Friday 27 June 2014

Nostalgia, Homeache:
Worlds Literature Festival (10)

Homeache. The soldier with his distances. The liar with his indulgences.
The noise of deserted streets. Open mouths.


You hold the homeache in your hand as if it were yours, as if your hands were yours,
as if you had hands, as if you had a home.


You feel unjustified. You don't recognise the madness in your veins.
The aching in your arms is for a home beyond arms' length.


Homeache is a city suddenly empty. A familiar unidentified smell.
The self gone missing finds itself unmoored. A shower of faint stars.


I can no longer count its streets, says a voice you recognise.
These are your streets. They are too many to count. They are yours to lose.


How many ways of recognising home without inhabiting it?
Without ever having inhabited it?
Who lives there now? Whose eyes meet its people?


After the rain the dry street. In the dead of night a sound settling into life.
That too is an ache seeking a home. Then the sound of rain.


It’s like ringing a bell at night. No one hears it, not even the bell ringer.
No, not even you. Yet it's there because you recognise it.


Homeache can't perfect itself. It can't even move.
It makes sculptures out of absence. It is its own lost art.


Homeache: the fierce wind wrapping itself around trees and eaves.


The consolations of being consoled. Of being able to conceive of consolation.
Of a home to ache for. Of phantom limbs.


How many ways of making the beautiful out of lack? Why desire the beautiful?
Would home be beautiful? Would it ache? Would it desire?


You have arrived home. You take off your coat. You move down the hall.
Your body aches. The ache becomes your home. You close the door.

Nostalgia, Homeache: Worlds Literature Festival, Norwich (9)

from Hiroshima, Mon Amour


Xiaolu Guo’s provocation was a plea to move away from the close concerns of the novel and to enter the public forum on many levels at once, as writers, as artists, as film-makers, as journalists, as theorists. One should return to the ethos of 50s cinema in Europe, or even earlier, to the time of manifestos between the wars. To the time of Dada for example. To its energy. Her own fictional characters, she told us, were always writing unpublished manifestos.

There should be an end to endings as closures too. Great literature, such as Calvino's, did not produce neat Hollywood endings. The arts should not be content to be confined within the limits of a craft. Art should engage in the public forum. It should be full of ideas, however unfinished.

To support this she showed us four filmclips, from Cocteau’s Le Sang d’un Poète, from Godard’s À Bout de Souffle at the start and from Truffaut’s Jules et Jim and from Resnais' Hiroshima, Mon Amour, as scripted by Marguerite Duras. She invited us to be revolutionary public auteurs. Why should literature be a monoculture - the novel and nothing more? Why should we restrict ourselves to being wordsmiths? She talked of Derek Jarman, Chris P{etit, Neil Jordan and John Berger  all of whom had oproduced work in a variety of media.

Nostalgia was a novelist's preoccupation. The novel had become lazy and complacent. Let's explode nostalgia!


A little like Wojciech’s provocation, Xuolu's could be regarded as a wake-up slap in the face of the novel. But one might also see it as the throwing open of a window. It had little, perhaps, to do with nostalgia as such, except in its dismissal of conventional novelistic versions of it, but it was hard to resist the call of raw memory especially when the voice on Hiroshima, Mon Amour asks us ‘Why deny the obvious necessity of remembering?’

Remembering lies at the root of this: how we remember, what we remember, what we choose to present in order that it should be remembered, but what we invent or imagine having remembered or desire as part of the complex mixture each of us has to balance. We were reminded that we were talking about tightropes here. It may well be that the higher the tightrope the better.

My own decision was to retitle nostalgia and call it ‘homeache‘ just as one might refer to toothache, or stomachache, or bellyache or head- or heartache. The ache exists. I couldn’t sleep on one of these nights and wrote down these thoughts that may constitute a poem, about homeache.

See the next post for the last of the Worlds 2014 reports,  the poem, Homeache. 

Nostalgia, Homeache: Worlds Literature Festival, Norwich (8)

PROVOCATION 7: Bernice Chauly
THE FOURTH DAY brought us Bernice Chauly’s provocation which was very strongly focused on the current situation in Malaysia, a situation in which Chinese, Indian, and other ethnicities of the population are being effectively disenfranchised.

Muslim Malay identity, Bernice explained, is the only one permitted on official papers. That monocultural identity comes with perks whereas the other more complex identities entail penalties.  But even Malay Muslim identity is a historical complex, she argued, a false and artificial construction. That construction was a political act obliging everyone, but especially the disenfranchised, to forget their own past. The disenfranchied have therefore to rely ever more on personal memories and the nostalgia that is a necessary aspect of it.

Bernice said she wrote her book, Growing up with Ghosts to preserve the individual identities of her family before they were rubbed away.  [Ghosts may be a metaphor in this respect, I think, but they are a so far unmentioned aspect of nostalgia too.] Her book was in six voices because she wanted to have each member of her family speak for himself or herself through letters and diaries. She had used her personal archive as a source of direct quotation. Her publishers felt it would be better to have a single narrator but she insisted on all six.

She told us how her father would sing her to sleep and wake and how this too was a part of her identity.  Her book was a way of dealing with her own anger and grief at the loss of such history. She showed us family photographs as she read. Malaysia, she said, was 'a land I love and hate'. Her natural audience, she said, were themselves Malaysians.

It was a vivid example of how an official and oppressive nostalgia for a false state of affairs is bound to produce a nostalgia of opposition as a reaction. Like Kerry, Bernice wanted to give voices to the forgotten. (Bernice Chauly can be seen here talking about her book on YouTube.


But what exactly was the nostalgia for, someone asked. It turned out that it was, in some respects, for British rule, or simply for a time before the current administration; for a time of greater tolerance and liberalism. The songs her father sang, said Bernice, were English nursery rhymes. There was, she added, a good casefor regarding Anthony Burgess as the greatest Malaysian writer.

One thought that colonialism might well feel more secure but only because it was a jail and jail generally made prisoners feel more secure. Another speaker wondered whether nostalgia was regret for a loss of privilege though she admitted that it might be different for people who lived under direct political pressure. From another we heard of the Indian tea producer who lamented the departure of the British simply because business was better for him under British rule: better for him but not at all better for his employees.

In other words regret for the past depends on what position you occupied before it became the past. Bernice said she felt nostalgic for any time before the current administration.

Roma, one remarked, don’t talk about the past and even burn the caravans of the dead. Death is not to be talked about, not even the Roma Holocaust. Roma don’t write things down because writing ‘fixes’ events too firmly and time has to move on.

But was there an identity issue at all? One thought that identity was a modern, global problem that was associated with notions of the 'self', an idea that had not existed in the East.

It is interesting to compare Bernice's Malaysia (she lives there) with Kerry's Jamaica (she returns there after many years) and Akhil's India (which he sees from New York.) There are clearly large universal patterns such as colonialism and the longing for an age before or after it. but also a number of local factors involving political suppression, local history and absence.

It was becoming ever clearer that our judgment of nostalgia depended on degrees of power: if you once had power over others and lost it nostalgia might be regarded as a culpable form of yearning for an imagined 'idyllic' past, but, if you were among those who lived under another power, nostalgia might be a way of recovering that which the power was wishing to suppress.

And then again, nostalgia might be something else altogether, a realm of the imagination in which the sense of loss invented worlds that echoed and expanded the world before us and helped us to understand the possibilities of feeling.

Bernice was clearly speaking to us in the heat of action. Her provocation was intended to bring to notice what was going on and what it felt like. The past can be a defence against the present.

In the last provocation Xiaolu Guo took us somewhere altogether different, beyond nostalgia altogether in some respects. Her provocation forms the penultimate post in this series.

Thursday 26 June 2014

Nostalgia, Homeache: Worlds Literature Festival, Norwich (7)

PROVOCATION 6: Kerry Young

In Kerry Young’s provocation she recounted her own history and described the writing of her books. As an immigrant she had had a fear of feeling anything. Having come to England from Jamaica as a child and lived here most of her life she had experienced both colonialism and racism at first hand. She felt an outsider and people in England made her feel so, frequently asking her where she came from (she actually lives in a small town in Leicestershire and has lived there for decades). Her sense was that she was in a place where she was not wanted. She experienced this as an absence of humanity. And in any case she missed things. She missed the objects and colours of her childhood.

She wasn't expecting to be a writer - she is still a youth worker - but reading James Baldwin changed her life and she began to write. She has written two books to date, Pao and Gloria. What she wrote of was home - her first home - where the objects and colours of her nostalgia existed. That is if they did exist - she has spent most of her life here and hadn't returned till the publication of her first book.

We are always homesick, she said. We want reminders of our roots, of the places where we are free. We resist 'drifting out into an air of nothingness'. But the categories into which we are placed, such as Black British, or even Chinese-Jamaican, are too simple, too constricting. We want to define ourselves.

What Kerry wanted to write was a political history of Jamaica. She wanted to recount how the Chinese got there. Not that Jamaica was any kind of paradise - it had been ruined by British colonialism.

So what was Jamaica?

For her Jamaica was both reality and invention. Jamaica was the object of her nostalgia or desire - [which term to use, and does it matter?] and it was that Jamaica that she was offering as a gift, by dedication of the book to her father, mother and the country itself.  When she returned to Jamaica to read from her book she was greeted by vast grateful crowds. What she has written, she says, is a history of Jamaica that is true to the people for whom it is written.


There are great complexities here aren’t there? The reality offered to her dedicatees is one that is both researched and invented from the outside, from a position of exile, nevertheless the people inside take great delight in it. Is it possible to identify with a people, or one’s idea of the people, without a sense of national identity? someone asked. Was part of being settled in England the ability to imagine England? asked another.

Is identity more of a struggle for the outsider than the insider? wondered a fellow Caribbean writer. There are foreign writers living in Japan whose subject is the country of their origin, someone added, but when one of those writers writes about Japan he is told the books are not needed because readers already know about Japan. This is very like our earlier idea of exoticisation but seen through the other end of the telescope. 

It also relates to Kerry’s own idea of inventing Jamaica and offering it as a gift. Kerry concluded that identity was no problem for her. She was, despite all her time in England, a Jamaican, she said, but on the other hand would not wish to be identified in any way that defined her.

The question then remains who identifies whom? What do we invent and what do we offer to the very people we have invented? What is being invented? Is invention an aspect of nostalgia, a nostalgia for what needs to be invented?  But if there are two distinct realms, that of truth / reality on the one hand(I think of Denise’s and Wojciech’s strictures and provocations) and of falsity / invention / detail / imagination on the other, which realm does Kerry’s passionate but invented Jamaica inhabit: the true or the nostalgic?

Is that a choice we must make or are there conditions under which invention and truth can coexist? 

And is that condition called art?

In the following day's first provocation Bernice Chauly talked of political conditions in Malaysia and of what one might be nostalgic for in those circumstances. That will be the next post.

Wednesday 25 June 2014

Nostalgia, Homeache: Worlds Literature Festival, Norwich (6)

PROVOCATION 5: Akhil Sharma

ON THE THIRD DAY Akhil Sharma offered a finely woven, now open-now closed essay that led us into complex psychological territories involving shame, guilt, the pleasures of sadness, irony, and the general question of our relation to the past.

He began with a personal story about a relationship with a woman in which his attachment to sadness led to the break up.  Sadness, he suggested, was a seeking for security while happiness only results in anxiety. This was the first of many complexities. He took us through the implications of literary devices such as writing in the first person and writing in the present tense, pointing out that the past was ‘soaked in nostalgia and beautiful language’.

Beautiful language, Akhil argued, was also an aspect of the emigré writer’s use of exoticism. The emigré is expected to be exotic. Exoticism presents us with lushness of detail but involves a degree of stereotyping. An Indian in the USA writing about India, for example, writes differently from one who writes for Indians at home. Indians in India need less description. So maybe detail in itself was to be treated with suspicion.

The high details of exoticism, so much associated with post-colonialism, were what a popular audience demanded and, if an emigré author wanted to be popular, he or she had to provide it. How then to avoid pandering to such an audience when you do in fact desire an audience? How to make serious literature without detail, without accommodation or betrayal of some kind, without a stylised sadness, without guilt. 'I try to speak ill of everything I've written,' he said.


It was the idea of detail as something exotic, decorative, seductive and almost false that excited us. Is detail doomed to be exotic? And what, after all was ‘the exotic’? Was it just another daunting term flashed around as a form of rebuke? ‘Fondling’ detail might be thought a kind of lasciviousness, faintly immoral. But if nostalgia is supposed to be fuzzy, detail was, surely, the precise opposite. Nabokov, it was pointed out, exhorts us to ‘fondle’ detail, to exoticise ourselves. Consider Barthes' Camera Lucida, one suggested, and the vital importance Barthes attaches to detail in the form of the punctum, the very thing that enables us to move beyond the expected (or studium as Barthes calls it).

Then again we might think about the function of precise detail in the perfume review - all names, dates and brands. 

The provocation made frequent reference to the idea of a popular audience, But how much could we know of audience? How far could we anticipate audience reaction and hope to please it? Not everyone thought audiences were quite so easy to describe and, when it came down to it, Akhil himelf said he wrote for writers he particularly admired [my own usual answer].

And what of the woman at the beginning of Akhil’s provocation? What if she were to appear and speak up for herself?  Was she merely a function of the narrator’s  preference for sadness?  Certain kinds of poetry do trade heavily in the fetishisation of detail and post-colonial reading could be like the reading of women’s writing in that it came with, as one put it, a ‘coating of the writing with a thick layer’ of  stereotype and expectation.

When it came to sterotypes, we were reminded how often publishers demand stock images for their covers, thus exacerbating stereotypes.

Stereotypes arouse expectations but context moves goalposts. Work, it was argued, differs according to the given context. Changing background information changes the way we read things. The providing of specific contexts might well lead to the commodification of certain kinds of literature.

So now nostalgia was asociated with exoticism and stereotyping. But nostalgia, objected one, might also be a way of recovering details of childhood. The interaction of details, someone else suggested, can be important to the reader.

Akhil concluded by saying good books lead to discomfort and regretted that, in order to avoid discomfort, readers will sometimes mentally turn the present tense to the past in order to restore comfort. It's over, they say. It's past and done for. It was just a story.

My personal thought at the end of the provocation was that it left us with the eternal question of irony. What of the idea of nostalgia as irony, or irony as nostalgia, or indeed of the irony of nostalgia? 

The sixth provocation, by Kerry Young, moved from irony to passion but took forward the theme of post-colonialism and reintroduced the idea of invention by another route. See next post.

Tuesday 24 June 2014

Nostalgia, Homeache: Worlds Literature Festival, Norwich (5)

PROVOCATION 4: James Scudamore

After Wojciech's fierce visceral provocation, James Scudamore’s defence of nostalgia, or rather his re-definition of it as childhood bookishness comprising the realm of dream and invention opened new territories. He recalled his own peripatetic childhood with its frequent relocations, a life that entailed reading on the move. His favourite early fictional characters were, he said, much like him, people who lived by books.

He reminded us of Alain-Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes with its enchanted narrator, Francois Seurel, of The Great Gatsby, of what he called ‘the doomed fantasists club’ and the realisation that, through literature, we could ‘recall experiences we have never had.’ He led us to Don Quixote where truth and illusion share the same space and where Quixote is ‘undone by books’. And yet, most importantly, Quixote 'does not fracture: he bends'. Novels, he argued, invent the notion of fictional truths where we are invited to believe things we know not to be true.  That can be dangerous too, of course. Emma Bovary is undone by her romantic reading. It would have done Emma good to get out more and have less contempt for where she actually lived, said James. She did not bend: she fractured.  James quoted Larkin’s “Here no elsewhere underwrites my existence’.

Importantly, he suggested that the bookish realm was a way of missing things by inventing them, a theme that was later to appear in Kerry Young’s provocation. Elsewheres were important. We create invisible cities where time and space contract. He quoted Marquez to the effect that ‘what matters is not what happens but what we remember’, and that 'nostalgia is weaponised'. He described the way the central character in his new book breaks into derelict asylums to note details of graffiti and old notices. Ruins are nostalgia too, not just picturesque ruins. Nostalgia takes us not only to Tintern Abbey but to Chernobyl.


The point was made that nostalgia, in China, is for family rather than the past because there was a different concept of the past: in effect the past was constantly present. But the sense of that presentness of the past, someone added, was temporarily suppressed by the Cultural Revolution.  The historical past could however still exert considerable power.

There is also the Welsh sense of hiraeth, the focus of which dates back to 1282 and embodies the longing for a Welsh past that is still powerful and can motivate the Welsh rugby team. But even that sense of history might be guided by love of a different kind from that felt by soldiers for each other.

We might, someone else noted, explore the maternal sense of love, as in ‘motherland’and ‘mother-tongue’. Yes, another added, but some places thrive too much on love, history and the past. Italians are, in that way, surrounded by beauty and a tangible historic past. They thrive on nostalgia. Might love itself, someone suggested, be a capitalist concept?

There remained the idea of nostalgia for genuinely lost homes. ‘Ostalgia’ the nostalgia of some East Germans for their communist past got a mention. Wojciech responded with its opposite: Westalgia. Nostalgia can be an intoxicating and highly valued state of being. Someone instanced the melancholy of saudade in Portugal, the sense of longing for the impossible, the vanished.

It seemed at this stage that while we had a wide range of definitions of nostalgia we could still agree on certain things, particularly on the idea that it was to do with missing something. The question was whether what we are missing really exists and, if it does, whether it is of value?  And, behind the value, whether nostalgia, as Denise first suggested, was a tool of power intended to sedate and mislead real enquiry through the kind of frivolity that Wojciech accused all fiction of indulging, or if it was - through a slight adjustment or amplification of meaning - a vital function of the imagination and a necessary aspect of any human existence.

The fifth provocation by Akhil Sharma took us into complex psychological territory from the author's point of view,  and touched nerves associated with exile writing, on the questions of exoticism and expectation, and, importantly, on the commercial literary uses of nostalgia. That's the next post.

Monday 23 June 2014

Nostalgia, Homeache: Worlds Literature Festival, Norwich (4)

THE SECOND DAY began with a discussion of translation where, naturally enough, the idea of nostalgia reappeared, albeit indirectly, in ghost form, in the form of language as a matrix that might offer, as James had earlier suggested, a sense of home. What then happens when writing shift from one language to another? There were some wonderful images evoked of transplanting trees and getting two poems for the price of one. Most astonishing however was Dai Congrong’s annotated interlineated translation of the first part of Finnegan’s Wake: some eight years labour. Suddenly all was fresh and playful and intriguing and dedicated.

PROVOCATION 3: Wojciech Tochman

Here provocation became truly provocative. Polish writer and journalist Wojciech Tochman poured scorn not only on the term ‘nostalgia’, but on fiction itself, as a cosy form of indulgence for the wealthy and comfortable.

“All words in existence are already worn out” he said. What words after all could there be for the Bosnian woman waiting for the disinterring of her lost menfolk’s bones so she could give them a proper burial? Nostalgia meant worse than nothing under these conditions. He took us to the door of a school in Rwanda and showed us Juliet, a Hutu and therefore safe from the Hutus who were set on massacring the Tutsis. But Juliet had a Tutsi husband and her children were therefore deemed to be Tutsi. Juliet, he said, stands at the door and invites you in. 'Juliet shows you everything'.

But it was he who led us through the doors of a school in the Rwandan massacre and showed us the corpses in great unremitting detail.  He took us through the process whereby the very memory of those who had been massacred was to be eradicated. The bulldozer, the mummified bodies. We think we know more and more about the world, he argued: the truth was that we knew less and less. Why bother with non-fiction under these circumstances. Fiction, he claimed, was the opposite of reality. It was frivolous, irresponsible, a luxury. Truth was with Juliet at the door.


The first question was whether writing could stop the killing? And was it the writer’s obligation to be an agent of change and stop it? These key questions address the writer’s role in society. Should writing result in action at all? Should the writer enter and operate within a world of action? That was the question posed by Auden in his poem about the death of Yeats. For poetry makes nothing happen, wrote Auden. But what should writing make things happen? And how?

The initial shock wave - it was after all a form of accusation - was bound to lead to defences of fiction and the imagination. One suggested that social action might be more effective in theatre than in novels. On the other hand, someone argued, if we are talking about truth, one of the strengths of fiction is that it could not be gainsaid or proved false whereas documents can. Fiction was its own truth. And, after all, how far can we trust the reporter or indeed the reporter trust himself to report faithfully when it came to events like Rwanda? Wojciech replied that one has to both trust and distrust oneself.

And what of Juliet’s existence as other than the figure at that door? As herself beyond evidence and symbol. What perfume Juliet might have chosen before the massacre, for example. How did she choose her clothes, her hair, her ornaments, those parts of her life that defined her before she arrived at that door? Was she doomed to stand at that door for ever. Is that what she was?

Text is just text, argued one, not a set of distinctions between fiction and non-fiction. That old argument was no longer worth having. Wojciech answered that, in the case of Juliet, in the context of Rwanda, he couldn’t regard text just as text.

There followed an interlude on voyeurism. Are we, the readers, being invited by Juliet, or indeed by the reporter, to participate in an act of ghoulish voyeurism? Voyeurism is, of course, one of those ‘bad’ words that can stifle debate. But surely literature would be nothing without voyeurism. We all want to know what the characters are doing.

With Wojciech’s provocation we were back on firm moral ground with the added charge that nostalgia was not just a harmful political condition but a key aspect of imaginative fiction in general, especially when fiction is brought face to face with the dreadful truths of actual life in a world that is continually at war, not just in the past but in the present.

Sunday 22 June 2014

Nostalgia, Homeache: Worlds Literature Festival, Norwich (3)

PROVOCATION 2: Owen Sheers

Ater the break Owen moved our attention to the military sphere. He began by tracing the word back to the 17C in English usage (the nostalgia of Swiss soldiers for the mountains and the ringing of cow bells) but also to its Greek roots in nostos (home) and algos (pain).

His case was that young soldiers’ nostalgia was not for home but for war itself.

He talked of the sense of loyalty, even of love, as felt between young soldiers under extreme conditions. He had spent considerable time with them in preparing for two important works, Pink Mist, and The Two Worlds of Charlie F. The soldiers had served chiefly in Afghanistan. They were mostly very young, working class men who had joined less from a desire to be in the army than from a longing to get away from home.  Their nostalgia wasn’t for the army as such but for the moment of battle, for the heightened sensation of  killing and facing death.  Battle, Owen argued, was what defined them as soldiers. The turning point for them comes when a comrade is killed. Once that happens they feel both love and the desire for revenge. Love defines their response. For them the army is the strongest bond after and beyond family. It is where life becomes both precarious and precious.

This distances them from society. they grow to dislike the popular idea of heroes. They want to own what Owen called ‘the full spectrum of their experience'.


The first response was of pity and alarm. The manipulation of young men was distressing. They were all men, not women, someone noted, and wondered what the response of female soldiers might have been. To many present war seemed an unhealthy object of nostalgia but it showed that home wasn’t necessarily the object of desire. Someone remarks that Tennyson’s Ulysses couldn’t wait to leave home. Was the military in itself a form of home for young soldiers? There are Vietnamese students who feel nostaligic about the Vietnam War regarding it as a heroic period, says one. A jihadi fighter’s object of nostalgia might well be for a home he didn’t know or inhabit, says another. 

The experience of war being so emotive it was not surprising that we were drawn a little away from the notion of nostalgia to focus on the experience of war. It did however succeed in raising questions about the idea of home as the chief object of nostalgia. It wasn’t necessarily homesickness for the ‘land’ in Edward Thomas’s fingers that motivated the young soldiers but the an intensity of an experience that defined them, an experience associated with love.

The questions raised about home, about place, time and occasion found other expression too. What was the point of the war and had the war been successful? Owen added that being told that they had fought for nothing was, for soldiers, like being wounded.

Is nostalgia, in this version,  the desire not only for comradeship at times of trouble, but for the moment of danger, the rush of adrenalin, the loss, and the taste of death? And if so, what becomes of that nostalgia once the moment of action is over and the soldier returns? What use is that nostalgia to him (it is generally a young man) and how is he - and those in his immediate circle, and in society generally - to recover from it? What is nostalgia to the wounded recruit, to the poor bearer of death?

PROVOCATION 4 by Wojciech Tochman was to take us even further away from the world of perfumes and bromides, into the realm of real and present violence where death has no time for the imagination. That's the next post.

Nostalgia, Homeache: Worlds Literature Festival, Norwich (2)

PROVOCATION 1: Denise Riley

Perfumes are designed to heighten desire but Denise wondered whether nostalgia was not in fact the opposite of perfume: a bromide that was traditionally supposed to weaken desire, indeed to weaken the whole system of intelligent resistance. She compared nostalgia to “an oily paste” the consumption of which condemned the indulger to a series of false closures or endless beginnings, its purpose being to obscure a more thorough, more honest engagement with the truth.

This modern sense of nostalgia, she argued, depends on the luxury of actually having a ‘past’, a past that presents us with a sanitised version of events and distances us from the the genuine. Surely the past ought to be raw and jagged. Today’s nostalgia doesn’t even offer us emotions, she said: it offers moods instead. Nostalgia is mood music. A little like perfume too then.

The very word, she suggested, was one of a group such as ‘trauma’ or ‘irony’, words with similarly diluted meanings that form a deliberately misleading and seductive shorthand. She mentioned the Nostalgia Critic on YouTube who offers to remember the past for you “so you don’t have to”. She talked of John Major’s speech about cricket and warm beer (adapted, I suspect,  from Betjeman) whose purpose at the time was to reassure Eurosceptic conservatives that being part of Europe didn’t mean there wouldn’t always be an England.  She offered nostalgia as the twilight zone between history and memory, quoting Plath: “What I want back is what I was once.”

Nostalgia wasn't just a bromide: it was a sedative and a liar.



One writer wondered whether this was not too western a reading of the term, recalling that Maoist rhetoric forbade nostalgia because it allowed people to remember a pre-Mao past. Another recalled how young Vietnamese students, too young to remember the Vietnam War, could now wax sentimental about it as a heroic age.

Nostalgia may be condemned on ideological grounds in contemporary Malaysia for example, argued another, where the government is currently trying to impose an exclusively Malay identity on many Indians and Chinese who have inhabited the country for generations.  So nostalgia might in fact be a form of resistance.

But what might we be nostalgic enough to fight for? Edward Thomas’s response to this question was to seize a clod of earth and reply: This.

The discussion passed on to the question as to whether we can ever separate history and desire. Could we distinguish between the questionable political use of nostalgia on the one hand and nostalgia as an aspect of a desire with a shifting object on the other?

Might one be properly nostalgic for one’s youth if one’ youth was spent in fighting an oppressive political force?.

It was becoming clear that nostalgia, the word, was being used in two possible ways in two different situations.

After the break it was Owen Sheers's turn to provoke debate. What he said followed on from Denise's criticism but turned it into a different and unexpected direction. Owen Sheers follows in the next post.

Saturday 21 June 2014

Nostalgia, Homeache: Worlds Literature Festival, Norwich 2014 (1)

All this last week I have been attending the Worlds Literature Festival sessions in Norwich. Worlds is a mixture of conference and festival, a chance for many writers, some great, some very well established, some new from all over the world, to get together and discuss their art in closed salons as well as to read and talk to the public (see the public events in the top link).

The salons are intense three-hour affairs where two authors each give a short paper on the theme of the year, and then the rest engage in a chaired discussion. These papers are titled 'provocations'. There are four days with one three-hour session each, that is to say eight provocations, each day having its public readings from the invited writers.

I love these occasions because they are full of fascinating ideas and approaches from marvellous writers from various points of view. They come from China, Japan, Korea, Australia, India, USA, Poland, Italy, South Africa, Malaysia, Singapore, Norway and many other places. They bring their perspectives with them. Being of a quick and inquisitive nature I tend to leap in and ask questions looking to understand and relate the points being made.

Maybe because of this, maybe because I am just local and someone has to do it, this is the third year running that I was asked to write the summing-up on the last afternoon, which meant condensing twelve hours of conversation into about half an hour and hoping to make a coherent whole out of it.

The next few blogs, including this one, will present that summing up in episodes. Protocol means that I can give the name of the provoker but not the names of those who commented so have had to find formulations to suggest the direction of the debate. In other words the text is mine. I have tried to represent as many views as was possible and hope I haven't interwoven too many of my own positions.

The theme this year was Nostalgia, though for reasons of my own that will become clear at the end, I have added the idea of 'homeache'. Within the conference it was the word 'nostalgia' that was used. It is that which was discussed in one way or another, so here beginneth.



Nostalgia is about memory, about remembering as a public act or a private act and the relationship between the two. At some point the act reaches the condition of nostalgia.

In the act of remembering we may be seeking for the raw, the naked and the authentic in a search for truth while at the same time struggling to avoid an easy substitute from which the meaning has not only drained but has turned against itself. It pits the sometimes harsh terms of love against the seductive associations of clichéd romance.

Since nostalgia is such a problematic term it is worth seeking some instances of its use as a term. In doing so I felt fairly certain that given its romantic associations it would make a good name for a perfume.

And I was right. NOSTALGIA is indeed the name of a perfume - for men. Here is part of a review - not an advertisement - of the brand.


“The rather aptly named Nostalgia briefly made me feel like the racing legend, Mario Andretti, in a 1970s Alfa-Romeo Spider convertible or like the ultra-cool Steve McQueen in his Jaguar XKSS.

Close your eyes and imagine a powerful old car on a racing track set in a birch wood forest. The smell of diesel fuel is in the air, along with the cracked leather seats of the ancient vehicle, and the smell of campfire smoke from a fire in the trees beyond. Bergamot swirls its sweet juices into the mix, along with vanilla, amber and earthy patchouli. As you rev your engines, and press your foot on the pedal, you speed away so fast that you leave the diesel fuel far behind, and enter into a vanilla, amber cocoon nestled amidst the birch trees. There, you take shelter in a haze of creamy, warm, lightly powdered vanillic sweetness infused with campfire smoke.

As Nostalgia dries down, the sharp and rubbery scent of its top notes softens considerably, with the composition attaining an elegant quality. Now it is a vision of cigars dipped in cognac. And yet Nostalgia possesses a daring edge, provided by the tarry and smoky refrain that is very distinct in the woody and musky heart of the fragrance.”
It’s a simple smell, but then, Nostalgia is a return to a simpler, more nostalgic time.”

But of course there is a perfume for women too, that uses the softer French word, Nostalgie. Here is a review of that.


“Do you recall the opening of Van Cleef & Arpel's First? Everything denoting luxury, power, femininity, class and wealth was added into producing that powerhouse last-of-the-McAldehic clan; a fragrance as shimmery as the brightest yellow sapphires, as frothy as the sparkliest bubbly in iced flutes, as melodious as Jenny Vanou singing Dawn's Minor Key. I was instantly transported in those times, back when First's precious metal wasn't somewhat tarnished due to reformulations, upon testing Nostalgie.

Instead of staying in the “ladies who lunch” crisp floral category, Nostalgie morphs darker, warmer, and more animalic. The violet leaf and patchouli hint at Jean Patou 1000’s sophistication, but the jasmine and rose keep Nostalgie from feeling as world-weary as 1000 sometimes can.
The floral notes, ringing as wonderfully bright as little taps on a glockenspiel, are tightly woven together to present a tapestry of hundreds of tiny dots which, like in pointillism, seen from a distance blur into a delightful image.
Somehow it all comes out as elegance.”

The suggestions put before us by Jon Cook were:

first, that nostalgia may fulfil the narrative desire for a formal imaginative return to some former state, such as Odysseus’s return to Ithaca;

second, that it represents a peculiarly modern sensibility, this time instancing Schiller where the poet opposes civilisation to nature and suggests that nostalgia is a desire to escape from the former to the latter;

and, third, that nostalgia might even be the hankering after a place one didn’t actually like. He instances Seamus Heaney where Heaney writes of fellow poet Derek Mahon’s self-exiled longing for the intolerable conditions of strife-torn Belfast.

The first PROVOCATION will follow in the next post.

Wednesday 11 June 2014

Speaking to Hungarians, Talking to old ladies,
praying to St Apollonia

St Apollonia

It had been arranged by a Hungarian mathematician friend working at the Science Park that I should spend an hour so on Saturday talking with his Hungarian visitors (the men old schoolmates, the women their wives) about translating from Hungarian. It was to be in Hungarian, a slightly daunting prospect since when it comes to complicated matters I speak better, more precisely, more subtly, in English.

It was the afternoon and hot. There were twelve around the table on the patio and my host was going to act as chair. My answers to his questions tended to the long as usual and, to tell the truth, it wasn't too bad. I could say more or less what I meant only a little more clumsily, but it was not impossible. I couldn't have done it five years ago. The guests were charming, attentive, curious a set of highly qualified professional people, all about six years younger than me. They are part of an important, deeply-cultured layer of society who have lived under two different systems and have carried their culture with them in both.

What they really want to know is how Hungarian literature, which they all love and know, fares in another language. The conversation focuses on a particular few Hungarian authors - both poets and novelists - and they all pay tribute to their literature teacher at school. They can quote, our host above all. He is fascinated by the relationship between maths and poetic metre. The women are quieter - they are professionals too, a couple of teachers, one a graphic designer - but that is not unusual in that generation. It is rather different now.

Then dinner is served, delicious, still al fresco, and wine is drunk. The sky darkens, the air chills. Some politics is discussed, albeit tentatively, but I gather they are all on the liberal left-of-centre wing of opinion. They don't complain directly, I do however sense a reservoir of anxiety under their comments. I find it easy with them and wonder why this generation of educated, fully civilised people isn't running the country. The fact is it is the equivalent of their younger brothers and sisters - and indeed their children - who are doing so, and they are different, further to the right, sometimes much further.


Today to Cromer to read briefly at a literary lunch organied by Mark, who runs the local Jarrolds. It's a 1pm start and we arrive early so we can park then go for a walk along the top-of-the-cliff level. It's slightly overcast but the light has a fine pearliness especially on the sea. It is faintly intoxicating. Cromer is clearly being smartened up. It is somewhat unique with its Victorian turrets and balconies and its Hotel de Paris. The beach is long. The pier that was damaged by the storm surge is now repaired though the shops on it have not all reopened yet.

When we get to the venue, a large inn, Mark is there to meet us and offer us drinks. Almost immediately Patrick, author of Badgerlands, arrives, followed by Jim Kelly who writes the detective novels. We are the three speakers due to speak fifteen minutes each between courses. I am to go first with a selection of children's poems from In the Land of the Giants. Mark's father turns up and we talk about places and times. Mark says it will be mostly women in the audience, though that's no great surprise.

The surprise is walking in and seeing the place filled up, everyone already sitting at tables. It is a capacity audience and not only are they ninety percent women but, at a glance, I would say they are all over sixty. They don't have the air of blue-stockings but they are certainly readers and like a literary occasion. Where are their husbands?  They have either departed this life or simply made their excuses. In any case it confirms my frequent observation that wherever a critical number of women are gathered men absent themselves. I won't speculate about why that may be but it is a pretty general truth. (I will speculate on another occasion.)

The audience is omnivorous in literary terms and they clearly enjoy themselves. They clap long and loud and they buy plenty of books at the end. The organisation of the lunch also works. So I do mostly poems full of play and a bit of magic, Patrick talks marvellously at full speed about badgers, about their cruel treatment until 1908 and then, after Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows of 1908, the public embrace of them. He illustrates this with lots of nice incidents and addresses the culling question. We learn, among many other things, that the badger population of the country has in fact increased by 76% in the last - was it ten years?  He get more question than Jim and I do, and Jim does a very fine summing up of four of his books, which all involve a what if question and the idea, even if mostly figuratively, of a locked room. How could a crime be committed under those circumstances? It turns out both the detectives in his best known novels - an elder and a younger - are based on his father who was a Scotland Yard detective.

A nice format this. Three different kinds of writing and a decent lunch in between with time to let the courses go down. We sign books and drive off in our different directions. Now it is dusk, that most beautiful time of day which seems to roost inside us like a bird homing to its nest.


Tomorrow I have four teeth out, my first extractions in decades. They are not front teeth so I will look perfectly normal after (not immediately after, of course). They are mostly broken teeth and this is to prevent infection. I hardly ever suffer from toothache and when I do it is mild.  Pray for me St Apollonia. I think you had a far worse time than I am likely to have, though I'll probably be bedbound and painkillered the rest of the day with no hot or even warm food. Cold soup it is. Cold sorrel soup. Delicious.

Friday 6 June 2014

The Enchanted Wood is not Statistically Probable

Arthur Rackham


It's statistically improbable that pigs should fly,
That aeroplanes should fall out of the sky,
That blackbirds should be baked into a pie.

It's statistically improbable so don't repeat it.
It's not a magic apple when you eat it,
So tell the child's imagination: Beat it!
God bless Richard Dawkins (someone should)
We need a sceptic in the neighbourhood
To block the path to the enchanted wood.

It's not my greatest poem but it's topical, far from difficult, and may even be understood by Jeremy Paxman's notion of 'ordinary people'. It's a response to what the Daily Mail said Richard Dawkins had said, which was not quite the same thing as Richard Dawkins did in fact say. Very little the Daily Mail says people have said is what people actually did say.

In fact Padraig Reidy in Index on Censorship says I said things I didn't say in saying what Jeremy Paxman both did and didn't say. All very sly stuff according to Reidy. I thought I was talking about ideas and poetry, about knowing and not knowing, and the notion of apparent difficulty  and only mentioned Paxman once, without any rancour at all, having, after all, been asked by The Guardian to write a response to their own article (the one linked to at the top) in which Paxman is quoted as saying what he actually said, though he had said other things too which the Guardian article I was working from did not have him saying. In other words I was engaging with that thought, right there, about inquisitions, ordinary people and explaining. Are you still with me? Mr Reidy, are you awake?

But back to Dawkins. It seems to me that what Dawkins did actually say (listen to an excerpt here)  is not all that different from what the Mail implied he had said. The way The Mail put it orginally was that Dawkins thought that fairy tales were bad for children because the idea of frogs turning into princes was a statistical improbability. Did Dawkins say that? Did he put it that way? In what might be a later version the Mail has him saying that it was:

'pernicious to instil in a child the view that the world is shaped by supernaturalism.'

That's in inverted commas so I am assuming it is what Dawkins did actually say

But since nobody reading this is likely to take the word of the Mail for anything, here is the relevant piece in the Guardian, after the initial Mail story appeared.

Dawkins admitted that he had once questioned whether a "diet of supernatural magic spells might possibly have a detrimental effect on a child's critical thinking."

But he added: "I genuinely don't know the answer to that, and what I repeated at Cheltenham is that I think it is a very interesting question. I actually think there might be a positive benefit in fairy tales for a child's critical thinking ... Do frogs turn into princes? No they don't. But an ordinary fiction story could well be true ... So a child can learn from fairy stories how to judge plausibility."

The frog and prince part is the odd thing. Dawkins is asking the child to read the story in terms of plausibility.

It seems to me that to be talking about fairy tales in terms of plausibility and scepticism is a sign of something skull-splittingly one-dimensional. According to this Dawkins test there is only one kind of  truth and that's the one  tested by its plausibility.

I am still trying to understand in what sense even 'an ordinary fiction story could well be true'. 'Well be true?' In what sense? In that it actually happened? Or that it should be possible to prove that it could have happened? Fiction is full of implausible coincidences, that is its whole domain.  And somehow or other people can tell the difference between it and life, with all its own implausibilities.

Blocking the path to the enchanted wood (or delusional wood as one Dawkinsite Twitter commenter put it to me) is a bit harsh. But I'm doing it for the frogs. Every one a prince!

Wednesday 4 June 2014

Tiananmen Square: A memory and a poem by Manash Bhattacharjee

Footage of Tienenman Square massacre (short attribution to begin with)

It is precisely twenty-five years that the demonstration and vigil in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, complete with a polystere statue of Liberty was broken up by the army with many deaths, just how many we don't know, because the whole massacre was quickly covered up. The scenes - which were filmed - are still vivid in my mind since that year, in 1989, we were spending most of the year in Hungary which was itself undergoing a decisive and dramatic political change.

That change was well under way but nothing had been decided yet. Hope, however, was high,because President Gorbachev of the Soviet Union seemed to be unlocking and opening doors everywhere in the Soviet empire and was due in China where one of the greatest doors of all seemed to be opening. That was why the students and people generally had gathered in Tiananmen. They were anticipating Gorby's arrival and the bursting wide of the doors. They were not only knocking on the door but had camped around it.

But though the doors were open no one - not even in Eastern Europe - had yet walked through them for fear of a reversal. What if Gorbachev was toppled? What if the hard-liners in the Kremlin let loose the army again to restore their own version of order? There would be terror and bloodshed.

That was the fear in Budapest back in March that year when a big unofficial demonstration was planned for the 15th, the anniversary of the 1948 revolution. One writer friend advised us to store up food and stay in. I couldn't resist though and joined the demonstration, which began in tension, then gained confidence as the demonstrators began to march along the Danube embankment. I left them at that point, right in the midle of the bridge (I felt out of place suddenly) but the point had been made. The door was more open than it had been and look, the nation had even managed a brisk march outside before moving back behind the door again.

Much else happened but then came 4 June. We could watch events live on the TV. China was another world and the cameras were almost like visitors from an alien planet. Then came the horror and the heroism, followed by the terrible realisation that everything had failed and the knowledge that it would be erased from history with a ruthlessness we were familiar with. Another blank sheet for the history books.

One last thing by way of preface to the poem by Manash Bhattarchajree below in commemoration of the events ofthe 4 June. Twelve days later there was an enormous rally in Budapest for the  reburial of prime minister Imre Nagy and the honouring of several hundred other victims of the repression following the failure of the 1956 revolution. The atmosphere in Heroes Square was tense again. A quarter of a million people were crowded there. Less than two weeks after Tiananmen this local door was being forced to open still further. There would only be one way of shutting again now, the Tienanmen way.

I myself wrote a series of poems recording the political events and moods of that year. Those appeared in my collection, Bridge Passages (1991) and one poem in particular, Chinese White, was based on Tienanmen.

Bei Dao is a major Chinese poet known as a leading member of the Misty Poets group ('misty' because their work was to be read in allusive fashion). He was exiled that year and has only recently returned to China.

Tiananmen Square
For Bei Dao

They were all Chinese

Those who fired the bullets were Chinese
Those who took the bullets were Chinese 
The Chinese fired at the Chinese in China


You will die at the hands of your people
You won’t find any shade of irony there


Let’s ask why old men desire young blood
Let’s ask why a party is a cannibalistic idea 
Let’s ask why freedom needs governments


The heroic song that died on a martyr’s lips
A placard of a poem held by a severed arm
Splinters of sun falling over stone-like eyes

Lies a caged shadow of a breathing dragon

Manash Bhattacharjee
June 4, 2014.
(Manash is a poet living in New Delhi, India. His first collection, Ghalib’s Tomb and other poems, has been recently published by The London Magazine)

This is a much more direct poem than mine was. It addresses the situation directly with a clear challenge. Its mode is more anger and moral passion than horror and historical resignation as was - to some degree - the case with mine. It is a poem written now. Mine was written then in the mood of 'Here we go again'. Bhattacharjee's is a graphic poem presenting us with ideological questions ('Let's ask why freedom needs governments') It talks of martyrdom and gestures suppressed by violence. It raises the symbolic spectre of the dragon, so important to China. But however it begins and ends with China its force depends on fierce oppositions between old and young, between parties and cannibalism and between freedom and government. The issues are between them.

The options on 4 June 1989 would have been just as clear to the demonstrators as to the state. That marvellous clip of the man with shopping bags stopping the tanks reminds us of the tipping point. He held up the tanks but the tanks moved on elsewhere to drench the square and the streets around it with blood, the blood that was soon wiped away.

I have in fact commemorated Tiananmen on this blog before, on 4 June 2009, on the twentieth anniversary. Those interested in what I said then and in the poem, Chinese White, can read the post here.

Sunday 1 June 2014

Crazy things: 3

I begin in a shirt then discard it.

The complication is this: the event is scheduled to run from 11am to 3pm and there is neither set order nor specific content. All I know is that another poet, Leah, who works in prisons, with children and with women's groups, will come along and read something and that she might have a group with her comprising others who might want to read. And that there might be children who might want something to do, like draw or write something. Usually I have some idea of how long to read, when, and to whom. People who come along to poetry readings usually begin with a liking for, or maybe a curiosity about poetry. But this is just a pretty beach hut over a beach.

About noon people do begin to appear,  three or four at first, women and girls but no children. Shall we start, I ask. Yes, perhaps we should, says H. Is anyone going to introduce me or the event, I ask. Why don't you do it, comes the answer. This is awkward as the host usually makes some gesture of introducing the guest, but I can see what my role is likely to be. I'll be introducing and timing everything, effectively both performer and master of ceremonies for some three hours.

Since there are seven or eight people in front of me now I decide to read fifteen minutes of poems for children because anyone can understand and have fun with these, though I do preface it with a poem about anxiety, a state I certainly feel. There are three young schoolgirls of seventeen or so, two of whom will want to read. They are very nice. One says: I usually write angry feminist poems. They are friends and protegées of Leah.

I do the children's poems and they seem to go well as far as I can tell. More people appear in the course of the reading. People pass by on foot, on bicycles or skateboards. Some carry on talking, some do not. I have no idea what the rest of my programme will be. Leah has arrived by now and I ask if she'd like to do some fifteen minutes next, but before she can start another woman leaps up and reads a poem she has written specially for the occasion while she was putting on her make-up this morning. Once she is there it is probably best to bring in a group of other readers from the floor and have Leah follow them. It doesn't matter which way round we do things as there is no programme.

Of the three schoolgirls (they are the three nearest figures above) two read and turn out to be very good indeed,  not one of their six poems either angry or particularly feminist. The second produces a rather marvellous fantasy with some well-handled formal devices in her last poem. They are talented - and quite likely Leah will have helped them. So that's a good thing.

A ten minute break.

Then Leah does her first set which is chiefly poems for children, involving movement. She asks the audience to join in and do the movements with her and one or two do sowith enthusiasm. She then reads a couple of adult poems and these are warmly greeted. I proceed to do my unplanned second set which involves reading from the New and Collected Poems that I have on the Kindle because the actual book is 520pp and weighs over 1 kilo. Reading from the Kindle is fine in normal circumstances but not in bright sunlight. I can hardly see it. I read from very early poems because they are nearest the beginning. It's odd. I manage but it's not easy.

Time for sandwiches and cakes and tea. The nearest toilet is some ten minutes away so there are frequent excursions to it. But we have filled three sets and it is getting on to 2pm.

After sandwiches we recommence. I do my MC-ing once more. He could be a stand-up comedian, I hear one of the organisers saying to the other. I can do it sitting down, I comment, and go on. Two more readings from the floor (a man has come to join us and a male photographer, while a make prospective university student has been hanging around the edge). Then Leah does her second set and I come back and do a third set made up of a mixture of things including excerpts from Langoustine. I think it goesl allright though I am not sure. Everyone seems to know everyone, but I have never met any of them before so it's hard to tell. In any case, it's about 3pm and time to stop. The treasurer of the festival thanks me, and what remains of the audience chats. Some come up and say they really enjoyed it all, and the three schoolgirls pop into the beach-hut. They are utterly sweet and charming and as bright as several buttons. Come back, they say.

So it's all good. H takes us back to the hotel. Event over. It has all been a bit post-hippie and vague but it achieved some kind of shape by the end. My arm is roasted bright red as is my forehead.


After resting a little we go for a walk and look for a restaurant. Away from the hotels, and it's just a street away, Folkestone takes on another aspect. The town above the Victoriana grandeur is poor and jobless. A number of shops have closed. The restaurants look a bit desperate. This is Austerity Street and it's not about to recover. It is like Yarmouth has been but this street is bleaker, more frayed. There are bound to be brighter and more prosperous parts of town: here the contrast to the magnificently ornate Victorian promenade is stark. We return to the prettier parts near the hotel and have an Italian. The whirligig of time has always brought in its revenges and it's still whirling.

Crazy things: 2

Our hotel, just as Victorian as the rest.

You get to Folkestone Central on a high speed train but you pay a bit extra for the speed. It's worth it for the comfort and the saving of some forty minutes. It is early evening when we arrive. Our organiser H is waiting at the station to pick us up. Let's go straight down to the beach hut, drink a glass of wine and watch the sun go down, she says. That is not an offer to be refused though it is gradually chilling down. We sit and talk and sip white wine. The sun does indeed go down, just as she said it would.

The question again. How did I get here?

The answer is not 'by train', or not entirely.  It happened through Twitter. I had never met H, who is a novelist, but we got into a conversation on Twitter about something I can't now remember and at some stage she mentioned the Folkestone Festival and the beach hut and wondered if I would come to read. I wondered whether a beach hut would be ideal for a reading (the noise of the sea, people talking on the beach, gulls, radios, potential for rain, lack of amplification, lack of space for an audience) but the idea appealed and I agreed to come. No fee, just expenses: travel and accommodation, not even a meal. (My usual nominal fee for readings is £300 btw)

Why say yes? This was going to be three events (London/London/Folkestone) one after the other, with not a fee between them, and no travel either except in this case, just half a day after returing from Hungary which was just four days after returning from Boston, and none of the clear days exactly clear. It is crazy but then sometimes crazy is good. So this is good.

The hotel was along the upper promenade, one of several Victorian hotels, leftovers from Folkestone's days of grandeur. The room was splendid, the view overlooked a park shared by other hotels. As in Boston, keys were keys and not swipe cards. The hot water worked. The maitre d' in the hotel restaurant had something of the Estuarial Lugosi about him. He spoke East London. He offered us steak and kidney pie. His dark hair was glossy and swept back with a bald patch on the crown. He was game for conversation, telling us how many hours he'd worked, how the hotel trade was mainly coach parties nowadays and that business has been bad ever since they stopped the ferry. His smile was an almost-smile. He was short and somehow managed to look both straight-backed and stooped at the same time. He had the air of a man who had done many other things in life, not all necessarily legal. And then there was the faintly vampirical air. His waiters were all foreign young men. The only female staff we met later were both maids that we came across on the stairs like passing ghosts.  The guests we saw that evening and the next morning were essentially working class parties on their way to here or there, maybe by the Channel Tunnel.

Next morning was sunny and warming. H came to pick us up and that is how I found myself first inside, then outside the beach hut as the sun rose and simmered while the sea skipped and exploded with light like flashbulbs going off. The event was about to begin. See post 3 for a report on that.

Crazy things: 1

At The Roebuck. Clarissa, Aprilia and I.  Anne Berkeley at table behind Clarissa.

It is Saturday, the hottest part of a hot day, the sun blazing, the sea fizzing with tiny detonations of light. I have no sun-block but am standing in front of a beach hut gazing into both sun and sea. Right below the hut is a narrow concrete promenade, below that the beach itself, all shingle. We have turned up at the advertised time of 11am but there is no one there yet apart from H who invited me and N, the chairman and J, treasurer of the festival who are busily setting up some bunting and a portable sound system. We chat, I sort through my books and watch walkers and cyclists glide by.

How did I get here?

Having returned from Hungary early on Wednesday morning I set off to London on Thursday to make the closing appeal for support at the Poetry London reading and launch of the Summer issue at the South Bank. I am doing so because I am a new trustee of PL and the board and editors think it right that I should play this role on this occasion. PL is an outstanding magazine for which I have reviewed for many years and where I have, occasionally, published a poem or two, though not for a long time now.  Living in Norfolk  may not be the best qualification for serving on the board of a magazine so conspicuously London-based but PL is international and very broad in its range of ages and styles. Most of the trustees do live in London or relatively close, I think, though I am not sure of that. The international aspect of the reading is however indisputable because three of the poets, D. Nurske, Angie Estes and Matthea Harvey, are from America and the fourth (the first to read) is Niall Cambell from the independent republic of Scotland. It is an excellent reading, very well attended. I say my piece which involves using a device from one of Harvey's poems (the word 'Look!' repeated before every point I make) This seems to go down well and I am told I am good at this sort of thing. That is pleasing but it's not the kind of thing I have ever looked to be particularly good at. If all else fails with the poetry I could become a before- or after-event speaker, I suppose. That's after I become a bar pianist for the very drunk and tone deaf.

After the event we all go for supper at the nearby Pizza Express which is enormous enough to accommodate a table for twenty-four along with thousands of others. It's all delightful and we chat. I exchange books with Dennis Nurske (I have bought one book of all the poets except Cambell but I already had his).

Then on to the Jubilee Line to Stratford to spend the night at son Tom's house. It's a marvellous time to talk to him and the next morning is free enough for us both to go to Central London and see an exhibition of photographs, followed by a coffee. Having left my trolley and book bag at his house we return there and talk more over a Vietnamese soup at the Westfield Centre. Then Tom goes off to his place of work and I catch the tube to Borough to a launch and reading at The Roebuck in Great Dover Street where some twenty poet-contributors are gathered in honour of the anthology, Poets in Person. Both book and readings are the creation of Romanian-German poet Aprilia Zank who is extraordinarily dynamic. We are in the upper room of the pub. People read for five minutes, I am accorded ten. Clarissa arrives just before we start. It all goes well - the poets are all real poets and however unreal my life sometimes appears, I too am real.

After a while Clarissa and I have to leave as we have to be at the next gig which is down in Folkestone. Which is where the beach hut is. Which you will find in Part 2 of this blogpost.