Where Were You on the 9th August, 1974?

Resignation Artifice

If you are of my generation [soon to be 62] and lived in the UK at the time, can you remember where you were on the 9th August, 1974? I do. In the early hours of that morning I was making my way gradually – and frustratingly considering the sense of urgency – on a slow Honda C50 towards Ipswich to deliver an article I had just written for the Evening Star, the town’s local newspaper.

It did not print my report for that morning’s edition, nor at any time afterwards. I wasn’t a journalist [though aspiring to be one] and the diatribe probably wasn’t that well written, though intensely earnest. It was also adamantly political, so not a provincial paper’s normal fare – for unsolicited contributions in particular – and it also had a foreign political focus: American to be precise, written by an American living in England and staying that night in Kesgrave, a suburb on the A12 outside Ipswich.

The article I had composed in outraged haste contained my immediate, impassioned response to having watched Richard Nixon’s resignation speech, delivered in fact on the 8th August from the Oval Office at the White House, but I will have seen it live at 3am [I am guessing] on the 9th on the television at Kesgrave UK. I was incensed by the defensive tone of his speech with attempts to deflect from his criminal guilt by references to what he perceived to have been his achievements whilst in office as President. I obviously won’t have been alone in this feeling, but by some strange, naïve rationale I imagined I was the only American living in that part of Suffolk and felt sure others would want to read my informed-by-nationality observations in the main local paper.


I have been prompted to write this brief remembrance now for two reasons: first, yesterday I was reading Christopher Hitchens’ The Trial of Henry Kissinger in preparation for another piece I intend to post about Nixon’s Secretary of State and Foreign Security Adviser – and fellow criminal – illustrating how this links to a published poem of mine from the late 70s about him and the Viet Nam war; second, last night I also watched the Sky Arts’ broadcast of the CNN programme The Seventies: The United States vs The President which was focused on Watergate, Nixon’s involvement in this and his subsequent impeachment and resignation.


When I revisited that resignation speech online, I looked immediately for the quote Nixon had used as his primary argument of self-justification and which had angered me so much when first heard. This is the allusion that still appals:

Sometimes I have succeeded and sometimes I have failed, but always I have taken heart from what Theodore Roosevelt once said about the man in the arena, “whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes short again and again because there is not effort without error and shortcoming, but who does actually strive to do the deed, who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself in a worthy cause, who at the best knows in the end the triumphs of high achievements and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.”

I cannot find the article I wrote on that same night, but recall I began by making reference to this Roosevelt quote and my contempt for Nixon’s arrogant, preposterous appropriation of it, especially the ‘man in the arena’ metaphor of a nobility attained by at least having tried. My instinct then was, I believe, sharp and correct, and this view was reinforced by watching that CNN programme where the collation of judicial hearings, news reports and other expositions of the time surrounding the Watergate revelations continually exposed Nixon’s haughty contempt for acknowledging the truth.

There is little need for me to try and add to the mass of analysis out there on this – what struck me last night whilst watching was how I had missed all of that American media coverage of the time. We just didn’t have the depth of current, intense focus here in England, obviously, or it wasn’t easy to access like it would be now. Had I followed the protracted procrastination of Nixon in refusing, for example, demands to release the Oval Office tapes as well as his contemptible demands to have Special Prosecutors fired, I would have been even more enraged – if that were possible – to hear him invoke the words of Roosevelt. Whilst I can all these years later reflect on the masterful art of rhetoric employed in this speech, I can never remain neutral about its shameful artifice.


Gravy and Ray Carver

Originally posted February, 2011:

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I was asked recently what Americans mean when they use the word gravy to apply to a feeling or a situation. I used then what I use now to explain – this poem by Ray Carver:


No other word will do. For that’s what it was. Gravy.
Gravy, these past ten years.
Alive, sober, working, loving, and
being loved by a good woman. Eleven years
ago he was told he had six months to live
at the rate he was going. And he was going
nowhere but down. So he changed his ways
somehow. He quit drinking! And the rest?
After that it was all gravy, every minute
of it, up to and including when he was told about,
well, some things that were breaking down and
building up inside his head. “Don’t weep for me,”
he said to his friends. “I’m a lucky man.
I’ve had ten years longer than I or anyone
expected. Pure Gravy. And don’t forget it.”

The powerful simplicity of honest writing. Reading Carver is pure gravy.

Charles Baudelaire – Teenage Adulation

Originally posted March, 2012:


Squibs – Intimate Journals

Even though God did not exist, Religion would be
none the less holy and divine.
God is the sole being who has no need to exist in
order to reign.
That which is created by the Mind is more living
than Matter.
Love is the desire to prostitute oneself. There is,
indeed, no exalted pleasure which cannot be related
to prostitution.
At the play, in the ball-room, each one enjoys
possession of all.
What is Art? Prostitution.
The pleasure of being in crowds is a mysterious
expression of sensual joy in the multiplication of
All is Number. Number is in all. Number is in the
individual. Ecstasy is a Number.
Inclinations to wastefulness ought, when a man is
mature, to be replaced by a wish to concentrate and
to produce.
Love may spring from a generous sentiment, the
desire for prostitution; but it is soon corrupted by
the desire for ownership.
Love wishes to emerge from itself, to become, like
the conqueror with the conquered, a part of its victim,
yet to preserve, at the same time, the privileges
of the conqueror.
The sensual delights of one who keeps a mistress
are at once those of an angel and a landlord. Charity
and cruelty. Indeed, they are independent of sex, of
beauty and of the animal species.
The green shadows in the moist evenings of summer.
Immense depths of thought in expressions of
common speech; holes dug by generations of ants.
The story of the Hunter, concerning the intimate
relation between cruelty and love.

According to the dates in my mini-Baudelaire library, 1972-73 were those of my fascination for his writing and their wild, irreverent philosophies and explorations. All obviously in translation, I devoured Selected Writings on Art and Artists [Penguin Classics], Selected Verse [The Penguin Poets], Twenty Prose Poems [Cape Editions], Intimate Journals [Panther], and the brilliant Enid Starkie Baudelaire autobiography [Pelican] that fuelled the wonder and amazement I mainlined from his writings.

The seepage that plagues my memory means I can recall little of that reverie, with some excuse that it was nearly 40 years ago and I was only 18 and juggling ideas rather than catching and pocketing. But as the extract from Intimate Journals above so clearly demonstrates, Baudelaire’s ideas and their expression were so declaratory and assured that they appealed to the teenage search for alternative beliefs and the willingness to express them wildly but with such conviction.

I still don’t fully grasp his dichotomy of the dandy and the woman, but I still enjoy the celebration of the former’s spirit, especially when searching for that free spirit which seemed achievable at that time and with those incipient readings. The woman represents the opposite of this,

Of airs in Woman.
The charming airs, those in which beauty consists,
The blasé,
The bored,
The empty-headed,
The impudent,
The frigid,
The introspective,
The imperious,
The capricious,
The naughty,
The ailing

In the introduction to the Intimate Journals by WH Auden I highlighted back then this one brief passage/explanation:

‘The truly dandyish act is the acte gratuite, because only an act which is quite unnecessary, unmotivated by any given requiredness, can be an absolutely freely self-chosen individual act’

and you can see how this would appeal to the  teenage urge for independence and individuality. Perhaps in retirement and after all these years I could in reality be more free to follow the independent spirit of Baudelaire’s dandy. We shall see.

First Anniversary of this Blog, and its Continued Disdain for Nicky Morgan

Just Plain Wrong

I had wondered if I could/should comment on the first year anniversary of this blog: it’s no big deal in the life of my or any other blog, and I wouldn’t intend to do so annually, but it has been a significant year for me in the amount I have posted, and especially in the earliest ones, focusing on Michael Gove and subsequently Nicky Morgan’s refusal to reconsider a decision to ban the study of American novelists for GCSE English Literature [including, to illustrate, my significant correspondence with responses and finally some acknowledgement of wrongdoing from the DfE]. I have also been proud of the amount of teaching materials regarding creative writing I have shared, though it is always difficult to gauge how much this has been used.

But I wasn’t sure about commenting on this inasmuch as my focus has shifted over time to including postings of my own poetry, advertising my writing [someone has to!], and most recently sharing reviews of prose and poetry from a few years ago. Then yesterday [seen by me today], Nicky Morgan tweeted a video of her desperate attempt to articulate a defense of her government’s and Department’s ‘primary assessment regime’ because this has come under critisicm and attack from teaching professionals. That is all the spur I have needed to celebrate my continued fight against all that is inept but also ‘just plain wrong’ [NM’s mantra] about this government’s educational policies and implementations, but especially anything to do with assessment.

I wrote ‘disdain’ in my title: I try, at times, to retain some level of civility. Watching Morgan’s video today here, I was struck immediately by the ennui of its platitudes. She essentially states that primary school students should learn the ‘basics’ [yes, a term requiring considerable scrutiny, but not here nor now] to prepare for secondary education, and that the attainment of this needs to be measured through assessment. What she fails to see is that no teacher or parent would disagree, so her knee-jerk defense against being criticised most recently by, amongst others, Mary Bousted [ALT general secretary], the NAHT, and the change.org petition signed by Michael Rosen with such knowing and convincing professional argument in support, is risible.

Put simply, the solution to students learning the ‘basics’ is through good teaching by good professionals and these same people carrying out regular formative teacher-assessment in order to support their students’ progress and well-being. Morgan’s horrendous mistake is to parrot – as so many before her – the panacea of national testing regimes to fulfill this, which most professionals dismiss as ‘just plain wrong’ for a variety of experienced reasons.

I have always focused on the English side of such assessment, and I have posted here and here my disdain [I am retaining that level of politeness…] for such. This is the critical problem. Whilst others have quite rightly focused on many factors like the lack of time to prepare for implementation and the detrimental impact on young students, I think as a teaching profession we need to continue to analyse and expose the nonsense of so much that purports to be the teaching and assessment of the ‘basics’, and beyond. That Morgan can persist with her happy endorsement of the ‘primary assessment regime’ where, for example, Key Stage 2 English tests ask students to make multiple choice selections on the use of modal verbs as if this is relevant to learning about, or ‘mastering’ a ‘basic’ skill, in Writing [especially, but not exclusively, at this level] makes me livid with her for her woeful lack of understanding.

Because I have analysed to a degree aspects of those sample Key Stage 2 English tests, I won’t repeat such here, but this is precisely what fuels my immediate anger when I listen to Morgan making her bold but bland claims in her video today. I should add that I feel I have been consistent in my dismay with anyone who deals in these kinds of platitudinous assertions, as I articulated in a recent posting about the disappointment of receiving Shadow Education Secretary Lucy Powell’s observations [or not] on this kind of testing and assessment regime.

John Steinbeck – The Long Valley

The last on Steinbeck. Originally posted March, 2012:

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I haven’t come across any direct link between John Steinbeck and Raymond Carver – apart from the obvious: American writers in the ‘realist’ tradition; and Carver clearly will have read and assimilated and so on. But I haven’t found any critical commentary that has pursued links, or writing from Carver that references Steinbeck in any detail.

I have been looking for this overt link because as I am reading Steinbeck’s wonderful short story collection The Long Valley I am constantly thinking of Carver, but only at a specific point. Steinbeck’s detailed descriptions, especially of the natural world either as an entity or in its relationship with any particular protagonist, are second to none. He must have had the most observant eye and retentive memory. Carver’s world doesn’t use or rely on this level of description. It is simply different, and where there is the need for detail it is more about people and how they act.  Both writers, of course, excel in the use of realistic dialogue. But that’s not the critical point of comparison.

Where I have been making the key juxtaposition is at the endings of Steinbeck’s stories. In so many ways, for example in The Chrysanthemums, The White Quail, The Snake and Breakfast [I haven’t finished the book yet], Steinbeck adds explaining and/or alluding lines at the very end where Carver would have left the story ‘hanging’ more. He would have left the moment of clarity or confusion or, especially in his case, nothingness, to speak for itself.

Take Breakfast for example: a superb snatch of a moment. The final paragraph, spoken by the first person narrator, explains where no explanation is really necessary,

That’s all. I know, of course, some of the reasons why it was pleasant. But there was some element of great beauty there that makes the rush of warmth when I think of it.

The last line of the preceding and penultimate paragraph is And I walked away down the country road. That’s where Carver would have ended it. The story about a shared, random breakfast in the early morning is a quintessential vignette: a moment and mood conveyed with palpable simplicity. As readers, we have sensed the ‘great beauty’ and ‘warmth’ as it happened, and in that respect there is no need to be reminded. The other stories I have mentioned have similar additions. Perhaps it is to do with the time and a reader’s expectation of explication. I don’t know.

This will sound like preference, but it isn’t. Both writers are brilliant; and literary heroes. It’s just something distinct that struck me today as I was reading.


Anthony Wilson – Riddance

Originally Posted February, 2013:

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Uplifting Experience

In Peter Reading’s 1984 collection C, he presents the poetic paradox of being unable to write about Cancer/illness/death and yet ‘(Incongruously I plan 100 100-word units.)’ to do so in this dark and complex work. There are moments of bleak humour, but little that is uplifting in this ‘Terminal verse’, unless the other C of candour will suffice. But poetry does not suffice for Reading,

‘Why? Snot, gore, filth, suppuration of the arse-gut – for these no metric is vindicable.’

In Anthony Wilson’s recent collection Riddance where he deals poetically with his own cancer, the creativity carrying his candour is wonderfully uplifting, as it is also humorous and honest and unflinching amongst many other enduring attributes.

I had the great pleasure of attending Anthony’s launch of this poetic collection on the 17th September 2012 at the Bike Shed Theatre in Exeter. The attendance for this was amazing – tribute to the high regard from so many for Anthony as a person of considerable humility and warmth, for his journey with this cancer, and for his talent as a writer.

I read and wanted to review Riddance almost immediately, wishing to share in its significant appeal, but have found it a more complex work than I originally imagined and thus have lived with it rather than quickly treat as a product. This complexity beneath its otherwise freshness of direct accessibility is one of its many strengths, and in characterising this now, I want to light-touch as a review and tempt anyone reading to discover for themselves the ease with which you will follow Anthony’s vindicable poetic exploration. Where Reading’s objective stance struggled [though this was his ruse], Anthony’s subjectivity succeeds.

The opening poem ‘Tumour’ encapsulates as a title the directness of the telling throughout the book. There is no need for metaphor or other embellishments. I like the unsentimental honesty of lines like

‘I would like to claim
new attention to my children
but the truth is they grew up
whether I watched them or not.’

In ‘How to Pray for the Dying’, the concluding line ‘Try saying ‘Shit happens.’’ reinforces the lack of sentimentality, and in its secular declaration, he avoids the cloying spirituality one would find in others’ writing – which isn’t to say these poems are devoid of spirituality. That is a feature of the unravelling depth and complexity they offer over several readings.

The list poem ‘Lost’ is bookended with the lines ‘Lost my hair’ which asserts the humour found in many poems, but also that sensible grasp of priorities: being bald is more critical a reality than agonising over whether to rail against an uncertain god. This humour is continued in the delightful ‘Homeshopping’.

The poems I am focusing on are largely from the first section ‘The Year of Drinking Water’ and they establish aspects of discovery/realisation/pain/fear/acceptance/recovery, themes which are revisited throughout all five sections of the book. Whilst the fifth is titled ‘Reasons for Life’ these reasons are plotted in poems throughout all the sections, often directly or by extrapolation.

I also like the playfulness of many poems, like ‘Words’ where the distancing of not quite clinical but key diagnostic terms suggests much about isolation and pause and focus as the emotive response to hearing these. This gets an oblique repeat it seems to me in ‘I am Fighting’ with its echoes and repositionings of meaning.

In ‘Heads’, Anthony returns comically but by its very mentioning again the very visible consequence of cancer and treatment in being bald,

‘I’m Kojak without his lollipop,
a paunchy Duncan Goodhew and haggard
Syd Barrett on his bike.’

The physical manifestations of this illness are what he and others so readily see – it is only in this retrospective telling [though much clearly written during] that deeper truths are conveyed.

The close observation in the poems ‘I am Becoming my Grandmother’ and ‘Man in a Fleece’ account for further physical but also behavioural changes – real and imagined – that attend the progress of the cancer and treatment. The humour now is more sardonic, but there is also the poetic imagining at work which perhaps finds a beauty that Reading could not, for example, achieve [or attempt to achieve],

‘I stroke my second skin.
It catches the light in beads
which ripple up then down my arms.’ [MIAF]

In the poem ‘Blood’, a visual and tactile description leads to the telling line ‘….you seem stable as mercury./If only.’

In ‘The End of the Affair’, a poem that recounts the recovery and defeat – though we will be taken through the processes again and again: this being an aspect of the overall complexity I hadn’t noticed at first – we get the first dialogue with an illness that has gone but can never go away as an experience,

‘My days grow fat without you.
There are rumours of gales.
No, I don’t think we can be friends.
I would rather you didn’t write.’

Indeed, in section three ‘Riddance’, we get a poem like ‘The Clothes I Bought During Cancer’ which is all about discarding and change. In ‘Playing Dead’ Anthony recalls what is presumably an early MRI scan. And in ‘Probably Nothing’ we are reminded though a poem of childlike verses the grown-up reality of beating this disease,

‘You won
you beat it, they say.
No I didn’t.
But it did go away.’

These references merely scratch the surface of a book that startles in its apparent simplicity. The account of being diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma [7 years today] through to remission is told with candour and considerable grace, the subjectivity having an innate power no metaphor could hope to deliver. The poetry is in the tones and emotions, the playfulness at times, the precise placings on the page [Anthony Wilson has always been an excellent craftsperson] and the total lack of any self-pity. It is, as I have said, an uplifting experience to read.

Anthony’s website with details of how to purchase Riddance: [link]

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Word Pool

[for Rupert]

He is not a prophet or a magician or even a
shyster, so there is no divining of water. It is
already there, a large pool full of liquid words
that he lifeguards. As his young swimmers
dip in toes the ripples suddenly distort so the
translucence becomes opaque – and it startles
as well as scares, these drylanders not quite ready
to accept how meaning will float to the surface
if you relax fully, still so many lengths and lengths
away from walking on this skin to read its
metaphors. Many will not wade, feet on the even
solidly found, surroundings too murky for their
goggle-less eyes; there are no inflatables or other
buoyant words that will help the drowning to rise.

Child of God – Cormac McCarthy

Originally posted May, 2012:

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More Travels With Cormac

I’ve just started reading The Crossing, second in Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy. Those following this blog will know I started reading his work with No Country for Old Men, and then All The Pretty Horses. I have written about the wonderful, lengthy compound sentence structures he uses in that latter novel mentioned, and he continues with these in The Crossing.

I am writing now briefly about Child of God, his novella that I have just finished. In looking for a copy of a cover to post with this, I read that the book was written in 1974 [I hadn’t looked when I read!]. Shows how stupid I am: I perceived of him as a modern writer, in a recent time sense, not the literary one of which he clearly is ‘modern’. It must have been prompted by a sense of the recent movie of NCFOM, and The Road, which I haven’t yet read. And ATPH was written in 1992. It hadn’t struck me that he had started writing and was published in the sixties. And I have only really taken note of him this year. Astonishing.

Child of God is a brilliantly and at times beautifully written story of the disgusting and despicable Lester Ballard, a man-thing who roams and ruts and routs around the hill country of East Tennessee. I’m not sure that there is a classic tension in what we as readers feel about this nasty protagonist, who is never even an anti-hero, and who never seeks our forgiveness or understanding either consciously or otherwise. I don’t believe McCarthy does. Ballard’s isolation both socially and physically in the story isn’t compromised by any authorial hand-holding. You must read this to experience the degradation for yourselves. The only one of two palliatives I can offer is that there are moments of humour. But they don’t last long.

The other is the writing style. At times, this sickening story is expressed so poetically that this could provide the only chance of being serenaded to some kind of empathy, but it is never about a Macbeth who is given salvation and redemption though a heightened language. There are many styles too, from vivid description to first person vernacular by unidentified speakers. Near the end, the sheriff and his deputy think and express themselves as templates for the Sheriff in No Country for Old Men. Here, fairly randomly, are two poetic narrations: the first about fireworks –

High above their upturned faces it burst, sprays of glycerine flaring across the night, trailing down the sky in loosely falling ribbons of hot spectra soon burnt to naught. Another went up, a long whishing sound, fishtailing aloft. In the bloom of its opening you could see like its shadow the image of the rocket gone before, the puff of black smoke and ashen trails arcing out and down like huge and dark medusa squatting in the sky

and the second, hounds attacking a boar –

Ballard watched this ballet tilt and swirl and churn mud up through the snow and watched the lovely blood there in its holograph of battle, spray burst from a ruptured lung, the dark heart’s blood, pinwheel and pirouette, until shots rang and all was done

There are countless more, some where the poetry is more lyrically in tune with the qualities being described, others even more antithetical in the grotesque juxtapositions of beautiful language and horrific events/situations. In this respect, there is schizophrenia in the reading, and I highly recommend the madness.