"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, 27 December 2011

Dickens's London

Numberless books about aspects of Dickens's London have been written but here is one that actually has a practical utility in that it enables you to pace the streets today and see exactly which locations the author had in mind when he positioned his fictional characters in those districts of London he knew so well.  Written by Peter Clark and published by Haus in its "Armchair Traveller" series, Dickens's London, (£9.99, hardback) is based around five central London walks and, based on a road-test of the sections in Bloomsbury that I am familiar with from my own recent book, Real Bloomsbury (Seren, 2011), I'd say it is accurate and full of relevant detail and a great excuse to go walking in central London with a theme to follow.  It's an attractive, pocket-sized hardback, and probably one of the more useful and substantial of the Bicentenary missiles that will shortly be raining down on us.

Friday, 2 December 2011

Ruritania Lives?

I must begin by declaring an interest.  Mike Parker's Real Powys, the latest in the Real series of offbeat guides to (mostly) Welsh cities edited by Peter Finch, is in a series to which I myself contributed a volume earlier this year (Real Bloomsbury).  So successful have these books from Welsh literary publisher Seren been that the series has decided to invade England and a few titles like mine have started to appear, or are planned to appear, for other cities like Liverpool and Oxford.  The innovation of Real Powys is that it is about a rural county and in his introduction Peter Finch admits that he had doubts about the workability of the 'psychogeography' (I don't like this fashionable word) that is generally associated with urban writing and the lowdown on cities.  He needn't have had worries because Mike Parker shows that the idea of writing about place with an alertness to what is going on and what has been going on works just as well in the country as it does in the city.  And even rural places have their towns, pubs, streets, and built oddities and quirks.

Powys, which the Welsh poet Harri Webb, aptly called "the green desert" covers a quarter of the landmass of Wales but sheep outnumber humans by 60 to 1 and its population, such as it is, is 99 per cent white.  Bordering England along its eastern side it has had an often vicious history of conflict with its neighbour that, as Mike Parker rightly argues, still lingers in the quiet, clean air of these windy hills.

For the past quarter century I have lived in eastern Powys, in the old county of Radnorshire, dividing my time for the past ten of those years between it and London (hence that Real Bloomsbury) so I read the new book with great interest, especially on my patch of East Radnor.  (Yes, madam, I agree you haven't the faintest idea where any of these places are but that is the charm of Powys.)  I am pleased to report that Mike Parker has got it right.  This isn't Pevsner or Wikipedia.  It isn't an exhaustive checklist of everything.  It is a personal account, like all the Real books, where Penybont trotting races take up more space than architectural jottings, but you will learn a lot from it along the way.  It's true I would have liked more about Knighton, the town on the Dyke (Offa's), or a mention of the extraordinarily innovative Presteigne music festival which manages to win audiences for more original commissions of new work in classical music than the Proms would dare put on (the Proms controller frankly admitted to the larger than life director of the Presteigne festival, George Vass that he wouldn't get away with any of this at the Albert Hall), or a gesture at places like Cascob or Old Radnor.  But what he does say rings true and this is a lively and interesting book.

Powys invites gentle satire.  We all think of ourselves as 21st Century urban sophisticates and quaint customs and unchanged surfaces are easy to smile at.  Mike Parker, by dubbing this "smallest, poorest county in the land" Ruritania once or twice, might seem to go along with that trend but he is not mocking and he has a good knowledge of the patch and its history.  Highly recommended if you are venturing out into the kind of country where grass grows in the middle of the road and (indigenous) people in small market towns sometimes greet strangers in the street as if they were old acquaintances, something that would never happen in Bloomsbury.

Real Powys by Mike Parker is published by Seren at £9.99

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Shakespeare and the Folio Hunters: A Detective Story

750 copies of the first folio edition of Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies were published after the playwright's death in 1623 on the initiative of two of the actors in Shakespeare's acting company, The King's Men.  John Heminges and Henry Condell were fed up with the fact that so many bootleg editions of the individual plays were circulating.  Today 232 of these First Folios have been located and (almost) each one has been seen by scholar Eric Rasmussen who has written a surprisingly fascinating book, The Shakespeare Thefts (Palgrave Macmillan) about his team's search for the missing First Folios and their painstaking examination of the ones we do know about. Some will have perished in fires, some will have been torn up to wrap vegetables in, and some will exist in private collections, probably stolen, and thus secreted away.

This is a book full of stories, of obsessive collectors, of careless owners, of thieves, of fantasists (like the man who lived with his old Mum on a weekly carer's allowance and funded a lavish lifestyle on stolen credit cards used to purchase a stolen First Folio), of rich men looking for the ultimate status symbol, of Japanese universities owning no fewer than twelve of the things from the days when the yen would get you whatever you wanted.  In 2002 Sir Paul Getty paid $7 million for his entry to this very special millionaire's club.  In 1623 it cost £1 which for the time was a staggering amount so it has never been an object for the ordinary person.  Rasmussen calls this a "literary detective story" and it has all the appeal of a page-turning chase after the elusive Folios, many of which must still be out there.  But beware: a worryingly large number of people have died shortly after acquiring their copy.  For an academic book this is a pacy read, written in a lively popular style and highly recommended.  My only suggestion is that Rasmussen and the team should reach down their copy of the Oxford English Dictionary and look up the meaning of "disinterest" (p23).

What would one do if one had the dosh to acquire a First Folio?  Probably look at it lovingly then replace it in the fireproof vault and pull down the RSC complete Shakespeare edited by Jonathan Bate.  And Eric Rasmussen.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

In Praise of the North: Jeanette Winterson

Jeanette Winterson's new memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? appears to have been highly praised, rightly it seems to me, for its zest and candour and noted for a quality that some reviewers have seen as haste or even carelessness but which I see as her characteristic lively, pugnacious inventiveness. She describes herself as "a bare-knuckle fighter" who is her own worst enemy in love, lashing out at those she wants to love, all of which may proceed not just from the oddity of her beginnings in a crazy Evangelical household dominated by the unloved and unloving adoptive mother she calls Mrs Winterson, but in that sense of being unwanted, though the social workers and adoption agencies of course repeat to her the mantra that she was wanted, the birth mother when eventually located singing the same song.  There are harrowing descriptions of her bout of madness after a long relationship ended and her attempted suicide, as well as some rollicking humour from that mad religious household.  But what stuck in my mind was something else: her repeatedly stated affection for the North of England (like me she is a Lancastrian) and her regret at what has happened to it.  The emptying of the libraries (she read the literature section right through in A to Z order) by infotainment librarians, the triumph of Utility over inspiration in education, are all vigorously condemned but some of the most moving passages (aside from the personal ones of course) are where she observes contemporary England, the urban fringes of Manchester, for example, where the terraces have been demolished to be replaced by a waste land of "tower blocks and cul-de-sacs, shopping compounds, and gaming arcades...most of the small shops... boarded up, lost on fast, hostile roads".  She asks why decent people cannot live in decent environments:

"Now and again, forlorn and marooned, there's a four-square stone building that says Mechanics' Institute or Co-operative Society.  There's a viaduct, a cluster of birch trees, a blackened stone wall; the remains of the remains.  A tyre warehouse, a giant supermarket, a minicab sign, a betting shop, kids on skateboards who have never known life any other way.  Old men with bewildered faces.  How did we get here?...I love the industrial north of England and I hate what has happened to it."

And this was the case before the current recession.

Monday, 31 October 2011

The Slogans of St Paul's

Walking around the anti-capitalist camp outside St Paul's yesterday I saw some interesting slogans. Good to see a spirit of linguistic invention in our stale political culture:

Thursday, 20 October 2011

No Comment

This was spotted in Foyle's bookshop at St Pancras International .

Thursday, 13 October 2011

It Could Be You: Change in the Bizarre World of Literary Prizes?

News of plans to start a new literary prize in response to the decline of the Man Booker's reputation are welcome but, if one ponders it for more than five minutes, the surprise is that it has taken so long for the literary establishment (whence the new idea originates though they won't like me for saying it) to realise something was radically wrong.  To suggest that a literary prize should be awarded solely on literary merit rather than basing the award on the usual British populist criteria is hardly a startling piece of innovative cultural "blue skies thinking".  It should be bleedin' obvious.  But at least the focus is on the right issue: what should be considered excellent, rather than the usual prize preoccupations about which favoured person should be given an award they don't need by one of their friends who received it last time they were a judge etc etc.  The tangled web of favouritism and conventionality routinely ensnares the usual suspects and there is a certain type of 'prize writer' (especially in the poetry world, where it can be seen in sharper relief because that world is so small) who is, as the Italian Catholics say of cardinals who are potential Popes – papabile  – or designed to win prizes.

But what concerns me is that the very people advocating this new incorruptible, aesthetically pure prize are the same ones who control the levers of literary power: the agents and publishers, however laudably critical they might be of the current mess, who, the rest of the time, are solemnly telling authors that "no one wants" anything other than genre fiction, that X and Y will no longer sell, etc etc.

Let there be prizes.  Let there be more prizes.  But let there also be publishers of vision, ambition, originality, daring.  And let pigs fly in a beautiful, curving arc across the roseate dawn sky.

Saturday, 1 October 2011

La Rentrée or National Poetry Day is Here

Apologies to regular readers of this blog (Sid and Doris Bonkers of Neasden) but I have been silent since the 15th August (a date known to me since my Catholic childhood as The Feast of the Assumption) and a new month has begun so I really must do something about this slothful inaction.

I am still trying to pick myself up off the floor after bringing back from France with me Hélène Lenoir's shattering novel of the dark side of the family, Pièce rapportée, [a French idiom which means someone connected to the family by marriage but never considered quite part of it] and maybe I will blog about this soon. Otherwise I have been re-reading with the usual pleasure Wordsworth's Prelude, but you don't want to know this.

So some useful information at last: Thursday is National Poetry Day and lots of things will be happening.  For Londoners there are events at the Southbank Centre organised jointly with the Poetry Society, now seemingly cured of its recent bout of self-destructiveness.

I am grateful to the incomparable Katy Evans-Bush for this summary of what will happen on Thursday: "It's look-to-the-future time for the Poetry Society, and the day's festivities are all over the future: the Foyle Young Poets of the Year will be announced earlier that day, and judges Imtiaz Dharker and Glyn Maxwell will read with former Foyle Young Poets Helen Mort (just signed by Chatto) and Richard O'Brien. Children's poets including Michael Rosen and Philip Wells will read, and so will rising young SLAMbassadors.

The theme is Games, and the event will be like a sort of giant poetry fête: there will be poetry quizzes, poetry bingo, poetry cupcakes, a drop-in poetry surgery, and even poetry cupcakes! And also tons of poets.

The day will also feature the launch of the new issue of Poetry Review by the young, Donut-published, Gregory-winning poet Ahren Warner. (Glyn Maxwell is also featured in this issue, and will be on hand.)

And Julia Bird will be running a Poembola! (What could be inside that drum??)

There will be live tweeting from the event, including twitter games and quizzes so people outside London (or in the office!) don't miss out - the hashtag is #NPDLive. "

Monday, 15 August 2011

The Spark of Tahar Ben Jelloun, Part Two: 'L'étincelle'

A couple of months ago I wrote here about Par le feu, the short fictional account by the French-Moroccan writer, Tahar Ben Jelloun of the death of the Tunisian, Mohamed Bouazizi, whose self-immolation was the spark that ignited the Arab Spring.  At more or less the same time Ben Jelloun wrote another, non-fictional, analysis of the arab revolts called L'étincelle: révoltes dans les pays arabes (Gallimard).  L'étincelle means 'the spark'.  There is no sign as yet of either being published in English but they would make in combination a very important book.

Ben Jelloun's brief but powerful overview of recent events, written in March and published in May (and not without its critics, as an example of which see a rather personal attack from a partisan website that fails completely to address the substance of his argument) is nothing if not topical.  Those of us with rather queasy recollections of the fashionable novelists wheeled out to give their twopennyworth in The Guardian after 9/11 tend to approach The Great Writer on the Topics of the Day with some caution but Ben Jelloun has some good reasons to speak out for he was born in Fez in French Morocco, and knows the culture of the Arab world from within.  Written with his usual limpid economy, it describes, witheringly, the despotic cruelty of the dictators – les vieux turbans – of the Arab world and celebrates the spirit of resistance.

He begins by confronting the alleged 'silence of the Arab intellectuals'.  Far from being silent, he points out, writers and journalists in the Arab world have repeatedly spoken out and paid the price in imprisonment, torture and death, not the usual result of the engagements of the public intellectual in Western Europe or the USA.  Using his novelistic gifts, Ben Jelloun presents little vignettes of the two dictators who were dismissed – Ben Ali in Tunisia and Moubarak in Egypt – giving us a picture of their fury at their people for having rejected them and this is followed by a brief tour of what happened this spring in the leading countries where revolts broke out.  It is a horrifying story of brutal repression, personal enrichment at the expense of poor and humiliated people, and the turning of a blind eye by the outside world for fear of losing contracts and because the savagery of the dictators was seen to be useful in keeping the radical islamists at bay.

Ben Jelloun is scathing of the islamists, who watched the popular demands for freedom, justice and equality with dismay.  The author of Islam Explained brands their rhetoric "bland, anachronistic and stupid" [lénifiant, anachronique et stupide] and celebrates instead the radical political demands of the people who revolted, demands which derive clearly from classic human rights and democratic principles.  Unlike our recent apolitical shopping riots, the Arab revolts knew what they wanted and the early acts of self-immolation happened always outside buildings symbolising political or state power, the message clear enough: that the governments had let down their people.  A constant theme of this short book is that of humiliation (it figures largely in the earlier story of Bouazazi) but Ben Jelloun ends on a note of optimism in calling the current fury of the people "creative and alive" [vive et créatrice] and in particular young people, some of whom have lived abroad and had their eyes opened to political possibilities, have seen how other young people live and how vital liberty is to life.  "As in a dream, they have suddenly realised that they too have the chance to live a better life, to finish with dictatorships, to recover a little dignity." [Comme dans un rêve, ils ont entrevu soudain qu'ils avaient eux aussi la possibilité de vivre mieux, d'en finir avec les dictatures, de retrouver un peu de dignité.]  The tools they have used have been communication, the exchange of ideas and plans, and the most notable thing about the new generation is that it is fearless and this is something new that the dictators – represented by Ben Jelloun as desperate cornered animals who know only how to snarl and spit – cannot cope with.  They suddenly see that the revolt is non-negotiable and will not stop.  "It is that which is new and historic."

I only hope that the optimism is justified.

Sunday, 7 August 2011

The Prize Obsession

I can recall reading somewhere that there are so many literary prizes it is difficult to avoid winning one.  Let me reassure you, it is perfectly easy.  Having published fifteen books I have yet to win a prize – though I was on a shortlist of six for the 2003 Marsh Biography Prize and took my charity shop tuxedo out of mothballs for the dinner where Brenda Maddox deservedly pipped us all to the post.  Naturally everyone would like to win because there is usually some cash, sometimes a lot of it, and it does wonders for sales but one doesn't have to be a conspiracy theorist to see how, as with most other aspects of the English literary world, the usual rules of engagement apply. These can be summed up briefly: make sure you know the right people. In the case of major poetry prizes: really make sure you know the right people.

In a literary culture where reviewing is becoming ever more inadequate prizes start to become significant as a device for ranking books so it's no surprise that publishers get so excited about them.  Independent-minded readers don't need them because they award their own prizes in their head.

Which brings me to the Man Booker which never quite seems to get it right in contrast to the much more reliable (in my view) Goncourt in France which has (a) no musical chair-changing celebrity judges (b) a cash award of 10 euros and (b) a very good track record.  I was interested to see Boyd Tonkin in The Independent on Friday proposing something which sounded rather like the Goncourt.  Over to you Boyd:

Not the Man Booker Prize?

I refuse to criticise the Man Booker long-list. I've done that job; it's tough. You can't begin to satisfy the clamour of competing voices in your head, let alone in the world outside (established stars vs newcomers; large vs small firms; British novelists vs the rest, and so on). Yet as I began to tally my cherished casualties this year (Michael Ondaatje, Graham Swift, Ali Smith, Justin Cartwright, Andrew Miller, Francesca Kay... ), as well as other critics', a subversive idea took shape. Perhaps we need a new prize. As well as, not instead of. Only for UK authors or else permanent British residents. The same jury of genuine authorities (writers, teachers, critics) every year. No submissions from publishers; just selections by the judges. No thought of striking a balance between ages, genders, genres, publishers. Above all, an uncompromising, single-minded commitment to excellence in the art of fiction. Howls of complaint against "elitism" would pierce the air. Publishers would hate it. And novelists would kill to win.

[The Independent, 5 August 2011 by Boyd Tonkin]

A Postcript

It has been pointed out to me that the Goncourt is not necessarily such a good model and that is had its fair share of weird choices and has attracted accusations of being controlled by a cabal of publishers etc etc.  All I can say is that its last three choices which I have read have been more satisfying to me than the Booker choices.

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Tony Judt and the Alternative Conversation

The historian and critic Tony Judt – who died almost a year ago of a variant of motor neurone disease known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis – managed to complete a book Ill Fares the Land which I have just finished and which makes me think of Stéphane Hessel's Indignez Vous! (see older post in this blog) in its determination not to be cowed by the current intellectual climate of supine acceptance of the nostrums of privatisation and the worship of markets as a substitute for creative public policy.  Too sharply intelligent and knowledgeable to fall back on nostalgia, romanticising past struggles, or self-indulgent political fantasy, Judt simply asks for what he calls "a new moral narrative", a way of thinking and talking about contemporary politics that returns to ethical principles instead of parroting the post-Thatcher free market slogans.  It is a thoughtful, crisply written book that, like Hessel, offers no single Great Idea to solve all our problems but rather calls for a willingness to challenge, to dissent, as a preparation for a better way.  And its opening sentence makes a declaration that no one in the Labour Party, for example, would ever make: "Something is profoundly wrong with the way we live today."  It is a book to read and ponder rather than a source book of slogans or policies and none the worse for that.  One can imagine the policy wonks in all the parties, trapped in their bubble of self-referring and self-reflecting cant, dismissing it with a smug wave of the hand but those of us who long ago ceased to expect anything from that quarter at least have something to energise our thinking about alternatives.

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Where Do Fictional Characters Come From?

I have enjoyed reading Alan Hollinghurst's new novel The Stranger's Child, which centres around a First World War poet called Cecil Valance and I notice that some people have been having fun trying to identify "the original of" Cecil, arguing, for example that he is "based on" Rupert Brooke.   This in spite of the fact that Brooke is mentioned in the novel alongside Cecil Valance.  I found myself playing the game too, seeing Julian Grenfell and maybe a bit of Charles Hamilton Sorley in this character. And then I reminded myself that this is fiction.   That's right: invention, imagination, creation.   Novelists, even conventionally realistic ones, are not newspaper reporters (perhaps a bad analogy just now but you know what I mean) but they may well build their characters out of the raw material of people they have known and experienced.  In an autobiographical novel the relationship one supposes is clear enough but mostly characters are amalgams of perhaps three or four people or they are pure invention.  In so far as we observe the mantra of the creative writing classes – Write About What You Know – then we will draw on actual experience, but surely what matters is the significance and meaning of the character in the novel's overall aesthetic structure.  "The only sure truth about characters in prose fiction," wrote Susan Sontag, "is that they are, in Henry James' phrase, 'a compositional resource'."  The more we emphasise the realism of the novel over its other elements, the more we will think these detective games matter.

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

A Twitter Poem (+140)

Tied it seems in perpetuity
to the ceaseless fatuity
of Twittering
I go on littering
the lawn of my mind with stuff
when I should cry: Enough!

Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Shakespeare and the Chavs

A play opening on Saturday in London about the current crisis in Greece?  It is an odd experience re-reading Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream against a background of news reports of the 'austerity measures' being inflicted on the Greeks that will, as ever, have the worst impact on the poorest.  For at the heart of the play is of course The Most Lamentable Comedy and Most Cruel Death of Pyramus and Thisbe performed by a cast of 'rude mechanicals' aka the Athens working class (carpenters, joiners, weavers, repair-men tailors, etc).  In Athinas Street in Athens, just off Omonia Square, each morning Shakespeare's "hard-handed" workers gather with the tools of their particular trade in front of them on the pavement as a sort of advertisement  – or they did last time I was there but today they are probably queueing in one of the soup-kitchens shown this week on the news bulletins.  This connects also to a debate about Owen Jones recent book (which I haven't yet read) Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class which I gather deals with the way we represent and talk about the working class in a context of the daft belief in the media that we now live in a classless society.

Shakespeare presents his working men with humour rather than the kind of aggressive prejudice towards "chavs" that I presume Owen Jones is taking issue with.  He pokes fun at their uneducated speech, their malapropisms, their comic bombast and exaggerations, but it feels affectionate, and their play embodies the "serious" themes of the main play in a valuable way.  Apologising for the fact that a stage lion might frighten the middle class women in the audience "whose gentle hearts do fear/The smallest monstrous mouse that creeps on floor" Snug the joiner explains that he is not a real lion, just an ordinary trades unionist moonlighting as an actor for the evening.  So these are not terrifying hoodies with knives and guns on their person but mild mechanicals on a summer's evening in Athens.  They are the old-fashioned decent working class that we all love and sentimentalise but don't want to be because we want to pursue our upward mobility and dine in fancy restaurants and write literary blogs.

When the play is put on it is the aristocracy who seem to have a problem.  Hippolyta, about to be married to Theseus, Duke of Athens, is clearly a Daily Mail reader and resents having to watch these proles perform but the Duke exudes liberal tolerance from his throne and chooses the play of the "hard-handed men that work in Athens here" in preference to some other worthy options including a piece of cultural lament about dumbing-down which he decides sounds too heavy and serious for a wedding bash.  He argues that the naive art of the working men is worthy of respect: "For never anything can be amiss/When simpleness and duty tender it."  Surrounded by terrified sycophants who can hardly get their words out he appreciates the "tongue-tied simplicity" of the workers turned actors for the night.  Hippolyta doesn't share this view and continues to mutter about the quality of the performance ("This is the silliest stuff that ever I heard.") but Theseus is prepared to look for the glint in the rough diamond and to exercise a little sympathetic imagination towards their "palpable-gross play": "If we imagine no worse of them than they of themselves, they may pass for excellent men."

Granted, this is all feudal stuff, power patronising the workers, but it's at least an attempt at fairness of representation, of respect, and a lot better than middle-class fear of the "feral" working class of the inner city estates.  I just hope those painters in Athinas Street, with their white-spattered boots, have got some work this morning.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Tahar Ben Jelloun: Writing on Fire

The leading French-Moroccan novelist Tahar Ben Jelloun has always been unafraid of tackling contemporary political subjects in a way that British novelists always seem to find so difficult to do, terrified as they are of seeming "strident" or insufficiently circumspect. But his latest book, Par le feu [By Fire], just published, is a remarkably rapid response to the events of the Arab Spring.  It is a short story or récit of a mere 50 pages that tells as fiction the story of Mohamed Bouazizi, the unemployed Tunisian graduate forced to sell fruit from a handcart until beaten up by the police.  Pushed to the limit, he then set fire to himself last December, igniting the Arab revolutions.  The fiction is beautifully and sparely written and it conveys with great economy the brutal daily reality of life under the Tunisian régime, the harassment by corrupt police and officials, the resignation of the majority of the people in spite of their awareness of the injustice that was their daily ration, and the absence of all hope in a culture of grinding poverty where the poor face only humiliation and harassment.  Less than six months after the death of Mohamed the Gallimard presses have rolled (I picked it up on Monday in the Librairie Pages et Images in St Malo) and Ben Jelloun's composed and restrained anger shows no sign of undue haste in the writing.  Let's hope it's quickly translated.

P.S. Ben Jelloun has also written simultaneously, I gather, an essay on the same theme called L'étincelle [The Spark] which I haven't yet seen.

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

William Empson Remembered

Today in Marchmont Street, Bloomsbury, a plaque was unveiled, by his son, to the poet and critic, Sir William Empson, who lived in this Bloomsbury Street after he was expelled from Cambridge in the late 1920s and who wrote a substantial part of his famous work of literary criticism, Seven Types of Ambiguity, in the flat above what is now a Bangladeshi food store.

Passers-by were intrigued to watch a collection of writers and scholars who had gathered to hear Empson's poem about the British Museum read for the first and perhaps the last time in a Bloomsbury shopping street.  The crowd included a sprinkling of professors, a former poetry editor of Faber and Faber, the diarist of the TLS (the famous "J.C."), the mayor of Camden, and even yours truly who was handed the microphone at one point only to stammer out a plug for his own book, Real Bloomsbury, which contains an account of Empson's residence.  Another of his sons told me that one night Empson and Dylan Thomas returned from a boozy evening in Fitzrovia and were found the next morning each rolled up in the carpet where they had fallen the night before.

I think they may have exceeded their number of units on that occasion.

Sunday, 29 May 2011

Colin Thubron on Travel Writing

No sooner do I deliver my twopennyworth on travel writing than Colin Thubron comes along and says it all so much better than I can do in The Guardian.  Before visiting Cyprus last December I read his 1970s book, Journey to Cyprus, and found it, like all his books, beautifully written, wise and observant.  Less flashy and self-advertising than some of the well-known travel writers, Thubron is an unfailingly interesting writer about place.

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Geert Mak's Slice of Istanbul Life

Is travel-writing dead?  That's the sort of question that is only marginally less sleep-inducing than: "Is the novel dead?"  Of course it isn't, but the old-fashioned travel narrative may well be so, and the sorts of travel book that work these days seem to be the ones that mix it – history, philosophising, autobiography, fiction etc etc.  Off to Istanbul shortly (volcanic ash permitting) I have just read the Dutch writer Geert Mak's splendid little book, The Bridge (2007) based on the daily life of the Galata Bridge over the Golden Horn in Istanbul.  It's about far more than the bridge itself which links the old part of Istanbul where I always stay, scruffy as it is, with the newer, westernised Pera ("outside") district.  The tussle in contemporary Turkey between modernisation and tradition which has been a feature of the country since at least the era of its modern founder Ataturk, is symbolised to some extent by the bridge.

What makes Mak's book so good is that he has talked to the shabby, poor, sometimes desperate street vendors and fishermen on the bridge as well as providing a brilliant pocket history of modern Turkey in general and Istanbul in particular.  These voices are what makes the book and he lets them speak in ways that some of the classic travel writers don't always manage to pull off.  It's a short book but an excellent one and makes me want to read his longer book about Europe, In Europe.  Everyone travels now, it is said, and so travel writing doesn't work any more, because we have all been there. It might be true that the old 'traveller's tales' are harder to get away with but there will always be a role for the writer who travels with eyes and ears open and some real historical knowledge.  Geert Mak is one of them.

Friday, 6 May 2011

What is Biography For?

Once upon a time certain literary critics argued that biography was superfluous at best, pernicious at worst, because it encouraged us to concentrate on gossipy trivia instead of focussing on that sacred space: The Text.  Nothing dates quite so quickly as fashions in criticism and "the New Critics" are no longer new and the "doctrine of impersonality" is probably equally covered in dust in some lit. crit. mausoleum and many subsequent hot tickets are now being heavily discounted.  Quite what the current status of biography is in the austere world of criticism I am not sure but on Monday, if you happen to be in London, fellow biographer, Phil Baker, and I will be discussing "The Perils of Biography".  We both think that it has a future and a role but I still have a lot of respect for Proust's view in Contre Sainte-Beuve that, contrary to Sainte-Beuve (a critic who believed that you couldn't say anything useful about a writer unless you knew all about their life, preferably from personal acquaintance) the writer was far more than the bundle of atoms who sat down for breakfast.  The writer was, as Proust put it, "l'autre moi", the "other me", and his personal foibles had nothing to do with the writer who wrote those books.  A striking irony, of course, given the deep personal sources of Proust's writing. But I think we get his point.  Come along on Monday and see if we manage to refer to him.

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Damn You England: The Latest Version

The news that Martin Amis is to leave Britain again, in disgust at his native land, has been greeted with the usual round of derision from journalistic commentators.  It is what always seems to greet the public pronouncements of Amis.  Several have referred to John Osborne's notorious "A Letter to My Fellow Countrymen" published in Tribune half a century ago in August 1961 at the worst period of the Cold War. Describing this as "a letter of hate" to his fellow countrymen by which "I mean those men of my country who have defiled it. The men with manic fingers leading the sightless, feeble, betrayed body of my country to its death.  You are its murderers..."  it goes on in similar vein rather too long.  Osborne was only 31 at the time so this is not the ranting of an Amis who feels that he has had enough after a lifetime of watching his country go to the dogs.  "Damn you, England," said Osborne. "You're rotting now, and quite soon you'll disappear."  Well, as we all know, England hasn't disappeared.  The tradition of hating England has deep roots.  See for example the Victorian explorer, Sir Richard Burton, or more recently the writers of the 1930s like Lawrence Durrell.  But it is always difficult to know where hate ends and love begins.

We all have our Meldrewish moments and I notice that over in the Twitter aviary I have been sounding off in recent weeks about aggressive London cyclists, contemporary pub culture, and so forth.  In a sense Amis has a point but his manner is against him.  There is quite a lot about contemporary English life (I am deliberately avoiding conscripting Wales, Scotland and Ireland into all this) that is hard to take and, reflecting on it here in the Welsh countryside in glorious weather in recent days, I have been trying to get in touch with my mellow side and put it all in perspective.  I think it mostly boils down to a prevailing lack of adequate socialisation.  In the cities we seem to have lost the art of negotiating one another's space, the small courtesies and urbanities that make life tolerable when we are herded together.  The cyclist with his shrill whistle or deep aggressive bellowing at a pedestrian perceived to have committed some misdemeanour or the crowd of people blocking the pavement outside the pub and forcing a blind person to walk into the road (I am not making that one up) are people who have allowed themselves to get trapped in their own egos and we need to find a way to let them out.  Oh dear, what am I saying? We need to be nice to each other?  Can't I come up with something less bland?  The social psychologists tell us that people aren't really happy, in spite of all the material benefits we shower ourselves with, and I suppose this is it.  All that manic, competitive stuff on the city streets, isn't an index of personal contentment.  If you are a rich writer you can move abroad, put it all behind you, start again somewhere else.  The rest of us just need to keep on battling.  Osborne and Amis are perhaps fortunate in finding someone they can blame.

Monday, 11 April 2011

Elizabeth Bishop: On Not Saying Too Much

I recently reported a comment from Bruce Chatwin's letters about writers needing to write only what there is a compelling urgency to write (an echo of Kafka's famous apothegm about a book needing to be an axe for the frozen sea within us).  In the penultimate issue of the New York Review of Books [March 24-April 6 LVIII (5)] there's an excellent piece by April Bernard about two new editions of Elizabeth Bishop's poetry and prose.  Bernard worries that too much of Bishop's ephemera, including drafts not intended for publication and stuff she herself did not allow into print for good reason, has been made available and turned into part of the Bishop canon.  She quotes Bishop, after a meeting with her mentor, the poet Marianne Moore, saying that she never left the latter's house: "without feeling happier: uplifted, even inspired, determined to be good, to work harder, not to worry about what other people thought, never to try to publish anything until I thought I'd done my best with it, no matter how many years it took – or never to publish at all."

Or never to publish at all! 

Friday, 8 April 2011

Kafka Again

My comment in the Guardian's "Comment is Free" section appeared yesterday:-

The remarkable announcement this week by the Bodleian Library and the German Literary Archive at Marbach that they have agreed jointly to purchase a collection of more than 100 letters and postcards from Franz Kafka to his sister Ottla will cause great excitement amongst Kafka biographers and scholars. New archival material about this exhaustively covered writer is an increasing rarity.

The new material will offer a chance to learn more about Kafka's favourite sister, who is a remarkable woman in her own right. Ottilie ("Ottla") David was totally dedicated to her brother. She divorced her non-Jewish Czech husband, Josef David ("Pepa") in order to save his life, declared herself a Jew to the Nazi authorities and, on arrival at Theresienstadt concentration camp, volunteered to accompany around 1,200 children on a "special transport" to Auschwitz, where she was gassed to death on arrival.

The Bodleian has not yet itemised the material in detail so it is difficult to know exactly how much of this material is genuinely new (a volume Letters to Ottla and the Family was published in 1974) but it is clear from the joint statement by the two institutions that there is at least some brand new material unseen by any scholars and biographers to date. In particular there are said to be new letters from Kafka's last lover Dora Diamant and the young Hungarian medical student and friend of Kafka's on his deathbed, Robert Klopstock.

In a novel arrangement, the Bodleian and Marbach are to share ownership of the new letters, which would otherwise have been auctioned off on 19 April in a sale in Germany by family descendants.

Part of the deal is that the financial sums involved remain secret. Almost all the newly acquired papers have actually been sitting in the Bodleian archive for 40 years. They were acquired by the enterprising Kafka scholar and translator Professor Malcolm Pasley, who had earlier rescued other Kafka manuscripts, including the famous 'blue octavo notebooks', which I remember handling with awe when researching my biography of Kafka.

This bold and unusual initiative points to a sharp contrast with the seemingly endless and bitter wrangles over that other collection of Kafka papers, currently in Israel in the firm possession of the daughters of Esther Hoffe, former secretary and putative lover of Kafka's friend Max Brod, who famously defied Kafka's request that he destroy all his unpublished manuscripts.

In Israel the row is about Who Owns Kafka?, as Judith Butler titled her sardonic London Review of Books lecture given on the subject in London last month, with the National Library of Israel and the Marbach archive in Germany slugging it out in the courts over who should get custody of the papers. The Israelis appear to argue that Kafka's Jewishness (avowedly important to him) makes him the property of the state of Israel. Those who see him as a master of modern German prose see his allegiance as being to the German language. The Czechs, of course, have always been lukewarm in their designs on him. In my view Kafka belongs to no one but himself. A writer is not the property of the state, and his true curators are his readers. Kafka, like Joyce, flies past those nets of nationalism that would seek to bring down his flight. He belongs to the imagination of the world.

Back in Oxford it is to be hoped that, as well as offering valuable new material on Kafka, this new cache of papers will help to give more prominence to Ottilie David, who, however hard I struggle to overcome vulgar biographical reductionism, is always present in my mind when I read the "soft, plaintive voice" of Gregor Samsa's sister in Metamorphosis asking, after his transformation into a repellent thing: "Gregor? Aren't you well? Is there anything you want?"

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2011

Monday, 4 April 2011

Elizabeth Bowen: The Difference a Word Makes

The sense you get with a lot of currently hyped British fiction that the writers are straining too hard, that the writing has been overcooked, strikes you more forcefully when you confront the opposite: writing that seems perfectly in control of itself. Elizabeth Bowen's Friends and Relations (1932) opens with a wedding that is realised with extraordinary economy of means.  At one point the sister of the bride, Janet Studdart, looks into the marquee on a couple who have been more or less abandoned, without chairs, without anyone speaking to them, alone in the empty tent.  "'It's a pity,' she added, looking dispassionately round the marquee, 'you can't sit down.'"  That single word "dispassionately" animates the cliché: "speaks volumes".

Monday, 28 March 2011

The Company You Keep

At last, in serious company in the window of Waterstone's in Camden High Street, London!

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Sybille Bedford Centenary

The novelist Sybille Bedford (1911-2006) who would have been 100 tomorrow, has been getting a lot of coverage in the papers recently.  One of those stylish and elegant writers who have a following but who never seem quite to capture the "mass literary fiction" market, to coin an unpleasant phrase, Sybille Bedford was a great friend of the novelist Aldous Huxley and even more so his wife, Maria, and became Huxley's first official biographer, her two volumes appearing in 1972-3.  When, thirty years later, I came to write the next full biography of Huxley [Aldous Huxley: An English Intellectual (2002)] I beat a path to her door in Chelsea.  I have written about this in a long piece for the magazine Areté [No 20, Spring/Summer 2006, not online] and also a shorter tribute in the memorial volume: Sybille Bedford: In Memory (2007).  Sybille, notorious for her acid way with people she didn't like, was extremely kind and helpful to me with my biography of Huxley and gave me a great deal of valuable information and insight when we spoke together over a glass of wine in her dark (she had problems with her eyesight) Chelsea basement flat on several occasions.  I have been struck by the recent tributes to her which have tended in the main to consist of posh literati reminiscing about posh Sybille (she was of Austrian blue blood) but I am not posh and it is worth recording that she could not have treated me with more generosity and respect.  Some of her novels are being reissued this week but they are easy to find second hand as Penguin Modern Classics (not all that neglected then).  Good old Sybille.

Friday, 11 March 2011

A Time for Outrage: Stéphane Hessel

The surprise best-seller in France last year was a pamphlet from the Montpellier-based Indigène éditions, who specialise in giving a voice to third world and other "natives" closer to home, those who challenge the consensus, or as their slogan has it: "Ceux qui marchent contre le vent."  This little publishing house suddenly found itself with a success on its hands that sold over 600,000 copies in the run-up to Christmas where people seemed to be giving it to each other as a stocking filler.  The author, Stéphane Hessel, 93, a survivor of Buchenwald, a member of the French Resistance, and one of the drafters of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and an international diplomat, issued this passionate call to arms (I would translate it as: Get Angry!) particularly addressed to the young, to resist once more the negative political forces of our time.  He is the polar opposite of crass right wing media stars like Niall Fergusson and he seems to have struck a chord in France.

Now he is published in Britain as A Time for Outrage and it will be very interesting to see how he fares in a politically comatose country where even the Governor of the Bank of England is baffled at our failure to be more angry at what the bankers have done to us.   Already there have been sneers against Hessel to the effect that it is all words and no programme.  But this is to miss the point.  He is not a policy wonk, he is a man who is enraged, and wants us to be enraged.  He is trying to inspire.  He is invoking a spirit of resistance, of nay-saying, of dissent.  This doesn't play well in Britain where, slumped in front of our computer screens, we have got out of the habit of fighting back – though it's good news that a majority of people, according to a recent poll, are already bored to death with the idea of the fatuous Royal Wedding.

A personal footnote: I used a quotation from Indignez-vous! as the epigraph to my new verse broadside against the coalition government, Get Real!  

Get both!

Monday, 28 February 2011

The Red Sweet Wine of Youth: the British First World War Poets Launched in London

Tomorrow night in London at King's College in The Strand I will be in conversation with Max Saunders, biographer of Ford Madox Ford, talking about my new book about the British poets of the First World War: The Red Sweet Wine of Youth (Little, Brown).  This event takes place in The Anatomy Museum so bring your intellectual scalpels along at 6.30pm.  It's free and there are refreshments.  The book, just published, has already been reviewed favourably in The Financial Times and The Wall Street Journal though I have to say, for the world of global finance, it doesn't have any special message that I can work out!  See also this and this from Dermot Bolger.  I am also very pleased to have been recommended by the War Poets blog of Tim Kendall, a leading British expert on war poetry and Professor of English at Exeter University.

Monday, 14 February 2011

Oscar Wilde Week Begins!

Over at the always excellent Baroque in Hackney blog news of the start of Oscar Wilde Week in conjunction with Esoteric London blog.  Go to!

We approve very much of Wilde here at BB so more power to their joint elbows.

Another piece of scintillating news.  After rejecting Twitter and flouncing out of its room 18 months ago, claiming that it was a waste of time, I have now slyly crept back in as @bloomsburyman.  I am going to give it another go but equally determined not to let it take over my trivia-time.

Thursday, 10 February 2011

Get Real!

Today's Times Literary Supplement has an item about my new satirical broadside Get Real! (Rack Press) aimed at those nice people in the coalition Government.  In the diary column the notoriously stringent critic, "J.C." is very complimentary.  Details of how to order this can be found at the Rack Press website.  If you live in London you can buy it over the counter at the London Review Bookshop in Bury Place or Bookmarks in Bloomsbury Street.

Thursday, 3 February 2011

The Red Sweet Wine of Youth: the British First World War Poets

Today is publication day of my new book on the British poets of the First World War, The Red Sweet Wine of Youth and I am writing this on a train to Liverpool where Radio Merseyside is to have the privilege of being the first to talk to me about it.  This is my fourteenth (or twelfth, depending on how you categorise a couple of publications that are hardly book-length) since my first book was published in 1993 and maybe it's time to pause for breath...well, until after the weekend at any rate.

Like most of my fellow-writers of more-or-less-serious books the struggle to survive gets harder. Reading The Author, the journal of the Society of Authors, is a sort of mediaeval penance, a glum self-scourging, and most writers I know are ducking and diving, teaching and preaching, hustling for some tossed coin of fugitive income.  Delightful reviews, the positive responses of one's friends, even the fleeting sight of one of one's books in a branch of Waterstone's, never seem to make any inroads into penury.

But it's fun to write, or we wouldn't be doing it, and the spectacle of writers bleating is never an edifying one.

News that a reprint of TRSWOY (as the emails now have it) of 2000 hardback copies, was ordered even before publication day is heartening.  I hope you enjoy it.

Update: a review from the Financial Times of 12 February 2011

Saturday, 15 January 2011

Romantic Moderns and the Hedgehog

Heaven forbid that I should start applying to the random ephemerality of blogging the portentous tools of literary criticism but I have a vague feeling that if I were to embark on a bit of auto-criticism over the past year I would see one theme emerging: the persistent claims of realism as opposed to a view of literature that would banish all that naturalistic stuff and replace it with the austere formalism of the modernist classics.  Now I am as passionately fond of a spare Beckettian dialogue or passage of prose as the next person but I also like the kind of writing that gives me the smell and feel of things – and that doesn't have to mean plodding and conventional novelistic realism of the kind modern fictional innovators have been in revolt against.

As it happens I have just finished reading Alexandra Harris's Romantic Moderns: English Writers, Artists and the Imagination from Virginia Woolf to John Piper (Thames and Hudson, 2010), a much-praised book that deals with the art and literature of the 1930s and argues that there was a native tradition, embodied in artists like John Piper, that reconciled modernism and the specificity of English landscape and architecture and writing.  I began this book with some resistance because the merest hint of Little Englandism usually sends me into hysterics, but Harris is anything but a polemical writer and her gentle argument merely suggests that, even at the height of the enthusiasm for inter-war modernism (embodied, for example, in the Isokon flats in Hampstead) there was an intense interest in the particular English tradition, with Piper, for example, touring the country to photograph 12th century church fonts.  She cites Piper's wartime book British Romantic Artists (1942) in a series called "Britain in Pictures" published to celebrate, presumably, what we were fighting to defend.  Intrigued by this very new (to me) use of the word "Romantic", I sought out the book and read its opening sentence: "Romantic art deals with the particular. The particularisation of Bewick about a bird's wing, of Turner about a waterfall or a hill town, or of Rossetti about Elizabeth Siddal, is the result of a vision that can see in these things something that for a moment seems to contain the whole world; and, when the moment is past, carries over some comment on life or experience besides the comment on appearances." Underlying Harris's argument is the suggestion that modernist abstraction simply missed out too many of these "things" and that the contemporary art theorists like Roger Fry, who argued that art was sullied in its purity of focus by irrelevant external details and that "significant form" was the goal, were in effect aesthetic puritans.  Although she presents convincing evidence that contemporary cutting-edge artists shared this growing reservation about pure formalism, my resistance took some calming down.  First of all, I never accept, in literature or art, what I call the football supporter's imperative, that one has to wear a red and blue or a black and white scarf.  Abstraction works and so does realism.  I can happily move from Bacon to Hodgkin, Freud to Riley.  Secondly, the argument that international modernism was somehow rootless, cosmopolitan, not drawing sustenance from a particular cultural tradition, is simply unsustainable.  The Andalusian Picasso is a sufficient example.  In fairness to Harris, she doesn't ever put it as crudely as this and, generally, she opens more doors than she shuts.  Like all the best critical works it sends you away with a reading list scribbled on the back of the bookmark and my first port of call was Gilbert White's The Natural History of Selborne (1789) which became a popular text (my edition, with drawings, see below, by Edmund New, is dated 1937) in the rediscovery of interest in "England" and its rural life in the mid-1930s.

This is one of those books I have possessed for a decade and never actually got round to reading and it is a delight.  Written with a beautiful clarity of observation it describes the topography and animate and inanimate life of the parish of Selborne in Hampshire.  There's a passage early on about the "raven-tree" near the village where a "large excrescence" bulges out in the middle of the stem of the oak and ravens nest above it unmolested by the village boys who try, unsuccessfully, to dislodge their nest.  Then the tree is eventually cut down and the raven, sitting on her eggs, comes down with it "dead to the ground".  It's one of countless passages that derive their force from the intensity of White's observation.  Read it and you'll see what I mean.  Literature and the imagination need that fuel, that particularity, that vivid detail, every bit as much as they need "significant form".