Saturday 28 June 2014


The centenary, today, of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife by Gavrilo Princip in Sarajevo.

Here's his gun:

We're about to enter years - years - of Great War commemoration. It certainly won't be over by Christmas. How, though, do we mark (say) the outbreak of the Battle of the Somme? What kind of event is appropriately solemn and momentous?

And what's planned for the centenary Armistice Day on 11 November 2018? And (this troubles me) what happens after that?

And what if (it's hardly beyond the realms of probability) a Senior Royal happens to die at some point in our four-year marathon remembrance? We'd all be plunged even deeper into mourning - on top of the commemorations. What then?

Thursday 26 June 2014

Martin Amis on James Joyce

If you go to Nabokov’s house, metaphorically speaking, you get his best chair, in front of his fire, with his best wine. If you go to James Joyce’s house, you come into this big drafty edifice, and there’s no one there. And then you find him tinkering around in some scullery. And he offers you two slabs of peat around a conger eel, and a glass of mead.

Wednesday 25 June 2014

Beckett again

What! You are giving up your Queen? Sheer madness!

The image on this comic postcard - German, I think - was what Beckett wanted to adorn the cover of his 1938 novel Murphy (and why on earth has no publisher to date ever respected his wishes?).

As readers of this blog will all know the novel includes a bizarre game of chess between the eponymous Murphy and the schizophrenic Mr. Endon, an inmate at the Magdalen Mental Mercyseat, where Murphy has found a job as a nurse. The game is set out in annotated form in the book and some enterprising chess buff has recently created a useful animated version, which can be seen here, on a website dedicated to chess in literature

I've long believed (on the strength of a reference in James Knowlson's definitive Beckett biography) that Beckett played chess occasionally with Marcel Duchamp. This was emphatically denied by Duchamp's widow in 1991, but see what you make of this fascinating unpublished article by Andrew Hugill.

Postcard image © whoever owns it.

Tuesday 24 June 2014


One hundred years ago yesterday, on 23 June 1914, the poet Edward Thomas was a passenger on the  Oxford to Worcester express which stopped 'unwontedly' at the remote rural station of Adlestrop

He wrote a poem about the moment. We used to have to learn this by heart at school, and why on earth not?


Yes. I remember Adlestrop

The name, because one afternoon

Of heat, the express-train drew up there

Unwontedly. It was late June.

The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat.

No one left and no one came

On the bare platform. What I saw

Was Adlestrop—only the name

And willows, willow-herb, and grass,

And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,

No whit less still and lonely fair

Than the high cloudlets in the sky.

And for that minute a blackbird sang

Close by, and round him, mistier,

Farther and farther, all the birds

Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.

Five days later the Bosnian Serb Gavrilo Princep shot and killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand  of Austria and his wife, Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg, in Sarajevo.

Friday 20 June 2014

Marie Osmond and Dada

Reading the novel Flametti by Hugo Ball, soon to be published in English for the first time. It's a fascinating period piece about a ramshackle theatre troupe performing in neutral Switzerland during the Great War.

Ball, a German poet resident in Zurich, was co-founder (with Tristan Tzara) of the Dada movement and performed on stage at the short-lived Cabaret Voltaire. This place was the Burgess Shale of modernist performance art - and its cultural impact is still with us, all the time, for good or ill.

Of all the strange things to be found on the internet this, I think, is the strangest: Marie Osmond (of the Osmond Family) delivering one of Ball's trailblazing sound poems straight to camera (and doing it really well). It's like seeing Jimmy Tarbuck read passages from Finnegans Wake (and doing it really well).

Watch it here

Tuesday 17 June 2014

Verlaine in Lincolnshire


The entire Wikipedia entry for the tiny village of Stickney in Lincolnshire reads thus:

Stickney is a linear village and civil parish in the East Lindsey district of Lincolnshire, England. It is situated on the A16 road, 8 miles (13 km) north of Boston and 10 miles (16 km) south-east from Horncastle, and at the centre of the Lincolnshire Fens. The parish church is dedicated to Saint Luke. Local amenities include the Rising Sun public house and a miniature railway. William Lovell CE Secondary Modern School and Stickney Primary School are on Main Road. Stickney is in the middle of the main bus route between Spilsby and Boston, which runs down the A16. Stickney was home to the famous Priscilla Biggadike who was accused of murdering her husband later executed and then was found innocent.

For some reason the village's most famous resident  - more famous even than Priscilla Biggadike - isn't mentioned. Paul Verlaine lived and worked here in 1875, teaching French, Latin and drawing at William Lovell's school. He had spent eighteen months in prison for shooting and wounding his lover Rimbaud and, when released in January that year, considered becoming a Trappist monk before deciding (the next best thing?) to become a school master in England. He came to London, registered with an employment agency and was soon heading north to this remote and, on the face of it, inhospitable backwater.

More on this to follow . . .

Monday 16 June 2014

Bloomsday blog

The 'Aeolus' episode of Ulysses opens with a description of the Dublin City Council's tramway terminus by O'Connell Bridge, the hub of what was in 1906 the most modern and complex system in Europe. Here it is, with all its wonderful urban bustle:


Before Nelson's pillar trams slowed, shunted, changed trolley, started for Blackrock, Kingstown and Dalkey, Clonskea, Rathgar and Terenure, Palmerston Park and upper Rathmines, Sandymount Green, Rathmines, Ringsend and Sandymount Tower, Harold's Cross. The hoarse Dublin United Tramway Company's timekeeper bawled them off:
—Rathgar and Terenure!
—Come on, Sandymount Green!
Right and left parallel clanging ringing a doubledecker and a singledeck moved from their railheads, swerved to the down line, glided parallel.
—Start, Palmerston Park!

Between 1938 and 1940 the trams - all 330 of them - were decommissioned and replaced with 220 double-decker buses built by the Leyland Company in England whose promotional slogan could have come from the pages of Finnegans Wake:  ‘When you bury a tram, mark the spot with a Titan’. 

Of the  countless books inspired by Ulysses the most engagingly eccentric is surely The Bloomsday Trams: Dublin's Tramway Fleet of James Joyce's Ulysses, by David Foley. M. A.. The author modestly admits in his introduction that he 'was unprepared for how difficult this task was to become' although he is is undaunted by any slight reputation Joyce may have established as a tramway expert. The first chapter lists 'those tramway references that need explanation and in some cases correction from Joyce'. 

The most startling fact (and there are many) is that Dublin trams carried symbols instead of numbers from 1903 to 1922 - presumably to cater for the illiterate.  Here they are in all their baffling glory - and I wonder if there's any connection to the cryptic sigla of Finnegans Wake?

Saturday 14 June 2014

Jimmy Scott RIP

Jimmy Scott, who died tis week aged 88, had a unique voice as a result of a vanishingly rare genetic condition called Kallmann syndrome. He was a male contralto. Listen here to an early recording of Someone to Watch Over Me and wonder.

Wednesday 11 June 2014

You heard it here first

I blogged twice last year about Eimear McBride's A Girl is a Half-formed Thinghere and here.

Below is a selection of recent reviews of a novel that has now won (or 'scooped') the inaugural Goldsmiths Prize, the 2014 Kerry Prize and (last week) the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction (beating the bookmakers' favourite, Donna Tartt) and which is currently shortlisted for the prestigious Desmond Elliot Prize. It's published in the United States by Coffee House Press in September this year and I urge American readers of this blog to find out for themselves why this little book has generated such excitement over here.

Eimear McBride is that old fashioned thing, a genius, in that she writes truth-spilling, uncompromising and brilliant prose. (Anne Enright Guardian)

A virtuosic debut: subversive, passionate, and darkly alchemical. Read it and be changed. (Eleanor Catton)

It is, in a single word, breathtaking. (Nicola Barker)

Addressed to her brother, the entire narrative is constructed in half-strung sentences, devoid of commas or dialogue demarcations but abounding in full-stops. This fragmented syntax is never self-conscious; rather it powerfully heightens the narrator's permanently fraught emotions and coheres into an immensely arresting novel. McBride is fully deserving of all her accolades; the question now is what she can produce next. (Sunday Times, Pick of the paperbacks)

A remarkable, harshly satisfying first novel. (Adam Mars-Jones London Review of Books)

A novel that redefines the novel - that not only takes us on an emotionally dense rollercoaster ride through the perils of intimacy and family life, but delivers the whole extraordinary story in a syntax that is flat out new and terrifyingly and wondrously imaginative. (Kirsty Gunn Herald Scotland)

A remarkable achievement. (John Boland Irish Independent)

A brutal and brilliant debut ... This book will arouse powerful emotions in anyone who accords it the respect of reading with attention. (John P O'Sullivan Sunday Times Ireland)

McBride's Joycean inventiveness depicts the girl's entire self, the prose cutting through to her feelings, impressions, thoughts and half-thoughts. The short, choppy sentences, and the novel's bleak vision are also reminiscent of Samuel Beckett. (Joanne Hayden Sunday Post)

This is a simply brilliant book ... emotionally raw and at the same time technically astounding. McBride's prose is as haunting and moving as music, and the love story at the heart of the novel as true and wrenching as any in literature. (Elizabeth McCracken)

The author's use of language is so unique, so instantly inimitable that McBridean deserves to be an adjective ... Writing like this doesn't come about too often, and when it does it should be lauded. (Toby Lichtig New Humanist)

The virtuoso violence of McBride's expression feels instinctive rather than artful, the only way to tell a story that can hardly bear to be told ... A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing is a familiar Irish tale told in transfigured Irish style, a lyrical prose-poem on horror and human endurance. (Alexandra Coghlan Monthly)

Do read this book. Message ends.