Sunday 31 January 2010

Sunday Night is.... Ben Webster, and the duel of the referees

Chelsea Bridge in 1964. Ricky Laird on bass, Stan Tracey on piano, Jackie Doogan drums. Webster drives you to poetry. These examples from YouTube comments:

Ben Webster is my idol. You could pour his melodies over pancakes... pure velvet coming out of your speakers...

...smooth as silk or brandy by the fire...

There is gruffness, growliness and power there too. If this is honey there's a bear with it.


As I write, dear friend L in Budapest sends me an email. There is talk of a duel in the Márai book and I was curious as to whether duels really were fought in Hungary in the 1930s. He has pointed me to a site that shows one as late as 1935. But I rather liked the look of this one in 1930:

Két futballbiró véres kardpárbajt vivott vasárnap Miskolcon

Az észak Biró Testület január 12-én tartja tisztujító közgyülését s a választások előkészületét kinos incidens zavarta meg, amely Vasárnap véres kardpárbajjal fejeződött be.

A Biró Testület intézőbizottságának legutóbbi ülésén ugyanis két régi futballbiró, dr. Gofthilf József miskolci ügyvéd és Kerekes Nándor magántisztviselő élesen összekülönböztek és a szóváltást kinos incidens követte. Ügyet lovagias utra terelték és a két futball biró vasárnap délelőtt Gerevich Aladár vivótermében kardpárbajt vivott. A párbaj rendkivül heves volt és a harmadik ősszecsapásnál dr. Gotthilf József az arcán sulyos vágást szenvedett.
amire a segédek a párbaj folytatását beszüntették.

I translate:

Two football referees in bloody duel in Miskolc on Sunday

The northern branch of the Referees Association held its annual general meeting on 12 January, but preparations for the election of new officers were disrupted by an unpleasant incident.....

At the last board meeting of the Referees Association two ex-referees, Dr József Gotthilf, a lawyer from Miskolc, and Nándor Kerekes, self-employed, had a sharp difference of opinion and the unpleasant incident in question followed. They decided to settle their differences in courtly fashion and the two referees met on Sunday morning in Aladár Gerevich's gymnasium where they fought a duel with swords. The duel was contested with more than usual passion and at the third pass Dr József Gotthilf suffered a serious cut across his face at which point the seconds brought the contest to an end.

There is far too little of this sort of thing going on. For Miskolc read, say, Wolverhampton.

Saturday 30 January 2010

Márai on loans, Tony Blair, and John Terry

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, so that now everything was as it should be, they could plan far ahead, bring up their children, and give themselves over to individual pleasures that were not only delightful but even a touch superfluous. That was the world in which I started traveling - the world between two 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. We behaved like people who had, to their surprise, been robbed of everything: our whole lives were tinged with suspicion during the brief period between two wars in Europe. We - all of us, individuals and nations - made enthusiastic efforts to be generous and big-hearted but - secretly at any rate – we carried revolvers in our pockets and would occasionally reach for our wallets in the pocket above our hearts. Not just for our wallets, probably, but for our hearts and minds too, because we feared for them too.

Redrafting the redrafts means, of course, re-reading everything. After a shaky start I am having to correct a great deal less. Márai remains fascinating because all his thinking is dramatised and forensically clear.

As for Chilcot, I have read parts and seen parts, and I can't help thinking Blair cuts a far more impressive figure than ever Brown has managed. People demand Blair should express regret, because, as Yeats put it, he sent men out to die. Regretting each individual death is, however, one thing. Regret over the decision to launch a war is something else. The notion of distinct spheres of life is something that interested Márai.

Just as, to pick another leading news item, the affair of the married Chelsea and England footballer, John Terry, with the girlfriend of a (now ex-) team-mate, seems to me to be distinct from the sphere of public interest. The public interest argument is as much about the right to prurience as about fitness for office.

Now back to redrafting the redrafting.

Friday 29 January 2010

The trial of Tony Blair - aesthetics and all

It's not a trial of course, it's an inquiry, though for many it should be at least a Star Chamber or a Maoist jiǎntǎo (self-criticism) at the end of which there would be a march to the killing fields with a few years of hard labour, interspersed with a daily session in the medieval stocks, and a nice Blair-shaped skull in a nice pile of other skulls somewhere at the end of it.

In my opinion, this is not very much to do with caring for the war dead of Iraq - after all there are plenty of war dead in the world to care about, to donate money to, write about and try to help. It's about a combination of other things, chiefly a hatred of Blair, which is itself a compound of various factors. It is less a logical political matter than a point of aesthetics.

Aesthetics, politics and morality make an explosive mixture. I remember a discussion in the early eighties or so when one writer friend said something in defence of Margaret Thatcher. Another writer friend replied (and I remember this with crystal clear detail): How could you? She is so ugly! He did not mean physically, of course. He meant in that aesthetic-moral-political way. He was, after all, a writer, an artist.

I remember the early Lancet report that claimed 600,000 people had died in the war - a figure that the latest count estimates as 91,000-110,000 or so, most of them not killed by the US-UK troops. Still a vast number. But the clear implication was - and continues to be - that it was Tony Blair who was personally responsible for those 600,000 deaths.

Poodle Blair and Chimp Bush, of course. I sometimes think the aesthetic end of the hatred comes from the association with the Chimp. How could a sophisticated British politician ally himself with someone so ugly? Ugliness hurts a certain cast of mind far more than morality. Morality, since the sixties, has been a relativised, subjective affair. What right have you to tell me I am doing wrong? is the key question. What is often felt is a kind of transference morality: morality on aesthetic terms. The ugly is visceral: the moral sphere takes over the visceral quality and justifies it.


I can't say I liked Blair. I was opposed at first to the Iraq war. But I did not feel it was an evil war. Like all wars, I thought - and still do think - it was the product of a variety of factors and calculations. War is a matter of gathering pace, so that after a certain stage of negotiations it becomes inevitable. That is usually at the point that the threat of military force has succeeded sanctions or other forms of political pressure. By the time a military force is actually gathered it is all but impossible to turn back. The weapons inspections process was a perfect illustration of that. Iraq admits them, then puts difficulties in their way. Pressure gathers, soon becomes military and by the time the inspectors are readmitted, the troops are on the borders. That is not to say that there have not been considerable calculations (they may well have been wrong-headed and stupid calculations, of course) before - it is just that the process, once events reach a certain stage, takes place regardless of calculations. Immediately post-war Iraq seems to me fairly clear evidence of that.

I was dubious about the question of illegality. After all, the war was primarily opposed by France and Russia, by far the two major exporters of arms to Iraq (over 80% combined). Their opposition did not seem a purely moral case to me. It seemed opportunistic to say the least. France and Russia have been the chief opponents of US influence and action anyway. Nor do I hold the UN in consistently high regard. There is an alternative suggestion of an organisation of 'democratic states'. It is a very attractive thought, albeit fraught with difficulty. Who defines democracy? What definitions do we use? Is membership permanent? Would it be like the Commonwealth or the EU from which nations could be expelled? I don't want to get into that now, it only seems to me that we cite the UN when it suits us to do so.

I have little doubt that the reign of Saddam was terrible, and that whatever is in its place is now, and likely to be, a hundred times better - if left in peace. Nevertheless, I was sceptical - and still am - about the purely moral case for regime change. Nations do what is practical. As has often been pointed out, we do not seem to be on the point of enforcing regime change on North Korea or Burma. I doubt very much whether states are primarily moral entities. On the other had, I am thoroughly glad Saddam is gone. Once the war started I supported it. Not because I support the deaths of a lot of people, but because my gut feeling is that war is war, has always been war, and that once it starts it is better to support what you consider to be the better cause. One could be a pacifist and oppose all war; one could oppose specific wars. All these are valid choices to make. In the case of Saddam's Iraq, although I consider myself to be of the western democratic left, I preferred to support the case of UK-US against Saddam. I don't think I was wrong.

So then to the core of the case. What was the war about? I think it was about a complex mix of causes. I don't accept the pure oil-grab case, though oil would have been a factor. At the time I thought it was more about the Middle East balance. I think the experience of the Iraq-Iran War and the invasion of Kuwait would have come into it. I think WMD came into it - back in 2002 most nations were of the view that Iraq had them, and was developing them. The massacre of the Kurds at Halabja with chemical weapons did actually happen.

When it came to the decision itself I imagine the government (any government making the same decision) would have regarded WMD as the issue to push. It makes a much more immediate impact than long term strategy or oil. And why push so hard if all the time you know you are going to be proved wrong? That does not make sense to me. The muddle afterwards seems to be evidence for that.


To return to Blair. I have suggested that the intensity of hatred in his case is in some sense aesthetic. Nor is the aesthetic sense always wrong. The image we like to have of ourselves - on the left at least - is of righteousness compounded of tolerance to difference combined with a passionate opposition to wrong. It is a mixture of the liberal and the egalitarian. Blair injured both these senses. After eighteen years of Tory rule he was expected to swing the balance towards the egalitarian. Things could only get better, said the song. He didn't do that. Like all prime ministers, once in power, he became pragmatic, savvy and manipulative, in the fully modern sense. Far too media savvy. That is an aesthetic insult to our intelligence (if we consider ourselves intelligent and most people do). His socialism was minimal, a matter of small social detail - in broad ideology it was no change from before - it wasn't economic egalitarianism but minor amelioration (which too is something). Otherwise the filthy rich were encouraged to remain the filthy rich. Their pips would not be made to squeak.

So there we were, enjoying a very long boom before our recent bust, all the time suspecting the principles on which the boom was built. Debt was an ugly kind of guilty pleasure. He gets that in the neck too. Nor did the financial shenanigans with Cherie endear him to us. The financial grabs were not a pretty sight. Quite ugly, in fact.

Worst of all - apart from his alliance with Chimp Bush - is his sense that he has been right along. Even about Chimp Bush. That is the biggest insult. He claims the moral sphere. Chimp and Poodle. Ugh! And see, neither of them need be human.

There is an appeal by John Rentoul of The Independent for the press to stop treating Blair as a form of bear-baiting. I am not signing it. On the other hand I don't think we live in the world as described by Steve Bell or Peter Brookes. I suspect there will be no war-crimes tribunal for either Blair or Bush and that they will both survive and probably prosper. Particularly Blair. Chimp-Poodle-Bear.

It's just that I don't think Blair was evil or even a particularly spectacular liar (no more than any other politician in a similar position). I sometimes doubt we want honest politicians. We just say we do. We hardly ever vote for them. Honesty is, by definition, not politic. I am, of course, curious as to how the war came to be and how it proceeded. That is what Chilcot is supposed to help partly reveal. The other details will follow - a few decades later. Meanwhile the carnival proceeds. The poodle's gone, the chimp is gone. The bear survives and probably will survive without my assistance.

Thursday 28 January 2010

More Márai on class, but this time...

... from the point of view of the industrialist husband, who marries the maid, Judit. Here he is thinking of the failure of his first marriage, to Ilonka, a failure he puts down to class.


In that case I had better tell you what my first marriage was like and why it failed. My first wife was perfect. I can’t even say that I didn’t love her. She had but one small fault and it wasn’t something she could do anything about. It wasn’t any kind of psychological problem – nothing of the sort. Her problem was that she was a middle-class girl, poor thing, a middle-class woman.

Don’t misunderstand me: I myself am middle-class. I am conscious of being so, a conscientious member of that class, someone who knows its faults and limitations, content to shoulder the responsibilities of middle-class existence. I don’t like drawing-room revolutionaries. One should keep faith with those to whom one is tied by origin, education, interest and communal memory. It is the middle class I have to thank for everything: my upbringing, my way of being, my desires, the very finest moments of my life and that common culture which offers such a dignified entry to such moments… Because there are many who say this class has had its day, that it has grown feeble, that it has fulfilled its mission, that it can longer take the leading role in human affairs the way it did in the past. I can’t speak about that. I don’t understand it. But I have a feeling that the middle-class is being buried a bit too enthusiastically, a little too impatiently; I think there may be some power left in it, that it might still have a role in the world. Perhaps the middle-class will form the bridge on which the forces of revolution meet the forces of order…

When I say my first wife was a middle-class woman that is not a criticism, I am simply establishing a certain condition. I too am middle-class, quite hopelessly so. I keep faith with my class. I will defend it when it is attacked. But I won’t defend it blindly or from a prejudiced position. I want to see quite clearly what it was I received as my portion of social destiny. I have, in other words, to know what our faults were, and to discover whether we have been attacked by a kind of social virus that has drained us of vigor? Not that I ever talked about this with my wife.

So what was the problem? Wait a minute. Let me get my thoughts in order.

First and foremost, it was that I was a middle-class man, fully acquainted with the rituals of my class. I was rich. My wife’s family was relatively poor. Not that being middle-class is a matter of money. My experience is that it is precisely the poorest members of the class, those with the least financial security, who are most urgently preoccupied with maintaining middle-class standards and values. No one rich ever needs to cling so attentively, so desperately, to social customs, to points of etiquette, to respectable behavior, to all those things the poorest of our kind, the petit bourgeoisie, needs to underwrite its very existence at any given moments of life. There is the assistant manager in the office who watches everything like a hawk, careful that his accommodation, his wardrobe, and all the minute details of his life, should keep firmly in step with his salary… The rich are always open to a kind of minor risk-taking. They are prepared to wear a false beard or to shin down a drainpipe in order to escape, even if only for a little while, the prison of ennui that goes with property. I am secretly convinced that the rich spend every hour of the day being utterly bored of themselves. But the middling man, the middle-class citizen, who holds an office without a great salary or a reservoir of money, will perform acts of heroism fit for a Knight Errant simply to maintain his position in the existing hierarchy, which means preserving both his rank and his system of values. It is the petit bourgeois who uphold the sacred rituals. From the moment one is born to the moment he dies, he has constantly to be proving something.

My wife was well brought up. She was taught languages, she had the ability to make sharp distinctions, between good music and a sentimental tune; between literature and cheap hack work. She could tell you precisely why a painting by Botticelli was beautiful and what Michelangelo had in mind with his Pietà. But wait – let me be accurate about this. She learned most of it from me - travel, reading, the art of intimate conversation. The education she received at home and at school, the culture she absorbed there, remained in her only as the memory of strict teaching. I tried to dissolve the tensions implicit in learning such things by rote, I wanted to transform school learning into warm, living experience. It wasn’t easy. She had remarkable powers of hearing in both the physical and psychological human sense. She sensed that I was teaching her and was offended. People are offended by all sorts of things. It doesn’t take much. Say one man knows something because of his good fortune in being born who he is and has had the opportunity of enquiring into the mysteries that constitute real art while the other has only learned it in class. That’s an offence. It happens. But it takes us a whole lifetime to learn this..

For the lower managerial class, culture is an inseparable part of the whole package: not experience but accomplishment. It is the top layer of the middle-class that provides the artists, the creative types. I was a member of that group. That’s not a boast but an admission. Because, in the end, I did not create anything. Something was missing in me…what was it? Lázár called it The Holy Spirit. But he never explained what he meant by that.


Some of this is familiar analysis of course, but it still impresses me how Márai can both defend a subject yet render it vulnerable at the same time.

Katy, aka Ms Baroque has a really good post - they're all good, of course - on accessibility in poetry (see 27th January). I want to think rather more about that, and will. But hers is the food that is to nourish the thought.

Wednesday 27 January 2010

Marai redrafted - on class and gender

I am hitting clumsy patches and good patches. Also some fascinating ones. In this early scene, from the first part of the book, Márai has brought together the author figure, Lázár, with the first wife - who has just found out that her rival is the maid, Judit, and has confronted her in a splendid set piece in the maid's room. She finds Judit is a very tough case indeed.

Márai's conservatism is played out through Lázár who, I imagine, is voicing some of Márai's own views. The class issue comes first, then the issue of women.


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

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

‘That wasn’t the only reason I couldn’t allow it, of course. Peter is bourgeois, a valuable member of the bourgeoisie… there are few like him left. He embodies a culture that is very important to me. He once told me, by way of a joke, that my role was to be the chief witness to his life. I answered, equally by way of a joke, but not altogether as jokingly as you might at first think, that I had to look after him out of sheer commercial interest, because he was my reader, and writers have to save their readers. Of course it was not the size of my readership I meant to preserve, but those few souls in whom my sense of responsibility to the world I know continues to exist… They are the people for whom I write… if I didn’t there would be no sense in anything I wrote. Peter is one of the few. There are not many left, not here, not anywhere in the world… I am not interested in the rest. But that was not the real reason, or to put it more precisely, this wasn’t the reason either. I was simply jealous because I loved him. I have never liked surrendering to my feelings… but this feeling, this friendship, was much more refined, much more complex than love. It is the most powerful of all human feelings… it is genuinely disinterested. It is unknown to women.’

‘But why were you jealous of that particular woman?’ I persevered. I was listening to everything he was saying but still felt he was not being straight with me, that he was avoiding the real issue.

‘Because I don’t like sentimental heroes,’ he eventually admitted, as if resigned to telling the truth. ‘More than anything, I like to see everyone and everything in its proper place. But it wasn’t only the difference in class that concerned me. Women are quick to learn and can make up centuries of evolution in a few moments… I do not doubt that with Peter at her side this woman would heave learned everything in a trice, and conducted herself as perfectly as you or I did at that grand house last night… Women generally are far superior in culture and manners to the men of their own class. Nevertheless Peter would still have felt like a sentimental hero to himself, a hero who was a hero from the moment he rose, to the moment he went to bed because he was doing something the world did not approve of, embarking on a mission that is entirely human and perfectly acceptable to God and man but one whose undertaking required him to be a hero, a sentimental hero. And that’s not all. There was the woman. This woman would never forgive Peter for being middle-class.’

‘That I don’t believe,’ I said, feeling stupid.

‘I know different,’ he frowned. ‘But none of this resolves your problem. What was decided at that point was the fate of a state of mind, a feeling. What was at stake for Peter in that feeling? What it meant in terms of passion and desire… I don’t know. But I felt the earthquake, witnessed it at its most dangerous moment. His entire being was shaken, his sense of belonging to a class, the foundations on which he had built his life and the way of life such foundations implied. One’s way of life is not a purely private matter. When such a man - one who preserves and articulates the entire meaning of his culture - when such a man collapses it is not only he who is destroyed but a part of the world to which he belongs, a world that was worth living in… I took serious note of that woman. It wasn’t that she came from another class. It may be best for everyone, may be the most fortunate course of events, that children of different classes be swept together by the tides of some great passion… No, it was something in her character to which I couldn’t help responding, something I could not reconcile myself to and to which I could not abandon Peter. She had a certain ferocity of will, a kind of barbaric power… Did you not feel it?’

His sleepy, tired eyes flashed suddenly as he turned to me. He proceeded uncertainly as if seeking the right words.

‘There are people who are possessed of a fierce primeval power who can suck from others, from their entire environment, whatever sustenance makes life possible, so, for example. there are certain vines or liana in the jungle that absorb the water, the salts, the nourishment required by the great trees on which they feed, even over a length of hundreds of yards. That’s just the way they are: it is their nature… You can argue with wrongdoers, you can pacify them, maybe even resolve some of the inner suffering that leads them to take revenge on other people, on life itself. These are the lucky ones… But there are other kinds, people like those vines, who are not at all ill-intentioned but simply squeeze the life out of their environment by enveloping it in an embrace so fierce and willful that it proves fatal in the end. It is a barbaric, elemental form of execution. It is rare to find it in men… more common in women. The power that emanates from them destroys anything that might be in their way, even strong characters like Peter. Did you not feel this when you were talking to her? It was like talking to a simoom or a tsunami.’

‘I was simply talking to a woman,’ I said and sighed. ‘A very powerful woman.’

‘Well, that is true. Women’s response to other women is quite different,’ he readily admitted. ‘Personally, I respect their power and fear it. This should make it easier for you to respect Peter. Try to imagine the kind of tide he was swimming against in those years, what strength it required for him to tear himself from the invisible embrace of this dangerous power. Because that power wanted simply everything. It wasn’t a backstreet she was looking for, a two-bedroom apartment up an alley, a silver fox wrap, a three week vacation in secret with her lover… She would have wanted everything, because she was a real woman, not an imitation. Did you not feel this?...’


The translation task here is to render highly articulate characters in natural language, particularly when they are discussing ideas. Essentially I am simplifying throughout. It's an interesting balance to keep - it is always the balance in Márai.

Tuesday 26 January 2010

Don Paterson at UEA

The first session of the Spring Festival at UEA kicked off with Don Paterson - and that is where we were tonight, which is why it is late, and why this is not going to be a long piece. Enough to say the place looked pretty well packed out and that means about 600+ people. Don reads chiefly from Rain and some new sonnets.

Dinner afterwards with Don, Lavinia, JC, KS, C and myself - much conversation about the brain and determinism. Much about poetry generally.

I could mention the visit of Prince Charles to UEA earlier in the afternoon -the camel-coloured overcoat, the bald patch from two floors up. For some reason I didn't know he was due so the police presence was a puzzle. Then the students line up, a few with flags, and eventually there he is, milling about. It's interesting how the milling seems perfectly acceptable. It's a close and intimate milling. I don't see a lot of security men but maybe they are dressed as students. Maybe they are busy passing exams. Maybe they are the UEA rabbits of which there are many at various seasons. Security rabbits.

In the meantime I see Chris Reid has won the overall Costa. Congratulation to Chris. That should keep him in coffee for a while.

Monday 25 January 2010

Goldfinches join Red Army Faction

Home a little early. C outside points up at the enormous walnut tree at the back of the house, now full of birds all chittering away, filling the ear with that lovely burbling. She starts telling me the birds she has seen in neighbour E's garden during the day. Wrens, blue tits and four goldfinches. I can't tell what the birds in the walnut tree are. At this distance they might be sparrows.

Next thing C is tapping at the window with the binoculars in her hand. It is getting on to dusk so I can't be sure, but I am pretty sure the birds are goldfinches. At least fifty of them all excited, congregated on one walnut tree.

That's a pretty good likeness. It was the heads I could just about discern - that distinct tricolour. Manchester United colours: red, white and black. They must be the avian spectres of the Glazers Out! faction. No doubt they'll soon be descending on Old Trafford. Though, come to think of it, the anti-Glazers have taken to wearing green and gold, as for Newton Heath, the club that preceded United.

Maybe more than fifty. Maybe a hundred. How wonderful!

New Canzone on front page

The Small of the Back

Written for C's birthday today. I have a feeling this one flies. Over the years I have written many poems to occasion, proper occasions being the focal points of much that has gathered up on the subject: thoughts, feelings, glimpsed thoughts and feelings, certain images long locked in the cupboard that now find a way out.

Some of the poems were light, and written to be light, with more or less laughter; some, on the political side, have been serious. They don't all fly of course, though a surprising number have. And in the canzone it's like pulling a piece of string to see how long it is and what is attached to it. So you keep pulling and pulling, until the end. At best it is like following a capillary through to a vein, through a network of veins, the living blood moving surging and stuttering through.

And what did I actually buy in the end? A mixture of the unusual-pretty and the well-advised (advised by daughter who is altogether better informed in the area of advisement - she more or less phone-guided me to the right counter in the right shop). Four small gifts. Nothing on the scale of the soil-testing samples, alas - but that's a rare find. Tonight a meal provided by daughter and husband!


I have not posted much on politics recently - that is partly because the things I have posted on in the past continue to be the things I'd post on again now, but I have little more to say on those subjects. But I will return to such subjects as and when.

Sunday 24 January 2010

Sunday Night is... Gawd, I've got a winner here, mate!

Tony Hancock, Irene Handl in The Rebel (1961). Writers: Galton and Simpson.

Oh, you temptress!... I created you! I'm your master! (mwahahahaha!).... The Barbarians are at the gates of Rome!.... I know I'm hammering again, you turbanned fool!.... Great ugly thing?! -That's Aphrodite at the waterhole!.... I did that from memory. That is women as I see them..... I call that 'Ducks in Flight!'

The delights of art, even when the art is utterly terrible. Hancock, transformed, dedicated! This was still the heyday of Picasso, who represented everything puzzling in modern art, none of it to the taste of the landlady, Mrs Cravat. The sculpture is presumably part-Picasso, part-Jacob Epstein on a very bad day.

It reminds me of the dialogue in The Glums when gormless Ron tells his father, Mr Glum (Jimmy Edwards), that he has finally got a job. The trouble is that it is as an artist's model. Edwards is scandalised. You mean to say you are modelling in the nude? Ron replies that the nudity is only symbolic. Edwards rages back: I am not having my son in front of a lot of people stark symbolic naked!.* The writers, Muir and Norden.

Somehow the world that nourished them has not really dated. That is to say, yes, of course it has dated, but it has dated just enough. It has become a classic age, a classic age of surreal sitcom writing. Everyone knows what they are up against. Everyone knows what they yearn for. Everyone knows what they can't have.


*It occurs to me now that the joke may be lost on some. 'Bollock naked' is the common term being punned on - i.e. symbollock naked [GS guffaws]. I know this looks like Dudley Moore trying to explain the lyrics of 'Mama's got a brand new bag, yeah' to Peter Cook, but let that be. I am a fellow of infinite patience.

Saturday 23 January 2010

Richard Wilbur in The Prisoner of Zenda, introducing Christopher Reid

I remember this when it first appeared in Richard Wilbur's collection, The Mind-Reader (1976). Pray silence:

The Prisoner of Zenda

At the end a
"The Prisoner of Zenda,"
The King being out of danger,
Stewart Granger
(As Rudolph Rassendyl)
Must swallow the bitter pill
By renouncing his co-star,
Deborak Kerr.

It would be poor behavia
In him and Princess Flavia
Were they to put their own
Concerns before those of the Throne.
Deborah Kerr must wed
The King instead.

Rassendyl turns to go.
Must it be so?
Why can't they have their cake
And eat it, for heaven's sake?
Please let them have it both ways,
The audience prays.
And yet it is hard to quarrel
With a plot so moral.

One redeeming factor,
However, is the actor
Who plays the once-dissolute King
(Who has learned through suffering
Not to drink or be mean
To his future Queen),
Far from being a stranger
Is also Stewart Granger.

It is not one of the great man's greater poems but, like the film, it is a lark. The plot of the film turns on the fact that a wandering Brit is the body double of the Ruritanian king - for Zenda is a town in Ruritania, reader. Book (1894) by Anthony Hope (Sir Anthony Hope, to you). And Hail Hail Freedonia while you're at it.

There is something of Wilbur's voice in Christopher Reid too, the larkiness in Reid (even at his most serious) more English, naturally, than Wilbur's urbane New Yorker, at least in this, slightly Ogden Nashesque mood.

Wilbur is big with grace ("a mind of grace" said Theodore Roethke): Christopher Reid smaller with it, but, as they say, perfectly formed. And out of the grace, or from under it, creep proper solitary visions. Both are deeply courteous, civilised poets. With bite when needed. (More teeth than Ogden Gnash.)

This post by way of a lark on a Saturday night.

Friday 22 January 2010

Pheasants, bats, beetles, birds' eggs and a soil testing kit

The air damp all day, rain a very fine suspension. I am hunting for presents for C's birthday. I try the curio shops. One - the oddest of them - is closed, but another round the corner is open. There stands a stuffed pheasant. I wonder if that might be curious enough. Many years ago I bought one of the presents I am most proud of. It was cheap but we had little money. It was on a market stall in a folding black box. What's that? I asked the man. Open it and see, he said. So I did. Inside the box was a set of glass tubes filled with liquid in a variety of glorious colours. I asked the man what they were for. It' a soil testing kit, the man replied.I bought it. It was very beautiful - C still has it. It was the unlikely combination of the plain black box, the wonderful glass tubes and the function they were intended to serve. It was like a poem.

The pheasant was attractive because I know C sometimes finds such things haunting. In the blue room at the front of the house is a glass case filled with beetles and a stuffed bat opening its arms and legs so it looks somewhat like a tiny vampirical flasher. That case was in a movie-and-record memorabilia shop. She glimpsed it in the window and wanted it.

But the pheasant was simply too big and I had to take the bus home. I couldn't imagine where we'd put it in the house, and I doubted the bus driver would let me on carrying it. As an art student I did once take a goldfish for a walk, but that was something else. It was art.

Then there were the geological samples and the old cards...

It is harder to find such things now. Perhaps there are only a finite number of them in the world and they are snapped up by collectors crazy for full sets of knick-knack. Damn knick-knacks! Long live poetry!

Thursday 21 January 2010

The Sacred Made Real

It was the Counter-Reformation that produced Baroque Art, or rather - since ideology does not produce art it can only encourage what it considers to be appropriate art - it nurtured it and gave it a role. The corruption of the Catholic church, that led to the rebellion of Luther and Calvin, had to be addressed, its energies redirected.

The classic text on the subject of the Baroque in visual art is Heinrich Wölfflin's Principles of Art History, where Wölfflin sets out the five main points of difference between Classical Renaissance and anti-Classical Baroque art. I am not about to set those differences out here - see the link for them - because it is the product, the emotional effect of those points of difference, that I am interested in.

The emotional effect of the changes is intended to be dramatic and overwhelming. Rather than conceiving of an idea made formally clear, beautiful and organised into a hierarchy of concepts, it offers dramatic presence, unity and sensation.

In classical art a tree is all we know about trees. The tree rises from the ground and comprises a trunk with roots, branches, twigs, leaf and blossom of some kind. The ground on which the tree stands is comprised of a finite number of blades of grass. It presents us with a stable, eternal world because the image it presents is composed of timeless ideas, not changing things.

In anti-classical art a tree is the impression of weight and the sense of mass and shift in the boughs. You are not thinking the tree - you are there looking at it. It is less clear, but it does position you at touching and feeling distance. It is all change and flux. It's mid-state, the emotional heart of the storm.

The Sacred Made Real consists of images of Christ, The Virgin Mary and a few other saints, such as St Francis, St Serapion and St Bernard of Clairvaux. The artists include, among the sculptors, Juan de Mesa, Pedro de Mena, Gregorio Fernández and Juan Martínez Montañés; and, among the painters, Diego Velázquez and Fransico de Zurbarán. It is Spanish art at its most sombre.

The sombre quality, fascinatingly, is comprised of a blend of the deeply emotional, yet severely disciplined. The sculptures often employ mixed materials in an effort to persuade the viewer that he / she is in the presence of a real figure, a real vision. The viewer is, in effect, having some of the religious experience more fully experienced by the subject. The figures are not only polychrome, meaning they are painted to look like life, but they also employ real fabric for loincloth, glass eyes, real hair, wicker and nails. The blood and scars - of which there are plenty - are worked to within a millimetre of realism. There is a fetishistic air about the work.

The hyper-reality should lead to hyper-emotion.

And it does, but not to melodrama or hysteria. There is a purity and severity of form about it that is not only characteristic of all sculptural process (the form is either there or not there, you can't have hints of form, as in painting) but also a specific insistence on restraint of gesture. This restraint is the fascinating thing, because it seems to humanise the subject while at the same time distancing it, giving it a double aspect. This is particularly noticeable with the images of Christ.

With paintings of Christ we are generally given the suffering man, set about with elements, attributes, and appurtenances of Christian divinity. We are encouraged to think of the figure as man first, and divinity second. We proceed from one to the other. That leads to a curious division in the mind, as if we had to switch man off before we could get to God. Rembrandt's Christs, Rubens's Christs, all the products of Baroque Humanism, are human beings in costume. But in this period and mood of Spanish art, both aspects come at you at once. The figure is both human and divine. Maybe only Zurbaran among the painters has this quality. Though Velazquez is the greater artist, his greatness is partly about range, and partly about a kind of liberal-aristocratic view of human dignity. Zurbaran's is focused entirely on the dual-aspect of the image.

This simultaneity has a smack of magic about it - how, after all, can a figure be in two places at once except by magic?

The artist about whose work I wrote an entire monograph, the Brazilian Ana Maria Pacheco, returns us precisely to this ground. Her work too is strongest when most restrained, when least explained. Essentially she substitutes politics - the politics of oppression, of gender and of desire - for Christianity. In her early work, and right into the '90s, she exercised something of that formal restraint by withholding gesture and dehumanising proportion. The restraint bit hard but remained sombre. Later, when the work became more dramatically articulated, more symbolically explicit, I felt it lost something important. That early work is remarkable - it brings us something like this Spanish take on the sacred, something double, simultaneous and troubling, as indeed all magic must be, because it opens the mind to the possibility of powers beyond us. In the case of this exhibition that possibility includes those bloody hands, that stillness, that real-artificial eye in the carved face.

Wednesday 20 January 2010


Wallace Stevens, by David Hockney

Tonight finished judging the second of two big poetry competitions - so, over Christmas, that is 2,800 poems read, plus finishing the through draft of Márai and beginning to produce final draft (still doing that), marking UEA work (still doing that), reading and correcting proofs of Fortinbras at the Fishhouses, not to mention getting Christmas cards written and sent out, and some four poems. It is C's birthday on Monday! It was H's on the 13th. Oh - and today, recording an hour's worth of jazz and conversation in town with Tony Cleary for small local radio station, Future Radio. Might put up the playlist if there is any interest. The programme is to be broadcast on Sunday, along with my other programme for them, on Wymondham Abbey. I'll link if I can

Never mind all the Eliot stuff, and whatever else I have forgotten. I can just see a Wallace Stevens poem forming somewhat along the lines of The Idea of Order at Key West, to be called The Idea of Leisure in South Norfolk... So, tell me, Ramon Fernandez, what's it all about?

...Like a body wholly body, fluttering
Its empty sleeves;...

...ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds.

Yup, sounds like me. Examine these sleeves. Nothing up them.

What I wanted to write about was the exhibition we saw at the National Gallery on Monday morning, The Sacred Made Real - rather marvellous, but I'll deal with that tomorrow. Late now and more than usually tired.

Tuesday 19 January 2010

Lost Weekend

Not an alcoholic haze, just the usual clarity - as far as anyone can judge their own clarity. I didn't win. So where are the wounds? some will wonder. The stigmata?

No stigmata as far as I am aware. A little catechism:

Would you prefer to have won? - Naturally. This was not a competition for sainthood.

Did you expect to win? - No. Nor did I the first time, or indeed ever.

Did you think you had a chance of winning? - Yes, at least 10/1

Did you think you had a good chance of winning? - Quite possibly. At least after the readings on Sunday night, while knowing full well that the readings are very secondary (if they count at all) in the judging process. It's books not readings that win this prize.

Now let's ask something more difficult. Do you think you deserved to win? - I have never had a firm idea of deserving. Furthermore, I even think that to have any firm ideas about your own deserving is a canker on your soul, deserving of contempt. Who knows how many of those cankers I already have. Don't want an extra one. As the greatest among us said, 'Use every man after his desert, and who should 'scape whipping?'

Are you not in the least disappointed? - Damn fool question. Of course, I am, as is only befitting. But look - examine the wounds of the committee of the self. Call that a wound? I am a very fortunate man who has 'scaped a whipping most of his life (and has a deeply ingrained notion of what whippings exist and have always existed). Indeed, I have actually won this very prize. I have been nominated for it a second time. If ten or twenty years ago anyone should have suggested any such thing I would have been astonished. I have no right to wounds of any sort. I prefer to wear my heart light, thank you.

And the result? - Delighted for Philip, one of poetry's good men. Was he better than the rest in my opinion, you will want to know? I don't know, is the answer - all I do know is that Philip is very good, as are the others on that list. I do know I have always thought myself, primarily, fortunate to have won in 2005, and am very glad that the luck I enjoyed in winning should have passed to Philip. I think it is a good redress for some years of very unfair neglect for him. That sounds like a form of deserving to me. It's the best any of us is likely to get.

Can we end the catechism here?

I loved the readings on Sunday night - for myself as well as for the others. I am deeply aware of the omissions from the list but I did think the noise made by all the poems together at the QEH that evening was memorable and grand and intense and deeply hopeful for all that poetry can do and might do.

So, God bless us all everyone. Now go about your business in peace, but delight in argument too, because argument too is a delight.

Monday 18 January 2010

Brief from London by iPod

Reading at QEH last night - one of the most electrifying I've attended. Place packed out. Some of the poetry quite marvellous. It will be a hard job for the judges today at lunch (that's when it happens). First time ever heard cheering - including for myself. Afterwards the book signing Jude Kelly offers to take poets for drink but everywhere shut. Hotel room tiny but C and I fit in and fall asleep fairly quickly.

Today busy - exhibition, lunch with children, coffee with friend then, in the evening, the announcement of the Eliot Prize - and the scramble for the train home.

Saturday 16 January 2010

Disasters proper

When it comes to the scale of Haiti, or, before, Phuket, or all the other places where a catastrophic event - an event that within a year is half-forgotten - overtakes a more than comprehensible number of people at one time, our consciousness takes a severe jolt. I speak for myself only, as ever, but I suspect it is the case with us.

Because, in the first place, it is a little like having a limb, a small limb, of the body sapiens actually removed. We experience it as a loss to ourselves. The number is that significant. It is not that each individual caught up in the disaster feels it more acutely than he or she might if it had happened to a smaller group, or indeed just to the individual. That seems unlikely. Do we say to ourselves: I am part of a universal disaster? Or, The whole damn ship is going down and I amongst them?

I did dream once - maybe more than once - of being caught up in a disaster. Apprehension had thickened to knowledge.It was dusk. There were silent groups waiting in public places for their doom, and they weren't welcoming, and yet they would have been congregating for a reason. Maybe it offered some melancholy comfort. (Some of this dream material surfaces in the last section of 'An English Apocalypse' series.) In the dream I was aware of those others but I did not think they were either a comfort or a threat to me. Their very clumping together seemed an important aspect of the melancholy. The uniting factor was, after all, the common knowledge of impending disaster. No panic, just an oppressive melancholy.

Do we each die alone? Is that the sensation? Does it help to have a companionable death or does it make death worse?

Nobody knew they were going to die in Haiti. It happened too suddenly. The mind has only very little time to adjust to the disaster. A moment or two of panic. And then, if one has survived, the seeking of a way out back to normality, a way that might or might not appear.

Part of us - for 'us' please read 'me' if it doesn't suit - lives in the consciousness that disasters happen, almost inevitably, in disaster-threatened places. Geological fault lines. Volcanoes. Lands prone to flood or famine. Desperately poor places. Places with a long history of war. If the disaster is on large enough scale it appears we lose a limb, but it's a limb we can afford. We give money to help what can be helped. Within a month we are back to normality.

It is the puzzle of vast numbers. I can image 200,000 in a stadium. I have seen 200,000 people gathered together for a political purpose in a vast square in Budapest. It did not seem in the least likely that there would be large scale loss of life (say 25, or even 100) that day, though we must all have been aware that 200,000 people gathered semi-legally for a political purpose is a riskier option than attending the Maracana Stadium. We are aware of risk.

I cannot comprehend Haiti. I couldn't comprehend it before either, but now it has a meaning that is incomprehensible in a parallel fashion. Now it does feel as though I have lost a limb - a finger, or just the end of a finger - and I know it will grow again but the shock of its vanishing remains.

Friday 15 January 2010

Eliot Weekends and Márai Years

The Today programme has been broadcasting a poem each from the shortlisted poets. They've got through six so far. I will be either tomorrow or Monday morning, but we'll all be there for a little while. On the Today website you get us all reading three poems each. I have yet to work out what to read for my eight minutes-worth at the QEH itself. Something to do tomorrow.

The readings happen on Sunday at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on the South Bank, and the presentations on Monday at the Wallace Collection (though that's by invitation).


Having finished the Márai translation only means I have got to the end of the Hungarian - now comes the comb-through for evenness and energy of style, for consistency, for tone, for the humble typo. It's my favourite part of prose translation - it's where it should become fully literature. That becoming is a fascinating and problematic process, because the literature it is becoming is, of course, English literature. It is already Hungarian literature and nothing I do can change that.

But best be careful! The novel becomes a special sort of English literature, much as Cervantes, Dostoevsky, Chehov, Sebald and all the rest become special sorts of English literature - in the same way as Hamlet in Hungarian becomes Hungarian literature.

Languages are broader and more generous than we think. Our cultures are not locked away behind barbed wire fences, nor are our literatures and languages. Qualities and characteristics persist. An elegant Hungarian sentence will share something of the elegance of an elegant English sentence. An abrupt sentence will remain abrupt. The characters we meet in fiction act and think in ways that refer primarily to their immediate surroundings, but they are not antenna-sprouting exotics. They are recognisably human beings.

Prose is a more international realm than poetry. It does not depend quite so much on density, form, metaphor, association and minuteness. It doesn't lie quite so close to heart of language. It travels further in straight lines. Broadly speaking.

So now Márai is being dressed and equipped to re-enter the malls, bedrooms, cafes, subways and libraries of the anglo-american imagination. Just an hour or so ago I was having an exchange on Facebook with an Italian scholar who had read this book in an Italian translation. She told me that, in the Thirties and Forties, Hungarian literature was much prized in Italy and that some Italian writers actually took on Hungarian names.

The glories of Hungarian romance! The pleasures of Hungarian wit!

Read Márai, and you too will want to become Hungarian. In your own English or American way of course. Márai did spend forty or so years in America himself.

My task is to try to be of assistance to him in his accommodation. And it's an exchange of sorts, even if it's one that is far from evenly balanced. Márai - in a tiny, all but insignificant sense, becomes me and I become Márai. Soon it will be Ciao, Márai. Arrividerci. Jó éjszakát, Night night.

Márai was the morning. This afternoon I was back to judging competitions and writing references.

And now, since last night was not good for sleeping, I am going to bed.

Thursday 14 January 2010

Márai finished & Two Birthdays

At long last!!!

More on that later. More on many other things but, as celebration, two small birthday verses, one for son (New Year's Eve), one for daughter (yesterday). Son Tom (aka Shurikan), gallivanting and gigging in Brazil. Daughter Helen, with child. Lightly, lovingly trots it.

The Ballad of Shurikan

for Tom

Out in Brazil on hot beaches
There labours a travelling man,
The music he preaches and teaches
Is moody and cool as Japan.
The name of the man - Shurikan.

In clubs in big cities, in danceland,
To those of a similar clan,
He’s bigger than rock or a danceband,
It’s the soulful intelligent fan
Who will pay to come hear - Shurikan.

He will travel the world in a plane,
In a limo, a train, or a van,
If you pay him he’ll come back again,
Since that is all part of the plan.
If it’s music, the name’s - Shurikan.

And can he keep up with demand,
And be bigger than when he began?
He’s free so he’s not to command,
But the answer is clear: sure, he can.
He is, after all - SHURIKAN.

Now January
for Helen

Now the winter freezes up,
Now there’s snow under blue sky,
Now it’s minus, day and night,
Now the sparse flakes drift and fly,

Now the wind cuts icy trails
Through open spaces, down wide streets,
Now the ponds grow grey as steel,
Now the old year stops, retreats,

Now the belly fills with child,
Now the months troop by in frost,
Now that scarves and hats are worn,
And heels are scraped and gloves are lost…

So many nows all making then,
So many nights in the long dark,
So many lightbulbs turning on,
So many sparkplugs with no spark,

So much waiting and recall,
So much tomorrow on the line,
So much that passes, flashing, light,
So much to number and define.

Much undefined, much still uncounted,
Light grows faint against the cold,
With spring still distant but in view
Of face to kiss and hand to hold.

From child to childhood, back to child,
From song to words, from words to song,
From here to there in one slow leap -
And there you stand, grown big, grown strong.

Now there you are, and here the words
Set out in January ice.
Now there are almost two of you
What love can bring, may love bring twice.

Now to a restaurant! Wine, waiter!

Wednesday 13 January 2010

Post-postscript from Marai

All day I have been working on Márai and am only ten pages from the end. In the meantime I sneeze and sneeze and sneeze again, possibly because I've got a cold (it feels a bit like a cold) or, more probably, because of an allergy. I suspect an allergy because a number of times I have started what I think is a cold, running, sneezing, red-eyed, but within a day it goes. In the meantime it isn't constant. It comes and goes. So now I have taken antihistemine and have some hope that all manner of things shall be well.

In this end part we are left with the drummer who had become the last lover of Judit Áldozó, the maid who married the young master, became a society woman, then, eventually, rejected society. When we last saw her she was delivering her story in the hotel room in Rome to her young, vain, and rather stupid lover. Her story is as extraordinary as her mind.

But then her story finishes and we are left with this coda. The young drummer is now in New York, some time in the seventies, I would guess, serving in a smart off-Broadway bar and that is where he begins his monologue to a customer, a fellow Hungarian newly arrived in the USA. He talks in Hungarian street slang some of which is genuine and some invented. My impossible task is to translate this not into British but American English. I am working on the assumption that the editor - or a friendly nearby American - will correct my feeble efforts. As it happens, this part is relatively straight.

The drummer is in New York because he skipped across the Hungarian border a few years ago, straight after being asked to file reports for the AVO, the much dreaded security police. He tells this story and that of his escape, his feelings presumably close to Márai's own, albeit more crudely expressed. After recounting his escape he starts reminiscing about Judit. We mustn't expect too much of him, of course.

The photo? It was the one in the passport, I’ve just had it enlarged. Where could she go without a passport? To join the angels, friend. You don’t need passports or photographs there. No jewelry either…. Take a good look at her. That’s what she was like. But not just like that. By the time I met her she was like a flower at the end of the season.

I don’t like talking about her. She’s been gone ten years. Soon after that I too said 'ciao Roma' and crossed the big pond. They say what’s gone is gone, why fret about it?.. Yes, but heaven knows it’s not always like that. Some things don’t disappear quite so easy… because this picture isn’t the only reminder I have of her. I remember more… her voice for a start. And some of what she told me. She wasn’t like the usual kind of woman I met. The rest have vanished without a trace. But I remember this one.

Because, as you probably know, with artists like me, chicks more or less just pass each other the house key. There were all kinds, I needn’t list them all. There were cute little thin girls. There were big ones. There were showgirls with boobs out to here, but also women with class, women with a position in life… women with taste who sensed their time was almost over, who'd grown wild and started firing on all cylinders… but, let me be clear, all of them wanted just one thing, which was that I should love and adore them, and only them, for ever.

This one was different. She wasn’t a bag of nerves. She told me straight from the start, no beating about the bush, that the only thing she wanted of me was that I should let her adore me. She wasn’t insisting on full blown romance with hearts and flowers… Cigarettes were all she needed, that is apart from adoring me and making a fuss of me.

At first I thought she had fallen for the artist in me. I’m not one to boast, I’m simply recognizing the fact that there’s something irresistible about me… especially now that I’ve had the bottom set of my teeth fixed. What you laughing at?...

As I said we don't expect much of him, but the book finishes with his words. And there's just a shade of Iris Robinson there, further news of whom seems to bubbling through the Austrian papers, according to Gwilym.

Tuesday 12 January 2010

Postscript to the tragedy or otherwise...

We have been beating about the central bush in the comments to the last post, wondering whether the affaire Robinson can be described in terms of classical tragedy.

My essential conjecture was that the affaire may be perceived as a tragedy if we look not to the specifics of the people (she being hostile to gays, etc, and, as Lucy hints, who knows what we might discover about him) but at the specifics of the situation. That is the way drama works. We don't know everything about the characters involved in it, only what is necessary for us to apprehend the events as a drama.

The related conjecture was that certain things happen in what we call 'real life' that, in the way they unfold and in the choices they present, approximates to art; that if art is a mirror to life, the moment of the passage through from one side of the mirror to another is the tragic moment.

Once the characters are through the mirror they are no longer simply themselves. They are symbolic figures in the imagination. Something like this happened, I think, in the relationship between the life and poetry of Sylvia Plath. It seems, in some way, she chose to take the passage through. The figure we remember is the one at the point of crossing. That, at least, is the position she holds in the imagination. As for the reality? Reality is elsewhere, where it no longer matters.I have immortal longings in me, says Cleopatra in Shakespeare's play. Then she steps forward and becomes the symbol the play had been preparing her for from the start. That sense of stepping forward is what interests us. Not whether she wore green underwear, picked her nose, or was a bigot in the scenes we don't see. Or whether in real life she was everything art cracked her up to be.

But surely we cannot detach the persons from the symbols they become? No, we can't, but we strip them of everything but the choices they faced within the drama prepared for them.


This was going to be a short post but I can see it can't be as short as I intended. Let me start elsewhere, beat about another bush if you like, and try to find my way back if I can.

In the comments to the post below we were speculating whether Iris Robinson was in the grip of passion or was merely feeling - as Mark put it - an itch that she was arrogant enough to think she could satisfy without consequence. We tend to think passions are in some way grand and noble, whereas itches are there to be controlled. Ascribing passion to this woman, some might feel, would be to excuse her.

On the relatively ignorant but important instinctive level I felt this was a case of passion, not so much because she was having an affair (lots of people have affairs) but because she took the risk of providing money she was not entitled to so that the object of her passion could set up his life. If it was an itch, it was an itch gone mad. The risk she took seemed to me the act of a person out of control. Who, in any case, knows when an itch becomes a passion? I suspect it does so pretty regularly.

It takes two to have an affair. There is the object (in this case the young man, presumed handsome, vigorous and, above all, young) and the subject (powerful but aging, driven by furies - even bigoted furies are furies - that are frustrated). At fifty-nine the subject may be grasping at the last straws of youth. What began as itch could easily pass over into passion and madness. The ego is frail, the body is desperate for reassurance. All things pass. One would give anything to stop it passing. And people do.

We do not find Iris Robinson an attractive figure in life, but this is an existential predicament in which an existential choice presents itself in a form we all secretly understand. We understand it in so far as we understand the pull of desire and vigour and the fear of weakness, incapacity and death. We understand it but we cannot act on it, nor can we fully admit it. Life closes in and we don't want to be closed in but we have responsibilities, affections, security - love even. And still we feel closed in. That, we suspect, is our greatest given existential predicament. Our truths pull us two ways at the same time. The tension is intolerable, so we act as though there were no such tension.

How do you become brave? someone asked. You do it by acting bravely, came the reply. You act. You act as if. You assume the form of your aspiration. You don't even want to know you are assuming it. You want to become, and may become, the thing itself, But the truth of the tension remains. It rolls in waves under dreams and produces shadows and myths.

In tragedy the choices we reject becomes choices that are accepted. That is what the figures in tragedy are there to do. They are there to accept what we reject. This isn't just a matter of criminality. A criminal's arena of choice is a mean little place we wouldn't want to enter most of the time. The arena of passion is different. There the choices are not so clear cut, if only because they are passions, not social ethics. There the ghosts under the waves are larger, the shadows bigger, the figures through the mirror more haunting and imposing. Desire, terror, and power are the big figures in the big arena, and maybe desire - for a while at least - is the biggest. Out of those figures and the spaces through which they move - their arena - we make art. The arena is the poem, the story, the drama.

We know transgressions carry danger. Here, in shadow world, the dangers can perform their ritual revenge.


So maybe we can detach Iris Robinson from the woman whose politics we don't like, whose statements we abhor. Those are part of her catalogue of faults but when it comes to the moment of choosing to take a lover and go for broke, her other qualities diminish. The catalogue is much reduced. By the time she reaches that point she has become the shadow figure who chooses what generally we cannot, in an arena we don't inhabit, an arena within which she already occupies a dramatic role of some kind. Power - and she is associated with the seat of power - is a dramatic force.

It is, by no means, a case of saying: What a tragedy that such a good / heroic / admirable person should come to harm. We don't because we don't believe her to be good, heroic or admirable. It is the very fact that she is flawed, and that one flaw leads to another, eventually to disgrace or madness or death, and that the waves travel out from this into every part of that arena that makes her subject for tragedy.


I have left Peter Robinson out of this because he is - for now - easier to defend, and, for that very reason, is less interesting. For now. His fate remains to be seen. It is the very fact that Iris Robinson is not to be defended that enables her to cross the threshold of the mirror. Power, passion, discovery, devastation, madness, suicide and general collapse are rarely brought together around a single figure.

And in any case, she may, as some suggest, be taking refuge in 'madness; and 'suicide attempts', or may emerge a sadder and wiser woman, or just a ridiculous and somewhat repulsive old bat. If so, that is not tragedy. It may be farce, or it may simply be a drama, even a storm in a teacup. So Gwilym may be perfectly right in the end. But the tragic form is there, the stage is set.

I have always thought that the last days of János Kádár in Hungary, and of Mrs Thatcher as prime minister in the UK, were the stuff of opera. Maybe someone will commission me to write the libretto. Nixon in China, anybody?

Monday 11 January 2010

Disaster to tragedy: the Robinsons

No day passes without a disaster somewhere, but relatively few disasters are properly tragedies. The natural recourse here is to The Poetics where Aristotle talks about a hero with a fatal flaw. (Hamartia is the word he uses.)

Tragedies happen to individuals of some prominence, he says, "...since Tragedy is an imitation of persons who are above the common level..."

There is perhaps also an understanding, at least in the tragedies we regard as tragedies, that as well as being prominent, the tragic heroes and heroines have an active public role.

The most potent and sympathetic of tragic flaws is sexual passion. Prominent people who fall through passion are potentially tragic, especially if their fall brings down not only the edifice of their own lives but of others or of other, larger entities (such as Troy for instance.) Passion and consequence are key factors.

The fall of Tiger Woods, to take a random example of a public fall from grace, is not tragic because of the sheer number of his infidelities. His flaws were lust and opportunism, not passion. Certainly, he was admired and presented as a hero - indeed was a hero to many - but despite his acts being in public, the consequences of his acts were not public. He simply won a lot of money playing golf. Being presented as a good family man was an aspect of his supposed private life. That life is viewable, to some degree, by the public, but it has no public consequence. Being presented as 'an icon' is not enough.

Would we consider JFK a tragic hero? He was certainly prominent and his actions were not only in public but directly consequent upon the public. He was, beside, a handsome youthful ruler, part of a dynasty. But his death was not a tragedy in the dramatic sense. He had flaws associated with infidelity, of course, but these were discovered after his death and were not connected with his assassination. His death was not the result of the flaw. A tragic flaw has to have determining consequences.

But there is somethig about the case of the Robinsons, Peter and Iris, that seems to fit the bill. Not because either of the Robinsons was necessarily great or virtuous, though they were certainly prominent and consequent in the public sphere, but because the cause of their fall is passion. A fifty-nine year old intelligent woman who illegally procures £50,000 for a young man forty years her junior is not having a passing fancy. She is a victim of passion.

That passion is associated with a predicament in which we all share: that of aging. Aging is the most natural of life processes, generally inviting an attitude of noble philosophical resignation. Resisting such resignation however involves vanity of a desperate, vulnerable kind. And we all know what it is to be desperate and vulnerable.

So whatever the politics of Iris Robinson - and they seem pretty unattractive to me - she was, nevertheless, and must have felt herself to be, an attractive, intelligent and vigorous woman of consequence. It is hard to give that up.

Her husband's position is potentially just as tragic, or maybe more so, because his predicament was and is impossible. Either he did know of his suicidal wife's misuse of public money or he didn't know. But what could he do if he did? It is easy to say he should have acted in the public good, but it might have been at the cost of driving his wife to suicide. He himself is an aging man at the cusp of his public, if not necessarily private, powers. And if he falls, what else falls with him? There are potentially large consequences.

From the very beginning this story has played itself out according to classic rules, to the extent that I, who cared little about Peter Robinson and even less about Iris Robinson, am now involved and moved, exactly in the way I might be involved in and moved by any tragedy.

That is partly because the faults are complex yet comprehensible and because they all present universal dilemmas: between love and passion, between private and public obligation, between, as the song goes, the devil and the deep blue sea.

And so, ironically, characters that would not have seemed noble or heroic in other circumstances, now assume the noble and heroic roles that tragedy insists on, since if the flaws are of this kind, suffering so intensely on account of them suggests a fall from some height, the intensity of the suffering and the largeness of consequences all suggestive of scale. People are no longer who they are, but roles. It is the roles that are universal, not the people. And maybe it is precisely because the people are emptied out in the process of becoming the roles that we sense the tragedy in ourselves. If we do, that is.

This post may not be as clear as it should be but I am trying to untangle the story in my own mind.

Sunday 10 January 2010

Sunday Night is... The Mills Brothers and a bad review

Let's have the Mills Brothers first, live on the Nat King Cole show in 1957, swinging the song a bit faster than in the recording I have.

And the lovely lyrics, please...

(Original words by Lilla Cayley Robinson, modern words by Johnny Mercer and Music by Paul Lincke)

Shine little glow-worm, glimmer, glimmer
Shine little glow-worm, glimmer, glimmer
Lead us lest too far we wander
Love's sweet voice is callin' yonder
Shine little glow-worm, glimmer, glimmer
Hey, there don't get dimmer, dimmer
Light the path below, above
And lead us on to love

Glow little glow-worm, fly of fire
Glow like an incandescent wire
Glow for the female of the species
Turn on the AC and the DC
This night could use a little brightnin'
Light up you little ol' bug of lightnin'
When you gotta glow, you gotta glow
Glow little glow-worm, glow

Glow little glow-worm, glow and glimmer
Swim through the sea of night, little swimmer
Thou aeronautical boll weevil
Illuminate yon woods primeval
See how the shadows deep and darken
You and your chick should get to sparkin'
I got a gal that I love so
Glow little glow-worm, glow

Glow little glow-worm, turn the key on
You are equipped with taillight neon
You got a cute vest-pocket *Mazda*
Which you can make both slow and faster
I don't know who you took the shine to
Or who you're out to make a sign to
I got a gal that I love so
Glow little glow-worm, glow
Glow little glow-worm, glow
Glow little glow-worm, glow
Glow little glow-worm, glow

The third verse is genius! And because that is late Mills Brothers, a double dose - this one much earlier, 'Swing Sister' presumably pre-war:


The bad, or possibly bad, review is in The Sunday Times by Alan Brownjohn, reviewing the Eliot Prize shortlist:

Two other shortlisted books of comparable ambition similarly fail to show their authors’ talents to advantage. George Szirtes’s The Burning of the Books and Other Poems (Carcanet £8.95) bursts at the seams, grappling comprehensively with modern European ­history and culture, but it requires readers to be familiar with, for example, Elias Canetti’s horrific masterpiece Auto da Fe and the paintings of Howard Hodgkin. There’s nothing wrong with that, but Szirtes on Woolworths touches us more closely: “The infinite melancholy of small pickings /…firelighters, matchboxes, ashtrays. Cheap /  vanishings. Vultures.”

Well, I don't know - I'd sooner be hanged for ambition and bursting at the seams than complacency and living within my seams. Furthermore, if this is a hanging, then I hang with Elias Canetti and the others out in the darks of Europe. I hadn't thought the reader had to have complete familiarity with Canetti's Auto da Fe to get the poems - some people seem to get them without - and as for the rest of European history, I wrote an 'English' book back in 2001, An English Apocalypse, but maybe one can never be English enough for some. I am perfectly reconciled to that. Nor will any poet ever please everyone. Lucky to please a few. In any case, we write about what excites us and find it harder to write about things that don't. As to Howard Hodgkin, I plead guilty. But then I have always written about art, from the very beginning. Hang me high. Hang me high art.

The review doesn't actually say anything about the writing as such. So it's odd. I think it simply doesn't like the way I am, but as Prevert said, Je suis comme je suis / je suis fait comme ça. Damn, I see that is foreign too.

Saturday 9 January 2010

Two Hungarian poems about loss

The first, by László Lator, I translated recently and is currently in The Hungarian Quarterly with a few others by him.


This unexpected flash of light,
this shower of glass, shadow of fire,
the forest says: all that is broken
will be mended. Things feebly surrendered
that offered themselves up and melded
into earth will suddenly be woken,
emerging and erupting everywhere,
all spinning, all burning, all bright.

Untenanted matter that has lost all form
shall rise from blindness and decay,
and in one momentary display
of enthusiasm imagine itself reborn
with a new body. Nothing is lost,
repeats the forest, time and again:
all will be reassembled from mere dust,
each flavour recalled, each subtlety made plain.
Or maybe the forest simply tells us what

we need to hear to quench the spirit’s thirst?
How else could it struggle with the worst
life offers us and still emerge intact?

No, says the forest, there’s no resurrection
and wild rejoicing: everything within
the body or beyond it faces the same corruption,
our flesh, our very cells are paper thin.
What has been, will be, and yet not the same:
if things come back at all they might pass through
some other medium—that’s the only claim
the body could make, nor is that body you.

The forest says—but forests cannot speak.
They tell us nothing, one way or the other.
They only encourage the foolish and the weak
to indulge in the usual round of mystic blather.
This forest says… it might address us so—
it could say this or that for all I know.

It draws us in: rejects us and expels us.
Both Stay! and Go! it says—that’s all it tells us.

This is what it says in the biog. note. László Lator has been an editor and translator for most of his life. His first book of verse was banned following the Communist takeover so a first volume only appeared in 1969. Since then he has published several volumes of verse and verse translations as well as essays on classical and contemporary poetry. Lator’s translation and creative writing seminar was perhaps the most influential workshop in the eighties and nineties. He is now working on his memoirs. My own note: Lator was born in 1927 and shares my birthday. He is probably the leading older poet in the country and much loved. It is the death of his wife, the poet and translator Judith Pór - with whom I played a game of table tennis in 1989 - that he is writing about, and has often written about in recent years.

And this poem by Szabolcs Várady (1943-), an outstanding but not very productive leading poet, I translated in 2003, for the Rotterdam International Poetry Festival that year. I had forgotten I'd done it but came across it while shuffling through things. I immediately changed a line since it appeared, then two, then three. That's how it goes.

With the Dead

I take good care in my dealings with the dead.
I’m not sure whether they know that they are lost.
You come through the door; it greets me as you pass –
but that is not quite how one greets a ghost.
And yet it’s not just me who feels embarrassed.
Let’s pretend. Let’s play the sickly host
lying in bed, the visitor at his side,
let’s try to help each other as they must,
incredulous, but credibly nonplussed.

How much time do you have? How much do I?
Your mouth is as sincere as it ever was,
that kiss of greeting isn’t merely mime.
I must have been desiring you some time.
We stood in the snow, lost, the pair of us.
No sun appears. Cold runs through the veins.
I love you. That’s what you said once: I love you.
The snow has melted, the earth is piled above you -
that remains.

The ending still bothers me a little. Várady's poetry - usually strictly formal but not always so - is, I think, very much in the precision of tone. I once wrote an article about Hungarian poetry in which I said the essential Hungarian gesture was the shrug. I was thinking as much of Várady as anyone at the time. It is a worn, humorous, deeply experienced, part ironic shrug that is never, but never, just 'cool'. It is related to gallows humour when expressly funny, but gallows humour lies under even a good deal of the fully serious material.

There is an act of mourning here too, but I don't know for whom. Maybe the ending is a little too straight... (love you / above you)... but his rhyming is pretty strict and I am dubious about starting strict and ending slack. Valery said a poem was never finished, only abandoned. If that is true it is ten times as true for translations!

Register! Tone! Intractability! I put the poem here because otherwise I like it very much.

Friday 8 January 2010

Entertaining late

Not that late but late enough. Into Norwich earlier in the day to the BBC to record three shorter poems ('under one minute each, please') for the Today programme. They'll air one and display all three on the website some time next week ahead of the Eliot prize giving - providing no urgent world news comes to blow it away, as happened last year. In the event the producer at the other end said not to worry too much about the minute providing its only a matter of a few seconds over, so I read one of the Burning poems (the second shortest one, about the book collector and money), the Woolworth poem (a sonnet), and the one about the farmer and the gravedigger. Couple of decent snowy walks to stations, one across the cathedral close, the spire of the cathedral covered faintly in rime, through bare branches of snow-lined trees.

Have also been writing, fast as ever - a set of two sonnets and two prose poems. Probably part of a series associated with the art project in Wysing.

I love the silence of snow - the soul wrapped in cotton wool but not too tight, still a faint chill about the vast hall of the universe.

Thursday 7 January 2010

Snow and Cambridge

Wysing Arts Centre, on another (sunnier) day

No more than about 3" of snow first thing this morning but deep enough, crisp enough and even enough to make a smooth sweet layer. No cars either so a pure muffled silence. No strong wind to freeze and pound the ears and stab into the temple so the walk to the station over partly gritted surfaces was, if you shut your eyes, like walking on an imagined moon. Once at the station - arriving early - the odd gust pinched and bit in sharply but then, when it was still, the temperature immediately seemed to climb.

At Cambridge met artist Phyllida Barlow and we got in a taxi together to see artists Caroline Wright and Helen Rousseau for a project. It was at Caroline's studio at the Wysing Arts Centre, well outside Cambridge, working home to some 30 artists. Big high-ceilinged studios with tall windows.

The project is a kind of conversation starting with the visual art but moving into and out of writing, generating more visual work and writing, and maybe sound work too. It will come with its own blog and website, and will work with libraries and galleries. I was willing but ginger at the outset. Art writing often bores me solid and I fear there is a part of me that is capable of producing some of it, but having talked things through - and listened to something Phyllida wrote - it suddenly sounded substantial and exciting, and maybe there will be the core of a book in it too. Once I have the web address of the blog I'll put it here, and provide a permanent link in the sidebar.

Enough about that for now.

On the way back, the train was as crowded as I expected and the marking I had intended to do (and had done on the way to Cambridge) became impossible. Opposite me, a young bearded man was about to work on his laptop and glanced over at the papers I had brought out to mark. He asked me if they were UEA papers? He said he recognised them. He himself had been a student at UEA, finished last summer. History and Economics. Father a theologian - Hebrew and Old Testament, just taken up a position at Perth, Australia. Young man was at boarding schools in Indonesia and Malaysia. Off to Vancouver to work and see his girlfriend, then an MA and then, possibly, to do field work in some good cause in Africa.

That's pretty well the world covered in one conversation. Never asked each other's names, will probably never meet again. Talked all the way to W, me asking most of the questions until I feared I must sound as though I were quizzing him. But he was happy to talk. Like most Brits he himself does not ask questions. Nobody here does which explains why English conversation can be slow. Manners. Lack of curiosity. Maybe even a certain dullness sometimes. This wasn't dull. Better than cramped marking.

Walking back from the station was colder than walking there. Air enters the mouth like small blocks of ice. The streets almost deserted. A police car with flashing light was blocking the end of our street. Couldn't see why, but something must have happened further down. We shall find out.

Wednesday 6 January 2010

More Burning Reviews

This from Anna McKerrow at the Book Trust, ahead of the Eliot Prize awards in about a week and a half's time...

The title-named series of 14 poems in George Szirtes’ The Burning of the Books and other poems links neatly into a sense of place seen through the prism of species or class identification: unlike plants that are wilfully misclassified, here, books and libraries lose their power to organise and inspire and instead are collaged with cities and mobs into one chaotic and beautiful whole, which is then flayed and burned alive. The semi-narrative sequence of these 14 poems, which in themselves seem to employ a patchwork or collage structure, explores the emotive and uncompromising practice of book burning.

'By a course of intensive study in the appropriate libraries,
Those burning places of the intellect, those driers out
Of the eyes where barbarians gather with their torches
And rank upon rank of shelves, tongues and footnotes
Are burning as always, as is their nature, in the streets
Of the city that opens like a book and must itself always be burning.'

(From 'Postscriptum')

The extreme and expansive passion in these poems are what struck me, and what has me now keeping my fingers firmly crossed for Szirtes to win the prize again (he won in 2004 for Reel). Indeed, as the reader, you feel your eyes and fingers burning as you read Szirtes’ seemingly effortless yet gloriously incendiary verse. The burning of books in the title of his book relates to a hateful exercise in ignorance and intolerance carried out at many times during history, but it could also be said to reflect the burning intellect and the fire of creativity. Thus, books are symbols of the human desire for knowledge and communication, for something above the body’s basic needs – books that burn with potential:

'Life is annotation. Hunger and annotation. It is knowledge
We hunger for, letters we drink, desire in our bloodstream
For the fat, visceral, blood-bound flesh of our books.'

(From 'Consuming Passion')

The Burning of the Books and other poems is a large work that deserves an entry to itself.

It's a lovely cheering review on a cold day. I am going in to the local BBC studio on Friday morning to record three short poems (they can't be more than a minute long, which rules out all the title sequence). One of them might be used on the Today programme next week. But then again it might not.

Abel Gance's Napoleon

In the Comments under the previous post an interesting conversation has begun to develop about arthouse - or as Mark prefers it, art house - cinema. In the course of it we started talking about sheer length and the priorities of commercial production. I don't want to say much now about Gance's five and a half hour film, Napoleon (1927) just to put up three clips, the first of them being ten minutes from the actual film. It is the snowball fight scene from Napoleon's childhood.

The second is Kevin Brownlow talking about Gance's film, Brownlow having assembled a longer version and slowed it down so that the silent film moves more naturally. It is, I think, Brownlow's version with Carl Davis's music that was shown on TV, in episodes, some years back. It blew me over. I thought I had rarely seen anything so beautiful in cinema. Brownlow's own enthusiasm is clear.

The third is a personal, critical view, not of Napoleon but of another, earlier, Gance film, one that Brownlow refers to above as an influence on Eisenstein and others La Roue (1922 or 1923) by Kristin Thompson.

She is tough on his melodrama, but who wasn't melodramatic in the Twenties? Melodrama can be extraordinarily purgative as well as grossly sentimental. I also think it is a being a bit sneaky to attack someone for a minor work that seems to be a preparation for a greater one. But let that go... Do watch.