Deaths and entrances

Spring

Kowhai knows
And tells by tolling
Yellow bells.


10/11/2016

Last night my collection of stories, The Name on the Door is not Mine: stories new and selected, was launched at Paper Plus bookshop in Newmarket, with a speech by Kevin Ireland. As we were going in just before 6 p.m. the late stages of the American election were making everyone nervous – the omens of an inconceivable Trump triumph clearly emerging. Two hours later, as the launch ended, the outcome was so close to being over it was over: Trump had won. I suppose it’s not surprising that everyone at a book launch should be appalled. This election was the revolt of the largely uneducated against ‘the system’, ‘the political establishment’, the Washington elite (‘drain the swamp’), of the blue against the white collar, the non-college-educated against the know-it-all-ocracy (us). That it is hardly likely to result in any, or many, favours for those who were in revolt is irrelevant. The damage is done; the White House is big Donald’s. Many of those who elected him were not regular voters at all, but had come out persuaded that Trump would stand up for them, find jobs for them, get industry going again where it had been damaged by trade deals, and stem the flow of alien folk who he said were taking their jobs and threatening their security. It’s hard to believe he will do much, or any of this – any more than he will build the wall, or ‘make America great again’. He may on the other hand do long-term damage to liberal causes by his appointments to the Supreme Court. We are living in interesting times.

The new book, is a selection of old and new from fifty years, and the oldest (‘Marriage Americano’) is the ‘newest’ in the sense that it has never been published even in a periodical. I found it among my papers, dating from my first visit to America in 1963. I had evidently written it and forgotten it, so my memory even of writing it is dim. On the other hand the story ‘A Fitting Tribute’ (now dedicated to Barry Humphries who partly inspired it), almost equally old (first published in the Kenyon Review in 1965) has reappeared in a number of NZ anthologies, including my own Oxford New Zealand Short Stories (second series) of 1966, but I felt had to be there in a representative selection. Some of the stories have been revised, and one, now called ‘And still the sun shines’, has been completely re-written. Among the new stories is ‘Last Season’s Man’ which won the Sunday Times/E.F.G. Private Bank prize (the big one) in 2010.

I made the point in my few words about the book that Kevin Ireland, who was going to launch it, had, some time in the past five or so years, married Janet Wilson, a New Zealander working as an academic in the U.K., and daughter of the writer the late Philip Wilson, one of a group who had emerged in the 1940s and were known as ‘the sons of Sargeson’ – which made Janet a kind of ‘granddaughter’ of Sargeson, while Kevin had been Sargeson’s newspaper delivery boy. (Incidentally the son of another of the ‘sons of Sargeson’, Martin Cole, son of John Reece Cole and the publisher Chris Cole Catley, was also present – a very N.Z. Lit occasion!) The point of this was, however, that since their marriage Kevin and Janet have kept up a punishing schedule of commuting between Auckland and Oxford, and that Kevin had arrived back in Auckland only two days before the launch to receive the book he was to set on its way. Here, slightly abridged, is Kevin’s launch speech which, delivered with his usual passion and panache, really engaged the audience.


A couple of weeks ago I heard for the first time a London interview, recorded in 1962, with the three remaining daughters of the Wellington banker, Harold Beauchamp – sisters of Kathleen, the writer who came to be known as Katherine Mansfield. These three elderly woman gave fluent and superbly self-assured, inflated and dissembling, accounts of their early lives – and Kathleen’s – but what made me sit up was the interviewer Owen Leeming’s introductory claim that one of his three main objectives was that he expected to learn from these three fossilized, Establishment stalwarts how much of Katherine Mansfield’s stories was based on ‘real life’ – and what he, a little later in the interview, called no less than ‘the truth content of her writings’. If that was what he was after, he didn’t stand the ghost of a chance in the socially triumphant company of the Beauchamp sisters. They locked their shields and he was on an interviewer’s Mission Impossible.

But Leeming’s quest conveniently leads me on to this question [for I have a hunch that it is going to be raised by reviewers]: how much of Karl Stead’s wonderfully elegant, un-put-down-able and always hugely entertaining new collection of short fictions – some revised [right up to title, dedication and the names of characters] plus some recent ones – is based on ‘real life’, and what exactly is the ‘truth content’ of his writing?

There are several stories with delicious enticements offered by Karl, possibly for fun, possibly just to muddy the waters a bit, or just possibly to dangle out a kind bait – for some of these stories could appear to suggest to the biographically minded that they may be laying a deliberate trail towards the great abstracts of ‘truth’ and ‘real life’.

For instance, in a revised story now called ‘And Still the Sun Shines’, there is a New Zealand academic called Clifton Scarf, whose initials happen to be C S, and in this new version his wife has had her initials now altered to K S. Scarf is on a year’s fellowship to a town near Menton, in the South of France, and they have three small children. Eventually, we learn, this academic becomes a professor. It is impossible to miss the minor yet pointed similarities to circumstances that have occurred in the career of a writer known to us all as C K Stead. Like all the narrators in these stories, this one is alert, clever, confident yet at the same time a little in the dark and uneasy. It’s all part of a vague sense of dizziness in Karl’s narrative constructions, or possibly a flaw or instability, and it gives each tale an extra edge that seems at times to be about to provide a platform for vertigo.

I have a hunch that some may take this story to be an example of ‘oblique memoir’ although this is in no way reliable. We can say that there is, indeed, a careful scattering of a few biographical parallels – or ‘truths’, as Leeming called them – but they are structural details on which the story neither depends nor from which it hangs... Guess away – in the absence of proof we can only guarantee that they are devices that help contribute spice to the flavour of the writing, the shadow of personality to characterization, and a kind of authorial ‘fingerprint’. Read more into them at your peril.

I could pick my way through a couple more of the stories in this manner, but I’d rather now turn to a few remarks of a more general nature. So, let me conclude by assuring all readers of several matters that I do regard as certainties, though I wouldn’t describe them as signposts to the discovery of a holy grail of literary truth.

Readers can be promised these undeniable features: one is that Karl’s satiric sting is just as sharp and lethal as it ever was; another is that his gifts for high comedy and for deflating complacency are as razor-edged as they ever were; and every story is packed with dazzling craftsmanship, delicious turns-of-phrase, sharp and wily counterpointed conversation, sparkling observations – and always there is energy, concision and wit to shape the storytelling. And talking of wit, I’m delighted to see that ‘A fitting tribute’ has been included. The tale of Julian Harp’s great upside-down, controlled but engineless flight over Auckland is a unique and brilliant fantasy narrated in a kind of breathless yet deadpan realism – a contrast that helps make it fabulous in the true meaning of the word.

The characters and their goals and their inner workings and their capacity for plain error, grand delusion, gratification, rashness, lust, love and mischief-making make them all memorable, sometimes archly and purposefully, but mostly in ways they are incapable of comprehending even in ‘truth’, ‘real life’ or whatever it was that the Beauchamp sisters failed to deliver. And finally the sheer skill of the writing is among the best there is. Karl has always been at the top of his craft – and he’s still there. This is a book to be treasured – and it gives me the greatest pleasure to help launch it.

- Kevin Ireland


6 a.m. Oriental Bay

Wellington windless
lacking the whip and the lash
can be lovely.

Back to the wall
feet in the flood
asleep on it elbows
it waits to be woken.


My next public occasion was the East/West Poetry Conference organised by Bill Sutton for poets from the central North Island, held at Palmerston North 12-13 November. I gave an opening talk there on the Saturday morning and stayed on for the early sessions – would have stayed the whole weekend but for Shingles. (Health Warning: if you’re middle aged and beyond and had chickenpox as a child you’re in line for this, a resurgence of the old virus which remains somewhere in the spine. There’s a vaccine available and you should have it. Shingles could be added to water-boarding as a tool in the U.S. torture armoury, especially now Trump is coming and has said he ‘loves water boarding’ and wants more of that kind of thing to help deal with America’s Muslim problem.)

In my introductory remarks to the Conference I recalled chairing a session with the German poet Hans Magnus Enzensberger at the Wellington literary festival some years back, when Enzensberger remarked that poetry was a very peculiar industry in that the number of producers exceeded by far the number of consumers. I suggested this was poetry’s strength: it could never be commercialized; there was no money in it, and it was in that sense uncorrupted and incorruptible.

Poetry, I suggested, is irrepressible; it pops up everywhere because it is a manifestation of our recognition that language is what distinguishes us, humankind, on our planet, and that poetry is language at its subtlest and best. Nothing quite equals the satisfaction of feeling one has written a poem that really ‘works’; and we, each of us alone, solo, must be the one who makes the judgement. If someone out there, among friends and associates, or in the larger public world, affirms that it’s good, so much the better; but that, if it happens, is only a bonus. If you are a true poet you don’t live for public acclaim; in your poet mode you live to write (and read) poems.

I also quoted W.B. Yeats looking around his poet-friends at the Cheshire Cheese where they used to meet in the 1890s, and saying ‘None of us knows which of us is writing work that will live; all we know for certain is that we are too many!’ My comment was that, yes, there was a sense in which this was true: only a few ever write poems that live on to be read generations and centuries later. But why ‘too many’? Poetry should not be written with an eye on, and an ambition for, the future. ‘Judge Time’ (as Martin Amis says) will sort these matters out. They should not be our concern.

I also spoke about poetry as ‘hard work’ and poetry as ‘inspiration’. Keats, with the casual confidence of youth (and no doubt reflecting on what the experience of writing poetry thus far had been for him) said ‘if poetry come not as naturally as the leaves to the tree, it might as well not come at all.’ Yeats was without doubt a hard work poet. There’s ample evidence in his papers of the idea for a poem beginning as a prose draft, then being whittled down and sorted into lines, then into stanza form with rhymes: hard labour – yet the outcome often does sound as if it came effortlessly. He has a poem, ‘Adam’s Curse’, in which he says

A line of verse will take us hours maybe,
Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought
Our stitching an unstitching has been nought.

On the other hand there is that sonnet I discussed in an earlier blog which acknowledges ‘that reed-throated whisperer / Who comes at need although not now as once / A clear articulation in the air / But inwardly...’ The ‘reed-throated whisperer’ is surely the Muse, the Inspiration, which when he was young seemed a voice outside himself, and still comes ‘at need… but inwardly.’

On this subject of work and inspiration I would have loved to include the great opium dream poem, Coleridge’s ‘Kubla Khan’ but there was not time. In general one can only say, Work at it, and hope for a helping hand now and then from the Muse.

I was struck by the high standard of poetry at this conference and the serious level of discussion, assisted no doubt by the presence of some mature post-graduate students from Massey University’s School of Creative Writing, whose advanced work requires both creative and critical writing. Not that I am an advocate of the current predominance of such courses in English Departments. I still believe one learns more by reading the great writers of the past, and learning the history of literature, than by what often amounts to therapy sessions and ego massage – though I acknowledge there is practical and professional assistance as well. (I think I’m well-known to be radical politically and conservative in matters of education – an apparent contradiction that has often got me into trouble.) But these mature students, along with secondary school teachers who include creative writing in their syllabus, added a degree of (I would say) consciousness to the discussion which might otherwise have been, not absent, but less acute.

Among the Massey group was Tim Upperton who has won the Caselberg Poetry Prize (twice I think) and who gave a lunch-time talk dramatically entitled ‘Poetry and the Price of your Soul’ in which some nods were made (though I did not feel sure of what kind, what degree of distance or acceptance) towards ‘post-modern’ theory. For the Modernists, Tim said, the principle was Pound’s ‘Make it new’, but they still held to basic truths – not to the same truths, but there was a truth of one kind or another for each of them, even if it was no more than the fact of the singular, stable, knowable self. For the ‘post modern’, Tim argued, there were no absolutes. The post-modern is ironic and won’t be pinned down. It permits you to say what is not, without saying what is, the case.

His injunction to us all was Beckett’s: ‘Fail! Fail better!’

Among the poets who recently published new books were Jeremy Roberts (Cards on the Table, Interactive Press, Queensland), Arthur Bennett (Elusive: the craft of poetry, Copy Press, Nelson) and Mark Pirie whose collection was published in Queensland but I left without getting my hands on a copy. There were many others, of course, and these mentions are random. But I have to say a word also for the less sophisticated poets who have no particular terms or street talk for what they do. Some do it well, some not so well. Here is an example of one, by Dorothy Wharehoka, which, read by the old ‘girl’ herself, had, I thought, what Tim Upperton demanded of us all – ‘authenticity’:

Mihi

I’m a Taranaki girl
A volcanic ash
Black iron sand
And Moturoa girl.

I’m a South Pacific girl
A Southern Cross
Antipodean
Te Ika a Maui girl.

I’m a universal girl
A star dust child
Multicultural
And much recycled girl.

I AM.

I congratulate Bill Sutton on bringing this conference about. He is a significant poet in his own right and a first rate organiser on poetry’s behalf.


In England

There’s a lot to be said for/
heard from
summer rain
in a green foxy wood
drumming on a roof of leaves.


Devonport Public Library is able to call in an extraordinarily lively and attentive group of readers for literary occasions and I spoke to them on 15 November about the new Allen & Unwin collection of my stories, and also my A.U.P. collection, Shelf Life: reviews, replies & reminiscences, published last May. I began by reading short extracts and talking about each of the books, and then for the second half of the hour I answered questions from Roger Hall, a cheerful and encouraging chairman, and questions from the audience.

This was also ‘Courage Day for Imprisoned Writers’ observed, around the world by PEN International, and here by the N.Z. Society of Authors, so there was a chair left empty, as is the custom, representing the writers silenced by imprisonment for political reasons, and a collection was taken which will go to the cause.


Jim McNeish (Sir James, as he chose to be known) died on 11 November. He had been working, it seems, right up to the time of his death, and had just delivered a new book to his publisher. He and I were students together in what was then a small university (Auckland University College as it was when all our universities were colleges of the University of New Zealand); so though we were not taking the same courses at the same time, and he was a year ahead of me, we were, and have been ever since, ‘well- acquainted’ – familiar presences. I didn’t read everything he wrote, and always thought of him as a journalist rather than a ‘literary’ writer; but his play The Rocking Cave (1973) seemed to work remarkably well in the theatre at a time when few New Zealand plays did; and I thought his later work on a generation of expatriate New Zealanders – John Mulgan, Geoffrey Cox, Dan Davin, Ian Milner, Paddy Costello, Jim Bertram (the only one who returned home) – was his best. His The Sixth Man (a life of the Leftist academic Paddy Costello) and his Dance of the Peacocks (subtitled ‘New Zealanders in exile in the time of Hitler and Mao Tse-Tung’) are important contributions to our intellectual, political and literary history, and how (importantly) the three aspects relate. The tendency to hero-worship and to romanticize his subjects may mean that pinches of salt are required at times; but these are commendably readable books and there’s much to be learned from them about the nature of New Zealand in the 20th century.

I know less about McNeish’s fiction – not enough to want to defend my own doubts about its quality. His novel Lovelock is always described as ‘nominated for the Booker Prize’, which means no more than that his publisher entered it – i.e. nothing at all; but the book is an interesting approach to a mystery surrounding the death of one of our national heroes.

As a young man McNeish was adventurous and unconventional. He took on things, and went places, few of us in those days (I include myself of course) would have dared. He worked his way to England as a deckhand on a Norwegian freighter. He found himself in Sicily working for the anti-Mafia hero Danilo Dolce, and stayed for three years to write a book about him – Fire under the Ashes (1965). Over the years he worked for the BBC, and in Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop in London.

Returning to New Zealand he lived in Te Maika near Kawhia for a number of years and wrote a journal from there for the Listener, which merged later into books of autobiography. After the Te Maika years he moved to Wellington with his (I think) Hungarian wife, Helen, and they made their home there – though they continued to travel whenever a new project beckoned.

I know next to nothing about McNeish’s antecedents; but he said he had been left the place at Te Maika by his ‘Maori aunt’; and there was certainly a strong Maori aspect to his bony-hawky (and very striking) appearance.

The last time I heard from him was within the past year when he rang asking how he could get access to my London publisher, Christopher MacLehose, who he thought might be interested in his book Seelenbinder: the Olympian who defied Hitler. I made the connection for him but don’t know whether anything came of it.

There was something posh about Jim, and ‘Sir James’ suited the way he presented himself, and spoke with fully rounded vowels and ‘proper’ articulation. This did not seem fake or inauthentic; it was just Jim. He was ‘a nice chap’, as people our age would say, and as a writer a thorough-going professional. I admired him and I’m glad he lived to a good age and continued writing well, right to the last.

One person Jim collaborated with was Marti Friedlander. He wrote the text for a book of her photographs, Larks in a Paradise. Marti died a few days after Jim, and I will have to write about her separately because she was a good friend, our ‘family photographer’ for more than half a century. That will be my next blog, perhaps. Meanwhile here is a recent picture of us together. There had been a photo of me accompanying a new publication and, as usual when that happened and it was not her shot, she called to say ‘Who took that of you, darling? It was awful. Time I brought you up to date.’

So I was summoned to an alley in Parnell she rather liked for its glossy brick surfaces where she took some very good shots. And then she thrust her camera, primed and ready, into the hands of a passer-by and, in her usual bossy way, instructed him to take one of the two of us together. He took what seems to me ‘a Marti shot’ – so like her work it’s hard for me to believe she didn’t step out of herself and take it.

Postscript

Further thoughts on the Trump phenomenon. My daughter Charlotte thinks Hillary Clinton lost because of misogyny. I don’t agree because I think any who voted simply to keep a woman out of the White House were at least matched (probably exceeded) by those who voted solely to get a woman in there. I think the lessons of that election are not being learned. Michael Moore, the documentary maker (often dismissed as a careless and inaccurate Leftist radical), traced a path by which Trump could win the White House even without Florida, by winning the normally Democrat-voting ‘rust belt’ states, where jobs, and whole industries, have gone overseas, and where fear and resentment of immigrants was high. This is what happened – and Trump won Florida as well.

Is there a lesson for us in New Zealand? If the Government’s superficial and half-hearted motions towards alleviating social distress continue to have little effect, and the growing imbalance between rich and poor goes on widening, a combination of Labour, the Greens and NZ First could win a slender majority. That would put Winston Peters in the position of King-maker, free to form a government with either side – in which case he would want the top job. That would be too large a frog for John Key and the Nats to swallow; but a coalition of Labour, the Greens and NZ First is not impossible, with Winston as Prime Minister – our very own Donald Trump.

- C.K. Stead

The nicer Muldoon

Back in May I was called in to the Auckland Writers Festival to replace Bill Manhire who was ill and had to pull out at the last moment. My job was to be ‘in conversation with’ Paul Muldoon, a fairly easy task I thought, at least in the sense that Muldoon is a fine poet, and a man of natural charm which audiences always respond to, with a soft voice and attractive Northern Irish accent. In addition to that, I had met him before and knew his poetry well; but I knew the poetry in a particular way. I had never studied it or approached it systematically, conscientiously as an academic. For me he has been one of those poets you go to when you’re struggling to find a way to write a new poem and you need a jolt, a shock, a surprise. I might go to his fellow-Northern Irishman, Seamus Heaney, for the ‘well-made poem’ – for a piece of near-perfect craftsmanship. With Muldoon you get, rather, surprises, sometimes quirkiness, sometimes obscurity, often mystery, and almost always originality. Some of this I said in introducing him and he seemed to like it – especially the image of the electric shock. That, he said, was what poetry was all about.


Paul Muldoon. Photo by Beowulf Sheehan.

Muldoon’s career as a poet appears from the outside to have been a succession of public triumphs. The prizes he has won include the T.S. Eliot in Britain, the Pulitzer in the U.S., and the Griffin International in Canada – probably the three most prestigious awards for poetry in the English language. He went as a young man to Queen’s University Belfast, married a fellow student (that marriage lasted only four years) and for the difficult years from 1973 to 1987 was a producer for the BBC in that city. During that time he became known as one of the Belfast group who were writing, not necessarily about, but out of, what is referred to as ‘the Troubles’, beginning with the clamour by Catholics there during the late 1960s for civil rights and equality. In Northern Ireland at that time Government and police were totally dominated by the Protestant majority, while Catholics suffered discrimination in housing, income levels and employment.

This protest quickly shaded into the old demands on the Catholic side for a united Ireland and on the other, Protestant-Loyalist reassertions of Britishness. When protest and counter-protest got out of hand, the British Labour Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, sent in troops to restore order. The intention was also (or was said to be) to enforce some semblance of fairness between Catholic and Protestant; but the troops soon became a target for Irish Republican rage. What right, they wanted to know, had the Brits to be there at all? There were beatings and bombings, knee-cappings and many murders. Many died over these years, including numbers of British soldiers. The IRA bombings included some in England, most famously an attack on the Brighton hotel where Maggie Thatcher’s Conservatives were holding their annual conference, and the murder of the British Tory Cabinet Minister Airey Neave, and of the Queen’s cousin, Lord Mountbatten.

Muldoon was from a Catholic nationalist family who looked forward to the possibility of a united Ireland, but did not approve of attempts to achieve it by violence – so his mother had always kept him, as a child, away from I.R.A. influences which were strong in the part of County Armagh where he grew up. His poetry has never seemed to commit itself clearly to, nor to involve itself directly in, either side of the argument – yet for a period ‘the Troubles’ were always and unavoidably, if only obliquely, there in his work; and they brought the poetry of Northern Ireland more attention than it would otherwise have achieved. So though Muldoon might have felt reluctant to be labelled politically, or identified in sectarian terms, these were issues that interested the popular press more than poetry as poetry, and so, without meaning to, he inevitably profited in terms of public attention.

At Queen’s University Seamus Heaney had been a mentor, and had helped to get his first book published by Faber, after which Muldoon never looked back. Like Heaney he was both Catholic and Ulsterman; but whereas Heaney soon removed himself to Dublin as if to his spiritual home, Muldoon stayed on in Belfast. When finally he did leave it was to a teaching position in the U.K. (University of East Anglia) and then to become an American citizen, with a professorship at Princeton and more recently also poetry editor of the New Yorker. Like Heaney again, he did a five year stint (1999-2004) as Professor of Poetry at Oxford. Internationally he was well established, but with his regional identity, which stays with him in his accent, a continuing signifier.

In preparation for my conversation with him I went to an earlier Festival session in which he was on a panel, with Noelle McCarthy and John Boyne, to discuss the Easter Rising of 100 years ago. Boyne seemed less interested in the particular historical topic than in the chance to report again that for a gay person like himself, Ireland had been ‘a terrible place to grow up’ and that the Catholic Church had made his childhood miserable. Noelle remembered weeping when she first learned, as a child, that the Irish rebels of 1916 had been executed by the British; and subsequently being surprised as a history student to discover that even from a Catholic and nationalist point of view, the wisdom of the famous Easter rebellion had been questionable. Muldoon tended rather to mock the rebellion and to say the British had made heroes out of failures by shooting the 16 ring-leaders. All three panellists seemed to avoid, to skirt around, the subject of Yeats’s famous poem, ‘Easter 1916’ (which I've written about here previously), in which he says the comedy of daily life in Dublin had been elevated by the Easter rising into tragedy: ‘a terrible beauty is born’. So even with a panel of three Irish Catholics one was in the midst of contradiction and ambiguity.

I had no time to prepare for my ‘conversation’ with Muldoon, except about 20 or 30 minutes immediately before, when he shut the door on our appointed dressing room and unwrapped two enormous salad-filled baps which he offered to share with me. I tried to suggest we might have some kind of plan but he showed little interest in that idea and wanted just to chat about our lives and recent doings and whether being poet laureate involved me in writing semi-official public poems. So we went in to the very large auditorium with little idea of where the conversation might lead us. I had been reading his most recent collection, One thousand things worth knowing, and had managed to ask before we went in whether the otters in the poem ‘Cuthbert and the otters’ were, as they appeared to be, pall-bearers at the funeral of Seamus Heaney. He said they were, and then corrected himself: that was what the poem seemed to be saying. I said it was what he seemed to be saying – and that was as far as we went with that.

I knew he was the person the crowd were there to hear, and so tried to stand clear and give him only prompts for what I hoped would be largely a monologue. Very early I got on to the subject of the title poem of his 1980 collection, Why Brownlee left, by reading a few sentences of a novel (it was my own, Risk, p.54, but I didn’t say so) in which a group in Oxford are asking one another whether ‘What’s became of Waring’ is a poem by Browning or a novel by Anthony Powell (they decide it’s both) and whether it does or doesn’t have anything to do with a poem by Paul Muldoon called ‘Why Brownlee left’. These, the Browning and the Muldoon, are both poems about a disappearance – hence the question in the novel. Brownlee, Muldoon’s poem tells us, ‘should have been content’. He had ‘two acres of barley,/ One of potatoes, four bullocks, / A milker, a slated farmhouse’ – ‘slated’ rather than thatched, a sign of relative affluence. He had been out ploughing ‘On a March morning, bright and early’, and the horses were found still standing in their harness.

                  like a man and his wife
Shifting their weight from foot to
Foot, and gazing into the future.

This seemed a good place to start the session: a short poem full of menace, as I saw it, of a kind typical of ‘the Troubles’. I asked him to read it, and hoped the audience would hear especially that distinctive Northern Irish ‘now’ at the end of the second line which would give it its regional colour. I suggested that anyone reading about this mysterious disappearance at the time the poem first appeared would want to know was Brownlee Catholic or Protestant? And then was he ‘on side’ with his own side, or ‘off side’ with it? Would the IRA or the UDF have been interested in him – or even the ‘B-Specials’? And finally there was the possibility that the disappearance had no political element at all.

I was surprised that Muldoon seemed not to want to affirm a political/sectarian reading of the poem. He didn’t say it was ‘wrong’. How could he? But he was much more inclined to emphasize the hints of a domestic explanation: those horses ‘like a man and his wife’ for him were possibly symbolic answers to the mystery. They were harnessed together and restless, ‘gazing into the future’.

I couldn’t decide (nor discuss, of course) whether this was merely a sign of how the poem had begun for him, what had been in his mind at that time (had he, for example, simply walked out on that first marriage?); or whether, on the other hand, he was merely revealing a resistance to readings of his poems that pushed them right back into the political turmoil out of which they may, nonetheless, have been an escape.

There is a sense in which those early poems, though full of seeming mystery, are much clearer than the more recent work. There is an early 5-line poem called ‘Ireland’:

The Volkswagen parked in the gap,
But gently ticking over.
You wonder if it’s lovers
And not the men hurrying back
Across two fields and a river.

We didn’t discuss this one, but it seems to me it has to be either full of the political menace of its time, or meaningless. You hope there are lovers in the parked car with its engine running, but think these hurrying men may be returning to it to make a getaway from something terrible they’ve just done – planted a bomb perhaps, or shot a sectarian enemy or an informer. Why else is it called ‘Ireland’ which the poem defines as a place of uncertainty and anxiety. Why else was the wider public, normally indifferent to poetry, so interested in the Northern Irish poets when Muldoon was young? It would not, however, be difficult to understand a wish on Muldoon’s part to move away from an identity which seemed in retrospect constricting.

Lacking a plan it was difficult to know where to go next, what question to ask, so I went to the familiar territory of the 1916 rebellion. Yeats, author of the famous poem ‘Easter 1916’, had referred to the execution of the rebels in another poem, ‘The Man and the Echo’, and asked himself, ‘Did that play of mine send out / Certain men the English shot?’ The play was Cathleen ni Houlihan, set against the background of an earlier Irish rebellion against British rule. Muldoon had seemed to deride this idea that Yeats’s play might have inspired the rebels; but the derision is not in his own voice. In a poem called ‘7, Middagh Street’ he has W.H. Auden say of Yeats

As for his crass rhetorical

posturing: ‘Did that play of mine
send out certain men (certain men?)

the English shot…?’
the answer is ‘Certainly not.’

If Yeats had saved his pencil lead
would certain men have stayed in bed?

So I quoted this, hoping it might lead Muldoon into further elaboration. Instead, he explained that the poem the lines appear in was (as its title suggested) about 7, Middagh Stree in New York, and the weird and wonderful assortment of people who lived or visited there, including Auden, who is imagined giving this dismissive response to Yeats’s boasting of having helped to bring about the 1916 revolt. Once again I felt Muldoon himself had evaded capture.

My memory of the session is somewhat hazy. There is first the fact which few in these audiences recognize, that those on the platform are blinded by the lights. You know there are people out there but you don’t know how many and can’t see their faces until the end when the house lights come up. I felt it was a good sized crowd, that they were enjoying Muldoon’s voice and charm, and that the exchanges and jokes between us were being well-received. I had spoken of my admiration for his work, and he had praised mine – or rather, my first critical book, The New Poetic, which had influenced him as a young poet. There had been gemütlickheit between us which extended to and from the audience; but I began to be anxious that we might be becoming insubstantial, directionless.

I suggested we might move on to his most recent book, and he read a couple of poems from it, and talked (not for the first time) about how poets ‘dis-improve’ as they get older. He referred to reviews which had given the impression that his poetry was becoming more difficult. There was the sense of a hovering anxiety, and I thought I recognized in it what I think of as the ‘middle phase’, in which poets who have had a stellar beginning, and have got used to praise as if it is always their due, begin to encounter a certain resistance among readers who are no longer astonished by their freshness, and are more judicious about what they like and dislike. I didn’t say any of this; but I thought there were plenty of examples, not least Yeats himself, and Pound of The Pisan Cantos, even Shakespeare, of poets whose later work is far from a dis-improvement, and that Muldoon need have no anxiety – in the long run he would be one of those.

From the new book, One thousand things worth knowing, he read one about camels, which seemed to say (among much else) that a Muldoon uncle fought at Gallipoli; and then a poem called ‘Saffron’ which moved back and forth between the ancient past (Cleopatra and Alexander), and 1987 at the University of East Anglia where ‘Ezekial’ had introduced him to ‘the art of the lament’. This might have been the Indian poet, Nissim Ezekial, or another – I couldn’t be sure. And from the poem he wandered conversationally into the subject of saffron itself, the colour, the cooking ingredient, the cloth of the robe of the Hare Krishna ‘late at night […] stranded at a bus stop / on the outskirts of Norwich’ with which the poem ends. I think he saw this, ‘saffron’, as a random subject through which subjects of any scale at all, the world itself, ‘reality’, might be approached.

Question time followed, and an eager, earnest young man with an Irish accent who described himself as ‘queer’ struggled to explain (if I understood him) that he didn’t want saffron and evasion, he wanted ‘the big subjects’ directly confronted. I thought it might be my role to make sure he didn’t go on too long with his question, but Muldoon leaned forward listening attentively and encouraging.

There was another question which I’ve forgotten; and then a woman asked about books for children – what would Muldoon recommend that would lead a child into the world of literature? He spoke of Treasure Island at some length. It was a book he re-read every year; and he praised especially its characters, with reflective pauses which suggested they were becoming real to him as he spoke. It was my first book too, read to me before I could read, and often thereafter, but I was thinking this questioner would be aware there were no significant female characters. Perhaps that crossed Muldoon’s mind too, because he mentioned the mother (a negligible character) but did not move on to other books for children.

So, strangely, the session ended with fulsome praise by a Northern Irish Catholic for those quintessentially English characters Jim Hawkins, Squire Trelawney, Long John Silver, Dr Livesey and the rest, found in a book by an itinerant Scotsman. Literature can take you on strange journeys.

In the dressing room again, where we had shared that immense bap, we hugged a farewell and I handed him over to the person who would take him to the signing table. Out in the foyer a group of friends were beaming and congratulatory – satisfied customers: the session had gone well. Someone called out to me, ‘Thank you for that.’ I encountered Noelle McCarthy and was embraced. The session, she said, had had ‘a quicksilver vibe’.

I remained puzzled and uncertain, as I still am, except that I suspect there is something mysteriously wise and humane about Muldoon’s poems, even when they don’t make perfect sense; and something Irishly magical about his charm – part blarney, but more than that.

– C.K. Stead

Christchurch WORD, World War One, and other matters

Since returning to New Zealand I have been at the Christchurch WORD Festival where my own ‘hour with’ session on Poetry Day (interviewed by Paul Millar) passed amiably, and a few hours later the same day I read with Bill Manhire, Selina Tusitala Marsh and Fiona Kidman. For me the event that especially grabbed my imagination was the interview with Peter Simpson about (and the launch of) his book Bloomsbury South about the extraordinary flowering of the Arts in Christchurch in the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s, with Colin McCahon and James J. Baxter gravitating there from Dunedin, Douglas Lilburn from Wellington, and locals Rita Angus, Leo Bensemann, Toss Wollastan, Louise Henderson, Evelyn Page, Bill Sutton, Olivia Spencer Bower (painters), Ngaio Marsh (theatre), Frederick Page (music), Allen Curnow, Charles Spear, Ursula Bethel and Denis Glover (poetry, and Glover printing), working co-operatively there, interchanging ideas, interacting with one another. Charles Brasch came and went, editing Landfall from Dunedin, but publishing it with Glover and Bensemann’s Caxton Press, which for a long time was focal point for New Zealand poetry publishing and fine printing. These talented people’s letters, along with the works themselves, have left a record of those great decades in New Zealand’s artistic history, and Simpson’s book, with ample illustration (subsidised by a grant from the Gerrard and Marti Friedlander Foundation and published by Auckland University Press) , draws on them and tells the story.

I remember during a universities winter tournament in Christchurch in 1952 or ‘53 seeing Ngaio Marsh, tweedy, baritone, commanding, striding about and holding forth as the assessor /adjudicator, giving her judgement of competing student productions – warm, encouraging, expert and firmly critical. I knew her as a crime writer but had not known there was this other aspect of her professional life, from which Christchurch benefited during those marvellous years. She had been at hand to assist with John Pocock’s production of Allen Curnow’s verse play The Axe in 1948, which was produced again by Sidney Musgrove in Auckland in 1953. In this production Curnow himself, in a sort of Pasifika toga, and grasping a spear as if determined to keep his biceps visibly flexed, played one of the choruses.

By the 1950s the group was already breaking up. Curnow had come to Auckland; so had Louise Henderson and Colin McCahon. Glover, Baxter (for a time), Fred and Evelyn Page, and Douglas Lilburn had moved, or would move soon, to Wellington. Simpson’s book charts this flowering and its ending. The Arts in Christchurch would go on, but would not again have such dominance and centrality.

Calling his book Bloomsbury South, Simpson emphasizes the nature of the group relationships, their high quality and collective seriousness, and at the same time their orientation to Britain for inspiration, models, and measure of artistic success.


Because I was suffering jet lag in Christchurch I was often awake in the middle of the night, and filled the time drafting a sequence of small poems that caught my impressions of the city which I had last visited before the earthquakes of 2010-11. Here they are:

CHRISTCHURCH: WORD

3 a.m.

From the 9th floor
of the Hotel Rendezvous
I watch a taxi
dawdle down a wide wet street
between two wastelands.

A wind drags at a flag:
the flag resists
the wind persists...

Cold out there!

 

Seeing I’m here

Four opposing mirrors
in the otherwise empty
hotel lift
show me myself
in unwelcome detail,
a very old man.

I had no idea!

I want to apologise and say
it’s not for long.

 

Tenses

Here are the buildings
cordoned off/
                          boarded up
that have a were
and perhaps a will be
but no is, no are.

 

The Cathedral

I come around a corner
and there it is –
the broken heart of a city.

Glover thou shouldst be living at this hour –
Christchurch hath need of thee.

 

Avondale

Shops and houses
even the debris
a whole suburb
swept away
done and dusted
leaving streets and grass and trees
and the river winding by
as if to say nothing
is what happened –
as if to say
nothing, it was
nothing.

 

Selina

The beautiful Pasifika giant
sniffed and said
‘What’s that you’re wearing?’
and then
‘Verbena!’

So there we were
sniffing –
the old poet-man
and the cool-cat rapper
with hair like black fire.

 

Bloomsbury South

                              (Peter Simpson's)

The dreamtime
in all its lovely colours –
writing letters
falling in love
painting one another
                    and landscapes
making music/theatre –
Angus and Bensemann
Marsh and McCahon
Lilburn, Baxter and Brasch
                    that time when
‘gods walked the earth’...

too good to be true?
But here are the traces!

 

Instead

And then rain stopped
sky cleared
sun came out
and the sensitive nor-west afternoon
that collapsed in Curnow
was revived in Stead.

 

The other Poet

In the dark
of the 15th floor
Bill Manhire woke
thinking the building
had turned over in sleep
and groaned
          or ground its teeth.

A little boat of a moon
was sailing west
over the flat landscape
guided by a single star.

 

Good morning

And now looking east
from the 9th floor
I see the sun truly is
that boring old
          ball of bullshit fire
in all its gold glory.

 

So on a...

So on a day
of clear air
there’s still one way
the Port Hills in sun
the other the snow shine
the blinding sheen
of mountains reminding
who you are
what brought you here.


Since returning to New Zealand I have encountered every kind of spring weather from extremes of wet ‘n wild to the kind of lovely days that traditionally set lyricists like Thomas Nashe (‘Spring, spring, is the year’s pleasant king’) to work. Yesterday, walking from Kohimarama along to St Heliers, I was struck by ‘the New Zealand light’ so many (or Hamish Keith, who can seem ‘so many’ on his own) have written about, and how beautiful everything seemed, how blue the sea, how dark green Rangitoto, how pale-blue-and-white the sky and cloudscapes.

Today (13 September) our plum tree is in full white blossom, and for the second day a monarch butterfly (a creature I had thought of as belonging to the ‘they toil not and neither do they spin’ variety – i.e. decorative but not useful) has been diligently going from flower to flower, which will surely help pollination at a time when the garden seems rather short of busy bees. There were flies too, slightly larger than house flies and smaller than blow flies, which I thought might be doing the same service. Let’s hope so.

Enough already, but it’s nice to be home.

In the current issue of PN Review (Carcanet, Manchester) I have five poems one of which I will copy here because it is my tribute to the Auckland poet, the late Sarah Broom, whose funeral it records:

Funeral

(Sarah Broom, 1972-2013)

How could the oarswoman, tennis player
scholarship girl, the poet of such delicacy and finesse
proprietor of that generous smile
mother of three small children lighting now
each one, a candle in her honour and to
                                                                      her memory
how could the lover of this tearful husband
who reads the poem in a strong voice in which she is
                                           his schmetterling, his butterfly
how could the daughter of these noble parents
he addressing us all, she talking to her grandchildren in our
                                           presence but as if we were not here
how could this lovely, surely unquenchable fire
                                                                                           burn out so soon
and the name of God yet be spoken
as if there were reasons, justice, divine and eternal love?

The thrush sings in the thorn-bush,
the day, and the days, go on
nothing understood or able to be explained
except that loss is random, and pain unjust.


One of the plays I saw performed at the National Theatre in London during this recent visit was a revival of Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea first performed in 1952 – one of the plays that established Rattigan as a commercial success of the mid century, but also as a technically conservative playwright at a time of experimentation, when Osborne’s kitchen-sink realism on the one hand, and Brecht’s theatre of alienation on the other – not to mention the surrealist challenges of Beckett and Ionesco – were together rendering his plays somewhat ‘old hat’.

The play did give me a feeling of déjà vu. Perhaps I had even seen it all those years ago; I’d certainly seen a number of plays just like it. This version was well produced and acted, but there was for me a lightly fusty, dated feel about it, all the more so in a week when I also saw a really vigorous production of Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera.

The Deep Blue Sea was based on, or extracted from, Rattigan’s affair with a young actor, Kenneth Morgan, who left him for another. When this new lover in turn left him, Morgan killed himself. It’s said that when the news was brought to Rattigan he sat silent for a while and then (ever the pro) said, ‘The play will open with the body lying in front of the gas fire.’

That is how The Deep Blue Sea opens, but the body is that of a woman, and she recovers. Rattigan could not, at that time, represent his homosexual affair, and so the story became one of heterosexual marriage, love and infidelity.

Suicide by gas was very common in the immediate post-war years, and it was of course how Sylvia Plath killed herself. In the case of the Rattigan play, the shilling in the gas metre runs out – which was also very common, and so the character lives on and the story develops with much looking back.

Now the playwright Mike Poulton, who wrote the stage versions of Hilary Mantel’s Booker Prize winning novels, Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies, has retold the story as Rattigan would no doubt have preferred to tell it, as a narrative of homosexual love and loss. Its title is Kenny Morgan, and it’s currently (or was recently) showing at the Arcola Theatre in Hackney.


Ann Thwaite, who figured in our Norfolk punting adventure in a recent blog, reports that the movie about Christopher Robin, based on her biography of A.A. Milne, seems to be moving along at a good pace. She was recently to meet the child actor who will be the young Christopher, and to visit the original Pooh Sticks bridge in the Ashdown Forest. And she’s to have a walk-on part, for which she was about to be measured for the costume.

She and Anthony had attended the funeral of the poet Geoffrey Hill in Cambridge and were shocked that Anthony seemed to be the only poet present.


Je me suis enfin détaché
De toutes choses naturelles
Je peux mourir mais non pécher
Et ce qu’on n’a jamais touché
Je l’ai touché je l’ai palpé
Et j’ai scruté tout ce que nul
Ne peut en rien imaginer
Et j’ai soupesé maintes fois
Même la vie impondérable
Je peux mourir en souriant.

This is the strange inscription on the French poet Guillaume Apollinaire’s grave in the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris. It is in fact from two 5-line stanzas of a long poem of his, ‘Les Collines’ (‘The Hills’). The English version that follows is as near as I can get to a translation that makes English sense. Apollinaire was wounded in World War I, trepanned, and then died of the wound made worse by the influenza which killed so many at that time.

At last I have removed myself
From every natural thing
And can die, but not as a sinner.
Having touched and felt
What none can even imagine,
And tried so often the weight
Of the imponderable life,
I can die with a smile.

And while we’re on the subject of First World War commemorations, this link will take you to a sequence of poems I wrote in response to a request from a section of the Department of Internal Affairs tasked with looking after commemorations of the centenary of New Zealand’s participation in that war. I read them on NZ Poetry Day at the Christchurch WORD festival. You will see that I ended the sequence by commemorating the death of my great uncle (my grandmother’s brother) Owen Vincent Freeman. I will attach here an image of the brass plaque sent to my grandmother, naming him (the engraved name should be visible inside the marked oblong) and saying HE DIED FOR FREEDOM AND HONOUR – which I record with all the irony due after the passage of these one hundred years.


Final gripe or whinge: New Zealand speech –

Every decade that passes the a vowel fades further in New Zealand speech, and has almost vanished into variations of the e vowel. So younger speakers (and especially the less sophisticated, less well educated) are unable to distinguish between share and sheer, air and ear, mayor and mere. Our national carrier has become Ear New Zealand.

We laugh at the extremes of Australian speech without understanding that they laugh back, each failing to hear its own peculiarities. If you ask an Australian and a New Zealander to say ‘Her Majesty the Queen’ the Australian will say ‘Her Majesty the Coin’ and the New Zealander will say ‘Her Mejesty the Queen.’ Listen to the Australian a vowel – they have one, we’ve lost ours.

I know that experts, academic linguists, tell us that such vowel shifts are unstoppable; but I am for a campaign to save New Zealand’s a. It should start in schools – which would mean that teachers themselves would need to have a bit of corrective training at the tertiary level. I’m not asking for fake English accents or that people should ‘speak posh’. I have an unmistakable New Zealand accent, and would not want it otherwise. But there are certain distinctions in the words themselves which should be made clear in the way they are spoken. No more Southern Elps; no more Mount Elbert; no more Kethryn Ryan. Let’s give the a vowel it’s due!

The other place where some degree of precision and clarity should be required, and good examples set, is in broadcasting. It seems to me absurd that RNZ is more and more requiring its announcers and newsreaders to use Maori as often as possible, and to pronounce it correctly, while showing apparently complete indifference to the damage these people are doing to spoken English.


Oh and one more thing: why do the All Blacks blacken their teeth – and worse, sometimes not all the teeth but just some, so they look as if some have been knocked out? (And has anyone noticed that the team seems faster without Richie?)

- C.K. Stead

Journal: July-August

29 July

We saw A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Shakespeare’s Globe on the South Bank and I reacted to it in a way not dissimilar to the reaction I described in an earlier blog to Twelfth Night at Auckland’s pop-up Globe. Once again there was too much directorial input, at the expense of Shakespeare – a big disappointment because the Globe (the London one) productions, when they were under the direction of Mark Rylance, had been first rate and had made me feel nearer than ever before to the reality of the work as it must have appeared to Shakespeare’s contemporaries. One thing that I found particularly irritating was that Helena had become Helenus, and since Demetrius falls in Love with Helena this became gay love – very fashionable but not what Shakespeare wrote. And ‘Bottom the weaver’ had become ‘Bottom the Health and Safety Officer’.

After the show I received this message:

We'd love you to tell us what you thought of your visit to see A Midsummer Night's Dream, discuss it with us or other audience members.

I replied:

It was the first Globe production I haven’t enjoyed. The Helena/Helenus alteration to the text was pointless tinkering. The costumes were ugly. The delicacy and subtlety of the play as Shakespeare wrote it – the sylvan magic that’s there in the language – was completely lost. The continuous Indian-style music was too loud and caused the actors to shout above it, to the detriment of clarity. The final rhymes substituted to suit gay rather than straight love – (from memory)

Jill shall have Jill
And Jack shall have Jack
And no one will need
An aphrodisiac

only pointed up how crude and un-Shakespearean the mind who did this was. Let’s have Shakespeare’s vulgarity when he’s vulgar, and Shakespeare’s lyricism when he’s lyrical, but not some amateur’s ham-fisted attempts to improve him or bring him up to date or whatever it was he/she/they thought was being done.

No, truly it was awful – such a disappointment after the great things one has seen done at the Globe.

I received this reply:

Thank you for your comments regarding A Midsummer Night’s Dream. We are sorry to hear you did not enjoy the production. It is always disappointing to hear when an audience member has not enjoyed our shows, as we do our best to create engaging performances.

The Globe’s mission has always been to ground itself in research, exploration, experimentation and to push the boundaries of our artistic endeavours. We value your feedback.

I replied (even though I knew I was only talking to a computer):

Yes all that sounds fine but you should not ‘push the boundaries’ at the expense of the text. The text, if you give it a fair chance and full expression, does so much of the work for you, and too much interference by the director is a minus, not a plus. It was the whole wrench of tone away from what is RIGHT THERE in Shakespeare’s language – the sylvan quality, comic but delicate – that destroyed the play as written.

No please – treat the text, not with reverence, but with respect. Don’t try to do better than Shakespeare – you can’t.

My daughter Charlotte (Grimshaw) had been in London earlier and had seen the same production, with similar disappointment: ‘...weirdly boring, like a cross between a really unsubtle bling bling West End musical and a children's pantomime. Even the usual beauty and joy - the exhilaration - of the dance at the end was ruined by the preceding barrage.’


3 August

On the other hand the last night of The Barry Humphries Weimar Cabaret at the Cadogan Theatre near Sloane Square, with Humphries himself, the singer Meow Meow, and the Australian Chamber Orchestra, was a musical and theatrical event of the highest quality. The extraordinary Barry, best known in his roles as Dame Edna Everidge, Sandy Stone and Sir Les Patterson, has always been (unknown to the world at large) an intellectual, expert in Pre-Raphaelite art and the literature of late 19th century Decadence. He loves to cruise second-hand bookshops (when he’s in Auckland he always has to be taken to the Hard to Find Bookshop in Onehunga) and it was in Melbourne as very young man that he came upon, and bought, a Gladstone bag containing a collection of German sheet music made by Richard Edmund Beyer. The show was based on that collection, and dedicated to Beyer’s memory. Humphries, who has such ease and natural command of an audience, was narrator, and at times singer and dancer. A lot of the music was by Jews whose work had been condemned by the Nazis as ‘decadent’. Some had escaped to Hollywood to write music for films, some to London, New York, Melbourne, while others had not escaped and had died in the camps. The programme included work by Kurt Weill, Paul Hindemith, and others less famous, including Mischa Spoliansky, who became Barry’s friend in Melbourne. This was music mainly in the style of the movie Cabaret, rich, lively, and especially moving because of the historical context and the sense of a rescue of reputations and music that might otherwise have been forgotten.


I am still in the process of filling that gap in my knowledge of contemporary fiction, J.M. Coetzee. Disgrace was one of his two Booker Prize-winning novels, and I have to acknowledge that it doesn’t have the terrible deficiency of his The Childhood of Jesus, the thinness, the lack of detail and substance. Disgrace springs from Coetzee’s knowledge of the academic scene in South Africa, where his principal character, David Lurie, is a teacher; also of the outback where David goes briefly to live with his daughter. And he has a precise sense of the social changes that have occurred since Apartheid ended.

This is a novel that deserves respect; but I can’t say I warm to it. The best one can say is that the prose is workmanlike and the narrative well-managed, moral questions are asked, and it has force as a grim image of modern South Africa.

David Lurie seems a Coetzee-like character, whose attitude to sexual experience is at once joyless and unloving (or at best tepid) – and curiously arrogant. But the account of his affair with the student Melanie, and of the trouble it lands him, is entirely believable, both from the point of view of the feelings of the young woman and the older man, and from that of the authorities who have to deal with it.

The central event of the novel, however, is the assault and robbery of David and the rape of his daughter Lucy, after he has been sacked by the university and gone to visit her in the remote countryside. They are clearly father and daughter and of one temperament: he will not argue his case (such as it might have been) when accused of wrong-doing with his student. He says he found the experience ‘enriching’ but will not explain or make excuses for himself. And now Lucy will not lay a complaint with the police in which the crime of rape is even mentioned. In the novel’s symbolism it seems she has to be burdened with the guilt of the nation. Without any public or formal acknowledgment of the wrong done to her, she accepts not only the rape and its consequences, but the sheer hatred with which it was inflicted.

Nor can Lucy be persuaded to leave the small farm where it becomes clear she will only be protected from further attacks if she accepts the role of third wife or concubine to Petrus, her African neighbour, who will thus acquire her land. She is pregnant as a consequence of the rape, and determined to have the child and ‘to be a good mother’; but her behaviour as Coetzee describes it is so dreary and self-defeating it is hard to imagine any good coming of this resolution.

Finally, there is the writing itself; and though it lacks the fault of thinness, almost abstraction, of The Childhood of Jesus, it is neither elegant nor richly textured, and often clunky and awkward. Explaining himself to Melanie’s father David says, ‘I lack the lyrical... Even when I burn I don’t sing.’ This is surely Coetzee talking through his character about himself, acknowledging limitation. Honest, yes – but also true: his prose doesn’t sing. This is a joyless novel, both in theme and in the writing – depressive, depleted, flat.

But a Booker prize winner. South Africa is one of the world’s ‘trouble spots’ and here, in Coetzee, is a man who speaks for it, and from it, holds unquestionably the right opinions about it, and hangs his head in shame for it. He doesn’t write especially well, but never mind – he must have the prize.


14 August

Yesterday there was a party at Craig and Li Raine’s house in Oxford to celebrate the 50th issue of their literary magazine, Areté. Craig is editor and Li his Deputy, both retired Oxford dons (he, New College; she, St Anne’s). They have four children making an extraordinary family. Craig is poet, playwright and critic, and more recently novelist too, who when I first knew him was poetry editor at Faber (T.S. Eliot’s old post). Li, who writes as Ann Pasternak Slater, has edited the poems of George Herbert, is known as a translator from Russian, and has just produced a critical biography of Evelyn Waugh. Two of their four children, Nina and Moses, have had success as playwrights (Nina successful also as a theatre director); and one, Isaac, is a dress designer who seems to move between New York and Paris. The family home is in North Oxford, and they have an apartment in Venice.

It all sounds frightfully posh-and-literary-fashionable but that is not at all what they are like, individually or collectively. Craig’s background, as he has described it in his collection Rich and elsewhere, is working class, his father a professional boxer and faith-healer, and the household he grew up in ‘bookless’. Exceptional intelligence took him by scholarships to public school and then Oxford.

Li’s background was strongly affected by her Russian mother, sister of the novelist and poet Boris Pasternak, and daughter of the Impressionist painter Leonid Pasternak whose works (including portraits of Tolstoy and Einstein) line the Raines’ walls. There is about the whole family an unusual directness and immediacy, and a great capacity for affection and loyalty. Their Englishness, which might be the first thing to strike a New Zealander, seems, at a second reading, real but skin-deep. Raine-hood, or Raine-ness, is like a nationality of its own. Walking into a party at their house, especially in summer with doors open to the garden at the back, feels a bit like walking on to the set of a play by Chekhov.

I took the Oxford Tube, the bus that runs day and night, a roughly two-hour journey, from Victoria, and got off at Oxford in ‘the High’ – and I will describe my walk for old Oxfordians of whom I know there are a few among my readers: along Catte Street, past the Radcliffe Camera and the Bodleian, catching a glimpse of Blackwell’s on the Broad but (thinking of luggage limits and the weight of books) forcing myself on up Parks Road past Trinity and the back wall of St Johns (I once had a key to its gate), then the Pitt Rivers Museum, Parks Road, and up Banbury Road to Park Town where the party was happening. On the return walk when the party was over, I went down Banbury, through North Parade and Church Walk into Woodstock Road, past the house on the corner of Woodstock and Plantation Roads which Kay and I occupied twenty years ago when I was Senior Visiting Fellow at St Johns; then through Plantation Road past the Gardener’s Arms (for a time Dan and Winnie Davin’s regular pub), through Walton Road past the absurd pillars of Oxford University Press (Davin’s employer for most of his life) and to Gloucester Green and the bus terminal.

There was a crowd at the party, both indoors and out in the garden, not many I knew though a number of ‘names’ (in the Strindberg sense – Christopher Hampton, David Lodge for example) I knew by sight. Nina was pregnant, and Vaska, the Raines’ youngest, had already produced their first grandchild. There were two medium-to-large very affable and eager dogs, belonging one to Moses, the other to Vaska. Prosecco (bubbly) was offered and prosciutto (fine-cut ham) followed by a beautiful bean soup and then an indescribably rich and wonderful chocolate dessert/pudding (depending on where you come from), a mousse perhaps, with (I think it was) whipped cream – all of this in the hand and on the hoof, a challenge but worth rising to.

I found myself talking to a woman about the dogs. She lives in Kensington and each morning before work, walks her dog in Kensington Gardens. She described to me rather lyrically the sun rising through the mist on a winter morning, and how her spirit lifts with it.

A young man told me his name was Mark and that he had drawn the feather which decorates every Areté cover. I told him, I had always admired it.

A man half my age came up with outstretched hand, and said something I didn’t catch which I took to be his name. ‘It’s been a long time,’ he said.

I didn’t think I’d ever met him, and wondered whether he thought I was Michael Frayn. (In London I am frequently mistaken for Frayn.) ‘You’re looking good,’ I said.

I sat with Li on a sofa (or couch, depending where you come from) and we talked about being ‘no good at parties’, a distinction we both claimed. Where was Kay? I explained she was in London, and why. Li told me I must read her just-published book on Waugh; and before I left she’d given me a copy inscribed with love to Karl and Kay.

She asked me about New Zealand’s remoteness at this time of turmoil in the world: did we feel protected by distance? I could remember a time when distance seemed deprivation rather than protection, but I didn’t say so. I thought of Allen Curnow’s lines, ‘Always to islanders danger / Is what comes over the sea’ but didn’t quote them. I think I said it depends where you imagine the trouble might come from.

Later Craig and I shared another sofa, under the Tolstoy portrait. We compared ailments – his gout (which I remember afflicted Ken Smithyman in his later years), mine polymyalgia rheumatica.

‘Rheumatism’, he said.

‘If you like,’ I replied thinking it was not really so simple – but perhaps he was right and it is.

He said the painfulness of gout came from crystals of uric acid in the bloodstream, and he could feel the crystals in his ears. I told him about the American comic-strip of my childhood, Jiggs and Maggie, in which Jiggs often had one foot huge with bandages because he suffered from gout. People were always tripping on the foot and causing him to howl in pain.

Craig is now 72 and has been retired from teaching seven years. He’s glad not to have to teach but said the idea that one should stop working at 65 or 70 made no sense in the world as it is now.

He’d been taking tango lessons and told me about difficulties. He enjoyed the lessons and learning the steps, but when it came to the practice he ran into trouble. Whether this was because it was too demanding, or too demeaning, wasn’t clear to me. Going out looking for tango-partners on a dance floor might be challenging at 72.

Craig asked about my Paris novel (we’d had a lunch and a dinner together in Paris almost two years back when I was writing it) and I told him I’d abandoned it, but that recently there had been stirrings of renewed interest.

‘You must write it,’ he said. ‘You’ve reached an age when anything you write will be good.’

I took this to mean that it won’t be bad – that it will probably be OK, serviceable, workmanlike, publishable. I said I hoped so but thought I’d reached an age when I might expect to falter.

Kay and I are staying at daughter Margaret’s house in Queen’s Park, and Margaret is Craig’s publisher at Atlantic Books. I told him granddaughter Madeleine (Grimshaw) was across the Park working as P.A. to the actor Jason Isaacs. Craig said Isaacs had played the part of Vittorio Mussolini in the Almeida production of his play, 1953. This was a 20th century updating of Racine’s Andromaque, a ‘counter-factual’ (if that is the word) in which the Axis powers have won World War 2. The fact of this play fascinates me because when I was very young my only attempt at a verse play was also a modernising of the Racine tragedy – a play that impressed me because of its wonderful structure, but which I found defeated me because I couldn’t make its despairing love-motivations credible in a modern (20th century) setting.

So we talked about actors and acting, and I told him about Ralph Fiennes’s brilliantly comic ‘as ‘twere’ scene in the Cohen Brothers’ Hail Caesar; and about his part in the movie A bigger splash where he appears with Tilda Swinton – Swinton as a David Bowie-style rock star, and Fiennes as her former lover, invading her holiday on a Greek Island. There’s a scene in which he performs an astonishing, frenetic Greek dance; and later we see him capering naked around the rock star’s swimming pool, initiating a fight with her current boyfriend, and (not very convincingly) killed by him.

Craig told me about an occasion when Fiennes was acting in Chekhov’s Ivanov (also at the Almeida). Craig thought he waved his arms about too much, and possibly said so to Patrick Marber with whom he was staying at the time. Soon afterwards he was embarrassed to find himself at a large dinner party with Fiennes there among the guests. Would anyone have passed on his criticism? Craig positioned himself as far away as possible from the actor and there was no contact until the party was breaking up and suddenly, there was Fiennes looming over Craig’s chair. ‘I think,’ he murmured, ‘that “History” [Craig long poem] is the most beautiful poem I have ever read.’

Craig acted it out: ‘the most b-yew-tiful poo-m...’

‘Since then of course,’ Craig said, ‘I’ve thought he was a great actor.’

I told him about my struggle with Coetzee. He said he was outraged that the recently announced Booker long list included The Schooldays of Jesus (sequel to The Childhood of...) and not his friend Ian McEwan’s latest novel, Nutshell, which I don’t think has yet been released but will be soon and has been entered for the Booker.

Craig had reviewed Disgrace and was not surprised that I didn’t rate Coetzee very highly as a writer – neither does he, and neither (he said) does Martin Amis. I have now checked what he wrote about the novel, found in his collection More Dynamite. Craig describes Disgrace as ‘quite a good novel’. He analyses its moral dilemmas, finds them worthy and interesting, but thinks the novel indifferently written: ‘Coetzee writes the way Fred Astaire sings – carefully competent in a narrow vocal range. (And Coetzee can’t dance.)’

Craig concludes his review, ‘Morally we are stretched if aesthetically we are a little starved.’


All this time the Olympics have been going on and I’ve been struggling to discover what is happening because the reporting here focusses almost exclusively on ‘Team G.B.’ If a Brit comes third you will be told that fact, but not necessarily who came first and second – unless one or both can be dismissed as ‘drug cheats’. I thought this sort of one-eyed sporting nationalism was our Kiwi failing; but the Brits are now worse. It’s something relatively new here, a consequence of the fact that they are now winning a lot of medals, which in turn is a consequence of their spending more money than ever before to promote sport and free their top performers to work exclusively at their event. I would quite like to know how the NZ team has been faring, but have only discovered by going to the NZ Herald website that Valerie Adams was beaten by an American into second in the shot putt, and that Mahe Drysdale won the single sculls. Now and then on TV I’ve caught sight of a New Zealander among the cyclists. But my interest in the Olympic Games, which was intense when I was young and somewhat (modestly) athletic, has diminished in proportion as the number of events has multiplied. In the Guardian Simon Jenkins accuses Britain of ‘doing what we used to ridicule the Soviets for doing – using sport as a proxy for economic success’. The BBC’s coverage he describes as a ‘total collapse of news values, the corporation peddling tabloid chauvinist schlock.’

Maybe the current British obsession with the Olympics (in which they are ‘Team GB’, not England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) is connected to the Brexit. Politically the nation is now quiet, satisfied for the moment with Theresa May as P.M., and waiting to see what is negotiated – whether a deal can be done to exempt them from taking their fair share of migrants while retaining access to the vast European market: i.e. whether they can have their cake and eat it.

But the argument about who should lead the Labour Party continues, and will be determined soon between Jeremy Corbyn and his challenger, Owen Smith.


18 August

Today I met a French PhD student, Christine Gartner, whose thesis subject is Janet Frame. She had just spent some weeks in New Zealand in pursuit of Frame locations, and wanted to talk to me about the biography and my connections with it. She was very pleasant, refreshingly brisk and practical, respectful of her subject without being too reverent. She had taken the Eurostar from Paris to St Pancras and I took her to lunch at Freddie’s Bar in what is now Goodenough College (formerly London House) in Mecklenburgh Square.

Talking about Frame reminded me of something that is also a sort of P.S. about J.M. Coetzee. In October 2003 it was rumoured that in Stockholm Janet Frame was being seriously considered for the Nobel Prize for literature. She was consequently pestered by the Press who did not know she was just at that time being diagnosed with a fatal kind of leukemia. When the Prize was announced it had gone to Coetzee. She e-mailed me saying, ‘Vampire fashion I have to have blood transfusions until “the end”, and the day I was receiving phone calls about the ignoble prize, I was in a hospice learning of my curtailed future.’ She included a photograph of herself, hooked up for the transfusion and reading a recent issue of the Listener (holding it so it could be seen) in which I had reviewed Vince O’Sullivan’s biography of John Mulgan.

Janet Frame.

20 August

I leave tomorrow and fly back direct (no stopover) via Seoul, so I will be back in New Zealand in time for the Christchurch Festival and NZ Poetry Day. I wonder, as I do each time I leave London, whether this will be my last visit. There have been so many since I was first here as a student close-on 60 years ago. There should be quite a bit of late summer left, but the leaves are beginning to fall in Queen’s Park and the squirrels are to be seen eager with acorns.

– C.K. Stead

It's National Poetry Day!

Today we celebrate the poems and poets of New Zealand. We hope you will too.

Poetry in the air

We're presenting readings by five of the best Wellington poets: Anna Jackson, Magnolia Wilson, John Dennison, James Brown, and Ashleigh Young. Bring your lunch and get in early to make sure you get a seat.

For folk further south, there is Word Christchurch where Poet Laureate C.K. Stead will be reading with Bill Manhire, Selina Tusitala Marsh, Fiona Kidman, Chris Tse, and special guest Ali Cobby Eckermann.

There are over 100 other events happening all around the country. See what's happening and get involved.

Poetry on the page

C.K. Stead has also published a response to the First World War centenary, taking the persona of Catullus, unwilling to celebrate death in battle.

Our Reading Room has been filled with publications by New Zealand poets, and we're inviting you to come in a spend some time reading our selections. You'll find it on level one of the Wellington building.

Photo by Alicia Tolley.

And of course, get into your local library and pull a volume down from the shelves.

The travel journal continues

In an earlier blog I had read and had not admired J.M. Coetze’s The Childhood of Jesus, and I see now its sequel, The Boyhood of Jesus, is long-listed for the Booker. I’ve been thinking about how bad the one I read seemed, and decided the problem was that it’s all imagined, doesn’t draw sufficiently direct from particulars of place, time, people and circumstance in Coetze’s life, and so is thinly imagined. I know that feeling when there’s no real life source, no subject there in front of the artist to be represented (or misrepresented/ distorted), and the feeling of inadequacy that can come over the work. This sounds like the realist speaking and no doubt it is, up to a point, though the degree to which the subject is acted upon, processed, changed can be essential, and will qualify the ‘realist’ label. I have always liked Stendhal’s definition of the novel as a mirror walking along a highway; but only so long as it recognizes that each writer’s mirror will show a different highway. The objects will be the same, but the colours, tones, focus, framing – for each writer all will be different, and in effect personal.

I should also say that though there is an absence of representation in The Childhood of Jesus, I suspect that in very broad terms the childhood as he portrays it is, to a significant degree, his own.

I said I must read something else by Coetzee and began with what I could find on the bookshelves of Margaret, my daughter in London – the second volume of his three volume autobiography, the one called Youth, which covers his early years (the early 1960s) in London where he went from South Africa, found work, and began to turn himself into a writer. I’m fascinated by the ways in which our lives, his and mine, and our intellectual circumstances at that time, overlap – first simply that he is South African, with the same reactions to Britain, and from the British; the same sense of trying to prove himself, half believing (and partly resenting) that the U.K. is, or at least will be seen as, the larger and more challenging pond. A lot of this book seems naïve, and I can’t be absolutely sure (especially since it is written as fiction, referring to himself as ‘he’, not as ‘I’) whether one is meant to read it as a sophisticated representation of the naïve fellow he was, or whether it is itself simply naïve. My own feeling is that there are not enough signals to the contrary, and for at least the first half, it must be read as literal and naïve.

I was surprised to find he reads the letters of Ezra Pound, and ‘is engrossed by the Cantos... reads and re-reads them (guiltily skipping the dull sections on Van Buren and the Malatestas), using Hugh Kenner’s book on Pound as a guide. T.S. Eliot’ (he goes on) ‘magnanimously called Pound il miglior fabbro, the better craftsman. Much as he admires Eliot’s own work, he thinks Eliot is right.’ Anyone who has read much of what I have written on this subject will know how closely it accords with my own views.

Other literary judgements are odd, however, and don’t at all accord with my own. He prefers Pope to Shakespeare, and Swift to Pope. He likes Chaucer who ‘keeps a nice ironic distance’, and ‘unlike Shakespeare... does not get in a froth about things and start ranting.’

His dislike of disorder is entirely comprehensible, but it sometimes has an unappealing regimental air. Speaking of himself he says, ‘he will certainly not be a Bohmemian, that is to say, a drunk, a sponger and a layabout.’

It is Pound who directs him to Ford Madox Ford, especially The Good Soldier, and the four novels that make up Parade’s End; and for a time Ford will be the central focus of his academic studies. He is trying to write poetry but without much success. He turns to writing prose and tries to emulate the style of Henry James, whose fiction he admires; but James’s sensibility, he acknowledges, is more delicate, subtler than his own. His overriding ambition is to be ‘an artist’, a role he seems to think is pretty much reserved for males. There are exceptions – Sappho, Emily Bronte – but mainly women ‘do not have the sacred fire’. It’s ‘in quest of the fire they lack’ that women give themselves to artists. In their lovemaking with artists, women experience ‘briefly, tantalizingly, the life of gods’ – and by this their life is ‘transfigured’. I remember hearing ideas like this in the 1950s from Frank Sargeson – though not with such bland confidence, such blindness to their injustice and untruth. Had the members of the Nobel Committee read this before they awarded Coetzee the prize?

Looking at his portrait on the flap I am struck by his resemblance to the movie actor, Clint Eastwood, who might share his views of women and men and how they relate.

And yet in other ways I still find much to identify with. He lives through the Cuban missile crisis fearing that this may be the nuclear end of everything, seeing some justification for Kruschev’s putting missiles into Cuba, admiring Castro, and fearing the Americans. He finds comfort in the BBC Third Programme and begins there his education in the classical repertoire. He hates Apartheid South Africa and wishes the Russians would invade – ‘land paratroops in Pretoria, take Verwoerd and his cronies captive, line them up against a wall, and shoot them.’ He feels South Africa as the albatross around his neck and ‘wants it removed, he does not care how, so he can breathe.’ He reads about it constantly in the Manchester Guardian and it makes ‘the soul cringe within him’. He wonders what it will take to make him ‘English’. He sees the signs, NO COLOURED, in the windows of lodging houses and knows, or feels, that though white, he is not wanted either.

Once again, though there are differences in each case, and their cases are much more extreme than my own, I feel some identity with what Coetzee and V.S. Naipaul have written about their early years in London. One crucial difference is that for me English was the first language. With Coetzee, though he dislikes so much of his Afrikaaner inheritance, Afrikaans and not English came first.

(Footnote: I am often asked why I publish as C.K. Stead – two initials and a surname, with no first name. It must be a sign of those times: my models for this were W.B. Yeats, T.S. Eliot and W.H. Auden; and these two have always published as J.M. Coetzee and V.S. Naipaul.)

In Naipaul’s case there is also a language before English (Hindi, I assume), though the family began to make English its everyday language while V.S. was still a child.

One passage that particularly affected me in Coetzee’s book was a sort of once-only out-of-body moment. He is lying half asleep in an English field, hearing the faraway sounds of children, birdsong, the whirr of insects, and all this, and the throb of his own pulse, comes together: ‘At last! he thinks. At last it has come, the moment of ecstatic unity with the All.’

(Footnote: Cf. the final lines of my sonnet 3, Collected Poems 1951-2006, p. 92, where the same kind of moment is described.)

It lasts no more than a second, but he describes it as ‘this signal event’.

Yet he also describes himself as ‘at home in misery’, saying of himself, ‘If misery were abolished he would not know what to do.’ Happiness teaches nothing; misery is ‘a school for the soul.’ In that our temperaments, his and mine, are quite different – which may partly explain why my reaction to his novel was so negative.

So for me the mystery of Coetzee and his enormous reputation, which began with my reading of The Childhood of Jesus, remains. I need to read one of those Booker prize-winners – Disgrace for example. But that will have to wait while I come to terms with Michel Houellebecq (pronounced Wellbeck).


After we left Menton we spent three days in Paris and there I recovered interest in a novel set in that city, which, within the last year or two I’d written a draft of and then lost interest – had ‘gone off it’, ‘got sick of it’, abandoned it. I still think it a foolish idea, to be writing fiction about Paris when I’m not living there able daily to absorb atmosphere and check on detail; but it was an idea about characters (including a New Zealander) working as academics at the Sorbonne, so I had at least the academic element to hold on to. And I had a source there, possibly two, who could help me.

Michel Houellebecq’s most recent novel, Soumission (in English, Submission), is also about a character who teaches at the Sorbonne. His first-person narrator, François, is an academic expert on (and obsessed with) the fiction of Joris-Karl Huysmans, famous for end-of-(19th)century decadence. François has turned his back on the literature of 20th century France, the Leftists of the middle century, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, but also the later writers of the Nouvelle Vague (the New Wave) – Claude Simon, Marguerite Duras and Alain Robbe-Grillet. He is some kind of conservative, perhaps reactionary, and the novel is as much political and sociological as literary.

Houellebecq made his mark as a fiction writer famous for illiberal, even reactionary ideas. In his novel Les particules élémentaires (in English Atomised) he deeply offended Muslims by describing theirs as ‘by far the most stupid, false and obscure of all religions’. In Submission however he seems to have altered radically – but this may depend on how you read the novel and what you think its intention is. It posits a France in the year 2022, in which Marine Le Pen (National Front) is favoured by close on one third of the voters. The UMP (conservatives), who have lost supporters to her, are running fourth; so the only way Le Pen can be beaten is for two parties, the Socialists, and the Muslim Brotherhood (a political force Houellebecq has invented) each of which have about 21% support, to combine. They do this, and since the Brotherhood comes out slightly ahead of the Socialists, their leader, Ben Abbes, becomes the new President.

Francois, aged 44, a typical Houellebecq anti-hero with many bodily ailments and a problem with alcohol, says of himself, ‘When you got right down to it, my cock was the one organ that hadn’t presented itself to my consciousness through pain, only through pleasure. Modest but robust, it had always served me faithfully.’ In the new France, however, he will not be allowed to continue teaching unless he becomes a Muslim.

Fearing civil war, he leaves Paris. ‘I had no plan – just a very vague sense that I ought to head south-west. I knew next-to-nothing about the south-west really, only that it was a region where they ate duck confit, and duck confit struck me as incompatible with civil war.’ It’s a joke of course, a good one; only a Frenchman would make such a decision on culinary grounds. But there is very little violence, and France slides almost painlessly into acceptance of the new order. Is there meant to be a glancing parallel with the nation’s almost passive acceptance of the Occupation in WW2? I think that might be part of his intention.

The politics of Left and Right is represented as having run its course. This is the new century, and neither the right-wing nor the old soixante-huitards (the revolutionaries of 1968) can claim authority. What the Muslims fear is not Catholicism, which was long ago put in its place in France, but secularism – the force of ‘atheistic materialism’. Against this force stand the three monotheism, the religions of the Book – Christian, Jewish and Muslim.

Under the new Muslim-dominated regime unemployment falls (because fewer women are working), crime and violence begin to disappear from the banlieues (economic upturn and fear of sharia law), the economy flourishes with the help of petro-dollars from the Sheikdoms, the EU is enlarged to include Turkey, with Tunisia, Morocco, Abyssinia, in prospect...

This novel is not, I think, meant to be read as a prediction, but rather as a ‘what if?’ and ‘where would you stand?’ It might be described as an intellectual jeu d’esprit, but a serious one, and seriously dark. Houellebecq is asking himself these questions. There is a sense in which he is an enfant terrible in a world he represents as rife with pornography and the technology of the instant and the immediate. But he is also, I suspect, deeply conservative, in reaction against this world in which, nonetheless, his own fiction seems to thrive.

Francois’s obsession with Huysmans is probably Houellebecq’s own, as is also his metaphysical angst. In the end he will convert to the Muslim faith, not just so he can retain his teaching post at the Sorbonne and score a couple of teenage wives, but because there is in him a deep horror of the ‘atheistic materialism’ of which Houellebecq has probably been thought to be a modern day evangelist. ‘Since I was 15,’ Francois says, ‘I’ve known that what they now call the return of religion was unavoidable.’ Europe, which achieved the summit of human civilisation, has in just a few decades ‘committed suicide’, yielding to the ‘simpering seductions and lewd enticements of the progressives’. Gay marriage, abortion rights, and women in the workplace represented ‘moral decadence’.

All this comes late in the book, and seems to arrive with the force of real conviction. Probably Houellebecq is divided against himself; but this reactionary disgust must be very close to the centre of his being. It is not attractive.


In England
there’s a lot to be said for
summer rain
in a green, foxy wood
drumming on the roof of leaves.

But there was no rain the day we visited Methwold churchyard somewhere along the remote back-roads of Norfolk, where I found eight or ten gravestones with the surname Flatt. One or two of these must have been my direct forebears, the rest collaterals, before or subsequent to the departure of my great great grandfather, the missionary-catechist John Flatt, for the Bay of Islands in 1834. John Flatt’s early adventures in New Zealand are an important part of my novel The Singing Whakapapa, just re-released by Penguin in a group of ‘Six New Zealand classics’. None of the inscriptions on these headstones was completely readable, but I’ve been told (and have not yet managed to confirm) that one grave was that of John’s father Robert, and that he was an M.P. for the area.

As we returned to our car through the churchyard gate my friend Tony Axelrad said, ‘Well at least you know who you are.’ His forebears were Jewish, he thinks from Russia via Scandinavia to London; and then he grew up in France, which perhaps added to the uncertainty about identity, but gave him two languages to be at home in. Most of his professional life has been as a translator, most recently for the U.N. Court in Den Hague, set up to investigate crimes committed during the war in the former Yugoslavia. It is as a translator that I first met Tony, when he translated one of my novels into French. He’s retired now and living in Norwich, and Kay and I were staying briefly with him and his wife Pat.


Philip Larkin and Anthony Thwaite on the River Tas, photograph by Ann Thwaite. Via LiteraryNorfolk.co.uk.

While we were in that part of the world we visited other old friends, Ann and Anthony Thwaite, Anthony a noted British poet, associated in the 1950s and onward as one of what was known as ‘the Movement’, sometime poetry editor for BBC radio, then literary editor of the New Statesman, and later of Encounter; and perhaps best-known now as Philip Larkin’s literary executor and editor of his work. (The photograph, by Ann, is of Anthony punting Philip Larkin on their mill race, Thwaite in polo-neck and wellingtons, with his 1970s hair, and Larkin in typically proper jacket and tie.)

Ann is a noted biographer, having written (separate) lives of Edmond Gosse, Philip Henry Gosse, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Emily Tennyson, and A.A. Milne; and she is currently deeply involved in the making of a movie about the real life Christopher Robin, based on the life of Milne’s son, the model for his famous children’s stories.

The Thwaites live in an ancient mill house on a millrace cut in the local river, the Tas, with woods and a field behind; and as always we were given lunch and then taken up the river on their punt. Ann has interesting New Zealand connections which she has recounted in her book Passageways (University of Otago Press). Her parents were New Zealanders. Ann and her brother David were born in the U.K., and when WW2 broke out, with its threat of bombing and possible invasion, they were taken back to New Zealand by their mother who left them with relatives there for most of the war years. Back with her parents in England after the war, Ann attended Oxford where she and Anthony met. They have been, and continue to be, a formidable literary combination, both Fellows of the Royal Society of Literature, and with many connections in the British book world.

The punting expedition on this occasion had an untimely comic end. The upper reaches of the millrace were beautiful, the banks rich in purple wildflowers and green and gold reeds visited by turquoise damselflies, the water reflecting the woods and the small field where two horses, one chestnut, one white, grazed peacefully. Anthony, who normally plies the pole while Ann sits in the prow, this time stayed indoors for a post-prandial snooze. So Ann was our redoubtable means of propulsion, and all went beautifully until we returned to the landing stage. One end of the punt was tied up, and I climbed out. Kay made moves to follow but while she still had hands and half her weight on the landing, and feet and knees in the punt, the boat swung slowly out from the shore. It was the classic punting disaster, which I have seen before in Oxford. It seems to happen in slow motion, with an accompaniment of shrieks, while the victim’s weight, equally distributed between ship and shore, yields to the laws of Newton, and plunges.

Anthony, wakened from his slumbers by the shouting, emerged from the house to lend a hand, and four literary persons, all in their eighties, struggled to haul one of their number up on to the landing.

– C.K. Stead