Wednesday 24 December 2014


The photograph I’m looking at, which has been reproduced as a postcard – on the back there are lines printed for an address and the word ‘Wellington’ in italic where the stamp should go, with the left side left blank for a message, though there is no message – shows fourteen men in a simple laboratory. Seven are wearing white lab coats. Two of the men appear to be older than the others – one standing on the right, with glasses and white hair, the other towards the back – and are perhaps the teachers, or supervisors, of the others, who are students. None is facing the camera; all have their heads down; the atmosphere couldn’t possibly be more studious. The students are sitting on stools and are working at benches equipped with those little nipples for attaching Bunsen burners; some are looking into microscopes; there is also some electrical equipment, and perhaps flasks, and the man at the very back may be observing or adjusting a kind of gauge. The room is lit through tall windows to the left, and there are also overhead electric lamps; the floor is bare wooden boards. They are studying what happens when you put this in contact with that; how gases and liquids and electric currents behave, how light behaves, how cells behave; what makes us tick. This is progress. I doubt their professors make many jokes in their lectures. There are no women in the room, and I believe that even if a woman did enter the room – in a long black skirt and white blouse, with her hair pinned up – it’s possible that none of the students would look up, so focused are they on their work. But a woman could do worse than find her husband among these men, because they are serious and conscientious and after their studies are completed many will acquire secure and well-paid jobs. They will wash their hands before meals, be moderate in their drinking and keep strict accounts. Some of the students will become village pharmacists but one will go on to make an important new discovery that will change how in the future a disease is treated or miners work more safely or murderers be put to death more humanely or babies born prematurely may have better chances of survival. A number of them will be killed in the next war. They may fight on different sides, according to circumstances or their beliefs, which need have little to do with the work they doing. Suicide and madness will also feature. Meanwhile, some will return in a few years’ time for their professor’s retirement dinner, at which speeches will be made and comic incidents will be remembered. All of this is already known in outline to the student at the back who looks to be the youngest in the room and who is standing up while one of the two teachers inspects his work and who I will call Jan, but this is an important time in his life and he cannot afford to let it distract him.

Saturday 20 December 2014


In Gap yesterday there were some OK jumpers, except that were so many of them they were nothing. Second-hand shops and charity shops, on the other hand: there’s only one of each item, and often that’s one too many but one is exactly the number I’m looking for.

Portobello Road, this afternoon. Paprika from Garcia, and then the stall with those disposable plastic black pepper (& pepper-&-chilli, & ‘Himalayan salt’) grinders, a quid each. (Why, other than those, do you have spend an avalanche of money to get a pepper grinder that actually carries on working after a refill or two? Or am I doing something wrong?) Then the Oxfam bookshop. A Gerald Murnane novel (previous owner, a library in Massachusetts). A 1957 New Directions edition of Kenneth Patchen selected poems. Above, one of the poems. Previous owner, according to the fly-leaf: ‘George Buchanan, September 1959’. This was surely the Irish-born poet, 1904–89. His daughter lives opposite me; she and her husband host excellent parties.

£4 for both. Here’s another from the Patchen:

Back to Buchanan. The opening lines of his book Minute-Book of a City (Carcanet, 1972), pure shopping: ‘Does multiplicity undermine / the story? Does an overbreeding / in fiction make cardboard figures?’ Much of it is angry, and brilliant. ‘Absence of ideas in the Cabinet. Dust fell / from the ceiling in slow shower. They rang and sent / for another basket of statistics. Could no one find / the document which would increase the amount of hope?’

‘The number of the killed / was a minor consideration. They were thoughts / in the thinking of a High Command / accustomed to shoots on the moors.’

‘No doffing of the cap and saying “sir” to the universe. / The state of mind in which we pray is both / the prayer and the answer to the prayer.’

‘A suitable marriage. They speak about problems / of the State at breakfast. He does well at the office, / is sure of promotion. They laugh at the wit / of a neighbour who comes to dine. Afterwards / they lie asleep in twin beds. Occasionally / flushed with wine they speak of a thing / called “personal relationship”.’

‘The animals are herded slowly from green fields / to be eaten by gentlemen in restaurants.’ Here’s a last Kenneth Patchen scan, a vegetarian gentleman one (but not before remarking that Rosemary Tonks is not the only good poet from the 60s, 70s who went AWOL; she managed her own disappearance, others have had that done to them):

Friday 19 December 2014

A big quiz and a little one

Here is this year’s TLS Christmas quiz – compiled, as it has been for many years, ‘by Tony Lurcock of Oxford’, who happens to be a CBe author. A while back he sent me a manuscript whose preface hooked me with this sentence: ‘It is by no means necessary to read the introduction to enjoy the contents of the book, nor need the book be read chronologically, in full, or indeed at all.’ And so we embarked on a series of compilations of writing by British travellers in Finland, introduced and with linking commentary by Tony Lurcock: Not So Barren or Uncultivated, 1760–1830 (‘Impeccably researched, written in an accessible, lively and lucid style, with useful appendices, notes, and bibliography, this is a gem of a book which will delight the scholar and the general reader alike’: Mara Kalnins, Notes and Queries), No Particular Hurry, 1830–1917 (‘[Lurcock’s] occasional rather caustic observations make his commentary at least as entertaining as the travellers he quotes’: Yvonne Hoffmann, Vasabladet), and a 1917–1941 book to follow.

Among the answers to the TLS quiz is one CBe book. No further clues.

I read last week that Wallace Stevens’s notebooks contain around 350 titles (‘Still Life with Aspirin’, ‘All about the Bride’s Grandparents’, ‘The Alp at the End of the Street’ …) for poems that he never got round to writing. Here are the titles of three books that fictional characters consider writing but don’t. Name the character, the the title of the actual book/story they are in, and author of that book.
1) History of the Suburbs
2) A Short Wait for the Butcher
3) This Is Piccadilly

And (relatively easy one) which dog declared: ‘I simply have to knock off that essay on Sassoon’?

Monday 15 December 2014

'when I put it down I couldn't stop wondering how a person could kill it so hard'

Four writers nominating three CBe titles (The Notebook, The Absent Therapist, At Maldon) in the TLS ‘Books of the Year’ issue was, to put it mildly, a nice surprise.

May-Lan Tan’s Things to Make and Break, as well as being shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award, has been gathering mentions on end-of-year lists in more fugitive places, so here’s a round-up of some links with thanks to, in the UK, Claire Trevien (scroll down) and Kirsten Irving; and, in the US, Tobias Carroll and Sean H. Doyle at Volume 1 Brooklyn and Rachael Lee Nelson on the Shabby Doll House blog; and Time Out New York for listing May-Lan Tan’s chapbook Girly.

Update: plus the London Review Bookshop's 'Pick of the Year'. Plus Joanna Walsh (@readwomen2014) on le blog of Shakespeare and Company ('a transglobal, and very contemporary, neon scream of slick limbs in illicit embraces'). Plus 'Best books of 2014' in Civilian.

Update (6 January 2015): a couple more bloggers: So what now?, which includes scans of 3 pages of the text; and 'Best Books of 2014' on Never Stop Reading: 'Fabulous language, melancholy tone. Like a demented, more emotional Miranda July. Summarizing the plots feels like a disservice–characters fall in love with stunt doubles, listen to Iron Maiden, participate in bizarre crucifixion rituals in the woods, have filthily rude hot sex, stalk a boyfriend’s exes based on nude photos, go on dates with couples dying of cancer. Ehh, see? I can’t do it justice. But this is definitely one of the strongest contemporary short story collections I’ve read.' Plus one from Italy, Sul Romanzo.

Wednesday 10 December 2014


There’s something horrible – crime scene-ish – about the CIA-related memos with bits blacked out. Someone with something to hide has violated the text. Here’s a page from Tony White’s Shackleton’s Man Goes South (Science Museum, 2013) in which he reworks this kind of thing as part of a novel:

Text that would allow us the full import is concealed, and the result is a piece of writing that suggests, teases, frustrates. The reader has to work hard, without getting anywhere. The same thing happens with ancient texts that survive only as fragments: with these, the concealment is not deliberate, but the reading experience can be similar. Earlier this year I bought a book of translations of Ancient Egyptian texts in translation (The Tale of Sinuhe and other Ancient Egyptian poems, Oxford World Classics) precisely because I found the layout of text on some of the pages – half-lines, phrases, single words, separated by white spaces – both visually and mentally compelling.

What will survive of us is fragments, if that. Here’s a piece of Sappho discovered in 2005:

For the text written clearly in Greek, and for Anne Carson’s translation of fragment 58 – both previous and new fragments – and her comments, see here. A reworking – translation into Greek? – by Anne Carson of some of the redacted CIA stuff would be something.

Tuesday 2 December 2014

Finsbury Park

Last night Dan O’Brien won the Troubadour International Poetry Prize for a new poem from the continuing War Reporter series. Back home, emails included one from a website buyer to whom I’d managed to send the WRONG BOOKS (3 x May-Lan Tan, instead of 3 x Marjorie Ann Watts); and another from someone wondering if I could edit, design, set, proofread, and have printed and delivered a playscript/threatre programme in time for the opening of the production in two weeks. The wrong-books problem needed acting on: the May-Lan Tan books are out at the warehouse, I have only a handful here (but it’s well in stock at Foyles, Charing X Road), and the printer told me last week he had RUN OUT OF PAPER. The play thing: well, I’m busy, and I’d never heard of the play or the theatre, but the email made the whole project sound impossible enough to be worth a go.

This morning, to somewhere near Finsbury Park to swap the right books for the wrong books. Close to the Tube station I found myself standing outside the theatre I’d never heard of, the one where the play opens in two weeks’ time; and taking a call from the printer, who tells me the new printing of the May-Lan Tan book will be ready tomorrow morning.