Climate Haiku (France, June 2019)

Sucking out water
Spray the aquifer on crops
Drought is coming soon

Medieval clothes
Conjuring and magic tricks
No thought of Black Death

Water to swim in
Tumbles from springs and snow melt
Leaving rocky peaks

Birds moving in trees
Ring doves flying together
No other thing stirs

Transhumance beasts move
Baaing and dull bells ringing
Up to fresh pasture

Stony mountain mist
No worry in beating rain
Dry later and hot

Raining for twelve hours
Owl hooting in the pauses
Sunny briefly cooler

Watch brown squirrel climb
Claws on bark like gnawing sound
Up in the pine tree

Rumbling grey sky
Thunder or high flying thing
Closer and louder

Three hill horizons
Cresting together in cloud
Changes will come soon

Full moon fathers’ day
First waxing and waning then
Waning and waxing

Bright sweet tomatoes
Soft hairs on yellow courgettes
Dirty garlic heads

Bark of the olive tree
Cracked like a river bed
Liquid under it

One hornet buzzing
Nearer then further away
Changes summer’s sound

Flies are bothersome
On the skin and in the air
Bringing more disease

Hands come together
Mountain top recedes in rain
Run for the shelter

My seventy-first
Longest day dawning cool blue
Short night approaches

Here comes canicule
Red on maps and voices shrill
Can’t block burning sun

Repeating food names
Staving off hungry meaning
Fuller but still starved

Heavy atmosphere
Over expanding waters
Closing over life

Madame Verdurin and the publisher

More than two thousand pages into À la recherche du temps perdu there is a brief mention of a Paris publisher who is said to have attended Madame Verdurin’s salon.

Un grand éditeur de Paris venu en visite, et qui avait pensé qu’on le retiendrait, s’en alla brutalement, avec rapidité, comprenant qu’il n’était pas assez élégant pour le petit clan. C’état un homme grand et fort, très brun, studieux, avec quelque chose de tranchant. Il avait l’air d’un couteau à papier en ébène.

This publisher had little in common with the tastes of the ‘fidèles’ and was not going to be constrained by their pretentious desire to dictate artistic taste. Now that’s what needed, cutting edge publishers with gravitas.

Twitter threads

Twitter threads are a new sort of writing 1/10

They come in different forms 2/10

They may be used to cover a topic succinctly and in a strict logical order 3/10

Or they may be vague and rambling 4/10

Often they have many of the characteristics of listicles 5/10

If they are numbered you can see that all the tweets have been written before the first one is tweeted 6/10

If the numbering system goes awry it looks as if they are more spontaneous 7/10

A twitter thread can be turned into a blog post 8/10

It can even be printed out, published as a small pamphlet or as part of an anthology 9/10

If you want to preserve a twitter thread you can keep a screen print of the whole thread 10/10


We are Europe and remain so

On the eve of the EU Referendum I published a blog post, A European Life, that concluded: “My whole life has been lived in the context of this complex and sometimes conflicted continent and whatever the result of the referendum tomorrow, I am just one of very many British people who are not about to leave Europe. We are Europe.” Now, one year into the Article 50 period, one year from the deadline date of 29th March 2019, has anything changed?

In the time since the referendum people have left Britain, meaning many skilled and unskilled positions are now unfilled, damaging the NHS, other public services, agriculture and education. Businesses have planned to close or reduce UK operations, and EU agencies are moving out of the UK. Costs for consumers and businesses have risen. Many have take up the possibility of a second nationality.

There is much more damage to come, as UK citizens – young and old, rich and poor, leave and remain voters – now realise that they may soon be deprived of numerous everyday benefits of EU membership, such as EHIC health coverage, mobile phone roaming, easy car insurance, integrated air and rail travel, study exchange, and funding opportunities for education, culture and research. The freedom to work, study and make a life in all countries of the European Union is due to be restricted, affecting professionals, skilled workers, musicians, performers and other artists, students, and the retired.

But even greater damage is being done. It is now clear that Britain is no longer the country of ‘fair play’; no longer even pretending to be an open society; no longer a country governed by the mission to make common cause with other peoples. Britain, in spite of all the talk of becoming more ‘global’ and of forging ‘new partnerships’, is strangling itself in red, white and blue bunting, betrayed by a propagandist national broadcaster, and unable to counteract its own self-doubt and self-deception. The entrenched xenophobia, the lack of historical awareness, the almost feudal deference that pervades all aspects of British life from politics to humour show Britain as a country that has never taken the trouble to understand its cruel, militaristic, class-ridden past.

If the Brexit fiasco does nothing else – and even if those who look to stop or reverse it are successful –  this must be the time when the country begins to question the things that have held Britain back from a mature involvement in the world. It must include education and awareness programmes similar to those conducted in countries that have suffered from repressive and unequal regimes.  We need a full public debate on the unreconciled history of Empire; a critical examination of the role of monarchy and unelected legislators in Britain’s constitutional arrangements; a comprehensive public engagement to understand and counteract the effects of media bias and the extent of digital intrusions into private and personal lives.

If nothing else, Brexit must mark the end of the years of denial, must make us all accept that Britain is not so Great after all and we all need to do something to make this a better country, a country that looks for collaboration not conflict, equality not superiority. It  will take a lot of work, but we can recover from the shame, disgrace and international ridicule that the Brexit period has heaped on this country, and we must begin now.  We must all make sure that we play our part with good spirit and good will and we must prove our commitment with honesty and humility.

We are Europe and will remain so.

Elizabeth Taylor goes from bookshop to plantation

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In Shillingworth-On-Thames Elizabeth Taylor is swept of her feet by John Wiley, the owner of a Ceylon tea plantation, and has amazing romantic adventures. Perhaps she would have been happier staying in the world of books, or perhaps things would have turned out differently if he had been another John Wiley.

Elephant Walk, 1954 – Director: William Dieterle

In 1954 quite a few bright publishers secretly believed this

Muriel Spark’s fictional recollection of the London publishing world in A Far Cry from Kensington is a meandering tale that tells us something about the ways in which young ladies in the 1950s acquired “a job in publishing”, lost it, and found another.

There are several astute observations, including reference to “the common fallacy which assumes that if a person is a good, vivacious talker he is bound to be a good writer”. Her first, subsequently bankrupt and imprisoned employer, “had another, special illusion: he felt that men and women of upper-class background and education were bound to have advantages of talent over writers of more modest origins”.

The narrator adds: “In 1954 quite a few bright publishers secretly believed this”. In 2018, many still do.

Muriel Spark, A Far Cry from Kensington, 1988

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Tite and Snobby or Doolittle and Dalley?

The River Girl by Wendy Cope appeared in 1991 with lovely brush illustrations by Nicholas Garland. The narrative poem tells the tale of a young writer who, inspired by the river girl muse, becomes a great literary success. This does not make him a nice person and the river girl eventually leaves.

In John Didde’s search for a publisher we learn something about the (fictional) world of poetry publishing in Britain towards the end of the twentieth century.

Last month he sent his work to Tite and Snobby,
The publishers. Now he must wait and wonder
If it will go down well with that famed poet,
Tite’s editor, the dreaded Clinton Thunder.

He knows it’s good but will Clint Thunder like it?
Or will he have to try the Hatchet Press
Up North, or even Doolittle and Dalley?
And what if nobody at all says yes?

What curious names publishers have.

Wendy Cope, The River Girl, 1991

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Penguin…and all the other things we once thought mattered

Kif, the narrator of Richard Flanagan’s First Person, is writing a novel, but it’s going nowhere when his old pal Ray gets him the job of ghostwriting Ziggy Heidl’s autobiography. That’s how he and Ray ‘drifted into that world of publishing and celebrity‘ and meet Gene Paley and Pia Carnevale at the venerable firm of Schlegel TransPacific (known as Transpac or STP). As so often in contemporary novels, the golden age of publishing (including the downtown prestige offices) are part of the backdrop.

It was 1992, that time so close and now so far away when publishing executives still had such rooms and liquors cabinets; before Amazon and e-books; before phrases like granular analytics, customer fulfilment, and supply chain management had connected like tightening coils in the hangman’s noose; before the relentless rise of property values and the collapse of publishing saw publishers’ offices morph into abattoir-like assembly lines, where all staff sat cheek by jowl at long benches reminiscent, say, of Red Army canteens in Kabul, circa 1979.

Ziggy’s story is complicated and violent, but the book eventually gets written and published. Kif still has no success writing novels, but he moves to writing for TV where he has a stunning success.

Pia, the books editor, goes on to ‘survive the clearfelling of publishing companies that proceeded apace over the next few decades, finding at each point in the ever-diminishing forest another, higher tree which to climb. She ended up working at Penguin Random House in New York, the last of the great publishers in the last of great European cities [sic] and all the other things we once thought mattered.

First Person is published under the Chatto & Windus imprint, a part of none other than the Penguin Random House group of companies, where there is, no doubt, an editor – or perhaps more than one – who identifies with Pia.

Richard Flanagan, First Person, 2017


Thinking in Extremes

An exhibition called Benjamin und Brecht/Denken in Extremen officially opens at seven o’clock this evening at the Akademie der Künste in Berlin. It draws material from the Walter Benjamin Archive and the Bertolt Brecht Archive, both housed at the Akademie der Künste, and, according to the website blurb, it includes key documents illustrating the pivotal and conflictual points in the relationship between the two men.

Publicity for the exhibition bears the famous picture of the chess game under the knorrigen Birnbaum in the garden of the house at Skovsbostrand in Svendborg where Brecht lived in exile, itself a potent symbol of the mix of collaboration and conflict in the relationhip. The pear tree is gone now and I believe I am one of the last people to have seen it. I shall explain.

I stayed at the Svendborg Brechthuset in May 2014, and on the last day of my visit the trustee and a friend were tidying up the garden. They decided that the old tree was beyond saving and the time had come to cut it down. This happened quickly and the trunk and few remaining branches were sawn up into logs for the next winter’s fire. Some of the more rotten pieces were thrown on a pile to rot down for compost. I asked if I might save a small bit of branch from the tree, and they agreed, and then moved on to other tasks required in the early Danish summer.

Perhaps a piece of the tree would add to the narrative and, if so, I would be happy to provide one as a late addition to the exhibition. I do not know what this small object would add to the story, but I do know that on that day in May 2014 I felt very strongly that the ending of that tree was a significant event. It felt like a final sign of the passing of the twentieth century and the start of a new era, though one in which the thoughts that prospered under that pear tree might still provided memories, myths and methodologies useful in the coming extreme times.

Brecht mentions the Birnbaum in Naturgedichte I, a poem that ends by reminding us that in some circumstances it is a good idea to live in houses with several exits. Benjamin and Brecht knew this only too well as, sadly, do so many others in our own times.

Hat das kleine Haus wohl im ganzen drei Ausgänge.
Das ist gut für Bewohner, die gegen das Unrecht sind
Und von der Polizei geholt werden können.

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Showing the D-Day spirit on 1st April 2019

Brexit reminds me of D-Day, not the invasion of Europe in 1944, but Decimal Day on 15th February 1971, the day when Britain said goodbye to pounds, shillings and pence.

I was in Norwich at the time and spent the Saturday before in a pub, where an official was drowning his sorrows. His task for the day had been to make sure that all the traders on Norwich market were ready for the switchover and he told the story of one old boy who didn’t seem to have heard of the new currency. The man had asked when this change was going to happen, and when he was told it was in two days time, on Monday, he sighed in relief. “That’s alright then,” he said. “I don’t open Monday.”

Will it be like this on Brexit Day?

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