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.

Wednesday, 11 October 2017

Letter from Cheltenham

Thom Gunn: a celebration
Alan Hollinghurst,   Cheltenham Literature Festival, Oct 8th.


The point of being a mis-fit, glorying in the feeling that one belongs elsewhere, is not that you don't feel at home where you are, you need to feel not at home wherever you are. Cheltenham races, any racetrack, the Wigmore Hall, poetry readings, lunchtime concerts, they all have their ways of making me glad to be there but it's never quite me.
You might think that a Cheltenham Lit Festival session on Thom Gunn would be home from home but even that struggled a little bit, not even persuading me that if it's good enough for Sebastian Faulks, it must be good enough for me. It's not because the whole festival is really a big advertising interval you need to pay to get into or even the very civilized queue of people snaking out of the Waterstone's tent to get their new Mary Berry book signed. It must have been a while before those at the back got their few moments of audience with the great lady and, lordjesussaveus, I can confirm that books are not going out of fashion, replaced by the gormless little kindle gadget, not on the evidence of those lining up to so eagerly part with cash in exchange for hard copies of their choices in the makeshift book superstore. But those affluent, worthy, demure grey-haired types populating Imperial Gardens, I don't belong with them, really, do I. Probably not even in the extreme circumstances of editing them down to those who want to hear an hour of Clive Wilmer, editor of the latest Selected Poems of Thom Gunn, and Andrew McMillan, talking about Gunn with Helen Mort. Although it was one of those occasions, like the 300th anniversary of the death of Buxtehude marked in Handel's House, when I could at least be sure there was nowhere else in the world I ought to be.
Clive Wilmer insinuated himself into Gunn's friendship when it mattered and knew him well, even if the subject of the Troubadour poems momentarily escaped him. What one needs in such a crisis is to have a glib know-all like me sitting in the front row to remind you and I'm sure Clive was glad of me. But he speaks with great authority, in that instance of Gunn's charm and sympathy that was allied to a propensity to shock.
What has come out of Clive's book is Gunn's vulnerability, which he expressed well but, one imagined, was kept under control by his tremendous intellect and art. But perhaps his writing was all a working out of the trauma of his mother's suicide and, beginning by reading The Wound, the poem that opens any selection of Gunn's poems, I did wonder to what extend it was being implied that the wound referred to was as much Gunn's deeply embedded 'confessional' as it was that of Achilles.
Clive's main point was that Gunn's poems constituted an attempt to understand his experrience rather than just have it which is why the heavily drug-infused poems of Moly are among his most formally structured and not, as one might expect, the most diffuse.
It is to be regretted, by those who care about reputation, readership and thus book sales that Gunn seemed to miss out as the more 'English' Ted Hughes came to dominate attention among poets of their generation when Gunn was the more intellectual and challenging. But it doesn't matter to me. Those of us who kept the faith and knew all along shouldn't worry how many others of us there are.
Andrew McMillan also wondered why there was always a gap in bookshops where he thought the books by and about Gunn should be. Andrew was born in 1988 and so didn't read Gunn until there were no more poems to come. His credentials are thus only those of a fan but when he 'came out' as gay at the age of 16, he says his parents gave him a copy of the Collected Poems and said he should read that. Many are not so lucky in those circumstances.
But it is as a 'gay poet' that Andrew makes at least his initial connection. To see Gunn as a gay poet is to diminish him as much as it would be to appreciate Sylvia as a women's poet, Derek Walcott as caribbean or George Herbert as religious. If a poet can be reduced to issues like those then maybe they're not quite the poet they're cracked up to be or, more properly, not being appreciated as they deserve. Those that adhere to poets on such grounds should take their crusades elsewhere and absent themselves from literary studies entirely. But Andrew's a good lad, wise enough to know that Tamer and Hawk was the first poem to read and howsoever he might have arrived, even if his own poems bear no resemblance to Gunn's, any fellow traveller is welcome. Though it must be said, Gunn is likely to remain a poet's poet rather than belatedly become mainstream. That would be like the Velvet Underground suddenly becoming the new Abba.
One of the several temorary marquee venues was adequate to house a Thom Gunn celebration but you need the Town Hall when Alan Hollinghurst shows up.
Interviewed by Stephen Gale, Hollinghurst thrilled the liberal, novel-reading, middle-aged, well-to-do congregation with his faux-embarrassment regarding how much sex his books make reference to. Not only that but sometimes explicitly and, get this, it's gay as well. Oh, titter ye not, he's a proper writer. I used to be tempted to put him in there with Ishiguro, MacEwan, Seb Faulks, Sarah Waters, Graham Swift and any number of others as a candidate for top honours among British novelists in our period which doesn't look to me a bad one, if inevitably it has become almost too self-conscious, but it is becoming clear that the correct answer is Julian Barnes.
The Sparsholt Affair is unfolding as effortlessly stylishly as one might expect from such a consummate professional but the main effect of paying to witness this advert for a book I was always going to buy anyway was that it threatened to let some daylight in on the magic, much like I thought I glimpsed how Paul Muldoon achieved the remarkable things he does a couple of years ago.
Most interesting was Alan's list of novelists no longer fashionable that he enjoyed, in the hope that, after a similar time lapse henceforth, he won't be quoted on a similar list by the hot ticket from the next generation. Henry Green, Charles Morgan and, was it, Ronald Firbank, are thus names to look out for.
And then you join the queue to get your copy of Sparsholt signed and no less than two Waterstone's people have to go down the line making sure you have it open at the title page to expedite the signing process. I wondered if meeting the great man was actually worth being subject to such factory fodder humiliation but since my train wasn't going to deliver me from such process for another hour, well, I might as well stay and, to be fair, it is just as sublime a signature as you would expect of Hollinghurst.
But plans to retire to the genteel suburbs of earnest, hard-back, well-meaning Cheltenham are on hold. Perhaps I've been too long on inward-looking, downbeat, downtown Portsea Island and the graciousness of the spa town might prove unbearable, not to mention the virtue signalling, the artisan food, the stacks of cash and the fact that, even there, it's me that has to remind Clive of the detail of what he's talking about. I once saw snake on Leckhampton Hill and Cheltenham's nowhere near the sea. It could be that fate well-meaning brought me to Portsmouth, like it took Larkin to Hull, and it might be where I bat out the remaining overs, only going back to Cheltenham to see the horses.