Saturday 28 February 2009

Fuel Pump

A bad day for thinking or writing anything. Mind like a clothesline thrashed by the wind. Yesterday night one of the panel lights in the car started flashing on our way home from town where we had gone for a quick birthday drink with a friend. The engine sounded a little odd too, but we might have fancied that. We got home all right, but this morning I rang the AA, for C was due to go down to see her mother, a round trip of some 200 miles in all. Best not take the chance without some reassurance.

The AA man came out, did a computer test and concluded that it was either the fuel pump seizing up, or some loose electrics, or the computer unit, or some completely minor fault that would disappear and never return, but he couldn't quite say which. So despite the fact that the panel light was no longer flashing, C got the train, and I set to work at home.

But then came the fuss about the blog post below. Then more fuss about complications arising. So here I am, supposed to be writing the introduction to the NYRB edition of Tibor Déry's Niki, the Story of a Dog - a rather marvellous book about the early days of Stalinism in Hungary - and though I know pretty exactly what I want to be talking about and in what order, the sentences are coming out strangled as though their pyjama cords were caught around the necks. This won't do. It sometimes happens, but it won't do. My eyes are blinking like panel lights. It could be my fuel pump.


I follow -as who doesn't - the developing press profile of Barack Obama in his first months, the so-called honeymoon period of the first hundred days. It is not a case of flashing panel lights yet, but it is not exactly cruising either.

I rather suspect that the hope invested in him was of two different sorts.

The first hope - unrealistic, grossly sentimental - was that he was bound to be a great and indeed lucky man who would sort out all the world's problems very quickly. Well, it's not impossible that he might yet be a great and lucky man - we shall have to wait and see - but there is no particular reason to suppose that he will or must be.

The other hope, the true hope in my opinion, was really a surge of optimism occasioned by the simple fact of his election. That he could be elected. That he had been elected. It was an enormous, unlikely fact of life that gave one hope. That was the exhilarating thing. It still is. It will remain exhilarating even if he makes mistakes or fails to deal with this or that issue.

And this or that issue is likely to prove a swine.


I don't mind 'language' and I don't mind the occasional personal abuse people might direct at each other, or indeed at myself. But I won't have commenters dragging in people's private lives. So the comments on the last post have been deleted. I am partly to blame in this for not noticing the remark that was out of order.

Please bear that in mind should you want to comment, which you are very welcome to do. From now on I moderate all comments before posting. I have not been doing that so far, nor have wanted to do it.

Thursday 26 February 2009

In which GS confesses to two cruel thoughts

Bearing in mind he is back from London fairly late after continuous 14 hours of work and no real lunch or tea, GS (he of the temporary third person) feels curmudgeonly enough to note that the coverage of the death of David Cameron's son is so copious it's almost Lady Di again. It is very sad, but the two- or three-page press blubbering has to stop.

As for Sir Fred Goodwin of the £650,000 p.a. pension, I think there is a case here for tarring & feathering, kneecapping or an altogether more merciful bullet between the eyes. The man, if that is what he is, is a disgusting object and almost any attempt to wipe him off the street would suit me.

Good night sweet prince. And so to bed.

ps. Website sorted.

Wednesday 25 February 2009

Still off the air

The main site, that is - still off the air. The hosts are incompetent. Time for a change, I think.

Spent most of the day in a junior school with a fellow writer talking about Europe and refugees (Norwich being one of six European Cities of Refuge, an altogether good and noble thing). Two classes of ten year-olds. School neat, orderly, military-friendly. Teachers watch us like hawks or, rather, like concerned mother hens with a sharp eye here and readiness to peck there. The first class was delightful and full of life and enthusiasm. The teacher of the second class clearly did not want us there. We get in the way of the national curriculum and the junior school equivalent of hospital corners. Minimal unfriendly introduction, no goodbye, no smile. The class perfectly nice.

It's quite a long time since I have been in a junior school. I forget how small and pre-teen the children are. I am not sure I altogether wanted to be there. I don't do such things for money. Time is far more valuable to me, but since this was to do with refugees I couldn't say no. But how the idea of Europe fits together with the idea of refugees is a matter rather too complex for young children to work out. I am not quite sure whether I myself have.

We talk about what they think Europe is, what it might be, who lives there and where, what it feels like, and what sort of person it might be if it were human. We mention countries and explore ways in which countries have expanded and shrunk or even disappeared and reappeared, and how the idea of a series of stable nations, settled for millennia, is misleading, and how not just people but places move around, how people find themselves living in isolated pockets (Darlings, the world is a dark place and the ground beneath your feet can turn to quicksand, so be glad and be nice to each other) and we talk a little about why refugees might come to Europe though more go to Asia and Africa, about European power and empire and about being welcoming or wary. The idea is that they should write a letter to Europe. But to say what? That is not clear.

Then the BBC come in and make a series of digital letter-films, each two minutes long, based on the letters. In some respects the project is deeply micro-managed (I loathe being micro-managed), in other respects it hasn't really grasped the concepts it is dealing with. But some of the letters sound bright and touching.

In the morning to a local comprehensive to do the same thing, then down to London for a PBS meeting, closely followed by a meeting with the Hungarian Cultural Centre. I can't go on doing seven things at once for ever. I feel exhausted. Who does time gallop withal? Well, me for a start.

Also wrote blurbs for two books this evening. Two more to do. The Collected Blurbs of George Szirtes will be a considerable tome. Not so much blurb whore (no one ever pays me) as blurb nymphomaniac. Or, more likely, blurb sex-slave.

Temporary hitch

I am having trouble opening the website (as opposed to the blog). Others may be experiencing it too. I hope to get it sorted out as soon as possible.

Tuesday 24 February 2009

Pot shock

The Independent wags a severe finger at the USA for its KKK membership. AMERICA UNMASKED! it cries.

Big article. Big finger. Pointing.

On the other hand, in terms of proportion:

USA population: 303,824,640
KKK membership: 6,000
Membership of KKK as proportion of population: 1 in 50,637

UK population: 60,943,912
BNP membership: 12,500
Membership of BNP as proportion of population: 1 in 4,875

Conclusion: UK ten times more racist than USA.

Result: The triumphant meeting of pot and kettle. (Hat-tip, as I should have said, to Snoop, right there.)

Cork Flooring

Rodchenko: Cork Flooring

In my spam filter today an email enticingly headed: Are you Interested in Cork Flooring? Unless this is a very subtle sex-ad or an Irish travel agency, I assume it means what it says. And the shameful but honest answer would have to be No. And yet one could get interested, in much the same way as, say Ms Baroque is interested in Barnett Newman or, say, Aleksandr Rodchenko...

Universal Tile Co: Blue Tile

How would one develop an interest in cork flooring starting from zero? Or, for that matter, in Aleksandr Rodchenko? Is it a similar process?

Rodchenko did a great deal more than paint three monochrome canvases. He was a revolutionary Constructivist whose best work I find quite exhilarating. But, starting from zero, one wouldn't necessarily begin by working one's way through his artist's statements. Such as this one, quoted by M Baroque,

I reduced painting to its logical conclusion and exhibited three canvases: red, blue and yellow. I affirmed: it’s all over. Basic colors. Every plane is a plane and there is to be no representation.

Most art statements are mostly sound and fury signifying only a desire to create sound and fury, and that is pretty well the case with the Constructivist ones as well. The lecture Ms Baroque quotes from...

"From here, Constructivism proceeds to the negation of all art in its entirety, and calls into question the necessity of a specific activity of art as creator of a universal aesthetic.” - Varvara Stepanova: Lecture on Constructivism, 22 December 1921. a case in point. You might well end up with cork flooring from there. Or nothing at all.

As to blue canvases, or black canvases, or red canvases, or white canvases, or bare unprimed canvases, and abstract painting in general my friend the novelist and, now, memoirist, Mr Foster, has a short series here, and here, and here. The first is by Mr Philip Guston, who is not fully committed to abstraction, the second by Mr Barnett Newman, who is, and the third is by Mr Gottlieb, who also is, albeit in a different way. If you don't like abstract art the man to write to is Clement Greenberg but he being dead you should not expect a reply.

Historically, there seems to have been less interest in cork flooring than in abstract art. I can see the attraction, of course. Soft tread, looks neat, suggestion of a workshop atmosphere combined with high-living. But it is undoubtedly the case that if I were approached at a party and asked: Are you interested in cork flooring? by a fellow guest, I might think him or her a little dull.

I see what I have done. I started out wanting to talk about the possibility of developing an interest in cork flooring and have been talking about abstract art instead. It seems cork flooring isn't holding my interest quite as it should.


There was an earlier error in captioning the pictures that I now put right.

Monday 23 February 2009

A Touch of Vendler in the Night

Wallace Stevens as a young man

My previously mentioned birthday present the iPod touch has seen me through various journeys, switching from late Beethoven quartets, to Otis Redding, to Piazzola to Ian Dury to Billie Holiday to Brad Mehldau to Schubert or Bartok, or indeed Walton-Sitwell, which is all very good, but I like words so I have been downloading books too: two Raymond Chandlers (The Big Sleep and The Little Sister), Kafka's Metamorphosis, Eliot reading his poetry and a great mass of other poets on three albums, mainly early to mid-20th century Americans reading theirs.

But now there are podcasts too, some of them free. And the good of all this is that when I can't sleep or when I wake up earlier than 4 am I put on music or speech in the form of audiobook or podcast with the headphone plugged in and am kept interested until I am finally ready to sleep again.

I should say Chandler is very good to fall asleep to because everything about his writing is so familiar you think you could be dreaming it anyway. Kafka on the other hand is very bad, Metamorphosis being so vivid, so nagging and so logical it acts as a straight anti-soporific. Some of the poetry is OK to fall asleep to, which may or may not be a compliment to it.

Among other things, I have also downloaded some podcasts of well-known American critics talking about poetry. So, last night, having woken particularly early, at 1.23 am to be precise, I decided Helen Vendler was the thing, Vendler on Jasper Johns and Wallace Stevens. A good forty-five minutes of that and I should be both wiser and more rested.

Reader, it was awful.

Maybe 1.23 am is not the best time to be have Helen Vendler in bed with you, but I listened, and listened hard, in that haunted half-awake state, and I kept thinking: Vendler, you are a fool. Vendler you are a pretentious ass. Vendler you are making this up. Vendler, you must know that is perfectly ridiculous.

It was her take on Stevens's 'Anecdote of the Jar' that did for me. She had set up this completely groundless agon between an unnamed generalised English poet who was insisting Stevens write in regular metres, stanzas and rhymes, and Stevens wasn't doing it. Shut up, Vendler! I almost bellowed in my sleep. Get out my bed, you mountebank! And, reader, I switched her off in her prime. What is more she kept me awake another two hours, all but, fuming at her.

Here is the poem, and a magnificent thing it is too.

I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.

The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.

It took dominion every where.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.

Look, Vendler. It's simple. It's about how human intervention, in the form of art, reorganises our perception of nature. Nature becomes focused on the jar. The jar gives the wilderness meaning. And there is that gorgeous eighth line, "of a port in air." The jar is very bare - it isn't surface art or decoration, it is a simple yet humanly conceived object, a jar of aesthetic intent. And it does all that! (Same broad thought in The Idea of Order at Key West. ) And yes, it is playful and sort of gaunt, and the last line is very odd, the way it sits, because you'd think it might say "Like everything else in Tennessee", putting you in mind of all those birds and bushes Tennessee is noted for.

But what makes you think, dumbass Vendler, that the 'English' poet you have in mind is an idiot without imagination. (I grow patriotic in my half-dream.)

So Vendler is banished from my bed. I'd sooner have a jar, any day, even a gray and bare one.

And sleep, of course. But there was none.

Sunday 22 February 2009

Sunday Night is.. Jane Russell, Hoagy Carmichael and Victor Mature

Victor Mature is lurking in the background, waiting to kiss Jane. Film: The Las Vegas Story (1952). I have a real fondness for Carmichael as a singer, preferably without much accompaniment, preferably swanning around the button as far as the precise note is concerned. It's Bing but much less slick. just a touch decadent. He described his unique, laconic voice as being "the way a shaggy dog looks…I have Wabash fog and sycamore twigs in my throat". (Wiki)

More on Carmichael:

The death of his three-year-old sister in 1918 affected him deeply, and he wrote "My sister Joanne—the victim of poverty. We couldn’t afford a good doctor or good attention, and that’s when I vowed I would never be broke again in my lifetime." She may have died from influenza, which had swept the world that year. Carmichael earned his first money ($5.00) as a musician playing at a fraternity dance that year and so began his musical career....

Republican who didn't care for FDR. Somehow you guess that from both face and voice.

Saturday 21 February 2009

Goldfinger, Goldfinger...

Thanks to Nicole, in the comments, here we have the true Goldfinger (1902-1987), the Modernist architect, the handsome Hungarian hurricane. First in his youth...

... then in imperious old age in front of one his creations, Trellick Tower in North Kensington

LRB article (grace of Nicole) here. As its author, Gillian Darley, says: "...more of a St James’s Marxist than a Hampstead socialist..."

Regarding the Trellick Tower estate, bd, the architects' website remarks that: "During the 1980s, Trellick became the subject of lurid tabloid tales of social dysfunction, but its apartments are now popular among design-conscious young urbanites."

The photograph is from the 1980s

Guardian review of the New and Collected Poems

What I regard as a marvellous review in today's Guardian here by Sean O'Brien. Some extracts:

...Szirtes's position in English poetry is unique, combining a loving engagement with the poetic forms and traditions of his adopted home with direct linguistic and imaginative access to European history, the Holocaust and the struggles of small nations with larger neighbours. He was born to the aftertaste and smell of fascism and Stalinism, and to knowledge of the baleful prospects they held for the Jewish communities of Europe...

...Just as the ordinary and the nightmarish are opposite sides of the same door, so Szirtes's relish of detail and the density of things and places is countered by a larger surrounding darkness - Europe in the night of politics and dream - which seems not to yield to knowledge. For the poet, though, the unknown is an entity in itself, its history and maps and customs arising from imaginative necessity: to declare somewhere unknown is, in rhetorical terms, a strategy for knowing something about it...

...this Collected resembles less a monument than a city or a continent, a Borgesian project of retrieving absolutely everything in the moment of its dissolution. Although in his swarming copiousness and love of the clutter of the specific Szirtes is a very different poet from the austere [Zbigniew] Herbert, he shares the Pole's unswerving attentiveness. Nothing will be spared; therefore let nothing be wasted, not even the horror of a chair where you might sit and write or think: "that one there, / yes, that one with its open arms / and its invitation to sit, / its somnolence, its stab at dignity / its emptiness, was the very devil."

For a good ten years or more I thought I was of no great account to the generation just ten years younger. That's perfectly natural. At forty or fifty you are too like their older brother or even their dad. They don't really get you, nor do they make much effort. As the Scottish poet at the Eliot evening said, 'I was at your reading at StAnza in St Andrew's last year. I thought it was very good. You know I couldn't really "hear" your poetry before'. No point in asking why on such occasions, but I did ask and received the only possible answer: 'I don't know.'

It is natural, I repeat, for one generation to distance itself from the previous one, to look further ahead and further back, so I expected nothing from the generation of which Sean O'Brien is a leading member. They mostly left me out of anthologies (though not O'Brien) and made friendly, but over-the-shoulder Push-off , this is our conversation, noises. Yes, yes, very understandable, I consoled myself, I don't really exist for them - and, for now, they are the generation in power. There was no New Generation campaign, such as they had, when I was on my first two or three books, nor did I think I would necessarily have been chosen as one of such if there had been. My actual readers, or so I guessed were, on the whole, older (I am, after all a product of the Cold War that was put to bed in 1989), and - sometimes, miraculously, younger.

But it was still an odd distancing since technically, and in other ways, we were heading in much the same direction: towards a greater attention to form, stanza and rhyme; a greater concern with the tangible outside world in language close to, but not kowtowing to, a distilled form of street discourse; a wariness of the grander egotistic gestures of confessionalism and of the slam-performance-showbusiness end of the art, and so forth. The 'curmudgeonly traditionalist v. heroic modernist' dichotomy, on which my generation grew up, was fading fast.

So it is a very welcome review. O'Brien is an excellent poet and a properly substantial and, better still, demanding critical intelligence. I don't always agree with his opinions, or didn't when his opinions were what they were, and might still be, and mine were as they were, and maybe still are sometimes, but I always respected those opinions of his, and him generally as un homme sérioux.

Sometimes I think my life has been a series of fallings upstairs. There is a fair amount of luck involved in that. I wish all good poets the same luck, and, occasionally, hope to pass some of it on.

Friday 20 February 2009

Márai: a working woman and a middle class boy

I have so little time for translation at the moment it is a pleasure to get back into it. I'm with Márai for now. Krasznahorkai is waiting in the wings. This is the moment when the central male character of the book (The Intended) gives his account of first meeting the housemaid, Judit Áldozó. We have already had his wife's tale, and the third part of the book, Judit's story, is to come. He is in the middle. He is a young man at the time, just back from a game of tennis. He comes into the hall and notices there is a figure standing there carrying a scrip or tied-up piece of baggage. They stand staring at each other in surprise, and he is convinced they both realise it is a momentous meeting, as indeed it is. Despite the fact that she is a peasant girl just up from the country, standing in the sumptuous hallway of her new employers; she displays extraordinary self-possession. Class and sex and love, but chiefly class here. He is telling the story to a friend in a café, where the much older Judit has just passed with another man, her new husband.


‘What’s your name?...’ I asked her.

She told me. It sounded faintly familiar. Áldozó is much like the word áldozat, meaning 'sacrifice', so there was something ceremonial in it. Even her given name, Judit, had a biblical ring. It was as if she had stepped out of history, out of some biblical state of solid simplicity, like eternal life, real life. It was as if she had arrived not from a village but from some deeper level of existence. I was not much concerned with the propriety of my actions. I stepped over to the door and turned on the light so I could see her more clearly. Even my sudden movement failed to disturb her. Readily and obediently, not like a servant now, but in the manner of a woman acceding to the desires of the one man entitled to demand anything of her, she turned to one side towards the light so I might examine her more closely. She stood there in the lamplight. It was as if she were saying: ‘There you are, take a good look. This is me. I know I am beautiful. Look as hard as you want, take your time. You will remember this face even on your death bed.’ So she stood there calm, immobile, her scrip in her hand, like an artist’s model, silent and willing.

And I carried on gazing at her.

I don’t know whether you got a decent look at her just now?... I alerted you too late. You only saw her body. She is as tall as I am. Her height is in perfect proportion to the rest of her, she is neither fat nor thin, but exactly as she was at the age of sixteen. She has never put on weight, nor ever lost any. You know, there are powerful inner laws that govern the way these things balance out. It was as though her metabolism burned at a constant steady flame. I looked into her face and found myself blinking at the beauty of it, like someone who had lived for many years in a fog and suddenly found himself in bright sunlight. You couldn’t see her face just now. But she has been wearing a mask for a long time anyway, a cosmopolitan mask made up of mascara, paints and powders, false eyes emphasized with eye-shadow and a false mouth drawn on with lipstick. But then, in that first startled moment, her face was still new and unscarred, untouched, direct from its maker’s hand. The touch of her Creator was still fresh on her cheeks. Her face was heart shaped, beautifully proportioned. Each part of it echoed the other to perfection. Her eyes were black, a special kind of black, you know, as if there were a touch of dark-blue in it. Her hair was blue-black too. And one could immediately tell her body was as well proportioned and quite certain of itself. That was why she could stand in front of me with such poise. She had emerged out of anonymity, out of the depths, out of the vast crowd, arriving with something extraordinary: proportion, assurance and beauty. Of course I was only faintly aware of all this. She was no longer a child, but was not quite a woman yet either. Her body had developed but her soul was just waking. I have never met a woman since, so absolutely certain of her own body, in the power of her body as Judit Áldozó was then.

She was wearing cheap city clothes, black shoes with low heels. Everything about her was so consciously and modestly assembled, she was like a peasant girl who had dressed for town and didn’t want to be put to shame by city girls. I looked at her hands. I was hoping to find something unattractive in them. I hoped to find stubby fingers and red palms rough from agricultural work. But her hands were white, her fingers long and graceful. These hands had not been broken by labour. Later I discovered she had been spoiled at home, that her mother never put her to hard manual work.

There she stood content to have me gaze at her under the bright lights. She looked directly into my eyes with a simple curiosity. There was nothing flirtatious about her, neither her eyes nor her posture. There was no invitation. She was not a little tart who finds herself in the big city and makes eyes at the young gentlemen hoping to ingratiate herself to them. No, she was a woman willing to look a man in the eye because she thinks they might have something in common. But she did not overdo it, not then, nor later. The relationship between us was never one of absolute necessity for her. When I could no longer eat, sleep and work without her, when she had entered my skin, my reflexes, like a fatal poison, she remained calm and perfectly self-possessed irrespective of whether she came or went. You think she didn’t love me?... I too thought so for a while. But I don’t want to judge her too harshly. She loved me, but in a different way, in a more cautious, more practical, more grounded sort of way. That, after all, was the situation.

That’s what made her a working woman. And me a middle-class boy. That’s what I wanted to tell you.


Not bad, I think. Both characters are firmly present. And she does become something quite extraordinary as he sees her. Good subject for a thorough deconstruction if that's what you felt like. Me? I have enough to do as it is.

Thursday 19 February 2009

Porter's 80th

Yesterday we went down to London to celebrate Peter Porter's eightieth birthday at the October Gallery. It was also the launch of his new book Better than God. The October Gallery is very near Faber's, just off Queen's Square.

Guest list? Fleur Adcock, Penelope Shuttle, Kit Wright, Ruth Fainlight, Don Paterson, Sean O'Brien, David Harsent, Elaine Feinstein, Hugo Williams, Wendy Cope, Tim Liardet, Martin Bax, Alan Brownjohn, Fiona Sampson, Anthony Thwaite, Ann Thwaite, Helen Simpson... I don't know. Lots of people. Think of a name and drop it. It's a party so we drift around talking that peculiar party talk which is nothing much except a form of acknowledgment. Nobody is doing deals or is after anything, except one elderly artist-translator who clearly fancies C and attempts to exercise elderly wolf charm. I look on and think, he's quite good at this, and it is sort of charming, but he is not going to get anywhere, nor does he think he is going to get anywhere. It's a show of resistance to the flesh the grave cave ate or is going to eat, so go to it. And I think of my father as he was even a few years ago in the supermarket at the cold shelf. You are looking very lovely today, he addresses the woman behind the counter. Ah, what it is to be young. Surely you are not going to charge me £3.75 for that ham. He knows she has to charge what she charges, so does she, but the cavalier doffs his dusty old hat and that's not as it should not be.

Porter is eighty. I remember his seventieth and his sixtieth too. I remember my own sixtieth far more clearly, of course, but when one lines the decades up like that there doesn't seem much difference. Back in 1973 when I was just twenty-four and he was forty-four he would meet me in a nearby pub and talk about the poems I had sent him. He was very generous and helpful. I learned a great deal from him. Sometimes we talked about art, particularly Italian Renaissance art which he loved and I taught, but his knowledge of music and history too was extraordinary - and still is.

Very soon after we met his first wife, Janice, died. I met her just once at their flat - which is where he still lives - a place full of music. The book that eventually followed her death, The Cost of Seriousness, is one of the major books of the post-war period, certainly one of the most moving.

Peter doesn't normally do 'moving'. Chiefly he does 'thinking', with a mind that carries vast freight very quickly. I think chiefly of Browning, but also, to some degree of Auden, and then again of Dryden. The Cost of Seriousness was all the more powerful for that breaking of barriers, the thought surging in on tides of feeling.

There is a special issue of Poetry Review to celebrate his eightieth to which I have contributed a set of poems on one of his favourite painters, Pontormo. I won't put them here until they appear there first. In the meantime, Very Happy birthday, Peter.

There are some poems of his here.

Wednesday 18 February 2009

Twelve points

An excellent article by Howard Jacobson in The Independent argues the obvious rationally, humanely and, of course, articulately. Some points from it:

In the matter of Israel and the Palestinians this country has been heading towards a dictatorship of the one-minded for a long time; we seem now to have attained it. Deviate a fraction of a moral millimetre from the prevailing othodoxy and you are either not listened to or you are jeered at and abused, your reading of history trashed, your humanity itself called into question. I don’t say that self-pityingly...

...My first challenge is implicit in the phrase “the fighting in Gaza”, which more justly describes the event than the words “Massacre” and “Slaughter” which anti-Israel demonstrators carry on their placards. This is not a linguistic ploy on my part to play down the horror of Gaza or to minimise the loss of life. In an article in this newspaper last week, Robert Fisk argued that “a Palestinian woman and her child are as worthy of life as a Jewish woman and her child on the back of a lorry in Auschwitz”. I am not sure who he was arguing with, but it certainly isn’t me...

...Rhetoric is precisely what has warped report and analysis these past months, and in the process made life fraught for most English Jews who, like me, do not differentiate between the worth of Jewish and Palestinian lives, though the imputation – loud and clear in a new hate-fuelled little chamber-piece by Caryl Churchill – is that Jews do. “Massacre” and “Slaughter” are rhetorical terms. They determine the issue before it can begin to be discussed. Are you for massacre or are you not? When did you stop slaughtering your wife?

I watched demonstrators approach members of the public with their petitions. “Do you want an end to the slaughter in Gaza?” What were those approached expected to reply? – “No, I want it to continue unabated.” If “Massacre” presumes indiscriminate, “Slaughter” presumes innocence. There is no dodging the second of those. ...

...And Israel? Well, speaking on BBC television at the height of the fighting, Richard Kemp, former commander of British Troops in Afghanistan and a senior military adviser to the British government, said the following: “I don’t think there has ever been a time in the history of warfare where any army has made more efforts to reduce civilian casualties and deaths of civilians than the IDF (Israeli Defence Forces) is doing today in Gaza.” A judgement I can no more corroborate than those who think very differently can disprove....

And so on.

Language is the point. Slaughter, massacre, extermination, holocaust, being called a Nazi is the point. Jacobson writes apropos the abhorrent sounding Caryl Churchill play where the claim is made that Jews (Jews, not Israelis) are deliberately bred with hatred towards Arabs. Once bad people tried to exterminate them, now they are trying to exterminate another people. Exterminate, you realise. So let them not dare upbraid the world with their holocaust when we can see who the real culprits are now. Perhaps they should have been exterminated. Er, controlled.

Language is vital and it is being determined in what I used to think of as liberal media, the BBC and The Guardian and the Independent too. The first word was disproportionate (though no one as far as I am aware explained what a proportionate response would be). It is from there we proceeded from disproportionate, to slaughter, to massacre, to genocide, to extermination.

The terms stick irrespective of any proof to the contrary. The bombed school that was not bombed, the Jenin massacre that wasn't a massacre, the shot boy who was not shot by Israelis. None of that matters. The fact that Israel left high-tech greenhouses and factories behind in the Gaza Strip which were immediately destroyed by Hamas, counts for nothing. You would think Gaza City was tents and rubble. It is a modern city. Check the photographs on Google Earth.

Deaths there were, and a great assault, that is undeniable and terrible. The rockets weren't going all one way, of course but the ones pointed at Israel were ineffective. They were pointed at population centres but didn't get there. Maybe there should have been no retaliation at all. Maybe there was another way. Maybe it is possible to negotiate with Hamas whose charter demands Israel be wiped off the face of the earth. Maybe they don't mean it. As long as there's a maybe maybe one should work with it.

But the language mounts.

Let me suggest a possible shape of things to come.

1. Universities are pressured by both UCU and students to boycott Israeli universities. The words massacre, slaughter, genocide and extermination will play a powerful part in this. (This last sentence should be repeated at the end of each suggestion);

2. Jewish academics will be asked to sign documents distancing themselves from Israel, that is to say from half the Jewish population of the world;

3. If they don't they will be forced out by psychological and other means such as whispering campaigns, secret blackballing, blocked promotions and so forth. They will be excluded from all representative committees;

4. Jewish Societies will not be allowed to operate or invite speakers, unless they sign up to conditions as above, if not they will be physically intimated by acts that university authorities will overlook;

5. In the press there will be an increasing plethora of negative stories involving people who may or may not be Jewish but about whom rumours will be allowed to circulate. The word 'Jewish' will not be used but some kind of Zionist link will be hinted at;

6. As the financial crisis deepens - and it will - it will be those bankers, financiers and economists who are Jewish whose names will be mentioned and whose names will stick;

7. There will be pressure on editors to restrict the number of articles written by journalists with suspected Zionist sympathies and in the papers themselves there will be more hooked Stars of David and pictures of Jews with hooked noses on display;

8. The cultural press will find more Mearsheimer and Walt style articles / conspiracy stories. The LRB and the TLS will run with these and others will follow;

9. Jewish characters will be villains in the new wave of European then Hollywood films; Synagogues will be burned down. Jewish children will be ever more frequently beaten up in London streets, some arrests will be made but news of these will occupy ever less space in the press.

10. Jews will be blackballed out of clubs, both social and sporting; there will be calls for the entry of Jews into higher education, culture, the press and finance to be restricted;

11. Either Iran nukes Israel or Israel is finally eradicated from the earth by military, combined with political, pressure, no-one will want Israeli refugees. A genuine massacre of Israeli citizens will take place, but these will be called reprisals, condemned but understood;

12. Jews go back to being periodically persecuted minorities.

You think this is paranoid. Some of this is being attempted, has already happened, and goes on happening. Do go on with your talk of massacres, slaughters and exterminations. And of course I am paranoid. I was born that way. It's in the genes, you know.

ps It is worth checking the replies to Jacobson's article and asking how many of them address anything he actually says.

Monday 16 February 2009

Gitmo and the rest

Received today, a circular from International PEN that begins:

Today is a momentous day for Cuba. Fifty years ago, on 16 February 1959, Fidel Castro brought about the fall of the US-backed dictatorship of Batista and Cuba became the western hemisphere's first communist state. 
2009 has been a doubly significant year for Cuba, due to President Obama's orders for the closure of the most notorious prison on the island, Guantanamo Bay. Within a year, the horrific prison conditions against which there have been worldwide protests for the last seven years will cease to exist.

However, there are reportedly over 300 other prisons on the island, many of which are notorious for the ill treatment of political prisoners. These prisoners are often deprived of food and water, whilst guards are known to abuse them both physically and mentally. Many are drugged, left naked for weeks on end or kept in cages where they can barely move. Some resort to self-mutilation in the hope of being granted an early release.

Such treatment has contributed to the rapid decline in health of the many cases of concern to English PEN. In fact, one of the twenty one writers, journalists and librarians still detained almost six years after the 2003 'Black Spring' crackdown on dissidents, reportedly greeted Obama's announcement by saying "When will the world open its eyes and say that the other Guantanamos should be closed?"

Fancy there being another 300 Gitmos in such a small island. Would you ever have guessed? I check the press freedom chart and find Iceland, Luxemburg and Norway sharing no 1 spot. UK is at 23 and rising (equal with Hungary), though if you do it simply as points totals, UK is equal tenth. As you go down you find: France (35), Italy (44) Israel proper (47), Chile (56), dropping through Brazil (82), Bahrain (96), Venezuela (113), Malaysia (132), Russia (141), the bottom of the table being rounded off with, in descending order, Iran, China, Vietnam, Cuba, Burma, Turkmenistan, North Korea, and Eritrea as rock bottom.

As International PEN point out the greatest press freedom is associated not with prosperity but with peace. Has Cuba been at war this past fifty years? Has China?

Reporters without Borders say:

“The world’s closed countries, governed by the worst press freedom predators, continue to muzzle their media at will, with complete impunity, while organisations such as the UN lose all authority over their members,”

As a point of interest the UN Human Rights Council comprises 47 states of which 19 are in positions below 100, with another 7 below 70. It includes Russia, China, Cuba, Malaysia, Azerbaijan and etc etc. That constitutes a majority. They are guaranteeing your human rights.

But hey, no one's perfect.

Sunday 15 February 2009

Sunday Night is.. Rostropovich playing Bach / On torture

Bach's Suite for Solo Cello: Bourrée (Paris, 1962)

When I die I want to turn into a cello. Or maybe I could be buried inside a cello. The sound comes from somewhere just below the heart but works its way up through the heart. It is as if the base of your spine were a tree and the tree were singing.

Far-fetched. I might have put that better years ago, in 'Metro';

...The wind is scrabbling at the glass - perhaps
The trees are waiting to be let in.
The branches say nothing
Expressing only an incoherent thirst
For music, a music so violent and awful
That it can only leave them waving their arms.
Imagine the cellos sprouting dark green tongues
And moaning softly of their lot; their past
Of growing, cutting, hewing, shaping
To this one point of supreme helplessness.
What's eating them? And yet it's good to be eaten,
To become the food of passion and to feel
The stomach rise in suicidal independence...

I think that's still all right. A little risky at the very end maybe. Suicidal independence? Hmm. Maybe...


Sunday mornings is when dad rings for our weekly part-Hungarian, part-English conversation. The idea is to make it entirely Hungarian but occasionally English creeps in. At times it takes over. He was telling me about the Nicky Campbell panel discussion programme he had just been watching on TV. This time one of the subjects was torture and he wanted to discuss it with me.

I don't think he quite knew what he thought, though when he told me that everyone cheered the woman who declared in ringing tones that there should never be any torture anywhere, he felt a slight unease. Maybe the cheer came too easily for him. Another panellist wondered what the woman might say if her own child's life could only be saved by torturing someone.

I said what I would normally say. The question assumes too much. It assumes that people speak the truth under torture, not simply what the torturers want to hear. In that way it is ineffective.

Yes, but morally?

What I think, and sometimes say, is that if anyone harmed my children I would want to rend them slowly limb from limb. I don't think I could tell myself not to feel something I do in fact feel. But feeling is complex, so, at the same time, I would want to be restrained, because I have a certain awareness that if my individual act were to be repeated every time someone felt like exacting revenge, life would be hell. States act partly as intermediaries or proxies for plaintiffs, partly as impersonal keepers of order. I am satisfied, for these purposes, to be assimilated into the body of the state. That is to say after I have calmed down. Or before it even happens.

That's because my personal feeling is not to be confused with the obligations of the state. I recognise the distancing the state affords as a form of benefit. While wanting to exact full and painful revenge on the offender on a personal level, I wouldn't want the state to embody my passion since passion, by its very nature, peaks and fluctuates. The state should be less subject to fluctuation in its judgments: it should take a longer view. (Hence my feeling that all knee-jerk legislation is wrong and harmful.) Beyond that, there is something particularly awful, I personally feel, about state execution. I would not wish the state to act with the deliberation I lack in my passion as executioner on my behalf. Nor would I want the state to inflict the pain I might want to inflict. Basically I want the state to act humanely in such ways I consider to be humane. I want the state to agree with me of course, but not all the time.

That's the easy part.

The difficult, complex part is defining what level of suffering it is appropriate for a state to inflict. Prison is loss of liberty. We accept that. We do not accept state corporal punishment now, and we have long rejected torture.

So what constitutes torture? When you sit in a dark room and are given third-degree in a police cell, meaning someone shouts at you while shining a light in your eyes? When your interrogators insult you? When they are sarcastic to you? When they make you stand in a corner and write a hundred lines? When they keep you awake? When they strip you naked? When they strip you naked and make you stand before people whose presence acutely embarrasses you? When they slap you? When they beat you? When they waterboard you? When they put you on the rack? When they light a bonfire under you?

The photographs of Lynndie England at Abu Ghraib, were certainly humiliating and brutal. Are humiliation and brutality the same as torture? The 1984 UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment states:

.. that no one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment...

which derives from:

the inherent dignity of the human person

The terms used are briefly defined as:

Torture: existence of a specific purpose plus intentional infliction of severe suffering or pain;
Cruel or inhuman treatment: no specific purpose, significant level of suffering or pain inflicted;
Outrages upon personal dignity: no specific purpose, significant level of humiliation or degradation.

So there are three distinct categories. The term torture is given a fuller definition in the UN Convention above, like this:

For the purposes of this Convention, the term "torture" means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions.

There may not seem much point, in ordinary debate, in quibbling about where outrages on personal dignity shade into cruel or inhumane treatment and, finally, torture. The key concept is: the inherent dignity of the human person. I am, of course, deeply sceptical about how many of the states that have signed up to the Convention observe it in this spirit, but I am very much for the spirit. Though that's not difficult either. It's always easier to be for the spirit of something.

My own list above is simply a haphazard collection of actions taken against individuals by people in authority. The book I have just finished reading - a quite marvellous book, The White King, by the Hungarian novelist György Dragomán - is soaked through with brutality, particularly the kind of brutality states inflict on individuals, teachers inflict on children, but also the kind children inflict on each other.

When I was at school I myself was on the receiving end of some acts of brutality, none of which would be tolerated today. I wouldn't however call it torture. Being publicly slippered? Caned? What if it hadn't happened at a London school but at Abu Ghraib? What if it happened now? Surely it would come under one of the three definitions? Yes, but that's now. It was part of the currency of life then.

I expect that, in popular debate, 'torture' does now expand to cover all three areas of mistreatment. It's part of the rhetorical drive of our era, something we have learned from advertisements and other forms of propaganda, and it makes it easier to cheer full-heartedly when someone condemns it.

Cheering, like booing, is easy, was my father's hunch, and I share it. I deeply distrust those moments when everyone feels thoroughly righteous. They are nearly always the points at which we start burning people. And that's torture.

Friday 13 February 2009

Picabia and romantic mechanics

Francis Picabia Movimento DADA 1919

I have a real affection for such drawings by Picabia in his DADA period, as also for some of the more mechanical drawings of Ernst and Malevich and, of course Tatlin. So Picabia, the son of a wealthy diplomat, is in Zürich in 1916 where he meets Tristan Tzara and thinks: This is the most exciting thing that has happened to me !" He already knows Duchamp. Being a natural troublemaker ("Like many of the upper-class / He liked the sound of breaking glass" - Belloc, of someone else) he later falls out, first with the Dadaists, then, three years later, in 1924, with the Surrealists. After 1925 he returns to figurative painting, and during the war starts painting deliberately cheap-looking nudie pictures as in glamour magazines, going on, eventually, to decorate brothels. It's a life. Perhaps if I work very hard at getting rich and louche and fighting drunk there might still be time for me to emulate him. Picabia as Toad of Toad Hall.

But there is something beautiful, playful, a little subversive and strangely romantic about his machine drawings. It is as if art were discovering the geometry of the machine but couldn't help scribbling on it, or pretending it was an angel or a vision of some sort. Picabia in this mood is less Toad of Toad Hall, more Heath Robinson, but without the jokes and everything more-or-less clean. It's all very graceful. Art and the machine do a brief delicate dance. If you pull this lever, it makes that wheel go round, which drives that piston, which then releases that chain that sets off the pulley, and, see, we have made this neat comical-erotic language that tickles the eyes.

And I do find it delightful, and light, and quite heroic in its own frail way. It is certainly more poetry than prose.

Slippery Lippery

Odd how I am looking for something but find something else. This children's poem I wrote about three years ago slipped out of a folder.

Runs till it drops

It never rains but when it’s wet.
Slow drying glue is often fast.
A flower is up when it’s in bed.
A gift’s a present though it’s past.

A beaten cod knows when it’s battered.
An ice cream knows when it is licked.
A tired window can look shattered.
A clock’s in order when it’s ticked.

The wrong road is the one you’ve crossed.
A proper map is a relief.
You rule the roost when you’re embossed.
Hankies obey their handkerchief.

Leopards may hide but will be spotted.
The tiger always earns its stripes.
Meat on cue may well be potted.
Wind whistles but water pipes.

Dad’s bald patch is top of the pops.
A fleecy lamb grown muttonchops.
A wood’s arrested by the copse.
The stopper leaks until it stops.

Your nose runs for you till it drops!!


New poem on the front too. At least I think it hasn't been there before. Off to conduct a viva soon.

Thursday 12 February 2009

Layton and Johnstone

Behold (or behear) 'staid and solid' Layton and Johnstone in a medley.

Encore? Why not, gentlemen.?

As someone says on a comment, one would expect them to be a couple of white folks in tuxedos, a pair of Mr Cholmondely-Warners. But then the Mills Brothers also did elocution. Not so wrong on the tuxedo though.

From the link, above:

Layton and Johnstone invariably appeared on stage in superbly tailored evening clothes. They had always very enthusiastic audiences. As the curtain opened, Turner would be playing an introduction. Then the applause died down, and they went into their act, which was simplicity itself. They were seen in front of plain black curtains and performed with a minimum of movement, Layton seated at the keyboard and Johnstone standing erect in the crook of the grand piano. The only hint of flamboyance came from a silk handkerchief which Johnstone always clutched in one hand. But what the audience regarded indulgently as a mild affectation was, in reality, a device to disguise a hand crushed in a boyhood accident.

As a student, I used to love junk shops, which is where I bought two Layton and Johnstone 78s. One had When the Red Red Robin and the other had Ro Ro Rolling Along. In the days when I used regularly to hitch from Leeds to Norwich to see C, we would sometimes put these on on a Sunday morning. They were in their way a kind of soundtrack along with Traffic, The Incredible String Band, The Stones, Mozart and Chopin.

Wednesday 11 February 2009

Coming up in the near and mid-future

Just a filler with some dates:

6 March - Bath Literary Festival
7 March Poetry School, London
10 March - Reading at Michaelhouse, Cambridge
16 - 20 March - Newcastle, Three lectures and reading
28 / 29 March - BASEES Conference, Cambridge, Keynote speech
9 April - Hungarian Cultural Centre, Esther's Inheritance, talk and film
21 April - University of Hull reading and talk
27 / 28 April, Kellogg College, Oxford, workshop and reading
29 April - Reading in London, Athaeneum Club
30 April - Reading London at Keats's House

More on May later. Invitations to Basle, Rotterdam, Macedonia and Berlin later in the year and an Arvon Course.


Today, nose to three and a half grindstones. Result? Little nose left.

Tuesday 10 February 2009

Tuesday night is..

...what Monday night is supposed to have been except we went straight out after I returned from work to the reading at Jurnet's Bar to hear Penelope Shuttle and Emma Jones, Faber's new Australian poet. No regrets at all.I have heard Penny read several times and the poems on the death of Peter Redgrove continue buoyant, sad and marvellous. As for Emma Jones: reader, I bought the book. She sounds full of adventure and space and the language bucks and sprints and opens its mouth wide in her. I think I will enjoy reading the whole thing.

But the rain was bucketing and the night was late and I was considerably sleepy so there was no time for this, as there sort of is now, though I have spent the afternoon arranging one thing or another, writing letters, reading poems.


C wanted to scan in some photos but when she opened the printer she found my passport-set under the lid, the photobooth picture I myself scanned in for Facebook (not that I do very much there at all). I looked at the face and didn't much like it. But then I never do. Fascinating, I thought, how we want to look good in photos - whatever good amounts to - almost more in photos than in life. It isn't as simple as vanity. Few of us think we look beautiful or handsome, but the photos, the photos... The trace, the permanent, or partly permanent, trace; that Platonic shadow of our best selves, needs to be fully kitted up to meet its maker. Because it matters in the vast universe, and all those other universes hiding behind this one, ad infinitum, that this creature, this tiny splinter of consciousness should have in some ways presented itself to the pooled or peaked consciousness of those incomprehensible spaces and registered itself, as itself. As some kind of quintessence or fulfilment or excuse.

I remember hearing Norman Mailer talk about Marilyn Monroe. The interviewer was astonished that he could talk of her in the same breath as Sir Laurence Olivier - because he was, you see, a proper actor, he played a variety of characters whereas she... she was, he must have thought, just a hapless, sad, curvy, chewing-gum, bottle-blonde, pneumatic, cooing, infantilised nothing-but-a-version-of-herself on a very large screen.

Yes, Mailer, riposted, but that is because you don't understand what movie acting is about. It was, he suggested, or so I remember, that sense of being a self that is capable of magnification, simplification and fixedness. It is, in that way, the being that comprehends the image and the image that becomes the viewer. (Although this is now not Mailer exactly, but me, running on, taking over.) And of course Mailer was dead right. There was that lovely phrase a commenter, Nicole, used about Cary Grant to my last posting: He always has this air of not quite believing he is where he is. Yes, that's it perfectly. And that is what is wonderful about him. Cary Grant is the icon that does precisely that. That is what being Cary Grant is. Just as Monroe is the icon that does what she does. They are those oddly hollow ringing vastnesses we step into as we might into cinema itself. Or, indeed, into the imagination

And that is, perhaps, in some ways, what we want with our photos, our images of ourselves. We want them to feel as though we and others could enter them as a kind of icon. This is not to do with acting, with being Sir Larry, and still less with reality. It is to do with imagined space, with the consciousness that fixes itself briefly on the fleeting sense of being and desires meaning in the same terms as that which it looks at.

We want to look cute, authoritative, deep, certain, or whatever else we can imagine on the big screen of the self. And that's kind of sweet. It's just humans being human, charming, vulnerable objects of desire.

And this little video too is cute. I found it via a Guardian hint, on a site called Old Jews Telling Jokes. Hey, not so old either! Not what I'd call old. Not now. The woman telling the joke is the director's mom, and, as he puts it, "she drops the F bomb". Pretty good, I say. Just beware the adverts under and after. No jokes about that please. Someone has to mind the shop.

Sunday 8 February 2009

Sunday Night is.. Cary Grant singing Cole Porter... his own inimitable way. I keep thinking he is being played by Tony Curtis.


Finished second of Newcastle lectures about poetry and history / politics / Eastern Europe and whether we live in ivory towers. I know I do, but it could do with some redecoration. I also packed up a working state of the new younger Hungarian poets anthology (for Salt). All work no play makes George a relieved boy. Temporarily. Temporarily.

Read Will Self on W G Sebald in The Guardian. What he misses about Max is humour and delight. I know, Sebald is melancholy. That's a given, but not that it's a droll melancholy - droll, that is, when it is he himself being melancholy. It is deep dark melancholy when it comes to the human race though. Self is right to emphasise that Sebald loves individuals but not the species.

Phenomena are another thing altogether: life in Sebald is absolutely full of extraordinary things: from moths, through the human eye, through domes, through hotels, through colours, through coincidence, through almost anything at all perceivable. It is the magical encyclopaedia aspect of his work.

It is history that is deeply melancholy for him. And so it is. For us too. That's the whole point of an ivory tower - it is an observation post from which one might survey the multitudinous seas clashing incarnadine, alas, against the rocks. Everyone needs one or else drowns. Life is not, as Pasternak put it, a walk across a field. Nor, equally alas, across water.

A melancholy thought. Put on Otis.

Phew! That was a close thing.

Saturday 7 February 2009

A literary agent

I wrote this some two years ago but quickly took it off when some students thought it might prejudice their chances of being taken on by the subject of this blog. Well, best not prejudice that.


The man looks more like a literate estate agent and before his talk shows some interest in the high finance of small art school degrees. When it comes to the talk itself - in a none too comfortable, quiet or well-ventilated room in Carol Ann Duffy Towers to a sprinkling of second years chiefly interested in fiction - we are told that he is agent not only for X and Y novelists but for Jordan

He describes in some detail what an agent does, which resembles ever more what an editor does. He gives two or three conflicting versions of what he looks for in an approach letter, in a synopsis, and in an excerpt.

As concerns the letter, he advises, make it brief and humble. Preferably very humble. Apologise profusely for taking up his valuable time. Do not come on big or boast. However, if you have any claims to celebrity status or connection with anyone of even faintly celebrity status do mention it. On the other hand do not write more than one page. Or preferably half a page. He will respond in one page. Or actually half a page. He will be perfectly polite. He will tell you if you are boring and talentless. He hates misspellings. He'll throw away a letter if a word is misspelt or inelegantly phrased. He is a hard man. These are hard times. I can't help wondering what sort of approach letter Jordan might have written.

On the synopsis and excerpt, never more than one page of synopsis. Agents and editors have short attention spans, so no more than three characters to be named, no complex descriptions. Keep it SIMPLE. But be extraordinary, different, eye-catching, just like an advertising tagline in other words. This is, after all, advertising. The word product slips through his lips once or twice. He stuffs it back in.

The novel extract is usually the first fifty odd pages. But then, sometimes, the next hundred is better. Then again sometimes not. Choose carefully.

Time and again he emphasises the increasing power of corporations who are not interested in books selling in less than five figures. Most novels don't. Most first novelists sell even less. It helps being photogenic. But, he hastily adds, it isn't a matter of prettiness or looks. Not even, I inwardly add, for Jordan. Frankly an agent isn't going to make money out of anyone selling in four figures. He discounts the internet revolution and print on demand. Not what it's cracked up to be.

He supposes people who sell in four figures are satisfying themselves: it must be spiritually fulfilling, he suggests, to whistle in the wind to other no-counts. Creative Writing courses produce nothing of course. Genius, even talent, (unlike in music, dance, the visual arts or any other art - GS) is entirely self-nourishing. Go on whistling in the wind! There are agents who sit at the gates of UEA waiting for innocent McEwans and Ishiguros to emerge. But stuff that comes off creative writing courses is essentially dull, formulaic and naff. He wouldn't waste his time hanging round such places. Albeit one of his writers, A, is sitting next to him and he is... a graduate of the UEA MA in Creative Writing. Jordan never did a course in creative writing and she sells in six figures!

Carol Ann Duffy Towers is not the most materially assuring of places. It looks like the old industrial building it was. No one likes it. We don't.

Daughter H is an editor at a big publishing house. The editors loathe the agents, she says. She works five or six days a week sometimes late into the night. She has never met Jordan.

The agent has literary standards. He cares deeply, first and foremost for literature. It's a sad world, he implies, and you are sad wankers. He at least, he lets us know, is making money.

Friday 6 February 2009


I did the RNIB conversation by phone this morning: about an hour of talking about poetry to six blind men and women in various parts of the country, the conversation held together by a kind woman called Iona speaking from somewhere in the far north of Scotland. I think they were mostly older people, lively and full of questions. They said none of their audiobooks had any poetry and asked where they could get recordings, so I told them about the Poetry Archive with its hour long CDs for sale and downloadable free poem selections.

But chiefly I was talking about poetry, what it is like, what it is concerned with, what's it for and how it gets perceived and written.

One said: But you were an artist and we have no visual sense. So I started talking about synasthaesia. When you hear a voice do you think of it as warm or cold? Yes, they said.

And I go on thinking: Can we say a smell is soprano or bass? Or does it make sense talking about a taste having the texture of rusty metal? Yes, of course, this is all possible. Because poetry is so deeply rooted in metaphor, synasthaesia comes naturally to it. We try to absorb the totality of experience employing the entire range of senses and run the result through the maelstrom of language. It is not surprising, under the circumstances, that one sense should reach out to touch another in the swirl and twist of it.

The most famous poem to hint at a possible synasthaesic system is Rimbaud's poem, Voyelles, or 'Vowels':


A noir, E blanc, I rouge, U vert, O bleu: voyelles,
Je dirai quelque jour vos naissances latentes:
A, noir corset velu des mouches éclatantes
Qui bombinent autour des puanteurs cruelles,

Golfes d'ombre; E, candeurs des vapeurs et des tentes,
Lances des glaciers fiers, rois blancs, frissons d'ombelles;
I, pourpres, sang craché, rire des lèvres belles
Dans la colère ou les ivresses pénitentes;

U, cycles, vibrements divins des mers virides,
Paix des pâtis semés d'animaux, paix des rides
Que l'alchimie imprime aux grands fronts studieux;

O, suprême Clairon plein des strideurs étranges,
Silences traversés des [Mondes et des Anges]:
—O l'Oméga, rayon violet de [Ses] Yeux!

This is Oliver Bernard's* prose translation:

A black, E white, I red, U green, O blue: vowels, I shall tell, one day, of your mysterious origins. A, black velvety jacket of brilliant flies which buzz around cruel smells,

gulfs of shadow; E, whiteness of vapours and of tents, lances of proud glaciers, white kings, shivers of cow-parsley; I, purples, spat blood, smile of beautiful lips in anger or in the raptures of penitence;

U, waves, divine shudderings of viridian seas, the peace of pastures dotted with animals, the peace of the furrows which alchemy prints on broad studious foreheads;

O, sublime Trumpet full of strange piercing sounds, silences crossed by Angels and by Words - O the Omega! the violet ray of Her Eyes!

(I post this prose translation because it still seems to me the best though I myself am occasionally tempted to have a go at a fully rhymed sonnet version.)

When I dashed in to teach my class at the university, synasthaesia came up again through playing with word association. We were looking at Frank O'Hara's Why I am Not a painter, a poem that seems to dawdle along until he comes to the subject of oranges, at which point the poem spirals beyond its off the cuff colloquial ease .

Here's the O'Hara:

Why I Am Not A Painter

I am not a painter, I am a poet.
Why? I think I would rather be
a painter, but I am not. Well,

for instance, Mike Goldberg
is starting a painting. I drop in.
"Sit down and have a drink" he
says. I drink; we drink. I look
up. "You have SARDINES in it."
"Yes, it needed something there."
"Oh." I go and the days go by
and I drop in again. The painting
is going on, and I go, and the days
go by. I drop in. The painting is
finished. "Where's SARDINES?"
All that's left is just
letters, "It was too much," Mike says.

But me? One day I am thinking of
a color: orange. I write a line
about orange. Pretty soon it is a
whole page of words, not lines.
Then another page. There should be
so much more, not of orange, of
words, of how terrible orange is
and life. Days go by. It is even in
prose, I am a real poet. My poem
is finished and I haven't mentioned
orange yet. It's twelve poems, I call
it ORANGES. And one day in a gallery
I see Mike's painting, called SARDINES

Then we start to talk about orange, and why anyone should think orange, the colour, was terrible, and, if terrible, in what sense terrible, and this leads us on to the great glacier of the Romantic sublime, and what those pages of words about orange might have looked like. Synasthaesia. Madness. Mind-altering substances.

I should add that Oliver Bernard, now in his eighties, is a marvellous poet and lives only a few miles down the road. He sent me a CD of his poems yesterday that I was listening to, enchanted. There is a droll, sharp edge to the voice that suddenly flows into a kind of richness, somewhat reminiscent of my first unofficial mentor, Martin Bell. Oliver was Jeffrey's brother of course, and Bruce's. Oliver in youth here:

Those Bernards. Those Soho Bernards. Those Unwell Bernards. Those Colony Club Bernards. Oliver's version of the anonymous 15th century poem Quia Amore Langueo is glorious. Oliver's version is not on the web but I have a small pamphlet of it. Upstairs. Somewhere. In that faint green noise.

Thursday 5 February 2009

Domain revisited

My mother would have been eight-five today had she lived. As it was she died thirty-four years ago at the age of only fifty-one. I remember doing a reading on my fifty-first birthday and mentioning that I was precisely her age on the day.

The human span, or life arc, is not that long though consciousness generally makes it seem longer, almost eternal. It is very hard to think of consciousness actually stopping. Sometimes it is even possible to think consciousness governs time, that as Marvell says at the end of his To His Coy Mistress, we can make it run.

...Let us roll all our strength and all
Our sweetness up into one Ball:
And tear our Pleasures with rough strife,
Thorough the Iron gates of Life:
Thus, though we cannot make our Sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.

This, naturally, in the course of an argument to persuade said coy mistress into bed. The fact is she might think it was not an altogether bad argument, especially when put with such grim élan (The Grave's a fine and private place / But none I think do there embrace... and a few lines earlier... Then worms shall try / That long preserved virginity. And, 'Thank you kind sir,' she might say to that yet find a biting edge of persuasion).

Anyway here is Magda as she would have been about 1962 perhaps:

Magda, c. mid 60s

She is still at work and the photograph would have been taken in the photographers in Oxford Street that employed her, perhaps as a favour, or as a dare by one of the others. (Go on, get your picture taken!) Or maybe it was taken by GV, a professional photographer acquaintance, who had, it seems, taken some rather risqué photos of his wife, as well as of other women, since he had a sideline as a glamour photographer. But that is all hearsay. Here she looks as melancholy as she sometimes could look, except when she was angry, excited or simply exhausted.

She was only 5'1" but slender. Her fingers were very long and supple. She had a beauty spot she painted black, the spot just detectable on the photo on the left side of her face. Note the cigarette in her right hand.

The photographers was part of the domain, as would that part of Oxford Street have been, and the bus ride or tube ride there and back, and the long steep climb up to our house from the bus stop or tube station on the Edgware Road below, a climb her heart condition made ever more demanding.

Home as domain only began to matter very much, it now seems to me, once she was no longer able to work and the house became her cage. It was then she began to collect birds in cages too. Two budgies, a Yorkshire canary that sang sweetly, two zebra finches, two lovebirds and others that came and went. One of the zebra finches had a leg chewed off by the others who then pecked at it. The Yorkshire Canary was in its own normal birdcage, the rest shared a tall cylindrical one. She expended much affection on these.

Ideally she would have had a chimpanzee, but that was out of the question, as was a dog that might have been too energetic, though she loved dogs. Out in the garden, at different times, there were geese, and ducks. In the shed, hamsters and white mice.

I took the animals to be part of her maternal domain, flickers of life of which she was the centre. The radiogram downstairs might now and then play Tchaikovsky - Swan Lake as likely as not - or Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto, or a Beethoven overture, or a Strauss waltz, or a Chopin Polonaise, or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsodies, or some of her beloved tzigeuner music, violins and stagy sobbing voices emoting songs of which she knew all the words.

On Sundays there would be bridge or rummy or Monopoly and a visit to a restaurant, either the local italian caff with the beautiful, giggling Philomena or, on a longer trip, down to Schmidt's in Charlotte Street with its great halls and ancient parched Viennese waiters, plump as trussed chickens or thin as Konrad Adenauer.

And we were there of course, part of the domain, but all too quickly outgrowing it. And eventually the Iron Gates closed, or rather she drew them closed herself, since her own life was also her domain.


Norm has a very good article on Gaza here. And if anyone is interested in my view on translation there's an interview I made for a Hungarian literary website here. An excerpt on being asked what annoyed me in translations I didn't like:

I used to think that the most annoying aspect of a bad translation was loss of register, an incomplete sense of the modalities of the receiving language. I didn’t like translations that were too locally-coloured or pretended to be slangy London or New York, or any other place. I suspect translations live in an imagined terrain that is not entirely fixed. They inhabit the air between two cultures. I don’t like the moral-political option on translations in which the translator is constantly quibbling about the right of the receiving language to engage with the other text on perfectly natural terms. It irritates me more than anything when the translator takes upon herself or himself to redress a political imbalance by mangling a perfectly open text just to show that they are not simply co-opting it. That is of no help to the original at all; post-colonial guilt may be salutary for the soul but it is poison to the original text.

Tomorrow I do a phone interview for the RNIB in the morning, then go in and teach what I couldn't teach on Monday. And talk about aphorisms apropos a doctorate.

Wednesday 4 February 2009

Back from...

..London this time (again). A meeting at 10.30 then speaking at LSE at 12 for an hour. On the platform as I set out before the train arrives someone calls my name and it turns out to be A, who teaches at the LSE. A is an economist specialising in Eastern Europe, and, not quite incidentally, a friend of Richard Bronk, author of the just published The Romantic Economist, which she read before publication and considers a marvellous, epoch-changing book. One for me to read then.

We chatted through the first leg of the journey from Wymondham to Cambridge. She talked about the key power of metaphor in economics, pointing primarily to the metaphor of balance as derived from Newton, and how that metaphor might give way to what Bronk proposes, a metaphor of dynamics, not far removed, as far as I could judge, from the theories of Deleuze and Guattari. But that's only a guess until I read the book.

Talk drifted, as it would, to the current unofficial strikes, the EU and the economic crisis. She thought it was a great mistake to accuse the strikers of xenophobia. The EU, of which she is I think a great supporter, does have a way, she says, of creating fudge and muddle, and the role of foreign workers working at different rates from indigenous ones is only partly addressed. I asked how far the current economic crisis springs out of the ideas of Hayek. Directly, she said. His mind, she elaborated, worked like an eighteenth century mechanic's. He was so against the closed societies also opposed by Popper, that he failed to see that international business could be as bureaucratic and closed as a one-party state. It's all in John Stuart Mill, she said. He was a genius. And Adam Smith too is easily distorted. He was closer to socialism than tories claim. My guess is that A herself is firmly on the environmentalist left but she doesn't talk slogans, she talks detail, which, to tell the truth, I far prefer.

This is all interesting. I am utterly out of my depth but think I am grasping certain concepts, so I jot the subject of conversation down here so I might return to some of these ideas I later. You can see why economics is called the Dismal Science, she says as we part.

My talk at the LSE goes fine. Afterwards we sit down and talk about Russian poetry, Blok, Akhmatova and Brodsky. The difficulties of translation and of form. The meaning of form. All these things will at some stage emerge as essays or memos. Bits might find their way into the Newcastle lectures.

Tuesday 3 February 2009

The Damned United

Into university first thing to discuss a proposed doctorate, all the nitty gritty of focus and scope. No snow at all, but full sunlight on bare road, with some spots of delicate black ice, thin as the thinnest glass, gently frazzled, like an old oil painting with craquelure. Yes, and slippery.

Then home to make notes on another doctorate I had read some weeks ago and made scribbled notes about on scraps of post-it sticky paper stuffed here and there inside the thesis. That took most of the day.

Now it is evening and my eyes and back are well past the strains of the violet hour. A whole day thinking and turning scribbles into a draft for a sensible report.


In odd moments I thought back to David Peace's book about Brian Clough, The Damned United. Reviews: Guardian here, Observer here, and some bloggies here. And here is one registering Clough's widow, Barbara's, hostile reaction.

As is well known, the book is concerned primarily with the real Brian Clough's doomed forty-four day period as manager of a team he hated, Leeds United. Unusually for a work of fiction it carries a bibliography at the back to show Peace has drawn on available material in the form of other books about or including Clough. In other words it draws attention to his own book's non-fiction, documentary aspect.

I was not entirely swept away by the book. I don't know whether I even liked it very much. Technically it alternates between Clough at Leeds, day by day, and Clough at Derby County, building a top quality European side from nothing. Clough is generally shown to be a proud, vain, obsessive, deeply vulnerable, insecure, childish man who gets drunk whenever he is down, which is frequently, and who shamelessly exploits those around him.

I have no idea whether he was like that, of course. I only know the fiction Peace presents us with. I am prepared to believe - in a fiction suspension-of-disbelief sense - in the depiction of claustrophobic, nefarious, and poisonous board-rooms and dressing rooms. I think Peace is good at showing the delicate balance between admiration, envy, loathing and contempt in Clough's attitude to the previous and hugely successful manager of Leeds, Don Revie. I think he is good at portraying a certain kind of partnership-friendship-mutual dependency between Clough and his sidekick, Peter Taylor, and he is good at male group loyalty. I don't mean he is great, I mean he is feasible and vivid.

But Clough, as I remember him, was witty and smart as well as deliberately provocative, and Peace gives me not the least idea why he was any good as a manager, either in human terms or technically. And Clough was outstandingly good. In fact he was a genius. Fair enough, Peace might think that football talk will bore a non-football reader, but I think it is important in presenting a real, identifiable figure in fictional terms. And, after all, it is a little patronising to football and footballers to assume their craft is somehow beneath the reader. And Clough, the fiction, should be feasible as a fictional manager of genius.

He makes absolutely nothing of the way he carried his favourite players round from team to team - John O'Hare and John McGovern come to mind. It would be good to know what he saw in them and they in him. There must have been a strange and potent relationship between them that is key to the character and his public success, but we see nothing of it. Not in the fiction, though the fiction requires it.

And strangest of all we are left at the end of the book with a sense that it is all over for Clough, that tragedy has caught up with him, so it is quite impossible to believe that he recovered and led a completely new team, Nottingham Forest, to heights even greater than Derby's, often using players of seemingly average ability. Not only did he carry that team to heights, he kept them there.

It wasn't just because he got pissed with them and swore at them a lot which is what Peace might lead you to assume. And here, because we know Clough was not a fiction, but a real man in real time and space, fiction breaks against fact, and, for me, actually breaks. Simply breaks.

There is a vast chunk of Clough missing in Peace's book, and it is not football but the human life, or that part of human life in which football is involved, which is, in the end, simply human life, as much human life as if Clough were a nuclear physicist, a spy a multiple murderer or a philanderer, the Don Juan of Derby. No wonder Barbara Clough loathed it. She must have felt that a part of her own life had been stolen from her and appropriated for someone else's use.

Indeed, it is fiction not biography, so it says on the cover. It is that tricky area where a writer with a sense of what constitutes tragedy takes a real figure and adapts him for the purpose. All fiction appropriates to some degree. It is just that the appropriation seems more brutal, less convincing on this occasion.

Incidentally, that is the Nottingham Forest badge he is wearing on his blazer in the photo. He looks some way short of tragedy. John McGovern is, I think, the head peeping out behind him, Peter Taylor is the older one and, in the background, is Viv Anderson with a haircut that makes him look like Danny John-Jules, the cat in Red Dwarf. I'm not all high culture and rock 'n' roll.

Monday 2 February 2009

'Barbados' in the real real Snow

Snow today accompanied by the usual fear and trembling and forecasts of doom. So much so, I called off an afternoon seminar because of those very forecasts. And still it snows, albeit lightly. More and deeper expected any time now. Until then time for me to steam ahead with the second Newcastle lecture.

In London, however:

London, 2 February 2009

Photo, today, by daughter, H.

And big hat-tip to Linda, for the wonderful BFI film (below) of the 1962-63 snow that I remember well, at age thirteen, in a winter that will always be marked, for those who love poetry, with Sylvia Plath's suicide. Watch and wonder.

The reference to Barbados becomes clear in the film if you watch closely. This is part of the text with it:

In a mere half-dozen films released between 1959 and 1975, director Geoffrey Jones revealed himself as an outstanding talent, embracing industrial filmmaking as consistent with a personal style, blending movement and sound into a joyous, rhythmic whole. Brilliantly aided by Wolfgang Suschitzky's shimmering camerawork, the Oscar-nominated 'Snow' is Jones' masterpiece. It's crisply invigorating enough to induce brief amnesia about our trains' notorious inability to cope with the white stuff - then and now. (Patrick Russell)

BFI is a blessing.

Sunday 1 February 2009

From Russia

I am giving this space because it is important and seems to me typical of the way things go in Russia.

On 19 January, human rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov and young anti-fascist journalist Anastasia Baburova were assassinated in the center of Moscow. Stanislav Markelov, 34, defended the interests of victims of the Russian government’s policy in Chechnya, anti-fascists, activists of independent trade unions and social movements. As a convinced democrat and socialist he participated in various campaigns for justice and freedom in Russia and internationally...

...Recommended action: send letters to Russian Embassies in your country, express indignation about political terrorism in Russia, demand the thorough investigation of the murder of Stanislav Markelov and Anastasia Baburova and suitable punishment of the perpetrators be carried out.

Model Letter:

Mr. Ambassador, I am writing to express my concern about the Jan. 19 assassination of human rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov and young anti-fascist journalist Anastasia Baburova in Moscow in an atmosphere of increasing nationalist violence and legal impunity for killers. Please urge your Government to take strong and effective measures to rein in fascist violence, bring the perpetrators to justice, and prevent future assaults on journalists, lawyers and human rights advocates — scandalous political crimes that seriously undermine the credibility of the Russian Federation in the international sphere. (signed, etc)

Yeah — I know. Fat chance. You could also publicise this story in whatever way you can in order to exert pressure on the Russian authorities. After all, they care about their ‘image’ if nothing else.

Thanking Will.