Friday, 18 January 2008

O'Brien's male



IMMEDIATELY a poet feels he has to earn his sense of worth by winning prizes, his ego gets involved and he gets caught up in a treadmill which can never be completely satisfied…

Sean O’Brien has won many prizes for his poems. It came as no surprise on Monday when his latest volume, The Drowned Book (Picador £8.99), dominated by his own male menopause, picked up the most prestigious of all prizes for poetry, the TS Eliot, and he was presented by a cheque for £I0,000 by Eliot’s widow Valerie.Sean O’Brien plays it safe, echoing Lord Byron in his poem “Timor Mortis”.

His gift literally runs away with itself:

My friends, Lord Death is cruel but fair:

He loves it when there’s nothing there...
No evidence of Paradise.
His only mood’s imperative.
He knows our names and where we live.
He sees no reason to record
The names of those whose bones are stored
In his extensive cellarage:
They are unwritten, like this page.
Come now, and board his empty ark –
What need of poems in the dark?

What need indeed? Of all the elegies, I preferred “Railway Hotel”, in memory of Ken Smith. He was a powerful poet albeit one, like O’Brien, in the heartbreaking tradition of emotionally illiterate macho men. Talented women poets such as Mimi Khilvati and ­Brenda Williams, to name but two, don’t cut any ice in an unfeeling literary world in which the men poets still get most of the smarties.

Camden New Journal, 20th December 2007

A little Irish

girl from


Looking out with the stars: Judi Dench,

Imelda and Eileen Atkins

Cranford star Imelda Staunton, as she joins the grandes dames of British drama, tells a Burgh House audience
about her life.

IMELDA Staunton, all five feet of her, is an actor who constantly amazes herself by thrills and spills. She wouldn’t have it any other way.
Piers Plowright, her interviewer in the nourishing “Lifelines” series at Burgh House, Hampstead, called this “truthfulness as always,” as if this were her mantra.
Like a new breed of actors including Timothy Spall, Tom Wilkinson and Jim Broadbent who have no interest in surface appearances, risk-taking is everything to her.
In the past few weeks, she has been equally at home acting in Cranford on BBC1 alongside two dames, Judi Dench and Eileen Atkins, as the prickly and insatiably curious Miss Pole, who takes on all-comers and has eyes at the back of her head.
It was an exceptional treat seeing the three of them all together in the early episodes.
Mary Philomena Bernadette Staunton was born at the Whittington Hospital on January 9, 1956.
An only child, she was brought up in a hairdresser’s salon in Archway with a distinctly Dickensian feel to it. Her father, Joe, a labourer, and her mother, Bridie, a hairdresser, were first-generation Irish immigrants.
There was no acting tradition in the family that anybody could ever discover.
The hairdresser’s salon at the bottom of Highgate Hill has long since been demolished and replaced by a roundabout.
“My mother played the fiddle and accordian,” she told the audience. “When she pressurised me to sing at parties, I implored her not to make me with the same four words: ‘Don’t make me sing’. It didn’t make a scrap of difference. I never set great store by singing myself.”
Imelda was convent-educated at La Sainte Union School in Highgate Road. The watershed moment came when she saw Sir Laurence Olivier as Richard III at the Old Vic. She was electrified to the very core of her being.
Earlier on, Bette Davis had provided a similar revelation by not being beautiful.
At 17 Imelda went to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art at the same time as Juliet Stevenson and Jonathan Pryce: “Rada was a big education for me.”
She travelled the length and breadth of the country for the next six years, ending up proving to all at the Northcote Theatre in Exeter that she was just as adept at performing in Elektra and St Joan as she was in the musicals Cabaret and Side By Side Sondheim.
At the time a vast difference was made between rep actors and London actors. She auditioned to replace Elaine Paige in the musical Cats, but did not succeed.
However, in 1982 she got a place in the chorus line of Guys and Dolls, revived at the National by Richard Eyre, and starring Bob Hoskins and Julia McKenzie.
Being in the back line felt like something of a comedown until she entered into a new relationship with actor James Carter, who was playing Big Julie. They were married in 1985 and have one daughter, Bessie, born in 1993.
They have only been apart for three weeks since. (He played Captain Brown in Cranford).
Imelda is best known for playing the part of the caring cleaner, with a sideline in illegal abortions in Mike Leigh’s 2004 film Vera Drake. She carries out the abortions out of kindness, not for money.
Curiously, Mike had twice turned her down, including when she had auditioned for Topsy Turvy in 1999.
The six-month build-up of intense research, re­hearsal and improvisation for Vera Drake proved to be the most exciting of her life in terms of risk-taking experience.
It was only at the end of a seven-hour improvisation in a little flat in Crouch End that she found out that she was an abortionist. It came as a great shock.
Vera Drake was acknowledged to be Mike Leigh’s masterpiece. Imelda won a Bafta, and was nominated for an Oscar and Golden Globe.
All the excitement helped to take her mind off the death of her beloved mother Bridie.
Imelda first performed with Daniel Radcliffe, the star of the Harry Potter films, in a television adaptation of David Copperfield when he was 10.
“At that young age, Daniel was literally plunged into the terrifying world of adults. A year before Equus [Peter Shaffer], he had prepared himself with special lessons from a voice teacher.
I respect that. He has enjoyed a different type of apprenticeship to mine in rep, but one that is equally valid.”
Imelda plays the officious bureaucrat Dolores Umbridge alongside Daniel in the film Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.

Camden New Journal, 20th December 2007

After centuries of service to poetry, the London Magazine folds

AFTER a whole year of changing its mind, Arts Council England has finally withdrawn the £30,000 that London Magazine’s chameleon editor, the poet Sebastian Barker needed to bring out this wonderful hotchpotch bi-monthly. He has been its editor for the past six years.
The London Magazine’s history dates back to the 18th century, and its recent editors include the poets John Lehmann and Alan Ross.This act of literary vandalism happened despite 23 well-known signatories – including north London authors Alan Brownjohn, Melvyn Bragg, Elaine Feinstein, and Poet ­Laureate Andrew Motion – protesting in a damning letter published in The Times Literary ­Supplement last March at the Arts Council’s “shortsighted and unwise decision” to stop all funding in April 2008.
According to poet and novelist Robert Nye, who rang me aghast with the news from his home in Cork, the decision was made in conditions of extreme secrecy back in December. Barker immediately resigned, and retreated with his wife to a refuge in Wales to lick his wounds. It has been his specific purpose to encourage many hundreds of young novelists and poets from all over the world during his six-year reign as editor.
These include Gregory Norminton, whose fourth novel, Serious Things, about the nature of deceit, is published by Sceptre on January 24, and the ­equally gifted Alan ­Morrison, whose poem “Where Banshees Brought Me” appeared in the very last issue dated October/ November 2007. There are many others.
This work which ­Barker took on upon himself so selflessly has cut no ice with the Arts Council. There is much else to thank him for in the wonderful treasure-trove he has left future generations, not least the exchange by Sylvia Plath and Dorothea Krook on “The Pupil/Tutor ­Relationship”.
Plath’s over-idealisation of “dear shining Doctor Krook”, her philosophy ­supervisor in her short time at Newnham ­College, Cambridge, will provide the basic raw material for a two-hander for an innovative fringe theatre when it is ­rediscovered by two ­brilliant actors and a woman to direct them.One of the magazine’s first editors, John Scott, was a great champion of Wordsworth, Charles Lamb, John Clare, Keats and Carlyle, among ­others.
Scott died after being shot in a duel in February 1821 which took place at a farm between Hampstead and Camden Town. His opponent was an agent for the rival Blackwood’s Magazine. The two publications had been engaged in a bitter dispute.
In the 1950s, TS Eliot endorsed the London Magazine as a non-­university-based ­periodical that would “boldly assume the ­existence of a public interested in serious ­literature”.
Sadly, that is an assumption that the Arts Council is no longer bold enough to make.


Sunday, 16 December 2007

The Tenderness
of Wolves

by John Horder

1st November 2007

John Horder scours a collection of Ted Hughes' letters for clues to the never-ending saga of the poet's tragic relationship with Sylvia Plath

I interviewed Ted Hughes at length in 1965 in The Queens pub on the corner of Regent’s Park Road, Primrose Hill. It was just two years after his wife, the high-flying American poet Sylvia Plath, had killed herself in a house in Fitzroy Street, opposite Primrose Hill. In the same house WB Yeats – like Hughes, an occult-loving poet – had once conducted seances.

A tall, emotionally reticent Yorkshireman over six feet tall, attractive to the opposite sex, he was more naked and vulnerable than I realised at the time. He seemed to trust me, maybe because my namesake, Dr John Hor­der, had been Sylvia’s doctor at the time of her death.

After many years of emotionally holding back and being endlessly shot at by feminist biographers, Ted Hughes at last published Birthday Letters, which put his side to his and Sylvia’s never-ending saga.But it wasn’t until he wrote to his old friend Seamus Heaney on January 1, 1998 that he allowed himself to express some of his deepest and most heartfelt feelings about publishing it at all. This was the key letter for me among the hundreds in Letters of Ted Hughes: “Your letter overwhelmed me. In a way, my final decision was three parts blind – a gamble...

“Given the funny old physical corner I’ve got myself into and the mysterious role in my life that SP’s posthumous life has played – and that our posthumous marriage has played – publication came to seem not altogether a literary matter, more a physical operation that just might change the ­psychic odds for me and clear a route.

“Though I did wonder whether my very sudden determination to ignore every kind of reaction to them, and every possible impropriety of revealing them, didn’t signify some diminution of brain – since all these 25 years or so I’ve lived under a regime that found every reason to hide them like the village idiot, perhaps quietly do away with them someday if I could find the courage...

“But here they are. I hit on the direct letter as an illegal private translation between [Sylvia] and me – then simply followed the clues and they piled up.”

Clearly Elaine Feinstein, the poet and Ted Hughes’s first biographer, has only just scratched the surface. There is fascinating material here in these 738 pages for his future biographers. In an earlier letter to Lucas Myers, a friend from Cambridge dated February 14, 1987, he had admitted to colluding with Aurelia, Sylvia’s mother, “in her sustained effort to delude the public, too, about Sylvia’s diabolical side... And protecting Aurelia, I colluded – and promoted the cult which interpreted my continuing silence in the blazing martyr-light shed by Sylvia’s consecrated image. In which light I could only appear as a demon, the villain, the cause of all Sylvia’s pains”.

That’s certainly how all the feminist biographers of both sexes saw him.

Not surprisingly, the toughest letter, wrought from steel, is to Aurelia, dated May 13, 1963, giving her the firmest of firm boundaries when she next meets her grandchildren Frieda and Nicholas. Hughes said: “Stop messing!”

Much-needed light relief includes a letter written in 1960 about T S Eliot, the poet, talking “staring at the floor between his feet – when he’s sitting – and looks up only to stare at his wife [Valerie]. His smile is that of a person recovering from some serious operation.” Like Hughes, Eliot took himself very seriously as a Great Poet. The two had oceans of emotional reserve in common.

In 1986, Hughes des­cribed Michael Hor­dern, the actor, as “the very best speaker of Shakespeare I’ve ever heard”. But he doesn’t mention their mutual passions for fishing and drinking the most expensive malt whiskies.

I still feel that 'Poetry in the Making' – originally written for BBC Schools Broadcasts early on in Hughes’ career, is one of the most insightful books into the amazing craft of poetry ever written.Birthday Letters – published in 1998, the year of his death – was the book we had all been waiting for rather than this more cumbersome Letters of Ted Hughes.

As Nicci Gerrard said in The Observer: “The poems come dazzling out of the darkness, and they are not answers to his critics after all, or appeals for understanding, but tender and elegiac acts of remembrance.” She might have been describing the end of one of the poems, ‘Life After Death’ (see above).

Thus did Ted Hughes secure for all time that the feminist violators of his reputation did not get the last word they had so hoped to do.

John Horder is a poet. He helped set up the poetry side of the Pentameters Theatre in Hampstead in 1968. “Letters of Ted Hughes” is edited by Christopher Reid and published by Faber at £30

Desk poet
by John Horder
The Guardian, March 1965

Ted Hughes is the one poet to have risen since the last war whose work seems to speak to all generations. The terror and frightfulness at the end of his magnificent poem 'Mayday on Holderness' are characteristic:

The North Sea lies soundless. Beneath it
Smoulder the wars: to heart-beats, bomb, bayonet.
"Mother, Mother" cries the pierced helmet.
Cordite oozings of Gallipoli.

Frederick Grubb in his forthcoming book 'A Vision of Reality' has noted that Hughes’s impact is sometimes of "sterile frightfulness and morbid impasse." The tendency is certainly there in his work but at the same time he manages to face and explore a wide range of animal feelings which most of us prefer to ignore. This he does with some underlying cynicism and resignation.

His childhood offers little clue to these preoccupations. He was born and brought up in Mytholmroyd, a little Yorkshire town where his father was a joiner. He was the youngest of three children and says this made him very competitive. He has a pleasant childhood playing a lot on local frames and on the moorland. When he went to Mexborough Grammar School he was lucky in having a succession of English teachers who were enthusiastic about poetry, specially John Fisher, who is still there. At fifteen he began writing poetry in earnest.

“I can’t say much about the formative effect of my childhood”, he told me, “the most important thing it taught me was to speak West Yorkshire dialect, which is really what I write.” (Hughes still speaks in dialect.) “You know, you can hear the language under the language when you speak. The minute you have lost that feeling it has gone dead on you. Well I was lucky, the West Yorkshire dialect is both eloquent and emphatic, there are no parts of it formal or dehumanised. It gets in within whatever I write and that in turn limits what I write to form a single point of view.

"When I went to Cambridge there was a danger that I’d move over and speak the other language. Reading English was a dead-end for me and in my last year I moved over to anthropology and archaeology, which I found absorbing. I spent most of my time reading folklore and Yeats’s poems. There was a time when I knew the whole of Yeats's 'Collected Poems', including the longer ones, off by heart. These two interests helped to fertilise my imagination. I didn't need anything at Cambridge really.

"Cambridge is the ordeal for initiation into English society and it's a pity there's not another one. It's a most destructive experience and only tough poets like Peter Redgrove ever survive. When you think of it hundreds of undergraduates reading English each year all want tto write and 99 per cent simply disappear. In effect university is a prison from life in your last three or four most formative years. It's a most deadly institution unless you're aiming to be either a scholar or a gentleman."

Significantly, Hughes wrote nothing while he was at Cambridge. His first poems were written around the age of fifteen and the next when he was twenty-five. After coming down he wandered about for two years doing odd jobs, working as a rose-gardener, a night-watchman and then finally as a reader for Rank at Pinewood. "I first met Sylvia (Plath) in Falconer's Yard off Petty Cury in Cambridge eight years ago last week. I taught there for a bit while she finished off at Newnham and we got married the same year. We went off to American in 1957 where we both taught. We first lived in Northampton and then spent a fantastic year in Boston, where she was born. It's a strange and wonderful city. After that we did a slow tour round the States on the money we had put by. I don't know how we survived but we did. Neither of us made much from writing at the time.

"Sylvia was terribly efficient sending all my poems out for me and I had my first book, 'The Hawk in the Rain', taken by Harpers in America before Fabers accepted them here in 1957. There was no rivalry between us as poets or in any other way. It sounds trite but you completely influence one another if you live together. You begin to write out of one brain. Sylvia was completely original though. She may have been influenced by Stevens or Lowell in a couple of poems, but she had found her own voice. She wrote an enormous amount, eight or nine books before Heinemann took 'The Colossus', and every nine months or so the body of her manuscripts would undergo a complete change. You see, she needed to write - she could produce a characteristic poem at any time she liked.

"After we'd returned to England and were living in Chalcot Square near Primrose Hill, we would each write poetry every day. It was all we were interested in, all we ever did. We were like two feet, each one using everything the other did. It was a working partnership and it was all-absorbing. We just lived it. There was an unspoken unanimity in every criticism or judgment we made. It all fitted in very well.

“Sylvia had a great desire to write stories and novels. But the poems were works of genius. She rejected a lot which seem terribly good to me and I’ll put them in another book to follow 'Ariel' in a few years’ time. She wanted to produce these last poems more than anything else, writing under an enormous pressure. If she didn’t write anything for three days she'd be in a very bad way indeed. She'd written poems since she was a little girl…

"Sometimes I think my poems are merely notes. A lot of my second book 'Lupercal' is one extended poem about one or two sensations. There are at least a dozen or fifteen poems in that book which belong organically to one another. You'll have noticed how all the animals get killed off at the end of most poems. Each one is living the redeemed life of joy. They're continually in a state of energy which men only have when they’ve gone mad. This strength arises from their complete unity with whatever divinity they have. They would be utterly miserable, otherwise however would they manage to live?

"These spirits or powers won't be messed up by artificiality or arrangements. This is what 'The Otter' is about and 'The Bull' is what the observer sees when he looks into his own head. Mostly these powers are just waiting while life just goes by and only find an outlet in moments of purity and crisis, because they won't enter the ordinary pace and constitution of life very easily. In fact, they have a hard time in this modern world. People are energetic animals and there's no outlet in this tame corner of civilisation. Maybe if I didn't live in England I wouldn't be driven to extremes to writing about animals… My poems are not about violence but vitality. Animals are not violent, they're so much more completely controlled than men. So much more adapted to their environment. Maybe my poems are about the split personality of modern man, the one behind the constructed spoilt part." The last stanza of 'Thrushes' shows how the life of the man at the desk has completely cut across any life of the senses through which he might have reached fulfillment:

With a man it is otherwise. Heroisms on horseback,
Outstripping his desk-diary at a broad desk,
Carving at a tiny ivory ornament
For years: his act worships itself - while for him
Though he bends to be blent in the prayer, how loud and above what
Furious spaces of fire do the distracting devils
Orgy and hosannah, under what wilderness
Of black silent waters weep.