"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, 8 September 2014

War, Jaw and Grub Street Revisited

Just about to enter the sacred cloister at Wadham
It suits a certain kind of scribbler to see themselves as an heroic outsider, speaking freely, beholden to no one, unlike the footling and pedantic scholars with their smug tenure, impossible sentences and saeva indignatio or do I mean odium theologicum? (We can do the Latin too).  In reality the old tussle between Grub Street and Academe no longer works and all of us are running after the same small (diminishing?) group of serious readers.  The self-indulgence of these past quarrels is indeed a thing of the past.

These thoughts occurred to me yesterday as I dipped through the mediaeval portal of Wadham College, Oxford, to deliver a paper at the English Association conference on British Poetry of the First World War.  My subject was "How 'Anti-War' were the War Poets?" and I argued for 20 minutes that the received wisdom that the poets of WW1 were 'anti-war' was not a piece of wisdom at all and that only the true pacifists could lay claim to that label.  I see Owen and Sassoon (decorated soldiers who pressed to go back to the front) as more 'anti-heroic' in their writing than 'anti-war'.

My audience unexpectedly (for me) included the poet Michael Longley whose new collection, The Stairwell, from Cape I had just read. It was a great pleasure to meet him and to hear him tell the hall he liked my paper.  Everything was charming and well-mannered with not a hint of odium anywhere and my nervousness (even as the author of a book on the subject of WW1 poetry) at addressing the scholars soon vanished.  In subsequent sessions, however, I discovered that Jeremy Paxman was not in such a favoured position and was honorary bogeyman of the day.  Absent also was the terrible theoretical jargon (the awful intellectual puns that made one wince, the turgid half-digested philosophy from Eng. Lit. academics not trained in philosophical discourse) of a decade or so ago.  Everyone is speaking plain English again and I could understand every word.  "I know, too, how apt the dear place is to be sniffy," Matthew Arnold said of Oxford in the 19th Century but it certainly wasn't yesterday.  In fact Grub Street (as represented in my latest verse satire, Trench Feet) is more likely to be snobbish and 'sniffy', with more cold-shoulders in the average literary or publishing party in London than in this gathering of friendly and communicative academics and teachers.

During the delivery of my paper I kept hearing a frantic buzzing vibration in my pocket from my silenced mobile phone.  Later I discovered that people had been tweeting my argument as it unfolded. I hope it didn't diminish their attention.  In fact it was the Grub Street Irregulars like me who seemed to lack the audio-visual flair and I felt rather old-fashioned arriving without memory stick Power Point or handout and relying on words alone.

The conference concluded with a panel on "The Historians v. The Poets" where the consensus seemed to be that this was a phoney war and that the alleged distorting effects on public consciousness of poetic representations of it were unproven and that both poetry and history were legitimate ways of exploring what happened.  Someone suggested from the floor that poets and historians should make common cause against the real culprits: the politicians who got everyone into this mess in the first place.

Saturday, 23 August 2014

Presteigne Festival: The Welsh Poets of the Great War

Nicholas Murray outside Norton Church,
Thursday 21 August
The Presteigne Festival is in full swing in the Welsh Marches this weekend and already there have been some excellent events.  I was very pleased to have been asked to talk on Thursday about the Welsh poets of the Great War and had a great stroke of luck when I asked if there was anyone in the audience who could read out Hedd Wyn's famous poem "War", compensating for my regrettable lack of Welsh.  In the audience was Wyn Hobson, an experienced public reciter of poetry and a fluent Welsh speaker.  He gave a wonderful rendition of this classic Welsh poem and I read Gillian Clarke's translation of it.  I am very grateful to Wyn and to the audience for their intelligent and interesting questions.

Rhyfel (War):

Bitter to live in times like these.
While God declines beyond the seas;
Instead, man, king or peasantry,
Raises his gross authority.
When he thinks God has gone away
Man takes up his sword to slay
His brother; we can hear death's roar.

It shadows the hovels of the poor.

Like the old songs they left behind,
We hung our harps in the willows again.
Ballads of boys blow on the wind,

Their blood is mingled with the rain.

Hedd Wyn [translated by Gillian Clarke]

Wyn Hobson

Thursday, 19 June 2014

Bloomsbury and the Poets

Today is publication day of Bloomsbury and the Poets, the first title in a prospective series of prose books from the new imprint Rack Press Editions.  It is a short book about the poets who have lived in Bloomsbury and, as you might imagine, there are plenty of these. You can obtain the book directly from the Rack Press website at a discounted price of £6 rather than the full price of £8.

This morning the TLS diary has an item on the book by the inimitable JC who mentions that a few details (unsurprisingly) were familiar to him from my earlier book Real Bloomsbury.  Actually there is a great deal of new material including much more on Bloomsbury's major woman poet, Charlotte Mew.

Times Literary Supplement, 20 June 2014

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Thank You is the Hardest Word

Just back from my annual visit to Greece I was struck by the number of times I heard people say, in English, "thank you".  It must be the current fad, like people saluting each other in trendy wine bars with "Ciao!"  I didn't just hear it in cities but also, for example, in a tiny Dodecanese island where someone had just lifted a woman's push-chair over an obstacle at the entrance to the church where a local festival was going on.  It's ironic that this comes at a time when the word, rather like "please", is going out of fashion in the country of its origin.  No one under the age of 25 says any more: "Please can I have a coffee" but "Can I get a coffee", if my controlled scientific observation of three people in the queue in front of me at Paddington station can be accepted as legitimate data.

I recently had a letter from a well-known journalist and writer to whom I had sent, unsolicited, a copy of my recent satirical poem, Trench Feet, published in April by Rack Press.  He didn't know me and I didn't know him but since my satire on the current WW1 media clichés chimed with a recent polemical piece he had written in a national newspaper I thought he might be interested.  He had gone to the trouble of writing an actual letter to someone he had never met.  It reminded me that nearly everyone else to whom I had sent the poem (except those who bought a copy and who later wrote to me in uncharacteristically large numbers, i.e more than five) had maintained an impeccable silence. Were they right to do so?  After all, an unsolicited gift is like internet spam, there is no obligation to pay it any heed.  We no longer live in an Edwardian world of formal manners.  And why was I doing it?  Soliciting some free praise that I could paste on the cover of future editions?  Fishing for compliments?  Advertising my self-importance?  I think it was none of these. I just thought that some people I knew would be interested.  It's a bit like returning someone's smile in the street as you nearly collide.  It's what people used to do.  It's called human communication.  It's a social medium.

It's actually very easy to deal with this sort of thing by using any of a number of ready-made phrases like: "Thanks for this, I look forward to reading it," which doesn't commit you to saying anything once that promised reading has happened, if it ever does happen.  You don't even have to reveal the fact that you sense you are going to loathe it.  You have acknowledged your friend/acquaintance's gesture and that is enough.  You are not obliged to like anything your friend has written.  Instead, I was greeted by silence from the sort of people who spend hours every day tweeting and posting and blogging on social media.  All that scribbling and commenting, it seems, leaves no time for a simple "thank you" (in English or Greek).  Life is too short; we are all too busy...Here's a picture of my dog eating a copy of the Guardian Review.  Likes (47)

What would I do in such circumstances?  Surely a quick email or card?  I hope so, and this has made me more determined than ever to make sure that I remember to respond to anyone who sends me anything as a personal gift, because I am sure I have forgotten to do so on occasion.  A reminder of which occasion exactly: that is definitely something that would send a tremor through someone's tweeting arm.


Tuesday, 13 May 2014

The Writing Process

Today is a first for the Bibliophilic Blogger, we are taking part in a blog tour.  I am not sure I know exactly what a blog tour is but it seems to be of the armchair variety so I can start the journey without leaving home.  The charabanc set off from the estimable Parthian Books in Wales so I am very pleased at that provenance.  I am picking up the baton from Martina Evans and the next two word-voyagers after me will be poets Angela Topping and Dan Wyke.

I have been asked to answer four questions so here goes!

What are you working on?

Like most writers I always have more than one project on the go but my main effort at the moment is going into work on a new poetry collection called "Facing the Facts" (the title poem arrived and immediately decided to start calling the shots). Then I am actively revising a novel that came close to being published a few years ago.  Revisiting it I realised that it was far better than I thought (even the rejection letter was the best I've ever had) so I am feeling quite positive about it.  I think I know what needs to be done.  Next month I am publishing a (very) short book called Bloomsbury and  the Poets, and another potentially big non-fiction project is, as they say, "being discussed".  

In the extraordinarily difficult climate in British publishing just now I would like to announce a commission to write a new literary biography but I am unable to do so even though I still very much see myself as a literary biographer, confirmed by two invitations this week to talk about one of my subjects, Aldous Huxley.  I am being interviewed about him by the BBC on Wednesday for a documentary being made by Francine Stock and I have been asked to take part in a panel on literary dystopias at the Cheltenham Festival of Literature in October.

How does your work differ from others of its genre?

I think that my biographies are not wildly different from the current norms of the genre.  I pay particular attention to the literary quality of the biography as a piece of writing rather than its being just a decent research-effort, but the best ones always do that.  Poetry by its nature is unpredictable, innovative, surprising, so it will always be chafing against the constraints of genre but it is not for me to say how original my poetry is.  I think it is in my fiction that I have tended to depart from genre norms as I love books that mix all sorts of things together in free-associating ways.  That is probably why I am not a best-selling novelist!  Overall I don't like the constraints of genre.  Last year I completed a short dystopian novel.  I sent it to A Very Prestigious Literary Publisher & Co who replied that it was very well-written and full of good things but they couldn't possible touch it because it was Genre.  I then sent it to a publisher known to be friendly towards the genre of future fiction and they replied that it was very well-written and full of good things but they couldn't possible touch it because it was "too literary".  I then tapped my head slowly against the wall howling gently.

Genre, box-ticking, pigeon-holing, are the marketing vices of our contemporary risk-averse publishing scene.  [ugly sound of a raspberry being blown]

Why do you write what you do?

I write because I have to.  It is a visceral inner compulsion, a need, not a decision or a career choice.  It is a vocation and I simply can't remember a time since I was a child making up newspapers with my sister when I haven't been writing.  I was, however, a late developer when it came to publishing and my first book didn't appear until I was 40.  I have more than made up since for lost time!  I write poetry because poems, as Larkin famously said, "turn up". I have no choice in the matter.  I love prose also, nonfictional and fictional.  I love words and doing things with them, I love their patterns and I love the spaces between words, the echoes and the music, the suggestiveness, the possibilities.  I write biographies because I am interested in other people's lives and how they are shaped.  Writing is a pleasure (and the pain in the end must be part of the pleasure) that is almost equal to the sublime pleasure of reading.  "Good readers," Borges observed, "are rarer and blacker swans than good writers."  Reading is a great creative act that nourishes, that makes writers what they are.

How does your writing process work?

That is a hard question.  I have regular, disciplined habits.  I write best early in the morning when the day and I are both fresh and I write quickly and fluently.  I have no idea what writer's block could possibly be about.  But if I have learned anything from experience – and I did not learn this early enough – it is that revision is vital.  All writing is re-writing someone said and I agree.  Those first rapid brushstrokes can sometimes turn out to be crooked and misapplied.  Try and try again.  I don't need a special place to write and can do it anywhere.  I can write if there is a pneumatic drill going on underneath me but I must have no interruption.  Total concentration, a locked door, an empty room, no visitors, callers, well-wishers, and I can write, lost utterly in the process of composition.  But an interruption is a catastrophe.

Ping! It looks as though someone has pressed the buzzer.  I must now get off the bus and let the tour continue...

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.