15 August 2011

More arboricide

My brother had to fell the cypress that was fouling the gutter of the gite and threatening to dislodge tiles from the roof. It rattled and scraped alarmingly in the least wind. No one remembers why it was growing so close in the first place. But we were all shocked and ashamed to discover a hoopoe's nest in the felled tree.

12 August 2011

The Glorious Twelfth

I have said nothing about the reasons for my silence, painful family reasons. And nothing about seismic world events and local difficulties. Sometimes we just end up, for no particular reason, resounding from the last loud noise. To my loyal follower, I can only apologise.

With regard to recent events, Prévert had the sense of it, years ago. He was writing about an escape from what we then called Borstal in the UK (forerunner of Young Offenders Institution):

Hunting the kid

Mugger! burglar! layabout! scum!

They can see birds on the island
all round the island is water

Mugger! burglar! layabout! scum!

What's all this baying for blood?

Mugger! burglar! layabout! scum!

It's a pack of the silent majority
out hunting the kid

who's had a bellyful of Borstal
So the screws used their keys on his teeth
and left him out cold on the concrete

Mugger! burglar! layabout! scum!

Now he's broken out
on the run in the night
like a hunted beast
and everyone's galloping after -
policemen tourists shareholders artists

Mugger! burglar! layabout! scum!

A pack of the silent majority
out hunting the kid
You don't need a permit
all real men do it
What is it swimming out there in the night
What are all these noises and lights
A kid on the run
They're firing their guns

Mugger! burglar! layabout! scum!

All these chaps on the beach
empty-handed – they're gagging with rage

Mugger! burglar! layabout! scum!
Come back to shore come back to shore!

They can see birds on the island
and all round the island is water.

Jacques Prévert (trans AB)

13 March 2011

book meme

The book I am reading: Too Big to Fail by Andrew Ross Sorkin (Penguin). Subtitle: Inside the Battle to Save Wall Street. Gripping and trashy, seems headed for Hollywood. There's a sly wit, too. It fleshes out the personalities in that excellent documentary, Inside Job. Sample extract:
Ben Shalom Bernanke was born in 1953 and grew up in Dillon, South Carolina, a small town permeated by the stench of tobacco warehouses. As an eleven-year-old, he traveled to Washington to compete in the national spelling championship in 1965, falling in the second round when he misspelled "Edelweiss."
Wait, no, here's a better example:
John Mack and Colm Kelleher, Morgan Stanley's chief financial officer, were sitting in the backseat of Mack's Audi, having hurried to the car just ten minutes earlier after Mack's secretary had instructed them to get down to the Fed as soon as possible. "This must be Lehman," Kelleher had said as they rushed out.
Not only was the rain pelting the roof furiously, but they were sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic on the West Side Highway, still miles away from their destination.
"We're not fucking moving," said Mack, repeatedly checking his watch.
"We're never going to get there," Kelleher agreed.
Mack's driver, John, a former police officer, noticed the bicycle lane running alongside the highway -- a project of the Bloomberg administration to encourage walking and cycling.
"Boss, that bike lane on the right, where does it go?"John asked, craning his neck back at them.
Mack's face lit up. "It goes all the way down to the Battery."
"Fuck it!" the driver said, as he found a break in the street divider and inched the car onto the bike lane, speeding down it.
Delightful people.
The book I am writing: Some short stories. Don't know if this counts as a book.
The book I love most: At the moment, Edmund de Waal's The Hare with Amber Eyes.
The last book I received as a gift: A History of the World in 100 Objects by Neil MacGregor, based on the outstanding radio series.
The last book I gave as a gift: Hisham Matar's Anatomy of a Disappearance, purchased at the launch last week. It opens:
There are times when my father's absence is as heavy as a child sitting on my chest. Other times I can barely recall the exact features of his face and must bring out the photographs I keep in an old envelope in the drawer of my bedside table. There has not been a day since his sudden and mysterious vanishing that I have not been searching for him, looking in the most unlikely places. Everything and everyone, existence itself, has become an evocation, a possibility for resem­blance. Perhaps this is what is meant by that brief and now almost archaic word: elegy.

I do not see him in the mirror but feel him adjusting, as if he were twisting within a shirt that nearly fits. My father has always been intimately mysterious even when he was present. I can almost imagine how it might have been coming to him as an equal, as a friend, but not quite.
Like de Waal, Matar is also a poet.
The nearest book on my desk: I don't have a desk as such at the moment, but the nearest book to where I'm typing this is the catalogue of the John Stezaker exhibition at Whitechapel Art Gallery. I've been meaning to post about the Stezaker exhibition but am still mulling over what it means. The critics in the Guardian, The Independent, The Times, and The Evening Standard have a lot to say that is thoughtful and well worth reading. I liked the exhibition a lot more than I thought I was going to, hence the purchase of the catalogue. Reading about it beforehand, I'd assumed it was facile and gimmicky, but it touches and disturbs on a deep level, and I'm not sure how. Is it simply the assault on integrity? My infant son was upset by a broken biscuit and the eclipse of the moon. He crawled away in horror when he saw me with wet hair. Another small child I know was terrified by the Mother and Toddlers Santa Claus, who was really her own father. It is disturbing when something is different from what we expect. Stezaker's interventions are witty and profound, sometimes utterly mysterious, but they are technically adept. He has a fantastic visual memory, that enables him to match up totally disparate images (eg, the distance between two lovers and a wild ravine) so the disjunction is thematic rather than simply linear.

06 March 2011

Arboricide II

So there are heaps of chippings where we used to have trees. When the bus goes past, the top deck gets an unedited view of (what we laughingly call) our garden. To look on it is like looking on a surgical scar. It will never be healed, I think - but of course it can: we can plant new trees, just not the same ones. Not fast-growing non-native conifers, obviously. Nor chestnut, oak or beech - all of them challenged by climate or disease. Someone suggests larch, unarguably native - but when doesn't it look weedy, except in the first flush of spring? And given the proximity to houses, we can't have anything that grows very high.

I bottled out of felling the blue pine. It is such a splendid tree. If high winds in autumn cause an accident, I shall never forgive myself. Meanwhile, I'm persuaded that all that anxiety is Health and Safety gorn mad.

05 February 2011

library users: consumers or citizens?

More than 400 public libraries in the UK are threatened with closure.
"If you think about it, public libraries are all about recycling. Books are lent out to an individual, then recycled through the system to someone else. Public libraries also act as laboratories, allowing individuals to experiment with, and ‘test out’ items before they decide to make any kind of consumer decision itself, such as buying a new book or CD or DVD or indeed, any other type of creative work. Not only this, they function as a democratic access point to information: when you enter a library you are not judged on your background, your status, or your wealth (or lack of it). You have the exact same rights of access to the information as everybody else there too. Do you realise how empowering that is? Such access to information is unbelievably powerful: and why I see public libraries as the bedrock of world citizenship. They are, without a doubt, one of the most important ideas of the 19th century (the UK’s first Public Libraries Act was in 1850 by the way) and inherently stem from concepts of The Enlightenment and The Republic of Letters, that is, universal access to knowledge. The juxtaposition that I am exploring is that although my belief system is founded upon these concepts, I’m actually living in a world and a time where we’ve been shifted from our previous state of individual citizens to individual consumers. This is a crucial distinction: issues of access are now going to be determined by your levels of engagement as a consumer not as a citizen. What might that mean? It might mean that if you don’t have the required level of wealth, you’re not going to have the same level of access to certain types of information, and information can become knowledge… and we all know where knowledge can lead… yes, to power: the power to make informed decisions about your life, your community, your health, your educational and lifelong learning needs, and much, much more.
From The Itinerant Poetry Librarian's interview in Seam 30 (2009) [my bold].
Follow the intrepid and utterly wonderful Itinerant Poetry Librarian on Twitter, Facebook, and see her post today on Baroque in Hackney.

22 January 2011

Racketeering, illegal gambling, extortion, obstructing the enforecement of justice

The indictments are here
Albert Cernadas a/k/a "The Bull"
Anthony Alfano a/k/a "Brooklyn"

20. VINCENT AULISI, also known as “The Vet”
19. GIOVANNI VELLA, also known as “John Vella,” “Mousey” and “Little John”

18. STEPHEN DEPIRO, also known as “Beach”

17. ANTHONY CAVEZZA, also known as “Tony Bagels”
16. JOHN BRANCACCIO, also known as”Johnny Bandana”

15. ANTHINO RUSSO, also known as “Hootie”

14. FRANK BELLANTONI, also known as “Meatball”

13. CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS, also known as “Burger”

12. VINCENZO FROGIERO, also known as “Vinny Carwash”

11. JOSEPH CARNA, also known as “Junior Lollipops”

10. DENNIS DELUCIA, also known as “Fat Dennis,” “Little Dennis” and “the Beard”

9. LUIGI MANOCCHIO, also known as “Baby Shacks,” “The Old Man,” and “the Professor”

8. ANTHONY DURSO, also known as “Baby Fat Larry” and “BFL”

7. GIUSEPPE DESTEFANO, also known as “Pooch”

6. JOHN AZZARELLI, also known as “Johnny Cash”

5. ANDREW RUSSO, also known as “Mush”

4. VINCENT FEBBRARO, also known as “Jimmy Gooch”

3. BENJAMIN CASTELLAZZO, also known as “Benji,” “The Claw” and “the Fang”

2. ANTHONY LICATA, also known as “Cheeks,” “Anthony Firehawk,” “Anthony Nighthawk,” “Nighthawk” and “Firehawk”

1. JOHN HARTMANN, also known as “Lumpy,” “Fatty” and “Fats”

19 January 2011


I've been putting it off.

They are tall, strong trees, probably native to the west coast of North America. I don't know the species, but one is what we call The Blue Pine, a particularly handsome and vigorous plant that has doubled its height in the twelve years we've been here, to about 30 metres. And it's about ten metres from the house. If it were to fall in various other directions it would flatten one of three neighbouring houses. And it might fall, because our topsoil is about nine inches, and below that is chalk.

The other conifers are a different sort with softer needles, nearly as tall but much nearer to the house. Their tops foul the telephone wires and the roots foul the drains. One blocks the light to J's study. If they toppled, they would flatten our house or next door. We used to have a goldcrest nesting in one of them, but I haven't seen it for about ten years. We have quite a large garden, so it is a mystery why a previous owner put these tall trees so close to the house, and to next door properties. It must be that they simply had no idea how big they would grow. And neither do we. We have watched as they soar. And we love them.

I have been putting it off. We keep hearing warnings that extreme weather will be more frequent. High winds kept us awake in our last house, and in October 1987 a neighbouring ash tree crashed into the garden, smashing a window. That has probably made me more risk-averse, and I'm rather ashamed of that. I'm even more exercised by the idea that one of these trees might kill someone because I'd failed to do something about it. We live in a conservation area, where you have to get permission to prune anything thicker than your finger. And even the Council thinks the trees ought to come down.

When the tree surgeons rang today because the weather forecast was good for tomorrow, I didn't say yes straight away. I dithered and maundered for an hour before giving the go-ahead.

I feel like a criminal. I can already see our impoverished skyline and the bare ground. We have used these tree surgeons several times before, so know they will leave no mess. That's worse, somehow, like editing it out.

We will plant some new trees. What, though?

12 December 2010

Six Flags

This amusement park in New Orleans was abandoned after Katrina and is due to be demolished next month.

What is the fascination of ruins? Partly that they show us what will happen. In one version, we look back from the future and see a morality tale of which perhaps the inhabitants were unaware. In another version, we can see there our own future undoing. And in this case, any easy romanticism is blown away by the horror of that storm, and the cruel ineptitude of a government that allowed people to drown and a way of life to perish.

06 December 2010


It was snowing the other day, but not so much here, so I paid little attention to the radio news stories of panic-buying of petrol. When I went to fill my three-quarters-empty tank at the local all the pumps were closed so I gave up, figuring I probably wouldn't need to go anywhere for the couple of days till it got back to normal. I gave DH a lift to Cambridge and on the offchance made a detour via Sainsbury's - they were out of petrol too. I took this as a sign not to bother. I don't tweet; I don't even do Facebook much, so I didn't pick up on any of the panic. But if it had been cash...

Eric Cantona was a brilliant footballer. I don't know so much about his grasp of economics. He wants to bring the banking system to its knees. He wants people to draw money out of the banks tomorrow to prove - gasp - that there isn't enough cash to pay everyone should they all demand it at once. Apparently, this makes banks teh evil. There are plenty of reasons to imagine (some) banks are teh evil, but this isn't one of them. Taking your money and using it to do something else, making a profit on that and giving you a bit of the profit for the opportunity to use your money - that's what banks do. It helps build roads and factories; it helps generate power and pay wages.

But hey, what do I know? If you were the elderly blind person over the road who can't get to the bank, maybe you wouldn't be so keen on this stunt. If your mortgage payment was due at the end of the month maybe you wouldn't be so keen either. Or a shopkeeper wanting to bank your takings and pay wages. Hey, you're capitalist scum, who cares about you?

So far, there are only a few thousand people signed up for Cantona's grand gesture. It would take a lot more than them to destabilise anything - until you think about the turbo-charging effect of social networking. How many tweeted queues does it take to make a crisis?

Uh-oh, maybe I should have kept quiet. All I know is that a bunch of sovereigns in a sock is jolly handy if a burglar smashes in your bedroom window.

02 December 2010

Desert Highland Discs*

Six years ago I went on a writing retreat to Hawthornden. Somewhat daunted by its reputation for monkish austerity, I took a Walkman and a wallet of discs. In the event, I scarcely used it, and for various reasons the wallet remained largely unpacked until now. So here is a time capsule:
Philip Glass: Glassworks
Philip Glass: Songs from Liquid Days
Jan Garbarek: I Took up the Runes
Jan Garbarek: Works
Jan Garbarek/ Ustad Fateh Aki Khan: Ragas and Sagas
Miracles of Sant'Iago (Music from the Codex Cadixtinus)
Charpentier: Neuf Leçons de Ténèbres
Ali Farka Toure: Niafunké
Couperin: Quatrième Livre de Pièces
Meredith Monk: Book of Days
Meredith Monk: Volcano Songs
John Harle: Terror and Magnificence
The Sunday Times Music Collection: Gregorian Chant (I must have bought that edition specially)
Van Morrison: Enlightenment
Ewan McColl: Chorus from the Gallows
Zebda: Essence Ordinaire. Must be something my sister gave me.

I had a good time at Hawthornden. The wind howled, the snow hurled, and I was quite disciplined. Although I didn't think at the time I was making enough progress I went home with a stash of new work, revised work, and some drafts I have yet to grapple with - along with the twentyfirst century.

*Oh, and that's an unforgivable pun. Hawthornden is in the Lowlands.

05 September 2010

The Hare with Amber Eyes

This extraordinary book by Edmund de Waal operates on many levels. The Hare of the title is a netsuke, an intricately carved ivory toggle from Japan, from a large collection put together by one of De Waal's forebears, a man who knocked around with the likes of Renoir and Proust. De Waal is a potter, and his tactile appreciation of these objets de vertu is eloquently expressed. He writes about form and function, the wit and punning of the carvers, the feel of these puzzles designed for the hand, and how such things came to be collected and displayed. By a circuitous route, the collection comes into his possession, and the book is a detective story - the account of how he tracked down the collection's previous owners. He devotes a year to the task, and in the process of reading letters, essays, newspapers, accounts, is able to reimagine them with their passions and foibles. It's a family history told against the backdrop of enormous wealth and privilege, and the growing horrors of anti-Semitism.

The subtitle, "A Hidden History" puzzled and annoyed me - it seemed both fey and extravagant - until, unexpectedly, the meaning was revealed. I won't spoil it for you. The waiting is worth it, and prepare to shed tears.

10 August 2010

Last words

If you value words, this is worth your attention.
Vowel sounds and sibilant consonants slide out of my mouth, shapeless and inchoate even to my close collaborator. The vocal muscle, for sixty years my reliable alter ego, is failing. Communication, performance, assertion: these are now my weakest assets. Translating being into thought, thought into words, and words into communication will soon be beyond me and I shall be confined to the rhetorical landscape of my interior reflections.
Even while dying, Tony Judt's passion for words and scrupulousness remained undimmed. What a beautiful writer.

Obituary here.