Wednesday 18 December 2019

Prayer for my Daughter

Magdalen College, Oxford

Somehow or other I succeeded in leaving this poem out of the New and Collected (2008). I did not mean to, it just went missing. Then recently, when I was in Munich, the man who had invited me, Helge, said it was this poem that I had read some  fifteen years before at Cologne, that he remembered and that other people had liked so much.

Last night I read it at LUMEN, the cold weather harity in London, and one member of the audience has written to me and asked where she could find it. The answer was, 'nowhere'. But I have found it among old files, and here it is.

It was written for our daughter, Helen, just about to go up to Oxford in 1994, the year we moved to Norfolk. It refers to the Yeats poem, of course, and quotes it too, but it refers to much else. Each time I wrote one part another part demanded to be written so in the end there were seven. It was both fun and moving to write.

Prayer for my Daughter

So here we are and here’s my stanza,
like a Clementi cadenza
a penny-plain extravaganza,

just to keep things neat but sprightly
in what might otherwise politely
decline into a straight unsightly

father-to-daughter patronising
advisory misadvising
lecture on vague points arising,

a Yeatsian prayer to admonish
characteristics too Maud Gonneish,
Fenian or Amazonish.

My stanza’s nineteenth century capers
are out of time. I read the papers
and know the new opinion shapers,

I know their loose, sincere demotic
ironies and semiotic
quiddities, but I’m Quixotic:

though windmills are as quaint as giants,
I continue in defiance
of gravity or modern science

rhyming like a man demented
dolphin torn and gong tormented
till the giants have relented.

Darling, tonight the whole horizon
closed like a lid. The traffic sighs on
rainy tarmac, men flit like flies on

jets of wind, the river fractures,
and a streetlight manufactures
a wealth of frazzled broken textures.

So beautiful: the petrol station’s
amber flatness, the quotations
of lit shopfronts, the impatience

of running clouds. The winter races
into darkness, interlaces
bodies in its breathing spaces.

You see, I want to turn this patter-
song to deeper, graver matter,
more throttle more carburettor

I want to be a souped up, solemn,
portentous father, wise as Solom-
on not just a gossip column,

someone you’ll take seriously
whose works you’ll study furiously
not discard imperiously

from some theory-laden high-rise
nor swat and squash flat, wasp- or fly-wise.
but approve, applaud and lionise.

Walking last night I sought an image
to offer you, a kind of homage
to the wind’s wild scrape and scrimmage,

and noticed how the very cheapest
vulgarisms struck the deepest:
the Woolworth lights, a buckled leaf pressed

to the pavement, a crisp packet
flying in the gust. I took it
home with me, to store and stack it

in memory, imagination,
to use it in some combination:
a poem finding its occasion.

Some quick advice? Well just a quickie:
Beware the sentimental-sticky,
Beware the choosy and the picky,

Beware all those who talk in torrents
The snobs who earned the strict abhorrence
Of poor pale sickly D.H.Lawrence,

Beware the Oxfordly superior,
Beware those with a smooth exterior,
The cynic wiser and world-wearier,

Beware the shady and the murky,
Beware the overprecious-quirky,
Beware your father talking turkey.

Out on your own. The eighteenth hurdle
safely past. The tales I’ve heard all
tend to make a man’s blood curdle,

so to the prayer (I’m feeling prayerful):
Darling be wise, be good, be careful,
be water, fire and earth and air-ful,

find images beyond the kitchen
that women used to bake and bitch in
from Halicarnassus to plain Hitchin,

may you, in darkness, be that changing
wind and light, your mind free-ranging,
sea-like, unplumbed, salt, estranging,

tender, yes, but not kid-gloving
neither too mousy, nor too shoving,
be fortunate, be loved, be loving

be all of these, be kind, far-seeing,
in short, beyond the you- and me-ing
all that befits a human being,

what human beings may be made for:
life, unearned, unknown, unpaid for,
that you were celebrated, prayed for.

Friday 13 December 2019

On the General Election 2019

I think we are in rats’ alley
Where the dead men lost their bones

These are not forecasts since I don't consider myself a soothsayer. They are, I would claim, reasonably founded apprehensions. I break them into three headings.

1. Public broadcasting and media

This morning Charles Moore barks at Nick Robinson. He is clearly excited. He is telling Robinson that the BBC should lose its licence fee. In fact he is forecasting it.

Johnson had hinted at this earlier. It is not that the BBC is biased towards Labour, it is that it can, on occasion, be hostile to a Tory (much as it can be hostile to a Labour spokesman.)

Well, we can't have that! We cannot possibly support it. We must have a tamer more Tory BBC. and we will do it by turning it into a purely commercial operation, one ideally in the hands of one of our friendly billionaires, or, failing that, in hock to powerful commercial advertisers. That'll teach 'em!

And as for Channel 4...

This is the beginning of a very slippery slope since it is entirely a political decision. In that respect it is moving ever closer in step with with Viktor Orbán's Hungary where almost the entire national press and public media are government mouthpieces.

2 Brexit and the Red Wall

No, I did not anticipate the scale of the Tory victory, and much of it through the collapse of Labour in the North of England. I am pretty sure Corbyn supporters have a point in arguing that Brexit lay at the heart of it.


... is it not extraordinary that the constituency I think of as the Brexit-maddened poor should vote for an Old Etonian, frequently-confirmed, habitual liar who has no interest in their condition?

Contrary to Theresa May's mantra of Brexit Means Brexit, my contention is that Brexit has never meant Brexit. It has not meant any particular attitude to Europe either economically or politically. Brexit has meant all your grievances bundled into a single package that caters to your pride and insecurity. Europe has very little to do with it.

That pride and insecurity can only be intensified through presenting any case of potential revision as betrayal (a very popular rhetorical trope for Brexiters.) So not only have you been betrayed by an external Them (though any Them would do) but are now being betrayed all over again by an internal Them.

In this case the internal Them were the Labour Party and the liberal-minded as well as radically-minded educated class (which includes most artists.)

The issue extends far deeper than being a member of the EU. It is an existential issue of honour and anger.


I hear people like Lavery, the Labour Party Chair, blaming the Remainers within the party for the loss.


... instead of blaming the Remainers in the Labour Party I would go back to the referendum itself where we were told time and again how Labour - led by Corbyn - were putting the case for Remain.

That was a clearly lie. The fact is that 48% of the voters were left without a major advocate. Labour then pussyfooted around for almost three years before equivocating itself into the worst of all positions.

The position in which it could be accused of betrayal by both sides of the Brexit debate.


Meanwhile one Tory MP has already compared the fall of the Red Wall to the fall of the Berlin Wall.

That is about as foul and disgusting as you can get. That's the direction we are heading in.

3  The Future is Another Country / Rats' Alley

It's a moot but vital question whether the vote reflects the temporary mood of the country or is a sign of deep and significant change in it.

I hope it's mood and therefore temporary (since everything is temporary) but I am apprehensive about a deeper change.

That change (at least on the immediate level since there are always more reasons) began with the drive against immigrants. Not so much as a matter of control but as a matter of downright hostility: the "hostile environment" minted by May. Hostility kicked in immediately as it always does when a scapegoat is offered: it is simply well-tried historical mob behaviour.

The frustrations of any group of people can be offered a useful vent. Just as Brexit didn't mean Brexit, so the immigrant cause was a sign of a much deeper, much more complex malaise,. The individual strands of that malaise would take far too long to analyse.

Fintan O'Toole wrote well about it, maybe because the Burns adage is true: we lack the gift to see ourselves as others see us.

Factors, very crudely speaking, include: the end of the imperial era; the likely break-up of the United Kingdom; the financial collapse of 2008-9; the forces of globalisation, and the climate crisis. These forces play at least some part in the dramatic shifts across the world. They cause insecurities that certain political stances can look to address.

The guilt of empire is now entirely on England's shoulders and the load is all but intolerable. In Germany's case the guilt was clear and imposed as the result of a lost war. England did not lose that war or any other since. Not clearly and absolutely.

The reaction to guilt is hatred and distrust of those who impose it. Who imposes the guilt? As the poor will see it, it is foreigners and the liberal intellectual class who absolve themselves of it by blaming the very feelings that the poorest were told they were fighting for.

Trump wins. Johnson wins. There will be no national introspection under Johnson. There will be Churchillian bluster by the bucketload.


And where is this leading beyond mood?

The old industrial and class loyalties are enfeebled. Cultural loyalties - the least articulate and least useful of loyalties - remain. Those loyalties can be manipulated by the powerful forces of bread and circuses. Give 'em the right sort of blustering pap and make them believe it emanates from their own souls. Do that and they're yours. Their own blusterers will drive you on. Maybe faster and further than you think.

That is, of course, an apprehension, not a forecast. But it is not mere fancy. It is an option, and, I think, an ever more likely option.


This then is rats' alley. How will life change there?

Let's see how many hospitals are actually built, how many schools need support, how many genuinely affordable houses will become available, how much more exploitative the conditions of employment will become, how harsh the penalties imposed on those genuinely unfit for work, how many rough sleepers will be on the street, how many food packages will need to be distributed, and how far the cases of mental illness and suicide will rise.

Rats' alley waits to discover the answers.