"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

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

A Short View of Mandela

In 2001 my novel A Short Book About Love was published by Seren. This is chapter 23. We have read so much about Nelson Mandela in the last week. I wonder if fiction can offer anything to our thinking about this remarkable human being.




23.IT NEVER ENDS

HERE IS AN affecting tale of  an eighty-year-old man who
has found love. Literature mocks the lustiness, the out of
sequence amours of  the aged. Saucy old bugger, they say,
elbowing each other in the ribs. Ought to be past it at his age.
Love, it seems, becomes undignified with age. What was
splendid at twenty is an embarrassment at eighty. Could it be
that we have got this wrong?
   Old men take many forms.They can be angry and belliger-
ent, crusty and difficult, bitter and tyrannical. They can be,
not to mince words, old gits. But they can also be – and isn't
this how we all want to end up? – mellow and ripe. After a life-
time of  raging at the world (which is something one has little
choice but to do) there's something to be said for hanging up
one's boots, filling a pipe, and striking the pose of  the ripened
sage, the man who's seen it all and won't see some of  it again.
Just before one departs, a little wisdom, a little ripeness, a
hand run through the bin of  yellow grain, a knowing knead-
ing between finger and thumb, the delivery of  a verdict.
   And of  course, these precious characteristics are to be
applied to women too.
   At the end of  a life one can either regret the performance
or turn it over gratefully in one's mind. With health and
strength and a full belly and a seat in the sun it might be
possible to say: things aren't so bad. Things could be worse.
If  the man or woman is a thinker there might even have been
the attainment of  some wisdom – though that's a tricky
concept, for sometimes we need to be foolish. Wisdom can
involve playing safe. But there is a need – at some stage in a
life - to play with fire.
   It is the man's eightieth birthday and he has surprised and
not surprised everyone by announcing that it is also to be his
wedding day. His children, holding a lunch in his honour
elsewhere, are informed. Moments later, they emerge from
their private dining-room singing a traditional wedding
song. For this is not the coldly formal world of  wet roofs and
grey skies and suburban lawns. It is Africa. The bridegroom
(whose wife is twenty seven years younger) is a man of  great
calm and dignity. He is not an old git. Because he is the
President of  his country the newspapers are full of  nuptial
excitement. His old enemies – who put him in jail, who
threatened him with the gallows, who made him live in a
solitary cell, who made him slop out toilet-buckets and hack
at stones in the hot sun – are now as excited as anyone. They
send him their congratulations. Have they remembered that
twenty seven years is the period they kept him on the prison
island? His new wife has given them a useful mnemonic
  The President is a forgiving man. So forgiving and so
dignified and so apparently without hate that we call him a
saint. Which may be true, for saints are always flawed, their
goodness offset by the jagged frame of  ordinary humanity.
His friend from the prison island tells the newspapers that
he was a man of  great strength and determination and
courage and resolve. Playing chess with a cellmate he told
the warders to lock away the board at the end of  the day. He
repeated the instruction at the end of  the second day but
halfway through the third, his opponent conceded defeat.
He could not go on playing chess with this man of  iron, this
man who could see from afar what he wanted and who
proceeded, not in rushed steps, not breathless, to obtain it.
Perhaps saints are difficult to live with. Perhaps the best
thing is to step aside and let them get on with it.
   The cruel authorities sometimes pretended to be kind.
They offered their now famous prisoner better conditions.
They said he need not collect the buckets nor go out to the
quarry with his pick and shovel. But he refused, saying that
all were equal in that place. That is the sort of  thing that
saints say. They are also human. The old man, in his younger
days, was a little vain. He refused to shave off  his beard to
make himself  more invisible to the police and the sentries at
roadblocks because he was attached to his magnificent
fungus. Pictures of  him appeared on the walls of  student
digs and inner city squats and the beard was always there as
it was always there in the pictures of  Che Guevara. But Che
was a Latin with a black beret and his beard was straggly and
romantic.
   So let us leave the old man on his birthday/wedding day,
walking in the hot African sun, smiling among the crowds,
thinking to himself, perhaps, that the air is good and that it
is not such a bad idea, all things considered, to be alive.

Extract from A Short Book About Love (Seren, 2001) by Nicholas Murray

Monday, 18 November 2013

Rip Van Winkle Awakes to a Brave New World

Copious apologies to readers of this blog who have noticed a word-famine or long sleep over the past couple of months.  I have been very busy and writing entries to my blog has rather fallen by the wayside.  I fully intend to wake up and get scribbling but in the meantime here is a link to my other blog which I write as publisher of the small poetry imprint, Rack Press.  It's a tale of small publishers and big giants and I make the link between the effortless power of Amazon and Huxley's Brave New World.   Huxley, of course, died 50 years ago this week on the very day of the Kennedy assassination as those of you who caught me talking last Tuesday on BBC Radio 4 about him will know.  That programme by the way can be downloaded as a podcast ("A Brave New World", Radio 4) because it is a Radio 4 Documentary of the Week.

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Huxley in Oxford: The Condemned Playground

Peter Wood from New York addresses a session on
Huxley's ideas  in teaching
I have just returned from a very interesting conference at Oxford, The Condemned Playground: Aldous Huxley and His Contemporaries  at which I gave a paper on Huxley and his great uncle, Matthew Arnold, taking the opportunity to challenge a widely held but in my view seriously inaccurate view of Brave New World as showing contempt for "the masses" (ugly phrase) rather than seeing it as an attack on the way we are manipulated by commercial media interests.  Both Arnold and Huxley in their writings on culture and society have often been judged sternly by this strange conservative-populist looking-glass world of English cultural debate and I suggested that their ironic and Olympian manner of delivery may have made matters worse.

The conference incorporated the Fifth International Aldous Huxley Symposium and I attended a forum as part of the latter called Aldous Huxley and a New Generation of Readers which had fascinating contributions from Swiss, American and Singaporian teachers about how Huxley's texts and indeed his ideas about teaching and learning are being used and applied in contemporary schools and colleges. Robin Hull, a Zurich private school headteacher, reported that a majority of his 15 year olds in a survey said they thought Brave New World was relevant to them and meant something, which I feel is encouraging.

The conference also heard an informal and amusing talk from Evelyn Waugh's grandson, Alexander Waugh, about the current project to publish a full edition of Waugh's letters.  To judge from the extracts he shared this will be something to look out for.

Monday, 26 August 2013

Do People Still Buy Poetry?

Charlotte Mew
The news that the estimable CB Editions run by Charles Boyle is planning to wind itself up next year has been greeted with shock and regret by those who value individualistic, innovative and enterprising small press publishing.  Charles Boyle gives his reasons on his Facebook page and there have been, naturally, many comments.  But it seems to me that, in addition to the obvious factors such as the difficulty of the market, the reluctance of bookshops to host small press publications, the failure of public funding bodies to work out how to help small publishers in practical non-bureaucratic ways, there is a more fundamental issue: no one seems to be buying new poetry very much.  [Try sampling a Facebook parcel of poets' posts and see how rarely anyone reports breathlessly having bought someone's new collection and enjoyed it and is telling others to go out and buy it.  If poets themselves don't buy each other in numbers then we are in trouble.]

All poetry publishers, great and small, have been finding that sales are dropping though it is worth reminding ourselves that there never has been a golden age.  I used to admire the volumes in the Oxford University Press list in the 1970s and 1980s but I was told recently that the actual sales figures were surprisingly low.  I am reading at the moment the Collected Poems of Charlotte Mew published by Gerald Duckworth in 1953.  In the introduction by Alida Munro, wife of the Poetry Bookshop proprietor Harold Monro, she reveals that, exceptionally, 500 copies of Mew's debut collection The Farmer's Bride were published in 1929 when the Poetry Bookshop's normal print run was 250.  The Poetry Bookshop (and I have written elsewhere about this in my The Red Sweet Wine of Youth: The British Poets of the First World War and more recently Matthew Hollis has covered similar ground in his biography of Edward Thomas) was at the centre of British poetry in the years just before and during the First World War.  Anyone who cared about the future of poetry would know that the Imagists and Georgians championed by Monro were where it was at.  The history of modern poetry has confirmed this but...250 copies.

It sometimes feels that the poetry readership is finite, that all the marketing and tweeting in the world won't get it into four figures for a new book, but that can't be accepted passively so what do we do?  Is it that people are lazy and can't make the effort of special attention that poetry needs to yield up its pleasures?  I don't think we should blame the readers.  I would offer two explanations.  The first is that we lack proper criticism.  Strong, reliable, discriminating reviewers and critics (not eloquent puffs from the poet's friends masquerading as a book review) could help sort out the wheat from the chaff. I believe (maybe because I can't face the consequences of not believing) that if people are put in touch with the very best poetry being written they will buy it and read it as they still do, to some extent, in the case of quality literary fiction. But reviewing just now is partial, selective, lacking in critical authority and doesn't even perform the basic function of telling us what has come out.  Excellent new books of poetry sometimes receive no reviews at all. So unless you happen to be lucky enough to stumble on one of those books they remain silent phantoms in a warehouse or on the poet's Mum's mantlepiece. Some form of comprehensive monthly listing with short reviews would enable us at least to know what was out there.

Secondly, we need to improve the marketing and distribution of poetry, to get it into the bookshops.  Booksellers like Foyles need to wake up and start stocking small press poetry for starters.  The funds of the Arts Council for England, Literature Wales etc need to be used to set up some sort of network for small poetry presses, a kind of affordable Inpress that you didn't have to pay to join that was the equivalent of Italian olive growers banding together as co-operatives to market their produce.  A pilot project, some hard-headed research, some practical scheme for helping poets and their readers get in touch with each other, would be far more helpful than individual grants to poets.

In the end if the poetry being offered to readers is no good then they can't be blamed for declining to sample it but I believe that there is enough decent poetry being published to tempt them if they can be enabled to locate it.  Otherwise poetry will die from neglect.  And that, we can all agree, is unthinkable.

Monday, 29 July 2013

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

A New Collection of Animal Poems

I am very pleased to say that my latest pamphlet collection from Melos Press, Of earth, water, air and fire: animal poems is now available.

The collection of twenty-seven poems about animals, birds, insects, with a few mythical creatures bundled in for good measure, contains poems that are all new and previously unpublished and can be purchased online from Melos at £6.



Monday, 15 July 2013

Ledbury: Poems in the Sun

Nicholas Murray reading
at the Shell House Gallery,
Ledbury Poetry Festival, 14th July 2013
I very much enjoyed reading yesterday at the Ledbury Poetry Festival on one of the hottest days of the year so far.  Ledbury deserves its reputation as a delightful, relaxed place for a poetry festival.  I was reading from my Acapulco: New and Selected Poems (Melos) and from my new pamphlet collection of animal poems, the ink on which was barely dry [more information on this new title and how to order available very shortly here].

The audience was particularly responsive and nice to meet, except for the man who had come along to promote his poems, refused to buy any from the poet reading, and began to perform his own poems, unsolicited, to the dispersing audience whose dispersal was thus gently accelerated.  These narcissists are, I suppose, as much a part of the poetry scene as wasps on a hot July day and must be considered part of the fun.

I shall be back next year!

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Ledbury Here We Come

I am reading at the Ledbury Poetry Festival on Sunday (14 July) in the Shell House Gallery between 12.15 and 12.35pm from my collection Acapulco: New and Selected Poems (Melos) and from my forthcoming pamphlet Of Earth, Water, Air and Fire: animal poems (also from Melos) and there is a possibility that copies of that may be back from the printer in time to make advance copies available for sale.  Fingers crossed.

It's a particular pleasure to be reading at Ledbury in Herefordshire because this is the neighbouring county to Powys where I live and the weather looks like being lovely too.

More news about the new pamphlet when it is ready to be ordered but watch the Melos website for details.

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Bring out the Red Parrot: Poetry in Powys

If anyone is passing through the Welsh Marches next Monday stop by and hear some poetry at the No 46 Wine Bar in Presteigne, Powys.  I will be reading, alongside Chris Kinsey and Liz Lefroy, from my most recent book, Acapulco: New and Selected Poems (Melos) and from my next pamphlet of poems about animals, birds and other creatures.


Sunday, 12 May 2013

Wales Comes to Soho


A Literary Walk and Readings at The Wheatsheaf, Soho on 25th May.



I will be there!


Literary Tourism 2013: Soho Welsh, Riotous Rhondda, Literary Ogmore and R S Thomas's Eglwysfach


After sold out literary tours to Machen country and Brenda Chamberlain's Bangor last year we have some more exciting new literary events arranged for you this year in partnership with Literature Wales' brilliant literary tourism programme. Join us on a sojourn to London for Soho Welsh, a trip down memory lane with Rachel Trezise and Boyd Clack in Riotous Rhondda and explore the Merthyr Mawr sand dunes on horseback to find out more about Dr Dannie Abse’s time in Ogmore. So much fun to be had! Book early to avoid disappointment.
 
 
1. Soho Welsh: The Wheatsheaf Readings with Tomos Owen, Nicholas Murray and Lewis Davies
 
Saturday 25 May, 2013
 
Join Cardiff University lecturer Dr Tomos Owen, author of Real Bloomsbury NicholasMurray, and writer Lewis Davies in exploring Welsh writers and their London lives. We will walk in the footsteps of cult gothic horror writer Arthur Machen, revered short story writer Rhys Davies, founding editor of the Everyman’s Library series Ernest Rhys and novelist Dorothy Edwards The tour includes readings and short talks in the streets and pubs of Soho and Fitzrovia, and finishes at The Wheatsheaf – a former haunt of Dylan Thomas, Augustus John and George Orwell.

The readings at the Wheatsheaf will include poets Susan Grindley and Ian Parks so be there!

Saturday, 30 March 2013

The Horror! The Horror!

I have just put down Jeanette Winterson's latest novel in paperback, The Daylight Gate (Hammer) and putting it down proved very difficult during the reading of it as this always compulsive and lively writer has now taken possession of the horror genre by telling the story of the Pendle witch trials of 1612.

Winterson (like me) is a Lancastrian who believes that: "The north of England is untamed.  It can be subdued but it cannot be tamed. Lancashire is the wild part of the untamed." So where better to set a gripping story of wild goings on, of witchcraft, magic, the old religion, sex and violence.  From the opening sentence the story races away and draws on fantasy horror elements as well as real people and events such as the magician John Dee, Shakespeare, Alice Nutter and the witchfinder, Thomas Potts.  Winterson describes dungeons and witches with vivid relish but somehow avoids the pitfall of horror writing: extreme silliness.  This is largely because of the zest and vigour of the writing and hats off to Hammer for making the transition from old-fashioned British horror films to joining forces with Arrow Books (Random House) to produce what looks like being a series of horror-novellas by well-known writers.

I would not normally venture into this genre but I will follow Winterson anywhere and the journey was worth it.

Monday, 25 March 2013

Poetry Reading in Brighton

I am pleased to be reading under the Melos Press banner in Brighton this Thursday from my Acapulco: New and Selected Poems as part of the Pighog Plus! series of readings at the launch of Judith Cair's new book from Pighog.

Be there if you can!

Thursday, 14 February 2013

The Great War Approaches: Echenoz and 14


Less than a year to go and already one can hear the distant crackle of machine-gun fire: 2014 is coming and, I think we can predict with reasonable certainty, The War will be mentioned obsessively and will dominate the media all year long.  Having written a book myself on the poets of the First World War I am hardly in a position to demur but I must confess to a certain dread of the first onslaught.

In France, one of my favourite contemporary novelists, Jean Echenoz, has jumped the gun and produced a characteristically spare, beautifully written and economical novel called simply, 14, which begins from the gloriously minimalist blurb: "Cinq hommes sont partis à la guerre, une femme attend le retour de deux d'entre eux. Reste à savoir s'ils vont revenir. Quand. Et dans quel état."

The dry, cool observation of Echenoz takes these five copains from their village in the Vendée on the Atlantic coast to the Ardennes.  They are ordinary young men, working at ordinary trades and the novel – not in any crudely buttonholing sense 'anti-war' –  shows exactly what 'état' they return in.  Echenoz, unlike his fellow-countryman Louis-Ferdinand Céline, whose rage against the War in Journey to the end of the night makes all our English war poets look rather tame, lets us feel what its human impact is in a more unemotional way yet with an astonishing clarity.  His description of the shooting down of one of the young men by a German fighter plane is a little masterpiece of close observation that makes you feel you are there yet so few words are expended on the task.

I hope that when the great tsunami of 2014 washes over us there will be at least one or two contributions here that match this precision and restraint but I am not holding my breath.