Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Invention of the Jewish People, by Shlomo Sand

Israel in Egypt (1867) by Sir Edward John Poynter (1839-1919)

The idea of the Jews as a single people or race is a myth, a fiction based on Old Testament “mythistory”, argues Shlomo Sand, a Jewish historian based at the University of Tel Aviv. It is also one of the founding assumptions of the state of Israel and throughout this polemical, revisionist history Sand has Zionist ideology in his sights. (He is not anti-Israel, but he is “post-Zionist”.) In essence, his book undermines the moral right of the state of Israel to define itself as exclusively Jewish and how you respond to it will very much depend on your political views. Sand admits none of his findings is new and there are no revelations, but what he offers is a radical dismantling of a national myth. He can find no evidence of any Jewish exile, and without exile there can be no right to return. However, even if it is founded on a myth, the state of Israel exists. Sand wants it to abandon ethnic nationalism and to modernise and democratise, and as this controversial book was a bestseller in Israel, perhaps there is hope that some Israelis want this too.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Climate worsens for literary débuts

From the Bookseller:

'The contraction of the high street and the dynamics of online retailing are putting extra pressure on literary publishers, with subscriptions plummeting to less than half their previous figures.' Read more

‘If a nation’s literature declines, the nation atrophies and decays.’
Ezra Pound, ABC of Reading (1934)

‘How can we define the crisis in contemporary literature? The system of bestsellers is a system of rapid turnover. Many bookshops are already becoming like the record shops that only stock things that make it into the charts [. . .] Fast turnover necessarily means selling people what they expect: even what's “daring”, “scandalous”, strange and so on falls into the market’s predictable forms. The conditions for literary creation, which emerge only unpredictably, with a slow turnover and progressive recognition, are fragile. Future Becketts or Kafkas, who will of course be unlike Beckett or Kafka, may well not find a publisher, and if they don’t nobody (of course) will notice. As Lindon says, “You don’t notice when people don’t make it.” The USSR lost its literature without anyone noticing, for example. We may congratulate ourselves on the quantitative increase in books, and larger print runs – but young writers will end up moulded in a literary space that leaves them no possibility of creating anything.’

Gilles Deleuze, ‘Mediators’ (1985) in Negotiations 1972–1990 (Columbia University Press, 1995), p.128.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Football Focus

England flags everywhere – and then the old arch-enemy reappears: Germany. The tabloids love it. The World Cup seems specifically designed to stoke up nationalist feeling in a way no other sporting event can match.

But something occurred to me as I watched England v. Slovenia on Wednesday: at one point the England fans began to chant ‘Rule, Brittania, Brittania rules the waves . . .’. But this is a song about Britain, not England (‘Britons never will be slaves’).

Then I thought back to the beginning of the match when both teams sang their national anthems.

Except the English team didn’t sing the English national anthem: they sang ‘God Save the Queen’, the national anthem of the United Kingdom.

England doesn’t have a national anthem.

Now you would imagine that if ‘God Save the Queen’ is the national anthem of the United Kingdom, then all the nations within the United Kingdom would sing it gaily at sporting events, but it seems we’re not as united as all that.

Wales uses ‘Land of My Fathers’ as its national anthem, not ‘God Save the Queen’.

Like England, Scotland doesn’t have an official national anthem, but the Scottish national football team prefers ‘Flower of Scotland’ (little wonder, as an early version of ‘God Save the Queen’ includes the lines ‘And like a torrent rush, / Rebellious Scots to crush’).

Northern Ireland favours ‘The Londonderry Air’ at sporting events.

So only England sings ‘God Save the Queen’, the national anthem of the United Kingdom.

And what an awful, grovelling national anthem it is. As Peter Tatchell has observed, ‘“God Save the Queen” is not about the British people and our magnificent achievements in the fields of science, arts and humanitarianism. There are no noble ideals like liberty and equality. Our anthem is all about slavish deference and idolatry – the veneration of aristocratic privilege, inherited status and monarchical rule. It promotes jingoism, war, imperial conquest and the British people’s subservience to God and royalty.’

And not even English people's subservience to God and royalty.


Still, it gives English people something to ponder on Sunday when the English football team will once again sing the national anthem of . . . er . . . the United Kingdom.


What should the English national anthem be? Some have suggested ‘Jerusalem’, but I shall not rest until 'The Fresh Fruit Song’ becomes our official national anthem. (Fresh fruit is, after all, extremely good for you.) Sadly, the only version I could find of this heart-warming air is performed by an Irishman dressed as a German . . .

Friday, June 25, 2010

Recession: What Does it Mean for Poetry?

Here are some of the organisations being asked to tighten their belts by Arts Council England: Anvil Press, the Arvon Foundation, Bloodaxe Books, Carcanet, Enitharmon Press, the Ledbury Poetry Festival, Modern Poetry in Translation, Poems on the Underground, the Poetry Archive, the Poetry Book Society, Poetry London, The Poetry School, The Poetry Society, The Poetry Translation Centre, The Poetry Trust and The Wordsworth Trust. Full details here.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

No Pope

My six-year-old daughter has no knowledge of the Pope.

Now there are plenty of good reasons for having no knowledge of the Pope, and some (Richard Dawkins, for instance) might see this as a cause for rejoicing.

I am an atheist, so this is not a religious matter for me. But my mother-in-law is Catholic, which makes me ponder the Pope on occasion. And it is a matter of historical importance if nothing else.

My daughter attends an excellent Church of England primary school, where she has quite rightly been taught about other faiths. She has a basic understanding of Islam and knows about the festival of Diwali. But she has no idea that any such being as the Pope exists, or that he lives in Rome.

Yet England was a Catholic country up until 1534, or if you prefer 1559 or 1570 (when Pope Pius V excommunicated Elizabeth I).

But no mention of the Pope: it’s a fascinating blind spot in the C of E curriculum.

Pope Benedict XVI’s controversial visit to the UK in September will at the very least offer a chance to remedy this – or at least for schools to discuss Augustine of Canterbury and the conversion of King Æthelberht – or something.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

A Crisis of Brilliance: Five Young British Artists and the Great War, by David Boyd Haycock

Who today remembers Gilbert Cannan’s Mendel? Yet this novel about the life of a struggling painter caused quite a stir in 1916. Mark Gertler, on whom it was based, called it “a piece of cheap trash”, while Dora Carrington, his lover and fellow student at the Slade School of Drawing, Painting and Sculpture, hated its depiction of her. The moment Carrington arrived at the Slade in 1911 the art students Gertler, Paul Nash and Richard Nevinson all became rivals for her love (she eventually chose Gertler, then Lytton Strachey). Another student was the eccentric genius Stanley Spencer, and Boyd Haycock has great fun linking their complicated lives. The prewar years are fun too: Vorticists heckling Futurists, and Slade lecturer Roger Fry introducing unappreciative Londoners to Manet, Van Gogh, Matisse and Picasso. But the first world war changed everything, many of the Slade Gang becoming war artists, and the postwar years are sadder. Haycock writes with real brio and his account of the colourful lives of these erstwhile Slade students is engrossing.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010


           Compile the budget for 16 June 1904.


                          £. s. d

1 Pork kidney    0. 0. 3

2 Copy Freeman’s Journal    0. 0. 2

1 Bath and gratification    0. 1. 6

Tramfare    0. 0. 2

1 In Memoriam Patrick Dignam    0. 5. 0

2 Banbury cakes    0. 0. 1

1 Lunch    0. 0. 7

1 Renewal fee for book    0. 1. 0

1 Packet notepaper and envelopes    0. 0. 2

1 Dinner and gratification    0. 2. 0

1 Postal order and stamp    0. 2. 8

Tramfare    0. 0. 1

1 Pig’s Foot    0. 0. 4

1 Sheep’s Trotter    0. 0. 3

1 Cake Fry’s plain chocolate    0. 0. 1

1 Square soda bread    0. 0. 4

1 Coffee and bun    0. 0. 4

Loan (Stephen Dedalus) refunded    1. 7. 0

BALANCE    0. 16. 6
    2. 19. 3


Cash in hand    0. 4. 9

Commission recd. Freeman’s Journal    1. 7. 6

Loan (Stephen Dedalus)    1. 7. 6

BALANCE    2. 19. 3

(Ulysses, ‘Ithaca’, p.664)

On Roads: A Hidden History, by Joe Moran

Most of our roads have been around in some form since the Middle Ages, says Joe Moran in this enjoyable “study in the living memory of roads”, but it’s the postwar optimism of the “motorway age” that really interests him. There was “a day of national rejoicing” when the Preston Bypass opened in 1958. Prime Minister Harold Macmillan was driven down it in a Rolls-Royce Landau for a photo call watched by 200 cheering schoolchildren. That same year, the first section of the M1 opened, described by one architect as “the ugliest stretch of motor road in the world”. It was only when motorways edged into London that public protest began, says Moran, and we’ve been falling out of love with roads ever since. “Roads are insistently intertextual,” he claims, “they can’t easily be disentangled from their cultural associations.” So JG Ballard and Iain Sinclair get a mention, as do Toad of Toad Hall and The League of Gentlemen, and even John Peel meeting Morrissey at the singer’s favourite service station on the A1(M) near Newcastle.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

BP Oil Disaster

          Every drill

                           driven into the earth
for oil enters my side
                                 Waste, waste!
dominates the world.

William Carlos Williams, Asphodel, That Greeny Flower

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Sain Zahoor

My three-year-old son won’t go to bed until he has watched ‘Dinga-Dinga Man’, aka the magnificent Sain Zahoor, as seen on William Dalrymple’s equally marvellous DVD Sufi Soul: The Mystic Music of Islam (2008). I was idly reading the Guardian yesterday when I noticed that Zahoor is playing at the University of Bradford tomorrow, so I urge anyone who can to go and see him. You can sample a little of the Magical Voice here.

Now all I need to do is get hold of a three-stringed ektara and I can keep my son amused myself...

Friday, June 4, 2010

Dead Fingers Talk: The Tape Experiments of William S. Burroughs

Just received an invite to this – looks intriguing. Runs until 18 July at IMT.
Be sure to check it out if you can . . .

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The English Marriage: Tales of Love, Money and Adultery, by Maureen Waller

Without equality between men and women, said JS Mill, a wife is nothing but “the personal body-servant of a despot”. Yet equality has been slow in coming, and much of this absorbing social history dwells on the abuses of “patriarchal marriage”, when wives had no legal existence and all too many husbands delighted in legalised wife-torture. In a series of lively historical vignettes, Maureen Waller examines how the Church and the State seized control of marriage, the link between property and chastity, legal battles over divorce, child custody and bigamy, as well as adultery, desertion, elopement and even wife sales (as in The Mayor of Casterbridge). “The English marriage has always been mercenary,” she concludes, especially among the upper classes, but now the English divorce courts are so biased in favour of the so-called “toxic wife” that the reputation of marriage has suffered. London was once “the national marriage market”, where the elite flocked for the season to marry off their sons and daughters. Today it’s “the divorce capital of the world”.

The Junior Officers’ Reading Club: Killing Time and Fighting Wars, by Patrick Hennessey

This problematic – some might say obnoxious – military memoir is supposed to represent the mindset of the MTV generation: references to music and movies abound, although very few to books. (A new Afterword reproduces a Literary Review article which is much more bookish.) After public school and Oxford, Hennessey trains at Sandhurst to become an officer. He doesn’t want to be a lawyer like his friends and he hopes to impress the ladies by shooting people. His willingness to kill is disturbing. This book has been compared to Michael Herr’s Dispatches, but Hennessey is no stylist and his lack of empathy for the enemy makes him an unsympathetic witness. Boredom led him to join the army, where he soon learns that “mostly the Army is about boredom”. After seeing action in Iraq and Afghanistan, he leaves. “There was nowhere left to go . . . Like the top scoreboard at the end of some massive video-game could only be anticlimactic after you’d completed level after level.” He is now studying to become a barrister.