 'n' roll, about the simplicity of it, the predictable chord structure, the entrance of the backing chorus and the grin of the clean-looking boy with the quiff and his otherworldly Pepsodent freshness.

This was Dion before I was properly conscious of such music as a presence, when it was just a noise elsewhere. There I'd be at the age of twelve, practicing Mendelssohn or Beethoven or one of the simpler Chopin waltzes at the piano like a good Central European (and, I now realise, Jewish) boy from an aspiring middle-brow family of not quite categorisable class - for what could you do with a mixed-class set of refugees in a working to lower-middle class suburb of London, who hailed from the Red East where even the working class were more properly bourgeois than the suburbs of London imagined - aspiring to books, to classical music, to G-plan furniture, to radiograms, to televisions, all of which added up to a kind of heroic ascent to the world as it should be, which, somehow, would still be just and socialist, the whole impossible idyll about to be ruined by boys like Dion, and by the about-to-be forbidden, decadent Radio Luxemburg.

One day I must get hold of some Mantovani. My brother's first violin teacher, Mr Shane, played in Mantovani's orchestra. He was actually on telly. Clearly an important man, I thought. Was it about him the Andrews Sisters were singing in Bei Mir Bist Du Schön. My Dear Mr Shane... Please, let me explain....

And, of course, what was shortly to be missing from my life was Runaround Sue, or her equivalent. Or any Sue for that matter. Any equivalent.

Saturday 6 September 2008

From Sebald Conference at UEA

Just catching an odd 20 minutes before my own reading with Lavinia Greenlaw and Matthew Hollis. Plenty of rich food for thought, keynotes from Will Self, Dame Gillian Beer and Adam Phillips, a lot of other presentations in between. Like a good boy - a good enthusiastic boy - I have attended everything so far and being very tired, have in fact re(tired) to my UEA office, making my own cup of tea and consuming my own 900 year old biscuits.

The biscuits have a Sebaldian look and taste to them: melancholy, I would say, but with a certain humorous, gently humane core, though one cannot quite forget the tragic forces in history that have driven them to the obscurity and darkness of my desk drawer, leaving them a little like Derek Mahon's mushrooms, reaching, as it were, for light, crowding to a non-existent keyhole, reminiscent of the lost people of Treblinka or, indeed, Pompeii, in a Sebaldian state of being, between two or more conditions, that is to say fresh and stale, but approximating closer to the latter, the third, most hypothetical, of the conditions existing on a somewhat metaphysical level that Thomas Browne describes in his Urne-Buriall or Hydrotaphia, a work composed even as barges from Cathay, laden with silk, muslin, cotton, rayon, denim, PVC and teflon drifted silently down the Wensum and Yare, a fact I myself contemplated with a certain nostalgia while in the act of disinterring and setting my teeth to the biscuits (McVitie's Rich Tea manufactured by Seebohm and Co, Dusseldorf), vaguely aware of the approach of an acute headache that like the vibrations of a distant train could be felt, distinctly, through the soles of my feet, beneath which...

Friday 5 September 2008

C on Rain

I am borrowing this from a passage in one of her emails to a friend who had also been writing about rain. It's with C's permission of course. This is her Malaysian rain.

...I was caught by your description of the open window and the rooks, the rain falling. Then I had a very strong flashback to my childhood - in Malaya, the monsoons bringing very heavy rain for days and weeks, my head hurting from the pressure of the thundery conditions, but the sound of the rain, fat drops falling on large tropical plants. The banana tree in particular, is a sound that I could listen to for a long time. I thought of you and your mother by the window together and the rain falling in straight lines downward splashing in pools under the plants. The dark rain and the leaves, the shining drops on shining leaves in the dark seemed to go so wonderfully with the shine on rooks feathers, the disquiet, the rustling and murmurings of bird and rain and trees, the room darkening behind.

When the monsoon arrived it broke the terrible stifling heat and we would all, my father, myself and my sister (funny that my mum didn't join in) rush out into this warm downpour in just our knickers (not dad, he had shorts!) feeling the rain drum into our skin like soft needles jumping into puddles like Gene Kelly in the film 'Singing in the Rain holding our mouths open to fill up with warm fresh water, being hit by the pungent earthy smell from the ground or the perfume being released by the large exotic flowers that were lying bedraggled in the borders. I remember reading a Somerset Maugham story set in Malaya many years ago where the smell of the flowers was so well described that I could almost physically smell them. I think it was a type of orange blossom.

If anyone wants to send me a short passage on rain, you're very welcome. Remember, short. Perhaps I will compile that Book of Rain.

Thursday 4 September 2008

The Poetry of Silence, or...

Caught Vilhelm Hammershoi's exhibition at the RA just before it closes at the end of the week. The show is titled The Poetry of Silence. Hammershoi is Danish, 1865-1916. The paintings come complete with recommendations from Rainer Maria Rilke among others.

The place was packed out with the aged and the refined. The RA is like that. It is intelligent, knowledgeable, well-dressed and, generally, rich.

It is a complex act taking in a painting. Most people, most of the time, drift past a series of them, and form an impression of some sort, or hover for a minute in front of one or the other before moving on. In an ideal world you would be given a good half an hour in front of anything even vaguely interesting and let your eye inhabit the work a little. That's hard in life, generally because of time and other people, which is why I have always gone away from a good exhibition wishing I could steal one of the works, usually just a small one, if only for a month or so, to live it a little the way the artist lived it.

Because pictures don't just appear. They come about, often rather slowly and painstakingly, and were coming about well before the brush first touched the surface. So looking at a painting is a kind of undressing of the work, then re-dressing it. I sat in front of the only full sized figure in the exhibition, the painting of a cellist, playing near the bridge of the instrument, on the top strings, and made notes. Cello seemed appropriate to Hammershoi, especially one that was straining to be a viola.

What you generally get with him are plain walls, plain doors, plain windows and not very much light, except, here and there, a kind of fluttering. The city views are determinedly grey-toned as though a giant spider had done a Christo on them and wrapped them entirely in fine cobwebs. You do sometimes get Mrs Hammershoi, but usually she has her back to you. If I said think of an unlikely blend of Gabriel Metsu, L S Lowry, Rene Magritte, Gwen John, Georges Seurat, Pierre Renoir (on a particularly rainy day) and Pieter Saenredam, you wouldn't thank me. I thought of all these, settling chiefly on Metsu and Gwen John but never quite being able to forget Magritte. If he had painted a bowler hat on his wife the association would have been complete. But then the back of Mrs Hammershoi is often the nape of her neck or the small of her back, so there is an air of voyeurism there too, as if he had crept up on her, the way Hitchcock's camera creeps up on his female victims.

Interior St. Bavo-Haarlem Pieter Saenredam

Mère Poussepin Gwen John

But walls are not entirely straight, windows not entirely set in their frames, chairs not absolutely fixed to the floor, nor ceiling free of a certain occasional tendency to sag. Nothing is quite as certain as that simple view of a simple room would indicate.

And the simplicity is that peculiar Scandinavian Calvinist simplicity that is permanently pitched between sin and mourning. The rooms are obsessively tidy, the light fixedly non-sensual. If it caught so much as a sniff of voluptuousness it would flap its black skirts and scream.

These are spaces to hover in, and maybe that's why they called the exhibition The Poetry of Silence. Put it another way. Think of Ingmar Bergman remaking Wim Wenders's Wings of Desire. Or put it still another way...