Wednesday 27 February 2013

Dr Goebbels and the Titanic

Today's five-minute curiosity. Don't watch the whole film because it's rubbish, although much better than the James Cameron blockbuster. The trailer is certainly worth a look. It's a 1943 German version of the sinking of the Titanic, sponsored by Goebbels as a piece of anti-British propaganda. The hero of this version is a brave German purser.

Did British producers consider a propaganda movie based on the Hindenberg disaster?

Monday 25 February 2013

Lecture on Nothing

To the Barbican Centre to see Robert Wilson delivering John Cage's Lecture on Nothing, 'one of the central texts of twentieth-century experimental literature' according to the programme, but entirely new to me. Seeing RW on stage a thrill of sorts, because he's not only very tall but is also a towering figure in experimental theatre.

The text was delivered from a stack of loose foolscap sheets by RW, in white shirt and pants, no shoes, and slapdash kabuki makeup. The set rather distractingly busy - two dozen white banners on which passages of the text are artlessly painted. The floor covered in scrunched up newspapers, bare lightbulbs hanging down, and a tower of sorts from which a mute Lenin-like associate peers turn and turn about through binoculars at the audience and RW, who for the first ten minutes or so sits motionless, staring straight ahead as layers of noise are projected into the auditorium. Flickering white neon tubes downstage - an impression of black and white, letters and paper.

Later a portrait photograph of Mayakovsky projected high up, stage right top, subtly animated so he slowly raises a cigarette to his lips, then lowers same. Why this was mesmerising I don't know, but it was. Cage's text eventually settles into a relentless, seemingly endless re-iteration of the same passage, each version delivered with subtle differences in pitch and stress by Wilson in his slightly cracked but mellow, euphonious voice. He's 70. At one point he retired to a bed on stage and we heard (presumably) Cage's voice delivering the same words. How can something be almost intolerably boring and deeply absorbing at the same time? I suppose if something is exciting all the time it's likely to be a TV gameshow. This was the opposite of that, and memorable.

The event harks back to the first ever 'happening' staged at the Black Mountain College in North Carolina back in 1952, when Cage collaborated with Merce Cunningham and others. He's the Duchamp of modern music, a serious subversive. I'd heard of the Black Mountain poets (and have an anthology somewhere) but was ignorant of the other amazing talents at this fine institution, a bohemian Bauhaus. Must find out more . . .

Sunday 24 February 2013


There's been a flurry of interest in the British newspapers recently about a 'raven-haired' poet called Clare Foges who is behind the Prime Minster's speeches. Foges is 31 years old and paid £63,000 a year (which seems quite a lot to me). She is known as 'the Prime Minster's larynx' and wrote his much-reported (entirely anodyne) speech on Britain's future role in Europe last month.

Foges is described as a 'respected poet', although all this appears to amount to is her winning the second prize in a low-key poetry competition a few years ago. That 'respected' seems a bit desperate - respected by whom, other than the judges who gave her that second prize? If she'd won the first prize would she now be 'highly respected'? Of course the phrase 'prize-winning' and the slightly classier 'award-winning' are terms applied willy-nilly to poets, mustard, pork pies and lager. 

I'd never heard of Foges and I have no idea how her second name is pronounced - does it rhyme with Stoke Poges? I've decided all the same to dislike her intensely, and for several reasons.

She is a devout Christian who worked for a while for Boris Johnson but still found time to design and market her own range of 'Christian jewellery'. Coincidentally the crucifix at the centre of a recent court case (Eweida v British Airways plc) involving an airline employee arguing for her right to sport a religious symbol (a practice banned under BA regulations) was one of Foges' products. I smell a rat here. 

What about the poetry for which Foges is 'respected'? This is a subject close to the dark heart of Salvēte! The first prize in the 2011 MAG Poetry competition (in which Foges came second) went to one Francesca McMahon with a poem entitled Ruby and Me at Baby Clinic, which begins:

    We dig an escape route 
    underneath the sink, 
    tunnel across the road . . .

But enough of that. Let's skip the rest, open the window, take a slug of GIN and read the opening lines of Clair Foges' poem, which is all about the day her dad said he was leaving the family:

    That was the day you said you were going away. 
    Ranged us on a bench like a jury, spread 
    the evidence of your dreams before us like brochures,
    sounded the syllables of your new home – Aus-tray-lee-ah –
    made it sound like a fantasy for the four of us. 
    Even stuttered at the edges of what love is, 
    what grown-ups have to do... Panicking, 
    you conjured up kangaroos and in that moment 
    were not the sharp-shooter, goldfish winner, 
    but a man fumbling over his escape clauses, 
    hand fluttering to the pink spot on your crown 
    as the little ones asked how many sleeps til we got there 
    and would we have suitcases like Paddington bear. 
It's not just that this is bad, although it is very bad indeed - it's also entirely typical of what passes for poetry these days, or at least what passes for poetry in the sort of competition won by Ruby and Me at Baby Clinic. (Another slug of GIN.) It's sincere of course, although that certainly doesn't make it truthful, or worth the effort of having written, and it's studiedly artless in its ignorance (or in its 'principled rejection') of what poetry can be. Sincerity in this approach being incompatible with form, technical competence and eloquence. It's also all over the place.

What is the reader to make of Foges' protean father, who is depicted in quick succession as a court usher and/or judge, lawyer, travel agent and fantasy-weaver, all in the space of four lines. A mixed metaphor? Clumsily mashed up, more like, or ineptly pureed. Brochures are not the evidence of dreams, and 'for the four of us' is aurally inept. The language throughout is childishly simple but not child-like, so there's no sense of a child's wondering incomprehension or of a later adult wisdom and understanding. 'A man fumbling over his escape clauses' is meaningless - and surely 'over' should be 'with' or 'for'? 

Of course the dad is a hopeless (and balding) inadequate, because that's what dads are these days. Adequate dads aren't the stuff of poetry, not now. Nor, to be fair, are straightforward and good, untroubled mothers. Dads, and come to that men in general, are feckless, selfish, lumpen, unreliable and emotionally costive. And these are just our qualities - wait until we get started on the flaws. Men can't be heroes any longer, and the opportunities for noble self-sacrifice are few in peace time. Commonplace gallantry is seen as outmoded, sexist and condescending. Even eloquence is suspicious and - the final insult - we have Jude Law on our screens instead of Robert Mitchum.

Thomas Hardy said that 'the poet should touch our hearts by showing his own', but this is not a pretext for mere candour. Forges' poem is not just about vengeance, but is an act of vengeance in itself. It's technically negligible of course - maundering confessional free verse peppered with dim and incoherent 'poetic' images. No concentration, no feel for the potentials of language or of thought; plenty of loquacity, but no eloquence.

From writing this sort of stuff to propping up Dave's gormless parliamentary rhetoric is a small step. It  goes some way to explaining the pervasive infantilism of the PM's public statements - he's the mouthpiece for a callow young woman with a cloth ear for language who is paid handsomely for supplying an oafish Old Etonian with what they both imagine is the common touch. They deserve one another.

Postscript: Foges appeared earlier this month in a BBC poll listing the 100 most powerful women in Britain. Oh Gawd.

Extracts © Francesca McMahon; Clare Forges.

Saturday 23 February 2013

Savile Row

Jimmy Savile (1926-2011) is largely unknown outside Britain. In the 1970s he ruled light entertainment at the BBC - a baffling, charmless and untalented celebrity (aren't they all?) who seemed to have some kind of elaborate learning difficulty. He presented pop shows and game shows and that sort of thing, mostly aimed at and featuring lots of young people. 

Following his death last year it became clear, as hundreds of victims emerged with harrowing accounts of his behaviour, that the Disc Jockey had for decades been abusing children. Some of them were in hospitals and care homes where he was allowed, for some reason, to roam freely. He was a very public figure and did a lot of work for charity. 
Other rumours continue to circulate but are unreported by the media - about very senior Establishment figures for whom Savile allegedly (and quite plausibly) acted as a procurer.

Anyhow - the BBC yesterday published thousands of pages of interviews, the outcome of their continuing investigation into Savile's crimes. The journalist and presenter Jeremy Paxman had this to say:
The really important question here is: what was the BBC doing? ...what was the BBC doing promoting this absurd figure, this absurd and malign figure? And I think that this is to do with the fact of the BBC having been aloof from popular culture for so long. Suddenly pirate radio comes along and all these people in metaphorical cardigans suddenly have to deal with an influx… of people from a very, very different culture, and they never got control of them and I am not sure even now they have.
That is the reason there are ongoing legacy issues here too. But they... have never felt comfortable with popular culture, and they have therefore given those who claim to perpetrate it too much licence…

Is that why it's called the licence fee? 

Paxman is, I think, on to something here.  And there's no shortage of public figures today who are clearly corrupt and depraved in the same way that Savile was corrupt and depraved. My country's libel laws make a blogger's speculation an expensive business, so I'll stop here. But you'll know who I mean.

Friday 22 February 2013

Franklin Mint

There's stiff competition for the title of Worst Public Statue in London.

Paul Day's The Kiss in St Pancras Station is enough to make you want to slap the sculptor repeatedly across his smug chops; Donald Woods' Nelson Mandela in Parliament Square is like a dashboard lucky charm; Chas Fagan's Ronald Reagan in Grosvenor Square looks like a gold-painted busker, and the risible Women of World War II by John Mills, plonked down in Whitehall next to Lutyens' magnificent Cenotaph, resembles nothing nobler than a gymnasium locker room.

Worst of a bad lot is the very silly Animals in War memorial in Park Lane.  Here it is:

Their neigh liveth for evermore

The sculptor (David Backhouse) was reportedly inspired by a book of the same title by Jilly Cooper and the extraordinary inscriptions, perhaps the work of Cooper herself, are worth transcribing in full:

This monument is dedicated to all the animals that served and died alongside British and allied forces in wars and campaigns throughout time

That 'alongside' is terrific. Below this a second, smaller inscription (and because it's smaller I suppose it should be read aloud in a quiet, awestruck tone) adds:

They had no choice  (which begs the question: who the blazes did?)

There's more of this stomach-turningly mawkish expository piffle on the reverse of the memorial:

Many and various animals were employed to support British and Allied Forces in wars and campaigns over the centuries, and as a result millions died. From the pigeon to the elephant, they all played a vital role in every region of the world in the cause of human freedom

Their contribution must never be forgotten.

Somebody decided that this was good enough to be carved in stone for all time. I like the unwitting ambiguity of 'millions died' - presumably this refers to the 'many and various animals' and not the merely human collateral. The bathetic phrase 'From the pigeon to the elephant' is best delivered in an E. L. Wisty voice.  

But enough. The cost of this monumental eyesore? Two million quid. Two million for a donkey cenotaph. Plus annual upkeep. The Reagan statue was a relative snip at £800,000. Add to them the recently-unveiled Bomber Command memorial opposite Piccadilly's Hard Rock Cafe, sponsored by (among others) a Bee Gee and the pornographer Richard Desmond (their names liveth for ever more, and prominently, inscribed on the pile), and Frank Meisler's winsome Kindertransport figurines dotted around Liverpool Street station, resembling nothing those collection boxes for the Spastic Society we used to see outside Chemist shops. We're living in a Franklin Mint culture.

Thursday 21 February 2013

"It'll pull you in, duck"

From my unpublished review of NIGHTS OUT : Life in cosmopolitan London by  Judith R. Walkowitz: (Yale University Press, 2012) I wrote this very quickly on spec but then couldn't find a British publication willing to run it. So I learned my lesson and don't write reviews on spec any more. Good book, through, and recommended.

Don't even think of driving there. Parking's a nightmare and you'll be having a drink. Take the tube to Tottenham Court Road, leave via Exit 1, pick your way around the muddy rubble of the recently-demolished Astoria Theatre, and head south. Before you get to Foyles turn right into Manette Street and walk past Goldbeater House (its foundation-stone laid by the poet laureate John Masefield, and once home to Danny la Rue), pausing briefly to admire the sturdy French Gothic chapel opposite. A few more steps and you'll be standing on the brink of Greek Street, under a reeking archway between the Pillars of Hercules pub and a stuff-yourself-silly Thai buffet. This, according to one wag, marks the spiritual entrance to Soho. 'If there's a spiritual exit,' he added gloomily, 'no-one has ever found it.' 

There are other approaches to Soho, of course. Not all of them can be found in the London A to Z, but Judith R. Walkowitz, professor of history at Johns Hopkins University, offers some valuable new directions in her engaging field guide to the district, Nights Out. She writes:
Soho was […] a space of intimate and sometimes tumultuous encounters between men and women from many walks of life: rich and poor, unschooled émigrés and Bloomsbury literati, moral purity campaigners and libertarian anarchists, fascists and anti-fascists, queers and heterosexuals, Italians, Jews, Greeks, Americans, Germans, Swiss, black GI’s and white Britons.

It was a place with permeable social barriers where new conventions and tolerances were negotiated, reflecting the high (and low) aspirations of the protagonists. Since the 1890s, when this study really comes into its own, Soho has been a spontaneous social experiment, an unregulated proving-ground for an emerging cosmopolitan identity, contributing to the heterogenous urban mix that now obtains throughout the capital and the rest of the country, with varying degrees of success. From the late Victorian era Soho developed at a tangent to bourgeois convention becoming, in Walkowitz's phrase 'a multiethnic polyglot settlement of many European diasporas' and she investigates the meaning of cosmopolitanism with brisk and lucid analyses of well-chosen subjects: Conrad's shabby anarchists in The Secret Agent; the erotic dancer Maud Allen, the queer patrons of Lyons Corner Houses (discreetly managed by trained Nippies); the well-connected 'nightclub queen' Mrs. Meyrick in whose lively Gerrard Street premises Rudolph Valentino was once mistaken for a waiter and a dance hostess died from an overdose of cocaine supplied by a Chinese restaurateur named Brilliant Chang); the Berwick Street market 'schleppers' (fast-talking rag-traders such as the corset seller Madame Birnberg with her magnificent cry of: 'It'll pull you in, duck!'), the influx of Fascists and their opponents in the 1930s, and Wardour Street's Shim Sham club, a taste of Harlem in the West End. 

If present-day Soho seems less distinctively non-conformist it's largely because the rest of the nation has caught up in terms of cultural diversity, sexual innovation, deli-awareness and day-long drinking. Relaxation of the licensing laws in 2005 has made Belchers of us all. 

Muriel Belcher herself doesn't appear in this book. She was the breathtakingly foul-mouthed proprietress of the Colony Room, a dingy upstairs joint with overpriced drinks, one of many private clubs catering for their thirsty members when the pubs closed for the afternoon. A few other surprising absentees are Julian Maclaren-Ross, the matchless wartime chronicler of Soho and Fitzrovia, Francis Bacon, the photographer John Deakin, Henrietta Moraes, Dylan Thomas, Jeffrey Bernard, and the students of nearby St. Martin's School of Art. But this is to quibble, and in any case they enjoy a boisterous afterlife in many other published accounts. Walkowitz concentrates productively on the period up to 1945, with a brief postscript considering the pivotal role of the Soho Society and Great Compton Street's re-invention as the Champs Élysées of gay culture. 

Wednesday 20 February 2013

Yankee Doodle Dancing

I've only just discovered, callow blogger that I am - and it's really very gratifying this - that I seem to have plenty of readers in the United States (or possibly one reader who repeatedly reads the same blogs and if it's you, you know who you are, and I thank you).

In fact for the past few days the number of US readers has outnumbered those in the UK. And we're talking a matter of dozens here, literally dozens.

What to do about this? A celebration of Anglo-American cultural kinship is clearly called for. And here it is:

Watch here:

A good friend of mine, originally from New York but now living in London, had never seen this clip until we watched it a few years ago, both spellbound. James Cagney (as the American George M. Cohan) and Bob Hope (a Brit, playing Eddie Foy), dancing on a table like there's no tomorrow in The Seven Little Foys (1955).

Cagney is one of the best dancers you're likely to see, ever. Even when he's not dancing, he's dancing.  He has such tremendous grace and energy and eagerness that even his stillness is a serene kind of choreography. Bob Hope can execute a lumbering soft shoe shimmy, but looks in comparison like a rhinoceros in a florists.

Tuesday 19 February 2013

Auden as Herod

King Herod mulls over the implications of the Incarnation of Christ. He doesn't like what the future has in store, in what might be called a post-secular age. Auden, in a sensational passage, gives Nostradamus a run for his money:

Reason will be replaced by Revelation. Instead of Rational Law, objective truths perceptible to any who will undergo the necessary intellectual discipline, Knowledge will degenerate into a riot of subjective visions - feelings in the solar plexus induced by under-nourishment, angelic images generated by fevers or drug, dream warnings inspired by the sound of falling water. Whole cosmogonies will be created out of some forgotten personal resentment, complete epics written in private languages, the daubs of schoolchildren ranked above the greatest masterpieces. 
Idealism will be replaced by Materialism. Priapus will only have to move to a good address and call himself Eros to become the darling of middle-aged women.  Life after death will be an eternal dinner party where all the guests are 20 years old. Diverted from its normal and wholesome outlet in patriotism and civic or family pride, the need of the materialistic Masses for some visible Idol to worship will be driven into totally unsocial channels where no education can reach it. Divine honours will be paid to silver teapots, shallow depressions in the earth, names on maps, domestic pets, ruined windmills, even in extreme cases, which will become increasingly common, to headaches, and malignant tumours, or four o'clock in the afternoon.
Justice will be replaced by Pity as the cardinal human virtue, and all fear of retribution will vanish. Every corner-boy will congratulate himself: 'I'm such a sinner that God had to come down in person to save me. I must be a devil of a fellow.' Every crook will argue: 'I like committing crimes. God likes forgiving them. Really the world is admirably arranged.' And the ambition of every young cop will be to secure a deathbed repentance. The New Aristocracy will consist exclusively of hermits, bums and permanent invalids. The Rough Diamond, the Consumptive Whore, the bandit who is good to his mother, the epileptic girl who has a way with animals will be the heroes and heroines of the New Tragedy when the general, the statesman, and the philosopher have become the butt of every farce and satire.

                                    W. H. Auden, For the Time Being, (London: Faber and Faber, 1945)

© The Estate of W. H. Auden

Saturday 16 February 2013

Stan and Ollie

On September 9, 1953, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, neither in good health, arrived by boat in the small harbour at Cobh, Ireland, after crossing the Atlantic on the first stage of what was to be their last ever tour together. Stan recounted their reception in his autobiography:

The love and affection we found that day at Cobh was simply unbelievable. There were hundreds of boats blowing whistles and mobs and mobs of people screaming on the docks. We just couldn't understand what it was all about. And then something happened that I can never forget. All the church bells in Cobh started to ring out our theme song and Babe [Oliver Hardy] looked at me and we cried. I'll never forget that day. Never.

I have a lump in my throat as I type this. 'All the church bells in Cobh'. They'd come by boat because they couldn't afford to fly. 

Here's a report from the following day's local newspaper

Thursday 14 February 2013

Ectoplasm, my dear Watson

Here's a thing:

Source: University of Manitoba, Archives and Special Collections, T. G. Hamilton Collection, Click here.

This is a picture of the renowned medium Mary Ann Marshall hard at work - the stuff appearing to come out of her nose is ectoplasm, buried within which is the face of the late Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, along with other less illustrious ectoplasmic personalities. Conan Doyle, a keen spiritualist, had passed over in 1930 and this photograph was taken soon after, when his shade obligingly put in a spectral appearance, although it's clearly a snapshot clipped from Reveille. I'm not sure where the Marshall image comes from - there's no copyright watermark or strap so any copyright claimant please let me know and I'll either stump up the fifteen quid (which I'm told is the market rate) or take down the image (and the whole blog, of course).

The term ectoplasm was first coined in the late 19th century (it's Greek for 'formed outside') and in its various reported textures and consistencies (dry/wet/fibrous/stringy/vaporous etc) reminds me of Lewis Carroll's description of the Snark:

"Come, listen, my men, while I tell you again
The five unmistakable marks
By which you may know, wheresoever you go,
The warranted genuine Snarks.

"Let us take them in order. The first is the taste,
Which is meager and hollow, but crisp:
Like a coat that is rather too tight in the waist,
With a flavour of Will-o-the-wisp."

Ectoplasm, which is an entirely imaginary substance, was usually some variant on butter muslin, or paper and egg white and cloth, which could be tightly bundled into a medium's body cavities and produced in a dimly-lit room (ectoplasm being conveniently light-sensitive) where suitably-primed credulants (if there's such a word, and there really should be, but if not let's call them gullible acolytes) would witness the materialisation of departed spirits, their faces (the spirits', that is) embedded in the spooky muck emerging from the medium (who was almost always a woman, for practical reasons).

Photographs of ectoplasmic evacuations have long fascinated me simply because they are so strange and because, paradoxically, it is their self-evident falseness that makes them somehow convincing - that 'flavour of Will-o-the-wisp'. The material has an alien appearance like a wasps' nest, or meerschaum, and one wonders what it would look like if it really existed. The troubling answer is that it might look exactly the same - meagre and hollow, but crisp. Are there any ecto-practitioners today?

The stuff reminds me also of Flaubert's preference for tinsel over silver, on the grounds that tinsel possessed all the qualities of silver but had one extra - poignancy.

Wednesday 13 February 2013

Million pound monster

This week's short film shows the magnificent R101, then the world's largest rigid airship, floating quietly over London then returning to its colossal hangar. The last two or three shots are wonderful. Here it is (and as you can see I've now discovered how to add live links):

The airship came a cropper soon after, but the extraordinary sheds at Cardington (near Bedford) are still in place and worth a visit. Built to house two giant airships they were (and for all I know remain) the largest structures of their kind. Some head-spinning images:

 While in Bedford you can also visit The Ark, a neat semi-detached Victorian house maintained since the end of the Great War by a tiny religious sect called The Panacea Society as a residence for the Messiah in the event of the Second Coming. Next door is a modest, well-tended allotment, believed by Panaceans to be the original site of the Garden of Eden. 

Rum place, Bedford.

Tuesday 12 February 2013

Monday 11 February 2013

Morbid obsession

This is becoming an obsession, and not a mild one.

I'm prompted by my 31st January blog Elizabeth David on Death Row to write some more about the last meals of condemned prisoners. What follows is culled and adapted from Wikipedia - something I have so far avoided on this blog (and in life generally) but some things are too good not to share and this stuff is all rather off-trail. 

In the United States, the tradition is usually to serve the meal a day or two before execution, and perhaps for that reason it's referred to as a 'special meal'. The real last meal is whatever they happen to have after that, if anything, on the day they are judicially slaughtered, and is therefore unlikely to be special (apart from the thought-provoking context, which I suppose loads any regulation prison slop with metaphysical resonance).

Traditions vary in different states. In Florida, the law dictates that the ingredients must be sourced locally, and the total budget is $40. This falls to just $15 in Oklahoma, which I suppose means sending a warder out to pick up a KFC Boneless Banquet for One. In Louisiana, the prison warden traditionally joins the condemned prisoner for the last meal; on one occasion, the warden (clearly a good egg) stumped up for an inmate's lobster dinner. Generally the choices are resolutely downbeat (burgers and fries and pizzas) and a surprisingly large number of prisoners waive their right to order something, settling for whatever happens to be on the prison menu. Others seize the day, and here are some examples:

Barton Kay Kirkham was executed in Utah in 1958. He had pizzas and ice cream, 'because you get cheese, meat and everything in one meal. Not so much fuss.' 

Victor Feguer, a drifter who murdered a doctor, was the last man to be executed in Iowa, in 1963. In a Firbankian gesture he requested a single olive with the stone still in it. He was given a new suit before he was hanged, and a second new suit was provided for his burial. When the suits were changed the olive stone was found in one of the pockets. 

Gary Gilmore (the only name in this list to ring any bells with me, and that thanks to a punk single by a band called - was it? - The Adverts) faced a firing squad, also in Utah, in 1977. His last meal was a hamburger, hard-boiled eggs, a baked potato, a few cups of coffee, and three shots of contraband Jack Daniel's whiskey.

Dennis Wayne Bagwell, executed in Texas in 2005, had a medium rare steak with A1 Steak Sauce, fried chicken breasts and thighs, BBQ ribs, French fries, onion rings, bacon, scrambled eggs with onions, fried potatoes with onions, sliced tomatoes, salad with ranch dressing, two hamburgers, peach pie, milk, coffee, and iced tea 'with real sugar'.

James Edward Smith, also executed in Texas in 1990, requested a lump of dirt. This was denied. so he settled for a cup of yogurt. If that seems like a downbeat occasion compare the chosen by Velma Barfield, executed by lethal injection for murder in North Carolina in 1984. She faced oblivion sustained by nothing more than a bag of Cheez Doodles and a 12-ounce can of Coca-Cola.

Something about Death Row management in Texas brings out the prankster in its inmates. In September 2011, the state ended the 87-year-old custom of granting all special meal requests after Lawrence Russell Brewer (a White Supremacist and even by Death Row standards a nasty piece of work) requested, and received, the following:

two chicken-fried steaks with gravy and sliced onions; 
a triple-patty bacon cheeseburger; a cheese omelet with ground beef, tomatoes, onions, bell peppers, and jalapeños; 
a bowl of fried okra with ketchup; 
one pound of barbecued meat with half a loaf of white bread; 
three fajitas; 
a meat-lover’s pizza (topped with pepperoni, ham, beef, bacon, and sausage); 
one pint of Blue Bell Ice Cream; 
a slab of peanut-butter fudge with crushed peanuts; 
three non-alcoholic root beers. 

Once it was delivered he flatly refused to touch any of it on the grounds that he wasn't hungry. The abolition followed a complaint by a Texas Senator, the Houston Democrat John Whitmire, who called the meal 'inappropriate'. Brewer was killed by lethal injection.

Thomas J. Grasso, executed in Oklahoma in 1995, was an exemplary trencherman: two dozen steamed mussels, two dozen steamed clams, a double cheeseburger from Burger King, a half-dozen barbecued spare ribs, two strawberry milkshakes, half a pumpkin pie with whipped cream and diced strawberries and a 16-ounce can of spaghetti with meatballs (and this made me ponder) served at room temperature In the short time left to him between the special meal blow-out and the final curtain he issued a public statement complaining that he had requested SpaghettiOs, not spaghetti. 

And finally, Ronnie Lee Gardner, executed in Utah in 2010, tucked into Lobster tail, steak, apple pie, vanilla ice cream, 7-Up and a screening of The Lord of the Rings film trilogy.

This opens a whole new line of enquiry. Unless I wind up on Death Row in Texas or Oklahoma, where different priorities and lower budgets prevail, I'd plump for  three dozen Whitstables, a crate of Nigerian export Guinness, brown bread and butter, a family-size bar of Cadbury's Fruit & Nut chocolate and the Sgt. Bilko box set. Of course there's nothing to prevent me from doing this anyway. And with cigarettes.

Sunday 10 February 2013

Ivory Towers

Unpacking cases of books prompts gloomy reflections about the poets I haven't read, and will never get around to reading; then of those poems I suppose I must have read many years ago, but have now entirely forgotten - Dryden's Absalom and Achitophel, say, which squats there on the top shelf, gazing down at me reproachfully. Who are the poets I haven't read yet, or even heard of? Where to begin? And how long have I got? 

Of course it's never been easier to catch up, what with online resources and specialist websites and even a few remaining bookshops and libraries, although I get the impression that reading serious poetry (and you'll know what I mean by that) is these days rather infra dig. It goes against the commercial and consumerist thrust of our times. More people, one suspects, write poetry than read it, and either activity is seen as an ivory tower pursuit, and who in their right minds wants to live in an ivory tower? I do, as it happens, and we'll get to that in a moment.

It was the critic Charles-Augustin Saint-Beuve who first used the phrase, and pejoratively, in his 1837 poem Pensées d’Août, à M. Villemain, comparing the poetry of Alfred de Vigny with that of the more socially engaged Victor Hugo. ('Et Vigny, plus secret, comme en as tour d’ivoire, avant midi rentrait.'). What Hugo didn't know at the time was that Saint-Beuve would later conduct an energetic affair with his wife, Adele. What Saint-Beuve didn't know at the time was that de Vigny would later inherit his mother's estate near Angoulême, take up residence in a literal tour d'ivoire and there write La Maison du berger, regarded by Proust as the greatest French poem of the 19th century. (Proust's apartment on Boulevard Haussmann was a cork-lined variant on an ivory tower, not least in its enveloping silence and hermetic enclosure, its confident denial of the metropolis.) 

Proust disagreed profoundly with Saint-Beuve's view that literature can best be judged through a knowledge of an author's personal circumstances and historical context, and to prove the point wrote Contre Saint-Beuve (published posthumously) which championed the aesthetic perspective briskly summed up by Flaubert in a letter to Georges Sand: 'l'Homme n'est Rien l'Oeuvre Tout'. This is often misquoted, and not only by the English.

Both Proust and de Vigny clearly found their private sancta productive and congenial environments and we, their beneficiaries, can hardly grumble at their retreat from the world. Before reading any further you should track down images of de Vigny's bolt-hole, the Manoir du Maine Giraud. It's a serene refuge, the tower itself attached to a spellbindingly lovely single-storey 18th century house, with views over a tree-shaded garden courtyard. Who wouldn't want to shack up in a cool and airy room, lined with books and pictures and (expanding the fantasy), a magnificent cellar and an even-tempered chef?

By the revolutionary year of 1848 Saint-Beuve's pejorative usage had become commonplace in French. The Parnassian poet Leconte de Lisle, visiting Brittany to rally support before the impending election, found himself stranded in Dinon and disowned by his faction. A contemporary described the result of this setback thus: 'The missionary returned home disgusted with action and ever after kept his revolutionary faith, with his other dreams, under lock and key in his ivory tower.' an image  here combining disillusion, loss of faith, political inaction and a retreat from reality. Residence in an ivory tower is also depicted as an evasion of one's true nature, the occupant a dissembling Rapunzle.

Saint-Beuve's phrase has, confusingly, two Biblical sources. The first comes from the Song of Solomon (7:4): 'Your neck is like an ivory tower'. This is a symbol of purity and nothing at all to do with intellectual self-absorption. (It's also a rotten image, and reminds me of those schoolboy jokes: "Your eyes are like petals. Bicycle petals".) The second source, in the First Book of Kings (7:5), describes the dead King Ahab's palace as 'inlaid with ivory' and this, lexicographers agree, is the more likely origin of the phrase as used by Saint-Beuve. 

Some hard-to-follow logic linked ostentatious architectural decoration with elective intellectual retreat from the world, and while the 'tower' makes sense as a symbol of isolation, I can't see why ivory (of all things) has to embody or express this value - it's a rather unromantic material, associated with teeth and tusks, of course, but also with such humble applications as piano keys, dice, dominoes, billiard balls and the prosthetic leg of the Pequod's captain, which explains Melville's use of the name. 

The figurative sense of ivory tower is a late arrival in English, first appearing in Brereton and Rothwell's 1911 translation of Henri Bergson’s Le Rire. Essai sur la signification du comique [Laughter: an essay on the meaning of the comic]:

Il faut que chacun de ses membres reste attentif à ce qui l’environne […] évite enfin de s’enfermer dans son caractère ainsi que dans une tour d’ivoire. Et c’est pourquoi elle fait planer sur chacun, sinon la menace d’une correction, du moins la perspective d’une humiliation qui, pour être légère, n’en est pas moins redoutée. 

[Each member must be ever attentive to his social surroundings . . . he must avoid shutting himself up in his own peculiar character as a philosopher in his ivory tower.Therefore society holds suspended over each individual member the threat, at all events the prospect of a snubbing, which although it is slight, is none the less dreaded.]

The prospect of a slight snubbing (a rather mild rendering of 'humiliation', don't you think?) seems to me a small price to pay for a timeshare in such a gorgeous cell. My current surroundings, though far from intolerable, aren't a patch on de Vigny's, which would be the perfect setting in which to re-read Absalom and Achitophel. Poetry, as we are constantly reminded in regular and jocular campaigns, is for everyone, not just a fuddy-duddy cultivated elite. Who in their senses would dare to argue otherwise? Well I would. A more thoughtful position is that poetry (like all the arts) should be for anyone

As the very idea of a private life led in a private space is assaulted by phone-hacking, CCTV, noise pollution, invasive marketing and the assumption that nobody should be left to their own devices, the ivory tower option is increasingly attractive. Like a well-appointed bedsit, it's designed for single occupation - there's no room for Connolly's dreaded 'pram in the hall' because there's no hall. In fact there's no family life at all, no distraction from the sustained interrogation of whatever arcane subject most absorbs the dweller (and one always 'dwells' in an ivory tower). The only interruption to the contemplative life would (in my scenario) be superb meals and occasional medical check-ups. No daily commute, no queues at the check-out, no mayoral elections, no coalition, no celebrity culture . . . am I selling this to you? Aspiring tower dwellers may contribute to, but will not find much fulfilment in, our cultural mainstream. A Tower would not, I think, accommodate a television. I admire The Wire but I don't need well-paid actors to persuade me that things could be better in Baltimore. And I've not read much of Henry James come to that, but I know where my cultural allegiances and priorities lie, or at least should lie, when offered a choice between Downton Abbey and Washington Square. So, not telly. James died before completing a novel entitled, as it happens, The Ivory Tower, and I may as well own up to a long-standing evasion of 'The Master' - that awe-inspiring nom de plume has put me off for decades. I await a well-earned snubbing from his readers.

The present day equivalent of the ivory tower is less exclusive and marks the place where privilege and sense of entitlement meet - the air-conditioned stretch limo, that plug-ugly symbol of success and fame available to all, briefly, and for a price. The occupants are shrieking Rapunzels, forever letting their hair down. The millionaire footballer in his gated Cheshire estate and the dodgy oligarch on his super yacht have both retreated from the affairs of the world, though without an ambitious intellectual agenda, yet their isolation (and threat of litigation) attracts general approval and admiration from our media. Academics, on the other hand, far from enjoying the productive seclusion of uninterrupted tenure, are routinely derided for their snooty and impractical other-worldliness and subjected to the bean-counting indignity of the Research Excellence Framework, measuring the 'impact' of their work on the outside world through appearances in the media. Wittgenstein wouldn't get a look-in when it comes to churning out publications or nattering to Melvyn on In Our Time. But of course he's no Professor Lisa Jardine.

A view that seldom gets an airing because, on a first reading. it seems to endorse elitism, is that ivory towers are not about isolation, they're about individual difference, about diversity - something we are enjoined constantly to celebrate. 

Friday 8 February 2013

Last meals

Talking of the condemned man's last meal (see 31st January's blog 'Elizabeth David on Death Row') I suppose it's not only the content of the morbid nosh-up that's of interest, but also the venue. 

Prisoners facing execution presumably eat their last meal in their cell, or in a cell adjoining the room where the sentence is to be carried out, by gas or needle or electric chair (and it strikes me as likely that whatever dishes are served will be liberally sprinkled with a powerful sedative, and that perhaps this is  why a last meal - traditionally described as a 'hearty' one - has become part of the ritual). So the question is: 'where would you choose to eat your last meal?' assuming, that is, you're not actually on Death Row.

The restaurant of a Cunard liner; a wagon lit speeding along the Riviera to Menton? Both, ideally in the 1920s. Or in an airship gondola over 1930s New York. Or perhaps - a shade more realistically - a corner table in St John, Clerkenwell, or (yes!) the courtyard of the Manoir du Maine Giraud.

The last of these will feature in tomorrow's blog.

Wednesday 6 February 2013

About Félix Fénéon

Félix Fénéon (1861 - 1944) was an anarchist, a dandy, the editor of Rimbaud's Illuminations, the first publisher of James Joyce in French, an influential art critic (he discovered Seurat and came up with the the term 'neo-impressionism'), a brilliant literary journalist and - this is the point - an anonymous hack responsible for short news items appearing throughout 1906 in the daily newspaper Le Matin

He developed and perfected a technique of condensing regional news items into miracles of compression, deadpan wit and surreal melancholy. They were first assembled in 1940 but only appeared in English as recently as 2007. They're best read in quantity, so do try and find a copy of Novels in Three Lines (Nouvelles en trois lignes), a collection of around a thousand of these faits divers, edited and brilliantly translated by Luc Sante. (Publication details at the end of this blog.)

Fénéon's concise reports are mostly, though not exclusively, about murder, suicide, adultery, robbery, political conflict and lunacy. The cumulative effect over many pages and hundreds of disasters is mesmerising.

Some examples:

There was a gas explosion at the home of Larrieux, in Bordeaux. He was injured. His mother-in-law's hair caught on fire. The ceiling caved in.

Nurse Elise Bachmann, whose day off was yesterday, put on a public display of insanity.

Scheid, of Dunkirk, fired three times at his wife. Since he missed every shot, he decided to aim at his mother-in-law, and connected.

Scratching himself with a revolver with an overly sensitive trigger, M. Edouard B. removed the tip of his nose in the Vivienne precinct house.

He had bet he could drink 15 absinthes in succession while eating a kilo of beef. After the ninth, Theophile Papin, of Ivry, collapsed.

Louis Lamarre had neither job nor home, but he did possess a few coins. At a grocery store in Saint-Denis he bought a litre of kerosene and drank it.

Novels in Three Lines, edited and translated by Luc Sante. © The New York Review of Books. ISBN: 9781590172308

The original French versions can be found here:

An excellent London Review of Books article on FF by Julian Barnes is here:

Tuesday 5 February 2013

Horace de Vere Cole - prankster

The brouhaha surrounding the Australian DJs whose dim prank led to the suicide of a troubled and vulnerable nurse seems to have subsided, or faded, or whatever it is that brouhahas do. At least it's no longer a daily concern for those of us not directly involved. Pranks and their aftermath were the subject of my unpublished review of The Sultan of Zanzibar – The bizarre world and spectacular hoaxes of Horace de Vere Cole by Martyn Downer (Black Spring Press):

Practical jokes, and the jokers who perpetrate them, are never funny. Against the odds Martyn Downer has produced a deeply absorbing account of Horace de Vere Cole, ‘prince of jokers’, who organised the once-famous Dreadnought hoax, in which he and some Bloomsbury cronies (including Virginia Woolf, between mental breakdowns) blacked up as Abyssinian royalty and duped the Commander-in-Chief of the Royal Navy into giving them a tour of his flagship.

Virginia Woolf (extreme left) and Horace de Vere Cole (extreme right) ready to
perpetrate the Dreadnought hoax, posing beforehand at a London photographic salon.

The jape lasted around an hour and caused a good deal of fuss but, despite the best efforts of de Vere Cole, never quite matured into a scandal. His life was thereafter to consist of interminable pranks punctuated by hopeless love affairs, and a cultivated lack of seriousness that in time became his defining characteristic. A buffoonish Old Etonian who appealed to readers of the Daily Express, he would be at home in today's celebrity culture at a point where privilege, chutzpah and gormless irresponsibility intersect. He would also by now be Lord Mayor of London and the bookie's favourite for future Prime Minister

Born to great wealth (his grandfather might be described as a quinine baron), he combined lengthy periods of affluent idleness with an energetic commitment to Socialist (or at least Fabian) causes. Of Anglo-Irish ancestry, he was ever the privileged fringe-dweller, never really at the centre of things. He haunted rowdy music halls in pursuit of teenage chorus girls and was a fixture at the Café Royal, along with a host of now mostly-forgotten names. He was a bully and sentimentalist, enjoying spiteful feuds with (among many others) Jacob Epstein. 

de Vere Cole was a very odd fish. Downer’s optimistic claim is that the pranks form part of a pre-war cultural continuum that encompasses Surrealism, Dada, Vorticism and Futurism, all of which movements involved subversion, violent reversals and the predictable urge to shake up a complacent bourgeoisie. Of course the impending carnage of the Great War trenches puts all these movements into perspective and de Vere Cole’s antics have acquired a particularly bleak and pointless air, summed up in a telling sentence:

‘With his friends dying at the front [sic], Horace kept up the frenzied partying’.

Even the best of his pranks tend to hover at the good-enough-for-Punch ‘collapse of stout party' level. There is a certain antic energy and inventiveness at play but, despite Downer’s eloquent championing, can de Vere Cole really take his place alongside Ezra Pound, Wyndham Lewis and the other big beasts of modernism? 

‘Sudden collapses, playing dead, loud farting and scatological outbursts were his new method of provocation’. 

This was at the age of thirty-two, and there were decades more of this behaviour to come. There is nevertheless, and despite the desperation of the man's weird lust for notoriety, much to enjoy in the author’s well-written account of a rather sad life, which ended in abject poverty and social isolation. The brief appearance of Dick Innes and the hilarious description by Oliver St John Gogarty of Horace’s Catholic wedding are both outstanding recreations of a fugitive moment. 

Monday 4 February 2013

'Getting known'

'Getting known' - another line from Krapp's Last Tape, as the wearish old man reflects glumly on the sales (not at all high) of his book.

Three weeks on this blog now has (indeed boasts) thoughtful and attractive readers in Britain, the United States, Canada, Japan, Germany, Malaysia, Russia, the Czech Republic and the Ukraine. I'm not sure how this all works but there appear to be many of you. Hundreds.

And what a helter-coaster, roller-skelter white knuckle ride it's been! From those early days - remember them? - when a handful of primed initiates read about Auden's wish to be roasted and eaten after death, to yesterday's entry on whatever the hell it was. A reg'lar charivari.

I have no shortage of eloquent balls at my disposal but I don't want to badger you unless you're eager to be badgered. So here's what I'd like you to do if you want to have daily doses -

a) bookmark and you can then read all my perpetrations at your leisure and in the comfort of your own mind.

b) become a follower. I have no followers as yet, and am not sure in what way having them might go to my head. You could be the first or among the first. Imagine how satisfying that will be. I mean, just think. There were only twelve apostles, you know. It just goes to show.

Come February I plan to change the name of the blog from Salvete! to something else entirely, something more crowd-pulling, more come-all-ye, and without the exclamation mark.

Sunday 3 February 2013

Good evening

For Annie Janowitz

The clocks turned back the night before and so

Arriving late (a thing I hate), 

That dim-lit Sunday afternoon,

I sat there in the bright, low-ceilinged hall

Waiting to hear my friend Professor Janowitz

Tell all of us about her man Newton, 

And the Poetic Sublime

Her drawly voice, unamplified 

Mid-century Manhattan, 

Late of Muswell Hill and Barbican,

Treated competently of space, of time,

Surrounded by her departmental peers,

All charming folk, all making notes, 

And me (a bloke), inadequate,

Adopting a pose of serene entitlement

Without a pen, pencil, paper or a clue 

Apart from Auden's line about

That apple, 'falling towards England',

Was pleased to see my pal so easily work the room.

‘The guy was a guy’, she says, by way of

Hermaneutic.  We try and get it straight away,

And ripple approvingly, as if to say

The Principia Mathematica gets our vote

And makes us all feel good about our lot,

Thanks to her graft and insight, eloquence and tact. 

Questions were lobbed, sliced back with ease,

Calling on Milton, Anna Barbauld, a French savant

Whose name I didn't catch, and others, many others. 

Scores were gently settled, things broke up

And some of us then went for supper in a pub.

I had pork belly, roast parsnips and red wine,

And talked more than I listened

And having split our bill we all went out into the cold 

Dark night, paired off in huddled bundles

To walk along the Mile End Road.

Above our little group the old white stars,

Unseen beyond our city sodium,

Were still there for the knowing,

Glittering as they always have to do.

Later, fumbling with the key, I looked up,

Launching half-cut thoughts through

The firmament, the swerve, the cosmos if you will 

And ending up, but knowingly, alone.