Postwar

Strange how the human brain works. Years ago, I bought my wife Linda tony Judt’s “Postwar”, a massive history of post war Europe that was relevant to an OU course she wa studyingat the time. i’ve known for years that this 800-page monster was sitting on her shelves, and planned that some day I’d get round to it. And then, not quite sure how or why, that day arrived. i happened not to have any books out from the library, had a stretch of time ahead of me without many commitments, so I decided that this was the time. It’ been parked in our front room for a month or more. Each day I’ve come down in my dressing gown, made a cup of tea, and have sat down to read a few pages. And gradually, bit by bit, I’ve worked my way through. There’s no way I’ll remember it all, but as I read I did have this sense of pieces fitting into place, things that had seemed a blur becoming that little bit clearer. One detail, for example. There was no bread rationing in the UK during the war - but straight after the war, there was. We were desperate, broke, and that’s part of the reason why the amazing Attlee government didn’t last.

So now I’m free to read something else, which is nice. But i’m so glad I bothered to get around to this.

Sonnets with notes

Today I launched a collection of poems. that sounds like a momentous event, but I’ve actually run quite a lot of launches recently, as I’ve got into the habit of producing short topical pamphlets: book the Priory Hall, get nibbles and drinks, summon supportive friends. I read a few poems, we chat about the issues, eat and drink a bit more, and then go home - all within an hour. A pleasant kind of routine.

But this one was different. sonnets with notes isn’t a pamphlet, it’s a proper book - with a spine and an ISBN, produced by Orphans Press (who yet again were brilliant). And it contains 50 of my best sonnets (chosen from 400) from the last twenty years - so it’s a much more considered collection than the 36-page pamphlets I’ve thrown together within a few months. In so far as I have a poetic legacy, this is probably it. Certainlt the majority of my successes have come from sonnets (8 first-three placings out of 11, if you want the figures), so it’s been a pleasure to get this book in my hands, and the response of good poets I trust has been really gratifying.

Chickening Out

Kamila Shamsie, one of my favourite novelists, has been awarded the Nelly Sachs prize - and then had it withdrawn. The reason is that she’s expressed support for the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) movement against Israel. Explaining their decision, the judges say “This contrasts with the claim of the Nelly Sachs prize to proclaim and exemplify reconciliation among peoples and cultures.”

Back in May, the German parliament labelled the BDS movement as anti-semitic, “reiminiscent of the most terrible chapter in German history.” Their decision was criticised by 60 Jewish and Israeli academics, seeing it a part of a trend. There’s certainly a rise in anti-semitism, but there’s also a massive push by the Jewish lobby to label any opposition to Israeli policies as intrinsically anti—semitic. In her defence, Shamsie refers to Netanyahu’s annexation plans (see my post of Sept 12), and states that “the jury has chosen to withdraw the award from me on the basis of my support for a non-violent campaign to bring pressure on the Israeli government.” The Dortmund authorities refused to release her statement with their own account of what happened.

It’s fraught territory, and giving in may look like playing safe, but it’s a sad abdication of judgement, and a discouragement to writers who want to take on serious issues of human rights.

Hermione Lee

So I read this rave review of Hermione Lee’s biography of Penelope Fitzgerald and thought, “Yeah, give it a try.” That’s 75p’s worth of try, which is what it costs me to order a copy from the library. the library, amazingly, continues to function, even if the budgets, staffing and footprint are all down. to me, it’s one of the wonders of the world, but God knows if it will last.

So, it’s along book, and i’m not sure, even know, how much I like Penelope Fitzgerald, or rate her as an author, but the biography is a thing of beauty - careful, detailed, sensitive. Fitzgerald’s a difficult, prickly character, and there must have been times when it was hard to be fair to her, but I worked my way steadily though, reading a chunk a day before breakfast, just luxuriating in the pleasures of intelligent, quality writing.

This encouraged me to seek out The Blue Flower, supposedly Fitzgeral’s masterpiece, from a local second-hand bookshop. I read it, with some enjoyment, but not much enthusiasm, and i’m not sure I’m converted. But the quality of the biography is utterly beyond doubt.

Steve Griffiths

Not a household name. He’s a poet, currently living in Shropshire, who’s had a long and successful career, writing in London and in Wales before moving into this part of the world. I’ve known him a while, and was delighted to go to the launch of his latest collection this week. He’s been writing for forty years, has had seven previous collections, and this is very much a “greatest hits.” Hours of going through old poems, sometimes rewriting them, starting off with a massive pile which is then trimmed down to a snappy 230 pages (still huge for a poetry collection). It’s partly that he’s a really decent guy - relaxed, friendly and brutally honest about himself and the mistakes he’s made. But it’s also the range of the work - personal and political, serious and funny, natural observation and historical research. I loved the reading, bought the copy with no hesitation at all, and ever since have been steadily reading my way through it, a few pages at a time.

Sonnets in Portugal

There’s a large-sized gap in my blog this month, since I went off on holiday. And for me holidaty is holiday - no emails, no nternet. It’s veryrestful - and a total joy to be missing out on Brexit - but there’s catching up to do when I come home. Portugal was gorgeous, for all kinds of reasons, but I wasn’t expecting the sonnet bit. I should have done, I suppose. When Elizabeth Barrett Browning announces her poems as “Sonnets from the Portuguese” she’s lying (they have no connection with any poems from that country) but nicely. Portugal does have a close link with sonnets. Camoes was writing them, and well, long before Shakespeare, and I bought a collection of “Five Lisbon Poets” four of whom were seriously involved in writing sonnets. So a good chucnk of my holiday was reading the English versions of their poems (parallel text, natch) and then writing sonnets about various doomed young intellectuals who wrote sonnets but were only appreciated after their death - Cesario Verde, for instance, who turned out to be a special favourite of our Portuguese guide. So I come back tanned and overweight - which was part of the plan - but also wiser.

Unsheltered

We turn to books to try to make sense of the world, and that’s even more true when the world seems not only to be losing its sense but determined to put them on a bonfire. So it’s with anticipation that i’ve collected Unsheltered, by Barbara Kingsolver, from the local library (what a lovely system that is. I read a review, put in a request online, get an e-mail from the local library, and have three weeks in which to read an expensive hardback I don’t want to buy. Enjoy it while you can, folks).

So, it’s a fascinating read, moving between two periods of time, witha ll sorts of little ripples and shivers which related to Trump’s America, but don’t go overboard. There are times when it verges on the preachy, but she’s a serious, constructive writer, and she really makes you think. Makes herself thick, too, with a running,heated dialogue between the central character and her daughter - in which a sensitive, concerned liberal is forced to confront ways in which her assumptions and value system may be entirely out of date. Not comfortable, but necessary stuff.

Poetry Launch

I do like the poetry world. Tonight I launched my fifth topical pamphlet in six years. This one’s #MenToo: myths of masculinity - following previous collections on austerity, the war on terror, migration and “Trump, Brexit and Beyond.” Yeah, that’s right. The easy, fluffy stuff. It’s a kind of mix between poetry and journalism, and for a lot of serious poets its treads dangerous near the territory of propaganda - but that doesn’t stop poetic colleagues coming out to support the event. So I hire the local village hall, put on drinks and snacks, and we have a very pleasant hour - read a few poems, chat about reactions and thought, eat and drink a bit more, and then go home. People came from all over Shropshire and beyond - Tenbury, Stone. I sold a few copies, but also spent a bit on hire charge, food and drink, so maybe i broke even and maybe I didn’t, but that’s not the point. It’s created a forum for the work, and a chance to think more thoroughly about the themes involed - I’m so glad I did it, and i’m really lucky with my friends. ,

Booker Riches

I’ve already gone on about Milkman, the wonderful, very different Booker prize-winner. But I’ve also been nibbling at the rest of the list, and there’s some wonderfull stuff there. I’m already a fan of Robin robertson’s poems, but The Long Take really is an original departure - poetry, prose, cross-cutting and collage of different types of writing, viewpoints, memories…Deamnds all your concentration, but utterly worth it.

And then there’s Sabrina. shock, horror - a graphic novel listed by the Booker. But this isn’t just any graphic novel. It’s a touch, powerful exploration of th nastier aspects of modern america - the online trolling, the rampant cynicism about motives and easy resort to threats. It’s not much fun, and the lives of the people it describes are limited and grim, but ti certainly stays with you. and it’s very hard to imagine it being done in any other way.

Change of Gear

It’s a phenomenon I’ve noted before, in this blog and elsehwere, but it’s still weaird when it happens as powerfully as this. I was reading Mark Lawson’s “The Deaths” from Telford Library, when Wenlock Library told me my request for “milkman” had come in. This is the Anna Bruns novel that won the Booker Prize, so I shunted it up the quare, and moved Mark Lawson aside.

The difference is phenomenal. The Lawson was pleasnt enough, witty in a fairly predictable way, and very easily readable.

The Burns is totally different. It’s not obscure or provocatively difficult; it just demands extra close attention, and your progress from page to page is consistently richer and slower - this is a pleasure that shouldn’t, mustn’t be rush. Very hard to convey unless you’re actually reading it, but I am, and I’m loving it. Sorry, Mark, I’ll get back to you - but if I have to choose then she has to come first.

Antony and Cleopatra

Don’t go to the theatre these days - can’t be sure of knee-room - but I was tempted by the streaming of the National performance of Antony and Cleopatra. Always one of my favourite plays - writing essays about Shakespeare’s Roman plays was the start of my serious political education. and sure enough, tons of the speeches were familiar. As the complicated manoeuvres of the political deals unrolled, I was nodding - yeah, there’s this, and then there’s that. Ralph Fiennes and Sophie Okeneido were terrific, until the moment when Cleopatra asks Octavia about Caesar’s plans - “What will he do with you?” Like, I’m sure, thousands of people across the country, I wanted to scream “No, Sophie, it’s not you - it’s me? You’re asking about yourself.” Anyone can make a mistake, and all of us who’ve been on a stage for more than ten minutes have first-hand experience of that, but on stage, on screen, broadcast around the world ? No, it didn’t wreck the evening, and this was a stunning performance - close up of a brightly coloured asp, and all - but that tiny little slip was a razor slice into the suspension of disbelief.

Bad Boys of Brexit

That’s the title of Arron Banks account of the campaign, and it catches his self-image perfectly - the cheeky rebel who sticks it to the posh guys who think they know more than he does. It has its down sides. People who work for and with him are frequently exasperated, but he cheerily waves that aside as one of the perks of the job - theirs, presumably.

There is, though, interesting stuff on the details. There’s a mass killing in Orlando, by a Muslim fanatic. Banks and Co surge into gear, offering this as a warning against uncontrolled immigration - though the guy responsible was born and bred American. Farage produced his Breaking Point poster, but has reservations - Banks says it’s fine. It just states the facts. (Really?) Jo Cox is shot. Banks tells Farage he needs to go on radio and apologise for the poster - which has been misinterpreted.

It’s all ruthlessly calculated. don’t say what’s true, say what will get the topic on the agenda. People being horrified is great - it extends the coverage. Banks insists he’s personally charming, not a racist bone in his body, Russian wife etc etc but the impact of what he does and what he spends is massively divisive.

The House of Mirth

So you're just out of hospital, not in massive pain but not moving around much either. What do you need? Books to read, and plenty of them. I've got a ton of books, some of which have sat on my shelves for longer than I'd like to think, so maybe this is a good opportunity to see what I've been missing...

Oh boy. The House of Mirth is just fabulous. It's a detailed, lively portrait of a society, light years away from ours but totally convincing. And it's utterly readable. I'd had a suspicion that we might be in Henry James territory here, very wordy and careful, but a taking longer than you really want to spend. Not a bit of it. It's witty, clear, direct, and a pleasure to read. I zipped through it in no time.

Above all, it's a portrait of a woman. Lily Bart is not ideal. She's selfish and short-sighted, and in some respects deserves what she gets. But we follow her though her changes of mood and attitude, and each time they seem convincing - of course, that's how she would feel, would think, would act. and so as the spiral downwards steepens, we understand it and suffer with her, while savouring the intelligence at work. Just brilliant. 

Feel Free

Just at the moment, waking up in the morning is a supreme pleasure. I get up, go downstairs, make a cup of tea, and settle back into Zadie Smith's latest collection of prose pieces - "Feel Free." It doesn't matter what she's writing about - dancing, hip hop, movies, book reviews, her own novels. Whatever the subject matter, the approach is lively, intelligent and honest, down to earth but never stupid, and often hilarious. She feels and sounds like a warm human being, but there's always something to set you thinking, a fresh insight that hadn't occurred to you before she actually put it into words. This book isn't going to last for ever, but I'm going to miss it when I actually get to the end.  

Edge of Empire

Oh, the pleasure of reading a well-written book. I'd ordered Maya Jasanoff's well-reviewed book about Conrad, but then saw that the library had another book of hers sitting on the shelves, with no need to work through a waiting list. So why not start with that while I'm waiting? It's a weird, original take. Study empire through the collections and the collectors who were involved in it. She moves from India to Egypt, all the time laying out a detailed, vivid account of lives and movements, changes in atmosphere and long-term developments. It's tiny print, which is something I normally can't stand, and 300 densely packed pages, but it's a sheer joy, because it's patient, intelligent and beautifully organised. there's none of the posturing and wielding of cartoon simplifications that you get with the noisier debaters of empire, pro and con. It's complex reality, enthusiastically researched, in a way that comes vividly to life.

Born to Run

I've had a great run of library books recently - Home Fire, Manhattan Beach - but this is one of the best, and it was a total surprise. I went down to pick up another book I'd ordered, and there on the shelves was Bruce Springsteen's Born to Run. chunky hardback weighing in at over 500 pages, but it's free so I give it a go. It's really good. Well-written, thoughtful and honest, he's worked really hard at trying to understand where he's got to and how he's changed. He seems very clear about his own shortcomings, and the effects they have on those around him, and he's great an conveying the excitement of playing in a band which seriously works to ensure that its fans have a good time. It's safe to say that I'll never go to a Springsteen concert now, but I'm clearer than I was that I've missed out, that there really is something special going on. 

Enjoying Economics

I know, I know. Those two words have never, ever been placed together before. Economics is a dreary edifice of impersonal information, presented by people who wish to demonstrate why things (particularly money, business things) have to be as they are, even though some of the effects seem to be disastrous. But not any more.

My fresh optimism has been created by reading two books in close succession:
23 Things they don’t tell you about Capitalism, by Ha-Joon Chang, and
Doughnut Economics, by Kate Raworth.

Chang takes you gently through some very complicated territory, with an approach that seems like a Dummies Guide. There are 23 ‘Things’ and each of them starts with a “What they tell you” section, followed by a “What they don’t tell you” section. It could be childishly simplified, or deeply condescending, but it’s neither. He knows a lot, and brings in all kinds of evidence but only when it’s needed, so the whole effect is to clarify and explain. It’s not difficult to read, but with every chapter you feel yourself getting wiser.

Raworth has a simple, basic insight, so amazing it’s astonishing that no-one’s latched on to it before. The potency of economic theory is carried as much through the visual (diagrams, graphs) as through the words. So if we want to know what’s wrong with previous economic theories, we need to look at their visuals, and really analyse them, rather than taking them for granted. And of course, if we’re going to see things differently in the future, we’ll need new visuals, which reflect the actual nature of our lives – interconnected people, with a range of interests and needs, living on a planet whose resources are under threat.

These are not angry outsiders, throwing stones at the evil people who have led us astray. They’re both economists, who know their field and its history, who understand how things have got to where they are. But they’re not shrill, or full of themselves, or bristling with spite because their truths have not been sufficiently recognised. They’re both clear, positive and humane, using their intelligence to point forward to a more constructive approach which might at least give us a chance of survival. Don’t take my word for it. Get hold of them, and read them both. You won’t regret it. 

Ha-Joon Chang

As valued gurus age and die (Stuart Hall, Tony Judt) so it's good to discover new intellectual heroes. One of my current favourites is Ha-joon chang, a Korean economist currently based in the UK, who writes occasional articles in The Guardian. He's always clear, patient and constructive, never full of himself or showboating, but the careful accumulation of argument and evidence is devastating. He's run a tireless campaign - much more courageously and consistently than the Labour Party - to expose the Cameron/Osborne myth that "Labour spent it all", and I've just finished "Bad Samaritans", a thorough analysis of what's wrong with the IMF/World Bank approach to third world development. He gets an intricate situation and two hundred years of history down to a couple of hundred pages; there's no way I'm reducing that to a paragraph, but I do feel clearer, wiser, more positive. Go out and get hold of it for yourself.  

Reservoir 13

i nearly always have at least one library book on the go, a request drawn from systematic trawling of reviews at the weekend. But my current choice is utterly stunning - Reservoir 13, by Jon McGregor. I've read most of his other stuff, and it's always interesting - original without being tricksy or flashy. This again is different, as it should be - hey, he's an intelligent writer -but I find it rivetting. It looks as though it's going to be routine thriller territory, as girl in rural community vanishes, police and volunteers comb the area, friends and family wonder where she's gone. But she doesn't show up, and we never know. What we do get is a close, careful tracing of this rural community as time goes by, responding to the seasons, changes, time passing - but including wild life, crops and weather along with the human stories with which they are intertwined. within a paragraph you can move from an estranged couple to birds migrating south. that may sound off putting rather than enticing, in which case I apologise. don't take my word for it; go out and get it.  

Autumn

And here it is - Ali Smith's Brexit novel. Who could resist? My wonderful local library branch is still able to answer most of my requests, and here comes Ali's latest, for a bargain 60 p. As always, it's a treat. Lots of witty jokes and wordplay, a deep love of humanity, and much appropriate sadness about the way the Brexit debate has sioled us all. It's not just the decision; it's the manner of the argument, the bitterness on both sides that it leaves, whatever the outcome. and as I'm reading, i know I'm in good company, that Ali's suffering along with the rest of us, while also sharing her thoughts on the artist Pauline Boty. So it's thoughts, diary, essay, at times a poem - in fact, it's hardly a novel at all, but who cares? thanks, Ali - we need you more than ever.