Let us start with the positive, a fantastic little book, a lovely little book. A joy to read the prolific Alexander McCall Smith‘s What Auden can do for you (Princeton UP, 2013), which looks and feels good too, as one would expect from an American university press publication. Were I not into Auden already (albeit as a late adopter) I’m pretty sure I would be so moved after reading this brief account of the man and his work, which also lets us in to how McCall Smith, the writer prince of gracious, decent living, first got acquainted and drawn in.
A selection from the chapter headings practically tells the tale: Love illuminates again; Choice and quest; The poet as voyager; Politics and sex; A vision of agape; And then there is nature. To save you looking agape up (as would I), McCall Smith describes it as “that disinterested love of others that has played so important a part in traditional Christian teaching,” while Wikipedia has it as “selfless, charitable, non-erotic (brotherly) love, spiritual love, love of the soul“, though there are more specific Christian meanings. He invokes it thus:
I then experienced a feeling of extraordinary calm, of something that must have been joy. It was fleeting, lasting only a minute or two, but it was unmistakable. […] … we know that for a short time we have seen something about the world that we do not normally see. I suddenly understood that I loved the people present in that small enclosure. I had come from Edinburgh feeling that the evening would be a chore, and now I stood on the grass and realised how grudging, how churlish that attitude had been.
“A summer night,” I said to myself.
A summer night is a poem that Auden wrote in 1933, the generation of which McCall Smith goes on to talk about in some detail; this is typical of McCall Smith’s approach. He is thankful for the illumination. His final chapter is Auden as a guide to living. More an aid to living, really, but here’s the penultimate paragraph:
On his [Auden’s] memorial in Westminster Abbey are inscribed the words In the prison of his days / Teach the free man how to praise. I remember when I first read that these lines had been chosen for that memorial, I was not sure I understood why. Now I understand.
Those words encapsulate one of the basic tenets of ‘happiness’ self-help texts. Richard Wiseman, for instance, in his 59 seconds: think a little change a lot (2009), one of the more grounded examples of the species, cites the results of scientific experiments to justify their efficacy beyond folk wisdom.
Another guide to life in book form is offered in John Connolly‘s The book of lost things (2006). This is one of those novels that reveal that they are the story of how the novel itself came to be written. Though it is not a children’s book – and author Connolly avers this in the 150 pages of appendices after the novel has finished – it reads like one, in that everything is painstakingly spelt out in simple, unspectacular prose. Anyway, the ‘author’ gets to be a famous writer, and children travel to meet him:
… he would talk to them of stories and books, and explain to them how stories wanted to be told and books wanted to be read, and how everything that they ever needed to know about life and the land of which he wrote, or about any land or realm that they could imagine, was contained in books.
Everything they ever needed to know? Even as an ex-librarian for whom the flame still burns I’d say that’s pushing it a bit. Which is a shame, because that riff about stories wanting to be told is nicely set up early on, with the old books on the shelves in young David’s new room:
David was aware of a change in the room as soon as he began to fill the empty spaces on the shelves, the newer books looking and sounding uneasy beside these other works from the past. Their appearance was intimidating, and they spoke to David in dusty, rumbling tones. the older books were bound in calfskin and leather …
Grimm’s Fairy Tales prominent, as read to him by his dead mother. Promising Neil Gaiman territory, one hopes. The situation is that his father re-marries, which is bad enough, and then a baby comes along. Not happy. It’s the 1940s, father is working somewhere that might, interestingly, be Bletchley Park, though that strand is just allowed to fade away. German bomber crashes on his secret garden and he’s catapulted into quest mode in a land of heavily mucked about fairy stories and folk tales. The thing is, you know he’s going to reconcile to his new family situation, so the value of the book is down to how well the mucking about with traditional myths and stories is done. Nothing wrong with the concept, but in practice here it is relentless and repetitive. There’s a lot of routine slaughtering, some unexceptional trickery and we end with a not unusual bit of wisdom (ie. be careful what you wish for).
There is one episode that promises humour to leaven the ongoing slog – Snow White as bloated capitalist slave-driver and the Dwarves as ineffectual class warriors complaining of David’s size-ism – but it’s a leaden, arch failure. Shame. There’s a certain profundity – not least in the dire realism he sometimes imparts to our young hero – in the character of The Crooked Man, the ultimate bad guy who has been messing with David all along (that’s him on the cover) but there’s a confusion with him that’s never really resolved. Especially when he is finally overcome. There has to be more to the Trickster archetype than being a con-man, surely? The book of lost things lost me very early on, and I only laboured to the end out of loyalty to Judy, in the Book Group, who I knew had finished it. We were in the minority. With Book Groups you win some, you lose some.
Charles Simic was new to me when I was given his Looking for trouble: selected early and more recent poems (Faber, 1997) as a present a few years ago. Two questions immediately arise: the presence or not of Elvis Presley (did you not hear that echo?) in a book with a title like that (ans: not directly); and what happened in between – pomp or circumstance? Seems, in the latter case, that unlike Waiting for the sun – The Doors’ mid-career nadir – he was winning prizes.
I’ve only just got round to spending significant time with it (sorry) and it’s been good to make the acquaintance. The puff on the back cover claims “there is no poet quite like him, and the attempt to fix labels always ends in frustration.” I’d say he’s all over the place … in the best possible sense of the term. The majority of the poems in Looking for trouble do not trouble you to turn the page. He’s concise but kaleidoscopic, capturing moments and glimpses, or, broadening the canvas, doing what good urban photographers do. He has a comic eye, but, quoting again from the back cover, Seamus Heaney puts it far better than I could: “His metamorphoses and mise-en-scène are always subject to the g-factor of human suffering.” You find the word surrealistic often applied to Simic’s work, but, Heaney says, that misses “a specific gravity in his imagination that manages to avoid the surrealist penalty of weightlessness.” How about that? – a poet even when he does lit-crit! He concludes: “The magic dance is being kept up to keep calamity at bay.”
Born 1938 in what is now Serbia, he had experienced living under Nazi occupation and displacement before his family emigrated to the US in the early ’50s; the ghost of Europe is still there, but he’s an American poet. I can’t say I get everything here, but that’s par for the course. By far the longest piece – 12 pages, but most of it short two liners with a lot of spaces in between – seems to be among other things, about the challenge of the blank page. I particularly liked Bestiary for the fingers of my right hand even before I’d read it. Just a couple of openings to tempt you:
Are you the sole owner of a seedy nightclub?
Are you its sole customer, sole bartender,
Sole waiter prowling around the empty tables?[…]
Dostoyevsky, Fu Manchu and Miss Emily Dickinson show up in that one. Then there’s
The street ventriloquist
The bearded old man on the corner,
The one drinking out of a brown paper bag,
The one who declares himself
The world’s greatest ventriloquist,
We are all his puppets, he says
When he chooses to say anything.
Quick before they’re gone. Two Vaultages, an Aortas and another York House extravaganza in the shape of StonyBreakdown!3 since the last blog. And I can even shoehorn the Living Archive’s film compilation MK through the lens into this section too if I try hard enough.
Fortnightly open mic The Vaultage has developed nicely into a fine night out. Good job Pat and Lois. The fragrant Naomi Rose (that’s her on the first Vaultage poster) introduced Starlings*, a fab new song, at Aortas. Commemorating, among other things, the recent glorious local murmuration, it sounded as good as I’d remembered it at the most recent Vaultage, which was also graced with a two-man reprise of material from the recent S.S.Shanty from the fine voices of Tim Hague and Andy Powell. The latter also featuring some avant-garde banjo with The Concrete Cowboys at the aforementioned StonyBreakdown. Love that band, even though no sight or sound of You aint going nowhere (usually announced as their theme song), my favourite singalong this side of Sunny afternoon. Other fine sets from Valerie Vale & Her Aylesbury Aylevators, and the Band of Brothers, with a committed solo spot from The Lost Jockey (a cool Magritte reference, art lovers). Back at Aortas, guitaricide committed on Dylan’s With God on our side (for once I wish that hadn’t rhymed), but also a nice reminder of what a lovely song Paul Simon’s America is. MC Dan Plews’s own songs as immaculate as ever.
And so to Roger Kitchen’s MK through the lens, screened at Stony’s Scala film club, a compilation of material ranging from amateur footage on pre-MK whackiness in Wolverton to professionally shot newsreel, documentary and DevCorp propaganda films – Hey, the Red Balloon ad! – in preparation for Milton Keynes’ 50th birthday next year. We’ve come a long way. Some fascinating clips of new estates emerging out of the mud like something out of a science fiction film. Corny maybe, but having the Tom Robinson Band’s 2-4-6-8 Motorway as soundtrack to the construction of the M1 hit the spot nicely. And shame film was so expensive back then, or we might have had more of the last journey – steam hauled! – of Newport Nobby (some of the track is now a Redway). Intriguing footage, too, of a local ’80s band (forgotten the name) making a video – availing themselves of the original bulkier featured central marble seating – in the shopping centre. Hi Caz! Interesting hair.
*The title of this week’s blog is a line from Naomi’s Starlings. I’m wondering if that’s a nod and a wink to that Joni Mitchell song about us being Stardust. Which we are. Or as Carl Sagan put it, and which I’m more comfortable with, star stuff.