Sunday 30 September 2012

Sunday night is...Pussy Riot,
Krasznahorkai and Reggae

Time goes so extraordinarily fast. Yesterday I was writing the introduction to Catechism, the Pussy Riot anthology. I don't have a poem in it but was glad to write the intro when invited. It's a little under 2,000 words, all written fast. I hope it makes sense. Today I changed it a bit according to editorial advice. Nice to have editorial advice - and quite right too.

The case for Pussy Riot is absolutely clear cut and I won't write about it here until the e-book is actually out tomorrow as the idea is to make publication coincide with the date of the appeal against the two year sentence. It will also be a day of protests outside the Russian Embassy. I wish I could be there, but I am teaching my first classes of the year, C has to go for a check up and I am at least three hours away. On Thursday it's Grimsby. On Saturday... well, we'll see.


The rest of the day was spent in expanding an earlier article titled Foreign Laughter about translating Márai and Krasznahorkai that I had written for The Dublin Review so as to include Satantango, so it is now over 8,000 words long. This was on request from Almost Island (India) and Music and Literature. I'm not sure they'll want the lot but it all links up so I'll find out. The Foreign Laughter link takes you to the original article so you must imagine that extended.

Weaving between the two was exhausting and I am still a little tired from the Wymondham Words Festival, about which I promise to write more. But since this is Sunday, I think music is appropriate. Marley and the Wailers. No introduction needed to this. Stir it Up.

Friday 28 September 2012

Helen's People

So much to write about and so little time to write it in at the moment but I will repair that. There is the Wymondham Words Festival to review, there is the matter of new proposed local developments, there was an Ana Maria Pacheco talk, a sudden reques to write an introduction to an anthology in support of Pussy Riot - asked the day before yesterday, one draft completed - and there was the appearance of launch yesterday night at the lovely Book Hive in Norwich,  of In the Land of the Giants, a book of poems for children.

I had only one book for children before, The Red All Over Riddle Book of 1997, published by Faber, which was still selling a few copies fourteen years later.  It consisted of things like this:

Light fingered, invisible
A thief through and through
He’ll steal your hat, he’ll whip your scarf
And your newspaper too.
He’ll hang around street corners
And pounce as you go by
Or hover at your window
And slip in with a sigh.

Nicely illustrated, it was well greeted in a very minor way - Paul Muldoon's children's book came out at the same time - but Faber wound up their children's list soon after, so there was never any chance of a second book.

It was not only Faber but other publishers too were closing their poetry for children lists, at least those with a single author. Books had to be directed towards key stages and were preferably in anthologies, preferably thematic ones. I did contribute to some of these as time went on but I already had a good number of other poems written well before the riddles.

There was a set of about fifty tiny drawings made by our daughter Helen when she was just nine or ten. Here are three of them chosen at random:

I can't quite remember where she made them. It might have been at home or it might have been on one of our longer stays in Budapest in the Eighties. They were extraordinary pieces of characterisation, very sophisticated for her years, each wanting to speak. So I wrote a poem for each of them. It was these I had first offered to Faber, but they turned them down and suggested the riddles instead.

I was stuck with them, but soon enough other series came along without any particular drawing in mind. I continued to write such things and responded to requests to write poems about the elements, the stars, superstititons, acts of wickedness, football and other things. Sometimes one poem sparked off another so I wrote several on a single theme.

I was also asked to translate a number of children's poems from the Hungarian - from Sándor Weöres, Zoltán Zelk, Ottó Orbán and others. Those appeared in another book of 1997, Sheep Don't Go To School, edited by Andew Fusek Peters.

But I had quite given up hope of another children's book until Salt offered me the opportunity to put together a selection. Some twenty of the drawing series, that I had privately referred to as Helen's People, got to be included.

Helen is thirty-six now, married and mother of two. I think she was a little wary of having these early drawings of hers published in a book. What if people thought she had drawn them now? I hope she likes them now. Of the three drawings above only two - the top and the bottom one - made it into the book. Perhaps I will introduce, or end, the next few blogs with one of the unpublished figures and its poem to go with the rest.

meanwhile the poem for the top one (in the book) goes

Plumbing Service

My name is Fred Alcock. 
I've come to fix your ballcock. 

I've brought my spanners and my hammers, 
My stuffers, scrapers, jammers, 
My nippers and my rammers. 

I see you've got some leaks. 
This could take weeks.

Now how did a nine-year old child know it would be like that?

Sunday 23 September 2012

Wymondham Words Festival / National Gallery

Moniza Alvi at the Poetry Busking in the Market Square, 15 September

I haven't been blogging as it has been the Wymondham Words Festival all week, with today (written on Saturday) and tomorrow to go, though I shall be missing most of today as I am in London to do a follow-up workshop on Titian at the National Gallery.

As it turns out there are eighteen female students and only one male. In fact there are only two men in the room, the other being me. My fellow tutor, Frances Leviston, the excellent support from the National Gallery and the Arvon Foundation, are all female. The experience of the group is mixed. Some are writers, some are artists, some have not written poetry at all, some have written books.

But here's an odd thing.

At one point I make a suggestion that the over-intellectualisation or schematisation of a poetic idea may not be productive. It's a general point. I believe it to be the case, but one of the older woman scoffs: That's a man talking.

I am not quite sure what act of misogyny I have committed. If I had said something like, That's a woman talking I'd be eaten alive, like Actaeon. My actual response was: It's a poet talking, and over-intellectualisation is what men are usually accused of.

A little too civilised perhaps. A little too cowed perhaps. The perfect answer would have been: In that case you need take no notice. 

In any case I now understand why there is only one male student.


Then a dash back to Norfolk to arrive just in time for the evening event, the poetry cabaret with Luke Wright, John Osborne, Nathan Penlington and Yanny Mac with music from Librarian Girls. This is a night for the young poets whose core activity is performance - and they are some of the best in the country.

I don't do performance exactly but admire some of those who do and am looking forward to this. And I am right to do so

Very good attendance and a very good show, nice music with lovely voice, ending with Nathan Penlington doing magic and Luke Wright performing some of his work.

Wright is a brilliant performer, at a very professional level beyond the informality of most poetry readings. The poems are virtuosic, funny and inventive, and his timing and balance are spot on. There is definitely a touch of Elvis or Billy Fury on Luke's physical performance, but it remains him entirely: it's his inner Elvis.  I loved it. He could have gone for a long time and I'd still have loved it. The material is excellent and finely honed.

I'll do a complete review of the whole festival as soon as I can, while it's still all fresh in the memory.


It has been a whirlpool of activity and continues to be. Trying to keep up with work is a mad business.

My new children's book, In the Land of the Giants is out now. It looks like this:

It's a lovely small thing with some 80pp. A section of the book consists of picture by daughter Helen, done when she was 9, with the poems I wrote for them. The poems are of all periods. We'll be launching the book next week locally and then again, even more locally. After that we'll do a presentation at The Poetry Cafe on 15 December, with music by the splendid guitarist Andy Kirkham.

Stray thoughts. All will be gathered together in due course.

Sunday 16 September 2012

The Doctor and the Crab

The doctor and the crab is one among the many series of literary experiments I have been conducting on Twitter ever since I have been on it. The question is how far can Twitter's 140 character format serve as a literary form. Can it be liberating? Can it feel free yet disciplined? Can it feel as though it had to be that way and no other? Can it be poetry?

For that reason I have written haiku, distichs, couplets, clerihews, and composed small episodes of various kinds, like Kafkaesque micro-fairytales, humorous anecdotes, philosophical games (if I can dignify them in such a way) and poetic conditions or prose poems. The imagination creates a location and immediately has to shape it. That is the poetry.

The current series involves the doctor (who has appeared in a number of my earlier efforts) and a crab. The starting point was a tweet by the poet Magda Kapa, to which I answered as below, and to which another contributor, Nox, added a remark. That's enough. This is the series so far. The italicised passages are mine.

Magda Kapa: North Sea Crabs for breakfast, North Sea Crabs for lunch, North Sea Crabs for ever!
  • GS: Why not just dangle off the end of Cromer pier and become a crab? 
Nox: If Thomas Bernhard and Bruno Schulz had a progeny, this is the story he/she would write!  [And so I wrote of course....]:
  • The desire to write a novel in persona of a Cromer crab is not to be lightly entertained, remarked the doctor, pushing aside the flounder.  
  • How muscular do you consider a crab to be? demanded the doctor, glancing up at the stormy sky. We haven't much time! Hurry!  
  • The doctor removed his crab-shaped ring, laid it on the table and watched incredulously as it began to move towards the salt cellar. 
  • I will never countenance crab sandwiches, the doctor declared. To me crabs are souls. See this carapace? he asked. I too am carapace.  
  • It was when the doctor started moving sideways along the beach that the crabs came to him in the rain with a fearsome clacking of claws.  
  • Now I too am a crab, thought the doctor. Now I too move sideways. The sea put out a long tongue and the sand slipped beneath his claws.  
  • In my early life as a crab, wrote the doctor, it was the rotten sex smell of the sea that nearly did for me. No therapists in the North Sea.  
  • It just didn't feel right at first, wrote the doctor. I mean a crab is just a crab to begin with. Those crazy eyes! But then it gets to you.  
  • After a while you begin to think like a crab, said the doctor. Edward de Bono with claws. Everything is lateral. Everything is salty.

The temptation for some readers is to identify the doctor with the writer, which is an alluring but unproductive line to take unless the reader is a psychoanalyst / therapist by inclination or profession, seeking to discover symptoms of some given personal condition in phrases like 'the rotten sex smell of the sea'. There is nothing to stop the reader reading in that fashion, but it is as well to remember that the imagination is not entirely circumscribed by the  writer's condition. The balance between memory, observation and imagination is complicated. Besides, I have already invented my own absent therapist in the piece itself.

In this case, for example, both doctor and crab are aspects of the imagination. The imagination is not preoccupied with the condition of the imaginer, but runs around playing, seeing what else is possible to feel at depth. That is important because the position of the imaginer has to remain free and unfettered by ideas about himself / herself. So one may imagine oneself in the doctor's position all the better because one is neither doctor nor crab, and  it is worth remembering that the imaginer might well have said something completely different. The imager is not concerned with solving his own problems, should he even perceive them as problems, because any solution would be the answer to a spurious question. The question is not self, but the world.

Sunday night is Rostropovich playing Shostakovich

Concerto No. 1 for Violoncello in E-flat major, Op. 107 by Dmitri Shostakovich
Written in 1959. Performed by Mstislav Rostropovich, 1967

I. Allegretto  II. Moderato  III. Cadenza  IV. Allegro con moto

If there is a soundtrack to mid 20C European history it must surely be composed by Dmitri Shostakovich. The heroic grimness, the survival or otherwise, the sense of crawling through dark tunnels in hope of light. It is not descriptive music but it speaks to that condition. Here's the Good Music Guide link.

Bit dark for a sunny Sunday afternoon in Autumn? Never mind. Let's get on with it.

Friday 14 September 2012

The Wolf Reader

The Wolf Reader
for Marilyn Hacker

There were the books, and wolves were in the books.
They roamed between the words. They snarled and loped
through stories with bedraggled wolfish looks

at which the hackles rose and the world stopped
in horror, and she read them because she knew
the pleasures of reading, the page too being rapt

with the magic of the fierce, and she could do
the talk of such creatures. So one sunny day
when teacher asked if there were any who

could read, she rose as if the task were play,
to claim the story where she felt at home.
The tale was Riding Hood, the wolf was grey.

The fierceness was the wood where grey wolves roam.
She read it round, she read it through and through.
It was as if the wolf were hers to comb,

like those bedraggled creatures in the zoo
that, trapped behind the bars, would snarl and stride
as you’d expect a page or wolf to do.

Tuesday 11 September 2012

Out of the mouths of idiots...

I can't quite resist this, it having been passed on to me by one of my lovely Hungarian Facebook friends. First the Hungarian:

Annyira szépen beszélt a miniszterelnök úr tegnap a parlamentben az új magyar államrendszerről. Tényleg csak az új családmodell fölvázolása hiányzott. Szerencse,hogy Varga képviselő úr fölvilágosítást nyújtott…

talán az anyáknak vissza kéne térniük a gyereknevelés mellé, szülni két-három vagy inkább négy-öt gyereket, és akkor lenne értelme annak, hogy jobban megbecsülnék egymást, és fel sem merülhetne a családon belüli erőszak…”

…majd ha mindenki megszülte a maga két-három vagy négy gyerekét, akkor mehet önmegvalósítani meg emancipálódni…”

The Prime Minister made such a lovely speech about the new constitution yesterday in Parliament. Really, the only thing missing was a plan for the new model family. Fortunately Representative Varga [of the governing party, Fidesz] was on hand to offer enlightenment in this respect too. 
...maybe mothers should go back to child-rearing, have two or three, or preferably four or five children, then there would be a reason for us to respect each other better and there would be no more domestic violence...

...and then, once everyone
[every woman, that is] has had her two or three, or four children, then she could seek to realise her gifts and find emancipation..

So now you know, girls. Forget about careers, forget about everything. Four or five children are the least the country expects. That will put an end to domestic violence and everyone will get on so much better.

But why stop at four or five. Go for double figures!

Judging Translations

Stephen Spender

I am talking primarily about judging translations of poetry rather than prose fiction.

I was one of the judges of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2004 but that was quite different because the balance between judging the work and its translation was - is, I think - tilted towards judging the work as you perceive it through the translation.

And you can do this reasonably well, because even when a great novel is merely adequately translated the main outlines of the work are still visible. The novel's structure, treatment of plot, character, level of psychological perception, and so forth, will not be altogether obscured by a reasonable if uninspired translation. On the other hand the translation is the grace note that can raise a book to an even higher level. That is the point of effectiveness on which the prize is judged. However, a brilliant translation of a bad novel still remains a bad novel.

In poetry, though, so much is invested in language that it needs more than competence to leave the reader with any sense of the poem's nature and scope. The translator's art is far more conspicuous. Baudelaire's Edgar Allan Poe is a greater poet in French - it is often said by English language readers - than he is in the original English.


My thoughts here are prompted by being part of the panel judging the Stephen Spender Prize over the last few years. (It might be my time to retire now).  As concerns the Open category, it was the finest year yet in my experience. Other judges said the same.

There is, of course, an immediate problem. There are far more languages being translated than lie in any particularly panel's competence to judge. A smattering of a language won't do. At least one of the judges has to be able to feel in the other language too.  The trouble is four judges are not going to have all the translated languages between them. But then the juries are not there to judge of philology or linguistics, unless these seem to be particularly problematic in something that seems convincing otherwise. When in doubt, any translation of an original poem in an unknown language can be sent out to a language specialist for advice.

These are some of the broad categories of attractive translations received. I am assuming French, German, Spanish, and Italian to be the core European languages, but also Latin according to education chances. Less so Ancient Greek:

1. Virtuosic translations of justly famous formal poems in one of the core European languages

2. Ditto of lesser known formal poems by famous poets in one of the core European languages.

3. Skilful translations of any poem from any language, the original poem clearly requiring a high level of formal or other skill

3. Translations that in some way re-interpret, possibly update, a historical poem in an archaic language, or an older form of a current language including English.

4. Translations that render a lively narrative in a historic or archaic language as above, by subtle use of rhythm and register

5. Translations that manage to render recognised complexities in any language by way of invention or skill

6. Translations that manage to render assumed complexities in any language not known to the panel

7. Translations that effectively render the simplicity or clarity of language in a first-rate poem that is chiefly dependent on narrative.

8. Translations that take some liberties with the original but produce outstanding poems that point directly to the original and would not exist without it.

9. Skilful translations of poems in lesser known, or possibly minority languages anywhere that are interesting, or even important in broadening the field of appreciation

10. The utterly unknown that we only know by translation, but which blows us away by its sheer beauty or energy.

I may be missing some other aspects but that covers most of it.  Ten seems far too convenient a number. There are, of course, differences of age, experience, education, and between translators whose original language is that of the poem and translators who are translating into their native language. We don't have any such information at the time of reading, except that some of the translators were in the 14-and-under category, some were aged between 14 and 18, and the rest were over 18. These three distinct groups have their own competitions and prizes.

I stress it is entirely my list of categories. I made it up. It does not exist as any form of guideline. Not that it would help if it were a guideline. Nevertheless it is interesting to see the various birds of various feathers, the various forms of the cloud of unknowing we face.

The difficulty is in comparing a fine example of any one category with a fine example of another category. Judging is very hard and likely to be swayed by the firm opinions of other judges: at the same time, any one of the judges could suddenly see something they hadn't seen before.


In the end my gut feeling is that it is a gut feeling about the English language poem in front of the panel that decides it.

My personal gut feeling is that, in the end, it has to be apprehended as a first-rate poem in itself, so you say: This is a marvellous poem, and then think: Ah, it has an original that resembles it this way and that.

My personal gut feeling is that it's cloud on cloud, mounting.

Sunday 9 September 2012

Sunday Night is ...Britten's Four Sea Interludes

All four Interludes from 'Peter Grimes', performed by 
the Cincinatti Symphony Orchestra,  Conductor: Paavo Järvi

Today we went down to the sea at Winterton with our daughter, Helen, and her two children, Marlie and Lukas. Marlie is not yet two and a half, Lukas is just eight months old and teething. Rich, Helen's husband was busy putting up an exhibition in Norwich that opens tomorrow.

Winterton is familiar to us. It has been a habit  for usto go there with friends on New Year's Day and walk along the beach to see the baby seals. It's a long, wide beach and almost empty in the winter but for people exercising their dogs. Today it was hot by British standards at 29C - the last hot day of the season we are told - so there were plenty of people taking advantage, lying behind windbreaks, having picnics.

Marlie is at a delightful age when she is constantly talking and forming long sentences - apparently she greeted her parents this morning with the phrase: 'Good morning you lovely people'.  The last time she saw the sea was in October, so I was assuming her excitement at seeing it now would have increased along with her ability to respond to the world in ever more complex language.

We set up our own windbreak - there was a very strong wind -  then I walked Marlie down to the sea itself. We stopped just before the flat shiny part at the very edge and she just looked. We took another tentative step or two on to the wet sand and stopped again. I could see she was thinking, and for a moment or two I thought she was going to cry. I took a further step in and let the flat curl of cool water tickle my feet. She felt a little bit too.

She wasn't sure whether this was fun or something else. Then she announced she was scared. There were people swimming in the water and a little boy ran into it. There was nothing intrinsically frightening about the scene, but her imagination had kicked in. The size, the idea, the sense, the vague concept of the vast thing in front of her must have stirred something. So we walked back up to the top of the beach.

Later she went down again, once with Helen and I, then once with Clarissa, but the wariness was still there. On the way home she chattered away quite happily.

It is fascinating how a child responds to what she doesn't yet know, and maybe cannot understand. What is 'big' to her? What is danger? What is the sea?

The sun beat down the whole day.

Britten's Sea Interludes were a natural choice, with that wonderful Dawn opening. I liked the Bernstein version best but that is one interlude at a time, this does all four. This is the fearsome sea of course, ending with a storm.

Saturday 8 September 2012

Golden Dawn, Dark Sky

A friend has posted this in despair on my FB page. The text is by Yorgos Mitralios of the Committee for Abolition of Third World Debt

Dear Comrades,

A survey published yesterday (7/9/2012) confirms the continuous rise of the Golden Dawn neo-nazis. They are credited with 12% of vote intentions far ahead of the PASOK (7.5%) and other minor parties (the Democratic Left would obtain 4% and the Communist Party 6%). Syriza comes first with 30% ahead of New Democracy - credited with 28%. Nobody can pretend anymore that Golden Dawn is a "temporary phenomenon" and that there is no direct threat to workers movements and the left.

Indeed, a common misconception regarding the nature of Golden Dawn needs to be debunked. Golden Dawn has absolutely nothing in common with the French National Front of the Le Pen family, nor with Vlamms Belang in Belgium, nor even with any far right party of the post-1945 Europe. Golden Dawn is already publicly undertaking the physical liquidation of immigrants, gypsies, national minorities (notably the Turcs of Thrace), homosexuals and militants of the left. The constant aggressions are following one another and dead corpses are accumulating.

As for the ideology of Golden Dawn, here is a "testimony" which speaks for itself: the neonazi deputy (!) Artemios Matheopoulos, bassist of a band named "Pogrom" (!), has composed songs with "eloquent" lyrics. Here is a sample - a song called "Auschwitz":

Fuck Wiesenthal  / fuck Anna Frank / fuck Abraham's race / David's Star makes me puke / ah, Auschwitz how I love you! / You, shit Jews, / I will not leave you on the Wailing Wall, / I will rather piss on you / juden Raus! / I am burning in Auschwitz...

So Comrades, will we remain spectators to the repetition of the 1920s and 1930s European tragedy? Will we -at last - mobilize in a unitary anti-fascist mass struggle on a continental scale? And do not forget: time is desperately pressing.

Antifascist salutations,

Yorgos Mitralias

Just a couple of boxes down someone else, had posted this link from the magazine Business Insider, where the author suggests that the current Hungarian government is making a heroic stand against Monsanto and the IMF. The commenter prefaces it with:

An interesting article. I know that none of us support the anti-Semitism in Hungary. I do, however, support their stance regarding Monsanto and the IMF. What I find so disturbing in this article is the collaboration between our diplomats and Monsanto as revealed by Wikileaks.

My response to that, slightly extended here:

This is a rather one-sided article. The constitution has been completely changed to ensure the dominance of Fidesz long beyond the next elections. The retirement age of judges was lowered so the government could appoint its own supporters. The govenment has placed its supporters in every possible centre of power including the arts. It has tried to rewrite history for schools and to rehabilitate not only Admiral Horthy, but some Hungarian Nazis of the 30s and 40s. It brought in over 350 new laws in its first year, with hardly any scrutiny of any of them. It has brought in laws that threaten press independence... I could go on.

Fidesz is not a bunch of socialist anti-capitalist heroes - it's a right wing nationalist government, moving ever further right. Fidesz is Hungary's version of UKIP but with a much nastier wing, merging into the fascist party, Jobbik

Prime Minister Orbán's moves have been primarily fuelled by the need to big up Hungarian pride, independence and to draw electoral benefit from the national yearning to re-establish a Greater Hungary in the Pre-Trianon territories.

The withholding of financial benefits is one way the EU tries to hold the government to account. Orbán rubbishes the EU, of course when it suits him (chiefly at home).

I, for one, am not going to support this government just because of its attitude on Monsanto.

Under the heading of the letter from Greece, I add, and want to add here too, the following:

This is a complex situation that varies from country to country, in which the one common factor is a withdrawal from the sphere of the international and global (with both its faults and virtues) into a much tighter, aggressive tribal sphere.

In the aftermath of the near-collapse of the Euro and the credit system, which is related to, but is not the same as, the pooling of values represented by the EU at its best - an internationalism that, for all its faults, brought a high degree of luxury to a good number in societies (the wealth of Greece and Ireland), that resulted in ease of travel and trade, and a degree of security from the likelihood of conflict in Europe at least - the loss of security has brought about what it always does: an assertion of the tribe against the outsider, and of the local against the international.

This has resulted - to various degrees, in various places - in an extreme xenophobic nationalism in which the old international taboos are deliberately broken.

It is a confusing situation because there are conflicting values within the international and global sphere, the issue of the venal effects of capital on one side versus the civilising effects of international agreements that are bound within the same economic network.

When both finance and consensus break down, this is the kind of result we may expect to see. And it has to be fought on the basis of the best consensus of values we can manage.


Just how far are the strands of the international financial system tangled up with what we - at least most of us - consider to be a fallible but generally working system of social values, manners, and rights?

What is the consensus we may agree on in a climate where the clock is being turned back to the thirties so violently that parts of our own world are already living there?

Thursday 6 September 2012

I and the Institutions

'I' go into UEA this morning. 'I' pick up MA to mark, 'I' deliver things, 'I' talk over things. 'I' meet people.

That's five statements with an I at the front of them. I must be thinking about what I do. In fact I am, so this is a somewhat 'I' based post. Indulge me: it's that kind of thinking. I won't do it again for a long time. But maybe you do something like this too?

I am thinking primarily about institutions, and myself in institutions. It's strange leading an institutional life. I have been a half-time member of staff at various places since 1988 which is what I have preferred. Why have I preferred it that way?

It may be that I am not really an institutional kind of man. I have never had an ounce of institutional ambition. I never wanted a career in that sense. I have done things when asked, and have run a number of things without any certainty that I was the right person for it.

The mechanics of institutions are demanding. They are not quite the same as jobs. They are a kind of organism.

I taught full-time in schools between 1975 and 1988, as head of two different departments at two very different schools, but I always felt I was doing it with half my mind, and was always relieved when things went well. I don't suppose I ever did it for the greater glory of the institution: I did it because I taught people and because they depended on me and I wanted to do as right by them as I could. The organism went on much as it always did.

I probably rationalised that it was healthy to keep half a mind on other things, whatever the main thing was. In my case the other thing was the main thing: it was writing. And maybe it was good not to set all my mind on writing. Sometimes I wondered whether I had such a thing as a whole, undivided mind. I still do. The mind is itself a rather strange organism, but an organism that is not, in my case, very much like an institution.

It needs luck to be able to survive like this, and I have had luck, more than I deserve. So I went to the art school in Norwich when invited to write a course. I had never written a course in my life and hadn't been on the staff of any institution of higher education, but I wrote the course went there to teach it.

It made a great change from school. At school one had to be a responsible adult. At art school one had to be a responsible teacher. Having gone to art school myself I loved the ambience of the place. Little by little the course built and became an extraordinary thing. I am not sure how that happened. It involved my colleagues, I am sure of that, but it was something to be proud of, and a little dizzy about. It hadn't seemed difficult planning and delivering courses. It was an anxious kind of fun. In fact it was like a fun fair tolerated by the institution.

Meanwhile the other life went on, rushing ahead, dashing off in all kinds of directions, which was lucky for me as I have a short attention span. It is a deeply intense attention span but it is rarely long. All my life it has gone on in sprints.

The art school changed as an institution - not that I ever thought about the institutional aspect of it very much but I couldn't help feeling things and noticing things. The institution turned a little fraught and dour: it lost something of its messy joy. Then I was invited to apply for a post at another institution: a university.

And here I am three-quarters of the way through the normal expectation of a life, at this other institution which is still just an institution, albeit a big institution, one the size of a proper concept, and I'm still not wholly there.  I still don't care about a proper career yet I have survived and perhaps even prospered. I have enjoyed the kinds of happines an institution can offer to those who have never quite become a full part of the institution, the happiness of human contact, of floating ideas and feelings, of learning about language and how it passes between us.

Occasionally - quite frequently in fact - I have felt guilty for not quite being of the institution. That guilt could be tiring. But then I reasoned that the only reason the institution wanted me there was because of what I did outside the institution, because I could be faintly feral in a well-mannered, considerate, quite gentle kind of way.

So one thinks these things over. What will this great 'I' of oneself be best fitted to do with what time is left to it?

Hence all these 'I's in this Exemplary Life, 'I's watching each other with a degree of animated interest. What will 'I' do next? 'I' must think about it like a responsible adult.

Tuesday 4 September 2012

Apologia or Unapologetic

Francis Spufford

Listening through to the BBC Radio Four programme with Richard Dawkins this morning I couldn't help thinking of the nature of the evidence he demanded for religion. I began making notes to the effect that:

The problem with Dawkins's notion of scientific evidence is that most of life is not in the scientifically evidentiary field but elsewhere, eg individual psychology, social psychology, society at large and the influence of different experiences on different people.

Demanding evidence of love, or even friendship, or of the true impact of events is generally thought to be unrealistic. It is a kind of stupidity to think that religion is dependent on physical propositions about the world. Only stupid religion is dependent on such things.

Thinking on a little further:

This is not to claim that religious dictats should be taken seriously. On the contrary they should be resisted with a general scepticism. I am not really interested in the claims of religion as such - I am concerned with the integrity and unknowableness of people's perceptions of the world. To allow people these perceptions is not to concede that their perceptions are right, only to allow for the possibility that their conditions and perceptions are not of exactly the same kind as concern the field of scientific study.

These thoughts being out in the open, via Facebook, there were plenty of interesting replies. The day before I had read Max Dunbar's piece on Francis Spufford's Guardian critique of the atheist line, or rather its vulgar version.

Having done so, I thought the only fair thing was to read Spufford for myself, so I downloaded his book, Unapologetic, from which the Guardian piece was taken, and quickly read it. Here are my notes, which are simply notes:

The book, though in more chapters, consists of essentially three parts: 1) The nature of religious experience, 2) Yeshua - Jesus as God incarnate, 3) The Church.

The whole reads like an intelligent sermon, in matey sermon tones. I don't much like the tone though I can see why he adopts it. He is clearly a smart, deep-feeling, well-read writer bending over backwards to make his case.

He calls the book Unapologetic and claims it is not an apologia, but that is what it really is. The apologia is primarily addressing the average Guardian-reading, liberal-left sceptic. Leave out the Guardian some of the time and he's in my back garden.

The problem - and I do think it is a problem - is the join between the three parts. You can practically hear him take a deep breath each time, preparing to jump. Parts 1 and 2 and 3 don't follow each other on grounds of necessity: they follow the historical trajectory.

How does it work?

Part one asserts the nature of the experience. It's an existentialist defence. Faith is nothing to do with science or verifiability, he asserts. It is an unverifiable experience. I understand the position and more or less hold it myself. The only trouble with the long list of caricatures of the broadly Christian position he starts with - and which formed half of his Guardian piece - is that they are not without foundation, being based on realities, in so far as the Church has claimed authority on precisely such grounds, and worshippers have resorted to real versions of them. In other words, the caricature isn't made up: like all caricatures it is an exaggerated version of reality.

Part two is very good at carrying us through a version of Christ's mission as intended to appeal to a modern reader. It lays out a parallel existential figure that opposes institutions, including the institution of the self. It embodies the absoluteness of the God of Everything. If Spufford cannot precisely define incarnation he at least offers a model of how it might take form in a historical sense. This is more or less the way I have always understood the story of Jesus which - he tells us this quite clearly - is to be imagined as a story, albeit in real history. There is a show of Biblical scholarship here, Paul's Letters predating the Gospels etc. The defence hinges on imagination - if we can imagine the real figure of Yeshua in visionary terms, he argues, we may go on to understand him as incarnation.

Part three - a spectacularly big jump from anti-institutional Christ to a full-blown institution - is spent in admitting the mistakes and barbarities of the Church while declaring them to be common human faults. He disagrees that the Church is primarily, or uniquely, responsible for various evils, and makes a reasonable fist of the case by pointing out the church's good acts (good by our lights) as well as admitting its bad ones. He then zooms in on the significance of the mass / eucharist / communion experience and takes a CoE ecumenical position regarding the various branches of the Church. This is a bit wishy-washy. He takes on the big political evils and, as a socialist, the idea ofconservatism with a small c. 

In the end he doesn't really address the caricature charges: instead he provides a reading of Christianity that might exist independently of them, as something serious one might consider without extraneous noise. Again, the trouble is that, loud as it is, ithe noise isn't entirely extraneous. If the Church is just another human institution riddled with faults, why is it special? How does it claim authority? And he does tuck away the more awkward parts of the Bible to concentrate on the agreeably challenging passages.

So these are the notes. Why, I wonder, am I trying to address this question at all. Maybe because I find Dawkins a bit juvenile, almost infantile at times. One commenter quoted a Dawkins tweet on the newly appealed case of the nurse forbidden to wear a cross around her neck while on duty:

"Such fun being a victim. Waaaah, I'm allowed to wear my crossywoss only INSIDE my BA uniform, where only God can see it."

Reading that I can't help thinking: Why is a grown-up intelligent  man behaving like a prep-school prat?

Monday 3 September 2012

L'Esprit de l'Escalier

I have recorded the poem for the readers of The Drawbridge to accompany my article of the same name. Please click on the link for the reading. The text of the poem (from New and Collected Poems, 2008) is below.

L'Esprit de l'Escalier (spoken)

Esprit d’Escalier

Suddenly there we all were, talking together
but not to each other. It might have been I
who had started it, muttering as I do
to myself, or rather to a figure to whom
I have something to say in the manner known
as l’esprit de l’escalier, that ghostly meeting

on the staircase with a person already past meeting
for whom we now have an altogether
brilliant answer, one we have always known
but had failed to produce when required. And now, I
and the others were talking, all of us, to whom
it would finally concern us to talk to, as we do

each day on the bus, knowing just what to do
and to say at this and every other such meeting.
There were friends, fears, ghosts, and past selves whom
each of us had to answer, all of us speaking together
every which one a distinct and separate I
in a world where everything has always been known.

The air was packed solid with voices we had once known
or were ours, it was hard to tell which, for how do
you tell the inner from the outer, or distinguish the I
from the not-quite-I? And soon each intimate meeting
had spilled onto the street, all voices singing together
to make one thundering chorus, each who with its whom,

in doorways, on staircases, singing to whom-
soever could hear and respond to the known-or-unknown
harmonies we were producing as if we were together.
We were ghosts. We were dead. There was little to do
but to listen and sing and be dead and be meeting
each ghost on its staircase. And so it was I

myself spoke to the dead ones within me since I
was their only voice, the lost hum of their whom.
It was crazy this sound, the music of meeting
all of them now, there on the bus, having known
only the steps to the top deck, knowing what to do
only in emergencies when we’re all thrown together

and have to make do as we are, no matter with whom
we travel or have known, these voices with their I,
their you, their singing together at each and every meeting.

Sunday 2 September 2012

More on fascism and anti-semitism in Hungary

Back in June, Elie Wiesel returned a Hungarian prize in protest at the attendance of top Hungarian officials at the reburial of fascist writer, József Nyirő , a story I had featured before, more than once. He did so by writing to the Hungarian Speaker of Parliament who had attended the ceremony, László Kövér.

That's a lot of links, but it made the government look bad. Now the weekly, government-supporting magazine, Heti Válasz (Weekly Anwer - link to English language version, worth having a check through) has a fine riposte to the insult. Three whole pages of anti-semitic views are culled from the greats of world and Hungarian politics and culture, some of them - granted - rather old, but famous enough. Here are two of the pages.

The third page came to me in PDF form and I can't upload it but it doesn't matter, you'll get the idea.

What are these snippets with the sources in red?

We begin with Winston Churchill in The Illustrated Sunday Herald in 1920, in which he tells how every negative movement, from the 19C onwards was fomented in the underworld of European cities or America, and that the 'persons' behind these movements, who now had the Russian people by the throat and had become their undisputed masters, were the same as those who played the 'same satanic role that Jews played in Hungary under Béla Kún's rule of terror.' (That's the Bolshevik Red Terror. He doesn't mention Horthy's White Terror that immediately followed.)

From Churchill we move to Roald Dahl who tells us it was not without reason that Hitler hated Jews.

We move through Bill Clinton (an odd choice as he says nothing about Jews, but makes a remark about Obama). Then we have T S Eliot in 1934 on the undesirability of too many free thinking Jews. Henry Ford proclaims how all the ills of America are down to Jews. We get Bobby Fischer talking about the murderous bandit state of Israel and its chief supporter, Jew-run America (some of our own left will recognise themselves here).

There are major Hungarian figures like the national hero, celebrated by the Communists and socialists, Endre Bajcsy-Zsilinszky, back in 1919, blaming the 'foreigners of Hungary' (guess who?) for the misery of the Hungarian nation; the poet Gyula Illyés who is quoted chiefly because he denies Jewish intellectual superiority; the poet and novelist Dezsö Kosztolányi accusing the Jewish George Lukács and Béla Balázs (the writer of the libretto of Bluebeard's Castle) of exercising 'racial tyranny', the writer Sándor Márai saying he has no problem with Jews it's just that some of the most awful people he has met were Jews; Zsigmond Móricz the novelist (in 1919) swearing that Jews have - or ought to have - a characteristic smell that makes people feel distinctly ill; the writer László Németh comparing the revenge thirsty Jews to Shylock in 1943, and Jean-Luc Godard comparing Golda Meir to Hitler. Heidegger is there for no other reason than to celebrate the free choice of the German people in electing the Führer. Ezra Pound comments on the Jews' wormlike capacity to turn everything they touch to rot and decay, George Bernard Shaw on the true enemy of the people: the Jew.  There are others I haven't quoted. How could I forget Franz Liszt?

In between these thirty items there is a sprinkling (four) of comments by Jews in which they talk of  Hungarian inferiority, or express a general hatred of Hungarians, ending with Wiesel himself talking about Jewish hatred of Germans. In between are four quotations that have nothing to do with Jews or Hungarians but in which those who might be assumed to have some sympathy for Jews show racial contempt for other races, including - clever touch this - black people or Palestinians.

In case anyone is interested, the score is 22-8 if I have counted properly, but the eight are also intended for anti-Semitic use.

And so you have a respectable government-supporting conservative paper giving over three pages to foment Jew hatred.

And the role and opinion of the Fidesz government?

If you have the stomach for it  here is another story earlier last month. about a big far right music festival. Note the picture of the badges available at the festival at the top of this post and see who they celebrate. One says Dachau Fried Jews. But there's plenty of choice.