David Green

David Green (Books) is the imprint under which I publish booklets of my own poems, when there are sufficient of them. Apart from that, the website has become what it is. I hope you find at least some of it worthwhile.

Friday, 27 November 2015

Oh, Babe, What Would You Say

There is a shop nearby the railway station not far from where I work that sells the TLS surprisingly among its otherwise barren fare. I saw Socialist Worker in there, too, today - one doesn't see that everywhere these days. I bought the sole copy TLS in order to justify them selling it but if I take up the trial offer of 12 copies for 12 quid then that could take the last trace of highbrow culture off Cosham High Street when that place finally stops selling it or closes down from that crucial loss of custom. It would be cruel.
But in among all sorts of Books of the Year recommendations from intellectuals so esoteric that not even their own families might have heard of them is the Cambridge University Press advert including mention of The Shakespeare Circle ed. Edmondson and Wells, adding or imagining yet more Shakespeare biography from the lives of his contemporatries and associates. Out since October and I didn't know. That's why perhaps these days only the TLS will do. The Beano is good but it doesn't have quite the same coverage of the publishing industry. So, Bang. That's that on order and Christmas reading sorted to go alongside my writing of the introduction to the Portsmouth Poetry Society's meeting on Rosemary Tonks and, by then, perhaps also being in a position to see if I have anything passable to write about George Eliot. I really ought to spend some time with my long-suffering family during Christmas, too, rather than use the holiday as a retreat, only appearing for meals or when there are presents to open, like possibly the book of Larkin's photography and a set of Buster Keaton DVD's.
But, among the welter of Books of the Year, Paul Muldoon says of Shapiro's 1606,
It's a work of genius.
But surely it's overstating the case to say it has 'at least one major revelation per page'. In a book of 406 pages of text, can 406 revelations all be 'major'.
But, of course, Muldoon is a poet and I remember a seminar in my first year at University that seemed to be teaching us that poetry was all hyperbole. I sat there for the hour with the growing suspicion that there must be more to it than that. And, of course, since then I have found out that there is metaphor and alliteration as well.
---
I thought I'd be reviewing Morton Feldman's music for the Rothko Chapel tonight when I found a new arrival in the post. Always an exciting event., however often it happens. But it's Kate Miller's book The Observances, recently described as the more adventurous choice on the Costa Prize shortlist, so I thought I'll show 'em how front line and open I can be, I'll get one of them. But one can't review a poetry book while reading it for the first time, pouring Chardonnay down oneself on a Friday night, in the same way that one can (or I do) say what you knew you were going to say anyway about a new disc as you listen to it.
So, coming soon, reviews of music about Rothko and poetry by Kate Miller.
--
Meanwhile, calamity upon calamity as Paddy Power remorselessly retrieves all the money he's lent me over the year. A 2/1 winner out of three selections is stalemate between punter and bookie at level stakes but today unfortunately the winner was the one that augmented the treble and the two best bets today fell when beaten and came second respectively. The bookmaker only ever lends money to the mug punter and he knows that. The mug punter secretly knows he will lose in the end but lives for those days when his horse looms up outside the leader coming to the last fence, outjumps him and canters off with the winnings. Suddenly those crazy days of summer, picking winners for fun, for small stakes but sauntering to an all-time high profit-level, seem a very long time ago.
The best recommendations for the favourites in tomorrow's Hennessy Gold Cup and Fighting Fifth Hurdle, Saphir du Rheu and Wicklow Brave, is that I don't fancy either of them at all. So there's a double for you that should pay 16/1. But, away from the crucible of high pressure tipstering that is the Saturday Nap, I might do the latest, last remaining few quid in my account on The Young Master in the Hennessy.
Paddy's website has introduced this crowing little reminder when one logs in that says, 'your account is running low, do you want to top it up' which is not as helpful as I'm sure they want to pretend it is.
No, Paddy, I don't. I'll decide when I want to do that. Did I accompany all the bets I placed in August with a message that said, 'ha, ha, you daft bookie, you are paying for my drinks these days. No, I didn't. So let's have a bit of decorum while you take me back to the cleaners.

Sport. I ask you. What was ever the point of it.   

The Fishwife's Tale

For me, the possibility of a new poem is more often suggested by a word, or words, rather than experience or the world. Words are generated by other words, books by other books, poems by other poems. It is for others to translate the world into literature. Perhaps for me the world is words, which is probably not how it should be. However, seeing the word 'fishwife' this week immediately set off that rare alarm call that there was the next poem.
I'm not convinced about the last line. 'Herbs' are a vestige of the scruffy notes I made as I tried to find a way in, where they were going to be a rhyme for 'verbs' once the parallel between language and fish recipes had been arrived at. It can stay like that and go into the 'uncollected poems' folder for later amendment if necessary. It takes a while to look back on these things and decide if it's really worthwhile.



The Fishwife’s Tale

Beyond the Gentility Principle

I say it was fresh yesterday and sell
them for what I can get, their shine tarnished,
their bored eyes staring back at me without
reproach but their perfume becomes my own.
The Market Square goes home with me, hanging
about me like a curse, while my turbot
and halibut that servants had been sent to fetch
are laid on china plates for those whose taste
in poetry’s not likely to mean mine.
I know what they say about me in posh
houses with chandeliers and dogs who know
their pedigree. My language doesn’t show
up in their delicate capriccios
being, for the love of God, in rude health
and vigorous. My nouns are (like life) short
and brutish and my verbs intransitive
and as unpalatable as my fish
would be without the lemon or parsley
or carefully prepared sauce made from herbs.

Thursday, 26 November 2015

Loquebantur

Loquebantur, Music from the Baldwin Partbooks, The Marian Consort, Rory McCleery, Rose Consort of Viols (Delphian)

I've probably bought fewer records this year than in most recent years so I was due some when this and a new Tallis Scholars disc were released a few weeks ago. But I thought how much of this music I already have and demurred. Then last week Radio 3's The Choir played a piece from this and, for the love of God, it was soon being ordered.
George Baldwin was a lay clerk at Windsor in 1575...and the so-called 'Baldwin Partbooks', held at Christ Church, Oxford, were his creation'.
So this is a similar collection to, but later than, the Eton Choirbook. 

The consort of viols punctuate the stellar vocal pieces with more terrestrial interludes but the highlights are in the singing, the sopranos Emma Walshe and Gwendolen Martin and countertenors Daniel Collins and Rory McCleary stretching effortlessly, or easily enough, into the acoustic of Merton College Chapel. After the Tallis Loquebantur variis linguis has uwrapped and explained itself in gathering celebration, its parts prefiguring the style of trad jazz by 400 years as each leads off from another, we can soon see how William Byrd learnt from the master in O salutaris hostia, with words by Thomas Aquinas that don't convince the C21st atheist of their copper-bottomed wisdom,
O sacrifice that brings salvation,
That opens the gate of heaven.

More earthbound in sentiment but persuasive in its soprano top line is Dum transisset Sabbatum by Christian Hollander (1510-1568/9) in which Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Jmes and Salome bring spices to anoint Jesus.
I dare say the instrumental pieces are put in to break up the succession of pure vocal elaborations. I'd generally prefer a disc of voices and another disc of viol music but in this case, it is about a selection from the book and so here is John Taverner diverting into chamber music with Quaemadmodum, not the Taverner we get from the Tallis Scholars but thought to have been originally a setting of Psalm 42.
I suspect the William Mundy Adhaesit pavimento and John Sheppard Ave Maris Stella with which the Marian Consort finish are the most ambitious, grandest compositions saved for the end, the finale surely the outstandingly stately and monastic item on the programme. In between these comes Baldwin's own off-beat appearance in Coockow as I me walked  that Steeleye Span might like to discover one day. But we are left at our profoundest with Sheppard returning us strictly to a Vespers hymn and an appropriately devotional place to end.
As an habitual purchaser of records like this, I can't say that anything on it has recommended itself as a candidate for the ultimate shortlist of greatest things of the age and maybe the Eton Choirbook is ahead of Baldwin, which is not to say it's anything less than a fine disc but if you live in paradise then routine gloriousness happens all the time and one can begin to take it for granted.
 

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

The Saturday Nap

Beast of Burden is not only my favourite Rolling Stones song but a staying novice chaser of considerable promise. Some of my money was unseated along with Paul Townend when he was otherwise all over the winner at Chepstow on his first outing over fences. I should be recouping those particular losses (out of the accumulating losses I've been compiling recently) tomorrow at Newbury in a classy Grade 2 Novice Chase. But I won't be. I'm distracted by the early money for the Skelton's Value at Risk (Newbury 2.10). Such distractions can be a bad thing when sticking to one's guns can sometimes be the answer in adversity. But I've thought and thought again and will stop there, without thinking any more.
I can't see Wicklow Brave being the right choice for the Fighting Fifth hurdle on Saturday with in-form Irving and the quite interesting Beltor in opposition. The Hennessy is not my sort of race since not backing Denman having tipped him all week at 5/1 a few years ago. And so it's a Thursday nap this week in the belief that the slide towards penury will be halted one day. I will finish the year in front but it may no longer be by a personal best margin, and it would be better to finish with a healthy amount in the account to take into 2016. Recent setbacks were paid for in advance by a marvellous low-key summer jumping season but now the fruits of those lazy, hazy days have been surrendered. So now would be a good time for the naps to start leading the way back with green shoots of economic recovery, fiscal well-being, spend to grow, prudence, entrepreneurial adventure, investing in the future and all the other buzzword phrases that the great Chancellors of the Exchequer of recent years have coined to justify their own guesswork and ill-informed gambles.
At least I back my own with my own money and not that entrusted to me by the nation.

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Up the Creek

One ongoing series of photographs I never quite got round to taking was of Baffins Pond, Portsmouth, near where I used to live, seeing it and the birds that lived there through the year in different light and all weathers. The latest is Hilsea Creek, the stretch of water that gives Portsmouth a genuine reason for its island identity, the highlight of my new walk to and from work.
Pictures of the creek in daylight will be fine but the series of pictures would only have the contrast I intend for it if included some in twilight and darkness, the lights from the motorway reflected on the water as well as the difference between the tide coming in to fill it with choppy, windblown waves and the desolate strip of dirty, disconsolate stream it becomes at low tide revealing its collection of bollards and detritus on mud banks as unpicturesque as any on the coast of Britain. It is an immediately forgettable picture made interesting only by its commentary on what it's like to be nowhere in particular but caught in the mist, the dusk or with artificial light shining on it, it is capable of atmosphere.
Here is a picture from the internet. Unremarkable, isn't it. And thus, a good place for poetry, or something like it, to come from. Stephen Fry has been among those descrying the state of contemporary poetry perhaps for its inward-looking nature, the way in which it no longer aspires to the heroic or compare with memorable great poetry of the past. But I'm not so sure it doesn't, at its best. In whatever age one lived, thee must have been plenty of poetry written that wasn't very good, it's just that there is a lot of poetry now whereas much of the lots of poetry written in previous periods has, quite understandably, not been preserved.
Even admirers of Larkin seem able to accept that Larkin is a 'great, minor poet' and I think I've heard Anthony Thwaite say so. But I don't think I'd even agree with that in all its implications. We would look ridiculous now if we wrote like Byron and we make adjustments of our own when reading Romantic poetry. It might not have been entirely beneficial for poetry to have been annexed by academics and Creative Writing and made into the slightly too commodified industry it has become but that is not to say that adjusting from an art form of national interest and Tennysonian grandeur to something more recherche or simply less obvious is a bad thing.  It has retreated to the outskirts of our culture, being just words on a page and then read from that page, but that's not such a bad place to be. It will attract its share of cranks and careerists who will try it on for size and make a little name for themselves but only in the same proportion as any other part of the arts or sports community or business enterprise does.
Some poets are like Hilsea Creek and look unprepossessing at first but they can do much more than that given due attention.
 

Friday, 20 November 2015

Transtromer Translation

I don't believe in Poetry in Translation. Of the many and various definitions or aphorisms that attempt to say what poetry is, Robert Frost's that it is 'what gets lost in translation' is one of the more useful.
'Poetry in translation' is a contradiction in terms if poetry depends on the music of the words and is the product of sound and meaning coming together. The sound only exists in the original language and can only thus be appreciated by one fluent in it. As soon as it is translated, we are in receipt of something like a painting re-ordered into a topographical representation with its colours seen through tinted glass.
A translator can provide a literal version of what the words mean or a new poem in the other language but the new poem is the translator's poetry, not the poet's. They can faithfully reproduce the form or rhyme scheme at further risk of sacrificing a close rendering of the original, straining for rhymes (which is not as easy in English as in some languages) and having to use words that are further from the most appropriate than one might like. And they can try to recreate the feeling or atmosphere but again, languages tend to have their own idiosyncracies and when a joke, wordplay or ambiguity occurs in a translation, one can't be sure it worked like that in the poem itself.
I have compared Baudelaire to translations of Baudelaire and know that's not quite what it said; I have taken Sean O'Brien's word for Dante's; I have read versions of Ovid, Horace, Juvenal, Catullus and all but personally prefer working on my own versions of Ovid, conflating various interpretations. It's never satisfactory and I never believe one hears the poem as a native user of its original language would. All of that is a great pity because it restricts poetry, even more than the novel, to a monoglot, or not very many-glot, audience when music and painting are far more able to move freely across such boundaries. Mozart and Shostakovich sound the same to British listeners as they do to Austrians and Russians, one assumes, and Bach's cantatas succeed in making German sound beautiful. Vermeer, Rothko and Francis Bacon look the same in Dutch, American, Russian and English and will readily be described by each with their own appropriate words. But I can't believe that a translation of Larkin into French, Akhmatova into English or Horace into Japanese gives a proper sense of the poem. And I won't even mention the English haiku industry.
But we mustn't give up. Poetry doesn't stop when you reach Dover or Heathrow. We would be the poorer if we didn't at least try to understand what poetry from other languages is doing and we would be more than usually moribund if we assumed that only English poetry was worth reading. I know that Eng Lit courses in our most respected universities used to prefer to study old sagas from Iceland, Old English and Chaucer in preference to C20th English poets- maybe that has changed- but Eng Lit owes a debt to Italian as well as other cultures from which it borrowed at significant times.
So, when I heard, only in passing, from a respected source that they had been reading Tomas Transtromer and were impressed, I took the hint. It's difficult to know what to read when the names one thinks one ought to like turn out to be disappontments (William Empson) and yet some you might never try could be just your thing. There is this list of European poets - including Mandelstam, Holderlin, Celan, Herbert, Montale - that might be read dutifully but I don't read dutifully these days. Even if Wislawa Symborska made a big impression in the 1990's, I didn't go as far as learning Polish to get a better grasp.
I hadn't realized that Transtromer had died earlier this year, having suffered a stroke in 1990 that left him unable to communicate in speech for all that time since. The Nobel Prize is a good tipster (Heaney, Symborska, but not Hughes) and I found soundbite assessments of his poetry describing it as 'pure, cold', economical and 'unobtrusively unforgettable'.
Robin Fulton's translations in the Bloodaxe New Collected Poems provide plenty of evidence those being the right things to say. These are versions in which Fulton's words replace Transtromer's Swedish and I will never know quite how accurately they say what the Swedish words say or if they attempt to imitate any linguistic effects but time and again one is left with a sense of the whole poem, an idea of the Transtromer original which is something transcending its ordinary circumstances, as in, for example,

From July 1990

It was a funeral
and I felt like the dead man
was reading my thoughts
better than I could.

The organ was silent, the birds sang.
The grave out in the sunshine.
My friend's voice belonged
on the far side of the minutes.

I  drove home seen-through
by the glitter of the summer day
by rain and quietness
seen-through by the moon.

But if it's that good in translation, how good is it in Swedish.

The Bloodaxe book ends with some autobiographical essays about school and childhood. They are compelling, suggesting that his early life was at times as traumatic as his last years but the character, calm and so perceptive and trustworthy, that forms his poems overcome all of that. And I always think that a poet that writes less rather than more is one that writes when something matters rather than for writing's sake and Transtromer's New Collected is not a big Collected by anybody's standards.
And so I'm glad of poetry in translation when it can provide such a valuable account of a poet who was otherwise not accessible to all those whose Swedish is not as good as it could be. Those autobiographical pieces are from a memoir called Memories Look at Me, which is sadly only 64 pages long but, on the other hand, not expensive to acquire. It is only one click away and so should be here next week.
   

      

Thursday, 19 November 2015

The Saturday Nap

Sprinter Sacre made it all worthwhile last week, looking like his old self in demolishing a good quality field at Cheltenham. There was no money involved for me but it was one of those rare moments in professional sport when the occasion was for its own sake and not just the latest episode in the pursuit of cash. He was, I reckon, the best horse I've ever seen before his setback two years ago and he might not be expected to achieve quite the same level on the comeback trail but it was good to see at least that much.
Meanwhile, back in the world of filthy lucre, I'm on the slide and need to arrest the rate of decay of this year's profit. There might not be any better chance on Saturday than that of Francis of Assisi (Haydock 1.55) tomorrow and so that's the recommendation. He was brought home in his own time once beaten in the good hurdle at Wincanton last week having been thought worth a go in such company so the return to a novice race could see him back winning again. 

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Oh Babe, What Would You Say

Since the announcement of my shortlists for the Best Poetry of 2015 last week I have been taking my responsibilities very seriously. The Isserlis/BSO Shostakovich was immediately supplemented to the Best Event shortlist and wouldn't have been were it not a very serious contender. The Best Poem category has been pretty much a forgone conclusion for months. But the Best Collection decision is a very difficult one to make.
It is my usual practice to read the shortlist again to make sure of my choice so on Sunday night I collected the four titles together to keep them by the bedside for ongoing consideration. The Don Paterson and Kate Bingham books were there already so I just had to add the O'Brien and O'Reilly. They were not by the bedside so must be downstairs. Not by the computer, not on the table, not in the executive attache case I take to poetry redings or meetings. So, they must have been upstairs. Move the bed, no, they haven't fallen down the side, no, not here, not in the drawers. Back downstairs, emptying the bookcase which is double stacked with poetry books, from time to time realigning the Derek Mahons together, putting Lachlan MacKinnon back next to Wendy Cope, re-uniting the Muldoons. Systematically taking out handfuls of books and replacing them in a different order each time. No sign of the two fugitive volumes. Upstairs again, then downstairs again. Sunday night is gradually deepening towards late but by now I know I won't sleep if I don't find them. I sit down and think.
Oh, yes, that spare shelf on the big bookcase between the Larkin shelf and the Gunn shelf. I 'tidied up' by moving a pile of miscellaneous books and put them on there. And there they were.
But, having found them hasn't yet helped me towards a decision. Usually, a few bits of re-reading arrives one at a decision without the need of defining what 'Best' means but this year it's so close that I am having to decide how to decide.
They all have some excellent poems in them but merely counting or measuring their greatness isn't satisfactory. How much is it to the detriment of a book if it contains some less good pieces. Does one rate technical excellence above personal preference. Is there one aspect of any book that really should put it ahead of the others. No approach provides an obvious answer and the decision could conceivably still go any one of four ways. This year, Muldoon and Lumsden didn't make the shortlist but that hasn't made it much easier. It is the closest heat of this underwhelmingly disregarded award since its inauguration, and there have been some very competitive years. I imagine the offices of the LRB are lively with debate on the issue. However, it will be decided by finally closing the books and meditating for a while on which book is the most memorable for the overall impression it leaves of its attitude, world view but, mainly, of course, its words.
The winners will be announced in mid December.
--
Meanwhile, Romola has been embarked upon in this, my year of George Eliot, which will mean I'll have read all bar the already-read Middlemarch this year. It wasn't a promising start with its 'proem' and first chapter but then began telling its story and we were back in the wonderful land of George Eliot prose. The atmosphere of C15th Florence and references back to classical culture with some outrageous scholarship in evidence give her the office to indulge in even more gilded fine prose than ever and one can see common themes surfacing that make this less of an outlying curio among her stories than it first seemed to be. It's early days but the sheet I insert into each novel to make notes as I go is already filling up, and my biggest worry is how, when I come to trying to compile some sort of essay on the novels, I am going to see them all at once when each has supplanted the last in the memory and it is now thus a while since Scenes from Clerical Life made such a promising debut.
It is one thing that has impressed me with academics, how they can apparently retain so many books to talk about at any given time, if indeed they all can. But, in a pre-academic age, George divides the creative artists from the commentators in words given to Bardo,
'It is enough to overlay human hope and enterprise with an eternal frost to think that the ground which was trodden by phiolosophers and poets is crawled over by those insect-swarms of besotted fanatics or howling hypocrites.'  
and you wonder whose review of which of her books prompted her to write that.
--
I could never have been an academic. It seems in the end a dreary world and I inhabited an equally dreary one for what has been most of my paid employment except for how hilarity and absurdity cheered it up. However I was very tempted by a notice in Betfred's window yesterday to consider seeing out my last few years in a bookmaker's. I have weighed the options very seriously, which include the advantage of not having to take Cheltenham Festival week off because it will be on at work. But I've got this far by taking few risks and, even in these difficult times, it might be best to stick with that tried and so far successful policy. I can see how living in a bookies these days might not be all about horse racing but about servicing the clientele who are more or less paying your wages via their unfortunate habit. I feel more Methodist about it than I thought I would but I'll keep the idea in mind. 

Friday, 13 November 2015

Isserlis Shostakovich

Stephen Isselis/Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/Karabits, Shostakovich, Haydn, Prokofiev, Portsmouth Guildhall, November 13th.

I wonder if there was anybody in Portsmouth Guildhall this evening who would put the three pieces in any other order of preference than mine- the Shostakovich Cello Concerto no. 1, Haydn's Symphony no.104 and the Prokofiev Sinfonietta. Did anybody sit through the concerto only in order to get to the Haydn. Quite possibly some did because the diversity of taste and range of opinion available in the world goes beyond everybody having to agree with me (amazingly) but for me, these were three pieces in entirely different divisions.
It must cost Stephen Isserlis a lot of money to get a hairdresser to make his greying mop look quite so studiedly unkempt but it comes in useful as an added dramatic flourish at times, especially launching himself demonically into the Shostakovich, sometimes staring into the audience - straight at me quite often, it seemed- and at others, gazing into the beyond or the ceiling of the Guildhall, whichever comes first. It was great to have him back but he was necessarily in a different mood, often hunched over the cello and energetic, this time to when he came and played Haydn himself last year, rather than leave that job to the orchestra, and laid back and made his instrument sing more flowingly but, many might say, not quite as captivatingly.
There is some thematic interplay with the brass but as the piece builds from smooth legato to tumultuous torment and vibrancy in the second movement, it is all about exploiting the once demur violoncello, descended from the courteous viola da gamba, for everything it can give, from slapping, fingering up and down the fingerboard to practically sawing the very expensive instrument in half.
In an expansive score, there is the withdrawing, ethereal quiet and brief exchange with the glittering celesta, the breathless concentration of the cadenza that moves to sizzling, almost maniac intensity and, as is ever the case with the best pieces and performances, an ever tightening grip on the listener. But all of this done with whatever it is that Shostakovich does with his music- something chromatic or diatonic or some other term I'm not qualified to use- that is a signature as recognizable as any composer's.  The concerto was written in 1959 and so is the same age as me. It remains in considerably brighter condition than me, though, and is surely one of the great masterpieces for what has over the years become my favourite instrument. In a year that has not contained as many sensational events for me as other recent years, Isserlis is supplemented to my short list of Best Events of 2015 with every chance of stealing the completely unregarded honour from those listed here last week.
Haydn is the benchmark classical composer. 'Classical' in the proper sense of the word (late C18th) as well as the popular usage (orchestral music written by a foreign bloke in a wig in olden days). He is a court composer, the complete maestro, very professional but not dangerous. Almost impossible to dislike but equally unlikely to outdo Beethoven, Mozart, Bach and any number of others who surely bring something more exciting with them. Symphony no. 104 is perhaps where he sounds the most like Mozart, and even the fussiest of academics must think they sometimes sound similar. The second movement here, the Andante, is gorgeous in Haydn's never overstated way and the whole thing is a fine exercise in sense, control and decorum. Perhaps he could have been revolutionary if he had wanted, perhaps he could have been the Shostakovich or Stravinsky of his day or perhaps he didn't want to be or he knew that keeping his employers happy with the sophisticated, smart Giorgio Armani sort of music that he could produce by the ream was his best plan. I love Haydn, he is the reference point from which all 'classical' music can be mapped. But he's not Beethoven. You couldn't map everything in relation to Beethoven because it would leave nearly everything else looking inadequate. But Haydn was presumably the happier man, apparently having no need to explore darker, or more ecstatic, tempers than those he so elegantly left us with.
Whereas Prokofiev is sometimes suggested as a long shot among contenders for the Greatest of C20th composers. The BSO have recorded, or are in the process of recording, the complete symphonies under Karabits, I believe. And so it is possible that the conductor has a special interest in Prokofiev or has identified that repertoire as an area he can put his own mark on. That is as far as I can get in finding a reason for the inclusion of the Sinfonietta, which both I and my concert-going companion struggled to find anything above pleasantly non-descript. The first piece on a concert programme shouldn't overshadow that which is to come later and it is a difficult berth to fill, but even Terry Barfoot's expert programme notes looked as if they were trying too hard but in such cases, which happen often enough, it is customary for me to assume that the fault is with my appreciation and not the quality of the music. I missed the point.
Nothing will diminish the very welcome return of Stephen Isserlis to Portsmouth, though. I'll find out what his mesmerising little encore was if I can, was it more Pablo Casals. It might have been just another venue, another night's work in the provinces, for him but it was an essential highlight of the cultural year for us down here that don't get up to that there London very often.
 
          

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Oh Babe, What Would You Say

In Poetry Review a couple of issues ago, Tiffany Atkinson quoted Michael Longley saying that,
most good poetry is written by young people or old people.

Coming from one as wise and fine and good as Michael Longley one would expect it to be a wise and fine and good maxim. So I'm surprised to find that it is in direct contradiction of what I have thought for quite a long time, that most good poetry is not.
We need to set arbitrary parameters on what is meant by 'young' and 'old', which might not be the same as those that Longley had in mind. But I think it is uncontroversial to say that young is under 30 and once beyond 60 one is getting old, however much it might be said that by now 60 is the new 40.
And, of course, there will be outlying examples of poets who are those 'exceptions that prove the rule' which is by no means a rule but a generalization. Keats is a fine poet but he died aged 25; there will be plenty of examples of good poetry written by septuagenarians but Titian lived into his tenth decade still applying gorgeous blue to canvas.
Most poets will have published something of worth, set out their stall and might have made themselves some reputation by the age of 30 but any artist worthy of the name will develop from those starting points and do something better. The only other options are to continue in a similar vein or immediately decline apparently, in the Longley quote, having to wait until old age before they are worth reading again.
But it takes one of special ingenuity or continual refreshment of ideas to write into venerable senior citizenship without becoming repetitive, losing some impetus or, in some very respectable cases, finding that the will to write has left them and they'd rather not write than write anything sub-standard.
Readers of Jonathan Bate's book on Ted Hughes will appreciate the impact of the early poems of Hughes, which was arguably not sustained in later books but for every such example there are more whose careers show a deepening, widening compass of experience and technique as they mature. The compacted time scales of The Beatles' oeuvre illustrates a fine start, a brilliant middle period and a final lapse into self-indulgence. Some might say the same about Shakespeare. It is almost beyond reasonable doubt that my two favourite poets, Thom Gunn and Philip Larkin, published some very competent juvenilia, then became greater and realized for themselves when they had done enough and it wasn't happening for them any more. I have even heard it suggested, almost sacrilegiously, that Seamus Heaney became repetitive and, yes, he did consciously revisit old ground without writing anything less than good poetry.
So, I reluctantly take the opposite point of view to that attributed to Michael Longley and only wonder if somehow it was taken out of context because, for me, most good poetry is written by people who are no longer young but are not yet old.
--
But in a similarly dissenting mood, I have been amused by recent revelations in the world of sport which, for these purposes began with a long distance runner in our office commenting on a television documentary on Lance Armstrong and how cycling lacked all credibility, how could you ever trust it, etc, etc. Well, no, quite.
But it wasn't me who went back to him only a few days later when all the new brouhaha over performance enhancing drugs in Athletics kicked off. Ah ha, Mr. Marathon Runner, so it's not just the cyclists then, is it. It's your sport, too.
And it was never as if you needed to be a satirist of the calibre of Ben Jonson to appreciate the story of Ben Johnson and all the ambition and human frailty that leads an athlete into that dark nether world of chemistry, needles, masking agents and lax testing.
As soon as money is involved there are going to be those with nefarious plans to gain an unfair advantage. I think it was probably Lance Armstrong's lawyer rather than Lance himself who came up with the argument that cheating was defined as 'gaining an unfair advantage' and since everybody was at it, what he did was not unfair.
I am planning to fill the customary new year drought of things to write about here with a new series entitled (something like) My Life in Sport, with features on football, cricket, cycling, running, chess and all, where
the glory of it was that it was all amateur and I wasn't good enough at any of them to make it worth cheating.
But one of the most profound laughs I've had in the last twelve months was in the fallout from the Sepp Blatter, Qatar World Cup and all such saga when it came to light that there was such a thing as the FIFA Ethics Committee. Oh, Come On.
Which comedian was it that said he felt like giving up on satire when Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
But that is the world and what it's like. It's surprising that we can still be surprised about it. But while Athletics sadly sinks deeper into moral torment, let us not hear from those who plod round the London marathon so heroically in half a day cast aspersions on the bike riders.
217.888 miles in 12 Hours in 1995, thank you very much. Done with plentiful supplies of bananas, water, flapjack and, admittedly, drinks designed to help ride a bike a long way as sold in Boots. And I'm always grateful for an excuse to present this old photo again.

  
 

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

The Saturday Nap

Penglai Pavilion is expected to run at Cheltenham on Friday (2.15), attempting to repeat his course and distance win from three weeks ago. He should be followed until beaten and all I will do is take the first price I see when they are posted just after high tea has been taken on Thursday.
21 days is an ideal interval between races, there is more opposition from Ireland and entries from other big English stables but Penglai's win was convincing, and comfortable enough to suggest there is still plenty more to come when required. One can expect him to be back at Cheltenham in March with races like this among his credentials. It is impossible to rersist, with the only proviso that, yes, I know he won't keep winning forever.

Pat Eddery

I was saddened on getting home to find out about the death of Pat Eddery at the age of 63. Firstly there were tributes on the Racing Post website but then he was honoured by being included in the Radio 4 news. Since, in a long career, there was only Gordon Richards who had ridden more winners on the flat in Britain, he certainly warranted that.
He was my favourite flat race jockey, sensitive and with 'good hands', perhaps comparable to my favourite jump jockey, John Francome, as opposed to the ultra-competitive, aggressive styles of Lester Piggott and A.P. McCoy respectively.
Eddery rode the winners in the two most memorable flat races I ever remember. Firstly, in the 1975 King George, he saw off Bustino and Joe Mercer in the 'race of the century' (pictured) and eleven years later came with a typically well-timed run to take the Arc de Triomphe. The first went unbacked by me, being 15 at the time, but the latter was particularly welcome as I was 'between jobs' at the time and was also in a double with Dallas to win the Cambridgeshire.
The ride on Dancing Brave came about after the conspicuously less-talented Greville Starkey had lost the Derby, somehow expecting the horse to break the equine 400m record at the end of a mile and a half but after the appointment of Eddery to ride Khaled Abdullah's horses, there were plenty more to enjoy. I saw Prince Khaled and Dancing Brave at Goodwood when they went there for the Arc warm-up race and subsequently enjoyed horses like Warning winning in the same colours.
One had the impression that Eddery was the most likeable of jockeys, unassuming, understanding and astute. It's not every sportimg champion you can say that about.

Friday, 6 November 2015

Best Poetry Shortlists 2015

It is plenty early enough to be posting the shortlists for my own idiosyncratic poetry awards but it's not too late for anything else that comes to my attention to be added to the lists before the selection of the winners next month.
Unlike other, more prestigious prizes that have cash to go with them, these honours are bestowed on books that I have found out about, then chose to read and only then can they be considered although they are considered most sincerely and very seriously.

Best Poem

Sean O'Brien, The Beautiful Librarians, from The Beautiful Librarians
Caitriona O'Reilly,  The Airship Era, from Geis
Don Paterson, Here, from 40 Sonnets

Best Collection

Kate Bingham, Infragreen (Seren)
Sean O'Brien,  The Beautiful Librarians (Picador)
Caitriona O'Reilly, Geis (Bloodaxe)
Don Paterson, 40 Sonnets (Faber)

I generally extend these specifically poetry-based lists to other areas-
There won't be a Best Novel this year because I simply haven't read a new novel this year, it having been my year of George Eliot, although David Mitchell's Slade House is a possibility in which case it would have a walkover.
Best Television isn't quite a walkover but the only opposition to Cradle to Grave, the autobiography highbrow enough to be on BBC2, came from the other Greatest Living Englishperson when Vicky Coren presented her series on How to Be a Bohemian.
I'm surprised few CD reviews there are here this year and the earlier ones were 2014 releaeses and so The Orlando Consort's recording of Loyset Compere seem to have it although there is a new Tallis Scholars release which might yet get itself ordered.
The Non-Fiction Book category is a match between Shapiro's 1606 and Bate's Ted Hughes.
Which only leaves the Best Event category, often the most interesting.

Best Event

Chris Chadwick, debut in 25 mile circuit bike race, Castle Combe
Fujita Piano Trio, Chichester Cathedral
Index Cantorum, Winchester Cathedral
Tasmin Little/Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, Portsmouth Guildhall
Southern Countertenors, Portsmouth Cathedral


 

The Saturday Nap

I don't know how I've got this far without knowing why one's best bet is called the 'nap'. It can't possibly be that you're so sure of winning that you can have a little sleep.
I like etymology without always being satisfied by being told that a word comes from Old English or Greek. Such answers only beg the question, yes but why did they call it that, in the same way that the explanation that God put everything here isn't good enough because it doesn't explain where God came from, or anything else for that matter.
But the interweb, which is always to be trusted, says that 'nap' comes from a card game called Napoleon which makes us somewhat the wiser and is good enough for me.


Now is the time that the winter game trainers start to hit form and with the likes of Philip Hobbs, Charlie Longsdon and John Ferguson all winning regularly, we might hope to avoid races where they all have runners.
On the other hand, I caught the end of an interview with Nicky Henderson on At the Races earlier in the week and he said his horses were 'ten days off' which explains why the one I did came second and why we will be looking at his runners next week, not this.
And the size of the puddles on the way home this evening suggests there might be a change in the going and proven soft ground horses might the ones to watch.
With some disastrous Saturdays behind us and a hat-trick to land, the nap is going to take some choosing this week but there are plenty of options and here's what I reckon.
I'm sure all jump racing followers would be pleased to see Simonsig make a winning return but he's worth opposing if one thinks Nicky H is giving him and Bobsworth a seasonal reappearance with a view to finding out where to go next. It might leave the race more at Purple Bay's mercy than it first looks but he may be one for the yankee rather than the nap.
In a very interesting hurdle at Wincanton, the 3.15, I'd like to take a big, old-fashioned plunge on Francis of Assisi at about 6/1 but we know Irving is a class act just below the top grade and the animal-loving saint will be another to take part in the team effort of the speculative multiple bet for small stakes.
Because while there are others in races that I'll be happy to take on, and so side with How About It (Aintree 1.20) and Our Kaempfer (1.55), there are two more solid-looking favourites to scrutinize for proper nap potential.
Definite Outcome (Aintree 12.45) looks a confident, plenty short enough, favourite, in the hope that Flying Angel doesn't quite live up to its name because I remember One Cool Scorpion's win last time out and was less than impressed.
And Arpege D'Alene (Wincanton 1.30) is jumping fences for the first time in public but Paul Nicholls usually collects his pocket money from this race and looks the best vehicle for my cash in its search for an escape route to safety at 7/4.
So, I've talked myself into it.  Arpege D'Alene is this most vital of naps with Purple Bay, Our Kaempfer and Definite Outcome in the yankee and Francis of Assisi added in for the trebles and accumalator out of 5 with whatever small change is left over.

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Jonathan Bate, Ted Hughes

Jonathan Bate, Ted Hughes, The Unauthorised Life (William Collins)

The relationship between Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath is scarred terrain by now, a battleground gone over by armies of biographers and commentators taking either side or, just occasionally, claiming to take neither. Jonathan Bate's unauthorised account is not endorsed by the Hughes estate but seems to find a balanced approach among the welter of unbalanced evidence. While certainly not an apologist for Ted, as one might read Elaine Feinstein's biography, Bate is most critical of the feminist campaign against him but very early on one is already taking the point that the personalities in the mix, at first a great creative partnership, were too dangerous when put together for anything but a tragic outcome.
For those of us not there at the time (which is by now most of us), it's hard to appreciate the impact of Hughes' first poems on the literary world. Although he had forebears in the likes of D.H. Lawrence and Gerard Manley Hopkins, the like of him had not been seen before. Bate draws parallels between Hughes and Plath and Wordsworth and Coleridge where the former are 'elegiac' and the latter 'mythic'. I think he was right the first time when he made Hughes 'mythic' but it's a useful register to keep in mind.
Hughes' early celebrity puts the ambitious Sylvia under some pressure but by the end of the book, and long after Sylvia's death, the point has been made more than once that, after Crow, Hughes was producing uneven poetry not redeemed until the Tales from Ovid, his reputation substantially dependent on his first three volumes after which he was 'blocked' and it is only some release found in writing the Ovid, published in 1997, that recovers his best work with the realization that he had been suffering from Sylvia's suicide for that long, 35 years. For me, and I'm sure for many others, Sylvia was always the better poet.
There are some fine paradoxes to be found in comparisons to be made between Hughes and his polar opposite and great 'rival' in poetry, Philip Larkin. When Hughes is having difficulty choosing between three girlfriends, one can't help but remember that, for some time. so was Larkin; they both developed into right-wing political 'thinkers' and were the two most influential English poets of their generation representing two very different attitudes. But for all that Hughes' charisma, animal magnetism and intense charm made him a hugely successful sexual predator, Larkin dithered and spent as much time trying to keep women out of his life as in it. Judging the Arvon Poetry Competition together (with Seamus Heaney and Charles Causley), Hughes finds it,
interesting to observe Larkin (whose literary taste Ted described as 'spermicide')

but we might now consider the relative merits of the overwhelming in relation to the ironic and understated and realize the inevitable limits of machismo and credit Larkin with more than enough scepticism to forego the obsession with horoscopes, mysticism and other assorted hokum. The restlessness of Hughes' life contrasts with Larkin's administrative, provinicial professional life not tainted with quite the same thoroughgoing lurid detail of the most alpha of alpha males.
Ted's first meeting with Sylvia, at the literary launch party, is on page 103. By page 111 we are already aware that it has become dangerously passionate on both sides and by page 141, Sylvia is already suspicious of Ted's affairs with other women. That didn't take long but one might not have been aware of it at all thus far in Elaine Feinstein's equivalent book.
Ted's sister, and henceforth agent, Olwyn, doesn't like Sylvia, who is 'high maintenance', and perhaps sees any of Ted's lovers as an unwelcome intrusion, but the irresistable Assia Weevil is an affair that can't help itself either in an awful Shakesperean hendiadys, the sort of doubling that complicates a plot endlessly, but not quite as endlessly as when we later realize that the influential critic, Al Alvarez, was involved with both Sylvia and Assia as well. It is no wonder that Nathaniel Tarn is credited with saying how it brought to mind a Greek play. There would have been plenty available to make the same observation if he hadn't.
Ted is the 'caged jaguar', wanting to be free of domestic responsibilities, and also presumably wanting to be free of threats to kill him from Assia's husband, David, who apparently had the knife to do it with. But although Ted might long for some imagined 'bohemian' life for himself, he was ready enough to propose a 'constitution' full of rules by which he and Assia could live together. It involved cooking duties, bedtime for the children, getting up time, to only be altered 'by agreement', cataloguing of expenses, none of which suggest a carefree way of living, and one must admire Assia's resilient reply,
Teddy dear, forget the detail.

But however much faith one puts in Bate's scholarly accumulation of such intimate domestic detail, that which is not evidenced by such documents is as unreliable as any other rumour or gossip because Ted is a habitual liar when it suits his purposes and so, it seems, do most other witnesses only see their own partial view of complicated goings on and give their version of them.
Ted's good taste is proven by the need for a mention here of his liking for Maddy Prior's singing as he published his own book, Gaudete, as well as the inclusion of Spem in Alium, a favourite piece of music, in his memorial service but Gaudete is surely one of the most misogynist poems in the language, not somehow surprisingly the only piece in the Collected Poems represented in extracts. This is unfortunate material to have to report in the chapter before Bate has to narrate the 'Arraignment' in the dreadful poetry but incendiary accusation of Robin Morgan,
I accuse
Ted Hughes
of.....
...
the murder of Sylvia Plath

and, yes, there still are people who think that if they've found a suitable rhyme like that 'accuse/Hughes', then they already have a poem.
But it is perhaps under the legal, personal and political pressure like this, unbearable as it must have been, that one might feel some sympathy for the failure of machismo, the inability to do the right thing, the innate inability that we all have to be anything other than what we are, that eventually we feel some sympathy for Ted, which was supposedly endorsed by the publication of the Birthday Letters.

However, tremendous best seller that it was, those poems were still more free verse confession and an attempt at absolvement than they were great poetry and their best-seller status was more about voyeurism than an appreciation of art for art's sake.
Before a very useful precis of Hughes' elaborate argument in the Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being, which makes its very personal interpretation of Shakespeare seem in some ways plausible (although, of course, everybody finds themselves in Shakespeare and Hughes only does so at much greater length), Bate devotes a chapter to a litany of lovers in later life, not only suggesting as possibilities Angela Carter and Edna O'Brien but a very significant one in a flat in South London who, thankfully, remains unnamed.
At last, there is a stone unturned, something not to be known because, quite honestly, who would want to ever write a poem that was any good if your life was going to be investigated to this degree.
As with Larkin, every available letter is scrutinized, every rumour is investigated, every casual remark or greeting on a birthday card has to be published. In thirty five years or so, we have moved from an orthodoxy in which the text of the poems was the only object of enquiry to an intense investigation of the author and every nuance of all their traumas. Ted Hughes might have had more traumas than most but everybody has them.
Not much of this sheds light on the composition of The Thought-Fox or Hawk Roosting because Sylvia was still alive when they were written. Not long after that, the rest, for Sylvia, was silence but Ted's pain went on for decades, fishing for salmon with the Queen Mother on the choicest rivers, publishing special editions for as much money as he could ask but generally not being much of a Poet Laureate. Not his fault but neither did he deserve either the acclaim or quite the approbrium that he received. Whereas Sylvia, as far as we can tell, under the pressures that she was under, was quite some extraordinary talent and much of the credit for preserving and editing that work must go to Ted.
Jonathan Bate has done us a great service in providing this book which one, as ever, feels some guilt reading. It wanders a bit towards the end, losing its chronological thread, trying to tie up loose themes and then adds a coda that perhaps could have been shorter but, if you want to be as definitive as you're allowed, it has to be done.
It's unputdownable but I can't possibly go through it all again so now it's also unpickupable.
Ted Hughes will surely be remembered in future times as a significant poet of the C20th but, more than that, I hope and think, What will survive of us is Larkin.