Thursday 30 September 2010

Gloria Stuart (actually Winifred Shaw) and Tony Curtis

Two of my favourite movie sequences of all time, the first in two parts. Busby Berkeley's work of brilliant vulgar prophetic genius, the Lullaby of Broadway number from Gold Diggers of 1935. (Dali? Pah! Infinitely cruder than Berkeley who is twice the Surrealist that he is!) I have written about it before, in fact wrote an entire radio programme in verse about it: it touches so many levers. Not that this is Gloria Stuart, who starred in the film, but Winifred Shaw who sang the song that is at the core of it, and does the haunting here.

I shudder every time I watch this, especially part 2, where something quite transformative and nightmarish happens while remaining perfectly and beautifully in keeping. I can't help but think of the three male dancers as Mussolini, Hitler and Franco. I don't know if anyone has done a comparison with Leni Riefenstahl but it's there for the taking.

And Tony Curtis. Curtis as Cary Grant as Shell Oil in one of the greatest of all screen comedies, because, like all good things, it is much more than that, lighter, more burlesque than Berkeley, but still moving on several levels. I don't mean it's darn clever (though it is) just more joyful and witty and sad than it has any right to be. Billy Wilder is the genius this time. And Monroe too. And Jack Lemmon. What a script! And such marvellous timing! I know everyone has scene this scene hundreds of times before but it remains as fresh as ever. If I were Curtis I wouldn't mind being remembered for this.

And the seduction scene on board the yacht?... More delight.

Wednesday 29 September 2010

Train Dialogue

Swoop down to London to meet J at the European Commission, the Commission having kindly commissioned me to write a poem, for the opening of their new headquarters in Smith Square, in fact the old Tory HQ. The visit was to make contact and have a look at the building that is still in preparation. It is, I should say, a hard commission because it has a function: celebration. I have had one go at it which was not thought quite right. It was a sonnet that took as its subject the ruins and rebuilding of Europe after the last war. Formal, ceremonial, but maybe not quite celebratory. I wouldn't take on anything like this unless I actually believed in the project, but it is still hard. I keep thinking some kind of verse is called for, more than a poem, but there must be a poem in there.

From there straight to Shepherd's Bush to record an early poem, 'English Words' for use in the BBC programme, Something Understood. The recording is not at the BBC but at an independent studio in a small street near Shepherd's Bush underground station. I had looked it up before, but once at Shepherd's Bush I discover that, though the street is listed in the gazetteer at the back, it is too small to appear on the actual map. So I ring the studio to ask where it is. It's a busy thoroughfare, a noisy main road, and I can't hear the voice at the other end, so I tell them to hang on while I duck into the next quiet street. 'Where are you?' asks H, my contact. I look up at the street name and realise I am exactly where I'm supposed to be. I walk past the studio which is in a house. H pops out and calls me back. The recording takes only about as long as it takes to read the poem once, then a couple of lines to be patched and it's all over. I finish a cup of coffee they have kindly given me.

I had arranged to meet Jenny, a recent MA student, at Shepherd's Bush at 2pm but am early, so nip into a Kentucky Fried Chicken. This is of course Low Food, not High Food, but an abiding part of me loves Low Food and cheap friendly joints, and this is friendly, entirely Asian. Two bits of chicken with chips does very well, while slurping a Coke. Customers come and go. I read Poetry Review (am in the current issue) and feel comfortable and pleased with the cheap food world. There is a kind of low level democracy about the atmosphere, not exactly nostalgie de la boue, which would be too romantic a notion, nor am I high class enough to be looking down from any height, thank heaven. Jenny Joseph will wear purple when she's old. When I am truly old I will eat chips and KFC.

Jenny takes me to a higher class place altogether where I eat a higher class piece of tiramisu accompanied by a double espresso. We talk jobs and PhD's, then I'm off home.


On the second leg of the train journey I am marking MA scripts but feel exhausted. A group of school, or FE, students are all around me. Right in front of me stands a tall black American girl with a big stud under her lips. She is talking to a tall white American boy, slightly gawky but self-confident. As a matter of fact they both are because they talk at the top of their voices. They could sit down but choose to remain standing. Boy and girl rap - they throw brief hard challenges at each other. It's a kind of hard flirting, mutual machismo. She uses an expression I hadn't heard before: crotch pocket, then changes to middle pocket. I listen now because the language is interesting. It's pretty clear what crotch pocket is, it's also pretty clear it is a kind of challenge, not only to the boy but to anyone in earshot. Sheer bravado. You can practically feel her glowing with it. Her speech, his speech, both, are fast and inventive. The boy queries the expression for a second then brazens up to it. She is clearly enjoying the confrontation. 'I'm hard core,' she declares at one point. I can see that's the idea. Sitting behind her I only catch the odd glimpse of her face. It is not a beautiful or even pretty face, but it has life. She has a keen feminist ear and wants to elicit a sexist comment from the boy so she can round on him. He is wise to this, so she turns her ready-for-offence ire to a third person, not present, only reported. The boy is not fazed but continues grinning and responding. The train has been moving for a long time now and standing up is clearly a kind of dare. Eventually the girl in the seat next to the tall American girl stands up too, a blonde Englsh girl, much quieter, probably a bit embarrassed and it becomes a colloquy, the black girl directing more and more of her conversation at the other girl. Still standing, the boy says, 'I'm going to sit down. But only because I'm bored.' This represents a kind of victory for the tall black girl, and she too sits down, only just in time to get up again for Ely where the train half empties. They too go.

Both boy and girl are clearly intelligent. They both have pride. They get off together with mutual respect. I find I have enjoyed all this and felt like giving a small round of applause after each motormouth sally. Stichomythia, the Greeks would have called it. Crotch pocket is pretty good, I think. A little Shakespearean. 'I pray you, bring your hand to the buttery-bar and let it drink,' say Maria, the maid, in Twelfth Night. I must look up crotch pocket and see if it's established use.

Tuesday 28 September 2010

The miracle of You Tube and BBC's The Forum presents...

Rehearsing for the day I become ruler of the universe (Scruffy Stalinists Party). Had I known I was going to be filmed I'd have worn better clothes and had plastic surgery.

Triliband, Thriliband

It was not a night of high excitement discovering that Ed had pipped David. 'Very capable politician' is not a term that sets my pulses racing. The union vote swung it for Ed but if Ed does anything of a pale red nature, or even mild-pink for that matter, I will be astonished.

The fact is Ed needn't propose anything for now and he won't. He can do the 'Tory cuts!' chorus in the happy knowledge that he would have cut a little later and maybe a little less but would still have cut. There is not a vast moral chasm between cutting now as opposed to a year later. He knows this is a long rough cruise in which it might be better to be passenger than crew, to be steered rather than to steer. Perhaps Ed could learn to play the violin on the voyage. The cuts will bite, some unions might go on strike for a while, and the boat might rock a little more but at least we'll have some music.

One thing certain. The ugly things will get uglier still. The big bonuses, the repulsively rich bankers who are all-so-necessary to us and who we must, at all costs (hah!) prevent from going abroad in case we lose the benefits of their considerable talents, will continue being rich bankers and directors with bonuses worth millions. The contrast between their life styles (imagine dozens of episodes of Grand Designs one after the other, ever more magnificent, ever more meaningless) and the suffering to come for those who are not only poor but are simply not rich, for those honest median citizens who tried to save money and who have, as they say, been utterly screwed over, will grow ever more stark. It will make a pretty cabinet of horrors.

I don't think Ed Miliband is in any position to change that, nor is he, I suspect, of the disposition. I suspect the contrast between one Miliband and the other has been a little over-dramatised and over-scripted. So now we know that Ed was against the Iraq War? Glory be! He has been washed in the Blood of the Lamb. Interviews with Party members who had heard his speech to the conference revealed a strangely febrile atmosphere of giddy excitement.

It's very peculiar all this. I have never felt such indifference to the winner of the race to be leader of the Labour Party. The ship limps on. Capitalism has hit an iceberg. It's not yet clear how big the iceberg or how big the hole in the ship. It is even less clear what might happen should the ship slowly start to sink.

Monday 27 September 2010

Two and a half hours: Instead of Sleep

I had just two and a half hours sleep last night, so the mind is a touch tired. I go to a poem I wrote for daughter Helen's birthday in 2004, just to show the problem is not new.

Instead of Sleep

I want to be a cat, Clarissa said,
meaning: it’d be nice to go to bed.
I too think sleep is welcome,
sometimes whole days of it.
I think I could write odes, sonnets,
ballads and epics in praise of it.
Now, feeling sleepy, I think it is time
I woke up and scrawled my darling girl a rhyme,
just a short one, like this, a silly small thing,
a birthday offering,
in which I reflect on how great
it must be to be only twenty-eight;
in which there is a spontaneous overflow
of powerful feelings of the kind we know;
in which alliterations, puns and ambiguities
are not mere decorations or superfluities;
in which there is creative tension,
wit, grace, charm, and other virtues I could mention.

That is what I would like to write. Perhaps
that is indeed what I have written,
and as well as it could be by all those other chaps
currently scribbling for Great Britain,
a poem ending in one mighty pentasyllable...

alas, that dream is unfulfillable.

All those chaps, eh? Goodnight, chaps.

Sunday 26 September 2010

Sunday night is... John Berryman, drunk, talking and reading

Berryman talking to Al Alvarez in Dublin, in 1967.

Dream Song 14
John Berryman

Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so.
After all, the sky flashes, the green sea yearns,
we ourselves flash and yearn,
and moreover my mother told me as a boy
(repeatingly) 'Ever to confess you're bored
means you have no

Inner Resources.' I conclude now I have no
inner resources, because I am heavy bored.
Peoples bore me,
literature bores me, especially great literature,
Henry bores me, with his plights & gripes
as bad as achilles,

who loves people and valiant art, which bores me.
And the tranquil hills, & gin, look like a drag
and somehow a dog
has taken itself & his tail considerably away
into mountains or sea or sky, leaving
behind: me, wag.

The Man Who Drank The Band's Champagne

H. M. Bateman

The man who..., the girl who..., the family who... The thing is the convention breakers go about their business with such insouciance. They gaily break custom and taboo while others look on in horror. They quaff the band's champagne, they order milk at the Café Royal, they arrive at grand affairs in charabancs. And everywhere the same look of horror greets them.

When I am an old woman I shall wear purple, wrote Jenny Joseph. Some time ago it was voted the nation's favourite poem, anticipating Kipling's If... by a year or two.

Wearing purple is a private matter, but it is intended to produce an effect, and people like producing effects. Or they think they might, one day, like to produce an effect. The thought consoles them. It would be their act of rebellion. When I am an old woman I shall wear floral dresses and knitted cardigans lacks the right heroic spirit. When I am an old woman I shall wear white, sound a little too much like Miss Havisham. As for, When I am an old woman I shall wear black... that opens possibilities, none of which is entirely positive and cheerful. No, let's go purple instead.


But there is another form of non-conformity: the desire to go against the accepted opinions of your circle. I mean the opinions of your best and closest friends, who are the very nicest people, or else you wouldn't have made friends with them in the first place..

For instance, I see this post by Mick Hartley on the stoning of a woman by the Taliban. Or I read a book in progress about Israel and Palestine by a friend.

The view among nice people is often that the Taliban are awful but it's their culture, and our glass house culture is not in a position to, er, throw stones, especially given Dubya and Bliar. In this case I would quite like to be the man who volunteers the opinion that the glass house of UK, European, and indeed American society, for all its faults, smudges, cracks and dead plants, is an infinitely better place than any in which the Taliban look after the tomatoes. (The closest Wymondham got to stoning women in recent years was when builders pebble-dashed a woman's bungalow near the town centre. She hadn't buttoned her coat properly. Next time it will be the garden, the builders warned her.They were moral builders. It was very public.)

Similarly with Israel, I would like to be the man who says Israel is not much different from any other country surrounded by hostile states. It can act brutally, it can act unreasonably, it can act stupidly and violently, but it doesn't always act against entirely innocent, defenceless forces, who only want to live in peace. Sometimes it does, it is true, or it seems to be true, but that doesn't seem to be the main intention. It is not evil. Zionism is not Nazism. Zionism is not a wish to liquidate all people of Arabic origin in every part of the world. It began as the longing of an often-persecuted people for a homeland in which, for once in two millennia, they would not be in a minority. After the actual Nazis had killed half the Jewish population of the earth they were, more or less, not without a lot of violence and expulsions on both sides, granted their wish. Armenians once had that wish. Kurds still have it. Maybe the Roma have it.

This doesn't mean... well, there is a host of things it doesn't mean. But meaning works by association, and I am not as insouciant as the man drinking the band's champagne. So insouciance goes out of the window.

The friend's book seems very good to me. But it is far from finished.

Saturday 25 September 2010

Wymondham Words: With Great Pleasure

I hadn't in all these years done something quite like this: an entertainment of poetry and music, consciously an entertainment for a Sunday midday, the subject in this case - my choice - being autumn. This was the programme as far as the words were concerned:


Rainer Maria Rilke: Autumn Day (tr Galway Kinnell and Hannah Liebmann)


Reading from Chambers Book of Days: Introduction to September

Theme: Childhood & School
Philip Larkin: Afternoons
Katherine Mansfield: Autumn Song
William Shakespeare: from Jaques's All the world's a stage... speech (the schoolboy and the lover)
Geoffrey Willans: 'Short Speech for Headmaster', Beginning of Term, from Down with Skool, 1953

Theme: Autumnal Passions
John Donne: from Elegy IX (The Autumnal)
Stevie Smith: Autumn
Dorothy Parker: Autumn Valentine
Zsuzsa Rakovszky: The Were Burning Dead Leaves (Translated by GS)
Chambers Book of Days: The Puritans


Theme: Autumns Elsewhere
James Wright: Autumn Begins in Martin's Ferry, Ohio
Delmore Schwartz (after Rilke): Late Autumn in Venice
Matzuo Basho: Autumn Moonlight
Carl Sandburg: from Three Pieces on the Smoke of Autumn
Les Murray: Flowering Eucalypt in Autumn

Chambers Book of Days: Old Sayings*


Theme: Fullness and Rough Weather
John Keats: Ode to Autumn
John Clare: Autumn Birds
Emily Dickinson: The name of it is 'Autumn'
Boris Pasternak: from Seasons (translated by Robert Lowell)


Theme: Autumn into Winter as Comedy
Chambers Book of Days: On Dr Thomas Sheridan
Martin Bell: Winter Coming On
Charles Cotton: from Winter

Music: Klezmer played at slow pace

Theme: Leaves and Resurrections
Derek Mahon: Leaves
P. B. Shelley: Ode to the West Wind

Music play out: Here comes the sun..

I can't remember all the music and Andy Kirkham, the guitarist, hadn't written the titles down for me.

It was intended for a non-specialist audience. The three well-known pieces (Shakespeare, Keats and Shelley - a wonderful blast of a poem to go out on) would, I hoped, be recognised. The Chambers excerpts were to introduce a little quirky information into the poetry, the rest was whatever happened to come to hand, organised into blocks that made a certain chronological sense, starting from Rilke's '...The summer was immense' and ending with Shelley's 'If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?'

In the run-up I wondered whether Autumn was not too narrow a theme and whether the audience would be drowned in an endless swirl of dead leaves and regrets for youth, but the Autumns Elsewhere section was different enough and then Bell and Cotton certainly strike another note.

Again the place was packed out and all very complimentary.

Friday 24 September 2010

Wymondham Words: The notion of development

Some artists, including poets, are quick off the mark and fade, some are slow off the mark and rise. Some start and stay on top, the most obvious examples in the last century, being Yeats and Auden. Larkin wrote little and slowly, and after The North Ship he remained on much the same level. I have a great fondness for High Windows but that may be because it came out just as I myself was at an early stage of development, publishing my first poems.

The middle and later periods of poets tend to be overlooked. Those who might have been father figures to poets of my generation, poets with major reputations, poets who were influences, movers and shakers, helpers or critics of others, have fared variously. Peter Porter always did remain a major figure, important to the most prominent publishing houses. Late Porter is no whit less strong than early Porter - in fact it is clearer, subtler, of wider range. Vernon Scannell's reputation seems to have gone underground for now, but I am confident it will rise again. Alan Brownjohn's has risen, through sheer vigour. The publishers let go, but he has not. He has worked with a furious energy. Dannie Abse is unshaken, a proper living monument. Elaine Feinstein remains important and energetic and Fleur Adcock, who wrote little for years, has now returned, her cool crystalline voice tinged with irony.

This post is really about second wind in poets, the power of maturity. Both Anthony Thwaite and Moniza Alvi made their reputations early, and when their work is found in anthologies, latterly more Alvi's than Thwaite's, it is the poems with which they made their reputations: Thwaite as a distinct figure in Larkinland, that is the say with the sensibility of post-war Britain in slightly fancier mode (I think of those Victorian Voices) and Alvi (a little like me, but more so) as a representative figure of multicultural Britain.

Both have moved on to what, to my mind, is more exciting territory. Thwaite has hit the clear gravity that was always at the core of the poems but was rarely the whole poem. There was in the early poems an occasional sense that the poems articulated something that might have been articulated almost as well in prose. The late poems though have a depth, a distilled unsentimental pathos, while retaining the playfulness. It is as if the poems had fallen naturally into place: the language is simple, the idea still clear, still capable of being paraphrased, but paraphrase is less apt. The perception has become fully poetry.

Moniza Alvi's work caught fire for me from 2000 onward, once the search for the balance between Pakistani and British identity was over, or at least shelved. Since then she has written ever clearer, ever more vivid poems, poems that spring out of a less dutiful imagination. The language is clear, indeed clearer, but the ideas are ever more ambitious, ever more playful, ever more surreal, ever more realised. The images leap into being and blaze more brightly.

Here's Alvi's poem, Fish, one from the book where she imagines being a husband and having a wife, Carrying my Wife (2000)


I envied my wife her nightly visions.
She'd lay each one proudly on the bed

like a plump, iridescent fish,
and ask me to identify it.

Some nights I'd even manage to trap
my own by concentrating hard,

submerging the net into blue-black waters.
I'd place my catch on the rippling sheet.

So we'd have our own two fish, almost
indecent, nuzzling each other's mouths,

soul-fish, awkward in our hands,
hungry, as if our lives were a host

of crumbs to gulp in greedily.
They'd beat their tails very fast

until we could only see the one dream
moving between us, or feel stirring

one enormous fish, with our own lives
grieving, joyful, growing in its belly.

And here is Thwaite from his pamphlet ,'Late Poems',

In Camera

A light goes on:
Something is telling mw
The camera is too full of memories.
Before I take another picture
Some must be cancelled. 
So I must choose:
Blank out some bits of past,
Or print what's thre and leave room for the rest
While there's still time. Which shall I press?
What shall I lose?

Poem at Tate Gallery, and new link on sidebar

John Latham: Observer IV 1960

The poem I wrote for the work above is now Poem of the Month in the Tate Gallery's online magazine Tate Etc, here.

Since they are doing poems of the month, I am linking permanently in the sidebar, under Literary Magazines, where see at regular intervals...

Thursday 23 September 2010

Wymondham Words: Biography Afternoon

Ann Thwaite

Biography has always seemed a curious medium to me, one I have never been quite at ease with. Naturally, I understand the interest in individual lives, it is just that I have never been able to see lives as a rounded narrative. I like a rounded narrative in the way I like a tale. I like anecdotes and accounts of experiences. It is good to find out about the circumstances of people's lives. It is good to contemplate the arc of human life as an arc, because arcs are a satisfying shape. I do get caught up in character and predicament. It's interesting to ponder why people do what they do and how they do it. I understand all that.

What I have never properly - I mean viscerally - understood is the relationship between that and the way life feels. The way it happens, if you like. There are some of us, I suppose, who spend such energy absorbing and reflecting the nature of that which passes us, in the way a gust of wind passes us, trying to disentangle the wisps of currents, the scent of every small waft, and trying to comprehend the full force of it, that the idea of retrospect as something complete seems almost grotesque, almost inimical.

I know my parents had lives that I could try to describe - and very dramatic lives they would be too - but telling them would not equal them. I also know - or guess - that people think of their lives as shapes, if only because shapes carry meaning, and human beings desire meaning.

And so I quibble and carry on quibbling, writing poems because that's what comes out of all this sense of the peculiarity of the rounded. In other words I read biography as I might a yarn - a yarn with facts in it.

But that's my fault and nobody else's.


Midge Gillies

The business of the biographer is both scholarly and romantic. Richard Holmes set the pattern for biography as a kind of love affair in which the soul of the biographer seeks the soul of the subject by an act of both internal and external shadowing. No wonder his 1985 book was called 'Footsteps'. Because biography can be exhaustive work: not just the archives, the correspondence, the contemporary accounts and the background reading, but the project of rescuing and constructing a life that, like yesterday's wind, has passed.

In Ann Thwaite and Midge Gillies we had two strong women characters particularly interested in strong women. Ann has written as much about men as about women, of course, but it is the lost female life she wants to bring out of the dark. Midge has taken Marie Lloyd and Amy Johnson as subjects. Rescuing dead women's lives is an act of historical redress, and requires a passionate commitment. Both Thwaite and Gillies posses that passion, discipline and determination.

Ann, in her part of the conversation, insisted on biography as art and that, I thought, the idea of art, must be where the body - the flesh and blood body - is buried. Because art is, presumably, in the construction of narrative, in the balancing of proportions and the selection of material. Art is construction.

Poetry is clearly art because it is clearly construction. People don't speak poetry: they feel for the shape of it. The shape is overtly a shape, and we know that shape to be beautiful and somehow arbitrary - like life, in a way.

It is the realism of biography that is both its strength and its achilles heel, because we are all interested in the real, in the actual surfaces and obstacles of the world, in the construction of the street down which the wind blows. But the real isn't art. It's the opposite. Art is the form imposed on, or divined in, the real: a mental, spiritual thing that needs to be made because it doesn't exist. Lives did and do exist. Perfectly real people in perfectly real places feeling the wind in their faces.

I am intrigued by biography. I will work at it. Ann and Midge, you have my promise.

Márai again: Divorced man contemplates women and marriage

Back to Márai again for another of those dramatised riffs that so fascinate him. Here Peter, the twice married, twice divorced ex-industrialist, is talking to an unnamed friend in a cafe. That entirely one-sided conversation is, in effect, the whole Peter section:

'Women.’ Have you noticed the wary, uncertain way in which men pronounce the word? It is as if they were speaking of a not completely enchained, ever rebellious, conquered but unbroken tribe of discontents. And, really, what does this everyday concept ‘women’ signify in the hurly-burly of existence? What do we expect of them?... Children? Help? Peace? Delight? Everything? Nothing? A few moments of pleasure?

We carry on living, desiring, meeting, falling in love, then we marry, and, with that one woman, experience love, childbirth and death, while allowing our heads to be turned by a neatly formed ankle, ready to face ruin for the sake of a hairdo or the hot breath emanating from another’s lips, in middle-class beds or on sofas with broken springs in cheap no-questions-asked hotels down filthy side-streets, feeling a very brief satisfaction, or drunk on high-flown sentiment with some woman, both parties weepy and full of vows, promising to stand alone together, to assist each other, to live on a mountaintop, or at the heart of the great city… But then time passes, a year, or three years, or two weeks – have you noticed how love, like death, is nothing to do with clocks or calendars? – and the grand plan to which they have both agreed, has not been carried through, or only partially carried through, not quite as they had imagined. And then they part, in anger or indifference, and once again they are full of hope, ready to start again with someone new. Or perhaps they are exhausted, remaining together because of exhaustion, draining each other’s energy and life-blood, and so sicken, and kill each other, just a little, then die. And in that last moment, as they are closing their eyes, do they understand?... What was it they wanted from each other? They have done nothing except conform to an old, blind law at whose command the world constantly renews itself under the sign of love, a world that requires the lust of men and women to perpetuate the species? So was that all? What, poor things, had they been hoping for? What have they given each other? What have they received? What a terrifying, secret audit! Is the instinct that draws one man to one woman personal? Isn’t it just desire, always, eternally, nothing but desire, that occasionally, for brief intervals, is incarnated in a particular body? And this strange artificial excitement, the fever in which we live: might that not have been nature’s fully conscious way of prevent men and women feeling utterly alone?

Márai is only in his forties when he writes this. He married just the once and remained married to his wife until she died, shortly after which he shot himself at the age of eighty-nine in San Diego, in1989.

Loaded Question: Alien Invasion

Radio over lunch. Man on 'Costing the Earth' is in New York where a patch of road has been pedestrianised with benches etc. People sitting on benches reading books, enjoying the city.

Are you happy, he asks one woman, that the street has been taken away from the cars and given to the people?

America is the New World of course and there the cars drive themselves, running people over and commandeering the best parts of the city. They are mostly an alien life form. When it comes to a choice between a big petrol-guzzling metal alien life form and a human being I'm with the human being. (Power to the People!)

Occasionally you will see a human being inside a car. They are prisoners of the cannibalistic, petrol-guzzling, metal, alien life form, on the way to being ingested. They come out at the other end as exhaust and are quickly replaced by Baudrillardean simulacra.

It is possible that some of the people you see on the benches reading books, etc, are themselves Baudrillardean simulacra. Always best to look carefully before you get into conversation with them. If you are aware of air being emitted through either the mouth or the nostrils leave immediately.

Wednesday 22 September 2010

Fry's Five Favourites: Friday Evening at Wym Words


There were going to be seven but in the end there were five, without an interval, roughly fifteen minutes each: Nathan Hamilton, Vahni Capildeo, Jack Underwood, Ágnes Lehoczky and Luke Kennard (who I saw again last night in a quite different venue).

Interesting things are happening in poetry. The old division between 'mainstream' and 'avant garde' is breaking down, much as such divisions broke down in music. The sampling ethos that results in mixed genres and people listening to - and indeed playing - various genres of music without being tightly or exclusively attached to any was bound to leak into the other arts. Embattled modernists with white hair and grim expressions do not necessarily battle over the sword of truth and the shield of righteousness with gritty, suave or simple-minded mainstreamers.

There is still detectably a mainstream in terms of major publishing - it is what is determined primarily by Faber, Picador and Cape alongside the major magazines, with Bloodaxe and Carcanet in the wings with their rainbow armies, but there is an intense swirl of activity off-centre, so someone like Jack Underwood, who is in many ways, of the centre, sits perfectly well alongside Vahni Capildeo and ÁgnesLehoczky who are both remarkably vigorous, original writers, but whose relationship to the centre is more intermittent, if not nebulous.

Luke Kennard is not of the centre either though he is quickly making himself central through sheer popularity. His line is not far from that of Peter Redgrove on the one hand and early Paul Durcan on the other, which isn't exactly English mainstream (especially with Durcan being Irish), but it's not a tiny rivulet either. There's Ivor Cutler in there too.

Nathan Hamilton is also at an interesting angle to the English mainstream - the voice a touch American, a touch minimalist 1970: a touch Berryman-a touch Ian Hamilton (his uncle in fact). A touch of tragic sharpness there.

Lehoczky's roots go to the Hungarian Ágnes Nemes Nagy, and beyond her to Rilke and Beckett into the realm of philosophy as sensibility and raw nerve. Her prose poems are a constant questioning of appearances.

Jack Underwood is moving from an Armitagean position to something darker, more biting, with a superb ear for cadence to see him through whatever route he takes. He is funny too, open and clear.

Vahni Capildeo has a remarkable range and could - to change metaphors - swim in almost any ocean and probably needs to. Her imagination works on the grand scale but is in touch with the strangeness of contemporary daily life too. Great surges of metric tide there.

Vahni Capildeo reading

I think all this was evident in the readings on Friday night. Despite all the doom about publishing and poetry in general I suspect we are living on the edge of good times. The web does in some ways equalise advantage and, frankly, I am glad it does so. There is still the great hidden bank of history to accommodate in contemporary consciousness, the sense that 'now' isn't everything, but the best young poets sense that. Sampling is historical as well as stylistic and that takes time. And history.

Márai on loneliness

Now that the festival is over, and between reflections on it, I am proof-reading the Márai book I finished translating at the end of February, to be called Portraits of a Marriage. It's remarkably good and there are passages on every page that seem perfectly articulated. There are four clear and distinct speakers in the book, and that must be remembered as we are reading. Each speaks his or her monologue in order. Ilonka, the first wife, has marvellous perceptions as do they all. Here is Peter, her husband who goes on to marry the maid, Judit, on the subject of loneliness and ageing:

Life, you know, becomes increasingly mechanical. Things chill down. The rooms are as well-heated as ever they were, your temperature remains normal, your blood pressure is exactly as it was, you still have money in the bank or in your business. Once a week you go to the opera or to the theatre, preferably where they are playing something cheerful. You eat light meals at the restaurant; you mix your wine with sparkling water because you have taken note of all the healthy advice. Life presents no problems. Your local doctor, that if he is only a good doctor not a true one – the two are not the same – shakes your hand after the half-yearly check-up and says you’re fine. But if he is a true doctor, that is to say a doctor bred in the bone, in the way a pelican is nothing but pelican and a general is a general even when he is not engaged in a battle and is simply trimming his hedge or doing the crossword; if he is a doctor of this sort, he will not be satisfied with shaking your hand after the half-yearly examination because despite the fact that your heart, your lungs, your kidneys and liver are all in perfect working order, he recognizes your life is not so, and can sense the chill of loneliness as it works through you, exactly the way a ship’s delicate instruments can detect the mortal danger of the approaching iceberg even in warm waters. I can’t think of another analogy, that’s why I return to the iceberg. But maybe I could just add that the chill is of the kind you feel in the summer, in houses emptied of occupants who have departed for their holidays, having sprinkled camphor here and there and wrapped their furs and carpets up in newspapers, while outside it is summer, scorching hot summer, and behind the closed shutters the lonely furniture and the shadowed walls have soaked up all the cold and loneliness that even inanimate objects register, that everyone feels is there, that all who are lonely, objects a well as people, breathe in and radiate.

... outside it is summer, scorching hot summer, and behind the closed shutters the lonely furniture and the shadowed walls have soaked up all the cold and loneliness that even inanimate objects register, that everyone feels is there, that all who are lonely, objects a well as people, breathe in and radiate....

I have read that sentiment before, of course. Why? Because it is a sentiment generally understood if rarely articulated so clearly,

Márai has a terrifying clarity. He is a man of ideas who thinks through dramatic personae, as though he had become a different creature, male or female, while remaining himself.

As for the passage I just think it is gorgeous: the doctor 'bred in the bone', the general trimming his hedge, the iceberg approaching through warm waters, the camphor, the furniture, the shadowed walls. Such images are the stuff of poetry and of rational discourse at the same time. They are there to unfold the logic. As with all the best writing there is implicit a kind of shiver, like a ghost passing through the skin, flesh and bones. It is the shiver of getting something dead right.

Tuesday 21 September 2010

Reflections on Words Festival: Illustrated Books

Rose Tremain: Wildtrack and Other Stories, illustrated by Jeff Fisher

The very first event, in fact a prestigious one, complete with the publishers Liz C and John C and Genevieve and Louis and including artists Maggi Hambling, David Gentleman, Derrick Greaves and Ron King. This isn't about the occasion but about the nature of what was being exhibited.

The idea of the illustrated book is ancient. Pictures, icons, simple signs, can be read before words, as the ages before general literacy well knew. The pictures had a verbal equivalent, in that there was an important text to which they referred, but the text itself was missing, supplied instead, orally, by the priest. Religious texts in the European Christian tradition had, in this way, to be embodied in images, but the unseen text was vital, in fact determining. Christ was to be shown with particular attributes in particular events in a particular way, for instance - as did the apostles. The first thing was simply to show the image, not even an event, because the potency of the image depended on the conjuration of the figure watching the 'viewer' rather than the other way around. Icons work like that. The events in the lives of icons were secondary and rather difficult to produce from a theological point of view since the the position of the viewer as witness suggested a degree of independence, even control for the viewer. The viewer as detached spectator is rather different from the viewer as the viewed.

The idea of illustrating books as an enrichment, or indeed an entertainment, is not entirely religious and depends on a reasonable committed readership. The illustrations and marginalia of early Christian books are extra layers of interpretation whose canonic significance was variable. For the very rich who could afford hand illuminated books, such as the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, the most famous Book of Hours (meaning prayers and festivals) the gorgeous illustrations were a pious indulgence.

The illuminations took on their own life, as was the case with Christian imagery generally. The rich could afford both the indulgence of art and the indulgences granted by the Church for sins committed. The question of beauty as a value independent of faith becomes ever more important. There was, in the Counter Reformation, the case of Paolo Veronese who was accused of filling his vast painting of The Feast in The House of Levi with blasphemies and frivolities.


Meanwhile the poor and the illiterate had their chapbooks and broadsides, their popular prints, and later their illustrated magazines. The history of the illustrated book moves from the vigorous and crude to the highly sophisticated and aesthetic. In the early Twentieth Century many major artists - Picasso, Manet, Degas, Bonnard - have produced illustrations for books of poems by the leading poets of the time. Before them Gustave Doré illustrated Dante and Coleridge, and so forth.

It is the balance between text and image that has been the chief theoretical concern in the Twentieth Century. Is the artist's job to visualise passages of text as written, so the reader can see the precise relation of one to the other, or is it to produce a more independent response, in which the text serves as starting point, not terminus?

The Burning of the Books, George Szirtes and Ronald King

Artists' books have occupied this territory and Full Circle's list of published books take up various positions in it. Full Circle - Genevieve Christie, John Christie, Liz Calder and Luis Baum as in the picture - so there were the pastoral water colours of David Gentleman, to George Ewart Evans...

the near abstractions of Derrick Greaves to Richard Mabey's The Barley Bird...

and the photographic record of Maggi Hambling's struggles to construct, then establish, The Aldeburgh Scallop...


Do beautiful books need justification? Is the pleasure of such books a form of decadent hedonism? Surely not. Artists and writers must work and the making of fine illustrated books at a cheap price is the continuing of an important tradition. Everyone likes books with pictures. The question might be whether the provision of art with text that may be complete in itself is superfluous - or indeed the converse. Do visual images need words at all?

Not in the sense that they fully illustrate each other, that is if perfect illustration exists at all. But then do texts require books as such? If they do - and we (meaning I) like them that way - then the page is a good place for art and text to meet in various forms of dance, in various forms of mirroring and understanding.

Are they perhaps too comfortable with each other? Too mutually reassuring? Depends on the artist and the writer, one might reply. But there is in the best words-and-picture books a kind of low electric hum that generates ideas and sensations. Do words and images need each other then? O reason not the need! Our basest beggars / Are in the poorest things superfluous. Neither art nor words are superfluous except in the most basic basest beggar sense. Superfluity, in that sense, is life itself.


Next year perhaps more of art and text, as someone else sees it, from the high modern to the most familiar.

Monday 20 September 2010

Awakening and puzzlement

Marlie 20 Sept 2010 bMarlie 20 Sept 2010 a

Marlie appraising.

There is something to hold on to and I seem to be able to sit up and lean forward. Things are coming into focus. The world is a little more reliable than it was. The familiar is comforting but it never ceases to surprise. I have no names for the familiar things, let alone the unfamiliar. As G K Chesterton said somewhere, To a baby a door is as fantastical as a dragon. I certainly have no syntax to string the events of the world together. What follows what, why, and how, is beyond me. But something is drawing me forward into it and it's pretty good most of the time. Certainly it is fascinating. Dazzling even. I seem to be a me, or almost a me. At least I am a someone or a something and the world seems to like looking back at me. It even makes sounds at me and I make sounds back at it. That's if the world is not me. Somehow I think it might not be me. But then what is it? And what is me? Perhaps if I just lean forward a little and look a closer it might become clear. Something, at any rate, is happening. All well at mission control.

Festival 1

Jack Underwood, Luke Kennard (in the foreground) Vahni Capildeo, Agnes Lehoczky and Nathan Hamilton, first event. Packed out. Full Circle exhibition in the background.

The very first Wymondham Words is over. I have run series of readings before but I've not had to do with a festival in a concentrated three days. I try to remember how it came about.

On one or two occasions in the past I had written words for music to be performed at the music festival here. The music festival was going strong and still is. As ever, it is the work of a core group of enthusiastic, hard working, energetic and efficient people. It's that way round - committees rarely have ideas, it is people with ideas that get together to form committees. In a small town like W a few is all it takes. The people have to have a range of skills, contacts and functions, as well as a belief, or at least reasonable hope, that the town could take to the project in mind. More on that in another post.

The music festival was well in place by the time I was asked to construct a programme. There was not much money but in any case there was a desire to draw on essentially regional talent. Of regional literary talent there is no shortage - the university, the art school, the sheer beauty and cheapness of the place is attractive, partly to artists already established, and partly - through institutions that draw on those artists to teach people who would like to be artists - to people who then make or do not make immediate reputations, but who work at doing so. The Writers Centre in Norwich is fully aware of this and works as a generating hub.

Not that it could fund this festival. I can't speak for the other members of the committee, I can only thank them, so I speak for myself alone. What I would say to anyone asked to take on something like this is: Don't do it! Then I'd hesitate a moment and say: Do it!

For me the difficulty has been all the other work. The completion of two long translations, the teaching of a week-long residential course, the complete refurbishing of the room I like to think of as a library room-cum-C's office which was in chaos for six weeks because of damp treatment and re-plastering. Then there was (and still is) the art collaboration project, the various commissions and articles, travels, readings, conferences, and our fortieth anniversary for which we took four days off. Social life went by the board generally. The timing of the festival was nine days before the start of the university term.

Everything that is successful is a pleasure and source of energy afterwards and so has this been. As to programming, asking people to do things for less than the going rate is embarrassing, but it can be done and had to be done. (I have been invited this way myself and have invariably agreed, if the date was free.) Parts of the programme could be entrusted to people who were going to perform but had a circle of fellow writers they could invite. Other parts had to be put together depending on availability. Then there was timing and organisation of the venue. For me there was the business of preparing to chair, or at least to introduce, every event, bar those arranged by groups like the schools and the library that made their own arrangements to work round ours.

This is a dry little entry written by a tired man and it lacks any literary punch or style. I'll try to supply more of that next time, with some views on the events, not so much reviews as thoughts around them. That is this week's main task.

But there is a little post to put up after this one. The development of Marlie, the awakening face, the wonder and puzzlement of coming into the world of sensible objects.

Sunday 19 September 2010

Sunday Night is... Cliff before he became Cliff, etc

Oh Boy (1959) starting with Cliff Richard and a medley of various. Espresso Bongo, CR's first film, released the same year, with an excellent Laurence Harvey, plus Sylvia Sims and Gilbert Harding, was down the Elvis line and not at all bad. Herein also find Marty Wilde and Dicky Pride... The girls are The Vernon Girls...

I am ten at the time and not allowed to watch this.

The Wymondham Words Festival over and I am a little worn round the edges, but the whole was a great success, including the autumn session today - with thanks to Mark for reminding me of Derek Mahon's gorgeous 'Leaves', which I did include in the end, just before Shelley.

Saturday 18 September 2010


It is unprecedented for me to go two days without writing but I have been swallowed whole by the Wymondham Words Festival, for which I feel a deep and constant responsibility, and which has gone extraordinarily well so far, but has meant being at work from 8am to about midnight, as witness tonight. I'll write it up with thoughts in due course over the next few days.

Tomorrow noon is my own high noon - an hour or so of entertainment on the subject of autumn, with guitar by Andy Kirkham. I've not done one of these before so God help me and all who sail in me, that is to say people like Rainer Maria Rilke and Boris Pasternak and John Donne and Emily Dickinson plus two people called Shelley and Keats as well as...

Thursday 16 September 2010

Ten Favourite Colour Names

Not necessarily favourite colours. Don't know if I have those... Names that are colours.

Prussian Blue

Monastral Blue

Crimson Lake


Cerulian Blue

Payne's Grey

Raw Sienna


Lamp Black

ps reserves bench:


*note: The trees must be ten years old before they are tapped. The resin is extracted by making spiral incisions in the bark, and by breaking off leaves and shoots and letting the milky yellow resinous gum drip out. The resulting latex is collected in hollow bamboo canes. After the resin is congealed, the bamboo is broken away and large rods of raw gamboge remain.
The first recorded use of gamboge as a color name in English was in 1634.

Like chocolates, only better. Far better. Many of them in fact poems - the 'colour sonnets' extending over several books.

Elocution in Hong Kong: the making of a poem

I wrote A Small Girl Swinging about twenty years ago and it found its way into a number of children's anthologies. It wasn't in fact written especially for children, but about childhood. There was a playground behind the garden where we lived. From upstairs we could just about see some of it so the children were allowed to play there, once they were old enough, provided there were other children about.

This is the poem:

A Small Girl Swinging

When first they pushed me
    I was very scared.
My tummy jiggled. I was

The second time was higher
    And my ears
Were cold of whisperings
    Of tiny fears.

The third time it was HIGH,
    My teeth on edge.
My heart leapt off the bedroom

The fourth time, Oh the fourth time
    It was mad.
My skirt flew off the world
    And I was glad.

No one's pushing now,
    My ears are ringing.
Who'll see across the park
    A small girl swinging?

Who'll hear across the park
    Her mother calling,
And everywhere her shadows
    Rising, falling?

A poem is a combination of complex feelings surfacing through language into form. The poet doesn't know all the feelings, only some of them, but can hear the faint white noise of echoes of meaning beyond.

In this poem, that I remember well, I was writing about my own sense of excitement and fear on a high swing (the teeth on edge were mine); the sensation of pushing one's own children on a swing, seeing their fear and excitement; and the concern for the child seen in a playground from an upstairs window. There was also the imagined fear of being abandoned by one's parents in a playground. You look down from the swing and they're gone! No longer pushing. The sense of excitement transfers into adulthood - I think this is unavoidable as the writer is an adult - and takes on a faint erotic edge (part of the white noise). I became aware of that as I wrote the verses, not before. Something heady about it all - as there is in swinging as a child too, of course. Being aware of it I did not think of it as a children's poem, as such. It reminded me of Blakes's Nurse's Songs. This from the Songs of Innocence:


When the voices of children are heard on the green,
  And laughing is heard on the hill,
My heart is at rest within my breast,
  And everything else is still.
"Then come home, my children, the sun is gone down,
  And the dews of night arise;
Come, come, leave off play, and let us away,
  Till the morning appears in the skies."

"No, no, let us play, for it is yet day,
  And we cannot go to sleep;
Besides, in the sky the little birds fly,
  And the hills are all covered with sheep."
"Well, well, go and play till the light fades away,
  And then go home to bed."
The little ones leaped, and shouted, and laughed,
  And all the hills echoed.

and this from The Songs of Experience


When voices of children are heard on the green,
And whisperings are in the dale,
The days of my youth rise fresh in my mind,
My face turns green and pale.

Then come home, my children, the sun is gone down,
And the dews of night arise;
Your spring and your day are wasted in play,
And your winter and night in disguise.

I knew these poems very well and had also finished a small painting on board (I still have it, one of the few) with an inscription from the second poem, the first line, as in both poems. They were more than white noise in the head: they were a distinct shape.

My poem was in effect pitched between innocence and experience. One of the extraordinary qualities of Blake's best poetry is the ability to see extremes and set them glowing. Poetry for me has always been about complexity: the innocence and experience of language. That is what I wanted anyway, what I still want.

The reading above is for pronunciation only of course. It makes no attempt at interpretation and that in itself makes it interesting. The poem will be read by a young girl whose mother wrote to me asking for clues on speaking it.

I do, however, seem to hear the enunciation man saying 'shirt' instead of 'skirt'.

Wednesday 15 September 2010

Wymondham Festival Approaching: A Week of Lists 3


First four specific moments:

1. It is stifling hot in Budapest in late August, 1989 and the weather is about to break. George Bush senior is making the first US presidential visit to Hungary. The plane has touched down, the country is at the tipping point, probably has already tipped, into what, we don't know. A cardboard cut-out of Bush has been standing in the main square for weeks. People are photographed shaking hands with him. Further down the street there is a cardboard cut-out of Michael Jackson. You can shake hands with him too, if you like. Bush is due to make a speech outside parliament. This is history, after all, so I say to C, let's go and see what happens. We are living just around the corner, about ten minutes walk. We stroll down in the gathering dark. In five minutes or so he arrives, but the sky has grown almost black and there are rumblings of thunder. Just as he arrives a cloudburst begins. He's about ten yards from us. An aide offers him an umbrella but he turns it away. He takes out the paper with the speech but it is immediately soaked so he improvises something then moves off. By now the cloud has decided to burst even more spectacularly. The military band waiting to greet him is by-passed as he is hurried into parliament. They stand there not knowing what to do. Our umbrellas are up but we are already soaked. By the time we're home it's as if we'd spent the afternoon in the washing machine.

2. Another hot day, another August, nineteen years before. Two nights before - my stag night - I got so hammered I had to be carried home unconscious. The last thing I remember is a solitary man in a suit singing Delilah behind me as I looked in vain for the chords, indeed the keys, possibly the whole piano, though I am sitting at it. Not a good night and a thumping head in the morning. We drive down to London the next morning, my best man, J and I, and stay at my parents' house. I get dressed for the occasion. It's very hot. The suit is a bit heavy. C blossoms from the car and down the nave. The rest is forgotten, except for the photographs, the heat, my mother in black (why black?), then the long train journey and Liverpool Lime Street in the dark. A rough crossing to Douglas to follow the next day.

3. The great wind of 1987, 15/16 October. Actually saw the Michael Fish forecast. on the 15th. Still working at school. C working at same school. Children attending same school. Sleep through most of the storm, drive into work next morning past fallen branches to find the brick wall of the car park blown down.

4. It's a clear day and I am walking past an electrical shop when a plane approaches a tower. The street as in an aquarium, little movement, all of us under a water made of clear sky.

More generally

5. There's a moment in a long oppressively grey day when there is a slight brightening. It's only a tiny change, in fact it might be an illusion.

6. Open the window. It's spring, not particularly bright, but the air seems to be floating, holding its breath.

7. Winter sunlight. At any time. A lover's hand on your brow.

8. The leaves have gathered in the gutter though there is more to come. Enough for a few fistfuls to be set flying by a reasonable gust. The gust picks up and the leaves scuttle down the street like a pack of featherweight rats .

9. Wind again, this time waiting round a corner. And then you turn and catch it full in the face, the flaps of your coat or jacket flying away, a sheet of newspaper clinging to your ankles as you move against it.

10. Right now, the rain in abeyance, the leaves mildly shaking, some streaks of rain down the window, the cobwebs gathering water, swaying and tightening. Something glassy about it all.

But then I forget the lilac bush in spring that was down the garden in the last house and how it looked on a very early spring morning when the light was only promising, and a great deal else.

Tuesday 14 September 2010

Brief Owl Post and Tom Waits

There is a live Horned Owl in the antique shop in Elm Hill that has been there ever since we arrived in town. The owner has changed but the owl goes on. Today it was gently hooting along to Tom Waits. Soon it was fed a small chick.

It's been a week of violence in Norfolk. First the headless frog ("My manners are tearing off heads" - Ted Hughes, 'Hawk Roosting') and now this. This AND Tom Waits. And yesterday the opening of the Festival exhibition, Over the Moon. E and V. up to stay the night, a late night.

Walking round Norwich in the morning then the owl, followed by lunch at The Murderers. It's all Grand Guignol in Norfolk!

Wymondham Festival Approaching: A Week of Lists 2

Ten phrases I have heard too often.

1. Let's be professional about this and follow proper procedure... - Fill out that form about the form we sent regarding the form you received last week / month / year / decade in an official language of our choosing for which no translation is to be provided.

2. The reality is...- There are various parallel universes in which this too is a reality.

3. In order to improve your experience of our...... - We are cutting fifty jobs, the answering service and the budget for materials while raising your bill.

4. I find that offensive.... - A highly refined form of bullying from a pair of tight white lips. The ultimate nuclear deterrent.

5. We have made it perfectly clear.... - 'I'm not answering that question.'

6. It's all in the White Paper... - 'I'm not answering that question.'

7. Radical, root and branch, seizing the opportunity with both hands... - You lot are getting your redundancy notices next week.

8. We're all in this together. - Well, you are. I myself am otherwise engaged.

9. We must educate the public... - Stand them on their heads and spin them round a few times. They're idiots anyway.

10. Health and Safety...... - Nobody move!

Monday 13 September 2010

Wymondham Festival Approaching: A Week of Lists

My father is fourth from the left with some of his scouting friends, and their female friends.

Lists are, I am told, a boys' thing. I am, by virtue of being born one, of that persuasion, so, because this week is going to be difficult for longer, more complex posts - though who knows? - I thought I'd supply some miscellaneous lists. In tens, of course. A theme for each day.

OF MY FATHER (1917-2010)


1. Men with pony-tails, men with ear-rings and men with tattoos (count as one, same thing, really) - All signs of disrespect. See 7.

2. Anne Diamond - She'd done the dirty on someone, or had behaved reprehensibly in some way. Frankly, who cares?! (He did.)

3. Other drivers. Te csúnya madár! - Hungarian for, literally, You ugly bird! (try You ugly git! for full force) directed at other drivers.

4. Tony Blair - Not particularly because of Iraq, just generally. Everything he hated. Case closed.

5. German industrial products - The War. Need you ask?

6. Hungary - The War. Need you ask?

7. The habit of addressing people by their first names the first time at first meeting - It was like an invasion of personal space to him, as if someone were speaking three inches from his considerable nose.

8. Self-pity - A thoroughly admirable dislike in my view too, but his distaste for it was backed up by far harder experiences than mine.

9. Dogs & cats - This was one of his pretences: Take the dirty beast away, he'd say.

10. Women's voices on TV - I can't hear them properly, he'd say, and this might have been true, on account of the higher pitch. They speak too fast, he'd add, but that isn't true.


1. Tottenham Hotspur and MTK Budapest football teams - Cultural reasons. (MTK, originally, the athletics club of the rag trade, say no more.)

2. Bread with butter and jam - The little boy in him. There was quite a lot of that along with the responsible and wary adult.

3. The pleasure of announcing that he had peeled, washed and diced the potatoes - The little boy again. Didn't cook. Very much Old Man. He also hated washing up, ie getting his hands in dirty water, and him a plumber before and after the war, I ask you!

4. The boy scouts (Jewish branch) - Long story, exciting story, surviving story, necessary story.

5. Family - I counted them out and I counted them back in again.

6. Hungary - Everything apart from the War.

7. The Hungarian language - He loved collecting old sayings, jokes, idioms. They were home to him.

8. An orderly mind - Vital for survival, to be encouraged in others, but fascinated by, and in thrall to, passions, instincts and disorderly minds (eg my mother)

9. Marzipan - The taste of childhood. We must all have something like this.

10. Playing the mouth-organ - His delight, his party piece, his memento from the work camps in the Ukraine.

It's interesting that Hungary should be on both lists but I'm sure that's right. Risk would be on both lists too. Once in England it was not for him to take risks with his family, but - unexpectedly, miraculously, heart-warmingly - he encouraged me to take risks while young.

Risk might have been on the list, of course, but the list is restricted to ten. It is in no particular order. Tomorrow a list of my ten most disliked phrases in common use.

Sunday 12 September 2010

Sunday Night is... Lotte Lenya

Lotte Lenya Singing "Seeräuber Jenny" (Pirate Jenny) from the original 1931 film Die Dreigroschenoper (The Threepenny Opera).

Apart from it being Brecht and Weill at their best, it sends cold shivers up me. And there's the moment at the end of the clip where Lenya just moves her hands very slightly, as minimal as you get. It is as if she were opening death's door.

More excellent versions by Marianne Faithfull and Nina Simone. Lenya's is the simplest and deadliest. 'Alle.' Quiet satisfaction. And Hoppla!

Saturday 11 September 2010

Among cats: precedence and a headless frog

Pearl in a Mrs Danvers mood


POWER RELATIONSHIP POSITION 3: Pearl foreground, Lily couchant reversed

Every so often I am minded to write a little about the cats, dominant Pearl and timid Lily. The order of precedence between them was established early, partly because Pearl arrived first - if only by a few weeks - and partly because Lily is a lot smaller, and not only incapable of saying miaow to a goose but likely to be frightened to death by the mere sight of anything as unfamiliar as a goose.

The term scaredy-cat might have been invented for her. Visitors terrify her, sudden noises terrify her, sudden movements terrify her - sometimes even slight movement sends her into immediate alert. Nor does it help that Pearl has a half-Hitler moustache and looks fitted for a starring role in the film of Maus.

Not that Pearl is evil or even particularly bullying, but she has no great store of affection except for the constantly burning flame of cupboard love. It is possible to be fond of Pearl because she is clearly a character, one played by a genuine character actor. I had her down originally as played by Mae West but I can see elements of Mrs Danvers (Judith Anderson at her scariest glariest, in Rebecca) in her too. She does have a habit of throwing herself on her back and waving her legs when I look or speak to her, but I put that down to my unremitting sexual magnetism. She is trying to tell me something, anyway. Possibly something like: I'm yours, all yours, for a handful of catfood. I am a veritable Maxim de Winter among cats.

Lily's movement is a matter of circuitous sidesteps. She loves her name and will start purring as soon as she is spoken to, rubbing her face against any object in rubbing distance. Slowly her circuits get closer and closer and eventually she presses her nose against my hand, or C's if she is with C. Only now has she started leaping into our laps, and even then she is clearly noting the slightest tremor or sign of muscle fatigue. The whole trust exercise inevitably results in cramp. Neither C nor I make good statues.

But domestic life has its regularities. At night both cats will start downstairs into their respective rooms. Pearl is in my office which has the back door with the cat-flap. Once or twice aggressive tomcats have made their way in, but Pearl can cope with them. (So what have you brought me, low-life?) Lily is in the blue room with the piano that serves us for an entrance hall. An aggressive tomcat would leave her nerves in tatters. Pearl goes out at night and roams the near neighbourhood. Lily has never even ventured outside our narrow yard. She has clambered up the fence but seems to lack clear ideas how to get down again. She comes down, carefully, awkwardly, backwards, as if the thought of falling four feet awoke yet another dread in her.


The night we came home from the Lauderdale House reading, it was about one in the morning and C immediately noticed a dead frog in the blue room. It looked dead anyway, lying on its back, absolutely still. We prodded it and it turned over. We touched it once and off it sprang. The cats were upstairs hoping for a late night feast, oblivious to all this. The frog took one spring then froze. We moved towards it to put it out and it disappeared, first under the piano, then behind the piano, then behind the bookcase. It was too late to start moving the bookcase so we went to bed. It would probably stay hidden and we could save it in the morning.

The next morning I came down and sat down at my desk. A little later I was off somewhere and C came down and had an unpleasant surprise. She trod on a headless frog. It must have been the same frog. Pearl would have brought it in, Pearl would have found it in the morning when we opened the doors, Pearl must have performed the decapitation. Quite likely she ate the head because we couldn't find it. Nature red in tooth and frog.

In some ways it was like coming across a Mafia murder, or the threat of a gangland reprisal. There should have been a note saying, Al isn't pleased. Let this be a warning!

Life is grim up East.

Lily sat on my lap for twenty minutes this afternoon while I was reading. Then I got cramp, she got suspicious and jumped off.

A live frog.

Friday 10 September 2010

Wayne, Jenny, Helen & William Blake: for some reason

Working class boy, now 24, outstandingly talented and wealthy footballer, childhood girlfriend wife, regular visits to prostitute while wife is pregnant. Wealthy public-school educated girl turns prostitute at £1200 per call, sells story, gets name and picture everywhere, gets even more money. Another middle-class girl, daughter of lecturer and teacher, a bit down on her luck joins in.

For some reason papers go nuts.

For some reason prostitution is known as the oldest profession.

For some reason it continues to be big business.

For some reason pornography is very popular.

For some reason this seems to be a curious fact.

For some reason young males are interested in sex.

For some reason some young males' desire for sex does not seem to stop at one young female.

For some reason this keeps happening.

For some reason love and sex seem to occupy neighbouring rooms in some young males' minds, not the same room.

For some reason this too appears to be a surprise.

For some reason William Blake writes:

The moment of desire! the moment of desire! The virgin
That pines for man shall awaken her womb to enormous joys
In the secret shadows of her chamber: the youth shut up from
The lustful joy shall forget to generate, and create an amorous image
In the shadows of his curtains and in the folds of his silent pillow..

(Visions of the Daughters of Albion)

For some reason Blake also writes:

Those who restrain desire, do so because theirs is weak enough to be restrained.

(The Marriage of Heaven and Hell)

For some reason William Blake asked his wife and collaborator, Catherine Boucher, if he might, like King David, have handmaids. When she wept he relented and gave up the idea of handmaids. William Blake thereby restrained his desire.

For some reason, nevertheless, he felt desire. Catherine might have felt desire beyond William but she was a woman of her time. Did they both then 'create an amorous image' in the shadows of their curtains?

For some reason, Blake's poem continued:

Are not these the places of religion, the rewards of continence,
The self-enjoyings of self-denial? Why dost thou seek religion?
Is it because acts are not lovely that thou seekest solitude,
Where the horrible darkness is impressèd with reflections of desire?

(Visions of the Daughters of Albion)

For some reason the world loves reading of illicit sex.

For some reason some prefer sex illicit, or, if they don't, they still like reading about it.

For some reason the question of the illicit is defined in various social ways which are not built around the desires of young males (nor females possibly but we are rarely party to thoughts on that) but on experience of social cohesion. The desires of young males are therefore illicit.

For some reason sex requires CAPITAL LETTERS in the common imagination.

For some reason some acts are not lovely and therefore people seek solitude. Or a commercial exchange.

For some reason this is not the end of the world.

For some reason the world seems not to have ended.

For some reason the 'horrible darkness' continues to be 'impressèd with reflections of desire.'

Thursday 9 September 2010

Leading a Charred Life - text and voice

On the move today - lunch in London about project, PBS Board meeting and reading at 8pm with David Constantinne at Lauderdale House, Highgate Hill - so just briefly. I have been writing this and that in scraps. Here is something commissioned.

Leading A Charred Life: Seven Short Songs
John Latham, Observer IV, 1960

I had thought to have been charmed
Not framed:
Had thought to be disarmed
Not blamed.

But life hangs fire as if suspended
As if it had been slyly ended.

We cannot altogether escape the fact.
The facts are something that can’t be quite escaped.
But something is wrong in both thought and act:
The act is thought, and act and thought are shaped.

Had I behaved better than I did…
Had sky been lighter, detail more compact…
Had escape ever been possible…
Had I but thought, were it still feasible to act…

Someone is raising a hand at a bus stop.
Someone is waving to someone on the other side.
We watch the smile light briefly on a face.
We watch our loved ones make their way through space,
Then space rolling in like a tide,
Entering a bus, a house, a shop.

Sometimes the beauty of wood is overwhelming.
We love that which seems warm yet indifferent.
So things burn down, so wood turns to coal,
So coal begins where trees are rife.
So we survive. We lead a (haha) charred life.

There is the terrible vehicle of darkness
That runs over us in hope.
There is my hand, there are your fingers.
We hang by our fingertips. We cope.

If poetry were just a matter of the air
Playing around the heart
We’d feel a powerful gust beneath our lungs
And call it art -
And art would do, or be, at least, a start.

Visual art as ever intrigues me and begins the foray into words. This will be available at the Tate Modern, complete with sound recording and text.

Wednesday 8 September 2010

Between languages

Following on from BBC World Service's The Forum, where I have picked up a number of points listeners make on the programme's Facebook site, this thought occurs to me, triggered by something a bilingual listener said about the emptying out effect of repetition. (You repeat a word until it loses meaning, then, according my devised exercise, you use the word in ten different sentences to fill the word up with meaning again.) She tried it and thought it was quite an intense experience. My reply to the bilingual listener:

I think speaking more than one language brings that experience home. I speak English and Hungarian There is, I think, a transition moment in switching from one language to another before one language stops and the other starts. It takes a split second for the second language to fill up with meaning, the way a programme on the computer fills - but much faster than that. There must be a momentary between-languages condition.

When we came to England my parents wanted to speak as much English as possible, even though only one of them spoke English, and even then not altogether correctly. It was a kind of shock therapy supported by special English Language classes at primary school or before I started. I quickly learned English and equally quickly forgot Hungarian.

But what happened between the learning and forgetting is a mystery to me. I have no memory of it at all, and have sometimes thought it might be because there was no stable language in which to register the experience.

I wonder whether others find there is the same curious split-second vacuum when switching languages, a moment when meaning goes out of the window and there you are in outer space drifting away from the mother ship before somehow, you are yanked back in again?

I must see whether Pinker has anything to say about this. Or maybe Chomsky?

Tuesday 7 September 2010

The Glamour and the Danger

Having often enough repeated the Martin Bell dictum (more something that Martin once grunted as an answer to something I asked him) to the effect that: Poetry should not be taught in schools: it should be a secret and subversive pleasure, I have been asked to write something about it, and then talk to it: in other words, I suppose, defend it.

I do think there is an important truth in it, so my argument would involve something like this:

...Another enemy Bell sees, as witnessed by the poems, is the classroom, that group of sheep and goats the teacher is supposed to guide towards a sheepfold of starred A grades, or whatever seems feasible under the circumstances. The class is a group. Bell, I suspect, sees poetry as essentially a singular, solitary, perhaps even necessarily lonely series of encounters with something vital. Poetry, he may well believe, is the opposite of parties and groups and institutions. A class behaves like a class or gang in some ways, but a poem is often a deep communication from one mouth to a single pair of ears. A class is composed of single pairs of ears. Poems are to be listened to intently. Or so he may think, and it might be worth while considering the possibility that poems might be desperate, fastidious outsiders, like Baudelaire, or thieves of fire like Prometheus (those referred to earlier in the piece as Bell's "shining rebels" in his poem 'Ode to Groucho').

Bell considered himself a Muse poet – his relationship was, as he saw it, and wrote, with the same Goddess that Robert Graves worshipped, that is to say a being that took you, took you alone, rode you, led you through Dionysian revels and terrible desire then discarded you, as the Belle Dame Sans Merci did the knight-at-arms. That poetry was in some way dangerous.

If you consider this to be adolescent (and I don’t) take it up with Robert Graves, Thomas Wyatt, Sappho and a good number of marvellous poets, not with me. It is in any case worth remembering that the class is composed of adolescents whose instinctive notion of poetry may be an early form of the same vision. They are not all responsible commuting citizens preparing for middle management or sound employment of any kind. Glamour is second nature to them: they are very ready to find things dull.

Something along these lines and more...

All day in university, preparing and meeting.

Monday 6 September 2010

The Secret of Maths

The secret of maths is ziggurats, boats, rivers, souks, vats of dye, men on white horses galloping across sand, camels, moustaches, rain, dogs, and umbrellas.

OK, so I made up the last five. Those are definitely not the secret of maths. The secret of maths is the man on a white horse galloping across sand and the first five things. The man on the white horse is Marcus de Sautoy and the programme is The Story of Maths.

Unfortunately The Story of Maths is, as C put it, more travelogue than maths. I have absolutely no doubt about the qualification of Marcus de Sautoy to conduct us through the story of maths, but frankly, I am not getting much maths. I think I caught a few sentences about arabic numerals. I do believe he might have said something algebra and quadratic equations, in fact there might have been a whole five minutes on that before he got on to the problem of cubic numbers.

Of course the problem might be that I didn't see Episode One, in which there would have been an exhaustive explanation of everything. We must have got the maths there, right at the beginning, and the story with the pretty bits afterwards.

It was at this point I switched channels. He was about to go to another pretty place and say another exciting portentous thing of which I did not understand the portent. Inwardly I was turning into a stick-in-the-mud (non-picturesque mud), green-ink-writing backwoodsman-Tory. The BBC sends this, no doubt, gifted man all over the place in order to give me five minutes on algebra! If I had wanted to look at exotic landscapes I'd have bought a calendar not a TV licence! If I'd wanted to see a man on a white horse galloping across sand I'd have taken out a DVD of Lawrence of Arabia!

I have a faint memory of doing not only Maths, but, mirabile dictu, Additional Maths at O level. The additional maths teacher, Mr C, was an imposing figure who was probably just as good at imposing as teaching. He was probably good at both. His first act in our first class was to pick up the blackboard duster (it was a backward time the 1960s and we still had blackboards), examine it with a puzzled look on his face, then throw it full force against the wall. This puzzled us, especially when he picked the duster up and did it again. He repeated the action once more for full effect, then he took the register. I must have learned something, as I passed quite handsomely. He didn't have to do quadratic equations. They must have come a couple of years earlier. I could ride a quadratic equation in those days the way Marcus de Sautoy rides a horse.

What I really want the BBC to do is to bring back Mr C, if he's still alive, or if not they could have him acted by Deryck Guyler, except he's definitely dead - but why not bring him back all the same. This is not a cheap show and it can pay for the best resurrectionists.

The new Story of Maths would begin with Mr C throwing the blackboard duster against the wall. It could become a kind of leitmotif between themes. In between dusters he'd give you quadratic equations, a series of them perhaps, for an hour. One location only, upstairs in the science building with a view of the bike sheds. The very best bike sheds of course and the finest blackboards money can buy.