Wednesday, 31 August 2016

Kleinzahler Saves the Day

Just for a minute I was thinking I would never renew my subscription to the London Review of Books again. I'd dragged my way through a most extraordinary piece of Chinese government propaganda they'd published and was ready to throw in the towel. The article was written by a professor at Shanghai University, who sweeps away all the terrible brutalities and cruelties enacted under the one-child policy with this breezy paragraph:

"Western scholars are inclined to blame the one-child policy for forced abortions, female infanticide, the under-reporting of female births and so on. These issues were deadly serious but they resulted less from the policy than from the nature of Chinese patriarchy ... Tragedies and abuses, some of them heart-breaking, don't obscure the fact that in China we had, and have, too many people."

You've identified the problem, Professor, but that does nothing to justify the rotten solution your government came up with. But one of the problems of living in a totalitarian state is that even when you are a scholar - or perhaps particularly when you take on that mantle - analysing flaws in government policy is not allowed; only trying to deflect the blame for their mistakes is allowed, (that damn patriarchy).

Anyway, there I was all ready to give up on the horrible rag when the editors did that thing they do; they published something by August Kleinzahler. They save him up for when you are at the end of your tether, and usually they provide a poem. This time they took more drastic measures and wheeled out a whole long beautiful memoir of a poet friend of his. Here it is. It is one of the most lovely things I've read in a while. If you subscribe to the London Review of Books, the magazine  may drive you nuts 87 per cent of the time, but occasionally it will provide this kind of salve to the soul:

Under the Flight Path

August Kleinzahler remembers Christopher Middleton

Christopher Middleton hated New York. Among the things he particularly disliked, I suspect, is New York’s position as a cultural bazaar, where reputations are bought, sold and traded, with the attendant buzz of speculation. He was incapable of schmoozing, and his career suffered accordingly. New York’s greatest draw, people action and brute energy, would have been lost on him.
In 2012 Middleton travelled to New York to receive an award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He was in his mid-eighties. Recognition of his work in the English-speaking world had been scarce, which is probably why he bothered to make the trip. Perhaps it was always unlikely that someone whose models were Hölderlin, Mallarmé, Tzara, Robert Walser and Gottfried Benn would win prizes, honours or even a sizeable readership in Britain or the US. And his poetry has a prickliness about it, as did the poet: a quality of neither asking nor needing to be liked.
In any event he would have been pleased to return home to Austin, where – after his childhood in Cornwall and degree at Oxford and teaching in Zürich and London – he had been living for the last fifty years. He owned a flash pair of cowboy boots, but not a Stetson. Austin and the University of Texas were at their very best when Middleton arrived there in 1961 as a visiting instructor; he settled permanently in 1966, leaving a soon-to-be ex-wife and three children behind in London. Harry Ransom, then president and later chancellor of the university, was determined to make it a cultural centre, a not incurious notion. He proposed ‘that there be established somewhere in Texas – let’s say in the capital city – a centre of our cultural compass, a research centre to be the Bibliothèque Nationale of the only state that started out as an independent nation’. Ransom had recruited scholars and writers like Roger Shattuck, Donald Carne-Ross, William Arrowsmith and others who would have been more likely to land in the Ivy League or the great state universities. So Middleton wasn’t wanting for company. The poet David Wevill was a long-time friend and neighbour. The brilliant Swedish poet and fiction writer Lars Gustafsson turned up in 1974, and kept Christopher both amused and busy translating his poetry into English. John Silber, who later became a reactionary megalomaniac (first as president of Boston University and then as failed gubernatorial candidate), was at that point a brilliant and progressive dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, also brought in by Ransom. The music scene – Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and the ‘outlaw’ country set – was about to get going, and the honky-tonks were beginning to jump. The town itself was becoming a magnet for the counterculture. There would have been few better places for someone like Middleton to land. He liked birds, and Austin, it seems, is on a migratory flight path. I’m not sure there’s a birdcall Christopher didn’t know.
Movement is central to any given Middleton poem. They have an improvisatory, unstable feel to them and are dance-like, a dance of the intellect, if you will, and in these qualities have an affinity with the painting of Paul Klee. His syntax plays a critical role, with its orderings, the alternating presences and absences, its copulae or want of; clauses gone floating from the main substantive and verb; periodicity, abrupt declarative bursts. The poems have a tense, torqued character. The transitions are unpredictable and the sensibility feels more European than English. They read as if the author had, like Joyce, a variety of other languages going on in his head at any given time:
But all the time these bats flick at me
And plop, like foetuses, all over the blotting paper.
Someone began playing a gong outside, once.
I liked that, it helped; but in a flash
Neighbours were pelting him with their slippers and things,
Bits of coke and old railway timetables.
I have come unstuck in this cellar. Help.
Pacing up and down in my own shadow
Has stopped me liking the weight it falls from.
That lizard looks like being sick again. The owls
Have built a stinking nest on the Eighteenth Century.
(‘Edward Lear in February’)
Middleton was also one of the pre-eminent translators of his era, chiefly from German. As an essayist he had few peers, though Guy Davenport was one of them. Middleton and Davenport met a few years after the war when Davenport was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford. I hadn’t known of the connection until I sent a copy of my first collection of poetry to Davenport, who, along with Middleton, had written a blurb for it. Davenport wrote back something like: ‘Did you know that when you were in your nappies, young man, Christopher Middleton and I were knocking around Italy together, taking in the cultural highlights?’ I know he used the word ‘nappies’ because I remember having to look it up.
In 1977 or so, as a rather despondent young man faced with another long winter in Montreal, working at crap jobs paying barely enough to get by on, with no prospects and nobody much interested in my poetic enterprise, I had decided to bite the bullet and send a few poems to Davenport and Middleton. In essence, I was asking them if I was any good. Because if I wasn’t, it was growing ever more apparent to me that I had better get down to finding a proper career – at the post office, selling encyclopedias, something. I wrote to them because I thought – and think still – that they were the smartest fellows out there, as well as the least blinkered, independent of any clique. They both wrote back promptly and with enthusiasm. I couldn’t have been happier if I’d just won the lottery, and on the same day Hanna Schygulla turned up on my doorstep with a bottle of Liebfraumilch in hand.
I never met Davenport, though we corresponded for many years. He wrote absolutely the best letters, ones that always left me encouraged and exhilarated. I finally did meet Middleton when I was invited to teach a semester at the University of Texas twenty years after that first letter. He had lived for many years in pleasantly rustic circumstances beside a lake in the nearby hill country with his partner, Ann Clark, but now lived by himself in a modern apartment in central Austin, undistinguished except for what was inside: the objets d’art, furniture and books. This is the way he described it: ‘Since 1984 I’ve occupied a two-room apartment in an older neighbourhood of Austin; Carolina wrens, cardinals, doves and sparrows, the bluejay, the crow and the mockingbird enjoy this terrain also. I hear the traffic and through the branches of an immense pecan tree, when they are bare, I can discern a distant downtown silhouette.’ Close by there was an upmarket steakhouse called Jeffrey’s that he liked. The routine was that I drove to his place, where we drank some Rhône wine, then proceeded to Jeffrey’s, where we drank some more Rhône wine, dined, then returned to his apartment for some more wine. ‘Are you all right to drive?’ he would always ask at the end of the evening. ‘You bet,’ I’d assure him, bravely.
When I arrived at his apartment he’d always greet me, a bit dazed, as if he’d half-forgotten our plan to meet. He probably had, because, inevitably, he was deep in a book. It might be the Goncourt Journals, or Timon of Athens, or the letters of Edward FitzGerald. One time it was an essay on storytelling by Marilynne Robinson, the next a little known novel by Joan Chase set in rural Ohio and entitled During the Reign of the Queen of Persia. It was at Christopher’s that I first heard the piano pieces of the Catalan composer Federico Mompou. On another occasion he recounted meeting Lawrence Durrell, a hero of his younger days, in Paris, and not being at all let down. Middleton’s enthusiasms were more wide-ranging than those of anyone I’ve known, and wholly unpredictable, although kitsch or sport never came up, or literary gossip. He wasn’t big on small talk. He would pour a glass of wine and share his excitement about the book at hand, which would, in turn, lead to related excitements about other books and paintings and music and places and things and people. He would have been a glorious teacher to study under. I learned a great deal from him.
Near the end of my time in Austin, I turned on the car radio and there was Christopher, a guest. He and the host seemed to be friendly; he’d clearly been on the programme a number of times. The host asked Christopher to read a poem. Then to my astonishment – so anomalous did it seem against the usual chatter and country music that were staples of the show, and in that furnace blast of a May morning in south central Texas – Christopher read aloud, first in German, then in his own English translation, Goethe’s ‘Night Thoughts’ of 1781:
Stars, you are unfortunate, I pity you,
Beautiful as you are, shining in your glory,
Who guide seafaring men through stress and peril
And have no recompense from gods or mortals,
Love you do not, nor do you know what love is.
Hours that are aeons urgently conducting
Your figures in a dance through the vast heaven,
What journey have you ended in this moment,
Since lingering in the arms of my beloved
I lost all memory of you and midnight.
In 2013, his health declining, Christopher moved into a nursing home in Austin. No one is happy in such places. It goes without saying that someone as intellectually vigorous, selectively companionable and independent-minded as Christopher would be unhappier than most. He’d sneak away now and then, once even getting on a plane to visit one of his daughters. Mostly he just went down the hill to a friend’s antiquarian bookstore or to Jeffrey’s for some Rhône wine. ‘Got to keep the pecker up,’ he’d say.
We spoke over the phone with some regularity. He’d hold forth on whatever it was he was reading: J. Henri Fabre on the song of the cicada, a collection of Zen Poems, ‘Tintern Abbey’ (astonished, as if he’d never read Wordsworth before). Another time he told me he was reading a volume called Beckett Remembering, Remembering Beckett, a gathering of reminiscences. ‘And to think,’ Christopher said, ‘that I’ve been stuck in a shithole like this for all these years when I could have been in Paris!’
I spoke to him one autumn evening in 2014. I was out on the deck at my place in Claremont, taking in the last of the desert light, admiring the gnarled, dusty old sycamore whose leaves had finally begun to turn. Christopher was beside himself with excitement over an essay he’d just come across about Baudelaire’s contemporary Théodore de Banville. Baudelaire had described the ‘lyrical way of feeling’ de Banville shared with those of ‘least leisure’, who in ‘marvellous instances’ of ‘lightness’ attain paradisiacal ‘higher regions’. ‘That sounds exactly like something you could have written,’ I said, thinking of passages of his that describe the way the lyric comes into being and operates. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Yes, yes, yes …’
When he asked how I was, I used to describe whatever I happened to be looking at: the backyard there in Claremont with its sycamore, behind it the sky going pink against the summits of San Gabriel Mountains to the north; or the garden here in San Francisco; or the Olympic Range across the Strait of Juan de Fuca when I was in Victoria, along with the smell of the sea; or the magnificently broad Tagus and the Azulejo tilework on a visit to Lisbon; or the view across the Hudson to the towers of Manhattan. He’d sigh audibly each time.
He missed his old love, Ann. Even Thom Gunn was enchanted by her. Thom was very rarely, if ever, enchanted by women, and certainly wasn’t enchanted by Christopher. (Nor Christopher by him, and they could not have been more disapproving of each other’s poetry.) He did find himself a girlfriend at the home, a 91-year-old Belgian jazz pianist who’d lived for many years in New York and whose son, to her outrage, had deposited her at the home in Texas. I told Christopher that I had a Belgian girlfriend too, which was partly true, at least on her father’s side.
‘Well, how old is she? She’s not also 91, I hope.’
‘No, no, she’s 49,’ I said.
‘That’s not young!’ Christopher said with extreme disappointment.
‘It is for me,’ I replied. ‘I’m 63.’
THAT’S NOT POSSIBLE,’ Christopher gasped.
‘It’s true,’ I said. There was a long pause.
‘Well, that would have seemed to me most unlikely.’
‘And at last he was free,’ Christopher said, ‘finally at peace.’ He was trembling with feeling and it wasn’t easy for him to breathe. He had just read the conclusion of the Walser story ‘The Walk’ to me. He went to fetch his oxygen. We were in his nursing home, an upscale modern brick building, a cross between a hospital and five-storey apartment block, described in advertisements as a ‘professional/residential woody enclave just off the MoPac freeway’. It could hardly be more manicured or more creepy.
It was about a year since Christopher’s doctors had given him 48 hours to live. I had found him sitting facing the door in the middle of an ample living room. The walls were covered with shelves of books and assorted objets d’art that his children had brought from his apartment in town after he fell ill. Everything was arranged exactly as it had been at home. He had Mompou playing. I suspect he didn’t want me to find him diminished in any regard and put on a brave show.
‘Do you suppose,’ he asked, ‘that had I stayed in England it might have turned out differently?’ He was speaking of his reputation. ‘I wouldn’t have liked all that family stuff, driving the children around to activities and all that.’ I told him that I thought that Britain might well have stifled his imagination, that he was right to have done as he did. Whether this is true or not, I couldn’t say. It might well have been true. It was clearly what he wanted to hear.
Some years ago, after a divorce, I undertook a major cull of my books. I gathered hundreds on hundreds, lined them up on either side of my hallway, and arranged for a sympathetic bookman to pay me what he thought was fair. ‘Are you OK?’ he asked when he laid eyes on them. It was a reasonable question.
The collection grew back, like kudzu. I remarried. The shelves are heavy with new life. One recently collapsed, depositing its contents around the recumbent body of my astonished but unharmed wife. I see myself as similarly embowered. The books are a comfort to have around me, a psychic insulation. At the same time, I look at them with apprehension. What will become of them? In one of my last conversations with Christopher he confessed that he had been very anxious about what would become of his library, a formidable one, but that his daughter in Colorado had begun building shelves in her house to accommodate them. It too was something he wanted to hear, and it gave him tremendous comfort.
During our final phone call, Christopher admitted he was too weak to pick up a pen. For someone who lives to write poetry a pen is the last thing to be relinquished, even after the books and the capacity to read them. After all the rallies and reprieves, his months and years of confounding the doctors and cheating death, the time had arrived.
A final collection, Nobody’s Ezekiel, was published a few weeks before he died at the end of November. The tone throughout is valedictory, as one might expect. The poems haven’t the playfulness and torsion of his earlier work, but there are a few beauties, one in particular, ‘Fragment’, which no one but he could have written:
Even if I’d known what you wanted to hear from me,
I’d have disappointed you.
                      Only in the night,
toward a certain pitch
of loneliness,
           believe me, the dark sweltered
a marvel for you.
                 A mockingbird was
inventing a song, it sang on and on;
not a note in imitation,
the song conjugated trills delicate and furious,
melodies broken beyond repair;
it sang to bring the thunder on
and it sang the more
the louder the storm, thicker fell
sheets and sheets of rain.
That was a night in the back of beyond.
Silence becomes you.
There he is, again
           the little owl,
                      calling to you.

Saturday, 27 August 2016

Born in the USA

Imagine that your parents are having a last holiday in a foreign country, before impending parenthood makes travelling complicated. Imagine that you happen to decide to turn up early. Imagine that nine weeks later you and your parents leave the country where you revealed yourself sooner than expected and you all return to your homeland, never visiting the country where your birth took place again. Imagine that almost six decades later you arrive in Brussels and go to set up a bank account and are told that you cannot because there is an international alert in force, preventing the banking authorities in Belgium from providing you with any services until you have paid the taxes you owe in the country that all those years before you chose - recklessly, as it turns out - to be born.

Believe it or not, if you were born in the United States of America, however limited the contact you have since had with that nation, this is now the fate that you are liable to face. Yesterday I met a woman who had just encountered this exact dilemma. Having lived and worked for all her life, apart from that first nine weeks, in Australia - the country whose passport she travels under, the country that she, plus her parents, her siblings, her entire extended family are all citizens of - having dutifully paid her taxes to the government there, year after year, decade after decade, she decided to move to a job in Brussels. Shortly after arrival, she went to the local bank to see about setting up an account for herself. She was told it was impossible, as the United States tax authorities have some kind of warrant out for non-payment of taxes on her behalf. To add insult to injury, if she doesn't want to continue being liable for annual US taxation, she is going to have to renounce the US citizenship she wasn't even aware she had - and the US government will charge her a mere 3000 Euros for that, on top of her current tax bill! (This may be the first exclamation mark I have ever used in this blog, but, in the circumstances, really nothing else will do).

Apparently the US government enacted a change in their laws in 2014, which makes these extortionary actions legal in their eyes. But what are they thinking? What do they think taxes are for, why do they think most of us pay them without much fuss? In my naive imagining, taxes are a fee that we pay to the government of the country that is our home - and in exchange that government, (our own government, not some government in another country), provides services that when seen as a whole create - or at least attempt to create - the kind of society in which we feel happy to live and able to call home.

Taxes are not just some form of extortion or robbery that you arbitrarily exact from people who happen to have been, no matter how fleetingly, on your territory at the time of their birth.  Taxes are not something anyone should be required to pay to the government of a country that they do not live in, that they have never voted in, whose services they have never called upon. How can the United States of America defend this shameful policy?

As someone commented, on hearing my new acquaintance's sorry tale, "Surely the United States already has quite a few enemies; does it really want to make a whole lot more?"

Thursday, 25 August 2016


I've been on holiday. I think it may have been one of the best holidays I've ever had. But it's over now. Which makes this appropriate:

And speaking of 'appropriate', I once - somewhere or other on this blog - had a moan about that word and its mate 'inappropriate'. However, I didn't get near Michael Bywater for nailing why the latter is so exceptionally objectionable.

Here he is, grumbling about 'inappropriate' in one of my favourite books in the world, Lost Worlds, a ridiculously overlooked volume that I urge everyone, (especially you, Age of Uncertainty, as I think it would really appeal to your sense of humour [and you'll have time, now that you've decided to deprive the world of the charm of your blog posts{cruel decision}]), to get a copy of:

"inappropriate: a smug, purse-lipped word which the professionally self-righteous can use as a cloak beneath which to don their neo-Stalinist robes."

To provide further incentive to seek the book out, here is another bit of Lost Worlds, selected at random, but typical of the whole. If you like it, the full volume will give you so much pleasure; if not, not:


If ever there were a symbol of contented domesticity, it was flour. Good wives were always lightly dusted in flour; the better the wife, the higher up the arms it reached. Floury kisses betokened licit married love, as opposed to the lipstick and scent of the illegitimate liaison; no mistress or courtesan knew what flour even was. A house without flour was no home. Flour sustained explorers and stockmen; floor moved us from hunters to agrarians, and thence to villagers and, presently, citizens. Once, it came in sacks; fortunes were to be had from milling it; the Miller himself was a potent symbol of aspiration and the misuse of power (think of Schuberts Schone Mullerin).

Now it is tucked away in supermarkets in little bags barely enough to flour a decent woman above the wrists. Where are the sacks? Where are the millers? Where are their yeasty, flowery daughters, bosoms rising like well-proved dough? The dogs bark, the caravans move on, and even for those of us who aren't gluten-free or on the Atkins diet, flour lives, like everything else, in factories, computer-controlled by executives. And they never get their hands… clean."

Tuesday, 9 August 2016

Different Values

One of the things that I like about trying to learn foreign languages is the insights it gives you into different national preoccupations. For a perfect example consider the Hungarian version, which I only learnt today, of the English phrase "streets paved with gold". It is, apparently, "kolbászból van a kerítés". 

"Kolbász", as many probably know - similar words denote the same thing in various Slavic languages - means sausage. "-ból" is the suffix meaning "out of" and "kerités" means fence. In other words, Hungarians see sausage as the most valuable thing in life and imagine a really wonderful place as one with fences made from salamis.

This actually seems a very wise way of looking at things, since, when you think about it - (you cannot eat it and it only has value because an unquestioning collective agreement has grown up that insists it is) - gold is useless. Sausage on the other hand can be enjoyed at any time, plucked from a park railing or the enclosure round a cow paddock, tasty in all weathers, portable without being messy, remarkably long-lasting, really an all-round, ever-welcome thing.

Monday, 8 August 2016

Let's Face It I

For a long time I have refrained from posting pictures of stone faces on this blog. This odd, (bad?), habit of mine was curbed in any case by the fact that I was living in Canberra, where there are very few examples of the genre, and then in Brussels, where there are some but not the rich profusion left scattered across the majority of buildings in the former Austro-Hungarian empire.

But I knew my restraint would not last, especially when I was let loose again in the regions where face-covered facades are the norm. For a while after going travelling in those areas, I still managed to abstain, even if all the time I was hording examples; like a 1950s holidaymaker in possession of a cine camera, I longed to share/bore people senseless with/ my pictures.

And today, for some reason, (the fact that I have some time free at last?), my resistance has finally broken; I am now going to begin the process of unleashing a torrent of lions and ladies and moustachioed gents onto an unsuspecting world.

I'll start with just two towns today but they will soon be followed by others. Watch out. You have been warned.

The first town whose faces I present is Debrecen, the capital of Hajdu Bihar county, in Hungary.

I was only there briefly, and I was going through a phase of taking photographs of people taking selfies because I was fascinated by the enthusiasm people had for going to places and then spending less time looking at the places than they spent taking pictures of themselves - or getting me or someone else to take pictures of themselves - with their backs to the places they were visiting. I still don't understand that phenomenon, although it is certainly less unusual than hunting down faces on buildings, so I can hardly criticise :

Anyway the faces I did snap were all from round the back of this building:

The next lot are from Worcester, which I would be the first to admit is not a town that could even faintly conceivably be described as part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Nevertheless, it has a reasonably good supply of stone faces. Mind you, I expect it had many more once, before one or other of its town councils made the decision to demolish the medieval centre and provide instead a selection of multi-storey carparks. To date, no architect on earth that I know of has turned their attention to designing carparks of grace and beauty and therefore the effect on Worcester has been predictably dispiriting.

The town when approached from the riverbank, up steps leading to the cathedral, looks wonderful, but quite quickly dribbles out into the usual modern Britain scunginess of litter strewn streets smelling of Subway sandwiches (is there a less appetising smell in the takeaway world?) and populated with branches of that chain of bun shops that always signal poverty, plus the usual array of charity shops that represent all that remains of the nation of shopkeepers we were all taught was the essence of Britain. After about three in the afternoon, most of the people on the streets are overweight, drunk, angry or, from their expressions, almost on the point of suicide. Yet the cathedral is beautiful, a reminder that humanity can create wondrous things - or could once.

Here are the faces I collected, mostly from one building, the magnificent Worcester Guildhall which mercifully escaped the let's-sweep-away-the-old-and-bring-a-bit-of-modernity-to-this-fusty-place brigade:

Here is the approach to the cathedral end of Worcester, along the riverbank on a foggy morning - all looks promising:

This is the cathedral:

Here are some of the lovely things inside it, (mainly the tombs of knights and kings, including King John. The feet and the animals upon whom the memorialised dead charmed me in particular):

I find these kneecaps enchanting 

Poor swan, lain on for eternity

Unfortunately an aesthetic sense seems to have deserted the Worcester clergy as thoroughly as it did its councillors:

There also appears to be a mismatch between what they say they offer and what is actually available to worshippers:
Poor Worcestor. There are still fragments of a fine town:

The cathedral close in particular remains lovely, despite the concrete shopping centre now opposite it, the result not of World War Two bombing but senseless planning decisions post war:

All too often though the visitor to Worcester is left wondering, "What were they thinking?"

But never mind, Starbucks is coming. Happy times undoubtedly lie ahead: