Monday 31 May 2010
Irish again. One of the loveliest songs of longing, Carrickfergus...
..this gorgeous version by The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, recorded in 1984. Joke anecdote at the end. Lyrics, as sung:
I wish I was in Carrickfergus,
Only for nights in Ballygrand,
I would swim over the deepest ocean,
The deepest ocean my love to find..
But the sea is wide and I can't swim over
And neither have I wings to fly.
I wish I could meet a handsome boatman
To ferry me over to my love and die.
For in Kilkenny it is reported
They have marble stones there as black as ink,
With gold and silver I did support her
But I'll sing no more now until I get a drink.
I'm drunk today and I'm seldom sober,
A handsome rover from town to town.
Oh but I am sick now, my days are numbered
Come all ye young men and lay me down."
Sunday 30 May 2010
There is no shortage of recordings of this, but the best one on YouTube, the one with Maura O'Connell and Karen Matheson is not embeddable. So this is the old recording by John McCormack with a classical piano arrangement behind him...
Yeats sweetened an older song he heard sung. This is sweet. With pretty pictures. But the Maura O'Connell goes straight to the gut. Find her here.
But then there is the Britten arrangement too, also rather lovely, in a slightly more self-conscious way.
I might have added - should have added - that the damage to individuals is only half the story. The Mail on Sunday's piece of 'investigative journalism' on Triesman, rigging up some venomous pretend-friend to get him to say something newsworthy, and the Telegraph's story on David Laws, both damage more than their subjects. The Mail on Sunday fixes a 'sting' that endangers a project everyone has been working on for years, and on which a good many jobs depend, not to mention the people who want to see the World Cup here. Does the Mail on Sunday care? Clearly not. Therefore it should clearly be ignored when it claims to speak on any national interest.
As for the Telegraph story, Laws was doing a vital national job, apparently very well. So now he is not doing it. That is the Telegraph's sense of priorities. Let no-one take the Telegraph too seriously then when it bleats about national interest.
I note both papers are of the Tory press, that does its best to rant about nation and patriotism and values.
I am not suggesting that there should be no penalty for important people doing important jobs when they do wrong. I only argue that it should be proportionate. Face whatever sanction seems appropriate in the circumstances. Proper investigative reporting is vital, but both these cases are trivial, entirely disproportional to their actual importance.
But then short-term thinking is notoriously a British disease anyway, and the press has the shortest of short-term interest in anything.
Saturday 29 May 2010
There is a man who is gay and he rents some rooms from another man who is his landlord and to whom he, naturally, pays rent. He then forms a relationship with this man who is also gay and who is still his landlord.
And all this is fine and above board as far as parliament goes. Then in 2006 the rules change and he now has a choice in declaring his position: he either has to stop paying his landlord, who is now his partner, any rent, or he has to leave his partner. Not an easy choice. He hasn't let anyone know he is gay: now he has to declare it. His relationship to his partner is broken either way.
Then the Telegraph runs the news, and its three glorious hacks can take considerable pride in exposing another freeloading MP. Our fearless reporters expose corruption! Though the rule only came in 2006, their trembling, morally indignant finger points to the fact that David Laws has been paying rent to the man who is his landlord, who had after a little while become his partner, for eight years!
The Daily Telegraph's Expenses Files show that between 2004 and 2007, Mr Laws claimed between £700 and £950 a month to sublet a room in a flat in Kennington, south London.
So two of those years were perfectly legal, and one of those years postdated the rules.
Something is rather wrong here. Anyone who imagines that newspapers are there to keep our moral streets clean is, of course, deluded. They are there for one purpose only: to sell newspapers. The good they do - and it is a vital good - is incidental and morally neutral from the paper's point of view. The papers will write and thunder morality, and while some of the columnists and many of the reporters do an honest job - operating morally within a morally neutral territory - the more the paper thunders the more hollow it sounds.
There always has been yellow journalism, but there were various shades of yellow. Now it's much the same yellow anywhere. The three fearless reporters want only a good story and the sense of achievement in affecting change. Any change. Because only change is news. The Telegraph is now fully and finally yellow.
I loathed the MP corruption scandal from the start - not for those who indulged in serious corruption, but for those who might possibly have erred in one or other small way, sometimes without even knowing it. For them it has been tragedy - I can think of one or two in particular for whom this was the case - for the papers it's cash PLUS moral high-ground. Except the high-ground is built on a pile of manure.
I really don't want the press to come moral with me too often.
The link to the BBC iPlayer is here... and the film ends thus:
Another story in the naked city.
But that’s another movie. Not in verse
Like this, but then it’s cheating when you move
The breath from the line’s end to somewhere else.
So Shakespeare had it. Half the time you can’t
Tell if they’re speaking verse or plain old prose.
I’m off to a movie written by Kit Marlowe,
Now there’s a man could hammer out a line.
He knew the numbers game’s no game of chance.
And now the river’s lapping and the corpse
Lies by some rock, without a wad of money,
And shots ring out somewhere in the distance.
The marble columns die into the darkness.
The stairs descend into sheer melodrama.
Good night Miss Sturridge. Goodnight Mr Lewis.
I’ll go find Jack and Rose down at the movies.
River continues lapping a little longer with fade out music.
So was she fatale? Was it Mike Walker being shot or firing the shots?
It might have been - I am going by memory here - on the shoot of The Blue Dahlia, directed by George Marshall and scripted by Raymond Chandler, that Marshall is supposed to have rung up Chandler to ask him about who had done what as the plot was greatly complicated. Chandler is supposed to have replied: I can't remember, or words to that effect.
Which only goes to show that noir is not about story, nor about plot. The story is generally predictable, the plot generally hideously complex. The complexity is point. What the complexity says to us is that life is insoluble and labyrinthine, that there are sinister forces moving beneath the surface, that it is seductive and morally ambiguous, that nothing is quite what it seems, and that the resolving of it is best done by hunch and endless patrols down the mean streets, and even then it never ends quite straight. In other words the predictable ending is unresolved, except by death.
In other words film noir is symbolic poetry, not naturalistic fiction.
So I feel I have been reasonably faithful to the spirit of it in cutting the 7 minute script where I do. So you don't know whether the briefly tragic-sounding, visionary Nancy is fatale or not? She might be the ingenue? The point is that Mike Taylor's life is sardonic and murky, Nancy's steeped in dream and myth, and Rose and Jack's skirt the action and that they like going to the movies. As do I.
Friday 28 May 2010
THE NUMBERS GAME 3
Don’t do it, Joe. Don’t mix with those bad people.
The world’s a bad place, sweetheart. Talk tomorrow…
Tomorrow’s Independence Day… He’s gone…
.....He’s gone but he’ll be back. Miss Sturridge…
Say ‘Nancy’, Jack. I’m just a secretary.
You’re a sweet girl, Miss Sturridge, but the world…
That’s something Mr Lewis knows about.
Knows too much if you ask me. There’s a price
For knowing what he knows.
............I know it too,
I know it all by heart. A shot rings out,
The elevator doors slide open. Feet running
Down a corridor. A flashbulb bursts.
A body is found somewhere near the river,
A wad of money stuffed into its mouth.
That’s movie stuff, Miss Sturridge - I mean Nancy -
Life ain’t like that, not for the most of us.
Not movies, but a kind of poetry.
Like visions, Jack. The one I’m having now.
Goodnight you two. I hope you win tomorrow.
Goodnight Miss Sturridge…. Know just what she means.
It’s not dressed up in verse though, never is.
No five beats in real life, just repetition.
A good kid, not a suave dame like those others
Lewis picks up. Now that is repetition.
Another numbers game, if you ask me.
The numbers game? We’re all the numbers game.
Seven-seventy-six is no sure bet
But one thing is quite sure: the smell of money.
There’s always some poor guy whose number’s up.
I’m off at ten.
....................Let’s go to the movies.
Shots ring out, sound of feet running along corridor. Sound of river lapping at shore.
Who's been shot? What river?...Only the epilogue to come. (And the broadcast tonight at 9.15.)
So it's coming up tonight, and another sneak preview.
THE NUMBERS GAME 3
I betcha the guy’s a Pinko or a Marxist.
Look out, here comes Mike Lewis…
........Big shot lawyer…
Too big and too much shooting for my taste.
Hello there, Mr Lewis.
You made your fortune on the numbers game?
Lost out by one today…
..........Hey, Mr Lewis
You’re educated. See this movie here?
They say the dialogue’s in verse. Like poems.
Fairy talk, Rose, unrealistic. No one
Speaks in verse, there’s no dramatic tension
In that stilted talk.
..........How does it work?
You count the syllables in any line
Ten or eleven does it. Or there’s stress
Like five beats to a bar. The numbers game
Without the money or anything that matters.
Oh yes, and there’s that stichomythia stuff.
That stick of what? It sounds all Greek to me.
You’re right, it was the Greeks who used it once.
What happens in this stick of Missy Whatsit?
People exchange one-liners, but in verse.
You mean a single line? That’s conversation?
Not conversation, just a Greek convention.
Them Greeks and Poles are crazy as each other.
As crazy as I am talking to a bellhop.
That’s what democracy means, Mr Lewis.
And I’m a Republican. Jack. Have to go.
A client’s waiting for me. Oh and Jack…
Yes, Mr Lewis?
..........Placing bets tomorrow?
Sure as hell.
..........You know what day it is?
It’s Independence Day, we all know that.
Try seven seventy-six.
..........Like suckers do?
Sometimes the sucker’s right. You never know…
Hello Miss Sturridge…
..........Nancy! Gotta go.
Where's Lewis going? What gives with the numbers? And who the hell is Nancy? All to be revealed in the next exciting episode of... THE NUMBERS GAME.
Thursday 27 May 2010
...THE NUMBERS GAME!
University in the morning, home for translation in the afternoon then out to The Book Hive for the launch of the book of the events. Wine at 6.30. Tom Corbett and and Juliet there, as is Luke Wright, then others arrive. Sam Jordison, and Tom Cox and Jeremy Page and D J Taylor and Rachel Hore and, and... We stand round chatting as one does. Sam Jordison looks extraordinarily, almost disgustingly, young. Does the Guardian allow its contributors to cross the street by themselves? Do the police know? Where are the ladies with signs and yellow tabards? I know - the policemen too look young. I really must get a motorised zimmer frame next year. We talk cats - naturally - with Tom Cox, but also handwriting and modern technology, then Henry Sutton joins us briefly, and finally conversing with Anjali Joseph and nice PhD novelist friend who is a fan of Krasznahorkai and wants to know when Satantango will be ready. The very thing I was working on a couple of hours before. So we discuss Krasznahorkai's very dark grey sense of humour and incidents in the book... And soon we are almost the last left standing, and drive home in time to eat a late dinner. C looks very beautiful. I can't quite believe I am married to her and have been for almost forty years. What's she doing married to an old man who is at least two months older than her? Anyway, the hack booklet sits beside me, and I think Anjali has done a remarkable job in rounding off our various jagged fragments.
But it's late now, and I am tired. So we move on with The Numbers Game:
And what do you think you’d do with it, Jack Grady?
I’d marry you. We’d live in Florida.
Sure, Florida. Why not Beverley Hills?
I like the sound of Florida.
......Jack, you’re a poet.
I send you Valentines, don’t I? Write them myself!
Talking of that, you read this article?
The guy here says some guy in Hollywood
Has written a screenplay entirely in verse.
That’s crazy stuff....
......The guy’s name is Polonsky.
Probably Polish. A crazy bunch, the Poles.
Suppose they speak in verse..
......Like you do, Jack?
So what’s the movie?
....... Title’s Force of Evil.
It seems the plot is all about bad money,
The numbers game in fact. Corruption,
The little guys, the big guys, banks, the lot.
I can’t follow the plot in stuff like that.
Money’s too complicated for a story.
I betcha the guy’s a Pinko or a Marxist.
Look out, here comes Mike Lewis…
So who's Mike Lewis? Continue hanging on to that cliff and let the credits thunder past you... Remember, it is on tomorrow, on a radio near you.
Wednesday 26 May 2010
Back late from London, from BBC studios recording The Verb with other guests Toby Litt, Fleur Adcock and Tishani Doshi, to meeting mentee Nick nearby. On train down, reading poems. On train up, reading poems. Man on Facebook sends me a poem. So here by way of revenge, the very beginning of The Numbers Game to be broadcast at full chilling length on Friday, 9.15 (-ish):
THE NUMBERS GAME
A film-noir in verse for radio
Screenplay: George Szirtes
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
‘I lisped in numbers for the numbers came’
- Alexander Pope ‘An Essay On Criticism’
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
MGM lion roar and music fades to…
Come with us to the desk of a big hotel,
The marbled pillars, the vast winding staircase,
Fedoras, homburgs, shoe shine boys so old
You’d think they couldn’t stand up straight or bend.
The desk clerk, Rose, is not quite in the picture,
A bellhop leans there, studying late news.
He’s checking out the lottery for numbers.
The numbers game that everybody plays.
Well, will you look at that! I just missed out.
Why, what’d you have?
..........I picked eight ninety-three,
Take two for three and I’d be in the money.
That’s pretty good, I never got that close.
Just think what you could do with all that money!
Just think indeed, dear reader!... Hang in there for the next exciting instalment!
Tuesday 25 May 2010
Tomorrow I go down to the BBC to record a spot on The Verb, to be broadcast on Friday at 9.15. I was asked some time ago by Laura, the producer, if I fancied writing an eight minute verse play, so I did. The question was what should be the subject, and in what key? I have blogged on this before, and the original verse-dialogue Hollywood noir titled Force of Evil. The actors have already recorded the text and Laura sent me a recording, but they still have to add the sound FX and music.
It is a strange thing an eight-minute play, somewhere between art and whimsy, and in this case between poetry and pastiche. I'd love to read the script of Force of Evil but that I cannot find. I doubt it is blank verse all the way through but I do think considerable passages are. A verse play should be possible even in our time and though I have written plays in verse for children where the verse can be part chanted it would be great to get a chance to write one for serious adult stage, even (maybe best of all) a very small one.
Here is a good clip of Sidney Pollack introducing the film. He is right in that the best of film noir is the closest Hollywood got to a stylised poetry. But this time in verse.
After a long hot day at the UEA, quickly home then out again to the Arts Centre -probably my favourite venue in the city - where Helen Ivory and Martin Figura were launching their new books. Penny Shuttle had come up from London for it, as had Sarah Law, and many of the poets in the area, as well as Matt Merritt from Leicester who was in the area for birding business. C and I had a quick pizza with Martin, Helen, Penny, Matt and Helen Birtwell who organises the Cley poetry events. This kind of post always begins to feel like a provincial anorak's version of Jennifer's Diary so I will avoid lingering descriptions of the qualities of pizza and dough balls, or indeed the attire of the various members of the party. (I was sporting a marvellously louche black T shirt of roughly 1996 vintage for the curious...)
The place was packed because Martin and Helen have the good sense to invite other writer friends and musicians, as well as their own considerable public, so everyone brings a following of some kind. The musicians included the band Olinsky, described as pop / minimalist / indie who perform a droll set that reminds me of The Incredible String Band, and Andy McDonnell's My Dark Aunt, who in this case is reduced to Andy plus one. Andy whispers his poems over mixed electronic backing.
The performing poet friends were Joanna Guthrie, Andrea Holland, Esther Morgan and myself in the second half as warm-up artist and singer of praises for the launching couple.
Having played father-for-the-occasion at Helen and Martin's wedding and having taught them both makes me feel considerable older than I generally do, like the old man of the sea in fact. But it is a very happy occasion and it occurs to me for the first time what an unliterary context the art school course drew on - and, better still, how good that was.
There are literary families - the families of the educated and, in their way, privileged - where books are the norm along with various other cultural expectations. They produce plenty of fine writers of course, and in many ways they themselves feel - and their work often feels - as though they were the responsible proprietors of literature, by which I mean more than poems or stories. They generally become the guardians of values, the guardians at the gates. They go to the best universities, find their way into journalism (often enough The Guardian), into publishing and literary institutions, and become thoughtful bestowers of patronage, editors, serious, sometimes grave people for whom literature has a natural place in academies. The idea of literature as a form of progressive, intellectual and psychological gymnastics - as, at best, comprehensive daring - is rooted there. Articulate radicalism is rooted there - only a bit pompous sometimes, a little snooty and sniffy and grandiose - and exclusive too, self-consciously, and often comfortably, doing things the contemptible vulgar wouldn't understand. A kind of aristocracy in fact. They'd never say this but it ghosts through their work at times, work that is, in other ways, genuinely exciting: exciting to people like me because part of me inhabits that world and senses the excitement. The excitement is not pompous, snooty, sniffy or grandiose. It is genuine excitement. They are, after all, genuinely intelligent and, often, very good people.
But poetry and stories as such don't 'belong' to them. As I have argued over and over, poems and stories are parts of human hard wiring. I don't mean this as a populist rhetorical trope but as commonplace, everyday realism: poems and stories belong to everyone. At gut level, people know what poems and stories are and that they are to do with them and their experience. They know that such things - as opposed to literature - belong as much to them as to anyone else. Usually they are cowed by the educated, by those who are literary and bookish from the start. They think poems and stories must be the province of the clever and, poems and stories being an aspect of literature, they leave them well alone.
This is not a political argument. It is most certainly not a dumbing-down argument. It is an argument for listening and taking people seriously. That is the key to everything. Never pretend to praise what isn't there. Be generous but be absolutely honest within the limits of generosity. Never soft soap anyone but make it clear that you are on the same planet trying your best to understand it. Listen sypathetically but never patronise anyone by assuming they are too dim or too weak or too unambitious to understand another person's view. Don't be supportive out of a desire to better anyone's lot or out of disgust with the literary classes. Be supportive because it is another human being you are talking to, someone you know next to nothing about, so best assume there is far more there than you can know. And in the end remember there is another view beside yours and say so. See what X or Y or Z say...
Everything good that came out of the art school was a product of that practice. Auden, Eliot and Wallace Stevens, and indeed much of the avant-garde, experimental and demanding, are not closed off from anyone. If you love Auden, Eliot and Stevens, or anything else considered 'difficult' you should be able to say why they are worth reading. Do that. Life is difficult. Any fule kno that.
This post wasn't going to turn out like this, but it has. Neither Helen or Martin came from bookish families: both have lives that are concentrated and distilled into real poetry. Their lives and poems are nothing to do with mine. The only thing I have ever done with either of them, or any others, is to pay them the respect of listening to them as hard as I would to Eliot or Stevens. The rest is entirely their own work, their own reading, as it has to be. Now go out and do it for yourself, is the idea. And there they are, doing it.
Sunday 23 May 2010
Hans Fallada's anti-Nazi classic becomes surprise UK bestseller
First English translation of novel about Gestapo hunt for German couple who defied Hitler enjoys record sales
...cries Dalya Alberge's article in, yes, The Guardian. At last it has been translated! And it's a great success! And it's a classic!
And the translator? Not even mentioned, of course. Not even when it's the brilliant, multi-prize winning Michael Hofmann, one of our best poets, who writes like an angel on behalf of everyone he translates.
Who he? Just some workhorse, nothing to do with what you are reading. Fallada always did mean to write in English, can't you see that? It is Fallada you are reading, straight from the well.
Comments below do mention Hofmann. A hesitant cough in a big room...
Saturday 22 May 2010
I see Decca Aikenhead butchers Christopher Hitchens in today's Guardian employing the old trick of playing nice to his face then sticking knives in anywhere she can in print. She paints him as a feeble, heartless, macho, self-indulgent, drunken (in fact alcoholic), loser who was never really what he had been cracked up to be. Worst and most telling of all: he is a golf-club bore.
His views can certainly be debated but she doesn't bother with that, preferring character assassination.
Let's see how she does it:
1. Physical repulsion
The paunchy, middle-aged figure who opens the door at 10am has a crust of dried toothpaste around his mouth, an air of bleary dishevelment and the stooped shuffle of a man just out of bed...
...Gruff, vague and nursing a cup of tea, he clasps one hand discreetly over the other in a manner suggestive of some practice in taming the morning shakes....
...Once noon arrives, though, he brightens up, proposing the first scotch of the day with one of those bluff jokes about rules for drinking so dear to saloon bar bores the world over...
2. Madness and degeneration demonstrated by way of irony and stereotype
...What the left just does not get, Hitchens argues, is that "Islamofascism" is hellbent on destroying our civilisation, and unless you fancy being bombed back into pre-Enlightenment times, you should bloody well be out there on the barricades, fighting the good fight beside him...
3. He is an emotional cripple
...there is barely a mention of his three children, one of whom was still in his first wife's womb when he left her for the second, neither of whom gets much of a look-in...
4. He has lost his marbles
the chapters on his parents, both now dead, and the other private reflections that are more illuminating – more so, probably, than the author intended....
5. He is a nasty has-been, one of a crowd who...
..preoccupied by masculinity and legacy, their palpable thrill about military might suggested that, deep down, they secretly feared progressive principles were for pussies.
6. As for his parents (but check points 3 and 4 above)
...He was the eldest son of a naval officer – "the Commander" – a quietly conservative, blimpish character in the Denis Thatcher mould
7. He is a bore not just when he is drunk
His father, by contrast, was a dreadful bore. And yet it is quite clearly the Commander's legacy that haunts Hitchens today...
8. He can't even argue
...I'm surprised by how often he sabotages an argument with a lurch into self-indulgence....
9. He is a sentimental, drunken bore
...his memoir contains an extended and frankly sentimental tribute to a US soldier killed in Iraq...
10. Another stab at the physical repulsiveness
...Hitchens would be the first to agree he cuts a less dashing figure than the beautiful young firebrand who illuminated the pages of the New Statesman in the 70s...
11. He is (naturally) puerile
...The march of time certainly hasn't altered one thing about Hitchens, which is, alas, his unaccountable pleasure in word games of the most puerile variety...
12. He really has no idea about women.. or poetry
...You're disarming yourself in an important struggle if you can't produce a fucking sonnet. What if I had to try on my own merits? You've got to have some sort of reserve arsenal." He looks incredulous when the photographer, a very beautiful young woman, expresses doubt about the efficacy of this seduction technique...
13. His powers of argument never were as good as people imagined (retrospective assassination is generally useful)
.."Well, I've got arguments!" he exclaims, laughing. "You want arguments? I've got arguments!"(Does she argue? No arguments provided in the article.)
He certainly has. Quite how they've earned Hitchens his status as a legend, however, I am at a loss to say. ...
14. One last bore, saving the best till last...
..Why does he say to the barmaid, "Put a Xerox in that" when he wants another drink? He's meant to be an international sophisticate, not a home counties golf club bore...
I'm sure I haven't got all the bores in. Nor all the hints that he is a confirmed alcoholic.
Thank you for your time, Mr Hitchens.
I rather suspect that if he had written against the Iraq War he would have been gloriously sexy and a genius.
Decca Aikenhead on the other hand is positively fragrant.
Wymondham Arts Centre (Becket's Chapel) in the background, behind The Green Dragon
From Henry's to R & H's then home briefly for an omelette before out again to the opening of Four South Norfolk Artists at the new Arts Centre, also known as Becket's Chapel (picture above), for bar duty. The four artists are Clarissa Upchurch, (wife of author)...
...John Behm, exhibiting not sculptures but paintings and a set of boxed breasts that stare unsettlingly at visitors; Jon Bickley, hares and rams that scare visiting dogs...
...and Bruce Black colourist in the Scottish tradition, complete with feisty, busy, helpful family. It looks good in there.
Well over a hundred people swirling about while Kerry and I are on the bar doling three shades of wine and various soft drinks. It's the busiest private view at the arts centre yet. I am a little dead on my feet by the end. Then another couple of hours at the pub next door. Deader still.
The show is on for two weeks.
Friday 21 May 2010
So I took my turn in Henry Layte's The Book Hive window, to add my episode to the others written so far by Henry Sutton, Sam Jordison, Rebecca Stott, D.J. Taylor, Rachel Hore, Sam Riviere, Luke Wright, Jeremy Page, Sheridan Winn, Tom Cox, John Osborne (not the dead one), Eloise Millar and Anjali Joseph as Hacks in the Box. I am the penultimate hack, with only Anjali to come. The text is not marked as to which part is written by whom, nor are the divisions clear, but a careful eye can see the joins. Henry Sutton began it, with a piece of head-on Suttoniana of comedy and suppressed rage. Things move on from there.
It's hot in the window cubby hole that contains a stool, a desk and a Mac iBook with the story up on the screen. I remove my jacket, hand it to Henry for safe keeping, then sit to read through, which, with interruptions from a welcome public, takes a good half hour. Seeing as our stint is to be roughly an hour this does not leave very much time for all those visions and revisions that a moment will reverse. Everyone, including the poets, has written prose. I am determined to produce verse, so, after a little thinking I spot a possibility to do so without completely breaking the continuity. I spend about half an hour writing verse. The verse-writing is occasionally interrupted by other welcome members of the public. I enjoy writing verse and I write it fast so it doesn't feel like an imposition. I hope the verse is not an imposition for Anjali who is due the same time tomorrow.
As soon as the text is done and checked for typos it goes to press and is ready by next Thursday when we celebrate with drinks at the shop.
I don't do adverts but The Book Hive is irresistible. It is a dream of a shop, with gorgeously chosen off-the-beaten-track books, a children's section in a special children's room, a poetry section upstairs, a coffee machine, magazines and nooks and crannies, like a tiny version of Shakespeare and Company in Paris.
It's independent and we who write books will strive to keep it alive and vibrant so that those who read books (that is including ourselves) might come in and feel civilised and enchanted.
Thursday 20 May 2010
I rarely use terms like 'scum' or even 'capitalist'. Both make me think of caricature lay-figures. But I think I might make an exception for Willie Walsh of British Airways. 'Capitalist' and 'scum' seem reasonable terms in his case. Thus: capitalist scum.
Wednesday 19 May 2010
Tuesday 18 May 2010
At The Playhouse tonight, the 25th anniversary of The Rialto, with readings by Andrew Motion and Les Murray. Two such different poets would be hard to find. They each read for fifteen minutes, then, after the interval, engage in conversation with Michael Mackmin, the editor of The Rialto.
Fifteen minutes is, in some ways, a very audience-friendly time for a poet because attention span is always in short supply, which is not to say that there is any reason why attention span should not improve. And some poets can hold you transfixed for two or three times that length of time. It may not be the poetry alone that does that, of course, but something about the presence. Two very different presences then: Andrew M, tall, nervously languid, appearing diffident but actually very alert. He has had to do politics in his time as laureate. I don't imagine Les Murray has done politics in quite the same way. Les occupies space both physically and mentally, the lines of his poetry flicking light at you, line by line, observation by observation. Les can't do languid - he does stolid with gusto. Something flashes about him when he speaks, Andrew murmurs and speaks plain. Les parleys and speaks high-maintenance. Andrew is, I think, essentially an elegiast. He reads a group of three striking poems about a young soldier killed in Afghanistan. The ghost moves through the elegy in it bringing with it both personal and national history. Andrew's poems need ghosts. Les reads more poems with fewer words between. Nothing elegiac, more a kind of bounding. Les's poems need goats.
The discussion afterwards asks three main questions: Is poetry important? (Answer: ahem, yes.) What is the role of the state in supporting poetry? (Depends on the nature of the state, the nature of the support) What is poetry? (Andrew: poetry is whatever turns you on. Les answers: It is being surprised). A question from the floor asks about the relation between performance poetry and book poetry. (Andrew basically replies: whatever turns you on. Les: poetry on the page is more surprising).
(My answers: What is poetry? Poetry is a perfectly ordinary human room completely filled with lightning. Performance poetry is for people who like parties and cheering. Poetry on the page is for people who prefer solitude and silence.)
Now let us go into the dark complete with goats and ghosts.
This, briefly, in a five minute space from UEA. I read the article regarding men and women as liars in various papers, headlined as straight fact.
But what it actually says in the articles, at least the BBC article - do read carefully - is that men and women were asked how often they lied, and that more men than women said they lied more often. As the BBC report says:
Mums are the people mostly likely to be lied to, says the Science Museum who commissioned the survey.
Twenty-five per cent of men say they've lied to their mother, but only 20% of women admit to having lied to their mum.
Note my bold type there. So it is men themselves who claim to be liars.
That's what they say...
Monday 17 May 2010
A very late call from H and M - come to supper with Les Murray. Help us keep genius amused. We eat fish. Les and I drink Guinness, the rest wine. Damn fine fish. The Murrays were Scots but Les's wife was born in Budapest. I knew that. It isn't a deeply, widely, literary evening. More jokes, some of which Les might have found amusing. Tomorrow he reads at the Playhouse with Andrew Motion. I don't remind him that we once shared a taxi, C and I and Les and John Ashbery - at the London International Poetry Festival one year, a long time ago. High couture and aesthetic mien meets Boeotia (after Peter Porter). There are only two tables taken in the restaurant. We are the loud one.
Otherwise a long dour day of one very long meeting. James Hamilton kindly sends me a YouTube of a man climbing into an enormous white balloon by simply pressing against the skin of it. It looks faintly gynaecological. Even more so when he emerges, His vest rides up on a plump stomach. His trousers are almost dragged off so he is in his underpants. He looks like a baby in a nappy.
Time I tried some of that. Get my head twisted up in a big white balloon that is. A pillow will have to be the next best thing.
I have been elevated to the peerage by no less an organ than The Independent. To cite:
Nigel Forde's poetry is, as the Hungarian-born peer George Szirtes says, "deeply English". These poems are mostly in a supple blank verse, sometimes decorated with rhyme; there are allusions to Shakespeare, Hardy, Keats and Herrick; and they are filled with images of the English countryside: streams, woods, owls, blackbirds, buddleia, moths, squirrels, rivers, moons and stars – lots of stars.
See! Hungarian peer! I always knew it. Blue blood will out. (It couldn't possibly be 'Hungarian 'pier', could it?)
Link later (now provided)
Sunday 16 May 2010
I, personally, accept the Con-Lib coalition with equanimity. Labour does need time to reassess itself, its purpose and values. As son T pointed out over lunch, the Lib Dems are in many ways to the left of New Labour. From all one reads, the next five years will require a stable government and a degree of solidarity among the partners. Not a bad time to be in opposition, if handled wisely.
It is not ideology but pragmatism that dictates events for now. In any case both ideologies need time to redefine themselves. I'd be very surprised if too many Tories retained their boundless confidence in the market to arrange everything, nor would too many in the Labour party bring back large-scale state ownership of industry if only because that would be impossible unless a good number of other states did the same. It is hard to see any contemporary state as a free-floating island in splendid, or otherwise, isolation. Socialism in one country is only possible to a very limited extent. More than that requires more cataclysmic political events than seem immediately likely.
Though who knows? Greece is interesting from this point of view. Portugal? Spain? Much depends on how the cuts are managed: how stark they are, how sudden, how deep. Then there is the rush for Arctic oil and other resources. Developments in the Middle East. Changes in the climate. It's quite interesting to have lived six decades. Little, if anything, has remained unchanged.
I don't do original thinking in politics, of course. But I register this as state of mind at a particular time.
I Got the Horse Right Here, Stubby Kaye, Danny Dayton and Johnny Silver in the film of the musical, music and lyrics by Frank Loesser. Loesser is very good indeed and I realise, a little ruefully, that he must go down on my list of those who, if I were them, I would have been dead some years ago. Never mind Keats and Shelley and Byron and the rest. Never mind Dylan Thomas. Frank Loesser dies at fifty-nine, two years younger than I am now.
Great musical: eyes peeled, shoulders ready to shrug, but heart full of lightness and confidence. Lovely little panoramic tracking shot of Noo Yoik to start with.
Here are the words:
I got the horse right here
The name is Paul Revere
And here's a guy that says that the weather's clear
Can do, can do, this guy says the horse can do
If he says the horse can do, can do, can do.
(Benny starts singing his part at this time, while Nicely continues:)
Can do - can do - this guy says the horse can do
If he says the horse can do - can do, can do.
(Rusty starts singing his part as the time, while Nicely and Benny continue:)
For Paul Revere I'll bite
I hear his foot's all right
Of course it all depends if it rained last night
Likes mud, likes mud, this X means the horse likes mud
If that means the horse likes mud, likes mud
I tell you Paul Revere
Now this is no bum steer
It's from a handicapper that's real sincere
Can do, can do, this guy says the horse can do.
If he says the horse can do - can do - can do.
Paul Revere. I got the horse right here.
I'm pickin' Valentine, 'cause on the morning line
A guy has got him figured at five to nine
Has chance, has chance, this guy says the horse has chance
if he says the horse has chance, has chance, has chance
I know it's Valentine, the morning work looks fine
Besides the jockey's brother's a friend of mine
Needs race, needs race, this guy says the horse needs race
If he says the horse needs race, needs race, needs race.
I go for Valentine, 'Cause on the morning line,
The guy has got him figured at five to nine
Has chance, has chance, this guy says the horse has chance
Valentine! I got the horse right here.
But look at Epitaph. he wins it by a half
According to this here in the Telegraph
"Big Threat" - "Big Threat"
This guy calls the horse "Big Threat"
If he calls the horse "Big Threat",
Big Threat, Big Threat.
And just a minute, boys.
I've got the feed box noise
It says the great-grandfather was Equipoise
Shows class, shows class.
This guy says the horse shows class
If he says the horse shows class
Shows class, show's class.
So make it Epitaph, he wins it by a half
According to this here in the Telegraph.
Epitaph! I got the horse right here!
What's it all about? Delight, of course.
Saturday 15 May 2010
A WILLIAM III STRIKING CLOCK WATCH MOVEMENT
THOMAS TOMPION, LONDON, NO. 42. CIRCA 1695. THE DIAL LATER
Family united round baby tonight, son T up from London, Marlie on best behaviour. I wonder if ever again in life we are the subject of such benign attention and scrutiny as in our first few weeks. That is why violence on young children seems such a peculiarly heinous crime, and why we call some crimes 'unnatural'. Maybe because the baby hardly notices us at all but moves alone against the world, somehow of the world yet not quite in it, dreaming in sensations, feeling through the nerves and skin and gut. As we do when we first wake, only just aware of time and light. Body-and-soul machines of the wind-up, wind-down universe. No wonder people thought of God as the great watchmaker. The Thomas Tompion galaxy, as vulnerable as a moment in eternity.
Brief scattered thoughts before bed. Most of the day I have been working on Satantango and university matters - except for the cup final, of course, where I was willing on Portsmouth, delighted each time Chelsea hit woodwork. Often one doesn't need the highest quality game providing there is a good story. This one ended as most of us thought it would, but in a properly narrative way.
Friday 14 May 2010
Two minor matters that occasion little but annoying pedantic pains.
1. by / with: question of agency, instrumentality and sheer physical contact
On the radio this morning, I hear: You'll get your eyes poked out by my sharp pen. Surely, I inwardly wince, the pen is not the active agent. It is merely an instrument you use. You have an intention and you carry it out with the aid of an implement. You'll get your eyes poked out with my sharp pen.
I can see how this comes about. It is because the true agent, I, is hidden. Something must be poking your eyes out. It's not me but my pen.
It occurs to me that I could be wrong but I do flinch on hearing it. Agency, I reason, is the determinant. If I wield the instrument (eg a sharp pen) your eyes are poked out by me, with a pen. If, however, a cricket ball is flying through the air and it hits you, then you would, according to my central nervous system, be correct in claiming that you had been hit by a cricket ball. And that may be correct even if I deliberately threw it, so that it should hit you. Somehow the ball acquires agency in flight. However, if I am still holding the ball at the time, then it must be a matter of striking you with a cricket ball.
2. was / were: what if
This is, if anything, a more constant itch, and I find myself correcting otherwise outstanding work because of it. It seems a much simpler matter.
If I were in Denmark is accepted shorthand for if, at any time, it should happen that in the next moment / hour / day / year / I should not be here but in Denmark....
If I was wrong, I apologise, is accepted shorthand for, if, at some time in the past / yesterday / five minutes ago / I did wrong, I now apologise..
But This is what he'd say if he was here, rubs me up the wrong way. Me! A foreigner! What this suggests to me is that if he could appear in the next moment / hour / etc / this is what he had said.. Nonsense.
Then of course you get into the maze of If he had been here he would have said . And the had hads. Famous example, the eight hads.:
In the test, John had had 'had', Mary had had 'had had'. 'Had had' had had more marks than 'had'.
But let's not have gone there. Back to the important matters of by / with and were / was. Remember lives - nay, cities, towns, whole wars! - have been lost on such errors. Civilisations have been wiped out!
Is that clear? I don't need to name these tenses, I just need to feel them so they stop hurting. If I am wrong, correct me. If I were to be wrong some time in the future you could correct me in the future. If I wasn't ever wrong, I must be some kind of deity. Take your pick.
Thursday 13 May 2010
About a dozen years ago now there was a sudden rush to MA courses in Higher Education establishments and I was asked if I had one I wanted to try writing one.
Creative Writing itself was very well covered at UEA, and, in view of the fact that I was trained as an artist, was working at a school of art, had spent many years writing about, through /via /around visual art, working with other artists, and, furthermore, couldn't help but notice that many other poets were writing about visual art and that there were whole anthologies of poetry about it, I suggested and wrote (with considerable help) an MA called Writing the Visual. I add considerable help in brackets because official forms and applications have always hazed me a little. I think I am an ideas man who needs an efficient, undaunted organisations person next to me.
Why, after all, were poets and other writers writing so much about visual art? A few years earlier I had suggested to OUP, my then publishers, an Oxford anthology of writing about visual art. I was thinking primarily of poetry about fine art and photography, but there were passages in prose that concentrated on a work of art, the most obvious example being perhaps The Picture of Dorian Gray, as above. The most interesting discovery I made was that most poetry about visual art, with certain important exceptions, post-dated the beginnings of Modernism, that is to say the time that paintings became suspicious of subject and preferred to have little to do with literature. It was roughly at that point that the flow was reversed and that instead of, say, Delacroix producing work about Hamlet or the Inferno, or Faust or something from Byron; or, if you like, Giotto producing cycles of frescoes based on Biblical and apocryphal narratives, writers started to employ visual art as the given text.
What was going on? How did it work? (How did it work for people like me?) What are the ways in which the writerly imagination absorbs and develops that which someone might call secondary experience: not the bird singing but a picture of the bird singing?
The idea was that there would be a series of modules, some involving the actual production of visual art, the sheer physicality of it, as well as some appropriate theory and a mixture of reading / looking analysis, and of writing in verse or prose form - not 'critically', but what we now call 'creatively', - and that all this would produce more informed, more subtle, more interesting writing about visual art.
So it got written and approved and advertised and we got students, all part-time, almost all mature. It was rather glorious: artists, photographers, graphic novelists, educators, teachers, ex-printers, ex-doctors, an actor; a range of people aged from early twenties to mid-eighties, turning up once a week for sessions. In one year we had eleven in the room, all vocal, all full of life, all wanting to know, and argue, and produce. I wasn't teaching it all. Andrea worked with me, and Shaun Camp and Simon Granger and Anna Green, but it was intensive and deeply invigorating.
One artist, Gary, wrote beautiful anecdotal prose, Patricia wrote a novel of ideas, Roger wrote memoir, took photos, exhibited and carried on studying, Sian drew, went to study at the feet of masters, Jan was writing a novel about a political artist then moved on to the Hackney Empire, and, as for Martin, he was already a marvellous photographer, a poet-entertainer with Joy of Six, and wanted to see through the book of poems based on personal history and photographs, Whistle, which he has now done. And others, splendid people like Fionn Rawnsley, a sculptor fascinated by systems, patterns, numbers and mysteries, and Liz Lampard, a textile artist, who wrote beautiful delicate poems... and so on through Hugh and Elizabeth and Peter and Rebecca....
This was all rather wonderful, and dizzying, and exploratory, and who knows where it might have led, given time - I still think such a course should exist along roughly similar lines - but I had to move on to UEA, and Andrea continued, but then, along with almost all the new MA's, it bit the dust, receiving the fatal institutional dustbite about the same time as the creative writing. It too is ending.
Never mind there are courses for computer games design there now. Ah, sunny Prestatyn, as Larkin wrote.
The possible ruins of Troy
One of my poems, 'Preston North End' (from An English Apocalypse) has been included in various anthologies for the usual anthology reasons. Not because of its qualities as a poem but because it illustrates an interesting social situation, in this case of the immigrant to Britain. Now a Norwegian student has written to me to ask for clarification as to why, at the end of a poem about football, King Priam and Troy turn up, and whether, if that is the case, I am a Greek.
Such a nice question. Are we immigrants and refugees Greeks in Troy! Sometimes, if rarely, a question makes me think at length and then I put the answer up here too, if only because the answer articulates something I myself hadn't thought through, and also because a blog such as this is partly me talking to others and partly me talking to myself while looking as though I was talking to someone else. First the poem, then the answer:
Preston North End
Tottenham Hotspur versus Preston North End.
Finney’s last season: my first. And my dad
with me. How surprisingly well we blend
with these others. Then the English had
the advantage, but today we feel
their fury, sadness and pity. There were some bad
years in between, a lot of down-at-heel
meandering. For me though, the deep blue
of Preston was ravishment of a more genteel,
poetic kind. They were thrashed five-one, it’s true,
and Finney was crocked by Mackay. Preston went down,
hardly to rise again. But something got through
about Finney the plumber, Lancashire, the Crown,
and those new days a-coming. The crowd dissolves,
but we are of the crowd, heading into town
under sodium street lights. This year Wolves
will win the title. Then Burnley. I will see
Charlton, Law and George Best. The world revolves
around them and those voices on TV
reading the results. I’m being bedded in -
to what kind of soil remains a mystery,
but I sense it in my marrow like a thin
drift of salt blown off the strand. I am
an Englishman, wanting England to win.
I pass the Tebbitt test. I am Alan Lamb,
Greg Rusedski, Viv Anderson, the boy
from the corner shop, Solskjaer and Jaap Stam.
I feel no sense of distance when the tannoy
plays Jerusalem, Rule Britannia or the National Anthem.
I know King Priam. I have lived in Troy.
And now the answer, which is still partial, an answer I myself am seeking.
I will give you a long answer because it is an interesting question and it helps me to think about it myself. I hope the answer is not confusing.
The poem 'Preston North End' is part of a 26 poem series with the general title of 'An English Apocalypse', five sections of five poems each in the same terza rima form, with the twenty-sixth being an introduction. In the last series of five there are in fact five apocalypses in which England is destroyed. I should make it very clear that I don't want England destroyed: in fact quite the opposite. I, as an immigrant, have an immigrant's love for the country that accepted me when I needed acceptance. Often when one loves things one fears for their destruction: so, in the series as a whole, there is an apprehension of destruction, sometimes in comic terms. In the course of the twenty-six poems I hope a picture of England emerges in the time I know it, with a particular accent on the seventies and eighties, when I myself became an adult.
'Preston North End' comes from the fourth section titled 'Entertainments', in which there are poems about drinking, wrestling, television, and a hen-night (that's to say a women's night out) at a strip-club with a male stripper. 'Preston North End' is the last of these and concerns not my first football match - that was in Budapest when I was six or seven years old - just my first in England. The match is as I describe it in the poem - those are the real names of footballers then, and later, as time passes.
I didn't imagine myself a Greek in Troy, just a refugee from a smaller place, a first generation Trojan. As you know, Troy falls and is destroyed by the Greeks. At the end of the poem England is equated with Troy, and King Priam, the tragic king of Troy - who dies when the city is conquered by the Greeks - with whatever sense of identity the place seemed to have. The speaker is speaking after all that has happened. Troy has fallen and King Priam is dead.
It is only at the end of the poem that the speaker realises what a strange, great, tragic place he has lived in and known. When I was a child most of the world map was coloured red and the rump of the British Empire still existed as the British Commonwealth. England (by which I as a child, and everyone else in Europe, meant the whole United Kingdom, including Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) was one of the great powers. Hungary was far from that. 'England' of course was shrinking by the time we arrived in 1956 but I think it shrank dramatically in the seventies when the last vestiges of its traditional power base disintegrated (the coup-de-grace was delivered by Margaret Thatcher). By the time I was writing the poem in 2000, the millennium year, the United Kingdom had started to devolve, so England really was becoming the remnant of Empire. I was writing the poem in Ireland, after an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease, a fuel blockade, bad floods and a dramatic increase in the suicide rate of young men. My three month residency Ireland, where England is hated, was the trigger. I had intended to write novel about wrestling. That didn't happen. The sequence of poems happened instead.
The poem is not nostalgic for the days of Empire - in fact nostalgia is treated as comedy in the whole sequence, including in 'Preston North End' - but it can't help but be aware that a huge monument is decomposing and collapsing.
So there you are, in the simplest and crudest term, Troy is England, King Priam is the tragic king of the tragic defeated city. I am not a Greek but a foreign Trojan living in the great city knowing it is moving towards its end. I am a survivor, surveying the ruins of Troy .
I now remember that one of the other triggers for the poem was a poem of Jo Shapcott's titled 'Motherland' in which she speaks of feeling a sense of distance whenever she thinks of England (see the sense of distance referred to in the last verse). I didn't think it was distance I felt. I don't and never have felt complicit in the crimes of colonialism. I can't help that - I simply don't. Hungary has been both the coloniser and the colonised. I just saw a vast edifice collapsing. It was the edifice I had come to. I heard the noise of collapse and aching and I responded as might a humane visitor from another planet whose history was quite unaffected by England. You will see that all the sportsmen mentioned near the end of the poem are of foreign origin.
Who knows the crimes of Troy? How did Troy treat its slaves, satellites and agencies or reward its generals, merchants and leaders? Troy collapsed, King Priam was dead. It's still a good story. And there is still an ache to the story of Troy, which is just one great city among all the great cities of history.
Perhaps I am the true Martian - not Craig Raine or Christopher Reid - sending his postcard home. On the other hand there are people who see any visitor as a Trojan Horse. It's all Greek to them.
The view from the possible Troy. Both images via)
Wednesday 12 May 2010
After this I will put up one more post which will consist of some contributions from past students together with any last reflections.
When Peter Scupham joined me on the poetry part of the course he was already in his sixties, and Andrea Holland was soon to become an established part of the course. In fact she was to become ever more important to it so the whole is inconceivable without her. Her own poetry I found immediately convincing - she ought to be far better known than she is as a poet, and I hope she will be - and her teaching was firm and clear. We split the poetry between us after Peter stopped, but as far as the success of the student poets is concerned, it was primarily under the care of the three of us to begin with, then mostly Andrea and I and - latterly - Helen Ivory too.
Ian Starsmore left about five or six years into the course and the cultural studies course changed too. First Simon Willmoth, then George MacLennan took it over. The accent there was the reading of culture through semiotics, by way of feminism, marxism and psychoanalysis. That is putting it very crudely of course: Lacan, Kristeva, Jameson, the Frankfurt School and much else. Students were expected to write essays, then a dissertation that generally formed the larger part of their final degree.
In the early days I wondered whether the harder theoretical, analytical, element of the course would drive the creative work into ever smaller self-aware corners, but it didn't. They prospered next to each other. I wouldn't begin to suggest that it was like two halves of a single brain, because analytical thinking and the dynamics of making are not entirely distinct activities. Both go on in the same person at the same time. Nevertheless there was a kind of complementary process of which all the students spoke well. But that comes down to excellent teaching and a broadly humane approach to people and ideas. The three core strands of the course remained cultural studies (generally the chief strand); creative writing; visual art.
But the chief glory of a course is its students. It is invidious choosing to mention some people over others but there were some fine talented people in every year. Over three-hundred and fifty students would have passed through the course over those years, only about a third of those specialising in creative writing in their final year. Roughly the same number, or so I suppose, specialised in visual art. Here is a list of some of the students and what they went on to do:
Stephen Foster (prose writer, MA UEA, several books including novels, memoir, books on dogs and sport)
Helen Ivory (poet, Gregory Award Winner, PhD UEA, four books of poetry)
Ben Borek (poet, MA UEA, one book, Donjong Heights)
Cris Cheek (poet and performer, several and various enterprises)
Ian Dieffenthaller (poet, architect, scholar, author of Snow on Sugarcane)
Andrew Pidoux (poet, Gregory Award Winner, MA St.Andrews, first book, Year of the Lion, due from Salt)
Judith Lal (poet, Gregory Award Winner, Poetry Business chapbook Flageolets at the Bazaar)
Emily Mackie (fiction, MA Bath Spa, first novel reviewed Guardian March 27, 2010)
Agnieszka Studzinska (poet, MA UEA, first book of poetry just out)
Ellen de Vries (poet, MA, Nottingham Trent)
Andrew McDonnell (poet, MA and PhD UEA, founder of 'My Dark Aunt')
Ian McHugh (poet-playwright, resident at Royal Court theatre, play at Bush Theatre)
Thomas Warner (poet, Gregory Award Winner, MA UEA, Faber New Poetry)
Jack Underwood (poet, Gregory Award Winner, MA Goldsmiths, Faber New Poetry)
Sam Riviere (poet, Gregory Award Winner, MA Royal Holloway, Faber New Poetry)
Matthew Gregory (poet, Gregory Award Winner, MA Royal Holloway)
Laura Elliott (poet, published first book)
Besides these there were, and are (some very recent):
Andrew Bryant (prose writer, MA UEA), Tim Cockburn (poet, MA UEA), Hayley Buckland (MA, UEA), Alice Cassell (poet, MA UEA), Tracy Adair-Routh (drama, won BBC playwright award), Julia Webb (poet), Angus Sinclair (poet).
Andrew was our first graduate to be admitted to the (then relatively few) MA's in Creative Writing in the country, Tim and Hayley are both outstanding, both associated with Stop Sharpening Your knives. I would say more here but Tim and Hayley are still students so we will have to wait to see what comes to pass. Julia, Laura and Angus were, just last week, reading at the Wells-Next-the-Sea Poetry Festival.
Of those above, Stephen Foster was first to be published. He returned to do some teaching on the course. Helen Ivory, who together with Andrew Pidoux, was the first of the Gregory Award Winners, has been teaching the poetry since I left and, together with Andrea, has brought through Laura, Angus and Julia. It is, I think, very fitting the last of our six extraordinary Gregory Award Winners, should in fact be Matthew Gregory. He has yet to be presented with the award.
And of course many of these students went through various MA courses after completing their undergraduate studies at the art school, so the glory is spread around. Nevertheless, it is rather splendid and fills one with pride and joy.
It didn't, I should hastily add, fill the art school with pride or joy or anything except the desire to ignore it, hide it, and be rid of it in its most productive years when numbers fell. George MacLennan is retiring at the end of this year. Andrea Holland needs and deserves work and publication and praise. Elspeth Barker has taught there to the very end. Ashley Stokes has been teaching the prose fiction with her.
If I have missed any glitter, I hope people will let me know. Writing is not all about glitter, of course. But I'll talk more about that next time.
Tuesday 11 May 2010
Or indeed red seas. The dramatic potential of the current political stand-off is enormous. I would not want to be Nick Clegg. As someone said, it is heart versus head. The heart of LibDemdom surely beats in closer sympathy with the heart of Labour than with that of Conservatism of any description. The head may say something else about stable government, financial crisis, duty to the country, possible party advantage, how all this will play to the present and the future...
If Clegg goes with the Tories, most LibDems will feel deeply uncomfortable and disorientated, not to say unhappy. The electorate will, presumably, feel that this has all happened by some strange conjuring trick and that the product is bound to be a three-legged monstrosity that must lead the strangest of lives, if it lives at all. Half the country will hate Clegg for going Tory.
If, on the other hand, Clegg goes with Labour, and they both strike a deal with the Scots Nats and, say, Plaid Cymru, the fury of the Tories will be beyond anything so far experienced. The more patriotic English will feel like second class citizens, the BNP will get another fillip, and the break up of the UK is likely to be precipitated. Clegg will be hated by the other half of the country.
The hung will be hanged.
However, one of the most revealing sights of the post-campaign coverage was a TV interview with the upstanding male and female Tory members of a Tory shire. They were all adamant that they'd have no truck with anything the LibDems might want as part of a deal for supporting Cameron. Absolutely, solidly, nothing. Every one of them. It was: Dammit! It's our country, it's our right to rule it, and little upstarts like Clegg can get stuffed because he's getting nothing from us.
The entitlement simply oozed from their thick skulls. It hung like a miasma about them. They couldn't begin to understand that there would have to be compromise of any kind.
Being foreign, I have never fully felt the visceral element in British politics. Nor are my feelings led by ideology. I can quite see that someone might have a different idea from me, and that, it may, sort of, work.
Intellectually, of course, I am perfectly capable of understanding visceral feelings and have some of my own, just not in the UK political realm. I can imagine feeling the full UK range, while not really feeling it. I don't know whether that is part of the poetry kit, the foreigner kit, or just something personal. I 'feel' no closer to a toff than to a chav. A man or woman is just a man or woman to me.
But my repugnance at this snapshot of the sense of Tory entitlement was visceral enough. It was not loathing exactly, just a deep gut-level abhorrence.
What to do with all these viscera?! Nick Clegg, whatever you do, the viscera are after you!
Monday 10 May 2010
It is interesting to append here a list of the writers who came to read at the art school in my time. They came for basic rates, by personal request, some staying overnight, some having to hurry home. They usually came in two's, read for half an hour each, answered questions and had a drink. The list (and I will link them all) comprises:
That is without listing those whom I've already mentioned: Peter Scupham, Elspeth Barker, Patricia Debney, etc.
It is a rather extraordinary list. In fact it is literary history. I may have forgotten one or two writers. I am going by memory but am 99.99% sure of those names and have checked through editions of Birdsuit.
The readings were free, mostly in the lecture theatre. Was the lecture theatre full? No, it wasn't. Did all the students from our degree attend? No, they didn't. There wasn't a group email system. I made the posters, photocopied them, then ran round the various buildings putting them up with blue-tack or drawing pin or sticky tape. The class looked at a poem or two by whoever was coming, the week before they came. People take these things for granted. Then a new generation of students appear and don't know the things ever existed.
As for the art school, it barely took notice of them. It allowed us six poets a year for a few years, then four, then eventually none. It was slow strangulation. It wasn't the fees. The fees never rose. The writers generally gave us a piece or two for the annual book anthology, Birdsuit (various copies of which can sometimes be found for sale on the net). They charged us nothing for it.
I'm not sure now at what point the visiting writers were stopped. But everything was working to that end: the budget, the numbers, the advertising (they eventually stopped listing the names of the tutors on the website for fear of falling foul of the data protection act, so, by a brilliant stroke, no one applying for the course knew anything about its record or who was teaching on it), and the sheer indifference and neglect.
One year in the early 2000's I persuaded the Research Committee to fund a resident writer. Amazingly, they produced £5,000 for the purpose. The well-known poet, editor, and ex-external examiner, Christopher Reid, was appointed. But the college neglected to provide a room, a desk, a computer terminal, heating, decoration, in fact anything. Eventually we found a store-room and an old computer. Chris provided his own coat. He did a reading, he attended classes, he saw individual students, he edited Birdsuit and brought in work from people like August Kleinzahler and Alfred Brendel. He was there one day a week. C. and I offered him weekly accommodation. He reciprocated by good conversation and cooking a splendid meal. The principal of the college didn't come to any event he attended or organised. As a matter of courtesy I tried to arrange a meeting between the principal and Chris. The principal was not available.
The following term, when Chris finished, a fund-raising manager took the room over. It was immediately carpeted, painted, supplied with brand new furniture and the best computer possible. He stayed there a term, then, because the room was a transit room to another smaller store (a detail they somehow failed to consider) he asked to move. He was then given my room.
What was my fate? I was moved into the room that had been his, the carpeted, curtained, painted suite that he had occupied, and which had been the scrappy old store-room that had accommodated the college's one and only resident writer. I didn't get the computer of course. I did however get the hint.
May is the Month
M ay is the month - the seventh - you arrive.
A fter the winter, spring is half way-through,
R unning wild past trees, green against blue.
L eaves jostle: everything looks to thrive.
I n rooms light enters, world becomes more present,
E xpanding like a magnifying glass,
F ierce and insistent on its gloss of grass
L ush in flowers, day-glo and fluorescent.
O pening, closing: see the baby’s eyes
R eturning light to its source, absorbing it,
E lectric! Life is a shock, disturbing. It
N ever does quite what you expect. Wind dries
C lothes on the line in blind electric currents,
E cstatically to welcome Marlie Florence!
M arlie Florence, Marlie Florence
A nswer me this riddle, do,
R eply by post or send your parents,
L et them do the work for you.
I s your name derived from Marlene
E being silent as in GLUE
F ORTUNE, DIANE or, say, SARDINE
L ike those u’s and e’s in QUEUE?
O r is Marlie, rhymed with barley,
R arefied, like something new?
E ver heard of Uncle Arley?
N ever mind, he’s one-off too!
C lever, lovely, Marlie Horne,
E njoy yourself now you’re new born!
After days and nights of delicate negotiations in smoke-filled rooms, the two parents emerged together to announce the name of the babe, just two days old: she is to be called Marlie Florence Szirtes Horne - just Marlie Horne to the world. Nice sound to it. She will enjoy wearing it.
Marlie, variant on English Marlee and German Marlene, meaning 'marshy meadow' presumably from mar=marsh (marais, mer), and lea=meadow.
Sail forth, Marlie!
Sunday 9 May 2010
Cliff is pedestrian, but looks rather like Cristiano Ronaldo and he sings about a living doll.
Talking of living dolls, we finally got to see the new grand-daughter, now named, but name under wraps until all family informed. I forgot how small a two-day baby is. She looks (even at original weight 8lb 2oz) almost irresponsibly tiny. You have no business being that small, I want to say. Nobody has. And swaddled, you look very like a doll, except you move: your eyes flick this away and that way without actually seeing very much, your mouth grins and pouts a little, your nose wrinkles and you move your head from side to side. Beneath the swaddling your legs are kicking. You are on the point of crying, then you do cry, maybe only because air is passing through you, or your digestive system is doing something still unfamiliar. So we stroke your cheeks and brows and you slowly quieten and close the blue eyes, which are only blue because all babies' eyes are.
What a piece of work is a baby! How human she is already and how quick to learn! Those brain cells must be multiplying like rabbits!
I am working on something for you, something serious I hope but, because I now have your name and know that your first two given names have fourteen letters precisely, you shall also have an acrostic sonnet, as light and pretty as I can make it like a small cheap home-made jewel that really glitters when you hold it up to the light, and you know it's just a cheap toy, but understand, some time at least, that poetry should be prepared to make such toys out of its love of language and occasion and that this too will be made out of love because you are the occasion.
More on the end of the poetry course at the art school soon.
Returning from Peter's funeral on Friday, on the second leg of my journey from Cambridge, I am first in the rear carriage, having arrived there by the earlier - and very packed - train from London. I find the hindmost seat with a table because it's nicer, or just lazier, to get off the rear coach at W almost opposite the exit. There is not too much crowding on this train generally, not even on a Friday. Just before we are due to start an elegantly suited, balding, and bespectacled young man dashes in and asks me if this is the 7.25. I tell him it is. He heaves a sigh of relief and sits down opposite me. He is definitely more elegant than most people on this train, more London business class than I tend to see on it. He smiles briefly and shyly, opens his briefcase and takes out a carton container for the magazine FHM, featuring the 100 Sexiest Women in the World 2010 (should I link? should I not link? I expect you are capable of finding it for yourselves). On the spine of the container it says: Warning! Hot! He takes from the container the promised hot book and falls to deep study of it.
I am curious, not so much about who precisely are deemed by FHM to be the 100 Sexiest Women in the World (one sexy woman at a time is the most I can cope with at my age), but about him. He is serious, scholarly, quite unabashed. He is distinctly respectable and well-heeled. There is a woman across the aisle who seems to be absorbed in a puzzler magazine of some sort. She does not look up. The train starts. The carton warning of hot contents lies on the table, upside down. There are no conspicuously brazen images on it. It is what it is: an advertisement for a package of bikini-or-otherwise-clad babes. Nevertheless, in my years of train travel, I don't think I have met quite this situation before.
He is not in the least embarrassed when the conductor comes round. The conductor pays no particular attention to the prospect of the 100 Sexiest Women in the World. He makes no comment, his eyes do not linger, not for an instant, on either the carton or the magazine. He goes about his normal business. Once he has gone the young, respectable, balding, besuited man returns to his magazine and is so far absorbed that when the train draws to a halt at one of the stations, its name announced by the conductor, it takes him a moment to realise he should be getting off, and just manages to scramble through the door before the train starts off again.
He has taken his magazine but has left the Warning! Hot! carton on the table. So now it is mine. And not mine.
So many thoughts hang on this incident, only the first of which is: There is a time and place for everything (and one means everything), that it would probably take me hundreds of words to explore the merest skin of them. But skin is a good stepping-off point, so, for now, I'm stepping off, possibly to revisit this strange social station. Mortality, flesh, skin, desire, taboo, the sexiness of being sexy...
2. Psalm 39, sung by the choir at Peter's funeral
I said, I will take heed to my ways, that I sin not with my tongue: I will keep my mouth with a bridle, while the wicked is before me.
I was dumb with silence, I held my peace, even from good; and my sorrow was stirred.
My heart was hot within me, while I was musing the fire burned: then spake I with my tongue,
LORD, make me to know mine end, and the measure of my days, what it is; that I may know how frail I am.
Behold, thou hast made my days as an handbreadth; and mine age is as nothing before thee: verily every man at his best state is altogether vanity. Selah.
Surely every man walketh in a vain shew: surely they are disquieted in vain: he heapeth up riches, and knoweth not who shall gather them.
And now, Lord, what wait I for? my hope is in thee.
Deliver me from all my transgressions: make me not the reproach of the foolish.
I was dumb, I opened not my mouth; because thou didst it.
Remove thy stroke away from me: I am consumed by the blow of thine hand.
When thou with rebukes dost correct man for iniquity, thou makest his beauty to consume away like a moth: surely every man is vanity. Selah.
Hear my prayer, O LORD, and give ear unto my cry; hold not thy peace at my tears: for I am a stranger with thee, and a sojourner, as all my fathers were.
O spare me, that I may recover strength, before I go hence, and be no more.
'I was dumb, I opened not my mouth'... The last words - last in every sense - for Peter. I presume he chose them. It was the point at which I felt myself choking up. Then the feeling went, the event rounded itself off, and we stayed to chat: the remaining glitterati and non-nomenklatura of the poetry world.