Wednesday 29 August 2012

Thinking about the sonnet as form 2

The second, concluding part of my replies to Berkan Ulu. The answer to question 2 is framed in personal terms but I include it because I suspect certain elements of my answer may address general ways of approaching the sonnet.

2) While composing your sonnets, what  sort of technical aspects do you take into consideration with regards to, again, the traditional ways of sonnet writing? And if you don't mind, how/why?

In the Bible Christ explains that the Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath. Putting aside the specific religious context, what that says to me is that we are not made in order to conform to rules, but that rules are there to serve us.

To continue with the room / spatial metaphor, I first have to decide whether the poem I am about to write is likely to be a sonnet or not. Sometimes I have already decided this, maybe because it relates to other sonnets or is part of a sequence, maybe because I have an instinct that the broad theme in my mind might usefully occupy such a space (I can be, and have been wrong on that). After the first two or three lines I have a clearer idea as to what kind of sonnet it is likely to be - what furniture, what light, what colours it is likely to require.

The idea of colour is interesting because it was the theme of colour that took me deeper into sonnet territory. The colour sonnets begin in Portrait of My Father in an English Landscape (1998). I was so struck by a jar of Monastral Blue pigment in an artists shop that I sat down to write about it, and a sonnet is what came out. After that I wrote dozens more colour sonnets, some in sequence, all on the associational aspects of colour. Some of them were variations on the Shakespearean model - see Sap Green, Chalk White, Romanian Brown - but others used different models. The book ended with three so-called Hungarian sonnets or crowns of sonnets, each consisting of fifteen linked sonnets where the last line of the first became the first line of the second and so on until the fifteenth, which is a sum of all the previous fourteen first lines. The colour sonnets have continued since through all the other books. I might yet write more. Bad Machine (forthcoming January 2013) will contain a double sonnet of which the first part consists entirely of the names of colours, almost all of them invented.

The key is this. I learned how to move inside the rooms and soon I was moving freely enough to understand what could be done within such a room. I could tell when I was in the middle of the room, and when I was within touching distance of the walls. I didn't keep looking back at the classical models - the core of the force field - I could feel them there and know that they were informing my own sonnets with their history. I take care of space, proportion and rhyme. If I know roughly where I am that is what really matters.


3) To what extend do you make use of free verse or would you agree with the idea that it is the new "vogue" (or "key" to) of writing sonnets? 

I suspect that a good constraining form is at its most powerful when the movements within it seems to be free while the form itself is on the point of breaking. That gives great tension to a poem, such a tension being, I strongly feel, a credible, if provisional, response to life. The end-stopped, highly stable sonnet has its place (I have written a few of these),  but it implies a greater stability in experience than I usually feel. The sonnets with the greatest stability tend to contain an element of irony.

In general then, to answer your question one way, the sonnet is a mixture of freedom and constraint and a term like free-verse seems a little beside the point. Free verse - that essentially early 20th century innovation - is no more free than any other verse. It still has to decide where to end a line and when to bring the poem to an end. It has to navigate its way from a beginning and through the body of the poem.

I do write free verse of course - I am currently collaborating with Carol Watts, who comes from the avant-garde tradition (which is the way I now think of it) which is mostly in free verse and partly in open sentence structure. Carol is very good and a great pleasure to work with: her work prods me to a different kind of invention, for which I am grateful.

The dangers of the unconstrained are prolixity, self-indulgence and sheer lack of originality: there is nothing to prod the average poet into invention (see my argument above re necessity and invention). Great free verse - and free verse can be marvellous - is very difficult because the constraints it requires may be endlessly, or carelessly,  deferred.

The problem with the average poem - whether formal or free -  is that it is insufficiently challenged to invent.

I don't know about vogue. I think certain forms are more useful than others, depending on the times. That may be because a new outstanding example of use has suddenly invigorated the core model, or because current practice has neglected a particular form that is in fact appropriate for the climate of feeling and thought. The sonnet is particularly useful for reasons I have tried to explain: the multivalent core, and the freedom of movement it offers within its room-like shape (we continue to inhabit rooms, they form a lasting comprehensible environment).

And maybe there is something about a lyric poem that tends to find itself within 10-16 lines, that is to say in loose' sonnet' territory.  Having said all that, I remember the first line of Wordsworth's sonnet that begins: 'Scorn not the Sonnet; Critic...'  In other words the critics had been scorning it - it had become an old relic. Then Wordsworth revives it and we are off again.

Monday 27 August 2012

Thinking about the sonnet as form 1


I post this set of long answers to three brief questions put to me by the Turkish writer, Berkan Ulu, because answers are always an opportunity to think. It might make two blogs or maybe three, and that might then offer an opporetunity to reflect on the Guardian blog last week. Answers to questions 2 and 3 are shorter, but answer 1 seeks to set out a territory.

The first part of the answer to the question below deals with my own work which may or may not be interesting - it's an account more than a set of thoughts - but the rest is more about ideas.

1. In what way would you relate your sonnets to the (so-called) conventional sonnets? Or would you? 

I would certainly relate them. That is unavoidable. There are at least four questions lurking within the question. 

One part of the question is personal and relates to my own formal instincts as they develop. To answer: I became far more involved in formal questions in the mid 1970s after my mother died. In wanting to write something in memory of her I found that my usual way of writing - free verse, broadly surreal or fantastical - was inadequate to my state of mind. Over a period of a few months I drafted a poem that eventually consisted of roughly hexameter couplets (the poem is At The Dressing Table Mirror, in my first book, The Slant Door). This led to further explorations of form - not the sonnet at first, just regular-looking rhyming stanzas that employed a lot of enjambent. In my second book, November and May, there is a longer, partly successful, poem,The Birdsnesters, that employs unrhymed stanzas of 12 lines each and, right at the back of the book, the first poem - Mare Street - that might loosely be described as a sonnet. It has 14 rhymed lines and an almost unnoticed rhymed couplet as lines 5 and 6. After that there are poems here and there that move around 12-16 lines, some of which have 14. The next major step is my longest poem, Metro, that consists of 60 x 13 line verses in 10 sections, the verses generally consisting of 12 rhymed and one unrhymed line. By this time I am - and am generally regarded as - a poet with strong formal instincts, but not a writer of sonnets. That comes later.


The second part of the question refers to the idea of form generally. This is something I have written about several times so I will try to sum it up because it is relevant to the question. The experience of writing - as opposed, some might say, to reading - is that whatever complex of feeling, sensation and thought comprises the impulse to write a poem, it is going to have to be explored and realised through language.

The desire to write something is not the same as the desire to have written the final draft.

In other words the act of composition is not a realised act of the will towards a specific end. Language, at its most sensitive, is not a machine, or, if it is, it is one that deals with shifting, arbitrary signs; it is, therefore, a machine that shares some characteristics with an organic being that is bound to be much like ourselves since it is we who have brought it into being.  Writing is an act of intense inward listening to this being.

Since signs are arbitrary and shifting within the greater scheme, it helps some poets to show a particular awareness of that by imposing on the poem various conditions that are, in effect, language conditions.

So, for example, one might write to a specific length or with a particular length of line, or according to a strange programme whereby certain sounds must be repeated at certain intervals - in other words, rhyme. These constraints modify thought by steering the poet in certain directions rather than others. By learning the art of such steering the poet can discover possibilities he or she had not considered. These possibilities are what amount to invention.  It is a justification of the old saying that necessity is the mother of invention.


The third part refers to received form. If, beside the sonnet, we include others we know - the villanelle, the ballad, the ballade, the sestina, the eclogue, the pantoum, the terza rima etc etc - we will see that each is adapted to certain ranges of expression. Why? That is partly a matter of precedent: each form has its history. But history is less rule than terrain. We may turn to what seem to be classics of the form and consider these as the centre of the terrain and other poems that follow a similar form or some approximation of it as part of the same terrain. In other words a classic form is at the centre of a force field. (It is not impossible that later models may join the classic forms at the centre of the force field). Each form is a set of possibilities. A kind of space.


The fourth part refers to the sonnet in particular. It is interesting that, despite historical fluctuations, the sonnet has lasted longer than almost any other received form in Europe. Why? Here too there is more than one answer. I think it is because the sonnet is a very particular kind of space. As a historical form it offers a number of classical models at the centre of the force field. The Petrarchan, Spenserian, Shakespearean, even the much later unrhymed Lowellian are somewhere in that centre. In other words it's a multivalent core that can continue to radiate energy and generate other energies.

I don't want to get too lost in metaphors but I do want to extend the space metaphor just a little further.  I suspect the sonnet-length poem provides just enough space for a thought to become an emotion and vice versa. If I think of the space as a room it is clear it has a certain volume and certain proportions. We can learn to move around this room. Learning to write sonnets is like getting to know a space. After a while you don't have to think about the space so much - you can find your way around the room in the dark - you can think and feel in it.

And like all rooms it is very adaptable. You can choose the furniture, paint the room, light it this way or that, move the furniture here or there, have windows and doors where you want. You can even have a sequence of sonnets where one room leads to another room. The only given is that it is a room of certain proportions. A sequence of sonnets is like a house or apartment block within the force field of the big multivalent suite of rooms at the centre. The important idea then is that of the sonnet as a particularly adaptable form of space, a kind of room, or arrangement of rooms, with views out. You need to have views out.

[continued in next post

Sunday 26 August 2012

Sunday night is... Eddie Cochran

One minute, fifty seconds worth of time hauled out of its grey pool, the record released in August 1958 when I was just nine. Cochran was killed in Britain in April 1960 in a taxi accident in Wiltshire, having thrown himself across his girlfriend, songwriter Sharon Sheeley, to save her. Gene Vincent, also in the taxi, was seriously injured. Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper had died the year before. The Manchester United air crash happened in February 1958.

I knew nothing of most of this, of course, except the United aircrash and it was shortly after that I began to follow the team. But that's a lot of crashes in two years.

Maybe there was always something a little crashed about that period between the late fifties and the early sixties. It seems so in retrospect.

Maybe it was we ourselves who had crash-landed in England.

Maybe it is because most of our photographs of those years were black and white, as was television - though I have a feeling we didn't get a television until 1961 or 2. Black and white years: that hum of grey on the 405 line screen, and the slight fuzziness of this clip.

And there is a kind of poetry seeping from it. The good humour when the band member steps to the mic to do the father voice is part of it. The stiffness on the edge of breaking into riot is another. It is like bursting out of a cellophane wrapper.

Summertime Blues, the title itself is poignant.

Maybe we can only do so much poignancy.

Saturday 25 August 2012

Talking and reading in Rotterdam 2010

Recording made at the festival in 2010. 

Rotterdam is an excellent festival, very well organised. All festivals whirl by at great pace, then seem to vanish into the air of the past. but of course that is what the past does, so this little film preserves something of it. I remember sitting in the white sofa, answering questions, then shifting around forthe poem. About twenty minutes in the studio, one of a number of poets making their visits according to schedule. 

I seem to have lost a little weight around the face since then. The hair's a little greyer too.

Tiger and Tiger

Two days ago I posted a quickly written Blog for The Guardian which, on The Guardian page was titled The death of the novel will presage a rebirth of writing. It wasn't my title. The first paragraph in the link above wasn't mine either: it was the editor's introduction to what was to follow. I was not forecasting the death of the novel. That theme has been regularly revisited for a good many years and the novel is still going, so I am titling this blog Tiger and Tiger.

Here then is the Guardian blog as I first wrote it.  I would like to think further about some of the ideas in it, and maybe consider some of the comments on the Guardian site.

"Why do novelists so fear the death of the novel? Poets don't fear the death of the poem," responded Jackie Kay to the debate following China Miéville’s keynote speech about the future of the novel.

There is constant and loud debate about the death of the novel - Will Self was voicing his doubts about it only this week - and less debate (though not none) about the death of the poem. The true distinction however is not between novels and poems, but between story-telling and poems.

The novel is a specific but not fixed form of story telling in the same way as the romantic lyric, or the sonnet, is a form of poetry. The two deep patterns are story and poem.

There are two essential instincts in engaging with the world through language. The first is the cry of encounter linked to the desire to name; the second is the evaluation of options as a result of the encounter.

The Tyger is a poem by Blake. Tiger! Tiger! is a story by Kipling introduced by a verse. The first doesn’t tell a story but offers us a burning presence in the imagination: the second doesn’t dwell on presence except in so far it is an aspect of consequence. Consequence is vital. To take a very brief passage from Kipling:

Buldeo was explaining how the tiger that had carried away Messua's son was a ghost-tiger, and his body was inhabited by the ghost of a wicked, old money-lender, who had died some years ago. "And I know that this is true," he said, "because Purun Dass always limped from the blow that he got in a riot when his account books were burned, and the tiger that I speak of he limps, too, for the tracks of his pads are unequal."

“Because Purun Dass always limped”. In stories there is always an implied “and then” and a “because”. There is neither a ‘then’ nor a ‘because’ in Blake. No-one reads a poem like Blake’s to find out what happens in the last line. The end is the beginning

There are various forms of narrative poem. We can deploy the old categories and talk of epic poems, discursive poems, and dramatic poems as well as lyrical poems, but there is something significant in what Poe argued, that longer poems are essentially linked short poems, a series of flashes.

Coleridge’s ‘The Rime of The Ancient Mariner’, is a ballad and therefore a story. But even here, where story would seem to be the point, it is not the story that registers most deeply. It is tableau after tableau, each with its own presence: the encounter with nature and the imagination. The Mariner himself is thin as a character, a semi-transparent vehicle for a series of encounters with the world.

The poetry is where the presence burns more than the narrative drive.

Ideas of character and consequence are at the heart of the novel, and inform the story. Forster sighed about having to impose stories on characters but he felt obliged to, nor might Oscar Wilde’s Miss Prism have been entirely wrong in suggesting that fiction meant that the good ended happily and the bad unhappily: happiness and worth are issues in novels to an extent they are not in poems, and even the great Modernist novels in which voice and character seem almost interchangeable, offer choices and links that prevent the book from breaking up into a series of poems. We seem happy to enough to read passages from Homer, Virgil, Milton, Pope and Wordsworth: it would seem wrong to know the great novels through this or that passage.

There is no sense in arguing for the supremacy of the poem or the story: both are equally important. The poet and the story-teller co-exist in human beings, though not to the same degree in individuals.

The novel being a highly specific, on the whole stable, form of story telling, assumes a great deal about the reader’s relation to the world and language, and it is quite possible that such a relationship will demand - may already be demanding - a different psychological form of story-telling just as it might demand of poets a different construction of poem.

The novel may be dying - it does get to feeling a bit tired at times - but the instinct to story does not die, nor does the instinct to poem.

Wednesday 22 August 2012

On a poem by Tom Warner

Again it is a poem read at the Millennium Library on Monday. It appears in Tom's Faber New Poets 8 collection. A longer poem, so longer notes.

Under Natural History

every mushroom-picking pocket book I find
contains some kind of disclaimer.

Collecting mushrooms to eat is dangerous.
No field guide is ever comprehensive.

So I bought two, and slung them in a rattan basket.
The kind of basket some of the girls at school

would nurse from Home Ec. in the crook of their elbows.
The kind of girls, like Suzanne Galloway, with thick tights

who sometimes carried violins in rigid cases
for lunchtime sessions in the music block.

All welcome.
Open. Optional. Twelve o'clock

Once, Brett Coupe pulled the heavy doors open wide enough
for us to peer in at girls standing without their blazers,

violins trapped beneath their chins like telephones or windy babies,
and at their feet were cases filled with satin and crushed velvet.

I kick my boots clean outside and leave them at the door.
On the kitchen table I drop a basket full of mushrooms,

some red as blood, some purple and crinkly-edged
some squishy cups like orange water lilies.

I'm pretty sure thise one's an Amethyst Deceiver.
You ask me why I'd take that risk, but I can't really answer.

This is a poem that refuses to declare its hand. It is itself like the named mushroom, the Amethyst Deceiver, in that it is hard to tell whether it is dangerous or not.

The first two stanzas are matter of fact, apparently flat voiced. The first is like the beginning of a complaint or a hard-luck story. The second, in italics, reproduces a warning of which the second line hits a potential panic button: ever!

The narrative picks up from there, as an act of bravado (so, slung) then switches its attention to memory. The language is relaxed up to Home Ec but suddenly tenses. The crook of the elbow is suddenly sharp and clear. We meet Suzanne Galloway a type of girl who wears thick tights and carries a violin case. What type of girl is that? The very phrase, that type of girl, suggests something possibly sexual, but we can't be sure. The specificity of the name suggests particular importance. Those rigid cases - why would we note them? - have an air of inuendo.

But it's just school, after all. Nevertheless it is an intimidating institution where even a welcome sounds like an order. The second set of italics is as official as the first, but a little more peremptory. It's an offer in telegraphese, the language rigid as that violin case.

And then a moment of potential transgression, an act of daring like the purchasing of those potentially dangerous mushrooms. The girls - no longer just Suzanne Galloway, she has melted into an aggregation of femaleness - are without their blazers, faintly comical, faintly bizarre, and yet clearly objects of potential delectation. The boys are voyeurs. And again, one of them, the chief transgressor is named - a slightly odd non-generic name that assures the reader that it is real and that the vision matters.

And what is the vision? We are very much in the real remembered world with its odd stab of particulars, but what we are looking at is the plush inside the violin cases, that satin and crushed velvet.

Sensuous, voluptuous, almost sybaritic images.

Stop right there!

Back to where we were, returning with the mushrooms. Once slung in to the basket now they are simply dropped.

And then two lines of close sensory inspection so close we can't help but compare them with the only other piece of intimate description in the poem: the insides of those violin cases. The two have something to do with each other.

Then the return to the beginning of the poem, the motif of danger. The exotic mushroom is named, and suddenly the poem engages with us. It assumes we ask something. The speaker claims not to know the answer.


The poem takes a narrative form but it is not a story about mushrooms or schoolgirls. It is the presentation of of two experiences that bear on each other. Both the open violin cases and the mushrooms are discovered in a context of warning. The school signs seem to indivate welcome but the the opening of the door still constitutes a trespass. The context of danger, defiance and transgression within an official framework (guide book / school) is the point.

Is the poem about sex? Yes, but it does no heavy breathing. It is fully controlled, and slightly diffident. This is the way things work, syas the poem, this is one way of framing the voluptuous.

It is the intelligent management of registers. Those staccato couplets that break up into still smaller units then blow out into description. The psychological pressure of the girls is felt through two images: rigid violin cases with plush interiors and potentially dangerous, exotic phallic mushrooms, that modulate into feminine forms. That in-between-gendered volutptuousness is probably the most compulsive part of the whole: Then the shrug at the end. Back to the wary flat tone. Dunno why I do it, why I see it this way, why I take the risk. But look at the mushrooms. Look at the those open violin cases. Now chance it.

Who is the deceiver then? The speaker? The mushrooms? The girls and their violin cases? The amethyst itself?

That is where the poem hesitates: it tells you what it knows and no more. The rest we must guess. Why should we take the risk of guessing? I can't really answer that one.

Tuesday 21 August 2012

On a short poem by Esther Morgan

The Long Holidays

The day stretches ahead - nothing but
grass and sky grass and sky grass and sky grass and sky
as far as the eye can see

nothing but sky and grass sky and grass sky and grass sky and grass

and the wind galloping hard over the fields
like a riderless horse.

It's a very short poem for a long holiday and it takes worthwhile risks. The risk isn't about loss of conventional punctuation, bar that isolated hyphen. We have an assuring capital letter at the beginning of the poem and an equally assuring full stop at the end of it with nothing in between. In that respect the poem locates itself among range of modern options. We are prepared for it.

There is no particular risk to the narrative or syntactic order. That is what the minimal punctuation says and we are in no danger of losing track of events.

The variance in line length certainly draws the eye in the contrast between the longest and the shortest but there are sound dramatic reasons for that, as there is for the stanza breaks.

The risk would seem to lie in the long repeated lines themselves. They take nerve because they risk accusations of both childishness and boredom. The obvious answer to the accusation would be that the poem is actually about childhood and boredom. To which the more refined second accusation might then be that the job of literature is to convey boredom without producing it.

Responding to the second accusation is the more serious risk, a nice bold risk. The lines are not elegant but they spring us into the last couple of lines where the specific image of the riderless horse is offered to us. The image comes as a surprise, almost a shock. The wind gallops before the horse does, partly because the horse does not exist except as a simile for the wind. Suddenly a day that stretches ahead is disordered by the wind.

The poem, we realise, is about the wind, its object, after the boring stability of the sea and grass, to place us directly in the course of the wind and its power to ride us down. The first five lines are there to prepare us for that.

And now the role of those long repetitious lines becomes clear. Their rhythm foreshadows the galloping. Just listen. The wind is  rising in them, and who would have suspected that the first time we heard them. Or imagined hearing them.


I have been thinking for some time now that the poem is, among other things, the physical embodiment of a psychological condition. The lip, mouth, tongue and throat shapes we have to make in order to produce the sound - and the sounds can come from half way down the throat, from right at the bottom of the belly, and involve pulling not just faces but the tightening or loosening of muscles elsewhere - are related to states of complex but primal feeling (so one can be afraid yet excited at the same time). In effect the sounds imitate instinctive body movements in particular states of emotion. The words have meanings and associations, but they receive their core energy from the body itself.

In this case - and I noticed this as Esther was reading - the appearance of the wind in the form of galloping horses was experienced with an unusual intensity. The poem had left the stable door open and the horses had rushed out.

Poetry is a constant struggle agains the merely literary. It is, of course, literature itself but it cannot afford to be simply literature. Literature has to discard something of its fine manners to address us in a manner beyond civility or even accepted modes of violence. Somewhere or other the stable door must be open and the horses galloping right towards us.

Morgan's poem does that despite its small, apparently narrow compass. It is short but its power is substantial. It is not just Poetry: it is a poem.

Monday 20 August 2012

Readings: Esther Morgan and Tom Warner

Came home from a reading at the Millennium Library, chiefly by two young poets, Esther Morgan and Tom Warner, but also by a number of readers from the floor. It was a good reading - both Esther and Tom are fine, self-confident poets and presenters of their own work.

Esther's third book, Grace, is, I think her best. The poems are broader, have a greater consciousness of loss and space than those in her previous two books. They have steeper edges and we are more likely to vanish off them.

As for Tom, his touch now is robust and inventive, and the poems are more complete performances, but with a tough core, so whatever the invention you feel there is an understanding of something harsher held in reserve.

Seeking for ways of decribing the reading I was determined to avoid the great hyperboles that trip so readily of the tongue in poetry readings, or indeed on reading poetry. Those breathless cries of wonderful! marvellous! don't do anybody much service in the end. They become a form of manners, big mwah, mwah air kisses.

I am swearing off them.

Instead I shall take one poem by the poet in question and look to read it critically on this blog. Just now and again. They will be poems I like and I will try to say what I like about them. Tomorrow I will take a short poem by Eesther, the next day one by Tom

What I do think is that there is more good, real poetry about than I can remember for a while. Even from the floor. There is perhaps a greater understanding among the readers and occasional writers of poetry us that a poem is something shaped,  more than lament or anecdote, or the versifying of a human story, a growing matrix of active reader-writers that has slowly been raising the stakes on various fronts. Most of the poems I hear from the floor are incomplete or not quite in control, but it is possible to hear that, quite often, the poet has seen something, and has tried to see how it plays out in language

Or maybe this is just Norwich where every fourth citizen is a writer and one in ten a poet.

Sunday 19 August 2012

Sunday night is... Nat King Cole

Nat King Cole: Solid Potato Salad

Nat King Cole with Oscar Petersen, Coleman Hawkins, Ray Brown & Herb Ellis

A hot steamy day on the edge of thunder and I have determined to read through a 340pp novel that I am to introduce and talk about soon. The book is not out yet. I have given up the notion of consuming it bit by bit though when I think back I see that all my best fiction reading has been a concentrated straight run, everything surrendered to one book. 

Recalling this, I understand why I rarely read substantial novels: they won't let you be, the whole day goes and you've done nothing else. Maybe that is why I am a poet - everything has to be together and shaped and done, at least to good draft stage, under the spell of one comprehensive, driving momentum.  

But then reading - just like writing in fact - has always been an act of theft for me: time stolen from something else I should be doing. Seeing how much I have written, I can see my old age will be racked with guilt

So I have read the book, and enjoyed it. Since the house faces east, the sun works its way round from front to back, and the intense light and heat in the south-facing window downstairs moves from the western corner of it to dead centre, to wind up in the east. As a result I found myself moving round the room as I read, from one end of the couch to the other, then to the chair facing it and finally back again. By the end I have circumnavigated the room.

In the meantime I stop now and then for ten minutes to do this and that or catch up with the news, which is dominated by Julian Assange's balcony speech in the Ecuador Embassy today. My notes on him are not particularly admiring. One says Assange is a fly in the ointment. It is possible to dislike both the ointment and the fly. I don't entirely buy his self-proclaimed gospel that he is the one hope of a free press. I doubt the Swedish government is duplicitous. I don't think he ought to avoid the charges he may be facing there. I could be wrong but I begin to fiddle in verse as I tend to do, and this comes out:

I wish I liked Assange's face,
I wish him in another place,
Perhaps I might just like him more
In Sweden than in Ecuador.

Maybe that is too hard on him. It may be so.

Thursday 16 August 2012

Now that it's over: the women, 2

The first couple of times I saw women's football matches - an international and a club match, both on TV - I didn't think I would want to watch it again. The game was distinctly slower, less dynamic and less skilful. A well-meaning journalist would now and then write up women's football and praise it but people often describe things not as they are but as they think they ought to be, in the hope that if they say so often enough, things will be so.

It was different this time: the game had speeded up, the players were more powerful, the skill - as you can see in the short clip above - was impressive. It was more like watching a men's game. Furthermore the matches were the same length as the men's, unlike in tennis where the matches are shorter, so the stamina and athleticism were equivalent. The bone-crunching tackles were not quite as ferocious as they can be in the men's game but the contest was stern enough.

The GB team - I always found the term Team GB a little twee - was quite impressive on two occasions but faded against Canada. Two players stick in my mind here: Steph Houghton, a solid, fearsome, clever full-back who scored goals, and a fast, elegant Scottish forward, Ellen White, both Arsenal players.


Football, like boxing, has traditionally been a men's game. My own memories of playing for my school are of rain-swept heavy pitches and a very heavy, wet leather ball  flying at my head. There was mud and furious tackling. I enjoyed it but it wasn't the pretty tika-taka of he kind you can play with a light ball on a firm pitch in the sunshine. Blokes did muddy rough things, especially in rugby, the girls flitted about on the netball court. Miss Joan Hunter-Dunn played a mean game of tennis, according to Betjeman, but he praises her as having, The speed of a swallow, the grace of a boy,  thus getting the best of both male and female worlds.

Once off the pitch the GB women's team reassumed the social-feminine. The hairstyles, the clothes, the bangles, even the hand gestures were distinctly womanly.

Jessica Innes had been feminine in performance. Not that she needed to try - it was just her build and the cut of her face - no one was going to mistake her for a boy, nor her grace for 'the grace of a boy'. She was not even androgynous. The hips were narrow but the slenderness, however necessarily sinewy,  was not masculine. The same, to a greater or lesser extent, could be said of most of the female competitiors - rowers, cyclists, swimmers, riders - bar a few shot-putters and weight-lifters.

The footballers though did change in performance. For the duration of the game they were playing exactly as the men did, powerful and graceful in the same way. Not that we ever forgot they were women, it was just that our comprehension of what being a woman might be included the game we were watching. I am not sure it would have been quite the same ten years ago. The game was more courageous, more cut and thrust now, not quite between genders  but partaking of both.

I enjoyed the women's games as much as the men's. Or - I want to be strictly honest - almost as much. Maybe I still feared for their injuries.

We read Betjeman's notion of the grace of a boy as an aspect of his own early sexuality. Part of the weakness of the women's game in the past had been that it could look clumsy, an attempt to force the female body into a continuous performance of male gestures that made too strong a contrast with the self-control and grace of female gesture. Grace in hobnailed boots - I think of Shirley Bassey on Morecambe and Wise - is bathos. It was uneasy.

The uneasiness seems to have gone now. There was no performance of masculinity: the feminine had expanded to include movements that once seemed awkward.

In other words the girls done good. Until the quarter-final, of course.

Wednesday 15 August 2012

Now that it's over: the women 1

Now that it's over it will soon seem - it is already beginning to seem  - as though it never happened. The well-known faces will remain with us because they were already well known: Jessica Ennis, Mo Farah,  Chris Hoy, Victoria Pendleton, Bradley Wiggins, Tom Daley, and several others. In some cases it just depends on the face.

One face that will remain with me is that of Nicola Adams, the boxer. It remains with me partly for what it is, a pretty face full of life and wide-eyed courage. It is not that I am a particular fan of boxing, though I recognise that, like all sport, it has a beauty of its own - a rather savage beauty because we know it hurts and is intended to hurt.

I have seen women's professional wrestling and know to what degree it is theatre. The first time I saw it live it was clear that the two wrestlers were partly playing for sexual innuendo, but they were athletic, strong, skilful, lithe, independent and brave. Nevertheless, though women's wrestling has a long history, it was something of a raree show near the end of the bill among all the male contests.

The wrestler Jackie 'Mr TV' Pallo's autobiography, You Grunt and I'll Groan, (I have a copy at home, reader) served as an exposé of something that did not in fact need much exposing. Grunting and groaning are vital to a spectacle where pain may be real but injury is not intended.

It is intended in boxing: not permanent injury, but immediate incapacitating injury.

Boxing has tended to be between men. One injunction every boy learns from infancy is not to hit a girl, hence the outrage at domestic violence. Even seeing a girl get hit by an inanimate object is hard. Girls suffering any injury is hard and is taboo territory, hence the thrill for some people.

But girls do fight and increasingly so.  Not hitting exactly. Not punching. Traditionally, girls' weapons have been psychological, a game of mental knives intended to whittle down and humiliate. Physical cat fights - hair pulling and scratching - are attributed to momentary fury, often to be broken up by a man: no one is getting properly hurt.

Boxing is disciplined. It is steady training, the development of technique and a psychological campaign leading to a purposeful show of deliberate violence offered, when possible, with grace, intelligence and courage. It is not a passing fury. In its very deliberateness boxing between women goes against the accepted grain of masculine / feminine behaviour.

But here was young Nicola, buoyed up and bright-eyed, clearly skilful, throwing punches right, left and centre: something of a joy. Why a joy? I myself find it odd to be saying this, but I felt happy for her. Her boxing seemed a moment of - well - liberation, I suppose.

Other emblems of rising female violence have been with us for some time. The screen image of the woman who can not only look after herself but can kick a big man to a bloody pulp is long familiar. Think back to the Spice Girls pantomime of kicks and blows. It is as if girls had entered the mythic kingdom of power by violence and intended staying

Not just violence. I don't think purely in terms of boy racers now: I am almost as likely to be cut up on the roundabout by a smartly young woman thinking: fuck you, get out of my way.

But Nicola was different. She was not a girl racer but a dancer whose moves were punches and ringcraft. She was a sweet girl. An emblem.

More on girl power next time - particularly the GB women's football team.

Monday 13 August 2012

Now that it's over 2

Second is nowhere, went the mantra, and we still tend to regard silver as failure. And that is strange, for while it is understandable that a gold-medal prospect may be disappointed with his/her luck or performance, we ourselves have not been failed by the athlete. The athlete has no direct obligation to us as individuals.

The relationship between the athlete and the colours he or she wears works both ways. The athlete has, in effect, taken a vow to perform at maximum for the nation represented by those colours, but the nation should remain aware that it has co-opted the athlete. The nation is the bigger unit, of course, and the athlete is to regard his or her selection as an honour. And indeed that is what happens. Athletes do regard it as an honour.

One might argue that the obligation of the athlete resembles the obligation of the soldier in being willing to do or die for the nation, but joining the army entails nowhere near so much competition as being selected for the Olympic team. Being allowed to join the army is not in itself an honour: being picked for the Olympics is.

The word 'honour' will keep butting into this and, uncomfortable as I am with the word in a good number of contexts ('honour killing' being the most obvious example), I can't see how to avoid it.


Honour and nation. Hard words. Dulce et decorum est. These are troubled shores.

They are particularly troubled since nationalism as a force often seems pernicious to me. I have argued against English, Scottish, Welsh, Irish and Hungarian nationalism before on the grounds that they have thrived by exclusion and by fetishising and simplifying a historical memory in which there is always some terrible, inhuman Other that exists primarily to be despised. The nation is defined by its evil enemy, that is what gives it its sense of cohesion, courage, that warm glowing feeling of being right and wronged. They will always point to massacres by others and ignore their own.

Politicians know this force very well and some will not hesitate to draw on it. It is not that the nation has not been wronged at times as that 'being wronged' has become its very identity. The wonged nation looks to huddle up with other wronged nations: that is their form of internationalism. By this definition there is never a shortage of the wronged.

But sport is potentially the nation as delight. Nations can cheer their own representatives without wishing ill on the representatives of others. The athlete and the nation are bodies beyond individual bodies. The athlete's body is the body of the nation: the nation is the body of which the athlete is a part.

 Sport is the theatre where this can and does happen in a non-martial context, even in boxing.  Qualities in others are recognised and celebrated (see Tim Love's comment on the poost below this one). There is, above and beyond the sentimental hype, a ground feeling that the category: human, subsumes, while permitting the existence of, the category: British or Dutch etc. That is, I think, what the Olympic spirit is supposed to represent.


People group themselves in various ways: as family, as neighbours, as people with a common interest or passion, as cities, regions, countries, ethnicities, tribes, cultures, and classes. The nation is a combination of  some of these, maybe all of them at best. The nation has the potential to be almost unconditionally participatory.

So for me one of the most moving moments was after Mo Farrah won the 10,000. As the Independent had it:

When a reporter asked him after his first gold if he would rather have run for Somalia, he was quick to retort: "Look mate, I'm British."

I find it moving because I think Somalian-born Muslim Mo speaks for me too, and that, at times like this, when the nation is at its best, he speaks for the nation. It is the potential nation that was being celebrated in the Opening Ceremony, and here he was speaking it.

It isn't just the double Olympic gold-winning athlete but all those other less athletic participants that matter too. I was continually rooting for the GB athlete because I felt a participant. Literally, I had a part in it and felt better for it - mate.

Now that it's over 1

The voices against the Olympics in my cultural neck of the woods were loud in their disdain. After all, the Games were being held in the middle of a double-dip recession, in the term of a Tory Prime Minister, in the city of a Tory Mayor, the lot organised organised by a toffish Tory gold medal winner of thirty years ago. That was enough in itself: if the Games were a success the glory would redound to the Tories. Some of these people are friends, and I am of their political persuasion, but I still didn't feel like them. I'm not sure why.

They, as well as another group of people, the everything about the UK is crap group, looked at the usual things - cost, disruption, legacy, likely botches, real botches, commercialisation, branding, corporate greed, problematic private financing and the sheer misery and assumed incompetence of all native enterprises - and groaned.


Then the Opening Ceremony happened and it all looked different. The Danny Boyle- Frank Cottrell Boyce  show began as awkward pastoral then steamed into history with a good-natured, spectacular, lyrical and funny paean to the best instincts of the British people, who saw themselves in it and - rarely enough in their lives, especially at such a time - felt good. Even the critics felt good. That was partly because they saw it as a celebration of values counter to those of the average Tory, but partly because they recognised it as in some way true, beautiful and vulnerably human. I'll not forget the children bouncing on their beds while real nurses danced with them. It was a triumph: a version of history that knew it was incomplete, that laughed at itself but articulated a form of trust that is not only required but is, in very many cases, deserved.

The Opening was not an aswer to the objections: it was simply an alternative way of approaching the next fortnight. The focus was not going to be on drugs, on cheating, on national pomp, on individual egotism, but on the promise of people acting as we know they can, straining every nerve and sinew to compete, seeing competition not as gloating but as drama: work and reward; the perfecting of the imperfect; the accommodation of both success and failure within a common human frame.

I thought the Heatherwick nest of flames was beautiful and apt. That's it at the top.


I have work to do and am always worried when a full programme of some external sort takes me away from the desk, so I entered the Games slowly. I'd be working at the computer but every so often I'd switch to the BBC screen, which was a little hard to follow at first, but quickly became a regular, brief recourse. Our children went to the real thing: here I was, in Olympic terms, at no place but in several places at once, in thr modern on/off condition of isolation that comprises mass viewing. So I never did meet the good-natured volunteers, feel the surge of proximal emotion, hear the Mexican wave of sound, or find myself hugging the stranger next to me.

As the Games wore on C and I would spend evenings together on the sofa watching this or that event. We had our physical selves, our trust in each other, but we did not constitute a crowd. On the other hand we had no need to be self-conscious either, as one might be watching it with visitors or even friends. The sight of Denise Lewis dancing deliriously in a formal studio, or Steve Cramm rising from his seat while commenting were open intimate moments when neither was conscious of being observed: they weren't 'presenting', they were the closest we got to being inside things. Other people's unselfconscious and unfettered delight can be deeply moving. It enacts a moment of liberation. The rest was our own excitement.

For all the talk of branding I didn't spot a single example in all my watching. Maybe it was there but I was too engaged in watching what was really happening. It was like being seized by the moment, over and over again. One could forgive the breathless patriotism of the unseen commentariat, the cruelty of the post-failure interviews, the endless by-now hollow ritual of 'How did it feel? Unbelievable!' because I too was willing the GB team to triumph, because failure though terrible is dramatically gripping, and because, while all attempts at getting exhausted people to explain how they feel seem to me an extraordinarily crude and crass intrusion into a perfect personal moment, it was still good to see winners in their moment of astonishment.

I am letting the series on Brevities hang fire until I finish this. Maybe one more post, maybe two, while it's fresh inthe memory. One tiny thought on a possibe British variation on the How do you feel? Unbelievable! formula:

- And how did it feel winning? Was it unbelievable?
- I'd say, on the whole, it was agreeable.

Proper hype is counter-hype. Any fule kno that.

Sunday 12 August 2012

Brevities 2

Beginnings tend to be either tentative or clumsy unless one listens very hard. Listening intently is the key to everything. Once you have heard the noises and gauged the distances you can get used to any set of dimensions. Having internalised the dimensions of a sonnet you move around it as you might around your room in the dark.

That at least is the theory. In practice we continue to make mistakes but I have never worried too much about mistakes. Mistakes are not humiliations: we learn from them, particularly about pushing out a little further. Mistakes are progress.

But as the series went on I became ever more determined to avoid the directly funny or chaotically surreal. I wanted discipline. After about fifty I 'tweeted' ten 'principles', or rather thoughts, on the form, principles that I then modified in minor ways for Facebook. These platforms - Twitter and Facebook - are fascinating in their nature and dimensions. The original thoughts were what could be fitted inside 140 characters, and, ideally, would have to have the same mysterious, epigrammatic concision as the 'stories'.

Once given epigrammatic form, almost any thought  takes on the characteristics of injunction, precept or rule. Nevertheless,  they remain shots in the dark. It's just that they are supposed to be clean shots.

The ten 'stories' follow. What should I call them? They're not really stories though they imply them. Are they incidents perhaps?  Reports from Germania seems a nice title. Let's call them that for now: reports.

It wasn't that Herr Weiss was innocent nor that Herr Schwartz was guilty. Names were coincidences, noted Herr Köhler, coughing his lungs out.

Frau Werner had six fingers on either hand, each more beautiful than the last. She fed the swans in the park & giggled like a child.

Doctor Schnell had a secret he would not divulge. He kept pushing his food around his plate and would never mention cutlery.

Never mind Frau Klein, the judge consoled her. Your nose will kept in store till your release but you may keep your vertebrae.

Doctor Klumm loved looking at leaves swept along by the wind. He was really a poet, the dentist of sturm und drang.

Meister Franke of the Black Dog Altarpiece owned three dogs called Shadrach, Meshack & Abednego. His masterpiece was the Dog Madonna of Ulm.

Herr Grock never went anywhere without a railway timetable. When the 15:17 from Hamburg struck him his last cry was: Three minutes late!

Surprised in the changing rooms of her local swimming pool Fraulein Winkler beat the intruder to death with his own erection.

It's getting late, remarked Frau Hosen. The moon has gone terribly pale and the stars are nowhere to be seen. Time for a new alarm clock.

Good morning, said Dr Mussen. The chicken in his shopping bag refused to return his greeting. Good morning, repeated the doctor, smiling.

Herr Tinder, the postman, despite his strict religious upbringing, remained unfranked.

The diciest of these was the first since the names Schwartz and Weiss, meaning Black and White, carry baggage of both value and race. How much baggage can such a small frail form afford to carry? Not much, I think.

If the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise, said Blake, so I wondered if the addition of a third, if slightly more obscure, loaded name might rescue the report from the grip of simple parable (I definitely did not want parable). Herr Kohler is a coalman, possible a coal miner. His lungs would be full of coal. By living up to his name the other two who did so might seem less heavy handed. That was the instinct anyway.

I tended to avoid flirtation with parables after that. Edgy jokes were all right providing they were edgy. Irony was all right. Parody (of, say, art historical guides) was OK. The edges of poetry, as in Dr Klumm and Frau Hosen, were OK. Vulgarity, as in the case of Fraulein Winkler, was OK providing it was ludicrous. Mix and blend. Dodge, settle, and dodge. Keep moving.

Saturday 11 August 2012

Brevities 1

I have been writing very brief stories on Twitter (which I do take seriously as a form). They are all set in a Germany of the imagination, and generally in the uncertain past. There are 120 of them now and these were the first ten:

When Frau Spitzer realised she was hearing the radio after she'd switched it off she knew it was a voice in her head & turned that off too.

When Herr Spitzer's trousers kept falling down he realised his legs were missing. He imagined a new pair and got on with life.

When Meister Klaus saw how the demons in his predella were misbehaving he threatened to eat them and did so - then stopped painting demons.

When young Wolfgang noticed he was growing pointed ears he decided to stop listening and cultivated his teeth instead.

When Frau Huber was caught in a storm she stuck her umbrella in the ground and sure enough lightning struck it - twice.

When Herr Schwartzkopf woke with his right hand having turned to clay he invented a new form of glaze and fired it. It glowed for days.

When one man begins an inconsequential story and another finishes it that is not without consequence - sayings of Frau Godber.

When Herr Stumpf lost his wallet he set fire to his jacket. On leaving the house he found a burning wallet on his doorstep.

When Meister Hans included a small ape in his painting of the Annunciation he felt a twinge of guilt and bit off his ring finger in remorse.

It has been a fascinating and somewhat joyful exercise. Not all are good and no doubt I could shave off twenty and have a hundred. I suspect a hundred will be enough.

Enough for what? For a small and relatively complete world. There was no particular programme behind the series, and my only constant strategy was to invent German-sounding names.

Why German? My first thought was Freud's case studies. The second was the Absurd. The third was the Gothic. The fourth was Queneau. The fifth was Isaac Bashevis Singer. The sixth was Kafka. The seventh was Brothers Grimm. The eighth was The Far Side. The ninth was Edward Gorey. The tenth was the Python crew.

And so on. Ideally a suggestion of them all and cumulation by sheer volume.

But what are they? Do they make a book? With pictures? I want them a little more serious than they first appear. A little darker, the hall in which they all appear a little more sinister. The hall should be pitching in the darkness so they list and vanish.

Some more thoughts on them tomorrow - and some more stories too.

Thursday 9 August 2012

On milieu and refuge: a sketch and ending, 13

I want to draw this to a close and wonder about the best way to do it, at least in this format. I have written about myself and my own feelings, about my parents' experience, about the history of anti-Jewish persecutions; I have listed the common anti-Semitic charges, have defended the existence, though not all the actions, of Israel, have tried to show - through factors of population, land area and defence considerations  - why Israel may act the way it does and why its existence should not be denied.  

But Israel is not my chief concern: it is what lies behind the notion of a state, or if not exactly a political state, my own state.

I have returned time and again to Chagall's yellow room and am now wondering whether that room represents a religion, a culture, a residual memory, a state of mind or a condition of the imagination. 

I am unmoved by the religion as such. A God whose first interest is in my foreskin and whose existence is defined through volumes of religious law is not quite a mensch to me. I respect all religions' rituals and customs providing they are humane but regard their religious observances as an aspect of the romantic-absurd. Touch your nose three times before meals and never cut your toe-nails on a Thursday are injunctions one might observe and, after a century or so, they might even get to feeling sacred, but it's still just touching your nose. Time can hallow anything.

A culture? I have not consciously been part of Jewish culture. Not in England. I don't really know it, or understand it, or even feel particularly drawn to it. It's fine, and it is clearly something to do with me, but I'm not sure what. I can see that it involves certain temperamental and sentimental tics but I seem not to have been a clubbable man and have preferred meeting club members - any club - outside the club. How are things in the club? I'll ask and they'll shrug and reply: Nothing changes, but have you heard... It's like finding out what your cousins have been up to. Had we stayed in Hungary it might have been different, but we didn't.

A residual memory? - Yes. The mind knows more than the bones do but you have more chance of changing your mind than your bones. I make no great claims for mine but at times of rising anti-Semitism I get psychological rheumatism. Residual memory is what gets injected into your spine at birth. It is not a predisposition towards law, accountancy, medicine, the violin, the rag trade, or poisoning wells, it's just memory of the kind carried by perfectly normal cells. I don't want to spend too much time with my bones but they do hold up my body. When fascists talk about blood it is the bones they really mean.

I can't speak about a state of mind, though clearly it must be to do with the bones. I don't know the state of my mind and haven't the foggiest about anybody else's. Minds are a mystery. But a condition of the imagination is something one might recognise in oneself especially if one writes. The evidence, like Wren's churches in London, is all about one. The yellow room, I suspect, is one of the conditions of the imagination.


Having written everything above that asterisk it all seems rather strange. It is strange to me to use the word mensch like that. I feel self-consious picking it up. It's like an item of my grandfather's laundry, the grandfather who died - in fact either dead grandfather. I imagine the word mensch sewn into the elastic waistband of their underpants. It feels faintly improper and intrusive picking one's way through ancestral underwear, let alone patriarchal underwear. But it's lying in a corner of the yellow room in an old battered suitcase and someone must own it.

Who to make my peace with? I will be sixty-four in November and I am not much nearer knowing the answer. I haven't even mentioned the Hungarian language, the Hungarian imagination, the Hungarian city, the Hungarian God. I must do that some time. I will do it. 

Then again, I am a writer in the English language and it is to the English language my writing must belong. The English language has fed me, sustained me, formed my thinking and social being, and become the terrain of my imagination. It too is condition; a determining condition perhaps. It is, in my experience, generally a kind, rich, supple condition. I look out of the window above my desk and see the leaves trembling in that cloudy light which, were I Rupert Brooke, I would think of as forever England.

The yellow room does not quite belong in such cloudy tolerant light. Nevertheless, it is here and I have my share and corner in it.

I want to finish up with Les's comments on the yellow room. as I describe it. I don't know who Les is but this is what he says:

1. the yellowness of it is essential to its feeling of intimacy. a warmth, a familiarity, that, whatever its source, whether from the lamp, or a glow enhanced by the wooden floor or the walls, is as much a part of the room as any piece of furniture, or even, its occupant.
2. no matter how many people are in this room at any given moment, no matter how loud the voices, how impassioned the words, the room is never crowded or claustrophobic. in fact, the room always seems to accommodate the right number of people, regardless of how many or how few have congregated there. the room is welcoming.
3. the room is always the promise of a return.

There are few nicer things that could be said of any room. Les is the kindness of the room. I think I'd recognise his spiritual form sitting at the table, as I would recognise some of our dearest friends in Hungary, Jewish or not.

Tuesday 7 August 2012

Milieu and refuge: a sketch, 12

The theme of these posts, I come to realise, is the yellow room. It is not Jewishness as such, nor is it Israel, that strange fortified outhouse glimpsed across the yard. Or maybe it is Anne Frank's attic. Maybe we shall find out.

The yellow room is not the full story. It is incompletely furnished (maybe it always was and will be incomplete). If I think of it as Chagall's hut rather than a dark but modern lounge in which Jewish boys might practice the violin it may be because I find such lounges stifling. Living there would be like being trapped inside some patriatrch's beard. I distrust the patriarch. I don't like him. I shrink away from him.

I have heard the patriarch boast, tell jokes, and bully his way across perfectly good arguments. I have experienced the patriarch's arrogance, his contempt, his miserable sentimentality, his unashamed tendency to fart simply because the air was his to fill.

And I have seen him cut down like wheat before a harvester when the matriarch deployed her sharp and bitter tongue. Snick, there goes the head; swish, there goes the torso; smack, there go the legs, toppling like tree trunks, leaving only those execrable feet of smelly clay.

Sometimes I imagine the yellow room as Bruno Schulz would have seen it, as a location of comedy, awe, horror and escape.

Is this what makes the room yellow? I ask. Is this why outsiders hate it? Not because of this or that dark lounge but because of the phantasmagoria attending on it? Do I have the right to ask such questions?

And then I see one of those patriarchs in this or that famous photograph, scrubbing the street while young uniformed louts enjoy themselves at his expense.

And of course they beat him up. Then they starve him. Then they kill him along with the matriarch and all their unfortunate violin-playing children.


The floorboards in Chagall's yellow room are bare. The table is at a precarious angle. There is a samovar and three glasses, two of them empty. The three glasses are for a woman, a man and the calf. It is only right that once you invite a calf in you should offer it a proper glass. I am glad to see the glasses have saucers under them. These indicate a certain delicacy of manners. (The calf may be in the house but you don't stain the table.) The woman is modestly dressed though she has her smiling head on upside down as if to say: Of course it can be done, you just have to try harder. The man is more anonymous, slightly machine like, smaller, mechanically moving towards the door. He has his jacket on inside the house but then the door is wide open, it must be cold.

In fact there is no door. There never is. (Thank God you can't be shut inside the room). The outside is all huts and night and moon. It is a world full of Others with the full capital O. Each other is a room like this one but more fully furnished. There'll be rugs on walls, bric-a-brac, a menorah and books. Some of them will be lined with books. In some of them the patriarchs will be reading those books or totting up accounts.

The yellow room is a singing place. Human voices, stringed instruments, the wind in the open door, the mooing of the calf, the gibbering nonsense of the universe singing its patter song the way Groucho Marx sings Lydia, The Tattooed Lady. You will be asking if there is a fiddler on the roof next!.

A few years ago I was in Lodz, in Poland as part of a British Council literary visit. Before the war there were some 233,000 Jews in Lodz. About 10,000 survived the war. As part of the welcome we were taken to a Jewish restaurant lined with paintings of Jewish patriarchs, and, just inside the door above the bar,  a canopy on which sat a girl playing a violin. Home comforts.

I had no idea how to react to this. Politely, of course. It was an act of intended kindness by kind people. Psychologically, however, it was problematic. I understood it as an act of reconciliation, almost a form of apology. Whether it was also a homage to exoticisation or, since the restaurant was presumably run by Jewish owners, a piece of self-exoticisation I don't know.


Self-exoticisation is a problem in any case. Do I self-exoticise myself? Is that unavoidable? Isn't that simply a human problem, an aspect of trying to understand ourselves as others might? Trying to be more the mask that fits?

The yellow room is a problem. What did it mean to the young Chagall? To his parents inside the room? To Bella, his wife-to-be.

To Bella, perhaps, it might have seemed like a gift, a form of welcome. To her the exoticisation might have been an overflow, an act of dedication. Love. It seems like that to me. It's not where I live, I tell myself. 

But then I tell myself a lot of things. 

It is a duty to be sceptical about oneself, I tell myself. And so I back away from the yellow room in a properly sceptical manner. Though that doesn't mean the yellow room has stopped existing. Like the man in the painting, I head for the door to other phantasmal lives. I must tidy this up.

Monday 6 August 2012

Sunday night would have been...Buddy Holly

Maybe just one or two parts left of Milieu and Refuge. Too late tonight to write it. An old school friend with whom I lost touch but who is now a doctor was a great fan of Buddy Holly and would practice beating drums with his fingers on the desk. He had a blond quiff and glasses like Buddy's.

Me? I just thought it was fun. And it is.

Sunday 5 August 2012

On Milieu and Refuge: a sketch, 11

As I said in the last post: 'The first time I wrote anything on Israel on the blog one person wrote to me asking why I hated Muslims.' That is what he would like me to have said so he could cast me out of the ranks of decent people, as an Islamophobe.

Now somebody perfectly nice analyses me as perfectly nice but as someone with 'a sore spot' and wishes me 'healed'. Once healed I would be like others - as normal as herself, I suppose.

Again it is the question of normality. Some are whole, some are less so. The normal keep a kindly eye on the non-normal so they can discount what they are actually saying in the hope that someone will administer medicine to them.

It is Foucauld who uses the image of Bentham's ideal prison, the panopticon, as an image of the central eye of normality: 'The judges of normality are present everywhere. We are in the society of the teacher-judge, the doctor-judge, the educator-judge, the 'social-worker'-judge; it is on them that the universal reign of the normative is based; and each individual, wherever he may find himself, subjects to it his body, his gestures, his behaviour, his aptitudes, his achievements.'

Here is a series of notes in haiku form that first appeared on my Twitter page. The answer to all the questions in the middle is: yes.

The Panopticon
The panopticon / showed the inside of their mouths / where words sat waiting.
The panopticon / considered its own troubles / but dared not speak them.
The panopticon / was like the eye dissected / all humour, all light.
The panopticon / above the open city: / map of illusions.
The panopticon / was its own eyes and ears: deaf, / blind, still curious.
Could any of us / have gazed back, we might have seen / the panopticon.
Could any of us / have heard the faint muttering / of panopticons?
Could any of us / have written the silence of / the panopticon?
Could any of us / have been the panopticon / in the high building?
Could any of us / have climbed into the eye of / the panopticon?
The panopticon / was God of course, smiling down / from his blind tower.
The panopticon / was God, of course, beaming down / on his blind people.
The panopticon / was the magnificat lost / in all the singing.
The panopticon / was whistling Bach to itself, / a fugue of self-praise.
When we broke the glass / of the great panopticon / its eyes kept searching.

The first quotation at the top, about Islamophobia is malevolent. The second is not. But it demonstrates how the rhetoric of normality works.

Saturday 4 August 2012

On milieu and refuge: a sketch, 10

The Lion's Mouth

I have been wondering how to draw together the three or four strands of this series in the hope that the drawing-together might reveal something.

It might reveal something, not exactly in the way of absolute truth, or even in the way of the self, because the self one writes is the result of a negotiation with language in which words are as likely to produces states as states are likely to produce words. It is the interaction that produces what we may think of as personality, or character, or soul, or maybe just a particular mood. Nevertheless it's what we have registered as soul and these very words confirm the act of registering.

We like quick identifications and demand the short cut. It is all but unavoidable that we should do so because life is too short to examine everything in proper detail. One might be aware, for example, that, in writing about Israel, any statement is going to be read by many as a quality of person or soul, which soul will then be consigned to the location convenience dictates.  If X thinks Y, goes the argument, s/he must be of the group Z of which we have opinion Q. The result is that we listen to a few trigger words and leap to the position required in respect of Z and Q. It certainly stops us listening to anything else.

I don't want to be hypocritical about this. I realise I do it myself, but here I am noticing it.


One of the things I noticed about attitudes to Israel is the point at which they changed. As Nicole in the comments column of an earlier post says, and as I myself knew first hand five years later, the common left view in 1967 in the west was that Israel was - in principle at least - an idealistic socialist country, and that the survivors of the Holocaust (which it did not then question, or find boring, or regard as an underhand rhetorical device) had set up a new country in the Negev Desert with only a narrow strip of coast to work on, and that this new state, just nineteen years old then, was surrounded on all sides and threatened with extinction.

After 1973 things were different.  Why?

It might be partly because Israel had not given back the territories it had occupied in the course of war. The West Bank was not annexed but was declared a special occupied area. To have immediately returned it and the Golan Heights would have seemed surprising, as if saying to Israel's enemies: These are the strategically important places from which you, who wanted to push us into the sea, attacked us; here they are, have them back, better luck next time. The settlements have gone on since, not because it was right that they should but, at least in part, for the reasons given in the earlier posting referred to above: perceived strategic vulnerability.

These things may be wrong but they certainly happen and have happened through history:  they are certainly negotiable and redressable, but I sincerely doubt many other countries would have acted very differently under the circumstances.

But it might also have been partly the case, or so it struck me at the time, that after 1973 - the year of the Yom Kippur War when Egypt and Syrian combined against Israel - circumstances changed. They changed primarily as a result of the oil embargo imposed by OPEC that compounded a stock market crash in early 1974 which impacted dramatically on the UK. Edward Heath was Prime Minister and the miners were on strike. Together with the oil embargo that led to the three-day-week, and the defeat of the Tory government. There were IRA bombings.

It may be that the change in attitude to Israel was prompted entirely by the realisation that the left was backing the wrong moral / strategic horse (under the circumstances of the Cold War, the Soviet Union was an ally of the Arab states), but I wondered whether home political conditions played a part. The Munich Olympics murders of 1972 -  that the current games, precisely forty years later, should have been commemorating if only by a simple gesture -  were less of a shock by 1975 than they had originally been.

There was, I admit, a part of me - I was still relatively uninterested in Israel, regarding it as the proverbial small faraway country that had not much to do with me - that wondered whether the oil crisis, combined with the stock market fall, the strikes, the three-day-week, and the IRA bombings, had not led many to conclude that all this was too high a price to pay for Israel and that the oil producing countries were far more important.

It might even be that the great moral outcry might, to some extent, have sprung from economic and strategic considerations. God forbid! It's certainly when the sea-change began.


Public morality is like a tide. Once it begins to roll one way it is all but impossible to stop it. There could only be one victim and only one perpetrator. Positions in such matters become so entrenched in the mind one completely forgets they are positions with a history. They become eternal heroic truths the honourable must not betray.

The Plump, in his comment on my previous post, suggested I had put my head in the lion's mouth. I agreed that it felt like that, while thinking that all I had done was to point to a set of generally recognised facts without beginning to mount an argument. Who or what was the lion that was ready to bite my head off for doing so little? I ask because with this post the lion's mouth remains open and my head is still there.


It is interesting to smell of lion's mouth. I expect I will for a while. I must now be of party Z of whom the opinion must surely be Q.  Or if not quite that, someone to be treated a little gingerly, and maybe avoided for a while until the smell wears off.

The first time I wrote anything on Israel on the blog one person wrote to me asking why I hated Muslims. I pointed out with some astonishment that I hadn't mentioned Muslims or expressed any particular opinion on either Muslims or indeed the Israel/Palestine question and asked him to point to any passage where I had done so. He soon admitted that I hadn't said what he had wanted me to have said but carried on fuming in the certainty that I must have thought it. I told him I was in favour of a two-state solution along agreed lines. He told me he was not. Only one state would do.

(To put the record straight I do not hate, or dislike Muslims. I have no firmer opinion of Muslims than I have of Christians or Jews or Hindus or Buddhists or agnostics or atheists or of any particular ethnic or religious group. They are all, as am I, members of the human race. We talk to each other.)

I know this will sound strange to some but here it is: I am not arguing for the rightness of the actions of the state of Israel in this or that specific case, and certainly not for its infallible rightness (I leave infallibility to Popes). I argue for  Israel's existence in security. I think the lion is wrong.

Some of my dearest friends - still friends - have told me they think Israel's time is up, that it has lost its right to exist. It is on that we disagree.

But that way Z and hence Q and hence the lion's mouth.


I still haven't joined the strands. Still trying. I am thinking that milieu is the complexity I have inherited and to some extent continue to live in and by and that refuge might be a rational, tolerant, liberal England; and that the last refuge might be Israel. For the conceivable future I have ruled Hungary out. Fail again then. Fail better.