Sunday 17 August 2014

Incredible variants of Scottish identity

Incredible variants of Scottish identity

Mussolini and MacDiarmid

I bought a copy of Gavin Bowd’s book Fascist Scotland. Very good although he covers groups linked to European fascism to the exclusion of ultra-nationalism within Scotland, Republican movements for example.
He has some useful details about MacDiarmid’s pash for Mussolini. - put on display in ’At the Sign of the Thistle. Programme for a Scottish Fascism’ (1923): “Nevertheless there is need for a Scottish fascism just as there was need for an Italian Fascism [.]”.
1923: “Italian Fascism needs most urgently to be exactly reproduced in Scotland in so far as agrarian policy is concerned.”

1929: “What I have said about the need for aristocratic standards for a species of fascism applies equally here. I feel we will never make any real headway till we cease to imitate English organisations by running the party on democratic lines or wanting anything similar in organisation or programme to the English parties.”
1931: “In 1932, in The Modern Scot, MacDiarmid favourably reviewed Wyndham Lewis’ book on Hitler”. (Bowd)
He seems to have moved away from Fascism in the early 1930s. All the same his adherence to Marxism does not tell us very much about MacDiarmid. He did not think like Marxists and did not know the things that Marxists typically know. The ‘superman’ idea is the key.

I read John MacCormick’s memoir, A Flag in the Wind (1955). MacCormick was the first inspiring leader of Scottish nationalism. He gives an account of Spence’s election campaign and also talks about MacDiarmid, whom he views as a disaster: “C. M. Grieve has been politically one of the greatest handicaps with which any national movement could have been burdened.”. Like most poets who get involved in politics, MacDiarmid was very bad at politics. He had no political talent. Early adhesion does not mean that he understood the Scottish voter, or that the other ‘day one nationalists’ liked him or felt like him, or that he had a gift of prophecy. MacCormick points to Grieve’s hatred of the English as something which put possible supporters off.

 Bowd identifies the only indigenous Scottish Fascist movement as Protestant Action, with its radical and physical anti-Catholicism. This was a typical product of the Depression, like Fascist movements elsewhere in Europe, but was not nationalistic - just sectarian. Its leader, the Reverend Alexander Ratcliffe, became anti-Semitic, in line with certain turbid currents of European opinion in the Thirties, and distinguished himself by claiming that there was no proof that any Jew had been killed by the Nazi regime (in 1943), and then by publishing a pamphlet which claimed that the concentration camps (liberated and photographed) were fakes- Holocaust denial in July 1945. That’s going some!

I should add a proviso, before going on, about what I am going to say. This is about a group of four Scottish poets, and bizarre varieties of Scottish nationalism, affecting poetry. It is not saying that ‘these deviations are part of the DNA of Scottish nationalism”, because that is the opposite of what I think. Nationalist politics succeeded by throwing out the infantile forms. There is a link between these malnourished and largely fantastic theories and Scotland being a people without organs for so many years: more devolution led to better quality political discourse, just as the nationalist argument proposed.

Since Bowd finished his book there has been the publication of a volume of letters from MacDiarmid (to Sorley MacLean) which includes his 1940 judgement that it would be better if the Nazis won because they would then be easier to defeat than the English and French bourgeoisie, who were just as bad. (Much comment about this on the internet.)

Celtic twilight

When the new Scottish National Party (not yet called that) presented their first parliamentary candidate, in 1929, they chose Lewis Spence (1875-1955). He also wrote an early statement of the nationalist platform: Freedom for Scotland. The case for Scottish Self-Government (1926). He also wrote the poems in a revived sixteenth-century Scots which gave MacDiarmid the stimulus to start doing the same - ‘complete’ Lallans as opposed to a dialect with restricted vocabulary and range of social contexts.

 I have been reading Murray GH Pittock’s book on Jacobitism, The Invention of Scotland : The Stuart Myth and the Scottish Identity, 1638 to the Present. It is very interesting and clearly there is a lot I don’t know about this rather forgotten area of fringe politics. (Fringe after 1750, anyway.) Ruskin was a Jacobite. Wha? Pittock says “By 1905, neo-Jacobitism in England was largely a spent force[.]” Just as well, you may think. He shows that it was still an emotional focus for some people in Scotland in the 1940s. (Just to recall: James II was deposed in 1688 because he was a Catholic and many people thought he was plotting a Catholic coup in Britain which would have led to the disenfranchisement and persecution of Protestants. He was replaced by his sister, but succeeding monarchs were not the legitimate heirs and so there continued to be hold-out supporters of the Stuart dynasty. James is ‘Jacobus‘ in Latin so this party were called Jacobites. Harking back to 1688 in 1945 is truly bizarre.)

In the 1890s, there was a link between Scottish nationalism and occultism. In 1880 or 1890, the Stuart cause was almost a fantasy, but there was a club, ‘the Order of the White Rose’; one member was McGregor Mathers, the founder of the Temple of the Golden Dawn. There is a history to this. In the 1790s, French monarchists were in exile and had a lot of time on their hands. They also blamed the Enlightenment for their woes. They were ideologically productive and came up with a pattern of ideas of which the rejection of reason, a belief in supernatural intervention in history, a belief in conspiracies, the natural superiority of the aristocracy, and insistence on legitimism as a basis for choosing monarchs, were a few. This was the ‘Counter-Enlightenment’, and it was a dominant and attractive set of thoughts, certainly attractive to the adherents of failed dynasties in other parts of Europe. (After 1918, the Russian monarchist exiles came to be the dominant group in this cultural sector.) The Scottish Jacobite cause was one of these. (English Jacobites were numerically more important.) A certain number of disaffected Scots were drawn to it, and it was logical that they should also be anti-English - since the Hanoverian dynasty was so heavily in power in England. But it was also logical that they should pick up the mystical and occultist components of the Counter-Enlightenment package. At that time this had developed into the form of Symbolisme, which had a pendant in the form of the Celtic Twilight with its belief in fairies, second sight, and what have you. This was the context in which it was possible for a ‘Scottish nationalist’ meeting to attract people who were also Jacobites and interested in Theosophy, the Golden Dawn, and so forth.

Any movement that begins on the fringes loses most of its early characteristics if it evolves into something central and attractive to millions of people. The occultism has nothing to do with Scottish politics. That is why I was perturbed to see Lewis Spence as the National Party of Scotland’s first parliamentary candidate - because Spence was an occultist. In 1943 he published The Occult Causes of the Present War, which links it back to Atlantis. Recently I found a book by Joscelyn Godwin called Atlantis and the Measures of Time, which among much interesting information about deluded and psychic people says that Spence got into occultism after 1940. He was already 64 by that time and at that age people do start ‘hearing secret harmonies’. So it is doubtful that he was inclined to see ‘an occult pattern in history’ in 1926. All the same, he had published a book called Encyclopaedia of Occultism in 1920. If he was born in 1875 he was of an age to have encountered the ‘Celtic Twilight’ lot when they were still active.

I was discussing these strange facts with my mother after reading Pittock, and she remarked that in the east of Leicestershire, at Stamford, there is a house now open to the public which has a Stuart collection: when Henry, Cardinal of York, the last heir of the Stuart line, died in Rome this family from Stamford had acquired his household goods, and they are now on show down there on the river Avon. This is an example of an English family of Jacobite sympathies - but also of the loss of at least one dimension, so that what had been a government (until 1688) is reduced to a set of knick-knacks. Loyalist families were still pro-Stuart around 1770, but this was not on the scale of ‘oppositional politics’ but of sentiment, domestic ceremonies and keepsakes. This reduction is a kind of aestheticisation -and points ahead to a merely literary version of politics. It is a forerunner of the pictures on tins of shortbread which are so often mocked as kitsch versions of Scottish history. For foreigners, let me say that the tins might show highly-coloured images of Mary Queen of Scots, Bonnie Prince Charlie, Greyfriars Bobbie, and Hugh MacDiarmid. An old Welsh periodical quotes someone turning up in court in Pembrokeshire in 1714 for saying “he was sent as Messenger from his master James the Third, King of England, and of Scotland the Eighth [.]”

 Joy Hancox’s 1992 book The Byrom Collection describes a hidden archive of diagrams and documents once belonging to John Byrom, who lived in Manchester, and created in the early 18th century. They were recovered in the late twentieth century. The documents have to do with a range of occultist practices - Kabbalism, Rosicrucianism, the whole set. Byrom was also a Jacobite. There is a Byrom Street just off Deansgate. There were good reasons for keeping Jacobite sympathies silent, as indeed magical and heretical practices. It is hard to measure how much of this secret activity was going on. All the same it may be that the link between occultism and ‘loyalty to deposed dynasties’ existed well before 1789. This is a ‘prehistory’ of the Far Right, generations before the term ‘right wing’ was coined. The addicts of ‘conspiracy theory’ began as members of conspiracies - planning the botched uprisings of 1712, 1715, and 1745. After that, they pioneered exile, the Underground, and cryptic utterance.

I am told that the Anglo-Catholic 'Society of Charles King and Martyr' (founded 1894) are technically Jacobites, although my informant suggests that they are not actively planning military action to further their good cause.

So much of this stuff is literally ‘occult’, hidden, and it is easy to overrate it because it is so hard to find and so neglected. The similarity with the hippy Underground and the whole cultural tide of 1968 and years thereafter is obvious. Sinclair discusses Hancox’s book when he visits Manchester in Ghost Milk. John Michell wrote The View Over Atlantis and was at the outset one of a long line of people who believe that Atlantean technology was wonderful and had dominated the early history of Europe. The main Atlantean writer in Britain was indeed Lewis Spence. This rubbish had been around for at least a century but Michell got it into paperback and was perhaps the key hippy in England. He had certainly absorbed Spence. For about three years ‘the marginal became central’. Sinclair has chronicled apparently the whole range of fringe theories arising after 1968 - but completeness is hardly possible.

Occultism is structurally given for reactionary monarchists since 1792, hence for Jacobites. If you accept that knowledge of human affairs is to to be gathered from facts, statistics, newspapers, etc., you have given in to the Enlightenment and your resistance to Reason is fatally weakened. But monarchy and aristocracy can't really co-exist with Reason. This leaves a vacuum of interpretation in which supernatural influences flourish and you rely on hermits, virgins, ascetics, psychics, etc. to reveal the plan of contemporary events. Spence wrote Occult Origins of the Present War, an unconventional way of explaining the Second World War - but he wasn’t the only occultist in Europe in 1943.

‘Failure theories’ of Scottish History

Spence (as quoted by Pittock) said that there were two currents of thinking among ‘disloyal’ Scots: one which rejected the Reformation, so that everything had been wrong since John Knox; and one which rejected the Hanoverians, so that while the Jacobite risings were OK everything which had happened since the failure of the last one in 1746 had gone wrong. We have to add another theory: the Scottish language has been losing its sociological grip and range of uses in Scotland since the later sixteenth century and this is wrong too. The idea of reversing this and writing poetry in a Scots which covers the full range of intellectual possibilities of contemporary culture was what animated MacDiarmid. It definitely resembles the first two theories. It incorporates the ideas of reliving the bad past in a good way and of four centuries of cultural failure.
If you think that Scotland has since the 1540s been living in a Bad Time which is effectively a Non-Time, you may move on to literary creation of a Non-Time which is also a Good Time. James MacPherson may have pioneered this.

Obviously Mackay Brown and Finn MacColla were two writers who believed that Scottish history had gone wrong with John Knox, but as Pittock points out Edwin Muir was someone who had Jacobite sympathies - although he did not have any expectation that this wrong step would be reversed. Muir underwent a Jungian analysis in 1919. This is an odd moment. Muir was so rational in many ways - but he had these contacts with deeply irrational and quasi-occultist areas. Jung was an occultist, you can’t get away from that. Muir published his long poem ‘Variations on a Time Theme’ in 1934, a strange but brilliant work which explains time in a heraldic way, as stylised characters appear and re-appear throughout history. There is some kind of relationship between the transformed and frozen Time of ‘Variations on a Time Theme’ and the ‘misdirected and lost time’ of anti-Reformation or anti-Hanoverian theories of history. The damaged time is recouped in aesthetic form. The poems disappear into a 'good time' which is too small to live in but for that reason can be stylised and heightened.

Muir wrote of the end of an organic community and its folk creativity in his 1940 book, The Story and the Fable, located in the gap between the Orkney of his childhood and the Glasgow where he moved at about fourteen. For him Scotland had fallen out of the timeless and cyclic into changing Time, which is also meaningless. He does not see any way of getting back. George Mackay Brown also came from Orkney and was Muir’s pupil in the 1950s. His ideas of time are based on Muir, they live in the same special theory. To this he adds a steeping in folk modes - he has disappeared into folk literature. To recycle what I have said elsewhere, he uses forms as stylised as if they were in a textile- he writes in a textile mode. The Norwegian embroideries illustrated in a book of Norwegian art treasures (from an exhibition) I have are a reference point for this comparison. The exhibition catalogue remarks “Together with the simple linear and flat-patterned treatment of pictorial elements in the tapestry, their evenly toned and sharply defined panes serve to enhance the decorative effect.” He solved his stylistic problems by an advance into flat images. As part of this reduction to a decorative schema with rules sharply detached from reality, we have to bear in mind that the designs were simplifications of rather grander designs from centres like Flanders and Byzantium – the quality of picking up driftwood, metaphorically, which grew in a forest far away, is significant for Brown. His language has an invisible loom which makes it come out like something from the fifteenth century –he hides inside a folk idiom but at no point reproduces a real folk form, such as a Scots ballad or a Norse tale. Like Spence, he seems to be speaking from another century. He has recovered Time by abandoning the Present. Brown’s book-length poem Fishermen With Ploughs is an astonishingly rich reworking of basically wrong theories about the course of history. Brown’s last volume has a poem dealing with his parents' wedding, which included Gaelic-speaking relatives of his mother:

The bridegroom, he was drowning
In a sea of lovely Gaelic;
And woke, his mouth cold
With dew of the wild white rose

(Collected p.444)
The white rose was a Jacobite emblem. This was about 1910. If the Stuart dynasty fell in 1688, would Highlanders still have been emotionally Jacobite in 1910? Brown is not really interested in chronology. It is a beautiful stanza though. The story about being whirled away in a dance and waking up cold is actually one about being carried away by the fairies: the identification of Celticity with the supernatural is lurking there, beneath the threshhold. I was not aware of the late poems before seeing the Collected: Brown died in 1996 but the volume published in 2001 seems to be his best. Perhaps I had re-read the earlier ones so often that their power wore out. This late material has his clearest references to Muir, in the poem about him and in 'Uranium', where Brown refers to 'the fable' and 'the story' (Muir's autobiography was called The Story and the Fable) in a poem warning against mining uranium in Orkney. Here he moves the fatal exit from the fable to the atomic age – which is not where it was placed before. This flexibility shows him thinking, which is not what he normally does and is admirable. The poem recapitulates human history but this time does not wheel on either the Reformation or the fall of the Stuarts or industrialisation – again, the tedious schemas which we expect from Brown fail to show up.

The poem about Muir is unusually explicit about a Time theory:

The labyrinth : an old blind man in the centre of it with a crystal key.
The labyrinth : towers, vennels, cellars.
The labyrinth : wilderness of dark doors, with one bright lintel here and there.
Bright lock by bright lock he turns the crystal key.
At every door, a rag of time falls from him.
Through ghetto, shambles, graveyard he goes.
The brightness spills out, spills out in front of him.
He brings the poem to the hidden bestiary.
The labyrinth. The labyrinth.
He stands, a young man, at a threshold of unbearable brightness.
(from 'Edwin Muir', p. 438)
The style is near Muir (who wrote a book of poems called The Labyrinth), it could be Muir rather than Mackay Brown. The sequence whereby an old man becomes a young one is part of an unusual theory of time. Perhaps unconsciously, this poem also tells the tale of Brown replacing Muir as the poet of archetypes – and orkneytypes. The repetition in this passage is related to the refusal of a syntactic organisation that is not available to folklore. It is like a tapestry preferring flatness to spatial depth.

The story is that Brown only visited England once – he lived in a world whose centre was Orkney. England was meaningless to him. Yet his ideas have no connection with politics. Theoretically he could campaign for the abolition of Protestantism in Scotland– the reversal of the Reformation. But this is an impossible goal – his literary pattern has very little contact with reality.

All of this has about as much to do with the SNP of the past 50 years as I do with William the Conqueror. Bowd’s book is fascinating, for me anyway, but it is a chronicle of people marginal to Scottish political life rather than a ‘hidden current’ even. MacDiarmid was no more influential on the growth of a nationalist current in Scotland than Jacobite-tinged occultism. The SNP has completely given up on Scots language revivalism - I have no idea of the history of this. There are people chewing away at ‘the supremacy of English’, writing in Lallans, studying it – but the SNP is not interested. My feeling about these poets is embarrassment – other countries had politics and governments, Scotland had these halfway-visionaries with their aesthetic systems and their total detachment from ordinary people. Now that Scotland has a government it does not need these deviant theories of Time based on the nothingness, vacuity, failure of the Present. The Present is now where we live.

More vital stuff on Scottish poetry at:  

Friday 18 July 2014

Michael Hamburger

Michael Hamburger

When I was in Germany in 2011 someone asked me about Michael Hamburger, who died in 2007. I had a firm idea that his poetry wasn’t very good  but was aware I hadn’t read very much of his work. Rosvita was convinced he was a really important modern English poet, and I was embarrassed about it. This followed W.G. Sebald’s book which had a long account of a visit to Hamburger in East Suffolk, and a German TV programme which followed  Sebald. In 2014 I took a few minutes off from a poetry weekend at Birkbeck to go shopping and found a copy of Hamburger’s 1973 selected poems. Conclusion? I still don’t think it’s very good.
Hamburger was born into a Jewish family in Berlin in 1924 and was able to escape to England in 1933, with his immediate family. The fate of the Jewish community in Germany made ’survivors’ guilt’ likely to feature in his self-awareness. His grasp of German was that of a native but his grasp of English language and culture was also that of a native. I don’t know whether he could write poems in German, but it is obvious that he had all the English you need and that the style of his poems is not related to having limited English.
We can clear the ground by saying what his poems achieve. They present a complete picture in which the existential state of the poet writing them embodies their whole relationship with geography, other  humans, and feelings, and in which every detail of the poems reflects this fundamental condition. All parts of the poetry sustain the other parts, and as we read more of it we travel deep into this fundamental condition. It is a poetry which explains modern history by going steadily into specifically modern states of mind. The theme is in fact of not feeling at home anywhere, of leaving a place and not arriving - emotionally - in a new place. This condition is a clearance of attachments which may open the way to new lands, but in itself it is depressing - we feel it as loss. The poems move from scene to scene but the scenes have no point unless to say that this is not where you can live and be.
The clearance might be of national socialist feelings but as I read it I relate it more to the emptying of imperialist fantasies and accepting a Britain with no Empire. The poems have that elevation which allows them to symbolise different things.
‘In a Cold Season’, from a 1969 volume, evokes a concentration camp bureaucrat (Eichmann) and the murder of his grandmother. It is a remarkable poem in its rigorously external technique and its patience in evoking the deskbound murderer who abolished people without even hating them. It is hard to take. That demonstrates its adequacy.
His poetry is artistic, all the parts of a poem are integrated to a given purpose; he was a reflexive writer - capable of absorbing the ambient literary ideas and creating sophisticated poetry out of a dialogue with the contemporary. The conventional view would be that a period of commitment of literary figures (1929-50?) was followed by an existentialist period where they explored ‘existential positions’ which were often depressing in colouration, and that this was followed (after 1960 or 1965) by a phase of hedonism - when books are designed to give pleasure and are about pleasure in life, with a radically reduced level of significance, in the sense of offering generalisations about the human condition. ‘Ownerless Earth’ belongs to the postulated existential period. It makes us long for hedonistic poetry, which appeals to the artistic sense and creates new areas of sensibility. In the period 1939-60 (roughly) Europe went through poverty caused by war, where not through death and the fear of death caused by war. It was not a good time to be alive. It may well be that poetry had to reflect that. Hamburger’s poetry is steeped in experience and recovers a time of low consumption - ’forced saving’ during post-war reconstruction. It has the quality of authenticity to a high degree. It is a story that actually happened.
Yvan Goll wrote, even in the 1930s, a sequence called ‘Jean sans-terre’, John Lackland, which was about the situation of someone whose home had been taken over by dictatorship. Goll wrote it in French but had earlier written poems in German. The concept is the same as for Hamburger’s poetry. Again, the problem is that the poems in ‘Jean sans-terre’ don’t go anywhere, the basic situation does not evolve. The idea is to teach us ‘this is how it is to be displaced’. I am glad that Hamburger did not write from the emotional situation of an eight year old, before he lost his family. Important as that might be, an act of memory of what deserved to be remembered, he renounced it and this climbing out of nostalgia and regression is part of his artistic message: you don’t own the past, along with not owning the earth. In view of Goll’s book (which I don’t think anyone reads any more), we have to ask about the ultimate originality of ‘Ownerless Earth’. There is no comparable book in English poetry.
‘Jean sans terre’ is about rootlessness - but it is not open in the sense that each new poem is full of new possibilities. To present authenticity, it is very predictable - every poem is about the same inescapable situation. The idea of ‘travelling’ would also be compatible with radical inventiveness, not clinging to a preset poem design but discovering the new form as you went along.
The centrepiece of the Selected is ‘Travelling’, fourteen pages about not belonging anywhere.

Slowly, detained by love,
He went, but never
Slowly enough for Earth
In her long slow dream
That has not finished yet
With the gestation of man,
The breaker of her dream,
And has not finished
Digesting the teeth and bone
Of her dinosaurs.
Making and breaking words,
For slowness,
He opened gaps, for a pulse
Less awake, less impatient,
Than his, who longed
To be dreamed again,
Out of pulverised rock, out of humus,
Bones, anthropoid, saurian,
And the plumage of orioles [.]

It is a flawless piece of writing. But the ruthlessness makes us unhappy. The theme of dinosaurs, and so the origin of the human species, is a typically ‘Apocalyptic’ motif, raising the visible scene to a level of significance which makes immediate and personal experiences seem insignificant. The theme is ‘anthropological’, theology at one remove. Abstraction and depression are akin: we can see back to the birth of the species only because everything in between has been erased, annihilated, discarded in the restless anti-desire of depression. The dinosaurs inescapably make us think of annihilation, of falling into aeons of non-existence. He evokes the places very vividly before leaving them; the abundance of details, the brilliance of editing, frame a message of emptiness.

To be grass, to be cud for cows. Not to know
The taste of meat or the taste of sugar,
To rise again from mud and be green,
Eat mud, eat carrion, but not with a human mouth.

(from ‘Homo Sum: Humani nihil etc.’)
The theme of the poem is that ‘nothing human is alien to me’ but that humans are vile - as exemplified by the Central American dictator Trujillo. Hamburger writes himself off with the whole species he belongs to; he wishes to exit into a lower plane of creation, to ‘be cud for cows’. This is an extraordinary poem: the intensity of its apprehension of political brutality could hardly be excelled. It is, again the longing ‘to be dreamed again’. It is a pessimistic poem but opens onto pantheism in the manner of John Cowper Powys. To become mud is one step higher than becoming rock.

The big thing in the TV programme was Hamburger’s orchard of apple trees, rare breeds which the commercial producers would consign to dying out, and a very aged man climbing up trees to prune them. If this is the big story and has to do with long time spans and attachment to a particular spot of earth, then it has nothing to do with his poems. In fact it contradicts what they say and even shows graphically why his tales of dispossession don‘t appeal and aren‘t great literature. Trees don’t go anywhere, they just keep growing all the time. So possibly his poems from 1973 to 2007 use new themes and are better poems. I count four appearances of the word ‘slow’ in the section I quoted (dated 1969-72): perhaps this is Hamburger moving towards the worship of trees, as things that don’t move.

Sebald admired Hamburger because S was involved in teaching German literature in English and Hamburger was the grand old man of this endeavour. Again, this was because of 30 years of accumulating knowledge, based on love and dedication. Stability. Purpose. Attachment. This is so different from the themes of restlessness and detachment which fill his own poems.

Ownerless earth. I don’t own any part of this earth. So, Germany does not belong to me. Inexplicitly, he is also saying that Israel does not belong to him. I can’t shed any light on this, but my guess is that he was very thoroughly a Western European and that the pioneer life of Israel in the 1940s was just not for him. He was not your typical first-generation Israeli. Hermlin went to Palestine in 1936 and became an apprentice to a book-dealer and antiques dealer named Zadek. OK, not everyone was out there digging irrigation ditches. I can see that Germans love the idea of someone who was, clearly, German, who represents age and stability, but who had no trace of a pro-Nazi or even a pro-communist past. He never wrote reportages on the Wehrmacht boys doing their bit, or shared a glass of wine with Ulbricht at a literary soiree. I suspect his poems will be much read in German translation - reversing the process of 1933, which fundamentally everyone wants to reverse.

I didn’t like ‘Ownerless Earth’ very much. My problem is that this is just a selected so there could in fact be other poems which would completely change the picture.  My memory of the poems I read before is that they were noticeably reminiscent of other poems. I think it was ‘The Notebook of a European Tramp’ (1945-9) that I read. So ’Travelling’ was a repeat, twenty years later, of themes of ’Notebook’. I felt this was the silhouette of a great translator, that hypersensitivity to powerful literary creations made them capable of great feats excluding original creativity. He could recreate the ambience of Eliot poems but it was too much an imitation. The selected poems leave quite a different impression. He wrote a lot of poetry but some share of it sounds like Hamburger and not like Rilke, Spender, Eliot, or Huchel.

There is a story that Hamburger published a pamphlet of poems, when he was barely out of his teens, which he hated later. The proofs didn’t reach him and he didn’t have the chance to fix the problems - even his name was misspelt. I didn’t read his books because he does not show up well in anthologies - I always work from anthologies but they have built-in limits. He was young in the 1950s, published three books then; the business selected other poets of that generation and then moved on to market a new wave of young poets

There is a very useful interview at book length (60 pages), with Hamburger, by Peter Dale (published 1998).

Sunday 25 May 2014

The Storming of the Brain: a preliminary commentary

The Storming of the Brain: a preliminary commentary

note. this was published in the Cambridge Review as an introduction to the first publication of a Charles Madge poem from 1950. The poem is of interest partly because it is a sound from a silenced moment of history, the mid-century death. At that time the scene repressed the most ambitious poetry and hid it from view - something which went on until 2000, in many ways. To see the poem you have to find that issue of Cambridge Review.

 It was some thirty years ago [written 2009] that fans became aware of a style in English poetry which was later known as the Cambridge School. It was a nebula of intellectual and reflexive poetry which appeared in The English Intelligencer from 1966 and was later featured in Ferry Press and the Grosseteste concern. Since hundreds of poets who went to Cambridge manifestly have nothing to do with it, the term Ferry Press-Grosseteste school is less misleading although even less familiar. This pervasive and surprising artistic code had clearly developed over a long period and was all involving, but without public statements by the poets or the help of a critic who could write intelligently about them it defied understanding. Notoriously, those inside it denied that any school existed and a hard outline was only visible to those outside it driven by envy or a need to scrub it out of the reckoning. Clearly, entire decades of poetic development were missing from the record. Rumours (spread by Martin Seymour-Smith) of Madge's long and unpublished poems of 1949-50 seemed to point to the sink hole where the true line of English poetry had vanished underground in the face of Cold War conservatism and academic disapproval. When I reviewed Madge's Selected Poems in 1995, I claimed that there is a foreshadowing in Madge of the Ferry-Grosseteste school - a thought many people have had. [The review is now reprinted in Origins of the Underground, Salt Publishing, 2008] The publication in 1987 of A Various Art (edited by Andrew Crozier and Tim Longville) erected a monument but made the problem of interpretation or classification simply more acute. Madge's poems, apart from transforming our knowledge of his career, seemed to offer an early stage of differentiation which might show more marks of process and be more identifiable. Perhaps we could resolve the enigma of a cultural moment by a sidestep into resolving previous cultural moments - climbing the mountain from the bottom up.
Both Madge and the associates of Prynne, John James, etc., wrote poems which advance steadily into the unknown, without the self-betraying regression into the received and familiar: but does this amount to affinity? In the space of analogies, we can make out several traces of affinity. If we look for poetry which deals with abstract ideas and the life of the intellect; which has a continuous line of sense rather than breaking up into illuminist gabble; which is more precise than everyday speech (or consciousness); which pursues clarity about the objects of knowledge rather than simply projecting the self; which is of Marxist inspiration but avoids the styles of Marxist poetry developed variously in France, Germany, and the Soviet Union; then at each point we find Madge standing near the Ferry-Grosseteste School. The way in which Madge's poetry points ahead to them is hard to verbalise, also because the overall unity of that group, lax and elusive although unmistakable, has yet to be verbalised. The other point about that 1995 volume was that after publishing books in 1937 and 1941 nothing had followed up until 1995 - a fifty-four year gap. During that time he had, however, composed most of the poems in the Selected. ‘The Storming of the Brain’ is dated 1950 in the typescript but, as you see, was not published until now, in 2009.
A few observations about gross design. The first meaning of a 'brainstorm' was undoubtedly an epileptic or epileptoid fit, the intense local electrical activity in part of the brain being equated with a 'storm' in the atmosphere. This has little to do with the poem. The poem is about 250 lines long. The start is a portrait of an unnamed site being exposed to an attack, which it cannot possibly resist, by what seems to be a large part of mankind: millions of people. We then find out it is a castle. At the end of the poem we hear about 'the submerged cathedral', which again has a monumental building being assailed and dissolved. The continuity of imagery leads us to believe that the entire poem is about an assault, that this assault is a merely symbolic process, and that the title accurately describes the theme: the brain under attack from something else, equally human, which takes it over, and that the 'castle' imagery' belongs to an extended metaphor in which the brain has defences which can be assailed and breached. Madge had published a book called The Disappearing Castle already in 1937. If I could sum up the poem in one line it would be that the surrender of identity is a form of self-transcendence and leads us out of rigid positions and property into the unknown.
I have numbered the stanzas (which is not without ambiguity). So in stanza 1 we hear about the 'sea of men' as besieging army, in stanza 4 we hear about spies which the possessors of the citadel are going to send out into the besieging army, in st. 5 someone asks if we should simply let them in, as they admire what we have, but (st.6) this would disperse the treasure accumulated here over time and we would fall into decay. It is noticeable that the besiegers get no lines, although much of the poem is dialogue. Another defender, (speaker B) in a dialogue, proposes atomic, radiation, and bacterial weapons, the latter being engineered to kill selectively. Speaker A says that the possessors are diseased and decaying and should not inflict similar damage on other people. Speaker B (possibly) proposes using a dream weapon. But it seems that the garrison are overcome by darkness, they look out (st.13) and see the light from torches held by the camp outside, revealing them to be behaving peacefully. Speaker B (st.15) says that, if it is not so, the camp is 'such a gathering of souls' that no resistance would be possible, and that the treasures will be theirs, and mentions the ‘secret inner life' of the castle. Speaker A (probably) retorts that this ‘life’ is missing as some of the garrison are already dead, while in general it is abstract, ‘rare and mental’. Speaker A (possibly) goes on (st. 18) to ask whether, now the threat of hostile intentions has been dispersed, by the incidence of light, they should proceed to speech and reconciliation with the multitude. He reveals that the gap between those inside and out is as between an elite seeking knowledge and the uninstructed. The speakers agree and stanzas 20-23 (from the line ‘Iron-handed fathers leaning on your ploughs’) are an address by the group inside to those surrounding them; they are addressed severally in a tripartite classification which parodies the Trinity (fathers, then sons, then spirits, ‘embodied vacancies of magic flame’, appearing visually like the flames of the Pentecost). Then the defences are dropped; ‘Open the strait gate’. The crowd throngs in (st. 25-8) and gawps at the castle like a museum. It emerges that the garrison are angels: finding it hard to ‘love the sons of men’, but that they are capable of being contaminated by humanity. The description ‘relics of angel nebulae’ may mean that they are aliens rather than Biblical angels; their biological relationship is a source of doubt (st. 29-34). As the poem ends there is peace and there has been a merging of identities: ‘For those we feared are here in us and we/ Stand in them’. The poem ends with a reference to Monet’s series of paintings ‘La cathédrale engloutie’, where the cathedral in Rouen is not literally engulfed by anything, but gradually loses outline in the encroaching twilight. It implies an engulfing shift of perception but no damage.
The intentionality of the encampment or besiegers allows us to exclude the link with a literal brainstorm, viz. epilepsy. The attribution of sides in the debate to two speakers is proposed, but after all every stanza could be spoken by a different person (or it could be one mind arguing with itself).
The paraphrase demonstrates, I think, that the plot I have suggested is correct. It is necessary though to recall that the whole poem is dreamlike or superreal and so that the test of consistency is not a wholly valid one: the poem is composed of disparate objects. The event described is abstract - it is a brain which is being stormed; the reference to ganglia ('And in the ganglia, soft-syllabled/ A population') is the single moment which confirms this; but the poem also unfolds as a story about a literal siege, with a cast of millions of people. The most striking feature of the poem is the coherence of the literal, sensuous level, comparable to some surrealist painting in which we see impossible things but the visual organisation is of perfect smoothness and cohesion. Madge is in great contrast to the Poundian line of poetry dealing with ideas, where the montage splits between disparate streams of data are emphasized and little attempt is made to make sense flow across them. His poem flows from one signed object to another, with a continuous sensuous line; thirty or so signed objects are the vital spine of the poem. In fact one could imagine a wordless film showing a series of symbolic objects which would express a great part of the poem on their own. The 1940s did see quite a few noble families losing their land, even if they did not always live in castles. Latifundia were broken up and distributed to smallholders in Rumania and East Prussia, and to some extent in South Italy. There was, in 1950, a section of European conservatism which was literally monarchist and pro-aristocratic and wanted the whole of modernity to be rolled back, and these people had their meetings in Paris, Munich, or Madrid; but it was hardly a sector of great importance. Indeed, the castle image seems to be an attack on aristocratic culture a hundred and fifty years late, nimbly bypassing the bourgeois culture which had been a hard-to-miss feature of the nineteenth century. The image of sacking castles full of tattered ancient relics belongs primarily to the 1790s, when the manants sacked châteaux and monasteries in large numbers. As the castle is not sacked we are more probably seeing the renewal of a civilisation: all the cultural objects in their keeping are old, so the moment is one of revitalisation of an old fabric by barbarian innocence and energy, like the Franks in the fourth century flooding but preserving Northern Gaul.
The phrase ‘great arcane’ sounds like an occultist term. Brief research suggests that it is not a familiar and set term. In the Tarot there are the 'greater arcana', but not simply ‘great’. Citadel in Latin is arx, and this is in obvious relationship to the adjective arcanus; arguably anything locked up in a citadel is arcane. The phrase ‘arcanum magnum’ occurs in a sixteenth-century text by Johannes Trithemius (Tritheim) called Steganographia, which has to do with magic as well as ciphers.
The theme of a castle as arrogant private property invites a contrast with Pound’s 'Malatesta Cantos', where he describes a building (the Tempio) built for Sigismundo Malatesta, for him a symbol of violent and defiant individualism. ‘The Storming of the Brain’ is more or less the opposite of this. The use of a building as an object symbol for the strife between individualism and collectivism may be a retort to Pound.
One could try to interpret the poem as directly about communism seizing the relics of high European culture and absorbing them into a new culture available to everybody, which has only been delayed by the hostile attitude of the servile bourgeois who regarded the arrival of the masses as a loss for culture. I reject this, as the poem would not have the design it does if its intent were so simple. The attack on relict culture is especially vivid but is the part of the poem which is closest to conventional symbolism and which is most easily seen as mortgaged to shared communist cultural ideas of the 1940s.
I think the poem has the integrity and ambiguous quality of finished myth: application to European culture in the reconstruction era of the 1940s is defensible and valid, but the poem should absolutely not be restricted to that. I do not find any reference in the poem to political authority: the castle is simply a repository of knowledge and culture. If the manants come there, it is not to kill their rulers, but to acquire the culture - which is therefore desirable and not simply moth-eaten tapestries and unplayable music manuscripts.
Another interpretation of the poem is that it refers to the acquisition of ideas by mankind in a schema of evolutionary ascent, with mankind leaving the animal condition by storming the brain and acquiring the faculty of abstract thought. The ancient artefacts with which the castle is littered could not in fact have pre-existed this moment but could act as symbols of what abstraction made possible. Another interpretation is that the whole poem is about the unstoppable rise of the colonial peoples as they take over history, or take it back, from the Europeans, who appear universally as an effete, cloistered, elite of excessively cultured people. This overlaps quite a lot with the communist version. The reference to ‘fetching wood/ And water’ takes us to Ham, son of Noah, seen in recent times as the ancestor of the Negro peoples, thus predestined to do the hard work; but this description would do for the European peasants and proletarians, equally well.
We can, instead, see the whole thing as a subjective experience: starting out with a set emotional position and a given social position, defended like a property, and moving towards a dissolution in which we become open to everything of which the whole of mankind is capable, as if we were becoming millions of people, as the brain’s defences are stormed and we lose personal identity to become part of the whole species. This would then be like a certain notion of dreams, in which we undergo experiences we would never have in waking life. This idea of the collective life, so close to anthropology, with an idea of the infinite range of experiences of which humans are capable and the restriction of possibilities through encoding as one grows up in the semantic complexes of a given society, is bound to remind us of Mass-Observation, the surrealist anthropological movement which was co-founded by Madge in 1937. The sea imagery of the poem is particularly strong, and seems to foreground the archaic (we all come from fish) and the loss of all restraints (the sea has no memory and dissolves everything). The mention of the ‘primal sea’ chimes with a series of collocations, in myths of various countries. The sea remains primal, it does not decay:

We hear the language of your waves
And we prepare to lave ourselves in you
And to be born again out of the flood.

The phrase, about ‘we, the relict of angel nebulae/ who scarcely stain time’ is a crux. For me it has echoes of the Neo-Platonist theory of the cosmos, whereby ideas come from the stars and penetrate our world as radiation, giving form to vegetation and to human life. I take it that ‘angel’ means ‘messenger’ here. This draws the poem close, momentarily, to Madge’s ex-wife Kathleen Raine:

The tree of night is spangled with a thousand stars;
Plenum of inner spaces numberless
Of lives secret as leaves on elm-tree
Living maze of wisdom smaragdine
Open in cell, in membrane, in chains in vein
Infinite number forming in waves that weave
In virgin vagina long-world forest of form
(from ‘The Hollow Hill’, published 1965)

(The emerald or Smaragdine tablet is a sacred Hermetic text in Latin which, perhaps, was found in a cave by Apollonius of Tyana.) Briefly, then, we seem to be watching some Gnostic or Rosicrucian drama as the astral and untaintable pure ideas are transmitted to human seekers after knowledge. In Madge's first book, the disappearing castle turned out to be the Grail castle; this time too the castle may be the object of a quest which is resolved by the spiritual transformation of the people carrying it out. 'Open the strait gate': those coming in can enter because they have been refined and attenuated.
The phrase ‘interior castle’ comes from the book El Castillo Interior (1577) by St Teresa of Avila. Avila was an archaic walled city in the province which was named Castile because it was full of castles. In her book, architecture is a symbol for psychological processes. We cannot think about the brain except through symbols. The soul is seen as a castle of seven concentric walls which represent the progressive attenuation of pride and desire and the submission to a divine authority which lives in the centre and observes every other point, rather like a panopticon. In Teresa's book there are vermin, vipers, spiders and so on which represent the organic but disobedient and low desires of the acolyte. These may anticipate the spiders, bats, etc. in 'The Storming' — 'forcing in/ Past all the gossamer and the shrieking birds'.
There was really no outlet for poetry of this kind in the 1950s, although some parts of the closely related ‘Poem by Stages’ appeared in a marginal Poundian magazine called Nine (under the title of 'Poem in Forty Nights and One Night’). This was immediately before the composition of 'The Storming'. Charles Olson is mentioned in Nine issue three as 'Olsen', in an advertisement for a New York magazine containing his 'Projective Verse'. This flash in 1950 excuses us for looking ahead to 1966 and The English Intelligencer. The editorial programme of Nine is 'to re-establish creative contact with the past', and it is licit to suppose that 'The Storming' describes exactly that process, and that, perhaps, Madge was thinking of Nine and of publishing his poem in Nine along with their translations of Sicilian pastorals and Classical Persian lyrics - so that

For these then be the lutes with broken strings
For these the moth corrupted tapestry
The faded fresco and faint clavichord
For these the treasures of our impotence [.]

refers directly to the faded stateliness of the other texts in Nine. Nine's axis was deeply restorational, anti-democratic, anti-twentieth century, and Madge's relationship with them was brief. The lack of a possible audience made it likely that Madge would withdraw from poetry rather than continue to face such frustration and incomprehension. It is sentimentality to speak of 'buried streams' when the flow ceased and life seized up. Madge’s poems remained unknown, where no link could grip. Fifteen years later, a kind of transcription error moved the Poundian or Objectivist line from Far Right to Far Left. A new kind of verse began, as later captured in A Various Art. The use of the word ‘intelligencer’ in ‘Storming’ (a kind of Mass-Observer?) is not connected to the use of the word in The English Intelligencer. The organ of continuity is more probably the abiding vitality of the leftist intelligentsia, with a life flow surging through print, for example the Left Book Club, Tribune, the New Left Review, and so on, rather than in some regional depot in a castle keep in Cambridge. More documents will allow us more glimpses of this process.

In 2014 I can add that the poem may be influenced by Arnold Toynbee, in whose work A Study of History (now unread) there is a phase of a tired civilisation handing over its attainments to a vigorous, expanding, but uncultured one.

Saturday 1 March 2014

Gavin Selerie interview part 5

Azimuth and Digression: Gavin Selerie interview part 5 

7 January 2013

catalogue of this site is here:
 catalogue of this site

part 1 of this interview is here

GS: I thought ‘Bone Metallic’ might be an interesting poem to look at because it’s one of my concrete poems and because it’s an evocation of someone’s life and work in 1, 2, 3... roughly 16 lines or something. Pretty condensed. Although I think Tony did a pretty good job of setting it, because of the typeface he used he couldn’t quite reproduce my original design. I could show you my original setting in Palatino which is closer to how I’d imagined it. The shape is essentially intended to evoke a skull and simultaneously with that a grenade. It concerns Henry Moore’s life and work. When I was a boy, a teenager, my art master took me to visit Moore’s studio at Much Hadham in Hertfordshire, and I got to meet Moore and some of his assistants. And saw some of the work, the little maquettes, the slightly larger models and then the full scale one. And some full-scale bronzes. And then most impressive of all the plaster casts he’d shed. There was a big sloping field at the back, full of them, he’d arranged those. They looked like they’d gone back to some Stone Age context. My art master was a friend of Moore’s, this was how this came to be. I suppose this was 1964. I was still pretty young. Let’s say 64 or 65. Among the sculptures I saw was one called ‘Atom Piece’ and that’s what it looked like (exhibit), it’s not a very good photograph. As you can see it’s a bit like a skull. By a complete coincidence (although I remained very interested in Moore’s work) when I was in America in 1968 I went to the University of Chicago. I went there in 1968. Not as a student but just to visit. And outside one of the science blocks there was a sculpture, which I’m pretty sure was then entitled ‘The Atom’, which was a version of this, blown up. There was a whole back history to this. The University of Chicago wanted a piece to commemorate the first atomic fission, which happened there in ...

AD: Fermilab.

GS: Fermilab.

AD: The first chain reaction.

GS: At the University of Chicago in 1942, made the first controlled nuclear fission, in a temporary building actually. And they asked Moore for a sculpture, and he said I’ve got something which I’ve done completely independently which could form the basis for something to commemorate atomic energy, and he said it’s called ‘Atom Piece’. But the university authorities didn’t like the connotations of ‘piece’ because it could summon up ‘peace’ and they were worried about controversy around that and protests from anti-nuclear people, and they asked if it could be renamed to ‘Nuclear Energy’, so it acquired that more neutral title. But I’m pretty sure that when I saw it in 1968 there was a plaque in front of it said ‘The Atom’, so I think there was an intermediate title. What I wanted to do with this poem was to convey Moore’s concerns and his working method and his background, he came from Castleford in Yorkshire, which was, is mining territory. And he fought in World War One, it seems inevitable really that this must have influenced his way of seeing the world. Hence the grenade dimension to the concrete shape. So this is an evocation of his life and work but with that ‘Atom Piece’ particularly in mind. Moore himself said about this, a fortnight previously... I think there are some dates here. 1964 to 1965. It was probably 1965 then that I saw this. And Moore himself said “I’d been working in my little maquette studio and the story reminded me of a sculpture I’d already done, about 6 inches high, which was just a maquette for an idea, and I said to them, I think I’ve done the idea as far as I would be able to, and I’m going to make this sculpture into a working model. I showed it to them when I’d done the idea, and they liked it because the top of it is like some large mushroom or a kinky mushroom cloud, and it also has a head shape like the top of a skull, but down below it is more like an architectural cathedral, and one might think of it as more a protective form and constructed for human beings, and the top being more the destructive side of the atom.” I wanted to evoke both those aspects. But also I wanted to work into the poem his Mother figures, his figures of women with holes, that are I imagine very influenced by primitive sculptures of the mother goddess and of fertility goddesses. So what I’ve done is to create a skull grenade shape as I went along with a hole in the middle, with a kind of passage coming down to the larger hole, which could be for a wick if it was a grenade. And that also suggests mining territory, going down deep into rock. It’s also got a slightly phallic suggestion. So I start the poem “What story holds here”, investigating the image. I say ‘pebble-human half polished.’ Those seem to be apt terms for his sculptures. ‘A little piece every contour learnt/ to gross up’ as in to make a big version from a little model. ‘And win at point of chisel’ in terms of defining in shape. ‘a curve of hill mossy crag with mine-shaft/ or stark fault.’ I’m emphasizing there the territory he was familiar with as a boy. ‘this is home a childhood / for bluff recall’. ‘other lamplight lode’, geological but also carrying association of load, a weight carried. So I’m already moving onto his mother-figures there. Maybe a miner’s lamplight or just a lamp at home. ‘bearing on throne’, a lot of his sculptures seem to be, well, they’re placed on a base. But throne is more apt perhaps for something involving a mother-goddess figure. Thinking of those, this is Roger Berthoud (exhibit) Well, there’s one on a base. I should have said as well as just visiting him as a schoolboy, partly because of my mother’s interest in his work I went to exhibitions of his work as a boy. The main habits of his sculpture were familiar to me. Getting back to the detail of the poem where I stopped. ‘as long neck/ reaches from shoulder’ then there’s a kind of pause. ‘a castle tower over ward’, that must be partly a reference to Castleford in Yorkshire. ‘never to admit what strain’, this is exactly halfway through. ‘has some trench to scoop’. This involves a shift to his First World War experience. So many WWI soldiers repressed their experience didn’t they, weren’t able to talk about it, and it went into other elements, went sideways, leaked out somehow. 'Strain' there effort, but also the sound. ‘so comes a pierced skull/ better absent belief.’ I suppose the stoic would feel that. ‘all in mustard haze’, mustard gas. ‘Sings quiet by day’, the intervals between the fighting. ‘the bolder legend/ not after a medal’, fight not for the glory but for the practical purpose. So he doesn’t want a medal but it feeds into his work as an artist. I suppose what I’m doing here is conflating his First World War experience with the unleashing of atomic energy in the Second World War. ‘when shorn limbs speak on plinth’. Shorn limbs obviously suggests wounds of war. ‘a dale myth there t’remember’, recalling his Yorkshire experience. ‘The force drives on afresh’. A typical I suppose Forties image, in Dylan Thomas’ poem, as in Graham Sutherland’s work, Keith Vaughan. ‘where tube sleepers/ go abstract in green.’ Well that does push things to the Second World War, with Moore’s underground shelter drawings. In common with a lot of my poems, it involves a caesura, a split, between the two parts of the line. I seem to be habitually inclined to pair-type structures, double structures. Although of course it does unify towards the end at the base. I hope that this although it’s arranged in a specific shape does have a lyrical flow as a poem. I’ll just read a little bit of it. Although these (lines) are arranged to fit a pattern, the intention is to have a flow to it and not be concrete in some inflexible, stationary mode. Can you hear that more lyrical music when I start reading it? Or is it subdued to the dyer’s hand of its visual project?

AD: Lyric is such an overused word. I’ve just been reviewing this book called Beyond the Lyric. I don’t think lyric is the adjective to apply to this poem. Maybe there’s a whole suite of adjectives missing for different emotional qualities of poetry. I don’t think you could get people to vote, saying This is a lyric poem.

GS: There is another word I’m searching for then to suggest something that isn’t just still. Maybe fluent is too strong a word. In one sense it is still as a sculpture is.

AD: The visual design imposes that, because the visual design is over the entire poem, all points are present in one moment. There is a flow of meaning in the words as opposed to the visual. And yes it is emotional, profound emotions are being broached here. They’re not really first person.

GS: Except insofar as I’m imagining my way back to those war experiences. And obliquely drawing on my perception of this as a young boy, as a teenage boy. Of that particular sculpture. [dropout]... probably was as well as wanting to emphasize the readability of it, I was wanting to register the fact that, deep emotion here. I agree. No doubt it also taps into memories of my father’s war experience as witnessed by me in the wounds I could still see and his stories.

AD: Is the realization of the sculpture in Chicago in metal?

GS: In bronze, yes. The little maquette I saw would have been plaster. It’s so long ago... No, it is bronze actually. ‘120 cm’. It would have been more striking in bronze. This is an example totally different from the two we’ve looked at so far.

AD: Yes. I expect that’s why you chose it.

GS: Do you feel in this case or more generally that the concrete form is too limiting?

AD: I think you’re writing two different grades of the poem. I mean this is much easier to animate because it’s about one specific object, contained within the object. You walk around it and it holds still. It’s quite easy for the reader to figure out what holds it together. With ‘Stromboli’ that’s true to a slightly lesser extent. The narrative object of the poem is more complicated. With ‘Roxy 46’ the whole situation is far more complicated and I would think the whole poem is far more ambitious. And it has much more momentum because its own assumptions are changing in the poem. I’d say that’s the difference between ‘Bone Metallic’ and ‘Roxy 46’ or similar poems.

GS: The subject of nuclear energy is a major concern in the other poem that you wanted to look at, isn’t it? ‘Faust Variations’?

AD: (looks up poem) Oh yes, Freeman Dyson. I’ve just been reading a book by his son, actually.

GS: What page is it in Music’s Duel? the main advantage of the Days of ‘49 setting (of ‘Faust Variations’) is a slightly broader left and right column. So this is an example of you could call it a prose poem or just a text which juxtaposes imaginary in the left hand column with documentary in the right and column. The context for Days of ‘49, the book that I and Alan Halsey wrote about 1949 - this text being mine and not his, incidentally - the launching point for this is the fact that 1949 was the year of the Goethe Bicentenary celebration. And also it was the publication date of the English version of Mann’s Doktor Faustus which I draw on at times in the left hand column. The right hand column involves a lot of things that were going on in that year and you could say are germane either to the Faust story in its various version or to atomic energy, that being a scientific equivalent of the dilemma that Faustus is faced with. In terms of possibility for a better world or more power and the limitation of that power. It starts with a very, ‘terrible is the way you pronounce good’. That could be either ‘the way you pronounce ‘good’ is terrible, or terrible is the way you pronounce good. A syntactic ambiguity. I’m sure that is both to do with the Faust situation and with the Frankenstein scientist forging new possibilities for human power, new techniques, because we have here ‘a little cut in the hand will release in a jar what fuels the stars’. This is very like ‘Roxy 46’, isn’t it, it’s a bit like my image of the statues coming to life.

AD: The proving ground is Los Alamos? It’s a nuclear test?

GS: The cut in the hand is the blood he has to give making the bargain.

AD: Physicists like Oppenheimer are making a Faustian pact with, well, ultimate evil, mass death in order to achieve something, and that’s like signing a soul away? Jar. Is that a test jar or a jar as in vibrations?

GS: It could be either a test jar or the jar that Mephistopheles places beneath him when he signs the bargain. In one of those versions, maybe Murnau’s film, Mephistopheles places a jar beneath him and the blood flows into the jar. Or am I thinking of Dreyer’s film Vampyr, which I used in Le Fanu’s Ghost. It’s a conflation of Carmilla and The Room in the Dragon Volant, two stories by Le Fanu.

AD: Carl Dreyer. So the devil captures either his blood in a jar or his soul in a jar?

GS: Literally...

AD: The devil has lots of souls on a shelf? Like preserves?

GS: I wish I had my notebook here for this period because a lot of these things would be clearer. I’m struggling to recall some of the generation of particular phrases. Maybe it’s good because I won’t get too bogged down. Let’s move to the right hand column. As you can see even though that’s slightly longer they do relate to each other like paragraphs. We have EM Butler again.

AD: We do. Hi Elsie.

GS: Whose book The Fortunes of Faustus, it languishes. Oh no it’s a third volume. It’s languishing in the basement of the Cambridge University Press offices, as books can do. HD - Hilda Doolittle - ‘sees Silver Wings as a theft from life when all is coincidence‘. Can you wait for me to drag out, it would only take two or three minutes, that notebook?

[Dialogue about clipping mike on.]
We are discussing ‘Faust Variations’, at pp. 41-3 of Days of '49. Elsie Butler wrote a 1949 book about The Myth of the Magus, which discusses the original Faust, a late-mediaeval magician.]

AD: It’s rolling.

GS: I’ve now rummaged around in one of my cupboards and found the notebooks that I was using at the time. The trouble with any particular text is that I am drawing on notebooks that I'm using concurrently, so they tend to be strewn around the place. The references that I might need, but I’ve just found in one of them a reference to Silver Wings. In 1949 HD was visited by EM Butler - they’d been introduced via Bryher. Her book Fortunes of Faust, published in 1952, and the novel Silver Wings, finally, were major influences on Helen of Egypt. Silver Wings must be by EM Butler, I’m sure I got it out of London University Library. When the two women first met in 1949 neither book had been published. But Butler must have discussed with HD Goethe’s use of the legend of Helen having fled to Egypt and her double appearing on the walls of Troy. So the 1949 context fits there doesn’t it. So HD sees Silver Wings as “a theft from life when all is coincidence”. But that’s a common experience of writing, isn't it, when you think things are actually based on something. If someone writes about you they might think that everything's based on literal instances and it turns out that actually half of it’s imagined and that the person couldn’t have known X Y and Z.

AD: We think that there is something in HD which is also in Silver Wings, but HD saw it as a theft from life. In life if there are coincidences everywhere then the same thing in two books really means nothing.

GS: I must check. I could go and check. I’ve got various books on HD. What I omitted to say is that the opening of that column, EM Butler was a friend of Aleister Crowley. Friend may be the wrong term, acquaintance would be more fitting.

AD: Old Crow is Crowley?

GS: Yeah. And that must be a quotation from Crowley, ‘Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law. I am the Magician, and the Exorcist.’ The exorcist reference comes in the next paragraph.

AD: This is the story that William Friedkin’s film, and William Peter Blatty’s novel, The Exorcist, were drawing on.

GS: Yes. That was in 1949. August 49.

AD: And in Washington State, whereas in the film it’s somewhere in the north-east, I can't remember where.

GS: I actually have a quotation from The Fortunes of Faust. Part of a documentary type discourse. Lining up a series of events that happened in 1949. Faust staged in the open air in Regents Park, with the final scenes from Part II. That is juxtaposed with the more imaginative type of language, in the left hand column. ‘What does dead mean when flora grows so rankly.’ I don’t know whether I’m literally referring to the processes of fission, probably more the paradox of decay and as in dry rot, when you get that kind of abundant growth that is actually a kind of deadness too.

AD: The fungus is more alive than the house.

GS: I don't know if that’s a factor too. I’m missing a crucial notebook here. (Dan Brown style drama of enigmatic clues while the notebook is retrieved.)

GS: I'll probably find now that the quote about the flora is from Mann’s Doktor Faustus. I don’t know how much it’s going to help me having these notebooks in front of me. There’s so much detail there that I can't necessarily pick out the right things. But it may occasionally stimulate my memory to be more exact. ‘Lying in the dark with irksome mygrym, retching and spewing’. Yes. I imagine this is the Faust figure being tempted. ‘To the sofa corner comes my visitor in a white collar and a bow tie.’ The phrasing is more modern here. I’m actually conflating Mann’s Doktor Faustus and Shakespeare’s Love’s Labours Lost. I’m trying to think what connects them. I think part of the book does involve reference to is it Biron from Love’s Labours Lost. Whatever the source of this stuff, the essential situation is clear enough, of being tempted towards some further knowledge and pleasure. ‘Are you afraid of yourself? Plesure is yet yonge.’
We’re still with the soul bargain. 'Let us say XXIV years.' In the right hand column adjacent to that we have as you rightly said the Exorcist story from 1949. Mainly I think drawing in the newspaper, the original newspaper account, Washington Post, but I’m sure I’m working in a bit of Friedkin’s film. Ah yes, look. Page 162 in the 1949 edition of [Mann’s] Faustus: ‘Don Armado a consummate figure of opera. The despair of the witty Biron. Then the judgment on Biron.‘ So definitely Love’s Labours Lost is a work referenced in Doktor Faustus. And Rosaline. There’s a lot more about her later on.
So Rosaline is a kind of Helen figure. Or the dark lady of Shakespeare’s sonnets. I mean that would be typically modernist, wouldn't it. To interleave that with a text such as Love’s Labours Lost. The Faust book would be early Renaissance, wouldn't it.

AD: In a different, Northern European context. Fifteenth century perhaps? (The Faust-Volksbuch was printed in 1587.)

GS: As I say I think I can pick out the main context here. The third left hand column is still to do with the enticement and exotic charm. 'Her touch burns on my cheek.' Rosaline being Biron’s beloved in Love’s Labour’s Lost. It's interesting how having glanced over Roxy section 46 I'm seeing all kinds of connections with this. ‘With theatre in the blood one bespeaks another, like Moon-gold. Out of number magic you jump the chord obsolete.’ That almost sounds like memory theatre to me. There is number magic in Faustus I suppose. The main tradition of magic certainly involves number, doesn’t it. But also in atomic power, it’s all numbers.

AD: The difference between uranium 235 and uranium 238.

GS: “In American-occupied Frankfort on Main, all parties, inclusive of Communists, pay homage to the memory of Germany's greatest son." But the author of Emil and the Detectives isn't impressed.
Sweet Black angel, that's obviously the blues phrase. Tampa Red, I would think, 1949. It might be Robert Nighthawk.

AD: Was Tampa Red Hudson Whittaker?

GS: I don't think so. There’s a limit to how I drag things in completely without relevance so there must be a 1949 blues context. ‘Like the way she spreads her wings.’ That’s either direct quotation or expanding somewhat from a blues context. Again a lot of this reminds me of that Roxy material of the idealised feminine. In the right hand corner is a kind of Frankenstein dream of moulding a creature to fit your dreams. The right-hand column here refers to the explosion of the first atomic bomb. And what was going on in China - the proclamation of the people’s republic. J Robert Oppenheimer’s statement that it would be ethically wrong to develop the H-bomb and his advice being overruled. Still in the right hand column, controversy surrounding Thomas Mann and his place in German culture. Since the war he was thought by various powerful figures to have behaved with a ‘lack of piety towards his fatherland’. Said in Germany to be ‘blatantly devoid of true inner culture (Herzensbildung)’.

AD: During the war he said bombing Germany was a good idea to win the war. Actually Brecht wrote a poem criticising him. And then he wouldn’t return to Germany. Lack of piety. Well, given that before the war they burnt his books.

GS: And they didn't want them in the 40s either.

AD: It was before repentance. There was a big transition and Thomas Mann became canonised. It became very difficult to express patriotic feelings about the Second World War. In 1949 that hadn't happened.

GS: In the left hand column, the imaginative column. We have nightclub matter here. The Cococello Club and the Great Nike Room. It’s possible here that I’m drawing on 1930s German expressionist films. I don’t know. But certainly it was sparked partly by reading of Thomas Mann.

AD: (reading) ‘Riddle me in a Zip-pan like the debauch of exchange.’
(end of tape)

AD: While the tape was being changed the author explained what ‘Riddle me with a Zip Pan’ actually means.

GS: I’m pulling out all the stops to be zany here. Melodramatic, isn’t it. ‘Avernus lit by the dance of the roaring flames. Nuff, he cries!’ And then in the right hand column, continuing with the documentary, I couldn't resist getting this in. ‘Freeman Dyson enrols as one of Hans Bethe’s post-graduate students. Four years later Thomas Pynchon studies Engineering Physics.’

AD: Along with, well he was a friend of, Richard Farina, isn't it?

GS: We have an anticipation of Gravity’s Rainbow here. “The bunch of weaponeers includes many Los Alamos physicists. "I’ll be damned if I'll let any Washington or any politician dictate what work not to do" says Norris Bradbury, director of Los Alamos.”

AD: He got the job when Oppenheimer was pushed out?

GS: Meanwhile EM Butler delivers a lecture on Byron and Goethe, ‘seeking and never finding each other and yet (half obsessed the one)’ etc. ‘aware of a strange affinity’. She actually wrote a book on Byron and Goethe. Now in the left hand column still working with magic. ‘A piece of gold can make you see different.’ ‘The sentence is scraps stolen from a feast’, I think what I’m talking about three is the juggling power of language. I think that is to do with Love’s Labours Lost, is it Holofernes, his exaggerated language? One of the other characters says ‘your words are scraps stolen from a feasts’. I can explain another reference - Zolo Go is I think Lightnin' Hopkins. It was a mis-hearing of zydeco, zydeco being like cajun

AD: ...only Black.

GS: So on the label it said ‘Zolo Go’. This is mine, I did this one (collage).

AD: Subject produces an exhibit here: on the Gold Star record label. ‘Zolo Go by Lightnin' Hopkins, king of the hillbillies’, who is no-one’s idea of a hillbilly. Houston, Texas. And it says on it 666. Can you explain that, Gavin? Who owns this label exactly?

GS: Is that a superimposition by me? I don't think it is.

AD: Maybe he sold his contract to the devil along with his soul!

GS: In the right hand column, concurrent with that, ‘what if MacNeice were propelled to write a Goethean line or two’. He did a radio version in that year.

AD: Of Goethe’s Faust?

GS: In six parts. And there’s a picture of him, or at least I imagine it’s him, ‘Gripping a Guinness at the bend of the bar’. Refusing to look at Shelley. “Slipshod and not much of a poet." That must have been the BBC pub, the George.

AD: If it was MacNeice, it was one of many pubs.

GS: I think he sat there with his dog. And then the last documentary column referred to René Clair’s ‘La beauté du diable’, which is being filmed in Rome. “at that time he referred to Heine’s comment, ‘Every man should write a Faust.’ I’ve got the screenplay of that film which I made notes from at the time. Oh, ‘zip-pan. Momentary blur wiping clear the image’. But maybe that’s not from the film. (reads aloud) In notebook 37, “see also small blue notebook with Clair’s own comments’”. So zip-pan is presumably a technique used in ‘La beauté du diable’. There you are, everything can be explained.

AD: So there was a reason for it.

GS: There always is. There’s a reason for everything. But you can't hold it in mind forever.

AD: The great zip-pan of time.

GS: But it is a great phrase. Oh, it’s pan in the film sense-

AD: Panorama.

GS: Panorama in the film sense. Not a pan as in something you would cook with.

AD: Don’t think so, no.

GS: It makes perfect sense. That finishes with the figure of Mephisto in ‘La beauté du diable’: ‘Vanquished by his own devices, he vanishes in a column of smoke’. The column of smoke obviously recalling an atomic plume. ‘Magic is music’. I think I am probably ... The marginal note there must be self-referential in the sense that the whole right-hand column could be marginalia. ‘A marginal note is not so marginal.’ ‘The flying messenger seeks guidance. 'And here everything leaves off.' As it does. That’s the end of the text. ‘The flying interviewer wants guidance’.

AD (laughter)

GS: I suspect part of what I was doing here was revelling in a language feast and getting into some Dylan Thomassy-type heady view of sound. The main context is plain enough, that it’s Faust juxtaposed with the scientists developing atomic energy and indeed moving towards the H-bomb. From one bomb to another. I’ve got notes here from EM Butler’s book Byron and Goethe. (pause of 2 minutes while subject locates a notebook from the time) I'm drawing on Barbara Guest’s excellent book Herself Defined: the poet HD and her World: ‘Butler’s influence on HD extended into her novel Silver Wings. [...] One person relates the events and gives his explanation. Then we proceed through several interpretations of what may or may not be the real story. Finally an explanation of what has really occurred is given by someone who we have every reason to believe. This presumably is the final truth, but is it? Are we not finally returned to a realm which would be seized upon by HD where the dead dream their dreams, and who can read them?”
And I suppose explaining why I’m using this Helen being such a significant element in the Faust legend is whether she’s a spirit or not is very relevant to the whole idea of what you can get after you’ve sold your soul. Is it real or not? Or are you just being deluded by this phantom?
There’s one more thing I wanted to say about that text and that is that I performed it at Café Otto with some jazz musician friends of mine. It does lend itself to performance although it is a complex and multi-layered text. Tim Fletcher promised me a copy of the recording we made.

(GS recovers info on Silver Wings and confirms that it influenced HD)

(Penda’s Fen is the original form of the place-name Pinvin and was a TV play in 1973. A couple of hours after the interview was over Kevin Nolan turned up and after a while began talking about ‘Penda’s Fen’.)

GS: Often the most useful things are not great works of literature but they spark you into doing things. They could be pulp materials, they offer ways in or resonant phrases. I think this is a case in point. The reason I’m using this is that we were talking about ways of using information and different sources, and the four poems that we’ve looked so far (today), all four, offer different approaches, although there are continuities. In Le Fanu’s Ghost which is I suppose an encyclopaedic type work in one sense, I wrote each text in a different way. Each of the individual texts that make up the book.

AD: There must be a hundred.

GS: Actually what I’m doing with Harriott Double is almost the opposite of that now, as a reaction against that. One of the texts in Le Fanu’s Ghost is called ‘Amarantha Takes’ and this was inspirited by an erotic version of Carmilla, Le Fanu’s vampire story. The Amarantha of the title refers to the pseudonym of the author, she calls herself ‘Amarantha Knight’. I discovered that her real name is Nancy Kilpatrick, and she’s an academic, I think an English professor. And she’s done a whole series of erotic takes on classics. The way I acquired this, I had a long conversation with a person to go to a particular shop in Southend, it was like brown paper bags on the counter, he had a whole warehouse of bizarre materials. Anyway I did eventually acquire it. It was very hard to get hold of. I thought it would be interesting to use phrases from this erotic version and produce a poem. So I’m somewhat mischievously stealing phrases from the book to conjure up the events and the aura for this vampire story. It has takes on a female voice, the female Laura. It has things like ‘Rub through the fabric to chestnut curling my cunny-hole.’ ‘leave your bloomers off, you see what comes of strangling people with him.’ ‘Assumed? To assume is to make an ass out of U and me.’ This was to create amusement and variation upon a more serious strand of the book. It’s just written as loose phrases in a long column. It starts ‘lace ruffs spell a story about the cuffs and neck.’ I don’t think it’s all found texts. ‘You are the girl from my dream.’ Because there is a possibly Lesbian subtext in Carmilla. ‘May I enter the library? Squeeze and the panel opens.’ In Harriott Double I am reacting against that mode. It’s effectively a narrative poem but it juxtaposes two narratives which are almost coincidental, about two people called Harriott, except they had a lot in common. The first section deals with Joe Harriott the jazz Jamaican saxophonist who settled in London. It goes from his birth to his death. Then you get a section called ‘Into Mean’, which is the present. The third section is the life of Thomas Harriott, the Renaissance scientist and astronomer and jack of all intellectual trades. And that goes from his death to his birth, so the book performs a cycle. Although I set out to make it narrative, inevitably it’s become more complex and the level of interference and there’s looping back and there are interruptions and gaps. One of the parallel features is that they both died of tobacco-related cancer. And in fact Thomas Harriott was the first person known to be recorded in the Western world, he got cancer of the nose, which was really grim. He went to the New World with Raleigh and brought tobacco back and it killed him. And Joe Harriott was also a heavy smoker and died in agony in hospital. So that’s one of the grimmer features of the book. I’m always alert to layers of history, particularly London history, and in one of the sections in this book, it’s called ’Spectrum’, you might think it’s a bit formulaic actually. I told Frances about it, I suspect she thinks it’s a bit formulaic. (exhibit) So that’s New Orleans trad type jazz, it’s an evocation of New Orleans, that’s bebop. And that is free jazz. And they’re kind of laid in apposition.

AD: So that’s where Joe Harriott was acoustically?

GS: He draws on all those things at the same time. Here I refer to ‘Tunisia in New Compton Street’.

AD: Like ‘A Night in Tunisia’?

GS: And I do mean New Compton Street not Old Compton Street. Jazz is mainly associated with Old Compton Street, western Soho. It’s a stretch of the imagination to call New Compton Street Soho. That club, I don’t think Harriott played there, at least in that incarnation. It was the first club to feature bebop in Britain. Don Rendell reminisces about this. It was called the Fullado. That became ‘The Metropolitan Bopera House’. It had another jazz incarnating as well. Just yesterday I was trawling the Web to make sure that it was in New Compton Street, and I did some more research, and that very building, it was 6 New Compton Street, and before it was a jazz club it was a theatre, the Players’ Theatre Club, and that’s where Peggy Ashcroft made her debut in 1927. It’s interesting that a jazz club should have that as part of its history. I suppose the space would lend itself.

AD: I suppose you have a certain kind of room, the architecture and so forth. I guess it wasn’t very big.

GS: I discovered that there’s a picture of 6 New Compton Street on the web, from something like 1908, and it was called Dollman and Son. What it says is ‘picture framers’. So I’m now considering doing something with that knowledge to create an extra layer in the book. I don’t know quite what I'll do. I think it was probably demolished in the 1960s. One other, I could just mention this text.

AD: (exhibit) ‘Calypso Gloriana’.

GS: I had been wondering how am I going to get from the 1960s, early 1970s, which is Joe Harriott, to the Renaissance. Because the first section ends with Joe Harriott‘s death. And then I was in, I mentioned my friend Dennis Harrison who runs the Albion Beatnik shop in Oxford, in Jericho. He said to me, I was talking about my fascination with Jamaican jazz musicians who use calypso, Joe Harriott did draw on calypso, so did Harold McNair, and so does Harry Beckett. Dennis suddenly said Oh, why don’t you do a ‘Calypso Gloriana’. I said, Gloriana, you mean Britten’s opera? It was like a challenge to me. So I waited about six months and then suddenly I thought of a way of doing this. And I thought, well, the courtly dances from Gloriana, I had a recording of them by Julian Bream. So I listened to them again. March, Coranto, Pavane... So I thought maybe I can create a calypso version of those dances. But I was also conscious of the fact that Thomas Harriott was one of only two people who read Chapman’s Homer in manuscript. Harriott may have known Chapman at Oxford, Chapman was slightly older but they might have overlapped a bit. I haven’t yet written a text involving Chapman’s Homer. But you know, Calypso, major episode in the Odyssey, so maybe I can work that into it. So I’ve got the myth of Calypso here.

GS: So you’ve got the Siren type figure, if one can call her that, trying to persuade, actually she saves him initially, but she wants him to stay and doesn’t want him to go back to Penelope. So you’ve got that aspect juxtaposed with Elizabeth and Essex. William Plomer did the libretto for Benjamin Britten. (discussion of failure of opera at its premiere at Covent Garden in 1953) I think it’s probably more interesting as a piece of music. It was based on Lytton Strachey’s Elizabeth and Essex so I had a look at that. It’s not as bad as you might think.

AD: It’s not suitable as the synopsis for an opera. Surely it’s a work of camp blasphemy before anything else.

GS: Surely you’re saying it’s not suitable for an opera at the Coronation! (anti-royalist laughter) It might be suitable for a different kind of opera. It went down like a lead balloon at its premiere. But critics since have given it a much more distinctive place in Britten’s oeuvre. And then I thought well how am I going to get calypso rhythm into English. So I thought of calypso, kyzo is the West Indian word. Brathwaite says that calypso rhythm is essentially dactylic. I find dactylic rhythm hard to read, but I thought I would at least approximate it. So we’ve got bumbaba bumbaba. And lots of percussive effects. So we have the Calypso figure, the woman, appearing, and her cave. And then, 'Is all my fellows lost?', Odysseus. Reflecting. And then we have the courtly dances but given a calypso interpretation. Dem slow hesitation steps. We’ve got the reference to the La Volta dance. ‘Both a dem you can’t coin proud diva. Take way yerself oh take and scud as a roller. To glassy fields must go home.’ ‘glassy fields’ is a Homeric expression for the Mediterranean.

AD: I should know what the phrase is but... Hyaline is the English literary equivalent. I’m sure the Greek phrase for glassy in that phrase is something very like that.

GS: I was talking about hearing about that pornographic version of Carmilla. I love it when you get a suggestion like that, when you come across some article in maybe a tabloid newspaper on the Tube late at night, you look at it in glazed fashion and suddenly you think Bloody hell! That’s interesting! All these things can spark the way a poem goes on.

AD: Britten missed a trick by not writing a calypso piece in Gloriana.

GS: ‘Party Talk’, this is in the Joe Harriott section, this is based on actual background talk at a party that Joe Harriott went to, which was recorded. I wasn’t transcribing it literally so there’s a lot of imagined stuff. This is on the tape though: “We haven’t got any petticoats on. I haven’t got one on at all. Don’t tell anybody though!” It’s a bit like some of the stuff I do in Southam Street. I’ve got another shape poem here, it’s called ‘Space Monkey’. It’s got a Rosicrucian poem, because one of the things about Joe Harriott was, he was a Rosicrucian.

AD: Oh good heavens. So that takes you back to the seventeenth century?

GS: Well, sixteenth and seventeenth, but particularly seventeenth as Frances Yates describes. A big motif in the book is the moon, because Thomas Harriott was an astronomer who actually did drawings of the moon before Galileo. I’ve got this text called “Mariner’s Mirror”, which is all about him observing the moon from Sion House. He had this little observatory at the top of his house. And then that links with various moon poems that I’ve written about Joe Harriott. Joe did that song ‘Polkadots and Moonbeams’, is it an Irving Berlin song? Maybe it’s van Heusen and, I get mixed up. So that provides opportunities. I’ve got a poem that describes Joe Harriott living off the Edgware Road. [omission about another pub] I imagine him on Edgware Road looking at the moon. Then I’ve got some found stuff. ‘Thomas Harriott etymological alphabet.’ He constructed an etymological alphabet, dictionary really, for Algonquian speech. He was a real pioneer doing this. Then I’ve got this mini dictionary of Algonquian terms which is quite a good text for reading aloud. Oh, this is ‘Subterrene calendar’ is, I’m imagining Thomas as a student at Oxford. ‘the pancake bell of St Mary’s’. He was at St Mary’s College, which was adjacent to Oriel.

AD: It sounds too Catholic a concept for politics in early modern Britain. I don’t think you’d get many Anglicans going to a college named after Mary. ("Bells of St Mary's" is not about this St Mary's.)

GS: So I’m playing with arrangements there and student games. They had these ceremonies. They had to ‘pluck off band and gown to plead on table form’, on top of a table. ‘Not fulminate or tonitruate but kiss the shoe to get a cup of caudle, or if dull get nothing but salted beer with tuck to boot.’ It is more straightforward, the structure I’m using, than in the other long works I’ve done. But I’ve got to keep feeling energized by variation. As well as pieces that are there by virtue of linking up I want to have these standalone pieces that I can read to audiences. The very last section of the book I’ve already written, involves imagining where Thomas Harriott was born and grew up. He was born somewhere in Oxfordshire. I’ve called that ‘Peep into Nowhere’. So I’m imagining without much evidence the world he was born into. I reckon I’m about halfway through writing it now. I’ve been working on it since the summer of 2009. (lists other literary tasks, omitted)

GS: As you just said Andrew we’re both getting a bit tired but as this is likely to be the last session I thought I’d just comment briefly on how important film has been to my writing. I think art forms which involve performance obviously relate to performance in behaviour throughout life.(repeats statement about theatre) I’ve used a variety of films over the years which has influenced and affected me as source material. Partly for the subject matter, as in Stromboli (as before) but also I think the structures of cinema, which obviously derive from novel practice. I don’t think that’s recognised enough, actually. Anticipated in the novel. The possibility for sign different kinds of language within the text, and for using different devices in the text. I’ve used what you might call art film, continental film, quite a bit. I’ve also used American film noir. Recently a more prominent influence on my work is British film, mainly B films but also some A films. I think what attracts me to them is the combination of slightly stagey edge which comes from the theatre or it comes from a way of speaking, an art tradition of speaking, maybe a class tradition. The combination of that with a documentary realism, partly stylized and partly reflecting a documentary interest in small detail of life. You get that sense of the fantastic and that more elaborate staginess along with, often in the same film, a grainier realism. No doubt you could get the same combination in some American films, but that may be a characteristic element of British film. I was very interested to come upon the English version of They Drive by Night, directed by Arthur Wood, which precedes the American one, and in this one the lead male part is played by Emlyn Williams. But it’s an astonishingly powerful work and it’s about someone who’s been accused of something on the run. It involves a lot of travelling. That’s got just that combination I’m talking about, that graininess and that slight stylization. I was put onto that by one of Julian Maclaren-Ross’s film articles. Did you know he wrote quite a lot of film criticism?

AD: He actually scripted several B-movies.

GS: Also something I found in the past few years, which I’d been searching for and which I finally tracked down at a film fair, No Orchids for Miss Blandish.

AD: The English one?

GS: Directed by St John Clowes, and that is the predecessor of the American The Grissom Gang. But at the time No Orchids was released it was completely demolished by the critics, they hated it. I’ve also been very impressed by the Lance Comfort films that I’ve seen over the last few years, such as a melodrama, Hatter’s Castle. Have you seen that?

AD: It’s an AJ Cronin novel. Is it one of his Scottish ones?

GS: No, it’s set in England. I think, is it meant to be Yorkshire? Again, that’s extremely stylized but it has a grim dimension to it. It has a social realism, almost, within the melodrama, which is weird. Other directors I find particularly interesting, are John Gilling, who did The Voice Of Merrill, and Shadow of the Cat, a Hammer horror which wasn’t released by them but which was done by the Hammer crew. Gilling was incredibly prolific and he also wrote the screenplays for a lot of film directed by other people. Lawrence Huntington I also find interesting, Mr Perrin and Mr Traill and The Upturned Glass, with James Mason in. Going back to Lance Comfort, Bang You’re Dead, about the little boy who thinks he’s shot someone. He does actually have his father’s loaded revolver which he’s kept since the Second World War, and he shoots the gun off and thinks that he’s killed this chap. He goes on the run virtually. It‘s one of the few film in which Jack Warner really shines, as the father. We talked (off microphone) about Maurice Elvey, I particularly like The Late Edwina Black, have you seen that? It’s a drama. Roy Ward Baker, The October Man, I’d like to see that again. At the BFI recently I saw Thorold Dickinson’s Next of Kin, about loose talk. I thought it was beautifully acted, beautifully photographed. It was a perfect film but rather overlooked. A lot of the British ones for the 50s and early 60s have these beautiful jazz scores, so I’ve been imbibing that for my Joe Harriott. A lot of the small Bs feature people like Tony Kinsey and Tubby Hayes and people who aren’t credited at all, and in a lot of films you’ll get a sequence in a nightclub, so well evoked. What appeals to me is the juxtaposition between the deprivation and the privilege and comfort. The code of manners on the one hand and the undercutting of that on the other. These B films are permeating my way of writing at present.

(Post-session talk about British B-movies and illicit copies of unobtainable films being exchanged at shadowy collectors’ fairs.)

Tampa Red (January 8, 1904 – March 19, 1981), born Hudson Woodbridge but known from childhood as Hudson Whittaker, was an American Chicago blues musician.