British Library – Writing Britain exhibition

July 1, 2012

[Posted this elsewhere, on a messageboard, hence the lack of the usual Jamesian poise and Flaubertian precision, but it’s RED HOT OFF THE PRESSES, I only went this morning:]

I just went to British Library exhibition, Writing Britain.

It was a bit rubbish. [<— it wasn’t THAT bad, it was meh it was ok.]

The organising principles, as represented by the groupings of works and the title they were grouped under, seemed by turns vague, unhelpful, misleading, and without any overall structure. With a subject as large as ‘Writing Britain’ there has to be some kind of argument, or underpinning set of principles. The section headings were occasionally a little weird – ‘Dark Satanic Mills’, fine, but in a section that didn’t include ANY Blake, just mainly 19th C thru Victorian novels, bleeding into some stuff about the contemporary workplace (David Lodge’s [i]Nice Work[/i] in a glass box, with a catalogue entry by it, really?).

Also, if you’re displaying books and manuscripts, you’ve really got to have a catalogue that situates them as objects. This object you are seeing before has this context, and this meaning for the subject in hand. Ok, so from time to time you’d have ‘Wordsworth wrote Tintern Abbey when he yadda yadda’, or ‘Keats wrote this letter to his brother Tom while on a walking holiday in Scotland’ (great! I enjoyed peering at Keats’ massive letter with tiny writing). But there wasn’t much more than that. Occasionally it would be as bad as ‘Disraeli wrote a book about social divisions, called Sybil, here is an edition of Sybil’. Well, maybe never quite as bad as that, but I thought it shd have worked a lot harder at making the objects talk. These are garrulous, companionable and informative objects, but they go silent under a glass case. Lots of dodging your head about trying to nix the reflection, and squinting at your enforced distance, decoding handwriting from the neatly miniscule (19th century women writers + RLS) to the formally incomprehensible (yes, you, William Dunbar).

Good things!

  • Done Keats’ letter – huge and with a sonnet in the top left-hand corner. Good letter.
  • Gerald of Wales’ 12th Century Topographia Hibernica with a marginal illustration of a werewolf asking a priest to administer last rites to his werewolf friend. At least, the catalogue note said werewolf, and indeed said they were mentioned as such in the text, but thinking about it, the normal interpretation of animals in mariginal drawings would be via fables and exemplars, although strange creatures like the anthropophagi and ape-pygmies do also appear. Anyway, good picture.
  • Manuscript of Crash with Ballard’s emendations.
  • Victorian board game, which was a map of Britain, where you had to progress from the Thames Estuary, round the country, with its various industries and back again. Looked incredibly not fun, but I don’t like board games and anyway the map was good.

BEST bit of writing was a letter written to John Betjeman complaining that one of his Metroland poems was historically inaccurate, ended with this

I remember Willesden Green station when it was lit only by oil lamps, and one left it into unlighted lanes with hedges, which is my first recollection of Walm Lane. I remember walking to Cricklewood and being so frightened of the loneliness of it all that I turned tail and scuttled back home again as fast as I could!

I quite like Cricklewood – it’s nothing like London – but for some reason that description seems to me strangely still pertinent somehow.

Most surprising thing I didn’t know – John Galsworthy was a fuckin NOBEL LAUREATE?

Most unsurprising thing I knew already – typewriters really are the only tool for creative writing. The pen is too laborious, generally, the computer too much like writing in water if you’re not careful, but the combination of permanence, clarity and immediacy of typewritten manuscripts puts them in first place for me.

Oh, couple of other things:

Wales shamefully under-represented (as was Cornwall). [<—- yeah yeah the mabinogion wotevs. Conan-Doyle half mentioned as a decent suburban writer, but no mention of Arthur Machen, also an exceptional writer of London and suburbia. I know you’re constrained by your exhibits, but not to have The Hill of Dreams anywhere is bizarre. (He was represented by a quote on a board, from his excellent autobiography Far Off Things.) Also, no Jocelyn Brooke, scant mention of the Powys clan (they could have joined them thru John Ireland – they had soundscapes and Mai Dun would have fit in nicely), Chesterton, yes, but no Belloc. YES he’s a cunt, YES he should have been in there.

Think that’s why you need an argument, because without it you become necessarily inclusive: with such a large subject, the exhibition becomes patchy and somewhat incomprehensible.

They probably could have done more with the representation of words in the landscape. Especially considering their gates were designed by the wife of David Kindersley, who proposed an effective and attractive national design for roadsigns, was himself apprenticed to Eric Gill (font+literary sculpture of Prospero and a big-willied Ariel on the front of Broadcasting House), who was a student of Edward Johnston, designer of the font used on the tube.

A bit more imagination, plus a bit more rigour might’ve produced a better exhibition. Like I’d know. I’m sure a helluva lot of work went into it.

Oh, and an entire section on London but NOTHING on Henry Mayhew (Neil Gaiman, by contrast, seems to have his grubby fingers everywhere).

Still, plenty of bits to enjoy here, just feel more could have been done with it. Wouldn’t have minded something I’d disagreed with more – it all just felt a bit nebulous.

Did make me think I must do my thing on MALIGN PASTORAL or whatever it was going to be. It got a bit unwieldy.


Feel Like I’m At A Party Where Fewer People Than Expected Have Turned Up

May 7, 2012

Still, those of us who are there are not letting that dampen the atmosphere – here’s a nice long post at The Midnight Bell. Can’t work out which bit to quote, maybe this bit, cos it starts with the main thing I’m wondering about right now, then moves on to something I hadn’t really thought that much about:

So, you’re a classic, but not much more than one at the moment, and that bothers me. You’re in the canon, but there are no festivities, no seasons of your works, no big articles in which a minor novelist or thoughtful actor tries to sell you to an indifferent public.

I don’t get it. You’re dynamite, a poet who absolutely answers to us. You know how we’re all middle class now? (HA! RIGHT!) You’re the pre-eminent English poet of the middle class, & I don’t mean how-the-middle-class-sees-themselves, because if you were you’d be popular, I mean you are the great artist of the urban bourgeoisie, the revolutionary class that Marx told us to learn from, the one that took over and transformed the world, 1688-1900, who built the hegemon we’re trapped in; you’re their/our artist (not a laureate, not telling us what we want to hear) because you are all about the doubts, the terror, the one who gets how everything is collapsing even as it is being built, the contingency of it all, Clive of India about to get a bullet through his skull in a card game, Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau, a tyrant of compromise and laodicean cowardice…


HAPPY 200th BIRTHDAY ROBERT!

May 7, 2012

Happy Birthday, Robert. Even the memorials are fading. It’s almost invisibly located next to a fried chicken shop, under a junction box.

And NOTHING in the papers, apart from an okay-ish I guess bit in The Scotsman, [EDIT: to be fair, that Scotsman piece is considerably better than ‘okay-ish I guess’, esp considering the lack of anything else] and some weird aside in The Guardian that the browning variations nails here. And another bit in the Guardian, which seems on the face of it a little more sensible, but in fact barely manages to say a single thing that’s true or pertinent to Browning.

“Browning is not flashy and highly coloured, like Dickens .. But he was a great poet, and his ordinary bravery makes him a hero for all time.”

I mean seriously, what the fuck is that? No, he is, he is both of those things. He is fireworks! What the hell’s that last bit? What the fuck does it mean?

I’m glad that you like him and everything, Margaret, I really am – cos no one else is writing about Browning – but what exactly do you like him for? DON’T say his ‘ordinary bravery’ or i will vomit ALL OVER YOU.

And to echo TBV – Is that all we get?


How Do I Shot Sordello? Book II

May 7, 2012

I read Book II last week, but didn’t have time to write anything. It was one of those weeks where sportive gods shy what shit they can your way. I’m going to have to refer to my more or less haphazard notes and riff on them as I see fit.

WARNING THIS ENDS UP V LONG-WINDED, TALKING ABOUT SORDELLO’S POETIC PSYCHE. IT’S BROWNING’S FAULT.

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Browning’s Birthday – May 7th, PUT IT IN YOUR DIARIES.

April 25, 2012

Ok, I meant to say in that post on the first Sordello book that the reason, part of the reason, I’m reading it, is because it’s Browning’s 200th BIRTHDAY on May 7th.

There’s a great tumblr celebrating his birthday here:

http://browningversions.tumblr.com/

I’ve actually got a few questions for browning versions, but I’m not sure how tumblr/non-tumblr blogs do this.

MOST IMPORTANTLY: JAMES MASON READS BROWNING. OVER KRAUTROCK N STUFF.

I mean, the hell. (I’ve only listened to Andrea del Sarto so far – it’s great.)

Here dem questions anyway [EDIT then i go and think more about them in a comment, rather’n just lazily asking]:

1) The Ohio edition. Regularly see phrases like ‘disgraceful’ and ‘massive deficiencies’ bandied about regarding it. What happened? Why so bad? Poor textual readings? Insufficient editorial apparaturs? Guess I could google around a bit more, find out. I’ve got a few of these tho as they came up cheaply remaindered a couple of years ago. Just got ’em for the poems, just got ’em for the poems. But if these are BAD readings, I wanna know. [EDIT keep saying ‘readings, readings’ like it’s f’ing shakespeare. Just mean punctuation, choice of edition, sensible word choice where there is editorial confusion etc.]

2) A Death in the Desert – Renan/Strauss. Wot.

3) Ok, Dryden and Browning, holding on to the ledge, obscurity beneath etc. Agreed. Why tho? I mean, what are the drivers of popularity in non-contemporary poetry these days? Academia? Lit pages? In some ways he seems like an ideal internet poet, sorry sorry, but the sort you can make an encyclopedia for (there is one of course! I had it in my hand the other day). Surely ‘difficulty’ isn’t a bar these days? Why isn’t he cool? Not enough King of a Movement stuff? Too long?

4)  “tbh I getMen and Women and Dramatis Personae mixed up, have to look at the contents to remember what’s in what.” phew.

RIght, want to write on BOOK II of Sordello, but I gotta go get pizza. Browning woulda ate pizza for sure – plenty of good places just near his house:

Image

bastard wasnae home to twats wi book bags.


Sordello – Book the First

April 22, 2012

Browning’s early long poem Sordello has got a bit of a reputation for being difficult. I started it yesterday and suspect that reputation must be built largely on its notorious reception – I won’t rehearse the usual anecdotes, but Opta stats show of an edition of 500 copies only 157 were sold, while 86 were given away to reviewers and friends since the publication of the poem. Poor Browning! We’re not talking ziggurats at the front of Tesco here. And he really thought he was writing something accessible:

in 1850 John Westland Martson told Rossetti [DG] that ‘Browning, before publishing Sordello, sent it him to read, saying that this time the public should not accuse him at any rate of being unintelligible (!!)’.

I started reading it yesterday and I’m not really sure it’s as unintelligible as all that, tho there are admittedly difficulties. Here are some appropriately disordered thoughts having read Book 1:

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I know this isn’t how you read a book!

February 27, 2012

Lanchester’s Capital is making me feel snarky, like a chair I can’t get comfortable in. Brain keeps making unhelpful comments.

The new craze was for doing up basements…

[Why are you repeating that thing about the basements conversions as if you haven’t said it before? You wrote about it two pages ago!]

On a rainy morning in early December [you did this before], an 82-year-old woman sat in her front room at 42 Pepys [ffs] Road, looking out at the street through a lace curtain. Her name was Petunia Howe [no it wasn’t] and she was waiting for a Tesco [Tesco really? Really Tesco? Tesco Tesco Tesco] delivery van.

See? Unhelpful. Trying to enjoy it, can’t because of stupid snarky brain.

Since they were put in there had not been a single day on which Albert did not complain about them: literally not a single one from the day the road reopened to traffic until his sudden death [hm. what? read again. ok u mean ‘after’ not ‘since’].

English City banker Roger is talking to his German boss, Lothar:

‘They’re a good bunch,’ he said. ‘Work hard play hard, same way all kids are these days.’

‘Figures look pretty gut,’ said Lothar in a neutral voice.

[hang on.go back. who’s German? Why’s Roger speaking like Arnie Schwarzenegger?]

…Roger’s own PC, given over to email and IM and video-conferencing and his diary [ahhh… IM? this… it’s not quite right, is it? Shd b just ‘messaging’ or something surely?]

*puts down book, stares out of window*

[Tho now I realise my problem with Tesco I think! It’s not that they’re kinda immaterial – IM, Tesco – it’s just the neat touch that JL has in his essays of showing and utilising a connection with the everyday, your and my everyday, that other writers on the same subjects usually haven’t got, seems rather heavily deployed here, so that they become not descriptive but very mildly totemic, without really being usefully totemic, just ‘here are some modern things’.]

*picks up book. frowns*

[Must just get on with this. Plenty to enjoy, I’m sure. I’m only 28 pages in, just whizz through, don’t worry about what are really very minor stylistic things, find the stuff to enjoy, like… Well, it looks like something is going to happen – these notes being posted through people’s doors, the financial crash – so that’s good. I kinda enjoyed the banker going through his personal finance stuff in that chapter – it was a neat encapsulation of a type – tho it reminded me of The Bonfire of the Vanities a bit, and JL did all that high finance thing in Whoops! much much better, feels it’s a bit heavy handed here. Must ignore the fact that I keep thinking JL=Martin Amis neutral. Maybe that’s why the style keeps barking my shins. Forget MA.]

*concentrates on book*


Also – spare a thought for the sleeping promo dept. They haven’t had an idea in two years.

February 22, 2012

oh – fyi


In Conversation With: John Lanchester

February 22, 2012

John, you’ve got a lot of credit at the bank with me. I loved Whoops! and the various attendant LRB articles that surrounded it. They were stylistically great as much as anything else: easy, intelligent, with a sharp ear for a neatly turned thought and phrase.  I learnt a lot.

And I remember liking The Debt to Pleasure a lot when I read it all those years ago. I’ve got that one about Shanghai lying around on my shelves – I haven’t read it yet (it was a present, I never get round to presents), but I’m keen to read it at some point.

So you’ll readily understand my consternation when I found out that your latest novel Capital was about a disparate set of people living and working in close proximity to each other. I tire of this premise! The close physical juxtaposition of different fates and fortunes feels like a concept loaded in favour of the author.  It’s not stretching far for its rewards, and feels heavily freighted with tacit ‘messages’. I’m sure it’ll be better than that! You’re a good writer. No, no, don’t thank me.

I did just read the first sentence tho: 

At first light on a late summer morning, a man in a hooded sweatshirt moved softly and slowly along an ordinary-looking street in South London.

No one but a writer could have written that sentence could they? I think it’s the hooded sweatshirt.

Softly and slowly… ordinary-looking street… 

Don’t worry. I’ma pour me a beer tho and sit down with it later. See how it goes. I’m sure it’s going to be great.

Thanks for the chat, John. Can you pick up the tab? I’m a bit short.


Poetry: Reading

February 20, 2012

Oh, and I’ve been picking through the third volume of Peter Reading’s Collected Poems (1997-2003). It’s fantastic in all sorts of ways, and it vexes me considerably that I only found out about him after he died.

Only wanted to say for the moment, this poem really nails it:

At the Reading

The sham-coy simper,

the complacency

the frisson titters,

the sycophancy.