Thursday 29 November 2012

One funeral, one birthday

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

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

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

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

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

Except time and friends, and now Win.


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

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


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

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

Sunday 25 November 2012

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

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

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

Pete Morgan bass; Chris Karan drums.

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

Friday 23 November 2012


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Disestablishmentarianism opposed to Antidisestablishmentarianism. Bring back the long words.

Tuesday 20 November 2012

Winnie's death: some days of silence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Photograph in Old Age

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

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

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

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

without any desire to keep track of the amount.

Wednesday 14 November 2012

Long days, short nights

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

She recovered this time too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Sunday 11 November 2012

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

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

And here is the Wiki account of her death:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday 9 November 2012

A Blog Ending with The Sunlight on the Garden

A whole week has almost gone by. Where has it gone? On Monday I was in London at the House of Lords to celebrate Norwich's new UNESCO City of Literature status. First there were photographs and walkabouts, then the party itself, some 140 people, some of them familiar, some friends.  Speeches from Baroness Hollis and Chris Gribble, then nibbles and conversation, writers, editors, poets, politicians, (Jeffrey Archer in there somewhere), the Thames behind, the day bright and walking back to the station with Sam Jordison talking forgotten American writers, home lateish and tired.

Next day to Warwick Arts Centre, first rushing to finish work and reply to emails. Clarissa and I driving through rain, arriving early, eating, meeting Jane from Wordsmith. Into the theatre, getting mic-ed up, saying hello to fellow performers Elizabeth Charis, Daniel Sluman and later Polarbear, with Angela France doing the conversations on a sofa, me reading partly from my Kindle and David Morley present, and it's all fine with a nice review here, then back to Coventry to the hotel and next morning driving in sunshine back to Norwich in time for the wedding at which I read Louis Macneice's wonderful The Sunlight on the Garden as the one single reading of the ceremony. Some photos with confetti and a long lingering lunch, then exhaustion and sleep and waking too late to go out and hear Pat Barker talk at UEA or a visitor talk about Francis Webb.

Because next day, yesterday, early to university for a full day of postponed tutorials and the MA class, and I stay to have a drink with them, talking Norfolk and karaoke and history and The Singing Postman, before coming home late and collapsing again but still answering emails and reading people's work and trying to satisfy requests.

And today waking a little late for once, with more work in the morning before dashing off to Norwich to have coffee with Norwich-based Hungarian theatre director Adina Levay to talk about a project involving two Hungarian, two Austrian and two English plays in March, one of the Hungarian plays by Virág Erdös whose poems I know and have translated some. This is in Frank's Bar which is as arty a cafe as you'll find in the city so just sitting there for fifteen minutes will turn you into Gerard de Nerval. And we talk Hungarian politics and the Újszinház (or New Theatre) where she used to work and which was then handed over to the fascists by the current mayor of Budapest. Then home again where we find out that Clarissa's mother has taken a turn for the worse and we are wanted, which ruins plans for tomorrow for the UEA London conference and a good friend's fiftieth birthday party, all that gone by the board.

I can't remember when I last had two days to myself in a row, and even when I had a day I have been busily fulfilling promises and obligations to others. Time on my own reading and writing has been counted in minutes, the rest in days, weeks.

Here is the wonderful Macneice poem that makes sense of absolutely everything.

The Sunlight on the Garden  

The sunlight on the garden
Hardens and grows cold,
We cannot cage the minute
Within its nets of gold,
When all is told
We cannot beg for pardon.

Our freedom as free lances
Advances towards its end;
The earth compels, upon it
Sonnets and birds descend;
And soon, my friend,
We shall have no time for dances.

The sky was good for flying
Defying the church bells
And every evil iron
Siren and what it tells:
The earth compels,
We are dying, Egypt, dying

And not expecting pardon,
Hardened in heart anew,
But glad to have sat under
Thunder and rain with you,
And grateful too
For sunlight on the garden.

Monday 5 November 2012


A photo portrait of Clarissa I took on the iPhone January 2011 in a hotel room in London at the time of the T S Eliot Prize giving.

I love the way light can hold a face and make it look radiant. It was the secret of Caravaggio, Georges de la Tour and Rembrandt. Faces became a source of light through reflection. They shone.

Darkness is the other half of the equation, of course. The act of leaning forward from darkness into light is a metaphor for moving from the unknown into the almost knowable. Sometimes I think we know next to nothing. And that is, in some ways, a comfort. Full knowledge is pitiless and absolute.  It bleaches us out and reduces us to precise wave patterns that can do perfectly well without us. Our obligation as poets to verbal precision is like a very distant trumpet heard through mist.

Clarissa is almost exactly 62 here, though you wouldn't know it.  Sometimes youth transfuses a face. It takes it over, fills it out, runs over, speaks for it, moves before it like music.


Tomorrow I am at the Warwick Arts Centre reading for Wordsmiths & Co with younger poets like Polar Bear,  Dan Sluman and Elizabeth Charis. It should be great fun. I really look forward to it. Clarissa and I will drive up together and hasten back the next morning for a wedding, at 11:00.

And I will continue with the sports Furies later this week.

Sunday 4 November 2012

Sunday Night... is Sealed with a Kiss

Brian Hyland, 1962

One of a series of sonnets on old YouTube clips. So far there are poems on Tommy James and the Shondells, Traffic, The Righteous Brothers, and The Springfields. 

This is Brian Hyland. The Tommy James poem, Mony, Mony, has already been up on here and will be included in Bad Machine (due 24 January 2013)

                         Sealed With a Kiss  
We were always beautiful. always. when we wrote
each other it was our beauty we were committing
to paper, a beauty composed of forgetting.
it was beauty that caught us, that set us afloat
on the great painted sea of our disasters.
it was beauty that moved us against the tide
of dead water, that slowly pushed us aside
and beached us. here we met the masters
of our fortunes: time, separation, space
with its inevitable music, the lost boys
of the movies, the sweatered girls, the slow
ring of dancers moving to white noise,
the simple sadnesses of hand and face,
the loss of the sealed kiss, the long hard blow.

The Furies: The Mark Clattenburg Moment 2

On the face of it it does seem rather convenient that the club most recently in the press for racism should level the same charge at an official that has upset them.

It may be possible to wreak immediate vengeance on a referee for giving bad decisions (yes, they were bad decisions). It may be a way of warning referees off future bad decisions.

It may be that in the heat of the moment such possibilities arise unconsciously yet be looked for.

It may be there is a misunderstanding. It may be nothing has happened (one of the players withdrew the charge almost immediately).

It may be that Clattenburg was himself was so het up he resorted to racial slurs. With his experience and in the current heated circumstances, it seems unlikely, but it's possible.

It may be that Clattenburg is a racist in this sense.

Anything may be. For a referee, more than for a player, it is a very serious charge that may end their career.

How far you believe any of the above possibilities might depend on where you stand vis-a-vis the two teams involved. Or a third team that is uninvolved but with a particular like or dislike.


Hyperbole is the standard mode of discourse in sport. I am looking at The Guardian's minute-by-minute account of the match. In it the reporter, Scott Murray, who is neither better or worse than most Guardian sports reporters, employs the following vocabulary throughout: clowning, egregious, eejit, risible, horrendous, snoozing, aimless, appaling, preposterous, faffs, woeful, impotent, clumpish, inept, dismal.

The reporting, in itself, is neither risible, nor egregious. It is, in some respects, an example of what Reader's Digest used to call, Toward More Picturesque Speech.  That mixture of the posh schoolmasterly report (egregious, risible) and the streetwise (faffs, eejit) is a Guardian specialty, the slightly patronising cream on top of some bitter dregs composed of less picturesque, more limited language it thinks it is rising above. It works. It's what The Guardian reader likes and identifies with.

Don't misunderstand. I like picturesque language. It is my pictureque business, it's just that it is one of the conditions of the job that I mistrust it and get the full juice out of it right down to the dregs. If you are a poet the dregs too are part of the business and have to be.

I read football fan-sites with a mixture of fascination and horror. The intensity of fury, aggression and stupidity displayed by commenters is predictable. Talking tough is important. Hatred of rival teams is important. Personal hatred of rival teams' players is important until your club buys them, then, providing they are successful, they become favourites, their old hated characteristics slewn off as though they had never been. Unless they decide to ask for a transfer in which case the hated characteristics return. Hatred  of your nearest geographical rivals is vital, as is contempt for them.  Hatred of your historical rivals is also vital.  All the above are sine qua non for the fan.

In regard of your own team on bad days, immediate judgment in hyperbolic term is important. So and so is useless. The terms are not precisely The Guardian's but the emotion is the same. Calling for heads under those circumstances is important. Culprit seeking is important.

Loyalty to the team, is the chief virtue under all circumstances (the worst charge being disloyalty). Power is important ('We do what we want').  Moral superiority is important. I repeat that. Moral superiority is important. Other teams, supporters of other teams, are best characterised as moral trash, ie classless, idiots, crooks, degenerates. This is the door through which racism may enter.

The one saving grace is irony, but that is generally practiced by teams used to losing. Losing humanises you. Big successful clubs don't do irony, preferring the occasional shot at heavy-handed sarcasm.


There is something of the charade about all this of course. The fandom collective is the charade pit. Those who enter it may be like the old woman I once saw at a wrestling match who advanced from her seat to the ringside and attacked the 'villain' wrestler. The wrestler pretended to be afraid. Having spent her fury, the old woman turned to the spectators for a moment and giggled. Then she returned to her seat. A real fury was really vented - but for a moment she saw herself venting it - then she returned to the fury of the contest. It should be no surprise that the good 'blue-eye' wreslter on this occasion was from Norwich while the 'villain' wrestler was from Ipswich. The closer the enemy the greater the fury.

Neither the old woman nor the wrestler was hurt.

One more post perhaps.

Saturday 3 November 2012

The Furies: The Mark Clattenburg moment

This is a small set of posts (maybe two, maybe three) about the way sport releases and channels intense emotions, both hatred and love. I write it now because it is a time of intense emotions.

In this country football is the sport where the most intense emotions are released, released constantly, from week to week and from day to day. My immediate subject is last Sunday's match between Chelsea and Manchester United (I give the BBC link as a gesture, since the press's obligation, particularly in sport, is to write stories, not to produce evidence).

But the post is not about the sport of football, that people may or may not like, or about specific teams that people may or may not like. (I like Manchester United and have done since 1958 but hope to be neutral about the actual events here.) Like the press, I want to write a story: it is a story set in football but is only incidentally about football. That story involves history and expectation but finds its focus on the current charge of racism faced by the referee of the match.

The Match

In the week before the match both teams had played important matches in Europe. United had won, a little fortuitously, having come back from two goals down to Braga, but Chelsea lost at Shakhtar Donetsk. One team's mood was up, the other one's down.

Chelsea were sitting on top of the English Premier League, Manchester United were second.

The match had started with Manchester United taking a two-goal lead that Chelsea eventually made up. After equalising, Chelsea was on the offensive. Passions were very high.

The referee, Mark Clattenburg then made two decisions that, in effect, favoured United. Having sent off one Chelsea player without much complaint, he sent off another, Fernando Torres, for pretending to have been fouled, though the evidence, in retrospect, was far from clear.  So Chelsea were reduced to nine players. That rarely happens in football.

Then United scored a third goal that was off-side but was given. From the referee's point of view it was impossible to tell whether the goal should have been given or not, and he depended on his assistant on the sidelines to signal off-side. The assistant didn't signal so the goal was given.  That's two distinct and decisive bad decisions in a short space of time.

The goal incident was a matter of a second or so. TV has slow-motion replays. Everyone watching TV has an advantage over the referee, who hasn't. The supporters of the team conceding the goal, not to mention the team itself, who don't have slow-motion replays in front of them, naturally don't want the goal to stand. They are shocked and dismayed. In the crowd movement following the United goal a Chelsea steward, patrolling the Chelsea end of the ground, was injured.

But it was the sending off of  Torres that was the real sparking point.

Immediately after the match Clattenburg was accused by two Chelsea players, the Spaniard Roberto Mata and the Nigerian John Obi Mikel, of making racist comments. Mata quickly withdrew his charge but Mikel has persisted. The police have now stepped in and are investigating. Clattenburg has been relieved of his duties, suspended pending a decision. His career is in the balance - not, ostensibly, for getting two decisions wrong, but for racism.

During the match the Manchester United defender Rio Ferdinand, who is black, was constantly booed. Since the match photographs have been published of a Chelsea fan making monkey grunts and gestures at one of the black United players.

There is history here.

Before the Match: The racism issue

In 2008 the Manchester United footballer Patrice Evra, a black French player, got into an altercation with Chelsea groundstaff after another contentious Chelsea-Manchester United match. Evra claimed the ground staff hurled racial insults at him. A brawl ensued but in the enquiry Evra was accused of exaggeration and it was he who was fined and banned for four games.

In 2011 the Liverpool footballer and Uruguayan international, Luis Suarez, was accused by Evra, during another hot-blooded match, of abusing him in racial terms. Suarez denied it, then changed his story, but still denied the racist charge. The case was very contentious and Liverpool - the club, the then manager and the players, were vehement in their rejection of the charges - which were however upheld by the FA, as a result of which Suarez was fined and suspended for eight games. This fuelled the resentment between the two clubs and projected a different light on the Chelsea incident - also involving Evra - three years before. It also brought the race issue to the fore.

Also in 2011 Chelsea were involved in a match against another London club, Queen's Park Rangers. The Chelsea captain, John Terry, was alleged to have addressed a racially loaded remark to the QPR player, Anton Ferdinand. The case was taken up by the police and took months. At the end of it the decision was that there was not enough evidence to convict but that Tery's evidence was suspect. The FA then concluded their enquiry by finding Terry guilty, fining him and banning him for some matches. Terry later admitted the charge.

These two incidents made race a hot and current issue after years without major incident in England.


The Terry case took so long that it disrupted the national team's preparation for the European Championship. The FA had overruled the national team manager's choice of Terry as captain by banning him from the tournament, as a result of which the manager, Fabio Capello, resigned just before the tournament started.

A new national manager, Roy Hodgson, was appointed. Terry's most effective partner as England defender had been Rio Ferdinand, brother of Anton. Rio had publicly taken up an attitude in defence of his brother. Hodgson, deprived of Terry, now left Ferdinand out 'for purely footballing reasons'. It was a contentious omission, and Hodgson was not entirely believed. Some thought the omission was to prevent a split in the England camp. Hodgson later made an offguard remark suggesting Ferdinand's England career was over. He later apologised for this.

John Terry's court case was supported in court by a fellow Chelsea player and also an England international, Ashley Cole, who is black. Someone on Twitter than wrote that Cole was 'a choc ice', meaning black only on the outside, but white inside. It's an old insult one black person might aim at another thought to be too keen to comply with white rules and mores. The term 'Uncle Tom' used to be aimed, in the same way, at white-pleasing black Americans against other black Americans. That was not regarded as racist. Ferdinand made a brief Twitter response that indicated agreement with this original Tweeter's view, as a result of which Ferdinand was accused of racism and fined.

When Rio Ferdinand appeared in the match last Sunday he was booed by a large section of the Chelsea crowd, much as Anton Ferdinand had been before. This could only have been because he was the brother of the man who had been racially abused by the Chelsea hero John Terry and had questioned the integrity of both Terry and Cole.

Three further background factors

1. Some years before, in 2003, Rio Ferdinand was fined a large amount and banned for eight months for missing a drugs test, Eight months is a long time for missing the test, not for failing it. It was probably considered to be an exemplary sentence, though another far less-well known player was at the same time fined far less and banned only for a few weeks. I imagine Ferdinand will have remembered that.

2. In 2010 John Terry had been in the public eye for a well-publicised alleged affair with the partner of a Chelsea and England international team-mate, Wayne Bridge. The partner was also mother of Bridge's son. Bridge's career has been on a downward spiral since then. Terry was briefly relieved of the England captaincy. Terry has been a controversial figure ever since.

3. Earlier this month the England under-21 national team played Serbia in Serbia. The team, as witnessed by spectators,  recorded on YouTube, was subjected to racial chants and one England player was so sick of being picked on that at the end of the match he kicked the ball away. The referee sent him off for that. Brawls ensued by the tunnel and Enland players and staff were attacked. The Serbian FA is now defending itself by counter-charging some England players of riminal behviour. Since the evidence is pretty clear on YouTube is seems this is a clumsy attempt to divert blame and attention. (I should add that I know racism is rife in Eastern Europe and far more vicious than it is here now but I was still disgusted by the Serbian crowd - and FA's - attitude and fervently hope Serbia are banned from European competition for a good while). The humiliation offered to black England players is clearly a part of the background and the frustration felt by black players here.

A good number of black footballers - a high proportion of the Premier League's best players - were angry following the Terry debacle. Then came the Serbian incident. The chief organisation in the fight against racism in English football,  Kick It Out, has been very successful generally, being supported by the law and the FA. The relatively lenient FA punishment of Terry drove some prominent black players - the Ferdinand brothers among them - to protest, and they refused to wear a shirt bearing the Kick It Out message on a day when Premier League players were encouraged to wear it as a protest against recent racial incidents. There was talk of forming a breakaway black footballers' association.  That talk has now faded but it might rise again.

Summing up

My own feeling is that Clattenburg is very unlikely to have said what he is alleged to have said. His fellow officials will probably support him - well they would, wouldn't they? some Chelsea players may support Mikel - well, they would wouldn't they?  Clattenburg has no record of racism, is one of the top referees in the country and internationally, and, like all referees, is in a position where every TV pundit's first reaction is to study several times over a slow-motion replay and then to criticise the referee for not seeing it.  The Torres decision looks worse to me than the goal. Clattenburg is behind the action and unless he is sure that Torres dives he should not be sending him off. I can't see how he could have been sure. The Hernandez goal would be hard for him to judge from his position, and it seems to me the Chelsea goalkeeper may be obstructing the assistant's view.

Mikel's charge - which is the real point of this post - might be true, it might be a mishearing, it might have been a tendency under the pressure of the moment to mishear, or it might just be made up in order to get back at Clattenburg. The bastard has prevented us  from winning, let's get even for John Terry, let's get him in the most hurtful way we can.  It may be so, it may not, but coming from Chelsea, given the history above, given the events of the match, it doesn't seem inconceivable

This is background. Thinking about the passions involved will be the task of the next post.

Friday 2 November 2012

More on the white shirt

Photo by Derek Adams

In the comments section to Image in a White Shirt I linked to a blog by poet Magda Kapa in which she reflected on my post and added some thoughts of her own. Now that Derek Adam's photographs - a selection of them - have arrived (one of them above), the thoughts move further.

Magda begins her blog by recalling how, when she turned forty, she took a photograph of her naked torso.
...[T]he fear of aging prompted me to somehow preserve the memory of my body the way it was right at that moment: still relatively young, still relatively attractive...

A little later in the post she adds a second reason. She took the photo so that:

...the “I” of three years after, should be able to control the “I’s” body now with the help of the “I’s” photo from before. How much had “I” changed during that time? 

She regrets having somehow lost that photograph and ends:

I snapped a photo of myself with no shirt on. Were I a man, I might have taken a photo of myself in a white shirt, and imagined it in the hands of my descendants decades later. It’s this pressure to be something representable, presentable, or preservable that turns some of us — most of us, I dare say — into pillars of salt in front of a camera lens long before the inevitable stillness of our image appears in the photo.

I don't think there is ever clear blue water between the perceived binaries of male and female, but they do exist as perceptions and hence as experience - we do, after all, experience our perceptions.

There is much written about the idea of feminine beauty on the one hand and on beauty as an oppressive myth on the order. It is dreadul to bear the brunt of both. I think women are just as susceptible to feminine beauty as men are and that the dissatisfaction arises out of their specific obligation to be beautiful, or if not quite beautiful, to be attractive in order to be valued. Hard if you are, hard if you're not. I have forgotten which woman it was who said: Don't tell me I am beautiful, it will be so much harder for me when I am older

No doubt the sense of beauty, however modified by historical and cultural factors, is associated with youth, desirability, fertility, the pleasure of glorying in the products of attractiveness, which means not only sensual delight, but the sense of power in arousing and controlling energies outside yourself through the energy within. 

Like all human experience beauty is complex, from a pleasing arrangement of features and freshness in youth to that marvellous autumnal blend of mind, spirit and translucence that some women seem to manage. 

I have seen physically beautiful old women, but I have also seen older women who were never beautiful and those from whom beauty had faded. That still left the mind, the spirit, and all kinds of qualities that are not to do with physical beauty: kindness, courage, initiative, wisdom. 

The premium on physical beauty is high for women, not just culturally, but spiritually-aesthetically. There is constant human striving for beauty, for all beautiful things, for beauty as meaning, whether that beauty be in man, woman, creature, plant, rock, sky, act, movement, stillness or anything else. One beauty becomes an analogy for another. Beauty is various and variable, but one yearns for it. Feminine beauty is the most powerful form of it in a gendered world. It is power as well as value. But it is also - the possession of it or the lack of it - a burden


My early sense of myself as male had nothing to do with beauty, or rather everything to do with my lack of it. I was quickly led to understand that there were such things as beautiful children but that I was not one of them. I was told this tenderly, lovingly, indirectly, informally. By the age of two I was a prematurely adult professor, according to my mother.  That was my destiny and saving. 

No woman, I was made to understand more directly later, at about the age of fifteen, would be attracted to me for my looks. If I wanted to attract a partner it would have to be through some quality of intelligence, a quality I wasn't actually demonstrating at that point, not to my teachers, not to my parents, and certainly not to myself. My parents lived in hope I would produce it in as spectacular form as I had once promised to do.

It was, I should say a desolate feeling. Because there were others who were both intelligent and handsome. Because it made me more awkward than I already was.  And chiefly because I was in love with beauty, the beauty of girls. It was beauty I wanted more than sex. Sex was yet to be, urgent, frightening, bestial, potentially humiliating. Beauty was comforting and desirable, a kind of otherworldly perfection . 

The girls I desired were young and attractive. Their power over me was overwhelming. I was of another, inferior species. Did they but know the power they had over me they could have made me do almost anything.

That was youth: what it was like in the presence of beauty.


We project onto one another what we need and hope for. Magda's naked torso, in its youth and attractiveness, was partly the memento of having been seen as such. The seeing eye might be a man or a boy, as I myself once was, but it might just as easily be the idea of beauty itself as perceived in another woman, that is to say a learned or culture-based image, at least partly so. Women learn to look at themselves as a looked-at thing. 

That is an enormously seductive and intoxicating condition while the woman is young, but gathers ever more shades about itself as time passes. Young women complain of being looked at, the old complain of not being looked at. Beauty can become a source of resentment, fury and cold disdain. Maybe it need not have been so in the first place, thinks the woman. Perhaps our sense of the beautiful is a myth, a trap. 

In such a mood even my boyhood desire for physical beauty-as-meaning might be seen as constituting a demanding and hence aggressive act, so while I thought I was the helpless subject, really it was my desire for beauty that was turning the girls into objects.

Perhaps. But girls too see meaning in beauty that is not just their own or analogies of their own. Girls too objectify men. The world is full of objects.

In Twelfth Night, one of Shakespeare's great gender bender plays, the two sides of beauty come together in Olivia and Viola's first meeting. Viola appears as a man and asks to see Olivia's face. Olivia coquettishly decides to assert her power over the attractive male visitor, revealing her face with the words:

Look you, sir, such a one I was this present. Is't not well done?

Viola replies, a little cattily:

Excellently done, if God did all.

To which Olivia responds:

'Tis in grain, sir; 'twill endure wind and weather.

And Viola relents.

'Tis beauty truly blent, whose red and white
Nature's own sweet and cunning hand laid on...

Olivia falls for Viola but marries her twin brother, and Viola, the most intelligent and resourceful figure in the play, marries Orsino. In the meantime we get buffoons, revels, duels, humiliations, imprisonments, revenges and it's all heigh-ho, the wind and the rain.