Wednesday, August 20, 2008

a tribute

Having had a few problems lately, I've had good cause to appreciate the blessing of my first marriage, to Maureen, and the remarkable children we managed to produce, Caitlin and Sean. Caitlin, in her late forties, is wonderfully vivacious, independent, intelligent and caring. I don't think I've ever seen a mother who so successfully treats her teenage children, Sorcha and Angus, as her 'close friends', able to discuss problems completely freely. Caitlin has had to deal with great pain in her life, including the loss of her first son, Alex; she has had to battle enormously hard to become the woman she is, radiating life rather than misery, and I admire her deeply for it. She is --when I'm troubled-- a patient, unfailing support to me.

Sean too has had his own arduous battles to fight, and has come through to be a highly successful journalist, novelist, memoirist and --next spring-- under the name Tom Knox-- thriller writer! He has a beautiful little girl, Lucy. He travels the world most of the time, but his family still means a lot to him.

They have achieved all this with --in their early years --a largely 'absent father'. Not physically absent, but with his mind largely elsewhere, on poetry, novels, teaching --or worse. Their childhood was mostly in the hands of their mother, Maureen. She is a remarkable woman, one of quiet strength. With her I had my first unforgettable experience of passion. When we married, it was entirely my fault that problems arose. But she was always for me a source of strength and stability. I wept when, after living together for over 25 years, we parted. I'm glad it led to a very happy second marriage for her. She was --is-- a warm, utterly trustworthy, drily funny Cornishwoman. Salt of the earth. I recall when Hereford College was closed, and I had the choice of taking another post elsewhere at the same decent salary, or strike out as a full-time writer, on the strength of just one novel and a very small redundancy payment. I told her I'd like to take the risk. She said, 'Then do it. I'm with you.'

And now a poem about them, when the children were young. It's a kind of 'domestic' love poem, of the kind I rarely write.


I liked it when the river around our corner,
once every year or two, would start
to flood. Sandbags were laid at the doors,
we’d carry thermoses and food upstairs,
and wait to see if the Wye would come inside.
Nervous, excited, we all made jokes.

The nights were utterly silent, eerily still.
My wife and children slept, I’d stay awake
and every so often, at our bedroom window,
check how far the waters had reached
up our suburban avenue.

I’d see reflections of streetlights
stretching across the road to our front fence,
taut as violin strings; and feel the tug
of love, its mystery, confined for once
to what alone seemed real, my family.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

d' you know what I mean?

We have a charming Canadian guest, a close friend of Angela's. Taking a postgrad degree in Voice Production, she has an amazing facility for imitating regional accents. Unfortunately she has picked up from Londoners that awful phrase 'D'you know what I mean?' Which can mean only one of two things: that the speaker is aware he hasn't expressed himself intelligibly, or he's implying that you're stupid --d'you know what I mean? . Since our friend loves Shakespeare, I've been trying to root it out of her speech by giving her some modernised Shakespearean examples...

'To be or not to be, that is the question--
D'you know what I mean?...'

'O full of scorpions is my mind, dear wife--
D'you know what I mean?...'

'Put out the light, and then put out the light--
D'you know what I mean?...'

'For I am bound upon a wheel of fire,
That mine own tears do scald like molten lea--d.
D'you know what I mean?...'

I'm sure the phrase will soon vanish from her lips.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Women (1)

I thought I would write triolets for the women in my life - one triolet per year. Here are the first ones. The second triolet refers to my first flash of memory, either at six months or eighteen months. I had whooping cough, and the cough 'woke' me. I was being held, presumably by my mother, and saw what must have been my favourite aunt, Cecie, gazing anxiously at me. With a blur of window light to my right, our kitchen window.

The fifth owes more to Freud than my memory. Do I remember or only imagine I remember my mummy with a smile warning me not to touch my 'dingledum'?
Sixth: towards the end of a kidney infection, I 'urged' up milk like this, into her lap. Since too much calcium is bad for the kidneys (I developed kidney stones in adulthood) my body was being wise for me.
Seventh. First day at infants school. The rainy, sniffling hall. There was a pretty girl with short straight blond hair; I felt an attraction. My first (apart from mum). Don't remember seeing her after that. I was often away sick.


Leaving the safety of the cave,
I took the Silk Road, the vagina;
Nobody told me I was brave,
Leaving the safety of the cave;
The thrilling passage made me crave
Repeated journeys like a miner--
Even if I never found the cave
I’d take the Silk Road, the vagina.

Two women, bound up with the ‘I’
I found when coughing almost killed me.
A vague light, later known as sky;
Two women, bound up with my ‘I’,
That’s now my earliest memory.
One longed to hold me and one held me.
Two women, bound up with the ‘I’
I found when coughing almost killed me.

I never saw my mother’s breasts;
I had to choose a different songline.
She never suckled me to rest;
I never saw my mother’s breasts
More bare than through a frock, a vest,
A slip or brassiere, ample, longline.
I never saw my mother’s breasts,
I had to choose a different songline.

There was a between her thighs
As she crouched, dress up, on the toilet;
I gazed at it with goggle eyes,
That puzzling between her thighs;
And still I feel confusion rise,
Wanting to worship and despoil it.
There was a between her thighs
As she crouched, dress up, on the toilet.

And did I stroke my dingledum?
And did she wave her scissors, smiling?
For otherwise… I wasn’t dumb,
Yet couldn’t stroke my dingledum
All through my teenage years, nor come.
The dubious memory is beguiling.
Yet did I stroke my dingledum,
And did she wave her scissors, smiling?

I gagged on milk and urged it up,
Spatters of white on mummy’s clothing;
She’d held against my lips a cup
When I lay sick; I urged it up,
Gagging, into her tender lap,
And ever since have felt a loathing;
I gagged on milk and urged it up,
Spatters of white on mummy’s clothing.

She left me; she let go my hand!
Infant school smells, and rainsoaked faces.
One girl I fell for, sweet and blonde;
But mum had left, let go my hand;
Still crying, I was made to stand
In shame –I could not tie my laces.
She’d left me, she’d let go my hand!
Infant school smells, and rainsoaked faces.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

alexandr solzhenitsyn

Some may have read the piece on Solzhenitsyn I wrote for the Times on Tuesday. Here is another piece I wrote for the Russians (in Novosti)...

Alexandr Solzhenitsyn

The death of Alexander Solzhenitsyn marks also the symbolic end of the Russian twentieth century. And since Russia has been a principal player in world history, and since Solzhenitsyn deeply affected political thought in the West, his passing is a solemn moment for us all. His life spanned every major event in Russian history since the October Revolution: indeed, he was conceived only a few months after that cataclysm, one of ‘October’s children’. His family lived in silent fear, night after night, as the civil war raged. Little Sanya, with his sensitivity, must have ‘heard’ that anxious silence. And maybe this sowed the seeds of his later ‘on guard’ personality.

Growing up in Rostov, he believed in Stalin, like others blissfully unaware of the great famine out in the countryside, killing millions. He studied hard, joined the Komsomol, and graduated in physics and mathematics. He even found time to marry: a perfect young homo sovieticus. But as an artillery captain after the Nazi invasion, he began to have doubts. How could the mighty USSR, under its Great Leader, collapse so totally against the onslaught? The sense of order and prosperity he sensed beneath the rubble of East Germany shocked him further: this was so different from his poverty-stricken homeland. He voiced one or two mild criticisms in letters, and found himself under arrest, then sentenced to eight years in a labour camp. The scowl on his face in his official prison photo shows that the new, the real, Solzhenitsyn has been born.

I love Alexandr Tvardovsky’s account of how he first read One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. An assistant at the Novy Mir offices had gulled him into taking the manuscript home with him, in December 1962, by saying it was about a peasant. Tvardovsky, of peasant background, couldn’t resist that. He started reading it in bed, but almost at once got up, dressed, and went down to his study. He said from the first page he knew this writer was a genius, and he would not dishonour him by reading his work in his pyjamas. His reaction does honour to Tvardovsky too, and indeed to the great Russian tradition that literature is of paramount moral and artistic value.

When Denisovich was published in the West, we could not appreciate the literary subtleties of the original Russian, but were overwhelmed by the knowledge that the work represented the conscience of a suffering nation. Soft western authors could hardly compete. With every succeeding book –First Circle, Cancer Ward, The Gulag Archipelago—his reputation soared every higher in the West, and (circulated in samizdat) his own country. There were other dissidents, but he stood out by his almost flamboyant challenge to the Politburo. If they punished or tried to silence him, he found a way to counter-attack, with amazing bravado. One such riposte came when he and his second wife, Natalya Svetlova, proclaimed that not even threats to harm their children would move them to compromise their beliefs. He never lost the aggression and strategic sense he must have learned on the battlefield.

Not even the hosts of left-leaning intellectuals in the West, for so long blind to the evils of Stalinism, could prevent having their eyes forced half-open. He was responsible for a great conversion. As Akhmatova bore witness to ‘Russia’s terrible years’ in cameo, through Requiem, Solzhenitsyn did so with massive force in the Gulag. For this stupendous work was not dry history, but written with a true artist’s verve. There is no greater opening than his quietly savage account of the small academic readership of Nature, learning that men had found frozen specimens of prehistoric salamanders on the Kolyma River; had broken open the encasing ice, ‘and devoured them with relish on the spot’. Who, he asks, would devour such fossils with relish? Only the tribe of the zeks.

His great quality, illustrated there, is his energy and vitality, which fills the reader with exhilaration, even when the most dreadful events are being related. One feels, he’s taking on Communism single-handed, and he’s going to win! And he won.