This blog is six years old today. I have changed a lot in six years and the weight of my old posts has begun to feel oppressive, so I won’t be updating this blog any more. However, I will be writing at my new blog nothing was disastrous, which currently feels wonderfully clean and empty and full of promise.
You know when you pick up a book in a charity shop and it prompts an unexpected flood of memories? This happened to me when I chanced upon a copy of The book of thousand poems for the young and the very young. The dustjacket was unfamiliar but I opened the book and immediately remembered it vividly from my own childhood.
The book of a thousand poems had a certain romantic resonance for me even when I first encountered it as a primary school child because it wasn’t a new book even then. It was one of a handful of books my mother had kept from her own childhood in the 1950s: I also remember all four books in the Little Women sequence, Black Beauty, and the Susan Coolidge books about Katy. It was a chunky little black volume with a battered cover; my mother, who never throws anything out, may still have the original but undoubtedly it had lost its spine by the time my three siblings and I had finished with it. Its physical appearance added to the romance: solid and black, it was one of the books that was always used as a schoolbook when we played old-fashioned school, or as a spellbook when we played witches. Looking at this copy I see that it was first published in 1942, which would explain the soggy rationing-era paper which was used for my mother’s copy.
I bought the book, of course – £1.99, a bargain. I’m amazed to find how much of the poetry in it I remember. The poetry of your childhood sticks with you, of course. I think I can still recite the whole of Janet and Allen Ahlberg’s Each Peach Pear Plum from memory; when I came across Don Paterson’s description of the poem as “a little machine for remembering itself”, it was Each Peach Pear Plum which first came to mind, with its neat form of looping rhyme and narrative.
The poems in The book of a thousand poems are of, shall we say, mixed quality. The book is divided into sections, starting with nursery rhymes (mostly familiar and traditional), and following that with ‘Poems for the very young’; ‘Fantasy and fairyland’; ‘The seasons’; ‘Flowers and trees’; ‘Fables and stories’; ‘National and love of country’; ‘Prayers, graces and thanksgivings’. No modern-day gritty realism here: ‘traditional’ (for which read conservative) values, Christianity, and a determination to limit children to childish subjects only: fairies, flowers, Christmas and Easter.
I was utterly charmed by this. I was a soppy child and found my left-wing, right-on parents unutterably prosaic; the values embodied in The book of a thousand poems seemed incredibly romantic and dashing to me even as I recognised that the poems in praise of the Union Jack and how ‘To be an English boy or girl/Is much the best of all’ were absolute tosh. The selection of rather saccharine prayers thrilled me; like Anna in Judith Kerr’s When Hitler stole pink rabbit, I spent a marvellous, if short, period as a secret believer in a family of atheists, devoutly reading my self-imposed catechism:
We thank thee, Heavenly Father,
For all the lovely spring,
For primroses and bluebells,
And little birds that sing. (Mary Anderson)
The prayer section has stuck less in my memory, though, than the nature poems. Some are famous: Blake’s The Tyger, short extracts from Hiawatha. I wasn’t literarily discerning at that age and was most fond of the kind of poems which anthropomorphised seasons or flowers:
Laugh thy girlish laughter;
Then, the moment after,
Weep thy girlish tears! (Sir William Watson)
Little ladies, white and green,
With your spears about you,
Will you tell us where you’ve been
Since we lived without you? (L. Alma Tadema*)
Most of the poems are like that: small poems which fit at least two to a page, a tumpty-tumpty rhythm, a solid(ish) rhyming scheme, and a conscious and condescending focus on child-appropriateness. Some are much better than others, but the majority seem to have been written in the first half of the twentieth century by people who were ‘writing down’ to children, carefully making sure that nothing troubling or unpretty was offered to little innocent minds.
I read the whole book, though, many times over. I think what I got from it was the first inkling of the way poetry works, particularly with image and metaphor. The rhythms and assonances of the words never struck me (and don’t strike me now) as being particularly remarkable, but even the rather twee imagery of poppies dressed in their fluttering silken gowns and snow falling like feathers seemed beautiful and marvellous to me, and I wrote lots of poems in imitation.
Those poems are all lost now, sadly. But looking at some of the poems I still like, it’s clear that a striking image or a clever metaphor is still irresistible for me. I wonder how much my taste was guided by this rather unremarkable book?
I cried wolf in the pasture. No-one came
“This is the child,” they said, “who lied before,
who dreamt a wolf was scratching at her door,
and roused the town!” And so I took the blame.
I cried wolf in the night; they mocked my claim,
beat me and left me on the hard dirt floor
where I wept, cold and heartsick, bruised and sore,
knowing the beast they feared would come again.
My mind drifts out. A shadow on the moon,
a hunter in the night behind the storm,
I wait for the dark ending of the year.
See now, the window’s open, and the tune
the wind plays, raises hackles. I change form.
I am the wolf child. It is I they fear.
– Jan Sellers
Herr: es ist Zeit. Der Sommer war sehr groß.
Leg deinen Schatten auf die Sonnenuhren,
und auf den Fluren laß die Winde los.
Befiehl den letzten Früchten voll zu sein;
gib ihnen noch zwei südliche Tage,
dränge sie zur Vollendung hin und jage
die letzte Süße in den schweren Wein.
Wer jetzt kein Haus hat, baut sich keines mehre.
Wer jetzt allein ist, wird es lange bleiben,
wird wachsen, lesen, lange Briefe schreiben
und word in den Alleen hin und her
unruhig wandern, wenn die Blätter treiben.
– Rainer Maria Rilke
Lord, it is time. The summer was so long.
Now spread your shadow over the sundials,
and let the winds loose over the fields.
Make the last fruits swell to ripeness;
give them just two more southern days,
push them to perfection and chase
the last few drops of sweetness into the wine.
The one without a house cannot build one now.
The one who is alone must stay that way,
will wake, read, write long letters
and wander restlessly through the avenues
up and down, through the drifts of leaves.
[Image: Wald im Spätherbst by Caspar David Friedrich]
Mein junger Sohn fragt mich: Soll ich Mathematik lernen?
Wozu, möchte ich sagen. Daß zwei Stücke Brot mehr ist als eines
Das wirst du auch so merken.
Mein junger Sohn fragt mich: Soll ich Französisch lernen?
Wozu, möchte ich sagen. Dieses Reich geht unter. Und
Reibe du nur mit der Hand den Bauch und stöhne
Und man wird dich schon verstehen.
Mein junger Sohn fragt mich: Soll ich Geschichte lernen?
Wozu, möchte ich sagen. Lerne du deinen Kopf in die Erde stecken
Da wirst du vielleicht übrigbleiben.
Ja, lerne Mathematik, sage ich
Lerne Französisch, lerne Geschichte!
– Bertolt Brecht
My young son asks me: Should I learn mathematics?
What for, I’m inclined to say. That two bits of bread are more than one
You’ll notice anyway
My young son asks me: Should I learn French?
What for, I’m inclined to say. That empire is going under.
Just rub your hand across your belly and groan
And you’ll be understood all right.
My young son asks me: Should I learn history?
What for, I’m inclined to say. Learn to stick your head in the ground
Then maybe you’ll come through.
Yes, learn mathematics, I tell him
Learn French, learn history!
– trans. Sammy McLean
A very nice (and rather coquettish) wild boar, via the Guardian (George Monbiot’s piece on the re-introduction of wild boar to South-East England is interesting too). Thanks to the cohab for passing it on.
Yes, it’s a video about ethical farming made by a fast food company, and yes, it’s Coldplay, but on the other hand, it’s extremely cute, and Willie Nelson!
At a time when people are ruled by animals, and perhaps in an effort to ingratiate themselves, band together to form animal protection societies, there is perhaps not a lot of sense in talking about children, much less the children of refugees. But it still seems to me there’s a slight chance that a few people, even if they’d rather hear about parrots and sheepdogs than refugees, can’t quite bring themselves to be indifferent to the plight of children who were driven from their cradles as their elders were from their homes. Perhaps it may not be an entirely futile undertaking to show that not all children have the traditional look of so-called “childish innocence”; their early encounters with the Medusa have given them a different look.
There are many occasions in my life–too many–when I get to meet refugee children. Sometimes I meet them in the waiting room of the police prefecture, where, after having walked so far, they get a chance to wait: wait for instructions, restrictions, objections, rejections, evictions. I have to say I like spending time in waiting rooms. Partly on account of the children, of course, but partly on account of the suffering I encounter here. The accumulation of so much grief makes it, so I’ve found, a little more bearable.
In the beginning, as I was first making myself acquainted with the sufferings brought on by our hospitality, I supposed that children would know little or nothing about the misfortunes visited upon their parents. And it was on account of their ignorance and their unawareness that I felt sorrier for them than for their parents. It’s a fairly easy matter to believe that an ignorant human creature, a child, in fact, with that fabled expression of “childish innocence” in its eyes, would suffer more than a grownup who sees and who knows. Them imagine my surprise when I came to understand that the children knew more than their parents! And then, imagine what pain I felt on their behalf! Because–is there anything more painful than seeing knowing children? They know more than their parents. They see so clearly and pitilessly, that in fact it’s the parents who seem to have a look of childish innocence about them. That should tell you something about the times we’re living in! The children know–and their elders beside them seem to have no idea. No idea how they fell into the clutches of their terrible destiny, and there beside them are their knowing children, whose disillusioned eyes seem past the point of expressing accusation, and are already offering them forgiveness.
From The white cities: reports from France 1925-39 by Joseph Roth (b. 2nd September 1894, d. 27th May 1939), translated by Michael Hoffman.
Happy new academic year! September still feels much more like a new year to me than January, especially because autumn is wonderful and January is dismal. I shan’t rehearse the resolutions I’ve made (I am always making resolutions), but in honour of the new academic year, here are my five favourite books about schools.
Villette – Charlotte Brontë
One of my favourite books of all, anyway. Villette is such a weird little novel and the school in it is even weirder, all claustrophobic jealousies and neurotic competition. The portrayal of the headmistress Madame Beck, and spoiled pupil Ginevra Fanshawe bears out what Angela Carter wrote about Charlotte Brontë: that one of the most pleasing things about her is that she can sometimes be gloriously bitchy.
Autumn term – Antonia Forest
If you only read one middle class, mid twentieth century girls’ school story, choose one by Antonia Forest, who is massively more talented than any of the other school story writers. She’s very good at the awkwardnesses and petty worries of teenage friendships. Autumn term is very funny too; Forest writes some very good sarcastic lady teachers.
Claudine à l’école – Colette
This is most fun for the central character, the fifteen-year-old Claudine, revelling in her last year as Queen Bee in her tiny village school. She is one of those characters who would be unbearable to know – so malicious! so full of herself! – but is tremendously enjoyable to read: clear-eyed and smart and funny, with no time for hypocrisy and stupidity.
Frost in May – Antonia White
I’ve never been religious, but if I were to incline that way, Frost in May would work quite well as an antidote, I think. A lot of novels about schools are about the tension and claustrophobia of shutting up a lot of young women together; Antonia White adds strict Catholicism and some very scary nuns to this scenario. Reading Frost in May feels a bit like going slightly mad: you follow Nanda White’s initial revulsion at the cruelty of the environment, then her abject attempts to believe and conform, and finally her rebellion.
Mike and Psmith – PG Wodehouse
Someone recently produced a list of the sexiest men in British literature. It’s a pretty disappointing list, all things considered, but the omission that most appalled me and my sister was that of the unflappable, inimitable Psmith, definitely one of the most attractive literary heroes (certainly more attractive than Jerry Cruncher). Better still, he’s a socialist, if an unorthodox one:
“You won’t mind my calling you Comrade, will you? I’ve just become a socialist. It’s a great scheme. You ought to be one. You work for the equal distribution of property, and start by collaring all you can and sitting on it.”
Mike and Psmith is the first novel in which he appears, and has the extra virtue of being full of thrilling cricket matches. (Reading cricket matches in novels might be quite a specialist pleasure, I admit. Antonia Forest provides some good literary cricket matches too.)
Other excellent novels about schools I could also have mentioned: Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and fall; Jane Gardam’s Bilgewater; RF Delderfield’s To serve them all my days; and dozens of children’s books, of course; and if you don’t follow @reelmolesworth on Twitter, you should.
Suggestions in the comments for ones I’ve missed?
Too difficult to pick a favourite Leiber and Stoller song, but that’s one of my favourites. Unfortunately that’s the best video of Peggy Lee performing that song that I can find on Youtube. Here’s a better recording, but it’s not a real video.
Red river hogs at a zoo in Berlin, from the Guardian. Does that mean they come from the Red River Valley?
From this valley they say you are going,
We will miss your bright eyes and your smile,
And they say you are taking the sunshine
That has brightened our pathway a while.
So come sit by my side if you love me,
Do not hasten to bid me adieu.
Just remember the Red River Valley,
And the cowboy that loved you so true.
Edit: Pig of the week readers who have been paying attention will note the resemblance to a previous pig of the week by Hans Hoffmann.
Things I didn’t know: you can do an empty search on Amazon, narrow it by price, and then choose a category in the side bar. Which means you can find, for example, all the poetry books currently available for £0.01 (such a seductive price, even though it really means £2.81, a price which would make me think twice about buying a book in Oxfam but has me merrily clicking Add To Basket, or indeed Buy With One Click, on Amazon). If you look at everything available for £0.00 you can see the amazingly obscure things available for Kindle.
Incidentally I’ve often thought that someone should map the speed at which individual books fall to £0.01 on Amazon. It must be related to two factors: inversely to the quality of the book and directly to its immediate success on publishing. Even really good bestsellers fall to £0.01 very fast; but terrible books which sell moderately seem to fall to £0.01 much faster than decent ones with comparable success. Someone should test this theory! It would produce a lot of attractive downward pointing graphs, too, which is always nice.
And of course there are some books which just get more expensive all the time.
There hasn’t been a pig of the week for some time. At least in part this is due to economics commentators messing up my google alerts with references to the PIGS countries. Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, at the Daily Telegraph, is the latest to commit this error; a particularly egregious instance as he actually discusses Italy’s situation. As we should all know by now, the Eurozone countries with unstable or possibly unstable levels of national debt should be referred to as the PIIGS countries. PIGS are a completely different thing.
PS. However! I did not know until I read that article that Angela Merkel has a PhD in nuclear physics! That is pretty cool.
So the bullet which was recovered from a police radio, supposedly fired during Mark Duggan’s arrest, is now discovered to be a bullet from a police issue gun.
This is how the police and media operate in crisis situations when the police have really fucked up, and particularly when they kill someone. Immediately after the event there is a big, detailed lie. That lie says the police are completely innocent and acted in good faith and the victim was behaving in a way which meant the police had little choice but to use lethal force. The lie doesn’t necessarily come from the official police channels, but unofficial ones, a friendly officer briefs a friendly journalist. Sometimes (as in the case of Jean-Charles de Menezes) the story comes from a supposed witness who imagines a media-friendly version of events with a clear narrative and therefore gets airplay on every media outlet repeatedly for several days.
Everyone hears this story.
Then it becomes apparent, thanks to the persistence of decent journalists and campaigners, that this version of events is completely, or substantially, untrue. But the correction doesn’t appear all at once as a coherent version of events; instead details are ‘clarified’ and corrected one by one until it becomes apparent that what most people understand to have taken place never took place at all. But by this time a lot of people are no longer following the story.
So the public understanding of what has taken place becomes a mass of confusions and misunderstandings; some people know this detail; others think that’s wrong and have heard something else; a proper informed understanding of what’s happened is confined only to people actively following up every connection to the story. The problem is exacerbated by the laziness and irresponsibility of media commentators who don’t make the effort to be fully informed before they weigh in on an issue.
It’s worth noting that the version of events on the Metropolitan Police press page has been simplified over the last couple of days, removing any reference to shots fired on the police. This may be due to the ongoing IPCC investigation. But the IPCC investigates every police shooting, so you would expect the Met to exercise caution in releasing details on the Mark Duggan case.
…I’d like to suggest that it’s difficult to sit in a police car, fire a bullet from your own gun into your own or your colleague’s chest and then make the honest mistake of thinking that bullet came from the gun of a man sitting in a different car and that you must therefore shoot and kill him dead. That is not an honest mistake. That is not only a cover-up but a deliberate lie, and probably a murder.
Ed Miliband on the strikes:
These strikes are wrong at a time when negotiations are going on. People have been let down by both sides – the Govt has acted recklessly.
Ralph Miliband on Labour parliamentarians, in Parliamentary Socialism:
The kind of sweeping changes at the top which a good many socialists hope to see one day brought about in the Labour Party, and which would signify a major ideological shift to the left, would presumably, given the nature of the political system, have to be engineered from within the ranks of the Parliamentary Labour Party. But to say this is surely also to indicate how unrealistic that hope is. It is unrealistic because it ignores the perennial weakness of the parliamentary left. That weakness is not accidental but structural, which is why the indignation so often manifested by left activists at the derelictions of Labour Left M.P.’s is futile. The derelictions are real enough, but they are built into the system of which these M.P.’s are a part. Left parliamentarians operate within the rules of a game designed to limit their capacity and indeed their willingness to challenge their leaders. They are required to behave ‘loyally’ and to accept compromise in order to help maintain the ‘unity’ of the party. They must not give aid and comfort to the other side, most of all when Labour is in government, but also when it is in opposition.
On mange avec plaisir et… sans fatigue: les bons saucissons du COCHON PRODIGUE. Via Sociological Images.
There is a cop who is both prowler and father:
he comes from your block, grew up with your brothers,
had certain ideals.
You hardly know him in his boots and silver badge,
on horseback, one hand touching his gun.
You hardly know him but you have to get to know him:
he has access to machinery that could kill you.
He and his stallion clop like warlords among the trash,
his ideals stand in the air, a frozen cloud
from between his unsmiling lips.
And so, when the time comes, you have to turn to him,
the maniac’s sperm still greasing your thighs,
your mind whirling like crazy. You have to confess
to him, you are guilty of the crime
of having been forced.
And you see his blue eyes, the blue eyes of all the family
whom you used to know, grow narrow and glisten,
his hand types out the details
and he wants them all
but the hysteria in your voice pleases him best.
You hardly know him but now he thinks he knows you:
he has taken down your worst moment
on a machine and filed it in a file.
He knows, or thinks he knows, how much you imagined;
he knows, or thinks he knows, what you secretly wanted.
He has access to machinery that could get you put away;
and if, in the sickening light of the precinct,
and if, in the sickening light of the precinct,
your details sound like a portrait of your confessor,
will you swallow, will you deny them, will you lie your way home?
– Adrienne Rich
Plus, the best piece I’ve read on DSK: Rebecca Solnit at Guernica Magazine.
I haven’t been writing. I haven’t been writing because I haven’t been reading. I haven’t been reading, or going to concerts, or to the cinema. I haven’t been to the theatre in 2011. My brain is atrophying. My only cultural activity in the last two months has been going to the opera.
I always get a reading block around this time of year. I wonder why?
Here’s my goal: by the end of May I’m going to finish some of the books I’ve read half of and then stalled at. These are:
The state in capitalist society – Ralph Miliband
Greed – Elfriede Jelinek
The intellectual life of the British working class – Jonathan Rose
Woman’s estate – Juliet Mitchell
War and peace – Tolstoy
The end of the peace process – Edward Said
The Penguin history of modern China – Jonathan Fenby
La Débâcle – Émile Zola
A tale of two cities – Dickens
You know what, when I finish that little lot I’m going to read some really short, fun books. Suggestions in the comments, please. I haven’t even included Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland, which I’m a quarter of the way through, because it’s so enormously detailed I don’t think I’ll be able to finish it before Christmas. The first two hundred pages took me three months.