Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Who else but

Those good old days

Urm. SO...the night of the's literally freezing. We get a taxi into town because anyway ...the taxi driver is acting very oddly. He draws up outside the house and watches us come out…doesn't open his door at first...Turns out, according to him, the new game in town is to rob taxi drivers, and to wait outside a residential address, pretend it yours, and then beat up the driver and run he says: “if I do not see the door open, I do not take the fare.” And for the next ten minutes he tells us horror stories from the day to day life of a Coventry cabby.

Which is awful except…our driver is Asian, wears a turban, speaks with a thick Asian accent and he keeps denigrating "these migrants'. He’s not the first or last person we’ll meet who will repeat this incongruous refrain. I still remember the shock the first time I heard two Irishmen in Coventry talking about “these Bloody Migrants”.

Our driver, like so many other people we’d meet over a “certain age” keeps talking about the Good Old Days. You know the refrain? When it was safe and everyone was friendly and loving and gave each other flowers and chocolates not just before during and after sex but when they met as casual strangers cycling to work in the factories, a book of poetry balanced on the handle bars because everyone was so much more literate then than now…having left their doors unlocked because no one would dream of breaking in while granny was making her home made scones and little lullubelle was playing carelessly in the road with a host of snotty nosed but endearing urchins because pedophilia hadn’t been invented…...unlike these days when those bloody knife wielding migrants come and take our jobs and get our daughters pregnant.....I exaggerate a little...but it went on like that until it dawned on me that I was there in them good old days.

Back in de good ole days on the first night of my job as a barman I was told I could have bottle money: 26p in drink or takeaway. My friend who had got me the job, handed me a bottle of lemonade. I explained I didn’t like lemonade. He explained that given the route we were walking home, the lemonade would make a good weapon if we were attacked….back in de good ole days.
True, there were jobs, but have you ever seen a car production line before the process was automated? Or did he mean before I was born, when the Germans were dropping bombs on everyone?

One of the problems with travel is that you're at the mercy of other people's perceptions. You tend to rely on their version of the place because you have no version of your own to measure it against. Which is equally true of history. Trying to work out values and beliefs by reading the few remaining documents is a bit like trying to learn the road rules by watching how people drive.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Old English “Wanderer”.

The Old English “Wanderer”.

Coming home, after only two years. Top of the Humber hill, and I’m seeing what I expect to see, except what I expect to see is no longer there. There’s a small roundabout at the bottom of the hill and the factory has gone. The latter is almsot impossible to take in.

The end of The Wanderer starts chiming in my head.

Eald enta geweorc idlu stodon

Earlier in the year I had reviewed two books of Old English translations, and though it doesn’t appear in the reviews, I went line by line through the two translations of the wanderer, comparing them with the original. Which is probably why random bits of the poem are stuck in my head.

In the poem the speaker has encountered his worst nightmare…his lord is dead, his kin are gone, and alone, he travels across a hostile landscape in search of a new Lord. For an Anglo-Saxon in the heroic age, this is as bad as it gets. There’s nothing remotely romantic about his isolation. He is lost and vulnerable. He reflects on a ruin, on the transience of life, and he laments its passing.

Both the translations are what could be described as formal equivalence. They transfer the Old English into Modern English by finding the nearest equivalent word in Modern English. And while I may be critical of the occasional choices, I have nothing but respect for anyone who can translate and keep to the original metrical patterns.

There’s another type of translation, called Dynamic Equivalence. In which the translator attempts to create in the target audience the same effect the original had on the original audience.

I don’t have a lot of time for the idea that works like The Wanderer need to be rewritten or revisioned for the modern age… that it has to be “made relevant” by importing modern paraphernalia. A) This pseudo intellectual waffle assumes the modern reader is too stupid to see the relevance in the original metaphor (as though someone had to point out to the original audience that this is a meditation on life from a Christian perspective as well as a dramatically realised incident) and b) it usually leads to a diminishing of the original text.

But if you were going to do a dynamic equivalence, then imagine a speaker with a solid fulfilling career and a good relationship with his or her boss. Imagine the boss moves on…the company “down sizes’..suddenly unemployed the speaker can’t pay off debts, the flat is repossessed. Packing personal possessions in the car, he or she sets off for new accommodation, hoping to find a new job soemwhere else, driving past the factory: it has changed names enough time in my life time…the Humber, Roots, Chrysler, Talbot, Peugeot. Gone. A locked gate that protects nothing, a broken façade facing the road, a vast muddy space behind railings speckled with fat sea gulls and silent mechanical diggers discarded as the light fails:

The Maker of men hath so marred this dwelling
That human laughter is not heard about it
And idle stand these old giant works…

Friday, January 23, 2009

Dorothy Porter

While I was away in England I heard the news that Porter had died.

Before I left I'd tracked down the film of the Monkey's Mask. For me the highlight was the intervie with Porter, though the interviewer seemed too lightwieght and awestruck for the job.

The critical impulse (mine at least) is to qualify rather than celebrate. To look for the flaws. To position oneself to avoid any kind of exposure. If I admit this what are the consequences?

But(like so many others) I enjoyed The Monkey's Mask the first time I read it, and every time I re read it.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Folks Long to go on Pilgrimage #2

A prelude of sorts:

December 2004. Looking for Keats' House. The usual family bargain: I'll do whatever you want all morning but this afternoon I'm going to Keats' house. Chris is getting exasperated with my's round here somewhere, I'll know it when I see it. So she enters the newsagent.

Chris: Do you know where Keats' house is?
Newsagent: Who?
C: John Keats? Do you know where his house is.
N: Never heard of him. Has he lived round here long?

So since we were in Exeter and I was looking at the map and saw the Ottery Saint Mary we go to see Coleridge's...father's church. One of the benefits of accidental tourism is that you can take advantage of your own forgetfulness. I'd forgotten I'd seen pictures and read Holmes' description of the church. I was expecting a small Parish church, not a pocket cathedral. Betjamen's guide to churches did say it was impressive and the font was ugly. He was right.

In an age where the blurb writers would have us believe every other poet is audaciously busy reinventing/renewing/reinvigorating the language, redefining and questioning what it means to be human, etcetc and blah blah blah it's easy to forget that once in a very long while there is a writer who does all those things, and more. STC was the man. It's difficult to imagine a history of English poetry that could leave him out. And he was the first, but certainly not the last, to waste his talent on surfeit of drugs and Wordsworth.

Although it has some memorabilia associated with STC he wasn't there. But if you could play it again Sam, what would you choose? Asra, the rising curl of Striding Edge, no misery despair or loneliness, at least no more than any other man lives through: or those poems and your place in history?

The question is rediculous. But so is wandering round a church in sub zero temperatures because some dead poet once lived there.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Another Dublin Detour

If ever you go to Dublin town/In a hundred years or so/Enquire me for me in Baggot street…

So Mr Kavanagh, I did. In a city littered with statues, to the great, the dead and the fictional I went looking for the one your friends put up for you. Up Grafton street, where my dad and his brothers had a flat before the war, past St Stephen’s Green ("our local park") along Baggot street to the bridge. And there you are.

Names are important. As you knew they have their own melodic resonance.

“O Commemorate me where there is water
Canal bank water preferably, so stilly
Greeny at the heart of summer. Brother
Commemorate me thus beautifully
Whereby a lock Niagarously roars.”

You and me both.

I know water. Rivers, canals, estuaries. Spent years training on the canal in Birmingham, so I know how it goes green in summer, when you can learn slalom trying to avoid the bloated carcasses of dead dogs. So “stilly greeny” always worked. Was never too sure about naigarously but here, well, the sound of water falling though the lock is a beautiful constant and naigarously works.

Mr. Kavanagh, it doesn’t matter to anyone but me, but you wrote several pieces that I wouldn’t be without. (You wrote a lot of bollocks too, if you don’t mind the observation.) I won’t bore you by naming them all, but long ago “Kerr’s Ass” moved itself into that odd space beyond any kind of critical possibility, where poems become old friends, or talisman’s, like Bloom’s potato.

Though “the straw stuffed straddle, the broken breeching’ has always tripped me. I love the incantatory quality of the details, and the way they build towards that magical last stanza which seems to slip into a different register:

…morning, the silent fog
And the god of Imagination waking
In a Mucker fog.

But before I start sounding like a critic I should point out I’ve recited those lines (did I tell you it’s one of the poems I carry round in my head) watching the morning happen on river banks all over the world, and in villages and towns from Sulawesi to Tashkent. So instead of the usual critical qualifications, I'm prepared to admit to an enthusiasm without bothering to qualify it.

Lady Godiva and me was partly inspired by a conversation Yeats is supposed to have had with Joyce. You were the historical irony of that conversation, the real rural deal tramping mud across Yeats’ carpet in your big Monahan clod hoppers. And perhaps the even greater irony was that the farmer poet ended up being the poet of city streets. Raglan road is just over there, isn’t it?

So I’m glad I got here. But your friends built this statue from metal. The day is hovering around freezing, so it’s not Kerr’s Ass that’s most on my mind. I’ll leave you to the water.

Talking nothing to this stone

the second poem in Lady G and Me is set here, as a conversation between one of the voices from the first sequence and this stone.

The original idea was for the stone to speculate on what would happen if the moron with the spray can were to meet either Bolingbroke or Mowbray. What price his strutting "Attitude" if the consequences were a short drop from a hastily improvised gallows.

I'm glad I changed my mind. But the question raises itself everytime I see the scrawl.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

How to make the past present?

How to take something written in a different time and place and present it to a modern audience? Almost everyone seems to think you have to alter the original. I’m coming to the conclusion that such an activity is shonky if not unnecessary. Paradise Lost without an objectionable God ain’t Paradise Lost.

But I’m not totally convinced. So a ramble through two examples: one the recent BBC TV version of The 39 Steps, the other a new translation of the Old English Wanderer.

The 39 steps is a very much a product of its time. The central character, Richard Hannay, has all the racial and social snobbery you’d expect from a “gentleman” at the turn of the 19th century. There is no significant female character in the story.

When adapting the story for the screen, there are obvious changes that will have to be made. Hitchcock had already tried to give the story some kind of dramatic ending.

But in terms of ideologies what gets put in; what gets left out? What do you do with the bits a modern audience might baulk at? Do you present it as an historical curiosity requiring footnotes? Do you try to make it “relevant”? Do you present the version of the story the author might have written if he were alive today? How far can you go before the original text disappears?

Or: Why do they think the audience is so stupid that they can’t be trusted to see that this story is set in the past and its values are not ours?

With 7.3 million other viewers I switched on to find out. Hannay, left with information of national importance by a stranger, has to contact the “Secret Service Bureau”. He goes into a public phone box:
H: Operator. Put me through to the secret service bureau
O: One minute sir
Female voice: Secret service bureau. How may I help you?.

Oh glorious possibility, we were watching a subtle parody. After all the written story has plot holes that look like moon craters have taken up residence in Scotland. The 39 Steps rewritten by the Milligan with a rejuvenated Python crew about to appear?

Sadly no. This was meant to be taken seriously. I kept watching to see if it could get any worse.

It did. Compulsory introduction of irrelevant “strong female character’. It’s 1914, so she’s a suffragette. But c’mon she just needs to meet the right man….Ignore the slur on the suffragette movement, because here comes the inevitable, inevitably preposterous love story.

Why do we need a “love story”? Buchan didn’t. Is erotic romance the only remaining rationale in a narrative? Does all art have to aspire towards The Bold and the Beautiful? And if we must have a love story; can’t it be an adult one?

Rewrite Propp, “The morphology of the popular TV tale”. Reduce it to a depressingly familiar trajectory. Two strong characters meet and for good reasons detest each other on sight. Circumstances force them together. They realize “their true feelings” and fall in love. We know these people would never push a shopping trolley round a supermarket while their children wail for coco pops. Despite being obviously unsuited and sharing nothing but the need to survive, we are expected to believe they will remain happily ever after the credits role.

In this case the circumstances were a walk in the rain and the need to remove their damp clothes in a shared bedroom. They rub mustard on each other’s burns. Slowly. (is there a name for this perversion?) The bedroom sharing consumed a large chunk of the story. Many meaningful glances and slow movements. I think it was supposed to be about sexual tension and character revelation. Eco argued, perhaps tongue in cheek, that you could identify pornography by the way actions on screen took a disproportionate length of time to occur. If so, this was pornography. Without sex. (In the second, equally long bedroom scene the heroine offers herself to the hero, (she says “I could stay” the way she might offer to give him a lift into town). He gallantly turns her down.

Who dreams this childish nonsense?

The Hannay of the book has disappeared. He’s lost his racism and snobbery, but he’s also lost all the other qualities that made him interesting and drove the plot. All he shares with the TV version is a name. The new plot has so many twists it’s screwed. There’s still thirty nine steps and a conspiracy to learn the secrets of the British navy but that’s about it. The ending is a silly shoot out with a submarine. Followed by her death. Followed by her resurrection. They will live happily ever after the great war has finished. Damn the coco pops.

John Buchan wouldn’t recognize the story as his and would probably feel uncomfortable watching it. .

So how is this The 39 Steps?

Are they making the text accessible to a modern audience? Modern? Relevant? Or are they just hanging their story on a title because it gives it a borrowed credence? And if you’re going to make that many changes, why not call it something different and take responsibility for the narrative?

Folks long to go on Pilgrimages

We fumbled our way into Exeter cathedral. It was so bitterly cold that we didn't even pause to admire the exterior. Inside we negotiated the concept of a compulsory voluntary donation, collected our free pocket diaries and learnt the library was closed. No chance of seeing the Exeter Book. Where was Richard and his camera when I needed him? No point in bleating -"but I came all the way from Australia". We could have been returning damaged goods or unwanted christmas presents.
Then I looked up and the ceiling rocked me back on my heels. There are times when "wow" is the only appropriate response. The lady at the counter, enjoying my reaction as much as i was, offered facts about the building.

The organist began to practice.

This is what I want as a reader of poetry. An encounter with something that will always be one step futher than I can ever go.