Some of our favourite writers talk about their favourite things.
In September, I went to the Corfu Literary Festival and read along with Alicia (A.E.) Stallings in an open air venue that had, on one side, the glory of the municipal gardens and, on the other, the Ionian sea. Alpine swifts flickered between trees; early bats tangled the flight-lines of the swifts. Within a day of my return, Covid struck. One of the other, more welcome, items I brought back with me was Julian Hoffman's book, Irreplaceable.
Julian gave a talk at the festival on biodiversity and the challenges to that on the island. His book is on the same subject but its scope is world-wide. The notion of place as indelibly lodged in cultural history (as in the heart) is central to his case. He gives accounts of attempts to save the wild places – and creatures – of the world, that take us from an allotment patch near Watford to the Pakke tiger reserve in Arunarchai Predesh.
It is a passionate and strongly-argued book. Its focus is place and the creatures who inhabit place, but also the people who fight to prevent the irreplaceable becoming the irrecoverable. Those people, whom Julian Hoffman celebrates, whose stories he tells, are the heroes of the book and its measure of hope.
The book I took with me to the island was Matthew Hollis's new collection, Earth House. It is also much concerned with place and the emotional responses place discovers. The poems draw on aspects of nature and natural effects – those mysteries – to reckon with the way human (that is interpersonal) dramas seem evidenced by weather and the rigours of landscape. There are books that I keep by me for a long time. Earth House will be one.
The Lament for Art O'Leary
Earlier this year – the 4th of May to be exact – the famous Irish lament, Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire or The Lament for Art O'Leary, celebrated its 250th anniversary. We have the exact date of compositon, which is unusual for any work of literature, because records show that on this date Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill's husband, Art Uí Laoghaire, was murdered in Co. Cork, by officers acting on the orders of the local sheriff, Abraham Morris. Art was twenty-six years old. His specific "crime" remains unknown, although by all accounts he was a bit of a lad, and seemed to be in the habit of flouting the country's suppressive Penal Laws and generally thumbing his nose at authority. For those who did not grow up with the long shadow of those Laws, they included: forbidding Catholics from holding a commission in the army, entering a profession or owning a horse worth more than £5 (all of which Art certainly did). Catholics could not possess weaponry or arms, could not study law or medicine, and were forbidden from speaking Gaelic or from playing Irish music. These laws intensified the injustice brought to Ireland by Protestant English settlement, wherein they stripped the Catholic Irish of religious freedoms and nearly all of their holdings, including land.
The impetus and narrative arc of the Lament are simple enough: it begins when Art is killed and his horse returns to the house he shared with Eibhlín, its reigns trailing on the ground, blood smeared across its flank. Eibhlín leaps onto the horse and gallops off to try and find her husband, but she is too late, he has died by the side of the road. In the first extremis of her grief, she begins to extemporise the Lament over his body.
A lament, or a keen, is a traditional form of extemporised oral performance in situ. It is a poem of personal loss and mourning, but it is also a poem of white hot fury; the lamenting woman – and in traditional Irish keening it was usually a woman – is expressing her own grief, but at the same time she is using the public display of that grief as emblematic of the suffering endured by her entire community; she is using her grief to stage and to articulate that suffering community. She's gathering and rallying those same forces behind her. These laments are singular because they lay blame, heap invective, call down curses, and incite listeners to retribution.
There are times I have needed that.
The Last Music I Ever Heard
You'd want it to be good, wouldn't you. Not any old thing. You'd want it to stay with you too, for a while: a lingering and rare essence, a distillation perhaps of all the music you've ever loved and depended upon.
You'd also want it to be the right kind of cadence to end on, not the wrong kind. Not an "interrupted" one that leaves you hanging. And no flutes. Not even the ones you hear in Richard Strauss's Four Last Songs, singing the finality of everything to you like birds. There's so much to worry about when you know it's the last music you're ever going to hear – and afterwards you know you're going to have to go on living.
Above all, you'd need to know, at the time, that it was the last music you're ever going to hear, so you can cock yourself like a pistol in readiness and have The Best of Earth Wind & Fire to hand, for quick deposition onto a nearby turntable. And not Hawkwind's Space Ritual.
But how would you know? How would you know that this was it, the moment in which you listen to the last music you're ever going to hear; how could you know that this was it while you're still hearing it? How would you? In advance... You wouldn't know, would you? You couldn't. Because you can still hear. And, also, what if the hearing goes today and then the next morning you find a small amount of it has returned overnight, mockingly, as it does? And even as you rejoice that there may have been a stay of execution for your favourite sense, and you begin to luxuriate in the ambient sounds of nature regained, heard as never before – then suddenly, at that very moment of rapture, your neighbour, an amiable ex-biker from near Ipswich, now in his late sixties, indulges himself with his favourite bath-time relaxant, Hawkwind's Space Ritual, at ear-splitting volume on the boogie box in the hallway outside his bathroom next door – and it comes through the party wall like a tropical thunderstorm goes through bedlinen hung out to dry. And now that is the last music you're ever going to hear. Fucking Space Ritual.
Well, only maybe. It depends.
You can't plan for it, not without knowing the precise date and time of day at which the heavy doors will close on your hearing forever. I didn't, even though I knew I was going deaf at some point fairly soon. And in fact, such had been the disordinate mess of my hearing over the past year – coming, going, coming back again, going once more – that I didn't realise it had gone for good till fully three weeks had passed since I'd last heard a dickybird of any sort, and by then I couldn't remember the last music I'd heard. It had been three weeks ago. Three weeks!
I bet you can't remember what music you listened to on a particular day three weeks ago.
But I am a man of enquiring mind and I went and examined the likeliest site of recreational music-listening in the house: the front room and its old-fashioned stereo system with turntable, a beloved thing. And there it was, the evidence. I did not need a forensic dusting kit to see that there were three albums propped up against the stereo, where I had lazily parked them three weeks ago, just before my hearing went phut for the last time – if only I'd known then that that was what was about to happen. And it reminded me that I had indeed spent part of that morning listening to music because I had felt my hearing was not too bad that day and, well, I love music above all things in life. No, I do. So I'd been listening to the Best of Earth Wind & Fire (excellent trumpets); an early (1974) Jamaican dub album purportedly part-produced by Lee Perry called King Tubby Meets the Upsetter at the Grass Roots of Dub (excellent trombone); and a rather good record by the post-bop tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson, entitled Tetragon (great tenor sax). Three very different things I really love and, even though I didn't know it at the time, one of them was destined to be the last music I ever heard. And I couldn't remember which one I'd played last. I hadn't a clue.
Nor could I decide which of them deserved to be the last music I ever heard. They all did and none of them. I thought about the emotions that the three records always stir in me – and I thought, yes, well... different, I'll give them that. So perhaps, then, I should take them collectively as the last music I ever heard: as a parcel containing the ecstatic, hectoring, ultrabright tightness of Earth Wind & Fire; the reverberant dub cave in which Lee Perry (if it really was him) located his single blindly squirming trombone, like a worm; the warm, edgy, slightly nervy but insistent Joe Henderson on the track I always play on that album, "Invitation", an unusually burrowing piece for one who can fly like a buzzard...
Yes, yes, that would really work.
They can all, collectively, be the last music I ever heard and the worm, the buzzard and the ecstatic hectoring brightness can mingle in me like early party-goers standing around and hoping that some more people will turn up to the party soon, because, frankly, this party's a bit of a dud. And they will never entirely understand why it is that no one else comes to the party at all, ever. But they feel it's incumbent on them to stick it out for my sake, all unaware as they are that they are the last music I ever heard.
What can I say? It's my party and I don't take requests.
My track of the year is above. It's from Feist's beautiful album Multitudes and it (as in the song but, yes, the album too) comes at you softly, sideways. It floats. Meanwhile, my favourite book was, once again, not one that was published this year. Elspeth Barker was the widow of the poet George Barker and O Caledonia was her only novel. Set in Scotland, it's the story of a girl who, we're told right at the beginning, dies when she's sixteen. It's not a whodunnit, however, nor even what Martin Amis once described as a whydoit? It's simply a funny, charming, beautifully written description of how life lived in the Highlands could be both full of astonishing beauty and so tightly corsetted that one was aching, constantly, to be free. (I should say that I lent it to my partner, who feels exactly the same way about it as I do.) Meanwhile, I'm currently reading Erotic Vagrancy by Roger Lewis. Can there be such a thing as a loving evisceration? Lewis gets close. His dissection of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor refuses to be either objective or chronological. It's furious, scabrous, wildly opinionated and obscene. In other words, it's going down a treat.
And my best gig? It's a tough one. The Beths played a storming set at Electric Brixton and Blur really did do themselves proud at Wembley but I'm going to allow myself to cheat and say the whole of this year's Love Supreme festival. What with Little Simz (who was very much in what Neil Tennant has described as an "imperial phase"), the delirious highlife of The Cavemen, Mr Bongo's DJ set, FKJ, Greentea Peng, Courtney Pine giving "A Love Supreme" a thorough kicking, Snowboy's Latin rhythms and the frankly mind-blowing Thundercat, it made the televised version of Glastonbury look and sound like what it is: a rest home for the elderly and infirm. If you don't all drop everything and come next year I'm going to be very disappointed.
"A pilgrimage can be either to receive a blessing or to do penance…"
As a child I lived on the Hampshire coast and still remember walking through wartime bomb sites on family outings to Southampton. By then the war had been over for nearly twenty years but those piles of waste and rubble still scarred the streets – and reverberate now like the distorted landscape of a half-remembered dream. I thought of those wrecked sites again this autumn when, confined to quarters with a broken ankle, I revisited the luminous wartime films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, recently reissued by the BFI. My favourite, by far, is the strangest: A Canterbury Tale. First released in 1944, it recounts the odd tale of an idyllic Kentish village, requisitioned as a camp by the Allied Army before D-Day, and menaced by a phantom assailant who pours glue over the hair of girls at night.
The film's non-conventional approach to narrative is clear from the start as a medieval pilgrim's hawk soars into the air above the North Downs' Pilgrims Way to become a WW2 fighter plane (consciously echoed by Stanley Kubrick in the iconic opening to his 2001: A Space Odyssey). But it is in its final thirty minutes, as the action shifts to Canterbury itself, that the sense of emotion, of an ancient spirituality still seeped in the city's now bomb-battered stones, begins to heighten. Our first view of the cathedral is that of its four main protagonists/pilgrims; as they look out from the window of the train carriage carrying them to their place of blessing (and penance), it suddenly rises, untouched, above what looks like a wasteland. We next glimpse it through the arch of the Cathedral Gate as London cinema organist Peter (played by a very young Dennis Price) enters the precinct for his own blessing; playing the cathedral's great organ. By now the soundtrack is soaring (the film inspired dub band Dreadzone's acclaimed album, Second Light) – and it's at this point that I usually feel the first sob rising in the throat.
Yet the film's most emotional scenes are still to come. Land girl Alison (Sheila Sim) walks through the city's disorientating rubble, desperately searching for the garage housing a caravan she once shared with her fiancé, believed killed in action. In this unfamiliar topography of levelled streets, as a local woman points out, there are now new vistas of the cathedral, huge, indomitable, beyond charred half-timbered houses and former shops identified only by their signs propped up in the dust piles. As Alison receives her own blessing – the news that her fiancé is still alive – the camera pans back to the cathedral through the bars of the garage windows. Beyond the prison of the present lies a mystical freedom, the comfort of both past and future.
In this single, haunting shot, you can find the genesis of post-war Neo-romanticism; of John Piper and Graham Sutherland's artworks for a rebuilt and reimagined Coventry Cathedral; of David Jones's Arthurian visions and John Minton's pastoral book covers for The Penguin New Writing series; of Geoffrey Grigson's nature writing and the gentle, metropolitan fables of Ealing comedies, Hue and Cry and Passport to Pimlico, in which wartime ruins are transformed into children's playgrounds or the custodians of powerful secrets. In a year which, both personally and globally, has often felt like navigating a narrow path through burnt earth, here is the blessing we can all crave.
Having been beguiled by the 1964 film adaptation starring Peter Finch and Anne Bancroft, I snatched up the vintage orange Penguin at a local boot sale. Like my favourite novel, Muriel Sparks' The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie, The Pumpkin Eater is an invitingly slim volume that punches well above its actual weight. Penelope Fletcher was already an established novelist when she hooked up with the young barrister John Mortimer. His debut novel was being handled by her publisher. There is no doubt in my mind that she is the superior writer and the fact that he was a household name (for a while at least) in a way that she never was is doubtless indicative of all sorts of things, few of them good. I urge everyone to read this novel and her others. Whilst not exactly uplifting in theme or outcome, they uplift nonetheless because they are so beautifully written and because, like Muriel Spark, Penelope Mortimer shows what you can do with around 200 pages and a fearless approach.
Daydream College for Bards
It took two weeks to get Camille Ralphs' Daydream College for Bards out of customs in Vienna, and then they charged me an eye-watering €36, which was more than it had cost me to buy this beautifully produced Guillemot Press publication.
It is an object of great appeal: a hardback sleeve with four slim paperback volumes inside. They are the fruits of Ralphs' experiment with W.H. Auden's imagined "College for Bards" in which he advises that, amongst other endeavours, prospective poets should learn at least one ancient language and two modern ones; should learn thousands of lines of poetry by heart in these languages; should take courses in subjects like mathematics, archaeology, cooking, geology and mythology; should learn to garden and must keep a domestic animal. I hadn't previously read The Poet in the City, whence Auden's proposal for poets comes, so it was a real pleasure to discover it, and for that I am extremely grateful.
The four volumes include extracts from Ralphs' poetic journal, experiments with writing constraints, imitations of other poets, and translations of Russian, Old English, Old Irish and Roman poets. It was interesting to see the work that she had put into her own expansion as a poet and most thought-provoking was the journal itself. I would have liked to have seen some experiments that didn't quite work, or the progression from first draft to final – but perhaps that would take a particular kind of bravery. As it was, this all felt very polished and far from experimental in the humanist sense; her constraints, imitations and translations are more truly experiments in a scientific sense. That aside, it has been an inspirational read and I've found myself going back to Old English and German poetry to expand my own practice.
When anti-semitic acts are on the rise in Austria – including, on Hallowe'en, an arson and graffiti attack on the Jewish section of Vienna's famous Zentralfriedhof – the German version of Tom Stoppard's play, Leopoldstadt, seems particularly timely and necessary. The play, if you didn't manage to catch the English versions in London or New York, follows the rise and fall of a middle-class Jewish family through the course of the twentieth century. In particular, Leopoldstadt explores the cyclical nature of anti-semitism in Austria: in the opening scene in 1899, the main character, Hermann, is convinced that the pogrom and the ghetto are mere spectres of the past – and Stoppard packs the play with such moments of uncomfortable dramatic irony. The final scene, in which the original cast of almost thirty characters has been reduced through the play's events to just three survivors marooned on an empty stage, involves a harrowing litany in which the fate of each vanished character is relayed to the audience – often through the single resonant name of a death camp. (This scene, by the way, is based on a real event in Stoppard's own life – as are many of the others.) Though the theme of restitution is explored when in the 1950s one of the survivors, Nathan, attempts to get a stolen Klimt portrait of a relative returned to the family, no real hope or sense of future is offered at the end of the final scene.
One of the interesting aspects of the original script is that of language. We assume, although the script is in English, that the characters – as assimilated Viennese Jews – are speaking German. To watch the play in German means that there is no need for that particular suspension of disbelief and this, one might argue, brings us closer to a true and horrifying experience of the events depicted in the play – for example in understanding the precise forms of humiliation meted out upon the family by the German officer who deliberately refuses to use the characters' correct academic titles that in Viennese society are still considered so important today.
When few Shoah survivors remain and knowledge of this particular period of European history is fading, it may be that events set in Vienna in the last millennium seem abstract to some London audience members; but to see Stoppard's play in the city in which the events that it covers actually took place has a great and terrifying impact.
Translating the Silence at Quarr Abbey
Since moving to the Isle of Wight I've been finding inspiration at Quarr Abbey, home to a small group of monks and a large family of pigs. Built as a monastery for the French Benedictine community of Selesme, who were living in exile on the island at the beginning of the twentieth century, Quarr Abbey has been hailed as a brilliant example of expressionism in architecture. Dom Paul Bellot (1876-1944), affectionately known as "the poet of bricks", was the Abbey's monk-architect. Choosing to work with cheap, imported Belgian bricks throughout, he proved that it was possible to build on a monumental scale while achieving a sense of solemnity with brick alone.
Quarr regularly hosts events such as book readings, artist exhibitions and concerts. One of the highlights of the year was a performance by the twenty-four piece Abbey Brass Band. The playlist included familiar numbers such as Parry's "Jerusalem", Holst's "I Vow to Thee My Country" and the traditional "Amazing Grace", plus other less well known numbers (to me at least) such as Lauridsen's "O Magnum Mysterium", Esenvald's "Only in Sleep" and Gott's "Lightwalk". On leaving the abbey I felt almost as high as I did after watching Leonard Cohen at the IOW Festival. (I exaggerate a bit).
On top of that, last August I got the opportunity to read some poems on the theme of silence in the Abbey gardens – the perfect place to ponder on the sound of one hand clapping. The most memorable moment though, according to the audience of laypeople and monks, was when a robin hopping onto the table next to me cocked an appreciative ear for a minute or two before flying off into a neighbouring willow tree. Ah well, at least I got a haiku out it:
in the Abbey garden –
a robin steals the show!
Let Go the Note
Every writer is asked why they write, and where they get their ideas. Most writers, the ones who don't like to patronise or offend, make something up. In truth, the answer to the first is it's a compulsion over which we have no control, and to the second that they come from everywhere, and they come through everything, and we pass them on. We pass them on because we don't own them; they knit us together. In "Old Note" the third track on Lisa O'Neill's All Of This Is Chance, which came out this year on Rough Trade, she sings:
The wind whistled you in behind the springtime
Float old note new among my mind
You hold the note, the note just moves to move man
Let go the note and so move everything
It's so joyful and true it makes me cry. Next time I'm asked these questions, I'll hear this song as I try to answer. It's a remarkable album from a remarkable artist.
My film of the year is Celine Song's Past Lives. The set-up is nothing special: childhood crushes meet as adults through the internet. But it's devastatingly subtle and bold, held together by Greta Lee as a South Korean woman whose family migrate to Canada when she is a child. The bravery of the film is its refusal to indulge the clichés of its genre, and, in doing so, the respect and faith it shows to its audience. I have not been so grateful to a filmmaker for many years. It is a love story for sure, but, crucially, Na-young/Nora (Lee) possesses a profound wisdom, an emotional and intellectual intensity, that towers over her men. She knows, as we all know but rarely have the courage to admit (and then act upon), that you can't go back, and you can't stand still: you take it all with you, and you go forward. I came out of the cinema thinking how on earth could such a simple premise yield such complexity, magic, and honesty. A fearless film with a staggering performance at its heart.
In March I was able to visit the Magdalena Abakanowicz exhibition Every Tangle of Thread and Rope at Tate Modern. Woven sculptures of fabric towered over the visitors. There was a scent of the wild, a sense of walking through a forest of wool, suspended in crazed shapes or half-recognisable natural forms, sometimes comforting, sometimes unnerving. One, titled "Elephantine Ears", hung like a set of petrified, charcoal-black lungs linked by sinews, guarding the doors between two spaces as if listening to our thoughts. There was majesty to this exhibition, human beings in the presence of something much bigger and more significant than themselves. Art at its best reminds us how important that can be.
In June, meanwhile, I was treated to a set by Geneva's Paris-based indie rock duo Bandit Voyage while having a drink in Berlin's Oona Bar, on Weserstrasse. It's pretty difficult to pin down a genre for them, but one critic terms it anarcho-punk-ye-ye, and that's as accurate as you'll get from me. Support live music, folks. And, if you're ever in Neukölln, get along to Oona Bar, the in-studio bar of Refuge Worldwide. They do important work with their community, with refugees and for music. It's a gem.
Four days later, we lost my favourite actress of all time, Glenda Jackson. All my heroes are dying, and my enemies surround me. Roll on 2024.