Thursday, February 28, 2008

thinking shakespearean thoughts

It shows how much I haven't been thinking about Nuttall's Shakespeare the Thinker that i thought, when writing 'Holiday Books', it was called Shakespeare's Thought. I'm happy to make the correction, because I ploughed on with it this evening and it's really a very good book. But i still think I may not want to think about it while on holiday, because I have to think so hard about every sentence; and, as I said, it's a heavy hardback.

holiday books

Have you noticed that books are like buses, or like lovers - none come along for ages that you really want to read, then there'll be a plethora of them? It's ages since I've read a book which really gripped me; and we're off to Madeira for a week, with nothing much to do except eat, drink, sleep and read. (When I told my ex-mother in law where we were going, she said, 'You're going with Vera?' She's very deaf, but refuses to believe she is.)

Anyway, books... I've saved up a lengthy thriller, The Dante Club, recommended by Sean, who is himself writing a thriller. The title's quite eye-catching, and it sounds as if it should be literate. I'm 50 pages into A.D.Nuttall's Shakespeare's Thought. I love reading about Shakespeare, and I can recommend 1599, about one important year of his life (I forget the author); it's a book that really brings one closer to the enigmatic person of Shakespeare and to his inner creative life. But the Nuttall one is a hard nut to crack. And it's heavy, literally; I don't want my suitcase to be overweight, because I want to bring back lots of cigarettes... So I may leave it till we're back before I think some more about Shakespeare's thought.

I popped into the local Oxfam yesterday to see if I could find something else. For a nanosecond I toyed with the idea of buying Racine in French, or W.E.Gladstone's Victorian versions of the poet Horace; but I settled on a potboiler called 100 Serial Killers. I felt embarrassed showing it to the little white-haired old lady at the till. But a thriller and a lightweight study of serial killers isn't going to see me through a week with Vera --sorry, in Madeira. And what if I'm bored with the thriller within 30 pages? I might take Goncharov's great comic novel Oblomov to re-read in case I'm stuck. It's long, long, long, but a paperback. The truth is, I'm still waiting for the next queue of books that I feel desperate to read. They often come along when I only want to write, not read. Life's like that.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

the perfect birth year

Grossly pornographic photo from Spick magazine, c.1957
I was sitting in an empty pub. Rain lashed down outside. I was dying for a smoke. We only ask for one room, hermetically sealed if you like…The barman, desperate too, agreed with me: ‘You’re fuckin’ right, mate!’ On the bar’s TV we watched Celia Johnson in a cinema with Trevor Howard; all round her are happy smokers, Trevor included, yet Celia never once coughs or flaps smoke away. A different age, I said to the barman, and I’d been alive in it.

Cursing to hell our Roundhead government, I reflect on how lucky I was to have been born in 1935. It seemed to me if you were British, male, bright, your home rural, poor and decent, then 1935 was the perfect birth year.

I was too young to be infected by fear of invasion but not, as the danger passed, by the excitement of seeing searchlights weaving in the night sky and fires burn on the horizon. In Cornwall we were fairly safe from bombs. Rationing kept me healthy. My parents’ main fear now was that my teenage sister would be seduced by an American soldier. I sensed the family tension, and it mixed in with the war reports I began avidly reading in my father’s News Chronicle. We were winning; happy is the boy who can observe the ancient affair between Love and War, safely and with victory in sight. The experience would colour all my adult writing.

I could take advantage of the postwar social conscience by going free to the local Grammar School. My best pal, Barry, failed his eleven-plus, and I remember him sobbing. He was talented too; but it was a grim Sec.Mod. for him. My new school, full of working-class boys, was mediocre, but regularly sent its brightest half-dozen to Oxbridge. At eighteen I applied to almost every Oxford and Cambridge college, including the women-only ones. I took a rather poor pass in English at ‘A’ level, but it didn’t matter: I’d sat the New College, Oxford, exam and they wanted me. They were desperate to take working-class boys.

Today, with my lowly ‘A’ level, I’d be left scrambling for a place at Tesco Value University. Before Oxford I had to do National Service. A blessing in disguise: I learnt Russian at Cambridge. A year older and I might have been fighting in Korea. Soon after, National Service was abolished, so I wouldn't have known Russian or read and translated Pushkin and Akhmatova..

The state paid all my Oxford fees and enough to live on. Mind you, in those days I didn’t drink or smoke, and there were, luckily, no drugs. Thankful for my privileged education, paid for by people like my father, a plasterer, I felt I owed it to them to work hard. My one decadent luxury was an occasional Spick or Span, price 2/6, bought tremblingly at market stalls, showing smily girls lifting their skirts above their stockingtops.

I found those incredibly mild little magazines incredibly exciting. I’m thankful there were no topshelf mags and computer porn. Sex was taboo in my upbringing, though not in a stern, repressive way. It simply wasn’t there. I could therefore feel a ‘holy dread’ towards it; glimpsing it in bullet-bra’d Hollywood bosoms or, when at last I started dating, the triumph of touching a suspendered thigh. Sex was sacred, sinful, dirty –not, thank God, merely recreational.

I’m pleased the girl I first shily explored wasn’t wearing jeans and Doc Martens. Women were gloriously feminine. Swirling or pencil-slim skirts, petticoats, girdles, suspender belts, nylons, high heels… a cornucopia of difference. I feel sorry for the men who missed that glamorous difference. Alright, women today thank God they have missed it, but I’m speaking as a male. It was good to be able to distinguish men from women easily. Sexual politics did not exist; it was just a man and a woman, without Germaine Greer or Andrea Dworkin louring over one’s shoulder. Women hadn’t yet become victims, or at least didn’t act as if they were.

Teaching at a College of Education, I lounged, smoking, in front of a dozen welldressed, unswearing, unstoned young women; ashtrays everywhere. No one coughed. I shared with them the literature I loved. We English tutors believed that if our students left college with a feeling for literature, they’d make decent teachers. It worked. Political correctness didn’t exist; cheerful flirting went on, and no one cried rape when I read them Yeats’s ‘Leda and the Swan’.

Then the demand came for more ‘philosophy of education’, and use of technology. The humanist breadth went, educational jargon flourished. The college itself was closed, in 1977, to save money. I accepted redundancy and took the risk of writing fulltime. When I hear teachers describe the bureaucracy crushing them today, I know I would never have gone into teaching if I were leaving University now.

Wanting to sow my wild oats belatedly, I took advantage of the ‘permissive society’ of the 60s. I hosted and attended wild parties –and could dump the bottles without worrying about the Earth-- before the drink-drive law brought Perrier water. Ageing tempered my behaviour long before AIDS struck terror into a generation.

Financially too, my birth year worked out. I had mortgage tax relief; my children’s higher education was paid for. When I published an unexpected best-seller in 1981, I was helped by Mrs Thatcher’s tax reforms to keep at least some of that once-in-a-lifetime windfall without having to flee abroad. I invested in a self-employed pension scheme while these were still tax-deductible. Now it keeps the increasingly threatening wolf from the door. Mrs T. even brought in Public Lending Rights: God bless you, m’am! I sold my writing archive to Wisconsin University, thankful I could offer rough drafts and notebooks from the primitive era before word processing.

In 1985 I had a serious illness, with stones in both kidneys. Luckily lithotripsy had just been invented, though not yet available on the NHS; and the stones were miracled away in private treatment I could never have afforded a few years earlier. I’m convinced I’d have died from conventional NHS cutting operations, as had happened to my father and uncle.

In my reclining years, I’m enormously grateful for the internet, while still thanking my stars it didn’t exist earlier. I’m glad I know some Latin, which at school bored me; and that richly poetic phrases from the Authorised Version, Cranmer’s prayers and Wesley’s hymns ring in my head, from my being made to go to chapel before Christianity Lite came in. That’s a treasure beyond price. Today’s kids are very deprived.

Yes, a charmed birth year –if you were where I was. I’m too old even to want to go to pubs much anymore. They’ve not yet banned smoking in my home. There’s even Viagra. Lord, Lord, such blessings!

Sunday, February 17, 2008

more on name dropping

Name-dropping sweetie
A friend in New York, having read my piece on name-dropping, wrote to say an actor, phoning him, apologised for his rough voice by explaining he'd caught Pierce Brosnan's cold. There could be no end to such bragging, with all kinds of severe diseases becoming a source of pride because you caught it from someone famous. 'I'm HIV-positive, passed on to me by none other than....'

You might like to count the name-drops in this personal experience... I was once, decades ago, on a writing tour with the gritty Northern novelist Stan Barstow. He told me he'd recently had lunch with the then Director General of the BBC, Carleton-Greene. Greene, he said, had told him he'd had dinner with the famous conductor Sir Malcolm Sargent, and Sir Malcolm had said to him, 'On Friday I'm having tea with the Queen Mother. She's a real sweetie, but my, what a name-dropper she is'.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

spot the author

In relation to my last post, 'Patriotism', I'm offering a prize of one of my books to the first 6 people (that's probably almost my total blog readership) who can spot the author in this crowd, watching my local team Redruth play.


When Wales came back from the dead at Twickenham, ten days ago, to beat England at rugby, was there an Englishman who leapt rejoicing in the air? You bet – it was me. And I was cheering Italy when they almost did the same in Rome last Saturday. In 2003, I groaned when Wilkinson’s last-minute drop kick sailed high between the posts to win the Rugby World Cup in Australia. Last year I was delighted when South Africa beat us in the final.

Now this is strange, because I’m a fervent patriot. I suffered the agonies and ecstasies of the 2005 Ashes series, too scared to watch much of the time, desperate for England to win. When it comes to football, a sport which normally doesn’t interest me, I follow England in World or European Cups with passion and finally deep gloom. I will be cheering Great Britain in the Olympics. I am capable of having to hold back tears when I hear ‘Rule, Britannia!’, ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ or Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’. During the Falklands War I contributed to a book of ‘Authors take sides’ on the justice of the conflict. I was one of very few (Kingsley Amis and Alan Sillitoe were among the others) who saw Britain’s cause –freeing our people--as just. I rejoiced when Mrs Thatcher said, ‘Rejoice!’

So why my hostility to England on the rugby field? It’s partly because England play without flair, relying totally on their lumbering tanks in the scrum and Wilko’s boot. But in other sports I don’t care how dully we play so long as we win. One factor is that I’m Cornish, and Cornwall is not quite English; we have our own Celtic culture, akin to the Welsh. Even the knowledge that England is led by a Cornishman, Phil Vickery, doesn’t change my feelings. I know it’s irrational.

Added to the Celtic element there’s a question of class. Cornwall has always been passionate about rugby, and as in Wales it has been rooted in the working classes. Tin miners would do an exhausting shift, climb up interminable ladders, then play a game of rugby. ‘Twickers’ still carries, for me, a feeling of class privilege, Rolls Royces and champagne picnics. The unmusical braying of ‘Swing Low’ from the stands antagonises me, while a Welsh crowd harmonising ‘Land of my Fathers’ stirs my Celtic bones.

I owe some of this to my father, a plasterer. He voted Labour, but after spending his youth in California he was essentially an American Democrat; he worshipped Roosevelt. Soon after his return to Cornwall/England, his boss on a building site shouted at him, ‘Thomas!’ My father replied, ‘I’ve got a handle to my name.’ He taught me, a young boy in the war, to admire the Yanks and the Red Army more than the Brits, with their stuffy, baton-swaggering officers. I was unsure therefore of my sporting loyalties; I cheered Bradman’s cricketers against us in 1948; but then, when we moved as a family to Australia for a couple of years, I cheered for England. I remain confused. I know I’m not European: I can’t support Europe in the Ryder Cup.

During the 2007 rugby World Cup, I was on the Greek island of Skyros, leading a creative writing workshop. I took my students to the grave of Rupert Brooke. On his way to fight in the Dardanelles in 1915, Brooke’s ship moored off the coast of Skyros for training. The young, charismatic poet-soldier developed a fever, probably as a result of a mosquito bite at Port Said. He died, and his fellow officers and men buried him in an olive grove which he himself had described as wonderfully quiet and beautiful. There is the scent of sage, and the distant tinkle of goat bells. I showed my students the grave, and read the famous sonnet inscribed on it, starting ‘If I should die, think only this of me:/ That there’s some corner of a foreign field/ That is forever England…’ Close to tears, I felt and shared Brooke’s love of England.

I was thinking, like the poet, of the England he left behind: the quiet rolling pastures and woods, shire horses and haywains; empty uncluttered roads, not bristling with bumps, warnings and CCTV cameras; sovereignty and freedom, no EU directives; English common law, free speech and habias corpus; huntsmen smoking their peaceful pipes before a roaring fire in a hostelry…

This nostalgic vision is not the complete picture, of course. No one can deny that the lives of ordinary people have improved immeasurably. But something vital has been lost that need not have been lost. On returning to England from abroad these days, I have a sense of restriction rather than enlargement. I no longer feel this is a free country. So many of the laws brought in over the past ten years seem mean and vindictive. The smoking ban affects me, the hunting ban doesn’t; I’ve never wanted to hunt foxes; but the ban upsets me deeply. Hunting is an ancient English tradition; and the suffering inflicted on foxes, who at least live and die in the wild, can’t be compared with the suffering of billions of factory-bred animals. There’s so much hypocrisy.

This is an England from which terrorists cannot be expelled, yet my Canadian wife, whose countrymen fought and died beside us in two world wars, had to take a test to be allowed to stay here. I can’t get my head around the craziness of that.

None of this affects my patriotic confusions. I want England to win everywhere except on the rugby field. I don’t love my native country any the less: its landscape, history and culture, Shakespeare and Elgar. But I feel increasingly alienated from the England the politicians have created. The England I love is now more in my heart and imagination – and even in that hot, tranquil Grecian olive grove-- than in reality.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

name droppers

Doncha just hate name droppers on radio or TV? It's even worse when they use a familiar form of the famous person's first name, as if saying, 'You little people out there , you proles, just have to accept I'm in a different class...' Natasha Spender did this on the last 'Desert Island Discs', referring in upper-crust tones to her friends Sam Barber and Lenny, (the composers Samuel Barber and Leonard Bernstein). Sheer snobbish discourtesy to the listener.

Now, I knew her late husband, the famous poet Steve Spender, and I'm sure he'd never have behaved like that: he was a gent. I've known several famous people, including Tom Eliot, Tom Hardy, Bob Redford, Andy Motion, Johnny Mills, Larry Olivier, Willie Yeats, Jimmy Stewart and Maggie Drabble, to name but a few. I might say 'Hi, Larry!' when phoning Olivier, but would always, when referring to him on the media, use the name by which he is universally known.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Air Excess

Have you flown with Air Excess?
I did so recently;
It’s an experience you shouldn’t miss.
Soon as the plane is in the air,
The passengers light up joyfully,
And everyone’s disposed to share,
In the old Cary Grant-ish way,
Saying to others ‘Would you care
For a Rothman? ‘Have a Sobranie!’
Hostesses in their underwear
(Stockings, suspenders de rigueur)
Pass round champagne, and fluted glasses;
The whole cabin’s in a roar,
The captain, shirt in disarray,
Appears and leads a merry song:
Thank God we’re leaving the UK.
We’re free!’
Glasses are being clinked
From row to row, or smashed
To celebrate some couple’s wedding
--They’re copulating in the aisle
While people watch admiringly
And shout Bravo! All arms are linked,
And everyone’s completely smashed.
We don’t know where
The flight is heading and don’t care.
The moon, perhaps. And it’s so cheap!
Food’s extra, a few quid, but nice,
Like Helford oysters served on ice.
There’s shameless swapping between seats:
People who’ve never dared to stray
From their dull marriages entwine
With strangers; no one gives a toss,
Being on an Excess holiday,
Staid matrons are seen licking wine
From unzipped rampant cocks and balls,
And their staid husbands don’t look cross,
Lost in an ecstasy of cunt.
It’s even wilder at the front,
With threes and fours mixed up (the space
More generous in Club Excess).
Ten quid for Gatwick to Moldova,
And taking in Niagara Falls,
That’s all I paid, plus airport tax,
And wished it to be never over;
I really started to relax.
Book your flight now. Don’t be dumb: