Our books

I bought another book this morning. Nothing remarkable about that, especially not for me, but for some reason I started to think about how the contrast between the many books i have surrounded myself with as an adult and the few – the much cherished few – we had at home when i was a child.

We didn’t buy books but that’s not to say we didn’t have any at all. My dad had a few books on farming, a book about the minerals of the earth and a set of art encyclopaedias he must have bought in instalments, though I never saw him read them. I read them surreptitiously – we children weren’t supposed to touch them, discovering in their pages the wonders of prehistoric art and the women of Titian, both of which I still love. I also read the book about minerals but the farming textbooks were too much and so I never did learn how to raise cows for milk.

For her part, my mum had a beautiful leatherbound anthology of stories (“Alice in Wonderland”,”The Water Babies”, tales from the Mabinogion, etc) and poetry (mostly Tennyson, Kipling, Walter de la Mare & co). This book had a poignant history: it had originally been a present to one of my mother’s uncles from the German family who sheltered him after he was shot down during the Second World War. It was intended for his daughter Katherine who, having survived polio, was now bed-ridden with TB.

Sadly, she died and the book passed to my mum who was another quiet, sickly, careful child: when she passed it on to us, it was still in pristine condition. Not for long. The leather covers came off one by one and ink ‘annotations’ soon ‘decorated’ the pages. I didn’t mind. I read it from missing cover to missing cover over and over again. I’ve loved the smell of old paper ever since, as i have the weight of a book in my hands – two reasons why e-books have never tempted me.

The Victorian stories inside the anthology were as different as could be to the bland tales the teachers regaled us with at school: slightly macabre and supernaturally inventive. The language was richer but more formal. The sentences were longer and exotically punctuated: there and then i fell in love with the semi-colon. Then there were the pictures: Tenniel’s illustrations for Alice in Wonderland in particular. I was less keen on the poetry apart from the nonsense rhymes of Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear.

It was in this book that i first had my heart broken by a story. It was the Mabinogion tale about a knight who leaves his dog guarding his young son. A wolf comes in and attacks the baby. Although the dog is unable to save the child he does succeed in killing the wolf. But when the knight returns and sees the the dead infant he believes it is the dog who has killed him: he slays his faithful hound only to  discover, a little while later, the corpse of the true killer lying bloodied behind a curtain. I cried when i read that story and even now the injustice of the dog’s death fills me with sorrow. By contrast, i can scarcely recall what the books we read at school were about.

Finally, we had one other book in our house and it was the book from which we were taught to read: the Bible. Well, a children’s Bible. This contained all the best stories from the Bible with magnificent coloured drawings on each page (Cain, i recall, was clad in a strange tasselled coat of the kind a Country Music singer might wear). The language was simplified from the original but retained the tongue-twisting polysyllables that passed for names. How i struggled with those Babylonian kings! My dad used to record us reading: on the one fragment that still survives i can be heard stumbling repeatedly over “Nebuchadnezzar”  while he corrects me – quietly in the background – and gets me to try again.

The Bible was an even greater rollercoaster of a read than the “Great Anthology”. It was supposed to explain what was good and what was bad and indeed it did contain stories of beautiful wisdom: Solomon judging the women fighting over a baby, Jesus challenging the would-be executioners of an adulteress. Yet it also contained examples of terrifying carnage such as the destruction of Jericho.  Eve seemed to me to be more victim than transgressor while the Philistines were like the “Red Indians” in American cowboy movies: condemned merely because history had come to belong to their enemies. I began to think and haven’t stopped since.


Borders are cool?

“Borders are cool” croons Welsh artist MC Mabon in the song of the same name. They have certainly always fascinated me. It began with my childhood in a village-turned-suburb on the border of England and Wales. We lived on the English side of the border but my Nan lived on the Welsh side; and so my early years were spent shuttling to and fro, crossing and recrossing the invisible line that – according to the map – divided the two countries. It was the border which defined us as a community in fact. We were the people who lived on the border, who belonged to the border itself rather than the actual countries on either side of it – all the more so because many of us were of Irish descent to boot.

Where was the border? I was always trying to pinpoint it; but there are no physical barriers between England and Wales, except those imposed by rivers. Still i used to imagine – in my childish way – that there was a real line somewhere, a kind of energy line, that would zap you as you passed across it. My mum used to point out a pub: “The border goes through that pub”, she’d say. According to her, there was time when licensing laws were different in England and Wales. The pub’s customers would move from one side of the pub to circumvent them. Crossing and recrossing, just like us.

I don’t know if the story’s true. What is true is that people have very complex relationships with these lines we draw in our world. On the one hand you have people prepared to die to defend them, on the other you have people – like the drinkers in the pub – to whom they’re at worst a nuisance, at best an opportunity. And then you have people like me for whom they form a part of their identity.

I’ve been reading a lot recently about borders and the effect they can have in preparation for my forthcoming trip to Turkey (and hopefully Greece). Twice A Stranger* by Bruce Clark looks at the massive population exchange between Greece and Turkey which resulted from the signing of the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923. Over a million Greeks/Orthodox Christians and half a million Turks/Muslims were forced to migrate to the ‘right’ side of the border, as dictated by their religious identity. An invisible line had appeared in their world and it wreaked havoc – although not as much havoc as did the line which a couple of decades later divided India from Pakistan.

Many of the people who had to move between Turkey and Greece had lived a long way from the new border. The ‘Greeks’ often came from places like Cappadocia in the Anatolian interior; while many of the ‘Turks’ had been resident in Crete or in Greek Macedonia. Their stories are often traumatic; but what was it like for those people who found themselves living on or next to the new line itself – the border which now goes through Thrace? And how do the modern residents of the areas of Greece and Turkey which lie on either side of the border relate to it and to each other?

In any case, that border isn’t too problematic: the population exchange produced relatively homogenous populations which were easily identified with their respective nations. What about the border between Spain and France, however, which cuts through the territory of the Basque people, dividing rather than delimiting it? And then there are those darker borders, the ones designed to act not just as fences, but as impenetrable walls: the old border between East and West Germany, the modern border between North and South Korea for example. I remember visiting Cyprus in 1991 and being chilled (yet also mesmerised) by the border which divided the Greek and Turkish portions of the island. The images remain in my mind: glimpsing the other side of Nicosia, visible yet unreachable; gazing upon the no man’s land of Famagusta through binoculars – there was a city that had been destroyed by a border, stopped dead in time by it.

Thinking about the place where i grew up: what would it mean if the invisible line which runs through it suddenly became a real boundary? It might seem fanciful but what if it did happen? It needn’t be anything as dramatic or even tangible as the barbed wire fences that run through Cyprus (let alone the terrifying walls the Israelis have built between themselves and the Palestinians). As it stands the Anglo-Welsh border is politically only semi-active: it has an administrative function, one which has gained some power following Devolution; but to all intents and purposes life flows back and forth across the border without regard to it. The shoppers, the buses, the people out for a stroll only notice it, if at all, when they look at a sign and see that it is bilingual. If Wales were ever to become independent however, it could be a different story. What future can there be in a nationalistic world for communities which straddle two (or more) nations?

Alternatively, what would it mean if the line was removed altogether? Again, it might not seem likely at the moment, but it’s not impossible in the long run. Wales is far more vulnerable to assimilation by England than is Scotland: it’s smaller, divided within itself between north and south and between language communities; and it has a long land border with the English Midlands, a much more densely populated area. What if it were to follow Cornwall and become merged into England itself? The border would cease to exist and with it would go the identity of the border dwellers.

Indeed both of these two possible futures threaten that identity; the current border is a kind of unresolved problem and an identity based on it relies on the problem remaining unresolved. It relies on stasis. Yet in reality things do not stand still – not even in Famagusta, which is gradually falling down. Of course it’s also true that the solutions themselves aren’t permanent. Whatever lines we draw now, whether on maps or elsewhere in our world, will certainly be redrawn again in the future; it’s just a question of when and where. The tension inherent in this is in fact what gives a border much of its power: we’re as afraid of it collapsing as we are of being trapped by it. Equally afraid of both.

*Twice A Stranger. ISBN: 978-1862077522; author: Bruce Clark; pub. Granta Books (2006)

Polish poetry & me

I discovered the poetry of Poland via the work of Ewa Lipska. I remember reading her poem Instruction Manual, with its insistent refrain “The nation’s dead”, when i was twenty or so. At that time i was at home with a young son, trying to keep my mind alive by reaching out to a world beyond the small commuter town in which i was trapped. Poetry more than anything was my lifeline: language distilled to perfection. Lipska’s work spoke to me despite, rather than because of, its focus on politics; I sought out more and – naturally? inevitably? – discovered her compatriots Czesław Miłosz and Wisława Szymborska. For some reason lost in the mist of time however their work didn’t stick, at least not then.

Soon afterwards i came across another Polish poet whose work did stick: Anna Swir (or Świrszczyńska). I’ve long since forgotten the name of the anthology in which i found her poems and only remember that it was a book showcasing women poets. More frustrating is the fact that i have no idea who did the translations; they (and presumably the original poems) are marvellous – deft, sensual, acerbic, poignant. Three of them i copied out and cherish to this day: A Spring, She Doesn’t Remember and Her Hand. The third of those is short enough to quote in full:

When my mother was dying
I held her hand.
When she died i burnt everything
her hand had touched.
Only my own hands
I couldn’t burn.

A few more years passed and i found myself unemployed and back in my hometown. Up on the city walls there was a little second-hand bookshop and whenever i had a bit of money i’d go up there and spend it on poetry books. Actually, i went up there whenever i got the chance, not just when i had money; but the rest of the time i had to come away empty handed. One of the books i found there was by Tadeusz Różewicz: Poezje wybrane/Selected Poems*, a bilingual selection of his work translated by Adam Czerniawski. This is dark stuff. Forever marked, it seems, by his experience of the Second World War, Różewicz makes lists; he mistrusts beauty. The typewriter-like font (green for the Polish and black for the English) and the delicate paper only emphasises the feeling of austerity. One poem in particular haunts me. It’s called Beyond Words (in Polish: Nad Wyraz) and begins:

What are you doing
emerged from darkness
Why don’t you want
to live in full light

Its final words are even more powerful:

One tear
beyond words

After that – a long while after that – came Zbigniew Herbert, ‘a spiritual leader of the anticommunist movement in Poland’ according to the brief biography which prefaces his Collected Poems 1956-1998**. Herbert’s work is thrilling – comic and grave – yet curiously difficult to quote from; the poems work beautifully, yet if you try to pull out lines to show to people they fall apart. I do like this stanza from I Would Like To Describe, however:

I would like to describe courage
without dragging behind me a dusty lion
and also anxiety
without shaking a glass full of water

(Translation: Alissa Valles)

I too would like to be free of that dusty lion.

Finally, we come to a poet who arrived in my life just a month ago, courtesy of yet another anthology: Anna Piwkowska. The anthology is called Six Polish Poets*** and I found it in the same second-hand bookshop where many years previously i discovered Snow and Summers by Solveig von Schoultz. There is one poem in particular, about the sudden death of young woman as she is getting out the bath, which i think is incredible. It’s called Lament Of That Summer (or in Polish: Tren Tamtego Lata):

She stepped onto the side of death.
Here, one wet foot on the floor,
hair dryer, towel around her hips,
the other foot into the water,
into death, straight from the summer bath.
She managed just once more to run
the wet hand through her tangled hair.
The tea was cooling in the room;
she planned to hang the lingerie,
the light blue nothing, woven
out of fine silk threads.
Summer. Hot quivering morning.
The day had promised joy, and haste;
behind the wall her son called out
about the puppy’s nose in milk.
The dress hurriedly thrown
across the chair, cinnabar, absorbed
the drops of sunshine. The organ
music of Johann Sebastian
flowed across the room, a woman
or some strange furry animal.
The day brought joy. She managed
nothing. Not even a single shout.
Fear or a contraction
as if before a battle or
a trip. But why with no preparing
or good-byes did she let out
this tiny drop of oxygen
like laughter? A small wooden cross
above the mirror. Brief lapse
of attention. Behind the wall
The boy was playing with the dog.

(Translation: Elżbieta Wójcik-Leese).

There you have it: the story so far, spanning two decades, of Polish poetry and me.

* Poezje wybrane/Selected Poems: ISBN 83-08-01777-0;  Tadeusz Różewicz; trans. Adam Czerniawski; pub. Wydawnictwo Literackie (1991)
** Collected Poems 1956-1998: ISBN 978-1-84354-833-6; Zbigniew Herbert; trans. Alissa Valles; pub. Atlantic Books (2008)
*** Six Polish Poets: ISBN 978-1-904614-50-0; ed. Jacek Dehnel; pub. Arc Publications (2008)

Cavafy & the unreal city

Constantine Cavafy was a Greek poet of the early Twentieth Century. Well, i say he was Greek. He was actually born in Alexandria to parents whose families came from Constantinople – as the Greeks call Istanbul. He spent his teenage years in England and then moved back to Alexandria where, barring a couple of years in Istanbul, he lived for the rest of his life.

And yet he was Greek, quite truly, which i find fascinating. He wrote in Greek, his work is full of references to Greek history and mythology and he identifies himself very clearly as a Greek. At the same time he was completely a creature of his city:

… decaying Alexandria, the city whose decline reflected in large the poet’s own

As Avi Sharon puts it in his introduction to Cavafy’s Selected Poems*.

And there again Cavafy stood apart from Alexandria, not just because he was Greek in an Egyptian city and probably not just because he was gay either, but because the city he inhabited – the world he inhabited – was in truth the city of his imagination. Sharon calls it “Cavafy’s unreal city” and compares it to Joyce’s Dublin.

“Unreal cities” fascinate me, as do “unreal countries” and “unreal worlds”. Indeed for a long time i have had my own unreal city, but for me unlike Cavafy that remains a private place. As a teenager i remember being enchanted by Sir Walter Scott’s novel Ivanhoe, which he wrote while recovering from illness drawing on his own internal, “unreal England” of the past – which made the book a great contrast to his realistic historical Scottish novels. Likewise, the wild imaginary landscape in which Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights is set. These places have an intensity, a charge, a meaningfulness which is lacking – mostly – from places in the real world. And often a poignancy too. I have often felt that there is no journey i would rather make than one into an imagined land – my own or that of others; although i suspect they would lose some of their magic if examined close up. We’re not very patient gods. We haven’t the time or concentration to make individual leaves for our trees or even individual trees for our forests.

Cavafy’s Alexandria is unreal in a more subtle way than the worlds of the novels i’ve mentioned above – or perhaps it just seems so because, Alexandria being unknown to me in either its real or unreal form, it’s not easy for me to see where one ends and the other begins. The poet weaves together images and characters from the city’s Hellenistic past with those from the modern city. The streets along which he walks, the brothels he visits and the beautiful young men he encounters: do they belong to the “real world”? Are they merely disguised by imagery from the past? Or are they “imaginary”, made real by Cavafy’s conviction?

Just as the world of his poetry is glorious in a way that the “real city “ of Alexandria was not, so too Cavafy’s life in his poetry seems more exciting than his “real” life: he was a civil servant and lived at home with his family till the age of 45. Yet despite the poetic glamour there’s a sadness and a claustrophobia that permeates the poems i’ve read so far, a feeling of being trapped in this beautiful imagined place. One particular poem seems to encapsulate this and it’s called – in English anyway – The City:

The City

You said: ‘I will go to another land; i will try another sea.
Another city will turn up, better than this one.
Here everything i do is condemned in advance
And my heart – like a dead man’s – lies buried.
How long can my mind remain in this swamp?
Wherever i turn, wherever i look, i gaze
On the ruins of my life here, where i’ve spent
And botched and wasted so many years.’

You will find no new land; you will find no other seas.
This city will follow you. You will wander the same
Streets and grow old in the same neighbourhoods;
Your hair will turn white in the same houses.
And you will always arrive in this city. Abandon any hope
Of finding another place. No shop, no road can take you there.
For just as you’ve ruined your life here
In this backwater, you’ve destroyed it everywhere on earth.

(translated by Avi Sharon)

What trapped Cavafy in this “city”? Was it that this was the only way he could resolve the paradox of being a Greek in a city that was itself no longer Greek? A creator of masterpieces that those around him couldn’t read? A member of a diaspora in a world becoming increasingly nationalistic and – in its aspirations anyway – monoethnic? Was it how he made sense of his homosexuality, the expression of which in the “real city” would have been severely circumscribed? Or was the “real city” the place in which he felt trapped – and, if so, why? Was a static, humdrum life the price he had to pay for being able to roam freely in his imagination?

* ISBN: 978-0-141-18561-3. Published by Penguin Classics. All poems translated by Avi Sharon. I don’t know Greek so i can’t comment on how faithful the translations are to the originals, but they make beautiful poems in their own right which to my mind is just as important.

The unloved children of Pride & Prejudice

One of the many things I’ve done this month to ward off the winter blues is re-read Pride & Prejudice for the umpteenth time. I first read it when I was about 12. At that age the book was all about the ElizabethDarcy love story and the comedy of the ridiculous, as exemplified by the wonderful Mr Collins. Five years later, when the book was a set text for English A-Level, it was the formal beauty of Jane Austen‘s writing which arrested me: those graceful chains of semi-colons, the delicate narrative thread. And so it’s gone on: each time i notice something new or find myself rethinking my earlier impressions.

Reading the book this Christmas, what struck me was the terrible sadness of two characters, Mr Collins and Mary. Take away the comedy of Mr Collins and what you see is a man who has fundamentally been broken, destroyed as a person before that person ever really had a chance to form, by a lonely childhood under an oppressive father. I find it interesting that his childhood has parallels with that of Darcy: the latter attributes his lack of social skills and inability to connect with strangers outside his circle to being an only son, for many years an only child. Both men appear to have lost their mothers very early on in life and to have grown up dominated by their fathers. Both seem older than their years – probably because these dominating fathers were also old men? But where Darcy is more fortunate is that however much his father disciplined him he also built up his sense of worth. Mr Collins by contrast was clearly brought up to feel that he was nothing. All his pomposity, all his desire for and yet fear of status, all his servility is linked to this inner emptiness.

Then there’s Mary, the middle and deeply unwanted child of the Bennets. Jane was the first child and beautiful too; Elizabeth was her father’s darling and pretty in a less orthodox way; but by the time Mary was born impatience for the much-needed son was setting in and on top of that Mary was plain and serious. Kitty and Lydia who followed her, if not great beauties, were pretty enough and more importantly frivolous enough to win their mother’s affections at least. Not that would make much difference to Mary. She, i always feel, is a daddy’s girl. She craves the kind of relationship with her father that Elizabeth has, but he completely rejects and despises her. Like Mr Collins her personality is crippled by the lack of love she receives. This is to me the great irony: that the pedant that Mr Bennet holds in such contempt is in great part his own creation.

Imagine what Mary might have been like if someone had showed an interest in her as a young child. If her father had actually listened to her she might have learnt how to talk to people – rather than at them. If she had not grown up feeling the failure of her plainness so keenly she might have had a chance to develop a personality that would have made her lack of looks less important – as, for example, did Elizabeth, who while not plain as such is clearly not a beauty in the way that Jane is. Likewise with Mr Collins – to be sure he might never have been as handsome or charismatic as Darcy, but what about Darcy’s cousin Colonel Fitzwilliam? In another world, with a different upbringing might not Mr Collins have been more like him?

There again, would i really want Mr Collins to be other than he is? Fiction is cruel!

A boat without the sea, a book without footnotes

How can anyone not love footnotes? A book without them is like a boat without the sea, or like the sea shore without rock pools. I love the way that the text flows on relentlessly above, while down below there are little pools of facts, translations and references. I have happy memories of books in which the footnotes took up as much space on the page as did the main narrative or argument; and even happier ones of books in which quotations in the original Greek or Latin – or even Arabic – are included for our enlightenment. And i don’t read any of those languages.

Endnotes are an acceptable alternative if they occur at the end of chapters, but not if they’re chucked to the back of the book – and definitely not if, as in many such books, they’re so poorly labelled that it takes a near superhuman effort to find the note you’re looking for. Often it’s a struggle to even identify the chapter.

Whether you opt for footnotes or endnotes let them be real notes – not just dry lists of titles, authors and dates. Avoid ibid., especially in excess: it turns a forest into a desert. Include references to obscure books, always cite foreign literature under the original title and if necessary reference your references. If you are still unsure how to proceed, i suggest “The Vampire”* by Montague Summers. Some of my favourite endnotes** from this book include:

6 The night-fiend idlu lilî is the male counterpart of the Night-wraith, ardat lilî. Idlu is the word used for a grown man of full strength

48 This belief seems mainly confined to Elis. Curtius Waschmutt, Das alte Griechenland im Neuen, p 117.

55 I have used the “Nouvelle édition revûe, corigée and*** augmentée par l’Auteur.” 2 vols., Paris, Chez Debure l’aîné, 1751.

13 About £20

68 Occasionally attributed to G. W. M. Reynolds, who, however, more than once denied the authorship.

1 Πορευεσθε άπ’έμου, κατηραμέυοι, είς τό πυρ τό αίώυιον τό ήτοιμασμέυον τψ διαβόλψ καί τοις άγγέλοις αύτου****. Discredite a me maledicti in ignem aeternum, qui paratus est diabolo, et angelis eius.

How could you not love endnotes like these? Of course it’d be even better if they were footnotes…

* The most wonderful book on vampires imaginable (ISBN 1-85958-073-4, Senate).
* *Taken from different chapters of the book; hence the jumbled numbering.
*** This ‘and’ is in the original!
****The ‘Greek’ text is probably gibberish as i had to recreate it using the Greek alphabet symbols in Microsoft Word. Some of the letters weren’t easy for a non-Greek speaker to distinguish.

— For ‘B’ —

A little bit of butter: A.A. Milne

I’ve had this poem by A. A. Milne (creator of Winnie the Pooh) going round my head for days now, so you may as well share in the fun:

The King’s Breakfast

The King asked
The Queen, and
The Queen asked
The Dairymaid:
“Could we have some butter for
The Royal slice of bread?”

The Queen asked the Dairymaid,
The Dairymaid
Said, “Certainly,
I’ll go and tell the cow
Before she goes to bed.”

The Dairymaid
She curtsied,
And went and told the Alderney:
“Don’t forget the butter for
The Royal slice of bread.”

The Alderney said sleepily:
“You’d better tell
His Majesty
That many people nowadays
Like marmalade

The Dairymaid
Said “Fancy!”
And went to
Her Majesty.
She curtsied to the Queen
She turned a little red:
“Excuse me,
Your Majesty,
For taking of
The liberty,
But marmalade is tasty, if
It’s very

The Queen said
And went to his Majesty:
“Talking of the butter for
The royal slice of bread,
Many people
Think that
Is nicer.
Would you like to try a little

The King said,
And then he said,
“Oh, deary me!”
The King sobbed, “Oh, deary me!”
And went back to bed.
He whimpered,
“Could call me
A fussy man;
I only want
A little bit
Of butter for
My bread!”

The Queen said,
“There, there!”
And went to
The Dairymaid.
The Dairymaid
Said, “There, there!”
And went to the shed.
The cow said,
“There, there!
I didn’t really
Mean it;
Here’s milk for his porringer
And butter for his bread.”

The queen took the butter
And brought it to
His Majesty.
The King said
“Butter, eh?”
And bounced out of bed.
“Nobody,” he said,
As he kissed her
“Nobody,” he said,
As he slid down
The banisters,
My darling,
Could call me
A fussy man –
I do like a little bit of butter to my bread!

( A. A. Milne)

Wonderfully rhythmic! The last line is the killer, although i always remember it as: “I do like a little bit of butter on my bread”. Say it out loud and hear the percussiveness:

“I do like uh litt-uhl bit-uhf butt-uh to my bread.”

You have a rhythm created through the shwa vowel sound (uh) and another created through the repetition of the consonant ‘b’. The doubling of  short “i” in “little bit of” causes you to instinctively read that part more quickly creating an internal half-rhyme; and then finally you have the contrast between those two short “i” sounds and the wider, heavier vowel sounds that remain.

The magic of Children’s verse! Actually, it’s even better with pictures – something all Children’s literature should have in my opinion. There’s a page with what look like they could be the original illustrations here, although it’s been too long since i saw them for me to be sure. To be honest, i’d forgotten the poem itself till i ran out of soya milk:

I do like a little drop of soya milk on my muesli.

No. Doesn’t really work, does it.