Thursday, 29 November 2012

Birdwatching in Namibia

I love to watch birds and other wildlife but I'm pretty incompetent so it always feels likely that there's an osprey twenty yards away flagrantly sitting on a branch and I've missed it. I'm happy to listen to blackbirds and to watch flocks of sparrows but what I love above all is to be somewhere that contains astonishing birds which are easy to see, where you don't have to look hard, and then they constitute a marker of the exotic. When you're floating along the Nile, the Nile kingfisher is simply there, pied black and white and hovering over the water. So in Namibia, which I visited recently, there were three different kinds of eagle which could be regularly seen and I saw thirty white-backed vultures circling over a road, and, in one place, flocks of rosy-cheeked lovebirds flaunting their astonishing colours. Even more amazing there was a lit pool, visible from a restaurant, which was visited in daylight by baboons and warthogs, and which at night was visited by a giant kudu with a broken horn and had a speckled nightjar swooping around it, the bird which was audible through the night making an incongruous yapping sound. At the same pool one night an eagle owl sat nonchalantly, not caring he was visible to twenty diners, or that a genet was prowling around, and apparently that powerful bird is quite common now even in the suburbs.

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Hawking on myth

Hawking seemed to be on more solid ground in the next episode in his mini-series when he suggested that science has replaced myth. The program invented a group of Vikings watching a solar eclipse and chanting to chase away the wolf god which they believed was eating the sun. Sometimes myth provides a good source of imagery and it obviously provides insight into the primitive mind. But surely quite often the best reaction is just to say that 'aetiological' myths like the wolf god one are quite stupid and boring, and that the scientific explanations are far richer and more beautiful, even if they often take more mental effort. The prestige of myth in the literary world has declined and you don't get, anything like as often, poems like those of Tennyson that centre on mythical characters. But the 'mythic' is still often accorded more respect than it deserves and this can produce things like the Seren series of novels based on stories from the Mabinogion. The ones I've seen in that series are very poor, and I do think that mythic content is very often a sign of lazy thinking, and often of a kind of unexamined mysticism, and that this kind of writing really isn't representing the contemporary world.

Monday, 1 October 2012

stephen hawking on the meaning of life

In a recent TV program, Stephen Hawking said that philosophy is dead and has been replaced by science. Given the astonishing discoveries in recent science you can see what he means - some of the staple questions in philosophy like the mind/body question look entirely different given what science has been saying. Hawking's philosophical outlook has inevitably been shaped by his scientific background which has made him focus on the construction of an infinite universe from atomic particles - which translates philosophically into a form of materialism so that, when he comes to translate this into what the meaning of life might be, he's clearly faced with the premise that human meaning is largely irrelevant. Struggling against that obvious conclusion he decided to say that life does have meaning and that it arises from how individuals impose meaning in their own lives. This is banal at best and demonstrates that ignorance of philosophy is likely to lead you, when you're forced to philosophise, into reiterating philosophical cliches. His line was little better than 'life is what you make it' or, less colloquially, a crude version of existentialism.

Friday, 21 September 2012

David Gaffney

I went, last weekend, to the 60th birthday celebrations for Stand magazine, which has played a major role in contemporary poetry and deserves to be supported in every possible way. I gave a reading and listened to others and the general standard was extremely impressive. The most distinctive though was by David Gaffney who writes micro-fiction, - each piece 150 words long. He read, for example, one about the emotional meaning of the spiral structure of Ikea stores,  a deeply creepy one about wardrobes, and one about a man who hates grocery shopping so much he starts - on the principle that people buy more or less the same things - to commandeer trolleys which have already been loaded by other people. One day his victim notices what he's done, but he decides to pretend he knows her:

'Darling, I'll just get eggs.'
'We've got eggs,' the woman chirped. 'Listen, do you want to go out to the car? You look stressed. You can listen to your tape.'

I talked to David at the interval and, in an attempt to influence him, broached the subject of blowdry handriers: how the conventional ones breathe a death rattle on your hands and leave them no drier than before, but the Dyson Hyperblade is scarily effective - if you look at your hands while it's operating, you can see it drives deep ripples across them, as though it's plunging underneath your skin to dry it from the inside. It may work, he seemed interested.

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Hillsborough Report

Tony Blair said 'We're all middle-class now', but the horrors explicit and implicit in this report indicate the very powerful role that class still plays in British society, and which is all the more powerful because class is being so cleverly and subtly marginalised as a way of understanding contemporary experience. That the innocent victims of this horror could actually be blamed for causing it, and that such blame was routinely extended and so widely believed, shows the extent of the dismissive contempt with which they were regarded in the first place, and shows how class prejudices carry the weight of unexamined 'common sense', and can be used against the working class by the same people who say it is old-fashioned to talk about class at all.

Monday, 27 August 2012


It's odd how the word poetry is used in sporting contexts as a term of the highest praise - that sprint finish was sheer poetry - by people who would never read a poem.

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

secret wheels: funding for athletes

The Olympics have certainly been a fascinating, vivid spectacle, and the British medal-winners are generally compelling and often charismatic individuals. There's been some discussion of lottery-funding and fears etc it will decline after the home event, but there's been no attempt that I've seen to look at the bigger picture in the funding - about funding for athletics in comparison with other cultural activities that find it difficult to fund themselves from their audiences alone. Poetry is comparable in this respect to a sport like kayaking - it's a minority interest and needs public money to survive. The difference is that poetry is part of a very long British tradition and one which forms part of our larger global prestige. Its neglect is evident when you compare the imminent appearance of British athletes on stamps to the absence of WHAuden from such honours in his centenary year a couple of years ago. Auden was the greatest British artist of the twentieth century. This is also reflected in the funding - British success at the Olympics has been achieved through targeting lots of cash at elite athletes. The amounts involved are staggering when you compare them with Arts funding which has been squeezed and squeezed so that small presses like Salt and Cinnamon are struggling desperately to survive. It's not just poetry that's suffering, but all the Arts, and the career of Danny Boyle, who directed the opening ceremony, needs to be borne in mind in this context. He's a generation older than the athletes and benefited from a previous economic regime - he was a student in my own academic department at a time when students got grants. He will also have furthered his career in Britain at a time when there was general funding for all the Arts. Younger versions of him will certainly be struggling to make their way.

Sunday, 5 August 2012

shouting insults from cars

As I was walking home a couple of nights ago, a car moved off and the driver shouted something loud and raucous at me through his open window. This seems to be a growing habit, and it's cowardly because the driver needn't ever be face to face with the insulted stranger. Mostly it's young men doing it, but it's part of a general culture of insult that's grown up in the past decade where the major culprits, like Ann Robinson and Simon Cowell, are older and where insult as entertainment has become a norm. A bad recent example is that idiot comedian who thought it was funny to say that Rebecca Adlington is ugly - surely this suggests that your comic resources are extremely meagre.
There was an element of self-conscious insult in Gore Vidal, who died this week - so it's clearly not that new. Vidal would also give the impression, sometimes, that he was shouting insults at passing macho strangers, (Norman Mailer, William Buckley) but he wasn't as cowardly and did receive some physical buffeting in reply. Even so it was a distraction from his genuine achievements, which were important in subverting rigid gender norms in the 1960s and after.

Sunday, 22 July 2012

childish diversions

It's a feature of being bored out of your skull that you seize upon any tiny chance of entertainment. At my son's graduation ceremony this week, as the graduands paraded alphabetically across to have their hands shaken by the Vice-Chancellor, I noticed that the name Condon was followed by the name Cox.

Sunday, 8 July 2012

Ivan Lendl

The presence, one year, of Ivan Lendl on a list of the world's best-looking men led one of the others on the list, Allie McCoist, to consider it a dubious honour. McCoist is now the manager of Rangers and looks appropriately frazzled. Lendl is the coach of Andy Murray but the cameramen only look at him when Murray makes an unforced error. His baseball cap and sunglasses are aids to inscrutability, but he still looks, in these moments, like someone whose anger management regime has given him the posture of de Niro weighing up a future victim. Is there a more dangerous-looking ex-sportsman in the world?

Sunday, 1 July 2012

Old Father Thames

Walking the Thames path last week from Oxford to its source,  I wrote the first two lines of a poem which will probably be called 'The Source':

My guide book thinks this river is a person or a nation
born near Cirencester gently

and it's true that the guide book talks about the 'gentle birth' of the Thames and then its passage through the carefree meadows of its youth towards the 'proud symbols' of its maturity - castles and colleges and palaces. It doesn't, being a tourist publication, talk about decrepitude and senility, and it doesn't mention authors like Dickens and especially T.S.Eliot who deal with the river in that state (unlike eg Jerome K Jerome and Kipling who do get mentioned). There's a nationalist subtext in the guidebook's imagery and my poem will mingle registers and mix metaphors in order to explore the status of the Thames as a symbol of Englishness, where national identity is represented both as river and person - or it'll attempt that, though sometimes the language will refuse to bend that way.

Sunday, 10 June 2012

David Foster Wallace

One of the things that's different about reading on a Kindle is that you don't know how long the book is that you've downloaded. So I was puzzled, reading Infinite Jest, when the percentage numbers seemed to get stuck - puzzled until I saw it in a bookshop and discovered it's a thousand pages long. That's about three times as long as it should be. It contains brilliant ideas, and some completely convincing writing of a conventional sort - evocations of the early life of a tennis professional, descriptions of AA meetings etc. But it's in an American postmodernist tradition, Pynchon being the obvious model, eg in its group of paraplegic Quebequois terrorists, and it eschews conventional plot development. The clue there is in its core metaphor in the work of one of its more elusive characters, the film director James O. Incandenza, who is said to have an 'anti-confluential' theory of film structure, meaning that separate plot strands are not joined together. Infinite Jest  is also anti-confluential, - though the different strands sometimes infringe on each other, they never meet in any sort of resolution. Clearly you're meant to be frustrated by that, it's the major plot point, but it seems to me to lose one of the greatest resources of the novel as a form, and inflicts injury on a reader willing to commit themselves to a work of such length. However, it's certainly worth dipping into (maybe that's the reading model you're supposed to adopt?) because it contains brilliantly witty moments, as in this from its spoof Incandenza filmography:

Pre-Nuptial Agreement of Heaven and Hell ... God and Satan play poker with Tarot cards for the soul of an alcoholic sandwich-bag salesman obsessed with Bernini's 'The Ecstasy of St.Teresa.'  

Friday, 1 June 2012

The Truman Show

I wonder if Truman Show moments might be as common for some people now as deja vu. I experienced one this morning as I turned from the Lloyds bank ATM in Bangor and looked towards the Big Issue saleswoman who always stands on the corner where JD Sports used to be. She always wears a headscarf, a check shirt, and a skirt which capaciously displays Islamic art; she always whistles on the 'sh' sound of Issue in a way that reminds you of the difficulty, now, of getting a National Health dentist. As I turned, I saw her pat her hair under the scarf as though she was conscious of being on camera, and that caused the Truman double-take (of course, given the ubiquity of cctv in town centres, we're all on camera there). But maybe it's also a small-town effect - in places like Bangor you constantly see the same faces even though they're strangers, and, if you see a number of them one after the other, it's like being surrounded by minor celebrities.

Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Asma al-Assad

The Channel 4 documentary The Real Mr and Mrs Assad was fascinating because of what it left as a central enigma - that is, what their marriage is 'really' like, which, of course, it could never answer - only novelists can go into those inner workings, and even in novels the reality remains moot. Asma Assad was blamed for lending legitimacy to the regime through her Englishness and her beauty, and there have been calls upon her by the wives of the German and British ambassadors to the United Nations, asking her to stand up for peace and urge her husband to end the bloodshed in her country. In the program there was a moment that struck me as misogynistic when she was said to have shopped online for Parisian fashion while a massacre was taking place. Very big questions are raised here about the role that individuals can play in a terrible situation like that currently in Syria, and what was damagingly lacking from the program was the terror that the Assad family must feel from its vulnerability in composing a regime out of minority factions (including Christians) in the face of the Sunni majority. The atrocities which Assad and his brother and his cousins are committing are clearly in response to that vulnerability, and so, when you imagine marital discussions by the Assads you have to imagine the husband describing that situation. On Channel 4 they interviewed an old schoolfriend who said that 'Emma' (as she was known at school) must surely now be appalled. Maybe she is - she, herself, is Sunni and her family came originally from Homs - and it's very puzzling to imagine a former London schoolgirl, then computer scientist then investment banker sitting in the midst of these horrors shopping online for Chanel.It's impossible to know what she might have said to her husband in private, but what you do know is that if she tried to act against him and his family of monsters she'd be in terrible danger. 

Friday, 18 May 2012


'It's like marmite - you either love it or hate it,' is a current cliche in the making. I don't think it will acquire the momentum of the 'rollercoaster' menace because it's not even accurate. I mean it's true that rollercoasters go up and down, but I, for one, neither love nor hate marmite - I just quite like it. Mind you, accuracy isn't stopping the momentum of the 'in their DNA' idiom currently used obsessively by sports commentators in contexts that have nothing to do with genetics:

producing bowlers who can deliver a ball which dips suddenly in its flight and then scoots straight and low across the ground, by generating topspin through squirting the ball off the middle finger...-

is in the Sri Lankan DNA

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

contemporary allegories

I’ve been writing a sequence of poems that explores what I’m convinced is the prevalence of allegorical forms in contemporary culture, especially in advertising, celebrity culture and, to some extent, sport. It’s the opposite of symbolism whose depth is about unearthing essential truths. This new allegory is about surfaces and the arbitrary, as in those meerkats on TV ads where small furry animals with Russian accents are arbitrarily made to represent insurance – gratuitousness and randomness are a major part of the point. These representations, like others now, resemble the Baroque in their elaborate self-consciousness and self-referentiality, but they now also reflect the loss of religion in their self-reflexive lack of depth. And certain celebrities, especially minor ones, have acquired the status of personifications – Jordan, for example, arouses interest because of the stark simplicity of what she represents, and the intense focus on her chest. Here's the start of 'The Breasts':

Her breasts had secretly acquired
an agent, knowing they were better
than their owner – when she tired
and sagged, they only perked up perter,
climbing above her.  She had made it
only because they stood up for her,
who always denied them credit
for parting the way before her.
Now they needed to expand
their contract:  they’d get bigger
only if they could command
a much more generous figure.
Oh my God I’m falling apart
she cried, awaking in the cold dawn:

Monday, 30 April 2012

Roy Hodgson

You have to feel sorry for Roy Hodgson who got stick at Liverpool for not being Kenny Dalglish, and will get stick as England manager for not being Harry Redknapp. He's got sound credentials, but it's hard not to see the overlooking as Rednap as another example of a stuffy organisation uneasy about a colourful character who speaks his mind. Maybe worst of all, for the FA, Redknapp is funny.

Monday, 23 April 2012

True Blood

Watching the fourth series of True Blood, I've been wondering about the influence of Twin Peaks, the David Lynch soap parody from the early 90s - that was also set in a small town where weirdness was progressively revealed. But the differences between them also show what's changed culturally in the two decades since then. The True Blood premise - that vampires have gone mainstream because the availability of the eponymous blood substitute means they needn't kill humans - looks at first like a straightforward metaphor for the mainstreaming of gayness, especially given the conspicuous presence of gay characters, combined, stylistically, with a reliance on camp parody and irony. What's more interesting is the way that such a wide range of other kinds of deviance is gradually developed so that a very high percentage of the population of the Louisiana town turn out to be shape-shifters, werewolves etc etc. The protagonist, Sookie Stackhouse, who gives her name to the books which the series is based on, looks like an author proxy because her telepathic abilities are also what novelists can do - she can read the thoughts of the other characters (well, except for vampires) but this also means she's endowed with unexpected power for a young waitress, and she's wish-fulfullingly the focus of great sexual interest for the most glamorous men in the series. But the series is crucially generous in its endowment of power; that's similar, maybe, to the banal Xmen moral - give freaks a chance - but goes beyond that because the proliferation of deviant and ambiguous powers (are they a blessing or a curse?) suggests a much more widespread tolerance - way beyond a straight/gay binary, and hinting at a celebration of human variousness in all its forms. And, like all those HBO series, it's brilliantly scripted, acted and filmed. Marvellous.

Tuesday, 17 April 2012


Am I the only one who thinks there's far too much Delius on Radio 3? Of course the BBC should promote British artists but I hate Englishness being connected to this wounded pastoral. Delius was Composer of the Week again last week and I avoided most of it because I've developed a phobia for the word 'amanuensis' which always features on these occasions (and never anywhere else) - Eric Fenby appears to be the only 'amanuensis' ever - truly unique. I did, however, hear Julian Lloyd Webber claiming that the Delius Cello Concerto was one of the best pieces in the cello repertoire. Then they broadcast his performance of it and it sounded like the musical expression of an oppressive headache that arouses aggrandised feelings of self-pity.

Monday, 2 April 2012

football chants

Yesterday, in the game against Liverpool, Newcastle fans chanted

'Sign on, Sign on,
With hope in your heart,
But you'll never work again.'

The non-football gratuitousness of that is what's conspicuous - one region satirising another.

Best chant ever was United fans celebrating the odd name of the father of the brothers Gary And Phil, and sung to the Bowie tune:

Neville Neville it's the name of their dad...

Thursday, 29 March 2012

Adrienne Rich

Adrienne Rich died yesterday.

She was a very important poet as well as being very influential
as a lesbian feminist critic.  'Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence'
is awkward reading for straight males because it seems to argue that ALL women are in fact gay.
Whatever your sexual orientation though you have to recognise the powerful intelligence at work
in the poems, and the insistence you get in American poetry that it's possible, in poems,
to discuss ideas explicitly. British poetry has always fought shy of this in its stress
always on 'showing' rather than 'telling'
The result in Rich's work is a poetic that's restlessly questioning, and not just about gender
but also, eg, about ecological damage.

Check out her poem about the Vietnam War, 'Shooting Script'
where 'shooting' refers to cameras, guns and penises.
By contrast with that sort of deadly closure, she invents an imagery
of feminine open-endedness:

You are spilt here like mercury on a marble counter, liquefying
into many globes, each silvered like a planet caught in a lens.

You are a mirror lost in a brook, an eye reflecting a torrent
of reflections.

You are a letter written, folded, burnt to ash, and mailed
in an envelope to another continent.

Monday, 26 March 2012

relativity of comedy norms

In his book The Gate Francois Bizot describes how, when he was being held prisoner by the Khmer Rouge, one of his fellow prisoners used to bring him a piece of bay kdang, 'the crust of rice that had been hardened and burnt during cooking', and how he made this man 'smile mechanically reciting an adage well known in country areas: Bay kdang, reug kda'. He translates this as 'Crust of rice, stiff penis.' Maybe this only becomes a joke in context - 'you had to be there'; it's an adage so might resemble 'crust of rice will put hairs on your chest'. An adage might be similar to a proverb, and some Cambodian proverbs also read oddly. David Chandler, in his The Land and People of Cambodia quotes about ten, including 'Don't believe the sky; don't believe the stars' and 'If a tiger lies down, don't say, "The tiger is showing respect" '.

Monday, 19 March 2012

Geoffrey Hill on difficulty

I went to Geoffrey Hill's most recent Professor of Poetry lecture last week. He concluded by stressing the need for difficulty difficulty difficulty, though nothing earlier in the lecture had prepared for it, except the difficulty of following his argument about the medieval and the early modern. He'd be surprised to know how much he shares this emphasis with 'experimental' poets, given his view that postmodernism is all about accessibility, mindlessly generous reviewing etc. But it's surely a perverse emphasis, a perverse quality actually to aim for, and has damaged his work, as in his elegy for Ken Smith. When you write a very difficult elegy, what's going on? When it's difficult so that it bears no trace of the dead friend, isn't this plain rude?