Sunday, November 28, 2010

Look Back at Angers

To Angers, for the fourth international colloquium at the Anthony Burgess Centre, this time focusing on Burgess's encounters with the Elizabethans. It was, as usual, a very enjoyable event, and it was great to meet up with old Burgessian pals, and to make some new ones. Angers is a very pleasant town, with a chateau, some delightful Renaissance architecture, and some very fine shops. Our hosts, as ever, did us proud: this is the only conference I go to where lunch is a two-hour affair with a choice of three fine wines. As Sterne said, "They order this matter better in France." Not much time for sightseeing on this occasion, but the curious traveller in this part of the world should certainly check out the chateau, and particularly the tapestry depicting the Apocalypse: it's 100 metres long (of an original 140m) and was made between 1373 and 1382 for Louis I of Anjou. It is a stunning piece, set in its own spacious room at the chateau.

The town itself has something to delight the eye around every corner, such as this:
or this:
or this:

More images are available all over the web. The city website is much animated by the arrival of the tramway, which will run through the town, and which is nearing completion at the moment.

The colloque went very well, with some very interesting and stimulating papers from some of my fellow Burgessians, including Alan Shockley, Katherine Adamson, Jonathan Mann, Anthony Levings and Aude Haffen. Gareth Farmer's paper was a tour-de-force worth a listen. Andrew Biswell, doyen of Burgess studies, and director of the IABF presented a paper in his usual urbane manner.  It was a great pleasure to meet and indeed eat with Charles Nicholl, our keynote speaker, and the distinguished author of The Reckoning, source of most of the information in my paper. If you haven't read The Reckoning, you really should - it's a detailed and fascinating account of the Elizabethan spy world. Charles's later book, The Lodger, on Shakespeare's time in London, also displays the depth of his learning, but in a very accessible way. All the talks were recorded, so I'm hoping some will be on the Angers web site soon.

There was no book lack in Angers, as Paul Phillips, the leading critic of Burgess's music, was able to launch his new book on the subject. I cannily managed to purchase an unsigned copy, which I think will be a rare item in future...

Paul's major contribution to the event was the first ever staging of Burgess's only ballet, 'Mr WS', for which he conducted a large orchestra of largely amateur musicians. Friends of Topsyturvydom will know that modern interpretive dance is really not my thing, so you may be surprised to read that I was gripped throughout by the ability of four dancers to produce a mesmerising display of acrobatic and inexhaustibly inventive movement to represent Shakespeare's life and times. It was a privilege to talk to one of the dancers, Mélisande Carré Angeli at the conference dinner, where she told me that remembering all the complex moves was simply a question of repetition. I was exhausted just watching.

So, another memorable visit to Angers. The next Burgess milestone will be 2012, and the 50th anniversary of the publication of A Clockwork Orange

Update 30th Nov: The image of the tapestry which I linked to seems to have been removed. It was Creative Commons, and I did credit the photographer, but hey... So I've substituted some pictures taken whilst I was there of the chateau and the town.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Bonfire of the Humanities

It's quite likely that I will be out of a job in eighteen months or so. The funding cuts announced by the government in the wake of the Browne review are particularly savage in the subject area where I work, and in the kind of institution where I work. The emphasis on the so-called STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths) subjects means that, in effect, arts and humanities subjects are going to be denied any funding at all, and will have to survive on vastly increased student fees. The real terms cut for a department like mine in the sector of the university market we are in is about 98%. Whether there is a pool of students prepared to pay those fees is another matter, and it seems clear that lots of departments will close, and it is by no means inconceivable that entire universities will have to shut up shop. And, you know, I somehow don't think that will be Oxford and Cambridge. Already, redundancies have been announced, and I know of several institutions where departing staff are simply not being replaced.

Since this is my livelihood, I am obviously concerned, but, like any scholar of the humanities, I can see both sides of the argument. The country is in an almighty mess economically. Cuts have to be made. The subjects with practical applications must be privileged. All right, up to a point. But we have been told for the last twenty years that we are now in a knowledge economy, where what matters is the mix of skills you have, and your agility and adaptability in a fast-changing environment. As I pointed out in a previous post, employers are generally not that bothered about the content of a degree; they want people who are smart, articulate, and able to work on their own initiative and as part of a team. So yes, whilst a degree in engineering is clearly very desirable if you want to be an engineer, there are many jobs (70% of graduate jobs according to a recent analysis) where the subject is not specified.

If, as seems likely, we lose much of our traditional capacity in the humanities, and the university sector shrinks as a result, would that matter? The short answer is yes. Stefan Collini, whose brilliant demolition of the ludicrous REF emphasis on 'impact' I highlighted some time ago, has produced an equally withering analysis of the Browne review. Here's a taste, but as with the previous one, you really should read it all.
It is, incidentally, one of the several dispiriting features of this report that even when it shows an inconsistent twitch of non-market reflexes and recognises that there may be a public interest in making sure that certain subjects are offered and studied, it in effect confines these subjects to science and technology (with a token nod to the possible economic usefulness of some foreign languages). The only social value the report seems able to think of is economic: these subjects contribute directly to the economy, it is alleged, and so we must have them. The Comprehensive Spending Review has reinforced this emphasis on science and technology by maintaining the science budget (which supports research, not teaching) at its present level. Browne implies that other subjects, especially the arts and humanities, are just optional extras. If students are willing to cash in their voucher to study them – perhaps because, for some unexamined reason, they are thought to lead to higher-paid jobs – so be it; but if they’re not, then there’s no public interest in having them. Despite the occasional (very occasional) mention of, say, ‘culture’, the logic of the report’s proposals gives such values no independent standing. Overwhelmingly, the general statements announce, with startling confidence, the real point of higher education: ‘Higher education matters because it drives innovation and economic transformation. Higher education helps to produce economic growth, which in turn contributes to national prosperity.’ And just when you might think there was going to be a glimpse of something broader, your knuckles are smartly rapped: ‘Higher education matters because it transforms the lives of individuals. On graduating, graduates are more likely to be employed, more likely to enjoy higher wages and better job satisfaction, and more likely to find it easier to move from one job to the next.’ This report displays no real interest in universities as places of education; they are conceived of simply as engines of economic prosperity and as agencies for equipping future employees to earn higher salaries.
David "Call me Dave" Cameron is fond of saying "we are all in this together". The trouble is, we aren't. Lord Snooty and his pals will not be facing any pain at all, because they are all extremely rich, as this article shows. (Sorry about linking to the Daily Malice, but this does graphically illustrate the gap between Dave 'n' George and the rest of us). So when Charlotte and Oliver want to go to Daddy's alma mater to study Art History or Old Norse, that will be fine, because those universities will be able to charge huge fees to people for whom it's small change, and they'll be able to keep on their humanities provision. And there'll be a job at the end of it too - in the city for Oliver with Daddy's old firm, or running a chi-chi handbag shop in Kensington for Charlotte.

This cabinet of millionaires is happy to consign the life-chances of thousands to the scrapheap, and in doing so to debase our over-materialist culture still further, despite being the beneficiaries of the system themselves. David Willetts (private school and Oxford, degree in that distinctly non-STEM subject PPE, wealth estimated at £2 million) is presiding over a regime he himself declared unfair in his own book. Dave, descended from one of William IV's bastards (Eton, Oxford, Bullingdon Club, PPE again, personal wealth about £25 million) says "We won't go back. Look, even if we wanted to, we shouldn't go back to the idea that university is free." I never thought it was. When I was at university, I received a grant. It covered the cost of my rent. For the rest, I depended, as everyone else I knew did, on parental contributions. My parents were fantastically supportive, making real sacrifices to help me. But neither they, nor I, were faced with the prospect of a £30,000 price tag for a degree. The chancellor, George Osborne (St Paul's, Oxford, degree in History, personal wealth £4 million trust fund, heir to a baronetcy) says "Our universities are jewels in our economic crown, and it is clear that if we want to keep our place near the top of the world league tables then we need to reform our system of funding." OK, George - but reform to you means slashing the budget to almost nothing for the subject you studied at university. I could go on, but you get the idea. It doesn't help when people like Simon Jenkins write fatuously that "It may be irksome for poor students to see rich ones having their fees paid off by parents, but the rich are always different." That's Sir Simon Jenkins, (Mill Hill, Oxford, degree in a subject he seems coy about, but I bet it wasn't engineering) who has the nerve to say that "There is not an arts course invented that could not be completed in 18 months, and probably not a science one. As for most postgraduate degrees and doctorates, they are plain indulgences." Oxford terms are eight weeks...

So today I'm thinking about some of the students I met again at our recent event featuring Billy Collins and Carol Ann Duffy. I'm thinking of student A, a single mother, who did our access course to gain a university place, and worked her socks off for six years to get her richly deserved first class degree part time. She then did a year's teacher training, and is now enjoying the challenge of teaching English to a new generation. I'm thinking of student C, who came to us with a mediocre degree in another subject, and some years of work in a job he didn't like. He studied for two extra years to gain a degree in English, because he loved English, and wanted to make it the basis of his career. He too is now a teacher, transmitting that love of language and literature to the citizens of tomorrow. I'm thinking of the mature woman who did our access course, and overcame the death of her husband, a serious accident and a chronic illness to battle through to win her degree. I'm thinking of student L, who entered our university in her late twenties, bored with her office job. She thrived as a student, gained a first class degree, and is now pursuing postgraduate work. For these people, and for countless others, the chance to study the humanities at university has been a life-changing experience. If Dave and his pals get their way, this type of student would never get that chance, and I won't have the privilege of teaching them.
I hope the brilliant Martin Rowson doesn't mind me nicking his cartoon. It's from here.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Sir John Summerscale

It occurred to me to look at The Times obituaries for the elusive Sir John, editor of The Penguin Encyclopedia. And there he is. It's a classic diplomat's career, in countries that no longer exist. I am fascinated by these men of the late Empire. They were there as the world changed, and presided over it as an afterthought. Sir John probably signed away lives and fortunes before settling down to his game of bridge.
Update 8th May 2012. A reader asked me for details of when this was published. I answered to your email address at, but it bounced back as undeliverable. So, for the record, the obituary was published in The Times on Saturday, Aug 09, 1980; pg. 14; Issue 60699. 

Friday, October 29, 2010

Billy Collins

Last night I had the good fortune to meet Billy Collins after he had performed at Edge Hill's Poets Laureate event with Carol Ann Duffy.
As my students know, American Literature is a bit of a blind spot with me, but I have been a fan of Collins since first hearing him read on Garrison Keillor's Prairie Home Companion. His poetry is wry, funny, thought-provoking, and accessible. Its deceptive simplicity is its strong suit. Collins observes life and re-presents it to his reader with gentle irony and wit. Its art lies very much in its seeming lack of art.

My friend and colleague Daniele Pantano was instrumental in bringing Collins over, and he did not disappoint. Together with Carol Ann Duffy, he provided a memorable evening's entertainment. Duffy was sharp, sour, rather angry at times (she self-deprecatingly referred to herself as 'Disgusted of Didsbury' at one point) and showcased some new work, alongside old favourites from The World's Wife.
Collins read some new poems too, but also delighted with a reading of 'Forgetfulness', quirkily interpreted in this video:

Thanks to my friend Tim Power who took the photograph which captures brilliantly Collins's air of slight bemusement. I'm told video of the event will soon be on the EHU website - do have a look.

Housekeeping- Apture should now be enabled across the blog, so anything that takes your fancy, highlight, and you'll get some links.

Sunday, October 17, 2010


To Venice, with 'er indoors. Both of us were experiencing The Serenissima for the first time. The new image at the top of the blog is a photograph taken from the Rialto bridge, and it, like so many other photos we took, is eerily reminiscent of a Canaletto painting. And that's the thing with Venice - it oozes history at every turn. The first thing we did when we got back was to begin planning our next trip. So - what is it that makes Venice the destination of choice for sophisticated travellers like what we are?
A colleague of mine who went to Venice a couple of years ago reported meeting a couple of English people who had been on a day trip. They didn't like it: "Just like Blackpool," they said. I lived near Blackpool for seventeen years, and don't recall its abundance of Renaissance palaces, its churches stuffed with priceless works of art, its gondolas... It seems that they hadn't got much further than the Piazzale Roma, which is, it has to be said, an unlovely bus depot enlivened only by a scattering of souvenir stalls selling cheap made-in-China tat. Even so, I'd prefer it to the Golden Mile, if only because it leads to the treasures of this sublime city. Venice has twenty million visitors a year, and less than half of them stay overnight. So it's no surprise that the Piazza San Marco and the Rialto bridge were, even out of the main holiday season, packed with camera-clicking hordes. They might only have a few hours in the city, so they were going to prove they were there by taking as many photos as possible against iconic backdrops. When we first started exploring, this was annoying, but it soon became apparent that when you moved away from the honeypot sites, the rest of the place was, whilst often busy, surprisingly easy to move around. We walked everywhere - the vaporetti are expensive, with a single trip at €6,50, and usually we could walk where we wanted much quicker anyway. We did splash out on a 36 hour ticket to visit the outlying islands, and that was well worth it.
So, armed with the wit and wisdom of J.G. Links's lovely book Venice for Pleasure, (thanks to the Coopers for the tip) we followed his suggestions and walked around each district. We stayed in an apartment in the Cannareggio district, which was very handy for the Ghetto and Madonna dell'Orto, both well worth a visit. Even staying in that area, away from the main tourist trail, we found that a fifteen-minute stroll would land us pretty well anywhere we wanted to be. It's such a compact place, so, with (obviously) no traffic, it's ideal for walking.
After a while, we began to enjoy the unsung corners of the place - a quiet fondamenta, a local campo - as much as the gorgeous excesses of the churches and palaces.

But it is the art and architecture that astonishes, and we did explore it at length. If our top tourist tip is to walk everywhere, our second is to buy a Chorus pass. This entitles you to one visit to a group of churches, each of which has its particular charm, and all of which are replete with jaw-droppingly magnificent works of art. In most of our visits, we were amongst a small number of visitors, so we really had time to look at everything. Some highlights for me were the Frari, of which more later, the aforementioned Madonna dell'Orto, with its Tintorettos - he is buried there - and Sant'Alvise, with its amazing ceiling. But everywhere the visitor is ambushed by the rich artistic heritage of the place, and it's almost impossible to single out particular sites for a special mention.
That's what I am going to do for the Frari, though, if only because we spent more time in there. We visited in the daytime, and were suitably bowled over by such items as the Bellini altarpiece, the various Titians, and the beautiful interior, with its stupendous scale. We noticed that a concert was to be held the next day. We went, and it was one of the highlights of the holiday. The Frari is the church where Monteverdi, maestro di cappella of San Marco, is buried, and where Philip Thorby, the leading scholar-performer of early music, had assembled a choir, soloists and orchestra to play the 1610 Vespers in the year of their 400th anniversary. This was sublime. The music, which as maestro Thorby pointed out in his bilingual introduction, would have seemed daringly avant-garde to a contemporary audience, echoed beguilingly around this impossibly sumptuous building. Thorby laid a wreath at Monteverdi's tomb at the end of the performance, to rapturous applause. And it was ingresso libero, too!

We did use the vaporetti in order to visit San Michele, the cemetery island, and the subject of a moving poem by Simon Barraclough. We found the graves of Ezra Pound and Stravinsky, as well as some unexpected ones, often British exiles. We also visited the Lido, where the famous Hotel des Bains, as featured in Visconti's Death in Venice, is now closed and covered with scaffolding as it is turned into apartments, but where there is a remarkable art nouveau exterior at the Hotel Ausonia:

The most rewarding journey to the outer islands was to Torcello, the original settlement of the refugees who created Venice. There, the church of Santa Maria Assunta contains some thousand year old mosaics, and a wonderful display of Byzantine religious art. And you can sit on a throne carved out of rock, allegedly used by Attila the Hun...

On several evenings we escaped the tourist hordes to enjoy a quiet drink in one of the biggest campi, the Campo San Margarita, where young kids charged around playing football whilst their mums gossiped.

This seemed a much better bet than a visit to Florian's at San Marco, where a coffee will set you back at least €10, with a further €7 if the band is playing insipid cocktail jazz or easy-listening classics at the time. For two people, having a quick drink and a cake can easily cost thirty quid. Nearby places will serve you delicious coffee for less than a quarter of Florian's price.
There's lots more to say, and I'll return to the Venice theme again, I suspect.

Friday, September 03, 2010

The Finkler Question

To the new headquarters of the IABF for the first in its series of events with contemporary writers. Mancunian Howard Jacobson was presenting his latest novel, The Finkler Question . What an excellent speaker and reader he is! Too often, writers are not actually terribly good at reading their own stuff, as students in my Modernism class who were subjected to recordings of T.S. Eliot will attest, but Jacobson has a Martin Jarvis-esque command of the spoken word, and entertained us hugely with his lively reading of some extracts from early in the novel.

He answered questions in animated fashion, and really engaged with his questioners. It helped that the questions were mostly well-informed and intelligent, though one, which seemed pretty banal ('Which books should I read?') elicited a highly entertaining riff on the importance of the classics. I had a short conversation with him, picking up on something he'd said about people's opinions on books, that when stated baldly ("This book is boring") they are the least interesting thing to say. As he said, an opinion is more about the speaker than the book; only when you show by your close attention to the text what your opinion is based on can you really say what you think. People used to instant responses (e.g. nearly everyone under 30) find this difficult, hence the sort of conversations academics have with students.

He also said something about the complexity of comedy which struck a chord. Earlier that day, I had been talking to a colleague about a mutual acquaintance, who simply doesn't get irony, or indeed tone at all. Jacobson made the point that comic effects need the reader to engage in order to succeed, in a way a tragic passage doesn't. Comedy is more intellectually demanding, because you have to work out the joke, to oversimplify a complex point.

The Finkler Question has had excellent reviews, and is longlisted for the Booker. It examines some fundamental questions about life and death, but, if the extracts Jacobson read are anything to go by, does so in a hugely entertaining manner. Review to follow, when I've read it. Thanks to all at the IABF for a great event.

Note for Burgessians: he was asked about the review of Any Old Iron.* He said it embarrassed him to read how he had rubbished established writers when he was a young turk, and he wouldn't say that now. He still doesn't like it, but was very laudatory about Earthly Powers. So we'll let him off.
*Note that some deluded person is trying to flog this on Amazon for £155.95, which is £155.94 more than one needs to spend to acquire this fine novel.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Encyclopedia Spheniscida

In 1966, Manchester Education Committee decided that the city was to abolish grammar schools, and go comprehensive. So that was the last year of the 11-plus examination. I was 11 at the time, and sometime in March of that year - I think - my class at Alfred Street sat the final Manchester exam, the results of which would decide whether they would be the last intake in a grammar, technical, or secondary modern school. It consisted of maths questions, logical puzzles (which is the odd shape in this sequence, etc) and what was then called a 'composition'. This was the creative writing bit, and we were expected to come up with something based on titles such as 'A Day in the Life of a Penny' or 'My favourite place'. I chose one about pets, and, with the contrariness of youth, wrote about a hamster, despite knowing nothing about them- we were always a cat family.
I passed the exam, and sometime later, we received a letter from the Mayor's office to say that my hamster essay had been judged one of the best of that year in Manchester, and inviting me and my family to a ceremony at the Town Hall to receive a prize. My mother took time off from working in her uncle's greengrocer's shop to take me. I was wearing my smartest clothes, which comprised my new secondary school uniform - short trousers, obviously - and was very impressed by the splendour of the mayor's parlour. It's difficult to find images of the old smoke-blackened Town Hall now, but this one though taken in the late nineteenth century, gives an idea of what it looked like back then.

The mayor turned out to be a Lady Mayoress, with an ideal name for a northern civic dignitary: Nellie Beer. She would obviously be played by Hylda Baker, if we had been casting, but in truth she was, to my junior eye, quite posh. Not as posh as Lady Simon, who was, with her late husband the sponsor of the prize. Lord and Lady Simon's good works, particularly in education, were a feature of the civic scene in Manchester, but still... She served Manchester well, it seems, and is remembered on this curious website thus:
Mrs Beer served for thirty-five years (1937 – 1972) as a member of the Manchester City Council and was appointed OBE (Officer of the Order of the British Empire) (1957) by Queen Elizabeth II in recognition of her valuable civic work. Mrs Beer served as an alderman (1964 – 1972) and then as the Lord Mayor of Manchester (1966). She was also a Justice of the Peace and received an honorary degree from Manchester University (1978). Nellie Beer died (Sept 17, 1988) aged eighty-eight.
My prize, and this is the point of this post, was the newly published Penguin Encyclopedia, priced 12/6. It advertised itself as the encyclopedia for the modern age. I have it still, and still occasionally consult it for its concise and authoritative entries. It was obviously conceived as the reference equivalent of Penguin's trendy paperbacks of the time, and, like them, it has stood the test of time. I don't think Penguin pursued it much after this initial publication, but its ghost still lives in the rather bigger Penguin Encyclopedia now edited by the ubiquitous David Crystal.
My version was edited by Sir John Summerscale, about whom I know next to nothing. Google, the twenty-first century reference source of first resort, offers very scant pickings, and most of those are book listings of the Encyclopedia. I think he must be the Sir John Summerscale who was the Commercial Secretary of the British Embassy in Iraq before the Second World War, mentioned in a footnote to a fascinating article on Jewish Refugees From Arab Countries. I imagine a gentleman's club in Mayfair, and a meeting between Allen Lane and this pillar of the old Empire: "John, old thing - we're thinking of publishing a modern encyclopedia. You've lots of time on your hands now- do you fancy being editor?"
"Well, I suppose I could."
"Good show- I'll get the lawyer chaps to send over a contract."
Whatever the circumstances, Sir John seems to have assembled a top team - none of whom are named, by the way - and those subjects about which I have reasonable knowledge appear to me to be very well covered in clear, unfussy prose. The book is illustrated by line drawings, contributed by Wolf Spoerl, a designer with a knack for rendering complex things simply. Spoerl is mentioned en passant in this interesting account of the design revolution at Penguin in the sixties. Here's Spoerl's rendition of eclipse:

The book, at 650 pages, is compact for an encyclopedia, following the editor's wise decision to "assume the reader to be a reasonably educated, intelligent person who at least knows what 'every schoolboy knows' ". Simple dictionary definitions, and biographical information were also excluded, so relativity is in, but Einstein isn't.

Inevitably, some material is badly dated now, though usually not in a way that grates. ('Computer' begins: "Machine for solving problems that are essentially mathematical".) I have another encyclopedia, published in 1990, (the Cambridge, edited by the industrious Prof Crystal) which includes items such as lists of sporting records, winners of Oscars etc., which must have been out of date on publication day. The Penguin has a timeless quality, though time has taken its toll on some entries - the section on Educational Subnormality makes for painful reading today:
Educationally backward children fall into three categories: (a) Educationally subnormal (ESN) with IQ between 80 and 60; (b) Ineducable, with IQ below 60; (c) Morons, with IQ still lower.
Elsewhere, though, the book is a model of concision. Could this entry on Dadaism be bettered as a clear initial statement for someone who has just encountered the term?:

Dadaism. An extremist anti-art movement, rooted in the nihilism caused by the First World War, originated with Arp and others in Zurich in 1916 and spread to France, Germany and (with Marcel Duchamp) U.S.A. Its members set out to shock a bourgeois public with productions which outraged all accepted literary and artistic traditions, e.g. its productions included a urinal obtained by Duchamp and exhibited as The Fountain under the maker's name. Max Ernst, Picabia, and the painter-photographer Man Ray were among the prominent Dadaist artists. Betrayed by its own nihilism, the movement dissolved in the early 1920s; by contrast, Surrealism, which grew out of it, had a constructive philosophy.
The encyclopedia has been superseded of course, as, it appears, has the dictionary. But when I don't want to google away, my old Penguin remains a trusted friend.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Blog Award

My friend Harriet Devine is once again up in the stratosphere of literary bloggers with her latest placing in the Wikio listing where I come a distant 2000 places behind, but I was pleased to be notified that someone must have liked me, because Topsyturvydom has received an award as one of the 2010 Top 45 Literary Studies Blogs from Awarding the Web. Yes, it isn't exactly the Pulitzer, but hey, you get a nice badge...
Image: Ruminatrix

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Italy in Notting Hill

Simon Barraclough

To the Travel Bookshop in Notting Hill for the launch of Any Human Face. Hugh Grant seems to have ceased employment there, so the paparazzi were not in evidence as I  mingled before the event, trying - and failing -  to look elegant on a sweltering evening. The very quaffable Italian wine, provided by our hosts certainly oiled the wheels, and I had the great pleasure of meeting Charles Lambert in the flesh for the first time. I also met Anne (A.C.) Tillyer, whose intriguing collection of short stories, An A-Z of Possible Worlds, comes, BS Johnson style, as a boxed set, and Simon Barraclough who read poems with an Italian connection from his collections Los Alamos Mon Amour and Bonjour Tetris.
The event was introduced by Charles's agent - and a considerable poet herself - Isobel Dixon. Simon read some of his thought-provoking poems first. More of these anon - suffice to say that I was ashamed not to have read his work before. Charles read three passages from early in the novel, one for each of the three narrative threads. I enjoyed revisiting the book, and people I spoke to who hadn't read it were very intrigued- they were hooked by the thriller aspect, and reeled in by the superbly evocative language.
Charles Lambert

All in all, a lovely way to spend a balmy summer evening in Notting Hill.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Any Human Face

After enjoying Charles Lambert's Little Monsters so much, I was looking forward to his latest novel, Any Human Face, and I was not disappointed. Set in Rome, this novel is a fast-paced and dark tale of murky deeds in high and low places, recounted from multiple perspectives over a span of nearly three decades. What Hitchcock would call the McGuffin (and there is something Hitchcockian about this) in the tale, is a set of photos, entrusted by an investigative journalist to his gay lover on the night of his (the journalist's) brutal and apparently homophobic murder. The photos come into the possession of Andrew Caruso, half Scottish, half Italian, whose shambolic existence centres around the secondhand bookshop he runs. Soon, he is involved in a frightening chain of events that may have something to do with the journalist's murder, a quarter of a century earlier.
Lambert handles a complex narrative with great authority, moving in cinematic style from the near present day (2008) to 1982, to 1985 and back, each time focalising his narrative through the perspective of one of his characters. One of the many things I like about Lambert's work is that he doesn't give the reader an easy ride. There is not here, or in Little Monsters, a character with whom we can readily empathise - all of them have their frailties and vulnerabilities. They are all too human in their failings, and Lambert's unflinching and unsentimental portrayal of their interlocking lives is a fascinating exercise in close observation. Paradoxically, because Lambert is so good at unfolding the delicate nuances of individual behaviour, the reader soon becomes involved in this seedy world of clandestine affairs and shabby deals, and does indeed care about the fate of the protagonists. Indeed, I found that this was one of those books that demanded to be read through as quickly as possible, so immersed did I become in this world.
There are dark hints throughout at institutionalised corruption, whether of the church or the state, but the focus throughout remains on the human story, and how we are all connected, in ways we can't begin to comprehend. I was struck by one passage on this theme, where Alex, the journalist's lover, reflects on the transient world he is part of:

"All these nameless friendships that entangled the city in a taut invisible web. A secretive web, because no one knew anything about it, or everyone pretended to know nothing about it. A web that stretched across hotels and galleries and studio flats in the richest parts of the city, from the Vatican to the senate to the station, of favours and small, sweet acts of generosity and asked-for, insisted-on violence. And then it went wrong and someone died, and the web closed to hide the rift so quickly no one would know it had ever been torn. Webs heal themselves."
This novel is, in concept, an excellent, disturbing, stylish thriller, but one with aspirations beyond the working out of a criminal act. It uses most of the thriller conventions, but goes well beyond them, to offer a story which deals with universal themes, particularly of man's inhumanity to man, and the dark heart of loneliness at the centre of many lives.

Sunday, May 02, 2010

Going Live...

Chez Topsyturvydom, our Sunday morning news source tends to be Radio 5 Live, on the basis that Radio 4 is god-bothering until 9.00 a.m. Today's top story was about the discovery of a car-bomb in Times Square, New York. Part of the report featured an admirably factual and concise statement from the NYPD police chief, who explained the circumstances of the car's discovery, what exactly had been found in the car, what the police bomb disposal team had done, and that, as yet, they had no information on who might have planted the device. Job done, you might think. Time to move on to the next item. But no, we instead were taken live to New York where a British man who had been in Times Square at the time was waiting to be interviewed. What could he add to what we already knew? Well, er, nothing. He had been on his way to the theatre when a lot of police had appeared and cordoned off the square. He had been instructed to get out of the way quickly. He had heard that someone had been told by a police officer to run. "So, you're saying the police told people to run away?" Well, that's what he had heard, he said. Not him personally. It must have been scary, the interviewer prompted. Well, no, actually: in fact the theatres carried on, after a delay. Finally, the classic fatuous question - how did he feel?
He felt OK. People seemed to take it in their stride. End of interview.
So what was the point of this? Presumably to get the "human angle". It's another indication of the relentless tabloidisation of the BBC. Instead of being content to report the news authoritatively, we have to suffer the vacuous follow-up, itself longer than the original item, which reveals precisely nothing about the incident, because the interviewee knows nothing.
Image: joiseyshowaa

Monday, April 05, 2010

Way to go...

My sharp-eyed reader will have noted that Topsyturvydom now proudly displays the badge proclaiming that we are the 2161st rated general blog in the UK and Ireland blogospshere. The estimable Dovegreyreader is at number 1 in culture and literature. She is veritably the Chelsea to my Forest Green Rovers. Unfortunately, there's no prospect of a third round giant killing act, so I will just have to accept that we have a mountain to climb, Brian, we've got to take the positives, and take each game as it comes. Oh, and the ref was diabolical.
Image: Nicksarebi

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet - David Mitchell

Here's an example of how books are marketed these days. I've admired David Mitchell for some time, particularly for his brilliant Cloud Atlas.
Thanks to my friend Anthony Levings for the tip.

Monday, March 29, 2010


Playing around with Blogger's new templates. I like this look - clean, I think.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

The sublime Ella

In 1970-71, I had a Saturday job at a grocer's on Oldham Street, Manchester. The shop, and the small chain it belonged to - Maypole - have long gone, of course, but when I bought some CDs yesterday, I was reminded of it. My wage, for a nine-hour day, was 25s, (£1.25) less 5d for my insurance stamp, so I took home 24s 7d, in a brown envelope, usually two ten-shilling notes, two florins, a sixpence and a penny. I remember going out in my lunch hour to buy an LP, probably Paul McCartney's first post-Beatles effort. It cost me 39s/11d, and would have cost that wherever I bought it because of retail price maintenance. So, for my younger reader, that's all but £2. In other words, Sir Thumbs Aloft's magnum opus cost me about as much as I earned in one and three-quarter days. If I were 16 now, I would have to be paid at least the minimum wage, which Dr Broon and his pals have currently fixed at £3.57 per hour, so I'd have been making about £30 for a day spent lugging boxes of tinned peas up from the cellar, swabbing down surfaces, making tea for my superiors, and so on. If I chose to spend this largesse on those quaintly old-fashioned CDs that old people have, even at top prices, I could afford three with my day's pay, and more if I bought at the frequently available discount. In effect, then, my labour would buy at least five times the product it would have bought in 1970. What's more, LPs, because of the restrictions of the vinyl format, rarely contained much more than about half - an - hour's music: five or six three minute tracks per side. A forty - minute running time was rare. So with CDs routinely clocking in at an hour or more, I estimate that my day's wage now would be worth about eight times the amount of music it was worth then. If I downloaded, instead of buying the compact shaving - mirrors, I could probably double that. Music can never have been as cheap as it is now.
In Fopp yesterday, I spent a massive £7 - two hours' minimum wage for a 16 year old - on two items. The first, costing the same as I spent nearly forty years ago on McCartney, was a double reissue of Count Basie's two albums from the late fifties, The Atomic Mr Basie and the live album of Quincy Jones tunes, One More Time.

My other purchase, for £5, was the complete Ella Fitzgerald Sings Gershwin, from the songbook series. This was originally issued as five LPs, and is now presented as 3 CDs, each with about 20 tracks, so the cost is about eight of your earth pence per track. For that, you get Ella on absolutely sensational form, singing some of the all-time great songs from the Gershwin catalogue: "A Foggy Day", "But Not For Me", "Nice Work If You Can Get It", "I've Got A Crush On You", "How Long Has This Been Going On", "Strike Up The Band", "They All Laughed", "Fascinating Rhythm", "Embraceable You"....She recorded this in her forties, when she was arguably at the peak of her powers, and she soars effortlessly over the swinging Nelson Riddle arrangements. It is sublime.
Both of these buys are new reissues from a company I'd not heard of before, the curiously named Not Now Music, from that hotbed of popular song, er, West Hampstead. They've done a great job here, so next time I have a few spare shillings, I'll be on the lookout for more.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

One Day

This is the kind of book that I don't normally read. It is a book group choice, heavily discounted on the shelves of the supermarket, and promoted through its own website. But I heard the author David Nicholls interviewed on the radio, and he seemed a very engaging cove, so when I saw the book at a ludicrously cheap price in the supermarket, I thought I'd give it a go.
I'm glad I did. Nicholls has had success before it seems, having written a bestseller that passed me by, and episodes for a "programme" that may be viewed on Mr Baird's televisual apparatus. On this occasion, he has written a quirky love story whose central conceit is that, rather as in The Good Soldier, all the major events happen on a particular day. We first meet the protagonists on the night of their graduation on St Swithin's Day, 1988, and revisit them on that day each year after that until 2008. Emma is a clone of the persona Lucy Mangan presents in her Guardian column: sassy, northern, funny, but consumed with self-doubt. Dexter is the middle-class loafer who has drifted through his degree, and whose ego never allows him to realise how fortunate he is. After a one-night stand, the two agree to remain friends, and we encounter them as they make their way through late Thatcherism and into the Blair years. Em has a succession of awful jobs before ending up as a teacher. The hilarious account of life as a waitress in a Mexican restaurant will put you off your enchilladas for a while. Dex lucks into a career as a vapid TV presenter, all Mockney accent and laddishness. The structure allows a kind of annual report on the vicissitudes of their lives, and affords also a running social history of the last twenty years. That's the book's great strength, to my mind: its sharply observed vignettes of popular culture and and fashion, from lattes to boutique hotels, from Islington's yummy mummies to the cult of the DJ. It presents a very recognisable and at times painfully accurate portrait of the nation we have become in the last quarter-century.
The tone is often jokey, veering from first to third person, with much interior monologue, and you get a real sense of the developing sensibilities and preoccupations of the main characters. There's also an ending which I didn't see coming, and which knocked me for six. Definitely a cut above what you might expect, given the ghastly front cover and torrent of endorsements on the endpapers from such authorities as Heat and Jenny Colgan. Recommended!

Monday, March 22, 2010

They Still Don't Get It

Ex-minister Stephen Byers is caught out demanding £5,000 a day - a day!- for securing access to government ministers and influencing policy on behalf of clients. Other friends of Tony are similarly caught bang to rights prostituting themselves for fat fees. Can anything illustrate better the moral bankruptcy of the political class in this country than Byers's pathetic excuse: he was lying. So now we've reached the point where mendacity is seen as a perfectly reasonable position to adopt when you're exposed as a moneygrubbing, amoral, unprincipled shit. And they wonder why we have no faith in our elected representatives.
Image: Kodama

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Rap it up

Is writing an email to Radio 4 the modern equivalent of an outraged of Tunbridge Wells-type letter to the Maily Torygraph? Possibly. I was moved to fire off an email yesterday whilst listening to the Saturday Live programme, usually with the delightful Fi Glover, but this week presented by the creepy Rev. Richard Coles(he always insists on the Rev., I notice) whose bizarre career has taken him from gay pop icon in The Communards and Bronski Beat to a comfortable living in the Anglican High Church surroundings of Knightsbridge.
The guest on the show was Dreda Say Mitchell, writer and teacher, now working also as an educational consultant. She is clearly a formidable woman who has achieved a lot ("Listen to my inspirational interview with Jenni Murray on Woman's Hour")and I have no problem, as another listener did, with her glottal stops. She has deeply held, sincere beliefs about education, which she promotes with vigour and charm. What had me reaching for the keyboard was her insistence that a good way of engaging disaffected working class boys - particularly white boys - was to use rap in the classroom. I've used the tired and frankly juvenile line that "the c in rap is silent" too often to use it again -oh, I just did - but I do wonder why this violent, misogynistic and often illiterate form is considered appropriate. So I asked the question, and the oleaginous Rev Coles read it out. Mitchell's answer was along the lines that this is a form that they like and it engages them. Well, I knew that. They listen to it all the time, on their phones and ipods, often making other people's lives on buses, trains and in the street a lot less pleasant as a result. Shouldn't school offer something different from what they experience every day outside?
I know a bit about teaching disaffected white boys (and black boys and Asian boys) from fifteen years in secondary school teaching, and this advocacy of rap reminds me of the debate on "relevance" when I was training. The idea was that to get young people interested in reading, you had to present them with stories about people like them, leading difficult lives in modern urban settings. Thus, a slew of books about truanting inner-city kids with alcoholic mums and absent dads appeared to fill this niche, and were quickly forgotten. The biggest success story in children's literature of recent years - of any years - is of course Harry Potter, a series which, as we all know, presents the gritty reality of life in twenty-first century Britain...
I also wonder what happens to the class after they have rapped away with Ms Mitchell. Pity the poor teacher who follows, and who has to teach them the past tense in French or the properties of hydrogen. And what, exactly, do they learn through rapping? They can do it anyway, and they know more about it than their teacher ever will. If school is about expanding horizons, as Dreda Mitchell and I agree, then surely we should offer the children something outside their ordinary experience?
Image: Nite Owl

Monday, March 01, 2010

End of civilisation as we know it

In 1973, when I went to university as an undergraduate, there were no open days. You were invited for interview, and maybe someone would show you round. Or not. Certainly, no parents would go, and anyone of my generation would have been mortified to be accompanied by parents on this very adult enterprise. Not so now, of course. At our open days, there are frequently more parents than students, and it's the parents who tend to dominate the question and answer sessions. The most frequently asked question when I am performing is "what can my son/daughter do with an English degree?" I usually answer by agreeing that studying the Victorian novel or seventeenth century poetry is not, in itself, going to open any doors for them, but that the attributes they will acquire through diligent study and participation on their degree programme will be useful in a wide variety of careers. I often throw in an anecdote about a big cheese from a giant multinational computer company who visited the campus a few years ago. "I don't care what degree subjects they have," he said, "we can teach them all they need to know about computers in our training sessions. What I need are confident, articulate people, who can communicate well, who can work in teams and on their own initiative, who can write clearly and produce the goods under pressure, who can be organised and intelligent in their approach to work." Which is, I point out to the parents, exactly the range of attributes we seek to instil in our students. I also add that an instrumental view of a degree programme misses the sheer pleasure of broadening horizons, discovering new ideas - of becoming culturally informed, not for any pecuniary reward or because of a job it might lead to, but to make you a better person- better informed, better educated, better placed to enjoy your life.
So I am dismayed at the current proposals to cut funding to humanities courses in the UK, at the behest of Lord Mandelson. We now have a government which doesn't even have a department with the word "Education" in its title, and where HE is subsumed within the Business empire of the dark lord. Thus, courses which don't have a vocational bent are to be sneered at: golf course management is better than History.
The great and the good of the world of scholarship have expressed their anger at this philistine and ruinous policy in a letter to the Observer. Here's a taste:
The challenges facing the country and the world cannot be addressed without the arts and humanities. People's complexity comes from their language, identities, histories, faiths and cultures. Without understanding that complexity we cannot address these challenges. Subjects such as literature, philosophy and history teach students to look at the world from a different perspective, to challenge ideas and to communicate effectively, to bring the flexibility and imagination that employers need and welcome.
We have already had the fatuous introduction of so-called "impact" into the Research Assessment Exercise (or "Research Excellence Framework" as we must now call it). Stefan Collini said all that needed to be said about that nonsense in this brilliant demolition job. Here's a section, but you should really read the whole thing:
Let us take a hypothetical case. Let us assume that I have a colleague at another university (not all colleagues are in one’s own department, despite the league-table competitiveness of these assessment exercises) who is a leading expert on Victorian poetry, and that over a number of years she works on a critical study of what we might call a three-star Victorian poet (“highly innovative but not quite groundbreaking”). The book is hailed by several expert reviewers as the best on the topic: it draws on deep familiarity not just with Victorian poetry, but with other kinds of poetry; it integrates a wealth of historical and biographical learning in ways that illuminate the verse; it is exact and scrupulous in adjudicating various textual complexities; and it clarifies, modifies, and animates the understanding of this poet’s work on the part of other critics and, through their writing and teaching, of future generations of students, as well as of interested general readers. It also, it is worth saying, exemplifies the general values of careful scholarship and reminds its readers of the qualities of responsiveness, judgement, and literary tact called upon by the best criticism. It is a model piece of “excellent” research in the humanities. And its “impact” is zero.

Of course, in any intelligent use of the word, its impact is already evident from my description of its reception, but that, as we have seen, is explicitly excluded for this purpose. Moreover, any other kind of impact is only going to be credited to my colleague’s department if it can be shown to be the direct result of its own efforts. So if, say, the Departmental Impact Committee can be shown to have touted their colleague’s new “findings” to a range of producers in radio and television, and if, say, one of those producers takes an interest in this particular work, and if, say, this leads to a programme which bears some relation to the “findings” of the book (which, if they are interesting, can probably not be summarized as “findings” in the first place), and if, say, there is some measurable indicator of audience response to this programme, then, perhaps, the department’s score will go up slightly. And if not, not.

Let us leave aside for the moment the very considerable expenditure of time and effort any such process involves (often for no result), and let us also leave aside the fact that there is no reason to expect a literary scholar to be good at this kind of hustling and hawking.

As we approach May 6th, please ask your prospective candidate for the general election what his or her views are on funding for research in the humanities, and take the answer into account when you vote.
Image: Kairos-77

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Thomson Loco

A little while ago, in a fit of new year uncluttering, I signed up via a facebook group to a campaign to stop junk mail. Their website is a treasure trove of advice on how to stop the deluge of unsolicited junk that arrives on a daily basis. I used their web widget to get rid of junk mail from a variety of sources, and it is certainly making a difference.
Then, yesterday, came this:

So, Mr Meikle with the showbiz signature, you think that, instead of simply crossing my address off the list of houses you are going to dump your useless directory on, I should deface my front door with a 6" by 4" sticker in your corporate colours to prevent your operative delivering something once a year? It seems their response to a request to stop sending me junk is... to send me some junk. Here's the offending sticker:

I shall be contacting Mr Meikle, and will report back.
Update, 1st March. Reply from Thomson:
Thank you for your email. The stickers are offered as an option to make it easier for our distributors to identify a non-delivery household. Naturally, we respect your choice not use the sticker and will add your address to our list for non-delivery.

Thank you for your enquiry,

Yours sincerely,

Yo. Green
Hmmm - how will they know my address, since I've communicated by email? Not very convincing is it?
Top image: Fiasco

Friday, January 29, 2010

Writers Bureau revisited

Slack blogging around here since Christmas. Sorry about that- pressure of work, and a trip to a snowy Munich are to blame. You can see the view towards Odeonsplatz from the Englischer Garten in the new header - schön, oder?
It seems that Topsyturvydom's glorious victory against the mighty Writers Bureau was not the unalloyed success it first appeared to be. I'm grateful to Padraig Colman for his excellent and detailed account of the, er, service they provide. Padraig is clearly an accomplished writer, as his work on Sri Lanka shows, so it is a concern that his experience was so dispiriting - but not really a surprise. My attention was drawn to a defensive piece by a Writers Bureau tutor, Nick Daws, who, whilst agreeing that the school's publicity was misleading, says that "The Writers Bureau is a reputable organisation which in general offers a good service to its students" and finds them merely "lazy" in their inflated and erroneous claims. Padraig and I, and a number of other students, might differ with the author of Write any Book in Under 28 Days (what, really? Like, you know, Ulysses and stuff? Cool!)
There is a school of thought that suggests that writing, particularly of the creative ilk, can't really be taught. Here's A.L. Kennedy on that issue, and, as always with her, it's worth reading.
Image: Busymonster