Memoir: Looking Back

After a couple of more crowded, slightly hectic sessions, last Friday night at Derby Waterstone’s was a relaxed affair; twenty, twenty-five or so people seated in a curve of chairs three or four rows deep; I’d read a couple of extracts from the new novel, a poem too, taking questions and talking as it went along. How come, one of the men at the back asked, you came to Nottingham, and I explained that having just trained as a teacher, along with some friends I was looking for a cheaper city to live and work in than London. This was back in the mid-60s: some things don’t change all that much. We found somewhere to live in Nottingham, I explained, but not jobs, so we all ended up teaching outside the city. Well, the questioner said, you taught me. Where, I asked, knocked out of my stride. Heanor Aldercar, he said – you taught both of us – indicating the man sitting next to him.

Heanor Aldercar Secondary School, Langley Mill, Notts. I taught there for three years, leaving in the summer of 1967.

I’m struggling a little to come to terms with this while Mel – that’s who they are, Mel and Dave – while Mel is telling everyone of the time I came into their English class with the record player and got them to listen to this new album by the Beatles, Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. And now he’s holding up a small square book that I recognise straight off as the City Lights edition of Prevért’s little sequence of poems called Paroles. ‘You gave me this,’ Mel says. ‘Look, your name’s in it.’

Forty seven years ago.

When the more formal part of the evening is done with they come over for a chat. As soon as he gets close I can recognise Mel’s boyhood face not quite hidden in the middle-aged one he has now: Mel is Melvyn  Cox – I can’t place Dave, and I apologise for this, but Melvyn, yes. And he’s brought another book with him, Penguin Modern Poets No. 10: The Mersey Sound. You got us all to buy these, you remember? It’s his name he shows me inside the cover this time, along with the date.

We talk for another five or ten minutes, no more: the shop staff are waiting to clear up and I have a train to catch. Time enough to learn that in what they describe as a pretty rough school I did all right – and to learn my nickname at the time – Slim Jim – it could have been a lot worse. I tell them when I’m next reading in the area and Mel says he might just come along. We shake hands and they’re on their way. That book, I think, that little book of poems, he’s kept it forty seven years. I’m moved almost beyond words; moved in a way that, beyond the facts of what’s happened, I’m finding difficult to explain.The shop manageress offers me a glass of wine. And then I’m thinking about it all the way back down to London on the train.

What I was able to do, once home, was dig out some photographs, just a few, of one of the classes I taught at Heanor Aldercar – and, although I can’t be absolutely certain, I think that’s Melvyn Cox in the bottom one, the lad in the back row, sitting up straight and staring straight ahead.

Heanor Aldercar School

Heanor Aldercar School

Heanor Aldercar School

Heanor Aldercar School


Heanor Aldercar School

Before writing this post, I dug out a message I had from another former pupil at the same school who contacted me in 2008. I hope he won’t mind me quoting some of what he said :

Dear John

You turned my life around … At the time we met I was off the rails (but) you put me back on them. Tom Cooke (the headmaster) had me down as a loser which I was before you.  … I am now retired from the Fire Brigade after 34 years, reaching the post of Divisional Officer … As well as teaching me English you believed in me and taught me about social history and so much more. I have a lot to thank you for. Hope you are OK.

One of the particular things he remembered from those English classes was a 19th century folk song, Blackleg Miner, and I’m thinking of the appropriateness that finds that song and its sentiments near the beginning of my working life and how I’m ending another line of work with a book about the Miners’ Strike.

Thinking also that if I were beginning my career as a teacher of English and Drama now I would never have the freedom I had then to choose what we would read and listen to, study and enjoy, and to choose it  a way that merged my students’ developing interests and enthusiasms with my own.



Art Chronicles: Nottingham Contemporary


Saturday morning, with the sun shining despite forecasts of day-long rain, I went along to Nottingham Contemporary to see their current exhibition, Somewhat Abstract, a selection of work from the Arts Council Collection, which, to my pleasant surprise, included, in the words of curator Alex Farquharson …

… many examples of figurative art on the verge of abstraction, as well as art that isn’t abstract but that could not have been made without knowledge of it.

So, in Gallery 2, for instance, alongside the casts of Rachel Whiteread and the abstract canvasses of Prunella Clough, there is work by Sickert and Bomberg, as well as Frank Auerbach – one of his marvellous Primrose Hill paintings – and a beautiful – and truthful – little etching of Lucien Freud.



And also in this gallery is the most moving and disturbing work in the whole exhibition, Gustav Metzger’s To Crawl Into – Anschluss, Vienna, March 1938. One of Metzger’s Historic Photographs series, in which photographs of historic events, often connected to the Holocaust, are greatly enlarged and then covered, usually by a cloth, which the viewer is encouraged to remove or crawl beneath, slowly revealing the image underneath.


The principal component of this work is a press photograph, taken shortly after Austria’s annexation to Nazi Germany in March 1938, that depicts Jewish men, women and children being forced to wash the streets of Vienna as their fellow citizens look on. The photograph has been enlarged to over thirteen square metres – rendering the figures larger than life-size – and is displayed on the floor, covered with a cotton sheet. In order to see it, the viewer is required to crawl on their hands and knees beneath the sheet, mimicking the actions of the Jewish subjects, while the size and proximity of the image makes it impossible to apprehend as a whole.

Feeling too venerable to get down on my belly and crawl, with the help of one of attendants I slowly peeled the cloth down and away.



Photography: Narrative on My Mind

I’ve been thinking about narrative lately. Partly because if you’ve still got author on your passport, you just do – from time to time, anyway – and more specifically as I’ve agreed to take part in a panel discussion at this year’s Bristol CrimeFest to be chaired by no less august a personage than the current Crime Writers’ Association chair, Alison Joseph, entitled ‘Narrative, Resolution and Crime Fiction’.

I’ve previously mentioned Geoff Dyer’s book on photography, The Ongoing Moment, and reading that alongside re-reading Middlemarch, has been interesting. George Eliot’s way of progressing the storyline, the novel being initially published in serial form, was, essentially, one of carrot and stick, carrot and stick; move one character or pair of characters just so far, bring them to what seems an impasse and leave them there while  you switch the attention elsewhere (leaving us worried about their fate, the meanwhile), then, when you return to them, find a way of moving them on another stage, each small resolution having within it a new problem to be negotiated. Do this with each major character or pair of characters and you have a multi-faceted narrative, complex and richly textured, and, at story level, satisfying.

I’m reminded of those Saturday Morning serials I used to watch as a kid: the hero or heroine left at the end of the episode in what seems to be an utterly hopeless situation; then, at the beginning of the next episode the following week, that scene is repeated with a slight difference, something that had been kept hidden is revealed, allowing the hero/heroine to be saved and the story to progress. It’s how most narrative works, I guess, Middlemarch or Eastenders and, perhaps, crime fiction most blatantly of all.

What Dyer does in his book, and what differentiates it from most discussions of photography I’ve read, is to look at it as a series of narratives in which photographers (knowingly or unknowingly, but mostly the former) converse with one another, constructing as they do so histories of subjects – the chair, the fence, the filling station, the road – that are simultaneously histories of photography and social histories, too.

Some photographers, Dyer suggests, are close to novelists in the narratives the body of their work creates. William Eggleston, for one.

Eggleston’s photographs look like they were taken by a Martian who lost the ticket for his flight home and ended up working at a gun shop in a small town near Memphis.


William Eggleston


William Eggleston

And Eggleston himself has said he regards his photos “as parts of a novel [he’s] doing”.


William Eggleston

Dyer makes a comparison between the effect of some of Eggleston’s photographs and the paintings of Edward Hopper, of whom he says:

Hopper could, with some justification, claim to be the most influential American photographer of the twentieth century – even though he didn’t take any photographs.

Hopper’s pictures …

 … tend not to be paintings at all; they are photographs in waiting. They are not only in waiting, they are also of waiting.


William Eggleston

That’s why they generate such intense curiosity about what is happening either side of the moment depicted.

As he quotes the poet, Mark Strand, saying …

it is always just after and just before … just after the train has passed, just before the train will arrive.


William Eggleston

And Wim Wenders – who knows a thing or two about narrative, to say nothing of photography …

An Edward Hoppper painting is like the opening paragraph of a story.


William Eggleston

The moment on the cusp of something, some forward movement,  that can, and is, caught in fiction, too. Look at (I mean, of course, literally, read, but given the nature of the piece, the emphasis on light, look seems right) this paragraph from Middlemarch. A Hopper painting, surely, in words. (And, in its final sentence especially, anticipating D H Lawrence, but that’s another discussion, another blog.)

It had taken long for her to come to that question, and there was light piercing into the room. She opened her curtains, and looked out towards the bit of road that lay in view, with fields beyond, outside the entrance-gates. On the road there was a man with a bundle on his back and a woman carrying her baby; in the field she could see figures moving – perhaps the shepherd with his dog. Far off in the bending sky was the pearly light; and she felt the largeness of the world and the manifold wakings of men to labour and endurance. She was part of that involuntary, palpitating life, and could neither look out on it from her luxurious shelter as a mere spectator, nor hide her eyes in selfish complaining.





Art Chronicles: Helen Frankenthaler Again



Photo : Burt Glinn

Helen Frankenthaler, whose work is currently on show at Margate’s Turner Contemporary, was one of a relatively small number of women artists who managed to find a means of negotiating their own distinctive and successful art practice in the midst of what was, by and large, a male dominated New York art scene in the 1950s and 60s. Here she is, above and below, pictured with two other artists from that number – Joan Mitchell (left) and Grace Hartigan (right) – at an opening of her show at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery in March 1957.

Photo : Burt Glinn

Photo : Burt Glinn

And here are Frankenthaler and Hartigan again, hanging out at the Five Spot, a jazz club where Thelonious Monk famously played, and where the painter/musician Larry Rivers organised poetry & jazz events on Monday evenings, Monk’s night off.

Photo : Burt Glinn

Photo : Burt Glinn

That’s Frankenthaler on the left, in front of the sculptor, David Smith, while Hartigan is on the opposite side, across from the poet Frank O’Hara, with Larry Rivers on her right. O’Hara, who reviewed art shows for Art News and other magazines, worked at the Museum of Modern Art, first as an administrative assistant and later as a curator, and was a personal friend of many artists, including Jane Frielicher, Joan Mitchell and Grace Hartigan, to each of whom, at various times, he dedicated poems.

It was O’Hara who curated and wrote the catalogue essay for Frankenthaler’s first major show, Helen Frankenthaler Paintings, held at the Jewish Museum between January and March of 196o. This is part of what he had to say about her work …

Frankenthaler is a daring painter. She is willing to risk the big gesture, to employ huge formats so that her essentially intimate revelations may be more fully explored and delineated, appear in the hot light of day. She is willing to declare erotic and sentimental preoccupations full-scale and with full conviction. She has the ability to let a painting be beautiful, or graceful, or sullen and perfunctory, if these qualities are part of the force and clarity of the occasion.

Helen Frankenthaler, Hotel Cro-Magnon, Courtesy Milwaukee Art Museum

Photo : Burt Glinn


Photo : Burt Glinn



Reading Matters: The Portrait of a Lady

One of the most engrossing books I’ve read lately – one of the most interesting books about writers and writing I think I’ve ever read – is Michael Gorra’s Portrait of a Novel, which traces the processes by which Henry James wrote The Portrait of a Lady. Part-biography, part-criticism, part analysis of the ways in which James’ novel was published and the extent to which he revised the book at a later date. All fascinating.

Many of you will know the basic story: young American woman visiting Europe is hoist in the petard of her own much-proclaimed independence and trapped into a stifling marriage.

One of the few misreadings Gorra makes is when he suggests that, as readers, we go along, hoping against hope that our heroine has not misread her future husband, until the extent of her miscalculation is made clear.

I don’t think so. When my fifteen year old daughter asked me what I was reading and I mentioned the fact that the man Isabel has just met was a collector of fine objects, she said immediately that he was going to add her to his collection. Sharp girls, these Parli girls.

In the novel, James skips from before Isabel’s marriage to Osmond to a time some three years later, and when he does so, he leaves us in no doubt as to the depths to which her misreading of the man, and the situation, has led her.

Instead of leading to the high places of happiness, from which the world would seem to lie below one, so that one could look down with a sense of exaltation and advantage, and judge and choose and pity, it led rather downward and earthward, into realms of restriction and depression, where the sound of other lives, easier and freer, was heard as from above, and served to deepen the feeling of failure.

It had come gradually – it was not till the first year of her marriage had closed that she took the alarm. Then the shadows began to gather; it was as if Osmone deliberately, almost malignantly, had put the lights out one by one.

He said to her one day that she had too many ideas, and that she must get rid of them. He had told her that already, before their marriage, but then she had not noticed it; it came back to her only afterwards.

… he would have liked her to have nothing of her own but her pretty appearance.

… when, as the months elapsed, she followed him further and he led her into the mansion of his own habitation, then, then she had seen where she really was. She could live it over again, the incredulous terror with which she had taken the measure of her dwelling. Between those four walls she had lived ever since; they were to surround her for the rest of her life. It was the house of darkness, the house of dumbness, the house of suffocation. Osmond’s beautiful mind gave it neither light nor air.

Lifesaving Poems: Harvey Reads, Anthony Wilson Remembers

Anthony Wilson is a poet, lecturer and researcher, on whose blog  the following piece was recently posted. It’s reproduced here with Anthony’s permission.


Sometime in the early Nineties I did a very brave thing. I took myself to a poetry reading. I went on my own. I knew nobody there and none of the poets who were reading.

The reading took place in the Voice Box on the top floor of the Festival Hall, at London’s South Bank. I was terrified. For a start, everyone seemed to know everyone else. There seemed to be a lot of kissing. It was a bit like showing up at church.

Next, I saw immediately I had woefully misjudged the dress code. The crumpled writer look (grandad shirts and jackets; cursory and floating dresses) was very much de rigueur. Retro ice cream salesman shirtsleeve stripes and baggy shorts were very much not.

For safety, I sat somewhere near the back, praying no one would speak to me.

The evening was hosted by a very impressive and confident looking man wearing the most crumpled suit in the room. He introduced himself as John Harvey, editor-in-chief of Slow Dancer Press, the reading’s sponsors. He told us a few jokes, and explained in a manner that was both light-hearted and somehow menacing that Slow Dancer really did need our money and we should all subscribe to its poetry magazine.

He pulled from his suit pocket a pale looking book of poems, which turned out to be his. With great seriousness and tenderness he read us a poem. The room went very quiet. At the end of the poem we clapped and John introduced us to the evening’s first poet, Lee Harwood.

Lee also seemed very sure of himself. He shuffled papers and old copies of his books and gave the appearance of not knowing what he was going to do next. At the same time he seemed ruthlessly calm and in control of everything he said. His poems seemed carved out of a different language to me, especially those about the natural world and climbing, of which he read several. For twenty-five minutes I did not hear myself breathing.

When Lee had finished reading we clapped and John got up and read another poem and again I seemed to stop breathing. The poem was about Chet Baker, I think. Then he introduced the next poet, Libby Houston.

I wasn’t sure then, and am still not sure now, what to make of Libby Houston’s reading. (I mean this as the strongest praise I can offer). By turns hilarious, unflinchingly honest, deadpan, slapstick and wildly lyrical the words of Libby’s poems seemed to pour out of her at a variety of speeds. Sometimes they came in a torrent, and sometimes in a whisper, almost like a child. But they all seemed to contain vital energy and truth, including the knowledge that Libby herself did not fully understand where some of them seemed to be coming from. In the twenty or so years of going to poetry readings since, I have still not heard anything like it.

When Libby had finished John stood up and said we would need to recharge our glasses during the interval, which was now, and while we were about it please could we buy some Slow Dancer books and magazines.

At this point of the evening I became aware again of my lack of knowledge of poetry reading protocol. People walked purposefully around the room in the direction of the poets who had read, including John and the evening’s final poet, Peter Sansom. I noticed that many of them were holding open the books and magazines they had bought from the table at the back. This seemed to me the best way of engineering a conversation with one of them without appearing strange. I bought myself a couple of back issues of Slow Dancer, and waited in what looked like the most busy queue, which was the one for Peter.

I had been sending Peter Sansom my poems to The Northand had even bought one of his books. In truth, he was probably the reason I went to the reading in the first place. For reasons I had not stopped to analyse I thought of him as a bit of a hero. So as I edged nearer to him in the queue I began to grow very nervous. I realised I had no idea what to say to him. If I said my name that would appear boastful, as though I was expecting him to know it. If I mentioned that I’d been sending him poems that would also look self-promoting, as though my poems were somehow more memorable than the thousands of others he received each week in his mailbag. On the other hand I could hardly resort to what I was overhearing others saying to him further down the queue, most of which sounded like offers of a place to crash for the night.

When it came to my turn l blurted to Peter everything I promised I wouldn’t in the queue. Amazingly, he seemed to know exactly who I was. He appraised me for a moment, shook my hand, and taking from my other a Slow Dancer to sign said: ‘You’re looking very cool, Anthony.’

His reading, from his soon-to-be-published January, was similarly generous: full of anecdote, good natured red-herrings and warmly lyrical.

The evening’s final act, a late night solo, it occurs to me now, was a reading by John. From the same pale book he chose its title poem, ‘Ghost of a Chance’. To the now familiar pin-drop quiet and lack of oxygen I now became aware of moisture gathering in the corners of my eyes. As one of John Ash‘s poems puts it, the surprise was ‘like a snowball in the back’. I’ll never forget it.

Ghost of a Chance

He plays the tune lazily,
pretty much the way he must
have heard Billie sing it,
but slower, thick-toned,
leaning back upon the beat,
his mind half on the melody,
half on the gin.

 Between takes he stands,
head down, shrunken inside
a suit already overlarge,
cheeks sunken in.
He thinks of her, Billie:
already it is possible
he has started to bleed within.

 From the control room, laughter,
but that’s not the sound he hears;
tenor close to his mouth,
he turns towards the doors:
unseen, not quite unbidden,
someone has just slipped in.

 At the end of eight bars
he closes his eyes and blows.
After two choruses he will cover
his mouthpiece with its shield:
not play again.

 John Harvey, from Ghosts of a Chance (Smith/Doorstop), 1992.

Ken Loach, Social Realism & Crime Fiction

No sooner have I written an essay for Five Leaves Publishing’s forthcoming journal on Crime, making an argument for the importance of social realist television and cinema in British urban crime fiction, than the evidence – some of it – is everywhere. A two-part season looking at the work of producer Tony Garnett, responsible for much radical TV drama in the 60s and 70s and a frequent collaborator with director Ken Loach, begins at the BFI Southbank in May, as does a season of films, The Roots of Neorealism, including De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves, acknowledged by Loach as one of his principle inspirations. And this weekend just past, as part of its Smithfest, examining the cultural impact of The Smiths, the ICA has been showing a short season of films which were amongst the group’s inspirations – just check out the album/singles covers. On Good Friday there was a double bill of A Taste of Honey & The Leather Boys, introduced by Rita Tushingham, and on the following day another double, Poor Cow & It Always Rains on Sundays, followed, suitably, by a late night screening of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.


Watching Poor Cow and It Always Rains on Sundays, one after the other, was as instructive as it was enjoyable. Poor Cow – “Three years in the life of a young working class mother in London who falls in love with a young crook while her husband is in prison, reads the BFI Screen line synopsis – was Ken Loach’s first feature film, made in 1967, and built around an always watchable, totally believable performance by Carol White, who had made her name in Loach’s groundbreaking television film, Cathy Comes Home. A mixture of documentary style social realism,  improvisation (highly successful in scenes between White and Terence Stamp, far less so in her scenes with John Binden), direct address to camera and Brechtian inter-titles, Poor Cow enlists our sympathies for its central character without  downplaying her weaknesses and limitations. As a portrait of those parts of London lagging behind in the glitz and glamour of the Swinging Sixties – it was largely filmed on location in Bethnal Green – it is penetrating and convincing.


Robert Hamer’s It Always Rains on Sundays, made twenty years earlier for Ealing Studios, also leans heavily on the documentary tradition that burgeoned in both Britain and Italy during and immediately after WW2. Filmed partly on location around Whitechapel in east London and Chalk Farm to the north, the realism of those scenes sits in awkward parallel with scenes too obviously shot in the studio. That problem, it seems to me, is symptomatic of the film’s weaknesses as a whole, torn as it is between a taut and rugged, almost brutal style owing much to both French and American film noir and the softer caricature so typical of Ealing, exemplified here by Jack Warner’s pipe-smoking avuncular policeman (three years before, shockingly, he would be shot dead in the street in The Blue Lamp) and the trio of hapless ne’er-do-wells incapable of scoring much more than a gross of roller skates.


John McCallum, a strong physical presence as an escaped convict, and Googie Withers, his former lover who has accepted the boredom of  married existence, play their scenes with an intensity that, while providing the most watchable moments, further split the film asunder, their sexuality and passion – largely and brilliantly repressed on Withers’ part – too large, too strong for Hamer’s film to adequately contain.

Memoir: Tony Burns

Burns 2 - 4.IMGBurns 1


My friend, Tony Burns, has died. After a short time in a hospice in north London, he died in his sleep on Friday.

Anyone present at book launches or readings I gave in the London area over the past couple of decades will remember Tony, accompanied by just guitar and bass, embellishing the occasion with jazz saxophone playing of the highest order. It was always my favourite part of the evening.

I first met Tony Burns when we were in our mid- to late-teens, introduced to him by a school friend, Jim Galvin, who lived in the same street. We hung out together in the local park, visited the same jazz clubs; played, on occasion, for the same soccer team. When Tony decided he was going to learn to play the saxophone, I opted to join him on drums. At first we practiced in his bedroom, me playing brushes across the top of an old suitcase, Tony with the real thing; later, when I had a full kit, we used to hire a room over a pub in Kentish Town on Sunday afternoons – the pub landlord found it hard to believe two people could make that much noise.

After college, I moved away to teach, Tony took up tailoring – and was to work in Saville Row – and we fell largely out of touch; once or twice, on a visit down to London, I saw him playing – excellently – at a pub in Covent Garden but little more.

He was still playing alto sax then, alto and baritone; the alto showing the influence of one of his early heroes, Paul Desmond, the baritone carrying shades of another, Gerry Mulligan. Later, he almost exclusively played tenor and if you closed your eyes it was Stan Getz you were hearing.

It wasn’t until the late ’80s and I was living in London again that we began to spend time together more regularly: listening to jazz – the Gillespiana big band at the King’s Head in Crouch End was a favourite – and, on occasions, playing and performing together at poetry and jazz evenings at the Troubador and elsewhere – reading aside, my task was to supply minimal percussion on bongoes, watching out in trepidation for the moment when he might throw me a four bar break.

More recently still, Tony had a residency at a pub in north London, near the Archway, and on a couple of occasions – knowing I had a full set of drums once more at my disposal – my daughter’s – and having exhausted the list of deps in his little black book, he asked me if I would come along and sit in. They were – for me – some of the most pleasurable times I can remember. I kept my head down, kept time, and when – just occasionally – Tony gave me a quick look of approval, it made my evening.

That won’t happen again. But I know, whenever I’m listening to Getz, or Desmond, or Mulligan, there’ll be a moment when I’ll close my eyes and see Tony playing.

Burns 3 - 4.IMG_0001

Reading Matters: Jon McGregor Takes All

I’ve been wanting to put something on the blog for weeks now about the Barry Flanagan sculpture show at Tate Britain, because it’s very, very good.  Also something about Country Noir, having recently  read The Outlaw Album by Daniel Woodrell and Crimes in Southern Indiana by Frank Bill, to say nothing of listening to The High Country by Richmond Fontaine. And I wanted to mention, at least, the death of Christopher Logue. And movies – The Ides of March and My Week with Marilyn. But other things kept intervening and I kept delaying and delaying and then, yesterday, a proof copy of Jon McGregor’s new book, a collection of stories with the brilliant title [well, I think so] of This Isn’t The Sort of Thing That Happens to Someone Like You, arrived in the post and I knew, as soon as I’d started reading, that I was going to write about that.

A few stories in – not reading chronologically, but dipping here and there, a couple of the shorter ones first, to get the flavour, and after that pretty much pot luck – some titles, “Keeping Watch Over Sheep” or  “We Were Just Driving Around”  being particularly appealing – I realised that for some reason – the recent Turner prize award, possibly, that  he was nominated for but didn’t win – I was thinking, while reading, about the paintings of George Shaw –  there seemed to be a connection, even though the world, the landscape, Shaw’s depicting – the Tile Hill area of Coventry – is almost entirely devoid of people, whereas McGregor’s world – here largely the Lincolnshire of small towns and villages – Gainsborough, Grimsby, Welton – its topography laid out in the lino cuts that demarcate the sections of the book and mark out the details of the landscape – is all about people, IS people, their voices, spoken and unspoken, the conversations they hold, most often with themselves, sometimes endlessly, inside their heads. And the connection with Shaw is, I suspect, exactly in what we aren’t explicitly told, what we don’t see, the hovering feeling of unease that is created.

Some of the stories, as I’ve suggested, are quite short; the shortest a single sentence, a single line, the longest some 2o or so pages, but they all capture, no skewer their subjects, skewer them precisely/imprecisely with their own words. Precisely, because we not only hear them, but see them, where they stand, where they are; imprecisely, because a great part of McGregor’s art and skill is the art of suggestion, of giving us enough yet not too much, drawing us in and inviting – leading – us to fill in, create the missing parts of these stories, the other voices, other feelings, the rest of these stories for ourselves.

But let’s be a tad academic for a moment and roll in Roland Barthes [why waste those classes on critical theory?] his distinction between texts which are ‘writerly’ and those that are merely ‘readerly’. The readerly texts give us the whole picture – take it or leave it – everything there is; whereas the writerly texts, the writerly fictions, supply us with just enough information to engage us, invite us in – invite us to complete the texts, the pictures, for ourselves, become writers, as it were, ourselves, in the very act of reading.

These are writerly texts.

One of the longest stories is “If It Keeps on Raining”, which was runner up in the BBC National Short Story Award in 2010 and, thereby, broadcast on Radio 4, and I have to confess I was a little disappointed when I heard it; my mind kept wandering, in fact, and I found myself irrationally impatient for it to finish  [and that not only, I like to think, because my own entry somehow mysteriously fell short of the short list – “Handy Man”, you can read it in Ambit 204]  Yet on the page, taking it, I suppose, at your own speed, giving it your own voice, the repetitions and near-repetitions, and there are many, carry the story along beautifully, mirroring the constant flow of water, the ebb and flow of tides, the way the man’s thoughts jounce around in his mind, obsessive, delusional: he is building a tree house out of pallets, a sort of ark against the coming flood, the ark into which he will haul to safety his two red-haired sons – the sons he is forbidden, it seems, by injunction, by shift of circumstance from seeing  – much as the father in “Keeping Watch Over The Sheep” is banned from seeing his daughter in her first ever nativity play at school.

So there you have it. Part of it, at least. I’m still only a little over half-way through, and there are stories – a few – that look to be quite different to the ones I’ve described, but much as I couldn’t wait to start reading this collection, I couldn’t wait to start writing about it.



McGregor, it seems to me, just gets better and better.

Reading Matters: Tomas Transtromer – 1


2. a. m. : moonlight. The train has stopped
out in the middle of the plain. Far away points of light in a town,
flickering coldly at the horizon.

As when a man has gone into a dream so deep
that he’ll never remember having been there
when he returns to his room.

And as when someone has gone into an illness so deep
that everything his days were becomes a few flickering points, a swarm,
cold and tiny at the horizon.

The train is standing perfectly still.

2. a. m. : bright moonlight, few stars.

It so happened that the American poet Norbert Hirschhorn and I were talking about Tomas Transtromer just a few days before Transtromer was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Bert had recently come back from spending some weeks in Finland (and was now touching base in London between his regular visits to the US and to Beirut) so it was not surprising that the Swedish poet came into our conversation, though whether we discussed the possibility of his being awarded the Nobel, I can’t remember. If we had, one thing would have been certain – we would not have been the only ones. Each year, for some time now, friends and fans of Transtromer have congregated outside the building where he lives in Stockholm to celebrate an award that has long been overdue.

I first got to know Transtomer’s work in 1974, through a volume in the invaluable (as it was then) Penguin Modern European Poets series, one he shared with the Finnish poet, Paavo Haavikko. Looking back at it now, at those individual poems I marked, stanzas I underlined, I see it was the precision of the language, the imagery that caught me – specific, hard and clear – crystalline –  small evocations of another country, familiar but strange – the meaning, the connections still to be worked at, the wonder of the spaces in between.

I was fortunate enough to encounter Transtromer on two occasions: in the late 80s, when I heard him read and, afterwards, asked him to sign a book, in Swedish, for a friend; and again, more recently, when I was in Sweden filming a television documentary about the writer Henning Mankel. Mankel had helped organise, and largely funded, a conference on worldwide children’s literacy that was being held in Stockholm, and Transtromer – wheelchair bound now due to a stroke – was there with his wife, Monica, who read one of his poems to the packed audience which had stood to applaud him warmly and at length when he was presented on stage. And, meeting him afterwards, I was pleased to be able – amongst many others – to tell him how much his poetry had meant to me over the years.

Haunted me, I might say …

Dark pictures on the water, they have been hung away.

Like playthings from our childhood which have grown to giants
and accuse us
of what we never became