"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, 25 December 2012

Listen to This!

I am very pleased to say that Spoken Ink have now made available of a recording of me reading from my poetry collection Acapulco: New and Selected Poems published this year.  You can hear a sample on the Spoken Ink website.

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Dante: The Latest Instalment

A new translation of Dante's Divine Comedy is launched this evening at the Italian Cultural Institute in London.  It is by J.G. Nicholls and having read his version of the Inferno when it was first published by the ever-reliable and enterprising Hesperus press I have no doubt that the new hardback compilation of his translations of the whole of Dante's epic will be an excellent one.

The book is published at £25 by Alma Classics with illustrations by Gustave Doré and is very attractive to handle but of course what matters is the translation and here Nicholls hasn't ducked the challenge of using verse to render Dante's famous line.  It works, in my view, because the verse flows naturally, doesn't try too hard to draw attention to itself and avoids the archaic and the 'poetic' to produce a highly readable and fluid read yet retaining the dignity of tone of the original:

Where, on a sudden, there before my eyes
            Stood three infernal Furies stained with blood.
            They looked like women and had women's ways,
 With bright green hydras twisted round the waist,
             With thin serpents and two-horned snakes for hair,
              Bound round their savage heads and interlaced.

Matthew Arnold, in his famous lectures on translating Homer, berated some of his contemporaries for their over-ingenious attempts to render Homer as an Anglo-Saxon or whatever.  The key thing, he said, was to 'reproduce the effect' of the original.  I feel that this translation succeeds in that vital aim.

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Small Presses Rule OK?

Making Books for Love and Money: On the Value of Small Presses

Thursday 15 November at 7.00 p.m. 
London Review Bookshop, Bury Place, London WC1
with Charles Boyle, David Lea, Nicholas Lezard, Patrick McGuiness and Nicholas Murray

As the book world undergoes some of the biggest changes in its history, we ask what the value will be of small presses in the new literary landscape – and what those values are that they hold that make them so important for the future of the book. Discussing the question will be a panel made up of publisher, author, critic and bookseller, with Nicholas Murray, biographer and publisher of Rack Press, Charles Boyle of CB Editions, critic Nicholas Lezard, whose column in the Saturday Guardian has championed countless gems from small presses, Patrick McGuinness, poet and author of The Last Hundred Days (Seren), longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2011, and our own David Lea, bookseller at the London Review Bookshop.

Sunday, 21 October 2012

The Kafka Papers Latest

In "A Week in Books" in the Guardian Review of 20 October 2012 I wrote:

Anyone who has ever worked in the great literary archives like the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center in Austin, Texas knows that Yukon moment when, late in the afternoon, after another interminable box has been opened, the grey sand swishes to one side and a fragment of gold glitters in the pan.

So much of the greatness of Kafka resides in riddling fragments that it is inconceivable that the archive ordered by an Israeli court to be released to the Israeli National Library in Jerusalem will not contain something of vital interest, but anyone expecting the manuscript of another Trial is not advised to hold their breath.

Ever since this story first broke a few years ago there has been copious speculation about what the archive, owned by the implacable daughters of Esther Hoffe, former secretary and mistress of Kafka’s friend and biographer, Max Brod, might contain.  It is worth recalling, however, that Brod was the man who countermanded Kafka’s request that his unpublished work be destroyed (a bonfire that would have included all the major novels) and the idea that he would have allowed major work by Kafka to have languished for years in a bottom drawer is ludicrous.

But the simple fact is that no one knows what is about to be liberated by decree of the court from safe-deposit boxes in Tel Aviv and Zurich.  “We don’t know what’s in there exactly,” said David Blumberg, chairman of the Israeli National Library, in a welcome moment of candour this week.  The best guess is that it will contain Brod’s manuscript diaries, which must certainly have material about his close friend, as well as Kafka’s Hebrew notebooks.  And somewhere in all that heap of paper we must hope there will be at least one gleaming fragment.

The archive began its journey to Israel when Brod fled the Nazis in 1939 bearing a suitcase stuffed with manuscripts.  His 1948 will stated that it should go to “the library of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem or the Tel Aviv municipal library” but there was an ambivalent coda “or that of any other public institution in Israel or abroad”.  Up to now that has allowed others, like the German Literature Archive at Marbach, to stake a claim to the papers, Kafka being, after all, one of the great masters of modern German prose, born an Austrian citizen in Prague in the last years of the Habsburg Empire.  Marbach has already shelled out $2 million to the Hoffe sisters for the manuscript of The Trial – back in 1988 when the pair had begun to flog off bits of the archive to the highest bidder.  

The ruling of the Tel Aviv District Family Court on 11 October by Judge Talia Pardo Kupelman was that the papers were not a gift to the plaintiffs but intended by Brod’s will for a national collection.  The surviving daughter, Eva Hoffe, intends to appeal.

Behind this court drama is the insistent fact of Kafka’s Jewishness, vitally important to him, though critics continue to fight over its significance for his art. Fortunately for us, the latter is the private property of no one.

Monday, 8 October 2012

Brave New World: Huxley Revisited

The Institute of English Studies at London University is the location this week of a significant day conference on Aldous Huxley's Brave New World which is 80 years old this year.

There will be a range of academic speakers and I will be giving a paper on Fordism in Brave New World.

It takes place at Senate House in the University of London on this Friday 12 October and there are still places if you are interested.

Monday, 1 October 2012

Bloomsbury Festival Marches On

This attractively leafy scene is in fact in the centre of London in Russell Square and from here at 12.30 on Sunday 21st October I will be leading an hour-long literary walk around Bloomsbury as part of the Bloomsbury Festival.  The running gag is that it is called "Bloomsbury Without Woolf", not because I have any animus against Virginia but because I wanted to point out the connections with some other writers, including less well-known ones associated with Bloomsbury, most of whom figure in my book about the area, Real Bloomsbury (Seren).  The walk is free and signed copies of my book will be on sale.

Friday, 21 September 2012

Kafka: Saturday Night and Sunday Morning

Tomorrow is the centenary of one of the more remarkable moments of 20th century literature when, through the night of 22/23 September 1912, Franz Kafka wrote his breakthrough story, Das Urteil, ("The Judgement").  He wrote it, as he said afterwards, "in einem Zug" or "in one go".  One translator is said apocryphally to have rendered this as Kafka having written it "on a train" (Zug being the same word for both).  It is wonderful to read, in Kafka's diaries, his description of the joy of this creation, how he was carried away by it, how he felt suddenly that "everything could be said" ("Wie alles gesagt werden kann").  Whatever else Kafka was, he was, for me, the supremely dedicated writer of his century, who was interested not in fame, "deals", "exposure", and all the other things that are urged on young writers as their goal, but the act of writing itself, its beauty and agony, its needfulness.  "The conviction verified," he wrote in the aftermath of the story, "that with my novel-writing I am in the shameful lowlands of writing.  Only in this way can writing be done, only with such coherence [Zusammenhang], with such a complete opening out of the body and the soul."

I won't say any more about the story itself but I suggest you join me in reading it in silent tribute tomorrow night.

Just now there is a little flurry of correspondence in the Times Literary Supplement following a review by Gabriel Josipovici of some recent books on Kafka in which Josipovici expressed some discontent (I oversimplify his argument) with critics who think they have finally captured Kafka's meaning.  I have some sympathy with him.  Kafka's greatness is partly due to the fact that we cannot neatly sum up what he was "saying".  The mystery, the never quite knowing, is what constitutes the peculiar appeal of his writing.  I have written a biography of Kafka and you can order it by clicking on the dreaded Amazon box to the right of this column but, in truth, biography can point to certain correspondences in the story with Kafka's life and can contextualise it usefully but it cannot explain its magic.  Reading it to his sister when it was still fresh she said that the house in the story was like theirs: "I said: How? In that case, then, Father would have to be living in the toilet."

Once again Kafka has the last word.

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Acapulco Reviewed

I have just returned from northern Italy to find a review of my poetry collection Acapulco: New and Selected Poems (Melos) by Martina Evans on Writer's Hub and another by John Greening which I hope the TLS won't mind my reproducing here:-

"There is often a single poem early in a collection that helps the reader find their way. In Acapulco by Nicholas Murray, it is "Bedroom", about a painting by Vilhelm Hammershoi: "How you anticipate / our love of the minimal ...", it begins, concluding a few lines later: Your silence grows in us, expands like rising dough, until we reach the street and find ourselves, altered, in an exalted elsewhere. That heavy cadence is characteristic, as is the sound-shift from "altered" to "exalted". In Murray's strongest work the effect is exactly as described in "Bedroom". The silence can be that of "Honfleur" - "amongst smiling gourmands /who do not know our secret"; the more spiritual regions of "Icon", the opening poem; or raw and malevolent - most vividly in a piece about an owl ("That cold, accusing look!") accidentally smoked from its nest. "Owl" is Murray at full stretch. "Get Real!", his extended satire on the Coalition (as the biographer of Andrew Marvell, he can be forgiven for trying) is less successful than pieces where the mockery is reined in: his snaps of Liverpool ("Culture Capital" - Murray has also written a Life of Matthew Arnold), for example, or the gentle pokes at archaeology, photographers, cyclists ("chasing pleasure, with the grimness it deserves") and even writers in "Himself a Poet": Oh yes, we all know the truthfulness of blurbs: like the grocer's insistence that his gnarled loaf with its scatter of grains, signalling wholesomeness, was not drawn, craftily, from the freezer at dawn. Shakier in descriptive work such as "First Day of Summer", where "cooing pigeons" reappear from two pages earlier, Murray is at his best when least adjectival, when a poem feels like a "tossed titbit", one of those "buoyant scraps" fed to appease those same "pigeons in the square". He frequently emphasizes the importance of selection, knowing what and when to exclude - the minimalist title poem, for instance, is rounded off (again somewhat over-emphatically) with the idea of a "viewfinder getting in the way of the view", but also more sinisterly in "Der Führer", where Hitler "ordered that the blinds be drawn" when his train was passing bombed cities."

From the Times Literary Supplement, 14 September 2012

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Warwick Review and Acapulco

The latest issue of The Warwick Review has been published and contains the usual rich variety of poems, fiction, and reviews.

I was particularly pleased the have a review of my latest poetry collection, Acapulco (Melos) by Jackie Wills.  Here is what she said:

After referring to the poet's "taut precision" which "can spill into satire or deliver meticulous detail" she went on:

"Murray is an acclaimed biographer, novelist, runs Rack Press and is a Fellow of the Welsh Academy. This collection contains 25 new poems and selected work from two previous collections, Plausible Fictions and The Narrators Murray's range is eclectic and within the new poems, unsurprisingly, his political voice is present. He tackles pollution with stark imagery in 'Food', homophobia in 'Courage', and racist violence in 'Culture Capital'. Later in the collection, his furious satire 'Get Real' takes on contemporary politics in the fine tradition of poets as diverse as Alexander
Pope, Linton Kwesi Johnson and the late Peter Reading. Murray's tight style, at its best in the first verse from 'Food', serves his politics well:

On Midway Atoll they spread out the infant albatross:
its stomach slit to show the bellyful of plastic trash
that parents plucked from the polluted sea as food.

In the older sequence 'Greek Islands', Murray’s brevity delivers a sense of transience, of visual pleasure, of moments attached to places like tiny threads or found objects. These poems are as beautiful and challenging as the newer poem 'Island Swimmer', in which the subject, an older woman, easily outpaces the narrator, her body emulating "the action of the eel".  At times, among the many subjects this collection tackles, there is a sense of the fragility of relationships, and, while Murray's a careful writer, occasionally his language leans towards the archaic. But the wry title poem, ‘Acapulco’, is another that shows him on form, condensing the image – "the tower blocks gather to the contemplation of blue” – and setting pelican against tourist.

Subscribe now to The Warwick Review by emailing: m.w.hulse@warwick.ac.uk.

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Art and Sand

Anthony Gormley's installation at Crosby Beach, Liverpool, Another Place, known locally as The Iron Men was meant to be removed in 2006 but the locals protested and wanted it kept.  Ever since I first saw it I have been entranced by the way this human construct changed the whole natural landscape of this beach which was my childhood playground.  One of the poems in my recent collection Acapulco (Melos Press, see elsewhere on this page on how to order) called "Culture Capital" has a passage on the installation and the way in which people have added, as in this photograph, their own embellishments to the work.  The individual iron men (based I believe on a cast of Gormley's own body) are rusting and acquiring barnacles as well as impromptu headdresses so perhaps they won't last for ever but the idea was an inspiring one and I salute it.

PS to my friends who have not seen anything from me recently on Facebook or Twitter, an explanation.  I tried to throw myself into this world, I really did, but the tsnunami of trivia and narcissism finally swept my corpse out to sea and I am there no longer, except for Rack Press posts when necessary and sending links to Twitter for these blog posts.  I must say I feel a lot better without the daily dose of it.

Friday, 20 July 2012

Hype and the World of Books

John Banville's new novel Ancient Light, which comes with a perfectly intelligent and sensible blurb carries also on the front cover a comment of a kind that makes one wonder about the people who work in book marketing (in this case Penguin Viking).  It is one of those pre-emptive puffs of which the trade is so fond (the book had not been published and not reviewed when this was set in type) and it comes from Sebastian Barry: "Could any book be better? Did it even need to be as tremendous as this?"  Yuk!  This is indeed (despite the haughty reservations of today's TLS) a very good book and I loved it but what is the point of a silly piece of overstatement like this? Did the wry and self-mocking Banville approve it? (My guess is no, authors, like everyone else in publishing, are subservient to sales and marketing.) One could multiply examples of this sort of thing with ease and what a contrast with other countries. Like France, for instance.

In Paris recently I paid the visit of a pilgrim to rue Bernard Palissy on the Left Bank which is the HQ of Les Editions de Minuit, one of the finest French publishers with a small but always distinguished output.  Rue Bernard Palissy is a little back street blocked when I walked into it by a large van which was unloading into the rear of a building, cancelling any hint of chic. Minuit's offices consist of a small window which was modestly featuring Jean-Philippe Toussaint's Autoportrait (à l'étranger) and not much else.  Toussaint's characteristically spare and elegant book of impressions of Japan, Berlin, Prague etc has just been re-issued as a paperback in the "Collection 'double'" series.  The mark of this publisher has always been an austere minimalism of design, plain white covers, no illustration, no author photographs, no prolix blurbs etc.  The tacit assumption is that all one needs is to read the book and all one learns about the author is contained in one sentence: "Jeanne-Philippe Toussaint est né à Bruxelles en 1957. Il est écrivan et cinéaste."  For the paperback a concession has been made and we have a discreet one line quote from the Libération reviewer and, on the cover, a photograph! It is a reflection in a shop window of the author in Tokyo taking a snap of himself in the rain under a transparent polythene umbrella.  But that is as far as it goes.

To the left of the display window is a battered maroon painted door (see picture) which merely says "enter without ringing".  No glitz, no life size cardboard cutouts of Samuel Beckett, no potted plants, no Sloaney receptionists.  Just a small house which publishes exquisite fiction (too little of it translated into English) and leaves it at that.

Thursday, 12 July 2012

Please Mention the War

The paperback of my book about the British poets of the First World War, The Red Sweet Wine of Youth, is published at the end of the month and you can order it now (the Amazon link is here to the right of this page if you prefer to buy it that way).  I hope it's a concise and useful account of a dozen of the main poets and the literary background from which they emerged.  Like many British schoolkids I was brought up on Owen & Co and poems like his "Dulce et Decorum Est" which, we were told, expressed "the horrors of war".  They certainly did that and the horrors of the trenches need no embellishment but I try in the book to give what I hope is a little more nuanced view of the poets' attitude to war and in particular I try to represent Sassoon's protest against the war in what I also hope is a more accurate way than it is often represented.  I hope you enjoy the book.

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Robert MacFarlane: The Old Ways

It takes a certain amount of chutzpah in these days when publishers are jumpily fashion conscious to risk a seemingly conservative title like The Old Ways but Robert MacFarlane is merely exercising his fondness for word play and his subject is not a Michael Gove-inspired return to basics but an exploration of the ancient pathways that thread the landscape at home and abroad.  It is about his explorations of those long distance paths like The Ridgeway (which years ago my wife and I followed in pouring rain for three days with a tent on our back) or the Icknield Way but also paths in Tibet, Palestine, Spain and indeed their watery equivalents, the seaways of the Outer Hebrides.  The subtitle is "A Journey on Foot" but this is a book about many journeys on foot in many places and in many weathers.

One of MacFarlane's central arguments is that we are made by landscape as much as we might think we make landscape by gouging our tracks across it.  There is, he implies, a dialogue going on between us and our feet and the ground we walk on, the geology under us and the skies above and the past is very much present on these old ways, shaping us, making us what we are, changing us.  At one point he chooses for a chapter's epigraph a quote from two recent authors, Tim Ingold and Jo Lee Vergunst: "Since to follow a trail is to remember how it goes, making one's way in the present is itself a recollection of the past...onward movement is itself a return."  The book has a pleasing architecture and MacFarlane has a fine and vivid gift for making all those landscapes come alive.  His description of a walk on the Broomway which connects, notoriously and treacherously, the island of Foulness to the coast of eastern England is a tour de force of subtle descriptive writing.

In a characteristically over-the-top review of this book in The Observer William Dalrymple recently tried to fit MacFarlane up with the mantle of Bruce Chatwin but it turns out that the latter is dismissed very early on with a curt reference to his "flawed" thesis in The Songlines. Why or how it is flawed the reader isn't told but there are many stylistic features of the book that call Chatwin to mind: the habit, for example, of arriving at a place and instantly connecting with "my friend X" who just happens to be the global authority on the pertinent aspect of the place and also possessed of incalculable gifts of intellect, scholarship, facility in languages etc etc.  In this school of travel-writing one never spends time with the ordinary or the ungifted person.  There is a classic passage on p276 ("I asked Jon about the lives of the early Buddhist saints...") where the sort of dialogue never heard outside a seminar room is fully reproduced in the way that Chatwin loved to do.  Actually, I don't mind because this is a highly informative book from which I learned a great deal and MacFarlane, a fellow of a Cambridge college, putative new Chatwin or not, turns out to be a very companionable guide, who doesn't take himself more seriously than he is entitled to and whose book is the product of much walking, much reading about walking, and much reflection. This gives it a mellowness and richness that adds to its charm.

MacFarlane is very much taken with Edward Thomas (who has been making quite a comeback recently with the reading public) and that poet's ideas about memory and landscape both being "in flux".  The connections between past and present, landscape and mind, in Thomas's writing fit very well with MacFarlane's own obsessions.  Like Roger Deakin another knowledgeable man in the woods, MacFarlane writes informatively but also very personally about his own experiences (nearly freezing to death in Tibet, having a scary night in the haunted Chanctonbury Ring etc) and I found this a hard book to put down as reviewers of whodunnits say.

And what a co-incidence that it should end at exactly the same place that Jean Sprackland's recent book Strands* ended: on the beach at Formby, north of Liverpool where some remarkable fossilised neolithic footprints have re-emerged from the sand – giving a nice closing metaphor of print/footprint, past/present as the author measures his footprint against that of a prehistoric hunter gatherer.

This is the third of what MacFarlane calls "a loose trilogy" of books on mountains and wild places and I will certainly be backtracking to get those earlier volumes.

*my review of Sprackland's book will be appearing shortly in The Independent

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Field Works

Ceaseless rain but the flower books say that this Cuckoo Flower (aka Lady's Smock and Milkmaid; cardamine pratensis) is "damp-loving".  It looked beautiful this morning in its soggy Radnorshire field.

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

The Campaign Against Real Writers

I have just read a short but very effective piece in the latest New York Review of Books by Jonathan Mirsky on the scandal of the London Book Fair last month which was dominated by Chinese authors – but only those permitted to be there by the censors acting in concert with the book fair's organisers and the British Council.  Excluded were any writers not approved of by the Chinese censors.

"We must be very powerful and they are frightened of us, said Qi Jiazhen, a septuagenarian Chinese writer who took part in a protest meeting of the excluded.  The British Council's director of literature claimed that the officially permitted writers were more 'representative' because "they live in China and write their books there" in contrast to the "other writers who have left".  This is the official Chinese censors' line but it raises a number of interesting questions.  Does it mean that Joyce, Becket, Hemingway, Kundera, to choose some names at random from the long list of writers who have lived and worked out of their own countries, were somehow not real writers, not part of their originating culture and language?  Are the only writers worthy of our attention the ones who stay at home or the ones who make themselves acceptable to the government of the day?  And what is the British Council, an organisation dedicated to spreading culture beyond these shores, doing advocating such a grotesque idea?

"What's happening is that countries are becoming companies. And that's what the British Council is already, just a company cooperating with the Chinese company," Mirsky quotes one leading Chinese poet, Yang Lian, as saying.

There are, as it happens 35 Chinese authors who are not likely to be decamping to Paris shortly to write their books.  That is because they are in jail for the words they have written.

Sunday, 13 May 2012

Are you a liberal?

Thank you to the Gladstone Library for making me think about liberalism (with a mandatory small 'l' in these Coalition times).  Here is my contribution to their exploration of the theme.  They have been looking for people who will say why they are or are not liberal and those who reject the notion are seemingly rather thin on the ground.  Perhaps this is the problem with this noble cause; like motherhood and apple pie no one can find an argument against it.

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Launch of Acapulco by Nicholas Murray

An enjoyably convivial evening to mark World Book Night last night through the launch of my new poetry collection, Acapulco (see previous post for details).  Here I am reading from the book (available online from Melos Press) watched by Peter Tatchell who was the dedicatee of one of the poems in the collection, 'Courage'.  The poem was suggested by Peter and friends' courageous defiance of the bigots of Moscow who attacked the gay pride demonstrators while the forces of 'law and order' looked the other way.

for Peter Tatchell
Today is the day
to clean the streets
of the gay-proud.
The shavenskulls slip
like loosed dogs
into the chanting crowd
to scatter their mayhem
under the benevolent eye
of the ‘security forces’
whose black boots
firmly cleave to
the frozen ground.
It is the mania of hatred:
each lashing out 
at what he fears
like a man whose wild hands
fight off a swarm
of angry bees.

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

World Book Night: Shakespeare and I

Next Monday 23rd April has been designated World Book Night (as well as being Shakespeare's birthday) and it is being celebrated all over the country with various events (see below).

It is also my own birthday and the day of the launch of my latest book of poetry, Acapulco: New and Selected Poems (Melos) so it will be an exciting day all round I hope. I see from the organisers of the event that there will be candlelight readings up and down the land but I think they are planning normal lighting at my launch at Lumen in Tavistock Place in Bloomsbury.

In addition to one million books being given away by 20,000 volunteers and distributed by charities in prisons, hospitals and schools in disadvantaged communities, the organisers say that World Book Night will see tens of thousands of people getting involved in hundreds of free, public reading events taking place in libraries, bookshops, art centres and open public spaces.  For example at the Southbank Centre the World Book Night flagship event will be screened for everyone to see via big screens in art venues and libraries around the country and on the World Book Night website

The World Book Night website at www.worldbooknight.org has the latest details for all events.

I am not giving away any books but here is a free poem from my new collection which can be ordered online from www.melospress.blogspot.com

Thanks to Sarah Crown of The Guardian for the mention on her blog.


How Daphne might have felt
as she ran from the breathy Apollo
(before her skin was bark, her feet roots,
her arms boughs in wild semaphore,
her fingernails the bitter leaf
destined for a victor’s crown)
I felt in that nightmare of pursuit
one is always destined to wake from.


Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Acapulco: New and Selected Poems

My new book of poems: Acapulco: New and Selected Poems, officially published on 23rd April, is now available to order on line from Melos Press at £10.  I will now hand you over to the Melos blurb:-

New and Selected Poems
Nicholas Murray
Nicholas Murray was born in Liverpool and now lives in
Wales and London. He has written critically acclaimed
biographies of Bruce Chatwin, Matthew Arnold,
Andrew Marvell, Aldous Huxley, and Franz Kafka.
He has also published two novels, A Short Book about Love,
and Remembering Carmen, and books on Victorian travellers, Liverpool and Bloomsbury. 
He runs the poetry imprint Rack Press and is a Fellow of the Welsh Academy.
Acupulco contains nearly thirty new poems and work drawn
from the earlier collections, Plausible Fictions and The
Narrators. It concludes with the full text of Get Real!
a powerful verse satire on the coalition Government
which was performed by the Iris Theatre Company
at St Paul's Covent Garden in 2011.
Praise for Nicholas Murray's poetry:
“From the opening lines of 'Landscapes' we are in the
company of a voice that quietly but compellingly makes
itself heard... Throughout these poems, shadows, absences,
and possibilities stalk the tyranny of mere fact...”
David Wheatley, Thumbscrew
“Precise and rather mysterious poems” 
John Fuller
“...his clear sense of internal rhythm and strong feeling
for the well-honed phrase”
 Sarah Crown, The Guardian  
Acapulco is published by 
Melos Press
38 Palewell Park
London SW14 8JG

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Lost in Translation

I have made some comments for World Poetry Day on poetry in translation which you can read on the website of English PEN.

Sunday, 11 March 2012

Is There Really No Political Poetry?

Why are there no political poets?  In a long article by Alan Morrison, "Reoccupying Auden Country" in International Times he offers a long (I wish it had been written more concisely) answer which interrogates the question in a useful way.

Morrison points out that whenever this question is put, either by canonised saints of the Left like Eagleton or Pilger or, far less satisfactorily, by poetry magazines like Poetry Review in a singularly ineffective recent issue flagging up the topic, there is an assumption that the question really is: "Why don't the established poets of The Guardian, the big imprints, and the prize shortlists write any decent political poetry in a time like ours of profound political upheaval?" In other words political poetry is being written.  It's just that we don't always get to hear about it and when it does appear these outlets and public poetry voices ignore it because they aren't writing it themselves and they haven't stamped its visa.

When there's a call for more political poetry the answer that invariably comes back is the traditional one that, in Auden's famous words 'poetry makes nothing happen'.  It's a thought that chimes in with the dominant view that political poetry is a form of bad taste, that it will almost certainly be tonally "strident" or formally "doggerel" or morally "posturing".  Proper poetry, this argument runs, "survives in the valley of its making", it is itself and obeys only the laws of poetry, cherishing its aesthetic freedom, untainted by the partisan and tendentious.  Tell that to Milton, Marvell, Blake, Tony Harrison, Liu Xiaobo, Yannis Ritsos, etc etc.

Obviously no one wants to read crudely buttonholing, head-banging doggerel, especially if it lacks any stylistic or poetic interest, but it seems to me that there are two kinds of political poetry: the upfront and the indirect.  The upfront is clear and I have written just such a poem myself, Get Real!, a polemic against the Coalition Government published a year ago and, apart from a favourable mention in the TLS diary column, it has been almost completely ignored by the handwringers of poetic opinion mentioned earlier.  It was sent to every progressive (and unprogressive) publication that seemed relevant but they preferred not to acknowledge it.  It did, however, sell out.  It can be downloaded free until 23rd April when it is republished in my new book Acapulco: New and Selected Poems (Melos Press).  [The new book, by the way, contains several other political poems, including one about Peter Tatchell's courageous defiance of the anti-gay thugs in Moscow, that has one fan so far in Peter himself, who accepted the dedication by calling it "a fab poem".  There's also one called "City of Culture" which will put my Freedom of the City of Liverpool on permanent hold.]  Get Real! is written in a regular Burns-style stanza and it is unambiguously and plainly an excoriation of our current government.

But there are other ways of writing political poetry, more subtle engagements than the direct polemic (vital as that is).  And here I agree with Eagleton, quoted by Alan Morrison, when he says "for almost the first time in two centuries there is no eminent British poet...prepared to question the foundations of the Western way of life".  [I think Geoffrey Hill thinks he is but we can't understand him.] We are still allowed to smile approval at Shelley's assertion that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of mankind.  We could argue about what that phrase signifies but let's say it means that they have something to say that is valuable and that may change society in the longer term.  In advocating less in-your-face, direct polemical engagement with immediate political realities, the Poetry Review and poetry prize ceremony crowds will breathe a sigh of relief and feel able to relax again.  They will be much happier with a kind of writing that is not "politically partisan" (ie challenging the political framework they themselves are quite happy to work inside).  But this broader work of engaging with the deepest springs of contemporary society and culture and attempting to criticise it, change it, rebuild it, is a task every bit as important as the lively topical broadside.  It may do more long term good.  We need it, but it does not seem to be forthcoming, unless I am falling into the same trap as the Guardian/New Statesman seers who don't see enough of what is already here.

If I am wrong I would be delighted to hear of my omissions.

Monday, 20 February 2012

Spring is Coming...

The tiny blue forget-me-not flowers that tentatively poked their heads above ground in my garden in Wales in late January were quickly obliterated by the recent weather and we wait for the genuine spring. Meanwhile I have been reading John Barnie's most recent collection of poems A Year of Flowers (Gomer Press) a beautiful volume that presents 44 wild flowers observed within walking distance of his home in Aberystwyth each with an accompanying poem.  The photographs were taken by John Barnie in 2010 and the poems provoked by each flower are, like the images, small beautiful and delicately defined.  It's a delectable little book and finely produced by Gomer.  I live in Powys, the neighbouring county to John in Mid Wales, and I was pleased to see (not ever having considered myself a botanist) that I could identify most of these flowers from my garden and the surrounding hedgerows and fields.  There were some I had never heard of such as Enchanter's Nightshade and some seaside flowers like Sea Holly and Sea Sandwort that I wouldn't expect to see in the Radnor Hills, but otherwise there they were in their glory: harebell and toadflax, stitchwort and violet...roll on Spring!

I won't quote any of the poems; instead you must buy a copy now!

Saturday, 18 February 2012

(Something About Me)

I am very pleased to have been elected as a Fellow of the Welsh Academy.  I am not sure I deserve to be in such distinguished company!

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Edgelands: The Wilderness in the Back Yard

Having been brought up in the "edgelands" of north Liverpool, where post-war housing petered out in a raddled landscape of stagnant pools, black canals, and the tatty margin of Lancashire agricultural land, I could hardly fail to be interested in this absorbing book by poets Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts, Edgelands: Journeys into England's True Wilderness (Vintage, £8.99).  Their title refers to these nondescript areas that are neither town nor country (the latter managed and curated and signposted).

These are where old industrial workings, canals, business parks, pylons, power stations occupy land that, in some instances, is more bio-diverse than the official rural spaces where people go to observe Nature.  Overlooked, largely undiscussed, these neglected and supposedly unlovely places are, especially to children whose play-spaces they have become, imaginatively rich and haunting and this was an excellent idea for a book.  The two poets, as might be expected, draw on some interesting poetic illustrations of their theme but the main focus is on direct observation and an acute commentary that works its way through all the types of edgeland landscape and its uses.  These boys have done their homework and when they fetch up on some tract of wild land you know that you are going to encounter an exact and copious inventory of the flora and fauna.  It's true that Google has made us all instantly omniscient but I was impressed and learned a great deal.  Buddleia, for example, the typical wild shrub of the edgelands, was actually named after an 18th century botanist, Alan Buddle.  That's why it's such a devil to spell correctly.

Early on in the book the authors have a tilt at the fashionable 'psychogeographers' like Ian Sinclair and Will Self (not mentioned by name) who use the edgelands as "a short cut to misanthropy" with their over-written and over-milked accounts (forgive me) of their urban wanderings.  There's also a bash at those who indulge in flâneurisms (something of which I am guilty) instead of getting on with the walking though, paradoxically, there's not much walking in this book, its authors, one feels getting out to many of their locations by car.  On the other hand the edgelands are more like standing pools than racing rivers so the verb to loiter or mooch (or stare through the chain-link fence of the scrap yard) is probably more appropriate than stride in this context.  Another intriguing paradox is that they attack the advocates of wilderness (i.e. 'real' rural wilderness) for seeming to want to dispense with humanity.  A good point, but the actual encounters and dialogues with individual people in this book are surprisingly rare.  It has more of the detached, analytical feel of a work of high anthropology and so we don't learn a lot about the joint authors, no messy anecdotes or too many direct reminiscences, though clearly they are drawing on personal knowledge (when describing dens and sheds for example).  The popular cultural references and the vocab is always ultra-cool and up to the minute and fogeyisms very rare – all of which of course may seem like a rather knowing tone to some readers – but the book's great strength is in the way it makes us see and think about the edgelands in a new and comprehensive manner.

To close with a typical observation of the authors.  Describing the new 'community forests' which have been planted as part of a strategy of 'regeneration' in some of the edgelands they point out how some interesting new eco-systems that were starting to establish themselves in this marginal wild have actually been destroyed "to make way for the new 'high quality environments'. It feels like a green version of what happened in our inner cities after the war, when communities were cleared and moved on to outlying housing developments.  Regeneration is such a seductive and powerful metaphor."  They are thinking for themselves, in other words, which ultimately makes this a very valuable exploration of the contemporary English landscape.

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Would You Treat Your Apostrophe Like That?

As someone who has had to teach writing skills to undergraduates (sometimes in "world class" institutions where one might have thought such a task unnecessary) I know that the basics of English grammar are not universally grasped even by the brightest of young minds.  This was the context of Lynne Truss's best-selling Eats, Shoots & Leaves which revealed a hidden passion amongst the British population for trying to get things right grammatically.  There were opponents, of course, in the shape of the academic professors of linguistics who (unlike the person in the street) didn't like the idea of prescriptive grammar and who argued instead that usage is the God and that permissive grammar is the only permissible version. No one, however, has taken much notice of them.

Now someone has come up with the bright idea of following the success of Eats Etc with a practical workbook, that helps you get on top of the good advice in the earlier book and try out its prescriptions for grammatical improvement for yourself.  It's a simple idea but an excellent one and saves you having to spend Tuesday nights in a drafty further education hall being taught how to do it. You can do these exercises at home with a G&T in one hand.  The author of Can You Eat, Shoot & Leave?, Clare Dignall, has put together a lively little workbook that is a lot more attractive to use than those big fat hortatory books about good usage (sorry Simon Heffer) that clog up the bookshops. There's a characteristically trenchant and funny introduction by Lynne Truss herself who makes the interesting point that never in human history have we done so much writing, as we scribble texts, emails, Facebook posts, tweets – you name it – all day long.  So it makes more sense than ever before for us to get it right.

Clare Dignall briskly takes us on a tour round the well-known troublespots of punctuation (beginning, of course, with the apostrophe) and not only does her book complement Lynne Truss's book, it has something of the same lively wit.  She points out, for example that the apostrophe is "obedient, enthusiastic, and capable of carrying out many important tasks" which makes it a bit like a much-loved spaniel: "However, that's where the analogy ends, because we are usually nice to spaniels."

If you have any difficulty with grammar and punctuation I would say this looks like a very good starting point.

P.S. When I was an English undergraduate at Liverpool University in the 1970s I proudly went to collect my first marked essay by the great Shakespearian scholar, Professor Kenneth Muir.  Would he congratulate me on the brilliance of my critical insights into The Tempest?  A very grave and professorial professor, Muir slid the essay across the table and announced in the tones of an Old Testament prophet: "You should never begin a sentence with 'however'."  I have not done so since. Actually, as Clare demonstrated in that sentence of hers I have just quoted, of course you flipping can.  Being exact in your punctuation doesn't mean being rigid and fogeyish.  It just means getting it right.

Can You Eat, Shoot & Leave? by Clare Dignall is published by Collins at £7.99