Sunday, September 30, 2012


It would be the day it poured: the day of liberation from nearly three months stasis in Oxford. I took the 6.56 train Worcester, having the day’s first proper cup of coffee in the cheap Brief Encounter-ish tearoom in Worcester, and then onto Hereford, creeping along the Malvern Hills, the fields inundated with rain, the wet crops, the sheep cringing into the hedge thickets and soggy apple orchards. I’d forgotten about rural buses and their lacksadaisical reliability. I’d missed the bus from Hereford to Hay-on-Wye by five minutes and it was two hours until the next one. Cursing, I walked into Hereford (grey, depressed, with a strangely hospitable European piazza in the centre) for a bacon butty – which, I now know, is impossible to eat without coating your eyebrows with brown sauce – and a stroll through what was promisingly called The Butter Market but was really a church bazaar affair in the town hall.

And thus to my destination. Hay-on-Wye is set on a hill and impossible to navigate.

The streets seemed to shift shapes when I had my back turned. I stomped down alleys, getting lost in residential culs-des-sac, running up and down the hill to find my bearings. In the distance, the hills were monochromatically green in the distance – emerald with darker hedges which subdivided them, shouldering heavy mist and suffering the ubiquitous rain.

Autumn hasn’t reached Wales yet but there is a single flaming tree in front of Hay Castle, which stands gothically at the top of the hill. Richard Booth, the man who made Hay-on-Wye the village of books by opening his shop in 1962, has since resigned his crumbling castle, trailing with vines, beset by rooks, and studded with a large CAUTION sign. The bookstore that used to function on the ground floor is now dismantled and the emptied dusty rooms with warped timber whispered bad luck and sadness.

The best bookshop award went to the marvellously stocked Poetry Bookshop. The owner had a puppy he was trying to train, which was kept in a wire cage while Japanese tourists browsed, laughing at the names of poets and asking for expensive nicely illustrated copies of Tennyson. The puppy, a long coltish thing, leapt out of its confines but caught its leg on the cage and yelped melodramatically to a general disturbance.

For lunch, I was directed to the ivy-covered Blue Boar at the top of the hill, on the other side of the castle. It was wood panelled, fire-placed, carpeted, empty. I ordered lamb and the best glass of red wine I’ve had since Burgundy. The room was later peopled by a large woman who approached her bacon and brie sandwich with great intent, and an octogenarian with a Beckettian face, wearing a waistcoat and an expensive paisley scarf. The two men at the bar left to sheer their sheep.

I gallivanted back to the Poetry bookshop for a second run only to be turned away by drawn curtains. When I called the number on the front door the owner said they were closed firmly, in the cold manner of bookshop owners who’ve had no patience waiting all day in an empty shop only to be beset by strangers in their late afternoons. I returned forlorn – after several wrong turns – to the Blue Boar, planning to warm myself with a powerful espresso and my melancholy. I saw my bus and went over to meet the conductor only to be told I had missed the last bus to Hereford and I’d better come with him to Brecon. Farewell, village of books. Farewell ruinous geography. Farewell sodden shoes and lovely fireside espresso. From Brecon, home of the great 18th century actress Sarah Siddons, a bus to Abergavenny, a train to Hereford, to Oxford, where - upon my alighting - it started to rain.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Attention poetry mavens: any suggestions for good contemporary poets (either in general or particular collections)? Have sudden appetite but very little idea where to start. Any advice welcome!

Sunday, September 23, 2012

It's been raining all day, that splendid (as long as you're not out in it) gloomy continuous fall of rain which demands umbrellas and Wellies. There's a film crew on Holywell and I can only presume it's Lewis. I'm imagining a fierce sodden twilight confrontation of the murderer, macs slick with the rain, torches on angry wet faces, etc.

This is what happens a day after the autumnal equinox. It doesn't rain this heavily usually - this is a proper find-your-favourite-jumper day. It makes me think of this scene:

'It's an owl', said Peter. 'This is going to be a wonderful place for birds. I shall go to bed now. I say, let's go and explore tomorrow. You might find anything in a place like this. Did you see those mountains as we came along? And the woods? There might be eagles. There might be stags. There'll be hawks.'
'Badgers!' said Lucy.
'Foxes!' said Edmund.
'Rabbits!' said Susan.
But when the next morning came there was a steady rain falling, so thick that when you looked out of the window you could see neither the mountains nor the woods nor the stream in the garden.
'Of course it would be raining!' said Edmund.

- From The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe

There's a wireless. And lots of books. But they'll discover the house of course.

Friday, September 21, 2012

The view from Southbank

Embarrassingly, last year I went to London only once. I intend to make it up this year. On Wednesday, I took my first excursion to the National to see Simon Russell Beale in Nicholas Hytner’s production of Timon of Athens. The primary plot of Shakespeare and Middleton’s play – of a wealthy man whose estate collapses due to his unrestrained generosity, and turns feral misanthrope after being abandoned by his friends – was effortlessly adapted to a satire of present day London. The first scene, in which a painter and a poet discuss the works they’ve produced in Timon’s honour, is set in an art gallery which Timon’s bounty – and name – had just embellished. (The ancient woman next to me told her friend that the large painting was Goya’s Christ chasing the moneylenders out of the temple). The employment of a revolving stage coyly referred to the wheel of fortune which is set against Timon (in an early scene he walks against the direction of the revolution to the next scene) as well as a convenient and elegant prop device, wheeling in a banquet table or a hip lounge or a banker’s desk with the swift suggestion of cameras showing the seasons change. The second half, showing Timon in his fallen state, altered Shakespeare’s forest to an industrial wasteland near docks. Rather than becoming a hermit, Timon is a bum in plaid and beanie, clutching a cart.

The secondary, Alcibiades plot was transformed and shaped in a way that would suit the new setting – a kind of violent hoodlum occupy wall street movement which had very little real objective and ended by being utterly absorbed into the way Athens/London operated. It emphasized the plays’ social commentary but was, we thought, the weakest aspect of the performance.

Apemantus, G and I agreed, had had his lines cut, which was unfortunate as Hilton McRae carried the philosopher’s glowering mangy glamour easily. Deborah Findlay as the feminized steward, Flavis, had an unfortunate tendency to moan rather than act.

But Beale is exquisite to watch. He carried off both extremes of Timon’s condition magnetically, though perhaps the quirkiness of his maddened poverty reminds me of his recent performance as Falstaff in BBC’s recent Henry IV 1 and 2. He declines from a well-presented man with a bit too much flair for extravagant shows of affection and, like Lear, an inability to know himself, to a little squat man, a snapping turtle, with consummate control over spasmodic gestures, hoarding his wheelie bin, manipulating and taunting his visitors with the gold he’s found and despises.

The play was followed by lasagne in Le Ballerina in Covent Garden, where all the other diners were either pensioners or French. We all quarrelled about the bust of a man bewigged in the 17th century fashion: is it a singer? Monteverdi? Scarlatti? The waitress said the owner changed his identity every night. Tell me if you find out who he is.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Spurious and Spuriouser

There have been times where I have stopped on the street and suddenly had the thought that I do not have thoughts. All around me are people whose brains are knitting and unravelling problems, meditating on beloveds or categorizing errors. Largely, when I move, I think with my body, or I fret. I may notice my surroundings, or I move with such impatience that my journey is fuelled entirely by desire but no reflection. Once, upon such a re-realization, I sat on nearby steps, desperately trying to think about thought and subsequently becoming narcissistically distressed. This is just the sort of problem that haunts Lars Iyer’s Spurious.

Spurious is the clearly signalled offspring of Waiting for Godot. The plot is as solid as a pair of worn knickers. Two academics, the unnamed narrator and his friend/antagonist W., speak, reproach, agonize, try to create meaning, try to write, try to think, try to contribute, acknowledge their own uselessness, struggle against inactivity and superfluity. It is the triumph of the absurd. They know – or are certain – they are derivative and this paralyzes them with melancholy.

Literature softened our brains, says W. – ‘We should have been doing maths. If we knew maths, we might amount to something. As it is, we’ll amount to nothing.’

The narrator is a shadowy character. The reader knows him through W.’s injunctions which are tinged with a loathing which betrays W.’s unpleasantness. The two travel with a certain English sad-sackedness paying homage to a modernist European greatness. They visit each other’s university towns. The narrator has a patch of growing damp which does not alarm him – it interests him – but it terrifies and outrages W. It’s an obvious metaphor but no less effective. It becomes a kind of decrepit leitmotif. The novel, in short sections, further divided into paragraphs. Revelations, and failures, come in single lines. The paragraphs are like days on a calendar, just passing time as the apocalypse looms. Their egos, their notebooks, their pretences, their strained hours of thought, their alcohol, self-castigation, their straining for a leader, their tiny projects which postpone the sense of the inevitable (messianism, Hindi, mathematics).

It feels like an exercise book, a means of exorcism. The writing is pared and simple, clear and honest. It is unpretentious in its exposure of the characters’ pretensions. The scattered italics stress the voice of anxiety.

The novel hits very close to the bone – my bone at least. It is the swan song for anyone who suspects there is no justification for them doing – or attempting to do – the things they love. Or rather, do compulsively. It is perhaps the love song of every academic who sees through the farce of their endeavour, to the discomforting truth that what they’re doing may be pretence. It is the tantalizing presence of the actual held behind a veil which shames them into realizing their pretence.
Spurious is the first of a trilogy; the second, Dogma, has been published but the third not yet.