Thursday, December 19, 2013

My Favourite Books in 2013

There are, of course, many books I have not yet had a chance to read this year, some of which might have sneaked into this Top 10 list e.g. recent collections from Alexander Hutchison and August Kleinzahler for starters, as well as thick tomes by Christopher Middleton, Geoffrey Hill and Gottfried Benn. But here, in no order, are ten books I have read.

Adonis – Selected Poems, translated by Khaled Mattawa (Yale University Press, 2010): an indispensible collection from the great Syrian modernist, often credited with changing the face of 20th century Arabic poetry. Strange, complex, beguiling work.

Luke Kennard – A Lost Expression (Salt, 2012): always engaging, humorous and memorable, Kennard also manages to be affecting and personal without retreating into sentiment. This is his best collection yet, including ‘The Harbour Beyond the Movie’ which I thought he would never top.

Ahren Warner – Pretty (Bloodaxe, 2013): you have to take time with this collection, but it pays dividends. Not everything works, but what does is brilliant, and (speaking as someone who receives hundreds of poetry collections as review copies every year) I admire its ambition. It immediately stands out from the pack and takes its cue as much from French as from British influences.

Gillian Allnutt – indwelling (Bloodaxe, 2013): I could say the same about this book. There is nothing else like it. This is poetry that brings new depth to descriptions like “austere” or “sparse”. I haven’t seen many reviews of it, probably because it doesn’t recommend itself to easy poetic categories or review clichés.

Matt Merritt – The Elephant Tests (Nine Arches 2013): a good writer publishing his best collection so far without much fanfare or publicity or reviews (as far as I can tell) while inferior books grab most of the headlines. Such is the life of many talented poets in the UK...

Pippa Goldschmidt – The Falling Sky (Freight, 2013): a novel about an astronomer, an astonishing discovery and an emotional life in collapse, this book is gripping right up until its brilliantly ambiguous final sentence.

ed. Thomas R. Smith – Airmail: the Letters of Robert Bly and Tomas Transtromer (Bloodaxe, 2013): these letters covering 40 years of literary friendship are consistently absorbing. My 3000-word article on them in The Dark Horse issue 31, will hopefully convince you to buy this book.

ed. Andre Saffis-Hahely& Julian Stannard – The Palm Beach Effect: Reflections on Michael Hofmann (CB Editions, 2013): a stimulating collection of essays, reflections, memories and a few poems on one of the most influential poets of our generation.

Andrew Philip – The North End of the Possible (Salt, 2013): of course, Andy is a friend of mine, but that has no bearing on his latest book being terrific. Laurie Smith said of it in Magma issue 57, “It is hard to think of other recent poetry of such seriousness with such a range of means and such emotional depth.”

Dai George – The Claims Office (Seren, 2013): I don’t know how old Dai George is, but he is not old and has no right to be writing such assured poetry with such energised language in a first collection. This book is also fascinatingly counter-cultural and is worth your careful attention.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Poetry Readings and Sofi's

There have been moments when I’ve stopped doing readings, more or less, and even stopped attending them (with occasional exceptions made), mainly so there’s no danger of me writing for a live audience and all the instant satisfaction that requires. Not that all poems at a reading have to be “instant”, but I don’t want any pressure to knock off stuff that goes down well on first hearing. A poem, for me, needs to have enough of an instant hit to encourage readers to read it again, but the re-reads are where poems can be best appreciated (or can fail!). I apply the same standards when reading poetry collections by other people and have never yet reviewed a book I’ve only read once. At the moment, I am reading loads of poetry and attending live poetry readings and (coincidentally?) suffering from a dose of writers’ block. At some point next year, I may have to become a hermit again, curb my reading to a few favourites, and write like mad.

That said, I do enjoy the act of live performance and, last night at Sofi’s Bar in Leith, I had the opportunity both to read a set and to hear a variety of diverse poetic voices. Rachel Amey, a performance poet with a political, feminist angle, who performs her work from memory, was on top form - thoughtful, provocative and engaging material. The open mic featured seasoned readers Colin McGuire (organiser of the event), Roddy Shippin and Claire Askew, all of whom read with their accustomed poise and skill, and also the guy behind the bar (I don’t know his name) who was reading, I think, for the first time and did very well. Sofi’s always comes over to me as a friendly, welcoming place and the event attracts both the normal ‘poetry audience’ and people who go to this event because the bar is local to them. The readings take place in the main bar, not in a function room, and not being shut off is one reason people who don’t ordinarily go to poetry readings have begun to make it a monthly habit. A few people opened the door, realised poetry was happening, and walked straight out - their prerogative, of course, and poetry isn't for everyone any more than antiques roadshows or One Direction albums. A crowd of joggers stopped to receive glasses of tap water and then jogged off again, another regular occurrence each month. Perhaps they found extra sustenance in Colin's poem about pancakes?

I read an unusual set, beginning with poems from my back catalogue that weren’t in my full collections but which I didn’t feel ashamed of writing. Below is my set-list with the years each poem was published:

1. Do You Remember Henry Healey’s? (1999)
2. Designer Birthday for Little Brother (2002)
3. The Actress (2005)
4. The Clown of Natural Sorrow (2002, 2005)
5. Shopping List (2009)
6. Hangover (2011, 2012)
7. The Packs (2011, 2012)
8. Blade Runner (2012, 2013)
9. Locus-a-Non (2013)
10. The Dull Bulbs (newish, unpublished)

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

A Few Thoughts on 'Beyond the Alps' by Robert Lowell

While many poets seem to have got their knickers in an unsavoury twist over royal shindig invitations, I (good republican that I am) have been thinking about Robert Lowell. More specifically about ‘Beyond the Alps’, which kicks off his most famous collection, Life Studies, and also the little Faber Selected Poems, edited by Michael Hofmann. I believe several versions of the poem exist, some with extra stanzas, but I’m going to stick to the one from the Hofmann Selected (two 14-line stanzas, one 12-line stanza and a final couplet). The poem isn’t online and I’m not going to reproduce it here (I can’t afford Faber’s copyright fees), so this post will continue a long line of Surroundings articles which have, at best, a limited audience. Given Lowell’s lack of popularity in the current climate, that audience may be almost nil, but not quite. This “not quite” is exactly what Surroundings is about and, I hope, it's a "not quite" that is set to grow.

Now, ‘Beyond the Alps’ is a fantastic poem. I love it! It concerns a train journey from Rome to Paris through the Alps, with various diversions – the failure of a Swiss group to climb Everest, the train stewards (from the restaurant carriage?) who, amazingly, go “forward on tiptoe banging on their gongs”, a “skirt-mad Mussolini”, and the Pope’s purring electric razor and pet canary. The poem is about Catholic faith, perhaps the loss of it or at least a distancing from its orthodoxy. The train moves off from Rome and heads into the mountains and, as it leaves the Alps and comes back to ground-level, each stark peak begins to resemble a “fire-branded socket of the Cyclop’s eye.” The landscape, where we might expect woolly snow, feels more like a barren burned-out desert: clearly also a psychological state. One of the main arguments concerns the ambiguous closing couplet:

Now Paris, our black classic, breaking up
like killer kings on an Etruscan cup.

I stared at this for a little while, as it seemed a curious way to end. It contains the virtue of surprise, but also evades any sense of closure. Or, even if “closure” isn’t desirable, the couplet asks more questions than it answers and not all the questions stem from what’s happened previously in the poem. There is debate on this online in the New York Review of Books – Jonathan Raban and Edwin Franks debating with James Fenton. The debate sheds some light on the poem, I think. The reference to the Etruscans must have to do with a great civilisation, vastly influential in its cultural milieu, which nevertheless disappeared and left behind no literature and whose geographical power collapsed completely. The killer kings have themselves been killed by events, time, shifts of culture and power. Paris feels the same to Lowell. His world-view is disintegrating as he nears the city and he seems himself in it or, perhaps sees himself as it.

Paris would be black, as Raban and Frank suggest, because it would have seemed grimy at the time compared to Rome. However, why “our black classic” is the real question, as Fenton says. If something is “classic”, it is untouchable. It has status, accorded by the influential. A ‘Penguin Classic’ (Morrissey aside) or a “classic album” is such because it has been ‘canonized’ by those who have the power to make such decisions. Paris has that canonical quality. It is a great, iconic city. It is a “classic”, but a sooty, tarnished classic here. It mirrors Lowell’s internal crisis of faith, dramatized within the poem by the Pope (expressly exercising papal infallibility) making the Assumption of the Virgin Mary a dogma in 1950, the idea that Mary was bodily taken up into heaven at the end of her life:

The lights of science couldn’t hold a candle
to Mary risen – at one miraculous stroke,
angel wing’d, gorgeous as a jungle bird!
But who believed this? Who could understand?

Lowell’s loss of faith in strict Catholic dogma has led him to a city breaking up before his eyes, a city beyond the Alps where gods once held sway. It is a poem that still resonates in the shattered cities, physical and psychological, of 2013.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

My Top 12 Smiths Songs

Seeing as I am in a mood for list-making, and seeing that I have been reading (and have now almost finished) Morrissey’s Autobiography, which I’ve found both brilliant and awful in equal measure, I thought I’d make a list of my 12 favourite tracks by The Smiths. My attempt to cut their oeuvre to a dozen showed me plainly how many great songs they had. Could I leave out Hand in Glove, Miserable Lie, Well I Wonder, How Soon Is Now?, Half a Person, I Won’t Share You, and more? I had to, but tomorrow I might pick a different dozen. Here are today’s, 12 brilliant songs, enough to remind me what was truly important about the Morrissey/Marr partnership. The lyrics of Cemetery Gates alone ought to be enough to convince anyone of Morrissey’s genius. I mean, where on earth did stuff like this come from?

“You say: 'Ere long done do does did'
Words which could only be your own
And then produce the text
From whence was ripped
(Some dizzy whore, 1804)“

Here are my twelve:

You’ve got everything now

Suffer little children
This night has opened my eyes
Please, please, please, let me get what I want
Rusholme Ruffians
I want the one I can’t have
I know it’s over
Cemetery gates
There is a light that never goes out
Death of a disco dancer
Paint a vulgar picture
Sheila, take a bow

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Caesura, Syndicate, Poetry at the Sutton Gallery

I recently read an article on Edinburgh’s live poetry scene – not the best informed of articles, as it managed to omit two of the best regular events entirely. I’m going to say something about them here and also another event that has just started.

Caesura takes place on the second Friday of each month, usually upstairs at the Artisan Bar on London Road, but it has also been known to use the Yellow Bench Cafe on Leith Walk. The focus tends to be on poets writing from the fringes of the mainstream or, at least, in that uncategorisable hinterland “whaur extremes meet” (McDiarmid). You can always expect the unexpected; a few months ago, the Marvo Men came up with a unique performance using a script, pre-recorded material and material recorded on the night from other artists and the audience. The result was mesmerising (and also entertaining). Sometimes the attempts at experiment feel already well travelled, but more often than not make me feel glad I made the effort to come along. The bar is normally packed, the atmosphere is chaotic and MC Graeme Smith’s introductions contribute, engagingly, to a welcome lack of slick and polish. The next Caesura is on Friday 8 November, 7pm.

Syndicate is an altogether different kind of event, even if half the audience appear to be the same people that attend Caesura. It meets at Inspace, a university building, but this is no anonymous lecture hall. It’s a sparse, artistic space, the perfect venue for an events series that seeks to showcase performances in which the spoken word meets cutting-edge technology. Film, music, theatre, poetry, digital technology – all tinged with the avant-garde – combine to create an experience for an audience that’s unlikely to be replicated anywhere else in the city. Like Caesura, the experiments sometimes work astonishingly well and other times they fall flat, but what doesn’t work for me often works well for others. You won’t see or hear anything mainstream here. It’s an event to expand the imagination and it nearly always does that for me. Syndicate doesn’t have a regular day/time, even though it meets most months. It pops up when it feels like it. The next Syndicate is on Tuesday 22nd October, 7pm.

Poetry at the Sutton Gallery is organised by artist, poet and editor, Colin Herd. The gallery, situated on Dundas Street, also runs art exhibitions that change regularly. It's a small, intimate venue and you can look at the artworks during breaks between readings over a glass of wine. The first poetry event featured Andrew Spragg and McGillivray. The second takes place this Thursday 17th October, 7pm and will feature Samantha Walton, Lila Matsumoto and Jane Goldman.




Wednesday, August 14, 2013

A Neutral Post on Scottish Arts

Jonathan Mills, director of the Edinburgh International Festival, has said that the festival next year will not feature events concerned with the Scottish referendum on independence, so as to preserve the festival’s political neutrality.

This announcement has come as a great relief to everyone. The idea that the arts might have any connection to the world around them was obviously absurd. The idea that people might be influenced by anything other than professional politicians and opinionated journalists was clearly to be resisted in the name of common sense. The festival next year will feature only artists who have nothing to say about anything, which is as it should be.

Already booked to appear is George, infant son of Edward and Kate. His (ghostwritten by Justin Bieber) autobiography, ‘First Months as a BRITISH King-in-Waiting’, is set to become a bestseller. George, named after the patron saint of Britain England, has the middle name, James, and will be known as ‘Jimmy’ when he comes north in an attempt to simulate stimulate political neutrality.

Of course, it is not just the festival that aspires to neutrality. No one in Scotland ought to have thoughts about anything in the lead-up to the referendum. Ideas are dangerous! In the name of neutrality, television stations in Scotland will be required to broadcast only an endless loop of repeats of ‘Eastenders’, ‘I Love My Country’ and Jessica Ennis being presented with her gold medal at the London Olympics. Such neutral programmes will keep Scottish people from dwelling too much on the independence question. This is for our own good. To ask why it is good is an invalid and biased question. It is clear that the only people who know what is good are (a) people who do not live in Scotland, and (b) people whose bodies exist in Scotland and whose souls navigate a parallel universe.

Finally, the entire population of Scotland will be enlisted during September 2014 to re-enact the First World War in celebration of its centenary. George Square in Glasgow will be the venue for the Battle of the Somme, and similar battles will take place all over Scotland with live ammunition until most people have been wiped out. The Edinburgh International Festival will stage a patriotic operatic war jamboree, heavily subsidised by the taxpayer, at the end of which an empty tram will glide down Princes Street and the union jack will be raised from Edinburgh Castle by David Cameron, Nick Clegg, Ed Miliband and Nigel Farage, who will join to sing the national anthem, 'We're All in This Together' – all in the name of neutrality...

Monday, July 08, 2013

Poetry Sales and The Point

There are moments in a poet’s life - few and usually far between - that begin to take on a surreal quality, when a poem you wrote seems to grow legs independently of you and gallops off into the distance. That must be true for writers like Jenny Joseph and Sheenagh Pugh when poems they wrote became incredibly famous and popular – not necessarily their best poems, but poems that struck a chord not with traditional poetry readers but with the general public. It must be a weird feeling, especially when people don’t flock to buy everything else you’ve written – all the better stuff you’ve written! – the way they might do with a novelist. It seems that poems come as individuals.

I had a very minor taste of this over the weekend when a poem I wrote, a pantoum called ‘The Point’, was featured in the Guardian newspaper as its Saturday Poem. It’s a political satire, and isn’t ever going to have the same level of appeal as a poem about growing old and wearing purple, but (at the time of writing) it has been shared on Facebook 115 times (most of them not FB friends of mine) and retweeted 16 times. Not a lot really. I’m sure an article on Jessie J would get that many shares inside a few seconds but I am also sure that ‘The Point’ has now been read by more people than any poem I have ever written. It shows the power of The Guardian and the Saturday Poem brand. Just think how popular poetry could be and would be seen to be, if more high profile newspapers and media (TV, film, Amazon etc) published or presented poems in ways designed to extend their readership. The audience would grow rapidly, I'm sure of that.

Has the publication of ‘The Point’ sold a single copy of The Good News, the collection it comes from? I don’t know, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that it hadn’t. People will read a single poem in a newspaper or newspaper website quite happily and may even really enjoy it, but only few people, most of them seasoned poetry readers, will read a poetry collection for fun. That’s not a problem unless you’re a poetry publisher trying to make a living or, indeed, unless you’re a poet who believes that collections are a good thing. I am one of these and would prefer a world in which more people read Dante than Dan Brown. That said, I did note that Clare Pollard’s ‘Ovid’s Heroines’ was the number 10 best seller last week at the Guardian bookshop (presumably the result of a favourable review in the Guardian not long before) in a list dominated by novels and popular non-fiction. It was good to see a poetry collection in there, a little chink of hope.

Friday, July 05, 2013

Forward Poetry Prize 2013 - Surprises?

I now can't find the link to this, but the judges of this year's Forward Poetry prizes have said that there will be 'surprises'. This is good news - if it comes to pass. There are always a few surprises in the First Collection category - it's impossible to predict the shortlist in that one, but surprises in the main shortlist have been very, very thin on the ground for the last few years. The biggest surprise would be if that changed in any way! But let's test it out. There are no surprises if this is the shortlist (books need to have been published between 1 October 2012 and 30 September 2013 - presumably the summer 2013 books come to the judges in ms form):

Michael Symmons Roberts – Drysalter (Cape)
Anne Stevenson – Astonishment (Bloodaxe)
Dannie Abse – Speak, Old Parrot (Hutchison)
Robin Robertson – Hill of Doors (Cape)
Kathleen Jamie – The Overhaul (Picador)
Fiona Sampson – Coleshill (Chatto & Windus)
Glyn Maxwell – Pluto (Picador)
Anne Carson – Red Doc > (Cape)
David Morley – The Gypsy and the Poet (Carcanet)
George Szirtes – Bad Machine (Bloodaxe)

In addition, I wouldn't bat an eyelid of any of these ones were on it:

Ahren Warner – Pretty (Bloodaxe)
W.N. Herbert – Omnesia (Bloodaxe)
Jacob Polley – The Havocs (Picador)
Andrew Motion – The Customs House (Faber)
Fleur Adcock – Glass Wings (Bloodaxe)
Nick Laird – Go Giants (Faber)
Alison Brackenbury - Then (Carcanet)
Maurice Riordan – The Water Stealer (Faber)
Matthew Francis – Muscovy (Faber)

Now, some of these books are extremely good and would deserve their place on a shortlist. Some of them - in my opinion, of course! - definitely wouldn't... I have probably missed several non-surprises, forgetting they've been published etc, so feel free to add to the list.

The shortlist is announced this Monday 8 July. I hope I am surprised!

Thursday, June 20, 2013

A David Bowie Retrospective - 2. Never Let Me Down (1987)


I wasn’t looking forward to listening to Never Let Me Down. Bowie himself said it was the worst album he’d ever made and that opinion seems to be shared by many fans and critics, but let me say from the outset that I disagree. I’m not suggesting you rush out and buy the album, but it is actually quite listenable – very much more listenable than the boring, bland Tonight.

The opening track, ‘Day In Day Out’, and a couple of other songs – ‘Zeroes’ and ‘87 and Cry’ – are quite decent. The problem is the production and arrangements. I hate the drum sound and some of the keyboard and guitar licks, which should hang high in the hall of rock clichés. Bowie was pretty fed up with what he was doing by this stage and took little part in the making of the album other than turning up with some tunes and singing them, and the lack of engagement shows. This is an album sounding as if it’s been made by dutiful session musicians – skilled musicians but lacking creative spark.

The stand-out track is ‘Time Will Crawl’. At least, unlike on Tonight, there is a stand-out track. It wouldn’t make a list of Bowie’s greatest achievements, but it is a catchy number that gets into your head and not unpleasantly so. The song’s video shows Bowie looking like he’s turned up for a Wham audition several years late, a concession to commercial demand rather than someone at the centre of musical style (let alone substance).

The rest of the album is relatively forgettable. ‘Glass Spider’ is intriguing with a spoken intro and an untraditional structure – it’s just not that good, but it is a welcome advance on Tonight’s lack of adventure. The title track and ‘Shining Star’ would fit nicely onto that album! The other songs aren’t interesting but not terrible either. One track, ‘Too Dizzy’ was removed from future pressings of the album. I found it on YouTube and it is pretty awful! Basically, if you have listened to all Bowie’s classic albums, this album is worth a listen on Spotify, but don’t get too over-excited at the prospect...

Saturday, June 15, 2013

A Few Transtromer Nuggets

‘...a biblical saying never set down: “Come unto me, for I am as full of contradictions as you.”’ (Tomas Transtromer, ‘Below Freezing’)

‘Many workshop poets comb their personal memory and write poems about their childhood, filling the poems with a clutter of detail. This clutter sometimes ensures that the piece will remain “a piece of writing” and will not become “a work of art”’ (Robert Bly – ‘Tomas Transtromer and “The Memory”)

'So much we have to trust, simply to live through our daily day without sinking through the earth!
Trust the piled snow clinging to the mountain slope above the village.
Trust the promises of silence and the smile of understanding, trust that the accident telegram isn’t for us and that the sudden axe-blow from within won’t come.
Trust the axles that carry us on the highway in the middle of the three hundred times life-size bee swarm of steel.
But none of this is really worth our confidence.
The five strings say we can trust something else. And they keep us company part of the way.
As when the time-switch clicks off in the stairwell and the fingers – trustingly – follow the blind handrail that finds its way in the darkness.'
(Tomas Transtromer, tr. Robin Fulton, ‘from ‘Schubertiana’, part 4)

‘Art helps us, [Transtromer] says, as a banister helps the climber on a dark stairwell.’ (Robert Bly)

Friday, June 14, 2013

A David Bowie Retropective - 1. Tonight (1984)

I was listening to David Bowie’s classic seventies material, which contains arguably the best songwriting and most influential body of work in rock music history, and I realised I hadn’t paid much attention to his later work, specifically the albums since Let’s Dance brought Bowie to a mass commercial audience in 1983. I have decided to listen to the albums he’s brought out in the last 30 years (30 years!) and see what he’s been up to all this time. I have hopes for the more recent stuff. Not so much for the eighties and nineties, but I am open to be proved wrong or at least to hear a few great tracks buried among the mediocre ones.

I started off with 1984’s Tonight, an album I did hear a few tracks from at the time, none of which interested me. Would I change my mind 29 years later? Well, I’m afraid not. It’s a weak, dull, anodyne product. Given that’s it’s generally thought to be stronger than the two that came afterwards, I’m already looking forward to the getting beyond them!

One problem with Tonight is that there isn’t a single stand-out song. Everything sounds as if it’s originated in a syth-pop minor hit factory, the kind of songs that peak at number 73 in the singles chart. Easily the best track is the opener, ‘Loving the Alien’, but the production is terrible, in an eighties kind of way, ironing out any interest the song might otherwise have had. There are several low moments – a poor cover of the Beach Boys’ fabulous ‘God Only Knows’, a truly awful song called ‘Neighbourhood Threat’, and a directionless mishmash of Billy Ocean, drum-machine rockabilly and bland soft rock for the rest.

I’m told the album was recorded in a hurry and the record company wanted something that would appeal to the massive commercial base Bowie had established with Let’s Dance. It worked and Tonight was a number one album in the UK. Which just goes to show... But it’s entirely forgettable. It seems that Bowie now feels most of the album was a waste of time too and you have to admire something who is as self-critical as he often is.

But no, Tonight gets a definite thumbs down from me. Onto Never Let Me Down now, from 1987, often regarded as Bowie’s worst ever moment. Should be fun...

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Notting Hill and Hollywood Values




What a grim day yesterday was! Blue Monday, apparently, and it lived up to its name here with a dark sky and periodic blizzards, which ‘got’ me more or less every time I was caught between places with no shelter. Umbrellas are useless in Edinburgh. I don’t even know why anyone stocks them in the shops. None could have survived yesterday’s crosswinds.

So, last night after 9pm, I was tired and fed up and in no mood to write or read and there was nothing worth watching on the TV, so I decided I would watch ITV2’s millionth repeat of Notting Hill, Roger Michell‘s 1999 movie starring Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant, partly because I had never before actually watched it through to the end. Here was my chance and I took it with three small bottles of Stella Artois by my side to blunt the edge of the blizzard that made me feel cold even watching it churn the air beyond  the windows.

The plot of Notting Hill is simple. The most famous actress in the world, Anna, (Julia Roberts) goes into a travel bookshop and meets the proprietor, William (Hugh Grant). They fall in love and the movie progresses like any romcom: hurdles present themselves and are overcome, only for yet steeper hurdles to appear. Can an ordinary bloke like Hugh (sic!) and a huge celebrity like Julia find eternal happiness amid the PR personnel and paparazzi fighting for a piece of her? Well, there can only be one answer in a successful, feelgood, Hollywood movie, but that in itself asks difficult questions, which I will come to shortly.

The script is sharp and witty. Grant is his usual bumbling self, the engaging twit who always gets the girl. I found it astonishing that Anna could fall for him, let alone continue to want a relationship with him, but – as a guy – that’s probably how I’m supposed to feel. If she can fall for that twit, well, she could fall for anyone... Roberts delivers the comedy with perfect timing. She convincingly asserts her ordinariness by enjoying an evening over dinner with William’s eccentric family and by appearing in some scenes without any make-up. Or, perhaps, she is made up to look as if she isn’t wearing any make-up, especially when she’s hiding in William’s house from the journalists out for a scoop story, and she does succeed in looking quite average – at least until every time she smiles, which she does frequently. There’s no other smile like Julia Roberts’s smile.

I kept asking myself how much of herself Roberts was putting into the movie. Basically, she is playing someone like herself, the most famous actress in the world at the time. Round the family table, she confesses how she’d been through a series of terrible relationships, had been hounded by journalists reporting her every move, and had been on a strict diet for 10 years. This is Anna, not the real Julia Roberts, but we can apply the principles to many famous Hollywood stars. There’s a longing to be ordinary, contrasted with the fawning adulation she’s subjected to by William’s family all through the meal. They don’t even take her confession too seriously.

But how seriously are we, the audience supposed to take it? Hollywood does this all the time. It presents values to us that it in no way espouses and yet presents them as vital for an authentic life. The most famous quote from the movie comes from Roberts telling Grant, “After all... I'm just a girl, standing in front of a boy, asking him to love her.” But Hollywood cultivates the very opposite ideals. Actors are celebrities, untouchable, privileged, our age’s gods and goddesses. Their disastrous marriages and relationships are picked open in unsparing detail by gossip mags, often from material released by the actors’ own PR people. They advertise beauty products offering ordinary mortals the illusion of comparable, soft-focus beauty, images designed to widen the real gap.

At one point, Roberts says that there will come a time when she will age and her looks will go and Hollywood will dump her with as little conscience as it once celebrated her. I wonder how she felt while performing those lines. Was it just a professional job for her? Or did she sense acutely the disconnect between the values set forward by the film and the reality she was speaking into? How deep is the pool of celebrity depression and unhappiness? There is a fair chance that Julia Roberts would have thought critically about the dialogue she was acting. As it is, Roberts is now 45, still beautiful and still making movies and, it appears, happily married for 11 years - one of the lucky ones, perhaps. The film celebrates the value of love, the vitality of relationships and the emptiness of money without those things, while at the same time raking in $247,000,000 at the box office (from a mere $42,000,000 budget). Just as ‘You’ve Got Mail’ celebrated the small bookshop owner over the corporate chain and yet found time for product placement and grossed over $250,000,000 on commercial release, so the fantasy at the heart of Notting Hill plays on desire just like an average advertisement. We want it to be true, true in our lives, true in the way the world works. But Hollywood itself, with its emphasis on commercial success, big money, celebrity status (even dividing celebrities into A, B and C listers), doesn’t even remotely espouse the values of its own products. The message of Notting Hill is the exact opposite of the message Hollywood gives in the way it goes about more or less everything. 

It is a soul-less machine. The political equivalent would be David Cameron and Michael Gove telling us that that full equality is the aim, that love is the answer, that small is beautiful, and then carrying on with their current right-wing agenda. It’s just more entertaining when made into a movie like Notting Hill.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Next Big Thing



I’ve been tagged by poet and Magma secretary Jennifer Wong to give this interview for an expanding blog project called The Next Big Thing. You can read her interview here. The idea is to say something about the process of writing a forthcoming book or manuscript. I am supposed to post my thoughts and then tag other writers to do the same on 23 January 2013, although this date is flexible. I am a week late myself.

Where did the idea come from for the book?
The idea emerged mainly from the process of writing it. In the second half of 2011, I placed all the better poems I’d written since my first collection (The Opposite of Cabbage, published in March 2009) side-by-side on the living room floor. I read them all, juggled them around, threw some away, and realised that most of those left were about happiness, the struggle for it and its accompanying discontentments. There was also a sequence on autism, but that seemed mainly to fall under the dominant ‘happiness’ theme. After that, I wrote more on-theme poems and a book, The Good News, was born.

What genre does your book fall under?
Poetry.

What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?
It will be co-directed by David Lynch and Jim Jarmusch. Woody Allen will convert the disparate poems into a screenplay. For lead actors, I’ll resurrect Humphrey Bogart and Greta Garbo to star alongside Tom Waits and Helena Bonham-Carter. A choir of one hundred Scottish poets will act as a liturgical chorus. Amanda Palmer and Yo La Tengo will team up to provide the soundtrack. The Smiths will reform for one night only to play a brand new Morrissey/Marr track during the closing credits.

What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?
That happiness comes from a deeper and stranger place than any ‘Ten Steps to Happiness’ self-help book or article will ever admit (one honourable exception is A Rough Guide to Happiness by Nick Baylis, which is a most thoughtful book).

How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?
About three years, but many poems had been through countless drafts before they ended up in the manuscript. A ‘first draft’ of a poetry collection is often at quite an advanced stage, I’d guess.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?
It’s quite a personal book, although it’s not ‘confessional’ poetry. My daughter was an inspiration, but these are not traditional ‘father-daughter’ poems. I have read poems about autism, some astonishingly brilliant (such as Les Murray’s remarkable It Allows a Portraitin Line Scan at Fifteen), but I haven’t read any that quite take the approach I do. And I was also inspired to write poems of place, political identity, faith, travel and love because these all felt important to me in regard to happiness. I wasn’t always in a particularly happy state of mind when writing the poems, but I was striving to touch on something hopeful, on a future with meaning attached.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
I’d hope most of these poems will reward being read several times. They aim for that. They also aim to be humorous and entertaining without sacrificing depth and mystery. It’s a tall order.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
The Good News will be published by Salt Publishing in the second quarter of 2013.

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I asked several people if they wanted to be tagged to do this, but either they were already doing it or were too busy or couldn’t for other reasons. So I have only one person to tag and that is Helen Mort. Check out her blog around 23 January. I am now also going to tag Peter Daniels as well.

If anyone else wants to do it, let me know in the comments and I’ll be happy to tag you here.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Christian Ward and Plagiarism



Plagiarism is wrong, I’m in no doubt about that. It is intellectual and (sometimes) emotional theft. It is wrong, but it is not anything like as wrong as, say, murder, rape, or even the fact that up to half of the food bought in Europe and the USA ends up in rubbish bins – that really is worthy of scandal.

Christian Ward’s plagiarism of poems by Helen Mort, Tim Dooley, Paisley Rekdal, Janice Soderling, and others (does anyone seriously think there won’t be others?) has been shared so many times on Facebook and so much has been said about it – much of it virulent and hysterical, in my opinion – that I feel unsure about saying more. It is good that the facts came out and that people’s original authorship has been recognised. Of course, for those directly involved, it is an important issue, and for publishers, Magazine editors, competition organisers and review editors etc, it may affect the reception of any future works by Mr Ward. That remains to be seen. Actions do have consequences.

But, if this had happened only a few years ago in a world before Facebook, the reaction would have been confined to a relatively small number of people, who might have thought CW an idiot and might have told him so, but it wouldn’t have gone any further. Plagiarism has been carried out by well known poets before, some who are still publishing poems today. Most folk have no idea that these poets have been guilty of plagiarism. But the reach of today’s social media has meant that news spreads instantly to a very large mob of people, and mobs, even (especially?) virtual mobs, tend to dispense instant justice in unfortunate ways. That certainly is what has happened over the last week.   

It is true that Christian Ward’s statements have not exactly helped his cause. He ought simply to have admitted his guilt over the poems he’s been accused of plagiarising and indeed brought others to light too. However, it’s easy enough for me to say that in the relative calm of my office here in Edinburgh. I don’t imagine that CW’s mind will be in fully rational mode. It’s hard to think straight when under considerable stress and you’re starring in the (national) press for all the wrong reasons. People who say it’s “great publicity” for him are living in a different planet. It is better publicity for those plagiarised, but I’d also bet that none of them are exactly thrilled about it and would much rather they’d been allowed to get on with writing poems without having their names and photos splattered all over the newspapers and social media sites.

I think it’s now time to end this social media circus performance for the sake of all concerned. We know what happened, we know it’s plagiarism (not a “mistake” or “accident”), the victims have had their say (which is certainly fair), so let’s move on to something more fruitful. Have I just added to the list of circus acts by writing this? I suppose I may have, but I post it in the spirit of an epilogue on the last page of a novel; the kind of epilogue that banishes the need for a sequel.