Sunday, 23 May 2010

Reply

The following is adapted from a real letter that my father, Huw Wheldon, visiting America in 1959, wrote to my mother. It is what might be called, after Duchamp, a ‘found’ poem.

So then, after washing, a cigarette, and the treasured letter. A treat. To be read with minute care, so imagine a monk adoringly fingering his way through the palimpsest; and I immediately know all and how absolutely impossible it is to write a letter with any meaning because we are beyond sharing the world’s news and the going joke and can now only share life. So the letter becomes not inadequate but irrelevant. The relevant thing is: everything. So I want you to know that I could not find my comb until I found it and I want you to know that the day is as hot as the devil and I want you to know the colour of the carpet and the look on that chap’s face and that just now I had a piss and what is more I am at this very moment breathing, sometimes in and then again, out. Not that these things or perhaps any thing at all is of the slightest interest, and if they happened and you were here they would be trivial and perhaps even boring or tiresome, but they exist as part of my irresistible and flowing and absolutely living, nose-picking, glorifying, boring being, and putting it bluntly it is a jarring thing for you not to know about them automatically, and for me equally not to know that you are grizzling over the sink, or thinking about Aldous Huxley, or feeling the edge of desperation like a bad tooth on the edge of the tongue simply because you are looking at a single delphinium, and as usual, it implies the world, not to mention what the hell to do about the lupins, and eternity.



This appears in this month's issue of Acumen Literary Journal, Acumen 67

Thursday, 20 May 2010

Pound Demonstrates Ju-jitsu to Frost

"[Pound] would take me to restaurants and things. Showed me ju-jitsu in a restaurant. Threw me over his head... wasn't ready for him at all. I was just as strong as he was. He said 'I'll show you. Stand up.' So I stood up, gave him my hand. He grabbed my wrist, tipped over backwards and threw me over his head."

This is from the Paris Review interview with Robert Frost. He is speaking of his stay in England, from 1912-1915. He spent time in London with Ezra Pound and then went to Gloucestershire where he made a great friend of Edward Thomas.

This story tickled me firstly because it is ticklish, secondly because one son is very fond of 'The Road Not Taken' and thirdly because another practices Ju-jitsu on Friday evenings.

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

The November Criminals by Sam Munson

To begin with, you think you are in one of those novels by young men that describe the debauched life they lead as though it was interesting. Sex, drugs and rock and roll. Certainly there are drugs, weed, here, in fact importantly so. But there is no graphic sex and no unworthiness before the great god Rock. In fact this is a rather high brow book, dense, intellectual, even difficult.


The voice is Catcher in the Rye conversational, the conceit being that the book is an essay written for the benefit of the University of Chicago selection board, describing the narrator’s best and worst qualities. Addison Schacht, brought up by his oafish but good-natured artist father, sells dope to his high school fellows and is fluent in Latin, with a special love for the Aeniad.


The story of the book, such as it is, recounts Addison’s amateurish attempts to discover the murderer of a classmate, Kevin Broadus. Addison fails utterly but in so doing recreates himself, emerging a sadder but wiser man, one who can, at eighteen years old, not only smoke, but buy cigarettes, not only love but admit to loving, his girlfriend, the intriguing Digger.


Kevin Broadus, a saxophonist in the school band, attracts Addison’s attention when, in a class about Music and Its Relation to African American Literature Broadus, an African American, does “not particularly” agree with the notion, put forward by the teacher, that African American literature is less constrained than other literatures. This is the only thing Addison remembers Kevin saying in class, ever, but before he can congratulate him Broadus is murdered.


‘The November Criminals’, as I learned it, was a phrase given to the Germans who surrendered at the end of the First World War and who subsequently accepted the Versailles treaty. I don’t know whether it was Hitler’s own phrase but it could have been. So: traitors (but, from our point of view, surely, good traitors). If you know this before you start you spend much of the book wondering about its title. The explanation, when it comes, is not entirely clear, but I think that what Addison is struggling to say is that we are all of us traitors to an ideal notion we have of how things should be. Or something. (Addison loves his italics and his 'ors' and 'whatevers').


But perhaps his point is more specifically about contemporary America. Addison certainly has very little time for multicultural orthodoxy, the central tenet of which is: “we’re all still racists today”. Addison regards this as mere gesture; indeed, in its extended meaning he regards it, as exemplified by Black History Month, say, as “the ultimate fantasy of a slave owner”. For his part he, a Jew, collects Holocaust jokes. It is impossible to read this other than as an act of defiance that proclaims THIS IS HOW THE WORLD IS - BE TRUTHFUL.


‘The November Criminals’ is a superior work of fiction, written with authority and verve. It is occasionally very funny. Chicago would have been foolish not to accept Addison Schacht.


The book is published by Doubleday

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Pathos

I read in Andrew Roberts' review of Michael Burleigh's new book, Moral Combat: A History of World War II, that on the day Mussolini left his villa for the last time, his 18 year old son Romano, a fine pianist, was playing Duke Ellington's 'Saddest Tale' in an upstairs room.

Ruskin on Sewers

"A good sewer is a far nobler and a far holier thing... than the most admired Madonna ever painted".

John Ruskin - quoted by Simon Schama in his History of Britain. Does anyone know where it comes from?

Monday, 17 May 2010

The Walk 2010, Part Two: Inkpen to Great Bedwyn















Fortified by the thought of underground seditionary activity in the southwestern reaches of Berkshire, as evidenced by Red Andy’s note, we set forth towards the great buttress of Inkpen Hill, about a mile away, and teeming, it would seem, with starlings or midges or perhaps crows gathering to feast on the carcasses of exhausted middle-aged men.

We had already seen several deer on the previous day. Today, set back from the pack by the need of a piss. I saw a large deer standing as still as a cutout about thirty yards away from me, among some rather junior looking trees (young birches?) He stared in my general direction as I stared at him. Odd how incapable one feels of catching the moment properly, even while it is happening. It seems such a privilege, and casual somehow to simply move on. I simply moved on and caught up.

We slanted up the steep hill, beneath the weirdly silent, pterodactylian hang-gliders (not midges, starlings or malevolent crows) that must have been up there from early morning. How do they not entangle one another? And they are silent of course because they go with the wind, unopposing.

It was a good day, lots of interesting clouds and cloudlets (AK particularly taken with one little one after two pints of Adlestone’s at lunch-time) and we made our way as far west on the ridge as we could before descending gently onto the plain and the Roman Road that leads into Wilton, accompanied on our right by a windmill atop a hill of preposterously yellow rape.

Ploughman’s Lunch all round in Wilton, at The Swan, a proper, unpretentious pub with the kind of landlady who will one day be old enough for one to imagine her having been there since, say, 1734. Properly boozed for our time in life (two pints at lunchtime) we strolled in the afternoon sun over the hill and down to the canal. We stopped to watch a long boat come through a lock and discussed the physics involved. We stopped again at ‘Mike’s house, a lock cottage where RR had spent much time as a small child and then a few holidays as a father with small children. MDF stripped off (see previous walks) for a dip in the canal and we all laughed and Mrs Mike brought him a cup of tea.

On, then, to Great Bedwyn. I went into the church, where a much-blotched woman with two sticks and a quite incredible slowness of pace, as well as an irresistible jollity, pointed out various features of interest, not least an effigy of “Henry the eighth’s father-in-law”. A window full of heraldic devices had been put in close by, having been saved from the destruction of nearby Wolf Hall.

The Cross Keys was a pub of total and completely undesigned simplicity. Stuff simply had not been painted or repaired or updated. Run by Bruce and Sue (both of whom wore rugby shirts), Bruce had a side line in repairing canal boats. From one of these boats he had to transport a bed for MDF. And then MDF didn’t want the bed, because he was going home, so Bruce had to take the bed back to the boat, but then MDF did want the bed because he wasn’t going home, and so Bruce had to fetch the bed again, and MDF helped Bruce unload it, and then, life being what it is, I had to sleep on it, and I would have done better on the floor with a sleeping bag and an old iron gate.

Skittles were drawn, although MDF and I were plainly the best team, supper was filling (couldn’t finish a gloriously stodgy berry crumble and custard), and then we played Hearts. I shall record the scores, because posterity loves a stat. In reverse order: SP -135, RR – 101, AK – 35, WW -31, SAF 0. What a master. I would have liked to have seen him go up against MDF, a man I have known for forty years. I have never seen him lose a game of cards except against my children (they hold on to that knowledge, as to a special stone found on a holiday beach). But MDF, defeated by the day and perhaps the knowledge of an imminent return to his own young children, had retired. To sleep in my bed. And leave me his.

The night passed. In between being penetrated by the springs of my zombie-mattress I was attacked by MDF with a pillow, to stop me snoring. On the first occasion I awoke at this, certain that some supernatural force had been at work. I spent fifteen minutes reminding myself that I was a rational being.

In the morning it was raining. We counted ourselves very clever for having, for once, avoided rain in May. SP and RR went west, and the rest of us sped back to London, talking about Alzheimer’s and War. SAF and I were dropped off at Acton Central. Our friends departed before we realised that the station was closed. We made our way to bustling Ealing Broadway and tubed home to face each his own domestic duties.

Once again RR had organised us and led us from pub to pub to pub to pub to pub in a quite delicious meander through the English countryside. The poor bugger’s knee was giving out, but he despises pain and hardship and whingeing (though he has no tolerance whatsoever for dogs), and he remained and remains our dynamo. Many many thanks, as ever.

Much missed were MH and TC, and it ought to be added that RR was far from being the only no-whinger, AK having only recently recovered from a gall bladder operation. KBO chaps.

Ellie Darby

My new hero is Ellie Darby, who was a real trooper on Wags, Kids and World Cup Dreams (BBC3), which I must admit i tuned into in order to see WAGs humiliated and made ashamed of their wealth. But the shame - the snobbery - was mine. The set up: Five WAGS volunteered to go and help in the orphanages of the Cape Town townships. They were all more impressive than I had imagined possible. Of them all Ellie Darby was the star. She is obviously a woman capable of making things happen. She appears to have energy, sympathy and sense. I'd sign her up right away, and insist that Matthew Upson, her partner, be the first on the England team sheet, whatever his shortcomings as a footballer.

Sunday, 16 May 2010

The Walk 2010, Part One: Kintbury to Inkpen


So: The Walk, 14/15 May 2010. Berks/Wilts: From Kintbury to Great Bedwyn by way of Inkpen. Departed a rather nice pub [name please] full of elderly middle Englanders, walked east on the Kennet and Avon Canal to Hamstead Lock. Utterly ignored ancient earth works around Hamstead Marshall and wondered instead at curious unattached ornamental gate posts standing like large forgotten pair of sentinels across a few acres (?) of Hamstead Park.

On then past the stray dog centre where a notice assured us that healthy dogs were never put down. Phew! What a relief, especially in the hindsight-light of the "dogs are unacceptable" line fed us at the end of Day 2 by those wishing to spread dog-hatred in our less-beturded-than-ever cities. By way of several copses and holts and commons and what have you (not forgetting the rather disappointing Skew-Whiff) we arrived at The Swan at Lower Green. This is a pub beautifully set and dismally owned. I say owned rather than managed because the manager was Thomas – a young, cheerful, chin-bearded chap from Czechoslovakia. Promised gourmet food, we met the chef, a Bulgarian who, all stereotyping apart, looked like a Bulgarian from central casting: swarthy and dangerous and perhaps even a tad wily. Many of us ordered stroganoff on the grounds that it must be sort of Bulgarian and would probably full of evil Black Sea spices and wotnot. It was one of the blandest dishes I have ever eaten. Still, it soaked up the cider that had been consumed while trying to convince ourselves that Andy, a diminutive, full-bearded, local character (straight out of ‘Jerusalem’), was not going to hit one of us in the eye with his own inimitable darts action. Andy also informed us that Walbury Hill, nearby, was the highest chalk hill in the world and only 17 feet short of being a mountain.

In the morning Thomas gave us a note from Andy, thanking us for the game of darts. It was accompanied by some organic shortbread. He signed it ‘Red’ Andy, adding a hammer and sickle for good measure. Ah, the Trotsky of Inkpen we thought and put £10 behind the bar as a contribution to the revolution (or, failing that, perhaps a pint or two). Thomas, beaming, took it, but said Andy wouldn’t need it as he was a millionaire…

I shared with AK in a room with no windows and an insistent ticking noise that I could find no source for.

SAF shared with RR and said it was a little like sleeping with a small piglet (although he did not vouchsafe this to RR himself until Sunday morning).

MDF & GOB, the long fellows, also shared. Both were late for breakfast. I don’t know what the Bulgarian thought.

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Pricking o' the Ducts

Two episodes yesterday - Gordon Brown's farewell speech and England losing the 1990 World Cup semi final to West Germany, on penalties. The latter was the climax of a film of Pete Davies's book 'All Played Out', called 'One Night in Turin'. It wasn't terribly good (not a patch on the book), but it did feature Nessun Dorma which can prick the ducts all by itself. As for the unfortunate Gordo (why unfortunate? well, he LOOKS unfortunate) - the hubris was quite gone and it was a modest and dignified speech. I think he is a good man, but a too difficult one. I think Cameron, too, is a good man, but perhaps a too easy. Clegg? Hmm.

Monday, 10 May 2010

September Song

Seems somehow pertinent

Oh it’s a long, long while from May ‘till December
And the days grow short when you reach September.
When the Autumn weather turns the leaves to flame
One hasn’t got time for the waiting game.

PS PR

Of course the new election will be under PR so we'll have lots of UKIP and BNP members (the fourth and fifth largest parties in the UK in terms of votes) to make things more interesting.

SO MUCH FOR THE NATIONAL INTEREST

I'm sorry, but isn't this utterly typical of the LibDems? On the one hand this but on the other hand that. This prevaricating does not at all feel like the national interest is what is concerning them. I am now of the opinion that the Tories should send them on their way, the Labour party should ditch Brown (he was not made for coalitions - he has trouble working with his own sceretary for god sake), Harperson should take over as caretaker, the LibDems should go in with the Labour Party, everyone except public servants will go bankrupt, and we'll have another election in October or March and sort things out properly.

UNESCO

I note that UNESCO, that great bastion of freedom of speech, is now preparing to make an award sponsored by the liberty loving President of Equatorial Guinea, Teodor Obiang Nguema. At the last election in his country, he received 95 percent of the vote. That is more than even that teddy bear Hugo Chavez managed, so he must be really popular.

Sunday, 9 May 2010

A Weeping

I have, with various associates, been recording instances of profoundly inappropriate weeping at movies as the sentimentality of old age has begun to kick in. Actually, that's rubbish - I have always had buttons that can be pressed with instant results. Usually, it is bravery, courage, fortitude, cussedness that gets me going, but yesterday, still exhausted from my sleepless election night, I watched Hannah Montana - the Movie, and wept from start to finish. To be honest not quite to the finish. I couldn't stomach the end and felt a little deprived. But feisty grandmothers and the bad going good, plus the fact that I'm a little bit country and a little bit rock and roll, made for an uber weep-fest (as i think the modern idiom goes). And it was so darn INNOCENT!

I AM NOT ALONE! Mark kermode on Hannah Montana, here.

The Singles Chart

It so happens that I have looked today at the singles chart. Not only do I not know any of the songs, I have not heard of any of the artistes. I am delighted to see that there is someone called Fyfe Dangerfield, although I doubt whether he or she is Scottish. I'm not sure about Aggro Santos - sounds rather aggressive. Unlike Chipmunk - band, person, marsupial? - which/who sounds sweet. Nor should we forget Professor Green, though the title of his song is decidedly conservative - "I Need You Tonight". But perhaps he is referring to a bunsen burner, a radio telescope or his much prized copy of Caesar's Conquest of Gaul. Anyway, my ignorance I believe means that I am officially no longer down with the kids and cannot even pretend to be. It is a great relief, to be honest. i can go back to listening to Veedon Fleece, knowing now that it is likely to be as obscure to the young as, say, the Brahms 'Alto Rhapsody' or Duke Ellington's 'Take the A Train'. Hurrah.

Mumps

My poor son has Mumps, despite having had the MMR. The only good thing about this is that the doctor has prescribed him Lucozade. And last night he and I watched Dr Who. At least some things do not change.

Political Notes

Cameron knows that a Conservative minority government will not last, so there is no option but coalition. Having said that, I do think his speech on Friday was outstanding - there was a real sense of the possibilities that chaos brings, that coalition with the LibDems might actually be a positive thing.

I think the Labour government is exhausted. I think it probably thinks that way itself. There needs to be a bloodletting and a reformation, and my bet (see previous post) is that - given the deep unpopularity that the next government, of whatever stripe, will garner - David Milliband will be PM within five years.

This morning Baroness Kennedy of the Shaws (unelected Labour member of Parliament) described the present voting system as "corrupr", but presumably only because it did not return her friend Gordon Brown to power. Silly woman.

It is all fascinating stuff, made all the more thrilling by the Euro crisis hanging like the sword of Damocles above us...