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.
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.
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.
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. ,
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
One of the argument offered for cuts in the library service is the decreasing footprint of users. that's true, and important, but I remain an unrepentant user,deeply grateful for what the library offers, and anxious about a future world in which that offer will be restricted.
For instance, I've just read Capital, by Thomas Piketty. I don't claim that to be ahead of the curve, since its real vogue was some time ago. Not to brag about my intellectual stamina, forcing by way through thickets of impenetrable European jargon. In fact, like War and Peace, it's extremely readable in bite-sized chunks, and Piketty is a modest, charming and witty guide to some quite forbidding territory - i.e. the international history of finance in various forms, spread over a wide range of nations. Only now, with computer-assisted analysis, would it be possible to make this kind of sustained comparative criticism, but even now it requires dogged persistence, a tough commitment to years of work because this stuff matters. and I get a taste of this, simply by putting in a request to my local library, and paying 60 p when the book arrives. It' a miracle.
Steve Jobs was an interesting and important guy, so it's not surprising that people wrote his biography. I really enjoyed the movie, selectively based on Walter Isaacson's biography, a couple of months ago. But I've just read "Becoming Steve Jobs", by Schlender and Tetzeli, and the puicture's changed completely. I've read Isaacson on kissinger, and what you get is endless detail, but a bit static and soulless. Schlender and Tetzeli are much closer, and more concered. one of them saw Jobs regularly, and they chart a convincing transformation, not simple, sudden or complete, in which Jobs moves from total pain to eccentric but imaginative boss - hence the 'Becoming' part of the title. it's given me a much more complex, rounded view of Jobs, and I'm glad to have filled out the picture. but one thing worries me. in the movie, Kate Winslet played Joanne Hoffman, Jobs' long-term assistant who seems to have been one of the few people who could work with him. Winslet talked closely with Hoffman in preparing for the role, from which it seems both benefitted. but in the Schlender/Tetzeli biography, so much fuller and more intelligent in many way, Hoffman doesn't appear, not even in the index. so what's going on there?
It's a funny kind of feeling. A friend is telling you about this terrific writer, of whom you've never heard, insisting that although she died in 2004 and you've never heard of her, you really ought to read this 400-page book of short stories. So you're a little bit piqued, because how could they be that good and you not know about it, but the book's there and you give it a try. and then that wave washes over you - how could I be so stupid? Why offer any resistance at all to something as varied, as talented, as witty as this? She's like a streetwise Alice Munro, subtle in observation of detail and character, but tougher and more direct. There's stuff in here about drink and drug addiction which feels totally convincing, but she's not showing off or trying to rub your nose in the dirt. She's telling you how it is - for this person, and that person, and that situation. Such variety, and some of them really short - just a few pages, they do their job, and she moves on to something else. the collection is called A Manual for Cleaning Women. Stephen Emerson, who put it together, concludes his introduction like this - "Myself, I can't imagine anyone who wouldn't want to read her." No, I hadn't heard of her either, but he's right.
That's the title of a book I've been reading, and I can't remember when a book has last made me think so hard. The book is a conversation between Tony Judt and Tomothy Snyder, both frighteningly well;-read intellectuals, with just enough difference in their views to make it interesting. But it's not an amiable fireside chat. The conversations took place in the last months of Judt's life, when he was incapable of writing. They follow a dual path - tracing his own varied and impressive life, but also mapping the intellectual territory over which he has ranged. If you want to meet fascinating ideas from writers you've never heard of, this is the place to go. But there's also polemic and current debate, tackled in a lively and uncompromising way. This is a book for life. I got it from the library, but very soon decided that I needed my own copy to keep. I often say I plan to read a book again some time, but never actually get round to it. In the case of this one, i mean it.