A message to Lady Jenkin from George Orwell

December 10, 2014 at 1:05 am (food, Jim D, literature, Orwell, Tory scum, truth, welfare)

Above: Orwell enjoying a nice cup of tea

Baroness Anne Jenkin, the Tory peer who has advised the poor to eat porridge instead of “sugary cereals” and to learn to cook, would do well to read some Orwell and learn some humanity – and humility:

“The miner’s family spend only ten pence a week on green vegetables and ten pence half-penny on milk (remember that one of them is a child less than three years old), and nothing on fruit; but they spend one and nine on sugar (about eight pounds of sugar, that is) and a shilling on tea. The half-crown spent on meat might represent a small joint and the materials for a stew; probably as often as not it would represent four or five tins of bully beef. The basis of their diet, therefore, is white bread and margarine, corned beef, sugared tea, and potatoes – an appalling diet. Would it not be better if they spent more money on wholesome things like oranges and wholemeal bread or if they even, like the writer of the letter to the New Statesman, saved on fuel and ate their carrots raw? Yes, it would, but the point is that no ordinary human being is ever going to do such a thing. The ordinary human being would sooner starve than live on brown bread and raw carrots. And the peculiar evil is this, that the less money you have, the less inclined you feel to spend it on wholesome food. A millionaire may enjoy breakfasting off orange juice and Ryvita biscuits; an unemployed man doesn’t. […] When you are unemployed, which is to say when you are underfed, harassed, bored, and miserable, you don’t want to eat dull wholesome food. You want something a little bit ‘tasty’. There is always some cheaply pleasant thing to tempt you. Let’s have three pennorth of chips! Run out and buy us a twopenny ice-cream! Put the kettle on and we’ll have a nice cup of tea. That is how your mind works when you are at the PAC level. White bread-and-marg and sugared tea don’t nourish you to any extent but they are nicer (at least most people think so) than brown bread-and-dripping and cold water. Unemployment is an endless misery that has got to be constantly palliated, and especially with tea, the English-man’s opium. A cup of tea or even an aspirin is much better as a temporary stimulant than a crust of brown bread”  – from The Road To Wigan Pier, 1937

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Break of Day in the Trenches by Isaac Rosenberg

November 11, 2014 at 8:49 am (imperialism, Jim D, literature, poetry, tragedy, war)

The most famous World War One poets – Sassoon, Brook, Owen, Blunden and Binyon – were officers from the British middle and upper classes. Isaac Rosenberg (above) was different: he was from a working class background and, as his name suggests, was Jewish. He served in the ranks and turned down the opportunity to become a lance corporal.

Also unlike most of the better-known 1914-18 poets, he was critical of the war from the start, but enlisted in 1915 because he needed employment to support his mother.

He was killed on the Somme on 1 April 1918.

Break of Day in the Trenches

The darkness crumbles away
It is the same old druid Time as ever,
Only a live thing leaps my hand,
A queer sardonic rat,
As I pull the parapet’s poppy
To stick behind my ear.
Droll rat, they would shoot you if they knew
Your cosmopolitan sympathies,
Now you have touched this English hand
You will do the same to a German
Soon, no doubt, if it be your pleasure
To cross the sleeping green between.
It seems you inwardly grin as you pass
Strong eyes, fine limbs, haughty athletes,
Less chanced than you for life,
Bonds to the whims of murder,
Sprawled in the bowels of the earth,
The torn fields of France.
What do you see in our eyes
At the shrieking iron and flame
Hurled through still heavens?
What quaver -what heart aghast?
Poppies whose roots are in men’s veins
Drop, and are ever dropping;
But mine in my ear is safe,
Just a little white with the dust.

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“Thomas was an outstandingly unpleasant man, one who cheated and stole from his friends and peed on their carpets”

October 27, 2014 at 8:29 am (booze, literature, poetry, posted by JD, wild man)

Portrait of Welsh poet Dylan Thomas with wife Caitlin Thomas. Picture: Lebrecht  Thomas with wife Caitlin 

Dylan Thomas was born 100 years ago today, and the centennial is causing much excitement in Wales and, indeed, across the world. A lot of the coverage suggests that Thomas was not just the author of (occasionally) beguiling and attractive poetry, but was also a beguiling and attractive human being.

This gives me another opportunity to republish Kingsley Amis’s account of a meeting with Thomas in 1951.  Amis had little time for Thomas either as a man or as a poet, as the following account makes clear. Surprisingly, and under circumstances that have never been made clear, Amis was appointed executor of Thomas’s estate.

This account was first published in the Spectator in 1957, republished in 1970 as part of the Amis anthology What Became of Jane Austin? and finally appeared again in modified form in Amis’s 1991 Memoirs. What appears below is from the latter, with the 1957 conclusion appended:

******************************************************************************************************

I met Dylan Thomas on a single evening in the spring of 1951, when he had accepted an invitation to give a talk to the English Society of the [University] College [of Swansea]. The secretary of the society, a pupil of mine, asked me if I would like to come along to the pub and meet Thomas before the official proceedings opened.  I said I would like to very much, for although I had lost all my earlier enthusiasm for his writing, I had heard a great deal, not only in Swansea, of his abilities as a talker and entertainer of his friends. I arranged with my wife and some of our own friends that we would try to get Thomas back into the pub after his talk and thereafter to our house just up the street from there. I got down the pub about six, feeling expectant.

The foregoing paragraph is based on a brief account I wrote of this meeting in the Spectator in 1957. If I had known about him then what I have since learnt, I would still have turned up, but with different expectations. For one things, I would certainly not have entertained the idea of getting him along to my house then or at any other time, indeed, would have done my best to conceal its location from him. I will now go on with a version of what I went on to write then, cut and amended where necessary.

Thomas was already in the pub, a glass of light ale before him and a half-circle of students round him. The impression he made was of apathy as much as anything. Also in attendance was, I said in 1957, a Welsh painter of small eminence whom I called Griffiths. In fact this person was a Welsh poet of small eminence by the name of John Ormond Thomas and later known professionally, I understand, as John Ormond. In the course of the session he told us several times that he had that day driven down from his house in Merionethshire (north Wales, now part of Gwynedd) on purpose to see Thomas, whom he had known, he said more than once, for several years. Thomas seemed very sedate, nothing like the great pub performer of legend. He was putting the light ales down regularly but without hurry. After some uninspired talk about his recent trip to America, he announced, in his clear, slow, slightly haughty, cut-glass Welsh voice, ‘I’ve just come back from Persia, where I’ve been pouring water on troubled oil.’

Making what was in those days my stock retort to the prepared epigram, I said boyishly, ‘I say, I must go and write that down.’ What I should have said, I now realise, was something much more like: ‘What? What are you talking about? That means nothing, and it isn’t funny or clever, it’s infantile playing with words, like that silly line of yours about the man in the wind and the man in the west moon. Or the phrase in that story about Highlanders being piping hot. They weren’t hot or piping hot, but saying so is a bit naughty, I agree. Taff.’

Instead of this we had an exchange of limericks. For this sort of thing to be fun, the limericks have to be good, ingenious, original and especially in mixed company, which this was, not scatological or distasteful (containing references to vomiting, for instance). These conditions were met only fitfully on this occasion. The time to be getting along to the meeting came none too soon. Thomas jumped up and bought a number of bottles of beer, two of which he stuffed into his coat pockets. He gave the others to J.O. Thomas to carry. ‘No need to worry, boy,’ the latter kept saying. ‘Plenty of time afterwards.’

‘I’ve been caught like that before.’

I realise now that this tenacious sticking to beer when spirits would obviously have been more portable confirms in a small way the view that Thomas was a natural beer-drinker, like many. But with a smaller capacity than many, perhaps the only defect in himself he seems to have noticed: there is a note of mortification in his remark to ‘Dai’ below. Anyway, he was finished off by all the bourbon they gave him in America, culminating in the famous eighteen straight whiskeys just before his death; but that was a good two and a half years later.

The bottles were still in Thomas’s pockets — he checked this several times — when in due course he sat rather balefully facing his audience in a room in the Students’ Union up the hill. About fifty or sixty people had turned up; students and lecturers from the College mainly, but with a good sprinkling of persons who looked as though they were implicated in some way with the local Bookmen’s Society. With a puzzled expression, as if wondering who its author could be, Thomas took from his breast pocket and sorted through an ample typescript, which had evidently been used many times before. (And why not? But I thought differently then.)

His first words were, ‘I can’t manage a proper talk. I might just manage an improper one.’ Some of the female Bookmen glanced at one another apprehensively. What followed was partly run-of-the mill stuff about his 1950 reading-lecturing tour of the US, featuring crew-cut sophomores and women’s literary clubs in pedestrian vein, and partly the impressionistic maundering, full of strings of compound adjectives and puns, he over-indulged in his broadcasts. Then he read some poems.

Of his own I remember ‘Fern Hill’ the best, a fine performance given the kind of poem it is, but for the most part he read the work of other poets: Auden’s ‘The Unknown Citizen’, Plomer’s ‘The Flying Bum’ (the Bookmen got a little glassy-eyed over that one) and Yeats’s ‘Lapus Lazuli’. His voice was magnificent, and his belief in what he read seemed absolute, yet there was something vaguely disconcerting about it too, not only to me. This feeling was crystallised when he came to the end of the Yeats. He went normally enough, if rather slowly, as far as:

‘Their eyes mid many wrinkles, their eyes,
Their ancient, glittering eyes …’

and then fell silent for a full ten seconds. This, as can readily be checked, is a very long time, and since that baleful glare at his audience did not flicker, nor his frame move a hair’s breath, it certainly bore its full value on this occasion. Eventually his mouth dropped slowly and widely open, his lips crinkled like a child’s who is going to cry, and he said in a tremulous half-whisper:

‘… are gay.’ 

He held it for another ten seconds or so, still staring and immobile, his mouth still open and crinkled. It was magnificent and the silence in the room was absolute, but … (so 1957. Actually of course it was bloody awful, a piece of naked showing-off and an insult to Yeats and to poetry.)

I will cut the account short at that point. There was a return to the pub but still no pub performance. Perhaps he thought we were not worth it. Who cares? One has to record that many and varied people found him delightful company. That man is not all bad who said of his wife and the state she had been in earlier that day, as he did to Peter Quennell, ‘Methought I saw my late espoused saint passed out on the bathroom floor.’

Thomas was an outstandingly unpleasant man, one who cheated and stole from his friends and peed on their carpets. At the start he boozed a lot because it fitted his image as a poet, rather than out of any real thirst or need: Mary Morgan — I have never seen this anecdote reprinted — found an old local drinking-companion to whom he had confessed as much: ‘I wish I knew where you put it Dai; I can’t keep up with you.’ But for the last eight years or more of his short life he had something to drink about. That famous description of himself as ‘the Rimbaud of Cwmdonkin Drive’ is sad and awful more than funny. He knew Rimbaud had stopped writing poetry fro good at the age of nineteen. Nearly all Thomas’s best work was written or drafted by the same age. He had a final burst of energy about 1944 but nothing after. And he was too sharp not to see it.

*****************************************************************************************************

Amis’s 1957 conclusion: 

Not very long afterwards we were all back at the pub, Griffiths [ie J.O. Thomas] included. With his performance over, Thomas’s constraint had disappeared and he was clearly beginning to enjoy himself. Griffiths, however, was monopolizing him more and more and exchanging a kind of cryptic badinage with him that soon became hard to listen to, especially on one’s feet. The pub, too, had filled up and was now so crowded that the large group round Thomas soon lost all cohesion and started to melt away. I was not sorry to go and sit down at the other end of the room when the chance came. It was at this point that my friends and I finally abandoned our scheme of trying to get Thomas up to my house when the pub shut. After a time the girl student who had been with us earlier, and who had stayed with Thomas longer than most, came over and said: ‘You know, nobody’s talking to him now, except that Griffiths chap.

‘Why don’t you stay and talk to him?’

‘Too boring. And he wasn’t talking to any of us. Still, poor dab, he does look out of it He was in a real state a little while ago.’

‘How do you mean?’

‘All sorry for himself. Complaining that everybody’d gone and left him.’

We all felt rather uncomfortable, and rightly. Although I can vividly recall how tedious, and how unsharable, his conversation with Griffiths was, I am ashamed now to think how openly we must have seemed to be dropping Thomas, how plain was our duty not to drop him at all. Our general disappointment goes to explain our behaviour, but does not excuse it. We were unlucky, too, in encountering him when he was off form and accompanied by Griffiths. At the time I thought that if he had wanted to detach himself and talk to the students he would have found some means of doing so: I have since realized that he was far too good-natured ever to contemplate giving anyone the cold shoulder, and I wonder whether a talent for doing that might not have been something that he badly needed. One of us, at any rate, should have found a way of assuring him that he was being regarded that evening, not with a coltish mixture of awe and suspicion, but sympathetically. Then, I think, we should have seen that his attitude was a product of nothing more self-aware or self-regarding than shyness.

 

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Radio 4 gives Gramsci a (reasonably) fair hearing

September 2, 2014 at 4:49 pm (AWL, BBC, capitalism, class, democracy, Disability, history, intellectuals, Italy, Jim D, literature, Marxism, modernism, socialism)

It’s not often that the bourgeois media gives an anti-Stalinist communist leader and thinker a fair hearing – or, at least, allows that person’s thought and record to be presented in a balanced and objective manner.

But today’s ‘Great Lives’ on BBC Radio 4, introduced by the former Tory MP Matthew Parris (a good broadcaster, despite his politics) gave the life and thought of Antonio Gramsci affair hearing.

Dr Tom Shakespeare, a disability activist and former Euro-Communist, supported by Professor Anne Sassoon (‘expert witness’) presented a sympathetic and generally fair profile of Gramsci that is well worth listening to, here.

Naturally, I don’t agree with the Euro-Communist slant of the presentation, but that doesn’t detract (much) from the quality of the case put forward by Shakespeare and Sassoon, which will, hopefully, introduce a lot of new people to the ideas of this heroic figure and giant socialist intellect.

Once you’ve listened, you could do a lot worse than move on to this…

Antonio Gramsci

Gramsci
A collection of articles discussing the life and ideas of the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci

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A fable of antisemitism: Howard Jacobson’s J

August 25, 2014 at 12:45 pm (anti-semitism, literature)

The cover of Howard Jacobson's latest novel

Guest post from Pink Prosecco

Like most fictions of the near future, J invites the reader to piece together the missing bits of the puzzle, trace the path which has turned our world into the novel’s world. We learn early on that this isn’t going to be an easy task. “It was a good job that history books were hard to come by, that diaries were hidden or destroyed and that libraries put gentle obstacles in the way of research.” (Kindle edition: 2%). But we soon receive hints of some cataclysmic event (referred to as WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED) as well as clues about the society which has developed in its aftermath.

Although the novel’s biggest question is WHAT HAPPENED? I found myself puzzling over another question:- what kind of science fiction novel is this exactly? Are we meant to read it as a believable dystopia, a society which could be extrapolated from current trends? Satirical and whimsical notes (such as the universal adoption of Jewish surnames by Britons) might suggest not. But what about the central premise, the implication that in ten years or so there might be a pogrom of British Jews?

By chance, just after writing the previous sentence, I flicked over to Twitter and noticed something which captured very well my uncertain response to this question. “Do Jews have future in #EU? If #Holocaust is bench mark: they do. If fear of wearing in public kipa or Star of David: they have not!”  If Jacobson was aiming for realism, then a future Britain in which pretty much all observant Jews (and some secular ones too) have quietly moved somewhere else might have been nearer the mark. By contrast, even though he’s a wingnut Eurabian fantasist, Dan Simmons’ sf novel Flashback, which presents a future world in which Israel has been wiped out by a nuclear strike from Iran, is actually a little (I hope just a little) more plausible than Jacobson’s dystopia.

But of course a dystopia doesn’t have to be realistic in order to work and have something important to say. The Handmaid’s Tale is as implausible as J, and so is Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. Perhaps J, like Atwood’s novel, should be read as a fable, a comment on our society’s apparent refusal to learn the lessons of the Holocaust, let alone the earlier history of antisemitism. Many elements in the novel’s hint suggestively at the relationship between antisemitism, on the one hand, and its apparent opposite – philosemitism, or simply a horrified avoidance of antisemitism. Towards the beginning of the novel a character speaks of looking for what is ‘left over’ (10%) and refers to ‘business dangerously unfinished’  but it is not at this point fully clear whether Jews are his target or those who might kill them. The pattern of confusion over this issue, the elision between guilt, horror and relief in society’s responses to WHAT HAPPENED seems to reflect the way the Holocaust is weaponised by some bigots against Jews today. The horror of the past is acknowledged, but only in order to create a new vector for antisemitism. This observation seems aimed at Jews, but could just as easily be aimed at the clever mutations and masks traceable in antisemitic discourse. ‘Too many of society’s ills were the result of the wrong sort of people with the wrong sort of beliefs finding ways of recycling themselves, no matter how much effort went into their disposal.’ (34%)

Indeed the novel seems to offer a whole series of oblique reflections on antisemitism. When Kevern is convinced someone has searched his house, Ailinn’s friend Ez is quick to offer soothing reassurances that imply he is being hypersensitive. The context (ostensibly) has nothing to do with antisemitism, but the anxiety/scepticism dynamic can be mapped onto the contrasting ways in which people respond to manifestations of antisemitism at a time when people seem increasingly emboldened to express their warped views. See for example this recent statement from a South African trade unionist, or the calmly chilling pronouncements from these Gaza protestors.  But, for some, almost any expression of anxiety is read as paranoid overreaction or a dishonest move, aimed at protecting Israel from criticism. I approached this novel with some reluctance because I found The Finkler Question overrated and politically crude. But science fiction proves a good medium for Jacobson’s message, and J, although still perhaps too obviously polemical in places, is a subtler and more unsettling exploration of antisemitism.

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Remembering London, Orwell, and the victims of 7/7

July 7, 2014 at 2:41 pm (anti-fascism, crime, history, islamism, James Bloodworth, literature, London, murder, Orwell, posted by JD, poverty, reblogged)

Photobucket

Keeping Your Head Above Water In London

James Bloodworth’s rather moving valediction to the capital, written in 2011, on the sixth anniversary of 7/7. James’s personal circumstances have changed quite considerably (he now has a job back in London) since he wrote this and we first posted it here at Shiraz.

Dedicated to those who lost their lives to religious fascism on this day six (now nine) years ago

Yesterday I moved from London to a place called Burnham-on-sea, a banal coastal town in the South West of England where they still sell Donald  McGill-style postcards in the summertime. I moved because my family live here; and with family comes a degree of financial security. I still intend to spend much of my time in London, but I cannot afford to live there any longer. Not that is, until I find gainful, paid employment. Getting a job is notoriously difficult for the unemployed at present. A man I recently sat next to at a recruitment fair told me and others he had applied for 10,000 jobs in the past two years. He was almost certainly exaggerating – overdoing one’s own misfortune seems to be a particularly British characteristic – or perhaps disastrous at writing job applications, but nonetheless, the fact that many present were prepared to believe him speaks volumes about the state of the job market.

As it happened, I was able to land a job with my previous employer, Royal Mail. Getting the job proved to be the easy part. More difficult was getting sufficient hours to pay the rent as well as buy enough to eat. Being a Postman today is a very different job to what it used to be. Almost all new contracts are temporary and based on 25-30 hour weeks; and the amount of junk a postman is required to carry around on his back in the form of advertising is rising exponentially year-on-year. That was my impression at least. Unable to eke out anything other than an extremely meagre existence in London on £200 a week, I left the position after only two weeks in the job.

The part of London life that is perhaps the biggest burden is the cost of rent. Being shown around dingy, mould-infested bedsits only to be told you must pay £100 a week for the pleasure of living there is soul destroying; especially when it comes with the prospect of giving half your weekly pay to someone whose “portfolio” ensures they will never have to sleep in mould infested dwellings, nor break their back for £200 a week. With very little chance of ever owning a house, those with inadequate living quarters must instead navigate the rental free-market, where at the end of every tenancy getting your deposit back can be like trying to extract teeth from a bad tempered dog. Life in London can be hugely enjoyable, but it can also leave you feeling a little like Gordon Comstock, the character in George Orwell’s novel Keep the Aspidistra Flying, his living conditions grim, his job boring, and his impecuniousness a frequent source of humiliation. The difference in my case is that I am not actively trying to sink to the lowest levels of society.

London famously attracts its fair share of those  attempting to “make it” in one sense or another. As someone who has recently completed a course in journalism at City University, I am fairly sure I fit into this category of person myself. Although fully aware that moving to London would not open some golden path into the journalistic profession, I did view it as the correct place to be, which it undeniably is, most of all perhaps because of the opportunities to meet people you only get in the capital.

One thing you soon start to notice in London is the extraordinary extent to which everything is about “connections”, not least in journalism. The major newspaper titles no longer advertise positions, instead preferring to find employees who are in the loop, so to speak. Most graduates instead pursue internship placements, working anything up to a year for free on a major title, performing menial tasks such as tea-making in the almost millenarian hope that one day they may get the chance to contribute something worthwhile to the paper.

Professional journalism has always been something of a middle and upper class pursuit of course. The term “BBC accent” was coined during the 20th century to describe a recognisable Home Counties diction the corporation now likes to pretend most of its employees do not in fact possess. What certainly has changed is that most of those successfully entering the profession today have postgraduate qualifications and lengthy internships under their belts, affordable only to the relatively affluent; and unlike a Home Counties accent, something which cannot be faked. The resulting journalism that
invades my own cramped bedroom every night via the television could perhaps most aptly be described as the political establishment talking to itself.

If you can handle all of this and come out of it with your sanity you may be rewarded with a job, or you may not be. What will almost certainly be the case is there will be less in the boss’s pot with which to pay you, the worker, whether in the newspaper business or elsewhere. In hard times employee’s wages inevitably take the hit before chief executive final salary pension schemes; and if that means newsrooms becoming increasingly stuffed with wealthy individuals who can partake in journalism as a leisure activity, then so be it.

The days always seemed to go by at a faster pace in London. What I mean to say is that the time actually feels like it is moving faster. I think because so much of each day is spent under the ground scuttling along, I would say at great speed, but often at a crawl, on an overcrowded tube train. The conditions often bring out the worst in people, myself included. Just the other day I got into a quarrel with a man over some trivial thing (he bumped into me as I was walking round a corner), resulting in a situation that could quite easily have resulted in a physical confrontation, foolish on my part though that would have been.

It was of course in Keep the Aspidistra Flying that Gordon Comstock declared his own personal war on affluence. Riding on the Docklands Light Railway first thing in the morning having practically embalmed my liver the night before, sat next to the businessmen with calculators working out their cash flows on the way to Canary Wharf, I have gotten, I like to think, a small insight into Gordon Comstock’s disdain for the capitalist vulgarities he sees around him, oscillating between self-admiration and self-loathing.

Six years ago today a group of deranged fanatics declared not a war on affluence, but a war on London. Without dragging up tired clichés about “never forgetting” (although you shouldn’t) and lionising the “spirit of the blitz”, remembering that 52 innocent people were murdered for a fascistic ideology puts my own London-induced neuroticism into perspective. Despite his (to me anyway) disagreeable political views, Samuel Johnson was right to say that “by seeing London, [he had] seen as much of life as the world can show”, and it was this that so disgusted the murderers of 7/7 – the sheer diversity of life in the capital, whether represented by “those slags dancing around” (as some other would-be murderers called them), or the insufficiently pious Muslims who practiced at their local Mosques.

Returning to Orwell, Gordon Comstock always had to share his room with aspidistras which continued to thrive despite his mistreatment of them. Despite what happened on that day in July 2005, London continues to thrive, and is a place I will return to live soon, I hope.

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Maya Angelou: Phenomenal Woman

May 28, 2014 at 6:56 pm (black culture, civil rights, culture, Jackie Mcdonough, literature, poetry, RIP, song, women)

By Maya Angelou 1928–2014

Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.
I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size
But when I start to tell them,
They think I’m telling lies.
I say,
It’s in the reach of my arms,
The span of my hips,
The stride of my step,
The curl of my lips.
I’m a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.
.
I walk into a room
Just as cool as you please,
And to a man,
The fellows stand or
Fall down on their knees.
Then they swarm around me,
A hive of honey bees.
I say,
It’s the fire in my eyes,
And the flash of my teeth,
The swing in my waist,
And the joy in my feet.
I’m a woman
Phenomenally.
.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.
.
Men themselves have wondered
What they see in me.
They try so much
But they can’t touch
My inner mystery.
When I try to show them,
They say they still can’t see.
I say,
It’s in the arch of my back,
The sun of my smile,
The ride of my breasts,
The grace of my style.
I’m a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.
.
Now you understand
Just why my head’s not bowed.
I don’t shout or jump about
Or have to talk real loud.
When you see me passing,
It ought to make you proud.
I say,
It’s in the click of my heels,
The bend of my hair,
the palm of my hand,
The need for my care.
’Cause I’m a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.
Share this text …?

From And Still I Rise, by Maya Angelou ,1978.

Source: The Complete Collected Poems of Maya Angelou (Random House Inc., 1994)

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Gove doesn’t want pupils to read ‘Of Mice and Men’

May 25, 2014 at 11:24 pm (Asshole, culture, Education, humanism, Jim D, literature, Tory scum, tragedy, United States)

In an extraordinary outburst of anti-American philistinism, Michael Gove seeks to remove Steinbeck’s ‘Of Mice And Men’, and Harper Lee’s ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ from the GCSE curriculum. What a disgrace!

‘Of Mice and Men’ may not be Steinbeck’s greatest novel, but it’s still a major work. The final scene is one of the most moving pieces of literature you’ll ever read, to be set alongside the best of Dickens, but without the mawkish sentimentality: Steinbeck’s terse, straightforward prose prevents that.

The book was originally going to be called ‘Something Happened’, which sums up Steinbeck’s approach to story telling. Like the book that preceded it, ‘In Dubious Battle’ and the book that followed, ‘The Grapes of Wrath’, this is about itinerant agricultural  labourers in 1930’s Carlifornia. But unlike those two books, there is little overt social or political context: it’s essentially a story of friendship, hope and loss. It’s a great modern tragedy and that final scene remains the only piece of fiction I have ever read that can, without fail, make me cry.

Lennie looked eagerly at him. “Go on, George. Ain’t you gonna give me more hell?”

“No” said George.

“Well, I can go away,” said Lennie. “I’ll go right off in the hills an’ find a cave if you don’t want me.”

George shook himself again. “No,” he said. “I want you to stay with me here.”

Lennie said craftily – “Tell me like you done before.”

“Tell you what?”

“‘Bout the other guys an’ about us.”

George said, “Guys like us got no fambly. They make a little stake an’ then they blow it in. They got nobody in the worl’ that gives a hoot in hell about ‘em -“

But not us,” Lennie cried happily. “Tell about us now.”

George was quiet for a moment. “But not us,” he said.

“Because  – “

“Because I got you an’ – “

“An’ I got you. We got each other, that’s what, that gives a hoot in hell about us,” Lennie cried in triumph.

The little evening breeze blew over the clearing and the leaves rustled and the wind waves flowed up the green pool. And the shouts of the men sounded again, this time much closer than before.

George took off his hat. He said shakily, “Take off your hat, Lennie. The air feels fine.”

Lennie removed his hat dutifully and laid it on the ground in front of him. The shadow in the valley was bluer, and the evening came fast. On the wind the sound of crashing in the brush came to them.

Lennie said, “Tell how it’s gonna be.”

George had been listening to the distant sounds. For a moment he was business-like. “Look across the river, Lennie, an’ I’ll tell you so you can almost see it.”

Lennie turned his head and looked across the pool and up the darkening slopes of the Gabilans. “We gonna get a little place,” George began. He reached in his side pocket and brought out Carlson’s Luger; he snapped off the safety, and the hand gun lay on the ground behind Lennie’s back. He looked at the back of Lennie’s head, at the place where the spine and the skull were joined.

A man’s voice called from up the river, and another man answered.

“Go on,” said Lennie.

George raised the gun and his hand shook, and he dropped his hand to the ground again.

“Go on,” said Lennie. “How it’s gonna be. We gonna get a little place.”

“We’ll have a cow,” said George. “An’ we’ll have maybe a pig an’ chickens…an’ down the flat we’ll have a…little piece alfalfa  –  “

“For the rabbits, ” Lennie shouted.

“For the rabbits,” George repeated.

“And I get to tend the rabbits.”

“And you get to tend the rabbits.”

Lennie giggled with happiness. “An’ live off the fatta the lan’.”

“Yes.”

Lennie turned his head

“No, Lennie. Look down across the river, like you can almost see the place.”

Lennie obayed him. George looked down at the gun.

There were crashing footsteps in the brush now! George turned and looked towards them.

“Go on, George. When we gonna do it?”

“Gonna do it soon.”

“Me an’ you.”

“You…an’ me. Ever’body gonna be nice to you. Ain’t gonna be no more trouble. Nobody gonna hurt nobody nor steal from ‘em.”

Lennie said, “I thought you was mad at me, George.”

“No,” said George. “No, Lennie. I ain’t mad. I never been mad, an’ I ain’t now. That’s a thing I want ya to know.”

The voices came close now. George raised the gun and listened to the voices.

Lennie begged, “Le’s do it now. Le’s get that place now.”

“Sure, right now. I gotta. We gotta.”

And George raised the gun and steadied it, and he brought the muzzle of it close to the back of Lennie’s head. The hand shook violently, but his face set and his hand steadied. He pulled the trigger. The crash of the shot rolled up the hills and rolled down again. Lennie jarred, and then settled slowly forward to the sand, and he lay without quivering.

George shivered and looked at the gun, and then he threw it from him, back up the bank, near the pile of old ashes.

The brush seemed filled with cries and with the sound of running feet. Slim’s voice shouted, “George. Where you at, George?”

But George sat stiffly on the bank and looked at his right hand that had thrown the gun away. The group burst into the clearing and Curley was ahead. He saw Lennie lying on the sand. “Got him, by God.” He went over and looked down at Lennie, and then looked back at George. “Right in the back of the head,” he said softly.

Slim came directly to George and sat down beside him, sat very close to him. “Never you mind,” said Slim. “A guy got to sometimes.”

But Carlson was standing over George. “How’d you do it?” he asked.

“I just done it,” George said tiredly.

“Did he have my gun?”

“Yeah. He had your gun.”

“An’ you got it away from him and you took it an’ you killed him?”

“Yeah. Tha’s how.” George’s voice was almost a whisper. He looked steadily at his right hand that had held the gun.

Slim twitched George’s elbow. “Come on, George. Me an’ you’ll go in an’ get a drink.”

George let himself be helped to his feet. “Yeah, a drink.”

Slim said, “You hadda, George. I swear you hadda. Come on with me.” He led George to the entrance of the trail and up towards the highway.

Curley and Carson looked after them. And Carlson said, “Now what the hell you suppose is eatin’ them two guys?”

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Kingsley Amis spends an evening with Dylan Thomas

May 5, 2014 at 6:33 am (BBC, beer, culture, literature, poetry, posted by JD, whisky, wild man, wireless)

Portrait of Welsh poet Dylan Thomas with wife Caitlin Thomas. Picture: Lebrecht  Thomas with wife Caitlin 

For no particular reason that I can fathom (the centenary of his birth is not until this coming October), BBC Radio 3 has decreed today ‘Dylan Thomas Day’. Oh well, this gives me an excuse to republish Kingsley Amis’s account of a meeting with Thomas in 1951.  Amis had little time for Thomas either as a man or as a poet, as the following account makes clear. Surprisingly, and under circumstances that have never been made clear, Amis was appointed executor of Thomas’s estate.

This account was first published in the Spectator in 1957, republished in 1970 as part of the Amis anthology What Became of Jane Austin? and finally appeared again in modified form in Amis’s 1991 Memoirs. What appears below is from the latter, with the 1957 conclusion appended:

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I met Dylan Thomas on a single evening in the spring of 1951, when he had accepted an invitation to give a talk to the English Society of the [University] College [of Swansea]. The secretary of the society, a pupil of mine, asked me if I would like to come along to the pub and meet Thomas before the official proceedings opened.  I said I would like to very much, for although I had lost all my earlier enthusiasm for his writing, I had heard a great deal, not only in Swansea, of his abilities as a talker and entertainer of his friends. I arranged with my wife and some of our own friends that we would try to get Thomas back into the pub after his talk and thereafter to our house just up the street from there. I got down the pub about six, feeling expectant.

The foregoing paragraph is based on a brief account I wrote of this meeting in the Spectator in 1957. If I had known about him then what I have since learnt, I would still have turned up, but with different expectations. For one things, I would certainly not have entertained the idea of getting him along to my house then or at any other time, indeed, would have done my best to conceal its location from him. I will now go on with a version of what I went on to write then, cut and amended where necessary.

Thomas was already in the pub, a glass of light ale before him and a half-circle of students round him. The impression he made was of apathy as much as anything. Also in attendance was, I said in 1957, a Welsh painter of small eminence whom I called Griffiths. In fact this person was a Welsh poet of small eminence by the name of John Ormond Thomas and later known professionally, I understand, as John Ormond. In the course of the session he told us several times that he had that day driven down from his house in Merionethshire (north Wales, now part of Gwynedd) on purpose to see Thomas, whom he had known, he said more than once, for several years. Thomas seemed very sedate, nothing like the great pub performer of legend. He was putting the light ales down regularly but without hurry. After some uninspired talk about his recent trip to America, he announced, in his clear, slow, slightly haughty, cut-glass Welsh voice, ‘I’ve just come back from Persia, where I’ve been pouring water on troubled oil.’

Making what was in those days my stock retort to the prepared epigram, I said boyishly, ‘I say, I must go and write that down.’ What I should have said, I now realise, was something much more like: ‘What? What are you talking about? That means nothing, and it isn’t funny or clever, it’s infantile playing with words, like that silly line of yours about the man in the wind and the man in the west moon. Or the phrase in that story about Highlanders being piping hot. They weren’t hot or piping hot, but saying so is a bit naughty, I agree. Taff.’

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EU workers welcome here!

January 1, 2014 at 7:18 pm (Europe, history, Human rights, immigration, internationalism, literature, posted by JD, Racism, solidarity, Tory scum, UKIP, workers)

This piece by Boyd Tonkin, originally entitled ‘Ignore the xenophobic hysteria and welcome our EU neighbours’, appeared in last Friday’s Independent. It deserves to be as widely disseminated and read as possible. Today – the first day of so-called “open borders” for Bulgarian and Romanian workers coming to Britain  – seems as good a time as any to draw it to your attention:

This may surprise alarmed observers in Sofia and Bucharest – or even in Westminster. But one of the best-loved British books of 2013 takes the form of a fervent and heartfelt tribute to the peoples of Bulgaria and Romania. War hero, writer and traveller Patrick Leigh Fermor died in 2011 before he could publish the third volume of memoirs about his “Great Trudge” though Europe in the mid-1930s. The Broken Road, which appeared posthumously in the autumn, takes the young literary vagabond from the “Iron Gates” on the Danube across both countries to the Black Sea coast.

Everywhere he walks, Leigh Fermor relishes the landscapes and the languages. He admires the culture and the customs. Above all, he comes to love the people of the Balkan peaks and plains: always hospitable and welcoming, forever willing even in the poorest backwater to greet this penniless young Englishman with unstinting generosity, feed him, shelter him and send him on his way with blessings – and with lunch.

Now, what would happen to a late-teenage Bulgarian or Romanian, without lodging, employment or any ready cash, who started to walk, say, from Dover to Glasgow in the spring of 2014? On the evidence of British public life just now, the result would not be a glorious trek across a land of smiles, fondly remembered from a ripe old age.

The Economist magazine has already issued its number-crunched fiat in their favour. Still, this column may count as an early squeak in the almost inaudible chorus of welcome for visitors or migrants to the UK from Bulgaria and Romania. More than a few of us belong to the open-hearted country of Paddy Leigh Fermor rather than the tight little island of Godfrey Bloom. If you wish to, fellow EU citizens, I hope that you will come. Should you choose, quite legitimately, to seek work here, then I hope that you prosper for as long as you stay. And most of all, I hope against hope that our morally bankrupt political class and ruthlessly cynical media will one day start to address the underlying reasons for home-grown fears: the living-standards crisis, deep-seated job insecurity, yawning chasms in wealth and opportunity, the greed and arrogance of a pampered “super-class”, and a chronic lack of decent homes for non-millionaires. Instead, they have set out on yet another sordid scapegoat hunt. Patrick Leigh Fermor Patrick Leigh Fermor

The grievances are genuine. But the actual culprits have got clean away. A useful watchword for 2014 might run: lay the blame where it belongs. August Bebel, a wise German social democrat at the turn of the 20th century, popularised the idea that “anti-Semitism is the socialism of fools”. A century on, the quarry may have changed, but not the toxic rhetoric, nor the squalid logic of victimisation. As all the 28 million people in the so-called “A2” accession countries of the EU must understand, this lather of dread has been whipped into a perfect storm by the confluence of cannily inflammatory media and the blind funk of a shaky governing party. As a result, if you’re looking for fraudulent crystal-ball predictions, outrageously deceitful hucksterism and a brisk trade in ideological scrap and junk, there’s no need to visit some mythical gypsy encampment. You can find all that and more via any visit to Westminster, TV studios and newsrooms – plus a detour, of course, to the Ukip HQ. Read the rest of this entry »

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