Wednesday 27 May 2015

So what happened at the general election (5)
Towards a winter of discontent.

What to say of the 'winter of discontent'? For information see here and here and here and... need I go on? Look it up yourself and flavour according to taste. Accounts will be contentious but it was certainly cold.

For us personally these were tough years. We were very lucky to be able to rent a house in late 1973. It had been rented previously to American servicemen who had wrecked a door and kept a goat and a rusty car in the back garden.  It had no phone and little heating. When my mother died in 1975 Clarissa's parents (whose house it had been) had to walk down the hill to tell us.  Tom had been born in hospital at the end of 1973. We heated his room with a paraffin heater. Helen was born at home to an international choir of midwives in January 1976. By that time I had had three teaching jobs in three years, the first two part-time. Then came the run-up to the famously discontented winter.


The children were three and one respectively in 1977. My father had remarried that September. Our recorded conversations about the past had stopped for lack of private time. I had somehow (through being the older of the two new staff) become head of a two-person art department in a girls ex-grammar comprehensive school. Nevertheless I was still learning the art of teaching. On the other hand, miracle of miracles I had, on Peter Porter's recommendation, been picked up by Faber for the fourth of their Poetry Introduction series.

That was the good news but at the same time Clarissa developed a lump on the ear that was ignored by one doctor but was diagnosed as a tumour of the parotid gland by another so she had to go to hospital to have it removed in a tricky operation. The removal was successful - the tumour wasn't malignant - but it was a scary and anxious time. I took the Faber volume to her in hospital in the January of 1978 as she was recovering.

But the operation must have lowered her resistance for later in 1978 she caught mumps from Tom and it quickly turned to encephalitis. I was working full time by then and her mother came daily to nurse her. Her fever was high, she was in great pain, and there were times she was delirious.  Had it not been for the help of her parents things might have turned out a great deal worse but over 1979 her health recovered and her art - she is herself an artist of course - was to recover a few years later. Back then, however, we were sliding towards a pretty scary winter with strikes in hospitals, schools, in waste disposal, in electricity, among lorry-drivers, firemen, and more.

Having, meanwhile, lost the general election intended to affirm government as the controlling power in 1974 the Tories had dropped Edward Heath and, in a revolutionary change in 1975, elected a woman as leader, which is something Labour have yet to do.

Labour limped on and lost the election in the wake of the winter of discontent and Margaret Thatcher became prime minister of the country on 4 May 1979. Butskellism was well and truly dead. For the first time since 1945 Britain had an ideological government. We are still living through the consequences of that.

I am steering clear of value judgments in an attempt to see what happened and to consider why things are as they are now.

What kind of vacuum has developed since 1979? Why is the Labour Party currently reconsidering its entire raison d'être? What has come to fill the vacuum?

Saturday 23 May 2015

So what happened at the general election (4)
1973-1979: the angry brigades

I have stacked my cards heavily on 1973 though one commenter on the Facebook link to these pages, John, says that for him personally the psychological breaking point - the end of the sixties - was 1968. Paris did it for him. Having been active in politics with the Young CND he left to wander the globe and didn't move back into politics until the Thatcher years.

Mine, like John's, is, as I said at the beginning, a personal view. I feel something in the world cracked in 1973 and that we entered a kind of vortex.

1973 was, in the first place, a major reaction to the sunny optimism of the summer of love.

America, post-Watergate, was full of self-doubt. Parts of New York, and Central Park in particular, became no-go areas. Black Power had already moved into its most military phase with the Black Panthers. The Soviet Union was becoming the mafia state it has now fully blossomed into. Tensions were high. There was Iraq and the Ayatollah Khomeini. There was Eurocommunism and the Baader Meinhoff gang (also known as the Red Army Faction)  in Germany. There was the kidnapping and killing of Aldo Moro, the Italian prime minister by the Red Brigades. Ireland was witnessing great violence in the expanding Troubles. In England there was The Angry Brigade and the Animal Liberation Front. There was even the Paedophile Information Exchange that survived for ten years from 1974. And people are surprised by Jimmy Saville and Rolf Harris etc. Autre temps, autre moeurs. The post-war order was splintering not only under economic pressure but under the pressure of failed hopes.

We slipped from San Francisco and Woodstock into the vacancies of stadium rock and Abigail's Party with only David Bowie and lesser Glam Rock bands for company. From Donna Summer, Abba, and the Bee Gees to the Sex Pistols and punk is hardly any time at all.

And, since much of the political change was a product of the world economic crisis that sprang out of the quadrupling of oil prices the world's sympathies began to shift from Israel to the PLO and Yasser Arafat. Always be nice to those controlling your oil supply and look to see their point of view. That is, of course, an unfairly cynical view but age is sometimes as much a sceptic about what is now considered virtuous and nice as about what is now considered wicked, and what could be considered more wicked now than paedophilia?

The six years between 1973 and 1979 are a crucible where the next phase of world and global economy and politics is created.

The crises of 1973 shifted into the big crisis of 1974, the defeat of Heath on the key question of  'who governs'. In 1972 the miners went on strike for the first time since 1926. The NUM was demanding a 43% pay rise. Heath's government offered about 8%. Here is some background to the events. The miners sent out flying pickets, that is to say pickets who didn't just stop all movement at their own place of work but at others and in other branches of industry too.

The result was industrial standstill  uncluding the famous three-day week which lasted into 1974 - a national traumatic event that was to have very long term effects -  and the curious situation whereby miners became the best paid workers for a year but within that time had dropped to eighteenth place. Events followed from there. As the link above says:

By 1973 however, the miners had moved from first in the industrial wages league to eighteenth. The miners saw however, that the poor economic situation that the country was in could be used to their advantage. The Arab-Israeli War was causing oil prices to soar, and throughout the country, relations between the industrial unions and the Government were hostile as the Tories were attempting to introduce pay freezes and restraints to help the economy. 

In late 1973, the miners once more voted to take industrial action if their pay demands were not meet. They were not, and so on the 9th February 1974, the miners came out on strike.

The figures tell a story of their own. High inflation was a stress no government could live with for long. Heath called the election and lost. The years after under first Harold Wilson's minority government,  then under Jim Callaghan, constituted a power struggle betwen government and the unions, at one high point of which Wilson told Hugh Scanlon, head of the engineering union: Get your tanks off my lawn.


The military analogy used by Wilson is rather extraordinary, isn't it? It suggests that the unions and the party formed to represent them were on opposite sides of a war. And indeed there was something of a war going on with the country as a battlefield. Sky-high inflation, a depletion of reserves, a vast loss in the country's prestige (Britain as the sick man of Europe, a term originally applied to Turkey), the sense now of justified conflict, now of despair dominate the period as I remember it from the point of a view of a young father, a schoolteacher, and aspiring but rarely successful poet. And, of course, as I mentioned in an earlier post, my mother's suicide in 1975 and trying to be of some solace to my father. I think it was during this period or shortly after that my father went Tory, having been visited by the local party who gladly took him in. It wasn't because he was a man who wanted to protect his privileges or because he had a contempt for the poor. It was because he was frightened of chaos.

But what was the miners' strike of 1972 and the threatened one of 1974 about? Was it simply about a fair wage, or greed as the Tory press had it? I don't think so. There was a chink in the armour of history, of capitalism, not only in Britain but all over Europe, and indeed the world. A certain dedicated, revolutionary ruthlessness set in. If there had to be sacrifices, well there had to be sacrifices. The mid-seventies presented a moment when the constantly re-defining Left saw a chance of re-defining the world. That might have been the last time. But which Left, and how?

Friday 22 May 2015

So what happened at the general election:
The 1973 moment (3)

I sometimes think 1973 was, before 1989, the most significant year in late twentieth-century history, in British history at least. That was the year the sixties truly ended. After 1973 we were in a new world of global influences and domestic upheaval. The six years between 1973 and 1979 were, in metaphorical terms, the months of pregnancy that would give birth to Thatcherism. They represented the crisis point of one ideology and its replacement by another. It was the beginning of the end, not only the sixties but of 1945 as well.

It was in 1973 the roof fell in. The year started well enough when on the 1 January Britain joined the EEC and Nixon suspended offensive action in Vietnam but Watergate broke a few months later, there was a second wave of the Cod War,  the Black September attack on Athens airport, and in October came the Yom Kippur War that was less decisive than the Six-Day War of 1967 had been. It was a result of that war that OPEC (the organisation of oil producing countries) embargoed countries supporting Israel and the great energy crisis began. By December OPEC had doubled the price of crude oil. By next year the price had quadrupled. There was a big stock market crash in any case and this exacerbated it.

The British prime minister was the Tory, Edward Heath, who had introduced decimal coinage in 1970, and reduced the number of local authorities, an act nicknamed the HeathCo reforms. He was an enthusiastic European from a non-public school background (Alf Garnett, the comic right-wing bigot figure in the BBC sitcom, Till Death Us Do Part, referred to him as 'a grammar school twit'). It was his administration that was to break in the 1974 general election, opening the way, some five years later - momentously, since we are still living the consequences - to Thatcherism.

1970 was an unlucky year to come to power anyway and everything worked to make things progressively worse. The rock Heath was to break on (in 1974) was the Trade Unions Council, in particular the National Union of Miners. There had been a rising tide of militancy in the unions since the mid-sixties for various reasons. There is a useful sketch of developments in the Cabinet Papers at The National Archives.

If the 1950s and early 1960s led to the unravelling of consensus Butskellism, the late sixties and seventies was a period of ideological polarisation. The strikes were less about the fine details of money, more about power and the attempt to define the time in socialist terms. But the socialist terms were themselves changing, not just in Britain but internationally. Not that I saw events in that way at the time. We were a young family chiefly at the receiving end of the strikes, power cuts, loss of services, shortages and the sense of things falling apart.

Would that be a necessary falling apart so a better world might be built on the ruins? I sometimes think 1973/74 was a potentially revolutionary year,  more revolutionary than 1979 which brought in a revolution of quite a different kind. That is why I hesitate at this point.

It was in 1970 that Clarissa and I got married. In 1972 I graduated (with a First!) from Leeds and over 1972 and 1973 I trained as a teacher at Goldsmiths. On the last day of 1973 our son, Tom, was born into the headwind of what was to follow. Just over two years later years later our daughter  Helen was born. I undertook the traditional bread-winner role and went into school teaching of various kinds for the next seventeen years (at least eleven as full-time, heading art departments, the rest half time) while continuing to write, in hope.

It was in 1973 the Times Literary Supplement published my first poem. Six years later, in 1979 my first book, The Slant Door, appeared. The years 1973 and 1979 bracket both my private life and, coincidentally, the life of the country.

Here's a brilliantly intelligent,  highly ambitious episode of Till Death Us Do Part where working class Tory, Alf, and Labour-supporting son-in-law, Mike (played by Cherie Blair's father, Tony Booth) discuss the industrial conflicts of the time over a game of Monopoly. Una Stubbs utters an early feminist protest. And there's the full blown racism of the seventies. Script by firmly left wing Johnny Speight. I find it hard to imagine a sitcom script as open or as far-seeing as this today. (OK, you can tell me how wrong I am in the comments part.)

Monday 18 May 2015

So what happened at the general election:
A partly-personal meditation (2)

Altamont Festival 1969

The five years between 1968 and 1973 were precisely the years I was at art school doing Fine Art, an area in which I expected to make no money but survive. I would survive because there would always be something I could do. I would survive because the the summer of love was about surviving outside the rat race and creating a new world with no wars, no Vietnams, no nuclear bombs. The summer of love was about getting so high you would never come down. Some would crash no doubt, and many did, but it would, it was felt, be worth it.

Not exactly in my case. I was not a product of this society but another. Not the product of Union Jacks but of Hungarian flags with the Soviet banner at the centre. Behind them lay the swastika that almost killed my parents and did kill three quarters of our family. It was a different perspective, though I couldn't have said quite what.

The balance of the world was as it was. We had left Hungary in 1956. There was East and West. There was Soviet style communism with its vast army and there was the West with its own vast army, chiefly American. China was a mystery. The rest was tension and anxiety. There was Korea and Malaya and Cyprus. There was the Berlin Wall. There was the Cuba crisis. There was Algeria. There was the Six Day War. The Prague Spring was to come followed by its crushing and a new wave of Cold War bristling. The summer of love's answer to this was to carefully place a flower in a rifle barrel, or in the case of Czechoslovakia (and Vietnam), to set yourself alight.

As to Britain, it was still a military power. The Empire had become the Commonwealth. There were problems of course. There was South Africa (Macmillan had already warned SA that there would be problems) and the Mau-Mau. On the other side there were the Commonwealth Prime Ministers' Conferences with the Queen welcoming all to the 'mother country'. It was an arrangement of sorts though what it counted for we couldn't tell. According to PR it was a generous act on behalf of Britain to set these countries up as though they were her children and then to send them kindly on their own independent way with the assumption that they'd all be nice to Britain in the way a big happy family is full of relatives being nice to each other and especially to mum.

Then there was Europe, which, at that stage, was the European Economic Community of six nations. Britain (with the Conservative Edward Heath negotiating) tried to join in 1963. Why? Because some believed that the Commonwealth would not be enough to sustain us and that some kind of economic tie to Europe was also necessary. Maybe because the thought of Western Europe forming a bloc against the potentially threatening power of Soviet Eastern Europe was considered useful, even necessary. After all, the US had deserted us over Suez and might desert us again. As it was, Europe (in the shape of Charles De Gaulle) said no. Britain was too close to the Americans. It was a wounding rejection.

I am going back here because history is never irrelevant. It can be a dreadful burden, an awful master, and, at times, a deadly killer, but there is no use pretending it isn't there. Europe is a major question for us now and in the immediate future. It is very complicated and simple slogans are, as always, worse than useless. Slogans don't do history.

In geopolitical terms the idea of military strength counted for something in public opinion. You may have been on the CND's ban-the-bomb marches, you might have grown into the summer of love, but everything around you told you that conflict, and anxiety about conflict, would not be going away in the near future. Donovan (our UK Bob Dylan) might sing about the 'universal soldier' who was really to blame' but a good many working class boys were joining the army for a job, and while you could remove the ultimate MAD deterrent or wrench it from the hands of people like Dr Strangelove, there would still be marching and drilling and border troubles here or there in the world with the two big players looking on, encouraging, supplying and estimating how any set of dominoes might fall.

Certainly, neither the Tories nor Labour were advocating disarming, though you could bet your life on it that the Tories would be greater supporters of Her Majesty's Armed Forces.

Nevertheless, despite the summer of love descending into bloody winter at the Altamont Festival of 1969, the period between 1968 and 1973 retained something of the sixties spirit, albeit ever more ragged, ever more politically radical, and tending towards ever greater violence. Bloody Sunday (1972) brought in a long period of killing.

The radical politics of1968 were, I think, part of the psychological landscape of the time. There was no good news in conventional domestic politics. In 1968 Britain stood at the brink of economic catastrophe. The economy was going down the drain to the extent that Harold Wilson's government considered a financial coup.  There was devaluation. According to the BBC records of the time:

Chancellor Roy Jenkins had forced through a swingeing package of cuts, which had brought howls of protests from ministers. 
In a memo on 3 January 1968, he told the Cabinet: "Our standing in the world depends on the soundness of our economy and not on a worldwide military presence."

American response was:
"If these steps are taken they will be tantamount to a British withdrawal from world affairs," he [President Johnson] said.

No big deal then.

At the age of nineteen I didn't understand any of this. I vaguely followed the news but the crisis seemed distant, almost another planet.  By 1970 I was married. By the end of 1973 I was a father.

[to be continued]

Sunday 17 May 2015

So what happened at the general election:
A partly-personal meditation (1)

By fellow Hungarian cartoonist, Vicky

This is a little later than intended.  I am sure other people could do (and probably have done) this far better than I can but - just for my own sake - I want to think through the results of the recent general election to consider the background and its significance. I haven’t done any research for this, it is pure recollection but for the checking of dates. I hope friends will put me right in matters of detail. I am not going to link to everything, only that which might have been forgotten.

First a little personal background: Butskellism and beyond

The political landscape has changed considerably since the first elections I remember in this country. The Hungarian Uprising, of which we were refugees, coincided with the Suez Crisis. We arived in England on 2 December 1956: Sir Anthony Eden, the prime minister, resigned in January 1957. Our first government was Conservative under Harold Macmillan. Macmillan was a One-Nation Tory, a Keynesian who believed in a mixed economy and in maintaining the welfare state as set up by Clement Attlee. Living standards were rising after the lows of the war so why change things?  His two famous speeches:  ‘You have never had it so good‘ (1957) and  ‘The winds of change’ (1960) - which marked the beginning of decolonisation - seemed to define the era and the kind of place Britain was. 

Then came the night of the long knives (1962), the Cuba Crisis (1962), the Profumo scandal (1963), the assassination of Kennedy (1963), and Macmillan’s resignation, followed by the election of Sir Alec Douglas-Home, or ‘old death’s head’ as my mother called him. His brief administration was the end of that Britain. My parents (my father a member of the communist party in Hungary with my ‘class-alien’ mother to the left of him)  helped vote in Harold Wilson in 1964. The new Britain already had Private Eye and Beyond the Fringe. It was the age of the first Cool Britannia (though we didn't call it that) and would last about five or six years.

Harold Wilson in 1964

I came to faint political consciousness of a residually optimistic sort in the era of Wilson and the Beatles. I wasn’t old enough to be protesting violently against Vietnam in Grosvenor Square in 1968, or rather I was, at nineteen but, like a well-behaved immigrant boy, I was still constrained by my parents. I was, in any case, confused. I had no sooner woken up, at school,  to The Summer of Love in 1967 than it was collapsing already.

1968, I suspect, was the year my parents began to retreat from the democratic left-wing positions that they were completely to abandon by 1974. My mother was desperately ill in ‘74 and already suicidal (she was to kill herself the next year). I was married but my life hadn’t come to what my parents had hoped and my brother was suffering under the harsh regime of a music professor who made excessive demands of him. It was a miserable time for them. To my parents, brought up under secure if oppressive authoritarian conditions and settled in a country which seemed the epitome of freedom in the fifties, it would all have seemed dangerously anarchic.

Leaving aside the personal now, it seemed the country had arrived at a kind of political consensus between 1958 and 1964. That consensus was called Butskellism by some (see cartoon at top),  after the Tory R. A. Butler and the Labour leader just before Wilson, Hugh Gaitskell.

Bustkellism seemed a comfortable place to many liberal minded people (not that my parents were liberal minded in the post-1960s sense) but 1968 raised some serious question marks about it and the seventies were to raise many more. 

Under the surface of Butskellism, of course, the old class system was still very much in place. There was an increasingly irrelevant but plutocratic upper class, the various levels of the middle class, and a clearly definable working class composed chiefly of those working in state industries: in the docks, in the steelworks, in electricity, in hospitals, in transport and above all in coal. These forces were unionised and a vital part of the Labour movement. To be Labour was to be modern. To be modern meant being part of the broad left-liberal movement, which would of course involve Labour at its core.

It was a Britain that could still remember the war, the creation of the welfare state, and those the never-had-it-so-good days as a touchstone of stability  The Butskellite world might have been stuffy but was tinged with idealism. Under the historical circumstances that idealism grew wild in several directions at once. The end of the sixties - and 1973 above all - put a cap on that, stifled it, and cranked up a pressure that was to become much more explosive.

But that’s just Britain. Europe and the Cold War were just as important in forming a political climate.

Tuesday 12 May 2015

The Artist in Real and Virtual Company 6:
The river at night

Imagine a scene where the poet has woken from sleep and remains awake. The body is tired but the mind alert. There is something thin-skinned about the mind at three o-clock in the morning. It is reactive and receptive. The poet reaches for his phone, presses a button and immediately a stream of voices appears in front of him, that stream rushing past like a river in spate, bearing all kinds of small objects on it and under the surface. Everything vanishes. It is as if that river were time itself bearing all its sons away.

Let’s call that river Twitter. You throw something in and it is immediately swept away. The ephemerality and brevity of the voice is a given. I’d like to suggest that the same ephemerality haunts our every day conversations. It is mortality by any other name and it is the engine that drives poetry itself. Here the symbol of mortality is compressed into a disposable cry or gesture, a flimsy gravity. As in one of the great silent films,  King Vidor’s ‘The Crowd’ of 1928, the masses sweep along the street, each small tragedy nothing in the traffic of the world.

On the great rushing stream of Twitter are carried a variety of commmunications: political, personal, scholarly, commercial, erotic, moral, philosophical, experimental, trivial - flowing in no particular order, according to no particular classification apart from the ubiquitous hashtag. The order of reading the twitter stream is simply the order in which any tweet might be written or arrive. That lack of order is another given. The condition of the individual text is to be detached not only from its tribe but from its originator.  One might write two texts in a minute but they will not appear next to each other in the stream unless someone is tuned specifically to the author. The texts are not a well-organised convoy or flotilla but flotsam and jetsam, scraps consumed as scraps by those feeding on it. The idea of voice or character as continuity is constantly being modified by what comes in between.

That world contains multitudes of voices, some familiar as a voice in the pub, some clearly assumed, some heard as through a megaphone. At this stage I confess that it is often I whom am lying there. I have a history of formal poetry in terms of sonnets, terza rima, villanelle, sestina, canzone and many other forms some of which I have invented and used just once or a few times. The idea of any formal constraint is interesting to me. If the question of form - that 140 character limit - is the first consideration, then voice is second. Voice gives birth to form as form conducts voice: the two are indivorcible but the voice is clearer. One might trust to the form to yield up the voice.

The poems I wrote on Twitter began to develop in length - quatrains in rhyme, distichs in classical metres, haiku about haiku, haiku that preserved a syllabic structure - some of invited continuation and I soon began to work on sequences, often ten-stanza poems or texts, individual tweets now linked, now in watertight individual sections that could be read as complete in itself. Themes emerged: disasters, animals, journeys, disorientation, language, manners, ageing and death. Those who followed me knew where to look to discover the next apparently distinct verse or episode. They could reconnect the fractures. As for me, once the sections were drafted and avaliable for fishing out of the stream, I joined them up off Twitter, re-drafted, and posted the new joined-up draft on Facebook, hanging the poems out to dry, as it were.

Robert Graves said he composed best when in a mild trance well supplied with coffee and cigarettes. Let us say our poet is in a similar mild trance that allows him or her to advance an idea as if in a dream, with the assurance of dream where things happen according to rules of their own. Whatever had been contemplated or impinged on the consciousness at some other point in time has now been distilled into its own trace material and is capable of working by association, of undergoing metamorphoses. Chance and impulse are its friends and associates, the visrtual voices of the river become a form of company of whom little can be presumed except their flickering presence.

So we return to presence. All the while I write at night I am aware that people read what I write as I write it, that it is a form of nakedness. But I began with the notion of the listening presence, with Dylan Thomas’s lovers, with Li Po’s drunken companions, with Jean Valentine’s other solitary.There are also the travellers on trains and one’s elective masters whose ears are keen and minds most critical.  Out in the night that is not night everywhere, the words flow by much like my life flows. Other eyes register them and may respond. But theirs too are on the stream.

The Artist in Real and Virtual Company 5:
Social media and the net

Kardashians in a row

The development of the internet accelerated certain established tendencies and habits of mind. The art of letter writing, of writing in long hand, of amassing archives that were purely on paper all diminished without quite vanishing. The opening of newspaper columns to commenters anonymised behind pseudonyms and avatars released some from the constraints of epistolary manners and, owing to the immediacy of communication, often ended in the visual equivalent of shouting and face pulling. Just as being behind the wheel of a car, surrounded by a metal shell, encourages people to behave in ways they might not person-to-person so the hard metallic armour of the pseudonym enabled some to indulge in new forms of behaviour.

Once social media became available more new forms of behaviour became possible. Let’s take two extremes. On the one hand appliances like Facebook extended the possibility of confessional behaviour and confessional writing already explored in what is called ‘reality’ television where people are deliberately exposed in the midst of crises of one sort or another and encouraged to bellow and scream at each other. Their personal sphere becomes the public sphere. Their persons become their personae: the self as perceived and exposed. So on Facebook we hear of break-ups, illnesses, doubts, triumphs and cries of friendship that may begin as contact between personae on a virtual level but can extend to physical contact of both welcome and unwelcome kinds.

At the other extreme the anonymising of the individual figure could lead less to an exposure of what we might assume to be a real kind, more to the wholesale invention of an entirely new figure that was mostly persona, mostly fiction, mostly a mode of discourse. The perfectly normal human habit of adopting slightly different voices and identities for different social situations - one speaks one way to a child, to one’s partner, to the policeman, to the stranger at the door - is extended by the offer of the possibility of none or any of these, These avatars were already available in theatre, in role games, and in the world of the Sim. The idea of seeking semi-mythological roles in terms of fulfilment (as described by Barthes in his ‘Mythologies’) was already present in the world of advertising, but the new virtual stage enabled a far wider range of roles.

There is a now a generation - that of my students and my children, who have grown up with the internet, and can move about it like human ghosts within a familiar and amenable machine. The poet Sam Riviere’s PhD thesis turned out to be his first Faber collection, 81 Austerities. Riviere’s first degree was in Cultural Studies and he had a sophisticated theoretical intelligence that adapted readily to the sensibility - or one of the sensibilities - available on the net. His central interest, as evidenced by the book, was the nature of anonymity or mask, a sort of emptying out whereby the vacuous or mischievous discourses of politics, commerce and self might constitute a new sincerity by reassimilation. The poems in 81 Austerities are mostly in voices other than ‘his‘, that is to say of Riviere as a figure the reader might identify with the voices in the poems. Instead of a personal voice Riviere offered the products of an excellent identifiable ear: a phonic unity. The new book (which I have yet to read) titled Kim Kardashian’s Marriage (also Faber) promises a journey from a different angle. The construction of Riviere’s poems takes place in a space haunted by hollow voices who form a permanent company that has to be negotiated. They are not Dylan Thomas’s lovers, not Li Po’s drunken companions, not even Jean Valentine’s other solitary selves. They are figments and fragments, a virtual company of presences stripped down to personae.

The Artist in Real and Virtual Company 4:
Performativeness and performance

Not I

Poetry is performative in ways that fiction as novel is not. Story tellers have always existed of course but novels are more than stories in that we don’t expect novelists to read us entire books orexcerpts as though they were whole. We do however expect poets to read complete poems. That is partly a matter of brevity but also of a certain expectation, not just of orality, meaning the poem may be memorised or spoken or sung, but that we are aware that at its most effective it exists in the mouth, that the mouth is not just a vehicle for the sound but a miniature physical theatre where sound performs itself.

A poem is in some ways a mouth dance: the movements of the mouth producing the sound are an essential feature of the meaning, an enactment of meaning in which the complex emotions of the body are transmitted as expression in the same way as a grimace or a grin or a scream or a whisper articulate the body’s condition. We might perhaps imagine the movement of the mouth as a microscosm of the effects of the world upon both body and mind, as a laboratory or theatre, where the auditory becomes auditorium.

Poetry depends on a physicality of presence. People read poems to each other and listen with a particular kind of attention. Reading alound or silently is an act of trust just as suspension of belief in stage and actors constituties an act of trust.  Poetry resists cheap staginess: it is its own stage. Even when we are dealing with poems whose central concern appears to be the page, as for example concrete poetry, or poetry whose visual aspect is an important aspect of our experience in reading it, such as the visual wit of e e cummings, or the long lines of Carolyn Forché or W C Williams , or in terms of sheer shape as in George Herbert’s Easter Wings, we are aware that visual space has it equivalent in sound. In any case, the power of the poem to conjure association through imagery prompts the visual imagination, its pitch and rhythms conjure the emotionalism of music, its manners register on the social level as forms of address,  and its cloud of developing ideas spreads like weather across the landscape of the receiving mind.

That receiving mind is required to imagine the physicality of the poem’s production - the mouth dance, the mouth’s own auditorium: it is invited to indulge its imaginary senses and inhabit its own inner landscape more fully.

Reading a poem to another person is an act of assumed intimacy. A reading among friends is part chamber music,  part entertainment. A reading to an audience of strangers is both those things but also potentially a sermon, a political meeting, a ritual, a circus, a cabaret, or a party. It is an essentially communal act.

The increasing popularity of the slam and the comedy-performance circuit often drives the poetry into the arms of party entertainment, a turn by someone particullarly good at doing a turn. Applause is courted and affirms both the applauder and the applauder.  There are shared values and shared emotions. That which is known is confirmed. If I am not much drawn to this aspect of public performance it is because I feel it betrays the first cause of lyric poetry which is a turning away from social roles towards a communing with something beyond the accepted and known. I feel much the same about the poet on a political platform, or what used to be known as agit-prop. If the poem merely confirms what everyone already thinks it may be clever but it no longer questions itself. Cabaret, circus and ritual do more than this: they do not exhaust the public space but leave it hanging at the edge of something less determined.

Which is where Dylan Thomas, Li Po and Jean Valentine were. Their solitude engaged with a virtual other, not with a party of paying guests wanting to feel good about themselves. The magic circle of communality is best served with magic that wakens the intelligence and the senses not soothes them. That communal magic, like music, is best served with ritual, circus and cabaret, the more dangerous spaces of performance and performance, one way or the other, whether in the mouth, in the cafe or the public arena, is central to the experience of poetry.

The Artist in Real and Virtual Company 3:
Working alongside an auditory presence

Pasternak, Einsenstein, Brik, Mayakovsky

Writers are not always alone, not as people, not even as writers. Writers, like other artists, have tended to congregate with those of a similar outlook. This is partly for company, partly for political or economic reason. They have formed groups, editorial panels, sometimes because they shared a patron, whether that patron was an individual or an isntitution or a state. Some of these groupings or associations are purely practical. The medieval guild system was intended to protect the status of its members by providing standards and apprenticeships, as was the case of a number of crafts but also of arts such as painting and sculpture before a distinction was made between craft and art.

In a visual artist’s studio there would be assistants and apprentices who might begin by providing very basic services such as cleaning the studio or grinding paint, progressing to painting the less critical parts of a major work, such as the sky. The assistants would be required to do ever more demanding parts of the painting such as vegetation or animals. The great Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens employed other important artists such as, for example Paulus Potter, to paint dogs and horses while Rubens concentrated on the composition and the figures. All this assumed the primacy of the master and the task of others to imitate him or at least facilitate his work by filling in within the terms of the master’s style. It was only when state or royal academies took over that ideas and techniques took on a less personal direction.

But of course there had been Renaissance courts where poets, artists, philosophers, musicians and scholars gathered under wealthy patronage not so much to produce a single work but to explore areas of mutual interest, the Medici and the Sforza families in Italy being among the best known of these patrons. The idea of individual genius developed under circumstances such as these, the idea of the group being to nurture such genius in so far as it produced what was commonly agreed - but chiefly by the patron - to be valuable.  So we know, for example, that Poliziano’s poems provided subject matter for Botticelli’s paintings and that Dante and Giotto would have had access to ech other’s work.

Beyond the institutional and the patronage-led there remained individuals whose ideas coincided at some stage and we know these by the terms that are generally retrospectively applied to their common vision particularly from the nineteenth century onward once monolithic patronage was pushed aside by new technologies and idea of free enterprise. So the development of capitalism in 17C Amsterdam leads artists into individual or family specialisations, looking to exploit corners of the market. From then on artists are united on the basis of new ideas and, increasingly often, on the basis of going against the market. So we have Pre-Raphaelitism, Impressionism, Neo-Impressism. Post Impressioism, Fauvism, Cubism and the rest.

For writers with less tangible products to sell the occasions for gathering would be the development of smaller salons where they could meet and discuss ideas and affairs that concerned them, on anything from ideas about nature and politics to the latest scientific theories and developments. Nevertheless we can talk perfectly sensibly of Grub Street, of the circle of Dr Johnson, of the Lake Poets, and of John Keats’s friends such as Reynolds and Leigh Hunt who set each other themes for poetry. There had been examples of collaboration in dramatic writing earlier, for example the plays of Beaumont and Fletcher, and Shakespeare’s co-writers, but the core idea of writing as the product of individual genius remained. The Imagists could congregate around a certain idea, as could Dadaists and Surrealists, and many other schools we could name but, as far as product was concerned, it was the work of the individuals within the group that achieved prominence.

Poets talk to each other, write to each other, exchange views and ideas though it is rarer to do so while engaged in the act of composition. There are projects that involve exchanges of poems; there are even collaborative cycles of poems. Octoavio Paz produced a book with the British poet Charles Tomlinson, called Airborn where one sent the other a poem, the other responded, returned the response for the first to reply with a response of his own. I myself have worked in this way with the poet Carol Watts in which we alternated poems, first reducing the lines by one each time from twenty-eight, then having got down to one line building up to twenty-eight again. The result is a forthcoming book titled, naturally enough, Fifty-Six.

The presence of the concrete Other serves as an echo and sounding board off which the pair launch themselves into new production through a continuing process.

The Artist in Real and Virtual Company 2:
The imagined auditory presence

One of the most common questions any writer gets is: who do you write for?  In some cases the answer would appear simple: the poem is overtly dedicated to an individual or group. Love poems are to the beloved. A political poem is addressed to a cause or to those in a position to support or oppose the cause. We have poems addressed to friends, to patrons, to people the poet has never met but admires, or to other specifics, but  there remains a nagging something or someone beyond the overt address. One might facetiously respond to the enquirer that it is you, sir or madam, I am writing for you, but this would be recognised as facetious or even intrusive.

What does it mean for Dylan Thomas to be addressing those unnamed and probably conjectural lovers? What part do the drunken companions play in the solitary figure of Li Po? What can be known of the other solitaries in Jean Valentine’s poem? In what way is Coleridge’s sleeping babe an audience?

I have had two standard answers to the question of who one writes for. The first is to indicate a class of people with whom I tend to identify: people on trains, I say, aware of the range of reasons people might be on trains, aware that people on trains are between places, aware that trains, unlike aeroplanes are in contact with the ground and pass through landscapes. The companionship of these fellow travellers is as notional as Thomas’s lovers. We are aware that travellers alight at various points of their journeys and that our contact with them is not necessarily personal: it is just that we share a suspended condition that is distinct from the business of life and identity we are obliged to lead once we have arrived. Different poets will have different answers but they may be of the kind that refers to a shared condition. Jean Valentine’s solitary speaks to the shared condition of a fellow solitary .

But there is another answer we might give and I do occasionally give which is that we write for quite specific auditors, an audience that is much more active and is composed of those writers or writings that have meant something special to us. This is an audience that has had a direct part in our own development and have taken their places in our writing selves, who consciously or otherwise are part of the writier’s navigating system when it comes to deciding what makes a line or indeed an entire poem. When there is just one towering figure in this audience we may find ourselves talking of the anxiety of influence which some interpret as a variant on the Oedipus complex. In other words we have to kill them before we can proceed. That may indeed be a stage in the devlopment of a writer, but at some stage the various towering figures begin to move in a certain constellation, not all in agreement, and it is out of these that are audience , our unconscious or semi-conscious navigation system is constructed.

There are always others beside the writer-as-solitary, those who are present not just as social context but as presences in the very act. The lovers, the drunken companions, the fellow soitary, the sleeping child are all notionally present, but so are those other figures who have made our writing what it is: the sound of nursery rhymes, thevoices in sacred texts, the sound of the first poets whose voices arrested us and those who followed. These virtual companions stand to one side of time, watching it flow past them. We who are in the stream may find them accompanying us for part of the journey: our fellow swimming contemporaries, the ghosts on passing currents, the vast edifices on the bank whose shadow remains with us long after we have passed them and those whose domain extends along vast stretches of the river. They are virtual but present. We don’t think of them but we are not altogether unconscious of them.

Our fellow travellers, those with whose condition we identify are, like us, receivers, listeners. Those who have entered our heads as influences are transmitters, just as we are transmitters: we hear them as we transmit.

Saturday 9 May 2015

The Artist in Real and Virtual Company 1
edited text of keynote delivered
at Inonu University, Turkey

In my craft or sullen art
Exercised in the still night
When only the moon rages
And the lovers lie abed
With all their griefs in their arms,
I labour by singing light
Not for ambition or bread
Or the strut and trade of charms
On the ivory stages
But for the common wages
of their most secret heart.

So begins Dylan Thomas’s famous poem that is referred to by its first line “In my craft or sullen art”. The craft or sullen art is exercised at night under the moon by a solitary poet. The poet labours by singing light: the lovers for whom he sings represent the common wages of a secret heart.
The Chinese poet, Li Po, rises after a drunken wine party and writes

When I arose, still drunken,
The birds had all gone to their nests,
And there remained but few of my comrades.
I went along the river—alone in the moonlight.

The American poet, Jean Valentine, in her poem ‘Sanctuary’ writes of

The uses of solitude. To imagine; to hear.
Learning braille. To imagine other solitudes.

It is not only poets who value solitude of course. Most tasks that require concentration involve a shutting out of distractions. Dylan Thomas’s lovers are elsewhere, Li Po leaves his drunken companions asleep and the very purpose of Jean Valentine’s studying of silence, or what she calls “learning braille” is to communicate with other solitudes elsewhere. The rages of the moon in Thomas isolate the individual, affirm his solitude. Everything is ‘elsewhere’.

Nevertheless the others involved in this act of concentration - the lovers, the drunken sleeping companions, the other solitudes - constitute a presence-in-absence, or, as my title has it, virtual presence. These figures are imagined and, usually, unspecific or, if specific, unaware of the condition of the poet. In one of the most beautiful poems of solitude, Coleridge’s Frost at Midnight, Coleridge is alone with his sleeping infant, conjuring solitude at the side of a precious unspeking other, his infant son..

Dear Babe, that sleepest cradled by my side,
Whose gentle breathings, heard in this deep calm,
Fill up the intersperséd vacancies
And momentary pauses of the thought!

The poem ends with the fanous “secret ministry of frost” and, once again, the moon, We might argue that this vision of writing alone, by moonlight, with a sense of sleeping or absent others is a specifically Romantic trope and there may be something in that, but it is not only the poets of the Romantic period who employ it.  Li Po and Jean Valentine are not Romantic poets, neither is Alexander Pope who writes an early Ode to Solitude, nor for that matter are T S Eliot or Michael Hofmann who also write about and out of the condition of being alone.

We should, of course, mark a difference between the writer as a figure in a condition of social isolation and the kind of isolation involved in the act of writing. Writing itself, the act of writing is,  so most people think, ideally conducted in isolation. Proust’s famous cork-lined room, Schiller sealing himself off behind a drawerful of rotten apples, the very idea of avoiding distractions or at least reducing the number of distractions seems more than sensible, somehow necessary.

My aim in this talk is to bring together, or at least touch on, the isolated act of writing with the notional presence of others under four particular headings: the sense of an audience or auditor in the solitary act; the idea of writing alongside others, the idea of performing writing as in slams and cabaret, and as a function of new technologies. I am deeply aware that this is to stretch material very thin, but since these areas seem to me to be related, I would like to think of it as a relatively large scale map that one might occasionally zoom in to.

At Lumb Bank 4

Walk along the river, mroning

This from home, about a five hour journey. I generally attend my fellow tutor's sessions but the pattern this time was not to do so, however I did attend Monique's workshop on persona and character which began with archetypes as the basis of all fiction and moved onto stereotypes. We considered the relationship between persona and character-as-reality, and how the former would slip under stress to reveal the latter.. We looked at two pieces of literature: the entrance of Sally Bowles in Isherwood's Goodbye to Berlin, and the very beginning of John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces. We were then invited to consider the figures of Bowles and Ignatius J Reilly in terms of archetype and how the characters became fascinating through their departure from but reference to archetype (Bowles as whore, Reilly as clown).

After that Monique asked us to choose from among a series of photographs of people and to fill in a questionaire relating to pissible background, character traits and so on. It was very interesting and I'm sure everyone found it helpful.

I'm not a novelist, of course, and it may be because I have no great belief in the idea of a 'real' character under a specific 'persona'. I don't expect that is the only reason though I fully accept that it is what makes fiction work. It may also explain why I am not primarily a reader of fiction.  The great books are, of course, the great books, and outstanding novels are outstanding. They do, no doubt, involve the creation of great characters but have always seemed to me the creation of a world that does not claim to be a copy of ours but the creation of a new one that is a product of the imagination.

My doubts about persona and character, other than as conventions, proceed out of the suspicion that we have various personae in various situations and have little sense of the character as truth. I have no real grasp on the 'real' character of even my nearest and dearest, not even of myself. A proposition such as 'the braggart X is eventually shown to be a coward' fills me with uncertainty about either side of that proposition.

It is the convention of realistic fiction that hazes me a little.  The 'let's pretend it's real' element is too conspicuous for me. Mine is a purely personal feeling, of course and is probably what made me a poet than a novelist in the first place.

Having said that both Toole and Isherwood are wonderful writers and afford enormous pleasure at real depth. That is, in all likelihood, a product of the archetypes at play (I have no quarrel with archetypes at all) but also becaue both writers are in thrall to something in the world itself, in other words, with a sort of poetry.

I am aware that this is far from a convincing case but the truth I am seeking is somewhere in it.

But the chief point of Monique's workshop is absolutely convincing: it is hard work, proper research, sheer graft. No short cuts, no just starting and hoping. Very true.

The afternoon one-to-ones were followed by the evening readings. Spirits did not needto be raised but these would have raised anyone's. People just starting to write had made enormous strides - not so much strides as leaps. How extraordinary that thin line between between incomprehension to understanding, from little idea to shows of considerable skill. It is, I think, not so much the gaining of something new but a removal of something that serves as an obstacle.

This morning the farewells, warm and genuine. I am a firm believer in Arvon. I should try to write another post explaining why. In the meantime thank you, Arvon, thank you dear students, thank you, Monique.

Friday 8 May 2015

Interlude: face it, do it!

A bigger loss than anticipated.

You ask yourself where you live. It is a country of raised eyebrows, deep scepticism, and of keeping things as they are in case they get worse. It is a country that believes in the NHS but will risk its future because it is sceptical about threats to demolish it. It is a country with a fragmented working class base with a fragmented sense of identity. It has no great opinion of itself but will not be told by others that it should have a low opinion of itself. Fuck you, it replies. It is several countries not one. Its sleep too is fragmented. In the morning it raises its eyebrows while one part then another breaks off. It needs to be addressed patiently, with deadly honesty, with some appreciation of its intelligence, even with some affection, especially by those who want it to change, to move from acts of individual altruism (of which it has plenty) to one of socially cohesive altruism. It needs stop raising its eyebrows. It needs to see the greater good against the cost. It needs to say, now and then, fuck the cost. The gain is greater.

Go on Labour! Address it!

At Lumb Bank 2/3

The drive at Lumb Bank

End of Thursday.  The days are too full to keep track of at night, nor is this exactly early at 11:30 and it is Election Night. One student is listening to the radio in the main sitting room. This is the office where I have access, a separate building at the end of the drive.

Today we had sun and no rain. Yesterday morning, while Monique was doing her workshop, I was writing the last blog, reading student work and writing a little myself. The afternoon was one-to-one tutorials talking over a poem or two or an idea in the usual way. It is a good tempered group, all starting from zero, at least officially, though some have been writing foryears and they have all read substantially.

Wednesday evening is when the visiting writer comes and this time it was Matthew Welton on his way down to a conference at Goldsmiths. We had only met briefly before so when he arrived at the cottage where the tutors and visiting writers stay we sat down, Monique poured some wine and we talked an hour or so. before going overfor dinner and the reading.

Monique being a little hard of hearing we are doing readings in the sitting room not the barn and it gets pretty cosy and packed there. Matthew reads a range of work along the lines of Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed, Something Blue which is apparently our headline tag for the course. So he begins with some older poems, then some new ones, some in which he borrows lines from Jon McGregor and ends with a poem composed entirely of four letter words in which the consonants have been exchanged, in effect a sound poem that we know contains the dreaded four-letter words. The reading is funny and inventive and technically brilliant at times, but always edging towards language rather than subject. The poems, I feel, especially those clipped from Jon McG have a kind of abrupt gentleness which may be an attribute retained from the original book or something more to do with the selections from it. The humorous, the arbitary and the obsessive, as well as the collaborative run through everything. Although this is experimental work in certain senses it is not the least rebarbative. It is, rather, playful, in the way a child may be playful given the components of some inexhaustible machine. I like it very much. I, of course, was born into a world of subjects where language was the prime mediator and guide but not in itself the subject so my later more 'experimental' work is never entirely free of themes or thematic areas.

Afterwards a few of us, including Matthew and Jack, the co-Course Director, sit around for a while with glasses of wine and keep talking. This is Arvon as I know it. The late conversations, the eventual retiring to bed.


This morning it is my turn again, this time to talk about form. Despite a very late night I wake early and am very much awake by 6, write a little then get up, shower, wash my hair and, having decided to have bacon for breakfast head over to the main kitchen to get some bacon from the communal fridge. The idea is to bring it back but once I'm there there is company and conversation so I find the bacon and fry it there. Eventually I return to the cottage to get my thing together and we make a start.

I have written on form before. This session starts by them reading their haiku chains which seem to have turned out very well. Those who hadn't really 'got' poetry before are getting it. It's encouraging. From haiku I move to epitaph and epigram, and get them to write some similar quatrains, complete with pointed rhymes and though they only have a few minutes to do this they come out with some crackers. Thence to Emily Dickinson and the use of counterpoint and finally to sonnets, to the three-stage-poem and to beginnings and endings. To get them started I send them back to the library to take out a book - any book - to find page 57 and look in the direction of the 12th line for a line that might serve to begin their own poem. The sheer arbitrariness of this takes attention away from the heavy responsibility of choosing a heavyweight subject. Once again, they produce some fine things, in some cases the least promising of them. Understanding poetry is really a matter of not misunderstanding it. Once the misunderstandings thin out actual poetry can make its entrance.

After lunch I have the four tutorials but by the fourth I am dead on my feet so return to my room to snooze and very quickly fall asleep (hence the wakefulness now, close to midnight). Tonight was the anthology reading. I always enjoy these - and some have a real gift for recitation too. Tomorrow we end. The end always comes abruptly. Now post this (I will add a picture as soon as I can) and to return the office key.

It's thick dark out there. Maybe the white cows will emit a faint radioactive glow - if they are still there.

Wednesday 6 May 2015

At Lumb Bank 1

View from tutor's window
I still intend to post the keynote talk from Malatya but this week I am away at Lumb Bank teaching a Starting to Write course with Monique Roffey who is doing fiction while I do poetry. The days are full as ever, and though I wrote the brief account below late last night this morning is my first opportunity of posting it. There is no wifi in the place apart from in the office to which tutors have access and if one stays up relatively late talking to students the time is pretty well taken up.

We have fifteen students, one having cried off late. Thirteen of them are women, mostly on the younger side of older, and two men. The proportion is not untypical. The reasons for that must be long and complex but the territory the reasons cover is hard to venture into, chiefly because it is mined and will remain so for a long time. I will venture into the territory at some point but not now. It is late, I am back in my room. Monique and I have just done our readings and have sat around to chat, partly about novels generally, then about romance, romantic love, Le Rouchefoucauld, Robert Graves and the White Goddess even touching on Fifty Shades of Grey.

It is the end of the first full day of teaching. I have taken the first morning session on, essentially, imagery, This is preceded by a good deal of talk about the nature of the poetic process and enterprise and on the kind of things it may produce given certain circumstances. What are the differences between poems and stories. What about the relationship with language as both the visual and the auditory. I give them Karl Shapiro’s prose notes for his poem, The Fly. We talk about Imagism and Haiku. I set them a haiku to do, and suggest they extend it to a series, then we look at Vasko Popa. This is old ground to me but new to them.

This being a Starting to Write group the assumption must be that they haven’t done much writing. None of them have been on an Arvon Course before. I myself have never been on one as a student but I have been teaching them for well over thirty years. Nevertheless it is a new start every time because the people are new, the chemistry is new, the fellow tutor is new, possibly the course director is new. Jack, our cook is a virtuoso at quickly producing a classy meal out of whatever is to hand. We eat well. He just cooks the first night, the rest of the dinners are produced by teams according to set recipes, but Jack does produce the lunch.

The rain has been falling lightly, as if finely sieved, on and off most of the day. It seems appropriate here. I can hear the water gurgling in streamlets and channels. First days are ice breakers and openings that don’t mean we fall through the ice and drown.

As for me, I float. It is all floaty. One touches on things then they are gone and we’re elsewhere. Something accumulates though we can't be certain what. I write when I can. There was a poem this morning. About rain. And lo! there was rain.

Sunday 3 May 2015

To Mount Nemrut: eight photographs

At the necropolis of Perre
Room inside, bring own bedding

Boys among tombs

Climbing 1

Climbing 2 - at Cendere Bridge
Climbing 3 - at this stage with barrier
Climbing 4
From near the top of Mt Nemrut

Farewell to Turkey: 'Does the road wind uphill all the way?'

What we might have seen on Mt Nemrut on a sunny day without snow.

"For an uncatlike
Creature who has gone wrong,
Five minutes on even the nicest mountain
Are awfully long"

- W H Auden, 'Mountains' from Bucolics

Is one entirely an "uncatlike creature', a sort of pusscat under tons of elephant hide, as Auden was?

Never having lived among mountains, to me a mountain range has been what we call 'scenery', a visually realised romantic notion of something breathtaking yet essentially dreadful, like being among red-faced people who shout or yodel all the time. It is not so much the height. I have been to the top of the Sears Tower in Chicago and on the roof terrace of the tallest building in Singapore and have long conquered my childhood vertigo, the sense that if there was a ledge the only thing to do was to step off it, and the succeeding youthful dreams of precipices with a noisy chaos at the bottom, experiencing the dizzy temptation of taking flight but running instead into a dark fast-moving forests. I have toured in mountainous regions and slept in dry thunder. Still, I am not familiar with them.

The last day in Malatya involved a romantic excursion by minibus, in fact a litter of four minimbuses, to Mount Nemrut by way of Gölbasi, the ancient necropolis city of Perre, thence across the Cendere Bridge - the second largest Roman bridge still in existence - then ascending ever higher, glimpsing Kahta Castle perched on its unlikely promontory, until we reached the top of Mount  Nemrut, or as far as vehicle could reach, then to climb the rest on foot and watch the sun set from the peak which was a Commagene burial site complete with statues of the kings,  and of course the most spectacular views while drinking a glass of wine and eating a sandwich.

It was a beautiful idea which was no less beautiful despite the fact that not everything went to plan. Two of the drivers refused to take their vehicles up the steep narrow loose tracks that constituted a road in progress and the other two hesitated, or rather their occupants, including me, hesitated before resolving to go on. There were the precipices and ledges right next to us with no barricade and the track strewn with fallen rocks. But this is nothing out of the ordinary for visitors to the mountain and we reached the top as the sun began to set. Unfortunately the wine and sandwiches had remained in one of the buses that refused the ascent but there was coffee to be had where the driving ended before the climb on foot.

I confess I didn't quite make it to the top. My diabetes (type 2) makes breathing at 7,000 feet a little difficult and the best I could do was to tackle it in short runs with long hesitations. Iain Galbraith, who is a hardier man than I am, and Robyn Rowland, who is a hardier woman, did get there. I was fairly close before my chest got the better of me and I started down.  I wasn't dressed for the cold anyway because I am a careless reader of long emails.

At the coffee camp I was asked to tell a lovely woman's fortune from coffee dregs which I duly did despite having not the least notion of what I was doing. I hope my 100% intuitive predictions prove true (she was to remarry in three years time and have a second child). You know who you are. Do let me know.

On the trickier way down - in the dark this time - one of our party began to feel alarmingly ill so an ambulance had to be called and the shortest way to meet it was along another mountain path. It did meet us there and our dear leader and friend had to go with her so we never had a chance to say goodbye. (The ill person recovered after a while we are glad to say.) Our driver was marvellous. He was used to driving trucks on roads more precipitous and looser gravelled than this.

Thus the farewell next morning without proper goodbyes, departing the hotel early with John and Iain, flying first to Istabul then in our various directions. I liked them very much. I hope to see them again, as I do Berkan and many of our hosts and fellow contributors.

A post follows this, just personal photos and captions of the last day. Thank you Inonu, Malatya, Turkey. Thank you all our kind friends.