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Posts Tagged ‘W.H.Auden’

It’s happened again.  I’ve just finished reading a book about W.H.Auden and here he comes, walking through a New York hotel room door in the late 1930s, a character in the next Reading Group novel that’s up for discussion.  A novel chosen for us by the public library months in advance and about which none of us had an inkling.  Talk about intertextuality.  As Kurt Vonnegut once punctuated one of his novels, Hi ho.

AudenRichard Davenport-Hines‘s fascinating biography of the poet W.H.Auden – Auden (Heinemann, 1995) – throws up many areas of interest and speculation, some of which are dealt with detail while others are left tantalizingly untouched.  What follows are just a few things that occurred to me while reading rather than any sort of reasoned evaluation.

As a humanist and atheist I can quite happily live with other people’s religious beliefs so long as they’re not ramming them down my throat.  Hell, I’m even quite partial to Bob Dylan’s trilogy of openly Christian albums. And the poetry of Wystan Hugh (as all quiz teams will know him) holds no great problems for me.  The “correct notion of worship” for him was, “that it is first and foremost a community in action, a thing done together, and only secondarily a matter of individual feeling,” an extraordinary statement given the life he led, and I’ll return to that.

But staying with Dylan for a while, I think there’s a case for seeing the early political communist fellow-traveller Auden as the pre-electric Dylan of the ’30s.  As Davenport-Hines puts it:

Auden was a meeting ground for young people: enthusiasm for his work seemed a measure of intelligence as well as an indicator of literary or socio-political seriousness. […] The cult figure for literate young people was also a bugbear for his testy elders.

And just as Dylan’s acceptance speech to the American Civil Liberties Union in 1963 upset many followers with his, “I have to be honest, I just got to be, as I got to admit that the man who shot President Kennedy … I saw some of myself in him” – a very Audean statement in itself – so Auden’s stepping back from the cultural front line was a significant shift:

He disliked poets being solemn about themselves or precious about their art, and his aesthetic theory against poetic pretensions to change the world, as it had developed by the 1940s, annoyed or disappointed some of his early admirers.

By 1965 he was telling a BBC interviewer, “For God’s sake, don’t ask such bloody silly questions!” (about the same time Dylan was doing much the same, as it happens) and proclaiming, “Art is small beer.  the really serious things in life are earning one’s living so as not to be a parasite, and loving one’s neighbours.”  He had a lot to say about poets and poetry, about which he was deadly serious – “You don’t understand at all,” he told his tutor at Oxford, “I mean to be a great poet”; he got a ‘bad third’ – except when he wasn’t, like in 1948:

The ideal audience the poet imagines consists of the beautiful who go to bed with him, the powerful who invite him to dinner and tell him secrets of state, and his fellow poets. The actual audience he gets consists of myopic schoolteachers, pimply young men who eat in cafeterias, and his fellow poets. This means that, in fact, he writes for his fellow poets.

He had little time for poets who were wallowing in their own misery, rather than using it stoically, as “exemplifying the human condition” (to quote RDH) – “a spineless narcissistic fascination with one’s own sin and weakness” he called it – and, RDH reports, “… agonised confessional poetry had always repelled him” to the extent that he actually heckled Anne Sexton at Ted Hughes’s first Poetry International in 1967.

Allen Ginsberg was at that one too, and one wonders what he thought about that.  Ginsberg, of course, had been the star at the International Poetry Incarnation of two years earlier, also held in the Albert Hall, that heralded the British cultural underground movement of the ’60s (and to which Hughes’s event was almost certainly a response), and you can be pretty sure Auden would not have been impressed.  The two poets had met on the idyllic Italian island of Ischia in 1957 and argued about Walt Whitman, and there – Alan Bennett or Tom Stoppard – is a play just asking to be written;  tis reported Ginsberg wept all afternoon when he told of Auden’s death in 1973.

It would be interesting to know how, living in New York, he reacted to the phenomenon of The Beats and beyond, given that in the ’40s he was bemoaning to a friend, “the unspeakable juke-boxes, the horrible Rockettes [a dance company] and the insane salads.”  He was certainly aware of the later counter-culture, and, we are told, took LSD at some point, but Davenport-Hines just leaves that one hanging there, giving us absolutely nothing about how that went, which given the non-revelatory nature of his religious commitment could have been interesting.

And here we have a fascinating … conundrum, not exactly contradiction, but something intriguing like that, in the life of arguably the most culturally significant homosexual of the twentieth century give or take an Alan Turing.  Auden died in 1973, Stonewall happened in 1969 and New York’s first Gay Pride march was in 1970, over which period Auden was still living in New York some of the year, and yet Richard Davenport-Hines’s Auden, published in 1995, makes no use of the ‘gay’ word at all and we given nothing as to how he reacted to these developments.  When his privately circulated 34 stanza erotic poem of 1948 The Platonic blow, celebrating in graphic detail male on male fellatio was published without authorisation, in Ed Sanders’ Fuck You magazine, with an Andy Warhol cover, he admitted to a friend, “in depressed moods I feel it is the only poem by me which the Hippies have read.”  The book, his life, is full of such wonderful juxtapositions.

The thing is, for all his later avowed Christianity, because of his avowed Christianity, he never stopped seeing homosexuality as a sin.  A trifling one compared with, say, avarice, but still a sin, and not one relished because it was a sin.  It’s hard not to argue that he got a lot of his poetic power from this and other denials.  For the poet, he maintained, unfulfilled wishes, unrequited love, were the best kind.  “Suffering has value,” he tells Delmore Schwartz (Lou Reed’s tutor, dedicatee of the Velvet Underground’s European son) in 1942, but only for what you can do with it.  Leavisite critics who ruled the English Department university roosts in the 1950s sidelined him as immature basically because they saw homosexuality as immature.  And yet he was lukewarm about homosexual law reform in England:

‘To begin with, they seem unaware that for over ninety-nine percent of us, it makes not the slightest difference, so far as our personal liberty is concerned, whether such a law be on the statute books or not.’ He judges that ‘the few who do get into trouble are either those with a taste for young boys – and I am surprised by how seldom they do – or those who cruise in public.’ The pragmatic strategy of Arran and his supporters was to stress the separateness and freakish otherness of homosexuality. Auden disagreed.

So, a man very much of his time but also transcending it, and out of it.  This is a fascinating biography and I’ve hardly scratched the surface of his personal life (never mind the work).  He discarded one of the poems he remains most famous for – the formidable September 1, 1939 (here’s a link to the original version), the one written in the first days of World War 2, containing the line, “We must love one another or die” – from the last authorised edition of his Collected poems.  As early as 1944 he’d excised that stanza from a new collection because the line was a lie, “for we must die anyway, whether we love or not“.  And when President Lyndon Baines Johnson misquoted it in a speech on the Vietnam war – “One cannot let one’s name be associated with shits” – he decided it had to go altogether.  “I pray to God that I shall never be memorable like that again.”  He told novelist Naomi Mitchison it was “the most dishonest poem I have ever written,” and he further revised other work, particularly that from the 1930s.  Many find this depressing (I probably would if I had the studying time) but he at least did it with a twinkle in his eye:

‘I get more of the crotchety, ritualistic bachelor everyday,’ he reported … ‘God! How careless I used to be. I feel as if I am only just beginning to understand my craft. The revisions will be a gift to any anal-minded Ph.D. student.’

Music, music, music

Last week it was non-stop, went to something at least every other day, culminating with the mighty Yorkiefest (click on the images to get an enlargement).  Getting fit for StonyLive!

Beechey Room May 15 Aortas 100515 Scribal May 15 Vaultage 16 May 15The second of the Saturday Beechey Room Sessions in York House delivered another grand afternoon.  Blurred lines betwixt  performers and audience made for a relaxed community of music lovers freed from the hubbub of a pub setting, for which initiative take a bow Michèle.  The music ranged from a 1927 guitar rag to Iris Dement via Donovan and Strawberry Wine (the 17 one), sung not drunk.  Another reminder too of the extraordinary emotional power that Carole King song can have for women of a certain age (quite a span, actually, but definitely older than 17).

Aortas open mic at The Old George and, having remembered to bring the words with him, Dan Plews debuted the latest version of his evolving Northampton song, Boots and shoes, complete with cricket and John Clare’s  “vaulted sky” references.   Very good it is too.  The original songs of Fraser & amazing accordionist Liz (so many buttons!) made a nice addition to the usual talented mix.

The first post-election Scribal Gathering saw Polkabilly Circus, the latest aggregation of musicians involving the Antipoet’s Paul Eccentric, strut the stage, if by strut you can understand at least two of them sitting down most of the time.  Kicking off with Polkabilly Boy you could see where the billy in the name came from, and the last song – “this is my punk statement” – gave clue to the ‘p’, if only lyrically.  In between a rich mix of many things, including klezmer and gypsy violin.  What else?  The latest installment chronicling how rotten Stephen Hobbs’s month had been, including an apology for no matter how small a proportion of his contribution to the Labour Party went towards that fucking ‘Ed stone’.

Ralph Keats (no relation) gave some Advice to J.Arthur Prufrock from the Beatles, while Vanessa got away with dissing the whole male gender even though I’m pretty sure there were plenty present who have little interest in football.  Rob Bray said it was the first time he’d played keyboards in public and proceeded to play like Jamie Cullen.  Mark Owen was his usual excellent self; Breaking waves is such a good song – any documentary maker out there working on the Mediterranean migrant boats crisis looking for a suitable song, look no further.  Danni Antagonist wrapped up another fine evening with a poetical warning – written that evening on the spot – for the electoral victors to build a nice high fence.

Thursday’s Vaultage was a bit of a bear-pit, drinkers and talkers unremitting most of the time, though Breaking waves broke through – into my skull at least – again.  Was this the first Vaultage without a Dylan cover?  Pat Nicholson made the mistake of introducing his song Liberty as “This is my Brain in the jar” – another regular’s old chestnut – only for certain members of the audience to start singing that song’s chorus over the guitar intro to Pat’s song before he had a chance to get started.  Liberty hi-jacked – or is the phrase mashed up? – Pat happily sang along.  Great fun.

Yorkiefest 2015And so we come to the mighty YorkieFest and its glorious fourth annual incarnation.  Personal favourites only otherwise I’ll be here all day, but a splendid musical roster – great work from the aforementioned Pat Nicholson (not forgetting Derek Gibbons doing loads of other stuff).  The day kicked off with a refreshing change – Navaras (the name – it says here – signifies the 9 essences and colours of Indian music) playing songs from the Bollywood canon.  Keyboards man had a few jazz chops to bring to the party.  The never-failing AntiPoet brought new material: The bards of bugger all and We’re not worthy.  Oh yes they are.  Five Men Not Called Matt – usually six, actually – today 4 men and a woman, so still rousing but a little sweeter.

OmniVibes (aka Paul Jackson) was something else.  Just the one man, beatnik beard, pork pie hatted, and his sitar.  He started off with an immaculate raga, pausing only briefly to pick up a steel bottleneck slide and synch into a couple of equally spellbinding slow blues, only to finish with a foot-stomping Seven nation army, still making full use of the sitar’s sonic potentialities.  Then apologising because he was feeling a bit under the weather as he’s over-celebrated his birthday the previous night.  I just don’t understand how people can carry on boozing and bantering away while something like that is going down, but they do.  Second Hand Grenade played that funky music, and Palmerston finished everything off harmoniously, delivering quality original material – country rock as good a label as most – with elan, gusto, subtlety and wit.  Both bands had people who seldom dance up prancing, while a celebrated tea drinker was seen with a glass of red in her hand.  Splendid day’s music.  And Towcester Mill Brewery’s Rubio was a tasty tipple to accompany it all.  Bravo Pat, Derek & co.         

OmniVibe in full flow.  Photo (c) Pat Nicholson.

OmniVibes in full flow. Photo (c) Pat Nicholson.

 

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OMR

We were there on a three-line whip from one of the Old Mother Redcaps folk dance team, to partake of the delights of the May Day celebration down by the canal in Campbell Park, put on by the Milton Keynes Parks Trust. We overhear a man saying to his partner, “Better than Midge Ure at The Stables?”  Says she, “A load of women having a good time, laughing and dancing?  What could be better than that?”  His only response: “Whatever floats your boat.”  [Click on them and then click again to upsize the photos, © DRQ].

Manx Folk Dance Society in MK

Old Mother Redcaps, local dancers out of Stony Stratford in the Manx tradition, were hosting members of The Manx Folk Dance Society, over from the Isle of Man, or Ellan Vannin as some might say.  (Land of my great great great-grandfather for what it’s worth.)  A mixed troupe, it was all very gentle and polite, courtly even at times.  Near the end they had a mash-up of home and away:

OMR MFDS mash up

And then there came Hemlock Morris, a mixed alternative morris side out of Bedford.  A darker side, as they say on their website.  Shades of goth, sporting Suffragette colours against the black.  Faces daubed, wielding sticks of varying size, accompanied a dog.

Hemlock04

Not the most violent of sticks sides I’ve seen, but bearers of great joie de vivre.  How the traditionalists must hate them.  Tough.

Hemlock 02

All this, and earlier, the, as ever, rather splendid Concrete Cowboys made some new friends:

CC1

Also mentioned in despatches

Aortas 260415Vaultage 30042015Scribal blankAt Aortas Dan Plews would have debuted a new song celebrating the Northampton’s footwear industry heritage if he hadn’t left the words at home.  That he was cajoled into playing Wonderwall was an entirely unrelated incident.  Breaking news: Naomi Rose too played a cover – the wonderfully obscure Ingrid Bergman (Words Woody Guthrie, music Billy Bragg – you remember).  Ralph Keats, with the confidence gained from a world tour of Swansea behind him, was everywhere.

As was Mark Owen, but it was at Vaultage that his See the dancing bears – on the night of the party leaders’ Question Time on telly – instilled itself as a not unwelcome earworm for the next few days until it got replaced by “Sailing over the Dogger Bank to Great Grimsby;” but I jump ahead of myself.  Mitchell Taylor surprised with a version of The last of the steam-powered trains – one of my favourite Kinks songs.  A nod to hosts Lois – Readjust a fine song written around such an unmusical word – and Pat.

Sunday Scribal started off metaphorically all a bit Scribal fought the drunks and … but against all the expectations of poetic metre … the music and poetry won.  Nicely held together by Terri and Steve (Richard sitting this one out, unfit, on the subs’ bench) Mark was both warm-up and featured artist (even though the poster never got made) with what is now an excellent political trilogy, satirical, thoughtful and angry; Getting away with it just keeps getting better.  Poet Danni Antagonist was on fire, but what made this Scribal memorable was an unaccompanied Tim Hague venturing solo into choppier waters than I would guess he’s used to.  Bet he’s never been whooped at before like that.  Tables were thumped, empty glasses vibrated across tables, and I daresay there were a few there who’d never joined in with a shanty before.  I speak of the aforementioned Dogger Bank.  Google has failed me in identifying ‘a proper jub-er-ju’ (it gets ‘triggered’ in the chorus), never mind a fake or improper one.

[For the record, Lillabullero seems to have fallen into a chronicling role in the matter of various musical delights in the town of Stony Stratford, but I’ve never mentioned the great Sunday lunchtime sessions in the Vaults – the longest continuously running folk session in the land it is claimed – and there’s a reason for that.  It’s one of those things that should and shouldn’t be taken for granted, and I am not worthy.  It’s a sit-down performer’s thing and all I can contribute in the circumstances is to enhance the bar takings standing at the back with a beer glass in hand drinking in the fine music and good vibes.]

Can’t finish without mentioning a book …

WH-Auden-001I’ve been reading an absorbing biography of W.H.Auden that has revealed much (to me, anyway) – like, he was a speed freak for over three decades, and, even as a teenager at Oxford (before teenagers were invented) he was telling people, “I mean to be a great poet” – and I’ll probably be writing more about the book another time.

A friend recently expressed surprise on discovering that he was older than Nigel Farage.  OK.  The number one hit song in the pop charts the week Nigel Farage was born was Can’t buy me love by the Beatles.  Yes, he’s only 51.  What happens?  At a tangent, I have only recently discovered that I have survived on the planet longer than W.H.Auden, despite all those iconic shots of him looking well ancient.  1907-1973.  Benzedrine, booze, cigarettes: the Christian life – it’s a fascinating story.  [Added May 10: So I get to page 330 and then the writer (Richard Davenport-Hines) tells me, “Auden had apparently been suffering since early manhood from Touraine-Solente-Gole syndrome in which the skin of the forehead, face, scalp, hands and feet becomes thick and furrowed …” Still, the drink and drugs can’t have helped.  Nevertheless, thanks R D-H.]

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What WHA can do for youLet 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.

Book of lost thingsThose 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.

******************************************************************

Simic 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:

Club Midnight
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.

Music Maestro, please
Vmarch AortasVaultage AprEarly

CC1 Steve Barnes PSP

Concrete Cowboys at York House. Photo (c) Steve Barnes from FB event page, posterized in PSP.

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.

MK through the lensAnd 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.
Caz

 *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.

 

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‘People’ is actually the title of the play we saw last week but it can also serve as a portmanteau for all that’s included here in an attempt to half-way catch up on my cultural consumption.  Anyway …

People and the power of story

Patrick Ness - A monster callsI loved Patrick Ness‘s A monster comes (Walker Books, 20111).  Hard to avoid superlatives; a beautiful emotional piece of book-making all round.  The original idea for the story came from Siobhan Dowd, another children’s author, who didn’t live long enough to write it herself.  It is wonderfully illustrated by Jim Kay with several dramatic double page spreads that often creep onto – even invade – adjoining pages’ text, while other pages and subtly decorated.  It’s done so well I’d say that the publishers producing a text only paperback edition, which they have indeed done, borders on the criminal.

Conor O’Malley is having a tough time dealing with his mother’s battle with cancer.  They are a one parent family; his dad is concerned but away with his new family and there’s an uptight grandmother hovering.  Conor is also being bullied at secondary school.  It’s a sad, sad, conflicted situation.  Help, though Conor doesn’t always see it as that, comes from the monster of the book’s title (or is it ‘just’ the elm tree at the back of their house and his unrestrained imagination?).  The monster speaks in italics: I have had as many names as there are years of time itself. I am Herne the Hunter! I am Cernunnos! I am the eternal Green Man!  There’s a transcendental passage soon after that introduction that has all the power of Kenneth Grahame’s Piper at the gates of dawn (you know, in The wind in the willows). 

Ness is a brilliant story-teller, and he places stories at the heart of the tale.  The monster says he will tell Conor three stories (Three tales from when I walked before) and then Conor will have to tell his story, his truth.  This comes to pass as the action unfolds.  Stories are the wildest things of all, the monster warns him.  Stories chase and bite and huntAgain: Stories are wild creatures […] When you let them loose, who knows what havoc they might wreak?  This does not come easy for Conor:

You think I tell you stories to teach you lessons? the monster said. You think I have come walking out of time and earth itself to teach you a lesson in niceness?

I’ll say no more about the moral of the story and what Conor (and not just Conor) takes away from the experience, which is more than just the threat and actuality of bereavement and grief.  It strikes me that the value in reading quality ‘Young Adult Fiction’ (to use the book industry category) is in its dealing with life concepts that are new to the combatants, that are not so much reduced to simpler terms but made plainer, are felt more acutely, so that if the characters can engage the older (jaded) reader, then they too will come away reminded and refreshed.   A monster calls is unique in having won both of the UK’s premier children’s book awards – chosen by librarians – for both fiction (the Carnegie medal) and illustration (the Greenaway) in 2012.  It is a great book, a lot more than just the prime bibliotherapy material it undoubtedly is for those – young and old – involved in its specific sad situation.  I haven’t been so moved by a book in a long time.

Poetry people, people’s poets

W.H.FluffypunkI’ve been dipping into, working my way through, a couple of slim volumes of poetry for a couple of months now.  I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to get around to W.H.Auden – I mean, he was there in that ancient red-covered Faber Book of Modern Poetry that served me so well decades ago – but I’m hooked.  Nevermind all the limestone (which I now get), I wasn’t prepared for the sheer range and variety of material he put out, its seriousness, its breadth of thought and feeling  and its wit.  The chronological arrangement of John Fuller’s fine short introductory selection for Faber (published 2000) – one poem for each year from 1927 to his death in 1973 – displays this beautifully.  And a lot of it feels contemporary again, the same questions in a different context, the double-edged musings around the notion of The cultural presupposition – as opposed to nature’s creature’s unthinking existence – both bracing and celebratory.   And yet, with Since he can start a poem with: “On a mid-December day, / frying sausages / for myself …

Which I can see Jon Seagrave kicking off from as well.  His The sustainable nihilist’s handbook: words by Johnny Fluffypunk (Burning Eye, 2012) lives up to the promise of its title well enough and is hugely enjoyable; not that there’s not a certain seriousness and poignancy lurking beneath its comic surface.  “I have not always been the urbane sophisticate,” says the author of Dog shit bin in one of the mytho-autobiographical pieces that pepper the collection.  In War on the home front he admits to holding to “a body of political opinion / gleaned from the sleeves / of punk rock records” but as the book progresses (via two pages of Baiku: Poems about bikes / in seventeen syllables? / Let’s call ’em baiku”) he’s delightfully baking, at some length, Bill Blake’s birthday cakein the oven of my heart’s desire“.  Which is followed by the sublime The best poem in the world, which among other things will “make computers weep.”  Great fun.

Mine was beat up like this one too ...

Mine was beat up like this one too …

Postmodern poetry postscript: I suppose it was hearing veteran late Scottish rocker Alex Harvey‘s musical take on Roman Wall blues on Soldier on the walls, his last album, that was belatedly the nudge for me to give Auden another goThere are a few visual treatments of it (cue pic of Hadrian’s Wall) on YouTube – here’s one link.  Definitely worth a listen.  Meanwhile, the final poem in John Fuller’s selection of Auden’s poems is called No, Plato, No.  I find it impossible not to read or hear those words in any way other than in the phrasing and timbre of The Big Bang Theory‘s Sheldon Cooper’s ailing nocturnal cry of “No, Goofy, No” in the episode where Penny has taken him to Disneyland.  Incongruous, I know, yet somehow deeply satisfying.

Alan Bennett’s People

People - ABWe came out of the National Theatre’s touring production of PeopleAlan Bennett‘s newest play, mightily entertained but wondering what exactly he was trying to say.  Two sisters argue over what to do about the crumbling family pile that no-one’s going to inherit.  One favours the ultimate victors, the National Trust, the other making a last-ditch go of it or a private sale.  It’s a bit of a rag-bag play.  Bennett puts his customary wit to work on the poignancy and bad grace of a bright young thing grown old, while generous portions of broad social satire rub shoulders with occasional state of the nation pronouncements.  To which must be added – with the filming of a porn movie on the premises – some beautifully executed and extended passages of high farce.

It was a distinguished cast, with Siân Phillips outstanding as the once glamorous sister surviving in the house with her dowdy live-in housemaid/companion, and Selina Cadell as the practical one bringing in the NT.  It was only afterwards we realised that the live-in companion (she on the left in the picture) was Brigit Forsyth – only Thelma from Whatever happened to the Likely Lads; their song and dance routine to Downtown (and another couple of ’60s ‘classics’) were delightful interludes.  Michael Thomas was good as the NT man, excited over the personal piss-pots of the great and good of the early twentieth century.

Reassuring to hear, too, that Alan Bennett wasn’t that sure what it’s about either:

I could say what 40 years on was about and I could say what History Boys was about. I don’t think I could quite say what Enjoy [about the NT adopting a northern back-to-back terrace] was about, as I can’t say exactly what this is about …

He describes People‘s origin as an itch, but insists there’s not so much a criticism of the National Trust intended as a recognition of the dilemmas of conservation and presentation in the matter of ‘England’:

It was an itch and I still have it. But when I go around country houses, and t’other people, and I think, what is it they’re … What have they come for? – and I think, well, what have I come for? The fact that you can’t, or very rarely can, explain why you’re there or what it is you hope to come away with depresses me really …

I know what he means.

 

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