Tuesday, 31 May 2016

On poetry

Is there still room in our culture for great poetry? Or a great poet? The death of Seamus Heaney created a vacancy that no contemporary practitioners seem able to fill. Not that there's any shortage of fine poets, but they none of them have the weight and range and depth of Heaney. They lack form.  And, to be sure, the very idea of 'greatness' in any cultural context smacks of a patrician hierarchy of values in which Auden is indisputably better than, say, Pam Ayres, because that's just a matter of taste, and who cares what you think?

Poetry, once the preserve of an educated elite (which was a bad thing) is now valued by a mere minority (which is also a bad thing). It sometimes seems to me that poets outnumber their readers and are read only by other poets.

If sales are any guide (and they are) the number of readers of serious contemporary poetry in Britain is vanishingly small, but then it always was - one gloomy estimate back in the 1930s put the number at around a hundred. By 'serious contemporary poetry'' I don't mean J. H. Prynne, or not only him. I mean  poets such as Alice Oswald, J. O. Morgan and Jo Shapcott (to give three entirely random examples). I don't mean (to give three more) Carol Anne Duffy, Roger McGough and Kate Tempest, each of whom occupies  a well-earned place in the cultural spectrum but none of whom strike me as poets in the sense that the first three are. 

This is certainly not some snobbish distinction (and you'll simply have to believe me when I say I know next to nothing about any of these writers' lives); it's more to do with their respective public allegiances, their shared priorities, their technical competence and originality - their necessity, if you like. Most of all it's based on the assumption by the latter group that 'poetry is for everyone'. Popularisers such as McGough insist on this and however well-intentioned it strikes me that such a view is tyrannical, as only in a dictatorship can anything be for everyone. No - poetry can be, must be, for anyone.

I've said this before. Sorry to bang on. 


Monday, 30 May 2016

Dave, Daver, Davest

Enter my first name in a Google search engine and you'll be offered the choice of Walliams, Bowie, Beckham and Cameron - the four top Daves (although only our current Prime Minister seems comfortable with the matily familiar 'diminutive - the common touch typical of all Old Etonians).

Boys are less likely to be named David these days. They're all Jacks, Harrys, Oscars, Charlies, Bills (or Billys) and Dylans. Actually on looking me up on the website of the Office of National Statistics I was surprised to learn that David actually came fiftieth in the top 100 boys names chosen in Britain in 2015, one above Reuben and one below Matthew. So it looks as if we're hanging on in there.

But other once commonplace names are fading fast - will there ever be any more Kenneths? Kevins? Cyrils and Cuthberts? Barrys and Brians and Leonards? Gone, all gone. Vanished under the waves. Absolument disparu, my dear, like mater's mink (a phrase employed by Nigel Molesworth in Geoffrey Willans' unmatchable comic masterpiece Down with Skool). Geoffrey! Nigel!

Likewise girls' names - gone the Karens, the Sylvias, the Doreens and Barbaras, the Ivys and Maisies and  Jillys and Pams. The top ten girls' names today - Amelia (number one since 2013), Olivia, Isla, Emily, Poppy, Ava, Isabella, Jessica and Lily - all share a certain mid-century Kath Kidston whimsy-aura. Preferable at least to the ghastly hybrids such as Amber-Rose and the gormless (Brangela, Chardonnay, Tequila or, more likely, T'queela).

On a less grumpy note I've been thinking of some alternative names I'd quite like to be known by:

Tolly
Scobie
Langston
Douglas
Jolyon
Slim
Con
Dicky
Hunph
Biff
Ernie

They're all good, I think.



Sunday, 29 May 2016

Morbid pedantry

A fascinating review by Judith Flanders in the current TLS of an exhibition of Dutch flower painting at the National Gallery. I was particularly struck by the following:

The art historians Klaske Muizelaar and Derek Phillips have estimated that of the 10 million-plus paintings produced in the Netherlands between 1580 and 1800, less than 1 per cent have survived.

That's still an awful lot of paintings, isn't it? If we can rely on the figures it means around 5 million paintings per century were produced during the period, at a rate of 67 per day (including Sundays) or almost three per hour. Astonishing. How the two art historians arrived at the big number I cannot imagine. Were Dutch painters especially prolific compared with their peers in Italy, for example? I assume they were catering more for a secular demand from the rising merchant class than ecclesiastical commissions. But what do I know?

I was slightly taken aback by something else in the review :

From the mid-century, painters like Jan Davidsz de Heem continued to experiment with both form and content. 

Which painters were they, the ones like Jon Davidsz de Heen, who continued to experiment thus? Or does the writer mean painters such as Jan Davidsz de Heen? Presumably yes. There was a time when no sub-editor would have let this pass uncorrected.

It was Frederic Raphael who alerted me (not personally, you understand, but in an essay) to the increasingly commonplace use of 'like' instead of 'such as' when giving comparative examples. It's incorrect to say, for instance,

     Countries like Australia are home to exotic flora and fauna.

Which countries? It's preferable to say:

     Countries like Australia, such as New Zealand and Tasmania, are home to exotic flora and fauna.

Actually this is merely a pretext to share a clip of the comedians Mitchell and Webb performing one of a series of very funny sketches featuring a fictitious and utterly baffling telly game show called Numberwang. Amusing, this, and they have fun with 'like' and 'such as' at some point.


Saturday, 28 May 2016

Riddle-me-ree

My last riddle-me-ree was on 15th January 2013. Here it is. It's taken me more than three years to find one of equal quality, and this one is for polyglot cinephiles everywhere. Ready?

The following proverbs (in German, Italian, French and Spanish respectively) appear as translations in what celebrated scene in which English-language film? Scroll down for the answer.

Was du heute kannst besorgen, das verschiebe nicht auf morgen 
("Never put off till tomorrow what may be done today"); 

Il mattino ha l’oro in bocca  
("The morning has gold in its mouth"); 

Un «Tiens» vaut mieux que deux «Tu l'auras»  
("One 'here you go' is worth more than two 'you'll have it'" i.e the approximate equivalent of "A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush"), 

No por mucho madrugar amanece más temprano 
("No matter how early you get up, you can't make the sun rise any sooner.")























It's the moment in Stanley Kubrick's The Shining (1980) when Shelley Duvall discovers just what it is tha Jack Nicholson has been pounding out on his typewriter in the Overlook Hotel: "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy" . . . .



It begs the question: what does all play and no work make Jack? An oligarch, I suppose.



Can it really be more than 35 years ago since this film frightened the wits out of us all? Most of the people alive today on earth weren't even born then. And our leaders were all still fagging at prep school or whatever it is they did.

Friday, 27 May 2016

George Orwell's poetry

Published by the George Orwell Society, this is a fascinating collection of (mostly) juvenilia and fragments, assembled by Dione Venables and with a preface by Peter Davison. This is necessarily a very slim volume because Orwell wasn't even a minor poet, as the introduction disarmingly admits. But  this is all the same a valuable volume for all kinds of reasons. 




There are schoolboy verses in the approved pro patria manner and Blitz-era poems which have a period appeal. There's much of interest though little of substance. There were plenty of poets around in the 1930s - not only the McSpaundays - who would give him a run for his money; Orwell as a journalist elected to be a visible legislator and, as a journalist, had no equal.  This a bold claim but one I'd support by citing just a tiny part of his prodigious output as a hack - 'The Lion and the Unicorn'. Look it up - it's something George Osborne should be made to read aloud, slowly, while sitting in the stocks and pelted with rotten eggs. (How and where, by the way, does one acquire rotten eggs there days?)

Among the finds in the book is this fragment:

      Your mother was a spinster say the bells of Westminster,
      Don't keep talking balls, say the bells of St. Paul's.

Which set me to thinking up some more rude lines to the tune of 'Oranges and Lemons' . . . but I'll spare you that.

Orwell's biographer D. J. Taylor has a very good piece on the George Orwell Society website, and there's a link there too if you want to buy the book - a snip at eight quid.




Thursday, 26 May 2016

On women

A reader writes: 'why are most of your blogs in one way or another about men?"

This came as a shock.

I've blogged about the artists Steph Knowles, Marlene Haring, Judith Rooze, Kate Hopkins, Rut Blees-Luxenburg, Miriam Elia and others. I've blogged about writers including Ruth Pitter, Iris Murdoch, Elizabeth David, Ann Quin, Dorothy Edwards and (several times) Eimear McBride; then there have been blogs about Fifty Shades of Gray, Alissa Nutting's horrible novel Tampa and the surprisingly extensive bibliography of the glamour model Katie Price. I've blogged about Thatcher (to mark her passing) and the former Culture Secretary Maria Something. I've blogged about performers (Bernadette Lafont and Anna Karina and Charlotte Rampling and Siobhan Redmond); about Susan Sontag (admiringly) and Kia Abdullah (disparagingly) and Virginia Woolf (several times, equivocally) and Ayn Rand (crushingly) and Lionel Shriver and Margaret Atwood and Christine Brooke-Rose and . . . . well, you get the picture. 

These are, admittedly vanishingly few in number compared with the pieces I've written about blokes. What to say in my defence? I am a bloke. Much of what I think and write is informed by, and is a response to, what other blokes have done and said and written. As such I am a product (or victim, if you prefer) of my background and education and the cultural allegiances which stem from that background and education. I like to think I aim higher than other blokes when it comes to the range and variety of my enthusiasms - you won't find much on this blog about sports or makes of cars. Or if not higher then at least in a different direction. To my enquiring reader I say: 'why don't you read other blogs?' I write what I can, about what I know.





Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Attack of the Killer Penguins

Jason Hazeley and Joel Morris are the two writers behind the wildly successful series of pastiche Ladybird books which bear (they claim) only a coincidental relationship to the conceptual artist Miriam Elia's We Go to the Gallery. This is clearly not the case. While they make chortling gags about Mums and Dads (in volumes designed to exploit Mothers' and Fathers' Day without so much as a whiff of cynicism) and use recycled existing Ladybird artwork, Elia was working at a different level entirely.
© Miriam Elia / Dung Beetle Books

With a scrupulous eye for detail she faithfully reproduced the long-defunct Ladybird early reader format within which she incorporated her own images to subvert orthodoxies in the contemporary art world. This modest crowd-funded project prompted a bullying response from Penguin Books, holders of the Ladybird copyright. As The Times Literary Supplement reported (TLS 12 March 2014), Penguin lawyers gave the artist "one month to cover her costs for producing the book after which remaining copies [were] to be destroyed'". This heavy-handed move was criticised by Mark Dolley, the son of the former Penguin chief executive Christopher Dolley, who wrote in an open letter:

Both Lane [Alan Lane, the Penguin founder] and my father must be rolling over in their graves at Penguin today both for missing a commercial opportunity and also making a crass attempt to stifle art. Far from trying to ban her work, both would have offered Ms Elia a commission . . . . [She] is to be commended for her contribution to the spirit and memory of a great British publishing tradition.

© Miriam Elia / Dung Beetle Books

Penguin belatedly recognised the commercial opportunity but did not see fit to commission further books from the artist. The company has since made a fortune from their spoof Ladybird series, recycling old illustrations to accompany Hazeley and Morris's humdrum gags about Hipsters and Husbands, Garden Sheds and Hangovers. For the two authors to deny a direct lineage is disingenuous, although their relentlessly chortling approach has nothing in common with the satirical wit and subversive originality of We Go to the Gallery. 

In The Sacred Wood T. S. Eliot wrote:' Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal', and that appears to be the case here. Miriam Elia has a great talent and has a fine website where you can learn more about this silly episode and see examples of her work.

Tuesday, 24 May 2016

A Tempest hits Great Yarmouth

We went to Great Yarmouth on Saturday afternoon to see The Tempest, directed by William Galinsky - a highlight of this year's Norfolk and Norwich Festival.



This was my first visit to a town which, in common with all British seaside resorts, is now past its best, although there's evidence of former glories in some of the buildings, not least the two piers, the now-closed Winter Gardens and, still very much in business, the Hippodrome, a spectacular and unlikely survivor.

I'll get on to the production in  a moment, but first more about the amazing venue, engagingly billed as EAST ANGLIA'S MINI ALBERT HALL. Set in a quiet back street near the esplanade dates back to 1903 and is attractively shabby, or perhaps I should say thoughtfully unrestored - a unique, purpose-built permanent circus venue and a real gem. The audience sits in the round on steep bleachers, with superb uninterrupted views of the circular performance area. This space can be flooded within moments by 100,000 gallons of warm water, creating a deep lagoon, with rainfall effects when required. It's all done with hydraulics, I suppose - an unforgettable moment.

For The Tempest this pool was traversed by a catwalk (like a London Underground roundel, flattened), and at one side a diving board structure became by turns an eyrie, the entrance to Prospero's cell and a cascading waterfall. The designer Laura Hopkins produced some marvellous set pieces on what I imagine was a very tight budget (Festival funding was reportedly cut by 90% this year). The pool was surrounded by a slightly inclined wooden circle (shades of The Globe), a flexible and democratic space that preserved a whiff of the circus ring. The performers included a strong man and a very brave aerialist who soared above us as other performers plunged and swam and frolicked and floundered beneath.


The set under construction

I was expecting something more populist - Miranda in a Kiss-me-Quick hat, perhaps, or fish 'n' chips at the feast - and I was agreeably disappointed to see a very modern production that (for  paid little respect to the venue's crowd-pleasing heritage. If not radically experimental (and the text was largely intact) there were some striking uses of amplified and distorted voices, a spirit chorus in black catsuits (reminiscent of Feuillade's Les Vampires), a wonderful floating banquet  and inventive use of the various internal features of the Hippodrome (balconies and boxes and steep aisles). 

It was absorbing, original and great fun. My son loved it (his first experience of the play beyond the text). Tony Guilfoyle spoke Propsero's lines beautifully and sprinted impressively around the great circle; Jane Leaney was an athletic Ariel and Pia Laborde Noguez a feisty if at times inaudible Miranda. Only once in the lucid production was I baffled - when Miranda and Ferdinand are (in the original) are traditionally revealed to be playing chess what we got instead was a parade of the spirit chorus bearing elements of a gigantic nursery mobile, assembled centre stage while Ariel, dressed as a bee, buzzed her lines energetically as the lovers gazed on. It only struck me much later that this was a reference to the birds and the bees, and an induction to the world of carnal love and parenthood. This was certainly an idea but not a good idea, in the sense that it was unclear and out of keeping with the rest of the production. Audiences need direction too . . . 

The audience awaits

After the show we marvelled at a vast collection of old props and posters and theatrical memorabilia crammed into a series of rooms backstage - a fascinating horde of covetable stuff from the Hippodrome's heyday. I took many photographs on my iPad and will post them if I can figure out how.  You can read more about the building's history here.

I chatted for a while afterwards with the Hippodrome's owner Peter Jay. He took over the venue in 1979 and has been running it successfully with his family ever since. Peter struck me as a born entrepreneur, a natural showman and (in the best sense) as much a hoarder as a collector - nothing is thrown out, from a pair of outsize clown shoes to a lionskin costume; plastic floating swans and a selection of vintage microphones and sound equipment; fruit machines, masks, hats, signage and light fittings - at the heart of it all a magnificent antique Ruston diesel generator that used to power the electrical lighting. I loved the place - like the palazzo of a Florentine madman! Peter is no madman, but has an enthusiast's passion for show business

I plan to go back there later in the year to see the Hippodrome's annual summer show, and  to marvel at another of Peter's collections in a building he owns nearby - dedicated to the cinema. I can't imagine what's in store.

Monday, 23 May 2016

Discovering Benedict Cumberbatch

He's as famous today as any British actor can be, thanks to the BBC's clever update of Sherlock Holmes and a number of high profile film appearances, not to mention a hugely popular Hamlet.

I first became aware of Benedict Cumberbatch at a turning point in his career. He was appearing in Terence Rattigan's After the Dance in the National's Lyttelton theatre. Cumberbatch is an Old Harrovian, as was Rattigan. The Rattigan Society is Harrow School's main club for the dramatic arts, Cumberbatch was a member, so his professional trajectory was set early on.

Thea Sharrock directed the revival of After the Dance, which opened in June 2010, with Cumbernatch was cast as the aristocratic historian David Scott-Fowler. He was superb: he knew how to steer a three-piece suit (no small thing) and his self-contained stillness and coldness were compelling. The production was to date the best thing I've ever seen at the National - a brilliant cast, a scrupulously thoughtful and intelligent production, a thoughtfully detailed set (a Mayfair drawing room with a fatal balcony). Adrian Scarborough was a pitch-perfect patasitical lodger and Scott-Fowler's wife was played with devastating emotional clarity by Nancy Carroll ("magnificent" said The Guardian; "almost unbearably moving" said The Telegraph). Her breakdown - a wailing, snotty and eviscerating collapse - was both epic and intimate.

Duringt he Rattigan run Cumberbacth became tremendously famous and popular thanks to his starring tole in the BBC's Sherlock, a clever updating of the Conan Doyle stores. The first of these was aired on 25 July and I remember being startled by the long queue the following morning, the third time I turned up early to buy day seats. These cost ten quid each and gave you a place in the front row. This was a bit too close for comfort on occasion - but as there was nothing between the performers and us it was like being at a private performance, an immersive experience.

I eventually caught up with the telly Sherlock and enjoyed what I saw - ingenious, and with two fine perfomamces from Cumberbatch as the consulting detective and Martin Freeman as Dr. John Watson. My son is a huge fan of both the original, canonical stories and these later re-boots. Cumberbatch has since gone on to specialise in odd, brilliant characters - Dr Frankenstein (again at the National) and  Alan Turing, for instance. I know nothing at all about him beyond the performances, which is no small thing in itself.


Sunday, 22 May 2016

What do poets look like?



Enter the word 'poet' in the Google search engine and select images. You'll find no end of generic stuff such as this eighteenth century chap with a huge quill and modest ink pot (Quentin Crisp, surely?). Scroll down until you find photographs of real life poets and see how many of them you can name (Shakespeare doesn't count). It's a challenge until you get to Poe.

I'll admit I fritter a lot of my time doing this sort of thing, using search terms such as 'artist', 'writer' and 'critic', the last of which throws up an ignoble cohort of weirdos from The Muppet Show's heckling geriatrics Waldorf and Statler to TV's Mark Kermode.

Many of the images, such as the one above, are examples of 'perfect specifics'. I write about these in my book About a Girl:



The perfect specific

The satirical fortnightly magazine Private Eye has a long-running two-page section called 'Literary Review', named after the monthly magazine founded by a former Eye regular Auberon Waugh. Here, following a more-or-less serious review, appear pastiche versions of current books ('What You Didn't Miss') along with gossip from the publishing world (mostly scurrilous), reports of library closures and the delinquent behaviour of authors and agents. This is all attributed to the pseudonymous 'Bookworm', who is likely to be the biographer, novelist and critic D. J. Taylor.

'Snipcock and Tweed', a strip cartoon by Nick Newman, has been running at the foot of the 'Literary Review' page for many years and usually consists of an exchange between the two eponymous publishers. Snipcock is short, portly, bearded, in double-breasted suit and bow tie, while Tweed is more ascetic, wearing half-moon spectacles and a jacket with leather elbow patches, looking rather like the Eye's former editor Richard Ingrams. Occasionally one or the other will be seen outside the confines of their Georgian offices, usually guzzling wine at a book launch or trade fair. 

In one strip (13 June 2014) Snipcock is standing in front of a pile of books and a poster announcing the winner of the 2014 Baileys Prize for Women's Fiction. Addressing the trophy-bearing author Snipcock, brimming wine glass in hand, blusters: "How can we possibly have failed to spot that your book was so brilliant?" To which, in the second frame, our author replies: "Elbow. Publishers. Know, Their. Don't From. Arses? Their."

McBride really had arrived. One of the few remaining rites of passage in British public life is an appearance in the Eye - whether in Pseud's Corner (wherein any intellectual pretension is pilloried simply by being reproduced in that context) or Luvvies (a reader-submitted feature listing quotations from precious theatrical types). To be the subject of a cartoon is recognition of a high order.

By the time the Newman cartoon was published the reputation of the book had somehow transcended its readership (actual or hypothetical) to become in some way public property and to 'stand for' something. I'd like to look at what that might be. Newman, an established Eye regular, is particularly adept at exploiting what anthropologists call 'the perfect specific' a term which is very useful in discussing the cultural resonances of the  McBridean style.

When Newman wants to represent, say, an Australian or American tourist he'll show the former in wide-brimmed hat with dangling corks and the latter in a stetson (cigar and camera optional); a football supporter will invariably appear in a striped scarf, sporting a large rosette and carrying a rattle; civil servants always wear pinstripe trousers and bowler hats; Frenchmen in berets wheel bicycles festooned with onions; Scotsmen wear kilts and artists effect smocks and carry easels (unless they are conceptualists such as Tracey Emin, in which case they may carry a suitcase with their name on it, or pose in front of a poster for their current show.) You get the idea - these are comfortingly threadbare stereotypes which still enjoy a certain currency, at least in cartoons. But when was the last time you saw a football fan with a rosette? When did you ever see a Frenchman in a beret? These images are seldom disparaging and never, these days, racist, but allow the cartoonist to make a point, and the reader to get it without too much effort. Perfect specifics are non-verbal cultural signifiers around which a certain consensus has formed. They are quite harmless (unless they represent, say, a bearded man in turban holding a copy of the Koran and therefore. conceivably, depict the Prophet Mohamed, but that's another issue entirely). One might persuade oneself that 'Snipcock' is a travesty (the name carries with it a whiff of anti-Semitism and the character is based on Tom Rosenthal, the flamboyant Jewish publisher), and that Newman's take on McBride is crudely reductionist (big hair, frock, curves, lips) but you'd find it hard to make a case that his work is ever in any way provocative or offensive.


What does all this have to do with McBride's fragmented masterpiece A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing? You'll have to read About a Girl to find out. But back to Google images. Look up 'man' and the first thing you get is this anonymous fellow:



I have no idea what rules if any govern the hierarchy of appearance of images such as this and would love to be enlightened. Is this smiling chap really the visual incarnation of manhood, and more than the bloke at the top of this blog can be said to represent poets What about Woman?  Truth? Beauty? Get weaving . . .

Saturday, 21 May 2016

Conan Doyle kicks ass

Arthur Conan Doyle was intensely irritated by readers who thought he had the same deductive powers as his most famous creation, and even more irritated by those who claimed that he'd ripped off the idea for the Baker Street sleuth from Edgar Allen Poe's investigator Dupin. On 28 December 1912, prompted by an American critic who accused him of plagiarism he wrote the following poem in his defence:

To an Undiscerning Critic


Sure there are times when one cries with acidity,
'Where are the limits of human stupidity?'
Here is a critic who says as a platitude
That I am guilty because 'in ingratitude
Sherlock, the sleuth-hound, with motives ulterior,
Sneers at Poe's Dupin as very "inferior".'
Have you not learned, my esteemed commentator,
That the created is not the creator?
As the creator I've praised to satiety
Poe's Monsieur Dupin, his skill and variety,
And have admitted that in my detective work
I owe to my model a deal of selective work.
But it is not on the verge of inanity
To put down to me my creation's crude vanity?
He, the created, would scoff and would sneer,
Where I, the creator, would bow and revere.
So please grip this fact with your cerebral tentacle:
The doll and its maker are never identical.


It's not much of a poem, but the last couplet makes a good point well. I like the idea of a 'cerebral tentacle'. Very Cronenberg. 

I write this blog after attending a literary shindig last night in which a member of the audience asked the celebrated guest author (in effect): "how come you're so well-adjsuted when your characters are so unhappy?" This got the brisk dismissal it deserved but set me to thinking that there's an implicit sexism in the assumption that women writers necessarily write about themselves while male writers are expected to make it all up. Nobody (for instance) expects Martin Amis to be like John Self. "Which one is you?" somebody once asked a distinguished female historical novelist about the characters in her latest novel, all of whom were male.

To be sure many writers, male and female, draw on events and people in their own lives - but that is no reason for readers to assume that they resemble their fictions. Novelists are not documentarists. 

Friday, 20 May 2016

David Rudkin at 80

On June 29th the playwright and author David Rudkin will be 80 and this blog is by way of premature and inadequate celebration - an homage, if you like. I think he's a great writer, and rather undervalued. He's very active (with a recent translation of Genet's Haute Surveillance and a forthcoming stage version of the great M. L. R. James ghost story Oh Whistle and I'lll Come to You), and has a very interesting website detailing past and future projects. We'll come back to this. It's a particular, perhaps unrepresentative part of his substantial oeuvre that I'd like to consider here.

The British Film Institute is about to release a box set of the director Alan Clarke's BBC dramas, including Penda's Fen, which was written by Rudkin and transmitted as part of the BBC's Play for Today series on Thursday 21st March 1974. It made a huge impression on me as a fifteen-year-old and I still remember it vividly. It scared the living daylights out of me and, I suspect, my contemporaries.  Rudkin's screenplay - Quatermass re-imagined by William Blake - defies straightforward summary but I'll do my poor best. 

Image © BBC Television/British Film Institute

It's set in the village of Pinvin in Worcestershire, the name derived from 'Penda’s Fen. (Penda was the king of Mercia in the Anglo-Saxon kingdom in what is today the English Midlands.

Stephen Franklin, a bright, priggish schoolboy (played by Spencer Baks), haphazardly  navigating puberty, has his high-minded ideals and preconceptions about the world first challenged and then dismantled: his parentage (he discovers he's adopted), his patriotism (which veers closer to nationalism), his religious faith (Anglican) and his sexuality. There are encounters with an angel (see above) and a terrifying demon (see below), and the ghost of Edward Elgar, whose noble Dream of Gerontius is heard throughout. There are hallucinatory dream sequences (one particularly horrible), and a pervasive sense of barriers breaking down during the erratic process of self-discovery. It's a visionary work - disturbing, sometimes baffling, but always compelling; and it's slow in the way that television used to be - no hyperkinetic editing or wobbly cameras. It has a leisurely intensity, and is bursting with ideas. It may appear dated, but only in the way that, say, medieval art is dated. It's as much about now as any altarpiece.


© BBC Television / British Film Institute


In 2011 Penda's Fen was chosen by Time Out London magazine as one of the 100 best British films, and described as follows:

A multi-layered reading of contemporary society and its personal, social, sexual, psychic and metaphysical fault lines. Fusing Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius with a heightened socialism of vibrantly localist empathy, and pagan belief systems with pre-Norman histories and a seriously committed – and prescient – ecological awareness, Penda’s Fen is a unique and important statement.

It certainly was, and is. To find out more about this and Rudkin's very substantial oeuvre, see his website.  There's a page on Penda's Fen with the authors reflections on the production and much else besides.

You can also watch online Rudkin's epic three-hour television play Artemis 81, made seven years later and directed by Alastair Reid. I can't resist lifting this terse summary from Wikipedia:

Occult novelist Gideon Harlax (Hywel Bennett) is drawn into an epic battle between Helith (Sting), the Angel of Light and Asrael (Roland Curram), the Angel of Death.

Here they all are:


© BBC Television


Strange, erratic, self-indulgent and quite wonderful. They don't make 'em like that any more - but they didn't make 'em like that at the time either. It's a must, incidentally for Hitchcock admirers. And look out for a very young Daniel Day-Lewis.

Thursday, 19 May 2016

Saturn Over the Water

In 2013 I was invited to write an introduction to Saturn Over the Water, a late novel by J. B. Priestley, reissued by the admirably enterprising Valancourt Books in the United States. Valancourt do well what British publishers hardly do at all, or do badly - they republish first-rate but neglected 20th century fiction in beautiful editions, with the original cover designs and new introductions, You'll find a link to their website at the end of this blog.

What follows is an edited extract from my introduction.









Why is John Boynton Priestley, once among the most widely-read and critically-acclaimed writers in the English-speaking world, so neglected today? One reason is that he is an unashamedly middlebrow writer, and a middlebrow readership has long since transferred its loyalty to such lesser talents as Dan Brown, John Grisham, Robert Ludlum and E. L. James. This is unfortunate, as Priestley at his best (which was all the time) writes rings around them all.

Priestley is a modern writer but he's certainly no modernist. His prose is simple, straightforward and unaffected, like the author himself, who was a bluff, no-nonsense, hard-headed Yorkshireman. His values were largely those of his middle class Edwardian upbringing, not least in his attitude towards women, homosexuals, sinister foreigners and the fading glories of the British Empire. At the same time he was a progressive left-wing technocrat with a belief in centralised government and the meliorist benefits of Socialism, prompting one commentator to compare him (unkindly but memorably) with one of the pigs in Orwell's Animal Farm. George Orwell, it should be noted, secretly and rather shamefully passed Priestley's name to the Foreign Office to blacklist as too pro-communist. 

Yet while Orwell now commands a huge international readership Priestley is in danger of becoming a forgotten figure, despite regular revivals of his two most celebrated plays An Inspector Calls and When We are Married. This is an injustice because Priestley is unquestionably the outstanding prose realist writer of his generation, a popular author who knows how to write a good sentence, build a good paragraph and make the reader turn the page. This requires skill and talent, both of which are plentifully evident in Saturn Over the Water (1961). It's a very strange book indeed, and one that defies easy summary or analysis. Writing to a correspondent in 1969 Priestley claimed equivocally that this novel was 'entirely imaginary (but what is "imaginary")?'

'Entirely imaginary' is, if anything, a poker-faced understatement. Saturn Over the Water is an incredible novel, by which I mean that Priestley deliberately set out to write a book that is quite impossible to believe, an exercise in creative mendacity in which the author conscientiously spoofs every rule of narrative fiction, flouts convention and has great fun doing so.

The elaborate sub-title of Saturn Over the Water is worth setting out in full:

An account of his adventures in London, South America and Australia by Tim Bedford, painter; edited - with some preliminary and concluding remarks - by Henry Sulgrave; and here presented to the reading public by J. B. Priestley.

This approach - embedding a story within parentheses explaining how the manuscript came into the author's possession - harks back to an earlier time, and the title itself is a sleight-of-hand reminiscent of 19th century fiction. Priestley places himself at two removes from the narrative and becomes merely an intermediary. Sulgrave, an anonymous 'social historian', earns his keep in the brief Epilogue as Bradford's manuscript comes to a sudden stop in a thick tangle of loose ends. 

Prompted by his cousin Isabel's dying wish, the painter Tim Bradford sets out to find her missing husband, a Cambridge bio-chemist called Joe Farne, who has disappeared after leaving his job at the mysterious Arnaldos institute in South America. Bradford has one clue - a slip of paper in Farne's handwriting containing a cryptic list of names and places:

Gen. Giddings - V. Melnikov - von Emmerick - Steglitz - Something-Smith - Old Astrologer on the mountain? Ospara and Emerald L. - Charoke -Vic.? - Blue Mtns? - high back Brisbane? - Semple, Rother, Barsac? - fig. 8 above wavy I. - Why Sat.?

This is all that's needed to launch Bradford out of Cambridge and, via London and New York, to Peru, Southern Chile and Australia. The headlong pace, the confidently slapdash plotting, the international settings and the jet-age glamour all have a cinematic feel, and it's in cinema that we find a parallel to Priestley's method.

Alfred Hitchcock favoured a narrative driver he dubbed a McGuffin, a term he clarified in a 1966 interview with François Truffaut by relating a well-honed story 'about two men in a train. One man says "What's that package up there in the baggage rack?", and the other answers, "Oh, that's a McGuffin". The first one asks "What's a McGuffin?" "Well", the other man says, "It's an apparatus for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands". The first man says, "But there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands", and the other one answers, "Well, then that's no McGuffin!"'

'So you see,' added Hitchcock lugubriously, 'a McGuffin is nothing at all.'

Well, not quite. A McGuffin is, in the right hands, a liberation - an essential but deliberately undeveloped device that serves to move the plot forward. It's usually a goal of some kind, something of great importance (at least to the protagonist), usually with little or no explanation as to why it matters. The ideal MacGuffin is unimportant - in the case of Hitchcock's North by Northwest it's nothing more specific than some vague 'secrets' that must be prevented from falling into the hands of an unspecified foreign power. In the right hands it offers no end of opportunity because the author has virtually unlimited freedom to go where he pleases, free from the constraints of logic, coherence or credibility. Priestley pulls it off repeatedly and audaciously, as for instance when he introduces a clairvoyante late in the story to keep things moving, followed by the appearance of one Pat Dailey, "somebody enormous and quite incomprehensible" who may be a prophet, a shaman, a hypnotist, a shabby drunk or even an alien deity but who is enlisted to deliver some essential exposition which all seems to make sense at the time.

The forward momentum never slackens. Far from suffering conventional setbacks in his search for Joe Farme, Bradford is from the outset seemingly incapable of avoiding an encounter with the names on the list. As a footloose artist he enjoys a degree of freedom and social mobility allowing him to mix easily with the likes of Sir Reginald Merlan-Smith, the dubious Chilean Communist 'Mr Jones' and the nonagenarian Peruvian millionaire Arnaldos. These encounters come thick and fast - all Bradford has to do is navigate a fast-flowing stream of happenstance.

Bradford is a thinly-sketched and unconvincing character, although this in no way compromises his effectiveness as a device. An artist in his thirties, he is as a pipe-smoking, whisky-guzzling, Wodehouse-quoting figure and a barely-disguised version of the author, despite constant professional references to purple madder, magenta, mauve and violet alizarin. Most of the other characters make brief appearances and are either are never seen again or conveniently reappear when the plot requires it. All are equally implausible, although there are some marvellous throwaway descriptions that lodge in the reader's memory, such as Bradford's view that Sir Reginald Merlan-Smith "gave me the impression […] that he kept a kind of pleasant emptiness, for you to play around in, well in front of what he really was, the hard place."

The relentless accumulation of implausible coincidences are presented casually and with little dramatic emphasis. It is this laconic offhandedness that, paradoxically, makes the most outrageous twists and turns plausible as part of a self-contained world of intimately connected cause and effect. Priestley mischievously wrong foots us at the outset by joking about a succession of 'non-coincidences' that have to be negotiated before the story can really get under way. Once these are dealt with Bradford - without the slightest effort on his part - engages with all the key protagonists in swift succession, accompanied by this kind of dialogue:

'How did you know Semple was one of Dr Magorious's patients, Bedford?'
'Semple's brother is a member of my club.'

And that's it. Even within the tight-knit community of a rich and powerful cosmopolitan elite this is so implausible that it becomes, as I say, oddly believable and we are no more inclined to question such audacious artlessness than we would complain about the ingredients of a well-mixed martini. 

Bradford eventually tracks down Joe Farne who is drugged and working as a waiter at a sinister pharmaceutical plant in Southern Chile. Farne is whisked away and Bradford, after a half-hearted interrogation, escapes with a sympathetic doctor named Rother, who is shot and later dies from his wounds. On the strength of a phone call Bradford next boards a cargo ship to Australia in pursuit of Rosalita (inevitably bumping into other key figures on board). One feels that in moving the action to Australia Priestley had a shrewd eye on Neville Shute's hugely popular 1957 novel On the Beach, in which a group of Melbourne folk await the arrival of a deadly radiation cloud, the aftermath of a nuclear war in the northern hemisphere. Shute's harrowing account shows how each person deals with their impending death and there is an explicit reference to such a situation in Saturn Over the Water. Both novels are period pieces, intriguing Cold War fables reflecting a time of technological advance, heady consumer confidence and unbridled paranoia. 

At the hollow heart of Priestley's novel is a world conspiracy that barely withstands summary, let alone analysis. It involves a plan by some shadowy organisation to destroy civilisation north of the equator and build human society again from scratch in South America, Africa and Australia. In the weakest part of the story, Priestley resorts (via the shabby mystic Pat Dailey) to some opaque metaphysical mumbo-jumbo:

Here there's a difference, a conflict, between what we'll call thrones, principalities, powers, dominions, between spirits and disembodied intelligences, between men - for they're still men - invisible and free of time, men visible and in time. Masters and servants, in sphere within sphere, level below level, give and take commands. One great design clashes with another. 

And again that's pretty much it. I defy any reader to make sense of Pat Dailey's 'Age of Aquarius' ramblings, with its baffling references to Saturnians and Uranians. The episode offers the opposite of exposition or clarification, although it's typical of Priestley's use of an ambiguous and omniscient figure, such as the all-knowing Goole in An Inspector Calls

Valancourt are to be congratulated on this re-issue alongside The Thirty-First of June, Salt is Leaving (all three novels originally published in 1961), The Magicians (1954) and his excellent 1953 collection of short stories entitled The Other Place. Saturn Over the Water is no masterpiece - but who wants to read only masterpieces? It's a marvellously eccentric jeu d'esprit but with an undertow of atomic age fatalism. You may read better books this year, but you're unlikely to read anything as entertaining. 


Order Saturn Over the Water and other fine novels in beautiful editions from the publishers Valancourt.

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Greatest telly commercial ever

In William Blake's elaborate cosmogeny Ariston is a minor figure - the king of beauty, who builds for his stolen bride Anana a palace on the Atlantean hills.

In our prosaic age Ariston is a brand name - or was. The company behind what is surely the greatest television commercial ever made, or ever likely to be made.

Just watch it, and I'll bet you'll immediately watch it again, and again and again, The most mesmerising telly ad ever broadcast, quite staggering in its confident ingenuity - as if a bunch of bright French Oulipians had been let loose in a studio with a big budget and no constraints. The director was Richard Dean. Chapeau!

Full credits:  


Agency GGT.1991. 
Creatives: Graham Fink & Tim Mellors. 
Feat: Sorkina Tate & Laurence Marks. 
Dir: Richard Dean. 
Camera: Chris Parker. 
Art Dir: Bryce Walmsley. 
Choreo: David Toguri. 
Harry ops: Bob Hodgson & Mark Nelmes.

(I have no idea what 'Harry ops' is, or are)


You can see a longer HD version of the ad here.


Tuesday, 17 May 2016

G. M. Hopkins' confessions

From Joseph Phelan's review of The Collected Works of Gerard Manley Hopkins Volume Three:  Diaries, Journals and Notebooks, edited by Lesley Higgins and published by Oxford University Press:

During the period leading up to his conversion to Roman ­Catholicism in 1866, Hopkins made a habit of listing his sins in his diary and then striking them through following confession. These sins range from predictable anxieties about his “noctural emissions” to more enigmatic shortcomings: “anger at Post Office woman”, “self-indulgence at Croydon in fruit”, “talking with Arthur against Cyril in the affair of the cold beef” and “evil thoughts, especially from Rover lying on me”. He seems to have found it difficult to stop himself killing moths, earwigs and spiders (“cruelty to insects generally”), yielding to the lure of tasty snacks (“Eating two biscuits at the Master’s”), or ­providing raw material for future readers of a psycho­analytical disposition (“looking at and thinking of stallions”).

Paging Doctor Freud!

Phelan observes that previous editors had omitted such personal material on the grounds that 'they were covered by the seal of the confessional, but "Lesley Higgins […] overcomes this scruple with a manoeuvre worthy of Hopkins’s spiritual mentor John Henry Newman; the confession in question was, he argues, an informal Anglican practice rather than a full-blown Catholic sacrament, so its contents are not privileged in the same way." 

An elegant if troubling manoeuvre - is nothing sacred?. Does what Hopkins must have felt about 'privileged contents' count for nothing? Having said which, what Phelan calls his 'enigmatic shortcomings' are both revealing and hilarious. It must have been a singularly scrupulous spirit that balked at the thought of a second biscuit.

Hopkins has long been for me a touchstone poet, both technically and - for want of a better word - vocationally. He continues to fascinate, although the more I learn of him the more unknowable he becomes. Although 'anger at Post Office woman' is a bracingly human emotion.

Monday, 16 May 2016

Thin continuous dreaming

One of my favourite passages from one of my favourite books:

Daydream: a golden classical house, three stories high, with attic windows and a view over water. Outside a magnolia growing up the wall, a terrace for winter, a great tree for summer and a lawn for games; behind it a wooded hill and in front a river, then a sheltered garden, indulgent to fig and nectarine.

It's Cyril Connolly in The Unquiet Grave, beleaguered in the London blitz, dreaming of France and a house, a home, a bolt hole. It's a modest enough example of what Larkin called 'thin continuous dreaming', although Connolly later, and ambitiously, stipulates a helicopter to whisk him to editorial meetings in Bloomsbury.

My own thin continuous dreams? Given enormous unearned wealth (i.e. the interest on my colossal capital), and with all philanthropic urges and family commitments temporarily suspended, how would I selfishly fritter my dosh?

1) A plain, even spartan modernist apartment - perhaps in the Barbican. Low maintenance, airy and sunlit  accommodation, lots of bookshelves and space for lunch. 

2) A bright and amiable young graduate employed one or two days per week to organise the acquisition and cataloguing of a library devoted to all the poetry published in Britain between September 1939 and the end of the Second World War. Books, periodicals, manuscripts, correspondence, variant editions etc. What we were fighting for. Said library would be open to researchers and located in a decommissioned air-raid shelter.

3) A wardrobe of crisp white sea island cotton shirts, bottle green corduroy three-piece suits, superb shoes and a lavish supply of socks and underwear. No hats, but a range of sunglasses.

4) A loyal factotum, mute and reliable. He or she would live nearby, and be very well paid.

5) I cannot drive and will never learn but I'd like to have access to a motor car - something like the Jaguar in Withnail and I, or a 1970s Range Rover, in mustard livery. And a Citroen DS for trips to . . .

6) Glyndebourne. We'd motor down with friends, have a picnic, you know.

7) A walk-in humidor.

8) A salon, on the first and third Fridays of each month, lavishly catered, by invitation only. I'd never put in an appearance, but  would enjoy the thought of it happening. A vicarious pleasure.

9) Art. I'd like a good Roger Hilton for starters. And something by Yves Klein. Mid century modernism - the kind of thing you see in Kettle's Yard. Ceramics also.

10) Music (see 6)

11) A really wonderful 'O' gauge model train set for the boys and me to play with.

12) The acquisition (by the aforementioned bright and amiable young graduate) of Connolly's 100 (see the link above), the budget for which would be around $1m.

13) A morning each week spent allocating funds generously, anonymously, to writers and painters and makers and doers. No strings - just cash. And I realise I've just gone back on my plan to avoid anything philanthropic.

14) A boozy lunch once a week with a few friends at St John in Clerkenwell. Wednesdays are good, Starting at midday and winding up at around 3pm. 

15) A professional assassin at my disposal 24/7 - not that I have any particular agenda.

16) Er . . . That's about it. No travel, and little ostentation apart from the walk-in humidor.



Sunday, 15 May 2016

James Joyce's Torquay pub crawl

T. S. Eliot sat in a shelter on Margate sands in 1921, connecting nothing with nothing. (Although there's at least a phonic connection between the Kent resort and the London district mentioned in The Waste Land: "My feet are at Moorgate, and my heart / Under my feet".)

He composed much of Part III of The Waste Land in Margate, and you can still sit in that same shelter, now Grade II listed (although reportedly in a run-down state). There's no plaque, thank the stars, but I expect it's only a matter of time before some clot makes an ill-conceived 'intervention'. But before then the council really should think about careful renovation. The recent relaunch of the Dreamland amusement park may (one hopes) lead to collateral restorations.

Another modernist genius stayed in a comparably prosaic seaside resort. James Joyce and Nora spent two months in Torquay in the summer of 1929, staying at the Imperial Hotel.

From Richard Ellman's biography:

In his usual deliberate, though seemingly desultory way, Joyce read a series of strange newspapers and magazines. During the afternoons he lay on the beach, as he loved to do, fingering the pebbles for texture and weight. Occasionally he had a rush of energy and during one of these vaulted over a wall, but fell (because his sight was poor) on the other side, hurting his arm. In the evenings he went with [Stuart] Gilbert to local pubs, sipping a little cider (which he did not like) but mainly listening to several conversations at once and, to Gilbert's wonder, following them all.

(Stuart Gilbert (1883 – 1969) was a translator and among the very first Joyce scholars. the two men were friends for many years.)

Which local pubs would the two have visited?

The nearest is The Hole in the Wall at 6, Park Lane, a cosy looking place which has an intriguing plaque:

     
                                                                       1815
                                           EMPEROR NAPOLEON - arrives in
                                   TORBAY on board H. M. S. BELLEROPHON  74 GUNS
                                                       KNOWN IN THE NAVY AS 'BILLY RUFFIAN'
               NAPOLEON WAS STRUCK BY THE BEAUTY OF TORBAY WHICH HE
                             SAID REMINDED HIM OF PORTO FERRAJO IN ELBA

In 1815 Napoleon had surrendered to Captain Frederick Maitland of the Bellerophon which brought him to England. The Emperor was detained on board in Plymouth Sound during July while his fate was decided. Boatloads of sightseers would the Bellerephon and Boney would obligingly put in an appearance at around 5pm each day. Several artists - the paparazzi of the day - would make lightning sketches as he strolled the deck.

This was a popular subject throughout the 19th century with painters such as Sir William Quiller Orchardson, who depicted the captured Emperor on the poop deck watching the French coastline recede as his retinue, bare-headed as a sign of respect, look on


                         Napoleon on Board the Bellerophon, exhibited in 1880 by Sir William Quiller Orchardson.



Was the Hole in the Wall plaque in place in 1929, and would Joyce have noticed it?

Adjacent to The Hole in the Wall is The Devon Arms. another traditional boozer. I can't find any other pubs within easy walking distance of the Imperial, but perhaps somebody with local knowledge can confirm other possible places, perhaps now long closed. I picture Joyce wincing at the taste of scrumpy. Torquay, despite its prime cation on 'the English Riviera' lacked continental sophistication and a glass of white wine was not the sort of thing one could expect to find in any pub, anywhere. Sherry at best, or perhaps port.

The Joyces also spent a holiday in Llandudno, in North Wales, although the town is keener to exploit a link to Lewis Carroll (the Liddell family had a holiday home there, but there's no evidence to support the view that Charles Lutwidge Dodgson ever visited). Links between Carroll and Joyce are numerous. and I recently came across a persuasive article suggesting that Carroll's (virally unreadable and largely forgotten) Sylvie and Bruno is a key to Finnegans Wake (as well, to be sure, as the rwo Alice books). More on this, perhaps . . . 


Passage from Ellman's Joyce biography © The Estate of Richard Ellman; 
The Waste Land © The Estate of T. S. Eliot / Faber and Faber Ltd.

Saturday, 14 May 2016

A Long Trip to Teatime

A Long Trip to Teatime is one of two books written by Anthony Burgess for children. It's fitfully brilliant, if occasionally laboured; if there's a Finnegans Wake for bright young boys and girls this is it.  It's not as good as, say Nortom Juster's The Phantom Tollbooth or Gilbert Adair's Alice Through the Needle's Eye, but is good nonetheless, and should be better known. Published in 1976 by Dempsey and Squires (never heard of them but they sound like a cracking music hall act), it has wonderful illustrations by Fulvio Testa and appears in a handsome hard cover edition (priced at £2.95, which was quite expensive for a children's book forty years ago).

The hero is a schoolboy named Edgar who disappears down an hole in his desk during a dull lesson about Anglo-Saxon kings, finding himself at first aboard a ship (plenty of piratical exchanges) and then on Easter island, where he encounters a series of bizarre characters, some of them human. 

Burgess being Burgess the book is bursting with polyglot virtuosity. There's an explicit lift from Finnegans Wake in the imaginary city of Edenborough, the place to which Edgar's journey leads, and a pervasive Wakean register in some of the livelier lexical excursions, such as this:
 
    There was a load of old rubbish in the corner – bucolics and eclogues and Barclays and 
    sylviuses and economics and bagehots and darwins and ector and kays and seneschals, all 
    very dusty.





There's an Oulipian aspect to the novel (one embraced by Adair in his fine pastiche/homage), in that Burgess adopts what he calls 'aleatory means' to create the plot. This involves selecting words randomly from a reference book, many of them beginning with 'E' (shades of Georges Perec's La disparition), then  contriving to include them in the plot, a technique Burgess had already employed in his brilliant biography of Shakepeare Nothing Like the Sun (1964) and Napoleon Symphony (1974). 

The test of any writing for children is whether children 'get it' and I am happy to report that ten pages in Frank, aged ten, thinks it 's "OK" (which coming from his is practically a rave review).

The author's dust wrapper blurb concludes:

It is a British writer's duty, he thinks, to get out of Britain if he can and examine the English language against the foil of other tongues, occasionally going back as a tourist and staying at Claridge's. 


That swagger sounds like Joyce too. Burgess had been living abroad for the previous eight years, mainly in Italy 'finding the Mediterranean more congenial than the Thames'.

For more on A Long Trip to Teatime, visit the excellent website of the International Anthony Burgess Foundation.



Image/text © the Estate of Anthony Burgess

Friday, 13 May 2016

East Finchley

From Julian Stannard's very fine new collection What were you thinking? here, in its majestic entirety, is a poem entitled 'East Finchley':

          It's always sunny in East Finchley.
          It's always funny in East Finchley.
          That's enough about East Finchley.

Why is this both unflaggingly amusing and so naggingly memorable? Is it the off-kilter Longfellowish repetition? Or is it the upbeat and baseless assertion that this North London banlieu is always sunny, always funny? And in what way funny? Funny ha-ha, or funny peculiar? Only a local Chamber of Commerce would come up with such a strapline - an urban take on Skegness is so bracing.

Or is it the fact that Finchley (let alone East Finchley) is simply a funny place in and of itself, for reasons that defy easy summary. Like Balham, and Cockfosters, and Cheam (not to mention East Cheam), and Cricklewood. They are all, most Londoners who happen to live elsewhere would agree, slightly absurd and unprepossessing places, not far enough away from central London to be part of the commuter belt; not close enough to be cosmopolitan. They are all, in a word, suburbs and therefore ripe for dismissal. Long a safe Conservative seat, Finchley selected the 33-year-old Margaret Thatcher as their M.P. in 1958. 'The Honourable Member for Finchley' can only be said with a pursed mouth.

East Finchley is quite close to where we live - perhaps fifteen minutes by bus. It's not always sunny, but has a couple of things in its favour. The marvellous Phoenix cinema with its baroque auditorium and jazz moderne exterior; the Bauhaus-influenced Northern Line tube station with its modernist archer statue aiming an arrow straight at the heart of London; the wonderful Black Gull Books (one of the very best second-hand bookshops in the capital) and, er . . .  that's it, unless you want to gawp at plug-ugly oligarch mansions in the Bishop's Avenue. John Betjeman never eulogised the district as he did (say) Holloway and Highgate and Ruislip Gardens, although he was the first Patron of The Finchley Society, campaigning for the preservation of Hawthorndene, the house at the entrance to the Strawberry Vale Estate. He sent a message of support: 'Long live Finchley and its sudden steep hills, tree-shaded gardens and memories of a civilised prosperity'. The implication being that the place had rather come down in the world.

Does Julian Stannard 'hail from' (as we used to say) Finchley? Or is there some other connection? Will Self grew up there I believe, but for those of us with fond memories of The Goon Show it will always be home to the lewd schoolboy Bluebottle, played with shrill adenoidal glee by Peter Sellers, another Finchley boy ("Thinks: waits for audience applause. Not a sausage"). 

The first section of What were you thinking? ('Happy') features 26 mostly short poems some of which feature the word 'happy', although happiness takes many forms. Next is 'The Streets of Perfect Love' a sequence about a fraught and failing marriage in Italy (very dark, some of these, and brilliant and moving); followed by a comforting section ('Dear Nosh') about the consolations of food and drink, and lunch in particular.. (A 'nosh-up' is, or was, the slang term for oral sex, I seem to recall). The final section, entitled 'East Finchley' consists of one poem, and you know it already.

There are many delights: Dickens in Genoa, Larkinesque speculations about a certain Miss Pinkerton, 
reflections on what may be a conciliatory salami. There's also a sort-of Christmas poem called 'Christ Stopped at Hollesley' which (for my money) knocks the stuffing out of Eliot's 'Journey of the Magi'.

You can order What were you thinking? from the publisher here.  

'East Finchley' © CB editions / Julian Stannard