Friday, 20 February 2015

On Michael Hoffman

Where Have You Been? is the title of a new collection of Michael Hoffman essays, an early contender for my book of the year. It's published by Faber, and a snip at thirty quid.

Hoffman is a German-born poet and translator and (give or take a couple of years) my contemporary. I see him, not unsentimentally, as a kindred spirit. This may be because, like me, he doesn't own a television and (again like me) doesn't regard this as an affectation.

But he reads what I read, or has read what I feel I should read, and he writes about what he reads in prose that is, it strikes me, exemplary. He has blind spots (Auden, Larkin) but nobody's perfect.

Above all he is brilliant at the endangered art of close reading - of particular poems by Robert Lowell and Ian Hamilton for instance, that prompt in me two reactions: that I must re-read the poems in question and do so with Hoffman's eye and ear. Because he is so acute, so finely-tuned, that he applies defibrillators to the work under consideration. He makes it new.

Reading his latest book over the past few days (and rationing myself as this sort of thing doesn't come along often enough to gobble up) has reactivated my long-dormant interest in Ted Hughes, a poet I once admired but lost track of decades ago. There are wonderful pieces on Ian Hamilton,  W. S. Graham, Kurt Schwitters (and many German writers unknown to me) and a brief evisceration of Gunter Grass. Apart from the minor irritation of American spelling ('ocher' in particular made me double-take) this is a book I'll savour throughout 2015.

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Saving Spiegelhalters - latest

The CAMPAIGN to save a plucky east End landmark continues unabated, with national and international news coverage and more than 2,500 online signatures.

You can now object to the developer's crass proposal by filling in a form on the Tower Hamlets Council Planning Department website, and I urge you to take a minute out of your busy day to do just that. We need your support! We need names! To object to this thoughtless, wholly inappropriate and lazy scheme CLICK HERE.

The development company behind this plan, Resolution, has now filed proposals with Tower Hamlets Council Planning Department. There is a great deal of documentation, including the following statement from their architects, BuckleyGrayYeoman:

The Vision:
Recognises and contributes to the significance conservation area [sic], for future generations to admire; and

• Enhances the quality of the existing architecture, whilst maximising accessibility, functionality and sustainability

"Vision"? Mneh. And get a proof-reader, fellas.

Here's what else they have to say:

5.26  Whilst much time has been spent exploring options for the Spiegelhalters void, significant challenges have been raised by its unfortunate deterioration of the unit over the years. Today, only a portion of the facade remains precariously intact. The proposals seek to convert the void into a new main entrance for the building, providing a vibrant extension to the public realm and a celebratory homage to the history of the former Spiegelhalters. Although options to reinstate this façade have been explored, these have been considered to be unfeasible due to structural implications and financial viability. 

All of which appears to be simply incompatible with the factsThe December 2014 report Structural Notes on the Front Elevation by Alan Baxter Associates is one of the documents submitted by the developers and one wonders whether they've taken the trouble to read it, because it states unambiguously:

Based on our observations, the façade is in reasonable structural condition for its age and we do not believe that the removal of the façade is necessary, structurally [...] The masonry is supported across the entire width of the building by a primary beam. From a distance, it was not possible to accurately confirm the condition of this beam. The feasibility of retaining the façade is, somewhat, reliant on the integrity of this beam as to replace it, whilst retaining the masonry, would be difficult. That said, we do not see anything to suggest the beam was in distress and needed to be replaced.

That seems pretty clear. The facade is in surprisingly good nick, the supporting beam seems to be doing the job for which it was designed and the remaining structure is (to use a word architects and planners seem to favour) viable. I know it's just a tatty shop front with nothing behind it apart from a century of  indomitability - but that's the whole point of this campaign. It's worth preserving because it's awkward.

It won't get listed as a distinguished piece of architecture - because it isn't a distinguished piece of architecture, It's a run-downfacade that represents everything we used to value as a society and a community and it should remain as a permanent and heart-warming 'up yours' to bullying planners, developers and architects. It should make bureaucrats break out into a cold sweat. It should cheer the rest of us up, forever.

If the developers are worried about the 'difficulty' of incorporating the historic facade into their design, or the 'financial viability' of doing so, maybe they're in the wrong business. The 'unfortunate deterioration' is the result of deliberate negligence, by the way. There's nothing 'unfortunate' about taking the roof off and ripping out the interior.

(If you have time, you can read the complete report on the current condition of the Spiegelhalter facade:

If you're still reading this the chances are you work for Resolution, or BuckleyGrayYeoman, so here are two more points to ponder:

1. According to the Stepney Green Conservation Area Character Appraisal:

The loss of Wickham’s and Spiegelhalters would have a very detrimental impact upon the character of the conservation area and so the situation will be closely monitored.

The Spiegelhalter façade is integral to the development of Wickham’s and the appearance of the department store today cannot be understood without it. Deprived of the interpolation of the modest Spiegelhalter façade, the break in the monumental parade of columns becomes unintelligible. The Spiegelhalter façade should therefore be retained as an essential element of the Wickham’s elevation and its proportions and massing in relation to the Wickham’s building should be preserved.

Relationship to Spiegelhalter’s:

• The Spiegelhalter façade is integral to the development of Wickham’s and the appearance of the department store today cannot be understood without it. Deprived of the interpolation of the modest Spiegelhalter façade, the break in the monumental parade of columns becomes unintelligible. The Spiegelhalter façade should therefore be retained as an essential element of the Wickham’s elevation and its proportions and massing in relation to the Wickham’s building should be preserved.

• It should be noted that the original floorlevels of the Spiegelhalter building and Wickham’s Department Store do not correspond, meaning that any connection between the two would require a change in level.

The potential exists to restore the Spiegelhalter building as an independent shop unit, which could provide additional floor space and revenue whilst maintaining the logic of the original construction.

2. The developer's Planning Statement (also available online) includes the following: 
5.27  The proposed new entrance is of exceptional design quality and will include the highest quality materials to recognise and enhance this part of Mile End Road, as well as the wider Stepney Green Conservation Area. The proposed development better reveals the significance of the building with a sensitive and innovative approach to celebrating its rich history. Any negligible impact would certainly be outweighed by the significant benefits of the proposals, including creation of high quality flexible office space for SME’s, significant job creation and enabling the high quality restoration of the building. 

Full marks for "negligible impact" as a euphemism for "total destruction of the site". You'll notice the complete lack of coherence in the argument - the 'significant benefits' (i.e. the creation of office space behind the Wickham's facade) have nothing to do with the proposed destruction of the Spiegelhalters facade. That an existing entrance and staircase are already available (and the Alan Baxter report recommends just such a solution) has not been considered by architects committed to the destruction of the historic facade, which CAN be restored and become a crowd-pulling architectural feature of the Mile End Road instead of a gimcrack gesture.

More on this to follow.

Meanwhile, please spread the word, support the campaign and follow this blog.

Message ends. Thank you.

Wednesday, 4 February 2015


Published today, the the Casey Report on Child Sexual Exploitation (CSE) in the Yorkshire town of Rotherham, where around 1,400 vulnerable youngsters were subject to years of abuse by members of the Pakistani Heritage Community (PHC), makes for grim but essential reading.

The following appears at the end of a scathing and frequently heartbreaking account (in admirably clear language) of a Borough Council that was farcically dysfunctional, profoundly incompetent  and characterised by a bullying, sexist and (odd as it seems) 'politically correct' culture, a catalogue of failures compounded by shit-for-brains senior management. The impact of the Council's disgraceful and catastrophic lack of an appropriate response to the whole ghastly situation - their sole acknowledgement of the problem was simply to shut down Risky Business, a taxpayer-funded agency dedicated to tackling the issue of child grooming and sexual exploitation - has been horribly compounded by a culture of deceit and denial and back-biting by a bunch of public figures who are a disgrace to the community.

It was when I got to the deadpan note preceding 'Annex B' the list of the Council's 'achievements' that I started to splutter with a mixture of disbelief and contempt. Here it is in full:

Annex B

List of Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council achievements

In their correspondence with the Inspection Team, the former Leader and Chief Executive each wished to highlight some of the council’s achievements in Rotherham during their tenure. These included:

  • Assisting Government through the Homes and Communities Agency to deliver on its housing programme in a town which has substantial housing need.
  • Revitalising its town centre which was commended by Mary Portas through the Government’s Portas Pilot programme. This increased footfall and saw a number of independent retailers open new businesses.
  • Building new town centre purpose built offices at Riverside House for better public access to the council. Introducing its shared services hub at Riverside House, delivering activity for other public sector partners whilst reducing overhead costs and driving cash releasing efficiencies.
  • Restoring the Town Hall.
  • Brokering Rotherham United to move into a new purpose built stadium in the town
  • Maintaining the Rugby Union club in the borough.
  • Supporting the Government’s Troubled Families initiative through its Families for Change programme
  • Supporting sector led improvement and development relating to the adult social
  • Achieving gold standard for Investors in People as well as its Equalities standards.
  • Introducing the Imagination Library to Rotherham (a book a month to every under 5 in the town).
  • Establishing the Ministry of Food in Rotherham.
  • Successfully managing to retain jobs and services in the face of continued budget reductions, including stimulating the local economy.
  • Both also pointed to improvements in aspects of the council’s performance.

Now I'm all for ambitious public sector housing projects, and 'revitalising' town centres, but after a promising start (and it's not hard to figure out why the disgraced leaders of the Council began with such proud achievements) what do we get? We get multi-million pound offices for the Council, a refurbished Town Hall, and football, and Rugby Union and (God help us) a 'gold standard for Investors in People' and the hideous sounding 'Imagination' (which I expect replaced a boring old library) As for the Ministry of Food - an 'initiative' linked to the celebrity telly chef Jamie Oliver - see here. That these achievements - by no means all of them negligible - were presented in the genuine belief that they in some way mitigated the Council's reckless irresponsibility when it came to preventing the systematic rape of minors is enough to make a cat sick. You'll note, by the way, how many of their 'achievements' involve buzzy, fizzy gerunds: Assisting, Revitalising, Restoring, Brokering, Supporting, Achieving, Establishing . . . and so on, and on. Try reading them aloud with a complacent Yorkshire accent. "Brokering Rotherham United to move into a new purpose built stadium in the town." You have to admire that 'purpose built'. I mean, you can't expect Rotherham United to play in, say, a cement works or a shipyard, can you? 

Most dispiritingly, the overwhelming majority of Councillors were members of the Labour party. Does this matter? Yes - it matters in the same sense that practically all the CSE perpetrators are members of the Pakistani Heritage Community. The damage, you see, leaks into the wider world. Crudely put it's guilt by association. The Labour leaders of Rotherham may be unrepresentative (and one hopes so) of Labour councillors generally but they serve to confirm our worst fears of autocratic lefties and unaccountable trough-swilling apparatchiks.  

To be sure not all Labour councillors are boorish and bullying sexist incompetents; just as not all members of the Pakistani Hertitage Community in Rotherham are Child Sexual Exploiters (although if they also happen to be licensed taxi drivers there's a dramatic spike in the demographic, or was). But I expect more, much more, from Labour councils and Labour councillors. I expect the kind of moral integrity that you expect to  find . . . well, where else can you find it?

How to feel about this? How to express those feelings? 'A book a month to every under 5 in town.' Jesus. 

Virginia Woolf, advertising mogul

I'm not making this up. In my local branch of Marks & Spencer there are shopping bags for sale in M&S branded colours bearing, in florid 'artistic' writing the following phrase:

                    One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.

The line comes from A Room of One's Own and is duly attributed to the author on the bag. But - and this is what made me do a mild double-take - she is described thus: 

                                    Virginia Woolf, Author & Publicist (1882-1941)

Publicist? Publisher, certainly, and a distinguished one, at the Hogarth Press. But 'publicist'? Could it be that whoever had the idea that M&S 'bags for life'  should bear the words of a great modernist writer simply confused 'publisher' as 'publicist'? He or she presumably signed off the oddly-punctuated and randomly capitalised text, as well as nodding through 'publicist'

Writers tend to be rubbish at advertising, as I've blogged about before.

As for the choice of author - M&S marketing specialists are presumably unconcerned by Woolf's snobbism and anti-semitism, nor troubled by the inanity of the quotation. One can think, love and even sleep well without scoffing a Marks and Sparks deep-filled chicken pie with shortcrust pastry lid.  I'm with Hemingway. In A Moveable Feast, his unreliable and hugely entertaining memoir of Paris in the 1920s, he recalls foregoing lunch to look at paintings by Gauguin. You should look at such pictures when hungry, Hemingway writes, because the artist was hungry when he painted them. Not because of poverty but because he was so completely absorbed in the act of creation that he forgot to eat. 

Tuesday, 3 February 2015


Here's a reason to be cheerful. The new literary magazine Sonofabook is launched today and will appear twice a year, each issue under the auspices of a different editor. The first is the publisher himself, Charles Boyle. 

Before going on I should make a Declaration of Interest, as I have a piece in the debut number about Herman Melville and the elusive hyphen in Moby-Dick, the title of the book in which Moby Dick (without a hyphen) occasionally surfaces. I'm delighted and honoured to appear in Sonofabook, and even more delighted and honoured that CB editions will, later this year, publish About a Girl, my monograph on Eimear McBride. Having said all of which I'd be writing what follows regardless of any connection to the firm, because CB editions is unquestionably a Very Good Thing.

 I first met the publisher (who runs the outfit single-handedly, or does so much of the time) at the Poetry Book Fair in 2013, and we fell into conversation about Dai Vaughan, who had recently died and whose posthumous slim volume of poems Charles had published, along with a novel, Sister of the Artist

I happened at the time to be writing Vaughan's entry for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. He wrote my single favourite book about cinema, Portrait of an Invisible Man. This is a biography - but much more than a biography - of the film editor Stewart McAllister, a troubled genius who worked with the great Humphrey Jennings on a handful of wartime documentaries including, famously, Listen to Britain. It's an extraordinarily moving and beautifully written meditation on the nature and art of editing, was published in by the BFI many years ago and should be republished and remain in print forever. There's no better book on the strange and enduring allure of film.

Following that meeting I started to read many of the books published by CB editions and soon realised that it was the most exciting and unpredictable list of authors I'd come across since my discovery of Calder Books back in the 1970s (and some of you reading this will know what I mean). Poetry is a particular strength of CB editions - J. O. Morgan. Andrew Elliott, Dan O'Brien and others -  but there's also startling prose from David Markson, Will Eaves, May-Lan Tan (whose debut Things to Make and Break I reviewed for the TLS) and the great, very great Agata Kristof. If you haven't read Kristof's The Notebook you're in for a beneficial shock. Few books have made a more enduring impression on my waking hours, and my dreams.

What links all these and other writers living and dead - including Apollinaire and Francis Ponge, two French favourites in wonderful bilingual editions - is the terrific taste of the publisher, which is wide-ranging, generous and admirably, bracingly, refreshingly, breathtakingly non-commercial. He takes risks, does not pander to some notional common reader, doesn't have a clueless marketing team to win over but backs his own judgement. He caters for serious people who want to read serious books, and who don't want to shell out hardback prices for glossy ephemeral paperbacks. His books are beautifully produced and the cover designs (done, as is everything else, by the publisher) are simple without being austere, and are instantly recognisable - just take a look at them here. Then spend some time on the website, then spend some money on the books. And if you subscribe to Sonofabook now you'll be entitled to a free copy of (for example) the forthcoming Kristofs. Another reason to be cheerful.

Monday, 2 February 2015

On James Joyce's birthday

James Joyce was born at 41 Brighton Square, Rathgar, at 6 o’clock on the morning of Thursday 2 February 1882. 

He was baptised on 5 February at St Joseph’s Church, Terenure Road East, when his godparents were his maternal grandmother Ellen McCann, and Philip McCann. His birth wasn’t registered until 20 March, when his name was mis-recorded as James Augusta Joyce (cf Leopold Paula Bloom).

He was the eldest, and clear favourite, of ten children: Stanislaus, Florence, Eileen, Margaret Alice, Eva May, George Alfred, May Kathleen, Charles Patrick, Mabel.

(Note to self: are these siblings anywhere embedded in Finnegans Wake?)

Ulysses was published on the author's fortieth birthday, in 1922.

The agreement with the publisher Sylvia Beach was for an edition of 1,000 copies, and Joyce would get a very generous royalty of 66 per cent of net profits. The original prospectus gave the publication date as 'the autumn of 1921' and offered details of the different versions: 100 on Dutch paper and signed by the author (350 francs); 150 on verge d'arches (250 francs); 750 on plain paper (150 francs).

A signed copy of the Dutch paper edition will today cost you around half a million dollars (plus post and packing) and will be too fragile to handle.

For around £50k you can get the Bodley Head edition from 1936 (one of 100 signed by Joyce, and with Eric Gill's Homeric bow adorning the cover), regarded by many as the most beautiful version. My humble (and unsigned) 1960 Bodley Head edition can be found for a few quid online. There's a Folio Society facsimile edition for a few hundred, if your tastes and budget tend that way.

I think it matters, when reading Ulysses, to have a decent edition, not a budget paperback with the kind of 'perfect binding' that splits and cracks - because (and somebody said this long before me) Ulysses isn't a book to read. It's a book to re-read, and constantly.

Sunday, 1 February 2015

Saving Spiegelhalters - the story so far

Since setting up the campaign to secure the future of Spiegelhalter's, the East End landmark (currently under threat from developers) I have been cheered by the amount of support (well over 2,000 signatures already), the overwhelmingly positive response from locals during our leaflet campaign and the consistently positive media coverage.

This has been extensive, and this seems a good time to gather together the most significant  here.

BBC Television News
News report presented by Jean Mackenzie (01 Feb 2015)

BBC Radio London

The Breakfast Show 16 Jan 2015 (interview at 02:49:30)

The Robert Elms Show 20 Jan 2015 (interview at 01:21:00)

Newspapers, magazines etc

Architects Journal  15 Jan 2015 

The Financial Times  17 Jan 2015

The Independent  16 Jan 2015

The Londonist 14 Jan 2015

The Observer  25 Jan 2015

Private Eye see the Nooks and Corners column in issues 1365, 1383 and 1384 (not currently available online)

Spitalfields Life (A brilliant blog by 'the gentle author') 14 Jan 2015

The Save Spiegelhalters campaign is supported by:

There's no space here to include the hundreds of tweets, emails of support and so on. I hope to blog selected supporter's comments from the campaign website (many of which are local memories of the Spiegelhalters) but until then can only say thank you, thank you, to everyone who, in one way of another, has supported this campaign.