Thursday 30 April 2009


...from which not yet back from. Another internet cafe, in Hampstead this time, so just brief. I will write up more tomorrow.

Last night the reading at the Athenaeum. A very good occasion, and quite a place. Daughter H kept us informed afterwards regarding state of affairs at Old Trafford. This morning Picasso at the NG then Gerhard Richter at the NPG, much more on both tomorrow, both fascinating.

Meet son T at NG then go for a bar meal, back to Athenaeum for a rest before coming up here.

On tube saw two people - both Asian - holding something before their noses. The Great Armageddon Flu Fear has arrived. As for the Death Plague itself: minor earthquake in Mexico, not many killed.

Now for a cup of tea before another reading. A girl three places down from me is chatting in Hungarian. Let's leave her to it.

Tuesday 28 April 2009

Cup 1: Sink 0

Yesterday the seminar and then the reading. All fine. At the end of the reading a chance to talk to some of the students, an impressive bunch, talented, leading professional lives, moving about the world.

It takes a while to fall asleep, but eventually sleep arrives. When I wake I have a shower and put the kettle on. It duly boils. I want to wash the cup from last night's tea so go to the sink and rinse it, then give it a shake to get rid of the water. It slips from my hand into the sink. There is a crack. I must have broken the cup, or the handle has come off: that's what I think. But what I see is the cup unbroken. It is the sink that has a hole in it. It looks faintly surreal, David Lynch out of Marcel Duchamp. At least it's not a urinal. The sink is quite thin, not solid porcelain. In the battle between cup and sink, the cup - possibly because of its more compact form - has come out a clear winner. Nothing to be done. I make the tea, drink it, get dressed and report the rock-star style wrecking of my hotel room with due shame (60 year old poet in sink smashing frenzy!) General forgiveness. At least I haven't thrown the TV through the window.

After breakfast with Clare and Jane and Rebecca and some of the students, I get my bags and wait for my taxi. It soon arrives. On the way home it is Haydn String Quartets in G, and in D Minor, then Brahms Double Concerto in A Minor, Brahms Piano Quartet No. 3, then, on the last leg, the Dudley Moore Trio lyrical, funny, melancholy and surprising and just right. This is while marking some papers for UEA. In the last leg it is just music and landscape. Pigs sleeping like slabs of rock, several fallen together in big stony plops. Sheep dozing in clots with a few lambs tottering between them. Tracks of water, pools, marsh, forest, the chicken-packing works at Attleborough.

C waits for me at the station and we walk home. She shows me the dress she has bought for H and R's wedding. It's lovely. And secret. It will be the dress that shook the world. One of the papers I picked up in the train - The Times? - has an article about how men have ruined the financial world and now women are dashing to the rescue. How? By shopping. C, my saviour!

The Guardian is making even bigger headlines about offering Caryl Churchill's disgusting 'Seven Jewish Children' to the public (yes, I have read it, and consider it deeply anti-Semitic, the essential not-quite-overt message: Jews are a psychologically ruined people who have effectively poisoned their children, in other words you may as well finish them off, they're lost, inhuman, vicious, they deserve everything that's coming to them, maybe they really should have been finished off last time.)

My resolution is to give up buying The Guardian. Such well-meaning liberal people! I'll look at it on the web from now on. As and when. Well, maybe the Saturday Review. Maybe.

Tomorrow down to read at the Athenaeum. The day following at Hampstead. So it goes on - for the moment.

Monday 27 April 2009

from Oxford

In the students' computer room at Kellogg College. Arrived yesterday afternoon to hear Gerard Woodward read from his book of short stories featuring stolen caravans. GW and I have met often enough before, here and at Bath Spa chiefly. This time he is just back from Galway ('Just back' gets to be the middle name of almost all writers after a while).

Splendid Woodwardian story: a late middle aged couple are in their perfectly appointed all-mod-cons caravan, when husband wakes up and hears wife snoring. He contemplates what she is now and compares her to how she had been when young and desirable. Overnight, while they are both asleep, they find their caravan has been mysteriously moved and abandoned in a field of rape. There is nothing else in sight anywhere and eventually they get out and try to find their way back to some recognisable landmark.

Rape is not called rape for nothing in a story, still less in a poem, and this story is part-poem in its conception. As they trudge through the fields he suddenly lusts for her and imagines what would happen if he initiated sex now, how she would resist, and then how he might have to smash her head in with a nearby stone. But none of this actually happens. He has never harmed anyone in his life. Nor does he harm her. Eventually they get out of the field. End of story.

The story isn't the story, not entirely anyway. It is full of hallucinatory realistic minutiae and a kind of dark humour combined with pure poetic symbolism, which is to say symbolism that does not lead to a clear interpretation but to a sense of the size and gravity and apprehension of things. The main poetic moment here is the point at which one of them breaks open the seedpod of two rape heads to reveal five black seeds in each. That is brilliant. It is sinister and premonitory long before the thing of which it is a premonition has actually happened.

GW was a student of the late Peter Redgrove. You can sense the literary bloodline here. The stories he mentions are all extraordinary but ordinary, all premonitory.

I am so pleased to have been able to use the word 'apprehension' again. It's what poetry is most of the time, without, necessarily, the fear. Just that things are always more, and more significant than you can fathom.

Interested also to see James O'Fee (link provided later) picking up my piece about Ireland and the single oppressor. Mark charmingly added a second oppressor in comments (the Norsemen, who have since compensated by awarding Seamus Heanery the Nobel Prize). James is concerned primarily with the contrast between history and myth. Later, as I say.

Here is has stopped raining. I took a seminar this morning and am free until the evening, when I read my own work. In another room, Jane Draycott. In still another, Pascale Petit.

Unable to sleep properly last night I found myself watching a boxing match in which an English boxer called Kotch (?) beat an American boxer called Taylor for a world title by stopping him with only fourteen seconds of the last round left. About fourteen seconds later I myself was asleep. KO? OK.

Sunday 26 April 2009

Sunday night is.. Laine, Dankworth, Gershwin

Sunday morning actually as I am off to Oxford for two night, sandwiching one day's work on Monday. But Bob from Brockley (where we lived between 1972-73 while I was at Goldsmiths) is asking for Spring songs, so here is one.

Cleo Laine, Johnny Dankworth (daughter Jacky once appeared in a play wot I wrote, and very good she was too) with Gershwin. As for the rest, mostly in good old springlike black and white:

Schubert: from Die Schöne Müllerin, here
Aretha Franklin: Respect here
Andrews Sisters: Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree here
The Who: My Generation here
John Lee Hooker: Boom Boom here
Beethoven String Quartet Op 132 (bliss!!! and never mind the visuals) here

That's yer seven. Bring on the seventy-seven

List seven songs you are into right now. No matter what the genre, whether they have words, or even if they’re not any good, but they must be songs you’re really enjoying now, shaping your spring. Post these instructions in your blog along with your 7 songs. Then tag 7 other people to see what they’re listening to.

So, I tag: Foster Boy, The Plump, David at georgiasam, Jonathan, David Morley, Pootergeek,and Shuggy.

I'll remind them when I get back. Perhaps they'll find it here.

Saturday 25 April 2009

Extracting Virtue

Sometimes I write answers in comments which are really too long to be there (I don't mind them from others but I don't guarantee to read them through) and, since I spent some time trying to sharpen one particular one in which I respond to Background Artist regarding Edmund Spenser and his cruelties in Ireland, I will sharpen it one last time here.


Poets are not necessarily the best and kindest of people. Cruelties are not unknown among them. For all that, Keats was much influenced by Spenser in his use of the open vowel. An arse-kissing poem - ie The Faery Queen in this case - may, nevertheless, be a great poem. Eliot uses Spenser's Prothalamion in constructing a moment of sadness and bliss in The Waste Land. "...Against the Brydale day, which is not long: / Sweete Themmes runne softly, till I end my Song..." is rather beautiful, so beautiful we read it as metaphor rather than as toadying. The poetry is not in the opinion but in the vision and the command of language. It is in the creation of the voice and its gifts. Alas, that it is so, but it is so.

That also makes Leni Riefenstahl's films of the Nuremberg Rally and the 1936 Olympiad rather masterful, indeed, beautiful, and I say that remembering it was the passionate consumers of those films that killed half my family. I don't mean three centuries ago. I mean directly in my parents' time. What this shows is that even in the most wicked vision there is enough to persuade some people that it is good. That is only because some of it is so. It is stirring, lyrical, breathtaking, ravishing, extraordinary, fantastical, and, in transporting people out of their normal condition, it reminds them of distant noble ideals and moments of happiness out of which they extract what they imagine is virtue. Extracting virtue is the fatal flaw.*

That, I think, is true. The rest is caricature. Resist caricature: resist even vision. Simply resist. Caricature and vision will continue as they were, with the power and charm of each, and it takes skill and grace to produce both. But they are not inexhaustible gold-mines of virtue.

It is impossible to judge people out of their time. Catholic Ireland was a strategic danger to Protestant England - the Pope's knife in the back. And in Elizabeth's time there was always the reign of Bloody Mary to remind people of what that might mean.

Empires and colonies have always been the way of the world. The Hungarians weren't always in the Carpathian Basin - they pushed, fought and tricked their way in. No occupier is secure. That's why they often treat the natives so cruelly. That is why they want to absorb and ingest them. The English are not alone in this. It is the invariable, universal practice.

The problem in Ireland is that it has always known one, and only one, oppressor. European countries have seen waves of them.

You can hate the 'toff' Spenser all you like. But I wouldn't waste all your energy on it. It's only self-harm in the long run. The 'poet' Spenser is to one side of that. He will continue avoiding the hatred directed at the toff.

Nor were all the barbarities on one side in Ireland. War zones are barbaric places, nor are they aberrations in the human imagination. They are an integral part of it, male and female mind equally. Distrust intensifies and turns poisonous. Ireland's sad fate has been to be the long-term battleground between two realpolitiks (Pope and King), two religious forms (think Shia and Sunni for a second), and the eventual product of those things: two mutually hostile cultures. Distrust. Poison. The rest.

*The notion of extracting virtue is interesting. The implied metaphor leads on. Another time.

Friday 24 April 2009

Free bus and Bach

My first free ride on the bus to university - at least part of the way. It's good. It's like sneaking on and avoiding the conductor. A guilty rush. I am eleven again. Bach Cello Suites all the way, no 1 in G, then no 4 in E flat, followed by No 5 in E minor.

If God exists he is part Bach, part Shakespeare. Bach would be the heavenly part, Shakespeare the earthly. The fields are lush with sunlight. Norfolk is not quite the fields of heaven but given a Bach gloss it comes close.

Piazzola on the way home


Writing what I hope is the final draft of a long review for PL. C still away with her mother.

The Keats' House reading has now been transferred to Hampstead Town Hall.

My brain is mush tonight. I must go out and yowl at the moon, that is providing it is still there. Either that or listen to Bach again.

Thursday 23 April 2009

Griffin's Bloodless Genocide

The BNP dressed is an ugly sight, undressed it is both ugly and ridiculous. Nice to know what its leader thinks:

The BNP chairman Nick Griffin spoke to the BBC to defend a party leaflet that said black and Asian Britons "do not exist", arguing that calling such people British denied indigenous people their own identity.

"In a very subtle way, it's a sort of bloodless genocide," he said.

Terrific stuff. And subtle to boot. I can see the headlines:


Being British, he says, is not an administrative condition but an ethnicity. A bit like being a Beneluxian then. Beneluxians are an ethnic lot.

Still excrement tends to talk excrement. Shit will out.

Griffin post-shit.


I am myself a touch tired, what with all this travelling and talking and deadlines and tutoring and trying to keep up with la vie administratif. And C's mother has been taken ill, so she has driven down to spend a night or two with her. On Sunday to Oxford for workshop and reading. On Wednesday to London for readings at The Athenaeum and at Keats's House. Details to follow.

Wednesday 22 April 2009

Reading and reeling

I was unfair to Grantham Station. On the way back I stopped there for twenty minutes and it looked positively benign. Part of that may be down to the sun. Journey up fine. Journey down fine.

Hotel in Hull overlooking Pearson Park, the park also overlooked in his time by Larkin. Hard to form an impression of Hull from a taxi ride from station to hotel. Arrived there to do interview with PhD student Mary about poetry residencies. She being a Dubliner, I talked about my time in Dublin. Then CR arrived and after a little more talk Mary drove us over to the University. Somehow most mid century British institutional buildings remind me of breakfast cereals. The very dull ones are porridge, Hull is more Weetabix: something solid, almost grainy about it. The Larkin building facing me, Larkin's name clearly inserted not too long ago. Inside the corridors are wide and light, positively amenable.

CR leads me to the seminar group where I answer questions in my controlled at-length mode. There are questions about career and poetry and form and art and wordplay. I generally enjoy this, as I enjoy stretching any idea over a range of words, just in order to see what will have happened by the end. It's possible I might actually come up with a perception or at least a formulation that had never struck me before. In this case I think it's a good conversation because I feel quite high about it, but that's no guarantee of anything.

Before the reading I meet P, aka as The Plump, and he takes me into old Hull for a drink at The Old White Hart, a splendid set of rooms opening from a courtyard. The interior has something of the air of the Crown Posada in Newcastle, but is entirely panelled and Jacobean-conspiratorial. A very drunk woman is berating an almost equally drunk man in a corner, in broad Hull. There is a generous choice of whiskies on the shelves. P and I retire to a quiet corner and I hear something about adult education and rugby league and Greece and blogging.

We get to The Zest just in time for my reading there. It is pointless asking me how a reading went: I am too aware that I might be misjudging things, but this one seemed to go very well indeed: people sitting at tables, me with a mic, trying to turn pages. There are people with books to be signed. I should have brought a few because people ask. Ah, well...

Then eight of us, including P, go for an Italian nearby. Plenty of wine. In the meantime scores filtter through from the Liverpool-Arsenal game. DW, has an arrangement with the maître d' who informs him of changes via the kitchen radio. The scores sound so unlikely I imagine DW is having me on, but it's absolutely straight. Afterwards C and I stroll over the park back to the hotel.

There seems to have been a Budget in the meanwhile. Some talk of meltdown. Tax on wealthy up to 50%. This time they have nowhere to run. No longer sort-of-socialism-in-one-country, the whole world possibly obliged to go a faint pink. It may turn redder yet, of course. Good.

On return home a hideous, terrifying pile of obligations. I feel like anonymously exiling myself to Hull. It could be my tax haven. Or at least my pension haven, should I actually receive any pension. But I'm far from thinking about that yet.

Tuesday 21 April 2009

To Hull

In half an hour or so, and may not be able to post tonight, depending on facilities at the hotel. Three changes of train. Three changes gets you in quicker than two changes because two changes means sitting an hour on the platform at Grantham, a pleasure I incline to decline.

There is a long, somewhat dreary poem to be written about hours spent on desolate platforms. Philip Larkin in collaboration with James (B.V.) Thomson would seem appropriate; at any rate, something on the infernal side of lugubrious. If it were me I might begin with Thetford with a Canto on 'Ely after 10pm' soon after. The language should, ideally, have some of the qualities of sludge.


Thou by the Indian Ganges' side
Shouldst rubies find; I by the tide
Of Humber would complain..

Now to the rubies of the Humber.

Monday 20 April 2009

Note apropos Eagleton : liberal v tragic

I added this comment to an old post of The Plump's (I'll get to meet him tomorrow in Hull). Just a note here seeing this blog is, among other things, a record of thoughts and impressions.

'The straight proposition, as I understand it, is that rather than thinking in terms of religion or lack of (Islam v Christianity, Islam v Atheism, Christianity v. Atheism) one might consider Islamism, say, as a cultural aspect of a specific religion. Not all Islam has to be Islamist, in other words, but there is a kind of culture in which Islamism can flourish as "a repressed that returns with a vengeance". (I always tend to worry about that particular repressed).

The terms are awkward of course and he [Eagleton] goes by his own definitions, which is, I think, the chief problem. It is fascinating how this kind of reversal, in which you point to a phenomenon and call it A, then becomes the definition of A.


What I think he was trying to identify, if I want to be picky about it, were some differences between two kinds of culture: one that works on passion and concentrated group identity, another that works on irony and diffuse individual identity.

Don't you think that such a distinction exists? I watch these two ways of going about life creating havoc in Hungary, and some such distinction seems reasonable to me.

How far civilisation and culture are the best terms I don't know, and may be less important than the phenomena themselves.

The conclusion he draws at the end is, I suppose, a continuation of the spat with Amis, but when he says

"The distinction between Hitchens or Dawkins and those like myself comes down in the end to one between liberal humanism and tragic humanism. There are those who hold that if we can only shake off a poisonous legacy of myth and superstition, we can be free. Such a hope in my own view is itself a myth, though a generous-spirited one. "

- I can't help thinking there is something in this. That, if you like, the conflict isn't between the religious sense and the anti-religious sense, but between the liberal and the tragic.

I would like to think the liberal has the last word, but I have a certain apprehension that the tragic usually has its say, and telling people that religion is a lot of rubbish is not going to solve it.'

Just a note, as I say. It's not a point of ideology or dogma, just the registering of a certain feeling.

Sunday 19 April 2009

Sunday night is.. Georgie Fame

Touch of the late Michael Donaghy about Georgie Fame. Something in the eyes perhaps. Different music. Blazers, cardigans, tab collars. Wore them all. And you get Keith Fordyce and the charts. Excuse me, I must put my teeth in the glass before I nod off. Absolute Disgrace

...well, not there yet. We are only on the three dots in between. The early family life is very good. I don't think it is good simply because I am interested in the life of someone I know and like, but because the facts themselves are interesting, the observations drawn from those facts are interesting, and because the nice blend of language registers signalled at the beginning of the has gathered a certain amount of pace by then.

Some reviewers of the book have talked about humour and laughter, how they thought a lot of this was funny, like some kind of display of wit, and while there is certainly humour and wit my foreign self doesn't laugh. That may be because laughter is a function of recognition, and nothing of this is really recognisable to me. Reading it I wonder that I am a poet at all, a poet in English that is. How could I possibly be working in a culture of which this is the language, these the core experiences. Please read my poems, says the Man in the Moon. I bring you Moon sensibility in the English language!

But no, it isn't entirely like that. The cultural patterns are strange but the emotions are not.

For surely Stokies are not interested solely in other Stokies. Stokieness isn't the only valid form of being. And for all the talk of loyalty and guilt and mates, we know this, the author knows it, and most of those constituting the inner circle of the imagination - whether that is the Stoke circle, the North circle, the working class circle, or any other damn circle - know that being outside, even if only in the imagination, is a condition of understanding the centre.

I am, of course, exaggerating when I say I recognise nothing. I recognise both the description of British Rail sandwiches as "a single sliver of processed cheese pressed between two slices of Mother's Pride scraped down with margarine" and the slightly troubled, defensive gesture of rejecting the "racist television comedians" who made such sandwiches a butt of their jokes.

'Please don't associate me with them,' goes the subtext. 'I am cool about such things.' And I guess he is. But I am glad he doesn't go on to deliver a sermon on it.

One of these days I will find someone who admits to having found those comedians - all working class, pretty well all northern - funny at the time. And, while on the subject, I may one day find someone who admitted enjoying the Black and White Minstrel Show, because, assuredly the show had huge audiences, nor were they all members of the National Front.

The author would simply have been too young for that, but in general I am not in favour of retrospective cool and retrospective virtue. Not, at any rate, at a safe distance. Circles and centres are not necessarily what we remember them to have been. I mean my own circles too, because, well, it would be pointless if I didn't.

Saturday 18 April 2009

From Working Class Hero to...

Entertaining tonight so just a brief venture into the jungle that is Stoke, where the natives "are never far from home" because "they are reminded of the city whenever they're in a public convenience and see the word Twyfords stamped on the pissoirs and the basins". You suspect that "public convenience" and "pissoirs" may not be everyday Stoke usage, or if so they might be edged with a little distance and wonder whether it would be interesting to check, say, Alan Sillitoe's books for the occurrence of the word "pissoir".

This is how the book begins. We sense we are already beyond Stoke. But then we "spot a fellow Stokie" and are back in Stoke again, especially when we compare "proper crockery" with "some imposter rubbish". And then, hey presto, we're out once more, leaving Stoke, which is, says the author, "a crime I exacerbated by flitting off down south". It is, we understand, albeit in a slightly ironic way, "a crime" to leave, to leave your roots, to betray your quintessential identity, to let down your parents and your mates, to "flit" like someone absconding illegally, without proper payment.

All this in the first paragraph. The first divide, we learn, is between North / South, a serious divide in England, up North being where it is traditionally grim but honest, down South being where it is soft and dishonest, the line between North and South, being assuredly below Stoke, which is "closer to Manchester than it is to Birmingham".

But then, having remained true to our roots, we read that "Leaving is the signifier of a couple more associated personality faults" and know that talk of signifiers is itself a signifier of tertiary education.

So there is a complex mixture of terms to indicate or foreshadow the passage about to be undertaken. Leaving is a crime. Leaving is also a signifier. "Leaving is wrong". Leaving is guilt. But the trail of guilt is to be resisted "precisely because the place is a dump full of people like them" [people who express opinions like that.]

And they never go. They cannot go. They stay in your bones and slop about in your marrow. And you cannot disown them. That is the human pathos of it, even before you start.

Reading this - and it is a pleasure to read as a kind of semi-improvised memory, a memory like a travelling case covered in labels and stuffed with language from here and there - I think of the notion of community, of the settled community of workers in industrialised England, father and son hurrying to the factory hooter, to the pub, to the dinner table. As if for ever. But then only to the early or mid-eighties or so, which is, after all, where this story begins.

Civilisation v Culture - a nice piece by Terry Eagleton

Civilization is precious but fragile; culture is raw but potent. Civilizations kill to protect their material interests, whereas cultures kill to defend their identity. These are seeming opposites; yet the pressing reality of our age is that civilization can neither dispense with culture nor easily coexist with it. The more pragmatic and materialistic civilization becomes, the more culture is summoned to fulfill the emotional and psychological needs that it cannot handle-and the more, therefore, the two fall into mutual antagonism. What is meant to mediate universal values to particular times and places ends up turning aggressively against them. Culture is the repressed that returns with a vengeance. Because it is supposed to be more localized, immediate, spontaneous, and a-rational than civilization, it is the more aesthetic concept of the two. The kind of nationalism that seeks to affirm a native culture is always the most poetic kind of politics-the “invention of literary men,” as someone once remarked. You would not have put the great Irish nationalist Padraic Pearse on the sanitation committee.

It comes from here, via A&L. It seems to me a sound case, and well argued, essentially against multiculturalism and the weakness of liberalism. Not necessarily its fatal weakness, but certainly part of its vulnerability. It is only the fact that liberalism is a flexible concept that saves us it seems.

However, water-boarding cannot be part of that flexibility. We should not stretch that far, as someone once must have said of the rack.

Friday 17 April 2009

Out there

Tomorrow back to Mr Foster's book. I wrote the poem for daughter's wedding. Enthusiastically received, so it will be part of the service. Reading. Correcting details on my introduction for Tibor Déry's Niki for the New York Review of Books edition.

Tonight, C and I book a table at our local Thai. I have real fondness for the sweet-spicy that Thai does particularly well, and like the difference in textures too. Sometimes just biting is enough.

There we talk, as we do on such occasions, about others, ourselves, our children, about what we are, have been, and seem. I remember that friend N once said all men were autistic, and that I resented the consigning of my whole gender to the ranks of the sick, the abnormal, the less than completely human (how would she like it, I fumed, if I suggested that all women were hysterical?)

But now and then I do sort of see what she means: what that might mean. It doesn't mean, as is generally supposed, that one is simply stoppered, locked away in the self: on the contrary it means - in its own paradoxical way - being wide-awake to the world, like the artist Stephen Wiltshire who just flies over a city and remembers and draws every part of it because it is all streaming in and falling into place. He is, of course, acutely autistic in the full clinical sense. So while the world streams in it remains undifferentiated in kind, and that lack of differentiation does result in being locked off from the consciousness of other people. But that is not less than completely human. it is just another aspect of being human.

That, I dreamily propose to C, is a crucial part of every artist's being, and indeed of C's too. It is the casting of the cold eye. The splinter of ice in the heart. On the one hand, there is the social being, absorbed in personalities and communication and the whole sense of character or the fiction (as my autistic self might put it) of character; and, on the other, there is the particle of consciousness orbiting the universe like a speck of dust that happens to be endowed with a nervous system, one that registers everything almost equally, that constructs systems and patterns and remains forever stupefied by the sheer phenomenon of possessing a consciousness, of being an object in the universe endowed with consciousness, one that has no obligation, no moral sense, no history, no age, only the faculty of registering the extraordinary detail before it, forever absorbed in the practice of ordering the stuff that comes streaming in.

Meanwhile the socialised being, the being that loves, that registers obligation and pain and longing and history, is looking across the table at her, thinking how beautiful, how extraordinarily precious, how out there she is, (way out there, orbiting, just like myself) and how the sweet and spicy beef is slightly, deliciously crunchy, a pleasure to bite on. And she is out there together with all that we have been - character, obligation, pain, longing, history - with all the atoms of her concentrated into those eyes, that expression. Like people's expressions everywhere. Like my own, the one I can't see or read or even quite register.

I ask for the bill, hand over my card, get together some cash for the tip. Neil, our electrician, is sitting at another table with his girlfriend or partner, we nod and smile. It's quite cold out there. Figures moving down the street. Figures in cars. The boy across the street in the empty Chinese take-away is doing something at the counter. Further off and further off the whole grinding mechanism of the world. The world resolves into language. The rulers. The ruled. The poor. The lost. The parties. The gunmen. The sickbeds. The rough trade of consciousness.

Never mind all that. Here's a fine thing:

I far prefer commentary in a language of which I don't understand a single word. Best of all, just turn the sound off.

Thursday 16 April 2009

Writing / wedding

G and C wedding, 1970

Scheming a poem for daughter's wedding in June, I recall our wedding, C and I, end of first year fine art undergrads, with no money, in fact nothing much. One suit, a few paints.

C's father married us in West Drayton, at Swan Road Baptist Church, a building of no recognisable artistic merit. He was the minister there, a great eccentric, a wholly unsuitable minister for such a prim little community. The church was plain 1950s brick with distinctly Calvinist leanings. The congregation was, well, the congregation. There was no alcohol. We didn't care. Four friends from art college turned up in leather jackets and jeans. My brother played violin with C's sister H on the piano. Meditation from Thaïs was one piece. J, my best man, made a speech, I made a brief speech. The July sun outside was blinding. What was going to happen to us? We went by train to Liverpool and spent the night at the Adelphi, grace of my Leeds landlord, an ex-teddy boy who later went to jail. The next morning was stormy and we boarded the Isle of Man Steam Packet Company ferry to Douglas in a Force 8 gale. Thence to the west of the island to a small house by the sea. It was a sort of sensual Puritan phase for both of us. The symbol could be as plain as it liked as long as heart and body were alive. Here we still are.

Wednesday 15 April 2009

Márai: entre deux guerres

From The Intended, translation in progress. The husband in the love triangle is talking.

There was peace then… though not proper peace really. We were between two wars. The borders were never completely open but the trains did not stop too long at the variously colored international barriers. People asked each other for loans - not only people but countries - as if nothing had happened, going about their lives with miraculous confidence – and what was still more miraculous they received the loans, long-term loans, and they built houses, big ones, small ones, and generally behaved as though they had seen the back of painful, terrible times for ever, as though it was an entirely new era when everything was as it should be, when they could plan far ahead, bring up children, and give themselves over to individual pleasures that were not only delightful but even a little superfluous. That was the world in which I started traveling, the world between wars. I can’t say that the feeling I set out with, and which I experienced at various stopping places on my journey was one of absolute security.

A familiar feeling. Without the next war part, I hope. My bold type.

Tuesday 14 April 2009

Working Class Hero: preamble

I said I was going to write about it so now that we're on the subject, I may as well get on with it.

We are whatever we are, the sum of our acts and thoughts, but we are also the story we tell about ourselves and our journey through the world. We tell that story to ourselves and to others. We need these stories to lend some sense of continuity, development and sheer meaning to our lives. Others will speak differently about us, as we are well aware, but our story is ours to tell, and may in turn become part of other people's perception of us. Being able to tell our story is partly what we mean when we say we want to be in control of our own lives. We can invent a little, lie a little, add or subtract a little: what matters is that we believe it. As we believe it.

A little irony is generally welcome en route, if only because it enables us to feel the gap between the story and the sheer one-damn-thing-after-another that actually constitutes life. When that gap narrows to almost nothing life can become dangerous. I suspect this was the case with Sylvia Plath, that, in some way, she enacted the life she had written for herself. People begin to believe their myths and start talking in the third person.

It is, of course, the devil to have your story told entirely by others: it is surrendering possession of your own life.

Writing it oneself is, nevertheless, also offering a hostage to fortune. Yesterday, at P and M's,for example, one of the company read a paragraph from the memoir of someone whom half of the company knew and I didn't, but it was clear, even to me, though I was entirely ignorant of the man, that the author was a self-promoting fantasist. In a single paragraph he became the story he told. The man had dug his own grave.

To write a memoir is to assume that your story is worth telling. To do so only at the half way point of life is to suggest that the life has taken some particularly significant turn that has entailed a reviewing and retelling to oneself. That one part of the story is over.

For a writer it is even more than that. It is something to write, to get one's pen around, a project to allow one's story to reach a useful literary form. It becomes part of the ongoing story of which writing itself has become a part.

The project is to entertain and enlighten, to say: I have come so far and this is the record of my journey. This is the voice in which I am telling it. I hope you'll find it's a well-made voice whose company you might enjoy.


It is a well-made voice and the company is enjoyable. The first thing to say about the book, and it is one of the most important things to say about any book, is that it is well-written. It glides, it turns, it has a lightness of touch that makes it a pleasure. It isn't earnest, it isn't bombastic, it isn't precious, it isn't vain. It has a very refined feeling for cadence, for tone, for length and density of sentence, for precision of diction, but it doesn't make a fuss about any of this. It has the energy reqired to keep it running. It's very close to just talking but that's the art of it. It has to maintain its credibility with the audience at the outset of the journey (the working class heroes) and to keep it up through all its social twists and turns to the audience at the end (the absolute disgraces.)

We'll give it high marks for that. More next time.

Monday 13 April 2009

Dreaming the Budapest Zoo

...Is the new poem on the front. I have lived with this poem in various forms for ages. Now I am hanging it out on the front to dry, to see what happens and how it looks.

And this is the courtyard I want to die in (- Look thy last!). But you can't really see the courtyard. I will have to put up one of our own photos for that.

Sunday 12 April 2009

Sunday night is.. Billy Collins's Budapest

So here's one over Mr Collins for, assuredly (note the elegant locution), I have been there, was born there, conceived there, as was my father, and so on, returning to some far corner of a foreign field that is forever Budapest.

Billy Colllins is a much animated poet. I wish there was more of this kind of thing. Here I am, kindly animator. Just wave so I can see you in the dark. Come animate me.


Back from Hitchin, staying Easter weekend with C's much loved mother. Magnolia, gorse, cloud. A strained back for me. I think of old age and, frankly, I doubt whether it is even what it is cracked up to be. Having just received my free bus pass I think a free ride to oblivion at some stage should be fun. Wheee... and there I am back to Budapest, a hand moving on paper, just as in the animation.

Saturday 11 April 2009


Last night in the pub with SC. I refer to someone as 'a literary gent'. Her face contorts into a grimace between pain and disgust. She doesn't like 'gent'. She has even less affection for 'toff'.

I don't know of any visceral class loathing quite as intense as the English. It is not as if SC herself were working class, it's just that she is not of gent- or toff-land. The palpable fury briefly has the effect of turning me back into a foreigner of the democratic rationalist sort to whom the entire human species, and especially the English, is a kind of extraordinary zoo. I look at the photo of the author William Fiennes,for example in today's Guardian, a handsome gent of the aristocractic class complete with castle and moat, and think, "Yes, he must be one." Yes, but which? Gent or toff? And all those chaps in Evelyn Waugh likely to be played by Anthony Andrews. And David Cameron and George Osborne. Landed gents, and Eton boys. Toffs. Lord Snooty and his pals.

I imagined the derivation of the 'toff' must be from 'toffee-nosed' but the online etymological dictionary (I write away from home and my books) offers the following:

Lower-class British slang for "stylish dresser, member of the smart set," 1851, probably an alteration of tuft, formerly an Oxford Univ. term for a nobleman or gentleman-commoner (1755), in ref. to the gold ornamental tassel worn on the caps of undergraduates at Oxford and Cambridge whose fathers were peers with votes in the House of Lords.

Working class hero and absolute disgrace SF also hates toffs, as does authentic Will of the Popinjays. They hate them with the same visceral intensity that led Nye Bevan to call the Tories 'lower than vermin'. You probably need an early industrialised society to produce such hatred. You need those unspoken, unarticulated, unmentionable insecurities, that aggregate of slipping-and-sliding-and-climbing, Snakes-and-Ladders, class winners and losers, where the working class is at the very bottom with everyone sitting and scrambling about on top. Hatred up is the reward for contempt down.

Where I come from we had peasants and workers and students and the intelligentsia.* By the time I arrived to any kind of consciousness the ranks of the higher bourgeoisie and petit bourgeoisie had, in so far as they had a firm existence, been wiped away, leaving behind a sea of sad bourgeois kitsch. There remained an aristocracy among the intelligentsia: professors who were the sons of professors who themselves were the sons of professors, with a stage- or film-actress or a scientific genius thrown in. And there was the old bloodline aristocracy who had bent in the Stalinist wind and somehow survived, sadder and wiser, liberal, left-leaning, but still aristocrats. Like lovely, elderly M, who is as close to my definition of a good man as anyone could be and who has as fine a contempt for fascists, and for the idiocies of the old landed gentry as anyone but who keeps a portrait of his ancestor the patriotic General of 1848 on the wall of his none-too-grand Budapest flat.

Would the existence of M make any sense to a working class hero and absolute disgrace or to an ideological Popinjay, or indeed to SC, young as she is, with her roots somewhere in the hard-working English lower middle class? Do I care?

I am not sufficiently English to care. It is, if you like, a lack in me. Well, tough. The democratic rationalist in me only asks: What are these person's ideas and sympathies? What kind of mind and heart? There's plenty of room in the zoo of the imagination (in my fathers house, etc...), nor am I stupid enough to think that I am uncaged. I'm in the foreigners' cage - just out of sight there. I can't myself read the label.

I am reading the young Australian poet, Emma Jones's book The Striped World for review. That woman can write! She talks in one poem of her mother as a 'ten-pound pom', meaning one who takes the £10 assisted passage to Australia, just as my own family meant to. "Her fine, pale, English, / cigarette-paper skin was frail, untouched by the sun or the Mersey, / was nourished in Ireland, imported by famine...' Mother, in fact, takes the plane not the boat. Jones then returns to the subject of her mother's skin, which, she now adds, "...was as pale as the lashed cliffs of Dover.... and goes on:

It had a quality. It had a ring to it. And I was stitched in:
an alleged convict-celt, with a bland facade

like an Anglican chapel, and with secularized, mild,
deferential, careful, middle-class good manners,,,

It seems an honourable enough thing to be.

*And the Party, of course. The political class.

Friday 10 April 2009

Márai and Beauty

It was a very good, very beautiful film, remarkably close to the book. I introduced the book, the actress read a few passages, then John Spurling and I spoke for about twenty minutes before wine, and then came the film itself, followed by ten minutes interview with the film's director, József Sípos, who, it turns out, had to finance it all himself. The cast, magnificent as they are, the cream of Hungarian cinema, were queueing up to act in it. The location was simple and fixed. The whole thing was cheaply and beautifully done for TV and on spec, but now heading towards international distribution.

Before and after two people - two women as it happens - urged me to translate their own favourite book by Márai, a set of meditations titled Füves könyv, which means, literally, Herbal Book, meaning 'herbal' in the traditional sense, a collection of various cures and applications for various ills. By coincidence I had the book with me and started reading it on the train home. Here is one passage I picked out for an impromptu translation.

Regarding The fragility of Beauty

Are you troubled because your senses are aroused and disturbed by that beautiful young woman? Are jealous that she wants to share her beauty and youth with others? Well, what did you expect? Did you think she would commit herself to a vow of chastity or solemn fidelity? That’s not why she is beautiful and young. Just consider what care and anxiety they cost, such fragile beauty, such a brief period of youth, these malevolent gifts with which the Creator has endowed and punished her: this beauty that changes from day to day, that fades and passes from one moment to the next, becoming ever more fragile. Can she give her heart to anything else or think of anything other than her own beauty and youth; can she really occupy herself , wholly give herself to something that is not in the interests of her own heart, of her entire being? It’s like trying to capture a particular instant of the morning light, or some peculiar luminescence of the sea and wanting to hold it still for ever. Learn humility, rejoice in her beauty, and expect no more from her than she can give. Look elsewhere for the glow of life: beauty burns with a cold flame, you can’t warm yourself by it
I am quite aware that it is the kind of passage that is pitched firmly in the gender warzone, lying there like an unexploded landmine, so I am not going to kick it around. But as with all Márai, including Esther's Inheritance, it is considerably more complex than a rousing chorus of "Gather ye rosebuds". It is, first of all, not addressed to the woman, it does not preach to her. It does however assume something about beauty and youth and the bearers of such burdens.

Don't call me beautiful, a woman, not in the first flush of beauty, might say, because the more beauty you have the more painful it must be to lose it. Beauty in this sense is not a myth, or if it is, it has all the power of deep myth, that is to say it moves us, both men and women, and we are aware we would be poorer without it.

Yesterday, standing on the tube, I looked across the seats and saw a woman standing opposite me by the next set of doors. I would not say she was young. She might even have been in her early forties, but she was very beautiful, almost heart-breakingly beautiful, heartbreaking specifically in the sense that her beauty was not perfect and that she was not young, not the morning light. Her nose had a strong bridge and when her face was turned in profile there was perhaps a little too much thrust in the jaw. But when she turned full-face her mouth was - what shall I say? - moving, and the whole bone-structure, the eyes, were - what shall I say? - clear, intelligent, open. I was not troubled by her in the Márai sense. There was no lust involved. I did not desire her, she was not a temptation, but if the world were made slightly differently I would have loved to say to her: You are so beautiful, you make me feel glad to be alive. And then I would immediately have added, Forgive me, that is all I have to say, and moved on. Perhaps I will have to wait until I am seventy or eighty and perceived as perfectly harmless before I can say that to anyone.

My brief footnote to Marai's 'Herbal'? Beauty makes you feel glad to be alive. Thats what it's for. Now pass on. So beauty is not so cold after all.

Then I take a good kick at the landmine, which might or might not explode.

Thursday 9 April 2009

To London for Márai

The Hungarian Cultural Centre are showing the film version of Esther's Inheritance, one of the books I translated that is out currently. Great cast in the film, with one of the wonders and shining beauties of Hungarian cinema, Mari Töröcsik...

... as the old housekeeper / relative. In most films worth watching. It doesn't matter what age she is, one always falls in love with her.

I am to conduct a half hour or so of conversation with the critic and dramatist John Spurling. Excerpts from the book (in English) read by Kristina Erdélyi.

Now dashing off to do just that.

Wednesday 8 April 2009

Stichomythia: Waiting for Godot in Norwich

Many years ago I felt ignorant asking another writer what the word meant. It was nicely explained, and for some reason I don't forget these moments of enlightenment. Stichomythia is alternating lines of dialogue in drama or poetry, a kind of formalised repartee. The word came flying through the dark at me this afternoon at the Theatre Royal where this extraordinary cast of Ian McKellen (Estragon), Patrick Stewart (Vladimir), Simon Callow (Pozzo) and Ronald Pickup (Lucky) were vowing the provinces with Beckett. You can't help but think you are watching a moment of theatrical history moving past you like Cleopatra in her fiery chair.

The auditorium was fully packed, mostly silver-haired as matinees tend to be, but not exclusively so. Silver-haired theatrical afternoons are sometimes a touch quaint. I remember when Jenny Agutter appeared in Measure for Measure and got a disconcerting round of applause just for turning up at her first entrance. Never serious, the old. On this occasion though the silver hair looked distinguished, intent, rapt.

It is after all a marvellous piece of work, your Godot and the cast of theatrical royalty did the Theatre Royal proud. McKellen and Stewart played the comedy as music hall, but not over the top, just gently brewing away at the comic-melancholy stichomythia with a gesture here and a look there, the timing absolutely perfect. Laurel and Hardy are the first to come to mind, but Morecambe and Wise in old age is not altogether off the point either, nor is Abbott and Costello. A touch of Archie Rice there too, and maybe somewhere Arthur Askey.

Yes, all that, but much darker, much more gallows humour. They do after all consider hanging themselves.

Beside the comedy McKellen and Stewart concentrated on the affection between Vladimir and Estragon. Every so often they embrace, a little like Teletubbies, but they stink and grumble and bitch about each other too. They are warm. They are, as all double-acts are, two halves of the same ideal form, the reconciled self, which may be why we ourselves take to them. The dialogue they act out is one that is constantly running in our heads. This line of thought began running in my own head during the interval. Maybe that is why we accept - or did accept - Morecambe and Wise in bed with each other, why they were never apart for a moment. They were the whole self as a pair. Naturally, they would be in bed together.

The other double act, Pozzo and Lucky, have a magnificent first half. Callow's Pozzo was a clown-plutocrat figure at the edge of grotesque, dreadful, puffed up, demanding, dictatorial, cruel and selfish, just a few blocks down from Pa Ubu. His alter ego, Ronald Pickup's frail and superb Lucky never had a chance. Pozzo had sucked the life from him, Watching Pickup perform Lucky's long monologue was like watching a gramophone needle slip off an old 78: life contracted to a fizz of sound that sounds like words but is essentially just cry and collapse. Lucky is distinctly pre-revolutionary.

The second half of the play is a little more portentous and less energetic. The despair, desire and meaninglessness cannot help but sound a touch programmatic now and then, though the production carried it off as well as could be, and despite the somewhat heavier tread of the dialogue, the humanity of the central pair remained with us. That and the sense of the range of human possibility in its own ordinary space, a space where there is no plot as such, just talk against a background of passing time, to which constant reference is made. That is the true space around which the action, such as it is, arranges itself.

Ordinary talk and stichomythia. It is fascinating how 90% of the play is apparently inconsequential talk. The function of talk as opposed to action. I think back to the most successful scenes in Tarantino - the parts that everyone remembers about burgers in the car, or at Jack Rabbit Slim's where Travolta and Uma Thurman just talk, where the weight of the 'plot' falls from round our necks like the albatross from the neck of the Ancient Mariner.

Guest Post by Stephen Foster: The Working Class Hero and Why There are No More of Them

Even in the north there will come a point in your early life when some starchy adult will make you aware that you can be looked down upon. This knowledge will come in the form of a chance remark overheard in a conversation between a churchgoer and a Freemason at a bus-stop, a remark that refers to 'people like them', or to 'people from over there,' over there being where you live. Here is the defining moment. You will look at the dull churchgoing Freemason and you will wonder what exactly it is that they have to feel so superior about. More importantly you will form an instant hatred for them and for people like them. In this moment they have created for you a world of 'us and them,' and for the rest of your life, wherever you go, you will always be able to find an ‘us’ and a ‘them.’ You take another look at the churchgoing Freemasons. Beyond the fact that you can see nothing to justify their attitude, there emerges another much more salient fact: it is you who are better than they, because you do not look down on others - you are a genuine, authentic individual who believes all people to be equal.

You are equal to all others, but, by dint of this overheard conversation, you have been made aware that you are somehow different. You have become, in some way, an outsider. This is a definition you rather like; you are off down to the library in a flash to seek out a copy of L’Etranger. It is left-field cultural output that nourishes your new sense of self, but to fully motivate the nugget of outrage that you picked up at the bus-stop, you need to live in an industrial setting, one that is on the slide and under attack. Because, living in a landscape of a large workforce faced with its imminent redundancy, you can easily identify your tribe, your ‘us,’ those whom it is your duty to defend. What singles you out as the hero is that you are aspiring to get out of it by exploiting your status as a refusnik individualist, by declining to become redundant, by never getting a factory job in the first place. In this, you are seeking to escape all that with which you principally (yet already vicariously) identify. You read the readable political tracts, Orwell specifically, to put you in the picture, and, of course, you align yourself with the political left without ever actually becoming active, because political meetings and political types are, as it turns out, exceptionally boring, and for you the whole question of being has become a matter of attitude. Attitude may have substance, but attitude also concerns itself with matters of style, flair and posture. In order to survive and flourish, attitude needs to travel the world and to make money, while never, of course, abandoning its roots.

Five Working Class Heroes

John Lennon
George Best
Albert Finney
Noel Gallagher
Damien Hirst

Five Not Working Class Heroes

Rod Stewart
Franny Lee
Vanessa Redgrave
Damon Albarn
Jack Vettriano


Stephen Foster is the author of a book of short stories, two novels, two books about owning beloved Salukis (Lurchers to the world at large), two books about following Stoke City (the second of which is shortly to appear), a book of Football Lists (to which I was a proud contributor), and - most pertinently here - of From Working Class Hero to Absolute Disgrace, a book handsomely reviewed in handsome places, and in which he briefly recalls me teaching Robert Frost's marvellous 'Home Burial' to the class he was in at the art school. His two dog books were best sellers too. I want to write about his book here soon, but first I wanted him to offer a definition of 'working class hero'.


Waxing lyrical about the football of the good old days and lamenting the middle-class appropriation of football on radio this morning: two middle class romantic gentlemen, Jason Cowley and Colin Shindler, according to whom the rot set in in the eighties.

This really is Guardian home territory. Let me join my voice to theirs. I well remember the golden days of the seventies, the homely fights, the charming pitch invasions, the pastoral delights of the Shed at Chelsea, the tuneful serenading of black players along with the generous offer of bananas, the bonhomie of the general hatred of foreign players, all cumulating in the Festival of Britain at the Heysel stadium.

Where has that idyll vanished, eh? I blame:

a) Corporate greed
b) George W. Bush
c) Duran Duran
d) Sven Goran Eriksson
e) Unenlightened dietary habits

... Actually I feel sure the list is incomplete. Feel free to add.

Tuesday 7 April 2009

Late again

The debate goes on at Engage. It will be the nicest people who kill us. Or at least they will be too polite not to open the door to the real haters who want to. There is something about the feeling of righteousness that is both self- and mutually-magnifying. Get a lot of righteous people together and they grow very big very quickly. And they won't be in the business of listening to argument.


I want to write something about my friend SF's memoir. A life nothing at all like mine, but very like his I expect. Other people! Sometimes I think I am a kind of lepidopterist of homo sapiens. Look at the wing span of that one! Is that a Cabbage White? Pure Purple Emperor. And there's one in a black Mini with bull bars and a white top.

Me? I'm a strange brown foreign moth, amazed by such glittery exotics.

But I'll write about Mr Foster properly. Shortly.

Monday 6 April 2009


1. Earthquake in Italy.

2. Spent the day footnoting the Bloodaxe Lectures so they should be ready to go off .

3. Spent time packing away the books referred to in the above.

4. Earthquake in Italy: death toll rising.

5. The sun shone: outside. Me: inside.

6. Death toll L'Aquila rising.

7. Received the participants' list for the Rotterdam Poetry Festival in June. As follows:

Arjen Duinker
Bei Dao
Brian Turner
Dunya Mikhail
George Szirtes
Gerrit Kouwenaar
Gert Vlok Nel
Henrik Nordbrandt
Jaqcues Roubaud
Kazuko Shiraishi
L.F. Rosen
Luke Davies
Matthew Sweeney
Maura Dooley
Mourid Barghouti
Nachoem M. Wijnberg
Piotr Sommer
Rutger Kopland
Sigitas Parulskis
Tua Forsström
Umberto Fiori
Valzhyna Mort
Vera Pavlova
Yang Lian

Alphabetical. In G.K. Chesterton's 'The Napoleon of Notting Hill' they choose kings alphabetically from the telephone directory. That's how I remember it at any rate.

8. Death toll still rising.

9. Weather forecast says it will probably rain tonight.

10. Obama speaks in Turkey. 'We will not make war against Islam'. Applause.

11. How silent it is in W. on a Monday evening. The moon was full or close to full last night. Tonight it is dark. Perhaps there is no moon.

12. Played a little with cat (Lily). Lily is fond of a certain chocolate wrapper that crackles and has remaining traces of alcohol from the cherry liqueur. She coils, uncoils, scampers, flops over and stares. Mild intoxication?

13. Footnotes. Ibid. Op cit. See previous. Can't remember where I got this quotation from. Damn.

14. L'Aquila = the eagle. Aquiline. Faint memory of Akela at cub scouts. Dib dib dib.

15. Oy, oy, oy.

16. It's from Tom Paulin. Early book. 'The Strange Museum'

17. But that other? It is Brendan Kennelly. Book in university library?

18. My heart aches and a drowsy numbness, etc.

19. These are just the foothills of my native footnotes wild.

20. Twenty is enough for anyone. It's my top twenty.

(21. The death toll rises. The children. The students. Once in Budapest, was it 1955? or early 1956? the earthquake shook a bus off the bridge. The dead in the Danube.)

Sunday 5 April 2009

Sunday night is.. Ella and Joe Pass

Sometimes television is just right. Yesterday over supper there was a splendid tribute to Humphrey Littleton on BBC4, followed by a programme about Ella Fitzgerald. Her voice is the most remarkable of jazz vocal instruments. It floats with such absolute ease it could appear - for a moment only - faintly bland and chocolatish but for the rich invention, timing, modulation, playfulness and joy and, best of all, the bottomless well of emotion you sense in it, the whole without apparent striving and certainly without affectation, as if music were the loveliest, bluest game.

Perfection is rarely moving: hers is. This is 1983 in Japan. She started not as a singer but a dancer.

Saturday 4 April 2009

Irony, Kertész and Arendt

In the course of replying to Dana I begin to think about Kertész, Arendt and irony.

Arendt's irony is bitter and heavy. She had not been interned in a camp and undergone the subsequent humiliations and deprivations. Imre Kertész was and has. There is irony in Kertész too, of course, but it is the very lightness, almost mildness of his irony that underwrites the whole story. And when the semi-fictional boy of his story returns from Auschwitz to Budapest it is his mild-mannered fury at his closest relations who immediately name his experience for him that touches and deeply troubles the reader.

Kertész's subsequent books are written in a different, ever more complex style. They are not easy to read. They are digging a tunnel through the slag-heap of language: laborious, dogged, precise work. It is, I think, his attempt at the redemption of language.

A Jewish school-friend of mine told me how his parents in the Sixties would take some Holocaust memoir with them on holiday so that they could flash it at German tourists on the beach. It seemed an incomprehensible act to me. His family had been in England since the turn of the twentieth century and had suffered no great harm. I thought that an affectation on their part. I could never imagine my parents doing anything of the sort, and they had both been there and done it and got the horrible T-shirt. They didn't buy German goods if they could help it, but that was a policy pursued without fuss, the whole principle all but internalised, without trace in language.

I think I do understand my friend's parents now. The books they flashed were not only accusation but shield. Shield against what? Chiefly against fear, the larger gesture a response to the larger shadows of not directly knowing but fearing.

Two days ago in a PhD supervision I looked down at my little finger and it was covered in blood. There was quite a deep long cut on it. I had no idea how it had happened. Perhaps it was on the edge of a sheet of paper. As soon as I noticed it, it began to sting a little. If someone had told me that they were going to cut my finger and then proceeded to do just that I am sure I would have felt pain, much of it - indeed perhaps all of it - in the anticipation.

Being at another friend's house several Christmases ago, the house full of guests and candles and burning lanterns and paper, I noticed that one lantern had actually caught light. I quickly picked it up, put it in a litter bin and carried it downstairs, thinking nothing, just doing. It was only after that that I imagined the room ablaze. It was only after that that an image, or elements of language, entered the situation. Had I spent the day before imagining a room full of people and fire I would have been too frightened to enter the house.

So Arendt's bitter irony is also a shield. I found the bitterness too heavy when compared to Kertész, if only because Arendt was seeing the restrictions on her movements as 'a refugee' as the magnified shadows of events outside her scope, stuff not directly known but feared.

Before the Holocaust became the Holocaust, safely stowed in the dictionary and the encyclopedia, it was a set of raw, horrible events, experienced by each individual in the present tense. They did not speak of it afterwards because they hadn't the language for it, because they instinctively felt that language was betrayal. You cannot solve by naming.

But there's nothing else. Eventually language will out or else the heart fossilises and dies. So out they come: name and name and name. Language is not a poultice: it is a venture across the thin ice. There! I have reverted to the Eliot lecture metaphor, but it seems peculiarly appropriate in this situation. Arendt jumps up and down on it at the safer edges of the pond. Kertész treads light where it is thinnest.

Friday 3 April 2009

From London

No post yesterday. In London for PBS meeting, then meeting C and the children in a bar in South Kensington, going on to an Indian meal, staying there till gone 11. A mild night. London full of people young enough to be my children. It is a curious thought. H and R thinking of moving to Norwich, where it is cheaper and civilised and within reach of prospective grandparents, ie us.

While I am in the meeting G20 has, it appears, sorted out the world, shares are up, crisis over. I can practically see the trillions of currency flowing across the sky and settling back in vaults and pockets. See! It was as easy as that! Er....

As someone wrote, let us call him Philip Larkin for the sake of argument:

...I listen to money singing. It's like looking down
From long French windows at a provincial town,
The slums, the canal, the churches ornate and mad
In the evening sun. It is intensely sad

Well yes, that is part of it. Sad. The respectable lower middle class in its despair and disorientation. But there are other prospects. Orson Welles in a huge breakfast room. Belloc's garden party where 'The poor came in their Fords / The rich in their Rolls-Royces'. The backyards in Doré and Jerrold's views of London.

Let them eat cake. The guillotine.

Wednesday 1 April 2009

Arendt and Refugees

Attended a very good seminar by colleague LS on Hannah Arendt's short piece of 1943, 'We Refugees'. We note the quality of irony and bitterness, we note the treatment of refugees and think about statelessness: Arendt's condition at the time she wrote the essay. Naturally, since she was a Jew, we think about the Jews, about what it must have been like to want to assimilate, to aim to lose your Jewishness by conversion or by simple, contrived, and continued neglect, and then for all that to go out of the window, and have the world decide, the cosmopolitan dream of Europe decide, that it is not in your hands, that blood will out, and you must be what they tell you your blood must be. Scum. Poison. Pollution. Death. But that too goes by, and people get on to what they are really interested in, the matter that will put them indubitably in the right, which is to say international law, and the generalised support for refugees in general.

In the essay Arendt is deeply bitter about being treated as 'a refugee' despite the great desire of Jews to be more patriotic than the patriots, to be more willing to assume the identity that will bring them into a larger community. She loathes the term 'refugee'. Given all this, and given the restrictions on freedom, the distrust, the unwillingness to absorb and regard as purely human, the Jews smile and joke and commit suicide.

I remark that by 1944 most Jews would have given anything to be refugees and allowed to suffer a few minor deprivations. Arendt, of course, was never interned in a concentration camp. She did not personally know that level of dehumanisation. Being treated as 'a refugee' is a slur on her human dignity. I also remark that Imre Kertész who won the Nobel Prize in 2002 and who was actually interned in Auschwitz at the age of fifteen, wrote his book Fatelessness, (a good rhyme for statelessness) about his experiences there and has spent his life since writing books in which he seeks a language that would not be a betrayal. But no one there has read Kertész.

I don't know why I mention any of these things. One woman refers to the case of people who discover late that they are Jews, because that fact had been kept from them.

I say nothing by now. For all kinds of, no doubt, irrational reasons I feel my life is being torn from me strip by strip, like bits of Velcro. In any case there is a serious disturbance about the heart. When, as LS mentions, Virginia Woolf suggests in 1938 that it doesn't matter whether women support liberal democracy or fascism because middle class women like her are having such a dreadful time, I feel a rising hatred for her. Privileged and racist, I think. But then I reason she didn't know what was happening, how could she have known?

The fact is, I think the camps are now treated as an old horror story, something of a bore. Let us move on to other matters. By all means let us move on to other matters.

Embarrassment 2 - Guest post from James Hamilton

I wonder if what is now seen as English embarrassment isn't fearfully modern. Emotional reticence, yes, but the updated version, stripped of the scaffolding of etiquette that once made it manageable. I agree with Kate Fox here that if your culture moves from a relatively formal mode to an informal (shorthand: if the '60s happen) then cultural preferences about emotional display either change along with it or become excruciating. I think we're going through an excruciating period, but becoming increasingly comfortable with a looser, louder way of being that sidesteps the awkwardness lack of etiquette generates.

So you can still meet a business-related roomful of English (or, I find, Scottish) strangers, and find the exercise of shaking hands embarrassing and farcical (it was once understood that you shook hands and said "how do you do?" and had done with it - there's a generation now who never owned that easy, comfortable formula and have nothing to put in its place). But you can, that same evening, walk into a pub and find your friends whooping and cheering you in from their table. Yo!

A lot of things went with Empire, or at the same time at any rate (I think other changes had a far greater impact on national psyche than the loss of Empire e.g. going from a world in which we'd invented everything that mattered - the post, the railways, the telephone, much of medicine, the telegraph system, tarmacked roads, a proper police force, the tank - to one in which we were compelled to impose American, German and Japanese innovations onto our increasingly irrelevant infrastructure) - the idea of how men of all classes aspired to dress - the polite codes I've just mentioned - expectations about work and about government.

My guess here, that English embarrassment has more to do with the period when the empire was returned to its real owners than when it was at its height, also has to do with the oft-forgotten fact that we weren't the only imperialists around. Embarrassment is not something associated with the Dutch, French, Germans, Portuguese, Spanish and Italians, and very much not with the stretching-a-point-when-talking-imperialism Americans. I don't think embarrassment in whatever form or expression can be simply empire, or principally empire, or even significantly empire, but I think it can be to do with the still-spreading meme that politeness is old-fashioned, alienating and - horrified intake of breath - posh.