Tuesday, 30 November 2010


My penn'orth on the superbly prescient Another Year.

Monday, 29 November 2010


Dear Alexander,

It is my pleasure to invite you to the St John's College Ball of 2011. We on the Ball Committee are very excited to see our plans taking shape, and hope to persuade you to come to the college to enjoy a very spectacular night.

Our theme for the Ball is "This Side of Paradise", invoking the style and sophistication of a more elegant era. It is our opinion that the standard of balls in Oxford has been dropping for some time, and we hope to revive the Oxford Ball in all its glory. With this aim in mind, we would like to bring you back into the world of Wodehouse and Waugh, and to show you a college transformed.

The night will be a celebration of the best that Oxford can be. We offer the chance to enjoy gourmet cuisine, be serenaded by a string quintet, dance the night away to classic jazz, indulge in some ballroom dancing, pay tribute to the best of Britain's bands and revel in the music of the headline DJ.

Dinner and dancing are of course the essence of a proper ball, but we are pulling out all the stops to make your night as fun-filled as it will be refined. To that end, we can offer you outstanding young comedians, fun-fair stalls, fairground rides, wandering troupes of performing artists, flash photographers with classic cars, a casino, not to mention a hot air balloon.

The ball shall take place on Friday 1st July, marking the end of the academic year 2010-11. The event will begin at around 7.30 in the evening and last well into the early hours of the morning.

Two ticket options will be available to you: a non-dining ticket will cost £135, with the dining option (involving a fine 3-course meal beforehand) costing £175. The dining option is limited, so will be balloted for in groups.

We look forward to seeing you at our ball.

Yours faithfully,

Ms. X
Ball President.

Sunday, 28 November 2010


I hate Andy Carroll, I love Andy Carroll. He’s the problem, he’s the solution. A thug, a folk hero. A provocation to anger, an emblem of hope.

We are all used to having to negotiate fiendish binaries when it comes to footballers. But surely we should learn how to know the dancer from the dance? Football is after all a highly surface-oriented art form. Founded in the lyrical grace of human interaction with angles and spheres, it doesn’t really communicate anything. As such, why should the off-pitch personae of players matter a jot? Aren’t they just “players” in the Shakespearean, dramatic sense? Aren’t they merely, as the Italian Futurists seemed to think, aestheticized robots, human conduits of speed and furious motion, abstract symbols at the centre of a modernist-formalist exercise in technique?

Dynamism of a Football Player by Umberto Boccioni (1913)
In a sense, this is what the doyens of the modern game would have you believe. For those with a commercial stake in the sport, the idea of football as an abstract formal entity capable of being transported into any conceivable leisure context is an attractive one. If you are Rupert Murdoch, Roman Abramovich, Malcolm Glazer, or Mike Ashley, football is basically a deracinated PS3 game, and football players exist solely as the expensive avatars of a high-level corporate roulette.

With this paradigm in mind, we can see how the contemporary situation has developed, in which players are sophisticated machines on the pitch and pathological childish psychos off it. If football is no more than aesthetic entertainment, a compound of high-octane superstar skills, celebrity glamour, and a smidgeon of watered-down tribal emotion, to be paid for and ingested at the weekend or after work via satellite TV, then it really doesn’t matter where it’s coming from or who is taking part. If Andy Carroll is god-like for the duration of the 90 minute slot we have paid for, then that is that: the service expectations have been met. Exchange value stands in for any other method of valuation, and Andy Carroll is indeed a god, a hypertrophied superman perfectly inhabiting the role of the crowd-pleasing ingénue.

But football is not yet, despite the concerted efforts of the Glazerites, a wholly consumerized, leisure industry sport. Unlike, say, British pop music, British football still has some level of connection to a grassroots reality, to the places, lived experiences, and communities that have by some wild fluke managed to retain a central, if vastly underrepresented, position even in today’s thoroughly finance-oriented game. For a large percentage of the north-east population, Andy Carroll feels like an integral part of a community identity that extends on to the pitch. He feels like one of us. A good lad. A real-life embodiment of an inchoate spirituality. A representative of something.

So if he inspires and represents the genuine hopes of a group of otherwise marginalized, exploited human beings, isn’t Andy Carroll therefore a very real hero, an on-balance good thing? Shouldn’t we just leave it at that? I think not. It is precisely because he represents something tangible and important that I cannot accept a convenient distinction between the man and the player. Because Andy Carroll is not a computer game character, because he is a real person, playing for a real club, in a real city, I can’t ultimately justify celebrating the heroic footballer Jeckyll by ignoring the existence of the thuggish, lassy-bashing Hyde. In a world in which the heroizing relationship between club and supporters went both ways, and in which salaries and hyperreal celebrity didn’t put up concrete walls between communities and their representatives, we wouldn’t have to deal with these infernal dilemmas. In a better alternate universe, Andy Carroll really would be one of us. Make no mistake, I’m unequivocally glad he’s still scoring for Newcastle. But I’m equally certain that Carroll is part of the problem rather than the solution, and that his on-pitch genius shouldn’t obscure this fact.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010


A child lies in the undergrowth
waiting for age.
Somewhere else a cable snaps
taking its cargo up into the ether.

Under silk covers
bodies wriggle and splutter.
A sudden burst of rain
sprinkles relief along the motorway.

At some point
engineers cluster on either side of a gash in the valley
hawking hopes
ideas and sound advice

across air that will contain no distance

Saturday, 13 November 2010


We packed body protectors
for horse riders.

I would say we were
saving lives, meanwhile

so many of the women
in the workroom

watched their dreams
disperse like

stray threads

out of broken
Singer machines.

Friday, 12 November 2010


Basil Bunting’s greatest poem Briggflatts was written in a context of enforced misanthropy in the mid 1960s. Some years earlier, his friendship with Ezra Pound had resulted in the publication of Poems 1950, which was put out (in Texas of all places) by the Poundian acolyte Dallam Simpson. But the post-war years had mostly been a total washout for the aging poet. In the US, he enjoyed a very modest renown because of the Pound connection, and because of his association with 1930s “Objectivists” like Louis Zukofsky and George Oppen. In the UK, he was more or less a total non-entity. There are rumours that Eliot refused to publish Bunting at Faber on more than one occasion. But at least he was listening: in the age of Larkin, Amis, and Betjeman, pretty much no one else in Britain seems to have acknowledged Bunting’s existence.

Living in Wylam, Northumberland with his mother and a scandalously young Kurdish wife, Bunting resigned himself to a career as financial correspondent for the Newcastle-based Journal and Evening Chronicle newspapers. Fine publications though they were (and remain), this was a depressing low-point for the onetime modernist adventurer, during which almost no poetry was written. Finally, in 1964-65, Bunting sprang to national attention with the appearance in print of The Spoils, which was followed by Briggflatts and a collected poems.

Most people will be familiar with the story of Bunting’s mid-sixties “rediscovery”: how the teenage Beat poet Tom Pickard knocked on Bunting’s door and persuaded him to become the focal point of the Morden Tower poetry readings in Newcastle, how Ginsberg and Creeley visited and wrote encomiums about this living link with first generation modernism, how Bunting seemed to become an unlikely godfather of that nebulous beast, the so-called British Poetry Revival. Bunting was transformed into a public figure almost overnight and had to deal with the ramifications, good and bad. At least he showed a degree of self-awareness about this when he joked in the early seventies that he was thinking of getting himself registered as a local monument so he could charge people sixpence to come and visit.
Baz + Ginsberg + lads
Briggflatts itself however was largely written before this modicum of poetic celebrity struck. In fact, Bunting wrote it on the train on the commute into work, on the Tyne Valley line between Wylam and Newcastle. It is the poetic autobiography of an isolated individual engaging with the only things to hand: with poetic form, with memory, and with a surrounding environment that traversed the rural-urban divide in a way that is perhaps unique to this part of the country. (I'm aware that Cornwall/Devon might be a corresponding instance).

On the one hand, Briggflatts embodies the cosmopolitan urbanism of its high modernist author. On his way into work Bunting would have passed the thrusting Brutalist developments of council leader T. Dan Smith’s assertive new Newcastle. (NB: The striking affinities between the arch-regionalists Bunting and Smith will be explored in more detail elsewhere). Smith had tried unsuccessfully to get Le Corbusier to build his first British work in Newcastle, and the buildings which did spring up in post-war Tyneside reflected this hubristic, hyperborean modernist spirit. The tower blocks of Cruddas Park would have loomed large to Bunting’s left as the train made its way into town. Meanwhile Owen Luder’s iconic Trinity Square car park, sadly demolished in the last few weeks, was being built on the other side of the river (in non-T. Dan-controlled Gateshead) at exactly the same time as Briggflatts was being composed. If there was an architectural correlative for Bunting’s difficult, muscular verse (see Bunting’s poetic gloss on Pound’s Cantos “There are the alps … / They don’t make sense … crags cranks climb …”), Luder’s visionary Brutalist monolith was it. 

Towards the city of Dioce. The late Trinity Square car park, Gateshead, designed by Owen Luder.
Mountains, masonry, and stones of all kinds are perennial fixtures in Briggflatts, where they are often linked to motifs of strenuous labour and human ambitiousness. It seems certain that Bunting’s experiences of the industrial north - and urban Newcastle in particular - were significant influences on this aspect of the poem. There is a unmistakably Geordie flavour to lines like

hear the horse stale,
the mason whistle
harness mutter to shaft,
felloe to axle squeak,
rut thud the rim
crushed grit.

However, for all its urbanity, Briggflatts is on the whole a distinctly rural poem, reflective of Bunting’s great love for the Tyne valley. While Newcastle/Tyneside is (or was) a bustling international industrial port, a little further inland the terrain very quickly becomes bleakly bucolic. This is not the Archers-esque countryside of the English Home Counties, where affluence and Anglicanism are the shibboleths of a largely upper-middle-class populace. The Tyne valley has always had its aristocratic and professional caste like anywhere else, but it is also a longtime stronghold of the non-conformist rural proletariat, a place where mines and factories pepper the landscape from Gateshead to the foothills of the North Pennines. Bunting’s Briggflatts is a poem that draws heavily on the mixed heritage of artisanship and rural hinterland that defines this part of the north-east.

A key figure to introduce at this stage by way of a historical antecedent for Bunting’s peculiarly Northumbrian version of pastoralism is the eighteenth century engraver and radical Thomas Bewick. Bewick was born and lived for most of his life in Mickley, the next village but one along the river from Bunting’s Wylam. Like Bunting, Bewick worked sporadically in urban Newcastle, but it was to the countryside of the Tyne valley that he looked for inspiration. In seminal works of natural history like A General History of Quadrupeds (1790) and the History of British Birds (1797-1804), Bewick recorded the animal life of his rural surroundings in a series of precisely observed visual vignettes. Unlike many engravers of the period, he would frequently juxtapose scientific naturalism with touches of social commentary: beggars, snarling dogs, and haggard old men populate his portraits, hardly the stock stuff of the sublimated pastoral idyll. Bewick’s naturalism is harsh and difficult as often as it is pretty and welcoming.

Magpie by Bewick. Toon Toon.
In composing Briggflatts, Basil Bunting set about recording exactly the same ecological locale as Bewick, and with a similar mixture of affection and anomie, a stance that differed markedly from the Romantic-pastoral idealism of the mainstream of English literature, and that reflected the generally isolated, marginal character of this geographical setting. While he maintained a Pound-like virulent opposition to the London-based “obsequious idlers” and “insidious charlatans” who “fill chairs and fellowships at universities, write for the weeklies, or work for the BBC”, Bunting remained dedicated to a Poundian artistic project of objectivist right-naming, an outlander’s naturalism that recalled the radical Thomas Bewick’s meticulous, unregulated engagement with a rural environment.    

Both Bunting and Bewick can be situated in an alternate tradition of pastoralism that is quite different from the more typical English perspective, epitomized by a contemporary example like Prince Charles: an establishment figure with an urban power base who rehearses the late-Wordsworthian fallacy of the countryside as refuge, as an inviolable conduit of all the goodness, truth, and beauty that is absent from the metropolitan “court”. Bewick’s anti-establishment radicalism was politically oriented, while Bunting’s sprang mainly from his Quaker background (he was imprisoned as a conscientious objector during the First World War, and Briggflatts takes its title and much of its setting from a Quaker meeting house in the North Pennines).
More Bewick, this time in social crit mode
In both cases, there is a notable affinity with the American and American-leaning wing of Romanticism - with Blake, Paine, and the nineteenth transcendentalist tradition – which existed at arms length from the more orthodox English lineage that culminated in Housman and Hardy. As such it is appropriate that Bunting’s late-twentieth century poem Briggflatts should have much in common with American modernist poems like William Carlos Williams’s Spring and All, Paterson, and Charles Olson’s “The Kingfishers” and The Maximus Poems, works that updated the transcendentalist mode, and that moreover offered a distinctly fluid view of the rural-urban divide.

While Bunting knew and counted WCW as an influence, there does not seem to be any definite connection with Olson. Nevertheless, these “sons of Ezra” were in many respects parallel figures in the world of post-war modernist poetry, both intent in their different ways on realizing Pound's ambition, stated in the Pisan Cantos: "To build the city of Dioce whose terraces are the colour of stars". Bunting would certainly have agreed with sentiments of Olson’s Maximus (“O tansy city, root city / let them not make you as the nation is”) though he would have substituted English Newcastle and the Tyne valley for New England Gloucester and its environs. Olson’s avowal of civic communitarianism – his notion of “polis” – is mirrored by Bunting’s galvanizing relationship with north-east regionalism and with urban Tyneside, the high-watermark of which arrived with the 1960s readings in the Mordern Tower that took place a near-derelict section of the old Newcastle city walls.

Bunting’s view of the natural world also closely resembles that of Olson. For now, let us look very briefly at just one naturalistic trope: birds. The first poem in Donald Allen’s seminal anthology The New American Poetry (1960) Olson’s “The Kingfishers” describes animal subjects that are stripped of any magnificent literary heritage:

But not these things are the factors. Not the birds.
The legends are
legends. Dead, hung up indoors, the kingfisher
will not indicate a favoring wind,
or avert a thunderbolt.

In a vignette that is redolent of Bewick’s demystified portraits of rural life in eighteenth century Tynedale, Olson’s kingfishers are seen nesting on a bed of fecal fishbones:

On these rejectamenta
… the young are born.
And, as they are fed and grow, this nest of decayed excrement and decayed fish becomes a dripping fetid mass.

The opening section of Bunting’s Briggflatts echoes this juxtaposition of birds and organic ugliness as a metaphor for creative generation:

A mason times his mallet
to a lark’s twitter …
Painful lark, labouring to rise!
The solemn mallet says:
In the graves slot
he lies. We rot.

Decay thrusts the blade,
wheat stands in excrement

For both writers, birds exist in tandem with a harsh, unlovely ecology, a countryside that does not differ markedly from the city (note the presence of the industrial mason in the Bunting extract), and that is not described by way of a form that is lush and magniloquent in the manner of a Keats or a Tennyson. This is anti-conformist organicism, American-esque literary minimalism that revels in the mulchy unpleasantness of nature, in its realism, in its potential to enact a radical overhaul of the past. 

For Bunting, birds emerged out of a painful, realistic engagement with an ambiguous environment. His fondness for birds in his sixties poetry (see also the 1964 ode “A thrush in the syringa sings”) if nothing else embodies the sheer boredom of a commuter's grey daily routine. Riding on his scooter to and from night shifts at The Journal, he was taken with the exotic range of bird and animal life of all kinds that came out of the woodwork in the dusky twilit hours. In keeping with this backdrop, birds in his poetry are symbolic of a yearning for unbridled magical expression, spiritual sustenance for an internal émigré living out a lonely life on the margins of a culture, like the nineteenth century urban industrial migrants who kept birds in cages as a reminder of the ambience of rural life they had left behind. At this point, like countless frontier-dwelling Britons and Americans before him (since at least as far back as St Cuthbert and his eider ducks), Bunting seized on these little paragons of bathos and indomitable beauty, not because they were part of some pastoral myth of organic order, but because they were very close to being everything he had.

Thursday, 11 November 2010


I don't really have much to add to Nina Power's excellent summary of yesterday's events. What a tool I am for not getting the bus into the smoke.

There were some really encouraging, very ordinary listener responses in support of the students on a Radio 5 talkshow early today. Scratch the surface and there is an instinctive sense of injustice and solidarity lurking in the British political unconscious. The radically negative mood music of the Murdoch press could not, and will not, obscure this.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010


In a quiet spot on the edge of town
A nineteenth century church wallows
In indifference. Children drown
And are buried noisily elsewhere,

But here the congregation stoops
Beneath ornate Tractarian arches.
As another light goes out upstairs,
Smoke swabs corporeal cares.

Only a handful of shoes maintain
A movement, shuffling shapes
Under gothic wood. The rain
Spatters harmlessly outside.

Monday, 8 November 2010


This really does beggar belief, particularly in light of this.

"How on earth have we got ourselves into this position?" Indeed Mr Bate, indeed.

Friday, 5 November 2010


"The beauty of art is a brief gasp between one cliche and another" - Ezra Pound

Like Champagne Supernova, Supersonic is often viewed as an apotheosis of Gallagherian nonsense. This is certainly fair with regard to the verses:

I'm feeling supersonic
Give me gin and tonic
You can have it all but how much do you want it?
You make me laugh
Give me your autograph
Can I ride with you in your B.M.W. ?
You can sail with me in my yellow submarine

I know a girl called Elsa
She's into Alka Seltzer
She sniffs it through a cane on a supersonic train
She makes me laugh
I got her autograph
She done it with a doctor on a helicopter
She's sniffin in her tissue
Selling the Big Issue

But we need to look beyond this, which is just arbitrary filler, melody-serving word music of the kind that is ubiquitous in pop. This is a song that underlines the necessity of selective discrimination within the confines of a work of art. Reading Edwin Morgan’s Glasgow Sonnets in a poetry reading group the other day, I was struck by the perversity of the fact that we are often willing to dismiss entire works (sometimes entire oeuvres) because of one or two isolated instances of banality. The trouble is of course that this impulse usually ends up stifling inarticulate, uneducated, or marginal voices who make occasional verbal gaffes and incline towards sentimentalism. Think of the hysterical positivist mantra of Anglo-American analytic philosophy: “define your terms”. In an iniquitous world, it is nearly always the privileged and the powerful who will be best at logical definition, who will be most fluent in the “terms”. We are missing out if we rule out the gauche and the irrational, if we heap praise only on the fastidiously unified, the classically wrought.

Dig a little deeper into Supersonic, and we find some really quite beautiful lyrics:

My friend said he’d take you home
He sits in a corner all alone
He lives under a waterfall
Nobody can see him, nobody can ever hear him call

The Smiths’ How Soon is Now seems to be an obvious influence here (“and you go and you stand on your own, and you leave on your own, and you go home ...”). In fact, a lot of early Oasis borrows from Hatful of Hollow-period Smiths. (And we should remember that early Morrissey is an entirely different beast from the later Bengali in Platforms-era Vaudevillian egoist – see Tom Ewing on this). Witness Fade Away and its devastating chorus (“while we’re living, the dreams we have as children fade away”); see also Live Forever (“maybe I just want to breathe”) and Half the World Away (“I would like to leave this spirit / you find me a hole and I’ll live in it”). This is the grey, melancholic disillusionment of a disenfranchised individual watching life slide out of view, fighting to be heard before it is too late. It is what makes both early Oasis and early Smiths so powerful and poignant.

Supersonic was apparently written and recorded in a single evening, and it is all the better for it. The opening statement (“I need to be myself”) is trite but apposite: this is truly an Adornian autonomous artwork, a brief, resounding gasp before reification has had a chance to kick in. From the coruscating guitar bursts, to the ridiculously simple drumbeat, to the ethereal backing vocals, this is the sound of a band of desperate, inarticulate people clutching at straws and hitting on a means of magical expression before they know what to do with it. Like Champagne Supernova, it is one of the most simultaneously sad and affirmative pieces of music I have ever heard. Only a fool would let the bombast, the nonsense, and the clichés get in the way of this.