Archives for the month of: October, 2012

I often look to poetry to facilitate a discussion with myself about something…in this case ageing.

Larkin is often dismissed as a pessimist, as the poet not to read if you are feeling remotely low. But I love his frankness, his realness, his putting-out-there, sometimes uncomfortably for the reader, of truths that define our humanness.

Take ageing.

We see Larkin approach this theme, gently perhaps, in Trees (In Collected Poems, London: Faber, 2003, p.124):

‘The trees are coming into leaf

Like something almost being said;

The recent buds relax and spread,

Their greenness is a kind of grief.

Is it that they are born again

And we grow old? No, they die too.’

There is a nostalgic, even romantic tone to the similarly themed Age (p.60):

‘My age fallen away like white swaddling

Floats in the middle distance, becomes

An inhabited cloud.’

But The Old Fools (p. 131) is different. It exposes the vulnerability of ageing, ‘the whole hideous inverted childhood’. Nothing appears to be gained from the process of ageing, of being old, and Larkin seems angry and resentful:

‘What do they think has happened, the old fools,

To make them like this? Do they somehow suppose

It’s more grown-up when your mouth hangs open and drools,

And you keep on pissing yourself, and can’t remember

Who called this morning?’

The anger calms as the poem progresses, as ageing and old age appear to equate with loss, but also the possibility of hope:

‘Perhaps being old is having lighted rooms

Inside your head, and people in them, acting.

People you know, yet can’t quite name; each looms

Like a deep loss restored…’


I have always been drawn to empty buildings, particularly ruins, spaces that were once complete, populated, and now stand and fall, ghost-like and desolate.

In Cork this weekend, I chanced upon an intriguing exhibition at the Crawford Art Gallery. It contains a single piece, an 8 minute film by Martin Healy, called Last Man.

Filmed in the now de-comissioned Cork Airport Terminal, the piece depicts the movements of a solitary janitor as he maintains the empty building. Initially, it feels as if we are watching a lone worker as he prepares the terminal for the busyness of tomorrow. But tomorrow never materialises, the building remains in a state of emptiness, a place of non-happening, that is ultimately and irreparably abandoned.

As I left Cork airport today, from the new inhabited and alive terminal, I glanced at its cast aside and melancholic predecessor. Yet disused buildings are not necessarily empty in the absolute sense. Memories remain, and the ruins continue to live as unique repositories for melancholy, and for the artistic imagination.


It has been a poetry-themed week, ending with a wonderful evening tonight with the American poet Sharon Olds reading of some of her old and new poems at the Southbank.

I have long been a huge Olds fan. I love the visceral aspect of her poems, and her fearlessness and generosity when it comes to expressing the intimacies of her life and the rawness of her emotions:

From The Sisters of Sexual Treasure (Selected Poems, London: Cape, 2005, p.2):

‘As soon as my sister and I got out of our

mother’s house, all we wanted to

do was fuck, obliterate

her tiny sparrow body and narrow

grasshopper legs.’

She deals with the realities of life, and its losses, adorning, even embracing, them with beauty within tragedy:

From Miscarriage (Selected Poems, p.14):

‘When I was a month pregnant, the great

clots of blood appeared in the pale

green swaying water of the toilet,

brick red like black in the salty

translucent brine, like forms of life

appearing, jellyfish with the clear-cut

shapes of fungi.’

Her poems on her father’s illness and death deal with both the fact of his dying, but also the difficult relationship she had with him. In The Race, she describes her desperation to get to his bedside before he dies, and her relief at arriving ‘in time’.

From The Race (Selected Poems, p.50-1):

‘…I walked into his room

and watched his chest rise slowly

and sink again, all night

I watched him breathe.’

In Wonder (p.52), she analyses her own response to hearing that her father is going to die:

‘… If I had dared to imagine

trading, I might have wished to trade

places with anyone raised on love,

but how would anyone raised on love

bear this death?’

This is what I so love about Olds’ poetry – her honesty, her refusal to gloss over the less acceptable, and her courage to put the imperfections, the flaws and the rawness of life out there, on a very personal level. She is so aware of our humanness, in its totality, and is unashamed of this.

In The Feelings (p.53-4), she describes the moment when she is present at her father’s death:

‘…I was the

only one there who knew

he was entirely gone, the only one

there to say goodbye to his body

that was all he was…’

‘…The next morning,

I felt my husband’s body on me

crushing me sweetly like a weight laid heavy on some

soft thing, some fruit, holding me

hard to this world. Yes the tears came

out like juice and sugar from the fruit –

the skin thins, and breaks, and rips, there are

laws on this earth, and we live by them.’

Olds’ poems are often rooted in a bodily, fleshy, visceral world, yet there is no sense of a body/mind duality. On the contrary, both appear entertwined in the physical selves that we live in.

The current collection, Stag’s Leap, which has just been nominated for the TS Eliot Prize, is about the end of her marriage, her husband leaving after many decades of togetherness. He features, perhaps now poignantly, in many of her earlier collections:

From This Hour (Collected Poems, p.85):

‘We could never really say what it is like,

this hour of drinking wine together

on a hot summer night, in the living room

with the windows open, in our underwear…’

The title of the new collection, Stag’s Leap, refers to their favourite wine. The opening poem, While He Told Me, positions her, and us, in the room where she learns of the end of the marriage. Her love for her husband refuses to die despite the desertion. Yet amidst the pain, there is also much humour, and Olds as a performer is hugely charismatic, and funny. In Telling My Mother:

‘…So the men are gone,

and I’m back with mom. I always

feared this would happen…’

Re-reading some of her older poems after tonight’s performance, I came across The Wedding Vows (Collected Poems, p.128-129):

‘I did not stand at the altar, I stood

at the foot of the chancel steps, with my beloved…’

‘…We stood

beside each other, crying slightly

with fear and awe. In truth, we had married

that first night, in bed, we had been

married by our bodies, but now we stood

in history – what our bodies had said,

mouth to mouth, we now said publicly,

gathered together, death…’

It made me feel sad, reading this, with the knowledge that all is now broken, and cast aside. But Olds would probably not share this sentiment, her works are never maudlin or self-pitying. She would, perhaps, stop, and consider, and with a wry and bemused smile conclude that making and breaking is the stuff of life…


I am a great fan of the Bloodaxe poetry collections edited by Neil Astley, Staying Alive and Being Alive. Between them lies such a wealth of words and thoughts that it feels as if I can dip into them and find something that resonates with whatever mood or experience I am living. Being Human is a companion collection that I have not read, but this did not stop me from attending a performance of selected poems from the anthology at Kings Place this week.

Three performers dramatised the varied works, varied both in terms of content and also the diverse corners of the world the pieces originated from and have been translated for the collection.

The performers are talented and impressive actors, who with an innate skill and ease allowed the poetry to come alive, and to seduce.

Of more than 30 poems, which covered most life events from the banal to the sublime, I enjoyed the entirety, yet inevitably I have favourites.

Philip Larkin’s poignant The Mower is one:

‘The mower stalled, twice; kneeling, I found
A hedgehog jammed up against the blades,

‘Next morning I got up and it did not.
The first day after a death, the new absence
Is always the same; we should be careful

Of each other, we should be kind
While there is still time.’

I love the essence of this poem, how the banality of mowing the lawn transmutes into something that resonates beyond the event. But only if you allow it to.

I was introduced to many poems and poets during the performance that I was less aware of, for example Doris Kareva, and her poem Shape of Time (translated from Estonian by Tiina Aleman):

‘You aren’t better than anyone.
You aren’t worse than anyone.
You have been given the world.
See what there is to see.’
The performance encompassed most life events, from birth (Upon Seeing an Ultrasound Photo of an Unborn Child, by Thomas Lux), to the departure of children from the parental home (To a Daughter Leaving Home by Linda Paston), to ageing (Getting Older by Elaine Feinstein) and death (Antidote to the Fear of Death by Rebecca Elson).
One of my favourites was Table, which proved to be a centre piece, as the text recurred throughout the performance. It is a multi-layed piece that epitomises the power of poetry to say little, and much…
From Table, by Edip Cansever, translated from Turkish by Julia Clare and Richard Tillinghurst:
‘A man filled with the gladness of living
Put his keys on the table,
Put flowers in a copper bowl there.’

‘On the table the man put
Things that happened in his mind.
What he wanted to do in life,
He put that there.’

‘He was next to the window next to the sky;
He reached out and placed on the table endlessness.’

‘He placed there his sleep and his wakefulness;
His hunger and his fullness he placed there.
Now that’s what I call a table!
It didn’t complain at all about the load.
It wobbled once or twice, then stood firm.
The man kept piling things on.’

Being Human, edited by Neil Astley, Bloodaxe, 2012.


On the closing day of the festival, I caught this French film (director Stephane Brize) at Screen on the Green. I was drawn to it mainly due to its thematic content, but also by the fact that it featured Vincent Lindon in the lead role, an actor I rate, and who I last saw in the sublime Madomoiselle Chambon, which was also directed by Stephane Brize.

Lindon, as Alain Evrard in Quelques Heures de Printemps, plays a role that he excels at, the dour, melancholic, and often silent, loner. Recently released from prison having served 18 months for smuggling goods while a long-distance truck driver, Evrard finds himself jobless, homeless, and forced to live with his widowed mother. The relationship is fraught, fuelled by the tension of decades of the unsaid. It seems too late for reconciliation between mother and son, too much history exists and now, apart from jibes and shouting, they are unable to communicate with each other.

But then… the plot widens, to that of the widowed mother with a terminal illness, who has booked herself into a clinic in Switzerland for assisted suicide. Inevitably, this leads to a re-involvement with her son, who accompanies her to said clinic. At the end, there is a reconciliation of sorts.

I did like this film, and both mother (Helene Vincent) and son enact beautiful and often understated roles. They are believable, at least initially. The mother’s oncologist is also impressive, honest, empathic and supportive. But the plot felt contrived. Assisted suicide is a very tricky subject, and here it felt like a (tragic) tool to push other agendas forward, most especially that of the unresolved mother, and of her unexpressed feelings for her son. The superb film, The Sea, came to mind, where assisted suicide was the only agenda, and benefitted from this exclusivity.

And other little things irked, like the jigsaw the mother completed in the weeks before her death resembling the view from the Swiss clinic…

I am glad I saw it. It has made me consider the many issues it raised. But the film also suffers from a lack of focus on these issues, none of which were truly addressed.

Yet, perhaps this confusion most accurately reflects that which we call life…


One of 14 Irish films at the festival, Pat Collins’ piece is mesmerising, and also very difficult to classify. Primarily a documentarist, Collins’ latest film does not fit into the documentary genre. But it also lies beyond the world of fiction, with little in the way of plot, or ‘traditional’ narrative.

The film follows Eoghan, resident in Berlin but originally from a small island, Tory, of northwestern Ireland. Eoghan is seeking silence, and we join him on his quest to capture an experience that excludes man-made or man-related sounds. Inevitably, the endeavour fails, or is perhaps re-directed, as Eoghan moves closer to Tory, which he last visited 15 years previously. In the end, he re-visits the derelict home of his growing up, which is poignantly empty of sound.

As Collins said in the Q&A after the screening, the film is more about sound than about silence. As his journey progresses, Eoghan engages more with others, speaking in his native Irish, and all the time, subconsciously or otherwise, edging closer to ‘home’.

It is tempting, and fraught, to speculate on the meaning behind Silence, and to analyse what it may be trying to achieve. I loved this film. During the screening, and since, I have considered both the concept of home (Brian Dillon’s book In the Dark Room: A Journey in Memory came to mind) and its impossibility, a nowhere and an everywhere, and that of silence. Silence means many things, beyond an absence of sound, which can be welcome, but also deeply threatening, and a profound signifier of loss.


I just saw this independent debut film by director/screenwriter Scott Graham. A gem, it is beautiful, thought-provoking, and deeply melancholic.

Set in the remote Scottish Highlands, Shell is both contemporary and timeless. The story revolves around a seventeen year old girl, Shell, who lives in a garage with her dad, in the middle of nowhere. At times a week might go by without seeing another person.

Shell’s mother left when she was four, a loss which is central to the narrative. Her relationship with her dad is close, and complex, and ultimately tragic.

The film moves slowly – at times perhaps too ponderously – punctuated by many silences and against a background of empty roads and a magnificant landscape. It is about broken and unfixable cars, and about people who are beyond, or so it appears to themselves, repair.

At times the symbolism jarred and felt overly contrived – the name Shell and its inevitable association with oil, the bloodied deer and blood on the hands, and thunderous and threatening trucks… But this is a minor quibble.

A Q&A followed with the director and the actor Chloe Pirrie (Shell, very impressive debut on the big screen). I mentioned another film with a similar setting, the wonderful Irish film Garage, which, though thematically very different, also uses the iconic garage in the middle of nowhere as a backdrop. Such symbols are now something of the past, perhaps less so in the Highlands, but, as Graham pointed out in his response to my comment, the stories that emanate from what they represent transcend the symbolism, and are not necessarily rooted in a past, or perhaps even a present.

A treat…



I set myself the task of reading all six shortlisted books, and failed… three more to go on the eve of the announcement.

However, I did get a taste of all six books, as well as an introduction to their creators, at an event at the Southbank tonight where the shortlisted authors read an excerpt from their work and were interviewed live by James Naughtie. It was a thrilling event, and a literary buzz pervaded the auditorium as the six very different authors, both in terms of personality and literary style, shared the stage.

But there did seem to be a common thread across all the books presented. An audience member questioned whether the thread might be mental illness. This was answered by Deborah Levy, author of Swimming Home. She disagreed that insanity was the central theme of her book, but rather that the central characters, outwardly ‘normal’ who were just about coping with life and its challenges, were easily unhinged, like many of us perhaps, by external and unexpected events. Will Self (Umbrella) questioned the prominence and popularity of mental illness in literary fiction today, and particularly the ease with which we so cleanly separate insanity from sanity, similar to good from bad, whereas in fact the distinctions are arbitrary.

So, mental illness is not the accepted common thread.

For me, memory, its essentiality for our functioning and being, and the act of remembering as a re-enactment of loss and suffering, appeared prominent throughout most of the texts. In Alison Moore’s The Lighthouse, the central character Futh is haunted and driven by Proustian memory that he cannot escape nor move on from. In Umbrella, those affected by encephalitis lethargica can spend significant lengths of time in a coma, a void of memories and of remembering. In Tan Twan Eng’s The Garden of Evening Mists, the central character develops aphasia as she seeks to deal with memories of war and the loss of her sister.

The fact of memory inevitably implies a remembering, and a past. Hilary Mantel (Bringing Up the Bodies) put forward an interesting take on the past, as important in its own right, rather than a going back or an imprint on the present…

And then there is Jeet Thayil’s Narcopolis, which has a Bombay opium den in the 1970s and 1980s at its centre… A performance artist primarily, the brief excerpt Thayil read tonight was poetic and seductive.

I will continue and complete reading the shortlist, beyond tomorrow’s announcement. It promises to be a diverse and rich read.

The stuff of memories…


About a year ago, I wrote something on the Rothko in Britain exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery ( I have always been mesmerised and seduced by Rothko’s art, although I have not always fully understand why. Perhaps it is the enigmatic factor, the sense of I-will-never-fully understand-this-but-so-what… it is enough that it moves and touches something within.

Headline news today reported that Vladimir, apparently a founder of the art movement (or phenomenon, as he prefers to call it), yellowism, defaced one of Rothko’s paintings – Black on Maroon – at Tate Modern using black paint to scrawl his name.

The painting, estimated price tag over £50 million, will most likely, and hopefully, be restored to its original condition.

Vladimir claims to hugely like and respect Rothko’s work.

An extreme, yet also intriguing, if not bizarre, act of defacement/graffiti. I am sure Vladimir can justify his actions to himself. It is unlikely that most of us will buy into these justifications.

But I guess that is not the point…


Ai Weiwei – an artist who has suffered for personal and artistic freedom and that of the people of his native China – is again in the news.

The Chinese government has revoked the business licence of his company Fake Cultural Development Ltd ( Apparently, this comes as a result of Ai Weiwei’s failure to re-register the company in time, despite the fact that he was being detained when the deadline was due…

Punishing him thus highlights how threatened the Chinese authorities are by the actions and international status of the artist.

It is unlikely that Ai Weiwei will be silenced by this latest infringement.