Friday, March 30, 2018

schoolboy reading

This piece of social history came from a damp cardboard box that someone had "donated" by leaving beside the already overflowing book bank in Sainsbury's car-park in Frome. As the world switches to smartphones, books are becoming a drug on the market. The charities' hearts must sink, I realize that.

Nevertheless, the appearance of this de facto rubbish tip at the end of the car-park doesn't exactly send out a positive message. The clothes bank, likewise untended, was surrounded by damp plastic bags of garments. The shoe bank.... well, you get the idea.. At least DVDs are waterproof. More rain was on the way.

So we felt not only justified, but almost obliged, to rescue some of the more re-sellable books, with the plan of dropping them off at a charity shop in a few days, after rewarding ourselves with a quick peak at our treasures. The chief one, for me, was an informative booklet containing portraits of Scott and his circle. But now my attention has moved on to this one.

It was at one time in the library of Trinity School Croydon, an independent boys school (founded in 1882 as Whitgift Middle School) . I hope you can make out the sturdy transparent plastic that protects the cover. Because of the publishing industry's switch to paperback format and the school library's submission to altered circumstances in the form of Latin classics in translation,  every teacher who ran such a library in the 1960s/1970s must have spent an immense number of laborious hours making protective covers for their new purchases. Perhaps the teacher who bound this one, in 1965, might like to to know that it was borrowed four times in the next fifteen years, and is still in good condition (and semi-rainproof) in 2018.


As a child I took Roman history and legend rather for granted. It's more arresting to take a look at the early days of Rome now. Within just a few pages, we come to the rape of the Sabine women.

Then the great moment came; the show began, and nobody had eyes or thoughts for anything else. This was the Romans' opportunity at a given signal all the able-bodied men burst through the crowd and seized the young women. Most of the girls were the prize of whoever got hold of them first, but a few conspicuously handsome ones had been previously marked down for leading senators, and these were brought to their houses by special gangs ....

By this act of violence the fun of the festival broke up in panic. The girls' unfortunate parents made good their escape, not without bitter comments on the treachery of their hosts and heartfelt prayers to the God to whose festival they had come in all good faith in the solemnity of the occasion, only to be grossly deceived. The young women were no less indignant and as full of foreboding for the future.

Romulus, however, reassured them. Going from one to another he declared that their own parents were really to blame, in that they had been too proud to allow intermarriage with their neighbors; nevertheless, they need not fear; as married women they would share all the fortunes of Rome, all the privileges of the community, and they would be bound to their husbands by the dearest bond of all, their children. He urged them to forget their wrath and give their hearts to those to whom chance had given their bodies. Often, he said, a sense of injury yields in the end to affection, and their husbands would treat them all the more kindly in that they would try, each one of them, not only to fulfill their own part of the bargain but also to make up to their wives for the homes and parents they had lost. The men, too, played their part: they spoke honeyed words and vowed that it was passionate love which had prompted their offense. No plea can better touch a woman’s heart.

The women in course of time lost their resentment; but no sooner had they learned to accept their lot than their parents began to stir up trouble in earnest. To excite sympathy they went about dressed in mourning and pouring out their grief in tears and lamentations.

Not content with confining these demonstrations within the walls of their own towns, they marched in mass to the house of Titus Tatius the Sabine king, the greatest name in that part of the country. Official embassies, too, from various settlements, waited upon him. It seemed to the people of Caenina, Crustumium, and Antemnae, who had been involved in the trouble, that Tatius and the Sabines were unduly dilatory, so the three communities resolved to take action on their own.

Of the three, however, Crustumium and Antemnae proved too slow to satisfy the impatient wrath of their partner, with the result that the men of Caenina invaded Roman territory without any support. Scattered groups of them were doing what damage they could, when Romulus, at the head of his troops, appeared upon the scene. A few blows were enough and defeat soon taught them that angry men must also be strong, if they would achieve their purpose....

[Later the Sabines attack, and a more furious battle ensues]

This was the moment when the Sabine women, the original cause of the quarrel, played their decisive part. The dreadful situation in which they found themselves banished their natural timidity and gave them courage to intervene. With loosened hair and rent garments they braved the flying spears and thrust their way in a body between the embattled armies. They parted the angry combatants; they besought their fathers on the one side, their husbands on the other, to spare themselves the curse of shedding kindred blood. 'We are mothers now,' they cried; ‘our children are your sons - your grandsons: do not put on them the stain of parricide. If our marriage - if the relationship between you - is hateful to you, turn your anger against us. We are the cause of strife; on our account our husbands and fathers lie wounded or dead, and we would rather die ourselves than live on either widowed or orphaned.'

The effect of the appeal was immediate and profound. Silence fell and not a man moved. A moment later the rival captains stepped forward to conclude a peace. indeed, they went further: the two states were united under a single government, with Rome as the seat of power. Thus the population of Rome was doubled, and the Romans, as a gesture to the Sabines, called themselves Quirites, after the Sabine town of Cures. ...


I remember that someone informed me (I suppose I was about twelve at the time) that the "rape" described in such stories as this was not at all the same vile thing that was sometimes referred to on the six o'clock news. I was given to understand (in what vocabulary I don't recall) that it meant seizing or abducting rather than gross sexual violation.*

 I accepted that at the time, but I'm not so sure now. It was true that the Romans wanted wives rather than momentary amusements, but they certainly wanted sex and I don't suppose they deferred it. As for consent on the women's part, history does not record... I'm afraid it was considered irrelevant, like a woman's consent to marriage.

The influence of such stories on a future officer class would be profound. In warfare one would come up against rape soon enough. (I've just been reading about the mass-rapes carried out by the Red Army when they entered Berlin in 1945.) The boys would be fortified by the example of Romulus in deprecating the victim's wrath and resentment, in urbane reflections on accommodating oneself to the chances of war, and in learning the response of power to those who seek justice,  that "angry men must also be strong, if they would achieve their purpose..."

The story does tell one true thing: resentments do pass away in time, in the inextricably mixed inheritance of future generations, containing within themselves the countless genes of both criminals and victims. In fact following the death of Romulus the next king of Rome was the revered Numa Pompilius, who was a Sabine.

Numa was a man of peace, creator of the twelve-month calendar and the vital apparatus of civil religion. The story also tells us that the next king after him was Tullus Hostilius, a warmonger who thought the Romans had gone soft. Oh well.

[* My informant was correct inasmuch as this sense of "rape" as bride-seizure or just seizure was current for a while e.g. in Dryden's Cymon and Iphigenia and Pope's Rape of the Lock. Whereas, a century earlier, Marlowe and Shakespeare had meant something much closer to what we mean today.]


Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Plenty of meat and butter, and coffee

Berlin Hotel Book Club edition, opening page

[Otto Kauders is up in Tilli's bedroom...]

"How long do you think this war is going to last?" Tilli asked, interrupting his fantasies.

"That's all you civilians ask! How long is it going to last?" he said, disturbed. "It'll last until we have beaten the others to a pulp, that's how long it will last. If you ask me, I hope it won't be over too soon. I like war," Otto said with innocent conviction. "I don't even want to think of the end of the war. War is good. It's a man's life; I like it. Peace is like stagnant water. It stinks, it's rotten. Peace---" he said, and suddenly his voice began to waver. "I can't see what a fellow like me will do after the war. Go back to school? That's a bad joke! Well, what? Become a taxicab driver? That's what flying in peacetime amounts to. No, thanks, not for me."

"That's true. You boys are getting the best of everything," Tilli said. She had been trying all the time to find an opening for what she wanted to ask him. "Nice uniforms, good food. Plenty of meat and butter, and coffee and everything. Is it true that they give you real coffee?"

"Yes, and we need it too. You have no idea what a cup of real coffee and a cigarette will do when you come down --- like I came down, for instance."  [Otto, badly burned, is now high on Pervitine to hold his nerves together.]

"Could you get some for me?"

"Get what? Coffee? You must be crazy. I'll give you fifty marks. How's that?"

"I need coffee," Tilli said, stubbornly steering her course. "Listen, Schnucki," she said and turned the sex tap full on, "I will tell you how it is. I need shoes and I can't get shoes, not for fifty marks and not for a thousand. I don't want money from you. I like you, I'm crazy about you, Schnucki; keep your money. I wouldn't take money from a sweet boy like you. But I think I could get shoes for half a pound of coffee...." (Berlin Hotel, pp. 63-64).


[I noticed that the lion logo (Book Production War Economy Standard), seen above, also shows up in Angela Carr's book Here in There (BookThug, 2014). Not sure if this is part of Jay MillAr's design or a regular house joke.]


I'm not really sure what I want to say about this book, another treasure picked up from a charity box in the Trowbridge Sainsburys, but it's too distinctive to pass over in silence. It's apocalyptic, but a sort of bedroom farce, and also somehow convincingly real too.

The reviewer in Variety wrote of the film version: "this is arresting melodrama and and an honest if, mayhaps, sometimes naive attempt to treat a world catastrophic situation in broad values." I think that's quite a good description of the book too.

It begins with the Nazi elite throwing a party for the benefit of trade delegations from neutral or loosely attached nations. The news, of German victory in Russia and a revolution in New York, is uniformly good and uniformly unbelievable. Society is breaking down, outside the Berliners are nearly  starving, only a shabby facade remains here, in this hotel that is just about functioning. Perhaps the only person who believes in the propaganda is the young starlet Lisa Dorn, who has never thought about politics --- until the student revolutionary Martin Richter, on the run from the Gestapo, shows up in her hotel room. Meanwhile her current lover, the ageing general Arnim von Dahnwitz learns that the generals' plot to overthrow the Fuehrer has been exposed: he is given 24 hours to commit honourable suicide. Among other characters we have the once-admired author Johannes Koenig, reduced to writing patriotic nonsense for the war effort; the interned English author Geoffrey Nichols, kept alive by drugs for his heart condition in exchange for daily broadcasts about the invincibility of Germany; the fighter ace Otto Kauders on a three-day razzle; the pitiful hostess Tilli, mourning her dead Jewish lover, a full-time entertainer of gentlemen and part-time Gestapo informer; the highly unpleasant Gestapo Commissar Helm; the suave business-as-usual bureaucrat von Stetten, the Dutch traitor businessman Vanderstraaten, the oafish Gauleiter Plottke who has been secretly building up Swiss bonds in preparation for a bolt....  The bombs fall from the start but as the novel proceeds they fall more incessantly and the final part takes place in the once-plush, now bursting, air-raid shelter underneath the hotel.

Berlin Hotel, a page from near the end, during a catclysmic air-raid


Vicki Baum wrote the novel in 1943 and it was published in 1944 as Hotel Berlin '43  (even though it seems to describe, prophetically, the nightly Mosquito raids of April 1945.  In late 1944 - early 1945 it was filmed as Hotel Berlin.  The location is the same as in Baum's earlier novel Menschen im Hotel; the one that had been made into M-G-M's 1932 blockbuster Grand Hotel, featuring Greta Garbo saying "I want to be alone ...... I just want to be alone ....."

Vicki Baum, it's said, invented the "grand hotel" genre of popular novel. The hotel (ocean liner, etc) brings together a motley crew of different characters, all with separate but criss-crossing lives; all the action taking place within the title location, which becomes in effect a stage set. Such books are made to be staged and filmed.  The genre still clings on, for example in the 2011 movie The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. For the genre to work well, all the characters must have a lot going on in their lives, a high level of emotion and worry. In happier times it might be just love in the air, but in Berlin Hotel the death-throes of a world war do just as well, or better.

Baum was, well, a lot of things. She was the only child of a reasonably well-off Viennese Jewish family,  but her mother died young and her father was a difficult sort of man. She was always going to be someone. She was a socialite in '20s Berlin. She was a good boxer. She was well on the way to being a concert harpist. Then she began writing what eventually became some fifty novels. The early ones were in German, but after her 1932 emigration to the USA in the wake of the Nazis' rapid rise to power, she started to write her novels in English. Anyway, by that time the Nazis were suppressing her books at home.

Understandably Baum loathes the Nazis, really puts the boot into the German national character, and is not overly tormented about the (imagined) reduction of Berlin under heavy Allied bombing. She couldn't have known the full ghastly truth about the SS's industrial genocide. But she knew plenty.

Martin Richter (Helmut Dantine) and Johannes Koenig (Peter Lorre)

Details of the film Hotel Berlin (1945):

The movie was a noirish affair with B-list actors, somewhat in the mode of Casablanca but darker.

Helmut Dantine was Martin Richter, Andrea King was Lisa Dorn, Raymond Massey was General Arnim von Dahnwitz, and Peter Lorre (who stole the show) was the compromised author Johannes Koenig.

The storyline is similar to the novel, but there are some important differences. In the novel Lisa is a sleepwalking Nazi cutie until Martin Richter reveals the horrors of the regime in unsparing detail. But in the movie Lisa's conversion is less heartfelt and she ends up switching back to her former allegiance, resulting in a surprisingly bleak ending.


The final days of the Nazi regime have continued to attract factional treatment, notably the well-received 2004 German movie Der Untergang (Downfall). Here's the start:

Bruno Ganz as Hitler:

Ganz's titanic rants have spawned a popular subgenre of more-or-less witty re-subtitled versions in the monoglot English world. The one below commemorates Man City pipping Man Utd to the premier league title in 2012.

Labels: ,

Friday, March 23, 2018


Primrose. Swindon, 23rd March 2018

Nature survives because of our inattention.

Cherry Plum. Swindon, 23rd March 2018.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

early pages of Tattered By Magnets

Tim Allen's Tattered by Magnets, front jacket

Tim Allen's Tattered by Magnets was published by KFS press in 2014

the Months the Magnets


The poems are adventures.


"parky / prison visitor locked in the / conservatory"

Tim Allen's approach to eliminating the narrative I involves a host of flitting characters usually tersely described by some epithet such as occupation or animal name or object name. The cast-list of a joke. Here it's the prison visitor. In 1:3 "air hostess's complimentary Beano" . In 1:4 "self-correcting fox cubs". 1:5" small panther". 1:8 "gravedigger calculates disintegrating spiral of panic's limits". 1:10 "the radiator has its critics"

Tim's favourite verb tense is the historic present, suggesting a news headline. But the past simple and present perfect get a look-in too.


"magnets / a desert of exhausted magnets / rustle leveled up / magnetic rust / a dead sea of uphill doors"   There are a great many superb natural landscapes, dystopian or utopian but in any case the landscape of romance. Compare 1:6  "dark valleys  .... valley made of millions of small valleys... down unknown streets of darkness"


For some reason the narrative scena is as euphoric as the land of Faerie directed by Mel Brooks. Even when the storyline is noir, as here. "drugged pot boiler / dragged into the black light / ...... chimney breast man / shot in the back / by / chicken blackleg torch operation idea"


The narratives keep on playing: there is a constant level of churn. "water trusts glass / glass trusts water" ......... "water still trusts glass / glass no longer trusts water" ......

the Days the Dead


Lubrication makes its third appearance (see 1:3, 1:5). . Why? I don't know. The book, like nature, is full of what we can't ever know. And "arc" (from 1:3), returns here in another animal story: "before boarding arc hind says yes to blackberry". Anthropomorphism is central to the narrative world, everything is alive, though not necessarily very switched on. "duplicator fails to understand duplicated pamphlet", for example. and 2:11 "the turtle looks fed up". 3:2 "pilfered shopping trolley snivels on way to school in looted bedrock".

Space itself brings things to life. That is, you merely name them and put plenty of space around them : sometimes that's all you need to do.  We haven't troubled, elsewhere, to represent the physical appearance of the poems. But here's the middle quatrain of 2:2 .

the     the    the    passive         founder        of a department

natal          department            river reeds                basket

glazed water wheel           lukewarm zest      in the department

naf       naïf     what part were you?         the exiting cathedral?

For instance, that island of river reeds, surrounded by clear water: I can absolutely see them.  (Readers of my and Tim's generation will be thinking of the infant Moses.)

"directing the bed / from war"
"the poor people of Norwich", quotes the author, highly attuned to a possible joke. (Anachronism is a partner of anthropomorphism in this narrative world.)  "Liverpool on the Meuse" hangs there like a punchline that's on the way, eventually receiving the response "mosey around" (2:7)
Bucolic village life, all the way from the "quicklime corner" (graveyard? or dodgy local hostelry?)  to the "nymph apple", via plenty of honey and cider... the dubious "red cider" and "green honey"... and other works of importance to villagers, such as the compost heap, and "the slime supply". Age-old village feuds (forgotten / never for / given). La terre meets The Darling Buds of May.  The poem isn't about that.
Googling  "vous Flamel" for something germane to say, I ended up reading about Charles Poncy (1812-1891), ouvrier poet of Toulon.

the Knights the Numbers

Those scenes of desert, countryside or sea (in this case)..... somehow link to the expansiveness of the book. Now, just two twelfths in, we begin to realize the scale. Our sense of it varies but it can seem huge.

the drips above are too small to see                            sad wanderer

volume of concentrated nothing         knowledge is not information

etc                               etc                     etc       etc


Wednesday, March 21, 2018

a judder slams sudden clouds

Martyn Crucefix (b. 1956)

Beneath Tremendous Rain (1990)  (nb his first collection)

On Whistler Mountain (1994)



The first thing I want to say about Martyn Crucefix is that he comes from Trowbridge, which makes him (so far as I’m concerned) the most famous modern Trowbridgian, with the sole exception of Stephen Lee, that comfortably upholstered snooker player with the cue-action. (Less recently, Isaac Pitman, inventor of Pitman shorthand system, was a famous son...and George Grabbe lived there in his latter years).  On my own side of the county boundary, in Frome, we can lay claim to the Shoe-bomber and Jenson Button (alas, does his name already require  the explanatory note "racing driver"?)  and Jemma-Anne Gunning, the topless Maenad rejected from Faliraki. Plus I think I'm right in claiming that Peter Redgrove first met Penelope Shuttle at the George Hotel. And perhaps Samuel Daniel, from nearby Beckington, can be chalked up to our credit in this imaginary competition between E. Somerset and W. Wiltshire.  






Rounded brown toe-caps

are the wet muzzles. . . of what?

They browse through puddles, mud

and grass. They’re at home with thistles,

nettle, thorn – the voice I imagine

is the leathery mooing of contented cattle.

You say, what do they talk about?

“Look around – there is plenty to love!”

And sure enough, every step

has left its token in the caterpillar track

of their soles: grit and dust,

a piece of grass, pale stones like pips

caught in teeth

at the end of a slap-up meal.


- - -


                 (...) the essence

of ‘bootness’ which is what I like.

Oh, with your padded leather backs,

grip, grip always my ankles high up.

Ride rough-shod under my human soles.


                                                            (“Shoe Pieces. 2. Boots”, OWM)



We want a more direct experience of nature, and take our boots out of the wardrobe. The boots enable us to get out onto Striding Edge; but in a way they enable us by insulating us. The knobbly rocks are soothed. We stand in a puddle and don’t get wet – it’s the boots that browse through the puddle. So we personify the boots, partly in envy of their total involvement with stuff, partly in a spirit of fantasy that lets us share the involvement but without the discomforts.


The miles go by, and this raw desire for nature subsides; the earth loses its colour, the ground loses its particularity and becomes vast. Now we appreciate the function of good boots; the grip, the ride, the walking they do for us. We no longer wish to cram our souls with stuff, but to make camp. I think, the next time I clatter down a stream-bed at dusk, I will find myself saying: Ride rough-shod under my human soles.


I have a distaste for these appropriations of cliché and groaning puns. (So it’s unfortunate that both mainstream and innovative poets are addicted to them.) But I’ll make an exception for this line. The “under” is nurturing, like a hull or a womb. “Ride”, once a stable-word, now suggests a car chewing up distance while the stereo thumps smoothly.





She leaves him, Johnson-powdered,

a dusty nude, squatting on her bed,

a little Buddha, pulling his toes.


The bathroom’s a fug where she kept

the gas-heater blasting because he

played for ages in inches of water.


Not vain (just the mirror’s well-placed),

she takes a look at herself in passing,

registers something remote and greyed


crossing beneath the condensation.

She pulls out the plug as a ripping

scream panics her back, expecting


bright blood, a disfiguring dive

to the floor, twisted limbs at least.

He still sits plumb on the bed,


reading his palms and wailing a high

continuous wound in the air

at his chubby fingers, their wrinkling.


                                                (“Accident”,  OWM)




She sees him as a little man; her own perception is adult, complicated by words and associations. She makes a judgment: fug. She gets into a tangle with noticing she’s not vain and maybe that’s vain and if I were vain would I feel what I really do feel, remote and greyed? At the sound of the scream she expects what she really doesn’t expect, exaggerating the images so that they seem less likely. In short, she’s altogether a normal person. The child sees the metamorphosis of his hands, and is horrorstruck by the enormous injury that he hasn’t even felt. He will learn to overcome his direct experience of nature, sensibly, but lose it in the process.    


Crucefix has written sound advice about giving readings: train your voice, slow down, mix the intense with the relaxed, make ‘em lauqh make ‘em cry. Some of this aesthetic has got into the composition-stage, too. This is a poet who is conscious of an audience, who is aware of how his poem will play.


I feel a resistance. Perhaps it is an absurd competitiveness, a reluctance to admire someone whose career feels too ironically close to mine. I question the contemporary ordinariness of his persona, the conversational ease with which he says



            I’d known him at school



            This seems so Gallic



            These days it’s turned by a tug on a rope



            They’d always out in the end



            All that’s irrefutable

            is the swift Mercedes coach



                        What is remaining

            of your atmosphere is lost as you

            adjust to ours



            By day, she sold the real thing

            from buckets on the quay



            Listen. I will explain –



            When it’s finished, he’ll gladly talk,

            how he treasures his privilege.



            as if her weeding of error has finally

            turned trumps



            I’d never have believed the way we’d come

            apart, all but lost what I’d trusted in:

            our common blood, brother’s understanding.



In the slangy ellisions, “I’d” and “They’d”, there’s a skating over the surface that makes these poems feel like addresses to the audience, not urgent meditations that tax the poet himself. And they rarely surprise. When Crucefix “does” El Caudillo, Shelley’s drowning, Wainwright (the fellwalker), a Redgrovian fantasy (“Wasps”), a demotic bit of Chaucer, elegies for the dead, semi-dramatic monologues, interlaced narratives such as “Rosetta” and “On Whistler Mountain”... the poem’s achievement is always a bit close to the expectation. Poems about paintings, about formative sexual experience, about family history, foreign trips. Yes, I reflect ungratefully, these are the kind of poems one does write.


Not that predictability precludes satisfaction. “Teacher” (in OWM) is an intensely lustful poem (the teacher for a female pupil) – the more clearly he sees her, the more his vision is distorted with desire, and the poem ends with (what he uprightly suppresses, so the poem maintains a certain jaunty comedy)



            that hot, unpatrolled dormitory of himself

            where she did nothing but sleep and please him.



Though at the outset the poem unnervingly recalls Don’t stand so close to me, not to mention Yes sir, I can boogie, the final effect is troublingly sad, and sexy, and funny. I should also do justice to “Wasps” (in OWM). There is no fear in Redgrove’s poems; but Crucefix makes you flinch:



            Jointed twiggy legs hold me down

            beneath a swivelling, oiled head

            as uncommunicative as stone.

            Its long abdomen is like a cob of maize

            I find velvety to the touch.    



I do find the poems sustaining. Re-reading “El Caudillo” (in BTR), for example, one locks on to the pines, the “thickening layers of needles”, and a curious contrast between two kinds of cleanness. The be-suited entourage return down the slope, “kicking up flares of pine needles before them”, and get into the black cars, with their antiseptic “click and cough of the doors”. One briefly imagines pine-needles on the floor of the car. The image comes alive with expression – of the abstraction in which a business decision is made, still influenced by the surroundings that are scarcely even observed, though they were chosen by someone. The kicking expresses discomfort as well as excitement, impatience; it is an adjustment to the decision now made, an adjustment that is necessary whatever one’s feelings might have been beforehand.  



But I forget what I’m here for.


(“Midsummer at High Laver”, BTR)


In this poem the poet makes a “self-conscious” visit to John Locke’s place of burial, but the poem takes an unexpected course, distracted by thoughts about ageing parents and by an irrigator. That’s often when the poems begin to strike marvellous insights – it’s those scatterings, rather than the poems as finished forms, that sustain me. 



            I watch the flailing mare’s-tail, the jet-stream

            spray of the irrigator beside the church.

            Its white angle above the potato fields

            seems to crumple to a vaporous nothing, yet

            a judder slams sudden clouds of fizzing spray.



(mare’s-tail, an aquatic plant with plumy foliage, swaying in slow streams – water-milfoil would have been an even better image, but mare’s-tail has a more suggestive name, precluding the need for botany). This spasmodic irrigator is an answer, of sorts, to talk of death and even to John Locke. It is both beautiful and insane, a nurturer and a destroyer too. (The water breaks up the soil, and of course its mannerisms are disconcertingly like a machine-gun too.) It marks time passing and it doesn’t care. This irrigator is a secular sermon. It’s because of the soothing contemplation of machines that we don’t now need an after-life, perhaps. Electric wheelchairs and TV schedules reassure the old. Soothing, and numbing too. We get stalled, in a marvellous realization of the irrigator that carries on “doing its thing” after the poet has walked back to his car and the poem has ended.


In this poem, technology plays a more important role than appears at first. The abstracted motorist comes to a place of rubber thongs supporting tree saplings and of florist’s creations around a fresh grave. It is centuries away from Gray’s Elegy, as it should be.


In the long poem “On Whistler Mountain” technology is everything. This is a brilliantly complex narrative. The poet hears the news of his brother’s suicide; they went skiing in Whistler; a brutal Amerindian tale of Blackbird; they were in Vancouver at New Year; flying home; his brother’s involvement in Gulf War technology; as boys, they disinter a stone angel in an old mason’s yard. Without warning the lines switch between narratives. Then the poet starts to dream of an encounter with his dead brother, and the narratives begin to inter-mix. Eventually we contemplate this:



                                                We stood beside

            its pocky tarmac. Sunlight. A grid-lock

            of luxury saloons, jeeps, trucks, stalled

            fire engines, a bulldozer. Any set

            of wheels seemed to have been rashly commandeered to


            drive into the red heart of a firestorm,

            fierce enough to scald the windshield glass to gobs

            of silicone. That there were survivals

            at all was a miracle: a new case

            of White Flake laundry soap, slightly burned.

            A black bird face-down, is Donald Duck turned up.


            A glossy calendar – some daffodils,

            thatch, white café tables, a tall skyline...



The poem lurches off into other narratives for a line or two, and returns:



            Closer. Each of the cabs sheltered black loads,

            shapeless at first, the colour of weathered

            coal, the texture of a sooty coral.

            Memory releasing, I recognized

            what had been teeth – these grinning because

            the lower jaw and face-bottom had been torn off.


            In the flat bed of a stalled Nissan truck,

            this coal-shape went head-down, hopeful ostrich,

            its buttocks arrested in mid-air, legs

            blasted at mid-thigh, ending abruptly

            in a flutter of charcoal like the film

            of carbon it must have watched in a childhood fire.


            In the Ford ahead, a creature’s body

            has been blown open, double-doors onto

            organs neatly packed, cooked to ebony.

            In a Renault van, a squat roughened log.

            A shell-wound like a knot-hole in its chest.



This reads like a too-close-up vision of the Gulf War on the ground. But (as in Golding’s Pincher Martin), the details are imagined out of scraps from elsewhere. As the White Flake soap and Donald Duck and the vehicles suggest, this is a North American gridlock. The jawless grin suggests Blackbird’s torn-off beak, and perhaps the way that Chris killed himself. The ostrich posture recalls the poet’s fears of wipe-out on the ski-slope; the image of watching a fire recalls Louise on the night they heard the news; the log is the totem-pole they saw in Vancouver, and the shell-wound is a knot-hole in a carved figure. The intensity in the writing, controlled by the quiet syntax, really comes out of the poet’s private grief. It is avowedly a non-combatant’s poem, concerned with a war that, as many felt and claimed, seemed peculiarly like a non-combatatant’s war – a viewer’s war. Subsequent events have wrought further changes in the poem’s meaning. 


“On Whistler Mountain” would like to implicate the innocent in war’s atrocities, but we easily see that as a spasm of grief. If everyone is guilty, the guilty are not named. The poem remains troubling, innocence leaching away from orange ski-clips, New Year kisses in Vancouver, the Seattle Seahawks, satellite phones, museums...





A post written back in 2003. I would write it differently today, and apologise for the cheap shots.

Martyn's blog, a very different view of poetry than mine, but crafted, thoughtful and informative: .

You can read a couple of poems from On Whistler Mountain here:

Interesting to see him using the word "pitch" to describe a moth landing on a surface. Fresh in my mind from the recent weather, I'm always struck by Laura saying "the snow's pitching" (meaning, starting to settle). Perhaps it's a south-western expression because I never heard it in Sussex.


Tuesday, March 20, 2018

snow and wood

We had a new batch of snow at the week-end: Swindon's third of this winter.  The temperature was only just about freezing. The snow sparkled both in the air and on the ground, as if it hadn't quite made up its mind what it was going to be, and half-thought about melting.

As it happened the temperature got colder and it snowed all night. While we marched home from the Costa Drive-Through at 23:00 on Saturday, in veils of glinting snow, I tried to think what the snow surface reminded me of, but I couldn't quite place it. It was some kind of peppermint confection from my childhood, maybe home-made, with exactly this pure white sparkling surface. The evocation had something yearning in it, and I decided my grandmother must have been involved, the English one. Perhaps someone gave her a box of Clarnico mint creams, and I helped her eat them. An event of no significance at all, at the time. Though to a child peppermint creams are never altogether trivial.

On Sunday the snow froze harder, and on compacted pathways it broke up into crunchy pieces of peanut brittle, except they were transparent. (What is it about sweets? It seems that when we reach middle age we begin to obsess about childhood confectionery, as well as buying old albums of the music of our teens.)

The wind was so piercing that we pretty much ignored the unexpected emergence of a pure white Little Egret from out of a stream threading through the housing estates. It stood clumsily in a willow tree waiting for us to go away, which was immediately. We had no time for exotic birds that morning, we were desperate to stamp some warmth into our feet.

There was no visit to the wood on Monday, we were in John Lewis eating soup,  so I missed any chance of learning more about animal tracks.  But I was back in the wood today. The snow had almost gone.

Scarlet Elf-Cup

Two regular highlights of the wood in spring. Scarlet Elf-Cup appears on some of the fallen twigs.

There's an increasing population of False Oxlip here (Primula x polyantha) . More than there are ordinary primroses, in fact.

Young nettles

More tufts of grass, but this time I can't pretend to recognize them. I'll just have to remember where they are and keep watching them until they produce flowerheads.

A grass with a pretty distinctive appearance at this time of year.

Labels: ,

Monday, March 19, 2018

January and May

Ill-matched lovers by the Flemish painter Quentin Massys c. 1520-1525

[Image source: The painting is in the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. (]

Today (following BritPo forum conversation with Peter Riley), I've been reacquainting myself with the youthful Alexander Pope's sparkling rendering of  that sour late Chaucer masterpiece The Merchant's Tale. Here are the opening lines:

THERE liv’d in Lombardy, as authors write,
In days of old, a wise and worthy Knight;
Of gentle manners, as of gen’rous race,
Blest with much sense, more riches, and some grace:
Yet, led astray by Venus’ soft delights,        5
He scarce could rule some idle appetites:
For long ago, let priests say what they could,
Weak sinful laymen were but flesh and blood.
  But in due time, when sixty years were o’er,
He vow’d to lead this vicious life no more;        10
Whether pure holiness inspired his mind,
Or dotage turn’d his brain, is hard to find;
But his high courage prick’d him forth to wed,
And try the pleasures of a lawful bed.
This was his nightly dream, his daily care,        15
And to the heav’nly Powers his constant prayer,
Once, ere he died, to taste the blissful life
Of a kind husband and a loving wife.
  These thoughts he fortified with reasons still
(For none want reasons to confirm their will).        20
Grave authors say, and witty poets sing,
That honest wedlock is a glorious thing:
But depth of judgment most in him appears
Who wisely weds in his maturer years.
Then let him choose a damsel young and fair,        25
To bless his age, and bring a worthy heir;
To soothe his cares, and, free from noise and strife,
Conduct him gently to the verge of life.
Let sinful bachelors their woes deplore,
Full well they merit all they feel, and more:        30
Unaw’d by precepts, human or divine,
Like birds and beasts, promiscuously they join;
Nor know to make the present blessing last,
To hope the future, or esteem the past;
But vainly boast the joys they never tried,        35
And find divulged the secrets they would hide.
The married man may bear his yoke with ease,
Secure at once himself and Heav’n to please;
And pass his inoffensive hours away,
In bliss all night, and innocence all day:        40
Tho’ fortune change, his constant spouse remains,
Augments his joys, or mitigates his pains.
  But what so pure which envious tongues will spare?
Some wicked Wits have libell’d all the Fair.
With matchless impudence they style a wife        45
The dear-bought curse and lawful plague of life,
A bosom serpent, a domestic evil,
A night-invasion, and a midday-devil.
Let not the wise these sland’rous words regard,
But curse the bones of ev’ry lying bard.        50
All other goods by Fortune’s hand are giv’n,
A wife is the peculiar gift of Heav’n.
Vain Fortune’s favours, never at a stay,
Like empty shadows pass and glide away;
One solid comfort, our eternal wife,        55
Abundantly supplies us all our life:
This blessing lasts (if those who try say true)
As long as heart can wish—and longer too.

(From January and May, or, The Merchant's Tale. Complete text:

Chaucer's great theme of the battle of the sexes would be taken up by Pope in The Rape of the Lock and in the Moral Epistle to Blount, among other works.

Reading the poem today, most of us will feel that it pulls its punches on the most repellent aspect of the story, namely the aged sensualist's marriage to a virginal adolescent.  But it's not easy to decide, because there are so many layers of irony. There's no doubt of the implication that the aged January is being a stupid fool who deserves everything that's coming to him, but the sense of May being violated by the arrangement is absent. Chaucer and Pope are only very early steps along the way towards a modern view of marriage and sexual relationships. No matter, that background consciousness of modern views just makes the story even more electric and excruciating.

January and May (and Damian), a print from 1785 in the British Museum  The text claims that it was Pope's favourite poem.

Labels: ,

Powered by Blogger