Saturday 31 December 2011

For New Year's Eve, 2011

Louis MacNeice
Prayer Before Birth

I am not yet born; O hear me.
Let not the bloodsucking bat or the rat or the stoat or the
club-footed ghoul come near me.

I am not yet born, console me.
I fear that the human race may with tall walls wall me,
with strong drugs dope me, with wise lies lure me,
on black racks rack me, in blood-baths roll me.

I am not yet born; provide me
With water to dandle me, grass to grow for me, trees to talk
to me, sky to sing to me, birds and a white light
in the back of my mind to guide me.

I am not yet born; forgive me
For the sins that in me the world shall commit, my words
when they speak me, my thoughts when they think me,
my treason engendered by traitors beyond me,
my life when they murder by means of my
hands, my death when they live me.

I am not yet born; rehearse me
In the parts I must play and the cues I must take when
old men lecture me, bureaucrats hector me, mountains
frown at me, lovers laugh at me, the white
waves call me to folly and the desert calls
me to doom and the beggar refuses
my gift and my children curse me.

I am not yet born; O hear me,
Let not the man who is beast or who thinks he is God
come near me.

I am not yet born; O fill me
With strength against those who would freeze my
humanity, would dragoon me into a lethal automaton,
would make me a cog in a machine, a thing with
one face, a thing, and against all those
who would dissipate my entirety, would
blow me like thistledown hither and
thither or hither and thither
like water held in the
hands would spill me.

Let them not make me a stone and let them not spill me.
Otherwise kill me.

New Year's Eve birthday


Our son, Tom (aka Shur-i-Kan) was born on New Year's Eve. Happy Birthday, Tom!

Seven Haiku for Tom

New Year’s Eve again,
a threshold to trip over
before tumbling through.

Unboxed just five days
after Boxing Day, like a
late Christmas present,

child of the winter,
of stables, stars, and Magi,
son of the old year.

The very next day
the year begins. You enter
it without knowing.

Nobody knows it.
We slip into the future
like newborns, eyes closed

while the year opens
again, again, and again,
as for the first time,

under the same stars,
tripping over the threshhold
tumbling through, through, through.

Thursday 29 December 2011

Becket and Malthus: two Toms

Thomas a Becket and Thomas Malthus

from Chambers' Book of Days for 30 December


In connection with the renowned Thomas Becket, a curious story is related of the marriage of his parents. It is said that Gilbert, his father, had in his youth followed the Crusaders to Palestine, and while in the East had been taken prisoner by a Saracen or Moor of high rank. Confined by the latter within his own castle, the young Englishman's personal attractions and miserable condition alike melted the heart of his captor's daughter, a fair Mohammedan, who enabled him to escape from prison and regain his native country. Not wholly disinterested, however, in the part which she acted in this matter, the Moor's daughter obtained a promise from Gilbert, that as soon as he had settled quietly in his own land, he should send for, and marry his protectress. Years passed on, but no message ever arrived to cheer the heart of the love-lorn maiden, who there-upon resolved to proceed to England and remind the forgetful knight of his engagement.

This perilous enterprise she actually accomplished; and though knowing nothing of the English language beyond the Christian name of her lover and his place of residence in London, which was Cheap-side, she contrived to search him out and with greater success than could possibly have been anticipated, found him ready to fulfil his former promise by making her his wife. Previous to the marriage taking place, she professed her conversion to Christianity, and was baptized with great solemnity in St. Paul's Cathedral, no less than six bishops assisting at the ceremony. The only child of this union was the celebrated Thomas Becket, whose devotion in after-years to the cause of the church, may be said to have been a befitting recompense for the attention which her ministers had shewn in watching over the spiritual welfare of his mother.


The first edition of the work, which has conferred on him such notoriety, appeared in 1798, under the title of An Essay on the Principle of Population, as it affects the Future Improvement of Society, with Remarks on the Speculations of Mr. Godwin, M. Condorcet, and other Writers. In subsequent issues, the title of the work was changed to its present form: An Essay on the Principle of Population; or a View of its Past and Present Effects on Human Happiness, with an Inquiry into our Prospects respecting the Future Removal or Mitigation of the Evils which it occasions.

The leading principle in this work is, that population, when unchecked, doubles itself at the end of every period of twenty-five years, and thus increases, in a geometrical progression, or the ratio of 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32; whilst the means of subsistence increases only, in an arithmetical progression, or the ratio of 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. The author discusses the question of the various restrictions, physical and moral, which tend to keep population from increasing, and thus prevent it outstripping the means of subsistence in the race of life. A misapprehension of the writer's views, combined with his apparent tendency to pessimism in the regarding of misery and suffering as the normal condition of humanity, has contributed, notwithstanding the philosophical soundness of many of his theories, to invest the name of Malthus with much opprobrium.

When the common or vulgar impression regarding Mr. Malthus's celebrated essay is considered, it is surprising to find that the man was one of the most humane and amiable of mortals. His biographer tells us, it would be difficult to overestimate the beauty of his private life and character. His life:

'a perpetual flow of enlightened benevolence, contentment, and peace;' 'his temper mild and placid, his allowances for others large and considerate, his desires moderate, and his command over his own passions complete.' 'No unkind or uncharitable expression respecting any one, either present or absent, ever fell from his lips All the members of his family loved and honoured him; his servants lived with him till their marriage or settlement in life; and the humble and poor within his influence always found him disposed, not only to assist and improve them, but to treat them with kindness and respect' 'To his intimate friends, his loss can rarely, if ever, be supplied; there was in him a union of truth, judgment, and warmth of heart, which at once invited confidence, and set at nought all fear of being ridiculed or betrayed. You were always sure of his sympathy; and wherever the case allowed it, his assistance was as prompt and effective as his advice was sound and good.'

Becket's connection with Wymondham is described in Wiki, here. The Chapel was, until recently, the library. Now it is a successful art centre. The house by the railway crossing is called Becketswell Cottage. Between Thomas and Samuel of almost the same name, Wymondham ought to find some common ground. Perhaps it might yet.

As to Malthus, more another time. It is late and we have been swimming in the social stream all day so I feel I have grown scales and gills.

Wednesday 28 December 2011


More from Chambers' Book of Days

The kind of advertisements, now called circulars, were often, formerly, printed on the backs of playing-cards. Visiting cards, too, were improvised, by writing the name on the back of playing cards. About twenty years ago, when a house in Dean Street, Soho, was under repair, several visiting cards of this description were found behind a marble chimney-piece, one of them bearing the name of Isaac Newton. Cards of invitation were written in a similar manner. In the fourth picture, in Hogarth's series of 'Marriage-a-la-Mode,' several are seen lying on the floor, upon one of which is inscribed: 'Count Basset begs to no how Lade Squander sleapt last niter Hogarth,' when he painted this inscription, was most probably thinking of Mrs. Centlivre's play, The Basset Table, which a critic describes as containing a great deal of plot and business, without much sentiment or delicacy.

An animated description of a round game at cards, among a party of young people in a Scottish farmhouse, is given in Wilson's ever-memorable Nodes. It is the Shepherd who is represented speaking in this wise:

'As for young folks—lads and lasses, like—when the gudeman and his wife are gaen to bed, what 's the harm in a ggem at cairds? It's a chearfu', noisy, sicht o' comfort and confusion. Sic luckin' into anither's banns! Sic fause shufflin'! Sic unfair dealin'! Sic winkin' to tell your pairtner that ye hae the king or the ace! And when that wunna do, sic kickin' o' shins and treadin' on taes aneath the table—often the wrong anes! Then down wi' your haun' o' cairds in a clash on the boord, because you've ane ower few, and the coof maun lose his deal ! Then what gigglin' amang the lasses! What amicable, nay, love-quarrels, between pairtners! Jokin', and jeestin', and tauntin', and toozlin'—the cawnel blown out, and the soun' o' a thousan' kisses!—That's caird-playing in the kintra,Mr. North; and where's the manamang ye that wull dour to say that it's no a pleasant pastime o' a winter's nicht, when the snow is cumin' doon the lum, or the speat's rearm' amang the mirk mountains.'

...There are few who sit down to a quiet rubber that are aware of the possible combinations of the pack of fifty-two cards. As a curious fact, not found in Hoyle, it is worth recording here, that the possible combinations of a pack of cards cannot be numerically represented by less than forty-seven figures, arrayed in the following order: 16, 250, 563, 659, 176, 029, 962, 568, 164, 794, 000, 749, 006, 367, 006, 400.


One thing I have often regretted when abroad is not having a proper business card / calling card. It's awkward handing them round in England - like holding a formal speech - but in Asia it is vital. People come all the way round a big circular table to hand you their card and, to tell the truth, it is useful, not so much for business purposes as to remember who they are. I have brought back several from China, some of them entirely in Chinese so I forget the person, but next to others I have written the occasion of our meeting.

I suppose the university could give cards to its teaching staff but universities in England are not like that. Professors tend to wear leisure clothes, say things like 'Hi' and leave it at that. In China the cards bear full titles. Somewhere in between might be the ideal.

As for actually playing cards I used to do more of that than I do now. At school I gambled for pennies and shillings, occasionally pounds, at pontoon and three-card brag. At home on sacred family Sundays, we played bridge or rummy for no stakes. I like cards as potentially numinous objects. Especially old Hungarian cards such as these:


Tuesday 27 December 2011

St John

A short series of excerpts from Chambers' Book of Days for the specific dates, with subjoined miscellanea and news.

Various fathers of the church, among others Tertullian and St. Jerome, relate that in the reign of Domitian, the Evangelist, having been accused of attempting to subvert the religion of the Roman Empire, was transported from Asia to Rome, and there, in presence of the emperor and senate, before the gate called Porta Latina, or the Latin Gate, he was cast into a caldron of boiling oil, which he not only remained in for a long time uninjured, but ultimately emerged from, with renovated health and vigour...

...Partly in reference to the angelic and amiable disposition of St. John, partly also, apparently, in allusion to the circumstance of his having been the youngest of the apostles, this evangelist is always represented as a young man, with a heavenly mien and beautiful features. He is very generally represented holding in his left hand an urn, from which a demoniacal figure is escaping. This device appears to bear reference to a legend which states that, a priest of Diana having denied the divine origin of the apostolic miracles, and challenged St. John to drink a cup of poison which he had prepared, the Evangelist, to remove his skepticism, after having first made on the vessel the sign of the cross, emptied it to the last drop without receiving the least injury. The purging of the cup from all evil is typified in the flight from it of Satan, the father of mischief; as represented in the medieval emblem. From this legend, a superstitious custom seems to have sprung of obtaining, on St. John's Day, supplies of hallowed wine, which was both drunk and used in the manufacture of manchets or little loaves; the individuals who partook of which were deemed secure from all danger of poison throughout the ensuing year...

The core days of Christmas are so filled with family and social gathering that thought and feeling tend to come in micro pulses rather than tides. Hence the fiddling with Twitter and the short burst on Facebook. The spaces and constraints of Twitter are interesting. Every form offers its notions of completion, and brevity is no different. Perhaps the brevities will join together in some way to make some kind of song.

Monday 26 December 2011


From Chambers Book of Days for 26 December:

Pantomimic acting had its place in the ancient drama, but the grotesque performances associated with our English Christmas, are peculiar to this country. Cibber says that they originated in an attempt to make stage-dancing something more than motion without meaning. In the early part of the last century, a ballet was produced at Drury Lane, called the Loves of Mars and Venus, 'wherein the passions were so happily expressed, and the whole store so intelligibly told by a mute narration of gesture only, that even thinking-spectators allowed it both a pleasing and rational entertainment. From this sprung forth that succession of monstrous medleys that have so long infested the stage, and which arise upon one another alternately at both houses, outlying in expense, like contending bribes at both sides at an election, to secure a majority of the multitude'

He's behind you! No, he isn't! Oh yes, he is! Oh no, he isn't!

There is something of a liturgical feel to these exchanges. The gestures too suggest a vulgar sacred space. I think of wrestling with its poses and attitudes: attempts to codify communal emotions.

Sunday 25 December 2011

Christmas Poem: Wish List


Wish List

Winter. The festive season. Notional snow.
Winter and sledges and stars. Crystal domes.
Ice crystals. Mountains of ice. Cosy homes
With log fires. Ah winter, how will we know
You? How will our bones recognize the freezing
Fog that tightens round them? How can we grow old
In the climate prepared for us when the cold
Within wants out, when winter starts easing
The locks of the flesh? Bring us your fairy lights
And tinsel. Bring us the shower of cards you promised.
Bring out the wrapping paper. Show us your wish-list
To keep us warm in our dotage on bad nights.
Let the residual gods do something useful.
Let them sing carols to us. Let them be youthful.

Art, detail from 'Red' by Clarissa Upchurch, Poem by George Szirtes

With our very best wishes to all visitors and returning readers. Let Christmas Day roll on!

Saturday 24 December 2011

Clarissa's China pictures: Going round in Circles

A selection from the garden palaces. All in Yangzhou. You can see more here, and, under Gallery at her website here

Friday 23 December 2011

Hungary & the closing down of democracy

"Democracy ends in Hungary today," LMP deputy Benedek Javor told the BBC, before he was taken away by police.

The opposition objects to key laws on elections, taxation and the central bank, set to be adopted by parliament.

They say the laws will tighten the ruling Fidesz party's grip on power.

Prime Minister Viktor Orban's centre-right Fidesz has an unprecedented two-thirds majority in parliament. It used a fast-track procedure leaving little time for debate on the new laws...

The European Commission, European Central Bank and credit rating agency Standard & Poor's (S&P) have voiced fears that Mr Orban's planned reforms of the Hungarian central bank could undermine its independence.

The parliament approved several government-proposed changes to the central bank bill on Friday to address the criticisms, Reuters reports. It is set to become law next week.

There is more about the demonstration here and here and more about the EU / economic background here.

After the various curbs on press freedom, the demonstration was not merely about the closing down of the greatest remaining opposition voice, Klubrádió, but it certainly offered a focus.

Hungary doesn't have a long tradition of democracy and the fingers of government, and most particularly the present government, Fidesz, are never too far from the trigger. With the closing down of Klubrádió the safety catch is well and truly off and Hungary has entered the next stage of its shift towards authoritarianism and dictatorship. The main opposition in parliament is currently Jobbik, the equivalent of the BNP, so it is not difficult for the prime minister, Victor Orbán, to push through legislation to silence the left and left-of-centre as effectively as possible.

The parliamentary balance being as it is Fidesz has hurried to change the constitutions of the major civil bodies, appointing its members and supporters into long term positions extending well beyond the life of the parliament, so that even should Fidesz lose an election the incoming government would be rendered ineffective.

Hungary has a highly developed, liberal intelligentsia, as well as a decent-sized liberal working urban population that finds itself less and less able to voice its opinion. Klubrádió was an important outlet for such opinion so it had to go.

What is also worrying is that young people in neighbouring Austria are turning in considerable numbers to the right wing (some say, far-right) FPÖ. It seems that 42% of the under thirties support it. (See page 2a here) Thanks to Poet in Residence for the link.

The old Austro-Hungarian Empire is gathering its ragged robes, adjusting its crooked crown, and priming its beer halls.


There is a petition to support Klubrádió here with my own statement. Írd alá a peticiót on the left means 'Sign the petition'. I have signed it and have put links to it on both my Facebook page and Twitter. If you care about such things, do sign. The Facebook link carries the following translation of the text of the petition:

*Say No to shutting down Klubrádió*

The panjandrums of the Department of National News and Media led by Annamaria Szalai have obediently followed the instructions of the Victor Orbán regime to close down Klubrádió, one of the last bastions of the free press in Hungary.

The Orbán regime wants to silence all dissent and clear the way to building an autocratic system of government free of all criticism.

We will not yield to the absolutes of power. We will raise our voice against the new despotism, Let us all say NO!

*I am signing this petition to protest against the shutting down of Klubrádió.*

Thursday 22 December 2011

Shakespeare's Songs from the plays: Full fathom five

Vaughan Williams 'Full Fathom Five' (from Three Shakespeare Songs) Performed by Sonitus Chamber Choir

Ariel's song from Shakepeare's 'The Tempest' in Peter Greenaway's 'Prospero's Books'. Music by Michael Nyman, vocal by Sarah Leonard.

      Here, said she,
Is your card, the drowned Phoenician Sailor,
(Those are pearls that were his eyes. Look!)
Here is Belladonna, the Lady of the Rocks,
The lady of situations. 50
Here is the man with three staves, and here the Wheel,
And here is the one-eyed merchant, and this card,
Which is blank, is something he carries on his back,
Which I am forbidden to see. I do not find
The Hanged Man. Fear death by water.
I see crowds of people, walking round in a ring....


'You know nothing? Do you see nothing? Do you remember

        I remember
Those are pearls that were his eyes.
'Are you alive, or not? Is there nothing in your head?'

Full flotsam firth, thy feathers lour / fool flitter fro, thy fillies lay / flee fellows fro, thy fervent lure...

Ariel's song from the play that is most thoroughly a poem. Yes, I know about the colonial aspect and how, in some readings, you might regard Caliban, the slave, as the true hero. You might do that, though a heavily polemical reading sets you facing one way only. Magic and manipulation, the ideal society, lost and usurped power, the ceremony of innocence that is almost drowned, the opposition of mischievous spirit and lusting flesh... All that and more is in there because it is poetry as well as action and idea.

The idea that we become exotic, rich and strange, with pearls for eyes - even to ourselves, at the end - is important to the poem / song. We are, after all strange, very strange, most of all to ourselves. We may drown but we get the music and the pearls.

Late, tomorrow one last Shakespeare song

Late back, a bit more Shakespeare tomorrow, in the meantime some of Michael Wolf's haunting photographs of people on crowded Hong Kong trains, here:

Faces pressed agains windows. Explore more.

Tuesday 20 December 2011

Shakespeare's songs from the plays 4: Blow blow thou winter wind X 3 and a death

The New Mexico Music Educators Association All State Mixed Chorus 2003 Conducted by Dr. Janet Galvan...Blow, Blow, Thou Winter Wind from "When Icicles Hang" by John Rutter

"Blow, Blow, Thou Winter Wind" (Shakespeare) Gervase Elwes (arranged by Roger Quilter) / Recorded: 1916

"Blow, blow, thou winter wind" by Anna Pope 2011. Performed by Lumina Vocal Ensemble, Musical Director Anna Pope

Blow, Blow thou Winter Wind

Blow, blow, thou winter wind,
Thou art not so unkind
As man's ingratitude;
Thy tooth is not so keen
Because thou art not seen,
Although thy breath be rude.
Heigh-ho! sing heigh-ho! unto the green holly:
Most friendship is feigning, most loving mere folly:
Then, heigh-ho! the holly!
This life is most jolly.

Freeze, freeze, thou bitter sky,
Thou dost not bite so nigh
As benefits forgot:
Though thou the waters warp,
Thy sting is not so sharp
As friend remember'd not.
Heigh-ho! sing heigh-ho! unto the green holly:
Most friendship is feigning, most loving mere folly:
Then, heigh-ho! the holly!
This life is most jolly.

It has been a terrible year in the world by most counts and this song seems appropriate. For a reminder of that see this marvellous horrifying set of photographs (via Norm's tweet).

I love the Elwes / Quilter best but it's cheating by crackling in the background which always does for me. Mortality clearing its throat again.

All those deaths, not just at the end of the year, but throughout the year!

Last night, in macabre fashion, a phone call from C's cousin to say that C's aunt - her father's sister - has died, suddenly, at 99, falling out of her bed. Mentally top condition, no carer, in a flat by herself. It is so sudden that, at 99, it is almost cheering. One roll out of bed and out for ever. She was full of life, came to any gig I did in Bath, was interested in everything and made her own Christmas cards. She drew rather well. Sharp eyed and sharp minded.

And of course, this morning, the card from her duly arrives, saying she didn't make the one this year because the ends of her fingers were numb. Our card to her will be unopened by her. So three Blow Blows for her. Let it blow. Sing heigh-ho unto the green holly.

Monday 19 December 2011

Meanwhile in Hungary...

...the political clocks go back neatly bridging the gap between 1944 and 1949. From Adam Le Bor in The Economist:

GYÖRGY MATOLCSY, Hungary’s economy minister, wanted a war with the International Monetary Fund, and now he has got one.

Officials from the fund and the European Union have broken off preliminary talks with the Hungarian government over a financial safety net for the country. Why? Because the parliament, where the ruling Fidesz party has a two-thirds majority, has accelerated plans to change the management of the central bank and to expand membership of the monetary council, which sets interest rates....

...Fidesz allies have now been appointed to the presidency, the State Audit Office, the State Prosecutor, the National Media Authority, the new fiscal council and the new National Courts Authority, among others. Officials say that party backgrounds are irrelevant and that office-holders will exercise their mandates independently. Democracy in Hungary, they claim, is safe.

Opposition politicians, international watchdogs, the EU and the United States disagree. They argue that the government's attempt to limit the independence of the central bank near-completes Fidesz's steady undermining of Hungary's formerly independent institutions and its removal of the checks and balances found in most European democracies.

An overwhelming victory at the polls, which Fidesz won last year, does not, say Western officials, give the party a mandate for a long-term (the new appointees will hold office for between nine and 12 years) takeover of legislative and executive functions. Government officials have not explained why it seems that only Fidesz allies can be trusted to exercise their mandates independently....

...Wags in the capital joke that the Hungarian legislative process works as follows. The prime minister has an idea in the morning, Mr Matolcsy announces it as policy in the afternoon, by the end of the week Mr Lázár is piloting it through parliament and it becomes law on Monday. An exaggeration, to be sure, but not by much.

The bold type is mine. My poor country of which I had hoped rather better.

Shakespeare's songs from the plays 3: It was a lover and his lass

Martha Tilton in 1943.

I have loved this Arthur Young arrangement since I heard Cleo Laine singing it with Johnny Dankworth. So much fun, just as it should be. Go for it, pretty country folk! The rest, in any case, is all hey nonino and ding ding. I'd also like to know who put the bomp in the bomp bah bomp bah bomp and who put the ram in the rama lama ding dong? I'd like to thank the guy. I'd like to shake his hand.

It was a Lover and his Lass

It was a lover and his lass,
    With a hey, and a ho, and a hey nonino,
That o'er the green corn-field did pass,
    In the spring time, the only pretty ring time,
When birds do sing, hey ding a ding, ding;
Sweet lovers love the spring.

Between the acres of the rye,
    With a hey, and a ho, and a hey nonino,
These pretty country folks would lie,
    In the spring time, the only pretty ring time,
When birds do sing, hey ding a ding, ding;
Sweet lovers love the spring.

This carol they began that hour,
    With a hey, and a ho, and a hey nonino,
How that life was but a flower
    In the spring time, the only pretty ring time,
When birds do sing, hey ding a ding, ding;
Sweet lovers love the spring.

And, therefore, take the present time
    With a hey, and a ho, and a hey nonino,
For love is crown`d with the prime
    In the spring time, the only pretty ring time,
When birds do sing, hey ding a ding, ding;
Sweet lovers love the spring.

So therefore take the present time has a personal meaning too. Our current house, when we bought it, was a gift shop trading under the name Present Time. We found the house by accident having come into town to look at another one we didn't like so much. It was a Sunday and the estate agent was open. The house was advertised in the window. Can we see it? we asked. The owner, young Kate with the husky voice, was in. She had sublet two of the rooms, and she took us into her room, the biggest, with a view of the romantic ruined abbey behind. It was sunny. We fell in love with it. It seemed perfect but we hesitated. As we left I looked up at the shop sign and there was the cue for the song. Carpe diem, it said and meant it. So we took it.

Sunday 18 December 2011

Shakespeare's songs from the plays 2: Gerald Finzi (for Vaclav Havel)

Bryn Terfel singing Gerald Finzi's composition. How fitting for Havel's death! Perhaps more than anyone Havel was the emblem of hope and light in 1989 and the few years following. I am much moved by his death.

This song is possibly Shakespeare's greatest, right down - and precisely because of - the pun on chimney sweepers 'coming to dust'. Genius comprises lightness and humour, however dark.

More on Havel in due course.

Fear No More

Fear no more the heat o' the sun;
    Nor the furious winter's rages,
Thou thy worldly task hast done,
    Home art gone, and ta'en thy wages;
Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney sweepers come to dust.

Fear no more the frown of the great,
    Thou art past the tyrant's stroke:
Care no more to clothe and eat;
    To thee the reed is as the oak:
The sceptre, learning, physic, must
All follow this, and come to dust.

Fear no more the lightning-flash,
    Nor the all-dread thunder-stone;
Fear not slander, censure rash;
    Thou hast finished joy and moan;
All lovers young, all lovers must
Consign to thee, and come to dust.

No exorciser harm thee!
    Nor no witchcraft charm thee!
Ghost unlaid forbear thee!
    Nothing ill come near thee!
Quiet consummation have;
And renowned be thy grave!

- from Cymbeline Act Iv, Scene 2

And renowned be thy grave indeed.

Saturday 17 December 2011

Shakespeare's songs from the plays 1

A rather lovely thing and apt for the weather: saxophonist John Harle, featuring Elvis Costello on vocals. Nothing to see, just listening. One of my favourite songs from Shakespeare. Feste's song from Twelfth Night.

When that I was and a little tiny boy,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
A foolish thing was but a toy,
For the rain it raineth every day.

But when I came to man’s estate,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
‘Gainst knaves and thieves men shut the gate,
For the rain it raineth every day.

But when I came, alas! to wive,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
By swaggering could I never thrive,
For the rain it raineth every day.

But when I came unto my beds,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
With toss-pots still had drunken heads,
For the rain it raineth every day.

A great while ago the world begun,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
But that’s all one, our play is done,
And we’ll strive to please you every day.

Those toss-pots with their drunken heads, the swaggering, the knaves and thieves and the rain, and the wind. The songs distill something so deep beneath the text it is like coming upon an organic world with its own life.

Friday 16 December 2011

Christopher Hitchens 13 April 1949 - 15 December 2011

Christopher Hitchens, James Fenton, Martin Amis, Paris 1979

I admired Christopher Hitchens, as did even those who came to disagree with him after 9/11. There is, in Martin Amis's Experience, a photo of Amis, Fenton and Hitch together, three brilliant people, all radical in their ways, all glamorous, all somewhat Byronic, all exactly my age. The photograph is 1979, the year my first book came out.

For someone like me they were unattainable larger-than-life figures, supremely educated (Hitchens left Oxford with a Third, like Auden), privileged, with several heads start. I considered Fenton - and still do - the most gifted, most princely English-language poet of the latter end of the twentieth century, as well as a sharp writer on theatre, not to mention his background as foreign correspondent in Vietnam. Amis was not only the major force in fiction but, inventive and dominant, he more or less 'named' the Martian poets, more of my exact contemporaries. Hitchens? I knew less of him then of the other two, but maybe only because he entered public consciousness, or my public consciousness at any rate, later than they did.

The obituaries today all recognised the loss of an important figure. The comparison with Orwell was recalled and confirmed. For me, he was as much Swift as Orwell. The fierceness, passion and sheer display of his polemic was charged with Swift's saaeva indignatio, that savage indignation inherited from Juvenal. His was a bigger world than Orwell's, one less concerned with England, English identity, and English history.

Hitchens was essentially a moral writer who grounded his morality in literature as well as in history, philosophy, and politics. That is to say he 'heard' language for what it is, not just as a polemical tool. The morality is in the style. A moral writer remains a moral writer even if his earlier admirers turn away from him or he turns away from them. His later opinion may be different from the earlier but the moral force is the same, in fact stronger as the style in which it is asserted develops. What made his so thrilling was his roundedness: his remarkable knowledge and memory of books, of poems, of stories, anecdotes. He drank and smoked and argued. Eloquent? He was thunderously eloquent.

Some lines of Martin Bell's in his 'Ode to Groucho' seem appropriate, not because they describe Hitchens but because they point to his world, his style:

All the shining rebels

(Prometheus, of course, and that old pauper
Refusing cake from Marie Antoinette,
And Baudelaire's fanatical toilette,
And Rimbaud, striding off the Africa,
And Auden, scowling at a cigarette...)

Striding off, scowling and shining. Then gone.

Wednesday 14 December 2011

Arab Spring: democracy (a very brief note)

Ask people what they want and they'll either shrug and ignore you or tell you. What they tell you might not be what you would prefer them to tell you. They might tell you they want public hangings or stonings, blindings, strict sexual segregation, burning of Catholics (or Protestants), institutionalised corruption based on terror, and endless re-runs of the X-Factor. If you promise them these things they are more likely to vote for you.

In what we call advanced democracies you present people with a programme they know, and you know, you won't deliver, not entirely. This is not so much a plan of action as a way of telling them who you are. Then, once you are elected, you set about what you want to do, or that part of it which is possible to do, and launch on a programme of education to persuade them that they want it too. They don't, not really, but they never thought they were going to get it anyway. They'll vote for you because of who you say you are and who they think you are. That is what an advanced democracy is. It is, in this way, tolerant and humane because it behaves the way most tolerant and humane human beings behave. Every so often you can pretend to be scandalised, and may well feel scandalised (being scandalised is a great feeling, just like being wronged) and it satisfies the need for what you yourself recognise is a personal psychodrama. If you don't recognise it you are an obsessive or, possibly, a Guardian contributor to Comment is Free.

It won't be much use expecting the less advanaced democracies to behave like you. They haven't internalised scepticism the way you have - they haven't had the chance - and, as a result, are less tolerant of other people's scepticism. You think democracy is a nice easy-going tolerant system where everyone gets to watch a hundred TV channels, shop on e-Bay and talk about justice in a properly sceptical way. The non-advanced democracies are more likely to say: more of us want executions than those who don't therefore we want executions. Executions lead to strong leaders who don't go for democracy in the way you do, or in fact any recognisable way at all.

We have to get over this and then consider our options. What to say to new democracies that are serious about fulfilling their properly elected absolute programmes? What does it mean to have aspirations to democracy?

China: Why The Slender West Lake is so called

The full poetic explanation of the origins of the lake's name. One of those ancient, enigmatic Chinese, multi-level, deep things a westerner cannot hope to understand.

Tuesday 13 December 2011

China: work, talk, travel, more food, and later more music

Our literary task is to translate each other's poems. By the time we arrive L and K have translated two or three of ours each, we haven't done anything, for how could we? So how will this work? We decide the mornings will be given to translation (eventually some four mornings are).

So we come down in the morning and sit with our poets, L or K, with an English speaking postgrad student present to talk us through potential communication problems. Talking means taking notes, but there are so many notes and revisions of notes that within five minutes my notes become illegible with crossings-out and super- and subscripting. We start from zero so this setting down of the foundations is a long process. I wonder why we are not provided with a simple gloss or literal version with footnotes and marginalia, and then do the talking. Miraculously, by working late ad night and early in the morning we produce versions that read well in English. How close to the Chinese we cannot say nor guess. (And neither can our splendid poets, not really.) Then we take the translations to market at our first Fudan event.

Professor C introduces. I go first. I read the sonnet 'Water' followed by translation by L and a newish short poem 'We Love Life Whenever We Can' after - quite a long way after, in that it is set in England - Mahmoud Darwish, followed by translation by K. This being the department of Comparative Literature, both poets read translations of the same poem by P, then they read their own with translations by P and myself. THis is followed by discussions between ourselves on the nature of poetry and of translation, then it's open to the floor. One student asks about iambic pentameters - I recite a few lines from Gray's Elegy by way of answer - another wonders about the possibility of translating poetry at all. We agree it's impossible which is why we do it.

It all goes swimmingly, much enthusiasm, but we have to hurry as a minibus is waiting to drive us to Jin Zé (see Pascale's beautiful photographs), a village some hour and a half away. We are to stay there the night. It is dark and cold when we arrive, but the house we are driven to is extraordinary. A factory some ten years ago it is now a complex of traditional Chinese rooms, workshops and two small theatres and much more. The whole is set next to the river and a shallow decorative stream runs through it. Our room is immense and while traditional equipped with luxurious modern items such as a jacuzzi and a toilet whose lid lifts automatically. The water in the basin smells and tastes of sulphur so we have big thermos flasks of boiled water.

First we have to dash into the village for some food. That is to be obtained in a small rudimentary restaurant with a single plain room filled by one round table. The food, as ever, is excellent, as is the yellow wine. Z, one of the Chinese PhD students - an English speaker - has come with us. We drink toasts and try to write down a rough translation of the classical Chinese poem we are to translate, but it doesn't get far. On the way home we cross an ancient rainbow bridge, that is to say one continuous arch, with no rail. It is wet and steep and dark, the river rushes under. C slips but is OK.

Next morning it's sunny and cold so we walk into the village. The bridges are ancient and round, the tiny houses very basic but the river that runs through it is beautiful. We enter two temples, one that used to be dedicated to the master of the village, the other Buddhist with a huge gingko tree in the yard (again see Pascale's blog). We pass through a narrow poor shopping street-market selling essential items. On the way back we bump into L who has booked a boat. P and C don't fancy it, but Z and I get in and we go up and down the river and under some of the bridges.

Lunch is communal. Then K gives us a lightning tour of the premises that truly are extraordinary. There are gardens and vast rooms - the size of a minor cinema, filled with craft objects of all sorts. And ancient beds. And furniture. And costume. There are young people working in the costume department. In one of the vast rooms an ancient woman and her daughter are working at traditional looms. Just when you think there can't be more you go up another flight of stairs and are in another hall. Perhaps we are getting a tour of the whole of China. But China must be a billion times this. It is quite inconceivable.

The notes in my head blacken with crossings out, superscripts and subscripts. I must try to translate my own fingers into hands, my toes into feet, and my head into sense.

Monday 12 December 2011

China, banquets and revolutions

Not our own pic - photos wouldn't load up. This is a very small banquet compared to the extravaganzas we attended.

From the second day on we realised we were in the serious business of eating. Eating is a semi-formal occasion. The guest of honour is seated at the round table, opposite the door, the rest arrange themselves around him (it is generally him). The host pays for everything and orders all the dishes. There is a hot towel to start with, and tea which is kept topped up. Then you can choose between red wine, white wine (baiju, not really wine, more liquid fire, suitable to down in one gulp as a toast) and yellow wine (huangjiu, best served warm) which became our drink of choice. Every five or ten minutes there is a toast which involves clinking of glasses right across the table and a fair amount of courteous merriment. The food goes round and round on its carousel as the waiters bring ever new dishes, quietly shifting the old ones into the centre. The host keeps an eye on the revolving table, nudging it around now and then so guests don't have to look greedy. There are several courses of soup, a veritable undergrowth of noodles, and watermelon slices at the end (that's how you know you've got to the end.). There is no distinction between courses otherwise. You can eat sweet between spicy or delicate, you can go back to whatever dish you want providing there is some of it left. Then you can dive in with your chopsticks.

The revolutions of the table can lead to thoughts of revolution. There is official China and unofficial China, the relationship between them generally nuanced. At one of the last banquets, however, an elegant young woman declared that China would change drastically within ten years, at most twenty. It had to. The pressure was too great. This life, this banquet was not real life, she stressed, (didn't we know it!) and the poor village we had seen was nowhere near as poor as those in the west. She was smart, very elegant, had a high business position, her mind gleamed, her English was very good. The meal was provided by the restaurant owner who was sitting with us. It was all unofficial. The lights outside were dazzling and western, like a Chinese Vegas. In the airport later the China Daily was Pravda 1975. Big country: big contradictions.

Sunday 11 December 2011

Music from China: Bring on the Girls

From Notes:

We saw gardens, we toured in boats, we explored famous houses, were shown rooms not open to the public. Our guides were beautiful with beautiful manners and beautiful clothes. It was all beautiful. But it is the music I will take away with me. First there was the master musician in the small room with its cups of hot green tea (see previous video clip), then ever more music and singing as we went along.

The strictly unofficial Red Bridge Autumn Ceremony takes place near the Red Bridge itself and involves flowers and the reading of the classical poem to celebrate the Slender West Lake. Both P and I had been put to translating it - only four lines, but heavily rhymed, with seven characters per line, which could be translated as seven stresses in English terms. The poem was read, and P and I read our translations while clutching little bouquets of grass. Two beautifully dressed, beautiful girls performed a lotus petals ceremony. People sang, then off we went on a boat trip to another garden and another mansion, a special guided tour with more zither music on the boat. We cruise along the Slender West Lake past banks of bamboo, past willows, past little islands and moor at another formal garden built by another rich businessman. Rich businessmen seem to have built everything. A beautiful girl gives us a beautiful tour that ends up in a high pavilion overlooking the lake while more beautiful girls in even more beautiful costumes play flutes and lutes and zithers.

Beauty - visual, philosophical, aesthetic and downright decadent - is clearly a central issue in the culture, especially if one has the means to indulge in it. The rich have the means. The emperor arrives on a visit and remarks how fine it would be to have a pagoda. No problem, overnight a new pagoda is raised. There are rainbow bridges, straight bridges, step bridges, screens, calligraphic inscriptions everywhere. Occasionally I feel I must be a residual puritan, but, for heaven's sake! It is undeniably beautiful. The art of the Chinese garden is complex, involving rocks, plants, water, air, time, habitation, poetry and philosophy. I have no wish to be facetious about it. Beautiful is what it is.
The poem itself in my translation

Poem for the Red Bridge Autumn Ceremony

An avenue of willow trees where green patches remain
The picture of a rainbow bridge, wild geese in one sharp skein,
The gold melts in the crucible, finds its lost domain,
And so the Slender Western Lake receives its given name.

The curious technical feature is that, in Chinese, there is a mass of material squeezed into the first two lines and practically no material in the second two, so there is abnormal strain in keeping the balance. You have to contract and expand without looking as though you are doing it. The form uses full rhyme. It is not by any means a great poem. It is conventionally picturesque, the gold in the third line refers to the actual discovery of gold near the lake, and the 'so' in the last line is a false link between the gold, the picturesqueness, and the name, which is in fact simply a description of the long narrow lake to the west of the city. But there it is. It matters because it is a focus for celebration.

More beautiful girls at the Red Bridge Autumn Ceremony...

As for the beauty and the girls? Yes, the Yangzhou people tell us, Yangzhou is the city of beautiful girls, which may well be the case. Being decorative, entertaining, exciting and soothing to the male spirit were the vocations to which many girls, from high birth to low birth, were trained. A little more from the Notes then:

Next day, Sunday, to the mountain top, though it is just a gentle hill that feels a little like a mountain because the area around Yangzhou is flat. The cabin at the top was visited by the Chinese equivalent of the Emperor Nero, who buried hundreds of girls in the valley, got beautiful girls to carry his boat when the canal ran dry, and changed the examination system. Yangzhou is famed for its beautiful girls. Some are in the valley.

Go and ask Robin to bring the girls over / to Sweetwater, wrote John Crowe Ransom in Vision by Sweetwater ending: Myself a child, old suddenly at the scream / From one of the white throats which it hid among'


ps Go to Pascale Petit's blog for great photographs and fine physical description. We did after all go together as the two UK poets. I tend to do too much thinking and not enough describing - she has a terrific eye.

pps I am now on Twitter. You can find me at @george_szirtes

Friday 9 December 2011

Poets in China: Kaiyu and artists

Pascale Petit, self, Xiao Kaiyu and Yang Lian in China
Pascale Petit, myself, Xiao Kaiyu and Yang Lian, November / December 2011

Pascale and I knew each other a little, I had met Lian a couple of times, Kaiyu was an entirely new acquaintance. He was the one who came out to Pudong Airport for C and I in a taxi when no-one else was around. We talked hesitatingly at first, he uncertain of his English, I uncertain how much he understood or wanted to speak. He sat in the front of the taxi, we were at the back. But I immediately warmed to him: something about his manner, quiet, reticent, but genuine. He took us to the hotel then, once we had settled in came to take us out to an artist friend's studio.

Extract from Notes:

We strive to lie down and sleep, having been awake for something like nineteen out of twenty-two hours with only a four hour sleep preceding. C manages, I don't. And soon we are downstairs with Kaiyu again, and he takes us for a very late (Chinese time 3:15 pm) lunch which turns out to be five times as large as we can eat, but then he gets us a taxi and we roar off into the very north of the city to visit the studio of his artist friend, Chen Qiang. The studio, part of a disused factory, is enormous. Qiang's work is abstract, beautiful, patient, crowded, full of small specific marks in apparent motion.

Though he speaks no English, Kaiyu's has improved a lot and he acts as interpreter for us. Qiang introduces to other artist friends in equally enormous neighbouring studios. They all work with various aspects of abstraction on a large scale. In fact the Shanghai School is primarily an abstract movement, very well known and very highly valued in China and abroad. We tour the studios, greatly impressed and determined to argue for a Shanghai School exhibition back in England.

Then Qiang drives us to a nearby restaurant where an absolutely enormous meal is ordered (by him, he is treating us), every part rather exquisite, but still impossible. The conversation moves around art and poetry and the changes in Shanghai.

Kaiyu remembers he had arranged for us to meet the head of the Shakespeare Research Institute at Fudan, Professor Tan Zheng. So Qiang drives us miles and miles back to the hotel from whence he goes home. Kaiyu, Tan Zheng, C and I adjourn for coffee in a nearb coffee place popular with international students. Talk here of Shakespeare and Wilde and influence, and history plays, and religion in China, including the growing Christian influence.

Cheng Qiang, seen here with one of his paintings:

We had no idea how successful and well-known he was, successful that is to say, in an almost Damien Hirst sense. And this is the first surprising thing about Shanghai: the art market. Who buys the works? The state? Big business? The international market? All of them.

The aesthetic: how specifically Chinese is it? How international? Those small ornate regular marks may be a version of calligraphy, a display of patience, an ornamental system or a kind of poetry. How thorough! How big! How meticulous! An art of candied brilliance. Qiang gives us two handsome catalogues as we leave, studies of his work. I see that Kaiyu has written one of the essays.

And the meal. Culinary opulence in a brightly lit modern street, in a restaurant not entirely geared to elegance. Much smoking. A small hole in the tablecloth. But friendly and likeable. One could hang out here: it's not too grand. It's just right.

More photos, videos and music to come, as well as excerpts from the Notes and reflections on them.

Thursday 8 December 2011

Music from China 1

From Notes page:

After this to another quarter, a long narrow very straight street opposite a gate, one aimed at tourists, lined with red lanterns, with elegant clothes and expensive items for sale, but we are heading for a small room to hear a recital on the guqin, a seven stringed zither, played by a master. We gather on benches and are offered tea and the master plays and sings ancient songs. To my western ears it is a distant, sad, deeply sensitive sound, held together by some repetitions and changes of mood. The instrument is so quiet at times one can hardly hear it; at other times it is struck with great force then hushed. Our Chinese friends are clearly absorbed and moved. The owner of the house says one of the songs played by the master is the finest performance of the piece he has ever heard. The tea goes round in the growing cold. The master sings a short solo verse, then he both sings and plays. By this time I am beginning to hear motifs and imitations of human voices - a lot of vibrato, some steely sounds, much tonal whispering and sighing.


The absorbed figure on the left of the picture is our friend, the poet Xiao Kaiyu. The video was taken on a simple iPhone. Mao looks on.

Just Received: Video from Battle of Ideas

Sent on from the debate on Sunday 31 October, 2011. Odd to watch oneself - I seem to be constantly moving. I put it up here at the risk of embarrassment since I haven't watched it first.

More China material to come. Some today, including videos with music.

Wednesday 7 December 2011

Just Back

Back about an hour ago. The blog continued, albeit intermittently, in the Notes part of the website, so if interested do look there. It's late, and we got up about seventeen hours ago. I'll try to gather some thoughts about China over the next few days. And put up some visual material.

Wednesday 23 November 2011

Blog update whilst in China

Just to inform you that whilst George is in China he can't update his Blogger account due to internet restrictions. However a cunning workaround is in place, so you can continue to follow him in the notes section of the main website (

Normal service will resume here in around 2 weeks time.


Sunday 20 November 2011

Pictures, forms, families (6): the event

Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery

The intensely air-conditioned lecture theatre of the Castle Museum. Martin and Helen arrive just before me and we walk up together. Chris Gribble is to be our Chair and he appears. Then Anna Green, our host together with Harriet Loffler, the Co-curator. Norwich City are playing Arsenal at home at the same time (final score an honourable 1-2 defeat), there has been no great fuss of the reading so for a while we wonder whether we will outnumber the audience. Andrea turns up. Will we have the images on the screen behind us? It turns out we won't. Technical problems. Eventually some twenty-five people enter, prepared to listen. Poetry on match-day on a Saturday afternoon. Lucky to get so many.

We have drawn two tables together at the front and arrange ourselves. Anna introduces Chris who introduces us one by one as we talk about the pictures then read our poems. We go: Martin, Andrea, Helen then me. It seems I am the only one to have chosen paintings, the others have chosen photographs or sculpture or videos, though Martin's refers to paintings too. I think it is Andrea or Helen who say the problem with having the catalogues was that there are already words there that suggest how the pictures are to be interpreted. It's the same with all the images of course so that can only be part of it. But then there is also the question of how paintings are clearly constructed whereas photographs seem simply to appear. To think about this would require many more blog-posts so I won't do that here. For me it is chiefly a matter of familiarity. If I already know something very well it makes it harder to write about, unless the work is as powerful as the Andrews. Poetry is never just saying what you know. Negative capability, said Keats. I have loads of that.

I can't speak about the poems of the others as I don't have them in front of me, but they are all vivid and sound very good. One of Martin's is in the form of a specular, the form invented by Julia Copus which runs not only the end words but every line forwards and backwards. Martin is keen to emphasise this is not just showing off or cleverness. I think to hell with that. As if cleverness were a crime or a hindrance to feeling! Form invents feeling and supercharges it. His specular sounds very well, as do his other poems. As does Andrea's ballad, a form she usually avoids, she tells us. Again, I think everything is possible and everything is possible to do well, to leap from. So why not leap? Helen moves readily into fairy tale so her subject is immediately familiar territory to her. They all sound good poems.

Chris asks about form. It is not that overt formal devices - rhymes, stanza shapes, particular rhythms - are better than what seem to be covert informal discoveries. They are not, but neither are they, as many contemporary poets know, invalid. There is no need to go into the closed versus open form arena, still less try to fit into the straitjacket of traditional versus modern (as if traditional and modern were always the same, enjoying a fixed relationship). I don't even think it is easier to be naff in form than in free verse" it just sounds more naff. There is no opposition between form and feeling or intelligence and feeling and as for the distinctions between personal and impersonal, they seem gestural pedantry to me. You may be very clever but I really feel things, is the argument. Yeh, right, I don't feel anything, is the proper answer.

The hour goes very quickly. It is brilliant sunshine outside. As I walk down St Giles the iron fencing of the church is glowing extraordinarily. It is pure gold. It is burning gold. The cause? The sun is shining on a shop front opposite and the reflected light turns black to gold.

Pictures, forms, families (5): Andrews and Struth

The Batoni poem was a formal sonnet, more formal in some ways than many of nine. I thought of it - felt it - as the equivalent of a formal bouquet. The sonnet with its compactness, clarity and history seemed to be the right way to go, the full ABBA ABBA of the octet followed by a full CDE CDE. I don't say this was forethought - not at all - but once it began as a sonnet (the current beginning is a serious redrafting of the original idea) it felt it wanted to go that way. I have written about form often enough, how it is, like necessity, the mother of invention. You are never more than one line ahead, if that, having to look forward and behind as you go. But I knew as soon as I had drafted it that the sonnet would not be enough. There was some light beyond it.

I have long admired the Michael Andrews, in fact quite a lot of Andrews. He seems to me the poetic soul brother of Gerhardt Richter and Luc Tuymans. Sometimes I even think he was much less glib than they can sometimes be (I know, they comprehend the glibness but I can't help noticing it). In this large painting he is teaching his daughter to swim in very black water indicating great cold and depth. The daughter's face is half lost under her hair. Swimming - he is holding her up - is a matter of survival. The sea is not just the sea, the cliffs are not just the cliffs. They are domains - visual domains, language domains - in which he too must swim or sink. The Batoni poem ended with metaphors: this poem is all metaphors folding in on themselves, each section reversing its end word as if cupping some necessary space, maybe just enough space for a breath. The picture, as well as the poem, made my blood run a little cold. And yet it's about survival. And yet we survive.

The Struth is a photograph, one of a long series of photographs based on long-exposures of families so there is, naturally, a little strain in the faces and poses. But look how populous this family is, how comfortably ensconced in their room, and how they confront us. It is as if they were behind thick glass. 1989 signalled the end of history according to Francis Fukuyama, and this 1989 is a momentary dead end in the Smith family's history. It is the opposite of the first two images: it is family as armour and bastion and tribe. Each member of the family is fully mortal and sensate in himself or herself but put them together and they are a unit that has been arrested at a peak of power. The photograph is an embodied idea of what families might become. They have, as the poem puts it, made it as far as the room in which they sit. Nor is that a negligible achievement, in fact it's a great deal because, having been photographed there, they will remain there, invulnerable as image whatever happens in life. They look out at us rather than the other way round. Their gaze is the stronger. In that respect they are like those Byzantine wall paintings whose figures stare out at us reminding us we are not there as connoisseurs to appraise their aesthetic value or judge their merit as images, but as potent forces in judgment over us. They are conjurations, not art. I am still not sure of the Fukuyama reference, however it fits (and it does fit), because it is almost a pun, and it might not be that kind of pun that is required.

I write long today because we fly to China on Tuesday and I might not be able to post on Blogger there. One more piece to come on this theme though.

Pictures, forms, families (4): the poem

Death, Survival, Persistence

Luke Fildes, The Doctor (1891)*

1. Death
Pompeo Batoni

The robes, the cloth, the vase, the veil, the bow,
The posy, the leaves, the rising cloud, the lips.
These were ourselves, this is the cloth that slips
into shapes of cowls and hoods we cannot know.
We cannot decode ourselves. We move below
our surfaces, our griefs, our flowers, the tips
of our fingers. We know what it is that grips
the child in her numbed sleep, what winds still blow
about her. We put our ears to the cloud to hear
vibrations of the air, we measure our wrists
for pulse. We mist mirrors, move in our sleep
as if awake, make energies from fear
accumulated in our veins. We have made lists
of the dead. Our metaphors run deep.

2. Survival
Michael Andrews, as before

Floating is next to drowning
and though the metaphor of dark
is simply metaphor the metaphor is cold.

Look, our children float against the cold
and though we hold them against the dark
we know the sea’s own metaphors for drowning.

Those tender bubbles, sea-scum, illusion
of air, the clashing rocks that contain
the sea, they are our modes, our metaphors.

We cannot help but live through metaphors.
The bay contains the sea, the clashing rocks contain
our hands and bodies, our floating, our illusion

of floating, and our pale skin, pale warmth,
the metaphor of childhood we find ourselves
employing time and again, like love, like hands

that bear up bodies that terminate in hands.
Dear children you become almost ourselves –
the metaphorical sea’s notion of warmth.

My feet dissolve, my lower half in water.
Her face is strewn with hair, so we are joined
in this brief act, as brief as other acts,

as if water, drowning, floating, dark, were acts,
as if my life could float, steady and joined
to yours in the bay’s cold metaphors of water.

3. Persistence
Thomas Struth: The Smith Family, Fife, Scotland 1989

What is it looks out of us
so wary, so contemplative against
the glass that keeps us from the world?

What is the glass against which we press
our faces, that looks back at us
with its own blank puzzled face?

We cannot solve it, our presence, our eyes,
though we are gathered, clannish, cloned
in attitudes of familial power.

We have made it as far as the room
in which we sit. The glass confirms
the room, our eyes confirm ourselves,

just as we are in 1989
the year history ended,
the moment, the glass, our eyes.

*The Fildes was in the exhibition but I knew it too well. I use it here instead of the Batoni that I cant find.

Pictures, forms, families (3): the threatened child

I can't find Pompeo Batoni's moving, formal picture on the web. The couple in it were married in 1739, had one legitimate child Barbara, who died in 1749. Hoping perhaps to get over the loss they set out on a European tour. In Rome, as the catalogue note has it 'they commissioned Pompeo Batoni to paint this portrait of them watching over their dead daughter, united in their sorrow.' They had taken a miniature of her for the painter to work from.

The girl in the picture looks delightful. The painting is loaded with symbols of mourning. It is without mawkishness or melodrama. The couple contemplate the child who is more clearly defined than they are.

It is however a difficult and horrible subject. We have Mahler's Kindertotenlieder, what Toby Litt renamed as Deadkidsongs - infant mortality was common enough in the nineteenth and early twentieth century - but it's too much, too overwhelmingly much heartbreak. I can hardly bear to listen to the Mahler and I haven't yet opened up my copy of the Litt. Even here I prefer to illustrate this with a life-giving Picasso (life-giving is Picasso's great gift) rather than with a number of available Victorian deathbed scenes because Picasso always sees bigger and beyond to ever greater energy and restlessness.

The poem for the Castle Museum is divided into three parts, Death, Survival and Perseverance. The Batoni is sumptuous in its way, tragedy as a set piece with cello. Mortality with posies. What is love if not fear of losing? Love is in fact mortality, so mortality lies at the bottom of the family, as it did for mine when I was a child.

The next post will contain the poem.

Pictures, forms, families (2): going nuclear

My mother, father, brother and myself, c. 1955

One question raised by the exhibition is whether the concept family necessarily includes children. For me the answer is clearly yes. Even if there is only a couple they are the children of parents before them though, as an independent unit, they are primarily a couple not a family. As I imagine it however (imagine intuitively, not argue it) a family includes children. In fact the family is most itself at the moment when the latest child comes into the world. In other words it includes not simply children but infants.

The implication is that the family is most itself when it has the care of the most vulnerable stage of human life, the very beginning. It is therefore tied to responsibilities (for the adults) and utter reliance (for the newborn). It is as the line in The Waste Land, as suggested to Eliot by Vivienne, goes: What you get married for if you don't want children? Again, I have no wish to argue this: it is what my bones and viscera tell me.

The arguments about - and chiefly against - nuclear families that were raging in the sixties and seventies meant little to me. My whole apprehension of life was of the family endangered. Half my family were wiped out in the war, my mother and father were almost destroyed by it. I almost died at the age of two, and here we were in a new country where we knew no-one but ourselves. That is if we knew even ourselves.

If I felt this as apprehension, my parents knew it as experience. It was a miracle that families survived, that children survived, that any of the four of us was here at all. I think it made life uncomfortable. Psychologically the pressure was acute. I sometimes think it drove my mother to the edges of madness. As an adolescent I hated it. It was strangling, obsessive. The family absolutely had to be together on Sundays. There had to be family excursions. Even after I married my mother had to be everywhere, know everything, be a presence.

I now think that was because she had been so close to being an absence.

But the visceral feeling is not about pleasure or discomfort. It is the reality sense, not the value sense. However they may overlap, they are different. The madness lies is assuming they are exactly the same. The poetry, if it comes from anywhere, also emanates from this region.

Pictures, forms, families (1)

Michael Andrews Melanie and Me Swimming 1978-79

Along with three other poets (Martin Figura, Helen Ivory and Andrea Holland) I was commissioned to write a poem / poems for the exhibition Family Matters: The Family in British Art, currently at the Castle Museum, Norwich, The reading and discussion took place yesterday afternoon, after which I wasn't home till gone midnight so no blog yesterday.

The Great British Art Debate may not amount to much more than what the curators already know and may be keen to tell us in their missionary endeavour, but then again it might. This show was particularly well curated with paintings, prints, photographs, videos and sculpture arranged in broad themes rather than chronologically, so the catalogue itself comprises five booklets headed Childhood, Inheritance, Parenting, Couples & Kinship and Home. The well known was balanced against the hardly known and the British aspect included immigration from the Commonwealth rather than from many other possible places, but that was a reasonable and perfectly justifiable decision since the British connection is bound to be stronger from within the old empire. The fact is, it is a moving and exciting show well worth going to see.

How do we go about writing? In my case I went in with a notebook and more or less wrote out two out of three poems, finished the third at home, then drafted all three into shape. I didn't get the catalogue for some reason so it had to be more or less then and there. But that is often how it works for me anyway: start writing, follow some distant glimpsed light and gallop there without breaking pace. It's an act of almost absolute trust in the improvisatory moment-by-moment process. It is how it has always happened before, even with the long poems. Go hell for leather while the light is visible or just round the corner and stop once it is no longer there. Complete a section. Then return, because you know, or have a very strong hunch, that there is more light.

The three works that offered the prospect of light were, paradoxically, all rather dark in tone and mood were Pompeo Batoni (1708-1787) The Hon. Thomas and Mrs Barrett-Lennard with their daughter Barbra Anne, 1750, Michael Andrews (1928-1995) Melanie and Me Swimming, 1978-9 and the photographer Thomas Struth's The Smith Family, Fife, Scotland, 1989.

Why is that? A separate post for it.

Friday 18 November 2011

Sepptic Tank

Photograph from FIFA's own website.

I know it's 'only football' and I am sure the pun has been made before, but why not make it again? It has been clear for a good while now that Sepp Blatter, president of FIFA, has been running a corrupt organisation prone to duplicity, bribery, secrecy, high-handedness, smugness and, now it turns out, an indifference to racism. It is hard to think of an organisation as blatant in its corruption as FIFA has been since Blatter took over. Good to hear that he has been telling the IFA conference in Zurich: We have to be transparent. The corruption has been the only transparent thing so far. And then there are the damage-limitation photos.

According to Forbes magazine Blatter is the 63rd most powerful person in the world. Having suggested that women footballers should wear something more tight-fitting, he has boldly declared that the future of football is feminine. More teams in pink then.

Forbes under its Profile heading says:

FIFA recently announced a raft of reforms to restore credibility to the corruption-ridden organization. "In a nation of 300 million [soccer players], there will be some violence, doping, racism and corruption. But the institution is not corrupt."

2011 Highlight: In June Blatter won a fourth term as FIFA's president after a ­scandal involving cash for votes sidelined his only viable opponent.

It is perhaps no surprise that David Beckham and Gordon Taylor, or any English football figure should call for Blatter's resignation in light of the fiasco concerning the awarding of the World Cup to Dubai when the England party were promised votes they did not get, a decision that was followed by a certain sniggering by the FIFA board. Surely there could have been no question of money changing hands? Surely not with Dubai? It was a fiasco that continued to delight and amuse when everyone was astonished to discover that Dubai is too hot for football in the summer and that, in consequence, every country's winter season would probably have to be abandoned. Even greater hilarity ensued when both the FIFA Vice-President and Blatter's 'only viable opponent' in the election for the presidency were forced to resign.

It may be that Blatter is just a very old fool who feels so secure in his position that he can make 'good sportsmanship' and 'simply shake hands' noises when faced with a scandal he doesn't recognise or understand. It may be that he's just an old-fashioned charmer who has always enjoyed a nod and wink.

So all continues charming in the pile of dung.

Thursday 17 November 2011

An Old Review of Bill Brandt (2)

Continued from yesterday. Strange to think this was written eighteen years ago. It seems no time at all, and Brandt still seems like that to me.

Knowing what we now know of Brandt’s development, it is amusing to consider that his first book of photographs, The English at Home, had been turned down by one publisher in 1936 for not being ‘erotic’ enough. Eros and Thanatos are patently his tutelary gods, or so they appear to us looking back at his work from this, the wrong end of the lens. Things loom and stretch or lurk in shadows, form dark masses against light, part reveal and part hide secrets. There are many pictures of people looking, fewer of what they see. The English at Home shows social masses: the upper classes as a block of hard hats and frock coats, the lower as softer, more battered shapes. Often their backs are to us: we are creeping up on them. We creep up on the lovers in ‘Top Floor’ in 1938, or appear to. We know it is stagy, that it has been set up as a version of film noir, that Brandt often did set his subjects up, nevertheless there is discovery or at least a process of exploration. We forgive Brandt his contrivances because we know that we are being enticed into a world of fiction rather than of hard facts and that the first question we instinctively ask before his pictures is not What Really Happened but What Is Really Happening, meaning by that, what is really happening to us.

Brandt is unapologetically stagy and inward. From the empty Bermondsey street of 1938, through portraits and fashion photos, through all the lives of barmaids, miners, nippies and parlourmaids it is obvious that the events they enact are scenes from the internal dramas of an isolated psyche. Eventually, the creatures that had been the animating force in his journalism, take over entirely and desire realises itself. It does so most dramatically in the nudes.

One might complain that these, indeed all his pictures, are intrusions into real lives. After all, aren’t even these distorted nudes in the haunted rooms of the forties people after all, with their own jealously guarded inwardness? Such complaints wouldn’t be fair or even sensible. It is not as if Brandt were pretending to be objective. Think of the earlier work. A maid dips her hand into a bath; a wild couple devour each other in a shaggy bar; pretty girls lie around in a wartime holiday camp as if they were dead; naked soldiers enter ridiculous open-air contraptions for showering, boffins buzz away inside the illuminated hives of their offices, children strut on the verge of adulthood or lean like elementals out between lace curtains. Families play at death in bomb shelters, bend themselves into extraordinary shapes ; hills turn to bodies, bodies into rock; paths and hedges wind like luminous vertebrae into the dark soft sky. Images are constantly juxtaposed: like the girl carding wool in Giotto’s ‘Annunciation to Anna’, a woman weaving in one picture seems to drag closer the dark storm clouds of the neighbouring photograph with every turn of the wheel. The soldier hitching in the car’s headlight turns into a terrified rabbit in the next. Everything is electric and intangible. Naked objects of desire stretch out enormous demanding palms towards us, as commanding as Pratt the parlourmaid in her own element. Women are dominant figures; in one aspect delicate and hungry, in another vast as primal landscapes. They are secret principles more than individuals and it is useless to ask about the inwardness of principles, especially when everything else is principle.

Towards the end of his life Brandt turned his attention to assemblages. His friends were rather puzzled by these. He employed feathers, skeletons, shells, string, fragments of wings and arranged them into ambiguous patterns whose compositions remind us of Miro and Ernst. Some of these are on show at the Barbican, but most of the collection, purchased from Noya Brandt, the artist’s widow, can be seen at the Reed’s Wharf Gallery near Tower Bridge. The resultant objects are joky, threatening, fetishistic, obviously pregnant with meaning. Coming at the end of Brandt’s career they can only serve as a coda, but it would be a great mistake to imagine them as mere dabbling. To Brandt they were numinous, unknown, unknowable magical objects exciting memories and desires. Compositionally they are not unrelated to either the Hampstead nudes of the forties or the body-as-landscape nudes of the fifties. They stand a little melancholy in the cold Thames light, as I suspect Brandt might have done. Brandt’s attitude to the Other is tender, tangential and passionately evanescent. The impression of an angel is not absolutely misleading. He is certainly one of the great photographers, perhaps the most poetic and subjective of the lot. Both exhibitions should be seen. The world is richer, more melancholy and magical for them.

Wednesday 16 November 2011

An old review of Bill Brandt (1)

from The Perfect Parlourmaid

It being late and the evening filled with marking I am ransacking old articles and have found this one from 1993. It appeared originally in Modern Painters, reviewing Bill Brandt: Photographs 1928-1983 at The Barbican and Bill Brandt: The Assemblages and Associated Vintage Prints at Reeds Wharf Gallery.

There was something angelic about the elderly Bill Brandt. I only remember him from a television programme many years ago, before he died. He looked thin, white and insubstantial, spoke gently and seemed both bewildered and wise. From his photographs of nudes, which were the only works of his I knew at the time, I had imagined someone darker and racier, a David Bailey or Helmut Newton type. It was one of his pictures of The Perfect Parlourmaid he was talking about, images of children, landscapes, air-raid shelters and pubs already having passed before us on the screen. Pratt was the Brandt’s own parlourmaid, a stern, slightly sinister Mrs Danvers sort of figure. But she was not a frightener primarily. The picture had pinned her precisely behind the set table beside her assistant, She was under control, not just as a menial who ruled over little but maintained her self-respect in the ways available to her, but as a psychic force, I thought the picture understood that instinctively. Brandt looking at it, blinked, and said: Anyone could have taken that picture. Anyone. Meaning: You too would have seen what I saw. But to see thus; to remember the precise awe of the awed child and at the same time imagine being the object of that awe is not so easy. Artists do these things for us. They find and redefine the language that makes it possible. If one pays any heed to the proposition that life passes like a dream, or that history is a nightmare from which one is trying to awake (Stephen Dedalus’s words) then such photographs, which arrive like frozen moments out of a pageant of suggestions, may serve to intensify, thicken and clarify that dream.

Brandt does in fact have a photographic essay on dream which is included in his major Barbican retrospective. In a series of pictures a woman rises from her bed, meets a bearded figure on the landing, passes him, or another, on the stairs, She floats out summoned by a dreamers’ moon. It is a poor piece of work. The ‘Lullaby of Broadway’ dream sequence from Busby Berkeley’s Gold Diggers of 1935 has far more power and punch and makes Brandt’s look rather pallid. Perhaps he is too close to home: talking about dream rather than experiencing it. What he did experience was far closer to reportage, and therefore, paradoxically, for him, more genuinely dreamlike: its complexities reflecting the complex and marginal career of an outsider.

Brandt was that poetic archetype, a sickly and, in some ways, protected child. He was born in Germany to a father who was a British subject and a German mother with interests in the arts. His travels began following his treatment for tuberculosis in 1920, contracted when he was sixteen From Hamburg, his birthplace, he moved to Switzerland and thence to Vienna in 1927 where he was psychoanalysed by. While in Vienna he met Loos, was encouraged into photography by friends and met Ezra Pound who arranged for him to spend some time with Man Ray in Paris. Three months of Parisian Surrealism in Ray’s studio combined with journeys to England, Spain and Hungary provided him with a body of work we know little about and is sparsely represented in the exhibition, though what there is demonstrates a blend of dreamlike humour and theatrical insecurity: a pair of headless mannequins of 1929 in Paris for which Crevel wrote a text, wax figures in a museum, funerary sculpture and gestures of gypsies, beggars in Spain. In Hungary a drunken postman balances himself against the immensity of the plain and a hog rolls in mud.

In 1931 the newly married Brandt and his Hungarian wife, Eva Rakos, settled in England, opting for obscurity in a country where he had no reputation and therefore little work. His career as a photo journalist - albeit never quite a conventional one - was to develop here. Slowly, the commissions arrived and he joined that mass of talented men sent out on assignments to photograph days in various lives, or places and events of interest to the general public. The magazines for which Brandt worked had their own agenda of course. They ranged from the populist Weekly Illustrated, through the documentary Picture Post and the respectably but slyly erotic Lilliput . The caption is always an important element in the reading of pictures and these inevitably tended to simplification: they set out to domesticate and familiarise whereas Brandt’s instinct was to alienate. This should be qualified. At this time Brandt alienates within a secondary context. One finds references to the films of Hitchcock and Cocteau, to other photographers such as Kertész and Brassai, to certain graphic artists and to visual stereotypes derived from childhood. Brandt’s language took time to evolve: it had to work through whatever imagery lay to hand. Ian Jeffrey, in his informed and imaginative catalogue essay, suggests that Stekel’s psychoanalytical method made a lasting impression on Brandt, in that it provided him with an “iconographic depository” that he could ransack. It is a moot question how far a sophisticated man who has spent some time under such analysis can avoid self-consciousness or a programmatic approach to imagery. Perhaps that is precisely why his documentary work was so valuable to him. If, as Jeffrey says, the “whole of Brandt’s career amounted to one long submission of dreams to an imaginary analyst”, and he was “a paraphiliac, in love with the symptoms of his own condition” (which is perfectly possible since his or her own condition is one of the few fixed points in any artist’s mind), it will have come as welcome relief to have been set a given task. It will also explain his progress across genres, and the rather lurching quality of his career.

(to be concluded)