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.’

Friday, July 2, 2010

Demonstrate against royal funding: Buckingham Palace @ 10.30 a.m. on Monday 5 July

It was claimed last year that the royal family cost us peasants a mere 69p each, according to Buckingham Palace accounts.

The truth is, of course, very different.

Buckingham Palace divides the official cost of the monarchy by every man, woman and child in the country – not all of whom pay tax.

More details to counter the spin here and here, but one factor never included in the Palace’s figures is the enormous cost of security – bodyguards to protect the princes when they tumble out of nightclubs, for instance, or on holiday. While taxpayers are also paying the security bill for princesses Beatrice and Eugenie at an annual cost of £250,000 a year each.

Are we getting value for money?

• £23,000 for a helicopter to take the Queen and Prince Philip to the Kentucky Derby

• £9,000 for a Chinook helicopter to take Prince William to a stag night

• £19,000 for the royal train to take Prince Charles to a pub

• £210,000 for a 3-day trip to the Caribbean for Charles and Camilla

• £6,000 helicopter trip from Windsor to Shoreham for Prince Andrew (first class train fare: £90)

It all adds up, doesn't it?

There will be a demonstration against royal funding on Monday 5 July to highlight the huge cost of the monarchy to the taxpayer at a time when the country is facing massive public spending cuts, and to raise questions about the lack of scrutiny and accountability for royal finances.

Republic spokesperson Graham Smith: "We'll be demanding real transparency and accountability from the palace, so we can really see how much public money they are wasting at a time when government spending is under the pressure of huge cuts. Royal finance reforms promised by the government are a start, but they don't go far enough or quick enough."

Peter Tatchell: "At a time of austerity and cuts, the monarchy should not be exempt. The Civil List should face the same cuts as all other government expenditure. The Queen is one of the richest women in the world. It is time she paid her own way, instead of seeking hand-outs from taxpayers. The government should cut the Civil List and put the money saved into welfare projects such as schools, hospitals and pensions."

The demo will be held outside Buckingham Palace from around 10.30 a.m. on Monday 5 July.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

No Archbishop either . . .

It seems I was wrong to suggest the absence of the Pope from my daughter’s education was somehow down to “a fascinating blind spot in the C of E curriculum”. What rot. It’s the national curriculum that’s to blame. And not really to blame, either, as Religious Education Key Stage 1 (Ages 5-7) looks sensible enough to me:

Breadth of study

During the key stage, pupils should be taught the knowledge, skills and understanding through the following areas of study:

Religions and beliefs

a Christianity

b at least one other principal religion

c a religious community with a significant local presence, where appropriate

d a secular world view, where appropriate


e believing: what people believe about God, humanity and the natural world

f story: how and why some stories are sacred and important in religion

g celebrations: how and why celebrations are important in religion

h symbols: how and why symbols express religious meaning

i leaders and teachers: figures who have an influence on others locally, nationally and globally in religion

j belonging: where and how people belong and why belonging is important

k myself: who I am and my uniqueness as a person in a family and community

Experiences and opportunities

l visiting places of worship and focusing on symbols and feelings

m listening and responding to visitors from local faith communities

n using their senses and having times of quiet reflection

o using art and design, music, dance and drama to develop their creative talents and imagination

p sharing their own beliefs, ideas and values and talking about their feelings and experiences

q beginning to use ICT to explore religions and beliefs as practised in the local and wider community.

So on reflection it probably isn’t a conspiracy by the state to ignore our Catholic heritage or the Pope. Probably.

And if my daughter has no knowledge of the Pope, she also has no knowledge of the Archbishop of Canterbury.

There’s plenty of time for our children to learn about the trouble and strife religion causes. For the time being they should just concentrate on ‘using their senses and having times of quiet reflection’ and most of all 'using art and design, music, dance and drama to develop their creative talents and imagination'.