Wednesday 29 February 2012

Everywhere but here, twittering on.


Constantly travelling and speaking at the moment, mostly to purpose, so life is a set of fragments joined by railway lines and mileage. It's Twitter territory rather than blogging but with all kinds of openings to other thoughts. Here's a flavour of twittering with, at the end, a thought on the whole notion of FB and Twitter, these strange, faintly cosy, faintly inimical forms. Tweets plus brief notes in italics.

Tiny studio in Shepherds Bush with Choman Hardi, talking children, grandchildren, mortality, the extreme limits of life, enemies of promise. *This for the radio programme Something Understood due for broadcast 25 March. Choman Hardi is hosting this particular programme.

Then after, of Kurdistan, beatings, torture, corruption, feminism in the Middle East, postwar stress. She shows photos of daughter. *These are Choman's brothers, who having supported and publicly argued for the changes in Iraqi Kurdistan now find themselves assaulted by the very people they supported. Why? Because they criticise them. Choman herself takes an active role in feminist politics there.

To NG to record Titian poem for audio then visual. Diana & Actaeon. Talk of Donne, desire, punishment, a red shirt, a tiny silver moon.

From O my America to toothed fury. From shock to delight to apprehension & terror in barely a moment. Of not knowing, of language as unknown.

Of the music of sentence counterpointed with line. Of rhyme as a condition of discovery. Of seeing anew through language. Of noticing anew.*
These last three about the recording of a commissioned poem - some dozen or more other commissioned. I'm second to record, Don Paterson having been the first. The video part is the poem again and a fascinating set of questions with about twenty minutes worth of replies which will finish up being cut to six or so. But the thoughts are worth following up.

Then to NPG just as cafe is closing to meet GG. We hurry off to nearby by & talk Hungarian politics. How things happen. Who makes it happen.

Of the flooding of all official posts with government supporters. Of alliances & friendships, of compromises and slipping rightwards.*
These last two, among other things, apropos the debate next week at the LSE about Hungary. I am with Victor Sebestyén, author of excellent book on 1956. Opposite is George Schopflin, Euro MP and another. Having no experience of this kind of debate this is a terrifying prospect but needs to be toughed out.

Then to Maiden Lane. First a drink with Agi Lehoczky & friends, a very quick late bite. Over the road to introduce Agi's launch. She reads,

Her prose poems like vertical catacombs, a constant dissolving, a mesmeric drive towards a sense of tipping over into great spaces.*
Agnes Lehoczky's Rememberer at the Balassi Institute, Hungarian Cultural Centre.

By now C has arrived. Mother out of danger, back to nursing home, very thin, barely conscious. The tough constitution clinging on even so. *Having been seriously at death's door, Clarissa's mother is now well enough to be returned to the nursing home. One moment of panic gone, more undoubtedly to follow. Poor C, up and down from Hertfordshire. She arrives just in time for the launch.

Oh and talk at launch of poetry with KK of the cerebral, the personal, of whatever Modernism is now. Talk like a long unrolling carpet.*This too is fascinating - about poetry as a group interest or group commitment, about academe as a ground for such groups, about its influence on what is or might be being written.

Talk, almost like dancing in a vortex. Another full week of it to come. Plus reading to do. Social life in fragments. Sleep and wake. Awake.

At last the tube, the train, the car from Stevenage, C driving, giving a lift back to Hayley. Talk of children, food, cooking, normality.

And now I am editing Poetry Review for just one interim issue. Place-holding. Evening Standard rings for gossip. No gossip. A one-off job.*
The last but main thing. Rung up and asked if I'd be willing to finish editing an issue barely started and behind time. Heavy heavy gulp before taking it on. More work pressure is the last thing I need. Thought about it over one night. Thoughts about what best to do, what there is given to do. But won't start thinking till after the FInzi Lecture and the LSE debate.
Incidentally I am in another LSE debate on Saturday, about something else. More literary - translation and cross-cultures.

No time now for reflections on FB and Twitter. Only to say that at one time I thought both of them potential wastes of time. Potentially pernicious. But have forsworn to use either to flog my wares or self. Or what might be self, or what is floggable of self that I wouldn't flog if I knew what it was, since self does after all produce the words here, there, and indeed everywhere. And to bear in mind Eliot's great half-truth that poetry is an escape from personality not an expression of it. As is obvious, more to think on in all these respects.

One last lovely ludicrous note. While in the editor's room of the first studio my mobile rings. I say, Hello. A recognisable voice at the other end says. 'Er I don't suppose you are a plumber'. 'No, I answer, but my father was.' Perfectly true. Once. It's dear old friend from Liverpool who has pressed the wrong button. Needs his washing machine and gut fixing, he says. One at a time, I say.

Monday 27 February 2012

The inexplicable silences between

Especially at the times of most intense work and preparation I, like probably many others, hit periods of what is almost a solid form of silence, a kind of buffer zone between thought and paralysis. Thinking about things is far worse than doing them. In thoughts everything is potential failure, a failure, what is more, of disastrous proportions.

I was listening to the radio early this morning, hearing the news of the Oscars, listening to snippets of the gratingly 'whoopee I love you all' acceptance speeches, but catching, in Meryl Streep's speech, two interesting notes, the first potentially self-embarrassing: When they called my name, I had this feeling I could hear half of America going 'Oh no... Her again!' But, whatever. The second was: Thank you all you - departed and here - for this inexplicable wonderful career.

She's right at the heart of the solid silence there, which in her case is compounded of the fear that her presence has, or is about to, become a bore, and that whatever success she has enjoyed so far is 'inexplicable'.

Because, of course, if it is inexplicable there is no reason at all that it should have happened, and once one has begun to bore people, they too might discover that one's success is inexplicable, and cry: Whatever did we see in her!?

And that is why no success is ever big enough or long enough, and why artists, especially, are prone to demanding shows of affection, admiration and respect. It is because it has been inexplicable all along. Because they know that others just as talented have dropped out at some stage. Because they know that the moment they think their success is explicable a vital tension will have vanished from their lives.

This goes at any level, whether you are a megastar like Streep, or have just been promoted from, say, Private to Lance-Corporal. Martin, who was a Major in the army, was saying last night that anyone who stuck around in the army long enough was bound to become a Major, but I wonder. And even a teacher in a school in his or her first year will sometimes think: How have I got here? What am I doing? This - even this - is inexplicable. For a while at any rate.

The thought vanishes into routine but even so, particularly at moments of success or failure, at those odd moments, it returns ever more keenly and intensely, like a stopping of the heart or the moments between the ticking of the clock. It is then you hear the solid silence. That is if everything has not become wholly explicable by then.

Saturday 25 February 2012

Victor Orbán's Dialogue with the EU, as secretly recorded.

It sometimes seems to me that Victor Orbán's rhetoric in Hungary really sounds like this.

OV: Those bastards at the EU want to colonise us and treat us as slaves. Are we slaves? No! Are we Slavs? No! [Laughter]. They're worse than the Russkies, those EU bastards. Sure, they have some stupid rules and what they laughingly call values, which I wouldn't call Christian values, not like our values, my fellow citizens, and, sure, we signed up to them, but they're not worth anything, you guys know that. We're proud Hungarians, we make our own way in the world. And you all know who's behind international money at the EU? Say no more. I won't. I leave that kind of talk to Jobbik. And now these bastards want us to change our heaven-sent constitution, the new constitution that frees us - at last, thank God! - from both communism and colonialism and, what is more, ensures the rule of the just for a decent period of time. Honestly! Who could quibble with that? Only those liberal-commies with their foreign capitalist / communist value system. And it is those bastards - we know who they are - who are in league with the EU to badmouth us. But we're doing just fine by ourselves, thank you. We don't need those EU bastards breathing down our necks. So I say to the bastards at the EU, and I'll say it to their miserable faces:

Give us the money you bastards! Give us your bastard money!!


So you won't give us your bastard money, eh? Ok, you bastards, I'll pretend to do a few things here just to please your bastard selves. (OK you guys back home, it's just talk).


There, see, we've done what you bastards wanted.


So now you're quibbling about details. Bastards! Give us that money! What can't you bastards give us the bastard money?!


All the more reason for sticking together, you guys. We'll get the bastards once we've got Transylvania and Slovakia and the rest of the old map together. We'll be the biggest fucking bastards in Europe. You know what you're voting for, fellow citizens! So vote!

It has oratory, it has passion, it has patriotism, it has God, what else do you want?

Friday 24 February 2012


I went to Deptford, to the Albany Theatre yesterday to see Nick Makoha's show My Father and Other Superheroes, which was rather terrific, meaning, in particular, that Nick was. It's a one-man show written and performed by Nick, talking about his childhood and in particular his relationship with his father, and through his father the relationship between sons and fathers generally, which is, he suggests, one of disappointment, longing and hero worship. I had worked as Nick's mentor over a year or so, helping him put together a volume of poetry. This wasn't the same thing but a project he had been preparing over the same period, so I had seen parts of text at different times and in different state but never saw it performed. That was why I came.

I liked the text I heard, though it was the performance that made the immediate impression. It was beautifully directed in terms of contrast and movement, so that the stage was constantly alive with possibility while the whole remained coherent as a narrative so that no movement was wasted. Nick's voice control was excellent too. This is more a recommendation than a review, if only because it's late and I'm tired, too tired even to think. It has been a week of long journeys - Bangor Monday and Tuesday then Deptford on Thursday, in and out of university in between, with some long telephone conversations and decisions to make.


I had studied at Goldsmiths for a year in 1972/3, and we lived just off New Cross station, C and I, in a two room flat in Rokeby Road which probably wasn't Deptford but might have been Brockley or New Cross or even Lewisham, Deptford being over the other side of the main road, somewhat run down and edgy. Rokeby Road was the hinterland between desolate and decorous. The desolate was nearer our end, the decorous nearer the bottom end where we hardly ever walked.

I had no idea what Deptford would be like now. It's a descent down two steep flights of stairs from the station ending up on the street almost under the bridge. I was about an hour and half early but it's hard to get timings right by rail, tube, and more rail, so I was looking for somewhere to sit for a coffee. There happened to be a cafe almost opposite, on the other side of the road. A place called The Waiting Room. A man was sitting outside at the table, reading. It was warm enough for that. The man looked elegant, middle aged but slightly worn down by life. It seemed too cold to be sitting outside so I went in. It was a small place without room for tables but a narrow bar on one side, above which were ranged a number of books advertised for exchange. Opposite, a soft, mock-leather sofa, some magazines, and a miscellaneous set of posters. Young man with a straggly beard behind the counter. I ordered a double espresso (We only do doubles, he said) good and very cheap at the price. I took out my paper and started doing the crossword. The man who had been sitting outside came in. It's getting cold, he said and sat down next to me.

I started a conversation with the boy behind the counter. He told me where the Albany was, how long the cafe had been there, what kind of people lived-in the area (A lot of artists now, he said.) The man who'd been outside kept quiet. I moved over to the sofa for comfort. A girl came in, looked round and ordered a tea then sat down on the sofa with me. She wasn't English. After a while I decided that sitting next to each other we might as well talk without it looking as though I were about to proposition her, so I asked where she was from. Poland, she said. We talked about Poland, about Polish cities. Been here long? I asked her. Three months, she answered. It turned out she had come over, not from Poland but from Vietnam. Volunteer work, she said. The worn man had gone off to get some money so he could pay the boy behind the counter.

The boy sounded faintly northern. I suggested Yorkshire. Correct. He'd been a student in Birmingham. The girl was surprised I could hear his accent. She couldn't. It seemed the boy had been doing some music. What kind of music? I asked. Like the music in the background (grunge metal played not too loud, it was a very friendly place)? No, he said. Extreme punk. He sort of played an instrument, he said, but chiefly he shouted. They toured all over the world, often playing to no more than about thirty people.

The place was due to shut at seven. That's OK he said, it will take me ten fifteen minutes to clear up. You can hang around. So we did. It was a sweet girl - that at least was my impression - with a sweet Polish face, and an easy-going young man. The worn man had returned with the money and had gone again. I paid for the very cheap but perfectly decent Ploughman's Lunch and the big tea that I'd been drinking and followed the boy's instructions to the Albany, just around the corner. It was warm. A very light wind. A raincoat was enough for the first time in weeks.

I recommend The Waiting Room. Nothing fancy, but just right for being in between things: literally a waiting room. It has a website too. Now I am extremely tired. Finished writing and editing the Finzi lecture, arranged more of the programme of the Wymondham Words Festival, had a committee meeting, had curry for supper and fell asleep to Melvyn on class and culture on TV though I very much wanted to watch it. And so to bed.

Wednesday 22 February 2012

Gábor Schein on Speaking with Double Tongues

My friend Rachel sent this very fine article to me a few days ago and since then it has appeared in Open Democracy. Some excerpts with my comments in italics. It's long but bear with me.

Hungary's present state cannot fully be understood without recalling what happened after 1989. The worst of the new developments - the disappearance of nearly one million jobs, the impoverishment of the south and the east, the literal maiming of the regions with the highest Roma population - were all accompanied by the persistence of the worst legacy of the previous era: an absence of social solidarity, leaving entire regions and classes abandoned, and a series of political and economic elites thoroughly occupied with dividing up the resources of the state for themselves.

Now, the most valuable good in Hungarian society is nothing more than the ownership of an individual dwelling. Achieved, by and large, through working overtime, as much after 1989 as before. Not only the crushing inflation of the past decades, but the continual social pattern of massive overwork has not only severely damaged interpersonal relations, but the possibility of political engagement among individuals as well.

That absence of social solidarity, that had seemed quite strong before 1989, may just have been unity in the face of a common enemy, the state as it was. Working overtime meant, in fact, working at three or four jobs at once, in order to make ends meet before 1989. Much of that work was moonlighting, working in the black economy. Habituation to such conditions is deeply corrupting and continued to be corrupting past 1989. That corruption followed the old pattern but in new conditions...

Though the Hungarian Constitution – heavily amended after 1990 but now derided by Premier Viktor Orbán as a Stalinist relic – contained all of the necessary legal stipulations necessary for the creation of a legitimate democratic state, no democratic mentality existed to make use of the written laws....
Much as in the Kádár decades, all roads still led to the state – now, of course, not to the USSR-backed Communists but to the ruling political parties. Whether right or left, all of these parties made use of ineffective laws to hide the real sources of their financing. And the inevitable result has been the ever-present corruption that has poisoned the organs of public society.

Schein goes on to talk of financial ruin through cheap credit (not news here either) with tragic results:

Now we see the predicament of the many families who took out mortgages in Swiss Francs: 1 Swiss franc, worth 180 HUF at the beginning of 2009, reached 270 HUF by 2011. Many Hungarians were forced to sell everything that they had built up through a lifetime of hard work. A wave of suicides, a palpably growing public aggressiveness, found echoes in the racist statements appearing again and again in the media, even in ordinary conversations. Then the militant units of the self-styled “Hungarian Guard”, an affiliate of the far-right Jobbik party, began marching through settlements with high Roma populations, provoking brawls. In eastern Hungary, a small group came to be charged with the murder of several local Roma; possible connections with the intelligence services remain unexplained. All of these outrages were just a part of the backdrop of daily life: the concept of what was normal was changing, rapidly, but almost imperceptibly...

...the parliamentary elections of 2008 led to a flood of empty promises. The Socialists won, only to face a campaign of public anger against the party, focusing on a leaked statement from the former prime minister Ferenc Gyurcsány from two years before. Every day, the opposition parties repeated their list of unmet promises. And ever more frequently, the parliamentary opposition made use of nationalist slogans and symbols that only shortly before had been the exclusive preserve of the still-marginal neo-fascist party Jobbik.

No-one comes well out of the Hungarian situation and the parallels are worrying.

In hindsight, there are definite parallels here with the fall of the Weimar Republic. Of course, inside the framework of the EU the final political outcome has been quite different from that of Germany in 1933. Yet nonetheless, the pervasive impression of an ungovernable chaos meant that at the end the new socialist prime minister Gordon Bajnai, who had succeeded Ferenc Gyurcsány in 2009, was glad to hand over government on April 11, 2010 to Viktor Orbán, even though he knew full well that the successor ruled his own party like a dictator and would inevitably move to a more authoritarian style.

And, most worryingly:

Only a few months after the 2010 elections, the centres of independent power vital to a democratic state were eviscerated. Interpretations of constitutional law were restricted, and all judges past the age of 62 were forced into early retirement, to be replaced with the party cronies of Viktor Orbán. Through the new media law, the press and broadcasting were held back; meanwhile, the news services were formed into centralized monopolies while government-friendly media shamelessly lied and distorted facts. For all practical purposes, the right to strike was taken away from employees. Dozens of religious organisations were simply forced to close. Private pension funds were looted through government-sanctioned blackmail. Schools, previously in the control of local districts, were nationalised and all headmasters replaced; meanwhile, their educational programme was given a sharp ideological slant through the new law. A number of attack campaigns were levied against critical intellectuals. Only the National Bank managed to retain a certain degree of independence, and this with the aid of the EU. All the while the state, through the adoption of laws targeted specifically for this purpose, acquired for itself major shares of numerous large enterprises. Crowning the entire process of power consolidation was the implementation of a new constitution that – fully against the recommendations of the EU and other international bodies – placed ethnic and social minorities at a marked disadvantage.

So we arrive at a potentially authoritarian state that, in the classic way, uses one rhetoric at home and another in the international context, though even there...

As the chief of state, Viktor Orbán has named his regime a “centralised sphere of power”. Coded double-meanings and the problems of rhetorical interference belong among the most clear indicators of how power functions in this centralised sphere.

One language of authoritarianism is used for internal consumption, appealing directly to the Hungarian population: nationalistic, self-consciously egocentric and often militant. It creates an easily comprehended framework in which “us” and “the enemy” are caught up in an endless struggle. Viktor Orbán uses this language to promote himself as the protector of all that is national, a St. George in the struggle for national interests assailing the “dragon” of the EU, which is depicted as a colonising foreign power. Even when addressing the highest-positioned EU officials, Orbán draws upon this rhetoric. For after all, this language paints politics as a permanent (and almost inevitably unsuccessful) freedom-struggle. This discourse falls on highly fertile ground among the Hungarian populace..

This is familiar to me and to many countries that position themselves as the victims of the very institutions on which they depend. This way the institutions take the blame for any suffering. It also means that national minorities comes under automatic suspicion and attract hatred and frustration. The rhetoric of the 1956 Uprising is central to this. That honourable and courageous failed revolution has been appropriated entirely by the nationalist right. Important figures such as Imre Nagy lose their importance and become part of the hated background, because, after all, he too was 'a commie'. Language is dissimulation:

However difficult it is, Hungary's authoritarians still have to speak to the outside world in ‘European’. Yet the official translations of Hungarian laws or the new constitution are only partial texts: the sentences and paragraphs that radically diverge from European concepts of human rights are simply deleted. In other cases, there is a search for formulations that more or less correspond to the Hungarian original but which nonetheless sound acceptable in EU-English. Interpreting this genre of translation-practise is exceedingly difficult. Often, the reader comes across sentences that actually have been translated 'accurately' into English and which, if read in Brussels, appear to state nothing objectionable – but when read by a Hungarian in Hungary, show themselves to be formulated in a language thoroughly imbued with an authoritarian mentality, creating a totally different meaning

And, vitally:

Over the course of 2011, the Hungarian Parliament enacted over 200 laws, not counting the many government directives of the same period. With alarming frequency, new laws are completely rewritten within several weeks. No one knows any longer with any clarity what is truly legally valid. Even the institutions directly subordinate to the government, the ministries, are lost among the new legislative directives. Moreover, these bills have been presented to Parliament not by the cabinet but by individual deputies of the ruling Fidesz party, with no need to pass through the process of justification and impact assessment. Laws have been completely revised and rewritten in hours, at times only minutes before the actual vote, with the deputies from the two-thirds majority Fidesz party pressing their “Yes” buttons for a piece of legislature they can't possibly have even seen.

Schein ends with a note on possible ways of improving the situation:

The removal of Viktor Orbán from power at the present moment, would not, however, be desirable, as it would mean the collapse of Fidesz, and could lead to sheer chaos. Above all, the Hungarian political public must struggle with authoritarianism from within its own ranks, no matter how unfavourable the circumstances, and however significant the level of Orbán's support.

Yet even here, Europe can do much to help those in Hungary who are struggling for a true civil society, no matter how lengthy the process might be. The most effective current measures against the authoritarianism of Viktor Orbán are the persistent and thorough pressures of the EU for Hungary to conform to the EU's own stated principles of guarantees of civil and human rights. This pressure, though, must stipulate a policy that would in all cases keep Hungary within the bounds of EU membership.

At the very end Schein hopes for the kind of support for opposition that the Hungarian opposition received from outside in the years before 1989. I wonder whether that is possible within the EU.

Tuesday 21 February 2012

Long day's journey into day

There's something romantic about starting a journey well before first light. It's as if you were doing a flit. There are few people about. The platform cafe - a miracle! it is open before 5am - glows like a rendezvous for characters out of Tinker Tailor. People are still within themselves, not really curious, absorbed in drinking something hot or opening a packed breakfast. The newspapers haven't arrived yet. There are only the magazines and a few remnant copies of last night's local paper. Outside, beyond the covered platform, it is squally and raining. You can see the rain drip from holes in the shelter but it isn't very cold. You could be stuck here for ever in this mild blowsy damp place, not quite sure whether you're awake or dreaming. I eat a squashed croissant from the pack left for me at the accommodation, sip the orange juice and buy a first coffee before checking my watch and venturing out onto the platform, where it is rather like those scenes in Krasznahorkai, figures, not many of them, maybe two or three groups - if they are groups, it's hard to tell - moving against the lamplight. Then the train draws in.

Having had very little sleep and with three longish legs of the journey to come I hope to doze off on the longest of them, the first, from Bangor to Nuneaton. My ticket reservation is next to the food and drink bar where three women attendants are talking. The train is bright and I am low on energy so decide, against all my experience and better instincts, to buy a bacon roll. A railway bacon roll (this is a Virgin Train) is a food calamity, I would say a train wreck but that seems too much like bad luck when on a train. The microwaved roll has the texture of soggy mousemat except that part of it is stuck to the paper bag it is served in. You know before you start that the sad corpses of bacon within will be scalding hot but will cool to room temperature within five minutes. You squirt tomato juice on the way people sometimes make a lame joke simply to pass the time, but it's no good, the mousemat is still there, and the hot dull coffee doesn't quite succeed in making it vanish. The flavour of mousemat lingers, the taste of the world after a very bad night.

Then we move forward into more darkness then, slowly, into degrees of differentiation between cloud and sky. The light in the carriage is very bright so nodding off is hard, besides, the ever clearer contrast in shapes outside holds a fascination of its own. I jot notes, try to read, can't, and do a crossword left over from the night before. The rain has stopped: I realise it stopped straight soon after Bangor.

By the time we arrive in Nuneaton the sun is out, low and blinding. Owing to stolen cables there is disruption on local trains. Our Stansted train is five minutes late, then eight minutes late, then twelve minutes late according to the tannoy. We grin wearily at each other as we wait on the platform. This at least is as we supposed. We are almost pleased with our Blitz spirit. There should be a penalty on trains arriving on time, we joke.

The train arrives some fifteen minutes late, still OK for my next connection. Now it's bright and warm, fully unseasonal in so far as anything in England is. Change at Ely, into Norwich, onto the bus, to university, into office. See people. Sleep is slipping into all four limbs and pressing at the eyes.

It's dark again, darkening, dark. C comes for me having spent the day with her mother. Both of us tired. Much to do yet. Tomorrow now.

Monday 20 February 2012

From Bangor

An eight hour train journey in three stages, the weather moving from sunny ever darker and charcoal coloured, the sea suddenly opening up on one side and mountains on the other. Not knowing which to prefer I swivel now this way now the other, till arrival in Bangor when a really squally temper gets the better of the day and decides to turn my umbrella inside out. No taxi in the rank, then finally a taxi. Half a mile as it happens.

At 5 a discussion headed by Ian Gregson. Carol Rumens in the audience. I talk on as I tend to do when given a question to climb inside, then one or two questions and we go for a Chinese with fellow writer and tutor, Phil and Carol.

Back in time for the reading at the Management Centre. Surprisingly enough some 100 people, mostly students arrive. Denni and Anne from earlier course are present. Lovely to see them. Zoe Skoulding says hello, then 25 minutes, followed by 15 minutes break and 20 minutes more. I read chronologically and thematically. Hearty applause and books for signing. Ian and Zoe stay behind for a drink.

La vie poetique has its pleasures, and readings - ideally a long way from home - are one of them. I can pretend to be George Szirtes. I couldn't possibly pretend that back home, not easily anyway.

Meanwhile back in hospital C's mother slightly improved and stable. Who knows what next? Life is a dogged flickering thing at times.

Sunday 19 February 2012

At the hospital

Car parks - a sad music

Tomorrow I am reading in Bangor, a good eight plus hours away. This morning I was working on the Finzi lecture for Reading on 6 March, which is coming along quite well. Then a phone call, an emergency, and we drive down to Hertfordshire where C's mother has been taken because of difficulty breathing. I don't want to give details here, but we feared the worst. We spent some five hours there and no change, and none expected for the better. Not the worst then but not good. So we are home.

I think of these lines from The Building by Philip Larkin

.....To realise
This new thing held in common makes them quiet,
For past these doors are rooms, and rooms past those,
And more rooms yet, each one further off

And harder to return from; and who knows
Which he will see, and when?

and these

....O world,
Your loves, your chances, are beyond the stretch
Of any hand from here!

and these

...Each gets up and goes
At last. Some will be out by lunch, or four;
Others, not knowing it, have come to join
The unseen congregations whose white rows
Lie set apart above - women, men;
Old, young; crude facets of the only coin

This place accepts..

and finally
.....That is what it means,
This clean-sliced cliff

Too hot, too sparse, too clean, too dirty, those clean-sized cliffs remain austere whatever 'wasteful weak propitiatory flowers' appear in them. A walk through the car park and the thought of sad music, the sad music of car parks that is, arrives and goes. Arrives and goes like the everyday, sometimes kindly, business which is what this building deals with. Business at any rate.

Friday 17 February 2012

Language as reality

From Yudit Kiss's The Summer My Father Died

My father read thick books in English and in German but when he read aloud it was impossible to understand him because he spoke phonetically, as political prisoners used to do at one time, learning the languages of people from whom prison bars divided them. On his rare ventures to the West my father stumbled haplessly along the tangled paths of the living language. Fortunately there was always some printed matter he could use as a butterfly net to catch the odd act of speech as it fluttered past him so that he could study it at his leisure. He generally managed in this way. Perhaps he saw the truth presented to his eyes behind the Iron Curtain in equally phonetic terms. He had no real problems in the East not only because his basic knowledge of Russian and Czech, and the linguistic gift he inherited from his father, enabled him to understand practically everything but because reality seemed to adjust itself to the twisted and simplified language that was applied to it.

Wednesday 15 February 2012

LSE Debate & Hungary

I have agreed to take part in a debate at 6.30 on 7 March at the LSE about the state of Hungary. It was a difficult decision, not because I wasn't sure I wanted to do it, but because I am currently preparing The Finzi Lecture at Reading University, a long piece on the Sister Arts for 6 March and am reading at the university at lunchtime on the 7th, so I'll have to go straight from one event to the other. I would have far preferred to have gone to the debate with a properly prepared argument a week later but it wasn't possible.

I have ideas about the kind of case I would present but I will keep my powder dry on that since it had better come as a surprise to opponents, who are likely to include George Schopflin, the Hungarian ambassador or, possibly, Roger Scruton, since these are the names that have been mentioned, but I don't yet know for sure. I am, in any case, the only literary person likely to take part so that may be either advantage or disadvantage.

I have taken part in debates before, but most have been about ideas - this one is more important to get right. I don't think I can just think on the spot. But I have been putting information here for a while now, so there is plenty of material to hand, and it comes in every day.

The most famous and ever debatable lines on poetry and politics are these by Auden from his In Memory of W B Yeats:

For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.

Those ranches of isolation and the busy griefs are generally where poetry begins, and it does indeed survive as a way of happening, a mouth. A debate is not a poem, nor is a plea, but the poetry of raw towns that we believe and die in is what is at stake.

More practical details to come.

Tuesday 14 February 2012

Manningtree: a Beckettesque - Pinteresque on the 22:30

Finished the Magma gig, got the 10:30 train from Liverpool Street and lucky to find a table with no one to share it. Until about ten minutes in a youngish, quite smartly dressed man sits down opposite me. I remember seeing him run down the station concourse. His feet connect with mine briefly as he sits down.

Sorry, he says.

That's OK, I reply.

You'll probably find it very embarrassing, he says.

What? I ask

I haven't paid my fare, he says, adding, I'm drunk.

He is a little drunk, I can see that. Drunk but harmless. His face comical, animated. He looks faintly Jewish.

The inspector down there caught me, he continues. And the policeman. I was sitting in First Class. I thought there'd be less chance of being caught there. Sorry to be so embarrassing.

It's OK, I say. I'm not embarrassed.

Do you think I'll get a criminal record? he asks, concerned.

No, I assure him. No, you'll just have to pay the fare.

The policeman said to me, 'It's your kind that makes the rail fares go up'. That's unfair, isn't it?

I nod.

The policeman said, 'I knew as soon as I looked at you you hadn't paid the fare,' he frets. The policeman says he knew, he repeats

I'm so embarrassed, he repeats once more. He repeats everything. So embarrassed. My poor mother will be so ashamed of me.

The ticket collector and the railway policeman are approaching.

She'll be so embarrassed, he repeats.

Does she need to know? I ask, wondering why she has to find out.

So ashamed of me, he repeats, hanging his head.

Perhaps he lives with his mother so can't help her knowing.

Do you live with her? I ask.

No, he says. She's dead.

I'm not sure what to say after that. I can't say, 'In that case don't worry.' That sounds all wrong, so I don't say anything. He keeps worrying about his embarrassment, her embarrassment, my potential embarrassment. And he keeps worrying he's drunk. His speech is not slurred, his eyes are clear.

Where are you going? I ask.

To Mannningtree, he says. We're not there yet, are we?

No, I assure him.

The ticket collector and policeman turn up.

The man turns to the policeman and says: You knew didn't you?

Yes, I knew, says the policeman, adding, It's people like you that make the fares go up.

They move on but say they will be back.

He needn't have said that, need he? frets the man. Do you think I'll have a criminal record?

No, I assure him again.

You're very nice,
he says. Can I ask you a personal question?

Yes, I say.

Are you Jewish? he asks. I hope you don't mind me asking, he goes, you just seem so calm. And he shrugs in that Jewish way.

I am, I say to assure him.

I thought so, he says. You're so calm. It's a Jewish thing isn't it? Being so calm? My girlfriend is calm like that. She does that shoulder shrugging thing. But she's not Jewish.

Where is she? I ask. In Manningtree?

In California, he replies. That's the great thing about being Jewish, he adds. You're so calm.

I'm calm, I affirm.

I have no money, he says. Not till Friday.

What do you do? I ask. I quite like him. He is helpless and drunk and embarrassed.

I am a stand up comedian,
he says.

You live in Manningtree? I ask.

No, Harwich, he says.

So you have to get another train?


So you might have to go through this all over again?


And he explains how he was supposed to stay with his friend after the gig in London, but then his friend's girlfriend turned up and he couldn't stay the night and his friend, also drunk, wouldn't lend him the fare. So he had to get the train.

Good gig? I ask.

Good, he says. Though the others were probably better than me, he adds and names some of the other comics. Open mike, he explains. No pay.

Do you do anything else? I ask him.

I sell solar panels to people who don't need them. Are we at Manningtree yet? We haven't passed it have we?

The ticket collector, a very nice man with a sound sense of humour, returns and takes his details.

His only ID is his passport.

We talk in a repetitive sort of way for another twenty minutes till we approach Manningtree.

Manningtree next stop, announces the conductor's voice.

Good luck, I say.

He grasps my hand warmly. Sorry for boring you, he says. So embarrassing. You sure I won't have a criminal record?

You won't have a criminal record.

It's Manningtree. He gets out.

Sunday 12 February 2012

Putting a new collection together: shaping

Anselm Kiefer Naqlfar, 1998

This is the last of a series of three posts in which I think about making a book of poems rather than writing this or that poem.

The first time I put the collection together - several months ago, maybe even a year ago, so lacking a number of poems I eventually did include - I handed it to C who felt it was not right, the divisions too fixed, too much a series of blocks. It was one type of poem followed by another type of poem. She was quite right. The sestinas were together, the poem-collaborations were together and so on.

So I started again and got to version A which was fairly quickly succeeded by version B using much the same material with minor adjustments. What they had in common was the breaking up of the blocks into a kind of cyclical pattern, the collection beginning with a poem of delight about life, then the Bad Machine title poem, then a series of postcard poems, then poems with animal themes, then themes out of art, love and sex, with a poem about Alfred Hitchcock and the idea of the McGuffin at the end. In between came the various Minimenta after Anselm Kiefer. There was the question of what to do with 'lighter' verse and poems close to song. It has always been hard accommodating those.

Version C - the book as it is now - is considerably different. The book begins with poems about language, some very experimental, one practically off the wall. That is a risk as it might deter some readers but the case for establishing language itself as a subject became ever more compelling to me; language, not as an intellectual but existential problem. How do we stay true to what we experience when language is constantly turning into ashes. It is the growing awareness of our very selves turning into ashes that drives the fascination. So language and apprehension come at the beginning.

I was looking, not for a sharp jolt, but a transformation, a shifting across to a field where I could still hear the echoes raised in the first part. I could have moved to poems about my father's illness and death but it would have been hard to shift from that, so the next stage was political apprehension, the sense that we are moving towards less tolerant, more absolutist conditions. This isn't an argument but a feeling. The first of the Minimenta could kick this off, then a few poems directly addressing the inward threat could follow. This led relatively easily to questions of immigration and the notion of belonging. Belonging to what and whom. Belonging, assimilation and discontent. The end of this sequence looks at poems about England and the recent riots.

These exit via dream. The Budapest Zoo dream begins with an urban fox in London but ends with a vision of animals burning behind bars. That image could then take me to a group of creature poems that were essentially products of the art collaboration but emerged out of the dream world of the urban fox combined with metaphor and fantasy. At the end there is a poem based on reading excerpts from someone's diary where the mind runs amok in the empty rooms of a holiday house, the mind delighting and panicking at the same time.

The poems that follow are again a risk. They are from a series of acrostics based on other writers or artists, which are homages to some I admire. The poems are quite dense as poems in that they move fast in a short space but, as I was assured by another poet who admired them, they were proper poems. And why shouldnt they be? I could - and still can - foresee accusations of frivolity, but that is only because of the associations of the acrostic. An acrostic is just a form like any other, a set of constraints informing a process of feeling and writing. That's my defence and I firmly believe in it. I have been arguing the case for years. The poems are quite old in that they could have worked their way into Reel but didn't fit there. They fit better here in a collection where language and decay are so much more at the heart of things.

From the homages, objects of conditional love, the book moves - fairly naturally, I hope - to love, desire, sex and back to love before finally getting to the Bad Machine of the title. It is at this point the book works towards sickness and death, dealing with the dyings and vanishings that seemed so close to home this time.

But the book doesn't end there. It passes on to consider life and its hazards. Children die and are born. Music and musicality become subjects and, finally, we return to language again, the language falling apart, the last poem asking what, if anything, language in these poems has mastered? Never enough, is the suggested answer.


That is how things stand. That feels like a structure to me. Start with questions about language. Feel the provisionality and danger of it, then move on through the various stages in which those feelings are approached, before ending with language again. Technically the canzones, the prose poems, the acrostics, the mirror poems and the rest drift through the sections without seeming too much like a big deal. Playing is deadly serious business but it doesn't need drum rolls or ceremonial dress.

This all sounds like a grand plan, but it never was that. The act of making a book is not unlike the act of constructing a memory. It begins from where we are seeking the narrative shape on which we might hang what we know, remember, half-remember, imagine and desire. That is how we make ourselves.

Still sorting out a cover.

Friday 10 February 2012

Putting a new collection together: material

Wesley Freese, “Practicing” from..

In the end it was neither version A nor version B of the book, but version C that was the final text. Version A and version B were, in effect, place-holders. They were assurances that there was a book there and that by the time it got to editing and production it would have been modified into something possibly better.

What is a book of poems? To me it has never been simply a miscellaneous collection written over a period, but a shape, a trajectory, in which one can follow the development from first page through to last page. Looked at in this way the book constitutes a 'place' that the reader can explore, that makes best sense through a routed exploration, one poem leading to another, one section to another. I have tried to achieve this with all the books and it is no different with the new one.

But how to do this? Unless you are working on a single long poem you are unlikely to be composing poems in chronological thematic order. Most of the time one does seem to be writing miscellaneous poems. Even so, individual poems are related to each other in different ways. So there may be a series that develops out of an engagement. Or there is a group that moves in the orbit of a central event. There may be a technical discovery that propels you this way or that. Sometimes these poems appear in clusters, sometimes more sporadically, returning, nevertheless, to whatever range of stimuli produced them.

You may not even see these emerging motifs at the time of writing: you may be reading back into them with an eye to seeing connections. But generally you'll find them. If nothing else there is an image that carries from one poem to another, and another image that connects the second poem to the third. These chains have a poetics of their own: they are, I suspect, the poetics of that point in your life.

In Reel it was recollections and inventions of early childhood: what memory felt like when it met imagination only to rediscover itself as a a complex and convincing reality.

In The Burning of the Books it was fear and the sense of instability in history and society that produced the title sequence and animated much of the rest.

It wasn't the case that there was a single narrative arc in either book, but where there were poems that seemed to be set off-centre their very off-centre position might serve as appropriate interlude within an overall condition. The book was, in essence, a working through of that condition.

The period since The Burning of the Books has been filled with deaths and births: the death of my father, the death of a friend, and the birth of two grandchildren. Politically it was a time of dangerous tensions that occasionally seemed like harbingers of even greater insecurity.I was passing into my sixties with an increased sense of provisionality and danger but enjoying life all the more for that. The feeling of provisionality - a feeling I have always had but not quite so intimately - extended into language too. Was language more than the forms of language? This question mattered more than before. Working with three visual artists for over a year raised questions about form itself. How far could it stretch, how far could it caper without being a fool and what did that capering - or being a fool - amount to?

I recount these preoccupations as if they were fully conscious, and in some respects they were - in others they appeared out of the fabric only in retrospect, and only once I began to put poems into various possible orders.

A book is more than its poems. It should reveal something - a condition, a hunch about life - something you did not quite know but could only guess in the shadows. The poems, when in their ideal order, articulate the shadows into a world.

I know full well that people tend not to read poems from cover to cover but eventually, I think, the shape of the book emerges in the reader's mind as a poetic presence, or rather a presence composed of a specific poetics. It's the way I think I know Ariel, Crow, North, Nights in the Iron Hotel, Tenebrae, Woods, etc and the rest. I know them as books even more than I know them as poems.

One more post on Bad Machine itself after this.

Thursday 9 February 2012

Putting a new collection together: background

Having put in version A of a new book of poems last year, I soon modified it to version B. At that stage I knew publication would be some time off and was glad of it, because it is all very well being prolific but readers don't want to be bombarded with book after book. Even more to the point you don't want to bombard them. It's like talking all the time. A period of silence is befitting. In any case there might be a better chance of development over a decent time period.

As it has worked out the potential publication date is January 2013 though that is not firmly fixed yet so it could be a little later.

Good, I thought, keenly aware of the recent past. My publication record since joining Bloodaxe in 2000 is a little unusual. Let me quickly run over it.

The first Bloodaxe collection, The Budapest File, collected together poems featuring the Hungarian experience along with Hungarian history and its effects. These were mostly gleaned with poems from the earlier books with a few new poems at the end.

The second collection, An English Apocalypse (2001) was half old and half completely new. I had spent a term at Trinity College, Dublin intending to write a novel about wrestling, but finished up with the Apocalypse sequence, which set off other poems about England in their turn. Nevertheless, roughly one and a half out of two books were earlier material.

The first properly new book with Bloodaxe was Reel (2004) the book that won the Eliot. It was a longer book than most single volumes, but I had already written a good number of new poems by the time it appeared.

But then, after four years of no books, Bloodaxe published the New and Collected Poems (NCP) for my 60th birthday, along with John Sears's study of my work. The New part of the book is roughly the length of a normal slim volume and the lot weighs in at well over 500 pages and one kilo.

A book like that is a landmark in a poet's career. Sometimes it can be the last landmark, and I was determined that, beyond the big book, there should be new poems treading new ground, so instead of putting everything new into the NCP I saved that which seemed most promisingly new for a next book that should follow not too long after the NCP. In the meantime I had worked with artist Ronald King on the poems based on Canetti's Auto da Fe which were to form the main part of The Burning of the Books (BB), that appeared in 2009.

The book after that (the one to come, titled Bad Machine) was to explore more new ground. It wasn't that I would cut myself off from my past - what was still alive and kicking should carry on kicking, which, formally, might include sonnets and terza rima and some pick-up from the six canzones in BB - but that there would be poems and forms I hadn't tried before. 'Why should not old men be mad?' was the principle behind this, and while I am not that old nor all that mad (yet), the question remains interesting and a sound driving principle.

The other principles would be:

1. Never repeat what you already know and have said unless you see something new in it that you hadn't noticed before;

2. Don't worry about sounding like 'you'. That's just a habit and a constricting one. Make other noises if necessary. You can't help being 'you' but that's no reason to bore yourself with imitations of that 'you';

3. Do the odd ridiculous looking thing. You never know where it will take you. Never turn down an idea just because it looks vulnerable to criticism. Whose criticism? Only turn it down if you are convinced it's wrong;

4. Don't necessarily expect people to publish or like all you write, not even those who published and liked you before. The NCP is there. It's not going to go away.

5. Don't be afraid of being obscure or tricky or playful, but at the same time don't be afraid of being clear as a bell psychologically, emotionally and technically as occasion demands. You have more than one mask at your disposal as any fule kno.

Enough principles. They were never written down as such, they were simply shadows at the back of the mind, a kind of emotional route map-by-touch.

So, if that was the case, what has happened? What have I actually produced? And how does it make a book? More on that next time.


I will return to the subject of Hungary, probably rather frequently, as and when something new appears in the news or in print.

Wednesday 8 February 2012

Three Short Poems by Lörinc Szabó


Three short poems by Lörinc Szabó (1900-1957). I have translated some nine or ten poems by him and while I realise he is a major poet in Hungarian his language is something of a labour in English. The following three have something of the bite that is part of his voice, a kind of absoluteness if you like.

The second poem, I Love You, runs the enormous risk of sounding like a passionate platitude. It was the sweet and sour in line 5 that saved it for me, not just because of the joke of course, but because of the implicit sensuality.The body was suddenly close and present, and that persuaded me.

The body is even more intensely present in Reaction. It is snappy, intense and bitter, an epigram that has to be rhymed and sharply metered to have a chance of working.

Willow by the Lake

Under a vast sky it meditates, as if
wanting to haul in its own shadow,
bending and staring into the lake
not understanding what haunted echo
peeks from that other reach of blue
hanging upside down in deeps far below,
as if it saw the world above it drowning
and wanted to haul in its own shadow.

I love you

I love you, I love you, I reach for you
All day I look for you, seek for you
All day when you’re gone I’m in tears for you
I languish and fret for the love of you
I kiss you, the sweet and the sour of you
I kiss every minute and hour of you.

I kiss every minute and hour of you
My lips are still faint with the taste of you
I kiss the ground rich with the weight of you
I kiss the minutes you wait and I wait for you
I search far away as I seek for you
I love you, I love you, I reach for you.


I watched the comedy right through.
My hair greyed in the process.
It said each man’s a hooligan,
Each woman a psychosis.

My belly and mind have had enough
My mouth is bitter from it.
You want reaction, life? You rise
into my throat like vomit.

Tuesday 7 February 2012

A disgraceful meeting

The town centre with the market cross. The proposed big supermarket would be just behind those white houses opposite.

I have just been to most disgraceful public meeting. I am reporting directly what I saw.

The question is of a medieval and sixteenth-century town centre's piece of green where the local football club has played for many years. Let me emphasise, it is only two narrow streets behind the town centre. Three minutes walk if that. Being a football pitch it is, well, football pitch size, plus some surrounding green for spectators. It's a small town so there are no surrounding walls and when the pitch is not in use people walk round it and over it. It is pretty well common ground.

A major supermarket wants it to build a very big supermarket on the pitch, something like an out-of-town one - but in town.

We don't know all the details but the supermarket might have talked to the football club first or not. It's not the most important thing now. The point is that matters were put in motion. Nothing of this was known by the public. Once news emerged strong opposition to the plan. The opposition conducted a survey of close on 1000 people and found that those it canvassed were against the scheme by about 20-1. One councillor, strongly in favour of the suermarket, dismissed the vote in the local paper, claiming that the silent majority who didn't vote or have the opportunity to vote, must have been for the supermarket. He was sure he could speak for his silent majority. Not that he asked them anything of course.

There follow public meetings that councillors don't attend. They try to ignore the opposition. The local paper runs and runs with it. The local MP considers that there should be some account taken of public opinion, that the local council is in fact obliged to consult the town on it. It is, after all, a huge historic change.

Now let's get this straight. The opposition as it stands is not saying that the plan to sell to the supermarket must be thrown out. They only say there should be a proper public consultation - as the county plan outlines.

Let us now cut to the chase.

The special meeting tonight is held in a hall clearly too small to accommodate all the people wanting to attend. An interesting decision. We are dangerously crowded, mostly standing and there are people waiting outside. The mood is ugly, or ugly-ish.

The public are allowed to ask questions, none of which is answered in any way that might be considered an answer. There are many questions involving timing and the keeping of records. Those very few responding from the council have, er, no records of when things happened.

The one answer that is eventually given about timing quotes some apparent stipulation that things must be done one particular way, that that way requires an immediate answer, and that time is so pressing that the supermarket's application must be pushed through now to compete with two unnamed other possible sites.

Two ex-councillors, very politely, query the question of timing and procedure. Their experience is different. Their experience is not ancient but very recent: their queries are not answered.

The chief question of why the council want to sell the space to the supermarket is never answered, though all councillors are pressed to answer it. Almost all sit there like dummies.

One eventually suggests, in the vaguest possible terms, that 'it would be good for the town'.

There is, in fact, a good case for a middle-range supermarket of that range in town, though not in the town centre (there is already a good sized Co-op right in there, in place of the old Woolworths, and a Waitrose on the way out), but there are two brown field sites available, slightly less central. Yes, but this is the site the supermarket wants. This is the one the council quite desperately want to have included among the possibilities.

A map break:

The town centre is the A shape third square from the left at the bottom. The football pitch is the space just above the first little white road after the yellow road that forms the top of the A, just SW from where it says 4.1 It's a central as anything can be.


Finally, there is the proposal, as above, that does not call for the supermarket plan to be dropped only that time should be allowed for a proper consultation process. This proposal is eloquently argued in great detail, and two other councillors speak for it.

Nobody, but nobody speaks against it - let me repeat it that - nobody speaks, squeaks, mutters, mumbles - nothing. They remain dummies. Eventually, the same man who suggested that things had to be done in a particular way in a hurry, repeats that without any evidence for its questionable truth and that is the sum total of reasons for rejecting the proposal.

We should remark that the council includes members who were never voted in, who simply took seats unopposed. They are among those supported the supermarket bid.

The clerk reads the amendment (amendment to the earlier council vote to support the bid) a few times.

A vote is taken, the amendment is defeated.


All around me there are, as you might expect, suggestions I wouldn't care to repeat but do feel free to talk about them among yourselves. No doubt the local people will. You may also imagine the mood of those who stayed there, standing for an hour and half in a hot packed hall in their winter coats, having no room to take them off - older people as well as younger, mostly courteous intelligent people - who have listened to one side being explained in great detail, the other never stated or defended. They have asked questions not one of which has been answered.

They think: a bunch of craven dummies have sold us down the river. They didn't even have the guts to say anything in defence of their actions. They think: what a despicable crew, and if despicable, what more?

I wouldn't suggest anything myself, of course, but you might, and some will. Weigh it up: democracy versus money. Hard choice.

Finally, please note, I am not attacking this proposal primarily on the grounds of 'character' and certainly not out of Nimbyism. I am attacking it for the disgraceful conduct of a council that shows clear contempt for democratic process. I would like to point particularly at those silent councillors. One can't help wondering why they were silent. You are free to carry on wondering.

For more information and background go here.

Sunday 5 February 2012

Hungary: Education (and Jews and Gays and Roma)

I received this email from Hungary on Fidesz and education:

The latest blow to democracy and any kind of civilized or dignified existence is that middle school and higher education are being gutted to the core. Tuition is being introduced, but the numbers of students who will be eligible for any kind of humanities degree are insultingly low: at the university in Debrecen ... there will be 250, at ELTE in Budapest ... there will be only 1000. An obvious consequence of this is that hundreds and hundreds of university instructors are losing their jobs. ... These announcements were made just a few weeks before graduating high-school students have to put in their applications for university. Also ... it seems that every single middle-school director has been fired. This is clearly so that FIDESZ can replace them with their own people.

Some background news

Here are the views of far right party, Jobbik (polled over 17% last election, second largest party in Hungarian Parliament, i.e. chief opposition) on:

Jews: Jewish expansionism (Fact: Jewish Population 1970: 70,000 2005: 50,000. 2020 Projected: 34,000)

Gays: Gay EuroGames will mark End of the World

It is, of course, the Roma that are the prime target for Jobbik. A Reuters link to the conditions of Roma, here.


I want to be clear about this. Fidesz, the governing party, and Jobbik are not to be confused. They are different and in opposition to each other. Fidesz (strongly nationalistic right wing) does not necessarily support what Jobbik supports (far right, essentially fascist, like the BNP but much more powerful).

The problem is that Fidesz government spokesmen and general supporters will argue laws piecemeal, saying, this law is not so extreme, that law is not so extreme. I think they are, but let that go for now. The problems are these:

1. The cumulative effect of those laws, some of which have not been conspicuously applied yet but do exist and are likely to be applied once the world's back is turned, is a serious concern. Together they establish ground rules and determine what is and what is not possible;

2. There are the back room moves, the ousting of anyone oppositional from positions of influence (the educational - as above - and cultural spheres for a start, but this works across the board);

3. Establishing the ground rules means establishing a national mood. Fidesz may or may not be extreme but the emotional response they invite, and are in the process of institutionalising, is;

4. Changes in the legal, institutional and cultural apparatus of the state create conditions under which a take-over by the quasi-military Jobbik becomes possible. Once that happens the laws that are not yet fully applied can by applied with impunity;

5. I don't see Fidesz representatives condemning Jobbik's statements. I'd be glad to be proved wrong on that. My impression is that Fidesz is too busy singing patriotic songs from the same hymn-sheet as Jobbik. Same tunes, slightly different words.

Sunday Night is...The Incredible String Band X 4

A Very Cellular Song, 1968

A rather extraordinary long track by one my favourite bands of the time, The Incredible String Band. What would you say about them? Folk-mystic-acid-commune-travellers music? Some of it is deeply fey, some monstrously self-indulgent, other parts - most parts perhaps - wonderfully inventive. We saw them in Leeds in about 1970, a whole great 'family' of them. There wasn't anything like them then, probably still isn't (not that I'd know). I suppose the Sixties was always likely to cumulate in something like this before the Seventies descended.

Should we add medieval-Buddhist-Middle Earthism too? We probably should.

Water Song, 1969

And a good old sing song, Mike Heron and Robin Williamson playing lovely guitar behind not very great singing. But, hey, that's how it goes. Or went:

Empty Pocket Blues, 1970

And lastly this lovely thing that I learned to play and sing after a fashion. The best of them as a single song. This is pretty well what I thought would be a proper life aged 17/18. 'I want you to know I just had to go'. To go was the most important, most beautiful thing.

First Girl I loved, 1967

Saturday 4 February 2012

István Csurka 1934-2012

There will be obituaries of István Csurka leader of MIÉP (Hungarian Justice and Health Party) and of the first wave of the far right after 1989, though he claimed to be of neither the left or the right. There's a link to a summing up of his life here.

And this happens to be the last Hungarian poem I translated some six weeks ago for what was the independent Hungarian Quarterly (now in the hands of government supporters). It's by the important contemporary poet, Zsuzsa Takács. Csurka is the subject.

A hat

How perfect it is, this hat,
hung on the copper hook next to my own.
It’s green but of a rather subtle shade,
the ribbon black, threaded through with gold.
How many terrible thoughts have brewed beneath it,
what thoughts have dashed themselves to death within it.
Surely it has passed from father to son.
It disturbs me like some kind of family heirloom.
It’s rather tight but has been brushed to a shine.
Just looking at it the blood drains from my face.
Its owner is a swollen-faced fat man
who will eventually come to claim it,
and when he does I won’t look, let him not see me.
I’d like him to put it on as he was leaving,
but I’m sure he’ll stand there and take a look around,
and no one will fail to rise in honour of him.
I wish I could forget that I have met him
or that I might have to meet him again.
If possible let him have no family,
nor dog that he could put in a sack and beat.
If he’s a judge, let me not come before him.
If he is a torturer, let his first blow be fatal.

Friday 3 February 2012

From the Polish of Jacek Dehnel

I have been going through the cupboard of the translations file and have found some nice things that have appeared here or there but are unlikely to have been widely read. Over the next few days, in somewhat sporadic fashion, I will post some of them. Mostly from the Hungarian, but not all/

I first met Jacek Dehnel in Warsaw on a British Council visit. I was told he was a brilliant young prize-winning poet. A year later I was commissioned to translate two poems by him.

It was a great pleasure. Dehnel's poems have something of the dandy about them - virtuosic, formal, playful, very elegant, but with a sharp validating edge of experience without which all this would be talent waiting for material. The first poem is a kind of ironic-scary admonition, the second an incident with all kinds of resonance.

I had Jacek's help with these. There are far too many languages I don't speak. 'So how can you translate?' people ask. My answer is, I read what is written in gloss form and in notes then strain to catch the nature of the poem, the way it might speak, what the senses that animate it might have seen, heard or felt. I could be wrong. But in the best cases I do actually hear a poem. I hear it in English of course then carefully watch as the poem Englishes itself, or might English itself. That's all I can do, hoping the result is a poem that does some justice to the ghost of the original; that the original might recognise itself as it passes.That the poet might take a look at the translation and say, 'Yes, I trust you with that.'

Trust, trust. All is trust.


        Beyond the window darkness pressed
        Steep against glass, an importunate guest.

        Behind come the animals, stalking and creaturely,
        Their features not noted in anyone’s bestiary.

        Death follows, white winged, each wing with an eye.
        There are six such wings required to fly.

        They hover outside, they watch and they wait.
        An encounter with them brings a sharp turn of fate.

        Inside crowd the books, the glasses, the chairs,
        Glass, paper and tissue, small human affairs.

        Both death and the creatures beam at the sight,
        So much to observe, to serve up, to bite.

        Through branches of gingko they peep and smirk:
        Such innocent morsels, such delicate work.

        If a moral is what you’re expecting, there’s none.
        You don’t have much time left. Get up and move on.

        Be good. Be loving. In old age be pure.
        Those panes are quite thin, the locks insecure.

Miasta Dalekie
Dla A. hr J

All those unvisited cities, far off our usual routes:
metros, balconies, suns, stalls selling exotic fruits,
and that high house with garish colonnade where a strapping
young lieutenant draws on his white glove, about to ring
the bell as he does each time a ship goes down the maw
of the hungry ocean.
          And nothing changes. The raw
Cities motionless, leaves that insist on hanging on
to boughs, the colonnade stock still, glued to the same sun.
A boy strolls home with his bike. A dog leads a blind man.
In the museum, the guide before Rubens repeats
the same glib phrases. ‘Those extraordinary feats
of craft, and colour, blah blah…’ The ‘gothic’ room below,
a metro carriage, an old woman, a Lazio
fan and a black guy, endlessly dashing from point A
to point B.
            It’s fixed. It’s stuck. We will not pass that way
Together. We will never stand before the well-known
altar at point C or before the Vermeer on our own.
They’re doomed to mere potential, like the luminous eel
on the seabed, or the room behind a locked door: we’ll
not be at the table or by the lamp or the pictures
we were once told about. They will remain fixtures,
forever unfulfilled, like the plans we once had
for a London flat, the New York vacations, my pad
in Rome, your trip to Sweden, and how we would save
for the day in Venice when we’d share a common grave.
We’re adults now. The carriage half empty, I’m sitting
alone. The hand hovers at the bell, never to ring.

Thursday 2 February 2012

Three translations from Akhmatova

I was asked to translate a few poems by Akhmatova for a memorial reading. I can't quite remember when it was, some eight or nine years ago, perhaps. Jo Shapcott read, and Elaine Feinstein, and Sasha Dugdale. These translations appeared somewhere, possibly in Poetry in Translation, but I have never done anything else with them. There is a cupboard full of such things. I'd like occasionally to ransack it.

Seven hundred years I’ve been away…

Seven hundred years I’ve been away
But nothing’s changed here, so to speak,
The same ineffable grace pouring
From the same impregnable peak

Same choirs of stars and waters
Same constellations, same black sky
Same seed in the same wind
Same mothers singing the same lullaby

My ancestral house stands firm
On Asian soil, why fret about it.
I’ll be back soon enough. Let hedges bloom,
Let fountains gush pure water. Let them spout it.

Tashkent 1944

Despite all your promises…

Despite all your promises
You ran off with my ring
And abandoned me in the depths,
Helpless, without a thing..

So why last night’s spectral visitation?
Why send him to me?
Young he was, cute, red-headed and lean
Wholly feminine,
Wailing like a hired mourner
And whispering insidiously
Of Rome, of Paris, and how
He really cannot do without me now.

Never mind shame, never mind the clink,

I’ll manage without him fine, I think.


There is a secret line…

There is a secret line between people who are close
Beyond which doting or desire may not tread,
However the heart shatters or explodes,
However the lips fuse in silent dread.

Friendship too is useless, however fierce
Or fiery the joy of it was long ago
When nothing bound the spirit to the body’s affairs
With that langorous afterglow.

It’s madness to approach that line, and the agony
Of touching it is more than we can bear,
So you will understand why my heart suddenly
Stops beating when you put your hand on it, right there.


I liked that 'right there' at the end. It implies the shock of the hand on the breast, and the ambiguity of the heart stopping, whether in excitement or rejection we don't know. Nor do I know if that is the full meaning in Russian but the line opened up under me and I wanted to go there.

Wednesday 1 February 2012

The Goodwin Fall

There has been an interesting rally to the side of ex-knight Fred Goodwin. I spent a little while in argument with a fellow writer on Twitter who was upset by what she considered the brutal vindictiveness of his accusers. And there is some sympathy for this view. Martin Rowson in The Guardian sees him as a scapegoat for the bankers and the Tories. To say, well he would, is not to say he is wrong, it's just, however brilliantly drawn as ever, that it is a kind of obligatory gesture.

The other words that come up are savage, sadistic, bitter mob, nasty, pointless, vilified, blood lust, humiliation.

The idea is that Goodwin is taking the can for everyone else who gets off blameless; that it's not him, but 'everyone' and 'the system', because 'even the rich have feelings'.

Yes, I think, but so have the poor, of whom there are very many more, many of whom are now poorer, some directly as a result of Goodwin's actions. Goodwin remains rich, secure and, no doubt employable. This little local difficulty will pass for him. It will not pass quite so easily for the jobless and dispossessed. These people will not be featuring on the news and front pages except as statistics. There will be no expression of sympathy for them because they have feelings too.

In other words I am indifferent as to the fate of Goodwin, not delirious with happiness, not dancing on the grave of his knighthood, just indifferent.

Because he is not simply himself. He is part of an ethos - a culture - that is disgraceful in itself, and however pragmatists might feel about it being, on the whole, better that some people should be very rich ('filthy rich' as Mandelson had it) in order that the poor should, as a by-product, be slightly better off than they might possibly have been otherwise, the culture remains ugly and, in the long run, deeply corrosive.


You are, of course, welcome to blame 'the system' though that seems to trip off the tongue rather too easily, especially if you don't explain what aspect of the system you mean and what you might be able or willing to do about it. You might well mean capitalism as a whole, in which case you ought to take the suggestion very seriously indeed. Do you mean all historical forms of capitalism or just this latest twenty- or thirty-year old model? Will you plump for another 'system', and if so which one? If you do plump for one are you willing seriously to argue for it, plan it and work for it? The old state-socialism model has not been out of the garage much since, well, 1973 say. The model pre-1989 wasn't really an option, that was the falling apart of what had remained of the 1973 model. Chinese communism is not a workable model here either, without the resources, the population, the distances, and the arbitrary application of power by the state as and when it suits it. Cuba? Venezuela? North Korea? Unlikely right now.

The only live viable alternative option, popular in Africa and the Gulf, is militant Islamism. That's clear enough as a model and plenty of people are choosing it where they are choosing it, but, honestly, I can't see it being introduced in Skegness or Warmington-on-Sea next week, not even by a popular man like Alex Salmond, who now regrets backing Goodwin.

If you want a revolution, that may happen anyway, because something is pretty close to bankrupt here, not just financially, but morally and intellectually too. 'The system' may survive through sheer mobility but it might not. Climate may do it. Shortages may do it. A fuel breakdown might do it. But maybe 'the system' is just going through a periodic wobble, chewing up and spitting out people, people not so much like Goodwin, more like those we never hear about.

Speaking flippantly of 'the system' is gesture politics. Revolutions may begin with gestures but generally involve tumbrils and bodies in the street. Nor is it guaranteed that once the revolution has taken over there will be no bodies in the streets or that no one will be tortured in the usual well-worn, well-equipped cellars. That doesn't mean that revolutions shouldn't happen - they have, and often for the long-term good - just that one should understand what one means when gesturing.

It's not really about Goodwin, it's not even so much about scapegoats, knee-jerk reactions, and political advantage: it is about trying to moderate a culture that works as an ethos in a confined space, an ethos that claims that if so-and-so doesn't get his or her bonus of £2-3 million every year on top of his or her millions per year salary, his or her reputation and that of the entire country is shot. That's the ethos and it needs discouragement.

I'm with Zoe Williams on this:

This feeling of sheepishness is unavoidable: we gave the crisis a human face because without one it would have been even more incomprehensible, alienating and frightening than it already was. But to heap so much disaster upon one man could never be proportionate, and his disgrace leaves a hysteria-hangover. I'm sure this is how it felt to drown a witch – loads of excitement, a magnificent climax, then a drab, embarrassed realisation that you just wanted her to get wet and didn't mean her to actually die.

The difference here is that Mr Goodwin did not die and was not innocent. Stripping him of his knighthood would be a tawdry sideshow if it were the end of the story. But if it's the beginning of something, the beginning of accountability, the beginning of a new way of doing things, then it's not a bad place to start.

Yes, that is the difference.