Thursday, 3 August 2017

Fergus Allen, 1921–2017



Fergus Allen – CBe's most senior author – died on 22 July, aged 95. His funeral was today.

‘To Be Read Before Being Born’:

No time is allowed for practice or rehearsal.
There are no retakes and there isn’t a prompter.
There’s only moving water, dimpled by turbulence –
And no clambering out on to the bank
To think things over, as there is no bank.

Fergus Allen: born 1921; father Irish, mother English; of a generation that largely subscribed to the view that the primary responsibility of a man, if that man chose to have family, was to work for the security and future of that family. (I may be assuming things here; but even if I am, I don’t think it’s a bad view.) He worked as a civil engineer, and when he retired from employment he was a first civil service commissioner; I too have difficulty in knowing from job titles what people actually do, but google it and you’ll find that no one gets to this job without a track record of long experience and deep integrity.

A perennial reader of others, he waited until his retirement to give his own writing the time and attention that it required. Fergus published his first poetry collection at the age of 72 with Faber; two more Faber collections followed before he was made, as he put it, to ‘walk the plank’; his next collection was published by Dedalus in Ireland, and then, from CBe, Before Troy (2010) and New & Selected Poems (2013). The latter has a foreword by Christopher Reid, who took on Fergus at Faber:

“… each new poem, each succeeding book, a fresh adventure. The vocabulary and diction have uncommon breadth, from the elaborately mandarin to the colloquial and slangy, and the range of voices extends from what we may – sometimes riskily – assume is the poet’s own voice to those of surprising personae.”

He liked Auden. He wasn’t far off being a contemporary of Auden. He spoke on Auden at the 2011 Aldeburgh Poetry Festival, and read his own poems (photo above) and was interviewed: they worked you hard at Aldeburgh, even if you were their first 90-year-old poet. In 2013 he read from his New & Selected to a packed audience in a café/bar in Brighton. Among others, he read the poem that begins ‘Annie’s pubic hair was beyond a joke’, and he read the early poem that retells the Fall as the story of Adam and Eve being expelled from the Guinness brewery in Dublin.

He was a poet acutely aware of pleasure and menace and mystery; a bracing tone, yes, but he laughed easily and well. Why is he not more widely known? Perhaps in part because he didn’t make a career out of literature; and when he did get noticed, there was too much attention to his age at the expense of the sheer excellence of the poetry.

Properly, 'Fergus Allen, CB, FRSL'. Establishment? He came to London for a lunch to celebrate his New & Selected; after the lunch, he and Joan, his wife, both in their nineties, scoffed at the idea of getting a taxi to the train station and insisted on getting the Tube.

Recordings of Fergus reading his poems are at the Poetry Archive.

Saturday, 29 July 2017

Nicholas Lezard, October 4004 BC – July 2017



Bishop Ussher calculated that the world began on 23 October 4004 BC. Somewhere between 5 billion years ago and then, anyway.

As I understand it, Nicholas Lezard is out of contract with the Guardian from the end of this month. Lezard has written a ‘paperback of the week’ column in the Guardian Review for the past, what? – 20? – 25 years? Neither his Guardian profile (‘Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian’) nor his (perfunctory) Wiki entry mentions the start date and this feels right, because for those of us who have been reading regularly, or just dipping in and out, it has just been there, a part of the world as we know it.

It’s very simple: allow an intelligent, widely-read, cricket-loving person to choose from among the books that thud through their door and enthuse about their choices regularly, weekly. (I do mean enthuse: Lezard doesn’t do hatchet-jobs, though god knows he must have been tempted.) No meetings, no marketing, no form-filling for grants. No faff about whether a book comes from Big People publishing or small presses, no faff at all. I have no idea why other journals haven’t copied. Except for the brain you need to start with, it’s a no-brainer: the newspaper has benefited (from a steadily increasing number of readers attracted to this column because they have learned to trust it); the sales of good writing have benefited; a good man has had enough cash in his pocket to buy his round.

And it has worked. Lezard’s last paperback-of-the-week column (here) has 70+ comments (it is now 'closed for comments'), many of those with multiple recommendations. There’s been something Reithian about the whole enterprise: people should be informed as well as entertained. I don’t think it’s hyperbole to suggest that this column has changed lives.

(A woman I knew who died last year aged 101, mother ‘in service’, father illiterate, could recite whole poems. I’m fairly convinced that the most influential, life-enhancing book in the last century in the UK was Palgrave’s Golden Treasury – first published 1861 and then on and on, into the lives of people who might never otherwise have encountered the writing it celebrated. Week by week, without any pretension, without any dire ‘literature is good for you’ agenda, Lezard’s column has been performing a similar job.)

Disclosure of interest: Lezard has written about and recommended at least seven of the roughly 50 books I’ve published during the last decade. In 2011 I made a little shrine (above) to the patron saint of small presses in the street where he once lived. He has been the only broadsheet reviewer whose say-so has made any difference to sales. Without Lezard, I wouldn’t have continued to publish. I guess now that I’ll have to add an R.I.P. plaque.

Last week, the BBC reversed its decision to axe the Radio 4 Saturday Review programme (without which I would not be publishing J. O. Morgan). Can the Guardian do likewise for the Lezard column? If not, more fule they.

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Robinson: appendix 2 – Graham Greene



[These appendices add Robinsons to those already in the book (Robinson) or glance again at Crusoe. See also previous post, 'Robinson: appendix 1'.]

‘Gloom was apt to descend on all of them as soon as the taxi entered the deep shade of the laurel drive which led to the high-gabled Edwardian house that his father had bought for his retirement because it was near a golf course.’ Well, yes.

Graham Greene’s The Human Factor (recommended for its Robinson link by TH: thank you) is to me a disappointment, all the more so because I remember a time when I enjoyed reading Greene. Maurice Castle is a low-level member of the intelligence services working in a London office. He has a black South African wife and a son; his wife worries about the son going to prep school but Castle reassures her: ‘He’s a good runner. In England there’s no trouble if you are good at any sort of games.’ So many stereotypes are in play here that I can't be bothered to begin. Games-playing is how Castle’s colleagues think of their intelligence work: ‘We are playing games, Daintry, games, all of us. It’s important not to take a game too seriously or we may lose it.’

(How important is it not to take games ‘too seriously’? Seriously important. Careers and livelihoods depend upon just the right degree of non-seriousness. It’s a British code.)

Women in The Human Factor are off to the side: secretaries, ‘tarts’, wives who are remote. Even Sarah, Castle’s wife, a character essential to the book, which has to do with how love rather than ideology can be reason for betrayal, is a blank. Much alcohol is drunk in these pages, mainly whisky and port. Lunch at the Reform Club is steak-and-kidney pudding followed by treacle tart. At the Travellers Club, roast beef (‘Perhaps a little overdone?’). The English stodginess is compounded, for most of the book, by the clunky, writing-by-numbers way the plot is advanced.

At the end of the novel Castle – whose interpretation of the rules of the game has been naïve – is alone, marooned in a bleak apartment in Moscow. ‘In the evening he would warm some soup and sit huddled near the radiator, with the dusty disconnected telephone at his elbow, and read Robinson Crusoe.’ Another marooned Englishman comes across Castle reading Crusoe: ‘Ah ha, the great Daniel. He was one of us.’ ‘One of us?’ ‘Well, Defoe perhaps was more an MI5 type.’

Castle’s reading matter is appropriate. The other books available to Castle include ‘school editions’ of Shakespeare and a couple of Dickens novels: these school editions are what he grew up with (along with Rider Haggard: Allan Quatermain was his ‘childhood hero’). Throughout Greene’s novel, all the men playing the game of running the world and sworn to an official Secrets Act, married or not, are lonely and have difficulty in relating to others. Robinson argues that this state of affairs is the inevitable result of elevating Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe to the status of a kind of national set text. And though in obvious ways Greene's novel feels dated (it’s pre-internet), the gloom of the high-gabled Edwardian house and the adjacent golf course feels horribly familiar.

Friday, 14 July 2017

Robinson: appendix 1 – Elizabeth Bowen



As Tom Sabine suggests in his kind note on Robinson (here; and then here), once Robinson is on the radar he keeps cropping up.

Following up Tom Sabine’s suggestion, here’s Robinson in Elizabeth Bowen’s ‘Summer Night’, the final story in her 1941 collection Look at All the Roses: ‘Robinson did not frequent drawing rooms … When he was met, his imperturbable male personality stood out to the women unpleasingly, and stood out most of all in that married society in which women aspire to break the male in a man … When Robinson showed up, late, at the tennis club, his manner with women was easy and teasing, but abstract and perfectly automatic. From this had probably come the legend that he liked women “only in one way” … Robinson had on him the touch of some foreign sun.’

Did Bowen name this character knowingly? I doubt it. Still, he is in the club (whose other members, as surveyed in Robinson, include the Robinsons of Céline, Kafka, Patrick Keiller, Chris Petit, Sherwood Anderson, Muriel Spark, et al), even if less for his own awkwardness than for the disconcerting effect he has on others. Justin, in company with Robinson, becomes ‘prone, like a perverse person in love, to expose all his own piques, crotchets and weaknesses’. The woman who at the start of the story is driving to Robinson to spend the night with him becomes, when at last she is alone with him, stranded: ‘The adventure (even, the pilgrimage) died at its root, in the childish part of her mind.’ Only Justin’s sister, completely deaf, is at ease with him (‘She does not hear with her ears, he does not hear with his mind. No wonder they can communicate.’).

It’s a fine story: a late summer light, three generations (including a child dancing naked on her parents’ bed with snakes chalked on her skin), inconvenient guests, urgency and ennui, wartime (‘Now that there’s enough death to challenge being alive we’re facing it that, anyhow, we don’t live. We’re confronted by the impossibility of living’). Nothing, really, happens. Elizabeth Bowen is to me a touchstone, but I hadn’t read this story before: thank you for the cue.

Robinson in this story is the outsider. He’s a ‘factory manager’. He has been in this town for three years, which sounds a reasonable length of time but, in a small town, isn’t. He ‘had at first been taken to be a bachelor’ but he’s not; he’s living apart from his wife and children (three, one dead). The woman who is driving to him is also married, also has children. Victoria Glendinning, in her biography of Bowen (which I’d forgotten I had; I found it while perched on a stool looking for another book entirely), says that ‘the starting point’ for Robinson was a man named Jim Gates, ‘the manager of a creamery in Kildorrey’: ‘completely non-intellectual, genial, a life-and-souller’. With Jim Gates, Glendinning writes, Bowen ‘had, simply, a good time, with lots of drinks and lots of cigarettes and easy laughter … His company was a liberation not only from the excessive sensibility of others but from her own – that sensibility which was at the centre of her talent and also, some have thought, its limitation’. Bowen, Glendinning writes, ‘needed men like Jim Gates: extrovert, practical, a little coarse.’ I’m very uncomfortable with literary biographers telling me what their subjects needed, or didn’t need, but I think I know a Robinson when he turns up.

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

Robinson: an update

A nice note on Robinson’s Robinson is here (courtesy The Brooknerian). The book itself is here. Thank you to those who have alerted me to other members of the family.

I’m not sure that Robinson even voted in the EU referendum in June last year, and I haven’t asked. Sometimes a dank torpor seems to settle over him. If he didn't vote, it may well have been because the referendum campaigns were a shoddy advertisement for democracy: ill-prepared, poorly delivered, cheap rhetoric displacing valid information. Very few people – including the politicians – had any realistic notion of the consequences of a vote to leave the EU. Many still don't. Robinson believes that many who voted to leave were not voting specifically about the EU; rather, they were sticking up a finger to a political establishment that didn’t appear to listen to anyone outside the London, the media and its own woodworm-infested corridors. They were saying: we exist, and we’re fed up with being taken for granted, a plague on both your houses, and we’re not going to vote X just because you tell us we should.

There is no clear mandate for Brexit. The difference between the leave vote (51.9%) and the remain vote (48.1%) was just over 1.25 million. Nearly 13 million of the electorate chose not to vote at all. Out of a total electorate of 46.5 million, just 17.4 million voted to leave. Anyone declaring that Brexit is ‘the people’s will’ is unfit for office. Anyone declaring that ‘getting on with the job’ of Brexit is ‘in the national interest’ – as May does, May who herself believed before the referendum that Brexit was not in the national interest at all – needs their head looking at.

Robinson once hated rhubarb, now he likes it. Robinson once married an heiress, thinking it would solve all his problems, and it didn’t, and now he is not married. The whole point of having a mind is that one can change it. In general, British democracy allows for this: we vote a government in and if we decide we’ve made a mistake, we can vote it out. Brexit is different. To press ahead with a decision recklessly based on such a narrow vote, with consequences that will affect people's lives for generations, without a fail-safe mechanism – whoops, we may have pressed the wrong button there – maybe rhubarb isn’t so bad after all – is just daft. Even Robinson can see that.

Sunday, 25 June 2017

The word ‘funny’

The prizes tend to go to books about grief, or dystopias. Or oppression. Or sexual abuse, or any kind of sexual dysfunction.

‘Light verse’ – about as dispiriting a two-word combination as, for example, ‘conference centre’ or ‘sanitary solutions’ (the latter a sign on a local factory that made toilets, now demolished, making way for luxury flats, add that in, 'luxury flats').

Can I send you my book, please? It will, I promise, be (quote from a recent submission, standing in for many) ‘bleak, confused, disturbing, harrowing’.

I’ll pass. I’ll also pass, of course, on submissions that promise to be uplifting, redeeming, or (another quote) ‘celebrating our common humanity’. Or funny.

‘Funny’ is a word that on the dating sites might well be algorithmically matched up with ‘silly’. There’s a vocab problem here. Funny = makes you laugh. Funny = comedy. And there’s an obvious problem with writers who get labelled, or marketed, as ‘comic’ writers, which is this: I feel I’m being manipulated, I feel buttons are being pushed to make me laugh. So I resist. I’ll decide what I find funny, thank you. Don’t tell me when to laugh.

Pitching a book is one of the more absurd activities that humans engage in. It requires a skill that has nothing to do with the writing of the book and an impossible degree of tact and is almost bound to fail, even though the book itself may not, and awareness of this engenders a kind of daft desperation which often ends up as being, yes, funny.

For the record: misery, dystopia, ‘bleak’, no. Don’t even try. I’m in my sixties, not my twenties. I prefer Shakespeare’s comedies to his tragedies. Tragedy can include comedy but only as a bit part; comedy relishes tragedy because comedy is more inclusive, more generous, more silly, and is about life going on, not ending, and comedy, so far, is winning out, though it knows it’s as doomed as any other way of taking on the world, it takes no pride in this, it despairs, and that is its essence, as comedy. Comedy is stupid heroism.

Writers who do make me laugh include, obviously, Chekhov, Thomas Bernhard, Kafka, Beckett, Cioran, Pinter. They make me laugh, out loud, but how to say this without using the word ‘funny’. Adding in ‘deeply’ or ‘seriously’ gestures, but doesn’t do it. Is there a word in another language – I’m asking translators here – for this? To describe the way in which, for example, the above writers manage being true to human fatuity and at the same time hilarious? Because in English we are not capable. Is an English Hrabal impossible? (There are English Hrabals, but no one attends.)

Bleak. A badge: we’re doomed. A whole aesthetic of this, a very pretty aesthetic, lovely composition, an aesthetic of doom and desolation and decay and ruins and rust and rot. Decomposition. Failure: of, not least, how males and females relate to each other, who populate this planet roughly equally but who very few of them of them have any idea how to sort this.

Failure: authentic. Doom, apocalypse, misery: click-bait, reinforcing.

Saturday, 3 June 2017

Pollsters, hucksters

After starting as the most boring ever, this election has become seriously interesting, not least because of the polls. The Cameron-led Conservatives (Tories, from here on) were pretty sure, largely because of the polls, they were going to win the Brexit vote (I mean, so sure that the UK would vote to remain, as was in the manifesto, he won on that, and the polls) and they lost. The May-led Tories (May herself a remainer, now U-turned, and the U-turning become her signature) were then sure, because of the polls, that calling this coming election would deliver a surefire landslide victory, barely any need (again) to campaign, certainly no need for the PM to bother debating one-to-one with the leader of the opposition, and now no one is so pretty pretty sure. Long before this, the polls had it so wrong on Corbyn getting Labour leadership.

There’s a fun article on the BBC website titled ‘How do opinion polls work?’, January 2016, which begins, hilariously: ‘The 2015 general election result took political pollsters by surprise and a of experts panel has now said that, put simply, their predictions were wrong because they spoke to the wrong people.’(I wasn’t among the wrong people, by the way; I’ve never been polled in my life. Maybe they just make it all up and take the money.) Which implies that the pollsters just got in with the wrong crowd, as any intelligent teenager does. And implies that the pollsters, though they may be experts – people pay them, they make a living from this – are always going to be ?smaller experts than the bigger experts, this other ‘panel of experts’: who they, and who pays them?

It’s fun, that BBC article, because it includes sentences such as: ‘Tory voters in general are also said by pollsters to be more likely to put the phone down [Ed: but how do they know the phone-slammers are Tory if they can’t even ask them?] or be ex-directory, and less likely to answer the door.’ Because the person knocking on the door might be one of those ex-offenders who want sell you severely overpriced tea-towels? But the knocking-on-the-door may be delivery of that thing you’ve ordered off the net, that thing that will make your life a little smarter ... And you sign with a scriggle on their pad. Dilemma. Tory dilemma.

Just open the door, ffs.

Polls are not cheap; someone is paying; who?; there’s very little transparency on this, or on their methodology. Meanwhile, the polls (‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ A pollster?) do influence how people vote. People, on the whole, follow other people. That's the only reason why polls are even vaguely interesting, and then not. They were why Cameron took in the EU referendum to get elected, and then had to resign. They were why May called this election. The polls work in mysterious ways.