20 May 2016

Poet in da corner

Debris

The remarkable Debris Stevenson is going to be performing her poetry/grime hybrid remix of Dizee Rascal's first album at the Roundhouse at the end of the month.

It should be amazing. If you need convincing, or you simply can't make it, you can listen to the first track here.

17 March 2016

Rhubarb & Custard




The Best New British and Irish Poets 2016 is going to be launched at the Camden Eye Pub  Kentish Town on Sunday, March 20, at 3PM. Hear readings from the anthology’s contributors, mix and mingle with other readers and writers, meet the Eyewear editors, and get your hands on a copy of this beautiful new anthology.

If you can't make the launch, you can buy a copy of the anthology here.

07 March 2016

Excerpts from my diary

Leaves, gelatine print

This post is an excuse to link to Holly Corfield Carr's review of her year, and to say that the best thing about being in the Eyewear anthology of The Best New British and Irish Poets 2016, is the fact that Holly and Debris Stevenson are in there too, making it (in Holly's words) a hat-trick of the Jerwood / Arvon 2014/15 poets.

I realise that's rather thin content for a post, so here are some entries, often decades old, from my diary.


I was in Boots. There was a middle-aged couple standing in front of the deodorant display. The woman spoke in a soft Lancashire accent: "Why don't you try something new?" The man shook his head: "I don't think so."


Reading the prayer cards in a Devon church. So serious and heartfelt: bereavements, illnesses, broken families. Then:

“Please pray for Colin alone in Armenia with a party of women.”


I remember my Aunt Alice as an old woman, formidable as a battleship. When she was younger, her family were eating dinner in the dining room when a bomb hidden in a cupboard by Mr Raybould the local chemist exploded. Obviously he wasn't a very good chemist as no one was killed. 

06 January 2016

Freya's Seat



Freya's Seat




Freya's Tree

I would like a tree, an old English species like an oak. I would love it to be in a public space if that can be managed, somewhere beautiful.  Freya Dudley









14 December 2015

It’s a wonder that you still know how to breathe




So now you can get a wifi enabled infant formula machine.

I can't help thinking that the people who missed out on learning from their own parents and might actually need this wont be able to afford it, and the people who can afford it are going to be subtly infantilised by the loss of responsibility. 

Even if that doesn't happen, you have to wonder at a linked collection of baby clothes promoting the machine with slogans like "Today I found my voice. Future Opera Singer" or "Today I discovered my hands. Future Surgeon." That sort of thing panders to the worst instincts of competitive parenting, one of the most joyless sports still outside of the Olympics.  

01 December 2015

Does no one remember or forget anything anymore?

Image from the BBC

The socialisation of the internet makes a virtue of openness, and encourages people to architect their lives like the Pompidou centre, turning everything inside out, with the amenities in plain sight, from your relationship status, to every place you visit, and the selfie you take in the branded booth as you queue to buy the caramel and cheese popcorn mix in Garrett’s off Michigan Avenue.

Humans are the canonical social and communicative animals. The phenomenal growth in networks, phones and tablets is evidence that communication isn’t a hard wired desire, it’s an existential necessity. Hermits, anchorites and the members of silent orders engender strong, conflicting emotions of fascination, revulsion, ridicule and awe, precisely because they are and are not human. 

Despite the need to share, living online without filters, boundaries or privacy feels perilously close to self harm: in a way it is the exact opposite of the life of the hermit, and just as disturbing. Most people have a sense of self preservation that stops them long before they get that far, and a lot of oversharing simply comes from people not understanding the mechanics of the on line world, and how to set boundaries the way they do in reality.

I grew up in a pre-internet world. I have failed, embarrassed myself, said and done stupid things more times than I want to count. I have seen people flayed on the web for idiocies that could have come out of my own mouth when I was younger. Fortunately everything I did is memorialised and accessible only through the unreliable, permanently degrading, and eventually obsolete, memories of my friends. 

I was also lucky not to have the burden of curating my own life, and the multiple personalities that would entail: the official face for school, university and employers, another for my friends, another...

Of course the others you're sharing with are not just your friends and family but the large corporations who are hosting your LAN party, and paying for the farms of servers managing your email, photos and status updates.

There used to be a generational difference in the willingness to share information online, with the young being least concerned with their privacy. There’s good evidence from the US that’s changing. The recent breaches of the internet security of household names like Sony, and Edward Snowden’s revelations about the behaviour of the NSA, have closed the generation gap. Most people take a pragmatic approach to privacy these days: they are willing trade information, but only if the service is worth it, and the compromise in privacy is clearly laid out and acceptable to them.

The most recent step in the dance between individuals and corporations is audio beaconing: embedding sounds undetectable to the human ear in advertisements. This is a dog whistle echo of the subliminal advertising Vance Packard described in his 1950s book The Hidden Persuaders. This time, instead of talking to you, advertisers are talking to the devices you rely on - your phone and tablet. Apple and Google do a good job of locking down permissions, but if the microphone on your device happens to be open, it will know from the audio beacon what commercial you just saw on TV and is potentially able to connect that with what you do online, for example searching for the product just advertised.


If you want to know more you can find it here.

02 November 2015

Special training in Samurai sword fighting


Tsuba from the Ashmolean collection. Photo by Samourais et Ikebana


Greg Irvine makes the Guardian article on the reopening of the V&As Japanese gallery this week after a major renovation:
http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/nov/01/va-japanese-craftsmanship-gallery-reopening-conservators-museum.

The 700 year old blades certainly are  "murderously sharp" but I would imagine that the "special training in Samurai sword fighting" that the curators were given by Greg was along the lines of Careful with that axe Eugene rather than how to recreate the fight scenes from Zatoichi.

28 October 2015

A fight in a phone box



Reading the new OWC selection from Martial's epigrams suggests that not much has changed on the poetry scene in the last 2,000 years...

Book 1 #16
A slim volume -
some good, more average,
and a bunch of crap
is what you're reading:
it's that sort of book.

Book 3 #9
Cinna's writing broadsides against me -
they say. It's not writing if no one's reading. 


Try here for an introduction to Martial if you are interested in learning more: http://blog.oup.com/2015/10/oxford-worlds-classics-reading-group-season-4-martials-epigrams/.

[Translation of Martial by Gideon Nisbet used as a crib, but all words my own.]


20 September 2015

I'm in the library



The poetry wall is on the left, together with new accessions (Citizen, Cold Light, Riddley Walker...). The print to the right of the desk is Botticelli's drawing of Dante being lead through Paradise by Beatrice, and the cushion on the green chair is the head of Charles Darwin.



The literature wall is on the left with the racy stuff on the top shelf, under the watchful eye of Marie Stope's Planned Parenthood and Gloria Steinem's Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions.

01 September 2015

Dubcek's manic pixie dream girls

All That Jazz (1979)

I’m rereading Milan Kundera’s Unbearable Lightness of Being. It was published in English in 1984 and I can’t have read it any later than 1986. The book was presented as an urgent bulletin from behind the Iron Curtain, which felt permanent at the time, but remarkably only survived another 5 years. Although the ostensible subject of the book is Soviet rule in Czechoslovakia, especially the Prague Spring rebellion, by far the greatest weight of words is expended on the sexual, and occasionally romantic, relationships between men and women.

Even in the 80s the male characters struck me as having a debatable attitude towards women, and re-reading I found the book pretty much as I remembered it. I suppose the fact that it made such a lasting impression on me is at the very least a backhanded compliment.

The cornerstone of the book is the relationship between Tereza, a 20 year old waitress, and Tomas a surgeon in his early 40s. The book unfolds through a litany of categorial assertions about life that just beg you to disagree with them, and can get deeply infuriating at times. Tomas is not one of those middle-aged men who use young flesh to stave off their sense of impending death, but a deep and tortured thinker, an existentialist, the Ulysses of the bedroom.

He is naturally unfaithful, running a large stable of mistresses, though the only one we learn about in any detail is Sabina, an artist who gets turned on by wearing a bowler hat, bra and pants next to her fully clothed lover. Tomas explains his womanising as an imperative to explore the idiosyncrasies that women only express during sex. He has little interest in the idiosyncrasies women only express outside of sex and is not going to be a source of many profound profound insights, though he may have a book of sexual technique in him.

Tereza is understandably deeply pissed, but incomprehensibly long suffering. At one point she is so distraught she considers sleeping with the chef who sexually harassed her as a young waitress, as a means of dealing with her pain.

The book pivots around a letter about the tragedy of Oedipus that Tomas publishes in a literary magazine that is obscure almost to the point of extinction. The unreasonably thorough censors decide that Tomas identified the regime with Oedipus, implying that it has made itself wilfully blind. Tomas becomes an unintended, and very obscure martyr. The incident reminds you of Paulin’s poem “Where Art is a Midwife” (The censors are on day-release. / They must learn about literature. // There are things called ironies, / Also symbols, which carry meaning. // The types of ambiguity / Are as numerous as the enemies / of the state).

Tomas’ descent begins. He loses his job as a surgeon, and is soon washing windows for a living, and fucking his female clients. Finally Tereza confronts him about his infidelity and Tomas realises that his only comfort comes from her love for him. They decide to move to the country to work on a collective farm, where the simple life keeps Tomas faithful, and they come to an understanding of what life is really about.

I realise that I have made the book sound dreadful and it is dreadful in some ways. But it reads like a dream, has great pace and energy, and is not lightweight. The story shifts backward and forward in time, and major plot points are revealed long before they happen. All of this is handled masterfully and the early revelations only serve to make events more poignant when they happen. As I said, I found the book pretty much as I read it 30 years ago - I don’t remember most books a fraction that well...

17 August 2015

O Tempora, O Mores

A Parthian Shot
Hunter S Thompson by Annie Leibowitz

In solid counter-culture fashion Hunter S Thompson’s book Hell’s Angels starts with an attack, not on the Angels, but on the the police and the press. Around 1965, for reasons that aren’t wholly clear, but in the case of the press can probably be traced to a desire to sell papers, and in the case of law enforcement to a need to be needed combined with a terror of being caught out by the next lurking menace, the press and the authorities began to spin horror stories about the Angels. At the time the Angels were only one of several motorcycle gangs in California and far from the largest; with a falling roll they were dying on their wheels. The stories concocted to make middle class flesh creep created a public panic out of all proportion to any actual danger, and gave the Angels the power of myth: in the end the cops and press made them far bigger than they would ever have been without all that attention.

It’s hard to disagree with the thesis, but the way HST chooses to illustrate it in the opening chapters of the book tells you that more than 50 years has passed since it was written. Initially two women who’d spent the day in a bar and the night on the beach with the Angels, alleged multiple rape and identified half a dozen of their attackers, who were arrested. The story was extensively and enthusiastically reported in the press, who spun it against the Angels for all they were worth. Subsequently the women withdrew their allegations and the police dropped all charges for lack of evidence, leaving the stories of gang rape washed up on the shore like spilled oil that never goes away. You’re invited to infer that a credulous police force colluded with two women with buyer’s remorse, to make a felony out of misdemeanour, while an irresponsible press had a field day.

The women were 14 and 15 years old.

Later on in the book HST is clear-eyed enough to describe a consensual gang bang as something which was not sexual but "stank of vengeance" and I don't think a charge of brute misogyny holds up - though the way he continually and casually uses the word rape throughout the book, unqualified and decontextualised, intending to be transgressive and edgy, pokes at a nerve, as he surely knew it would (but doesn’t seem clever anymore). He’s writing a thesis about the press and law enforcement, and the warping effect of a tampered discourse on public opinion; he’s not analysing misogyny. And, of course, he is like all of us, of his time: the cold fact is that the story could only unfold the way it did because the cops' determination that the 14 and 15 year old's behaviour was consensual, was sanctioned by society.

Despite overwhelming qualms about the framing, HST’s point is a valid one; the police’s overenthusiastic response to a hyped up menace only served to magnify it, and the popular press enthusiastically exploited the opportunity the Angels provided. That said, HST’s real beef is with the heavyweight press and TV stations who failed to question the stories they were fed, and took press releases from interested parties, political spin and uncorroborated anecdotes at face value; this, in turn, lead to an inevitable failure of political discourse. Someone (especially a self-proclaimed gonzo journalist), writing with such earnestness about the immoral willingness of the fourth estate to be spoon fed junk food, is a sad, almost pitiable, spectacle in the internet age.

Spike and Buffy Summers looking down on an army of Turok-Han inside the Hellmouth
Daily Mail readers view the mouth of Hell from a safe distance

I have no idea where to look for the serious press today. Having read The Times just before it set sail for the undying lands beyond the paywall, I doubt it is there. Even those papers-with-pretensions left in Middle Earth, like the Guardian and Independent, seem to publish ten times as much click bait as information, and the Daily Mail has reinvented itself as Buzzfeed for the middle-aged. There are no svelte athletes like the Sunday Times Insight team any more, just a gaggle of end-of-days Elvis impersonators solid with cholesterol and additives, days away from carking it on the toilet.

There is an obvious lineal descent from the breathless historic reports of "Hell’s Angels out of control" to current tabloid stories intended to make readers feel they are living on the edge of the hell mouth despite the counter evidence of their comfortable middle class lives. In '65 families with children, their curiosity piqued by the press, made their way to the resorts which were the endpoints of the Angels' Labour Day runs in the hope of seeing the world burn. HST heard parents being berated by their kids if it happened that the Angels didn’t turn up as promised.

If much has changed in the last 50 years, much remains and not for the better. In some passages HST reads like a modern day Cassandra with a Luger. “More and more often the police are finding themselves in conflict with whole blocks of the citizenry, none of them criminals […] this is particularly true in situations involving groups of negroes and teenagers."

"It may be that America is developing a whole new category of essentially social criminals […] persons who threaten the police and the traditional social structure, even when they are breaking no law, because they view the law with contempt and the police with distrust."

As HST acknowledges in the book, Hell’s Angels was written contemporaneously with the Watts race riots in LA caused by a police stop of an African American man for driving whilst intoxicated. The riots lasted from 11 to 17 August 1965 and 34 people died. Immediately after the riots, public opinion identified Communism as the likeliest root cause (which was not quite as insane then, with the Cold War at its height, as it would be today, but is still an impressive stretch by any standards).