"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
Winner of the 2015 Basil Bunting Award for poetry

Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Talking About Edward Thomas 17 June

I will be talking to Jean Moorcroft Wilson, author of a new biography of Edward Thomas, at an event at the London Review Bookshop on 17th June.

I leave you with a quotation from his fragment of autobiography The Childhood of Edward Thomas (1938) where he describes himself as “a citizen’s son of London in the ‘eighties of the nineteenth century".  Reading that book and the biography one realises how much this great celebrant of the English and Welsh countryside was a child of the south London suburbs (and explicitly saw himself as such).

Sunday, 19 April 2015

Rupert Brooke is Dead

The grave of Rupert Brooke on Skyros
This Thursday (23rd April) is (in addition to being Shakespeare's birthday and mine) the 100th anniversary of the death of Rupert Brooke in 1915.  Probably his most famous words are those about the corner of a foreign field that is for ever England and here it is on the Greek island of Skyros where he died from a blood infection on his way to the Dardanelles.  Plonked in the middle of an olive grove, this marble and wrought iron tomb seems to belong to a home counties churchyard not this plain, rough olive grove on a Greek island and it was a strange experience to visit it back in May 2009.

His obituary in The Times written by Winston Churchill (Brooke was very well-connected) began with a fine rhetorical flourish: "Rupert Brooke is dead."  The Brooke myth was born and the infinitely complex man behind that golden Apollo image remains fascinating.  The poet Isaac Rosenberg (who did not have such famous and influential friends) demurred at Brooke's "begloried sonnets" and I will be exploring some of these aspects of Brooke's reputation in a lecture to the Dymock Poets Association in early October.

Sunday, 22 March 2015

H is for Hare

The first paperback edition 1974
As an article in today's Observer reports, nature writing is the current non-fictional vogue – that is to say articles are written about it in the Observer, its authors are winning prizes, and clone after clone is being born.  There has always been nature-writing and its most famous examples like Gilbert White's The Natural History of Selborne, the nature writing of the Northamptonshire poet and naturalist John Clare or the essays of Edward Thomas (which preceded his emergence as a poet of the First World War) are classics of English literature.

'Nature Writing' (the genre so cleverly mocked in its newspaper Nature Notes manifestation by Evelyn Waugh in Scoop; the twee vocabulary and laughable purple prose) has always been a bit of a hybrid, combining sharp scientific observation of nature in the field with a whole range of personal obsessions from the thought-provoking to the plain dotty.  Even the great Gilbert White was obsessed by the idea that swallows didn't actually migrate in winter but  went into hibernation somewhere not very far away from their spring and summer homes.  Today it is more likely to be holding up the natural world as an alternative to our consumer capitalist obsessions or as a place to soothe our poor, bruised little selves.  Traditional nature writing was not much concerned with the political world (The Natural History of Selborne appeared in 1789, the same year that a certain upheaval took place in France) but today, sharpened by our ecological sense of what we are doing to the natural world, the broader context is unavoidable.

What we might call The New Nature Writing has certainly broadened the scope of the genre in very welcome ways.  It can cover traditional natural history, environmental politics, exploration of urban spaces and edgelands, travel, autobiography and just about anything else.  One of the best of the living British nature writers is Richard Mabey who was quoted in the Observer article as saying: "Nature writing ought to be writing about nature. I'm not sure books about pets ought to qualify, nor do I think books that are principally about the nature of the self ought to qualify."  Mabey doesn't exactly mention H is for Hawk but I think we know which kind of writing he has in mind.  He adds that nature writers should concentrate on being "the translators of the natural world...The highest objective is to let what is out there speak to us clearly in its own terms."  I couldn't agree with Mabey more but I don't think that is how many of the New Nature Writers see themselves.

As it happens I had just finished Helen Macdonald's H is for Hawk when, by what process of serendipity I don't know, I plucked off my shelf a book that has sat there unread for several years, The Leaping Hare (1972) by George Ewart Evans and David Thomson.  Evans was the author of many books about traditional rural life based, like Ronald Blythe's Akenfield often on oral history interviews (Ask the Fellows Who Cut the Hay etc etc) and David Thomson is the author of a haunting and beautiful memoir of youth and love in Ireland, Woodbrook (1974).  This is a quite fascinating book about the hare, a creature about which we still don't know everything and which has been mythologised and made strange down the centuries.  The authors tell us about its natural history, its habits and behaviour, the way in which it has been incorporated into myth and legend, its life as the hare-witch of folktale, and so much else.  They have talked to countrymen as well as zoologists and there is nothing about the hare that they seem to have missed.  The contrast between this book of informed and attentive inquiry and Helen Macdonald's part-misery memoir of using the training of a hawk to exorcise her grief is, it seems to me, significant.  There are some similarities.  Both books talk about the history of their subject and the traditions surrounding it, both are based on some real research and thinking about the context in which their subject lives.  But where Evans and Thomson concentrate on telling us as much as it is is possible to know about the hare and its life in our imaginations, Macdonald's obsessive need to talk about herself, and the hawk in relation solely to herself, gets in the way of learning more about the goshawk, the history and practice of falconry, the stories that have grown up around it.  There is too much of the writer (and too many words) and although when she writes directly about her loss of her father she is convincing, honest and moving, as a book about a living creature it cannot compete with the book about the hare.

Of course we cannot be strictly objective.  Like the mediaeval bestiaries which described animals partly in natural history terms, partly in terms of their moral symbolism, and partly in relation to their religious or sacred significance (as when the red breast of the robin is accounted for by its attempt to pluck out the bloody thorns from Christ's calvary crown, a hypothesis that wouldn't cut much ice with Prof. Dawkins) we bring ourselves and our assumptions and our anthropomorphising tendencies to the way we think and write about our fellow creatures.  I have done it myself in my Of earth, water, air and fire: animal poems (Melos, 2013) where I have implied a moral relationship between humans and animals.  I think it is natural, inevitable, to do this but it works only if we keep our eye firmly on the object and try to learn.

I give the last word to Richard Mabey.  The best nature writing, he says, lets what is out there speak to us clearly in its own terms.  I take this to mean that the hare and the hawk are interesting, in the end, for what they are and not solely for the ways in which our ego uses them.

Thursday, 19 March 2015

Basil Bunting Award 2015 winner announced

Basil Bunting
The 2015 Basil Bunting Award for poetry was announced today (Friday 20th March) at the inaugural Newcastle Poetry Festival.  This is the first time I have ever won a poetry competition or indeed any other literary prize in a long writing career (though I achieved second place last month in the inaugural University of Roehampton Ruskin Prize) so it was doubly welcome.  It was also a special pleasure to win a prize named after the poet Basil Bunting, whose work I have long admired.

The £1000 award was announced at the Newcastle Poetry Festival on Friday 20th March where the winning poem was read out alongside the other shortlisted entries.

I am the author of several poetry collections, the most recent being Of earth, water, air and fire: animal poems (Melos) and a satire on World War 1 commemoration mania, Trench Feet (Rack).

The prize was awarded for the poem below.



Walk

En quoi un homard est-il plus ridicule qu’un chien, qu’un chat, 
qu’une gazelle, qu’un lion ou toute autre bête dont on se fait suivre ? 
J’ai le goût des homards, qui sont tranquilles, sérieux, 
savent les secrets de la mer, n’aboient pas…


I see de Nerval coaxing his lobster,
on a leash of blue ribbon.
He has made his case
for preference of pet:
because it does not bark
and knows the secrets of the sea.

In this morning’s market
the great crustaceans twitch;
a pair of claws squeezes the air;
liquid eels in slippery ranks 
slither on stainless steel;
a salmon sleeps in a drift of ice.

Those bloody aprons, 
that pink tump of guts
coiled like a frivolous dessert,
enforce a preference for
the Bois – poet and homard,
like a pair of lovers, hand in hand.















Friday, 6 February 2015

A Short Book About Love

When my not-quite-a-novel-well-sort-of A Short Book About Love was published by Seren in 2001 it was described by a reviewer in The Independent on Sunday as “profound, warm and witty” and Boyd Tonkin also declared in The Independent: “this multi-faceted jewel is a reader’s delight”.  Not long after publication it was on the shelves of Blackwell's in Charing Cross Road where a table groaning with books about love had also been set up in the run-up to St Valentine's Day. Needless to say A Short Book About Love was not amongst them. After all, with a title like that why would it be?  Always a friend of booksellers I lifted one off the shelves myself and added it to the 14th February display (someone needs to write an article about this phenomenon of gratuitous acts of charity by authors to booksellers, especially where their own books are concerned; it is always heartwarming to hear of it and most authors have similar tales to tell).

I was, therefore, delighted, in Facebook parlance,  to be invited to take part in an event on Thursday 12th February at Modern Art Oxford on the theme of love where I will be talking about the book and reading from it.  I will have copies with me and would be happy to sign a copy for you.

The book weaves together three strands: a light-hearted re-telling of the medieval legend of Tristan and Iseut, a series of short reflections [that's the 'multi-faceted' bit] on the theme of love, and fragments of fictionalised Liverpudlian autobiography from a character called Felix who can reasonably be identified with the author.

This was great fun to write and in its digressive, amusing (I hope!) and slightly mad way it was the sort of book I always wanted to write and would do so again if the ludic were a little more popular in 2015 with publishers than it is.

If you can't come to Oxford then you can buy it from Seren or even from Amazon at the exacting price, fourteen years on from publication, of £0.01 – worth every penny, I should say!

Thursday, 29 January 2015

Ruskin Prize Announced

The Empress Theodora in mosaic at the
church of San Vitale, Ravenna
The winners of the inaugural Ruskin Prize, organised by the University of Roehampton Poetry Centre, have been announced.  First prize went to Claudia Daventry, joint second prize was awarded to Chloe Stopa-Hunt and myself and third prize went to Tania Hershman.

Apart from a misspent youth winning New Statesman competitions in the 1980s and 90s I have never won a literary prize in my life so this is a great pleasure.

The version of the poem, "Annotations of Byzantium",  printed on the Roehampton website has some typos so the full version is presented below.

It will be published later in Poem magazine.









Annotations of Byzantium


1.

I am woman and you call me names:
circus dancer, whore, magician…Empress.

Beneath my chamber, secret tunnels run
where men are shut to waste or die;

where night dissolves in day like powders
losing presence in a lethal glass.

They wander in the dark, go mad, lose sight;
I tether them like cattle to a manger

where they feed, a rope around their neck,
who thought they could resist my power.

This I do for Antonina, consort of Belisarius, 
the man who cowers while she slakes her lust 

with Theodosius the Thracian boy;
I am woman; I know need and strength.




2.

Beneath the dome of Wisdom, 
coming from shadows, we greet the patriarch.

Look at our work, great canopy of stone,
mathematics of magnificence.

Later, the salt sea whips my cheeks;
the wind streaks madly from the Dardanelles,

nature and art in passionate contention
where I award, between them both, the prize.


3.

He is in the marshes, hunting crane,
watching the violent beat of wings,

patient to cripple the great, beautiful bird
that rises in the mellow light of dawn.



4.

They shall say that Theodora rose
‘from humble origin’, lap-dancer

in the royal eye, to take the purple;
add in ‘whore’, for it’s desire

that frightens them, the narrowed eye,
the jewelled goblet raised and aimed,

a rustle in the chamber’s passage
where a curtain billows, candle flame

trembles excitedly at what it sees;
lips sealed by willing servitude.



Historical Note

The principal source of this poem is the The Secret History by Procopius (translated as a Penguin Classic, by G.A. Williamson, 1966). Written around 550 A.D. it is a remarkably candid account of the reign of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian and his wife Empress Theodora who is the narrative voice in the poem.  The most famous of the Byzantine emperors, Justinian assumed power in 518 and married Theodora in 523.  She died in 547 and Justinian in 565.  Justinian is seen as a great law-giver and the period of his reign saw the construction of the great basilica of Agia Sophia (‘Holy Wisdom’) completed in 537 but Procopius tells a story of vicious corruption and tyranny, greed and lust. behind the scenes. He also recounts the story of the general Belisarius whose secretary Procopius had been and of his wife Antonina who appears as corrupt as Theodora herself.










Monday, 19 January 2015

Houellebecq Strikes Again (Again)!


Published on the very day of the murderous attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris, Michel Houellebecq's new novel, Soumission (Submission) could not have been more timely and as the gunmen burst into the office of the magazine the author himself featured on the cover of the then current issue with a mocking caricature of himself as a fortune teller or mage.  For his new novel is placed in the very near future after François Hollande's second term ends in 2022 with an Islamic President of the Republic who gets in as a result of doing a deal with the imploded parties of centre right and left after the refusal of the second largest bloc, the Front National, to contemplate a coalition. Whether this is a plausible scenario even in the context of a work of fiction is for the reader to decide but the donnée is at the very least an interesting one.

The novel is due to appear in an English translation in the autumn and already everyone is getting very excited at the "offence" it will putatively cause.  But apart from the tiny minority of fanatics who would derive "offence" from a fly settling on their windowsill, I imagine most moderate Muslims will read this with an air of baffled surprise for the Muslims in this novel are far from being represented as fanatics or jihadists.  On the contrary, the new President is a model of moderation and tact, distancing himself firmly from the madmen, and his minister for the universities, soon to be Foreign Minister, is represented as a man of exquisite civilisation and courtesy.  True, the Sorbonne is now under Islamic colours and women are absent from the university cocktail parties, but the central character, François, an academic specialising in late 19th century literature, ends by contemplating conversion himself, resolving a midlife crisis by accepting an arranged marriage with an attractive and accommodating young undergraduate (or three, which appears to be the limit under the rules of polygamy).  Why not, is the novel's final unanswered question? "Je n'aurais rien à regretter."  I would have nothing to regret.

Anyone familiar with Houellebecq's work (and I confess to being a long term fan of the sacred monster) will of course have noticed the feline ironies which sustain this narrative.  It is, in effect, a massive wind-up.  But the author's fondness for more or less plausible futuristic scenarios in his fiction does enable him to float some very interesting ideas.  The new President, Ben Abbes, dreams of, in effect, recreating the former Roman empire by shifting the centre of gravity of the European Union south, embracing north Africa and even Egypt, and his first step is to propose a move of HQ from Brussels to Athens.  This is not a rough derisive polemic (Houellebecq has done those in his time) but one that forces people to think about what the future might look like.  It is also a novel about religion and it is, like all his books, a novel about Michel Houellebecq.

Taking the first of these, religion, we are introduced to the central character, François, a specialist in the late 19th Century decadent, J.K. Huysmans, who after a lifetime as an atheistical aesthete, ended up embracing a fervent Catholicism.  François makes a pilgrimage to the abbey where Huysmans was received and where he is moved by the black Madonna and the general religious atmosphere.  He is stirred by the idea that what sustained European civilisation was Christianity and its collapse in the current consumer-individualist culture of 21st Century Europe (cue some characteristic bashing of "les baby-boomers" and much sardonic, sharply-observed descriptions of contemporary life; Houellebecq has a keen sociologist's eye for social trends).  The hypothesis, whether we take it seriously or not as a recommendation for our approval, is that Muslims at least are secure in their faith and know what they believe in.

Huysmans comes over in this book as a kind of proto-Houellebecquian solitary, disenchanted with the world around him, and turning to religion, in the end, as his only hope.  And this, for me was the chief pleasure of the book, not the Islamic theme, but the portrait of the central character who, like all Houellebecq's central characters, is a thinly disguised version of the author himself.  His dry humour, his sardonic exactness in puncturing the fatuities around him, are endlessly diverting and often made me laugh out loud.  The author, I read, is now 56 and he is starting to register the fact.  François still manages a sex life of a sort (and there are the usual graphic passages which his readers have got used to expecting) but even though he is in his mid-forties he feels himself to be physically falling apart, facing a future alone in his flat with his take-away food, booze, and occasional resort to escort girls after his young girlfriend emigrates in fear to Israel.  The relaxed, smooth, seemingly effortless life that awaits him if he converts to his university boss's form of Islam is a temptation, at the end of the novel, that he looks like being unable to resist.

This is, finally, a book in which not much happens.  Like the eighteenth century French dialogue novels it consists mostly of conversations – with the head of the Sorbonne, with a retired security agent who has spent a lifetime observing "extremists", with colleagues and lovers – that are always interesting and amusing even if they sometimes read like small essays or polemics.  Houellebecq may be an ageing enfant terrible but he is always intellectually stimulating and, at his best, a master of sardonic humour.  This one is as good as anything he has done in the past.