Friday, 5 February 2016

Spotlight and All the President's Men

Allow me to bore you with a few personal reflections. These were brought on by the movie Spotlight which I saw this afternoon. If you haven't seen this fine film you'll probably know from advance publicity that it's about a newspaper investigation into widespread and sustained sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests in Boston in the United States.

Forty years ago, I saw another American film in Bradford. This too concerned investigative journalism about a real event, the burglary of the Democratic headquarters at the Watergate building in Washington DC. All the President's Men was an incredibly exciting, if occasionally perplexing, film to see in the cinema in the summer of 1976. I was a 27-year-old Londoner at Bradford College, ostensibly on a teacher training course but in reality heading for a professional life as a journalist.

I had read Jillian Becker's book about the Baader-Meinhof Red Army Faktion, Hitler's Children. And within a year I had read Tom Wolfe and others in a fat volume about the New Journalism in the United States and had come across a volume about a more intrepid West German reporter called Gunther Wallraff. He didn't make phone calls in an office: he went out into offices and factories in disguise and found out things first hand - just as Robert Redford does in the prison film Brubaker.

Wallraff's daring skills weren't required when I was taken on as a probationary reporter by Arnold Hadwin, then editor of the Telegraph & Argus. The paper had a national reputation as one of the best evening newspapers in the country, operating out of noisy and smoky offices in a grade 2 listed building in the heart of Bradford. The paper, along with Private Eye, had broken the Paulson story. In brief, local government officials and polictians had given building contracts to Pontefract architect John Paulson in exchange for kick-backs - a new bathroom or other rewards.

I had no ambition to be a journalist. I hated interviewing people and was innately shy. In spite of myself, I made a go of it and developed a taste for the life. What started out as a last-minute college placement, arranged by a journalism lecturer Frank Dobbs, became a 38-year career during which I wrote every kind of news and feature story and, occasionally, was let off the leash to investigate allegations of dodgy dealing, injustice and official incompetence.

Some of the same emotions of those Boston Globe investigative reporters played by an excellent cast of actors in Spotlight came back to me. It was as though an archive in my mind and heart had been opened. My job was made redundant at the end of May last year. Since that time I haven't given much thought to what I used to do for a living. Spotlight resuscitated those memories. There is a world of difference between writing for yourself and writing professionally, under pressure, to deadlines and for thousands of people you don't know, will never know, but whose reality is ever-present.

So much of what I experienced in nearly four decades of journalism and many of the places associated with those experiences have gone the way of all flesh since All the President's Men. Even the ABC cinema, where I watched Alan J Pakula's political thriller, is no longer there. I suppose that's an inevitable consequence of getting older: you carry a library of thought-feelings and memory associations into a changing world that doesn't recognise, acknowledge or value them.

The National Media Museum, where Lesley and I watched Spotlight this afternoon, announced this week that in future it will no longer run the annual Bradford International Film Festival, an event whose former excellence led to UNESCO in 2009 bestowing on Bradford the title of City of Film.

Ponder the irony of a City of Film scrapping its international film festival. Ponder also the irony of a City of Film with a magnificent and historic shell of a cinema, The Odeon, which has been allowed to go to wrack and ruin for the best part of the last 15 years. In that cinema I watched Michael Collins, Evita, Au Revoir Les Enfants, Saving Private Ryan and many other wonderful films.

If, like me, you sometimes entertain yourself by putting together double-bills of films - Kes and Koyla, Grand Canyon and Crash for example, you could do worse than pair Spotlight and All the President's Men. Movies about journalism and thousands of cuttings is all I have left of the life I used to be in.

Thursday, 4 February 2016

Civilisation: Twenty Discoveries That Prolonged Life...

"It takes years to get nervous and live in an uptight situation like civilisation," Andy Warhol said in 1983.

I've just come across a short essay I bashed out in May 2012 and then stuck away in a copy of Kenneth Clark's book Civilisation. What started out as an attempt to bring together and name seminal works of scholarship on the subject of civilisation that I'd seen on television ended up as a list of inventions and innovations which benefited mankind. Here it is.

History chronicles or charts the effects of ideas and events upon one another - the Roman invasion of England, the lives of Christ and Muhammad, the Bible, the Koran, Napoleon, the Battle of Waterloo, the Industrial Revolution, the Communist Manifesto, Capitalism, Communism, Fascism, National Socialism, the Holocaust, Hiroshima, the rise and fall of the Berlin Wall.

But the world has also been shaped by the evolution of inventions and discoveries. From the steam-driven water pump invenmted to clear water-logged tin mines in Cornwall came railways and the creations - good and bad - spawned by the Industrial Revolution. Things made or discovered, like all knowledge, can be used for good or ill. Orville and Wilbur Wright thought they were making Leonardo Da Vinci's dream of man-made flight come true; but within 40 years of their pioneering flights in a wood and canvas bi-plane in 1903, mass raids by bombers were killing thousands. Just as big ideas turn on the arrangement of letters and words, the great engines of industry and war's juggernauts of destruction can't function without ball bearings.

History was viewed by Thomas Macauley as a series of pageants and by the German philosopher Hegel as a process, a disembodied fate. Nearer our own time, historian Kenneth Clark (Civilisation 1969) saw the history of Western Europe through its art as a series of defining high points or periods. He would not agree with contemporary teaching that all cultures are equally valid all the time. Just as language has periods of greatness and decline, Clark holds that so too does civilisation. History is the vehicle for explaining this.

For Jacob Bronowski (The Ascent of Man 1973), is not just the victim of natural forces beyond his control; he has a shaping hand in the creation of his destiny. And serendipity plays a part, acts as a catalyst, across the totality of human experience, says James Burke (Connections 1978). He contends that things cannot be considered in isolation; the entire pattern of the world is the result of a web of disparate events that become connected through time. There is no single cause and effect. Reality evolves from many causes and effects acting upon each other.

Misconceptions play a part as well. Columbus was looking for the continent of India when he found the Americas instead. A nation's destiny is shaped by chance and opportunity, not just grand ideas. Simon Schama, in the preface to A History of Britain (2000), says previous histories that had pre-supposed a single, unchanging national personality embedded within different periods of the past, were not the only histories imaginable. Imagine instead , a British history of alteration, mutation and flux, rather than continuity...A history always changing, adapting; a history of loyalties other than to flag, nation, democracy; respectful of contingency, mistrustful of inevitablity.

Whether you see history as a great red wheel moving irrevocably from thesis to antithesis and then synthesis, or as a concatenation of haphazard, overlapping events, finding a pattern, however spurious, is a human habit. Linking one thing with another, collating disparate ideas from what Kenneth Clark defined as civilisation's three great books - the book of words, the book of deeds and the book of art - is in vogue. These days even literary works are liable to contain prefatory time-lines, contextualising the production of works of art with events, ideas, inventions and discoveries, as though the birth of Beethoven, the death of Danton and the Marriage of Figaro were indivisible from an understanding of the social impact of the Spinning Jenny, Chloroform and X-rays. Why anti-semitism had a greater hold on the imagination of millions than, say, antiseptics, may tell us a great deal about human nature, if not the conventions of writing history. In so far as it is about the past, history is a compound name for events and ideas located in time shaping our ever-changing present.

Before 1922 and the creation of Insulin by Canadians Frederick Banting and Charles Best, nio medical remedy for diabetes existed. Those whose blood sugar level was either too high or too low, died. So there was a world of ailing diabetics, taking decisions and shaping policies.

1665: The identificaion as the cell as the basic container or carrier of life. Robert Hooke
1747: Oxygen. Joseph Priestley and Carl Wilhelm Scheele
1796: Vaccination. Edward Jenner 
1800: Nitrous oxide. Sir Humphrey Davy. 'Laughing gas'. Anaesthetic
1845: Ether. Charles Jackson and William Morton. Anaesthetic
1847: Chloroform. James Y Simpson. Anaesthetic
1847: Antiseptics. Ingaz Semmelweis, an Hungarian obstetrician at Vienna General Hospital. Followed up in 1865 by Joseph Lister, an English surgeon who used carbolic to clean his hands and surgical instruments
1856: Pasteurisation. Louis Pasteur, French chemist. Heat treatment to kill off micro-organisms
1895: X-rays. Wilhelm Roentgen, a German physicist
1899: Aspirin. Felix Hoffman, employee of German pharmaceutical firm Bayer
1903: Electrocardiagram. Willem Einthoven, Dutch physiologist. Modified a machine by French electrical engineer Clement Ader
1921: Insulin. Frederick Banting and Charles Best
1928: Penicillin. Alexander Fleming. Antibiotics. Monday, September 3, 1928
1944: Howard Flory, Australian, and Ernst Chain, Austrian, developed Penicillin for mass production. American troops in the D-Day landings were given it to counter bacterial infection
1944: Kidney dialysis. Willem Kolff, a Dutch medical doctor, inventor of the blood bank, who devised a way of cleansing blood of toxins
1953: the formulation of DNA, life's genetic building blocks. James Watson, Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins
1955: Polio vaccine. Jonas Salk, US immunologist. Created a vaccine to combat the poliomyelitis virus
1960: Cardiac pacemaker. Wilson Greatbatch, US medical engineer. Used transistor technology to make an implant that stimulated heartbeats
1979: Computerised tomography. Geoffrey Hounsfield, British electrical engineer with EMI. Electronic image formation - X-ray, Ultrasound, for diagnostic purposes
1999/2000: Human Genome Project. DNA comprises of a 'book' of 23 chapters, each one a chromosome. In each chromosome there is an estimated 48 million to 250 million letters without spaces: 3.2 billion letters in all. Yet this book is the size of a pinprick. There is at least one copy of the genome in most cells. A human being is said to have ten trillion cells


Thursday, 21 January 2016

Blue on Blue

Some people have opportunities,
others don't have a chance;
some people are ruled by destiny,
others by circumstance. So smile, stranger,  as you pass by,
life is blue on blue;
like a bullet, a comet or a line from a sonnet,
we are just passing through.

One man swears that black is white,
another says the opposite is true;
both believe they have see the light,
and they'll fight to prove it too.
So smile as you pass them by,
what else would you have them do?
Like Napoleon's Grand Army or Krakatoa's tsnumani,
we are just passing through.

One book says that god is love,
another book says that god is blood;
if you've ever been high and dry in the flood
you'll know that all anyone can do
is smile as you pass them by,
and thank god if you get through;
like water and wine, relativity and time,
we are just passing through.

One woman ties you up in knots,
another strings you along with plots,
your goose is already cooked with shallots
irrespective of what you construe.
Smile, stranger, as you live and die, 
life is blue on blue;
like temples and banks, tornadoes and tanks,
we are just passing through.

Thursday, 31 December 2015

In the Heart of America...

It was from the Jonathan Cape edition of Call Me Ishmael by Charles Olson that I learned that Herman Melville's novel Moby Dick was more than a sea-faring adventure about a disabled sea captain's obsession with a great white whale.

I came across it in the late 1960s or early 1970s and kept it with me throughout my various changes of address over the next 40 years. One of the real-life episodes that influenced Melville was the catastrophic voyage of the American whaling ship The Essex, out of Nantucket in 1819/20.

The destruction of the vessel by a giant sperm whale, the loss of life and the subsequent horrors suffered by the survivors, including cannibalism, was described by Olson in great detail, and is now the subject of Ron Howard's latest movie In the Heart of the Sea - well worth seeeing by the way.

Olson chronicles and reports the way a good poet should, the scale of the events out at sea requiring no embellishment on his part. His book goes into the nature of the whaling industry in the Nineteenth Century, the significance of whale oil to the industrial revolution in Western Europe and the burgeoning United States - not a fact, of course, until after the Civil War, and impact of Shakespeare's play King Lear on Melville's imagination.

Gregory Peck played peg-legged Captain Ahab as a Lear-like figure, his hair and gaunt face streaked by a scar of lightning, in John Huston's 1956 movie Moby Dick. Huston didn't have the advantage of computerised special effects available to Ron Howard, nevertheless the film strongly suggests themes and symbols beyond a simple seafaring yarn. Melville's novel is also a compendium of information about whaling, the structure of the industry on the north-eastern seaboard of America and whales. These digressions can prove tiresome to the reader following the Pequod's progress. Charles Olson, who lived in Gloucester, Massachusetts, in the vicinity of the whalers, found a world of interest and meaning in these digressions which are especially intensive from chapter 60 through to 69.

His book is investigatory and poetic. Beyond that my memory of Olson's Call Me Ishmael is not reliable. A few years ago I sent my copy to the playwright John Godber since when I have not had the pleasure of its acquaintence. A couple of weeks before Christmas I bought an old Dean and Son hardback version of Melville's novel published God knows when out of 41/43 Ludgate Hill, London EC4. Evidently abridged the book has a paper dust-jacket on the front of which is a colour picture of the head of a big grey whale rising above a row-boat of whalers.

Ron Howard's film is an account of what happened to The Essex as told to Herman Melville nearly 30 years later by one of the survivors. In short his film is not another version of Melville's novel but a dramatisation of the true story which inspired, in part, the novel. Moby Dick can be read as an adventure with historical interludes. It can also be read as an epic story of hubris, how Ahab's pride and lust for vengeance bring death to all but one of the crew of The Pequod as well as destruction and expense to the ship's pious Nantucket owners.

For an entirely different take on the great white whale and the voyage into the historical/hysterical heart of America, listen to Bob Dylan's 115th Dream from the album Bringing It All Back Home.

Sunday, 20 December 2015

In My End is My Beginning*

With his features of clerical cut
And his brow so grim  
And his mouth so prim
And his conversation, so nicely
Restricted to What Precisely
And If and Perhaps and But,
How unpleasant to meet Mr Eliot.

The reputation of T S Eliot’s poetry on the English-speaking world has been of two kinds. In 1931 Edmund Wilson wrote in Axel’s Castle:-

In London, as in New York, and in the universities both here and in England, they (young poets) for a time took to inhabiting exclusively barren beaches cactus grown deserts, and dusty attics overrun with rats – the only properties they allowed to work with were a few fragments of old shattered glass or a sparse sprinkling of broken bones. They had purged themselves of Masefield as of Shelley for dry tongues and rheumatic joints. The dry breath of The Waste Land now blighted the most amiable of country landscapes; and the sound of jazz, which had formerly seemed jolly, now inspired only horror and despair. But in this case we may be forgive the young for growing prematurely decrepit: where some of even the finest intelligences of the elder generation read The Waste Land with blankness of laughter, the young had recognised a poet.
     Over the next thirty years Eliot’s poetry had the authority of holy writ. Would-be poets had to deal with his uncanny knack of pre-empting their unformed but deeply-felt fears about life, love, death and the universe. The sheer authority of his patriarchal voice, the apparent finality of his erudite pronouncements, his capacity for negative capability – posing problems but not suggesting solutions – made poetic effusions seem trivial. The gloomy, prophetic Eliot, who foresaw years of mediocrity descending on Western culture, seemed to have led his acolytes into a box canyon.
     The second impact of Eliot’s poetry has been entirely the other way. In the mid-1960s, young poets high on the immediacy of pop culture dismissed the idea that to say anything meaningful they first had to negotiate a path through the pinnacles of high art over the last nineteen hundred years.

    After the poet’s death in 1965, Marxist picadors began to jab darts at the bulls of The Pope of Russell Square, as Eliot was known among his London friends. Some were inspired by Semiotics, the system of interpreting symbolic meanings developed by Roland Barthes (knocked down and killed by a laundry van in Paris). Others followed the Open Field or Projective Verse theory ploughed by Charles Olson in the United States:-
one loves only form,
and form only comes
into existence when
the thing is born

                             born of yourself, born
                             of hay and cotton struts,
                             of street-pickings, wharves, weeds
                             you carry in, my bird.

     In the 1970s the literary conventions of English universities were challenged by young lecturers in English departments of regional colleges and polytechnics. These acolytes of Walter Benjamin viewed literature as an expression of social and political forces and set their shoulders against what they viewed as the life-denying moral weight of Eliot’s poetry - with its foreign languages, literary references and elitist manner. They wanted to roll back the stone from the tomb in which Eliot had buried English poetry.
     One such critic was David Craig. In his essay Defeatism and The Waste Land, Craig summarised the charges. Eliot’s poetry was depressing, embittered and esoteric.

The Waste Land…seems to me to work essentially against life – literally to make it harder for us to live…The obscurity of The Waste Land is itself significant…it can never become popular reading as other, mostly earlier important work has done, for example Burns, Dickens and Lawrence…Surely it is time that it was seen for what it is – not a centrally-wise diagnosis of ‘mass civilisation’ and its ills but as the acme of conservatism made into art…framed and pointed expressly to convey a politically reactionary view of life.

     The writer yet to find a voice of his own has problems enough without Thomas Sterns Eliot smiling quizzically at him. Eliot, though a dead poet, was not quite dead enough.
     Eliot has not been without modern public defenders. The late American poet Delmore Schwartz published a critical appreciation under the title of T S Eliot – International Hero. Schwartz says Eliot Europeanised English verse, injected it with new and modern feelings at a time when it was moribund. He brought to English poetry the best achievements of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century French poetry, principally ironic observation and objectivity. We know that Eliot freely admitted the debt he owed to mentors such as Jules Laforgue; but Schwartz may have over-stated the size of the debt. Ironic observation - damning with faint praise, appearing to say one thing while implying the opposite - was not absent from English poetry until the advent of Eliot. Robert Browning’s My Last Duchess and Arthur Hugh Clough’s droll dispatches from Italy at the time of the Risorgimento – Would I lay down my life for the average British female? - added a new note not evident in Tennyson, Swinburne and the Pre-Raphaelites mooning over Janey Morris. What Schwartz might have said was that Eliot added to this note a stylish and accomplished detachment of his own – with a little help from Ezra Pound.
     I think this was the objectivity that Eliot, long before Four Quartets, was trying to ingrain in his poetry. It had less to do with Laforgue’s witty man-about-town insouciance; Eliot could never be that, he was too much of a New World moralist. It was the prose style of another American writer, Henry James, who had consciously sought to Europeanise his sensibility, that had a greater impact on Eliot. Eliot did not want to merely observe himself (the author playing God); he wanted to observe himself observing. This, I suggest, was the modern note that Delmore Schwartz heard and which mesmerised Edmund Wilson’s young poets in London and New York after the publication of Prufrock and Other Observations in 1917. The poem Portrait of a Lady, for example, echoes the very title of the James novel.
     David Craig’s acme of conservatism was in fact a radical who introduced antinomies into English poetry that helped to modernise it. In the same way Picasso and Braque had developed Cubism from Cezanne’s still lifes and landscapes and Stravinsky brought to Western music a thrilling synthesis of Richard Strauss, Debussy and Russian folk melodies in his ballet scores Petrouchka, The Firebird and The Rite of Spring.
     If Eliot was the messiah of modern English poetry his John the Baptist was Ezra Pound. Pound brought charisma, influence, learning, languages and above all a razor-sharp editorial intelligence to Eliot’s poetry. He needed this ensemble of qualities to blue pencil as much of the original manuscript of The Waste Land as he did. Extra-literary activities brought both writers into disrepute. Pound flirted with Italian Fascism and Eliot turned to the formalities of High Anglicanism. Neither man was what you might call a cultural democratiser; they did not believe that talent and tradition could be nurtured by social engineering through education.

Too much education, like to little education, can produce unhappiness…The prospect of a society ruled and directed only by those who have passed certain examinations or satisfied tests devised by psychologists is not reassuring: while it might give scope to talents hitherto obscured, it would probably obscure others, and reduce to impotence some who should have rendered high service. Furthermore, the ideal of a uniform system such that no one capable of receiving higher education could fail to get it, leads imperceptibly to the education of too many people, and consequently to the lowering of standards to whatever this swollen number of candidates is able to reach…Education in the modern sense implies a disintegrated society, in which it has come to be assumed that that there must be one measure of education according to which everyone is educated simply more or less…

     Eliot’s essay Tradition and the Individual Talent was published in 1920, the year of Geronition and two years before The Waste Land. The ideas he discusses in this essay are central to the poetry he was to write between 1936 and 1942 in Four Quartets, specifically those pertaining to tradition, the task of writing, historical consciousness and the impersonality of art.
    Tradition, Eliot says, has become both a term of approbation – Jane Austen’s novels are traditional – as well as disapproval – Jane Austen’s novel are too traditional. The first use of traditional implies continuity, the second mere habit. A poet’s work is measured against his contemporaries but is isolated from his predecessors.

     Eliot proposes an altogether different view of how poetry is written and, more importantly, how it survives. A poet is at his most mature, he says, when the writers of the past are in some measure present in his work. His contention can be interpreted as a defence of the poetry he was currently writing.
     The 433 lines of The Waste Land are full of past voices; it was to be a stylistic prelude to the 883 lines of Four Quartets. Ezra Pound surgically introduced dramatic contrast, juxtaposition, into Eliot’s manuscript by cutting away mere versification from the poetry. Pound sensed that Eliot was essentially a dramatic writer and realised what might be accomplished if Eliot’s evocations of the London of Elizabeth I were immediately contrasted with images of the contemporary city – the dour early morning rush hour, the assignations on the river, the rape of the typist. History could be made news by bringing together past and present in the same time frame. Cinema at the time was already employing the layering techniques of montage and superimposition. In the parlance of contemporary music, Eliot was sampling long before it became the fashion in discos and recording studios.
     Being alive to the voices of the past made the language of poetry timeless, Eliot thought. Not quite the perilous voyage into unknown as envisaged half-a-century earlier by the teenage Arthur Rimbaud, cheerfully deranging his senses and offering his posterior to Paul Verlaine. That kind of method acting writing was way beyond the contradictions of the passionate but fastidious Eliot. He preferred the forensic detachment of Henry James and Sherlock Holmes. Poetry was an escape from the emotions, he said, which led some of his critics to wonder what he had to hide behind that four-piece suit referred to by Virginia Woolf in one of her wittier dinner invitations. Eliot was dismissive of the notion that modern poetry must necessarily reflect the fads and fashions of the time and place of its creation. The element that makes poetry timeless is the crucible of the poet’s imagination where words and phrases are cast and re-cast. The essential – the passions, human nature - does not change. Otherwise Sophocles and Shakespeare, Dickinson and Plath would no longer be read. Eliot’s view of tradition is that it is acquired only by great labour, not inherited like the family silver or a title. New work arises from work done in the past; in turn, works of the past modify our understanding of new work.
     Historical continuity is central to an understanding of Four Quartets. As Eliot means it, continuity is the sense of the past-in-the-present flowing through Western Christianity, connecting the old with the new. For him, Christianity is the historical keystone holding past and present together. The poet who writes from one or two private admirations, or a single preferred period, risks producing little else but
pastiche. A writer must learn that the mind of Europe is greater than his own private mind. Poetry that seeks to be completely original is likely to be merely novel, important as a trend at a particular time, but transient: a milestone rather than a landmark.
     These strictures are forbidding, but then 21st century Britain has an entirely looser idea about what constitutes continuity. Young writers are too busy expressing themselves to bother about the relevance of Medieval or Renaissance Europe. The buzz words are communication, participation. Poets are invariably performers offering a mixture of light entertainment and political bias. Everybody is doing it: it is what is expected. From Eliot’s point of view, he was trying to differentiate between his approach to writing, in which everything is connected, and the process by which a writer is manufactured by a publisher or bookseller.

     The impersonality of art is the least palatable aspect of Eliot’s poetic ethic. After Robert Lowell, after Sylvia Plath, after John Berryman, such a view is no longer tenable. In later life, happily married, successful and content, Eliot repudiated it, but not publicly, or not publicly enough. His extremely high-handed pronouncement for many years deeply troubled writers like myself. I did not understand until much later in life, not until my late forties, that young men need a weapon to clear a way through the jungle that surrounds them; the impersonality of art was the machete that Eliot (helped by Pound) wielded to clear a way for The Waste Land.

The progress of the artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality…Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion…The mind of the mature poet differs from that of the immature one by being a more finely perfected medium in which specific and very varied feelings are at liberty to enter into new combinations.

     Eliot’s first two precepts, self-sacrifice and an escape from emotion, suggest that poetry is a form of escapism – Eliot once described it as a superior amusement; the dysfunctional poet makes his comment and then withdraws behind the mask of the artist. Back in 1920 this may well have been neurasthenic Eliot’s desire to get away from his own life; but the desire to escape from emotion was also a ploy, as the novelist E M Forster suspected. By differentiating between the mental operations of a mature poet and those of an immature one, Eliot was defining his destiny as a poet. This fascinating but fastidious declaration reminds me of the Conan Doyle story in which Sherlock Holmes compares his mind to that of a finely ground lens; the grit of human passion would be catastrophic to the process of observation, analysis and logical inference.
     The 1960s generation of new poets reacted against the stuffy constraints of the past. Adrian Mitchell declared: Get your blue hands off poetry! He was addressing literary Conservatives and cultural policemen who disapproved of change and innovation. Eliot would have been the first to agree that new poetry could not be written according to one man’s theories. Eliot’s strictures had been for himself as much as for anyone else. As he noted, a poet’s literary criticism is usually motivated by the kind of poetry he would like to write himself. The author of Prufrock, The Waste Land, Choruses From the Rock and Four Quartets had done more to liberate poetry from the grave of the past than his critics allow.
     Thoughts and feelings are invisible impulses. A poem makes these impulses visible by words and phrases patterned in rhythm. Rhythm may derive from a form that is either pre-determined, such as a sonnet, villanelle, or flows from the arrangement of ideas and images. In the latter sense form is organic: it derives from the content. This, generally speaking, is free verse. Irrespective of whether form is pre-determined or organic, the act of writing often moves away from the original intention, especially if the poet’s mind is, as Eliot says, a medium in which special and very varied feelings are at liberty to enter into new combinations. The act of writing and the art of writing, the doing and the thinking, were two elements in Eliot’s mental crucible between 1936 and 1942 when he wrote Four Quartets – Burnt Norton, East Coker, The Dry Salvages and Little Gidding. The act of writing is a subject permeating these four poems, in each case the fifth and final section.
     Four Quartets is a poem of many voices. Eliot felt that a long poem could only be sustained if there was variety in the composition, of form (blank verse and rhymed verse) and content (juxtaposition of the poetic and the prosaic). Four Quartets contains different registers of speech (declamatory, conversational, syllogistic) as well as a variety of forms.
     Whether form dictates content or vice-versa is an old and continuing battle. Like most English poets contemporaneous with him, Eliot worked out content through form. He may have brought something new to English poetry from the French, but he also gained from William Blake and Walt Whitman the long incantatory line, employed by Allen Ginsberg in Howl. Blake in his so-called prophetic books and Whitman in Leaves of Grass ignore the rule that governs traditional English iambic pentameter with its regular pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables (ten or eleven syllables to a line). Whitman’s lines plough long furrows, fourteen, fifteen or more syllables in length. Charles Olson later stressed that poetry, being pulses of sound, should not be measured according to a mental metronome.
     Eliot always has what he called the ghost of some simple poetry helping him to support the flesh of his content. The poetry is less successful in Four Quartets when the content derives from an inflexible pre-determined form. The obvious objection to this assertion is the second section of Part II of Little Gidding, where Eliot modulates with half-rhyme the perfect rhyme of Dante’s terza rima. But even this magnificent achievement, sustained over 72 lines, contains half-a-dozen lines which, to my mind, obfuscate rather than illuminate. Few poems are faultless; Four Quartets is no exception. When I last went through all four poems I highlighted 94 lines that struck me as mystifying as opposed to merely mysterious. But Eliot had lost his wandering Ezra by the late 1930s. Most of these lines needed revising; but who else was going to dare tell Eliot?


Time and Eliot’s quest in Four Quartets

Eliot’s greatest single achievement as a poet is impossible to grasp unless the reader understands that there is more than one form of time. And as Four Quartets is the most time conscious poem in the English language the reader should take a little time to look into the matter.

We experience time in a number of ways. The time of clocks and calendars is man-made. For more than twelve hundred years until 1752 the people of the British Isles celebrated the start of the new calendar year on March 25, bringing together the regeneration of the season for planting with the Christian festival of Easter celebrating Christ’s triumph over death – the renewal of life. At that time we followed the Julian calendar that sensibly placed winter at the end of the calendar year. Thanks to Pope Gregory XIII, who amended Julius Caesar’ lunar calendar to accord with the solar year, we now celebrate New Year at the very deadest and darkest time of winter.
Solar time measures and controls the seasons. Lunar time measures and controls the ebb and flow of the tide and the female menstrual cycle. Historical time measures the ages and the chronicle of events to which we attach significance, such as the rise and fall of monarchs and governments, warfare and the shaping influence of ideas. Then there is God’s time, the time beyond the past, present and future of historical time with its links of cause and effect. Eliot defines this experience of God’s time as the still point of the turning world. What he calls the intersection of time is simply the crossroads of these four different currents of time – the seasonal, the tidal and human, the historical and the eternal.

     Each of the four poems may also be understood to represent air (Burnt Norton), earth (East Coker), water (The Dry Salvages) and fire (Little Gidding), respectively. These four elements, in Elizabethan times, represented humours of which each person was comprised. Air, earth, water and fire also represent various stages of the poem’s spiritual quest.
     The movement of seas, rivers, roads and railways and the illusion of movement figure prominently in Four Quartets. The metaphor of the tossing seas of time denies the cyclical view of history says Helen Gardner. Movement throughout the four poems presents various viewpoints - the personal, the seasonal, the historical, the spiritual – from which to consider the disintegration of the personality through time and the poet’s hope for reintegration beyond time. Eliot is not interested in movement for its own sake, he is not writing a travelogue; but the idea of movement is associated with pilgrimage, the spiritual journey.
     Eliot’s quest is poetic and religious: he wants to write the best poetry he can about the journey through the human condition to the hope of something beyond. The Pope of Russell Square, however, is not interested in writing a religious manifesto or in issuing a set of proclamations. Four Quartets represents Eliot’s last word in poetry; it is his supreme effort to make the word flesh through the pulsing cross-currents of memory and hope, despair and desire. Through poetry Eliot is seeking spiritual affirmation and an emotional solution to the conflicts troubling him. Beyond knowledge, which is forever changing through time, there is humility that is, as Eliot says, timeless and unchanging.
     The poet reaches towards the artistic integration of the suffering personality’s conflicting imperatives. Such as? Between worldly desires and spiritual yearning; the momentary rapture of carnal love and the hoped for tranquillity of love that is not carnal. The condition that Eliot seeks can only be found at the still point of the turning world. But how? By making thoughts and feelings into words, but only those words that reach beyond the time and place of their creation. He wants his poem to survive.
Eliot is seeking language to take his poem beyond the circumstantial – I feel all right now, but in ten minutes I may be feeling otherwise. It is not spiritual stasis that he seeks but the sense of stillness in movement that will hold his poem together through changing times, changing tastes and changing styles.
     Dante’s vision of God in the last circle of Paradise in The Divine Comedy is of a perfectly balanced wheel whose motion powers the sun and moon and stars with perpetual love. Eliot considered Dante to be Western civilisation’s greatest spiritual poet. Four Quartets is what Eliot’s American biographer Lyndall Gordon says it is: a spiritual biography. If Beethoven’s last string quartets are an artistic attempt to go beyond music, Four Quartets is Eliot’s quest to go beyond words.
     Four Quartets is a misnomer because each of the four poems consists of five parts. The proper title should be Five Quintets, but that sounds more like Mozart or Schubert. The first poem, Burnt Norton, was published in 1936. The opening proposition about the nature of time – it may be irredeemable – is followed by reflections of a country garden, children, the memory of happiness and perhaps the possibility of demonstrable human love. Lyndall Gordon suggests that Eliot is mentally fleeing from a moment when love was offered and he felt morally obliged to deny it. The three other quartets followed rapidly from 1940, as though Eliot feared that World War II might well be Armageddon and that he would run out of time.

    East Coker came out in 1940. It is the name of a real historical place, a village in Somerset from which an ancestor, Andrew Elyot, left 17th century England for America. Eliot identifies the village and its inhabitants with the seasonal cycle of birth and death. Houses rise and fall. Dynasties, royal houses, rise and fall too. Eliot’s first quartet was published the year of King Edward VIII’s abdication after little more than a year on the throne. Lines of biblical import are contrasted with the narrator’s more prosaic reflections on the difficulties of making sense of experience. Here I am, in the middle way. The tone is weary. Is Eliot merely contemplating middle age, as some commentators think, or is he referring to the middle part of his spiritual quest? Dante too begins his epic poem in the middle way, lost in a dark wood. Dante and Eliot were confirmed Christian believers. The quest for both poets is the confirmation of God’s purpose. Eliot’s weariness comes from the incessant struggle to find the right pattern of words to give form to the content of his thoughts and feelings.
     The Dry Salvages, published in 1941, the year that America entered the war, refers to a trio of rocks off the coast of Massachusetts round which the young Eliot used to sail as a youth. This was after his family’s move from St Louis, Mississippi, to Gloucester, Massachusetts (home town of Charles Olson). Eliot’s family was pious and firmly committed to right conduct and right behaviour. The poet that Eliot needed to become lay in wait for him across the Atlantic. To Europeanise his sensibility Eliot had to lose the self he was accustomed to and his home by the sea. He remained at heart an American, with powerful feelings for the Mississippi and the eastern Atlantic seaboard - as did Sylvia Plath, nine years old in 1941. In this poem Eliot voyages outwards from the river of his youth towards the forbidding volatility of the open ocean. The Battle of the Atlantic was raging during the time of writing. Allied shipping losses may have reminded Eliot of the losses suffered by generations of Gloucester fishing families. The rough Atlantic is not the Sea of Galilee where Christ bade catchers of fish become fishers of men. It is the wild, stormy domain of the petrel and the porpoise/ the wave cry/ the wind cry. It is the perilous region the poet must cross to discover who he is.
     Little Gidding, the concluding quartet, appeared in 1942. Like East Coker, it is a real place in historical time, a village in Huntingdonshire founded by a 17th century religious community. Eliot visited the village. The place itself is not vital: it could be any Christian community anywhere. Its significance resides in its symbolic value to the poem. It represents the personal life of religious devotion and the personal life within the framework of a religious community. Duty and service to others are the outward manifestation of the personal life of inward devotion. Eliot’s spirituality was the tension of inner subjugation and outer obligation, a pattern mirrored in the structure of Four Quartets. Little Gidding, with its liturgical coda, is the intersection of the temporal and the timeless, the physical and the spiritual, the personal and the historical. In October 1942 Nazi Germany suffered its first military defeat on land at El Alamein in North Africa. On November 10 the Prime Minister Winston Churchill gave a speech at London’s Guildhall praising General Alexander and his brilliant lieutenant Montgomery for beating Rommel’s Afrika Korps. During the speech Churchill said: This is not the end, it is not even the beginning of the end; but it is perhaps the end of the beginning. Part V of Eliot’s fourth quartet echoes this pattern of words.

What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.

This recapitulates the opening of East Coker and part V of the same quartet in which Eliot reflects upon the difficulties of writing authentically.
     The most notable passage of Little Gidding is Part II. Eliot imagines walking the inferno of London’s blitzed streets with the ghost of an Italian Master. For my own satisfaction, I like to think of Eliot’s companion as the author of The Divine Comedy. An air raid is in progress judging by the dove with the flickering tongue. Eliot, almost in out-of-body mode, communes with the hooded figure as they patrol the fiery landscape. Eliot learns what awaits him as a man and as a poet: the slow decay of the senses; belated guilt and shame at motives late revealed; the memory of laughter that is no longer funny; disgust at the easy approbation offered by sycophants. As for writing, the ghost warns about using last year’s words that belong to last year’s language. Writing, feeling, thinking clearly, praying: all these activities depend upon a form of words to get beyond words to the still point of the turning world. Words are often a source of misunderstanding. Words slip and slide, decay with imprecision, will not stay in place. Experience may only teach us to make the same mistakes with more confidence. Confidence may give a poet mere facility, glibness of expression. To see things as they are requires a degree of spiritual humility.
     A state of paradox, a tension of conflicting truths, governs life. This is the reality that, at times of despair and indecision, we cannot bear. That is why I think Eliot has stayed with me for more than forty years. Taken together, Eliot’s major poems – Prufrock, Portrait of a Lady, The Waste Land, Marina, Ash Wednesday, The Rock, Four Quartets – show the development of an acute sensibility, sometimes spiteful but full of telling insights. The more that Eliot is able to lose himself in a wider circle of duty and obligation the clearer his place becomes.

………….You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more
Than an order of words, the conscious occupation
Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.
And what the dead had no speech for, when living,
They can tell you being dead…………..

* A shorter version of this essay was published in London Magazine in the October/ November issue, 2002. 

Thursday, 10 December 2015

Gelignite and Being Mortal...

Fourteen years ago one of my more successful poetry books, The Unlikelihood of Intimacy in the Next Six Hours, was published by the late David Tipton's Redbeck Press. The final piece, Gelignite - The Old Man's Best Friend - was a meditation on the theme of decreptitude and the end that comes to all.

I was prompted to look it up today by the chapter called Letting Go in Atul Gawande's latest book Being Mortal: Illness, Medicine and What Matters in the End, which I've been reading since hearing Gawande on Desert Island Discs on Sunday.

Gawande, a cancer surgeon in the United States, contrasts through case histories the relative merits of geriatric care in nursing homes and their alternatives in America. "We've created a multitrillion dollar edifice for dispensing the medical equivalent of lottery tickets - and have only the rudiments of a system to prepare patients for the near certainty that those tickets will not win. Hope is not a plan, but hope is our plan," he writes.

Hope for what? Longevity at any cost, it seems; a thought which prompted the remembrance of a couple of lines in Arthur Hugh Clough's droll alternative to the Ten Commandments, The Latest Decalogue: "Thou shalt not kill; but need'st not strive/ Officiously to keep alive..." In modern times, of course, life and death is big business. Clough saw it coming. His short poem ends: "Thou shalt not covet; but tradition/ Approves all forms of competition."

As a dedicated healer, Mr Gawande acknowledges and appreciates the benefits of advanced medical technology. But he also sees the dark side of the medical moon, the "striving to keep officiously alive" no matter the physical, moral and monetary cost. We have forgotten centuries of tradition, he says, when people accepted that death was part of the process and prepared themselves for it long before illness and debility. "Medical science is frightening," I wrote in my poem, "it can preserve the body better/ than nature does trees." 

In 2001 I was fifty-two. Now I'm fourteen years closer to intensive care and ultimately the crematorium. But that's not why I went out and bought the last two copies of Gawande's book in stock at Salts Mill. He makes the subject of ageing, terminal illness and society's response to these inevitabilities intensely interesting. There is a whole span of life consigned to the dark ages of dread and, therefore, a system of regulated care where only professionals are expected to go.

This is not simply a consequence of the death of the extended family in Western society. Gawande finds that even in far eastern cultures of multi-generational living, the urge for independence inevitably follows economic development and growth. The young want to strike out and make their own decisions away from the sectarian in-fighting of extended families and clans. Just as the young resent being told what to do, the elderly resent being regulated in nursing homes. Everyone, it seems, wants to go home.

One of the most uplifting stories in his book is about a New York state physician, Bill Thomas, a maverick intelligence (he was expected to fail as a youngster but went to Harvard Medical School instead). He managed to persuade the managers of the home where he worked to get rid of plastic plants in pots and bring in fresh flowers. Part of the lawns were turned into flower beds and a children's playground so that staff could bring their kids to work and mix with the old bastards. Most radical of all, he persuaded the authorities to bring in dogs, cats and birds - 100 parakeets in fact.

After a while many of the eighty or so patients started to pick up. The demand for medication dropped as they got involved with the animals, the plants, the children. For some, health improved. Old buggers who had been silent, withdrawn and mournful for their lost autonomy, walked the dogs, petted the cats and gave names to each of the parakeets. It wasn't advanced medical science that restored their will to live, their will to life. "It is harder to help people to live than to help them to die," Gawande says in a talk in a New York bookstore that you can Google up at

But not everyone can be a Bob Thomas or a marvellous chronicler and explainer like Atul Gawande. Career expectations can get in the way of vocation. But as the professionals rise to their ultimate goal of self-actualised independence very often their patients are going in the other direction, longing to belong to something or somebody greater than themselves. Josiah Royce identified this phenomenon as long ago as 1908 in a paper called The Philosophy of Loyalty.

On the subject of mortality, the following is the rather bravura finale of my poem, Gelignite - The Old Man's Best Friend:-

Pneumonia, doctors say,
is the old man's best friend;
it takes them away
fromsuffering. Maybe it does,
but what of the rest?
Obsequies are necessary
for those left who give a damn.
Before I knew any better
I used to plan
my funeral rites down to the music,
timing each moment like a great work.
Now, many deaths later, I know
most people just want to escape.
And so do I.
I don't want to die
at home, in hopsital,
fastened to a bed
by drips, defibrillators and monitors.
Just take me some place
beyond the horizon of people
and tie me to five or six 
sticks of gelignite -
the old man's real friend.
And there, on a cliff,
a canyon, anywhere there's an edge,
let me detonate myself
into smithereens only seabirds
or the eyes of an eagle
will be able to descry:
nothing bodily left behind.
That would be my way to die,
my way to go,
like Davy Crockett
at the Alamo.

The difference being, of couse, that I wouldn't be killing Mexican soldiers or anybody else. These days of suicide bombers the sentiment in those final lines might strike some as bad taste. Admirers of Jean Luc Godard's film Pierre Le Fou, however, will recognise the reference to gelignite. 

Wednesday, 2 December 2015

Bombs Away...

The overwhelming vote in the House of Commons in favour of extending RAF bombing from Iraq to Syria marginalised us "terrorist sympathisers", as David Cameron generously referred to those opposed to his big idea. At least the Prime Minister may hope so.

"Britain is a safer place as a result of this vote," Foreign Secretary Phillip Hammond declared after the vote gave the Government a majority of more than 170. Let's hope he's right. It's a phrase that will haunt him if he's wrong, just as the reference to 70,000 moderates ready and willing to fight against Islamic State, could embarrass Mr Cameron more than it has done already.

The 67 Labour MPs who voted with the Government, admittedly on a free vote, are likely to have an even tougher time. While some of them may have been motivated by a wish to weaken the position of their anti-bombing leader Jeremy Corbyn, they will soon find out that a chunk of the country at large has a different view.

The Parliamentary Labour Party didn't vote for Mr Corbyn to replace Ed Miliband, ordinary people outside Westminster did, and it is these people, hundreds of thousands of them, that the 67 MPs will have to face down once the bombing starts, especially if something does not go according to Mr Cameron's big idea. Things could get very ugly - as they did in the late 1970s through to the mid-1980s one consequence of which was the break-away rise of the Social Democratic Party (SDP). Hard-line Left-wingers wanted Labour MPs to be delegates, to do as they were told by Constituency Labour Parties. MPs like the late Edward Lyons, Bradford West, maintained that they were representatives of the constituency as a whole including those who did not vote for them. They were not delegates mandated to speak for one section or single-issue interest group only. This conflict is on the boil again. The difference between now and then, of course, is the intrusive and intimidating presence of social media. Personally, I think MPs are and should be representatives of whole constituencies rather than delegates of political interest groups.

The Government will benefit from a bitter and divided opposition only as long as the news coming out of Syria affirms the Prime Minister's big idea. Short-term Tory gloating  - cheering on Hilary Benn every time he speaks in the Commons, for example - will only add to fuel to the public's ire if the news from Syria or elsewhere is bad.

RAF bombs and missles may well "degrade" IS forces in Syria. But what about elsewhere? I don't suppose the RAF is prepearing to launch drone attacks on those parts of the UK from where IS recruits and supporters have gone to join the men in black in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.

The streets of London have witnessed the results of Islamic terrorism on at least two occasions since the summer of 2005 and according to the Prime Minister many subsequent attempts have been foiled by Britain's counter-terriorism forces. If Britain has been in varying states of alert over the last ten years why does Mr Cameron think that bombing Syria will diminish the likelihood of Islamic terror attacks in future?