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THE VORTEX
 
by Noel Coward
 Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester. 

                                    The Vortex is a play about narcissism. In its early days, everyone identified Coward with Nick Lancaster. Coward was looking for a vehicle for his acting and wrote himself a hefty part, but not a self-portrait. Nor did he feel the fashionable society of which he was a part was as reptilian as his characters. But he needed a target. It worked and the play made him critically and financially. It’s far from a masterpiece but Florence and Nick Lancaster are well-drawn and sufficiently repulsive to be fascinating. Florence is a supreme narcissist. She has never grown up and fears growing old. What an irony then, that the part of Nick should be played by a star from the narcissistic world of pop music. Presumably Will Young was offered the role in the hope of attracting a young audience. At the performance I saw, most of the audience were over forty-five. Behind me were three young women who whooped when Young took his bows. Whatever excited them, it wasn’t his acting. He is out of his depth, especially playing against the superb Diana Hardcastle, a consummate professional with a sexy, slow-turning grindstone voice and the ability to convey a complex emotional nexus in a simple gesture. She could hold her own on any stage with anyone. Poor old Young looks like he’s stepped straight out of the school play. He speaks the lines. Most of them are mostly audible. But he speaks them as Will Young. He has no idea who Nick Lancaster might be. Here is a neurotic drug-addicted son of a narcissistic mother at a loss to understand himself. Young turns him into the local paper-boy: chirpy one minute, sulky the next but utterly unconvincing. I thought of the unknown Brando on the first night of Truckline Café. He came on stage and the audience broke into spontaneous applause which held up the performance for two minutes. Young comes on stage and the play stops because he can’t act. He isn’t in the play, he’s just on the stage.

                        With such a poor performance in the role of such a central character, the play sags. All the same, the rest of the cast do their work so well, because they are actors, not just famous people pretending to act, that the thing holds together and rolls along and the climactic confrontation between Nick and Florence has a few skin-prickling moments. They come, of course, from the acting of Diana Hardcastle. There is enough tension and drive for us to enter into the world of the characters and to feel their anguish at their emptiness. They don’t know why they do what they do nor why they feel how they feel. In this, Coward raises his drama to the level of the universal. Happy or unhappy, living lives full of meaning or sapped by despair, we never understand why. David Fielder as Quentin, Rhiannon Oliver as Clara, Laura Rees as Bunty convey beautifully the sense of lives lived out because they must be in circumstances which close down on alternatives. Alexandra Mathie is also convincing as the relatively sensible Helen, trying to knock some of the infantile delusions out of Florence’s dizzy head. Sam Heughan is solid in the role of Florence’s toy-boy, Tom, who inevitably falls in love with the Bunty he has known since childhood and who is obviously ill-matched with the unstable and posturing Nick and Drew Carter-Cain in the minor roles of Preston and Bruce Fainlight shows what real acting his: he brings both characters perfectly to life as soon as they appear. Why didn’t they cast him as Nick ? He’s an actor! 

                        Coward’s play was written out of the conditions of England after the Great War: a divided and disoriented society where the hard-pressed majority had to get on with it and the rich, unable to find a real role, indulged themselves like babies. Today we live in a divided and disorientated society in thrall to empty celebrity. Just the kind of thing Coward might have seized on as a target. And here, at the heart of this production is empty celebrity on display. Would anyone expect a pop singer to be able to play for Chelsea just because they’re famous? Singing is singing and acting is acting. Could Brando sing? I don’t know, but Sinatra couldn’t act. Not like Brando. Not like a real actor. A world-class theatre like the Royal Exchange should hire actors. Like Diana Hardcastle. It’s worth seeing this production for the thrill of her acting. She’s the star. 

                                                                           Alan Dent


THE CREATIVE LIFE

by MICHAEL CURTIS

*W.B. Yeats: A Life.  I. The Apprentice Mage, II. The Arch-Poet.
R.F. Foster      Oxford University Press, 1997 and 2003.  

I read books as a writer and as a reader. Of course, these categories are rarely exclusive and I can’t always predict which will be which. Sunshine holiday fiction can present unlooked for, unexpected prompts. Much-anticipated poetry can run off the page without a syllable sticking to the back of the mind – as far as can be told at the time. Playing the percentages though, musical and literary biography come with an abundance of possibilities. There’s simple curiosity to be satisfied, the follower’s aspirations to indulge, the fan’s admiration to test as well as the surprises, the connections, the contexts, the anecdotes. And, occasionally, before we outgrow it, the guilty habit of shadowing to indulge. Bob Dylan’s recent autobiographical Chronicles, for example, appears to ‘tell all’ and yet retains sufficient mystery for our long-standing relationship to survive, indeed to continue strengthened. 

There are living examples of the life of the artist and the risks it entails beyond the teenage imitation of dress, manner, attitude or even belief through to inhabiting what we might term the artistic psyche. See  how Brian Wilson resurrected Smile (recordings abandoned in 1967) and the lost zones of himself after thirty-seven years of perceived failure and deep-grained fear, even if the commercial opportunities it aroused risked another kind of darkness. Dangerous but rewarding territory.  

When I was nine the teacher asked us to write our own version of a patriotic, stirring poem by Tennyson, The Revenge: A Ballad of the Fleet. (Very English!) This poem swept me up and inspired an action-packed response that was chosen as the best in the class, printed and exhibited on the wall. Naturally this success turned my boyhood head, showed me that poetry could be vigorous and moving and, also, that I could write it. That was the first lesson. 

The best biographies for me are celebratory and constructive. What does one artist find in the critical atomising of another’s art, in the cold detaching of the artist’s retina from the observed creation? The work is out there, yes, for each and any of us to make of it what we will. But it has its origins. Whenever I run a workshop or take questions after a reading someone (possibly with a picture of the sick reclining romantic bathed by a pale shaft of sunlight in mind) will ask, “Where does your inspiration come from?” Well, whatever else, it doesn’t come from disinterested dissection but from active engagement, meeting the muse half-way.  

In my teens, growing up in a vibrant Liverpool, the galleries were bursting with ideas and colour and confrontation, the clubs and bars were confident with music and performance. And poetry. Young poets stood up and read their work to crowded, informal but usually appreciative rooms and I watched and admired and let it fill me with possibilities. Now the performed poem is normal; then it was a revelation.  

For a young person in the city at that time it wasn’t enough to be a student or have a job. You were expected to participate, to be active, to play sport or make something – be it music, pictures or words. I tried them all – with mixed results. Then a new, enthusiastic teacher came to my school to be Head of English and opened up the great books of canonical and contemporary literature for me, reconnecting me with that early excitement of language and, as it turned out, determining the rest of my life. So the poems started. 

And not just the primary works but stimulating, provoking, informing criticisms and commentaries too. These introductions and accompaniments, as it were, offering ways in or throwing a light on an aspect that had eluded me. Not just to generate more criticism and comment but also to contribute to the making of new, original work. This could come, for example, from an ‘old-fashioned’ biography where the life and the work are integrated not only to provide greater understanding but also to offer, excitingly, new creative possibilities. This for me is what Roy Foster has achieved with his masterly two volume biography of W.B. Yeats. * 

I encountered the first volume, The Apprentice Mage, at the Hay Festival where Foster was promoting the newly-published book, reading extracts and answering questions. I have attended many such events but few if any came close to the creative impact of this one. Here was a biographer who could write fine prose, an historian by discipline, opening channels to an artist I’d admired since school days and thought I knew. Like many writers, though besotted with the poetry, I’m wary of Yeats. Like his antecedent Blake, he’s dangerous to imitate and seems impossible to emulate. Enjoy him too much, give him too much room, and he’ll colonise your style, warp your world view. So I’d beaten a cautious path round Yeats although his place on my Desert Island had been secure for decades. Roy Foster gave me a fresh route in and, remarkably, let me unwind the string to find a way back out again. How? By his own creative interaction with his subject inviting the reader to do the same with an assurance that welcomes empathy but is not taken over by it. 

Some examples. In this passage - in a single paragraph – Forster’s consideration of a poem enables him to summarize intensely the qualities of the later Yeats and describe the mix of technique and experience that accounted for them: 

“And the poem finally called ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’ revealed the combination of qualities which would define his future work: an ability to synthesize arcane learning, philosophical speculation, and political judgement, in a poetic language that made the most of open rhythms and idiomatic address. The achievement came not only from renewed self-confidence but also from a new technical proficiency. The uniquely authoritative tone of ‘late Yeats’ would rest upon this challenging combination of intimate meditation and public voice; it owed a great deal to the reflection and analysis enforced by the upheavals in his life over the past five years.”

Or again, in the late ‘twenties when Yeats was wintering in France and Italy, Foster integrates the life and the work and exhibits a powerful model of artistic dedication and single-mindedness: 

“But the doctor’s pronouncement on 14 January had struck an echo which reverberated. From now on he knew that time could not be wasted; he was even more and more fiercely impatient with any impediments, obstructions, evasions which might come between his work and what he wanted it to say; and he would pursue that lost vigour with a singe-minded commitment, determined to demonstrate that he could recapture the force of youth in his life as well as in his work.”

How does a biographer know this? How can he tell us what was in his subject’s mind? Risky stuff. Without all the necessary assiduous, detailed, factual research such interpretations and inferences, such creative reconstructions, would lack foundation. But the informed and imaginative reader will bring his or her own touchstone to assess such speculations, the cornerstones of our understanding. For me Roy Foster’s consistently ring true and accord with what I understand of the creative sensibility. And nourish it.

And this, crucially, is not the same as an obsessive interest in celebrity and fantasising other lives. Changing masks and forms, Yeats crafted and reshaped his work to create integrated collections, each with a different identity, writing of his personal life but never directly. He demonstrated that writing is an artefact, but a passionate one. My own poems are a line through life, charting a continuous though far from straight course from childhood to now. Their crafted realities have lived with me longer than anyone who exists this side of memory and provide an oblique autobiography, perhaps more of a dramatised biography written by a series of partial observers.  Detail is persuasion. The ‘I’ isn’t always the me you’ll meet, but he has a heart. File me in Fiction! 

Where do poems come from? Yes, from the heart and from the imagination and from the intelligence, from incident and insight.  But why do they come? How do they find their way? A creative culture, an expectant, optimistic society (great and small), and an affirming (in the end) education all played their part in encouraging me to realise and articulate some of my possibilities. And part of that environment is the observed and reported creative life as exemplified by this superlative biography.

 


CRUCIFIXION IN THE PLAZA DE ARMAS

by Martin Espada
Smokestack Books
ISBN 978-0-9554028-1-4    £7.95

Puerto Rico ( rich port ) got its name from the Spaniards after Christopher Columbus discovered the island on his second voyage. The native Tainos offered Columbus and his men the gold nuggets from their rivers and from that moment on, were slaves. On 21st March 1937 nineteen people were killed and many injured in the Ponce massacre, a violent suppression of a peaceful demonstration in favour of the independence for which the people of the island have struggled through the centuries. The sad history of the colonization of the home of his forbears is Espada’s subject in this, his fifteenth book and the most recent since The Republic Of Poetry was shortlisted for the Pulitzer. His style is straightforward, clear and uncluttered yet full of memorable inventions and unusual images:

Again he smacked his welted neck
and tottered in his armor,
a tortoise straining to walk like a man…

 feasting on rebel songs
cool on the tongue
as fruit syrup and ice,
multiplying in the dark
like cockroaches of liberation…

Hands without irons become dragonflies,
red flowers train on our hats,
subversive angels flutter like pigeons from a rooftop,
this stripped and starving earth is not a grave.

This last is from a long poem, the collection’s finale, in memory of Clemente Soto Velez, the poet imprisoned with Albizu Campos in 1936 and virtually unknown outside his native land. To the pleasure of his easy rhythms ( they echo the island’s music, the sensual sway of Tito Puente’s Oye Como Va), evocative images, fascinating story-telling and expert poet’s nuance, Espada adds a lesson in history which will introduce many readers to little-known names, dates and events. In three sections, the first personal and familial, the second geographical and atmospheric and the last historical and political, the book ties the fate of the island to the poet’s ancestry and identity, the great slow sweep of history forming the landscape in which the personal has to find its locale; in so doing he prevents the intrusion of the harsh, haranguing voice of tendentiousness, humanising his material as naturally as if he were writing of matters without public import. He may be a new name to many British readers but he’s well worth getting to know and here displays the disciplined talents which have won him many awards and fellowships. He was born in New York but Puerto Rico is in his blood, and anyway, as he points out in his introduction, there are more Puerto Ricans in New York then any city in the world. The book is a subtle plea, all the more powerful for the beauty and restraint of its writing, for independence for the oldest colony in the world, a superb poetic testimony to the unfortunate endurance of the colonizing mentality and the inevitable resistance it engenders, it will itself endure through the loveliness and truth of the writing.

*

SEEDS OF FIRE

Contemporary Poetry from the other USA.

Smokestack Books
Edited by Jon Andersen
ISBN 978-0-9554028-2-1   £9.95

Literacy ought to bring a flourishing of voices but our culture is afflicted by systematic infantilisation and trivialisation as power seeks to keep its opponents silent. This, then, is a book to celebrate: fifty-three poets, many of them well published and some familiar names but for the most part, writers of undeserved obscurity all with something serious to say and the talent and discipline to say it memorably. This is not great, ground-breaking poetry, there is no Walt Whitman here, but there is what an educated culture should celebrate: a high level of literary accomplishment combined with a measured and clear-sighted vision of the major problems facing the contemporary world. There is some truly excellent work, Jim Daniels’s Time, Temperature, for example, a long poem dedicated to James Baldwin which rings the sorry changes on the racism that has blighted American life:

My grandfather has his theories
why they can’t take the cold
can’t skate can’t swim
why they can’t park their cars
why grape’s their favourite colour

Daniels purls subtle humour and gentle mockery into the atrocious catalogue of ignorance and prejudice and over eleven pages leads us on a shocking yet delightful and heartening journey through the labyrinth of dead-end attitudes and, thankfully, breakthrough insights. One of the better known poets is Adrienne Rich but she’s joined by twenty other women who rival her in skill, insight and subtlety, having learned Emily Dickinson’s lesson: tell all the truth but tell it slant/ success in circuit lie. Invidious to select only a few names but in particular Anne Babson’s Vocabulary Test is a clever and penetrating reflection on the dangerous assumptions of the education system, Nellie Wong’s Praise Song For A Dead Girl in its calm and compassionate detachment brings into focus the everyday evil of violence, Patricia Smith’s brilliantly disturbing Skinhead explores the generation of neo-fascist mentality in the alienated young and Linda McCarriston’s To Judge Faolain, Dead Long Enough: A Summons is a controlled j’accuse against the justice system’s failure to engage with the needs and rights of women. Of course, in a book of over a hundred and fifty pages and featuring such an array of writers, there is variation in quality and interest, but there are no slack or slovenly poems, and the overall tenor - concerned without being strident, committed, but to truth and justice rather than to cause or ideology, and above all radiant in its belief in the power of literature to illuminate, to enrich and to bring to every life a love of  disciplined language’s pleasure and revelation – makes it one of those collections which sing to be revisited and which never lose their freshness. Jon Andersen, whose marvellously witty If I Live is included, has done a first-rate job in the editing and introduction and provided us with a view of the extraordinary fecundity of the small gardens of American poetry. It would be remiss too not to mention the inexhaustible energy and imagination of Andy Croft of Smokestack who is turning his little press into one of the most courageous and cutting edge in Britain.

*

KILLING TIME IN ARCADIA

by Edward Mackinnon
Shoestring Press
ISBN 978-1-904886-38-9   £8.95

The ambiguity of the title, together with the fact that Arcadia is both a real place and a locale of the mind, is typical of Mackinnon’s desire to simultaneously delight, amuse and provoke. The cover shows Poussin’s Et In Arcadia Ego modified a la Banksy, a serious point made in a comic way, a hint of Debordian detournement. Mackinnon is a learned man who seasons his work with his erudition, but like a good chef, blends his flavours carefully so nothing dominates or intrudes. His style is very much in the modern mode but is distinct, and there is more to that than simply voice: at his best, his work evokes a unique sensibility. The supreme poem here is The Bus To Arcadia twelve pages long, expansive, allusive, full of the Proustian sense of reality taking shape in the memory alone, big enough to invite us in and allow us to explore. The short, self-contained poem has become the norm, and most of the poems here are of that kind, but in this long piece Mackinnon discovers an alternative way of addressing the reader; no longer beginning from a single idea or image, he’s exploring his consciousness, casting out lines to reel in old experiences, making connections between the disparate, ceasing to be a point from which language travels in a straight line to the reader but rather a centre around which galaxies of meaning and association orbit. The long poem may have become unfashionable but here Mackinnon reveals its remarkable possibilities, and truly invigorating about this piece,  to draw a term from linguistic philosophy, is the paucity of input: he manages to evoke a whole gamut of experience from very limited vocabulary and though he is writing out of his own experience, the confidence of the poem lies in its ability to trigger kindred memories and emotions in the reader. Such a poem sits ill with post-modern atomisation but that’s all to the good for Mackinnon reconnects us, re-enchants us. In focusing on one long piece, I’m far from suggesting the rest is nugatory. On the contrary, there are one or two brilliant very short pieces like this on Nazim Hikmet:

Prison and exile could not unvoice him.
There is a lovely sound that displaces fears
and blasts away all bars to rejoicing.
Say his name: waiters, workers prick up their ears
.

In this second collection Mackinnon establishes himself as a significant figure. Lets hope there are many more and that he continues what he has begun in The Bus To Arcadia.

 Alan Dent.

 

A PROPER STATE,
by Leon Rosselson,
Fuse Records, 28 Park Chase, Wembley Park, HA9 8EH. 

The second song on this CD, The Ghost Of Georges Brassens, pays witty homage to the great French chansonnier, who Kenneth Rexroth thought of as the best poet of twentieth century France, and whose work has influenced everyone who is genuinely interested in how to craft a song, how, as Brassens himself put it, to create un petit labyrinthe, to please, tease , challenge, delight and embolden the listener. Leon Rosselson is our own Brassens but unlike the Frenchman he has never reached a mass audience, though some of his songs have, notably The World Turned Upside Down, that great celebration of the Diggers and of the thrilling tumult of ideas of the era of the English Civil War, heartening ideas like Rainsborough’s defence of the poorest he (and she also we should add), recorded and taken into the charts by Billy Bragg, which goes to show, I suppose, that the argument from consumer choice is feeble: when people have Rosselson’s work put before them by an artist they know, they respond. The effort to ensure the majority listen only to what Rosselson has called mashed potato music is huge and vigilant. Big money is at stake. More. The very economic arrangements which permit a relatively small number to make fortunes from a relatively large number. Rosselson has been deliberately sidelined because if too many people listened to this work, they would start to understand what a real song is, their sensibilities would shift, their ideas would change. It’s all too dangerous and must be reserved for a minority. 

What a lucky minority. 

Rosselson is on great form here and has lost none of those qualities which have made him for so long such a fascinating and uplifting presence: a wonderful ear for melody, a poet’s skill with words, a subtle and highly intelligent humour and a brilliant ability to make his theme poignant by concealment. He begins with an hilarious and spiky ditty about mobile phone culture which brings to mind the comment of Thoreau when he was told men could communicate from one end of America to the other by telegraph: Yes, but what would they say to one another ? The slick technology of communication renders ever more banal and redundant what is communicated and Rosselson explores this through a lover’s conversation where the usual misunderstandings and misinterpretations are increased by inevitable technological interpolations like, my battery’s running out . As always, Rosselson’s sharp intelligence and objective insights are softened by his humorous angle. 

The song in honour of Brassens touches on the thickened stupidity of our culture, as if the majority want nothing better than pop songs whose melodies are weary, harmonies barely present and lyrics  trite and dull, as if this anti-song is demanded by the people. Brassens was a great example of high-standard popular culture which combined erudition with bawdiness, anarchism with self-deprecation, a love of life with a wry take on death and a consistent spiking of pomposity, arrogance and the corruption of power with an easy-going, good natured celebration of friendship and love. In reviving the spirit of Brassens, and the song is wonderfully constructed, robust, energetic and memorable like his, Rosselson is pointing up the terrible sadness and waste of a culture which is too cowardly to offer people real artistic sustenance.  

Rosselson revives the old song Barney’s Epic Homer and adds a new one Barney’s Got A Job Now, a lovely broadside against the unimaginative and depressing conformity and regularity of the workplace. There’s a clever little song about death in which, like all the best artistic work on the subject of our mortality, he manages to be funny, a love song that’s real love song unlike mawkish and false tripe promoted on the radio day in day out and, of course, great songs of protest. Rosselson is a master of the protest song, always composes and writes from a position of high principle, bracing and uncompromising in the best sense, and imbues these pieces with exactly the right tone of indignation, resistance and generosity so any sense of ranting or simplification is eliminated. Many years ago he made, from the plans by the property developers to revamp Piccadilly Circus  into a profiteers paradise, the wonderful anthem Plan whose chorus began, that’s not the way it’s got to be , the defiant leit-motif of all his songs of protest. Here, The Third Intafada, Faslane 365 and The Power Of Song are vibrant, rich, compelling and inspiring. As the final song says: 

Though we’ve nothing but our voices, yet our voices make us strong
Turn despair into defiance and defiance into song
Give us hope and give us heart
Hold the line and hold the fort
Solidarity forever when our voices weave together into song. 

Long live Leon Rosselson and down with Radio 1.

                                                                                   Alan Dent

COLLECTED POEMS: ALUN LEWIS.
Edited by Cary Archard
Seren ISBN 1-85411-316-X £9.99


This is the paperback edition of a collection first published in 1994. It contains the poems from Lewis’s two collections: Raider’s Dawn and Ha!Ha! Among The Trumpets plus twenty-seven further uncollected pieces, 123 poems in all. Lewis was born in 1915, the greatest influence on his work was Robert Graves. It would need a critic more familiar with Graves’s work to assess just how great a debt Lewis owed, but these poems are too achieved to be derivative. Lewis evokes precisely the tenor of his age. He is thought of as a Second World War poet and there are, of course, many references to that conflict, but he was a poet before 1939 and his work exceeds the fighting for which he enlisted despite his pacifist inclinations. Love makes plenty of entrances; love interrupted, foiled or denied by war certainly, but in writing about love Lewis recreates the emotional landscape of an age before easy knowingness, widespread divorce, ubiquitous sexual images, the extreme self-assertion of the modern era which makes it hide its face. The whole of the collection, in fact, exudes the aura and odour of a more innocent age where possibilities we have ruined still loomed large in spite of the rise of fascism and the stupidity of war:

We are of Life,
Teeming and musical
Perfect and instant
As the sift silk flash of the swifts
Which do not care for the houses of the wealthy,
But have instead their own instinctive life,
The flight and rhythm of the blood.

This from Lines On A Tudor Mansion has obvious echoes of Lawrence and in its subtle nod in the direction of a remaking of social relations speaks of a what, from our perspective, seems a naïve faith in generosity. Similarly, in one of the uncollected poems, The Suicide, Lewis writes:

Why such a harsh reply to his request?
Why was the mortgage so abruptly closed?
Why was he so alone in a People’s Age?
He could have hitched a lift, you’d have supposed.

Tender, compassionate, questioning, almost inherently alien to cynicism, Lewis is also, to use a Sunday review cliché term, thoroughly “assured”. Given that he died at twenty-eight, his achievement is remarkable. He was a mature poet by his mid-twenties. His writing is full of the attractive rhythms which much modern poetry, inheriting a mid-Atlantic preference for the conversational and an American tendency to the excessively personal, can lack. Very few of his poems aren’t lovely simply in their sound when read aloud. He also has a true genius for le mot juste. Over and again he brings an image to life with freshness and vitality by a choice of word which fits to perfection. He is especially good with that dangerous bit of lexis, the adjective:

the coal-tipped misty slopes
Across the high-flung bridge

the impersonal drone of death
trembles the throbbing night

Has any twentieth century British poet written more memorably than Lewis? What appeals most about him is his evocation of his time in such honesty and reclaimable emotional poignancy that looking back though his gift to us we can sense, with shame and pain, what we have lost in failing properly and courageously to attend to his genius and others like it. Lewis was found with a wound to his head and his revolver in his hand while on active service in Burma. The judgement was accidental death. Let’s hope so for if it was otherwise our debt and our shame are the greater. It would be an exaggeration to call Lewis neglected but his status isn’t as high as it should be. If this superb volume helps to remedy that, so much the better.

Alan Dent

THE NIGHT TROTSKY CAME TO STAY

by Allison McVety
Smith/Doorstop
ISBN 978-1-902382-906   £7.95

 

Allison McVety’s work has the feel of necessity. In all her poems you sense she has worked hard to get to the heart of things. She has a writer’s impatience with cliché and the penetrating attention of the artist who stares hard at the ordinary to find what makes it work. The ordinary is everywhere. Here’s some of the lexis: pavement, hopscotch, fags, flags, kerbs, scullery, sequins, slop bucket, newsprint, smog, pub, canal, docklands, street lamps, prams, tarmac, rum, shilling, stove, tat, corporation, wireless, gabardine. This short list speaks of three things: the commonplace, the north and the past. McVety is brilliant at quickly evoking an era or milieu:

De-mobbed, you skulk
the day away in
an ill-fitting suit.

or

That school gabardine of mine
with its slip-in, slip-out lining
quilted for winter use

She has an acute sense of how identity is built from small details and of the way the past tugs on the present like the reins on a toddler. She conveys the feeling she’s amazed by existence and finds the remarkable in the banal, and the sensibility that shines through this collection is as subtle as Emily Dickinson, as wry as Jane Austen as without illusions as Aphra Behn.

McVety’s style isn’t remote from that of most modern poetry. She isn’t an innovator in that sense. Yet she is startlingly original. Her originality lies in her eclecticism, her ability to make connections between the material and the abstract, the familiar and the remote, and her astonishing care in leading the reader to the delightful little insights the poems deliver. Holub’s toothache is entirely absent from this collection which is remarkable when so much of it is rooted in McVety’s own experience. How does she do it ? How does she take the stock-in-trade of contemporary British verse and quietly make it deliver McVetyism ? My guess is the answer is too complex to be fathomed but one crucial element , I would suggest, is that she has that rare combination of a down-to-earth background, high gifts and fine education. D.H.Lawrence had the same and it permitted him to write about experience denied to middle-class writers. Yet it isn’t merely a question of subject matter, it’s also a mind made in circumstances which allow the elaboration of a perspective and sensibility as surprising as a camel on Deansgate. Most of all though, McVety is beautifully precise with language. I think this is what gives her the edge over many poets. All poets strive for his precision of course, but there’s a Flaubertian quality to McVety’s choice of le mot juste which sets her apart:

Past the nail bar where masked
manicurists, like dentists,
buff, polish, de-scale
the debris of the morning.

The ghost
of coal lingers in the grain as the boat stretches
and shrinks in the clink of its skin.

where we ate cold ham with new potatoes,
waited for Dad, the pocket-jangle of his loose-change tips,
home from a run to Blackpool or Scarborough or Rhyl,

 

Not many poets can make a line about cold ham and new potatoes interesting without needing to stretch into archness. Mcvety can because of her belief in her artist’s task and her exemplary discipline in its pursuit. There is not a moment’s self-indulgence here, no playing to the gallery, no showing-off, no deliberate attempts to please , just a real writer at work determined to get to the core of things. She succeeds wonderfully. There are forty-five poems here. If McVety didn’t write another word she would have won her place as one of the very best poets of her time. Let’s hope, however, there’s much more. She is a thoroughly excellent writer.

 


 

THE LEGEND OF LIZ AND JOE
By John Murray
Flambard Press ISBN 978-1-906601-07-2  £8.99

It’s a heartening paradox that the most individual minds have the greatest social sense, just as it’s a depressing fact that the most miserably conformist boldly proclaim their independence. John Murray’s is a highly individual and unusual mind and his awareness of the shaping power of social forms acute. In this, his seventh comic novel (he began with two beautiful, non-comic Bildungsromane) he buries his bitter social satire beneath a welter of diversion, distraction, natter, chatter, outrageous invention and linguistic legerdemain. Such a book isn’t an easy read. It requires a subtle frame of reference. The reliance on dull narrative drive which powers so much best-selling fiction is entirely absent. The novel weaves its significance  unobtrusively, even though the lunatic invention is as obtrusive as you like. Perhaps such books have always been the preserve of the few, but maybe too our culture of flattery and slick commercialism has trimmed the prospective audience. This is a book which doesn’t let the reader off the hook for a second. It does what literature is supposed to do: constantly challenges lazy-mindedness, self-indulgence, pomposity, propaganda, ignorance, meanness, self-serving ambition, received wisdom, glibness; it rouses the mind from its early 21st century torpor and makes it attend to the eternities.

Its narrator is Joe Gladstone, cookery writer, ( the choice of the name of one of the architects of the modern liberal mentality is pertinent) who, late in life, has inherited from his benign if intermittently potty uncle Harrison a tidy fortune. He opens a guest house in north Cumbria and in a reversal of the ideological driving of consumerism into every inappropriate nook and cranny, insists on admitting only interesting guests, requiring an essay as proof. Naturally, he’s bleeding money. His wife Liz has begun an affair at the start of her eighth decade and connectedly has begun to experience visions. Joe is obsessive about binary compounds (linguistic not chemical). He also loves to transcribe speech into the authentic Norse-derived Cumbrian dialect and is entering a competition, established by a food industry capitalist whose brave new factory is sited in his county, for a tale in local twang: his offering includes, in a recapitulation a decade later, of the choice of Cumbria as the primary locale of digitalised tv, government-ordained,  compulsory wearing of braces in an attempt to curtail the free-thinking tendencies and anarchistic inclinations of belt-wearers which disturb the orthodoxy of the slippery PM, Thomas Purley.  Then there’s Joe’s son Desmond who is making his way in arts administration by promoting tribute bands and clairvoyants. And much more, not least some intriguing exotic recipes and Greek topography.  Murray writes like Joe cooks: with minute attention to every ingredient and a desire to evoke each nuance of flavour in the reader. And just as a good recipe is a mixture of delicacies none of which dominates, so the book provides delicious sustenance through expert combination.

To be crude, it could be said the book is a political satire. Murray’s first comic novel mocked the Cumbrian nuclear industry, or more precisely the mendacity which goes along with the protection of big interests, but as in all his work he knows art must triumph over ideology. The task of treating political questions artistically is inordinately hard. Murray makes it work in two ways: unbounded expansiveness (Joe is a great fan of Dickens), and obliqueness. Like Emily Dickinson he knows all the truth must be told, but slant. The level of narration is very high. The low-key, downbeat style typical of contemporary fiction, the short sentence upon short sentence ( not in the manner of a Hemingway or a Maupassant, but more as a way of concealing a lack of skill) is remote. To take an example at random:

Baggrow then made a gesture of whispering into his companion’s ear. And it was not just any old public-house ear of course. It was peculiarly uncomfortable because of the braces loop wrapped tight about it which meant it was inclined at a strained torque of about thirty degrees, a bit like a paper animal’s ear as fashioned by origami. Nor was Tunstall’s put-upon left lug particularly enjoying the astringent aftermath of twelve pints of light ale mingled with melted chocolate and chemically manufactured Worcester sauce.

Even such a short extract gives a sense of the intensity of the narration. It has nothing about it of post-modern cool. Not only does it contain a reference to the mad braces legislation and the extremes it drives to, thereby lifting the narrative into Rabelaisian fantasy, it also contains some typical Murray goads: a strained torque of about thirty degrees, put-upon left lug, astringent aftermath, chemically manufactured Worcester sauce. If you think through the implications of these, you’re doing a lot of thinking. In short, Murray forces his readers to use their intelligence, to be intelligent. What about those who aren’t, those who in the passing parlance would be intellectually challenged ? One of Murray’s favourite writers is Jose Saramago who recently set his face against the drive to turn everyone into a serious reader. In Saramago’s view, serious literature has always been read by a minority. There is no need for anxiety about this. Least of all is there any need to tailor literature for a mass audience. Proust and Cervantes are never going to be read fervently by millions any more than millions will bother with the Theory of Relativity or The Origin of Species. There is a false notion that whatever is not instantly accessible to the majority is anti-democratic. This is to confuse realms. Democracy is a political concept and practice. Artistic and intellectual creation are a different matter. It isn’t possible to dumb down quantum mechanics. This isn’t to dismiss the majority as hopelessly ignorant or worthy only of junk culture, but it is to recognize that the idea of a turning everyone into an intellectual is no better than a eugenic fantasy. So if Saramago’s novels are too challenging for the majority, what are they to read ? It doesn’t resolve so simply. The majority can read Saramago or Murray. They should. A dumbed-down culture is not the answer. The point is not to compromise. Artists and intellectuals bear a social responsibility. They must set the standards and the tone. The worst outcome is the one we have: high culture for the few, McDonalds culture for the many. The answer is to refuse compromise and leave it people to choose what to read. Of course, this is looking at the matter from a cultural viewpoint. From a commercial perspective, the impulse is to sell as much trash as possible.

Murray refuses to compromise and his insistence on forcing the reader to exert intelligence and imagination is allied to his unwillingness to simplify or sugar. At the centre of this book is a broadside against the manipulations of the powerful and an anger at the damage done to us morally, emotionally, socially, intellectually by the glib purveyors of political packages. Yet there is no self-righteousness. Liz Gladstone betrays her marriage and though mortified Joe forgives her. She errs in a forgivable way. The powerful are different. They twist and lie and scheme and self-serve unforgivably. Very aware of the destructive power of anger, even against the worst injustice, Murray keeps it on a tight leash. He gives free rein only to bountiful generosity and to what, near the end of the book he typifies as “mature wisdom”: the comic spirit as exemplified by the hilarious fun-loving of a child. As he puts it “pure inconsequential fun”.

This book is fun but it certainly isn’t inconsequential. It wears its significance lightly but Murray is one of the best comic writers in English since Sterne and like that serious joker he has important things to tell us. His first comic novel, Radio Activity, was turned down by dozens of publishers but was voted their favourite Cumbrian work by the wise folk of his native county. You would think the commercial instincts of the big houses might impel them to take on this extraordinarily gifted and original writer; but then again, when the lists show  Katie Price  topping the sales, you can understand why he’s still in the hands of a small press and selling small numbers. But writing as good as Murray’s doesn’t date. Posterity will judge him well and that is his present reward.

                                                                                                     Alan Dent

 


Dockers & Detectives - The Relaunch Review

It’s probably fifty years since Ken Worpole attended a launch in Liverpool. Back then it’d be a nuclear sub from the dock he was helping to build at Cammel Laird’s. Last night (March 6th 2008) he was launching his own craft - the re-write of his classic analysis of prole lit – Dockers and Detectives which first appeared in 1983. Next to him, on the top table at the News from Nowhere Bookshop at 96 Bold Street, was screenwriter Jimmy McGovern. 

Ken’s thesis is that London and Liverpool are special sites – port cities with a vital working class culture energised by immigrants and the strong story telling tradition of sea-faring men. He remarked how, as a teenager on his first stay at a men’s hostel near the docks, he was constantly pestered by yarn spinning sailors. Jimmy grinned.  

The great, but now submerged, scribes of that earlier period were James Hanley, George Garrett and Jim Phelan. Not realist writers but expressionists (has this got something to do with their eclipse?). We were reminded by a member of the audience that Malcolm Lowry was a scouser who joined the Merchant Navy and whose first book Ultramarine was influenced by sailors like Melville, Conrad, and Jack London. The Merch in those days was a quick, cheap way of seeing the world and an escape route for desperate fathers of illegitimate kids. Ken mentioned unwanted pregnancy as an important motif in the novels of the 50s  (eg Sillitoe, Barstow et al).  

Perhaps west coast ports like Glasgow, Cardiff and Liverpool had the edge on others being on main routes to America. We don’t hear much of the school of Felixstowe or Harwich. New York was a magnet. Ken wistfully admitted to still treasuring his old Verve jazz records. Rock an Roll, the Beat poets and Kerouac (another sailor) were liberating influences from the dominant US popular culture - and - “the tough guy vernacular style of writing was often adopted by many British working class male writers as the appropriate register for writing about their experiences” (D&D p71) 

Another strand Ken explored is the re-writing, and even erasing, of working class history. The period of World War II was replayed in the aftermath as a triumph of elite heroes like Guy Gibson, Douglas Bader and Barnes Wallis rather than the tenacious resilience of docklands workers. It seems we were fighting to preserve the quintessentially English rural idyll – a thatched roofed pub in the Cotswolds – rather than a working class community and its values. 

His most off-the-wall notion is that the built environment acts as an anchor and definer of consciousness. That people of different ethnicities or creeds can feel a common bond in their attachment to place; and that our destruction of even industrial installations weakens this social glue. He “reads” these environments as he would a book. Declining to give a conventional book-launch type recital he did chose to quote at length one paragraph from Robert Colls Identity of England which he uses on page 10 of D&D. 

When the staple northern industries began to splutter from the 1970s, very deep meanings choked with them. Buildings that for years had given habitude to landscape were brought down without a second glance. Elegant mill chimneys, dramatic colliery headgear, sun-bright shipyard cranes, all hit the ground in clouds of masonry, and with them fell a whole visual culture. Where ships' hulls had once swerved across the skyline, there was now only sky. Lodges and institutes, formerly places of association and learning, became derelict. The bands ceased to march. Banners were furled. Methodist chapels, emotional heartlands of the Industrial Revolution, became carpet stores. Pine pews were ripped out and sold as antiques. A landscape was humiliated, piecemeal. 

The event hostess wondered what we’d do with all these disused mine shaft installations. Wouldn’t the place start to look like a museum? Ken thought, gnomically, a proper integration would be “difficult”.  

The idea of “reading” environments arose when he was questioned about the influence of the internet and the possible decline of book reading. In the future, the questioner reasoned, we’d be absorbing most of our info from TV and DVDs via the activities of people like Jimmy. JM looked puzzled, as well he might, being a writer who still sits at a keyboard most of the time. But maybe it is possible to produce a show by simply exhorting actors to say something interesting. Big Brother eg. Ken guiltily admitted to being a keen reader still, but thought the academic obsession of 1980s radicals who believed writing more fat books on theory would usher in the revolution was now exposed as a dead end. You can come in now Karl; sorry the position is filled. 

As for the internet, personally I prefer Chou en Lai’s answer when asked if he thought the French revolution had been a good thing – it’s too soon to tell. Ken is no luddite on the web and said generous things about this site and the one on Voices. I sense he sees important synergies in prospect – and perhaps even the building of an electronic community on the ruins of the physical wilderness. One thing the web does do is give everyone, working class included, an ease of access to literature and art works which would have astonished even Louis XIV. Ken’s final section, on East End literature mentioned a writer unknown to me – Dan Billany. Twenty years ago I might have searched bookshops in vain for this rarity. Now I log on and immediately find a first edition of The Trap for three quid in Belfast. 

Ken’s encouragement of working class writers like Jimmy back in the 70s was generously acknowledged. JM has said elsewhere “it was always a boost to get a story in Voices”. His connection with his roots has remained strong. Why do some proletarian writers fade away? They get rich, move out and wither. Jimmy recommended the Liver Vaults in his home suburb of Kensington as a top boozer and all purpose prole hub (no not that Kensington). But even the playing fields in Kensington have been built over so that the sportsmen of the Liver Vaults have no pitch. Thanks to the City of Culture cash, however, one will be created on a reservoir. Christ! These scousers are so blest they don’t just walk on water the play footie on it! 

Jimmy had some sound advice to the writers of historical reconstructions. Leave out apostrophes. Your modern man says “You’re an idiot” but Elizabethan man says “You are an idiot” I searched frantically for a pen. He might even say “Verily Sir, thou art an idiot” The possibilities for an overworked scriptwriter are vast. Jimmy’s TV series could be played again in doublet, hose and codpieces. They just need translating. Look out for Ye Street coming soon on channel 97. 

Ken, unfortunately, wasn’t booked into the Liver Vaults but the less salubrious Adelphi (it has improved a bit recently). At least there he shouldn’t be too bothered by yarn spinning sailors.

Ken Clay


OCCUPATION  by Angela France 2009  Ragged Raven Press, 1 Lodge Farm, Snitterfield, Warwickshire   CV37 OLR      £7 

Reveiwed by Peter Day

Angela France's second collection is notable for the clarity of the verse and the variety of poetic structures. She explores the transformation of everyday experience in poems characterised by the sensuous and surreal and the immediacy of its imagery. It probes what is out of sight, the associations of memory, changes involved in loss and death and questions of vulnerability and identity. Her poems have strange and magical qualities which may not be easy to assimilate at first: there are time shifts and dream images. They address existential struggles with sensitivity and respect for the supernatural. Ragged Raven maintain their high quality production standards in 'Occupation'. The cover picture is of the trunk of a sycamore tree: a face of indeterminate gender appears to be streaked with vegetable slime and gazes from inside the trunk. Occupation connotes on the one hand what occupies attention and on the other habitation - as a being in the heart of a tree.

'Preparations for a working day ' begins:           

Select a round stone     .
to keep in your mouth,
place it on the back of your tongue       
to trap words of flight.

Words then are to be taken seriously: slips of the tongue need to be checked. In several poems France draws the veil of the unconscious aside and readers are involved with her in the tension between Thanatos and Eros through associations which at first seem recondite and weird. There is work here for the psychoanalyst.

Fear, hints of horror, sexual imagery and sheer physicality generate the energy of her poems ; there are shifts in time and place in 'The Colour of Shame' one of the longest poems in the collection. In a complex sequence threatening events are represented in four narrative strands; terror, hope, abandonment and loss lead to fearful images at the end of the last stanza :

The flames are orange with hunger,
their faces are red, mouths are caverns of blood.
He swallows his shame,feels it burst in his stomach,  
form scarlet beads of rage.                                        

France's verse recalls myth and folklore which challenges or complements the rational cultural tradition: semi-conscious dream images haunt her work. In 'The God of Lost Letters' God is a changeable mysterious male figure who roams around the sorting office. Ambiguities occur in life changing news, the threat of death at the breakfast table and sadness at missed chances in the penultimate stanza:

His back bows under the weight of missed chances,
the job not taken, the will never read.
He growls at a misspelled street, grumbles
over an incomplete address and riffles through piles
of tired paper. His fingers twitch and tingle
at the smell of ink, pluck at the scribbles
on his blankets when he sleeps.

In 'Missing' like a fairy tale or a dream things both are and are not what they seem to be. France lifts the curtain and reveals the unconscious mind seething with desires and fears.This powerful poem is about our basic deep seated fears of bodily mutilation and loss. It is also a profound essay on personal integrity a theme found in other poems as well (leading me to re-read 'The Shapeshifter's Wife' and 'The Bookbinder's Apprentice' for example). France writes with sensitivity and economy - the decorative complexities found in some contemporary verse are not present here. She deals with complex themes and feelings of ambivalence, vulnerability and paradox as she looks at confused identities. ' The Real Bedtime Story' immediately pictures bedtime as unreal and frightening. The reassurance and security we often associate with bedtime for those fortunate enough to experience it is not here. The regular rhythm of the poem adds significantly and ominously to the sado-masochistic fantasy - the horror heightened by the poem's changing imagery is achieved in few words and with consummate craft.

In France's hands the ordinary world is transformed. In 'Beeing' she enters the life of bees and suggests that the bee reflects on her own activity. In 'Diamonds and Toads' these legendary creatures find jewels in the form of words as well as diamonds, react ^ to the condemnation of other creatures and seem to regret their inability to communicate. 'The Rhubarb Patch' is a sensuous poem in which themes of sexual arousal, the redness of raw fruit, loss of childhood and memory are evoked as an adolescent girl cuts rhubarb while playing 'Love Grows' on her Dansette Junior.

In the final poem in the collection 'first things' the title and text are written throughout in lower case. It consists of four stanzas of varying lengths and develops conceptually from an internally illuminated statuette of a jesus head. The title suggests successive readings leading to new revelations. The ego is subdued here ; the poem evokes mysterious depths ending with a suggestive association between the jesus head and social justice:

i stare at the coal hole
in the kitchen for the lump
with a sparkle to betray
a diamond inside but my sister
says that wouldn't happen
the rich people get all the diamonds
and the glint inside the jesus head
is a tiny crack on the outside
that I won't look for 

The movement of the lyric towards this final stanza is subtle even though there is no punctuation, no full stop at the end .In this poem and 'Chapel Conversion' which precedes it there is imaginative and emotional intensity suggesting another dimension of human existence.

This collection becomes more engrossing with successive readings: the poet bridges the divide between the everyday world and the world of imagination continuously energised by 'what if?' questions. The importance of Angela France's poetry it seems to me is its suggestion of how much we need to respect the non-rational, the truths in myth and folk wisdom and the supernatural - correctives to every kind of reductionism.