"Murray is the best kind of literary biographer" – The Financial Times.
For more information about the books of Nicholas Murray click HERE and access his website

Monday, 24 March 2014

Roy Jenkins and I

It is more than 12 years since I received this letter out of the blue from Roy Jenkins who is now being much talked of as a result of a new biography by John Campbell.  I am still slightly amazed.

Writing About the Great War

Ford Madox Ford
Three months into the centenary year of the outbreak of the First World War is there any kind of consensus about how this event should be marked or, "celebrated" as some have expressed it (rather unfortunately in my view)?  The word "commemorate" is surely more appropriate.

Next month my satirical poem, Trench Feet (Rack Press) about an ambitious TV academic who sees the centenary as an opportunity to make a name for himself by reshuffling the standard clichés about the War (and who comes badly unstuck) will be published and naturally I have been thinking about how we should represent this event.  Having been commissioned, as the author of a book about the war poets, The Red Sweet Wine of Youth: British Poets of the First World War (Abacus), to give several talks during the year, I have been reflecting on two issues: how the participant writers represented the conflict and how (largely as a result of those representations) it is seen today. The second of these is for another day but as Tim Kendall in his excellent new anthology of the poets puts it, the poets "have determined the ways in which the War has been remembered and mythologized. Not since the the Siege of Troy has a conflict been so closely defined by the poetry that it inspired."

Not just the poets.  I am currently reading with great interest a collection of writings about the War by Ford Madox Ford, whose Parade's End tetralogy is one of the major fictional attempts to reflect the War in all its complexity.  The collection, War Prose, edited by Ford scholar Max Saunders, brings together a lot of miscellaneous pieces by Ford and I strongly recommend it as a prophylactic against the routine clichés.

It is fascinating to witness Ford struggling to articulate his feelings about his experience and about the problem of rendering those feelings, and the conflict itself, with any semblance of accuracy.  His 1916 essay "A Day of Battle" begins: "I have asked myself continuously why I can write nothing – why I cannot even think of anything that to myself seems worth thinking! – about the psychology of that Active Service of which I have seen my share.  And why cannot I even evoke pictures of the Somme or the flat lands round Ploegsteert?"  He considers his writerly powers of visualisation that have been praised by others yet which in this instance desert him.  He finds "the mind stops dead, and something in the brain stops and shuts down".  The experience was so extraordinary that it defeated him: "As far as I am concerned an invisible barrier in my brain seems to lie between the profession of Arms and the mind that puts things into words.  And I ask myself: why?"

Perhaps this is why so many of the classic accounts of the Great War were written some years after the Armistice. Time was needed to sift the memories and determine what the participants actually thought about what they had been through.  I remember, when writing my book, sifting through the pencilled notebooks of Siegfried Sassoon in the library of the Imperial War Museum (formerly the institution known as Bedlam!) and following the twists and turns of his scribbled attempts to start the story which became the classic Memories of an Infantry Officer which did not appear until 1930. Others managed to gather their thoughts more quickly.  A.P. Herbert's The Secret Battle (1919) is one of the often overlooked fictional accounts that appeared very soon after the end of the War.  I strongly recommend it.

Ford considered that the practical preoccupations of being a soldier "absolutely numbed my powers of observation"but his account of the psychology of someone trying to make sense of the war is fascinating.  A good starting point for thinking more seriously about the Centenary.

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Talking about the Poetry Pamphlet

A recent pamphlet from Rack Press
Thank you to Planet magazine for interviewing me for a podcast on the subject of poetry pamphlets in general and my Rack Press in particular.  Great to have been in Aberystwyth the other week talking to such thoughtful hosts.

Friday, 14 March 2014

Tony Benn Remembered

Tony Benn At Demonstration outside the Greek Embassy,
January 2013
I last saw Tony Benn at a demonstration outside the Greek Embassy in January last year where he made a characteristically short, spontaneous and wise speech about the rise of the nasty far Right in Europe.  He had wrapped up well as you see and brought a folding camp stool to sit on.  When we chatted with him his dry sense of humour was once again in evidence.  A great democratic socialist who showed that label was no oxymoron.

Friday, 7 March 2014

Creative Writing Courses: a Health Warning

I see that Hanif Kureishi has been at it again this time rubbishing creative writing courses and giving the media the pleasure of pointing out that he is a Professor of Creative Writing himself.  As if he cared.

The old Latin tag poeta nascitur non fit [the poet is born not made] which seems to say that writing cannot be taught, makes its appearance regularly, but the debate never seems to get further than the rehearsal of what was said last time so here are Ten Things You Won't Always Hear About Creative Writing Courses [from someone who teaches non-fiction creative writing].


  • Creative writing can be taught in the same way that sculpture, maths, pastry-making, carpentry and indeed anything can be taught. That's what education is for. End of debate.
  • Many creative writing courses are indeed a waste of time because publishing is in crisis, risk-averse, and incapable of thinking outside its crumpled cardboard box, outlets for your perfectly honed and blame-free work are few, and the chances of being published are slim. Unlike watercolour painting where you can hang your tolerably nice picture (as I do!) of some trees in the loo, an unpublished manuscript is very sad like a crumpled party frock at dawn..
  • Many creative writing courses – notoriously the Guardian and Faber varieties – are a rip-off, over-priced ventures in snake-oil marketing.  
  • Professors of Creative Writing are chosen because they are 'names', probably already overpaid, and most of the work is done by a class of low-paid, exploited helots
  • The contemporary university is motivated by only one thing, money, and creative writing courses are perceived as an easy way of relieving people of it.
  • Many of the classic nostrums of the creative writing courses are rubbish.  Here's John Donne, in one of the great poems of the English language, "The Anniversary", telling not showing: 'All other things to their destruction draw/Only our love hath no decay.'
  • The job of a writer is to break rules not to follow them
  • A regrettable consequence of the exploding creative writing industry is that writing, which is a vocation, becomes a career choice and taking one is like enrolling on a snobby MBA in the hope that you will found your own organic marmalade empire
  • The most serious case against creative writing courses is that they foster uniformity and dullness; students are taught what to avoid ['too many adjectives'] which results too often – one can see it most clearly in contemporary poetry – in a kind of toothpaste poetry, slickly oozing out in a uniform and colourless trail.  The stripe doesn't fool us.
  • Writers can benefit from sharing work with their peers and receiving constructive criticism – I missed out on this in my early writing years and regret it – but in the end one learns to write from reading with passion and creativity and from following the promptings of one's ungovernable creative imagination.
Oh, I didn't want the professorial job anyway.

PS No mention above of the actual students on such courses, working with whom, for those of us who teach them, is what makes the whole show worthwhile.

Monday, 17 February 2014

Biography and the Need to Know

Having just read John Cornwell's biography of John Henry Newman, the Victorian theologian and prose stylist (much admired by James Joyce) I have been thinking about the ethics of biography.  It used to be "scandal" of a heterosexual kind that exercised, if not biographers, then the climate of publicity around the publication of their books.  Now the fun has switched to finding out whether or not the subject was homosexual.  This immediately raises three questions for me: what business it it of ours? what standard of proof is required? and who cares?

When it comes to Newman (on the Catholic Church's long or shortlist for canonisation as a saint) the fact that he insisted on being buried in the same grave as his lifelong friend Ambrose St, John is enough for some, including my old friend, gay rights campaigner, Peter Tatchell.  Peter may be right that Newman was gay but equally the relationship with Ambrose St John could have been a deep, affectionate same-sex friendship (Cornwell's view).  The fact is that we don't know. These buttoned-up Victorians, it turns out, were very emotional people.  They used the language of love to describe friendships and Cornwell shows how this was a feature also of the Romantic poets like Wordsworth and Coleridge.  The world of the celibate priest is one that is closed to most of us.  It is hard to imagine what it might mean and, at the end of the day, people's private sexuality, the ways they choose to come to terms with it or sublimate it, is their own.  In the case of the Catholic Church, however, the terrible child sex abuse scandals committed by priests and monks mean that the question can't be left there.  If celibacy doesn't work (assuming that is the reason for the scandals which, of course, also happen in the non-celibate world too) then the issue does need to be confronted.  Personally, I am grateful for the delicate way that Cornwell handled this issue in his biography saying no more and no less than was warranted.

Saturday, 18 January 2014

Remembering Bruce Chatwin

Today is the 25th anniversary of the death of Bruce Chatwin and his former school, Marlborough College, was the venue for a two-day colloquium on the writer that kicked off yesterday with a lecture from me and today lectures from Jonathan Chatwin and Susannah Clapp.  It was a great pleasure to witness the students (Marlborough is now fully co-educational) showing their enthusiasm for Chatwin and reading out extracts from him so well.  I ran a short travel-writing workshop with a group of sixth formers (using a passage from The Songlines  to spark discussion) and it is clear that his influence is still strong.  His old friend Michael Cannon unveiled a memorial plaque to him and there was much discussion about how seriously to take claims that he had not enjoyed his schooldays.  As someone pointed out, in the 1950s no one expected to enjoy their boarding school experience but today's Marlburians certainly seem to be very happy and lively.  And I have my commemorative mug!