Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Wearing Thin

Wearing Thin

Late going home after minor delays,
you might be walking past
‘the worst guest house in England’
or a church’s backlit triptych of saints
and watching for nothing more grave
than a displaced traffic sign.
The whole town is doing its best.
Even now the river’s only troubled
by a cormorant’s neck like a snag.
Monumental Victorians rest in peace.
Behind these emphatic hoardings,
developments will occur.
Lifestyle smiles from every angle.

Some things are easier said than done.
Ignoring overheard remarks
or epidemic rumours turning heads,
you might be amongst the bustle and puff
of a delayed windowshopper’s
determined indignation.
You were thinking
how it might have been otherwise
when you were caught at the lights
with all hopes dashed
by a misread magazine headline:
You are what you were.

A version of this poem was previously posted online by Various Artists.

Sunday, 27 December 2009

Obscure moments in the life of a home counties teenager

Given that there currently appears to be a resurgence of interest in the (un)popular music of the late 70s/early 80s post-punk years, when bands pursuing the 'anyone can do it' DIY ethic split away from the increasingly formulaic punk 'mainstream' and when teenagers in corduroy jackets and 'reinvented' 50s dresses began to identify themselves as belonging to something different to the groomed mohican and mohair jumper-wearing crowd, here's a modest selection of old footage that YouTube has recently dredged back to the surface...

Swell Maps: Midget Submarine

Cabaret Voltaire: Nag Nag Nag

Birthday Party: Release the Bats

The Raincoats: Fairytale in the Supermarket

The Pop Group: She Is Beyond Good And Evil

Josef K: It's Kinda Funny

Orange Juice: Rip It Up

Pere Ubu: Waiting For Mary

Elsewhere, perhaps, there was disco...

Sofia's speech

From 'Hotel Illyria', Tobacco Factory, Bristol, 2008
Fifteen years after the end of communism in an unspecified SE European country, Sofia reflects on the mixed fortunes of the hotel in whose grounds she runs a cafe not entirely unlike the one pictured above (which is in the grounds of the Hotel Dajti in Tirana, Albania).


Those summers at the Hotel Illyria... Cars pulling in at the gate. The good comrades down from the city. Ministers, generals, heads of this, directors of that. "Evening, Sofia," they'd say as they came into the foyer. "Welcome to the Illyria, comrade."

And the silver service was laid and the band were playing. And after they'd all gone up to change, they'd all come back down again, down the staircase... that huge, sweeping staircase... and always in order, of course. The most senior, the most favoured, right down to the ones who'd disappear the following year... I never worked out how they did that. How they arranged it so they all came down from their rooms in exactly the right order... Who told them? Who knew? They must have waited, each of them, in all their finery, ears pressed against their bedroom door, listening out for who was going past, listening out for their turn.

And when the Leader was here - the panic! Everyone tripping over everyone else, the maids and the police, the waiters and the bodyguards. And the maitre d' poring over this great list of instructions, looking for clues. Would the Leader be inclined to red or white wine this year? Fish or meat? Gravy or sauce? And he would have to choose and wait and sweat until that first meal was served, the first glass poured, and we'd all take up our stations in the dining room, hardly able to breathe, stomachs like stones, absolute silence... Until, yes, there it was: the first mouthful, the first sip... and that famous face - the one on every banknote, every stamp... there it was, unmistakeably, the Leader's half-smile... And then, when we were sure, the sound would come rushing back into the room like a shower of rain. And conversations would start. And orders be given. And the cutlery clattered and we'd be rushing in and out of the kitchens, fetching bread, fetching wine, fetching plates piled high with food... Of course, that was years ago. Before the Siguritate came here. Before they arrested the maitre d'. Pjeter. My husband.

Mostar and Sarajevo

Pictures from Bosnia 2009:
a) the plaque in Sarajevo commemorating the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914;
b) an as-yet unreconstructed 'new construction' in Mostar, shelled during the siege;
c) the park in Mostar - no dogs, no ball games, no guns;
d) Mostar's reconstructed - and laws of physics-defying - bridge. It's the early afternoon: the crowd at the balustrade is a coach party from Dubrovnik or Montenegro. A bloke from the Mostar Diving Club is about to jump.

Wednesday, 16 December 2009


For no other reason than that we're coming towards the end of the year and making lists suddenly seems to be the 'thing to do', here are some books I've read in the last twelve months (although many were published before that) which might be of interest if what's been posted on this blog so far has itself been of any interest at all.

Bohumil Hrabal: The Little Town Where Time Stood Still
Novel by the Czech author of the elegantly concise 'Closely Observed Trains' and slightly madly exuberant 'I Served the King of England'. This one revolves around a brewery, a woman with unfeasibly long hair and an uncle who almost compulsively smashes up furniture in a Europe about to fall under the shadow of various dictatorships. The most obvious comparison would be Marquez - but Hrabal is better at jokes.

Julian Evans: Semi-Invisible Man
Biography of the novelist and travel writer Norman Lewis ('A Dragon Apparent', 'Naples '44' etc). Lewis combined a love of Bugatti racing cars with campaigning for the rights of indigenous communities in South America and admirably refusing to play the literary 'game'. That, at least, is how Evans sees him.

Jan Morris: Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere
Travel book/lament for a city conventionally dismissed with the phrase 'faded grandeur' but where Freud went to study the genitalia of eels, Svevo wrote 'Zeno's Conscience' and Joyce caused a diplomatic incident within hours of his arrival (and is now commemorated by a bronze on an obscure footbridge). This, too, is the city from where Austro-Hungarian scion Maximillian departed for Mexico (and his firing squad execution, as most famously depicted by Manet) and where Archduke Franz Ferdinand's corpse passed through the streets on its way back to Vienna from Sarajevo.

Colin Thubron: Among The Russians
Account of a journey through the Soviet Union, when such a place still existed. Opens with an the phrase: 'I had been afraid of Russia ever since I could remember'. Arguably, one of the sanest travel books about the Communist bloc written during the Cold War (for contrast try Dymphna Cusack's 'Illyria Reborn' or, indeed, from a very different perspective, the Albanian chapter in Eric Newby's 'On the Shores of the Mediterranean').

Philip Marsden: The Crossing Place
Account of a journey through the Armenian diaspora and into Armenia itself. Particularly revealing for all those who 'missed' the Armenian genocide or are slightly perplexed by the stringency of the Turkish government's laws against even mentioning that it happened.

Ismail Kadare: The Siege
Despite an acceleration in publication since he won the Booker Man International Prize, only a very small number of the Albanian writer's novels are available in English translation. This is the latest, a reworking of a book previously published (during Albania's communist 'Hoxha time') as 'The Castle'. It's not difficult to tease out an allegorical interpretation of this tale of the Ottoman Empire's assault on an Albanian fortress. Hopefully, a translation of Kadare's most recent novel in Albanian, 'Darka e Gabuar' ('The Mistaken Dinner', at a stab), won't be too far distant as a French version has recently appeared. In the meantime, there's always 'The Successor', 'Broken April', 'The File on H', 'Agamemnon's Daughter', 'Chronicle in Stone'... Despite his relatively new-found fame in western Europe, Kadare remains a controversial figure in both Albania and SE Europe as a whole, largely because of his ambiguous relationship to the Hoxha regime (how did he manage to survive in the most repressive of repressive regimes without making some kind of 'accommodation' with it?) and his apparently enigmatic decision to leave the country on the eve of its 'democratic' revolution in 1991 (explained in his hard-to-find 'Albanian Spring'). For a glimpse of the arguments (and my minor incursion into them), see the review and subsequent letters at www.lrb.co.uk/v29/n17/thomas-jones/feuds-corner

William Dalrymple: From The Holy Mountain
Dalrymple was the only writer I saw at this year's Cheltenham Literature Festival who didn't bow to the prevailing genteel atmosphere and the carefully PR industry-nurtured habit of only drinking mineral water and not swearing on stage. I bought this on the strength of his confident flouting of convention and the disapproving 'harrumphs' from the audience (who, earlier in the day, had been quite happy to queue to get Cheri Blair and Harry Hill's signatures on their latest tomes). It's an account of a journey among orthodox Christian communities from Greece to Syria and Lebanon to Egypt; its descriptions of the similarity of the religious rites practised by Christians, Jews and Muslims in the Middle East make the tenor of world politics in the last decade look even more woefully Swiftian.

Misha Glenny: McMafia
How Montenegro allegedly funded its independence from Serbia using the profits from its blackmarket cigarette trade and many other stories of organised crime's easy exploitation of 'globalisation', the 'tiger economies' and 'new capitalism'. The section on how to hack into anyone's computer using a Pringles tube is particularly worrying. If you come across this in paperback, don't let the tabloidy cover put you off.

Robert Elsie & Janie Mathie-Heck (eds): Lightning from the Depths
Anthology of Albanian poetry that ranges from excerpts from traditional oral epics and the poetry of the 19th-century 'national renaissance' to contemporary work. Breathtakingly diverse (imagine an anthologry of English poetry ranging from Milton to Prynne) and, given the confines of a single volume, necessarily episodic, but as good a selection as is possible in the circumstances when the editors (and translators) here are some of the very few people able to translate directly from Albanian into English.

Lloyd Jones: Biografi
Very odd book which its author originally passed off as a non-fiction account of his quest to find Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha's 'double', Petar Shapallo. No such person existed or, if he did, he wasn't called Petar Shapallo. Jones, though, does seem to have travelled to Albania in the aftermath of the collapse of communism but how much of the resultant book is fiction and how much non-fiction remains a matter of debate. Either way, on the eve of Jones's appearance at the Brisbane Writers Festival last year, The Australian newspaper (http://www.theaustralian.com.au/) took issue with him over playing fast and loose with 'the truth'. To make matters even more confusing, there used to be an article on-line which claimed that David Byrne (as in Talking Heads) had written the book.

Not entirely unexpectedly, very few of these books were actually available in a bookshop the last time I looked.

Friday, 4 December 2009

Two Poems

Something like an epitaph

And so now we will have to try and find the words,
we three, sitting here, dumbstruck, the weekend
before Christmas. What we depended on has gone:
there's no talking our way out of this. For once
your silvered laptop keyboard has nothing
to offer. His obituary won't write itself.

Almost exactly square patches of sunlight
interrupt dinner-party table, terracotta walls:
they won't join up. Midway through our lives,
we're simply sitting in so much stripped pine,
welcoming distraction - doorbells, kids,
the slightest circumstantial change.

It won't go away. Silence is goading,
a crackling socket in need of fixing.
Whatever it is we'd rather not say
sits tight between sofas, remote controls,
the lifted plunger of a half-warmed cafetiere.
The garden drops away towards another life.

Are we fated to this? I wouldn't go so far -
only damned to it, this frost-clear Sunday,
we're clutching at smart puns, unlikely
recollections, these few tapped-out thoughts,
the things he might have said or done with us,
friends not being friends, really, until now.

European Union

At first it might have been coincidence
that we heard so many car horns
shifting through the Doppler effect,
or checked in at hotels where girls
in Sunday best held hands and sang
interminable folk tunes.

Only, the following day, new couples
emerged from a scaffolded church
with candles lit, and family groups
assembled in a park for photographs
where filigree blossom coincidentally
obscured the Stalinist backdrop.

Thirty, forty weddings eased
from ceremonies to pose
beneath late-flowering cherry trees,
anticipated pleasures, and advice
they'd hardly need, being of an age
where all has seemed to changed.

Such innocence again around the square,
these brand new starts, this expectation,
Romanian sunlight on dove-grey dresses.