Tuesday, 22 April 2008


My ‘memoir’ – I feel obliged to put the word in inverted commas – appears from Shearsman at the same as my Collected Poems. The first part of ‘Dreaming Arrival’ actually to appear in print was published in the London Review of Books, in their regular ‘Diary’ slot, back in 1999. It was an account of a breakdown I experienced when I was nineteen and serves as a point of reference for the overall narrative. Back then I spent seven or eight months in Holloway Sanatorium, a mental hospital in Virginia Water. The building has now been converted into flats. I wonder whether shades of departed patients still patrol the building. I’ve recently learned that there were certainly two other poets in there at about the same time as I was. One was Nancy Cunard no less, poet, heiress, patron of modernism and compiler, with her lover the jazz pianist Henry Crowder, of the anthology ‘Negro’. By the time she came to Holloway she was in a state of near-terminal decline. Her Selected Poems have recently appeared from Trent Editions edited with an introduction by John Lucas. In my account of my time there I recall a time when we had to help clear out the cellars – I was on the Gardening Squad, which counted as ‘occupational therapy’ – and found that what we were clearing out were patients’ notes from the early part of the twentieth century. I managed to read one of these before tossing it onto the wheelbarrow to be taken down to our bonfire. It was a female patient. "She refuses to wear any clothes but goes around naked”, I read. “She says they are building a golden cage to lock her in..." There was much more in the same vein. I daresay Nancy Cunard was in a ‘golden cage’ however hard she fought to escape.

The other poet, was who was published by Hogarth Press before the war but then disappeared from view, was Joan Adeney Esdaile. She is the subject of a new biography by her granddaughter Celia Robertson, titled ‘Who Was Sophie’. Like me, she was given doses of ECT. That, along with very large quantities of pills, was the order of the day. Were we ever standing in the queue together in the patients’ cafĂ©, I wonder, waiting for our evening cocoa? I recently met Stuart Montgomery, whose Fulcrum Press was such a major force in poetry publishing in the decade from the mid-sixties, when he was reading in London – he has a new book, ‘Islands’, just out from Etruscan. He is now a leading academic expert on anti-depressants and when I mentioned what I’d been given when I was in there he seemed surprised to see that I was still around.

Setting out to write some sort of account of all this may have been an act of folly. I’ve been working on the material for ten years or so. I was in therapy or analysis – whichever you like to call it – in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. I kept a journal during this time and conceived the idea, while I was still going, of eventually writing a book and I embarked on that as soon as the analysis finished. I have found it difficult to pull the thing together, difficulties which I have touched on in the text and which raise issues of course about this kind of ‘confessional’ writing or personal testimony – the temptation is to construct a conventional narrative which embodies a process of self-discovery, culminating in an explanation of what it was that made things turn out in the way they did. In the event I’ve found it impossible to construct such a narrative without falsifying the experience. What I’ve produced is variations on a theme or set of themes.

Then there is the way writing about the experience affects the experience of the therapy itself, becomes entangled in it. I quote the American analyst who is the subject of Janet Malcolm's book 'An Impossible Profession'. He maintains that the sign of a successful analysis is that the analysand subsequently forgets all about it. This of course would make writing about it an admission of failure – and would incidentally place the analyst beyond criticism . . .

Friday, 11 April 2008


Re my post of 18th January concerning Souheil Sleiman's 'All Dressed Up and Nowhere To Go', my poem sequence 'Yearn Glass', which owes a lot to his piece, is now on the Great Works site, at www.greatworks.org.uk, along with much other new work . . .


A couple of weeks ago we got back from our three weeks in Tuscany. We were in Tuscany two years ago for a short trip – it was the wedding of a friend’s daughter. We stayed then out in the country in an agriturismo. The people who ran it were delightful and it was a perfect Tuscan setting, unrolling like a carpet, vineyards and olive groves, the group of farm buildings. It’s an idea of ‘the good life’; breakfast in an Impressionist painting perhaps, or – going back a bit – a John Minton dust jacket on an Elizabeth David cookery book. Why, when you get just where you want to be and it is all set up, why from time to time this edginess? Why does it seem to be mocking you? Everyone kept commenting on the wonderful smell round the pool – but no one could quite identify which shrub was responsible. I found myself fantasising that this ‘perfume’ was actually a giant, hidden air-freshener, pumping out artificial fragrance, maybe to conceal some awful problem with the drains? Maybe the whole landscape was a fantasy – because it was all a bit too good to be true, as if we had backed into the travel video, the ‘good life’ snatched at with money, trying to get a purchase on it.

Our trip this time ended with a few days in Siena. The Cathedral and space around it were full of people even in March. But the galleries were often deserted or nearly so and those few that did get in there sometimes looked a bit lost, a ‘well exactly why am I here’ sort of look, ‘better try and make the best of it.’ And the ones in the crowded places often didn’t look too happy being lectured. People are very deferential and religious parallels are hard to resist. Is it about ‘seeing the world’? More to do with the ‘having seen it’ that the experience at the moment of seeing it? That and the fear of missing something. Does the queuing enhance the experience? It develops its own rituals, such as the Africans who come up to you at the first sign of rain trying to sell you an umbrella. It’s all too easy to sound patronising of course – and who am I to complain? It’s their money that maintains this enormous infrastructure, so that I can wander as I please round the all but empty Pinacoteca looking at the paintings. All the same it is a puzzle.

Maybe 14th Century Sienese Art is a specialised taste. But what about 15th Century Hospitals? Across the square in front of the cathedral is Santa Maria della Scala. It’s a fascinating place – and most people nowadays have more dealings with hospitals than they do with cathedrals. The first written reference to the hospital it housed until only a few years ago dates from the 11th century. Almost the first thing you see as you go in is a marvellous fresco by Beccafumi, bafflingly described like this in Frommer, a leading American guide: ‘Domenico Beccafumi's luridly coloured Meeting at Porta Andrea (after 1512).’ The colours, sober greys, blues, and pale ochres, are anything but lurid. In the enormous Pilgrims Hall there’s a cycle of frescoes showing the work of the fifteenth century hospital – people being stretchered in and bandaged, the wet-nurses being paid and so on and so on. It seems to have been a remarkably advanced institution for its time. On the same level are other huge rooms, some inexplicably empty, but in one area you can climb up onto the scaffolding where frescoes are being restored. You then go down to the shrine of ‘St Catherine of the Night.’ You pass a skull set in the wall with its inscription which reads ‘As you are I was once; as I am now you will be’ and then you reach the overwrought chapel, a tangle of fantastical carving. Beyond and below are more puzzlingly empty rooms. The guide book describes it as ‘creepy’. But it doesn’t seem inappropriate, a shrine set in the depths of the hospital devoted to prayers for the deceased.

Carrying on further in you are passing through a maze of tunnels dug into the tufa, raw brick and knobbly stonework. You are now in the Archaeological Museum, described somewhat patronisingly by Frommer like this: ‘while there's nothing of earth-shattering significance, there are some surprisingly good pieces for a museum hardly anyone knows exists.’ At one point you reach a wider tunnel sloping gently down lined with Etruscan funerary monuments. It’s as if they have re-buried the artefacts. As you round a corner here are two massive jars, taller than a person. From now on some of the spaces are empty but clearly prepared and waiting for their exhibits, others already filled. It has all been cunningly devised to maximise the dramatic impact – it’s hard not to see it as the setting for an episode in a Fellini film. The thing is, there seems to be absolutely nobody here, not even an attendant. A long way back you did pass two women chatting in front of a split screen closed circuit TV, but that was all. You wonder if you’ll ever find your way out. Eventually you do come out, down a long slope ending in a small deserted square in contrast to the thronging space where you first came in.

My first experience of ‘pilgrimage tourism’ was in India when I was eighteen, nearly fifty years ago I spent a sort of gap year – this was before they became the norm, and before there were hippies – in Pakistan, where I was attached to a boys’ school in Lahore. While there I travelled, often on my own. I went up to the Northwest frontier, to Peshawar and to Swat. And I travelled in Northern India. But all through my time there I was preoccupied with what I was missing. There was so much of it to see – how could I possibly manage to see it all? This thought induced a kind of desperation. On one trip I went to Banaras and while there I decided to go to Sarnath a few miles away, and the spot where the Buddha is said to have received enlightenment and preached his first sermon. A cycle-rickshaw man had already appointed himself my guide the previous day, showing me around Banaras itself.

So here I was, an eighteen year old public schoolboy oddly enthroned on this already somewhat archaic machine. By this mode of transport, both intimate and absurd, we proceeded through a bleak landscape dotted with stupas like little water towers while I stared at the rickshaw man’s wiry calves as they went up and down, up and down. When we got to Sarnath, here was the Dhasmekha Stupa built by Ashoka in the Sixth century. But there wasn’t exactly anything much to see. The stupa is simply a fat tower about a hundred feet high with a round top. There is some decoration near the base of it, but I have no memory of it. Apparently a Colonel Cunningham once drove a shaft into the centre of it and all he found was a stone tablet saying, yes this is where the Buddha preached his first sermon. I remember I was baffled and wondered, not for the first time, why I had come all this way. I stood there and watched the saffron-robed pilgrims with their big umbrellas. Round and round and round they went unceasingly, blissful expressions on their faces, bowing and kissing the stone. Many were from refugees from Tibet and in Delhi a few days before I’d bought a couple of things, a metal cup and a scent bottle, made by Tibetans who selling them on the pavement.

A few years later I wrote a group of poems about my travels in Pakistan and India. In the one about my expedition to Sarnath I suggested a parallel between the endlessly repetitive actions of the monks and the motions of the rickshaw man’s legs but I was never satisfied with the poem – it was like a game of patience that never quite came out. It was as if I’d gone to see something and found nothing – which was maybe the point. The ritualised circuit around a few prescribed places is a bit like the monks circuit around the stupa. Out come their cameras in an attempt to seize the moment, to have something to take away. As for the monks, maybe they have a better grasp of what they are actually doing, seizing the void?

Saturday, 5 April 2008


It’s twenty to eight in the morning and the snow is actually settling. The poem that follows was in my collection ‘Out Walking’ (Anvil 1984) and is in my ‘Collected Poems’ due out in early May from Shearsman (see www.shearsman.com)

Snow in April
The flakes come so slowly
Out of the depths of the sky – the ones
Higher up, seeming to float
Parallel to the earth
Are a flickering screen out of which
These others descend
Framed by the platform roof,
An endless succession, suspended, all
Movement transformed into stillness. The tulips

Erect, then bending to the shower

The page worn threadbare with our comings and goings.