Tuesday 30 September 2014

On Pelagius

W. H. Auden wrote a marvellously sardonic poem (published in 1965) called 'On the Circuit, which begins thus:

Among pelagian travelers,
Lost on their lewd conceited way
To Massachusetts, Michigan,
Miami or L.A.,

An airborne instrument I sit,
Predestined nightly to fulfill
Unfathomable will,

By whose election justified,
I bring my gospel of the Muse
To fundamentalists, to nuns,
to Gentiles and to Jews,

And daily, seven days a week,
Before a local sense has jelled,
From talking-site to talking-site
Am jet-or-prop-propelled.

It's a droll account of how it is to be whisked from one venue to another on a treadmill of well-paid personal appearances. Hear the poet read it here.

'Pelagian'? From Pelagius (c. 390-418 AD) was an ascetic and heretic. He may have been British (as St Augustine claimed)  but Jerome ridiculed him as a "Scot" ("habet enim progeniem Scoticae gentis de Britannorum vicinia"), who being "stuffed with Scottish porridge" (Scotorum pultibus proegravatus) suffered from a poor memory. 

But the 'Scots' at that time were really the Irish, leaving is none the wiser. 

He was tall and portly ("grandis et corpulent us" according to Jerome), highly educated, spoke and wrote Latin as well as Greek fluent and was an adept theologian. St. Augustine, no less, admiringly called him a "saintly man" ('vid sanctus'). He was at the heart of what we now call the Pelagian heresy . . . but I can see you're glancing at your watch.

© The Estate of W. H. Auden

Monday 29 September 2014

O God, O Montreal!

Not Montreal but Vancouver, actually. 

I had an email a few days from a good friend, a retired English publisher who lives in that Canadian city, in which he said, with customary drollness:

       Today I discovered that a "Literary Festival" in Vancouver will feature 177 local writers.

It does seem an awful lot of writers, doesn't it? 

This event is officially known as Vancouver Writers Festival (without an apostrophe) so I suppose one wouldn't expect a surfeit of choreographers or architects. A large number of them come, quite understandably from British Columbia, Quebec and Ontario, but I was interested to see which writers will be representing Britain. There are seven of them, it turns out, and here they are, alphabetically: 

Esther Freud
Nick Grey
Rebecca Mead
Eimear McBride
Kate Pullinger
Sarah Waters
Robert Paul Weston

Confusingly they're all described as being from the United Kingdom, while Louise Welsh, listed separately, is said to hail from Scotland and is the only writer thus identified. The sole Irish writer is Colm Tóibín.

Eimear McBride is the main attraction, and I see she's sharing a platform with Norway's Karl Ove Knausgaard, which I suppose is a close as we'll get in our century to an encounter between Joyce and Ibsen. That sounds like a hot ticket. (Do, by the way, read James Wood's startling New Yorker review of McBride's debut A Girl is a Half-formed Thing.)

My Canadian friend added, by way of a sucker punch:

        I also discovered that Auden's and Lowell's "Collected" are in Compact Shelving. This where 
        Bulwer Lytton, Churton Collins and all the other authors that get no calls are housed, in storage.

So there you have it. Hundreds of writers swarm over Vancouver, a city where there's apparently no demand from readers for Auden and Lowell. There's a useful definition of post-modernism for you. But I was cheered to discover that there is at least a town called Auden near Ontario. This is in a region called (I'm not making this up) the Unorganized Thunder Bay District.  See here. It's not much of a town, and the railroad station appears to consist of nothing more than a signpost with the word AUDEN. It makes Black Rock look like Grand Central.

Sunday 28 September 2014

On twats

Four well-known lines from Robert Browning's 1842 poem 'Pippa Passes':
     Then, owls and bats,
     Cowls and twats,
     Monks and nuns, in a cloister's moods,     
     Adjourn to the oak-stump pantry.

As every schoolboy used to know, Browning mistakenly believed that 'twat' was simply another word for a nun's headgear, for a wimple. This was not the case. Twat meant then what it means now, a vulgar synonym for the human vulva, possibly derived from Old Norse 'þveit' meaning 'cut', 'slit', or, (cough), 'forest clearing'.

I found out today that Browning's howler probably arose from his misunderstanding of a line in a satirical poem from 1660 called Vanity of Vanities: 'They talk't of his having a Cardinalls Hat / They'd send him as soon an Old Nuns Twat.' 

(The novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton apparently thought a twat was a tadpole. You can look this up for yourself).

'Twat' is a less offensive word than some, although our Prime Minster 'Dave' Cameron was criticised for using the term during a radio interview on 29 July 2009, when he said, with a sudden access of wit:

           The trouble with Twitter, the instantness of it – too many twits might make a twat.

What a twit.

Incidentally 'twitter' appears several times as a euphemism for menstruation in Gerald Kersh's 1957 comic novel Fowler's End. I've never come across any other example of this possibly unique usage. 

Saturday 27 September 2014

Nairn's London by Routemaster - BOOK TODAY

Tickets, please!
Nairn's London by Routemaster
Sunday 30 November 2014 

In association with the 

Adults £30 Children (aged 5-16)  £15  (Children under 5 travel free)
Family ticket (2 adults + 2 children) £80
Pensioners/full-time students/unemployed  £20 


(Online booking from midday on Wednesday 1 October)

"The way to come on St Paul's is along Fleet Street, and the way to go along Fleet Street is on top of a bus."  - Ian Nairn

A unique bus tour marking the Penguin Books reissue of Nairn's London and celebrating the life and work of Ian Nairn (1930-1983) Britain's greatest topographical writer.

Our Routemaster bus (CUV 217C) is the very same vehicle that appears on the cover of the 1966 Penguin paperback Nairn's London, with the author seated in its cab.

Ian Nairn at the wheel of our bus

Assemble from 10am on Sunday 30th November.  Bus leaves at 11am sharp. The tour will end at around 4.30pm in an appropriate central London location with a talk by the distinguished architectural historian Professor Gavin Stamp, a panel discussion with Nairn biographers Gillian Darley and David McKiecontributions from authors Travis Elborough and Simon Okotie, readings, signings, screenings, and drinks. 

The provisional route includes:

The Whitechapel Bell Foundry         The Barbican and Golden Square    
Bevis Marks synagogue                       Leadenhall Market & Lloyds building
Hill & Evans vinegar warehouse        Postman's Park
Cloth Fair and West Smithfield        Bart's Hospital
Farringdon and Holborn Viaduct      Chancery Lane
Fleet Street                                          Ludgate Hill                                          
St Paul's Cathedral                              Cheapside                                 
Bank of England                                   Royal Exchange
St Ethelburga's church                       Christ Church, Spitalfields 
King's Cross and York Way               Surprise final destination!

  A detailed programme will be available on the day. 

Small print

A cautionary note from the Arriva Heritage Fleet:

Our buses are thoroughly and professionally maintained to the same stringent standards as the modern vehicles providing services today, but as the vehicle in question is now three times its expected life span I am sure you can appreciate that occasionally circumstances work against us.

I'm assured that we'll get RM2217 (the original Nairn's London bus) but in the event of substitution no refunds will be forthcoming. In the unlikely event of cancellation full refunds will be payable.

We may on the day have to change the route to reflect local conditions (roadworks, closures, marches, etc). 

Smoking is not allowed on the bus or in any of the venues included on the tour. Nairn would hate this.

Dogs are not allowed.

Children with an interest in the built environment are welcome (and we have concessionary and family rates). Children under 5 travel free (on a grown up's lap).

Tickets will not be available on the day and must be booked in advance online via the Eventbrite site. There is a small booking fee. If you find you have to cancel your booking please let us know in good time (there's bound to be a waiting list) and we'll do our best to organise a refund.

Seating capacity is sixty and there will be no standing room. We cannot reserve specific seats (unless for mobility reasons you require the lower deck bench seats next to the rear platform).

Cameras (or equivalent gadgets) may prove useful. You might bring some money also - books at discounted rates will be on sale at the final venue, with authors on hand to sign them. We shan't be able to accept credit or debit cards.

Lunch: This will be in West Smithfield with three options:

          a pub lunch in Cloth Fair (next to the former home of Sir John Betjeman)
          no end of local coffee shops and cafes in nearby Clerkenwell
          in the Museum of London cafe (five minutes' walk from West Smithfield)
You may prefer to bring a packed lunch and thermos (or hip) flask. If the weather is good Postman's Park is nearby, and the Museum of London even closer (with a cafe and lavatories). There's also the lovely graveyard of St Barts the Greater.

There will be three perambulations (some involving cobbled streets), so dress for that, and for London in late November. Best to wear walking shoes. 

There are public lavatories at the meeting point, at Bevis Marks synagogue, West Smithfield, Christ Church Spitalfields and the final venue. There are also loos at the Museum of London (if you have lunch under cover there). Parents/guardians with small children may need to plan accordingly.

If you have a copy of the original 1966 Penguin edition of Nairn's London do bring it along - there will be prizes for the most and least battered and annotated copies.

We'll also have a traditional whip round at the end of the afternoon for our driver and conductor.

Profits will be donated to The Twentieth Century Society


On French fags

So farewell then, lovely French cigarette packaging. It seems that under new health legislation the beautiful and distinctive designs will soon be consigned to oblivion.

I've always loved the soft packets, the yielding pouchiness of which contrasted with the stiff and fussy little boxes we have over here. Just buying a pack of clop at a tabac was a commitment to a world view, the embrace of continental values that at the time seemed sexier, cleverer, more adult. And still do.

This was in the late 1970s. Britain had the Carry On films, but the French, the French had the nouvelle vague. We had shrieking trollops like Barbara Windsor; they had Bernadette Lafont, for heaven's sake.  We had Professor Magnus Pike and David Bellamy, they had Sartre and Barthes. We had Lambert and Butler and John Player and Kensitas; they had Gitanes and Gauloises Disques Bleu.

I remember back in the early 1980s the skinny students of the Marcel Marceau school of mime on the rue René-Boulanger in Paris, huddled around outside between classes, all smoking (rather than pretending to smoke), in their leggings and leotards. The school closed permanently in 2005.  Ah me.

Friday 26 September 2014

Worst. Poem. Ever.

This dashing fellow is Théophile-Jules-Henri "Theo" Marzials who was, despite his exotic monicker, a British composer, singer and poet. His French clergyman father married his English mother and Theo, born in 1850, was the youngest of five children.

At the age of twenty he started work in the British Museum as a junior assistant in the librarian's office where his path crossed those of Coventry Patmore, John Payne, Arthur O'Shaughnessy, and Edmund Gosse (who may have been his lover). He was not really cut out for a library career - he reportedly once yelled "Am I not the darling of the British Museum reading room?" from the balcony of that noble institution.

He nevertheless continued working there until retiring at the ripe old age of 32, on a handsome pension of £38 a year supplemented by royalties estimated at around £1000 annually. These were derived from his successful career as a composer, noted for his settings of Christina Rossetti's verses and some popular ballads that were all the rage in the 1880s.

He moved to Devon in the early 1900s where he became addicted to chloradyne (a potent patent medicine invented in the 19th century by Dr. John Collis Browne, a doctor in the British Indian Army as a treatment for cholera, diarrhea, insomnia, neuralgia and migraines. It was made from a mixture of laudanum, tincture of cannabis, and chloroform.) He died in Colyton in February 1920.

As a poet he had his admirers - Gerard Manley Hopkins for one - and his work featured in that era-defining periodical  The Yellow Book. He is now forgotten, though not entirely, and for rather a sad reason. His poem 'A Tragedy', included in his only published collection The Gallery of Pigeons and Other Poems (1873), has strong claims to being the very worst poem ever written in the English language. I first came across it the other day in Ross and Kathryn Petras' harrowing anthology Very Bad Poetry (1997). It isn't bad in the way (say) William McGonagall's oddly memorable and sweet-natured doggerel is bad. Marzial's astonishing perpetration has no mitigating qualities.

I've typed it out in full below for you to read and savour.

A Tragedy by Theophile Marzials

The barges down in the river flop.
Flop, plop,
Above, beneath.
From the slimy branches the grey drips drop...
To the oozy waters, that lounge and flop...
And my head shrieks - "Stop"
And my heart shrieks - "Die."...
Ugh! yet I knew - I knew
If a woman is false can a friend be true?
It was only a lie from beginning to end--
My Devil - My "friend."...
So what do I care,
And my head is empty as air -
I can do,
I can dare
(Plop, plop
The barges flop
Drip, drop.)
I can dare, I can dare!
And let myself all run away with my head
And stop.
Plop, flop,

Thursday 25 September 2014

Exhibit B

Look at this headline:
Withdrawal of anti-slavery exhibition hailed as victory by campaigners
I assumed for a second (wouldn't you?) that the protestors were pro-slavery. Not the case, of course.
The newspaper report concerned the decision by management at London's Barbican Arts Centre to close down, before it even opened, an acclaimed art installation by the South African director Brett Bailey.

Read about Exhibit B here.
It's an important work, by a noteworthy practitioner, was widely reviewed, hugely admired and seen by thousands of visitors at the Edinburgh Festival earlier this year. A friend urged me to see it and I planned to do so this weekend - but that's not going to happen.
Sara Myers, a Birmingham-based activist, organised an online protest against the exhibition on the grounds that it is 'racist'. The petition attracted around 23,000 signatures and led to a noisy protest poutside the Barbican on what would have been the opening night. She makes her case here.

It's unfortunate she chooses to specify the ethnicity of Brett Bailey, as if that made any difference. It's likewise unfortunate that she gives no weight to the black actors in the piece, who have all defended their role in the production with eloquence and dignity. I share her distatse at Exhibit 8 but wonder if she has the same feelings about Twelve Years a Slave, the director Steve MxQueen's powerful film in which terrible things were inflicted on black actors for the entertainment (let's not be afraid to use that word) of cinema audiences. That McQuuen is himself black may cut him some slack from Myers' perspective, but perhaps that's an unfair assumption. These are deep waters and (as we say nowadays) I'm conflicted. I am wary of any kind of censorship but have always found the dictum (wrongly attributed to Voltaire) that 'I disagree with what you say but shall fight to the death for your right to say it' a complete non-starter, an absolutely untenable definition of free speech.

Here's the director Brett Bailey. See what he has to say and decide for yourself.

I'm reminded of David Hockney who, in a letter to the Guardian newspaper (4 June 2008) quoted in the forthcoming volume of the artist's biography by Christopher Simon Sykes, wrote:

    I am out of step with the mean spirit of our age. I told a friend I had been to a home in Lincolnshire where  
    in three rooms there must have been pictures of a few hundred naked children and a lot of naked adults as
    well. He looked shocked until I told him they were painted by Antonio Verrio between 1688 and 1698, at
    Burghley House in Stamford.

It all depends on how you look at things.

Wednesday 24 September 2014

The Scandal of "Ulysses"

There's a photograph (so well known that I shan't bother to reproduce it here) of Joyce and Sylvia Beach sitting together in her office, behind them two placards of the type used to carry newspaper headlines. The top one, advertising Sporting Life (also known as 'The Pink 'Un) screams THE SCANDAL OF "ULYSSES", below which are some horse racing odds:


(I can find no record of these horses or any race they might have been in, although the last two seem to be Irish - the Curragh?)

Below that is another placard announcing Arnold Bennett's review of the novel. It appeared in The Bookman (August 1922, pp. 567-570). 'I see nothing very wonderful in this' he harrumphs Read him  here.

Has there ever been an anthology of other writers writing about Ulysses? I mean of other novelists? And has there ever been a collection of the many negative reviews of the greatest novel ever written? I have the hefty two-volumes published by Routledge in 1970 as part of their superb Critical Heritage series. I'm thinking of something more portable.

Tuesday 23 September 2014

Sex (no drugs) and Horse and Hound

A review of D. H. Lawrence's novel that appeared in Horse and Hound magazine:

Although written many years ago, Lady Chatterley’s Lover has just been reissued by Grove Press, and this fictional account of the day-by-day life of an English gamekeeper is still of considerable interest to outdoor-minded readers, as it contains many passages on pheasant raising, the apprehending of poachers, ways to control vermin, and other chores and duties of the professional gamekeeper. Unfortunately one is obliged to wade through many pages of extraneous material in order to discover and savor these sidelights on the management of a Midlands shooting estate, and in this reviewer’s opinion this book can not take the place of J. R. Miller’s Practical Gamekeeping.

Monday 22 September 2014

Smells like teen spirit

I've been researching 1980s deodorants (don't ask). Here's an extract from the Wikipedia entry on 'Impulse', a popular product then and now. 

Impulse is a bodyspray manufactured by Fabergé which was part of Unilever, an Anglo-Dutch company based in Rotterdam, Netherlands, and London, United Kingdom. Introduced as a 'perfume deodorant' in South Africa in 1972, Impulse was launched in the UK in 1981, including the butterfly design and the slogan "Men can't help acting on Impulse."

In the early 1980s, six scents were introduced, in the USA, called "Always Alluring", "Delightfully Daring", "Instantly Innocent", "Mysterious Musk", "Possibly Playful", and "Suddenly Sassy".

Since the original releases over the years Impulse have added others to their range. Some disappearing and some still available today:

Illusions, Exotique, Magic, Fascination, Free Spirit, Captivation, Devotion, Vive, Destiny, ID, Alive, Liberate, Cherish, Vanilla Kisses, Ico, Solar, Sphere, Moon Grass, Goddess, Spirit, Tease, Thrill, True Love, Romantic Spark, Into Glamour, Love Story, Sweet Smile, Maybe.

Saturday 20 September 2014

The Sycophantic Fox and the Gullible Raven

I'm a huge fan of the little-known American poet Guy Wetmore Caryl (1873-1904) a light versifier of unequalled genius. His speciality was adapting Aesop's Fables into bouncy, ingeniously rhymed and instantly loveable verses. Here's an example from 1902:

The Sycophantic Fox and the Gullible Raven

A raven sat upon a tree,

      And not a word he spoke, for
His beak contained a piece of Brie,
      Or, maybe, it was Roquefort:
            We’ll make it any kind you please—
            At all events, it was a cheese.

Beneath the tree’s umbrageous limb
      A hungry fox sat smiling;
He saw the raven watching him,
      And spoke in words beguiling.
            “J’admire,” said he, “ton beau plumage.”
            (The which was simply persiflage.)

Two things there are, no doubt you know,
      To which a fox is used:
A rooster that is bound to crow,
      A crow that’s bound to roost,
            And whichsoever he espies
            He tells the most unblushing lies.

“Sweet fowl,” he said, “I understand
      You’re more than merely natty,
I hear you sing to beat the band
      And Adelina Patti.
            Pray render with your liquid tongue
            A bit from Götterdammerung.”

This subtle speech was aimed to please
      The crow, and it succeeded:
He thought no bird in all the trees
      Could sing as well as he did.
            In flattery completely doused,
            He gave the “Jewel Song” from Faust.

But gravitation’s law, of course,
      As Isaac Newton showed it,
Exerted on the cheese its force,
      And elsewhere soon bestowed it.
            In fact, there is no need to tell
            What happened when to earth it fell.

I blush to add that when the bird
      Took in the situation
He said one brief, emphatic word,
      Unfit for publication.
            The fox was greatly startled, but
            He only sighed and answered “Tut.”

The Moral is: A fox is bound
      To be a shameless sinner.
And also: When the cheese comes round
      You know it’s after dinner.
            But (what is only known to few)
            The fox is after dinner, too.

You can find a huge selection of his verses here:


The best? For my money it's his take on the Bluebeard story: http://uncyclopedia.wikia.com/wiki/UnPoetia:Bluebeard 

Things to do today

Start your day with Joshua Cohen's brilliant review in the New York Times of Eimear McBride's debut novel A Girl is a Half-formed Thing.

Then watch this sublime short film made in the year Mrs Dalloway. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and The Making of Americans were published. Also, come to think of it, The Great Gatsby and The Trial.

Next? I dunno. Do some gardening?

Friday 19 September 2014

On Scotland

The people of Scotland have voted, decisively, to remain part of the United Kingdom. Or voted against independence. It doesn't end here, surely?

Thursday 18 September 2014

I know where I'm going

To mark what may be the last day of the 300-year-old union between England and Scotland here's a five-minute clip from Powell and Pressburger's sublime romantic comedy from 1945 I Know Where I'm Going.

Joan Webster (Wendy Hiller) is on her way from London to the imaginary island of Kiloran in the remote Western Isles, there to marry an industrialist who is much older then her, and very rich. The night train from King's Cross travels north as she falls asleep . . . 

Later she will meet the Laird of Kiloran, Torquil (the wonderful Roger Livesey), and . . . well, the course of true love never did run smooth.

Watch it here.

Wednesday 17 September 2014

Betty, a maid and a cook

What is the 'Oxford comma'? It's the optional comma before the word 'and' at the end of a list, as in

          He fell for her hook, line, and sinker

It's known as the Oxford comma because it was and is used by editors and printers at the Oxford University Press.  It's also known as the 'serial comma' and while it isn't universally approved of, it's important when clarifying what might otherwise be an ambiguous list. Consider this apocryphal dedication to a book (quoted by the science fiction writer Teresa Nielsen Hayden):

          To my parents, Ayn Rand and God

Or this alarming description of a Peter Ustinov television documentary:

[H]ighlights of his global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and a dildo collector.

The ever-reliable Wikipedia offers the following example by way of further explanation:

          They went to Oregon with Betty, a maid, and a cook.

This is ambiguous because it's unclear whether "a maid" is an appositive describing Betty, or the second in a list of three people. On the other hand, removing the final comma produces:

          They went to Oregon with Betty, a maid and a cook.

This opens the possibility that Betty is both a maid and a cook (with "a maid and a cook" read as a unit, in apposition to Betty). So in this case neither the Oxford comma style nor the non-Oxford comma style resolves the ambiguity. A writer who intends a list of three distinct people (Betty, maid, cook) may create an ambiguous sentence, regardless of whether the serial comma is adopted. Furthermore, if the reader is unaware of which convention is being used, both versions are always ambiguous.

The Wikipedia entry suggests that the following forms (among others) would remove the ambiguity:

If Betty is one person:

They went to Oregon with Betty, who was a maid and a cook.
They went to Oregon with Betty, both a maid and a cook.
They went to Oregon with Betty, their maid and cook.

If Betty is one of two persons:

They went to Oregon with Betty (a maid) and a cook.
They went to Oregon with Betty—a maid—and a cook.
They went to Oregon with Betty, a maid, and with a cook.
They went to Oregon with the maid Betty and a cook.
They went to Oregon with a cook and Betty, a maid.
They went to Oregon with Betty, a maid; and a cook.

If Betty is one of three persons:

They went to Oregon with Betty, as well as a maid and a cook.
They went to Oregon with Betty and a maid and a cook.
They went to Oregon with Betty, one maid and a cook.
They went to Oregon with a maid, a cook, and Betty.
They went with Betty to Oregon with a maid and a cook.

What interests me most is when all this happened. It doesn't seem a particularly modern thing to do, does it? Going to Oregon I mean, and with an entourage. Whether or not Betty (not a modern name, Betty) is one, two, or three persons and whether or not she is a maid and/or a cook, one has the initial impression that the subject of the sentence is the pre-Depression American bourgeoisie, the kind of nuclear middle-class family who had, and travelled with, a servant, or servants. I suppose Betty could be a baby, or a young child, and perhaps sickly. Or she could equally be a mad older relation who needs constant care and attention. Perhaps the maid, if there is a maid who isn't Betty, was also her carer. The cook, employed to meet the capricious needs of an ailing child or deranged and possibly violent cousin, might have found Oregon a challenge, coming as the hypothetically wealthy family did from, say, New York's Upper East Side. I have the impression that the trip to Oregon wasn't a vacation (the Hamptons or Martha's Vineyard would have been an obvious choice, or a resort in the Catskills if they were Jewish), so perhaps the move had more to do with business. Oregon is lumber country, but I don't think the head of this family group (if it is a family group) is a lumberjack. Whoever heard of a lumberjack with a servant, or servants? 

Or what if 'they' are any number of children, and Betty their nanny? What if Betty isn't human? A dog perhaps? Or marmoset? Why Oregon?

More work needed.

Tuesday 16 September 2014

A reader writes

A few days ago I blogged about the odd titles of each of the twenty volumes of the second edition of the Oxford English Dictionary - Cham, Creel, Dvandva, Follow, Hat, Interval, Look, and so on. See the complete list here.

The list, I suggested, offered an Oulipian challenge, and invited Salvēte readers to come up with a piece of prose or poetry incorporating all twenty words/non words. An enterprising soul who clearly has a lot of time to spare and wishes (understandably) to remain anonymous, took up my challenge and perpetrated the following eloquent doggerel. 

Su Moul a Cambodian-Celt
Hoist her creelhat with a wave as she knelt
In the soot of the quemadero
With a poise and a look that said follow!

She began to deliver her ser
("The Origins of Dvandva")
For the good of the unemancipated
With interest she was soon inundated

By a Cham from the old BBC
Who delivered a passionate plea
"Ow who will let poor Su Moul go?!
She is innocent and I should know -

'Tis a custom of our clan
Every eligible woman and man
Should wear a creel on their head
To announce an intention to wed

Now how was she to know that
A lobster'd set up home in her hat?
I make my appeal to the mob -
She had no intention to rob

And for this unintentional crime
She must kneel in the ashes and grime!"
The inquisitors looked very grave
Should they commit to the fire or save?

And begging a brief interval 
They debated whether to annul
Or if they should just see it thru?
Reader - what would YOU do?

Anonymous reader - we salute you! 

Monday 15 September 2014

Generation Self

Writing in the current edition of the New Statesman, the novelist Will Self describes a recent showdown in an LA cafeteria in which he asked the proprietor to turn down the overwhelming music:

No, they would not, because they cannot comprehend why anyone wouldn’t want to eat their waffles to the accompaniment of loud trip-hop . . . When I reassume my seat, looking frazzled and out of sorts, one of my sons bellows sympathy over the shingly sonic backwash, and I say: “Really, it’s OK. After all, it’s my generation that’s to blame for this bullshit culture.”

I feel for him, I really do. He then goes on to develop his thesis:

And we are, aren’t we, us fiftysomethings? We’re the pierced and tattooed, shorts-wearing, skunk-smoking, OxyContin-popping, neurotic dickheads who’ve presided over the commoditisation of the counterculture; we’re the ones who took the avant-garde and turned it into a successful rearguard action by the flying columns of capitalism’s blitzkrieg; we’re the twats who sat there saying that there was no distinction between high and popular culture, and that adverts should be considered as an art form; we’re the idiots who scrumped the golden apples from the Tree of Jobs until our bellies swelled and we jetted slurry from our dickhead arseholes – slurry we claimed was “cultural criticism”.

Nicely put, although surely 'commoditisation' should be 'commodification'? I quote Self at length because his bilious rant seems to me a watershed moment in our current literary discourse, marking a  welcome realisation by a leading writer of his (and my) infantilised fifty-something generation that the game is up, and that said game wasn't worth the candle. I'm no more a representative of my generation than he is, although I think I'm closer in thought and feeling to the majority of those members of it who happen not to be Will Self, the pound store Martin Amis. I'm fiftysomething too, but lack, so far, the piercings and tattoos and neurotic addictions and clogged lexicon of Will Self. (A friend once said I must have made a fustian pact, as my tastes are resolutely unhip and tend more to V. S. Pritchett and Denton Welch than J. G. Ballard and William Burroughs, although Burroughs was, rather surprisingly, a huge fan of Welch. I am irredeemably square.)

So here's my point. Just as Self belatedly wakes up to the vain and hateful pointlessness of the gimcrack 'cultural criticism' perpetrated with sullen ferocity for decades by the likes of Will Self, just as he realises that 'the pierced and tattooed, shorts-wearing, skunk-smoking, OxyContin-popping, neurotic dickheads' of which he is the Self-elected incarnation have produced nothing, absolutely nothing of value or permanence or even passing interest over the past three decades apart from trashing the thoughtful  hierarchies of taste and judgement that made literature navigable and worthwhile, just as he and his sneering coevals dwindle before our  gaze shrilly squealing like the liquidated Wicked Witch of Oz, just as he comes to realise that all the prolix redundancy of his threadbare psychobabble amounts to nothing more than a pretext for whining about his spoilt breakfast waffles in a weekly magazine . . . I punch the air with a loud whoop and say: YES!  Now where were we . . .?

Sunday 14 September 2014

Bieke Depoorter - new images

From the translator Catherine Schelbert comes this link to the website of a Belgian photographer, new to me, called Bieke Depoorter.

Catherine has recently edited the text of  Depoorter's forthcoming book 'I am about to call it a day' and writes: 

Depoorter travels with pajamas and a camera to places where there are no hotels and asks people if she can spend the night and take pictures. She always just spends one night. She must have tremendous insight, gentleness, modesty – I'm not sure what it takes. But her photographs are as if she weren't there; they leave so much room for  their subject matter and for us. 

This is beautifully put. Depoorter has travelled around remote parts of the United States and stayed in the homes of some of the people she met on the way. We see inside their homes and often bedrooms - some cosy, some comfortless and austere, all of them deeply personal spaces - but with no sense of intrusion or violation. From time to time Depoorter includes breathtaking shots of the bleak surrounding countryside, often at night, rendering the homes and communities all the more fragile and temporary. The images are wonderful - haunting and atmospheric, sometimes unsettling and always human, and humane.

Find out more about her book here

Saturday 13 September 2014

Disinterested in Auden

Friday, 12 September 2014

Auden and the OED

Many otherwise serene people of my acquaintance get hot under the collar about the commonplace use of 'disinterested' as a synonym for 'uninterested'. What may surprise them - and it certainly surprised me when I looked it up - is that the confusion has been around for so long. 

When W. H. Auden was Professor of Poetry at Oxford from 1956 to 1961 he became an acquaintance of R. W. Burchfield, a lecturer at Auden's college, Christ Church, and subsequently editor of the second Supplement to the Oxford English Dictionary. According to Burchfield himself, Auden several times urged him to include particular words in the Supplement and, on one occasion, 'pressed me to include the word 'disinterested' in the now established sense of "uninterested".' (Burchfield eventually did so, but see below)

This 'now established sense' of 'disinterested' as 'uninterested' was, at the time of Auden's lobbying, already established in the OED, with a first quotation from no less an authority than John Donne, but marked as 'obsolete'. Craigie and Onions (in the first OED Supplement of 1933) had removed the 'obsolete' label and entered three further quotations, all dating from1928, without further comment. Burchfield included three more, but added the damning phrase 'often regarded as a loose use', despite Auden's endorsement.

You can read more about Auden's connection to Burchfield and the OED and how the poet came to be a favoured source for the Dictionary's compilers here.

My latest TLS blog is also about Auden's many OED citations, including the first use in print of 'queer', 'butch', 'Disneyesque', 'shagged', 'toilet hunour' and 'Mosleyite'. Interested? Or perhaps you're completely disinterested. Read 'Apolitical ponce': Auden and the OED.

Friday 12 September 2014

Beckett and Lady Chatterley's Lover

Ian Hamilton, in Writers in Hollywood 1915-1951 (Heinemann, 1990), describes Aldous Huxley‘s time as a scriptwriter, his collaboration with Christopher Isherwood on an unmade film about faith-healing, his rejected adaptation of Alice in Wonderland for Walt Disney and his involvement in "a saga of negotiations about a possible movie of Lady Chatterley’s Lover (with Isherwood, Auden, and even Samuel Beckett somehow involved as possible co-writers)."

This seems unlikely, although Beckett was at the time published by Grove Press, which also published Lawrence, so perhaps a rumour was spread that Hamilton mischievously perpetuated. As for the Auden connection, I can find nothing linking him to this project.

What would Beckett have made of Lady Chatterley?

Thursday 11 September 2014

Hello America!

For the past two months the number of readers of this blog in  the United States has exceeded those here in the rapidly downsizing United Kingdom. So to my American readers old and new I say: Salvēte! (Latin for 'Howdy!')

Yesterday Coffee House Press issued the first American edition of A Girl is a Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBride, a modernist experimental novel published in England a year ago to universal acclaim, a novel that will define her generation of writers.

In Britain and Ireland she's already won the Goldsmiths, Kerry, Desmond Elliot and Baileys Prizes, and was shortlisted for the Folio. No other book, no other writer, has been so critically acclaimed and this, mind you, is her debut novel. But prizes are the least of it. A Girl is a Half-formed Thing is no slack commercial cash-in, no lazy middle-brow heavyweight. It's the sort of book that the kind of people I don't like find offensive for the same reasons that I admire it. It's 'difficult', it's not 'a good read' and it offers no uplift or consolation. It's the polar opposite of Paolo Coelho and that kind of pap. It's harsh and stubborn and will remind you of what literature used to mean to us, once upon a time, and what it can still mean.

I've blogged about the author and her book before - you can catch up here and here and here.

Wednesday 10 September 2014

On the OED

The second edition of the Oxford English Dictionary appeared in 1989, published in 20 volumes.

 For the first time there was no attempt to start each volume on letter boundaries, so each volume was roughly equal in size.

The titles of each volume are as follows:

Unemancipated and

Pity the letters E, G, J, K N, V, X, Y and Z, who fail entirely to make an impression on the twenty spines.  But let's all honour S, with its 3 volumes (and no doubt with early appearances in Rob).

The list above offers an Oulipian challenge - perhaps a poem incorporating all twenty words/non words?

Tuesday 9 September 2014

Free Verse Poetry Book Fair 2014

Last Saturday I went to the Free Verse Poetry Book Fair, an annual event held in Conway Hall, Holborn. It's the biggest gathering of nice people in the world.

The day began (for me, at least) with the Henningham Family Press (the artists David and Ping Henningham) joined by the poet James Wilkes for a reading of a section of David's modernist epic An Unknown Soldier. This took place outdoors in Red Lion Square and the speakers, unamplified, had to compete with the noise of building works and the clatter of the nearby cafe. The audience had to strain to catch their every word, and it was worth the effort.

Moving into the main hall (which was already buzzing and would be heaving by midday) I began a three-hour immersion in what nobody these days would have the nerve to call, after George Puttenham, The Arte of English Poesie. What the Fair confirms is that real poetry has a powerful and abiding presence in our culture,  even if it no longer  enjoys any centrality. And you'll know what I mean by real poetry.

More than sixty publishers - most of them tiny independents - were packed into a hall the size of a tennis court. The admirably even-handed organisers give all exhibitors the same amount of space, so the corporate behemoth that is Faber and Faber had the same-sized trestle table as plucky independents such as Scotland's HappenStance Press and the avant garde Manchester outfit zimZalla.

The latter presented two memorable readings. The first was Pascal O' Loghlin's 'Mintchocoholochismo' (surely he's the first poet to be published in Wonka chocolate bar form - see below) and the second by the American poet Jesse Glass, who had arrived that morning from Japan (where he teaches) and, clobbered by jet lag and with only ten minutes in which to make a big impression, made a big impression. His voice was a modulated growl reminding me of the late Don Van Vliet, aka Captain Beefheart. Between poems he scrabbled intermittently in a briefcase for more sheets of his dense cryptic verses, which he delivered like a tub-thumping preacher man.    

© zimZalla Press

After the reading I bought his latest collection Selections from The Life and Death of Peter Stubbe (weirdly dated 2015 by his publisher, Knives Forks and Spoons Press), which includes colour reproductions of the author's unsettling Blake-inspired paintings (now in the Tate Modern's collection). The title is a reference to the 'Werewolf of Bedburg', a ghastly 17th century tale of lycanthropy, and is a redacted and reworked version of a poem originally written in the early 1980s. Also on sale was his Play [Day] for [Of] the Dead: A [Decryptive] Dance For Mirror and Word ('Inverted text to be read with a mirror. Comes in a miniature wooden or cardboard coffin with book, image, gold mirror, skeleton and skull bracelet.') Tempting, but I'd already overspent my modest budget on a dozen generously discounted books and pamphlets. 

Free Verse is a chance to find out what's happening in a vital if under-reported part of our culture, to meet old friends and to make new ones. Young (and youngish) crowds filled the various venues and readings continued until late in the evening at a nearby pub (by which time your reporter was at home, writing this blog). The event is funded by the Arts Council of England and ACE monitors (are there such things?) would have been delighted by the range and diversity of participants and attendees. It was, as last year and the year before, a brilliantly organised day. You can see what you missed, and what you can look forward to in 2015, here.