Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Bye-Bye 2010

'Freedom of Information reveals that 8 out of 9 positive comments on the ID cards website were written by Home Office personnel themselves.'

'Photoshop Handsome' by Everything Everything . . . the lines 'Airbrush! -- What have you done with my father? -- Why does he look like a carving?' have now entered Pindar family lore.


I have a piece on Henri Michaux in Poetry News – available to Poetry Society members . . .

And you can read 'my' poem 'Chain Letter' (a cento – or is it a cento?) on the PN Review website . . .

This poem appears in my debut collection Emporium.

It's out next year.

I wonder what people will make of it?

I shall keep by me at all times this quotation from Oscar Wilde's ‘The Soul of Man under Socialism’ (1891):

'In England, the arts that have escaped best are the arts in which the public take no interest. Poetry is an instance of what I mean. We have been able to have fine poetry in England because the public do not read it, and consequently do not influence it. The public like to insult poets because they are individual, but once they have insulted them they leave them alone.'

Sunday, December 12, 2010

The English Opium Eater: A Biography of Thomas De Quincey, by Robert Morrison (Phoenix)

It began with toothache. Thomas Quincey (who called himself De Quincey) bought a tincture of opium at a druggist’s shop in 1804 and discovered that “Happiness might now be bought for a penny, and carried in the waistcoat pocket.” It was the start of his “opium career”, as recounted in his Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1821), which influenced Baudelaire and Poe among others and did so much to romanticise the drug. Drawing on new sources, Morrison has written a balanced and affectionate account of a life of unfulfilled promise. He is especially good on De Quincey’s life-changing encounter with Wordsworth and Coleridge and his role in establishing the cult of the Lake Poets (although later Wordsworth shunned De Quincey for marrying a farmer’s daughter). It is also illuminating on Ann, the prostitute who rescued De Quincey in London, then mysteriously disappeared. De Quincey certainly visited prostitutes, Morrison says, but Ann is probably a composite of several women, including Mary Magdalen and his dead sister Elizabeth.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

MPs vote to raise tuition fees in England

A defining moment. I'm utterly disgusted. How did it come to this?

Our central concern is that the removal of the fees cap - and the differentiation in costs between university degrees that will follow - will hamper efforts to widen access to higher education and increase social segregation across the sector. We believe that the claw-back mechanism proposed by Browne will not, in fact, keep fees down – and there is little disincentive for elite universities, where the access issue is most acute, to charge very high fees. A parallel concern is that those university subjects associated with the highest earnings premiums will see the highest fee rises, making them off-limits for youngsters from non-privileged homes.
The Sutton Trust response to Lord Browne’s review

(thanks to Red Dog for this)

Friday, December 3, 2010

Ecologica, by André Gorz, tr. by Chris Turner (Yale University Press)

Ecologists often talk about species extinction, but in Ecologica the social philosopher André Gorz (1923–2007) contemplates the extinction of capitalism. Shortly before his death, Gorz predicted the global economic meltdown. “The real economy is becoming an appendage of the speculative bubbles sustained by the finance industry,” he observed in “The Exit from Capitalism” (2007), included here, “until that inevitable point when the bubbles burst, leading to serial bank crashes and threatening the global system of credit with collapse and the real economy with a severe, prolonged depression.” Unlike most economists, however, Gorz regarded our over-dependence on the financial industry as a sign that capitalism has reached its “internal limit”: “the art of making money by buying and selling nothing but various forms of money”.

But which will come first, capitalism’s extinction or the extinction of humankind, the logic of capitalism leading to climate catastrophe? In place of a destructive “religion of growth”, Gorz argues for “de-growth”, a productive alternative to capitalism. We need to develop “self-limiting” lifestyles of our own, he says, wasting and consuming less, but also working less. Our quality of life cannot be judged by GDP figures alone, he says. We need to get away from “growth in itself” as our raison d’être, especially when growth in recent years has meant nothing but a “growth in debts”. Economists lack any notion of what is sufficient – some idea of a limit beyond which we are producing and consuming too much.

So how do we achieve the long-promised “exit from capitalism”? Here, Gorz is less forthcoming, but it seems to involve “‘social experimentation’ around new ways of living communally”, and the use of “alternative technologies”. The emergence of free software on the Internet might offer a new model, he suggests. Skilfully translated by Chris Turner, this provocative collection of essays challenges “the domination by capital of our mode of life”. One of the best pieces here is “The Social Ideology of the Car”, a masterpiece of clarity and insight, in which Gorz argues that the car killed off the city, as it did all alternative modes of transport, and now, as the roads become increasingly congested, “the car is killing off the car”.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science, by James Hannam (Icon)

The Taliban are frequently referred to in the press as "medieval", Hannam says in this engaging history, but while life in the Middle Ages was often short and violent, it doesn't deserve to be caricatured as backward or primitive. The denigration of the Middle Ages began in the 16th century, he explains, reaching its apotheosis in the 18th and 19th centuries, when it was generally agreed that the Church had kept everyone in the dark throughout the so-called Dark Ages, impeding scientific progress. But this narrative doesn't fit the facts, Hannam argues. Of course, theology came top of the Church's priorities, but it also promoted the study of God's creation: natural philosophy, which went on to become what we know today as science (the word "scientist" was not coined until 1833). In short, "the most significant contribution of the natural philosophers of the Middle Ages was to make modern science even conceivable". And where did natural philosophy flourish? In universities, the first of which were founded in the 12th century.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Happy Birthday Paul Celan (1920–70)

‘Craft means handiwork, a matter of hands. And these hands must belong to one person, i.e., a unique, mortal soul searching for its way with its voice and its dumbness. Only truthful hands write true poems. I cannot see any basic difference between a handshake and a poem.’
Letter to Hans Bender, 1960

‘A poem, being an instance of language, hence essentially dialogue, may be a letter in a bottle thrown out to sea with the – surely not always strong – hope that it may somehow wash up somewhere, perhaps on a shoreline of the heart. In this way, too, poems are en route: they are headed toward.
Toward what? Toward something open, inhabitable, an approachable you, perhaps, an approachable reality.
Such realities are, I think, at stake in a poem.’

‘Speech on the Occasion of Receiving the Literature Prize of the Free Hanseatic City of Bremen’, 1958

Paul Celan [tr. Rosmarie Waldrop, Collected Prose (Carcanet)]

Monday, November 22, 2010

Frank O'Hara on the air

Lunch Poems, a light-hearted programme on Frank O'Hara, was on BBC Radio 4 last night, fronted by Paul Farley. It includes a poignant interview with John Ashbery. You can hear it again here.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Why the Dreyfus Affair Matters by Louis Begley (Yale University Press)

In 1894 the French artillery captain Alfred Dreyfus was wrongfully convicted of treason and imprisoned on Devil's Island. For Devil's Island read Guantánamo Bay, says the novelist and lawyer Louis Begley, who uncovers numerous parallels between l'affaire Dreyfus and "the Bush-Cheney heritage of trampling on America's international obligations under both the Geneva conventions and the UN Convention Against Torture while at the same time evading or violating the laws and constitution of the United States". Everyone has a right to a fair trial, he argues, but, just as Dreyfus was a victim of anti-Semitism, so many Guantánamo detainees are victims of anti-Islamism. In France, the liberal establishment exposed the military conspiracy that had imprisoned an innocent man; in America, Begley observes, "journalists dedicated to exposing the abuses of the Bush administration", as well as federal judges, military and civilian lawyers and law professors, took it upon themselves to defend the Guantánamo detainees. "They have redeemed the honour of the nation."

Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Music of Our Times

'In a credit crisis, J. H. Prynne’s poetry may – like it or not – be most fully and restlessly the music of our times.'
Robert Potts in the Times Literary Supplement (he also mentions the Cambridge Literary Review)

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Culture crunch (cont.)

'Most funded poetry organisations will be forced to cut their programme and poetry publishers will have to cut their lists. They will cut out the more financially risky or onerous work, because that's what it makes sense to do, and this means that the more established poets will continue to be published. Getting a first collection taken on by a publisher is going to be more difficult than ever though, and poets may have to think hard about alternative ways of building their careers, such as submission to print and online magazines, unpaid readings and even self-publishing.'
Chris Holifield, Director of the Poetry Book Society

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Royal wedding? No thanks

There are times when I find this country utterly incomprehensible . . .

I’ve no idea why the media is so excited about William Windsor (above) announcing he is to get married.

Fortunately, Graham Smith of Republic is on hand to bring some sanity to proceedings and to put the whole thing in context:

“I'm sure this is very happy news for those who know the couple, but it is a private matter and we mustn't see the government wasting limited resources paying for a major set-piece event.

William is not the head of state, there is no guarantee he will ever be head of state. This is a private occasion which I'm sure the palace will want to milk for maximum PR effect. It is not for the taxpayer to pay for any part of this event, the Windsors must cough up.

Inevitably there will be additional security arrangements for the wedding, but that must be paid for by the Windsor family from their own personal fortunes, not by taxpayers who are experiencing sweeping spending cuts.

If people are being told to tighten their belts, if the government is making thousands unemployed, if welfare payments are being slashed, it would be sickening for the government to allow a single penny more to be spent on the royals at this time.

Spending public money on this wedding or affording it any special status would be no more appropriate than if it were Ed Miliband's wedding. This is a private occasion.

We are certain the palace spin doctors will be working overtime to use this opportunity to their advantage. Republic today makes this pledge to do all it can to counter that PR campaign and continue to push the case for a modern and democratic institution in place of the monarchy.”

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Culture Crunch (cont.)

It’s as if we are attempting to socially engineer these troublesome thinkers and questioning creatives out of existence.
“Education is important to society as a whole, not just to the individual. To remove public funding for the study of subjects such as English, history and philosophy would be to deny their public value and the enrichment they provide to our culture through the stimulation of creativity and original thought, and to define a subject as only of any inherent worth if it has an obvious financial value. Passing the costs on to students through increased tuition fees would put a great many people off going to university, particularly those where no one else in their family has been before . . . Many would increasingly be unable to afford to value education for it’s own sake, putting the arts, humanities and social sciences out of reach and forcing decisions increasingly based on anticipated financial return. A civilised society values knowledge in and of itself. It’s as if we are attempting to socially engineer these troublesome thinkers and questioning creatives out of existence.”

Comedian Stewart Lee getting serious on the NUS website

Stand with Sakineh

 Sakineh Ashtiani 

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Culture crunch (cont.)

'The poetry publishing network will be wrecked, and the publishing opportunities for new writers will be severely affected by the loss or cutting back of some of the key imprints.'
Neil Astley, founder of Bloodaxe Books 
(taken from the Comments stream of this depressing article)

Monday, November 8, 2010

The Eitingons: A Twentieth-Century Story, by Mary-Kay Wilmers (Faber)

Much of this beautifully written family memoir concerns Leonid Eitingon (1899–1981), a terrifying figure who joined the Cheka in 1920 and later went about enthusiastically “liquidating” Stalin’s enemies, even helping to organise Trotsky's murder. More palatable, perhaps, are Max (1881–1943) and Motty (1885–1956). A Zionist psychoanalyst, Max befriended Sigmund Freud (although Jung called Max “an impotent gasbag”) and he established an institute of psychoanalysis in Palestine in the 1930s; Motty became a multimillionaire by importing furs to the US in the 40s. But were the FBI’s doubts about Motty simply cold war paranoia? And was Max involved in the kidnapping of a White Russian general? Plenty of questions remain unanswered, but Mary-Kay Wilmers, the editor of the London Review of Books, makes a virtue of this uncertainty as she investigates her mother’s family. It is the journey rather than the destination that matters. This enjoyable book is a little like an LRB article: leisurely, knowledgeable, full of fascinating nuggets and a tad overlong.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Battlestar Galactica

Finally, I watched the last episode of the final season of Battlestar Galactica (the reimagined TV series from 2003 to 2009, not the 1970s series). If you value your time, do not buy the three-hour miniseries that began it all or you will be sucked in and become an addict. Addiction is the only way to describe it, I think.

Endings are hard to get right on long-running series, and as the Lost finale demonstrated, the writers can sometimes get it hopelessly wrong, ruining any lingering respect one might have had for the show. Thankfully, this is not how I felt at the end of Battlestar Galactica. The writers got it about as right as they ever could, I think, given the complexity of the plot.

Battlestar Galactica never made it to terrestrial TV in the UK and people raise their eyebrows when I tell them it is magnificent television. But don’t take my word for it. I first took notice of the show because of Ron Silliman’s enthusiastic posts, comments such as “Battlestar Galactica was not only the best sci-fi program ever on television, one could argue that it was the most well-conceived, written & acted series in US TV history. Using the hokey old premise of robots-turn-on-man & the idea of a displaced civilization in search of a home, they produced the TV equivalent of King Lear. Or Moby Dick.”

But be warned, if you are tempted to read Ron’s blog: there are spoilers aplenty in his later posts, and one of the great pleasures of Battlestar Galactica is never knowing what will happen next . . . And yes, I am aware there's a prequel, Caprica, but I really need to get my life back!

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Bridport Prize 2010

To Bridport at the weekend for the Bridport Prize. Lots of fun people there. My thanks to Michael Laskey for choosing my poem ‘Suggestions for Further Reading’ and to Zoë Heller for her good humour, and to all the nice people I met.

All of the winning poems and stories are in the anthology, which you can purchase here (requires login) or here.

And that’s quite enough of that.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Keynes: The Return of the Master, by Robert Skidelsky (Penguin)

Don’t blame bankers, credit-rating agencies, hedge funds, regulators or governments for the Great Recession, Skidelsky says. At root it was “a failure of ideas”. The New Classical economists believed markets were relatively stable and “internally self-correcting”, whereas the New Keynesians warned that markets are unstable. “Keynes is back in fashion,” Skidelsky declares, but the general election came between the hardback and this revised paperback. Now George Osborne is in charge and he is ideologically opposed to Keynesianism. A man of formidable intelligence (he made Bertrand Russell feel stupid), Keynes believed capitalism was the best guarantee of civilisation, but a capitalism governed by “gentlemanly codes of behaviour” rather than dog eat dog. In this brilliant short guide to the financial crisis, Skidelsky argues that economists must regain some moral bearings. “What is economics for?” Keynes dared to ask. “How does economic activity relate to the ‘good life’?” The pursuit of wealth, he concluded, should not be an end in itself – the end being to live “wisely, agreeably and well”.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Musical Musings

In ‘The Day Lady Died’ Frank O’Hara mentions Billie Holiday’s accompanist Mal Waldron.

and I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of
leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT
while she whispered a song along the keyboard
to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing
Waldron accompanied Holiday in her last years, and I’ve been looking for a recording. At Newport gives us a good idea of what O’Hara heard at the 5 SPOT. The track that stays with me is ‘Lady Sings the Blues’. A woozy-sounding Holiday, accompanied by Waldron, sings as if the blues really are a life sentence, and the song teeters on the edge of collapse. It is crushingly bleak and utterly magnificent.


I’ve been reading a lot of Henri Michaux lately for a piece I’m writing, and I was struck by Le jardin exalté (variously translated as The Exalted/Heavenly Garden). It begins with Michaux taking a small dose of some drug with some friends. Somebody puts on some music.

A record. A Lied was put on, then taken off again. I did not want to be given a European impetus, and certainly not one from that era.
[This is understandable, especially when one remembers that Michaux was in France during the Occupation. In fact, David Ball in his excellent anthology Darkness Moves, suggests that the text ‘Les Nonais et les Oliabaires’ (‘The Nonese and the Olibarians’), although written in 1936, ‘gives an excellent account of the French and their German masters during the Occupation (1940-1944) . . . or perhaps it is an allegory of the South African blacks and their white government in the 1980s.’ If you get a chance, do read ‘The Nonese and the Olibarians’. It is chilling and just, well, utterly stunning. But back to Le jardin exalté:]

Then came another record, this time of Carnatic music. The first notes, at once of unprecedented importance, were, as it seemed, struck within the ear itself. A music never before heard so close. It took us up as it passed. This was the inward power of India, further intensified; it brought with it pre-eminence, reached for grandeur, came also with fervour, with an impersonal fervour.

As water advances in the bed of a river, likewise the music advanced in the bed of my being, and with it came a tide of fullness, and the longing to be filled.

Translated by David and Helen Constantine, Spaced, Displaced (Bloodaxe, 1992)

If you want to know the sort of music Michaux was listening to (as did I), I highly recommend Music of Southern India, performed by the brilliant Rang Puhar Carnatic Group. I've been listening to it all week.

As Michaux observes in A Barbarian in Asia (1933): “I exulted in the great multiform, living challenge of the Asiatic peoples to our terrible Western monotony. Long live the last resistants!”

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The End of the Party: The Rise and Fall of New Labour, by Andrew Rawnsley (Penguin)

Gordon Brown and Peter Mandelson hated each other so much that a mutual friend once described them as “like scorpions in a bottle; only one of them will crawl out alive”. After reading Rawnsley’s stinging account of New Labour’s journey from triumph to disaster, one feels impelled to add Tony Blair to that bottle and to conclude that nobody got out alive. As a team, Blair (“fluid and protean”), Brown (“a desiccated calculating machine”) and Mandelson (“the sultan of spin”) excelled at winning elections, but they were not so good at running a government. Yes, this is gossipy political journalism, but Rawnsley manages to shape a welter of sources into a compulsively readable narrative. This paperback edition also includes fascinating new material on Brown’s last months in office and this year’s inconclusive general election. Clegg was still haggling with Hague when Brown abandoned Number 10, and David Cameron made a hasty phone call to his wife: “We could be going to the palace. You’d better get your frock on.”

Saturday, October 23, 2010

A New Pound

Hooray for New Directions, who are poised to release a revised and expanded selection of Ezra Pound’s poetry, intended “to articulate Pound for the twenty-first century”. About time too. It’s good to see these familiar poems freshly typeset to celebrate the 125th anniversary of Pound's birth
A must-buy, IMHO, and it renders the ancient Faber Selected Poems utterly redundant.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Map of a Nation: A Biography of the Ordnance Survey by Rachel Hewitt

The "cubist jigsaw of overlapping sheets" that is the Ordnance Survey of Great Britain is a national treasure, cherished by ramblers and right-to-roamers, but in Map of a Nation Rachel Hewitt reminds us that its origins are military and that it is, in fact, part of "a long history of British military efforts to subdue neighbouring territories through cartography".

The OS began with the idea of a "military survey of Scotland", which would facilitate the occupation of the Scottish Highlands. Redcoats trying to root out Jacobite rebels in the most inaccessible Highland regions were hampered by inaccurate intelligence. "This place is not marked on any of our maps," Captain Frederick Scott objected in a letter to his commander in 1746, a month after the battle of Culloden. The rugged landscape was, quite literally, "unreadable" and the rebels were getting away.

Employed by the Board of Ordnance, William Roy began mapping the Highlands in 1747, pushing a surveyor's wheel and using a simple kind of theodolite called a circumferentor. Later he was joined by a "ragtag bunch of young surveyors" and they finished mapping the entire Scottish mainland in 1755. The Military Survey of Scotland, drawn in pen and ink with watercolour washes, offered "a vast, gorgeous bird's-eye view of mid 18th-century Scotland". But Roy didn't stop there. His dream was a complete map of Britain.

The French had begun their own mapping project more than a century before, and the Carte de France (1756), a complete national map of unprecedented accuracy and scope, was a model for the OS. It was, Hewitt argues, "the highest ideal of the Enlightenment: perfect measurement of the ground beneath our feet". However, war with France changed all that. The survey, begun in 1791, quickly became part of Britain's defence strategy, as England's south coast and the far south-west corner of Wales were mapped to assess their vulnerability to French invasion.

Before it had finished mapping England and Wales, however, the OS turned its attentions to Ireland. The Irish Ordnance Survey, begun in 1825, is easily caricatured as a "tool of English imperialism", Hewitt says, but in fact it was an attempt by Irish-speaking Catholics to salvage Ireland's ancient cultural heritage. Place names were always "a mighty headache to early mapmakers". Some surveyors wrote down the first name they heard; others were more conscientious. Some of the mistakes are worthy of Finnegans Wake: the ancient name of Queen Taillteann, for instance, was transcribed by one mapmaker as Telltown, while Monaster O'Lynn (O'Lynn's Monastery) became "Moneysterlin".

This is a solid account of how Britain's national mapping agency came into being, though it lacks a certain pizzazz. Hewitt works hard to bring the story to life, but it is perhaps inherently undramatic. Nevertheless, she is good on the military, scientific and ideological impulses behind the OS and on its enormous appeal to the general public. The first map (Kent and part of Essex) was made available in 1801 and not long afterwards surveyors were being pestered by tourists in search of the sublime or picturesque. One director of the Ordnance Survey objected to these "swarms of idle holiday visitors" and fantasised about working in "almost inaccessible positions", free from "disagreeable intrusions". Paradoxically, the very men who had opened up the landscape to the people still dreamed of getting far from the madding crowd.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Paul Celan in Mapesbury Road

Every now and then, one is reminded why the license fee is worth paying. (Aside from the daily output of Radio 3 it is sometimes hard to remember.) Today, however, Radio 4 broadcast 'Paul Celan in Mapesbury Road':

What brought one of the most compelling modern European poets to a perfectly ordinary street in North London? Who did he visit there? And what made him write a poem about the experience? The writer, Toby Litt, investigates this most improbable of brief encounters between Paul Celan, the master elegist of 20th century Jewish experience and Britain at the end of the Sixties.

This delightful broadcast is available on the BBC iPlayer for the next seven days. Highly recommended and rare. 

Sunday, October 10, 2010

The Secret Lives of Buildings: From the Parthenon to the Vegas Strip in Thirteen Stories, by Edward Hollis (Portobello)

Buildings are transient things, Edward Hollis writes, they “shapeshift from century to century”, but we still yearn for them to be symbols of immutability. The Parthenon, for instance, has been ruined several times and its “walls defac’d [and] mouldering shrines remov’d / By British hands” (as Byron has it, objecting to Lord Elgin’s vandalism), yet today it is destined to become a painstakingly restored ruin for tourists to photograph. Tourists have taken possession of the architectural past, even the recent past, the Berlin wall becoming “a quarry of souvenir chips”. Throughout this stylish book Hollis shows how the buildings we think we know are more often than not reconstructions or recreations (Notre Dame de Paris, for instance, has been almost completely rebuilt), and how the use we have for buildings changes over time (so Gloucester cathedral is now Hogwarts in the Harry Potter films). Perhaps in the end, Hollis concludes, a building like the Parthenon will always survive as an image of perfection – in a snow globe or on a tea towel.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Hocus Bogus by Romain Gary (writing as Émile Ajar), translated from the French by David Bellos (Yale University Press)

In 1974 the rich and famous French novelist Romain Gary (1914–80) had many books to his name, but it was the name that troubled him. He felt a prisoner of his own image. So his next novel, Gros-Câlin – a first-person narrative about a man living with a pet python – appeared under a pseudonym: Émile Ajar. It was a bestseller, and Ajar’s follow-up, La Vie devant soi (Life Before Us) (1975), became the highest-selling French novel of the last century.

Who was Émile Ajar? The press wanted to know, as did Ajar’s publisher. Hiding out in Geneva, Gary wrote Pseudo (1976) – translated here as Hocus Bogus – in which he reveals Émile Ajar to be the pseudonym of . . . Paul Pavlowitch. (Pavlowitch, Gary’s cousin, gamely agreed to pretend to be Ajar.) So what we are presented with here is Romain Gary (born Roman Kacew) writing as Émile Ajar, revealing his “true” identity to be that of Paul Pavlowitch.

It worked. Hocus Bogus is full of hints as to the work’s real author – Gary even put himself in it as the character Uncle Bogey – but nobody in the French literary establishment spotted the deception. The translator David Bellos calls it “one of the most alarmingly effective mystifications in all literature”. Revealing everything in the posthumously published The Life and Death of Émile Ajar (included here, translated by the late Barbara Wright), Gary describes it as a comparable wheeze to Macpherson’s Ossian. Bellos sums it up best as, in essence, “a victory of literature over criticism”. Gary’s main targets are cynical publishers and fickle critics.

Hocus Bogus is an unclassifiable work, a faux-memoir and a delirious commentary on the author function (“There is no Author . . . He’s not there. He doesn’t exist”). It is as much Bellos’s book as Gary’s, a pet project for the prizewinning translator of Georges Perec and Ismail Kadare: “I have larded it with my own bad puns, I have infiltrated anachronisms and literary allusions in some quantity.” Bellos clearly relishes the way Gary made fools of the literary establishment. The French critics dismissed Hocus Bogus as “slapdash”, mistaking its deliberately schizoid character for artlessness. It is a testament to Gary’s artful deception that they wagged their fingers at Paul Pavlowitch.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Forward, not permanent, sweet, not lasting

So I didn't win the Forward Poetry Prize (Best Single Poem), but congratulations to Julia Copus, who did, and to the other winners Hilary Menos (Best First Collection) and Seamus Heaney (Best Collection).

I read Wallace Stevens on the train up to London.

From this the poem springs: that we live in a place
That is not our own and, much more, not ourselves
And hard it is in spite of blazoned days.

I've also been reading M. R. D. Foot's Six Faces of Courage: True Stories of World War II Resistance Fighters (1978). It makes one feel very humble. Here's a typical passage:

'Pondering the confusions of the Fresnes [Prison] entrance hall, Harry [Peleuvé] glimpsed the possibility of an escape [. . .] One day they returned to Fresnes [after being cross-questioned elsewhere] just at the moment when a mass of visitors, who had called on ordinary French criminal prisoners, were leaving; the main hall was crowded. At a moment when the warder in charge of his party was distracted, Peleuvé unostentatiously joined the throng of visitors. He ran promptly ran into a snag: on leaving, each visitor had to give up the chit that had given him or her permission to enter. He had a few sheets of lavatory paper in his coat pocket, proffered one of them, and strolled on. Unluckily for him, the warder collecting the chits noticed, and called out. Peleuvé broke into a run; a German sentry promptly shot him through the thigh and brought him down.

The sergeant of the guard ran up, recognized him, and had him carried back to his cell, where he was left quite alone. As no one came to look after his wound, he cared for himself; found that his thighbone was unbroken, and that the bullet was still lodged in his flesh; and dug it out with the only implement he had, the handle of his soup spoon. For the rest of his life he had a hole in his thigh, as wide as his little finger and a couple of inches deep; but the wound was quite clean, and promptly healed up.'

Thursday, September 30, 2010

A History of Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years, by Diarmaid MacCulloch (Penguin)

The Flagellation by Piero della Francesca (c.145560)

Christianity began a thousand years before the birth of “Joshua the Anointed One” (aka Jesus Christ), argues MacCulloch in this gargantuan tome, which is why he starts with classical and Hebrew culture, audaciously adding another millennium to Christian history. Originally, he says, Christianity was “a dialogue between Judaism and Graeco-Roman philosophy, trying to solve such problems as how a human being might also be God”. A “candid friend of Christianity”, MacCulloch’s aim is to step back and see it “in the round” and in this he succeeds magnificently. Concerned about the “moral health” of Christians (“For most of its existence, Christianity has been the most intolerant of world faiths”), he shows how 19th- and 20th-century Christians created “a reaction of fundamentalist intolerance” in Islam, Judaism and Hinduism. Huge areas of Christian history are covered, but his main theme is the sheer variety of ways in which one can be a Christian. He presents us with a plurality of Christianities, but through all this diversity, MacCulloch brings a singular clarity.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Hooray for the NHS

What a marvel the National Health Service is. My three-year-old son was rushed to A&E last week with a perforated appendix and he was operated on and cared for in the Children’s Hospital at the John Radcliffe.

Aside from its impressive architecture (the cafe, above), it's one of the best facilities in the country for treating sick children. My thanks to all the staff there. Fingers crossed, my son should make a full recovery.

Monday, September 20, 2010

The Illusionist

I saw Sylvain Chomet’s The Illusionist on Sunday and enjoyed it immensely, but don’t expect the surreal escapades of Belleville Rendez-Vous. This is essentially a Jacques Tati film with a slow-paced, gentle humour. Much of it is set in a lovingly depicted Edinburgh, which looks very beautiful, even with the constant rain. At one point near the end of the film, after Tatischeff makes a gesture on a hillside (the precise nature of which I’ll not reveal), the camera sweeps around Edinburgh, the movement of the camera (and the soundtrack) carrying much of the emotion of the scene. It’s hard to explain without seeing it, but it was breathtaking. A nice use of computers combined with an eccentric, hand-drawn aesthetic. I’m sure there were lots of details I missed, but I did notice the Edinburgh pawnbroker’s shop was called . . . Brown and Blair.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Russia Against Napoleon: The Battle for Europe, 1807 to 1814, by Dominic Lieven (Penguin)

“No Western professor has ever written a book on the Russian war effort against Napoleon,” Lieven complains. So here it is: a provocative military history from a Russian perspective. It starts with Alexander I and Napoleon pledging peace in 1807 and ends with the Russian army’s entry into Paris in 1814. Russia routed the French in 1812, but whereas Tolstoy (and later Soviet propagandists) depicted it as a “people’s war”, Lieven argues that it was in fact a victory for the Russian empire and the Tsar’s efficient military machine. He makes a strong case for the quality and versatility of the Russian army, especially the light cavalry units. Lieven is also keen to show that the undervalued campaigns of 1813–14 are just as impressive, highlighting Russia’s diplomatic skills. The tsar’s influence and commitment, he insists, led to Napoleon’s overthrow. Lieven also examines the crucial role of horses (Napoleon ran out of them, while the Russians had the swift horses of the steppes) and the logistics of feeding and equipping a Grande Armée.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Pantomime Life of Joseph Grimaldi: Laughter, Madness and the Story of Britain’s Greatest Comedian, by Andrew McConnell Stott (Canongate)

Hancock, Milligan, Cleese – depression and comedy have long been associated, but according to McConnell Stott in this lively biography “Grimaldi brought into culture the figure of the sad comedian, the solitary being whose disproportionate talent to provoke laughter is born of a troubled soul.” Grimaldi also came up with the classic clown make-up and baggy clothes, his character, “Joey the Clown”, being a “cunning, covetous and childlike . . . uncensored mass of appetites”. It was a life of frequent tragedy: Grimaldi’s first wife died in childbirth, his alcoholic son (also a clown) died aged 21, and the leaps and falls that delighted Grimaldi’s audiences left him crippled. Nevertheless, he was admired by Byron, Hazlitt and Dickens, who edited his memoirs after his death, and some 2,000 people watched his last performance in 1829, even though he could barely move. Stott includes the full text of Grimaldi's greatest triumph Harlequin and Mother Goose (1806), although it only proves his point that comedy is “an untranscribable art”.

Monday, September 6, 2010

The Man I Love (Take 2)

I recently got hold of Miles Davis vs Thelonious Monk, solely because I’d read about this legendary track: the second take of ‘The Man I Love’.

It really is a gem. Miles and Monk were both innovators, but Miles here is more concerned with mood and atmosphere, whereas Monk is enjoying breaking down a melody as far as he can, taking it apart and not always bothering to put it back together again. In fact, throughout this legendary 1954 session, Monk’s playing is quite aggressively dissonant, in contrast to Miles’s cool tone. It makes for a strange listen.

Nobody knows what made Monk stop playing. Maybe Miles made clear his displeasure. I actually think Monk was breaking down the song to such an extent that the silence is part of his solo. Certainly, when Miles comes in (around 5:40) to fill the silence, Monk rallies and seems to almost chase Miles off his territory, as if to say, ‘Hey, I’m still playing here. This is my thing.’

So here it is. Have a listen. It starts with Milt Jackson on vibraphone. Monk comes in around 4:54 and falls silent at 5:29.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Good news everyone

My poem 'Mrs Beltinska in the Bath' is Poem of the Month on the Poetry Society website.

Meanwhile, Film of the Month on the BFI website is Sylvain Chomet’s The Illusionist, adapted from a Jacques Tati screenplay. I loved Belleville Rendez-vous (as did my six-year-old daughter) and I really want to see this.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Bomber County by Daniel Swift (Hamish Hamilton)

“Why has this war produced no war poets?” Robert Graves asked in a 1941 radio talk. The lack of new Owens or Sassoons to bear witness to the second world war was troubling. How to account for this “absence of poetry”, asks Daniel Swift in this original book. How to explain “the war's apparent resistance to poetry”?

“I can't do a Brooke in a trench,” Dylan Thomas wrote in November 1939, but he didn't have to. During the blitz he became an “unexpected war poet”, writing haunting poems about the victims of the bombings: “Among Those Killed in the Dawn Raid was a Man Aged a Hundred”, “Ceremony after a Fire Raid”, and “A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London”. In place of the trenches of the western front, Swift argues, the poetry of the second world war found its subject in the image of the “bombed city”.

Swift has struck upon a fascinating area, where poetry, fire and air intermix. “Little Gidding” – “Eliot's great poem of bomb damage” – is all about living in a ruined city. TS Eliot was in London for the worst of the air raids and volunteered as an air-raid warden. He saw the rubble and death. He explained how the lines beginning “Ash on an old man's sleeve” refer to the debris of a bombing raid hanging in the air for hours afterwards. “Then it would slowly descend,” he recalled, “and cover one's sleeves and coat in a fine white ash.”

Virginia Woolf also witnessed the devastation at first hand, visiting her bombed flat in Tavistock Square: “rubble where I wrote so many books”. In her essay “Thoughts on Peace in an Air Raid”, she describes vividly how it feels waiting for a bomb to fall: “during those seconds of suspense all thinking stopped. All feeling, save one dull dread, ceased.” After the raid, “Scraps of poetry return.” (And indeed, during the blitz, sales of poetry soared.)

“No war poetry can be expected from the Royal Air Force,” Graves insisted, and Swift is hard-pressed to prove him wrong. The 1944 anthology Air Force Poetry (“Fetch out no shroud / For Johnny-in-the-cloud”) and the airmen poets he brings to our attention do not greatly inspire. “The poetry of air bombing requires a particular imaginative sympathy absent from other war poetry,” Swift argues. Cecil Day Lewis came close to it in “Airmen Broadcast” (“Speak of the air, you element, you hunters / Who range across the ribbed and shifting sky”). Stephen Spender also tried to become “the poet of bombing” (his “great air-raid poem” being “Responsibility: The Pilots Who Destroyed Germany, Spring 1945”). But in the poetry of bombing Swift detects a problem of distance and scale. In “The Firebombing” (1963), for instance, James Dickey's bomber complains he is “still unable / To get down there or see / What really happened”; whereas in “The Lost Pilot” (1967) James Tate is left with his “head cocked toward the sky”, still searching for his father, a bomber pilot killed over Germany.

Bomber County is a strange beast, “a study of the poetry of a particular historical episode”, intercut with a personal memoir. Swift's grandfather, Squadron Leader James Eric Swift, was killed in action in June 1943 during a raid on Münster. Swift visits his grave in Holland, looks at the cockpit of a Lancaster bomber and goes to Münster, but these sections can be ponderous. It's his evocation of some of our greatest writers wandering through a bombed-out London that really shines, and Swift should be congratulated for undertaking such an intelligent and idiosyncratic project.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Not with a Bang but a Whimper

Alvy's mother: He's been depressed. All of a sudden, he can't do anything.

Doctor: Why are you depressed, Alvy?

Alvy's mother: Tell Dr. Flicker. (To the doctor) It's something he read.

Doctor: Something he read, huh?

Alvy: The universe is expanding . . . Well, the universe is everything, and if it's expanding, some day it will break apart and that will be the end of everything.

Alvy's mother: What is that your business? (To the doctor) He stopped doing his homework.

Alvy: What's the point?

Alvy's mother: What has the universe got to do with it? You're here in Brooklyn. Brooklyn is not expanding.

Doctor: It won't be expanding for billions of years, yet Alvy. And we've got to try to enjoy ourselves while we're here, huh, huh? Ha, ha, ha.

Annie Hall (1977), dir. Woody Allen

I’ve often wondered if the universe is finite or infinite (bear with me). I have to say I tended towards the finite position, assuming the universe would eventually collapse, obliterating itself in a Big Crunch. I’m glad I didn’t put any money on it (?), because my instinct was wrong.

It seems the universe will continue to expand for ever, sliding inexorably towards a state of degeneration. The stars will go out (taking with them any life forms in their vicinity) and the universe will become ‘a cold, dead wasteland’.

This places the poet in an interesting position. No poet can write in the hope of immortality any more. The poet can now be absolutely certain that his or her descendants – indeed, entire species – will eventually die, taking with them any appreciable audience for poetry. We can now be absolutely certain of the finite existence of intelligent life (and therefore poetry) in the universe.

In The Last Three Minutes: Conjectures about the Ultimate Fate of the Universe (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1994) Professor Paul Davies speculates that our descendants might experiment with cybernetics and nanotechnology – to the extent that we might not actually recognise them as anything like ourselves.

But supposing these future beings manage to escape our solar system before the Sun implodes, and then go on to colonise other planets – and indeed they keep hopping from solar system to solar system as the universe gets progressively colder and darker all around them – even supposing these humanoid life forms survive for that long – will they still be reading poetry, let alone poetry written billions of years ago in a dead language (probably)?

Or perhaps the human race will die, but intelligent alien species will survive far into the universe’s cold, dark future. Will they bother to read ancient human poetry? They’ll have their own poets to attend to, perhaps. Human poetry would be a curio.

Assuming the universe does continue to expand forever, Professor Davies envisages ‘bizarre science-fiction creatures eking out an existence against odds that become stacked forever higher against them, testing their ingenuity against the inexorable logic of the second law of thermodynamics.’

Not marble, nor the gilded monuments
Of princes, shall outlive this pow’rful rhyme,
But you shall shine more bright in these contents
Than unswept stone, besmeared with sluttish time.
When wasteful war shall statues overturn,
And broils root out the work of masonry,
Nor Mars his sword nor war’s quick fire shall burn
The living record of your memory.
’Gainst death and all oblivious enmity
Shall you pace forth; your praise shall still find room
Even in the eyes of all posterity
That wear this world out to the ending doom.
So, till the judgment that yourself arise,
You live in this, and dwell in lovers’ eyes.

William Shakespeare, Sonnet 55

Thursday, August 19, 2010

RIP Frank Kermode (1919-2010)

'The amazing history of modern academic literary criticism seems to show that we are now in the state of finding almost anything more agreeable, or at any rate less difficult, than poetry; gossip about the private lives of poets is best of all, but in the absence of gossip [. . .] then even philosophy comes more easily than poetry [. . .] The matter is of concern not only to the people who actually do the damage, and who presumably at some point supposed that they loved and admired the poetry. We are all losers, for the wrong sort of attention is what in the short or longer run diminishes a poet for everybody; and a single poet is not all we risk losing.'

Frank Kermode, Wallace Stevens (Faber 1960, 1989), pp. xvii-xviii

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Inside the Kingdom: Kings, Clerics, Modernists, Terrorists and the Struggle for Saudi Arabia, by Robert Lacey (Arrow)

“At the heart of the Saudi state lies the bargain between the religious and the royals,” Robert Lacey argues in this gripping account of the power struggle between the Saud dynasty and Saudi Arabia’s fanatical Wahhabi clergy. Lacey charts the rise of Wahhabism from the 1970s to 9/11, when the House of Saud stopped trying to appease the clerics and objected that Saudi Arabia was not Iran: “Rulers must rule, and the religious must go along with that.” By then, of course, Saudi Arabia had given the world Osama bin Laden and 15 of the 9/11 hijackers. A sequel to The Kingdom (1981), this important book re-examines Saudi Arabia post-9/11. Many Saudi women are lesbians, Lacey claims, as a result of strict segregation, while “the Kingdom’s terrorist problem might boil down to sexual frustration”. He looks at a successful rehabilitation programme for Saudi jihadis, who are released early from prison and given £10,000. They marry, buy a flat and “stylish furniture, a flat-screen television and a coffee machine” and become model citizens.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea, by Barbara Demick (Granta)

In theory the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea shouldn’t exist. Somehow it survived the collapse of the Soviet Union, China’s market reforms, famine in the 1990s, George W. Bush, and even the death of the Dear Leader Kim Il-sung, whose son Kim Jong-il is now “the last of the twentieth-century dictators, a living anachronism”. Yet North Korea staggers on. LA Times foreign correspondent Barbara Demick, who has an easy, winning style, introduces us to a country of suppressed impulses and state propaganda; a place where a teacher can accuse a child of “blasphemy against communism”, where a young man is executed by firing squad for stealing some copper wire, and private ownership of cars is illegal. North Korea is an extraordinary dystopia; a Cold War museum, where the only pastimes seem to be spying on one’s neighbours, mass gymnastics and goose-stepping. This compelling book, a worthy winner of the BBC Samuel Johnson Prize 2010, details the experiences of six North Koreans who defected to China or South Korea.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

The Three Emperors: Three Cousins, Three Empires and the Road to World War One, by Miranda Carter (Penguin)

“My thoughts are with you and I shall always remain your true and devoted friend,” George V wrote to his cousin the ex-Tsar Nicholas II in 1917 after the Russian revolution. However, when the king’s prime minister Lloyd George offered Nicholas sanctuary, the palace objected that “the residence in this country of the ex-Emperor and Empress would be strongly resented by the public, and would undoubtedly compromise the position of the King and Queen”. Nicholas was hastily disinvited. The Saxe-Coburg-Gothas (or Windsors, as they now called themselves) survived and the Romanovs were slaughtered in a basement. Miranda Carter skilfully weaves together the lives of the three cousins – George V, Nicholas II and the insecure Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany – and shows how these dysfunctional men led their nations into conflict. The bloodlines of Europe’s royal families were supposed to keep the peace, forming an indissoluble bond, but in this intelligent and enjoyable history Carter reveals how they were tested to destruction by events.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The Theatre and Its Double, by Antonin Artaud, tr. Victor Corti (Oneworld Classics)

Artaud as Marat in Abel Gance's Napoleon (1927)

“In Europe no one knows how to scream any more,” complains Antonin Artaud (1896–1948) in this brilliant attack on institutionalized theatre, and on contented, bourgeois audiences expecting to be entertained. “There is something about a spectacle like the Balinese Theatre which does away with entertainment, that aspect of useless artificiality, an evening’s amusement so typical of our own theatre. Its productions are hewn out of matter itself before our eyes, in real life.”

The lectures, essays, letters and manifestos gathered here flesh out Artaud’s notion of “a truly Oriental concept of expression” in opposition to Western norms. He called it his Theatre of Cruelty, which, despite its connotations of violence, affirmed life. As Artaud explained in a letter to Jean Paulhan: “I said ‘cruelty’ just as I might have said ‘life’ or ‘necessity’, because I wanted especially to denote that theatre to me means continual action and emergence, above all there is nothing static about it, I associate it with a true act, therefore alive, therefore magic.”

At the heart of Artaud’s project is an attack on the authority of language, literature and especially the script. He wants to “break theatre’s subjugation to the text and rediscover the idea of a kind of unique language somewhere between gesture and thought”. As Derrida observed, “The theatre of cruelty is not a representation. It is life itself, in the extent to which life is unrepresentable.”

Perhaps only Artaud could have found similarities between Balinese theatre, Lucas van Leyden’s Lot and His Daughters (c.1509) and the films of the Marx Brothers (“the end of Monkey Business [is] a paean to anarchy and utter rebellion”), but his passion and drive are never in doubt. The Theatre and Its Double originally appeared in 1938, when Artaud was already confined to a mental hospital, the first major period of his career at an end.

This smart reissue of Victor Corti’s 1970 translation is welcome, offering a new generation access to Artaud’s vision of theatre as total art form: a “mass theatre”, sacred but non-religious, popular and physical, a feast of the senses – with exaggerated costumes, aggressive lighting and loud noises – a terrifying, intoxicating, waking dream. Even after all these years, it still sends shivers down the spine.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Stand up for Vineland!

For a long time I've felt rather alone in my admiration for Thomas Pynchon's Vineland (1990), but now it seems there are lots of people out there who enjoyed it too -- and Andy Beckett in the Guardian explains why.

It need no longer be a secret shame. Vineland is a fine book.

And I'll never forget the shock of excitement I felt at Pynchon namedropping Deleuze and Guattari on page 97: 'Fortunately Ralph Wayvone's library happened to include a copy of the indispensable Italian Wedding Fake Book by Deleuze & Guattari . . . '

Friday, July 30, 2010

Samuel Johnson: A Life, by David Nokes

Dr Johnson “invented biography as a medium” and he’s the star of Boswell’s celebrated Life (1791), so it’s perhaps no surprise that nowadays Johnson is more read about than read. In this lively new addition to an already crowded market, David Nokes, who died last year, bluntly states that the “ugly and penniless” 25-year-old Samuel Johnson married the plump 45-year-old widow Tetty Porter because she was rich. Johnson had just had his studies at Oxford cruelly cut short through lack of funds, so it was an opportunity he seized upon. Nokes plays down Johnson’s “obsessive fears of insanity” and presents us with a far more calculating figure. He not only married for money but wrote his celebrated dictionary out of a “thirst for recognition” and the hope it might result in an Oxford fellowship (the shock and disappointment of having to abandon his studies never left him). Boswell was sorry not to be mentioned in Johnson’s will, but Johnson caused even greater consternation among his friends by leaving his entire estate to his black servant Francis Barber.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Thursday, July 22, 2010

On Poetry and Politics by Jean Paulhan, ed. Jennifer Bajorek and Eric Trudel, trans. Jennifer Bajorek, Charlotte Mandell and Eric Trudel (University of Illinois Press)

Jean Paulhan by Jean Dubuffet

This new essay collection spans the years 1913 to 1951 and aims to present Jean Paulhan – editor of La Nouvelle Revue Française (1925–40) – as more than just a theorist of language, rhetoric and poetry. Paulhan’s political views, the editors argue, have relevance today, in particular three letters written in 1949. “Letter on Peace” explores the paradox of how a desire to secure peace can lead to war, while in “Letter to the Directors about Europe” Paulhan objects that the Council of Europe “does not resemble Europe in the least”, because it excludes the Soviet Union. Finally, in “Letter to the Directors of the Resistance”, he questions the urge of some résistants to judge, condemn and purge.

As Jennifer Bajorek and Eric Trudel point out in their introduction, Paulhan’s wartime activities were “intensely engagé”. He became a leading member of the literary and publishing arm of the Resistance, cofounding the underground journal Lettres françaises and the clandestine Comité National des Écrivains (or Céné). Yet he was inclined to show clemency towards collaborators. In one of the best texts here, “The Bee”, published pseudonymously in February 1944 in Les Cahiers de la Libération, he writes:

“And we have no qualms – fortunately! – when it comes to telling the truth about the people of Vichy, which is that they are bastards. But we feel a certain solidarity with them all the same. There is, in each of us, a part that – grudgingly – understands them.”

After the Liberation, when Céné drafted a blacklist of collaborationist writers and intellectuals, Paulhan refused to sign it and offered his resignation.

On Poetry and Politics makes a fine companion volume to Paulhan’s most famous book, Les Fleurs de Tarbes, ou, La Terreur dans les lettres (1941), in which he opposed Rhetoric and the arts of language to what he called Terror. In the book under review there is a good summary of this conflict in the essay “Rhetoric Rises from Its Ashes” (1938):

“Hence, on the one side, originality, rebellion, and Terror; on the other, obedience, imitation, respect for rules. The literary paradox is stranger still: it is that Terror’s proofs and arguments are also Rhetoric’s . . . Well, it cannot be both at once. If a cliché sets free the soul, it cannot enslave it at the same time . . . When all is said and done, it is acceptable to take sides.”

Dadaism and surrealism are good examples of Terror in literature, and Paulhan had close ties with these groups (his essay “Jacob Cow the Pirate, or If Words are Signs” (1920) first appeared in Littérature, edited by André Breton). Yet his instinct is to defend and rehabilitate Rhetoric. In fact, it is possible to detect in Paulhan’s work the twin impulses of radical and conservative. He appreciates the Terrorist’s desire not to submit to a dead language, but at the same time he remains nostalgic for an age in which writers sought to achieve their effects in the language rather than against it:

“Sometimes we are surprised that Literature seeks, these days, less coherence and precision than emotion, violence, trembling, with abandon. But doubtless there was a time, which it is up to us to remember, when Literature was quite confident of transforming us without endeavouring so much to move us; when it was too efficacious to have need of an effect. Which is why we can hardly see anything anymore, in all these fits and agitations, but bad conscience over this lost efficacy.”

Paulhan mourns this lost efficacy, while simultaneously undermining it. He is the augurer of a new age (his talk of a “blind spot” towards language anticipating Derrida and de Man) but also a pall-bearer for the old.

As Maurice Blanchot observed, reading Paulhan gives us a “feeling of uneasiness” as we ask ourselves, “Where is this author . . . taking us? Is he not talking about something other than what he was supposed to be saying?” There is a sense that Paulhan’s own texts worked against him. Bajorek and Trudel note that “despite his professed determination not to make the essence or nature of literature into a strict impossibility, every one of his essays on rhetoric and on language follows the same path, in which the result of all this methodical effort and research turns out to be, at the same time and necessarily, its own dismantling or falling short.”

In “The Experience of the Proverb” (1925), describing the challenge of mastering a foreign language, Paulhan complains that “I perhaps knew how to express my thoughts, but not how to impose them.” The same might be said of his essays on Rhetoric and Terror, in which his reluctance to impose a final solution turns out to be his greatest virtue.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Good news everyone

My National Poetry Competition poem 'Mrs Beltinska in the Bath' is on the shortlist for the Forward Prize Best Single Poem Award. How intriguing.

Monday, July 19, 2010

The Lost City of Z: A Legendary British Explorer’s Deadly Quest to Uncover the Secrets of the Amazon, by David Grann

“There is very little doubt that the forests cover traces of a lost civilisation of a most unsuspected and surprising character,” wrote Col Percy Harrison Fawcett to the Royal Geographical Society in 1921. Fawcett (whose exploits inspired Conan Doyle’s The Lost World) always referred to this mysterious place as the City of Z, although he never explained why. For more than 20 years he ventured deep into the South American wilderness in search of it, eventually going missing in 1925. Several unsuccessful rescue parties followed, including one led by his son Brian, who probably came closest to the truth: “Was Daddy’s whole conception of ‘Z’ a spiritual objective, and the manner of reaching it a religious allegory?” This is a skilful and spirited retelling of Fawcett’s obsessional quest, in which David Grann, a staff writer at the New Yorker, follows in the explorer’s footsteps, comically contrasting his own modern flabbiness with Fawcett’s wiry resolve. Did Fawcett perish in the jungle or did he enter a cave and descend into the subterranean City of Z?

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Venice: Pure City, by Peter Ackroyd

Ackroyd does Venice, his sonorous, scene-painting prose advancing in rhythmic columns until no quarter of the city has escaped assimilation. Pigeons in St Mark’s Square, the Bridge of Sighs, the Rialto, the Grand Canal, the carnival, the evolution of the gondola (gondoliers, incidentally, are famed for their discretion), Casanova, Galileo, Tintoretto, Giorgione, Titian, The Merchant of Venice, John Ruskin, Henry James, Thomas Mann – Ackroyd leaves no stone of Venice unturned. It is a “city of miracles” one moment, a “city of myths” the next, each incarnation offering numerous opportunities for Ackroyd to do his thing, which is to synthesise a vast amount of information gathered by researchers into an immensely readable, thematically structured tome. (Ackroyd also loves to pause and unpack a symbol: water, for instance, is “an intimation of impermanence”.) It’s not all art and light. After all, Venice gave the world the first Jewish ghetto and (according to Ackroyd) Venetian cuisine is truly terrible. Venice is certainly encyclopaedic, but transplanted from his beloved London, it sometimes feels as if Ackroyd’s imagination isn’t wholly engaged.
[from the Guardian 10.07.10]

The image above, incidentally, comes from a story in Harmsworth's Magazine (1899). Go here to see more nineteenth-century images of London underwater. 

Let me see, it must have been in 1910 -- the year of the floods -- that the last subsidence occurred. It would have come about naturally in time, geologists said, but the climax was certainly precipitated by the Government's action in allowing London to be undermined to such an extent when the new coal fields were discovered under the city in 1900. We had been steadily raising the embankments of the Thames, but the floods swept these away, and one morning we awoke to find our streets converted into waterways.  
Of course, nowadays the idea of London being flooded isn't entirely fiction . . .

Friday, July 16, 2010

**** you, Ma’am

Sorry, but this made me laugh out loud . . .

Not the picture above, but this from the BBC website: “In the second of a series of articles about innovation, Stephen Sackur looks for common qualities that unite the genuine revolutionaries he has encountered.”

“At its crudest innovation delivers a loud ‘**** you’ to the status quo,” writes Mr Sackur. He goes on:

‘In the mid-1970s the clothes designer Vivienne Westwood came up with one of the most innovative middle finger salutes ever delivered to the fashion establishment with her punk chic [. . .]

"I was messianic about punk, it was a way to put a spoke in the system", she says.

Westwood, who has turned her deeply idiosyncratic designs into a thriving worldwide business* does what pleases her, rather than what is expected.

Famously, she wore a revealing dress with no knickers when picking up an honour from the Queen at Buckingham Palace.
The irony of that last sentence has to be savoured, and, I think, it beautifully sums up ‘rebel chic’:

Famously, she wore a revealing dress with no knickers when picking up an honour from the Queen at Buckingham Palace.

Way to put a spoke in the system, Viv!

*Smash the system!

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Virtual World

OK, so what I envision happening here -- and I did find this truly impressive -- is a future in which Virtual Reality gets better and better -- look how lovely and clean that water is -- while the real world gets more and more polluted and species become extinct, etc., etc. So that in the end we'll have a perfectly realised, ideal world to interact with on a screen, but we won't leave our rooms much.

It also occurred to me that a virtual child could be created for the childless or even bereaved parents. The adult could have a fulfilling relationship with a virtual child (that's never naughty).

All in all, an astonishing development and a glimpse of the sort of technology my children might one day take for granted...

Friday, July 9, 2010

The Defence of the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5, by Christopher Andrew

MI5 and the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) began operations in 1909 as the Secret Service Bureau, brought into being on the basis of what Christopher Andrew calls “flimsy” and “rather absurd” evidence of “an extensive system of German espionage”. Foreign spies (principally from Germany and the USSR) were MI5’s main concern until about the last 20 years, when counter-terrorism took precedence. Zionist extremists, the IRA and Islamist terrorists have changed the very nature of the organisation. There has also been a significant shift in relations with ministers. Whereas Harold Wilson was convinced the spooks were out to discredit him, Tony Blair sought closer contact with them after 9/11. Intelligence has for too long been the “missing dimension” of British historiography, Andrew complains, but this monumental authorised history puts paid to that (although he couldn’t get clearance for everything he wanted to include). This paperback edition has been revised to include MI5's vetting of BBC staff and Operation Overt, the largest surveillance operation in MI5’s history.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010


Just back from the Ledbury Poetry Festival and thoroughly enjoyed it. I was with the Director of the Poetry Society Judith Palmer and the wonderful Neil Rollinson.

The event was called ‘Getting Known’ (after Krapp’s Last Tape). We read some poems and discussed what a ‘career’ in poetry might mean – or if such a thing even exists – and the difference between having a career and being a careerist.

To illustrate the importance of finding the right publisher I read this plaintive letter from William Carlos Williams to his young publisher James Laughlin, who founded the independent publishing house New Directions (or as Ezra Pound preferred to call it, Nude Erections).

The letter is dated 29 January 1938, and you have to bear in mind the fact that Williams is 55, while Laughlin is just 24.

‘Dear Jim,
I confess I feel rather heavy hearted at seeing two chances for publication by standard houses going up in smoke. This last was the hardest to digest. A book of Collected Poems by the Oxford University Press would have meant a certain prestige for me which I have wanted, not too seriously, all my life.

But would it have done me any good as a writer? Certainly not. All my life I have opposed just the thing that the Oxford University Press represents – within certain limits. The only good that would have come out of that venture . . . would have been the publicity and increased sales that would have resulted.

You are young at the game of publishing. That’s the fine thing about you as a business bet. You have no preconceived ideas, you are willing to back your real personal convictions. You have published me. At the same time it was distressing to me to have people asking as they still ask: Where can I get the book? Nobody seems to have heard of it.’

This is from William Carlos Williams and James Laughlin: Selected Letters – fascinating reading for anyone interested in the relationship between poets and their publishers.

In the context of poetry careers, I wish I’d had the foresight to mention Tom Raworth, whose situation is nicely summed up by Jeremy Noel-Tod in the New Statesman:

‘Literary history shows that much of the enduring poetry of any age is written by people too busy, modest or otherwise engaged to compete with the self-publicists who pass as the poets of the day. Some eventually emerge into eminence, but others remain obscure, to be discovered by a later era.

Fortunately, Tom Raworth - as the author's note to his latest collection puts it – is "not yet dead, but living in Brighton". And, after four decades of evading eminence in his native country, his achievement may finally be catching up with him.’