Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Mr. Rushdie. I salute you.

 Joseph Anton

He was considered to be ‘ more danger than anyone except – perhaps – the Queen,’ villified not only by extremists but also by the British press who thought less of how intolerable it was for a foreign state to be freely allowed to menace  a British citizen with a death order, but rather more about budgets and expenses of the protection that became necessary to save Rushdie’s life.

There were those that didn’t consider a man’s life was worth the money.  No doubt there still are.   

After the penning of The Satanic Verses a first review in the paper ‘India Today’
containing a sensationalist headline and a number of inaccurate and misleading ‘quotes’ and the dominos started to fall.    In 1989 the author was telephoned by a BBC journalist and told of the death sentence -  the  issue of the ‘fatwa’ by Ayotollah Khomeini (who apparently never read the book).

Rushdie’s life closed down into constant surveillance and protection, trailing from borrowed property to borrowed property, suffering terrible fears for the safety of his family and yes, for his own safety.  You would, wouldn’t you? With a murderous team of jihadists after your blood.  It’s a situation which most people could not even begin to imagine.   A tunnel from which the author would not emerge for more than 10 years and from which not everyone could emerge.  It would be years before the threat level would be reduced enough to allow him to live at one address again; even   then it had to be a property large and secluded enough to satisfy police teams, as well as suitably adapted for security.  More of a jail than a home.

There are some jolly fellows in this book.  Good old politicians, concerned only with expediency.  Good old Press, those defenders of …  what ?  Myopically short-sighted, complaining newspapers whingeing about protection costs forgot, or chose not to remember, what was at stake.

The Japanese translator of The Satanic Verses was murdered; there were savage attacks on the Italian and Norwegian translators of the book although the latter two thankfully survived. These were people who preferred to stand up with courage for their beliefs;  people who understood that if anything out there has to be worth fighting for, it lies beyond money and expediency.   

This was a fight for a life lived away from the ‘thought police’, a fight based on the instinctive knowledge  that the basis of any freedom worth the name stems from – “the freedom of the imagination and the overwhelming, overarching issue of freedom of speech, and the right of human beings to walk down the streets of their own countries without fear.’

Rights which we in Britain largely enjoy every day of our lives.  Reading this book made me ashamed that I lived through these events and did nothing to help.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Old Donkey and You, The Last Leper

Empty shells of buildings bake in the Cretan sun.  Old donkey tracks (old tracks or tracks for old donkeys, whichever you prefer)  lead to the fortifications at the top of the island.  These are becoming harder to follow: falling rock and masonry making for an unsafe scramble up the steep sides of the little island.   Tourists would not be allowed in good old Blighty to risk themelves on these slippery obstacles,  but here in Crete the safety elves have less of a grip so we stumbled our way upwards to the seaward fortifications . The air temperature,  29° on land, must be at lease 5 degrees hotter here as the heat is reflected by the stone walls and there is are very few trees to give shade.   In our case, the donkeys are becoming decidedly aged.

1100 people lived here, apparently.  At the height of it all.   Greece declared independence from Turkey in 1832 but the Turks refused to leave this particlar island so they (the Greeks) had a great idea of how to get rid of Turks quick as a flash.   They declared Spinalonga a leper colony.

The Turks left. You would wouldn’t you?  If the lepers were moving in.  Poor sods.  Anyway apparently it was a leper colony from around the turn of the century until as late as 1957.   I fell into conversation with a lady staying at the same hotel who told me that she had visited the area of Agios Nikolaos during the early 1970s she was among the first people to visit Spinalonga island as a tourist. She told me it was spooky. 

Currently the island is home to a series of art installations entitled 'You, the Last Leper' (its all done with mirrors).   Even though the art people had done a fine job with black flags,  ersatz gravestones and weird, theme park ghost-train things-that-go-bump-in-the-night  type noises,  it still felt very peaceful.  Whatever ghosts that may have resided on Spinalonga have long ago been frightened away by the daily boat loads of tourists that arrive in numbers such as would dwarf the Normandy landings.

Saturday, 21 January 2012

Interview with Fiona Sampson

My interview with award winning poet and editor of Poetry Review, Fiona Sampson, can be found on the Write out Loud website here

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Time to eat fat....


By Margaret Atwood
Winter. Time to eat fat
and watch hockey. In the pewter mornings, the cat,   
a black fur sausage with yellow
Houdini eyes, jumps up on the bed and tries   
to get onto my head. It’s his
way of telling whether or not I’m dead.
If I’m not, he wants to be scratched; if I am   
He’ll think of something. He settles
on my chest, breathing his breath
of burped-up meat and musty sofas,
purring like a washboard. Some other tomcat,   
not yet a capon, has been spraying our front door,   
declaring war. It’s all about sex and territory,   
which are what will finish us off
in the long run. Some cat owners around here   
should snip a few testicles. If we wise   
hominids were sensible, we’d do that too,   
or eat our young, like sharks.
But it’s love that does us in. Over and over   
again, He shoots, he scores! and famine
crouches in the bedsheets, ambushing the pulsing   
eiderdown, and the windchill factor hits   
thirty below, and pollution pours
out of our chimneys to keep us warm.
February, month of despair,
with a skewered heart in the centre.
I think dire thoughts, and lust for French fries   
with a splash of vinegar.
Cat, enough of your greedy whining
and your small pink bumhole.
Off my face! You’re the life principle,
more or less, so get going
on a little optimism around here.
Get rid of death. Celebrate increase. Make it be spring.
Margaret Atwood, “February” from Morning in the Burned House. Copyright © 1995 by Margaret Atwood. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.

Source: Morning in the Burned House (1995)

Source:  Poetry Foundation

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Stereotypes, schmalz - completely riveting: Steven Spielberg's 'War Horse'. A review

Not having read the book or, yet, seen the play, I was half-intrigued, half-nervous  to attend a Charity pre-screening of Spielberg's 'War Horse' at the Odeon West End last night.  The reputation of the strength of the original story and the play (still showing) are such that I knew it would not be possible to emerge from the theatre without having got through two or three boxes of tissues.   And I admit it.  I am bad at films about animals getting hurt.

First up, the Oscars for cinematography and special effects are surely spoken for and the year barely two weeks under way.  The opening aerial shots of what was supposed to be Devon were so green gold and gorgeous - screamed England before the first world war -  that I immediately found myself wondering why I didn't live there - even though I had no idea where 'there' was.  Careful research,  (today's Times actually) revealed that the location is Dartmoor.    In today's urbanized, trafficky, overcrowded Britain, I didn't realise it was still possible to find such unmolested glory. 

I know Steven Spielberg has done wars before.  eg 'Saving Private Ryan'.  But this war film isn't just about men blowing up stuff, mostly themselves.   Mid way through the film, scenes of Joey the horse galloping riderless and in despair across the barbed wire of no-mans land on the Somme, doubtless mounted technical challenges beyond my ability to comprehend.    Apparently 17 horses were used to play Joey (with various levels of equine make up) but even using 117 horses (presumably none of them was disposable, nor were their legs) these scenes represent a feat which must have raised all sorts of film making bars for the future.

So far so excellent.  Acting.  Well, everyone was superb.  A stirling British cast being nothing so much as , stirling.   Some of the characterisations however came dangerously close to crossing, not so much international borders, as borders between real and sentiment.  For example,  there is a scene where Benedict Cumberbatch playing an officer leading a cavalry charge gives the compulsory  eve of battle speech.  He doesn't quite cry God for Harry England and St. George, but you can see he is bursting to do so.

Some of the sub-plots are a bit thin.  There is one such subplot involving a supposedly French grandfather and granddaughter which briefly made me feel I'd wandered out of the set of Warhorse and into the set of Heidi.   And they talked English to each other as well as to the German troops who came to raid their farm for food.

This might have been acceptable in scenes between German and English characters, but when all the German characters were speaking English amongst themselves,  it was irksome and faintly ridiculous, especially as the accents varied rather wildly.

Still enough whingeing.  I was spellbound for the whole two and a half hours.  I highly recommend this glorious schmalzy wallow to anyone who is prepared to spend the evening with their face perilously close to their hankies.

Friday, 6 January 2012

Dream Work

Mary Oliver is an American, Pulitzer prize winning poet who published her first volume of poetry in the 1960s and is still writing away.    She has stated in an interview with Maria Shriver that she gets much of her inspiration from walking in the woods, loves Whitman, Rumi and Hafiz, Emerson and Shelley (after whom she named her dog, Percy).

She attended Vassar College in the mid-50s as had Elizabeth Bishop twenty years before her.

Wild Geese

(From Dream Work, Mary Oliver)

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
            love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting -
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

I love the clarity and simplicity of this poem which is not, of course, at all simple.    Who could not read this and feel heartened? 

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

"White in the moon the long road lies"

'The Anthologist' by Nicholson Baker is a treat.  A lovely comfy roaring log fire with too much wine and cake treat.   I am only sorry that I bring you these pearls of wisdom too late for the aforementioned festive season but hey,  yuletide comes round with monotonous regularity so there's always next year. 

 This beautiful narrative is just sufficiently intellectually engaging  to satisfy people like myself who feel reading is only  reading if its poetry or about poetry, or has p somewhere in the title, yet not so much as to make you reach for your Norton Anthology for a bit of light relief.  But at the end of the day it's a novel.  A fiction, with a hero and some love interest and many obstacles, some of which come in the form of floorboards. 

It's a story about a man called Paul Chowder who's trying to write the introduction to a poetry anthology - not just any poetry but (schlock horror) rhymed poetry.  Just that.  But he's also suffering, this guy because he's blocked, sick and his girlfriend's left him and everytime he's takes up position on his white plastic chair in his office in a barn (a real barn with straw not a fake designer one with a jacuzzi) pen in hand, nothing happens. 

And as every writer knows, when nothing happens, it happens with a vengeance.   
It is, says Paul C, like looking at death.

What I love about poetry, the writing of it, the thinking about it, the reading of it,  is that it is impossible to pin down and massively resists generalisation.   So do poets lord bless us every one. 

There are so many great thoughts about the writing process itself:

"Rhyming is the genius's version of the crossword puzzle - when it's good.  When it's bad it's intolerable dogwaste and you wish it had never been invented.  But when its good its great.  It's no coincidence that Auden was a compulsive doer of crossword puzzles and a rhymer, and a depressive, and a smoker, and a drinker, and a man who shuffled into Louise Bogan's memorial service in his bedroom slippers."

Or this:

"...never think, Oh, heck, I'll write that whole poem later.  Never think, First I'll write this poem about my old orange life jacket so that I'll be more ready to confront the more haunting, daunting reality of this poem here about the treehouse that was rejected by its tree. No.  If you do, the bigger theme will rebel and go sour on you."

Amen to that!.   But this is not just a book about poetry, it is about life lived in pursuit of some nebulous literary goal.  It questions gently the possibility of 'creative writing' as a taught subject and like all the best icebergs it wears its luminosity very, very lightly.  You do not even have to be particularly interested in poetry to read it.   You only have to be interested in life and the living of it,   the affairs, loves and deaths of some of the New York literati of old,   and to be aware that for those who nail their colours to the literary mast, it's all a serious business and the stakes are very high for those who fail.  Not in terms of money - for most of us that is never an option anyway - but in terms of mental health.   Underneath all the jokes there's some serious subtext.   Or underneath all the subtext there's some serious jokes.  Whichever you prefer. 

And oh, I forgot to say, it has a happy ending.   And Simon Schama has given it the thumbs up on the dustjacket..    You want more?


Title:  "White in the Moon the Long Road Lies", A.E. Housman