Wednesday 30 September 2009

The Penig Film

It has been a time of interviews recently, one for Iota magazine (plus poems), which, I am delighted to say, looks a properly classy joint for a poet to stumble into. And there is this, with Sarah Hymas, that is, she says also due to appear on the Litfest blog in November.

There is a link in Sarah's piece to a film about the liberation of Penig concentration camp, where my mother was incarcerated. This is the film, the second one after Leipzig and the validating material (the clip is one of a series now on YouTube):

There is a sequence of poems titled 'The Penig Film' in The Burning of the Books and Other Poems. The film was not this one, or rather it was a shorter clip from it, just a minute or so, without commentary. This shows more. I could not identify my mother in the film I saw, nor can I in this - the quality of film is just not good enough - though it is possible she might be one of the figures shown. Why would the film show her specifically? There were many others there. However, the film does show the hospital, which seems familiar. I think this photograph might have been taken there.


My mother at the Penig hospital with GI George, in memory of whom I was named, though he was not my father. I was born rather too late for that. But of course I wonder about George - he would have been not too far from the cameraman shooting the Penig film. To see the film, longer, with commentary, is a rather shaking experience, shaking all over again (not to mention the terrible stills from Leipzig that precede it). The poem is in the book and appeared originally in The Manhattan Review - but I might put it up here too since the text itself is not on the link.


While linking, there is a wonderful and very long piece on the New and Collected Poems in the most recent Hungarian Quarterly, though this link takes you only to the first of several pages. There is also, I understand, a long piece by John Taylor due in the Antioch Review. More on that when it appears.

Tuesday 29 September 2009

Stopping dead

And then we talk - this is another group - about the extraneous and the necessary. How do we know what is extraneous?

A great many years ago when I was a Chagallian painter a little drunk on those gorgeous luminous colours, I wanted to fill my paintings with gorgeous luminous colours. Yes, but when I did so there was no real luminosity in the whole.

Luminosity is not the product of lot of luminous colour. It is one or two luminous colours concentrated in one major area and dispersed in smaller patches against a warm resonant matrix of neutral tone. The green in the green paintings was greener for not being surrounded by red and blue and amber and pink. It glowed against one or other form of darkness, and when it had another green to refer to, a similar green, not necessarily exactly the same green. It was as if the greens rhymed or sang in a chorus of some sort.

Ut pictura poesis in this respect too. The big eye-catching word or image or phrase will tell more when it lies at the core of the poem, attracting other lesser images of its type. Intensity tends to kill intensity. Each line freezes the mind at its own point in the narrative.

There has to be narrative of some sort. Even in a lyric poem. It's not a story, yet something is different by the end. Something has changed. The mind has to move. Anything that prevents its movement is extraneous. Anything that helps is necessary.

Monday 28 September 2009

The poet as the letter 'I'

This is one thing we discuss very near the beginning of any course. Who is the 'I' that appears in a lyric poem? Do we expect more from it than we would from a work of fiction (Reader, I married him)? What are the limits of 'I'? When does it break the glass floor of art and fall through into the cellar of the vulnerable self?

But then when I say 'I' here, how far is that figure detached from the living person at the desk hitting the keys of his computer. How far, in other words, is 'I' discernible as a single complete entity?

Under law it most certainly discernible. That, after all, is the business of law: to discern, to demarcate, to assign responsibility, to hold us culpable. 'Not I' says D. H. Lawrence, 'but the wind that blows through me'. Not much use for the embezzler, the murderer, or the illegal parker to protest in such terms*. The law fingers us.

In art we make not only an 'I' but a world for the 'I' to inhabit. Maybe art is the only true place for a complete 'I' to inhabit. Maybe that is why we need art, so that we may live somewhere that offers dimension and meaning, where the laws are parallel laws, where the complexity of the act (I lashed out and he died, I have always thought it the greatest act of courage to fiddle the figures of a large corporation, I am useless at parking and can't see double yellow lines because they are to me a sign of pure evil). It is a cage for the impossible beasts.

Or, to put it more plainly, is a poem with 'I' in it true in the way law is true? Is the suffering 'I' in a poem a vulnerable cry for help. How do we deal with the 'I'? "I is at the centre of the lyric poem" wrote John Heath-Stubbs, "and only there not arrogant" (quoted from memory* now corrected thanks to reader).

So, Hardy: "I leaned upon a coppice gate / when frost was spectre grey...." etc.

Late. Late back from the private view of Justin Partyka's show. Father still in hospital. "...and winter's eye made desolate . The weakening eye of day..."

*Later thought: though they do do so at times, in terms like: "I wasn't being myself", or "Some devil got into me", or "It was my medication", or indeed the infamous "I was only following orders".

Sunday 27 September 2009

Sunday night is... Understatement x 2

Peggy Lee (1943) with Benny Goodman's orchestra

Peggy Lee, some twenty-five years later in the late 60s. Max Bennett (bass), Jack Sperling (drums).

Understatement, universally considered to be the hallmark of the English. Understatement is, of course, implication. It isn't blowsy, in-your-face, mega-diva 'giving': it is holding back for more. It disciplines itself. Its tie (if it is wearing one) is straight. It allows you your say but it could cut you dead. It is, potentially, cruel. ("We don't want any mishaps, do we, Mr Bond?") but it is not committed to cruelty. It could just as easily be an offering. ("Go on, you finish the sentence.")

Implication is ambiguity, so implication is at the heart of poetry too. Some would reduce this to the flat, cool gesture of irony, but irony is know-all. Implication and understatement can go with a warm heart (there's a non-ironic expression if ever there was one) as well as with a cool mind. I can't quite see irony doing that. Generosity with intelligence and more than a smidgeon of courage, The good balance at the right time. I say good, rather than right. That's understatement. Casting a cold eye but feeling every part of the emotion.

And Peggy Lee is considerably cooler than Jessica Rabbit.

Friday 25 September 2009

Hungary walking

UNITED NATIONS —France on Wednesday led a walkout of a dozen delegations, including the United States, to protest a fiery speech by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the UN General Assembly.

“It is disappointing that Mr Ahmadinejad has once again chosen to espouse hateful, offensive and anti-Semitic rhetoric,” Mark Kornblau, spokesman to the US mission to the United Nations, said in a statement.

Delegations from Argentina, Australia, Britain, Costa Rica, Denmark, France Germany, Hungary, Italy, New Zealand and the United States left the room as Ahmadinejad began to rail against Israel, a European source said.

Reassuring. Encouraging. He was in fact railing against Jews and going about the traditional art of Holocaust denial. See also Norm, and Gene.

And the first review...

It is very rare to find a first day review of a poetry book in a major newspaper so I am delighted and astounded by today's Independent review by Boyd Tonkin, which goes like this (brief but bejewelled):

The Burning of the Books, By George Szirtes
Reviewed by Boyd Tonkin

Any new collection from George Szirtes will treat its readers to a unique poetic combination: immense versatility and virtuosity when it comes to form, but also a tireless sympathy that dwells clear-sightedly on shocks, traumas and hard-won renewals from a century of migration and massacre.

This volume has typically strong-voiced sequences on memory and time: photographs of war, an émigré wrestler from the poet's native Hungary, or the secret clocks of the body in the lovely "The Birds". But its title sequence truly takes the breath away: a meditation on the love and hatred of knowledge, and why fury against literature did not start or end on Nazis' pyres: "Because the word is angular and has sharp edges/ That cut you". Read Szirtes to feel the exquisite, excruciating paper cuts of history.

(GS grins with happy stupid look on face)

Thursday 24 September 2009

The Burning of the Books and Other Poems


Flagged before, it is actually out today, just the day after Fortinbras at the Fishhouses, the book of essays, appeared on Bloodaxe's website. These are dangerous times. I go about in pairs. With a bit of luck it will be a case of flagged today and copies flogged tomorrow.

Sadly, my father has just been taken into hospital in London, though they assure me he's OK, under observation, and may well be out next morning. C meanwhile is down at her mother's, making sure the plumber that comes tomorrow knows his tap from his elbow. My father is 92. C's mother is 89.

Mortals, eh? Get a touch of the mortals myself, now and then. Nothing actually happens, only on the metaphysical level. It's metaphysical hearts and lungs and livers and kidneys there.

Mikes 3: On remaining alien and mortal

This continues the much abbreviated version of the talk on the Hungarian-born humorist, George Mikes, possibly to be regarded as the first professional-Hungarian.

How to Be An Alien remains his key work, in some ways his only work. The other books are very good, they have their moments, the delicate machinery of his wit performs its due task: the tiny wheels keep spinning, the understatements, hyperboles, deflations, moments of bathos, the epigrams and antitheses, are all in working order. They continue witty and amusing, but they are extensions of the original by other means, because he does not go to Japan or Israel or the United States as an English, or even British travel writer. He goes there as an alien. He moves within his alien skin, the skin he had grown or suddenly found himself growing.

Let us finish with a brief recitation of other Mikes-isms, the quotable mini-gags:

An Englishman, even if he is alone, forms an orderly queue of one.

The trouble with tea is that originally it was quite a good drink. So a group of the most eminent British scientists put their heads together, and made complicated biological experiments to find a way of spoiling it. To the eternal glory of British science their labour bore fruit.

In England only uneducated people show off their knowledge; nobody quotes Latin or Greek authors in the course of conversation, unless he has never read them.

Or later from 'England Revisited' in How to be Decadent (1977), fast approaching the winter of discontent:

Things have progressed. Not on the continent, where people still have sex lives; but they have progressed here because the English now have electric blankets. It’s a pity that electricity so often fails in this country.

The immortality of George Mikes? He would have dismissed any such claim. Admonishing the American critic Edmund Wilson for calling Somerset Maugham a second rate writer, he suggests that if Homer, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Shakespeare, Goethe, Keats and Shelley etc. are properly first rate, then Stendhal, Flaubert, Proust and Byron could be considered second rate. Housman, by this system, is tenth rate. Somerset Maugham, he adds is much better than second rate: he is seventh rate.

As for himself? He hopes, he says, to be fourteenth rate. Indeed a David Langdon drawing shows him through the window, typing at his desk, while a blue plaque under the window declares: GEORGE MIKES 14TH RATE WRITER LIVES HERE.

Apart from writing the books, George Mikes worked for the BBC, chiefly I think, in the World Service. Adapting an old Hungarian saying that there are only three classes of people in Hungary: Those who have been in prison, those who are in prison, and those who will go to prison, he firmly believed that humanity consisted of three main groups:

1) BBC employees;
2) former BBC employees;
3) future BBC employees.

That was back in 1952, in Shakespeare and Myself. Shakespeare and George Mikes. Immortality in the corridors of the BBC. The year after the Festival of Britain.

Wednesday 23 September 2009

Bardot and the Philosophes - Now with Pics!

The philosopher Brigitte Bardot and the gorgeous pouting A.C. Grayling

The Guardian celebrates Brigitte Bardot's 75th birthday with a short film in which people qualified to speak of serious things speak a few seriously gnarled truisms. My favourite is A.C.Grayling who seems to have been caught during dinner, about 2.35 from the end (the Guardian film counts down). He says something like this:

She represents the power of woman. The way she occupies space. If you look at the sculpture of classical antiquity, especially Greek sculpture, you look at these beautiful men and women, especially the athletic young men, you notice something extraordinary about them. These are wonderfully muscular men with beautiful proportions but they have very small genitalia, and the reason they do is that represents continence, so the shape represents something: it has a moral as well as a physical meaning. And Bardot has a moral and physical meaning, except that the moral meaning, of course, controverts conventional morality, so [and this is my favourite bit] she is a vivid, standing invitation to experience, inhabit, and acknowledge one's own lust, the sexual side of one's own nature because she is the imago, the actual perfection, the perfect shape of an attractive, erotic, desirable female.

Good God! Bardot was an attractive, erotic, desirable female! I always knew there was something about her but could never quite put my finger on it. And putting my finger on it naturally reminds me of those Greek gods. As I understand it now, there are all these Greek gods with their small genitalia calling us to be moral, and there was Bardot, occupying space, with her, vivid, er, standing invitation, calling us to be, er, moral but in a different way, and that is all about being erotic, attractive and, er, liberated.

He certainly nails it. I knew I should have gone to university instead of art school. The years of reason, scholarly method, acuity and sheer profundity I missed can never be recovered.

Though, admittedly, it sounds rather like a kind of Hugh Hefner Playboy philosophy. You see, they are so liberated they even take their bras off.

Meanwhile Bardot? Oh yes, The Guardian again, Bardot's right-wing rant shocks France, back in 2003. But hey, it's six years on. All is forgiven.

Note to self: Must get pictures of Bardot and Grayling. Always confuse the two. Or is it Hefner and Grayling? PICS NOW IN PLACE.

Tuesday 22 September 2009

New book: Fortinbras at the Fishhouses

The three Newcastle lectures now published by Bloodaxe under the title, Fortinbras at the Fishhouses: the Iron Curtain and the Sense of History as Knowledge. The three essays do make a conscious arc. And how can you resist that face? (Don't tell me: it's easy.)

A mini-essay on George Mikes, Part 2: Pastiche

The remarkable thing about Mikes’s alienness though is how easily it slipped into the English language, how it was smuggled through and became part of the great joke. Return for a moment to that comparison with Tolstoy and think about the phrases for a second:

‘a pretty piece of fun’

‘which it would not cause me painful surprise to find described as humorous’

The first is a phrase that could have come out of the eighteenth century, the second a remarkable – and remarkably clever – piece of diffident English grammar that is, potentially, so English as to be practically caricature, a foreigner’s delicate caricature of correct usage. A negative conditional followed by a passive tense. Substituting ‘one’ for ‘me’ would tip it over into pastiche monarchy-speak: it would not cause one painful surprise… But that would be practically lese majeste. Mikes knew just where to stop.

I suspect this edge of extra-correctness was an important part of Mikes’s humour, of his English persona as the comical foreigner. Wilde too was keen on absolute precision. For him too it was part of the game. And the English loved it. It was like being tickled not stroked. Tickling is not entirely comfortable: stroking can be suspiciously lulling.

The England of 1946 – and Mikes is quick to distinguish between England and Britain before blurring the distinction once again – was ready to be entertained with images of itself. It had just won a war but was still in austerity and aware of changing. The tickling was just right. The self-confidence was still strong. Let’s think for a moment of Ogden Nash who wrote, albeit a little later:

Let us pause to consider the English,
Who when they pause to consider themselves
they get all reticently thrilled and tinglish,
Because every Englishman is convinced
of one thing, viz:
That to be an Englishman is to belong to
the most exclusive club there is:
A club to which benighted bounders
of Frenchman and Germans and Italians
et cetera cannot even aspire to belong,
Because they don’t even speak English,
and the Americans are worst of all
because they speak it wrong!”

It was a good time for considering the nature and quality of Englishness. To do so in your second language gave it an extra frisson.

‘Looking back today on my own courage’, writes Mikes at the height of his early success in 1952, ‘ – to write in English for English readers – makes me shiver. No, it was not courage, it was reckless audacity… Of course there are great gaps in my knowledge but I have one consolation. I am much more aware of the beauties of the English language than quite a few Englishmen.’

How does the preface to How to be an Alien begin, those precious first few sentences?

‘I believe, without undue modesty, that I have certain qualifications to write on ‘how to be an alien’. I am an alien myself. What is more I have been an alien all my life. Only during the first 26 years of my life I was not aware of this plain fact’

It is in effect a job application of great subtlety. The timing is splendid. A declaration: ‘I believe’; a mock courtesy employing a double negative, ‘without undue modesty’, a modest hint that ‘I have certain qualifications’. How complex that word ‘certain’ is in English. ‘A certain Mr Mikes is outside waiting to see you…’ There is a certain street corner in the back suburbs of Cairo…’ His judgment is spot on. Having built this process he brings it to a brief halt with another declaration, a confession: ‘I am an alien myself’ trumping it with ‘what is more’ and leading to the innocent irony of ‘I was not aware of this plain fact’. ‘Plain’ is plain. Plain is perfect for not being quite plain. There is the climactic irony.

Then the building recommences.

‘Like all great and important discoveries it was a matter of a few seconds. You probably all know from your schooldays how Isaac Newton discovered the law of gravitation. An apple fell on his head. This incident set him thinking for a minute or two, then he exclaimed joyfully: "Of course! The gravitation constant is the acceleration per second that a mass of one gram causes at a distance of once centimetre." You were also taught that James Watt one day went into the kitchen where cabbage was cooking and saw the lid of the saucepan rise and fall. "Now let me think," he murmured - "let me think." Then he struck his forehead and the steam engine was discovered. It was the same with me, although circumstances were rather different.’

There goes the Tolstoy touch again, the puff, the hyperbole. You puff and puff then you puncture. Newton’s exclamation is the typical expansion into nonsense that assures us the claims are not to be taken seriously. Having prepared us for nonsense he weighs in with a second hyperbole, James Watt this time. We know Mikes is going to be keeping his beady eyes on the foibles and peculiarities of his host country but we understand it to be done with respect, with a pomposity that punctures itself. And there is the mock melancholy too:

‘It is a shame and bad taste to be an alien, and it is no use pretending otherwise. There is no way out of it. A criminal may improve and become a decent member of society. A foreigner cannot improve. Once a foreigner, always a foreigner. There is no way out for him. He may become British; he can never become English.’

Mikes knows he is trapped. He describes himself as a travel writer and on the surface he has cause. Writers have always travelled. Voltaire wrote letters from England, Hakluyt, Sir John Mandeville and Purchas wrote of exotic places. Being elsewhere was where you went when you weren’t here. Usually you had a proper reason for both going and returning. Mikes travelled because he was a travel writer. He was curious, of course, which helped, but writing was his livelihood. Travel writers go away then they return. But what was he returning to? He could, he rightly says, become British, not English, but English was what he wrote, not British but a clear, period English as blessed by the likes of Punch, by A P Herbert, by Evelyn Waugh. He rarely said anything about the Scots, the Welsh or the Irish. He was a metropolitan Londoner with cosmopolitan tastes. The humorist he most admired was Stephen Leacock, a Canadian professor exercising an alternative life. Mikes had become his own alternative life.

Monday 21 September 2009

A mini-essay on George Mikes, Part 1: Antithesis

The Hungarian-born humorist George Mikes may still be remembered by those over fifty, though his name will probably be completely obscure to those under forty, unless, that is, they haunt the cheap shelves of second hand bookshops. But Mikes was a very popular author in his time, with many titles, almost all in Penguin, to his name.

This brief essay was delivered as a talk commemorating Mikes as a writer and as a reporter.

The fact is I am very tired tonight and my brain won't do anything interesting. Hence the use of the text below.


On the Continent people have good food; in England people have good table manners.

Many continentals think life is a game; the English think cricket is a game.

Continental people have sex life; the English have hot-water bottles.

The English have no soul; they have the understatement instead.

These and other one-liners by George Mikes may well be familiar to you, indeed most of them can be found on the web under headings like GEORGE MIKES QUOTATIONS. It is quite an achievement to have becomes so quotable, especially as a Hungarian writing in one's second language. As a Hungarian poet writing in his second language, I envy it. In fact I would envy it even more if I were a pure bred English poet writing in my first language. For poetry too is quotable, indeed recitable, and for much the same reason, that its structures are memorable. And why are they so? Oh, many reasons: rhythms, rhymes, epigrammatic concision, perfect encapsulations of powerful and often complex moments, the sense of revelation, the sense of something echoing in the as-yet-unarticulated depths of our souls.

The examples I have quoted are epigrams, in fact epigrams of a particular sort, the antithetical epigram. That is to say you set two halves of a sentence against each other, the second developing a perception in an unexpected direction. I don’t want to be dry and grammatical about this so I won’t be. But think of the following:

A man's face is his autobiography. A woman's face is her work of fiction.

All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That's his.

Oscar Wilde, of course. Antithesis is opposition. Wilde here takes a natural opposition, between men and women. In the first epigram you have a common element: the face, the opposition being between autobiography and fiction. In the second the common elements are tragedy and mothers, the opposition is likeness.

The man-woman opposition, naturally, is ancient. Before Wilde there was Byron:

Man's love is of man's life a part; it is a woman's whole existence.

In her first passion, a woman loves her lover, in all the others all she loves is love.

Two epigrams for the price of one there. Here we find oppositions between part and whole, but also between first and others. So we could go on, back through Pope and Shakespeare to the Greek epigrammatists and, no doubt, further. These days, when we are ultra-sensitive to stereotypes and generalisations and are constantly on the look-out for signs of prejudice we instinctively question, or quarrel with, the perceptions purveyed. Is Wilde implying that women are liars? Is Byron suggesting women are fatally limited by love? And what, for heaven’s sake, did Wilde mean by all women but no men becoming like their mothers? And is that tragic?

Such literary epigrams, antitheses, quips, aperçus – whatever you want to call them – are not falsifiable scientific propositions. That is to misunderstand literature. They need not even be true, not exactly, though we do prefer them when they have the vague scent of truth about them somewhere, however partial the truth. They are not so much about wisdom either, or not exactly: they are exercises in style. Language in the epigram, as indeed elsewhere in literature, but far beyond literature too, is not a neutral vehicle for conveying information: it is a medium that creates experience. They take us on elegant brisk journeys; they are smart ripostes. X proposes, Y disposes. They are beautifully crafted little musical instruments, exquisite jewelled needles that can do real harm. You see, even this miniature summary is beginning to take antithetical, epigrammatic form. There is nothing quite so lethal as a neat binary: Four legs good: two legs bad. Me Tarzan, you Jane.


With the epigrams of George Mikes - since we must get back to him– the opposition is between the continent on the one hand and England on the other. That at least is the way it was in his first and most popular book, How to Be An Alien, published in 1946. Actually, that is not strictly true. His first book in England was published the year before, but it’s one no one now remembers, chiefly because it was not funny, or maybe because Mikes himself did not know it was funny. It was called We Were There to Escape, and was the story of a Serbian Captain. It was, claims Mikes in his book Shakespeare and Myself (1952) one of the first so-called escape stories. Interestingly, he regarded it, he says, as “the work of a reporter and not of a writer”. “But,” he goes on, “I must have deviated from the rules of straight reporting without being aware of my deviationist tendencies.” The reviewer in the TLS praised the book – puzzlingly for Mikes - for its 'Slav humour'. It approved the book's ‘thrills and exciting adventures’ too, but was chiefly chiefly taken by its humour that lent the story, to quote, “the light touch that turns unpleasant and indeed horrifying experience into good reading”.

Mikes had not intended to be funny, so the review - he tells us - came as a surprise to him. In typical fashion – and I want to look at a few of those fashions as we go on – he explains: ‘If you can imagine Tolstoy receiving reviews after the appearance of War and Peace stating that his book was a pretty piece of fun… then you can imagine my feelings.’ Adding that, ‘After some heart-searching I was driven to the conclusion that I might as well attempt to write something, which it would not cause me painful surprise to find described as humorous.’

In typical fashion, I say. One of the key elements in Mikes’s humour – in any humour – is the sense of scale. Mikes appears to be comparing himself to Tolstoy, which is clearly a hyperbole, an act of Gargantuan vanity, but the scale of the hyperbole is so out of proportion that we are clearly aware that Mikes himself knows it. It is, we know, self-mocking irony. As T S Eliot said in Prufrock: ‘No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be; / Am an attendant lord, one that will do / To swell a progress, start a scene or two…’ However, there is an interesting difference: Mikes is funny; Eliot is not, or not in the same way. In Mikes the scale has conscious pomposity, the difference is implied to be greater. Mikes is not an attendant lord: as he tells us time and again, he is a bloody foreigner, an alien. That is what How To Be An Alien was about, it is how it worked.

Sunday 20 September 2009

Sunday night is... Maradona and Chaplin

Apropos of Anne's comment on the post below I thought it might be worth looking at Maradona's movement and see how it compares with the feints of the Bank of England, that is to say going straight down the middle when people expect you to shimmy left or right. So, here is Maradona. It is minimal movement but there is a slight feint one way then another and, strangely enough, the ball doesn't seem that close to his feet. Will the Bank of England do the same? Mervyn King as Maradona. Is it just the body feint they have in common?

And here is Chaplin, Charlot. He feints left, he feints right, but the gun is still pointing at him. Tell us about it, o glorious gold-rushing tramp.

It seems to me extraordinary that Chaplin's reputation has fallen so low that he is hardly mentioned. He is quite miraculous in both body and facial expression. Yes, he is sentimental at times, but that is such a tiny fault he is still an absolute shining great. And he meant so much to generations, to whom the disrespecful tramp was an emblem of defiance and hope in rough times.


Police seize Maradona's earrings to pay taxes
Football legend Diego Maradona received a frosty reception during a stay in Italy after police confiscated the £3,600 earrings he was wearing as part of dogged efforts to recover £28 million in unpaid taxes...

This be the verse....

Maradona, Prince of Thieves

Hey Diego, hand of God!
How does it feel,
street boy, little fly?
You swoop and dart, defenders plod,
and then you've gone bye bye,
are you for real?

You're one up for the broken ones
the undersized,
the favela, the hovel.
You take our cannons, spike our guns,
you make Goliath grovel,
and no one's surprised,

just breathless somehow, lost,
not quite believing,
not quite at peace, not sure.
Oh prince of thieves, say at what cost
the crooked poor
bring light with thieving?

One of the five World Cup poems...

Friday 18 September 2009

Utopia on a train

Train to London, two hours, train back two hours. In the meeting for four hours. My fellow judges are all women - Karen Leeder, Edith Hall and Susan Bassnett, with the director Robina Pelham-Burn in the chair. We sit in a room in the Senate House of London University with a pile of sandwiches behind us and a couple of pots of coffee. On the way in I spot Vesna Goldsworthy who is here for a Rebecca West conference. Won't say anything about the deliberations or the winners of the competition etc but it's a relatively painless affair with some laughter and some furrowed brows. It turns out I am to MC the prize giving in November. Set upon by four women.

Afterwards I settle in for a beer at Carluccios and ring the American poet Alfred Corn who is heading home tomorrow. There was an idea we would try to meet, but the prize giving took two hours less than I feared it might so the arrangements are a little haywire. We fail to meet this time., but it's sunny and the beer tastes fine.

The trains home are packed and close-to-setting sun is taking one last blast through the windows and straight into my eyes. I am reading Thomas More's Utopia for the first time. This part is a discussion with a character More calls Raphael Hythloday, a great traveller and humane philosopher who criticises the laws and ideas of most societies, particularly England's. In this passage they are discussing the punishment due to thieves. The local rule is Hang 'em all! Here Hythloday is speaking:

One day, when I was dining with him [John Morton, Archbishop of Canterbury, More's own patron], there happened to be at table one of the English lawyers, who took occasion to run out in a high commendation of the severe execution of justice upon thieves, ‘who,’ as he said, ‘were then hanged so fast that there were sometimes twenty on one gibbet!’ and, upon that, he said, ‘he could not wonder enough how it came to pass that, since so few escaped, there were yet so many thieves left, who were still robbing in all places.’ Upon this, I (who took the boldness to speak freely before the Cardinal) said, ‘There was no reason to wonder at the matter, since this way of punishing thieves was neither just in itself nor good for the public; for, as the severity was too great, so the remedy was not effectual; simple theft not being so great a crime that it ought to cost a man his life; no punishment, how severe soever, being able to restrain those from robbing who can find out no other way of livelihood.

Basically, argues Hythloday, the thieves are the poor, and mostly the deserving poor who have been let down by the state and exploited by greedy landowners and landlords. They are really being hanged for their poverty by the very people who impoverished them,

There is a great number of noblemen among you that are themselves as idle as drones, that subsist on other men’s labour, on the labour of their tenants, whom, to raise their revenues, they pare to the quick. This, indeed, is the only instance of their frugality, for in all other things they are prodigal, even to the beggaring of themselves; but, besides this, they carry about with them a great number of idle fellows, who never learned any art by which they may gain their living; and these, as soon as either their lord dies, or they themselves fall sick, are turned out of doors; for your lords are readier to feed idle people than to take care of the sick; and often the heir is not able to keep together so great a family as his predecessor did.

And he eventually goes on to describe a much better state of affairs as I observed in my travels in Persia, among the Polylerits, who are a considerable and well-governed people:

Thus they have no wars among them; they live rather conveniently than with splendour, and may be rather called a happy nation than either eminent or famous; for I do not think that they are known, so much as by name, to any but their next neighbours. Those that are found guilty of theft among them are bound to make restitution to the owner, and not, as it is in other places, to the prince, for they reckon that the prince has no more right to the stolen goods than the thief; but if that which was stolen is no more in being, then the goods of the thieves are estimated, and restitution being made out of them, the remainder is given to their wives and children; and they themselves are condemned to serve in the public works, but are neither imprisoned nor chained, unless there happens to be some extraordinary circumstance in their crimes. They go about loose and free, working for the public: if they are idle or backward to work they are whipped, but if they work hard they are well used and treated without any mark of reproach; only the lists of them are called always at night, and then they are shut up. They suffer no other uneasiness but this of constant labour; for, as they work for the public, so they are well entertained out of the public stock, which is done differently in different places: in some places whatever is bestowed on them is raised by a charitable contribution; and, though this way may seem uncertain, yet so merciful are the inclinations of that people, that they are plentifully supplied by it; but in other places public revenues are set aside for them, or there is a constant tax or poll-money raised for their maintenance. In some places they are set to no public work, but every private man that has occasion to hire workmen goes to the market-places and hires them of the public, a little lower than he would do a freeman. If they go lazily about their task he may quicken them with the whip. By this means there is always some piece of work or other to be done by them; and, besides their livelihood, they earn somewhat still to the public. They all wear a peculiar habit, of one certain colour, and their hair is cropped a little above their ears, and a piece of one of their ears is cut off. Their friends are allowed to give them either meat, drink, or clothes, so they are of their proper colour; but it is death, both to the giver and taker, if they give them money; nor is it less penal for any freeman to take money from them upon any account whatsoever: and it is also death for any of these slaves (so they are called) to handle arms. Those of every division of the country are distinguished by a peculiar mark, which it is capital for them to lay aside, to go out of their bounds, or to talk with a slave of another jurisdiction, and the very attempt of an escape is no less penal than an escape itself. It is death for any other slave to be accessory to it; and if a freeman engages in it he is condemned to slavery. Those that discover it are rewarded—if freemen, in money; and if slaves, with liberty, together with a pardon for being accessory to it; that so they might find their account rather in repenting of their engaging in such a design than in persisting in it.

There I am reading it thinking what a liberal fellow, almost a proto-Socialist this More / Hythloday is when I see that, almost incidentally, the thieves have a piece of one ear cut off, carry some peculiar mark (a tattoo presumably) and are on pain of death for a variety of things principally for the handling of money (and those who exchange money with them are, like them, to be put to death.) Death doesn't just go away. It is given other related work to do.

Some five or six calls from various charities in the last week all desperate at once for regular subscriptions. We give to two currently which is all we can afford for now, so it's a series of noes. No dealing in money on pain of death.

Thursday 17 September 2009

Márai: Plenty

Judit, the maid, reflecting on her time in service...

It was the servant who shaved them but my husband’s bathroom contained half a dozen shaving sets, the latest on the market. And in a deerskin case there were another half dozen cutthroat razors, Swedish, American and English blades, though he never touched his face with them. It was the same with lighters. My husband bought every lighter going, then threw it into a drawer to rust along with other smart gadgets because he actually preferred to use a common match… One day he brought home an electric shaver in a leather case but he never used it. If he bought records to play on the gramophone he would always buy a complete set, the complete works of this or that composer, all at once. The complete Wagner, the complete Bach, all the different recordings. There was nothing more important than having every single piece of Bach in the collection, every single piece, the full set, you understand?

As for books, the book dealer no longer waited for them to decide to buy a book but sent them every new book that came in, anything they might possibly pick up and read some time. It was the servant’s job to cut the pages and then arrange them on the shelves in their cut but mostly unread condition. They read, of course. They read plenty… The old man read books about trade and travelogues. My husband was an extraordinarily cultivated man: he even took pleasure in poetry. But all those books the dealers – in the name of courtesy – showered us with, well, no mortal could ever have read them all, one life wasn’t enough. Nevertheless they didn’t send the books back; they didn’t feel justified in doing that because one had to support literature. And on top of that all the worry and tension in case the marvelous novel they had just bought was not the best possible, or indeed, God forbid, there might be a novel somewhere else more perfect than the one they had had sent over last week from Berlin!... They were very worried that some book, some implement, some object that was not part of a set, something sub-standard and of no value, in other words imperfect, might find its way into the house.

Everything was perfect there, kitchen, parlor, all the things in all the stores…everything was whole and perfect. It was only their lives that fell short of perfection.

Me? At university all day, marking: marking some wonderful stuff.Tomorrow to London for the judging of the Stephen Spender prize.

Cooling towards autumn. C out life drawing round the corner. Here any moment.

Wednesday 16 September 2009


I am aware that some people in America are calling Obama a tyrant, a Hitler and a Stalin. A tyrant, fascist dictator, says one. I am not going to link to the rest of these crackpots, of which the USA seems to have more than a fair share. I am just going to suspect that Jimmy Carter was right in assuming racism as the cause.

Hitler? Stalin? This is serious braindeath, such mind-boggling lack of proportion, intelligence, understanding of history or indeed of anything that it calls for Will redivivus and redoubled. Set a Stalin or Hitler on them, I say. See if they can tell the difference between Obama and a tyrant then.

Between the frothing-nutjobs on the one hand and Pilger on the other I am sure Obama must be doing things generally right.

Me? I am tidying my office, seeing PhD students, editing books, translating them, travelling, speaking, and being, on the whole, rather tired.


Many thanks to Billy C in the comments for the link to the full panoply of wisdom in the Washington march that I now insert, since it's good to laugh now and then.

Yup, it's racism all right. The sheer mindnumbing idiocy leaves no room for doubt. There's nothing else left after they've been through the entire gamut of their 'complaints'.

(Exits laughing, albeit with a soupcon of bitterness and exasperation...)

Tuesday 15 September 2009

Berlin: imagined cities

I was asked by the festival to write a short piece about the Berlin I knew, or the Berlin of my imagination. This is what I wrote:

Berlin is a scar healing over. U-Bahn, S-Bahn. It is books and films and images. A kind of chastened opening out as the scar heals. It is the Trabant now stared and smiled at. It is a ruin and a rebuilding, a kind of suddenness bright with commerce. It is the lungs of a voice that once terrified, and killed half my family that now speaks with a liberal conscience. It is dear close friends, a spill-over for Hungarian writers, a late Stalinist joke occasionally laughing at itself. I cannot quite come to grips with it, despite having spent weeks there in previous years, all after 1989. Maybe it is best not understood. When the sun shines we like to walk in the Tiergarten, past the Lustgarten or somewhere in Kreuzberg or Schoeneberg, or go to Potsdam, or look towards Alexanderplatz: more films, more books, more images, more guesswork.

It takes years to understand a city. I think I understand Budapest where I was born, though it continues to surprise me, not always for the better. I think I have a sense of London where I was brought up, though I still feel ignorant of it. Of Berlin I know nothing really. Perhaps we bring imaginary cities with us and live in them wherever we are.

All cities are cities of the imagination. We stand in a few fixed positions, having read our books and seen the films, and imagine their largeness, their buzz, their intricacy, their secret life, their catastrophes and triumphs.

Most of the time walking around Berlin it was the catastrophes that offered the nearest, firmest handle on the imagined city. I kept wondering how badly this or that street had been bombed. It is something like this I had in mind:

Of course, it could be any bombed city, and yet it was Berlin, the spiritual hub of the devastation. That consciousness is the fount of all disorientation in Berlin, even more than the earlier division between East and West (that scar healing over). Certainly it is a fun city, a lively city, a civilised city, a cultured, artistic, intelligent, dignified, liberal, even a warm city now. And yet its architecture still conjures those dream images of all things Germanic - the slight gauntness, the control, the precision, the occasional venture into the expressionist and gothic, and still the discipline, the clean lines. The streets are wide, the pavements wide There is cycling everywhere. Cars are left in the street with a sense of security. All will be well, and all manner of thing shall be well...

I could live there. I could most certainly live there. A number of Hungarian writers already live there, escaping from what they sense is the barbarity of Hungary.

Still it makes a curious noise somewhere deep inside me, nothing more than a curtain flapping, or a fly in the window, yet a distinct noise. The noise of history, I suppose. Imagined history, the imagined flesh on the real bones.

Monday 14 September 2009

Back from... Berlin

Two flights - one to Schiphol from Berlin Tegel, the other on to Norwich. Under the cloud cover the spire of the cathedral stands out and, as you descend, the town hall too. A strong wind. Just before the Berlin flat a call from a photographer, Ekko von Schwichow. He wants a few quick photographs. He turns up ten minutes before the shuttle car does, just as the three of us are eating some soup in the corner restaurant. He takes about 30 photographs in about five minutes, some of me peeking round a wall. It looks fine, if a bit of a blur as far as I am concerned (though not, presumably as far as the photographs are concerned). Then the shuttle car arrives and together with the Dutch children's writer, catching the same plane.

Sadness. Sad to be leaving friends but already I am thinking of the crowded days ahead, at university and other travels (all in UK for a while).

Here is one of the five football poems, the first to be written.

And Charlton Scores...!

Way back in 1966
when Wembley was a mile away
my dad and I went down to see
Mexico and England play.

The score was 0-0. From the stand
we watched as Charlton thundered through
(more cruised than thundered to be fair)
then let fly out of the clear blue,

let fly, let go - we saw it slice
clean through the air, or thought we saw,
and then the ball was in the net.
Silence a second, shock and awe,

then WHAM! the roar! Men leapt, raised fists,
a surge of fierce electric joy
such as when Greek soldiers surged
through the wide open gates of Troy.

But as for Charlton, he just turned
and trotted to the halfway line,
prepared to restart. I was there.
I saw it all. His goal was mine.

All true.

Sunday 13 September 2009

He / she, dress / clothes

As a demonstration of how useful this blog space can be, a good friend writes from Hungary who having read yesterday's posting, suggests that the 'he' in the 'suit' is more likely to be 'she'.

And now, when I think it over, I am pretty sure he is right, because the other three poems I have just translated are all about the poet's late wife, the writer Judit Poór, whom Lator laments in the first of the poems (though the poems were written at different times and do not form a set, as such.)

Hungarian has no gendered pronouns, so any third person's gender remains to be guessed from the context, and the context of the poem itself can suggest either. 'Ruha'in Hungarian can mean either 'dress' or simply 'clothes'. If a suit specifically was meant, I suppose, the word 'öltöny, might have been used. Nevertheless, from the rather sinister circumstances I concluded that the figure at the tble was unlikely to be the poet's dead wife. Why would she appear in such a place, with such people?

But if it is her, if the circumstances are distressing (still within the dream / vision sphere) less through politics or society as through the mere alienation of death, then the poem takes on a darker meaning, the alienation deeper and more disturbing.

Here is the translation with altered gender:

What festival is this?

What festival is this? What is it to me,
this grey square with nothing to brighten it?
Why here precisely? Why choose the spot?
No house, no hill or valley, not a tree –
how could anyone take delight in it?

Long tables, some tents, a considerable crew
who’ve never met before, whom no-one knew.
I doubt they can hear or see me at all,
though some I faintly recognise while the rest
are strangers, each one playing a required role:
in both group I find something to detest.

My utter isolation makes me fret,
my failure to understand the place I’m in.
I don’t want to be here at all, and yet…

She’s there at the centre , her pale skin
contrasting with the dark, tight dress she's wearing.
Her gentle manner suggests a purpose of some kind.
She looks it me and I understand from her bearing
that I should go somewhere I’ve never gone before.

And I know that even if I ever did find
my way back there’d be no one here anymore.

Someone’s planning something, some cheap plot.

Maybe there’s time to stop it, maybe not.
Or should I leave now and just drop the lot?

It does make a considerable difference, doesn't it? Now we are meeting with ghosts and the strange otherness of death itself. The barren square takes on more significance.

Saturday 12 September 2009

A faithful translation

So much work, so little time. I have translated four poems by the older Hungarian poet, László Lator, painstakingly, as faithfully as I could, whatever one means by faithfully, and have responded to two PhD's. That is why no Literaturfest today, simply the room in the flat - the literary agent's flat - where we are staying, and work work work at the desk. If desks could burn with effort this one would be ablaze.

A faithful translation: we think we know what we mean by the expression. It means not putting in too much that isn't there; trying to maintain a respectable degree of similarity of tone and form; and hoping that the impression made on the reader in the receiving language resembles, as closely as possible (as closely as you can judge) the impression made on the reader in the original language.

So, given a formal poem, I want to respond in kind. If the form is very specific and very closely adhered to, I try to do the same. Something always gives and has to give, it is true, but something may be gained too. What you lose in one place you may gain in another. Here's an example. Lator's poem in Hungarian goes like this:

Mi ez az ünnep?

Mi ez az ünnep? Mit keresek én itt
ezen a szürke, nincs-szegélye téren?
Ugyan miért kellett épp ezt a helyet?
Se ház, se domb-völgy, se egy szál növény itt,
ki-mi, akinek ebben kedve telhet?

Hosszú asztalok, s itt-ott mintha sátrak,
nagy, össze nem szokott vendégsereg.
Úgy sejtem, hogy se hallanak, se látnak,
ismerősök és ismeretlenek,
feszengenek a rájuk rótt szerepben,
ezektől is, azoktól is viszolygok.

Nyugtalanít, hogy ezen az egészen
kívül vagyok, hogy nem értem a dolgot,
s nem akaródzik félrenézni mégsem.

Ott ül az asztal közepén, világít
sápadtsága a szűk sötét ruhában.
Gyöngédségében van valami szándék.
Néz rám, s értem: valami ismeretlen
helyre kell néma parancsára mennem.

S jól tudom, még ha vissza is találnék
ide, régen nem lesz itt senki-semmi.

Valaki ocsmány átverésre készül.

Talán lehetne még ellene tenni.
Vagy jobb lesz kimaradni az egészből?

In terms of subject and narrative, a figure or voice finds itself at a public occasion in a very plain public square where a lot of people are gathered. They don't know each other though it seems he recognizes a few. He doesn't like them. Is repelled by them. At the main table, in the very centre, is a pale-skinned figure in a tight dark suit who commands him, as by a look, to undertake a long journey. It occurs to the voice near the end, in a single line, that this is all part of some confidence trick or scam and he wonders whether to take action against it or simply walk away.

In terms of form it is pretty tightly, if irregularly rhymed, mostly in flexible iambic pentameters. It indicates order, but nothing too dressy or military.

There is an infinite number of questions that could be asked of any text and, in poetry, we recognise the necessity of ambiguity (ambiguity is partly the point), so we know the answers are all provisional, though we are encouraged to make certain choices over others. Much depends on the way we comprehend the whole. We could read the whole as a political occasion, a festival of some sort, an anniversary, a dream, an allegory. All these are possible an implicit. My sense of it is that the dream element is the most important. It is, after all, that which makes the poem haunting. Here is a draft of the translation.

What festival is this?

What festival is this? What is it to me,
this grey square with nothing to brighten it?
Why here precisely? Why choose the spot?
No house, no hill or valley, not a tree –
how could anyone take delight in it?

Long tables, some tents, a considerable crew
who’ve never met before, whom no-one knew.
I doubt they can hear or see me at all,
though some I faintly recognise while the rest
are strangers, each one playing a required role:
in both groups I find something to detest.

My utter isolation makes me fret,
my failure to understand the place I’m in.
I really don’t want to be here, and yet…

He’s there at the centre , his pale skin
contrasting with the dark, tight suit he wearing.
His gentle manner suggests a purpose of some kind.
He looks it me and I understand from his bearing
that I should go somewhere I’ve never gone before.

And I know that even if I ever did find
my way back there’d be no one here anymore.

Someone’s planning something, some cheap plot.

Maybe there’s time to stop it, maybe not.
Or should I leave now and just drop the lot?

The rhymes are sometimes in different places, and I am not sure 'festival' is exactly right here. Ünnep is a celebration of some sort, so it may be right. The point is - and this is where it resembles a dream - that it is never revealed.

As a translator I try to enter the spirit of the text (if I can locate it) then hope to travel through the English in a similar spirit. It is all travelling: travelling hopefully and never arriving.

Friday 11 September 2009

Berlin Literaturfestival 2

Yesterday the conversation with Katharina Hacker at the Hungarian Collegium, a splendid new International Style building with the words Szabadság (Freedom) and Szerelem (Love) in 1950s-style block capitals before it. Not a big audience but then we are a long way out of the festival centre and up against a variety of other events. The conversation itself fine, with an Anglo-German interpreter. Some eight of my poems had been translated - three rather wonderfully, as far as I could tell (and so others said) by Jan Wagner. I do in fact have a publisher in Germany - Lux Books - but they are still wanting to finance a translator, so nothing may happen - as was the case with my Italian book, though in that case all the translations were done, but the publishing house shut down. So there are miscellaneous poems in various languages from French, Italian, Dutch, German, Romanian and Hungarian, but very little substantial, except the nice Romanian book. I read the eight poems with brief introductions, Katharina reading the German versions first.

Well, that's enough about me, as they tend to say in very boring conversations. As to Berlin it improves each time. Yesterday we called in at the nearby kinderladen - a small private nursery where, in this case, some eleven children spend the day when their parents are at work. Set up in 1968, in the spirit of 1968, it is an old shop adapted into a children's paradise with a sandpit, a slide, games, books, music and food. Deeply civiised, useful and fun, I don't suppose such places would slip by the various inspections and checks required in rather more paranoid and mean-spirited England.

There is, I think, a good spirit in Berlin, at least in those parts of Berlin I have experienced. It is probably why people, including a great many artists, like to come here. It's full of life.

However, last night was pretty sleepless, so today was a little punishing, albeit in the nicest possible way. Once up, we made our way to the Hamburger Bahnhof, the ex-railway station, where we met a friend, Caroline, the restorer, who showed us round. It is a vast space in which to show modern and contemporary art. I am already a great Anselm Kiefer fan, but now I have fallen in love with Dieter Roth's work too. He has an enormous room where a ramshackle construction, improvised out of a variety of throw-away things, combined with plants and real (though in this case missing) rabbits. It's Fluxus on a Brobdingagian scale. Or, if you like, Anselm Kiefer with jokes. That's it above. It is sheer delight, like a toy that is constantly in development. Kiefer is about history and responsibility, Roth - here, at any rate - is about play and energy.

Elsewhere, much Warhol, some Kiefer, Bruce Nauman, Robert Rauschenberg - you name it. And heaps and heaps of Joseph Beuys. You have never seen so much felt and fat and blackboard and gauntness.

Much of the collection was in the possession of the Nazi Friedrich Flick , though it is all mixed in with the rest of the collection now. The most relevant Wiki paragraph goes as follows:

In 1997 Oxford University rejected a £350,000 donation from Gert Rudolph Flick to endow a professorship in Human Thought at Balliol College, Oxford, after a campaign by university staff and the Jewish community.

The attempt by Friedrich Christian Flick to display his art collection in Zurich in a museum to be built by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, was rejected by the Swiss authorities. In September 2004, the collection was exhibited in Berlin at the Hamburger Bahnhof gallery over the protest of Jewish groups.

Good for Oxford! The art is the art, an innocent hostage in this.

Then on to a show, chiefly of Joseph Albers, whom I used to think a cold fish, but who now strikes me as a serious, lyrical, if austere poet of the minimal. Let one of his homages to the square be the faintly glowing red full stop to this post.

Thursday 10 September 2009

Berlin Literaturfestival 1

Flights are flights. KLM is just a bit more comfortable and civilized than the so-called cheap airlines (easyJet better than Ryanair in my experience). Hop from Norwich to Amsterdam, thence Amsterdam to Berlin Tegel. Car waiting there with driver and my personal host, Esther. Traffic chaos means everything is running a bit late. C and I and Esther in back, Kuwaiti writer in front.

As soon as we get to where we are staying I am enjoined to go straight out for the opening of the festival, with speeches and a major address by Arundhati Roy. I am fairly tired but since the festival is my host I go. The huge festival theatre is almost full with a thousand or so people. Since we are late, Esther and I find seats near the back. Four longish but generous opening speeches in German (there is translation through earphones) then AR gets up to make a full-on headlong speech in English

I have the text of it now but this is no time to engage with it properly, so just a few impressions.

It is a very passionate speech, highly articulate, well-researched and employing a full range of writerly devices. Essentially it is a fierce critique of democracy, and other terms such as 'progress' and 'development'. Underlying it, and continually employed, is the parallel theme of genocide. Broadly speaking, Europe (particularly Enlightenment Europe) has committed countless acts of genocide in the process of colonialism. It has done this partly by encouraging local tyrants to commit genocide, particularly when it has wanted to get hold of some important local resource. It carries on doing so. She concentrates on India, on Kashmir and on tribal regions. She dwells on the hypocrisies of democracy in running governments with minority votes in rigged systems. She employs a number of parallels with Nazi Germany.

She goes through the victim peoples and the predators. She contrasts the condition of a wealthy state with the image of a weeping mother. She asserts that the Soviet Union collapsed because of Afghanistan.

I am uneasy with some of this. First, because of the nature and style of the rhetoric and the simplifications it involves. I don''t think the Soviet Union collapsed merely because of Afghanistan, though it was a factor (this isn't the only such point but is th one I most clearly recall). Secondly, while a great deal can and should be laid at the door of Western capitalism, the fact is that ecologically the Soviet bloc was far filthier, far more polluting, far more careless of human and natural resources than ever Western Europe was. I have seen that with my own eyes. But it was not mentioned. For her it was simple. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the Soviet bloc in general was the result of Afghanistan and all lessons were to be drawn from that.

I am never sure of the straight dramatic - and they are very dramatic, that being the point of the rhetoric - binaries. Good versus evil has very local uses on very specific occasions. It is not a world picture I accept. There are specific evil acts. I am much more hesitant about dividing the world itself along such lines.

I wasn't sure whether she was suggesting that any modernisation (incuding all it involves, good and bad) is for the worse. Are we better off without modern medicine, modern hygiene, modern communication etc etc? Was there an alternative Edenic state where the Noble Savage lived in peace? Is there still?

In ideological terms, I wasn't sure whether she was advocating a new form of communism or offering an archaising apocalyptic conservatism ("Everything will collapse in rivers of blood unless we return to our roots"). There was no difficulty understanding what she was opposing but I wasn't sure whether she was proposing anything at all. I don't think she was.

Her mention of the speech she had given in Istabul following the death of the Turkish journalist, Hrant Dink, murdered because he wrote about the 1915 Armenian genocide, troubled me a little. The wife of the journalist, she said, embraced her afterwards with tears in her eyes. I am sure this is true and I am sure it is right to point out a genocide where there is one. I have no questions about her accusations of European genocide abroad. But there was an air of See, I tell the truth like no one else does! I speak for the victim! that seemed a touch more dramatic than necessary.

But maybe I am being mean or obtuse. Dramatic rhetoric and manichean visions always trouble me. They seem to me to partake rather too forcefully of that which they condemn. That's the trouble with being on a mission, or sensing the mission in oneself. The blinding insight can sometimes cause some damage to the eyes.

Otherwise she is a marvellous speaker in terms of imagery and construction. And there is much in her heart that is absolutely right.

Wednesday 9 September 2009

To Berlin

A day at home to turn around and this morning C and I on to Berlin, via Amsterdam. Fourth or fifth time in Berlin? I'll be curious to see how this two-part city, which struck me as physically unhealed (the centre was hard to locate, though nominally Alexanderplatz I suppose), has glued itself more firmly together.

The festival is long and grand and international and in German. I don't speak German. Chose Latin at my suburban state grammar school as the alternative because of ambitions (less mine than my parents') regarding medicine. Sorry I dropped Latin before O Level. Sorry I didn't do German at all. In fact sorry that my French isn't better.

That's three 'sorry's. Is that enough? Not sorry I dropped the idea of medicine, or it dropped me. Another life I'll learn at least five languages properly and refine my bedside manner.

H and R here. Their house hunting done, it seems. Grey, overcast outside. Hardly a whisper of a breeze. So much work knocking at the front door. Some of it will come with me, as it always does.

However, did finish five football poems (for children? supposedly) and a nine-part poem on Rosehill Theatre. The tone and technique are related to the Palladio poem in The Burning of the Books. It has been a smoking brain weekend. I'll put the little football poems up/ The Rosehill one may follow.

I hear we are out of the recession. I'll take an extra ten quid to Berlin and live it up.

Tuesday 8 September 2009

Jet plot vox pop: not in my name

BBC: Prominent UK Muslims have welcomed the conviction of three men for plotting to blow up planes flying to north America - but have warned that government anti-terrorist powers should be used wisely....

"I think the word 'Muslim' shouldn't be attached to such an activity," said the woman. "I think the word 'Muslim', 'mosque' and the religion he belongs to shouldn't be attached to this activity."

Her husband said: "There are one billion Muslims in the world, so everybody's reputation is damaged saying a Muslim has done this."

Not sure about the logical position of the 'so' in the second statement. It's not because there are one billion Muslims in the world that 'everybody's reputation is damaged'. The number is irrelevant.

Nor is it so much because a Muslim did it but because he did it in the name of Islam.

Instead of Sunday: The Look of Love

I am quickly putting together light lunch interrupting work, C being at school, when the radio comes on with this Bacharach-David song with a lot of people saying what it means to them, why they like it. One of them is a musician who talks of the effect of the switch from minor to relative major. And as he is speaking two things strike me.

First, that the shift from minor to major and back is about provisionality - you cannot maintain one or the other - and that at some level it signals provisionality to us too, saying nothing lasts, that it is in fact already gone. It tips us off balance a little.

Second, that the pitch of Springfield's voice is rarely right on the note. It is a whisper under, but because it is veiled in its own fog, it doesn't seem wrong, only a kind of falling short, and that, together with the provisionality, is what hangs around even after she has stopped singing, You got that a little with Dionne Warwick too.

And then there is the Isaac Hayes version, over 11 minutes long. This is it live, the sound a bit raw and cold. Live, nevertheless. Another fog voice but from deeper down, a little more consciously cool.

Springfield wins, IMHO. By a short head.

Monday 7 September 2009

Back from Whitehaven: Two Entertainments

The theatre itself is small, seating just over 200 at push, with only one aisle and that to one side because Sekers thought having a central aisle was a waste of several ideal viewing positions. Ideally ushers would filter the audience in in severely utilitarian order, filling seats from left to right so as to prevent the untidy orgy of clambering over those already seated. A minor inconvenience.

The stage is a straightforward if rather shallow apron, a very straightforward classical proscenium arch allowing the eye entrance to it. All is plush red with Seker's original silk lining the walls. The Messels details are deeply restrained for one such as Messels, but cost must have been an inhibiting factor. Still it is a pretty plaything - a gorgeous deep red heart. You almost expect the roof to open and a plaster ballerina to turn round and round to a musical chime. And performers clearly loved it. Not too intimate, according to Joyce Grenfell, but just intimate enough not to have to raise your voice or use a microphone.

Intimate enough for Nigel Kennedy anyway and his jamming quintet of whom two, the saxophonist Gyula Csepregi and the pianist Róbert Rátonyi were Hungarian. Alec Dankworth looked coolly detached on bass but was fully engaged musically, increasingly so as the two hour jam progressed and Brian Abrahams on drums was elegant, perfect and unobtrusive, taking a few barnstorming solos when the occasion demanded.

NK, who still prefers street punk, was clearly taken by his saxophonist for the night while being a touch ginger and distant with his pianist, whose playing was delicate and diffuse, which one would not say of NK. NK has three between-the-tunes gestures: the fist to fist greeting for a successful completion; the thumbs-up for a fine solo; and the mock army salute for his own applauded solos. The rest of the time it's larking and turning the air blue as much with language as with minor sevenths. Don't worry about it, dear. It's just his way. He's a genius, you see. Like Peter Shaffer's Mozart, only more so.

The programme was mostly Duke Ellington standards, twisted, pinched, smooched and pounded into various, often exciting shapes. NK took the longest solos and while he could tiptoe for odd minutes, his natural bent is to blaze. He was having a great time, and eventually Csepregi and Dankworth seemed to relax into NK's brand of generous but aggressive madness. Maybe some of his solos were over-extended, maybe some of the gypsy-style rubatos and cadenzas were more habit than pain and glory, but the whole was nothing if not generous - blurtingly, fartingly, lyrically generous. The world has to arrange itself around NK while he's around, but the air is too busy vibrating to notice. Personally, I felt an occasional urge to punch him. A healthy feeling. It wouldn't have stopped him. Not for an instant. And it is terrific really, the sheer blurt of it.

Also intimate enough for the assembly of what the grandly bellied, lost-looking MC referred to as Whitehaven's Got Talent. This was the next afternoon / evening show. I wanted to go because I wanted to experience the theatre in its everyday working clothes. This was local people singing songs from the shows, doing a recitation, indulging in a bit of dancing and performing excerpts from two plays, one of them being Mary O'Malley's 'Once a Catholic'.

Some certainly did have talent. One little blond boy in the youth theatre danced and sang as though he meant it. He could blame it on the boogie and even be the boogie-woogie bugle boy of company B. The chief girls could all belt out a song and look interested. One briefly donned white, became Kate Bush, and performed 'Wuthering Heights' with all the appropriate histrionics.

There was - and probably always is - a big age gap between the youth theatre level and the adult am-dram company. It was as if everyone between the age of eighteen and forty-eight had disappeared off the face of the earth. The plays were the province of the over-fifties, performing heartily, and often, if not always, with good timing.

Is this top quality entertainment? Of course, not. But in so far as it is perfectly ordinary people singing, dancing, learning lines and becoming someone else, it is a properly human affair. It is something to know that the desire for transformation persists. That it remains a challenge to hit the right note, to master a convincing dynamic as the voice rises and falls, to work on a gesture until it seems to be part of something more complete than everyday life.

There's no point getting sentimental about it, but it's always comforting to find evidence that people are not entirely passive. I wondered what would become of this voice, or that grace? What place it held in the darkness outside once the thing was over?

Saturday 5 September 2009

Whitehaven 3: Wastwater

Tony takes me and his son Philip to Wast Water (or Wastwater). The language echoes are powerful: Vast water, waste water, was water, washed water...

It is misty, with a trace of har, that fine wet mist that doesn't feel like rain, not quite, but you end up wet all the same. Wastwater is the deepest lake in the region. A man dropped the body of his wife into it, carefully wrapped, and it took thirty years to find her - what is more, in a rather well-preserved condition. It is very deep.

On the far side from where we stand, that is at the low shore at the right of this photograph, rises the sheer jagged face of slate cliff you see on the left, a grey collapse into silence out of the mist shrouded jags or teeth at the top. I would not call it beautiful. I would say it is better than beautiful. It is forbidding and gaunt and friendless. Are there fish here? Some say no. Tony says he comes here when he is troubled and he forgets his trouble.

Maybe the sheer mercilessness of the view on a day like that eclipses any trouble we might have.

Later we are in a cafe talking about poetry. He says it is about emotion and putting thoughts into words. I tell him poetry is like the water between the low shore and the cliff. It doesn't explain anything. It is something, not the explanation of it. You know that like the valley, the lake and the cliff it is a product of some form of glaciation, but that knowing it is so is not the same as the experience of the lake. The experience of the lake is being in the lake. Or imagining being in the lake. The lake is language and it stands between us and the cliff. It is cold and forbidding but we have to move in by way of the imagination because it overwhelms and moves us. Wastwater is a poetic experience. It is not the Picturesque, not the Sublime: it is nothing fancy. It is not a literary category. It is the poetry we all know and understand instinctively. To read poetry is not to parse it or analyse it, though we do parse and analyse because we must, because we have parsing and analysing brains; poetry is the water that laps in our guts. Poets work with that water. You understand poems by immersing yourself in them. Language and imagination are the water. Understand that - and anybody can understand it because anybody can stand by Wasswater and feel the water and the cliff - and you are on the way to understanding poetry. You dip your toe in and feel. You parse and analyse it, you have to do that too, but it is essentially the shock of water we are trying to produce when we write. That shock is always new. For a while at least.

Sir Nicholas Sekers, Oliver Messel. The sea. The coal. The methane. Wastwater. Vast water. Waste water. Washed water. Was water.

Whitehaven 2: Oliver Messel

Messel was one of the leading interior, film, and theatre designers of the thirties and forties, through to the advent of the new realism of John Osborne and the so called concrete-and-barbed-wire school of design suitable for such as Jimmy Porter. Messel's was altogether another world:

The picture shows Oliver Messel and his sister Anne, later Anne Armstrong Jones, mother of Lord Snowdon, who gave the comic impression of Nicholas (Miki / Niki) Seker on the film yesterday.

This is a sketch by Messel for the set of the film 'Suddenly Last Summer'

And this is his design for the Dorchester Hotel:

As may be seen - and as we saw in profusion in the slide lecture conducted by his son Thomas - Messel was of the same line of sensibility as his friend Rex Whistler. I am not sure what the correct name for this style is (Osbert Lancaster will have labelled it) but maybe we could call it Thirties Rococo for now. It is Fancy writ very large, a last minute doomed frivolity - Hungry Thirties Glamour might be another name for it - that the war, or the post-war generation, was to blow away, leaving nothing except some exclusive interiors and a few films. Concrete and barbed wire.

Messel worked like a demon at it, as if it were for ever the last minute of the last hour before the last and greatest party in the world, at a moment when everything had to be lighter, flouncier, dreamier, wealthier, more of a wonderful- wonderful-darling-joke. He adapted materials. He'd have made Versailles out of rawlplugs if he could.

And then there was Society, that was inextricably a part of this, and of which Princess Margaret and Anthony Armstrong-Jones were the last beacons. Not that Society has stopped existing - it just doesn't exist in quite the party-party form it did before before. Instead they are at the clubs out of which London Lite shows them spilling at 3am, with singers, actors and models with names like Pixie.

Sekers had become part of this world. Darling, darling, he would say to Princess Margaret on the phone, you simply must come down to Glyndebourne.... etc. That's according to Snowdon.

And so stands the Rosehill Theatre in sea coal and nuclear fuel station Whitehaven. The cars arrive with their evening gowned and bow-tied patrons, watched - as one photographs currently on show in the local museum shows - by the locals. Rosehill was not to be confused with Glyndebourne, Sekers insisted when asking for public support. His personal contacts came to perform for him at a much lower fee. In one of the letters on display Sekers tells how David Oistrakh has come over for three performances: one in the Royal Albert Hall that he could fill three-times over, and two at Rosehill where he would receive a fraction of the fee. And Pauk and Menuhin and Soderstrom and Break and Gielgud and Grenfell and Rostropovich...

I wondered whether Rosehill had any fanciful connection to Budapest's Rózsadomb (literally Rosehill) district where the rich lived and continue to live, but it had been Rosehill from the beginning of the 19th century. The name will, I suppose, have tickled Nicholas Sekers (Szekeres Miklós?) as well as his Hungarian business partnes Tomi de Gara (Garai Tamás?).

So, it's a puzzle: The Messels, the Sekers, the poor in their Fords, as Belloc wrote, the rich in their Rolls Royces. The Rosehill Theatre opens in 1959, just twelve years after the great 1947 mining disaster. The mines function into the 80s.

Concrete and barbed wire are sometimes salutary. I am, of course, a child of concrete and barbed-wire, not of Versailles, not even of a Versailles constructed out of rawlplugs.

Two more nuclear power stations to be built here in the next five years. There is cross-party support. It will be boom town again, says Lee at the hotel.

From Whitehaven 1

1. Some 1200 miners were killed at Whitehaven's Haig Pit.

Cumbria suffered two major disasters, both in Whitehaven. The Wellington Pit disaster killed 136 men and boys, while the William Pit Disaster in 1947, claimed 104 victims.

Harrowing as these reports may be, they can do little to convey the full misery and suffering. The news that the families bread winner, or winners as was so often the case, had perished, must have only been the beginning of the suffering. The widow's pension of 2 shillings was considered high in 1839, but must have been hard stretched to raise a family. Even "Lame persons doing nothing" received 5 shillings a week in the 1802 payroll for the Howgill Colliery. Even without the frequent accidents, the conditions underground were horrendous. An account of a visit to William Pit in 1814 vividly describes the suffering of the young children and miners at the hands of the coal owners.

The mine extended miles under the sea bed and methane was the danger.

2.Sellafield (aka Windscale) is just a little way down from Whitehaven:

The "Beach Incident"

1983 was the year of the "Beach Discharge Incident" in which high radioactive discharges containing ruthenium and rhodium 106, both beta-emitting isotopes, resulted in the closure of a beach. BNFL received a fine of £10,000 for this discharge.[48] 1983 was also the year in which Yorkshire Television produced a documentary "Windscale: The Nuclear Laundry", which claimed that the low levels of radioactivity that are associated with waste streams from nuclear plants such as Sellafield did pose a non-negligible risk.

As you approach over hill you catch sight of the sea. There is the marina and the beach in the next natural inlet. The sand is greyish from the coal. No-one bathes there.

It is a rather lovely Georgian town in the centre now. Tony R picks me up at Carlisle and in about an hour or so we are there. The old port might well have been a rival to Liverpool, even supplanted Liverpool, at one time. The port authority buildings stand there still mostly converted into accommodation. Back at the time of the American War of Independence in 1778 it was important enough for John Paul Jones to launch an attack on it that failed because of bad tides and mutinous crew. There is a bench in the marina that commemorates it. There is also a Millenium Pavilion, a wave sculpture, gulls, swans, dogs darting into the water, but not much traffic even at 5.30-ish. Not much unemployment here, says Tony, most people on a fairly equal economic footing. Chemical works nearby. All quiet if a bit isolated. And, despite the Tourism Office in the marina, not much tourism either. A lot of boats though gently knocking in the bay.

But I am here to write about the fiftieth anniversary of the Rosehill Theatre, founded by the Hungarian silk-manufacturer and merchant, Sir Nichols Sekers, and its relaunch as a venue for concerts and plays under Richard Elder, the Director. To that end there is a weekend of events, the first of which was on Thursday night, involving a short film about the designer Oliver Messel who worked with Sekers to create the theatre. Anthony Snowdon does a very passable Sekers imitation in it, complete with Hungarian accent and pencil as cigarette holder. I am also dipping into the newly published history of Rosehill.

The world of Sekers and Messel is a million miles from the world of the miners, but here they were together, and here last night were many who remembered Sekers and Messel. It was primarily that world at the event last night. I shall keep reading and see what transpires. Notes to continue. This in haste complete with possible typos.

Thursday 3 September 2009

London and what next

Scoot down to London for a meeting of the Poetry Book Society Board where I am currently the Chair. Two and a half hours down, the same back by train. Read stuff to be read down and more but different stuff to read on the way back.

I am not about to enter one of those mad periods where I am constantly on the move. Tomorrow to Whitehaven, near Penrith in the Lake District, where they are celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the Rosehill Theatre, founded by a Hungarian emigré, Sir (as he was to become) Nichols Sekers, who worked in fabrics and the fashion industry, and designed by Oliver Messel. My role is to be invited, entertained and then to sit down and write something - poetry, prose, reportage, dramatic scene - about the event or the theatre or the founders. Any combination of any of these. It is one of those out-of-the-ordinary commissions that is hard to resist. In the meantime eat goulash and listen to a Nigel Kennedy concert, possibly tramp the hills. This is while reading over the text of the forthcoming anthology of younger poets that I have just edited and answering some questions from the publishers. It will go into rapid production after that - ready for early November publication.

On returning I shall have one day home before flying off to Berlin with C to the Berliner Festspiele otherwise known as the 9th International Literature Festival where I am doing an evening event with novelist friend Katharina Hacker.

Things don't end there. September and October's diary is full of dates and engagements. Details to follow.

In the meantime, one of my poems, as previously noted, is on the Forward shortlist for best poem of the year (I would be astounded if it won), and the Tiffey book, aka Shuck, Hick, Tiffey is shortlisted for the EDP-Jarrold East Anglian Book Awards 2009. I'm in the Places and Nature section. Up against Roger Deakin there, alas. This is however terrific for the Gatehouse Press and Meirion Jordan's Strangers Hall, also Gatehouse Press. Many congratulations to them! Meirion was one of my MA students at UEA. He is in the Fiction and Poetry category and is up against Philip Leslie and Jeremy Page. He is also shortlisted for the Forward First Book Prize. What a tremendous start in his career!

Wednesday 2 September 2009

Language crime / Mountain language

I pick this up from Budapest Analyses, a FIDESZ think tank, a source I rarely refer to but which I continue to receive and read. On this issue all Hungarian parties are united and who could not but be with them?

The Slovak state has language laws very similar to those of Romania in Ceausescu's time. The difference is that this is post-1989 and that both Hungary and Slovakia are members of the EU.

(Later) My highlights.

Slovak-Hungarian relations have greatly deteriorated between neighboring Hungary and Slovakia, both member countries of NATO and the EU. The source of the deepening tension has been the passage, on June 30, 2009, of additional restrictive amendments to the Meciar era Slovak State Law 270 of 1995. These restrictive amendments were passed even after the Hungarian minority in Slovakia and Hungary herself expressed their concerns...

...The most significant problems of the law are:

1. The introduction of a new category of crime, „language crime”, or the criminalization of the use of the Hungarian language. Section 3 of the law prescribes as mandatory the use of Slovak, both written and oral, for official interactions in many areas of daily life. What this amounts to is that, for instance, an ethnic Hungarian bus driver and an ethnic Hungarian passenger, an ethnic Hungarian postal worker and an ethnic Hungarian resident, or an ethnic Hungarian fireman and an ethnic Hungarian victim of a fire are prohibited from communicating with each other in Hungarian. According to §9, the language use in these interactions may be monitored by the Ministry of Culture. According to §2, local authorities may do likewise. Based on this law, then, Slovak citizens whose native language is Hungarian are liable for prosecution if, under certain circumstances, they use their common native language to communicate with each other. Section §2 and §9 of the law not only allows for, but essentially mandates that a report be filed for any infraction.

2. Fines for using Hungarian within the Hungarian community. Section 9/a of the law prescribes that fines ranging from 100 to 5,000 EUR be issued under the jurisdiction of the Slovak Ministry of Culture to legal persons for perceived shortcomings or violations of the law. This means that in many workplaces (transport services, post offices and fire stations, as well as the police, local governments or any company) fines may be imposed, if ethnic Hungarian employees providing services to ethnic Hungarians use Hungarian in their official capacity. Since, according to Slovak law, the employee is responsible for fines imposed upon his/her workplace, fines imposed on the workplace de facto amount to fines imposed upon ethnic Hungarians for using their native language. In addition, §11 and 11/a of the law de facto provide for retroactive penalties and mandate the replacement of existing monuments, memorial plaques, and gravestones (!) whose inscriptions are largely or entirely in Hungarian, and prescribes that the cost of the required modifications must be borne by the legal or natural persons who erected or commissioned them.

3. Discrimination. It follows from the above that certain Slovak citizens (for instance, those whose native language is Hungarian) are subject to monitoring, harassment and penalties for using their native language, while other Slovak citizens (for instance, those whose native language is Slovak or Czech) are not. Section §3 of the law is openly discriminative, since the Czech minority may use their native language without restrictions, which means that members of other minorities are prohibited from using theirs. As in many areas of Europe, including Slovakia, ethnic identity and the use of the native language are closely intertwined, which means that discrimination in native language use amounts to discrimination based on ethnicity.

4. Violations of the freedom of the press and freedom of speech. Section 5 of the law provides, as a general rule, that all media outlets – both public and privately owned media – must use the Slovak language, with the exception of programs transmitted for national minorities. This means that Hungarian-speaking citizens cannot set up a radio or television station that transmits programs exclusively in Hungarian. The law requires that programs broadcast on local public address systems always be announced in Slovak first, regardless of the ethnic composition of the locality. Hungarian inscriptions on monuments, memorials and gravestones (which must always come second to a Slovak-language inscription) must be approved in advance by the Ministry of Culture. This represents state censorship, and contradicts the freedom of language use and the freedom of expression.

5. Violation of freedom of association and religion. Section 5 of the State Language Law provides that cultural and educational programs should be in Slovak, with the exception of „educational” programs aimed at minority audiences. This means that organizations and associations are not free to choose the language of their activities and programs. For instance, in a settlement populated by ethnic Hungarians, the Hungarian language may be used in a presentation on Hungarian historical figures, but if the program involves American history, it cannot be performed or carried out in Hungarian, because the subject matter is not Hungarian. Section 3 of the law is a violation of the freedom of association and freedom of religion, since it restricts the use of language in the institutional life of associations and churches. The churches can freely choose only the language in which they conduct their services; they have no choice about the language in which they conduct administrative process and provide public information.

6. Limitations on existing regulations protecting minorities. Section 1(4) of the amended State Language Law asserts that the separate regulations governing the use of minority languages are applicable only if the directives of the State Language Law do not provide otherwise. This statement completely transforms the existing (already very weak) legal protections for minority languages and for the speakers of minority languages, since it gives unmistakable preference to protecting the State Language over the protection of minority rights.

It's the same old repressive answer to the same old ongoing ethnic / language problem, a ghost problem, a problem that isn't really a problem at all, nevertheless a problem intensely exacerbated in regions with continually redrawn national boundaries, in which the party representing the most backward, reactionary, paranoid, nationalistic elements in the country - in this case, Slovakia - needs a scapegoat.

Stop them speaking to each other, is the solution. Watch them carefully. Make their lives as hard as you can. They should not be aiming to be a version of themselves, but an inferior version of us.

But how does the EU respond? Does it respond?