Monday 31 October 2011

How many legs has a centipede?

Lithobius meccanus, the Terminator centipede

Well, if it is a hundred, (which it isn't, but could be over forty, depending) and I were a centipede I'd be down to my last three or four. Awake at 4 am, full day's work, then event, with the same to come tomorrow, then the flight to Munich. My intentionality involves sleep and cognizance of the fact that the word YES is not the only word in the dictionary.

Tomorrow I read with Yang Lian at UEA. The Munich reading is at the university on Thursday.

Tried Dylan Thomas's Fern Hill on second year undergraduates today. It doesn't cut it. It just doesn't cut it. It doesn't ring true. It feels like visionary Disneyland (nobody said that but deep down I suspect that's how they felt). I suppose it is understandable for much the same reasons as it was for Larkin, but I can't help thinking once the ecstatic disappears off the verbal radar the world of the imagination feels a little narrower. Maybe the poem seems like a supercharged advert for country life. Mr Larkin's I Remember, I remember is closer to the mark. Nothing, like something, happens anywhere, yes, but I sang in my chains like the sea. Well, occasionally.

Sunday 30 October 2011

Sunday night is...Baby, Please Don't Go

Big Bill Broonzy, 1952

Them, with Van Morrison, 1964 (Keith Fordyce introducing)

If translation is the cover version, then Big Joe Williams, Lightnin' Hopkins, Mose Allison, Van Morrison and uncle Bob Dylan and all have translated to satisfaction. The bottom version? Oh Bottom, thou art translated, as Jan Kott joked.


Some discussion of today's session on the rebirth of the author in the comments column of yesterday's post. Nice contributions.

Saturday 29 October 2011


The death of the author...?

Rebirth of the Author
Sunday 30 October, 12.30pm until 1.30pm, Henry Moore Gallery Lunchtime Debates, Royal College of Art

Tomorrow I am one of the panellists on this at the Battle of Ideas. There is the new idea of Intentism as expounded by artist Vittorio Pelosi among others, but there is also John Sutherland and Dolan Cummings, with Angus Kennedy in the chair. All this to be discussed at lightning speed.

I see I am leading off...

Friday 28 October 2011


An exchange with a friend, X, a Manchester City supporter. The meat of it is here. It can serve as a kind of literary model:

X: can I mention the derby yet, George? I was very happy to be in Manchester that day.

me: I had already covered it in the blog, X. But congratulations.

X: Nice blog, George. though you clearly didn't watch the game. Second half, we destroyed you, and Dzeko also missed 3 sitters. It could easily have been double figures. Anyway, as you know, I'm not one to gloat. I'm just happy I was in Manchester for that.

me: And you had a man advantage, I believe. So that's two halves, one of which you dominated, the other that you didn't. And once you start counting missed chances you never stop. And three goals after the 90th minute when United were attacking with a man down... I'd never put you down for a gloater. But do send another email to tell me you're not and to regale me with a few more statistics, just to assure me. I am quite happy to be a gloatee.

X: well, i have to answer your points, George! So here are the points, stats in a none-gloaty way.

We had a man advantage, fairly, because of a woeful professional foul on Balotelli when he was clean through. You can't claim that as being hard done by!

Talking of goals after the 90th minute - I thought that's how champions assert their authority. You should know George that your team has scored more goals after the 90th minute than any other in the Premier league!

We destroyed you second half. And were already 1-0 up at half-time. when it was 11 v 11.

(Another short one about the Poznan from X just to keep up the pressure.)

me: Blimey, you wouldn't think you were a literary chap, X. I did not claim we were 'hard done by'. That is a classic straw man argument. Accuse a writer of saying something he did not say then tell him he was wrong to say it. Nor did I say a single word about 'fairness'. Try looking for the word in my email. 'And we were already 1-0 up at half time': I do not call that a very big deal, X. 1-0 down is not a big score. United have often been 1-0 down at half time. Soon after half-time we were a man down too. Perfectly fairly (as if I said anything to the contrary!), but it does make a difference.

As to scoring after 90 minutes, quite right. But I have never claimed that United scoring 2 or 3 goals after 90 minutes were up was a sign of anything. Another straw man. When United beat Bayern in that 1999 final with two goals in added time, I never claimed that made United the better team. I thought Bayern played better through most of the match and they did in fact hit the woodwork twice in the minutes preceding United's goals. I simply rejoiced, as you may rejoice, in winning.I didn't claim United 'destroyed' Arsenal in that 8-2 win earlier this season, nor when they beat Roma 7-0. I said it was remarkable. And so was this. This was a remarkable result. You go with your destruction metaphor, I'll stay with the ones I am comfortable with even when winning. I wish City good luck in winning. It may or may not make City champions. (I should add that I did not write to any Bayern Munich fans in either a gloaty or non-gloaty way. Mind you, that may be because I didn't know any.)

It strikes me you are making up possible objections to the win and attributing them to me, just in case I should dare even think it was unfair. It's a well worn strategy. Try quoting from what I said to see if that attribution - any attribution - stands up. Good luck with that as well.

City won fair and square. Will that do? Such things happen.

With comradely best wishes,

x: 'destroyed' was ferguson's word. nor have i ever heard him before saying they should have defended for damage limitation after 3-1! humiliated is another good word. record breaking on 11 counts.

me: X, my felicitations. You were talking about my email, not about Ferguson's words. Now I am working, and that is enough gloating for one day. There must be other straw men out there.

X: no, George, i was talking about what city did to united. despite your claims of mitigating circumstances: 11 men, ten men, kids.

balotelli has just turned 20.

At this point I turned off the tap. X is of course utterly non-gloaty. He just wants a little more blood through that tap. Comradely greetings every time. It's what friends are for, isn't it?

Thursday 27 October 2011

The Finkler Question

I finished Howard Jacobson's book on the way to Nottingham and the impression of terror and foreboding as the main two driving forces of the book, allied to the themes of Jewish consciousness, exceptionalism and contemporary anti-Semitism has become ever clearer.

So there's this man who is fascinated by Jews and has two close Jewish friends from boyhood, one his teacher, the other his schoolmate. The schoolmate (Finkler) studied philosophy and has become a writer of a popular philosophical series in the Alain de Botton manner such as The Existentialist in the Kitchen, and The Little Book of Household Stoicism, which have got him on telly and made him a public man. The much older teacher (Libor) had been a Hollywood journalist photographed with all the great stars. Both men had wonderful wives but both wives have died. Treslove, the non-Jew, has never had a wife just a series of insecure relationship which have however resulted in two children neither of whom he loves. One day Treslove is mugged by an unseen assailant whom he firmly believes to be a woman who says something to him he cannot properly hear but which he becomes ever more certain was: 'You Jew'.

The story of the book is of Treslove wanting to become a Jew, learning how to be one and eventually forming the best relationship of his life with one, an ample woman called Hephziba, who is also known as Juno. Puns galore.

It turns out that the two most correct Jews in the book are neither of them Jews by birth but are so by conversion. One of the Jews (Finkler, which is Treslove's name for all Jews, hence the title of the book) is strongly against Israel which makes him ashamed to be Jewish so he joins an organisation very like Jews for Palestine and meets with people like Jacqueline Rose, and hears of people like Gilad Atzmon. Libor defends Israel but the three of them remain friends. In the course of the plot we are taken to see a play very like Caryl Churchill's Seven Jewish Children, which is wildly cheered by its captive audience. Throughout the book there is the increasing threat of a new, liberal-left-approved anti-Semitism in a climate approaching the mood of the thirties both in intensity and ubiquity.

If we go on this way, Jacobson suggests, that is where we will end up, with only one villain in the world, Israel, and only one people guilty of the worst crimes against humanity, the Jews who are gathered in Israel. No need to list their various assumed crimes, they are in the public sphere: 9/11, organ stealing, financial corruption, transcendent powers of lobbying and opinion forming, apartheid, massacre, and, worst of all, their assumption of being 'the chosen people' and therefore superior to everyone else, as evidenced recently, according to Deborah Orr, by their willingness to swap a thousand Palestinian prisoners for one kidnapped soldier. In other words their assumption that one Jew must be worth a thousand of everyone else. Trumping everything is the Holocaust and the Jews' memorialisation of it, though there is no shortage of those who now suggest it never happened, or if it did happen it wasn't half as bad as claimed.

The underlying assumption in all this is that Jews are a duplicitious, arrogant cancer on society. In other words that maybe the Nazis got a few things right after all. That is Jacobson's terror and foreboding. The book is an engagement with that foreboding.


Running parallel to this is the question of Jewish consciousness and exceptionalism as experienced by Jews and as regarded by others. Treslove, the chief among those others, is much more a stereotypical Jew than the Jews are. He is Brad Pitt crossed with a non-Jewish Woody Allen who wants to become a properly Jewish Woody Allen because then, at least, he'd be among others like himself.

Jacobson here proposes the idea that some people admire Jews to the point of not only wanting to copy them, but actually to wanting to become them. This might be, he suggests, to do with Jewish success, but it is at least as much to do with death: those dead wives and the women Treslove loves to imagine dead just so he may love them more are figures of vulnerability. Non-Jewish vulnerability finds a more heroic context in Jewish vulnerability.

I find this puzzling because I don't see that people want to become Jews for any particular reason, or indeed that they want to become Jews at all. I can't follow Jacobson there. I myself have attributed the rise in anti-Semitism - and I am quite sure it is rising, since it seems everywhere round me, especially in the press, not as a matter of direct avowal, for no one admits being anti-Semitic, but as a series of corrosive stories and rumours taken as facts - partly to time.

So, as the first-hand witnesses of the Holocaust die off (I am second-hand in that it directly affected my parents not me), their stories become ever more rounded into a packaged form. This is what happens to all stories, of course, but this is a particularly horrific story. All packages breed suspicion, especially a horrific guilt package. As time passes, those with no direct stake in the contents of the package - non-Jews above all - begin to resent feeling guilty for something they themselves did not do. I've never said or done an anti-Semitic thing, they think, why do those bloody Jews hang around with their packaged suffering making me feel as though I were anti-Semitic. Bunch of liars, probably exaggerating any way, just look at that neat and handy package they keep pointing to. So they go on, then seeing Israel there, they project their hatred of the guilt package onto the one concentration of such people in the world, a concentration that is in itself a package. I hate Jews because they suggest I am an anti-Semite, is the short-hand version.

This is not Jacobson's diagnosis. But then his is an English Jew's diagnosis, not a Central European's. The Finklers' cultural and religious practices are no more peculiar than that of any other exceptions to any other norm. English Jews could be successes without being conspicuously Jewish. No Holocaust here.

For that reason maybe, brilliant a book, as in many ways this is, I simply don't believe in the central character, Julian Treslove. He seems an invented prat, his self-torture a form of hypothetical aesthetic indulgence.

I have no problem with Libor and not much with Finkler. Nor
with Jacobson. He is a keenly perceptive and elegant commentator on most contemporary matters.

And the social analysis is very good. Jacobson knows his milieu well and his recognizable anti-Semites are only a little larger than life. The foreboding and the terror are the real thing.

Wednesday 26 October 2011

Newcastle journey

There is a moment you have to remember to look up on the train ride to Newcastle: it is the sight of Durham Cathedral. Just passing it makes the whole journey worthwhile and if it is a sunny autumn day with the leaves in their full Andy Goldsworthy outfits it is pretty close to sublime.

The cathedral I am used to passing more regularly is Ely, which always takes my breath away. Ely is as delicate as a spider's web. It has something of the enchanted palace about it. In certain lights, when the sun is particularly dazzling, it hardly seems there at all. Durham is a kind of miraculous fortitude, a series of ascending statements that transcend reason.

All this talk of enchantment and miracle. What do we mean when we talk of these things? My journey was chiefly taken up reading through Howard Jacobson's Booker-winning, The Finkler Question, which looks and reads like a novel but is, in effect, an enquiry into Jewishness and what, if anything, constitutes the Jewish soul. I don't think he uses the word 'soul; but that is what it boils down to. In asking, as characters do throughout the book in one way or the other, what the peculiar condition of being Jewish is, they naturally consider the history of persecutions, the astonishing successes in material and spiritual terms, and the sheer tenuous survival that is never quite assuring enough. It is particularly concerned with Jewish anti-semitism, which begins as anti-Zionism, then passes into a form of self-purgation, the emptying out of an identity that can never quite be emptied out. All this is done with a very smart acerbic wit, but also a sense of melancholy and human understanding. Not to forget terror and foreboding.

On the way home, I put down the book, pick up my iPod and listen to Beethoven's String Quartet, op 132, which is one of the greatest pieces of music I know, a piece in which you can hear Beethoven ask the same question over and over again as motifs are repeated, turned upside down and inside out, that question being, or so it seemed to me on that part of the train ride: Is there a soul? Is this it? Is that it? And if I move it up an octave or run it through in minor, or shift the harmonies around a little so nothing looks as though it's quite decided, will that be it? And some of the notes rise from a great profound depth that shakes through your lower body, and some race up in agitated cries up in the endless blind allies of the ears and nerves before returning and transforming into something else. That tentative quiet beginning grows a little more certain, then rushes into action before reconsidering and setting out again and again. Am I putting this right? Have I really phrased the question properly? And is this an answer?

I suspect it may be a hoary old cliché but the artist Beethoven puts me in mind of is Rembrandt. The same introspection, the same endless self-questioning. Is this the soul then? Is it instead that other thing? And does it exist at all? Does it, like, make sense, dude?

Yes, dude, it does at certain times. At certain times it is as if nothing else existed, just the soul with its undefined limits, and whether it is your individual soul or some altogether more complex thing in which that which is you is not divided from the world but is somehow the world looking at itself, well you're not going to know.

But Ely and Durham and Beethoven and even all that neurotic anxious scrabbling away at the bare foundations of being just to check they exist at all in Jacobson and all those Finklers, are evidences that will not be easily dismissed.

Tuesday 25 October 2011

Newcastle Brown and Nottingham Lace

Tomorrow I shall take my honest cart and trundle up to Newcastle to deliver myself of certain relatively judicious opinions upon the works of postgraduates in that city which has at times been taken to be Peru. I look forward to a change of horse at Ely, at Peterborough, and possibly at Grantham, the city of Our Blessed Lady Margaret of the Greengrocers, proceeding northwards from thence via the Roman encampment of Doncaster and the resolute towers of Durham before plunging into the Tyne, or rather across it. It will be like bringing the good news from Ghent to Aix.

The following day I shall ride equally hard to Nottingham for to purchase some lace and while there to converse amiably with a student thereof who will delight me with his notions of Queer literature with many a verse accompanying, for I am a man of parts; and did I not spend an hour and above this morning with a maid of Romanie talking of Tristan Tzara and Eugene Ionesco and all things Absurd of whom and which my knowledge is as that of a flea, which never did prevent me building my small flea-palaces of thought and conjecture (more conjecture than thought some of the wiser sort may remark) which, looked at in a certain light, are sometimes supposed to be of greater dimensions than they are.

And next Wednesday I shall mount my wife's good broom and fly me (and us both) to Munich to deliver myself of yet more palaces of verse, in the quiet hours composing as subtil and learned article upon the works of a foreign bard as this flea-palace will allow.

But that is not before organising and presenting one reading featuring, among other luminaries, Count Thwaite of Ashwellthorpe, at the university of the Northfolk on Monday, and being part of another with the Grand Prince of China, Professor Yang Lian, at same on Tuesday, thus completing my stint as Solomon Grundy.

Is October the cruellest month, or November? Discuss.

Exercises en style no 738

Monday 24 October 2011

On getting smashed 6-1

Well, no, I didn't watch it. Too painful. (Though I certainly wouldn't have left if I had been there.) And for all I know it may be a turning of the tide, but one match has never meant that, so we shall see.

It is occasionally salutary to be smashed like this especially after the way the season began when United were smashing everyone else, including Arsenal 8-2, which was a flattering score-line, though extraordinary at the time, and the 3-1 win over Chelsea which was also flattering. In the same way this 6-1 was flattering to City with its three late goals after 90 minutes when, by all accounts United were attacking, and after most of the second half where United had just ten men following a first half when United had most of the play. Nevertheless this too was extraordinary and shows what a strong team City have become.

The medium-term effect will depend on character and discipline. If that begins to go it might be that the title will slip away but we are not even at Christmas yet. In any case I have loved this team so long and have seen them relegated and spend decades as a minor act to Liverpool or Everton, so the last twenty years have been beyond my wildest dreams. Nothing will take that away, and a little humility is a good thing.

I suspect United will be pretty close at the end and that City will have their turn to fade. It's a good open season so far, and nice to see Stoke do so well, chiefly in memory of Steve, but generally because it is good that the unfashionable should prosper. That Mr Pulisball must be a decent manager after all, as is our Norwich man, Mr Lambert.

It has not been a football day otherwise but a stream of poems, like hailstones, coming at me at university.

My next radio jaunt is an essay on W G Sebald, to be recorded some time in the next two weeks.

Sunday 23 October 2011

Sunday night is...Liszt, 'gypsy music' and GS

Parno Graszt outside the family house where we recorded the music.

So finally it is on, the Sunday feature tonight is Hungary's Soul: Liszt and Gypsy Music.

Hungary has become synonymous with gypsy music. In the 200th Anniversary year of Liszt's birth, the Hungarian-born poet George Szirtes sets off to Budapest to follow Liszt's book on gypsy music, to discover what might be meant by gypsy music by other people and what it is about this music that is or is not Hungarian.

Liszt's book (1859) is the starting point of George Szirtes' search that takes in Hungary's turbulent history, through 2 world wars and communism to now. George Szirtes speaks to prominent gypsy musicians like violinist Roby Lakatos and cimbalon player Kalman Balogh, and also the internationally-renowned folk singer Marta Sebesteyen.

He also travels to the North-East region of the Great Hungarian Plain, where...

On the principle of always leaving people wanting to know something I leave you to follow the link, or better still, listen to the programme and see what you make of it. It is something like eleven hours miraculously condensed to about forty minutes by brilliant producer, Elizabeth Arno. A new poem by self at the end.

Józsi bácsi (Uncle Joe) the family patriarch and, very occasional but very touching singer.

Saturday 22 October 2011

Interesting times for Great Leaders

...a nice piece by Juan Cole here, where he compares Gaddafi's end to the last days of Jim Jones and the People's Temple Cult. As he says:

Qaddafi [OK, have it your way, JC] had on more than one occasion been offered exile abroad, but sneaked off to his home town of Sirte to make a suicidal last stand. His glassy-eyed minions determinedly fired every last tank and artillery shell they had stockpiled right into the city that sheltered them in order to stall the advancing government troops. This monumentally stupid last stand turned Sirte into Beirut circa the 1980s, as gleaming edifices deteriorated into Swiss cheese and then ultimately blackened rubble. Qaddafi had favored Sirte with magnificent conference centers and wood-paneled conference rooms even as he starved some Eastern cities of funds, and in his death throes he took all his gifts back away from the city of his birth, making it drink the tainted Kool-Aid of his maniacal defiance of reality.

He adds:
Among the attackers were citizen militias from Misrata, the city of 600,000 that Qaddafi had determinedly besieged, subjecting its civilian population to cluster bombs and tank and artillery shells, even bombing it from the air before the UNSC intervened.

He further argues:
It is hard to see how the UNSC desire that the civilian population be protected from him could have been implemented solely on a defensive basis. As long as he had an offensive capability he would clearly deploy it, piling up towers of innocent’s skulls. Once he besieged and murdered the non-combatants of Misrata and Zawiya so mercilessly, all bets were off. He began with 2,000 tanks, which he sent against the demonstrators. When he had almost no tanks left, he was done, reduced to secreting himself in a sewage drain.

In contrast to Qaddafi’s encirclement of Misrata for months and use of cluster bombs in areas where children lived, the Transitional National Council troops advancing in Sirte regularly pulled back to allow local residents to evacuate, attempting to convince them to join the new Libya. Qaddafi never did a similar favor to civilians in Misrata or Zawiya.

Cole ends optimistically:
It would have been better had Qaddafi been left alive to stand trial. The exact circumstances of his death are murky, but it appears that some of his loyalists may have attempted to rescue him from government troops and he died in the firefight or was dispatched lest he be sprung from captivity and serve as a rallying point for the remaining handful of cultists.

Those who expect Libya now to fragment, or to turn into a North African Baghdad, are likely to be disappointed. It is improbable that Qaddafi’s cult will long survive him, at least on any significant scale. Libya has no sectarian divides of the Sunni-Shiite sort. Almost everyone is a Sunni Muslim. It does have an ethnic divide, as between Arabs and Berbers. But the Berbers are bilingual in Arabic, and are in no doubt as to their Libyan identity. The Berbers vigorously joined in the revolution and more or less saved it, and are very likely to be richly rewarded by the new state.

And he expands his argument to the new wave of popular politics in the Arab world.

I think we have lived in interesting times that continue interesting. The present state of affairs probably goes back to the return of the Ayatollah Khomeini to Iran in 1979, runs through the presidency of Gorbachev, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the great shifts in the Middle East, the rise of China and India and the current crisis of capital in the West. To link all this together into a seamless narrative would be wrong. Some elements are related, some not, except only in the faintest way, but we might at least, as Cole suggests, be coming to the end of the era of the autocratic Great Leader and the personality cult. I started under Stalin and Mao and now have to peer into the telescope to see the tiny mannekin figure of Kim Jong-il, with Kim Jong-un, even smaller, behind him.

But then there is Putin and Bashar al-Assad, and Ahmadinejad, plus one or two others, and as the old joke has it, Don't hatchet your counts till they've chickened. There are so many other mini-cults of personality out there. Perhaps Rihanna will lead us to the Promised Land.

Friday 21 October 2011

Ealing, Belgravia and News from Elsewhere 3

Belgravia is not Ealing, nor is Ealing Belgravia. It is when they riot in Belgravia that we can start talking of revolution. At Knightsbridge I get off and plod my weary way towards Belgrave Square and The Grenadier pub where I am to meet Elizabeth, the producer of the Liszt programme at 5pm. The Grenadiers is very small and very crowded and while there are rooms at the back I am not allowed to enter. I buy a Jamesons and ask for a glass of tap water as I have pills to take. Elizabeth arrives very soon after. She is very heavily pregnant now and while nobody offers her a seat a table falls vacant and she is allowed to take precedence. I join her. She is talking about the 1851 Great Exhibition programme of Words and Music that she is currently producing. Our Liszt programme is this weekend. I am hot and keep coughing, not in her general direction of course. When we leave she kindly walks me to the Romanian Cultural Institute which is practically opposite.

All embassies and cultural institutions resemble each other. Chandeliers, marble pillars, and gilded mirrors are the rule. A nice 18th century or Regency staircase is ideal, a few portraits, a small exhibition space, some 'below stairs', a half-hearted washroom for visitors, and above all, a general air of temporary tenancy, combined with a very faint touch of dissipation and bureaucracy. That is the whole romance of them. I wouldn't really have it another way. I don't think I have ever been awed by magnificence. The expression 'all fur coat and no knickers' comforts me. I know that no institution of magnificence has a full set of knickers.

This is very nice. I use the half-hearted washroom, leave my coat and bags in the official little under-stairs cloakroom and drift upstairs, passing the gallery where Andrea B is doing an interview. The hall is set out with chair, magnificent windows, chandeliers, marble columns and gilded etceteras, but the library behind us is reassuringly untidy. Miss Scarlet could be murdering Colonel Mustard in there and has probably done so in the long history of the building.

I do an interview too and little by little the audience arrives as does Amanda. Alan Brownjohn is there in the front row in his fawn coloured suit. The event consists of Andrea reading his poems in Romanian, a very nice actress reading them in English and every so often (six times to be precise, about one poem to Andrea's three) me chiming in with a poem that in some way responds to one of Andrea's. That is as it should be. He is the guest. I am the Welcome to England sign. He's a very good funny, sad, realist poet with a lovely touch of fantasy. I recognise the world he depicts and he, I think, recognises the one I present him with. It's a good combination.

Afterwards we drift down and I talk to some people, including one of my current MA students and his father who have come along; a couple of artists; Dorian, the director of the Institute; and Safina, a young Pakistani born poet working for Poet in the City and Graham Henderson, who have organised the event as one of series. I refrain from coughing over everyone.

I intend to walk to Victoria but see a taxi and hop in. C meets me at Stevenage. Home about 12:30am. Dozy,not quite firm on my legs. A little out of it in fact. Today transitional. Mustn't grumble.

Ealing, Belgravia and News from Elsewhere 2

Well of course it's wrong if they did just shoot him dead without a trial, but dictators very rarely end with trials. Outsiders can tut as much as they like but it is fury that brings dictators down, and it is fury that tears them apart. It is a fury they themselves have generated among many, a mixture of terror and obeisance and false praise that piles up in people until something breaks. It is not good to meet a crowd in such a mood. How many, after all, has the dictator killed? How many more has he imprisoned and tortured? Or threatened to kill, imprison and torture? There will be redress. There will be blood.

Which doesn't mean that there is no calculation. A living dictator will continue to exert power, and the due process of law takes a very long time, so the new state can be destabilised. Under the circumstances fury and calculation are two sides of the same coin.

I know we talk about Blair and everyone else 'doing business' with Gaddafi. Realpolitik is not about morality, not in the short run at any rate. It is about advantage. It is about deals. Politics is mostly realpolitik with rhetoric as advertising. This does not shock me in the least. I do not approve but it does not shock. Nor does realpolitik rule out ideological or even a generally humane politics. Realpolitik needn't be the entire substance of politics, only the business end, only at times. But in our heart of hearts we know it is there, not only in them, but in us, that it is one of the basic tools in the kit and that it is used. Are we compromised by it? Of course we are. But that need not make us cynical. Compromised is what we inevitably are. But we can be working our compromises for better reasons in better ways. There remain better ways of conducting realpolitik with better people. Ideas and ideals remain valid and invigorating. But the tutting is as much rhetoric as the language of rectitude that surrounds realpolitik.

So Gaddafi is gone. Will the future be better? We hope so. Under the circumstances it stands a chance, and why not take that chance?

Or so I think as I head off to Ealing Broadway passing the bronze horse pictured in the post below.

Ealing, Belgravia and News from Elsewhere 1

Bronze horse, Ealing

Life continues a little surreal. Dosed up and carrying folders I arrive at Kings Cross then travel by Piccadilly Line to Northfields where I am met by Gillian, organiser of the Ealing Festival, a concert pianist and full of life. She takes me over to St Stephen's, an ex-primary school that has been taken over by the Hungarian Catholic community. The ladies there speak Hungarian, some are busy in the kitchen. They offer me food, a bowl of lecsó with franfurters, plus slices of bread. The chaplain and Gillian sit with me, eating, while the ladies bustle about. They are warm, good-hearted women who remind me a little of my parents' old Hungarian friends (I think of sweet very fast-talking Mrs Pálos - Vera néni - who wanted me to become a doctor so I could treat her, a thought so naughty and flattering I inevitably felt embarrassed). I eat with an appetite knowing that eating stops me feeling worse, chatting now in English now in Hungarian. Little by little people arrive. The technician offers me technology I don't need to use and make do with a single microphone. My plan for this evening is just to talk, partly about my own background, and partly to offer a few poems on Hungary and some on England, with one or two translations of well-known Hungarian works. I end with Children of Albion, on request. There were riots in Ealing of course.

Wrecked car, Ealing

The evening goes so nicely that questions and conversation continue for a good half an hour or more afterwards. Meanwhile the kind ladies have slipped me a stiff pálinka, then a tea and a small packet of paper hankies. Anne Harvey is in the audience There are a few students, some older English people and a Hungarian music teacher. Good bright people.

A nice woman drives Gillian and I to my B&B. Gillian sees me in, I go to my room, a sort of dog's leg shape with a very tiny bathroom that's about as big as my desk but has a power-shower, and feeling wretched I go to bed and eventually doze off. The room is perfectly comfortable. It is what B&B's were in my youth. But with a power-shower.


Next morning Gillian calls and we walk to the Town Hall, where eventually over a hundred people gather in the big hall. They fit me with a radio mic. This talk is nothing to do with my own life but it fits round the subject of Liszt, offering a historical background to the music in terms of Hungarian literature in translation. I don't use a written text, just the poems, and can happily chat on this subject for more than the required time. After half an hour we take a comfort break then return for another 40 minutes. At the end I play them some Parno Graszt which they clearly enjoy, as do I. It's an interesting crowd, mostly older, very internationally mixed, clearly intelligent and full of questions. I think Ealing is OK.

Gillian then takes me for an Italian, and an hour or so of good talk, mostly, about romantic love and arranged marriage (how did we get on to the subject?). She is about my age, very cultured without any of the fancy class trappings that usually implies. Then I hurry to Waterstone's where I am to sign books from 2-4pm. That's two hours. I sell three books which is three more than I expected to sell, and have three eccentric conversations with people who have no intention of buying the books but like a good chat. Heather, the manager of the branch is a darling and gets me tea. I pick up a book about the hunting down of Saddam and read a few chapters. I buy two books; Simon Garfield's book on typefaces and Howard Jacobson's Booker winner. That's Szirtes 3: Waterstone's 2. I should say my third sale was after I left the first time (at 3:45) but Heather chased after me to bring me back since a lady was disappointed not to have me sign the book.

This is one of the very nice women (an English woman) from the previous night. She says she is late because of the news. What news, I ask? Gaddafi is dead, she tells me.

Tuesday 18 October 2011

Not a Good time to Get...

Andrea Bodiu

...a streaming cold just now. Due to give a reading in London tomorrow, a talk the next morning and perform at the Romanian Cultural Centre in the evening with fine Romanian poet, Andrea Bodiu. Cambridge Poetry School Saturday, London Sunday, teach Monday and Tuesday, to Newcastle Wednesday and Nottingham Thursday.

So it goes. And some of it will have to go, though tomorrow and Thursday are contracted and planned and tickets sold. A good night's sleep might help. Haven't had one of those for four days or so.

And so to bed.

Monday 17 October 2011

Memorial reading for Matt Simpson & Michael Murphy

Gathering at Deryn's first to check what we are doing in what order. First Deryn returns with Felix, then Gwyneth with Eira, both having been out for walks. Maurice Whitbread arrives with Kathryn Maris and on my way to the Bluecoats I bump into John and Pauline Lucas who are on their way to Deryn's. At the Bluecoats I meet old friend David S who was at art school with me at Leeds. We drink a coffee outside and talk of work and Liverpool. Having passed several bars and clubs on the way I say I have yet to see another city with so many. It's a city that likes parties and drinking. I remember David as Charley, singing and painting. We are both grey now but it doesn't seem so different from forty years ago.

Then the others arrive and soon the event is under way. The official readers are Gwyneth, Lawrence, Maurice, John and I with John to link us together, and Pete and Angela Topping to contribute a poem each. We balance the content between Matt and Michael. Behind us images of the two of them shuttle - a bearded Michael and an unbearded Michael, a genial close-up Matt and a Cool Hand Matt sitting on the pavement in his dark glasses.

Between the poems some talk of both. Honesty, precision, truth are regularly mentioned as are affection and tenderness and brilliance. There is the closeness to the physicality of their writing, Matt with his "pigness of pigs", Michael with his turf and allotments. There is the balance between the scholarly and the homely that, in Michael swells to something universal and deep by the end, and in Matt remains resolutely, touchingly humane. John has produced Collected Poems by both of them. Such things are landmarks waiting to be noticed and rediscovered time and again leading, with luck to recognition of value. Such celebrations are there not only to mark the passing of much loved people, but a claim laid down for them as poets.

The reading of the poems was marvellous throughout, all readers bringing the best out of the poems in their individual ways. It is superfluous to say that this was moving and, at times, quite electrifying. Very hard too to think the two men died within a month of each other, the younger, Michael, first, as a result of long illness, the elder unexpectedly, following a routine operation. I last saw Matt at Michael's memorial service. He said he was going into hospital. I assured him he'd be fine, as assuredly he should have been.

It was Matt who had introduced me to Michael, and Michael to Deryn. I had known Matt since the mid-eighties. We corresponded and exchanged poems, read each other's collections. Michael had spent time in Hungary and had translated fragments of Attila József; racy, colloquial translations. In the last year or so of his life Michael was producing poems as good as any and better.

When the poems are as good as these the poems go on breathing.

Sunday 16 October 2011

In Liverpool

Saturday night in Liverpool near Lime Street is busy and loud. Straight to Deryn's, feeling my way round the print-out map. Lawrence, Gwyneth and Judith are already there, with Ian. Deryn has saved some food for me. It' all good humoured and gemütlich, though we know why we are here.

Afterwards Lawrence and I walk back to the apartment rented for us at the Printworks. The place is clean and modern but bare to the point of prison-like austerity. No bedside table or bedside light, in fact nothing but the bed and a wardrobe. Lawrence, having got here earlier, has his own. No soap. There is however a kitchen / lounge which is perfectly fitted with one vast orange sofa in front of the TV, Two floral photos on one wall. A glass table. There's a kettle but no teabags or milk in any form, in fact nothing but a bag of sugar.

Lawrence and I decide to go out for a drink, but this is clubland, full of very loud bars and kids on the way to being drunk. In the end we return to the nearest bar which is more middle aged. Loud but friendly, a group of forty+ women done up to the nines, one in a seventies floral trouser-suit. After a couple of Jamesons we return to the apartment, make bathroom arrangements and retire to our individual rooms.

The trouble is that this is Saturday night and clubland, so there is constant noise below up to 4:30. Singing, conversations, shouting, more singing. Very little sleep.

Breakfast in the morning means a walk through light rain (no umbrella) vainly seeking for a cafe. We pass a smart place where a girl is just opening the door. We ask her if she knows an open cafe nearby. She doesn't, but offers us coffee and, once an expected breakfast group are through, some proper breakfast too. We are lucky as the coach party finds they are late for their flight so rush off before breakfast. I have my favourite eggs benedict but with crisp bacon instead of ham. On our return to Austerity House, we find it doesn't seem quite so prison like now that we have eaten and the rain has stopped.

What a strange miscellany this part of Liverpool is. Grand municipal buildings, a Georgian block, a long deserted cafe sign with no apparent space for a cafe. Some vacant lots. Some modern business or apartment blocks, narrow half-ruined streets leading to main roads, the lot organically undeveloped. And Austerity House.

Lawrence is watching New Zealand v Australia as I write. I have seen no rugby at all this world cup - everything is too much on top of me. The week coming up is scary. Better scary than empty though, I suppose.

Saturday 15 October 2011

To Liverpool

To celebrate Matt Simpson and Michael Murphy. The sun very bright, slanting across the keyboard. Sky clear cerulean fading at the bottom to translucent cloud. Now moving north from Ely on long long ride with much to read. Three Japanese girls ahead of me across the aisle, all plugged into their music, the one nearest strikingly beautiful in an absent way, her mind buried in the music. Sheep grazing to the right of us, the country absolutely flat as far as the eye can see. March station. Post-war estates either side, eighties with two colours of brick for ornament. Not the kind of thing the seventies did much. Windows with mock-leading. An industrial site, clean lines. A vast Tesco warehouse, a silo. Marsh-prairie land, every so often a properly surfaced lane leading off east or west.

If a train were to stop unwontedly here at some tiny station the air would be autumn with a warm edge, but it would be no different from moving. The same flatness, the same sense of hesitation and being nowhere in particular but not too far from town or village.

Received the CD of the Liszt programme through the post. It is due for broadcast next Sunday evening. I just had time to listen to it - it's a rather beautiful job of editing, from ten hours down to forty minutes, the sound quality varying with the location, the music always shifting us on. I wrote a commissioned poem for it, for the very end. It's a piece of very clear verse, no room there for complications. I'll put it up nearer the time.

Hen yesterday suggesting a collaboration. A very attractive proposition. Let's see what comes up.

Now past a wind turbine, close to the tracks, past marshy ponds,the canal with a dense row of weeping willows as we approach Peterborough.


Rather later, near Manchester, a bunch of young Man City fans get on. The team has won, are top of the league and they have drunk a bit. Naturally, they are loud. They cry out that someone's a Jew, but this isn't the main theme. It's just a side dish. They sing. All their songs are about the loathed Manchester United. Forty minutes of Munichs! Munichs! Munichs!, songs about Ryan Giggs and the rest, coming and going. They are not aggressive towards anyone in particular, they just want to feel they have taken control of the carriage. There are no songs of celebration. Everything is about United. They don't realise what a compliment this is. Their humiliation is long and deep, their curses a relief.

Friday 14 October 2011

Late again

Last night we had guests, three lovely friends, all artists. Ron King had come up with his sculptor wife, Willow Legge, from Sussex, and Hen Coleman had driven from Henley. Ron and Hen were going to do a day at Cs school, Hen in fact another half day. I wasn't going to go in for this because of work but on the spur of the moment I decided to and was glad I did. Here is a selection of reasons why..

and this, of course...

Ron is the great artist of the carnivalesque-classic book.

Some of Willow's and Hen's work tomorrow.

Tomorrow afternoon to Liverpool. A little more on that in the morning.

Thursday 13 October 2011

Another thought on Adlestrop

Commenter James Hamilton draws my attention to an article I missed in the New Statesman by Edward Thomas's most recent biographer, Matthew Hollis. (I have been reading Matthew's book among other things I have to read).

It's the remark about the 'easy, wistful tone' in the NS article that intrigues me. I am not sure Matthew H gets that quite right in the NS piece, and thereby hangs a brief tale. First, the well-known poem.


Yes, I remember Adlestrop –
The name because one afternoon
Of heat the express-train drew up there
Unwontedly. It was late June.

The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat.
No one left and no one came
On the bare platform. What I saw
Was Adlestrop – only the name

And willows, willow-herb, and grass,
And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,
No whit less still and lonely fair
Than the high cloudlets in the sky.

And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.

I suspect it is we, the readers, who tend to read Adlestrop in an 'easy and wistful' tone, wistfulness being what we look for in it. It is that reading of the poem, more than the poem itself, that I had in mind in talking about the sense of Englishness. In other words it is less the poem, more the poem's status that conjures the easy wistfulness. The poem in itself goes deeper than nostalgia, wistfulness, or indeed premonition (because, of course, we know about the poet's death and are likely to read premonition into the work). It has existence beside those things.

Reading in hindsight is probably inevitable: maybe that is what reading is most of the time. We read from our particular point in time and culture through the lens of what has been said about the poem before we came to it. We read with expectations. Naked reading is difficult, maybe impossible. And yet the poem doesn't completely yield to our general views of it.

The name, for a start ('only the name') does not sound particularly English. There's something Scandinavian / Germanic about it (try saying Edelströp). In any case, it's an odd name. If the station had been, say, Hayward's Heath, the poem would have struck a different chord. Perhaps there might have been no poem at all. The peculiarity of the name rings us back and, I imagine, rang Thomas back, to the strangeness of all namings. Name disturbs location.

The haunting, apprehended sense of location in the poem is somewhere between the strangeness of the name, the familiarity of the natural landscape, and a gap in time; a gap not only between stanzas but between moments of individual consciousness ('No whit less still and lonely'), moments when everything is momentarily emptied out before the ordinariness of the world slams back in with all those birds, who now seem unnaturally loud ('all the birds of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire').

The name Adlestrop doesn't familiarise: it defamiliarises, as does the sudden stop in the train's schedule. In that defamiliarised gap the codes of meaning vanish as into a vacuum and the empty universe pours in.

For us such vacancy is often presented in terms of death and the meaning of death, death being the hole around which we pack the apparently solid meanings of life as interpreted through consciousness, by way of the insecure codes through which consciousness becomes aware of itself as self-consciousness.

So that's where we are in the poem. The Englishness is incidental in that vacant moment. Adlestrop, in this sense, is not in England. That may be why the poem moves me though I am not English by birth and do not have Thomas's 'willows, willow-herb, and grass, / And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry' for my heritage, let alone those birds of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire. That vacancy is like Betjeman's 'ominous, ominous dancing ahead' in his A Subaltern's Love Song, which also moves beyond 'nine-o'clock Camberley, heavy with bells / And mushroomy, pine-woody, evergreen smells.' The name Adlestrop is not central to the poem's Englishness, the ominous quality is not produced by any factors in the subaltern's social world. Both are off-centre, superfluous hauntings.

The fact is poems need both the location and the dislocation. The location is the recognised or at least imaginable. The dislocated 'death' in Adlestrop inevitably feeds into our unavoidable knowledge (and, to some degree, sentimental knowledge) of Thomas's death but is not what Thomas's poem is about. The death in Adlestrop is all around us, ever present, the moment between one footstep and the next.

Sean O'Brien put it nicely in his Independent review in July:
For all the plainness of his language – it really is heightened speech – Thomas was writing about things at the limit of his understanding, or things that instinct and body – the animal elements of the human species – understood far better than the conscious mind.
It is not what we understand but what we don't understand that matters. It is, paradoxically, the awareness of death, a gap in meaning, that gives our works life.

Wednesday 12 October 2011

Arranged marriage

What a complicated matter this is. Most marriages used to be arranged in most parts of the world, the idea of romantic marriage coming second to the idea of romantic infidelity. Marriage legitimated children and property. In terms of sex it was better to marry than to burn, according to St Paul. If you couldn't be continent it was either a cold shower or a wedding.

I remember Sheena Iyengar, the author of The Art of Choosing, telling us on the radio programme, The Forum, how her parents had an arranged marriage back in India while she had a romantic one in the US. She remarked that her parents' marriage seemed to her a happy one. A love marriage developed.

I can't imagine either C or I would have been pleased to be part of an arranged marriage, but then we grew up in a different culture with very different expectations. For the purposes of marriage we not only had to love each other at some stage, but to have been in love with each other. Tick. That's fine then. Having been in love you were committed to life-long love. That was fine too.

But the point wasn't just love, of course. It was also choice. By choosing to marry we would become the self-consumers of our wooing. Choice was our divine right as consumers.

I am not in fact sure how far the scandal of forced marriage, as we perceive it now, is a scandal about love or a scandal about choice. I suspect it is more the latter than the former. Individual choice lies at the heart of western democracy, so it is a state matter that we should be able to exercise that choice.


This morning Harriet Harman was being asked about a judge overruling the law against importing young people for the purposes of forced marriage. The way she put it was that it was clearly wrong for a young woman in England to be forced to go to India and marry an older man or indeed for an older man to come to England in order to marry a younger woman.

Put that way it is in an odd argument. Traditionally, the groom has been a few years older than the bride so Harman must have been referring to the more unseemly matching of crabbed age and youth. Yes, but such marriages do happen for one reason or another, not excluding love, on a perfectly voluntary basis. Comparative age seemed to be beside the point. Most arranged marriages are between young people of a similar age.

The point is that the woman in such cases is always seen to be the victim. She has never even met the prospective husband, goes one complaint. But that means he has not met her either. The proposed marriage obliges him as well as her to embark on it.

His position in this is never questioned. His choice doesn't matter. That may be because, in the west, it is the man's prerogative to request and the woman's to deny or grant. The consumer choice is hers to exercise, not his. For her, it is assumed, the choice is vital, enduring and freighted with intense feeling. For him it's just a step in a set life-pattern. Feelings - say feelings he might have for someone else prior to the marriage - don't enter into it. That at least is how we see it. It's exactly how Harriet Harman saw it. The law against forced marriage is a law to protect women.

The very fact that it seems so natural is in itself strange. That naturalness assumes a great deal that is unstated and, possibly, uncomfortable.

Tuesday 11 October 2011

Watching Spain while half asleep

Two monstrously early mornings and two long very full days means I am in sleepwalking state by the time I get home after the MA class and the tutorials that follow. It's about 7pm and there is not a cell in my body that is not half asleep, so after dreaming my way through a plate of spaghetti bolognaise I am ready for nothing but sitting on the sofa to watch Scotland play Spain.

Ever since finding out how keenly the Scots yearn for England to lose at just about anything, that being the greatest pleasure life can afford a true Scot, I have grown increasingly indifferent to Scotland's fate at sporting contests and am quite glad to see them lose to just about anybody. Or so I say, but my heart's not in it. I like the Scots I know and I put down their meanness of spirit to a particularly florid post-imperial schadenfreude under the spell of which they, the great governors of half the Empire, like to imagine themselves not the gainers by such imperial adventures but the colonised victims. Self-pity is strong drink. Apart from that they seem a most intelligent, capable and genuinely democratic bunch so Tam O'Shanters off to them.

I don't glory in their defeat, but on this merely symbolic level of existence, I am reasonably unbothered if they get stuffed by Uzbekhistan, San Marino or Andorra.

Not so much by the Spanish at the moment. There is too much genuflection in the direction of the Spanish for my taste now. The Spanish football team are indeed absolutely and deservedly top dogs, though there is something half-asleep about them too. Wonderfully skilful as they are, I think roughly 70% of their game goes across or backwards and, were it not for their propensity to suddenly thrust through the opponents' defence in the most spectacular and elegant manner, it might in fact be a touch tedious: tedious, I mean, to the point of actually putting you to sleep, as it did me at certain points tonight. But then they scored three splendid goals, and provided almost ten minutes, all told, of entertaining forward play. The fact is I didn't actually want Scotland stuffed because while the Scots persisted, admirably enough, in chasing everything and even showing some flashes of skill of their own, the TV commentary, in as much as I was listening or even hearing it, was one long eulogy of the genius of over forty other Spanish footballers, of whom they could probably not name twenty but of whom everyone was, guaranteed to be a world beating genius. It became nauseatingly tedious after a while and it was this, as much as the long periods of possession play that sent me to sleep.

It's interesting that what we so admire in others we often deprecate in ourselves. At home, sideways and backwards passing are proofs of a craven, unadventurous spirit. In Spain or Brazil we take them for signs of mesmeric power.

But then come those moments of spectacular elegance. They're good at that.

What are the shoes about? Just liked them. They come from here where there are more.

Monday 10 October 2011

Monday night is Sunday night is... Harry Langdon's Cliffhanger

Since I am late home from a poetry reading by Michael Mackmin and Hannah Lowe, and since I must rise early tomorrow to read stuff, here is some cheering material involving sheep.

The star is Harry Langdon in 1926. Our cat Lily has been played by the ghost of Harry Langdon all her short life. Langdon got every one of her mannerisms and looks right. Langdon was a genius. As is Lily, of course.

Sunday 9 October 2011

        The Immigrant at Port Selda

The Immigrant at Port Selda

I got off at Port Selda and looked out for the harbour
but it was quiet, nothing smelled of the sea,
all I saw was a station by a well-kept arbour
with a notice pinned to a tree.

It said: Welcome to Port Selda, you who will never be
our collective unconscious nor of our race.
This is the one true genealogical tree
and this the notice you will not deface.

It was beautiful there. It was Friday in late
autumn and all the birds of the county sang
their hearts out. I noted down the date.
The sun was shining and the church-bells rang.

A few weeks ago, during the Words, festival someone was reciting Betjeman's famous poem about Miss J Hunter Dunn and it was remarked to me how English that poem was, and that I could hardly be expected to recognise the specifically English experience to which the poem referrred. I understood what the speaker meant, though it was an odd moment in many respects. He was right, or rather I supposed - and continue to suppose - that he might be right, because, after all, there are levels of being one cannot vouch for. I suppose it was an odd moment to draw that line between what constitutes Englishness and where I might be supposed relative to it.

It took me back to another occasion in my schoolteaching days some twenty or more years ago, when the conversation turned to cricket in the staff room, and having grown fond of cricket I venture an opinion on style. I had clearly taken the others aback, since there were raised eyebrows and a little surprised looking, as though there were objects within the sanctum of consciousness of which I could not be presumed to speak.

I don't argue that this was specifically English, since it is quite likely that anywhere in the world you would find such sanctums, those spaces of shared being informed by the experience of generations. It is right that visitors should respect such spaces and that, occasionally, there might be family business at which it might be proper for the visitor to withdraw. That is if one had somewhere to withdraw to. That isn't always the case.

Hence the poem. I thought of Edward Thomas, and particularly of his poem, Adlestrop, which conveys to me something related to, if not the same as, Betjeman's poem. Betjeman's poem is a social creature inhabiting a social field. Edward Thomas's is about something deeper and yet proceeds from something, a sense of place, mood and language, that might be felt more intensely by the native Briton. Looking at that photograph in a recent blog of Adlestrop, the name, as Thomas says, I note, as others might have done for all I know, that it spells Port Selda backwards. A port! The very place an immigrant might arrive at. So the poem.

Saturday 8 October 2011

Co-incidences and prizes

Fathead microphone

Driving into Norwich yesterday to pick up train tickets to Liverpool and get visa photos for China, we are listening to the radio and there is a particularly detailed description of a castration on Radio 4. After ten minutes or so we think, that's enough castration for today, and turn over to Radio 5, where the conversation is all about sex-change. This is a gentle enough shift but after ten minutes or so we think, that's probably enough of sex-change, so we turn to Radio 3, where they are playing a familiar piece of music. 'What's that?' we ask. It is The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy. There is a certain broad humour to this (man feels in pockets and exclaims 'I didn't know I had brought plums with me' and beyond) that I will not explore.

Meanwhile the sun is out again and I must get to Chelmsford to the Essex Poetry Festival where I am to award the prizes and make a brief speech on the occasion thereof. Here's part of it:

Judging poetry competitions is in some ways a cruel business. You can't stop to remark a decent piece of work here and there, or hesitate too long over poems of undoubted value. You constantly have to be asking yourself the question: Is this poem a likely winner?

That, at least, is what you say to yourself. In actual fact you find yourself reading and re-reading everything that seem to have some worth. And since you can't read through hundreds of poems in one go without growing dizzy the reading has to be done in spurts, and each time you have to wind your mind up to the task and to gauge the broad average standard if only so you can see what rises above it.

People often ask what is a prize winning poem, and I have in fact written briefly on that subject for The Poetry School. I am not going to go back over that, only to say that a prize winning poem is not necessarily the same thing as a good poem in a collection. There tends to be something unusually vivid in a successful competition poem, something clear cut, however subtle. Being vivid is not the same as being dramatic and certainly not the same as being flashy: it is more to do with a conspicuous lightness of touch, conspicuous economy - a conspicuous subtlety then, if that doesn't seem a contradiction. The prize winning poem goes out by itself in a crowd and is noticed, not because it is strange or sets out to dazzle, not just because of its dress, but the way it takes possession of the space around it. The poem makes you want to come back to it and reread it, because however good it read the first time you don't think you've got everything from it.

Great poems are those you can come back to an almost infinite number of times. They hold their ground and move in the space of language, among all the other poems, with a grace, assurance and self-possession that seems inexhaustible.

It is often the sense of what is not said that haunts a poem. The poem, in effect, makes a perfect space for the unsaid. It is salutary then for a poem to resist poetry just a little, just enough for the pressure to build up at that not entirely closed door.

One says these things and sounds like a portentous, self-important fathead, but it's what I think at the time I am writing.

Say it then, fathead. Go on, say it. You can always say something different tomorrow when you have got round to thinking something different.

Friday 7 October 2011

A game for National Poetry Day


It being National Poetry Day with the 2011 theme of ‘Games’ here is a game based on a set of injunctions from a literary magazine of 2000, The Printers’ Devil. The game was to break all the injunctions at once. A little bad taste and a whiff of sacrilege was the ideal to aim at in a form cosy enough to embody the editors' worst nightmare.

“The Printer’s Devil will accept no poems about cats, funerals, churches, the Holocaust or disasters seen only on television"

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.

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

*2000 was the year of the great earthquake in Belarus.

The Road to Southwold Pier

Southwold Pier wasn't the intention. To stay at home and catch up with work was, apart that is from a concert we had been invited to where one of the pieces being performed was a set of Rain Songs I had written for the Czech-born composer Karel Janovitzky. I thought the concert was in the evening but when I looked at the tickets about 11am, the message was suddenly ambiguous. It was a pass to all the concerts at the William Alwyn Festival but the blank space had 2pm stamped on it.

My head was full of writing - a short essay, a competition report, an introduction, two reviews, my university classes - and it was too late to ring for further information. So we had a hasty early lunch and drove off to St Felix's Chapel in St Felix's School, where the concert was. Except when we arrived the 2pm event turned out to be a Masterclass with the great recorder virtuoso, John Turner, who had in fact invited us. The concert was in the evening at 7:30. I was embarrassed and in despair. There was no point in coming home to work then driving out again but I had to work. On the other hand the concert in which Rain Songs was to be performed was in the evening and dear Karel was going to be there.

We attended the masterclass, and a good thing too. We learned more about the recorder in an hour or so than I had learned in my entire life: not only about the considerable range of recorders but recorder technique and the range, limitation and quality of the recorder. John T delivered his class with considerable grace and humour to a group of able very young, shy but able recorder students including their tutor, Laura Cannell, who I had first met just three weeks before when Horses Brawl performed at the Wymondham Words Festival.

John having specially mentioned Karel we decided to blow it and stay, so drove into Southwold and parked by the pier. The sun was out and the wind rising. We walked through the amusement arcade and down the pier. It's hundred feet long with a series of huts: restaurant, cafe, gift shop and the roomful of Tim Hunkin's gorgeous Under the Pier slot machines. I love such things: the poet and the child meet at the universe-as-mechanics. We tried Frankenstein and the Zimmer Frame Crossing and the Gene Forecaster. This so raised the spirit that from then on I stopped worrying. We wandered down to the T-shaped end, took photos, then back and down the beach towards town with the tide slowly retreating, then returned down the road to eat dinner on the pier.

Our food had just arrived when Karel and his daughter, Debbie, turned up, so we all sat down together and talked for an hour before returning to the concert. Which was a delight and beautifully arranged as a scoot through the playful, the lyrical, the exotic and the melancholy with the soprano Lesley-Jane Rogers now whispering, now teasing, now ringing out a storm with John on recorder and Janet Simpson on a light subtle piano. The audience contained a good sprinkling of composers, in fact all bar Geoffrey Pool from the second half of the concert, plus others like Gordon Crosse whose work comes up tonight. I hope I get another chance to work with Karel. Working with artists and composers and musicians is one of the great pleasures of poetry.

On the way out Elis Pehkonen gave me a CD with work by himself, Christopher Wright and Jane Wells, including the Party Scene from Air Kissing that Jane and I wrote together. Listened to the CD in the car on the drive home through stormy winds. I wonder if anything will ever become of the whole of Air Kissing. These finished by unperformed works are a weight on the soul, and even more on the soul of the composer, who has done so much more than the poet.

Wednesday 5 October 2011

Bert Jansch

Bert Jansch Blackwaterside

How often have I played Blackwaterside, from my late teens onward. Its beautiful mumbling melancholy sent a chill through the bones and still does. The voice is within itself, not looking for any windows. The tune is old, with the air of something newly old, as though it had always stood at some distance from the present but had just emerged. The finger picking guitar is what I would have loved to have emulated. I played Anji, but then everyone played Anji. Jansch turned Anji into a haunting.

Like Davy Graham, who composed Anji, Jansch didn't like the limelight. He composed Needle of Death which is a fine lament for a dead friend, but I have always preferred Blackwaterside. Listening to it you can hear the withdrawal in it. That may be what I most loved about it. It is a kind of bottomless comfort the song is seeking, that and a pint, and maybe another.

Sometime in 1967 or so he was playing at Bunjie's off Piccadilly Circus. A brief and lovely girlfriend was a keen fan and we planned to go but then didn't. We meet sometimes - we met at a public event a month or so ago - and she is still lovely. Death is always sad but it's very sad to hear of Jansch's death. Here is today's Telegraph obit.

And here he is in 2008 as good as ever.

Tuesday 4 October 2011

On my office wall 2

GS office wall 3

Well, Philip Larkin of course, in his duffel coat. One would want Mr Bleaney to keep an eye on at least some of one's doings. What he makes of the De Kooning next to him would probably echo what he made of Parker, Pound and Picasso. I see him as Munnings man with a sense of irony. He does have Adolf, little doll-like Adolf, kneeling on the other side. Monet's Rouen Cathedral shimmers next to some pretty dreadful stars, and that may be a Pompeian wall painting but I can't remember now.

GS office wall 5

On the far left, at the top there is an image by Ana Maria Pacheco to my poem 'Armadillo' who was a Roman soldier once. I wrote forty of these bestiary poems and Ana Maria produced twenty magnificently coloured prints. The whole added up to a book worth four figures, but that's artists for you.

The interesting pictures are the three next to it, showing a now closed bookshop in a building that stood in plenty of need of renovation. The bookshop was called The Scientific Anglian and it was collapsing from some inner core of ruin. The owner, rumoured to be a relation of Mervyn Peake, stood in the shop near the door while customers circumnavigated the narrow passages betwen dust and cobwebs and piles of old Pelican editions, some of which might have been valuable. The condition of the building is evident in the picture on the left. The model sailing ship that had nothing to do with anything inside the shop is displayed in the window in the middle photo, and the whole glorious spectacle of Dickensian gothic is on the right. It is the sort of place where spontaneous combustion is likely to occur, if it occurs anywhere (there was a new case reported in the press last week). Under all this, a poster showing Raphael imprisoned and a flier for The Drawbridge magazine, with a cartoon of me on it. I was very pleased and proud of the cartoon.

GS office wall 6

A Cézanne, a Bonnard, Ella, the Dame au Licorne and, in the middle, in orange, my poem Water,selected by a project called The Poetry Cure, to be displayed on the walls of hospital toilets. Unlike the case of the cartoon, I have never known whether to be delighted or embarrassed by this. It doesn't quite feel like an honour. I hear your poem is displayed on the wall of the loo, is not as good as I hear your poem is displayed on a wall of the Louvre. Perhaps I could say the latter while meaning the former. I hope the poem brings relief to some.

I ought to change all this. I ought to put up later, newer things. At least another set of pictures. One of my colleagues has dragged a good quality cream sofa into his small room. Perhaps I could add a grandfather clock or an old armchair with an anti-macassar to mine. With a large globe of the world. A pipe-rack with pipes. A copper ashtray. A spittoon. A tiger-skin rug... why stop there? Jules Verne is waiting to see you.

Monday 3 October 2011

Foxy Knoxy

I write this as the verdict has just been announced and the prisoners freed. There is live TV coverage of the crowd who are shouting 'Murderer' outside. Stephanie Kercher, the sister of the murdered Meredith, fears that her sister is being forgotten in all the fuss about Knox. Whether this means she believes Knox is guilty or that someone must be guilty is not clear.

I am making no guesses about what happened for the very good reason that I have no idea, but it is clear that there is only one story here and, as Stephanie Kercher feared, it is Knox. Why?

There are two contrasting ways of reading this. The first is the conventional feminist way, regarding Knox as a representative female victim, whether she is guilty or not. Knox is pretty, Knox is photogenic, Knox is an aspect of the scandalous feminine. Knox is a symbol. She was called 'a sex-loving she-devil' by the prosecution. She is a devil. In any case she is a scarlet woman or a virgin. And this is Italy where scarlet women and virgins still count for something. The fact is people are interested in her.

There is another person involved, Raffaele Sollecito, but no one is interested in him or ever has been. Who he? He too has served four years in prison, apparently innocently. He's a blank. He's handsome enough but that's all. People care what happens to her, either way. Very few care what happens to him.

Meredith Kercher continues dead. Rudy Guede, convicted of her murder, is in prison and has been for close on three years.

In the meantime the news frenzy continues. It is as if Amanda Knox were leaving the Big Brother house.

I predict a shower of doctoral theses.

Sunday 2 October 2011

Tinker, Tailor, Greyer, Paler


After a hundred years of solitude we emerge into the bright lights of the movie palace to see Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy in Norwich, where for an extra few quid your comfortable chair provides massage. Actually it doesn't but there are 'luxury VIP seats' at the back that might one day provide such a service. The trouble is the Castle Mall Vue (Screen 3) doesn't believe in much air conditioning, or didn't last night, so the hot, unseasonal evening started in a fug of warmth with the stale smell of day-old bodies.

Not inappropriate perhaps. The 1974 book on which the film is based is the insider, John Le Carré's fictionalised version of the Cambridge Five, the infiltration of MI5 by the Burgess, Maclean, Blunt, Philby and Cairncross group. The book is a classic of the genre. Le Carré is a real writer.

As for the film it has a good cast though I remember watching the 1979 television series over seven episodes with Alec Guinness and an equally strong cast that left a very strong impression, (all here), especially Anthony Bate, Bernard Hepton, Ian Richardson and of course Guinness himself who was marvellous in the role of George Smiley.

I don't think the film compares well. Firstly, most importantly perhaps, it was made over twenty years after the world in which the story is set collapsed. The television series was right in it: in so far as the tension between the West and the East still existed it was current affairs by other means.

For better or worse, chiefly worse, the distance in time has turned the story into something else: into evocation, mood and design.

Very well, the distance in time can't be helped. It also can't be helped that this is a feature film (c 2 hours) of much shorter duration than the series (c 6 hours) so character, incident and complexity can be indicated only in shorthand. This is true of all books that become films of course, but here the comparison is with the television series. Movie language is not the same as TV language and the episodic nature of the TV series left the viewer with less sustained gloom and more suspense from week to week.

Nevertheless the film is still a fine piece of contemporary story telling, which means rapid cuts from place to place and from time to time, sometimes so rapid and ambiguous that the audience has to lag slightly behind and take things on trust. (Whenever anyone tells me that modern poetry is difficult I am tempted to ask them to think carefully about almost any contemporary movie. The games with time and place are more complicated even in the simplest of them than in most poems.)

It's fine story telling but with limited means, whose deficiencies must be supplied with, er, evocation, mood, and design.

So the film is shot in very low intensity light verging on grey. There were no sunny days in the world of the Smileys. The world of the secret services is grey so everything must be grey. Yes, it resembles bad seventies photographs but we have to look at it for two hours. It's like spending a very long weekend with a long lost cousin of Luc Tuymans.

As part of the general greyness it is carefully arranged that every secret meeting should take place in a disused factory or a bare room. Not only that but every secret agent must work in conditions of utter dereliction.

In such circumstances the only proper human response, the film tells us, is pained silence. The dialogue is mostly monologue. People ask things that their interlocutor doesn't answer. They look into the pained air with a faintly pained expression. Smiley, despite his name, does a lot of pained looking. He's brilliant at it.

Against this background the characters stand little chance of becoming characters. They become instead a function of evocation, so though we recognise the underlying gay affairs, the complex machinations of the various figures as exemplified in Control's chessboard, and the tension under which everyone is living, we don't really know who they are. Gary Oldman is sterling as Smiley but apart from being traumatised by his wife's affair with one of his colleagues, we don't know what else is bugging him. He never has a chance to convey that to us. Pained silence is his best card and since he is our central character it simply isn't enough. Alec Guinness had a proper hand of cards and was owlish and human: Oldman is like one of Comntrol's chess figures.

Not Oldman's fault. And I shouldn't whine too much because, in the end, I enjoyed the film as design-narrative. The cuts, particularly the cuts, and individual frames were in some way compelling. The film is - God forgive me! - well made. I asked C before we went in what mark she anticipated. She said 9, I said 7 so we agreed on 8. While the film was on it chugged along at a steady 7, but as soon as we went out and started talking about it, the mark started dropping. Very well, 6- isn't much to drop to, and it's OK, and worth seeing.

The same surely cannot be said of any of the films being trailed before the feature started. I hate and despise trailers. Nothing puts me so off a film as its trailer to the extent that I don't think I have ever seen a film on account of its trailer. I have avoided every one of them. Hence the hundred years of solitude. Maybe that is what was not quite right about Tinker Tailor - it was a very good class of trailer for something else.

Saturday 1 October 2011

On my office wall

GS office wall 1

One of the first things I did when getting my office here some five years ago was to cover the walls, arrange a coffee system, accommodate my own books next to those I inherited (several bound volumes of Poetry magazine), get in a couple of table lamps and a cloth to cover the low filing cabinets on which the coffee equipment sits.

All this is simply an effort to make the impersonal less so. Ideally, the room would be a good-sized private box in a Central European Jugendstil restaurant with service to match. I want one wizened elderly Austrian waiter to bring suitable refreshments and engage in gossip and small talk between classes, tutorials and supervisions. A Wings of Desire-style angel should haunt the corridor and a beautiful female acrobat should appear now and then as if by chance. It would be the full Tennysonian Palace of Art.

GS office wall 2

As it is, there are postcards, poems and photos on the wall. Let me itemise some of them:
1. A photograph of Miklos Haraszti's Budapest flat (2nd row extreme left) where we spent most of 1989 while he was being Dissident in Residence at Bard College. That suits me fine as I could one day be Bard in Residence at Dissident College.

2. Directly below it, a photograph of the lobby of the Tucson hotel where I spent the night in the dead man's room while the hootenanny raved below and the wonderful train made wonderful train noises when passing through the station not too far away.

3. Next to it another photograph, taken by Anthony Thwaite, showing Ian Duhig, the marvellous, late, Julia Darling and myself with Patricia Aydelotte, one of our fine US hosts. We are in Monument Valley besieged by Apaches, the Seventh Cavalry nowhere in sight.

4. To the right of that is C in her studio, looking early Julie Christie-ish, her hair long but gathered up. She is in a white apron leaning against her bench. It doesn't seem long ago but it may be ten years or more.

5. A series of jazz legends lines up next to her: Wynton Marsalis, Charlie Parker, Clint Weaver, and Ella F, all taken by William Claxton. Poem cards below them by the late wife of a colleague, Sue Fitzpatrick, sharp, poignant, wise verses, and at the end a very early poem card by me, Snow, from my very first book.

6. This could get tedious so, to the left of the bottom photograph, two photographs of the absolutely new born Marlie in her first hour of life, and at the bottom a cartoon appropriate for a Bard in residence at Dissident College (see top photograph). It's the well-known one of two dogs in suits addressing a cat in a suit at some kind of interrogation, one dog whispering to the other: You'll have to phrase it another way. They have no word for fetch.
But then we're all cats here in a dog world where dog occasionally eats dog. Have I mentioned the Blake, the Goya, the Chagall, the Poussin, the Picasso, the Oldenburg and the Cezanne? Have I mentioned La Dame au Licorne? Have I mentioned my feet? Have I mentioned my essential perceptions of the universe? Have I mentioned the slight itch at the side of my nose?

GS office wall 4

A few more wall items may be worth one more post.