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.

Sunday, 27 March 2016

Oh, Babe, What Would You Say

Mr. Giles Coren - yes, him again - celebrated the Shakespeare anniversary with a characteristic piece of his own, in his own imitable way, in The Times yesterday, bemoaning the number of ways the anniversary is being marked. He offered twenty examples of such but some of them were made up by him, like satire. It was supposed to be difficult for us to tell which were real and which were jokes but it wasn't difficult for me because, for instance, one of the items was a new book recently published and my copy of it arrived the same morning.
It must be difficult for him to think of a new thing to write about each week, and his much classier sister also  struggles in today's Observer, but, notwithstanding some memorable pieces (the restaurant review in which he said the mayonnaise tasted like it came out of a bottle but the cole slaw tasted like it had come out of a baby), Giles will need to do better than reverting to heavy-handed diatribes in future.
To some of us the Shakespeare anniversary is of interest. Giles doesn't have to look at them if he doesn't agree in the same way that I don't watch television programmes about what food people ate in olden days. Last night's Channel 4 documentary on Shakespeare's Tomb was useful but could have fitted in a mention of the bust in Holy Trinity Church (and when did it change from apparently being one of his dad) without losing any of the tomb story; this 400th anniversary of his death has brought some issues to the attention of a wider audience than those of us self-appointed to think and write about them.
I'll live and let live as far as Giles is concerned in future and let him groan away unacknowledged as he clings on to his Times job because there might be readers who enjoy it. And I'll look forward to beginning Simon Andrew Stirling's Shakespeare's Bastard, the Life of William Davenant shortly.  A review of that will thus be the next Shakespeare feature here as long as it doesn't annoy Giles too much.
Because I have only just finished Hunter Davies' hugely readable biography of William Wordsworth. I'm not a great admirer of Wordsworth or Romantic poetry in general but thought I ought to give them more of a chance than enjoying Keats's sumptuousness but not so much his continual swooning.
One doesn't need to be a Wordsworth fan to enjoy Hunter's lucid, lively account of the life. The poet is at times a comic figure- precious, earnest and, in his early years, idealistic and radical before becoming a Tory. His poetry, after long struggles towards critical and commercial recognition, came to 'set the taste by which it was judged' in the same way that T.S. Eliot's eminent dual role of critic and poet is said to have allowed his to do. 200 years later it is still Wordsworth's style of poetry that many non-poetry readers understand to be 'poetry', that is rhyming celebrations of innocence, nature, beauty and suchlike in an entirely unironic way. Each chapter of Hunter's book ends with a poem relevant to the events just described and we are reminded of how many fine lines Wordsworth wrote, not least,
The world is too much with us; late and soon

but the shifting alliances and fallings out between poets, the domestic dependance on the many female companions, the financial arrangements (while the lesser poet, Southey, is doing so much better for himself) and the touching seriousness are all parts of this highly recommended biography that ends with the great man venerable and venerated, born before but outliving the second generation of Romantics into still vigourous old age.
If it didn't much increase my estimation of Wordsworth, it did for Hunter Davies.
But if my estimation of anybody went up this week, it was Barack Obama. Seeing not much, but enough, of Inside Obama's White House, it readily became clear that you don't appreciate what you have until it's gone. He probably was already well-placed among presidents of the USA, a very strong candidate in what for several decades has not been a very competitive field, but these programmes at least gave the impression that he is rare among contemporary politicians (and certainly most of ours) in that he achieved office in order to try to do something with it and not just to satisfy his own vanity.
As the process to find his successor continues, one can only shudder at the possibility that one of such dignity, purpose and some achievement with circumstances set so firmly against him, could be replaced with one so lacking in any such moral, worthwhile or even simply presentable qualities.
Which, on a less global scale, could have been said about some of the weekend's sport. I'm not thinking quite so much of the admirable Roy Hodgson's young England side's performanmce in Germany which was fine but might not be repeatable if they meet Germany again in a proper match in the summer.
I liked Ben Stokes's innings v. Sri Lanka. Faced one ball, the last of the allotted 20 overs, and hit it for 6. The ultimate 'cameo', exactly the sort of performance I always aspired to but, sadly for me, I had to face more than one ball and I didn't always connect quite as well with the second one.
But, closer to my heart, wallet and the all-important profit and loss account versus the bookmaker. Post-Cheltenham, I thought I'd have a rest until Aintree but you can't help having a look. And, if you have a look, one can persuade oneself to have a dabble. There was No Duffer, who I remembered seeing at Cheltenham last April well-backed and showing up well. So I thought, 8/1, second last time out, it might be his time of year. So, if I'm going to do that, there's a good favourite for a novice hurdle here, a sound proposition at Newton Abbot later on and we can round it all off with the much-vaunted California Chrome in the biggest prize anywhere in the world at Meydan.
It happened once before, some decades ago, Oh, I don't think I'll bother. Oh, go on, then. 
And they all won very impressively and one feels like Sgt. Bilko in a famous episode in which he believes that he has the Midas touch and nothing can possibly go wrong. Just for one day, you somehow know that you are going to win. Odds of 6/5, 8/1, 5/2 and 2/1 multiply up to roughly 200/1 so it's a pity I hadn't come up with this 4 out of 4 coup after long hours of study and actually believed in it or else I migt have invested appropriately. But, just the same as when it all goes wrong, it is only money but California Chrome, who brought it all together at the end, can have his picture on here by way of showing my gratitude.

Wednesday, 23 March 2016

Catullus translated by Daisy Dunn

The Poems of Catullus, a new translation by Daisy Dunn (William Collins)

There's a bit more to translating Latin than my grounding in the discipline from 40 years ago allows for. Having been told quite categorically that amo, amare was the verb for both 'to love' and 'to like', I immediately wondered, in Catullus 72, how a translator could differentiate two meanings from the same word in a line like,
                               Because such a wound compels a lover
To love more, but to like less.

So I go back to my Bristol Classical Press edition, with commentary by Kenneth Quinn, to see if amare was the word used both times. This remarkable volume was clearly a mistake purchase because it has Latin text only but the poems begin on page 1, the commentary on page 88 and the index on page 457, such is the magnificent detail of the notes.
Of course, the original line does not use the same word for both senses but we have,
sed bene uelle minus

which the note tells us has the sense of 'being fond of' before providing much further enlightenment.

It is a brilliant poem that captures a complex emotional contradiction but the eternal problem with poetry in translation is that, unless one is fluent in the original language (in which case you don't need a translation), one only has the translator's word for it. Poetry can only exist in its first language and the translator has to choose between a number of options how to render the poem into another.
Our versions of Ovid at school were accurate prose translations of the meaning of the words. Our aim was to get good marks in exams rather than create an alternative poetic masterpiece so we learned the whole set book in translation and in the exam only had to recognize the beginning, write down our version from memory and realize when we had to stop. That part of the exam was more a memory game than a test of translating ability but it worked and the results achieved by Mr. Winstanley's class were tremendous.
Nevill Coghill's Canterbury Tales reproduce Chaucer's couplets but such a strategy can lead one into needing a rhyme and not having any available word, and Peter Dale's versions of Francois Villon surely reduce the medieval French poetry in places to a condition of doggerel somewhat below the quality of the first-hand text. The other option is to make a whole new poem from the author's but that seems to me to make the translation more the poem of the translator than the poet. It is a difficult subject and one needs to be careful. When I wrote about Tomas Transtromer a few months ago, I found myself re-tweeted by a poet who does some translating and she said I was a 'poetry translation sceptic'.
Well, yes, I am. But having enjoyed Daisy Dunn's life of Catullus and finding that my edition of the poems didn't have translations, I thought I'd better get her versions. I was convinced there was a book of translations here somewhere because I thought I had a book so old and prudish that it refused to even Bowdlerize poem 16. But I can't find it and I don't know how anybody could produce a version of 16 in any other terms anyway although it must be said that Kenneth's Quinn's commentary is more than somewhat circumlocutory, and eventually decides,
We may translate line 1 with Copley, 'Nuts to you, boys, nuts and go to hell'. But the literal, obscene meaning, though submerged, remains available...
Oh, really.

Those of us who remember the outrage summoned up by some of the less literary daily newspapers when Channel 4 broadcast Tony Harrison's v, in 1985, can only guess at how many burst bloodvessels they would have suffered had Catullus been writing then.
It's no big deal, is it. Daisy's Catullus is a laugh out loud collection. I refer you to 15, 32 and 33, among any number of others but I'm not going to quote the highlights here because my mother and father sometimes look to see what I've been writing about. Catullus is forthright, frank and unabashed in such poems and probably best known for them but he can also be exquisite and when one sees, in 70, 
         'But what a lady says to a lover in the moment
Ought to be written on the wind and running water.'

one remembers that poems are made out of other poems, books out of other books, everything comes from somewhere else and either Keats' epitaph was not as original as we thought or great minds do think alike.
But Daisy is clearly a poet in her own right as well as a classical scholar. These new translations are elegant, very thoughtfully made and highly readable. In an inspired piece of translating, she uses modern French, as she explains in the introduction, to recreate Catullus' use of Celtic words where the usual Latin wouldn't do because his native Verona was 'a part of Gaul for as long as he lived'.
Poetry-in-translation-sceptic I may be but the point I was making about Transtromer, and it applies again here, is that a translator with both a complete grasp of the original and a genuine talent for poetry of their own can make hugely satisfying versions that represent the poem authentically in another language.
And, for those who get beyond the shorter poems, those pieces of reportage from his social life in which he was never backwards in coming forward or prepared to call a spade anything less than a combine harvester, there are the magna opera with titles in the 60's. It's as if Shakespeare was known for having characters called Bottom, some innuendo in Twelfth Night about 'her C's, her U's and her T's', and the range of insults that emanate from Thersites and was never given credit for the profundity of Hamlet or Lear but a genuine bad boy is only convincing if he can show he can do the proper job as well (let's have a footnote here to make it look more academic). Catullus was the real thing and as translator, scholar and poet in her own right, so is Daisy Dunn.
My own few versions of Ovid were 'poems' made into 10-syllable lines, to at least acknowledge that Ovid wrote in strict metre, but they were done from other translations and I only glanced back at the Latin to see if I hadn't strayed too far from the primary source. I wouldn't claim to belong anywhere in the same league as Seamus Heaney or Sean O'Brien but I suspect they had a similar strategy in their respective Aeneid's and Dante's if we really knew. I doubt if Daisy needed as many artificial (sic) aids, though, and that is evident from the freshness of these poems.
I've never had a book of translations on my shortlist for Best Collection of the Year before and I usually include only books of poems first published in the year, rather than poems written over 2000 years ago,    
but I'll begin this year's notes towards a shortlist with this book and make up a rule about that later.   

NOTE. Just attaching the 'labels' to this effortless exercise in shallow name-dropping, I did at least swerve the opportunity to list such names as George Best, Pete Doherty and Alex Higgins as examples of 'bad boys who could do the proper job as well'.

Monday, 21 March 2016

My Life in Sport - Cycling, part 2

I don't know now why I didn't ride any events in 1993. My diary from then shows over 4000 miles of training rides on the same, increasingly familiar roads round Hambledon and surrounding countryside but I decided not to trouble the timekeepers.
1992 had been a graduation year, the highlight probably chasing the mother of a professional rider for the first half of a 50 at Ringwood, catching her just before halfway and leaving her behind equally gradually in the second half. 2.24.09 wasn't brilliant but it was a big improvement on the other two 50's I'd done at less than 20 mph. The point was that all the training I could do was only enough to make me fit to take part, not good enough to be competitive. I had read a book called Training to Win by Les Woodland which said if you followed his advice you'd be fine as long as you hadn't spent the last ten years drinking Guinness and watching horse racing. Oh, I see.
In August, I had the rare time-trialling experience of being caught twice by a tandem that had started in front of me. If bicycle time trials were well enough understood by the general public, it would be a story worthy of a call to The Danny Baker Show but sadly it loses too much in the time taken to explain why that can't happen. But, if you really want to know, the tandems set off first. One of them took an early wrong turning but found their way back onto the course. I was one of the first solo riders to start and went the right way where they had gone wrong so was then ahead of them by the time they were back on the right road and caught me. But then they packed, went back to the start and, entirely against the rules, were allowed another go, and subsequently caught me again. Yes, it's an esoteric joke and about as funny to most people as a joke in Latin (like Caesar adsum iam forte, Brutus aderat
But 1994 was a sort of 'coming of age', as much as there was going to be one. Just to take part in a 12 Hour was an ambition that seemed too ambitious but, once one is gripped by obsession and feel the need to do it, such things are worth a go. The Tour de France came to Portsmouth that year, starting and finishing on the seafront after a circuit that took in Winchester, Andover, Basingstoke and back down via the short, sharp climbs at South Harting and West Marden. Miguel Indurain was the big star of the day, Chris Boardman was showing up well; Greg Lemond was an elder statesman and the likes of Djamoldine Abdouzhaprov, Claudio Chaipucci and Gianni Bugno were contenders. A ride round the course on the day before the race came at an ideal time to do my longest ride yet. I think it was 107 miles, and I was encouraged that all those I rode with gradually dropped off my back wheel and I got back in the 7 hours I had made a target. Sorry if that seems a bit anti-social but training is training. As was to be seen later, it's all very well these speed merchants who could do 25's and 50's several minutes faster than me but I was interested in riding all day and it began to look as if I was better at it than some of them.
But the season had begun with a ride to Swindon for the hilly Aldbourne time trial of uncertain distance but officially 42k. It was two laps of undulating Wiltshire roads with my Mum and Dad as timekeepers sitting in their car at halfway, and I was catching a rider as we came to them. Never one to turn down the opportunity of some cheap showboating, I stayed in behind the rider and gestured to the officials to say 'look at me, I've caught him' and it took me a long time to realize what a bad idea that was. It can be seen from the grainy picture what an athlete I was then, with a Volvo struggling to get by me on that very same hill. But why not go past him so they can see you do it, not prat about like a loony. It must have cost me ten seconds or more and a proper rider like my dad would have realized as much.

Never mind, a 1.10.01 for 25 miles from Emsworth to Bognor and back was memorable for being the closest I got to beating 1.10.00, not much of a benchmark in itself, but my dad's best time at the distance at a similar age had been 1.09.59. But one should never be without an excuse. Blimey, you should have seen the turn, a tight mini roundabout on the way into Bognor and the gravel on the road there. I virtually had to stop to turn round and that must have cost more than three seconds.
But the miles were stacking up and the August Bank Holiday Sunday was the date with destiny where I would try to at least complete a 12 Hour. It was one thing to find yourself on the same start sheet as such heroes as Andy Cook, Keith Wright and Gwen Shillaker but anybody could pay the entry fee to achieve that. The idea was first of all to finish, then do 200 miles and anything beyond that was a bonus.
One arrives at Sutton Benger before the sun rises but miraculously, it does rise and it is light just before the first rider sets off at one minute past six. I went off at seven minutes past, I had an energy drink, a bottle of water, three bananas, flapjack and some hideous, sweet chewy bars that got spat back out over the road the first time I bit into one. I was like a two-wheeled snack bar mooching through the quiet of the early morning, unable to think I'd be doing it all day, whether in Wiltshire or Gloucestershire, and you do have to do it in stages. I had no idea how fast to go, took it steadily and was 6th slowest of the 31 finishers over the first 25 miles to Tetbury.
All you have to do as a rider is the riding. I was very grateful for help from the late, great Dave Stephens, my brother-in-law, my mother and sisters, who had the more difficult job of working out where I was and finding a lay-by to hand up more fuel. I was the engine and, as it turned out, a well-tuned one but an engine doesn't work without fuel. I think it worked out at 8 bananas, some flapjacks, a pre-vegetarian ham sandwich at lunchtime with a quick cup of tea at Burford, very approximately 100 miles done in 5 hours, where I could climb over a gate onto the corner of a golf course to symbolically pass comment on the sport of golf (and it's only now I remember that I've written about this before) before turning back south into a headwind. And that was the stretch that decided whether you were going to make it or not.
Some riders don't know what it's going to be like and realize they have overdone it early doors. In three 12 Hours that I rode, the great Andy Cook didn't finish but that wasn't because he couldn't do it or that he was afraid of being seen off by me, it was because he wasn't on schedule for 270 miles, or whatever, so he got off after 8 or 9 hours and rode another event the following week. But, then again, head to head at that event, Me 3, Cookie nil. You wouldn't have thought that.  
So, the afternoon passes with records like Kingston Town by UB40 playing along in your head steadily, you might not see another rider for half an hour but just hope you're not lost somewhere in Norfolk. Then there's somebody who had gone by you in the morning stopped in a lay-by. And, thank heavens, there's a new bottle of water, some people you don't know shouting encouragement, you can do all sorts of maths in your head to work out how far you might have gone, what time it is and, since you don't feel too bad, it looks as if it's going very well. But the event finishes on a circuit (this one of about 15 miles), so that it can be calculated how far you've ridden.
Arriving on the finishing circuit, where in those days there would be a bit of a crowd of local cycling cognoscenti, was something like the Entry into Jerusalem. You might still have an hour or two to go but surely you've made it now. It was like an extended lap of honour. I stopped by the car where Dave was, poured water all over me, squirted some sponges down my neck and asked for some more energy drink.
We've run out. You've had it all.
What else have we got.
These cans of Lucozade.
Okay, then. 
And that lemon and lime fizzy drink was one of the best I've ever had. Those trips round and round the lanes were glorious, one particularly memorable stretch with the wind behind me, I zoomed past a few riders like they were standing still and, my dad having his detailed split times, it proved that I was sixth fastest on the finishing circuit. Somehow better than all those junior and teenage goals scored multiplied by the runs and wickets. It was even sport, really, it was something else entirely   The final score of 214.895 was beyond all expectation and I had a t-shirt made with it printed on. Most people probably thought, if they thought about it at all, that it was the wavelength of an obscure radio station. But there we were, 12 Hours. I have hardly shut up about it since, as you can see. 15th out of 31 finishers, which doesn't include the six that didn't finish or the two that didn't start.
Not before or since would any such mission be accomplished (by me). But I'm afraid there's more of it yet and so My Life in Sport, Cycling is going to have to go into part 3.
Riding back to Portsmouth in 4 and a half hours a couple of days after a 12 never seemed like much of a ride then.      

Friday, 18 March 2016

Oh, Babe, What Would You Say

Sometimes I finish reading a book, think about it and realize I'm not sure what happened. Many years ago, it took a while to find out that I'd misread The Fall by Camus; I had to re-read The Sense of an Ending to get that right and I'm sure there were others.
Finishing The Return of the Native this week, I wondered about the death of Eustacia Vye, a candidate for my Top 6 Fictional Characters whenever I compile such a list. She drowns in a whirlpool with Wildeve hanging on to her but although I had taken it to be suicide, I wasn't sure. In olden days, of course, one had to look back at the book but nowadays you only have to put 'Eustacia Vye suicide' into the interweb to see what it says. And I was gratified to be exonerated by reading that the point is moot and academic papers have been written about it. But surely, she is a victim of circumstances and of her own nature and Hardy wouldn't expect us to think it was an accident.
There is a note towards the end that Hardy's original intention- and thus the genuine artistic meaning- was to end differently with Diggory Venn wandering off without trace and Thomasin remaining a widow but it seems that the serialization required a happier ending so Venn is cleaned up and marries Thomasin. It seems less likely but it wouldn't be the first unlikely thing to happen in Hardy.
Clym's idealism leaves him as a preacher, reformed in a way but perhaps not entirely happily but at least with the wisdom that,
instead of men aiming to advance in life with glory they should calculate how to retreat out of it without shame.
And Hardy's deterministic view is a good one to have on your side when expressing scepticism about the uses of worldly ambition. The incompatability of Clym and Eustacia due to their different ambitions is just one more masterpiece of Hardy's understanding of human nature.
But such a view wouldn't get you very far at Cheltenham races.
What an exhilarating week that was. What a rigmarole of ups and downs and roller-coaster rides to end up about quits, with the ante post stake money retrieved and reviewing just how many more winners one had to back to make a good profit. In fact, I could have exchanged half a dozen small successes for Yanworth winning on Wednesday and I'd have been fine but I went in and came out in one piece and that'll do.
I'm not sure if there's ever been a race meeting quite like it. A Top 6 of Great Moments from four days of racing would have to include Sprinter Sacre's heroic regaining of the Two Mile Championship; Thistlecrack landing the nap in consummate style was tremendous and what does next year's Gold Cup look like with him, Vautour, Don Cossack and the return of Coneygree; Bobsworth was tremendous, staying on into third in the World Hurdle; Annie Power proved the likes of me wrong in the Champion Hurdle and, by no means least, Vicky Pendleton exceeded all expectations in the Foxhunters.
It was exhausting and I need a few days off to get over it.
One could possibly become accustomed to retirement, having taken quite readily to a rhythm that involved the knife-edge decision of whether to get up in time to see The Morning Line, perform a few small maintenance jobs in the morning in an attempt to feel worthy, find that Sky Arts had a Great Culture Quiz on at lunchtime,  and then watch throughout the afternoons as cash seemed to ebb away before flowing back in as if such tides were caused by the Moon. It was a shame that a few books on order didn't actually get delivered while I was in but they can wait.
I don't know if there has been a downturn in the unsolicited phone call industry but there were fewer than is usual. The one that rang just after Yanworth had got beaten must have regretted the timing of their automated call; the one who was 'opening lines of communication' between their investment company and me wasn't able to keep them open for long and BT rang twice in three days.
If you can't think of any other way of diverting their attention from their script, I recommend asking for the full name of their company, the address they are phoning from and other such details. Most of them soon give up.
Never answer any of their questions, take the initiative and keeping asking them any question you can think of.
Who is your current internet provider.
I'm not telling you. Who's yours?

Wednesday, 16 March 2016

Some Pieces about Shakespeare

There are any number of catchy titles for books or essays or plays or anything about Shakespeare and so let me not try to think of another.

There will soon be many things in progress to mark the 400th anniversary of the death of the writer. And why not. The Proms and other such festivals regularly make anniversaries that end in 00, 50, 25 or even 75 a reason to celebrate a creative artist. It shouldn't really need such justification and, in the case of Shakespeare, it usually doesn't. But if only he hadn't gone out drinking with Ben Jonson and Michael Drayton in Stratford on that fateful evening in mid-April, 1616, he might still be with us now.

The reason Shakespeare is quite so famous depends entirely on the writing, and most of that in the plays, but the last time I actually saw a play by him it was a memorably bad Hamlet with Rory Kinnear as the prince looking like Wayne Rooney and I'd seen better Hamlets, supported by better casts, locally than think I should go to the National Theatre to see that. Out of many favourites, I still wonder at the Southsea Shakespeare Actors' production with Fran Lewis, by no means the first girl to play the part as the androgyne, impish prince.

That I've not since been to the theatre to see any play since that bad Hamlet is more to do with lack of suitable opportunity than any trauma suffered as a result of it but, heaven forbid, I have found Shakespeare's life more interesting than his plays- however wrong that might be- ever since hearing about a new way in to the biography. That idea, introduced by my friend, has been mentioned here and elsewhere a few times now - was that the twins, Hamnet and Judith, were not Shakespeare's children by were fathered by his Stratford mate, Hamnet Sadler. The more one comes to accept the idea, the more that the life of Shakespeare can be coherently written. But we are not madmen or conspiracy theorists in search of a chance to make our name. It's just a sensible idea that subverts 420 years of misdirection.

Thus, we have explored that idea more than once here. A few weeks ago there was the summary of why Shakespeare is so very, very likely to have been the author of the work attributed to him and there will soon be the succinct examination of the dedication of the Sonnets, written for a meeting of the Portsmouth Poetry Society.
But there's plenty more to do, which might include a piece on if or why the plays are written in four approximately discrete chapters in the oeuvre (that is, Histories; Comedies; Tragedies; Romances); some thoughts on the identity of the Dark Lady; the provenance of any supposed likeness of the writer and what can be sensibly deduced from the will.
It's early days in the year yet. The anniversary won't be over once April 23 is gone.

Oh, Sprinter Sacre, What Would You Say

Not for the first time, the majesty of horse racing makes it possible to have had a bad day at sport but be absolutely thrilled by the result. Can you imagine football supporters investing all their time, cash and tribal 'passion' into watching their team get beat but rejoice that another team had won.
I came out of yesterday's races at Cheltenham with the plan intact. Vroum Vroum Mag delivered to put me exactly where I wanted to be even if I deserved more actual cash than just the credit I get for tipping Altior to beat Min. But the plan revolved around Yanworth keeping up the good work today. Ruby got the run of the race whereas Barry Geraghty didn't and I can only say it would have been closer had it been otherwise but I'm not claiming to be unlucky. If you want to cling to dubious hard luck stories like that then you shouldn't be betting on horse racing. Then More of That broke blood vessels which sounds horrible and after the three equine fatalities yesterday and the controversies surrounding slopey-backed Alsatians at Crufts, I did once again question if being vegetarian is enough of a statement about caring for animals. But that discussion is for another time.
I wasn't going to get too involved in the Champion Chase because I wasn't convinced about Un De Sceaux as a wonder horse any more than I thought any of the three previous champions could come back. I stuck with the 33/1 outsider I backed nearly a year ago, Sizing Granite, for almost no money whatsoever, who hit the first and pulled up not long after.
But I have always said, since I saw him at Newbury as a novice, that Sprinter Scare was the best horse I've seen in the flesh. That includes Desert Orchid, Dancing Brave, Burrough Hill Lad, See You Then, Warning, Nashwan and two Gold Cup winners not good enough to be listed. I thought he was the jumping equivalent of Frankel, the flat wonder horse, but heart problems put him out of the game until a brave comeback didn't quite convince that he was still the same horse.
Until today when he goes up alongside the new pretender two out and goes by him very convincingly and sees him off. Absolutely brilliant.
Like they are saying about Douvan now, I always thought he could win over any distance and would go on to be a Gold Cup horse (I also thought Frankel could have had a shot at the Arc but enough's enough) but his health scare has kept him to two miles and now, at 10 years old, maybe this comeback miracle is more than could have been hoped for.
It's such a shame that the human stories are those that get heard. Of course, great 'training performance' by the lovely Nicky Henderson and very good for Nico de Boinville who now has the ride, who used to ride him out when Geraghty rode him in races, who has now moved on to a more lucrative contract. It's those that can speak our language that get interviewed but it is, and has always been, the horses that do the running. As Lester Piggott once explained to a disgruntled owner on whose horse he had got beaten, who said he should have gone sooner, 'I couldn't come without the horse'.
The horse just gets a bucket of water thrown over him and then has to have his photograph taken. These jumping horses are geldings and don't have careers at stud to 'look forward to'.  Oh, Sprinter Sacre, what would you say.

So, at half-time, at Cheltenham, I'm definitely losing now. Bookmakers are much kinder than they used to be and I get another chance with my Yanworth stake because he was second. But I certainly need to get that one right. I don't quite understand the hullabaloo caused by Vautour going to the Ryanair Chase rather than the Gold Cup. I had him in a yankee, running in the Ryanair, a while ago because he was outstayed by Cue Card in the King George in a shorter race on a flat track.  So perhaps I'll make a second half comeback and do a Sprinter Sacre all of my own. But I'm not quite as talented so it'll probably be a fallback on to one of two options. Either, well, it's only money or, I'll involve myself in poetry for a while. I have just written my piece for the Poetry Club's session on Shakespeare's sonnets for their meeting near the 400th anniversay of the death and that was very therapeutic (writing the piece, not the death). It will be here in due course and then there should be yet more things as my contribution to the anniversary. It's the least I can do.

Sunday, 13 March 2016

Oh, Babe, What Would You Say

The exhibition in Somerset House, By me William Shakespeare provided us with as long as we wanted to scrutinize some original documents with hardly anybody else in the way. One imagines that a timed ticket means that the organizers are expecting a rush and I had been concerned that we might be part of a crowd, shoving and elbowing each other in front of such titanic documents in the Shakespeare biography industry as the will and calling out things like, Yes, I definitely caught sight of some of it then.
There was no such worry. If there had been an influx of scholarly interest when the exhibition opened, it has apparently abated. This wasn't a play, a film or even a talk. It is a small but quite choice selection of documents relating to the theatre, legal papers but mainly the much debated last will and testament. And this is the advantage of having such esoteric interests. You may struggle for the privilege to pay a small fortune to watch Chelsea, or any other random selection of talented mercenaries, play football if you feel the need to but gazing at a few pieces of 400 year old paper is not a problem.
The famous insertion where he leaves his second best bed to Ann is, like the Queen, much smaller in real life than you thought. Those, tiny, tiny words squeezed in, for whatever reason, by the scribe are legible enough, though, if you already know what they say. But what they can be made to mean, not just what they mean, is another matter.
Of course, every Shakespeare biographer is sure of their own interpretation, many of them with a zeal that puts to shame any claim they make to being scholars, a term that one might hope would bring with it qualities like objectivity, a balanced and considered approach and a disinclination to declare war on anybody who disagrees.
My friend and colleague in this endeavour are not like that, of course. We differ from the others in the two most important respects, that we have arrived at the right answers and, apart from those ideas already shared with the world (elsewhere here, for example), that we're not in any hurry to make our case. But you'll see.
Time does go by far too quickly in the right company and although it was Friday that we went, I'm still digesting all the things we talked about. One thing sparks the next idea and, before you know it, there's little Caitlin Moran, for once not pulling a funny face, noticing us noticing her going into the National Gallery and the great thing is- she doesn't know who were are.
But something sent me off down The Strand wondering just how magnificent an age we live in, and possibly not very. Are we by now so knowing, so postmodern and so chic that nothing's any good any more. Who will be the names from 2016 that will be remembered in 100, 200, 300 or 400 years' time. There are those who seem to advocate the idea that everything's of worth and there is no 'canon', that we are now so liberal (some of us), so au fait and confident that we've gone beyond that. I don't know if that is 'relativism' but I can't believe that future historians will look back and say that everything from hip-hop to graffiti and soap operas to Robbie Savage dancing were worthy of representing the best we could do.
I have another, non-literary, friend who sometimes asks why the Booker Prize is never given to an author like Ben Elton but always to something more highbrow. Well, I recently decided how to explain that and as a mark of respect to Keith Emerson, now's a good time to share it. My friend likes pop music such as Yes, ELP and Wishbone Ash which is fine but, to my mind, pop music that took itself quite seriously. But he perhaps doesn't regard Sugar, Sugar by The Archies, or such artists as David Cassidy, Cliff Richard or perhaps even T.Rex as in the same league whereas I think they are better. He wouldn't envisage putting any David Cassidy record above one by Yes. So, there you are. Quod Erat Demonstrandum, that's what the Booker Prize is like.
But -sorry, got sidelined there, you can see what it gets like - what was it like 100, 200, 300 and 400 years ago compared to now in, say, British poetry (it's hard to extend into other languages in poetry), Western music and painting.
In 1916, there was T.S.Eliot; Sibelius (Symphony no.5, no less, revised after a first performance in 1915); Picasso.
In 1816, Keats; Beethoven; J.M.W. Turner was 31.
In 1716, Alexander Pope was 28; J.S. Bach; the timeline I've just looked at gives me Hogarth, he'll do.
And in 1616, Shakespeare was still alive, for a bit of it; Monteverdi, for heaven's sake; Rembrandt was only 10 and so had his best work ahead of him but there was Rubens and Frans Hals.

2016 is unlucky to have been recently deprived of Seamus Heaney; John Tavener, Gorecki; Lucien Freud.
What we are left with is, I don't know- Tony Harrison; Philip Glass; David Hockney, all of them the same age as my parents and I'm not young. And some will be quick to point out that I've not mentioned any women there. Well, I'm ready when you are.

The early C21st will surely have its names to represent it. They may not be those we think of as pre-eminent now. Telemann was apparently a much more celebrated composer in his day than Bach. There might be some poet, largely unregarded in their lifetime, whose work is rediscovered but, no, don't look at me when I say that.
It feels as if art has out-thought itself and arrived at an impasse but I'm sure it hasn't. Every age seems to think of itself as a crisis point but, so far, so good, things have continued somehow.
I hope they'll be playing David Bowie in 400 years' time but the point of it might be lost on them.
I could have said Handel rather than Bach for 1716. Very little comes between me and honouring both of them on this side idolatry as much as any. I know and often say that all books are made from other books, all music made from other music, etc. I didn't have the opportunity to say it first if Eliot said it in Tradition and the Individual Talent 40 years before I was born. But there's a sense in which you can take from what went before without purloining the whole thing and then putting your name to it.
I know, from having read as much, that Handel would recycle an aria from an old oratorio whenever he was desperate for a new one. I've even heard of  a case where an academic was accused of plagiarism from themselves. But not very long ago I heard an Oboe Concerto by Albinoni - in D minor, op. 9, no. 2 - in which the Adagio reminded me more than somewhat of Zadok the Priest. And, as far as I can tell, the Albinoni was published in about 1715 and Zadok was written in 1727.
But this morning, I hear this concerto from Telemann's  Tafelmusik, from 1733, when Handel's Solomon, that includes an interlude called The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba, was written in 1748.
I think if the Marvin Gaye estate can get litigious about Blurred Lines, the copyright lawyers of the C18th were missing a point.
None of which makes Handel any less glorious than he's always been. The Tour de France went through any amount of cheating controversy, and professional sport in general continues to do so, but nobody seems to be concerned enough to give it a miss.

Graham Swift - Mothering Sunday

Graham Swift, Mothering Sunday (Scribner)

If you want to spend all day reading, you'll need more than this book or you could read it twice. It is very short but would be well worth going over again.
Jane Fairchild is in domestic service with one family and having an illicit affair with the son at a nearby house. He is shortly due to be married when she assumes she will lose him and the story is set on Mothering Sunday when maids are given the day off to visit their mothers. Jane doesn't have a mother so she visits Paul for what will be their last day together before he is married.
She is also an orphan which means that her name, and birthday, was given to her like a character in a book and she eventually grows up to be a writer, which gives the novel all those literary levels of extra significance and reason for the book to reflect on its own status as literature. Some readers might have seen enough of this kind of literariness by now and object to it but I haven't. I'm happy to read and write about books that are about books that are about books. For a while longer at least.
I have not read all of Graham Swift by any means but I haven't yet read one that doesn't have bereavement as a central theme. It happens in this novel at halfway so we have a blissful lingering of Jane's last day with Paul followed by a gradual revelation of the shocking event. There is much memorable writing along the way, the book is a prose poem - for want of a better term - but none of it caught my attention as much as the way death is caused by contingent circumstances. The car has hit an oak tree on a bend in the road,
It was more of a corner in fact, indicating perhaps where surveyors and landowners had failed to agree.
Would be writers are often told to show, not tell, as if by following a litany of such sound professional advice, they will all become successful, well-known and celebrated. I don't think it quite works like that. Swift tells his story but also shows much more. At the end, by which time the book has become more of a meditation on fiction, it says that it is,
 more about being true to the very stuff of life, it was about trying to capture, though you never could, the very feel of being alive.
This might look dangerously as is Swift were being didactic and making a manifesto had he not done as much so convincingly throughout these beautifully imagined pages.
The pscychology, the lingering, the nakedness of emotion and the nakedness itself are, as it were, tellingly achieved and if Swift has written a better book, I'd like to know about it.
I have an awkward feeling that I'm dishing out too many highly commendatory reviews at the moment. I can hardly remember a time when I've enjoyed reading quite so much. This is excellent.  I'd much prefer a book to be short and as good as this than four times longer and not as good. Never mind the width, feel the quality.

Thursday, 10 March 2016

My Life in Sport - Cycling, part 1

The recent upturn of interest in cycling and coverage of it makes it suddenly seem unthinkable that in the 1970's and before, and as recently as the 1990's, it felt like an undercover activity, some weird ritual and cyclists were some kind of strange breed apart that nobody else understood.
In the same way that Lester Piggott's family tree went back a few generations with horse racing people, I was born into cycling to a slightly lesser extent, my dad having been a rider in Nottingham in the 1950's, also riding a tandem with my Uncle Don, and still to this day, Ron Hallam (my uncle's wife's brother) is setting new age-related records in time trials at the age of 85. I think that most things we do, or have a go at, are a result of 'monkey see, monkey do', or 'copy cat' traits in the way we are made so, when my dad returned to time trialling some time in the late 60's, or maybe very early 70's, and the family went with him early on Sunday mornings, it was not going to be long before I wanted to have a go. It might have been George Best I wanted to be at football but our man from Gloucester was called Ted Tedaldi and I more or less wanted to be him.
I had been piling up miles on my green Carlton Corsa bike, with 5 derailleur gears, to the extent that my dad thought the milometer attached to the front wheel must have been calibrated in kilometers, not miles and I had a number of different courses mapped out that began and ended in Hucclecote. So pretty soon it was time to make my debut in an evening Club 10 on the Newent Road and, aged 12, with Puppy Love by Donny Osmond at number one in the charts on 2/8/1972, I turned up and did a 31.37 compared to Ted's winning time of 24.02. And that was that for the 1972 season.
But the record shows I rode four more such events in my juvenile career, improving steadily through 1973, recording 29.12 on 5th July, which I remember very well. Eighteen years later I was going to realize what a good performance that was for a 13 year old when I came back at the age of 32 and couldn't match it. But that ride in '73 had been artificially enhanced by having a target for the last half mile or more as I caught sight of the lad who had started two minutes ahead of me and I made it very much a thing that mattered to catch him, and did. That target must have been worth 15 or 20 seconds off my time compared to what I might have done without it so, thanks for being there, Kevin. Two weeks later, perhaps too full of this new found panache, I perhaps went off too quickly and was so devastated by my 30.04, not quite 20 mph, that I didn't ride another race for 18 years. I did get a medal for Best Schoolboy in the Gloucester City Cycliong Club 10 competition and I could still find it if I had to but after that setback I did some fairly mediocre running (which is a chapter to come), football (which we've done already) but then entered a sporting wilderness that consisted of not much more than darts and pool until 1991.
I'm not quite sure now how or why I got back on a bike. I certainly wasn't in a fit state for it as much of the agonies I went through going up hills or any sort of distance provided ample evidence for. It was possibly because I'd started playing cricket again in 1987, thought I could get fitter and bowl faster if I spent a winter going swimming and, having gone from complete exhaustion having done two lengths to an hour and a half of non-stop doggypaddle   front crawl, I imagined I only had to do a bit of cycling and I could become a triathlete. The triathlons never happened but I did get myself in good enough condition, with the necessary obsession and nostalgia for bike riding as a corollary, to enter a few races at te back end of the 1991 season. I was glad just to be there. It would be now be called a 'journey' that I'd been on, promising myself that all I had to do was get to the top of this bloody hill and then I'd throw the bike into the undergrowth and walk home but, once you get to the top, it feels better and once you get home and lie in the bath, that's good as well. In 1991, all this hideous new nonsense about 'journeys' hadn't been thought of and so I'm glad it wasn't one. All I wanted to do was 'be a cyclist' and I was, although, aged 32 in a Corinium Road Club 10, I was 20 seconds short of being as good as I had been when I was 13. There I am in the picture before the start, thinking I might do something great, looking as gormless and clueless as I was then alongside my dad who at least knew what it was all about.
That could have been a bit depressing but two weeks later, on the course at Devizes, the record showing that I was among such big local names as the soon-to-be greatly admired Andy Cook, Rob Pears and John French, the last of who started a minute behind me, soon went by me as if the wind was somehow behind him but against me, seemed to hang about 50 yards ahead of me for a bit and then I never saw him again. But, having started at the top of a hill that you didn't have to go back up to finish and, I remember, having the legendary Gary Woodward doing the job of taking the times from the timekeeper at the finish to the result board, even something as insignificant as a 27.59 by me, there it was, Look, you lot, You proper bike riders, I'm one as well now and that was nearly as much as I wanted it to be.
Very much the same thing has been said about David Cameron being Prime Minister, that is that 90% of his ambition was achieved when he went into 10 Downing Street. All he wanted to do was Be Prime Minister and there wasn't much he wanted to do with it. But I found, and I hope he did, too, that once you've arrived you may as well see what else there is. After all, 27.59 isn't very good  and on that result sheet, only four of the forty-five finishers went slower than me but at least in these days of gender equality it is not relevant that three of them were women and I dare say the bloke was much older than I was.    
I only rode 30 time trials in my life which is not to say I didn't cover endless miles, or as endless as 6200 in 1995 seemed, in pursuit of something worthwhile. In 1992, I rode more than half of those, ransacking the RTTC handbook in search of events I could get to in my Ford Escort with the bike in the back. There are a few stories to tell as personal bests were achieved at 10 and 25 miles and three attempts at 50 miles finally resulting in a 2.24.07 and better than 20 mph. I might have finished next to last in one of them but there is no record of me ever finishing last.
But there were bigger and better things to do. One of the most astonishing things I'd ever seen in those early days was the 12 Hour event in which it might have been a trick of the light but apparently riders were sent off at daybreak on a Sunday in late summer. You could go home having seen them in the morning, see them again after dinner and then see them finish in the evening and, yes, they had been riding their bikes all that time in between.
Not all people who didn't know about cycling really thought that anybody rode 10 miles on a bike, still less thought that 25 miles was even humanly possible and so 12 Hours and just see how far you can go seemed even less likely to them in 1968 than a man could land on the moon. But I believed I'd seen it because I'd seen most of it. I'd seen Ted Tedaldi do it and I'd been there in about 1971 on a day of horrendous torrential rain when only four riders stuck it out. They were my heroes, they were from another realm- not the sad machismo of school rugby union which was only an institutionalized playground scrap- but that was real. By the early 1990's, I'd gone back and found out that the same kind of completely pointless heroism was still allowed to go on and riders like Gwen Shillaker could do it in pink on a pink bike, the sensational Keith Wright would grind out 240 miles making it look just as hard as it was, and probably the greatest bike rider I've ever seen in my life (and that includes Miguel Indurain, lots of those Tour de France riders, Phil Griffiths, Chris Boardman, Mark Cavendish and anybody else you might care to mention), it 's not Vicky Pendleton or Laura Trott, it's Janet Tebbutt, who set new standards for Lands End to John O'Groats and I saw her doing it, through Gloucester, late one night circa 1972, but she still had the nerve to be there more than 20 years later in 12 Hour events, still as modest and unassuming as she ever was.
And in Part 2 of My life in Sport - Cycling, I will try to explain how cycling was the best thing I ever did, why bike riding was about ten times more important to me than all the other sports I did put together and thus why Janet is my Sports Personality of All Time. 

Tuesday, 8 March 2016

Hardy Fights Back

Last year I spent a lot of time reading George Eliot and sharing a few highlights here. She wasn't exactly a new discovery but it's not often I systematically read an author quite as diligently as I did her because I'm not often impressed enough by any of them to go to quite those lengths.
I felt a little bit guilty at the way I allowed her to sweep so majestically to such a position in my estimation because although I've never been a big fan of Dickens, Thomas Hardy has been a big favourite ever since we were given The Woodlanders to read for O level Eng Lit.
But, waiting for new books to arrive, I went in search of interim reading matter in the upstairs room and came back down with The Return of the Native. I began it donkey's years ago but left it aside at an early stage, unable to get beyond the grim foreboding of Egdon Heath. But, what a wonderful thing it is and, if George Eliot seems somehow more metropolitan and sophisticated then Hardy, re-stating his case for fate, determinism and some rustic comedy in no uncertain terms, is possibly doing something on a larger, more Classical scale.
I daresay Tess is Hardy's best known novel, in a career that abandoned fiction for poetry at roughly the turn of that century but included architecture as well, but among those major Wessex novels I retained a preference for my first love, as a Hardy character might, and admired the way that he multiplies the capacity for loss and missed opportunites by expanding the customary eternal triangle into a concatenation of five caught in romantic hopes and ambitions that, I'm sure, in The Return of the Native will prove as heartbreaking as it did in The Woodlanders.
Whereas there, on a rising scale of social status, we had Marty South, Giles Winterbourne, Grace Melbury, Dr. Edred Fitzpiers and Felice Charmond, in The Return it is Diggory Venn, Thomasin Yeobright, Damon Wildeve, Eustacia Vye and the native returning from his excursions among Parisian elegance, Clym Yeobright. In The Woodlanders, Hardy achieved a brilliant point by making the linear relationship circular when Felice attracts the ambitious doctor in a wig made of hair sold by Marty, who needed to sacrifice it for the money. But please don't tell me if anything similar happens in The Return. 
I'm well aware that Eustacia is not intended to be admired. I'm not entirely sure what she's doing stuck in the outback of Egdon Heath when she longs for the glamour even of Budmouth but, whatever devious devices she employs in pursuit of her vain ambitions, she was immediately a candidate for my shortlist of favourite fictional characters (and I realize that Maggie Tulliver is much more worthy) when she first appears,
To see her hair was to fancy that a whole winter did not contain darkness enough to form its shadow;

and I reckon winters in rural Dorset in 1878 were considerably darker than our urban winters now.
In lines like those, Hardy came convincingly back to make it clear that George Eliot can't just swan in and deprive him of his long-held position among the Greatest Novelists in My Opinion.
There's plenty more to come. Real life can be hilarious, hugely entertaining and possibly even gorgeous if you can perceive it to be but, seen through a book like this with it all done for you, fiction is almost preferable.
I'm looking forward to the new Graham Swift but it can arrive whenever it feels like it. If it had arrived earlier, I might not have gone back to The Return of the Native and that would have been a tragedy in itself.    


Sunday, 6 March 2016

Crossword Crimewave

Police warned crossword solvers to be vigilant today after a weekend outbreak of clues to which the answer was CAT BURGLAR. Seen in yesterday's Times, the thief struck again in today's Observer. 


Friday, 4 March 2016

Oh, Babe, What Would You Say

The plastic sleeve that contains my finished Uncollected Poems since the last booklet now contains 9 poems currently considered fit for the next book, 2 borderline items -and the correct decision on any 'borderline' item is to leave it out - and 7 already thought unworthy. However, those 9 poems are longer than usual and might be close to filling the standard size booklet I generally produce so it would be almost thinkable to take The Perfect Book to the printers soon.
I don't think I'll be doing that, though. The plan is to wait until I'm 60 and, hopefully, publish something more substantial, having left a 6 year gap since The Perfect Murder. It's not a commercial enterprise, it matters not at all that my audience is kept supplied with a product to buy as if I was Dick Francis, One Direction, James Bond or Downton Abbey. I only give them away to anybody kind enough to take an interest and I'm very grateful if they read them.
At Portsmouth Poetry Society on Wedneesday night, I read Martin Mooney's poem, The Self-Published, which asks a similar question to that I was asked at an interview at Exeter University in 1977 when Exeter were in the process of deciding if they wanted me on their B.A. English Lit course. Of course, they were quick to decide they bloody well didn't.
I was asked, after I had told them I was a poet, who I wrote for. Was it for myself or for other people. Although it's a very obvious question, I'd never heard it before or, up to the age of 17, ever thought about it. I didn't know. Exeter, where I think I might have quite liked to have gone, decided against having me but they can look at the University league tables now, some of which is based on the success of alumni, and see where Lancaster is.
But I know the answer now, nearly 40 years later. I write for myself. If anybody else finds anything worthwhile in anything I ever write, that's great, that's fine and it's a wonderful thing but if I don't like it enough, it goes no further. Writing is best, like so many other things, when it is amateur, not professional.  The idea of being a professional writer, as espoused by Dr. Johnson, is a nightmare I wouldn't want to live through and I much prefer going to the office to produce the mundane work that I do there than the ghastly alternative of having a deadline to produce, say, another Oh, Babe, What Would You Say on Friday night.

The other reason why The Perfect Book will wait a while yet is that I only have two ISBN's left from the allocation of ten I was given in 1990. I need to use them sparingly because once they are used up, David Green (Books) has used up its quota and I'm not going looking for any other publisher.
Do you know the sort of things they ask? Like, how are you going to promote the book - by readings, a launch, appearances, gladhanding.
No, I'm not. I feel bad enough doing a poetry reading at the best of times, wondering why I'm taking up the time of these good people, without expecting them to buy a book at the end of it.
But another thing I've noticed is how, for the first half dozen titles I published, I filled in a form for the ISBN people and posted it off and that was that. Now, doing a title every four years or even less often than that, the agency dealing with it is different to what it was the last time and you have to register with some new people.
And all of that just so that my poems, those combinations of all available words that were already there but I decided to make my own, can be left in copyright libraries with my name on them. You might think I wouldn't care about that but actually I do. It's less about posterity or 'asserting my right as the author' but about how I first saw lists of titles by poets, or anybody else, whether it was Prufrock, The Waste Land, Four Quartets, or The Less Deceived, The Whitsun Weddings, High Windows or Fighting Terms, The Sense of Movement, My Sad Captains, Touch and all. I thought it would be a tremendous thing to have my own list to put alongside Hunky Dory, Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, Diamond Dogs, Station to Station. And eventually I have.
It's also nice to see Daisy Dunn re-tweeting (is it?) my mention of her book on Catullus, below, and seeing which line it is grabs her attention the most, which is the unlikely bringing together on one issue of Boris Johnson and me.
We didn't have a Bullingdon Club at Lancaster from 1978-81 but any inward-looking community will inevitably generate its own self-appointed bunch of oiks. And that must be the last I say on the European referendum because civil servants are duly warned of the period of purdah during which we are not to be seen to try to influence the outcome of a democratic process. So, I'm sure that all the traditional values of British democracy will be upheld by all those involved and still allowed to state their case and let that be a debate that is honest, considered, polite and reasonable.
But I don't think we've aligned ourselves with the USA thus far that I'm not allowed to mention their election.
One should never rest easy and it wasn't long ago that I was saying, Don't worry about a thing because every little thing is gonna be alright. But now Donald Trump is 3/1 with Paddy to be the next president, which realistically means he has more than a 25% chance. The fact that Hilary is odds on at 1/2 brings with it less comfort than it ought to because I've seen more odds on chances turned over in horse races than I'd ever have the time to tell you about.
Complacency is probably our own worst enemy in all such situations.
But, to end on a good note. Hurray for Vicky Pendleton, who rode Pacha De Polder to win at Wincanton this week, not getting knocked off, or falling off, whichever it was, like last time and she will go to Cheltenham.
I love her. She is tremendous but I'm with John Francome, who knows 100% more than I do about riding horses, that it's not been a good idea. I wish her well.
Come back safely, Vicky, with the horse, because there's some of us care about you and all that stuff about the next big challenge can sometimes be a bad idea in disguise.

Gorecki Symphony no.4

Gorecki, Symphony no.4, London Philharmonic Orchestra/Boreyko (Nonesuch)

So long-awaited was this disc that I had forgotten a number of times that I was waiting for it. Finished as a piano score by 2006, it was left with notes on its orchestration when Henryk Gorecki died in 2010 and completed from those notes by his son, Mikolaj.
How was Gorecki going to follow his mournful masterpiece, no.3, that was such a critical and commercial success, one of the great pieces of the late C20th. Beethoven followed his seminal third with a less ambitious fourth. Stevie Wonder followed Songs in the Key of Life with the reduced resources employed on Talking Book. But from the start, Gorecki is clearly not taking cover in understatement. The fff fortissimo of his five blasted chords make a bolder opening than anything else in the repertoire and we arrive at the 4-minute mark before there's any sign of abatement. This is not a disc that lends itself to a proper appreciation if you live in a terraced house; one must consider the neighbours. Loud and soft passages alternate most inconveniently. It's a tendency that began perhaps with Haydn's Surprise Symphony so I blame him but whereas he was having one of his jokes with the audience, C20th music has taken his example to heart as a staple effect compared to the more even temper of earlier music. The last chords of Sibelius 5, previously regarded as hammer blows, are sweet and gentle compared to Gorecki 4.
During this onslaught it appears that another piece, for piano, has begun underneath the main theme but it is assimilated into the main composition, the sets of five notes encoding the name Aleksander Tansman, another Polish composer, by means of a much more contrived system than that with which Bach signed such compositions as The Art of Fugue, his B-A-C-H, where H is German for B flat. And the work continues to reference composers from Poland and Russia, more or less noticeably depending on one's knowledge.
In the quiet parts, the cello, violin and woodwind combine to make spectral reference back to the theme before, later it is brought back in a rush of Russian folk dance that charges along merrily to an energetic string accompaniment. It shifts, as one becomes accustomed to post-Stravinsky modernism doing, but returns to its memorable, grand first theme, discharging its rough energy before falling back on almost inaudible murmurs until, well, I won't tell you the ending but it's either very loud or very quiet. Afterwards, although the disc had officially ended, I was left wondering if the vaguest hum I thought I could hear was still a part of the piece, as in the end of A Day in the Life's continuous loop at the end of the LPor if it was what the sound the Sony machine makes when it's resting. So I switched it off and it stopped so I expect it was the machine.
It isn't going to be the phenomenon that no.3 was. It would be out of the question to expect it to be but Gorecki can be applauded for not ducking the issue of the fourth and providing a bold 35 minutes that will be well worthy of a place of its own. Those reviewers who were disappointed were ever likely to be and there was no point delivering something similar that would suffer in comparison. Artists can sometimes justifiably be accused of repeating themselves or reproducing the same work as they get older- even Seamus Heaney was- so bravo to Henryk Gorecki. I didn't know what to expect but now I know, I'm not disappointed.

Tuesday, 1 March 2016

Catullus' Bedspread

Daisy Dunn, Catullus' Bedspread (William Collins)

What a tremendous book. Daisy Dunn is a young classical scholar who it would be no surprise to see on telly reporting back from the ancient world as soon as a production company can scribble out the contract for her to sign. This life of Catullus appears alongside a volume of her new translations of the poems, which are quoted generously here, too.
It's not as if Latin poetry is short of compelling personalities with Horace, Ovid and Juvenal but Catullus is the most provocative, forthright and, in many ways, 'colourful'. Daisy's account of him is confident, hugely informed by a wide range of sources, and joins the poet to the history of his times through the poems vividly and with panache. Her detailed description of his appearance is taken from a portrait found painted on plaster on the site of his family home in Sirmio (pictured) but she doesn't entertain any doubt that this is him even though there is no title by which to identify him.
Catullus hasn't long been in Rome, from Verona, using family connections to invite himself to some select gatherings, when he sees and immediately becomes obsessed by Coldia, the wife of Metellus Celer, he

watched her- and watched her husband watching her- and almost passed out

and there begins a story in poetry to put alongside Petrarch's Laura, Shakespeare's Dark Lady or any such journal of love's trials and tribulations. I don't think poets feel these things any more deeply than anybody else but, by definition, the best of them make them the most memorable in poems. However, I do think that the cause is in the capacity of the admirer to feel such admiration and not necessarily always in the suitability of the beloved. But there's not much we can do about that. This particular lady, who it seems wasn't all that particular, wasn't the only object of desire for Catullus but she was well ahead of any other in his preferences. However, the senator, Celer, is found dead at his house which one might think - or Catullus certainly did- gave them the opportunity to make their unofficial relationship more official but Clodia was not quite so enamoured of such an arrangement or, solely with Catullus.
A further bombshell - and I don't want to ruin the whole book for any potential reader- comes with the death of his brother on foreign shores, across the Aegean Sea in Rhoeteum and the poet is compelled to travel there full of complex feelings of bereavment, family, his insufficiently requited love and correspondances with history.
Catullus' bedspread itself is the subject of poem, no. 64, that Daisy Dunn makes the book's central motif. A long poem, featured in her translation in an appendix, makes a similar tapestry of historic events (beginning with the Argo and including Prometheus and the loss of the Golden Age) and personal themes. The book might not need such a device to hold it together unless it is in parallel to her own sewing together of history and Catullus' life and work but her literary criticism is as impressive as her biographical research. Included in it are such telling insights as how the Latin for 'business', negotium, which I see can also mean pain, trouble, annoyance or distress, is simply the direct antonym of otium, for 'leisure'. And we also learn how fashionable Romans would adopt accents from other regions to give themselves a more plebian image, if need be, for effect.
Part of the political background is the rise of Julius Caesar, the machinations of the triumvirate with Pompey and Crassus, the end of the Republic and the establishment of the dictatorship but Catullus' father was a friend of Caesar's and it is suggested here that somehow that is why Catullus could even include Caesar in his targets for derogatory remarks in his poems with impunity. It is hard to imagine any literary author now having quite the licence to produce work like that but none of it would be available to us now had copies not been made by admirers that by various very unlikely circumstances allowed them to be rediscovered and that part of the Epilogue is the most astonishing part of the story.
Dead by the age of 30, Catullus could hardly have wished for quite such longevity for his poems. Daisy Dunn makes a good case for how great his poetry reads in the Latin and he was clearly admired by subsequent generations but, with a poem being a literary event not necessarily the sincere words of the author, there is no telling if Catullus was quite as bad and dangerous to know as his finely crafted verses make him out to be. If he was one of the first poets to be a different person in his poems to what he was in real life, he wasn't going to be the last.
Slightly discouragingly, the first piece of blurb on the back cover of this book is by that well-known classical scholar and statesman, Boris Johnson. It is recognizably Johnsonian in its composite verve and grandiose overstatement but, for once, I can see what he means. Any book that can make me agree with him must be a good one. On a scale of 1 to 10 on which 1 represents a book you have to abandon because it's not worth the effort and 10 means you can't put it down, Catullus' Bedspread is close to a 9. I hope Daisy's getting down to work on Ovid or Horace.