Saturday 30 October 2010

Art on TV

Television is wonderful for visual art in one way, in that it can get closer than the viewer can, and less good in another way, in that television is hyperactive, unable to sit still or think unless it can show thought in action.

It is natural that television should prefer narrative to analysis because it is, after all, a medium whose essence is movement. So presenters are usually chosen for their attractiveness and ability to gesticulate. Mobility and personality dominate to an almost neurotic level. We must have movement or they'll go to sleep. Television isn't just the radio with a picture stuck to it.

But there is another way, which is to treat television as a steady gazing eye; an eye that extracts the maximum information from a relatively stable stimulus. Art programmes can be like that. They needn't swoop and dive are rocket this way or that. They needn't flash from colour to black and white and back again. The objects they contemplate are intended for, and invite, the steady gaze. The eye moves, of course, but generally to examine a detail. Or it moves out to take in the whole. Occasionally the eye may turn inward, as in act of memory, conjuring some other comparable subject. In the meantime the ear tunes in to the words of texts associated with the subject. But however, whenever, this happens, that aural attention is governed by the level of movement in the object. The camera is at the service of the object rather than the other way about. Television can become art, rather than art become television.

Matthew Collings's set of three programmes on artists of the Renaissance - Raphael, Hieronymus Bosch and Piero della Francesca served art well in terms of pace, gaze and idea. It was an odd choice of artists in some respects because while there is a relatively clear link between Piero and Raphael, there is very little between either and Bosch. Piero predates Raphael so having Raphael as the first programme complicated matters still further.

Nevertheless all three programmes were good, the one on Raphael being perhaps the best. That is partly because Raphael is the least fashionable of the three so an intelligent defence was in itself arresting. All three programmes, refreshingly, concentrated on the formal aspects of the work rather than on sub-semiotic readings through which one or other interesting text quickly supplants the painting as a material object. (An analysis like 'The way this figure holds her hands echoes an old alchemical sign that had been the subject of a fierce debate between...' is interesting but in the meantime we have stopped looking at the painting, which has become merely a means of thinking about something else). The programmes also avoided the trap of treating the history of painting as a myth about the heroic misunderstood forces of progress battling against the tired forces of convention and conformism.

Two traps avoided. Good start. More later.

Friday 29 October 2010

50% fatter

Bart Becht, the highest paid FTSE 100 chief executive.

New figures out today revealed FTSE 100 director pay shot up by 55pc in the 12 months to June. In the FTSE 350, total boardroom pay climbed by 45pc on average, the figures by IDS found.

I know this is yesterday's news but the information has somehow swollen in my mind so it seems bigger today than it did yesterday, and is likely to be bigger still tomorrow. In a little while it is likely to be half as big again, which is precisely the case with those rises.

The man in the picture above is smiling which makes him look deceptively human, but make no mistake, he is in fact an angel who lives on an altogether different planet. I was originally going to say he was a rodent but realised in time that that was offensive. I would not wish to offend.

I wonder whether such angels are impervious to firing squads? It would be an easy experiment and if he really is an angel he would be perfectly safe.

He's not alone of course.

In the FTSE 350, total boardroom pay climbed by 45pc on average, the figures by IDS found.

Meanwhile, among the mortals:

The statistics came less than 24 hours after a survey by the same consultancy found 16pc of employers were still pushing through pay freezes, effectively passing on pay cuts to staff when inflation was taken into account.

And that's in The Daily Telegraph.

Maybe we should be grateful Mr Becht is still with us in blighty. Just think how terrible it would be if he were to leave these shores, along with all those other directors.

But then they are angels so one could always try the firing squad first.

Forgive the faint reek of loathing you may detect in this post. I don't do loathing well, but maybe it's just a matter of practice. Practice makes perfect. And he does look a little more rodent like every time I look at him.

Thursday 28 October 2010

Memory and the rest

Michael Frayn's memoir, My Father's Fortune was the UEA occasion yesterday. It wasn't a reading - though something of a reading might have been nice - but a conversation, one of those brilliantly conducted sessions by Chris B, that ask serious questions in a light, teasing way. Frayn is very good value - articulate, considered, witty, self-mocking. I bought the book but haven't read it yet, having received and started to get my teeth into Jonathan Rose's The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes, recommended by The Plump and by James. (It is an elevating read from the start but I'm only some 25 pages in.)

Frayn said some fascinating things, two of which immediately grabbed me. The first was about photographs. He felt that - like memoirs - they diminished people. It's an interesting line regarding both. In some ways it is simple. In the case of the photograph, it is plain to see that it captures only one instantaneous view of you, in one set of clothes, wearing only one expression. It is, in that sense, necessarily a reduced view. In the case of the memoir it diminishes its subject because - though this aspect was less strikingly explored so I am extrapolating - stories about people necessarily reduce them to counters in a narrative.

The proposition on memoir echoes my own instinct, though I am by no means sure I am right. The proposition on photographs, contradicts my instinct, but in this case I feel my instinct is right.

Although the photograph preserves only an instant, the effect of reducing time to a mere instant, in fact to an instant in the past, adds something to the representation that an in-person encounter, or even long acquaintance, might not. It adds dignity, dimension and the pathos of monumental retrospect. Barthes discusses all this in Camera Lucida. There is, he suggests (and I too feel) something grave and mysterious about a photograph. It is not just because it is, as Barthes says, a memento mori but because it has a curious symbolic power gathering to itself not only the unknowability of others, indeed of anyone, but the very nature of human existence. An instant in human life is as the period of human life to the proportions of sidereal time, that is to say to the vastness of unthinkable space, which is, after all, where we live. The photograph is not very much use as biography in that biography is story, but then Frayn's suspicions extend to biography itself.

Maybe the difference between poets and story tellers comes back to this: the difference between the meaning of the absolute instant and the meaning of the narrative into which the instant disappears.

As regards memory, Frayn's view of it coincides with my own. Memory, he says, is unreliable unless completed by the imagination. That which we think has happened to us may have happened to somebody else. We may have fleshed out a story we have only heard. We might have rounded out the shape of a story to put ourselves at the centre of it and so control it. But the raw data of memory are not to be controlled.

We become the anecdotal ringmasters of our own myths. The perfect shape of the perfect myth is what we seek. The evidences on which memory is based are like wild horses trained to gallop round and round us. At first they need watching and discipline but after a while they run rings round us all by themselves,like a wind-up mechanical toy, as if they had never been wild.

The ringmaster image is mine not his. As for the diminishing, what became ever clearer to the audience, and to me, as the conversation went on, was that the father wasn't in the least diminished by the story. On the contrary the story grew and developed him into a serious, admirable character.

But I think I know what Frayn meant. The serious, admirable character he had written still wasn't his father, not as he was in himself. He had become the written father, the story father, perfecting a character-in-story role rather than being the living person Frayn knew from his own first beginnings.

But then what are we to do? We sing, say and write poems, and we tell stories. It is what language makes us do: what language offers us as significance. Neither poem nor story offers us reality as reality. With a bit of luck you flick through the photographs of a story and they appear to move, move like a movie in fact. And so we prepare the real movie and cast the actors. They speak for us.

Wednesday 27 October 2010

The Poem that Failed

I dig this out because it's late. We have just come back from the Michael Frayn event at UEA and there are things to think about tomorrow This might fill a space. It's an old squib in response to a magazine's general invitation to submit, the invitation carrying the following warning:

XYZ will accept no poems about cats, funerals, churches, the Holocaust or disasters seen only on television.

I thought this, on the whole, fair enough but wondered whether I could write a poem that could break all the rules at once.


I leant on a cathedral wall and saw
the little box descend into cold earth.
The soil was hard, the winter wind was raw,
blowing for all it was worth.

I stood and thought of others who had died,
their screaming faces transfixed on the screen,
a few by hunger, some by suicide,
some in between.

A Polish nurse in a field hospital
who’d starved and suffered in the Nazi camps
told me a story I can’t now recall.

Her wisdom warmed me while I thought of puss
and watched the evening lighting all its lamps
from English Adlestrop to Belarus.

Trying to ring all the wrong bells there. Some at least. I thought it worth doing but I didn't send it. It's nothing special. Think of it as a semi coherent remark.

Tuesday 26 October 2010


Advertising, advertising, fatal lady of the lake
No one opts for copywriting, they get in there by mistake.

I quote from memory a poem by Gavin Ewart (whose work should be more available because it's funny and salutary). I quote it because many people get into teaching by mistake, or, if not quite by mistake, by wandering in for shelter, for lack of a place to be, then by staying. I know there are vocational, idealistic teachers who want to make the world a better place. They tend to be played by Sidney Poitier or Robin Williams and mostly they are a sentimentalisation. I suspect true vocation may be not what pre-exists but what might, with luck, be discovered, and that it is less to do with idealism than most consider convenient.

I myself wandered in in much the same way some thirty-seven years ago, because a man has to do something, especially when his wife is expecting their first child, and when his degree is in Fine Art which offers a great deal, but not a career structure. I could have hung around and starved for a while, or tried to duck and weave, but that would have seemed a little unfair on C and the incipient other being. Teaching - school teaching then - was a job choice, not a career choice. In that respect it was like most jobs. It was so distinctly not a career choice that when three years later I was made head of an art department, only because I was older than my one departmental colleague, I had reached the pinnacle of most art teachers' academic career without ever even trying to reach it.

Did I regard being a young head of department as a triumph? Not in the least. Did the fact of having to be a schoolteacher at all seem like a defeat? My mother thought so. She had higher hopes. It seemed neither triumph nor disaster to me. I just regarded it, as I have regarded almost everything, as interim.

So years passed in schools - I taught in a few of them - then I was asked to write a poetry course for the art college in Norwich (by that time I had published some six books of poetry and two or three of translation, which my mother would have liked, or at least been reassured by, but she, alas, was dead) and so I wrote the course and delivered it, first by myself, then with excellent others. After more than a decade of this I started teaching at the university, and that's where I am.

What I discovered over the years, slowly at first, ever less intermittently, was that I liked teaching. Not because I thought I had a stash of knowledge that I could dole out to the needy but because I liked thinking and talking with others about the subject. I liked it so much that there were times I thought:

Money for jam! You get to do it, you get to talk about it, you get young fresh people to talk to all the time and they tell you things, and then you have to rethink and re-articulate, and in re-articulating things you come across this truly fascinating thought and you wonder where it goes, so you follow it and try it out, and that leads to something else. And in the meantime the students get on and you like them as people (you do after all share an abiding interest) and when they do well it is genuinely a good feeling, because you don't get left out of it, and in any case you carry on doing what you yourself need to do, so you put up with institutions and procedures and all the stuff about best practice, some of which might be good practice, some of which is just piety, and you carry on thinking the real contract, the true contract, is what goes on in class and in discussions, which is something you take deadly seriously because it is, after all, the only proper human contract, and you hope that your idea of the contract is indeed the important thing, more important than ticked boxes (but you tick them) and the ancillary obligations (which you fulfil), because, surely, that's what you're there for, you now realize, to be part of this intense and necessary but courteous conversation that is the contract, because, you say, what else is there?

That's a very long passage in italics but maybe that is what a vocation might be. I know full well I have had it easy, and am lucky to be doing this, because I could be struggling to make myself heard in a hostile classroom down a bad street, except I know I wouldn't do it, would refuse to do it, and that those who do are heroes, not because they have the vocation, but because they have the persistence and the hope and the wit and the good will which remains good will despite the odds. And they run the risk of drying out, turning dull, turning petty, having their minds and bodies exhausted for little thanks, surviving perhaps through developing small, vital eccentricities.

This is written as a rather breathless riff at the end of two long teaching days. Sometimes I wonder whether I'd miss teaching if I stopped? Probably not. I'd probably be filling my head and time with other things, of the store of which there is no end. Nevertheless, there are rewards, and they are the ones I list above, so it's not a bad job, nor indeed a bad vocation, not today, not on the spur of the moment, the right moment that is, because the right moment is what you work towards and hope to enjoy, the chances being that if you enjoy it, others might too.

Monday 25 October 2010

Literature is for posh people

So an acquaintance said to me after he had come to hear Hugo Williams and I read at The Bicycle Shop. 'I'm a working class boy,' he says. 'Literature is not for me.'

Well, Hugo is Eton and glamorous in a sort of Bohemian theatrical top-notch sort of way, and if you're feeling sensitive about these things, then he is just a toff, and writes toff literature, because literature is for toffs.

It wasn't always like this, of course. The great project at the beginning of the 20th century - the WEA project, the Everyman project, the Penguin project - was to bring litterachewer to the masses, because litterachewer was not simply a class signifier, but the written experience of being human, and that written experience had been denied those without education. Certainly it carried its class origins with it, just as it carried its gender, ethnicity, and personal genes, but then educated people die too. They too are born, get sick, lose people, fall desperately in love, are disappointed in love, cheat and are cheated, grow old, wet themselves, and go ga-ga. The fact that they had eddication doesn't prevent the human cycle running them over. The human cycle is the great leveller.

The best most terrifying poem about ageing is by Hugo Williams. When I Grow Up is savage and funny and sad. It is not the poem of an Old Etonian. It is the poem of a man contemplating indignity and death. It is not litterachewer, it's a poem, and, frankly, class doesn't come into it at the point of contact.

There's no point in choosing your reading on the basis of social rank alone. Don't tell me that a working class boy is beyond litterachewer, that it's all posh talk and nothing to do with him. To think that is to bring shame to your class. Read John Clare, read Robert Bloomfield, read Blake, read Rosenberg, read Harrison. Read bloody Lord Byron! Don't just stand there, looking gormless and cross. Read something! You might learn something!

Sunday 24 October 2010

Sunday Night is... early Nat King Cole twice

Solid Potato Salad (with Oscar Moore and Johnny Miller).

And here, a little later, with dancer, in I'm An Errand Boy for Rhythm

All good happy music contains sadness inside it. That is what makes it happy music. It has worked its way there without having seemed to.

Something Understood

My poem, English Words, appears on Vesna Goldsworthy's Something Understood on Radio Four. The whole programme is here.

The text of the poem:

English Words

My first three English words were AND, BUT, SO;
they were exotic in my wooden ear,
like Froebel blocks. Imagination made
houses of them, just big enough to hang
a life on. Genii from a gazetteer
of deformations or a sprechgesang:
somehow it was possible to know
the otherness of people and not be afraid.

Once here, the words arranged their quaint occasions,
Minding their Manners, Waiting in the Queues
at Stops and Hatches, I got to know their walls,
their wallpaper and decorative styles,
their long louche socks, their sensible scuffed shoes.
Peculiar though: their enigmatic smiles
and sideways looks troubled my conversation
swimming in clouds above the steam of kettles.

You say a word until it loses meaning
and taste the foreignness of languages,
your own included. Sheer inanity
of idiom: the lovely words are dead,
their magic gone, evaporated pages.
But this too is a kind of spell: unread,
the vocables coagulate and sting,
glow with their own electricity.

I cannot trust words now. One cultivates
the sensuous objects in a locked museum:
their sounds are dangerous and must be heard
voluptuously, but behind thick glass.
Their emptiness appals one. One is dumb
with surprise at their inertia, their crass
hostility. They are beautiful opiates,
as brilliant as poppies, as absurd.

I'll try to conjure what I was thinking when I wrote this poem, about thirty years ago. It was one of a series, 'Appropriations', I wrote about our first years in England. The title of the set came later, and I dropped two or three poems from the group. The verse form was the same in every case: four verses of eight lines each, rhyming unobtrusively, ABCDBDAC.

My first three words were indeed, AND, BUT SO, as in the bilingual version of A A Milne's Now We Are Six. What I didn't then know was that they were set language exercises. Froebel Blocks are children's wooden building bricks. The first verse is laden with words foreign to English or slightly unfamiliar words: Froebel, genii, gazetteer, sprechgesang (speech-song).

The second verse involves English mannerisms and phrases. The idea of queueing, minding your manners, 'quaint' occasions such as waiting at bus stops, at dinner hatches, are slightly displaced in a verse full of wallpaper, shoes, long shorts, tea kettles. It tickled me to use the French word louche to describe things so English.

The third verse is about sound - how the sound of words has little to do with the things they refer to and the way words dissolve, on repetition, into nonsense sound. The sensuousness of language is partly attached to the associations of the words, but when the associations vanish, there isn't a complete vacuum. Sheer sound comes into its own. Something remains.

The distancing effect of seeing or hearing language from the outside, as it were, has the effect of putting a sheet of glass between us and it - 'there is more than glass between the snow and the huge roses', wrote MacNeice. The fourth verse watches words at work the way a voyeur watches other people. It is exciting. The words retain their power but are objects of suspicion. The poem turns to the most impersonal of English pronouns, 'one' to carry the voice. It is a form of self-awareness, I suppose, 'playing English' as if from the outside.

It can be hard knowing whether 'one' is inside or outside the glass case.

Saturday 23 October 2010

Don Juan

Her eye (I 'm very fond of handsome eyes)
Was large and dark, suppressing half its fire
Until she spoke, then through its soft disguise
Flash'd an expression more of pride than ire,
And love than either; and there would arise
A something in them which was not desire,
But would have been, perhaps, but for the soul
Which struggled through and chasten'd down the whole.

Her glossy hair was cluster'd o'er a brow
Bright with intelligence, and fair, and smooth;
Her eyebrow's shape was like th' aerial bow,
Her cheek all purple with the beam of youth,
Mounting at times to a transparent glow,
As if her veins ran lightning; she, in sooth,
Possess'd an air and grace by no means common:
Her stature tall—I hate a dumpy woman.

Wedded she was some years, and to a man
Of fifty, and such husbands are in plenty;
And yet, I think, instead of such a ONE
'T were better to have TWO of five-and-twenty,
Especially in countries near the sun:
And now I think on 't, 'mi vien in mente,'
Ladies even of the most uneasy virtue
Prefer a spouse whose age is short of thirty.

'T is a sad thing, I cannot choose but say,
And all the fault of that indecent sun,
Who cannot leave alone our helpless clay,
But will keep baking, broiling, burning on,
That howsoever people fast and pray,
The flesh is frail, and so the soul undone:
What men call gallantry, and gods adultery,
Is much more common where the climate 's sultry.

Happy the nations of the moral North!
Where all is virtue, and the winter season
Sends sin, without a rag on, shivering forth
('T was snow that brought St. Anthony to reason);
Where juries cast up what a wife is worth,
By laying whate'er sum in mulct they please on
The lover, who must pay a handsome price,
Because it is a marketable vice.

I love the way Byron can drift from subtle, veiled dissection of an effect in the first verse above, to a brief insulting aside ("I hate a dumpy woman"), before rounding on elderly husbands and philosophising on the difference in sensuality between hot and cold climates.

It is the airy discourse of a man confident in society, working his way through several glasses of fine liquor as he goes raising an eyebrow here, tipping a wink there, sighing, wrinkling his brow, laughing, digressing then moving on with the story. He is fully in control of tone and register. The swagger is becomingly tired but light. It is the end of the day not the beginning.

All this is a few verses from Chapter One. Of course it is light verse, but light verse with a muscular heroic sweep. The story blows past us like a gale, but never so much like a gale that we cannot turn from it to let fall some remark about something quite different.

That is what is so marvellous about Don Juan. Byron loafs, he clowns, he sings, then gets on with the tale. Auden did it without the heroics or the glamour, Tony Harrison could have done it technically, with a frown but without the aristocratic lightness (what use would he have for aristocratic lightness? a cavalier laddishness he could manage in his earlier poems). Most of us would look a little stiff in the costume, but there's no harm donning costume now and then. Perhaps we can wear it in.

One project brewing is a collaborative updating of the tale of Don Juan. Long deadline calling from afar.

Friday 22 October 2010

The Stretford End

In one of the strangest twists of any football story, Rooney has re-signed for Manchester United.

Was it the forty masked men, like the thieves in the story of Ali Baba, that terrified him? Did Coleen tell him off? His mum? Was it all a ploy to get the Glazers to release more money?

Or did he realise he had been misguided by his agent, one Paul Stretford, and so decide to break his chains and leap back into the cage?

In any case he will have lost almost all the affection in which he had been held. If he was being led on by Stretford he should sack the agent and find a new one. Time, I think, for a better and proper Stretford End.

Post Rooney

Good to hear Ian Holloway and Mark Lawrenson on this.

No point in speculating about all the reasons. I think Lawrenson is right and I think the splendid Ian Holloway is right.

Regarding Rooney's current stated reason for leaving - no investment in the team - Mark Pougach asks Lawrenson about Ronaldo and Tevez leaving and not being replaced.

I haven't seen it mentioned yet that hardly anyone had heard of Cristiano Ronaldo when he arrived at Old Trafford. For a season or two he was regarded as a flashy no-product luxury. Ferguson thought different, and he was right. No one had heard of Beckham and Scholes and the two Nevilles when they first came into the team ('You'll not win anything with kids'), and Giggs had already been dismissed - I remember it quite clearly, by Oliver Holt? - as someone who'll never be a great player now. Ronaldo wasn't a big money buy. Giggs, Scholes, Beckham, the Nevilles, Nicky Butt, Wes Brown, John O'Shea, Darren Fletcher, Jonny Evans cost nothing and are or have been all internationals. Solskjaer cost very little. No one had heard of Vidic or Evra when they arrived. The jury was out on all of them. It has been out on Nani but the verdict seems ever more likely to be favourable, and it has been out on Berbatov, but I am pretty sure that too will be favourable. The jury seems likely to approve of Raphael and Fabio, and it might well approve of Obertan. Anderson could come good. Bebe is a mystery, but I wouldn't bet against him. Valencia, Gibson, Cleverley, Welbeck, Hernandez, Smalling, have all looked very good at different times. Macheda might be fine. People, especially young players, need to start somewhere, just as the 1992-93 team did.

Not every buy was successful but they can't all be successful. There were disappointments: Kleberson, Djemba-Djemba, the various goalkeepers. On the other hand Ferdinand was good and Rooney was good, but they both reached their best at Manchester United, as did Keane and Cantona. Van de Saar has been outstanding at Old Trafford, beyond anything he might have achieved at Fulham.

Few players leaving Manchester United have spoken ill of Ferguson, and Hunter Davies is talking malicious rubbish when he suggests that all Ferguson can do is scream and shout. Plenty can scream and shout, but no one has produced results like Ferguson, or indeed loyalty like Ferguson.

The pride of the team has been less in its big money investments (who can be proud of a hideously wealthy oligarch or sheik buying whoever they fancy? that's not an achievement!) but its development of promise.

I just want Rooney to go now, as soon as possible. Let him follow the bigger money if that is what this is about, as Lawrenson suggests.

I rather relish the thought of playing without Rooney and coming through, not necessarily this season but in the next two or three. There is no divine right to be champions of everything all the time. If it weren't for the vast oceans of cash I'd welcome Manchester City's challenge, just as I do that of Spurs. It is quite mad in my opinion to insist that a club spend a fortune for the sake of spending a fortune. Far better not to, not just for the sake of economics, but for pride.

The Glazers are a nuisance and should go at a suitable moment. They are not so much a nuisance in themselves as through the whole principle of a leveraged buy-out. Given that as a mechanism, they have been no worse than anyone else would have been or has been, at, say, Liverpool.

If money is to be spent in my view, it is an outstanding creative midfielder the team needs rather than anything else. I doubt Carrick is the man, though he has been pretty good much of the time, better than he is given credit for at the bad times. A great midfielder might be worth paying big money for, but Ferguson could just as easily spot someone promising out of the corner of his eye, either within the club or somewhere else. I wouldn't be surprised him bid for Jack Rodwell. But then I wouldn't be surprised if he thought he had something else cooking.

I started supporting the team in 1958 after the Munich crash. I never expected to have so much success over such a long period. Ferguson has given far more than anyone dreamt he could have. The problems could begin after he goes, depending on whom they appoint. But that's another question.

Thursday 21 October 2010

Back from...

...Gort, which is not too far from Galway, where I was reading in the library that had been a church, the chapel of Lord Gort, in fact. I flew to Dublin rather than Galway because the flights to and from Galway are either very early or very late - in fact so very early or late, you'd really have to spend the night at Stansted.

Dublin Heuston station looks a little desolate and empty, not quite sure of itself. Not much to do there except sit on a bench and eat unspectacular lunch. The rail journey across Ireland is equally unspectacular though sunlit and the train is clean, comfortable and cheap. FJ meets me at Galway station which is even less spectacular than Dublin Heuston and considerably more desolate since it is currently undergoing reconstruction work and so has only one working platform, with no waiting room, no ticket office and no enquiries, but that I only find out next morning.

Fred is there waiting for me at 5pm. He has his little terrier, Tristan, with him. The enthusiastic friendliness of little dogs is cheering, even though Tristan clearly wants to spend the car journey in Fred's lap. Not allowed.

Along the way we stop at Coole Park, Lady Gregory's house, or rather grounds, since the house was destroyed in the Civil War. The woods are magnificent. Fred takes me to the autograph tree where the great and good of Ireland, including Yeats and Shaw, have engraved their names. He takes a photo of me standing by it. Meanwhile Tristan is belting round the park in absolute delight.

It is dusk when we arrive in Gort. We sit in a lovely cafe whose interior is covered in posters that demonstrate that Gort is not short of events that need posters. It's friendly and warm in there. The rain has just begun to fall. Fred tells me the Brazilian population of Gort did at one time, rather recently, exceed the native population. If Newcastle is Peru, than Gort is Brazil.

At the reading - well attended considering the size of the town - there is music then a young poet, younger at least than I am, sing and reads. His work is passionate proof that he believes - along with, possibly, a lot of other Irishmen and women - that I have just arrived from Evilland, the source of all darkness. I feel I should rise and declare that I have risen from the grave in which the wicked Englanders have tried to inter me but merely mention, when it comes to my turn, that though Churchill did in fact have Dresden bombed, he also saved a great number of European Jews from Hitler. I don't add that I personally have reason to be grateful to him for that. Indeed I wouldn't be here otherwise. Nor am I sure that the three greatest villains in the history of the world are Spenser, Cromwell and Churchill and that all three outrank Hitler in that department, but I suppose it all depends on where you are standing and the view from there: one's enemy's enemy being one's friend and so forth. Hitler stood against England. Good fellow there.

I do half an hour which goes well. People buy the few books I have brought and I exchange books with Fred, for his novel Atalanta (that I start reading on the journey home, and very good it is too). Before that we go to a bar in the main square, Fred, two friends and I, and sit around drinking coffee (and Jameson's in my case), discussing politics, as one does - politics and history and cities we have known. The friends are good people who put on Yeats's plays at home. By the time we're through talking it's getting on to 11 and it's half an hour to Galway. Midnight and bed. The hotel room is a bit chill.

I enjoy my visits to Ireland. Much intelligence and kindness. I always wonder how long they have to keep the demon England burning in the imagination. Small island at the back of the big island, on the far side of which lies Europe with her wars and terrors and mobile borders. But you can't see that from the small island because the big island is in the way. The big island is all the evil you know. It has to be all of the evil everywhere. So the only thing to remember about Churchill is Dresden. Concentrate on that alone and you're all right. It is important to keep our demons alive and burning, ideally grimacing at the same time. They are there for our comfort.

It's a long way to go for one reading but I'm a poet. It is my business to read when invited and I am glad to be invited.

Something on the great Wayne soon...

Tuesday 19 October 2010

Late and early

Back from reading with Hugo Williams at The Bicycle Shop in Norwich. Lovely occasion. So packed out some people couldn't get in. Hugo's poetry just sounds better and better to me as time goes by. The perfect pitch of that voice and the tension between self and story combine the funny and the tragic. Hugo is one of the few working Muse poets, as Graves would have recognised. All of life is a kind of Belle Dame Sans Merci, a Belle Dame first spotted in Health and Efficiency. The knight-at-arms loiters along, lopes and skips a bit, wearing his haggardness and woe-begoneness with laughter, depression and good grace.

Early morning to Gort.

Monday 18 October 2010

Three unpublished songs

Three unpublished songs to accompany Ana Maria Pacheco's In Illo Tempore series of paintings.

Burnt Fingers

Your fingers are flames,
your eyes shift like fish in a tank.
No-one plays games
on the way to the grave or the bank

Your fingers get burned
in the act. Your eyes are closed down.
The money you’ve earned
is as fuel to the fire. The fish drown.

You’re blind with a stump
for a hand, it’s the luck of the draw.
All hands to the pump
is the cry, but you can’t buck the law.

You know how it feels
when there’s nothing between you and death?
Nor prayers nor squeals
draw attention so just save your breath.

Save breath if you can,
save your money, save souls or save none.
Burn like a man
while there’s fire till the burning is done.


Body secretes smoke
among fluids and phlegm
you blow out bubbles of air
men choke on them

you blow out bubbles of air
you seep thin lines of grey
fire’s a chemical reaction
seeping away

fire’s a chemical reaction
the smoke an experiment
you yourself are aflame
your body spent

you yourself are aflame
so you must burn and waste
sweet sister, sweet brother, sweet smoke
a bitter taste

sweet sister, sweet brother, sweet smoke
among fluids and phlegm
blow out your bubbles and let
men choke on them.

Rook, Raven, Crow

You can never tell how things will turn out
but accidents come in threes,
strange how you panic with fingers like flames
and baulk at these:

Rook, raven and crow.

All silent, all damned, or all gagged, who can tell?
Who put the damned things there in the first place?
And why do you put on such a show of fright
with a mask on your face

more beak than mask, more carrion than crow?
It’s your bloody aviary. You should know.

Pacheco's sinister, magical figures glimmered through this series of paintings. Lots of fire and smoke. No smoke without fire, of course.

Tomorrow I read with Hugo Williams at The Bicycle Shop, Norwich. Early next morning I fly to Ireland to read in Gort. May be able to post then if only briefly.

Sunday 17 October 2010

Sunday night is... Sid James's Male Gaze

Amanda Barrie returns gaze.

Male Gaze

You don't have to say anything, you just have to look. It's the way you look. Or rather how it may be possible to interpret the way you look. Offence is defined by the offended and people like being offended. It puts them on top.

Is there such a thing as a female gaze? If there is I expect it is good and loving and everything that is right with the world, unlike its male counterpart. Do women look at men or each other appraisingly? Do they consider attractiveness? Surely not!

As Suzanne Moore comments on Valerie Solanas (over at Norm's)

Scum's terrorism will be a kind of withdrawal from the money system and workforce. Women will 'unwork' until they get fired, in which case they will get another job to unwork at. Eventually the system will collapse, there will be electronic voting on every issue, and no more males will be born, because artificial insemination will take care of reproduction. In the end, however, no more females will be born, either. Solanas makes us uneasy because she understood that one of the major problems for feminism was, and still is, not just 'men', but women's relationship to their own oppression, their willing collaboration in it.

But guys, don't despair. It's really not all bad news. Scum will conduct versions of 12-step meetings to which men can go to recite phrases such as 'I am a turd, a lowly abject turd'. Men who are rational (that includes New Statesman readers, surely?) won't struggle against Scum; they will 'just sit back, relax, enjoy the show and ride the waves to their own demise'. Now whoever said there were no more happy endings?

I am a little lost as to the level of irony here ('guys, don't despair') but I suppose it's all right because it isn't a man saying it.

Just a few weeks ago I was in the company of a number of very talented and very nice young-to-middle aged female poets who were discussing which male poets were shaggable. It was charming. (I suggested Byron if they were into necrophilia.) Two or three males sat on sofas knowing full well this was not a conversation to which they would be invited to produce a public equivalent. Perish the thought! Their thought that is.

Female strippers for men? Disgusting, shameful exploitation! Male strippers for women? Note the celebratory atmosphere in the famous scene from The Full Monty. See how much altogether nicer this is? Liberation.

Meanwhile there is always conversation.

Saturday 16 October 2010


There is usually a useful little bon mot from the Duc de la Rochefoucauld on most matters. On conversation he says: The reason that there are so few good conversationalists is that most people are thinking about what they are going to say and not about what the others are saying.

Good man, there.

I don't know about conversation. Talking is interesting when there is a partner to talk and listen to. It's world class ping pong at best, and decent county level most times. There's always the Pinteresque when stuck. Twos are entertaining.

It is also quite definitely possible to have fours in a fine doubles. Your shot, partner! I'll take that one! Well played, etc etc etc. I don't do the lingo of 'the tennis club event' very well but you get my drift.

Beyond that it's a bit like six or eight or ten-man tag-wrestling to me. All I see is the big man in the ring throwing bodies about, then he hands over to another big man (generally male, but not necessarily so) then there's more throwing of bodies. It's good spectacle sport for fifteen minutes or so, then I completely forget who has thrown who, and why X is climbing back back into the ring. And there's another figure who seems to have been briefly in the ring but has completely disappeared. Maybe he has skipped it back into the dressing room. God! Am I supposed to be in there? So I am! So it's not a spectator sport, after all!

Conversation in that sense loses me. I lose it. I lose the capacity, if I ever had it, of being an entertainer, or even to be entertained. I forget why I am in the ring. I forget I am in the ring at all. What I remember is why it was I wanted to write poetry. It was to get away from conversation. There was something I deeply loathed about it. What was it now?

Eventually of course it leads back to talking, because I am far from being a solitary and I like the talking-and-listening exchange. Though something in me - and maybe in all poets - is curiously solitary. Maybe it is true that we are all autistic at heart: poets as the autists of language.

Is this a matter of consequence to the world? Not in the least. Does it mean I am detached from the world? Not in the least. I am chockful of less than systematic opinions and ideas about it. Some of those impinge on the world of action. Sometimes, to tell the truth, I think it is only those ideas that really matter, and not so much the ideas either, as the action.

But then there is so much to be done with words. I don't think I have ever run over a word without trying pick it up and nurse it back to health. I am the milk of human kindness when it comes to words. I like the sound and look of them. I like their weight and smell and their sheer cussedness. I like to hear them breathe a little. I don't mind them offensive and unfashionable. I don't mind them in Elizabethan costume, in periwigs, in wellies, in tartan pullovers, in overalls. They can wear what they like. They can be as politically incorrect as they like. They haven't always been so, nor have all their users been evil. And if some have been evil, the words themselves remain fascinating.

But conversation in the general chat sense? I suspect I am an arid desert of chat with the odd quip in the occasional oasis. I hope to have some pseudo-dowsers clue as to where the water is running. I seek the currents, the subterranean brooks. Babbling brooks! The poetry is in there somewhere: in the relationship between that desert and that water.

Friday 15 October 2010

Marlie en famille

Marlie with G and C October 2010

Thursday. Just back from Newcastle, about to head off to London. C after a day of teaching.

Malcolm Allison lets RIP

Malcolm Allison would have been the bastard child of Paul Newman and John Wayne, going by appearances.

Sir Alec Ferguson called Paul Ince, 'a Big Time Charlie'. Not compared to Allison, he wasn't.

Out of the mouths of Allisons:

"A lot of hard work went into this defeat"
"You're not a real manager unless you've been sacked."
"John Bond has blackened my name with his insinuations about the private lives of football managers. Both my wives are upset."
"A lot of people in football don't have much time for the press; they say they're amateurs."

A darned pretty thing...

Mentioning John Cleveland brings me to the poet himself:

Mark Antony

Whenas the nightingale chanted her vespers,
And the wild forester couched on the ground,
Venus invited me in th' evening whispers
Unto a fragrant field with roses crowned,
Where she before had sent
My wishes' complement;
Unto my heart's content
Played with me on the green.
Never Mark Antony
Dallied more wantonly
With the fair Egyptian Queen.

First on her cherry cheeks I mine eyes feasted,
Thence fear surfeiting made me retire;
Next on her warmer lips, which when I tasted
My duller spirits made active as fire.
Then we began to dart
Each at another's heart,
Arrows that knew no smart,
Sweet lips and smiles between.
Never Mark Antony
Dallied more wantonly
With the fair Egyptian Queen.

Wanting a glass to plait her amber tresses,
Which like a bracelet rich decked mine arm,
Gaudier than Juno wears whenas she graces
Jove with embraces more stately than warm;
Then did she peep in mine
Eyes' humor crystalline;
I in her eyes was seen,
As if we one had been.
Never Mark Antony
Dallied more wantonly
With the fair Egyptian Queen.

Mystical grammar of amorous glances;
Feeling of pulses, the physic of love;
Rhetorical courtings and musical dances;
Numb'ring of kisses arithmetic prove;
Eyes like astronomy;
Straight-limbed geometry;
In her art's ingeny
Our wits were sharp and keen.
Never Mark Antony
Dallied more wantonly
With the fair Egyptian Queen.

What a darling delight, the poet is! Hard to resist lines like:

I am no poet here; my pen's the spout
Where the rain-water of my eyes runs out,
In pity of that name, whose fate we see
Thus copied out in grief's hydrography.

Now come, come sir! Cease thy copious weeping and spouting! This is In Memory of Edward King, as also lamented by Milton with his own grander, more formal hydrography. Or...

And he that for their colour seekes,
May find it vaulting in her cheekes,
Where Roses mixe: no Civil War
Betweene her Yorke and Lancaster.
The Marigold whose Courtiers face
Ecchoes the Sun, and doth unlace
Her at his rise, at his full stop
Packs and shuts up her gaudy shop...
- Upon Phyllis Walking in A Morning before Sun-rising

Sir, I have ever admired her Yorke and Lancaster. And Mr Cleveland also, upon the Scots:

What, shall our nation be in bondage thus
Unto a land that truckles under us?
Ring the bells backward! I am all on fire.
Not all the buckets in a country quire
Shall quench my rage. A poet should be feared
When angry, like a comet's flaming beard.

This from The Rebel Scot. Sir, there is no greater deprivation than to be in bondage to a people in bondage to us! A fearsome poet indeed, with a comet's flaming beard. Hey, Nobodaddy! My beard's on fire!

Thursday 14 October 2010

Kill the old

Interesting new mood developing and have heard two hints at it already on BBC of all places. The earlier hint might have been late night on Radio 5Live, I can't quite remember.

The thesis is that our generation has stolen the wealth and prospects of our children's generation and that the children will want revenge. The interviewer of Radio 5Live was encouraging the young to be angry and he did get one young man to suggest that the best thing would be to kill the old. It was quickly hushed by passing on to another question.

This morning on Radio 4, another presenter goes at the same subject, and with a certain glee he encourages the same hatred.

Interesting. We - I mean those now about sixty - are also the generation who saved and find our savings worth little, almost as little as our pensions. We never lived on credit cards in our youth and had no debts. We never bought into competitive consumer culture either: never bought a designer label item or indeed a new car. I think we have been on three actual holidays in about forty years.

It's fun for sadly deprived radio presenters to encourage drama, but this one I have already sorted out.

It's like this. I have seen the deterioration of two sets of parents. Deterioration and degredation. C's poor mother is in that vortex now. What I think is: Don't go there. They themselves did, after all, warn us often enough. Maybe ten more years, maybe fifteen, tops. If earlier then earlier, depending on circumstances.

My previously stated desire is to die on stage, to blow up and vanish in an insignificant puff of cosmic smoke, and I am perfectly consciously going the right way about it. If that does not happen, and if I am to be murdered by a younger person, stabbed with a sharpened credit card or bludgeoned to death with a designer-label hammer, or indeed in any other appropriately cool fashion , frankly I don't mind. I am only expressing a preference when I say I'd sooner do it myself, if that's OK with you. In the meantime, put your name down on the list of candidates. There seems to be a queue forming.

Wednesday 13 October 2010

Newcastle is or is not Peru where I am back from today. Tomorrow it will be London. The weeks continue peripatetic. Next week it's Ireland for a night. Peru is postponed. Or perhaps Newcastle was Peru? John Cleveland thought so:

England's a perfect world, has Indies too;
Correct your maps, Newcastle is Peru!

Cleveland 'the last of the Metaphysicals' was the most popular poet of his age (far more so than Milton, for example) and no fewer than 25 editions appeared between 1647 and 1700. His reputation declined, however, after Dryden's criticism that the poet was apt to deliver 'common thoughts in abstruse words'. His often dazzling conceits and comparisons were termed 'Clevelandism'...

...Cleveland seems to have been a destitute wanderer between 1646 and 1655, dependant on Royalist sympathisers for support. His actual whereabouts, however, are a mystery. It is not impossible that he spent time in the North East; the poem 'News from Newcastle' (first printed in 1651) is ascribed to him. It certainly has more of Clevelandism than other poems so ascribed, and whoever wrote it was a poet of more than usual accomplishment. He clearly also knew the Tyne very well. The beginning is arresting - and Newcastle is pronounced with the short 'a' that was the norm of polite speech until the early 19th century.
. Source.
It was Tony Harrison who picked up the line to make a poem in his Eagle Press pamphlet of 1969. I bought the 1974 Northern House edition or was given it in the early 80s.

...Shadow girders faced with sun
shimmer like heaped bullion.
Commerce and contraceptives glide
and circle on the turning tide...

Newcastle is in fact a handsome city. The weekend runs from Tuesday to Sunday there, they tell me.


On TV in Newcastle hotel I watch Chilean miners emerge from a narrow capsule just wide enough and long enough to hold a man. Like being born again, out of the earth.

Tuesday 12 October 2010

Wherever two or three are gathered together... Notes from a Dovecot conclaves, on committees, on boards, at formal meetings, the tendency to go agley is evident. People enter the meeting preoccupied by various other concerns, under time pressure. A camel is a horse designed by a committee, Issigonis is supposed to have said in 1958 or so, but it is not really a camel, more a menagerie: several creatures, each vivid, each with several heads, or alternatively no head, more chicken than camel.

I am not one of nature's natural committee-men though I have found myself on boards, and indeed chairing them at times. I am not natural because my mind is continually elsewhere, or trying to catch up with itself. I sometimes think it is more like a dovecot with birds leaving and entering at will. Going agley has been a fairly productive direction for them: agley is where they go.

I do, however, have an inordinate admiration for the properly systematic and conscientious. People like my father. I aim to be both, but conscience tends to prevail over system, and, without system, even conscience breaks down. The dovecot is, in effect, the system. It is not that I bear any close resemblance to a dove, and I am not even sure that it is doves rather than wasps or crows or pigs flying in and out ('Why should the aged eagle spread its wings?' cried Eliot in 'Ash Wednesday', briefly considering himself aged, though only thirty-nine at the time - not to mention the eagle) but the spatial arrangement is about right. A headful of rustlings and feathers might suggest a birdbrain, but I'm not entirely that. I am as capable as anyone of drawing a line of intellect from A to B and triangulating to C. And yet..

...And yet there remains the rustling and the flapping in and out: the boards and committees await developments. They are all heading off in their own various directions. I open my mouth and out fly a cloud of feathers with a bird of some description in the middle of it. Singing or squaking, it flies off. With a bit of luck it homes, carrying something like an olive leaf.

Monday 11 October 2010


Hard to get away from news of the toxic sludge spill in Hungary. Arrest made. Whether the director of the company is the guilty man or the scapegoat remains to be seen.

In many ways this is a throwback to the pre-1989 days, when it was easier to get away with laxness and corruption because there was less direct responsibility. All the old Soviet bloc countries were polluted to an extent not tolerated in Western Europe.

In other ways it is very much of today, an oddly symbolic terror at a time when laxness and corruption haven't gone away but find other channels to operate in and are not to be explained by the depredations of a single, monolithic party.

It is horrible and sad. I haven't been to Hungary this year and will probably not go, since the government withdrew the funding for the conference I was due to appear at. Next year I must go again. There is something in the temper of the place at the moment that I find difficult, but dear friends are dear friends, the city is the city, and the temper might be no more than a passing mood at a hard time. The consolations of history are never altogether consoling.

Sunday 10 October 2010

Sunday night is... Lacrymosa from Berlioz 'Grande Messe des Morts'

Reading in Chelmsford last night with Annie Freud and Luke Kennard, back late, C driving me as I fall asleep. This to wake me up.

Reflections on the course? Later, if I am still alive. I arrive home to a choir of work, all parts singing loudly and across each other. I need a very big choir to set the voices into order. Can't do better than this, the full Cecil B. de Mille daemonic, blowing away the dust and a few more useless brain cells. It is Hector Berlioz and God bless all the thousands that sail in his Grande Messe des Morts.

It's Late Romanic's version of thrash Heavy Metal. Up the volume there, give us more Dies Irae, and burst those useless eardrums!

Saturday 9 October 2010


Very late indeed, so no time for anything. Reciting by heart at the end. Time moves on as do I, to Chelmsford tomorrow for the Essex Festival, with Annie Freud and Luke Kennard, who will have seen enough of me recently to last him a lifetime.

Friday 8 October 2010

Book guilt: character

A conversation tonight about book guilt, the guilty pleasure of reading for pleasure. I suspect this is fairly common among writers, and I myself suffer from it. I have to do so much reading as part of my work - much of it with its own pleasures of course - that reading something simply because I feel like it seems transgressive and wrong. This is particularly the case with novels, since I am not much good at reading a chapter at a time. My tendency is to seize on a novel and devour it, paper, binding and all. That's when it's good. When it is less than good I am seized instead by a kind of fury and I either let it drop or throw it at the wall. I have gone to the trouble of all this guilt for this?! Granted, I rarely throw novels, but they have all too often been known quietly to drop from my hand never to be picked up again.

The idea of seizing the lot at once might very well be one of the problems of being a lyric poet, albeit one of a historical, faintly philosophical, faintly epic, temperament. I want the experience whole, like a poem: something complete at a deep, instinctive glance. At the same time, a single paragraph of a well written novel can detain me for a lot longer than it probably should, to the extent that I cease caring about the fates of the characters. In other words I read it as if it were a poem. Not as something poetic: as a poem. There is the deep glance with all the pleasures of texture, music and ambiguity

Most characters in most novels don't do very much for me, chiefly because I have a shaky grasp of character. I don't quite believe in character as such. I mean in real people too. People are rarely full characters to me. People's characters are an impenetrable other, just as impenetrable as my own character is. People are certainly presences, which is quite a different thing. It may be that characters have to appear in stories to be recognised. The best I can do in terms of story is the bottomless anecdote, in which some incident or other is played out against the white noise of history. History is the sensation of phenomena as echo: presence is phenomenon as haunting.

Characters in the best novels convince me by a kind of permanent believable presence. I can engage with them fully as I can with the presence of other people. The white noise of their own history walks around with them, making a faint, ghostly, buzzing noise that is the equivalent of haunting.

I suspect there are very few people we can feel deep and lasting love for in their absence, maybe only a handful in a lifetime. We feel partly constructed by them. Their construction of us has been careful, loving, furiously passionate, yet calm. What they have wanted to construct is ourselves as we are in their presence. It is, furthermore, how we would have wished to be constructed. Few people in a lifetime can construct us that way. It is good to be constructed. Constructed, that is, as both presence and character.

Maybe that which is desirable in life, in other people, is precisely what is desirable in a book. And vice versa. I must therefore assume that my desire is for that which is complete at a deep instinctive glance. That and the accompanying white noise of history that buzzes in their voices and glows in their bones.

Thursday 7 October 2010

Force field

I lead the session this morning, trying to work towards the idea of the longer poem, the chain of ideas, sensations and feelings that resists closing off (I am resisting the word 'closure' for now because I am not primarily concerned with the argument that uses 'closure' as a debating term). We follow a winding path through the effect of broken regularity in metre, to the sense of what a sonnet is, or might be. I have made a rather hasty selection of sonnets, from Geoffrey Hill, Roger McGough, Paul Muldoon, Robert Garioch, Edwin Morgan, but we don't get past Muldoon's Brownlee that arouses quite strong reactions, partly hostile, on account of the cleverness that is thought to be not as clever as it thinks it is, though it has its passionate defenders too.

We think about cleverness and artifice. I propose that artifice is simply art, something something we use to construct any sentence whatever, not only in the sense that the sentence functions but in that it has a certain way of sitting. It is interesting, I suggest, how flexible the sonnet has proved to be whereas the ballade, say, or the villanelle or the sestina, despite some experiments here and there, have remained more stable as forms. That might be because sonnets correspond to a particular (western) idea of adequate space and flexible proportion. Taken as whole - the historical body of the range of sonnets - they work as force field rather than a prescription, so while we can see what the various versions have in common (line length , the possibilities of a given space, a given inhabited space in the given conditions) we can also see in what respects they differ.

Let's imagine then a room of a certain size in which not only the furniture, the disposition of doors but the very material of the walls may change. The sense of proportioned space is, I suspect, a human given. Someone mentions the Golden Section and there is an element of truth in that, though paintings composed according to the Golden Section would eventually grow dull. As would entirely conventional sonnets, unless charged by some peculiar reviving energy - some new being inhabiting them.

Is the idea of rooms too cosy? Think then of the variety of rooms, from the poorest to the richest, from the barest to the most crowded, from the thickest wall to the thinnest, to the broken wall. Why assume the room is what you are used to, with all the usual comforts?

As to artifice as cleverness? Is a mono-cyclist on the high wire merely clever? Is the form of display a circus performer adopts entirely cerebral? It depends on the danger, on the height of the wire. Changing tack, I return to my Midnight Skaters analogy of chaos as the deep pond with the thin ice of language on top, the ice on which ice the poem is invited to skate. The tightrope act is no good unless the wire is high, the skating unexciting unless the the ice is thin. The pond has to be deep and deadly. And the pond is deeper, murkier, deadlier; the ice thinner and more fragile than we, in our comfortable rooms, tend to think. Thinner in fact almost everywhere.

Tuesday 5 October 2010


Mimi Khalvati reads her sestina about elephants. I have a sestina called, 'Elephant'. I decide to read it. Let there be more than one elephant in the room.

Otherwise a bout of colds going the rounds.

Norman Wisdom died yesterday. I saw some of his films at the cinema as a boy. There is a long study to be made of the amiable, unglamorous, positively incompetent idiot falling in love with the glamorous but not too scary blonde who acts part mother, part elder sister to the good-hearted nincompoop and finally becomes his love match. Chaplin, Fernandel, Formby, Wisdom. I am sure this says something about male-female romantic relations, but will not venture onto that ground yet.

Late, close to midnight. The blue remembered hills invisible in the dark.

Monday 4 October 2010

Gallop to Salop: Voice and its bugs

Apropos of answering questions and hearing the answers when the questions disappear.

It is true that we aim at rational discourse, continuity, coherent narrative, and the rest in speech, but we often note how 'naturalistic' speech in drama is far from natural. It has been edited into continuity and coherence, shaped to function within other shapes that are, in turn, ordered to follow each other in a way that also aspires to coherence.

Though we do at times ask what coherence is about. When I translate Marai, for instance, I know I am not rendering natural Hungarian speech into natural English speech. The only natural presence is the mind of the author who is, naturally, curious. Curious about what? About what happens when you follow an idea through to its conclusion perhaps. Curious about what happens to people when presented with certain situations. Because we are - despite John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester ('I'd be a Dog, a Monkey, or a Bear / Or any Thing but that Vain Animal / Who is so Proud of being Rational') - a rational species. It's just that our rationality is far from perfect in that it is infected by other rationalities of desire and desolation. Our programmes have bugs in them.

But, it is interesting to argue, that may be because language, the chief instrument of rationality, is full of bugs. What is more, these bugs settle on precisely our most reassuring pieces of logic, our very best sentences, rendering them numb, turning them into mere machines. It is one of the reasons poetry is in league with silence and unreason, the reason it will not trust entirely to syntax.

A floating word or phrase emerges out of some discourse, and its potential seems more vibrant than the full sentence from which it has escaped. Not that we don't want the sentence, not that we don't want syntax, not that we expressly desire NOT to proceed from A to B without let or hindrance. We desire reason and the products of reason. We need science and law and commerce. But not only these things. These things are never enough. The language machine produces the goods, but the goods are faulty, the bugs of language have got into them.

But here I am, having written this far, made my way to this point of the argument I have with myself, or not even so much myself, as the language that comprehends things like selves, even here, in Shropshire, a little past 11 pm on a cold night. And I think I am making sense.

Sunday 3 October 2010

Sunday Night is... The Rhythm of the Rain

The Cascades. I am thirteen in 1962 and this worms its flimsy way into my still tin, newly-English ear; and now, watching the rain - stopped right now for a few minutes? - it comes back. The potency of cheap music and all that: the music of nothing much but a few chords, a sad trite tune, some clean cut boys whose faces merge with that of other contemporary clean cut boys, Bobby Vee, Bobby Darin, The Bachelors, Cliff and the rest, just ticking over, waiting for the real Sixties to begin. It's coming, lads. It's almost there. Just round the corner, in 1963, you can hear Gerry and the Pacemakers singing How Do You Do It (those girls! I knew them all! thought about them, went to school with them) - or was it I Like It - as I did, in the school corridor, after a football match, near the hall on a Saturday when somebody brought in a transistor radio, and I thought: This is new.

The early Sixties are to be taken only in small doses. I think this is small enough.

Out of the mouths of Facebook: synasthaesia and alchemy

Out of a harmless status report of merely two lines to the effect that I was marking MA scripts and noting the Naples Yellow colour of the sky, developed a very long conversation with various people, in which Alfred wondered what the English equivalent of Rimbaud's famous poem Voyelles (Vowels) might be. I suggested some colours appropriate for the rounded English vowels, as well as some for the more plentiful Hungarian pure vowels, that's to say no dipthongs (dipthongs are not a form of underwear.)

Fine says Alfred, now write the sonnet. So I did, and this is it:

The English Vowels
After Rimbaud

A- Butter yellow, E- Ice blue, I – scarlet:
There’s your beginning. So you move beyond,
to O – deep Brunswick Green, U – violet.
The butter yellow thickly spread, bright blond

on breakfast tables. Meanwhile, ice blue E
greets day with a frozen look, its cold eye
shifting past the newspapers and coffee,
though nothing can suppress the scarlet I

in its heart, a cry rounded to fire shape
moving across the O of Brunswick Green:
the shock of declaration, a mouth agape
with grass. Elsewhere the poor shuffle between,

park and home, from underground to dole queue,
under the violet gaze, from A to U.

Charlotte responds with a poem, at the end of which she suggests that protestants in other countries had stolen the suns we might have had. I agree and suggest:

The Methodists and Strict Baptists can share the blame for the weather. Where is the Methodism in this madness? Why the strictures in a furious devout drench such as Baptists demand? Quaker weather would be plain: let your rain be rain and your snow be snow. Anglican weather would surely be moderate and ecumenical: a bit of everything among the nicest possible, slightly troubled clouds. As to Catholic weather I presume the Pope's in charge of that. Jewish weather? Don't ask!
But it is an intriguing question. Do Buddhists have weather at all? Is Hindu weather the reincarnation of earlier weather? Satanists presumably prefer black clouds and a shower of frogs. Spiritualists consult directly with the spirits whose task it is to move the clouds about. This has no discernible effect on the weather, it's just a form of radiant communication involving glossolalia.

Saturday 2 October 2010

Back to Wrestling

After years of not going to wrestling tonight we went again, the venue being just ten minutes walk from home. One of my current MA students is a wrestler as well as a poet and we were hoping to see him, but when we arrived he told us he was off the bill. The venue was in fact the Leisure Centre, the main hall where people normally play table tennis or badminton or netball or basketball or practice climbing. It has broad general lighting, nothing special for the ring, set up for the occasion.

There is a long history to this that I have written about before. Briefly, one time I was going to write a novel about a wrestler so I went to wrestling, spoke to wrestlers and promoters, wrote articles and even poems, but the novel eluded me. Not because of wrestling but because of the novel form. That's by the by, for now.

Returning to wrestling after several years I am struck again by its nakedness and rawness. There is a kind of poetry to it, but it's one that employs a very small vocabulary of some fifty words, if that. That's not to disqualify it as poetry because folk poetry, broadsides, ballads, spells and curses work on small vocabularies too. The vocabulary in the case of wrestling would involve some technical terms for holds, throws and general moves, some words for the range of characters involved, the blue-eyes and heels of various hues, and the words used by the spectators: Rip his head off! Break his arm! Get up! Don't let him beat you! Cheat! Who are you!? and a small range beyond that.

The contest began with an eight-man tag match between four 'Italians' and four 'Brits'. There were chants of Where's your pizza?! and Ingerlund! The Italian angle brought home the grand opera element. In summer we saw Don Giovanni performed by puppets in Prague: there is something of it in English wrestling, an arte povera of masque without masks.

Is it brutal? Absolutely. That is the idea, but it is shadows of brutality we are watching, and the strongly working class crowd - half of them children - suspend their disbelief in it for as long as it pleases. I say opera, but it's just as much circus, funfair, Punch and Judy, and allegory.

The allegory is simple. The bad often win. The referee / judge is blind. The good, with whom you identify, are guaranteed nothing but your fervent support. That's life. Your fury, your powerlessness, your inarticulacy is articulated by these gesturing, nimble, energetic tumbling windbags, vandals, furies and buffoons who are, at the same time, heroes and demons.

Ancient stuff. Slightly terrifying, slightly cosy, slightly daemonic. The poetry of the slap in the face, of the matchbox soaking in the rain.

Left at the interval from sheer exhaustion. C with mother all day, cooking, cleaning, arranging, persuading and worrying, then driving back 90 miles. Sorry to miss the properly heroic Sweet Saraya more than anything, the first female wrestler we saw those years ago in London. Still lithe and dark, with her whole wrestling family.

Friday 1 October 2010

Control Freakery and Love

Another train journey, on which I read of a dying woman who leaves 100 instructions to her husband on how to bring up their young sons. They run from Kiss boys two times after I've gone, through Would like R to learn recorder or guitar, F the drums and electronic keyboard and Would love the boys to find four leaved clovers and Don't fill outside with your boats, give boys space to play down to Sort out fish tank, pebble chess set, netball centre.

This may be understandable but it is rather horrific. Maybe R hates the recorder and guitar. Maybe F is tone deaf. Maybe there are no four leaved clovers in the vicinity. Maybe the remaining ninety-five instructions are just ninety-nine too much. Maybe there is too much love going round and round and round.

The annals are not empty of women who leave loving instructions on where to find things in the kitchen and other useful tips. It is kindness, solicitude, fate, what you will. Always remember I love you. Never forget. That way lies the classic Jewish Mother.

My own mother, when she knew she was going to die (it was a consummation devoutly to be wished as far as she was concerned), did some mad things. She recorded Happy Birthday To You on a tape so that we should play it on our birthdays. We could have played and replayed the same recording (not that we could bear to) for years on end but she was not satisfied with that. Each birthday, for some ten years into the future, was recorded separately. The same cracked voice actually repeating the same sad tune ten or more times. I cannot quite live with the mad recordings but I know they are there. They are part of the psychological floor that must be walked on.

Her love needed to be present, even though she personally needed to be absent. In the same way, the woman with the hundred instructions needs to be present. I am only doing it for you is a complex truth. The only time I got my face slapped by my dad was when I queried the principle. Something of it in him too, I suspect.