Monday 29 February 2016

February index

     February blogs from the house of Salvēte!

    As  this is a leap year I've given myself the day off and instead of a blog proper offer an index to the past month. Subjects include French perfume, categories of human excrement, Jonathan Meades, Umberto Eco, an obscure mentaldisorder that leads to chronic punning, two lost literary jokes,, lingerie, death, the Flintstones, Ezra Pound's take on Sophocles and a chap in 1970s Essex who could speak fluent Venusian.

A veritable smorgasbord, you'll agree - something for everyone  and free for all.. Click on each title below to read the corresponding blog while asking yourself: why isn't February 29th the pretext for a national - or international - holiday?

     Coming in March: 

                    * Manuela and Sam - an unpublished play script 

                    * Anatomy of a Soldier - Harry Parker's debut novel revisited

                    * Knock-knock jokes: a cultural history

                    *  Claudio Magris 

                    *  From the archives

               *  Norman Manea

                    *  Philip Maltman, artist and poet

               *  About a Girl: A Reader's Guide to Eimear McBride's A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing

               *  And (as advertising copywriters like to say) 'much, much more'. Although this means that they've run out of    
                       ideas, or space, or both, which is not the case here. Not yet, oh no.)


Sunday 28 February 2016


Of all the bizarre linguistic aberrations the most compelling is surely glossolalia - speaking in tongues.

Here, for instance, in conversation with the popular telly astronomer Patrick Moore, is a Mr Bernard Byron from Essex. He claims to speak three alien tongues, and does so fluently.

Three things strike me about this performance (because that's essentially what it is):

a) that his loquacious utterances are unconvincing because they are unrepeatable. He would not be able to replicate the same sounds in the same order with any degree of accuracy if invited to do so;

b) that his stream of 'Venusian' is just that - a stream. There are no pauses, no redundancies, no hesitations (but there is, to be sure, an awful lot of repetition, specially in the ullulations); 

c) that when he comes to write down some of this unearthly language he does so in a conventional manner from left to right starting at the top of the page, in a rapid scribble that vaguely resembles Pitman shorthand. What's intended, perhaps, is a sense of urgency (although the message is entirely inconsequential) as well as his own virtuosity. But what is actually happening here? Is Byron simply demonstrating his ability (in which case why doesn't he take his time over it?) or is he in a state of possession, channelling his Venusian masters (in which case why are they happy to chat inconsequentially to the man they chummily address as 'Patrick'?)

Patrick Moore! A howling eccentric who for more than half a century fronted The Sky at Night, the BBC's long-running late-night programme about the universe. At the end of the Byron clip Moore says, kindly, that his subject 'moves in a realm of the unknown which,  I think you'll agree, makes it very difficult for us to disprove him. And yet he has the charm, the cheerfulness and the courage which is common to all independent thinkers, and for which I myself have the warmest admiration.'

That's nicely said. Today Mr Byron would be presented as a sideshow freak to a shrieking audience by some nasty young telly host. He would be ridiculed.

I'll write more about glossolalia in a future blog, and particularly it's religious function - 'speaking in tongues'. While on the subject of alien communications I like Kurt Vonnegut's dazzling paragraph, in Breakfast of Champions, attributed to the imaginary science-fiction writer Kilgore Trout: 

As for the story itself, it was entitled "The Dancing Fool." Like so many Trout stories, it was about a tragic failure to communicate. Here was the plot: A flying saucer creature named Zog arrived on Earth to explain how wars could be prevented and how cancer could be cured. He brought the information from Margo, a planet where the natives conversed by means of farts and tap dancing. Zog landed at night in Connecticut. He had no sooner touched down than he saw a house on fire. He rushed into the house, farting and tap dancing, warning the people about the terrible danger they were in. The head of the house brained Zog with a golfclub.

My kind of alien.

Extract from Breakfast of Champions (1973)  © The Estate of Kurt Vonnegut

Saturday 27 February 2016

Pound's Sophocles

I'm reading Ezra Pound's 1956 translation of 'Women of Trachis' by Sophocles although 'translation' is hardly the word. In his introduction the Greek scholar S. V. Jankowski offers a comparison between Pound's approach and three earlier versions:

First the Oxford translation from 1871:

Go now, my son, for even he that is late in doing
well, yet, when he learns his duty, procures gain.
Next Lewis Campbell:

Go then, my son; though late to learn and do
What wisdom bids, hath certainty of gain.

Finally Gilbert Murray:

Go then my son. To have done the rift, though late
The knowledge came, must needs be fortunate.

 None of these can be acted, only declaimed. They share an Elizabethan high style that has a monumental quality but is awfully dull, even costive. Now here's Pound:

Daianeira: See here, son, this slave talks sense
Herakles:  What's she say? Lemme hear

'Make it new' was Pound's rallying cry. 'Make it now' he might have added. His translation from the middle of the last century is in some ways dated but it's alive still and has great appeal (unlike the excruciatingly horrible cracker barrel vernacular) adopted by 'ole Ez' in the letters). Pound's 'Women of Trachis' could be performed today with little modification as one of his most immediately approachable achievements and (as Jankowski concludes in his brisk introduction) 'an event of unprecedented cultural value'.

Here's a bit more. Daysair (daughter of Oineus) is speaking:

Something too creepy's just happened,
That thick wad of white sheep's wool
that I used to daub the jacket, just disappeared.
Nobody touched it.
                                Seemed to corrode of itself.
Ate itself up, there on the floor-stones,
When that brute of a Centaur
was in agony from the arrow in his lung, 
he told me - and I can remember it 
as if it were engraved on a brass plate -
and I did just what he told me: kept it cool,
away from the fire and sunlight, in a cupboard
until time to use it, which I did inside,
and nobody saw me take it out of the kettle
with wool I'd pulled out of a fleece from our own sheep
and put it inside the box that you saw.
But just now, something you wouldn't believe,
perfectly inexplicable . . . 

Who wouldn't want to read (or hear) what happened next?

Text © The Estate of Ezra Pound / Faber and Faber

Friday 26 February 2016

16 types of poet

Their ghosts are gagged, their books are library flotsam,
Some of their names–not all–we learnt in school
But, life being short, we rarely read their poems,
Mere source-books now to point or except a rule,
While those opinions which rank them high are based
On a wish to be different or on lack of taste.

I'm prompted by this resonant stanza from Louis Macneice's poem Elegy for Minor Poets to propose a ranking similar to the Bristol Stool Scale for poets. The BSS, which I blogged about recently, is a simple and effective way of categorising types of human excrement, devised by Dr. Stephen Lewis and Dr. Ken Heaton at the University of Bristol as recently as 1997 (and we can only wonder why we had to wait for so long for such a fundamental classification). I am not for one moment suggesting that poets, and poetry, can be classified in the same way as excrement. But I think the time has come for an exploratory audit - the Bristol School Scale is a wake-up call for all literary critics.

My list has an anglophone emphasis and is not intended as a hierarchy. Type 1 poets are not necessarily better than other types, but certainly different. Ready?

Type 1: Poets from the remote past (often anonymous) who may be described as foundational - the author (or authors) of 'Beowulf' and 'The Battle of Maldon' and 'Sir Gawain and the Green Knight' for instance, or Chaucer.

Type 2: Poets from the less remote past who are still read, and not only by undergraduates. Their work  continues to inform the language of the tribe. Shakespeare, Milton, Keats, Shelley, Donne, Marvell, Coleridge, G. M. Hopkins, Lewis Carroll, D. H. Lawrence, Thomas Hardy. The usual suspects.

Type 3: Poets who cannot be overlooked by anyone with a serious interest in poetry: Christina Rossetti, Robert Browning and Algernon Swinburne, say. 

Type 4: Poets from the more recent past who are of minor interest but with some claim on our attention. Coventry Patmore can stand for them all. I have a strong weakness (as Beckett used to say)  poets such as Charles Madge of the Mass Observation Movement, a writer who is(as George Melly said of the Belgian surrealist E.L.T. Messens)  'a figure of major minorness'.

Type 5: Modern poets (by which I mean those born after 1880) of the first importance: Eliot, Auden, Pound, Lowell and Yeats are representative. There are others, but not many.

Type 6: Modern poets of secondary significance: Macneice himself (although the more I read of him the more he strikes me as a Type 5). I'd include in this category Robert Graves, Ted Hughes, Seamus Heaney, Elizabeth Bishop and Stevie Smith (all of whom I admire and would far rather read than many of the poets in the earlier categories).  

Type 7: What one might call poet's poets. My own choice is certainly not, as Macneice puts it, 'based / On a wish to be different or on lack of taste'. Without thinking too much about this I'd opt for three favourites: Ian Hamilton, W. S. Graham and Basil Bunting. They tend to be admired by the poets I admire, for what it's worth.

Type 8: Poets I don't like. These fall into two broad categories: good poets I don't like and bad poets I don't like. Of the former: Edmund Spenser (of 'Faerie Queen' fame) and George Herbert; of the latter: J. H. Prynne. I know that Prynne has his admirers but you can include me out. 

Type 9: Foreign poets. Since foreign poetry is likely to be in a language that resists even the most able translators, and since I don't know any foreign language apart from French well enough to appreciate the originals I tend not to read them much. They can fit any of the other categories in this list and especially Type 3  - Apollinaire, Rimbaud, Verlaine etc. And that's just three random French names. (I cannot name a single contemporary French poet, which is my loss).

Type 10: Contemporary poets, as distinct from the Moderns (Type 5). J. O. Morgan (whose latest book Interference Pattern was published by Jonathan Cape last month) can stand for them. One develops a fierce and attentive affiliation with such new voices - Dan O'Brien's War Reporter knocked me for six.

Type 11: 'Difficult' poets. By which I mean that I haven't yet settled on an opinion and will continue reading and reflecting. I'd include James Merrill here. But this type can also include experimental, avant-garde writing, or stuff that baffles me but may repay the effort.

Type 12: Poets in any of these categories that I haven't yet read. There are very many of these, naturally.

Type 13:  Poets who are not really poets at all but despite this, or because of it, meet with public approval and in some way represent the idea of poetry to a mass audience. Examples: Pam Ayres, Ronald Fletcher (he of the 'odd ode'). They tend to be popularisers, and populist. They can be of  interest (the rapper Eminem, say) or voguish (Kate Tempest). Or they can be negligible (the authors behind Hallmark Card verses, for instance, which are the poetic equivalent of park railing art). I suspect this is by far the largest category.

Type 14: Poets not yet conceived. not yet born, or alive but not yet writing or publishing poetry. This is an optimistic view of our post-literate culture.

Type 15: Poets I don't to read because for reasons of age and taste and sensibility and education  I'm safely beyond their reach. My loss, no doubt. You'll know who I mean.

Type 16: Poets who don't fit any of the above categories. That is to say: most poets.

I'll be the first to admit that this list is partial in both senses - it is both incomplete and subjective. There aren't enough women on it, and the focus is on dead white men, because  . . . well, I really can't be arsed to fight that corner. Type 11 gives me some wriggle room.

Extract © The Estate of Louis Macneice

Thursday 25 February 2016

Trigger happy

Last year a regular correspondent sent me a link to an op-ed piece in the online Columbia Spectator, co-authored by Kai Johnson, Tanika Lynch, Elizabeth Monroe and Tracey Wang (April 30, 2015). It reported a student's contribution to Columbia University's Multicultural Affairs Advisory Board on Literature Humanities, an advisory panel of which the co-authors are members. The MAAB, an extension of the Office of Multicultural Affairs, is "an advocacy group dedicated to ensuring that Columbia’s campus is welcoming and safe for students of all backgrounds."

MAAB were concerned by what appeared to be happening in campus classrooms "where transgressions concerning student identities are common". Such a transgression occurred when a  student was instructed by her professor to read Ovid's 'Metamorphoses', including the myths of Persephone and Daphne, both of which involve episodes of assault and rape. The student in question was herself the survivor of sexual assault and described being "triggered" while reading Ovid's account. She was dismayed that her professor focussed on the language and imagery when lecturing on the text and as a result the student felt "completely disengaged from the class discussion as a means of self-preservation. She did not feel safe in the class".

The co-authors add that "like so many texts in the Western canon, [Metamorphoses] contains triggering and offensive material that marginalizes student identities in the classroom. These texts, wrought with histories and narratives of exclusion and oppression, can be difficult to read and discuss as a survivor, a person of color, or a student from a low-income background."

These are serious matters, and unsettling. My immediate reaction was to sympathise with this unfortunate student and to wonder why she was not the real focus of the co-authors' concern, rather than 'Metamorphoses'. If the rape of Persephone is enough to prompt feelings of exclusion and oppression one wonders how on earth she manages to negotiate her daily life. If a two-thousand-year-old myth prompts such terrible memories of personal violation one can't help feeling she should leave Literature alone alone and study Science, or Technology, or Engineering, or Maths. And never go to the movies. 

In this case it is surely the student who needs careful handling by college authorities, not the curriculum. Of course this is about much more than one unfortunate student's background. It's about academic politics and the increased commodification and commercialisation of Higher Education. The learning contract has utterly changed since my day and students now feel they have the right to respond, to call the shots - they are paying for their education after all. But professors need to be able to function within their capacity too. It seems to be a show-down between the self-absorbed and the no-longer-relevantly-experienced.

It may well be the case that some of the Western Canon 'can be difficult to read and discuss' for some students, but that's hardly a question of ethnicity, or economic status, or being a 'survivor' - it's a question of difficulty full stop. And it's the difficulty that makes the effort worthwhile. 

I had quite a strange childhood and I suppose that makes me, in current thinking, both a victim and a survivor, although reading Gawain and the Green Knight never triggered a post-traumatic reaction in me. I don't have a history of exclusion and oppression so my views have less weight, and rightly. My concern is what will happen when, say, Eimear McBride's debut novel takes its place on college curriculums in the States and elsewhere? What impact will the visceral and harrowing prose of A Girl is a Half-formed Thing have on a student who thinks the rape of Persephone is a forensic report?

Art isn't about reassurance and consolation and it isn't about making people feel safe or 'empowered'. Art isn't about therapy or empowerment or counterweighting the horrors of history. Art isn't a bromide or a poultice or a sticking-plaster because, as Beckett put it: 'the syndrome known as life is too diffuse to admit of palliation'. A combination of victimhood and entitlement has distorted a non-negotiable truth - that Daphne and Persephone are myths, that Ovid is a writer from another age and culture and that anyone who feels unsafe in a lecture hall might just be in the wrong place.

Later in the Columbia article the co-authors claim that Toni Morrison's works are 'founding texts of the Western canon'. Presumably they mean 'foundational' (itself a critical judgement open to discussion),  but I don't want to come across as pompously pedantic. 'Metamorphosis' certainly is a founding text of the Western tradition - so what are we to do?

There is a terrible moral vanity and condescension in judging past writers by our own contemporary standards and - predictably, inevitably - finding them inadequate or offensive. It's hard to think of any writer, of any artist at all from any era. who isn't in some way horribly flawed. Which is another way to say terribly human. T. S. Eliot was anti-Semitic (though not as nasty in that respect as Ezra Pound); Dylan Thomas was a spongeing drunk; Virginia Woolf an appalling snob and Ayn Rand a complete maniac. You'd have to dig deep into the past to find a writer who can escape our thin-lipped censure, and the chances are that he or she would be a complete bore. 

The MAAB planned to circulate "a letter to faculty about potential trigger warnings and suggestions for how to support triggered students." The assumption here appears to be that some unfortunate students have been brutalised into becoming, or have elected to become, mechanised, unthinking respondees to anything that challenges their highly developed (yet simultaneously fragile and unstable) sense of what is right for them, not what matters.

Wednesday 24 February 2016

On Lyse Doucet and juncture

The BBC's distinguished Foreign Correspondent Lyse Doucet appears on Rafio 4's Today programme regularly. She has an accent that I've never quite been able to place - there are traces of Northern Irish and Canadian. She sounds like a citizen of the world, and quite right too. Whenever she is on air (often reporting from a war zone) I brace myself for her enunciation of the phrase 'peace talks' as I am never able to hear her say the words without mentally reconfiguring them as 'pea stalks'.

This is, I'll admit, trivial in the extreme. It's an example of juncture - the gap between spoken words - affecting their meaning. I once heard a lecturer employ the phrase 'cube analogy' which sounded to me more like 'Cuban allergy' (or what a friend amusingly dubbed 'Castro-enteritis'). 

Then there's the American publishing house New Directions . . .

Tuesday 23 February 2016

King Herod complains

In Britain we are now fast approaching the end of a period of welfare philanthropy and the decline (or privatisation) of the institutions charged with its delivery. All the pre-war challenges are facing us again, and have never really gone away - education, health, housing, nutrition, employment. Today's fresh, eager and telegenic politicians, faced with such long-established challenges, tend to describe the multiple crises in health and housing as 'unprecedented' (a favourite word), yet even a cursory consideration of the social issues addressed by 1930s documentary film makers will confirm that this is not the case. The challenges facing our nation and our leaders today are all entirely precedented - but while the old questions are once again looming what is no longer available is a public language capable of tackling the issues, and the knowledge and experience upon which such a public language draws for its meaning. We seem also today to lack the consensus for change, a consensus based around shared values, shared assumptions, shared constitutive stories. One recalls T. S. Eliot's dictum: 'of course we know more than the past did because they are what we know'. But it seems too me that 'they' are what our leaders don't know, or don't care to know. We are destined to make the same mistakes, adding some new ones for good measure.

W. H. Auden anticipated this malaise in a wildly eccentric stretch of prose towards the end of For the Time Being (1945) and I'd like to quote the passage at length to give a sense of its accumulative satirical power and particular strangeness

The speaker is King Herod, justifying his command to slaughter the firstborn of Judea and predicting the dire cultural consequences of any failure to carry out the order. Herod is (as John Fuller observed) 'rational, liberal and humane: he cannot bring himself to believe something without proof and so unhappily is forced to order the Massacre of the Innocents that his reasoning demands.' Herod, in other words, embodies precisely those liberal values - the values Auden shared - which are incapable of opposing a Hitlerian tyranny:

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.

What a marvellously unsettling piece of prose - wildly funny, deadly serious and weirdly prescient. The petulant, childlike Herod anticipates the comprehensive collapse of humane values that throws up in its wake 'a riot of subjective visions'. From Herod's perspective any rumour of an Incarnation is a threat to his secular, ordered, rational world, and his dilemma is one with which we can all identify. The monologue concludes in a desperate serio-comic flurry of regrets:

I've tried to be good. I brush my teeth every night. I haven't had sex for a month. I object. I'm a liberal. I want everyone to be happy. I wish I had never been born.

In Britain today, liberal ideals - indeed any ideals - are unlikely to be promoted and circulated by appealing to a commonly-held set of assumptions based on such nation-defining historic episodes as Magna Carta, Balaclava, Waterloo, Peterloo, the Suffragette Movement, the Battle of the Somme, D-day and so on. In the past half-century the population of Britain, and more specifically the urban population, has become ethnically, religiously and culturally diverse, a transformation that has brought with it a multitude of self-evident benefits and not a few problems. Although a shared sense of national identity based on existing constitutive stories is still seen as a desirable and practical approach to achieving social cohesion, precisely what stories are appropriate for circulation is a subject for continuing debate, not least when it comes to the content of school history curricula and the kind of tests (if tests are really required) that should be set for migrants wishing to live and work in Britain. 

For the Time Being © The Estate of W. H. Auden

Monday 22 February 2016

On Umberto Eco

Umberto Eco died on Saturday. By way of tribute here are two paragraphs indebted to Eco and to the late Gilbert Adair from my forthcoming book About a Girl: A Reader's Guide to Eimear McBride's A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing:

At this point I'm happy to admit that I owe Gilbert Adair a double debt - for the term sillage and for introducing me to the Perfect Specific. Both of these appeared in two of the many brilliant essays included in Myths and Memories, published the year Eimear McBride was born. I've been re-reading this and his two subsequent collections The Post-modernist Always Rings Twice (1992) and Surfing the Zeitgeist (1997) ever since. Few cultural commentators can match Adair's range, knowledge and intelligence - he writes in a way I'd like to think I think, and his cool ironic voice is much missed. I want to rope in Adair a third and final time, because he memorably summed up the shortcomings and attractions of post-modernism in  Flickers: An Illustrated Celebration of 100 Years of Cinema (1995). In a short piece about Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven, he references Umberto Eco's Reflections on the Name of the Rose in which Eco, describing the genesis of his most celebrated novel, defines the postmodern attitude 'as that of a man who loves a very cultivated woman and knows he cannot say to her, "I love you madly", because he knows that she knows (and that she knows that he knows) that these words have already been written by Barbara Cartland. Still,' continues Eco, 'there is a solution. He can say, "As Barbara Cartland would put it, I love you madly."

Thus, Adair argues, the speaker avoids any false innocence and, in stating clearly that it is no longer possible to speak with true innocence, he is nevertheless able to say what he wants to say to the woman: that he loves her sincerely in an age of lost innocence, an age in which sincerity has been compromised by a pervasive and ironic self-consciousness. I'd suggest that in her writing McBride has shown us a way in which we can say, unironically, 'I love you madly' or (if we adhere to the Adair/Eco principle) she has given us an alternative to the ironic detachment of 'As Barbara Cartland would say, 'I love you madly' (which is me quoting Gilbert Adair quoting Umberto Eco quoting an imaginary suitor quoting Barbara Cartland). What we can now hypothetically say is (for instance) 'As Eimear McBride would say: 'There's no reason in the wide wide world' (to take a favourite phrase from the book). In other words she has given us a new literary standard against which human experience can be measured, and in doing so has stripped language of its disabling post-modern irony. That's quite something. More, she has introduced feeling to modernist writing, combining virtuosity with tenderness. She has brought life to the avant grade, and brought the avant-garde to life. 

About a Girl is published on 17th March by CB editions.

Sunday 21 February 2016

On Jonathan Meades

‘The title is grossly inaccurate,' the author assures us. 'The book is, rather, a portrait of a disappeared provincial England, a time and place unpeeled with gruesome relish.’ This is Jonathan Meades, introducing his 2014 book An Encyclopedia of Myself. 

Gruesome relish has been a Meades trademark since Filthy English (2003), a spectacularly nasty collection of short stories featuring no end of squalid transgressions - incest, addiction, zoophilia, murder, the lot, all lovingly depicted. For earlier evidence of his guignol tendency we have to go all the way back to 1979, and his little-known debut publication. This is Their Life - An Insight into the Unseen Lives of Your Favourite T.V. Personalities "including details of their hobbies, habits, and home lives". Sharing the bright red and orange cover are Max Boyce, Leonard Rossiter, Benny Hill, Noel Gordon, Yootha Joyce and the comedy impersonator Mike Yarwood, who provides the foreword. Not simply a hack's cut-and-paste job, the volume's witty and sardonic potted biographies ('For years Nerys Hughes was 28 . . .') anticipate to a quite terrifying degree the inanity of contemporary celebrity culture. This might might not feature on his CV but is of interest - a cut above the usual  showbiz hack froth. You can pick up a copy for less than three quid on and it's an essential purchase for Meades completists.

                                                           Image © Salamander Books

If a sequel were commissioned today would Meades's mugshot be on the jacket, alongside (say) Jeremy Clarkson, Sandi Toksvig, Piers Morgan and the stars of Eastenders? Unlikely, because while he is an established broadcaster, and a distinguished one, he's never been and is never likely to be a family favourite, never a crowd-pleaser. Surrounded by anodyne telly peers who are personalities, he has a personality. He's too bright, too trenchant, too much his own man, but the telly Meades in Ray-bans, baggy black suit and moth-eaten pompadour, chronically loquacious, biliously erudite, is an artful construct that we should be wary of mistaking for the real thing, 

An Encyclopedia of Myself is ostensibly a memoir of growing up in Salisbury in the 1950s and the form - essays alphabetically arranged and chronologically deranged - suits Meades's strengths as a writer: short (or shortish) riffs with an autobiographical theme, many of them candid and moving. The first entry can stand for the rest. Under the heading ABUSER, SEXUAL, the author confesses to (and appears to regret) the absence of any personal history of childhood abuse.

'Paedophilia' is, he says, a misnomer since it means nothing more than the love of children, but he doesn't  offer 'paedomania' as the proper term for the sexual abuse of minors. It may be too late in the day for such lexical pedantry, and in any case he has other big words up his sleeve. Within the first ten pages of this, the first entry, we get gingivitic, naugahyde, mnemonic (twice), endogamy and albinism (the congenital disorder also known as achromia, achromasia, or achromatosis, terms which one imagines Meades only decided to omit after much soul-searching). Admirers of Meades' prose will be as happy as pigs in clover, and readers of this blog will have no need of a dictionary to look up such words, but others may feel there's a stink of the lamp. Vocabulary aside, his argument is that, lacking any experience of childhood abuse he has no commercially-exploitable trauma to proffer his readers, and that, further, genuine victims of such abuse are (a) complicit in their victimhood and (b) at a commercial advantage in the marketplace for miserabilist memoirs. Fair enough.

What works best are those moments when he ditches the thesaurus and speaks clearly and plainly: 'There were children before there was childhood' is the promising opener to an airless and unfocussed monologue on the corruption of the innocent under industrial capitalism. The paragraph collapses under its own lexical weight when the author deploys, in quick succession, the words 'telluric' (a low frequency subterranean or subacquatic current) and 'anthropocene' (referring to human activities that have had a significant impact on the Earth's ecosystems). Meades confidently attributes its coinage to the Nobel Prize-winner Paul Crutzen. He's wrong - it was the late Eugene F. Stoermer. 

If I settle on this opening entry it's because it is entirely representative of this marvellous yet frustrating book as a whole - a mixture of show-off virtuoso prose, unreliable factoids and occasional moments of real candour and insight.

As a Francophile gourmet Meades will know all about gavage, the French term for  the delivery of food by means of a tube passed through the nose or mouth into the stomach, be it of suffragette or farmyard fowl. In the case of Périgord geese, gavage is performed between two and five times a day for anything between two and five weeks, depending on the size of the bird. A funnel attached to a thin tube is employed to force an enriched grain mash containing fats and vitamin supplements directly into the bird's crop. It's an unattractive practice but the results are sublime - the grotesquely distended and fatty liver of the slaughtered animal is known to the world, and favoured by depraved trenchermen, as foie gras. You can see where I'm going with this . . .

Meades has to date published only two novels - Pompey (1993) and Fowler Family Business (2002) - both overwrought and written in the kind of prose that makes the reader may feel like a French goose. If, like me, you find Meades the novelist hard going over a distance then you are likely to enjoy as much as I did the fragmentary approach to be found in An Encyclopedia of Myself.. Meades works best at short essay length (see the bumper anthology from 1989 Peter Knows What Dick Likes) because his prose can be so dense, so bludgeoningly erudite and prolix, his tone so consistently de haut en bas that one struggles after a few pages - the surface dazzle doesn't have a purchase on the underlying, often very straightforward, thesis. 

But that's what we expect from the author - whether in front of the camera exploring the built environment as heir to the great Ian Nairn or, in print, rogering the thesaurus, writing and re-writing the world The author deploys a colossally rich and dense vocabulary, and can use it to drive home propositions which, on dazed reflection, are perfectly unexceptionable but barely audible under the blare and dazzle of his prose. A Meades sentence is lexically steroidal, pumped-up, glistening, fit to burst like an artisanal pork sausage. We can agree to admire the barnstorming erudition, the carnival barker's resistance to empirical fact, the bilious eloquence, the quick intelligence and engagement with the subject. In this he reminds me of Anthony Burgess.

If he sometimes seems clever-clever (which the great Gilbert Adair defined as half-clever, not double clever), Meades is nevertheless essential, for all the crushing hauteur, the connoisseurial sneer and the hectoring public manner. He is an outstanding writer on three subjects - food, buildings and himself. 

Meades lives today, enviably, in a real architectural masterpiece: le Corbusier's Cité radieuse in Marseilles, a serene proto-brutalist epic with rooftop creche and pool, running track and superb views of the Mediterranean. Built as workers' housing, the generously-proportioned apartments have now been taken over by affluent middle classes professionals and there's a gourmet restaurant called (with a nod to Peter Greenaway) The Belly of the Architect. It's known locally as La Maison du fada (Provençal for 'The Loony Bin') and construction began in 1947, the year Meades was born. 

Saturday 20 February 2016

Dylan Thomas and Maya Deren

Dylan Thomas was the only British poet apart from Auden to engage so professionally and productively with cinema - the lightly-edited edition of his film scripts runs to over 400 pages, including fourteen wartime propaganda films shot by Strand Films for the Ministry of Information.  I wrote about one of these for the TLS here.

Later on came telly programmes with John Betjeman and Tony Harrison (very different talents), and the occasional one -off (such as the wonderful screen version of Christopher Reid's log poem The Song of Lunch starring the late Alan Rickman, the performance of his I most admire). But lets get back to the Rimbaud of Cwmdonkin Drive.

On 28th October 1953, twelve days before he died, Thomas contributed to the Cinema 16 Symposium in New York. Sharing the stage were the playwright Arthur Miller and the influential avant-garde film maker Maya Deren, who at one point asserted somewhat cryptically that drama in film was horizontal, while poetry in film was vertical. At this point Thomas broke in:

‘Well I’m sure that all Maya Deren said was what I would have said, had I thought of it or understood it [laughter and slight applause]. I was asked, on the side, whether that meant that I thought that the audience didn’t understand what Miss Deren was saying. I’m sure they did, and I wish I was down there. But it sounds different from that side, you know. Now I’m all for (I’m in the wrong place tonight) . . .  I’m all for horizontal and vertical [laughter], and all for what we heard about in the avant-garde. [...] But I don’t know. I haven’t a theory to my back, as they say. But there are, all through the films that I’ve seen all my life . . . there have always been . . .  bits that have seemed to me . . .  Now, this is a bit of poetry.’

 (Dylan Thomas: the filmscripts edited by John Ackerman (London: J. M. Dent, 1995), p. 407.)

I admire Deren's work, but side with Thomas. Here's her celebrated short film Meshes of the Afternoon (1943), a fluid blend of the vertical and horizontal.

Friday 19 February 2016

Yabba Dabba Doo

I have a letter in the current issue of the Times Literary Supplement and here it is:

Yabba dabba doo
Sir, – In his absorbing review of Eric C. Brown’s Milton on Film (February 12), Neil Forsyth mentions two chapters in which the author “explore[s] the appropriations of Milton in sci-fi and horror films”. Does this study extend to a Miltonic presence in other branches of popular culture?
It was Armando Iannucci who first pointed out that the opening lines of “Paradise Lost” (“Of man’s first disobedience, and the fruit / Of that forbidden tree . . .”) can be sung to the theme tune of The Flintstones, a discovery that reportedly prompted him to abandon his PhD in seventeenth-century religious language and get a job in television, a decision for which his many admirers have reason to be grateful. 

I hope I don't come across here as a 'Mike Giggler' type - the imaginary Private Eye correspondent who makes humdrum wisecracks about current affairs, the magazine equivalent of the chortling and unbearable office joker. My letter appears in the bottom right hand corner of the page, the spatial equivalent of the upbeat 'And finally . . ' report on the telly news, or the sports pages of a national daily (which in turn correspond, surely, to the idea of desert, or pudding, or sweet, or afters (depending on your background), a consolation after the unpalatable nourishment of news and current affairs).
This week a new editor of the TLS was announced who will take over from Sir Peter Stodhardt when he retires in April. The new man os Stephen 'Stig' Abell, former head of the Press Compaints Commission and managing editor of The Sun. I wish him well, although I confess to having a slight wobble at the prospect of any TLS editor being young enough (at 35) to be my son. I've grown up (so far) in a world dominated by my elders in politics especially, but also the arts and sciences. Suddenly I seem to have been promoted (or demoted) into the outgoing generation, and have a sense of premature usurpation or disenfranchisement. I hear that Abell is a bookish type (and so was I at his age, but am glad nobody entrusted me with editorship of 'the leading international forum for literary culture').

A question: in the event of the TLS appointing a female editor (and this hasn't happened yet) what convention would apply in correspondence? Should a letter to a female editor begin 'Madam'? Surely not! But what . . .?

Thursday 18 February 2016

Excremental Jeremy Hunt

The Bristol Stool Chart (BSC) is a medical aid designed to classify the form of human feces into seven categories. It was developed by Dr. Stephen Lewis and Dr. Ken Heaton at the University of Bristol and was first published in the Scandinavian Journal of Gastroenterology in 1997. 

Here's the list in full (and you can search online for illustrated versions but (as the Daily Mail webesite would say) WARNING GRAPHIC CONTENT. The agreeably un-technical type descriptors are those devised by Lewis and Heaton:

  • Type 1: Separate hard lumps, like nuts (hard to pass)
  • Type 2: Sausage-shaped, but lumpy
  • Type 3: Like a sausage but with cracks on its surface
  • Type 4: Like a sausage or snake, smooth and soft
  • Type 5: Soft blobs with clear cut edges (passed easily)
  • Type 6: Fluffy pieces with ragged edges, a mushy stool
  • Type 7: Watery, no solid pieces, entirely liquid

The remarkable thing is not only that there are as many types of excrement as there are types of ambiguity (according to Empson), but that each of these seven categories can be applied with great accuracy to the public pronouncements of Jeremy Hunt, the Secretary of State for Health and the Tory Member of Parliament for South West Surrey. 

Before reading this blog, which is JUST FOR FUN, you might take a look at Dr Rachel Clarke, a highly intelligent and calmly furious junior doctor, calling Hunt 'a liar and a manipulator' during a television interviewShe makes an eloquent case against this horrible mendacious man.

I lack Dr Clarke's authority and experience and alll I can do as a writer is compare the Health Secretary to different types of excreta.

Everything this awful man says is shit, of course - there can be no question of that. But what type of shitty nonsense does he evacuate at any given time? Let's consider some examples, JUST FOR FUN, with thanks to the extensive Wikipedia entry on Hunt:

Type 1: Separate hard lumps, like nuts (hard to pass)
In an interview with The Times in October 2012, Hunt said that he was in favour of reducing the abortion limit from 24 weeks to 12 weeks. This is a point of view (although it barely passes muster as a thought) that can instantly be categorised as BSC Type 1: hard lumps, like nuts. Hard to pass and, one might add, hard to swallow.

Type 2: Sausage-shaped, but lumpy.
In July 2015, Hunt broke patient confidentiality by tweeting a publicity photo with patient details visible on a board behind him. That seems to me a sausage shaped and lumpy kind of gaffe - inelegant, witless, and porcine.

Type 3: Like a sausage but with cracks on its surface.
The cracks began to show on 30 January this year when Hunt seriously suggested that parents should go online to look at photos of rashes if worried that their child might have meningitis.  "if you're worried about a rash your child has, an online alternative – where you look at photographs and say “my child’s rash looks like this one” – may be a quicker way of getting to the bottom of whether this is serious or not".  

The charity Meningitis Now said his advice was "potentially fatal". I suffered from, and was nearly killed by, a dose of meningitis when I was five years old. Doctors and nurses at our local NHS hospital (now closed) saved my life. Hunt understands medicine las much as a sausage understands an abattoir.

Tyoe 4: Like a sausage or snake, smooth but soft.
In June 2013 Hunt announced plans to charge foreign nationals for using the NHS, claiming that the cost was up to £200 million though official figures put it at £33 million.[However, £21 million of that £33 million was already recovered, putting the actual cost at £7 million - less than Hunt's crackdown could cost.  Smooth but soft.

Type 5: Soft blobs with clear cut edges (passed easily)
In 2009, Hunt was investigated by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards.The commissioner found: "Mr Hunt was in breach of the rules in not reducing his claims on the Additional Costs Allowance in that period to take full account of his agent's living costs. As a result, public funds provided a benefit to the constituency agent." Hunt’s offer to repay half the money (£9,558.50) was accepted - the clear cut edges of legality and probity were easily passed Hunt repaid £1,996 for claiming the expenses of his Farnham home while claiming the mortgage of his Hammersmith home.

Type 6: Fluffy pieces with ragged edges, a mushy stool
In June 2010, Hunt attracted controversy for suggesting that football hooliganism played a part in the death of 96 football fans in the Hillsborough disaster; when it has been suggested that a lack of police control and the presence of terraces and perimeter fences were established as the causes of the tragedy. He later apologised saying "I know that fan unrest played no part in the terrible events of April 1989 and I apologise to Liverpool fans and the families of those killed and injured in the Hillsborough disaster if my comments caused any offence. Note that heartless, evasive and self-exculpating "if".Jeffrey Hunt is a mushy stool.

Type 7: Watery, no solid pieces, entirely liquid
As Culture Secretary, Hunt was the government Minister responsible for the London Olympics and Paralympics. He took the decision to double the budget for the widely acclaimed opening ceremony, which came to £27,000,000 for four hours of telly.

Well  now that's done and I'm glad it's over. I haven't had time to consider Hunt's absolutely disgraceful treatment of junior doctors in the National Health Service - that would involve an additional category on the Bristol Stool Scale. Type 8: explosive flatulence with excrement streaking the walls and ceiling. 

Hunt will be best remembered (though not fondly) for the moment James Naughtie inadvertently called him a cunt on the Radio 4 Today programme, before suffering 'a coughing fit'. Listen here

Tuesday 16 February 2016

On Ann Quin (eventually)

On 20th June 2013 I posted a short blog which appears  in full below. It may well be the first blog reference to a newly-published novel that would later take the world by storm and is now established as that paradoxical thing, 'a modern classic'. I had no idea at the time that I would go on to write a book about the book I so much admired, but that has come to pass. About a Girl  (subtitled 'A Reader's guide to Eimear McBride's A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing') will be published on March 17th by CB editions. 

My TLS review of her debut  novel had appeared a couple of weeks before I posted the blog. At that time no other reviews had yet appeared and the book's phenomenal success was still in the future. But within a few months word had spread and the first of many literary awards  - the Goldsmiths - came as belated recognition that a novel of outstanding brilliance and originality, written almost a decade before by an author who bore comparison with Joyce and Beckett and other major modernists, had at last found its place in the world. Eimear McBride is a leading literary figure and her second book The Lesser Bohemians is the most keenly-anticipated novel of 2016. 

The paragraph deleted from my TLS review forms the basis in About a Girl for refections on the paucity of women writers in the modernist movement. The usual names come up in any such discussion - Virginia Woolf inevitably leading the field - although in my view the English critical perspective tends to overlook even those avant-garde writers across the Channel in any consideration of the subject. I realise belatedly that my placing of McBride in the category of female modernists may appear condescending - she's a great writer full stop - but I like to think my intentions were noble. The tiny community of modernist experimental writers contains an even tinier female cohort, and they deserve and repay our close attention as readers. If you haven't read any of Ann Quin's four novels Berg (1964), Three (1966), Passages (1969) and Tripticks (1972), please make a point of doing so as a belated resolution for 2016. Start with Berg - it's a piece of work.


Salvēte! 20th June 2013

Eimear McBride's A Girl is a Half-formed Thing is a superb first novel that I've been raving about to anyone within earshot since I read an advance copy a month ago. You can read my Times Literary Supplement review here.

The TLS quite rightly cut my first paragraph (too much of the Village Explainer), in which I said:

There are not many experimental novelists, and very few of them are female. Leading the field are Gertrude Stein, Virginia Woolf and Dorothy Richardson (whose Pointed Roofsdeveloped a stream of consciousness technique seven years before the publication of Ulysses). More recently Christine Brooke-Rose, Marguerite Duras, Eva Figes, Ann Quin, Nathalie Sarraute and a handful of others have explored and expanded the novel's formal potential. Eimear McBride is of their number and, on the strength of this brilliantly accomplished first book, equal to the best of them. 

Her book is by turns very funny, intensely sad and utterly astonishing. I've never read anything like it.