Soviet propaganda: red dresses

08/03/2012 § Leave a comment

The second one, wonderfully, says ‘Down with kitchen slavery!’ Happy International Working Women’s day.


Modernism in Stratford E15

01/03/2012 § 1 Comment

That is the Stratford ziggurat, which until it was demolished in 1998 housed council offices next door to my secondary school. Isn’t it amazing? I have been looking for a photo of this for years, but yesterday discovered the Newham Story website, which is full of fascinating bits and bobs of Newham history.  Here’s Stratford Bus station as it looked when I was growing up; here’s Stratford Broadway during the General Strike; and here’s a report on the 20th anniversary of the Victorian housing development I grew up on. Street names of Forest Gate! I could read random bits for hours, possibly days. There are photo archives, including one related to shipbuilding and the docks, a reminder of how recently Newham had flourishing industry right on its doorstep.

The building above was replaced by this, by the way. Isn’t that utterly depressing?


29/02/2012 § 2 Comments

It is 220 years today since the birth of Gioachino Rossini (although, since he was born on a leap year, it is only his 55th birthday). He wrote one of the most famous tunes in the whole world ever, and also this:

(annoyingly, the aria is interrupted by a load of chat, but Cecilia Bartoli’s facial expressions are just so wonderfully over-the-top)

and this:

and this:

(Generally one has to choose between reasonable sound and proper videos on Youtube.)


Vergissmeinnicht: in memory of Keith Douglas

28/02/2012 § 2 Comments

[I meant to post this on Keith Douglas’s birthday on Friday 24th January, but I didn’t finish it in time.]

Keith Douglas, the greatest British poet of the second world war, would have been 92 today, had he not died during the invasion of Normandy. He was 24.

For a while, I was slightly obsessed with this picture of him:

His face looks so open, but you can’t really see what he’s thinking. He looks so carefree, but at the same time so confidently experienced.  There he is, in the middle of a desert, in the middle of a war, younger than I was at the time. It seemed so strange to me that men of my age could just have marched off to war.

It must have seemed as strange to Douglas himself. His war poems are full of the conflict between the human being he is and the killer the war forces him to be: in Vergissmeinnicht, where he pictures the girlfriend of the dead German soldier (‘But she would weep to see today/how on his skin the swart flies move’), or in Cairo Jag, where ‘a man with no head/has a packet of chocolate and a souvenir of Tripoli’. 

Perhaps it’s best expressed in How to Kill:

Now in my dial of glass appears
the soldier who is going to die.
He smiles, and moves about in ways
his mother knows, habits of his.
The wires touch his face: I cry
NOW. Death, like a familiar, hears

and look, has made a man of dust
of a man of flesh. This sorcery
I do. 

The language is so direct, so close to ordinary speech but so much more precise and considered. He wanted his poems to be like reportage, for his experiences as a soldier to be recognisable in his verse. From his letters:

My object (and I don’t give a damn about my duty as a poet) is to write true things, significant things in words each of which works for its place in the line. My rhythms, which you find enervated, are carefully chosen to enable the poems to be read as significant speech: I see no reason to be either musical or sonorous about things at present. When I do, I shall be so again, and glad to. I suppose I reflect the cynicism and the careful absence of expectation (it is not the same as apathy) with which I view the world. 

Cairo Jag, with its jarring contrast between leave-time pleasures in Cairo and the war-torn desert battlefield (‘the vegetation is of iron/dead tanks, gun barrels split like celery’), reminds me a lot of Olivia Manning’s Levant Trilogy, where Simon Boulderstone moves back and forth between his tank crew and the dissipated British expat crowd of the Anglo-Egyptian Club.

I’ve often wondered whether Olivia Manning (another of my favourite writers) knew Keith Douglas; they must have moved in similar circles in war-time Cairo. The imagery is probably common to the North African war experience, but there are a few passages in Manning which directly echo Douglas’s poetry–the burned out tank that Simon Boulderstone encounters, for example, when he and his tank crew mistakenly believe the other crew are having a brew-up only to discover that they are corpses, burned alive as they tried to scramble free. Perhaps she had read Douglas’s poetry, or his memoir of the desert war Alamein to Zem-Zem.


His earlier poetry isn’t as visceral as the war poetry, but contains one of my favourite poems, Stars, with its shivery beauty and the menace, possibly, of the war that was shortly to come:

The stars still marching in extended order
move out of nowhere into nowhere. Look, they are halted
on a vast field tonight, true no man’s land.
Far down the sky with sword and belt must stand
Orion. For commissariat of this exalted
war-company, the Wain. No fabulous border

could swallow all this bravery, no band
will ever face them: nothing but discipline
has mobilized and still maintains them. So
Time and his ancestors have seen them. So
always to fight disorder is their business,
and victory continues in their hand.

From under the old hills to overhead,
and down there marching to the hills again
their campo extends. There go the messengers,
Comets, with greetings of ethereal officers
from tent to tent. Yes, we look up with pain
at distant comrades and plains we cannot tread.


Tim Kendall writes more about Keith Douglas on his War Poets blog, including an interesting note about Douglas’s influence on Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath. You can also read a review of Douglas’s letters on the Carcanet blog.

Augustus John: redheads

21/02/2012 § Leave a comment

Luisa Casati.

Cynthia Asquith.

Iris Tree.


More on Joseph Roth

17/02/2012 § Leave a comment

Yeah, I’m slightly obsessed, but it’s nice to see one of my favourite writers getting a bit of attention.

Michael Hofmann writes in the Guardian about his first encounter with Roth’s work:

Roth somehow resists the tendency of literature to update, to promote, to miscegenate: that conversation between the centuries envisaged by Kundera in Life Is Elsewhere, or by Jan Kott in Shakespeare, Our Contemporary, and so forth. Roth is just so resolutely and specifically gone. He reached into our modern world of newspapers, telephones, cars, advertising – and of Amazon and Franz Ferdinand, ultimately – but disdained it, fled it, went backwards. (Nitroglycerine, was his comment on it.) It would be like meeting someone in sepia, a daguerreotype.

There is not, as far as I know, any film footage of him, or any sound recordings – even though he lived until 1939. I don’t really know, and can’t quite imagine what he looked like, or sounded like (his accent?), or behaved like. The photographs are averted, or they are masks. An eager brylcreemed sylph of a boy-journalist, later seedy with avoirdupois and Sitzfleisch. Courtly; ugly; natty; short. Attractive to women. First, poor beautiful schizophrenic Friedl, then Andrea Manga Bell, a Haitian princess from Hamburg, then the very good 30s German writer, Irmgard Keun. His hair blond-ish, supposedly, then a dark smear of wax trained across the wide, wide forehead; a cavalry moustache – bristly, or soft? – later; bulbous eyes, said to have been blue, then alcoholically watery and of a bottomless sadness.

I wonder how much older he would have seemed than he was – he who claimed to have started drinking before his 10th birthday; whose experiences in the first world war – whatever they were – constituted his first taste of travel abroad; who came back in 1919 to a truncated fatherland; whose wife went mad; whose friends killed themselves or died early; who in just two decades wrote thousands of pages of fiction and thousands more of journalism. I can’t read a line of his small script, not even his signature, and have never directly seen anything that was his. “Even parrots outlive us,” he wrote once – in his case, comfortably: he died at 44. A further source of guilt for me is that I am older than he ever got to be.

Stefany Anne Goldberg at the Smart Set on Roth’s historical position, poised between the end of the Habsburg Empire and the modern world:

The tightrope Roth balanced between formality and informality was also a delicate balancing of past and present. Born in 1894 in the Galicia of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Roth was witness to the collapse of an entire world, the world of European empire that gave way to the world of modern European nation states. He was a monarchist who couldn’t believe in the promises of nationalism; a Jew in an anti-Semitic society (who later considered himself a Catholic); an Austrian whose post-war home was in Germany, a country he lived in only periodically; a German writer who worshipped France, whose city of birth turned Polish and then Ukrainian, who had no father, whose wife was insane, who lived out of three suitcases, who didn’t even own a copy of any of his books; a man of the East and the West, the past and present, but never the future. “I am never at home,” he wrote in 1933 to Félix Bertaux, “just wander around randomly, I can’t stand to be in a room.”

Michael Hofmann again at the Millions, listing all the mentions of Roth’s masterpiece Radetzkymarsch in Roth’s letters:

JR to Stefan Zweig:
“If I am to finish the novel this year, then I can’t go to Vienna. It would set me back weeks. I’ve been stuck of late anyway. Maybe it will flower again next week.”

JR to Blanche Gidon (French translator):
“I have always been grateful to you for going to such trouble over my book. I never doubted that you took on the translation for no selfish motive. However, I cannot avoid saying to you that your translation is a bad translation, and — in spite of my debt to you for going to so much trouble over the book, and in spite of the friendship I feel for you — it remains a bad translation. Do you want me to tell you it is good, against my own convictions, when I am convinced of the opposite? — Maybe I am a boche. But, be it out of politeness or friendship or anything else, you can’t expect me to say something that doesn’t accord with my convictions.”

JR to Carl Seelig:
“My book, which I finished in Rapperswil, I no longer have any feeling for. I am writing a new one.”


Imre Kertész speaks to Le Monde

16/02/2012 § Leave a comment

I thought this interview with Le Monde, (via the Bookslut blog) in which Kertész speaks about the current political situation in Hungary, was tremendously interesting, so I thought I’d translate it into English (it’s quite a rough and ready translation). Pdf here.

I don’t agree with his ideas about the polarity between the East and West, tribal and Christian cultures in Hungary, but what I think is especially interesting is what he says about Hungary’s history:

The question I ask myself is: why has Hungary always taken the wrong path? Remember. When revolution was roaring through Europe, Hungary supported Marie-Thérèse! From the 16th century onwards, the country was first part of the Ottoman empire, then the Habsburg, then the Soviet bloc. Every time, it tried to play the game of the country which had absorbed it. That appeared to work quite well. But only in appearance. Under Kadar the country seemed like the most enthusiastic part of the Soviet camp, but that was at the price of the suppression of the 1956 revolution and a political indebtedness which cost them dearly. The current situation is just another example of this tendency to take the wrong path. The Hungarian state chooses today to be in opposition to Europe in the name of the defence of its national interest, which gives the impression of a return to sovereignty. But once more it’s in error. Nothing new, no problem, and therefore no solution because there is no problem.

Can we see a parallel with the 1930s?

In Hungary, yes. There are pages on that in my Diaries. Images. The walls of the metro escalators in Budapest covered in posters in the same green that the Arrow Cross Party used (Hungarian fascists of the 1930s): “Neither left nor right, Christian and Hungarian” and underneath, the sign of the far-right party. These visions remind me of my childhood. In 1938 we collected the electoral flyers of the Arrow Cross Party: Jews in top hat and tails, bouncing like fleas in the passage of a steamroller…

How do you see the future?

Some days, I tell myself that secretly the Hungarians know that we’re going in the wrong direction. And that Orban will fail–after all, in the 1940s, the situation in Southern Tyrol seemed equally intractable. And that was resolved. But I don’t think we can rule out any hypothesis. It’s also possible that Hungary will descend into utter chaos. That would be a tragedy, but when the people are alienated from politics and the economy is in an impasse, the danger is serious. The question of the gypsies is as important as that of the Jews. If the systematic persecution of the gypsies continues, they will eventually lose patience. They will be driven to violence.

Harold Arlen: The man who got away

15/02/2012 § Leave a comment

I love this song, and this particular video is lovely for the faces he makes when he sings (it’s NOT Somewhere over the rainbow, by the way). Harold Arlen, 15th February 1905-23rd February 1986.

Modern declaration

14/02/2012 § Leave a comment

I, having loved ever since I was a child a few things, never having wavered
In these affections; never through shyness in the houses of the rich or in the presence of clergymen having denied these loves;
Never when worked upon by cynics like chiropractors having grunted or clicked a vertebra to the discredit of those loves;
Never when anxious to land a job having diminished them by a conniving smile; or when befuddled by drink
Jeered at them through heartache or lazily fondled the fingers of  their alert enemies; declare

That I shall love you always.
No matter what party is in power;
No matter what temporarily expedient combination of allied interests wins the war;
Shall love you always.

–Edna St Vincent Millay

And for more love poems for Valentine’s day, see here and here.

Philip Hensher on Joseph Roth

13/02/2012 § Leave a comment

There’s a lovely review of Joseph Roth’s Letters (recently published in English and translated by the brilliant Michael Hofmann) at the Spectator:

It is sometimes difficult, enjoying the sophisticated, detached gaze of the best of the novels, to remember the extraordinarily difficult circumstances in which most of them were written. Roth saw immediately the threat of Hitler — he is mentioned by name in his very first novel, The Spider’s Web in 1923, before the Beer Hall putsch took place. Roth, as a Jew and a congenitally critical spirit, would always have a career of awkwardness and dissent. In the years of his active writing, 1923 to his death in 1939, his life was wrecked by the lack of support from newspapers, principally the Frankfurter Zeitung, political oppression —The Radetzky March was finished, as Michael Hofmann observes, just in time to be burnt in the Bebelplatz — and personal difficulties.

And on Stefan Zweig:

The relationship with Zweig is summed up by a brutal anecdote that Hofmann brings to our attention. Zweig ordered a pair of trousers for Roth, since he only had one pair, unfit for the sort of restaurants Zweig liked. Roth insisted that they be cut in an Austrian cavalry style, making them immensely expensive. The next day, Roth, sitting in a bar in Ostend with his cronies, ordered a vividly coloured liqueur, which he proceeded to pour all over his jacket. He was ‘punishing Stefan Zweig’, he explained, and he was going to embarrass him by turning up for dinner in a stained and stinking jacket: ‘Millionaires are like that! They take us to the tailor and buy us a new pair of trousers, but they forget to buy us a jacket to go with them.’

(Incidentally if you haven’t read Michael Hofmann’s somewhat robust views on Zweig in the LRB you really should.)

Roth’s letters are the first book for ages I’m actually going to buy new and in hardback.