Sunday, 13 December 2015

SUBMISSION by Michel Houellebecq

Just finished 'Submission' by Michel Houellebecq. MH is a grumpy, cynical cove, as is his protagonist, Francois. Francois doesn't really get excited about much, other than his inability to have an orgasm, and the work of the work of the fin-de-siecle novelist Huysmans - best known in this country as having been read by Oscar Wilde. On three occasions he wonders whether he ought to simply die (there is an odd echo of Emma Bovary's wish both to die and to live in Paris - Francois is as anti as Emma is utterly romantic). Occasionally the reader wishes he would, but there is a kind of drole charm about the narrator's voice (as in most of MH's writing), with its ability to switch from the metaphysical, say, to the quotidian within a single sentence. Food and weather and sodomy live in the interstices between the novel's set pieces. The last, in particular, is important. Very early on Francois declares himself a misogynist, and the initial submission of his story is the submission of women. This begins with his own predilection for anal sex, and ends with a discussion as to how many wives he will be able to support (three it is thought). Through the magic of Islam Francois shucks off his cynical, near-suicidal self, to look forward to a simpler, easier life. He submits. 'Submission' is a warning. It suggests that far from Islam conquering the world by force of arms, it will do so by stealth, by appeal to 'civilized' values: the family, faith etc... It makes one wish that feminism would cease its silly civil wars and prepare itself for a battle to defend the enlightenment and liberal democracy, and for the rest of us in the meantime to remain slightly less civilized than the French.

Friday, 4 December 2015

Line from e e cummings

"the snow carefully everywhere descending"

- wonderful, winterful, line from 'somewhere I have never travelled'.

Monday, 16 November 2015


Book launch: Thursday 19th November, 7.30 pm Poetry Cafe, 22 Betterton St, Covent Garden, London WC2

Illuminated by bright flashes of rueful wit, this is a collection to savour.  But don’t let the conversational tone of Wynn Wheldon’s poems fool you: they smile and take you by the hand and then pierce you with little needles of pathos or loss, as sharp and fiery as Cupid’s arrows.

Cressida Connolly

Here are big themes: sex and death, gods and monsters. 'I could consult The Golden Bough or Sigmund Freud and find all sorts of explanation' declares the poet. But turn instead to his frank, erotic, beguiling poems. Here are the traces of a life, the passage through it, the innocence and experience, the successes and failures, the sacred and profane, here is youth and maturity, mortality, desire, and the cooling of desire. Here we find Dionysus, a phoenix and canoeists from Birmingham. Above all, memory - the curve of a breast, the smell of sex, light falling on water - fleeting sensual impressions that will in turn linger on in the mind of the reader. I love these poems.

Anna Thomasson

Private Places is a full collection in the best sense. It is redolent with thought, in its own voice, full of perception, 'The hillsides weep into the reservoir', and fine irony, 'She gave herself to someone sound.../Who did not euphemise desire with books'.

William Oxley

Saturday, 14 November 2015


Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in the sands of the desert.

A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Monday, 9 November 2015

Philosophy Then and Philosophy Now

Not Danish Cabbie

Second generation Turkish cabbie in Copenhagen: "Danish football - [to my wife] excuse me because you are woman - but Danish football is women's game.  I like English football. Real mens.  I am not Danish. I not marry Danish woman. Danish women too much stress."

Tuesday, 3 November 2015


This is from my mother's novel 'Mrs Bratbe's August Picnic', published in 1965.  The character speaking is Mrs Bratbe's 17 year old Alexandra, recently expelled from school. Uncle Bunny is the Prime Minister.  It seems prescient.

p 247 Panther edition

Saturday, 17 October 2015


So far in this world cup there has been lots of good stuff, but the two best games have both featured Wakes, and Wales have lost them both.  Just.  Absolutely heartbreaking.

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Wooster on a Day Like Today

“It was one of those days you sometimes get latish in the autumn when the sun beams, the birds toot, and there is a bracing tang in the air that sends the blood beetling briskly through the veins.” 
 Bertie Wooster 

Friday, 9 October 2015


The Islands, 1961
Curious, interesting exhibition, though I left feeling vaguely uncomfortable, as though I'd been asked to enjoy someone's desperation.  I understand that Martin suffered from schizophrenia (is that still allowed that word?), and it is almost too easy to see her art as a desperate way of controlling the world.  On each square canvas - and they are almost uniformly square - she imposes grids of faint washes of acrylic or pencil - sorry, graphite - that, in such numbers attests to an almost worrying obsession.  It is as though Durer, say, was only ever intrested in painting rabbits.  The curious, paradoxical effect is both of the very abstract, cold, and the extremely self-expressive.  The result is that there is little place actually for the spectator to play. Having said that, there are works, which, close up,  have an almost hypnotic effect, a little like the way one begins to see patterns in the wallpaper or plaster while soaking in the bath.  I like the painting - actually gold leaf inscribed with pencil - called 'Friendship', made up of pairs of contiguous oblongs, all a little different.  I liked as well 'The Islands' with its smudgy white daubs.  These seem somehow to reflect rather than impose.  They are more generous and inviting.  Against these there is a series of paintings called 'The Island' - paintings that are supposed to hang - to be seen - together.  You have to have very good eyesight to enjoy them as a single work, because, from amidships,  they resemble simple squares of white.  Of them Martin wrote that they are 'formless'.  I think the utter reverse; they are deeply formulaic - that is their essence.  What I miss from this exhibition is the physical - any sense of release: the paintings are humourless (there is hardly a curve to be seen), and, rather, in the end, loveless. I left, as I say, feeling pity rather than awe, but at least wondering, not for the first time, what the point of art is.

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

SONG: Jemmy Jumps, in the Farmer

This is from a publication called Edwin's pills to purge melancholy: containing all the songs sung by Mr. Edwin, ... since his first appearance in London.  It was published by William Holland in 1788 (Holland's was on the corner of Oxford Street and Berners Street).  I came upon it while researching the life of the great Jewish boxer Daniel Mendoza, whose name appears in the final verse.  Anyway, whatever the hell it is about, it's a cracker and very probably rather low.

LOOK'E, dear Ma'am, I'm quite the thing,
Nattibus hey ! tippity ho!
In my shoe I wear a string,
Tied in a black bow, so.
Cards and dice! I've monst'rous luck;
I'm no drake, yet keep a duck,
Tho'not married, yet I'm a buck,
Lantherum swash, kee-vi.

I've a purse well stock'd with—brass,
Chinkity hey! tinkity ho!
I've good eyes, but cock my glass,
Stare about, squintum ho!
In two boots I boldly—walk,
Pistol, sword, I never balk,
Meet my a man, and bravely—talk,
Pippity pop, coupee.

Sometimes mount a smart cockade,
Puppydum hey, struttledum, ho!
From High-Park to the Parade,
Cock my cary kee,
As I pass a sentry-box,
Soldiers rest their bright firelocks,
Each about his musquet knocks,
Rattledum slap, to me!

In the Mall, Ma'am gives her card,
Cashedy me, kissady she!
Sit before the stable-yard,
Leg-orum lounge a-row;
Pretty things I softly say
When I'm ask'd our chairs to pay,
Yes, says I, and walk—away
Pennybus tartum, ho!

At Boulogne I liv'd a week,
Frickasee hey! trickasee ho!
There fine French I learnt to squeak,
Grinnybuss skiptum, ho!
Slap French clack about, hauteur,
Nevetle chef daeuvre, bon douceur,
En bon point, quel tout mon caeur
Fiddledee foll, hee hee!

Rotten row, my Sunday-ride,
Trottledum hey, tumble off, ho!
Poney, eighteen-pence a side,
Windgall, glanderum, ho!
Cricket I fam'd Lumpey nick,
Daddles, smouch Mendoza lick:
Up to, ah! I'm just the kick,
Allemande cap'rum toe

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Ali Cat by Kit Line

Just wonderful.  
Sculpture by a man who can make anything out of anything.

Monday, 28 September 2015


My pal Sam's son Will is a mean guitarist.  And he has a jazz trio cleverly disguised as a quartet. Have a listen.

Saturday, 19 September 2015

Sunday, 13 September 2015

Poem by e.e. cummings

a politician is an arse upon
which everyone has sat except a man

p.56, Selected Poems, 1923-1958 (Faber, 1960)

Saturday, 12 September 2015


I have mixed feelings about Corbyn's triumph: shame, obviously, that a man with such repugnant associations should be the leader of a major British political party; embarrassment that the the Labour Party should have reduced itself to ridicule; excitement at the prospect of some hitherto unlikely politics; fear that a demagogue will be elected into power in 2020; but, above all, a kind of melancholy at the sheer stupidity that has brought it to pass. But, hey, what do I know? I'm just an ageing bloke with a belief in that old-time liberal democracy.  And, ok, I admit, the feelings aren't really that mixed.

Sunday, 6 September 2015


My review of two Templar pamphlets,
from IOTA magazine, Summer 2014 (Issue 94)

by Kim Lasky
Templar, £4.50

This Afternoon and I
by Sarah Robey
Templar, £4.50

Two of the three winners of the 2012/2013 Iota Shot pamphlet competition, Sarah Roby and Kim Lasky are both expressive poets, their voices distinctively their own. Though the pamphlets are very different in style and substance, they share an internal coherence that perhaps lifted them above other submissions.

Lasky’s Eclipse, is a “brief lyric sequence” in free verse.  Lasky spent time with astronomers during a residency in the Astronomy and Physics Department at the University of Sussex, and the result is this slim pamphlet.  It is best read as a single poem, themes and images woven through the sequence to make it whole.

It is addressed to a never wholly revealed “you” who tells the poet about “the relative size / of moon and earth” (p.1, lines 5&6), or that “on a clear night… / the moon is a plump blood orange” (p. 2, lines 1&2), who talks “for hours about such things” (p.3, line 2) as the speed of light.  Most of the sections begin with this telling of astronomical fact, which is then taken from the sky, as it were, and bedded in the quotidian.  And so we move from Galileo’s telescoping of the moon to his daughter’s request for linen, from the mathematics of E=mc2 to speedy black coffee, from “the curvature of space-time” (p.4, line 3) to “a curvature of the spine” (p.4, line 10).

As the sequence develops, so phrases get repeated, images recur, often with symbolic heft: black coffee, dark matter, horses, a tarpaulin, telescopes, fruit (apples especially, Newtonian and paradisal and so on).  It becomes clear that there is a tentative narrative, and a certain place: a farm, from the windows of which the poet and “you” watch the sky, where they become intimate, and then abandon one another: “gravitational attraction / between two bodies dies with distance” (p.10, line 8).

The sequence grows with the reading and re-reading.  To purloin a simile, the re-reading is like the focusing of a telescope.  Clarity emerges. Eclipse has a delicate coherence, beginning with Galileo and ending with Genesis. To dissect much further would be verging on murder. 

Sarah Roby is a very different kind of poet.  While we might imagine Lasky at work with a Rotring pen, Roby we see as happier with a packet of good broad-nibbed felt tips.  This poet likes to fill the page.

The first poem in the pamphlet, ‘H. Rider Haggard’s Bare-Knuckle Wrestle with Time-on-his-Hands’ is divided into six three-line verses, but there is no obvious reason other than to give the reader a pause for breath between gobbets of the poet’s enjoyable rant.  She obviously is not a fan of H. Rider Haggard, for whom it is difficult not to feel a little sympathy. The effect is to send one back to King Solomon’s Mines to see what the fuss is about.

Having just disapprovingly read She, the poet is now to be found, in company with the afternoon of the collection’s title, “sloughed in front of a matinee” (p. 2, line 3), watching Bogart and Hepburn in The African Queen.  I think the poet may disapprove of that, too, but she is obviously drawn to adventure, or perhaps only Africa.

Adventure continues in ‘Levity III’.  Levity III is, in real life, a luminaria, “designed to generate a sense of wonder at the beauty of light and colour,” according to the literature. The poet’s children appear to enjoy it. The poet’s partner is not convinced.  He is “effortful in patience” (p. 5, line 7). This leads to the poem’s conclusion, where its meaning lies. The partner lets “a defence or two / fall, and smiles” (p. 5, line 9/10) promising lift off (or, of course, “levity”) for the adults, but it is not be because the adventure is over and bath time and work beckon.

There’s homework too to do in the following poem ‘The Present Participle’.  As in the previous poem, it is Sunday.  Mother and son should really be outside.  The boy “needs his Sunday trees to climb” (p.6, line 9). As the next poem (‘I Spy in the Home’) unfolds it is difficult not to imagine the son liberated and the mother left to watch a butterfly emerge. Sunday (perhaps ‘Sunday and I’ might have been a more apt title for the collection?) continues in ‘The Aurelian’.  I don’t know whether you are supposed to know Nabokov’s short story, but an ‘aurelian’ is someone interested in butterflies.  The poet here puts herself in that position, netting and pinning a butterfly. It is of course a work of irony in which the narrator unwittingly demonstrates the cruelty of reducing a living thing to a mere emblem, coffined  “in a glass-topped box” (p. 9, line 3).

‘Fantasy’ evokes four different daydreaming moods.  The poet is doing yoga while watching the news (I think), listening to Billie Holiday, dreaming as Emma Bovary dreamed - of having everything - and ends invoking Christina Rossetti’s poem ‘In the Willow Shade’, Roby’s wet hair standing in for the willow.

I sat beneath a willow tree,
Where water falls and calls;
While fancies upon fancies solaced me,
Some true, and some were false.

to realise how a history of hunching,
hair dripped, over white paper
will mean each new idea
begins Within the willow
                                    Roby (p.11, lines16-20)

There follow two sonnets, perhaps the best poems in the little collection, ‘Ritual’ and ‘Ritual II’, both commencing with the truth that “Secular living still needs ritual” (p.12, line 1).  In the former, the more successful, or at least more touching, of the two, there is a hint of Heaney-like tenderness in the octave; the sestet has a Larkinian tinge, especially in the melancholia of the last line, “a reminder that we matter, here, now”.

The final two poems share a similar technique, using analogy as metaphor. But I did not understand ‘Protest Song’ which mixes PJ Harvey singing and her mother-in-law having “an imperceptible heart attack” (p.14, line 8).  This is perhaps an antonymic analogy, but the full meaning escaped me. 

The last poem, ‘How we grieve now’ I hesitate to criticize, as it concerns  a still birth and is written in memory of Michael Jackson.  It is an uncomfortable poem to read, and powerful.  We are a long way from H. Rider Haggard.