Friday, 9 September 2016

Olympic Gold

Kazimierz WierzyƄski won a Gold Medal at the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics. For poetry. Polish poet, buried in Hampstead Cemetery.


Here is an (edited) selection of my father's letters to friends (Desmond Leeper and his wife Ben) and family, in September 1940, during the end of the Battle of Britain and the beginning of the Blitz. He was at the time in desultory training with 'the Buffs' (Royal East Kent Regiment).  The Dean he refers to was Hewlett Johnson, the 'Red Dean' known for unflagging support for the Soviet Union.

In terrific haste.  With an invasion pending, and calamity mounting up at home, we, after a sleepless night standing to, are now having our third room & kit inspection in a week because some nob may drop in during the morning.  It maddens one to have to obey these unbelievably stupid orders.  We all know the exact state of our kit – what is wanted is sleep or training… Hitler would laugh with delight could he see us… 


I imagine you by the side of a salmon stream, meditating the hill opposite; or perhaps eyeing the fifth housemaid (or even a footman, callipigous creature… war has curious results sometimes! Naafi.  Thursday evening. Stoneham, an architect in the next bed, & I drink a Guinness.  Both pretty drunk.  Impossible to write anything sensible.  Throught he haze & the jangle, a man pounds the piano, incredibly badly. I like this life, I think; don’t want now ever to become an officer, although doubtless this Training company will split up some time & I’ll go to an OCTU.  God knows when – the further off the better as far as I am concerned. In khaki men have nothing except faces.  Faces over tea & beer with cigarettes stuck into them.  A species, like monkeys or sparrows. 


I went to the Deanery on Sunday. The Dean had unfortunately been called away, but we were welcomed in by his housekeeper & told to make ourselves at home in his drawing room.  I & two friends of mine, & an odd soldier, the Dean’s clerical followers, & a few of his coterie.  He is a socialist of course: but I had expected an old-fashioned liberal in modern dress.  Instead I found with delight that this was the real stuff, red Russia indeed… a prominent table [was] covered with periodicals, presumably the Dean’s daily light reading.  The Daily Worker, Moscow News, Philadelphia Communists & so on & so forth.  Lenin & Trotsky & Greenbaum & the rest on the bookshelves.  Magnificent.  He was an engineer before he entered the church: God knows why he ever did approach the C of E!  This room was sizzling with revolution.  I must say that Communism attracts one’s sympathies these days: the army doesn’t make one delight in the Old British Methods. 


Peevishness about being kept interminably… in this ITC without being given any hint at all of any OCTU or anything.  Not that I want to become an officer (this quite honestly) but being buggered around is very unsatisfactory. General observations of great intensity and every sincerity on the pleasures of confined barrack life.  The men have become human beings with the passage of time; and the uniform & the lack of family ramifications & occupational differences & so forth all serve to annihilate background…
 …Tristram Shandy is a great book – and South Wind (by Norman Douglas) …Jock, a working class Scotchman, navvy by trade & very Scotch by nature displays remarkable erudition.  Astonishing people, the bloody Scotch.  He is in the corner talking busily about Anatole France.


The alien Leepers: father, mother and rollicking shrimp!  I imagine the small, compact trinity wandering over the wastes of Herefordshire, a cell of inexpressible intellectualism in a sprawling world; the father inelegantly in lofty khaki, Ben in a bright red bandana. …I am, as I say, shattered: remains a giggling icompetent, fatuous & irresponsible and O so ‘appy, ver’ ver’ ‘appy.  Reality falls away, and tragedy becomes a chuckle.  So phoo-eeps boys for the end of the world: we only have ten minutes so mine’s a [?] Minor. The air-raid warning is a white snake that lurks while we work, creeps out into the evening, a tape-worm that smears the air.  It fattens/battens on my gloom, I find.  When Wheldon is jolly, how you say? Very jolly jolly, the snake is buggered and can’t move.  Perhaps I could hire myself out as a siren-neutraliser. …yesterday the sergeant of a platoon down in the depot, desperately hard up for subjects and instructors got me to give a lecture on Germany.  Thus commanded, I did: and, hugely sidestepping propaganda, gave a violently pro-Nazi speech which we all enjoyed like anything.  The officer looked down his nose at me and said to himself – “the man’s a pro-Boer”. The wisdom of days, blblical phrase, has quietened the liberal arguments I expended on the arid Leeper air on the Ramsgate beach, and left me a revolutionary and an uncommitting Mandarin by turns. Forward from liberalism or anyway Zoroastrianism, the holy cow and the genial field. It was malaria that beat the Romans – the greed for the infested corn of Egypt brought the death on them.  Leave the corn in bloody Egypt.

Tuesday, 6 September 2016


According to the Domesday Book, in 1086 there were only 14 beekeepers in England, and one female jester.

Sunday, 4 September 2016


Elwood: It's 106 miles to Chicago, we got a full tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes, it's dark... and we're wearing sunglasses.
Jake: Hit it.

Monday, 29 August 2016



The Library was part of the Institute.  Behind a counter was an old man with an ink-pad and a large oval stamp, with which he conducted a passionate, erratic campaign against slack morals...[he] had certain fixed standards...Murder he allowed; but not fornication.  Childbirth (especially if the character died of it), but not pregnancy.  Love might be supposed to be consummated as long as no one had any pleasure out of it. There were single words that called for the stamp at once. 'Oh, God!' the characters might cry in their extremity, but not 'Oh, Christ!' 'Breast' was not to be in the plural. 'Rape' sent the stamp plunging and twisting into the purple ink.

from A View of the Harbour, by Elizabeth Taylor (publ. 1947)

Monday, 8 August 2016


"Cheer up for Chatham, Dover's in sight,"Mum used to say.  I think she did once explain whence it came but I've forgotten.  I have two possible explanations: It is very old and the Chatham referred to was Pitt the Elder, and the phrase referred to the idea that one was nearing home - a safe port - after a sea voyage.  More likely, it is from the railways:

Why 'Invicta' - who knows?  This is from Wikipedia: "'The Chatham', as it was sometimes known, was often criticised for its lamentable carriage stock and poor punctuality" - and they didn't have the RMT to put up with.

Sunday, 7 August 2016


A STRANGE AFFAIR.-A singular affair is reported from Connah’s Quay. It seems that the wife of the mate of a trading vessel accompanied her husband on his last voyage to a Scotch port. On the return voyage the vessel put in at Millom, and the wife expressed a desire to return home by train. Her husband accordingly accompanied her to Millom railway station, and saw her off. On reaching Conhah Quay, instead of finding his wife, a letter from her awaited him, informing him that she had decided to leave him for over, as she could not live any longer with a man that had no whiskers. Nothing has since been heard of the runaway wife, and the husband has sold off his furniture and gone into lodgings.

North Wales Chronicle - Saturday 14 December 1889

Friday, 5 August 2016

FLEDGLING PRIZE: 2nd Place: Myrtle by Ruth Wiggins

My review for Sabotage Magazine (January 2015)

by Ruth Wiggins
The Emma Press, £6.50, 26pp

I thought I was going to have trouble with this, what with the first poem being all right justified and containing words with spaces between their letters for no very obvious reason. But then I decided that since it was called ‘Against Perspective’ I’d chuckle instead. 

My fear was dispelled by and the chuckle grew broader with the next poem, called ‘I’ve Been Crumbling Anti-Histamines Into Your Food All Week’, in which a new home is turned into a bower: “the whole thing seeds itself up the street. Early outbreaks / of lovage, sweet briar, vetch”.  Here we are on the floral side of Myrtle.  But the poet is a classicist, and in the Rome of Ovid and his fellows the Latin word myrtus (myrtle) was a non-vulgar euphemism for the female pudenda. Myrtle was considered aphrodisiac, and is associated with Aphrodite in Greek myth and Venus in Roman.  So having given us the floral, the poet now introduces us to the clitoral, or at least the aphrodisiacal, in ‘Borrowed Time’: “This afternoon you fucked me, right out / of my pyjamas and into yours” Thenceforth the poems hover back and forth, between the intimate and the public, with diversions into the quotidian here and there.

There’s plenty of tenderness, of a robust kind: “Come the apocalypse” there’ll be “usurping girls / …I’ll just / have to learn to kill”.  In a rather macabre love poem, ‘On Fear of Your Flying’ her lover’s sperm “startle // into memento mori”.  His having not died, I can’t believe her partner would not want to be identified as the “gorgeous boy” of the final poem, a play on a deliciously euphemistic Horace ode: “Be mine, right here beneath / this cheerful old vine”.

Horace is not the only classical poet Wiggins borrows from.  She does a wonderful job with a Propertius elegy.  ‘Only the Lover’ begins “Silly mortals, always second-guessing / the hour of your death…”

You type your vital stats into
but from the Circle Line to Tora Bora,
all exit points are hidden.

The language, the forms, the prosody in all these poems is unabashed, unafraid and enjoyably energetic.  Best of all, each poem is a surprise. Wiggins has a distinctive voice, characterised not by sameness but by unexpectedness. ‘Crawk’ is a poem about birds. I thought at first the reference was to crows, but the subject of the poem has a “quarrel of sisters”, which suggests sparrows; then again, towards the poem’s end she “Grouts her gizzard and gargles with rocks”.  Who knows what bird this is (it follows a poem, ‘Leda’ that features not one but several swans, not to mention eagles) – but it doesn’t really matter.  The poem draws the reader in, for it is full of activity, having begun with the teasingly abstract “She’s the opposite of mirrors”, from where we have no idea where the poem will lead us.

Yes, unexpectedness: there’s a poem describing the poet’s battle with a spider; a poem about the herb rosemary; a poem that bounces from side to side of the page, about the coming of spring, “cracking a courtyard laugh”; there are poems inspired by paintings; there’s a nanny goat and there’s a fox.

Myrtle is a thoroughly assured collection informed by classical learning and tempered with an erotic hum that underlies several of the poems. It delights in hoisting the ideas and images that prose cannot without preparation.  It is thorough poetry, and surprisingly a debut. There’ll be more.

582 words

Thursday, 4 August 2016

A Layman at the Tate - A Thought or Two About Georgia O'Keeffe

These big shows – and this has 13 rooms – are of course always full of people getting in the way of the pictures.  As a rule I tend to scoot from beginning to end, hoping for say 6 or 7 pictures to catch my eye.  I’ll then attempt to look at each one of those seven when it isn’t being crowded.  This usually works, although of course it means I miss much.  But I don’t believe you can look at more than about ten or twelve pictures in an hour.

So, the thing I noticed on this scoot around was the complete lack of human life.  It might be argued that New York city, of which there are two friendly paintings, can hardly be said to be devoid of human life, but the truth is that they are an anomaly.  When O’Keeffe came to paint adobe desert dwellings she painted them as though they were a part of the landscape, natural forms (which, in a sense, they indeed are).  A prime example of this is ‘Taos Pueblo’ (1929):

And when she begins to move back towards abstraction, human habitation becomes fit for that too, as in ‘In the Patio No 4’ (although you can also feel the heat):

 There are photographs of O’Keeffe herself, the work of her husband Alfred Steiglitz.  She is markedly handsome and severe; her hair not allowed to crowd her face.  

Steiglitz’s photos are often concerned with geometry, with plainness and planes, and there is a sense in which this is true of O’Keeffe’s work too, although her form is more plastic (I don’t really want to say ‘softer’).  As my son pointed out, her paintings are exceptionally still things that absolutely pulse with life. Perhaps this paradox is what makes them so alluring.

Having said that, my personal favourites were atypical. I very much liked the early charcoal abstracts.  “I decided not to use any other colour until it was impossible to do what I wanted to do in black and white”. The two pictures that come closest in the exhibition to the depiction of the human body are: ‘Mask with Golden Apple’, my photo of which somehow failed to come out (it is a letter box shaped picture of an African mask lying flat and painted from side-on, with an apple between the artist and the mask); and ‘A Man from the Desert’ (1934):

 The picture I liked best, the one I’d really quite like to have, is ‘Red and Orange Streak’ (1919), which frankly is a bit of a cracker:

There ARE flowers there, of course, and they are remarkable. I prefer the simplicity of the desert, the austere nature of the abstract, the wonderful swoosh of the streak.