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No. 36 WINTER 2009
Published by The University of Liverpool School of English. Supported by:
EDITOR DEPUTY EDITOR CO-EDITORS
Philip Davis Sarah Coley Maura Kennedy Angela Macmillan Eleonor McCann Brian Nellist John Scrivener Enid Stubin Les Murray The Reader Magazine The Reader Organisation 19 Abercromby Square Liverpool L69 7ZG email@example.com www.thereader.org.uk www.thereaderonline.co.uk See p. 128
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The Reader genuinely welcomes submissions of poetry, fiction, essays, readings and thought. We publish professional writers and absolute beginners. Send your manuscript with SAE please to: The Reader Office, 19 Abercromby Square, Liverpool L69 7ZG, UK.
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ABOUT THE READER ORGANISATION
Jane Davis, Director, The Reader Organisation
A Reading Revolution!
‘People are dying – it is no metaphor – for lack of something real to carry home when day is done.’
Saul Bellow, Herzog We used this quotation in 1997 in the very f irst issue of The Reader magazine. The Reader Organisation didn’t exist then, it was just a few friends who wanted to open up the exciting experiences we were having teaching the Literature programme in the Department of Continuing Education at the University of Liverpool. We were running evening and weekend classes for adults willing to read and make real books from Saul Bellow to Chaucer, via Shakespeare, H. G. Wells and Ann Michaels. Twelve years on and this magazine, which has been in continuous production ever since, is the voice of an independent charity which is bringing about a Reading Revolution: putting great books in the hands of people who need them. Amongst other activities, The Reader Organisation is currently delivering 128 weekly read-aloud shared ‘Get Into Reading’ groups on Merseyside, and supporting the development of many more across the UK and beyond, particularly through our Read to Lead training programme. We work in schools, workplaces, community groups and old people’s homes, and a great deal of our work is delivered in partnership with the NHS. NEWS THIS ISSUE: Get Into Reading has been highlighted in ‘New Horizons’, a new strategy by the Department of Health that will promote good mental health and well-being, whilst improving services for people who have mental health problems (http://www.dh.gov. uk/en/News/Recentstories/DH_097701). One in four people will suffer poor mental health at some point in their life. Shared reading of great books is a simple way to provide ‘something real to carry home’.
7 Philip Davis I Was Brodsky’s Minder
12 35 Angela Patmore Climbing to a Climax Hans van der Heijden Literature and Architecture: Against Optimism 68 Anthony Rudolf From This Side of Silence, An Autobiographical Work in Progress
10 19 33 41 66 82 Face to Face John Kinsella Michael Parker Omar Sabbagh D. J. Andrew Tadeusz Dąbrowski
25 Eric Lomax The Railway Man 84 Ron Travis talks to Jane Davis The Reader Gets Angry: Is it Worth Fighting?
THE POET ON HIS WORK
49 Peter Robinson Behind ‘Otterspool Prom’
44 Vanessa Hemingway Where’s Bob? 119 Nigel Bird Sea Minor 74 76
57 Josie Billington, Blake Morrison & Philip Davis A Discussion on Reading Casi Dylan Diaries of The Reader Organisation Francis A. Neelon & Grey Brown Prescribed Reading: The Osler Literary Roundtable at Duke
95 Tom Chalmers talks to Eleanor McCann We Know No Better
55 99 Seamus Heaney ‘At His Letters’ Brian Nellist The Old Poem: Alexander Pope, ‘Argus’ 112 Readers Connect Willa Cather, My Antonia 114 Angela Macmillan Books About… Old Age 116 Rose David Books for Your Children: Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows
21 89 Ian McMillan On the Train Jane Davis Having Another Go 105 Enid Stubin Our Spy in NY 108 The London Eye Not on the Table 110 Brian Nellist Ask the Reader
REVIEWS: NEW BOOKS
101 Brian Nellist The New Book: William Trevor Love and Summer 118 Good Books Sarah Coley on David Mamet
THE BACK END
124 Prize Crossword By Cassandra 125 Buck’s Quiz 126 Quiz and Puzzle Answers 127 Contributors
THE READER IN SCHOOLS
MONMOUTH COMPREHENSIVE SCHOOL, AUGUST 2009
‘TO BE YOURSELF… A SCARY ASK WITHIN SCHOOL WALLS’
–CASI DYLAN, DIARiIES OF THE READER ORGANISATION, p.74
I WAS BRODSKY’S MINDER
n his brief memoir of the great philosopher, Norman Malcolm described what it was like to watch Wittgenstein thinking. He would meet his class weekly for a two-hour meeting in Whewell’s Court, in Trinity College Cambridge. This number of The Reader features Wittgenstein on architecture, but his own rooms in Cambridge were remarkably bare: no easy chair, no ornaments or paintings; just an iron heating stove, the metal safe in which he fearfully kept his manuscripts, a card table on which he did his writing, and a canvas deck-chair. And there Wittgenstein sat to give what he called ‘lectures’ though he had nothing written down, and would just think out-loud, sometimes seeking a dialogue with a particular student in the room, sometimes, as he tried to draw a thought out of himself, demanding a prolonged period of silence. ‘During these silences, Wittgenstein was extremely tense and active. His gaze was concentrated; his face was alive; his hands made arresting movements; his expression was stern.’ Malcolm was one of the pupils, gathered there in fear and absorption, waiting for the thought. In every one of these discussions, he notes:
Wittgenstein was trying to create. The force of will and spirit that he exerted was awesome. As he struggled to work through a problem one frequently felt that one was in the presence of real suffering. Wittgenstein liked to draw an analogy between philosophical thinking and swimming: just as one’s body has a natural tendency towards the surface and one has to make an exertion to get to the bottom – so it is with thinking. In talking about human greatness, he once remarked, that he thought that the measure of a man’s greatness would be in terms of what his work cost him.
Wittgenstein’s philosophy, says Malcolm, cost him a great deal. We live in the days of brain science. But even now it is a fantasy to try to imagine what it would be like to watch Wittgenstein thinking, from inside as well as out. Yet Thomas Hardy – about whom Seamus Heaney writes a prose-poem vignette in this issue – liked to imagine such things. Hardy’s poem ‘The Pedigree’ takes its origins from one dark night in 1916 as the writer stared by moonlight at the Hardy family tree on his desk. Suddenly before his eyes he finds its branches seem to transform themselves into a sort of neurological mirror of what is going on behind his forehead:
And then did I divine That every heave and coil and move I made Within my brain, and in my mood and speech, Was in the glass portrayed
The almost simultaneous double perspective – what he could see, as from outside himself, while still feeling it personally within – both baffled and disturbed Hardy. He was afraid that all the time he ignorantly enjoyed the illusion of personal spontaneity, he was a product of genetic determinism:
Said I then, sunk in tone, ‘I am the merest mimicker and counterfeit! – Though thinking, I am I And what I do I do myself alone.’
Desperately shaken by his own powerful feelings, Hardy would draw diagrams of his mind, to try to get some sort of objective hold on himself. Sometimes those diagrams were poems – poems which themselves served as brains or brain-scans on the page in front of him, their very structures topologically recreating ‘every heave and coil and move I made / Within my brain’. Often his own words moved him, as with a great surge of emotion. These were small-scale versions of what happened when he saw a stage dramatisation of his novel Tess of the d’Urbervilles, which made him cry at his own work. Yet still at the end of his life, he said of his work that he had done everything that he had meant to do but ‘did not know whether it had been worth doing.’ I remember meeting the Nobel prize-winning poet, Joseph Brodsky, an exile from Soviet Russia who lived in America from 1972 and from then on wrote mainly in English until his death in 1996. He came to Liverpool, it must have been late in his life, to give a lecture, a reading and a seminar. Thomas Hardy, he said to me then, was one of the dead poets he would have liked to talk to (others were Auden and Frost and of course Mandelstam). Brodsky himself had been tried in Soviet
Russia in 1964 for the crime of being a poet – or as the judge called it ‘a parasite’. Judge: Who recognises you as a poet? Who enrolled you in the
ranks of poets?
Brodsky: No one. Who enrolled me in the ranks of humankind? You did not qualify as a poet, said the judge, you didn’t even finish your high-school studies. Brodsky: I didn’t think you could get this from school. Judge: How then? Brodsky: I think that it… comes from God. I remember Brodsky saying to me, ‘I used to be one of the Strong’ – it was across a drink in a Liverpool bar – ‘But not now.’ I was Brodsky’s minder. For two days. He had taken a dislike to several of his academic hosts, my colleagues, and saw at once it was a dislike with which I greatly sympathised. So I was employed to keep them off him and guide him about. But he was a heavy smoker, ruthlessly pulling the filter off his cigarettes before lighting them, and couldn’t by then walk far round Liverpool. I got him to his reading where he read his English poems, but halfway through he suddenly stopped and apologetically said that this was boring. Abruptly he began to read in Russian instead. I don’t believe those people who tell you the sense still comes across even if you don’t understand the language. But what came across was Brodsky’s singing passion, the sense of his lost homeland, and the great crying tradition of Russian declamatory verse. Some people are events (on which, see Anthony Rudolf on Pavese and Geoffrey Hill in this issue), and Brodsky was one such. In his sudden enthusiasm he talked about buying a house in Liverpool but it was a momentary impulse. ‘Phyeel’, he said to me as we parted, ‘We have to survive’. As Angela Patmore’s essay makes clear, this issue is about emotional force and about creative survival – hence also the interview with Eric Lomax. But Brodsky himself didn’t live long after that. Norman Malcolm says that when Wittgenstein died, his last words were ‘Tell them I’ve had a wonderful life!’ When I think of his profound pessimism, writes Malcolm,
the intensity of his mental and moral suffering, the relentless way in which he drove his intellect, his need for love together with the harshness that repelled love, I am inclined to believe that his life was fiercely unhappy. Yet at the end he himself exclaimed that it had been ‘wonderful’.
FACE TO FACE
Recommend an author
Meeting with poet Ted Hughes or R.S. Thomas. Happiest age
Philip K. Dick
Featured on page 19
On the cusp of 15 and 16.
Michael Parker OMAR SABBAGH
Which poet would you have liked to meet? Zbigniew Herbert (though my wife would have had to act as a translator). Overused word
‘Avenue’ and ‘white’, but avenue is especially irritating, because it seems a permanent fixture in my preconscious.
Recommend a book
Henry Miller’s Colossus of Maroussi or W.H. Hudson’s Nature in Downland.
How many drafts?
D. J. ANDR
‘Although’, because I have always liked weighing one proposition against another.
Recommend a book
Mikhail Bulgakhov, The Master and Margarita.
How many drafts?
One to three, or, an infinity. I take the latter case as a sign that the poem was ill-starred in conception.
Featured on page 41
At least six, although even after something appears complete there are still individual words or phrases that require agonising over.
Featured on page 33 10
Meeting with poet Anne Finch, Countess of Winchelsea (1661–1720). Overused word
Tadeusz Dąbrowski D. J. Andrew
Meeting with poet No one. Poets are usually less interesting than their poems. Happiest age Meeting with poet Among the living John Ashbery, among the dead Auden. Happiest age
All the articles and other determiners, the prepositions, the first person singular, any word with an ‘-ing’ or ‘-ion’ ending, the verbs ‘to be’, ‘to have’, ‘to go’ and so on.
Recommend an author The poet Bernard Spencer (1909–1963). How many drafts?
In my married life, as my wife remarked.
Without trying, I hope to be happy today.
You either write poetry or tend to overuse some words.
Recommend a book
‘The’ and ‘now’.
Recommend an author
How many drafts?
Ada or Ardour by Vladimir Nabokov.
How many drafts?
There’s no way of knowing: anything from around five on upwar
Featured on page 49
Very few, a poem should immediately stand on its own feet. Otherwise no treatments will save it from death.
Featured on page 66
Tend to write as it comes, revise until nothing more to be done – for the time being.
Featured on page 82
D. J. ANDREW
CLIMBING TO A CLIMAx
hat are the most arresting works of literature you have ever read? Chances are they will contain a climax. In all of our key leisure activities, in our literary classics, in drama, cinema, sport, music, adventure activities and rites of passage, the same exhilarating sequence emerges. After a steady build-up of tension there is a peak of excitement, a crescendo, followed by clarity and realisation, followed by resolution. I call these extreme experiences CCs or ‘cerebral climaxes’. My research, which spans twenty-five years in literature, sports psychology and the science on ‘stress’, highlights the importance to mental health and wellbeing of the CC, and the way in which ‘stress management’ undermines this process. The theory of ‘managing’ emotions by avoidance and calming down is explored in The Truth About Stress, shortlisted for the MIND Book of the Year Award. It all began with some dubious experiments on rats in the 1930s and an attempt to graft an engineering concept, ‘stress’, onto living things. My exposé presents evidence on the bogus science and the lucrative unregulated industry in calm-downs and potted endocrinology lessons that it has spawned: 15 million web sites offering advice and
services; an army of UK practitioners with a growth rate over 12 years of 804 per cent spreading pseudo-medical ‘stress awareness’. There are currently around 650 different (and opposite) definitions of ‘stress’. The word can be used to ‘disease’ (and therefore sell treatments for) any natural physiological mechanism, any hormonal pattern, any emotion. Stress management dictates that if you start to feel unusual or powerful feelings, you should stop and have a lie-down, as you are ‘at grave risk’. Such censorship of emotional life rubbishes our leisure pursuits. Despite our modern obsession with ‘managing stress’, people spend their spare time on climactic activities virtually guaranteed to involve tension, tears and fears. They put themselves in some version of harm’s way quite deliberately in order to go on an emotional rollercoaster that climaxes in a crescendo, a result, a payoff. The conventional wisdom is that we are all simply motivated by the pursuit of pleasure, but climactic activities are much more complex than that. They facilitate a so-called ‘adrenalin rush’, an arousal curve. They give us our highs, our peak experiences. They are minor versions of the soul-sensing experiences of religious faith, of Near Death Experiences, of Zen sartori or enlightenment. People have always been willing to endure tension, tears and fears, so long as there is a climactic experience at the end of it. Falling in love can be highly distressing but few would forego the amazing cerebral climaxes that a love affair can give. Or consider the 1970s personal development programme known as EST (Erhard Seminar Training), the brainchild of Werner Erhard. Adopting the often abusive and demeaning approach of Zen master training, EST stripped away every layer of belief from trainees until they discovered within themselves a liberating, egoless state known as ‘It’. The need for the CC is very prevalent in human society. It may explain (explain, not forgive) certain self-destructive and anti-social acts such as gambling all the housekeeping or flirting with the forbidden. For most of us CCs are obtained more easily, by taking part in leisure activities. The more extreme the activity, the higher the curve, but the pattern is always the same. Juveniles favour childhood dares, fiction and fairy stories, gruesome spewsome comics, computer games, daredevil pursuits, fighting and disputing, rites of passage, romance and sex. Adults enjoy classics of fiction, thrillers and chillers, drama and theatre, movies, poetry, quizzes and contests, punchline jokes, hunting, sports, martial arts, white knuckle rides, adventure activities, gambling, music, challenges – and romance and sex. But cerebral climaxes are not some minor version of, or substitute for, sexual climaxes. They are better than sex. Religious devotees have forsworn sexuality to experience them, and adventurers put their very lives at risk. Indeed, sex is a version of what cerebral climaxes are,
because the body serves the brain, and in all its sub-systems recognises its master. ‘Frisson’ is that exhilarating tension without which sex can be staid, and humans have turned sex into an art form just so that they can have lots of CCs. Animals just use it for making little animals. Thrill-seekers are generally not trying to kill themselves. The edgetechnician, the danger-controller, is going for the CC. Anyone willing to freefall, sky-dive, fly, water-ski, leap or climb may achieve one: the surfer boring through the coil of a wave, the skier or speeding motorcyclist, senses forced against the wind, just on the knife-edge of control.
“Thrill-seekers are not trying to kill themselves”
Plummeting 100 feet through an explosive 5.5 g-force or submitting to cyclonic forces on a raging vortex ride or a vertical drop rollercoaster will produce one. So does descending from one of four BASE jumps (the acronym stands for Building, Antenna, Span and Earth). Adrenalin junkies, as they are labelled by the uninitiated, are drawn to a place beyond fear, of catharsis, ego-release, timeless beauty and tranquillity. Professional sport is a test of nerve and courage. It is not simply a contest of physical skill. If it were, outcomes would be predictable: the most technically accomplished players would always win. But this is not the case. The experiment pits skilled contestants against each other under time limits and constraints, motivated by staggering amounts of money. Millions of spectators can then watch as the tension mounts to its climax. The Grand National commentary canters along, rises to a frantic crescendo as front-runners pass the post, and then tails off as they saunter into the winners’ enclosure. Television quizzes place contestants under a microscope as they ascend a ladder of questions. Reality shows expose contestants to gruelling emotional ordeals, exploring cerebral climaxing in the contestants and vicariously in the viewer. In computer games the CC is achieved with the help of a ‘boss’ – a computer-generated force that struggles with the player in a tense series of ‘grades’ and enables him to reach a final crisis. Or consider the high point or best feature of your favourite work of art. We might say of it that its climax causes a fusion in the mind. It is the point at which a work of art makes total sense, or makes love to your imagination. It is a visceral experience – the hairs rise on one’s arms. It takes the breath away. It may even have a cathartic effect, coalescing and releasing confused or pent-up emotions and moving you to tears. Two millennia ago, Aristotle studied the effects of drama on theatre audiences. He noticed that the Greeks went through hell with the characters on stage, and the action built up to a moment of extreme
tension before erupting in violence and terror. He divided a play into four parts: protasis (the showing of the characters), epistasis (working up the plot and expectations), catastasis (the climax of the play) and catastrophe, when all was unravelled, revealed and resolved. The audience went away cleansed of their emotions. Aristotle called what they had experienced catharsis. The arts are predicated on tension and resolution. Usually, as in fiction, ballet, opera, cinema and theatre, this is delivered through a storyline that builds and takes the audience with it. But our great poems, paintings and sculptures also manifest its impact by crystallising positively and negatively charged emotional symbols and fusing them in utterly satisfying harmonies of words or images. In the classical treatise On the Sublime, attributed to Longinus Cecilius, we read of a power that ‘uplifts our souls; we are filled with a proud exultation and a sense of vaunting joy’ as the poet ‘selects and fuses the most extreme and intense manifestations of emotions.’ Poets’ brains produce brilliant crystallisations, and their work is written in short lines on the page to signal that theirs is not ordinary language but condensed and explosive, fusing multiple meanings. Ezra Pound used the German term for poetry – Dichtung or condensation – to describe it. Dramatic fusion is a feature of all great poetry. T. S. Eliot felt that the poet’s brain was a crucible for alchemy, ‘storing up numberless feelings, phrases, images, which remain there until all the particles which can unite to form a new compound are present together.’ What was important was ‘the intensity of the artistic process, the pressure, so to speak, under which the fusion takes place’. The poet-philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge devoted much of his literary life to exploring the creative process. He said the poet ‘brings the whole soul of man into activity… He diffuses a tone and spirit of unity that blends and (as it were) fuses, each into each, by that synthetic and magical power, to which we have exclusively appropriated the name Imagination.’ All of the above are descriptions of the cerebral climax – the way in which it occurs, and the way in which it transmits to the reader. The central characters of great fiction are put through a wringer, and at the point of highest tension there is a supreme struggle, during which the protagonist fails or triumphs but dramatically learns. Writers explore extreme emotions, narrating their characters’ crises and torments. They take their readers through these as well, in order to achieve a resolution. Kafka, in one of his most unsettling stories, describes the plight of a prisoner subjected to torture under the harrow: ‘But how quiet the man grows at the sixth hour. Enlightenment comes to the most dull-witted. It begins around the eyes. From there it radiates. A moment that might tempt one to get under the harrow with him.’ Kafka did not know about
the science on Near Death Experiences. What he did know was that in extreme emotional situations the brain may suddenly convulse its powers and produce something rapturous, as great writers do. Perhaps the most famous example of a fictional epiphany comes from Charles Dickens. In A Christmas Carol hardened miser Scrooge is subjected to disturbing visions, the most harrowing concerning his own death. Scrooge is converted by all this terror into a joyous fellow who gives his money away and stands on his head. Scary movies also carry the hallmarks of the CC art form, its patterns and devices. Alfred Hitchcock was known as the Master of Tension. His movies focused not on gore, but on unsettling the viewer. He wanted to ‘make the audience suffer as much as possible’. The resolution, when it came, was so much more satisfying. Quentin Tarantino once boasted, ‘We’re gonna sell you this seat but you’re only gonna use the edge of it.’ Half the frightened moviegoer wants to escape, whilst the other half wants to know what happens. The climax and pay-off leave him flushed and laughing. Classical music transcends linguistic and cultural barriers and speaks directly to the brain. It has been composed by geniuses over the centuries to invoke the cerebral climax. Its complex notations are a formula, exquisitely developed, for producing tension and pressure in sounds and sequences, climbing, falling back and then climbing ever higher, to one CC after another. Listeners can both hear them and feel them. The work of Frances H. Rauscher and colleagues at the University of California-Irvine, who published their initial findings in Nature in 1993, found that the brain-functioning of college students improved after listening to Mozart’s Sonata for Two Pianos in D Major. Scientific research on ‘the Mozart Effect’ has proliferated. Mozart and Bach have been found to improve the spatial learning of schoolchildren. In six London primary schools, Verdi’s Requiem has been used to tone up concentration and intelligence in 2,000 pupils and short bursts of Mozart have been found to reduce epileptic fits. The brain’s powers are heightened during CCs, and scientists now have a good idea why it navigates us towards them, rewarding us with goosebumps and spine-tinglings when we are willing to undergo a particularly big ‘tension loop’. Even involuntary loops that may occur during personal crises can provide the necessary tension-resolution pattern for an epiphany, a brainwave. Survivors of disasters have reported experiencing visionary joy or clarity and a profound sense of peace. Why? At the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico, Nobel Prize-winning scientists like Murray Gell-Mann, Philip Anderson and Kenneth Arrow study complex systems like piles of sand, the money markets, artificial intelligence and insect swarms. All exhibit ‘emergence’ – at the highest point of tension, and on the very edge of chaos, they change gear and
suddenly produce order. One of these systems is the human brain. Undergoing tension and resolution may be crucial to its vital work of making connections. The ‘nerves’ that our stress-managed age has come to fear and avoid are actually part of a complex cerebral process designed to produce a heightened version of our abilities. This could explain why creative people go through an emotional loop to produce their best work. Rossini couldn’t compose until the night before the performance. Once he composed on the actual day of the performance, with the impresario’s henchmen standing over him as he wrote and threatening to throw him out of the window. What was happening to Rossini’s brain during these episodes? When we experience anything exciting, pleasant or unpleasant, the body goes into the complex fight-or-flight response. One effect is that the blood is diverted away from the extremities – hence cold feet and hands – and
“Emotions make up the richness of human experience and they need to be understood, not lobotomised”
goes to the large muscles, which we may need for fighting or running away, and to the brain, which dilates its blood vessels and literally has a rush of blood. It is about to orchestrate connections. An electrical charge goes down the axon of each affected nerve cell and crosses the synaptic gap to neighbouring cells and circuits, sometimes on a very large scale. The bigger the connection, the bigger the buzz we experience. The brain is signalling to us that it is making sense of our reality. There are now international congresses on the benefits of the arts to mankind, from psychodrama in prisons to poetry therapy for autistic children. In an age so dominated by the sciences, the arts are beginning to re-emerge as needful to human health and sanity. Without them, a society becomes unbalanced, unhealthy, brutal and mechanised. In cerebral terms, it lurches to the left. ‘Stress management’ is in many ways the technical, left-brain theory of how to manage emotions and keep them under control. But emotions make up the richness of human experience and they need to be understood, not lobotomised. The arts facilitate this, and they provide not just relaxation – the mantra of stress management – but resolution, which is infinitely more satisfying.
Read more here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2006/jan/24/health.lifeandhealth Angela Patmore, The Truth About Stress, Atlantic Books, 2006 ISBN 9781843542353 17
For copyright reasons we are unable to offer John Kinsella’s poems in the online edition of the magazine.
For copyright reasons we are unable to offer John Kinsella’s poems in the online edition of the magazine.
For copyright reasons we are unable to offer John Kinsella’s poems in the online edition of the magazine.
ON THE TRAIN
ere I am in my office, ready to do a bit of work. I’ve got my papers and my books and my notebook and my cup of tea. And the weather is amazing, clouds rushing across the sky and the sun briefly dazzling me then going back into hiding. And Grantham is whizzing by like a speeded-up film, its tall church spire pointing up towards heaven. That’s because, every Wednesday from September to July, my office is the 07.30 train from Doncaster to King’s Cross as I zip down the East Coast Main Line to record my Radio 3 show, The Verb. Some people still find it amazing that I can do things in London and live in Barnsley, but the 07:30 only takes just over an hour and a half; that’s two cups of tea and a few pages of a poetry book or a couple of chapters of a novel or most of a short story. The first train down is at 05:35 and the last train back is at 23:30 so there’s rarely any reason to follow Lenny Henry into a Premier Inn. It’s odd though how the myth persists, to a lesser extent than it used to, about having to be in London if you want to do your lengths in the literary pool. Not long ago I heard somebody in quite a high position in a literary organisation in the capital refer to ‘The Provinces’ and in the smart new Digital Media Centre in Barnsley somebody asked me if I ‘maintained a base’ in Barnsley. ‘Yes’ I said: ‘I call it my house.’ And that’s why it’s glorious that The Reader is based in Liver21
pool and that it promotes all kinds of reading and writing generated in places a long way from the perceived centre of things. Today on the 07:30 I’m not going to The Verb because we’re off for the summer; I’m off recording something else, but the train still feels familiar and comfortable. I like to sit on the little bench we have between carriages on the East Coast Main Line trains. It’s like having your own suite: I’ve got a seat, a view, a toilet, and a person with a trolley who likes to serve me tea. On the train today I’ve got some excellent books and a guilty pleasure; I’ll come to the guilty pleasure later, somewhere near Stevenage. I always grab too many books for the train, thinking that just one slim volume of poems won’t be enough when of course it will be, so consequently I dip between books as the train zooms on. I’m really enjoying Antony Dunn’s new collection Bugs from Carcanet’s Oxford Poets series. I’ve been a fan of Antony’s careful and precise verse for years; I think he really enjoys celebrating the uncelebrated, in a way that many poets threaten to but don’t quite bring off. Many of the poems in Bugs are about just that: insects, grubs, creepy-crawlies and the things that can threaten to get under your skin. Just like poems can. The work is clever and allusive and elusive; take ‘Flea Circus’, for instance, ostensibly about some flea circus owners accidentally letting the fleas escape (‘we’d never be sure which of our number / left the Top unhooked; by trick or blunder // let our stars seize the chance, make a clean jump / out through the countless non-doors of the trunk’) and having to fake the fleas’ tricks, and eventually becoming reluctantly used to the fakery (‘some of us resented living off tricks // and felt in the itch of our bad-feeling / the bite of our great hope’s flight, the bleeding, // the drop-by-drop drain of a life gone thin. / The fleas somehow, still, get under our skin.’) but written in a way which seems to be also about the writing of poems, about how writing can filter and remake experience. In other words, am I really experiencing Newark because I’m going past it at a hundred miles an hour? And of course Antony lives in York, part of The Provinces. A contrast to Antony Dunn (and he lives near Cockermouth, that’s Zone 47 on the Tube map) is the splendid Jeremy Over, a restless experimenter and game-player with language. His book Deceiving Wild Creatures carries on the exhilarating work he began in his first book A Little Bit of Bread and No Cheese. There’s prose here, and lists, a Raymond Chandler pantoum (‘Nothing more happened. / I had another hunch. / I poked it under her nose, / then I ran away. // I had another hunch. / That stopped the door closing, / then I ran away. / I don’t know why.’) and a fantastic example of a Haibun, a rarely-seen Japanese form that can be defined as a combination of prose and haiku poetry, often charting special moments in a person’s life. Over’s Haibun is in memory of Roger Deakin and I’ll quote
the opening section because the writing is lovely and it carried me over an unexpected stop just south of St. Neots: ‘The river’s quieter now. So I can hear it. Before, further upstream where the river rushed over and around boulders and down falls, the sound seemed to fill my head completely – the whole landscape too. Now, because I can hear other things, like the thin calls of some goldcrests and the occasional piping of a wagtail, I can also hear the river. // to the wagtail / the river sounds like / the front door swinging open.’ And now that the train is moving again and gathering speed, it’s time for my guilty pleasure: The New Yorker. I love The New Yorker magazine for the font and the listings of jazz clubs and galleries that I’ll never get the chance to go to, and the cartoons and the poems and the articles and, above all, the stories. The stories are always immaculately written and somehow glamorous, especially the ones about New York; they contain loving paragraphs of description of Manhattan and Brooklyn and somehow, in ways that I can’t quite define, they contain essential truths about the way we live. I recently bought a collection called Wonderful Town, stories about New York from The New Yorker, and reading that book is for an old unbeliever like me the equivalent of dying and going to heaven. There are stories in it by great stylists like John Cheever and James Thurber, and lesser-known but equally New Yorkerish writers like the magnificent (and magnificently named) Hortense Callisher, Jean Stafford, Lorrie Moore, Peter Taylor, John Updike and William Maxwell. Let’s have a look at this latest issue, as the train begins to gather speed for the final run-in to King’s Cross: there’s a beautiful cartoon with a man on a beach saying to his wife who is holding a trowel and a fork ‘It’s a beach, Roslyn! There’s nothing to garden’. That cartoon is like a story or a poem, brimming with narrative and observation and those essential truths about the way we live that I mentioned earlier. There are poems by John Ashbery and Bruce Smith, and a story by Orhan Pamuk. They’ll keep me going on the trip home. And the great thing is that a subscription to The New Yorker isn’t all that expensive. Not for all that great writing and all those epic covers. We’re there now. King’s Cross. Time to pack up and walk out into the city, pretending I’m in an Antony Dunn poem, or a Jeremy Over haibun, or a New Yorker story...
Bugs by Antony Dunn (Carcanet Press, ISBN 978-1903039953) Deceiving Wild Creatures by Jeremy Over (Carcanet Press, ISBN 978-1847770042) Wonderful Town ed. David Remnick (published by The Modern Library, ISBN 9780375757525)
BY THE OLD BRIDGE, BERWICK-UPON-TWEED © Joe Payne
THE RAILWAY MAN
STARTING AT THE ESSENTIALS
Angela Macmillan talks to Eric Lomax
What follows is not so much an interview as a record of a conversation I had with Eric Lomax, author of The Railway Man.
ow, I had better warn you, the alarm clock will go off at twelve o’clock but don’t worry, it won’t mean your time is up, it is just to remind me to take my medication’, says Eric Lomax, laughing, as I settle into a chair in his comfortable sitting room in the heart of Berwick-upon-Tweed. At 90 and not in the best of health, he has agreed to see me to talk about his reading life. The first things I see are two enormous bookcases on either side of the fireplace; the best part of one shelf taken up with different editions of his extraordinary autobiography, The Railway Man. Despite age and illness he is a large presence and the imposing armchair in which he sits adds to that impression. His wife Patti had greeted me at the door and she stays with us throughout our conversation. Eric Lomax grew up, an only child, in Edinburgh; quite a solitary boy who became passionately and incurably interested in trains and railways. Ironically, he found himself in 1942 a prisoner of the Japanese, working on the infamous Burma railway. The story, which he tells quietly and
with great dignity in The Railway Man concerns the consequences of his secret construction of a radio and a map. When the Japanese discovered them, he was subjected to prolonged torture and captivity in a series of appalling prisons. After the war he lived with all the emotional and psychological damage festering away inside him until, more than forty years later, he encountered Helen Bamber at the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture. Shortly after, he was given a pamphlet written by the man who had acted as interpreter while he was tortured; a man who had since become the focus of his pent up hatred. The last part of his story concerns his journey towards a meeting and eventual reconciliation with Nagase at the River Kwai Bridge.
He said to me ‘Fifty years is a long time, but for me it is a time of suffering. I never forget you, I remember your face, especially your eyes.’ He looked deep into my eyes when he said this. His own face still looked like the one I remembered, rather fine featured, with dark and slightly hidden eyes; his wide mouth was still noticeable beneath cheeks that had sunken inwards. I told him that I could remember his very last words to me. He asked what they were and laughed when I said ‘Keep your chin up.’ He asked if he could touch my hand. My former interrogator held my arm, which was so much larger than his, stroking it quite unselfconsciously. I didn’t find it embarrassing. He gripped my wrist with both of his hands and told me that when I was being tortured – he used the word – he measured my pulse. I remembered he had written this in his memoir. Yet now that we were face to face, his grief seemed far more acute than mine. ‘I was a member of Imperial Japanese Army; we treated your countrymen very, very badly.’ ‘We both survived’, I said encouragingly, really believing it now.
(from The Railway Man) A large part of what is now The Railway Man was written in Singapore in 1945 and completed in the 1990s. A true story of a man who walks through horror towards a realisation of the possibility that the things that make up the best of humanity, might finally overcome the worst. But I had not come to talk to Eric about torture or even forgiveness. All that publicly needs to be said about that is unflinchingly told in his book; the rest is not my business. I wanted to talk to him about the importance of books and reading in his life, both at times of war and in peace.
One of the most intense events of my childhood was finding the secret chart of ‘The Great Discoveries’ hidden inside the
decorative dust jacket of The Story of Mankind by H. W. Van Loon. I was convinced that there were thousands of readers who had never looked at the back of the jacket, and that this wonderful branching tree of human ingenuity was for me alone.
(from The Railway Man) In a soft Edinburgh accent, he answered my questions. ‘Childhood’ he writes ‘was a time of stern affection’.
Angela Macmillan: You mention that in the 1920s and 30s your father was a member of a reading circle. How much do you remember about that? Eric Lomax: Oh yes, I attended one or two of those meetings aged about nine or ten. I was a bit of a pushy infant. Reading circles were not uncommon at the time. In the 1920s and 30s remember there was no television and practically no radio, just personal contact and communication. This particular reading circle consisted of about nine or ten people, mostly men, perhaps a few ladies, who would gather in somebody’s house every two or three weeks and settle in for the afternoon, with tea. One afternoon I remember, for example someone gave a talk on Arnold Bennett and one or two of his books were produced and passed round and others commented on their experience of reading Arnold Bennett. Even for a small boy like me it was very interesting, though I must have stuck out like a sore thumb. But I don’t think any of those reading circles survived the war. AM: Your mother wrote essays and poems and read a lot of books and, I’m quoting, ‘She gave her child a sense of mystery’. [Eric laughs heartily] Was your house full of books? EL: Oh yes, my father had an enormous collection, quite varied, mostly
historical; not very much historical fiction; nobody in my parents’ house approved of that. We thought fiction distorted the real story.
AM: Your school years at the Royal High School don’t seem to have been particularly happy. Did you come out of them with any love of books? EL: The straight answer to that is that I don’t think anything we did in school encouraged, accidentally or otherwise, an interest in reading. I can remember spending hours and hours dealing with Milton, ‘Il Penseroso’ and ‘L’Allegro’, and even now I can do blocks of the shorter poems. I recall yet sitting in the classroom and all of us chanting in unison ‘Hence, vain deluding joys, / The brood of Folly without father bred!’ and all the rest of it. I can’t think of anything more calculated to put us off for life and I don’t think I was the only one with that feeling towards organised English. But we got over it in time. How did you get on Patti?
Patti Lomax: Oh, I had to learn poems by rote but the reading of books
I can’t recall at all. It was handwriting yes, and spelling.
EL: I remember having Walter Scott and Robert Burns hammered down
my throat until I was sick and tired of them and to this day I can’t stand Burns. Scott is a different matter because, after all, he had been at the Royal High School too.
AM: Later on you describe a period when you were in the very worst prison, Outram Road in Singapore, and although you shared a cell, you were not permitted to speak to your companion. Nevertheless you did and you would sometimes recite poems to each other. EL: Yes, we had to gauge how far away the guards were by their foot-
steps. And then have a short talk and when we heard them approach again we would look all innocent. I shared a cell with an Australian who had been brought up by the Christian brothers. He produced ‘Abou Ben Adhem’ by James Henry Leigh Hunt, which I had not heard of and in exchange he got ‘Il Penseroso’ and ‘L’Allegro’, and so on. [We laugh together at the irony.] And I remember reciting ‘The Lady of Shallott’, to the great mystification of this Christian Brothers’ boy from the Australian outback. To this day I think it is a marvellous poem.
AM: I am glad she was there with you. Did you get anything from the poetry? EL: I think we did, though I find it difficult to specify what that was. ‘Abou Ben Adhem’ seemed to declaim something beautiful and defiant to us.
(from The Railway Man)
‘What writest thou?’ – The vision raised its head, And with a look made of all sweet accord, Answered ‘The names of those who love the Lord.’ ‘And is mine one?’ said Abou. ‘Nay, not so,’ Replied the angel. Abou spoke more low, But cheerly still, and said ‘I pray thee, then, Write me as one that loves his fellow men.’
(from ‘Abou Ben Adham’)
AM: All through your life, with the exception of Outram Road, you have had your
Bible with you. You talk about reading the New Testament through with a bookmark, again and again. Have you always gone to the Bible for the same thing?
EL: I think the answer is probably no. That is a difficult question to answer.
AM: Do you still read it? EL: Occasionally. I think there is one up there on the shelf.
I ask if I can read a bit of his own book back to him and he follows in his own copy.
AM: This is when you had been moved to the notorious Changi prison which was
surprisingly less terrible than Outram Road:
There were enough books in Changi to provide an amazing and eclectic library, endlessly circulating until the books fell to pieces: religious tracts, Victorian novels, the works of Hugh Walpole, Somerset Maugham, the Powys brothers and Arnold Bennett, moving from hand to hand in the hot sweaty prisoncity… EL: Every book lost its fly leaves, the blank pages and even some of the preliminaries would all be removed and used for making cigarettes, so every book we had started at the essentials. There was a book bindery at the prison, and the tattered volumes were kept together with heavy, home-made gums made from rice and water or stewed bones, and patched up with cannibalised prison records, of which there were reams. Charge sheets for Indian privates written in copperplate in happier colonial days became the endpapers of works by Bunyan and Blake or Defoe. The adhesive still feels solid, heavy and crude, but also very strong; I have some of these books with me now. They are the most well-thumbed, eroded books I have ever seen, worn to a softness and fragility, and made compact by sheer use, but they seem indestructible. EL: Reading made all the difference to our prospects of survival. There were a lot of individuals, as in any walk of life, who never read a book from one year to another. They had difficulty in surviving but anyone who had access to reasonable quality books could keep occupied for hours. In Changi and also in Kanchanaburi we had a fair number of books. Nearly everyone had at least one book and they were swapped around but you couldn’t really choose what you got, you just swapped and took a chance on it. AM: ‘Reading was an important part of normality and dignity.’, you write. But when you came out of Outram Road where they had taken every possible thing from you including your name, you found that you had also lost the ability to read.
EL: I had not read so much as a single word for months. I didn’t know that you could lose the ability to read. I recall the struggle to learn to read again. PL: You had been very, very ill and malnourished. I think it was prob-
ably physical. I am concerned now that we are straying into dark waters.
AM: On a happier note, it seems a beautiful coincidence that when you and Patti met, it should have been on a train on your return from a book auction and furthermore, when you talked, you discovered that Patti had run an antiquarian bookshop in Montreal. What wonderful bookish / railway connections! EL: Yes, see what I picked up at the auction! AM: What do you enjoy reading now? EL: Second World War in the Far East. Non-fiction. Industrial and ma-
terial history – lots of books on railway history, engineering history, on what I would call ‘material history’. I don’t read much fiction now but I have some copies of books I read and liked in Changi for you. They are not original Changi copies, I bought them one by one after the war. From a pile by the side of his chair Eric passes me a copy of Robinson of England by John Drinkwater, the story of a man in love with his country. We look at a copy of England, Their England by A. G. MacDonnell and Eric laughs to remember how everyone in Changi knew the famous chapter of the village cricket match. A Tribute to England by Martin Gilkes is an anthology of poetry, essays, architecture, history. I try to imagine that hot remote prison; the prisoners with those patched-up, worn, valuable books, thirstily drinking in scenes of home. Perhaps:
As I lie Abed between cool walls I watch the host Of the slow stars lit over Gloucester plain, And drowsily the habit of these most Beloved of English lands moves in my brain.
‘The Midlands’, John Drinkwater
AM: You often mention talking to various prisoners about books; did you have
organised reading groups in Changi?
EL: No it was all very informal although we would exchange notes and
have discussions, and so on, but people forget that in such a situation no matter what you did, at the back of one’s mind, 24 hours a day there was the thought: are we going to survive? That was the dominant factor:
are we going to survive? We would sometimes talk about what we would do when the Japanese started to exterminate us and in fact, we came within two weeks of being disposed of. [Eric is quiet for a moment.] Now this book is world famous. This is The Specialist, by Charles Sale; the specialist, that is, in building… loos. It is Australian and short but one of the funniest of books. There were several copies in Changi. Now this one is totally different. On the train going from Singapore to Thailand in 1942, I struggled to read Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men. A man on the railway truck commented that I could not have chosen a more unsuitable book for the journey and I struggled with it all the way without making much progress. Nevertheless I went out of my way to get a copy post-war and read it again. I liked it but it was still heavy going. The alarm goes off. The clock that has been ticking away behind me chimes the hour loudly and stylishly and we have a medicinal break.
AM: Would you say books have played an important part in your life? EL: Yes, absolutely. I have never been much interested in sports or games and socialising. One of the books I mention is the Stanley Gibbons Stamp Catalogue. You see I can read that just as if it is a novel. Now some people think it very odd that I can read a stamp catalogue. And here is an example of something I like: Rupert Brooke. Everyone knows ‘If I should die think only this of me’. But I don’t think anyone has ever heard of this one except me: The Christ of the Indian Road by E. Slatey Jones. It is about missionary work in India and I read it from cover to cover in Changi. It was totally different from anything else I could get my hands on. AM: My final question and it is a silly one really: if your house was burning down and you could only save one of your books, what would it be? EL: Oh. Could you give me a little time to think about that. If I could
defer that question – I want to take some care about it. It would not be the Bible.
AM: Of course. I brought three poems with me. They are all about how impossible it is to imagine a world without books. EL: Oh that would be terrible. AM: I will leave them with you for when you have a moment. EL: I am tempted to answer you now, and this is a purely interim
answer, which I don’t think anyone will ever have offered before to that question. It is The Sea Around Us by Rachel Carson. Do you know it? It
is a most beautifully written book. Apart from the technical content, I was struck by the quality of the language and I have quite a few of her original editions.
AM: We should stop talking now because I don’t want to tire you. EL: Oh no, I’m doing fine, I think I am recovering. [We laugh.] No, I
am quite serious.
PL: Can I make a point? I think, listening to Eric, that reading has really stretched his mind and in a sense even this interview has done that. EL: These books [pointing to one of the bookcases] are all about the
Second World War in the Far East and there are a lot more upstairs as well. We had a sale of surplus books which took place in London. There are very few auctions of one man’s library and I provided 700 lots for the catalogue. The auction raised a great deal of money and it was entirely my surplus books.
AM: How did it feel for such a great reader of books to produce your own book? When you first held it in your hand, how did you feel? EL: Well, I remember sitting in that chair there where you are. In those days  the post came early in the morning. I opened the parcel and immediately rang Neil Belton the editor at the time to tell him the book had just arrived, and he said, ‘Do you know what time it is? Halfpast seven.’ He later made the point that I must have been very pleased with it. PL: You behaved as if you just couldn’t believe it. EL: I couldn’t believe it. That’s perfectly true.
As I walk back down the garden path I remember the epigraph for The Railway Man:
I am alive, and was dead – Write therefore the things which thou hast seen.
Revelation I, 18–19
Eric Lomax has very recently written the introduction to a new edition of A Town Like Alice, Nevil Shute (Vintage Classics, 2009)
According to the Gospel of James, At the age of five, Jesus fashioned five clay sparrows On the Sabbath. Locals in Nazareth, Joseph amongst them, Were scandalised. Such levity, and on the Sabbath. A good beating Would do no harm, They cried. Jesus was amazed At being reprimanded, Yet held his tongue. Instead, spreading arms To their limits, He called on the birds To rise: ‘Go forth unto the heights and fly; Ye shall not meet with death At any hands.’ Requiring no further prompt, The clay birds did just that.
According to the Gospel of James, Each morning, at around three, Their descendants congregate To celebrate this feat, And voice disbelief At how this could be so, Though, according to James, The inconceivable Is always possible, Citing the birds’ very existence As witness.
LITERATURE AND ARCHITECTURE
Hans van der Heijden
Hans van der Heijden is an architect and director of BIQ in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. One of his designs is the restoration and extension of the Bluecoat arts centre in Liverpool
hen we build, we also talk and write, Ludwig Wittgenstein asserted once. He should know. Wittgenstein designed one of the key twentieth century pieces of architecture, the house for his sister Margarethe Stonborough-Wittgenstein. The aphorism reflects the instrumental view on the use of language taken in his Philosophical Investigations. Communication on practical matters is measured by its effectiveness and not by linguistic logic as formulated earlier in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. But in the context of Wittgenstein’s Vienna the aphorism is more ambiguous than that. It also reads as a plea for a reciprocity between the art of architecture and that of the written and spoken word and as a plea to explain and justify the things we do at length. Ludwig Wittgenstein was a moralist. He was also a radical dilettante in many fields. He worked as a mechanical engineer, a soldier, an architect, a village
teacher in Trattenbach and a professor in philosophy in Cambridge, but perhaps his real passion was music. A lot has been said and done to interpret the virtuosity of the Stonborough House that was designed in 1926. Architectural theorists have tried to read its floor plans as logical diagrams, as architectural switch-boards so to speak, others have stressed the ethical values of the elementary volumes and bare aesthetic or the maniacal craftsmanship of its details. However, there is also evidence that the Stonborough House was a place of nostalgia. It was full of melancholy and memories.
The spatial arrangement of the house is rooted in the domestic conventions of the Viennese aristocracy of the time. The living rooms of the house are on the first floor. It is an urban Palais with a stately route from the entrance vestibule to the upper floor. Double glass doors in the vestibule give way to a straight staircase running to the upper lobby. The eye is focused on a piece of sculpture positioned in the axis of symmetry of the stair. The house refers to the particulars of the Wittgenstein family tradition in very explicit ways. The sequence of the vestibule doors, staircase and statue is literally taken from the Palais of Karl Wittgenstein, the father of Ludwig and Margarethe. In both houses
the Saal (drawing room) is important as a place both for reception and music performance. Karl Wittgenstein had a reputation as a supporter of musical talent and music was a driving force in his family. In the Stonborough House these domestic rituals have radically been intensified by reducing the formal vocabulary of the architecture. Unlike the almost baroque precedent of the father’s house, the Stonborough House is Spartan in appearance. Decorations and expressive finishing such as carpets, floor and wall paintings are absent, thus reinforcing prime architectural choices: the spatial sequence along the axis of symmetry of the lobby and the dominance of the statue in the route leading upstairs. In all senses of the word the Saal is a pivotal space in the Stonborough House. Unlike the vestibule-staircase-lobby sequence, the Saal does not refer to a specific pre-existing arrangement, but is carefully manipulated within the space plan of the house and accurately positioned between the lobby and the private rooms of Margarethe. Another Wittgenstein sister, Hermine, has extensively drawn both her father’s and her sister’s house. A meticulous ink drawing shows the staircase with the statue of her father’s house. By comparison, the interior of the Stonborough House is rendered far less precise and more spherical, using charcoal in most cases. The drawings show how the house was occupied in a slightly disorderly fashion. It does not lose its
Spartanism altogether, but it is not depicted as a grandiose piece of total design. It does not contain stylish contemporary furniture and art and in this sense it is not a consistent modernist house. Today, we might even be tempted to describe the furnishing as incorrect: the house appears to be strongly personalised. Mahogany tables, crapauds, porcelain, candles, and art on pedestals lend the spaces a considerable degree of intimacy (but not cosiness, the light comes from bare light bulbs). This is confirmed by the photographic snapshots Ludwig Wittgenstein glued in his notebooks. The house must have been a bohemian place
where Viennese intellectuals gathered, drank coffee and Schnapps. The polish of antique grand pianos and cellos would not have looked odd. It was a home, the home of the family of Ludwig’s sister Margarethe. The Spartan properties of the architecture are reductive in nature rather than abstract. That is an important distinction. Wittgenstein’s objective is not to rework traditional motifs so as to arrive at a new vocabulary. The Stonborough House is not revolutionary. It is an open question whether its Spartanism is more or less intimidating than the
baroque of the father’s house, but what is important is the intention to approach architecture as an art that is rooted in traditions small and large. Hermine Wittgenstein’s drawings and the photographs do not depict any architectural purity, but instead they focus on the habits and rituals of the family. These habits and rituals, by the way, were problematic. Father Wittgenstein was a dominant man, his expectations of the children were high, three of his sons committed suicide. Music in the house represented culture, but it was also like a major league sports match in which it was not easy to earn praise. Wittgenstein family life was tragic. Difficult as it was, the reference in the design to the family’s history was a firm token of realism. Much later, in 1946, Ludwig Wittgenstein would write: ‘Tradition is not something that everyone can pick up, it is not a thread, that someone can pick up, if and when he pleases; any more than you can choose your own ancestors. Someone who has no tradition and would like to have it, is like an unhappy lover.’ Compare the building, talking and writing of the Stonborough House to the architectural discourse today! Originality and innovation are now the criteria to judge architecture. Architects are supposed to have their own personal theory and style. The inherent contradiction is only clear to those who stick to the notion that theories and styles are shared intellectual properties. It is as though such theoretical anxiety must compensate for the lack of a significant agenda for architects. The literary vehicles that are used in architecture are descriptive in nature and style (minutes, specifications, tables, schedules) or testimonial (critiques, design statements) and only rarely investigative (mostly in an academic context) and the overall tone is likely to be ostentatiously positive. Architecture is forced into a performative corner. Architectural space seems to be possessed by a merciless optimism in which there is little room for doubts and complexity. Inevitably, design visuals are supplied with clean streets, mothers with prams and roller-skating kids. It never rains in these architectural utopias. Doubts, complexity and melancholy don’t solve problems and certainly don’t sell in the anonymous markets in which design functions today. Good cheer does. Ambiguity is out. We do not live in revolutionary times. Our built environment is complex, expanding and in constant flux. Literature is much better equipped than any architectural analysis to interpret these dynamics. Words make us aware that our built environment is not just a physical world, but also a lived world. Problematic environments (the American suburb as pictured by John Irving and Jeffrey Eugenides, the post-war point blocks in the Edinburgh of Irvine Welsh) are also habitats. The melancholy of places becomes known by talking and writing and this makes us speculate how houses have become homes and how built environments are grown into habitats.
Wittgenstein suggested that the dignity of a habitat relates to the habits and rituals of its occupiers. Viewed in his way, a home or a habitat is not only a backdrop for pleasure and happiness, but also for disappointment, grief and pain. The architecture of a house should not make a funeral look ridiculous. In a very deep way, the dignity of our habitat is measured by such dramas and by the melancholy of life. Crucial of course in the case of the Stonborough House was the small gap that existed between the conception and consummation of architecture and that the architect Wittgenstein chose to associate himself quite strongly with the family life that eventually would take place in the house. Architecture has its own professional tools and in that sense it is an autonomous artistic discipline. Yet, architecture as such changes little: Wittgenstein seemed to say that the value of architecture all depends on the engagement of its designers with the tasks they are given. Building by talking and writing as Wittgenstein did leads architecture not to lose itself in innovation and utopia, but instead to develop as an artistic skill to cope with reality – for better or worse. Paradoxically, Wittgenstein’s melancholic outlook on architectural issues should make us happier. So he concludes his 1946 aphorism on the inevitability of the traditions we build on: ‘The happy lover & the unhappy lover both have their particular pathos. But it is harder to bear yourself well as an unhappy lover than as a happy one’.
The Ancient Discoverer
The chthonic god is deliberate in his actions. When the drama of his admonishment begins the people above ground will cower. The pedestrian and the workaholic will simultaneously quicken… All the senses take on luggage, and all minds learn the meaning of care, in their movements, in their gestures, in attitude, in prayer. The ascent of the god is near: personal history and good intentions are at loggerheads, and panic, the ancient discoverer, leads the way. A million vital things – about our pettiness, our littleness, and the moneyed threats we build out of nothing to satisfy the avarice of our perversity – all this will be discovered today. Gone is the small hedonist and the small significance in our lives. And gone is everything good we left untested. The god will judge nothing but covert plots, like a giant in the mist. He will see into our bones from the inside of his own, and then leave. And what’s left is only a skeleton, a skinnier version of our former belief in ourselves, but settled, rested.
Start with a comma, so they know I was there before I was born – that the womb was only an alibi. Tell them that in childhood I realized that only the lucky are given a little authorship in life, a pittance. I knew, you see, so very quickly, that just as the grown-ups would steer what we saw, what we heard, and what we endeavoured – I knew that even later in life, things would be the same. I was small, I was short, but I divined the ubiquity of bullying. Fate, and even character, were things of which I knew nothing. I could not moralise. But I knew that we, as a species, were not safe. What can I say? I suppose I had psychic gifts, that I was forward in the mind. It’s eighteen years since I was eight. And when they write my biography, whenever, however long it takes, I know that I will still be one of you, one of us, a puppet steered by all the things I love, all the things I hate, and the something in me, spinning fractional within, that sees the map, sees the X penciled in, but also sees the pirate chuckling with the pen.
Message in a Bottle
For Claudia H
Water. The delicate wandering of a deer. Lavender. These are all better than words; neither stiff counters nor dead symbols, but legendary – they live, long and flexible, from the inside of me to the inside of you: even if there’s a world between us. I thought of an apple the other day. You know the kind, dear: shiny, red, plump. It sat there, revolving, as if on display – the space of my mind was an exhibition. It made me think of something true, not just precise, but with fire, alive. Three women have counted days, hours, then moments in my life. Three have descended with me to the smallest feeling. But it’s only you, with your deliberate love, who remains, undiminished. I think of you often. Too often.
t was the door slamming that woke Wilson. He never heard any car pull up, no key in the lock. Just the slammed door and June already inside the dark house. So he’d blown it. He knew right away there was nothing left to do but play it out. What else could Wilson do? Nothing. June had some mail in one hand, keys in the other, a purse as big as a small ice chest hanging off one shoulder. She went straight for the garbage in the cupboard under the sink. From where Wilson was, it looked as if she was just checking it – maybe to see how full it was – but probably she’d thrown something in. Then she went to the message machine by the phone – no messages – she only brushed the buttons with her fingers and then ran the same hand through her long dark hair. From the refrigerator she pulled out a can of diet cola, popped the top, started toward Wilson, and stopped dead in her tracks. ‘Wilson? Jesus, you scared me. What are you doing lying there in the dark? Is Bob home?’ ‘Hey, June,’ Wilson said loudly. When he sat up, he knocked over the beer he’d set on the floor sometime earlier. ‘Christ, I’m sorry.’ June went into the kitchen to get some paper towels, and probably Wilson would have snuck out right then, but she kept an eye on him, walking with her head turned around. When she came back, she flicked
on the lamp next to the sofa and kneeled down on the floor to clean up the mess. ‘It’s a little early isn’t it?’ Wilson looked at her like he didn’t have a clue. ‘To be passed out on our couch. It’s only four-thirty,’ she said. ‘Where’s Bob?’ ‘It’s four-thirty?’ Wilson said. ‘Damn. You just get off work?’ And, for some reason, that really annoyed her. ‘Yeah, I just got off,’ she said. ‘I just got done spending the whole day on my feet, cleaning up after people who can’t take care of themselves, and now here I am at home, on my knees, doing the same thing.’ ‘Take a load off,’ Wilson said. ‘I got it.’ But she was already up, bringing the wet towels to the sink, slamming the cupboard door where the garbage was. She opened the refrigerator. ‘There’s another. You want it?’ Wilson tried to remember – she was wearing a pair of those white lace-up shoes with the chunky rubber soles. What had Bob told him? She wiped people’s asses for a living. A nurse’s aide. June likes to serve, Bob had said, more than once, grinning over a beer at the Rusty Nail. ‘Sure,’ Wilson told her. He could use another. She brought the beer over, scooted a cardboard coaster with a color ad for Lott’s BBQ in front of him on the table, set the can down on it, said, ‘I’m going to wash up,’ and moved toward the bedroom door behind him. There was only his body between June and the bedroom door. Wilson did the first thing that came to him, and very quickly – because that was the way his mind worked – he decided it was the only thing he could have done. He had the crazy notion even Bob might have thought so. Wilson stood up and kissed her. And who’d have known Wilson could move so fast in the state he was in? It surprised the hell out of both of them. Or that June was as strong as she was, because the next thing Wilson knew, after his lips brushed something soft and lemon-smelling, he was on the floor, his head cracked against something hard, sharp, and solid. ‘Shit, Wilson. What’s the matter with you?’ He looked for her, and there was the coffee table edge, close up. ‘You’re bleeding,’ she said. ‘On the rug.’ Wilson let his head back down when he saw she wasn’t going toward the bedroom, but to the kitchen instead. There were the sounds of water running in a metal sink, paper towels ripped from the roll, her moving back across the carpet in those enormous white shoes. ‘Jesus, you got a gash. Hold this,’ she said, handing him a wad of paper towels with little dancing bears printed in pink and blue. ‘Not like that. With some force. To stop the bleeding.’ She started working at
the carpet, scrubbing, her breasts jiggling inside her t-shirt. But Wilson obviously wasn’t doing it right because she left off with the carpet, put one cool hand along the left side of his face, and started pressing with the other hand and a wad of paper towel on his cut. ‘Does it hurt?’ ‘No.’ Wilson couldn’t feel a thing. ‘It will tomorrow.’ She let go of his head and sort of half-smiled. ‘I always wondered how I’d do in the heat of the moment, if I had to.’ She sounded satisfied. And then angry. ‘What the hell were you thinking? Just how drunk are you? And where’s Bob? Were you two at the bar the whole day? He’s still there, isn’t he,’ she said, like she knew it was true. ‘Did he put you up to this?’ She started to stand up, but Wilson kept his hold on her. ‘Maybe,’ Wilson said. ‘Damn, you smell good. Kiss me again.’ ‘You’re crazy.’ ‘You’re pretty.’ ‘Bob would kill you.’ It was something Wilson had thought of, but God knows, the situation was complicated. ‘Let me worry about Bob, baby.’ She let Wilson kiss her. Probably he reeked of stale cigarettes and beer, but it couldn’t be worse than what she had her nose in all day at the Paradise Villa, the old folk’s home. That was where she worked – Wilson remembered now. ‘Okay,’ she said, pushing him back a little. ‘I need to wash up. I’ve got the day all over me.’ ‘I like you,’ he said. ‘I like your day.’ Wilson was just mumbling because he’d forgotten why he was there. All he wanted was to get in her pants. Somehow he’d convinced himself that’s where the lemon smell was coming from. In her pants, under her t-shirt. It was in her skin. Part of her anatomy. ‘You’re drunk,’ she said, pulling away, knocking his head once more, this time against the leg of the table. ‘My day was shit. You like my day? You like me? You’re a shit,’ she said, and then she was crying. ‘I can’t believe I’m sitting here kissing my husband’s drinking buddy. On the floor of our living room. This is so bad.’ She was shaking her head, sobbing. ‘This is rock bottom.’ She didn’t know the half of it. ‘I need a drink,’ Wilson said, and even after all that she was going to get it for him, but he told her, ‘You sit. You stay.’ He made it into the kitchen without looking back. Could he let himself out the door and get gone, to hell with Bob? June was sniffing and whimpering – soft, animal sounds. Wilson thought to himself that the least, the very least he could do was to get her a drink. He could do that.
He brought in the half-full bottle of Johnny Walker and two dirties from the sink to save her washing them. She drank. A tear had got stuck part way down her cheek. Wilson touched his finger there to help it along. Then he pushed the hair away from her eyes. They were so light brown they were almost yellow, like an animal’s, and it surprised him a little, so he turned his head. ‘Jesus,’ she said. ‘Bob won’t look at me either.’ And that started her crying all over again. ‘There’s nothing wrong with you,’ Wilson said. ‘Hey, I mean it.’ She was way better looking than anything he’d ever taken out, but that wasn’t all. She was nice – a good person. The place where she’d pressed the towel to his head was throbbing a little. She’d have to be good to do what she did every day with those old folks and then come home and put up with Bob. ‘Bob’s a shit,’ Wilson said. ‘I guess I’m knee deep in it.’ She tried to crack a smile. Wilson started pressing with one of his hands into her shoulder, first just fingertips, and when, after a few moments, she moaned, he held his thumb in the meaty part close to her neck. Honest to God, the muscle was solid rock – until it melted right into his hands. He’d never felt a human being ease into him like that. His dog almost every night, but never a woman. It was a vet who’d taught Wilson how to work a muscle, for a softmouthed spaniel he’d shot once, purely on accident. The safety was on – Wilson would have sworn it was, right up until the moment the gun went off. The dog lived for a couple weeks after, his muscles taut always, like he was bracing himself for a second hit, and that massage Wilson would give him was the only thing that stopped the whimpering and got the spaniel to sleep. Wilson even did it while the doctor slipped the needle in, after he’d finally agreed to put the dog down. ‘You can do that forever,’ June said. So Wilson started in on the other shoulder, real slow. Then down her back, on either side of her spine, working with his thumbs and the pads of his fingers through her t-shirt. He was careful around the clip of her bra, working above and below it, when she reached back and undid it for him. He slid his fingers under her shirt and around to her belly. The flesh quivered and tensed, so he let her know with slow circles: Those fingers weren’t moving on until the muscles gave way completely. By the time his hands found her breasts, the nipples were hard. ‘You hear that?’ June said. Wilson hadn’t heard a thing, but he didn’t say so. He couldn’t even open his mouth to speak. How could he? A breast lay in each one of his hands, two still-warm birds.
Quick she was on her feet, her chin tilted slightly upward, nose in the air, her head cocked to the side, trembling. She still had on those white shoes, terrible and quiet, as she went for the bedroom door, and finally, flung it open. Wilson couldn’t see what June was seeing, but he knew what was there. On the bed, tangled up in the sheets lay June’s husband, Bob, snoring, one hairy leg dangled over the bare ass of the vacant little barmaid from the Rusty Nail. Wilson’s mind immediately started in on its usual tricks. It wasn’t his fault. These weren’t his cares. Sure, he’d fallen asleep when all he’d had to do was stay awake and signal – three solid knocks on the bedroom door as soon as the car pulled into the drive, it’s June! – but Bob was a grown man, capable of covering his own tracks. None of this was up to Wilson to make right. Until June turned her head away from the bodies in the bed and fixed on Wilson with those yellow eyes. It wasn’t like the way the dog had looked when Wilson shot him. The dog never even made the connection: Wilson’s rifle, the dog’s life. The dog trusted Wilson to the very last, when the vet pushed the needle through his skin and straight into the vein. The look from June was different – as if those yellow eyes saw everything. Everything Wilson could have and should have done his whole life, and the things he’d done instead, the things he would keep on doing, and finally, everything he would never do.
THE POET ON HIS WORK
BEHIND ‘OTTERSPOOL PROM’
‘O cursed spite’ William Shakespeare
There’s a dazzle of sunlight on the low-tide river and our far shore has a silver-grey blur, bright as never, never, ever before. You see it’s enough to bring tears to the eyes by silhouetting trees, winter boughs spidery on mist-like white skies twitched in a breeze. But then down the promenade its flyers release their dragon-tailed kite; frost on the pitches is shrinking by degrees; a student’s words return, her going ‘England’s shite!’ and I’m like ‘Please yourself’ in sunshine born as if to set it right.
‘Otterspool Prom’ was first published in the Times Literary Supplement, 5 June 2008.
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had not taught creative writing on a regular basis until I returned to England and came to work at the University of Reading, after eighteen years in Japan. It’s been intriguing and enlightening to lead weekly two-hour seminars in which students present their work, and have it discussed by their fellow writers. What has also been pleasantly surprising is the extent to which the group members, who if discussing a canonical author might have been fairly tonguetied, would loquaciously engage in minutely constructive criticism of their contemporaries’ writing, making points ranging from the adequacy of the punctuation to lacunae in plotting, character inconsistencies, and many other things that I hope they will go on to apply not only to their own writing, but also to the work of those canonical writers who had appeared to overawe them in literature seminars. Most of the conversations have tended to be amicable and temperate, but occasionally there have been quite heated and vociferous exchanges. ‘Otterspool Prom’ would not have come to be written without some words from the latter. One student’s chosen project for the term was to write a collage prose piece based on gun crime in a Los Angeles high school. Most of the material for this had been discovered on the web, and then cast into an attempted imitation of Californian speech among armed minors in a poor district of the city. As chance would have it, there had happened to be, that term, a number of stories set in simulacra of American metropolitan areas; and in each case I had delicately raised the question of whether the handling of the spoken idiom was sufficiently convincing to carry the themes that were being explored. The bee in my bonnet at the time will have also contributed to what I was saying to the students, it being that the landscapes and societies of our own country are themselves a terra incognita under our very noses. It’s not a new idea. George Borrow wrote in Lavengro (1851) that ‘there are no countries in the world less known by the British than these selfsame British Islands’. So I suggested to them, in the gentlest possible terms, that it helps when attempting creative composition, especially starting out, to write about something that you know, using experiences that have made strong impressions on you, and, most of all, that you can only make discoveries about the matter you want to write about if you attempt it in a language coming out of yourself. That way the sounds and associations
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of words can interact in your mind to generate phrases and sentences, which, when you work on them and read them back to yourself may well illuminate what you are doing, may teach you things about yourself, and thus, whatever the outcome, the process, with luck, will have been a benefit anyway. So I suggested to the student of the Los Angeles high-school gun-crime story that she consider setting the work in one of the areas of Britain where, sadly, we also have teenage violence of an equivalent kind, even if not on an American scale. I will have mentioned a few such inner city areas, including parts of the place where I’d been raised — reminded of Liverpool by the shooting of the 11-year-old Rhys Jones in the car park of the Fir Tree pub in Croxteth on the evening of the 22 August 2007. I had imagined that my line of thought to the seminar was practically a self-evident truth, but could feel some group feeling developing against the idea … ‘I can’t do that,’ the student replied, ‘England’s shite!’ Well, her words did make me laugh, and out loud if I remember, given that I’d spent the last eighteen years on the other side of the planet wondering what the circumstances might have to be for my return. I lost the argument too: none of the students who were presenting works located in high-threat transatlantic environments relocated them in our own backstreets. And I would say, though it may sound mean, that in retrospect the student’s sudden outburst seems the most creative bit of language use she came up with during the term. After all, her two-word phrase had identified the theme she should have been exploring in her work. What had made her reach the age of nineteen feeling that these words might be a true representation of the country in which she’d grown up, and, if they were, why? Her words got under my skin, if not on my nerves, interacting with snippets of usage and quotation filed away in the recesses of my mind. Back at the beginning of the 1970s, I had been taken through Hamlet in minute detail for A-level. Not long after that creative writing seminar, my thoughts somehow drifted to Marcellus’s ‘Something is rotten in the state of Denmark’; to Hamlet being sent to England where it is ‘no great matter’ if he doesn’t recover his wits because ‘there the men are as mad as he’ (as if Shakespeare added that plot twist just to work in the joke); and to Hamlet’s couplet from Act 1: ‘The time is out of joint: O cursed spite / That ever I was born to set it right!’ The student’s word ‘shite’ might have helped me recall the rhyme words, and I made up a short version of Hamlet’s predicament: ‘O cursed spite / Denmark’s shite.’ A week or two after this incident we drove up to Liverpool for an overnight with my parents and, as is our habit, went out for a Sunday pub lunch on Otterspool promenade with its view across the river Mersey towards the Wirral side. It was a day of bright diffused misty sunlight in
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mid-February, a day briefly evoked as best as I can in ‘Otterspool Prom’, an improvised sonnet which was not planned as such before the writing process. I had jotted down words and phrases about some of the phenomena that moved me and made my eyes water, along with the odd accidental detail, like those people flying their Chinese-style kite. English is not a language especially rich in rhymes. If the phrases I’m noting down seem to point towards a poem whose materials don’t demand to be extended very far, and contain phrases with three rhyming echoes, then my mind will turn to the Petrarchan sonnet, a form requiring triple rhymes in its sestet. But the key thing that had to take place for the poem to happen was the association of that stirring scene beyond the pub window with the words of the creative writing student. Maybe the sudden plethora of rhymes helped that happen too. Not only is there the ‘spite / kite / shite / right’, but also the other sestet rhyme, foreshadowed in the second quatrain: ‘trees / breeze / release / degrees / Please’. Contributing to this association, there could have been the background of Rhys Jones’s shooting, though I don’t recall it consciously impinging on the writing process. I was certainly aware of the evident emotional contradictions in the student’s words, and my relief at having finally returned home, doubly instanced by our coming back to my parents in Liverpool. What must have made me think there was something apt about imitating the youth-speak of ‘I’m like’ followed by the more long-in-the-tooth colloquialism, ‘Please / yourself’, must have been that it exemplifies the process of her words getting under my skin to the extent of sounding like her, and then performs an attempt to recover a dialect equilibrium of my own. Maybe the hook-line to Ricky Nelson’s ‘Garden Party’ was also coming to my rescue: ‘You see, you can’t please everyone, so you got to please yourself.’ ‘No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be’, as T. S. Eliot has it. Behind the arras of ‘Otterspool Prom’ there may, I fear, be a tired old Polonius advising the young, prompted by an ingrained temptation to take responsibility for the state of things; and yet, in the poem’s concluding transfer of Hamlet’s words from the Prince’s duty to the sunshine that Sunday lunchtime, there may also be a recognition of limits to what can be amended, along with an implicitly expressed need for things still to come right, and not just for me in my return home, but more widely — as subliminally articulated in the closing rhymes of the intuited sonnet form. My hope is that in reading the poem, preferably aloud, you hear echoing within you the working out of those contradictory feelings and that analogy for a state of things being wrong, and of things still needing to be set right.
Thomas Hardy by William Strang 1912, pencil National Portrait Gallery, London
AT HIS LETTERS
hirty years have passed since he sat for Strang. And still he sits at his desk in the house he built for himself at Max Gate, his violin on the wall, his cello in the corner as it used to be in the stone mason’s house where he was born in Bockhampton. The maid has set the fire but he won’t light it until later: he likes the room as cool as the ones in illo tempore under the thatch, behind the whitewashed walls. He is at work, at his letters, in his working clothes that would suit a stone mason – a pair of old trousers he has mended with string, an ancient woollen shawl that may have been crocheted by his well-doing mother. When the three grandfather clocks strike in and out of time – one from the kitchen passage, one from the hallway, one from the drawing room – he dips his pen, pauses for a moment, nib held at an angle to the lip of the inkwell, then proceeds with his ‘writer at work’ answer: ‘I never did let a day go past without using a pen. Just holding it sets me off; in fact I can’t think without it. It’s important not to wait for the right mood. If you do it will come less and less.’
Originally written and donated as a fair copy for ‘The Portrait Gala’ pen portrait auction at the National Portrait Gallery, 3 March 2009.
A MAN IS ABOUT AS BIG AS THE THINGS THAT MAKE HIM ANGRY. – WINSTON CHURCHILL
Courtesy of Churchill Archives Centre, 56 Churchill Papers CHUR 1/103
A DISCUSSION ON READING
CHURCHILL COLLEGE, CAMBRIDGE
The Reader Organisation presented its case for the Reading Revolution to an audience of academics and others at Churchill College, Cambridge as part of the British Association of Victorian Studies conference. This was the first time we had banded together and ventured into the world of academic conferencing. Our three speakers attempt to bridge the fundamental gap between experience and knowledge through readings of George Eliot (Josie Billington) and Charles Dickens (Philip Davis); and a personal account by Blake Morrison of his changing relationship to the Victorians.
HOW CAN THIS BE ME?
ne consequence of the success of The Reader Organisation in using serious literature as an intervention in mental health is a growing pressure from public ‘user’ bodies formally to evaluate the anecdotal evidence of its therapeutic efficacy. We need a big, urgent language to press the literary case, and one that will be respectable to the scientific community too. This is not just our problem or a problem created by the two cultures – literature and science – but the key problem faced by the Victorians. When the neuroscientist, Antonio Damasio, wrote at the turn of the present century, ‘There is an abyss between knowledge and experience which cannot be bridged scientifically’, he was rehearsing for the twentyfirst century a problem which was felt with new urgency in the Victorian
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period, when the abyss between knowledge and experience could not be bridged metaphysically by belief in the existence of God, the all-knowing divinity who also experienced what it was to be human, and when advances in technology and science served to widen the chasm. ‘Who’, said George Henry Lewes, in Problems of Life and Mind, ‘that had ever looked upon the pulpy mass of brain substance, and the nervous cords connecting it with the organs, could resist the shock of incredulity on hearing that all he knew of passion, intellect and will was nothing more than molecular change in this pulpy mass? How can this pulpy mass be credited with thought? How can these material changes be feeling?’ Equally, how would a scientific mind credit so emotional an account as this, in which that inherently encouraging word ‘material’ seems spoken in pure disappointment? Jane Davis and I have more than once come to the conclusion that we can only capture what goes on in reading groups by narrating it and using all the resources of narrative time to slow a moment down, scrutinise it over paragraphs or pages (as George Eliot does) to catch and analyse fleeting and subtle effects. But this wouldn’t wash with the scientists of course – the Department of Health doesn’t want a novel. But I think a novel like Middlemarch is not just concerned to give a language for the inside cover of life. George Eliot’s language seems to me precisely dedicated to mediating the gap between inside/outside, experience/knowledge, subjective and objective accountings of a life, which Damasio, remember, said could not be bridged scientifically. I want you to imagine as I’m reading this passage from Middlemarch that it’s being read to a group of people – a widower, a divorcee, a recovering cancer patient, a ‘depressed’ person the reasons for which state of mind are not so readily accounted for by life-events. Consider how the capacity for literary language to hold a middle course between inside/outside, private/public is given new vitality and power, possibly of a therapeutic kind, in the context of a shared reading group:
Dorothea was crying, and if she had been required to state the cause, she could only have done so in some such general words as I have used: to have been driven to be more particular would have been like trying to give a history of the lights and shadows; for that new real future which was replacing the imaginary drew its material from the endless minutiae by which her view of Mr Casaubon and her wifely relation, now that she was married to him, was gradually changing with the secret motion of a watch-hand from what it had been in her maiden dream. It was too early yet for her fully to recognise or at least admit the change, still more for her to have readjusted that devotedness which was so necessary a part of her mental life that
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she was almost sure sooner or later to recover it. Permanent rebellion, the disorder of a life without some loving reverent resolve, was not possible to her; but she was now in an interval when the very force of her nature heightened its confusion. In this way, the early months of marriage often are times of critical tumult – whether that of a shrimp-pool or of deeper waters – which afterwards subsides into cheerful peace.
This is a marvellous example of how George Eliot’s language mediates gaps – those ‘intervals’ where things happen, and where big things originate themselves, secretly. Dorothea herself doesn’t feel she’s making any progress – more the opposite: she is crying (causelessly, it seems to her). And George Eliot’s language conceptualises the remoteness of Dorothea’s feeling from any clear sense of meaning about that feeling as an inevitable and necessary part of the process by which the ‘new real future is replacing the imaginary’. Time is key here: Dorothea just needs time, George Eliot’s language is saying at one level, whilst also recognising that Dorothea could not know that time will answer. This doesn’t feel like a mere interval to her, but the only reality. These sentences articulate thoughts that strictly do belong to Dorothea but which Dorothea herself, in the midst of experiencing her suffering, is incapable of thinking ‘fully’ for herself: ‘It was too early yet for her fully to recognise or at least admit the change, still more for her to have readjusted that devotedness…’ Dorothea’s apparently causeless unhappiness here is filling the chasm between what, on the one hand, at some level, she knows herself to be – married to Mr Casaubon and an unhappy wife – and what she experiences of herself on the inside – a young woman still intensely, if residually, committed to a ‘maiden dream’. It is the gift of George Eliot’s language to register how far the gap between knowledge and experience is still a part of human experience. It has probably been a painful part of the experience of members of our imaginary group for whom one truthful reality – that they are widower, divorcee, cancer-patient, depressed, bears no relation to the story they have told themselves about their lives. How can this be me? But still, how could this language, merely by witnessing this phenomenon in Dorothea help this group? At the very minimum, it would give them time out from their own condition, permission to stop being ill, and access to a place where the pain doesn’t exist in the same way. Reading holds open the possibility of recovering the whole person. It’s just that recovery of the whole person, a former Dorothea, one passionately committed to an ideal life, which seems impossible to Dorothea here: it feels to her that she has lost all devotedness. Yet in the next sentence we learn that that very passion for life – the ‘force of her nature’ – is ‘heightening her confusion’. The best of Dorothea is making her situa59
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tion worse, but by the same token, though she cannot see it, the best of her is not lost. What an idea to mobilise in our imaginary reading group! Reading gives time for such thinking to happen, and it gives the tools, the equipment, the language for thinking feeling. That is why I want to draw attention to Maryanne Wolf’s Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain which concludes, wonderfully, by saying that reading is evolution’s great gift to us in giving us time to think. ‘By its ability to become virtually automatic, literacy allowed the individual reader to give less time to initial decoding processes and to allocate more cognitive time and ultimately more cortical space to the deeper analysis of recorded thought’:
The secret at the heart of reading [is] the time it frees for the brain to have thoughts deeper than those that came before… The mysterious, invisible gift of time to think beyond is the reading brain’s greatest achievement; these built-in milliseconds form the basis of our ability to propel knowledge, to ponder virtue, and to articulate what was once inexpressible – which, when expressed, builds the next platform from which we dive below or soar above.
Such time gives us a place to think in, within the very midst of life.
mpathy, connection, fellow-feeling, well-being: I’d say my generation absorbed the idea that these were the goals of literature without ever realising it – because the Victorian age was near enough in time for its precepts to have survived, and because certain ideas current in the 1960s, not least the idea that literature should be relevant, engaged, accessible and anti-elitist, had their roots in Victorian thought. (In my own case there was another factor: my parents were GPs in a Pennine milltown, and I grew up with the example of what a purposeful, active, curative con60
© MARK GERSON
THE READING REVOLUTION
tribution to the community might mean.) All that was there at some unconscious level. But then came the reaction – the impulse to fly free of the nets of home, family and church. And for me, as for many of my contemporaries, the place to escape to was Modernism, which thrilled us with its fragmentation, its impenetrability, its refusal of reason and coherence. The Victorians knew about Doubt but they were solid; they exacted a full look at the worst yet there was still a darkling thrush singing in the gloom. Not so for the weightless, nihilistic Modernists, who showed us the abyss – Kafka’s castle, Joyce’s night-town, Beckett’s Godot-less limbo, the waste land, the Unreal City, ‘falling towers / Jerusalem Athens Alexandria / Vienna London’. Central to the ethos of Modernism was its globalism, its crossing of language barriers and national frontiers. But the price of this was a loss of commonality. In Modernism, there were no roots, no shared values, no names we could put a face to, only ‘hooded hordes swarming / Over endless plains’. Death and despair were the message. The message had no appeal to our parents and grandparents, who’d experienced a world war or two. But for us, a peacetime generation, it was thrilling. One key part of this was a loss of confidence in the notion of a reading public. To Victorian writers, large sales did not signify a dereliction of duty or debasement of standards. Any such respect had disappeared by the early twentieth century, it seems. ‘Damn their eyes,’ Ezra Pound said. ‘No art ever yet grew by looking into the eyes of the public.’ Along with their contempt for the public, the Modernists opposed the idea that art might have a moral or social purpose. Pound said: ‘Art never asks anybody to do anything, or to think anything, or to be anything. It exists as the trees exist, you can admire, you can sit in the shade, you can pick bananas, you can cut firewood, you can do as you jolly well please..’ I’m sceptical of the power of literature directly to effect social change, or to do so indirectly in the way that film, television and the Internet can. But I’m not of Auden’s view that ‘poetry makes nothing happen’. There has been too much evidence to the contrary – at least once publicly, with the controversy over The Satanic Verses (where lives were not only changed but lost), and many times privately. I’ve known a poem save a life, no exaggeration. And on a personal level, in the decade and a half since I published a memoir of my father, many readers have written to say that it ‘helped’ them with griefs and losses of their own. My generation grew up with the idea, post-Auschwitz, that Matthew Arnold was wrong – that high culture doesn’t civilise; that the concentration camp commandants who read Goethe and listened to Mozart were perfectly capable of genocide. But that scepticism about the redemptive power of culture has given way, over the years, to something more tentatively optimistic or perhaps simply more desperate – a reassertion of the belief that the imagination is the only way we can connect
THE READING REVOLUTION
with others; that books – whatever the peccadilloes or perversities of their authors – are, at best, still a repository of positive values; that reading can be a source of illumination, confidence, intellectual growth, emotional healing, self-esteem; that without the imaginative leaps that literary texts demand of us, we lack the agility to think, act decisively, and avert the catastrophes that threaten us. If that tentative faith in books makes us neo-Victorian, so be it.
o use the language of phrenology, there is now for us a sort of Victorian bump in human mentality, a place in the mind that marks the experience of existing in between definite states – in particular in between religion and secularisation. That in-betweenness is a place that does not simply pass away in the enlightened progress of history but remains a profound sticking-point or holding-ground in the struggle for human meaning. The Reader Organisation is not interested in abstract definitions so much as individual examples. In the name of reality, I am now going to read you what for me has long been a touchstone in marking out the inbetween territory that Victorian literature characteristically occupies as a form of robust uncertainty, not the easy uncertainty of sitting-on-thefence kind. It is from David Copperfield, where David confesses to himself that his marriage to the pretty but childish Dora, though not a dramatic disaster, is not the perfection he had hoped for, either. This occupies, that is to say, a characteristic middle area, the Victorian bump. I have been looking recently at the manuscript of David Copperfield in the Victoria and Albert Museum: let me also make this reading into a quiz for you. Have a guess which one substantial clause in the sentences that follow was inserted by Dickens only in revision?
The old unhappy feeling pervaded my life. It was deepened, if it were changed at all; but it was as undefined as ever, and
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addressed me like a strain of sorrowful music faintly heard in the night. I loved my wife dearly, and I was happy; but the happiness I had vaguely anticipated, once, was not the happiness I enjoyed, and there was always something wanting. In fulfilment of the compact I have made with myself, to reflect my mind on this paper, I again examine it, closely, and bring its secrets to the light. What I missed, I still regarded – I always regarded – as something that had been a dream of my youthful fancy; that was incapable of realisation; that I was now discovering to be so, with some natural pain, as all men did. But that it would have been better for me if my wife could have helped me more, and shared the many thoughts in which I had no partner; and that this might have been; I knew. Between these two irreconcilable conclusions: the one, that what I felt was general and unavoidable; the other, that it was particular to me, and might have been different: I balanced curiously, with no distinct sense of their opposition to each other.
Let me give you more time to have a think about that great secondthought clause, by offering one or two surrounding thoughts. This is a passage pitched, in middling uncertainty, between the particular and the general, between the romantic youth of so-called fancy and the disappointed adulthood of so-called realisation, between the unavoidable and the conceivably different. The realist novel is the name for that meltingpot, that force-field, that testing- or holding-ground, that bump. Here it serves as a commitment to neither simply telling a particular story nor offering a generalisation about the laws of life, but to testing out the agnostic realm in between the two. On the one hand David does not pray to God; on the other he cannot speak to his partner; instead he can only write, putting his mind onto paper – not just to express it but in order to try to read it, on reflection. Victorian writing fills that personally registered gap between the theological on the one side and the social on the other. In this private arena we read over David’s shoulder: the writer is our model for what reading as if for life really means. So incidentally, in the manuscript ‘In fulfilment of the compact’ was not originally a new paragraph. But as he went along, Dickens deleted some words now illegible that came after ‘wanting’, then added the definitive word ‘always’ (‘there was always something wanting’) and, having achieved that finality, then made the compact into a separate paragraph – suddenly and characteristically finding something formal and almost legal arising out of the midst of informal process in personal writing. Moreover, twice in the manuscript Dickens made and then re-made the decision to end this new second paragraph with the delayed main verb
THE READING REVOLUTION
and the inverted syntax of ‘I knew’. It means, in an act of written attestation, that the knowledge of what is missing in a life is both permanent but also unavailing. For the fact that ‘I knew’ is not even the end of a chapter, let alone the book, only the end of a paragraph, means that the next paragraph implicitly says that the life which is the subject of that knowledge still goes on regardless of the knowledge. It is important to know that knowing is not king, is not solution: that is what literary knowing is like. But what now at last is the answer to my question? What one utterly significant clause did Dickens go back to include, as he went along? It is, ladies and gentlemen, in that last sentence of the second paragraph:
But that it would have been better for me if my wife could have helped me more, and shared the many thoughts in which I had no partner; and that this might have been; I knew.
Did you guess it? It is the painfully added clause ‘and that this might have been’. Even Dickens could not do it in one go, he needed the second thought – no, more than that, he needed the second mind – that writing and reading your writing allows. And it is very important that this is process, a clause in the midst of a sentence and not a separate sentence on its own. For this is a model of what reading is, taken from a man reading his own writing: getting sudden unexpected thoughts back even in the midst of going on with the sentence. Reading gives you thoughts, unwritten, inconvenient, spin-offs, as you go along, at a deep unpredictable personal level. ‘But that it would have been better for me if…’ Whoever invented that syntactical formulation ‘But that’ or ‘and that’ performed a great service in opening up the pathways of the human mind ‘on this paper’ and that anonymous inventor of thought-holding grammar lives again in David at this moment. The great clause ‘and that this might have been’ is not mere wistful wish-fulfilment but the robust uncertainty of lost possibility, the things that did not happen, still present as uncertainty’s pain. Victorian realism frequently threatens a second-order world of the reality principle, a world fallen into a closed and realistic acceptance of common and ordinary disappointment in life. But to find room for the painful admission of a lost primary reality within and behind this halfdisappointingly ordinary one – the old visionary-ideal type of a partner who could completely share one’s thoughts – is to have a thought which ostensibly may do no good at all, in fact may only add to the pain, but nonetheless corresponds to a real truth waiting to be released and realised. That ostensibly little clause has therapeutic value. For what matters is not the pain of a thought but the necessity of thinking it.
How many times in life have I died already – it’s hard to say, because I’m sure I have died. Today I had a brush with a tram and saw my own death; there’s my body lying on the edge of the tramlines as I go on walking down the avenue of limes. Or nine years ago, when I rode my bike under the wheels of the priest’s Peugeot, smashing the windscreen with my cranium – couldn’t I have been killed that time? And the seven-year-old boy who walked along the ridge of the roof, saved by a salutary spasm in his right calf, didn’t he leave his own corpse down below? I remember dozens of these deaths, how many could I have missed? Probably for many years I’ve been rising into higher and higher spheres of heaven. But only lately has the fear been pestering me that one day the dying will end. For how am I to know if the sudden darkness – now, as I stand up after a fall and try to brush off the dirt, the darkness in which the trees grow with their roots upwards – is hell or heaven on a late December afternoon? Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones
The word apple doesn’t contain any truth about an apple, just like its shape, colour, smell and taste. The truth isn’t for looking at, sniffing or tasting. In saying apple you’re almost eating one. In the space between the word apple and the truth of an apple an apple happens. The space between the word death and the truth of death is the greatest. Within it life happens. Between the word truth and the truth what happens is death. Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones
THIS SIDE OF SILENCE
AN AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL WORK IN PROGRESS
The second of these two extracts from my autobiographical meditation on reading, This Side of Silence, was previously embedded in the first. The link had been provided 1) by references to Pavese in Geoffrey Hill’s sequence ‘Pindarics (After Cesare Pavese)’ in Without Title and 2) by the close temporal association of my first two day jobs. But I decided the link was too artificial and separated the two texts. – Anthony Rudolf
I remember well the root cause, the generative source of my profligate enthusiasm for Cesare Pavese. I had been overwhelmed by the intelligence, mood and pathos of his diaries of 1935–1950, This Business of Living, which I read in the Isle of Man in 1965 while enduring a week attached to the island’s Tourist Board as part of a graduate traineeship in the early months of my very first day job – with the now defunct British Travel Association. My salary was £750 pounds a year but younger readers should bear in mind that the rent of my bedsitter in Powis Square, Notting Hill, was only one quarter of that. This book led to my buying a large number of novels and volumes of short stories by this writer, not all of which I have read. Most are in classic 1960s small paperback format with cinema poster style covers:
The Political Prisoner, The Moon and the Bonfire, The Beach, The Devil in the Hills, The House on the Hill, The Harvesters, The Comrade and Among Women Only. Here too are two hardback collections of stories, Festival Night and Summer Storm: we learn from the introduction to Summer Storm that Pavese translated Moby Dick at the age of twenty-four. My battered copy of Pavese’s diary (in the undistinguished translation by A. E. Murch) which he began in prison – incarcerated for anti-fascist journalism – and which was published in 1952, two years after his suicide, bears much pencilled evidence of my attentive and passionate reading. Many but not all of these markings I would repeat today, if I were reading the book for the first time: ‘Giving is a passion. Almost a vice. We must have someone to whom we can give’ or ‘Oh! The power of indifference! That is what has enabled stones to endure, unchanged, for millions of years’. Pavese quotes Louis Lavelle’s L’Erreur de Narcisse: ‘…the only thing that counts is what we are, not what we do’ and, a few days later, writes his own version: ‘A person counts for what he is, not for what he does. Actions are not moral life’. How Baudelaire and Malraux would disagree with this! Then: ‘Only rarely does one suffer a real out-and-out injustice. Our own actions are so tortuous. In general, it always turns out that we are a little at fault ourselves, and then – goodbye to the feeling of a winter morning’. This was worth emphasising, but he goes too far with the two sentences that immediately follow the painful insight: ‘A little at fault? It’s all our fault and there’s no getting away from it. Always.’ Such insights followed by an exaggeration amount almost to a trope in the diary. Dare one say that this is linked, in some way, to his suicide, the ultimate expression of depression? I no longer find his thought that ‘water is more all-pervading than any lover’ interesting or worth saying in the first place, assuming it means anything. And why did I underline ‘The only reason why we are always thinking of our own ego is that we have to live with it more continuously than with anyone else’s?’ I must have thought the comment was profound or at least relevant to my own experience and understanding of the world. Today, if anything, I would say it is not true. Other people’s egos impinge on me more than my own. My ego is a problem for others! Finally, my 1965 question-mark against ‘The richness of life lies in memories we have forgotten’ was, as it had to be, that of a twenty-three-year-old. Today, forty-four years of remembered memories and forgotten memories later, and with my book The Arithmetic of Memory (1999) exploring this very question, experience confirms that Pavese was right. I don’t know if he had been reading Bergson when he made that entry on February 13, 1944. I am reminded too that I read somewhere that Alzheimer’s is caused by the inability to forget. That is, the inability to select. Like the character in Borges’s
‘Funes the Memorious’, you remember everything, but then, to prevent madness, the system shuts down entirely. In a letter, George Oppen, whose Alzheimer’s led to his death, quotes his mother’s suicide note: ‘I cannot face the business of living’. Pavese’s diary, a work of literature in its own right, led me to Margaret Crosland’s selection and translation of his poetry A Mania for Solitude (later reprinted as Selected Poems) which, again, profoundly moved me – ‘death shall drink to me with your eyes’ (I chance my own free translation of the famous line) – and this led to the buying spree of his fiction. It may well be too late for me to read the remaining novels that await my attention but I shall read something from Summer Storm on the very field of my writing ‘at this moment of time’. Five minutes later: I have completed the beautiful six page story ‘Freewill’, an exploration of the nature of children, whose tone reminds me of Natalia Ginzberg. Here are Dialogues with Leuco and Selected Letters 1924–1950: there is no mention of Primo Levi in the index of the latter book, nor in the biography of Pavese by Davide Lajolo, An Absurd Vice. It is impossible that Pavese did not read Levi’s If This is a Man, whose first edition came out in Italy in 1946. When I met Levi in 1986, I am sure he told me he was taught by Pavese and yet Ian Thomson in his biography of Primo Levi is adamant that Pavese was a supply teacher who only taught girls at the Lyceo in Turin during Levi’s first year, 1934–5. In May that year, Pavese was arrested on suspicion of subversive activities. The first stage of Mussolini’s war against the Jews, which would culminate in the racial laws of 1938, had begun. Perhaps it is not surprising that Pavese did not associate the younger writer with the famous Lyceo, and he had other things on his mind in the final years of his life. Levi, however, must have read his fellow Turin writer’s first collection of poems published in 1936 or the revised and expanded version published in 1943. These may even have influenced his own poems: something in the tone calls across the waves in both directions. In the second of Pavese’s two essays accompanying the poems in the 1943 edition, there is a fascinating paragraph:
It is certain that once again the problem of the image will dominate the situation. But it will not be a question of narrating images, an empty formula, as we have seen, because nothing can distinguish the words which evoke an image from those which evoke an object. It will be a question of describing – whether directly or by means of images is immaterial – a reality which is not naturalistic but symbolic. In these poems the facts will speak – if they speak – not because reality wishes it but because intelligence decides it will be so. Individual poems and the whole body of poems will not be an autobiography but a judgment. As happens in La divina Commedia (we
had to reach this point) – a warning that my symbol will want to correspond not to Dante’s allegory but to his images.
Thus, when we listen to Bach we need not share the theology or the religious belief powering the music in order to be moved and instructed, just as Dante’s allegorical sub-scendence need not bother us either. Reflecting on Pavese has got me thinking about other nineteenth- and twentieth-century Italian poetry and fiction I have read and how fine and wondrous this blessed country’s literature is. Here, for example, are Dino Buzzatti’s A Love Affair and Giorgio Bassani’s The Garden of the Finzi-Continis and The Heron and a bilingual edition of Leopardi. Back to the Pavese novels I have not yet read: you see the problem. At my age, I am caught up in a zero-sum game: a victory on one front – reading more Pavese – involves a defeat on another front: not reading Galdos or Witkewicz for the first time. But even the greatest and most disciplined reader in the world cannot read everything. What a blessing it is to read the best literature. Read as much as you can, as well as you can, without skimping on your writing or your loved ones or your responsibility towards the planet. It’s as simple as that. Note: The diaries have just been reissued in a facsimile edition (Transaction Books, 2009), in other words the publisher did not commission a new translation. But at least the edition is graced by a new introduction from the pen of that peerless guide to European literature, John Taylor. Taylor is particularly insightful on the quality or nature of the relationship between that old married couple, literature and life, so painfully explored in the diaries. Truly, for Pavese, the dialectical relationship between life on the page and life off the page was so all-consuming that we can risk saying he had a problem with boundaries, unlike, say, Stendhal, who never confused the two, or Jorge Semprun. One would love to have Pavese’s reaction to the latter’s Literature or Life, but then, had Pavese lived long enough to read it, he would not have been the man who wrote these diaries.
Poem number nine in Geoffrey Hill’s sequence ‘Pindarics (After Cesare Pavese)’ in Without Title kicks off with this quote from Pavese: ‘Poetry is repetition. Calvino has cheerfully arrived to tell me this’. The poem ends:
Repetition betrays us, our minds at odds In lassitude, diremption, the absurd vice, Of contradictions, and of dictions contra.
Gillian Rose is the only other writer, at least in my limited experience, who uses the word ‘diremption’, which reminds me that Hill and his wife Alice Goodman ordered ten copies of Gillian’s Paradiso, the posthumous book by her which I published at Menard Press in 1999. This was my largest order from a private individual since Christopher Ricks ordered ten copies of Nicholas Moore’s Spleen. Hill explicitly refers to Paradiso in his poem ‘In Memoriam: Gillian Rose’ in A Treatise on Civil Power. In the autumn of 1966, I met Geoffrey Hill for the first time (thanks to our mutual friend, Hill’s student Jon Silkin) while I was on attachment to the Leeds branch of the Automobile Association, early in my second disastrous day job. I was a trainee in-house management consultant with the organisation. Not really ‘me’, but in those days I applied for many jobs that were not my ‘cup tea or piece cake’, as my grandfather used to say in his Polish/Yiddish English. Being good at interviews and nothing else, I would be taken on. Hill bought me lunch at the university and thus began a sporadic epistolary relationship (and occasional meeting at his readings) with a poet of whom I remain in awe to this day. For over forty years I have pressed his claims on Yves Bonnefoy and others in France. Hill has lectured at the Collège de France and been translated. He has a reputation for being distant and severe – he certainly could never be accused of being populist and some would say he keeps the reader at mind’s length via an armature of scholarly prose and elevated poetry – and yet, when giving a public reading, he delivers entertaining patter between poems that would have impressed Ronnie Scott or Humphrey Lyttelton. While I have all his books and note that his productivity has increased many fold (thanks, they say, to lithium), it is to his earlier books I return, as I do with Silkin, Tomlinson, Gunn and Ken Smith. This reflects recent demands of autobiography in my own work, not necessarily a belief that the earlier work of these poets is better than the later work. King Log, Mercian Hymns and Tenebrae remain among my all-time favourite and talismanic poetry books, along with Silkin’s A Peaceable Kingdom and Tomlinson’s Seeing is Believing. Hill’s first book, For the Unfallen imposed itself immediately on readers, like another famous first book, Bonnefoy’s Du Mouvement et de l’immobilité de Douve. It seems as though the poems were always there, parthenogenetic despite the real influences. The voice imposed itself, right from the start. Hill’s music works on a broader span than, say, Charles Tomlinson’s; the prime unit in any given poem is longer than in a Tomlinson poem. Hill seduces the reader with his line, thereby leaving the dazed and honour-bound reader with little choice but to seek an understanding of the often difficult thought. As he said in an interview, ‘difficult poetry is the
most democratic, because you are doing your audience the honour of supposing that they are intelligent human beings’. Amen to that. In 1968, I must have been impatiently waiting for King Log to come out because my copy was inscribed to me – ‘At last! Brenda’ – by my then girl friend, whose [ex-] husband I later became. This book contains the marvellous ‘Song-book’, a sequence by the apocryphal Spanish poet, Sebastian Arrurruz, 1868–1922. Removed from Hill in time and language, he speaks in a slower, softer, more languorous voice than his ventriloquist. Hill wrote this poem in the late sixties, when the great flowering of poetry translation was getting under way. That may have been one of the influences generating the conceit of translation deployed in ‘Songbook’. Hill in those days was close to Stand magazine under Jon Silkin’s editorship. Stand, like another magazine Hill contributed to, Agenda, was a major player in the translation renaissance. ‘Funeral Music’ is another wondrous sequence from the same book. The eight sonnets are, in the words of Hill’s note, ‘a commination and an alleluia for the period … known as the Wars of the Roses’. This is ‘history as poetry’, the title of another poem in the same book, a poem with fraternal affinities to the earlier poems of Celan, although I don’t know if Hill was yet reading Celan. The later Tenebrae (1978) contains ‘Two Chorale-Preludes’, on melodies of Paul Celan. ‘History as poetry’, needless to say, does not mean that the ‘florid grim’ (Hill’s own words) ‘Funeral Music’ is a narrative. It commemorates a dreadful and bloody time. In the words of the final sonnet: ‘So it is required; so we bear witness, / Despite ourselves, to what is beyond us, / Each distant sphere of harmony forever / Poised, unanswerable’. This is a poet who, like Charles Péguy, is a Christian and, I would say, a communitarian. Not only does Hill think redemption, think atonement, think ‘the tongue’s atrocities’ (‘History as Poetry’), he thinks them in poetry (which, in the marvellous phrase of Rosanna Warren in Fables of the Self, is ‘language suffering the condition of its utterance’), and this is a blessing for us, whatever the cost to the poet. Here are Tenebrae, The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy, The Triumph of Love, Canaan, Speech! Speech!, Without Title, The Orchards of Syon. If we try to imagine a Protestant David Jones, a socialist Eliot, a democratic Ezra Pound, a Christian Paul Celan, we might be able to assemble a high modernist rhetorical synthesis à la Pessoa, a synthesis whose elements Geoffrey Hill has deployed for his own grand purposes.
DIARIES OF THE READER ORGANISATION
he boy is nervous, hunched over the photocopy on the desk in front of him. I ask whether he is happy to go next and it is only his eyes that move, flickering assent. Filling his chest full, he reads:
Halfway through our trek in life I found myself in this dark wood, miles away from the right road. It’s no easy thing to talk about, this place, so dire and dismal I’m terrified just remembering it! Death itself can hardly be worse; But since I got some good there I’ll talk about the bad as well.
The poem is new to me but afterwards the boy tells the group that these are the opening lines of Dante’s Inferno. When I ask why he chose this particular piece he says that though he’s only started reading the poem, and despite not understanding much of it, he knows some passages to be ‘brilliant and really… real’. His self-doubt and yet confidence that he’s feeling his way through something important seems to me exactly the point of the lines he reads; remarkably and movingly. I find an uneasy fifteen-year-old my perfect guide to Dante’s epic poem. The boy is part of a reading group in a classroom at Monmouth Comprehensive School. He and the others around me are taking part in a specially-commissioned training course, ‘Read to Live’, which aims to establish a Get Into Reading culture within the school and, eventually, in the local community. The trainees are a mixed group of teachers, sixth74
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formers, school governors, community business leaders, local librarians. At the end of the first day of training, they share a poem of their choice with the group – Dante, Wendy Cope, Spike Milligan, Wordsworth, Leonard Cohen, local boy Owen Sheers. The goup’s expectations of the week are as wide as their choice of poetry. Some are terrified at the prospect of reading aloud in front of their peers or teachers (or both). Some support the idea of Get Into Reading, but question the need to ‘introduce’ a reading group culture to a school in which the number of English students is steadily growing. Some are downright sceptical: ‘I am not convinced this is for me,’ I read on one pre-course questionnaire. ‘I won’t be interested if this turns out to be another book group.’ The schoolroom, more than any other setting, highlights the challenges of passing on the Get Into Reading ethos and practice. Despite the overriding generosity and interest of the participants (many of whom have given a week of their summer holiday to attend) the long-established habit of the school hierarchy informs the group’s interactions. In the first group of the day a teacher expounds upon the historical significance of our short story’s setting, and a sixth-former raises her hand to make a comment on the text. The freedoms of Get Into Reading are unfamiliar here, and my colleagues and I offer no easy set of rules by which a group is guaranteed to make the grade. To be yourself, to be personal, they’re the fundamental criteria of ‘success’ in this kind of reading – and it’s a scary ask within school walls. Gradually, over the course of the five days, the group does begin to assert and feed on its new-found freedoms, and the results are wonderful. A librarian thanks a fifth-former for offering her a less-mannered way of reading Gerard Manley Hopkins’s ‘The Windhover’. A teacher reads Christina Rossetti’s ‘Remember’ with his group – school headmistress to his left, Year 11 student to his right – and admits that he still struggles to come to terms with the death of his mother. A fifteenyear-old boy acknowledges in a nervous reading that he too knows something of the ‘dire and dismal’ and the difficult to say. The group begins to transform into a unit that is enough in and of itself. One response on a feedback form stays in my mind. In unpractised handwriting that seems to be teetering on the edge of something it says ‘The course has finally shown me the point of literature.’ My weekly reading group at Start, a creative arts and wellbeing centre in Salford, is an anchor to an increasingly itinerant training schedule. For the past few months we have been reading Jane Eyre, coupled with poems such as Thomas Hardy’s ‘Between Us Now’, Seamus Heaney’s ‘Miracle’, and Edna St. Vincent Millay’s sonnet ‘Love is Not All’. Next week we will be meeting the imprisoned Mrs Rochester for the first time; I think I will read Maya Angelou’s poem, ‘Still I Rise’.
THE OSLER LITERARY ROUNDTABLE AT DUKE
Francis A. Neelon & Grey Brown
“While medicine is to be your vocation, or calling, see to it that you have also an avocation – some intellectual pastime which may serve to keep you in touch with the world of art, of science, or of letters… No matter what it is… have an outside hobby.” –Sir William Osler
ince 1988, a small group of employees, faculty and students has made the humanities a living presence at Duke Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina. Their effort, as it evolved and flourished, was christened the Osler Literary Roundtable (OLR), in honor of William Osler, Canadian physician, Professor of Medicine at Pennsylvania and Johns Hopkins Universities, and finally Regius Professor at Oxford. Osler died in 1919, but his memory lives on through the efforts of groups like the Osler Club of London and the American Osler Society, dedicated to the preservation of his vision of doctoring and of medical education. Those of us who regularly attend the meetings of OLR are impressed with the timeless wisdom of Sir William’s advice cited above, and the continuing relevance of reading and listening to personal and professional lives.
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ORIGINS OF THE OLR
In 1987, Janice Palmer, head of Cultural Services at Duke University Medical Center, and Louise Bost, director of Recreational Therapy in the Duke Comprehensive Cancer Center, obtained a grant from the Mary Duke Biddle Foundation to hire poet Grey Brown to introduce the reading and writing of poetry to patients on the Cancer service. Grey later sought and obtained a grant to fund seven visiting poets as readers to patients in the Medical Center. This sequence of events, injecting living verse into the hospital corridors, led Janice Palmer to organize a discussion of the role of the humanities in medicine and how to use our poet-in-residence. At an early meeting, Dr. Albert Heyman suggested that members of the hospital community might meet regularly to share poems that they personally cherished. Thus was born our first venture, called ‘I Want To Read You A Poem’ (IWATRYAP). Ten or fifteen people met under Grey Brown’s leadership on alternate Fridays from noon to 1 p.m. Eating lunch was allowed but not encouraged. Over time, an informal structure emerged: at open readings attendees would share poems of singular importance to them (sometimes an original poem); on other days Grey or one of the large number of local poets were invited to read.
THE MATURATION OF OLR
Several medical students attended IWATRYAP, and one argued that courses in the humanities should be required of all medical students so that medical education would not narrow their intellectual horizons. Rather than lobbying to shoehorn another required course into an already crowded curriculum, we broadened the IWATRYAP format to include the discussion of short stories. These discussions were held on alternate Fridays, interspersed with the poetry sessions. Stories selected by the group were distributed and read in advance of each discussion. Thus, since January 13, 1989, virtually every Friday of the year has offered a literary opportunity in the Medical Center. In 1992, needing an umbrella name to cover the several facets of our activity, we chose our present title and OLR was born. Over the years, OLR has developed a slowly growing cadre of ‘regulars’ – doctors, nurses, psychologists, therapists, administrators, researchers, pastoral counselors, neighbors, and friends (medical students are – to our dismay – only rare visitors). We meet to read and listen, to discuss and argue, and learn a great deal, sometimes from unexpected sources. Those who attend for any length of time find it a source of rich pleasure, not to be done without, even though explaining
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the delights of our gatherings to the uninitiated is no easy task. The only rule governing our meetings is ‘No rules!’ Anyone may come, anyone may talk, anyone may submit a short story or poem, although we do ask that submissions be compact enough to be digested in the allotted hour. It is not requisite that submitted items have an overt ‘medical’ theme or aspect, although they certainly may, because we endorse William Osler’s suggestion that reading fans the flames of ‘an insatiable desire to know the inwardness of a disease.’ But it is our position that the very act of reading has pertinence for medical personnel; it is the reading itself that does the job – but more of this later. We routinely count 12–15 participants each week. Each session begins with announcements of interest to the group (literary events, public readings, etc). Then, in a cherished ritual, each participant says aloud his or her name and what role he or she plays in the Medical Center, or in the outside world. We may spend the hour closely reading a single poem (as at a session devoted to Caribbean poet and Nobel laureate, Derek Walcott), or participants may bring poems to read aloud for the group to discuss. On weeks devoted to short fiction, the story will, hopefully, have been read in advance but we usually read some or all of the story aloud, passing the honor of reading a paragraph or two at a time around the table. Much of the ensuing discussion reflects how to understand the story, the meaning of the author’s words. The submitter of the story may offer the opening question for discussion, but thereafter it is free-for-all. And lively sessions they are, producing a rich harvest of information and interpretation. It is a rare day that we do not deepen our understanding of even the simplest story (perhaps especially the simplest stories). This kind of reading, this probing, this turning over of meaning never fails to enrich us – it is the source of our enduring pleasure and satisfaction.
DIRECTION AND SUPPORT OF OLR
We have had four outstanding leaders of OLR, all talented authors (three of them published poets); Grey Brown began, then Cedar Koons, then Kate Daniels; then Virginia Holman, then Grey Brown again, after a sojourn away. The guidance and inspiration of our group leaders has been very helpful, and while it is conceivable that OLR could function without such leadership, it would be a more fragile operation. OLR does not aim to be didactic or pedagogical, but a lot of learning takes place, thanks to the group’s leaders. The total operating budget is modest in the extreme. We beg the use of an empty room in which to meet. We do pay our group leader, although this amounts to a pittance. Some funds are obtained from the Medical Center, some through small grants, and some through the
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generosity of donors. In toto, we spend about $5,000 per year – for photocopying, for the leader’s salary, for miscellaneous expenses. If all the money disappeared, OLR would survive, although somewhat diminished, on volunteer support alone.
WHAT HAS OLR DONE?
Our success can be assessed in several ways. We continue to meet weekly, now well into our twenty-second year. The guest authors who come to read invariably comment on how sophisticated a group of listeners we are, and on the appeal of reading to an attuned audience, an audience that immediately enters into dialogue with the author. This kind of feedback is something that does not happen when authors stand behind a podium before a congregation of strangers. Our guest readers appreciate the group as much as we appreciate their work. Another measure of OLR’s success is the way it engages a disparate group of people (many work in the Medical Center but few knew one another before sitting at our Roundtable). Without OLR it is unlikely we would have the meaningful discussion that it fosters. Finally, and something we did not expect, many OLRians have begun or resumed writing – prose, and essays, and especially poems. William Osler said that doctors should: ‘Every day do some reading or work apart from [the] profession… I care not what it may be; gardening or farming, literature, or history or bibliography, any one of which will bring you in contact with books.’ Later, he said that to ‘keep his mind sweet the modem [scientist] should be saturated with the Bible and Plato, with Homer, Shakespeare, and Milton; to see life through their eyes may enable him to strike a balance between the rational and the emotional, which is the most serious difficulty of the intellectual life.’ It is books and the reading of books that matters. Again, Sir William: ‘The all-important thing [about reading] is to get a relish for the good company of the race in a daily intercourse with some of the great minds of the ages.’ Whose minds have we met in OLR? whose voices, heard? The Table overleaf shows a partial list of authors we have read; it is true that these selections, submitted spontaneously by OLRians, lean toward modern writers, but we have certainly listened to the voices of the past, including a reading of The Epic of Gilgamesh, the oldest known work of literary art. We have read longer works, and lingered over writers such as Conrad, Dostoevsky and Henry James for two or three (and once four) weeks. Each of these works has proven a rewarding exercise, provoking dialogue and insight from the group discussion that we rarely achieve inside our own heads. They are all excellent stories and worth pondering (especially if you can find a group with whom to share discussion).
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A PARTIAL LIST OF SHORT FICTION READ BY OLR
Anton Chekhov Roddy Doyle Robert Olen Butler James Thurber Ana Menendez Jhumpa Lahiri Alice Walker Tobias Wolff Richard Wright William Carlos Williams Franz Kafka Virginia Woolf George Lamming J. D. Salinger James Joyce Jorge Luis Borges Herman Melville W. E. B. Du Bois Katherine Mansfield Langston Hughes Z.Z. Packer Tim O’Brien Haruki Murakami A.S.Byatt Tillie Olson Andrea Barrett
Ward Six Teaching Jealous Husband Returns in the Form of Parrot Cat Bird Seat In Cuba I Was a German Shepherd Interpreter of Maladies Everyday Use Bullet in the Brain Big Black Good Man Use of Force A Country Doctor Lappin and Lapinova Birthday Weather A Perfect Day for Banana Fish The Dead The Life of Tadeo Isidoro Cruz Bartleby the Scrivener Returning Soldiers The Doll’s House Luani of the Jungle Brownie The Things They Carried Man Eating Cats The Chinese Lobster I Stand Here Ironing Birds With No Feet
WRITE US A POEM
Since 1992, OLR has sponsored a biennial poetry contest, ‘Write Us a Poem’, open to anyone with a connection to the Medical Center. This year we will publish the ninth volume of ‘They Wrote Us a Poem’; the collected entries from these contests amount to 705 original poems. As might be expected, the quality of submitted poems varies considerably, from the naïvely sincere to the truly sophisticated, but taken together they form a powerful corpus. As Kate Daniels said when she introduced her report of the contest: ‘The poems overwhelmed us with their deeply felt expressions of emotion. Voices that seemed silent in the vast workplace of the hospital spoke up: grieving relatives, nurses’ aides, clerical workers… The emotionless self-control of doctors gave way to deep feeling about the patients they treat, and the patients, so often seen as passive and victimized, raised their voices in both praise and protest.’ Equally telling are the words of Richard Kenney, MacArthur Fellow and prize-winning poet, and judge of the first contest: ‘[Judging] has
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proven a more moving experience than you or I might have predicted: I read the poems in the Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center, waiting through my father’s surgery and recovery… I think I’d have admired the individual poems themselves, anyway. But it hit me with greater force… Even when the poetry is artless or clumsy or in some technical sense impossible, these things seem very palpable and human and moving. I guess it’s because they have the pressure of a subject, a feeling which in some primitive or selfless way pre-exists the act or writing.’
READING, LISTENING, AND THE DOCTOR’S JOB
A few words about why an enterprise like OLR is worthwhile in a medical center. As mentioned earlier, we make no attempt at a direct or overt link between what is read and matters medical. This perplexes those who think that only stories or poems with medical themes would be worthwhile for doctors to read. A casual look at Osler’s advice, or conversation with devotees of the arts sometimes gives the impression that the arts have only a recreational function, diverting or refreshing the doctor after the toil and burdens of the medical day, that they help because they differ so from the usual business of doctoring. In point of fact, we believe that those opinions are precisely wrong! The doctor’s job is always an act of creative interpreting. It is analogous in detail to the reader’s job of understanding the written or spoken word. The more we attune ourselves to the ‘hearing’ that forms the basis of careful reading, the more we see the multitude of sometimes contradictory ways that readers make sense of the unchanging words on the printed page, then the better we prepare ourselves for the doctor’s great and fearsome task: listening to the patient’s story and trying to make sense – anatomical sense, physiological sense, psychological sense, social and societal sense – out of it. Medical educators make a great mistake when they tell students and residents, almost without thinking, to ‘take the patient’s history’. We hear that phrase so often it almost seems correct. We say ‘take’, as though history were an object to be grasped, something that exists ‘out there’ where the student can go get it. We say ‘the history’, as though there were one history rather than as many as there are historians. Better we should tell our students, ‘Go create the patient’s history.’ Then at least, we would emphasize the involvement of the interviewer; emphasize the shaping and pruning and assimilation of information; the acts of interpretation. Every week, at the meetings of the OLR, we are schooled again in the nuances of interpretation, our ears are honed in the ways of hearing. And every day in the clinic thereafter, the experience has been a help as the doctor tries to understand the metaphor of the body and the story the patient tells.
D. J. ANDREW
I was sleeping all night long: they visited me as I dreamed those who make sense with me in the daylit life. Twice in the night I got up or was it three times myself or helping my wife find her way. I fell to thought when not dreaming how a living might recover itself from damage while still breathing, feeding. Not sadness but quiet slept with me as company: my warm wife lying close until we woke up. Then it was Christmas: our children moving around with their mother nearby getting ready for presents, food. I shall be awake all day long as time visits this family making sense of the night now gone in this daylit life.
The f irst time
Whatever the reason we put a key in our door walk into our home knowing no voice from another room ready with their day will greet us. After some months the quietness in my house a habit of talking to myself only goes unremarked everyday meeting no-one on the stairs. Different for everyone but always the same sorrow, I drive along a road for the first time alone towards a friend’s house, I get out, at “Green Park”, walk along Piccadilly to the RA, go to a wedding, travelling up a slope of loneliness. Studying a map of memories here we know there we can guess where the hurt will begin. Last week I went to my wife’s home behind its tall hedge. Sitting as often in the lounge with music on I sat down by her side. For the first time unannounced Gail didn’t know me.
THE READER GETS ANGRY
IS IT WORTH FIGHTING?
Jane Davis talks to Ron Travis
Tell me about your life in libraries; when did it start? It was 1969. I went to Lancashire County in a group of libraries out in Prescot. It was a shock to find the classics didn’t move off the shelves. Do libraries need outreach work to build the need for books? I think libraries have always been too passive. There has never been enough staff to do effective outreach work. There are children’s librarians because getting young people into the library is seen as important but there are insufficient resources to engage adults. The prevailing idea remains that it’s not a librarian’s job to influence what people read and that libraries should be neutral, welcoming places. It’s only in the last ten years that the idea of reader development has arrived advocating a more proactive approach to books and reading services to increase people’s confidence and enjoyment in reading. Even so, it’s difficult to get some staff to change their approach. I went into a library and started to have a browse at the end of the day. A member of staff came up to me and said, ‘Can I help you?’ and as I started to respond she said, ‘Because we’re closing.’ One lingering old-fashioned aspect of libraries is the enforcement of rules and regulations above everything else. This creates a sense of orderliness, but we need to make libraries more reader-friendly places with positive intervention to encourage people to widen their reading, try something different and talk about books. We need more readingbased activities for adults and children. Some staff prefer to do craft activities with children rather than read to them and they tend to give more importance to computers and information services than reading activities.
Why is that? I don’t think the majority of librarians are attracted to the profession because they are avid readers of imaginative literature. It’s because they enjoy being gate-keepers of knowledge and enjoy responding to people’s requests for information by using their information skills. They have been trained to organise knowledge and retrieve information rather than promote reading. What was the original force behind public libraries when they started in the nineteenth century? The first Public Libraries Act became law in 1850 and initially restrictions in levying rates meant that wealthy philanthropists provided the library buildings. The rates could not be used to purchase books. Books were provided by donation. Certainly Liverpool has magnificent buildings – the Brown, Picton and Hornby libraries were all donated by wealthy benefactors, and then at the turn of the century there were bequests from Andrew Carnegie to build branch libraries at Toxteth, Wavertree, Sefton Park and other places. It wasn’t until 1919 when the rate limit was abolished that libraries had sufficient funds to purchase books. Those public libraries were designed to promote self-help, education and sobriety amongst the working class. There was a puritanical culture which was still around when I joined the libraries. We used to blot out the racing pages in the papers! According to this culture, a pigeon book was more valuable than, say, Middlemarch because the pigeon book was factual whereas Middlemarch was just fiction and not real information. So public libraries always were about information? Carnegie gave vast sums of money to build thousands of libraries because he saw the value of self-improvement through books and learning. He had benefited from libraries and had become a millionaire. He believed they were places of self-help where people could find the information and knowledge needed to become useful citizens. There’s always a slight tension going into the public library system and saying not just ‘Read’ but ‘Read great books’. Falling issues of books and the need to meet performance indicators puts pressure on the library to provide popular material. Classics are not represented on the shelves as much as I’d like because there is greater demand for more popular books. Supplier selection has taken over right across the country. There’s no doubt there are great benefits – you get huge discounts on books and they arrive shelf-ready within a fraction of the time. The danger is that you get a lot of bland books and more challenging or serious books can be overlooked or under represented. There is also a tra85
dition that libraries are non-judgemental and should provide what people want. The reader-centred approach (introduced into libraries by Opening the Book) cuts across the tension between great and popular books by switching attention to the quality of the reading experience rather than the quality of the book and using book promotions to tempt people to read outside their safe and familiar reading zones. Say I gave you a little run-down library, what would you do to start again? You’ve got to have a facility that attracts people for a range of reasons. Books and reading should be at the heart of it but people are looking for more now. They expect computers, CDs, DVDs and computer games. The number of people that come for books is limited because there are so many recreational activities competing for their time. In deprived areas of the city reading is not a high priority for many people and literacy problems put others off using libraries. What kind of things do we want? Library users are fragmented into different types with different reading needs. The young people want places to download music or to play games, something active and interactive, and a cultural centre to meet in. Providing all of that in a small space is difficult, and that’s one of the struggles in Liverpool where most of the libraries are tiny. The trouble is that libraries need to meet performance indicators that are quantitative not qualitative: it’s the number of visitors, the number of books issued, the percentage of time the computers are in use that matter. When you start to look at the quality of a reading group meeting or a Readers’ Day which may cost a lot of money, it’s hard to justify in this climate. Nowadays the average user spends about five minutes per library visit. They are readers in a hurry who want to find a good read quickly, use a self-service system and get out. Those kinds of facility are brilliant in some of the libraries. Yes, they have been properly designed to work well, especially in large, busy libraries where they are cost effective. Self-service helps readers in a hurry and people can keep their reading choices private from staff inspection. The idea was to use self-issue to release staff from routine issue and discharge duties and free them to do more customer focused services such as better book displays, engagement with children e.g. homework support and support for IT users, but I’m not sure that this always happens and I’m not convinced that costly self-service systems offer value for money in small community libraries. I think there’s a danger of wasting money that could be better spent. Were you in Liverpool when the left-wing Hatton administration was here?
Yes, and that was the worst time for libraries. Councillors called meetings to tell you that you had to go out on strike or action would be taken and they said, ‘Remember you are not a statutory service.’ Some brave soul had the guts to stand up and say ‘You’re wrong, we are a statutory service.’ What the Militants were not interested in was people being informed; they wanted to control people; they didn’t want free thinkers and they didn’t value the library service. Buildings got run-down, hours were reduced, and there were a lot of cuts. And again, because the Conservative administration didn’t believe in that sort of thing – society – it was a double defeat for the city. I’ve been travelling around the country over the last year or two seeing different services and you can really tell that Liverpool has suffered. In Liverpool there have been cuts and communities have been shifted around so much that libraries end up being in the wrong place and not at the heart of the community. You’ve got to offer a spread of services and libraries need to be adjacent to shops. You’ve got to create space for different activities, but then there is less space for books. Hopefully the planned Central Library redevelopment will address these problems by providing a more attractive, family-friendly facility that’s easy to navigate and offers more interactive activities for different kinds of users. You’re at the end of a long working life in libraries, and here’s a hard question: is it worth fighting for them? A free public library service is worth fighting for, but libraries have to meet the needs of the community and be in the right place. Public libraries have not kept abreast of change because they have been starved of resources, despite the Labour administration being supportive of libraries. In recent times there’s been a shift in demand away from books and it’s hard to predict the future because of the electronic revolution. Perhaps that is the future, libraries could have fewer books but do more with them. They could be a place where books go ‘live’, like a theatre for reading. The library service must become more proactive and dynamic. It needs a different blend of staff with new skills paid appropriately for the job. Perhaps an evangelisation of libraries is necessary. But there is new hope in the Big Lottery Fund-supported Toxteth Library redevelopment that may provide a useful model for change. Here the library is being redesigned as a centre of community learning and a neighbourhood information hub by working with partners, such as The Reader Organisation and other learning and information providers. Outreach workers will engage the community in Get Into Reading groups, bibliotherapy sessions and other learning activities and provide help and advice on a range of topics. The library is expected to re-open later this year.
“THIS ISLE IS FULL OF STORIES”
HAVING ANOTHER GO
t’s a long time since June and Tobago seems more than thousands of miles away. Why Tobago? I don’t know: we needed heat, I wanted to go somewhere I wouldn’t feel pressured to do anything touristy, and I always want the sea. Apart from that it was south of the hurricane belt, and sounded both laid-back and old-fashioned. And it sounded like a bit of an adventure. Once away from the town of Scarboro (great local food takeaways: coo-coo, goat curry, crab) and the developed couple of square miles around the airport, Tobago is still 1950s rural. Miss Pat, proprietress of the seafront flat we rented in Charlotteville told us proudly that the four-poster bed had belonged to her grandparents and had been sent from London. I recognised the rest of the furniture from my childhood: the kitchen cabinet with glass sliding doors, the calor gas stove, and white lace plastic table cloth. Miss Pat, and the young Tobagoan girls she was training, launder the snowiest sheets I’ve ever slept on (‘We lay them to bleach in the sun’) and the flat was seafront spick and span in its green and white paint. The first-floor windows overlooked the bay and Caribbean sunsets with a bottle of rum seemed to slow time to a virtual stop. There was really not much to do except walk very slowly to the shop for a pineapple or bottle of beer and immerse yourself in books or the sea. For many years I was first a student, then a teacher of literature, and reading and writing were my full-time activities. Now that I have a more than full-time job, reading is for me, as it is for most readers, I imagine, a sort of necessary but always additional activity to be somehow fitted in between waking and sleeping, on trains, in snatched half hours. In addition, a lot of reading I do at work is shared, in Get Into Reading or Read to Lead training where reading aloud in groups is the norm. But on holiday in Tobago, reading became once more the compelling silent
activity it has been for me for most of my life. It was surprising to find myself plunged back into that inner rhythm. In two weeks I read ten books and long sections of The Divine Comedy. I had deliberately chosen a few contemporary novels for the holiday because I don’t naturally warm to them and so I keep trying to get over the sense that they are no good: surely this one will be the one, I tell myself, having another go, this one will be large of spirit, humanly ambitious, moving, true....
Quick overview of what I read
Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers Why I Chose It: Last time I went away I read Wikinomics and found some useful stuff in it. So I thought I’ll try another of those idea paperbacks... I picked this one because having failed at many things I’m interested in the idea of success. 7/10: Good fast read that was oddly moving for something so full of tables and charts. The basic idea: 10,000-hours’ practice makes you very, very good at anything. Lloyd Jones, Mr Pip Why I Chose It: People kept telling me it was good and anything that wants to commit Great Expectations to memory has got to be interesting. 2/10: Couldn’t keep up interest long enough to finish it. I didn’t believe in the characters and stopped reading at p. 98. David Burns and Ed Simon, The Corner, a year in the life of an inner-city neighbourhood Why I Chose It: I’ve been watching The Wire obsessively and here was the book the TV series grew from. 10/10: Moving and terrible, full of personal stories; far too long at 600pages plus but I didn’t care. I learned something about the relation of meaning / work / purpose to staying alive. Joseph O’Neill, Netherland Why I Chose It: Barack Obama had praised it, and an old friend and colleague, Jonathan Bate, had picked it out as the best novel of the year. As I first found Gilead on Jon’s shelves, and as Gilead had been mentioned by Mr Obama as a favourite novel, I thought something they both thought well of would interest me. 4/10: This was the first thing I tried to read after finishing The Corner. I don’t think I was able to give it my best attention, and felt all the way through as if I couldn’t tune in, as if my mind was in another key altogether. Still, I do not think I will go back to it for a second attempt. Would I read another by the same author? No.
Hillary Jordan, Mudbound Why I Chose It: Recommended by Jenny, my hairdresser, whose judgement I trust. 5/10: A great story but it too suffered from coming after The Corner. Not deep enough for its very deep subject matter. Still, it made me cry, which is easy enough I grant. I thought: it will make a very good film. William Nicholson, The Secret Intensity of Everyday Life Why I Chose It: I saw it in Borders when I was buying the above and was struck by its epigraph (‘hearing the grass grow’ Middlemarch). Also noticed that the author was the writer of ‘Life Story’ a TV drama I’d really admired (and still remembered from many years ago) about the discovery of DNA. 5/10: It couldn’t live up to the Middlemarch quotation (What could? Well, Gilead, for one, Home for another, The Corner). There were some very good things in it – particularly the relation of adults to children. The very deliberate setting in a very middle-class, very middle-England milieu perhaps made an already difficult task too difficult. I didn’t care enough about enough of the people. James Agee and Walker Evans, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men Why I Chose It: Adam Phillips had recommended it to me after The Reader Organisation’s event at the V&A, ‘Why Victorian Literature Still Matters’. He said (I think) that something about Get Into Reading was connected to it. When I picked it up I saw it had an Introduction by our own Blake Morrison, chair of The Reader Organisation, so the sense of synchronicity was compelling. 7/10: This needed more careful attention than I was prepared to give it. It is both overdone and yet moving and heroic too. Will I give it more attention? Yes. After I’d read it, I noticed that Mudbound uses a quotation from it as an epigraph, and that Simon and Burns mention it in the Afterword to The Corner. Suddenly things seemed to be connecting. Aravind Adiga, The White Tiger Why I Chose It: I did an event a while back with novelist Linda Grant who told me it was good. I saw it and thought: I’m going on holiday, why not read this Booker prizewinner, come on, don’t be a pre-judging snob. 4/10: I did keep going all the way through. And it made me laugh in places: it’s witty, and angry. Will I recommend it to others? No. Would I read another by the same man? No. Alastair Campbell, All In The Mind Why I Chose It: It was recommended by Adam Phillips, my husband had a copy, and Campbell had recently visited Mersey Care NHS Trust. 4/10: Like Mudbound: it has a serious and moving subject (mental health)
which sometimes has enough raw power to move simply by being what it is, though finally the writing, clear and straightforward as it is, isn’t deep enough for the subject matter. John Steinbeck, The Long Valley Why I Chose It: I’ve been wanting to re-read Cannery Row but they didn’t have a copy in the shop. I didn’t think I could get through a re-reading of The Grapes of Wrath, and I couldn’t remember ever reading this collection of short stories. 7/10: The quality of the writing and its pace seemed exactly right. Looking over this list retrospectively, The Corner blew the others out of the water. Well, there’s a furious Dickensian rhetoric:
We can’t stop it. Not with all the lawyers, guns and money in this world. Not with guilt or morality or righteous indignation. Not with crime summits, or task forces, or committees. Not with policy decisions that can’t be seen from the lost corner of Fayette and Monroe. No lasting victory in the war on drugs can be bought by doubling the number of beat cops or tripling the number of prison beds. No peace can come from kingpin statutes and civil forfeiture laws and warrantless searches and whatever the hell else is about to be tossed into next year’s omnibus crime bill… Get it straight: they’re not just here to sling and shoot drugs… We want it to be about nothing more complicated than cash money and human greed, when at bottom, it’s about a reason to believe. We want to think that it’s chemical, that it’s all about the addictive mind, when instead it has become about validation, about lost souls assuring themselves that a daily relevance can be found at the fine point of a disposable syringe.
So many contemporary novels seem too small, unreal or simply ‘literary’. The literary world feels like a tiny place located to one side of the style section in the Sunday papers, next door but one to Grazia magazine. People who inhabit that world appear obsessesed with surfaces, with technical achievements. When I see prose described as ‘glittering’, ‘perfectly-judged’, ‘crystalline’ or ‘achingly’ beautiful I immediately decide not to read it. Why must so many reviewers concentrate on style rather than heart-content? I’ll tell you why: because most contemporary literary works don’t have any heart-content, and neither do most of the reviewers. ‘Literary’ is a little closed system with no air, no vision and no sense of what’s happening out in the real world. When I started reading The Corner, I thought, here’s a reality I haven’t
seen in a book before. Here’s someone who is moved and angry. But you can only take so much rhetoric and social vision. The Corner offers a sweeping picture of communal life in a fixed historical moment – 1990s West Baltimore – but the whole thing is brought to life by stories of daily existence for a cluster of individuals in that big picture. The book begins with a man:
Fat Curt is on the corner. He leans hard into his aluminium hospital cane, bent to this ancient business of survival. His fattened, needle-scarred hands will never again see the deep bottom of a trouser pocket; his forearms are swollen leather; his bloated legs mass up from the concrete. But then obese limbs converge on a withered torso: at the heart of the man, Fat Curt is fat no more… …No point in talking about changing, or stopping, or even slowing down. In his soldier’s heart, Curt knows that everyone talks that shit and no one believes it a minute after they say it. Like Blue – running and gunning tonight, but telling himself he’s going to quit come tomorrow. A resolution, says Blue. Naw, Curt tells himself, the shit is forever. ‘Yo Curt.’ ‘Hey, hey.’ ‘Wassup, Mr Curt?’ Curt smiles sadly, then growls out the simple truth: ‘Oh, man, ain’t nothing here but some of the same foolishness.’
Like a man in Dickens (Inspector Bucket, Mr George from Bleak House) Fat Curt has an inner dimension of feeling beyond his technical role in the novel, like someone in George Eliot (Hetty, Philip Wakem) our authors know things about him that he doesn’t know about himself, and like a man in War and Peace, Fat Curt has an individual place in a huge picture that is being shaped up years and miles away, and yet in which he has a living part. Nothing is easy in The Corner. It smells of mortality. It’s good enough to make you forget it is a documentary: it reads like art. By the end of the book, when we have followed Fran and her family through to the end there is only the big question left: when you take the daily life of work away, (and drugs have become the world of daily work for people on the corner) what are human beings for?
If you went back there now – a last visit, perhaps – if you walked twenty blocks due west from the city’s downtown to Mount Street and found the sage idiot manning his post, then you could state your case: ‘I been a dope fiend,’ you’d say.
‘I’m tired,’ you’d say. ‘I’m trying to stop,’ you’d say. And the idiot on the corner would surely look at you and offer a cold question that points very close to the truth: ‘Why?’ And damned if you could answer.
Burns and Simon end the book with an Authors’ Note which explains how the book, ‘a work of journalism’, came to be – they stayed on the corner for a year, living among, watching, reporting on its residents. But they confess they got caught up too, as men among human beings. ‘A year is a long time to watch people struggle and suffer’. They came to see that ‘urban drug culture is about real people, real lives’. Only a great work of art gives us that complex feel of reality. On Tobago, we found the isle was full of stories: Miss Pat and her love of everything London, ‘In the Empire we could get everything you had in London, here.’ Malachi, the strongman security guard, whose career in violence had begun when as a boy of ten he had taken a cutlass to his father as he beat his mother. ‘Security guard,’ he whispered, ‘is a hard life.’ He gazes out to the ocean, remembering his life like a man remembering pain. ‘I have lain in ditches, armed, waiting for men...’ Driving in a jeep to the ridge of rainforest which makes the backbone of the island, the guide, Chris, tells us his daughter has died of complications giving birth to her baby. She was sixteen, pregnant by her boyfriend but people in the village are saying he, Chris, was the father. ‘They ignorant village people, they angry because I have a boat, this business.’ She had sickle-cell anaemia. He shows us her photograph, laughing on the boat with her trophy for deep-sea fishing. He speaks of his wife working in the laundry in the public hospital at Scarboro: every day she rides two hours on the bus to work, her mother minds the little one. Two hours to return home. ‘They jealous we earn money.’ All day as he walks us through the forest the great sadness of his daughter seems with us. And behind everything in Tobago the great and terrible story of slavery is still whispering there, in the cutlasses carried by men and boys, as here in England a man might carry a bunch of keys or a shopping bag. In the rich uncultivated land, ‘When we slaves we had to till the earth. When we got free everyone says no more working land for me. It is slaves’ work’. You could find great human stories in Liverpool One, or the city of London, or Boston, Lincolnshire if you had your ears tuned to living people. But you’ve got to listen. Escaping the constraints of the small world of the literary The Corner does that. Looking for a great contemporary novel? After reading Marilynne Robinson’s Home, read The Corner. Holiday reading it ain’t.
WE KNOW NO BETTER
Tom Chalmers talks to Eleanor McCann
Tom Chalmers is Managing Director of Legend Press, a small, independent publishing company. He studied English at the University of Liverpool before becoming, at the age of 25, the youngest founder of a publishing company in the mainstream UK market. Legend Press specialises in contemporary paperback fiction and has recently launched the ReadGeneration campaign, which promotes reading to young adults.
Tell me a bit about the history of Legend Press. After I graduated in 2002, it took me nearly eight months to get my first full-time publishing job, working on financial yearbooks and magazines. But really I wanted to work in the book side of publishing, where my heart lay. I came up with an idea for a short story collection – snapshots of the monologues in people’s minds as they carry on their lives – and founded Legend Press on 20th April 2005 so as to publish this collection, The Remarkable Everyday. I left my full-time job and, with some support from The Prince’s Trust and One London, signed up our first novels. Since that date, Legend Press has doubled the number of books it publishes each year, launched its first non-fiction title last year, and we are just announcing the launch of our e-books range and distribution agreements in Germany and the US. We run several industry-wide initiatives and last year I acquired the list of another publisher, Paperbooks, which as a separate company is run alongside Legend Press. From setting the company up in the local internet shop, through running the company from home, we now have a small but dedicated team based in our office in Shoreditch, London. There have been many ups and downs over the last four years. There are not many industries that are harder to start out in, for various reasons, some inevitable, some frustrating, and we are the only fiction publisher to have started out with no capital and survived and grown this far in the mainstream market for around twenty-five years. We have
also been lucky enough to be shortlisted for a number of national publishing and business awards, but at the heart of what we do is finding new talents and providing the platform for them to become the writing successes they and we passionately want them to be. What does Legend Press stand for? What is distinctive about it? We are a young team and one of our greatest attributes is that we know no better. In an industry that has at times become stifled, we see opportunities and focus solely on making a success of them, regardless of how things have been in the past and what may be expected from some who have been in the industry for many years. What kind of writing do you publish? Legend Press publishes for the mainstream market, from more literary works, through to comedy and to the very commercial styles, such as romantic comedy. We don’t publish genre fiction, thriller, fantasy, sci-fi, and so on, though we are now publishing thrillers and crime at Paperbooks. Are writers better off with you, a smaller, independent publisher, than with a much bigger company that can offer greater financial support? I have worked at large companies and know many very talented people at the major conglomerates, but I am passionate about what small publishers, if correctly run, can offer. What we lack in resources, we make up for in innovation, speed of foot to implement ideas, and attention to details. We don’t have 100s or 1000s of books to push at any one moment so we are dedicated to the individual titles. One of my favourite aspects of being a small press, is that we have a close relationship with our authors – they have a role and say in all stages of the process and many have become personal friends as well as fantastic authors. You were short-listed for the UK Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award (2007). Does being ambitious in business make you ambitious in what you publish? There can be a much stronger link between creativity and business than people would credit. Publishing is shaking off its old image where the idea of looking to make money is frowned upon. Our basic aim is to find new authors and to make them and their writing hugely successful – and that involves to a degree generating financial success for ourselves, which can in part help support them and their fellow authors and drive further success and growth for the company. A lot of business is about judging risk and then going the best way about achieving what you want out of each strand of a project. Creative thinking becomes a part of that mix, and within the correct framework it is the vital ingredient.
As a young adult yourself, do you feel more in touch with what young people want and need from a reading experience? It is dangerous to say that you’re ‘in touch with what young people want’. When we launched our scheme to enthuse 18–30 year-olds to read, we decided there and then to avoid turning up at events with vodka jelly and trying to act all cool and crazy – it’s patronising and frankly embarrassing. We wanted to take a more neutral approach where we simply push the merits of reading while trying to grasp what will work here and engage them – as we would do with any age group. What is ReadGeneration? ReadGeneration is a pioneering scheme, which we launched in conjunction with the Arts Council last October aiming to get students and those under thirty more involved and engaged in reading. This is a group traditionally ignored by publishers as ‘the reading gap’. Through discounts, events, promotions and interaction with authors, we want to see more students and under-thirties reading regularly. We have also arranged and been involved in various university events and competitions up and down the country as well as giving a number of talks from us and our authors. We have exciting plans for this growing and important project and really want to take it forward to make a big difference and close that so-described reading gap. Is the publisher as important as the writer? Maybe you should ask our writers! They are first and foremost the foundation of what we do. Following the completion of writing and sign-up, the publisher has to package, promote and sell the work correctly and – particularly important today with the growth of self-publishing options – prove their worth as part of the process. Quality of writing is no guarantee of success; excellent publishing, and some luck, is required – but that initial nugget of quality comes from the writer. Is there an average day for you? One of the main challenges and enjoyments of running a small business is that there are so many different areas to cover. I think it actually suits me, being someone who enjoys understanding and working on many different areas rather than specialising in one. There are common strands but a particular day or week could see a focus on sales, editing, production, rights, events, projects, finances, new avenues/proposals, overall management or basic administration. Each member of the team has their own area(s) though it is not unusual to find everyone helping out on a pressing matter. My team will embrace whatever work and challenge is asked of them.
If you could have discovered any author, who would it be? We have already discovered all of our authors and are absolutely delighted by that, though to pick one author currently writing, I would say Haruki Murakami. I like most of his work but The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle struck me more than any book in recent years. And I would have liked to have signed up Obama several years ago, like Canongate did, but never mind and well done to them… You invest in little-known authors. Is it a risky business? Publishing is a risky business – and Legend Press and Paperbooks operate in the most risky area, contemporary fiction. It was said recently at a conference that we arranged that the first rule in business is not to fall in love with your business, and anyone in publishing breaks that main rule immediately. So risk becomes part and parcel of what you have chosen to do. First-time authors are a challenge in a market where 200,000 books are published a year, but they are also the lifeblood of the industry, the foundation on which great publishing houses are built. In the digital age, publishing must be a rapidly evolving industry. What changes do you anticipate for Legend Press in the future? Digitilisation and the e-book are going to play an increasingly important role in the publishing world and a look across at the music industry highlights the issues that can be caused if they are not approached and accepted in the right manner. But publishing seems to be switching on and starting to make the right moves – including looking at this as an opportunity to pull in a new market of readers, to be able to offer more and to have new avenues of low cost marketing and profile building. You are nurturing Legend Press during a drastic economic downturn and printing books at a time when it is debated whether the book will survive the digitalisation of media. You must be pretty convinced of the enduring power of literature? I got into publishing because of my love and belief in the book and that hasn’t changed. As a physical product the book is unique; it is more than the CD case or cardboard packaging – it is itself part of the experience. A reader invests in the book as well as in the words inside. Digitialisation, particularly among the new generation, will come in at an increasingly rapid rate and publishing faces many challenges – largest of all being the traditional publishing model no longer works in today’s market. But while the financial downturn will magnify short-term issues, and sadly publishing companies will suffer and fall as a consequence, in the medium-term it may well help force the changes that the industry needs to make and ensure the book comes through as strong as ever – as it has the potential to do.
THE OLD POEM
ALExANDER POPE, ‘ARGUS’
When wise Ulysses, from his native coast Long kept by wars, and long by tempests tost, Arrived at last – poor, old, disguised, alone, To all his friends and e’en his queen unknown, Changed as he was, with age, and toils, and cares, Furrowed his rev’rend face, and white his hairs, In his own palace forced to ask his bread, Scorned by those slaves his former bounty fed, Forgot of all his own domestic crew, His faithful dog his rightful master knew! Unfed, unhoused, neglected, on the clay, Like an old servant, now cashiered, he lay; And though ev’n then expiring on the plain, Touched with resentment of ungrateful man, And longing to behold his ancient lord again. Him when he saw, he rose, and crawled to meet, (‘Twas all he could), and fawned and kissed his feet, Seized with dumb joy; then falling by his side, Owned his returning lord, looked up, and died.
hree hundred years ago on October 19 Alexander Pope, aged twenty-one, sent this poem in a letter to Henry Cromwell, son of the Lord Protector’s first cousin. Henry, however, was a rake, frequenter of theatres and brothels, a slightly absurd fifty-year-old with whom young Pope, already marked out by the malicious town as physically freakish, exchanged badinage about sexual exploits and dogs. And that is the point; our domestic animals don’t hold against us our physical and mental peculiarities. This is a poem not really about a dog but about human beings who don’t share what the satirist thinks are canine virtues. So Pope alters the original story in Book XVII of the Odyssey. There the hero re-enters a home taken over by his enemies, turned into an old beggar by his patron, the goddess Athene, for his protection. Pope compresses Homer’s account to produce an emblem of the changes that can happen in a life, ‘poor, old, disguised, alone’. The couplets create an energy by the concision they demand; ‘In his own palace forced to ask his bread’, where the splendour conjured by ‘palace’ jars against the homely need of ‘bread’. The vigorous syntax of the lines without a full-stop is fuelled by indignation. The single creature to recognise him, the old hound Argos (in the Greek) becomes the mirror image of his master. If Odysseus is ‘scorned by those slaves’, the animal is ‘Like an old servant, now cashiered’. The master’s slaves had been fed by his ‘bounty’ but the dog is like the servant of a bad master, cast off. In Paradise Lost Satan rebels partly because he says he doesn’t want to be always owing gratitude to God but, of course, gratitude is properly an impulse we feel not a demand laid upon us. In this poem, the old dog gets the natural response right, ‘Touched with resentment of ungrateful man’. Dignity is restored to the despised beggar when Argus ‘falling by his side / Owned his returning lord’. Dogs recognise us not by our social status or our physical condition but by our common humanity and benefits conferred by the unique individual. In my dictionary of quotations, Pope figures large but outside university departments he isn’t I think read as much as he was, partly doubtless because of all the footnotes clarifying contemporary references. If you haven’t read much, start with poems less encumbered, the passionate ‘To the Memory of an Unfortunate Lady’ or the sad, funny, perceptive ‘Eloise to Abelard’ and go on to the more personal poetry, the ‘Epistle to Dr Arbuthnot’ or the triumph of the countryside over the constructs we impose on it in the fourth of the Moral Epistles, ‘To Richard Boyle, Earl of Burlington’. For other animal epitaphs read Byron’s lines for Boatswain, his Newfoundland, of if your supporter is a cat, Hardy’s tenderly bitter ‘Last Words to a Dumb Friend’.
THE NEW BOOK
William Trevor, Love and Summer Viking, 2009 ISBN 978-0670918249
hirty years ago if you travelled in the remoter corners of a familiar European country you would often happen upon tiny communities practically cut off from the outside world, without electricity often or easy access to city, town, or even village and you would think as you drank a glass of water ‘This is what in terms of UN statistics would count as a tiny item in world poverty’. Yet the older people at least were living there contentedly as their parents had lived, and enjoyed happiness of a sort in forms we have forgotten, the growth of crops, the care of a few livestock, the presence of a neighbour or so, the repeated and familiar stories, the permanence of an unchanging landscape. It was life almost under the conditions that Wordsworth appealed to in the ‘Preface’ to Lyrical Ballads; its people from ‘the sameness and narrow circle of their intercourse being less under the influence of social vanity… convey their feelings and notions in simple and unelaborated expressions’. In such confined circumstances the feelings ‘give importance to the action and situation and not the action and situation to the feeling’. Love and Summer is like a Lyrical Ballad in prose. Mr Trevor’s earlier Death in Summer and Felicia’s Journey are set in a more or less contemporary England, a land where middle-class life unfolds threatened by but also battening upon the dispossessed waifs and strays of a post-industrial wasteland. But the Ireland of this novel or of The Story of Lucy Gault,
for instance, is set in a country that predates or is at least untouched by the new wealth brought by inward investment, the rise of IT industries and, lucklessly, financial services, before the housing boom and the new importance of the cities. This is the Ireland of agriculture and farms and small market-towns. In terms of consumerism, it may seem poor; there is a lot of shopping in the novel but all for homely items or essentials for the farm, where a treat means a canister of 7-Up. It’s less poverty that we see than a restriction of desires, at its best by obedience to inherited manners and values, uninvaded by the exorbitant demand for novelty. But no more than in Hardy does this constitute the cosiness of nostalgia. Terrible events have in the past touched many of these lives but disaster is borne with reserve that both gives to the victims a kind of dignity but also stifles feeling. Silence becomes a way of enduring what can’t be uttered. The Connulty twins, middle-aged brother and sister sharing the same parental house, now orphaned by the mother’s death which opens the story, ‘often did not communicate with one another for weeks on end, though less through not being on speaking terms than having nothing to say’. There’s plenty that could be said, of course, he his mother’s favourite but she cast off like her father because he took her to Dublin for an abortion years before. Joseph Paul recognises, even accepts that silence; ‘that he should be despised by his sister was one of blaming’s variations’. The bitter feelings are cramped in the tight little sentence. What seems not quite idiomatic in an English accent comes out naturally spoken with an Irish lilt and you realise how close to the oral the book is. Understatement used to be an English trait, though no longer so, I think, because it’s the consequence of a sense of what is acceptable and of a privacy which gives priority to collective over personal feeling. Here it can be both the expression of delicacy and gentleness as in Dillahan but also moral cowardice, as in the brother. Mr Trevor is in a way an historical novelist not in the sense that he shows past societies but that right from The Old Boys onwards the bit of the characters’ lives that you see is shadowed by terrible earlier events they can scarcely express but which affect their subsequent actions. All the major characters have stories though at the centre almost nothing happens yet, as with Wordsworth’s ‘Simon Lee’, ‘should you think, / Perhaps a tale you’ll make it’. The town is haunted by the ghost of the old Ascendancy families, notably the St Johns, long gone but leaving reports of scandal, kept alive by old Orpen Wren, their erstwhile librarian, now mentally confused. But there is still Florian Kilderry to cause mischief, the cherished son of two water-colourists now dead, about to sell what is left of the old house, solitary and with no place in the little locality but awakening love in the heart of Ellie Dillahan, conventreared orphan married to a local farmer. It used to be said, too easily,
that it was easier to convince the reader about bad rather than good characters. Yet in the delicate generosity of this book we recognise that everyone is trying not to cause pain to others though in the process they often increase it. Miss Connulty is the indignant observer of what is happening to Ellie:
It wasn’t easy to blame Ellie; you wouldn’t want to and it didn’t seem natural to do so. Child of an institution, child of need and humility, born into nothing, expecting nothing, Ellie Dillahan was victim enough without the attentions of a suave photographer.
What seems ever-so-slightly comic is actually moving; the middleaged bitter woman, who has lost her Christian name after her fall from grace, struggles to justify instinctive sympathy with a young woman she thinks is in the same situation. ‘Blame’ is the community response but not hers. Yet sympathy easily rises from a displaced self-pity and in making Ellie a greater victim than herself she invents a story that isn’t there. Actually the Convent was a place where Ellie was loved and Florian is not a ‘suave photographer’ but lonely and timid and secretly obsessed with his Italian cousin, Isabella, who has disappeared from his life. Yet Miss Connulty, with a sympathy that is partly jealousy, dreams that Ellie’s life will unravel and she will be there to knit it together and herself find love in return. This is quite a short book but it expands in the mind of the reader into Victorian dimensions because as in a nineteenth-century novel all the major characters have a story that could be the basis of a wholly new book. Few contemporary novelists trust the imagination of the reader to this extent or allow such space for reflection. It’s the art of the great short story writer I suppose. Farmer Dillahan had killed his child and first wife backing his lorry into them in the yard and it’s when poor confused Orpen Wren tries to tell him about Ellie and Florian that we realise how that terrible memory turns everything into itself. Almost breaking apart, he thinks it must be that event that Wren refers to as he tells Ellie herself:
‘I’m all right when I’m in the fields,’ he said. ‘Or when I’m with yourself in the house. I’d maybe be all right if I was walking in a town where no one’d know me.’
Yes, ‘maybe’. Strangely a past disaster can become a kind of shelter to the wounded psyche to prevent it recognising any new threat because the original one is so all-consuming. Dillahan had seemed in earlier pages to have been a good man simply emotionally limited by what had happened to him. Secretly he carries this terrible burden of how he feels
others regard him, and as he breaks apart it has to be guilty Ellie who is there to support him, trying also for her own sake to prevent him from knowing the truth. All he had wanted with Ellie was to be safe, ‘all right’, yet she had had no choice in the matter. An immeasurable pity interferes with the spontaneities of love. Always with a new book as strong and delicate in its insights as this, one wonders in speaking of it how much to give away. I want you to read it so I mustn’t dispel its secrets and riches. It is like the re-invention of realism, modern in its conciseness, in its constant movement across time and place, and refusal to comment on what happens but with all realism’s sense of things and people present in a substantial world, the little town of Rathmoye, the empty big house, the lavender bushes beside the lodge that once guarded the St John’s place or Dillahan re-hanging the yard door:
The screws came out easily. He marked with the point of a bradawl a new position for the hinge and pierced the wood of the jamb just deep enough to hold the screws in place before he drove them in.
That’s not simply respect for the outside world but for the character, for the care and capacity of a man so cursedly unlucky, coping better with a door than with his young wife. 2009? The year Love and Summer was published.
OUR SPY IN NY
SLEEPING WITH SCISSORS
ornings by me don’t really begin; rather, the night is exhausted. Grayish light spills over the bed heaped with folders of student papers; the fat, squishy anthology (Shorter Ninth Edition) with the hopeful title Literature: The Human Experience (it weighs something less than a cinder block); sheaves of the New York Times, The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, TLS, and not one but two pair of scissors. I’m looking for readings, essays, stories, and poems – for connections. My English 92 remedial students find reading onerous; street-smart and worldly-wise, they struggle with the printed page. And how does one legislate appetite? If only I could tell them how I pounce on a new journal, riffling hungrily pasts the pages of ads for a new story by Orhan Pamuk, peer anxiously through the paper for a word of Jude Law’s Hamlet, devour an essay by Frank Kermode on Dorothy Wordsworth without sounding smug or precious. I remember the fearsome Mrs. Eliasoff during the dark backward and abysm of time at Far Rockaway High School, smiling thinly at my inability to state the next step in a geometry theorem: ‘But it’s so easy,’ she lilted, establishing my doltishness. For her, doubtless, it was. You’re so dense, I heard her accuse, and much of my teaching philosophy involves the cautionary – never insist on a text’s transparency. Reading is perhaps the one act that comes easily for me; it provides succor, escape, clarity, and access to a realm of ideas and the people who hold them. In Speak, Memory, Nabokov describes a chessboard as a pane of glass laid over a lake, revealing in the rocks and grasses below an unmistakable pattern for the deft player, whereas to the chess illiterate,
all is murk and billowing sand. Talk of clarity won’t do any good. I need the murk to help me. I remember working for Julian Caterers. Presentation is everything, barked owner Jerry, a dapper fellow in trim tuxedo and ruffled shirt, his casual sadism played out in knowing tweaks of knee or elbow that sent the other waitresses writhing. I escaped these favors as ‘the showoff,’ icing a table’s water glasses without spilling, notorious for my stamina and aplomb when, once, an overextended father of the bride shrugged out of his rented dinner jacket as if it were aflame and flung it at my head. ‘Fix the fucking button!’ he snapped. But the catering gig taught me something about service: Presentation is everything. The students are charged with mastering the Kingsborough Reads choice, the hagiography of an American mountaineer who, in gratitude to the people who nursed him after a disastrous climbing failure, builds schools in the impoverished villages of Pakistan: Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin. Three Cups of Treacle, I call it, wishing that this year’s choice (by committee, naturally, a process that yields little besides resentment and hurt feelings) had more literary mettle. But I recognize that the overwritten sentences and gloppy prose hold some joys of discovery for my students. Christopher and Tyrone, questioning the dual authorship, decide to collaborate on a roundtable discussion panel, ‘Who’s Writing This Book? Narrative Confusion and Collusion in Three Cups of Tea.’ That should grab the campus poststructuralists. On the description of Mortenson’s father as having caught ‘the travel bug,’ Randa says knowingly, ‘Like father, like son.’ And I exult: if they can read this schmoozy account, big on uplift and peddling a message of volunteerism, and see what’s going on, they can read anything. By the end of the semester they will have to write and revise essays and pass several layers of departmental exams before receiving permission to take a writing exam that, should they pass, offers them entry into creditbearing English composition. I wish – no, I want desperately for them to pass. But I also want them to love reading, to find recognition and excitement in a book, to pick up a copy of An Anthropologist on Mars, the current freshman text, and decipher the codes, untangle the ironies, discover the compassion and poignancy of Sacks’s large sympathies. So when they notice the lacunae in Mortensen’s biography (‘How come he’s thirty-four and can’t use a computer?’ Shorena fumes even as she acknowledges that the project to build dozens of schools in a desperate corner of the world is a laudable one), I feel encouraged about their future as readers. Gladys, whose mother is Catholic and whose father is Muslim, understands the Protestant Mortenson’s attraction to Islam. Nino is alert to all manner of xenophobia, however nicely articulated. And nothing is lost on Ervin and Oscar, two generous-souled skeptics. They don’t have to share my tastes, but I’d like them to come to the table.
‘Don’t screw up,’ reads the penciled message accompanying a $12,000 check from Mortenson’s first major donor, a micro-chip magnate. Four mornings a week, sulking and skulking under the rumpled sheets in the pre-dawn gloom, I second-guess my pedagogical choices, decry my lack of organization, and curse the procrastination that has dogged me throughout my days. Staggering out of bed to make coffee and swallow a Zyrtec-D (for ‘seasonal allergies,’ the all-purpose euphemism for New York City’s environmental malaise), I climb back into my truckle bed to trawl the New York Times for a story to engage my students. Is an article in The New Yorker on the banking crisis too esoteric? Can I get student rush tickets for a performance of Othello? Anna Deavere Smith is performing her one-woman show on the body and its discontents, and I’m wondering if I can arrange to have my students meet her. Still dark, it’s time to clean up and get dressed, to pack the hibiscusprint vinyl tote that serves as a sprightly briefcase. I pat myself down to make certain of two pair of glasses, for the sun and for reading. My unlimited Metro Card is tucked into its worn holder, a scuffed simulacrum of a WPA mural depicting a hellish underground passage: The People Work. Ahead lie the 6 train to Bleecker, the headlong rush downstairs to the B train, the ride out to Sheepshead Bay, and the unseemly scramble for a cab to the campus. I’m invariably hustling though the Stalinist Constructivist glazed-brick hallways, trying not to make one more enemy on the way to my office, fumbling for my keys, longing for coffee but hesitant to pour a cup of the departmental brew, usually hazelnut vanilla or cinnamon mocha or some such confection. I shoulder my way into my untidy office (‘Looks like a guy lives here, Cookie’) to check my e-mail and phone messages, suddenly remembering with a thump of fear the deadlines, meetings, promised letters of recommendation, the thousand-and-one professional slights and petty insults that need shoring up. I need to confirm the room, different for each day of the week the class meets. Does the board require chalk or the noxious markers that dry up unaccountably just as I need to demonstrate how the comma splice interferes with a writer’s intention for a periodic sentence? The creased folder with papers to return? Check. That day’s New York Times? Check. Literature anthology for the following class? Check. I lock the door and manage to propel myself to the proper classroom, where Steven is ensconced in the last row, Joseph reluctantly removes his i-Pod earbuds, and Latoya is stapling the pages of her latest draft. Suddenly a surge of optimism gusts over me, like a wave of health after a long bout of fever. Don’t screw up, I tell myself. And my students? ‘Let’s read.’
THE LONDON EYE
NOT ON THE TABLE
’m not strictly able to provide an Eye on literary London this quarter. The office becomes a quieter place over the summer months; fewer books are bought and sold, and ongoing deals, arguments and queries go on hold while agents and publishers escape on their holidays. Authors eye their autumn deadlines and suffer in silence, or embark on / recover from gruelling festival tours. Meanwhile, we hope, the hard work of springtime is paying off: bookshops are running their ‘summer reading’ promotions. Books carefully selected, presented and paid for by publishers are displayed front of store to catch the eye of browsers looking for stories which will help pass the time on the beach or round the pool. I’m not really willing to be an Eye either: as I look out of the office windows, London is grimly grey and drizzling – none of the romantic fogginess Gershwin was so carried away with. The dim outlook makes it harder to remember my holiday – for I chose my moment and escaped too, leaving my desk (along with ships, towers, domes, theatres and temples) for an unprecedented two-week break. I turned my nose up at the bookshops’ gaudy tables and went to my mother and The Reader for some real recommendations, picking some others from the shelves on a whim. So when my boyfriend and I finally set off for France, squashed between insect repellent, suntan lotion and summer skirts (seeing the outside of my wardrobe for the only time this year) were Anthony Trollope, Tobias Wolff, Mark Doty and Rafael Sabatini. We arrived at a tiny cottage miles from anywhere remotely civic, surrounded by fig trees, butterflies, a genial bunch of chickens and their resplendent rooster. We grunted in a friendly way to the neighbouring farmer, and occasionally to each other, but otherwise lapsed into blissful hours of reading. A swashbuckler from Sabatini came first; something to ease the mind into holiday mode. Scaramouche is known to most from Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, but he’s also a character in the commedia dell’arte,
and the stern, cold-heartedly rational hero of Sabatini’s bestseller after Captain Blood (who shot to fame after being played by Erroll Flynn and loved by Olivia de Havilland in the 1935 film). On the eve of the French Revolution, Andre-Louis witnesses the murder of a beloved friend by a dastardly nobleman, and devotes his life to revenge. It turns out, luckily, that Andre-Louis is good at just about everything, and plenty of expert acting, public oration, duelling and general saving-of-the-day ensues. Scaramouche comes thoroughly recommended if you’re in search of adventure, romance, and a bite-sized history of revolutionary France. Trollope’s Rachel Ray sets a very different pace, but offers real revolutions of mind and heart during its focus on the inhabitants of a small English town. No dangerous political argument here, but almost ceaseless questioning: is this man wrong? Is this woman unfair? Can you blame her? Not one of the characters escapes Trollope’s scrutiny, but the attention feels munificent rather than merciless, and a rich fabric is formed from what Doris Lessing called the warp and weft of lives. You probably won’t find any Trollope on the summer reading tables of high street bookshops, but he should be there. In Rachel Ray a reader may find space to contemplate the details of their life even from the midst of it – who needs a holiday after all? When Tobias Wolff confesses to all sorts of smallness, weakness and error as his unnamed alter-ego in School Days, the result is a hard-won integrity. His American boarding school teaches its boys to ignore petty distinctions of class and wealth, which means the pupils have to find other ways to distinguish themselves. Wolff writes about that agony of trying to carve a striking-enough shape in the world, using (or avoiding) all that messy inner stuff, which is by nature compromising and mystifying. The book seems at first like a series of connected short stories, formed around the visits of writers – including an archly mischievous Robert Frost and a vile Ayn Rand – to the school. But by the end this book, so deeply and personally felt, provided a structure and shape to not only the narrator’s life but others too, as perhaps only a novel can. Finally we had to make an unbelievably arduous journey home as our trains broke down and we were sent on a very circuitous route across France. I read Mark Doty’s Dog Years while crushed into small spaces on trains. And wept. Copiously. I attracted a lot of attention when I emerged from behind my book with red blotchy face in search of tissues. The various guards and ticket-inspectors were kind to me. Doty thinks we need and love dogs because of their silent fellowship. I think the favourite part of my holiday was the silence, punctuated by the occasional rooster crow – you rarely seem to find true quiet in mighty London, and still less time to think. In between holidays then, and after dogs, books must be man’s best friend.
ASK THE READER
I heard a listener on BBC Radio 4 the other day complain that they had spent years in reading Middlemarch and after such drudgery it did not seem worth the effort. Why should we be bullied by the threat of ‘great works’ hanging over our heads into thinking that if we don’t enjoy them we are in some sense deficient? Come on; let’s have the honesty and courage to release our shackles.
Yes, I also heard that and was reminded of a story told, I think, by Ernst Gombrich, of a lady coming out of a Dutch art gallery telling an attendant that she hadn’t liked his pictures. ‘Madam,’ he replied, ‘it’s not the paintings that are on trial here.’ ‘Well, up to a point, Lord Copper’, she might have answered, if she remembered her Evelyn Waugh. Because, yes, confronted by some indisputably great human achievement in literature or the visual arts we might for many reasons not be personally moved. That might not be because complex utterances take time to appreciate. I’ve known responsive, widely read, massively intelligent colleagues who also haven’t actually liked George Eliot. But they knew why and they didn’t impute love of her work to a mere delusion, which was the tone at least, if not the expressed view, of the Radio 4 programme and of your question, if you’ll forgive me. Writers make assumptions, sometimes have beliefs, and simply to let their words wash over you when you disagree with them is not to take those writers seriously but, indeed, to reduce books to a mere literary dilettantism, objects in an aesthetic peepshow. But equally there are dangers on the other side, a childish desire to burp during a chamber recital, a kind of egotistic desire to belittle what is serious and grand. Not to appreciate Middlemarch is to lose one magnificent human experi-
ence and that is fine only if there are other great sources of insight you have available and closer to your sensibility. When Francis Bacon republished his Essays in 1625 he claimed somewhat ruefully that they had been his most popular work, ‘for that as it seems they come home to men’s business and bosoms’. Wonderful image that, of coming ‘home’! Though written by someone we don’t know, when we read it the work seems to belong with us; we are its ‘home’, its proper place. George Herbert, Bacon’s younger contemporary, writes of the Holy Scriptures:
Such are thy secrets, which my life makes good, And comments on thee; for in everything Thy words do find me out, and parallels bring, And in another make me understood.
The secular scriptures can also ‘find me out’, explain me to myself, ‘make me understood’, not always a reassuring experience, to be ‘found out’. Our reading should be a search for what enables that to happen. In our deepest selves there is often a kind of loneliness because we cannot or do not articulate the fears and hopes that gather there. The voice of great literature that comes ‘home’ to us can speak to that place as little else can do. Sorry! Practical advice is maybe more useful than this preaching I slip into now and again. Join a reading group and don’t let it be content simply with the latest clutch of publishers’ good bets to appear in the weekend reviews. Recognise that not only are books to be read at different speeds but different parts of the same book. Even in Middlemarch I have to confess that I don’t read the account of Mr Brooke’s electioneering with the same attention I give to Casaubon’s marriage. Your own instincts will tell you what is important for you and it may well differ for different readers. Don’t, unlike that Radio 4 listener, think that reading about the author will help you to like the book more. If you enjoy it your pleasure will be enhanced by learning more but it only works that way round. To take a book in daily doses over a long time is masochism, not reading; you already know you don’t like it so ask yourself why instead of indulging in self-persecution. Remember the old adage that literature mingles profit with pleasure, utile dulci as Roman Horace said, and that pleasure comes first. Pleasure is what’s ‘honest’ in your response, to use your own word. Pleasure is what happens when the heart offers a ‘home’ to the work, that delighted shock of recognition – though the shock can be delayed. We have all met people whom at first we thought we wouldn’t like but later become firm friends. And, of course, it’s fine to like a book without finding it a life-saver. Pleasure is such a valuable thing that we can’t afford to lose even its smaller manifestations.
OxFORD WORLD’S CLASSICS
WILLA CATHER MY ANTONIA
A boy is travelling by train from Virginia after the death of his mother and father to live with his grandparents on a little farm in Nebraska some time in the 1870s and he looks out at ‘nothing but land: not a country at all but the material out of which countries are made.’ This is a novel about the human material, the immigrants including that boy, Jim Burden, who tells the story but mainly the people from half a dozen European countries who settle under the vast skies on the hard soil covered in tough reddish grass as tenant farmers or labourers. Mainly we see a family from what is now the Czech Republic who nearly succumb to the hardship of that first terrible winter. The European memories of the settlers, their tales of the old world and their manners and beliefs surface at different points in their lives, sometimes to disable, indeed they lead Mr Shimerda, Antonia’s father, to take his own life, but gradually become complications in their common American identity. Old pieties underlie new sexual freedoms, the elegiac touches the tale of survival, but always through the teeming life of the book shines the resilience of Antonia as she is seen, now a woman of fifty, in the concluding part:
She lent herself to immemorial human attitudes which we recognise by instinct as universal and true. I had not been mistaken. She was a battered woman now, not a lovely girl; but she still had that something which fires the imagination, could still stop one’s breath for a moment by a look or gesture that somehow revealed the meaning in common things.
Jo Cannon is a Sheffield GP and short story writer I’ve never seen a prairie, but Cather’s grasslands, skies and seasons are as vivid as photographs. The hardships of immigrant settler life in nineteenthcentury America are conveyed cinematically. Antonia is a tough, sympathetic heroine. At times I feared for her, but she overcomes extreme adversity with fortitude and optimism. The ending is pleasing: everyone gets what they deserve. My Antonia is unexpectedly modern in attitude and style, and an easy, satisfying read. ****
Lynne Hatwell (dovegreyreader) is a Devon-based community nurse
A perfectly rendered, elegiac journey across the plains of Nebraska and a window onto the lives of two children as they grow into adulthood in this harsh, unforgiving territory. All life is here in equal measure, and there is a magical Christmas scene, which deserves to go in anyone’s personal anthology of must-read seasonal extracts. I’ll revisit this one again and again.
Eleanor McCann is an English student at Liverpool University and student editor on The Reader magazine As the narrator Jim Burden suggests, My Ántonia seems built upon a string of still but arresting images. I found myself losing interest between these imprints but since My Ántonia is a tale of graft it seems apt that it demands patience! Perseverance did reap reward: there is a memorable freeze-frame of a plough, magnified in silhouette against the sun, which appears the vital icon of a people’s hard-won productivity in the struggle for settlement. ** Drummond Moir, once of Edinburgh, works for a London-based publisher The nostalgia that suffuses My Antonia is so rich you can practically wring it from the pages, yet something about this short novel just didn’t work for me. Many of the vignettes work wonderfully as individual setpieces, yet the wider narrative lacked the momentum of these minor but more engaging episodes. **
***** one of the best books I’ve read **** one of the best I’ve read this year *** highly recommended ** worth reading * not for me but worth trying 0 don’t bother
‘Grow old with me, the best is yet to be’ wrote the presumably young Robert Browning. I am not so optimistic. There is too much that can go wrong, not just physically but emotionally. Here, in her 1996 novel Love, Again, Doris Lessing writes: ‘This fate of us all, to get old, or even to grow older, is one so cruel that while we spend every energy in trying to avert or postpone it, we in fact seldom allow the realisation to strike home sharp and cold: from being this… one becomes this, a husk without colour, above all without the lustre, the shine.’ What happens to feeling and desire when we are ‘this’? Do they also become husks? Not so for Thomas Hardy; for the sake of equanimity, he wished for rather less lustre and shine: ‘I look into my glass / And view my wasting skin, / And say “Would God it came to pass / My heart had shrunk as thin”.’ The books I have chosen show that the reality of aging often defies expectations, as George Herbert found, ‘And now in age I bud again’, or as Tennyson’s Ulysses reflects, ‘though much is taken, much abides’.
Elizabeth Taylor, Mrs Palfrey at The Claremont (Virago, ISBN 978-
1844083213) The Claremont is a residential hotel in London, home to a few mildly eccentric elderly guests and the recently widowed Mrs Palfrey. She finds herself breaking her rules, ‘Be independent, never give way to melancholy, never use capital’ when she meets the handsome young writer, Ludo Myers. Elizabeth Taylor has been called one of the hidden treasures of the English novel. This one is moving, funny and compassionate.
Thomas Eidson, The Last Ride (Harper Collins, ISBN 978-0007181353)
Set in the American West, this is the story of Samuel Jones who having cut all ties with his family has been living as an Apache for thirty years.
An old man, he comes home to die, and finds his daughter Maggie, who has children of her own, wants nothing to do with him, until her own daughter is kidnapped and she has no choice but to ride with him. At times brutal and unforgiving, Eidson is interested in the ties of family, in the need for belief and in the possibility of redemption.
Margaret Laurence, Stone Angel (Virago, ISBN 978-1844085378)
Ninety-year-old Hagar Shipley, relentlessly angry and obstinate, and fearful, is living with her son and daughter-in-law and making their lives a misery. When they begin to talk about nursing homes, she plans to run away, and ‘rampant with memory’ is drawn into her joyless past and forced to understand herself so as to come to some sort of peace.
Wendell Berry, The Memory of Old Jack (Counterpoint, ISBN 978-
1582430430) Wendell Berry deserves a wider readership. This is a book to take slowly. It is 1952. The book begins: ‘Since before sunup Old Jack has been standing at the edge of the hotel porch, gazing out into the empty street of the town of Port William, and now the sun has risen and covered him from head to foot with light.‘ At 92 Jack looks into ‘the deepest depths of his memory’ re-collecting a full life. Although he embodies a vanished way of life, his values are what this book affirms.
Balzac, Old Goriot (Penguin Classics, ISBN 978-0140440171)
Another book with the word ‘Old’ in the title. Does this put people off? It shouldn’t do, for Balzac’s tale of a man who gives a fortune to his ungrateful daughters and consequently has to live a life of poverty is a hugely readable and lively tale of greed, betrayal and obsession. Inevitably the story invites comparisons with King Lear.
Stanley Middleton, An After Dinner’s Sleep (Out of print, available via Amazon used books, ISBN 978-0708919033)
The story of Alistair Murray, now retired, formerly a busy and successful director of an education authority in the Midlands. He is a widower whose life seems now just a matter of filling his time. Then one evening he opens the door to a woman he has not seen in nearly forty years. A. S. Byatt, an admirer of his fiction, has described Middleton’s art as ‘an exact vision of real things as they are’.
Other recommended novels: Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Ilych; Philip
Roth, Everyman; Graham Swift, Last Orders, and The Old Boys an early, darkly comic novel by William Trevor.
BOOKS FOR YOUR CHILDREN
KENNETH GRAHAME, THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS
ometimes it is disappointing to offer your children books you loved as a child. My oldest son hated something about the start of Alice in Wonderland and I finally gave up when he stuffed his fingers in his ears, closed his eyes and began singing. What was it he hated? I don’t know, because he didn’t want to talk about it, but it might have been the very thing I had loved – the mad, the wacky. He doesn’t like that sort of thing. Sometimes though, you see something in the bookshop that you know will go down a storm and that’s how I felt when I saw the lovely new illustrated the The Wind in the Willows (Walker Books) – illustrations by Inga Moore. It’s perfect for reading aloud on the sofa and my lot – even the older boy who hates Alice – have really got into it. I’d forgotten that opening with the mole working his way up out of duty into the freedom of sunshine – an opening for adults if there ever was one! We haven’t finished yet, but I’d also forgotten the spaciousness of it – the number of seasons, landscapes, animals... Inga Moore’s illustrations are beautifully detailed, and the whole family from the four-year-old up are enjoying looking into them – particularly enjoying those set into the pages of text. Mr Badger, and the whole winter thing is so warm – interesting feeling for a grumpy animal in the dead of winter! The book is about comradeship, the comforts of home, and knowing who your friends are – still things Wii generation kids need to know. We are at chapter 5 as I write and they are now clamouring for more. I do the voices by imagining Hugh Laurie for Ratty and David Mitchell for Mole, with Ricky Gervais as Toad. For Badger I do my Dad, because I remember him reading it to me, and though a bit of a grump he’s still good in a crisis...
Anything you can get your hands on by David Mamet
Criterion Collection have issued Homicide (Joe Mantegna, William H. Macy, Ving Rhames) on DVD, probably David Mamet’s finest film as writer and director. The texture and energy of the thing, driven along by Mamet’s direct language, all of that is characteristic of his film work, but the bewilderment and feeling at its centre are surprising. You think it’s a cop show but without missing a step it becomes a painful private questioning for the main character. It becomes what you would expect to find in great literature. I cannot fully keep up with Mamet. I can’t at all. It’s the decisiveness of a mind that never seems quite made up that throws me. But he is one of my favourite writers of the moment. I’m hooked by his films, plays and essays. His words are easier to hear (especially spoken by those great Mamet interpreters, Mantegna and Macy) than to read, but the pitfalls between the sentences and the leaps across the gaps are exhilarating and good for you. Here’s an example from the short play Goldberg Street (from Goldberg Street, Short Plays and Monologues), a play which is in many ways a rehearsal for Homicide as it focuses on the question of Jewish identity and American life, and on not belonging:
Lost in the woods. It seems simple enough. If you just take away the thought someone’s coming to help you.
You have just three mind-clearing sentences. The setting: ‘Lost in the woods’. The appraisal: ‘It seems simple enough’. The hammer blow: ‘If you just take away the thought that someone’s coming to help you’. It’s a practical matter, a man’s questioning about what he is and what he can do to help himself. Eventually you fix yourself because there is no alternative. Reading the words again, it strikes me how little guidance there is in the language: it asserts and it moves on to the next statement, like someone walking in big strides that make you skip. The adjustments you go through in order to keep up with the thought strip away confidence until you have only the essentials of paying attention. But the failure to help is precisely what could be useful here, or so the speaker claims.
um always speaks in Gaelic when we come up to Skye. She speaks in Gaelic because that’s what Gran likes to use in the house. I can’t join in when they’re talking, but I understand some of the things they say. Mum thinks that I might go to school here soon and they’ll teach me, only I want to stay at my other school with my friends. Skye’s an island so you have to go over a bridge to get there. Davy told me it was a troll bridge and that some people didn’t want to pay, but I said I would because you wouldn’t want to make them angry like in Billy Goat’s Gruff. It’s always dark when we arrive. When we step out of the car we can see how this place gets its name; all you can see for miles and miles are millions of shining stars. Maybe they put an ‘e’ on the end it’s so stretched out. In London the heavens seem so small. There are always buildings in the way. This time the journey had been awful. We packed in more than usual because Mum thought we might stay longer. I got wedged up against suitcases and dresses and stuff. Davy was fine though; he got to sit in the front where Dad usually went, only Dad wasn’t coming this time. And we didn’t get to play any of our usual games like I-Spy or making words from registration plates. Davy said that Dad always had a map in case we got lost. Mum told him that she didn’t need maps; she was a human compass. Then she didn’t say anything for the rest of the journey.
Lots of things are different here. Some are better and some aren’t. It’s wonderful wandering around in fields and woods, but it’s not so much fun walking to the shops and back, especially the back part. I love swimming in the sea and paddling, but I’m not so keen on taking a bath in the old tin thing we fill with buckets. I love the way Gran gets us quiet for the weather forecast every evening, but I miss the television and my computer. It was even more different when Mum was young. There wasn’t a road, the toilet was outside, the washing was done by hand, things like that. Mum said that the only things that hadn’t changed were Gran’s tabard and the weather. Whatever time we get up Gran’s always ready with a pan or two frying. We have a big cooked breakfast ‘to keep the wind out,’ Gran says, and we go out and explore. When we get back we wash our hands and by the time we get into the kitchen there’s a plate of fresh scones on the table and a jug of milk from Naomi the cow, all warm and creamy. We explore a bit more and it’s lunch, then dinner, then supper for the weather forecast, and in the evenings we listen to stories. I think some of them are true because they have real people in them and some are made up because they’ve got fairies and giants in them. Mum’s the best storyteller though. Perhaps that’s because she reads so much. She was reading when down at the sea last week - ‘A Perfect Day For Banana Fish’. She’s been reading that lots recently; it must be her favourite. Thinking about banana fish makes me laugh because I start to think of other fish: orange, grapefruit, kiwi, potato… Maybe there’s a pineapple shark out there too. The one I like best of all is the onion fish. It’s always crying, even if fish can’t cry, not really. When she finished it she put the book face down on the rock, pulled her knees to her chest and held them there, ‘giving herself a hug,’ she said. She didn’t move for a long time, staring out over the water into the distance; perhaps that’s what distant means. I played with Davy till it began to get chilly and went for a cuddle to warm up. This was a safe place. Old Man’s Jaw it’s called. If you stand on top of the hill behind you can see the face and this long, flat rock sticking out. I’ve seen it in a photo at home, Mum pointing across the bay to where she was born. She had one more story for me that day, about how I was made in that very place almost eight years ago. This is where I started out as a tiny seed. ‘Just look at you now,’ she whispered and I wondered how big I’d been when I began and how big I’ll be in the end. A few days after that we went to collect peat. A tractor came along and
we all helped to load the trailer. The midgies kept biting everyone so we put on this cream to keep them away. It’s for moisturising the skin really and smells like perfume, so it’s not for the midgies at all, but they didn’t come near me after that. Uncle Tam’s hands were green from the string by the time we’d finished and Bob had a bad back. The children got to sit on the trailer all the way home, and we piled into the kitchen when it was unloaded for cakes and beer and whisky or whatever you wanted. Most of us went for a walk after that. We turned round when the dark clouds started rolling in and got back just before the storm. I don’t know how she’d managed, but Gran had moved all the peat into the shed by then. The stacks in front of all the other houses were getting soaked through and Uncle Tam was struggling with a tarpaulin in the gale and the gale was winning. ‘He’s only himself to blame, now. They said the rain would be coming,’ said Gran shaking her head, wiping her hands on her apron and putting on the kettle. We all had tea to warm up our hands, which made Davy and me feel very grown-up. We watched the flames thinking about how much we deserved to be cosy, especially me with my blister and Tam with his green skin. Then yesterday happened. Gran took off her tabard and put on her wellies so that she could take me and Davy to the shore. Mum couldn’t make it. She stayed in bed because of a headache. She kissed us goodbye and said she’d join us later, and reminded me to look out for the banana fish. It took about twenty minutes to get there. There were lots of people with bags so they could tidy up the beach. For the children it was going to be a competition. Whoever collected the most rubbish would get to light the bonfire later. Second prize was a toffee apple. We put on our huge rubber gloves, took a handful of bags and walked over to where no one else seemed to be. Uncle Tam was just over the way collecting whelks. He’d sell them later on and said he’d make a pretty penny. I found the rusty bit of an old spade, a plastic bottle, a long metal stick and a burst football. Davy spent most of his time digging a piece of rope from the sand. It looked small at first, but the more he dug, the longer it got. In the end it filled up half the bag. Daddy was always asking how long a piece of string is when we asked him things; I didn’t think it would be that long. Gran had sawn off a gill net from the post in the water using the blade of her penknife and that filled the bag. Just
think of all the birds we were saving and how nice it would be for all the walkers to see it so wonderfully clean. We started another bag. The first thing we found was an old bike tyre. Davy was trying to stuff it in when it went all quiet; he stopped what he was doing. This is the bit I don’t want to say because it sounds stupid, but you can ask Davy and Gran if you like. I couldn’t hear the sea or the birds and it was creepy, then there was music, soft at first, then louder and louder. It was like a choir in church. It was all high voices and ladies singing and it was the most beautiful sound I’ve ever heard. There weren’t any words, just tunes. Davy held my hand tightly and then the sound was suddenly the wind again. Just like that. We looked at each other then sprinted over to Gran. Davy was first and grabbed onto one leg, and I got the other. He was telling her about the music and I joined in until she couldn’t tell who was saying what, so we had to start again one at a time. He’d heard the same as me. She went quiet for a moment and said, just like it was nothing important, ‘That’ll be bad news at sea; someone won’t be making it to supper tonight.’ She looked up, touched her forehead and shoulders and chest and said something Gaelic. ‘I heard it once when I was a girl a long time ago. My mother heard it too. Like the sound of heaven itself, and yet it was a horrible thing that happened when it came to me. Two boats collided. Full of men they were – fathers, husbands, brothers – none of them seen again.’ It sounded a bit like the start to one of her fairytales, but she didn’t take it any further. ‘Now don’t you worry, there’s nothing to be done. Let’s get this bag filled up,’ she said, and so we did. The bags were heavy, but we managed to drag them to the pile. I couldn’t believe what was there: lobster pots, a bicycle, tubes, bottles, netting, a doll’s arm, crates and rope. The twins had brought a bag of seaweed even though the man at the start had told us that seaweed wasn’t rubbish, so that couldn’t count for the competition. Angus got to light the bonfire. He’d found a whole carpet, but he didn’t carry it back himself so I don’t think he should have been the winner. Mum hadn’t arrived. Now it was later and I wanted her to be there. It turned into a party. There were guitars, fiddles and songs. The people who weren’t playing were mostly dancing. The only ones who didn’t look happy were the twins, because they’d had a fight, and Gran. She was gazing into the flames, the light seeming to make her look strangely old and tired. I guess she is pretty old, really.
Eventually we had to go because my eyes wouldn’t stay open. The music could be heard from the cottage till we shut the door behind us. She wasn’t in bed. It was the first thing we did, go and see if she was better. I cried and Davy told me to stop being a baby, but I think he was nearly crying too, so Gran made us hot chocolate. We got into Mum’s bed, wrapped ourselves up in the blankets and she told us cheery stories until I fell asleep. I had a funny dream. I walked down to the sea and could hear the church music again. I could see my mother sitting in the things we’d collected, except the bicycle was like brand-new. She was staring again and brushing her hair and we smiled at each other for ages. When I woke up I tried to keep that picture in my mind and when it faded I pulled my knees up and gave myself a huge hug.
Read to Lead Accredited Training
Over a fun but intensive fiveday residential course you will discover for yourself what makes Get Into Reading work.
Sun 17th – Fri 22nd Jan 2010 See website for more 2010 dates
“A conflation of spirit – enthusiasm, energy, joy – with formalised skills-centred training”
Participant We offer a vigorous reading workout that all readers should enjoy. Each participant will have the opportunity to lead a reading group in a companionable and supportive environment, providing the tailored individual skills you need to run a GIR project. KEY AREAS: • How to run a Get Into Reading group • Potential challenges and solutions email Casi Dylan on firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.thereader.org.uk/read-to-lead-training.html
THE READER CROSSWORD
16 20 21
ACROSS 1. Sovereign involved in decision to consult a neurosurgeon (6) *4. See 26 across 9. Remove nothing from the club record (4) *10. See 26 across *11. See 25 across 12. Phil Shaw collapsed suffering from a neck injury (8) 13. They estimate the value of fools’ gold inside the Gestapo (9) 15. Mace twirled to perfection (4) *16 and 18 down. He is discovered by American gents next to the square in Paris (4, 2, 5) 17. Letters from a liner last month for a native from the north (9) 21. Poisonous compound from a beautiful Italian lady (8) 22. Dorcas, sister of charity, provides a fruit cordial (6) 24. Is oil fired combination something to make it harder (10) *25 and 11 across. Freezing agent? Title would imply otherwise (4,6) *26, 4, and 10 across. Fiddle with worker, military man and agent in the novel (6, 6, 7, 3) * 27. See 1 down * Clues with an asterisk have a common theme
DOWN *1 and 27 across. Messily arranged group of characters by 16 across (7,6) 2. Temporary stand-in could make you feel better (5) 3. Helps in proving that the compass is Tsar Peter’s property (7) 5. Account of primitive instincts in charge sounds bitter (6) 6. Missing aristocrat might call round perhaps (4,5) 7. Is comeback a question of getting poise right (7) 8. A bouquet of compliments from Mr. Collins for example (7, 6) 14. Translating a point he and I made to Haile Selassie (9) 16. Is this speedy vessel always black? (7) *18. See 16 across 19. New England piece is confusingly androgynous (7) 20. Limited tense (6) 23. 5 down and clever too (5)
I HEAR THE LONESOME WHISTLE BLOW
1. Which novelist returning from France with his mistress was involved in a train crash? After helping with survivors he returned to the train to rescue his manuscript. 2. Who ‘thought words traveled the wires / In the shiny pouches of raindrops’? 3. Who found a hound in a red jersey in a railway tunnel? 4. Who, waking in the night on board a train, sees a woman in a scarlet kimono disappearing down the corridor? Later he finds the kimono in his luggage. 5. Who is observed from a train to be ‘Missing so much and so much’? 6. What poem is read by the author in a 1936 documentary to the accompaniment of music composed by Benjamin Britten? 7. Which poem by possibly ‘the worst poet in British History’ recounts the events of December 28th 1879? 8. What is the immediate consequence of the meeting between Guy Haines and Charles Bruno on a train? 9. In which novel do fatal train accidents at the beginning and end of the story, frame the plot? 10. Which novel’s opening chapter is called ‘The Five O’Clock Express’? 11. ‘Gaily into Ruislip Gardens? / Runs the red electric train’. And who gets off there? 12. The great commercial (fictional) town of Drumble is ‘distant only twenty miles on a railroad’ from which other fictional town? 13. In which novel do Begbie and Renton meet ‘an auld drunkard’ in a disused railway station? 14. What is the title of the 1975 non-fictional account of a series of train journeys from London to Tokyo by train and back through Siberia? 15. In which novel is the villain run down by a red-eyed, monstrous express, which ‘licked up his stream of life with its fiery heat’?
THE BACK END
The winner of the Crossword (plucked in time-honoured tradition from a hat) will receive our selection of World’s Classics paperbacks, and the same to the winner of the fiendishly difficult Buck’s Quiz. There were no winners last time. Bwah-haa-haaaa! We keep our paperbacks. You must try harder! Please send your solutions (marked either Cassandra Crossword, or Buck’s Quiz) to 19 Abercromby Square, Liverpool L69 7ZG.
CASSANDRA CROSSWORD NO. 27
Across 1. Eton rower 11. Red side 12. Bowling 13. Imams 14. Waterland 16. Gothic transepts 19. Out of this world 21. Garda 22. Locarno 23. Bravado 25. Ever after Down 1. Learning to swim 2. Good part 5. Prebuttals 6. Two words 7. Troika 8. A dog 14. Watchtower 15. Disfavours 17. Infarcts 18. Perianth 20. Tocsin 21. Graham Swift 22. Last orders 23. Blew
BUCK’S QUIZ NO. 35
1. Xanadu 2. A Passage to India 3. Batemans 4. Porthos (The Man in the Iron Mask) 5. Used as Pemberley in the 1995 television adaptation of Pride and Prejudice 6. Thomas Hardy 7. Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes 8. Sir Patrick O’Shaughlin, Sir Murtagh Rackrent, Sir Kit Stopgap and Sir Condy Rackrent 9. The Remains of the Day 10. Salisbury Cathedral 11. Bleak House 12. Underneath the Paris Opera House 13. The House of Usher 14. Antigone 15.
A glass church
D J Andrew lives in Leeds, has been writing poetry for 55 years and been widely published in magazines; among his hobbies is taking photos at poetry events. Josie Billington teaches in the School of English where she is also Research Manager of The Reader Organisaton. She is currently writing a book on nineteenth-century poetry and collaborating with the School of Medicine on a study of reading and depression. Nigel Bird is a Support For Learning teacher in a school near Edinburgh. Co-producer of The Rue Bella magazine between 1998 and 2003, he is currently working on his first novel. Grey Brown is the director and co-founder of the literary arts for Health Arts Network at Duke Medical Center. She is the author of three collections of poetry. Tom Chalmers set-up Legend Press in 2005 and the fiction publisher has recently launched its first non-fiction and business titles. In 2008, he acquired a further small publisher, Paperbooks. Chalmers has been shortlisted for a number of publishing and national entrepreneur awards. Tadeusz Dąbrowski. Poet, essayist and critic who edits the literary bi-monthly Topos. He is the author of five books of poetry, including Czarny kwadrat (2009). A collection of his poetry in English will be published soon by Zephyr Press. He lives in Gdansk, Poland. Casi Dylan is Training Manager for The Reader Organisation. Born in an old miner’s cottage in mid Wales, she is a fluent Welsh speaker. She read AngloSaxon, Norse & Celtic Studies and English at Cambridge, and sees working at TRO as a genuine continuous education. Seamus Heaney’s most recent books were District and Circle (2006) and a translation of The Testament Cresseid and Seven Fables by the 15th century poet, Robert Henryson (2009) Hans van der Heijden is an award-winning architect. With Rick Wessels he cofounded the Rotterdam-based practice of architects BIQ Architecten in 1994. Vanessa Hemingway, the youngest grandchild of Ernest Hemingway, holds a bachelors in literature and a masters in occupational therapy. Currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing at San Francisco State University, she lives with her husband and daughter in Santa Cruz, California. John Kinsella’s most recent book of poetry is Shades of the Sublime and Beautiful (Picador, 2008). He is the editor of the Penguin Anthology of Australian Poetry (Penguin, 2009). Ian McMillan was born in 1956 and has been a freelance writer/performer/ broadcaster since 1981. He presents The Verb on BBC Radio 3 every Friday night. Blake Morrison Is a poet and author. His memoirs And When Did You Last See Your Father? won the J. R. Ackerly Prize for Autobiography. Latest novel, The Last Weekend will be published May 2010. Francis A. Neelon is a physician, and emeritus member of the faculty at Duke University. He is past-president of the American Osler Society, and a charter member of the Osler Literary Roundtable at Duke. Angela Patmore was an International Fulbright Scholar (English) and University of East Anglia Research Fellow (environmental sciences). She is a member of the Royal Society of Literature and a member of the Friends of Coleridge. Michael Parker is an academic who writes on Irish, British and postcolonial literature. His books include Seamus Heaney: The Making of the Poet (1993) and, most recently, Northern Irish Literature 1956–2006: The Imprint of History (2007).
Peter Robinson’s most recent collection is The Look of Goodbye: Poems 2001–2006 from Shearsman Books, who also brought out Spirits of the Stair: Selected Aphorisms this September. Poetry & Translation: The Art of the Impossible, a new volume of literary criticism, is published by Liverpool University Press. Anthony Rudolf a Londoner born in 1942, is the author of poetry (his own and translations from French and Russian), literary and art criticism, fiction and autobiography. Northern House (in association with Carcanet) is to publish Zigzag, five prose/verse sequences. Omar Sabbagh is a Lebanese/British poet. His work has appeared in PN Review, Poetry Review, Stand and other journals. His first collection, My Only Ever Oedipal Complaint, is forthcoming with Cinnamon Press (2010). He is currently in the third year of his PhD on the representation of time in Ford and Conrad. Ron Travis is a retired librarian (ex-Liverpool Libraries & Information Services). He was Customer Services Manager: Books and Reading, responsible for mainstreaming reader development in Liverpool and setting up Time to Read, North West Libraries Book Promotion Partnership. Enid Stubin is Assistant Professor of English at Kingsborough Community College of the City University of New York and Adjunct Professor of Humanities at NY University’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies.
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