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.'