Thursday, 31 October 2013

Small rant about money

A new arts/money story broke today: spending on the arts is £69 per person in London, £4.58 in the regions. The Guardian report comes with a photo of some dancers on trapezes slung from the Millennium Bridge. I don’t think most people care, except to think it’s too much. I don’t think the people giving out the money care, except to worry that this could be, and will be, seen as unfair.

Stendhal in 1835: ‘To give any attention to money matters was deemed supremely low and contemptible in my family. To talk about money was somehow infra dig, money was a sad necessity, as it were, and its role alas indispensable, like that of the privy, but it was never to be spoken of.’ It’s the kind of attitude you can afford if there’s some of it around, and a privy too, and jobs to be had. Stendhal got a clerking job in the war office in Paris, coming in from the provinces, then some other jobs. At one point, when he was a sort of junior consul in Italy, sending reports back in code to his employers, he managed to include the key to the code in the same envelope, so I don’t expect he was very good at investments or even filing his tax returns. He didn’t make much of an income from his writing (he claimed that On Love sold 17 copies in its first 11 years in print, or maybe vice versa). But he went to the opera and could continue to affect an indifference: ‘The sight of a large sum of gold awakens no other thought in me than the bother of keeping it safe from thieves.’ I do warm to him.

‘Don’t put your daughter on the stage, Mrs Worthington. / Don’t put your daughter on the stage. / The profession is overcrowded, / And the struggle’s pretty tough, / And admitting the fact / She’s burning to act, / That isn’t quite enough.’ Noel Coward. This is basically what my Uncle Bill told my mother (I was there, I heard it) when she told him I was going to study English at university: ‘And where’s that going to get him?’ Doubtless there are many other uncles saying the same thing when they hear that their nephews and nieces are are signing up to Creative Writing courses. The uncles have a point; the nephews and nieces used to have the advantage of being young, but I doubt that’s any longer an advantage, given the course fees and the debts incurred. It used to be that you weren’t locked into debt until you bought your home; the bar has now been moved back, earlier.

Writing and money are always on-off, and mostly off.

Recently I engaged (not sure why; but everyone has something to say about money or sex) in an online discussion with David Rose, who after various entanglements with the Arts Council had concluded that there is no argument at all – rational, moral, whatever – to be made for state support of the arts. If take-away chicken outlets or manufacturers of window blinds are not eligible for state support, why should poets be? Seriously. Literature makes no one a better person, nor is that its aim. It doesn’t have an aim; a goal neither, no measurable outcome at all. (An output, maybe; unless I’ve got my jargon mixed up.) It doesn’t, in any way beyond the individual that anyone wants to measure these things, make the slightest difference. For the vast majority of tax-payers the arts are simply not on the score card. Cut the funding entirely and people will still write, still publish. ACE (Arts Council England) has recently been pushing (again) the economic argument, trumpeting income against investment, but really this applies only to theatre, opera, the big players. ACE’s money is chanelled through the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. Investment-to-income profit I can see the point of, but if that’s how they want to play it the investment should come from a tourism ministry, not a culture ministry. (‘Media’ is so undefinable as to be unarguable with. ‘Sport’ is not exactly poor. The whole department is a random catch-all; you might as well add in the arms industry, in which bow-and-arrow manufacturers may be finding it tough, despite their maintenance of traditional skills. Accuracy, for one.)

Within ACE, the funding allocated to literature (as compared to the other arts) is chickenfeed, is disposal of the petty cash. The disposal of that petty cash appears (though it is argued about by competent people who are paid and well qualified to argue each case) pretty random. (See here for the most recent listing of Grants for the Arts literature grants; click on artform, move to the literature tab, you do have to work for this). ACE operates from within the government, which in turn operates from within the given financial structure, which is largely based on locking people into debt. (Yesterday afternoon I waited at a bus stop that displayed a bank’s mortgage ad: the banks have been making hay for generations from the fact that the UK is a property owning rather renting little island, and they wanted yet more hay and they fucked up, us too, and it’s still going on.)

When I said above that the public funders don’t care, I don’t mean they don’t care about diversity and the regions and disability and access, I mean they don’t care about literature. What’s in place at present is just lip-service. It’s to get the Guardian constituency on board. Does any career politician seriously aspire to the status of arts minister? It’s like being on probation, we’ll see how you do in a position where you can’t do any damage. If any political party took literature seriously, it would have a return to the the National Book Agreement as part of its manifesto. (A return to the NBA, or a revised version, would restrict discounting; enable more independent booksellers to survive; benefit small presses; have a more rooted and lasting effect on what is written, published and read than any tossing of a few thousand pounds to this writer, that publisher). France does this, Germany does this. It hardly wins votes, it won’t happen. Just as they don’t care, really, about education: deal with the charity status of the so-called ‘public’ schools for a start (for non-UK readers: for public read private; it was genius marketing to get those words switched). Or housing: that the average asking price for a house in London is £544,000, and the adult minimum wage is £6.31 per hour (£2.65 is the apprentice rate), and ‘One in five workers in the UK is paid less than required for a basic standard of living’ (BBC reporting research for KPMG, 29 October: one in five), is madness. Of a kind that appears to be normalised, but it’s still madness.

The bus I was waiting for yesterday afternoon was to take me home after reading to the ex-bookseller I’ve written about previously, the one who ran a tiny shop in Notting Hill for 44 years and then had a stroke. I read two chapters of a book she’d been given by a friend, a book first published in the late 1940s and recently re-issued and that was finely written, I enjoyed reading it, but which seemed to be about the servant problem – all the maids have scarpered – and we agreed that next time a different book. To pay for her continued care, her deceased husband’s book collection is coming up for sale at Christie’s on 15 November. The lots include ‘Booth, Charles (1840-1916). Life and Labour of the People in London. London: Macmillan, 1902-1910. 19 volumes, 8° (209 x 135mm). Map volume containing 5 folding maps in two pockets. (A little foxing.) Contemporary parchment, gilt spines (soiled).’ And a first edition of Marx’s Das Kapital, estimated at £10–15,000.

Saturday, 26 October 2013

CBe 2013 9 / J. O. Morgan, At Maldon

This much is fact: in the summer of 991 an army of Anglo-Saxons, commanded by Earl Byrhtnoth, engaged a Viking raiding party beside the River Blackwater near Maldon in Essex, and was defeated. A poem recounting the battle was composed in the east of England in the 10th century or (the scholars dispute) in the west of England in the 11th century. The beginning and end went missing. The only known manuscript of the surviving 325 lines was destroyed in a fire in 1731. A transcript made in the 1720s got lost, then was found in the Bodleian Library in the 1930s.

I suspect most reporting of war is like this: a muddle, with unreliable sources and things getting lost and no one really knowing. (Why, one wonders, was the original poem even written? Battle poems are generally written by the victors; this one recounts a defeat.)

Here are the last six lines of the original poem:

Swa hi æþelgares bearn ealle bylde,
Godric to guþe. Oft he gar forlet,
wælspere windan on þa wicingas,
swa he on þam folce fyrmest eode,
heow and hynde, oðþæt he on hilde gecranc.
Næs þæt na se Godric þe ða guðe forbeah

Here are the last six lines of a modern English text on the Battle of Maldon website:

And thus them all did Aethelgar's son urge,
Even Godric, to the battle – oft he cast a spear,
A spear of slaughter to go upon the Vikings,
As he 'mid the folk foremost went,
Smote and struck down till he sank down in the fight.
He was not that Godric who left the battle.

(As befits the confusion of battle, there was an earlier Godric. That one fled and survived; this one stayed and died. Perhaps, as Helena Nelson suggested in a earlier blog post, there are always two Godrics.)

Here are the final lines of Morgan’s At Maldon:

As he is buried under bodies newly dead,
and hears the rumour of the fight above,
the rhythm of hit after hit,
as calm, as constant, as familiar
as the soft wet tap of rain upon a roof.

Though it follows the narrative pattern of the original poem, Morgan’s At Maldon is clearly not a translation in the way of, say, Armitage’s The Death of King Arthur. In the blurb, we went back and forth between the verbs ‘re-imagine’ and ‘re-interpret’. A new character makes a brief appearance: a farm boy digging for whelks in the estuary mud, looking up and seeing advancing ships ‘with wide white handkerchief sails’. In among the imagery: bin liners, a petri dish. A Viking, before the battle, demanding tribute from the Anglo-Saxons, offers ‘a great investment opportunity’. There’s a flash forward to the elderly Godric, the one who survives, reminiscing to his grandchildren in a nursing home (‘And the nurse brings his food tray, / empties the bedpan, changes the sheets’). Think, if you like, Christopher Logue. But Morgan is entirely his own man.

To hear a podcast, courtesy of the Scottish Poetry Library, of Morgan talking about At Maldon (and his Natural Mechanical, which was the first book of original poetry published by CBe and won the 2009 Aldeburgh First Collection Prize), click here.

Friday, 25 October 2013

CBe 2103 8 / Fergus Allen, New & Selected Poems

The risk of leaving it late to ‘emerge’, as they say, as a poet – Fergus Allen published his first collection at the age of 72 – is that there may not be much time left to enjoy post-emergence. The advantage is that you’ve been around a bit – which in Fergus’s case includes much travel, as well as careers in civil engineering and the civil service – so you may well have something to write about; you’re also likely to have read many more books by many more writers than the average twenty-something. That is to say, you have something to contribute.

Fergus Allen is now 92. The poems in his New & Selected Poems have been chosen from five previous collections (three with Faber, one with Dedalus in Ireland, one with CBe); the ‘New’ refers to a dozen poems written since his last collection. The book has a Foreword by Christopher Reid, Fergus’s first editor at Faber. You can hear Fergus Allen reading on the Poetry Archive.

The manner of Fergus Allen’s poetry is one thing: sharp, precision-engineered, no wastage. Opening the book at random, some openings: ‘When the car gave up the ghost outside Lahore / It would have been around a hundred and twenty / In the shade, had there been any shade’; ‘Nobody warned me that life would contain / Swearing and scenes of violence and nudity’; ‘After the earthquake we decided to redecorate Hell’; ‘Annie’s pubic hair was beyond a joke’. But also inviting: Allen writes out of a conviction that if he has the affrontery to detain the reader, then he has a responsibility to offer at least enough enjoyment, pleasure in the text, call it what you will, to keep the reader reading. This is the job. Which doesn’t of course mean talking down; he does assume the reader’s intelligence.

The matter is something else. For all the apparent suaveness of their phrasing, there is horror here, and unknowing, and intimations of apocalypse (‘A sort of non-existence came my way / when I was walking up through Morrab Gardens …’). Thom Gunn once said something – I can’t find the reference – about if you’re writing about the big and uncontainable things, then you need to be tight and close and maybe even very formal. Allen’s poems strike me as deeply civilised, by which I mean they are continuously aware of the fragility of so-called civilisation. His interests in myth, in folklore, in nature, in history, are not decorative. In sex too: the light and winning eroticism of a number of the poems glides over a wonder and strangeness: see the late ‘Lovers’ for sex + death + a typical Allen interpolation of the word ‘xylophone’. It’s noticeable how many of the personae are female (‘Portrait of a Woman from the Fayum’ one of my favourites; also the later ‘Lord Gregory’s Mother’).

Born and educated in Ireland, Fergus Allen moved to England in, I think, his early twenties. Anglo-Irish, a mixed blessing: I suspect the Irish have him down as English, the English as Irish. He’s not young, but neither (except in the tedious terms of years, one upon another) is he old. He is not on most readers’ map. Many of the poems haunt me, which is why this book.

Friday, 18 October 2013

Cover boy

The cover boy on the new issue of the Warwick Review is Dan O’Brien, author of the Aldeburgh and Forward shortlisted War Reporter. There’s a review of the book inside, plus two new poems by O’Brien in which the war reporter (Paul Watson) is in Syria. Also a fine review of D. Nurkse’s A Night in Brooklyn. And much more (194 pages) – it’s a shame this magazine doesn’t have a wider circulation.

I was reading the magazine yesterday lunchtime in Queen’s Park, where I’d gone to look over my poems and notes before a recording session for the Poetry Archive. Not exactly rehearsing – I don’t know how to do that: either it’s the thing, or it isn’t. Assuming the recording was going to be presented as continuous, I’d arranged the poems in a specific running order, balancing off-page life progress with on-page echoes back and forth, most of which had only become apparent to me when I started choosing. It held together, just about. But in the park I didn’t look at the linking of poems, I read the magazine instead.

This turned out to be the right thing to have done. John, in the studio, immediately relaxed me by saying that any intros to the poems shouldn’t use words like ‘next’ or ‘another’ because the poems would be offered as randomly accessible, not in sequence. As you would, perhaps, browse a book. So the pattern according to which I’d actually chosen many of the was rendered null. Fine. I read. Midway through one of the poems a friend called me on my mobile, which I’d forgotten to switch off. They’ll probably edit that bit out.

Monday, 14 October 2013

Trains & dreams & battles

A few nights ago I dreamt I was being stalked by a horse ... Sexual unfulfilment, according to Dr Jung, I’m told, but he probably said that about everything: rabbits, teacakes, you name it. I can’t prove him wrong.

Last night, after reading Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams, I had a train dream. I and my dead friend Alan, despite actually living on the station, missed the direct train from Africa to Scarborough and had to hang around for the 17.11 to Birmingham – which arrived at the opposite platform, so we had to scramble over the tracks and then somehow up a very steep hill, me carrying four suitcases because I’d somehow thought I still had plenty of time to pack properly. This was actually a repeat of a dream I’d had before, though on the previous occasion it had gone on longer: a crammed train to Birmingham, standing room only, then hanging around for the Scarborough connection, though once we were on that train the countryside was beautiful.

One of the very few stories I have of my father (who died 57 years ago): too early for his train from Leeds to Glasgow, he boarded the wrong train and found himself in Sheffield.

Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams is wonderful: the life, in parts, of a man who in the early 20th century works in the woods, felling trees for the expansion of the railway; who loses his wife and child in a forest fire; who howls with the wolves; who dies in his sleep in his cabin in the 1960s; told in 128 pages. For me, his The Name of the World is even better: set in present-day academia, this also centres on a man living through his grief for his dead wife and child, and is also around 128 pages long. Granier in Train Dreams is an uneducated man; Mike in The Name of the World teaches in a university, and has also worked as a speech-writer in Washington – he is, that’s to say, part of the grown-up world for whom talk about dreams is tedious. He says as much: ‘I think to recount your dreams is to bore the entire world, and I don’t normally even trouble myself to recollect mine.’ And then he does proceed to recount a dream, one in which ‘My shame was like a child’s’ and from which ‘I woke up sweating and chilled with panic.’ There are not-quite dreams throughout (‘Everything occurred despite its complete impossibility’). The final paragraph, in which he tells of flying in the Gulf War ‘above blazing tank battles in the desert in the night, through black smoke overclouding a world pocked by burning wells like flickering signals of distress, of helplessness’, is both dream and not-dream.

The photos above and below were taken from a train last week up to Edinburgh, my longest train journey for years, on the stretch just south and north of the border where the track runs along the coast. I came back on the night train: sleeping when the train was moving, waking every time it jolted to a stop. I went up for J. O. Morgan reading with Ishbel McFarlane from his new CBe book, At Maldon, and Nell Nelson from HappenStance was there too and I will here shamelessly and gratuitously direct you to her blog, because she liked what she heard: ‘Their style was restrained, their voices hardly raised – and yet the drama of the thing was palpable. They were telling a great story, and creating that hush of expectation only true storytellers can evoke. Battles? It didn’t matter what the topic was, I would have listened.’ And she liked what she read, on the way home (on a train): ‘This is a glorious piece of writing.’ She researched the original Anglo-Saxon poem, and ‘it took me a while to work out how all this fitted together’, not least because there are two characters named Godric. She felt that perhaps this was key: ‘Some say Godric fled. Some say he fought to the death. Maybe there are always two Godrics. There was fighting, there was valour and stupidity and pragmatism and grace and blood. There was, and is, a terrific story here, fabulously well told.’

Sunday, 13 October 2013

Traffic congestion

These are the poetry books that CBe has published this year (also the book on Michael Hofmann and two other prose books).

Five males and one female isn’t good, but I’m not especially worried; I do believe I’m gender-neutral in what I take on; with the four books CBe will publish early next year, three women, one man. More interesting, to me, is that half of the books are by writers already on the list (Allen, Morgan, Nurkse). Two of the books (O’Brien, Arikha) are by writers publishing poetry for the first time (though both have written in other genres). One (Elliott) is by a poet who has published before with Blackstaff in Northern Ireland.

For all publishers, loyalty to the continuing work of writers on the so-called backlist and openness to work by new writers pitch against each other, in competition for the available space. There are several established poets, I think, who are writing at a faster rate than their publishers are able to publish. Queues build up.

Nine books from CBe this year – a ridiculous number – was based on a very rash assumption that I’d get some ACE funding for a marketing/sales person, which didn’t happen. I’m not too unhappy about that, because the ‘grow-&-expand’ model, which seems to be the default model that all parties assume and expect, doesn’t have to be – does it? – the only one. But six years in, there is this problem: that the authors I’ve already published are more than capable of filling every slot. Answers on a postcard, please.

Thursday, 3 October 2013

Forward Prizes: and another thing

Full marks to Susannah Herbert for getting the Forward Prizes for poetry talked about and for trying out something new and, not least, for engaging personally in the to-and-fro: the Forward Foundation is clearly not a faceless bureaucracy. And congratulations to the winners. Obviously I was rooting for Dan O’Brien in the First Collection category, but he didn’t come out of that day badly: on the evening of the Forward do his partner gave birth to their first child, so the date is marked for the rest of his, his partner’s and his child’s lives.

Most of the talk about the Forward has been about the decision to have actors read the poems, and I’m finding it all a bit tedious. And sometimes annoying: to suggest that poets ‘can't survive these days without … constantly giving readings’ (quote from one of the threads) is simply wrong: there are a thousand other things poets can do to make an income. Besides which, most poetry publishers continue to publish poets who give no readings at all – because they’re dead, or they live in Ulan Bator, or they simply don’t want to.

Here’s another issue that’s surely just as worth attending to as the poets/actors debate. Over in the fiction room, they’re getting worked up about the opening up of the Man Booker prize to English-language novels by writers who don’t happen to be from the UK, the Commonwealth and Ireland: there’s worry that the Americans (whose own Pulitzers are for themselves only) will simply walk over everyone else. In the poetry room, both the Forward and the T. S. Eliot prizes have always been open to Americans. There’s an argument perhaps worth making for heading in the opposite direction to the Booker and having one of these two prizes restricted to UK/Commonwealth/Irish writers. Little Englandism? The new Goldsmiths Prize (‘to reward fiction that breaks the mould or opens up new possibilities for the novel form’) is open only to UK or Irish writers, but that’s a very fine shortlist they’ve come up with.