Monday, 31 August 2009

The Crucifixion of St. Peter

I have just been on a trip to Tuscany with Owl Girl which included some time in Florence. There I visited the Cappella Brancacci, Santa Maria del Carmine, and saw the magnificent fresco, 'The Crucifixion of St. Peter', painted by Filippino Lippi (1457-1504), c.1484-5. Notably, St. Peter is upside down on the cross as in later paintings by Michelangelo and Caravaggio. Peter asked that his cross be inverted so as not to imitate his mentor, Christ. The proximity of this image to that of 'The Hanged Man' is to be noted. The image in the tarot does not connote an externally imposed torture; on the contrary it appears to represent a hapless coincidence. Nevertheless the form of inverted suspension corresponds to the image of Peter's crucifixion and the possibility of enlightenment, a point of difficult choice, a kind of saturnine conflict in the face of change.

Peter's human-all-too-human failings make him one of the most sympathetic characters in religious history. His denial of Christ culminating in the cock crowing is one of the most significantly human stories of the apostles, and one about which they all mostly concur. (kind of...)

Here's Luke's version of events (Luke 22: 54-62):
[Other refs: Matthew 26:57, 58, 69-75; Mark 14: 66-72; John 18: 15-18, 25-27.]

54 Having arrested Him, they led Him and brought Him into the high priest’s house. But Peter followed at a distance.

55 Now when they had kindled a fire in the midst of the courtyard and sat down together, Peter sat among them.

56 And a certain servant girl, seeing him as he sat by the fire, looked intently at him and said, “This man was also with Him.”

57 But he denied Him, saying, “Woman, I do not know Him.”

58 And after a little while another saw him and said, “You also are of them.”

But Peter said, “Man, I am not!”

59 Then after about an hour had passed, another confidently affirmed, saying, “Surely this fellow also was with Him, for he is a Galilean.”

60 But Peter said, “Man, I do not know what you are saying!”

Immediately, while he was still speaking, the rooster crowed.

61 And the Lord turned and looked at Peter. Then Peter remembered the word of the Lord, how He had said to him, “Before the rooster crows, you will deny Me three times.”

62 So Peter went out and wept bitterly.

Baudelaire's poem, Le Reniement de St. Pierre, captures the kind of blasphemous empathy one might feel for this denial. Here's the last verse:

— Certes, je sortirai, quant à moi, satisfait
D'un monde où l'action n'est pas la soeur du rêve;
Puissé-je user du glaive et périr par le glaive!
Saint Pierre a renié Jésus... il a bien fait!

I am quite satisfied to leave so bored
A world, where dream and action disunite.
I'd use the sword, to perish by the sword.
Peter denied his Master?... He did right!

— Roy Campbell, Poems of Baudelaire (New York: Pantheon Books, 1952)

The kind of decision with which Peter was faced is one of perennial difficulty. Baudelaire kicks against the traces of martyrdom in the face of the banality of evil. Kind of...

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Oliver Bernard

Oliver Bernard was once my neighbour in a South Norfolk village, 
Kenninghall. I was renting a small house and in retreat from a painful separation; he was a well-known local CND activist and chaired a group with Derek Longmire and Colin Phillips. One day he invited me to a local classical music appreciation group which was run, I think, by Elizabeth Chattaway. I dutifully attended, though, at the time, I didn't much care for 'classical' music, I thought, though I could say much about the English blues revival if ever prompted.

I met Oliver many years later at a reading of his translation of Rimbaud's A Season in Hell'. These dramatic performances are now legendary. Oliver had donned some kind of white painters' tunic and delivered his Rimbaud with great assurance in a reading voice which compelled you to pay attention.

A decade later I was a visiting undergraduate at Trinity College, Dublin. I was one of many who would cram in to the lecture hall to hear Brendan Kennelly on Yeats on a Friday afternoon. He would quote whole poems from memory, talk without notes and, like Oliver, had the power to bring poetry to life. I bumped into him one day in a corridor and he asked who I was and invited me into his office. The room was a maze of books piled almost to shoulder height with walkways through. He asked me where I was from, to which I duly replied: 'Norfolk'. 'Ah, do you know Oliver Bernard?', he asked as if I had just named a village in Sligo. He said how much he admired Oliver, who had read at Trinity College, and Brendan gave me a copy of his own Cromwell.

Oliver and his well known brothers, Bruce and Jeffrey, were part of the bohemian Soho scene of the 50s which included such luminaries as George Barker and Francis Bacon. The photo top left was taken by John Deakin in 1956. The photo top right is a cut down from a larger photo at the National Gallery taken by Sam Barker, George's son.

Here's a link to Oliver reading one of my favourite poems,
'For John Donovan':

Here's a link to another fan of this poem:

Or go to Oliver's website:

I have some experience of laying paving stones and John Donovan,
who has also worked as a labourer, is a good friend.


Cosmia and Pornografia

I have just read Witold Gombrowicz's Pornografia. Gombrowicz writes in the introduction:

'Youth seemed to me the highest value of life. . . but this "value" has a particularity undoubtedly invented by the devil himself: being youth it is below the level of all values.'
" These last words ('below all values') explained why I have been unable to take root in any contemporary existentialism. Existentialism tries to re-establish value, while for me the 'undervalue', the 'insufficiency', the 'underdevelopment' are closer to man than any value. I believe the formula 'Man wants to be God' expresses very well the
nostalgia of existentialism, while I set up another immeasurable formula against it: 'Man wants to be young.'

The book is a meticulous observation of human motivation and a novel variation on the Faustian theme. The author and his artist friend, Frederick, spend a summer in the Polish countryside as guests of an old friend. Against a background of 1940s German-occupied Poland, the plot is propelled by the visitors' shared observation that their friend's daughter, Henia, and the boy she has grown up with, Karol, a peasant boy, are ideally and erotically suited to each other but somehow blissfully unaware of it. Indeed Henia is contentedly betrothed to another. It becomes the artists' obsession and project to bring Henia and Karol to awareness of their mutual erotic potential.

Pornografia is a prolonged meditation on the relations between youth and maturity, innocence and experience, power and authority. The writing style is simple and direct, a condition it shares with all the best metaphysical detective writers: Kafka, Hamsun, Dostoevsky.

There is also a film made in 2003 by Jan Kolski which I have seen and would recommend. Though it digresses in some ways from the book, it has integrity and is an assured production. A review somewhere has noted that the atmosphere of the film has a profound impact on a Polish audience who are closer to the specific political history and for whom the elemental, pastoral setting elicits nostalgic response.

David Harvey on Marx's 'Capital'

I am following David Harvey's excellent course of lectures on reading Capital:
The above link to the intro and Lecture 1 allows for revisits and is more versatile on the viewing front somehow than...

... the actual website with all relevant materials and the possibility to contribute:

Harvey has been running this course since the early 70s.

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Tim Turnbull - find out for yourself!

David Storey on 'Front Row' - S'porting Life

Here is a link for a David Storey interview on 'Front Row' last week
discussing a new production of Home

Go to link, double click on file, click on 'embed'.
You can then play the file without downloading it.

Note:. The presenter makes an early gaffe. Storey hails from Wakefield not 'Wakeford'
(wherever the hell that might be - somewhere north of Watford Gap?)

Gemma Atkinson at Aldgate East

Below is a link to a film about Gemma Atkinson (film-maker) who bravely stood her ground in an incident with the police at Aldgate East underground station:

Her account of what happened raises many issues not least that of the need for clarification of police powers for both public and police. Most telling is the police officer admitting that he doesn't want to appear incidentally on the internet.

Latitude Attitude

Latitude and Luke Wright (see former post) are somehow synonymous in my mind. I have never attended such a large gathering of almost exclusively white, middle class folk; this dominant whiteness was the constant butt of jokes in the poetry tent and was, frankly, embarrassing.

The whole event, like Glastonbury, Reading etc. etc, was organised by 'Festival Republic', a richly ironic misnoma if ever there were one. Festival Republic is responsible for the overall 'security' and running of the event. This amounts to a shockingly large number of newly appointed goons running round with walkie-talkie devices and wearing combat uniforms. However, their powers to 'stop and search' seem to be outside the remit of any normal legislation.

As a ticket-holder you have contracted in to the conditions of the festival, which include incidental 'stop and search', long-winded, random searches and removal of all matter that does not comply with festival rules, i.e. everything consumable including bottled water. All has to be bought and consumed on site, it seems. This kind of draconian measure was in evidence everywhere as you queued for twenty minutes to enter the arenas with megaphone-wielding attendants telling you to keep to the right or the left or wherever the hell they wanted you. It struck me and a bunch of lads on one occasion that this whole 'performance' compared strongly with the situation in which folk queued for the showers at Belsen. We had built up a bit of a busk on the topic by the time we were level with the FR guards (did they have ranks or am I imagining it?) and I was plucked out of the crowd for a random search by a female of the species asking: 'Step this way, sir, if you don't mind,' as she tugged at a stray strap on my bag and pulled me across the 4 or 5 deep crowd.

I protested. 'Let go of me. Take your hands off'
'I am not touching you, sir. I am touching your bag.'

By now this 'sir' was being spat through gritted teeth and, indeed, it punctuated all subsequent exchanges between me, the other security guard at a table who searched my bag and yet another kind of plain clothes variety who stepped in from nowhere to see what all the fuss was about. The refrain from all members of the team was along the lines of how they could have me ejected from the festival at any point. Was this what I wanted? they asked. They coaxed me towards the correct response after several failed attempts. I had to say 'please, I would like to stay at the festival' in order to meet with their approval. This too was said through gritted teeth on my part. I felt like saying: 'stuff you and your ****ing festival'.

This kind of interaction is worthy of some analysis. It left me reeling with contempt for the organisers, resentment that I should be treated in this way having paid a whacking £160 to be there in the first place, a profound sense of the collaborator's humiliation and hatred for the whole facade of moneyed promenading, everywhere evident.

By the time I got to see the Grace Jones Show, (queen of burlesque?), I had calmed down a bit. I thought she was astonishingly good actually but was amazed that she was cut off during her volumes-speaking personal response to what was, after all, a very muted appeal for an encore. This was something to do with a ‘curfew’?! However it typified the heavy-handed, anti-festival kind of organisation that seemed to be in place generally to manage the event. The audience were baying consumers, and I was among them: but I suppose this kind of multiple choice programme urges a sort of Edinburgh-style culture consumption: the need to rush to the next event on another stage or in another marquee.


It's often difficult to begin to write. If you're an academic, then there are the familiar kinds of deferral; desk tidyings, note takings and ideas of comprehensiveness which necessarily precede the event of putting pen to paper. The idea of a blog appears to offer some liberation from all of this preparedness and randomness; whilst it also seems to offer a chance to be half-way serious or, at least, that's the way I'm viewing it. Otherwise there's the Facebook format in which everyone is glibly chirpy and finding necessary solidarity, keeping the last dance alive and the present flat search on the wish list. [Is this a manifesto? ED]

I found myself defending the idea of the blog on Saturday night at a party to launch George Hyde's and Larisa Gureyeva's new translation of the Mayakovsky poem, Pro Eto, which li
terally means "about this" but which its translators have rendered as the more forceful 'That's What'. I think this kind of vernacularisation is typical of the original text and they have done well to bring this poem which yokes together 'love, the class struggle and technological change' into such a compelling and readable condition. Urged by the indefatigable Eve Stebbing (soon off to Edinburgh for a three-pronged dramatic assault), George read a couple of passages which were well received. We were reminded of what a great worsdsmith and poet Mayakovsky was/is - and that's the great revelation. The translation is extremely fluid, up-to-date and refreshingly and evenly colloquial - modern as intended. The poem doesn't falter from its forward momentous rhythms, its rollings, its tumblings, its asides, its incidentals: it's a jazz epic with riffs, with chapters, with accretions, with melodies, with dissonance, with ellipses, with the white noise of a context, with a theme.....

The idea of the blog, then... Well I found myself thinking, for starters, about the desire to publish, to bring something to the scrutiny of the world: a kind of 'That's What' impulse if you like. A conversation with Leif Ahnland seemed to confirm this as one kind of incentive. Leif, in his position as librarian, has recently created a blog with students from Hewitt school in Norwich and spoke of its positive value for them. (I will post a link when I can)

Tim Marshall however was less than positive. He considered the blog to be 'the domain of the loudest shouters'. He implied that blog writing was a debased kind of publishing. But then Tim had recently received some long-winded hate email for a letter he had published in The Guardian which had been critical of Will Self. Cyber space harbours violent dissenters then threatening real-time eradication by way of virtual identity. The internet persona is not exactly a fail-safe device. However it is curious how a little concealment seems to offer a licence for some people to bring out the bats, as Nick Cave once called it.

Presently I am in London. I am reading a volume of poetry called Stranded in Sub-Atomica by the excellent Tim Turnbull, who, followed closely by Yanni Mac, Simon Armitage and Thom Yorke, was the best turn I caught at the recent Latitude Festival in Suffolk. Tim represents all that is good about 'Performance' poetry, partly perhaps because he doesn't distinguish it from any more traditionally placid variant of poetry reading. Simon Armitage is in a similar camp, it seems to me. Both have a wry and humorous vision at the wonder of it all which they share between poems, for example. They also have written poems which embrace both humour and pathos, the comic and the serious. It is the admixture of the comic which is arguably most significant in deciding that poetry is of the 'performance' type. There is a kind of 'stand-up' comic routine which is the default mode of the 'p' poet. There is also a delight in the vernacular, the commonplace wryly observed and a kind of reveling in rhyme, meter, assonance, internal rhyme, alliteration, repetition etc. etc. indeed all that constitutes poetry on the page... So already we are in trouble with defining the difference. OK:
1) Humour
2) Use of the vernacular
3) A kind of delighted revelling in the aural palate.

Though where does that leave someone like Scroobius Pip, whose writing is mostly lacking in humour, and yet, who is clearly one of the 'stars' of the medium?

The main presenter of this daily 12-hour? event at the poetry tent was Luke Wright, who I remember from early Poetry 'Slam' events which featured friends Bernard, Henry, Karen and Kev of Weird of Mouth. He was the new kid on the block.

I heard a couple of his things at Latitude and thought them good. I also heard a very clever sketch referring to Luke's self-declared middle class white sensibility from Yanni Mac. It's evident that Luke Wright has done much to promote the corner of performance poetry and poets. The impetus seems to have been ideas of 'accessibility' and removing poetry from the hushed and hallowed halls of heckle-free environments: a kind of music hall event perhaps - and this may align with the currently hugely successful cabaret/burlesque scene.

You can find Luke Wright (see above) all over the internet, and a little research will uncover
a CV which includes a kind of 'day job' in which he will lead a group of youngsters in discovering their inner poet in a school near you. Alongside this sort of laudable stuff is a whole lot of jetting around in a kind of minor celebrity fashion. Luke appears to have bridged the gap between poetry and performance, if there ever was one, and, as a clarion voice for the new school, his ubiquity and celebrity is surely justified.

Meanwhile, by comparison, Tim Turnbull seems somehow old school. He's in the 'tradition' of John Cooper Clarke (some are in the shadow) in the sense of inhabiting his own skin. His observations are both witty and genuinely moving at times. He's real, lived-in. His sensibility appears kind of anti-trendy. He has edited out the hackneyed vision of the classroom youth or the revelation of the love affair from hell, which many up-and-coming poets espouse. (Actually, one more 'love in the classroom' poem from a possibly decent poet trying to do 'performance' and I'll be writing a letter of complaint to Convenor Luke Wright.)