Wednesday, 17 June 2015


Five years ago Sam Munson published The November Criminals.  His new novel, The War Against the Assholes is out now.  I look forward to reading it. Here follows my Amazon review of the first book.

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.

Wednesday, 10 June 2015


Reading a review of Mary Norris's 'Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen', I find the following information: "...the humble comma [was] invented in the late 15th century by Aldo Manuzio, the same Venetian printer who created the first italic type-face".

Saturday, 6 June 2015


Mildly diverting exhibition by a New York artist who started off abstract but went figurative in the early 70s.  There are one or two examples of the early stuff - mostly astoundingly dull with the exception of a couple of small pictures with stars in them.  Four or five large paintings that give the exhibition its title - 'In the Land of Giants' - take as their theme standing stones that the artist has seen in Ireland, where she worked for some ten years or so in the 70s and 80s.  They are big, and tend to have a kind of void - either an emptiness or a darkness - at the their centre (echoing rather the dull abstract pictures).    There are elements of proper drawing - rather amateurish to this uncuratorial eye - in them but at least there is a focus in the stones.  Other paintings in the exhibition are full of disparate images, some half-realised, some cunningly hidden in the layers of the picture.  This isn't surrealism.  I'm not sure what you'd call it.  On the back of the 'File Note' that accompanies the exhibition are two quotations from Dylan Thomas, 'adapted' by Jo Baer, but actually it is the other Dylan, Bob, that these paintings bring to mind, particularly the albums of 1965-66, though they suffer by comparison, having no voice or rhythm to give them coherence.  Still, they are enjoyable, almost persuading one to take the time to try and decipher their 'meanings' (an attempt, that, as with Dylan, would probably prove fruitless).  Recommended if passing by on a sunny day.  Lovely outside garden and cafe.  Free entry, so why not?

Friday, 5 June 2015


"Misunderestimate" - rather good new word from Zadie Smith in her story about three celebrated performers fleeing 9/11, 'Escape from New York', in the current New Yorker.

Michael Witmore (Folger Shakepseare Library)

Thursday, 4 June 2015


OK, so not Donaghy standard, but mine own.


Playing pool at the Prince Bonaparte
Was not always such a genteel pastime.
I’m not saying you were going to be knifed
Or have your gut perforated with a pool stick,
Just that you got looked at.  If you’ve been looked at
You’ll know what I mean. The smoke was good
And the stink of beer, and altogether the sense
Of usedness the place had, like an old tool.

These places are gone or going now
Because renewal is the luxury we have time and money for
And doesn’t the year do it, anyway?
Isn’t it natural? Isn’t there a happy bruise or two
Of purple crocuses on the green?
Don’t we rejoice?

I’ve not drunk in the Prince Bonaparte for years
But if I went I would miss the smoke and the spilled beer
(It’s more merlot now than ESB)
And even the being looked at, and I’m afraid
That in the good food and the new d├ęcor

And even the svelte young women, I would not rejoice.

(This originally appeared in The Spectator and is included in a forthcoming collection, called 'Private Places' (Indigo Dreams))

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

THE PRESENT by Michael Donaghy

This is the poem I read at the Heidelberg wedding:


For the present there is just one moon,
though every level pond gives back another.

But the bright disc shining in the black lagoon,
perceived by astrophysicist and lover,

is milliseconds old. And even that light’s
seven minutes older than its source.

And the stars we think we see on moonless nights
are long extinguished. And, of course,

this very moment, as you read this line,
is literally gone before you know it.

Forget the here-and-now. We have no time
but this device of wantonness and wit.

Make me this present then: your hand in mine,
and we’ll live out our lives in it.

Michael Donaghy


I love this meter - trochaic tetrameter - which Longfellow found in the Finnish epic poem, the Kalevala, and used for 'The Song of Hiawatha'.  It comes as naturally in Finnish as the iambic pentameter does in English (apparently). Trochaic (DUM de) tetrameter (x4) goes like this: DUM de DUM de DUM de DUM de.  It runs like a train, and it is hard to get off, especially if read aloud.  One of its odd qualities is the illusion it fosters of rhyme.

Here's a passage from the Introduction to 'Hiawatha':

  Ye, who sometimes, in your rambles
Through the green lanes of the country,
Where the tangled barberry-bushes
Hang their tufts of crimson berries
Over stone walls gray with mosses,
Pause by some neglected graveyard,
For a while to muse, and ponder
On a half-effaced inscription,
Written with little skill of song-craft,
Homely phrases, but each letter
Full of hope and yet of heart-break,
Full of all the tender pathos
Of the Here and the Hereafter;--
Stay and read this rude inscription,
Read this Song of Hiawatha! 

Tuesday, 2 June 2015


View from the bedroom:
the Old bridge over the Neckar
If you're going to get married somewhere romantic Heidelberg is fairly high on the list.  A ruined castle on a hill, cobbled streets, an ornate and lovely old bridge, and a history of philosophers, poets and painters swooning about the place.  Heidelberg is actually a wedding destination.  Couples travel there to get married.  On the day that my son and my clever, beautiful and cheerful new daughter (and mother of my grand-daughter) were spliced a great slew of weddings was visible going in and out of the Rathaus, in and out of the cafes in the market square, togged up and ready to celebrate.  You couldn't move for uncomfortably buttoned-up fathers and uncles, and women in new tights and hair-do's.  And gleaming among them the whites and creams of the brides, each with a bouquet yet to be hurled.

Self and wife prepared
Rain had been promised, but it showered gently, sweetly, only for a few moments last Friday morning.  We clattered over the cobbles from our hotel and met our fellow guests plus of course the bride, the groom and GD).  The chatter was mostly in German, but the Germans being well-educated most of them spoke good English.  I recognised the best man, soon to be a medical doctor with an interest in neurology, and a ready and enjoyable propensity for laughter (and a bow-tie, the band of which, said the doctor, is in German called a Vater-morder - a fatherkiller).  The bride's father, a lovely chap, but shy, was armed with a camera (he is a photographer) and cleverly used the equipment to keep out of too many airy conversations. The bride's mother looked cool, calm and surprisingly collected (but whispered to me after the ceremony that she thought they looked "a good team").  The bride's sister sported an impressive embonpoint and a wide smile, and my English sons laughed and nodded and were graceful and gentlemanly.  My wife agreed with the small talk as best she could and looked reassuringly beautiful.

The ceremony took place in a room decked out as a sort of Wedgwood teapot. Very elegant and appropriate.  I'm fairly sure that the 'family' were the only ones officially invited in, but there were no officious types to keep anyone out and the little room was packed.  The registrar, a handsome woman, read from several very large pages, though to what effect I do not know.  The GD occasionally burbled and squeaked and kept everyone in good humour. I sat next to the bride's mother and when the important part had been concluded she leaned into me - "it is done".  We clapped, and trailed out to find a string quartet waiting to play a series of lollipops.  The lead violinist turns out to be a physicist working on crystals that will render all our phones and tablets and wotnots flexible and thin, so easily lost.

Kir-royals followed at a cafe in the Kornmarkt, overlooked by the schloss, which was a good, ooh, two minutes walk away.  We ate fairy cakes and fresh pretzels. I talked to a woman doing a PhD about the interface between politics and scientists finding ways to ameliorate the effects of climate change. I think. She had around 5 years to finish it.  She doesn't like Chicago.  She likes Normandy.  She's never been to England.  I felt conscious of being surrounded by intelligent young people, of "intellectual outstandingness". Which is a nice feeling and quite rare.

We had time for a siesta before heading back to the Restaurant Hugo for the wedding feast. Restaurant Hugo is one of those places that caters to the would-be bohemian in us - all wooden tables and empty wine bottles - while actually serving very good food.   Our meal was terrific - one thing after another - an amuse-bouche followed by a starter of goats cheese and pistachio, followed by a dish of salmon and chorizo (delicious), a sorbet, and perfectly cooked braised fillet of beef with dauphinoise and some kind of chutney.  Apparently the steak was daubed with a little chocolate a la mexicana.  Pudding was a tiramisu and ice-cream with pepper.  Very Heston.  I sat next to an attractive young woman in a loose orange frock who was doing PR for a Jazz Festival but was trained as a philosopher.  She spoke good English and helpfully translated everything the enthusiastic sommelier had to say about each new wine (which was usually quite a lot). Rather disconcertingly she told me I was known to be funny.  I think I may have rather disappointed her.

Rather shockingly the only pic I managed to take of bride and groom in same shot. They are both attempting to sing Love and Marriage.

Speeches were made,  two in German - one by the Father of the Bride, one by the Mother of the groom, and one in English, by me.  Actually, I didn't make a speech at all, but read Michael Donaghy's beautiful poem, 'The Present', and made a toast to the other parents.  Then my son made his speech, described afterwards by one of his closest friends as "the most unromantic speech ever made by a groom at a wedding feast, and it made me cry".  Actually the friend was wrong.  This was a speech - a paper, my son called it - that sought to find a rationale for the occasion for two decidedly non-religious people for whom social convention has no special demands.  Despite all attempts to derail himself, he came in the end to the conclusion that it must be for love.  Probably the most honest, and therefore most romantic wedding speech, made in Heidelberg for years, although knowing the place possibly not the only one to feature quotations from Immanuel Kant. Thanks are due to another son for this observation, though I think I would have come to much the same conclusion on my own, had I not been in tears myself (both from laughter and from, well, an overflowing of paternal tenderness).

There followed a rendition, with guitar and one of those instruments you blow into that isn't a bagpipe, of 'All You Need is Love', which supplied a tiny seasoning of the hippie-spiritual, and a rousing 'Love and Marriage' sung by various members of the crowd, one of whom wore a flat cap and braces throughout the entire proceedings.  There was also a sort of cat-walk business apparently in hommage to Germany's Next Top Model, which is the ironic must-see programme in the land that gave us Marlene Dietrich and Heidi Klum.

The electrically-supplied music seemed to have arrived from some other wedding.  It certainly wasn't what my son had planned, but everyone seemed to be happy despite its quite extraordinary mediocrity.  Germans absolutely love anything that involves clapping along to things, and once partying it is hard to stop them.

We departed a little earlier than we perhaps ought, but two of us were invalids, and I was knackered from trying to dance to music I wouldn't be seen dead moving to in the UK. I retain a modicum of snobbishness in these matters.

It was a stupendous day.  Groom in DJ and cummerbund (borrowed by the British from Indians to wear in place of waistcoats), bride in a wonderfully unfrilly cream dress she'd bought in Luxemburg (where her parents live). They had conducted themselves - as they always do - with grace and tact and cheerfulness, and I love them both. Their daughter, GD, was equally a part of the scene, mollycoddled by all but unfazed. Three stars.

Monday, 1 June 2015


Boswell, who knew a thing or two about biography, wrote the following in the dedication of his Life of Johnson, to Joshua Reynolds:

"...though I tell nothing but the truth, I have still kept in my mind that the whole truth is not always to be exposed.  This, however, I have managed so as to occasion no diminution of the pleasure which my book should afford; though malignity may sometimes be disappointed of its gratifications."

How I wish I'd had this to hand 35 odd years ago...