Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Rendezvous at the Russian Tea Rooms


I went last night to the launch of the latest book by my good friend Paul Willetts, Rendezvous at the Russian Tea Rooms

As launches go this was one to remember. Not the usual hubbub fuelled by publishers' plonk followed by speaches followed by more booze (if there's any left) and purchase of a copy (bad form not to do so).

We had to turn up outside a specific pub in Marylebone at a specific time, where we would be approached by a 'contact' who would escort us to a secret destination nearby. The invitations were in the form of facsimile Ministry of Information documents on typewritten manilla paper, written in the mandarin Whitehall English of the 1940s. 

Paul is brilliant practitioner of what he calls non-fiction narrative. His North Soho 999 was a gripping account - or rather a meticulous re-creation - of a notorious gun crime in post-war London. His last book was Members Only, an absorbing biography of the Soho entrepreneur, property developer and strip club mogul Paul Raymond. This was the basis for Michael Winterbottom's film in which Steve Coogan didn't so mach act the part of Raymond as inhabit it.

Back to Marylebone High Street on a bright Autumn evening. A small group of us, some dressed appropriately in 1940s clobber and me in my usual shapeless subfusc, congregated self-consciously in the evening sunshine. Our contact was the actor Jon Glover, a friend of Paul's and mainstay of the Sohemian Society, which Paul co-founded. This is an irregular gathering of those of us who share a particular interest in the artists and writers and bohemians and deadbeats who used to hang around Soho and Fitzrovia, bitching about each other and drinking themselves to death.

Glover stood on a street corner like a scrap of flickering archive footage, in a brown suit and trilby, intently studying a period newspaper and drawing occasionally on what I suspect was a Craven 'A' cigarette, no doubt sourced in an archive. He led us up the road to the venue, which turned out to be nearby - the beautiful Daunts bookstore (and I'll admit to feeling agreeably disappointed, having expected a basement lit by a single bulb and tough-looking women in gaberdine trench coats drenched in cheap scent. I expected a tobacco fug. I mention this because Paul is startlingly, supernaturally adept at evoking the atmosphere and texture of places in the past - the light and aroma and furnishing so on).

Rendezvous at the Russian Tea Rooms is a scrupulous and absorbing account of an extraordinary episode during the so-called phoney war.  It cannot be easily summarised, and involves haute couture, crypto-fascists, double agents and no end of strange goings-on. There's also a brief appearance by Raymond Huntley, and if you don't know he he is you're no friend of mine.

Paul has the best author's website  I've seen, a real piece of work. You can see it here, including a film trailer for Rendezvous at the Russian Tea Rooms directed by Guy Myhill. You can, and should, buy a copy here.



Saturday, 19 September 2015

Favourite snatches (redux)


Something from George and Weedon Grossmith's timeless comic masterpiece The Diary of a Nobody, which I expect all readers of this blog will know, and know backwards. It was first published in book form in 1892, originally appearing as a series of irregular instalments in Punch magazine. 

The extract from Chapter 19 (below) describes a Sunday afternoon outing by Charles and Carrie Pooter from their home ('The Laurels', Brickfield Terrace, Holloway) to rural Muswell Hill in North London, there to have lunch with a Mr Edgar Paul Finsworth, which turns out to be an awkward affair, scrupulously written up by Mr. Pooter.


CHAPTER XIX

Meet Teddy Finsworth, an old schoolfellow. We have a pleasant and quiet dinner at his uncle's, marred only by a few awkward mistakes on my part respecting Mr. Finsworth's pictures. A discussion on dreams.
April 27. -- Kept a little later than usual at the office, and as I was hurrying along a man stopped me, saying: 'Hulloh! That's a face I know.' I replied politely: 'Very likely; lots of people know me, although I may not know them.' He replied: 'But you know me -- Teddy Finsworth.' So it was. He was at the same school with me. I had not seen him for years and years. No wonder I did not know him! At school he was at least a head taller than I was; now I am at least a head taller than he is, and he has a thick beard, almost grey. He insisted on my having a glass of wine (a thing I never do), and told me he lived at Middlesboro', where he was Deputy Town Clerk, a position which was as high as the Town Clerk of London -- in fact, higher. He added that he was staying for a few days in London, with his uncle, Mr. Edgar Paul Finsworth (of Finsworth and Pultwell). He said he was sure his uncle would be only too pleased to see me, and he had a nice house, Watney Lodge, only a few minutes' walk from Muswell Hill Station. I gave him our address, and we parted.

In the evening, to my surprise, he called with a very nice letter from Mr. Finsworth, saying if we (including Carrie) would dine with them to-morrow (Sunday), at two o'clock, he would be delighted. Carrie did not like to go; but Teddy Finsworth pressed us so much we consented. Carrie sent Sarah round to the butcher's and countermanded our half-leg of mutton, which we had ordered for tomorrow.

April 28, Sunday. -- We found Watney Lodge farther off than we anticipated, and only arrived as the clock struck two, both feeling hot and uncomfortable. To make matters worse, a large collie dog pounced forward to receive us. He barked loudly and jumped up at Carrie, covering her light skirt, which she was wearing for the first time, with mud. Teddy Finsworth came out and drove the dog off and apologised. We were shown into the drawing-room, which was beautifully decorated. It was full of knick-knacks, and some plates hung up on the wall. There were several little wooden milk-stools with paintings on them; also a white wooden banjo, painted by one of Mr. Paul Finsworth's nieces -- a cousin of Teddy's.

Mr. Paul Finsworth seemed quite a distinguished-looking elderly gentleman, and was most gallant to Carrie. There were a great many water-colours hanging on the walls, mostly different views of India, which were very bright. Mr. Finsworth said they were painted by 'Simpz,' and added that he was no judge of pictures himself but had been informed on good authority that they were worth some hundreds of pounds, although he had only paid a few shillings apiece for them, frames included, at a sale in the neighbourhood.

There was also a large picture in a very handsome frame, done in coloured crayons. It looked like a religious subject. I was very much struck with the lace collar, it looked so real, but I unfortunately made the remark that there was something about the expression of the face that was not quite pleasing. It looked pinched. Mr. Finsworth sorrowfully replied: 'Yes, the face was done after death -- my wife's sister.'

I felt terribly awkward and bowed apologetically, and in a whisper said I hoped I had not hurt his feelings. We both stood looking at the picture for a few minutes in silence, when Mr. Finsworth took out a handkerchief and said: 'She was sitting in our garden last summer,' and blew his nose violently. He seemed quite affected, so I turned to look at something else and stood in front of a portrait of a jolly-looking middle-aged gentleman, with a red face and straw hat. I said to Mr. Finsworth: 'Who is this jovial-looking gentleman? Life doesn't seem to trouble him much.' Mr. Finsworth said: 'No, it doesn't. He is dead too -- my brother.'

I was absolutely horrified at my own awkwardness. Fortunately at this moment Carrie entered with Mrs. Finsworth, who had taken her upstairs to take off her bonnet and brush her skirt. Teddy said: 'Short is late,' but at that moment the gentleman referred to arrived, and I was introduced to him by Teddy, who said: 'Do you know Mr. Short?' I replied, smiling, that I had not that pleasure, but I hoped it would not be long before I knew Mr. Short. He evidently did not see my little joke, although I repeated it twice with a little laugh. I suddenly remembered it was Sunday, and Mr. Short was perhaps very particular.

In this I was mistaken, for he was not at all particular in several of his remarks after dinner. In fact I was so ashamed of one of his observations that I took the opportunity to say to Mrs. Finsworth that I feared she found Mr. Short occasionally a little embarrassing. To my surprise she said: 'Oh! he is privileged you know.' I did not know as a matter of fact, and so I bowed apologetically. I fail to see why Mr. Short should be privileged.

Another thing that annoyed me at dinner was that the collie dog, which jumped up at Carrie, was allowed to remain under the dining- room table. It kept growling and snapping at my boots every time I moved my foot. Feeling nervous rather, I spoke to Mrs. Finsworth about the animal, and she remarked: 'It is only his play.' She jumped up and let in a frightfully ugly-looking spaniel called Bibbs, which had been scratching at the door. This dog also seemed to take a fancy to my boots, and I discovered afterwards that it had licked off every bit of blacking from them. I was positively ashamed of being seen in them. Mrs. Finsworth, who, I must say, is not much of a Job's comforter, said: 'Oh! we are used to Bibbs doing that to our visitors.'

Mr. Finsworth had up some fine port, although I question whether it is a good thing to take on the top of beer. It made me feel a little sleepy, while it had the effect of inducing Mr. Short to become 'privileged' to rather an alarming extent. It being cold even for April, there was a fire in the drawing-room; we sat round in easy-chairs, and Teddy and I waxed rather eloquent over the old school days, which had the effect of sending all the others to sleep. I was delighted, as far as Mr. Short was concerned, that it did have that effect on him.

We stayed till four, and the walk home was remarkable only for the fact that several fools giggled at the unpolished state of my boots. Polished them myself when I got home. Went to church in the evening, and could scarcely keep awake. I will not take port on the top of beer again.

_________________________________________________________________________________

'A few minutes' walk from Muswell Hill station' is right on my doorstep. In those days, to adopt a cliche, 'all this was fields' from the outskirts of Holloway to the flanks of Muswell Hill (upon which the original Alexandra Palace was built in 1873, and which 'went on fire' (as they say in Glasgow) a short time after it opened.


Thursday, 17 September 2015

How many poets are there?

Here's an updated blog from 2013, by popular request (yeah, right).

It was Henry Carr, a minor British embassy official in Tom Stoppard's play Travesties, who complained, in an underdog outburst: 'For every thousand people there's nine hundred doing the work, ninety doing well, nine doing good, and one lucky bastard who's the artist.'

Applying the Stoppard-Carr ratio to our island's current population of 62 million, we get 55,800 artists, equivalent to the population of Macclesfield. But how many of these lucky bastards are poets? Let's say a modest 5% might at a stretch be described as poetry practitioners, that is poets who are published and read, if only by other poets. That would amount to 2,779 poets (rounded up to 3,000), equal to the population of Framlingham in Suffolk. That seems like too many.

Travesties was written in 1974 and we are in a position to do the math, as they increasingly say. I have before me the hefty Directory of Contemporary Poets, published by Macmillan in 1970. Limited to UK poets it lists around 1,100 (from Abse, Dannie to Zurndorfer, Lotte), so either the Stoppard-Carr formula is flawed or my 5% estimate overgenerous, and should hover between one and two per cent. The 1970s turned out to be the boom years and subsequent editions of the Directory give lower - 787 in 2001, rising slightly to 840 last year. So let's say that Britain sustains a population of under a thousand poets. Not that any of them can earn a living as such, but that's another matter.

Let's look at the bigger picture. How many poets, not just in Britain, are working actively in the English language today? Turning to the International Who's Who of Poetry (Routledge, 2011) we find around 4,000 practitioners, all with proper jobs to fall back on, from Aalfs, Janet ('American writer, poet and martial arts instructor') to Zyck, Adam ('Polish psychologist, gerontologist, poet and translator'). The publishers make no claims to be comprehensive and there are likely to be many omissions, but 4,000 poets in a global anglophone population of 375 million (assuming that poetry readership is likely to be confined largely to native speakers) is a vanishingly small proportion - around 0.0001%. 

And of those four thousand poets, how many are any good? Not necessarily popular, just good (and I hope you'll agree with what I mean by that). Could it be as many as a few hundred? And what of the even smaller cohort of great poets, past and (theoretically) present, whose work has lasted and will continue to circulate? Perhaps a dozen in all, writing in English in the twentieth century. Who are, or were, they? Hardy, Yeats, Pound, Eliot, Auden, Robert Lowell and . . . how many is that? Seven. I realise that the very idea of a canon is old hat, and patrician, and elitist, and barely worth considering. I recently met a bright young English graduate who had never even heard of T. S. Eliot because (as she quite reasonably pointed out) he wasn't on the syllabus and you can't be expected to read everything. Fair enough, although Eliot doesn't strike one as optional and surely a graduate in any subject who hasn't read The Waste Land is by any objective measure culturally impoverished. To her credit she wasn't at all uncomfortable with her admission and to my credit neither was I. But still.

We used to care more, or some folk did. According to Julian Symons (in his handy 1960 account The Thirties: a dream revolved) the inter-war audience for poetry took the form of a pyramid, the broad base formed by a million-strong intelligentsia. Above them a group numbering 50,000 subscribed to and read the handful of little magazines featuring the most recent work of new writers. This section of the pyramid was generally younger than the base and the social composition more complex, including working-class intellectuals, members of the lower-middle class educated at state or grammar schools and in some cases at red brick universities, and a general sampling of professional men and women (doctors, architects, lawyers, dons, economists etc). The artists themselves, around a thousand in number lived, often precariously, at the top. Not, it should hardly be necessary to point out, that they were all wealthy, or even solvent. By 'artists' Symons meant novelists, poets, painters, composers and the like, and clearly wasn't concerned with the applied arts, or with such popular media as the music hall and cinema - both of which would surely bump up the numbers. The UK population in the mid-1930s being around 46 million, that thousand-strong cohort represents a percentage too small to bother about, although it's those very painters and poets and novelists, who today stand for the age - they are what we know of the period.

Not everyone at the time agreed with the proportions of Symon's pyramid, and a jaundiced contemporary of his reckoned the population of serious poetry  readers in Britain numbered around a hundred. This was less an indicator of elitism than of exasperation. Symons admits that the image of a pyramid is over-simple and the whole set of assumptions on which his model is based seems very old-fashioned - but what interests me most are his estimated numbers. The overall population has increased since 1935 by around twenty million and let's assume that there has been a corresponding growth in the intelligentsia (not that such a label would be employed in a positive way today). But the greatest increase must surely have been in the number of artists. Post-war access to higher education, the growth of art schools, state sponsorship, lottery funding and the wide scale commodification of culture through new media - all have led to an enormous boom in practitioners to the extent that more people write poetry than read it. So what shape, metaphorically, are things in today? No longer a pyramid but perhaps a wonky sort-of oblong? 

There are workshops and festivals and readings and signings and book clubs and many little magazines and anthologies and reviews. There's a radio presence, online activity and a band of public poets who scrape a living through the practice of poetry and associated 'poetic' activities. Not much of this is very good, of course, but then not much of anything is very good. Poetry is, we are constantly reassured, 'for everyone' - the nine hundred doing the work, the ninety doing well and the nine doing good. This is nonsense, of course. Poetry, like all other art forms, is self-evidently not for everyone. It's for anyone.

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

On Corbyn, neckwear and commemoration

Jesus could sometimes be bang on the money as, for instance, when he pilloried the scribes and Pharisees in the Book of Luke (Chapter 11, verse 24)

          Ye blind guides, which strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel.

When the new Leader of the Parliamentaryy Labour party, Jeremy Corbyn, took his seat on the opposition front bench yeterday, he was wearing (or 'sporting', if you prefer) a narrow red tie.

Now I've blogged before about politicicans wearing this limp fabric arrow.

There is reportedly some debate in the Labour party surrounding the issue of whether or not Corbyn should wear a traditional red poppy at the Cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday, the day we (and our leaders, and the leaders of the Commonwealth, and the Royals) commemorate the dead of two world wars and many subsequent bloody and senseless conflicts down to the present day. It is a noble, introspective and very moving occasion. Some believe that the poppy is a martial device and condones war and the sacrifice of the innocent and is therefore a shameful anachronism, to be avoided or subverted. Even if that is the case, it should be worn by Corbyn and other good Lefties as a way of challenging any such perception. To wear a white poppy, or no poppy, is making the wrong kind of statement - it's churlish and childish and pointlessly provocative and counter-productive and insulting.

If Corbyn has no problem with the great big hairy camel that is a necktie (in Socialist red, even), a brazen symbol of oppressive male hegemony, then surely he and his advisors should have no difficulty at all with the tiny gnat of commemoration. It's a question of humility.

Labour leaders have worn the red poppy with pride alongside their Liberal and Conservative peers since the symbolic commemoration was initiated back in what (without recourse to Wikipedia) I shall simply call the Olden Days.

Some might argue that a white poppy would be more appropriate, being a pacific version of the 'blood red' original; others (and I've just invented this lobby) insist that only a rainbow poppy would sufficiently recognise the many sacrifices made by members of the LGBT community. But we're getting close to the poppy equivalent of the kind of tie sported (never merely 'worn') by the office joker - you know they sort of thing I mean. 

Remembrance Sunday is a solemn occasion and one on which crass individualism and political expediency have no place. It's also a closely-monitored event (and some of you will surely recall the vilification of Michael Foot for wearing what was inaccurately described as a 'donkey jacket' at the Cenotaph).

Corbyn (who did not sing the words of the National Anthem when parliament reconvened this week) is a man of great and admirable integrity. He should certainly wear a red poppy at the Cenotaph this November, and every November, because it is the right thing to do. And a tie. And a warm overcoat.

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

On virtuosity

Name the movie:

"That's it for tonight This is Sweet Sue saying good night, reminding all you daddies out there that every girl in my band is a virtuoso, and I intend to keep it that way."

Some Like it Hot, of course. Billy Wilder's sublime comedy  movie has no shortage of good lines, and a couple of great ones. The one I've singled out above isn't often listed as a quotable zinger but I've always liked it, redolent of a time when there was still a modicum of wit and verbal dexterity in the Hollywood backlot, before "Lock and Load!" and "This ends now!" and "Nooooo!" and "Let's move!" and "Loser!" and so on. 

You won't need reminding that in Wilder's movie (made the year I was born) Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis have escaped from Chicago, where, a couple of reasonably innocent speakeasy musicians, they have stumbled acrtoss the 1929 St. Valentine's Day massacre and are now on the run. They join an all-girl show band, Sweet Sue and her Society Syncopators where they bump into Sugar "Kane" Kowalczyk, played by . . . well, you know who. The two men spend most of the film in flapper drag (pencil skirts and pillbox hats). One of them falls in love with Sugar while the other is wooed by an ardent millionaire (the satchel-mouthed Red Skelton who delivers the film's immortal punchline). It's a very funny film, has a Shakespearean structure and moments of sublime silliness and even poignancy, and is one that should be seen and enjoyed with a large well-oiled audience, when the dialogue often disappears completely under thunderous laughter. Watching it alone on DVD is an oddly unsatisfying experience. The pauses between lines (included by the edit to allow the audience laughter to subside) seem slightly awkward, for a start.  

The bandleader is played by Joan Shawlee, a Wilder favourite (she can also be seen in The Apartment and Irma la Douce). She turns in a great performance. Everyone does. They're all virtuosi, and have remained so. 

The subject of this blog is - or was to have been - virtuosity.  I want to compare three very different poets and compare degrees of virtuosity. But I'm out of time and will return to the subject tomorrow. Or the next day.


Tuesday, 8 September 2015

On Ruth Pitter

From the enterprising independent Scottish publisher HappenStance Press, a splendid slim volume entitled A Conversation with Ruth Pitter by Thomas McKean (below). He is an American author, illustrator, artist and editor who admires her poetry and who, during visits to England in 1985 and 1987, recorded lengthy conversations with the poet. The HappenStance pamphlet is a transcription of their exchanges, and spellbinding. She's a great talker and he barely gets a word in, although his questions are always very well-judged, prompting a flood of recollections, judgements and torrents of poetry - mostly her own.




I'm tempted to refer to the poet's conversation as 'Pitter patter', but shan't. W. B. Yeats insisted that Pitter was "no name for a poet"but later became a great admirer. Her voice leaps from every page, every line - she is a wonderful, torrential natterer, her eloquent memories of a seventy-year poetic career regularly punctuated by a deflationary 'Oh dear'. Few writers in conversation come across as so completely loveable, and so reliably right. She is consistently delightful, and hilarious, and - although it seems an improper adjective - seductive. She is sharp, intelligent, and entirely without pretension.

She was born in Ilford, Essex, in 1897. Her parents were both teachers, working in the impoverished East End of London, and they all lived (with her other sister and a brother) in a modest cottage in Hainault Forest, a bucolic upbringing that made a lasting impression on her as a poet. A suburban Wordsworth, she wrote quite brilliantly about the natural world with a child-like alertness to light and colour and shapes, to flora and to fauna. There was little money around, and no luxury, but one senses the goodness and serenity of her family. They were not religious - her father had a keen interest in guild socialism. Both parents shared their love of poetry with their children.

Pitter received the Hawthornden Prize in 1937, the Heinemann Award for Literature in 1954, was the first woman to receive the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry (in 1955). She was created a Companion of Literature in 1974 and a Commander of the British Empire in 1979. None of this went to her head.

She knew George Orwell when he was a hard-up teenager called Eric Blair. They had dinner together, and he was deeply embarrassed when she passed him some cash under the table to pay for their meal. 

One of my more unlikely possessions is a copy of Pitter's First and Second Poems 1912-1925 (with an introduction by her early admirer and sponsor Hilaire Belloc). This bears the square blue bookplate of Humphrey Jennings. I assume the connection was via Jennings's parents, who ran a failing arts and crafts workshop in Walberswick, Suffolk (where Jennings was born, appropriately enough, in the village Post Office; he went on to make a series of superb wartime documentaries for the GPO Film Unit). Pitter responded to a newspaper ad placed by the Jenningses and developed a successful career as a designer. She was a skilful painter, decorating furniture and - among other things - tea trays with floral images. I've never seen an example of her decorative work, which sounds like the type of thing that arty middle-class customers would snap up  in Heal's furniture store on the Tottenham Court Road.

There are many reasons to admire Ruth Pitter, although her non-modernist approach (which was not anti-modernist) has led, predictably enough but inexcusably, to critical neglect. She was much admired by Philip Larkin (no small recommendation, but the kiss of death these days). 

She published during the Blitz, a poetry collection entitled The Rude Potato. The marvellously silly title poem is about the sort of vegetable that made audiences shriek when held aloft by Esther Rantzen on her unfondly-remembered telly programme That's Life! in the 1970s.

Pitter became a committed Christian in later life, prompted in large part by her great admiration of, and close friendship with, C. S. Lewis (and readers of my blog will know that the initials stood for Clive Staples). Lewis once said that if he were ever to marry a woman it would be Miss Pitter. He did marry, disastrously, and Pitter's account of the marriage is one of the few moments when she is harsh in her judgement, and bracingly satirical. She was, one senses, very lonely but never, or seldom. downhearted, never bitter

She was also, in that pre-celebrity age, an unlikely celebrity, or sort of, appearing regularly as a panellist on the BBC programme The Brains Trust. You can hear her here. ('Hear her here' is unavoidable but  euphonious, which is a Good Thing.)



For much less than the price of ten cigarettes or even an average Christmas card, you can buy a beautifully-printed HappenStance pamphlet of Ruth Pitter's Selected Poems (above). HappenStance will be among the many independent publishers appearing at this year's Poetry Book Fair, at the Conway hall in Holborn on Saturday September 26th. Do go, and spend, spend, spend.


Cover images © HappenStance Press