Sunday, 28 April 2013

My Life on Trains, starring Buster Keaton

Buster Keaton in The General

This is a reasonable allegorical representation of my life in the last ten days and probably the next ten days too. Buster Keaton plays an itinerant poet. The action consists chiefly of running around trains. A train dashes through countryside. I am struggling to put on some decent clothes. The train is delayed through some fault on the line, generally signals. And so on. General Parker advances. People in the real world do important things. There seems to be a young woman bound up in some way. I forget who she is. You can make up the rest. 

Tomorrow Brighton, Tuesday London, Wednesday London, etc.

You can have it with jazz too. In fact you do. Once my brain is back in order I will write more sensible blogs. 

Sunday, 21 April 2013

Bill Evans's Feet and Allottments

Bill Evans laying his fingers down

i.m. Michael Murphy

When I glimpse from the train a clutch
of allotments, a tight row of cabbages or spuds
or garden peas, I think there are gods
beyond gods who live in the bones
of men and women, shivering at their touch;
that when rain falls it weeps hailstones;

that when Bill Evans lays his fingers down
on the keys it is death he is playing
in his own and the world’s ear,
in the time allotted, in the proper undertone of fear,
in each cloud that arrives with its gown
of rain, in the moment that bears no delaying;

that the apparatus of ‘the Perspex bus-stop
reclaimed’ for a hothouse is a new Jerusalem
that is much like the old one; that each raindrop
is a lifetime of damage and new life
at once as it hangs on to the bent leaf
like a lunatic in Hogarth’s Bedlam;

that these are the small ordinary days
we all know and live in, huddled inside
the big ones, inside a cosmos we cannot quite
inhabit; that we fall like rain every night;
that it is the gods who are pleased to provide
our allotments,  here where one man lays

out a row of something ‘implicit
in what it’s not’; that the ‘twin-tub bleeding rust’
and those prams with missing wheels, those tacit
admissions, may  still be  useful, still
full of purpose, still in possession of a certain will
to serve and not just rot and gather dust.

What we learn once - that life being ordinary
is the extraordinary thing – sticks with us
like clods of soil trapped in the treads of our shoes.
It is the plastic bags and shopping baskets we carry
to and fro, those bags of manure, compost and refuse,
the well-worn crust of the mysterious

that wastes itself and comes round again. I think
of Bill Evans’s head bent right down, staring,
it seems, at his feet not the keys. The soft, lost
spaces between head and foot, the loss-bearing,
the unsharing shared, the forgetting of cost
as space opens up just where we stand, on the brink

of music or earth, the universe of barren rock
where everything bears fruit and nothing does,
where the tune moves deeper, an inflorescence
in unresolved chords, with long lines of dock
and nettle and the faint occasional buzz
of the fly hanging on the air, its brief dark presence

zipping off somewhere by itself, into itself.
These small constructions, our scruffy Edens,
those paradise gardens inhabited by gods
much like ourselves: the books on the shelf,
the unrolling of music, the curious odds and sods
of a universe that demand our credence,

they hold us for as long as anything holds.
It is time to go. It is time to pack away
the equipment we are used to: trowel and spade,
and to turn off the music that still unfolds
and won’t stop unfolding.  We cannot stay,
not here, not anywhere we might have stayed.

Mad Calendar Days

Life seems to be getting busier by the year. I will write two short blogs today. This one just to catch up and the other to put on some music and a poem, not a new one but one that fits the music in some respects.

The Thursday before it was Hungarian National Poetry Day at the Danubius Hotel in London. The next dy it was the read-through performance of Virág Erdös's play The Death of Mara that I had translated for the Chalk Circle Company, a fierce feminist absurdist farce might describe it. On the same bill György Spiró's two-hander, The Jackpot. Quite different, much more naturalistic and bitingly comic.

Saturday and Sunday were at home, trying to catch up with work. On Monday it was down to the London Book Fair for me, to the Romanian stall to take part in a conversation with Paul Bailey, Alan Brownjohn and Tessa Dunlop. But it was also a chance to meet Alvin Pang again, as well as talk to Jmes Tennant of The White Review and Daniel Medin of CWT, Music and Literature, and many other things. A quick bite with Gabriel Josipovici. Imogen Forster kindly gave me a pin-on crab for mny lapel as a token of Langoustine. But most of the world was there in the vast apparent chaos which is dizzying just to think about. And in thinking about it I also think of the smaller spots where one or two representatives sat alone in expectation and possibly despair. But something or someone would turn up.

On Tuesday I was at the Assembly House making a speech at the Norwich Writers Circle Open Poetry Competition where I was this year's judge. On Wednesday went with neighbours Tony, Anne, and Nigel the film to see Argo showing at the local school theatre. A decent enough film that I would not go out of my way to see again. On Thursday into university to get photocopying done for Saturday and pick up necessary post (delighted to find letter to say my work is to be submitted for REF, and saying very nice things about contribution, etc).

On Friday down to London to see the George Bellows exhibition and to meet - for the first time - Hungarian poet Krisztina Tóth and her husband, László Perecz. That was a pleasure. Back lateish. Then yesterday a really early rising (5am) to get down to Swindon by 11:00 for a full day of poetry workshop and brief reading (a nice account by one of the participants here), arriving home about 10 or so. In the meantime finished reading Imre Kertész's Dossier-K for review for The Times.

This is a rather out-of-breath account, and of course I forget the article for The Guardian's Comment is Free spot that go about 200 replies, some as rude as I expected. The Hungarian right and the Fidesz camp as a whole never disappoint in the ranting stakes.

Next Tuesday I read sonnets in Cambridge. On Thursday I am in London for the PBS Board, on Friday in Warwick to discuss translation and on Saturday back in Norwich for a long workshop on form again.

I could write in detail about all of this if I had the time. Meantime I go on translating and writing as best I can. I'll link some of this tomorrow.

Now to the next blogpost for some music.

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

The Guardian CiF article:
my sixteen minutes of fame
and the other seven million

Those who would like to, may read my Guardian piece directly through this link. They get the comments there too. For others I paste the text here.

Among the foreign dignitaries attending Margaret Thatcher’s funeral on Wednesday will be a man who many would prefer wasn’t representing his country. But it will be a handy getaway for Viktor Orbán, an excuse for him to break off trying to defend Hungary’s new constitution from its EU critics, which include commission president Jose Manuel Barroso.  
The bad press Hungary has been getting of late is the result of left-liberal lies. At least, that is what the current government claims. In fact, it argues, Hungary is a perfectly normal country going about its business. Criticising Fidesz, we are told, is an attack on Hungarians generally. Fidesz is, in effect, Hungary. 
Of course these ‘lies’ have only been around since Fidesz came to power in 2010. The party’s landslide victory handed the new prime minister, Viktor Orbán, an opportunity to change the constitution. So what’s the problem? 
The EU had three main ones: the new media law, the earlier obligatory retirement age for judges, and the independence of the central bank. It exerted pressure on Hungary and little by little these points were addressed — but the most recent amendments weakening the constitutional court have taken everything back to square one. The Minister for Economic Affairs is now the head of the central bank. 
A catalogue of other changes worry Hungary-watchers, and Hungarians themselves. Most importantly, parliamentary committees have been filled with government supporters and their terms lengthened to well beyond the life of the parliament. Then there is the the ousting of prominent theatre directors; the scaling-back of the film industry; the smearing and demonising of internationally known figures like the philosopher Agnes Heller and the Nobel Prize winning author Imre Kertész; the financial starvation of magazines and radio stations, the purging of all dissenting voices in the media, the sackings of head teachers — and a great deal more. Women have been told to go back to the kitchen and have children. The party and its properly ‘Hungarian’ values must take precedence. 
This goes along with a tolerance of the most savage anti-Jewish and anti-Roma rhetoric, particularly from journalist Zsolt Bayer, one of the founders of Fidesz and a good friend of the prime minister. In the last few weeks the government has handed out three major public awards to far right cultural figures. After some international embarrassment they withdrew one of them: the other two remain. And now there are laws that render rough-sleepers liable to prosecution. 
Like all governments this one tells us that it is simply sorting out problems created by the previous one. But why, if so, has there been such a rise in the emigration of young, qualified people, particularly since 2010? There are some 500,000 of them working abroad by some accounts, about 100,000 in the UK. Fidesz is having to enact new legislation to deal with it. 
The last year has seen the changing of the school syllabus to include pre-war fascist writers, and the raising of statues to Admiral Horthy, the inter-war leader who allied Hungary with Nazi Germany. Fidesz’s notion of national values — so easily ‘betrayed’ by those who do not share their political sympathies — trumps everything. Opposition exists of course, but the cultural and political ground is being cleared of such voices. The government is on a fast track back to the 1930s. 
And the only story put forward in defence of developments in Hungary is that the picture painted of Orbán’s programme is distorted – all liberal propaganda. It’s a sign of weakness that the patriotism card is the only card they can play to excuse themselves, but you can bet your life that it will be played time and again.
At the point of writing this the article has had 159 replies. I have intervened three times, once just as a one line reminder of a rather good joke, twice in response to criticism.

I have had slightly more support than I expected for which I am grateful, if only because it shows some care more for the country than for Fidesz and its idea of the country. 

The criticisms have essentially consisted of calling me a liar or some other bad name. That's perfectly fine by me partly because one doesn't go into CiF expecting a chorus of approval, but more importantly because the nature of the pro-Fidesz response is exactly as I suggested it would be in the article itself. 

The most common mistake - in Hungarian translations of the article - is to misunderstand the very first sentence [as re-fashioned by the CiF editors, though I had no objections to their re-fashioning]. The translators think I said Orbán shouldn't be at the funeral. What the sentence actually says is that there are many Hungarians who wish it were someone other than Orbán going to the funeral (if any Hungaran leader was going to attend) - in other words many Hungarians wish Orban wasn't prime minister of Hungary.

One correspondent by direct email heads his comment:

gartulálok beszálltál a sorba 15 perc hirnév mindenkinek kell !!!!!!!!!!!!

Congratulations on joining the queue for your fifteen minutes of fame.
He tells me I should be ashamed of what I am doing criticising the Hungarian government and that there are at least three-million Hungarians who think like him.

Thank God, I think. That still leaves seven million.

This, my sixteenth minute of fame, is dedicated to him.

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

A Prime Minister's Carnival

The death of Margaret Thatcher is everywhere and it has brought out extremes in people which is in itself a perfect illustration of how divisive she was. I have no wish to dance on her grave (I don't do dancing on graves) but neither do I wish to water it with my tears.

In the first place I am somewhat amazed that those who were barely alive when she came to power and couldn't possibly remember her with any clarity can form intense opinions either way. One of the favourite cries of the currently street-partying delighted has been Ding dong the witch is dead, a tune from The Wizard of Oz. Putting aside mysogyny - I have heard it as often from women as from men - it shows what part of the psyche her emanation has come to occupy. She is no longer a prime minister or a human being but a psychic demon several strides on from her Spitting Image depiction.

That she made millions miserable is beyond doubt. That she broke up long established working communities is beyond question. That the persona she affected as leader was a primly overbearing caricature of the blue-rinse brigade that made up a good part of Tory backing is obvious. She even looked like them. That her power over her cabinet was partly due to her ability to exercise the role of dominant matron to a bunch of closeted male sado-masochists seems to me likely.

But what would the Labour Party have done in 1979? What would a post-Callaghan, post-Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock-led party have done in the economic circumstances? Would it have kept the major industries going? At what sustainable cost? Would we still have nationalised steel, coal, gas and railways? Would there still be shipbuilding, Leyland cars and great fishing ports? The rhetoric would have been for keeping all this. But the action? What kind of protectionist measures would have had to be taken? Could they have been taken?

The years from 1973 through to 1979 were very troubled ones in the country. I was there at the time and in my twenties. The place was at a political crossroads. Foot versus Thatcher was the last fully ideological election that I remember, probably the first since 1945. But it was Gerald Kaufmann, a leading Labour MP, who referred to the 1983 Labour election manifesto as 'the longest suicide note in history'. So what was the alternative then? What might a Labour manifesto have said that would have been both electable and still preserved the industrial status quo? Why has no Labour government tried to reverse the privatisations or the union laws ever since?

Of course the endless tributes in the press are more nauseating than the grave-dancing. They deserve each other. And yet a certain carnival must be allowed to people and official beatification is a fair target for it.

It is certainly true that Thatcher was extraordinary, even unique, and that for some years she held the electorate - including Philip Larkin - in thrall. But Thatcherism was really Monetarism and she didn't invent that: she applied it. Nor does she have sole-responsibility for the primacy of private-sector production that is the rule rather than the exception in Europe. Thatcher did not begat Angela Merkel.

The mad markets of the new millennium were not directly of her making. She lifted regulations in a different, less globalised world. She was a woman and she was not the kind of leader the country was used to.

Politically she was a monster. The brutal effects of her policies were of little account to her:  her sense of righteousness was absolute. The country must be saved by her methods and her methods alone. Her choice of the individual over the collective has had long term harmful effects. She did not invent greed but she sanctioned forms of it. Is greed any better for being honest? Hard to know.

Monday, 8 April 2013

Twitterature - Seriously

Readers of this blog might remember a post about an anthology titled Time Lines.  It was the editor of the book, James Knight (@badbadpoet) who had sent me the book because of my own activity on Twitter. One of the contributors to that book, who writes under the name Aksania Xenogrette (@gadgetgreen) also wrote to me and, after an exchange of messages,we decided to open a conversation about the possibilities and limitations of Twitter. Aksania is now launching a blog specifically for this purpose.

In order to start the discussion I posted the following possible questions to Aksania who forwarded them to James:

What is the range of Twitter activity? 
What are the characteristics of Twitter as a form of communication?
(two obvious answers are set brevity and ephemerality but there will be more) 
What has Twitter brought to the literature table? 
What existing forms of literary writing work / might work in Twitter?
(In terms of set verse forms there is the haiku, the Clerihew, the the limerick the distich, the rhyming couplet, the four stress quatrain; in terms of prose forms the proverb, the idiom, the dictionary or encyclopedia entry, the Kafkaian anecdote, the philosophical proposition or enigma, the one-line joke, the headline, the declaration, the slogan, the serialised story (see J Egan); in terms of drama: stichomythia), dialogic exchange, an actual dialogue between different Tweeters. There will be others of course.
How  are / might the use of these forms be modified on Twitter? 
How do / would devices like intertextuality, mash-up, quotation, visual or musical reference work on Twitter? 
How are serial tweets best presented in say a book or webpage format? What do they lose by being brought together? How to prevent that loss?

James has written his first blog on the issue. The idea is to feature Twitter length fragments of discussion on Twitter itself. That will partly be done by linking to the blog, but, in the spirit of Twitter, partly by responding on Twitter itself in whatever manner suits us or the subject. This is my own first step.


There is now a hashtag #twitterature. Here are a few early thoughts from me on Twitter itself, chiefly regarding question 1.

  1. There's no time limit on this. First question was about the range of twitterwork. Many remain. The advert, the invite, the cry.
  2. This isn't a closed conversation of course so anyone can join in under the hashtag. A hashtag is a rash tag.
  3. So the hashtag and more range: the query, the hook, the cute, the homily, the joke, the anecdote, the maxim, the proverb...
  4. Q1 What is the range of Twitter activity? - The tangent, the deflection, a brief dérèglement de tous les sens, or some senses
  5. Q1 What is the range of Twitter activity? - All one thinks / Complete with links - and then again...
  6. Q1 What is the range of Twitter activity? - Chat, location, notes from hell / pennies down a long long well...
  7. Q1 What is the range of Twitter activity? - If you seek its monument look about you. It's like Auden's Night Mail. The jug gently shakes.

Sunday, 7 April 2013

Sunday Night is Chopin Nocturne Op9 No2

So intimate, this Chopin, that I think his soul
     Should be resurrected only among friends—
Some two or three, who will not touch the bloom
That is rubbed and questioned in the concert room.

- T S Eliot

A controlled, even slightly held-back performance. I like it.

Saturday, 6 April 2013

The March for Life / Bikers Step on the Gas

Ever cheering news from Hungary as from here

2013.04.06. 11:26"Adj gázt" - ellendemonstrációt terveznek az Élet Menete napján 
Április 21-én rendezik meg Budapesten az "Élet menetét" - amelynek során a holokauszt sokszázezer magyarországi áldozatára emlékeznek. A Népszava értesülése, valamint a társaság Facebook oldala szerint ugyanaznapra motoros felvonulást is szervez a Nemzeti Érzelmű Motorosok csoportja.  
A terv szerint a banda demonstratívan elvonul a magyarországi zsidóság jelképes épülete, a pesti Dohány utcai zsinagóga előtt. Plakátjukon árpádsávos zászlók erdeje alatt motorozgatnak. A menet címe pedig csak ennyi a szórólapon: "Adj gázt!".
Népszava /

"Step on the Gas" - Counter-demonstration planned for March for Life Day 
The March for Life event, commemorating the hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Holocaust victims is planned for 21 April. According to a report in Népszava, as confirmed on the Facebook page of the group Bikers for National Pride [rough translation, but note link warning in English], there is also to be a motorbike demonstration on the same day. 
The group plans to ride past the symbolic centre of Hungarian Jewry, the Dohány Street Synagogue, brandishing placards employing the Árpád flag [the flag preferred by the far-right in Hungary] with a single slogan: Step on the Gas.

There are of course such people everywhere but they don't feel at such ease as they do in Hungary to conduct such a demonstration. And that says something about the temper of the country.

Friday, 5 April 2013

Comment is Free

In view of Tibor Fischer's piece on Hungary in the Comment is Free section of Wednesday's issue of The Guardian I asked CiF if I might write something by way of a different view.

CiF have kindly agreed that I may do so. I have now been through three drafts. I have to submit by Monday morning.

CiF is a minefield but let us tiptoe through the tulips.

Thursday, 4 April 2013

Infinitely corrupting

Having followed the press around the Mick Philpott case, via A N Wilson, and taking into account George Osborne's speech on benefits you'd think this country consisted of three kinds of people:

1. wealth creators (the very rich)
2. 'decent hard-working taxpayers like you' (the middle class), and
3. murdering polygamous scroungers living the high life on welfare, which is, of course, infinitely corrupting.

My first thought was that Philpott represents welfare in much the same way as Lord Lucan represents the rich and Dr Crippen represents the professional middle class. Let one man study medicine and you see where it leads? Medicine is infinitely corrupting.

But Osborne's speech made it all very simple because his proposed changes:

...are all about backing people like you.
For too long, we’ve had a system where people who did the right thing – who get up in the morning and work hard – felt penalised for it, while people who did the wrong thing got rewarded for it.
That’s wrong.

It is blindingly clear is it not? Wrong is wrong. All my life I have felt penalised because some useless unemployed layabout in a wheelchair was picking up benefit. This is clearly not the society I want to live in. When I wake up in the morning I want to feel happy and unpenalised knowing that nobody but me and the likes of me are picking up the dosh.
But I tell you what would make me really hyper-freaked-out-happy. It is the knowledge that a chap with a million quid bonus is being allowed to carry on creating wealth for me.
That's the world I want to live in.
Mind you, if the likes of Philpott carried on he'd be wiping out half the number of his children at any one time, thereby reducing his own benefit entitlement. And something about that feels so right in this almost the best of all possible worlds that I am not sure why A N Wilson failed to mention it. 
But then Philpott might have done even better eating his children, which reminds me of a story or proposal elsewhere.
In any case we now have seven social classes so things can only get better and already have.