THE INTELLECTUAL LIFE OF THE BRITISH WORKING CLASSES. by Jonathan Rose. ISBN 0-300-08886-8. Yale University Press.  

Are the working classes stupid? Do they deserve their position in society because of their lack of brains or their fecklessness? Cyril Burt thought so. Perhaps some of those behind the revival of the idea of meritocracy, little though they seem to understand the satirical intent of the term, believe so too. Although most of the working-class memoirs quoted in this book are by an exceptional few, they give the lie to the notion that society is an efficient sorting mechanism which allots each individual to his or her rightful place. Most of them make for delightful reading and they bring a poignant realization of the waste of the capacity for sheer joy inherent in the prejudices of class society. Jonathan Rose has written a book which it is a simple pleasure to read. It could be read and enjoyed by any literate adult with a modicum of curiosity. The essential pleasure of the book lies in its style. Rose writes in a cheerful and friendly manner, without jargon or cumbersome theory. The book is full of ideas, but they are Rose's. He is not in thrall to any grand authority. He's a man who thinks and writes. This approach makes his style so clear and unpretentious reading seems almost effortless. He has worked hard to make his book accessible, in keeping with its subject. The writers he admires have done the same. Rose is a champion of the intelligence of the common people, an enemy of intellectual snobbery and exclusion. He combines his easy style, however, with impressive scholarship. This book's bibliography is remarkable. It's full of references to working-class memoirs which, on the evidence of the extracts quoted, ought to be much better known. That's the point. If the working-classes aren't at the bottom because they deserve to be, what's the explanation? A ready acknowledgement of the extraordinary achievements in autodidacticism of working people and of their accomplishments as writers might make the answer somewhat too obvious.

Rose   surveys   the   history   of   working-class autodidacticism from the point of view of its practitioners. One of the lessons of this book is that cultural history is too often written from the point of view of those who have delivered culture or who see themselves as its defenders. Rose is determined to let those on the receiving end speak for themselves. In so doing he makes clear that the accepted views are far from beyond challenge. Is it true, for example, that the working-classes hated their schools because of their discipline, poor resources narrow curriculum and so on? Rose cites the testimonies of those who were grateful for their schooling, believed it helped them towards cultural literacy, gave them a framework of values. What's his purpose? Not, I think, to defend a crude, reactionary position which says that the working-classes knew no better and deserved no better, but rather to defend the whole idea of the value of education as a source of enlightenment and freedom for the individual. By letting the people who experienced the education system as working-class children tell their own story he makes clear that those who attempt to control people's minds can never be sure how what they are peddling will be received. This is a hopeful, humane and democratic message. It scuppers the pessimism of the commentators who assume that what is received by an audience is always exactly what the purveyors of the message intend. The working-classes were quite capable of making up their own minds about the value of what was offered them in school and elsewhere. The more the working-classes speak for themselves, the more ludicrous the class structure of British society appears.

Autodidacticism and mutual improvement were working-class responses to exclusion. When they sought to educate themselves, they showed remarkably good taste: they went straight to the classics. A classical education, a liberal education, was exactly what the working-class needed. Rose is at pains to show that either an education which disdained the classic as non-revolutionary and insisted on teaching only whatever spoke of proletarian uprising, or one which asserted that the working-classes, given the lowly functions they would perform in society, had no need of familiarity with the classics, was far from what the majority of self-improvers wanted. They had the good sense to improve their minds through the best the human mind has produced. Once again, Rose's generous confidence that, given a chance, people will know how to seek out what is good for them prevails over the snake-oil remedies of manipulative pseudo-revolutionaries and the de-haut-en-bas control of the arrogant elites. He takes on and demolishes the arguments, for example, of those who saw the WEA as a diversion. The notion that, had it not been for the hours spent on WEA courses, the working-classes would have been building barricades, is shown up as shoddy and tendentious both in the chapter dealing with the WEA and in the one cleverly titled Alienation From Marxism. Rose tries to answer Ross McKibbin's well-known question: why was there no Marxism in Great Britain? Again, he takes an original slant and lets the workers speak for themselves. His conclusion is simple but telling: most workers found Marxists dogmatic, intolerant, selfish and anti-literary. Working-class socialists, especially the self-educated who took their socialism seriously, were moved by ethical and philosophical principles which inspired tolerance, compassion, kindness. Communist Party officials were often bumptious bullies. It seems the British working-classes were canny enough not to exchange one set of masters for another. Instead, they sought enlightenment, independence and reform.

Of course, something went wrong. Why did working-class self-improvement come to an end? And why did the working-classes never absorb the seminal works of modernism in the way they took to Dickens or Carlyle or Ruskin or the Brontes? Rose has sympathy with John Carey's famous thesis: the modernists were mandarins writing for mandarins; they deliberately sought out difficulty in order to exclude the odious masses; they made themselves a priesthood and their rituals excluded the majority as effectively as the Act for the Advancement of True Religion of 1543 which prohibited the common people from reading the Bible. The problem with Carey's thesis is that it contains a fair ballast of truth. Virginia Woolf was an atrocious snob, as was her husband. Eliot was a prig and a snooty hater of democracy. Ezra Pound talked of the working-classes as if they were another species. Lawrence could seriously suggest the masses shouldn't be educated. MacDiarmid liked the workers so long as they remained theoretical. Joyce was capable of distant narcissism. No doubt modernism drew some of its inspiration from the sheer snobbery and egotism of the most unpleasant characteristics of some of its foremost exponents. And postmodernism, let it be said, is even worse. All the same, Carey's is a highly selective argument. How, for example, does Kafka fit? Surely not through snobbery? Isn't it rather that modernism, on one level, its best level, was a response to the collapse in confidence brought about by the sudden changes of the first years of the twentieth century? Apollinaire celebrated those changes in the early part of Zone, but the poem has a downbeat ending. Once the Great War and its horrors had arrived, who could return to the innocence of a Mr Micawber or the confidence of a Thomas Carlyle? The events of the twentieth century made much of the literature to which the working-classes had turned seem naive. When Kafka commented that for him Charles Dickens was " heartlessness masked by a style overflowing with feeling" wasn't he picking up on glibness in Dickens' treatment of character and event? Who can be convinced, for example, by Bounderby's conversion? Kafka is a difficult modernist, not because he's a snob, but because he elaborated an art which recreated the opaque horrors of his century. In the same way, who could seriously claim that Picasso was seeking obscurity for its own sake? the dishonesty and snobbery which are present in certain modernists and certain strains of modernism shouldn't become sufficient explanations for the whole modernist enterprise. As the eighteenth century belief in rationalism turned into the high confidence of the nineteenth century (especially in Britain where, for ail their poverty, the working classes could nevertheless identify with Empire and the idea of national greatness) it was only to be expected that literature, at some level at least, should give expression to the belief that the rational mind powering economic and social progress would lead us to freedom and enlightenment. Above all else, the First World War rocked those convictions. Shortly before, Freud had shaken the confidence in the power of the rational mind. Wouldn't you expect artists to respond by a flight from the overweening certainties that led to the trenches and which, for all their confidence, were almost powerless in the face of commonplace neurosis? Weren't Dada and Surrealism, for example, attempts to explore territory whose existence was barely acknowledged by those Victorian writers whom the working-classes took to so easily? Where is erotic love in Dickens? Relationships between men and women never get beyond calf-love. It's not a question of explicit sex, which is very rarely well done in fiction, rather a treatment of adult emotional life. In the same way, what happens to Carlyle's conviction in a century in which women refuse any longer to occupy a peripheral social space and the cult of the Great Leader turns up Hitler and Stalin? Carey's argument is, finally, condescending. At its heart is the conviction that though the masses may be comfortable with Arnold Bennett they can never hope to get to grips with The Trial or the Tin Drum. Carey turns out to be as much a snob as the modernists he criticizes. Maybe, however, the failure of the masses to respond to modernism is merely a matter of historical lag. Rose is very good on the idea of the reader's frame. Without the education which provides such a frame, literature is difficult to grasp. Perhaps it will take a long time until the majority have evolved a frame which permits them to understand what's going on in Kafka or Gunter Grass or even Eliot. If you can read and your frame tells you what a story is, you can understand Dickens. It may require a much more sophisticated frame, however, to understand Milan Kundera.

This is not to dismiss Rose's heartening and generous defence of the intellectual and cultural aspirations of the working-classes. When he asks what went wrong, Rose pins the blame on Bloomsbury disillusion and disaffection filtering down to the secondary schools. The upshot was youth culture with all its superficiality and posturing. The earnestness of Victorian self-improvement couldn't hold up under the onslaught of fashionable cynicism and detachment. Rose is surely right about this. The ideas of intellectuals do filter down, sooner or later, and when Mrs Woolf's distaste for the facts of existence hits the streets, the results can be devastating. Britain has suffered a real trahison des clercs. Those charged with the mission of forming the national mind have led it to depression and breakdown. There is a wonderful quotation towards the end of the book from Frederic C Wigby who worked as senior porter at the University of East Anglia: " Porters, cleaning ladies and kitchen staff, who all worked for the benefit and comfort of students, were quite often treated shamefully and with derision." Commenting on the students Wigby says: " Listening to them at times was like being in a mental hospital where everyone was pretending to be someone else."

Wigby is right. Bloomsbury snootiness, packaged for the masses, has created a culture of bad manners and phoniness. To speak of good manners these days is to be thought of as old-fashioned, but common politeness plays a vital role in maintaining a hierarchy of decencies. Privileged students abusing those who serve them is the perfect image of postmodern posturing. And how many of those students would come anywhere near the forty hours and more each week of reading which was common among WEA students in London in the mid-thirties? WEA students who, presumably, were holding down full-time jobs and looking after families. Reading and learning are unfashionable. The hard effort of improvement has given way to slick self-promotion. The historical circumstances which created the wave of working-class autodidacticism have disappeared to be replaced by the culture of the burger bar: give me what I want, give it me now, I know my rights, I'm a consumer. The working-class self-improvers weren't consumers, except of much of the best literature. They were producers. There is a childish, regressive element to commercial consumption, the emotional concomitant of the collapse of intellectual values. Sooner or later this will hit its nadir and a reaction will begin. At least one hopes so. In the meantime, Rose's book is a thoroughly fascinating source of history, anecdote, argument and, above all, hope.  


THE GAME OF WAR: The Life & Death Of Guy Debord. By Andrew Hussey. Jonathan Cape. ISBN 0-224-04348-X. £18.99.  

Guy Debord is an example of the man or woman of high intelligence, strong imagination and powerful will, who develops early in life an almost visceral appreciation of the injustice and stupidity of their society and spends the rest of their life in a more or less hopeless attempt to convince others of what they know and to inspire them to bring about change. Debord led the Situationist International for almost the whole of its life in the 1960s, but what this book makes you sense is that no organization could hold him. He fell out with almost everyone. Genius is bound to. The essence of genius is that it's so individual no-one can see through its eyes. How, then, to be a genius and to lead a movement for social change? Debord's influence on the events of 1968 and therefore the role he has played in shifting the direction of French society is substantial. It wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that if any individual was responsible for the uprising of 1968, it was Debord. Debord's insights into the nature of modern capitalism, its psychological underpinnings, the way it turns everything into an image of itself, make him a thinker of extraordinary clarity and penetration. He had no small talent as a writer either. His ability to condense and summarize was a poet's. Metro, boulot, dodo, is not merely part of the French language, it's known to people the world over as encapsulation of the killing routines of industrial and commercial societies. Debord was brilliant at that kind of reduction: the poet's ability to say most by saying least. He was convinced, and he was probably right, that the ideas of the Situationists were in everyone's head. How to put people in touch with what they know? The slogans daubed on the walls of the Latin Quarter and elsewhere during the melting days of soixante-huit were worth more, in terms of making people think about the dehumanization of their lives, than voluble speeches, mile-long columns in newspapers, parliamentary debates that aren't really debates at all. This is, if you like, the sunny side of Debord: sharp, witty, humane, revolutionary, hopeful, capable of love and friendship. The dark side lay in his compulsions and confusions.

Debord was a soak. He loved to booze and descended into alcoholism. He was never a violent or unpleasant drunk, but drink got the better of him. This raises the obvious question: where is the better world, the rational world, let's say; where the escape from the compulsions of work and consumerism if a man like Debord can't even escape the clutches of a commonplace little chemical? The question isn't facetious. In certain ways, Debord lacked character, if character is defined as the ability to rise above circumstance. He fiercely attacked his society and all the fools who compromised with it (he was good at insults, as those who believe they've seen what others can't or won't often are) but his own compromise with drink he forgave. He took no exercise, not merely out of a rejection of the narcissistic cult of health and beauty that he saw among the well-to-do of the Cote d'Azur, but as if his body itself were part of a capitalist conspiracy. There is something unnerving about a man for whom the simple pleasure of a walk might be seen as a form of compromise or corruption. In the same way, Debord had a fascination for the demi-monde, as if pimps and n'er-do-wells by their very marginalization represented some kind of principle. He admired Jacques Mesrine, France's most famous gangster during the 70s and a cult hero among some of the unthinking and unfeeling who subscribed to the notion of Mesrine as a kind of Robin Hood. Mesrine was no such thing. He was a vicious and unpleasant racist who had seen terrible things in Algeria and whose mind was certainly seriously disturbed. Mesrine's daughter had been adopted by Debord's friend and associate Gerard Lebovici, another somewhat unstable character with a taste for dangerous company. When he was shot in his car in May 1984, a professional job according to the police, Debord was caught up in a very nasty business. The low press attacked him with its usual mixture of inaccuracy, fantasy, paranoia and venom. That Debord might have been responsible for the murder was plainly ludicrous. Nevertheless, he had created plenty of hostages to fortune. It's a cliché that there are similarities in the psychology of the revolutionary and the outlaw. Outlaws can easily be romanticized. As Reinhold Niebuhr has remarked, all societies are organized around mediocrity and confuse the moral turpitude which falls below, with the moral genius that rises above the accepted level. All too easy, then, to see the bandit, the crook, the cheat, the low crawl of a character as some kind of misunderstood hero. Certainly there was an element of this in Debord. An outsider, he identified with outsiders of any kind. Lebovici was a cheap and shallow individual, not the stern stuff of which true radicals are made. Who can make a revolution for justice out of the sordid stuff of a paperback thriller? Finally, people know what character is and they'll respond to it. The sordid circumstances of Lebovici's death guaranteed that Debord would forever be associated with a dark, corrupt, dishonest, violent world where the only principle is that you get your own way. Festered lilies make poor radicals.

Debord's genius lay in his thinking and his ability to express himself concisely and, at times poetically. That's genius enough for any man. But like so many, he wasn't content with the genius he had. He wasn't a man who could belong to organizations. He was too exceptional. Yet he wanted to belong. But every belonging led to recrimination and expulsion. Finally, it's hard not to feel that had Debord confined himself more, had his ambitions been less exorbitant, had he made a sensible distinction between those who are society's enemies on principle and those who are just corrupted bourgeois, he might have left behind a less tainted reputation. His reputation is important. The dead time he abhorred is ever more prevalent. And who could deny the acuity of his diagnosis of our current malaise? If ever there was a society of the spectacle, it's ours." All that was once directly lived has become mere representation." The truth of that opening assertion of The Society Of The Spectacle is all around us. That Debord was too in thrall to Marxism shouldn't blind us to the insights he threw out. At a time when the left is badly disoriented, radicals could do worse than find a bit of inspiration in Debord.

Andrew Hussey has written a marvelous biography. I know people who have always found Debord's work too abstract who have read this book with relish. Hussey's research is thorough and has turned up endless fascinating little anecdotes and details. One of the joys of the book is the lively and humanizing way Hussey recounts certain episodes in his research, his meeting with Michel Houellebecq for example, like Debord a beautiful writer, a radical and a drink-sodden genius. Hussey writes in a dear, unimpeded style and makes the events he recounts seem fresh and imperative. He includes just enough comment on Debord's ideas to keep you interested but never slips into dull theorizing. Even if you disagree utterly with Debord's ideas and deplore his life, you'd be hard pressed not to enjoy this study. One of the things I liked about it was that after putting it down, I wasn't sure just what Hussey felt about his subject or his ideas. He is respectful enough not to be intrusive or judgmental: a quality of thoughtful and principled restraint much in need just now.


JACK BEECHING, POEMS 1940-2000 (Collection Myrtus, Raima de Mallorca)
SELECTED POEMS 1960-2000 by Charles Hobday (Mammon Press, Bath)  

'When a cause is lost in the only way it can really be lost; that is to say, when it becomes irrelevant to any existing circumstances - the fate of the individual engaged in it is never an easy-one. To walk out of history by the back door and to continue to live is a sad task; to shrink to a fading patch of belief, to compromise, to deteriorate into an opportunist or harden into a fanatic - none of these are pleasant choices.’

The novelist Iris Morley was writing here about the experience of English radicals after 1688, but these were also the grim alternatives that faced her generation of Communists after 1956. No political party ever attracted the support of so many distinguished poets - most notably Sylvia Townsend-Warner, Edgell Rickword, Randall Swingler, John Manifold, Cecil Day Lewis, Maurice Carpenter, Roger Roughton, John Cornford, Hugh Sykes-Davies, Nancy Cunard, Idris Davies, Montagu Slater, Peter Blackman, Julius Lipton, Arnold Rattenbury, Jack Lindsay, Geoffrey Matthews, Clive Branson, E.P.Thompson, Hamish Henderson and Hugh MacDiarmid. Between 1936 and 1956 the CP was the natural home for poets who believed that all art was socially produced and that their work should therefore attend to the society they inhabited. The break-up of that poetic tradition after 1956 and the failure of any subsequent political formation to reconstruct is arguably one of the reasons that poetry has become so isolated from contemporary society, leaving it vulnerable to the claims of political agnosticism, cynicism and irony. Outside the work of one or two notable individuals, it is hard now to imagine what a politically committed poetic culture might look like at the beginning of the twenty-first century.  

These two retrospectives by two of the last members of that English Communist poetic tradition are to be warmly welcomed as a reminder that for some at least, poetry provided a way of surviving the wreckage after 1956. Charles Hobday, now eighty-four, spent his working life as a journalist; his biography of Edgell Rickword was published a few years ago ; Jack Beeching, now seventy-eight, has made a living as a historical novelist, translator and hack-writer, but is best known as the editor of the Penguin Hakluyt and a contributor to Penguin Modem Poets 16.

Although a good deal of their poetry still remains uncollected (there are some disappointing omissions here, like Beeching's To the Memory of Thomas McGrath and Hobday's translations from Aragon and Brecht) these are nevertheless, in their different ways, huge books (Beeching's weighs in at 425 pages). This is not poetry as a pass-time or career, but as a radical way of seeing, of being. Because the poems in both books are organised by subject rather than by date of composition, they constitute a sort of autobiography, the only kind that poets really need, a sort of mobius-strip of poetry and politics.

Beechings' poetry is tough, elegant, clipped and epigrammatic, remote and formal and beautiful, each poem carved on the page. His models are Mallarme, Aragon and Brecht, although their sunlit geography also suggests the exiled poetry of Graves and Durrell, even Lawrence (Beeching has spent most of the last forty-five years outside the UK, variously arrested in Turkey and in Italy, deported from Greece and expelled from the USA). The relationship between the poems is not always dear, and the book might have benefited from some notes, a contents or an index, especially since some of the poems collected here appear under new titles. But it is the scale and continuity of the whole thing which is so impressive - the sharp eye and the crisp voice that hold these sixty years' of 'communard' poems together. And there are some stunning poems here, notably 'In the End, Death is What Wins,' The Resurrection of the Flesh1, The Child is New', 'For the Birthday of Thomas McGrath', 'Despotic Architecture', 'Flamingoes on Formentera', '1848-1944', 'Spring Song, 1940', '1848 1944', 'War Grave on All Souls Night' and the wonderful The Gaudy Camp Follower'  

'She took her scarlet knickers off   
To wave them at the sailors  
And that was when we mutineers  
Decided to be failures.  

Her face was pain and varnish,
Her smile a cheerful grin, ..,. 
Most of us called her freedom,  
But some, Original Sin.  

She waved her scarlet banner 
At the drunkard and the rebel  
Who dreamed that all they'd dreamed of  
Was needed, and was noble.  

She opened wide her aperture,  
Wide enough to swallow us.  
We ran into her trap like mice  
And there were more to follow us.  

She took us in when we were boys,  
And, now our hair is grey,  
After a lifetime in her lap  
How can we get away?

Too many years spent spending,  
How can we start to save? 
A lifetime in that succulent pit  
And one foot in the grave.'  

The poems in Hobday's How Goes The Enemy? come with more clues - dedications, epigraphs, an autobiographical essay at the back. His work is more immediately accessible, employing popular forms, cultural references and shared jokes. Between poems recalling a Nonconformist childhood in Eastbourne, and poems celebrating the meditative leisure of retirement, the book ranges in form - villanelle, ottava rima, ballad, sonnet, mock-heroic couplets, epistolary, free-verse - and in subject - student politics in the 1930s, the death of his first wife, translations from Rimbaud, painters and other poets, the restrained satirical bite of post-Communist politics. There are many literary models here, notably Byron and Auden. But again it is the continuity of the whole thing which is so impressive, a gentle, kindly, self-deprecating, radical English voice which holds these forty years' poems together. And there are some marvellous individual poems here, for example, 'Chimes at Midnight', 'Dancers' 'Achievement', 'Bone Meal', 'Harvest Home', 'David', The Blacksmsith', 'Sunflowers', The Voyagers', 'Le Gamin de Paris', 'Glastonbury at Christmas', 'Protestant Portrait', 'A Letter to Charles Poulsen', 'Hyde Park Corner', The Ballad of the Good Comrade Svejk' and Thirty Years On', where Hobday recalls old comrades, including one killed in a tank in Normandy:  

'The familiar names evoke  
evenings in Cambridge rooms  
of beer and bawdy songs and endless talk
on poetry, God, sex and revolution,  
uneasily assumed sophistication  
asking the guilty secret we were virgins.  
Our ears were deafened with the crash  
Of falling Babylon and we were happy  
To know ourselves the generation destined  
To build the Holy City on its ruins.  

Babylon's doing nicely, thank you,  
nd every one of us has made       
His private compromise except          
Alan, lucky dog, who died                         
for something he could still believe in.
The rest of us go wrapped in           
what tatters of integrity are left us,                 
sometimes remembering with a guilty smile   
the days when innocence came easily.'


Why aren't our cities beautiful? This book goes some way to suggesting a few answers. It explores the relationship between architecture and the social democratic pursuit of a "new life"; the need for buildings and spaces which express the democratic ideals of twentieth century Europe and which bring sun, literally and metaphorically, into the lives of the majority. Much of the best architecture of the period came from northern Europe. Sweden is frequently cited. Perhaps this is partly because Sweden embraced a social democratic politics before most of Europe. In Britain, it was the Garden City movement, of course, which represented the best attempt to transform the nature of our towns. Worpole is very complimentary about this and stresses the ideals behind it and its successes: Port Sunlight, for example, the model village begun in 1888 by Hesketh Lever for the workers in the soap-factory in Birkenhead. It's to be welcomed, of course, that workers in a soap factory were deemed worthy of good living conditions. And the generosity of Lever, paternalistic and somewhat patronising though it may have been, isn't something you'd be likely to see from today's faceless owners. All the same, there's a criticism of the Garden City movement, well enough known but perhaps with something to recommend it, which Worpole doesn't take the trouble to dismiss. It grew partly from a desire to avoid overcrowding. But overcrowding isn't the same as density. Garden Cities tended to be too thinly populated to create the vibrancy and richness of a city. And they contributed to the belief that low density of population was desirable, a conviction which assisted the development of suburbs, pleasant enough in many cases, but without a real hub or reason for being.

In the early years of the twentieth century, there was an obsession with bringing the sun into people's lives. Architecture seems to have been dominated by the belief that light would bring health and happiness. This was partly, of course, a reaction against the sunless squalor of Victorian living conditions for the poor. To some extent it seems to have worked. The Silver End Estate in Essex, for example, built between 1926 and 1932 was associated with a low death and high birth rate. Letting in light meant much greater use of glass. Finsbury Health Centre which was completed in 1938, had a bowed front wall built of glass bricks. Inside were murals by Gordon Cullen and his slogan: Live Out Of Doors As Much As You Can. Not surprisingly this led to the enthusiasm for Lido which flourished in the thirties. All to the good. Light, space, fresh air, a less embarrassed attitude to the body, democracy, the breaking down of class barriers. But where did it all go wrong? Why did it all seem to come to a halt? Like the social democratic movement itself, the architecture which sought to serve it may have run aground, in Britain at least, as the generous sense of a shared space in all realms has given way to a meaner, more defended attitude in which all common space is sensed as a no-man's-land where it is perilous to enter. Today the rich are hiding themselves behind high walls and security cameras while the poor live where only the poor would. And the private health dub has taken the place of the public Lido, excluding those who can't pay.

There is a chapter on parks and pleasure gardens in which Huizinga's famous study of play as the basis of culture is cited. Fun, Huizinga believed, is an exclusively English concept. No other European language has a word for it. Curious then that so many of our towns and cities should be so joyless and that our parks are, by and large, just expanses of grass where boys play soccer on a Sunday morning. The commercial instinct, deadly in its soulless seriousness, has displaced fun as an organizing principle. Worpole also mentions John Brewer's marvelous The Pleasures Of The Imagination: English Culture In The Eighteenth Century. Had the grim nineteenth never intervened, perhaps we could have had a twentieth which continued the delight in pleasure. As it is, pleasure itself has become a commodity and fun far too lucrative to be left to the devices of individuals and self-governing communities.

The book is beautifully produced and illustrated. The illustrations are a real joy. Sixty of the ninety-five are in colour. If you've never visited a lot of the places mentioned in this book (as I haven’t), the Vigeland Park in Oslo, for example, or Copenhagen's Tivoli, or ,for that matter, if you never visited the Saltdean Lido near Brighton, the pictures give you a sense of what you've missed as well as alerting the mind to how attractive and humanizing buildings and space can be if only a little imagination is applied.

If this book has an underlying thesis, it is that we shouldn't tolerate ugliness or blank functionalism in the environment we create for ourselves. Just how buildings and public spaces help form our sensibility is probably too complex and subtle to be fully known, but it seems probable that ugliness will breed ugly attitudes and beauty, care and imagination appeal to the better part of our nature. You don't need to be any kind of expert to enjoy and profit from this book. It's written in an intelligent but perfectly accessible style and it avoids jargon or convoluted argument the non-expert reader might not be able to follow. It gives a clear sense of how the twentieth century began trying to make architecture serve democracy, openness, freedom and to bring better possibilities for individual lives. The question, of course, is where do we go from here? How do we make towns and cities that are vibrant, imaginative, exciting, pleasant and fun places to live, work and play?



by Martin Hayes. Redbeck Press. £5.95. ISBN 0 946980 89 6  

I don't think Martin Hayes will object if I call him the English Fred Voss. Hayes has taken Voss's slant on work, its absurdity, its craziness, the odd fact that we take for granted that we must earn our living every day through behaviour which we often revile, the preposterousness of management, the simple inability to see a straightforward more human and humane way of doing things; all this he has applied to his own experience of working in the dispatch industry. The result is funny, warm, poignant, heartbreaking, humane and memorable. There's a nice story behind this collection. It had to be pulped and reprinted because in the original Hayes used the actual name of the company for which he works. They generously paid for the reprinting so concerned were they to protect their name. But the actual company isn't important. Hayes spikes the nature of work time and again. His poems are little stories written in an easygoing style but with great economy. He chooses his words carefully and for the most part hits just the right tone. Like Voss, he enjoys the little poem with a sting in its tail. There is plenty of the black humour that gets people through the day when they're on the receiving end of the decisions of fools with power, and I think you could argue that Hayes's poems make the case that no-one is sufficiently wise or good to have power over anyone else's life. There's a lovely piece called our dignity which, after cataloguing the atrocious ways in which the employees abuse and humiliate and tease one another, ends with this reflection:  

the amazing thing is though
in the 16 years I've been a controller
not one of us has died at the hands of another
we like to keep that sort of thing
to the people in the offices upstairs
who don't seem to give a damn about a controller's
dignity or self-respect.  

All the poems are written in this easy, conversational style. It matches the subject matter and mood very well.

As well as the workplace, Hayes deals with the personal, lives of his fellow employees outside office hours. Always, however, there is a sense of connection. Work is the backdrop to their lives. Work is, to a large extent, their problem. Utterly unromantic in a Villonesque way, full, in fact, of the sturdy, resilient humour of a latter-day Villon, the poems which touch on these people in their personal manifestation exhibit an unsentimental compassion. Broken, loveless, confused. Casualties of their own folly and weakness as of the heartlessness of that old whore society, they kill themselves, drink and hurt those closest to them in the age-old way.

But there is always management, no chart for that tells of the arrival of the Managing Director's son in a managerial post: our controllers' meetings were filled with graphs and charts that were supposed to show how we'd performed

Familiar management idiocy. As if people are circus horses. Of course, no-one dares tell the bright young thing of the misery his father's regime has brought to his workforce.

Hayes has in common with Voss that his work is entirely free of politics. This is one of its great strengths. The absence of ideology, the straightforward treatment of the material of working life without any preconceptions and certainly no illusions about the heroic working-class, is far more effective than poetry which tries to take a stand. To think of Villon once more, it is his acceptance of the facts of life as he knows them, atrocious as they are, which permits him to respond with wit, humour and an unsentimental appreciation of the people with whom he has come into contact. That Villon's sensibility was superior to those of his society and contacts goes without saying. Hayes is responding to the atrocious facts around him in the same manner: not with the romantic dream of a world beyond the sordid one we all know, but out of the resources of his own nature: humour, compassion, resilience, understanding. In spite of everything, this a hopeful collection, for all of us, if we try, can find these qualities within us.


MIGHT A SHAPE OF WORDS by Gael Turnbull. Mariscat Press £5.00. ISBN 0 946588 24 4  

Gael Turnbull has explored over recent years the effects of using language from a variety of contexts, giving it a new setting, a poetic setting, and sitting back to watch how its meaning is subtly changed. In For Whose Delight ( 1995) he published a set of these "texturalist" poems. At the time I felt they were opening up an interesting line of approach and wrote enthusiastically about them. This little pamphlet is in the same vein. It contains twenty-nine poetic prose pieces, each written in the same limpid, haunting style. Each one recounts an experience, is a small narrative, yet narrative doesn't give the sense of how they work, for create a moment or a mood rather than move from one moment to another. There is an effect of fracture. Each piece seems to have been torn from some whole, from some other life. They are like little memories. They come to you in the way odd memories do:  

" A man stands waving goodbye to his grandson as a train pulls out of a station, the same from which he left when he had come to visit his own grandfather at the same age...."  

If this were the beginning of a novel you would anticipate a slow accumulation of detail. But this is thirteen lines. Within them Turnbull weaves a return of experience and an unexpected outcome which lift the scene out its specificity. In a way, it does in brief what a novelist might attempt over chapters. For novelists are usually searching for those moments of epiphany towards which their stories and reflections rise. The accumulated effect of reading these pieces is that of being in the centre of a story whose plot you don't know. Isn't this, to some extent, what life is like? We all like to think we are writing the story of our own lives but in fleeting moments of insight we realize we walked a path into the darkness and when we look back, we can barely see where we have been.

Turnbull is really on to something I think. The pity is he isn't more widely read and discussed. This work is very different and a welcome change from mainstream contemporary poetry. One of its virtues is the absence of that excessively knowing voice which seems to be almost ubiquitous these days. Turnbull continues to be an original and interesting contributor to British poetry, finding his own quirky path, as the best poets always do. His work never fails to contain something fresh and inspiring.