Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Lives of poets

This is Perseus Adams. He was born in South Africa in 1933; he won the South Africa State Prize for Poetry in 1963 and took the name Perseus at the advice of his hitch-hiking friend Athol Fugard, who suggested that if he wanted to publish there were too many Peters around already.

An old friend of Perseus who lost touch with him a while back, an artist now living in Jerusalem who happens to be a Facebook friend of my wife, asked if we could trace him. The Internet has a page from a local newspaper dated 2009 that mentioned his poetry and gave his address as Hadyn Park Road, which leads off the street in which we live. (It also mentioned that his grandmother was Van Gogh’s sister.) On Saturday we knocked on doors, and found some sheltered housing but there was no one at the reception desk. Going there again today, I was told that yes, Perseus had lived there, but had recently moved to a care home and they couldn’t tell me which. This afternoon I found him. He showed me his poetry books (including a 1970s competition anthology: Perseus won second prize, Derek Mahon was one of the runners up); a Selected Poems was published in South Africa in 1996. He talked non-stop: about his grandfather who died at 45 in Scotland, about meeting Nelson Mandela on Robben Island, about teaching English in India and Hong Kong, about being a stowaway on the Queen Mary, about a brief spell in Wormwood Scrubs, about a woman with coloured lights in her dress, about the newly discovered planet Kepler-186, about the end of the world … He happens to be in the same care home as Sheila, the ex-bookseller I’ve written about before who ran a tiny bookshop in Notting Hill for 44 years. If I visit again, he wouldn’t mind some croissants.

Thursday, 5 June 2014

Czech-land (2): Prague

Kafka’s grave in Prague on the morning of last Tuesday, the 90th anniversary of his death, and the overgrown Jewish cemetery where it is. While I was away I read his America for the first time: an affectionate, comic novel in which our hero stumbles into a series of messes and then has to get out of them. Kafka-esque doesn’t have to mean nightmarish. By chance, I also re-read Peter Handke’s Short Letter, Long Farewell, which is another German-speaking writer’s take on the land of America and which I liked even better than I remembered. And on my last night in Prague I heard Ales Machacek and Jane Kirwan read from their book Second Exile (Rockingham Press, 2010), which is a book CBe would have lunged for: memoir of silent cinema, reading, arrest and re-arrest, prison, odd-job jobs, no Velvet Revolution panacea, told bluntly and with a gorgeous turn of phrase, punctuated by Jane's slanting-off poems and a goose-woman, plus photographs.

An empty yellow house I could live happily in:

My hotel was near a park on a hill, and here late last Sunday afternoon, early evening, are people sitting around on the west-facing slope of that hill: talking, meeting, drinking beer, with dogs and small children and guitars, watching the sun set over their city. The Italian tradition of the passegiata - the evening stroll, dressed up, ambling, pausing for iced drinks - I find stifling. This, by comparison, was Langland's 'fair field full of folk', by accident of geography and weather and size of city, and to say I'm glad to have been there is the least of it.

Czech-land (1)

The Freelance column in today's Times Lit Supplement is me writing from my 'retreat' in Cesky Krumlov in the Czech Republic. Here are some photos to go with that (the next post will show Prague). I hadn’t been out of the UK, and rarely out of London, for more than three years.

Krumlov is almost too picturesque for its own good, but doesn’t insist on it. A photo of the apartment I was in is in the previous post; below is Egon Schiele's painting of the building, from a century ago:

Frequent rain, and once a hailstorm. Japanese tourists with colourful umbrellas and pac-a-macs:

Walk for less than 20 minutes and I was into the forest. Walk through the forest and I’d find a small village. En route, hidden by trees, the occasional tiny chapel, often with candles left burning by an invisible pilgrim:

Time passed. Reading was done, sleeping was done, I began to take even the bears for granted.

On one of the rare hot days I took a bus to a lake to go swimming: an hour to get there in a bus that took detours, then two buses on the way back. All the buses were driven by the same driver.

I came home last night. Last Saturday, while I was away, May-Lan Tan's Things to Make and Break was named runner-up in the short story collection category in the Saboteur Awards. I'm feeling mellow and still a little detached.