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Storms, eggs, everyday corruption, and the Consul’s approaching end

14 May
Another blurry picture taken from a bus and featuring mist and cactus, taken on the road from Saltillo to Monterrey.

Another blurry picture taken from a bus and featuring mist and cactus, on the road from Saltillo to Monterrey.

 

The airport in Saltillo closes because of the fog, so I miss my lunchtime flight back to Mexico City. Julián is laid low by a mystery bug and Mónica offers to drive me to the airport, after picking up little Leo from nursery. We exchange my plane ticket for another, from Monterrey airport, and then set off to the bus station for the two hour journey to Mexico’s third biggest city – and according to Wikipedia the ninth biggest city in the world. I don’t see much of it, however big the place is. The plane leaves at 6.20 pm and I am back into Under the Volcano, picking up with the hideous bull-baiting in Tomalín and the Consul’s vicious set-to with Hugh and Yvonne in the Salón Ofelia (todos contentos y yo también), owned by Señor Cervantes, who carries a black cockerel under his arm: “Nobody come here, only those who have nobody them with.”

Outside the plane passes through a good deal of disturbance as we approach Mexico City, a blood-red sun falling over the mountains and a big storm brooding close by to the north-west, the sky black there with jagged flashes of lightning. The pilot announces – I swear – “With the resounding egg, we make the descent to Mexico City” – and when we are leaving the plane another announcement reminds us: “Please ensure you take with you all your obsessions on leaving the plane.”

At ground level (of course Mexico City is nowhere near sea level, at 2,500 metres) I find a taxi easily enough and we drive through the hammering rain. As usual we overshoot the hotel: this happens all the time, not out of a desire to cheat the customer – the price is arranged beforehand – but because the layout of the streets in this area is pretty complicated and because no taxista can be expected to know his way around a metropolitan area containing twenty-five million inhabitants. So my driver, who is one of those very correct and well turned-out Mexican gentlemen of a certain age does a rather indiscrete U-turn at a big junction, and we are immediately pulled over by a pair of traffic cops, who were lurking under nearby trees.

The driver is asked to step out and negotiations begin. I can hear the young cop citing the precise name and number of the traffic regulation we have infringed, but I suspect that this is an irrelevance. After some discussion the driver returns inside the cab and reaches inside the glove compartment for money. How much? I ask him. One hundred and fifty, he replies (just under seven pounds sterling). Here, I say, take a hundred. After all, I am at least partly responsible for this, as I allowed him to take a wrong turning. He thanks me, pays the cop and gets back in the cab.

This is not a fine, but a pay-off. Most drivers pay the police rather than go through the rigmarole of following through with an infraction of a minor kind. The police officers’ argument goes like this: it’s easier for both of us if you just cough up. In fact I’m doing you a favour, because you’d have to pay more if we went through the proper process. When I ask the taxi driver if he ever refuses to pay a bribe he says something about the pervasiveness of corruption and shrugs. This is how the law works in this country, he says.

Back at the hotel and back into Lowry. Cervantes, the owner of the Ofelia is offering the Consul, Yvonne and Hugh some dinner – eggs is evidently a recurring theme of the evening: “ . . . You like eggs, señora? Stepped on eggs. Muy sabrosos. Divorced eggs? For fish, sliced of filet with peas. Vol-au-vent à la reine. Somersaults for the queen. Or you like poxy eggs, poxy in toast. Or veal liver tavernman? Pimesan chike chup? Or spectral chicken of the house? Youn’ pigeon. Red snappers with a fried tartar, you like?”

Hungry now, I borrow an umbrella and head for the nearest restaurant, El Califa, in Condesa, where the waiter, who seems to know me, greets me warmly. They are not serving spectral chicken, and nor do I order poxy eggs, but a bowl of broth and a couple of veal tacos. At the table in front of me two young people – he in a very shiny suit, she laughing too enthusiastically at everything he says – share a dessert, spooning ice cream into each others’ faces. On the way back the sky cracks with thunder and the heavens open once again. In El Califa they have given me some little sweets with my bill. I open the packet with difficulty and am confronted by some tiny things that resemble hundreds and thousands. I have not met with these before, so I give them a try. There is an explosion of sugar and chilli pepper inside my mouth, which is not at all agreeable. I throw the remaining sweets in a bin and head back to the hotel, prepared for the Consul’s disastrous denouement.

 

 

 

 

Veracruz by night

4 May

 

Veracruz night

Leaning over the balcony of my room in Veracruz on a Saturday night. It is hot and the air is dense, the sky laden with clouds that have not broken all day, suggesting, to me at least, some faintly tragic element– as if a foreboding – to the festive sounds emanating at full blast five floors down. Why foreboding? Because this much noise must be a cover for something, full-blooded defiance of some kind. The son band has started up, and couples are dancing in the Zócalo, moving with slow steps, a synchronised animal of multi-hued and diverse features. And all of a sudden I turn around, almost certain someone has entered the room behind me. Of course, there is no one there. The door is locked. But I am in a strange hotel, in this noisy, sweaty city, after the relative quiet and familiarity of the coffee-growing uplands in Coatepec and Xalapa. I venture downstairs and sit outside the bar attached to my hotel.

When I say the band has started, I am not being strictly accurate, as if implying there is only one band. There are currently several bands playing in the square, which, to use a common analogy, is the size of a couple of football pitches. In addition there is a group of bikers from San Luis de Potosí, who have parked their machines in the southwest corner of the square and planted massive speakers alongside them, from which blasts heavy metal at a volume which overrides most of the other sources of sound, the throbbing bass lines producing a physical response in the pit of the belly. As in the UK the bikers are predominantly middle-aged men wearing inscribed black t-shirts barely covering bulging bellies. They rev the engines of their Harleys, sending out a direct challenge to the mariachi band playing closest to their patch. There are at least four other mariachi bands playing, and a larger band for the dancers. To add to the cacophony hundreds of birds, occupying the many trees around the plaza maintain a shrill and manic chirping, flitting frantically from perch to perch, sometimes singly, other times en masse, dislodging a rival group from a neighbouring tree, who fly away squawking to find another haven. Police sirens and an unremitting blasting of horns from the bumper-to-bumper traffic add to the great noise. A fresh contingent of mariachi trumpeters arrives to my right, offering a more local assault to the eardrums.

This is, quite simply, the noisiest place I have ever been, its orchestral totality rendering the Plaza Castillo in Pamplona on the opening night of the San Fermines into sedate chamber music by comparison. But here there is no fiesta, it’s just a normal Saturday night in Veracruz.

I was told to expect a lot of noise, but nothing could have prepared me for this aural onslaught. It is beyond sound, it is a dense, geological layering of noise upon noise, of massive dimensions.

Outside in the street, a big red Ford truck pulls up, and six very fat men pile in. I look around to see if anyone else has noticed this strange occurrence, but perhaps in Veracruz this kind of thing happens all the time. At the table in front of me, a smartly dressed man with European features is writing in an A4 pad. What is he writing? Amid all this noisome, somewhat seedy racket, could there be a second scribe, a cover version of Blanco, doing exactly what Blanco does? Could he, at this very moment, be describing how there is this person seated behind him, who is a cover version of his own alter-ego?

There is always the other one, doing exactly what you are doing, thinking your thoughts, writing your story, singing your song.

At the table to my right sits a small, slight gringo who bears a certain resemblance to Stan Laurel and wears a forlorn moustache and camouflage cargo shorts and a t-shirt with an inscription that I can’t quite make out without standing in front of him and peering, which I have no intention of doing. He is talking to his Mexican friend, in English. The Mexican begins every other sentence with the words ‘one day’. One day I this one day I that. Esto y esto y esto. The other tables are filled with Mexican holiday-makers or weekenders.

My other gets up to leave. He reaches down and fetches from the floor a hard hat, of the kind worn on building sites. I see. He is probably a surveyor or building site manager, and he was filling out a report. Never mind.

The Mexican who is sitting with the gringo is doing most of the talking. He says, or I think he says, ‘one day you will see where went the elephant’. Then he says, I think, ‘one day you want talk up the history of conscious memory’ – but that cannot possibly be right. Then he says, especially loudly: ‘One day she will say I work every day every day every day. Shit! Some days I don’t give passion. Shit!’

The bikers amble by in a group. They are wearing a uniform: sky blue shirts and black leather waistcoats, or vests as they say in the U.S. In the square itself I can see jugglers and clowns and drag artists and con artists and little stalls selling cigars and wooden toys and junk of every possible description.

A very young woman, attractive and haunted-looking, with a sweet child in a sling on her back comes by selling knick-knacks made from woven thread. The pair to my right, who are both quite drunk by now, each give her a twenty peso note (about £1), the gringo pointing to the child insistently as he hands it to her, as if to say, it’s because of her, your child, that I am bestowing such munificence on you. Alcohol-driven largesse. The woman in the group directly in front of me hisses loudly to catch the waiter’s attention. He ignores her. She tries calling ‘Joven!’ (Young Man!) instead, which works, and he half-turns, careful not to dislodge any of the bottles and glasses he carries on a tray high above head-level. The light on the black wooden surface of my table is refracted by the revolving overhead fan above me, turning the shiny table-top into a swirling vortex, inviting me in. I realise at this instant – with the gratification that accompanies every minor epiphany – that I don’t truly know anything, and probably never will. But at least I have the salvation of continuity, and the exquisite tension of the unfinished journey.

The gringo and his friend leave. When I get up to pay, I notice that the gringo has left his small backpack leaning against the wall beside his table. I tell the waiter, so he can keep it behind the bar for when the poor fellow realises he has left it somewhere.

I take a last turn around the square. An old man with no shoes, extremely drunk, takes a slim bottle of cane rum from his back pocket, swigs the remaining dregs and slings the plastic bottle away with an angry gesture. He is so drunk that he is taking part in one of those hallucinatory boxing matches that certain drunks get into, and he staggers on, fighting his imaginary enemy.

One of the last performances of the night – it is after 3.a.m. by now – is underway: a tight-rope walker, who has planted his rope between a tree and a lamp-post. He is pretending to be drunk, and is supping from an identical bottle of cane rum to the one the man with no shoes just threw away. The man with no shoes abruptly stops his shadow-boxing, and stares in evident confusion at the tight-rope walker for a few seconds, before letting loose a string of profanities, and stumbles on his way across the square.

tight rope 0

 

tight rope 1

 

tight rope 2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jaguars, snakes, rabbits

3 May
Jaguar duality

Jaguar duality

If you travel, Blanco thinks, if you just travel, go from place to place, walk around, you should never get bored and you should never lack for things to do or write about, if this happens to be your thing. At least that is the theory. Blanco has a minor epiphany: he must go to Coatepec (the accent is on the at): it fulfils the single major criterion he has always employed when deciding whether or not to visit a place: he likes the sound of it; it carries the resonance of something remote – in time and culture – and yet somehow reassuring. He is walking down the hill from the Xalapa museum of anthropology, and after an entire morning within its confines he has become saturated with Olmec images of human figures and jaguars and serpents, and he flags down a taxi driven by a man with stupendously fleshy earlobes; earlobes that remind him of small whoopee cushions or rolled dough or moulded plasticine. The taxi driver chats about corruption in Mexican politics. It is raining. It has been raining all morning and all last night, and throughout the previous evening, and as far as we know it has never not been raining. Outside of Xalapa there is a roadblock. The young policeman carries an automatic rifle and wears black body armour, leg armour, the works. He inspects the taxi-driver’s I.D. and stares at Blanco for several seconds. It continues to rain.

More duality

More duality

We arrive in Coataepec and get stuck in a traffic jam. Nothing moves. The taxi driver asks directions, but that doesn’t help the traffic move. Blanco spots an interesting-looking restaurant, pays the taxista, and gets out. The restaurant has a nice inner patio with a garden area, and tables around it, out of the rain. In the garden there are roses and other flowers. A large family group are finishing their meal and then spend at least twenty minutes taking photos of each other in every possible combination of individuals, so that no one has not been photographed with everybody else. They have commandeered the only waiter in order to help them in this task. Every time Blanco thinks they are about to leave and release the waiter they reconvene for a new set of photos. One of the men (a Mexican) has very little hair but a long grey ponytail, which cannot be right. One of the women – I suspect Ponytail’s sister – is married to a gringo, it would seem. He has long hair also, but not arranged in a ponytail. He speaks Spanish well, with a gringo accent. Blanco orders tortilla soup and starts leafing through a magazine he bought at the anthropology museum. His phone makes a noise that tells him he has received a message. It informs him, in Spanish: Health: Adults who sleep too little or too much in middle age are at risk of suffering memory loss, according to a recent study. He looks at the message in consternation. Too little or too much? So, hey– you’re bolloxed either way. Who sends this stuff? The screen says 2225. Then another one: Japanese fans of Godzilla were very upset with the news trailer of this film to find that Godzilla is very big and fat: read more! 3788. Then a link. Blanco shakes his head sadly.

Coatepec is full of interesting buildings with courtyards. Blanco heads down to the Posada de Coatepec, a nice hotel in the colonial style, and goes in for a coffee. A slim man with fine features, a neat little moustache, dressed in polo gear, greets him in a friendly fashion, and Blanco greets him back, once again under the impression that he has been mistaken for someone he is not. A blonde woman, also in white jodhpurs, follows the man. There must have been a polo match. How strange. The hotel offers a nice shady patio, but we don’t need shade, we just need to be out of the rain. Blanco sits on the terrace outside the hotel cafe and writes in his notebook. Before long, the man who was in riding gear comes and sits on the terrace also. Immediately three waiters attend him, bowing and scraping, one of them is even rubbing his hands together in anticipatory glee at the opportunity to serve this evidently Very Important Person. Mr Important takes off his sleeveless jacket, his gilet, and immediately one of the waiters – like a magician with a bunny – produces what appears to be a hat-stand for midgets, but is, presumably a coat-stand. Clearly the Important Person cannot do anything as vulgar as sling his coat over the back of a chair. Another waiter opens a can of diet coke at a very safe distance, and only then brings it to the table, along with a glass filled with ice. He is bending almost double, as if to ensure that his body doesn’t come into too close and offensive a proximity to the Important Person. It is one of the most extraordinary displays of deference I have witnessed in my life. Then all three waiters – the one who brought the coat-stand, the one with the coke, and the one who was rubbing his hands, a kind of maître d’ – vanish inside like happily whipped dogs. Left alone, the Important Person makes a phone call in a loud voice. He is barking instructions to some underling. He is clearly someone who is used to being obeyed, like an old school Caudillo. Must be a politician. When he has finished his call, he looks around and gets up to go inside the restaurant, where his company – family and friends, I guess – are seated. He walks inside with his drink, and within seconds one of the waiters appears out of nowhere, grabs the coat-stand, and follows him in with it.

A White Rabbit

A white rabbit

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A white rabbit taking his leave

A white rabbit taking his leave

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We have to go. I have arranged to meet a poet back in Xalapa and discuss literary matters. He is called José Luis Rivas and has translated T.S. Eliot and Derek Walcott into Spanish.

 

Carriage in foyer of the Posada de Coatepec, used by formerly Important People.

Carriage in foyer of the Posada de Coatepec, used by formerly Important People.

 

 

Coatepec Church

Coatepec Church.

 

 

El Caporal, Coatepec.

El Caporal, Coatepec.

 

 

In Xalapa

2 May

cactus road

Leaving behind the poets of the monstrous metropolis that is Mexico City, Blanco catches a bus and crosses the wide plain strewn with cacti upon which perch enormous dark birds. Did he actually see them, those birds? It is so hard to distinguish at times between the things we see and the things we remember and the things we think we remember and the things we never saw but read about and the things we wish we had seen and so retrospectively invent, and the things we will never see but have experienced vicariously in a story recounted by someone else, a friend, or possibly a stranger. And then a mist falls upon the plain and the next time he looks there is a forest, barely visible through the thick cloak of fog, and the windows of the bus have steamed up with the change in temperature.

trees in mist

 

He arrives at Xalapa in the rain, catches a taxi, and finds that the route across town is cordoned off for a Mayday demonstration. The taxi driver curses, finds a way around, drops him off. He is hungry and sets out up the street, finds the Callejon Diamante, though it has been renamed, and enters La Sopa canteen. An older man with a white moustache, white shirt and white cowboy hat is playing the harp. Blanco clocks the harpist clocking him. He heads towards the back of the cantina and orders food; chickpea soup, pork in salsa verde with pasta, and a beer. The food arrives, along with tortillas wrapped in a cloth. The cowboy harpist stops playing the harp and makes his way down to the washroom. When he passes Blanco’s table he nods and says buenas tardes, as though he has known him for years. This is not so strange, thinks Blanco, a friendly old fellow who plays the harp in a cowboy hat. He finishes the chickpea soup and awaits the arrival of the second course. The harpist comes out of the men’s room, stops by Blanco’s table and says in Spanish, ‘Around here they call me the ambassador.’ Now this Blanco does find odd, as he is under the impression that he, Blanco, is the Ambassador, or at the very least a variety or version or improvisation upon the theme of Ambassadorship. Perhaps ‘The Ambassador’ is the harpist’s stage name, he thinks. Or perhaps he is a retired drug baron  nicknamed ‘The Ambassador’ for his talent in negotiating his associates’ passage to the next life, and who has since mended his ways and taken up playing the harp in Xalapa cantinas, where no one knows of his sinister past and his reputation for dealing out summary justice. Nonsense, I reply, he is a nice old man who plays the harp. Don’t be fooled, says Blanco. He has dangerous contacts, just consider those birds perched on the cacti, back on the plain. Who do you think you’re kidding?

When we leave the cantina it is still raining.

 

 

 

 

 

Feet

28 Apr

beautiful female legs isolated on white

 

A taster from Mexican poet Pedro Serrano’s collection, Peatlands, translated by Anna Crowe and fresh off the press from Arc, who are to be congratulated, yet again, for bringing another fine writer to the attention of the English language reader.

There is also an introduction by W.N. Herbert, where we find these lines, which seem so apposite with regard to the poem I have chosen: “The intention [is] to transform us through language, compelling us to rethink, re-imagine and re-envision the world and our place in it; and to break down our unconsidered assumptions about opposed categories like thought and feeling, human and animal, by continually returning us to the matrix of the body . . .”

 

FEET

Feet clench, make themselves small, run away,

creasing their wretchedness and fear in lines

identical to those on our palms and different.

Feet are extensions of God

(which is why they are low down),

hence their distress, their rounded bulk, their lack of balance.

Feet are like startled crayfish.

Such vulnerable things, feet.

When they make love they clench and huddle together

as though they were their own subjects.

So feet are not made, then,

to cling, like wasps

to every pine-needle pin,

to every branch of the soul that makes them there.

They are more wings than feet,

tiny and fragile and human.

However much we overlook them.

 

 

 

LOS PIES

Los pies se doblan, empequeñecen, huyen,

curvan su miseria y su miedo en unas líneas

que son las de la mano y no lo son.

Los pies son extensiones de Dios

(por eso están abajo),

de allí su angustia, su volumen redondo, su desajuste.

Los pies son como crustáceos asustados.

Tan sensibles los pies.

Se doblan y apeñuscan al hacer el amor

como si ellos fueran sus sujetos.

Los pies, así, no están hechos ahora

para prenderse como avispas

a cada aguja,

a cada rama del alma que allí los haga.

Son más alas que pies,

chiquititos y frágiles y humanos.

Tan desconsiderados que los tenemos.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hanif Kureishi and the ongoing but tedious debate on Creative Writing courses

9 Mar
"It’s a real nightmare trying  to make  a living  as a  writer". Er . . .right, mate.

“It’s a real nightmare trying to make a living as a writer”. Er . . right, mate. I’ll take your word for it (but not your course).

 

As someone who makes his living from the teaching of creative writing I watched warily as the Hanif Kureishi story from the Bath Literature Festival unfolded last week. I had really begun to think that the argument about ‘whether you can teach creative writing’ was dead in the ground, but I was wrong. And the tremors that began in the staid and elegant streets of Bath have even rippled over the South Atlantic.

This morning I receive an email from Jorge Fondebrider in Argentina with a link to Ñ, the magazine supplement to the newspaper Clarín, and the most important cultural weekly in the country. The article suggests that ‘Kureishi’s bitter declarations belong to the hateful species of writers who go to literary festivals in order to spend their time complaining about how much they hate having to do publicity for their books.’ Indeed, perhaps Hanif was bored, and wanted to get something off his chest, or just rile someone. And that’s understandable, although not very professional. But he certainly knew that his outburst would get him publicity for his new novel, The Last Word. I don’t wish to add to that publicity, but do feel the need to make a contribution, as I am getting tired of the argument he has resurrected. Kureishi has frequently been outspoken in a heavy-handed, bombastic way and he is a didactic writer – which to my mind is at odds with being a good novelist. But he has also –and this might come as a surprise to many – written extremely lucidly on the practice of creative writing.

What shocked most people about Kureishi’s rant was the sheer, brazen hypocrisy of it all. Here is someone who makes his living from an activity that he evidently despises – much as he appears to despise the students he teaches – and yet is content to pocket the salary that accompanies this fruitless endeavour, without any consideration for either the people who have paid big fees to study at the university where he teaches (Kingston) or the consequences for the rest of us in having to pick up the broken crockery after this moribund and incredibly tedious domestic turbulence, once again. I am not even convinced how much of Kureishi’s polemic was for real, nor do I really care. The fact is that we have all had thoughts like Kureishi’s on a bad day, but we get over it. The evidence, as Tim Clare’s entertaining response to Kureishi: Can Creative Writing Be Taught? Not If Your Teacher’s A Prick is that many people get quite a lot from a Creative Writing course. From my own experience (I teach at Cardiff University) I would venture that MA students are not so naïve as to expect to make it into the upper zones of the literary stratosphere simply by gaining a qualification in Creative Writing. Most of them would accept that we, their tutors, cannot ‘teach them to write’, but that we can make them aware of certain techniques and strategies by which they can help themselves towards becoming better writers. Most of them would also accept that real talent – whatever that is – is rare (though whether the figure of 99.9% figure cited by Kureishi is relevant or not, I rather doubt: it reeks of the old prejudice about ‘genius’ and a ‘God-given gift’, or the equally defunct and baffling notion of inspiration from the muse). Those who do succeed (whatever the measure of success), and who possess a modicum of talent, begin with a strong urge to write – which often takes on the characteristics of an obsession – and they persevere through rewriting and rewriting until they get a result. Much as I suspect Kureishi did.

One of the modules on the Cardiff MA, taught by a colleague (Shelagh Weeks), is  ‘The Teaching of Creative Writing’ (Module SET203). The assessment comes in the form of a 3,000 word essay, submitted after the students have spent some weeks working with aspiring writers in schools and with our own undergraduates. Here is a sample quotation:

‘Some students have considerable phantasies about becoming a writer, of what they think being a writer will do for them. This quickens their desire, and helps them get started. But when the student begins to get an idea of how difficult it is to complete a considerable piece of work – to write fifteen thousand good words, while becoming aware of the more or less impossibility of making significant money from writing – she will experience a dip, or ‘crash’ and become discouraged and feel helpless. The loss of a phantasy can be painful, but if the student can get through it – if the teacher can show the student that there’s something good in her work and help her endure the frustration of learning to do something difficult – the student will make better progress.’

In marking this, I would have pointed out the clumsy repetition of ‘considerable’. Nor do I much care for ‘the more or less impossibility’, but the argument being made seems sound enough.

In fact, the piece was written by Hanif Kureishi and published in issue 37 of The Reader (Spring 2010). Much more helpful than the Kureishi who tells us that creative writing courses are simply a waste of time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Etymology of vagabondage

27 Feb
Leatherman

The Leatherman (ca. 1839–1889) was a vagabond famous for his handmade leather suit of clothes, who traveled a circuit between the Connecticut River and the Hudson River, roughly from 1856 to 1889.

Taken to task by a reader over the complicated etymology of vagabondage, I realise the need for another post on the subject.

In an earlier post I referred to the cirujas of Buenos Aires, otherwise known as cartoneros, those nocturnal seekers-out of trash bins, whose primary task is to find materials for recycling (plastic, cardboard, paper etc). Cartoneros are a sub-category of ciruja, a professional scavenger of all types of object for which a use or purpose can be made. That is why I likened the ciruja to a kind of street alchemist, seeking out base metal to transmute into gold. But I can see, as I was chided, that there is nothing especially poetic about this.

Whereas with the linyeras, there is. The definition of linyera given in my dictionary of  lunfardo (Buenos Aires slang) is: “Persona vagbunda, abandonada y ociosa (idle), que vive de variados recursos (living off a variety of resources).” The word originally comes from the Piedmontese linger, which meant “a posse of tramps”. These fit the more romanticized notion of the classical vagabond, moving around the country (or the globe) without direction or purpose, usually associated in North America with the hobo, whose preferred means of travel was jumping trains, an occupation which was until not so long ago manageable in Europe also, but which has now become as obsolete as hitchhiking.

One still sees a posse of tramps drinking from bottles or flagons in any French town or city. These, of course, are clochards. A clochard or clocharde is a person “without fixed domicile, living from public charity and handouts.” The term clochard allegedly means ‘one who limps’ from the Late Latin cloppus (lame), but I have also heard that the term comes from the ringing of a bell (cloche) which in earlier times – when most cities in France were fortified – signalled that it was time for the indigent and poor, who could not afford lodging in town, to leave the city and go sleep in a field or a barn. To my mind, a clochard is somewhat different from a vagabond. A clochard might not venture from a known neighbourhood, while for a vagabond, the world is his lobster (sic).

According to French Wikipedia “Des vagabonds célèbres ont existé, par exemple GandhiNietzscheLanza Del Vasto, et d’innombrables philosophes-vagabonds.”

To be continued. Any contributions welcome.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Plus ça change

22 Feb

Selfservatives

 

I don’t usually post about politics, but I spotted this on Facebook, and thought it worth sharing.

As we hear more every week about waves of parasitic immigrants and social security scroungers who ride on the back of ‘hardworking families’ et cetera, it is nice to be reminded that these are not the only ones to play the system.

On a related theme, I came across a letter in The Independent the other morning, in which Barry Richards of Cardiff took the Tories to task for not paying interns. Apparently the Conservative Party is “trying to be a responsible employer”. As Mr Richards remarks in his letter:

A “responsible employer” would show care for its employees and ensure that they receive a fair wage capable of supporting a decent standard of living. But then the Tory ethos, from the aristocracy and landed gentry through to today’s stockbroking, City elite has always been to build wealth and power off the backs of other people’s work at the lowest cost possible.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la meme chose . . .

 

 

 

 

 

Facts about Things

18 Feb

 

omnesia-remixOmnesia, W.N. Herbert’s new collection of poetry, comes in two volumes, subversively titled Alternative Text and Remix, so as to disabuse the reader of any notion of an ‘original’. The word ‘omnesia’ is a conflation of omniscience and amnesia, the latter quality bringing into question the actuality of everything we know – especially, perhaps, our omniscience.

Herbert’s oeuvre is already varied and profuse, and this new collection is expansive in every way. The two volumes mirror and reflect upon each other, so that the airborne squid on the cover of ‘Alternative Text’ is flying towards the reader while the one on ‘Remix’ travels laterally – just as the author in the photo gazes amusedly to the right on the one book, and bemusedly to the left on the other. As an epigraph from Juan Calzadilla, tells us: ‘I have transformed myself into another / and the role is going well for me’. The concept of non-identical twin texts embodies, as the poet reminds us in his Preface, a rejection of ‘or’ in favour of ‘and’. A core of poems appears in both volumes, and the title poem opens ‘Alternative Text’ and closes ‘Remix’. But this sequencing does not signify a preferred reading order. Instead, we are warned off any kind of systemic coherence in the poem’s opening lines: ‘I left my bunnet on a train / Glenmorangie upon the plane, / I dropped my notebook down a drain; /I failed to try or to explain, / I lost my gang but kept your chain – / say, shall these summers come again, / Omnesia?’

Almost anything is a cue to Herbert, setting him off on one of his preferred riffs, especially our inescapable doubleness, exemplified by the two books – themselves containing other books which scurry off at tangents – and the frequent collusion of the narrative ‘I’ with other selves. In ‘Paskha’, the narrator sees a dead scorpion ‘in silhouetted crux’ and is ‘troubled by the brain’s chimeric quoins / its both-at-onceness, how the memory’s / assembled with our present self for parts . . .’ And it is this very both-at-onceness that has me riffling through the pages of ‘Alternative Text’ while reading ‘Remix’, following the demands of a connectivity which the poet’s Preface planted at the outset.

The poems take place in and meditate upon the poet’s journeys from Crete to the north of Britain, from Mongolia to Albania, from Finland to Israel, from Venezuela to Siberia, and among the poet’s several antecedents I was pleased to meet the shadow of Byron, especially in the ‘Pilgrim’ sequence. There is also a fine selection of poems in Scots.omnesia-alt-text

The choice of epigraph usually serves as a pointer towards the poet’s intended direction. We are warned, in a quotation from Patricia Storace, that ‘In Greece, when you hear a story, you must expect to hear its shadow, the simultaneous counterstory.’ And not just in Greece. In ‘News from Hargeisa’, for instance, the counterstory of Somalia’s troubled history lies beneath every line, evoking local parable in the story of a lion, a hyena and a fox (animal imagery predominates in many of Herbert’s poems), as well as in the poet’s mourning of his friend Maxamed Xaasi Dhamac, known as ‘Gaarriye’, the late great Somali poet to whom both volumes are dedicated.

I am sure I missed subtle allusions and even whole thematic directions, and yet still enjoyed the poems I didn’t get. I did wonder how many people – outside of those who have lived on Crete – would ‘get’ ‘The Palikari Scale of Cretan Driving Scales’, a poem in which the driver’s recklessness is measured in direct relation to the magnificence of his moustache.

One might complain that there is simply too much in these books: not in the sense that they are lacking in editorial discretion, but that they demand a readerly imagination as febrile as Herbert’s in order to keep up. Is W.N. Herbert one person? I suspect not: and in any case he seems quite comfortable swapping costumes with his multiple others. I suspect also that Omnesia is a work one needs to live with for a while before appreciating all the shifts and mirrorings, puns and doublings, but even on a first acquaintance it offers richly rewarding reading.

Review published in Poetry Wales, Summer 2013 49 vol 1.

And nearly a year having passed since writing the above review, I can assure you that Omnesia repays revisiting. In so many ways.

 

Facts about Things

Things are tired.

Things like to lie down.

Things are happiest when,

for no reason, they collapse.

 

That French plastic bottle, still half-full,

that soft-back book, just leaning on

another book, drowsily:

soon they will want to go outside,

 

soon you will find them in the grass

with the empty bleaching cans and that part

of an estate agent’s sign

that’s covered in a fine grime like mascara.

 

That plastic bag you’ve folded up

feels constrained by you and wants

to hang from bushes, looking like a spirit,

sprawled and thumbing a lift.

 

Things are bums, tramps, transitories:

they prefer it when it’s raining.

Lightbulbs like to lie in that same

long, uncut, casual grass

 

and watch the funnel effect: the way

on looking up the rain all seems

to bend towards you,

the way the rain seems to like you.

 

Things which do not decay

like it best in shrubbery, they like

to be partly buried.

They like the coolness of the grass.

 

Most of all, they like it

when it rains.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Vagabond

18 Feb

vagabundo

The gentleman depicted here is a vagabond, from the Latin vagari, to wander.

In English the term has almost disappeared in its original sense, although a quick internet search identifies the popularity of the term to help sell niche products, for example: a wine shop in London’s West End; a Swedish shoe manufacturer; an chic boutique in Philadelphia.

A Spanish Wikipedia entry on the word vagabundo (vagabond) begins like this:

“A vagabond is a lazy or idle person who wanders from one place to another, having neither a job, nor income, nor a fixed address. It is a type familiar from Castilian literature, which contains many examples of vagabond pícaros . . .

In the dialect of Lunfardo, which originated in the late 19th and early 20th centuries among the lower classes of Buenos Aires, the term ciruja is applied to vagabonds who collect rubbish and sort through it in search of something useful. The term derives from the word for a surgeon, cirujano. Popular wisdom has it that these vagabonds were compared to surgeons because of the way in which they carefully sought out objects of interest, picking them from trash containers and municipal tips, rather than from inside a human body. This last attribute – the meticulous extraction of some unexpected treasure from amid the rejected dross of the everyday – seems rather fitting.

In French chanson, vagabonds are typically depicted as materially impoverished characters possessed of an irresistible allure. The singer Lucienne Delyle (1917-62), one of the most popular French singers of the 1950s (her greatest hit was Mon amant de Saint-Jean) also had a song called Chanson vagabonde, which can be heard here.

 

 

 

 

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