Thursday 27 December 2012

In Memory of Dennis O'Driscoll 1

Dennis O'Driscoll 1954-2012

Yesterday I heard of the death of a good friend, the Irish poet, Dennis O'Driscoll. I will write more about him but here is the review I wrote for The Guardian of his New and Selected Poems, 2005.

To live in a world where "Dry-gulleted drains gulp down neat rain", where ageing love poets curl fingers "around the long flowing tresses of sentences" while hearing "the excited shriek of her zip", where "not a speck of moth's / dust is mislaid" and yet where death is continually moving into "newly-constructed suburbs" and a rainbow unfolds "its colour chart" precisely at the same time as "someone is dressing up for death" - to live in such a world is to inhabit a place built on infinite care and irony. 
Though these quotations are mostly from different poems, the location remains the same. It is O'Driscoll land. It is a place that at first sight appears to be bordering on Larkin country, though it is not entirely contiguous with it, for while the Irish poet is avowedly an admirer of Philip Larkin, he is a more tender, more playful and distinctly less xenophobic writer. 
Like Larkin, Dennis O'Driscoll rejects the myth kitty and (usually) the grander passages of high art. Like Larkin he generally addresses himself to ordinary lives, to their ambit of hopes and disappointments. Occasionally he even sounds like Larkin, in "Love Life" for instance, where "love" and "forever" share "the one / sentence like a king-size bed" and where sexual excitement is "a breaking / bag of waters ready to let rip". Like Larkin he writes his "Vers de Société", too (in "No Thanks"). 
The point about Larkin - the point about his popularity - is that his poems claim no special poetic province. What he felt was being felt by a vast number of people. He was an inhabitant of the Everyman estate. He respected people for what they were, understanding their frustrations and desires. And so does O'Driscoll. His major long poem, a remarkable work, "The Bottom Line", is about the life of the office, the routines of lower and middle management, and in it he makes us understand that the poetry of such lives is precisely that: poetry. The poet, in other words, is not there to tell people how they should feel but to try to understand, to share and to give shape to their feeling. 
That's a tall order, of course. Part of it, in O'Driscoll's case, is done in technical terms, so that when employing similes, for example, the comparison of the ordinary is frequently not to the extraordinary but to the even more ordinary, in seeing that the extraordinary lies in the comedy of their coexistence. In "Heat Wave", a poem from the 2002 collection Exemplary Damages, we see how "A bee paused as if to dab its brow / before lapping up more gold reserves", how "Spiders hung flies out to dry", and movingly, miraculously at the end, how the child in memory romped among flower beds, hearing "his mother's voice pressed thin and flat / as she summoned him languidly back / to the cool, flagstoned kitchen, / ice-cream blotches daubed / like sun block on his pudgy face." 
The cool flagstones of that kitchen are never far away, nor is the droll, quizzical eye that watches the world that surrounds it. Ever distrustful of exaggeration, O'Driscoll's poems on rural life concentrate less on the seething Heaneyesque sense of the numinous and more, as in "Hay Barn", on "Loose clumps / poked from smoking / mouths of cattle", the "rodent-patter / of rain", and hens with "dung-speckled eggs" which lead the child observer to ruminate "on abundance / rooted to the ground / with awe." 
This childhood underlies the poems but rarely comes to the surface in terms of autobiography or memoir, and, where it does, it appears as a moving but rarely indulged place of loss involving the death of the mother and the father. O'Driscoll's early poems are full of death and fearful of false security. As one of the poems, "Traces", tells us: "beneath the surface of our lives / skin deep is buried death". And in "Middle-Class Blues", the man who has everything ("A beautiful young wife. / A comfortable home. / A secure job. / A velvet three-piece suite" and so forth) is far from secure: 
   What he is afraid of most
   and what keeps him tossing some nights
   on the electric underblanket
   listening to the antique clock
   clicking with disapproval from the landing.
   Are the stories that begin:
   He had everything.
   A beautiful young wife.
   A comfortable home.
   A secure job.
   Then one day.
The very title "Middle-Class Blues" tells you that O'Driscoll has been reading Brecht. And, as it turns out, not only Brecht, but Borges, Holub, Celan, Herbert, Primo Levi, Jenõ Dsida and many others definitely not part of Larkinland. And this is perhaps the most astonishing and least remarked element of O'Driscoll's writing. He writes of domestic affairs, of the life of suburban Organisation Man in a plain-spoken Larkinian manner, but he brings to it a subtle European awareness, so the modernist bones of Popa, Prévert and Pavese shine through the Larkin flesh. They shine there so naturally we hardly notice the join. 
But the bones are there in the building of the poems too. O'Driscoll is a builder of lists. Where other poets use stanza, rhyme or conventional form to structure their imaginations, O'Driscoll's favourite trope is repetition, as in these examples from various poems: "Someone is writing a cheque / someone is circling, posthumous"; "That she is a widow. / That these are the last untinged memories of her life." ; "Let it rain. / Let the clouds discharge their contents like reserve tanks.". 
Such lists run right through O'Driscoll's work from the earliest poems to the most recent ones. These bows to eastern European and Parisian modernism are the regular hammer taps of experience for O'Driscoll. They can be menacing or, cumulatively, almost ecstatic. They are the businesslike itemisation of that which transcends business. 
O'Driscoll is European-modernist in other ways too: in his use of the prose poem for example, of the formal experiment as in "Towards a Cesare Pavese Title", in the littering of gnomisms and downbeat epigrams, in the accumulations of the paraphernalia of modern life ("Elevator pings. Linen Trolleys", "The steely assurance / of the self-cleaning hob", the bedroom "where the en suite tiles / leave much to be desired"); in the deployment of management and ledger talk. 
But above all, there is the sheer humaneness of a poetry that does extraordinary things while shrugging its shoulders and proceeding as though such things were normal. Nowhere in this review have I referred to the specifics of contemporary Irish poetry, for while traces of Kavanagh and Mahon are detectable, it is as a poet of European temperament, and stature, that O'Driscoll demands to be judged. His terrain is, in effect, without borders: mordant, open, sharp, generous and sad, like the father he describes in "Family Album": 
   He smiles at some remark of mine.
   Tonight, he will repeat it to my mother
   as she fills the ringing tea pot
   with hot water; and, dinner eaten, will
   record it proudly in his diary like a sale. 
A more sentimental poet would have put a comma after "diary". A properly tragic, precise one leaves it out.

Obituaries and notices: The Irish Independent, The Irish Times (Battersby),  The Irish Times (Smyth), The Poetry Foundation, Wikipedia

On God 3

God moved off stage for a while after Mr H. The cold draught of a co-ed secondary school - a London state grammar in my case - blew Him down the street and round the corner. School itself was a matter of negotiating classes, homework, corridors and certain members of staff, never mind the more menacing students.

If God was anywhere at that time, He must have been in the RI / RK lessons with scripture teacher, Mr R, sharing His tweed jacket, looking through His stern but helpless glasses, trying to hold the attention of classes edging into equally helpless sexuality. Mr R's God was a paperclip version of the earlier Mr H. God made us learn the names of the books of the Old Testament and pointed us to maps of the Holy Land but failed abysmally to make us learn anything else. Having brought in his small electric organ for hymns he had instead to put up with pretty teenage girls offering, sotto voce but just about audibly, to play on it. 

This was tough on Mr R who was batting on a far stickier wicket than ever Mr H had to. Mr H was dealing with the impressionable: Mr R was dealing with the unimpressable. Mr R stood stiff, every limb at attention as if electrocuted. He stamped his feet, glowered, and issued threats without force. If Mr H lived in a world of manna and thunder, Mr R lived in the corner of a minor Samuel Beckett, buried up to his neck in cold sand.  To return to the cricket analogy, Mr R was a figure out of Sir Newbolt's Vita Lampada who finds:
The Gatling's jammed and the colonel dead,
And the regiment blind with dust and smoke.

He had, like the cricketer in the poem, an hour to play and was the last man in. He was the boy with his finger in the dike. He was the boy who stood on the burning deck. He was, as I understood at the time, a tragic figure, doomed to unhappiness, a perception that filled me with a less comprehensible mixture of pity and horror.

I use the pronoun 'we' to represent the class that Mr R must have thought he was facing, but as an individual I could hardly focus him. I couldn't read God into him. I hadn't yet met this form of evangelical, short-back-and-sides, hair-plastered-down, respectable, good-boy, tea-drinking, square, heavy-humoured, faintly-mad, anglo-teutonic kind of suburban God.

The class reaction to him was to move from one caricature to another. The caricature Mr R/God was to be opposed by the caricature Satan he warned us about. This Satan took the form of Beelzebub, a name we found so comical as to be irresistible.  The comedy was increased when it was decided we should mispronounce the Evil One and call him Beezlebub instead. In break times, occasionally in lunch times, members of the class would assemble in the form room under the aegis of The Beezlebub Society.  The Beezlebub Society had no programme of activity, no rule book, no rituals. It existed to do one thing and one thing only: to sit on chairs arranged in a rough circle and to declare itself The Beezlebub Society. I sat at the fringes of it as did a few girls, though essentially it was a boys' club. It lasted maybe a year. It confirmed its members in direct opposition to Mr R's God.

We were, without knowing it, Blake's Orc and Milton's Lucifer, impotent rebel angels of 1963, our rebellion a matter of sitting in chairs and declaring ourselves enemies of God. We had no metaphysical yearnings. Girls and survival were what we yearned for. It was an interim stage. We weren't serious. Nothing was serious. If only life could remain that way.

Wednesday 26 December 2012

On God 2

Christ Pantocrator, c 1100, nr Athens

The Christian God sat ready and waiting on the cliffs at Westgate in the winter of 56/57. He was only an assumed presence in the scout hut where the cubs met and where I was introduced as an act of welcome I suppose, by some local boys. I was just eight. The sound of the sea was very close and it was dark. I think God was mentioned there. It didn't mean much - it was a cultural feature of the new winter landscape. I had no bone to pick with God - He was one strange new thing among many others.

Having slipped by me on the foggy cliff he emerged in full battle gear at primary school in London. Our teacher, Mr H, about whom I later wrote as Mr Reason in a series of 'Appropriations', was a muscular Christian, a badge-wearing member of the Scripture Union. He was strong, athletic, charismatic, handsome (to my, by then, ten year old eyes). Mr H had prayers at the end of the class. His warm enthusiastic voice acted powerfully on my imagination. I now suspect I had a small boy's crush on him, he being so utterly different from anything I had previous known, so certain and authoritative, so much an element in the work of understanding something on which I had only a faltering grip. Maybe he himself was God, or at least an image of God: someone into whom one might read God.

In many respects he was an inspiring God. At Easter 1960 Mr H and a few other teachers, by full permission of the parents, took the school to the Isle of Wight. I was eleven then. It mean travelling, keeping an obligatory diary, going on nature walks, visiting Alum Bay and returning with a test-tube of magical coloured sand, and, in the evenings before bed time, a prayer-meeting led by Mr H. We sat in the conservatory of the hotel with a glass of warm milk in our hands, and Mr H talked and read. It was immensely comforting, like being swept into the arms of a huge well meaning bear. He was correct and friendly but fiery. He blazed as God might blaze. The well-meaning bear was not his emblem only but that of the whole country in so far as I could understand something so overwhelmingly general. But for me, as for all children, the general was comprised of hundreds of particulars.

On two occasions I was punished by Mr H, both times in innocence. Once he slippered a few of us in front of the class for not bringing our sports kit in the snow (my parents had refused to let me take it), the other time for having defecated in a hut at the end of some field I had never even seen (I thought a couple of my classmates had stitched me up for that, though I never knew why). Eyes blazing, Mr H insisted I was lying. Since this too was before the whole class it was deeply traumatic.  Dennis Potter had this scene so clearly in The Singing Detective I thought it must have happened to him too.

My view of God was modified. Not terminally, not immediately, but God was now vengeful with a righteous fury that was directed at something beyond the self. Perhaps, unconsciously, I didn't want to play football in the snow (I loved playing football). Perhaps in some secret dream I wanted to desecrate something. It wasn't impossible. The fact was I was being punished not for what I did but for some secret malice I myself was unaware of. But God had that power of course. He knew what you were secretly thinking even before you thought it.

Where were my parents in all this, in the Christianity and the accusations and the chastisement? I can't remember.

So God became more complex. Muscular, charismatic, tender and furious - an emanation of Albion itself. I couldn't live with Him like that. But He wasn't going to go away. just yet. He'd left too deep a mark.

Tuesday 25 December 2012

A Quick Note on Noir: The Killers (1946)

Opening shot

Home movie night. DVD of classic film noir, The Killers (dir Robert Siodmark, 1946) with Burt Lancaster in first film role and Ava Gardner as femme fatale, Kitty.

Noir is part style, part dream, but the style itself is based on dream images. The cinematic tricks, the Eisenstein angles, the extreme shadow play, are all dream elements. Darkness swallows half the screen or else a strong beam of light sharpens the face into a mask. Figures loom then vanish. Feet thunder upstairs. Door handles turn, doors are flung open. Strangers - agents of death - move under streetlight. There is no moral certainty only threat, violence, desire and death. The dumb die. The femme fatale stands with corpses at her feet. She vanishes into the dark in a police van. The heroes are tired and experienced. They will not return to lit kitchens and eat breakfast cereal in the morning. They are themselves driven enigmas who put together jigsaw puzzles that don't quite fit. It is all, necessarily dream. Or it is when it's good.

The Killers is very good indeed. It is a complex weave and no one gets to spend very long in shot. The narrative is diffuse. The dumb fall guy, played by Lancaster, is a corpse whose fate is being traced back because time moves backwards and forwards in noir. Ava Gardner makes a stunning femme fatale. The very first view of her as she turns her face to camera is like a gunshot straight to the heart.

1946 is the year my parents got married. The wedding photo outside the registry office could easily be a noir scene. They had done a very dark barbed form of noir for years, now they were out into the winter light.

The fatale figure is fascinating. I know the feminist critiques but I think she fascinates and frightens women as much as men. At the same time her beauty and power render her attractive to both sexes. Her great art is manipulation but she herself is damned by fate. So the dream says. And then the web of intense light and dark swallows her for a while. But we know she will come up again as beautiful and deadly as before. That's the dream again.

And so we watch it because dreams are our domain too and cinema itself is best as dream. Dream not fantasy, dream with real tables and chairs.

On God 1

More bells this morning. I was thinking of my parents while the bells were ringing and also of the photograph below of my father, my brother and I with the ruins of Budapest behind us. And also - at one remove, a kind of Christmas Day remove - about God.

Neither my mother nor father believed in God. I don't know very much of my mother's parents - she died in 1975 before I had much time to ask, and besides she might not have answered - but I suspect they were reform Jews, not particularly religious but probably keeping a few religious customs. Whatever she herself felt or thought the experience of the war with its two concentration camps will have driven God out of her.

My father's grandparents were residually Jewish, not orthodox but probably closer to the norms of orthodoxy than the following generation. The war - with its labour camps and escapes - had much the same effect on him as it did on her.

Having met during the war in a brief lull, they found each other again in the ruins of Budapest and got married on 2 February 1946 in a civil ceremony. They were both atheists by then. My father had joined the Social Democratic Party that was soon to be taken over by the Moscow-led Communist Workers' Party and my mother tried to join the Workers Party but was excluded because of her middle-class background (never mind that the entirely family was dead by then.) Dad was OK. His father (also dead) had worked on the shop floor of a shoe factory. Within a few years he was inside the Party and in one of the ministries, leading one of its departments.

There must have been considerable loss of belief among Jews even before the war: after it it would have been at an all-time low. My mother, being more passionate and angry than my father and, I suspect, worshipped by him, determined the life of the family. That meant not only no God and no religious practices but no cultural practices either. Nothing. Not only was God a nonsense - possibly worse, a shadowy supernatural mass murderer - but so was the entire paraphernalia associated with Him. Get out and get rid. Rid of the past too. She was henceforth of a Lutheran family, a Lutheran by Transylvanian upbringing. Not that that meant anything either. (I have written often enough before of her efforts to protect her children from knowledge of their Jewish background.) My father's German - hence Jewish sounding - family name, Schwartz, was gone too. We were now the Szirtes family, atheist radical Lutherans on my mother's side. That was our ready-to-serve, ready-wrapped past.

So it was we never entered a synagogue, never had Jewish family rituals and holidays, never talked religion and certainly not God, who was not even an absence. There was no space for God to be an absence from. I can't say I gave God a thought, though there must have been a moment  the subject entered my head because I did once ask whether He existed. I was directed to my more religious great-aunt who was sitting in the other room. It is the first scene in the very first section of the long poem, Metro, where the memory of the incident is imagined, fleshing out a few bones of believable truth. But then that's memory for you.

So God was a secret my great-aunt harboured. Knowledge of Him lived inside her in that other room. The rest was guesswork based on snippets of adult conversation and my exhaustive childhood reading.

The Christian God came bounding through the door only once we arrived in England. More on that next time.

The nine-day day and the drifter

My father with my brother in his arms, me beside him, Budapest 1955/6?

The midnight-mass bells have just stopped ringing in the abbey. The service has begun. The period between Christmas Eve and the New Year  has entered on its long extended day, a nine-day day in which life switches over and enters a new conceptual space.

It is a complex space: the nine days mark time more than birthdays do because they encompasses more than the personal. This great long day is in itself an emblem of world-time passing, an emblem of mortality. That is why Christmas deaths are so much more striking than normal deaths. At this time one should be switching gears not stalling for ever.

It is only now I truly realise that I am sixty-four. I don't think I realised it on my birthday which was an ordinary working day ending with a supper.  There is nothing special about the personal and particular days that mark our personal births: it is now, at the beginning of this nine-day period, this single slow-motion day, when the clock judders and wheezes, that the fact is driven home

I myself have been wheezing tonight, with a mild asthmatic cough, one I have had for several years though not every year - not last year for example. It tends to follow a sustained cold for some reason and makes conversation difficult because of the constant coughing and the pressure on the lungs. I can't remember when the cough first appeared. Maybe ten years ago, maybe more.

Well, that was then. In other respects I feel no different now from when I was in my twenties or thirties. Psychologically I don't think I am much older: wiser perhaps, at least I hope so, in the sense of being more genned up and generally cooler about things, but the mind itself feels the same, in the same essential condition.

That is perhaps the case with men more than women. Women have more distinct landmarks: the onset of menstruation, the loss of virginity, the first child, the leaving of the child, the menopause, and beside that, all the baggage of beauty in first flower that passes more clearly than it generally passes in men.  Older women can be beautiful of course - I know a good many that are - and am married to one who looks nothing like her years and still has all her girlish beauty about her.

Boys and men slide from one station to the next and, in an age without much ritual, simply find themselves in this or that position without any major intrinsic life marker. School, univerity, degrees and jobs - if that happens to be the pattern - are all extrinsic. Even fatherhood just happens, momentous as it is. It is a momentous event that happens to someone else and arrives at your door suddenly, not as a result of your labour. No wonder that one of the favourite male identification figures, in both books and films, is the drifter who blows into one place after another. Most men - and I include myself - have simply blown in. In that respect I feel very young, as if nothing has changed.

I remember my father saying that he could not believe the age he was. It seemed funny then - he was always older than I was, and was always going to be. From my point of view he was conceptually 'old' from the start. Not so to himself, of course.

And yet I suspect - in him as in myself - that one part of the mind has always been aware, ever since manhood anyway, of a shadow form of old age, a figure that runs parallel with us from the time we enter marriage.

The result is that it is all rather dreamlike. Part of us remains a boy because nothing intrinsic has changed to tell us otherwise. So boy, man and elder run along together as part of a single dream being, a triple existence that runs on its own fuel. (I myself run up stairs, I can dance a good while without my heel touching the ground very often.) It feels like an all-but-eternal condition.

But of course it isn't. And that elder: doesn't he look fearfully like an old fool, a dotard, the old dotard who entered marriage and fatherhood with us, and who was conceptually 'old' to his children from the very start?

Ours is a tragi-comic, potentially productive condition. The dreams rampage on while the body, little by little, in small sharp steps, descends. But we still run up those steps and need to, even if they kill us at the end. As they surely will.

Thursday 20 December 2012

Beyond Plebgate

First things first: I am not a Tory, I don't vote Tory and am unlikely to vote Tory in the future. That is because, at a very simple level, I assume the Tories represent the haves and big business, and Labour represent the have-nots and the employees. On most issues, therefore, I am likely to approve the Labour rather than the Conservative line.

In order to do so I don't necessarily have to think every Tory is 'something lower than vermin' as Nye Bevan put it, though he was strictly referring to the party itself and not individuals associated with it. Tories don't sit round plotting Evil: they want the best as they see it which may include kindliness and graciousness and a good many virtues. They probably see themselves as realists (from a certain point of view) and those who disagree with them as idealists (from a certain point of view). It is possible to think much of what they think and yet be a good person. It's just that they are wrong.

As concerns individuals I assume that being of a leftward persuasion, I am more likely to make friends among people who think and feel like myself, as indeed most people in the arts do. The arts, and probably most of humanities, are preset to the left, some a good deal further left than I am, though in some respects I would probably be approaching the red end of the spectrum rather than the faint blush in the middle. I am in other words a left-liberal with occasional bouts of passionate intensity as Yeats might have put it, though he did not intend that as praise.

However, I am not quite a paid-up member of the left-liberal group either, even among my friends, because my refugee background and intuitive responses - or so I suspect - are differently disposed.  I am without firm class and educational group credentials. My fear about the far left is that it mirrors the far right in its contempt for anyone not fully sold on its ideas, in its authoritarian instincts as regards imposing its will,  and in its absolute conviction that it is right, a conviction I severely lack. But then my fears about the left-liberal group, my own group in fact, is that we assume that we are nice and just and cleverer than anyone else and that, in short, we too suffer from a vaguely absolute conviction that we are right. About, well, pretty well everything.

So when Andrew Mitchell appears to have been framed by two policemen, I wonder how far out of line I am in feeling that Mitchell - despite being undeniably a Tory - does not deserve to be lied about.  Not even if we should persuade ourselves that the lie is probably true in some way we can't quite prove. As far as I'm concerned if people have in lied in their evidence about him they are simply wrong.

It is a question of what trumps what. I think true evidence trumps party stereotype even when a figure appears to be pretty close to stereotype. I don't imagine Mitchell is my kind of guy. I don't imagine I am his. But truth isn't about being my kind of guy or even about someone being my political opponent. It's just truth.

Odd that I should feel it necessary to say this. But somehow it does feel necessary. Not that I care deeply about Andrew Mitchell and his loss of a job. Frankly, there are many more interesting things to think about than whether Mr Mitchell should or should not be Tory Whip. Saying this feels necessary because there is something in all group feeling that is deeply disturbing. Love your friends and resist them a little. Resist kindly. Resist intelligently. Resist them lovingly, if you will. But resist. Resist the group feeling in everything.  Resist it a little but do what needs to be done.

Tuesday 18 December 2012

Hungary - more (one-sided) culture wars

Hungarian National Theatre, Budapest

From a friend in Hungary

via Népszava - Hungary

Orbán influences National Theatre appointment.

Róbert Alföldi, the current director of the Hungarian National Theatre, will be replaced by the pro-government appointee Attila Vidnyánszky in mid-2013.

The left-leaning daily Népszava denounces the fact that the appointment was clearly influenced by the right-wing conservative government of Viktor Orbán:

"Pluralism in Hungary looks somewhat different than it does in Western Europe. For example it was clear right from the start that Attila Vidnyánszky would be appointed director of the National Theatre. ... Under normal circumstances Róbert Alföldi would have had a good chance of continuing his successful work at the theatre. ... But those in power put together the 9-member committee charged with deciding who would be director in such a way that practically all of its members were pro-government. So the writing was very much on the wall." (17/12/2012)

Monday 17 December 2012

Hungary: A Disappearance

Békés, Hungary.

I don't know what to make of this story but, if true, it seems rather sinister. It comes from a private blog and while the language is not altogether confident the sorry state of affairs today is that I find it perfectly believable.

It begins with a description of an elderly woman:
A woman in her early 70’s, a survivor of the Holocaust, has mysteriously disappeared from a small Hungarian town, close to the Romanian border. 
Mrs Margit Abonyi Papp has lived in Békés for most of her life. She was one and a half years old when she and her mother were deported to a slave labour camp in Austria.
Then it tells what seems to have happened to her.

A few weeks ago, while sitting in the local doctor’s surgery, a young thug associated with Jobbik – the neo-Nazi political party now flexing its muscles all over Hungary – verbally assaulted her.
The teenage fascist asked why she was not wearing her Yellow Star. Then he continued to rant at her, saying she should “Move to Auschwitz or Israel”
The young bully taunted Mrs Papp with the fact that a Hungarian MP, from Jobbik, has recently raised in Parliament the need to list all Jews as a national security threat.
Until now, Mrs Papp had run the town’s second-hand bookshop. Her family was well known in Bekes. Her father, pre-war, had been a prominent lawyer, but he died in a forced labour battalion.
The story goes on:

A mayor associated with the right-wing Fidesz party leads Békés’ local council. The Deputy Mayor is from the neo-Nazi Jobbik party.
These two are backed up by a council prepared to look the other way as a criminal political gang rampages through this town of around 20,000 people...
Soon after the young fascists’ verbal assault, Mrs Papp disappeared. So far, several attempts to locate her have come to nought.
She is now presumed to be in hiding in Budapest, nearly 200 km to the northwest of Békés, the town she had hoped to live out her final days in peace.  

The rest of the piece is concerned with another woman who still lives in Békés, who has had threatening phone calls. At the end, the writer tells us that someone who had offered to help find Mrs Papp later backed out, frightened.

We are not told whether Mrs Papp was reported as a missing person and, if so, what was the response. There are certain climates in which such things are possible.

Sunday 16 December 2012

Wings of Desire: Subway Scene

A small tribute to Newtown from very far away in time and place.

Friday 14 December 2012

Three Questions on Hungary

Why are you so concerned about the current Hungarian government's cultural policy?

Ever since the landslide election of Fidesz in 2010 - a landslide brought about by very particular circumstances - the government has been looking to impose itself and its view of what it considers to be 'the nation' on not only the political sphere but the cultural too. In effect it wants to return the country to the condition of the thirties. In practical terms this has meant appointing its own supporters, and in some cases figures well to the right of its own floating supporters, to positions of enduring power, replacing what it considers to be corrupting internationalist 'anti-Hungarian' elements. 

So theatre directors have been replaced, others hounded, oppositionist radio stations and publishers and writers' organisations have been squeezed, the funding of arts organisations reduced and their control assigned to right wing, sometimes ultra right wing figures. The education system is now told to teach ex-fascist authors of the last war, statues of Admiral Horthy have been springing up, a major competition and exhibition of the new rather farcical nationalist art was organised, extolling the virtues of the Horthy period. Major philosophers have been smeared with trumped-up charges. 

It is a dangerous attempt to turn back the clock by force and to ensure that it stays turned back. The atmosphere is full of hatred.

Much of the international focus is on the antisemitic antics of the Jobbik ultrarightists in Hungary. Are they the most serious threat to Hungarian democracy, or do you see the popularity of Fidesz as more signficant?

Jobbik are a threat. They are the third biggest party in parliament and are well supported in some places. Their behaviour in parliament - fiercely anti-Semitic, anti-Roma - is tolerated by the Fidesz government. Their uniformed units terrorise Roma in villages. They are a potential army - in fact elements of them had been militarised then banned, but they are ready to be militarised again. They model themselves on the wartime Arrow Cross that murdered so many people in the last year of the war. 

The problem is the relationship between the Fidesz government and Jobbik. They depend on each other. The right wing of Fidesz is pretty close to Jobbik. They might not express themselves in quite the same way, but they look to effect similar changes.Using its powers to change the constitution, Fidesz has so extensively manipulated the political system that it is going to be very hard to vote them out of power, and, even if - unlikely as it seems - they were voted out of power they have changed the terms of service of Hungary's equivalent of the civil service so that their own, new appointees could in practice stop any changes a new government might propose. 

Although nominally opposed to each other, Fidesz is creating the proto-fascist conditions that Jobbik (who deny they are fascist) actually embody. The opposition is disunited and excluded.

How would you answer the charge made by Mr Schopflin in the LSE debate that critics of the government, such as yourself, are leftists without a constituency in Hungary, who are badmouthing the nation abroad, and perpetuating a stereotype, congenial to Western Europeans, that Hungarians are barbarians from the East?

Mr Schöpflin really doesn't have a leg to stand on. In our debate at the LSE he gave no response at all to a long series of quite specific criticisms (see  blog), but along with the Hungarian Minister of State for Government Communication, insisted on a martyrology where the left-leaning press of Europe (including The Telegraph, The Financial Times and The Spectator) had a 'narrative' - a word much used by the minister - that was the product of such bad-mouthing. That was the only argument. 

This is nonsense. Nor is it only outsiders 'without a constituency in Hungary' who are responsible for this 'bad-mouthing': there are strong opposition voices in Hungary, people who actually live there. It is just that they are being ignored, excluded, and legally locked-out. They are told they are not 'real' Hungarians, in effect not a part of the real Volk. 

Essentially Schöpflin is peddling the big lie, in the hope of garnering the votes of 'patriotic' Hungarians. Those votes are based on long-established historical conditions and reflexes which is what makes them so dangerous.

*Questions posed by Hari Kunzru

Sunday 9 December 2012

From Bucharest 3

This photograph isn't mine. It is one taken by Michael J. Totten
who has a set of good Bucharest photos, so best go there.

Saturday morning: brilliant cold sunshine. I was supposed to be interviewed by a magazine at 12:00 but the reporter had an illness in her family so Anca Fronescu took me for a walk around the older parts of Bucharest. It was about an hour and half, and after the austere grandiosities of the Ceausescu era and the odd piece of 19th century Baroquery left standing after his ravages it was very good to pass down streets that felt human scale but still allowed for the ambitions of the imagination in various modes. Domes, arches, pediments, columns, Orthodox churches, theatres, old cafes and restaurants, bookshops, alleys. It was Anca's family district so we went down side-streets, dropping into buildings along the way. It was very quiet for a Saturday morning, clean, intimate.


We arrived a little late for lunch at a cellar retaurant with the other writers and organisers.  Daniel Boyacioglu, Mátyás and I talked politics, Daniel, who is part Syrian, part Turkish and part Swedish, ever more passionately. Marius Chivu was remembering the time at Neptun when we went on a boating trip in the Danube Delta and Paul Bailey had a heart attack. (That was the trip I wrote The Black Sea Sonnets about, including a poem about the hospital at Constanza) I suddenly remembered, quite vividly, Paul talking to Marius and a girl reporter on the boat, in the intense sunlight, drinking wine and black coffee. Later that night we noticed a wedding, were invited in and danced.

We walked back to the hotel then at 4pm Nadine Vladescu came to do an interview. We talked away with considerable energy for over an hour and a half and I just had time to pick up my coat before we were driven off - by Daniel - to the venue at the Clubul Taranului.


It was, if anything, even more crowded than yesterday, well over a hundred people. I am sure it wasn't because of me. more likely because of Mircea Dinescu who was a very well known poet before the fall of Ceausescu, was filmed in the TV studios during the siege in 1989, underwent an eclipse, then became a popular figure on television himself and reasserted himself as a poet.

 It might also have been because of Daniel...

who is a very well-known slam- and rap-artist as well as a poet, not to forget, a stylish dresser. Or it might have been Kei Miller, who was snowbound in Glasgow and appeared to read a few poems of Skype. And perhaps Marius Chivu who is at least known as Romanian poet. In any case the place was more than packed and, again, generally, very young.

I read first, about 10 minutes as asked, then Dinescu held forth for about 25, chiefly talking before rattling off about six poems to general amusement. Daniel had a couple of long poems translated by Marius then performed a half rap-half poem with great style to great enthusiasm. Kei too was very welcomed, and lastly Marius read a few quieter poems, though I had no translation. I felt deeply unspectacular in all this but didn't care much. I do what I do and I try to do it well. It seemed OK.

Then we had a series of questions including one about the 'crisis' in poetry. I said there wasn't a crisis in poetry as it has always looked after itself and always would. There may be crises in publishing but not for poetry particularly. It wasn't the desired answer perhaps. Dinescu made another long speech. Daniel talked about poets' obligation to their audience. I said I never thought of audiences but of a sum of individuals, a crowd being one plus one plus one etc. I am sure Daniel is right for what he does, I hope I am right for what I do.  I appreciate what he does: I have no idea what he thinks of what I do. As I said, I wasn't sure what I was doing in this context except that Bogdan, the organiser, has, he says, a strong passion for my poetry, having heard it first at UEA. This was the first of the five Bucharest festivals so far with a poetry night, so it would have been very satisfying to see it so full.

That's Bogdan, with the beard, on the right and the quiet very thin man who asked me for book title on Hungary 1956 next to him. 

Afterwards a drink, some pretzels and goodbye, including to Nadine, below. (I look rather too vampirical in the picture, maybe it's the physical closeness to Transylvania and my mother's roots that brings this out.)


Lastly, by taxi, to Denisa Comanescu and Nicolae Prelipceanu's. They are both poets and editors. The  ride is long in a very wet traffic queue that hardly moves. It is two days past Nicolae's name day and a small company of writers and friends are gathered to celebrate. It is just like an eighties flat with eighties company - warm, relaxed, everyone heading for a smoke now and then. I talk in English to those who can, and feel sad to divert people from their native Romanian. But they are very kind and welcoming. I don't know Nicolae's poetry but do know Denisa's in translation and have known it for many years now. She is outstandingly good. She is a poet in the same sense I am.  Perhaps we are all poets primarily of our periods, in some sense. It's just that I am very restless and must always be experimenting. She gives me an enormous slice of cake I can't eat. I sip at a pálinka.  We talk a little of our lives in terms of work, and of friends, some no longer such close friends it seems. Nicolae is a generous and wise man. Denisa remains very girlish. It is lovely, just lovely. Then, back in another taxi, the traffic quieter, the rain still falling.


I am enormously grateful to be invited and so well looked after by Bogdan-Alexandru Stanescu, Oana Boca, Ioana Gruenwald and Vasile Ernu. Thank you. And thank you again.

Just one brief note before anyone else notes it. The festival writers were all male. I think that will change.

Saturday 8 December 2012

From Bucharest 2

I still have this nuisance of a cold and a flight doesn't help. The plane was packed solid with no room for my cabin luggage or coat above so I had to keep them at my feet. In front of me a man was talking to two blonde women with the intensity of someone who has to hold the floor and to be giving out information all the time. He'd have driven me mad. There was an hour of conversation about dogs, then towards the end about half an hour on learning to fly small planes. He knew everything, an alpha male in his small orbit. I wondered whether they were together and so they turned out to be.

My pick up, Vasile, was ready and waiting at the airport. His English is minimal and my Romanian is non-existent. We drove from the ragged outskirts into the more majestic centre of Bucharest, some of it looking vaguely familiar. It is my fourth visit here but each time it has been either for just one night or even less, until the buses arrived to take us down to Neptun on the Black Sea. That is over now, those Days and Nights of Poetry having lost funding, and this Bucharest Festival has taken its place in the last five years.

The British contingent included Will Self, Jonathan Coe, Andrew Cowan, Kei Miller and myself but by the time I arrived Self and Coe had done their - very successful - event and were gone. Andrew - a colleague at UEA - was however here and we met at the hotel desk.

The hotel itself is very good, better than the usual. The room spacious, well-equipeed and free WiFi without passwords. But I was tired. I showered, unpacked and lay down, but only for about an hour because we were due to be taken, by organiser Ioana Gruenwald,  to the evening event, featuring Andrew, Hungarians Sándor Zsigmond Papp, Mátyás Dunajcsik and Romanian Mihály Mateius.

The venue is a club with tables, a bar and a raised stage. It was rapidly filling up almost entirely with young people of student age, many smoking. It was like being back, in the best possible sense, in the 70s or 80s. Bogdan-Alexandru Stanescu who invited me was there as well as another of the quartet of organisers, Oana Boca. I was feeling rather ill and was shown to a table with Englsh speaking literary agents and publishers, in fact Andrew's agent. I was feeling ill and immediately upset the remnants of a bottle of beer.

The event moved in and out of focus for me, but chiefly it was very good. Each writer read for ten minutes (well, a little longer) three in English, though SZP, who spoke Hungarian, had his story read for him by MD, whose English is excellent. I couldn't understand MM who read in Romanian, but when abroad you must expect not to understand everything. After the readings came questions from Nadine Vladescu who conducted the whole in both Romanian and English. Nadine is one of that group of beautiful dark haired women in whom Romania is so very rich but she also writes for literary papers and had already done an interview with AC, who had arrived the day before.

It was very dreamlike, very clublike, more like an art college affair than a respectable UK festival with its rank of grey and middle-aged. This reflects very well on Romanian culture, or at least on the ambience of this festival. Despite my cold I enjoyed it.

Then we hung about before going off for supper, about fourteen of us. The time between ordering and serving was about an hour and a half, but it was good and there was a lot of conversation. I probably succeeded in giving my cold to the agent Simona K, and talked Hungary and Hungarian books with MD, then Anca Fronescu came in and we talked travel and Amsterdam where she lives.

The food eventually came and about 11:30 I began to feel at the end of my reserves of energy and asked for a taxi. AC came with me. As for the night - another broken one with some sleep at the end.


I like Bucharest more each time. Some of its downtrodden, feral quality has vanished with the passage of time though not entirely. It feels like a proper city, different enough not to be Western European, but not so different as to be unrecognisable. Bauhaus building, 19th century classicism and baroque, big broad streets, a slightly chaotic traffic with cars cutting each other up without too much neurotic honking (a little like Delhi in that respect).

There is something passionate about its intellectual life, enthusiastic, hungry, generous. It is on the whole warmer emotionally than Budapest, which is a city floating on a sea of  half-restrained irony. Not so here, not the sense I have of it.  No city is without irony, of course, but Bucharest lets its guard down rather more.

Today I have interviews and my own reading with Mircea Dinescu, Daniel Boyacioglu (who is in fact Swedish) and Kei Miller. Then a round table discussion as last night, I imagine.

Friday 7 December 2012

From Bucharest 1

A very hectic week, on top of a cold. Monday and Tuesday full days of teaching and Tuesday night straight over to Blackfriars Hall for celebratory drinks and canapés of the UNESCO award to Norwich as City of Literature. I also finished the translation of Krasznahorkai's New York Times piece.

On Wednesday frantic preparation ion the morning then the train down to see Krasznahorkai himself talking to Colm Toibin at the LRB Bookshop. The place was packed out, sold out ten days ahead despite a £10 ticket price. It shows how swiftly fortunes are built. It was a very good occasion. I sat in the audience next to Clarissa and Tim Dee, with whom I had made a good number of programes in the past. I was asked, impromptu, speak about the translation of LK and did so. Then I signed about sixrty copies of Satantango and some other books. Lots of other writers and agents there, and good to meet a Twitter friend, @Seventydys.

In the end we went to a Turkish restaurant, some dozen of us, including Ruth Padel and Adam Thirlwell and that ended quite late.

The next morning I took a quick walk down to LK's hotel, about 15 minutes from ours and we chatted in Hungarian for an hour or so. What about? Romanian writers, Hungarian politics, tranlations, future book. Then quickly back to the hotel to prepare for Thursday night's event at the British Academy where I was chairing a symposium on Czeslaw Milosz. I was ery anxious about this because I m by no means a Milosz scholar. As it happened all went well, if running a little late. Jerzy Jarniewicz spoke of Milosz's misunderstand and hatred of Larkin. Cynthia Haven talked about Milosz in California, where he seems to have been open to a great deal, including Allen Ginsberg. Michael Parker spoke about the connection between Milosz and Heaney in the context of political responsibility, and Stephen Regan spoke about Milosz and faith. I linked, commented and quoted. It was all just fine. There too met a blog reader, Tom Deveson for the first time. I love these meetings.

Afterwards we had dinner at the BA, formal with place cards, myself next to Jerzy and Gwyneth Lewis who had come all the way from Cardiff. Jerzy and I disagreed on the reasons for interest in Eastern European writing and the disagreement ended with me challenging him to a duel, date to be arranged.

Walk home in the rain then hard to sleep, alarm for 5am and walking to Covent Garden tube for the train to Heathrow 3.

And now I am here with one event and one supper done Something of that tomorrow morning.

Tuesday 4 December 2012

Two Night Poems: Sleep and Muse


The night plumped up like a cushion. The words small, brittle, frail as eggshells. The sky filled with them.

How easy to wake. Like pushing a well-oiled door. It swings open and there is the landing, the stairs, the hall, the call of the street.

Along the street the street lights drawing the eye, pulses and pools, collection points, then fields, rivers.

Beyond the rivers and seas the provinces of sleep, the seabed, the wrecks, the luminous tracks that cross and re-cross as if for ever.

So there are the tracks and the sea, the river, the field, the street lights, the street, the hall, the stairs, the door still open, night.

And at the very core of night the eyes, the fingers, the mind, the heart, the words frail as eggshells. You walk across them, hear them.


It was a woman's face deep in the sea, self-constructed, as if one could make the moon out of flesh, bone, colour, reflection.

There was nothing there to touch. The sea was warm, the face gazed through it in its act of self-construction that involved gazing.

This was it. The muse-face. The construction. The self-made moon on its seabed. The astonishing in its perpetual process of construction.

This was the face that could give and consume, made out of myth and moonlight, making itself, turning itself into gaze.

And I have seen her, said the words. That gaze constructs itself and the compulsive act. And a cold shiver ran down him. And more words.

Make me a poet, said the words of the poem. Undermine me, said the gaze. Be discontent, said the muse. For ever, said the moon in the words.

These are old tropes, said the muse. But you must keep opening them. The poem lies beyond the opening, at the origin of words.

But muse, said the poem, if I am not the construction I desire to be I will die. Be sceptical, said the muse. Believe, said the poem.

Thursday 29 November 2012

One funeral, one birthday

Zigeunerjazz from Weimar:  Ein Lied der Puszta by Barnabás von Géczy*

So now I am sixty-four. The day spent writing reports for the university, trying to be clear, considerate, encouraging but truthful, as truthful as I can be given my subjective position, a position I make quite clear from the start. I am no use to anyone if I lie. But there are ways of truth-telling that take account of the truth-hearer and that is what one has to find. It is exhausting. I would far prefer to sit down with the student and just talk and make a few notes, but these formalities are baked into the brick now. Interestingly, as with everything, you do three times as much work to produce half the good. One travels down circuitous routes to get to the centre. The electronic office has a million ears but no brain.

But that is today, and since I am sixty-four I graciously accept the various references to the Beatles (not from near kin, I should say) and am even more graciously surprised when literally hundreds of people wish me happy birthday on Facebook. What a popular chap I must be... Well maybe, maybe not - I think I am probably one of the few nationally known poets to sit down regularly at the FB cafe and exchange banter and thoughts. And I believe I have made genuine good friends there, as on Twitter too. It is a strange world where so many voices weave in and out of the ether, recognise each other, nod and move on, or hang around to engage.

Having worked all day we went out this evening to have a meal in a very good restaurant round the corner - Number 24, if you want to know. The cooking is excellent, delicate but precise, and it isn't expensive - three courses plus aperitif, wine and liqueur came out under £75 for the pair of us. The starters were salmon for Clarissa and Cromer Crab for me. Having written so much on the subject of the doctor who turns into a crab it was impossible to resist a tower of it, almost a tower of Babel of it. Venison after was delicate, not gamy, sitting on sweetish red cabbage, the vegetables crisp, light and fresh. But this is not a restaurant column, nor do I have the knowledge to write any more than purple prose on the subject.

In any case I am sixty-four, of an age that twenty years ago I would have considered old. Next year the state will also consider me old and hand me my pension. The transport system has already recognised my age and handed me cheap or free travel. We have always lived on very modest terms so there is nothing we miss.

Except time and friends, and now Win.


The funeral was beautiful and simple. Some sixty people were there - family, friends, old acquaintance that had not fogotten. Two hymns, an address by the minister, built directly on the information given to him by Clarissa who had gathered more information from her brother and sister. Two readings - one from Romans, one from the Psalms. Part of a poem by me, then the end with its blessing. The moment the coffin was brought in the tears started. Clarissa didn't read because she knew she couldn't do so without breaking down. I myself found it hard. It was clear that Win was loved and treasured. I can't think of a better argument for religion than her life and the life of Clarissa's father, Bill, who died in 2008.

It was a cold day, very cold. We stood around outside afterwards, exchanging words with this or that familiar face. Next there will be a memorial service. That is still to plan.


Tomorrow I take a train to Newcastle to examine a PhD. Another very long day. The next week is as full as this one has been, maybe more so.

* YouTube kindly sent to me via Facebook by Pauline Fan in Malaysia. Thank you, Pauline.

Sunday 25 November 2012

Sunday night is...Dudley Moore Trio, 'Bedazzled'

Dudley Moore was too good at too many things. It can be a disaster. His piano trio made some lovely music, melancholy, post -Bill Evans, with a great delicate touch.

Did he dabble? I suspect according to his own lights he may have done but this is still delicious, hanging in the ear as if by a strand of a cobweb.

Pete Morgan bass; Chris Karan drums.

The heart aches and a drowsy numbness... and all that.

Friday 23 November 2012


Blogposts have been slow of late for fairly good reasons - death, illness, pressure of work, no time to think things through, so I am considering how to deal with it. To stop the blog or to go on a little more intermittently? For now I am picking up issues started elsewhere..

The Church of England has had women priests since 1994, which, historically speaking, is not very long ago, and the next natural and expected step was that female bishops would follow. So the failure of the C of E to allow women bishops (the history is here) is regarded as a disaster for the church, as indeed it might be.

My own relation to the state religion has been mixed but not in the least unfavourable. As religion it has a relatively tolerant history, allows for a very broad set of beliefs and opinions, its historical texts and liturgy are beautiful, its buildings are stunning (the buildings it came to own that is), and its slightly stiff friendliness is an attractive aspect of the nation as I have known it.

Sometimes, in fact, it seems not so much a church as an institution, and it is as an institution that it is most susceptible to change and modernisation. As a church its problems are different.

I am aware there are various theologies but the bedrock remains The Apostles' Creed that it shares with Catholics, Lutherans and others. Given that, with God the Father, God the Son, and all those books of the Bible based on patriarchal histories, values and beliefs, it might be that Christianity is simply a patriarchal religion.  So maybe it isn't Christianity that is wanted but a more female-balanced religion with, if desired, some similar notions - creation, fall, sacrifice, redemption, some shared values and if further desired, some overlap in hierarchy. 

In fact I do sometimes wonder why feminists want to engage with Christianity at all. I rather suspect that once we have female Archbishops - as we will - some theological moves in that direction might become inevitable. Do you want a female historical Jesus is the key question? A great deal hangs on that. You might not, and I wouldn't blame you. But then of course it wouldn't be Christianity in the old sense but something different, possibly something just as valid and good. Maybe better. Who knows?

As the Independent puts it: The Church will need to address what has become a jaw-droppingly embarrassing PR problem. 

It depends what you're looking for. A religion isn't exactly a brand, nor entirely an institution. It isn't a model of the state either. Maybe then the answer is to separate church and state. Then you can have a heresy that, in time, could become a proper orthodoxy.

Disestablishmentarianism opposed to Antidisestablishmentarianism. Bring back the long words.

Tuesday 20 November 2012

Winnie's death: some days of silence

Police photo taken by revolutionary guards, Dechang, China. c. December 1950.  
Winnie, Bill and Clarissa. Father Bill was being held in Xichang at the time.

Some days of silence because Winnie died on Saturday. We had a warning call on Friday but then nothing more till Saturday when another call came from the nursing home to say she looked to be very ill. Five minutes later a further call to say she had died.

Naturally we drove straight down - we would have done so anyway - and were the first to arrive followed by Hilary (Clarissa's sister,) and Geoff (Hilary's husband), then Bill (Clarissa's brother).

Winnie was laid out in bed as normal. She was already cold. We kissed her on the forehead - I kissed her for our children, Tom and Helen too. There were tears of course. For all that she was ninety-two and her death was expected - and indeed twice foreshadowed - the moment when it arrived was the moment when what had accumulated found expression.

Her earlier home carer was very fond of her, and so were the nurses in the nursing home. She never complained or made life difficult for them - she too had been a nurse, after all - and was clearly sweet tempered and generous. That was my experience of her. As we sat around the bed I tried to remember the first time I met her. I had met Clarissa's father first, in the art college car park as he was loading up Clarissa'swork at the end of the year: tall, distinguished, a little daunting (but not later, and always generous and witty). I suspect Winnie met me at the door of  their house in West Drayton, immediately smiling and welcoming.

Over the years both Clarissa' parents were of enormous help to us in too many ways to begin to list..

Clarissa's memory is that when she told Winnie she was going out with a poet she was delighted. She herself loved poetry, and was - apart from Clarissa - my most devoted reader, Reel being one of the few books in her room in the nursing home, along with a Bible and a book of prayers.

I have never quite forgotten that poetry is not just to please other poets and critics but that it should mean something to those outside the poetry 'community'. Not every poem, but some at least.

This is the last poem I wrote for her., when she was ninety, still at home and capable of reading with concentration.

A Photograph in Old Age

So light entered the camera, if only for
a fraction of a second which was enough
time for a draught to slip through the door

or a feather to rise in the faint puff
of wind, or the pupils of her eyes to dilate
and the  conceiving of one off-the-cuff

remark about time. Even so she could wait
for time to pass, whole years of it, and slow
the moment down to no particular date,

she, being ninety, and smiling, in a flow
of moments, far too many to note or count,
like watching a feather, or hearing the wind blow

without any desire to keep track of the amount.

Wednesday 14 November 2012

Long days, short nights

On Saturday we rushed down to the nursing home in Hitchin to see Winnie, Clarissa's mother. She had had heart failure, fluid on the lungs and a high temperature. In February she had had pneumonia and we were told to prepare for the worst within days, perhaps within 24 hours, but she recovered.

She recovered this time too.

She smiled when I talked to her and showed her photographs. She even said a few things that were genuine responses to prompts and questions and was perfectly conscious throughout, but her forehead was clammy. Clarissa and Hilary spent a long time talking to her. Then in mid afternoon we drove home.

Sunday was spent finishing some deadline work and preparing for Monday.

Monday:  Into university early for teaching then straight out to reading by Anjali Joseph, Hayley Buckland and Meryl Pugh at Cafe Writers in Norwich. Very good and good to see them. Home late, not much sleep.

Tuesday: Again I go in early to teach in the morning then in the afternoon I come home, change and catch the train to London for the Stephen Spender Prize Giving first meeting Ugandan-born poet Nick Makoha, whom I had mentored the previous year. Home after midnight, four hours sleep, awake for three hours

Today, Wednesday morning: Extra-day in university for two meetings. I come home to work after 2pm, have a hot lunch and do some work, then lie down an hour to make up for the previous night.  Not much sleep though. Just about to sit down for supper when there is another crisis in Winnie's condition. This time the nurses try to rouse her and she is not responding. We hang on the phone for doctors, nurses, family, half-packing the bag, checking the availability of hotel or guesthouse rooms, but now it seems there is no need to rush off. Winnie is responding again.

Clarissa (and I too) are against taking her off to hospital. Shuttling between ambulance and hospital, possibly with no bed available would be distressing for her. She is comfortable where she is, the nurses are very good. If this is the end it is a better one in a known comfortable place than in a cold hospital ward or corridor. But it might be just another crisis. She is a very strong woman.

But we might be rung tonight. It is very much knife-edge living for now.


In the meantime people are chasing me for deadlines, as ever. I usually meet my deadlines but they get pretty close these days. I make a lot of work for myself of course. People - I don't mean official students -  are constantly asking me to read their work, comment on them or give them a quote - and of course I do. I would welcome such help if I were them, and I am fortunate to be in a position where people think it worth asking me. At the moment I would say my time is 50% teaching and associated matters, 20% translating, 20% other things for other people and 10% for my own work.  I wouldn't say that is a lot worse than it has ever been, because my own work probably never added up to more than 20%, but it is not as it should be now. Fortunately I am high-octane and naturally productive in tight corners.

Nevertheless, I am not as young as I was and the teaching will stop.

Also, since I don't think I have said this here before, my next book of poems Bad Machine is Poetry Book Society Choice for the Spring. Hurrah!

Bloodaxe. Cover by Francis Picabia. Due out 24 January, 2013

Sunday 11 November 2012

Sunday Night is... Bessie Smith, St Louis Blues

1929, and Bessie Smith's only film appearance. The full story is here. Shot in Astoria, Long Island. The original 1925 recording is slower, purer and clearer, but this is the clip, thanks to YouTube. And here's the poster. The back shivers, the eye gluts, the inner eye weeps a little and joys a little.

And here is the Wiki account of her death:

On September 26, 1937, Smith was critically injured in a car accident while traveling along U.S. Route 61 between Memphis, Tennessee, and Clarksdale, Mississippi. Her lover, Richard Morgan, was driving and, probably mesmerized by the long stretch of straight road, misjudged the speed of a slow-moving truck ahead of him. Tire marks at the scene suggested that Morgan tried to avoid the truck by driving around its left side, but he hit the rear of the truck side-on at high speed. The tailgate of the truck sheared off the wooden roof of Smith's old Packard. Smith, who was in the passenger seat, probably with her right arm or elbow out the window, took the full brunt of the impact. Morgan escaped without injuries.

The first people on the scene were a Memphis surgeon, Dr. Hugh Smith (no relation), and his fishing partner Henry Broughton. In the early 1970s, Dr. Smith gave a detailed account of his experience to Bessie's biographer Chris Albertson. This is the most reliable eyewitness testimony about the events surrounding Bessie Smith's death.

After stopping at the accident scene, Dr. Smith examined Bessie Smith, who was lying in the middle of the road with obviously severe injuries. He estimated she had lost about a half-pint of blood, and immediately noted a major traumatic injury to her right arm; it had been almost completely severed at the elbow.[12] But Dr. Smith was emphatic that this arm injury alone did not cause her death. Although the light was poor, he observed only minor head injuries. He attributed her death to extensive and severe crush injuries to the entire right side of her body, consistent with a "sideswipe" collision.[13]

Broughton and Dr. Smith moved the singer to the shoulder of the road. Dr. Smith dressed her arm injury with a clean handkerchief and asked Broughton to go to a house about 500 feet off the road to call an ambulance.

By the time Broughton returned approximately 25 minutes later, Bessie Smith was in shock. Time passed with no sign of the ambulance, so Dr. Smith suggested that they take her into Clarksdale in his car. He and Broughton had almost finished clearing the back seat when they heard the sound of a car approaching at high speed. Dr. Smith flashed his lights in warning, but the oncoming car failed to stop and plowed into the doctor's car at full speed. It sent his car careening into Bessie Smith's overturned Packard, completely wrecking it. The oncoming car ricocheted off Dr. Smith's car into the ditch on the right, barely missing Broughton and Bessie Smith.[14]

The young couple in the new car did not have life-threatening injuries. Two ambulances arrived on the scene from Clarksdale; one from the black hospital, summoned by Mr. Broughton, the other from the white hospital, acting on a report from the truck driver, who had not seen the accident victims.

Bessie Smith was taken to Clarksdale's G.T. Thomas Afro-American Hospital, where her right arm was amputated. She died that morning without regaining consciousness. After Smith's death, an often repeated but now discredited story emerged about the circumstances; namely, that she had died as a result of having been refused admission to a "whites only" hospital in Clarksdale. Jazz writer/producer John Hammond gave this account in an article in the November 1937 issue of Down Beat magazine. The circumstances of Smith's death and the rumor promoted by Hammond formed the basis for Edward Albee's 1959 one-act play The Death of Bessie Smith.[15]

"The Bessie Smith ambulance would not have gone to a white hospital, you can forget that." Dr. Smith told Albertson. "Down in the Deep South cotton country, no ambulance driver, or white driver, would even have thought of putting a colored person off in a hospital for white folks."[16]