Tuesday 22 September 2009

Lights. Action.

This is the café I mentioned a few posts back, the one with ceiling fans that would make a fine bookstore; the one that many months ago stocked copies of Days and Nights in W12 and then closed down, and the books vanished; the one in which today something – a story? an ad? – was being filmed, and the photo has so much reflection in it you can’t tell what’s outside and what’s in.

A confusion between fact and fiction was one of the points of Days and Nights. Though if Jack was doing the book now, it would include at least two more items of historical fact that at the time escaped his notice. One is Urania House in Lime Grove (almost directly opposite this café), a hostel founded by Dickens in 1847 for ‘fallen women’. For its time, the regime in Urania House was liberal and practical. The education provided was to be ‘steady and firm . . . cheerful and hopeful. Order and punctuality, cleanliness, the whole routine of household duties – as washing, mending, cooking – the establishment itself would supply the means of teaching practically, to every one.’ There was a garden, and a piano. A prison governor warned that ‘the love of dress is the cause of ruin of a vast number of young women’, but Dickens disagreed: ‘Colour these people always want, and colour I would always give them . . . in these cast-iron and mechanical days.’

The second historical item (just slightly outside the border of W12) is Frestonia, a community of squatters who declared their independence from UK in 1977; Heathcote Williams served as ambassador to Great Britain. In the way these things go, the independent republic became a housing co-operative; now there are new houses and, of course, an arts centre.

Wednesday 16 September 2009


We had a fire practice this morning, and here is the staff of CBe, one of them a bit camera-shy, at the boat, which is the assembly point. Actually there’s another one, but Harry was out getting the mouse sandwiches for lunch.

From the final paragraph of Tristes Tropiques by Claude Lévi-Strauss:

‘. . . the possibility, vital for life, of unhitching, which consists – Oh! fond farewell to savages and explorations! – in grasping, during the brief intervals in which our species can bring itself to interrupt its hive-like activity, the essence of what it was and what it continues to be, below the threshold of thought and over and above society: in the contemplation of a mineral more beautiful than all our creations; in the scent that be smelt at the heart of a lily and is more imbued with learning than all our books; or in the brief glance, heavy with patience, serenity and mutual forgiveness, that, through some involuntary understanding, one can sometimes exchange with a cat.’

Saturday 12 September 2009

Andrzej Bursa: ‘Poet’

A poet suffers for the millions
from 10 to 1.30
At 11 his bladder is full
He goes out
Unzips his flies
Zips up his flies
Returns to his desk
Clears his throat
And again
Suffers for millions

– by Andrzej Bursa, and included in Killing Auntie and other work, newly available from CBe. It seems the kind of slight thing that might get a laugh at a reading, but for Bursa (born 1932 in Kraków, Poland) the idea of the poet as someone who suffers for the millions both wasn’t a joke at all (it was part of the job description, along with being conscience of the nation, etc, a job description left over from the 19th century) and was a huge joke, a tasteless one (members of his family died in Auschwitz).

The translator Wiesiek Powaga writes in his preface: ‘The fact that Bursa grew up surrounded by war and Stalinist terror focused his mind in a way that may be difficult to appreciate fifty years later’ – which seems to me a huge understatement. His in-your-face disenchantment (‘I’ve seen the sunset/ And the loo in a nightclub/ Same difference’) is not, as it later often became for writers in the West, a pose: it’s a living response to impossible demands.

Bursa was young, ambitious, and had around just two years (between the death of Stalin in 1953 and his own death at the age of twenty-five) to speak. About much of the work in Killing Auntie there’s an urgency and restlessness; Bursa was experimenting with all the forms available to him, and the book includes poems, parables, stories, dramatic scenarios. There is also – see the first chapter of the short novel Killing Auntie – wit and a sophisticated maturity; and, teasing our retrospective view of Bursa as writer in history (though this wasn’t that long ago: W will be taking copies of the book to Bursa’s son, still living in Kraków), his own retrospective (‘You are too big to cry/ And too small to love/ So I wander the earth/ With holes in my tights/ And big red ears’) on the childhood history messed up for him.

(Among the poems there's one on Joseph husband-of-Mary, who always seems to me to have had a rum deal: ‘he raised the Child/ whom he knew/ was not his own/ but God’s/ or someone else’s’).

The first chapter of Killing Auntie is in the September issue of Litro. The short prose ‘Freemason’ is on the untitledbooks.com website. The book can be bought from the CBe website.

Wednesday 9 September 2009

VIP treatment

Here is Anthony Thwaite, OBE, poet and literary executor of the Larkin estate, helping deliver packs of Nicky Singer’s Knight Crew, which arrived at the house this morning. Does Faber employ such distinguished unloaders? OUP? Random House? Any other publisher?

Also this morning, the updated CBe website went live, so you can now purchase the new books – Knight Crew and Andrzej Bursa’s Killing Auntie. A team of renowned authors will be calling by shortly to put them in envelopes and lick the stamps.

Monday 7 September 2009

The glove compartment (2): Ambidexterity

This, of course, is the other man in the rear-view mirror – Billy Bob Thornton in the Coen brothers’ The Man Who Wasn’t There. Sometime last year I said that the only way you can tell me and BBT apart is that he holds his cigarette in his right hand, I in my left. But it’s not as simple as that. I watched the film again a couple of weeks ago; BBT smokes pretty well continuously through the whole thing, and sometimes he has the cigarette in his right hand and sometimes in his left.

An exchange from a few years ago:
Therapist: Tell me about your father.
Me: He died a long time ago.
Therapist: So fathers are people who are absent?

Sunday 6 September 2009

The glove compartment

The above is the new photo on the CBe website home page (up by the end of next week, I hope), and the face in the driving mirror is my dad. Appropriate for a home page. The photograph was taken (by who?) before he actually became my father. He’s been dead for over fifty years now, and would be surprised to find himself driving through a website, a literary one at that; he was an iron-foundry man and a weekend farmer.

The photo has a late 1940s, early 50s feel. Douglas Dunn’s ‘La Route’ (‘A poem-film, starring Jean-Paul Belmondo’). Camus and the existentialist crowd – there’s a packet of Gauloises in the glove compartment.

On Saturdays we’d drive out to a farm, me in the front with my dad, my mother and my brother behind us. Going down the narrow, twisting, blind-cornered Creskeld Lane, my dad would tell me to open the glove compartment and take out his driving gloves; then he’d remove his hands from the steering wheel, first one and then the other, and I, aged four at most, would fit the gloves onto them. In the back, my mum pretended not to look, maybe even closed her eyes and didn’t open them again until we were on the straight at the bottom of the hill and picking up speed. My dad would glance in the rear-view mirror and grin with delight.

Friday 4 September 2009


‘Mud pleases the noble of heart, because it is constantly scorned . . . You are beautiful, after the storm makes you, with your blue wings!’

Unfinished Ode to Mud, Beverley Bie Brahic’s translations of Francis Ponge, has been shortlisted for the 2009 Popescu Prize for European poetry in translation.

(No living books were harmed in the making of this picture – it was a rogue copy, with pages in random order.)

And then, just when I'd taken this picture, my cousin came round with his son, who is called Francis.