Saturday 31 July 2010

Not in my name

Mixed feelings over the reported case of Ian Huntley, the Soham murderer, making a compensation claim against the prison where he had boiling water poured over him by one fellow prisoner, then more recently, had his throat slashed by, I assume, another.

I thought I had worked out my own feelings in comparable cases. If anyone harmed my children, I supposed, I would personally want to inflict as much pain on the guilty man as I could. I would want to kill him by degrees. A kneecap here, a kneecap there, and so on. All the same, I supposed - not actually being in a passion, only imagining it - the best thing would be for someone to stop me, lead me away, and argue for due process of law, so that my passion or thirst for revenge (a thirst that is perfectly natural in a passion) might be channelled into a course that was socially and collectively responsible, because if we don't have such due process, I reasoned, anyone is free to do whatever their intense emotions drive them to do.

So it is, I thought, with war crimes. Some are crimes of passion or revenge that are understandable but nevertheless illegal and punishable. Others are deliberate and carefully calculated acts for which the punishment should be more severe. In the case of my own passion for revenge whoever prevented me from carrying out that revenge would be performing more than a public service (and doing me a favour), but - and it seems quite a big important step, a potential category change, putting it this way - committing a virtuous act.

In Huntley's case he murdered two young girls who had trusted him because, as caretaker of their school, he was in a position of trust with them. If they were my children I would in my passion have murdered him.

It was always likely that, once in prison, Huntley would be assaulted for various reasons. He must have known that, as would the prison authorities, as would we. But two of these assaults would have been regarded as serious crimes outside the prison and now he is seeking compensation.

The man who poured boiling water over Huntley and the man who cut his throat did not do so 'in my name'. Why would they? My name means nothing to them. The two assailants might very well have thought they were, however, doing it somebody's name - in the name of the parents, or, less likely, of society at large. Though it is just as likely that they did what they did because they regarded Huntley with abhorrence - a complex emotion - and so felt justified in administering what they regarded as justice. It is even possible that they enjoy the act of assault, and this particular act seemed to justify them. I don't know

Official justice, unofficial justice - it is hard to balance the two. Some people might be annoyed because Huntley is complaining about being assaulted at all. Hanging's too good for him, they might well think. Others are annoyed because Huntley is going through the law to obtain compensation. The mother of one of the children resents it because the parents received no compensation for the death of their children. She wants 'a level playing field'.

I am not sure that receiving compensation for the murder of one's child would ever constitute a level playing field or that it was at all possible to think of level playing fields in terms of monetary compensation, though I realise that people do, even if only because money is a symbol of some sort - sometimes the only available symbol.

The 'he deserves it' line disturbs me, because that makes a nonsense of law, of prison and of sentences. Due process has contractual force and unofficial punishment breaks that contract. 'My name' is elevated over 'our mutual name'.

Huntley's claim for financial compensation is also disturbing because the irony of a child murderer appealing to law stretches one's belief in the moral value of contracts. He might, of course, be using the financial course in order to prevent further physical assault - as an incentive to the screws to be more vigilant to his vulnerability, and it might in fact be his only recourse.

No-one here is acting in my name. But I, along with my name, seem to be not quite dissociated from the matter. It stirs feelings.

It is just that - like all human matters - the affair is a great deal more complex than it appears and has hung round my head as I was applying coats of paint to the new book-case, finishing checking the Márai proofs, beginning to redraft the Krasznahorkai text and arguing about politics with a friend by way of emails.

The sickening smell of satin gloss paint remains with me.

Friday 30 July 2010

All a matter of degree

It must be good to live in a place where you always know whose fault it is and why. So it is with the North Korean football team who did rather worse than England in the World Cup. The full report is in The Toronto Star.

First, they were made to listen to a public airing of their faults. Then they had to turn around en masse and do the same thing to their disgraced coach, who may not be long for this world.

We have the press do the first part for us, of course. The second we don't talk about. The third is not in our hands.

Embarrassment was compounded when, after a competitive 2-1 opening loss to five-time champions Brazil, the country’s despotic leadership took the unprecedented step of broadcasting the team’s second game on live television. North Korea’s 7-0 loss to Portugal was one of the most lopsided in tournament history.

According to early reports, the North Korean play-by-play team stopped speaking during the second half of the broadcast. The match went unreported in the next day’s newspapers.

Showing the match in silence is not altogether a bad idea. Why not just vuvuzelas and a roving mic? 'After the competitive 0-0 with Algeria...'

The 23-man roster – minus its two Japanese-based ringers, Jong “Weepy” Tae-se and An Yong-hak – was hauled up on stage in front of 400 attendees at the inaptly named People’s Palace of Culture.

The audience included a large number of university students and athletes, as well as high party officials.

For the next six hours, players were reprimanded for failures in their play, according to a jarring report from Radio Free Asia.

This included a damning player-by-player appraisal of individual mistakes in play, provided by the country’s leading sports broadcaster.

More alarmingly, they were accused of “betraying” the country in the “great ideological struggle.”

After the players received their collective rollicking, the team was then forced to round on its coach, Kim Jong-hun.

Fabio got the the great psychological battle wrong. The players were found guilty of betraying the country. Hauled up on stage in front of a readership of some millions, John 'Weepy' Terry not excepted.

Things were far worse for Kim.

He was accused of “betraying the young General Kim Jong-un,” the shadowy son of North Korean leader, Kim Jong-il.

Though no adult photos exist of Kim Jong-un, he is thought to be his seriously ill father’s heir apparent. A nascent personality cult is quickly building up around him in North Korea.

When the team first qualified for the World Cup several months ago, the success was chalked up nationwide as “young General Kim Jong-un’s accomplishment.”

The ominous linking of coach Kim with future leader Kim means the soccer manager’s “safety is in jeopardy,” according to RFA.

Fabio's job in jeopardy. Accused of 'betraying the shadowy young Richard the Lionheart...'

In recent months, North Korea has executed two top officials – one who oversaw a recent disastrous currency revaluation and another in charge of diplomatic talks with South Korea. Both were subjected to the same sort of accusations of treachery before they faced the firing squad.

Rumours abound that coach Kim has been expelled from the Worker’s Party and forced into the construction industry as a labourer.

Now surely that is going a little too far. I suppose Fabio could be lent a boiler suit...

Thursday 29 July 2010

Five days

I had been looking forward to Nick Robinson's television programme about the five days between the election and the formation of the new coalition government. Television is not good at perspective generally - it far prefers drama - but it is good at direct testimony, though even then much depends on editing and commentary. But then so do books. On TV the main actors get to speak even if only in sound bites. I think how fascinating it would be - and often is - to hear archive interviews with important political figures of the past, in fact anyone in the past.

I thought it was a good, properly edited attempt at a TV essay. We learned some new things and were confirmed in our beliefs about some old things. I am not sure the numbers game aspect of the whole was as fully developed as it might have been. I am not at all sure that Nick Clegg could have cut a working deal with Labour even after Gordon Brown's resignation. How would that have worked? On the other hand how does this coalition work? It is a huge risk for the LibDems and no real risk for the Tories.

If only Gordon Brown had gone earlier, at the first major challenge, and called a snap general election! A new Labour leader might have been defeated but would have stood a better chance than Brown did. It wasn't so much Labour that was voted down, I think - it was Brown. In any case, it would have been a new honourable start. If a new leader of the party were in place he (or she, though who?) would have had a party mandate and a relatively clean sheet. In the case of a hung parliament he could more easily have formed a natural coalition with the LibDem leader. Brown should have seen this and gone.

Too late. I hope Raith Rovers have a good season. For some reason I have always had a soft spot for them, as did my father.

Wednesday 28 July 2010

On the clerihew: language as comedy

Edmund Clerihew Bentley, the journalist and writer of detective stories invented the clerihew in his 1905 book, Biography for Beginners. What is the clerihew? This is what Wiki says about it:

The lines are comically irregular in length, and the rhymes, often contrived, are structured AABB. One of his best known is this (1905):

Sir Christopher Wren
Went to dine with some men
He said, "If anyone calls,
Say I'm designing Saint Paul's."

A clerihew has the following properties:

It is biographical and usually whimsical, showing the subject from an unusual point of view; it pokes fun at mostly famous people

It has four lines of irregular length (for comic effect); the third and fourth lines are usually longer than the first two

The rhyme structure is AABB; the subject matter and wording are often humorously contrived in order to achieve a rhyme

The first line consists solely (or almost solely) of the subject's name.

That seems a fair description though much depends on how you interpret 'comically irregular'. The term implies that you can have irregularity that is not comic; that one might even run to tragic irregularity. So what makes irregularity comic?

It is, I suspect, amusing in itself to rhyme simply on a person's name. It satisfies the child in us. It also assures us of an apparently childish but rather sophisticated pleasure in the accidents of language.

The chief accident of language is language itself. As has often been pointed out the word 'table' has nothing whatsoever to do with the object with four legs and a flat top off which you may choose to eat. Nothing intrinsically that is. It is, intrinsically, an accident. It is called other things in other languages, and we might choose to invent a language in which, say, the word 'bloof' indicated 'table'. From this perspective language is an enormous superstructure balanced precariously on thin air. The surprising thing is that it should remain so balanced when it has so far to fall. At the bottom of that fall it is, as the greatest English wordsmith put it: '...a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifiying nothing.'

Comedy is danger without damage. There is an old silent film in which two men begin a fight in the street. As they fight each other they move closer and closer to a cliff edge, at which point one hits the other and the man falls hundreds of feet to the bottom of the cliff. He hits the bottom.

On hitting the bottom he bounces up and shakes his fist in anger. (It is essentially the banana skin practical joke which stops being funny once the person falling starts to bleed.)

It certainly helps if the figure falling had some previous dignity. As G K Chesterton, the Catholic paradoxist, puts it somewhere, the fall of man on banana skin enacts the Fall of Man.

Your name is your dignity ('Won't you dignify it with a name?' asks the explorer's companion of the discoverer of a new plant). Dignity is name. But name too is accident. Ask Ed Balls.


So you have the dignity of the name and the comedy of the accidental rhyme. That's how you start. A rhyme is not only accident it is also contrivance (as language itself is contrivance, a contrivance of syntax and grammar). Having the second line unequal in length to the first increases the sense of contrivance. Look he has had to make the line longer / shorter to make it fit!

So we have accident and contrivance in the first two lines. But those lines are also a proposition that requires development. You only have four lines, so that leaves just two. The development could be in the form of antithesis, a kind of 'on the other hand' such as the last limerick below.

In the Bentley clerihew about Wren we get development. We have Sir Christopher at dinner in the second line. He has a servant to whom he leaves an instruction in the third line. He is, perhaps, too modern a servant for Sir Christopher judging by the language, so we are slightly off balance again. And then comes fourth line, which is both excuse and boast. It is also rhyme: a brief harmless accident waiting to happen.

The incident itself never happened of course. It has been contrived so that we can get to St Paul's by way of bathos.

I say 'contrived', but I don't really believe in contrivance as strategy. I believe in contrivance as accident, as improvisation, as a kind of sally or venture. In the case of the clerihew it is a very brief venture, a brief act of delicate teetering.


Delicacy is at the heart of it. Clerihew is soufflé not roly-poly. It is feather duster rather than wrecking ball. It is a delicate dance that looks clumsy but lands perfectly. A perfect epigram can behead a man, but a perfect clerihew will do no more than tickle him. The perfect epigram is built on firm metrical foundations. The perfect clerihew seems to be slipping all the time and only keeping itself upright by a sequence of extraneous movements - there is always something too long somewhere.

The clerihew needs to be attached to some idea of person, whether as biography, or as popular conception (public figures are as much popular conceptions as critical lives) and may make a passing remark on the person named in the first line. That remark may be pertinent in its way, but the clerihew is, ironically, not there to concern itself entirely with persons. It is useless as satire because what it really points at is not person but language.

The essential comedy is in language. The propositions of clerihew are ludicrous in just the right awkward proportions. There is no solemnity in clerihew. All solemnity can do in a clerihew is look ridiculous.


Over at Facebook, on a whim, I have been drip-feeding clerihews from a batch I made up a couple of years ago as silly gifts for friends. The response has been large. People have been responding with clerihews of their own, some brilliant, some clumsy, some perfect. Here's one I made earlier, as they say:

E.C. Bentley
tried to break it to them gently:
the sad fact is very few
can turn a clerihew.

It seems quite a few can and take delight in it.

I wouldn't want to be exclusively a writer of clerihews, not even chiefly or substantially. But language is delight and overflow and comedy as well as a deadly serious matter. Samuel Beckett understood this supremely well.

See this face? he says. It is a human face. See those lines of pain, suffering, horror, disappointment, cruelty, lust, envy and loss? They're really there. And that great big thing above his head there? That's the sky. Perfectly empty. Hear me saying this: 'perfectly empty'. Can you hear how comical that sounds? Have you heard the one about...? And about..? Heard the one about Sir Christopher Wren? Now turn the lights out and go to sleep. Give me your hand first. There, there. It's all right. A man walks into a bar and says to the barman:

James Joyce
had a very nice voice,
better than that racket
made by Samuel Beckett.

Shall I sing that to you?

Shall I sing that to you?



Reading tonight to a nice packed audience in Holt with Helen Ivory, Martin Figura and Jehane Markham - hence late back. Nice to meet Ira Lightman and wife Marie, whom I did not think to see there. Not having eaten, we had a late Indian meal in Holt ('holt' in Hungarian means 'dead', and I guess it was pretty quiet).

I read Dave Cameron has been doing a whirlwind crawl around the world's more profitable countries and going it large with Turkey. Growing economy, young work force, pally with Syria and Iran. Clearly people a third rate bankrupt power wants to be friends with.

I sense a new politics in the offing.

Monday 26 July 2010

Thundering on

I am so close to finishing Satantango. There are only some nine pages to go and I have been working hour after hour on it the last few days till my eyes are like saucers. Coming to the end of a translation is a hallucinatory feeling. Everything is rushing past you yet you seem to be creeping along at snail's pace, looking at the same word over and over again, trying to keep your focus.

As with all his books LK has some stylistic twists at the end. It is like leaving the story before you've really left it. I say story, but the story as plot seems to me beside the point as I translate. It is microcosm after microcosm. Someone lifts a spoon to their mouth. Another is trudging along a road. One person is turning over a memory that is no more than a fragment. Two figures appear in a room. There is laughter, then someone shouts. That's a poet thinking, not a novelist. But then Satantango is far from a straightforward novel.

I work for an hour or so, then stop for fifteen minutes, then return. It almost feels as though I were writing with him, but I am only going where he has already been.

I can't read other things when the work gets to this stage. I just want to flush out my mind for a while. Any old rubbish will do. I play electronic Scrabble. I put a clerihew up on Facebook then respond to those that come in in reply. Occasionally I dash off a new one by way of answer. It has to be done in under five minutes. I play with Lily, who has been strangely happy and affectionate today. It's partly the cat Prozac, partly keeping out of Pearl's way.

Now it's 9:45 and I think I have driven the translation as far as I can take it for tonight. I repeat: nine pages to go. In the meantime invitations from Hungary to add to the one from India. The diary is filling up and there are some scary weeks in it. Plus the Stephen Spender competition and the National. The Respond / Reply collaboration with the three artists goes on but I am not returning to it till LK is finished.

Wrote one song lyric to commission - to a tune. A car snores by outside. The Chinese restaurant is empty. (Earlier today I heard cymbals again in memory of the mother.) It's lovely and quiet.

Sunday 25 July 2010

Sunday Night is... Richard Strauss

One of the most beautiful songs ever composed, the first of Richard Strauss's The Four Last Songs, Frühling. This is Renee Fleming singing it. There are various versions of course - I particularly love the Jessye Norman - and there is always the beacon of Elizabeth Schwarzkopf. I am nowhere near connoisseur enough to make a sophisticated judgment, but it takes my breath away whoever is singing, and this version has a largeness and slowness that appeals.

Here is the link to the Schwarzkopf, where you also get the magical September - the second of the cycle - along with text and English translation. I think the Hesse text is pretty close to vapid but then I don't read German and in songs everything is in the simplicity and resonance of the language so I may be missing all that. However, seeing what Strauss makes of it, it fair sends the shivers down me. I'd happily go down with the Titanic as long as this is playing.

Saturday 24 July 2010

Late Saturday Night: My Friend Eric and Hurricane

The evening of conversation with Justin Partyka at Diss Corn Hall went fast and well and reasonably along the lines I was thinking about yesterday. JP had the structure of a number of photos to be screened. As it is late I can't sit down to write more than this, but I will YouTube the short film 'trailer' that Justin made with one of hs chief subjects, the now 100 year old Norfolk farmer, Eric.

Fascinating the relationship or tension between movie and still, what one does when placed next to the other. Barthes' idea of the photograph as memento mori is central of course, because at what other time of your life are you likely to be as still as you are in a photo? Clue: it is not a time in your life. But film moves as the dead no longer move. In the film they have animation, locomotion, voice, a narrative that is not fully articulated, that cannot quite become elegy.


And the Hurricane is dead. I remember a piece on snooker by Clive James in which he thinks of the snooker player, Alex 'Hurricane' Higgins, as the embodiment of neurotic sex-starved tension: driven, cramped, starved, puffing at a cigarette. So throat cancer has killed him. Here he is winning the world championship against Canadian Cliff Thorburn, the cool dude with the cool dude moustache, in 1977. The last, decisive frame. First the ritual lighting of the fags by both.

The seventies was the decade of the tense wiry genius: Higgins, Nastase, Cruyff. The whippets of God.

Friday 23 July 2010

The photographic picturesque

Tonight I am at Diss Corn Hall talking with the photographer Justin Partyka while his exhibition is on there. I wrote some catalogue notes for JP's exhibition at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Art, mostly poetic marginalia in prose. I'll end this post with a couple of paragraphs from it.

I think one of our themes is likely to be the tension between documentary and vision, between reportage and art, or, if you like between the object and its interpretation. It was the history painter Paul Delaroche who, on first seeing a Daguerrotype, is supposed to have exclaimed: From today painting is dead!

What of painting was dead? What in photography had displaced it? And what in photography simply adopted the aesthetic of painting? Another photographer, Robert Capa, said: If it's not good enough, you're not close enough in the context of war photography as dramatic documentary. Maybe that is the case with documentary but it is far from the case with photographic aesthetics generally.

The validity, authority and power of photography as evidence is well attested, but the nature of that evidence is far from clear, especially in the age of digital photography when the authority might well have disappeared, or go on to disappear, altogether. The evidential moment in film photography when the light simply passed through the lens and hit the sensitized surface may perhaps be considered as a given, but little before or after it was. In JP's case the tension between recording / memorialising a phenomenon - the lives of the poor small farmers of Norfolk - and articulating an agrarian vision or, as he puts it, 'telling a story' that is as much his story as the story of the farmers is particularly high. The melancholy of the photographs is undeniably picturesque in so far as we are as aware of them as composed pictures as of them as windows through which we see people going about their business.

Where does the picturesque stop? What is the ballast of documentary, evidential moments that a photograph needs to carry. How do we move from moment to some 'eternal, timeless truth'?

We'll explore a little of that.

To frame is to exclude. Outside of the frame there is only nakedness. Within the frame is the changing room, what Sir Walter Raleigh called in his poem ‘the tiring house’ where, he tells us, ‘we are dressed for this short comedy’. Tiring – attiring. The world is being dressed into meaning which may not be as permanent as a heaven but has a sense of permanence, a temporary-permanence if you like. So we frame and dress the world into meaning.

Whose meaning? you ask. Well, that depends on who is doing the asking.

Watch this light on that wall. See how it turns itself into association, into wall that is more than wall, into a kind of wall-thesaurus, such as wall, red, liver, carmine, blood, rose, kiss, blossom, loss, the terrible ache of a red that wants out, that wants to be elsewhere, like a song sinking back into the world that produced it… dot dot dot…the image as an almost endless sequence of blind fields through which we feel our way. Here is a watering can, here a hen. Can sings to hen, hen sings back. They are singing in close harmony: they rhyme. Above them towers an ominous-looking concrete table. Who says it is ominous? Not the can. Not the hen. No, but the ominousness is an aspect of its necessity. Look. See? It’s ominous.

Two out of eight such passages. The photograph referred to in the text is not the photograph you see at the top of this post. You'll have to imagine the hen, the can and the ominousness.

Thursday 22 July 2010

Two Sonnet Sequences on Love

Two Sonnet Sequences on Love: 1. Chalk White: The Moon in the Pool, from Portrait of my Father in an English Landscape (1998); 2. Romantic Love, from Reel, 2004, both in New and Collected Poems, 2008.

The experience, idea, history and language of love eventually became subjects for me. Why? Because, on the personal level, one can't help considering the shape of one's life and the way it has got to be that shape and, on the impersonal level, a great deal has been written and continues to be written about love. It is distinctly a subject that demands consideration, perhaps the most heady of subjects. Hugo Williams' life has been dedicated to one aspect, the one shared with Robert Graves. Love as the Muse. Me? I wanted to understand and praise a love that is also a lifelong commitment.

What kind of love are we considering: desire? the love that leads to a long term relationship? to marriage? to steadfast passionate friendship? to Platonic love? to religious love, that which is referred to as caritas rather than eros?

Romantic love particularly had come under examination and, to some degree, suspicion by the feminist movement of the Seventies. Romantic Love derives from Courtly Love, as a form of adventure, a kind of story. In places where marriages are arranged - and it might be useful to recall that through most of history marriages were arrangements - there is no articulate place for it. ('Marry each other, you will learn to love each other'). Courtly Love, however, is a complex narrative code developed under the conditions of the Crusades in which the woman becomes a fixed object of adulation but, in becoming fixed, her options are strictly limited. Once she has been wooed and conquered the adulation goes out of the window. There is no story to cover that part of life except by the circuitous route of adultery.

In any case, how does the sheer animal instinct of lust, combined with procreation, nurturing and survival, become the more eloquent, aspirational concept of desire? 'Our eyes met and from that moment we knew we were intended for each other!' 'I think I have met Mr Right!' 'She is the only one for me!'

'I'll love you dear, I'll love you / Till China and Africa meet / And the river jumps over the mountain / And the salmon sing in the street' wrote Auden in As I Walked Out One Evening, a wonderful farcical parody of the rituals and vows of love.

I remember reading in the Maxims of François de Le Rochefoucauld a sentence that said something like: Who would ever fall in love did they not know the discourse of love?

I had been in love (often, but only once for keeps) and continued to love. What was the condition? What could truthfully be said or sung about it?

These two sequences are far from all I wrote out of this experience and I might record one or two more in due course.


As the title suggests, Chalk White: The Moon in the Pool was one of the series of colour sonnets but coincided with the memory of waking one night and feeling what the poem describes. But the poem soon begins to question everything.

The first sonnet begins with classical symbols - columns, moons, flowers, breath, flesh. Its images are primarily erotic. Then, at the end of the sonnet the voice of the light that slides over the partner begins to speak.

In the second, the moon (the source of the light after all) is joined by the other symbols. They all address the body in the bed. There is some surprise that they should speak at all. Symbols are not quite human. The fact is there are no symbols present. There are no columns in the real room, no moon, only language referring to these things. Symbol and language address each other. They are both vacancies in one respect and packed with meaning on the other. The school room (our childhood in other words) appears where we first learned about the manners and ways of love, the discourse that Rochefoucauld talks about.

The third sonnet wants to come back to reality, but as it does so it immediately shifts back to metaphor and symbol. The partner is beautiful to the eyes, and immediately the word 'beautiful' arises like some delicate container whose contents must not be spilt. Now we cannot tell the moon from 'the moon' or indeed from plain moonshine. Nevertheless it feels as though it really is there in all its aspects.

The last sonnet tries again. It says it wants to get to a more naked level of reality, to a sense of meaning not created by the speaker, a meaning that perhaps language 'broadly understands'. The 'you' of the poem is imagined active with full autonomy, but in order to do so it must emerge from 'the white noise of the mirror', There is no moon now, but the moon in the pool remains - 'and soon it is gone'.

Put like this it seems like a set of structured ideas. It is far from that. It is simply a matter of feeling around in the dark for something that might be said honestly and out of love. The sonnet structure is what supports it. At least you know the shape of the room that way.


Romantic Love has the same theme but is composed of more disparate elements. In the first sonnet there is a train journey with a sense of unease. Two lovers appear, ask each other about their previous lovers, then vanish. Time gobbles them up. The second sonnet is the same train journey and reports an actual overheard conversation, not verbatim, but as best as I could remember it afterwards. The story of the two friends, one of whom steals the other's lover, that leads one of the friends to contemplate suicide, though he is finally talked down by the other friend and then the two go out to a lap-dancing club where they get drunk, seemed to me beautiful and funny and revealing about the flimsy but sharp edge of romantic love. The girls' conversation then fades into the noise of the ordinary unremarkable world. Their eyes dazzle like the brilliant wings of flies - a troubling image but one I will hold to, if only because: As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods - they kill us for their sport.

The rape incident of the third sonnet is the memory of a story told to me some years ago by a female student who had gone to one of the Budapest baths wearing make-up and found herself surrounded by older men. She was not raped but she felt she might be. Clearly there were confused messages. That then led to the great and, in some ways, comical contrast of language, where the the same acts are addressed quite differently. Is it in fact the same act then? The 'superior' people who point out such linguistic violence are quite capable of committing such violence themselves. On the one hand the hard no-nonsense assault: on the other the more behovely vocabulary of courtship and seduction.

The last is a memory of schooldays romance - the intensity and urgency of it, and how, when such intensity is maintained, the imagination moves naturally to myth, here the example of Orpheus and Eurydice. Music, burial, resurrection. Adolescent passion is real but fully romanticised. It is perfectly willing to undertake heroic sacrifices - or so it thinks. 'First love' offers perhaps the richest and bloodiest vein of romance. Everyone gets hurt. Everyone is bloodied. And blooded. The flies image of the second sonnet is here replaced by the idea of the dazzled moth on its 'flight path of desire'.

Wednesday 21 July 2010

Lily and Pearl - the Feline Prozac Nation

Lily on the table, Pearl underneath (Pic by C)

The two cats drive each other in opposite directions.

Pearl has a slow, slightly rolling gait, a cross between Mae West and John Wayne. She is an intelligent being who learns fast and masters circumstance. She takes no fright and demands her food, space and comforts. She is also considerably hungry at all times but is under vet's orders not to grow obese. No eight course main dish for her. She comes for food prompt on her hour, in fact prompter. She has the Autolycus trick of snapping up unconsidered trifles. I have substantial confidence in her ability to survive and bend the world to her approximate, momentary and developing will. In the mornings she leaps into the empty bath and waits for the tap to be turned on for water. She wants it all on tap. Daytime she is either stretched out on the bed, rolling over on her back when we enter or call her name, or she is outside eyeing the birds. A singular rat was reported to us by E, our back garden neighbour, and Pearl got on the case for a while, even picking up the trail, then sloping off before the rat could actually be spotted. Big rat, says E. Big as Pearl. I doubt it.

Lily is smaller, very delicate, the most nervous, most easily frightened cat we have ever had. If Pearl is alpha female, then Lily is omega, omega double minus. Lily too loves the bath tap but she takes her turn, listening out for any sudden movement, any faint bump that might bring on the horrors. Lily is scarcely to be seen at any time. She doesn't like to be touched, only on her own strict terms and even then on only two spots of her body: her neck-ear region, and the end of her back that she presses up when you scratch it. There is une très petite putain there who cannot quite help the instinct but will firmly resist the thought. She likes it if you call her name and look at her. Then she'll wander agitatedly here and there, rubbing her nose against any available object. A shoe will do. Your hand too for a moment but she won't settle there. Affection breeds an ecstatic restlessness in her, but there is no desire for maintained contact.

The relationship between the two is domineering and, at times, edgy. Lily will want to play at times but Pearl is not interested. She tolerates Lily for one or two sallies then loses her patience. It is when the tension is at its height that Lily disappears almost entirely.

There is a cat Prozac solution we order on the net. It is a facial pheromone that settles whatever chemicals they are releasing, chemicals we don't notice, but which mean a whole lexicon to them. I don't say they get blissed out, just that they seem to relax a little more and go with the flow. Lily ventures closer to Pearl, makes more guest appearances in my study or the book room, and might even take her life in her hands and go out into our tiny yard. Pearl keeps her patience a little longer before setting out on another Mae West / John Wayne patrol. Lily is the product of a feral cat and seems to embody Philip Larkin's observation regarding your mum and dad. I'm sure Lily's mother didn't mean to but she did. Nor will Lily have any kids herself. I am in any case convinced that she was fathered not by a cat but by a mouse.

Lily submitting to Pearl, half play, half terror, Pearl hardly noticing (C's pic again)

Tuesday 20 July 2010

Monday 19 July 2010

Ethical retranslation

Sometimes a question that seems to involve an ethical issue turns out to be pragmatic, sometimes vice versa. This evening I was chairing a discussion session at the British Centre for Literary Translation under the heading 'The Life of the Translator'. It was an impressive panel including Nicky Harman who translates from Chinese, Adriana Hunter who translates from French; Lyn Marven (from German), Anne McLean (from Spanish), Margaret Mitsutani (from Japanese), and Giuliana Schiavi (into Italian).

Some of the discussion was personal (how did you get into translation?), some practical (how do translations get published? how do you make a living? how competitive is it?), some technical (how do you go about it when, say, collaborating with someone else?). All good wise entertaining answers.

There was one that was slightly different but just as much to the point. When asked how she got into translating, Anne said it was partly through reading what seemed to her a bad translation of a marvellous book. She wanted to re-translate it.

So was she able to re-translate it? Can we have books re-translated? Is it right to do so?

The pragmatic answer is that it is always difficult to to get the copyright and persuade a new publisher to publish something that has already appeared in the language via another publisher relatively recently, in other words in the sales cycle of the book.

The less pragmatic answer has an ethical dimension that can cut both ways. It may, on the one hand, be morally desirable to replace bad work with good, but it may not, on the other hand, be morally desirable for a newcomer to push aside a firstcomer, especially when opinions about quality may vary.

Here's an example. Imre Kertész's Sorstalanság was first translated into English by a couple in America under the title Fateless, but when Kertész won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2002, a different publisher bought out the rights to all his work, and had the book retranslated as Fatelessness. The Nobel Prize was clearly an incentive, along with some readers' views that the original translation wasn't good enough (I didn't think it was bad myself, but the new one is certainly better.)

It may be that, in some ways, the practical question here undercuts the moral one. The reason another translation had been commissioned was that Kertész had received the Nobel (presumably primarily for the translation of his books - and above all, this book - into German) not because some faults had been detected in the first version but because a new version was necessary for business.

In the discussion there remained - or so I thought - a slight feeling that re-translation on the whole was ethically dubious, perhaps a form of trespass.

The issue affects fiction far more than it does poetry. In poetry it may be accepted (I accept it!) that there will be various translations of particular poems, and that multiple translation is to be welcomed. It is hermeneutically good in that it recognizes the possibility of different interpretations, but also ethically good because it forces us to recognise that good faith in translation is not a matter of substituting equivalents but of engaging in a dynamic, shifting activity that reflects the very nature of language. A good translation of a poem re-enacts the process of composition with constant reference to an original. It never becomes a copy of the original, but, with luck, it creates a process of both writing and reading that is comparable. The fact that it looks formally like the original is not an aspect of external imitation, but of undergoing a similar process.

Fiction however is property. It is contractually protected, and publishers of fiction certainly hope to make money from it. It also takes, in terms of length, more time to translate and might be represented in terms of office hours or piece work. The novel has literary value of course in that it engages the emotions, the intellect and so on - a great novel is a great novel, a great translation is a great translation irrespective of commercial success. Nevertheless there is hope of commercial success, and hope also of making a living by translating novels. In these terms, re-translating might be seen as depriving someone of an income.

I make part of a living by translating fiction. I would make no living at all translating only poetry. But I don't want to make an artificial virtue out of necessity. Poverty does not equal purity. It simply removes some of the pressures acting on fiction. So whatever virtue there is in the multiple translation of poetry is circumstantial in material terms. Circumstantial virtue is not fully virtue.

These ideas are not thought through. This is only a blog post in which I wanted to think about the slippery ghost of morality as it slips between forms and ideas.

Sunday 18 July 2010

Sunday night is.... Simply the Best

Tina Turner in 1994. By request for Gwilym (Poet in Residence elsewhere but often in welcome visitation here) and his devotion to Blackburn Rovers. Appropriately enough, 1994 was the beginning of the big year when Blackburn won the Premier League. There haven't been too many of those years, not at least since 1913-14.

There is something about Tina's movement that is almost genderless. She takes possession of the stage and romps on it in an ecstatic strop. I can't believe she has ever been graceful in her life, but she gives space hell.


At the column on the right you might note, near the bottom, new direct links to Amazon for some of my recent books and associated. I was persuaded this was a good idea, and it might well be. You buy a book through the link and I make about 30p. It is clearly a quick way to making a fortune.

There is also another new link under Writers' Websites. It is Touchy Poem and belongs to Aniket Kaushal from India who puts up old English language poems. There are a number of poems by Ella Wheeler Wilcox there now.

Saturday 17 July 2010

Audio: Four middle period love poems

These are all short, and all from the same book, Short Wave (1984), now to be found in New and Collected Poems (Bloodaxe, 2008).

The schizophrenic in Against Dullness is a memory of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (a wonderful trailer, this), where the chair in Norman Bates's cellar spins round and we see the skeleton of the mother. There is a sense of horror haunting this, not just of external dangers but also of sheer habit, that 'dull, provincial sense'. The figure has just come in soaked by rain and is sitting in a revolving chair. As often, there is an apprehension that it is precisely fear that is at the back of love - the fear of loss, either through fate, or through habitude. No mortality: no love.

A Girl Sewing is also from observation. Here the figure threatens to become a universal, an imagined girl who might be a rival to the real specific one. I think I had some Dutch painting hovering at the back of my mind, possibly Vermeer, but maybe someone like Gabriel Metsu. This is just a faint memory of the circumstances.

Brief Sunlight is startled into being by the sheer fierceness of things. All those natural powers billowing in, taking over. Somewhere in there is an image that had come to me before, of a nuclear explosion, the Peter Watkins film. The explosion comes when we are in bed or in a shed of some sort

In Early Rising it is the sound of the early blackbird with her 'sculptured fioratura' that sets the poem off. It's the Keats nightingale moment. but then you realise the blackbird too is mortal. That is a winding sheet in the first verse: we're half dead, half alive, utterly distanced from ourselves.

Friday 16 July 2010

Ultimate football book

Received this morning, nicely inscribed by good friend and contributor, Edward Winters, a substantial 408 page book titled Soccer and Philosophy: Beautiful Thoughts on the Beautiful Game, edited by Ted Richards. It has David Beckham (looking a little, I dare say, like Joe Cole) playing keepy-uppy with his head on the front and chapters headed:

Nietzsche's Arsenal
Can Robots Play Soccer?
The Hand of God and Other Soccer...Miracles
What's Wrong with Negative Soccer?
He Had to Bring Him Down
Why Playing Beautifully Is Morally Better
Is It Rational To Support Aston Villa
Kierkegaard at the Penalty Spot
The Loneliness of the Referee
The Player Prophet and the Phenomenology of Reading the Ref
and Ed's own: How to Appreciate the Fingertip Save

All this among others no doubt equally as wonderful. I look forward to reading Hungary's Revolutionary Golden Team. Pretty old gold by now, alas.

Now tell me football is not serious! Mind you Arsenal were more a Bentham kind of team in the years before Wenger. Can robots play soccer? Peter Crouch does.

All we need now is The Philosophy of the Terraces: a Grimsby Town Reader.

Thursday 15 July 2010

Recreational virtual grief

I heard the term for the first time today on radio with reference to the Raoul Moat Facebook page. (I'm not linking to it but I've seen it and it is natural BNP territory, which is in itself interesting.)

What a perfect formulation of what theorists of a certain persuasion describe as 'the post-modern condition'. Certainly it has never been uncommon to pour unarticulated personal feeling into a proxy of some sort. A residue of fury or frustration or depression has built up in us for some reason and we transfer the weight and power of it onto an object that might serve as focus or container. It is the viral communality of the experience that is fascinating.

The first startling example of this I personally recall is the funeral of Princess Diana where the intensity of feeling seemed to me grotesquely to outweigh its object. It was, I felt, a turning point in British society in that it was uncharacteristically hysterical, overt, larded with cheap little symbols, the very opposite of 'the Dunkirk spirit' or 'the spirit of the Blitz'. I don't mean the emotion itself was cheap but that its blinding glitter had passed through the magnifying lens of an acute communal sentimentality. It was, I was sure, a displaced emotion. Diana herself was as much a symbol as the symbols offered in her remembrance, and in much the same way. Something else was going on here.

When Stalin died the world stopped and women wept in their millions. When Valentino died several women allegedly committed suicide. Feminism has properly questioned the idea of hysteria in women, the word itself deriving for the Greek for womb, but one way or other an excess of overt emotion has been associated with femininity. Men were expected to restrain their emotions: women were expected to give way to theirs.

Perhaps the display of emotion at the funeral of Princess Diana in 1997 was evidence of the often argued feminisation of society. Soon enough - the next year in fact - David Beckham, the model of metrosexuality, would be wearing a sarong. Footballers wept buckets. Weeping by men was permitted, even approved, and men blossomed in tears.

The interesting term in recreational virtual grief is, however, not virtual but recreational. The transference of suppressed emotion to other objects is a basic human characteristic whose patterns were clear long before post-modernism raised its head. The virtual has always been there. Being 'there' is its very purpose.

But recreational? The word' recreation' is generally defined as:

refreshment by means of some pastime, agreeable exercise, or the like.
a pastime, diversion, exercise, or other resource affording relaxation and enjoyment.

Refreshment, relaxation, pastime, an agreeable exercise - like golf for some, or train-spotting, or flower-arranging, the suggestion is that recreation is a product of leisure. We have some leisure time, so why not let our hair down and get ourselves into a proper frenzy about... about what? Why, whatever most addresses our condition, which is one of guilt, hopelessness, helplessness, uselessness and inarticulacy combined. Time for some me time, but me doesn't know what to do with itself. So it creates its own avatar of fury and frustration, and that avatar, for some, for now, is Raoul Moat. Never mind that he shot those people. Shooting is the fury part - the justified fury part. And Raoul Moat is, in virtual terms, immediately available.

And interestingly most of the commentators on the Facebook site are men, not women. Some energy is bleeding (I use the term advisedly) across the gender line.

It is the sad mad music of humanity we can hear playing under this. Like the pro-wrestling matches where the crowd shift from fury to tenderness and back again at the drop of a virtual hat, recreational virtual grief is a kind of dangerous tenderness verging on fury. And yes, it's cheap, cheap as life, expensive as despair and guilt.

As for 'recreational rioting' see the BBC site here. What recreational people we are!

Wednesday 14 July 2010

Prague, a photograph


It's the day of our anniversary. We drop into an empty courtyard on the way up to Hradcany where there is a little cafe. They serve ice-coffee and bottles of cold water. We do the obligatory, and take photos of each other. Click. Click. There we are. There she is. It is all perfectly normal and yet the most astonishing thing. You press a button and the image appears. The brilliant light of the street immediately comes back. The weight of the bag. The steady procession of pilgrim-tourists heading up and down. The thought of crossing the bridge back in the billowing heat.


The capacity for remembering or forgetting varies. It was blazing sunlight on the day we got married at Swan Road Baptist Church. Photographs show C's father, the minister of the church, in dark glasses. My mother sways in a black dress. In another photo a little girl is trying to lift C's dress to find out where the baby is. There isn't one yet. The reception, like everything else, is simple. C changes out of her wedding dress into her honeymoon dress, long, slender, floating greens and blues, and a car takes us to a railway station. Which one? I can't remember. Then we travel by train from Euston to Crewe where I get out to buy a drink and on my return find the train beginning to move off. The doors did not automatically lock then so I open one and leap on. Then it is night at Liverpool Lime Street. The Adelphi is round the corner. Our first night has been bought for us by the landlord of my digs. We have little or no money so skip breakfast and board the Isle of Man Steam Packet Company ferry. The crossing is long and the sea is rough. We really should have eaten. We survive.

That makes a story but it doesn't make moments. The moments are in the photographs, trapped there with their light, gathering the story to points that lack clear meaning, that never had clear meaning, except for the fact that we were there. It is the being there that is recorded. The meaning is in the being recorded.


You haven't changed, says C. When I look at you as you lie in bed you look exactly the same, she says. What is the exactly that she means? Because I clearly have changed. Time changes one. Change is the meaning of time. I think I have a clearer sense of myself as a finite being now than when I was twenty-one, when death was primarily a dramatic concept, even when it did actually occur, as it was to do to my mother five years after. Concepts, thoughts, imagination. Now death is just the perfectly ordinary completion of a process. Because if time is change it is also death. It is the way things seem to be ordered. Knowing that makes life infinitely more valuable and, at the same time, perfectly disposable. The last time I was in London I brought back my father's ashes. We consider what to do with them. My brother and I consider what to do with them. They are only ashes.


But there she is, and it is a good photograph, in that it is a pleasing photograph. C doesn't look her age in any case, but here she looks even younger. There is no particular age attached to this photo. To be perfectly honest I have always preferred women to girls, loving the sense of time hovering about the soul. I like the beginning of autumn better than I love late spring or high summer. Maybe it is my own sense of being that determines this. I think I have been early autumn ever since I was eighteen. Spring and summer were never quite my style. They were OK, really they were OK, but my soul, if I have one, is an autumn creature. An autumn creature that runs around like a child but knows itself autumnal. I don't think C is autumnal. I think she is springlike, tough as early spring. Neither of us is wintry or summery. Nor is it spring for either of us.

But here we are, it is summer, and we are married. This is the courtyard. There is a table beside C to her left, and the entrance to the courtyard is to her right. It is much quieter in the courtyard than in the street of course. And the light is good here, a less blinding, less harsh light. It holds us and floods the camera in a mannerly kind of way. So there we are flooded into an image. There she is anyway. Me, I'm in the other picture, with dark glasses, or rather clip-on dark glasses over my specs. I look like an actor whose name you can't remember but who was in a film in which... what was its name now? The moment's gone. But this is C in that moment.

Tuesday 13 July 2010

Decoration as work

A touch here of Linda Grant who argued on her website that you cannot have depths without surfaces. Patricia Hampl in Blue Arabesque argues something very similar. Here is one of her key passages on Matisse:

I felt the deep taproot of the decorative instinct in Matisse as I could not in Picasso. Yes, the deep root of decoration, for the surface of decoration gives way, for those who live close to its truth, to the labor and the pride in labor that Matisse knew in the Bohain textile mills and that my father and the old Austrian growers knew at the greenhouse, their backs humped over from lifting flats of petunias, their hands cracked from tamping down the dirt around a seedling's squiggle of white root, They were the ones with real taste, my father always insisted. They could judge...

Matisse subscribed to the old democratic weavers' definition of the decorative arts as "something more precious that wealth, within everyone's reach." The poor in spirit could hope to inherit, if not the earth, then at least a length of paradise in a bright factory-made cloth...

and, a page earlier:

Only one who had seen the unforgiving circumstances of industrial labor could understand that the odalisque does not loll on her divan as an erotic opportunity but is even more deeply sensual, an image of pure leisure, that commodity most cruelly denied the poor of the earth.

This is a very attractive line of argument and I am tempted to partly believe it. The world of Matisse's sumptuous odalisques is certainly more than pretty or seductive, though it is that too. And certainly it meant more than a decorative pattern like a fine wallpaper or carpet to Matisse. The fine wallpaper and carpet are parts of a coherent vision, in which the woman does not become merely an extension of the wallpaper or carpet. Wallpaper, carpet, woman, outfit, divan all belong together in Matisse's vision of luxe, calme et volupté.

And yes, that part about the voluptuousness of pure leisure being only fully appreciated by the poor of the world is likely to be true, it is just that we know that these were precisely the luxuries they were least likely to be in a position to enjoy and that Matisse's description of these luxuries was way beyond their means. Nor do we feel that the writer of this sumptuous prose is ever like to have been in a position where the experience of the poor of the earth was any more than imagined.

These thoughts come on return from Prague where we were able to live an extremely brief and very humble version of luxe, calme et volupté. The freedom to lie in bed in the afternoon in the heat of the day was a stolen pleasure and therefore sweeter. We could be odalisques for the afternoon hours if we so chose. Stolen pleasures, I say because both C and I are of the doing rather than being temperament. There were no silken girls bringing us sherbet, just waiters bringing roast duck. The whole of old Prague seemed to have devoted itself to the single object of making servants or served out of everyone.

What is the function of pleasure? Sheer hedonistic pleasure, I mean? Is it, after all, simply leisure with a better class of appurtenances?

We dropped some twenty degrees arriving in England. The hedonistic pleasures of England? Decent cups of tea. And maybe this:

The hot water at ten.
And if it rains, a closed car at four.
And we shall play a game of chess,
Pressing lidless eyes and waiting for a knock upon the door.

Pleasure fading off to ennui or tightening to neurosis. The violet hour and what follows.

Myth-match for the understrappers

One last - I promise - glance back at the World Cup, if only because I have read some of the press since, particularly the press on the English referee, Howard Webb.

It seems both the Dutch team and the Spanish team are angry at him for being too soft on the other side. The Dutch were awful and were lucky to be left with ten men on the pitch instead of eight. That is what the Spanish regret.

What the Dutch regret is that Iniesta, the best Spanish player on the night, might well have been sent off for retaliation, and the referee might possibly have awarded the Dutch a dubious penalty, not to mention the Dutch corner that was not given just before the Spanish - thank heaven - scored.

Seeing that both sides accuse Webb of bias towards the other I think we can treat his performance as even-handed.


Oh yes, and Webb was (have I mentioned this?) English. The Guardian reporter got his retaliation in before anyone even ventured near displays of vainglorious national pride, not that anyone did because The English press was not in the mood for whooping it up.

But why let that get in the way? The minute-by-minute reporter galloped on with happy self-satisfaction, showering Webb with ironic epithets from the start. A Guardian man must keep flashing his credentials otherwise people might think he was entirely the wrong sort...

There is little more loathsome in life than the flashing of credentials. In literary terms it is what Larkin called 'the talk of literary understrappers letting you see they know the right people.' He was talking - wrong-headedly I think - about what he termed the 'myth-kitty' that is, the use of Classical allusion and the quoting of other poems.

The football writer's myth-kitty is a lot less interesting than the one Larkin was dismissing, of course, but it does exist in a number of varieties not altogether detached from life outside football. Outside of the 'tabs', The Guardian is the place to go for it. It is the home of perfectly-pitched understrapping: the author of this particular minute-by-minute piece is the understrapper of understrappers.


Webb made one mistake that I saw: the corner. Otherwise he tried the best he could to keep the occasion going by not sending people off, especially since some of the most violent incidents happened early in the game. At this he was successful. The occasion did keep going. As for the spectacle, that never got started. Whether he was English or not Webb was perfectly competent.

And the Dutch, of course, have no right to complain about anything. Complaining compounds the disgraceful thuggishness and negativity of their display. It was definitely not like watching Brazil. Especially since they beat Brazil to get to the final.

Monday 12 July 2010

On not going to see the famous...

The tourist -that notoriously debased, denigrate bourgeois type - how easy to forget that simply being elsewhere is the homely version of the transcendence sought by artists. The sheer vacancy of tourism, hanging out, no job, free to sniff around, poking into a museum in the morning, long lunch eating something weird and delicious - friture d'anchois, glass of white wine, humbled by a phrase book... the great consuming white mouth open and munching...

Yet under the banging templates of exploitation and consumption, the magma of human desire keeps bubbling.

- Patricia Hampl, Blue Arabesque: A Search for the Sublime, p.36

Pilgrimage tourism is a phrase that turns up somewhere in Patricia Hampl's rather beautiful book, Blue Arabesque, about Matisse - or chiefly Matisse among other themes.

By pilgrimage here she doesn't mean traditional pilgrimage, or not precisely that, but the idea of visiting and seeing things as an obligation.

If you are in Krakow / Prague / Budapest / Tirana / Barnsley you absolutely must see x or y or some other letter of the alphabet. If you don't you have not only missed out but have shirked your duty.

The idea of seeing things as an obligation, a virtue, a duty even, lies close to the heart of tourism. This thought struck home particularly when, having walking up a long steep slope in the searing heat towards Hradcany Castle and St Vitus Cathedral, we noticed a queue for the cathedral that was already long enough to round the corner with still some thirty-five minutes before the opening. So we stopped at the restaurant for lunch. At another table were a group of Italians and pretty soon after a party of some thirty Japanese turned up.

Having finished lunch we looked to join the queue, but by now the queue was enormous and not moving. This part was in the shade, but others were in the searing light, the elderly, the young, the infirm, the lovers, the families, the scholarly and the merely swept along. We studied them with some circumspection for four or five minutes then shrugged and went away. But it was hard leaving as dense masses of people were pouring in all determined to wait for hours if need be in order to enter the cathedral. A crowd poured over the Charles Bridge, so many, I had not thought death had undone, or was about to undo, so many.

It was admirable really. So many prepared to risk sunstroke, exhaustion and the sheer hell of large crowds to see something they must have been absolutely burning to see, the magma of human desire visibly bubbling over. We were the unadmirable ones, foregoing the fulfilment of that desire, letting our magma quietly bubble back under.

But what is the desire? What is it for? To go there? To be there? To having been there? To remember, however vaguely, having been there? To tell others of having been there? To allay guilt? To justify conspicuous consumption through suffering?

We had made a resolution the first day. These few days were for pleasure, not work. There was nothing we had to achieve, nothing we had under no circumstances not to miss. If we wanted to sleep we would sleep. If we wanted to walk we would walk. Frankly, after all the years there are very few experiences that I would say had shaken me to the core. The first Cézanne. The first Giotto. The first Piero. The first view from Assisi. The first venture into Old Delhi. The first return to Budapest...

One lives a great deal in the imagination. One imagines a conscience in respects such as this. But if one can imagine a conscience one can quite as easily imagine being without it. What all the first experiences had in common was that they were unexpected, utterly unimagined. They were not the result of having read everything then ticked off the various expected features one by one with a certain satisfaction. We weren't there to check that every aspect of the aura was as had been reported. The experiences arrived naked and found us naked. They changed life.

Prague is beautiful but not naked. It has dressed itself as 'Prague'; become a cage bird in a wonderful cage of its own design. Worth seeing? Yes. Worth going to see? Yes. The birds are in their cages, richly feathered and singing. Why would you not go there?

I think of St Vitus Cathedral besieged by thousands in the furious heat, allowed in in groups of thirty or forty at a time. Acres and acres of human bodies. After such knowledge what forgiveness?

It's Sunday and very late night so close your eyes.

The blessed Dudley with the marvellously smoky-voiced Marian Montgomery. So close them.

Sunday 11 July 2010

Late Night Final

Well, it was a match that gradually improved as it went along until it finally attained mediocrity. By the end I didn't care who won providing the Netherlands lost. Spain tried and failed to play much football, the Dutch generally tried and succeeded at assault. Why Mark Van Bommel plays football rather than kick boxing is a mystery to me, as is the question why he stayed on the pitch in this game and in every other game he has played in the World Cup.

Of course the Dutch should have had a corner just before Spain broke away and scored so the general tenor of dissatisfaction was fully maintained. Howard Webb has given out twenty-eight yellow cards and made the best conspicuous mistake of the knock-out stages. England's reputation for competence was thereby upheld. In fact, to tell the truth, I was inwardly chanting, 'It's just like watching England' in the middle of the first half. See, we could have been there.

In my special capacity as God of the Alternative Universe, I have awarded the cup to Uruguay with Spain and Germany equal second. I have relegated the Netherlands to another planet altogether. There they are doomed to play England every Saturday for the next two years

Here endeth today's lesson. Now for a stiff drink for the fortieth. Other reflections tomorrow.

Intercession on a fortieth anniversary


Since it is our fortieth anniversary, here are forty lines...


Creatures of the excited imagination,
Lovers dream themselves into being,
Arriving at places they themselves invented,
Ready for whatever consummation
Involvement demands of them. Self-centred,
Selfless, they are the great unseeing,
So they move from desire to act,
Action being the desired fact.

Under the skin their hearts beat on
Precisely as before but somehow frailer.
Cramped inside a ribcage all too tight,
Heavy and buoyant at once, undone,
Unbalanced, drawn deeply to the night,
Rocked in the arms of hope and failure,
Calling each other’s names as if calling
Home from a height, on the point of falling.

Give them the years. Give them each other. Let
Everything be done for their delight.
Offer them gifts of chocolate and praise.
Regard them as something peculiarly apposite.
Get real for them. Admire their swelling days.
Extend below them a proper safety net.

Stay them and save them. Let them not be absolute
Zero when temperatures fall. Let them remain warm
In the Ice Age of the world. When fires
Roast the planet let them preserve their form.
Though branches are lopped let them nibble at the root,
Existing not entirely on their desires,
Sustaining life however the body tires.

In the calendar and in their chromosomes,
Nest them down with children to note their aging.
Tethered to their lives like sheep or goats,
Employed about survival, let them run
Rings around fortune as it goes on its way raging.
Turn from them terror and tragedy, hot moon, cold sun,
Wild gales that break the glass in broken homes,
Ill winds that blow from plague lands or from wars.
Nurture them. Let them avoid whatever the world promotes.
Ease them through mortality with its list of chores.
Dare love to sustain them. Guide them to love’s shores.

A description and an intercession.

Baroque: bling and blinger

Yesterday a walk over the Charles Bridge into the Mala Strana, about which I had read years before in Jan Neruda's Prague Tales, though that was back in the days when it was published by Quartet (for whom, as well as for Corvina, I translated Dezső Kosztolányi's Anna Édes (that's my cover drawing on the front, and the whole, or much of it is readable online at Google, including the introduction).

It feels like a very long, very hot walk across the bridge in the blazing sun of 10:00 am Prague and as we are walking up the Mostecka or Bridge Street, there is a cafe in the arcade selling iced coffee. Because C's knee hurts - she had twisted it on the second day here probably because of the undulating, unpredictable road surfaces - we sit down. The other arcade tables are taken mostly by young people in their twenties or so, Czechs, one of them particularly loud. There are as many girls as men, and the girls wear bling, quite a lot of it. They are sexy young things in the full flower of their sexiness. One beautiful dark haired girl sits separately, a little sulkily, at the table next to ours with a handsome young man. Her gold chain hangs almost down to bottom of ribcage level. Since no-one comes out I go in and order the coffees, which are served with a smile. A red Ferrari is attempting what looks like a complex maneouvre in the street, possibly an incompetent three-point turn. In the end it parks in a bay next to another expensive car. We drink the coffees. The conversation among the young goes on. One blonde, looking rather like Paris Hilton, is wearing more bling. Cheap tartiness, I think. Central Europe's own inimitable vulgarity. Nouveaux and nouvelles riches.

Yes, but how rich? As we finish and rise we see a whole line of Porsches and Ferraris and BMWs parked next to them. Nouveaux and nouvelles ultra-riches? Something about the look of the porn-rich, I think, and then it strikes me that it is probably precisely that. The bling isn't cheap. It's proper gold. And those cheap looking dresses are probably very expensive cheap-looking dresses. The gloss of the girls is porn gloss, the hearty self-confident laughter of the men is Let's give the suckers what they want, the full bling laughter.


Right across the street is the grand church of St Nicholas, Chrám Sv. Mikuláše na Malé Stranê, which is, as the pamphlet guide has it, 'one of the most sought after Prague churches'. Well, we have sought it and found it. Outside it is just grand, but inside, to quote the pamphlet again, the grandeur is emphasised 'with the aid of illusive frescos and sophisticated games played by light and its shadows', in language so delicately lovely I wouldn't dare invent it.

The details are in the link so I won't rehash. The word plasticity occurs in the pamphlet, appropriately enough. It is like being inside God's body, the curved walls everywhere are resilient and elastic: they bulge and flex like a series of muscles. The ceiling fresco in the nave vault is a fine piece of illusionistic painting - the terms quadratura and quadri riportato fly back to me from over the years of teaching A Level History of Art and Architecture. Plenty of quadratura, no sign of quadri riportato.

No shortage of saints though - there is St Ignatius Loyola mercifully spearing a heretic with a double lightning forked prong. A nearby archbishop has already beheaded and speared another hapless recalcitrant. Bodies wreathe and writhe. A more benign set of allegorical virtues supports the dome over the crossing. This is the church on its back foot being militant against the Protestant hordes. And one mustn't forget the bling of course, the gilding that is as immaculate as the conception, the gold that is the glory of God on earth. All this inside that pulsing, heaving body declaring its allegiance to the most muscular, most theatrical and, to be frank, most cinematic of Gods. Any moment now Charlton Heston will burst through the altar dragging Cecil B De Mille behind him, with girls in expensive bling, a clutch of Mary Magdalens, repentantly swaying alongside.

The church transcends this somehow. I do not say it transcends this benignly. The cardinals are waiting outside in their Porsches and Ferraris, but there is a real muscle-bound God inside. Unlike Elvis, he hasn't yet left the building.

Saturday 10 July 2010

Uruguay v. Germany

Wasn't this the most wonderful game! The 'sophisticated' view is that no one cares who comes third and fourth. Second is nowhere so why bother.

Both these teams bothered, the Germans because they are young, the Uruguayans because they are a country the size of Wales and were not expected to come anywhere close. And what gorgeous, skillful attacking play from both teams, from start to finish. Both teams bothered and both were excellent.

I am sorry Uruguay lost in the end. The best player throughout the tournament has been Diego Forlan who never made it at Manchester United when he was younger though the fans loved him. His goal today, and that very last free kick were things of beauty, but his performances generally, running the high midfield rather than as centre-forward were constantly masterful.

We watched it on German television because Czech television isn't free. The BBC online commentary was properly enthusiastic. I glance at The Guardian minute-by-minute. Now those are sophisticated people, you understand. Always superior to the game. 'Very decent' is the best Scott Murray can manage at half time. It's only a bunch of working-class oiks out there, you see. Not really ejjucated. Inarticulate yobs, really. Amazing they can run and think at the same time.

The Guardian sports pages - the smart ejjucated man's view. Sport as litterachewer. Nothing good enough for those kids.

Don Giovanni on a shoestring

Mozart's Don Giovanni was first performed in Prague in 1787, so why not see it in Prague in 2010 in the Black Light Marionette Theatre version just a few doors down from the Black Theatre that is doing Aspects of Alice? It is just that we had stumbled across the marionette theatre first. Prague is expensive. Perhaps we just can't afford real people.

There is something about puppets that hovers between the magical, the trapped and the sinister. It is Louis Simpson's lines from My Father in the Night Commanding No that come to mind first:

.......They will not change
There, on the stage of terror and of love.

The actors in that playhouse always sit
In fixed positions—father, mother, child
With painted eyes.
How sad it is to be a little puppet!...

The adult Simpson is remembering his childhood, where his mother and father are stuck in time; fellow puppets with terrifying painted eyes.

And there is Pinocchio, of course, the wooden boy who wants to be a real boy. There was a long floppy rag doll at home that was referred to as Pinocchio, and my mother said it was me. When my father died this year I inherited it.

And then Arthur Miller's The Crucible, where the poppet with the bodkin stuck in it is used as evidence of black magic in the witch hunt.

About twenty years ago in Budapest we took the children to the National Puppet Theatre to see a puppet version of The Tempest in which only Prospero was a full sized human being, played by the great character actor Dezső Garas.

Further back still, when I myself was a young child, my parents took me to the same theatre, and I have some memory of watching an adult puppet version of The Good Soldier Svejk.

Never mind sadistic Mr Punch, the policeman and the hangman. And diabolical Dr Coppelius in Coppelia.



But it is not all sinister. The primitive world of the puppeteer has always seemed more purely theatrical to me than the legitimate theatre where the apparatus of realism invites you to forget the stage. In puppet theatre the stage is firmly the stage, the actors firmly set in the world of that stage. Something in me prefers circus, magic show, masque and masks - the full acknowledgement of artifice - to the endless sitting rooms with one side removed. I suspect that's part of the poetry kit one is provided with at an early stage of childhood.

For five or six years I was actually chair of the board of Norwich Puppet Theatre under the artistic directorship of the brilliant Luis Boy. Luis improvised, changed the show from performance to performance and was never content with one format alone. It was a surreal form of childsplay to him and the shows were small works of art. Luis was a sculptor at heart, a proper inventor.


So Don Giovanni was tempting. An attic theatre up several flights of winding stairs, ten or so steeply tiered rows. The stage set shows the front of a grand house with a balcony and windows above, and a vaulted arch below with cut-out trees and, under it all, an orchestra of ten players to perform the overture. As the violinist's elbow saws at the strings it knocks audibly against the front of the cellist behind him. The trumpeters raise their trumpets to their lips. The drummer beats at the kettle drum. All this is more or less in time with the music.

Donna Anna's silhouette appears at the window. Giovanni and Leporello plot in the foreground. They wave their arms and scuttle here and there before Leporello gets Giovanni in and he has his way with her, only to be discovered by Il Commandatore, whom he then kills in the duel.

Meanwhile the recorded singers sing and the wooden orchestra play without moving (' sad it is to be a little puppet..'). Confusions and seductions and betrayals, wonderful solos and arias. Batti, batti, o bel Masetto! sings Zerlina and my mind immediately switches to Winthrop Mackworth Praed's lines from his gorgeous 'Goodnight to the Season', one of the great soufflés of light verse. This verse:

Good night to the Season! - the rages
Led off by the chiefs of the throng,
The Lady Matilda's new pages,
The Lady Eliza's new song;
Miss Fennel's macaw, which at Boodle's
Was held to have something to say;
Mrs Splenetic's musical poodles,
Which bark 'Batti Batti' all day;
The pony Sir Araby sported,
As hot and as black as a coal,
And the Lion his mother imported,
In bearskins and grease, from the role.

But events gallop to the finish. The statue of the Commandatore - a human puppeteer in a grim silvery mask - is invited to supper and duly appears dragging the unrepentant Don down into the earth with him. A good thundering ending.

The production had charm and humour but was not a work of genius. In fact, there were patches of tedium in it because, after all (you might say) they were only puppets. But invention starts there and this went only some of the way.


Outside there are more people in the narrow street than you could shake a million sticks at. A hot close evening. A living statue still stands there, a sweet girl in a faintly grotesque seventeenth century nun's costume, every inch of it, and her, in white. We saw her earlier hurrying to this spot stopping briefly to chat to a fully bronze cardinal. We are tourists so we deserve what we pay for and all we get. The visitor sweeps up the silver glitter. The trick is to remain when the glitter is gone.

The haunting thing about Pinocchio, I suspect, is that we all know what it is to be wooden and long for life as though life were somewhere other than the stage-set we wander over, this whole miraculous caboodle which for now we can call Prague, that is made up of painted flats, marionette rods and strings, and people everywhere gaping, gawping, grinning and breathing the same air as I am, writing this. Stage air. Stage food. Stage drunks. Living on a shoestring and not completely in charge of anything.

Friday 9 July 2010

All You Can Eat in Prague

Town Hall Astronomical Clock

Some of the afternoon sleeping. The sheer beauty and exuberance is - and I feel like a worn-out aesthete in the Des Esseintes (that's not Des as in Desmond) mode saying this - a little exhausting. The fact we had to rise at 3.30 in the morning at Stansted has something to do with it too.

But early evening we are out again and soon enough we are looking to eat. Walking out of the Old Square with its famous town hall clock and its famous hordes photographing each other under arches, in front of gateways, pointing to landmarks, grinning all the while because, I suppose, they must be happy (and here I sound like a hypocritical misanthrope, because I too am happy), not to mention the famous heaving, yelling cafes and restaurants, we find ourselves in a less rabidly beautiful street, almost a dull street, and there's a quiet restaurant with just two tables outside.

The menu looks good. If you're vegetarian and don't want to know the result, look away now.

There's duck: one roast leg dish and one duck breast dish in a sauce flavoured with slivovic, but also six other fascinating sounding main courses including the various fleshly viands - incidentally I use the term viands to spare your feelings - in richly dense settings, not to mention tempting hors'doeuvres and soups of potentially the highest order.

What it also says is (I translate loosely out of the restaurant's own loose English translation): Take the special menu and try a taster of everything, and come back for seconds or thirds, frankly we don't care. Eat all you can. We practically dare you to. Drinks extra, sweets extra. Cost roughly £20 the lot, bar the extras. That's £20 give or take a bit (well, add a bit, actually.)

Tasters, sounds possible - it must mean a mouthful each - and gorgeous. We are, after all, hungry. We do think hard about it, but this is a celebration so let's gamble.

The first course is an amalgam of four starters, the whole adding up to an all-but-full meal. Very nice. I will not go into Krudyesque detail here, but imagine duck pâté, pork pâté, several slivers of tongue together with a sauce of horse-radish and cranberry, as well as some warm red onion marmalade. That is your starter.

The second course is a choice of two soups. C chooses potato soup, I choose the venison. It's not a vast bowl of soup, but it is a perfectly reasonable bowl, about the size of a cereal bowl. I am not Falstaff nor was meant to be, so I am now full.

But there are eight courses of main dishes to follow, and the establishment's idea of a taster does not seem to correspond with ours. An American couple, from New York I'd guess from his accent not from hers because she hardly does any speaking and when she speaks it's a a whisper, has just been served knee of pork. That's a pig's knee to you. True, they are having it as the single main course, but it's so huge it's practically the pig. The pig's knees! I reckon it's a large boar.

The first duck arrives. Roasted, delicious. Red cabbage, white cabbage either side like a royal escort. I'd say it was about two-thirds of a normal full meal - a full meal nouvelle cuisine style. Still, granted a little curiosity, it is just about manageable. I just about manage, but in managing I realise I am not cut out for this. C who is as slim now as she was when I met her, indeed slimmer and lither still, seems more engaged in this act than I am.

Second duck. Oh, that slivovic sauce! It's worth busting a gut for, and frankly it is on the point of busting. Some people take years to become obese. Why waste all that time? Why not achieve it in a single night? Six courses still to go!

I summon all my manly courage and chicken out. I tell the waiter not to bring the next five courses. In about twenty minutes he might bring the sixth, which is a sweet. The waiter looks at me patiently but, I imagine, with an inner contempt. You a girl or something? I imagine the chef working his way up to the full John Cleese, all sweat and cleavers, screaming: What's wrong with my food!? What's wrong with them!? Thirty years in this kitchen, and now this!

C does the extraordinary thing. She takes one more main course, the trout. I watch her eat the fish but without touching the potatoes, for assuredly there are potatoes and other side dishes. I can hardly bear to look.

Eventually it comes to an end. We order two espressos, which are properly dense, almost Turkish style. A spoonful of the necessary sugar just about manages to penetrate it.

The maître d' is a gentlemanly looking gentleman with a kind silver beard. He looks discreet. We assure him the food was very good, just a little too much. I put my hand on his sleeve as I say this. I don't want him to worry. I ask him if anyone has ever gone the entire mixed hors d'oeuvre, soup and eight main courses. He frowns in a truly beautiful way. He remembers one man, some weeks ago, who not only managed the lot but came back for two more duck courses. He Ate All He Could.

I feel we have almost forged a friendship and, as a last throw, ask him if he himself could manage the lot. He gives a sad, understanding smile and says, no. We are friends for life now. He is an honorary good uncle.

I consider Szindbad, as in the post below. This is pure Szindbad territory. But Szindbad is radiantly handsome, on the slender side of normal, and remains irresistible to women. He can work his way through not ten but twenty courses, each bigger than any of these. On the other hand he is over three-hundred years old and - occasionally - dead. Such meals might be possible under those circumstances.

And I think of that Hungarian short story about a plum-dumpling eating contest where the winner eats forty then drops dead.

It is not the way I want to go. Some say the world will end in fire, writes Robert Frost, Some say in ice.

It will not end in pig's knee, not if I can help it.