Lots of imported blogs herewith

My current publisher, Parthian, has decided to dispense with the two writer blogs it was running on its website – mine and US novelist  Christien Gohlson’s – and has inaugrated instead a blog to which all writers in its stable can contribute when duly inspired.

Meanwhile, here are the blogs I posted on the old site. Worth keeping – well, I think so. There may be some repetitions.

Who would a writer be?

Translate the length of time between my last blog and this as the period I’ve been waiting for a reply from the useless agency aforementioned. Two follow-up emails haven’t elicited a result. So I’ve given up on them as they have on me, even though they had no reason apart from being an organisation that treats potential clients like daps covered in dog-shit. I wouldn’t have them represent me even if they appeared at my door in a rented van full of gold bullion and gave me and the World’s Strongest Man ten minutes to fill my garage
with as much as we could carry. Perhaps that should be the World’s Strongest Woman – or not (see following).
I feel about that ‘agency’ just as many women writers must feel in being disparaged on account of their gender. Yesterday I went to the opening of the Women’s Writing Festival at Chapter, Cardiff, and, inter alia, heard Virago publisher Lennie Goodings make the case against prejudice and hostility across the spectrum, from callow (and probably innocent) bookshop operatives to sniping critics such as Anthony Burgess. She coined the expression ‘casual misogyny’, which I found interesting, always believing that misogyny had no predicates. ‘Casual’ seemed to me to imply that men either couldn’t care less about prejudice or could but arely showed it. The positive discrimination involved in festivals of this sort and in the existence of publishers such as Virago is surely warranted, but one has to be careful. For complex reasons, a men’s writing festival could never be arranged without cynicism. Furthermore, one might ask a man to read, sight
unseen, a dozen novels, half written by women half by men, and then to choose his six favourites. If his choice turned out to be all books by the men, what would that tell us? If he knew who had written what and, given a choice, picked the six books written by women, would that make him prejudiced towards male writing? It’s complicated and vested interest makes it more so. The issue has its comical side: my former brother-in-law, an American, told me that PD in the States had once descended to such a ridiculous level
that no-one in charge of a company employing forty could get away with not including among them one Abyssinian amputee. When you start playing a numbers game, things become absurd, which is unfortunate because the grievances are genuine and pressing.
There was some terrific prose read by its authors at the festival, who included Tiffany Murray, Carly Holmes, Rhian Elizabeth and Georgia Carys Williams. Also an interval of music from Hail! The Planes, reduced for the occasion to Holly Muller and David Neale. Holly writes too, let it be said. All tied together with a light touch by Susie Wild, of this parish. I once wrote a piece about alopecia and hair-pieces that included a snipe at Burgess, who had a comb-over like a Scalectrix. One floating ember from those cheap cheroots he smoked and there could have been a literal bonfire of the vanities topside. Remember me, ladies, as your vengeful errant. (On the South Wales Argus, the term ‘lady’ was banned’; it was always ‘woman’. And quite right too, though one old chief sub
thought it marked the death of chivalry.)
It might not be known that I drew the cover for Miners At The Quarry Pool. I’ve also provided the illustration for my latest published story, Mandalay, due soon on the super website The View From Here. I hope the day’s not far away when websites – and literary magazines – start slipping us creatives at least a tenner for out trouble.

Hello, hello – are you still there?

Those of you taking tablets because you can’t find a literary agent might find what I’m about to relate interesting to say the least. Writers are always being told to heed advice from ‘those in the industry’, as if we were all sleepwalking in the desert. It’s about time ‘the industry’ took some advice from writers, who are increasingly discovering both oases in their sandy fastnesses and time to reflect on how chaotic that industry looks when you’re languishing under the palm trees and eating dates.
In January this year I asked a reasonably well-known London agency to represent me. I submitted a glowing CV and a hard-copy extract from a novel I’d just finished; wrote a model letter of introduction and  gave contact details that included a website address – all in accordance with the agency’s submission guidelines. I was sent an ackowledgement of receipt. At the end of July, having heard nothing, I e-mailed to ask what was happening (politely – one doesn’t want to scrunch anyone’s toes). Eight months had elapsed and I thought an approach was justified. I received a reply almost immediately from one of the agents, who said my extract had ‘gone astray’ and that I should re-send, this time as a pdf document. She would see to it that the extract was read within a week and a response sent to me. Were they ever going to tell me that my original had been lost? We shall never
know. I thought a week’s turnaround unlikely but was prepared to accept her promise as a mark of the agency’s contrition.
A week went by, then two weeks, then a month. No response. In September I e-mailed twice with no reply. I’d basically given up. Then I e-mailed a third time at the start of October and received a reply from someone who gave a first, but not a full, name. She said my first agent was out of the office. Then she emailed to say my pdf document of July/August could not be opened and that the agent had left the company. (Clearly, when she first replied, she didn’t know. What kind of agency is this?) Three days later I
received an anonymous message to say that my work didn’t fit with the company’s list and to wish me luck placing it elsewhere, blah, blah. Déja vu. What work? They lost the first submission and couldn’t open the second.
I’ve now written to the head of the company to ask if it might rouse itself to fashion an apology and an explanation.
This is the second example on this blog of bizarre agency behaviour. Is it typical? I think it reflects an ‘industry’ in crisis. Failure to interest an agent, even for published writers trailed by prizes and enthusiastic reviews, is common. Less common is rejection by an agency in desperate need of an office manager and a course in social skills. Do we need agents? Yes – and no, and definitely not this discourteous and cag-handed shower.

A word – and that’s all, please – in your ear

Only two months to go before the launch of my Parthian poetry collection, *Miners At The Quarry Pool. I’ve told everyone that it’s not about miners, quarrying or quarry pools, by explaining that that’s modern poetry for you. Actually, there is an eponymously-titled poem; it first appeared in Poetry Wales under Richard Poole’s editorship, which seems a long while ago in development-of-poetry terms. The strange thing about a lot of contemporary verse is that it gets easier the more you read it and the greater is the period of time
between readings. Some of the collections I’ve reviewed for Acumen magazine have been perplexing, yet appear less so after my review has been published and when I’ve gone back to a particular poet for some other reason (perhaps I’ve read something elsewhere and wish to validate an argument I hadn’t previously considered).
A poetry collection, unlike a story collection, is much less likely to embody a theme unless one is writing to prescription, even over a long period. The element that pervades MATQP is the influence of my grandfathers, who were chapelgoers and coalminers, a combination that has always intrigued me in trying to discover what made them, and others like them, function as they did. The poem titled MATQP suggests that miners were not the right-on, lilywhite foot-soldiers of the militant working-class that some commentators would have us believe. It’s a (probably) flawed moral view, encapsulated in the story Point Of Dishonour in my Parthian collection, Funderland, which came out about the same time two years ago. In that tale, the Great War soldier shot for deserting the battlefield turns out to have been, pre-war, a wifebeating moral coward, the implication of the narrator being that even if he’d been virtuously courageous his violent civilian exploits would have effaced any sympathy his death might have attracted.
My grandfathers’ legacy, therefore, has been a kind of moral cynicism, which at least always involves seeing things from some kind of ethical standpoint, however inconclusive or skewed. I have no idea what we are doing in Afghanistan but I was impelled to write the poem Helmand, about a dead soldier who was once interested in ornithology. (Strange, but another Funderland story, actually called Ornithology, is about the moral dilemmas of a husband whose wife is a chronic depressive.) Birds can be too easily emblematic.
Perhaps this moral fixation is reponsible for Celia, Oh Celia, a story of mine currently viewable on the website of the Erotic Review. The exercise of writing erotic prose while avoiding a lapse into pornography hard or soft is one that all writers should undertake, but they need a sense of humour. In erotic writing, the tongue is more likely to be planted firmly in the writer’s cheek than anywhere else; in fact, anywhere else would be laughable. Also, the Erotic Review would never countenance the use of ‘bird’ in its debased sense
of a female fit to be wing-clipped by a leering bloke. The ER publishes only fine dirty writing, which is obviously why it chose Celia, Oh Celia. I never got anything past Rowan Pelling, the editor of the magazine’s print-only version, though her rejections were always encouraging and helpful, not to say suggestive. Now, it wants more from me; a second shudder, as it were, and so soon after the first. I’d better get myself worked up. What’s the hour?
* Thanks to Alan Kellermann for editing the collection and Claire Houguez, she of Parthian plant life, for doing so much to promote it. Launch probably at Chapter, Cardiff, towards the end of November. And thanks to Rich Davies for supporting literary genres which, as every publisher in the country knows, are never a guarantee of runaway commercial success.

Gissa book, then! Sorry, this is a library
Thu, 2013-08-01 23:23 | Nigel Jarrett
NOT so long ago, readers wouldn’t dare rustle a newspaper in a public library for fear of being ejected by a phalanx of bibliomaniacs wearing half-moon glasses. Now, librarians are in charge of background muzak as well as access to increasing platoons of omputers. Noise is also actively encouraged in the Kiddies’ Korner, where unruly toddlers are told stories loudly as part of a ‘reading scheme’. (Beware mandarins proposing schemes, pilot or otherwise.) Where once you could borrow a score of Josef Forster’s opera Die Rose von Pontevedra and four hundred other items of equally dim provenance, there are now instruction manuals for mouth organ and rock guitar, and one moribund copy of Handel’s Messiah . On my next visit, I wouldn’t be surprised to find a bar open in the corner, decorated with badly-executed paintings of Shakespeare, Byron and Dylan Thomas by local sixth-formers.
The huge space created by ‘modernisation’ is actually a swath cut through the library’s book stock, millions of volumes of which are disposed of regularly at council sales. The message is clear: books are fuddy-duddy, whereas information devices electronic are ‘cool’, like the lurid paint used to re-decorate the library walls. Why is this when plenitude rather than commercial desperation accounts for the huge number of books
being offered cut-price to the reading public? Why are we accommodating the non-literate in havens of the inscribed page?
Discounts and deals in bookshops and advertisements focus the mind much less than the huge volume of titles, and this at a time when more people are reported to be forsaking printed words. All the evidence suggests a bountiful time ahead for readers and publishers. It also runs counter to continuing predictions that books will soon be obsolete. So are we witnessing a cultural shift or the beginnings of its seismic repudiation, and has the windy library-cum-discotheque got it wrong?
Among the first to be concerned about the disappearance of books as carriers of information were writers and readers of prose fiction, people with an interest in perpetuating a seemingly immoveable art form and
therefore its traditional means of reproduction. Possibly less distraught were poets and poetry readers,
except those who believed that a poem was something that assumed a certain shape and regularity on a
page and was not primarily a neat marshalling of words to be uttered in company. To be upset by the idea
that books might be permanently replaced by some other method of transmitting narratives and ideas
suggests a relationship, possibly irrational, between reader and reading-matter that goes beyond mere
The bulk of books today looms much larger as a consideration when trying to make space. The two-volume
New Oxford English Dictionary weighs around 14lbs, whereas its CD-Rom is small and light enough to be. mislaid, perhaps the only reason for choosing the heavier option. Of course, there is the question of vanity. Hardly any photograph of writers in their lairs omit shelves of books, the backdrop that lends them gravity and authority in the same way that being pictured in a smiling group will bestow on loners the gregariousness they possibly crave.
Apologists will adduce half-baked ergonomic theories to support their belief that the smell, the feel and the solidity of bound, printed paper justifies book publishing, while having nothing to say about content, the only reason they want to read in the first place. Despite the weakness of these arguments, heralds of the alternatives seem to be making little headway, suggesting that their promoters and not their inventors are the more zealous in predicting the death of the book. Experts on how to get literary work into print are warning that ‘on-line’ publishing is fast catching up with small-circulation literary magazines as a means of winning unpaid and possibly short-lived renown for writers of faint ambition.
But not even inferior binding, poor quality paper and atrocious editing – elements of production that might make readers swim towards some other form of processed information – have diminished the appeal of books and printed pages; indeed, the quality of magazines is improving and their number growing. We do have the Kindle.However, technological advance has become confused with economic opportunity, and the
evidence that people are catching on is illustrated by the renewed interest in vinyl records and the realisation that mobile phones are more destructive than imperative, albeit it two commodities that have no place in a library. Small happenings, maybe, but indications that so-called progress is being exposed as simply change. Doubters are even saying that if a computer were asked to come up with a means of transmitting bulk text in manageable form it would deliver a book or a magazine, probably made of paper, and suggest that the user should curl up with it on a settee. Seduced by background music and the relentlessly audio-visual, our library services are unlikely to be impressed.
Despite government spending reviews on the modernisation of public services and their suggestion that Heritage Lottery money might be a useful way of renewing the supply of books and other materials ‘following a substantial period of neglect’, it is impossible to disguise the changes in what a library is now perceived to be. Libri, a charity which campaigns to improve UK libraries, warned last year that if present trends continued,
borrowings of books would entirely cease in the next 20 years. It revealed a halving of visitor numbers since1984 and recommended a threefold increase in spending on books, the refurbishment of the decrepit buildings that housed them and an extension of opening times. In its latest report, it says it cannot identify much improvement in the ‘dire’ situation it described last year and warns of a worrying new trend: the reluctance of some senior librarians and policy-makers (including the Department of Culture, Media and Sport) to regard providing books as their prime responsibility.
The paradox is that reading continues to be popular. The number of books sold in the UK has increased by 20% since 1997. Local council funding for libraries has also risen, but spending on books has fallen dramatically, a fact that confirms what any reasonably intelligent library member has known for about ten years – the philistine decline of his local library into some vague ‘information’ service, with books occupying less and less space.
Perhaps senior library staff, tied to the printed page but seduced by technological trends the significance or irrelevance of which they only half understand, should attend their sales of discarded books (not all of them foxed and dog-eared beyond redemption) and try to explain the stampede as the doors open. Libraries certainly need shaking up, but books should not be the casualties.

Whose daps are these trainers?
Mon, 2013-07-15 22:05 | Nigel Jarrett
Journalists are constantly irritated at having to get past formal and deliberate obstacles to the truth. The job of creating such impediments often falls to individuals called ‘public relations officers’, though their status is mostly ‘other ranks’ and the only relationship they seek with the public is a mollifying one based on promoting the view of their employers or moving an embarrassing confession into the best possible light.
One way of doing this is to be personable towards the inquiring scribe, and if the scribe is Welsh and the PRO metropolitan English the exchange often begins with a query – ‘Is that a Welsh accent I can hear?’ To which one is tempted to respond with an inquiry (not so personable) about whether or not everyone phoning with some accent or other is asked the same question. Am I over-sensitive? I don’t think so. It might be an innocent, even a friendly, question, but in most cases one hears the flap of the pigeon-hole opening to admit a stereotype. Once Welshness is established, a whole raft of associations and prejudices
floats into view. One wouldn’t mind so much if the London voice were not so ambiguously classless. What would be the response if the Gwalian inquirer asked if it were an Essex accent at the other end of the line? Most annoying is the redundancy: if I give my name and say I represent a Welsh publication, should it be a surprise, or even a matter of interest, to find that I speak like someone from Aberdare or Bala? It’s not usually a question asked by a compatriot of expatriate status. At least that would be reasonable.
Accent, of course, is the first pointer to stereotype. I’d read a lot by Professor Gwyn Alf Williams before I heard him speak. In the strictly aural sense, one never writes with an accent, and though I might have suspected that he would speak English with Welsh mellifluousness it was a surprise to hear from him such a strong inflexion. A xenophobic English colleague of mine – she’s dead so I can’t libel her – identified what she called ‘an educated Welshman’, meaning someone intelligent and articulate who spoke with the lightest of accents: ‘the merest curl at the edges’, as someone once described the way Wynford Vaughan Thomas, John Morgan and Huw Weldon spoke.
Nothing Gwyn Alf might have said – for example, on the non-Welsh subject of Goya’s disappointments and personal crises during the Spanish War of Independence – would have persuaded her to concentrate. The strong Valleys accent would have put her off, in the same way that it made people recoil from the eloquence of Aneurin Bevan and Neil Kinnock. Would Kinnock have merited his ‘boyo’ tag if he had spoken like a Buckinghamshire squire? In a Yorkshire accent, of course, he’d simply have been a ‘tyke’. Boyo, Tyke, Paddy, Taff – all labels affixed and impossible of removal. Add to the Welsh accent a Bevanesque rage, or combine it with any kind of voluble saeva indignatio, and the stereotype is more or less established. The partial mind drifts instantaneously towards speculation and wish-fulfilment – roughhouse upbringing, coarse manners, education against the grain of an impoverished sense of decorum. The picture is almost complete, because stereotype images have no depth. My xenophobe, by implication, regarded ‘uneducated’ Welshmen as beyond the pale. Gwyn Alf would only have had to draw some comparison with the Merthyr riots for her to have been justified in her revulsion.
But resistance to stereotyping is confounded by pride. The reason most Welshmen do nothing to reject prejudiced views about themselves is that they willingly lapse into self-parody, encouraged by celebrities from across the cultural spectrum. Bolstered by Wales’s reputation for exporting education and educationists, the ‘professional Welshman’ has emerged. Definition? A Welsh native tenuously linked to his background and working in a non-Gwalian environment who nonetheless hopes an accent curled suavely at
the edges – just the edges, mind you – will enable a lingeringhiraeth to pass for national pride, or even patriotism. At the other end, I always had problems with so-called ‘Wenglish’ (‘Whose coat is this jacket?’) because it was funny but also slightly demeaning. Do we really talk like that? Do we say those things? Is it something to boast about? And do comedians have to bang on about leeks, daffodils and outside-halves and sing those god-awful hymns and arias? Apparently, ‘yes!’ to all those questions bar the penultimate.
Wales is about so much else that confounds expectation and gives the lie to received wisdom, especially in music, which is what I deal with professionally, among many other things. Last year, I researched the world premiere* in 1920 of En Arabesk, a rhapsody for baritone, chorus and orchestra by Delius, at the Great Central Hall in Newport. The chorus – miracle of miracles – was the Newport Choral Society. Like the Central Hall, it no longer exists. Few know or care to learn more about this extraordinary cultural event, which, incidentally or perhaps significantly, demonstrated what some English critics thought of Welsh musical heritage. Not much. A few years ago, the BBC National Orchestra of Wales deleted Newport, now a city, from its Wales touring itinerary partly because of poor audience support. A concert in Newport a few years ago featuring the world-class Welsh soprano Rebecca Evans attracted barely 200, less than half the capacity of the city’s new Riverfront Theatre. Welsh National Opera is world-renowned and hugely supported; but while the company gets into the community to promote itself, I suspect Welsh operagoers, generally a wellheeled bunch from the other side of the tracks, keep the good news to themselves. Would you believe it? Would the stereotypists believe it? I attended my first male voice choir concert when I was twelve. Many  ears on, most of these choirs are still singing the same things, often in a depressingly lifeless fashion and
proving that. even the knackered horse has bolted through the stable door, an equine peloton of one. Fall often comes before pride, and the male voice choral tradition fell a long time ago, leaving pride as an empty gesture prey to outsiders who like to make fun of us.
At the end of one of his TV documentaries – it might have been ‘The Dragon Has Two Tongues – Professor Gwyn Alf refused to join in some Saturday night pub celebration to do with rugby because he did not consider it typical of what being Welsh really was. On the contrary, it was stereotypical and culturally dead. He had other things to celebrate. Who will lecture those patronising PROs on good telephone manners? And who will remind them and their ilk that Welsh pubs no longer close on Sundays, that none but a handful of
Welshmen now mine coal, that patriarchal chapel elders rule no more and that rugby, like sport everywhere, is a debased religion. At the moment, we are good at the game again, though sporting fortunes are invariably mercurial. At least poor showings are capable of improvement, unlike the view of ourselves that many of us tirelessly and tiredly promote, playing into the hands of those who refuse to take us seriously. At present, they are better at pigeon-holing us than we are at fleeing their preconceptions.
* My essays about the premiere were subsequently published in The Salisbury Review and the British Music Society Journal.

The Bare Black Cliff Clanged Alliteratively
Fri, 2013-06-14 17:15 | Nigel Jarrett
The choice of The Autobiography of a Super-tramp by W H Davies as a Welsh Books Council English language Book of the Month earlier this year reminded me that it was one of my set texts for O-Level, or GCSE as it’s now downgraded. In the copy I had to read – actually I learned it almost by heart – there was an eight-page preface by Bernard Shaw, modest by his prolix standards. Shaw made the seemingly preposterous statement that Davies’s script appeared unedited or ‘without any academic corrections from the point of view of The Perfect Commercial Letter-Writer’ as he put it in fluent Ayot St Lawrence.
My English master, Chippy Woods, didn’t draw much attention to that. As he said, Shaw was a windbag and only too capable of drawing attention to himself. Chippy suggested that we ignored the logorrhoeic Irishman. Which we did. Chippy was more interested in teaching us how to write essays, the only skill, along with knowledge of the subject, required for passing the GCE. I’m astounded to recall that the other set books in my year were Shakespeare’s Henry V and Tennyson’s Morte d’Arthur and Gareth and Lynette.
Essays about them flowed too. It beats ticking boxes or whatever kids do these days to get into Year 13 (my Seventh Form) and proceed to something they call ‘Yewnie’.
To prove that I could still quote chunks from the Tennyson works I included a gobbet in one of my Funderland stories, In The Beginning, about an uneducated mogul who gives succour and habitation to the editor of an obscure poetry magazine. But myeditor, correcting academically from the point of view of The Perfect Commercial Letter-Writer, thought it should be stifled at birth, if you can stifle a gobbet. She didn’t realise that I cared not a toss for the quotation, only the interesting shape its inclusion created on a slab of
printed prose. I suppose I was in McLuhan mood, as I often am where print is concerned.
I notice that one examination board has this year has set Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and Willy Russell’s Blood Brothers as GCSE texts. All predictably worthy. Steinbeck was second-rate and Blood Brothers is pure right-on corn based on something even cornier, the nature-nurture link. Worthiness, the second-rate and right-on corn would be useful subjects to discuss at GCSE, though whether there are English teachers or examiners willing to make them intra-curricular is doubtful. Alan Bennett is on to it in The History Boys, when he introduces a teacher who advocates ‘off the wall’ thinking in order that a platoon of smart-arses can get into Oxbridge. That the teacher was bogus is another matter, though what he was teaching was intellectual trickery. However, I could never believe that by definition all set exam texts in English were presumed to be above criticism and suspicion and that you accepted what they said, learned it and reproduced in the exam room what you’d learned.
On the subject of twaddle, my O level version of Super-tramp was book-ended by Shaw’s penny-a-line encomium and, I think, six Davies poems of unutterable Georgian banality. Of course, Unutterable Georgian Banality was not on the syllabus, so Chippy made his way through it with his pipe fuming like Vesuvius. I always remember Love’s Coming, the first three lines of which are:
An hour or more she’s gone,
And we are left alone,
I and her bird.
Wot – W H Davies and the love that dare not speak its name? Well, he probably fancied her anyway – she was a stonker. A titter ran through Chippy’s callow crowd.
Up and about in Paris
Sun, 2013-04-14 16:11 | Nigel Jarrett
For a writer, the disadvantage of an interrupted or ill-chosen education, or no education at all, is that other
writers, famous ones, are interesting not through their works but because they do what you do. I realised
this on returning from Paris and buying the recently-published Winter Journal of Paul Auster. I like opening
journals at random before settling down to read them from start to finish and on the first page I looked at in
this book was a description of a temporary Auster abode in Paris: on the rue du Louvre within sight of the
musée and the church of St Germain l’Auxerrois, whose bells, Auster reminds us, tolled unceasingly on
August 24 1572 to ring out news of the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. From his window, Auster could see
the Seine and, in the opposite direction, the white dome of Sacre-Coeur in Montmartre.
Despite its association with writers and their (seemingly ad hoc) appearance with other worthies in the
Panthéon, Paris is ever the city of visual art and, if you happen to be interested, music and film. Just down
from our hotel in Montmartre was the café where the movie Amélie was part-shot – breakfast eight euros –
and five minutes in the opposite direction, farther up the hill, were Studio 28, scene of the scandalous
premiere of Bunuel’s L’Age d’Or; the former home of composer Erik Satie; and the house where Vincent and
Théo van Gogh lived. Five minutes away, too, was the Moulin de La Galette, famously painted by Renoir.
The cinema and Moulin still function. But you have to assume there were also writers there. I knew about
Hemingway’s Paris years before I’d read much of his work. Ditto Scott Fitzgerald. The only other Auster
book I’ve got through is The Red Notebook, like Winter Journal a memoir about writing itself. The New York
Trilogy and others still await me, though how I didn’t go straight to the fiction whose fascinating origins
Auster details I’ll never know. Like most other writers, I own a lot of books I’ve yet to read. They serve as
reminders and in most cases are by writers whose other books I’ve definitely read. I think it possible that
being a deferring reader is simply confirmation of writerly priorities. The job is to write, not to read. And the
writing, or the writer’s account of its provenance and mystery, is always going to be a counter-attraction. I
worked with an artist who admitted an embarrassing lack of interest in – and knowledge of – the history and
issues of art. He didn’t study; he created. That’s to say, he saw his job as the production of material others
studied. I thought this odd but understandable.
Anyway, Paris is still in thrall to writing and reading in a quiet way. At café tables and on the Métro
there are people writing notes and reading both giant books and slim abstruse ones. I know: I could read
the titles. And the former are evidently not writing letters (who writes letters today?). The semicircles of
schoolkids fireguarding Veronese’s The Marriage at Cana in the Louvre are evidently not drawing from it –
those foregrounded dogs, for instance – but writing comments. In the chilly Panthéon lie the remains of
Voltaire, Diderot, Dumas, Hugo, Zola, Malraux and Saint-Exupéry, a mixed and unrepresentative arts bunch.
In Houdon’s statue of Voltaire the writer smiles wryly at his final resting-place, a freezing mausoleum
originally built as a church. Oddly, most of these ‘greats’ are in the crypt alongside forgotten Napoleonic
flunkeys. St Exupéry’s name is emblazoned on a pillar above ground, his remains having vanished with most
of his crashed aeroplane. The Panthéon is basically an empty – nay, hollow – building with people stashed
away, out of sight. I must read Night Flight. Does crashing a plane in the desert make the experience
slightly less of an unimaginable thump? We’ll never know.
PS: In a secondhand-book shop on the Bvd. St-Germain I spotted Fresh Apples andgrace,tamar and laszlo
the beautiful. Rachel and Deborah please note. I made myself known and gained a modest, if temporary,
fame by association. I didn’t even begin to explain what a ‘co-Parthian’ was. I’ve only got ‘O’ Level French.
Old Bernard was no saint, but…
Mon, 2013-03-04 19:50 | Nigel Jarrett
Bernard Levin, the old curmudgeon, did once rail justifiably against sloppy editing in books. He included
some of the major publishing houses in his tirade, which coincided with a decline in the quality of binding,
particularly where stitching of pages had given way to cheaper, but patently inferior, glue. I am always
buying second-hand books printed in the early decades of the 20th century which look as though they will
outlive me. I reach for one at random, my hand obviously and appositely guided by some Levinesque
spectre. It is Essays In The Art Of Writing, by Robert Louis Stevenson, published by Chatto & Windus in
1917. I can’t believe I’m only its second owner. It is hermetically sealed against destruction and, for sure, it
won’t confuse a defining clause with a non-defining one.
When I was a daily-newspaper sub-editor, I was appalled at the gaffes of this sort that regularly slipped into
print. My astonishment was compounded by the redundant and wasteful character of newspaper production
before old-style ‘hot metal’ printers became obsolete. A reporter typed something which was then sub-edited
after being ‘tasted’ for its news value and length. (Tasting was a specialised editorial task which, on the
basis of professional self-respect alone, should have included a modicum of grammar-checking.) The
‘subbed’ text was then ‘set’ again by a Linotype operator, often a wiseacre who liked nothing better than
spotting a split infinitive, or worse, and bringing it physically to the chief sub’s attention after a long journey
from below stairs. It was always embarrassing because he was invariably right. Nor did the repetitive checks
end there. Linotyped reports were scrutinised by proof-readers (always accompanied by a bored ‘copyholder’),
then, in theory, nit-picked by a ‘stone sub’ when the report was in place on the page and finally
checked in the page’s printed form. And still the unrelated participles got through.
My theory, which applies to Levin’s trawl of book howlers as well as to those pointed out recently by Lynne
Truss and his other outraged heirs, is that the rash of illiteracy they reflect – one hopes it is a rash and not a
terminal condition – originates with the elevation of the unread to positions of power in publishing and the
coincidental triumph of form over content. To my further amazement, few of those newspaper barbarisms
were ever commented on by the editor and brought to the perpetrators’ notice. Perhaps there were so many
of them (culprits) that the editor couldn’t be bothered. Or, maybe, bad grammar wouldn’t have registered
anyway, so exclusive were the claims of page design and other journalistic skills as newspapers battled to
halt dwindling readerships.
As I recall, Levin didn’t get much worked up about the errors he complained of. He was therefore much like
those other aloof keepers of the literacy flame, Fowler and Partridge, who commonly refer to them as
though they were perpetrated by the lower orders and not to be considered a threat to civilisation. Truss, in
her book Eats, Shoots and Leaves, at least admits to boiling over every time she sees a ‘Pick You’re Own’
sign outside a market garden, but in other respects implies that books, especially her own, are free of
improper usage. This one must have been, because its subject-matter demanded that it should be toothcombed
with the tenacity of a fact-checker on the New Yorker. I’m not so sure about others, or about the
capacity of the book trade in its printed paper form to escape it. The use of a comma rather than a full-stop
to separate two sentences is so rife that it is now on the verge of being acceptable, even though it can
never make sense aurally. Mis-spellings are everywhere: miniscule for minuscule is one of he most common.
While many see the worldwide web as a mountain of illiterate sludge, it is also the place where those
concerned about shoddily-edited books are most likely to air their views. In one, there’s a criticism of a
prize-winning novel in which leaves on trees in Britain are said to turn first red then yellow. This might not
be ungrammatical but it does indicate an editor who is sleeping on the job. My experience was that ‘subs’
who missed simple factual errors never did so because they were too busy ensuring that indirect speech
necessitated a change of tense, but because they were uneasy about whether or not the changes – often
cuts – they were making were improvements. In other words, a lack of general knowledge was related to a
poor grasp of the rules of English in an atmosphere of distraction. Perhaps editing is no longer considered an
important task in publishing, beyond the need to make a script saleable to the greatest number of bookbuyers.
Some magazine publishers are getting rid of sub-editors altogether. Missing or unnecessary commas
might seem immaterial in that context, especially when an increasing number of readers and writers seem
not to be too bothered about them.
On the other hand, it’s probably a mistake to think that the creeping illiteracy of the internet, such as
Facebook-ese and Twitterspeak, will reflect itself in books, traditional or electronic. Book publishing and the
readers and writers who make it possible represent a circumscribed entity, inside which changes in the use
of language, for good or ill, will be slow. The internet’s significance, however, lies in the way it has vastly
extended the written word as a means of communication almost overnight: the phone is dead; long live the
text. The internet, as well as its transforming good, gives us the benefit of people’s inability to write,
otherwise confined to the shopping-list. With more and more unmediated (unedited) writing appearing as
prolix comment, it won’t be long before individuals will ‘publish’ their books by simply uploading them. Then,
all the frightful solecisms picked up by Levin will be sanctioned by the ignorance of a new reading public
with no time for the book as we have come to know it.
Sod’s Law (or Sods’ Law) decrees that this post is probably full of grammatical errors. I admit, however, that
it’s all a learning process. For years I’ve written ‘by the by’ as a shortened form of ‘by the way’. Of course, it
should be ‘by the bye’ or, even better, ‘by-the-bye’. Think about it. That usually does the trick.
Oh, poesy – I go from chapter to verse!
Fri, 2013-02-15 14:34 | Nigel Jarrett
Have faith in a publishing house and it will have faith in you. At least, that’s the opinion I offer to explain
why Parthian has agreed to publish my first poetry collection. Its provisional title is Miners At The Quarry
Pool and it’s being edited by Alan Kellerman, himself a Parthian poet.
I like the idea of a platoon of poets attached to a publisher, though the evacuation of its poets from the OUP
and their dispersal to a series of modest foster homes was shocking until one realised that the OUP and
other biggies were not the places where the most interesting poetry was to be found. The steady incursion
of titles from small independent publishers into the literary prize lists indicates that the same might be
happening for fiction.
As a trend, of course, all this may be overtaken or rendered irrelevant by the upsurge in desktop publishing –
not the DIY sort but a process whereby the writer pays, or part pays, for a book to be professionally
produced and marketed. Few books sell in the profusion of a packet of Weetabix, so this arrangement is
likely to catch on. Its unscrupulous manifestation was called vanity publishing, but even VP’s critics
acknowledge that something different is happening and that in future book publishing might become more
of a commercial arrangement between writer and publisher. Many different skills are needed to get a book
sold and read and there’s no reason why a writer should not learn and apply some of them, including the
payment of cash to help pay for the deal. (Did I say that? Crikey – guess I did.)
Selling books of poetry is always difficult. Most are bought by the literary community; not just academics
and students of English but people who are ‘into’ poetry. Even then, tastes may be narrowly circumscribed.
It’s the same for fiction. Ask your neighbours if they’ve heard of Hilary Mantel or read any of her novels. For
my regular view of reality I consult the audited bookseller lists then spend five minutes weeping into a
Kleenex. Or I watch Pointless. This is the TV quiz programme that regularly features contestants, sometimes
‘yewnie’ students, who shamelessly revel in their ignorance. It’s not cool to know. They flaunt their lack of
knowledge and, more to the point, the implication that their interest is never to be aroused.
Back to Miners At The Quarry Pool. I review poetry for Acumen magazine but have not yet managed to get a
poem past its editor, Patricia Oxley. Thus does an opportunity ever present itself as a challenge, the
condition everywhere of writers who want their work to be read and evaluated. I’ve got them past lots of
other editors, as MATQP will acknowledge. I’ve already mentioned in this blog that finding one’s poetic voice
is a struggle, the poems often illustrating the struggle rather than its outcome, if any. At the mo, I define
poetry as ’the most appropriate form of words with which to say something specific and memorable’. Poetry
is personal, as much for the poet as for the reader, who might think one’s efforts unmemorable or that a
lack of memorability is their distinguishing feature. An aspiring magazine editor keen to spotlight short fiction
was asked if poetry, too, was to be included in his publication. ‘Good god, no!’ he spluttered. Well, there’s
lots of rubbish out there.
I wouldn’t say my poetry was experimental or innovative. But it’s brief. Not Selima Hill brief or Ogden Nash
brief. But brief, Concise.
Always make room for a little Willy
Wed, 2013-02-13 15:20 | Nigel Jarrett
HYPNOTISED a few years ago by the bizarre spectacle of proles queuing to see a film about Virginia Woolf –
‘The Hours’ for all of you who live on Alpha Centauri – set me thinking about the vanished reputation of
William Somerset Maugham. This supercilious writer, still commemorated in a much-prized literary award
and in an all-too-honest portrait by Graham Sutherland, receives barely a mention these days, perhaps
because his very disdain is regarded by hi-jacking academics as proof of artistic paucity, notwithstanding the
dubious theory of value which continues to admit to the pantheon one David Herbert Lawrence, apart from
anything else an advocate of extermination as a method of ridding perfumed literary society of philistines.
Even on the basis of rejection by virtue of bad habit and squalid opinion, Maugham’s contempt is almost
venial when compared with Lawrence’s eldritch whining. No – what did for Maugham in posterity was his
wealth and his broad acclaim. He took P G Wodehouse and others with him. All made pots of money from
writing, and no author wishing to be taken seriously can afford to rise too far above the mire. Fame might
be the spur but it needs to be either posthumous or tempered by straitened circumstances.
This link between popular success and literary worth is fascinating. Every writer aspires to making a living
out of letters yet associates comfort, its modest zenith, with a migration from the provenance of creativity. I
think success was one of Cyril Connolly’s ‘enemies of promise’ – if it wasn’t, it should have been – and it can
and does lure the writer away from the reason for writing. But towards those for whom this never
happened, such as Arnold Bennett in contemporary fiction, vindictiveness was refined. Woolf, a monetarily
poor writer cocooned within a warm patrimony, thought Bennett a mere shopkeeper, an upstart. Perhaps
this was not so much because Bennett fictionalised humdrum existences, more a disappointment that in
eschewing modernity of manner he had engineered a lifestyle to which he was not by nature, or the natural
law of Bloomsbury, entitled. Bennett loved expensive yachts; Maugham, from his Riviera domicile, watched
them glide on the jade-green waters of the Mediterranean. And it doesn’t really confuse the issue to discover
that Maugham, too, thought Bennett vulgar.
An American post-modernist once suggested an alternative university English course from which the socalled
‘classics’ were barred. Among the moderns, Stephen King was preferred to Martin Amis, Danielle Steel
to Joyce Carol Oates and so on, as far back as writers were able to be dredged from obscurity and critical
damnation. Bulwer Lytton, I seem to recall, was the pick of the Victorians, and Kipling a major poet (though
here there was a certain amount of wandering beyond bounds, probably because Kipling’s verses had been
championed by T S Eliot). Agatha Christie assumed the status of literary genius and fought with Georges
Simenon for laurels. The aim was to challenge ideas of who was worth cherishing and who deserved
relegation. With a few exceptions he was contrasting a list of writers (the Chosen) who were widely read
among the ‘non-literary’ and made money from their work with those who earned a moderate amount or
none at all and subsidised their literary activity by other means (the Banished). But in asking us to decide
which was the better course of study he was posing an interesting question, the answer to which dictates
the kind of literary and cultural values to which educationists subscribe. While it is tempting to equate small
readerships with literary worth and big ones with an unavoidable diminution of quality and scope, writers
published only in small literary magazines may be considered, ipso facto, as much incompetent as
undiscovered; Graham Greene and Dickens, on the other hand, were just a couple whose well-rounded and
seriously significant productions were not, according to the cultural taste-makers, corrupted by popularity.
Two factors come into play in compiling our own lists: humility and – one has to resort to cliché – the
courage of our convictions. The former requires us at least to consider received opinion, the latter demands
that we justify our choice. The film critic Pauline Kael once demolished King’s reputation by saying that,
since his sole artistic intention was to shock, it followed that the really successful horror writer was the one
who induced a cardiac arrest in the reader or the cinemagoer, clearly and inevitably areductio ad absurdum.
In other words, unless one could identify an intriguing sub-text, even one focusing on the author’s
psychosis, every King story was ridiculous and, turned sideways on, would become invisible. With this in
mind, one cannot treat King seriously. Nor, for that matter, his antecedents and his disciples.
For the purposes of random thoughts such as these, the estimation of virtue in fiction, short or otherwise,
might be usefully condensed to this test of perceptibility. Does a story recede in value when we begin to
examine its supports? Is it simply erected to divert us and, having done so, does it collapse in the breeze?
Or does it possess sturdy and infinite dimensions?
We shouldn’t deny Maugham his riches or overlook Lawrence’s chilling panaceas; but we should be prepared
to admit that though wealth and arrogance are not necessarily obstacles to profound thought and
ecumenical vision, they sometimes are.
Hang on, Will – isn’t that Julian with Hilary?
Sat, 2012-12-29 16:32 | Nigel Jarrett
What does a writer do at Christmas? Wait. Wait for the whole cracker-pulling shebang to be over. Christmas,
which now includes the week-long stretch to New Year’s Eve, is the supreme example of a hiatus.
It’s worse for me because my birthday is on December the 23rd.
There’s only one thing deadlier than the Yuletide shopping wars and that’s the drearily uniform palaces of
Mammon in which they are waged. Over to out reporter at Manchester’s Bustyourcredit Shopping Mall. Wait
a mo: it looks exactly like the ones at Bristol, Sheffield, Cardiff, Birmingham, Newcastle, Liverpool. As you
read this – all three of you – the architects responsible for these monuments to metropolitan dullness are
enjoying Christmas on skis in Davos. Superciliousness aside, they’re smarter than the bag-laden drones on
the palace escalators, who were not quick enough to become architects and flee at Christmas the hollow
celebrations. Think about that, kids, when you next skip a lesson, ‘rebel’ (you’ll have plenty of time for real
rebelliousness), deliberately botch your homework, believe that Jo Whiley is an intellectual and that the US
pesident is Vince Cable.
For a writer, the world shuts down at Crimbo. The people who would normally be reading your scripts and
putting together a rejection or acceptance are adding a fortnight to the time they take to reply. As if they
cared! I have noticed, though, that submissions made online tend to be answered quicker than those sent
by mailcoach. I fired off something to the Dark Lane Quarterly which was accepted three weeks later, just
before the last-chance shopping saloon opened on the weekend before Christmas. The DLQ sells in London
at Tube stations and other city sites of propinquity to the moving masses. I like the idea of something I’ve
written being bought, taken home and read by someone to whom it has been offered in an eyecatching way
or an unusual place. Perhaps they’ll remember it. 20 x 20 magazine (its title is also its size in centimetres)
also got back to me on Christmas Eve to say it had taken up my suggestion of publishing ten-minute
playscripts and that My Mother’s House (by me) – a two-handed political interrogation – would be the first.
These magazines are also up to speed in that they’ll provide a getattable pdf before sending you a printed
version of the whole magazine. Print and digital – it’s the magazine-publishing compromise of the future.
The posh papers are full of arse-scraping selections of the ‘best’ books of 2012, proof if any were needed
that the dead hand of Random House-Penguin lies heavily on those who write and review and represent the
thinking end of the chattering bourgeoisie. Why, here’s Hilary Mantel (you know things are off the rails when
an historical novel wins the Man-Booker two years in succession). Hello Hilary, you know Margaret
(Drabble), don’t you? And who’s that? Why, it’s Will Self with A S Byatt. Wasn’t her latest – or was it his? –
reviewed by Julian Barnes? Hi, Julian – over here! And so on. Then there’s the Daily Mail lists, items on
which are to be found in Tesco’s celebrity-driven ‘books’ section, from the deathless prose of Pete
Townshend, the well-known internet researcher, to the autobiography of some boy-band member whose
name is meant to escape anyone with a life, via the latest opus of Lee Child, who is, to all literary intents
and purposes, comatose. (In 2012 Alan Yentob devoted a BBC ‘arts’ programme to Child, not because he
was a commercial phenomenon but because he was possibly someone with something interesting to say
about writing. Or not. It was because the manically-bawling majority of the middle class, who believe
everything the mendacious Daily Mail says, has to be catered for when Aunty has been caught with her
bloomers down while still helping herself to the licence fee.)
I could go on but inspiration supervenes. While watching the Russian ballet in Cardiff on December 18 I
noticed an overweight and gruff-looking bassoonist in the orchestra pit and wondered what defection would
mean in post-Cold War terms to someone like that. If he jumped ship it could only be for a personal reason,
not a political one. Perhaps he met someone when he was here last. Mmmm…..
Famous first codswallop lines. No. 2
Tue, 2012-11-13 14:52 | Nigel Jarrett
IT is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of
a wife.
Come again? Not even in the 19th century was it a truth or was it acknowledged, universally or otherwise.
Then, as now, a single man in possession of a good fortune wants to compound it and have A BLOODY
GOOD TIME, with equally fortunate lads and ladesses; and if one of the latter happens to be someone’s
wife, then bring her on.
The amassing of said fortune is usually done without domestic encumbrance, so having become wealthy
without it one wouldn’t want to pursue it in the shape of marital stability. Uncertainty is all – the money
markets, the riotous living, the one-night stand and its consequences, the going home bladdered, the
waking up dazed. Few want to share their good fortune, least of all with a woman who brings none to the
union. (I’m not advocating all this; I’m just observing.) It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single
man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife who also has one and doesn’t know what to
do with it. Better. Much better. Has anyone ever investigated sexism in the novels of Jane Austen?
The point for the all-knowing Jane was that the wife the fortunate single man was in want of had no fortune
herself and supplying his want was a spiritual thing. To his wealth she would marry her spiritual fortune.
Hang on, though. Wasn’t subterfuge involved? Austen’s famous first line denotes an individual in pursuit of
his desideratum and a woman disinterested if not supine in her lack of interest. Whereas the reality was the
opposite: the fortunate man, happy in his good fortune, was quite prepared to attend a local country-house
bash with the lads, complete a few runs of the Gay Gordons, bury himself in and disentangle himself from
an unmarried lady’s décolletage and ride home with said lads, on horseback, praising merits or otherwise of
erstwhile female dance partners; while unmarried lady and her co-conspirators, having assessed the gaiety
or otherwise of the prosperous unmarried Gordons, decamp to the drawing-room to discuss more effective
methods of entrapment.
I mean, at what point does the testosterone in this scenario kick in? Sorry, no time for getting leg over –
have to amass and increase fortune and attend balls in country houses, make polite conversation with
sundry, unattached, impoverished fillies before returning to club for hand of whist. Trouser snakes only roam
in unpredicated female company; are dormant in house of indigent clergyman (played by Donald Sutherland
or Benjamin Whitrow) with five scheming daughters, unless one of them wants a bloody good conjugation
beneath the spreading chestnut-tree, no questions asked. Now we’re getting there. That sounds like a real
D’Arcy, the disgusting, proud and prejudiced moneybags.
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single woman in possession of a good fortune must be in want
of a husband. I think not. And I, for one, wouldn’t blame her.
Hang on while I crush a ground-nut
Tue, 2012-11-06 15:54 | Nigel Jarrett
So disappointed have I become at the response of Welsh book publishers to submitted manuscripts that I
posted on the Welsh Short Story Network to air the subject. It attracted an interesting response, not least
from Gwen Davies, editor of New Welsh Review. I’d already debated with Gwen on the NWR website the
matter of digital-versus-print publishing, which appeared on the Literature Wales website as well; it was also
picked up by Geraint Talfan Davies on the clickonwales site. Davies disliked my ‘looming crisis’ cliché, but I
had him back because he later used one of his own. I like ‘looming’ crises.
The depressing book-production scene inevitably led me to raise the topic of subsidised publishing, an issue
elevated to the state of the frantic by one Julian Ruck, a novelist who claims to have sold thousands of
books in Wales alone, all of them published by himself or by Dinefwr. I’d never heard of Ruck or Dinefwr, so
obviously I’m leading a hermit’s life. (Do come and hang a tribute outside my cell, preferably while I’m out
collecting ground-nuts; I mean, I wouldn’t want to speak to you.) Ruck’s novels, though not sent on their
way by taxpayers’ money, seem wearily formulaic; I’ve just about read one, and the others would appear to
follow the same line. What Ruck did was to make subsidised publishing justify itself. He’d say, as he’d have
to, that a book’s ‘success’ is not a literary evaluation but a commercial one. My information is that a lot of
subsidised Welsh books do not sell in sufficient numbers to match their non-subsidised counterparts, so in
theory Ruck may have a point. My own story collection, Funderland, though widely appreciated in the
national Press and in influential magazines, has not exactly enabled me to buy a writer’s penthouse in
Cannes. (Incidentally, though the Western Mail published an article by me on Funderland before it came out,
it did not review the book – an inexplicable move for a newspaper. To draw comparison, albeit with a more
glamorous event, would it preview a royal wedding then not cover it?)
My point on the WSSN, not very well put, was that subsidised publishers have not only to justify their choice
of MSS but also to explain their frequent lack of profit – profit being book sale monies minus private capital
investment minus Welsh Books Council subsidy, a sum too often resulting in a loss. There are too many
excellent books published with the help of public money in Wales to promote the idea of subsidy as
irresponsible, but they are books that without subsidy would simply not exist. However, subsidy is not an
advance to a publisher who will return it once the book has made money. If there’s to be a subvented
system it must incorporate every area of book publishing, from the acceptance and production of a volume
to its consistent and aggressive marketing. Most independent publishers are not big or wealthy enough to
accomplish all these tasks effectively.
The discussion became bogged along false trails, and I seem to have ended up loitering on the edge of the
Ruck camp. Pity. If Ruck’s kind of book is the result of rubbishing subsidised publishing in favour of the
alter-stratum of the commercial, then hooray for subsidies. That said, would, for example, The Finkler
Question have made the Booker grade if a subsidised publisher had taken it on? Ruck would probably not
agree that this is an argument for subsidy rather than an illustration of the superiority of its commercial
cousin. In any case, indie books are increasingly making the shortlists of big book prizes. It’s a complicated
issue; it needs to be urgently addressed.
Playing the game, old chap, in the hills
Thu, 2012-10-11 14:21 | Nigel Jarrett
The so-called ‘Kindle revolution’ has its ironies. The name itself echoes ‘kids’ and ‘candle’ , both representing
nascent states in terms of, respectively, growing up and the advance of technology. The Ipad is even more
throwback-looking in that it conjures images of people reading from slates or tablets, albeit ones with an
inbuilt magic. Having established that, I repair to the centre of town, where there are lots of places which
sell books of the paper-and-board variety, albeit mostly in charity shops.
But some of those are wise to the technologies of selling. Oxfam, it is well-known, now has an online books
presence and many traditional outlets where it sells only books. This followed the unwitting donation some
years back of a book worth tens of thousands of pounds. Oxfam, being charitable (and honest) contacted
the donor, who must have been surprised as it was to even think that such an unfashionable object could be
worth a mint. I forget what the book was about. We are talking material values here, not the value
impossible to place on a corral of herded-together sentences. The book that most influenced me in my teens
– Maupassant’s collected stories – cost me nothing at a Sunday School jumble sale and giveaway, though it
did disintegrate in my hands when I’d finished reading. The British Heart Foundation’s books are a bit more
expensive, perhaps because it recognises a thriftier clientele; having bought, the reader is encouraged to
give the book back – while forfeiting the money originally paid for it, of course. It’s a form of intellectual
recycling. The British Red Cross, at least at my local shop, is frequently overwhelmed with books and
introduces a BOGOF system of making its shelves more manageable: you choose two books and pay just the
higher price for both.
Collectables shops are sometimes more willing to distribute largesse, but are also knowledgeable about what
readers will pay for specialist books, and price them accordingly. Upstairs, though, among the unclassified
titles, one may find riches. In one shop I discover an unread copy of Nigel Douglas’s book on historic opera
recordings and the singers who made them. For 75p I also buy a hardcover copy of Mervyn Levy’s book on
the drawings and sculpture of Gaudier-Brezska, the so-called Savage Messiah. I see this week that a seller
on the Abebooks site is offering what seems like no less fine a copy of the Levy book for £27. (In that
context, I paid £5 on Amazon last year for a book about Mervyn Peake that included his best-known
drawings. In one of my regular decimations, I gave it to Oxfam with a load of other books. I now find it
being offered by one seller for £38.95. I don’t know what the 95p means – perhaps the previously cheapest
one was £39.) So swings and swings become swings and roundabouts.
My favourite collectables emporium is full of wonders, which vary each time I enter. The books section is as
big as a mobile library and the deal is six titles for £1, or 20p each. To include An Adventure in Music, by
Burnett James, an Islamic Art anthology, Indian Art in the Hamlyn Colour Library series, the Spring 1992
issue of Oriental Art magazine and Jay Allison Stuart’s Call Him George in a rare and much-sought-after Jazz
Book Club edition (about the New Orleans clarinettist George Lewis), I’m willing to take away, as my sixth,
Fun and Fair Play in The Hills by Baden-Powell, which I drop off at the Sue Ryder shop, because I haven’t
mentioned it yet. On another day, when not much caught my eye, I bought for 20p a Thames & Hudson
World of Art copy of Klimt, by Frank Whitford. Bargain and, it cannot be gainsaid, result. I as well as Oxfam
can be honest (vibes from that Scouting book, perhaps): in this same shop I saw a beautiful first edition of
Field-Marshall Montgomery’s memoirs, on offer for the usual 20p but which I had seen the previous week
being offered on line for £150. I told the owner and left the shop smiling – maybe a little smugly, in the
same way I smile at those downloaded-book ironies. No doubt the smile will be effaced if I discover
someone offering Fun and Fair Play in the Hills for £260.
Famous first codswallop lines. No. 1
Thu, 2012-09-27 13:47 | Nigel Jarrett
And Death shall have no dominion.
Oh, but it shall. It’s everywhere is Death.
Resentment at its inevitability is not the same as curtailing its dominion. That’s Canute stuff. Might just as
well pick up your chair before the tide reaches your feet.
There’s a lot of Death in my stories. I once had a Death count after someone pointed this out to me. It was
pretty high. When not foregrounded it was backgrounded. Death doesn’t mind being out of the spotlight.
That’s where it does its best work. Since you’ve been reading this (if you’re reading it at all) Death has
added a million to its Lebensraum. Oops, there’s another hundred. And another…
I always give Death a capital (there – see?). Death deserves our respect not our anti-dominion contempt. Hi,
Death. Respect!
My wife’s grandfather’s brother saw Death reaping grimly at Ypres before it (Death) picked up a 7.92mm
Mauser Gewehr 98 and sent a bullet zinging through his skull. Death extended its domain that day, though
its muddy boots were a drag, its muddy boots dragged..
Death speaks – That Wittgenstein tumbled me. I can’t be lived through. I am not an experience in Life.
In one of my stories Death delegates to an accomplice, a death-dealer (lower case, as it’s out of Death’s
earshot). In another, Death whispers in someone’s ear and says – Can you manage this one? I’m busy
elsewhere. He couldn’t, so Death got him instead. Death bears a grudge.
Death works 24/7, own transport.
Death hangs Gone To Lunch notices while waiting-room faces mesh over.
Death pours an oil slick over bleached pebbles and it comes and comes and is never cleaned up
Philosophical question – Are we running from Death or waiting for it to call?
Behind his back, Death has irritated a friend’s lung and sent a cell mental. It’s started dividing. Some of the
divisions have gone AWOL. He outsmarted it with chemo. Death will be angry. What’s causing his
headaches? (Sorry Death – see below).
Did Death just pass, making the bamboo sway? Death’s irresponsible – never picks up its mess. Mr Stiles,
breeder of Border Terriers, does. He poop-scoops. Death got him yesterday at Sainsbury’s after stalking him
past wrapped bread and cereals. Whole shelf of Whiskas came down on top of him. Death laughed.
Definitely. I could hear it. Death’s laughter is not a listening experience.
Death shall have its dominion.
(How’s that, Death? Any publicity is good publicity, you said. Warts and all. It was an extra 25 years we
agreed – wasn’t it? Death. Hello? Death. DEATH!!!)
Nigel Jarrett blogs: Oddballs on orange unicycles
Wed, 2012-09-12 17:59 | Nigel Jarrett
unicycleWell, articulate my crotchets with a consort of viols! Wikipedia reports composer Philip Glass as
saying he’s not a minimalist but ‘a composer of music with repetitive structures’. Excuse me while I recover
from a jollity-induced hernia. This twaddle only confirms Glass in my estimation as King Pseud of the Realm
of Charlatana. It’s like saying that Comic Cuts will hereafter be referred to as ‘mirth-making graphic
narratives of an ephemeral character’.
Reading Glass’s grave re-writing of what he’s about permitted me a welcome laugh at the end of the
‘festival’ season, from which I’ve been in hiding. I’ve written about Hay and now I have a friend in Lucy
Mangan, the Guardian columnist, who preferred to stay at home rather than brave the cauldron of creativity
that is the Edinburgh Festival. There are far too many people creating when they should be living lives. We
are over-populated by creative types. Is there anything more embarrassing for a woman who’s man has just
walked out on her than to be approached in Princes Street by a host of harlequins who will not allow her to
refuse to join in a piece of impromptu pavement theatre?
As for the Fringe – oh my vertigo-stricken mother’s sister! Isn’t it mostly about talentless actor-comics
performing in cellars before audiences of three (one of them pissed), each member of which has a diploma
in Forced Laughing? It’s Edinburgh I feel sorry for – a city splattered with garish flyers about this and that,
oddballs on orange unicycles blocking your way to the doctor’s, recitals of silent music by the Moravian
avant-garde, exhibitions of paintings by chimps in which chimps are depicted painting chimp pictures,
wheelchair ballet by ambulant people who don’t need to be in wheelchairs but are MAKING A POINT and art
installations in which the artist (sic and sick) takes three hours to drink himself paralytic (not really – the
‘booze’ is alcohol-free, the sentinel St John Ambulance operatives are out-of-work actors and the vomit is
cunningly concealed cold porridge).
Why do we need Edinburgh when we’ve got our friends and family, books at six for a pound at the local
collectables shop, the Literary Review and New Statesman, and the telly and its seven zillion channels? As a
writer-cum-conspiracy theorist who just gets on with writing with no-one and nothing for company except a
dozing cat and a view of the bird-feeder (what’s happened to finches?), I sometimes feel that there’s me
and them, viz., all the other writers and reviewers and creative people creating non-stop in an atmosphere
of endless creativity in order to create and be creative creatively. Whatever happened to destruction,
demotion, denunciation, deprecation, demolition? Give me rubble. Come back Christopher Hitchens.
Actually, there’s plenty of junk to be found in websites, as I’ve had cause to mention, passim, in this blog. A
lot of it, ironically, is created by critics, who might think themselves ideal candidates for creating the detritus
I momentarily crave. But their effusions are mounds of rubbish in their own right. Anyone can be a critic on
the internet. Bad or indifferent critics there become good ones because no-one with ability is filtering them
out and their stuff looks nice in proper type. A lot of them are soi-disant ‘cutting edge’ and bursting with
critical ‘strategies’. This is Beigespeak and these people are inhabitants of Clichéland, a province of
Charlatana. They should never be let loose with the English language. Lots of reviewing on the internet is
writing by people who cannot keep their thoughts to themselves or within the confines of their own homes
among consenting adults. Instead they inflict them on us.
Or do they? Like the telly, they can be turned off. On one site I see a review about an appearance by Philip
Glass, who is referred to as ‘Sir’ Philip Glass. Needless to say, the composer of music with repetitive
structures is not a knight. Why would I want to read a review by someone who thinks Philip Glass is a knight
of the realm? Hang on, though; he is a knight of the Realm of Charlatana, a province of which is Clichéland.
Then again, you’ve probably not got this far. So why should I, like you, bother? If you have persevered, this
blog must be essential reading. Which it is. Anyway, I propose close seasons for writers and reviewers. Then
we can clear the waste and start again. (That OK, Lucy? We did say used fivers, didn’t we?)
You can read all of Nigel Jarrett’s blogs here: http://www.parthianbooks.com/NigelsBlog
Buy Funderland by Nigel Jarrett from the Parthian online bookshop for £7.99
Me, Dan, John and Dylan
Fri, 2012-09-07 16:06 | Nigel Jarrett
The composer Daniel Jones confirmed to me that Dylan Thomas hated the word ‘literature’ and all he felt it
stood for, sucking it as though it were a slice of lemon before spitting it out as ‘litterachewer’ syllable by
painful syllable. This disclosure was at Llandaff Cathedral, where one of Jones’s last works was being
premiered. I was sitting next to him and John Ormond. They’d both had an irreverent few. Thomas despised
what the word represented to a class of scribblers and readers for whom the phrase ‘far-reaching
consequences’ would always be rendered as ‘consequences of a far-reaching character’. The Hay Festival
used to be the Hay Festival of Literature until Bill Clinton appeared there because he had a book out. The
idea that a book could be entrusted – entrusted! – to a politician should never be entertained by rightthinking
folk. At Hay, ‘literature’ formerly meant something different from the recollections of politicos and
verbose Edwardian bookmen, viz – the imaginative transformation of words into a form that enriched and
extended experience. The name change enabled Hay to include in its annual roll-call that paradigm of
literary excellence, Nigella Lawson, and a concatenation of other cooks. Hay’s a book festival, Nigella’s
written a book, so Nigella is invited to appear. Festivals still professing to be literary but having not yet
caught Hay’s rash of shame-facedness include Cheltenham. This year’s brochure has on its front cover those
luminaries of fine English prose, David Walliams, Roger Moore and Kirstie Allsopp, not to mention (….god,
need I go on?) Such events are just publicity jamborees for publishers. Well, it beats 24/7 aggressive
marketing. Moore is an actor (no laughter, please), Walliams a third-rate tittercomic and Allsopp a
disagreeable virago who appears on the telly. That’s what they do. What Howard Jacobson, Ian McEwan and
James Kellman do, primarily, is write fiction of a high order. That’s what they’re known for and why we want
to listen to them speak at literary festivals. What Nigella and Rick and Heston and Paul O’Grady have to say
about anything shouldn’t detain us for too long. Literature, then, but preferably not litterachewer.
Mind that bloody hosepipe
Sun, 2012-08-26 18:01 | Nigel Jarrett
I’m in Cumbria again, east of the M6 and as close to the West Yorkshire dales as to the Lake District, the old
Jerusalem. Just returned from a watery Leck Fell to Cowan Bridge, where the Bronte sisters went to school,
old man Patrick not having been able to cope with educating them at Haworth. In 1875, Mrs Gaskell wrote:
“By the course of the beck, alder-trees and willows and hazel bushes grow. The current of the stream is
interrupted by broken pieces of grey rock; and the waters flow over a bed of large round white pebbles,
which a flood heaves up and moves on either side out of its impetuous way till in some parts they almost
form a wall.” True. In June 1825, Charlotte and her sisters were finally taken away from Cowan Bridge for
good. However, Maria and Elizabeth died of consumption soon after returning to Haworth. The poor
conditions at the school were largely to blame. The experience of Cowan Bridge and the loss of her sisters
affected Charlotte. Jane Eyre’s Lowood is said to be based on her experience at Cowan Bridge. Further north
beyond Casterton, to where Cowan Bridge pupils were transferred after the tubercular school closed, is the
Brigadoon-like Meaulds Meaburn, where the poet Martin Malone lives, albeit temporarily – he’s been offered
an associate professorship at an American university. Martin’s invited me for a pint of Timothy Taylor at the
Three Greyhounds, Great Asby, where my wife’s ancestors come from. In Acumen magazine, I drowned his
latest poetry pamphlet in plaudits, so it would be a back-slapping get-together. For that reason I’ll probably
decline his kind invitation. I did query the rather supercilious way he treated the Brontes and the Haworth
parsonage in one of the poems but couldn’t find much else to take exception to. If I had, it would be a
livelier – and more productive – meeting. Two days ago was at Brantwood, Ruskin’s place beside Lake
Coniston. The last time I was there the house was painted white, but now it’s a more ‘authentic’ light umber.
We were led round the gardens by an American woman who didn’t say who she was or what her connection
with the place was, though she employed the proprietorial ‘we’ when referring to what the Ruskin trustees
were up to. Was Ruskin one of Strachey’s eminent Victorians? I don’t think so. Perhaps he should have
been: the old boy was too good to be true and there’s little at Brantwood about his personal life – you know,
the sort of stuff that goes with Henry James, how he was struck in the bollocks by a fire hose out of
whiplashing control. It would have brought Ruskin down to a level, just as the Leck waters slurping among
the tufted grass accelerated my slide back to Cowan Bridge this afternoon. Sort of. Incidentally, and apropos
of Cowan Bridge, I discover in Casterton churchyard a cluster of graves of young girls. Could they have been
among the Cowan Bridge transferees? I’m on the case.
Macbeth, or Carry On Stabbing
Mon, 2012-08-13 21:29 | Nigel Jarrett
So you’ve published a book to ecstatic reviews and now you require the services of an agent. Easy-peasy?
Not a bit of it. Literary agents are simply an extension of the publishing industry and reflect its often
impoverished state, as now. They’re hired initially to tell you what the publishers could tell you themselves.
Agents are not going to take on an author whose books they think will not garner readers in abundance.
Thus an agent becomes a clerical intermediary, a sort of pen-pushing procurer, there to save the publisher
from being inundated with scripts. Who can blame them (the publishers, I mean)? Let someone else filter
the shite. Once agents get their writers into print their interlocutor status, thereafter fluttering a percentage
of the takings, is complete. There may be agents who will take on writers because they like their work
despite the near impossibility of getting it published; they try in spite of themselves. Mostly, though, agents
compare submissions with what the industry wants and feed its ever-open gob. It might be work of
unparallelled genius but if the industry isn’t digesting that kind of stuff it’ll get rejected. ‘I’d have difficulty
selling this to a publisher in the present climate’, is a typical agent response to submitted work – not what he
thinks of it but what its chances are of being published. My response to that would be: ‘Well try, if you like it
– it’s your fucking job.’
I’m referring, of course, to fiction, which has only two categories, literary and commercial. Literary is worthy
but doesn’t sell (the sort I try to write); commercial is, well, the popular powder-puff variety, scarcely post-
Trollope in form and invariably one-dimensional in content. Literary-commercial fiction is literary fiction that
becomes ‘popular’ (these things are relative) along with its exponents: Amis, McEwan, Barnes, Ishiguro –
that crowd. Most of the rest is drivel. Cultural life would be not one jot the poorer if 60 per cent of British
fiction had never been published. Some idiot out there will always buy the crap, thereby keeping publishers
and agents in employment.
The thing that bugs me most is the ram-rodding ‘advice’ that says you should listen to what people ‘in the
business’ (that’s publishers and agents) tell you about how to get published, always with the proviso that
you should not make multiple, simultaneous submissions – meaning ‘stick with us just in case by some
remote chance we’ll take you on’ . Let me give just one example of my experience with a leading agent. I
have a book of stories published to universally glowing reviews. I approach an agent, who tells me to email
the novel and second story collection I’m offering her. The agency’s turn-around time for submissions is
advertised as weeks rather than months. Both emailed scripts are acknowledged as having been received.
After six months with no response from the agent I email to find out what’s happening, if anything. The
agent is on holiday so I get her assistant. He says he cannot help but will refer my inquiry to his boss when
she returns. Five weeks later, there is still no communication. By this time I’ve moved on but am determined
to call these incompetents to account. I send another email with all previous communications attached to it.
Suddenly, things begin to happen. The agent feels that the novel is not saleable in the present climate (it’s
beginning to sound like fucking meteorology rather than literature) and that she never received the story
collection. (She did; her acknowledgement, six months old, is on my screen). The novel, a serious piece of
work, she describes as ‘a fun read’. I reply that this is like describing Macbeth as Carry On Stabbing. I
wonder if she’s mixed up my novel with another. But never mind: why isn’t ‘a fun read’ saleable? It sounds
like a contradiction in terms to me. Perhaps she means the novel’s incompetence made her hysterical; if so,
why didn’t she say that, or words to that effect. I can take it, though I’d obviously disagree. Things then
slide into what she perceives as acrimony and what I and any other reasonable soul would believe is
understandable grievance. We both retire ungraciously. Without my intervention I would have had to wait
another few months for a decision. Strange that an assessment of one of the scripts had been made but I’d
not been told. Not so strange that the agent denied having received the other when I had her
acknowledgement on file. Let’s face it: most agents are fighting through a blizzard of scripts and have
neither the resources nor the will to keep prospective clients up to speed. But that’s their problem and they
should admit it, earlier rather than later.
The significance of all this is that very soon book publishers and agents will be redundant. Writers will
publish online themselves in an increasingly more sophisticated manner, employing their own professional
presentation and marketing strategies and reaping the profits. As a former newspaperman it reminds me of
the time when computer setting made printers surplus to requirements. They simply wern’t needed but, as
vicious types who for decades had held newspapers to ransom – no-one else was able to master the masonic
skills of typesetting – they made a teeth-gnashing fuss in the dust. It was a waste of time and they knew it,
but being selfish and greedy dionsaurs they fought to the end, dragging journalists, the new typesetters,
into irrelevant strikes and works-to-rule. I’m trying another agent now. If I get a quick response I’ll be
pleased. If it’s positive, of course, I’ll be overjoyed. But I’ll never be kept waiting again, if I can help it. Nor
should you.
Listen to the bards, for they are speaking
Mon, 2012-07-16 12:56 | Nigel Jarrett
You may have heard about the following but it was new to me. Robert Minhinnick, interviewed in the current
issue of Poetry Wales, says Creative Writing is dead and that he despises Performance Poetry ‘and the
present state of the art’ (by which I assume and hope he means PP). I’ve been worried about CW ever since
someone estimated long ago that at least a million students had completed American college ‘writing’
courses and correspondence lessons in the previous ten years but that only one – James Jones, who wrote
From Here To Eternity – had ever become well-known. When I started in newspapers I used to think that
the techniques of reporting had to be learned and that writing could be gotten hold of fairly easily if you
read widely and thought about punctuation as the only means of making the printed word make sense.
Then, having found that reporting was reasonably simple (the best reporters are the ones with a well-honed
news sense, a short fuse and skin a few centimetres thick – generally, not nice people), I decided that
writing needed to be learned. My current view is a mixture of the two, though the idea that you can become
a writer by being ‘taught’ to write will always seem to me to be a con trick aimed at giving writers a living in
academia. Sorry to all those who come under this head but I’m not to be swayed. Some of my best friends
are Creative Writing graduates. However, I hope they all know that only working on a building site or having
a close relative die a lingering death or being a shop assistant/downtable shipping clerk/kept man/kept
woman/drug addict/country doctor/beggar/Aboriginal field officer/bored suburban housewife/father of five
etc., etc., qualifies you to write anything fictional with any clout. A writer has had to be ‘marked’. You can’t
write books based, however unconsciously, on other books. You can always tell when writers have only ever
swum in the shallows, that’s if they can put together a stroke at all. It’s not a question of being afraid of the
depths; it’s a matter of having never explored them, deliberately or otherwise. Robert both published and
rejected my work while he edited PW himself. His slips were always helpful and handwritten. On one
rejection he asked, ‘Where’s the poetry?’ That always kept me up to speed. As for PP, I’m with Hugh
Kenner in believing that the only way you can tell a poem is a poem is by what it looks like on the page, and
against anyone who has not stifled a snigger at those oracular ‘listen to the bard, for he is speaking’ gigs by
Dylan Thomas.
Me and the night and the manuscript
Wed, 2012-07-11 20:02 | Nigel Jarrett
My writer’s day for you non-writers thinking of emulating me and the rest of the scribbling clan starts blearyeyed.
That’s because I’m nocturnal, though even at night there are distractions. I was once disturbed by a
clan of hedgehogs fighting over a saucer of cat’s milk at 2am. With good reason are they called hogs. They
screech, run, and fight each other. Behind me, my two young children slept on, oblivious. The children
oblivious, the hedgehogs delirious. I wrote a poem about it – Nocturne – which was published by Poetry
Wales. After breakfast, if I haven’t got a review to send somewhere, I open up ‘Notepad’ on the laptop and
stare at a blank screen until something comes. It usually does. Something like, ‘One evening, my
grandfather brought home a Victorian brass microscope and a box of glass slides. One of the slides showed
the Lord’s Prayer written on a speck of paper the size of a pinhead…’ I stare a bit longer but nothing extra
arrives. So I think of how to get rid of ‘one evening’ or the repetition of ‘one’ at the start of both sentences
or that redundant ‘brass’, though ‘brass’ is vivid. (The writer must always be in mechanical and creative
mode simultaneously.) Then I realise what I’ve written is possibly something I’ve read, but I cannot
remember where. Then I do remember; it was in Marches Past, the diary-style autobiography of the late and
lamented art critic Peter Fuller – lamented by me, at any rate. But instead of scrapping those two sentences,
I think of modifying them to something similar but not plagiaristic. Such as, ‘My Uncle Jack was always
bringing me odd things when I was a kid. Once he brought me a sealed jam jar full of sheep’s eyes in
formaldehyde. My parents were livid…’ Promising. Then I realise that there are uncles all over the place in
my stories. I think I feel sorry for their avuncular status, though in most cases they are other people’s
fathers, brothers, cousins. But I often see them as grandparents – those elderly watchers who have been
stripped of their parental powers and who, in many cases, attempt to subvert the influence their children,
our parents, have inherited. But I’m wandering, because it’s obvious I can’t get started. I decide to wade
through the book publisher lists. Most publishers don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts, digital or not. Others
don’t accept anything except from an agent. So you need an agent to get a publisher interested but you
can’t get an agent because the publisher hasn’t published you. After coffee and after rolling my clean socks
into balls and stuffing them artistically in the drawer, I go into essay mode. Perhaps Cambria magazine
would like a piece on Welsh stereotypes. They’ve taken stuff from me on Welsh newspapers and other
subjects. I write a par, two pars, three and decide I’m on a roll. But I postpone the rest of it because I have
three CD reviews to write for Jazz Journal and they involve complicated personnel lists. I finish them, tired
out. I email Cambria’s editor to see if it’s worth continuing with my current opinion piece. Yea, she says.
Yea, I say. After tea, I’m at it again: ‘Becky was an odd girl at the best of times but when she walked out of
the waves at St Ives with a message in a bottle and handed it to me with a strange look on her face I knew
we were at the start of an adventure. For the message read, I killed him. It wasn’t Rodney, it was me…’
Possibilities. It won’t be a crime thing; I hate that genre. But, alas, it will have to wait, whatever it turns out
to be. ‘Masterchef’ calls, and that’s me cooked for another day.
Dayd, and never called me mudder
Wed, 2012-07-11 19:43 | Nigel Jarrett
I’ve always been suspicious of websites ever since someone threw me into one against my will and I formed
a picture of myself stuck headfirst in a mountainous municipal midden. Ninety per cent of them ooze ordure.
The remaining ten are either circumscribed (no-one else is interested) or peculiar (you might be interested if
you happen to come across them) or invaluable (if you don’t read them, you’re missing out) or
supplementary (they are about a subject that’s already grabbed your attention). Some of these categories,
of course, merge once you stick your toe in. You’re only reading this if you’re a Parthian or a reader of its
multifarious titles, but you might have come across it on two other websites, access to which on your part
has been occasioned by side-interests, such as friendship with another or familiarity with a kindred
publication. Out of the blue, two people expressed interest in interviewing me on a website following the
appearance of Funderland: my wonderful co-Parthian Susie Wild and someone I didn’t previously know,
Anne Moore. Susie’s interview appeared, and is still available to read, on the website of the short-lived
lterary magazine, The Raconteur, which brought out a ballyhoo first issue with an American theme and then
immediately fell backwards into the stream; dead, and never called me mother. Anne is an English graduate
based in Cardiff who’s set up the website http://www.authorise, dedicated to all things literary. That interview is up
and running on the spot. Incidentally, Susie also invited me to be her guest at one of her Cardiff salons; we
were few, my liege, but true. I’ve now contributed to http://www.walesartsreview, a risen phoenix launched by
The Raconteur fanciers Dylan Moore and Gary Raymond. At least, I hope they’ll use what I’ve sent.
I’m one of the jury still deliberating on whether or not websites will result in the collapse of literate
civilisation as we know it. I’m just reading the traditional book version – paper pages and hard covers – of
The Twin, by Gerbrand Bakker, published by Harvill Secker. In newspapers we used to say that if a literal, or
‘typo’, managed to get into the paper it was a multiplied error, as at least four people, including the writer,
will have passed it for printing. The same goes for books. Bakker and his editors and his proofreaders clearly
believe that the comma has vanquished the semi-colon; sometimes it does duty for a full-stop. How can this
be? Do they talk as their written testimonies read? ‘I went to Asda, they were out of Nutella’ needs a longer
pause between its two constituents. (To be pedantic, Nutella should be nutella, as any spread-smeared preteen
will confirm). With Jo Soap and her husband now contributing a thousand words a day to the web while
their infants wail in pools of neglect, we confront the spectre of galloping illiteracy’s becoming the norm. Or
do we? True, Mrs and Mr Soap’s rantings were formerly kept to themselves or else uttered where their lack
of syntactical niceties was perishable; but literates write on websites, too, and there’s always the possibility
that people not used to writing will ponder before deciding how their words should look on the page – or
screen. I’ve been thinking about writing a short story based on Facebookese – ‘JEEEEEEEEEEEEEZ!!!! Is
thadall U can Doooooooooo’ OK, I know there should be a question mark at the end of that, but this is
parody, innit. Innit? All I can say is – thank god Alain de Botton and A C Grayling have websites; otherwise
the world’s going to turn into a wordy whirlpool, in which the distinguishing marks of a restricted
subordinate clause will be lost in the blur.
By the by, Susie interviewed me at the Cowbridge Book Festival this year. I took over from co-Parthian Bill
Rees, who was lost between Montpellier and Bangor, clutching a first edition of Walden. Perhaps he’d heard
that only six people were likely to turn up.
Knight takes pawn. That’s checkmate, Zonga
Wed, 2012-07-11 19:48 | Nigel Jarrett
Tongue firmly planted in cheek, I meditate fictively on the lower echelons of publishing.-
JURASSIC Park!!! After being rejected by every poetry publisher from Faber & Faber to Dockyard Poetry
Press (the East Newlyn Writers Collective), my sheaf of 62 poems has been accepted by Marzipan Editions,
whose growing list includes Norbert Goossens and Amanda G. Fazackerley. (You’ve never heard of them?
Nor had I) By dispensing with glossy, illustrated covers and stitching, Marzipan’s editor, the nouveau riche
neo-Symbolist Fred Conroy, is able to offer print-runs of 350 and royalties but would appreciate help with
sales and marketing. Suits me. In my book (sic!), that ain’t vanity. By the way, the print run is about double
the average circulation of magazines like Fred’s. I console myself by recalling that Eliot’s The Criterion,
though still cited by academics in obscure pamphlets, was read only by Thomas Stearns, the mad Vivien and
a bunch of their friends.
I do have a confession: ten of the 62 poems have already appeared in Fred’s quarterly Aspects, a SLM (small
literary magazine) that in his nouveau pauvre days cost £4 a year, each copy typed, Tippex-ed and stapled
by Fred himself and his partner/amanuensis, Doris Freedom, sometimes erratically. An eccentric, Fred used
to send flyers and slips that would scare many into trying something different from poetry, such as kite
design (Let my creation fly!). He’d write, ‘I’m happy to accept Blue Sap Rising for publication in Aspects 37,
but – lay me out for the angels – why don’t you subscribe as well as contribute?’, ignoring the fact that I’d
supported him from the start, when I drunkenly sent off a postal order for 24 months-worth of indigestible
verse, mine not included. Replies were always a cyclostyled tear-off with a gap for him to write the name of
your opus in lurid green ink. His rejections were brusque: ‘Pas de moi, s’il vous plait.’ Fred hasn’t shaved
since 1971, and when wearing sunglasses looks like one of the ZZ Tops in retirement.
Not long after, Fred sends me fifteen copies of what, at his suggestion, is called Happy Hour and Other
Poems, reflecting the poetry’s frequent allusions to my bout of alcoholism in the mid-1990s. He says it will
be ‘good bait’, itself a reference to his one-time membership of the jazz-poetry brigade, supporters of the
most obviously chalk-and-cheese combination ever. There’s an accompanying note: ‘It’s on the website.’ I’ve
never been able to find Aspects on the www (‘This page is unavailable’) but Fred phones ethereally – the
first time I’ve ever heard him speak – to say, unpoetically, that ‘in the first instance’ he’s sent copies of
Happy Hour to ten other magazines for review, including the TLS and Fuseli’s Nightmare, a fantasy mag run
by his mate Mario Nova (and Doris’s paramour, so I’ve heard), formerly editor of Gorefest. Fred speaks in a
high-pitched, nervous and slightly effeminate voice that belies his gruff exterior. His view is that my boozefuelled
dreamscapes have a ‘castles in Spain’ quality that might be to Mario’s liking. My heart leaps. I
entertain the corollaries of published authorship: staring at my profile in the mirror; lengthy abstention from
anything to do with writing (including writing itself); afternoons dreaming in Fulgoni’s over super-heated
milky coffee; and playing computer chess with my virtual mate Zonga in Swaziland.
I start doing the rounds, first to Books & Things, the ‘read while you sup’ emporium in town run by Norman
and Gregor. Bossy Norm’s none to keen to take Happy Hour as B&T’s ‘local’ shelf is ruled by tomes about old
buses and grisly local murders (Fares Please! by Charles Sidebotham MBE, and Dumped in the Forest, by
former Det Supt Bill Blake). Gregor, the voluble one with the turned-back cuffs, says he’ll buy a copy ‘just for
himself’, as Norm looks sulkily on. He insists, too, on retail – £6.99. I pop into The George for a celebratory
orange juice and lemonade (pint).
A few days later, my autumn issue of Zorba’s Greek Wheelbarrow flies through the letter-box. ZGW is one of
the 28 SLMs to which I subscribe and represents an heroic stance on my part as it has rejected everything I
have submitted, including the 80-stanza Zephyrs of Samothrace, a verse epic of my descent into an alcoholic
hell. Moreover, it is run by two people in different parts of the country, always discomfiting for a poet
looking to be printed (I mean, do they disagree?). But still I pay up – £16 a year, inc. postage. Imagine my
horror when, on page 25, I see a short story titled Faltering Steps, about a Lawrentian gardener who falls in
love with a woman at a dance class. Almost word for word, it is nothing less than my Parsley Doblé, sent
years ago but never acknowledged by a magazine that has ceased publication. I subsequently regretted the
title (it was a humorous piece and at the time I was on half a bottle of Smirnoff a day), having also
considered A Prance to The Music of Thyme. I have contacted ZGW’s editor, a taciturn cove, and he is
looking into it. Theft not even dignified by plagiarism – it’s keeping me awake at night.
Six months on, with only a mention in the ‘Also Received’ section of Pindar’s Rapture (All Souls, Oxford,
circulation 123) to brag about, ten copies of Happy Hour are asleep in the cupboard, the other four on the
bookshelves of ‘friends’, one exactly where I saw it placed eight weeks ago, next to a leaden Sidney
Sheldon. Gregor passed me on the opposite pavement the other day. ‘Happiness Hour – marvellous!’ he
shrieked. Tosser.
I feel I have been rejected. This is not a passing sentiment but a description of how I know my poems have
come back in those 9 x 6 SAEs. I finger their width. Ah well, back to the keyboard. As I start on a modern
version of the Immortality ode, I fancy a jar of Old Peculiar. I wonder if it’ll do me any harm. Oh, and I read
in the afterword of Fishcake Foibles (Stories, Poems, Polemic, Reviews) that Doris Freedom has decamped
with Mario to start her own mag and imprint, Greased Lightning Press. No-one tells me anything. Fred, I
assume, is pining and not in the mood for pro-active sales and promotion. In the immortal words of
Verlaine, his decadent inseparable, ‘C’est la vie!’
Writing? It’s a mug’s game. Pass the haggis
Wed, 2012-07-11 19:58 | Nigel Jarrett
Who’d be a writer? Sometimes I get so drained by all the fannying around that I just want to go fishing,
figuratively speaking, and leave the literati to it. Give me real people who do humdrum jobs for a pittance
and have a sense of humour, not to mention an interesting outlook on life. Trouble is they sometimes read
Robert Ludlum, which in my book would be a hanging offence if hanging were not so instantaneous a form
of despatch. To think this guy makes a living from writing books. But that’s up there among the
moneyspinners; down here it’s just as bad, only obscure.
There are times when I think everyone seems to be writing, and elbowing you out of the way. Then there’s
the spectacle of what I call ‘usual suspect exposure’, or USE. Give the rest of us a chance, for Christ’s sake.
In Wales, one tends to be labelled ‘Welsh writer’, a description I have no problem with except that it means
something totally different and parochial to anyone outside the country. The consequence of that is to
discover in Wales an overcrowded literary scene, like a barrel of choking fish. I guess it’s the same in
Scotland, where any attempt to foist a book by a Scottish writer on an unsuspecting English public would be
like forcing a Londoner to eat nothing but haggis for a fortnight. Best not encourage them. Can you imagine
Wales or Scotland being resistant to, say, Alan Hollinghurst or Will Self, because they happen to come from
England? It’s weird and results in a form of involuntary entrenchment, as the fish plop back into the barrel
and the big ones hog the surface in the struggle to stay alive. My snap biogs in English magazines that
publish me say I live in Monmouthshire, a British county like Cornwall or Cumbria. That way my work doesn’t
come with baggage, obvious or otherwise.
What’s depressing for a short-story writer is to open a magazine website and find a temporary block on
fiction submissions. There’s one running currently on the New Welsh Review, which is clearly drowning in
digital and hard-copy stories. I don’t know why these publications allow themselves to become trapped by
rising waters. It would be much better to have open and closed seasons for reading and submitting, so that
writers could hold back if they’d missed the boat and editors could deal with a more manageable workload.
The other solution is to wait until the ether is buzzing with magazine websites and submit to them. One day
soon there’ll be millions and the paper versions, lost in the tumult and forced to abandon any appearance of
authority, will take their place in the line. My attitude to these sites is ambivalent. If in Wales there are only
half a dozen print magazines publishing short fiction then it could be said that their literary stature has to be
weighed against their appearance as obstacles to plurality. Only recently have I thought about that in
relation to newspapers. When I was a young music critic on a provincial paper I always did the job
responsibly, never thinking that among my readers were probably dozens of people who knew more about
music than I did and who could write about it more entertainingly. Now they can. And they are. The
ambivalence comes in when I realise that 90% of the websites they contribute to are what one of my former
newspaper colleagues called ‘drivelshite’. All the great and good publishing houses have rejected your novel,
so you ‘publish’ it on the web. Sorry, but it’s still a reject. Without a filter system, however unfair or
objectionable, the drivelshite will pass through the conduits unimpeded. As a latter-day Dr Johnson said in
defining a blog (like this one), ‘it is merely an Electronick Diary unto which earnest Fools do commit their
innermost Thoughts, safe that no Man shall ever read them’.
What’s in a name? Well, everything
Mon, 2012-07-02 12:15 | Nigel Jarrett
Gareth Ludkin, who edits the Cardiff glossy listings mag Buzz, gave Funderland a decent review. But the
magazine, in a previous issue, took an extract from one of the stories for its ‘Microfiction’ slot and called me
Neil Jarrett. While I bitched at this because it might have affected sales of the book – if you’re the writer,
anything can affect sales – it amused me to think that if the cack-handedness had been extended to my
surname I could have basked in comprehensive authorial obliteration, or CAO as it’s known in the trade.
Funderland by Neil Jowett actually has a certain ring to it. My favourite, off the top of my head, would have
been Nicky Remedios. Funderland by Nicky Remedios. By Nicky Remedios Jr. By Nicky B. Remedios. It
wouldn’t have sold dramatically more books but it might have helped. To sell sight unseen in great numbers
your name needs to bludgeoningly monosyllabic. Funderland by Rip Torn, or Tex Bloch, or Jeff Steel. Nicky
Diogenes – that’s good but polysyllabic. If we were discussing an article, not a book, and it had been
accepted by a literary magazine called The Penniless Press, it might not have borne a name at all. The
quirky editor, Alan Dent, has a love of CAO but is not sure how to achieve it. In one issue he listed
separately the contributors and the titles of the works. Then, I think, he published the texts in one issue and
the list of authors in the next, still not matching one with the other. He stopped short of not mentioning the
writers at all; it would have been the ultimate test of authorial vanity. I’m sure he would have been prepared
to lose his own name from one of his witty editorials, believing the text sacred, the author’s identity neither
here nor there. While I was interested in his view as pure theory, I thought the pursuit of anonymity to be
both unnatural and misguided. Perhaps this is because I used to be a newspaperman. A journalist should
never hide behind a pen name especially when the hauteur it signifies is pompous, such as an athletics
correspondent calling himself ‘Corinthian’. The Daily Mirror’s political sage, Bill Connor, wrote under the
name of ‘Cassandra’. As a teenage gump I thought this sounded ostentatious, even though I was in partreceipt
of a classical education. I knew two Sandras. When I started my newspaper career, I used to
speculate on how one would ask for Mr Connor and other ante-diluvians on the phone, assuming one wasn’t
aware of their real names. ‘Hello – could I speak to Cassandra, please?’ ‘Is Corinthian around?’ Or the
replies: ‘Sorry, Heraclitus is in a meeting. Can I help?’ ‘Who are you?’ ‘Democritus’. ‘Nah; I’ll ring later’.
Alan’s view also seems to me to block one’s curiosity and deny himself the advantage of pre-publicity. To
announce that the next issue will be featuring an essay called ‘The Labours of Exposition’ would carry less
weight than if he also said that it was by P.J O’Rourke. On a newspaper, your work bears your name so that
you can take the rap, should it be downwardly administered. In the sense that some names, like Nicky
Remedios and Nigel Jarrett, mean nothing, Alan is probably right. Then again, a reader might want to know
who the perpetrator of this month’s twaddle is so that he can take avoiding action whenever he sees the
name again. I once suggested in a sixth-form debate on literary criticism that our admiration for the work of,
say, Maxim Gorky would be seriously diminished on our discovering that he had been a paedophile. My
intention was to make the link between the writer and his words essential, the more we knew about the
former making the latter take on a different complexion. This is well-scuffed ‘lit. crit.’ ground. John Berger
said Van Gogh’s Wheatfield with Crows had a totally new meaning once you knew that the artist committed
suicide only hours after painting it. (Berger bollocks: it looks exactly the same to me.) My reason for sticking
my name on something is practical: the writer of cheques needs to know who the payee is. Anyway, Neil
Jarrett is my son’s name. At this moment he is booking a suite at the Hotel D’Été, Juan-les-Pins, and passing
himself off as the author of a short-story collection which he hopes will soon achieve cult status. When is a
typo not a typo? When it’s a complete fuck-up.
A Rose by any other Tremain…
Mon, 2012-07-02 12:21 | Nigel Jarrett
In a rash mood one might mock Blackberry Winter, Rose Tremain’s short story for the Daily Telegraph
supplement. (The DT called it ‘exclusive’, proving that nothing is sacred when the blats are competing with
each other.) For a start, it appears to be aimed at the DT demograph in defining the kind of middle-class
tribulation to which none of its members hopes to be exposed. But does it actually subvert the paper’s
conservative ‘lifestyle’ world of material comfort and prosperity, in which nothing troublesome from outside
should detain it for too long?
The characters are classic DT – a narrator who runs a successful gift shop (note ‘successful’); a lover who is
a professor of English and a poet, and his parliamentary-lobbyist wife; a rude mechanical who speaks the
local vernacular; and a mother privileged enough when young to have decamped with her family to an idyllic
rural Norfolk. The narrator, a single woman approaching fifty, is dying to wrench her lover from his wife with
the eagerness she nurtures in wanting to be rid of her decrepit and fractious mother. The lover clings to his
marriage, maybe reluctant to give it up for the uncertainties of life with another poet (two poets under the
same roof: oh, my gawd!). In DT terms already part cad, he risks becoming a complete one.
In a less rash mood, however, one might regard the story’s events as the collision of those bothersome
outer troubles with the DT template, the storm-driven detritus in the mother’s garden being their emblem.
No wonder the narrator offers to get rid of it herself, the menial having refused to do any longer what others
expect of his lowly status. I guess Tremain, like most writers, wants it both ways. Yes, this is DT territory;
no, it’s not exactly a critique of it. But it muddies the waters and maybe suggests a tributary of the sort on
which the narrator and her brother as children pretended to be floating Tahitians. Nothing wrong with
knowing enough about Tahiti to want to imagine being Tahitians. But at least in another life they might not
paddle their way to being so determinedly obsessed with style, wealth and appearance. Why do I think they
would, and why do I think the DT would probably not have countenanced a story in which two poets live
under the same roof having left behind the sham and smugness of their former selves? Great title, though.
When is a blackberry not a blackberry? When it’s a hand-held, miniaturised inter-com device.
Write what you know (when all else fails)
Mon, 2012-07-02 12:26 | Nigel Jarrett
Always investigate a commonplace in case it’s nothing of the kind. When I began the novel I finished last
September (while wrestling with Funderland), I had discounted the idea that fiction written by long-serving
journalists about newspapers were legion, especially those featuring former investigative reporters on the
muckier national dailies. I could find hardly any.
Two of my better-known antecedents were Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop! and Michael Frayn’s Towards the End of
the Morning, the latter being the most believable in terms of my main character, a once-celebrated Fleet
Street prodnose with a once-debilitating drink problem. I include a quote from Frayn’s book at the beginning
of mine: it concerns the part played by Piele’s wine bar in the sight, glimpsed from a high window at the
Guardian, of a distinguished journalist being ‘rescued’ from a brief pavement sojourn by colleagues who
lever him upright and return him inside, with difficulty one assumes, for ‘medication’. I’ve always been
amazed at the number of writers whose deathless prose is forged under the influence – among the moderns
Malcolm Lowry, Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe; and not a few practitioners wedded to daily
deadlines and uninterested, while employed by Press magnates at least, in writing books of any kind.
There’s every reason for a lifelong journalist to write fiction. Half of what he has created is widely believed
by a cynical public to be in that category. Furthermore, Graham Greene reckoned that his stint as a subeditor
on The Times taught him how to trim the metonyms of a novel if not how to envisage its architecture.
But plotting requires only imagination, the over-active form of which leads to the grubby reporter’s worst
excesses. Employed in writing fiction, it needn’t hurt anyone or lead to admonishment by the Press
Complaints Commission. And it draws on practices of Masonic detail with which to regale and enlighten the
When my anti-hero, the Hardy-loving Bunny Patmore, talks of writing a story – an honest and accurate
newspaper report is always a ‘story’ – in three short sticks, he is referring to the length of newsprint
columns, and when he recalls his father, a printer on the Daily Mail, he uses metaphor to explain the
workings of Linotype machines, the clattering behemoths that produced metallic text if the print union
members who manned them after a long apprenticeship felt in the mood, which they did for 95% of the
time, despite what the anti-union brigade says when re-living the days of Wapping and the introduction of
new technology. Although I introduce Bunny to a modicum of self-questioning (self-doubt I’ve postponed for
a follow-up book), the way he negotiates the situations I’ve invented for him is also part and parcel part of
these internal practices.
Like Bunny, I cannot let go. I’ve always believed in the myth of the reporter as writer – meaning ‘writer’ as
fanciful man of letters. The drudgery of much newsroom work, and reporting unappreciated on the hoof in
the rain, is miles away from the idea of the journalist as revered belletrist; moreover, Alistair Cooke and
James Cameron notwithstanding, journalists have always been more fourth-rate than Fourth Estate. Bunny
makes much of the profession’s further demotion from the latter and the former is often a status granted
with excessive generosity.
Part of the backstory in my novel concerns Bunny’s failed marriage. Although his wife died while they were
still together, the union had perished in an alcoholic haze, one of the reasons why Bunny enjoys ordering
Britvics in the most menacing of saloons. Every journalist married or in a long-term relationship is by
definition privileged. It’s not too much of an exaggeration to say that when my two children were growing
up I was out, either at evening meetings or at weekend and midweek sports events. It is over the top to say
that on every Sabbath I was recovering from fatigue, but from Sunday lunchtime till midnight I was already
thinking of the next day and what lay in prospect, be it plaudit or bollocking. Others just became used to it.
Marriages often fail because the journalist may have interests outside his job, which itself, in the company of
miserly employers, is more than full-time. By that I mean it is often poorly-paid work that makes
unreasonable demands, in the provinces at least. Also, journalists enjoy extending their hours with bibulous
longueurs. Pursuing other interests involved stealing time from the early hours and from evenings when you
were at home and able to prevent fatherhood and a marriage from caving in. I don’t think I did much to
ensure their survival. But survive they did.
Bunny Patmore was once a heavy drinker, and I’ve seen plenty of them, though I’ve never been one myself,
a deficiency that has maintained my good health (touch Formica) but prevented too many colleagues and
acquaintances from becoming shoulder-leaning friends. There were newsroom tyrants above me who never
touched a drop and could attribute their longevity to the discipline which drink would only have eroded.
Temperance is the cousin of tyranny.
Among the undisciplined and intemperate was Alex (I change his name), who was banned from driving after
being breathalysed following an accident outside the office at 8.30am, on his way to the local Assize court.
Then there was Jack, now dead, who on his first day was sent out to cover a story about the rising price of
bread, returned, took an hour to type a sentence of Biblical magniloquence, left the office and was never
seen again. Someone still owns the copy paper bearing his words, as a surreal memento of eccentricity and
pathos. I seem to recall that he was related to the actor Richard Burton, or one of Burton’s paramours.
There were others innumerable, elbows ever close to a pint, who hinted at mysterious backgrounds, often
London-based and peopled by the famous, but who steadfastly refused to write an intro of fewer than fifty
words or a story shorter than five hundred. They often smoked pipes and cigarettes till their throats sizzled
with cancer.
Bunny Patmore, now a non-smoker as well, is all and none of these. He belongs in their company but he is
not me. For that, I’m both glad and a tad regretful. I never made it to the Modern Babylon, so never trod its
gilded pavements or sat on them in befuddled despair while colleagues replenished my glass and the rest of
the world waited on my next pronouncement, made in conditions of utmost sobriety.
Newspapers, the smudgy, rustling and eponymous bringers of tidings good, bad and irrelevant, are on their
way out. Newspapers themselves tell us so, while they feverishly develop ever-more-complex website
alternatives that many might read but no-one will be prepared to pay for when print versions become things
of the past. Advertisers, currently being wooed by newspaper companies to display their wares on the
aforementioned web pages at a price, will turn tail and create their own, leaving newspapers to fly, windassisted,
up an alley to their damp or inflammatory demise. Web-based ‘newspapers’ will never spawn a
Bunny Patmore. His fingers – or, at least, his old man’s – were uniquely ink-stained. And his love of books,
especially Thomas Hardy novels, may well die with him. Like ‘new world’ (as in ‘brave new world’), the
expression ‘new media’ has chilling connotations for Bunny and his contemporaries, among whom I remain
your obedient scriptural servant.
Whither experimentation?
Mon, 2012-07-02 12:03 | Nigel Jarrett
Reading these days so often means reading novels. The bespectacled bookworm heading straight for you on
the pavement with her nose in a paperback is almost certain to be reading some cult author, who is equally
certain to be a novelist. It’s never a thin Bloodaxe or a brick-thick biography, or even a book of essays. Well,
hardly ever.You sometimes feel that experimentation should be in the air. But experiment in literature, as in
music, operates in a cul-de-sac. It goes nowhere. Tristram Shandy and Ulysses are islands that didn’t even
spawn an archipelago let alone a continent. Much contemporary poetry, like much contemporary music, has
no audience save the poet’s impressionable peers. By that, I don’t mean the difficulty of poetry should be a
reason for not reading it or trying to understand it; I mean the difficulty is often created for its own sake,
and in the land of the naked Emperor there are few who will draw attention to his nudity. The naked and the
sparsely-clad are to be found in that grim land where poets who are academics speak with fawning syllables
to other academics, who may or may not be poets. Add the magazines where their work is published and
you have a suffocatingly enclosed world. Editor A publishes poet B who also edits a magazine in which C
writes admiringly of A, who reviewed D after E had dedicated a poem to B in a competition judged by C and
sponsored by A; F is enthusiastically lauded by A, B, C, D and E at a symposium, B publishing F’s first
pamphlet and inviting D to review it on A’s recommendation. And so on. The problem with a school that has
come and gone, such as Modernism, is that its critics will adduce its dull alternative as a reason for its
demise. I listened in despair to a radio talk this week about American minimalist music – Glass, Reich,
Adams, Terry Riley et al – as supporters espoused it as the viable alternative to serial music, with its
pejoratively-described dissonances, lack of melody and ugliness. Actually, I’m still keen on Modernism and
I’d listen to Schoenberg for ever rather than endure one hour of the god-awful Philip Glass, whose paperthin
musical materials are asked to bear heavy loads. Steve Reich I can stand, because he doesn’t seem to
take himself too seriously. The ‘popular’ minimalism of a Michael Nyman I’d unhesitatingly ban to save the
proles from catatonic boredom, and increase funds to the WEA to help explain Stockhausen’s kreuzspiel.
What is there bar a novel, a biography and a poem? Why, there’s Geoff Dyer. And there was, before he
died, the wonderful Gordon Burn. I’ve just re-read But Beautiful, in which Dyer imagines the circumstances
surrounding famous stories in jazz whose lack of detail and circumstance have earned them their legendary
status. Take it away, Geoff. Anyone else up for it?
Albert was here, where the rosemary grows
Mon, 2012-07-02 12:29 | Nigel Jarrett
The last time I knocked at the door of the house where Albert Camus is supposed to have lived in
Lourmarin, I was told that it was someone’s home with no public access. I had on a previous occasion
stumbled across his grave in the local cemetery, marked by a crude granite slab with his name on and with
rosemary growing wild on its surface. While I was there, a red squirrel scampered across it.
Lourmarin is on the southern side of the Luberon mountain range. Over its hump on the road from
unprepossessing Apt, home of sickly glazed fruit, is a sign for Bonnieux and Menerbes, the Provencal places
raised to dubious renown by Peter Mayle, a writer with no philosophy, at least none that explained his view
of that perfumed land as a place where eccentric and infuriating Frogs occluded an Englishman’s dream of
The road winds down to a flat tree-lined avenue into the village, one of the trees bearing unmistakeable
signs of collision with a vehicle, probably a car, but without the cheesy floral tributes, now commonplace in
Britain, twined to the trunk to mark a fatality. A friend now living near Aix says that on the roads of France,
despite the frequently lunatic driving, there are few accidents but that when one does occur there is
carnage. The ill-fated drive from Lourmarin to Paris, taken by Camus in 1960 without motorways to divert
the racers, must have been soporific and hair-raising. As an accident it was one of the aforementioned few,
but its effects were catastrophic. Camus was killed. He was just forty-six.
Like other worlds, the absurd world is what it is. Where random lines cross, events occur. Philosophies are
sometimes difficult to retail in terms unphilosophic, but it’s fair to say that for Camus the world, our life, is
essentially the survivor’s experience, and survivors do what they can with their legacy, assuming they do not
wish to disown it by self-immolation. We are in the world, we enjoy it, we take responsibility for our acts,
deferring to no god. The casualty can apportion blame but the buck stops, as they say, at ground level,
among our own kind. We – well, some of us – are not sinners waiting to be punished by divine visitation.
What’s really absurd is the complex relationship between Algerian Camus and mainland France, where more
people than in Britain and other northern European countries live in fear of purgatory and damnation and in
hope of a favourable outcome on judgement day. While the southern Mediterranean coast is a cultural world
away from the sophistication of Paris, it is still, like the rest of the country, the place where a little old lady
dressed in black will appear from nowhere to usher a woman in shorts out of a church. So Camus, had he
been religious, would never have been a Catholic, nor should he, a sickly man, have found northern climes
particularly congenial. He was, though, an immigrant – legal, yes, but an immigrant all the same. Yet
whereas his modern counterparts, casualties all, bring with them a religion which is causing all sorts of
convulsions in a nominally Catholic country professing to be civilised and secular, he brought a borderline
nihilism that must have been equally reprehensible. In theory, a loser on two counts at least.
What would he have made, I wonder, of the new socio-religious issues, as the Muslim immigrants face
financial hardship, unemployment, economic disparity and widespread ostracism? The majority are unskilled
workers engaged in the lowest-paid menial jobs. A growing number are willing to work for lower wages in
comparison with the local French labourers. Consequently, unrest has become endemic in the industrial
towns, especially in the port cities on the Mediterranean. Over a decade ago, in a prophetic act, youths set
fire to seventeen cars in Nice to avenge the death of an Arab, killed in ethnic violence. It was the second
outbreak of ethnic clashes in one weekend, following a shoot-out in the town of Dreaux, in which a man was
killed and eight others were wounded. Racism and ethnic violence are still on the increase, threatening the
stability and integrity of French society. Living in an affluent country, the incomers have grown more
depressed and disillusioned and are vulnerable to antisocial tendencies and psychological complexes. When
they are not exploding, they are simmering.
It would not really matter if the new immigrants, also in revolt among the depressed suburbs of northern
Paris and elsewhere, had lost their religion. Their physical appearance would be enough to trigger hatred
and suspicion among the natives. In a sense, Camus could not speak to them in the mass, only as
individuals. He knew poverty in Algiers but he sought redemption in sensuality (“catching my breathing with
the world’s tumultuous sighs”) and that‘s a personal thing. In various places he denied being an
existentialist, but it is difficult to see how his beliefs and ideas could appeal to the masses, especially those
under immediate threat of intimidation, hopelessness and violence, except in terms of the group as a
collection of individuals, always a slow, if not impossible, process of conversion. But he also recognised that
rebellion was not just an individual act. The rebel, he writes, believes there is “a common good more
important than his own destiny” and that there are “rights more important than himself.” Rebellion is
exercised in the name of “certain values which are still indeterminate but which he (the rebel) feels are
common to himself and to all men.” On the other hand it would have been interesting to know what he
would have said to an oppressed people finding their consolation and political solution in organised and
militant religion.
The last time I went to Lourmarin was on a murky summer’s day before dawn, driving my wife, my brother
and my sister-in-law through it to an assignation with a hot-air balloonist northwest of the Luberon between
Roussillon and Gordes. It was my wife’s birthday and the balloon flight was an anniversary treat, organised
in Britain over the phone and kept secret from her until the very last minute. Like flying by plane, ballooning
presents even to the intrepid and fearless a background threat of disaster. My sister, who preferred to watch
us from a distance than brave the basket herself, asked us if we had read the opening chapter of Ian
McEwan’s novel Enduring Love, in which a father, clinging to the rope of a balloon accidentally ascending
with his young son on board, is swept away to disaster, and the would-be rescuers, in one case living
afterwards with the guilty belief that he had selfishly saved himself rather than help those in distress, drop
away to safety one by one. We had. But our faith was in the balloonist, even when he could not guarantee
that we would see the promised sunrise above the mist and clouds, a prospect for which we had paid
handsomely and which may, we quietly suspected, have encouraged him to take risks. Nothing untoward
happened. We were blessed with a miraculous sight – a cloudless sky, a rising sun, and the Luberon in the
distance like a dozing brontosaurus – as we floated on a nimbus sea, our tiny balloon shadow chasing us.
We had travelled through the world of Camus that day on a road he must have used himself. Chance events
got us safely to the lift-off site when they might have sent us hurtling into a gorge on the D943. Above the
haze our senses reeled, and then we descended to a still-foggy morn, for a brief moment enjoying a
Meursault-eye view of an altercation on a farm and, in the distance, a car speeding along on some crazy
errand towards a van coming in the opposite direction with melons inexplicably falling out of the back like
dambuster bombs. For a long time afterwards, France was more than what we had hitherto been prepared
to accept and enjoy. Filling up with petrol in the back streets of Ales (not Arles), we might have been in
Medea or Ksar El Boukhari, except that there was no dialogue between stone and flesh, only despair and
menace. We had come down to earth.
Right, left, right…right…right
Mon, 2012-07-02 12:13 | Nigel Jarrett
A few years ago, weary of finding a magazine willing to publish an essay I’d written on politically-correct
zoos, I contacted The Salisbury Review, which snapped it up and paid me handsomely within a few weeks of
its appearance. The gist of the essay doesn’t matter; suffice to say that I’ve always disliked the idea of
keeping animals in captivity for the public to gawp at, and I’m even more suspicious of adducing scientific
credentials to defend zoos as a means of preserving a species bordering on extinction. Perversely I always
took my kids to the zoo and therefore felt cheated at the disappearance from them of animals whose
enclosure is now deemed to be a sensitive issue, and its replacement by hectoring displays of how we (that’s
us) are destroying the planet. Why was I being asked to stare at an aquarium stuffed with used nappies?
Goodness knows why The SR, a politically right publication, should have taken the essay. I like to think it
was because my views were provocative. They certainly weren’t of any political persuasion, unless politicalcorrectness
is, as seems often to be the case, the prerogative of the Left, and the Right pounces on all
manifestations of its idiocy. At the end of the day, or the calendar month, I just pocketed the cheque. I’ve
never been much interested in party politics. The party that does the right thing in the circumstances is the
one to support. Thus am I the bane of party pollsters.
But you need to be careful. That first cheque having fluttered down like an Autumn leaf, I shook the tree
again. Cheques arrived for an essay on the vulgarity of musical competitions and the odiousness of not
comparing like with like; a lengthy book review about Britten and Aldeburgh; an account of a Delius
premiere at Newport in the 1920s; a polemic on the deficiencies of the jury system; and, lately, a
recollection of Philip Larkin as jazz critic. All the while I’d taken exception to some of the SR’s views, or the
views of some of its correspondents. I don’t mind conservatism; often it’s an admirable stance. But wander
too far Right – or Left – and one hears the sound of grinding axes, some of them pretty vicious. There’s
nothing so telling as a plausibly-sounding viewpoint based on an unshakeable but hidden prejudice.* I don’t
want anything to do with that. Have I been compromising myself? I don’t think so. I also write for Cambria
but I’m not a Welsh nationalist. I distrust nationalism because of the slippery slope it inhabits. I also write
for modernist literary magazines but I wouldn’t say I was a diehard modernist. Maybe I’m an opportunist.
Most writers are. Beware the writer who comes strapped with political baggage. Just read the words. There’s
no more there than is indicated by them, and the bigotry of a bigot can always be spotted. What I’d never
tell The SR is that I once wrote for Cyffro, the magazine of the Welsh Communist Party. I’m not, and never
have been, a Communist, let alone a former one. But perhaps the extra-Right and extra-Left are the only
ones who will say what others are frightened to for fear of condemnation by peers. Writers shouldn’t be
afraid of them either. Saying it as it is – that’s a writer’s function. OK, I will tell the SR that I once wrote for
* Update: See the comedian Jim Davidson’s observation (sic) last week that the Olympics would be about
our black athletes competing against the black athletes of other nations. You’d never think bigots would
have a feeling for irony, would you?
Welsh bards and Scotch reviewers
Mon, 2012-07-02 11:48 | Nigel Jarrett
As copies of Funderland, my Parthian story collection, went skidding off to places where they might be
reviewed, I reflected on how the vagaries of the enclosed world of publishing and reviewing might be
regularised to give every writer a chance of publicity, good or bad. I think I’m right in recalling that on the
night I was handed my Rhys Davies Prize, Richard Davies, Parthian’s founder, was distributing leaflets
advertising his and Parthian’s first book. Of course, he had founded the firm to publish it, and all has grown
into a legendary publishing success story.
Richard was braver than most writers who cannot find a publisher, but literary history is replete with famous
books that were first self-published. It says a lot about publishing mis-judgements, so many of them crass. I
think J P Donleavy’s The Ginger Man was thrown out by 32 houses before it was finally accepted. Golding’s
Lord of the Flies underwent a similarly negative passage. In every respect, Richard’s solution may always be
preferable to waiting years for someone to recognise a book’s worth. Some say it’s all down to personal
taste. Well, that’s true only when there’s not a consensus of misguided disapproval. Many agents and
publishers today seem to be looking for the kind of book that might appeal to a numbskull who finds even
Sun leaders a furrowed-brow struggle – exactly the sort of book that wouldn’t be found on any academic
English syllabus anywhere in the world. On at least two occasions, an early Booker prizewinner was sent in
the form of an unpublished script to three London agents. All rejected them as ‘lacking pace and character’
and ‘in need of substantial re-writing’. Advice to look at a publisher’s list to see if your script matches its
personality is almost always unavailing. I always love the ‘lacks pace’ judgement. Every opera ever written
lacks pace because that’s the nature of storytelling; you need to take a breath and ruminate on what the
hell’s happening. I sometimes think an agent’s ideal script would be a Mickey Spillane thriller, the sort of
thing you could liquidise and feed a reader through a drip. There’s little risk-taking, and most of the time
they’re not risks at all. Parthian is to be praised for its commitment to various literary genres: perhaps it’s
Richard’s initial courage and determination gathering strength as he goes along.
As for reviewing – well, you posts your copy and you takes your chance. I would have thought that literary
magazines which wouldn’t exist were it not for the taxpayers’ subvention via the Arts Council should exercise
some kind of priority. For example, a Scottish magazine that reviews books should be reviewing books by
Scottish publishers. If there’s space when they’ve been dealt with, then review the rest. Or publish a page of
miniature reviews; that would be better than nothing. Is it beyond a magazine to keep a list of a publisher’s
forthcoming titles and make sure its major offerings (not many, I’d wager) are noticed close to when they
appear? If I were an Arts Council purse-stringer I’d insist on it or my money back – or no money disbursed in
the first place.
The tragic fall of Sheila Fell
Mon, 2012-07-02 11:13 | Nigel Jarrett
Just back from Cumbria and old Westmorland, where, among other things, I walked the Orton and Shap fells
and visited Blackwell, the Arts & Crafts house on the shores of Lake Windermere. I once thought that
William Morris and all represented the triumph of earnestness over achievement but this divine place,
designed by Mackay Hugh Baillie Scott, the well-known Caledonian mouthful and architect, for the
Manchester brewer Sir Edward Holt, changed my opinion. After the Holts’ day, it eventually became a girls’
school. (The head used to flood the courtyard for the gels to skate. That’s when we had winters.) Also,
lovely exhibition of paintings by Sheila Fell at Abbots Hall, Kendal. Poor Sheila, a ravishingly beautiful woman
and committed artist – I’d say the same, mutatis mutandis, if she’d been a bloke – died aged 48 after an
accident at her Chelsea studio in 1979. She’d have had no truck with the wankers who think an idea can be
art without exegesis. A designer friend of mine got a BA in art for unravelling a piece of rope in a bucket and
trailing it down a stairway. Needless to say, he never went to classes in rope-unravelling. He told me that he
laughed all the way to the degree ceremony. I blame Duchamp. Art as anaesthesia. Art is not what the artist
says it is but what you and I say it is. The artist, of course, may also have an opinion, though not many can
remain motionless long enough to formulate one. On most conceptual art (there’s a lot I like, especially
when the visual element is arresting), I’m with Kim Howells – or ‘Dr Kim’ as Arthur Scargill once sneeringly
referred to the former S. Wales miners’ spokesman in my presence. Kim (ex-Hornsey College of Art) thinks
that conceptualism slips easily into the habit of the ludicrous, in image and intent. I suppose ‘arresting’ is
what that the ludicrous Clive Bell would have referred to as ‘Significant Form’. What’s that over there? Why,
it’s a queue of mountebanks looking for a gullible critic.
Anyway, I returned home to find a cheque from Planet for a story of mine in its current issue, and news that
I’d made it to the longlist of Short Fiction magazine’s annual story competition. It was Gerard Donovan who
sifted my effort and thirteeen others from the dross – er, remaining entries – so it was almost as good as
winning. The latter story, by the way, was about an old gorilla doing strange things at a failing Swedish zoo.
My Parthian editor, Eluned Gramich, will have a wry smile at that: failing zoos/wildlife parks are one of my
obsessions, along with…oh, wait and see. What’s on the telly?
How to launch a book: skateboard the cast!
Mon, 2012-07-02 11:52 | Nigel Jarrett
Joyous launch of my book, Funderland, at Café Jazz, Cardiff. Thanks to all – about sixty – who turned up and
to the musicians and readers who supported the event. Also present were one literary figurehead and sage
(Rich Davies, head of Parthian, my publisher) and one poetic genius (Lloyd Robson, the Allen Ginsberg of
City Road). Thanks to writers Rhian Edwards (also a droll songster) and Holly Muller, and musicians Kai
Lena, Jamie Neasom and Zervas & Pepper, for putting up with background chatter, unavoidable on these
occasions, I feel, especially in a jazz club.
Thanks above all to my nephew, Matt Jarrett. He organised the bash on his tod, employing what he
mysteriously called ‘rendition’ and ‘waterboarding’ on the evening’s acts – or ‘turns’ as we say at Cwmbran
Workingmen’s Club – as well as other methods routinely used by MI6, who I assume are a modern ‘beat
combo’, like U2, UFO and XS. Sounds fun. Matt’s a corker and his associates mad as a box of frogs. If you’re
in a pub pop quiz, get some answers from him before you start. And visit his record shop, Diverse Music, in
Charles Street, Newport, a cornucopia of vinyl, CDs, merchandise and information about gigs and giggers.
(Is that OK, Matt? And we did say used notes, didn’t we?). I would have loved to have seen my wondrous
editor, Eluned Gramich, there, but at UEA on Monday morning she had to talk at length about Ernest
Hemingway, surely a contradiction in terms. (Only kidding, Eluned). She’s on the creative writing course
I abandoned any routine I may have entertained for my time at the ‘mic’, as Rich wanted a Q&A session,
and a good thing too. I was going to say that writers have obsessions and that one of mine concerned the
Austrian composer Anton Webern, a member of the Second Viennese School. In 1945 he visited a relative in
an Austrian town held under curfew by occupying US troops. Forgetting about the curfew or having gulped
one glass of Schnapps too many, he stepped outside into the snow for a smoke and was shot dead by a
drunken soldier on sentry duty. History isn’t interested in the detail of the incident, only its arty
consequence: the SVC reduced by a third. So I researched it and discovered that the soldier was Raymond
Norvill, who lived a post-war life of remorse – presumably – before committing suicide. His family are now
online, defending him against ‘music-lovers’ who regard him as an ogre. On the morning of the launch, I’d
written an 850-worder called Who Killed Emil Kreisler?, the worrisome thoughts, possibly an extended
suicide note, of a man who’d done something similar to Norvill. It’s the one-to-one directness that gets me.
Who snipered Wilfred Owen? When did Norvill discover that he’d blasted his way into the history of music? I
should have read the piece. It contained the results of my boning up on Mid-West slang and it needed to be
delivered with a Minnesota accent. Another time. Anyway, a magazine editor I’ve pitched it to today says
he’ll take it. Result!
A publishing friend of mine in London said book launches were routine and unproductive. Parthian would no
doubt say that it depends on how you present them. I think mine was an example to others and a rebuttal
of what APFOMIL told me. Anyway, he also relates horrendous stories of publishing in the Modern Babylon.
He should come to Wales. We know how to do it here without fear that there’s a Random House accountant
at the top of St Mary Street, looking like a member of a Press Gang at the end of a half-ploughed field –
that’s ‘Press’ as in ‘Come and join us, laddy’.
That’s it for the mo. I’m with my medical team, calming down. Will be up and walking – and seriously writing
– soon.
To St Louis, from his old pal Wallace
Mon, 2012-07-02 11:33 | Nigel Jarrett
I don’t go to Hay very often for the same reason that others go whenever they can: all those intimidating
shelves of books by every writer from Goethe to Gordon C Skybarrow, whose History of the Tungsten Alloy
Pressure Tank (vol 2), I notice, has yet to find a buyer. Why would any writer want to add to their number?
But writing is not a rational activity, except for people like the frightful Jeffery Archer, who cannot be
bothered even to think up arresting titles for his books, so certain are he and his minders of making a bomb
out of everything he publishes. If you told Archer that, like a fourth-rate poet, he was always mistaking a
metaphor for a rigorously considered proposition, he’d probably take it for high praise. I bet Archer’s
calculations extend to writing itself, the idea that one sits down, thinks of a subject, types the first wodge of
what will be 80,000 words of prose as lively as a dead cod and then repairs to the Athenaeum for a few
drinks with chums.
Archer’s example always reminds me of its opposite. Vasari reported that Leonardo da Vinci once travelled to
Rome with Giuliano de Medici. On route he (Leonardo) made a paste of wax and fashioned hollow animals
which flew when the wind blew. He collected scales from lizards and dipped them in quicksilver before
sticking them to another lizard along with a horn and beard; he then tamed the decorated one and kept it in
a box. He also dried and cleaned the guts of a bullock and made them small enough to be held in the hand;
but by inflating them with a smith’s bellows they would fill a small room, forcing everyone inside to seek
refuge in a corner.
This is the sort of story that snags on a writer’s antennae, never going away. It’s the supreme example of
fact being stranger than fiction. I’ve never been able to forget it. There has to be a story in it. It’s almost a
story itself. Or, in it, Leonardo assumes the persona of the creator, the myth-maker, the story-teller. Vasari
must have known that it illustrated da Vinci’s superhuman normality. Odd things happen to extraordinary
people. Nothing of interest happens to Archer’s characters because they’re not interesting to start with and
he doesn’t attempt to make them so. In his books, neither fact nor fiction is ‘strange’ but the author’s
reputation is as inflated as a cow’s expanded guts and just as easy to puncture. Louis Zukofsky was odd.
The best book I ever bought at Hay was by him. It cost £2.50 and inside was a scribbled note to him from
Wallace Stevens. Result!
Fun among the bookshelves
Mon, 2012-07-02 11:57 | Nigel Jarrett
To a signing of Funderland at Chepstow Bookshop. After sitting in Trappist silence, except for some banter
about the vagaries of writing and publishing, the owner and I lured an unsuspecting browser into the ‘Travel’
section, stunned him with a copy of Hughes’s Complete Guide to Minor Summits of the Auvergne, took ten
quid from his wallet, shoved a copy of my book and a pound and a penny change in his pocket and dragged
him to the nearby car park to recover. God, it’s a hard life. And they think nurses have it tough! My
neighbour, Mady Gerrard, had it tougher when she published her autobiography. Mady survived Auschwitz
and the forced march to Bergen-Belsen before being liberated and ending up as a leading fashion designer
in Manhattan. Boy, does she have a story to tell. But her book’s only a bit about what she calls ‘my Nazi
jamboree’. And why not? Everyone expects her to rabbit on about how as a young Hungarian girl she was
herded into a shed awaiting the gas chamber but escaped by shimmying up a drainpipe and through a hole
above the door. Next day, as a mere cypher reported missing (there was a space, an empty bed), she joined
the search for herself. Kafkaesque, or what? Mady believes, I think correctly, that survival and the postcamp
life were more important than endurance, which is why the horror takes up a small proportion of her
book. Some books about survival make awful reading for surprising reasons. Viktor E. Frankl’s Man’s Search
For Meaning opines that to survive the camps was to admit to being devious, cruel and opportunist. You had
to be those or fall to the floor; if you fell, your fellow prisoners would be scavenging your body for goodies.
Like Mady’s relegation of her wretched experiences to a chapter at the beginning, Frankl uses his Holocaust
recollections to expound a theory of meaning and purpose in lives battered almost beyond redemption. His
Logotherapy reads almost like a quack American ‘lifestyle’ guide. Not everyone has Frankl’s powers of selfcontainment
in the face of the whiplash. But it worked for him. And it worked for Mady Gerrard, though she
does say that if British troops had not liberated her camp when they did, she would have been dead in a
week. In New York her knitwear was commissioned by Mrs Pat Nixon, Dionne Warwick, Shirley Bassey, the
silent-movie star Celest Holm and many others. The end of Mady’s book resembled a deflated balloon before
a coda came galloping along on a charger, pennant fluttering and metaphors mixed. The British SAS officer
who liberated her from Belsen – the first person she saw – was the subject of a Daily Telegraph anniversary
feature a couple of years ago. They published a 1940s picture of him and Mady almost collapsed on
recognising it. The two got in touch and now correspond daily. End of book. Which reminds me – we may
have been a bit hard on that Chepstow browser today. Perhaps we should have bopped him with something
less weighty. Hughes’s Abridged Guide to Minor Summits of the Auvergne, for instance. A mere half-kilo.
Read Pessoa, didn’t buy the T-shirt
Mon, 2012-07-02 11:37 | Nigel Jarrett
In Portugal recently for other reasons I had two literary options: buy an XXL Fernando Pessoa T-shirt or visit
Buddha Eden. One feels the soul of Portugal has been poured into Fado, leaving large areas – well, soulless.
Fado is concentrated elderberry juice, dark and acerbic. I could also have gone historical and, in the
deathless prose of the Portuguese translator, made my way to an archaeological site and picked up ‘signals
of beyond memory times which are the clues of the Jurassic period discovered on the region’. Instead, I
went to see the Buddhas and their later signals of beyond memory time on the vale which is the clue of
Bombarral – later than the Jurassic, anyway. The Pessoa T-shirts were 17 euros a throw.
Buddha Eden, sixty kilometres north of Lisbon, is literary in the way that Whispering Glades cemetery in ‘The
Loved One’ is literary. It is kitsch writ large. It cries out for explanation and accommodation by an earnest
post-modernist. Ying pings with Yang like the twin clappers of an enormous plastic bell. Buddha Eden
resembles the Forest Lawn of Waugh’s inspiration in that whimsy triumphs over seriousness but retains a
small dose of it, as of a droplet of milk in clear water. Paradoxically, therefore, the seriousness becomes a
pollutant rendering clarity uniformly opaque. Kitsch should be kitsch, without the defence.
In 2001, shocked by the Taliban’s destruction of the giant Buddha statues in Afghanistan, Senor José
Berardo decided to ‘re-instate’ them on a 40-acre site next to a Portuguese vineyard. The focal point is a
Lake of Peace so full of voracious fish that sheldrakes have been known to disappear from its surface after
picking up signals of beyond future time which are the clues of an advancing set of carp jaws and a
posthumous duck life. On avenues up hill and down dale are processions of giant Buddhas and, it must be
said, the deities of Hinduism and other kindred religions. Where the Taliban were specific in their
destruction, the Senor has been liberal in his re-construction. There’s even an attempt at Stonehenge and a
pre-ignition pyre. Of Christianity, though, there is no signal of memory time or beyond. But fifty more acres
straggle to the horizon awaiting fulfilment. Like all kitsch except Jeff Koons’s parodies, the Senor is strong on
bulk but weak on finesse. Most of the statuary is made from blocks of stone or concrete lumped scarily
together. A line of ‘terra-cotta’ warriors stands sentinel above the lake, except that they are fibre-glass and
their hands and noses are already dropping off; the crudely-painted faces look as though they were
executed by artists who’d just heard that the wicked Empress Lu and her army were waiting at the gates to
de-bone them and pickle their flaccid torsos. Scarper, boys!
Few know that Highgate Cemetery, attractively overtaken by the undergrowth, was built of cheap materials
destined to crumble superfast. A similar fate awaits Buddha Eden. Either now, before a crashing Vishnu
turns a tourist into a flattened cut-out, or in future times signalled by decay which is the clue of crappy
workmanship, it can be a Forest Lawn backdrop for a Waugh-type satire. At Forest Lawn, Waugh
experienced the authentic appetite of a writer on the track of a story. In the words of our translator, the
dynamiting Taliban erased ‘the memory masterpieces’ but Senor Berardo began ‘the plus one of your
dreams’. Minus my plus two Pessoa T-shirt, I could still imagine a weary, way-worn wanderer’s being borne
home by a Nicean barque after picking up signals of beyond memory time. All this in a land ‘situate between
the Atlantic Ocean where coast and land bind by a green smudge sprinkled with white housing and mild
climate.’ And twenty concrete Vasus, thirty-five Rudras and fifteen Adityas, all – whoaaa! – upright for the
time being.
Rhys Davies and his female obsession
Mon, 2012-07-02 11:44 | Nigel Jarrett
Rhys Davies’s brother, Lewis, who died last year leaving his entire estate to the Rhys Davies Trust, once told
me something that reflects Rhys’s obsession in his stories with feisty female characters. Rhys’s operatic
favourites were Salome and Elektra. Callas as Medea had him drooling. In the theatre, Racine’s Phedre was
never missed. Rhys was present at Sarah Bernhardt’s final London appearance. He must have been
overcome: she had been an abiding passion of his; today, I suppose, she would be a gay icon. Women
stretched on the rack of sexual frustration endlessly fascinated him.
Lewis also recalled that his brother was paid around 800 dollars for a story in an American magazine at a
time when the equivalent fee in Britain was three guineas. Go West, young men!
Anyone who thought my reference to Clydach Vale in recent postings about Rhys meant that I didn’t know
the old boy was born in Blaenclydach can rest the quill and cap the vitriol. A distant relative of mine from
Blaenclydach, a neighbouring side-valley of the Rhondda, always referred to the general environs as Clydach
Vale. Lewis also confirmed it. His brotherly devotion and commitment to Rhys’s memory were touching. He
was an expert on the work and forthcoming about Rhys’s sexuality.
Mention of gay icons reminds me that I once interviewed the Beverley Sisters. They were in South Wales to
open an old people’s home. Talking to them was a hoot. You asked a question and they all answered
simultaneously. Dressed in identical powder-blue outfits with matching hats, they looked like a trio of
budgerigars. Some idiot radio reporter insisted on playing them a CD of the Stereophonics to see what they
thought about Welsh music (sic). Later, they told me that ‘the gay thing’ intrigued them and that they found
it odd to perform before a gay audience. I think the fact that they liked Dusty Springfield confused them. I
asked them why they did it. They looked at each other simultaneously and I detected a faint rustling of
feathers. Cuttlefish, anyone?
Carriages at an unearthly hour
Fri, 2012-06-29 20:41 | Nigel Jarrett
Can’t resist re-visiting the invitation to the launch of Funderland last October. Matthew is my nephew and
was responsible for organising the event.
You are heartily invited to the launch of
by Nigel Jarrett
A most excellent compendium of short stories
Deposited of late at Her Majesty’s Stationery Office
by Mr RICHARD DAVIES’S wondrous PARTHIAN publishing company
Modest Celebrations will ensue at
Café Jazz, St Mary Street, Cardiff,
at 6pm on Sunday October 16th., 2011
Matthew Jarrett, Esq., Gentleman & Impresario, has arranged an Entertainment to Unite all Classes &
Generations. Musick of A Popular Nature, such as ‘Berate Me With Yr. Rhythmic-Stick’ , ‘Killing Me Softly
With His Ague’ and ‘Give Me Sheltered Accommodation’ will be Despatched by sundry Artistes, and Cordials
taken in circumstances of Righteous Sobriety. But the Singing of Hymns will be.-MOST STRONGLY
Mr Nigel Jarrett will need only flimsy excuse to Say a Few Words, recite from his Magnum Opus (or
Something he Scribbled earlier in the Day) and answer Questions Prepared in Advance by his esteemed
solicitors, Charge, Moore & Bank
Please do buy the book, the merest snippet at £8.99, to be available in QUANTITY on the night
More details to be posted here soon, and to be currently found on FACEBOOKE, the device on which FOLK
INNUMERABLE indulge in WHIM and APOSTROPHE, and excite themselves to a FRENZY of DELUSIONAL
self- importance over matters TRIVIAL. (Cf. A’TWITTER and A’ GOGLE).
Writers and Artists Here, Look
Fri, 2012-06-29 20:18 | Nigel Jarrett
Why isn’t TV documentary as eager to embrace the British literary canon as it is the visual? An historical
survey – any survey – might be controversial and would be long overdue. Dr James Fox, the stripling
Cantabrigian, was on the stump this week lamenting the marginalisation of painting by vapid YBAs, citing
Graham Sutherland, Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, Richard Hamilton, David Hockney and Keith Vaughan as its
20th-century standard-bearers. Hamilton was really a satirist; both he and Hockney hated the materialism
Pop Art proclaimed. (That always reminds me of the Beach Boys and their sand allergy.) Couldn’t the Beeb
get a similar programme out of 20th century British literature? Who’d produce the writerly counterparts of
Bacon’s grotesque, Vaughan’s disappointed humanism, Hamilton’s veiled mickey-taking and Hockney’s
sashaying quest for the paradisaical? My only reservation about Fox is that he seems worryingly conservative
for one so young. And Cambridge does have a reputation for thinking of itself as the the Centre Of
Everything That Is Important In The World. Interesting that Fox’s selection was based on how his chosen
ones reacted to the war. Would the greatest British writers of the 20th century be necessarily those for
whom it figured greatly? The thing about Bacon is that his bleakness continues to be vindicated for many by
world events. Even landscape has come into its own again with the exertions of the Green movement: pick
up a discarded Coke can and think of England (or Wales). One thing’s for sure: modern British art seems
synonymous with the pursuit of celebrity and provokes hostile reaction; whereas modern British writing
seems happy with its mostly benign division into bestsellers and The Rest.
Up at the villa with Willie
Fri, 2012-06-29 20:24 | Nigel Jarrett
I’ve just written a 4,000-word appreciation of Raymond Jeremy, the Welsh viola-player. It’s been hard graft,
as not much is known about him despite his having played in first performances of works by Elgar, Bax and
Bliss. My piece is for the British Music Society Journal, to which last year I contributed an essay on the world
premiere in Newport (the place you whizz past on route to Cardiff) of Delius’s An Arabesque; or En Arabesk,
in the Norwegian of Jens Peter Jacobsen, the poet whose words it sets. Jeremy died, virtually forgotten, in a
seafront nursing home in Aberystwyth. He’d decamped there from a brilliant career in London, pursued by
creeping deafness, to play in the college ensemble at Aber university. Charles Clements, the ensemble’s
pianist and another great Welsh musician, ended his days in the Carmarthenshire Asylum, suffering, inter
alia, from dementia, and equally forgotten – unremembering and unremembered, as it were.
All this is lengthy preamble to reminding myself of something Somerset Maugham said: that he needed to be
in an individual’s company for only five minutes to be able to write a story about him (he did say ‘him’). I
always quote Maugham’s example as illustrating how, for a writer, so much of what happens to ‘him’,
including things read about or otherwise picked up, is fiction fodder. This doesn’t mean that a writer
clinically ‘uses’ or even looks for people and events just in order to write something.On the contrary, there’s
an element of commemoration about it; that what happens is so meaningful to him personally that he is
obliged to make the fleeting permanent, the incomplete whole, the threadbare comprehensively stitched.
This is never more so than when what is heard or uncovered does not deserve to be buried. So much
journalism is like the writing of fiction in that people and events, experienced directly or read about, demand
to be enshrined in formal shape. The ‘fictional’ element of a news story, the thing that is not quite right and
gives journalism a bad name, is, I believe, an example of this relationship in action. The reporter who trawls
all the facts and doesn’t have to embellish them or make things up, is concerned primarily with form; the
one who doesn’t and thinks the facts need improving (‘sensationalising’) is struggling mainly with content.
Needless to say, these are only surface comparisons; but for a writer like me who is also a journalist they do
clip together nicely. I’ve never made up a ‘fact’ in my life. Honest. Of course, I’ve been tempted.
Someone put out that bloody hawk!
Fri, 2012-06-29 20:05 | Nigel Jarrett
To Chepstow Castle for an alfresco performance by The Lord Chamberlain’s Men of A Midsummer Night’s
Dream. A friend didn’t want to go, because she’d seen it – the play, not the all-male version. This was an
interesting take on our relationship with works of art. It posited the idea of the play as information, not as a
source of complicated pleasure. It may be that she had a point when it came to Ibsen. The info of an Ibsen
play is important to get at. We come away from Ghosts, for example, with a familial perspective on the
visitation of sin and matriarchal tolerance of the prodigal. But isn’t its louring atmosphere one reason why
we go again and another the fact that we can never explain art, only talk about it and keep walking around
it, observing? This is the difference between study and practice. I’d prefer to listen to an artist or writer
talking about their work than to someone who’s studied it, the latter’s ‘insights’ notwithstanding. A literary
critic who shall be nameless once ‘explained’ Dylan Thomas’s reference to ‘the hawk on fire’ by suggesting
that it connoted anger, destructive tendencies, inflammatory behaviour and any number of other off-thepoint
characteristics save the simple one understood by just looking at the bird hovering, as Thomas did. A
hawk hovering for the kill looks like a flickering flame. So, that’s more than enough said about birds of prey
and literary critics, though after reading Tillyard’s Poetry Direct and Oblique years ago (when I should have
been studying Bioinformatic Analysis and Annotation of Expressed Sequence Tags in Anopheles sinensis), I
couldn’t help not getting his message at all. Goldsmith’s village green was ‘direct’, Blake’s (in Songs of
Innocence) oblique. Hardly a distinction sufficiently clear-cut to launch a thesis. I couldn’t help feeling that
Dr Johnson was right about the fraudulence of remote allusions and obscure opinions in Lycidas: ‘Where
there is leisure for fiction, there is little grief.’ Dr Tillyard, with a publisher to satisfy, didn’t agree.
A reality check with good Thom Lynch
Fri, 2012-06-29 20:29 | Nigel Jarrett
Thomas Lynch is my kind of writer. A celebrated poet, he also lives and works in the non-literary world. That
world consists for him in dealing with the dead and the grief-laden living. He is head of a long-established
firm of funeral directors in Michigan. I prefer him and his all-in package to any number of fey individuals
swanning through the groves of Parnassus, their necks hung with college diplomas. You know the type: lives
in London, eventually comes to review books by fellow feys, thinks life is interesting (mum’s a children’s
book illustrator, dad’s a novelist) and offers no evidence of being interested in any kind of useful life at all,
save by proxy – unless the collisions, diversions and divisions of the metropolitan literary classes are
sustaining. Nowt wrong with them in moderation. Of course, ‘real’ lives are often lived by people who can’t
wait to escape them; and some lives are so dull that no-one would want to live them anyway. The reverse of
all this is also true. The highly-regarded American Fred Voss writes poems about life as a factory-worker but
to my ear has no poetic gift whatever. His poetry looks like something metallic that a welder has knocked up
after too many Budweisers at lunch. Voss would love to escape the greasy factory-floor but stays to vent his
frustration in the poetic equivalent of rejected RSJs. The UK poet Geoff Hattersley works in an injectionmoulding
factory in the day and succumbs to surreal visions at night. The two in his case are linked more by
their content than their simple occupational conjunction, in that his day job leads him to people his poems
with those who presumably live off the proceeds of injection-moulding and kindred trades, not that many
would recognise themslves in print. A bit like the transforming fantasies of Kafka except that for Hattersley
the gap is just two-thou wide. (It took Alan Bennett to show how the unreconstructed clerical life itself,
enacted by Kafka and his fellow ink-wellers, had an eerie quality of its own, especially when, out of work,
they were introduced to the new, miracle, manufacturing product of asbestos.) You sort of feel that
Hemingway, say, is writing from an experience other than that of being a writer, even if it’s the faux-macho
activity of running from bulls in Pamplona, being at war, or blasting unsuspecting greylags out of the skies
above Sun Valley, Montana. Lynch likewise, though with him there’s an almost noble sense of vocation. Read
his funero-literary remembrances in The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade to discover why
settling down to embalming was neither reluctant occupation nor a life inimical to the spirit of creativity.
Peter and Barbara and Alfred and Ben
Fri, 2012-06-29 20:09 | Nigel Jarrett
I’m a tad obsessed by St Ives and the West Cornwall peninsula, as two stories in Funderland illustrate. I’ve
been holidaying there for years, as a kid and as a grown-up. I can remember the time when old Tholly
Taylor, who used to hire out boats in the harbour, would let you and your swallow-and-amazon mates row
to Penzance if you wanted – that’s assuming you could plough through the velouté of sewage just beyond
Porthgwidden Point. These days, the multitude’s shite is taken far out to sea. Pace Daphne du Maurier,
Cornwall is not a literary place particularly, and I’ve often wondered if Brit writers are capable of making
anything out of sun and light, as Camus did. But how anyone can visit St Ives and not want to be an artist is
beyond me. It’s what started me off in my modest attempts with pencil and brush. It has also fired an
interest in the town’s place in the history of British art and continues to do so. Most of the commercial
gallery wares are worse than a chimp’s first go at typing the complete works of Bill Waggerdagger, but the
Tate tells you what once went on. A lot of the art always seemed to me to be aerial, a fact no-one had
commented on as far as I knew. Alfred Wallis looked at everything from above. and when I discovered early
on that Peter Lanyon had been a keen glider pilot – he died after a crash landing – his pictures made even
more sense. (This is John Berger territory, the idea that non-pictorial knowledge can enhance visual
comprehension. Berger and Lanyon, however, are going out of fashion.)
Andrew Graham Dixon was the first fresh-faced kid among presenters of TV programmes on art. The latest,
Dr James Fox of Cambridge University, elevates him to Kenneth Clark’s old pretenders league. Fox’s alacrity
in re-examining received wisdom does not necessarily guarantee the whole picture, as it were. He believes
St Ives was hugely significant in the history of art. What his Art of Cornwall documentary on BBC4 actually
did was to repeat the familiar. St Ives certainly attracted artists of international rank, such as Nicholson,
Hepworth and Gabo, and they themselves were attracted to its elemental qualities, predominantly
landscape. The town’s fame was perpetuated by Frost, Heron and Lanyon. But Fox only hints at what may
have turned out to be St Ives’s limitations as an influential place: the fact that it was a haven of abstraction,
now having risen and fallen, like all temporary usurpations. Twice he mentioned fleetingly how this was
relatively short-lived: Nicholson’s reversion to the figurative (‘Cornwall’s landscape eventually claimed him’)
and how Pop art (a return to the figurative) replaced abstraction in the 1960s coincidental with Lanyon’s
death. This doesn’t devalue abstract art or the importance of St Ives in its promotion; but it does suggest a
wider consideration beyond the scope of Fox’s programme – viz., that abstraction is always ‘up against’ the
figurative tradition. This argues that that abstract art is a cul-de-sac leading off a main route; traffic along it
may halt while the cul-de-sac is explored, only to return to its former immemorial direction. Fox did not
mention the visit to St Ives of Francis Bacon, a figurative painter superior to the St Ives practitioners and
dismissive of their work as ’mere illustration’. Pop drew more from Bacon than from abstraction. None of this
devalues the St Ives achievement, and there is more bad representational art than abstract – but a cul-desac
will always be a dead end.
Oh, play that thing! – if you can afford it
Fri, 2012-06-29 20:36 | Nigel Jarrett
Don’t know if I’ll get to this year’s Brecon Jazz, a scratch affair due to the Hay Festival’s abandoning it to its
fate after saving it from previous financial straits. Jazz Journal’s editor, Mark Gilbert, is holding a piece by me
about bad behaviour at such festivals. Drunkenness and drink-fuellled street craziness once threatened
Brecon’s existence. I think Mark is worried that I, a lapsed Methodist, may be making a prude’s connection
between jazz fans and any propensity they may have for inbibing too much Old Peculiar, taking to the
pavements and foulmouthing passing octagenarians. My argument is that I have never seen any drunken
miscreants being frogmarched to the Bridewell during the Three Choirs Festival. Jazz has its debauched
aspect and I’m wondering whether it could do without it. The sight of musicians turning up late for gigs
under the waning influence of Red Leb is thankfully now rare; the most potent brew anyone is likely to have
on stage at Brecon is a bottle of Carreg. Proof that you don’t need substances liquid or herbal to play with
incomparable brilliance was given by the wonderful pianist Zoe Rahman, who trained at the RAM and took a
degree in music at Oxford. I’ve heard plenty of famous musicians on record playing less than their optimum
through drink and drug abuse. Zoe’s idea of relaxing after a performance is to go and listen to another
musician – in her case at Brecon, Monty Alexander. The Brecon drunks peeing against the walls of St Mary’s
Church were probably biffos down from the hills with no interest in jazz. But tell that to Brecon’s Methodists,
lapsed or connected.
Literary connections with jazz are tenuous (jazz and poetry) or bohemian hip (Kerouac et al). Brecon’s
literary pretensions are that it has been taken over by the Hay Festival people and that there’s a Fringe
which is threatening to become humongous, just like Edinburgh’s. The great jazz writers – Panassié,
Delaunay, Giddins, Balliett – seem to have few successors. There’s plenty to write about that’s new. George
Melly was literary and, like the French, could hold his drink. But he’s dead. Though I did once see him
urinating in a wholly inappropriate place, I’m sure more out of desperation than shameless indecorum. In his
usual flamboyant hat and suit he looked like one of those kiddies’ floral watering-cans irrigating the daisies.
Glad to see jazz making an appearance in David Hare’s drama Page Eight on TV last night. It was a device to
accentuate the laid-back persona of Bill Nighy’s character. By the way, the play’s fulcrum – the idea that the
Americans torture people in undisclosed locations to obtain intelligence – is probably not fiction. And it
wouldn’t surprise me if its extenuating proposition, that the Yanks tell some British politicians about it but
not others and that the information gained from pulling out toenails could have saved British victims of
terrorism, were also true.
After Brecon, I could endure only ten minutes of Elbow at Glastonbury. What a bunch of no-hopers. There’s
nothing there, guys and gals, niltch. If you want to hear music move, in both senses of the word, listen to
Parker and Pachelbel. Or at least wear a beret and goatee and speak Vout, the hipster’s argot. Here in St
Arvans it has gained me a reputation for mild eccentricity. Or is it my singing of selections from Gilbert and
Sullivan as I cycle the lanes?
Of breakfast bars and kitchen sinks
Fri, 2012-06-29 20:15 | Nigel Jarrett
The scriptwriter William Nicholson admits to having rejected his comfortable middle-class lifestyle as the
subject for a first novel. This is surely literary cowardice masquerading as social embarrassment. It’s bad
enough when critics object to the milieu of a writer’s work (and therefore to the writer himself), but when
people are so equivocal about the life they lead that they cease to regard it as a fit subject for a book, they
are sunk before they start. The newspaper article which took up Nicholson’s theme made the contrary point
that novels about people who drive 4x4s constitute but a fraction of the vast range of subject-matter
currently on offer in bookshops. This is true. And it is also true that a 4×4 driver whose husband is dying of
cancer or who is growing old or is self-destructively in love with a younger man (or a woman) is one whose
background hardly matters. The article went on to discuss ‘the working-class novel’ and whether or not the
people who write them – or used to write them – do not afterwards cease to be proletarian, if they were ever
that in the first place. Imagine what we wouldn’t have if Alan Sillitoe had been embarrassed about leaving
school at 15 to work in a bike factory, or David Storey about the time he spent playing rugby league as a
professional. What we get in Saturday Night And Sunday Morning and This Sporting Life are flawed
characters. That’s the point, you see. It’s the lack of flawlessness that’s relevant, not the backdrop. Perish
the thought that working-class life makes them less than perfect, though in many cases that’s what’s being
suggested. Perhaps it’s the wrong sort of working-class life. The Corn Is Green has many faults but its
proposition that a talented lad can’t make it in the coal-mining community without overcoming its prejudice
says more about social class, or class as often perceived, than many a less-mealy tract. The ambivalent D.
H. Lawrence was someone in whom these confusions were always fighting for resolution. In Kazuo
Ishiguro’s The Remains Of The Day there’s a scene in which the main character, a butler, is asked a series of
difficult questions about the world’s economy by someone eager to prove that the common man’s ignorance
makes him unfit to vote, thereby justifying autocracy or something even more draconian. Autocrats could
never countenance the idea that such ignorance is not necessarily the common man’s irremediable
condition. Perhaps that 4×4 driver could be driving to a more enlightened place. I wouldn’t be interested but
I’ll defend a writer’s right to persuade me that I should be. Ishiguro’s butler, needless to say, could be ‘of no
assistance’ to his questioner, underlining the fact that ninety per cent of the British populace is about as
politically astute as a gerbil.
Descending to Byzantium
Tue, 2012-06-26 17:37 | Nigel Jarrett
As a former newspaperman, I ought to be underwhelmed by publication: my prose, both deathless and
pedestrian, has been sold on the street every day for years.
On my first paper, a weekly, sending something for publication was gravitational – you stuffed typewritten
copy into a cardboard cylinder taken from the inside of a toilet-roll, clipped the cylinder to a length of string
and dropped the lot down a tube that delivered it to the print room, a site of masonic mystery. Your words
were there turned into metal slivers, packed into a steel frame, made into a cardboard mould, cast as a
metal plate, lashed to a printing-press and printed on paper made from rags.
Many journalists are not interested in how their ‘copy’ finally appears in the paper. My old pal Garrod
Whatley, of the Western Mail, would disqualify himself from showing visitors how the WM was produced at
Thomson House by claiming not to know. Having been a ‘stone sub’ – one who directs the printing-room
operation without touching the type – I knew only too well. I was therefore a guide to its byzantine
On my daily papers, gravitational became suctional. The whole building was traversed by tubes vertical and
horizontal, which sucked your copy (now in sealed glass containers) from typewriter to printer. This is
ancient technology, the French pneumatique, though I was using ‘Apples’ when most nerds-in-waiting
thought they were things you sliced to make a tart.
Funderland’s appearance excited me like no front-page ‘splash’ ever could. That’s because it represented not
a few years’ labour trying to get stories published in magazines solemn and obscure. When I won the Rhys
Davies prize, Welsh writer Ron Berry took me aside and said, ‘You’ve set out on a hard road!’ If he’d meant
the time spent writing while trying to fulfil other obligations I couldn’t have agreed more: my shoes were
already letting in water. But there are many less gratifying ways of leading your life, most of them outside
your control. Which reminds me, there’s a story to be written about my former editor, Jack Salter, arriving at
work with a carrier-bag full of bog-roll cylinders. What would they be for, then? Ask me!
Arthur Machen, novelist and ready reporter
Tue, 2012-06-26 17:07 | Nigel Jarrett
Parthian’s interest in Arthur Machen reminds me that I once co-edited a book of his newspaper articles and
book prefaces. It was called The Day’s Portion, Machen’s own description of his diurnal literary output while
living at the Old Rectory, Llansoar, not far from his Caerleon birthplace. As a forewordsmith, Machen
resembles Anthony Burgess (NJ Blog passim) in using that status to say what he thought of the book’s
subject rather than how the author had treated it. Machen’s fiction doesn’t detain me but he wrote a classic
book on aesthetics called Hieroglyphics, some stylish essays and two classic volumes of autobiography, Far
Off Things and Things Near And Far. As a reporter in London for the Evening News, he’d attended the
Sidney Street siege. Machen is a cult figure, meaning that his admirers either ignore or embrace his faults.
Among them was W. Townsend Collins, an editor of my old paper, the South Wales Argus. It was said of the
supercilious Collins that he despised the Argus menials but before Monmouthshire’s visiting squirearchy in
High Street, Newport, would bow so low that his monocle would fall out and roll along the corridor. Machen
was a fin-de-siecle figure of somewhat smaller stature than Wilde, Dowson, Beardsley and the like. But he
could write. One of his last essays was a resigned dismissal of Modernism. It represented a generation
giving way as much as a personal dislike. I can never help feeling that the so-called ‘Decadents’ were on to
something, despite the green carnations.
Wandering ‘twixt Severn and Wye
Tue, 2012-06-26 17:25 | Nigel Jarrett
I love the way the rivers Wye and Severn converge beneath the Severn Bridge after arising separately, like
aqueous doppelgangers, near Plynlimon. As I live a walk away from this quiet re-aquaintance, I can’t help
lapsing into Georgian sentimentality and seeing the two as individuals at the ends of their span before
entering the Channel (Purgatory?) then the Atlantic (Eternity?). I also can’t help thinking about where the
two have been: in the case of the Wye, through one cathedral city and not a few staging posts where you
had to be ferried across the stream; and in the Severn’s case, through two cathedral cities and a docks area
(Gloucester and Sharpness). How many know that before the building of the Severn Tunnel in the late 19th
century a rail bridge once crossed the water, finally disappearing as late as 1960, when ships collided with
its surviving stanchions? It was the same year in which Beeching closed the fabulous Lower Wye railway that
had hugged and criss-crossed the river between Chepstow and Monmouth. The Gloucestershire poet Ivor
Gurney wrote Severn and Somme, a reference to his disastrous time in the Great War, and I also think of
that spit of land between the merging Wye and Severn as Gurney country, where he wandered, grew apples
and went mad. The Wests drove around there, too, looking for people to murder.
Hang on while I tidy the bookshelf
Tue, 2012-06-26 17:42 | Nigel Jarrett
Nice vignette by Bidisha (who she?) in the Guardian about author photographs. ‘Head lowered, hand on
chin, eyes soulful, mouth gravely unsmiling or mincingly suggestive of incipient Great Thoughts in slow
gestation’ – the standard form of the author pic, she avers correctly. So why did I submit an all-smiling one
to Parthian as my author fizzog? I did think of asking Mrs J to take a writer-bearded-in-his-lair sort of snap,
with Moncrieff’s translation of A La Recherche du Temps Perdu hammocking a bookshelf in the background.
But I chickened out because it would have been as pretentious as suggesting that I’d read all of Proust. I
preferred one of me reacting to a Tommy Cooper joke: I tell the doctor I keep dreaming of a pair of
wigwams. So the doctor says, ‘Take these pills; you’re too tense.’ That said, my kind of author photo usually
goes with a volume of froth by some crepe-paper columnist on the Daily Mail or something by Gyles
Brandreth on one hundred things to talk about when meeting Barbara Cartland. My author pic of choice is
candidly wonky or blurred – the writer as fugitive, such as Mervyn Peake caught beside the garden shed
after lifting a bouquet of carrots, or J D Salinger, snapped through a car windscreen waving his arms as he
mistakes a tourist about to ask him the way in New England for someone wanting to write his biography. In
the same Guardian issue is a feature on Alan Hollinghurst and his new novel. A full-page picture of him
suggestive of incipient great thoughts in slow gestation looks like something David Hockney might turn into
an ‘oil payning’. Anyway, you know what they say about a smile: that it’s for the photographer and actually
masks quiet desperation.
Have you got five minutes?
Tue, 2012-06-26 17:10 | Nigel Jarrett
Many publishers require fiction MSS of no fewer than 70,000 words. In their case, at least, anything more
condensed is not a novel, though for a ‘small’ publisher the stricture is as much commercial as aesthetic:
‘blockbuster’ represents a form as likely to connote huge sales as dimensions and word counts.
You know Tennyson’s In Memoriam is about grief because it looks that way. It goes on and on like the
mourning of Queen Victoria or the contemplation of loss punctuated by regular, stanzaic sobs; it’s a cortege
of verses. The sentiment could be summarised in a haiku. For many, though, pregnant silences must be
filled. Proust did it in an ecstasy of interminable memorising, Joyce partly with inventories, such as the litany
of Dublin occupations, from coopers and bird-fanciers, through law scriveners and masseurs to chimneysweeps
and lard-refiners. (Latin me that, me Trinity scholar!) Indeed, literature could be classified cynically
on the basis of diminishing returns. The longer the work, the less is left to the reader’s imagination, though
the hunger for more and more colour and intrigue, as in the serialized effusions of Dickens no less than in
the number and variety of metropolitan job opportunities in Ulysses, is tribute to appetite as well as criticism
of mental laziness.
Editors of small literary magazines, who receive 10,000 poems a year but can publish only fifty, must look on
a second-rate poem of ten lines more favourably than on a first-rate one of forty. However, there is an
outlet in Britain for poets who favour the discursive and for whom digestion and résumé play no part in
creativity. How to go on is not as big a problem for writers as for composers, notwithstanding that
established forms for both are a means of discipline, containment and concentration.
But even when we are clock-watching, does Bacon’s gnomic A mixture of a lie doth ever add pleasure
compare with Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time, in which its wisdom is enshrined at length? We could
debate it if only we had five minutes.
Is that a vowel I see drifting?
Tue, 2012-06-26 17:13 | Nigel Jarrett
Class in literature fascinates me. I mean the fact that, well into the 20th century, so many writers belonging
to the established canon came from a class-based, educated stratum of society, even if they didn’t start off
there. I have recordings of famous writers such as Conan Doyle, Beerbohm, Virginia Woolf and Maugham. In
almost all cases, their vowels drift into… well, drifts. Chesterton wittily talks about the ‘spayce of deth’, first
mentioning the ‘spayce of layfe’. They all ‘hev’ experience of ‘layfe’. When a lot of them came to fictionalise
the lower orders, such as Cockneys, their lack of experience of East End ‘layfe’ meant that their only
identifying inflexion was the dropped ‘h’ or ‘aitch’. That’s because they never went to Whitechapel, let alone
lived there; they ‘hed’ far more ‘saynse’. The funniest example is Buchan, whose Scottish accent wrestles
with an English one in which he obviously would ‘hev layked’ to talk. Of course, accent in this country usually
prompts often unwarranted assumptions about attitudes and beliefs. The democratic Forster had a strange,
fugitive – classless – accent that’s actually a bit disturbing. Joyce reading from Finnegans Wake was the great
exception. No strangulation there, only incomprehensible leprechaun mellifluousness. ‘Pedwar pemp foify
tray (it must be) twelve’ – well, not all that incomprehensible. What wouldn’t we give for a three-minute
recording of the voice of John Donne!
Don’t educate them; they’ll only resent you
Tue, 2012-06-26 17:30 | Nigel Jarrett
The ‘moderns’ today seem more like pop-up targets for invective than advocates of new ways of saying and
seeing. ‘Modern’ and ‘today’ are relative terms, which indicates how contemporary they were. Post-
Modernism arrived at the party before its time, a sure way of guaranteeing an early exit. Pound’s pro-nazi
sympathies, Eliot’s anti-Semitism, Woolf’s insufferable hauteur and Lawrence’s belief in extermination as a
way of despatching dud humans – i.e., the ‘unfeeling’ hordes (Woolf would have helped him herd them into
the compound) threaten to submerge any literary achievement.* Thomas Mann is the latest to sit up and
take a bullet in the shoulder. He’s described as being ‘more hesitant’ than his brother Heinrich in declaring
opposition to nazism, not least because he had a novel about to be published. However, it seems that you
don’t have to have read Buddenbrooks to take exception to its author. The charge of ‘difficulty’ is often
delivered as a coup de grace by Modernism’s detractors. ‘Has anyone ever read Finnegans Wake?’ they ask,
as though one’s failure to have done so confirms its lack of merit. Imagine applying that to Chaucer’s Troilus
and Criseyde – oh, but no, if you haven’t read that you are simply ignorant, lazy or ill-educated. Thus do
Modernism’s critics have more in common with what they see as the faults of its practitioners than they
might care to admit. Their contempt might not be inverted but it’s certainly gymnastic. Lawrence, Woolf, et
al shuddered at the idea of universal education: Aldous Huxley called its graduates ‘the New Stupid’. And
what of Virginia’s depiction of Doris Kilman in Mrs Dalloway – why, she wears a cheap mackintosh and she
perspires. Whatever next? To think that a woman threw herself under a King’s racecourse for such a
disappointing example of womanhood. Do I mean Woolf or Doris? O, what tangled webs!
* To watch your literary heroes/heroines crucified, read John Carey’s The Intellectuals and The Masses
(Pride and Prejudice among the Literary Intelligentsia, 1880-1939) – Faber, 1992.
A pome is a pome is a pome. Or it used to be
Tue, 2012-06-26 17:17 | Nigel Jarrett
Does anyone know what poetry is today? I’m still not sure. Perhaps my ignorance infects all the work I send
to poetry magazines and is the reason why they return it. For every poem I’ve had published, there have
been about twenty rejections. Even some of the published ones were sent back by a dozen editors before
they finally found a home. Is an acceptance worth a score of rejections (the half-full glass) or a rejection the
bludgeoning truth (the glass half-empty)? What’s it all about, the poetry game?
Without encouragement in some shape or form I’d give up. Often it arrives unbidden and by circuitous
route. When a few months ago I read Corn Basket by the US Poet Laureate Ted Koors (not a great poem or
even a great poet, I think, but it touched me), I was encouraged to carry on. It was as if the poem were
showing me ground I could myself inhabit. This is hoary old stuff but it’s true, I think, of most writers. To
paraphrase John Updike, himself an accomplished poet, a writer is at base a reader who wants to get in on
the act – the act of writing. So one’s idea of what a novel is, what a poem is, arises from this relationship
with other writers. Of course, one could not say today that a poem is anything included in an emblematic
Golden Treasury and nothing else. It’s obviously that, but a lot more. A pity that the vast additional acreage
is an unruly place.
There are no longer any norms governing poetic form or, indeed, poetic utterance. Things began to go
wrong after the Great War, which slaughtered old ideas so comprehensively that the new ones were
formulated from scratch. (This is a generalisation but it serves my purpose for a moment.) Henceforth a
novel was what James Joyce said it was, a poem what Ezra Pound and T S Eliot said it was, though they
never made outrageous claims for its worth. In one of Pound’s Cantos there is a reference to someone called
Pacan. Unless you were interested in haute couture, you would not know that she was a Parisian fashion
designer – ‘synonymous with maximum human elegance’ as Pound himself explained to the critic Hugh
Kenner when he posed the question. With rules dead and abandoned, especially the one about
communicating with a reader, you make up your own, which can include the use of the private, the obscure
and the (to others) incomprehensible. It’s still going on. An unmade bed is art because the artist who
conceived it says it is. (I don’t agree: see a previous blog.) The only advantage of this self-referential
estimate is that it leads to great variety, with every artist owing little or nothing to anyone else and on show
through effrontery. The danger lies in abandoning consensual value judgement and letting notoriety in
through the back door. Notoriety leads to celebrity and celebrity, in the end and with the help of moral
exhaustion, leads to a kaleidscopic establishment for whom the first and last refuge in the face of criticism is
to offer the opt-out solution. If you don’t like television, you turn it off; if you object to nudity on stage, you
don’t go to the theatre. The main casualty is rigorous argument and loss of the concept of excellence. Noone
wants to be a tastemaker any more, still less a moral guardian.
Despite claims to the contrary, there are more people writing poetry today than reading it. When I
contribute or subscibe to a literary magazine, sometimes both, I feel I am in a huddle with no more than a
dozen others, none of whom is interested in what I have to say, only in having his/her say published and
sanctioned by our common editor, whom we may or may not revere. More than 95% of the population care
not a fig for poets, poetry, poetry magazines (usually short-lived and sometimes kept afloat by unwitting
taxpayers) or hierarchies of literary style and renown. This is what makes literary arse-scraping and selfadvertisement
so pathetic: it’s like pretending that you can see your peacock plumage from the depths of
space. From there, of course, none of us is important, let alone visible. For sure, we can’t be heard, which
perhaps is no bad thing.
Failure just made her bitter
Tue, 2012-06-26 17:33 | Nigel Jarrett
What is literary success?
Imagine you are an athlete trying to run the 100 metres as fast as you can. Your best-ever time is a
miserable 16.9 seconds, despite intensive training, dieting and daily visits to the gym. This is not even
decent by the standards of amateur sprinting. However, people will tell you that you’ve done your best,
competed against yourself, and that you should be pleased with your modest accomplishment. You know
this doesn’t stand up. Compared to Usain Bolt you are thirty-billionth in line to the throne, and you want to
be king – king of the quick dash, world champ, the ne plus ultra of the Games.
Now imagine you are a novelist trying to write a really good book, one that’ll have your peers drooling with
envy. Your most florid encomium so far is from Uncle Jack, whose hobby is reviving old traction engines.
Despite reading every Man-Booker shortlist there’s ever been, dosing yourself with huge segments of Tolstoy
and writing something – anything – every day, your furthest step foward has been to receive a handwritten
publisher’s rejection slip instead of a typewritten one with ‘Dear Whatever-your-name-is’ written at its head
in Biro. Bookish friends tell you you’re moving forwards. But you know this is two-week-old tripe. Compared
to Ian McEwan, who has never been in one in his life, your manuscript is thirty billion folders down in the
slush pile, and you want to win the Somerset Maugham – king of accessible prose fiction, world-renowned,
the best.
To resolve your difficulty, you found and edit a literary magazine called Azimuth with no hope of achieving a
more than pigmy circulation, send your own rejection slips, write an excoriating review of the latest Ian
McEwan, and damn people who write for money. You are your own woman and you will die happy – though
not published, except for those mordant Azimuth editorials.
Endeth here the lesson.
Nothing to lose but your integrity
Tue, 2012-06-26 17:22 | Nigel Jarrett
To the Theatre Royal, Bath, for Lee Hall’s play The Pitmen Painters; and to the Hay Festival to hear ancient
Marxian Eric Hobsbawm talk about the recent crisis of capitalism. Considering the number of Marxism’s
murderous legatees, it’s brave of Hobsbawm to even mention the bearded wonder of yesteryear, especially
from Hay’s premier gig venue, the Barclays Wealth Pavilion (no chuckling, please). By the same token, it’s
just as crazy of us to entertain capitalism, considering how many it still condemns to poverty and the aimless
life. Hobsbawm, however, is not an unreconstructed Marxian. He freely acknowledges how the philosophy
has been perverted by lords of the gulag and superintendents of the killing-fields. But it is not entirely
incumbent on him to prove the validity of his faith: the burden of convincing us that capitalism works is the
capitalist’s. He reminded everyone that his political ideas were formulated in the 1930s, when a ‘popular
front’ could be readily mobilised against injustice and military threat. Would he agree, I wonder, that we
have a popular front today? It’s called the electorate, but the majority of its members would prefer to watch
a so-so episode of Britain’s Got Talent than go out to vote. Marxians have great faith in what they used to
call ‘the workers’, believing that their faults could be ascribed to manipulating forces outside their control.
Non-voters, they would argue, watch TV because they have lost faith in our political systems or have been
hypnotised by Simon Cowell into watching televisual crud. Not so. There are too many unexamined lives in
our midst for that one to wash. I would have liked to ask Hobsbawm if he thought history, far from being
scientifically predictable, was simply a lurching bundle of events forever requiring him to revise his opinions
or make accommodations in its wake. I never got the chance. But I was in awe of the guy and his intellect
and – yes – his humanity.
Hobsbawm would have liked The Pitmen Painters, about a group of pre-war miners who want to learn about
visual art from a professional. They are encouraged to learn by doing – and produce a body of work that
becomes part of the history of British art. It’s a true story. The upshot was that they recorded on canvas
their community life, were not corrupted by the bankability of what they painted, and developed aesthetic
ideas that served them well. Their ‘expert’ brought them out of themselves, but it was they who wanted to
learn in the first place. Hall. who wrote Billy Elliott, would not allow the group’s most talented and deserving
case to pursue his individuality with the help of a sinecure from a rich divorcee, a capitalist. Right on. The
art, almost needless to say, was rubbish.
Descending to Byzantium
Tue, 2012-06-26 17:37 | Nigel Jarrett
As a former newspaperman, I ought to be underwhelmed by publication: my prose, both deathless and
pedestrian, has been sold on the street every day for years.
On my first paper, a weekly, sending something for publication was gravitational – you stuffed typewritten
copy into a cardboard cylinder taken from the inside of a toilet-roll, clipped the cylinder to a length of string
and dropped the lot down a tube that delivered it to the print room, a site of masonic mystery. Your words
were there turned into metal slivers, packed into a steel frame, made into a cardboard mould, cast as a
metal plate, lashed to a printing-press and printed on paper made from rags.
Many journalists are not interested in how their ‘copy’ finally appears in the paper. My old pal Garrod
Whatley, of the Western Mail, would disqualify himself from showing visitors how the WM was produced at
Thomson House by claiming not to know. Having been a ‘stone sub’ – one who directs the printing-room
operation without touching the type – I knew only too well. I was therefore a guide to its byzantine
On my daily papers, gravitational became suctional. The whole building was traversed by tubes vertical and
horizontal, which sucked your copy (now in sealed glass containers) from typewriter to printer. This is
ancient technology, the French pneumatique, though I was using ‘Apples’ when most nerds-in-waiting
thought they were things you sliced to make a tart.
Funderland’s appearance excited me like no front-page ‘splash’ ever could. That’s because it represented not
a few years’ labour trying to get stories published in magazines solemn and obscure. When I won the Rhys
Davies prize, Welsh writer Ron Berry took me aside and said, ‘You’ve set out on a hard road!’ If he’d meant
the time spent writing while trying to fulfil other obligations I couldn’t have agreed more: my shoes were
already letting in water. But there are many less gratifying ways of leading your life, most of them outside
your control. Which reminds me, there’s a story to be written about my former editor, Jack Salter, arriving at
work with a carrier-bag full of bog-roll cylinders. What would they be for, then? Ask me!
A Memphis corn-eater’s not what you think
Tue, 2012-06-26 16:51 | Nigel Jarrett
Flash fiction (stories 360 words max., including the title) is a popular form, especially in the States. I’ve had
a few so-called ‘short-short stories’ published but now write them as a daily exercise. Here’s today’s: it’s
called ROLL UP, ROLL UP.
At the South Wales Argus, I used to be regarded as something of an expert on copyright. Anyway, all you
blogreaders can have Roll Up, Roll Up for free. But reproduce it, plagiarise it, convert it to an
incomprehensible palindrome or use it as the basis of a six-part New Drama series on BBC Four and I’ll
phone you every few days, claim to be Mr Jazzbo Brown and insist by auto-suggestion that you listen to E.C.
Cobb and His Memphis Corn Eaters playing I’ll Follow You To The Wilds Of Nebraska Even Though You’ve
Broken My Heart.
Actually, just kidding: it’ll be Now You’ve Married Your Brother I’ll Woo Miss Trixie Bell.
Here’s the story. Sad, innit?
I had Ricky to thank for finding myself sitting alone in the front row of Zippo’s Circus. He had walked out on
his wife and child and Jean had driven off with the kids to visit her. I wanted the youngsters to stay with
me, but for some motherly reason Jean insisted on taking them along. We could have made it a threesome,
especially as the circus was one of those without animals. They could have learned some moral lesson.
It was years since I’d visited the big top. I recalled walking with my brother between the legs of a man on
stilts and hearing, far off, the roar of lions. I also seemed to have remembered watching a juggler practise
outside a caravan and a thin girl in moth-eaten tutu balance precariously on a large pink ball. But the last
two may have slipped from my store of the fanciful images we retain from childhood or elsewhere: the
saltimbanques of Picasso, for example.
A lone male in a child’s province nowadays looks suspicious. It was a sit-anywhere arrangement in the tent
and there were barely forty of us. So I was more than obviously exposed. I wondered who Zippo was and
imagined him as the long-dead founder of a travelling show indifferent to the issue of making tigers jump
through flames. I feared being somehow short-changed.
First there was a tame trapeze act – just routine swinging and catching not that high up – then a five-man
balancing team at ground level. One of the team had a ladder in his tights. After that, a clown appeared at
the entrance to the ring and ran into the centre. He looked my way and walked towards me in his ridiculous,
slapping boots. He came up close and I could hear echoing laughter as he pointed a gun at my head, fired it
and showered me with confetti. Then he put his face inches from mine. On the tip of his nose was a bead of
sweat coloured red by his greasepaint. I saw anguish behind the false smile and felt – I am so sure of this –
that he wished to confide in me.
Sardinia? Done that – move on
Tue, 2012-06-26 16:56 | Nigel Jarrett
D H Lawrence needed only ten minutes in a new place to be writing a lengthy and definitive account of its
character and people. Imagine his arriving in Northumbria and finding rooms. While Frieda was still huffing
and unpacking, he would already have reached for pen and paper, dashed off a letter to Middleton Murry
and Katherine Mansfield and be 3,000 words into a piece called ‘Hell and Holy Island’, going something like
The men flinty, sinews taught, hard in their flintiness; the women small, with little, flashing eyes, the eyes so
small, little darting eyes, flashing their female hardness in front of their flinty, granite menfolk, silent in their
manly depths. But oh the wind, the weather! It thunders and lightens for days, continually, till there is all
hard-ice, honing the men’s flintiness, the women’s piercing gaze, and it is all deadly cold and horrid, dead in
its coldness and horridness, horribly dead and cold, freezing. Frozen horrible cold – and dead. The blossom is
out – would be if the flint sea wind, sharp, had not shattered it. I cannot breathe. There is no air. All flint
and granite and ice. Everything icily cold and beneath it the flint, the hard granite, hard rock-like flinty
millennial granite, the sediments of aeons, or eruptions, volcanic. I feel myself shut up. And I can’t become
unshut just yet. Not yet. And Frieda huffing and unpacking, unpacking and huffing. I cannot stand it. What
can one do? Where can one go?
Well, to the next paragraph obviously, and the forty paragraphs thereafter. I can also see Edward Garnett
waiting in London for the latest wodge of logorrhoeic shite from up North. ‘Get thee to the Med, Lawrence!’
(Cut to Sorrento):
Dear Garnett, At last I feel I can breathe. We have a fine house and a fine view of the sea and a garden, all
garden running down to the blue inky sea, and the birds, the finest of fine birds singing in the garden
running down to the foaming sea all crashing and splashing in its foamy ultramarine and the green of the
garden, all green everything green, verdure, alive in its greenness, the livid green going on and on in its
pure green life. And the menfolk, all wine-coloured and pink and rosy with lusty health, the fine raven-black
women, dark demerera-skinned women seething in their lust for the rosy men, healthy in their dark winecoloured
manliness amid the birdsong, the birds singing of life and lust in the dark greenery… (cont. on
page 94).
La creme du crime
Mon, 2012-06-25 19:15 | Nigel Jarrett
I love writing about the writing game. A self-shafting activity, I know, but always entertaining.
I once completed a story about an aspiring writer who sends a crime novel to a publisher. Six months later,
the publisher tells him that the manuscript is promising but can’t be developed, because the company’s
existing writers are producing new, remunerative work like frogs squirting spawn and there is no room in the
pond for another, maybe unproductive, amphibian.
The writer develops bi-polar disorder, gives up all pretension to the literary life and throws himself off
Beachy Head.
Meanwhile, the publisher’s son has found the MS while rummaging in the slush pile, changed the names, rejigged
the plot and got his father to bring out the work under the son’s own name.
On the day the original writer’s body is found washed up on the beach at St. Valéry-en-Caux, the book wins
the Silver Stiletto Award for new crime fiction.
MORAL the First: Never jump off Beachy Head and expect your body to be found the next day. Walk west a
little and chuck yourself on to the sur-tidal rocks, where you and your multiple internal injuries will be
spotted by cliff-walkers within hours.
MORAL the Second: Always get a bit a French or German into the mankiest slab of prose.
Can I spell accomodation? Defanitely knot
Mon, 2012-06-25 18:02 | Nigel Jarrett
I thought Lynne Truss was exaggerating a problem in the book Eats, Shoots and Leaves, her tirade against
aberrant English grammar. Now, I’m not so sure.
Standards were once upheld in texts believed to be safe from the worst abuses. But look at this sentence
from the latest issue of Picturesque, a quarterly magazine published by the people who run the Wye Valley’s
Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty: Do please come along and support us there will be a range of family
activities to enjoy. Perhaps the activities will include instruction in the use of the semi-colon and full-stop;
but I doubt it.
Truss was just the latest in a line of scribes enraged by solecisms that barely raise a murmur among the
Unwashed. In the 1960s, Bernard Levin took the major publishing houses to task over their sloppy editing,
and produced many examples to support his criticism. Auden said that the most important ability for a writer
was to be able to tell the difference between ‘uninterested’ and ‘disinterested’. He had a point.
Deliberate (creative) abuse of language is not the same, and may be more illuminating than pedantic
correctness. However, few get away with it – and when it doesn’t work it’s laughable.
A neighbouring farmer is still selling ‘potatoe’s’. Soon he’ll be inviting passers-by to ‘pick you’re own’. I hope
his husbandry is better than his English.
Bird or plane? Neither – it’s a comb-over
Mon, 2012-06-25 18:25 | Nigel Jarrett
Mention of Anthony Burgess a few blogs ago reminds me that I once questioned him at a press conference
called to mark the publication of his novel Any Old Iron, which is set partly in Wales. As one section was
specific to the area in which my newspaper circulated, I attempted to shepherd him aside afterwards to
localise the encounter. But he was having none of it. For the record, his autobiographical hero courted a girl
in Blackwood and went to a symphony concert in Newport. That concert must have been at the Central Hall,
long since appropriated for commercial use. (The British Music Society Journal carries an essay by me on the
world premiere at the Central Hall in the 1920s of Delius’s En Arabesk, his setting of Jens Peter Jacobsen’s
lurid poem. It was given by the London Symphony Orchestra and Newport Choral Society as part of a Welsh
Music Festival. The event is usually relegated to a historical footnote.)
As a reviewer, Burgess was notorious for using his allotted wordage to say what he thought about the
subject of the book, not about how the author had treated it. He took no delight in savagery, dealing only
with books on topics that interested him or about which, sometimes, he was equally authoritative. But he
often confirmed Harold Rosenberg’s view that no degree of dullness could safeguard a book against the
determination of critics tio find it fascinating. The irony was that for Burgess, otherwise an unstoppable
writing machine, critical evaluation of a book resulted in barely a sentence.
Apropos of Any Old Iron, I love this from Wikipedia:
The action centres on the progress of a Welsh-Jewish family through the tumultuous first half of the 20th
century, culminating in the birth of Israel. Any Old Iron is also a UK menswear store in NYC.
Just in case we get ideas above our station.
Alan. It’s Harold. Pinter. Harold Pinter
Mon, 2012-06-25 18:04 | Nigel Jarrett
David Caddy, editor of Tears In The Fence, is struggling to keep the magazine afloat. Independent of public
subsidy since it started, David publishes a wide range of work, including mine, with more than a nod
towards late Modernism and the American literary scene of the 1950s and 1960s. He’s a poet, an astute
editor and an all-round decent cove; not a bit like the eccentrics who edit some SLMs (small literary
magazines), send Tippex-ed rejection slips and reduce you to tears with stories of mouths to feed. Look up
the magazine on the www and subscribe.
Whether rejecting or accepting, Alan Ross at London Magazine sent you messages on old picture-postcards
bought at Camden Market. He recycled them with peel-off labels and encouraged you to do the same.
Sometimes, the accumulated labels resembled Anaglypta. Steaming off a few once, I discovered an
addressee name of Pinter. The feisty playwright – for it was he – had obviously connived, as we all had, at
Ross’s adventures in the ‘green’ trade. I couldn’t read the message but it must have been Pinteresque selfparody:
‘Alan. Fantastic. Yes. Will do. Must meet for pint. Good. Cheers. Excellent. All best.’
The Grerds of Norboblog
Mon, 2012-06-25 18:09 | Nigel Jarrett
I’m about to start writing an epic inspired by Norse mythology.
Here’s the prologue I devised to get me going:
Borlingas, also called Maladin, is the elves’ name for the volcanic mountain in Gregorsborg, a land of famine
and pestilence bordering the vast plains of Ragnarok. It was in the Fires of Hyrrin that Kranogart The Brave
first forged the Garminbrisen amulet with the elves of Bladnurskid. And it was back to this mountain of
destiny that the amulet-bearer Midgard, accompanied by Millingagap the Great and his three sons, Grandbod
the Bold, Ririfen the Insouciant and Naglfarnan the Queer, brought the amulet in order to destroy it and
bring an end to the power of the dark lord Radivolsung and the tribes of Gymirstrad and Veraldargo. As
Midgard entered the province of Thrymheim the Terrible…
Oh, bollocks. I’m confused already. Anyone fancy a pint?
The Queen is dead. Er, that’s it
Mon, 2012-06-25 18:16 | Nigel Jarrett
As a daily-newspaper reporter and ‘sub’ for many years, it was an experience for me to have someone
editing Funderland, especially one as astute as Eluned Gramich.
On a newspaper, a reporter writes to strict formal rules: no ‘intro’ over thirty words; ditto succeeding
paragraphs; no paragraph more than three sentences, preferably two or one; no story more than 350 words
unless sanctioned by the big white chief, or chiefess (it’s usually a bloke). Features had their own rules;
American newspeople call them ‘slow burns’, because the news-story structure is virtually overturned, the
punch-line coming deeper into the text. Many rookie reporters mistakenly apply news rules to features that
may be 900 words long.
A journalist immersed in this discipline often has difficulty writing fiction. It’s a sort of release into a region
where few rules apply and where one is encouraged to be discursive, not to say a prolix rule-breaker.
However, I’m not too bad at writing snappy dialogue. But I’m naughty in that I rarely re-consider or rewrite.
I got to the stage in newspapers where I would compose my ‘story’ while driving back to the office
and then simply type it, referring only to shorthand notes when I had to directly quote people. As a
freelance writer and music critic, I still function this way. Between Monmouth and Chepstow after a
performance by Monmouth Choral Society, I compose my 300 words in my head and at the front door can
almost recite them verbatim.
Eluned will forgive me for saying that there can be no limit to reduction and concision. Everything can be
reduced; whether or not it should be is another matter, reader attention-span notwithstanding. I worked
with a Times sub called Kaiser Tamkeen, who once reduced a 400-word news story to a four-line ‘brief’ (filler
par or ‘NIB’) before having to up it later to 200 words, such was the indecision of his chief sub, harassed by
uninterrupted news flow and the claim and counter-claim of one story or another throughout the night. The
queen is dead. What more do you want to know?
My work’s perfect, so don’t ‘improve’ it
Mon, 2012-06-25 18:20 | Nigel Jarrett
A row has re-erupted over whether or not Raymond Carver’s skeletal short stories were more the work of
Gordon Lish, his editor at Knopf, than of Carver himself. An American magazine editor tells me that Lish’s
family should make a claim on Carver’s estate, such was the amount of work he did to ‘create’ the
trademark Carver style.
The story is amusing for every writer about to be book-published. It seems incredible that Lish could have
developed that style from what was surely not a great disparity between the writer’s sow’s ear and the
editor’s silk purse. But I do have this image of Carver writing a 3,000-word story in sentences of Johnsonian
length, heavily sown with adjectives, knowing that poor old Lish with bags under his eyes would reduce
them by half to a machine-gun stutter. It appears that this picture is not far from the truth.
Henry James needed a good or better editor. Ezra Pound told the critic Hugh Kenner that he’d once heard
James dictating part of a novel to a stenographer. Each sentence, Pound reported, consisted of a growing
pile of subordination, with no clue to where it was headed or how it would end; then the sentence would
suddenly close with what Pound described as ‘a hammer blow’ of a full point. But James edited wouldn’t
have been James.
Kenner reckoned that Evelyn Waugh wrote as he was eventually published. I guess Max Perkins didn’t have
to do much with Hemingway’s prose – not enough to claim credit for it anyway. Perhaps Lish should have
written his own stories. E. B. White was a New Yorker editor and an essayist. I wonder who edited his stuff:
Mrs White, maybe. In ‘Sunset Over The Dentelles’, a story of mine published two years ago, an expatriate
Scots painter living in the South of France is discovered to have completed many canvases jointly with his
amanuensis and lover. But the two agreed on joint authorship. It didn’t last, unlike their embattled ménage
a deux near St Gilles.
Anybody here seen Harper?
Mon, 2012-06-25 17:56 | Nigel Jarrett
BBC Four has just shown a film made last year on the 50th anniversary of the publication of To Kill A
Mockingbird. The presenter goes in search of the book’s origins in North Carolina. He knows the author is a
recluse, though not as aggressively defensive about being discovered as J. D. Salinger was, and declines to
embark on a chase. Instead, he interviews friends of Harper Lee and people living in her home town of
Monroeville. The local Ku Klux Klan chief puts on his Walt Disney outfit for the cameras and admits to being
narrow-minded, a pre-emptive way of closing down debate before it’s got going. The interviewer also
attends an outdoor anniversary bash and asks visitors at random if they’ve read the book. None has. This is
surely the supreme indictment of a visual, illiterate culture. If it’s been on the telly they know about it; if it
involves anything more tedious, like reading, forget it. This is why the e-book debate is academic and going
nowhere. It’s not that we should be choosing one book technology over another but that we should actually
be doing the reading itself. Anyway, I’ve always been suspicious of one-book writers, unless their arms have
been chopped off; and that’s not much of an excuse. It’s a lifetime’s pain and pleasure is writing, though
Anthony Burgess definitely over-did it.


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