Friday, 16 April 2021

The Shakespeare Club

 Can't resist this.  An extract in The Guardian last year from Robert McCrum's terrific book 'Shakespearean' in which he introduces 'the Shakespeare Club'.   I am a proud member, here identified as 'the archivist' (which I'm not really, only more so than the others).


During 20 years of recovery, I slowly transformed a knowledge of the plays I had read at school into a wider acquaintance with the Shakespeare canon, and joined the “Shakespeare Club”, a dedicated play-going circle. That’s what we call it – sometimes, casually “the Club” – which might suggest oak panelling, library chairs, a dress code and a discreet entryphone somewhere in the West End, an association that might turn out to be either furtive or seedy. Actually, it’s neither; we are natural herbivores. If you spotted us in the theatre bar of the Donmar or the National, you might decide we were civil servants in mufti, or off-duty English teachers from the shires, or possibly journalists, which is approximately half right. Three of the seven who make up the Shakespeare Club – now guzzling peanuts and cheap red wine – have worked for newspapers. And yes – oh dear, yes – we are, until quite recently, an all-male, English fraternity. As middle-class metropolitans, we occupy a variety of roles: novelist, journalist, academic, publisher, actor, scriptwriter, and finally our archivist.

This club was established through the persistence of a former venture capitalist who used to go to Shakespeare plays with his college friends. When it became the tradition to have a pizza afterwards, to hash over what they’d just seen, the “Shakespeare Club” began. Today, we are a quintessentially English mix of stage-struck, self-improving playgoers with Eng Lit degrees. Occasionally, rash intruders who should know better will ask about our “favourite Shakespeare”. For the Club, this is an absurdly intimate inquiry. Any one of these plays, in a great production, can find a special place in our affections. Yes, we love LearMuch Ado, and The Tempest, but we also cherish an independence of taste that delights in Love’s Labour’s Lost, any of the Henry plays, or Measure for Measure. Indeed, the only Shakespeare we’ve never seen, because it’s so rarely staged, is The Two Noble Kinsmen.

If there’s one unspoken club rule, it’s that when we meet, we only discuss the play in question: no gossip; no politics; no families; and no football. As an association, we demonstrate near-Olympic sang-froid. As I write, the gods are smiling upon us, but in the past decade – not to mince words – two of our number have got divorced, one of us checked into rehab, and all of us have had distressful troubles with teenage kids. But did any of us ever so much as mention, or even allude to, these torments? Did we hell! No, we are here to see the show. It might sound dull, but it’s surprisingly addictive. We argue, we quote, we tease, admonish, reminisce, and protest (too much); on a good night, we might even get swept away by what we see. We are, no doubt, typical of English audiences through the ages, hommes moyens sensuels.



Thursday, 4 March 2021

White in the moon the long road lies

 

A. E. Housman (1859–1936).  A Shropshire Lad.  1896.
 
XXXVI. White in the moon the long road lies
 
 
WHITE in the moon the long road lies,
  The moon stands blank above;
White in the moon the long road lies
  That leads me from my love.
 
Still hangs the hedge without a gust,        5
  Still, still the shadows stay:
My feet upon the moonlit dust
  Pursue the ceaseless way.
 
The world is round, so travellers tell,
  And straight though reach the track,        10
Trudge on, trudge on, ’twill all be well,
  The way will guide one back.
 
But ere the circle homeward hies
  Far, far must it remove:
White in the moon the long road lies        15
  That leads me from my love.
 

The Moon Flower by F.T. Prince

 


Tuesday, 16 February 2021

PANCAKE DAY - CIVIL COMMOTION from John Taylor's 'Jack A Lent'

 Moreover, it is a goodly sight to see how the

cooks in great men's kitchens, do fry in their master's 
suet, and sweat in her own grease, that if ever a 
cook be worth the eating it is when Shrove- Tuesday 
is in town, for he is so stewed and larded, roasted, 
basted, and almost over-roasted, that a man may eat 
the rawest bit of him and never take a surfeit. In 
a word, they are that day extreme choleric, and too 
hot for any man to meddle with being monarchs of 
the marrow-bones, marquesses of the mutton, lords 
high regents of the spit and the kettle, barons of 
the gridiron, and sole commanders of the frying- 
pan, and all this hurly-burly, is for no other purpose 
but to stop the mouth of this land- wheel Shrove- 
Tuesday. At whose entrance in the morning all the 
whole kingdom is in quiet, but by that time the clock 
strikes eleven, which (by the help of a knavish 
sexton) is commonly before nine, then there is a bell 
rung, called the pancake bell, the sound whereof 
makes thousands of people distracted, and forgetful 
either of manner or humanity : Then there is a 
thing called wheaten flour, which the sulphery 
necromatic cooks do mingle with water, eggs, spice, 
and other tragical magical enchantments, and then 
they put it by little and little into a frying-pan of 
boiling suet, where it makes a confused dismal 
hissing like the Lernean snakes in the reeds of 
Acheron, Styx or Phlegethon) until at last by the skill 
of the cook, it is transformed into the form of a 
flap-jack, which in our translation is called a pancake, 
which ominous incantation the ignorant people do 
devour very greedily (having for the most part well 
dined before :) but they have no sooner swallowed 
that sweet candied bait, but straight their wits for- 
sake them, and they run stark mad, assembling in 
routs and throngs numberless of ungoverned 
numbers, with uncivil civil commotions. 

Tuesday, 26 January 2021

THE DEVIL'S TATTOO by Brett Evans

 My review of this pamphlet, from 2017, for Ink, Sweat and Tears, is no longer available online, so I'm re-posting it here.  






The Devil’s Tattoo

by Brett Evans

(publisher: Indigo Dreams)

 

Reviewed by Wynn Wheldon

 

It is hard to escape the feeling that Brett Evans – or, at least, the poet Brett Evans, if you will accept the delicate distinction - was born in the wrong place at the wrong time, or perhaps in the right place at the right time with the wrong constitution.  He is, properly speaking, a blues singer, part Delta, part Chicago, who has found himself instead a “fat, pink alkie” in a small town in North Wales at the beginning of the twenty-first century.  As he says in the same poem (‘Reading Sean O’Brien in the Bath’), “something is amiss”.

         This short collection is very much of a piece, the themes pulled “over troublesome stones” through it, like the Gele river itself: myth, Wales, pubs and drink, jazz, religion, poetry, and desire.  And perhaps the displacement is perhaps not so great, perhaps he’s a Celt from across the sea, and should have been a Dubliner.  His tipple after all is stout (even in his erotic fantasies he lathers his lover’s hair “to a Guinness foam”).  One way or another these poems are written from the Celtic twilight.

         The melancholic confessional is a hard thing to pull off without self-pity, but there’s none of that here.  The collection’s first poem, ‘Marshes’ starts in childhood – “we swashbuckled summers across the weir” – and powerful fantasy, and ends in two connected sadnesses which can never be erased: the defeat of Wales and the realisation that “we’re who we are” – an end to childhood.  

         Dreams and fantasy fuel much of Evans’s poetry, the paradox being that they earth him in the single place he writes from.  He dreams of being in bed with the great blues “moaner” Ma Rainey; he rides “on the trail of the buffalo” with Ramblin’ Jack Elliot; he is an extra in a Spaghetti western “with an unforgettable score”. He dreams simply “of a song”.

         Do you notice? Music is a constant – the devil’s tattoo. Most of the drunks are singing (usually “A lament for, and from, the anonymous”), Ma Rainey is singing Jelly Bean Blues, Coltrane’s sax is here beautifully kissing the breeze, Armstrong’s doing over ‘Stardust’, even a scarecrow sways like “a metronome to an orchestra / of gale and sleet”.

         Like the dreams of music, the myths of Wales, and the “ugly, lovely children’s world”, desire too keeps the poet busy.  The barmaids “come and go” (probably not talking of Michelangelo), and he dreams of pampering them all. Or, peering from a pub window in the touching ‘Not Raglan Road’, he watches a woman in suede boots: “There is only her moving through this world”.  The poet imagines “a handful / of raindrops may just find their resting place / in her hair”.  This image, almost clumsily described – “may just” is perfectly awkward – is delicately erotic. As is also the “fantasized unclothing” of the sycamore stem in ‘Carving a Lovespoon’. ‘Positions in Bed’ contains not only “an imagined lover” but also “dream pubs”.

         My favourite poem, and one I think would do well in schools (that sounds faintly praising but is not at all meant to), stands a little apart from the rest of the collection.  It is not confessional, and yet, insofar as Evans does come close to self-pity it may be the most confessional of them all.  It is called ‘Scarecrow’.  There is explicit analogy with the crucified Christ – “arms outstretched, forsaken, / he wears his unkempt crown”, and later “This son of Man // is blind to purpose, rooted in solitude” – but here there is no redemption.  The suggestion is of a godless world, and God does pop up more frequently in these poems than one at first notices.  How could he not, given the presence of the blues, of Guinness, of Wales?  But he’s here in passing, in ghostly form. The devil is much more real.  There is, in ‘Anticipating Pints of Stout’ a marvellous description of the drink lined up on a bar: “a lechery / of pint-sized priests to knock back without repentance”.  Drink, not religion, brings salvation.

         The collection ends as it began, in childhood, or rather in the memory of childhood, and reflections on the present:

 

I haunt our stomping grounds, my shadow striding

out before me: a giant ghost, coat flapping in the wind.

And the water before the weir forever lapping at the child.

 

         Do we have a word for nostalgia without the fleck of sentimentality that makes nostalgia kitsch? The Welsh word hiraeth is often translated as homesickness, but it may also denote a longing for the past.  Might it do to describe the spirit of these lines?  I don’t know.  I am not a Welsh-speaker, but maybe.

The devil’s tattoo drums through all our lives, and the poet’s desire that “the familiar must become the unfamiliar” – which I take to be one of the things poetry does -  is what defies that beat and makes the real tolerable.  Sean O’Brien and Dylan Thomas are both presences here, both poets capable of seeing wonder in the quotidian.  It is an ability, a tendency, that Brett Evans aspires to, and often achieves, in this short, punchy, thoroughly engaging and coherent pamphlet.


Tuesday, 5 January 2021

BOOKS 2021

 Adele by Leila Slimani

The Rainbow by D.H. Lawrence

Let Go My Hand by Edward Docx

The Power of the Dog by Don Winslow

Living on the Volcano by Michael Calvin

On Chapel Sands by Laura Cumming

Right Ho, Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse

A Life of My Own by Claire Tomalin

Under the Greenwood Tree by Thomas Hardy

Invincible Summer by Alice Adams

Monday, 4 January 2021

From'Autumn Journal' by Louis MacNeice

 Louis MacNeice takes on a persona in the first part of 'Autumn Journal'.

And the train’s rhythm becomes the ad nauseam repetition
Of every tired aubade and maudlin madrigal,
The faded airs of sexual attraction
Wandering like dead leaves along a warehouse wall:
‘I loved my love with a platform ticket,
A jazz song,
A handbag, a pair of stockings of Paris Sand—
I loved her long.
I loved her between the lines and against the clock,
Not until death
But till life did us part I loved her with paper money
And with whisky on the breath.
I loved her with peacock’s eyes and the wares of Carthage,
With glass and gloves and gold and a powder puff
With blasphemy, camaraderie, and bravado
And lots of other stuff.
I loved my love with the wings of angels
Dipped in henna, unearthly red,
With my office hours, with flowers and sirens,
With my budget, my latchkey, and my daily bread.’