Sunday 30 June 2013

Berlin tomorrow, Hungary today:
The struggle for the soul of Hungary

I want to write about one more event at Worlds 13, but there is no time tonight and tomorrow I am flying to take part in a radio discussion on Deutsche Welle radio about the current situation in Hungary.

What has changed in Hungary since my last piece here or the article I wrote for The Guardian?

Nothing dramatic just the same unremitting take-over of all civil and cultural institutions: art, music, theatre, literature. The EU was given the option of putting Hungary through a formal monitoring process but that was voted down in favour of a more informal watching brief. I hope they continue watching.

The take-over is by two means: first, the stuffing of the respective boards with government supporters and the non-renewal of contracts for internationally recognised leaders and directors who are not to the government's taste; second, the financial strangulation of institutions that represent different values from those espoused by the government.

The chief - in fact the only - strategy of the government and its supporters abroad is to insist that any criticism of them is an attack on honest decent Hungarians. For all purposes the government seeks to identify itself with 'the nation' and to squeeze out of public life anybody who has a different conception of the nation.

At the same time they raise the rhetorical stakes and encourage campaigns of hatred against all opposition. The fact that those they attack represent the best of Hungary to those abroad does not strike them.

The rhetorical terms of what I increasingly think of as Orbánia, develop naturally out of an Orbánian language that is capacious enough to include more extreme related forms, such as that used by the now officially anti-Semite, Zsolt Bayer, call it Bayerian, and the language of the fascist Jobbik, say Jobbikisch.

Or so one thinks in a charitable mood. In another mood it seems ever more likely to me that Bayerian is the true core language and the official Orbanian is just the polite form of it.


On a personal level I was extraordinarily honoured to be voted to become an associate member of the Széchenyi Literary and Arts Academy, the academy to which the finest Hungarian writers, composers, visual artists, film directors and architects have belonged and do belong (check those lists of names: they are a roll-call of what Hungarian culture has meant Hungary and abroad in the last and present centuries), and among whom anyone would be proud to be numbered.

But the Széchenyi is not a government tool so, like any other not entirely loyal institution,  it must be financially strangled, great writers, artists and all. When the Academy wanted to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of its new constitution and looked to put together a programme of events it applied for a grant and was immediately turned down with no reason offered.

Just imagine this, for a second, in this country.

This is the story I am about to pursue and I want to get it dead right before writing it.

Make no mistake. This is not about attacking Hungary or Hungarians: it is a battle for the soul of Hungary, a Hungary that exists beyond the definition of the so-called patriots. (See such 'patriot' comments here.)

In the meantime I have a translation to finish and have almost finished.

Tomorrow morning Berlin then.

Wednesday 26 June 2013

Literary Festival Worlds 13:
Geoff Dyer and myself, summing up


Day Four

Since Geoff Dyer came directly before me it was hard to do any kind of justice to his provocation which was, as ever, the full value Dyer, meaning it was a series of probing, funny, perceptive, ironic yet passionate points that rained down on the field below as if from a plane that was simultaneously performing aerobatics. In other words Geoff is sui generis and summing him up without actually becoming him is very difficult. 

At the core of his provocation was the connection between book and self, the way books communicated with each other, in fact how any work of art communicates with another. He paid homage to his great mentor, John Berger, who was, he said, the English equivalent of Barthes and Benjamin. He cited George Steiner's "Latent in every act of reading is the compulsion to write a book in reply". He talked of his own But Beautiful in which he completes or invents meetings between great jazz musicians. He showed us photographs of jazz musicians together - Ben Webster with John Coltrane for example - and played us a YouTube of Webster playing Chelsea Bridge, over which he began to read a part of his own writing about the Webster (this irritating Rozalie Hirs, the one poet-musician writer among us). 

He talked of themes in photography and how they sparked responses in other photographers, and of his own book on photographs featuring blind people, hats, backs, fences, and so forth. How does one reconcile the successive and the simultaneous (how in fact does one distinguish one from the other sometimes)? Artists quote each other, riff on each other, criticise each other. His own 'greatest achievement', he told us, was turning a book about tennis into a book about Tarkovsky's Stalker.

The discussion that followed turned for a while to the problems of branding and copyright, and why words might be more subject to such trademarking than images or musical phrases are. (Titles are apparently not copyrightable). David Szalay asked a fascinating question that has sometimes occured to me, 'Can too much criticism interfere with the creative process?' How does theory inform or determine writing? How far does any criticism influence the writer? How far does it make her self-conscious?

Nothing of the two paragraphs above was written as part of the summing up. I was too busy thinking about Geoff's provocation, the summing up itself, and very aware of the shortness of time. If I had to sum up Geoff's provocation now I might come up with a comic image if only because his provocation invites us to laugh at the performance of what I sometimes think of as the mischievous dramatic character 'Geoff Dyer' - but that wouldn't do justice to the clarity of his ideas, the way he presents them, the extent of his scholarship and the passion and energy he applies to any subject whether that is the First World War, D H Lawrence, photography, music or film.

The seriousness comprises the apparent lack of seriousness. I remember Geoff some other time on the subject of The Burning Man Festival in the Nevada desert. I think there is something of that burning about both the man and the provocation. In the spirit of the provocation, and very much after the event, I offer him the image of a burning match. It's only a match in a wooden mannequin's fingers, but it can set fire to a great many things.

The conclusion of my summing up follows. Those who want to listen to it as a continuous single piece can find it here. It is about 20 minutes long.

I want to write two more blogs about the festival - about the readings as a whole, and about the launch of Into the Light, the Medieval Hebrew Poetry of Meir of Norwich.


Conclusion of summary

I sometimes feel that, as a poet among novelists - there are just two of us here - we are like children who have been allowed to come away from our free-to-experiment best-contemporary educational sandpits to engage in conversation with serious adults, who, like, actually make a living from their art, so we too can talk about their serious art. 

We poets tend to think that the world of language began with two equally important imaginative acts, the poetic act and the story-telling act: Mr What’s This, and Mrs What’s Next if you like and that furthermore that in our heart of hearts we all know this to be the true. 

But we must after all be children because here you see what I have brought you from the sandpit - poet’s toys. A plain fork, a toy cabin, a second-hand book on which someone has scribbled, a plastic wrestler known sold in a cheap shop, an everyday bottle, and this piece of tissue that I will take back so I might put it to its proper use. 

And this one short poem, which is in fact a piece of marginalia, one based on a translation out of the Arabic of Mahmoud Darwish that I was handed by Mimi Khalvati as a technical exercise. Mine isn’t a translation but a transplantation as, for all I know, his original poem might have been from something he had long read and forgotten. The life that he loves in his poem, We Love Life Whenever We Can, is what he knows and sees around him. My small annotation or piece of marginalia is composed of what I see about me. (Click on the poem to magnifiy it.)

I end with a photograph I took of the developing perigee moon at 3am on the night before the last day of the festival when I couldn't sleep. It's how thinking looked then.

Literary Festival Worlds 13:
Peng Lun / Eric Abrahamsen and Masashi Matsuie / Michael Emmerich

                                              Peng Lun                                   Eric Abrahamsen

                                                       Masashi Matsuie                            Michael Emmerich

Day Three

In Peng Lun and Eric Abrahamsen's provocation we were introduced to Han Han, a teen prodigy who was not much good at school. In the 1980s China introduced a one-child-per-family policy and Han Han is one of the first of that generation of single children. His generation is the one that fully embraced the internet with all its implication of freedom. Han Han was no good at school but while at school produced teenage novels using the slang of his contemporaries and became a phenomenon by doing so.  In 2003 he set up a blog that dealt out advice and criticised the government as a result of which some of his blogs were deleted. In 2010 he established a magazine called The Party, the first issue of which sold a million and was immediately banned because of its politics. Han Han was credited with introducing the concept of irony, which, much to my surprise, was apparently missing in Chinese society. He moved into China's Twitter equivalent - then he did a lot of other stuff. The question was whether he is a bluffer, a hollow vessel.

In fact the question behind the question is whether any technology that deploys such short texts can say anything of substance at all. When everything is reduced to a tweet the whole rhythm of thought was likely to be endangered. Would it be possible to find a technology that slowed us down?

In the discussion Ruth made her point about technology defeating time. We talked about the idea of the serialisation of longer work and the way longer formats work on television. Nicky Harman mentioned some very wordy blogs. I, of course, brought up the question of poetry (Eric having said before the session that he didn't have a poetic muscle in his body) which then covered the tweet as a potential literary form. Just as the sonnet comprises 14 lines, so the tweet comprises 14 characters. Both are constraints.

It was undoubtedly the ill-educated boy with his genius for hitting on formats his own rebellious generation would instinctively understand who stole the show. He being a product of the single-child policy in China was addressing his cyber-brothers and sisters in the language of a shared yet lonely virtual adolescence, a world that was in revolt with the authority that created it and was seizing on the nature of electronic social communication as if it were discovering  and creating messages in bottles - it was only that the bottles were by their nature small so the message could not convey the full meaning of, say, Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Poetry appeared here very briefly as something you might find in one of these bottles and I want to return to that bottle at the end. Poetry is the message in the bottle.


We returned to the issue of the first person novel - the 'I' novel - in Masashi Matsuie and Michael Emmerich's provocation. The complexity of the I form in Japanese involves very many different words for, as well as uses of, and implications of, the first person singular. Masashi Matsuie (as translated by Michael Emmerich) began by referring to a speech by the nationalist mayor of Osaka, Toru Hashimoto, in which he defended the use of comfort women - a form of female enslavement - during the war. Finding his opinion fiercely opposed he called on the complexity of the first person singular as a defence, suggesting that it wasn't he who had said it but some other 'I' figure.

From here we proceeded to a discussion of the various uses of I, and indeed its occasional absence in general discourse as well as in novels. One might exclude any version of the pronoun unless it were absolutely necessary to incude it.  Social relations govern use, as one would expect. The negotiation between self and others has many shades of grey. A novel might move from one form of I to another depending on contexts such as time and occasion. This makes it hard for the translator into English who has a much narrower choice. Translations, Michael E stressed, were very different from the originals. My personal thought was that subtle shades of social relationship might not be peculiar to Japan and that most languages will have ways other than the pronoun to indicate such shades. It also brought to mind my parents' early comment on the use of capital I in English as opposed to the lower case 'you', since in Hungarian I takes the fom of the lower case én, whereas 'you' in its various direct forms (Te, Maga, Ön) deploys capitals. "In England the speaker is more important than the listener."

Michael E was very careful to preface his comments with the words "Translator's Note:" and deployed as much irony as he could to point out a sense of distance between general comment and subtlety of meaning. To illustrate his point about the difficulties and subtleties involved in the artistic act, he talked of language as a solid wall (like the wall of the cathedral behind us) and the work as a piece of tissue paper thrown at the wall.

Among all the shadows and nuances of the Japanese first person singular in Matsashi Matsuie and Michael Emmerich’s presentation I wondered how that first person singular might address itself in the mirror as it was shaving or putting on its make-up, in the primal shock of the self in its own momentary nakedness, how that endlessly shifting set of communications all languages conduct with both self and other relates to say, the shifting names and forms of the internet. This was interpreted [summer-up’s note] in the light of the deadpan translator’s note, above all in the beautiful image of the tissue paper thrown against the wall, a wall I kept straining at because, as a poet, the wall seems not quite so stable as the walls of the cathedral seem to be. The wall of course is language in the metaphor and the tissue is the work of art the artist throws at it. As a poet my sense of the wall is that it i one that it constantly making and remaking itself, parts falling off, others being patched, always something new being built. You’re just another brick in the wall, as the song had it - yes but we have our tissue paper, and I as a poet will now provide my own. It is clean - I think. And even when it isn’t it may be worth throwing at James Joyce’s snot green sea.

Tuesday 25 June 2013

Literary Festival Worlds 13: Lichtenstein, Möring

Day Two

Rachel Lichtenstein brought us both a book and an application but the app was the star.  It was free for a start and we got excerpts from it. Her subject was the psychogeography of Diamond Street, Hatton Garden. The app is intended to support the book by lending it extra dimensions in terms of interviews, commentary from experts and writers like Iain Sinclair, historical photographs, video clips and trips under the streets into the sewers to see where the old rivers ran. The app uses GPS to trigger  the programme in much the same way as Words in Air does, and one may enter the selected area from any point. The whole thing was captivating, somewhere between museology, archivism, guide book and literature. 


The image I will carry away from Rachel Lichtenstein’s enthralling programme is an amalgam of an old diamond dealer and the moment we enter the sewers of London. It presents us less with a story than with a layering of stories, a palimpsest in fact - and that to my mind is more a kind of poetry than a work of continuous and developing narrative. It is not so much the story of how we got here, but what the sense of being here actually is. Nor is it the case that one question is more interesting than the other - both are questions we are constantly asking ourselves. 

How the app stands in relation to the book might seem to be the central question. In discussing this Rachel talked about the Talmud and the idea of marginalia, a relation between scripture and commentary. 

Here I have a copy of The Tempest I picked up in a second-hand bookshop. I bought it not because I didn’t have other copies of the play but because of this. It was the text - the marginalia was not eliminating the text. It was reflecting on it and in some ways modifying and enriching it. 


We began with the image of books in crisis but the claim that the literary novel was very much alive. Marcel Möring referred us to the example of Chernobyl, where despite the nuclear disaster and the following leak, nature has quickly taken over. Just so with the novel, which is, he said, an invention, not a construct. The novel is the way we see and think: it is, he said, 'urgent very urgent' The crisis was a function of the market on the one hand and - so I read between the lines of reference to France and French writing - of French theory on the other. He talked about the Dutch Reformed Church that had adopted guitars and happy-clappy services and instituted these instead of Psalm 23. Supply and demand do not work for the soul. Let us be bold, let us be puzzling, let's explore the immense freedom of thought that is the novelist's responsibility.

There was some hestitation before discussion broken by Michelle de Kretzer's, 'We feel ashamed.' Geoff Dyer wondered whether the literary novel was all that it was cracked up to be, and if literary reportage were not more interesting. Jounralism, he suggested, was the new literature. Chandrahas Choudhury was not sure that reportage should pick up too many tricks of fiction. Sjön took the discussion back to notions of 'counter-culture' and 'underground' as ways of disrupting the dominance of commercial fiction. Will Self's Umbrella mentioned as an example of innovative fiction, though others suggested that pastiches of modernism are not daring or genuinely innovative: they are pastiches. The question, Jon Cook argued, was what distinguishes the writer as an artist.

Marcel’s passionate and moving plea for a serious literature, or rather for the serious task of the literary novel in a world of commercial publishing, struck many chords. It was a cry - to link back to Shakespeare - in Henry V’s words before Agincourt, to stiffen the sinews and summon up the true blood of what we might yet be and aim for. The novel, as defined by assumption in the provocation is the blood we should summon. So my image here is of an Agincourt of the world’s bookshelves. It is Disco Inferno, the wrestler, parts of whose body can distinctly twitch.

Monday 24 June 2013

Worlds Literature Festival 13:
Summing Up Sjön and Ozeki

In the darker, more cavernous space of the university council chamber, after the light-suffused delicacy of the cathedral hostry, it might seem we are on a trajectory from an age of gold to an age of lead, and, who knows, very likely to a sort of cosmic annihilation.

Certainly things are changing. Our histories never move smoothly forwards but proceed by a series of judders and jags, some of which are wildly exciting peaks offering vistas of ever more exciting, ever more complete states of being, and others that seem worse than pits, abysses that are 'cliffs of fall / Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed' as the great poet Gerard Manley Hopkins put it.

The title for this series of salons has been WAYS OF WRITING / WAYS OF READING, and that is, in some ways what we have been dealing with. We have considered the nature of stories, the position of the self in a polyvalent information system that modifies the wiring of the mind. We have come across developments in appliances (and changes in the meaning of such terms as appliances) that complement, overlay, expand or even possibly supplant the  book object and all it does or has done while sending us into a tunnel of voices, images and lost rivers even as we roam the streets. We have thought passionately about the art of the novel in the face of commercial standardisation, about definitions of experimentalism, and the virtues of literary reportage over the three or five part novel form. We have watched the progress of a rebellious idiot-genius boy as he writes novels in teen language, expands into blogs, into magazines, political censorship and out again and have heard the suggestion that the sheer speed and miniaturisation of the reading process thins out the content and substance a slow reading might provide. In the same session we considered the possible locations of a protean self, an I figure that conveys meanings and relationships that may be understood as a form of palimpsest of claim and counterclaim. 

Day One


In asking a poet to sum up the the discussion you are in danger of being summarised by your images, and there have been some marvellous ones. Sjön’s Mr Spoon suddenly emerging from his position in language into the world, complete with neckwear is one of them. It was almost like that moment in the Mass when the host actually becomes the blood of Christ. It was only Mr Spoon, but then again he was more: he was the word made flesh, or at least an iron based alloy. The story itself, he argued, was almost immaterial, since there were only seven stories, it was more the way spoons, electric cables and pigs (electric cables and pigs being figures he picked on by chance) got mixed up in them. a kind of crowded meta-zoo of the way the human imagination experiences its own predicament.

Sjön's producing of Mr Spoon demands a answer, so I offer you Ms Fork, who is in fact a punk as demonstrated by the safety pin atteched to her tines by a piece of Blutak™ which I trademark by way of reference to a late discussion on the last day of copyright and branding.


At one point in Ruth Ozeki’s provocation the whole world with all its works of genius and idiocy was crowded into the thin film of the computer screen, a screen that conditioned not only its own reading but our very being, the pigs and electric cables of our brains. We were, in effect, becoming extensions of the system we had devised in a new version of the stand-off between ghosts and machines. This raised serious question about the nature of the self, that figure who appeared in Japanese literature in the form of the 'I' novel, where the reader is invited to form a relationship with a voice that is posited as that of the author's own, sincere, individual self. She told of her own dependence on Google and other forms of ready information retrieval and how strange it was to let go of it.

The image I will remember here is of the lonely non-technological cabin in the woods when the question of information retrieval, also known as memory, finds that its first instinct has been to configure the question in the terms of a Google search.  Impatience, said Ruth, was death for a novelist. All technology, she added, was a way of defeating time. This shows the common uneasiness we feel about the effects of new technology, about how it begins to blur not only time but also the difference between the self and the other. There was a slowing down in the cabin, a deepening. The cold turkey of the cabin in the woods offers a cure, though we cannot know whether it ios a temporary or permanent one. We may have lost Mr Spoon for ever but we have the cabin in the woods.

Worlds Literature Festival 2013:
A preface and a spoon

Sjön's Mr Spoon (without scarf)

This year's World's had been one of the best so far and most stimulating. But what is Worlds?

Worlds is a five day festival of readings and discussions, or salons, involving a group of roughly forty writers from all over the world. They are writers with international reputations and have included Nobel Prize winners. Three hours of the day are spent in salons based on two 'provocations' by7 specific writers, each followed by an open discussion with a drinks break in between. This is followed by free afternoon readings that are open to the public, a dinner, then more public events or readings. It's very full indeed, one event immediately following on another. The broad outline including most, but not all, the evening events is here, the full list of participants is here, the previous year's programme 2012 is here.  The organisation of these marvellous events involve both the Writers Centre, Norwich and the UEA, the first under the direction of Chris Gribble, the second under the direction of Jon Cook, who also chairs most of the salons.

I have been very privileged to be present at a number of them, perhaps four or five. I blogged 2012 here, here and here. (Interestingly when I look for these on my own blog it is the Goodreads site that comes up - I can't remember if I knew that Goodreads was using it, but never mind.)

And here is the 2011 Worlds with an audio of my summing up. I have also been responsible for the summings up of the last two years, The text below is in fact this year's summing up of the salons. I will write a separate post on the readings and then one more on a special reading that was also a book launch. So there will be three posts of which this is the first. I may write a fourth to pick up any stray points.

This time the first three salons and most of the afternoon readings were held at The Hostry of Norwich Cathedral, a marvellously light and airy room. The last session however was at the UEA Council Chamber and that is where my summing up took place. It begins by referring to the difference between the two venues and by noting the concern that authors continue to feel about the future of the literary book in the face of pressure from both the commercialisation of the 'standard' novel and from the new and possibly different readership created by the internet. The first anxiety seems now to be greater than the second, which argues a certain adjustment among writers to the ways of the web, and even a degree of excitement about it. 

Sjön began by inviting us to consider the lullaby and suggesting that story telling is a development of the way the mother sings the child to sleep, that it was in fact a metaphorical mother's milk that sustained us. From his point of view the receiver of the story is not so much the reader as the audience - in other words we must think of literature as primarily oral. There was some discussion of the distinction between plot and story - the terms used as the salons are less firmly defined than they might be at a scholarly conference - and Sjön demionstrated the art of story telling by recounting the adventures of a spoon, referred to as Mr Spoon, at the end of which he produced a real spoon with a ribbon around it, thus ending the story with a piece of magic. 

Hence the spoon at the top, and hence the following playfulness with objects

Saturday 15 June 2013

A discussion on Edward Snowden

Liberty on the Barricades (After Delacroix) - Robert Ballagh (b. 1943)

This is a longer than usual blog because it is the record of a conversation with Mark Husmann conducted on the message board of Facebook. I don't know Mark personally but have generally been sympathetic to what he has put up on his own board, and, once embarked on the discussion, grew to like him more and more, to the extent that, though he lives in the north east of the country, I hope to meet him some time.

It was, I suppose, the 'no brainer' invitation that got me thinking in greater detail about the case of Edward Snowden. My normal, quite instinctive, loyalties would, in fact, have been to sign the petition - I do sign a reasonable number - but I hate doing things so to speak, 'brainlessly'. 

So here is the discussion, exactly as it happened. I have no illusions about thinking that it is a particularly significant one as the world goes, but it clears my own thinking a little, for which thanks to Mark, and hope it isn't too tedious for others to read.


The original message:

Mark Husmann
Another no-brainer. Would you sign this, please? [link]

Mark Husmann
I've just signed a campaign to stand with Edward Snowden. This 29-year-old just gave up basically his whole life to let us know about the US’s insane plan to read all our emails, Skype messages and Facebook posts. The US is pledging vengeance, but with us behind him he’s much more likely to be treated fairly.

Join me in standing with him: -- [link]

The discussion begins here:

George Szirtes
I am still thinking about this, Mark, and will respond when I have thought it through.

Mark Husmann
Thanks for replying, George! I'd be very eager to hear your thoughts. To me, it's rather clear-cut. I have always supported whistleblowers and defectors (during time of the Gulf Wars, for example). Is there anything you will post publicly?

George Szirtes
I might, Mark. I am trying to disentangle in my mind the knowledge that this kind of thing goes on all the time and that some aspects of it are normal in a society where communications have moved into the electronic sphere, and the sense of outrage I should feel that this half-suppressed knowledge is now out in the open.

Mark Husmann
A good point. Do we feel "OK" about certain issues until we're cornered by a friend on FB and feel pressed to click? Are we still saying "Oh, I didn't know about it", if that is at all credible? How much do we regard it as our responsibility as a moral and ethical citizen to inform ourselves?

George Szirtes
Mark, this must by its nature be a longer answer. 

I am perhaps too sensitive about the conduct of disagreement. It may well be - in fact I am pretty sure it must be - that the normal attention of the security services is something we take for granted, and that there are, and have been, effective disruptions of plans for violence and destruction, and that as soon as there is such violence, for example the Woolwich killing, the press, and the people too by and large, demand to know why the security services had not acted earlier. 'Why didn't you know? Why didn't you realise such and such was a valuable piece of information? If you had known lives might have been saved.'

So there is a demand for surveillance - of the right people, we say, and indeed expect that kind of protection.

This is in the context of a society that is very security conscious. We are afraid of a lot of things. We vet people carefully before we give them charge over our children, we don't let our children out in case they are kidnapped or assaulted - or simply hurt. We double lock and don't leave our doors open. We need security cards before we can enter certain buildings including the BBC. I could go on with this list, and so could you until we started beating at the old 'elf and safety' doors. We are risk averse in that we only admire risk when it has been shown to be successful.

The case here needs to be argued through. There is the argument in spirit and there is the argument in practice. 

In spirit many of us are for or against many things and we like to feel good about that. We feel it is the better way. We point out the dangers of the other way and we accuse those who think differently of bad faith. I see this in political discourse all the time.

In the case of surveillance the noise of shouting may drown out the genuine arguments which do need to be heard. If you ask me personally I want the least surveillance possible. What is that least level? That is to be argued

In the case of Snowden, I don't think he was endangering anyone with his revelation so I think there is no serious case for prosecuting him - certainly none in spirit - but there is an interesting point of debate as to what, if anything, should be done? What degree of security is a country entitled to? Any? None? And how should that security operate?

I am happy to shout with the best, but I want to think through these things before shouting. I am aware that I stand in danger of being thought of 'bad faith' in even thinking this, which makes me just a little more obstinate.

Mark Husmann
You're being too modest, George. I think no-one can accuse you of bad faith. Your posts are careful, thoughtful, kind. You are the opposite of a knee jerker. In this particular case, I want to make two points in reply: the intelligence on the Woolwich killer DID exist, and still the killing happened. This deflates the argument that more "intelligence" equates more security. It might, statistically, pan out like that over a number of decades. That will be of little comfort for Lee Rigby's family and friends. Second, I agree with you completely that we desperately need to have the debate on how much security we want any state to have. This goes at the heart of human and civil rights. Again, in this case, I feel very strongly that our governments are willfully attempting to by-pass that very debate. They are collecting data against the wishes of who they pretend to represent. So, yes, I do my part of the shouting here, as I am outraged. Have you been following the case of Bradley Manning? It's a different kind of case, since he may have endangered people's lives by being less discriminate about what he leaked (Snowden targeted very specific documents to ensure people's safety was not compromised). However, the extremely undemocratic way the US deals with him in court shocks me. Our level of civility (is that a word?) can be measured by the way we treat whistleblowers.

George Szirtes
In most respects I agree with you, Mark. On Manning I am generally with you. And indeed in general I am instinctively much for more for you than against you. 

My hesitations? I am not sure of your judgment on Rigby. Your argument only demonstrates that there should have been better use of security, not that there should have been no security at all.

The other is less to do with the act - Snowden's / Manning's - than with our perception of the US reaction to it. In fact I suspect that is what we are really talking about. Not that there is too much difference between us on this point either, it's just that it shades off into areas that may be worth more talking than shouting about for now

What are the degrees of distinction within the argument?...

Mark Husmann
I think my main concern is this: intelligence on the potential killer has not resulted in what you call more security (which, I think, we all want). Still, UK and US governments deceive us, in order to gather even more intelligence. Not just targeted subjects, but indiscriminate blanket surveillance is what they want. Now, what could be their motivation? If that motivation was what they claim, then would have attempted this in a more democratic way, and quite possibly failed. I do not believe that our governments' ultimate motivation is civilian security.

George Szirtes
...On the one hand there are the apologists for harsh USA sentences. They claim that Manning's act in particular is an act of treason much like the betrayal of a raid in wartime might have been.

Note 1: The assumption here is that the War on Terror (to use the original name as coined) is a war against a side that regards itself as being at war, to which the answer can only be in terms of war. 

Note 2: This however implies that those who are trying to kill Americans and others by planting bombs etc are in fact combatants in a war, not criminals. 

Note 3: There is a danger of blurring the distinction between soldiers and criminals here, just as there is about the term 'war crime' which rests on the assumption that war is conducted under strictly definable terms - and to some degree it is - that a war crime contravenes. A state might choose to define an act for its own convenience, not just the US but any state.

On the other hand there are critics who condemn the USA in particular. They claim that the USA is inherently a warmongering state, and take a view that is not too far from the Ayatolla Khomeini's description of the USA as 'The Great Satan'. The current revelations - Manning's and Snowden's - are simply proof of that for them,  and the US administration's desire to be punitive to a point of illegality is further proof. This view needs no notes as far as I can see (I might be wrong) because there are no subtleties required to make the case.

There is another point of view, which is closer to my own, one that is set in the complex area of realpolitik - the area where we actually operate - where we are constantly in a sceptical frame of mind. We know that what politicians and their agents say is a mixture of code and half-truth that occasionally is an outright lie.

This world assumes that most of the centre ground is governed by moral uncertainty. It is neither black nor white in moral terms, but a struggle between aspects of possible good and aspects of possible bad. Outside this there do exist areas that do seem very bad and some that seem pretty near good. Not many of us would argue for North Korea, I imagine. Then come Burma, China etc. Nor would we argue that the UK or the USA are altogether good. The USA in particular, in view of its military power, is the subject of amplified perception.

You may be right in not believing that 'our governments' ultimate motivation is civilian security.' It is possible. But what is it then? That is the point I am hesitating about, Mark. What is that motivation, what evil purpose does it have? In order to think the purpose was sinister and evil I'd have to nudge a lot closer to the claim made by those for whom the USA is already The Great Satan. I am not happy getting too close to that. 

What I might support is the idea that agencies within a state may run away with their own projects, that, like any organisation, their natural tendency is to grow, and that this might - in fact probably would - result in some kind of paranoid nation if only because the mechanism's growth depends on it. The process in itself is not evil, nor has it an evil intention, it is just what happens everywhere, on the ground, on the smallest scale - it is the amplified effect of bureaucracy and managerialism that must find things to do. The question that I would then want addressed is whether the civic order has sufficient control of that tendency. It would be in the interests of civil society to control any such expansion if only because it costs a fortune.

That is a danger and that is what I think must be watched and protested against. I haven't lost all faith in Obama. I still think he is an essentially decent man who is doing a better job than any Republican would. The people I worry about are the Tea Party sort, the equivalent of which I am trying to resist in Hungary too.

ps This isn't an argument I am trying to 'win'. I am almost hoping that, if it were that, that you would 'win' it'. It is just a way of trying to think.

Mark Husmann
I, too, am attempting to think here. And I would be happy for you to blog this. Let me know where. 

I hope you don't think I think our government is 'evil'. Or the US government. I don't believe in Bond-style plot by a super villain. I do, however, note that we have entered an era of neo-feudalism in the Western world. It is not civilians, voters, that are represented by our governments. It is vast corporate wealth, shrouded in secrecy and hidden away in Switzerland, the Cayman Islands, Ireland, you name it, and various virtual places around the digital globe and accounts that can never be traced, monitored, policed. 

I am also aware (and this frightens me the most) that what we learn through our privatised news channels is what we are allowed to learn. Make the link between immense power in the form of wealth and damn little public control of the media, then you know who is making the decisions here about intelligence-gathering. Are you assuming that our government, for example, is acting out of their own free will? Then why do learn almost weekly about ministers and MPs breaking their code of practice regarding lobbying? 

You may also have seen in my facebook posts that I am a trade unionist and I am involved in numerous environmental campaigns, internationally. At every corner I see the power you gain by influencing others - friends, colleagues - through efficient use of the media. Just having a (good) argument doesn't work. Even the Tea Party know that much. 

Incidentally, I don't worry about them. Neither do I worry about the EDL here in the UK. I don't even worry about UKIP, who actually have a fighting chance of winning a seat here and there at the next election. Bring'em on. I feel the parliamentary processes are strong enough to deal with them democratically. Now, this may sound a little like I'm contradicting what I claimed earlier - that our government / parliament is not representing us, the voters. 

They are, but only to an extent that allows corporate wealth to grow. It has no interest in immigration politics. 

That is as far as we have got, and I am generally persuaded by Mark's argument to the extent that I will sign the petition. I suspect I might have done so eventually anyway, but the process of actually thinking through has been very valuable. It could go on, of course, but we both have lives to lead.

I suspect my instinct - as I hinted above - is that the stronger and louder the shouts of certainty around me the more I findmyself digging my heels in. This is true even in questions where I myself am most passionate and whose conclusions touch me directly, including - for instance - the question of anti-Semitism. I always want to know why it is possible to think so differently from 'the good'.  How dangerous is it to see oneself as the good and to dismiss those that think otherwise of being of bad faith'. Even irrationality has its reasons. Even psychosis has events it refers to.

Thursday 13 June 2013

Holding Note on Snowden / Light on the Wall

I have been having a discussion on FB (in the Notes section) with Mark Husmann on the Snowden case about which more than one person has written to me asking me to sign protests. I haven't yet signed the protests because the US hasn't as yet said what it intends to do.

Mark Husmann is a good man, and so in general are the others who want me to sign. I might well do so, but I don't want to be rushed. I would prefer to think why I should sign and what exactly I do sign. I always prefer to think. I have asked Mark if he would mind me blogging our discussion. If he agrees I will do so.


In the meantime some news on our neighbour. She is still in hospital and, after a very bad yesterday, things apparently look a little better today. But she is in the acute stroke ward - so it was in fact a stroke, as we suspected.


We are watching Springwatch, our one TV indulgence and as we watch the sun comes out. I look out of the window and see the play of light on the wall as wind blows the leaves. It is beautiful so I film 13 seconds of it. Here it is.

Wednesday 12 June 2013

A poet's note on preparing to read a novel

Is it better to think of reading novels as a pleasure or as a task? I am not sure the idea of pleasure is precise or complex enough, though the sense of obligation implied by a task casts away pleasure altogether, unless one takes pleasure in completion itself. Good, that's another one read!

I hope for more and I imagine others do too.

What do I hope for?

In a poem I look to find a re-experiencing of the world through imagination and language-as-spell, as if language, by an act of magic somewhere between song and sense, were touching the world for the first time and naming it. The poet, said the Hungarian poet Ágnes Nemes Nagy, is a scientist of the emotions, set on discovering new ones. The poem in total is the name of the emotion.

And why should emotions matter? It is because, once articulate, they are our best handles on significance, on the sensation of passing through life and registering it through the fingers of language. Poems don't need to be long. They usually have some narrative drive but they rarely extend to plots as such. It is not so much a matter of first here, then there: it is here here here unfolding itself.


But what of the story-telling process, that succession of first here, then theres? What sense of significance might that deliver?

A good story is good in so far as we are interested in what happens in it and want to see how it too unfolds. The story represents life as process, but - in a novel at least - as a process that is constantly moving on, deploying its sense of the whatness and thingness of the world-as-language as a device to enable action rather than naming.

There is, of course, pleasure in this - pleasure in a hazy but comfortable sense of the word - and that pleasure is not to be dismissed. We may be pleased by being entertained and kept on our toes by implied expectations in a form that manages to avoid altogether satisfying them, by dangling before us the promise that, if we persist long enough, they will at last be satisfied in the way we would want them to be satisfied.

And that is indeed satisfying.

The problem - from a poet's point of view - is that the satisfaction is the least satisfying thing about it. Even a reasonably sophisticated well-made book, one good with plots, timing, detail, and comfortable with language, tends to stop at that point of satisfaction.

But some novels give us much more. In their totality - a totality that may comprise parts not altogether well written, not altogether consistent, not altogether well plotted or well characterised - they offer a sense of the world that surprises us by its comprehensiveness and depth. It is not so much a matter of characters and what they do, as of the functions that characters and events perform, instinctive functions that can suddenly carve open the world and show us its profound, idiosyncratic workings.

And at that point, once we have started believing this about the book, the ordinary mechanisms of the novel become individual acts of the imagination that have been reabsorbed into vision. And vision is the point.

Tuesday 11 June 2013

Talking about Oliver Bernard

Oliver Bernard, photographed by John Deakin in 1956

In the morning Tony C came over to do a fifteen minute interview for Future Radio in memory of Oliver Bernard (1927-2013) who died just a few weeks ago and we chatted on happily for an hour and a half.

I knew Oliver only a little so I wondered whether to agree to the interview.  Feeling something of a fraud, I suggested another friend - Elspeth Barker - who had known Oliver for much longer and far better.  But then I found my copies of his pamphlet Quia Amore Langueo, 1995 (dedicated)  the poem itself also included in his collected poems, Verse &, 2001, and fished out his 1992 memoir, Getting Over It , though I had to nip in to UEA to pick up the first two from my office and, having done so, decided to go ahead.

Oliver was the oldest of the three famous brothers, the other two being Bruce and Jeffrey. The linked obit for Bruce begins:

Bruce Bernard, who has died aged 72, was an alarming, angry, affectionate and singular man...

That is not far from the impression I got of Oliver on our few meetings, who, on the jacket of Getting Over It, was, we learn, seduced at the age of fourteen by an older woman, then was briefly 'a male prostitute', did wartime service in the RAF, joined the Communist Party, worked in Paris and Corsica, took jobs as a kitchen porter, as a manual worker, as a copywriter (and became head copywriter), and as a teacher of drama and that he was also a member of CND on account of which he was once arrested and served time in Norwich Prison. He was beside all this a Soho man like his brothers, acquainted with Francis Bacon, Lucien Freud, Elizabeth Smart and George Barker. But Oliver had a kindly side too and, when in warm mood, he radiated a benign happiness.

I met him through Elspeth, George's widow, his last wife after Elizabeth Smart, but I first read him, not as a poet in his own right, but as the translator of the poet I fell in love with in my late teens, Arthur Rimbaud, Rimbaud being perhaps the one poet you can fall in love with at age seventeen and still be in love with at eighty-seven. So, for me, Oliver was a figure out of adolescence. It was like meeting Robert Graves.


It soon transpired that Tony and his wife, Ren, had themselves known Oliver Bernard for fifty years and that Oliver had taught Ren Latin. In light of that it seemed more natural that I should be interviewing Tony rather than the other way round and I said as much, adding that I could only really talk about Oliver's poetry,

What then of the poetry?

The surprise is that there is so little of it, 127pp generously printed in Verse &; and that verse split into a few sequences that might represent bursts of activity. A good number of the poems, it seems, did not appear in book form at all.

What is included in the book however does two paradoxical things: on the one hand it ranges quite widely in approach from echoes of Elizabethan lyric, through Modernism, to the polemical Peace poems; on the other it retains an identifiable, clear voice. In other words it is the product of a single, indeed singular, personality. It is the genuine thing, poetry driven by its own fitful fires.

The shifts from lyric form to terse almost prosaic comment often occur in the same poem as though the poet had a fear of looking - and maybe feeling - too slickly graceful, too comfortable in his own purloined self. Publishing so little and so infrequently, living both at the fringe and at the odd centre, his instinct might have driven him from thoughts of conscious style and consistency, from anything that added up to what people sometimes call 'the poetry business' or more repulsively, 'the poetry market'.

In this he reminds me of - indeed his poems sometimes remind me of - Martin Bell, whose taste ran more to burlesque and was less liable to embark on pure crystalline lyric but whose foot in the real world was established by similar anti-poetic lines and phrases as if to say, I am living in this world not the world of literary studies. But one might think as well of Norman Cameron, Robert Graves, or indeed George Barker.

Quia Amore Langueo is a thing of beauty, a delicate modernising out of Middle English. But I very much like to think of him as the author of poems such as this:

Good night you'd wonder who or why
suddenly out of nowhere said
and laughed absurdly pleased alone
to speak it on the way to bed
brushing my teeth in case I smile 
Tomorrow if it comes you will
see me if we meet and look
otherwise and innocent
of me my mind this open book 
how can you be in some small poem

Monday 10 June 2013

An emergency

Olympic Games Opening Ceremony 2012

This morning an emergency. Behind our house, off the road, is another house that used to be the shambles or slaughterhouse when our house was a butcher's shop. After it was a butcher's shop it became a successful restaurant, but after that restaurant moved and another took its place, the shambles and the barn, together with the land between, was divided from the restaurant and sold separately, which is when our elderly neighbour, let's call her X, bought it and started constructing a beautiful garden. We arrived some years after that.  Once that restaurant had also moved on, a third took over and failed and, when that was gone, the house became a gift shop. We bought the house as a failing gift shop.

We got to know X quite well. She is a little reserved and shy but has led a pretty full life and has lived on her own for many years and, even at ninety, is an independent, intelligent woman.

But being ninety she is not altogether well and has had some emergency runs to hospital in the past, so Clarissa has made it her business to look in regularly, to take her shopping when X wanted to go, or to bring her some items when she didn't.  It has been a very good relationship: she is fond of us and very much wants us to stay, and we are fond of her. She gave us a flowerbed in her garden, next to our house and since having got rid of her last car has allowed us to park ours in the gated drive.

This morning Clarissa noticed her curtains were still drawn, so she rang. The phone kept ringing. So she went to knock. She then tried the key we have been given but the door was bolted inside. She could hear X making her way very slowly down the stairs and slide the bolts. X had a great bruise on her head, had clearly had a fall, and was in shock, quite incoherent, unable to speak or answer questions. Clarissa sat her down in a chair and X did not move or recover, so she rang me and I came in.  Doctor or ambulance? Clarissa tried the doctor first. The reception was not keen to disturb the surgery and said best wait till the surgery was over in a couple of hours or so. In the meantime X would go on the priority list.

But X was getting no better. There was no external bleeding so it was hard to tell the extent of her injuries. Clarissa suggested I wait in the house in case the doctor called and she stayed with X. It was better for X to be with a woman now, especially one she saw regularly. She was still deeply disorientated, incapable of speech, merely groaning. I wondered about ringing the ambulance instead. I wondered - we both wondered - if this was a stroke. but Clarissa had described the symptoms to the doctor on the phone so the surgery knew as much as we did. Then we waited.

And waited. One hour. Two hours. Three hours.

Three hours after the call, at 1pm,  the doctor arrived. By this time we were deeply worried about X. And as soon as she had had a look at her, the doctor - a very nice woman - called an ambulance.

The ambulance took 22 minutes to get here.  It was about another ten minutes before they took X away.

Tonight, early evening, the hospital called to say that X was seriously ill and that we should call her daughter in Australia.

I had marked out tonight to attend a reading by two poets I know in Norwich. Should we still go? We discussed it briefly and decided to go ahead. There was nothing we could do here except think about it.

It does indeed make you think.

Three and a half hours from the time Clarissa found X to the time she was taken where she ought have been taken much earlier! Of course we are not doctors and can only guess at the problem, but this was clearly much more than a fall. Maybe it was TIA. Clarissa's father used to suffer from such attacks. Whatever the case I would have thought X's condition constituted an emergency.

Three hours and then a half! I repeat it again. That is time for a great many things to go wrong, possibly for ever, even perhaps for a person to die.

Is this what health care is like in this county? In this country? God help the old in twenty years time - that means us, of course.

Sunday 9 June 2013

Catching up while the Danube rises

The Danube in flood, Budapest, today at 7am

Time has shifted on very rapidly since my last piece and sometimes I think it may be wise to let the blog go, but then I think again, partly because of the news from Hungary, partly because I can imagine occasions on which I would like to write simply in order to think, and partly because life just continues to be interesting on several fronts at once. Ideally I would want to write a little each day. It needs daily upkeep to make sense.

But I fall behind for one reason or other and then it seems an impossible burden to catch up.

The pressure is on translation at the moment. I am behind with Magda Szabó's Pilátus - the English title yet to be decided - and am striving to catch up. But there are interruptions. Last weekend it was baby-sitting the whole weekend, which is wonderful, but not much translation gets done if only because grandchildren are exhausting. I should add that they are more exhausting for Clarissa than myself because she does more of the work, but while she is busy with one, I keep the other entertained and the mind is tired at the end of the day.

On Tuesday we went to hear Nick Cohen speak to the Skeptics at a Norwich pub. He is travelling around selling his book on censorship, You Can't Read This Book, which I bought on the strength of his talk - he is an amusing and erudite speaker - then read it in the next day or two. I am reading other books of course, such as Nicole Krauss's marvellous The History of Love and Sándor Iván's splendid Az éjszaka mélyén (In Deepest Night), and shuttle between them the best I can.

On Wednesday afternoon we went to see our charming financial advisor (hah! we have one to tell us we'll be all right in our retirement) and that was the whole afternoon. Next two days were packed solid with translation, then it was the grandchildren again yesterday, and today, a long grey day just graciously fading into evening, it has been more translation.


Some brief memories of the week before. Tuesday 28th, the whole afternoon at UEA seeing students after having lunch with Manohar, the Indian translator, discussing politics. On Wednesday down to London for a curious affair at the Hungarian Embassy.

I doubt they would have invited me but two friends, Colin Ford, the curator and great scholar of Hungarian photography, and Peter Zollman, fellow translator, were receiving honours from the Hungarian state along with Karl Jenkins, the composer, and Colin had asked Clarissa and I to be his guests. We duly dressed up, drank, and toasted the recipients and watched them being presented with their decorations then filtered into dinner where three tables were set, one titled The Good, another The Beautiful and the third, The True. I was placed on The True and packed between two politically safe people, one of whom kept trying to pick at me the whole evening because of my Guardian article, but I was quite happy and made conversation with others on the table, being only sorry not to be able to talk to the great photographer Peter Korniss, who seemed a very nice man indeed. The ambassador made a speech in which he remarked on the concept of the three tables, touching on their opposites, The Bad, The Ugly and The Lie. I think I must have been intended to be The Lie between the to Truths. He was perfectly civil to me of course, but it was a strange evening, relieved by having both Colin and Peter refer to me with much warmth in their speeches.

That was Tuesday and Wednesday gone, and on Friday we were invited to a neighbour's house for supper.

In the meantime I learned I had been voted on to the Hungarian Academy as an Honorary Member, a huge honour. It has been quite month with the Best Translated Book Award in the USA for Satantango, the CLPE Prize for In the Land of the Giants, Patrick Stewart reading my unpublished poem about The Matrix Reloaded and now this. Not to forget the Hay Festival in Budapest! I'll put up links to the Hungarian interviews (in Hungarian) later. No wonder the translation is behind!

All this is wonderful but the more wonderful it gets the less I feel I deserve it. It's like being up in a balloon. I'm not sure I should be in a balloon at all.


That takes me up to the present. Tonight the Danube is still rising and will reach peak height some time tonight. The lower embankments are closed and uder water. They seem confident they will keep the river  at its all-time record level from flooding the streets. I hope so. I love Budapest.

And I'd like to get back to the Manchester United / Fergie story, as there is more to say.

Saturday 1 June 2013

A link to a piece by Giles Oakley

A link to an article from the delightful Giles Oakley who occasionally writes for the leading United web-based fanzine, The Republic of Mancunia. This post is primarily a memory of Brian Greenhoff, but ex-journalist Oakley writes with such knowledge and affection he is a real pleasure to read.

And of course he has seen a great deal more than I have.  I very much recommend him.