Friday, 14 December 2007

The Betjeman Birthday Party & Churching

On 4 September I attended one of the most magical evenings of my life: Sir John Betjeman's birthday party, an annual celebration of the Betjeman Society of which I have been a member for about 7 years now, it was actually one of the first literary societies I joined but had never been to any of its events. Contrary to my expectation I found everybody so welcoming, it was held at St John's Church, Waterloo.

It was such a delight and a truly intense pleasure like a tickle to the senses to see so many Betjeman enthusiasts and there pervaded such an atmosphere of love and conviviality. I was introduced to some of the members and some of them introduced themselves to me, one lady said that Betjeman introduced himself to her as a writer when they met which is funny since he always believed himself first and foremost to be a poet - This reminds one of Auden's description of himself as a medieval historian to avoid people's odd looks.[1] I introduced myself to Bevis Hillier before he was greeted by one of the ladies and excused himself to me, he was whisked off and introduced to a beautiful young lady who I later learnt was Imogen (Betjeman's granddaughter), it was extremely kind of him to come back to me later and introduce me to Kenneth Pinnock. Bevis asked if I had seen the Murray publishing house at Albemarle Street and I said I hadn't. We talked about teaching; he remarked that he had noticed a striking resemblance between Imogen and her grandmother, Penelope: the same mouth and style of speaking. He related many an anecdote and spoke about his views on education and how he believes (and rightly so) that children in schools these days still ought to be taught the classics and mentioned a new book he was writing about what can/cannot be termed art: Can one distinguish between a Rembrandt and a haphazard sketch by a novice? Art cannot be defined because it is subjective but one knows it. He has been compiling it for about 30 years and said that Penelope had seen most of it, it comes out in about 2010 because he has found a publisher who has given him 2 years in which to write it. Kenneth said that he suspected a shade of Ghastly Good Taste when Bevis said that he had defined and given detailed examples of bad art (Betjeman did the same for architecture in this early book). During the course of the conversation somebody walked up to him to confirm the story of the Betjemans' café King Alfred's Kitchen in which Betjeman had put a sign up in the window saying 'Burnt cakes a speciality’.

Another lady walked up to me and asked if I'd like to join them, by then people had started making their way to the chairs so we sat down and she introduced me to her partner. A lady called Mary asked if she'd like to come over and sit with her (Mary's son is into Betjeman, whom I met, because he is interested in architecture, apparently studied it at Oxford) but she said "No thanks, I've got 2 lovely gentleman here to keep me company. What more could I want?"

The man who interviewed Imogen said that he had thought of asking Jonathan Stedhall to wheel him about in a wheelchair (he was temporarily on crutches) but that if someone had asked if he'd had any regrets he wouldn't have known what to answer. Jonathan had wheeled around an old Betjeman riddled with Parkinson's in his last TV program in 1983 called Time with Betjeman. When asked if he had any regrets he replied "I should have had more sex".  He was testing the microphone and Imogen put her face close to his and asked in a loud voice if she could be heard now. He replied "If you come any closer I won't care whether they can hear or not".

Imogen answered many questions about Sir John and shared some of her memories, she made Bevis do an impression of her grandmother when he related an incident to her that he had also related to me and Kenneth. She said she was 16 when Betjeman died and at that age one doesn't realise the full extent of the illness of someone as ill as he was, nevertheless she remembers herself and members of the family reading to him, she only saw him about twice a year. She remembers a glass paperweight he had with a tarantula in it which he used to scare them with as kids, she remembered being found out in school as Betjeman's granddaughter when they read ‘Norfolk’ and she remembered what it might have been like for her mother when Penelope put them under a strict disciplinarian regime when they visited, with kids of Her own she realised how irritating it could be when told by one's mother how to bring them up (like forbidding fish fingers). She said that Betjeman would have been fascinated had he lived to see his centenary so well celebrated – "He'd probably have turned up tonight dressed as a priest. He'd have loved being loved".  In the end she recited her favourite poem 'Hunter Trials' though she said she also loved ‘Trebetherick’ because she had grown up doing all the things he mentions in it. She said that in 'Hunter Trials' he used all the words associated with horses and horse-riding and that Betjeman must have heard Penelope use them because she did all the time and she must have read or talked to him about horses or India. She mentioned an incident from when he invited some guests round that Penelope (who always spoke her mind when she spoke) didn't warm to and he said "If you were a horse she would have married you by now".  She said he didn't really know how to behave with his grandchildren and there's a photo of Penelope propping his arm up around them at Christmas! His mistress would be seen leaving quietly when Penelope arrived. The whole talk held the audience in a trance-like grip.

Afterwards when I had filled my plate with numerous kinds of sandwiches Bevis Hillier said to me "Do come and join our inner circle of friends" and I was invited to sit opposite him. Next to him was seated Lady Mary Wilson to whom he introduced me as a teacher and poet, what a huge honour it was to be in such company. No doubt it was one of the grandest evenings of my life, to my left was seated a rather grand old lady from a dying class of aristocrats and landed gentry who reminded me of Edith Sitwell. She had lovely beady eyes like Lady Thatcher's are now and exchanged stories of Oxford Dons and lords and ladies and country estates with Bevis. Lady Wilson (widow of former Prime Minister Harold Wilson) mentioned how great and befitting the recently unveiled statue of Nelson Mandela in Parliament Square looked. She also praised his speech and said that he had spent 3 decades in prison and then upon his release decided to make peace and reconciliation with his jailors – We all nodded when she said "That was Christianity in action; rare in today's world".  Lady Wilson is an extraordinarily accomplished, vibrant and brilliant poet, one of the best ones writing in this age and I remembered her verse with flashbacks ...
How like a man to choose a crowded train
to say that we could never meet again
Bevis mentioned Denis Healey and asked Kenneth whether he thought Dennis was getting rather a bit "prolific in the eyebrow department".  It was hilarious as Healey's eyebrows are huge and bushy. The lady to my right continuously conversing about Oxford dons, lords, ladies, and their country retreats (virtually oblivious of my presence and that of the others) this time with Mary's son (whom I mentioned earlier). Bevis asked Kenneth his opinion of his trick on A. N. Wilson – I just laughed not daring to speak but they both said it was amazing nobody noticed and Bevis himself hadn't expected he’d fall for it either since it was not postmarked south of France but UK. I pointed out to him that he had mentioned Betjeman referring to Stepney Cemetery when it is known as Tower Hamlets Cemetery – He very kindly said that it required a footnote in future editions. It was either Betjeman's mistake or (as Mary's son pointed out to me earlier) Tower Hamlets borough was not in existence at the time so Betjeman might have been right but I can't find any other evidence of it ever having been called Stepney Cemetery. Betjeman was familiar with Highgate and Kensal Green (Bevis said he was driving him somewhere once and they went past Kensal Green and Betjeman pointed it out to him), but not with Stepney, as far as I am aware. I was glad Bevis recognised the reference and said that yes he had mentioned that in the chapter about Betjeman's trip to Southend with Simon Jenkins. He mentioned Ann Widecombe, former Conservative MP and her recent series of TV programs on various social issues, one of them being prostitution – He said "What does she know about prostitution?" Meaning what experience could she possibly have anyway? Imogen praised Bevis' Betjeman biography (which runs to 3 bulky volumes) – Bevis is a treasure-house of anecdotes and he related a well-known one of Lady Nancy Astor at a dinner addressing Winston Churchill and saying "Winston, if I were your wife I'd put poison in your tea." And he replied "Nancy, if I were your husband I'd drink it". Imogen came and joined us at the table for a bit, she saw me and acknowledged my presence with a nod and a winsome gesture. Bevis handed me his card before he left (which he also gave to Imogen) and invited me to visit him. I introduced myself to Imogen before leaving and said how magical the evening had been and thanked her for her marvelous answers. She said that she had been a bit nervous because it was her first time being asked questions like that.  A line of homeless people were sleeping or sitting along the church wall as I walked out.

On 25 I visited St Andrew, Holborn. A church has existed at this site since the tenth century, upon a little hill above the river Fleet. The church survived the great fire but was still rebuilt by Wren who retained its fifteenth century tower. Brunel's parents married here in 1799 and in 1808 Charles Lamb and his sister Mary were best man and bridesmaid at William Hazlitt's wedding, Disraeli was christened here. London City Churches by Paul Middleton and Leigh Hatts and London's City Churches (in the great Metro guides which are packed with brilliant information for enthusiasts were it not for the lack of thorough research and glaring mistakes in them all) by Stephen Millar both state wrongly – The Metro guide probably getting it from Middleton's book – That the poet Chatterton was buried here but recently (in 2002) reburied in Manor Park Cemetery along with 3000 others to make way for a crypt cafeteria! In fact he was buried in the now extant burial ground for paupers/non-conformists in Shoe Lane so it is just as well! I also revisited the bland and bleak church of St Giles' in the Fields to take a picture of Chapman's tombstone. I didn't know he was here when I first visited some years ago.



Both churches were empty and dimly lit so that the pews contrasted brilliantly with the glowing splendour of both the altars.

*

Kenneth Pinnock passed away on 31 October in Beltinge - Kent.  He was born on 15 May 1919 in Canterbury and educated at the Simon Langston grammar School for boys from 1928 - 1939, then went on to study History at Oriel College, Oxford.  He served as the Educational Editor at John Murray from 1953 - 1984.  He was married to Joyce Muggleton and fathered 4 children with her - Christine (a headteacher), Trevor (harpsichordist and conductor), Melvin (artist and blacksmith) who died aged 36, and Anna (a film set decorator).  I have written about my 2 very pleasant meetings with him at the annual Betjeman Birthday Party.  He promised to tell me the rest of a joke he had forgotten! His book A Canterbury Childhood is due to be published later this year.

[20 January 2009].


[1] Newsweek, 29th January 1968.  54.

Friday, 30 November 2007

The Borders: Poet in the City - W. H. Auden, 'Eye Rhymes' Book Launch, Brompton Oratory, & Armani’s ’Privé Boi d’Encens’

At nights I weep and cannot sleep
Moonlight to me recalls
I never saw her waterfronts
Nor she my waterfalls
I decided to set off for the Poetry Library in the Royal Festival Hall where I spent a bit of time browsing through the small but splendid bookshop and the very good second-hand bookstall outside.


The South Bank seems to be territory mostly for couples, as is the nearby Trafalgar Square with almost everyone taking photos I found uploaded to Flickr later that night, scary! They had installed a huge statue to promote the Tutankhamen Exhibition at the O2 (formerly known as the Millennium Dome) but it is not of King Tut. It is actually Anubis the dog-god, several of whose species guard the underworld. He also appears in The Holy Quran as the unnamed gatekeeper of hell.  I sat by the ever-flowing fountains before heading off to the Poetry Café (which I hadn't visited in ages).


I've always loved Covent Garden and the Covent Garden night life is definitely something worth seeing. The atmosphere is particularly unique, an unchanging Genius Loci specific to this locale that one does not see or find anywhere else in London.
 
The Poetry Café was empty, relief, just a gentleman immersed in his writing. I read through an old copy of the Poetry Review in which Tony Harrison's Collected Poems and Collected Film Poems had been reviewed. The writer was clearly unfamiliar with Harrison's work and I even spotted a good few mistakes in it. When I visited the Poetry Café a few years ago with a friend I was just showing him an article that the editor of Poetry Review had written that was up on the wall where they have current poetry-related newspaper cuttings, when Ms Sans-Souci herself trotted suavely in for lunch at a table exclusively reserved!!
 

‘Poet in the City’ is really doing some marvelous work in promoting poetry in London. They also invite the top people to speak and participate in the events held at venues not generally open to the public. I was invited to the Auden evening through the Auden Society of which I am a member. Past the glitzy Ritz Hotel into Christie's where the event was to take place.


The foyer was bathed in enticing purple light but sadly my name was missing from the guest list and mine was not the only one either – I told the lady I was a member of the Auden Society which seemed to alleviate her worries a bit (she looked me over as if I were wearing a bomb) and she took my name down and allowed me inside.  Auden's poem 'Funeral Blues' featured in the film Four Weddings & a Funeral which the actor Simon Callow recited later that evening along with 'Night Mail', 'Epitaph on a Tyrant' and 'August 1968'.

I introduced myself to Professor Mudford who has now retired. He was the husband of Auden's niece and Auden wrote his poem 'Epthalamium' for their wedding. He remembered my face but not my name! He asked what I was doing now and I said I was writing about the Agapemonites and explained who they were. He was one of the kindest and best lecturers at Birkbeck rivalled only by Dr. Dutton, his lecture on Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest (which roused my interest in Oscar Wilde).  He also delivered a lecture on Tom Stoppard's Arcadia.

The first speaker was Katherine Bucknell who originally co-found the Auden Society and has edited his Juvenilia. She recited 'The Watershed' and mentioned the various types of hats that Auden wore throughout his life, representative of the Chameleon Poet.[1] Among them a working class flat cap (Tony Harrison's mother made him wear one, saying it made him look more working class),[2] a wide-brimmed felt hat, a shop-keeper's bowler hat.

John Fuller spoke next who recently brought out an updated edition of his commentary on Auden.  At Birkebck, Professor Inglesfield recommended that we buy the new and "Fuller, if you excuse the pun, commentary".  He started off by reading from The Age of Anxiety and then recited the poem 'As He Is' which he describes as another Quest poem that "leads to a state of anxiety at which one becomes what he called in theory receptive to religious conversion".  There is a phrase in this poem 'defeat of grief' which Aleem also uses literally in Urdu as شکست یاس and perhaps both terms are unique to the poets and the languages they wrote in. John Fuller said that Another Time was "possibly his best collection" and also quoted Auden as saying that "Really, to appreciate archdeacons, you must know some barmaids, and vice versa. The same applies to poetry".

Lachlan Mackinnon then recited 'Streams' and wondered how serious Auden was. Of course for Auden the truly serious was also the truly frivolous. He pointed out the lines describing Auden's vision of Eros in his chariot:
Suddenly, over the lawn we started to run
for, lo, through the trees, in a cream and golden coach
drawn by two baby locomotives,
the god of mortal doting approached us,
     flanked by his bodyguard, those hairy armigers in green
who laugh at thunderstorms and weep at a blue sky:
He thanked us for our cheers of homage,
and promised X and Y a passion undying.
Professor Mudford said that he first met Auden in 1959 and one immediately recognized that "one was in the presence of genius" in his company.  He related an incident when he and his ex-wife Rita were driving him around London and asked "Where would you like to have dinner?" Professor Mudford said that his heart sank when Auden replied "I'd like to go to Simpson's-in-the-Strand". On the way he started to recite from his latest volume of poems Academic Graffiti. What they heard in one of the (over 60) clerihews from the book went like this "When the young Kant / Was told to kiss his aunt, [typically pronounced 'ant'] / He obeyed the Categorical Must, / But only just. I think you went through a red light my dear".  He shuffled in in his usual trademark carpet slippers and daunting t-shirt, refused to look at the menu and said "I'll have a large trout" then proceeded to sing loudly ‘in a squeaky Brooklyn accent’[3] (much to the bemusement of the clientele):
Take back your mink,
Take back your poils,
What makes you think
I'm just one of dem goils?
Professor Mudford recited 'Miss Gee' with its classic, inimitable lines: 
She passed by the loving couples,
She turned her head away;
She passed by the loving couples
And they didn't ask her to stay.
He then read 'The More Loving One' and 'As I Walked Out One Evening'.  Auden, with his theory of the Good Place (the chief focus of my own writing on him) was, he said "very much aware that we were products of different localities and places":
England to me is my own tongue,
And what I did when I was young.
Auden's niece Anita Money was there but I didn't see her. There was a man from India seated to my right who asked me if I was a poet. Around 230 people attended the evening.

To the Poetry Library then to get Lady Mary Wilson's Selected Poems and New Poems and Stephen Watts' new book The Blue Bag. I sat in the foyer with Mary Wilson's brilliant poems and began reading. I was particularly touched by the lovely motherly cadence of 'To Robin, when a Baby':
Soundly he sleeps, heavy upon the pillow
Knees bent in comfort, fingers tightly curled
Gently quiescent, helpless, unprotected
Trusting in slumber to a clement world.
                 Strange that this child once linked with me so closely
Born of my body, nourished at my breast
Is now a separate entity, a Being
Remote, apart from Me, his thoughts unguessed.
                And that within this little quiet body
Unknown and sleeping, lie his future years:
His dreams, his hopes, his longing and ambitions,
His loves, his hates, his heartaches and his tears
       Soundly he sleeps, heavy upon the pillow,
Knees bent in comfort, fingers tightly curled
Gently quiescent, helpless, unprotected,
Man of the future, heir to all the world.  
Another verse I liked was: 
Just for a moment, time is overset
The past is now, the present is not yet

All, all is changed, and yet, it cannot be!
Now is the dream - Then, the reality!
Behind me were a lady and gentleman that had apparently met after a long time, man single, catching up, chatting about their lives, about what their mutual friends were up to, very arresting convo, the lady: a nurse. I suddenly felt extremely drowsy (probably due to the tablet I had taken earlier). Never felt this sleepy before, I'm otherwise an insomniac (curse of the poets) and unable to coax Morpheus in my own bed let alone in a public place – Took my 'exorbitant' spectacles off, held head in hand and dozed for a few minutes. The man on the sofa opposite was also asleep. It's actually a dream-place is the RFH – I woke just in time for a quick coffee. A very posh-hatted man was there with a Harrods bag who I couldn't resist snapping up on my phone. Was he waiting for a girlfriend? A mistress, perhaps?


Also on the way there I saw a newspaper on the train open bizarrely at a crossword which somebody had filled with swearing, clearly not having had a very happy day.


Behind me in the Purcell Room of the Queen Elizabeth Hall at the South Bank (where last I attended the Poetry International in 2002 at which Frieda Hughes also recited her poetry) were 2 girls seated – I overheard "I loved The Bell Jar. Was in tears all the way through it, terrified because I understood it" said one and her friend agreed to how acute Plath's description of femininity is in that novel and that not only was she terrified by it but so was her mother and that it was so subtle that it was scary how definitely Plath understood human emotions.


Some short films were shown based on Plath's life, bizarrely one of the names in the credits to one of the films was Ella Marshall-Dutton, which struck me ...

Sally Bayley, co-editor of the book which this whole event was convened to plug, considering Plath's (largely early) art work and how it influenced her later work – Eye Rhymes: Sylvia Plath's Art of the Visual, began her talk by saying how her fellow Plathians were at the number one event taking place in London that evening, beating Frank Skinner.  (Frank who?)

There then followed a discussion with Elisabeth Gray whose play Wish I had a Sylvia Plath was commissioned by Sally Bayley.  She had read only the journals and practically none of the poetry until asked to do the play, she also never liked Plath for a long time and explained why. Clare Pollard whose poetry I confess not having read but will do now if only because she mentioned Plath as her first and major influence – She could also quote her liberally from memory which was quite impressive. It is worth looking into whether Plath's landscapes really do get smaller and smaller. From the vastness of Yorkshire (recognizable to natives) to the landscape of her mind:
This is the light of the mind, cold and planetary.
The trees of the mind are black. The light is blue.

       'The Moon and the Yew Tree'.
To the precise blackness and constriction of the coffin in 'Edge' her last poem. There was also much talk of her colours: red, blue, black, blue-black. I've always been interested in this aspect of her poetry and hope to take it up sometime in my writing. It is also worth checking whether red really is always a positive colour of power and triumph. Especially in the light of 'Red', Hughes’ final poem in Birthday Letters, she herself says it had changed to a rather unusual type of blue –
BLUE is my new colour, royal, midnight (not aqua!). Ted never liked blue, and I am a really blue-period person now. With lilac and apple green accents.[4]
Or her reds are usually just reds her blues just blues her yellows just yellows, her blacks, blacks. Clare also mentioned the image of the lidless eye not being able to shut, taking in all visuals.
 

Afterwards there was to be presented some music by Sally's friend Jack Harris (who also asked a question I didn't understand to which Sally replied "I asked for easy questions Jack Harris!" And to which the panel gave fairly vague answers too). The music was really great and I met him afterwards. A dancer called Natalia Thorn danced amazingly in a revealing bright red dress, a dance based on Plath's poppy poems. I asked Sally if she could sign the book. There were no pens there yet so she had to use the red one which she thought was "Very Plathian".  She signed it 'Dear Rehan. With very best wishes'.  I told her that I agreed with her in that the poet is never the voice or character in the poem but alchemically becomes it in the process of composition, as Keats explained in his notion of the Chameleon Poet. Elisabeth Gray thought otherwise and that all Plath's characters were Plath herself. She said I should have said so (but I never do).  They also mentioned that it was significant that Plath herself recited her new poems to her friend before she died and had recited 'Daddy' in a tone that was cynical, comical or sarcastic and said how funny it was whilst he himself (the friend) was taken aback and pretty terrified by its sheer power and force.[5] 

I also visited the Brompton Oratory – A side door (church entrances nowadays are usually through an unseen backdoor or an obscure side door) opens into an antiquarian library.  A kind old lady led me in through the front door into a strange vast place of aura, mystery and magic. It was completed in 1884 and has a nave wider than that of St. Paul's. Its chapels and altars amaze. A tramp (or a saint) was sitting in the pews.  A lady knelt at the altar to Our Lady of Fatima, the Black Madonna. Don't think I've seen one in a London church before. The resplendent dome which I took several pictures of had an astonishing light coming through to the ground beneath whilst the side isles were dark and daring.
 

I then went up the ancient lane to the right of the oratory going up to the church of the Holy Trinity, Brompton but found all its doors locked shut. A small flight of stairs led down to a new office that looked like a children's nursery with a sign on the door.


It is such a shame and a reflection on our society when so many of the old churches are long locked and bolted, probably for good. So many of the new ones are being put to use by being renovated into dull, drab charity offices or meeting venues of the Society for the Protection of some sort of vulgarity.
 

Next I went to Harrods to see if I could find the incense-based scent by Armani that my local perfumist (insisting on her expertise) outright denied even existed. It's called Privé: Bois d'Encens and cost me £140 with a second bottle for £60.


[1] Keats, John.  To Richard Woodhouse, 27 October 1818.  The Letters of John Keats 1814 - 1821. 2 volumes, Edited by 
      Hyder Edward Rollins, (1958).
[2] Harrison, Tony.  'Turns'.  Collected Poems.  (Penguin, 2007).  162. 
[3] Carpenter, Humphrey. W. H. Auden: A Biography. (1981). 261.
[4] Plath, Sylvia. To Aurelia Schober Plath. 21 December 1962. Letters Home. Edited by Aurelia Schober Plath. (Faber & 
      Faber, 1975).
[5] Roche, Clarissa.  'Sylvia Plath: Vignettes From England'.  Butscher, Edward.  Sylvia Plath: The Woman & the Work.  
      (1977).  

Monday, 3 September 2007

Brompton Cemetery Open Day & Johnson Corrected

And We created not the heaven and the Earth and all that is between them in vain.
         If at all We had wished to find a pastime, We would surely have found it in what is within us.
            Nay, We hurl the truth at falsehood and it crushes it and lo, it vanishes. And woe unto you for that which you spin out.
 
       The Holy Quran. al-Anbiya [The Prophets]. 17-19.
On 21st July I attended the Brompton Cemetery Open Day, I haven't attended any other Open Day and this was my first although I have visited Brompton twice before.  It wasn't as crowded as Kensal Green (and not as popular, Kensal Green's Open Day is the most popular and well-attended).  I took some photos and chanced upon the grave of Rawlinson (one of my cemetery poets which I photographed).




The cemetery has Beatrix Potter connections who used to live nearby in The Boltons and it is supposed that she visited it as a child and that some of the names on the tombstones such as Nutkins (Squirrel Nutkins) were the inspiration for some of her characters, Mr McGregor's walled garden was based on the colonnades.  Names on headstones at Brompton Cemetery include McGregor, a Tod (with that unusual single 'd' spelling), Jeremiah Fisher, Tommy Brock and even a Peter Rabbett.  


These cemeteries are full of connections - I spotted a Louisa Wallis buried next to a University of London professor!

Also paid a visit to the catacombs for the first time, they are much narrower than the ones in Kensal Green.  On the way home I passed through the Victoria & Embankment Gardens and photographed the grand monument to Robert Burns and the Weeping Muse at the memorial to Sir Arthur Sullivan, on it are carved the lines of W S Gilbert:
Life is a boon?
If so, it must befall
That death, whene'er he call
Must call too soon


God perfects our souls in proportion and has revealed the right and the wrong:

Surely he prospers who augments it.

             And he who corrupts it is ruined.
                   The Holy Quran. as-Shams [The Sun]. 10, 11.
God should inform the soul of Johnson that:
Corruption has flourished over land and sea because of what people's hands have wrought that He may make them taste the fruit of some of their doings so that they may retreat.        
Say 'Travel in the Earth and observe what was the end of those before you! Most of them were idolaters’.    
So set thy face towards the Religion which is upright and helps others to be upright before Allah brings a day for which there will be no averting on which they shall fall into groups distinct from each other.          
Those who reject will bear the consequences of their rejection; and those who do righteous deeds will only have provided for their own good.        
That He out of His bounty may reward those who believe and do righteous deeds.  Surely He does not love the disbelievers. 
         The Holy Quran.  al-Rum [The Byzantines].  42 - 46.
We are tired of London and we are tired of life.  In London a homeless man tries to cut his wrists with a broken bottle with people all around him on their lunch break (in Soho Square), a lady who runs into a nearby McDonald's to ask for help and to call an ambulance, is refused, members of public can't use the staff phone, asks if one of their staff would be so kind as to phone themselves, is refused.  People carry on chewing their sandwiches:
The inmates of the Fire and the inmates of the Garden are not equal. It is the inmates of the Garden that will triumph.

Hadst we sent this Quran down on a mountain thou wouldst certainly have seen it humbled and rent asunder in awe of Allah's Majesty. And these are similitudes that we set forth for mankind that they may ponder.

Allah is He beside whom there is none worthy of worship, the Knower of the unseen and the seen. He is the Gracious the Merciful.

Allah is He beside whom there is none worthy of worship, the Sovereign the Holy the Source of Peace the Bestower of Security the Protector the Mighty the Subduer the Exalted. Holy is Allah far above that which they associate with Him.

He is Allah the Creator the Maker the Fashioner His are the most beautiful attributes. All that is in the heavens and the Earth glorifies Him, and He is the Mighty the Wise.
 
                The Holy Quran. al-Hashr [The Gathering]. 21 – 25.

Wednesday, 11 July 2007

Keats House & Kensal Green Open Day 2007

Banks, for me, are not places touched by poetry.  Mystery perhaps, but not poetry.  I am aware that T. S. Eliot worked in one for a while but I do not know a bank whereon the wild thyme blows and I cannot believe Burns was serious when he asserted that the banks and braes (whatever they may be) of bonny Doon bloomed fresh and fair.  Obviously he never queued for money in bonny Surrey.
                However, a recent experience has made me think again and admit that I may be much prejudiced.  A few months ago, I was paying some cheques into the society's account when the young lady cashier suddenly put down the papers she was studying so carefully, smiled at me and without further ado proceeded to recite the whole of 'In a Bath teashop’.  And then, with our banking business concluded, I was not exhorted to have a nice day but treated to the opening of lines of 'In Westminster Abbey’.  Whenever I am lucky enough to b this lady's customer the transaction is enlivened by one or two Betjeman quotes. 
               I was told that she 'discovered' Sir John at school where her English teacher gave her a copy of the Collected Poems and, to use her own words, she soon became a Betjeman addict.  The teacher loved poetry and he encouraged my friend to learn some favourite pieces by heart.  She did and she still does.  Sensible schoolmaster and lucky pupil.

                         John Heald.  ‘The Chairman's Letter'.  The Betjeman Society Newsletter, (October 2004).
Keats’ House in Hampstead is surprisingly well-maintained and kept well intact, it closes for refurbishment work again this year but only to repaint the walls the original colour as Keats would have known them and to re-plaster them, absolutely brilliant.  The other good thing is that the tickets are valid until October so I'll definitely have to revisit when I'm in the area again, I sat idly in the splendid garden.  Keats lived here from 1818 – 1820 and wrote some of his most famous poems here.  He also met and fell in love with Fanny Brawne here, the eldest daughter of his neighbour, the girl next door! Keats and Fanny were separated only by a thin wall between the houses.  The original house was known as Wentworth Place – Both houses (that of Fanny and John Keats) have now been knocked into one.


The famous portrait that shows Keats poetically posing by the fireplace was based in the sitting room which still has the original fireplace and window looking out and also the bookshelf with some books Keats kept or is known at least to have read.  


A display cabinet holds his life mask and death mask and his inkstand.  Upstairs there are the bedrooms and a display of Fanny's belongings: her ring which Keats gave her and which she wore till her death, a lock of her hair and many other things. 
 
A small plum tree grows in the place where Keats sat down and composed 'Ode to a Nightingale' one morning as described by his friend Charles Brown:

In the spring of 1819 a nightingale had built her nest near my house.  Keats felt a tranquil and continual joy in her song; and one morning he took his chair from the breakfast-table to the grass plot under a plum-tree, where he sat for two or three hours.  When he came into the house, I perceived he had some scraps of paper the in number, contained his poetic feeling on the song of our nightingale.  The writing was not well legible; and it was difficult to arrange the stanzas on so many scraps.  With his assistance I succeeded, and this was his 'Ode to a Nightingale', a poem which has been the delight of everyone.

        Charles Armitage Brown.  The Life of John Keats.  Edited by Dorothy Hyde Bodurtha.  (Oxford, 1937).
There was a noted silence and an emptiness to the house which one feels particularly on the way back, how lifeless it was now which had once been so full of life, some literary-minded chaps go in and out of its rooms daily like mice:
Pool in which images
Should be grand and classical
              Not this troublous
Wringing of hands, this dark Ceiling without a star.
Sylvia Plath, 'Child'.
I went to my favourite Hungarian (I feel very Edwardian) tea house and then to pay respects at Constable's tomb. 

Kensal Green Cemetery Open Day (on seventh) was great fun especially the catacomb tour and my usual carrot cake and tea (which the lady wrongly insisted was not carrot cake).  I had planned to take photos of the graves of the 12 or so poets who are buried there but was able only to take a photo of the grave of Lady Wilde.  The grave in front was open from the sides and full of water – 

Saturday, 19 May 2007

The Borders: Tony Harrison at 70, 'Sacred' & 'A Poet in the Family'

The members of my sect shall so excel in knowledge and insight that they will confound everyone with the light of their truth, and by dint of their arguments and signs.[1]
As he ruefully observed more than once, few humans have disclosed their feelings, their ambitions and wicked wishes, with such sublime disregard for their reputation. He reported and closely analysed some of his most revealing dreams; he recorded some embarrassing memories of his early years.
       Peter Gay.  Freud: A Life for Our Time.  (1988). 
Simon Armitage wrote (in his article in celebration of Tony Harrison's sixtieth birthday) that he first saw him on TV reciting poems about his parents, in a pub full of men all holding tumblers of beer and all crying – It took him years to find out who the poet was. Similarly I first saw him on TV reciting some poems from the same sequence ('Them & [uz]'). I became a fan there and then and recognised in him the true poet, rediscovering him years later after I had joined the Poetry Library.

Tony Harrison's did lots of recitals in his seventieth birthday year. I've read everything he has published and have all his books; I can even recite his poetry by heart. He attended every performance of his play Hecuba in 2005, sitting behind other avid theatre-goers. He also gave a series of excellent interviews in the newspapers. Some of which I quote from here:
The heart beats iambically; the form keeps the connection to the heartbeat. For me, this fluidity of rhyme in the head is like water that keeps the clay malleable till it's ready.  
       The Muses know my telephone number.  
              I thought I might slow down, but part of me has no interest in what I've done approaching 70, only what I'm doing now or tomorrow. The older you get, the more sensual experience nourishes the poetry. I used to have depressive cycles, but instead of being afraid, I say: 'Come in and talk to me.' I've realised darkness and light are inter-dependant, just as death is an enhancer of life.
Harrison expresses this most brilliantly in his film/poem Cheating the Void:
Oblivion is darkness, Memory light.
They're locked in eternal struggle. Which
of the two forces finally shows its might
when death's doors are thrown open by a switch?
And goes on to answer that question in the film/poem itself. In the interview I quoted from above he says:
The stillness of poetry is like a vigil with a candle. Poetry is not a popular art, it doesn't change anything.  But it reminds us there are ways of contemplating destructive forces in a secular, meditative way which it's important to keep alive. That's what keeps me going.                  
            There are risks of sentimentality. But my meter starts ticking in the presence ofdumbness and inarticulacy.  There's
                      There's always that voice ’What’s the point, who the hell wants a poem?' I have to outstrip that dark, negative force to write anything. 
          Maya Jaggi.  'Beats of the heart'.  The Guardian, 31 May 2007. 
Tragedy, of course, is one of the great forms of the human spirit, greater than religion, for example. 
                      Michael Glover.  'Not to be read quietly'.  Independent on Sunday, 1 April 2007.

'And if you haven't got any religion, and I don't than art, for me, is the deepest expression of it all'.  As he once said - '(I'd like to be the poet my father reads!)':
I think ease of communication is one thing but the perfection of communication.  Working for weeks on a 10-line poem is something else. 
             Chris Bond.  'Poetry in motion with Tony Harrison'.  Yorkshire Post, 28 March 2007.
On 15 March he gave a recital at the School of English at Leeds University. He was late! First there was a screening of his film/poem Black Daisies for the Bride. One visitor wrote that it 'Taught us a hell of a lot more than merely the crunch'.  That the film/poem was 'Beautiful, but harrowing. His poems about war, his parents and 'Littererchewer' reminded me about how good he really is: aggressive, with wit that doesn't take away from neither gravity or humanity. Though I did leave feeling assaulted and dazed for several hours after, it was quite intense. Nevertheless he rocks bells and looks good for 70 to boot!' Among other poems he recited 'Heredity', 'Them & [uz] II' and 'On Not Being Milton'. He certainly does look good for 70 and I hope he continues to write for many years to come. He is doubtless among the greatest poets writing in English today.

He answered questions from the audience on 5 April 2007 following an exclusive screening of his film/poem The Shadow of Hiroshima at the BFI.

On 27 April Harrison recited his poems in a function entirely devoted to him called 'Pause for Poetry' at the Cambridge Wordfest. He recited 'Long Distance II' among other poems. Unfortunately all the tickets had already sold out when I tried to book. After the recital a lady from the audience approached him to ask if his film/poems were available on DVD, not the case most unfortunately (due to that common bane of poets, the lack of funds) - He replied that all his films are unavailable to the public.

Brighton Festival, 10 May 2007.  © Matthew Andrews.

I decided to go to the British Library and buy the double CD of Auden recordings recently released for the first time, a fitting tribute in the centenary year of his birth.  The bus passed The Lucas Arms on the Gray’s Inn Road – Now all renovated and newly done up: I think this was the pub I used to pass as a child with grandfather or dad.  There used to be an old man selling newspapers outside it who I was dead scared of because he was always so dreadfully drunk.

At the British Library bookshop I came across Cakes & Ale by Judy Spours.  A book I saw there last time but tried like mad to recall the title of and get hold of without any luck There is also another book I've been after for a few years now about the Victorian obsession with the occult and spiritualism, a review came out in The Times and I saw it once but haven't been able to find anywhere since.

I saw the brilliant 'Sacred' exhibition of religious texts and objects from the family of religions: Judaism, Christianity, Islam stressing the fact that all 3 are basically from the same root/route-source and believe in different versions of the same stories.  They have on display that Kiswa, one of the cloths placed upon the Kaaba annually – Embroidered with real gold, also one of the original Suhuf e Uthman: the official edition of The Holy Quran compiled and published for the first time under Uthman (the third Caliph succeeding the Prophet Muhammad ). 

I also saw the exhibition of Blake's notebook and 'A Poet in the Family' from the recently acquired Coleridge Archive – Including the first edition of Sibylline Leaves and other books and papers and one of Coleridge's many notebooks.  Truly a great treasure of knowledge that the British Library has done well to invest in, a rare thing for a British institute to do for a British author! Afterwards I went to Oxford Street for a coffee.  I saw an 'Ex Royal Marines' homeless beggar sitting in a doorway in Argyle Avenue.

[1] Ahmad, Hazrat Mirza Ghulam. Tajjaliyat e Ilahiya [Divine Manifestations].  (1906: Ziaul Islam, 1922.  Ruhani Khazain: xx.  409.  English: Islam International Publications Ltd, 2006).  36.