"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, 18 December 2007

Betjeman at St Pancras

There he is: the ruin-bibber himself, gazing up into the magnificently restored ironwork of the roof of St Pancras International. Betjeman's statue is done in a reassuringly modest scale unlike the grotesque and vulgar giant bronze of two lovers meeting on the platform that stands some distance away. I have yet to take the train from the new station but the flashing boards: "PARIS NORD" had me twitching a bit. Not normally a fan of retro stuff, I think they have done a brilliant job. But it is still the shapely grandeur of the Swiss Re ("the gherkin") towering over the City that really excites me. There's room for both I say, in pre-Yuletide affability. Have a nice Christmas and New Year everyone, I shall be shutting down shortly.

Thursday, 13 December 2007

Rilke and The Limits of Criticism

Is there any serious reader who hasn't, at some time, grown exasperated or simply jaded at the unstoppable tsunami of literary criticism, even if we know how vital it is to have it, like a visit to the dentist? Re-reading Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet in Stephen Cohn's translation for Carcanet (2000) I came across these scraps of wisdom: "...there is nothing which touches works of art so little as does the language of criticism; nothing ever comes of that but more or less felicitous misunderstandings. Few things are in fact as accessible to reason or to language as people will generally try to make us believe. Most phenomena are unsayable, and have their being in a dimension which no word has ever entered; and works of art are the most unsayable of all - they are mysterious presences whose lives endure alongside our own perishable lives." In a later letter to the young poet he writes: "Works of art are infinitely solitary, and nothing comes so little near them as does criticism. It is love alone that can grasp them and do them justice. You should always trust yourself and your intuitions against that kind of analysis or argument or presentation...To allow each thing its own evolution, each impression and each grain of feeling buried in the self, in the darkness, unsayable, unknowable, and with infinite humility and patience await the birth of a new illumination: this alone is what it means to live the life of an artist - in understanding as much as in creating...patience is everything."

Love, patience, understanding, humility in the face of the text. One day, perhaps.

Monday, 10 December 2007

Men with Guns

What was I saying about city patriotism? In Geneva at the weekend (don't mention the words "carbon" and "footprint" to me as 2007 draws to a close, and I haven't finished yet) to co-incide with the annual l'Escalade or Ladder festival. I had no idea this would be on but the streets were full of men in 16th century garb, mostly military, and there was shooting in the streets (see right) from ancient muskets, or possibly the long pointy thing that went "Pop!" was an arquebus. On the night of 11/12 December 1602 the dastardly forces of the Dukes of Savoy tried to storm the city by climbing up the ramparts at night using the fiendish ploy of, er, ladders. The heroic citizens of Geneva courageously repulsed them, hanged various prisoners and spitted the Savoyard heads on spikes etc etc. Each year a great historical pageant takes place with everyone in historical costume (mostly blokes for it's a bit macho) and horses and carts, a hangman or two, happy peasants, ladies in cloaks and white linen bonnets, lots of drums and pipes, and, my favourite, lashings of vin chaud. Whether any of this has to do with the recent controversies over racist political campaigning in Switzerland, including adverts showing black sheep being repelled at the border by white sheep, I pass over in silence. But I always wonder how much this historical mummery reflects the actual nuances of what happened and again I wonder what function it is performing in the present. The world of high tech and "private banking" in modern day Geneva seems a long way from all this Reformation ruff and pikestaff business.

Thursday, 6 December 2007

The Last Refuge of the Scoundrel

Dr Johnson's famous dismissal of patriotism as "the last refuge of the scoundrel" was probably meant to refer to the nation state but there are smaller kinds of patriotism too and one of these is at the level of the city. In spite of having published a book this week about my native city, Liverpool (see the details to the left of this column) which is in part a piece of city-patriotism, I still wonder about the attachment to place and how easily it can slide dangerously into a rejection of the people who don't come from that place - which presumably was what Dr J was on about.

In 1934 the great Austrian writer Joseph Roth, in The White Cities wrote a remarkable passage about this subject:

"One might say: patriotism has killed Europe...European culture is much older than the European nation-states. Greece, Rome, Israel, Christendom and Renaissance, the French Revolution and Germany's eighteenth century, the polyglot music of Austria and the poetry of the the Slavs: these are the forces that have formed Europe...All are naturally opposed to the barbarity of so-called national pride. The imbecile love of the 'soil' kills the love of the earth. The pride of being born in a particular country, within a particular nation, wrecks the feeling of European universality."

From The White Cities: reports from France 1925-39 translated 2004 by Michael Hofmann, Granta Books.

Wednesday, 28 November 2007

Meet the Author

I was told off shortly after I launched this blog for not being subjective enough, this being the USP of blogging, so here's a picture of me (a little out of date because the beard has gone) in a poster for an event tonight at Chelsea Library in the King's Road where I shall be talking about my books, the writing life and The Meaning of the Universe between 5.30 and 7.30. The event is free so do come along and join in the conversation. Or throw some rotten fruit....

Tuesday, 27 November 2007

Mr Feelbad: Euripides' Women of Troy

Katie Mitchell's latest production, Euripides' bleak tragedy Women of Troy, opens tomorrow night at the National Theatre and I caught a preview last night. When I looked again at my tattered Penguin translation by Philip Vellacott and read the scene: "The ruins of Troy, two days after the city's capture, before dawn. First are seen only silhouettes of shattered buildings against a red glow and rising smoke..." I imagined we might be shimmying down to old Baghdad town but the play opened in what looked like a prisoner of war processing centre, a very British-looking bleak institutional building with an upper floor where the imprisoned Helen paced like a mad woman in the attic. Done here in a translation by the late Don Taylor, Mitchell appears to have dispensed with the Gods and this is all on a very human scale. In Vellacott's version the play opens with some fine poetry from Poseidon ("I come from the salt depths of the Aegean Sea/Where the white feet of Nereids tread their circling dance") promising ruin for the impious Greeks who have violated sacred shrines, but in the new version we cut straight to Hecuba lamenting the ruin of Troy and the fate of its women who are now at the mercy of the invaders. The production is nonetheless visually and dramatically exciting with some spooky music and sound effects and Mitchell's trademark choreography of jumpy posh women in frocks (aka the Chorus). In a short intense version like this (lasting barely an hour and twenty minutes without an interval) something has to go and it looks as though it is the poetry but it's still an exciting show. Euripides is not a feelgood kind of guy and his vision is stark, seeming to dismiss even the role of the gods in human affairs - it's all random suffering. By focussing on the atrocities of the Greeks he probably didn't do himself any favours in Athens where the Costa Tragedy Award in 415 BC went instead to Xenocles whom no one has ever heard of since. Well worth an outing.

Thursday, 22 November 2007

A Taste of Modern Greece

A refreshing look at modern Greece has just appeared in a memoir by English professor John Lucas. The title refers to a noisy address in the Athens sprawl where Lucas lived during his stint as a visiting professor at the University of Athens in 1984-85. My review of the book appeared in yesterday's Independent.

Tuesday, 20 November 2007

Mortality and Dr Browne

I don't know whether it's the ending of the year, the dark nights, or wading through several inches of Welsh snow yesterday morning at six o'clock in the morning but I found myself picking up again the inimitable seventeenth century prose master Sir Thomas Browne yesterday to read on the train to London. Thomas Browne's syntax is something of a marvel (and more than once one stops to make sure one has got it) but when he is on form no one can beat him for eloquent musings. Try this from Hydriotaphia or Urne-Buriall prompted by the discovery of some funerary urns, possibly Roman, in a field in Norfolk, shortly before he wrote the book in 1658: "But the long habit of living indisposeth us for dying..." Or maybe: "But the iniquity of oblivion blindly scattereth her poppy, and deals with the memory of men without distinction to merit of perpetuity." It's the way he tells 'em.

Thursday, 15 November 2007

Anne Stevenson: Poetry, Youth and Age

With publishers and most media allegedly engaged in a frantic (and sometimes unintentionally comic) pursuit of the "yoof" market (forgetting that the demographics seem to point to a future hegemony of the oldies) it's interesting to see how serious writers who have already collected their bus passes deal with the topic. Yeats set up the benchmark for modern poets with his magnificent lines in "Sailing to Byzantium", one of the finest poems in his great volume The Tower (1928).

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress.

Reading Anne Stevenson's new collection Stone Milk (she is 74) I have been struck by the wit and wisdom of her meditations on being old and I would strongly recommend this book. I have been commissioned to review it so I won't go into detail but if you only read one new book of poems between now and Christmas this should be it. More later.

Tuesday, 13 November 2007

Zorba the Greek

To King's College in The Strand to see a special showing of Michael Cacoyannis' 1963 film of Nikos Kazantzakis' novel Zorba the Greek. The evening was organised by the Centre for Hellenic Studies at King's which organises many free events about modern Greek subjects and the movie was preceded by the first showing of a videotaped interview with the director Michael Cacoyannis, who, it must be said, wasn't giving much away.

Kazantzakis' novel was written during the Nazi occupation of Greece, but set twenty years earlier, and was published in 1946. He intended the story of Alexis Zorbas to be on the model of the traditional saint's life or synaxarion in Greek but I wonder how saintly the character, played magnificently by Anthony Quinn, really was? The film remains very powerful, beautifully realising in black and white the old Cretan landscape and customs, some of which are rather hard to take, like the vendettas and the murder of the character pictured here. Played by Irene Pappas, her throat was cut by the vengeful peasants for the crime, it would appear, of being a beautiful widow who said no to a man with a knife and a moustache. The machismo of this film may now be as remote as the quaint tavernas and peasant costume it preserves (or one hopes it is) but the movie certainly repays seeing.

Sunday, 11 November 2007

Poets of the Blogosphere

Have you noticed how rarely poetry figures in the literary "blogosphere"? I am working on this but in the meantime do visit the Rack Press blog where you will learn that the new series of Rack Press poets is being launched in London on 15th January 2008. You are all invited to that annual poetryfest in the cold early weeks of January, cold even in Bloomsbury (cold also in the Radnor Hills at Rack Press HQ but we are rugged folk). Watch this space for further details.

Wednesday, 7 November 2007

The People Show: Still Crazy (Naturally)

Excitement mounted to fever pitch last night in Bethnal Green...Well, anyway it was the first night of the London run of the latest People Show, No 118: "The Birthday Tour". The People Show, founded in 1966 by sixties-person Jeff Nuttall, is celebrating its fortieth birthday this year and I can report with relief that they are just as crazy as ever. The Stage once said that in one of their shows there was "anarchy lurking around every corner". I would put it differently and say that anarchy is constantly in your face. When one of the characters leaves the stage through the circular door of a washing machine you know that the madness is in a safe pair of hands.

In their day the People Show, whose roots are in the 1960s idea of a "happening" and in performance art, but who are literally indescribable, have played all the smart venues like the ICA and the Riverside Studios but these days they ignite the fireworks in their East London base at the People Show Studios. This is a former church hall where those nice boys the Kray Twins first learned to box and last night a film crew was shooting an episode of Eastenders or something similar just down the road, adding to the excitement. People Show original stars George Kahn, with his trademark sax, and the faux-naif Mark Long were in the show alongside some excellent new performers and...no, I'm not even going to try to describe what happened. Let's just say we didn't remain in our seats all night, following the show around the Studios, and boarding a zany tour-coach at one point, before being returned to the main auditorium for the final act of discreet lunacy. There have been highs and lows over the past 40 years and Mrs Bibliophilic Blogger and I were present at one of the latter a few years ago at the Welsh town of Builth Wells where the audience consisted of the two of us plus four bemused locals. When Mark Long pushed his quizzical face through a gap in the curtains to start the show his heart must have dropped. So don't let this happen again folks. Get down to Bethnal Green sharpish. There's nothing quite like it in London theatre at the moment and it's on until 17th November.

I learn that People Show 119 is going to take place in the famous Sefton Park Palm House in Liverpool as part of the European Capital of Culture celebrations. Does Liverpool know what it has let itself in for?

Saturday, 3 November 2007

The Art of the Cash Register

There are three very interesting current exhibitions at the Royal Academy (and that's without mentioning Zhang Huan's extraordinary, giant, Three Legged Buddha in the RA forecourt). There was so much to see today I wouldn't be surprised if I popped back on Monday. The most striking of the three is a retrospective of the work of German artist Georg Baselitz (if you're a podcast sort of person you can download a little spiel on him from the RA website). But on my way out I noticed this little message from the sponsors, Eurohypo. Call me a superannuated old leftie but isn't there something a little impudent about a sponsoring bank equating its "creativity" with that of a major artist? Thanks for the cash, folks, but this is an art exhibition not a corporate PR jolly.

Friday, 2 November 2007

Fatos Kongoli: New Albanian Fiction

To Foyle's Bookshop in London for the launch of the first English translation of Albanian novelist Fatos Kongoli's 1992 novel I Humburi/The Loser. Kongoli himself was there, a likeably modest man without any of the trappings of the celebrity writer. He said that he had no desire to write under the Hoxa dictatorship in Albania during which time he had been a mathematics professor. Elsewhere he has written that there are no Marxist theorems in geometry. But with the fall of the dictatorship in 1991 he felt released to write and The Loser - about which I can say nothing because I acquired it only last night - is the product. At question time I asked if he was alone in feeling this sense of lifted restraint. Had there been a sudden renaissance in contemporary Albanian literature? Speaking through his interpreter, Robert Elsie, who with Janice Mathie-Heck translated the book for Welsh publisher Seren's promising new translation series, Kongoli was cautious. He did not seem to wish to speak for anyone but himself. There were many writers in Albania, some of whom, he suggested, thought they were important. The life of a writer is hard, he said, it is economically unrewarding, but one has no choice but to pursue it. This book was directly stimulated by the events of 1991 and the collapse of the regime (we recall those memorable images of Albanian refugees piling onto ships for Italy) and it is, apparently, an exploration of the consequences of state repression. This is the first of Kongoli's books to be translated into English though he has a much higher profile in France. Although he does not speak English he is fluent in French, which enabled me to have a few words with him at the end and to carry off a copy of the book signed: 'bien cordialement, Fatos Kongoli'. I look forward to reading it (Seren, £8.99)

Thursday, 1 November 2007

Poets and (Super) Furry Animals

Q. Who is the man in the chair?
A. Gruff Rhys of the Welsh band Super Furry Animals

He is being interviewed in the latest issue of the Welsh magazine Planet which, as anyone who lives in Wales knows, is one of the few essential magazines in what used to be known quaintly as "the Principality". Under the heading "Punk Rock in Bethesda" it's the first of two articles on Rhys whose new album Hey Venus! has just been released.

This issue of Planet also contains a review (by me) of John Barnie's new poetry collection, Trouble in Heaven (Gomer). Barnie is one of the best living Welsh poets and I strongly recommend this title. Barnie is a poet alive to the Welsh countryside, and particularly its bird life, in all its dimensions, especially the environmental.

You can find out more about Planet from its website: www.planetmagazine.org.uk

Tuesday, 30 October 2007

A Poem by Thomas Hardy

Can one ever recapture the emotion triggered by one's first experience of a poem, a painting, a piece of music, a song? I was pondering this recently when I came across Thomas Hardy's poem "The Voice". I first read this when I was about sixteen and it knocked me over. Reading it again...it still knocks me over. It is a poem to his first wife and, as well as being a powerful love poem, it has a wonderful (rugged, Hardyesque) music that made the first stanza pass straight into my memory without my even trying to memorise it. It is one of those "bus-stop poems" that I keep for use when I have no books with me and memory has to take the place of a shelf of books.

The Voice

Woman much missed, how you call to me, call to me,
Saying that now you are not as you were
When you had changed from the one who was all to me,
But as at first, when our day was fair.

Can it be you that I hear? Let me view you, then,
Standing as when I drew near to the town
Where you would wait for me: yes, as I knew you then,
Even to the original air-blue gown!

Or is it only the breeze in its listlessness
Travelling across the wet mead to me here,
You being ever dissolved to wan wistlessness,
Heard no more again far or near?

Thus I; faltering forward,
Leaves around me falling,
Wind oozing thin through the thorn from norward,
And the woman calling.

December 1912

Thomas Hardy

Friday, 26 October 2007

Virginia Woolf and Writing

I have an old habit of keeping a book of quotations that interest me and I just came across this one from Virginia Woolf from her diary of 31st May 1933:
I thought, driving through Richmond last night, something very profound about the synthesis of my being: how only writing composes it: how nothing makes a whole unless I am writing; now I have forgotten what seemed to be so profound.
I can't say why I find such observations so arresting but, whatever you think of the antics of the Bloomsbury group, there is something remarkable about her.

Tuesday, 23 October 2007

Frankfurt Bookspeak

While we are on the subject of the idiocies of the book business there was a very funny article in last Friday's Le Monde des Livres by Alain Beuve-Méry decoding the things people say at the Frankfurt Book Fair (and based apparently on an anonymous photocopy doing the rounds). The English used there is, he said, un idiome très particulier. For example to describe a book as "literary" means "people might like it but it will be harder to sell". Worse than this is "experimental" which decoded means "unreadable, difficult to sell, and possibly capable of pleasing a few critics". A book that is said to have "wonderful descriptions" is probably "boring and useless". If it comes garlanded with "excellent recommendations" this means that "other authors represented by the same agency declare it's a masterpiece". "I'm expecting an offer" means. "I haven't had a flicker of interest from anyone." One of my favourites is: "It's completely different from his last one" which really says: "His previous books did not sell well." And: "I couldn't stop reading it," means "I had to stay up all night reading the thing in order to put in a bid the next morning." Finally: "It was so good I immediately had to read it again." What this is saying is: "I could make no sense of it at a first reading." I'm glad to learn that publishing folk have, after all, a sense of humour.

A Grumpy Git Writes

Yes, but your little Catalan bookshop also had this in the left hand window!!! And how can you call Perpignan a provincial town when Salvador Dali said it was the centre of the world?

Are Bookshops Dead?

Of course not, but some are more healthy than others. What do you notice about this picture (apart from the lousy lighting)? I took this at the weekend in a back street of the provincial south west town of Perpignan in France and it shows (what is normal in most European countries) a unique display of about 30 new books chosen by the owner. In Britain bookshop windows are both boring and dishonest. Dishonest because the books are not chosen by the bookseller but rather space is bought and sold with bribes paid by publishers to get exposure in the window. The same old predictable clutch of best-selling titles, marketed like baked beans in "3 for 2" clumps, duly appears in every chain bookshop window from one end of the country to the other. In this case there are some best-sellers, of course, like Daniel Pennac, and there is Marie Darrieussecq (one of the few contemporary French literary novelists to be translated into English) with her controversial new novel Tom est mort that has provoked one of those bogus 'plagiarism' rows. (I may blog about it later when I've read it.) But it feels like someone's thoughtful choice and it was interesting to browse. Of course the ease with which we can order books through Amazon at drastically reduced prices is changing everything. Most of the hardback Man Booker titles are available at paperback prices at Amazon and you won't need your brolly to go out and get them so quite how any bookshop, even an independent, is going to survive beats me.

Friday, 19 October 2007

Marvell's Coy Mistress

Listen in on Sunday evening, 21st October, to BBC Radio 4's Adventures in Poetry at 16.30 for a whole 30 minute programme given over to Andrew Marvell's great poem, To His Coy Mistress. I will be contributing, alongside Marvell scholar, Nigel Smith, the poet and critic Deryn Rees-Jones, and the veteran critic Al Alvarez. We all liked the poem and here it is!

To his Coy Mistress

by Andrew Marvell

Had we but world enough, and time,
This coyness, lady, were no crime.
We would sit down and think which way
To walk, and pass our long love's day;
Thou by the Indian Ganges' side
Shouldst rubies find; I by the tide
Of Humber would complain. I would
Love you ten years before the Flood;
And you should, if you please, refuse
Till the conversion of the Jews.
My vegetable love should grow
Vaster than empires, and more slow.
An hundred years should go to praise
Thine eyes, and on thy forehead gaze;
Two hundred to adore each breast,
But thirty thousand to the rest;
An age at least to every part,
And the last age should show your heart.
For, lady, you deserve this state,
Nor would I love at lower rate.

But at my back I always hear
Time's winged chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.
Thy beauty shall no more be found,
Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound
My echoing song; then worms shall try
That long preserv'd virginity,
And your quaint honour turn to dust,
And into ashes all my lust.
The grave's a fine and private place,
But none I think do there embrace.

Now therefore, while the youthful hue
Sits on thy skin like morning dew,
And while thy willing soul transpires
At every pore with instant fires,
Now let us sport us while we may;
And now, like am'rous birds of prey,
Rather at once our time devour,
Than languish in his slow-chapp'd power.
Let us roll all our strength, and all
Our sweetness, up into one ball;
And tear our pleasures with rough strife
Thorough the iron gates of life.
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.

Wednesday, 17 October 2007

Booker Baloney: Chasing the Feelgood Factor

Congratulations to Anne Enright for surprising everyone by winning the Man Booker Prize for fiction last night with The Gathering. Like most people I haven't read this yet but I will rectify the omission forthwith. What struck me, however, were the terms in which this book was described. The chairman of the judges, the economist Sir Howard Davies, described it as "unflinching" and went on to admit it could seem a bit "depressing" and "a little bleak". We have been here before, on a shimmy down Feelgood Close, that little English cul-de-sac where everything must be cosy and comforting and even serious literature must conform to the happy norms of the feelgood culture. I am glad that Anne Enright has been robust in batting back this particular observation, cheerfully stating that of course her book is not comfort reading. If we banned from the bookshops any writing that failed to avoid confronting the harsher aspects of human existence what would we be left with? My message to Howard Davies: we are grown-ups, mate, and we don't need to be protected from the realities of life.

Much has also been made of the poor bookie odds for Enright and the fact that "only" 3000 copies have been sold so far (that will change this morning). Actually, for new British fiction that's not too bad, but what does it mean? Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach is said to have sold 100,000. Does that mean it is 33 times better than The Gathering? Er, no. It might actually be 100 times better. Or 700 times worse. These figures prove nothing. There is nothing wrong with large sales figures (to say so would be a kind of snobbery) and equally nothing wrong with small ones. The quality of the work of art is always the only thing that matters. Let's end with a great big steaming platitude: THE NUMBER OF COPIES SOLD OF A BOOK HAS NO RELATIONSHIP WHATSOVER WITH ITS INTRINSIC QUALITY.

Have a nice day!

Sunday, 14 October 2007

Pawel Huelle: New Polish Fiction

Estimates seem to vary between 600 and 800,000 but we can all agree that a great many Polish people have come to live in Britain in recent years. Combined with the long-standing and deep-rooted Polish communities already here, maybe up to a million Poles are living in Britain but what do we know about them apart from the fact that they are filling the Catholic churches to bursting and persuading shops in far-flung rural parts of Britain to advertise in their windows that they stock Polish specialities? Where is the Polish equivalent of Brick Lane, a book that will give us an insight into the thoughts and feelings of this substantial migrant community? Perhaps it is being written even now. We may not be sure what we think of them but what do they think of us?

Meanwhile, to try to understand Polish culture, we have the usual very limited supply of translated fiction (poetry in the past has always seemed to do rather better). The most recent example is Pawel Huelle’s Castorp and if it is all as good as this let us have more. This is Huelle’s second novel and his first, Mercedes-Benz was shortlisted for the Independent foreign fiction award last year. Born in 1957 he has been a lecturer in philosophy, head of a TV station, and press officer for Lech Walesa’s Solidarity trade union in Gdansk where he lives and where the novel is set.

The new novel takes as its starting point a glancing reference in Thomas Mann’s 1924 novel Der Zauberberg (The Magic Mountain) to the character Castorp’s having spent a few semesters at Danzig polytechnic learning shipbuilding. Out of this conceit Huelle weaves an amusing, inventive, often very funny tale imagining Castorp’s student days as a rather priggish German from Hamburg here at the edge of the Prussian empire at Danzig/Gdansk. His explorations of the atmospherically conjured up Baltic city and the neighbouring health resort of Zoppot, his odd relationship with his landlady, his oblique attitude to his fellow students, and his pursuit of the beautiful and enigmatic young Polish woman, Wanda Pilecka are intriguingly related by Huelle. Quite apart from its implicit commentary on Mann’s book this is a lightly-serious, witty and amusing read and I would highly recommend it. It is translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones and published by Serpent’s Tail at £8.99.

Wednesday, 10 October 2007

British Library Readers Get a Voice

Just in case you didn't know there is an independent Forum for British Library users which is free to join and which takes up lots of issues concerning readers. It is needed!

Women Writing War

To the Guardian Newsroom in Farringdon Road last night for a discussion, sponsored by Persephone Books and organised by English P.E.N., on the theme of the challenges faced by women war reporters. Actually, it wasn't the Guardian Newsroom itself but the building over the road with that name which they use for conferences. A panel of three women, Caroline Hawley the BBC's Middle East Correspondent, Maggie O'Kane of the Guardian famous for her reports from Sarajevo, and Ann McFerran who has reported on the aftermath of conflict in Uganda and Rwanda were interviewed by Anne Sebba, author of Battling for News: The Rise of the Woman Reporter. Anne put a series of sharp questions about whether being a woman made a difference to a reporter from war zones (the preferred term to "war reporter" which no one seemed to like much) but the three panellists remained stubbornly resistant to this line of questioning. They were just reporters, they said, and the most they could say was that in some areas of conflict in the Arab world as women they could get certain kinds of access to people, especially women, which would have been difficult for men. Maggie O'Kane, who halfway through the discussion actually used the prohibited word 'feminist' to describe herself, said that after she became a mother she did feel some anxiety about being separated from her son if she were arrested or detained. Her contribution was the most interesting and she no doubt shocked the cohorts of women journalism students packing the hall by saying that, actually, the game was up. "The time has passed for white Europeans, " she announced dramatically in response to an earnest inquiry about what made a good war reporter. What she meant was that we have entered a new phase of reporting from war zones in which white European journalists (male or female) would no longer be able to operate and it was the local reporters, the translators, or what she called "fixers", on the ground who needed to be trained and empowered to report. There was some anxiety that this might limit the ways in which wars were seen, if other perspectives weren't brought into play, but it seemed inevitable, certainly in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. Another stimulating P.E.N. event.

Monday, 8 October 2007

The Limits of Writing

In the age of the celebrity author (the knowing coolness and self-satisfaction of the Famous Writer wheeled out in the book supplements to deliver another opinion on the world) it is refreshing sometimes to come across writers who acknowledge the limits of what one author can achieve. Proust famously compared himself to a flea and one of my favourite authors Georges Perec in his Espèces d'espaces (translated in Penguin by John Sturrock as Species of Spaces) had the following observation: "To write: to try meticulously to retain something; to cause something to survive; to wrest a few precise scraps from the void as it grows; to leave somewhere a furrow, a trace, a mark, or a few signs."

I'd settle for that.

Tuesday, 2 October 2007

Reflections on the Bathtub of Ataturk

I thought that would secure your attention! Actually this is not a crafty attempt to offload my 84 holiday snaps but a thought about national identity. In Greece and Turkey such issues are impossible to ignore and nowhere more so than in Izmir (Smyrna to TS Eliot fans). During my recent imperial progress from Athens to Istanbul I stopped here and walked along the waterfront on a breezy Sunday afternoon amongst the courting couples, amateur fishermen, and boys on bicycles selling sandwiches or mussels. Evocative old photographs show the terrible sacking and burning of Izmir in 1922 after the Turks defeated the Greeks, whose ambitions to create a "Greater Greece" after the Treaty of Versailles ended in what is known in Greek as the Katastrofi (Catastrophe). This disaster resulted immediately in massacre and destruction and in a further social disaster when the two countries agreed a notorious "exchange of populations" by which millions of Muslims in Greece were sent back to Turkey and an equal number of Greek Christians went in the opposite direction regardless of the fact that these communities had in the past been happy to live alongside each other in their respective countries.

Most of the waterfront has been rebuilt but a couple of older houses remain including the stately marble facade of the house of Kemal Ataturk the great reforming modern Turkish leader who used it in the 1940s. It's a large but rather gloomy interior, full of dark, heavy, boring furniture (though I liked his bathtub) and the library seems to contain mostly endless dusty leather bound volumes of the Revue des Deux Mondes (heck, he was a man of action not a poet). Ataturk's modernising, secularist legacy is being challenged again by the new Turkish Government's greater Islamist sympathy but many in Turkey have no wish to ditch it. "A man's religion is between himself and his God," observed one elderly Muslim from Ankara to me in conversation and that's still how a lot of Turks feel.

Thursday, 13 September 2007


My Aegean journey which begins in Athens will end in Istanbul, that amazing city which was captured as it was in 1874 in a brilliant verbal painting by the Italian writer Edmondo de Amicis in his Constantinople (1877). In that old cliche he makes Istanbul "come alive" in all its multicultural, teeming sprawl. It reminds you that a good travel book is far more vivid and present than the sort of loose, baggy TV travelogue that sometimes seems to have become its successor.

The book, translated in 2005 by Stephen Parkin, is published by the estimable Hesperus classics press which comes up with so many good things.

Wednesday, 12 September 2007

The Wanderings of Odysseus

As I'm shortly off to the Aegean for my annual immersion in sea, retsina and crumpled paperbacks, I am reading JV Luce's book, Celebrating Homer's Landscapes, which argues, against the weight of much current scholarship, that Homer's poetic landscapes are real ones (ah, the Literature and Life theme again!).

The cover shows the glorious harbour at Ithaca which allows me to quote one of my own poems from my collection The Narrators.


A harbour so perfect in its enclosing arms
we arrogant humans say: is it natural?
and think of Ulysses with his salt-caked skin
enjoying the long aftermath of war.
Travelling (as Cavafy says in his wise poem)
being much the better part of arriving:
like a book whose last chapter we evade,
recalling a need to put a light to the gas ring
or accomplish any of a dozen light tasks
that might include placing a log on the dying stove.
After that, the tucking of a bookmark in the page
and tapping the closed book on one's knee,
admiring the jacket design which tempted us
in a shop of piled volumes, all deliciously unread.

Tuesday, 11 September 2007

The Imaginary Elephant: Literature and Life

I have noticed some discussion recently in the literary blogs about that old chestnut: literature (or 'writing' as it is now more fashionable to call it) and Life (which always seems to deserve a special initial capital all of its own). The sentimentalists say that literature must be subordinate to Life (aka 'the real world') and the flinty highbrows say that Literature (with an initial capital to retaliate) is sufficient unto itself. It doesn't have to justify itself by being seen to be 'realistic'. It doesn't have to be 'about' anything except itself and its own processes.

I am saying nothing, but here are three quotations:-

1. James Joyce, Stephen Hero: "But that is wrong: that is the mistake everyone makes. Art is not an escape from life."

2. Same guy, same place: "For Stephen art was neither a copy nor an imitation of nature: the artistic process was a natural process."

3. Virginia Woolf, Essays: "Why should the final test of plot, character, story, and the other ingredients of a novel lie in their power to imitate life? Why should a real chair be better than an imaginary elephant?"

Friday, 7 September 2007

Paula Rego: O Vinho

To Marlborough Fine Art in Piccadilly for the private view last night of a new exhibition of lithographs by Paula Rego. Showing what the catalogue discreetly terms "the transforming effects of wine" (but looking rather more like a Hogarthian catalogue of the horrors of its abuse) the series of lithographs accompanies a short story by the Portuguese novelist Joao de Melo called O Vinho [Wine]. Waiters deftly circulated in the crowd at the opening party topping up our bumpers of champagne and we tried hard not to make a connection! The lithographs, each one of which is a story on its own, are part of an artist's book, produced in a limited edition of 100 copies and available between now and the end of September at a special pre-publication price of £650. Paula kindly said I could reproduce one of the pictures here, "The End of the Story", and the exhibition, which is well worth a visit, is open at Marlborough Fine Art, 6 Albemarle Street, London W1S 4BY until 6th October. Highly recommended.

The Discreet Charm of Mr C

How does one conquer the urge to say too much about a book whose virtue is in its restraint, its dry, elliptical, pared-down quality? JM Coetzee’s latest novel, Diary of a Bad Year - which like most of his recent work mingles an autobiographical persona with the more ‘normal’ procedures of fiction - centres on the reflections of an ageing novelist (closely resembling Coetzee himself) who has been invited by a German publisher to contribute to a collection of “Strong Opinions” alongside five other eminent writers. The writer, John C, has no problem with generating such material and his views on the contemporary university, Tony Blair and George Bush, and a host of others matters are nothing if not strong and opinionated. They are probably also Coetzee’s own views and they are expressed in a style which will be too unadorned for some but which for me has an attractive pithiness. The dryness of his reflections and his tentative awareness of the shortcomings of his world view modulate into the driest of humour as these essayistic passages are coupled to parallel passages in which the subplot develops of his relationship with Anya, a cheerfully direct young Filipina woman hired as a typist but also for her attractiveness (a bargain about which she is quite unillusioned). Her contemporary idiom (“At a personal level, things are going well with my life”) and the law-of-the-jungle outlook of her boyfriend Alan bring both an unexpected humour and a dash of realism to the emotionally underdeveloped older thinker. Given that this under-story is told in short fragments it develops a surprising interest and is in the end deeply moving.

This isn’t a conventional novel (Hurrah!) and it freely mixes fictional and non-fictional elements but I found it a compelling read, a wise and profound book. There are not so many of those around that we can afford to pass on them.

Wednesday, 5 September 2007

Navel-Gazing: What is the Literary Blogosphere For?

Having launched this blog less than two months ago and still feeling my way I was interested to see a thread in the Book Depository Editor's Corner about a meeting in London of book trade people to discuss literary blogs that seemed to suggest some weren't of much value. I am sure this is true - some are pretty poor and some of the discussions at, for example, the Guardian books blog are ill-expressed drivel as far as I can see - but it does raise the question of what criteria you use to determine whether a blog is good or bad. Or put more simply, what are literary blogs for? In my case I was attracted in the usual internet way by the fact that it was possible, that it was there. By a few keystrokes, using design templates, one could create a reasonably stylish blog in a few minutes and using it is as easy as falling off a log. But what is it for? That's harder. Two key features of blogging - anonymity and extreme subjectivity - didn't attract me in the least, which probably means that for some people it isn't a real blog at all. Anonymity in particular (apart from those who are writing under censorship or who are whistleblowers) completely baffles me. As a published author I wanted to use it to maintain my profile and inform potential readers about what I was up to but that raises another question: who is the audience? Serious literary readership in the UK is very small as print-runs (I am also a small poetry publisher so I know all about that!) and sales of poetry and new literary fiction demonstrate. These are pitifully small so if you get a few thousand readers of a blog you are doing well (I have had less than 150 hits so far in nearly two months!). It's also quite fun to do which shouldn't be dismissed as a motive but I suppose one does want to stimulate a bit of debate and get some responses (other than those from people trying to sell their T-shirts) and that is proving harder. Some literary blogs are excellent and thought-provoking though some are very poorly written which is unforgivable for literary material and some are a bit manipulative - excluding posts because the comment doesn't fit rather than using that tool to keep out the flaky or obsessive. But on the whole they give a chance for some views to be ventilated and that has to be a good thing. So I shall press on for the time being. Please join in!

Monday, 3 September 2007

No, no, no: the McEwan problem that isn't

In an article in Sunday's Independent on Sunday John Sutherland swung to the defence of Ian McEwan whom he described as the best living English novelist (discuss). Sutherland's argument was that the circus surrounding McEwan's new film Atonement (that's funny, I thought it had been written by Keira Knightley) had been the occasion of an outburst of resentment against McEwan based simply and solely on envy. Managing to misrepresent a very perceptive review by John Banville in the New York Review of Books some time ago of his earlier novel Saturday, Sutherland lambasted those who had been attacking the novelist for being too rich, too successful etc etc. With friends like Sutherland, McEwan needs no enemies. They would do well to pipe down. The film (which I don't doubt will prove to be excellent) is being mercilessly over-hyped and if I were McEwan I'd quietly stand back and let it make its way. The debate about whether the short novella Chesil Beach, which I seem to have liked more than other literary bloggers, should win the Booker (it shouldn't, for reasons to numerous to go into here) is one thing but this familiar newspaper column obsession with stroking the bruised egos of those whose pain is to be insufficently loved at the moment of their triumph is another. Knock it on the head, is my advice to the North London literary gents. As Ms Winehouse observed on the question of rehab: "I ain't got the time, and if my Daddy says I'm fine." There isn't a problem here.

But excuse me, that's Amazon at the door with the new Coetzee...

Sunday, 2 September 2007

Nature Notes

Here is a heron enjoying the morning sun on a remote stretch of water in the depths of the English countryside. Er, not exactly, I sidled up to him this morning in Regent's Park, a stone's throw from the roar of traffic in Marylebone Road and the queues forming outside Madame Tussaud's. The miracle of central London's parks is easily overlooked.

Thursday, 30 August 2007

A Fine and Private Place

What was I doing today lurking suspiciously in the churchyard of St Giles-in-the-Fields in London? The explanation was the man with a yellow-tipped microphone from BBC Radio 4 who was doing a programme on Andrew Marvell's To His Coy Mistress. Having written Marvell's biography in 1999 I was being interviewed at the church where the poet was buried in 1678. We started outside, setting the scene, and remarking that "in-the-fields" was not quite the right term for this church behind Tottenham Court Road and a stone's throw from Tin Pan Alley with a grinding set of road works outside replacing the Victorian water pipe system. It was a relief to get inside the church and have our chat about the poem in front of the poet's memorial. But before we did so I noticed that the recording equipment was laid out on a gravestone. What did that remind me of? Yes, Marvell's poem itself where he urges his mistress to seize the moment for pleasure because after death it will be too late: "The grave's a fine and private place/But none I think do there embrace."

The programme, in the Adventures in Poetry slot, will be broadcast on Sunday 21st October.

The Latest Prints in Town

Last night at the Bankside Gallery next to Tate Modern I was at the private view of a new exhibition, "Eyeplay", of prints featuring established and up and coming artists. The exhibition described itself as "A Playground of the Latest Prints in Town". One doesn't want to go on about this awful summer but it was a joy to see the evening sunshine spilling at last on the crowds along the South Bank of the Thames where the gallery is situated. I used to live around here in the late 1970s and 1980s when it was not yet transformed from a rather atmospheric cityscape of crumbling warehouses and empty wharves into its current lively scene of restaurants, bars, galleries, upmarket shops and...people, lots and lots of them. It is hard to recall that it was once a rather deserted and empty place. It was also the site of some vigorous battles by the local community to hang on to their neighbourhood before City money and speculative office-building drove them out of the area. They even campaigned against the reproduction Globe Theatre, now doing a roaring trade, because its site had been earmarked by the local authority for public housing. The nearby Coin Street Community Builders' development of affordable public housing remains a tribute to those campaigners. Cities need this mix of people if they are remain living communities rather than becoming one vast wine bar. The Bankside Gallery, home to the Royal Watercolour Society and the Royal Society of Painter-Printmakers, was full last night of artists and visitors and the prints were of excellent quality and wide-ranging. The Eyeplay exhibition, curated by Bula Chakravarty Agbo, Frank Kiely and Temsuyanger Longkumer, runs until 9 September.

Wednesday, 29 August 2007

Au bord de la mer

Now that the summer has returned after all that grey, wet weather here in the UK is it time to think of going down to the sea? I intend to return soon to the Royal Academy's superb exhibition of 19th Century representations of the northern coastline of France from the 1860s and 1870s when Parisians descended on places like Trouville with their parasols and highly unsuitable clothing. There are a couple of stunning Whistlers and others by Monet, Manet, and Renoir. Hurry because it finishes on 30th September.

I seem to have received a lot of invitations to private views over the next seven days (watch this space) so this literary blog will have a flavour of the visual arts for the coming week.

Italo Svevo: Girl Trouble

One of the most enduring - and usually comic - situations in Western literature is when an older man forms a relationship with a younger woman. From the Latin and Greek comedians and satirists through Chaucer's "Miller's Tale" to Nabokov's Lolita, and right up to the present with Marina Lewycka's A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian (2005) writers have revelled in this particular stereotype - for stereotype unfortunately is what it usually turns out to be. The man is invariably presented as a hopelessly infatuated and undignified old goat and the young woman as a scheming trollop. But Italo Svevo's As a Man Grows Older, which I have just put down, is one of the most subtle explorations of such a relationship I have come across.

Beautifully written with an exactness of insight into human psychology, Svevo's novel was first published in Italian in 1892 as Senilità and translated by Beryl de Zoete in 1932. It was re-issued in 2001 by New York Review Books with a brief but incisive introduction by James Lasdun. It is about a fortysomething insurance agent in Trieste, Emilio Brentani, who falls for an eighteen year old girl "with big, blue eyes and a supple, graceful body". They meet in the street in Trieste (one of my favourite cities) and he announces rather drastically: "I am very much in love with you, but it is impossible that I should ever consider you as more than a plaything. I have other duties in life, my career and my family." So far so clichéd. But the novel soon develops a rich complexity as the tables are deftly turned. Although the beautiful Angiolina is serially unfaithful she is also presented as a real living character and when Emilio resolves to renounce her after discovering the truth about her he realises, too late, that he cannot live without her. Svevo's first novel (this is his second) was rubbished by the critics and he abandoned writing for 25 years to work for his father-in-law's paint firm. Deciding that he needed to learn English he hired an obscure 25 year old Irishman who taught English in Trieste. His name was James Joyce. It was Joyce who came up with the English title of this book and who helped Svevo to get the second novel published (though he refused to break his rule of never puffing other writers' works in print and wouldn't write an introduction). It is refreshing to see a writer taking an old theme and completely recasting it. Highly recommended!

Monday, 20 August 2007

The Hygiene of the Soul

Next year is the tenth anniversary of the death of the great Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert who provides today's poem in the translation by Peter Dale Scott from Al Alvarez's Penguin Modern Poets selection of 1968 when "dissident" poets were all the rage in Hampstead and beyond. A more subtle and nuanced picture of the Polish literature of today still awaits us. Publishers take note.

The Hygiene of the Soul

We live in the narrow bed of our flesh. Only the inexperienced twist in it without interruption. Rotating around one's own axis is not allowed because then sharp threads wind themselves on to the heart as on to a spool.
It is necessary to fold one's hands behind the neck, half-shut the eyes and float down that lazy river, from the Fount of the Hair as far as the first Cataract of the Great Toenail.

Thursday, 16 August 2007

Thoreau Gets Into the IT Debate

There's an interesting article over at the incomparable ReadySteadyBook site by Alan Wall on the future of the book. It has attracted some interesting discussion. If the technophobes sometimes sound a bit reactionary the technophiles on their side are sometimes uncritical in their adulation. It pays, pace McLuhan, to think about ends as well as means. I am currently reading Henry David Thoreau's 1854 American classic, Walden, about the life of self-sufficiency in the woods "on the shore of Walden Pond, in Concord, Massachusetts". Discoursing on "modern improvements", by which he probably meant the Atlantic telegraph rather than text-messaging, he wrote: "Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an improved end, an end which it was already but too easy to arrive at; as railroads lead to Boston or New York." A valuable thought which put simply is: let's judge things by how useful they are rather than just by the fact that they are here.

Tuesday, 14 August 2007

The End of Ink?

Iris Murdoch said that she could not conceive of writing with anything other than a fountain pen, a view that must seem impossibly fogeyish in an era of daily internet activity at the keyboard or of fingers flashing over the keypads of mobile phones, sending text messages. In those features in the newspapers that show a picture of the Writer's Room and in which various celebrity authors describe their writing habits, a surprising number of Bookerbookmen admit to writing still in longhand and then transcribing it on a keyboard for the final version. I can't imagine that anyone under the age of 25 would think of doing this and even nearly a hundred years ago young novelists like Aldous Huxley would sit at a typewriter in their rooms on the Tuscan coast bashing out the words. The simple answer is that there are no rules. Whatever works for you. I look at those writers' rooms and think: all they would have to photograph in my case is whichever flat space my 12 inch Mac i-Book is currently resting on. All I have ever needed to be able to write are two things: time and an absence of interruption. The means of writing are irrelevant (a quill pen if necessary) as is noise (a pneumatic drill outside the window is no problem, an unwanted phone call a catastrophe).

In one area of my life, an occasional diary, I write in longhand with a fountain pen filled with sepia ink. I don't know why I do this. Maybe because I always have done so. Inertia. I certainly couldn't erect a theory of literary creation based on the flow of ink through a nib. Without wanting to sound pretentious the act of literary creation is a bit of a mystery and if we could isolate the things that make it work we really would be on to something. In reality we can only wait for the spark to come. As Philip Larkin put it, being a poet is often a matter of "waiting for poems to turn up". It's the same for prose too though compositional habits are more regular - if not industrial. One simply has to be prepared for that moment, like firemen ready to slither down the greasy pole when the klaxon sounds.

Monday, 13 August 2007

A Beautiful Sorbet

After that glimpse of people being horrible below here are some roses, blowing in the breeze yesterday in my Welsh garden. Have a nice day!

The God-Monster of Hampstead

In the last post I talked about Elias Canetti (seen here) whom John Bayley, husband of Iris Murdoch, one of his lovers, called "the god-monster of Hampstead". Canetti, the Austrian writer, lived in England from 1939 to the 1980s and his sharp pen in Party in the Blitz digs into several high literary reputations including Murdoch's. In an excellent introduction to the book Jeremy Adler tries to draw the sting of some of these attacks by suggesting that Canetti is in fact describing himself when he savages other writers. It's a fascinating read and one of the interesting threads is the writer's distaste for the English literary party of which he saw many in his Hampstead years. Instead of the civilised café culture of Vienna he went into various crowded rooms full of people standing up and being rather cold and unpleasant to each other. I attend as few of these things as I can myself but I can report that nothing has changed. One comes back on the Tube thinking: wouldn't it have been more productive to have spent the evening in a darkened room hitting myself over the head with a mallet every ten minutes?

Here is Canetti on "Misery at Parties": "It wasn't that you were treated sceptically, it was worse than that. You quite simply didn't exist...It would be an exaggeration to describe the exchange of a few sentences as a conversation, and in any case, the content of a conversation wasn't what mattered, so much as the confirmation of what remained unsaid. What was at issue was observing the proprieties. One mustn't on any account get too near. Edges and boundaries were the important things, and they existed so as not to be infringed."

I prefer real parties where you have fun. They do exist and perhaps there are even some of them in Hampstead.

Friday, 10 August 2007

Something for the Weekend

"The story of a life should contain many puzzles and leave much to guesswork...Some things should be presented in such a way that their nature is always concealed...The story of a life is as secret as life itself. A life that can be explained is no life at all." Elias Canetti.

As a professional biographer should I attempt to refute this proposition? I think not. Biography that claims to have penetrated the last mystery of its subject, answered all questions, achieved a 'definitive' account, is absurdly presumptuous. A biography is no more than an attempt on the truth, a brave try, but in the end it will be no more than a version (exact, scholarly, precise, insightful if it is worth anything at all, but never the last word).

This is by way of saying that I am reading Canetti's lethal Party im Blitz translated by Michael Hofmann (2005), the writer's memoir of his London years from 1939 to the Thatcher era. His judgements on individuals (has anyone written more scarifying criticism of TS Eliot?) and English society are fascinating and bracing (some stronger word is needed). I think I shall be coming back to this. I'd happily trade this slice of intellectual life in wartime for the latest 'debut novel' set in World War Two, as every second one seems to be just now.

Wednesday, 8 August 2007

Thoughts on the Booker Prize

The announcement yesterday of an oddly truncated long list of 13 names (instead of the usual list of 20) for the Man Booker Prize for Fiction has resulted in expressions of surprise at the omissions of famous names like Graham Swift (a previous winner, however). The Booker has always been a rather odd annual fixture and one characterised by often quirky decisions. If you made a list of the best fiction of the last twenty years and compared this each year with the Booker winner you wouldn't find universal correspondences. Sometimes people win with the book that is not their best and sometimes outstanding books are ignored. Sometimes a book which is over-hyped wins and dutiful readers shimmy down to Waterstone's only to find half-way through that the hype hasn't worked for them. Later, the paperback version is found in profusion in the charity shops. The cycle is complete. The good news is that many small publishers and lesser-known names are on the longlist which should mean that the judges have ignored the hype and gone straight to the real quality. Let's hope it does mean that. J.M.Coetzee, who has won the Booker twice, could hardly expect to win again even if his new book will probably be head and shoulders above the rest, so one can see that judges might consider passing him by to give the others a chance. But let's keep our heads. Book prizes can be an amusing diversion but they are as arbitrary as a game of roulette. Good luck to the person whose number eventually comes up.

Perhaps the most surprising statistic is that only 110 novels were entered. I thought the line was that we were being drowned in a sea of overproduction of books. I would have expected that number to have been higher.

Monday, 6 August 2007

Rack Press Launches its Blog!

Is there no end to the chutzpah of these poets? The Welsh poetry pamphlet imprint, Rack Press, has just launched its new blog. Just because it is one of the tiniest publishers in Wales doesn't mean it can't blog with the best of them from the side of a hill in Radnorshire!

At present its footprint on the blogosphere is very light indeed and the website of the Press is a better bet for immediate information about Rack Press but in the next 48 hours things will start to appear.

And, yes, as well as blogging in this space I am the publisher of Rack Press and I hope to wear my two hats in the future with ease.

Wednesday, 1 August 2007

A New Thought for Today

"A work of art is 'good' only if it came into being out of some necessity. It is in this way and in no other that it can be judged."
Rilke Letters to a Young Poet

Like the Kafka quotation below this implies that all great works of art, all great books, are there because they have to be there. They are not superfluous. Though this is true, I wonder if it is perhaps too austere a view of all books - what of the light, the playful, the ludic? Do we always read at the most strenuous pace, at the demanding edge of things, or do we sometimes read to amuse or divert ourselves? Not that lightness of touch and seriousness of purpose are necessarily at odds with one another. Another quote, this time from Sterne's Tristram Shandy: "Sometimes, in his wild way of talking, he would say that Gravity was an errant scoundrel."

Friday, 27 July 2007

Poetry Book of the Month

My favourite recent volume of poems, published earlier this year by Melos Press, is William Palmer's The Island Rescue, a fine blend of poetic craftsmanship and strong feeling. It is highly recommended. Palmer has written six novels, the latest, The India House, published by Jonathan Cape in 2005. He has also written short stories and has just completed a Royal Literary Fund Fellowship at the University of Warwick.

The Island Rescue can be obtained from Melos Press, 38 Palewell Park, London SW14 8JG for £6.99 post free.

Thursday, 26 July 2007

Alcemi: A New Welsh Fiction Imprint

Last night saw the London launch at the Francis Kyle Gallery in Mayfair of the new Welsh quality fiction imprint, Alcemi (Welsh, you might have guessed, for alchemy!) with the first two authors Chris Keil and Gee Williams reading from their new novels Liminal and Salvage. Introducing her authors at the launch, Editor, Gwen Davies, pointed out how significant independent publishers had become with half the Orange Prize shortlist being independent titles. Let's hope this new venture is the success it deserves to be. The new imprint highlights a quotation from Milan Kundera: "A novel is the product of an alchemy that turns a woman into a man, a man into a woman, sludge into gold, an anecdote into drama. That divine alchemy is what makes for the power of every novelist, the secret, the splendour of his art."

To find out more about Alcemi visit its website

Wednesday, 25 July 2007

Happy Birthday, Aldous!

Thursday 26th July is the anniversary of the birth of the writer Aldous Huxley (1894-1963), author of the classic dystopia Brave New World (1932) and much else besides. As well as having the oddest first name (it came from a character in a novel by his aunt Mrs Humphry Ward) Huxley is famous for having died on the same day in 1963 as John F. Kennedy. In addition to his novels Huxley was a brilliant essayist, a social critic, a prophet, and someone who warned against many of the things that have come to characterise modern civilisation. He is well worth attending to.

Those of you who live in the catchment area of BBC Radio Cambridgeshire will have the opportunity to hear me (as his biographer) being interviewed about Huxley tomorrow morning around 9.30am.

Monday, 23 July 2007

Mad About the Boy: James Hanley

The recent reprint by One World Classics (see review by Ken Worpole) of the short novel Boy (1931) by James Hanley - the most outstanding Liverpool writer of the first half of the twentieth century - gives a chance to read again an extraordinarily powerful and disturbing work of an adolescent coming to maturity. Originally published in 1931 it was re-issued in 1934 with an injudicious cover that resulted in a prosecution for obscene libel in a Lancashire court. The jacket here is from my copy of the first unexpurgated edition in 1990. In his introduction to that edition Anthony Burgess (like William Faulkner and EM Forster an admirer of Hanley) writes that: "The geniuses who are neglected are usually the geniuses who disturb, and we do not like to be disturbed." The book, whose shock - Burgess again - "will have nothing to do with the titillations of the pornographic" , is unsparing and shocks in the sense that Kafka meant in the quote I set out in yesterday's posting . It conveys the harshness of a thirteen year old poor Liverpool boy's life, running away to sea, experiencing brutality and abuse, and ending that life quite horribly. There is no comfort in it and Hanley's uncompromising spirit is everywhere apparent in a novel he claims to have written in ten days on a typewriter given to him by Nancy Cunard to whom the book is dedicated. But Hanley was a compassionate as well as a truthful artist and by giving expression to the boy, Arthur Fearon's, life, he did what his son, Liam, claimed for him: "He gave working men and their wives and children a voice - their voice." Periodic attempts are made to refloat Hanley's reputation and it might seem even more unlikely that he will find an audience in the current "3 for 2" bookselling culture but he is well worth the effort. We can safely assume that Hanley will be absent from next year's "European Capital of Culture" celebrations in Liverpool. The picture here is from a painting by his son, Liam Hanley.

Sunday, 22 July 2007

A Thought for Today

"I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we're reading doesn't wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for...A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. That is my belief."

"...ein Buch muss die Axt sein für das gefrorene Meer in uns. Das glaube ich."

Franz Kafka

Thursday, 19 July 2007


Collecting, beyond a certain point which is quickly reached, can very easily become an obsessive form of behaviour. Some kinds of collecting, I can't help feeling, are slightly madder than others, and I'd like to think my personal obsession is less futile than some, though I can't be sure. I am not certain when it started but I became a collector of those tiny hardback 4inch by 6inch World's Classics quite a long time ago and now I have 411 of them. 619 were issued, the last (Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment) in 1973, so I still have some way to go if I want to attain the Holy Grail of a complete set. They were first published in 1901 (I have a few of those first editions now more than 100 years old) by Grant Richards and later by Oxford University Press who still use the title for their paperback World's Classics series, a few of which are still using the old texts and translations from the hardback days. Obviously, there are eccentricities if you think of this as a representative selection of the world's great writing, or even English writing, (no Hardy but bucketloads of Constance Holme for example) but it would sustain you quite well on a desert island. They are beautifully made books but it's interesting that a recent attempt to relaunch the series with the same loving standards of production petered out after 20 volumes. Perhaps the paperback has now established an invincible hegemony. But I like them. I used to pick them up for 40 pence but I have seen some commanding well over £10 each, in one case, in an antique shop in Windsor, £18. The average for a good condition second-hand volume would be around £6-8 in the UK. which makes my collection potentially worth £2-3000. But would I part with them?

If you are interested there is a dedicated website prepared by Geoffrey Milburn (who generously pretends that some of the rest of us are co-compilers but the lion's share of the work in this wonderful catalogue has been his). It can be found at www.edu.uwo.ca/worldsclassics.

On reflection...yes, it is mad, but it could have been old vacuum cleaners or beer-mats.

PS No, Madam, in answer to your question I haven't read all 411 but I am not dead yet!

No, It's Not Mussolini

The gentleman in the picture is not a dictator haranguing a pliant populace from his balcony but Christopher Isherwood biographer Peter Parker announcing the winner of the 2007 JR Ackerley Prize for autobiography at the English P.E.N. annual summer party last night in London. Held in the splendid house and garden in Kensington Church Street of publisher and author Tom Stacey the party is one of the reliable features of the London literary calendar at which the Ackerley Prize is announced (and bloggers refresh themselves). The winner this year was Brian Thompson for Keeping Mum. Parker, seen here at an upper window addressing the guests in the garden below, explained that there are no submissions for this prize. The judges call in books they want to consider and the criteria for the Ackerley (named after the famous Listener literary editor J. R. Ackerley (1896-1967)) are rather vague but the typical entrant is usually very English, a bit posh and a teeny weeny bit camp (PEN's preferred term is "outrageous"). Not having read this year's winner I cannot say whether any or all of these criteria were met this year.

Wednesday, 18 July 2007

Another Poem for Today

Western Wind

Western wind, when will thou blow,
The small rain down can rain?
Christ, if my love were in my arms
And I in my bed again!

Anonymous poem from:-

The New Oxford Book of Sixteenth Century Verse
edited by Emrys Jones, p44.

Tuesday, 17 July 2007

Kafka and the Women

The seventh foreign edition of my biography of Franz Kafka has just flopped through the letterbox. They have changed the title to Kafka and the Women or Kafka's Women which I suppose is fair enough given that this was an emphasis of the book (Kafka's lifelong search for a partner) but it's an interesting insight into the world of international publishing where the author doesn't always get a look in. The US edition of my biography of Aldous Huxley, which in the UK was called Aldous Huxley: an English Intellectual, became Aldous Huxley: a biography, the first I knew about it being when a boxful arrived at the door. In the latter case the word "intellectual" was probably a bit high-risk.

This reminds me of WH Auden's little rhyme (forgive me, I'm quoting this from memory): "To the man in the street whom I'm sorry to say/Is a keen observer of life/The word 'intellectual' means straightaway/A man who's untrue to his wife."

Saturday, 14 July 2007

George Orwell and (New) New Labour

The announcement on 12th July by Ken Boston, chief executive of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, that there is to be what one newspaper called “the biggest shake-up of the secondary school curriculum for years”, triggered in many of us the usual sceptical reflexes. After all, shaking up the system (as opposed to improving its outcomes) seems to have been a constant activity in the ten years of New Labour and the announcement of a new bout of agitation so soon after Gordon Brown took over from Tony Blair as Prime Minister inevitably raises the question of whether educational policy is simply going to be more of the same or whether we should expect something new. It all seemed to merit a second look.

Ken Boston certainly thinks we should expect fireworks. What drew most attention, however, was his list of key authors that school students should be expected to read. As someone who writes literary biographies for a living I was gratified to see four of my subjects (Chatwin, Arnold, Marvell, Huxley) on the list but, as with all lists, one began to wonder about the omisssions, particularly as it had been extended beyond the comfortable Eng. Lit. canon to include “writers from different cultures and traditions” (though not a single one from central or eastern Europe). To take three random favourites of mine: Paul Auster, J.M Coetzee, and John Banville I suppose their omission had to do with perceived “difficulty” in the classroom. Which brings me on to Orwell.

Ken Boston observed: “You could begin with something not too taxing for some pupils, like Orwell, and then move on to more difficult works such as Thomas Hardy.” This rather pulled me up. True, Orwell writes with pellucid clarity. He is eminently readable but does this mean he is not “difficult”? Perhaps Boston only means at a very immediate level of being superficially easy to read (though Hardy isn’t exactly Gertrude Stein is he?) but I was worried about the opposition being set up here. Orwell deals with some of the most crucial issues of twentieth century politics, he teased out in his essays many of the nuances of British society from his quirkily radical Old Etonian perspective, he tackled the big issues. So did Hardy, of course, but in a much more locally rooted fashion. I can’t see why Orwell is considered “easier” than anyone else.

One of Orwell’s most brilliant essays is the 1946 “Politics and the English Language”. When I was teaching writing skills to undergraduates at Queen Mary College, University of London (a four year one-day-a-week experience that deserves a blog all of its own!) I regularly recommended this essay to students with its excellent discussion of what makes good, honest writing. But I always had a slight reservation about another of his famous assertions, in the essay “Why I Write”, that “good prose is like a window pane”. It does its job so well that one isn’t aware that it is there. One looks through the glass to the content within, the thing that allows one to grasp the meaning is irrelevant to the seizure of the meaning itself. Bad writing, on the other hand, is always getting in the way, a dirty smudge that one has to wipe away before one can see the meaning clearly. It’s a nice idea but, even without tipping out on the floor a lorryload of long-winded recent literary theory, it’s possible to argue that this isn’t quite good enough. Writing is not that simple. The form modifies the content (and vice versa) and language does have a life of its own. It isn’t a simple tool that one picks up to do a job. It is endlessly complex. In short it is “difficult” and so is Orwell. Much of this is to do with the complexity of his political and social positioning and, for contemporary teenagers, there’s a great deal of historical and political matter assumed by his writing that they may well find “difficult”. Books like 1984 or Animal Farm were written out of their particular historical moment. A lot of context is needed if one is to understand them. I would argue that this is as much if not more than is needed for Hardy (who of course was also a man deeply sensitive to the undercurrents of his time).

All this means that once one starts on the task of trying to sort the sheep from the goats one is pretty soon going to get onto tricky ground. It nearly always means making assumptions that turn out to be dubious, talking down to people, making false assertions, reducing the complexity, richness and variety of a writer’s oeuvre to some fatuous generality.

Let’s allow Orwell his complexity, his richness of content. His difficulty.

Thursday, 12 July 2007

A Poem for Today

If you like this poem and wish to know more about the published collection from which it came let me know.


These are the wide, incredulous eyes of Harpo Marx,
handed a plate which will soon be filled
with the tangled cordage of fresh spaghetti.

They speak of astonishment at such reversals
when the out-of-luck come into their own
and the least they can do is eat up.

The post-prandial concert is inevitable.
They are singing after supper their only song:
We have only our talent and our hunger to give you;

We are the century's displaced, the scuttling survivors
who seem to travel light but whose baggage
is weightier than any braced trunk deep in the hold.

Contemporary Greek Writing

For those of us who don't read Greek, translations are vital and as summer is here and we start to think of heading for the sun it's a good time to consider what's available.

Michel Faïs’s From the Same Glass, the seventh contemporary Greek title from the Centre for Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies at the University of Birmingham has now appeared. It’s a collection of stories translated by Jane Nisselson Assimakopoulos which won the Greek State Literature Prize when it was first published in Greek in 2000. The stories - richly varied in form and voice - reflect some new aspects of contemporary Greece such as the in-migration from the Balkans in recent years.

Although it would be wrong to say that British publishers totally neglect contemporary Greek fiction (Arcadia publish Pavlos Matesis’ The Daughter, Marion Boyars Four Walls by Vangelis Hatziyannis, Harvill the slightly more best-selling Andreas Staikos (Les Liaisons Culinaires) and Petros Markaris (The Late-Night News), as with the French there’s a bit of a disparity in the numbers of British readers who will be flocking to these countries this summer and the ones who will be even aware of what is going on in the literatures of their destination countries. Birmingham University’s series of translations is therefore to be welcomed. It has issued since the mid-1990s a couple of early twentieth century Greek classics such as Stratis Doukas, A Prisoner of War’s Story (1929) and Dimitris Hatzis The End of Our Small Town (1953; sadly now out of print) as well as recent novels like Sotiris Dimitriou May Your Name be Blessed (the best of the modern bunch).

They don’t believe in mailing lists or e-lists and you can get these books only by downloading a form from the website [www.iaa.bham.ac.uk/publications/translations.htm] but it’s worth the doggedness.