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Posts Tagged ‘Simon Armitage’

You worry about the Geoff Dyer the author Geoff Dyer is writing about, or at least I do.  Is worry the right word?  You wonder about the writer Geoff Dyer and the global travels and wanderings of the Geoff Dyer he  is reporting back on.  Which, in itself, says something about the qualities of the fine, nay prime, example of intellectual gonzo artefact that is Yoga for people who can’t be bothered to do it (2003) – a great title, by the way, that is right up my street, given that I bought a yoga DVD over a year ago now and so far all I’ve managed – apart from doing a few shapes on Wii Fit – is to remove its cellophane wrapper.  Which may explain why this book is by far the most readily available and the cheapest of Dyer’s books on AbeBooks.  For in the book, doubtless rather rather disappointingly for some, yoga is but a passing source of entertainment for the voyager and his companion; nor is this your average traveller’s tale.

Yoga for people who can’t be bothered to do it pretty much continues where Out of sheer rage, Dyer’s book about not writing a book about D.H.Lawrence, left us, though with seemingly less focus.  His starting point is a quote from Auden about what or where home is.  We then get reports from eleven spots on the globe, some more traditionally hippy-ish than others, in the course of which I was laughing out loud through his miseries and triumphs and even, before you realise it, as he realises he is having a nervous breakdown.  The leitmotif of another failed book project emerges, this one on ruins and antiquity, and we get what I now recognise as trademark citations of Rilke (memo to self: really must open that Selected poems I bought a while ago now) and Nietzsche.  He brings it all – and presumably himself – together beautifully and powerfully in the end with a meditation on the notion of being in the Zone (intensity, peace, a spiritual yet non-religious peak experience of being there) and another nod to Auden.

Anyway, here’s one of the comic master Dyer’s basic tricks, distilled right down to its essence, on the edge of the Libyan desert to:

I was so eager to see Leptis Magna that, in the morning, I took a taxi in the opposite direction.

Here it is again, two times, though these times he’s having his nervous breakdown:

I had become so habituated to this state of serial distraction that I scarcely gave it a second thought.

I had drifted to a standstill. I may not have admitted it at the time – if that afternoon was a turning point, then I responded as one invariably does at such moments, by failing to turn –

He can be so funny just in ordinary traveller’s tales adversity too.  The boat journey in Cambodia is a beaut, while the magic mushroom disaster in Amsterdam had me in stitches (here it comes again, well placed, a source of endless joy):

Undeterred – or more accurately, almost entirely deterred – I started again.

This is a funny, powerful and brave book from which this reader emerged glowing.   Beside it, I am afraid, Simon Armitage‘s latest slim volume of poetry is very small beer.  Most of Seeing stars (Faber, 2010) is actually prose, short stories laced with uninspired surrealism that most of the time took me nowhere particularly interesting, or worse, just struck me as silly, the stuff of children’s literature.  Why would a sperm whale have a brother called Jeff who owns a camping and out-door shop in the Lake District?  And just because the text is unjustified does that make it poetry?  Maybe if this stuff had been laid out as blank verse I might be a bit more sympathetic (and those 14 – fourteen – blank pages at the back of the book might have been less, um, empty).  Most of the time wan smiles is the best I can muster; disappointing, because on previous evidence, Armitage’s is a world I inhabit.

In his weariness of travel Geoff Dyer ventures that, ‘ Sunsets impose a heavy burden on the sightseer.’  He continues, in his classic way of turning things on their head:

Waiting for the sunset becomes an activity, an exercise in abeyance. Idleness, doing nothing, is raised to the level of sharply focussed purpose. Expectation becomes a form of sustained exertion. You wait for it to happen even though it’s going to happen anyway. Or not happen. Frank O’Hara was right: ‘The sun doesn’t necessarily set, sometimes it just disappears.’.

We had an experience like that by the walls of Peel Castle on the Isle of Man.  I don’t know if Dyer has ever been; it has its ruins, but the Isle, for all it has to offer, is not a place you’d expect to be in the Zone much.  John Michell – late sacred geometrist, geomancer, astro-archaeologist and earth mysterian of this planet – had various mystical theories about the Isle of Man, as centre point of the British isles no less.  In his book Who wrote Shakespeare (1996) – William Stanley, 6th earl of Derby, one of the Shakespeare ‘claimants’ was Lord of Man from 1610 – he even suggested that the Calf of Man, the small island at the bottom, was the model for Prospero’s island in The tempest.  If John Grimson had known about this – or if he knew but chose to not exclude said knowledge from his readers – it might have spiced up his mighty (576 pages) tome about the island a bit.  As would explaining why the monument in Castletown Square to Colonel Cornelius Smelt, Governor of Man for 27 years from 1805, is only a plinth and a column with a platform; it was a public subscription and there was, I am reliably informed, no money left for a statue.

So The Isle of Man: portrait of a nation (Hale , 2009) is not the book I wanted to read about Man, but it is certainly substantial and you cannot but learn a lot.  There’s nothing else like it currently available.  Grimson, who moved to the island in 1973 (“a come-over” but that’s not a criticism as such) is by turns straight-laced, po-faced, tetchy and folksy in a cosy middle class polite way.  He’s not helped by the book’s three part structure of a potted history, followed by some thematic run-downs and finishing with a detailed tour of the island. So there is repetition in some instances, strange omissions in others.  We don’t hear of the nineteenth century mining industry until the mines had closed; first mention of the famous TT Races – of huge significance to the island – is when they have to be cancelled because of the Second World War.  (Grimson isn’t keen about the TT weeks, which involve shutting of large parts of the island’s road network for a fortnight, and he’s sniffy about what he calls ‘the motorcycle lobby’ while looking for compromise concerning the island’s rather splendid total ban on caravans).  He tells of the armed yacht Penny in Castletown twice, first enticingly: “Inside were a ship’s galley and wine-bins, and all sorts of merry japes went on there. (More of this in Chapter 12)” – only Chapter 12 just tells us more of the same again and no merry japes.  Local involvement in the slavery trade is glossed over whereas the museum in Douglas makes a big deal of it.

Despite stupid Fast Show stereotypes (I won’t even honour it with a link), there is much of interest about this small nation.  After the geology, we get the neolithic settlers and the iron age Celts; the Romans never bothered to invade, but after a spell of Celtic Christianity the Scandinavians did, and it is to them that we owe the political institution – the longest continuously running parliament – of the Tynwald.  The Scots and the English then contested control and the latter prevailed.  Because there was no aristocracy there was no native landed gentry to lord it over the peasants; obviously there was inequality but Manx society as it developed was more egalitarian than on the mainland.  And guess what set the scene ‘for the most serious constitutional confrontation between the Isle of Man and the United Kingdom in modern times?’  Hey Radio Caroline North anchored of Ramsey Bay in 1964 – now there’s a decent footnote in the annals of UK pirate radio!

I’ll leave the Isle of Man with this quote from page 351.  Grimson is talking about theatre designer extraordinaire Frank Matcham’s work on the Gaiety Theatre in Douglas, IOM’s capital, in 1900, which was restored in the 1990s:

And what a job he made of it. The interior has been described by some as ‘ornately vulgar’. Ornate certainly, but vulgar? – never! To be seated in the body of that magnificent auditorium, surrounded by those swirling, seductive mouldings to ceiling and box-fronts, bathed in their softly lit pastel shades, is to dream of being enfolded within the welcoming embrace of a large, enticing, voluptuous woman – and wishing never to be released. (I regret leaving my female reader to dream up her own fantasy.)

Just the one, John?

Finally, more of Alison Graham, Radio Times tv critic in full flow.  I trust this woman implicitly until proved otherwise:

Sugartown, July 24: After ten minutes of this gormless show you’ll feel as if you’re caught in a dreadful theme-park ride that hurls you through dank tunnels of cliché. You will be left queasy by the sweetly sickly premise: a small northern town’s fight to save its rock factory, and by its warm-hearted northern stereotypes. As for the plot – you’ve seen it all before … [plot summary setting the scene] By the time you’ve got this far you will have lost the will to live.


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I said I’d report back on the erotic potential of Khachaturian‘s Piano Concerto, claims for which are made by novelist Peter Robinson – or at least by his detective alter ego, Alan Banks – in one of his books.  Nah.  I’ve given it three goes now, but my attention wandered fairly quickly and indeed, allowed the CD to drift onto other material which sounded more interesting, actually, unspecifically.  “Why are you listening to this?” Andrea asked – too much plinking and plunking (more plunking actually) for her and I have to agree – not that I was playing it with any intent.

And I wondered if Simon Armitage‘s poetry was going to be as interesting or as much fun as his book about becoming (coming out to his dad: “Dad, I think I might be a poet”) and actually being a poet.  Now … poetry can be hard work, even the reading of it, and I struggled a bit to find a handle with these later slim volumes, ‘The universal home doctor‘ (Faber, 2002) and ‘Tyrannosaurus Rex versus the Corduroy Kid‘ (Faber, 2006).  Not helped by the latter’s clever sod fatuous opening conspiracy theory nod of an ode on the death of David Kelly (remember WOMDs?) – a setting of official hand-washing instructions.  First skimmed impressions of the collections: “So what?” and “What?” and “Why bother?”  Then the odd decent phrase worming its way in – “jobbing pedestrians” say, and from a different poem, “the soles of your feet on fire in your sensible shoes” or “Oh to be wassailed like the apple tree” – so I put in the work; he has the reputation.  And yes, fine, some pretty good stuff in there, a real variety, of poignant contemplation, wit, love, a certain rage, and wonder.  Encapsulations of personal moments, events, unexpected juxtapositions (never quite surreal), oppositions working at tangents giving meaning, a broadening of context, sometimes vast … I discover a bloke not unlike me, I suspect, noticing stuff.  Still a few duds, mind, I think, but I like the birthday poems (quirky lists, there’s one in each book), the elaborate conceits (like DIY as epic battle), the self-examination.  Did the almost great ‘To the Women of the Merrie England Coffee Houses, Huddersfield‘ really need that line about gay sex in toilets?  A few marred like that.  But the last poem of the second book, ‘The final straw’, a nice touch.  I shall search out and read more.

And on with the aforementioned Peter Robinson project:
Title: Dead right
Number in sequence: 9, published 1997
Themes and settings (beyond Eastvale & the Dales): far right political groups, drug dealing, police & race relations; Leeds again & a nostalgic working trip to Amsterdam
Murderee/s: young fascist Jason Fox
Music: too much to list in full, really, many and varied (but see the quote below); I daresay Abdullah Ibrahim doesn’t get too many mentions in crime novels – the man has taste; book opens with opera-going as source on conflict in his marriage (Bizet’s ‘Pearl fishers’);  couple of live bands (one Oi) & son Brian in a blues band;  murderee’s father a vinyl collector but not a music lover; a stoned romantic memory of ‘Sad eyed lady of the lowlands’; earlier radio memories of Uncle Mac & Brian Matthew.
Distinguishing characteristics: the conflict with his boss’s boss, Jimmy Riddle – fast track, mason – is out in the open; some powerful writing after Banks thumps him. Colleague Susan getting more of the game.
State of marriage/relationship: he’s in denial for most of the book about the collapse of his marriagecolleague Susan getting a touch of the Siobhans for her boss (a la Rebus)
Quotes: “Karaoke.  Banks felt himself shudder at the thought.  the only other words that had a similar effect on him were country-and-western music.  An oxymoron if ever there was one.” (p12, pbk edition)
“Banks stood by the phone for a moment, head in his hands, tears burning in his eyes.  Then he did what any reasonable man would do in his situation.  He cranked Mozart‘s Requiem up as loud as he could bear it and got rat-arse drunk.” (p289)
Any other thoughts: continuing with the team approach to develop the narrative; the re-appearance of Dirty Dick Burgess; Banks trying to cut down on his smoking.  The perils of a writer introducing new technology – a really embarrassing discussion about the internet.  Banks “doing his Columbo impersonation”.

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Seems unfair to me you often have to defend liking Martin Amis (or at least his writing); ‘Money: a suicide note‘ (1984),  is one of the great English novels – eat your heart out Faulks and McEwan – but come the millennium there was a falling off of his fiction.  ‘Yellow dog’ (2003) was pretty much unreadable (and unread here) – what was he thinking? – to the extent that I ‘d ignored  ‘House of meetings’ (2006) and indeed had forgotten all about it, though I might seek that one out now.  Anyway, he’s got his mojo back.  In the new novel ‘The pregnant widow: inside history‘ (Cape, 2010) he’s strutting again.  Sure, he’s a clever sod and not afraid to show it (he has fun) but this tale of young people on the cusp of a turning point in history – women’s liberation – and its consequences, it teases, taunts and tolls some serious bells.  I zipped through it, leaving for later, when I re-read it at my leisure (there’s a waiting list at the library), the, “Hang on, Martin, what exactly do you mean there?” – deep? certainly obscure – moments, of which there are a fair number.  Not quite sure about the twist he holds out for us right from the start either, but there are others that entice and for me this was an exciting read.  As ever there’s great dialogue and some decent running jokes about sex in the early English novel  (Jane Austen especially), and the way characters’ lives move (he says) from genre to genre, from a Russian novel to an American one, and so on; a nice resonance too, with D.H.Lawrence and Frieda staying in the same castle in Italy where the main action takes place, that lazy summer in 1970.  Did I say it’s funny?  And tragic too.

I had a laugh-aloud good time with Simon Armitage‘s stealth autobiography ‘Gig: the life and times of a rock-star fantasist‘ (2008).  He plays the young professional Yorkshireman well and this linked collection of pieces of his growing up (his dad a particularly adept burster of bubbles), his love of rock music (usually the obscurer the better) and glimpses into the often mundane life of a professional poet make for an entertaining mix.  There’s a bit of a hiatus in the middle, where it morphs into too much of an antipodean travelogue, but even there it has its moments and soon recovers.  Must have a look at his pomes, I guess.  For all its championing of the Comsat Angels, it is hard to resist a book that starts:

“I’ve only been involved with books and writing for the second half of my life, but music has been around from day one.  Growing up in the Armitage family there was barely a minute’s silence.  Mum continued to play the piano even after someone had lifted the lid and vomited into it during a birthday party, and on Friday nights I witnessed a peculiar transformation in my dad as he glued mutton chop facial hair to the side of his face and went off to sing in a hotel in Ashton-under-Lyne with his barber shop group the Victorians.”

Saw Lee Mack‘s ‘Going out’ show at the theatre last night.  Somehow a bit of a surprise when he came out in a really smart light coloured three-piece suit and was taller than I’d expected; I briefly flashed on Arsenal’s Danish striker Nicklas Bendtner (‘carthorse’ says Neil, but I still think he’ll come good), which was odd.  The show itself was a bit of a curate’s egg – watching again I’d need a fast forward button – but I’m still glad we went.  Very funny (of course) for a lot of the time, but too fast, frenetic and just plain shouty loud in parts.  The more I think about it, the more good jokes there were in there, but they needed room to breathe, he needed to stand still awhile for real momentum to take hold.  An older more diverse crowd, too, than I’ve usually been a part of for standup – not even the buzz you get before an opera – which can’t have helped.

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