Sunday 29 December 2013

Favourite snatches (15) - an Ian Nairn miscellany

This is a kind of compendium of favourite snatches, prompted by the recent publication of Ian Nairn: Words in Place, (edited by Gillian Darley and David McKie, Five Leaves Press) a new collection of essays dedicated to the best architectural writer of the twentieth century - and a a great writer full stop. He also had a brief career in broadcasting and happily some of his documentaries are now appearing on YouTube. Here he is in an extract from the 1970s BBC television series Nairn Across Britain,

He had a mournful voice, every phrase seeming to end in a dying fall. In this clip he knows he's on a hiding to nothing when it comes to preserving the fine Emporium building in Northampton's market square. Town councils in the 1970s were enthusiastically demolishing beautiful Victorian and Edwardian arcades to make way for ugly shopping centres. The councillors are now, one imagines, all dead. Their legacy is with us still.

But back to Nairn. His best book - and it's a real masterpiece - is this cheap-looking paperback called Nairn's London, published in 1966 and easily the most brilliant and compelling volume about the capital ever written. I'm on my third copy - the others have disintegrated with use. Many of the buildings he describes are now long gone; the skyline back then was still pretty much as it had been since Wren's day. Even the stylish Routemaster class bus featured on the cover with a smiling Nairn at the wheel has been withdrawn. But it's not so much a guide book as a richly poetic portrait of the city he loved, and one from which I could quote all day. An abiding pleasure is to come across something he wrote about which is still in place (such as the Albert Memorial) and to see it afresh through his eyes. One extract should give an idea of the man and his style:

All Saints, Margaret Street William Butterfield, 1849-59
To describe a church as an orgasm is bound to offend someone; yet this building can only be understood in terms of compelling, overwhelming passion.  Why boggle, when there are a hundred ways of reaching God?  Here is the force of Wuthering Heights translated into dusky red and black bricks, put-down in a mundane Marylebone street to rivet you, pluck you into the courtyard with its harsh welcoming wings and quivering steeple.  Outer and inner doorways show you in, within a few inches of each other; both flowing over with ornament – nothing was too much trouble for the beloved.  Inside, Butterfield had to rely for decoration on other men's intensity of feeling, so it is pointless to look closely at the walls; but the proportions and transfigured gilded violence of this unexpected Heathcliff burn through any artificiality. The violent selfless love carries you up with it, just as the serenity of Bevis Marks lifts another part of you to the same end.
Butterfield never repeated this – how could he? – and his passion set iron-hard, unapproachable, altering his pupils’ drawings in ink so that they had to do them all again.  Perhaps he met too many portly bishops; perhaps there is no way but death to discharge an experience as violent as this.’

Nairn's London was one of cobbled passages, shadowy squares, cabbage stalks in market gutters, tiddlers foraging bomb sites, sooty churches, canalside sheds and the comforting fug of pubs. He makes all that come alive. A brilliant writer.

My review of Ian Nairn: Words in Place should will in the February 2014 issue of the Literary Review.

Extracts © The Estate of Ian Nairn

Tuesday 24 December 2013


I can't remember who first said that we should really be sending poets into space to report back - but I expect even a poet would find it hard to avoid crassness. Auden, of course, saw things clearly when hr wrote of the 1969 moon landing:

It’s natural the Boys should whoop it up for
so huge a phallic triumph, an adventure
    it would not have occurred to women
    to think worth while, made possible only

because we like huddling in gangs and knowing
the exact time: yes, our sex may in fairness
    hurrah the deed, although the motives
    that primed it were somewhat less than menschlich.

It's not just the Boys now, as Commander Suni Williams confirms. Join her as she takes us on a short tour of the International Space Station, one of many short films on the NASA website which I've been watching with my jaw on the floor and eyes popping. Who knew?

Perhaps it's churlish to complain that this intelligent and courageous woman has adopted a teenager's lexicon - everything she shows us is  described as "cool" or "awesome" or "neat" and her general demeanour is conscientiously unserious (doubtless what NASA publicists wanted). The ISS really is the most amazing thing, and operational since 1998. What are they doing up there? "Cool experiments" is all we're told. 

The environment is unsettling - part Stanley Kubrick and part Josef Fritzl. Remember him, the single-minded Austrian family man? There's something of the padded cell also, and I can't say I'd be a useful  member of the ISS crew, being in a state of constant panic and averse to the gymnasium. Yes, they have a gymnasium. There's also a bicycle. See for yourself . . .

You'll know this because, if you're like me, you've already watched Commander Williams's other reports, jaw on the ground, eyes popping.

Moon Landing (extract) © The Estate of W. H. Auden

Wednesday 18 December 2013

The Walrus and the Carpenter

Here is Lewis Carroll's 1871 poem The Walrus and the Carpenter, with Sir John Tenniell's matchless illustrations. I wouldn't be the first to point out the deeply sinister implications of this great comic poem. Those poor little, plump little oysters!

It's easy to forget that the poem is recited to Alice by Tweedledum and Tweedledee, so perhaps should be spoken in their shrill schoolboy falsetto. The form (iambic trimeters and tetrameters) is typical of a traditional ballad

The Walrus and the Carpenter

The sun was shining on the sea,
Shining with all his might:
He did his very best to make
The billows smooth and bright--
And this was odd, because it was
The middle of the night.

The moon was shining sulkily,
Because she thought the sun
Had got no business to be there
After the day was done--
"It's very rude of him," she said,
"To come and spoil the fun!"

The sea was wet as wet could be,
The sands were dry as dry.
You could not see a cloud, because
No cloud was in the sky:
No birds were flying overhead--
There were no birds to fly.

The Walrus and the Carpenter
Were walking close at hand;
They wept like anything to see
Such quantities of sand:
"If this were only cleared away,"
They said, "it would be grand!"

They wept like anything . . .
"If seven maids with seven mops
Swept it for half a year.
Do you suppose," the Walrus said,
"That they could get it clear?"
"I doubt it," said the Carpenter,
And shed a bitter tear.

"O Oysters, come and walk with us!"
The Walrus did beseech.
"A pleasant walk, a pleasant talk,
Along the briny beach:
We cannot do with more than four,
To give a hand to each."

The eldest Oyster looked at him,
But never a word he said:
The eldest Oyster winked his eye,
And shook his heavy head--
Meaning to say he did not choose
To leave the oyster-bed.

But four young Oysters hurried up,
All eager for the treat:
Their coats were brushed, their faces washed,
Their shoes were clean and neat--
And this was odd, because, you know,
They hadn't any feet.

Four other Oysters followed them,
And yet another four;
And thick and fast they came at last,
And more, and more, and more--
All hopping through the frothy waves,
And scrambling to the shore.

The Walrus and the Carpenter
Walked on a mile or so,
And then they rested on a rock
Conveniently low:
And all the little Oysters stood
And waited in a row.

"The time has come," the Walrus said . . .
"The time has come," the Walrus said,
"To talk of many things:
Of shoes--and ships--and sealing-wax--
Of cabbages--and kings--
And why the sea is boiling hot--
And whether pigs have wings."

"But wait a bit," the Oysters cried,
"Before we have our chat;
For some of us are out of breath,
And all of us are fat!"
"No hurry!" said the Carpenter.
They thanked him much for that.

"A loaf of bread," the Walrus said,
"Is what we chiefly need:
Pepper and vinegar besides
Are very good indeed--
Now if you're ready, Oysters dear,
We can begin to feed."

"But not on us!" the Oysters cried,
Turning a little blue.
"After such kindness, that would be
A dismal thing to do!"
"The night is fine," the Walrus said.
"Do you admire the view?
"The butter's spread too thick"

"It was so kind of you to come!
And you are very nice!"
The Carpenter said nothing but
"Cut us another slice:
I wish you were not quite so deaf--
I've had to ask you twice!"

"It seems a shame," the Walrus said,
"To play them such a trick,
After we've brought them out so far,
And made them trot so quick!"
The Carpenter said nothing but
"The butter's spread too thick!"

"I weep for you," the Walrus said:
"I deeply sympathize."
With sobs and tears he sorted out
Those of the largest size,
Holding his pocket-handkerchief
Before his streaming eyes.

"O Oysters," said the Carpenter,
"You've had a pleasant run!
Shall we be trotting home again?"
But answer came there none--
And this was scarcely odd, because
They'd eaten every one.

I think it was George Orwell who once argued that the poem is a political satire, although what was being satirised I can't recall. In The Annotated Alice, (one of the greatest of all literary commentaries) Martin Gardner says that Carroll told John Tenniel that he could draw either a carpenter, a butterfly or a baronet (was all three scanned perfectly). Tenniel chose the carpenter, thank goodness. I mean 'The Walrus and the Baronet' would be utter nonsense.

By way of a profane bonus, here's a favourite riddle-me-ree:

What's the difference between an epileptic oysterman and a tart with diaorrhea?

You give it up?

One shucks between fits . . . 

Saturday 7 December 2013

Stan Tracey

Stan Tracey  - Britain's greatest jazz composer - died yesterday.  He was, impressively, 86.

It was the American jazz man Eubie Blake who, on the occasion of his 98th birthday, famously said: "If I'd known I was going to live this long, I would have taken better care of myself."

Tracey didn't take good care of himself, so his seventy-year career is an achievement in itself. He went through lean times (and even considered chucking in music to train as a postman), but stuck to it and is now being described by obituarists as "the Godfather of British jazz". For those of you who think British jazz is like French rock 'n' roll (pale imitations of the original) here's a short excerpt from Starless and Bible Black - his celebrated 1965 composition based on Dylan Thomas's 1953 radio play.

Friday 6 December 2013

Nelson Mandela

The British Prime Minister shares his thoughts on Twitter on the death of Nelson Mandela at the age of 95:

A great light has gone out in the world. Nelson Mandela was a hero of our time. I've asked for the flag at No10 to be flown at half mast.

Here's my blog from 27th June 2013. It was e. e. cummings who said "A politician is an arse upon which everyone has sat except a man." Mandela was many things - but he wasn't a politician.

Nkosi Sikelel i'Africa
Malup hakanyiswu phondolwayo Yiswa imithanda zo yethu Nkosi Sikelela Thina lusapolwayo . . .

Monday 25 November 2013

Beckett reading Watt

Another Beckett blog - you'll be wanting your money back. I have no idea how or where or when it was made (perhaps in 1965), but as far as I know it's the only known recording of the author reading from his great novel Watt, written in Rousillon during the Occupation and published in 1953. It may be the only known recording of Beckett reading his own work full stop.

It's a real find. Listen here.

Below are the first two pages of the first of the Watt notebooks, signed and marked 'Watt I,' with the following note: 'Watt was written in France during the war 1940-45 and published in 1953 by the Olympia Press.' On an inserted sheet, Beckett has written, 'Begun evening of Tuesday 11/2/41'.

When will a bright publisher consider a volume of Beckett's doodles?

Here's an extract from the novel, perfect for a Monday morning:

The Tuesday scowls, the Wednesday growls, the Thursday curses, the Friday howls, the Saturday snores, the Sunday yawns, the Monday morns, the Monday morns. The whacks, the moans, the cracks, the groans, the welts, the squeaks, the belts, the shrieks, the pricks, the prayers, the kicks, the tears, the skelps, and the yelps. 

Perhaps this week's blogs should all be about Beckettt. We shall see.

Extracts © The Estate of Samuel Beckett

Sunday 24 November 2013

Steph Knowles, artist

Here are some recent paintings by Steph Knowles, all acrylic on paper. I'm afraid the reproductions don't do them justice.

I have a large charcoal drawing by her - a virtuoso piece which, given the humble and intractable medium is little short of miraculous in its structurally complex and rhythmic patterns of light and shade. It's non-representational although not quite wholly abstract - she's clearly looked long and hard at modern and especially brutalist buildings - the pattern of fenestration and the relation of solid architectonic mass to space. She is also, as the pictures below confirm, a sensationally gifted colourist These images would, I think, make wonderful fabric designs - as printed silks, for instance, they would be enhanced by the movement of folds and pleats. (In the 1940s Henry Moore made several dozen designs for David Whitehead Fabrics which are little known but very striking and vibrant, one of which used barbed wire motifs.)

And here's something new to me - a shape not often seen (although Jackson Polloick comes to mind), like a 70mm VistaVision screen, the format favoured by Hitchcock in his American years. They have tremendous scale (which doesn't mean they're big).

I like and admire her work very much because it's quietly tough and expert, cool and accomplished. It's good to see an artist who combines the warm and the cerebral, the diligent and the modest, and who knows a lot about form and colour; the texture, if you like, of representation. Her works are (as I wrote once elsewhere) modest records of their own creation - the overlaid mesh-like application of layers of paint, the dip and weave of horizontal and vertical quantities (like, it strikes me, stills from an elaborate Len Lye-like animation, which would take thousands of years to film). Knowles's work is painstaking yet fresh.

A recent piece by Kevin Brazil in The Oxonian describes (Salvete favourite) Eimear McBride's writing as 'a new continent of expression', and that's a phrase that could apply equally to Steph Knowles's painting. In a culture dominated by incontinent expression - the rowdy, the gormless, the aggressively confessional, we need her skills.

Steph Knowles has no website so I can't direct you to more of her work. In fact she has barely a mention on the internet, so perhaps this blog will prompt interest. 

Here are some more pictures:

Saturday 16 November 2013

Norman Wisdom, Hattie Jacques

Watch this. Norman Wisdom and Hattie Jacques. Makes me laugh like nobody's business.

Wisdom is an underrated performer (except, one is cheered to learn, in Albania, where he was idolised and where his death was widely mourned). He made me laugh when I was a child and his films appeared regularly on television on Saturday mornings. Hattie Jacques (who was always described as a 'roly-poly funny lady' in the pages of the Radio Times) was in a class of her own.

Friday 15 November 2013

Miriam Elia

Here's the wonderfully talented conceptual artist, performer and writer Miriam Elia. She needs your money more than you do. What she'll do with it is up to her, but it will be really good, and you can be a part of it, and brag about it to your friends, who will admire you. Go on. 

Tuesday 12 November 2013

James Wood - beat poet

The literary critic James Wood seems to publish a collection of essays every four years, so I suppose the next book is out in 2016. Plenty of time to catch up - and all of his books repay close reading, and re-reading. He's an exemplary critic - thorough, discriminating, cultivated and balanced. He writes extremely well in disarmingly plain English and appears to have read everything. Everything. A good place to start is his first book, which includes a brilliant memoir about growing up in an Evangelical Christian household in Durham. He considers how the loss of faith leads a literate adolescent into a search for something to fill the God-shaped hole, and how this search necessarily involves the highest and most scrupulous standards - there's no time for trash or the second-rate because the stakes are too high.

Four books so far:

The Broken Estate: Essays on Literature and Belief (Modern Library, 2000) 
The Irresponsible Self: On Laughter and the Novel (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004)
How Fiction Works (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008)
The Fun Stuff (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012) 

Saturday 9 November 2013

Wochenend Und Sonnenschein

Prompted by yesterday's blog I've been thinking about The Comedian Harmonists, Germany's most popular musical act in the 1930s. Disbanded by the nazis (as several members were Jewish, although happily they all outlived the war), they specialised in lovely close harmony recordings, many in English. Click on the name to hear them sing a familiar tune with an unfamiliar title: Wochenend Und Sonnenschein. Good, this.

The Comedian Harmonists were: Ari Leschnikoff (1897–1978) first tenor; Erich A. Collin (1899–1961) second tenor; Harry Frommermann (1906–1975) Tenor buffo; Roman Cycowski (1901–1998) baritone; Robert Biberti (1902–1985) bass and Erwin Bootz (1907–1982) pianist.

Friday 8 November 2013


Apologies for the dreadful canned laughter - a noise that turns mild indifference to one's fellow man into murderous loathing. But this short clip is worth it: Spike Milligan and John Bluthal take on Wagner. Apologies also for the brief and intrusive advertising that appears to be tacked on willy-nilly to everything these days.

I saw Milligan live on stage just once - on New Year's Day in a West End theatre. I forget which, but perhaps the Duke of York, and it was in the early 1980s. He was on sensational form, appearing to ad-lib most of the show, which was ramshackle, unrehearsed and mostly brilliant. One routine I remember vividly was about a family waking up in the middle of the night and realising with horror that all the food in their fridge is about to go off ('sell by dates' were a new thing in supermarket packaging). The family is herded by a panicking father to the chilly kitchen and wordlessly bolt down all they can, as fast as they can. The dog has to eat a jelly. All seems to be going well. "Then! On the stroke of midnight!" (and I can hear him say it) "a snot-covered sausage-roll comes leaping out of the fridge and has him . . .  by the throat". He mimed the life-or-death struggle. The band on stage were all helpless with laughter - a reliable confirmation that something is new, and perhaps unique. 

Thursday 7 November 2013

English literature

The format of examinations in Britain is to be overhauled, says the Education Minister Michael Gove.  In English literature candidates will be expected to read whole texts (gasp!) including a Shakespeare play, Romantic poetry and modern verse, a 19th century novel and 20th century fiction. Exams will ask candidates to evaluate seen and unseen texts. English language examinations will require extended writing to explain, argue and describe events and 20 per cent of marks will be awarded for spelling, punctuation and grammar, compared with 12 per cent at present. So it's back to the old days, it seems. Or is it?

I remember, quite vividly, the books we had to read in the Sixth Form at school: Jane Austen's Persuasion (which instilled in me an aversion to all things Austen that has lasted to this day); A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (which, equally happily, led to a lifelong enthusiasm for Joyce); The Nightrunners of Bengal by John Masters (preposterous racist trash). Have things changed much in the past four decades?

The examination board OCR (formerly and respectively the Oxford and Cambridge Syndicates and the Royal Society of Arts) offers AS/A Level GCE English Literature (H071, H471). I looked at their website. The preamble, listing the qualifications' 'unique selling points' is written in the costive form of English favoured by examination boards:

     Diverse texts ranging from work first published and performed from 1300 to post-1990.
     A strong focus on critical literary skills, contexts and interpretations by other 'readers'.
     A four unit format equally split between external and internal assessment. 
     Following feedback, set text choice has been refreshed and assessment simplified.

And what are these 'diverse texts'?

'Poetry and Prose 1800-1945' consists of  poetry by Robert Browning, Emily Dickinson, W. B. Yeats and Edward Thomas

Novels for the same period are Frankenstein, Jane Eyre, The Turn of the ScrewThe Picture of Dorian Gray, The Secret Agent and Mrs Dalloway

Post-1945 there appears to be no poetry (perhaps just as well) and the following very mixed bag of novels: Oranges are not the Only Fruit, The Remains of the Day and Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, The Child in Time, A Handful of Dust and Jane Austen's Persuasion (and no, I don't know why this blasted book appears here). I think the Waugh is the most misjudged choice, as it's the least funny. Why not Wodehouse? Grahame Greene? Anthony Burgess? And (speaking of poetry) where the fuck is Auden?

Very few of these books seem to me suitable for young readers. I've always been baffled by the longstanding inclusion of The Waste Land on our A level syllabus - some gifts are surely best reserved for age, to misquote Eliot.) Some things should be kept back. 

But - and I've made this point before - why examine literature? Why can it not be the one thing on a national curriculum that is compulsory but unexamined? Why can't it be taught and enjoyed for its own sake? Why?

Wednesday 6 November 2013

Sensationeller Kunstschatz!

More than 1500 modern artworks, including pieces by Picasso, Matisse, Chagall, Nolde, Franz Marc, Beckmann, Klee, Kokoschka, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Max Liebermann have come to light in 'a shabby Munich apartment', according to the German magazine  FOCUS. And there's a Guardian piece here.  This is a huge hoard of what the nazis vilified as entartete Kunst or degenerate art.

It's an extraordinary find and opens up a can of worms. Who owns this stuff? How was it acquired? If, as seems likely, the paintings were either sold for a pittance by Jewish owners (and presumably non-Jewish ones as well) desperate to liquidate their assets and flee the country or simply confiscated by the thugs in charge at the time, then they should rightly and with the minimum of fuss be returned to the owners, or their heirs.

But something I've never been clear about is why the process of reparation applies to artworks (as of course it should) but not, it seems, to anything else. Why should art collectors alone be the beneficiaries of such acts of restitution and not, say, those who lost things other than artworks? Or, come to that, what of Londoners and countless others who suffered loss of property (and much worse) in the Blitz? How come an Egon Schiele worth a king's ransom can be restored to its original owner's heirs (and, I repeat, rightly) and then sold at auction while the  . . . oh, to hell with it.

Tuesday 5 November 2013

Verlaine translated

An insomniac night, so here's a Verlaine translation made (appropriately) during a rainstorm. Am reading his collection Sagesse at the moment, verses he wrote following his release from Mons prison where he served 18 months for shooting and wounding his lover Rimbaud.

He came to England in March 1875 and found employment teaching French, Latin and drawing at a village school in a Lincolnshire backwater called Stickney. He moved after a year to another school in cosmopolitan Bournemouth, returning to Paris in 1877, there to be lionised to death. I'm currently researching Verlaine's two years in England because while his hectic three months' residence with Rimbaud in Camden Town is well-known, the later period in Stickney and Bournemouth is not, although it saw him write some of his best poetry. Here's a sample, with my translation:

Il pleure dans mon coeur
Comme il pleut sur la ville.
Quelle est cette langueur
Qui pénêtre mon coeur ?

O bruit doux de la pluie
Par terre et sur les toits !
Pour un coeur qui s’ennuie,
O le chant de la pluie !

Il pleure sans raison
Dans ce coeur qui s’écoeure.
Quoi ! nulle trahison ?
Ce deuil est sans raison.

C’est bien la pire peine
De ne savoir pourquoi,
Sans amour et sans haine,
Mon coeur a tant de peine.

It rains in my heart
As it rains on the town,
What is this languor
That so soaks my heart?

Oh sweet sound of rain
On earth and on roof.
For my dumb heart again,
This song of the rain.

Rain for no reason
In a heart lacking heart.
What? Without treason?
This grief without reason.

By far the worst pain,
That I cannot explain
Without love, without hate,
That my heart is all pain.

Monday 4 November 2013

On Wreck-it Ralph

Have you seen the Disney-Pixar film Wreck-it Ralph?

It's rich in literary references - to Joseph Conrad, Lewis Carroll, P. G. Wodehouse and others - and even richer in filmic references, particularly to the Wizard of Oz. Above all it brilliantly exploits the whole brief history of video games, from that elementary paddle-board ping-pong contest of the 1970s to today's densely pixilated shoot-em ups. 

The eponymous Ralph is one of the two main characters featuring in a thirty-year-old arcade game - his job involves demolishing an apartment building which is then restored by Fix-it Felix, a rather effeminate builder with a golden hammer. The graphics are engagingly fuzzy, the action corny.

When the arcade closes at the end of each day the characters check out and some, including Ralph, attend counselling sessions. Ralph is a blue-collar working stiff. He's had enough of playing the bad guy and wants to seek new horizons, so he decides to break the law and 'go Turbo', a phrase which is not explained until much later in the film. He quits his game and takes the subway to Game Central, based visually on New York's Grand Central Station but populated entirely by characters (and objects) from video games past and present, some of whom have fallen on hard times and are homeless pan-handlers. An unlikely but plausible chain of events involves Ralph joining another, far more advanced game - a state-of-the-art, fully-immersive interactive nightmare, a combination of Ridley Scott's Alien and Paul Verhoeven's Starship Troopers. Ralph is out of his element.

But thinsg get worse and he next finds himself in the candy-coloured world of Sugar Rush, a go-kart racing game aimed at young girls. There he befriends a character named Vanellope von Schweetz, who is also a technical glitch in the programme and therefore an outsider. They eventually team up.

Meanwhile in Ralph's absence his own video game is deemed out of order and its resident characters doomed, so Fix-it Felix sets out on a quest to find Ralph and persuade him to return home. This leads to no end of confusion.

Visually compelling (the lighting and rendered textures are by turns dazzling and ravishing), structurally robust and with nuanced characters, terse dialogue and brilliant vocal performances (especially Ralph, the platoon commander, Vanellope and the ditzy Candy King) - there's so much to admire. I suppose most of the clever stuff is way above the intended core audience (I took a seven-year-old boy, who "only quite liked it") but it's a wonderful creative achievement. It confirms the dispiriting view that the real creative innovation in American culture can be found in animation, in computer games, in graphic novels and nowhere else - certainly not in the novel. I'd trade the opening ten minutes of Wreck-it Ralph against the entire career, past and future of - oh, let's say Lionel Shriver?

Sunday 3 November 2013

On F. R. Leavis

In a recent issue of the London Review of Books, Paul Evans describes an episode involving the critic F. R. Leavis (1895-1978):

At some point during my time at Cambridge I attended a guest lecture by Leavis with the title ‘T. S. Eliot Thirty Years On’. It soon became clear that the thirty years referred to the last time Leavis had passed public judgment on Eliot. Towards the end of the hour, he suddenly stopped, seemingly in mid-paragraph. He looked up, announced that he had left the last page of his lecture in his briefcase, and apologised. He descended from the stage, made a painfully slow journey to the back of the hall surrounded by silence, picked up a battered briefcase, extracted a single sheet of paper, returned once more to the stage, placed the sheet on the lectern, straightened it and looked up. ‘Therefore,’ he announced, ‘I see no reason to change my view of T. S. Eliot.’ He said nothing further.

Leavis was a giant of literary criticism in the days when being and doing such a thing was both respectable and worthwhile. In his view it was an urgent moral imperative to have the highest standards against which to judge the real value of writing, based on a hierarchy of values that contrasted violently with the imported continental apparatus that swept through university English departments in the early 1980s (and which I narrowly avoided). Leavis embodies everything I most admire in academic life (and, of course, represents everything most loathed and feared by his midget detractors) - a commitment to seriousness.

I was too young to be directly influenced by Leavis and the type of critical writing gathered in his high-minded journal Scrutiny. Our schoolmasters (always 'masters', never 'teachers') were for the most part ex-army officers, close to retirement age and rather chilly. They had no truck with long-haired namby-pamby poetry types.

When I finally caught up with the 'Two Cultures' debate (in which Leavis locked horns with the novelist and technocrat C. P. Snow) I knew where my loyalties lay because I'd read and loathed a couple of C. P. Snow's atrocious novels as an undergraduate. Clive James was pitch-perfect when he suggested a typical Snow novel would include Part Two: A Decision is Taken, Chapter One: the Lighting of a Cigarette.

There's another amusing Leavis anecdote from in the LRB. The distinguished historian (and homosexual) A.L. Rowse invited Leavis to dinner at All Souls. Asked afterwards what he made of him, Rowse replied: ‘I cannot understand why they call him Queenie!’

Thursday 31 October 2013

Hallowe'en blog - on Dr Pretorius

To mark Hallowe'en here's the wonderfully strange actor Ernest Thesiger (1879-1961) as Dr Septimus Pretorius in The Bride of Frankenstein, directed by James Whale in 1935. In this short scene he presents the unsettling results of his quest to create human life "using my own seed". However that got past the censors I can't imagine.

The Bride of Frankenstein is a great film, and a rare example of a sequel bettering a fine original. The camera effects in this sequence are still, eighty years later, utterly astonishing. 

Thesiger, brother of the renowned explorer Wilfred, was the most marvellously exotic eccentric who enlisted in the army at the outbreak of the World War 1 hoping to be assigned to a Scottish regiment because he wanted to wear a kilt. Wounded in action he returned to England and when asked at a dinner party what it had been like in France famously replied "Oh, my dear, the noise! and the people!" He was an expert in needlework and in 1941 published a book on the subject, Adventures in Embroidery. I have a tatty copy, stamped "For use of H. M. Forces, not for resale". There's a lost world in that.

I cherish Thesiger's elaborately camp and querulous performance as Horace Femm in The Old Dark House (also directed by James Whale and based on the novel Benighted by J. B. Priestley), in which he repeatedly says "Have a potato", somehow making the word 'potato' seem utterly depraved. At one point he says, with sepulchral relish: "Gin. I like gin". Wonderful.

A memoir written near the end of his life is housed in the Ernest Thesiger Collection at the University of Bristol. Why on earth is it unpublished?

Wednesday 30 October 2013

Katie Price - a provisional bibliography

Katie Price is a media personality, reality TV star, author, former glamour model (known as Jordan), occasional singer and businesswoman, with a personal fortune (is there such a thing as an impersonal one?) estimated at £45 million. She is also a best-selling author who later this month publishes her fortieth book - Love, Lipstick and Lies. Listed below is, I believe, the first bibliography of her work.

She has so far published four autobiographies:

Being Jordan (2004)
A Whole New World (2006)
Pushed to the Limit (2008)
You Only Live Once (2010).

There are nine novels:

Angel (2006)
Crystal (2007)
Angel Uncovered (2008)
Sapphire (2009)
Paradise (2010)
The Comeback Girl (2011)
Santa Baby (2011)
In the Name of Love (2012).

Her one non-fiction book is about fashion: Standing Out (2009)

There are two series of books for children, both apparently now complete: Perfect Ponies and Mermaids & Pirates. A complete list of these titles appears at the end of this blog.

All are the work of professional ghost writers and I suspect (without condescension) that the author herself would be hard-pressed to name all of the titles published under her name. This is not a criticism - government ministers rely on slick speech writers to render them intelligible so why shouldn't celebrities employ underlings to write their books? Works attributed to Katie Price no doubt bring pleasure to readers who are presumably aware of the publishing arrangements and approve of them. One doesn't, come to that, expect David Beckham to blend and bottle his own-brand cologne personally.

You're probably wondering why I'm blogging about a writer who isn't a writer. This is not a sneering attack on Katie Price, who I believe has overcome many personal setbacks and insecurities (not all of her own making) to become the public figure she is today. It's her status as a best-selling author that interests me because of what it says about our literary culture in general.

Since the 1980s we've seen the emergence of what can be described as a cultural free market which, like the free market itself, asserts its legitimacy through two important claims: that it's efficient (let's agree not to go there) and that it's non-judgmental. This last claim is of particular interest. A cultural free market insists that no individual or institution can make any legitimate or authoritative claim on behalf of the public as to what is in the best interests of the public. Such a patrician assumption harks back to the days of Lord Reith at the BBC and is simply not to be countenanced. Modern society is made up of countless fragmented constituencies (the argument runs) so how can anyone presume to know what is best for all?

The political right exploit this line of reasoning when it comes to the provision of public services - healthcare, libraries, state housing, arts subsidies - because, they argue, state-sponsored institutions are incapable of reflecting the wide range of needs and expectations to be found in our diverse and complex society. Take this principle, extend it to the arts and by a simple line of unreason say goodbye to critical gatekeepers, custodians of quality, anything to do with informed judgemental values. Who dare proscribe? Who has the authority?

Katie Price's publishing output is the result of a deregulated cultural market and the triumph of populism and celebrity culture. It's hard to talk about her books at all without appearing judgemental and therefore (in that wonky 'therefore' of populist reasoning) indefensibly elitist. As a writer I happen to prefer her to, say, Margaret Atwood, but that's just me.

Defenders of her children's books would claim that 'at least it gets kiddies to read', although by the same token one might argue in favour of McDonalds fast food - "at least it gets them to eat". That her Princess Pony books are cheap and nasty-looking is irrelevant. So are Faber print on demand novels. More alarmingly Katie Price is a reportedly a popular role model for many girls and young women who see her material success as an empowering validation of their own hectic lifestyle choices. That has to be a very bad thing, because there's only one Katie Price.


Children's books attributed to Katie Price are:

Perfect Ponies (2007-2010) 
Here Comes the Bride, Little Treasures, Fancy Dress Ponies, Pony Club Weekend, The New Best Friend, Ponies to the Rescue, My Pony Care Book, Star Ponies, Pony 'n' Pooch, Pony in Disguise, Stage Fright!, Secrets and Surprises, Wild West Weekend.

Mermaids & Pirates (2008–10)
Follow the Fish, I Spy, Let's Build a Sandcastle, A Sunny Day, Telescope Overboard, Time for a Picnic, All Around, Hide and Seek, Katie the Mermaid, Katie's Day, Peter's Friends, Pirate Olympics.

Tuesday 29 October 2013

My 300th blog

My 300th blog, and by way of celebration here are links to a year's worth of my reviews and commentaries in the Times Literary Supplement. You may think this is a cop-out, and in certain moods I would agree. But this is also a pretext to include my favourite TLS cover (below) featuring Powell and Pressburger's sublime masterpiece A Matter of Life and Death. I'll write about this film some time. 

So, in order of publication:

Noriko Smiling - a fine book about Ozu's cinematic masterpiece by Adam Mars-Jones.

The Projection of Britain - an absorbing history of the wonderful GPO Film Unit.

More Worthy than Lark - how the death of T. S. Eliot was reported by the BBC.

Music Wars by Patrick Bade - a fascinating account of musical culture during the Second World War.

A Point of View by Clive James - a collection of essays and postscripts from his Radio 4 series.

The Literary North - wide-ranging academic essays on northern writers.

Lucky in Love Journals  - 1946-1995 by Stephen Spender.

I'm a Believer - a short note in defence of Neil Diamond.

London E1 by Robert Poole - the only novel by this forgotten working-class writer.

In every dream home . . . Maynard L Parker: Modern Photography and the American Dream  

Blokelore and Blokesongs - Robert Conquest's sprightly collection of poetry.

Gob impressive A Girl is a Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBride. The first review of a book that has now become famous, by an author hailed by Anne Enright of The Guardian as 'a genius'.

On Writing with Photography edited by Liliane Weissberg  and Karen Beckman.

Class Difference The Likes of Us - Stories of Five Decades - short stories by Stan Barstow.  
Twitter and Brimstone Four novels by Gerald Kersh: Night and the City, The Angel and the Cuckoo, Nightshade and Damnations and Fowlers End. 

Why Photography Matters by Jerry Thompson - a little gem of a book.

There are others, I'm afraid, and more to come But this will have to do for now. Tomorrow's blog may be a world first . . .

Monday 28 October 2013

The Hamlet Doctrine

The Hamlet Doctrine (the title of  a recent book by the by the philosopher Simon Critchley and his wife Jamieson Webster, who is a psychoanalyst) comes from Nietzsche, although it puts me in mind of Salman Rushdie's witty idea for the title of a Robert Ludlum version: 'The Elsinore Equivocation'. 

It's a collection of short pieces, some brilliantly illuminating (on the subject of mourning conventions, for instance), others thought-provoking, some quite silly. Carl Schmitt, Walter Benjamin, Hegel, Freud, Lacan and Nietzsche are all roped in, but it strikes me that while a psychoanalytical or philosophical approach to the play certainly enriches our knowledge it may not add to our understanding.

In a Guardian article about their book the authors say, rather weirdly "The banal, biscuit-box Shakespeare needs to be broken up and his work made dangerous again."

'Biscuit-box Shakeapeare'? No, me neither. There's a glaring typo on the first page which augers ill - "I say there shall be no mo [sic] marriage. The prose is uneven and there are rather too many threadbare hipster colloquialisms - has Hamlet really 'lost his mojo'? I mention this because I hope the authors would be equally impatient if I blundered into their respective fields and wrote things like "Wittgenstein was a well brainy dude". Tone, see?

A more pervasive weakness is that the authors settle on one entirely conventional interpretation of both Hamlet and Hamlet (although one that only gained currency in the early 20th century), namely that the Prince is banjax'd by indecision and that it is his failure to act that leads to his tragic downfall.

Yet by the final curtain Elsinore is a necropolis, proof that Hamlet is certainly capable of decisive action - Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have been despatched to their off-stage deaths, Ophelia maddened into self-destruction, her father stabbed (a particularly decisive moment, surely?), Gertrude poisoned, his usurping uncle Claudius both stabbed and poisoned, while Laertes and Hamlet himself are both stabbed with the same poisoned rapier. Practically everyone dies apart from Horatio and Fortinbras. Of course if Hamlet acted immediately on hearing from the ghost of his father that he should avenge murder most foul, the play would be over in ten minutes. Then where would we be?

The Hamlet Doctrine is full of good things, although nothing as memorable as these lines from Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead in which Rosencrantz (or possibly Guildenstern) consider how best to question the Prince:

"To sum up: your father, whom you love, dies, you are his heir, you come back to find that hardly was the corpse cold before his young brother popped onto his throne and into his sheets, thereby offending both legal and natural practice. Now why exactly are you behaving in this extraordinary manner?"

Sunday 27 October 2013

Noel Gallagher on literary fiction

The rock musician Noel Gallagher recently launched an attack on the art of fiction, and people who read novels and review them, and was widely reported for doing so. He might even be said to have 'sparked off a debate'.

His line of reasoning was developed in conversation with the journalist Danny Wallace in connection with Gallagher's becoming GQ magazine's 'Icon of the Year'. Wallace pulled that age-old reporter's trick of transcribing his interviewee's thoughts with all the repetition, redundancy and inarticulate profanity that journalists usually omit:
"I only read factual books. I can't think of ... I mean, novels are just a waste of fucking time [...] I can't suspend belief in reality … I just end up thinking, 'This isn't fucking true'."

Gallagher went on to explain his preference for books "about things that have actually happened", giving as an example Ernest R May's The Kennedy Tapes, an account of goings-on in the White House during the Cuban missile crisis:
"I'm reading this book at the minute … Thinking, 'Wow, this actually fucking happened, they came that close to blowing the world up!'"

He takes a particularly dim view of folk like me, because in his view:

"[P]eople who write and read and review books are fucking putting themselves a tiny little bit above the rest of us who fucking make records and write pathetic little songs for a living."

Apart, I suppose, from those who write and read and review the kind of "factual books" that Gallagher admires. Of course, in the case of The Kennedy Tapes what interests the reader is precisely something that never happened, but almost did. That quibble aside, isn't Gallagher, in assuming such a judgemental position, putting himself just a tiny little bit above those of us who happen to find pleasure and fulfilment in reading novels? Can a fabulously wealthy pop star really be so chippy and thin-skinned? Can anyone be so thick?

Isn't, come to that, the kind of music he offers itself a low grade form of escapist fiction? What would he say to a view that his "pathetic little songs" are not only pathetic but also dull, boorish, derivative and pretentious? What would he say if I compared his gormless brand of radio fodder with the work of Bob Dylan, or Bruce Springsteen, or Neil Young, or Leonard Cohen. None of these performers appeal to me especially, but they are, let's agree, pre-eminent in their field. I could be wrong but I have the impression that Gallagher's band, Oasis, are little more then Beatles copyists, churning out humdrum stadium anthems to a blokeish crowd. 

The Bookseller's Cathy Retzenbrink believes that Gallagher has made an "incredibly serious point", which is overstating the case. He's merely made an incredibly commonplace observation, and one which could be applied to anything that has minority appeal, including his brand of music. She adds excitedly that: "[h]e's saying what loads of people in this country think, but don't normally have a platform to say. There are vast amounts of people who feel this way, who do feel that people who are comfortable with words look down on them."
This is untrue. People who are 'comfortable with words' (whatever that means) do not as a rule look down on those who are not. Those who are uncomfortable with words may choose to feel that they are looked down upon, but that's their problem, and has more to do with poor self-esteem and a compensating sense of oppression and exclusion. This is understandable, but it's not an argument. I expect Noel Gallagher would find many reasons to look down on me, not least because my taste in music is even more bigoted than his taste in books, and because I don't have a personal fortune estimated at £60 million. If I had I expect I'd be tempted to spout bollocks about things I don't like or understand to attendant journalists.

"He's saying what loads of people in this country think" says Retzenbrink. So is the oafish UKIP leader Nigel Farage, so what's her point? 

And what on earth does she mean by ordinary folk not having 'a platform' to express their dislike of literary fiction? They don't need one, in a popular culture that is nothing but one enormous platform championing the counter-literate, marginalising readers and endorsing pampered oafs like Gallagher. You won't see the late Dame Iris Murdoch elected 'Icon of the Year' by GQ magazine, or even, come to that, The Bookseller.

When a fading pop star decides to sway his biddable constituency with such gormless bigotry I feel I should speak up on behalf of those of us who still find a place for fiction in our lives - as writers, as readers, as reviewers. If Gallagher can find no space in his heart or brain for George Eliot or Graham Greene or Iris Murdoch or James Joyce or V. S. Pritchett or even Terry Pratchett - that's his loss. Those authors withstand his contempt. If the laddish readers of GQ find their own counter-literate tendencies articulated by this Icon of the Year (which seems a distinctly short-term honour) they can contentedly carry on being rowdy wankers in bars and pubs and clubs. If Cathy Retzenbrink has qualms about ordinary people not having a platform to whine about those of us who write and read and review fiction perhaps she's in the wrong job.

There are likely to be more readers of fiction in Britain than there are Oasis fans, and there are probably more readers of novels in my part of North London alone than there are Oasis fans world-wide. Yet in one respect I find myself agreeing with Noel Gallagher. When I'm out of sympathy with a writer of fiction (and yes, it does happen), I find myself crossly and sceptically challenging everything they say, however innocuous. Thus when an author writes:

It's a warm Kilburn afternoon when Mr Theodopolus flags down a passing taxi and tells the driver to take him to the Whittington hospital.

My reaction, like Gallagher's, is to say: 'This isn't fucking true' before chucking the book away. Whereas when Orwell writes:

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.

Well, I'll read on. And who, apart from Noel Gallagher, wouldn't?

Saturday 26 October 2013

Lady Mondegreen

The American author Sylvia Wright coined the useful term 'Mondegreen' in her essay "The Death of Lady Mondegreen," published in Harper's Magazine in November 1954:

When I was a child, my mother used to read aloud to me from Percy's Reliques, and one of my favorite poems began, as I remember:

Ye Highlands and ye Lowlands,
Oh, where hae ye been?
They hae slain the Earl O' Moray,
And Lady Mondegreen.

Wright had misheard the last line, which reads "And laid him on the Green", and 'Mondegreen' has since been available (although not much used) as a descriptor of any confusion that results from close homophonic resemblance between two distinct phrases. I've blogged about this before - when W. H. Auden mischievously suggested 'New Directions' as the name for a publishing house bacause he imagined prim schoolmarms asking bookstore assistants whether they had nude erections.

Another example of a Mondegreen is "Gladly, the cross-eyed bear" (from the line in the hymn Keep Thou My Way by Fanny Crosby and Theodore E. Perkins -  "Kept by Thy tender care, gladly the cross I'll bear"). As a child I thought the mournful Jim Reeves lyric was "I love you, big horse, you understand dear...".

Mots d'Heures: Gousses, Rames  by Luis d'Antin van Rooten is a variant, a clever set of English nursery rhymes rendered into plausible French, published in 1967 and once surprisingly popular. An example:

Jacques s'apprête 
Coulis nos fête. 
Et soif qui dites nos lignes.


A final example of Mondegreen virtuosity is a fondly-remembered 1976 comedy sketch featuring Ronnie Corbett and Ronnie Barker (The Two Ronnies). Written by Barker it's immensely popular in Britiain but may be unknown elsewhere. It's called Four Candles and, apart froma clumsy punch line, is quite a piece of work.

Friday 25 October 2013

Gynophobia and misogyny

The American playwright Bonnie Greer, speaking in a recent interview about the enduring malignities of racism and sexism, and the relative tolerance that seems to surround the latter, used the term 'gynophobia'. This, she unnecessarily explained, means 'a fear of women'. This fear, she insisted,  underlies sexism in all its ghastly manifestations.

Fear? If only. It was Germaine Greer (no relation) who, in The Female Eunuch, memorably wrote: 'Women have very little idea of how much men hate them.'

Bonnie Greer combines such intelligence and eloquence that I was surprised by the uncharacteristically lazy thinking behind her use of the term (and the fact that she found it necessary to gloss its meaning shows how inappropriate it was in the context).

What she labels gynophobia is misogyny. The prefix 'miso-' (as in 'misanthrope') is what's needed to imply hatred, not the suffix '-phobia'. I like to think that hatred is expressed as a prefix because it pre-empts the subject (or rather the object of the hatred) while fear is a suffix because it follows exposure to the thing that's feared - but let's not get too fancy.

Pursuing this theme - use of the phobia suffix is exemplified in the hair-trigger use of the term 'Islamophobia', applied to almost any criticism of certain extreme and unrepresentative aspects of Muslim thinking.

I am not Islamophobic because fear forms no part of my thinking about Islamism (which I know is unrepresentative of the mainstream faith). Not fear, no, but a profound loathing of the misogynistic convictions held by certain religious leaders (invariably male, invariably uneducated), convictions that have no place in any liberal democracy or among true Muslims living within a liberal democracy. My views naturally reflect my belief in secular, democratic and enlightenment values and in equality. I loathe bigotry, and I see it everywhere I look - in politics (and not only among the loons of UKIP), in religion of course, in the media (and not least in the way the Daily Mail treats the Muslim community). I do not fear bigotry. I hate it, but that won't make it go away. Fear (which is to a greater or lesser degree the basis for all religious belief) is not something I do. That (to take one example) woman are forbidden to drive a car in Saudi Arabia, and are severely punished if they dare to do so, tells me a lot about Saudi society and something about the perversion of Islam by misogynist zealots. What I feel about that is not fear, but anger.

Speaking as a fully-paid up bien-pensant I'd hypocritically like to see a little less tolerance afforded those - whatever their background or status - who express views incompatible with the hard-won equalities that underlie our liberal democracy. This applies as much to EDL thugs attacking Islamism as it does to adherents and apologists of this warped and hateful form of the Muslim faith. It applies as much to Paul Dacre (the very nasty editor of the Daily Mail) as it does to the very nasty Abu Qatada. Fear and loathing (when the latter is expressed as a principled opposition to unreason) should not be conflated. One may lead to the other, of course, but that's another blog for another time.

Thursday 24 October 2013

Francis Ponge

In a recent review I compared the photographs of Walker Evans to the writings of the French poet  Frances Ponge. Both artists based their work around the close contemplation of the humble, the quotidian. Ponge perfected a form of prose poem dedicated to such everyday objects as potatoes, oranges and cigarettes. He's not an acquired taste - you 'get' him immediately, in French or in translation.

In 1967 Ponge published Le Savon, a long prose poem about soap. Here's an extract, followed by my attempt at an English version:

Si je m'en frotte les mains, le savon écume, jubile...
Plus il les rend complaisantes, souples,
liantes, ductiles, plus il bave, plus
sa rage devient volumineuse et nacrée...
Pierre magique!
Plus il forme avec l'air et l'eau
des grappes explosives de raisins
L'eau, l'air et le savon
se chevauchent, jouent
à saute-mouton, forment des
combinaisons moins chimiques que
physiques, gymnastiques, acrobatiques...

If I lather my hands, the soap suds, joyously...
The more it smothers them - supple,
slick, ductile - the more it slathers, the more
its wrath gains volume, pearl-like...
A wonder stone!
The more it forms with air and water
explosive clusters, grapes of aromatic froth...
Water, air, soap
blend and play,
leapfrog to form
combinations less chemical than
physical, gymnastic, acrobatic...

French original © The Estate of Francis Ponge