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Friday, December 31, 2010

Legends of Benin, Legends of Angola

What an admirable man Samy Ben Redjeb is. He appears to spend his time travelling round Africa putting together compilations of lost musical traditions, two examples of which I’ve been greatly enjoying, namely, Legends of Benin: Afro-Funk, Cavacha, Agbadja, Afro-Beat, and Angola Soundtrack: The Unique Sound of Luanda 1968-1976. Gnonnas Pedro et Ses Dadjes, El Rego et Ses Commandos, Honoré Avolonto et l’Orchestre PolyRythmo, Os Bongos, N’Goma Jazz, Jovens do Prenda: how many of these musicians will anyone outside Africa ever have heard of? One point of reference at least for Europeans will be the Cuban influence, which seems to have been continentally ubiquitous, and of which Senegal’s Orchestra Baobab are probably the best-known example, and as recently revisited by the Afrocubism project (I was at their gig in London the other week). But then, I also read, Benin’s west coast is home to a large Brazilian community, descendants of freed slaves who brought the influence of samba and French chanson back with them. So there’s all manner of cross-fertilisation going on. Quite apart from how good the music is on these albums, the booklets that come with the albums are fascinating documents, full of interviews with the musicians and period photos (the trousers! the shirts! the haircuts!).

Of the Beninois musician Antoine Dougbé, one of whose publicity photos shows him posing in front of an eminently sensible-looking 70s hatchback with a sickle and machete, we read:

[his] father had been a very powerful and feared Vodun Priest (...) Dougbé had learned all the secrets from him and was a serious ritual of Vodun rituals and he had used his powers on different occasions. You really had to make sure there wasn’t the slightest misunderstanding with him. (...) I’ve been to his house many times to seek protection. He would rub oils all over your body, make you swallow bizarre stuff and he would give you protective ‘gris gris’ (charms), which you were always supposed to carry with you.

{Quotation ends}

As for El Rego, we read: ‘The best time to catch El Rego [these days] is on Tuesday mornings, when he makes his weekly visit to collect his earnings from his Nigerian prostitutes at Le Playboy.’

The liner notes for the Angolan album have a darker edge to them. ‘Independence meant a lot to us, we were expecting a new era, a new energy’, says Jovens do Prenda’s guitarist, ‘but instead we received an endless war.’ I’m guessing the musical pickings for the years 1975-2002 are a lot thinner, sadly (consider the fate of David Zé, one of the featured musicians here, murdered in 1977).

Youtube clip features Honoré Avolonto of Benin’s thoroughly addictive ‘Na Mi Do Gbé Hué Nu’. Avolonto was a leading light in the Orchestre Poly-Rhythmo de Cotonou, several of whose albums I believe are also available on Analog Africa. Avolonto was ‘surprised that a foreigner might be interested in his music’, writes Samy Ben Redjeb of his meetings with him (ps: HA is not dead, despite the colourful album cover at the top of this post). Everyone should buy these wonderful albums.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Monday, December 27, 2010

Friday, December 24, 2010

Myles na gCopaleen, Díoghruagach Ó Maol Blagaide, Sabhatarianism and Other Matters

Sitting in the National Library the other day and wondering what lessons from Ireland’s political past might usefully be applied to my nation’s current predicament, I found myself reading some election literature from the 1940s. My reading tended in this direction for Myles na gCopaleen-related reasons, which will emerge in due time, but I’ve always been a sucker, I must say, for the culs-de-sac of history and the odd detritus they leave behind. The last time I was in the National Library I turned up an Irish-language memoir by an unrepentant holocaust denier, and this time too the library did not fail to vomit forth some wisdom of the kind too often marginalized by the panjandrums of the liberal media, in thrall as they are to the stooges and running-dogs of the international freemasonic conspiracy. I refer to Ireland’s Twentieth Century Destiny, published in 1942 by one Gearóid Ó Cuinneagáin, leader of the short-lived fringe party Ailtirí na h-Aiséirighe, roughly ‘votaries of the reawakening’. I’d been nudged in that direction on learning that Seán South, leading light of the 1950s IRA campaign against artificial manure and foreign bacon, or whatever it was, had been affiliated with this organisation (he lives forever in our hearts). (The Irish form of ‘South’ is ‘Sabhat’, by the way, which leads me to assume that, good Catholic that he was, Seán South was a ‘Sabhatarian’, an Aryan on the Lord’s day but condemned to being a Mongolian or Mozambican for the rest of the week.)

As I was saying then, this noble band of doughty Christian soldiers pledged itself to the criminalisation of all religious faiths but Roman Catholicism, something suitably vague but horrible for any Jews around the place, the outlawing of the Saxon tongue, race-preservation through the outlawing of emigration too, ‘national reafforestation on vigorous lines’ (if only to have somewhere to bury the various hecatombs of Methodists, Parsees, Zoroastrians and other cosmopolitan scum), and sundry other worthy causes. However, I am failing to convey the tone of the pamphlet I was reading, so let me quote verbatim. We aim, our author claims, ‘to make Ireland mistress of the Atlantic as it is the wish of Japan to become mistress of the Pacific. With the difference that we shall be masters in the Pacific Ocean also’ (Emperor Hirohito’s copies of An Claidheamh Solais are in the post). A certain amount of backsliding has come to our overlord’s attention: ‘it is apparent that the elan and espirt of youth is lacking (...) bereft of the Irish-Ireland mentality we cannot but lose our national morale, our racial consciousness, confidence, convictions.’ Mention is made of an attractive female accomplice: ‘The hesitant and indecisive are seldom the recipients of the favours of Dark Rosaleen’.

What has all this got to do with Myles na gCopaleen, well you may ask. Next year is Myles’ centenary, and I had been reading Breandán Ó Conaire’s study Myles na Gaeilge and Carol Taaffe’s recent (and excellent) Ireland Through the Looking-Glass: Flann O’Brien, Myles na gCopaleen and Irish Cultural Debate, reconsidering the cultural politics of that most hilarious novel, An Béal Bocht. This is such a many-layered novel, not all of which most of its readers ever really plumb, I fear. First off, it is a hilarious piss-take of Peig Sayers, Muiris Ó Suilleabháin and Tomás Ó Criomhthain, granted, and the whole ideology of Irish-Irelandism. But it is also a satire born of incomparable insidery familiarity with this culture, not to mention enormous respect for Ó Criomhthain at least, whatever about the other two (cf. his deliberately literal renderings of passages from An t-Oileánach in The Best of Myles). But then another level opens up, namely the disjunction between the actual culture of remote west-coast Gaeltachtaí and the Irish-Ireland ideology of the Irish Free State. The attitude of the latter towards the former is full of misunderstandings and Gael-on-Gael cultural imperialism, as fáinne-wearing do-gooders descend from the capital to applaud the inhabitants of Corcha Dorcha for the Gaelically pure destitution in which they live, free of the corrupting taint of the washing machine, toothpaste and vitamin C (it was Myles, I believe, who first proposed the origins of the word ‘phoney’ in the Irish ‘fáinne’).

But here’s another level: the knowledge, on Myles’s part, of how uncomfortably close he was to the whole merry band of Gaeilgeoir Catholic fascists. One of his brothers was a member of Craobh na h-Aiséiríghe, a precursor organisation of the Ailtirí, and sounds like exactly the kind of demented crank who might adorn the feis in An Béal Bocht. It should not be necessary, if one takes an interest in the Irish language, to begin the day by clearing one’s throat to remind the world at large that one is not, ahem, a raving fascist, but in a Cruiskeen Lawn column of the 1940s Myles describes the unpleasant experience of hearing a member of yet another fringe organisation, Glún na Buaidhe, rant on a soap box about the ‘dirty nigger culture of America’. The first item on the agenda of any Irish political organisation, as any fule kno, is the split, and internecine feuding between Glún na Buaidhe and Ailtirí na h-Aiséiríghe crucially split the fringe Catholic fascist vote in the 1940s (allowing a clear run to that even more obscure Catholic fascist organisation, Fianna Fáil); but therein lies yet another Mylesian level.

One of Myles’s best-loved forms of mischief-making was writing letters to The Irish Times complaining about himself, complaining about the complaints about himself, and so on ad infinitum. Cf. the internecine wars among De Selby’s commentators, as played out in the footnotes of The Third Policeman, and their fine Irish satirical pedigree in the footnotes of A Tale of a Tub. But consider too the sheer awfulness of the life in Ireland to which Myles had condemned himself by not following Joyce and Beckett into exile. More so than any Irish writer of the twentieth century, his was a modernist sensibility trapped in the body of an inward-looking, insecure, small western European nation. Trapped there as he was, what could he do but wallow in it, in the whole insane parade of Irish and Irish-language identity politics, splitting himself into smaller and smaller sub-atomic particles of the personae who adorned his Cruiskeen Lawn columns, and consumed by an ever more fatal and morbid interest in the pathological debates and controversies of the day. Taaffe reminds us of some of Myles’s personae, such as Taidhgín Slánabhaile, the humourless pedant who corrects Myles’s pidgin Irish; Pangur Bán: Seán a’Díomais, the scribe’s pig, a member of Muintir na Tíre and a would-be TD; and my personal favourite, the immortally named Díoghruagach Ó Maol Blagaide, an eighteenth-century bard. Out of such local rows (not that he could ever be imagined quoting from the works of Patrick Kavanagh) Myles created an art that was both a true, and truly horrifying portrait of Irish cultural politics in the mid-century, but also the quicksand that year by year closed over his head until escape became impossible, the writing of The Third Policeman a long-repressed memory, and nothing remained but the alcoholic dregs of what had once been an artist. His work is thus the humorous cure for all these various ideological poisons – except for the unfortunate artist himself. What a sad and instructive tale. I’ll see you at the conference then. And in the meantime, in the words of the Myles column reproduced in today’s Irish Times, ‘I see where the Christmas is on. Things is in full swing’, which means it’s time for my last-minute flight to Yemen, North Korea or anywhere this awful festival remains unknown. ‘Here’s my bus. Happy Christmas now and mind yerself! Cheers now.’

Reference section: excellent article on Ailtirí na h-Aiséirighe here, and pdfs of their newspaper here (click for big).

Sunday, December 12, 2010


Yes, an armadillo in a bucket is a wtf?! moment. But so is changing your blogger template only to discover, first, that the site meter has fallen off (vanished, in fact), and that when I go looking for it in the blog template the template seems to have vanished too, from my dashboard. Anyone more tech-savvy than I am: help, please!

No wait, I think I did it. But not sure yet if it’s going to work. Still, nice armadillo, so where’s the harm in leaving it up.

If this post now counts as a performative contradiction, I am reminded of a letter of Proust’s to the Countess Caca or whoever saying, I have lost my umbrella, did I leave it at your house, now wait I’ve just found it, ignore this letter.

NO WAIT! It has replaced my links on the left with a much earlier version of same. Where have the missing ones gone? Any hints, anyone?

Academic Dullardry

Right then, a new blogpost. Let’s get started with my work address and a brief self-reflexive commentary on what I’m hoping to achieve in this blogpost, shall we? No? And why would that be? Perhaps my head is still spinning from a bizarre journal I found in the library the other day, New Writing: the International Journal for the Practice and Theory of Creative Writing, and published by Routledge, no less. As anyone who hangs around in University English Departments may have noticed, the ‘creative writers’ who turned up for a cup of tea and a biscuit about twenty years ago never went home. Much in the fashion on John Divney at the beginning of The Third Policeman, they (ahem, we) just moved in. One of the problems with having them round the place though is working out how what they do should count as research. Do you publish critically acclaimed novels as a sideline to those charming essays you turn out for the Journal of Drummond of Hawthornden Studies? Right, we’ll have those for our REF returns, thanks. But when it comes to teaching creative writing, since there is a small but real chance that the work produced may not end up in the pages of Granta, we often find ourselves asking students to write a self-reflexive commentary wondering aloud why it is their writing is so wonderful/appalling/delete as applicable. It can seem a useful exercise. It’s a recognition of the fact that their writing is a work in progress, still a few bus stops short of its destination. But to open the aforementioned woefully named journal and find writers attempting to do it, in print, by way of a preface, seems to me not just laugh-out-loud funny but awful, and symptomatic of much that’s wrong with the institutionalisation of creative writing today. We’ve all sat through poetry readings where the reader gives an introduction longer than the poem or says something like ‘What I was trying to say was...’ So just say that and skip the rest. It’s an instant giveaway sign of artistic bad faith. In this context it signals a massive insecurity about the writing itself, since this is not something any actual writer would ever want to do (surely), and which the writer is attempting to overcome by bicycle-pumping his work full of proper academic status and respectability. But just as a rotten egg doesn’t get any sweeter if you eat all of it instead of a spoonful, bad writing is not going to get any better or any more serious if you tell me your address and what you were hoping to achieve by writing it. I suppose all this is some strange and morbid symptom of the more general meltdown of the humanities in these times we live in, but still, how depressing. Are you a writer? Excellent. Send your masterpieces to a magazine or a publisher that might eventually want to publish the work itself and not the covering letter. And do you produce research too – essays on Tennyson, books on medieval poetry, that kind of thing? Also excellent. But don’t expect to me to believe this manner of ‘what I was trying to say here’ faffing-around should be encouraged or taken seriously as writing or research.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

The Old Bull and Bush, Wincolmlee

This obscure Hull pub advertises itself as a ‘Theatre Bar’, or the sign over the door does at least. Associated in the public mind, when associated with anything, which may not be often, with transvestite line-dancing, this pub no longer offers transvestite line-dancing. What it does offer though are some very fine pub fittings. Through an alluringly dark connecting passage is a back parlour whose wallpaper appears to have wandered in from the nearest minor highland baronet’s hunting lodge. And look at that superb ceiling. Good pint of Chestnut mild too. A lengthy session ensued up the road, at which the health of a certain Sheffield poet-critic was drunk (thanks Ben), and at which I learned that the Old Bull and Bush has a loquacious parrot, who must have been upstairs doing his nails when I dropped in. I shall return. Readers, this is my life.

Friday, December 03, 2010

Tantum Potuit Suadere Religio Malorum

There’s an amusing episode of South Park where Randy has a few beers before turning up to get the boys a lift home and, for this misdemeanour, is sent to an AA meeting. He emerges from this convinced he is an alcoholic and starts drinking morning, noon and night, since – as his AA friends tell him – he is powerless in the face of his addiction, so he may as well, y’know, face up to it by getting constantly plastered. At the heart of the AA’s 12 step programme is the idea of submission to a higher power: it’s all very culty-sounding to me. Then again, perhaps it’s not for me to judge, not having had to live with the scourge of alcoholism. But when I read a column like this by John Burnside, I think: wow. This is one of the strangest newspaper columns I can remember seeing for a long time. Writing as a recovered alcoholic, Burnside invokes peyote and other druggy experiences, before announcing:

This is not a plea for the legalisation of street drugs, nor is it a flippant counter to vague public health measures that have been described as ‘window dressing’ and ‘lacking in detail’. What I would suggest, however, is that the best method of treating alcoholism, smoking and obesity is a religious one.

I’m at risk, I’m sure, of becoming a Dawkinsite bore on the subject of religion, but while I don’t much like the witch-finder generalish side of Dawkins’ personality (I am a zealot of indifference more than anything else), I think my objections to Burnside are prompted more by a concern for the nature of meaningful debate than by religion per se. One of the worst aspects (of many) of Tony Blair’s legacy has been the enshrining in public discourse, in the UK, of faith as an argument in itself, or more often, a roadblock to any argument taking place. Usually this position comes kitted out in the Ali G-esque motley of ‘respect’. I fully tolerate religion, meaning I do not advocate its prohibition, but I in no way respect it, at all. A simple demonstration of why not: substitute for the words ‘is a religious one’ at the end of the passage from Burnside above the phrase ‘belching loudly’. This is not a serious way of treating alcoholism, smoking or obesity. But neither is religion, and I don’t understand why these vaporous god-botherers are given the time of day in serious newspapers. I mean, scientists are not expected to conduct discussions with members of the Flat Earth Society.

But examples can come a lot more serious than this, as in the recently exposed practice (thank you Johann Hari) of abattoirs getting around rules on stunning animals before slaughter by using halal or kosher methods instead, which is to say cutting their throats and muttering some prayer or other about how pleased the most merciful is god that another sheep has got what’s coming to him. The blame for this practice, it seems, lies principally with abattoirs exploiting a religious loophole, but if the law did not provide these loopholes in the first place, this problem would not exist. And still on Tony Blair, in his public debate with him in Toronto recently Christopher Hitchens came out with this soundbite:

The Catholic Church holds it better for the Sun and Moon to drop from Heaven, for the earth to fail, and for all the many millions on it to die from starvation in extremest agony … than that one soul, I will not say, should be lost, but should commit one single venial sin, should tell one wilful untruth, or should steal one poor farthing without excuse.

And who said this: Bertrand Russell, Richard Dawkins? No, Cardinal Newman. And what is this but the essence of the religious worldview? And a vile and ludicrous worldview it is too. Tantum religio potuit suadere malorum. Pass me the peyote, pass me the whiskey. Because even if I did become an alcoholic, I would still have the use of my mind. But, John Burnside and all your fellow god-bothering friends, spare me the pie-eyed religious baloney, please.

Indomitable Irishry

The fallout from Patrick Crotty’s Penguin Book of Irish Poetry has rumbled on since its publication, with an aggrieved Michael O’Loughlin accusing it in an Irish Times opinion piece of being a ‘curio’ and of omitting a whole generation of Southern Irish poets. (O’Loughlin’s piece here and Crotty’s reply here). All this was put in perspective for me the other day when I stumbled on a copy of Devin A. Garrity’s Mentor Book of Irish Poetry. I say ‘stumbled’ because yes, I do like to leave books lying round the place in ways conducive to amusing domestic accidents (the pile of Dickens novels I’m perched atop as I type this is feeling none too safe, I must say). But I digress (‘digression assured’, as a small ad in The Hull Daily Mail promised recently). O’Loughlin’s choice of ‘curio’ is curious. If an anthology can never be merely right, in everyone’s eyes, the challenge is to provoke in a way that goes beyond the foibles and follies of the editor or the age. What is Michael Roberts’ Faber Book of Modern Verse if not a ‘curio’ these days? It also remains one of the most eye-opening and influential books of its time. That’s good-curio, then, versus Yeats’s bad-curio in his 1936 Oxford Book of Modern Verse, which still gets my vote as the single barmiest assemblage ever to grace or disgrace that fine imprint.

But to turn to Garrity’s anthology. ‘The Genius of the Irish’, it screams at us from behind its bile-green cover harp. Irish Studies loves to look back with wry understanding on a time when Ireland, its history and literature, weren’t just subjects but sagas, designed to quicken the pulse with the throb of racial music, but even without getting all gloaty-revisionist on Garrity’s ass, it’s painful to see the alacrity with which he bin-dips his way through some of the mouldiest dross of the Irish Literary Revival. There was some discussion on here a while back of Winifred Letts, with a commentator or two taking Patrick Crotty (of all people) to task for his summary dismissal of her. Having finally had the chance to read her in the Mentor Book I can now confirm that, boy, that woman sucked. Her twee little ditties would bring out the inner Ezra Pound in any Ireland’s Own poetry editor, and I hope they did, too. Execrable stuff.

Crotty omitted Oliver St John Gogarty’s ebullient versifying, and while Garrity stretches to seven poems, including the long (overlong) ‘Leda and the Swan’, I think of them as being stored in these pages in the same way that old suitcases are stored in my attic – I know they’re there but don’t necessarily want to see them. In this sense, anthologies often set a formal seal on an author’s unread status: why should I go to the effort of reading so-and-so anymore? He’s in the anthology, isn’t he? Reading through the rest of the book I find a veritable litany of the lost. Eminent Victorian unreadables: Lord Dunsany, John Todhunter, Aubrey de Vere, Thomas D’Arcy McGee. Their tweedy offspring: the Earl of Longford. Palgravian rejectamentum: Arthur O’Shaughnessy. Modernist anomaly: Thomas MacGreevy (I mean anomaly by Garrity’s standards, though MacGreevy had enough indomitable Irishry in his make-up to compensate in Garrity’s eyes for his little eccentricities, I’m assuming). Member of my extended family: Sigerson Clifford (he is my niece Caoimhe’s great-grandfather). Up-and-coming young men: Francis Stuart, Bruce Williamson (?!). Someone or other with keen interest in uninhabited blip of rock off north Donegal coast: D.J. O’Sullivan (‘Dawn in Inishtrahull’, ‘Nightfall in Inishtrahull’). I thought she was a composer and didn’t know she wrote poems: Rhoda Coghill. No, wait this is quite good: Blanaid Salkeld.

But in case you think I’m scoffing here, Garrity also includes – and I think this is more or less his last anthology appearance before the brief term of his fame expired – the Larne-born poet Lyle Donaghy (1902-1949). I spent an enjoyable day recently in the National Library, in Dublin, re-reading all of this writer’s work (that would be At Dawn Above Aherlow (1926), Primordia Caeca (1927), Ad Perennis Vitae Fontem (1928), The Flute Over the Valley (1931), The Blackbird (1933), Into the Light (1934), Selected Poems (1939), Wilderness Sings (1942), and Wild Sun and Moon (1949)). There are plenty of reasons why Donaghy’s name has fallen into disrepair, but they are not the ones suggested above for the unfortunate Winifred Letts. He is praised in Beckett’s ‘Recent Irish Poetry’, published in Eliot’s Criterion and Poetry (Chicago) in his day, and is also one of the great secret poets of Co. Wicklow (cf. Beckett’s letters for more on Donaghy and Wicklow), giving as the place of publication for Wild Sun and Moon a mountain near Glendalough, Brockagh. He is a minor poet then, not in the Winifred Letts sense of pursuing a downward arc towards utter extinction, but of someone we don’t know much about, since he hasn’t been in print now for over sixty years, and who deserves better from us. Here is Donaghy’s ‘The Heron’. Even copying out this poem I’m failing to do him justice, since for the life of me I still can’t work out how to indent lines in blogger:

At night, when the black water-hen
Roosts by the first star,
The heron stands, a lonely king,
Where his possessions are;
The level flag-torn mere,
The oozy yellow lands,
The shells that thicken on the rocks
And blacken on the sands.
His shadow’s length away from him –
Shadowed in the moon rays –
Is she whom the subtle unknown love
Brought to his lonely ways.
Sometimes, askance, he sees the bright
Moon-silver float
Slow cones and arrows from her body;
But long ago the note
Of triumph went from him and still
When life exults and sings,
A broken water-sound pursues
His trailing feet and wings.


I knew the heron in his nest,
His voice not yet a cry,
When he lay on the flat spare twigs
And watched the sun in the sky.


There are more fine poems where that came from. I would hope to return to this subject.

Photo shows Sam the cat cavorting in the sneugh, seeking where he might make water, copious warm water.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Larkin Toads Redux

My previous reports of the extinction of the Hull toad, or at least a halt to its further proliferation, turn out to have been exaggerated. Henry the Prince’s Avenue toad was auctioned off by mistake, to the annoyance of local traders who clubbed together for a replacement, Alfie, whom I initially mistook, pre-unveiling, for some manner of burqa toad, but no. I trust the sex shop across the road lobbied for Alfie to be a ‘horny toad’, let me add. Obligatory monkeying around with outsized novelty cheque safely out of the way this fine batrachian specimen was unveiled outside the Old Zoological pub earlier this afternoon.

Geese in Snow

Monday, November 22, 2010

Farmed Wind

‘The fact is, people don’t really like farmed wind. They prefer wind that is naturally occurring.’ (Harry Hill)

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Keats and Chapman, African-Style

The foremost living exponent of the kora was experiencing a loss of self-confidence. I’m no good anymore, he would tell himself. Strangely enough, he even didn’t seem to know who he was. A sad spectacle, and no mistake. Only reading some Yeats can cure me, he thought, and sure enough it did. Standing before the mirror, à la Travis Bickle, he began to recite: ‘No one can tell who has talent, if any. /Only one thing is certain: we are Toumani.’

And as chance would have it, I’m off to hear Toumani (and the Afrocubism roadshow) later today. I must try my little gag out on him down the Camel and Touareg afterwards.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Here Lieth the Ould Jeremy Who Hath Eight Times Married Been

Above picture taken on a mobile phone in Welton, a village near Hull and scene of the apprehension of Dick Turpin for the crime of obstreperous behaviour in the Green Dragon tavern, shooting the landlord’s poultry in his cups. What the landlord’s poultry was doing in... (insert remainder of Groucho Marx elephant-in-his-pyjamas joke here).

Married eight times though, eh. I am reminded of ‘Upon Batt’, a couplet I know from Geoffrey Grigson’s excellent The Faber Book of Epigrams and Epitaphs:

Batt he gets children, not for love to rear ’em,
But out of hope his wife might die to bear ’em.

Mark Granier kindly helped me out here by touching up the original photo for enhanced legibility, knowing much more about these things than I do.

Monday, November 08, 2010

The Language of the Gutters

A story in the Hull Daily Mail about poems in bus shelters prompts the following deathless ditty (not by me - if only) in the comments stream.

Poets at the bus stops?
It may improve the scene
But I see that Larkin’s one of them.
I hope they keep it clean!

‘Twas recently reported
In my Hull Daily Mail
A bus called ‘Philip Larkin’
Which surely cannot fail

To enthuse our kids poetically
And keep them in their seats.
‘Twill stop them misbehaving
And ending up as NEETS.

If the folk had really read his poems
Who chose to name this bus
I’m sure they’d be less eager
To promote him with their fuss.

I think that I was on this bus
A couple of days gone by
The air was blue with profanity
Foul words in rich supply.

A young girl sat beside me
Barking into a phone
Bragging the sort of exploits that
She should have kept at home.

I seem to be a magnet to
The ignorant, foul and blaring
Polluting other people’s space
With obscenity and swearing.

So why name a bus for Larkin
And the foulness that he utters
To promote him is to celebrate
The language of the gutters.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Revelation Occurs (See Last Post). I Believe in Fernando Torres (See Last Post)

What Do I Believe In? Nothing. I Am a Hollow Soul

Grimacing panjandrum-in-waiting of the House of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha Charlie Windsor has delivered himself of a piece of diverting New Age hokum, I see, called Revolution, of all things. I’ve always had a soft spot for New Age guru types and prophets of new world orders, especially when they give us the chance to eat biscuits by royal appointment and generally rampage through the back catalogue of religions that don’t involve Jesus, and whose practitioners tend to be found slumming it in far-Eastern absolutist monarchies (‘the magical mountain kingdom of Bhutan’, as Terry Eagleton notes) or Wellness Centres in the Cotswolds or the Lake District (I like a good caffeine enema as much as the next man, I’m sure). (Since I mention Eagleton’s review, I can’t very well pass over his final zinger on ‘Bertolt Brecht’s parable about the troubled king of the east who summoned his wise men and commanded them to inquire into the source of all the miseries in the world. The wise men duly investigated, and returned to the king with the answer that the source of the miseries was him.’) But much as they add to the gaiety of nations (and there’s a lot of it about, to judge from the spirituality sections that infest bookshops these days with the rapacity of that patch of mould that’s been infesting my kitchen window), Chuck Windsor’s screeds nevertheless have the useful effect on me of making me wonder what if anything I believe in. Nothing, I suppose, is the answer: sorry, but nothing. I am a hollow soul. How do I feel about this?

I was having a discussion in a seminar the other day about Larkin and ‘Coleslaw’ Miłosz’s objections to him, as partially repeated by Seamus Heaney in his great Yeats v Larkin bake-off, ‘Joy or Night’. Larkin does not share the Pole’s zealous Catholic faith. Fine. But his spiritual hollowness is too great an affront, transports the bushy-eyebrowed Miłosz too far beyond the realms of agreeing to disagree: Larkin is worthless, vile. It’s an interesting one-way street, and not necessarily a defining condition of the conservative religious mind. Some of my favourite (‘some of my best friends...’ moments coming up, I feel...) modern artists are, by any definition, religious fundamentalist types: Messiaen, Rouault, Reverdy. But despite the hierarchical and authoritarian nature of their church, I find each of those three examples humble, ingenuous, open, whereas I find the personality I am describing, the religious nostalgist attempting to bludgeon this empty world of ours, this world of nectar points, free DVDs of The Midsomer Murders in Sunday newspapers, and Bill Oddie not being on Autumnwatch anymore, bludgeon it, I say, into submission with protestations of the supremacy of the spirit: I find them, I say, narcissistic, deluded and closed. Also reviewing HRH’s book in The Observer, Rowan Moore notes how ‘he treats his views (...) as personal revelations’, which sums it up for me. They are not revelations. They are the entirely banal and tedious second-hand insights of a second-rate brain. And this is where I can return to and now stand over my self-diagnosis as a hollow soul. Art is not about revelation. On the contrary, it’s about learning to see in the dark. ‘This imminence of a revelation that does not take place’, Borges suggested, ‘is perhaps the aesthetic experience’. The great temptation, Adorno said in a quotation I can’t find now, is to make the spirit explicit. Or as he said in Hegelian mode in a quotation I can find, from Minima Moralia:

The shift to existence, always ‘positive’ and justifying the world, implies at the same time the thesis of the positivity of mind, pinning it down, transposing the absolute into appearance. Whether the whole objective world, as ‘product’, is to be spirit, or a particular thing a particular spirit, ceases to matter, and the world-spirit becomes the supreme Spirit, the guardian angel of the established, despiritualised order (...). In passing off determinate being as mind, or spirit, [occultists] put objectified mind to the test of existence, which must prove negative. No spirit exists.

{Quotation ends}

And that’s my life then, the collected mauvais quarts d’heure of a randomly agglomerated bake of chemical scum. Send me a consolation packet of biscuits if you must, HRH, but given a straight choice between your spiritual vision being true and lingering in the vestibule of the unenlightened, I choose darkness. Or as Beckett’s Krapp put it: ‘clear to me at last that the dark I have always struggled to keep under is in reality my most – ’, except of course he can’t bring himself to say it. Much more of this kind of thing from me, though, and I’ll have to write some manner of... spiritual manifesto perhaps? I trust so.

The revelation will not be taking place.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Oliver Reynolds

When Ian Gregson and Carol Rumens edited their anthology of Hull poetry, Old City New Rumours, a while back, one poet with Hull connections who didn’t find his way into its pages was Oliver Reynolds (who took a drama degree there). But he’s someone who has tended to go missing on all manner of fronts in the last decades. It’s a pleasure, then, to see him break cover with a new collection, Hodge, which I review here. Small repetition of the word ‘again’ from sentence four to sentence five owing to interpolated sentence (i.e. not by me). Unfortunately too, a sentence about his poem ‘This poem has won no prizes’ has lost its second half: the poem ‘takes a laudable stand against prize culture, and one I would happily neutralize by awarding a prize, if I could.’ If anyone cares about these things (poetry prizes or missing half-sentences: take your pick).

A tin of sardines would be a more useful gift to the Johnsonian kitteh pictured above, surely.

Monday, October 25, 2010

And the Answer Is?!

In the US, where Tóibín will return for another semester after Christmas, he says ‘there’s a great rule, that if you’re invited to someone’s home you must be standing up leaving by 9.40.’ A couple of times he and novelist Jeffrey Eugenides, a colleague at Princeton, broke this rule and on one occasion a dinner ended in a row. He and Eugenides were on one side, defending their craft, while the art historians on the other side of the argument made the case for the avant-garde. ‘How dare you even mention Samuel Beckett’ was the gist of their attack, ‘when you’re pumping out old-fashioned social realist novels that middle-class consumers want to buy.’

(Guardian Review, 23 October)

Sunday, October 24, 2010


It is amusing to try to find the least interesting subject Larkin thought worth setting down in a letter to Monica. For my money, the prize goes to a 1959 letter, which begins:

I have four rolls of pink toilet paper on my low table, more or less at my elbow, but their only significance is that I’ve been too lazy to put them away. Pink is a new departure for me – only just discovered Bronco (why Bronco? Talking Bronco) makes it.

(Philip Hensher reviews Craig Brown, sorry Philip Larkin’s letter to Monica Jones in The Spectator; though by the way, Philip Hensher, it was Larkin’s secretary, not Monica Jones, who destroyed his diaries).

Hull Pubs (Cont.)

An update. Sean O’Brien has been in touch and shared yet more old Hull pub names, such as the (now-departed) Golden Ball on Air Street, on the confluence between Wincolmlee and Bankside, in my single favourite part of Hull. A quick Google search turns up not just these fine pictures of it but a fascinating accompanying article, detailing the sad deaths of a group of intoxicated whalebone-scrapers, of all things.

Someone commission me to do it and I will happily write a history of the Hull boozer. Someone buy me enough drinks and I’ll do it for nothing. Wonderful stuff.

I Am Only Now Catching Up With the Bunny Suicides Phenomenon

The Alexandra Hotel

Finding myself in the area yesterday, I dropped in on Hull’s only Jewish-themed pub (those stars of David on the façade), the Alexandra Hotel on Ropery Street off Hessle Road. A quick look on flickr suggests claims the building is a former synagogue are mistaken, but that the surrounding area was formerly a Jewish enclave and that there is still (?) a Jewish home for the elderly nearby. There is also a small Jewish cemetery just behind the pub, and inside it, I’m pleased to report, a raucous African grey parrot called Sparky, who once told Archbishop Sentamu to eff off¸ or so I’m told. He’d turned up for the annual fishermen’s commemoration, in case you’re wondering. The pub’s wood panelling is superb, as is the sight of an old piano on a small raised stage. The opening hours are advertised as 6 a.m. to 3 a.m. and you can stay overnight (those tricky three hours...) for fifteen quid. There is not very much else to do in the area, let me be the first to admit, though I was pleased the neighbouring Inkerman Inn is currently open too, after an intermission in the realms of the closed.

Still on Hull pub lore, I was discussing just that subject with Sean O’Brien the other week when he stumped me by mentioning a pub called the Marrowbone and Cleaver. I can now report that this is the present-day and spooneristically renamed Barrowman on Hotham Road.

One thing I’ve noticed with pubs like the Alexandra Hotel is how many of them stock Chestnut’s Dark Mild, which you never get in pubs on Newland or Prince’s Avenue, despite the wide range of beers most Hull pubs stock. Goes down very pleasantly too. But young people won’t drink mild. So what will happen to these historic pubs when their few old drinkers all die off? There was a depressing feature in yesterday’s Guardian on the South Bank area of Middlesbrough, where multi-generational unemployment is rife and the recession is picking off whole streets, canned-up house by house, and what was once a working-class culture falls through the trapdoor into sub-Shameless destitution. It is an appalling sight to behold, and there is plenty of it round here too, and what am I suggesting we do about it? Drink pints of mild in quirkly old historical pubs, that’s what. Well, it’s a start.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Follow Me Up to Carlow!

Follow you up to Carlow? I rarely wake up thinking I will have wasted the day unless I visit Ireland’s bonzai county, but when Fiach McHugh O’Byrne tells you to do something it’s probably as well to listen. Oh, and that new O’Hara’s stout (from Carlow) ain’t bad, I must say. Finding myself in Ireland last week and in need of a good hangover cure, I took myself south through Wicklow to Glenmalure and the mythopoeic mountain of Ballinacor. Though to all appearances an unremarkable protuberance on the Greenan to Aughavannagh road, Ballinacor was the site of Fiach McHugh O’Byrne/Fiach mac Aodh Ó Broin’s mountain rath or fortress, Gabhal Raghnaill, from which he ruled over much of Wicklow in what was by then (the late sixteenth century) the last surviving Gaelic kingdom in Ireland, and one whose close proximity to Dublin and the Pale made his elimination all the more pressing in the eyes of the crown. He supported Rory Og O’More’s rebellion in 1577 and survived retaliatory raids on his territory after the murder of Sir Nicholas White’s son-in-law. He pledged allegiance to the crown in 1579, but continued in his cattle-raiding ways, and the following year engaged Baron Grey de Wilton and his 6,000 troops in the Battle of Glenmalure. The mountainous terrain and tactical naïveté of the English led to heavy losses on their side (up to 3,000 soldiers), as commemorated in ‘Follow Me Up To Carlow’, that goriest of Irish rebel songs:

Lift, MacCahir Óg, your face. You’re brooding o’er the old disgrace
That black FitzWilliam stormed your place and drove you to the Ferns
Grey said victory was sure and soon the firebrand he’d secure
Until he met at Glenmalure with Fiach MacHugh O’Byrne.

Curse and swear Lord Kildare
Fiach will do what Fiach will dare
Now FitzWilliam, have a care
Fallen is your star low
Up with halberd out with sword
On we’ll go for by the lord
Fiach MacHugh has given the word,
Follow me up to Carlow!

See the swords of Glen Imaal; they’re flashing o’er the English Pale
See all the children of the Gael, beneath O’Byrne’s banner
Rooster of the fighting stock, would you let a Saxon cock
Crow out upon an Irish rock - fly up and teach him manners.


From Tassagart to Clonmore, there flows a stream of Saxon gore
But great is Rory Óg O’More at sending loons to Hades.
White is sick and Lane is fled and now for black FitzWilliam’s head
We’ll send it over, dripping red, to Liza and her ladies.


Even after his triumph, Hugh remained a beleaguered figure. He assisted Red Hugh O’Donnell after his escape from Dublin Castle and flight across the mountains to Glenmalure. Coincidentally, since O’Donnell was one of the Gaelic lords who would end up in continental exile after the Flight of the Earls in 1607, it is worth noting that the court bard of another flighty earl, Cuchonnacht Maguire (Cú Chonnacht Mac Uidhir), Eochaidh Ó hEodhasa, spent some time at Gabhal Raghnaill. Hugh was forced to sue for peace on his knees in 1596, but various local skirmishes later was tracked down and killed in 1597. His staked body was displayed outside Dublin Castle and his pickled head brought to London for the queen’s inspection, before ending up in the fork of a tree in Enfield Chase, where I trust he is still remembered fondly.

The Leabhar Branach is the bardic praise book of the O’Byrne clan, containing many poems in praise of Hugh. It was edited by Seán Mac Airt for the Dublin Institute of Advanced Studied in 1944 and, let me assume, won’t be getting reprinted any time soon. Some of those mildewed old editions do and some don’t have facing translations. This is one that doesn’t, a fact that has ever so slightly hampered my ability to read all 200 melodious staves of the average ode extolling Hugh’s ability to put the Saxon infidel to the sword. I was all primed to buy a copy in Hodges Figgis on this last visit of mine, only to find it not there anymore, a purchase that must have caused some surprise and even shock to the sales assistant who finally got the thing off their hands. The next time, maybe.

The territory is also sacred to mysterious Irish-language poet Biddy Jenkinson, let me also mention, a writer whose work I study with much respect and varying degrees of basic comprehension.

Coming down the valley I was charmed to come across M. J. Byrne’s pub in Greenan, which I understand has been run by a pair of brothers for many decades now, its décor unchanged since 1921. It was not open for business as I passed, though I did encounter a pair of local halfwits preparing to drown some unwitting collie dog puppies in a bucket (see photograph).

Fiach Mac Aodh abú!

Monday, October 11, 2010

This Is Way More Fun Than What You Are Doing (Well, What I Am Doing) Now Even If Nothing Is Happening Which Will Be Most Of The Time

They are one of only two species of oviparous monotreme in the world, they secrete poison from spurs in their ankles, they locate their prey in the water through a system of electrolocation, they close their eyes, ears and nostrils when they swim, they have ten sex chromosomes compared with two in most mammals, they are so awkward and ornery that having bred once in captivity in 1943 they refused to do so again until 1998 – and you can watch one live, here!

Hungarian Toxic Sludge Stages Coup, Outlines Vision of Inclusive, Toxic Sludge-Based (and -Covered) Society

Sunday, October 10, 2010

In Defence of John Dryden

It can only be a matter of time, but when I finally bow to the gravitational pull that comes over me in the newsagent every Sunday morning and transfer my loyalties from the Observer to the News of the World, one thing at least that won’t leap off the pages at me, in among the updates on Katie Price’s humongous knockers and Wayne Rooney’s continuing war with evolution, is a piece of gratuitous abuse heaped on someone who is only, for God’s sake, the best translator in the canon of English poetry and one of the two or three best political poets in the language.

‘Only a sadist would inflict Dryden on our schoolchildren’, screams the headline. It seems pouting Toryboy Michael Gove, MP for Dotheboys Hall, has been calling for the reintroduction of Dryden in schools (despite the fact that he still is on the syllabus, but that’s beside the point). ‘Where in the last half century have Dryden and Pope been routinely imposed on children? Even in the corporal punishment years, such abuse was rare’, screams Catherine Bennett. Em, in my school? Which wasn’t even in this sceptred isle, site of my current Babylonian captivity, but knew a good Papish rhymer when it saw one. I studied Absalom and Achitophel and MacFlecknoe, and the Rape of the Lock too (not the Rape of the Loch as Bennett chortlesomely calls it, though please, tell me more...) with something like enjoyment; and though Pres Bray may not have been the best of blahdy good public schools, such as Dryden readers should ideally be attending, my fellow minor baronets’ sons didn’t seem to mind the force-feeding of the ‘Augustan even other Augustans couldn’t stand’ down our pre-pubescent necks, as I was reminiscing to Lord Digby-O’Trumpington just the other day. Or not noticeably more than they minded the force-feeding of Thomas Kinsella’s ‘Another September’ or a spot of John Donne. At least it wasn’t Benjamin Zephaniah, we told ourselves as Brother Bosco gave us another six of the best. And that was just the boys he didn’t fancy.

A couple of points though: just as the school master who told Tony Harrison to stop garbling Keats with his horrible non-RP accent was somewhat misinformed about Keats’s own social class, Bennett too has allowed herself to be sadly sucker-punched by the political colours of Dryden’s latest fan. For (duh) Dryden makes a very poor example of a writer who saw ‘in the monarchy a source of benign, and necessary, authority, unpolluted by ambition and above the petty politicking of parliaments’, or Michael Gove’s idea of the monarchy at any rate. Dryden was a supporter of the House of Stuart. He refused to take the oath of allegiance in 1688, an action that lost him the laureateship. Absalom and Achitophel is saturated in the feverish atmosphere of the Monmouth Rebellion, the Popish Plot, and the Exclusion Crisis, this last hinging on the exclusion of Catholics from public life. Dryden was a convert. Pope was a Catholic. Read your English history, Catherine Bennett (and you too, Michael Gove). Do not tell me Dryden and Pope are pillars of the establishment you love or love to hate.

Still, Dryden knew a good dullard when he saw one:

Sh-- alone my own true image bears
Mature in dullness from his tend’rest years
Sh-- alone of all my sons is he
Who stands confirm’d in full stupidity
The others to some meaning make pretense
But Sh-- never deviates into sense.
Besides, his goodly fabric fills the eye
As though foredoomed to thoughtless majesty.

But wait, we’re not done yet! Because why, I want to know, is a newspaper that achieved a certain standing for its interest in poetry in, I believe, the 1960s, publishing not just one but two articles on the same day insulting that art in ways the News of the World never manages (Who’s For a Phwoarward Prize?! Top Bard’s Terza Rima’n’ Hookers Shame: if only)? For just a few pages further on we find Robert McCrum salivating over a rejected poem by Ted Hughes that has had the misfortune to tumble out from behind the sofa and into print and whose subject is (oh God no) the suicide of Hughes’s first wife. You’re still a bit too caught up in the subject matter, you can hear yourself counselling the teenager who brought something like this along to a creative writing workshop. The poem’s failure comes down to its knowledge of this fact but simultaneous determination not to retreat from it either. It doesn’t work. But then neither does most of Birthday Letters, a piece of inveterate mythologizing which still finds time to attack the feminist harpies who turned the flesh and blood Plath into a... what is the word... myth. Hughes was a flawed genius one of whose tragedies is to have recruited fans who mistake for his best work poems that are in fact among his worst. Step forward Robert McCrum:

The question that feminist critics have endlessly debated is: was she so obsessed with her dead father that her suicide was almost predetermined, or did Hughes’s behaviour, particularly his decision to leave her for another woman after six years of marriage, push her over the edge?

I don’t know about Robert McCrum’s seminars, but in mine we apply not just feminist but but structuralist and Marxist readings too, which helped us to decide just the other week that it was the signifier-signified split or, no wait, the execution of the Rosenbergs that ‘pushed her over the edge’, or whatever you’re having yourself to keep you from mentioning a single poem Plath ever wrote, over the course of an entire page in a broadsheet newspaper. This is a sad shambles of a soap opera for readers of a paper that should know better. No poetry coverage at all would be better than idiocies of this wattage. Now, where’s my News of the World.

Friday, October 01, 2010

A full lecherous beast in youth, swift, pliant, and merry

I found the image I used the other day of those medieval cats (one affectingly shedding a tear at the impediment to his throat-ripping ways represented by the bars of a birdcage) on Google, but have no idea which manuscript it derives from. Does anyone know? As I trawled around in search of answer, I did, however, come across the following most excellent description of cats in Bartholomaeus Anglicus’s thirteenth-century De Proprietatibus Rerum. Did Christopher Smart read this, I wonder? Our scribe writes:

He is a full lecherous beast in youth, swift, pliant, and merry, and leapeth and reseth on everything that is to fore him: and is led by a straw, and playeth therewith: and is a right heavy beast in age and full sleepy, and lieth slyly in wait for mice: and is aware where they be more by smell than by sight, and hunteth and reseth on them in privy places: and when he taketh a mouse, he playeth therewith, and eateth him after the play. In time of love is hard fighting for wives, and one scratcheth and rendeth the other grievously with biting and with claws. And he maketh a ruthful noise and ghastful, when one proffereth to fight with another: and unneth is hurt when he is thrown down off an high place. And when he hath a fair skin, he is as it were proud thereof, and goeth fast about: and when his skin is burnt, then he bideth at home; and is oft for his fair skin taken of the skinner, and slain and flayed.

To Whom It May Concern

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Penguin Book of Irish Poetry

Across the sea will come Adze-head,
crazed in the head,
his cloak with hole for the head,
his stick bent in the head...

Here’s a song –
stags give tongue
winter snows
summers goes.

High cold blow
sun is low
brief his day
seas give spray...

Had the multitudinous leaves been gold
the autumn forests let fall,
and the waves been silver coins –
still Fionn would have given them all.

Stop, stop and listen for the bough top
Is whistling and the sun is brighter
Than God’s own shadow in the cup now!
Forget the hour-bell. Mournful matins
Will sounds, Patrick, as well at nightfall...

Monk, back off. Move
away from Niall’s grave.
You heap earth on his head;
I shared his bed.

Long time you’ve piled clods,
monk, on the royal corpse.
Too long already Niall’s lain still,
the pit unfilled...

{Quotations end}

Two quick observations from dipping into Patrick Crotty’s new Penguin Book of Irish Poetry. First, by far the greatest Irish poet remains ‘Anonymous’. And second, the single most important thing about the Irish tradition, let me suggest, and which the practicalities of book-binding alone didn’t stretch to including in this book beyond a few phrases here and there, remains the Irish language, a language in which less than, what, one per cent of contemporary Irish poetry is now conducted. What timely reminders, though, to set beside the PR bollocks of Dublin being designated a UNESCO city of literature or whatever it is the press release today says.

I would hope to have more to say on this book soon.

Learning from Scientology

Scientology is, as everyone knows, a wacko blood-sucking cult, and knowing it full well myself from my rural Scientologist upbringing in Co. Wicklow I didn’t expect to learn anything much of note in John Sweeney’s return-to-the-scene-of-the-crime second stab at a documentary on it last night. One thing stood out, however. It is hilarious and pathetic that you or I can find out more about the teachings of Scientology in five minutes on Google than the deluded saps who give decades of their lives, and shedloads of money, to this wacko cult. The teachings involving, as they do, one ‘Xenu’, dictator of the galactic confederacy, billions of trapped alien souls, something to do with volcanoes and... sorry you’ve lost me. For Scientologists, however, access to this information is heavily defended. Stumbling across it prematurely, we are told, would lead to knowledge overload and brain collapse. So when trying to get out in the open just how wacko Scientologists really are (and since I was talking about South Park in my last post, you’ll remember the brilliant skewering they gave Scientology a few years back), Sweeney asked various celebrity Scientologists about Xenu. They denied it, giggled, professed not to know what he was talking about, and I thought – how marvellous. If only other religions could follows suit. You accost a Christian and ask him about Christ dying for our sins and rising from the dead and he squints at you, and asks what kind of weirdo you are. I mean who’d sign up a religion that believed in that? As a further twist on this, I remember a news story from a few years back about a beauty queen in Lebanon, I believe, who was coming under pressure from disapproving members of her Druze community. The Druze do not hold with exogamy, and very much prefer to keep themselves to themselves. They do not like sharing the tenets of their religion with outsiders. But, best of all, they don’t like sharing them with themselves either. Many devout Druze do not know what it is they believe in. But do so in a spirit of total reverence. Respect!

South Park, Genius Of (Fuck You, Dorphin! Fuck You, Whare!)

How scandalous that Comedy Central have only now got around to releasing series 13 of South Park on DVD, for those of us who don’t have Blu-Ray (or even know what Blu-Ray is). But what a marvellous reminder the episode ‘Whale Whores’ is of the genius, frankly, of this wonderful show. Stan is at an aquarium in Denver swimming with dolphins when a group of angry Japanese arrives, screaming ‘Fuck you, dorphin!’, and harpoon the poor creatures to death. The Japanese embark on a nationwide killing spree, taking in the Miami Dolphins football team while they’re at it, much to Stan’s horror. He gets involved with the reality show Whale Wars, but is unimpressed by their repeated wimping out from any real confrontation with the Japanese. Many ridiculous plot twists later he finds himself asking Emperor Akihito of Japan why it is the Japanese hate whales and dolphins so much. The answer goes back to the bombing of Hiroshima, which the Japanese believe (courtesy of a photograph the Americans were good enough to provide the morning after) that the attack was carried out by dolphins and whales. Stan is about to break the news to the Emperor that the attack was in fact launched by... when he is reminded that the Emperor has pledged to track down and kill everyone responsible. So he gets on the phone to Kyle, who photoshops a picture of the real culprits... a cow and a chicken. The episode ends with the Japanese leaving dolphins and whales in peace and launching a wholesale slaughter of cows and chickens instead. Randy congratulates Stan for making the Japanese ‘normal, like us’.

Tom Sutcliffe wrote in The Independent recently about this selfsame issue. Why don’t the Japanese understand how repellent we find whaling? He invited readers to imagine an Indian group coming to Britain to launch a campaign against the appalling scandal of the killing and eating of cows. What would people think of that? Roughly what the Japanese think of killing whales, I assume. My atrocity, your normality.

There is of course only one solution to this little moral dilemma, and one which South Park respects you, the viewer, way too much to need to spell out. But what a great show.

Friday, September 24, 2010

John Kinsella, 'Graphology 300: Against “Nature Writing”'

I post below, with John Kinsella’s permission, his text ‘Graphology 300: Against “Nature Writing”’, as a way of putting his side of our discussion more clearly on record. Netiquette note: I feel JK shouldn’t have to field questions or comments here, so if anyone did feel like commenting I would suggest getting in touch with him rather than me.

Nature writing equals the new racketeering.
Nature writers make good use of plane travel and restaurants serving up nature.
Nature writing equals recognition as gratification.
Nature writers wear tough boots and mark their trail out hiking. They
need to get back. They drive cars.
Nature writing equals the house in good order for the property owner.
The sub-textual paths past the native garden beds are called ecology.
Nature writers grow at least a little of their own food. Or would if
they could.
Nature writing equals the woods sans Macbeth. Possibly sans witches.
Nature writers get as close as they can to the birds, soaking up their
Nature writing equals a separation in order to get closer — almost
everyone can do it, if they see the light.
Nature writers are those who make the choice to step out of their front doors and breathe in the fresh air, or declare that it’s time to move to where it’s fresher.
Nature writing equals — not — pastoral and needs no bucolics to play out the hierarchies — it lives outside the narrative. It favours local
picnics — best if the animals don’t even know one’s there.
Nature writers who are academics get paid for the conscience —
administratively, at least, it’s called eco-criticism.
Nature writing equals the recognition that poisoned flesh and cellulose
are not good to eat — support your local organic market.
Nature writers have, in the very least, a hidden spirituality.
Nature writing equals market-place economies.
Nature writers know that economy and ecology share the same prefix and have thought long and hard about this.
Nature writing equals quiet time following field excursions to get it
down — preferably, a hut in the forest, a writing retreat. The keeping
of like-minded company, occasionally hearing the birds tweet. Seeing a kangaroo, bear, or antelope, a double treat.
Nature writers get angry with consumerism — don’t giggle.
Nature writing equals space for tokenism but makes good use of natural colouring to bury it.
Nature writers know that via the Indo-European, gwei is to live, with
metathesized variant striking a colourant, an accord with the weather
outside their window, concordance with weather within: birds quiet
without, a blowfly annoying within. Quick, vivid, vitamin, whiskey,
amphibious, microbe, and hygiene all derive from this living, this
high-life we all live, though most are more interested in the suffixed
zero-grade form *gwi-o-. bio-, biota, biotic; aerobe, amphibian,
anabiosis, cenobite, dendrobium, microbe, rhizobium, saprobe, symbiosis, from Greek bios, life (> biot, way of life), according to American Heritage, or Variant form *gwy- (< *gwyo-). 1. azo-; diazo, hylozoism, from Greek zo, life. 2. Suffixed form *gwy-yo-. zodiac, –zoic, zoo-, zoon1, –zoon, from Greek zon, zion, living being, animal; ultimately, though, they prefer nature to say bios or gwei for it declares nation, heritage, identity, it declares a place for the righteous, the knowing, the in touch, the separate. They don’t wish to be part of any club you’re a member of.
Nature writing equals overlays and underlays, carpets the best rooms in pile soothing to the feet. It shows real pleasure is in the walking.
Nature writers know as much proper-naming as they have time to accumulate.
Nature writing equals not being read by those land-clearing, or the
Nature writers want to look wherever something has been set aside.
Nature writing equals targeting cats, not people.
Nature writers can be hunters or animal-rights activists.
Nature writing equals landmarking and wishing on a bird during war.
Nature writers become more animal by eating animals.
Nature writing equals the separation of the grotesque from the healing.
Nature writers are inspired, searching for intactness, and patient. They have time up their sleeves.
Nature writing equals the vicarious, equals verisimilitude, equals
carving out a niche in the schema, in the pleasant picture.
Nature writers aren’t saving Mount Bakewell, don’t take on farmers with shotguns, will make do at a pinch with non-organic produce, are a bunch of fucking hypocrites.
Nature writing is a departmental party trick.

'Get a Real Degree'

Long essay by Elif Batuman on creative writing in the current LRB. I teach a little creative writing, occasionally, but still enough to recognise the truth of much of what she says, even if her focus is chiefly on the States. Among her more salient charges: the kind of writer produced by MFA programmes gives the appearance of having been ‘tragically and systematically deprived of access to the masterpieces of Western literature, or any other sustained literary tradition’; programmes are conducted in ‘a knowledge vacuum’; their culture of worthiness and identity politics replaces the ‘books I would want to read [with] rich, multifaceted explorations whose “amazing audacity” I’m supposed to admire in order not to be some kind of jerk’; they struggle with the inherently ‘elitist and impractical’ nature of literary writing, which ‘doesn’t directly cure disease, combat injustice, or make enough money, usually, to support philanthropic aims’ and appears ‘narcissistic and wasteful’; its identity politics are all-too-close to those of the comic website Stuff White People Like (Being an Expert on YOUR Culture, Being the Only White Person Around, Religions Their Parents Don’t Belong To – you get the idea); they fetishize creativity in an a-historical, post-Romantic way (to Dr Johnson God created and writers produced); they prize good at the expense of great writing (the good is the enemy of the great). She ends:

Not knowing something is one way to be independent of it – but knowing lots of things is a better way and makes you more independent. It’s exciting and important to reject the great books, but it’s equally exciting and important to be in a conversation with them. One isn’t stating conclusively that Father Knows Best, but who knows whether Father might not have learned a few useful things on the road of life, if only by accident? When ‘great literature’ is replaced by ‘excellent fiction’, that’s the real betrayal of higher education.

{Quotation ends}

Some random questions that occur to me from my own experience of teaching the subject:

How much literature (a teacher of creative writing might ask him or herself) do I teach? A lot/some/none? Is that my job? If not why not?

How comparatively interesting do I find canonical literature and creative writing?

How many books on my reading list are non-contemporary? How many are pre-1900?

Is the reading list for my short story/poetry/whatever module comprehensive/patchy/totally random?

How many students on this creative writing module about the short story/poetry/whatever could write an essay on the short story/poetry/whatever for the ‘straight’ academic module on that subject? How many would want to? How much of a problem is it if the answer to both these questions is ‘few’?

I wonder. What is the best defence or justification of creative writing teaching (if there is one)?