Friday, January 28, 2011

The Country Formerly Known as Great Britain: Writings 1989–2000, by Ian Jack (Vintage)

Nostalgia drives this collection of Ian Jack’s journalism. His parents, he says, were “survivors from a previous British age”, but a dominant theme in the book is that we all are – at least those of us no longer young. Jack loves to unearth the past, delving into his teenage diaries (“What a little prick”) or recording his mother’s recollections (“We’ve lost so much”) or examining the contents of his late father’s toolshed or bookcase. The best long essay here explores the Hatfield rail crash of 2000 and shows how unflashy investigative journalism can uncover searing truths. Two other stand-out pieces have as their subjects the contralto Kathleen Ferrier and the sinking of the Titanic. There are enjoyable shorter essays, too, on giving up smoking or the films of Mitchell and Kenyon. Jack’s backward-looking stance works best when he is exposing the vandalism of the past (like the fragmentation of Britain’s railways under the Tories), but his unrelieved emphasis on what has been lost leaves one wondering if he feels anything at all has been gained.

PS The image above comes from footage from Mitchell and Kenyon's Pendlebury Colliery c.1900. Nostalgia-buffs might enjoy some of the archive films available for free at Moving History.

Thursday, January 27, 2011


I have mixed feelings about Andrew Neil’s documentary last night: Posh and Posher: Why Public School Boys Run Britain (you can see it here on the BBC iPlayer).

Neil’s main thesis that meritocracy seemed to die around the turn of the century (that is, 2000) appeared unassailable, but so did Peter Mandelson’s point that the 11 Plus is not the answer.

“That appalling selection at the age of eleven,” Mandelson said, “in which people are almost sitting an exam on the flip of a coin, where there were some people who were going to go on and go through their grammar school and enter the professions, and those who were – forever and a day – relegated to, frankly, not only a different type of education, but a lesser type of education”.

Neil still pushed the selection line, although he admitted that “nobody wants a return to the black-and-white system of the Fifties and Sixties – the 11 Plus was far too brutal a watershed, consigning those who failed to second-rate secondary moderns”, but he suggested a more “sophisticated” exam might enable a split in state education between “good vocational schools” and “academic hothouses”, “without consigning anyone to the dustbin”.

In my view that would be making the same mistake. There is always the danger that someone will slip through the net, and that an academically gifted child might end up at one of Mr Neil’s “vocational” schools.

I know because it happened to me. I failed the 11 Plus in 1981 – yes, as late as that – and as a result was sent to a second-rate secondary modern. (My father, a builder, thought this was a good choice as there was a strong emphasis on woodwork and metalwork.) Fortunately for me, I escaped and went on to get a First from Oxford University in 1991, but I did this against the grain of the education system – and also in large part thanks to a select few teachers* who recognised my potential, plus an enormous helping of luck.

So it just makes me angry when pundits like Tony Parsons say bring back grammar schools “because they work” – they might do for some, but spare a thought for the bright working-class girls and boys who will always fall through the net.

* Eternal thanks to Mike Coy, Marilyn Davies, Mrs Caws and others.

Friday, January 21, 2011

The Beautiful Changes

A lovely brief lecture on poetry from John Ashbery here (courtesy of the indispensable Silliman's blog)
I've never agreed with Williams's statement . . . that "men" -- and presumably women -- "die every day for lack of something that poetry contains." They die anyway.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Happy Birthday, Gilles Deleuze (18 January 1925–4 November 1995)

“I am not claiming here that the poetry of the Movement Orthodoxy is fascist. Nor am I claiming that [J. H.] Prynne’s ‘The Numbers’ is either schizophrenic or anarchist. I am, however, claiming that if a continuum is drawn from a reterritorializing fascist-paranoid tendency to a deterritorializing anarchist-schizophrenic tendency, then innovative poetries are closer to the latter and are in this sense radical (pushing towards the limits of capitalist possibility and therefore gesturing beyond it) while Movement Orthodoxy poetry is closer to the former and is in this sense conservative (pulling away from such limits and attempting to centre itself on firmly traditional or ‘common-sense’ ground).”

from Jon Clay, Sensation, Contemporary Poetry and Deleuze: Transformative Intensities (Continuum, 2010), p.41.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The novel: a minor genre

It’s not often one comes across a statement by the French novelist and full-time controversialist Michel Houellebecq that one can agree with, but John Dugdale in the Guardian Review’s ‘The Week in Books’ has unearthed this from Public Enemies:

“He [Houellebecq] sees poetry and its subculture as ‘something precious disappearing before our eyes . . . I have seen the poetry sections in bookshops get smaller, seen the poetry collections gutter’; ‘poetry simply has no place any more’. And he is typically unsentimental about the cash-strapped verse-reading circuit and annual claims of a ‘growing appetite’ for poems. Yet he is in no doubt which form is superior: ‘the novel (even in the hands of Dostoevsky, of Balzac, of Proust), in comparison to the poem, remains a minor genre’. In poetry ‘words seem to be surrounded by a radioactive halo. They suddenly find their aura, their essential vibration’ whereas the novel is a mere ‘piece of machinery’; ‘compared to a poet, no novelist has or can ever have a style’.”
Guardian Review, ‘The Week in Books’, 08.01.11, p.5